I’d heard Seoul was welcoming. But I wasn’t prepared to be Namaste-ed on three separate occasions on arrival in the airport itself. One came from the woman who booked me my taxi, who wanted to visit India really badly. Her uncle was in one of the big Korean companies and currently serving in India. His stories had whetted her appetite. It wouldn’t be long, she said, before she came over.
My taxi driver, an affable and well-aged Korean gentleman, was another. He’d never been to India, didn’t know anyone there, but loved the movies. My being from New Delhi was greeted with a solemn nod. Old city, he said. Like Seoul.
Quite right, I said. And yet, if you’re a casual visitor, Seoul is nothing like New Delhi.
On the surface, Seoul is quite like Beijing, my other place of residence. Wide roads, glittering skyscrapers, hills in the distance offsetting a predominantly flat city centre. Then there’s the functional civic infrastructure, and a central plaza that’s strategically placed opposite the old sites of power, namely the imperial palace, Gyeongbokgung. Imposing statues of long-dead men rise above the walking citizenry, an arts centre to one side, big corporate offices to the other. The symbolism of the juxtaposition of past, present and future is hard to miss.
And yet, there’s plenty that is different as well. South Korea is a functional democracy. Our second day there, a massive traffic jam in the city centre was attributed to a demonstration. What were they protesting? Take your pick, we were told. The government can’t make everyone happy.
Even as we joined the surge of pedestrians who’d been forced out of their vehicles by the jam; even as we put unaccustomed miles on our shoes; even as my friends pointed out that this was where the Northern system scored a point for unwilling walkers, for dissent really wasn’t an option there — it made me glad, to be again in a place where you could register your disgust so loudly.
For a moment, Jantar Mantar didn’t seem all that far away.
In fairness, that’s pretty much the only echo of Delhi I heard in my very short time in Seoul. (Aside from a few distinctly dodgy Indian restaurants we passed on a Friday night on Itaewon’s main drag, outside which gathered a few unhappy looking desis. We didn’t make their acquaintance, either.)
For the most part, Seoul is an object lesson in what Delhi could be. It is oriented around a river, the Hangang, but this one is blue and inviting, at least to my eyes. There are cruises on it, and parks run along its length, along with cycle paths. Apartments advertise their views of it. Many bridges cross it as it meanders through the city, and they look like necklaces at night. Imagine our Yamuna like this.
No? I couldn’t, either.
Then, there is the Cheonggyecheon. A creek in downtown Seoul that was formerly built over by roads and even an elevated highway, it was redeveloped in the early 2000s into a public park. Now, the water is clear, and people saunter along it. Citizens are involved in its upkeep, and it has become a source of civic pride. I don’t even have to name the places — and streams — that are crying for this sort of treatment in Delhi.
Imagine removing a highway (!) so people could have a place to walk instead. In a city that removed a rapid bus system because it was inconveniencing cars? Or, for that matter, in a city that removed its historic walls for a ring road?
Probably not going to happen. In either of my two homes.
I’ve lost track of how many times people with an interest in urbanism, specifically in the Asian context, have suggested Seoul to me; as a place to visit; a benchmark; even, as an example of how things can be.
Among other highlights, Namsan is a real treat, a forested hill of a city park that I was lucky enough to catch in autumnal foliage. (Think Lodhi Garden with views. And without stray dogs.) The food is spectacular, the life on the street solid, and safety seems assured, as evidenced by the number of young women wandering happily around at night.
Yet possibly the most charming part of the trip, a visit to one of Seoul’s “historic villages”, left me the most conflicted. The one we went to is preserved as if in amber, and is still inhabited. There are people on the street, in traditional Korean garb, holding up signs that say “please be silent”, for of course these houses aren’t museum pieces; they’re homes, and their inhabitants are entitled to a measure of quiet.
A few houses are given over to traditional craft, and there is the sort of store you’d expect in this place; a perfumer, for one, rendering bespoke scents if that’s your thing. But the one thing I really missed was a sense of what it would have been like in “old” Seoul. There is no street-level commerce; all that’s left is really these beautiful houses. In the absence of that street-life, what are these places but museum pieces?
In this city that is a beacon in so many ways, this “historic village” seemed oddly out of context. I suppose I’ll just have to go back and take a second look.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing