|Matchmakers and Microchips|
by Sally Hammond
Seoul's suburban skyline is stiff with grey gabled apartment blocks. Each white tower stretches to seventeen or so storeys, and some are marked with huge stencilled numbers on the sides to tell them apart. On others wave-like designs have been painted in an effort to soften the outline. Yet while they may appear stark, this housing is coveted by the locals.
My guide's face goes dreamy as we pass one forest of apartments.
"I would love to live there," she says.
This country first caught our consciousness when it was targeted in the cross-wires of war last century, and it remains poised still between two eras - one of tea-houses and palaces, matchmakers and superstition, the other of microchips and motorcars. And even as its booming electronics industry strengthens, calligraphers still patiently brush ink onto parchment, recording ancient tradition as they have for centuries.
Amazingly, despite its troubled past, this is a land of harmony. The Korean flag, itself a relatively recent design, flies with a yin yang centre balanced by earth and sky, fire and water symbols.
Even a short visit to this country will allow a glimpse of the pendulum swings. A bride posing for photographs on the water's edge in a park, hitches her dress off the mud and reveals blue jeans underneath. The dress is hired, my guide whispers. Soon she will slip it off and party on in her regular clothes. And the marriage would have been arranged through the matchmaker, she adds.
Korea, about half the size of Victoria, on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, is washed by the Sea of Japan on the east coast and the Yellow Sea on the west. Seoul is located on about the same latitude as Melbourne, so the weather can be cool with snow in winter.
Just over fifty years ago this land was smashed during a bitter war between the north and south. Most major cities were all but razed. One family in three suffered loss.
Somehow, amazingly, in just five decades, South Korea has picked itself up, dusted off the visible effects of all this, and got on with rebuilding the country. The face the visitor sees, smiles. Roads are broad and well made. Korean-manufactured cars zoom along them in orderly, yet sometimes congested traffic. If the drivers feel road rage, they control it.
Yet beauty is everywhere. For artist's shops and galleries visit the Insadong area of Seoul. You'll recognise them by the massive brush hanging outside and rainbow rolls of paper inside. There are street markets too, with cool weather fruits - glowing persimmons, fragrant white peaches and huge Fuji apples. Korean ginseng is revered worldwide and I stumbled on what seemed like an acre of ginseng, tucked away in a massive herbal market.
Then there is Rodeo Street (Apkujong-dong) crammed with fashion boutiques to lure the young, the well-paid and the beautiful, and the inevitable cafe scene where they relax after their shopping spree. Others flock to the Yongson Electronics Market and its 5000 plus stores housed in 22 buildings. But if you are more interested in T-shirts, eel-skin wallets and souvenirs, Itaewon is the place to go.
For an overview of Seoul schedule a trip to the tower north of the city and take the lift to the viewing level. Below, the mighty Han-gang river, with its collection of almost every sort of bridge, loops lazily through this city with its 11-million-plus population. The remaining three of the ancient city's Four Gates remain hardly visible, yet each are palaces worth a half-day visit.
But Seoul is just part of the equation that is Korea. To the north-east, the magnificent mountain area that holds the Soraksan National Park is a glowing delight in autumn, yet equally beautiful at other times too. Gyeongju, the ancient capital, escaped destruction in the war and has temples dating back several hundred years, while the lake and river system in Andong province has water sports, fishing and hiking, and also lures photographers.
Korean food is more than its unique staple, kimchi. There is an annual Kimchi Festival held in a Gwangju each year, and this spicy fermented cabbage condiment accompanies every meal. To eat here you need to be flexible (many meals are taken seated on the floor) and coordinated, as Korean chopsticks are also different. They are very slim and made from stainless steel and you need some practice, although a spoon is also available, and quite proper to use.
My guide spends days with me. We visit a folk village on the outskirts of Seoul, and she rubs the stone grandfather's nose as good luck that she will one day have sons. She is not married yet, enjoying her single lifestyle, meeting people from all over the world. She is well-paid, confident and very modern.
So will she use a matchmaker, I ask, when the time comes?
"Of course!" she replies swiftly as she slips her mobile phone from her designer handbag.
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