Seoul, South Korea – 2023 [Itaewon and beyond]

Recently I got the chance to spend a couple of weeks in Seoul, South Korea. The first few days were spent flying solo, exploring Hongdae – after which I was due to share an AirBnB with some other members of my team who were arriving from different parts of the world.

Technically, we were staying in an area called Namyeong, but it wasn’t the most exciting of places… particularly coming from Hongdae, and so I barely ended up taking any pictures there. Instead, I made the most of the proximity to other well known landmarks to do a bit of exploring, including a part of the city called Itaewon.

I had briefly visited Itaewon the week prior, when I went to see Say Sue Me, and discovered a whole variety of trendy bars and cafes that I was keen to explore. These varied from more traditional Korean fare, to much more Westernised, including Mexican food, and cocktail bars where the main language was English. This wouldn’t be my first choice upon arriving in a new place, but after almost a week in Seoul, the change of setting was welcome. I even managed to get my favourite drink…

The main portion of Itaewon definitely had a more ‘foreigner friendly’ feel to it, with lots of large clubs and bars directed towards twenty something visitors. As a more alternative sort, its vibe wasn’t necessarily my bag, but much like the rest of Seoul, there were cool places to be found down the back alleys and off of the main streets

Itaewon is where the tragic crush took place on Halloween last year, and after wandering around, I found myself on the same back street by accident. I didn’t take any pictures, for obvious reasons, but there was a memorial with post-it notes for people to leave messages. I remember how distant and separate Seoul seemed back when the disaster happened – a disconnected catastrophe in a far-away land – and how real it became, standing in the narrow alleyway. I am hyper-aware of the dangers of dwelling on thoughts like this because of my job, but it was tough not to imagine how helpless it would have felt to be stuck on that steep incline, trapped in a sea of people.

The next day I headed off on an adventure. Part of the reason for Itaewon’s more ‘Western’ feel is the historical influence of the United States, who have what seemed like a relatively very large military base slap bang in the middle of Seoul – right next to Itaewon. It was surreal to see the high walls and barbed wire stretch on far into the distance.

I walked along the perimeter of the base as part of my journey towards the famous North Seoul Radio Tower, which you will surely recognise. It was one of the sunniest days since I had arrived in South Korea, and I thought it would be a great idea to walk up, rather than get the shuttle. Half way up I realised the error of my ways, already knackered after a week racking up hundreds of thousands of steps. If I hadn’t been drinking soju and makgeolli constantly I would have ended up skinny as a rake.

The view from the top was worth the arduous ascent, and I met some nice folks along the way, including an award winning Korean barista who gave me samples of the different coffees she had that day to help stave off my lingering hangover. I also got some spicy pork which was far too good given its proximity to a tourist attraction.

Afterwards, I wandered back down through the hilly residential streets that cling on to the edge of the military base, getting completely lost more than once as I hit artificial dead ends created by the high walls and no-go zones. Google Maps kind of just shrugged when I tried to navigate my way out, and I was left to my own devices. In some ways I was kind of sad when I found the main roads again, as that feeling of being ‘properly’ ‘lost’ is increasingly uncommon.

I also explored a whole big chunk of the city from our Nameyong HQ – taking the train to Gangnam (yes, that one), and then wandering slowly over to Seongsu-Dong – which was described as the ‘Brooklyn of Seoul’. No, I did not do the Gangnam Style dance, but yes, there is a statue, and yes, it does have a video display of that video which seemed to be on endless repeat. Maybe that’s how they racked up so many YouTube views.

As part of my journey I crossed over a bridge which turned out to be much higher, longer, and in closer proximity to fast moving traffic than I anticipated. I’m still not clear if I was actually meant to walk over it the way I did or not, so shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Seoul had lots of really interesting buildings with curved sides – something that reminded me of the later levels in Transport Tycoon Deluxe. The high rises below kind of what I had pictured in my mind when I imagined the city. I love the way they look. Retro-futuristic.

Interestingly enough, Seoul felt more ‘dense’ than I expected, though part of that could also be due to the relatively low height of the buildings when compared to a place like Tokyo. It felt packed, but never overwhelming.

Seongsu-Dong was cool – a mix of industrial buildings and active vehicle repair yards, sitting in amongst boutique shops and flashy tech ‘demo’ spaces. One thing I love about Seoul is how vastly different each area feels – each with its own clear identity and atmosphere.

When I took this picture, I thought that the cheddar cheese and chocolate banana were mixed together. Looking at this now, I wish I’d tried these.

In the evening, I met up with Colin and Emily, and we explored a bit before embarking on our first Korean BBQ experience. It was pork belly, and after washing it down with shared beers and a bottle or two of soju, I decided that if I ever go back to Seoul, I’ll exclusively be eating BBQ.

More to come from Seoul soon…

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