It’s challenging to sit in the hostel and work while there’s a whole city waiting to be explored but I think about how cool it is not to be broke and the time passes quickly. Before I know it I have done my four hours work and am ready to hit the clean streets of Seoul. Julian, a German guy who travels the world watching soccer matches, asks whether I have plans and shall we hang out for the day. I’m always up for company and am taking an “almost always say yes” approach to my travels.
We start the afternoon by catching the subway to Gyeongbokgung (Palace). The palace is nestled between Seoul’s glasswalled commercial highrises and ancient Bukaksan (Mountain). Ancient northern Asian shapes dominate the palace with amazing detail in the ceilings and a jumble of rooflines. Young school children who are probably no more than five or six years old follow teachers around the palace with bored looks on their faces. It’s quite cute to see and makes me think of my nephews, nieces and grandchildren.
We arrive at the palace just in time for the changing of the guard ceremony. It’s a caucophony of sight and sound. Men in brightly coloured traditional uniforms march to the rhythm of loud drums and cymbals. It’s really cool.
After leaving the palace we make our first food stop at a small market stall in Insa-dong. Some ladies dressed in traditional clothes sell us Korean pancakes for about KRW2,000. They are quite delicious.
A random side alley takes us to a place that sells traditional Korean teas. We’re in Korea so why not. We order two random teas not knowing what we’re going to get. They taste interesting, particularly the brown one that I later learn is made from a Korean fruit. It’s earthy and sweet with a hint of barley or wheat flavour. It would be fantastic on a cold winter’s day but is a bit heavy for the warm summer’s day that we’re experiencing. The pinky tea is more refreshing but also very sweet. It is also made from Korean fruits. Apparently these teas have many health properties but I’m sure that one single cup isn’t enough to help me live to be 150 years old.
Our next stop is definitely not good for the health. I would say it is more like heart attack on a stick. It’s me who sees the deep fried hot dog covered in potato chips (what Americans might call tater totts). It looks so disgusting but I can’t resist giving it a try. It tastes exactly like it looks: disgustingly good. And it’s good value for money in the sense that for KRW3,000 my stomach feels totally full and I definitely don’t need to eat for a little while.
We find outselves among the crowds in Myeong-dong. Suddenly I’m definitely in over-crowded Asia again after a morning wandering relatively quiet streets. But, unlike my past experiences on this continent, there are no touts or pushy people. Everyone is just out enjoying an afternoon shopping. It is great to be in the throng meandering around seeing what’s what.
I’m having fun so I play tourist by posing for a photo with a random Mario-like character and in a traditional Korean dress cut-out. I can’t explain the joy these simple silly acts give me but it makes me laugh. It’s just one of my quirks.
We make our way to Namdaemun Market where we explore a section of the underground stalls that I missed the other day before we head up to Namsan Park. I walked up there on my first day but it is fantastic to revisit the view points now that I’ve been here in this crazy city for a few days. Dusk is coming quickly through an overcast sky and the first of Seoul’s lights are starting to come on. But twilight here is longer than in the subtropics so we don’t get the full light experience.
Julian suggests we catch the elevator to the Seoul North Tower observation desk. The elevator ride is a zany experience in its own right. A lady instructs us to look at the massive television screen on the ceiling on which a short film shows us traveling upwards out of the atmosphere and into space. As the elevator stops she says something in Korean and then “30 seconds”. The views are fantastic. Seoul sprawls like liquid mercury between the surrounding hills and mountains. The photo above shows Itaewon where I have been staying this week.
We hot-foot it to our hostel to drop my bag and for Julian to grab his camera because there’s a soccer match playing at the Asian Games between the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Indonesia. The stadium is 1.5 hours away by subway and Julian is keen to add the game to his quest to watch as many live soccer matches as possible. I figure I’ll join him because I’m here in Seoul and how often will I get to watch the PRK play a live international. We arrive a few minutes late and can hear loud cheering in the stadium. The ticket line is more Indonesia than Korea. There are no lines and we just jump in amongst the Indonesian fans. Before long a Korean Asia Games official instructs us to form two lines. Reluctantly the Indonesians do as they’re told and we do too. Someone in authority must also have started to give instructions in the ticket box because the line finally starts to move (I think the crowd was a response to the slow ticket sales process).
Inside the stadium I am surprised to realise that there aren’t that many people here but that they are quite capable of making a lot of noise. It’s fantastic.
The Koreans are supporting the PRK who win the match 4-1. They have a cheer squad representing the PRK on the far side of the stadium who we can’t get near and this well-coordinated cheer squad. The cheer leaders are sweating and work hard throughout the match. It’s a wonderful spectical.
The Indoensia fans outnumber the Koreans and are who we heard from outside the stadium. They are so enthusiastic that they cannot keep in their seats. They line the railings on the walkways waving flags and chanting. Their team is outclassed and outplayed but the fans cheer every chance, every tackle and sometimes for no obvious reason (even for Julian who has watched countless soccer matches). I took the video above from the far side of the stadium where only a few hundred people were sitting relatively quietly so all the noise is coming from the Indonesians on the other side of the pitch. You can hear their effectiveness.
The game is the first live soccer match I’ve seen since the Sydney Olympics and I am glad I came. It’s under 23s just like the Olympics are but it’s still a rare chance to see any sort of international, particularly when the PRK are playing. My next stop on my adventure will be Indonesia and that’s where my maternal grandmother is from so it’s fantastic on so many levels that I probably can’t explain. From the South Koreans cheering for their northern counterparts to the stark contrast between the Korean and Indonesian cultures. Then there’s being here with a guy who is traveling the world watching soccer matches. And also my having Indonesian heritage. I think it’s one sporting event I will always remember.
After the match we know we still have a long subway ride back to Itaewon and don’t want to stand so immediately after the final whistle we work our way to the front of the crowd. As we wait to cross the first main road between the stadium and subway everyone waits for the lights to change because the police are on patrol. After what seems like an eternity the lights change and a roar of applause and cheering rises from behind us. It’s the Indonesians cheering that the lights have changed. We have to cross another road to the subway and this time there are no police. A couple of Indonesians decide to make a run for it and before long the crowd has stopped the cars. Laughter fills the air as the Indonesians realise just how taboo this must be in ordered Korea where the Koreans are still standing waiting for the lights. We join the jaywalkers and i ma glad to be near the front of the crowd because the subway trains are already busy before it even arrives at our station. I guess Seoul never sleeps.
Seriously, I took this photo of the subway exit at 11:35pm and this was not the soccer crowd. These were ordinary Koreans going about their Friday night.
I was absolutely shattered as I walked up the street towards the hostel but also knew that I needed food. I don’t think a packet of biscuits and a Snickers Bar counts as dinner. Fortunately the street food vendors were all still doing their thing so we ordered a big Korean pancake with squid and vegetables.
I’m not usually a city guy but every day in Seoul I find something else to blow my mind.