Buam-dong – quietly cool

So you’ve lived in Seoul for a while now and you’re sick of the weekend crowds. You want to hang out in a neighbourhood with funky little coffee shops, restaurants, and art galleries. You’re sick of running the tourist gauntlet of Insa-dong. You can’t handle Samcheong-dong’s pouting, posing couples. You’ve come to realise that Hongdae is insane. You need to go to Buam-dong.

Behind the old fortress wall in the mountains north-west of Gyeongbuk Palace, Buam-dong has all the good things that Seoul’s trendier neighbourhoods have, with the added benefit of a slightly remote, peaceful location. Buam-dong’s mountain background, low brick buildings and quiet streets make you wonder if this is Seoul at all.

 There is not a Starbucks clone in sight – the only coffee shops are the sort that venerate ‘bean’ and ‘hand-drip’ as divine concepts. Most of the shops are brightly painted or housed in traditional wooden hanok, and some are so small they couldn’t seat ten customers. The focus in Buam-dong is on the product, not the profit.

Oroji is a good example of this, a tiny restaurant selling only one dish – kimchi jigae. This restaurant boasts that its stew is made without MSG or other artificial ingredients: everything is natural. It is certainly one of the best versions of the dish I’ve ever had. And the side-dishes of dried seaweed strips and eggs boiled in soy are as simple and fresh as the stew.

There is a matchbox-sized shop that only sells cupcakes (and coffee, of course!), a boutique florist, a workshop that sells hand-made wooden home-wares, a surprising number of Italian restaurants and a handful of pubs and wine shops. One business ambitiously offers “coffee, drink, beer, wine, food, design/graphic illustration, interior product, art/gallery shop, flea market” – a buffet of the boutique. But while there are plenty of choices in Buam-dong, there’s not so many that you’re overwhelmed. And the shops aren’t about novelty or exclusivity, they’re solid, familiar places that feel like old favourites immediately.

And it’s worth exploring beyond Buam-dong’s little cluster of shops to see how people live in this secluded (and expensive) pocket of Seoul. There are houses here – genuine, free-standing houses! – with little garden plots and fences. As I walked through the neighbourhood I exclaimed again and again, ‘this is not Seoul!’ The main road near Changuimun winds up into the hills, with great views of the fortress wall as its most dramatic, plunging down the steep backside of Mt. Bugak.

Buam-dong is that rare thing in Seoul, a funky, relaxing neighbourhood that hasn’t become a victim of its own success. And by being slightly out of the way it may never become one. It’s a wonder how the businesses here make enough money to survive, but that’s almost not the point. In a non-stop megacity like Seoul, peace and quite are priceless.


Of karsts, rice paddies and a river


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Two features define the landscape around Ninh Binh: rice paddies and karsts. Eroded limestone pinnacles, the karsts jutted out like sliced-off mountain tops covered in trees, reflected in the perfect green mirrors of the paddies. Bright colourful washing hung beside the houses like prayer flags; bullocks rolled in mud, dogs and chickens roamed; children kicked a ball in the crumbling forecourt of a temple.

Our destination was the ‘floating village’ of Kenh Ga, which is rather like calling Sydney a floating city because there are a few boats; there were more houses built along the banks than houseboats on the river. I was the sole passenger on a little wooden motorboat with a sheet metal roof and four plastic chairs on the deck, which took me up the river.

Outside the village the landscape altered: the karsts had turned to gentle grassy slopes, upon which goats and water buffalo grazed, tended by women in conical hats. By the water were rows of neat trees and the crosses of Christian gravestones. A large European church was visible in the distance, painted cream and orange. I was back in Catholic country: the white statues of the goddess Quan Âm had turned into the white statues of the Virgin. In the orange afternoon light the whole scene took on the air of a Grecian pastoral scene – apart from the conical hats.

In the middle of the river was a tiny island with two rows of stone pews, behind which stood a cross, an altar and another statue of the Virgin. The little sacred island was empty but for three Vietnamese school children, tending the altar and washing their hair in the river. It was a strange little place, this European religious pastoral with buffalo and conical hats. The children with their vibrant brown skin were so unlike the stark white concrete of the Virgin. It was like a choice between the living and the dead. The boat turned around and we left them.

