Korea 2008 Day Ten: Deoksugung & Namdaemun

by Kara on October 17, 2008

A vendor at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul checks on his wares.

A vendor at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul checks on his wares.

We did way more than originally planned today, but that was great, because we put a bigger dent in the things we wanted to do. We started off at the Noryangjin Fish Market. Wow! It was kind of like a free trip to the aquarium. There were hundreds of vendors with all manner of seafood. They all had multiple aquariums with various creatures swimming, slithering or scurrying about. I saw more kinds of crab than I knew existed. There were live squid (livelier than I expected), octopus, sea cucumbers, sea quirts (looked like big nasty slugs), shrimp, lobster, and fish of every stripe. There was lots of freshly killed seafood as well. They even had prepared plates of raw fish (like sashimi) that you could buy for $10 or $20, which is a very good price. On the one hand, I felt kind of sad because all these creatures were crowded into little aquariums and destined for someone’s plate. But it also showed how enterprising and hard-working Koreans are. Everyone works very hard, and everyone seems to find a niche. There were guys on motorbikes and tiny trucks tooling around the market selling ice.

The streets of Seoul have vendors everywhere, and the amount of work it must take every day to set up all their wares, then pack them up again is daunting. I am especially impressed with the food vendors, who generally make multiple kinds of food. It certainly isn’t like a hot dog vendor. They have to prepare several different recipes and continue doing so even when their stands are quite busy. Last night, Stephen and I watched one food vendor setting up for quite awhile. It was a pedestrian street with lots of seats for resting, so we just sat and people watched. Her main offering was tteokboki, which is an extremely spicy dish with rice cakes and green onions. She also had meat on a stick, various deep fried vegetables and even soup. She put her plates inside plastic bags, then she served the food on top of the bag, and when the customer was done, she just threw away the bag and put a new one on. So people generally stand around and eat right at the food cart. She set up right before the busiest time of the evening, so at first, she didn’t have any customers. She looked so melancholy waiting for people to stop at her cart. Not that it makes any difference in her business, but this woman, who was probably in her twenties or thirties) was as beautiful as any movie star I have seen – and she was just wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap. Anyway, we wanted her to have customers so badly that we sat there waiting until people started eating at her stand.

Painting detail of Deokhongjeon Hall at Deoksu Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

Painting detail of Deokhongjeon Hall at Deoksu Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

Back to today. After the fish market, we headed to Deoksugung Palace. It is not quite as spectacular as Gyeongbokgung, but our main purpose was to visit the Latin American art exhibit at the National Museum of Art, which is also on the grounds. This time I made more grown up friends than kids. People like to know if I am enjoying Korea and when I say I love it or that it is beautiful, they always say thank you. Koreans are very proud of their country, and they want people to appreciate it.

The Latin American art exhibit was kind of steep – $10 – but maybe I am just cheap. Entrance to the Palace was less than a dollar, and many of the entrance fees at other places we went were between $1 and $5. Prices are very reasonable for tourist activities here. It seemed kind of strange to come all the way to Korea to see paintings by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (among others), but it was something Stephen’s Dad really wanted to do. It seemed like he was a little disappointed though. Here is one conversation between Stephen and his Dad about a particular painting.

Dad: What is this painting called?
Stephen: Black Rainbow.
Dad: Black what?
Stephen: Rainbow.
Dad: It doesn’t look like rainbow.

This was a typical exchange. I wasn’t that crazy about the exhibit either, except for the Frida Kahlo stuff, which I always find interesting. Many of the paintings were incredibly sad, but the more modern stuff just seemed nonsensical to me. I am just not that cultured.

After the exhibit, we were quite hungry, so we headed to the Lotte Department Store (the one with six million escalators) for lunch. I was allowed to order for myself, so I got one of my favorite Korean dishes, tteok mandu guk, which is soup with rice cakes and dumplings. It really hit the spot. Stephen and his dad shared bindaetteok and mandu. Bindaetteok is a mung bean pancake with pork, kimchi, bean sprouts, green onions and garlic. It has a taste and texture similar to corn meal.

Once we found our way out of Lotte, we walked to the Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine, which cost less than a dollar to enter as well. This is a Confucian shrine for the royalty of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The spirit tablets for all the kings and queens are kept here. The shrine was completed in 1395, but the Japanese burned it down in 1592. The current buildings were constructed in 1608. These buildings are much more austere than the palace buildings, which are brightly painted.

This botanical garden was built on the grounds of Cheonggyeong Palace in Seoul, South Korea. It was completed in 1909. Photo #21322

This botanical garden was built on the grounds of Cheonggyeong Palace in Seoul, South Korea. It was completed in 1909. Photo #21322

From Jongmyo, we wandered into Changyeonggung, which is one of the few palaces for which there is no admission charge. It has been made into a huge park, and there are beautiful sites all over the park.

Finally, we made our way over to Dongdaemun Gate and Dongdaemun Market. Unfortunately, there is construction going on around the gate, so it isn’t so photogenic right now. Dongdaemun Market is where all the clothes are made and sold. There are several buildings jam-packed with stalls showcasing all kinds of clothes, purses, ties, belts, and bedding, etc. There is one four story building devoted solely to underwear and lingerie. It is the cheapest place to buy clothing in town. The quality looked pretty decent, depending on what you are looking for. We were exhausted after tramping through a couple ultra-cramped buildings, and headed home.

We stopped at a restaurant near the apartment for samgyetang, which is a chicken in broth, stuffed with rice, ginseng, jujubes, garlic and jujubes. It was really good, but a lot of work! Once we got back to the apartment, we still had to eat our fruit.

Check out more of Stephen’s pictures of South Korea.

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