The concept of yin-yang is used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and yet interrelate to one another.
That perfectly describes Korea.
It’s therefore no wonder that the Korean flag uses yin-yang to symbolise balance within the country and its people.
Black and white, night and day, male and female, red and green, old and new.
Opposites is what South Korea is all about, especially when you consider the difference between the North and South.
Seoul is also a city of contrasts. You often see an old Korean palace, from the 17th Century, set against a backdrop of a towering steel and glass skyscraper.
It’s hard to find a rubbish bin yet the streets are free from litter.
We arrived as the Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing in the streets around our hotel in the Insadong area. The Hotel Sunbee is well located and close to the palaces, restaurants, bars and the Metro.
On our first full day we took the ‘Hop-on-hop-off’ bus tour to get a good perspective of the city. It rained in the late afternoon so we didn’t do too much ‘hopping off’. On the two occasions that we did get off the bus we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, first built in 1395 and then reconstructed in 1867, and Gwanghwamun Gate and stood beneath the impressive statue of King Sejong the Great, 1397-1450. At Gyeongbokgung Palace we bought a ‘Combination Ticket’ which gave us access to five sites.
The following day we visited Jongmyo Shrine, built in 1394 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We arrived just in time for the English guided tour. From there we walked along Cheonggyecheon or ‘The Stream’, an artery of life set below the madness of the city streets.
Contemporary architecture is a feature of Seoul and there is no better example than the new City Hall. This is literarily ‘New Wave’ architecture and when you see it set against the Old City Hall you can see how well the old and new complement each other.
Later that afternoon we arrived at Deokstgung, one of the Five Grand Palaces built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. This time, we were just in time, for the changing of the guard, a colorful display of command shouting, drum pounding and band marching. The palace was a little more subdued with beautifully crafted traditional Korean architecture and and a quaint, western inspired, pavilion designed by a Russian architect at the turn of the last century.
The following morning we had a guided tour arranged and visited the Korean Folk Village at Hwaseong Haenggung and then travelled a few minutes down the road to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress.
The Korean Folk Village is as much a film set as a museum as many of the famous Korean historical dramas are shot here.
It’s also a great place to bring bus loads of Korean school kids for an outing. There were hundreds of them, all in their brightly coloured uniforms, having a wonderful time. When it came to lunchtime they all sat in neat rows and quietly ate their meal.
The Fortress was built to protect the main city and originally ran for kilometers around it, now there is only a small section remaining.
The next day we visited the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage site and also built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Unfortunately it rained again and we had to shelter under the very wide eaves of the garden buildings as we moved around. It continued raining as we moved from the garden to the palace but at least there was a bit more shelter there.
We went to find a shopping mall but instead discovered Seoul Central Railway Station built in 1927 and with many similarities to Flinders Street Station, built 73 years earlier. Inside we discovered an avant-garde typographic exhibition, ‘Typojanchi 2013’, with three floors of exhibits covering 50 years of experimental typography.
On our final morning, after a stuff up with our hotel transfer we managed to get to Yongsan Station with just a minute to spare, for our high speed train ride to Jeonju in the south west.
But even that had its upside.