On the ride home in that final orange light the rice shoots shook and shimmered like duck’s feathers as the landscape rolled along. I drank in the view like cool water in the desert. The farmers in their conical hats bent over, submerged in mud, their endless, unforgiving labour supplying not only rice, the ‘staff of life,’ but romantic, photographic moments for the passing traveler. I had a brief vision of conical hats pointing a camera into my workplace: ‘how ugly this man’s classroom is, but how comfortable the chair. And his legs are never wet!’ I didn’t envy them, but if the road and sun and paddies had been as endless as their labour, I could have stayed on the back of that motorbike and drank in the scenery for ever.

Hanoi – at home amid the chaos and charm


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Step onto the street and Hanoi punches you in the ears – the roar of massed motorbike engines, horn blasts, the cries of street vendors – a wall of sound that does not stop until you retreat to a quiet temple or café. Hanoi doesn’t let the visitor sit back and watch the scene with cool detachment; you’re thrown right into the fray. The motorbikes move like schools of tiny, revving fish, flitting through the streets, weaving in and out, so close but never touching, until a car or bus rams through like a predatory shark and scatters them. And for every bike on the road it seems two are parked over the pavement. If the bikes are fish then pedestrians are something as low as plankton; you make your way through as best you can.

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where most tourists stay, the streets are a twisted, shambling commercial warren of narrow shop fronts: the merchandise and labour spills out onto the street while the houses continue several stories up. Thin, high and with corridor-like rooms that stretch far back, many of these ‘tube houses’ are only wide enough for two or three people, but long enough for twenty. Internal courtyards bring light to the inner rooms, ramshackle balconies are hung with washing and birdcages, windows with painted wooden shutters open out onto the streets far below. It all makes for a vertical life as busy as anything on the street – the shop, the house, the family, the street are all blurred together. Multiple generations live under one narrow roof: if the business grows or someone has a child, another storey is added. You eat, sleep, work and raise your kids in the same space, which spills out onto the street. The casual visitor can’t help but be a witness to many aspects of people’s lives all in once place. And this is one of the best things about Hanoi.

Most of the tourists are French, American or Australian, quite a lot of them middle-aged. At the Hoa Lu prison, more commonly known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ a confused Aussie bloke went up to me and said ‘scuse me, mate, do you speak English?’ ‘Like a native,’ I replied. ‘Is this the Hanoi Hilton?’ I overheard another Aussie couple engaged in an academic debate about Vietnamese politics: ‘Is Vietnam a communist country, darl?’ ‘Reckon, so, yeah.’ Some people should not be issued passports. The French tourists are mostly middle-aged, they wander through the chaotic streets in a daze, wondering why on Earth their ancestors decided to conquer the place, and why their fathers fought so hard to keep it.

You do feel sorry for the French. Spectacularly defeated by the Viet Minh, when they return now to their old Indochina colonies they can’t even use their native language anymore: English has definitely become the linguafranca of Vietnam. The old colonial power have left their mark in a big way though, and aside from great pastry, the city is filled with beautiful mansions, villas and public buildings, all balconied, columned and dressed in cream and yellow. Most of these buildings are now ministries, museums or the residences of powerful figures in the Vietnamese government. Walk into the streets surrounding the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the uniformed guards, the high gates, the private cars and the leafy, shaded houses all give that solid, definite feeling of power.

The mausoleum itself is definitely a surreal experience. In a solid grey cube-like structure surrounded by white-uniformed guards, Uncle Ho, the hero of modern Vietnam, lies embalmed and on display. The foreign tourists of course find it all very bizarre, with the marching, the giant flags and the screens bursting with patriotic songs, but for the Vietnamese this is serious. Ho Chi Minh, though he ran the North as a brutal police state, was truly an inspiring leader; now in death he is the benevolent, smiling founder of the socialist republic of Vietnam, and his image is everywhere.

On the way into the display room itself I somehow got caught up in a column of marching soldiers, all straight-faced in their flat caps and bright green uniforms. The body sat in the centre of a small room of wall-to-wall black marble, a perfect square with a white guardsman at every corner and four more in the central pit where Ho himself lay behind glass. He looked so fragile and small, his skin a moonish yellow from the embalming, his forehead bald and enormous above a narrow chin with the tiny wisps of his trademark beard. I felt sorry for the old man, he never wanted all this. He died in 1969, before the war had even ended, and what terrible things have been done and said in his name ever since? In death he is whatever the government of the day requires him to be. There are even posters depicting him smiling with a little blonde Anglo-Saxon child on her knee. Bizarre.

