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A river runs through it
You sense it as soon as you arrive at Incheon. Seoul’s sprawling airport is one of the busiest yet, for the past seven years, it has been rated the world’s best by the non-profit Airports Council International, which represents 580 airports worldwide. Incheon’s ability to process passengers boggles the Canadian mind (16 minutes for a departure and 12 minutes for an arrival) and its insanely creative attractions — a golf course, skating rink, indoor gardens and a Museum of Korean Culture — make it feel more like an east-meets-west amusement park than an airport.
Seoul the megacity is also gunning for top marks. According to the New York Times, free (or almost free) Wi-Fi hotspots will be available in a staggering number of places by 2015: 360 parks, at 3200 intersections and 2200 streets around shopping areas.
Transport is also a step ahead. The Seoul Metro (seoulmetro.co.kr/eng) is clean, cheap, safe and obviously fast. That said, with a population of just over 10 million — one in five South Koreans live in Seoul — don’t get on the subway during the 8-to-9am and 6-to-7pm rush hours unless you want to test your resistance to developing claustrophobia.
Dealing with crowds and congestion in all its forms is a work in progress here. Attempts to clean the air have been somewhat successful: there are clean-air buses and bus-only lanes, and the 2005 reconstruction of the Cheonggyecheon stream that flows through the city's centre has apparently cooled parts of downtown by 3.6 °C. Two major roads were demolished to excavate the stream, which today means fewer cars travelling into the area. Unearthing the Cheonggyecheon has also contributed to the increase of some bird, fish and insect species. It’s not surprising that this urban renewal project has come to symbolize the revitalization of downtown Seoul.
By water, by air
The Cheonggyecheon runs into the mighty Han River. The Hangang, as it is called in Korea, is an exciting starting point to get to know Seoul. Everyday a small fleet of cruise ships operated by the C & Hangang Land company (for English info 011-82-2-3271-6900; if you can read Korean hcruise.co.kr) ferries passengers on one- to two-hour scenic tours from seven possible docks: Yeouido, Yanghwa, Sangam, Jamdubong, Jamsil, Seoul Forest and Ttukseom.
The night tours are usually romantic and slow-going — unless you accidentally book yourself on one of the tacky theme cruises (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?). Regular tours take you past the 1988 Olympic Stadium, prominent neighbourhoods and under some of the city’s 27 bridges, many of which have been transformed into works of light art that use both water and concrete as their canvas.
For yet another perspective, see the sprawling city from its highest point, the 237-metre-tall N Seoul Tower (bit.ly/S5YvZy), a communication and observation tower on Namsan Mountain, which you can reach via cable car. For a fee (adults $8), you can go up to four observation decks, one with a revolving restaurant. The photo-opts are a panoramic dream come true on a clear day. For an unusual close-up into the lives of thousands of strangers, there’s the massive collection of love padlocks visitors have left on the tower’s fences to symbolize their ever-lasting love.
The soul of the city
Seoul may be obsessed with forward-thinking technology, but it stills reveres its history and traditions. Gyeongbok Palace (in the Jongno-Gu district; royalpalace.go.kr) built in the late 1300s, then destroyed and reconstructed many a time, is good place to understand Korea's architectural traditions and ancient court customs. English tours are available free three times daily; give yourself at least an hour to see all the pavilions and halls within the grounds.
From there, walk for about 20 minutes to the 600-year-old Bukchon Village, which has the largest neighbourhood of hanok-style buildings, or traditional Korean homes, in Seoul. Alleys, quiet courtyards and black rooftops have been beautifully restored.
One of Korea’s oldest traditions — which is apparently about 5000 years young — is the practice of Buddhism. The hugely successful Templestay program (eng.templestay.com) lets you, well, be Buddhist for a day, or two or more…. The program allows you to experience the daily practices of Buddhism: eating simply and in harmony with nature, finding stillness in a cup of tea or listening to your inner voice while walking along a forest path — that sort of thing.
Templestays are popular with Westerners because they’re affordable and there are temples pretty much all over Korea. There are tranquil temples within Seoul itself or smaller ones in hillsides a few hours by train. If you’re not entirely sure if waking up to temple bells in the pitch dark or looking for compassion in a blade of grass is your idea of inner peace, you can always visit the Information Centre (71 Gyeongjidong, Jongno-Gu district) across the street from Jogyesa Temple. The Korea Tourism Organization has a useful website worth bookmarking before you go: visitkorea.ca.
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