Field Report: Ancient by day, modern by night in Seoul, South Korea (07 February 2016)

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Seoul is one of my favourite cities in the world, not least because it offers such incredible historic and architectural rewards for the minimum of effort. Even a simple walk in the park can turn into an archaeological expedition, as I discovered one chilly winter’s day almost exactly a year ago.

The first order of business on any Sunday morning, wherever in the world I happen to be, must always be a trip to the local Catholic church for Mass.

On this particular journey, that meant making an early pilgrimage to Seoul’s soaring Myeongdong Cathedral.

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After the 7 AM Mass, I stepped outside the church to find the priest and other members of the community lined up near the door, ready to greet parishioners as they walked past. A lovely gesture indeed – one that added a touch of much-needed warmth to this frosty winter morning.

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Frosty … and quiet. The narrow streets of Myeong-dong – one of Seoul’s best-known shopping areas – are normally thronged with visitors in the afternoon or evening, with hordes of tourists and locals alike cheerfully emptying their wallets into the tills of the district’s countless cafes and cosmetic stores. But as I made my way back to the metro station from the cathedral at that early hour, I had the place almost to myself.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast, then straight back out again. Frightfully cold the air might have been, but the day had dawned bright and sunny, and I’m not one to trade away such fantastic sightseeing conditions for the shallow comfort of a heated room.

After all, I can scarcely think of a better way to enjoy clear skies and dazzling sunshine (winter chill notwithstanding) than by taking a walk in the park. Seoul’s Olympic Park, that is.

As the name suggests, this sprawling public leisure area played host to the 1988 Summer Olympics, with several key venues located here or nearby. One enduring reminder of those games is the World Peace Gate, which stands at the head of a broad pedestrian avenue leading directly from the exit of Mongchontoseong Station (Seoul Subway Line 8).

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Impressive, sure – but with my interest in sports ranging from limited to nonexistent, I quickly forsook this towering monument and headed deeper into the park. There, I found something of far greater significance, at least to a history and archaeology enthusiast like myself…

…the remains of the Mongchontoseong Fortress (몽촌토성, Mongchontoseong).

My Korean language proficiency was minimal at best, but I knew enough Japanese to tease something out of the last two characters in Mongchontoseong’s hanja name: 蒙村土城 >> 土城 >> “earth castle”. And that’s precisely what it was: a large fortification ringed with earthen ramparts, possibly constructed in the 4th century AD under the orders of King Geunchogo to help protect Wiryeseong (capital of the Kingdom of Baekje).

The glory days of Baekje are long past, supplanted by later Korean kingdoms and by the modern republic, but the eroded traces of the walls remain – now lovingly preserved and maintained as a public park laced with winding walking trails.

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From a choice vantage point upon the elevated ridge of the ancient ramparts, I turned my gaze southwest and spotted the Lotte World Tower, still under construction at the time. With 123 floors and a roof over 1,800 feet above the ground, this gleaming spire is the tallest building in Korea and one of the tallest worldwide.

(As of this writing, anyway. With Seoul’s skyline in a near-constant state of flux, perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised to see a skyscraper pop up where there wasn’t one the night before.)

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A powerful symbol of modern-day Korea, that tower … but my interests lay further back in time and a little closer to the ground. I proceeded to the southern edge of Olympic Park, where I encountered the Seoul Baekje Museum.

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This relatively new facility (opened in 2012) was a great place to learn more about Mongchontoseong in particular and the Baekje Period in general. One exhibit that I found particularly interesting was an incredibly detailed scale model depicting ancient Wiryeseong at the zenith of its glory.

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A little later, with some sunlight left to burn, I went on a walk along Sejongno in central Seoul, stopping briefly at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.

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Later still, the sun having finally retired for the night, I went back to a place I’d visited the day before: the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

It’s one thing to tour this complex of colossal silver-grey structures in the daytime (see here and here, for example). It’s another thing entirely to walk around the place after dark.

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As I explored the grounds, I discovered something that wasn’t here on my first visit back in 2014. Surrounding the remains of the Joseon-era city wall behind the DDP complex was a field of white fabric roses, each one brightly lit by an LED lamp. Originally designed as a temporary exhibit, the so-called “LED Rose Garden” is now a permanent feature … I think. (It’s still listed on the DDP’s official site, anyway.)

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Ahh, Seoul. You never disappoint … nor do you ever fail to surprise.

Cheerio.

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