There comes a point in every journey, where your energy starts to wane, and sleep becomes more important than experience. That time arrived on the bus from Incheon Airport to Seoul. Crossing the long causeway and bridge over the tidal flats, I started to fade. Headphones on, and mind blank, I leaned against the window and watched the landscape roll by. Wooded hillsides, covered in a fresh coat of snow, the trees like brown brushstrokes on a sheet of white, I was reminded that Korea is a hilly country. They have mountains here, but nothing of the size and grandeur of the Alps. No, these hills seem much older, like the Berkshires, or the Ozarks. Worn and weathered by centuries, until they roll like folds of a blanket, leaving little sanctuaries in the valleys and dells.
Seoul is a deceivingly large city. You can drive for over an hour, and never feel like you leave it, and yet the you feel like you were never able to get a good look at it. Mile after mile of high rise apartment blocks, line the valleys, and cling to the hill sides, so numerous, and uniform that they paint huge numbers on the sides of them to help people find their way home. Try to do the math to figure out the population, and you are left unbelieving. How can there be this many people? Where are they hiding? Like the city itself, they find a way to hide in plain sight.
Korea is an ancient land, but you would never know it by the look of Seoul. It seems hard to find a building over 30 years old. They have risen so fast during the last 50 years that it is hard to imagine what the country looked like in the 1950’s, until you look across the border at the North. Less than 60 miles away across the DMZ, North Korea remains frozen in amber. A country locked in a time capsule, where people still starve for lack of food. Seeing the South, it is hard to reconcile in your mind that these are the same country, divided only by a half century. The contrast could not be more stark.
We arrive at our hotel near Seohyeon Station. A bizarre, solid granite edifice that seems built like a bunker or the home of a Pharaoh. Unlike our time in Japan, this is not a Western Hotel chain, but an Eastern one. The interior is decorated in gold fixtures, and dark polished granite. To my foreign eye, it seems less like a hotel, and more like the lair of a James Bond villain; the furnishings, an odd mixture of Asian style, and modernism.
We head out to dinner with our Korean colleagues, to the adjacent neighborhood of Bundang. We could as easily be in San Diego, Shanghai, Toronto, or Singapore. Glittering glass high rises, and wide boulevards, lined with ornamental trees, ooze wealth and privilege. The streets are full of the latest cars from all over Asia and Europe, gleaming in the night. We find a Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant, and fill ourselves with delectably spicy foods, and chilled Korean wine. The restaurant is filled with conversation, and laughter, and I am reminded that Koreans are not as reluctant to let their hair down as the Japanese. Korea is a fascinating and unique culture of its own, squeezed between two overpowering giants of China and Japan.
The next morning, we head out into a morning rush hour as chaotic as any. We spend the morning at our local office, before heading out to visit with a customer. We drive for over an hour, and never seem to leave the city, down 8 lane streets, and onto wide expressways, through tunnels, and over bridges, until I have become so turned around, I give up trying to keep track of where we are, and decide that Seoul is too large for my human brain to comprehend.
Pale winter sunlight filters through the clouds, and the cold winds sweeping down out of Siberia, chill us to the bone. It is barely below freezing, but the air is so damp and chill, that I shiver on our walk from the parking lot into the offices. Like the economic differences between the North and the South, Korean weather is a study in extremes.
Our meetings end early, and we spend an hour sitting in a coffee shop across from our hotel, sipping Cappuccino, and waiting for dinner time to arrive. After a day and a half of driving around this town, it is nice to just sit still, and share a laugh with some friendly faces. It takes an edge off of the homesickness that has begun to sneak up on me.
Dinner tonight is in a restaurant on a hillside across from Bundang, without a doubt one of the strangest cultural fusions I have ever seen. The restaurant is modeled on a Swiss chalet, and the interior would not look out of place in any German-American grandmother’s house. Crocheted doilies, and ceramic statues of angels, and chickens adorn the curio cabinets. The light wood paneling glows in the bright white light of the restaurant. Cuckoo clocks tick on the wall, and I have a hard time remembering I am in Korea. There are times when I travel when I am struck by the incredible stretch of globalization, and this is one of them. This building may be more Germanic than any German restaurant in the Twin Cities, but the food is classic Korean cuisine. The significance of the Swiss décor is lost on me, but I enjoy it for the unexpected eye candy that it is.
A full moon is rising above the hillside as we leave the restaurant. Out across the river, the red neon crosses of the churches glow in the night. Korea is a Christian country, and the churches are as numerous as the apartment buildings, each one topped with a neon cross. They burn in the night like signs advertising drive through salvation, and stick in my head as the one iconic image I will take home with me. An ancient symbol painted on a modern city, in the electric glow of prosperity. A country of paradoxes challenging all our assumptions. A country cleaved down the middle like Solomon’s child.