Saturday, July 10, 2010

I've been debating how to sum up my thoughts on Seoul, mostly because I'm torn on how I feel about it. On the one hand, it's a very modern, clean city with excellent public transportation and outstanding public parks and amenities. The city itself is just massive; it spreads out as far as the eye can see, only to be lost in haze the higher your viewpoint. It reminds me at times of Tokyo, which is also a low-rise high-density city (and an amazing one at that).

But at the same time, it seems so generic and even-handed, it's almost boring? Surely not. That is an outrageous claim, I think, considering that Seoul is one of the worlds largest megacities (second only to Tokyo). Partly to blame are the previous cities I've visited, where the juxtapositions between the old/new, rich/poor, etc., were so stark, whereas in Seoul, everything is consistently highly-developed. It just seems to lack the vitality one feels wandering around the narrow streets of Hong Kong, or through the alleys of Shanghai. It's like a megacity on mute. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it beyond that.

Even the shopping malls and markets reach a certain genericness. After visiting several electronics markets and malls, you can't help but notice the repetition of stores, prices, vendors. The venues change, but the goods remain the same. In TechnoMart, the camera shops were literally selling the same things, only 5 feet from each other.Floors and floors of the same shops and displays. The monotony of like goods is something I've experienced in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but with far more variation.

Now, this shouldn't detract from Seoul as a city by any means, because it really is impressive in many ways. Seoul is probably the safest city I've visited thus far. The people I've met are extremely helpful and courteous. The food is seriously good. And I can't stress enough how great the public amenities are. Public parks can be found all over the city, many connected by bike and walking trails to the waterfront. The cycling culture and trails in Seoul must put almost all other cities to shame (though perhaps not Amsterdam, where I saw multilevel parking garages for bicycles), as I have rarely seen more cyclists anywhere else. I saw literally hundreds of cyclists tonight along the waterfront, which is a veritable highway for bicycles.

Personal fitness seems to be the national pastime. Every park is equipped with exercise equipment, though in stark contrast to the US, it is all in great shape and in constant use. Nowhere else in the world will you see this many 80-year-olds swinging around on elliptical trainers. Soccer-tennis (which was new to me) seems to be the game of choice for the 30-something crowd.

Anyways, more to come shortly...

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