Before I go on, I should just point out that there’s not going to be any dragons. I’ve had to put the idea of seeing men ornately dressed as mythical beasts behind me for now and I hope you can too. It’s been a bit of a wash out to be honest, this ‘Lunar New Year’ malarkey. I’d like to say that it was rained off, but it’s not even raining. Perhaps it’s because of the global recession: the original sin of the 21st century.
I’m currently sat forlornly in Dunkin’ Donuts as I write this (for the free WiFi, not the revolting cheese twist entrance fee). I have twice attempted in two days to capture some sort of authentic cultural experience in Seoul as (rumour has it) the country celebrates Chinese New Year, and twice I have seen Seoul at its most silent and still. This sounds like it might be enjoyable, but it’s not really: this is a city that makes up for what it lacks in aesthetic beauty with rampant hustle and bustle. It has been, to use a cliche, ‘eerily quiet’.
Yesterday I went in and nothing was going on. It felt like the city was saying “ohh you’ve just missed them”. I was worried that I might miss my last bus back home to Dunjeon, so I bought some granola from a specialist shop in Itaewon (that sells such rarities as porridge, kidney beans and genuine cheese) and scooted back home. By this point I had done a little research and discovered that the majority of New Year related activities take place during the day, and are situated at some of the more traditional spots in Seoul (i.e. the palaces). So I decided to bide my time and head for the main palace in Seoul the next day, Gyeongbokgung: ‘The Palace of Shining Happiness’.
Next day (today): got to Seoul around noon. Again, the underground was ominously quiet. It’s usually busy at all times of the day, but today it was at it’s most serene, which was a bad sign for exciting spectacles at Gyeongbokgung. When I got to the tube station at Gyeongbokgung, it was desperately empty. At this point I knew the jig was literally up, but I thought I’d pay another visit to the ‘Palace of Shining Happiness’ anyway.
So yeah absolutely nothing that could be considered remotely festive was happening, but the palace was undeniably beautiful compensation for the lack of action. It’s hard for me to capture beauty when it comes to photographs – my camera and my abilities are more suited to piles of rubble and discarded items on the street than historical wonders. Nevertheless, here are some snaps from my pathetic day out at the Palace of Shining Happiness:
The photo above shows the striking and famous juxtaposition of the old and new in South Korea. While the ceremonial and traditionally dressed guards stand outside the Main Gate of the palace, the skyline is cluttered with skyscrapers and modern buildings. The photo below is a reverse shot, and shows the modern skyline has been replaced by a prehistoric mountain and a medieval palace:
My thumb just can’t keep out of the action, but this is a good photo for showing the incredible detail of this architecture at this palace, the largest of the ‘Five Grand Palaces’ built by the Joseon Dynasty.
No idea what the characters mean, but I can tell you that it’s Chinese, not Korean. Chinese characters crop up frequently in Korean culture and are a source of some confusion, especially for me.
Ok, so there’s one dragon. They beat this drum during the changing of the guard, which is essentially very similar to the British equivalent at Buckingham Palace etc.
So absolutely no carnival atmosphere, no men dressed as dragons and no quintessential ‘Oriental’ New Year celebration. If I’m around this neck of the woods this time next year, you’ll find me in Hong Kong.
Music wise: I’ve recently been listening to the excellent and arrogantly titled album by Omar S, “It Can Be Done But Only I Can Do It”. The stand out track is called “Here’s Your Trance, Now Dance”, and this great remix gives it an even more mysterious feel.