The strangest moment came just as I left the silent mausoleum. At the door I looked back for a second and saw the soldiers filing past the body, all uniforms and somber faces in the dark square room. And there was the yellow body sleeping forever behind the glass, and Ho Chi Minh and I were the only ones not in uniform and I could feel the green column of soldiers pressing around me in the enclosed space. In that confined marble space it was for a moment vaguely terrifying, until we left the room and the spell was broken and I took photos of them outside.

Hanoi provides many challenging moments for the visitor. It is both a peaceful, beautiful city of lakes and temples and well-preserved architecture – and a chaotic mess of roaring modern life in a rapidly developing country. It has an endearing, dirty sort of charm, and the longer you spend there the more you appreciate it. But however short or long your time there is, you cannot forget the place.

Ruined temple beside the Dong Xuan market

The march outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - not so scary in the sunlight

Nha Tho (St. Joseph's Cathedral), an imposing Neo-Gothic cathedral in a quieter part of central Hanoi

A painted relief flanking the entrance of Quan Thanh Temple

Vietnamese coffee is black and strong, the perfect tonic to power you through the maze of traffic

The Temple of Literature - a peaceful Confucian university dating back to the middle ages

The majestic Metropole Hotel. Neocolonialism never looked so classy

Happy smiling pose to maintain the socialist republic's prosperity

Stained glass window inside St Joseph's Cathedral

Interesting image in the yard of Hoa Lu Prison, 'the Hanoi Hilton'

To a mountain through the mist


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View of Chiaksan from Guryong-sa

Train travel is a great way to see Korea – you speed through tunnels cut into mountains, past ramshackle farm towns nestled in valleys. Going this fast the countryside becomes a series of flickering images – forest, mountain, town, bridge, tunnel – and the occasional grassy lumps of ancestral tombs resting on the hillsides. It was autumn and the leaves were turning red.

Chiaksan is overshadowed by its bigger mountain brethren in the province, Seoraksan and Odaesan, but Koreans will tell you the hiking is very difficult here. Mountains with ‘ak’ in the name are especially famed for strenous trails, they say. Though the smallest national park in Gangwon-do, the peaks are high and the slopes are steep.

I started at the entrance to Guryong-sa, a small Buddhist temple with a mysterious line of mossy, vase-like graves and carved dragon-heads on the bridge. The temple’s name means ‘nine dragons’ and while not particularly impressive for veteran temple spotters like me, it was a nice prelude for the approaching hike. Black towering peaks looked down upon the tiled roofs of the temple, waiting obscured and silent in the mist.

The first few kilometres were flat and the rain was light and cool. The paths were thick with fallen leaves just beginning to brown, but the trees overhead were still filled with the final raiment of autumn colour. White mist, grey rocks, brown paths, bursts of red and streaks of yellow. The path followed a stream filled with floating leaves. I was the only person in the midst of this perfect scene, and it was all such an easy, effortless walk. This is how Chiaksan charms unwary visitors, all the while concealing its sharp peaks like a dagger beneath this leafy, misty cloak. Well, on rainy days anyway.

The flat valley gave way abruptly as the mountain proper began, and from then on it was hours of constant upward hiking. The wooden stairs led to a line of smaller peaks, connected by a narrow path across the mountain tops. The trail was hardly two metres across in parts, with a steep fall on either side. The mist drew thicker and thicker around the mountain as the trail rose higher and higher. Soon the mountain was nothing more than a brown path swathed in grey cloud, groves of thin trees sticking out of the mist, clinging to the mountain slopes.

At the top of Chiaksan, the mist was so thick you could hardly see thirty metres in any direction. The highest of Chiaksan’s peaks – Birobong – is 1288 metres high, and while it was a shame the view was obscured, Korean mountains are often clouded with haze anyway. Far better this foggy, impenetrable mist, where the hikers were rain-jacketed silhouettes on an island of rock, lost in an endless ghostly sea.

