강남구 Chasing Rainbows

Today I tell a tale of woe, of great expectations and crushing disappointment. The tale of spontaneous planning gone slightly awry while on holiday. No, it was not a catastrophic accident, the loss of a passport or some other holiday extinguishing event, it was merely a frustrating evening.  Nonetheless, it was both disappointing and a good lesson in planning.

We shall begin our tale with Gangnam. You must have heard of Gangnam by now unless you are allergic to all forms of video and have very few friends, or are simply old and wise enough to have escaped it. The phenomenon that swept the world in 2012, gaining a completely insane 2,260,370,459 views on you-tube, Gangnam style introduced the world to K-pop and the district of Gangnam in Seoul. Though many of you will have heard of the video, you may not know that Gangnam is one of the richer areas of Seoul, known for expensive apartments and shops; an apartment in Gangnam will set you back around $10,000 per square metre. In Gangnam style, PSY is making fun of the affluent lifestyle of those living in Gangnam. Here is a version of the music video with subtitles for your enjoyment:

As the only things I knew about Korea outside my course on Korean history were kimchi and Gangnam style, a visit was in order. Disappointment one of the day came when we realised that Gangnam, being a rich area, was mostly banks and tall rather uninteresting buildings. I don’t know if we were expecting some kind of continuous celebrity pageant or to be welcomed by PSY himself, but somehow we found it lacking.

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Moving on from our disappointment, we turned in search of crispy chicken, as we had been told that Gangnam was the place to find this delicacy. To cut a long story short we ended up in a pub which had no Korean chicken and didn’t particularly feel Korean at all, rather giving off a sense of international dislocation which is so comforting to ex-pats but not to those in search of actual Korean food.

At this point the phones came out, as our plan to spend lots of time in Gangnam was cut short by Gangnam being rather lacklustre. A google of ‘what to do near Gangnam’ later, we stumbled upon the holy grail of tourism – a bridge that lights up like a rainbow and sprays water. It looked like the rainbow road in MarioKart. It was just a short train journey from Gangnam, so we went boldly forth to complete our quest for the rainbow bridge, also known as Banpo Bridge.

Arriving at the train station we successfully went the complete wrong way round the block, adding at least half an hour onto our journey. We then found ourselves near a fairly dystopian housing estate with identical numbered blocks all along  the river. Bravely, we traversed this Orwellian nightmare to reach the park that borders the river and provides views of the fabled bridge.

Emerging into the park we saw beautiful views of the river at night with the lights of the city all around us. All these lights were orange or white, distinctly lacking in other colours. Where was the rainbow bridge that google had promised? A quick check confirmed we were looking at the right bridge, it was just de-rainbowed. We had spent 2 hours hunting for a bridge that was not currently running its interesting mode, instead masquerading as an ordinary bridge, mocking us.

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We walked to the other side of the bridge. I don’t know if we were expecting it to magically be rainbow on the other side, but I assure you, it wasn’t. We did find some more colours there, however, as we found the ‘wishing bridge’ (walkway on the water) to a few brightly lit up buildings which appeared to be a hangover from Christmas and New Year; there were wishing hearts tied to the bridge with new years wishes inscribed and the whole thing seemed slightly temporary. The Wishing Bridge lacking an S somehow perfectly encapsulated our slight frustration with the way the evening was turning out. Wishing for a rainbow bridge proved unsuccessful.

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The evening took a slightly creepy turn when I noticed some skyscrapers across the river, which, aside from a red light to warn planes, had no lights on whatsoever. The internet knows nothing about them either. I can only conclude that they are monoliths descended from space to observe us.

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Our quest ended with a defeated turn for home. We got lost in the overly-ordered housing development, increasingly getting the sense that we had stumbled into a horror movie, we only had to agree to split up to trigger it. Thankfully we found the way out to the train station, passing a house that had a slide out of the window into the garden, clearly some kid is living the dream.

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Thus ends my tale. Though nothing terrible happened, I can’t help but feel that we missed out. Below are photos of what the bridge looks like if you actually catch it in action. Turns out it only runs on the hour around three times a day.

