Saturday, November 28, 2009

Episode 37: In Which DFM Helps The Chinese, And Blames The Japanese

On Friday (the climbing trip was last week), Ji-hyeun told me that her, Choi, and Na-ra (the only regular climber at Ace younger than me), were going out for an afternoon in Dongdaemun the next day. It had been quite some time since I had been to Dongdaemun and since I hadn't anything planned for the day I decided to come along (don't worry, I was invited).

Dongdaemun is of course one of the main gates of the old city wall (mun means door/gate). While most of the other gates have been destroyed by natural causes or arson (Namdaemun), Dongdaemun is still standing tall. Apart from the large gate though, the Dongdaemun area is probably most famous for its massive market. When I came here in March I did not explore the market as much as I had Namdaemun Market with Nelson (my Filipino friend), so I did not get an appreciation for just how large it really is. All that changed today.

Dongdaemun market is massive. Ji-hyeun told me that during the Silla dynasty (57 BC - 935 AD), part of the area contained within the present Dongdaemun Market was the major market in the Silla Kingdom (the precursor to Korea). Obviously, from my wording of that last sentence, the present market hasn't lost any of its size.

While the massive, nine-floor Hyundai Department stores are impressive in the range of products they offer, customers are nonetheless often limited in variety. At Dongdaemun market though, customers will be blown away by the incredible number of stores, each specializing in a different product/service. I saw a few shops selling more or less just umbrellas, and one building contained three large floors, with 70+ merchants on each floor, all selling fabric and other sewing related materials (buttons, snaps, etc.).

Next, we strolled along Cheongyecheon (nothing new to talk about there) and through the famous Insadong street I've talked about many times. This is my third time walking the length of Insadong street, and at least my fifth time here in total. It's promoted heavily by the City of Seoul as a must see experience, and touted for the "traditional" souvenirs, but to be honest after five visits it is no more exciting than Whyte Ave in Edmonton (which is to say it is not entirely without its merits either).

(To be fair to Insadong, there were actually a few master craftsmen working their art, like this man making hand made tops that spin perfectly in place.)

When you tire of shopping in Dongdaemun Market, you can visit one of the numerous food vendors crammed so close together that if you rub your eyes whilst walking you will easily miss one. Compared with the over-priced, poor quality, poor service restaurants that are overrunning Alberta (or at least were, before "the crash"), Seoul's tiny, inexpensive, "hole-in-the-wall" restaurants and cheap street vendors are what I imagine dining in Heaven would be like, if there was dining in Heaven. I've written before about how much I enjoy the culture of eating and sharing food in Korea, and being able to share it with my friends from Ace was another highlight of this great day.

Before we walked through Insadong street, we went to Tapgol park. Tapgol means "pagoda," and there is a 12 m, 10 level marble pagoda in the centre that is National Treasure #2 for Korea (it's surrounded by an ugly glass case though, so I didn't take a picture).

Constructed in 1471, the pagoda was apparently the only thing left remaining from Wongaksa, a temple which was destroyed in 1515. While I cannot find any evidence to support it, and the date of destruction would seem to suggest against it, I'm going to go ahead and blame the Japanese for destroying the temple, because I'm half-Korean now and so I hate the Japanese.

Tapgol Park was also the site of the signing and reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence to Japanese Colonial rule, on March 1st, 1919. However, as Ji-hyeun said, it is now just a place for "old men to kill time."

Eventually it was time for my Ace friends to leave (we had been out for four and a half hours), but I decided to hang around in Jongnak station for a while (it had a book store) until I received a phone call I was expecting.

While I was admiring the subway map and how I had walked past three subway stations, on three different lines, during the afternoon, a couple of Chinese tourists approached me to ask me for advice.

They were in Seoul for only three days, and wanted to know how to get to Itaewon and Apgujeong, and which place I thought was more exciting. Having lived in Itaewon for two months, and having received second rate dental service, from a "first rate" dentist, in Apgujeong, I could happily tell them to go to neither, but rather walk along Cheongyecheon and visit the nearby Gwanghwamun and statue of King Sejong instead.

* * * * *

Back in April I met a young man from Slovenia, visiting his girlfriend, on the subway. His name was Mitja, and we had communicated with each over the summer while he was finishing up his degree in Physics. Coincidentally, he was back in Seoul at the same time I was, and today we decided to meet up in Anam-dong where he lives (Anam-dong is nearby my one of my schools, and is where I have coffee with Elise every Thursday).

I had only planned to talk for an hour, but anyone who knows me knows that is an impossibility. I felt sorry for Mitja's girfriend, because she was the odd person out on what amounted to a non-stop, four hour conversation between two people who really like to talk... way too much.

I probably should have paid better attention to the time, because when I tried to get on the subway I found out that the subway from Anam-dong closes a lot earlier than that from Jeungsan (my home station), and I thought I might get stuck on the other side of the city.

Sadly, I was able to flag down a taxi (sad because they were now operating on the increased night prices). I was hoping to just sit quietly in the back and watch my money disappear as the numbers on the meter raced higher, but the driver insisted on chatting to me in Korean the whole trip.

Amazingly, I was able to understand almost everything he asked, and we ended up having a pleasant conversation. The driver must have been appreciative of my efforts to learn Korean, because he soon picked up the pace, and it wasn't long before we were racing across Seoul at well over the speed limit. I can say for certain now that the grip on the Sonata's tires far exceeds the grip between the bottom of my jeans and the seat.

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