As expected, a group of ajosshi hikers had broken out the makgeolli and fruit, and were pouring out paper cups full of Korea’s favoured hiking drink. They offered me some – in between taking photos of themselves on the peak – and I tried to explain in broken Konglish that while I loved the gentle cloudy beverage, alcohol and hiking are an obviously stupid combination and it was a long walk down.

And it was a long, hard walk. The mountain was mistier and spookier than ever on the way down – I was completely alone in the ghostly shrouds with nothing but a scrap of autumn woods to stand on. It could have been the haunted realm of some Victorian Gothic novel, and if a headless horseman or the hound of the Baskervilles had bounded past, I would have been the one breaking the mood.

Walking the Seoul Fortress Wall


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Centuries ago, Seoul was a fortress city. Stone battlements enclosed it, with gates and watchtowers and soldiers. The walls of this fortress ran along the mountains that form the city’s natural borders, rising and falling in steep stone increments. At night the gates were shut to keep out roaming tigers.

Time and progress have destroyed much of the fortress wall, but in the last few years large sections of it have been restored. It’s now possible to retrace most of the 18 kilometre circuit, but it’s quite a hike. The restored walls look shiny and factory-square at the top, but at the base you can see the old Joseon-era stones, rough circular blocks expertly placed together, covered now in moss and ivy.

Seoul may have long outgrown the fortress wall, but its architectural legacy is still evident in the great gates of Dongdaemun, Namdaemun and Seodaemun. These imposing stone sentinels guide the basic layout of the old city; they’re major landmarks facing East, South and West – Dong, Nam, Seo – in line with the principles of geomancy. But many Koreans don’t know of the northern gate, Sukjeongmun (also called Bukdaemun), largely forgotten in the middle of Mt. Bugak’s forested slopes. This gate was built to satisfy geomantic requirements and was usually closed to regulate the flow of negative energy around the palace.

This part of the wall is perhaps the most interesting: it has great views of the sprawling city on one side and quiet forests on the other. And it is the only part of the wall that still serves its original function. Sukjeongmun is very close to the president’s official residence, Cheonwadae (the Blue House). Security is tight. In 1968 North Korean agents in civilian disguise attempted to storm the compound with grenades and sub-machine guns. They got very close to the president, and things got very messy before all the agents were captured or killed. Tourists today require their ID cards or passports to walk this section.

The security cameras and lines of razor wire that snake along the outsides of the wall do help to put you in the fortress mentality, and you can’t help but peer into the forests and imagine North Korean infiltrators – or Mongol raiders – moving stealthily through the trees.

It’s not as impressive as the others, really a smaller version of the great gates, but walk through Sukjeongmun and you’ll reach a small forest clearing, just outside the limits of the old city. Standing here in a quiet, medieval silence, it seems unthinkable that an enormous modern city lies behind those wooden doors and stone battlements.

The spam of history – eating budejigae in Uijeongbu


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This is the story of a dish. The story of a nation and a war. This is the story of a city and of poverty. And it’s a story about spam. On its red simmering surface, budejigae should taste foul. The name translates as ‘army base stew’ and its main ingredients are sausage, scraps of old kimchi and chopped spam. But it tastes fantastic. Budejigae is a relatively new addition to the Korean dinner table, and in its soggy, spicy dregs lurks a little spam-like chunk of history.

In the early 1950s South Korea was desperately poor, its war-ravaged economy rivalling Papua New Guinea’s. In the towns around the many US army bases dotting the country, poor Koreans began supplementing their meagre meals with surplus army rations. And surplus army rations meant one thing – spam. Or ‘luncheon meat’ if you’re having guests. People put the wondrous pink cube-meat in their kimchi stews, and a culinary sensation came into being. Although a poor man’s dish it proved immensely popular and is still eaten today all over the country. And boxed sets of spam are popular gifts during local holidays.

Surrounded by craggy mountains a grenade’s throw away from the De-Militarized Zone in the city of Uijeongbu you can find Budejigae Street, where multiple restaurants serve the old favourite. So the story goes, this is where the dish was first sold commercially, and the décor in the oldest budejigae restaurant here certainly evokes the poverty of post-war Korea. Actually the dish tastes better at the restaurant next door, so go there and skip the queues.

