Seoul, South Korea

Long ago I witnessed Korean drumming while living in Washington DC.  It was an epic performance of Samulnori and Poongmul by Kim Duk Soo and his troupe.  (Samulnori refers to the more classical seated performance of Korean drums and Poongmul is the harvest-festival dance style of the same drums.) The rhythms of the hourglass “chyango” drum were entrancing.  I decided that I must learn this drum at some point in my life.

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Over the years I have made many trips to Seoul as a tourist or on business.  The first was during my bicycle trip through South Korea where I saw drum styles across the country and experienced the tremendously hilly terrain of the country as I traversed from Pusan to Seoul.

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Pusan and Seoul offer an abundant array of the traditional arts of the folk cultures of the country. And the center of South Korea is a hilly landscape of beautiful farmland. There were more farms of red chili peppers than I’d ever seen!

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Chili farm north of Pusan

Korean cuisine is spectacularly spicy. Because I could only read the phonetic script of Hangul, but not speak the language, my week-long bike ride I got by ordering spicy rice salad (called bibimbap) and asking at farms for water refills by asking “Mul Chuseyo? Kamsahamnida!” (Water please? Thank you!). Very few people outside the metropolitan areas spoke English.

All across Korea I saw temples that were very reminiscent of the temples I’d seen in Japan.  People explained to me that Buddhism spread across Korea and Japan at the same time.  And many of the architectural concepts about building temples were shared across both countries.  In fact, Chinese characters were introduced to Korea and Japan in the same era as well, during a period when scholastic record keeping across both countries was introduced by Chinese scholars.  Since then Korean has become mostly phonetic, based on the Hangul character set.  But many of the words I heard in Korea immediately sounded like their Japanese equivalents.

In order to navigate my way in Korea, I learned the phonetic script, called Hangul.  It only takes a few hours to understand Korean phonetics.  After you get the basic sounds mapped in your brain, you can sound out any word written in Hangul.  What is astounding about Hangul was that it was allegedly created by one person.  The script depicts every sound combination that existed in Korean at the time of its creation 500 years ago, including all approximations of Chinese words.  Hangul’s simplicity resulted in Korea having one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  As someone who has learned three linguistic scripts, this was by far the easiest!

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Hangul phonetic chart created for foreigner comprehension

Unfortunately, I didn’t have water containers large enough for more than one day’s ride.  So at one point I asked a farmer for water in the middle of a rural area.  He pointed to a massive kimchi vat that had captured rain water from his roof.  He welcomed me to partake of it.  (I felt inappropriate asking for tap water.  So I filled my bottle from the rain water.)  Unfortunately, I became so ill that I had to camp for three days in a national park until I could recover stamina to continue biking on.  It was this point that I insisted on carrying iodine tablets or water purification filters on future trips!

When I got to Seoul I was amazed at the beautiful granite rock mountains north of the city. They jut up like spires from the jungle with sheer pale faces. Fortunately I met a few rock climbers with gear who were willing to take me rock climbing on one of the less perilous rock cliff ascents. It was a riveting experience hanging on a cliff face as the sun set and the city lit up below us.

Visiting the various castles around town takes a whole day and is very rewarding. They are like giant city parks with ancient architecture, styled after the temples of the era.

As a part of the regional security treaties between South Korea and the US, there is a base in Seoul for US security forces. It’s not a particular tourist destination. But there is a district in Seoul where you can go to hear amazing Jazz music if you’re keen on that.

The city has some amazing castles preserved in its downtown areas. They are temple-like wooden architecture with vast stone squares and ponds.

South of Seoul there is an architectural theme park that replicates dozens of village architecture styles that have been used across the country for millennia. I have always enjoyed mud-thatch building styles in the region, so I greatly enjoyed this tiny “Epcot Center” style guide to the country’s history.

In the heart of Seoul, the Chongdong theater was my favorite smorgasbord as they combined the broadest array of performances in one show. Classical Pansori dances set to meditative string and reed instruments are similar to watching Tai Chi set to a musical score.

In Samgomu drum dance, a group of drummers stand in a line with three drums on each player’s sides, and the group performs coordinated dance with their arms accentuating each move in rhythm cycles in precise synchrony. It’s like watching a drum version of synchronized swimming!

The “farmers’ dance” however was my all time favorite. Harvest festivals are the origin of the farmers’ dance. Post war, the revival of traditional arts has given this art a particularly strong following, to the point where you can find performances broadly across the country. I’ve seen troupes in San Francisco, Sydney and Tokyo who practice year-round.

While I lived in Tokyo, a troupe called Uri Param invited me to join their drum study on weekends. We performed at cultural festivals around Tokyo on sporadic occasions.

Drum practice comprised of sitting in a circle doing hours-long call and response drills led by one of the three eldest drummers. The rhythms are incredibly ornate, with mallets of both hands alternating strikes against both heads of the hourglass drum. (Like a one person Samgamo dance with one drum. Each head of the drum has a different density. The left hand mallet is heavy and strikes the center of the head. The right hand has a light bamboo stick that slaps the drum with accents and trills.

The goal of practice is to innately learn the rhythm stanzas such that you could dance and twirl while playing them during the harvest dance. (Something I never perfected.)

Sadly, the country of Korea was torn in half by a civil war in the 1950s. The attempted takeover ended with an armistice that froze the hostilities and separated the former nation along a border that they agreed to demilitarize. That meant that the jungle at the border would not be crossed by members of either country’s military. Only ambassadors and guards can approach the negotiation/administration halls that stand on the border.

Tourists are welcome to approach the borders. But they are advised to dress appropriately and act respectfully toward the guards who watch the border vigilantly from each side. It’s eerie to visit a border wall reminiscent of the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall of former ages.

After my first visit to Seoul, I biked on to the western sea at Incheon and boarded a fairy fro Tianjin, China to continue the quest on to the capital of Beijing. Which I’ll cover in a future post.

Take me home!

Gyeongbokgung Palace

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