Saturday, April 11, 2009

A brief trip to Seoul

A brief trip to Seoul (April 2009):There is a familiarity in the air common to all Asian cities. Something in the quality of the light, the dilute haze of the atmosphere, the pressing density of population mixing in with gasoline exhausts, that conspire to make your skin and nose feel different. Scientifically, I cannot explain it. Yet this is how I feel as I step into the morning pedestrian traffic in downtown Seoul around the COEX district. There is a slight nip in the foggy air, as in a North Indian city winter, and around me is a swirl of pedestrian traffic and the drumming clip clop of high heels. Handicapped by footwear, but pressed for time, a ritualistic urban tribal dance unfolds. Clutching assorted bags to reel in the center of gravity, tight skirts restricting the stride, narrow contact patch heels striking a rapid staccato: the result is a pleasing liquid collection of individually awkward motions. The COEX area is all metal and glass buildings that form office complexes, stores, and shopping malls. I cross a busy 14 lane road, wide as the Brahmaputra, and it takes me a full 6 minutes. In a city where little English is spoken, most storefronts bear English names, a mix of Anglo-Saxon identifiers and down to earth translations from Korean—Johnson Pork and Stew, Heart Scan and Mind Scan, Hi Call Taxi, Kind Call Taxi, Seven Luck Casino, and right next to it, the imposing “Oakwood Conference Center”.

Multitudes of high rises extend across greater Seoul. From the street level in downtown they soar upwards like some giant exercise in crystal growth. Further out in the suburban areas, they have taken over the hillsides—concrete monstrosities, giant numbers painted on their sides, hued in muddy yellows and grays: each window, balcony and AC vent a replicative unit stitching together an entire floor, each floor duplicating the one below creating a perfect building, each building cloning the next, creating a perfect colony. Devoid of an imperfection or aperiodicity, the mind is drawn to the drabness of their architecture, a sense of desolation, a loss of identity.

The evening before I had flown into Incheon airport on a 14 hour flight. The aircraft drops you into the lap of a hollow silence of muted sounds that is the airport, following the tribe of passengers through a sequence of passageways like a character out of a grainy handheld camera shot movie, escalators, advertisements whisking by, through immigration counters, quarantine checkpoints, pulling out local currency at the ATMs, buying tickets at the bus stand, all of this on autopilot compounded by the daze from the lights and language of a foreign country. The airport itself is on an island and the large, modern highway that leads into the city passes through paddy fields, golf courses, and bleak wetlands where the sea has retreated for now. The traffic is fast on a Sunday. We pass a cemetery on the left carved into a hillside, presided over by a large advertising billboard. Up in the evening sky an aircraft hangs frozen in the air by the vectors of our relative trajectories. The Han river, criss-crossed by a multitude of bridges, cuts through Seoul dividing it into a southern (Gangnam) and a northern part. The city is a mix of rich urban spaces and regional flavors from the earlier Korea. On a previous visit I had gone to the NamDaeMoon Market at 4:30 in the morning. In contrast to the upscale area where I am today, this was a massive wholesale market open all night, where small town retailers drive in from the hinterlands and pick up their selling stock. The place is full of little stores-- open air and covered--selling products for everyday use. Clothes are piled in a heap, fine goods are kept under glass lidded cases, the only difference from a 1970s style establishment is the presence of personal computers. The thinly woven textiles, the plain nylon socks in bundles, and their crinkly plastic wrappings remind me of products I was familiar with in India.

The night that I arrive, I take a long walk through the streets now relatively quiet, where the only places open are the restaurants and small family run convenience stores. I pick up an electrolyte drink at one of these—Polcari Sweat, brilliantly named and branded. If I am sweating in a gym I would like to grab something with the name Sweat, for the vindicative feeling of earning the rights to its consumption. The walk loosens the effects of the flight. I cross an Outback Steak House and come to a small two storey building—Pho Saigon on the ground floor, and-advertized through smoky blue windows and shimmering neon signs—Tokyo Jazz for “music/bar”. Suspecting that the latter is a hostess bar, I settle for Vietnamese noodles and a beer at Pho Saigon. Chinese, Vietnamese, and south-east Asians form the largest immigrant group to Korea, in most cases—and as is often the case worldwide—carrying out menial tasks that Koreans are uninterested in doing. Increased migration to the urban areas have opened up, “international marriages” between South Korean farmers and South East Asian women are expected to generate as many as upto 50% of rural mixed ancestry children by 2020 (

Seoul is not a particularly pretty city. The beauty of the river and the surrounding hills have been long sacrificed to construction. But there is no denying that this is a country that has remarkably transformed itself through technology, from being followers to leaders, starting initially from the steel and shipping industry then moving relentlessly through semiconductors and automobiles. Standing in Seoul, enveloped right inside the guts of this pulsating national engine, you have a deep sense of this vibrancy. Their progress was driven no clearer to me a year and a half ago as I visited the demilitarized zone and looked through binoculars into the distance at the desolate North Korean city of Gashong, a big statue of Kim Jong Il, some farmland, a few apparently empty skyscrapers built to impress viewers like us—shimmering through the telescopic image in the distance. It is the story of two brothers in a hindi movie—one growing up rich and the other in poverty. I wonder if this will meet the happy ending it deserves, or will we continue to see rockets streaking across the skies in this incredible hubris of chest thumping between the haves and the have nots.

1 comment:

  1. In your travel posts you do an excellent job of transporting the reader to the place. And you're frighteningly observant (which is good for a writer).