South Korea

Jongno: Trying to fit in

Jogno: Part of Seoul's nitty grittyFor me, the must-visit area of Seoul for any tourist who really wants to get under the skin of the city is Jongno. This is the slightly gritty heart of this international metropolis, where the Western tourist will see things on the streets that he will not be used to seeing at home, such as old men cobbling shoes while others look on. In fact, this is as much the province of old men as it is young nightclub-goers and hagwon students, and for everyone else from those who congregate in huge numbers in Tapgol Park to those who observe endless games of baduk and Chinese checkers outside Jongmyo shrine.

I was befriended by just such a chap, one sunny, Sunday afternoon. He was a sprig 91 year old, who led me to the park where we shared Hite [ed. brand of Korean beer] and crackers (I was terrified, but afraid to contradict him when he attempted the opening of these with a rusty Stanley knife), then onto Cheongyangi station to see a performance of traditional Korean drumming, where he promptly fell asleep.

Despite Korea’s modernity, travellers are still reminded - even on a very well-developed, almost futuristic street - that they are indeed in Asia; elderly men scoot past with various enormous and seemingly impossible loads, bound perhaps for market. The hair is cut alfresco, with the barbershop consisting essentially of the chair alone, much as it is in Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia. One can purchase pornography from men in wheelchairs and in intriguing backstreets filled with local wares and fares, rows of old men gather, occasionally poking at a dustbin with a climbing stick.

Heading from Exit 5 in Jongno, travelers are awaited by a street lined with snack stands, and the usual fare is on offer: waffles, roast potatoes and duk galbi [ed. a spicy Korean dish of chicken, vegetables and rice cakes]. This seems to be home of the garishly coloured ajashi shirts, which adorn the storefronts and many of the people walking the street. The first one I see is sporting such a shirt, his undershirt visible beneath the paper-thin material and the look completed with a Sinatra hat and a fan.

Beginning at Jongno 5 ga, toda, and the first stop out of the subway station is Jongmyo shrine. A World Heritage site on the outset, but which has on its fringes one of the key hangouts for halabogy [ed. old men, or 'grandfathers' as they are called locally] in the city. Another such magnet, Tapgol Park, is very close by. Today, the sharp contrast of sun and shade amongst the benches, full of the halabogy and surrounded by pigeons, has about it something of Paris. Here, though, the game is baduk [ed. Korean board game], rather than boules. There is defiance amongst the decay, here, with the constant clicking of the black and white pieces on the boards. The sounds of the city – including an ajuma who laughs as she shelters herself from the sun with her umbrella – are real here.

Jongmyo Temple

As I leave Jongmyo, I look around at this coarse part of the city, which is overlooked by Bukhansan Mountain year round. In winter, it can be submerged in a wash of charcoal and black, but now, like a completely different range, beige and taupe can be picked out in individual rocks. These strange formations, like huge man-made bricks, are highlighted by the warm orange of the early summer yellow dust sun. This mountain range is somehow reminiscent of India’s Taj Mahal: the thing people comment on most about that man-made Asian wonder is its tendency to transmute its colour, due to changes in the prevailing light; so, too, does Bukhansan.

As the light turns green, a taxi almost hits a man who was first cross. Smoke seeps from his mouth as he curses, “sheep pal o ma” [ed. A strong Korean expletive]. I proceed further into the halabogy zone, penetrating the deepest vein. I try to fit in as I purchase a paper cup of coffee from the vending machine for 100 won – the only place in the city where you can get it at such a cheap price – and behind me I hear "miguk saram..." [ed. literally, “American person”, but used to describe almost every Caucasian foreigner by Korean people]. So much for fitting in.

About the Author

Colin Black is currently in his fourth year of teaching English in South Korea. He has travelled mostly in the Asia Pacific region, and so far has visited Malaysia, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar  ,Japan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Tahiti, as well as a little in the US. He enjoys taking pictures of religious monuments and everyday streetscenes. Colin plans to head to Central America next, followed by a journey to Africa.

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 Full name: Republic of Korea

 Population: 48.86 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Seoul

 Largest city: Seoul

 Area: 99,720 sq.km. (38,502 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Korean, English widely  taught

 Major religions: Christian, Buddhist, Other

 Monetary unit: South Korean Won

 GDP per capita: US $31,700

 Internet domain: .kr

 International dialling code: +82

 Source: CIA World Factbook