Although you can get budejigae anywhere in Korea, it’s worth taking the trip up to Uijeongbu, only forty minutes from Seoul. The amount of off-duty soldiers around the town recalls budejigae’s origins and reminds you of the real tension that still exists on the Korean peninsula. The skinny Korean soldiers in over-sized combat boots are military service kids; the American soldiers, even in civilian dress, are far more imposing. To be fair, the Korean kids are mostly 20 and aren’t serving by choice, but it is rather like bringing a knife to an aerial bombardment.

Uijeongbu is a busy city, a satellite of Seoul really. But with plenty of streams and mountains between the apartment complexes it has a lot more breathing space than Seoul. A diverse population too, spices things up. On a Sunday morning in Uijeongbu the crowds of locals and soldiers are mixed up with a surprising number of migrant workers from India, Vietnam and the Philippines, enjoying a day off from their demanding, low paid factory jobs. It makes Uijeonbgu feel less like an orthodox Korean city and more like multicultural Sydney. If Sydney was at war with Newcastle.

There you have it, the story of a dish, a city, and a people. A delicious piece of history. Korea, and Uijeongbu, have come a long way since the days of army rations. Budejigae, spicy and nostalgic, also proves that a foreign import – spam – goes well with centuries-old Korean food. And now that Uijeongbu’s streets ring for the first time with the many foreign tongues of South East Asia, the hybrid nature of budejigae might actually speak more to the future of South Korea than to its past as the country grapples with a totally new phenomenon – multiculturalism.

Take subway line 1 up to Uijeongbu station. If you’re around northern Seoul, taking line 4 and transferring at Changdong might be faster.

Fun fact: Uijeongbu is also where the classic TV show M*A*S*H was set, although nothing was ever filmed there.

The queue outside the 'famous' budejigae restaurant

The main street of Uijeongbu, recently remodeled with statues like this, and ponds

Seonyudo – an island of gardens on the Han


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The Han River is one of the natural features that defines Seoul, cutting through the heart of its sprawling vastness. It’s far from beautiful though, its waters grey and uninviting, its sides stacked with highway overpasses and dull apartment complexes. The city is slowly fixing this, trying to rehabilitate the shabby grey beast that is the Han River and enliven it with riverside parks and funky bridges – a vision of a cleaner, greener, more liveable space. Part of that vision is actually on the Han itself – the island park of Seonyudo.

Formerly an industrial complex housing a water treatment facility, it had as much charm as the raw sewage in its tanks. So the city decided to give it the ‘Han river renaissance’ treatment, opening up the complex and transforming it into a nature park, incorporating the old industrial architecture into a fantastic green space. The open water tanks now house lilies and lotus plants, unfurling serenely in square rows; old pipes and waterways gurgle with fresh purpose, channelled through landscaped parkland; concrete pillars now exposed and wrapped in ivy. The whole island feels like nature woke up one day and reclaimed the grey buildings with vines and trees, strangling industry and flowering with life anew. And then it let the artists and the architects in, to tame and sculpt it. The final result is equal parts greenhouse, garden and art installation.

Places like Seonyudo are green victories, the champions of passionate, thoughtful city planning and urban renewal. The Seoul city government is very big on talking green, and there are enough successful examples that show this policy in practice. But Seoul remains a big grey mess of traffic and ugly buildings, unplanned and uninspiring. At the front gate of the park a massive bridge roars night and day with traffic, and the calm garden quiet of Seonyudo seems to vanish in a concrete minute. But it is there, an emerald ‘midst the grey. Let’s hope the city can uncover a few more like it.

Of borscht and baltika – the taste of Russia in Seoul


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Take a look at a world map and you’ll quickly see how close Korea is to Russia geographically. It’s unsurprising therefore that Russians have been living Korea for a very long time. Russia was one of the first foreign countries to establish an embassy in Korea in the 1880s, and if it hadn’t been defeated by Japan in 1905, Russia would certainly have been the dominant colonial power on the peninsula before the second world war.

These days the majority of Russians living in South Korea are business people, factory workers and sadly, prostitutes. Many a blonde American girl has mistakenly been approached on the street by Korean men looking for a little ‘Russian cultural exchange.’ In Gwanghui-dong near the Dongdaemun markets a little Central Asia has emerged, with Russian merchants living and working alongside Uzbek, Kazakh and Mongolian immigrants. Many are in fact ethnic Koreans born abroad, but the whole area retains a distinctly ‘un-Korean’ feel.

