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Sleepless in Seoul- II
Nov 26, 2007 11:19 PM 1386 Views

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When I first wrote Sleepless in Seoul, I was still a newbie to the city, my impressions of the city, where like that of a teenager, who has just had his first date, and finds everything wonderful in his girl friend. Or what is called a honeymoon period, where everything seems wonderful and rosy. After some time reality bites, and you find that the same things you adored in her, her giggly laugh or her cutesy act, seem to put you off now, and you wish you were single and free. And handling the transition from the honeymoon to reality is what true love is all about.


When I first wrote Sleepless in Seoul, all I knew of the city, was just more of a surface impression. The big wide roads, the tall skyscrapers, the dazzling glittering malls, the fancy cars zipping around.  But for me a city is more than that, I had not explored the true face of Seoul, its back alleys, its sights, its markets, what really make up the city. I had not eaten in the small restaurants, nor had I yet strolled along the sidewalks.


Well as of now I have made the transition from honeymoon to reality, and I still love Seoul. Only now the love for Seoul is more of a mature kind of love, instead of the lovestruck teen infatuation, a love which accepts both sides of the coin. In the 4 months here, I have explored the places that really matter, the back alleys, the markets, the convenience stores. I always hold the view that to know a place really well, get off from the tourist bus, walk around, and live like a normal citizen. A touristy view only gives you a very superficial view of a place. It is not a genuine insight for sure. So here are some more aspects of my love affair with Seoul, which as of now does not seem to end.


Gil** is the Korean word for street, and for me I just love to walk in the back streets of Seoul, far away from the hustle and bustle of the main road. This is where one witnesses the real Seoul, away from all the fancy skyscrapers and malls, and tourist attractions. And it helps that you can walk these streets any time of the night without fear of getting mugged or robbed. PC Bangs or the Korean version of cyber cafes dot the streets. Majority of these PC Bangs are used for gaming. Koreans are big time gamers, and often spend hours playing all kinds of online games. Walking into a PC Bang, is equivalent to stepping into a movie theater showing 3-4 movies at one stretch. You have sounds of machine gun fire in one end, space laser guns shooting in other end, at one end sounds of disco music, it is noisy but an experience by itself. And most of these PC Bangs have a good supply of drinks, snacks, biscuits, chocolates with comfortable seating.


Another common feature in these streets are the 24/7 stores or the convenience stores. These are mostly small stores stocked with all goods, so that in the middle of night, if you want to have something, you can drop in any of these stores. Family Mart, GS, 7/11  are some of the more popular convenience stores, where you can drop into buy some essential items. Also most of these stores have 365 cash vending machines, where you can swipe your card to draw cash, without having to go all the way to the ATM. And of course I some how love the warm smiles, the shop owners give, whenever I enter, even though most of them dont know English well.


Koreans are big time foodies and love eating out. Only difference is their dinner time is in the evening around 6 PM. They are surprised that we Indians have dinner late in the night. But generally they love eating out. Most of the restaurants are packed with groups of people, eating, and sharing jokes. And yes as I had mentioned big time boozers too. And when they booze, they drink to the hilt. I think that after the Irish, the Koreans are the largest drinkers in the world. Apart from some great Korean restaurants, Seoul also has some excellent Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants too. One can also get good Italian, Mexican cuisine too, along with the now familiar Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut etc. If you are eating in a Korean restaurant however be prepared to take off ur shoes and sit on the floor. Most of the tables are very low and Koreans traditionally eat sitting cross legged on the floor.


For the tourist Seoul is a city having something of everything. If you are a history and culture lover, you can visit the famous 5 Grand Palaces of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from Seoul. Korea is the meeting point of 2 major religions- Buddhism and Confucianism. While a major part of S.E.Asia is overwhelmingly Buddhist, Korea like China, has a strong Confucian influence. However Buddhism also has an equal stronghold in Korea, with Gyeongju, being the capital of the predominantly Buddhist Silla Dynasty. Seoul however is more Confucian, and does not have much of a Buddhist influence.


Gyeongbok Palace is the most famous of all, it is the largest of the 5 palaces. Most of the Korean palaces are made of wood and have wonderful lakes and gardens in them.  Deoksu Palace located near the City Hall is another famous tourist attraction.


In spite of the predominantly Confucian influence, Seoul has some excellent Buddhist temples like the famous Jogyesa temple, one of the oldest temples in Seoul. Another famous Buddhist temple is the Bongeunsa temple located right in the heart of Gangnam, the city's business district. Both these temples in a way are significant, considering that Buddhism was surpressed by the Confucian oriented Joseon Dynasty, which held Buddhism responsible for laxity and moral corruption. One thing which fascinates me in the Far East is the way different religious systems have evolved. China is officially atheist, but runs mostly on Confucian principles, and for that matterConfucianism is more of a philosophy than religion. Japan again has its own Shinto version of Buddhism, while Korea has always seen a battle between Confucianism and Buddhism. But whenever I walk into these temples, I do feel sadenned, at the way Buddhism is losing out in Seoul  to the more aggresive tactics of the Christian missionaries. The soft flickering lights, the chants, the beautiful architecture of these temples, make them really memorable.


One excellent place to visit is the War Memorial in Seoul. One of the most moving sections is the photo exhibition of the Korean war. Seoul was taken in 3 days flat by North Korean forces backed by China in 1950, and the US had to step in to prevent it from falling into communist hands. One can see a city destroyed totally during the war, and how it later rebuilt itself. For this reason Seoul is often called as the Miracle on Han River.


63 Tower, ** which is Seoul's tallest building, from where one can get a birds eye view of Seoul, including the 14 bridges spanning the Han River and Namsan Mountain, from where one can get a really good view of Seoul are other two good attractions. If you are the sporting kind, do pay a visit to Olympic Stadium as well as the World Cup Stadium. Both of them have some excellent parks too.


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