South Korea Travels - The Streets of a new tourism power destination

The first thing to strike my senses exiting the new terminal at Incheon, serviceably located just off the coast near Seoul in the nation's North-west, was the lack of English so usually wafting across the airwaves of international airports. The initial trepidation of this however also brought with it a welcomed relief and a re-affirmation it is still a big horizon, regardless of man's attempt to shrink it. The country's comparitive lack of the language does not mean they are ignorant of its importance however, and as a state are investing huge amounts of time and money in educating their future generation in its complexities; fully aware of its value and pragmatic nature in foreign trade, domestic growth and prevailing grapple in the world economy.

South Korea has experienced almost unparalleled proliferation in the latter half of the 20th century, yet its deeper history is a tumultuous one, brushing in all forms with neighbouring China and Japan be it politically, socially or militaristically. From its foundation in 2333 BC, Korea has endured much upheaval, with religion always in the fray and helping to shape and mould the country at every step. Buddhism was originally introduced into Korea by China toward the end of the Three Kingdoms era in the late 4th century, and reigned the three states for over 1000 years until Neo-Confucianism superceded in the Joseon Dynasty of 1392. Japan twice invaded Korea and were twice repelled by the Chinese forces in the latter years of the 16th century, over 350 years after the Mongols had attacked and plundered unhindered by such assistance. Korea's reliance on the Chinese for protection meant their own military and defences lacked conviction, capitalised on by Japan with another successful invasion in the late 19th century, just after Korea had opened itself to trade and the Western missionaries that accompanied it. The tortuous, oppressive and corrupt regime of Neo-Confucianism did, however, bring the creation of hangeul , the phonetic Korean script in the mid 15th century. Eventually the ideals of comparitive equality led the populace into Christianity, still fiercely alive today with the distant humming of giant neon crosses, high above the numerous churches all advertising their still unfounded abilities.

The first half of the 20th century provided Korea with colonisation by the Japanese, seemingly determined on taking over the Far East single-handedly, but post world war left it in a state of flux pulled between the USSR and the US. Although in 1948 and successfully established as the Republic of Korea, the South was soon to find itself at war with the North. After three years of militant jostling the DMZ was formed, and the reformation of South Korea began its long and arduous journey. Although economically it grew, its autocratic political corruption darkened any potential aurora for decades, and only in the last fifteen years has the country seen any development toward a more widely accepted democracy.

The history with Japan means grudges and tempers still simmer today with acts far from forgotten, including those of only a few decades ago and the Second World War's 'comfort women'. Feuding today continues over such issues as the nationality of a particular island in the East Sea, comprising mainly of what occurs to be a rock, yet simultaneously representing the national pride of Korea and its refusal to back down to the Japanese over anything, regardless of size. The pride and retained independance Korea has has even led to the renaming of its neighbouring bodies of water from the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan to the simply more liberal West and East Seas. Make no mistake, Korea is Korean, and far from Chinese or Japanese.

How the South Korean population is spread today is determined in part by its topography. Eighty percent of the country is mountainous, with virtually all of its inhabitants living in cities predominantly constructed vertically in efficient apartment blocks of various heights, squared off and straight edged with little penthouse chimneys poking up into the biting blue ether. Inside, the design is beautiful and well thought out, with open plan areas broken by horizontal panes and wooden frames, all complimenting the pine laminated floors heated from underneath, ondol , needed in the winter especially when the custom is to take you shoes off. These 25 storey streets frequent the skyline, blazoning random checkered patterns of bright and dark across the twilight, as people begin coming home from long days at work or study. As with most cities at night, the air above the illumination glows a buzzing orange, carrying the sounds of the streets along on quietening gusts as darkness descends around the metropolis. What makes the suburbs of certain cities in South Korea unfortunately more noticeable however, is the heavy haze of bad air, constantly attacking your nostrils with sickening blows of dirt and decay. Litter, rubbish, sewerage and other social detritus dirties whats left of the unfertile and bare ground, with filth-strewn mess either left violating your eyes, nose or lungs depending on whether you are passing one of the many incinerators commonly used to dispose of said waste.