북촌한옥마을 Family Fortresses

A short walk from the painted palace, Changdeokgung, we found the ancient neighbourhood of Bukchon, a preserved neighbourhood that dates back 600 years to the Joseon period of Korean history. Walking up the narrow sloped streets was like walking past mini castles; each house is completely enclosed with high walls and sheltered gates – there is no telling what is inside from the road aside from the occasional tree poking out. It felt like walking around a maze or some kind of film set – I could imagine a chase on foot across the densely packed roofs or through the many mysterious doors.

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These islands of privacy are called hanoks, and arose in the mid to late Joseon period (1392 – 1897) as a result of an increase in urbanisation; large tracts of land around Seoul were divided into smaller plots and families built their hanoks there. The placement of hanoks is very important as they follow the principle of baesanimsu  (배산임수 / 背山臨水). If you are able to read the characters 背山臨水 you will see that the principle of baesanimsu is to have the back of the house to a mountain ( – back – mountain) and to be facing water or a river ( – look to – water). Baesanimsu is part of the art of feng shui, which aims to achieve harmony with the surrounding environment. Bukchon village was considered one of the best plots in Seoul, facing the Hangang river and sitting on the slopes of the mountains.

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These houses were not occupied by your average peasant or urban worker, these were the homes of the yangban, the influential government officials and high class of Korean society in the Joseon period. Unlike many pre-modern societies where class was inherited from ones ancestors, the status of yangban was achieved through passing state exams and climbing through the ranks of government officials. In theory anyone could become yangban, though the reality was that peasant families could not afford to educate their sons to sit the exam nor could they spare them from the fields come harvest time, so wealth basically became a necessary prerequisite to become yangban. Families that achieved yangban rank generally retained it as their status became established within their community. Though meritocratic in theory, Confucian Joseon society remained a society divided by wealth and class like many others. Walking around, we noticed a lot of very expensive cars in Bukchon; it appears wealth is still necessary if you want to live in this prestigious neighbourhood.

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The hanok is traditionally either L or U shaped to create an inner courtyard surrounded by walls – the U shape tended to be used in the North of the country to conserve heat. Hanoks also contained an ancient heating system called ondol, which consists of a furnace directly heating thick masonary floors. The earliest example of an ondol-like heating system is 1000BC. The places closest to the furnace were reserved for elders and honoured guests. Seoul was very cold when we visited – the system would be very necessary in the winter to prevent illness or the death of older family members.

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The streets were busy with tourists when we visited and there were signs everywhere encouraging tourists to be quiet when visiting – this neighbourhood is residential and the government has received increasing numbers of complaints as tourism to Bukchon increases. Hanoks are only recently protected in Seoul; in the late 20th century and into the early 2000s many were knocked down to create high rise buildings. 30 years ago there were over 80,000 hanoks in Seoul but today only about 12,000 remain. Thankfully now these beautiful houses are protected.

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Up one of the two incredibly picturesque streets, past the man selling selfie-sticks, was a house that had opened its doors to the public as a museum. We passed through into a courtyard brightly lit by the afternoon sun, surrounded by a wood lattice. If you were willing to part with your shoes on such a cold day you could enter the house and explore the narrow corridors. They were showing an exhibition on traditional Korean funeral biers, showing small figurines called Kokdu that symbolised supernatural beings protecting the dead, as well as the ends of the bier which were traditionally dragons, a symbol of protection from evil powers as the soul travels from this world.

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The small details of the architecture were good to spot – though all had steep walls and curving roofs, the doors varied greatly and we often saw the character  doubled up as an embellishment.  means ‘happy’ or ‘joy’ and is often used in China as a marker of celebration. The use of it in buildings would be in order to bring good luck or fortune upon those living there.

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Bukchon is actually a large area and one can walk around for a few hours. As it was approaching frostbite weather we elected to only go to the most famous area with the streets full of hanok. Though there are some very old hanok, the truth is that many were mass produced in the 1930s as urbanisation increased under Japanese colonial rule. The traditional style, regardless of when they were built, is still beautiful and well worth a visit if you want to experience old-style Korea.