So a week in the capital of South Korea requires more than one page to do it justice. Who knew?
(And to head off a question that we've been asked a couple of times since we got back: no, we never made it into North Korea. It's not entirely impossible, you understand: there are organised tours of the DMZ you can go on, some of which even offer you the chance to wave a tentative toe over the border. We were under the impression that they're the sort of thing that a friendly hotel concierge could book for you, but that was never going to happen with the non-English-speaking landlady at the Haemil Hanok. It looks like Kim and his guys need you to book several days in advance for security checking purposes anyway, so bear all that in mind if you're planning to do something similar.)
Still. Enough of that. We've already covered the hotels, bars and restaurants of Seoul: let's talk about the other stuff.
If you're going to do the full run of five, Changdeokgung Palace [37.579438, 126.991041 - as before, GPS is the easiest way of finding any of the places discussed here] is probably the best one to start off with, even if it does set a high bar for the ones you catch afterwards. It's got the same collection of well-preserved buildings as the rest, and will be your first experience of tourists dressing up in period costumes partly to get into the atmosphere, and partly because they let you in free for wearing one. (The thing to watch out for is when people start playing with the idea - we see one girl who's wearing a full male costume and looking terrific in it.) Changdeokgung's secret weapon is its secret garden, which takes some planning to get into because everyone knows about it. Your ticket includes entry, but you'll have to go as part of a pre-arranged guided tour, available in multiple languages. Our English guide jokes about how her Korean name is best abbreviated to OK, but she's much better than that, taking us round the highlights of the garden and telling lots of stories about its history. We get a bonus at the end: we've lucked out and booked our holiday during some sort of culture week, and as part of the festivities we're allowed to wander round the garden at our own pace after the tour's done, which doesn't normally happen.
The smaller palaces suffer a little when directly compared against Changdeokgung, and that's definitely the case with Deoksugung [37.565851, 126.975135] - yes, I know, there's nothing I can do to help you remember which name is which, although this one is small enough to make for an interesting contrast with the modern buildings surrounding it. (If you're outside it at just the right time, you can catch the runup to the guard changing ceremony for free, as seen in the video above.) Fans of megapalaces should then head to Gyeongbokgung [37.579693, 126.977020], which is possibly too sprawling to enjoy on a busy hot day: most of your time will be spent navigating your way around people in costume taking endless selfies in front of the main buildings. It's worth timing your visit to get a decent spot in the front courtyard for the Changing of the Guard, which is an impressive bit of ceremony, only slightly undercut when you see the guards up close afterwards and realise that many of them have stick-on paper beards.
We do the last two palaces more or less back to back on a single day, though the latter one literally backs onto Changdeokgung if you want to try an alternate route. Jongmyo Shrine [37.57465,126.99389] is in a slightly unusual state when we get there, as they're preparing for a big festival on the following day, meaning it's full of roadies in white baseball caps setting up stages, and various dignitaries with lanyards being shown around the normally roped-off areas. Hilariously, one of the buildings we peek into has the middle-aged bloke equivalent of a dressing-up room, where several of these dignitaries are putting on monk's robes and getting their picture taken. Despite all the activity, Jongmyo's not too busy, and it's a nice manageable size for getting around. We finish up at Changgyeonggung [37.578676,126.99586], which is similarly small and perfectly formed - its highlights include a theatrical court performance with plenty of jokes (or at least lines of Korean dialogue followed by what sounds like a rimshot), and a pretty lake with a Crystal Palace-style hothouse nearby. All this and yet another batch of tourists in costume, some of whom are wearing those stick-on beards, including the women. Gender roles are a lot more fluid here than I originally supposed.
The palaces are the most usual way in which visitors are introduced to Seoul's past, but they're not the only way. There's one simple approach which will cost you absolutely nothing - head for the Bukchon Hanok Village [37.582421,126.983652], a pair of districts separated by a main road, made up entirely of old buildings like the Haemil Hanok hotel we stayed in at the start of our week. In a similar fashion, they've all got very solid traditional wooden doors secured with incongruously modern numeric keypad locks, meaning you don't get to see inside: which is only fair, as they're still residential buildings. Given the swarms of costumed selfietakers posing in the pretty streets outside them, ignoring the 'quiet please' signs plastered everywhere, you can see why they dissuade tourists from going there in the evenings. If you want a less voyeuristic view of the area, head for Bukchon Observatory [37.583056,126.982771] which will give you a decent elevation, a nice sit down and a cup of tea for just a few quid.
