Explore the Beautifully Bizarre City of Seoul
In the midst of one of his explorations, Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller, met a very harrowed Kublai Khan (who was fretting over the fall of his empire). The former’s words of wisdom still hold true for the cities of today: ‘There are two ways to escape disintegration. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: Seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
After missing a flight, rushing through manic traffic and then successfully boarding another impossible-to-catch airplane, ‘touchdown Seoul’ is an achievement in itself. The litmus test to knowing how developed a city is, is to observe its airport. Besides Incheon International Airport being ranked as one of the best in the world, it is the automated commode in the restroom that suggests that this is going to be a memorable trip. The seat has a plastic coating that moves automatically with the press of a button, so that each time you use the toilet bowl, you are seated on a clean plastic lid. (You are also offered various options, depending on how gentle or forceful you’d like your jet spray to be.)
Seoul does not evoke love at first sight. The process of falling in love with the city is slow (just like it should be with people), and after much ‘Seoul searching’, you treasure the quirks as much as the 5G Internet. Besides being the most ‘wired’ city, Seoul delivers as a rising fashion destination — can you forget Karl Lagerfeld’s Cruise 2015/16 show for Chanel inspired by the K-pop scene in Seoul? The music has been one of the most prominent features of Korea where Psy’s pulsating Gangnam Style had every wannabe partygoer bee-bopping to the tune of this country.
Unlike the stark division between the old and new, Seoul has cleverly blended the two like a design pro on Photoshop. The transition is aesthetically smooth, making it hard to imagine that this city was almost doomed under Japanese colonialism and the Korean War. Rising like a phoenix, just as old Marco Polo had hoped, Seoul picked up the bits that were not inferno, and cleverly nurtured them.
Progress is visually evident, thanks to the Renaissance architecture around the Jeong-dong neighbourhood, and the Gothic structures like Kyung Hee University and the Ewha Campus Complex. Gyeongbokgung, the oldest and largest palace in Seoul, is a historical landmark, complete with stone gates and Oriental-esque courtyards. The ancient city has many World Heritage sites but the transformation is so tricky, that you don’t realise when the ancient architecture is replaced by sleek, warped buildings (like the curvaceous GT Tower East) and Hello Kitty cafes. Also known as the design capital of the world, Seoul is home to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is the brainchild of Zaha Hadid and Samoo and resembles an abandoned spaceship.
In between Fendi, Chanel and H&M boutiques lining the bustling streets of Myeong-dong, anime-type graffiti is persistent. Apart from international stores that have multiple outlets at odd corners, there are local ABC marts that offer high-street versions of runway trends. Korean designers are big on the fashion scene and also on the wallet. And juxtaposed outside these brightly lit malls is an unending line of street shops offering plentiful socks with pop-culture characters. Ironically, they didn’t seem to have one with Dobby.
While scouting the streets of Gangnam, I am accosted by an LED signboard atop a building that reads ‘Plastic surgery done here’. Absolutely unapologetic about artificial implants and cosmetic surgery, the signboards are recurrent and not in the least bit subtle. In conversation with the locals, it appears that plastic surgery is incredibly common here because this is how they bid to ‘differentiate’ themselves from each other. In that very thought lies the unanswered question — what is the ideal of beauty that they are striving towards? If everyone attempts to look a certain way, may there not be many on the streets who look identical? My new Facebook buddies and their friends — while charming and lovely — actually can’t be easily identified by me when in a group. And what happens when you are looking up an old school buddy after years…would you be able to recognise that person after a tryst with the surgeon’s knife?
The other question that pops into our minds when we travel eastward is how does the entire populace manage to have poker-straight hair? It appears most of it is not genetic (as we assume) and they get their hair chemically treated. Koreans are so stricken by celebs (and of course anime) that physical appearance plays a huge role in their everyday lives. The current trend is fixing their faces to have anime-esque bigger eyes, higher noses and sharper jaws.
Verve’s beauty editor had gushed about the 13-step trademark Korean beauty ritual, expecting me to enlighten her on each step on my return. Seoul doesn’t disappoint. I walk deeper into the lanes of Myeong-dong and am swarmed by cosmetic stores dating back to the ’80s, with beautifully packaged skincare and make-up. For a beauty junkie, this is what heaven looks like, because you will even discover natural face masks and LED lamps for gel manicures…which are so hard to find back home.
Like cultures within a culture, Seoul is the inception pot that seamlessly blends so many quirky factors. You could spy the changing of guards at Gyeongbokgung in traditional robes and comical beards at one moment and the jarringly dressed K-pop bands at another.
Kublai Khan’s empire may have ultimately disintegrated, but despite some unrest on the political front, Seoul has managed to tackle inferno with technology, ancient beauty, expertise, modern architecture and pop music. Also, their sincere efforts in trying to look a little different from each other, to break the racial stereotype, even if this means resorting to artificial methods. I leave the city with a powerful memory of locals audaciously sporting bandages post a nose/lip job, while casually roaming the streets of Seoul…perhaps shopping for new clothes to complement that new face.