Random Play by Graham Reid


Seoul Searchin' (Sorry, it had to be used!)

With a good Metro system and useful street signage (aside from not naming streets), Seoul is an easy city to get your way around in -- but more fun when you get lost.

That's easy to do too, just come out of a Metro on the wrong exit and walk a few metres the wrong way and you are suddenly disorientated and happily lost.

But then another Seoul becomes evident.

As with many Asian cities -- I'm thinking of Tokyo -- Seoul is made up of small districts, 21st century villages if you will, which retain almost ancient characteristics.

And so although Seoul boasts high rise, public sculpture (nice Oldenberg), the newly developed river walk (which might look faux but does follow the old stream, cost squillions and offers an area of quiet -- except for the families and kids -- and all the other trappings of a modern city, you also find street stalls selling various kinds of food from broth to squid kebabs, women on the footpath telling fortunes, and old men selling those shapeless beige clothes that so many women over 50 seem to take pride in here.

These villages -- which have local restaurants and bars, parks where old men play board games and the visible homeless sleep under the trees, and various churches, temples, 7-11 stores, veggie shops and sellers of dried fish -- are scattered throughout central Seoul just down alleys or sidestreets away from the more well walked streets.

The fact these local areas thrive in the face of development gives Seoul a . . . well, you know how that has to end.

Much of this interesting stuff exists at ground level and is quite visible. In fact around one of the bigger Buddhist temples I was tripping over Buddha-detritus and people hawking cheap trinkets to the faithful.

But Seoul also goes up and down: bars, bookshops, cinemas, hair salons and so on can be five flights up or two floors down. That makes this city a constant discovery -- and for me rediscovery.

I'm stayin near Itaewon (I can hear your groans if you know Seoul) but got as far away as quickly as possible, and the Metro was very helpful in that.

I saw a wonderful exhibition of paper art in a gallery inside one of the stations, took photographs of lots of interesting buildings (anceient and modern), walked for hours, ate, shopped, got sort of lost afew times, saw worrying things (I guess we'll get Internet Dating: The Musical in due course) and thoroughly enjoyed a long day.

Right now Seoul is full of the joys of spring: kids, blossoms, balloons, face-painting, bands playing, lanes so crowded your walk is reduced to a slow shuffle . . .

The weather is mild, the sky cloudless and the mounatins which are suprisingly close and visible from many of the wide roads in the city centre are a gorgeous pale blue.

I have bought my replacement shirts and some K-pop and hip-hop CDs, the mango icecream was delicious, and the baseball cap necessary to keep the sun off my nose which, of course, feels even more noticeable in this environment.

As does the height, the beard, the hair and the clumsy pointing to things and stuttering something entirely wrong in a language which sounds like a threat of serious violence when shouted but seduces like rippling water when whispered.

My meetings start in earnest after my time of reorientation and given Seoul is going to undertake some major redevelopment I guess my job is to ask how much of what I love about this place, those little alleys into villages thriving in an urban environment, are going to survive.

I better get dressed up for my busy programme (which actually has "rest" written at 22.00 hours).

I can't wait.
I've even got my shirt picked out.

Graham Reid is in Seoul as a guest of the Seoul Metropolitan Government

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