Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Finding your Seoul-mate

Prosperous South Korea balances modern and traditional

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Seoul radiates a yin-yang of venerable old and futuristic new, a city where you will be thrilled by dynasties of priceless art and decades of contemporary innovations.

But there is more for visitors, intangibles that are to be admired and respected. South Korea is as clean, polite and safe as Canada. And it's an outstanding success story.

A mere 60 years after the devastation of the Korean War, the country boasts the world's 15th most prosperous economy and powerful diplomatic leverage between East and West. Seoul is also bursting with know-how in technology, shipbuilding, manufacturing, fashion, beauty products and medical advances.

And all this blithely built and nurtured not 50 kilometres from the threat of a volatile rogue state.

The products of Hyundai, Kia, Samsung and LG are household names around the world. South Korea's second Olympic Games will take place in 2018 at a majestic mountain resort that will be one hour from Seoul via a new high-speed train. While UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon works on world peace, Psy, the Gangnam Style kitsch king, has focused attention on the K-pop wave.

Seoul rocks with 24-hour nightclubs, a National Digital Library of e-resources, Formula One Grand Prix racing and the video masterpieces of Nam June Paik at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

How cool is this town? Very. The mixologist at Coffee Bar K in Cheongdamdong district is ranked among the top in the world for his creative cocktails made with the Korean liqueur soju, often distilled from sweet potatoes.

The Lotte conglomerate, the biggest name in Korean hospitality, operates hotels, cinemas, department stores and duty-free shops and will open Korea's first six-star hotel in 2014. The new Lotte World Tower and Mall will be among the tallest skyscrapers anywhere, with a breathtaking observation deck a half-kilometre high.

Wedged between China and Japan, Seoul is within a three-hour flight of one-third of the world's population, so it's becoming tourist-friendly in a hurry, welcoming up to 12 million people a year -- about 130,000 of them from Canada.

Seoul is busy, sometimes frenetic and sprawling, but there are ways for easy immersion into local attractions. If you're simply on a long layover at Seoul's Incheon Airport, you're eligible for free sightseeing tours. If you're on your own, the subway is safe, efficient and fully bilingual (Korean and English). Landmarks include the cable car up N Seoul Tower in Namsan Park, Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Han River, which runs through the city.

Seoul's historic culture is based on an exquisite food and craft tradition dating back 5,000 years. Its palaces are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, prized for their intricate architecture and moody gardens.

I recommend Bukchon Hanok Village, a cloister of traditional life with guest houses; the World Taekwondo Headquarters, where you can learn how to break a slab of wood with a quick, sure chop of the hand; and Insadong Street, an antique alley of Asian collectibles, tea shops and galleries.

Here are a few diversions that are not on most tourist routes. Try to meet a Seoul-mate so you can explore and share them with someone:

The markets

So many markets, never enough time.

Dongdaemun Market has manufacturers selling high-fashion, low-priced clothing at showrooms. Myeongdong is a trendy tangle of streets lined with cosmetics shops, particularly ones selling ginseng-laced skin creams, which have anti-aging properties.

Gyeongdong Market is a hotbed of herbal medicine, with teas and lotions made from mushrooms, mint, roses and hundreds of flora.

My favourite is Gwangjang Market, partly for the wondrous choice of Korean silks and ceremonial costumes or hanbok, which are mostly worn for weddings. This market also is a foodie haven. Pull up a stool at the most tempting kiosk and watch your cook fry tiny crabs, octopus and sizzling pancakes.

More food

The vast Lotte Food Halls, on the lower level of the Lotte Department Store, are an enormous and fun-filled single stop for the complex realm of Korean cuisine. As many as 100 counters display a staggering variety of vegetables, noodles and rice dishes, fish and meat, all marinated, artistically chopped and expertly prepared in spicy chili sauces. If you're not sure of how to navigate, simply point, add kimchee and feast for $6 to $15.

It turns out chicken soup is a restorative cure-all even in Seoul. Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) is one of the most accessible and traditional Korean dishes. Even limos line up at Tosokchon Samgyetang, a historic, rustic diner where chicken-in-the-pot with rice stuffing, a shot of ginseng liqueur, barley tea and dessert costs $13.

The future

Samsung D'Light is a dazzling three-storey gallery of the next generation of smart stuff, including wearable devices, interactive classrooms, home theatres, software, cellphones, video gear and games.

Picture this at-home application: You and your mate are watching the same television, but one is channelling Downton Abbey and the other is fixated by Game of Thrones. All it takes is a specialized Samsung dual-vision screen with two sets of headphones.

Besides technical proficiency, Samsung has a sense of humour about the galaxy it helped to change. The futuristic showroom also houses a display of historic artifacts: Remember leather-bound books, fountain pens, VCRs and cameras with film?

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 E1

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