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.