The men's washroom in the federal tax building is a good place to start your tour. An unusual feature of this city of 18 million is that one of its best views exists from the floor-to-ceiling picture windows in the men's washroom on the 33rd floor of one Seoul's most striking architectural buildings. Of course you may get the same view from the women's washroom, but I didn't have the audacity to check it out.
The washrooms service a trendy restaurant on the top floor of the headquarters for South Korea's tax department. And although the restaurant, which also offers great views and reasonable prices, is on the 33rd floor, there are no floors 21 to 30.
There's a 10-storey gap of clear air in this building with floors 30 to 33 sitting like a halo above the building, supported by three legs rising up from the 20-storey building. There are offices in the three legs, but they can't be very spacious, perfect for tax auditors. A subway stop sits in front of this building.
Of course there's a subway stop within easy walking distance of nearly every major attraction in this modern city. It is one of the cleanest, most efficient and least expensive subway systems that you will find anywhere in the world. For 700 won, the equivalent of 60 cents Cdn, you can ride all day below and above the streets of Seoul, switching among the six different routes covering the city. While crossing above the Han River, which is half a kilometre wide and cuts this city in two, you will wonder why there is so little boat traffic. In a city that suffers traffic congestion as severe as Seoul and a wide, navigable river meandering through its core, why don't they have commuter boats, similar to Vancouver's SeaBus, plying this river. Tour guides I spoke with didn't have an answer.
Within Seoul, 26 bridges span the Han and each is a different design and festooned at night with various lighting schemes. The river looks like Christmas season every night. The north side of the river glistens with modern glass and steel office buildings, hotels and thousands upon thousands of high-rise residences. But in 1970, this half of the city was nothing but rice paddies and farm fields.
Although Seoul as a community is thousands of years old, much of what you'll see here today was built in our lifetime. This city was flattened twice during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Previous to that Japan occupied the country between 1900 and 1945 and the occupiers destroyed many of the ancient structures housing Korea's royalty. Those traditional Korean palaces are now being restored and Deoksugung (Palace of Virtuous Longevity) is the largest, most historic and elaborate of the rebuilt palaces.
Entrance fee is again 700 won, and if you are there between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. you'll witness the colourful changing of the royal guard ceremony that occurs every half hour. The guards wear traditional Korean garb, but they don't perform in January and February. The palace grounds cover 12 acres and include various houses and official meeting halls, ponds, gardens, tea pavilion and the residence of the eunuchs that served the Korean king, his family and his large harem. It was in this palace that King Gojong signed away Korea's independence in a treaty with the Japanese and ended the 500 year-old Joseon dynasty.
It's still a sore point among many Koreans, according to my Korean guide in the palace. Of course, two subway lines cross less than a five-minute walk from the massive palace gates.
You can get a deep debriefing of the various wars that have raged on this peninsula over the past 5,000 years if you visit the Korean War Memorial, the largest of its kind in the world and one of Seoul's most impressive public buildings. It's only 10 years old, and although it recounts most of the invasions by the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese and others over the centuries, half the memorial is dedicated to the modern Korean War. The names of 531 Canadians are carved into its impressive granite walls as Canada sacrificed the fourth highest number of casualties among the 17 nations that sent troops as part of a UN force to push the invading North Koreans back beyond the 38th parallel.
Outside the memorial, it looks like a flea market for used weapons of war. There are tanks, missiles, howitzers, airplanes even a modern submarine and a giant B52 bomber from Russia, China and the U.S. Oddly, the memorial is also one of Seoul's favourite wedding chapels. Again, two subway lines cross close to the memorial, and don't be alarmed by all the riot police standing in tight formations at various street corners. There is a large U.S. military base across the street from the war memorial and it often attracts student protestors.
Shopping is a passionate sport in Seoul, and haggling over the price is as natural as feeling the material. Itaewon, on the south side of the Han River, is a 11/2-km-long street of 2,000 merchants and it has sprung up to serve the large American military base nearby. If you're in a shop and can't find a Gucci watch or a Prada purse, don't assume they aren't there. The merchant may not have them on display because he's not licensed to handle that line. But he's got them. Coex Mall, part of the city's principal convention and exhibition complex on the north side of the river, is near the Olympic stadium where Canada's Ben Johnson became the fastest man ever. It is as modern as any Canadian mall with 200 stores, 16 movie theatres and the city's popular aquarium.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years..
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/