South Korean status in the world economy is ever-increasing, with Samsung the flagship, owning 37 Korean companies and even making their own cars. In fact, you will see only five predominant manufacturers of vehicles here, the roads owned by the cheap and soul-less Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, Ssangyong and Daewoo, and all usually being found under three years old. They not only supply cars, but in fact the backbone of the country's construction, with Daewoo buses, Samsung heavy loader trucks, and Hyundai diggers and earth machinery. It is examples of this nature that make one realise that beneath the conquering electronics companies, world leading high technologies and growing vehicle exports, Koreans are still only one generation from the breadline, a nation of post-war reconstruction and widespread poverty. South Korea has two feet, on one is a shiny leather shoe with a heel and a polished reflection of its surroundings, on the other a broken decrepid sandal worn through from its life in the dirt. They walk side by side, one in the world of ATM machines beaming bank details to mobile phones, the other in a society of bad air and mountains of rubbish among the decay and exhaustion of a history of neighbouring militaristic turmoil.

South Korea's politics curtail its international credibility. Dishonourable bureaucracy still taints its government, with traces of its autocratic past hard to shake off. This lack of central stability unfortunately radiates to each road, building and patch of scrubland throughout each suburb. Local laws, insurance, health and safety, contracts and regional legislation are as regulated and maintained as their traffic laws. Yet the city transport infrastructure is an example of the state's contradictory nature.

South Korea's public transport system is excellent, with efficient, regular and inexpensive services on both road and rail. Seoul's rail network is comparable to London's Tube or New York's Subway, and its buses are frequent and very well priced compared to western counterparts. Taxi fares are reasonable, if you dare take your life in the hands of cab drivers who disregard most of the traffic laws as mere suggestions. One of the more obvious options is red lights, observed with a what seems to be a raised eyebrow of cynicism. As a result, the roads in the cities simmer with a sinister system of shouts, horns, flashes, gestures, heart attacks, swerves, brakes, winces, stifled screams disguised as coughs, near (and indeed beyond near) collisions and a new-found respect for the train. Any skills I nurtured driving on the windy hills of Penzance, haphazard signs and signals of Crete, rolling undulations of Tuscany, reckless enthusiasm of New York, and certifiable road planning of Sydney, would be pushed to its limit with the serendipitous menace of Suwon. The quality of the roads is dubious, with cracks opening among vicious speedbumps coupled with potholes, raised hills and banks of asphalt, and metal panels impetuously welded together with cats eye lumps of once molten steel. Construction on the roads the public is assured is fundamentally for their benefit, although many argue the hassle in the process is never worth the outcome.

Alive with a buzzing and shuffling are the sidewalks of the cities, crowded by commuters and consumers alike, all confronted by stalls, signs and special deals on as much as you could imagine; 24 carat Tag watches, silk scarves, notebook laptops, leather braclets, silver jewellery, multi-megapixel cameras, microscopic mp3 players, fake flowers, disproportionate beads, fruit in its last days, spicy herbs, soiled vegetables, silver cutlery sets, pre-wrapped gifts, boxes of stationery, photocopied DVDs, colourful seeds, exotic plants, tiny gloves, thick socks, genuine fur coats, sparkling shoes, novelty hats, oversized sunglasses, snakeskin belts, every fashion of clothes and their subsequent tailoring requirements, piles of mixed nuts, mobile phones (cutting edge in the West in 2010) and tiny baby rabbits on cardboard palets, petrified at what has become of their hutch.

Alongside these stalls are those offering shoe repairs in semi-temporary lodgings and food sellers cut out of the side of small pickups, these makeshift setups being driven onto the pavement and parked up wherever the demand is. Soup, heated water, and what seems like pasta, rice, rice cakes, egg and toast all hiss or bubble gently over the calor gas heat. 500 won will fill you nicely up with a warmth spreading well into the night, or risk some of the more spicy and specialist options that one requires a stronger palette for. I tried chopped up pig intestine, stuffed with what would appear to be what one might find in a chopped up pig intestine, and doused with a fire retardant of some industrial strength took away the mental prospect of what I was eating and replaced it with a shattering oral pain of spicy heat, akin to licking the stove clean.

Jostling for their position too are the beggars, who seem to decrease their chances by taking up the most inappropriate positions for alms. Lying, kneeling or crouching in the funneled narrows of sidewalks, escalators, steps or doorways with foreheads bowed into the dirty caps they ask for change into, people find any time they could have had spent finding spare change instead trying to maneuver their way over or around the obstacles without dropping their shopping. Markets spread from their subway-bound confines beyond the granite steps and spill onto the streets to do battle with each other, passers by and the apparently mental motorcycle couriers, using the comparitive safety of the sidewalk as their personal lanes of business. Neon signs and advertisements slay the retinas with every colour physics can offer, lighting up the roads and obliterating any need for actual street lights. Their unrestrained strobes a vicious whirlwind of amplified dazzles, worlds of colour, where underfoot in the wet fireworks reflectively dance and explode with mesmorizing variation.

