A light mist floats above the Han River, enshrouding the myriad tall apartment buildings and green hills beyond. They call Korea "The Land of the Morning Calm," and in its wide, open spaces and verdant hillsides, it is.
But the morning calm in Seoul - 20 miles inland from the Yellow Sea - soon gives way to the inevitable acitvity of a city of 9.5 million people. New highways, some 14 lanes wide, carry bustling traffic into and around the capital city, whose modern buildings have sprung up since the Korean War ended in 1953.
In an effort to look its best as the world looks in on Seoul during the 1988 Summer Olympics, the city has dredged the river and built recreation areas alongits banks. Several new highways and bridges connect widespread areas of the citywith each other and with the artistically laid out Olympic Park, boasting an 80,000-seat stadium.
Ancient and modern Seoul blend together colorfully at every turn. Clusters ofsmall, Korean-made cars and trucks - whose drivers unabashedly dartin and out oftraffic, paying less attention to painted lines than to their horns - screech toa halt at a traffic signal near Namdaemun (South) Gate. The massive structure was one of two gates in the wall that surrounded Seoul in the 1930's. Buildings ofconcrete, glass, and steel now rise around it.
Not far from skyscrapers and highways, narrow alleys wind up hillsides to small connected, private residences, each different on the front but having in common the earthen pot of kimch'i fermenting near the door outside. (This spicy-hot cabbage dish is only for the very adventurous.) Pots of bright flowers adorn window sills and porches from spring through fall, thriving in the humid, temperateclimate of the Korean peninsula.
The economy is thriving, too. Large department stores downtown tout high tech, high fashion, and high prices. But tourists flock to the shops and street-cartvendors in the Itaewon district, famous for its bargains in clothing, leather goods, and athletic shoes -- and for its outgoing salesmen who don't know much English outside of "Check it out! I make you a good deal!"
For those who like to haggle on prices or want to learn how, this is the place to do it. And with the exchange rate roughly the equivalent of 800 won to one American dollar, it's fun to feel like a millionaire - or at least a thousandaire. (Just be sure to take an empty bag to carry the bargains home!)
As with any cosmopolitan city, Seoul has its share of Broadway shows, Beethoven symphonies and Burger King restaurants. But many places offer a more traditional view of Korean culture with Korean food and entertainment. Folk music and dances are performed in open-air settings as well as in the elegant Sejong Cultural Center and National Theatre. The Korean Folk Village south of Seoul is a living museum that recreates the lifestyle of centuries ago, from farmhouse to noblemen's mansions, potters to blacksmiths.
Seoul Tower, atop the highest peak, has a spectacular all-around view of the city, especially memorable at night when lights seem to stretch into the horizon. During the day, the greenery of the city's parks and hills is apparent. The beautifully landscaped grounds at Kyong-Bok Palace and the National Museum are typical of the artistic care taken of parks in Seoul.
Veterans of the Korean War will recall the armistice that designated the 38thparallel as the border between South Korea and communist North Korea.
With 48 hours' notice, tourists may go into the Demilitarized Zone and Panmunjom area, still guarded by United Nations forces. Tours include stops at lookouttowers with a view into North Korea, a walk into an underground invasion tunnel,and a visit to monuments erected to those killed in the Korean War and incidentssince then.
The 90-minute bus trip north of Seoul also affords a look at the rice paddiesthat spread over the spacious, hilly countryside - a striking contrast to the apartments, government buildings, stores, offices, hotels, general bustle, and ongoing construction in the heart of Seoul.