The neighbourhood itself is not exactly a tourist site, just a collection of foreign businesses and restaurants. It’s a testament to Seoul’s relative lack of multiculturalism that the area is so small and run-down yet still manages to feel almost exotic. The longer you live in Seoul, the more you crave the slightest hint of difference. The area is worth a look just to see signs in Cyrillic instead of Hangeul, and to see the mix of Eurasian people on the street. Sitting upstairs in a small Russian restaurant, it was strangely refreshing to hear a foreign language other than Korean spoken by the – totally Korean looking – diners sitting next to us.

It was the lure of the food, of course, that brought us to the Russian neighbourhood. I’d never tried Russian food before, and I came in armed only with the suspect knowledge that borscht is a Russian soup made with beetroot. The restaurant was named Gostiny Dvor, a word which means something like ‘indoor marketplace’ in Russian. It was definitely a step out of Seoul. The décor was all polished woods and high-backed chairs. Cheap chandeliers hung overhead, glittering down on rows of thick vodka bottles lined up like munitions. The heavy tables were set with floral china plates under quaint doilies; the whole place had a solid elegance about it. Even before ordering it was obvious that Russian food is heavy-duty stuff.

The waitress – dark-haired, oriental, surly – handed us a menu disdainfully and disappeared behind the bar. She spoke better English than Korean. We ordered beer, borscht, pork with vegetables and peppers (capsicum in the Aussie vernacular) stuffed with pork. I wanted to try something with lamb, but the girlfriend, being Korean, reminded me that ‘lamb smells.’ Pork it was.

The borscht was red and thin, with mounds of shredded cabbage beneath the surface, a dollop of sour cream and a dash of pepper. It was excellent, as were the pork and stuffed peppers. We decided to order another dish, although the seemingly small dishes had already filled us up. Pancakes with cream cheese sounded more curious than delicious, but they were perfectly soft and savoury. But the beer was perhaps the best part. Mine was a dark porter, Baltika no. 6 (7 percent!) and the girlfriend went for the no. 3, a pale lager (only 4.8 percent). The no. 6 was black and thick like vegemite, and had a strangely similar taste. It was quite a meal itself and I really enjoyed it.

Being completely uninitiated with Russian food, I’m not able to judge authenticity, but for taste and quality I was impressed. I guess my early impression of Russian food is, like the interior of Gostiny Dvor itself, a curious mix of dainty, classy little touches – herbs, spices, cream – and heavy with meats and thick sauces. As we finished our meal the chef came out to the fridge behind us and poured out a whole glass of vodka, downed it in one and went back into the kitchen. It struck me as a very Russian end to the evening.

Take Dongdaemun History and Culture Park subway station exit 7 and take a u-turn to the right to find Gostiny Dvor. Exit 5 will also bring you close to the Central Asian neighbourhoods.

For when you really need to ship something to Almaty as fast as possible.

Gwangjang Market


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Seoul is a city of markets. In every part of town there is a market or a neighbourhood of shops specialising in everything – fish, flowers, cloth, hats, bags, silk, medicinal herbs, computers, cameras, antiques. Around Dongdaemun different markets stretch out into football field-sized spaces, twisting tunnel-like together into a labyrinth – or rather a series of labyrinths – above and below the ground. You could actually walk all day and never see the same stretch of scruffy stalls and hidden shopfronts.

Gwangjang market is one of the finest of these markets, a commercial cavern loaded with an array of clothes, cloth, bedding, and silk. Elegant hanbok – traditional Korean dress – and acres of modern suit fabric, tacky souvenirs and cheap, garish leggings, all find their place in Gwangjang. And then there’s the food – enormous steaming mounds of things you’ve never seen, much less eaten before. It doesn’t seem like a natural combination, bolts of cloth and suits displayed alongside buckets of fermented vegetables, chunks of pork and the thick smell of cooking oil. But it works.