With all of this, one could imagine the hurried and manic environment intimidating to a stranger unaccustomed with its ebb and flow. This is not the case, with Korean people a real pleasure to deal with and meet. The people generally speak fractured keyworded-English or none at all, and as someone who knows very little Korean, one adjusts by the tone of their voice, whether they laugh, where they point and hand movements. Sounds and gestures speak more clearly, and shopping is done in collaboration with dexterity quite effectively, especially where any haggling involves typing your budget into a calculator for them to affirm or deny. Yongsan electronics market in Seoul, claiming to be the biggest in the world, is a good example of this. An innocent questioning of the potential whereabouts of an English version of Windows xp was answered with a 'come, come'. Where I duly followed took me out a door, down some stairs, through a corridor, under a carpark, across a street, through a subway, into a warehouse, through the office, down some steps into a dark, box-strewn basement (flashbacks of something Tarantino) and found some apparent computer genius in a corner who promptly copied me English Windows and an anti-virus program I didnt want either of for a few dollars. Lucky to feel alive, I exited the unseen underground of the Far East Asian electronic world smiling as my new cds reflected the lights.

Children innocently play with smiles and greet you with the respect not just for your uniqueness but your position as an elder. Practising English, you might have to field such statements as; 'Hello, how sir you today', 'Manchestah Uniteh' with customary thumbs up, and high fives from all angles; similar in pace, direction and racket to Messerschmitt crossfire but less flammable. One of the sole redeeming features of Confucianism is the unrelenting respect grown in the belly of each generation, unfortunately left wanting in many countries of the West, where manners and politeness certainly fall short in comparison. Bowing and greetings are always undertaken with a respect and deference genuinely meant for its recipient.

This Eastern Confucian conformity to rules, social hierarchy and knowledge of place is one of the factors in the argument why the Far East will not become the global superpower in the haste its easy to imagine it could. Clearly controlling the worlds manufacture and supply of goods and consumerables, its superiority falls short in regard comprehensive governmental policies over the standard of living and quality of life its citizens deserve. Elsewhere health and safety, legislation, laws, by-laws and a strict and continuous review and sustentation of these offer populations a standard of existence considered mutually exclusive with developed countries rather than the mere aspirations of developing ones. Buddhism, Catholicism and the remnants of Confucianism help retain a wholly regimented society of conservatism, set with rules, traditions and expectations that arguably lack the vision and aggressive ambitiousness of other countries' unfounded need to dominate. South Korea has consistently been the subject of attack and oppression, be it externally through neighbouring states' foreign policy or through their own punctilious and tyrannical rulership, and this has left them with scars not just within themselves but the very land they survive upon.

Arid and barren land littered with litter litters the surrounds of the metropoli, including aged shanty structures left standing from before the war and seemingly wanting to visit their bare surroundings. This land does offer small 'gardens' where things are attempted to be grown amid power lines, little roads and aging shacks, but still remains wholly fruitless and poor. Eradication of the detrimental effect industry has on the earth itself is a long journey. South Korea is still trying to battle out from under China's economic shadow, and although growing, its still very much a case of if China sneezes Korea catches a cold. China also happens to be the geographical nemesis of the Korean people through its location in the path of the Yellow Wind. This west-east wind relieves the deserts and plains of China of its dust and gently seives it over the West Sea onto Korea and into peoples' dust masks. Within this geographically induced deposit is an unsavoury airborn cesspool of the gaseous entrails of Chinese industry, a concoction of chemical excretions no-one wants squatting in the aura over their daily lives, worsening the faded yellow haze of struggling sunsets. Luckily the mountains close by enable a chance to elevate oneself to a thinner level of altitude and over the sift of currented detritus. Here the historical architecture dates back millennia with Buddhist temples, their pointed and angled roofs harbouring decorated beams and traditional tiled roofs, mini-ramps among ornaments.

What is offered to the traveler in South Korea now is a new country at grass roots infused with colourful history, a nation with a future, alive with a people still finding their feet in cities of domino apartments. With any developing nation there will be leading attributes, and for every success there will still be a failure waiting to evolve. What shines brightly here is the education revolution driven into the growing generations, the long days of hard work tirelessly undertaken to shape the nation and drive it forward, the increase in labour unions to ensure fairness and workers' rights, and the kindly warmth of a most welcoming and wholly genuine people. What needs to be addressed as soon as possible to cement its credibility and global status as a developed country however, is a political stability to level out the bumps in a government still in part tainted with moral doubt and inefficacious base-level leadership, a deeper comprehension of social services and perhaps a review of the link a red light has with stopping. All this however, shapes a country and makes it what it is: the fabric of society.

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