But why would you want to see actual working Hanok houses in the middle of the city, when you can spend ages travelling out of town to spend far too much money on a theme park built around the same sort of thing? Our visit to the Suwon Korean Folk Village [37.257027,127.1146] starts with an epic metro journey to Suwon station, where we find that the courtesy shuttle bus which only runs three times a day holds a mere 45 people and is therefore full. Happily, the local tourist office has details of the paid bus travelling in that direction, displayed on a prominent poster in its window, as this is presumably one of their frequently asked questions. Once we get there it's a ten minute walk to the entrance, followed by a fifteen minute wait at the box office. This, however, is nothing compared to the hassle of the bus journey back afterwards, in which a whole bunch of us - Koreans and non-Koreans alike - wait for 20 minutes at one bus stop before being redirected to a second bus stop for an even longer wait. Eventually The BBG and I manage to find the right bus stop through some on-the-fly internet research: this involves the use of the pocket wi-fi router that we hired for a reasonable fee from the Imperial Palace hotel, so hooray for them.
As for the Village itself: it's huge, with massive crowds on a warm Children's Day holiday weekend, including the by-now-predictable bunch in period dress (though with the first example I've seen of male-to-female crossdressing). It's an odd mixture of lovingly recreated old housing (some proudly boasting its use in TV dramas) and authentic period shows (including an enjoyable farmers' dance), mashed up with some right old tourist tat. This includes a tacky food court, a regal birthday party featuring courtiers throwing K-pop boy band shapes to a slamming dance mix of Happy Birthday, and a demonstration of traditional punishment techniques. We arrive during the closing minutes of the latter to be confronted by the sight of parents putting their kids in leg screws, and kids beating their parents on the bum with big paddles. Fun for the whole family, in fact.
Back at Suwon station, it's a much less fraught bus journey to Paldalmun Gate [37.277506,127.01672] and the nearby city walls of Hwaseong Fortress [37.288550, 127.013936], with the added bonus that entrance has been made free for Seoul Culture Week. We happily ascend the walls, unconstrained by the usual 6pm closedown, however that works for such a large public space. The initial climb is a bit hairy in hot weather, but once it flattens out you get lovely views over the city, climaxing with Hyowon's Bell and the nearby command post with a spectacular view over the city. It's the last big excursion of our time in Seoul, and it seems like a good place to stop.
Not that I'm stopping here, though, because there's all the modern stuff still to talk about. So let's start with the main fixture of the city skyline, the N Seoul Tower [37.551263, 126.988227]: the only elevated city viewing platform guaranteed to leave people with Fatboy Slim earworms afterwards. Getting there is an epic journey in its own right: once you've found the correct exit at the metro station, you have to take a small funicular up the hill to get to the station for the Namsan Cable Car [video] that'll take you to the base of the tower and the lift to the top. It's an impressive view of the city and the river, as you'd expect: what I didn't expect was that every windowledge would have someone's video camera or phone sitting on it taking time-lapse footage of the sun going down. (I try it myself, but get bored after eight minutes.) There's an attraction called the Shocking Step - a seating area that turns transparent at random intervals, giving you a direct view straight down - but it never kicks in while we're there. I amuse myself in compensation by sharing the journey back down again with a middle-aged Korean man in a Jurassic Park t-shirt and wondering if that's his nickname.
Enough of tourism, let's have some culture. The Leeum art gallery [37.5382,126.99906] is a terrific combination of lovely architecture and fascinating contents, consisting of two main museum areas and an annex sponsored by Samsung. The first museum is a collection of traditional Korean art, sneakily mixed in with the odd bit of Western modern to suggest where the latter stole its ideas from. (I learn some interesting things about Rothko's colour palette, for example.) The second museum is a global collection of modern art: it's perhaps a little too heavy on the obvious big names from the west, but Asia is solidly represented by the likes of Lee Ufan, who we can feel smug about recognising having only discovered him one week earlier in Naoshima. Tucked away under the two main areas is the Samsung Child Education and Culture Center, which sounds tediously educational but turns out to be where they hide some cracking contemporary work, including some monumental video art.
Is The Palace - a play at the Jeongdong Theatre [37.565851,126.97282] - art or tourism? We go in expecting art, but there are plenty of signs of it being a great big tourist trap: intertitles in four languages, a couple of bits of audience participation, and a big sign during the final musical number reading 'you can take photographs from now on.' It's got a simple Cinderella-style story about a common dancer who becomes a favourite of the king through her natural talent and slutty dancing, to the disgust of the rest of the court. Really, though, the plot's just a framework on which to hang displays of traditional Korean arts like dancing, juggling, swordplay and drumming. I'm sure traditional performances don't use backing tapes and video projection as heavily as this one does, but it's still enjoyable enough.
