Sunday, June 24, 2012

Postcard from Seoul (Part 1)

I've been to many countries but never to Korea before. I finally got the chance to do some sightseeing in Seoul for a few days. Based on my initial impressions, I think Seoul is damn near perfect.

It's a very large city but doesn't feel that way. At more than 10 million inhabitants in the city proper (and 25 million in the greater metropolitan area), it should feel extremely crowded but it doesn't have that hemmed-in, wall-to-wall of humanity feeling of other large asian cities.

The climate in early summer feels wonderful (compared to hot and sticky Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Tokyo). It seems to be at least as clean as Tokyo. There is no pollution problem compared to Hong Kong or any Chinese city. I spotted some e-buses up on Namsam, (near the Seoul Tower):

EV charging:

I didn't spot many Japanese or German cars there, people there seem to buy mostly domestic. Climate-wise, it's blessed with four seasons, though obviously I don't know what winter is like there.

A friend, whom I met at Tokyo University, originally from Seoul (now a professor in the UK), gave me some tips by email on where to stay and what not to miss. It was also a perfect opportunity to test the new Olympus E-M5 that I got in Hong Kong (see blog post here). I decided on two lenses, the Panasonic Lumix f/1.7 20mm pancake (40mm equivalent) - in preference to the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4, plus the wide-angle Olympus 12mm f/2.0 (24mm equivalent). Both lenses and the E-M5 are extremely compact despite a wide max aperture, so I don't feel as though I'm lugging around a heavy DSLR system.

In this post, I'll concentrate on the Seoul Tower, but here is an example from the very useful 12mm (24mm equivalent) wide-angle lens at one of the palaces:

Taken at the Changdeokgung World Heritage site. There's a reason why the royal palace building looks so spiffy... later.

One reason why I feel there is a lot to love about Seoul is that it is people-friendly. By comparison, many cities of this size seem to consist of huge tower block after tower block.

For instance, there is a small forest around a small mountain in the middle of the city where the Seoul Tower (pictured below) is situated.

I dearly wish I had time enough to run up to the Tower in the early morning; there is a cushioned path along a tree-lined (therefore shaded) winding road. Being in the middle of the city, there are several road tunnels that cut through the mountain. One is the Namsam tunnel #3. This entrance is in Myeongdong:

Next to it is a (free) elevator on a slope:

It takes you up to the cable car station, which in turn takes you up to the Seoul Tower:

Looking back down towards Myeongdong (to the North):

The cable car top station is visible in the foreground (bottom of the picture).

In the tower itself, even the (men's) toilet (at least) has an excellent view:

One gets the feeling that Seoul makes a real effort to be visitor-friendly. At the tower, I chanced upon a demonstration using real weapons. Here, I tried to catch the guy on the right in mid-swing:

This is actually a detail, cropped from a much larger picture. (I didn't bring a telephoto lens, the one I'm interested, the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 (150mm equivalent), isn't yet available.) But thanks to the lightning-fast focus mechanism of the EM-5, if you look at the picture closely, you can see he has cleanly sliced through the straw bundles but they are yet to fall. 1/800 sec shutter speed. (Had only one chance but I was able to take this in single-shot mode, didn't need continuous drive.)

A mock fight (with the same real weapons). The guys lying down are pretending to be dead (not taking a break):

They even let you try on some traditional Korean outfits:

I wonder who looks more fake, him or me?

Facing south, there is also a lot more city. You can make out the Hangang (Han River) and one of the many bridges in the distance. The city stretches out way beyond that too.

We go to the Hangang in Part 2 of this Postcard here

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