Today the weather was beautiful – sunny, 25 degrees with a slight breeze. Korea is known for its extreme weather: it’s kinda like the (freezing) winter is 5 months and 2 weeks long, the (boiling) summer is the same, while autumn and spring get a measly 2 weeks each. So, when a lovely day comes along, I’m usually itching to get outside, like today. Since there was nothing that I needed to attend to urgently, I decided to head down to the Han River, which snakes its way through the middle of the city, separating it into north and south.
I headed on the subway and then walked along the concreted waterfront to the place where I could hire a bike. Although it’s a bit inconvenient, it’s a great service for someone like me who loves to ride but doesn’t want to own a bike for fear it wouldn’t get much use (riding on the roads is tantamount to suicide and I just don’t have the time or inclination to be out and about on a regular basis).
Typically, the woman who is renting out the bikes looks at me as if I am some kind of sea monster who emerged from the river. She is trying to remain composed in the face of a foreigner. Luckily, my baby Korean gets me what I need. And then, vamos! I have an hour to ride along the paths that go for miles along both the west and east side of the river. I take the east route and look over to the north side Seoul, where Seoul Tower, the highest point in the city, stands proudly atop Mt. Namsan in the center of the city.
The north side of the city is home to the biggest shopping areas and was the traditional center back when kings and queens lived in the palaces that are empty tourist attractions today. It’s home to the oldest universities and the grandest houses, built with old money.
The south side, where I live, is newer and is home to the now infamous Gangnam. As Psy sings, it’s a district where the nouveau-riche live, full of plastic surgery clinics, clothing boutiques and where a single mango can set you back $70. Personally, I find the area to be bland, full of drone Barbie doll lookalikes and pretentious-looking shops, bars and cafes. Compared to the ritzy areas of other major metropolises, such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and New York, it’s nothing special.
Still, as I peddled freely along the river, I couldn’t help but admire the effort that has been made to make the area more beautiful and user-friendly, with outdoor exercise equipment, small gardens and shaded grassy knolls for young lovers or families to spend time together. There was the odd person or couple trying their luck with a fishing line (note to self, don’t ever eat fish that comes out of there). Some futuristic, ostentatious event centres have cropped up, and float at the water’s edge.
The one cliche that is always thrown around about Seoul, both by the media, locals, expats and tourists, is that it’s dynamic. This is absolutely true. There is always dynamism, creativity and innovation happening in every corner of the city. Unfortunately, this also usually means to rip down and rebuild. However, in the case of the Han River, I think it’s more a case of making the most of what the city’s got.