South Korea: Seoul searching

By Geoff Cumming

Geoff Cumming makes the most of some unexpected spare time.

In Seoul - a sprawling city of 11 million people - it's non-stop action on the city's busy streets. Photo / Thinkstock
In Seoul - a sprawling city of 11 million people - it's non-stop action on the city's busy streets. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm in a hurry to get to England. I am supposed to be a test pilot for an airline promotion billed as the quickest way to get from Auckland to London.

But Korean Air, which invited me on its inaugural flight from Auckland to London Gatwick, has made a mistake - allowing me 24 hours in Seoul to rest up on the way.

I knew little of Seoul before I landed.

However, it is increasingly on the radar of New Zealanders heading for European destinations, despite seeming to be more a dogleg than a straight-line route.

Though flying to Europe will always be long-haul, Korea has some advantages over those apparently more direct routes via Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok or LA, offering two legs of roughly equal duration (both about 12 hours as opposed to 10 and 14, or worse) and avoiding any need for a second refuelling stop.

Until now, however, the availability of landing slots at crowded Heathrow has often meant travellers having to wait a day in Seoul before continuing on, whether they wish to or not.

The three-flights-a-week Gatwick service not only solves that problem, it provides an alternative to the horrendous queues at Heathrow.

The Gatwick connection has just a 55-minute turnaround in Seoul so, if you're in a hurry, you really can get to London inside 24 hours.

Or you could stay, and be surprised by an Asian capital which, though a world away from London, has a foot in both worlds.

The city of 11 million sprawls along the Hangong River, wider than the Thames but with at least as many road and rail bridges. Traffic is a nightmare, even by Asian standards, so the metro is the way to go.

On both sides of the river, high-rise office towers cluster sporadically, with the result that the actual heart of Seoul is not immediately obvious.

Yet the city was named in 2007 as a world design capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

Along the riverside an eco-friendly urban renewal programme with dedicated cycle paths and walkways is proceeding at a pace which Auckland can only envy.

An early-evening river cruise is a good way to get your bearings and enjoy what's billed as the world's longest water feature, the Moonlight Rainbow Fountain, a spectacularly-lit fountain running the 1140m length of the Banpo bridge. Lighting is also used to good effect down river at Floating Island where three pavilions sit on artificial islands as venues for performing arts, conventions and exhibitions. Lit-up in psychedelic blues and reds, they make quite a show in their own right.

Despite the high-rises, the American military presence (the base behind a barbed-wire wall takes up a large city block) and obvious signs of progress, Seoul retains an Asian identity.

The city's heritage is best enjoyed at the vast Changdeokgung Palace, built in the early 1400s at the dawn of the Joseon dynasty, which lasted more than 500 years.

The 13 surviving buildings and gardens were designed in harmony with the landscape and today are a Unesco world heritage site. A guided tour of the main buildings, with their intricately painted eaves and curved rooflines, offers some insight into Korean culture and history.

Also distinctly Asian is the shopping. The city has wholesale and retail markets which specialise in antiques, electronics, clothing and street food, although not all offer the constant bartering and noise we associate with Asian markets elsewhere.

At Insadong, a tourist-oriented pedestrian mall with side-alleys filled with antique shops and small restaurants, the vendors tend to sit back and leave you to browse - there's less haggling than on a visit to Oxford St.

I am, however, accosted by some young Koreans promoting bibimbap, a Korean staple best described as a deconstructed stir-fry, with equal portions of leafy greens, sprouts, mushrooms and chopped vegetables around a centrepiece of shredded beef or mince.

The idea is to add rice, sesame oil and hot pepper paste to taste, mix thoroughly and enjoy.

At night (if you want a break from the markets which never seem to close), entertainment ranges from karaoke bars and nightclubs to the numerous "chicken and beer" bars where the locals quaff huge (3-litre) jugs of local beer and shots of soju (a vodka-like spirit) with stacks of sticky chicken to soak it up.

I would have liked to see much more but London is calling - it is not every day you get to go on an inaugural flight. Next time, I might get the later plane.

CHECKLIST

Korean Air has five flights a week from Auckland to Seoul. It flies daily between Seoul and London Heathrow and three times a week from Seoul to Gatwick.

Geoff Cumming flew to Seoul and London with Korean Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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