I visited early on a weekday morning, but despite the small number of shoppers and Gwangjang’s vastness the market still felt crowded. Every available space is taken up with something to sell. I had to squeeze past corridors of pillows and bedding, squashing myself up against a wall of mattresses to let merchants pass. Wrapped inside this maze of things-for-sale are tiny booths with old women working on antique sewing machines; hemmed in on all sides by piles of clothes and rolls fabric, they look like grey-haired spiders who’ve knit a vast web for themselves.

But food is perhaps Gwangjang’s real draw, you could eat every meal for a week in the restaurant stalls here and never have the same thing. Well, you’d probably have multiple variations of the same thing. I tried one of the market’s signature dishes, a fried mungbean pancake called bindaedeok which tastes better than it’s pronounced, though quite oily. At the seat next to me, three old men started arguing, swearing in Korean so badly that even I was shocked. They were very drunk on makgeolli, an impressive feat given that it wasn’t yet 11am.

For me, Gwangjang is more than just a piece of Seoul, it’s a detailed miniature of the city itself. Sprawling, crowded, chaotic, with hidden pockets of charm amid a ramshackle heap of grubby character, the market – like the city it serves – cannot be appreciated from afar. You need to get right inside and see it, taste it and smell it up close.

No idea what this, all I can tell you is that it is partly made of rice cakes.

In Gwangju, in May 1980!


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Many people don’t realise that South Korea, while an economic powerhouse, is arguably also Asia’s strongest democracy. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a very prestigious club, and Korea’s democracy is very far from perfect. But real democracy in Korea has only existed since the late 80s, and considering it developed after decades of repressive military dictatorships, the country’s rapid political achievements are very impressive. But they did not come without blood and struggle.

In the south-western city of Gwangju, one of the most important and tragic acts in the development of Korean democracy played out on the city’s streets in May 1980. Gwangju is today a small provincial capital surrounded by rice fields and rural villages, and in 1980 its citizens were seething after decades of neglect, underinvestment and repressive military rule. Things came to head when university students, professors and union activists demanded democratic elections. A military strongman, President and general Chun Doo Hwan sent in the paratroopers on the 18th of May. People were beaten, shot and arrested. The citizens fought back, occupying government buildings and turning back the army. General Chun declared the protests a communist uprising and sent in tanks and more troops. What followed could only be described as slaughter of civilians by their own army.

The massacre and its victims are remembered today in various parks and museums, the most moving of which is the May 18 National Cemetery Memorial Park. A contemplative, mournful air prevails here: Koreans walk quietly through the raised mounds of graves, praying in Buddhist, Confucian or Christian style and leaving flowers beside the gravestones. Every gravestone has a photograph of a victim. These small black-and white portraits feature Koreans of all ages; a stern old grandmother, a strong young man, a university student with slightly shaggy hair, a teenage girl, just 18 when she died.

The museum beside the graves is equally well-presented, with a detailed, play-by-play description of the tragic events of the massacre. An opening timeline places the events of May 1980 in a wider context – Gwangju and the south-west has a long history of rebellion. The exhibitions don’t tone anything down, and the facts and images speak with outrage at the brutality. Grandparents killed in their houses, a pregnant woman shot to pieces waiting for her husband to finish work; peaceful democratic protesters, taxi drivers trying to help the wounded, civilian militia with stolen guns and innocent bystanders – in the madness of May 18 the soldiers with bayonets and M16s made little distinction.

Sadly national memory is always fraught with collective amnesia. Many Koreans today refer to the massacre merely as the ‘Gwangju Incident,’ and a lot of people who lived through those violent times defend the dictator-presidents, justifying their brutality because of the country’s relative stability and miraculous economic growth. Without hard men like General Chun in firm control, it is argued, the Korean economy could never have boomed, and Korea could never have jumped from sub-Saharan Africa levels of poverty to OECD status in as little as a single generation. This argument, however, legitimises state-authorised violence, and is rather like the battered wife defending her abusive husband by depicting him as ‘a good provider’. And it also downplays a more important cause of the Korean economic miracle – the relentless energy and hard work of the Korean people themselves. While Koreans today are justly proud of their economic achievements, they rarely mention the country’s rapid political transition from dictatorship to democracy. This too is an amazing feat. The tragedy is that it required bayonets, bullets, and the lives of students, taxi drivers, and old women.

This man's high school classmates folded the paper cranes in this box

A dangerous enemy of the state?

She was 18 years old!