There's no need for a debate over whether the Banpo Bridge Moonlight Rainbow Fountain [37.515583,126.99588] counts as art or tourism, you can pretty much guess from the name. In case you're wondering about that name, I'm guessing that Banpo is the Korean for 'bridge of FILTHY LIES': once again (see Busan) we've been told stories about a bridge-based light show that have no basis in reality. The theory is that at 8pm, an illuminated water display will kick off on the Banpo bridge, and the best place to watch it is from the observatory window of an Emart cafe [37.505969,126.98017] a little way down the river. When this doesn't happen as advertised, we wander dejectedly in the direction of the bridge, and by pure dumb luck stumble across the truth: the show starts at 9pm, and takes place on the side of the bridge facing away from the Emart. A bit further along there's even a perfect viewing area where a small clump of people are camped with picnics and booze. It's just a bunch of lit-up water jets moving in time to a barely audible soundtrack, but you can see how it could be the capper to a fun evening outside.
I promised you some high-tech stuff before the end of the holiday, and it comes in as-heard-in-song Gangnam, the district that's home to the combination of tech showcase and video arcade they call Samsung d'Light [37.496856,127.02663] (except for The BBG, who keeps thinking of it as Sunny Delight). Samsung occupy three floors in this building, of which the least interesting is the basement dedicated to their shop. It all starts getting freaky when you head upstairs, where staff casually ask for your name before taking your picture, strapping an RFID wristband to you and mumbling something vague about data protection. As you walk through this floor, your wristband triggers a series of video-game-based personality tests, and at the end you're given a quick analysis based on the data they've gathered. Apparently The BBG is classified as a Heart Alchemist, while I'm an Imagination Sommelier, "influencing everyone with amazing ideas." You know, I could live with that. The second floor of video games is more obvious propaganda about Samsung tech improving lives, where your picture is pasted into a series of scenarios, including one where I'm going on a date with someone called Jane. "Who is this woman?", I'm inevitably asked.
Still, after all this excitement we eventually have to fly back home. The flight's been unnecessarily complicated from the word go: we only found out in the booking confirmation that Expedia had sold us a twelve-hour British Airways flight on a hand baggage only fare, meaning we had to fork out extra for our luggage. We get around the ridiculously short 24 hour window for online check-in with fiendish use of the pocket wifi unit from the hotel while travelling around on the back of a Seoul bus: we're less pleased at our ingenuity when we find that this cheap-ass fare they gave us requires us to pay another thirty pounds to change our mid-cabin seats to aisle ones. On board, it's a similar pain in the backside: the exclusive BA BrewDog beer hyped at the previous AGM isn't available because they forgot to load up enough for a round trip in London (three months later, we'll finally get to drink some in Perth). To cap it all, some dick brings their own wine glass to drink out of on board and promptly smashes it on the carpet, making it impossible to walk in the aisle for at least half an hour. In conclusion, sod BA, again.
Still, if we assume that everything in the previous paragraph is the fault of the Brits, then our final memories of Korea itself are rather lovely ones. We have to leave our hotel at 6.45am, and during our final walk through Itaewon encounter large numbers of kids still wandering the streets post-clubbing. We also get to see how heaped with fag ends the pavements are before the morning cleaners do their rounds. We change from the metro onto the Airport Railroad, where the little jingle that announces the arrival of a train is played on traditional instruments rather than the usual synthesised brass.
The train itself is full of surreal delights. There are handrails over the top of the seats rather than shelves, accompanied by hilarious illustrations showing how putting your suitcases up there could result in a passenger's head getting squished. The end seat in each carriage is, as ever, reserved for pregnant women: but the airport express enforces this brilliantly by tying a small stuffed pregnant doll to the seat, which you have to lift up and put on your lap before you can sit down. (One man tries to break the system by sitting on top of the doll, but ends up shuffling away embarrassed after one stop.) And most of our ride is accompanied by a woman sitting across from us wearing a baby sling containing a kitten.
I can't guarantee your journey from Seoul to the airport will be as fun as that, but I'd imagine that it's probably more fun than the equivalent journey from North Korea. Maybe one day I'll find out. Being a monkey, and all.