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Unveiling the soul of Seoul - during a PM visit

Monday March 26, 2012 06:44:13 PM, Vishnu Makhijani , IANS

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, at the Welcome Reception for the Nuclear Security Summit, in Seoul on March 26, 2012.

Seoul: It's home to major conglomerates like Hyundai, Samsung and LG and boasts of the world's fastest broadband network. It hosted the 1986 Asian Ganes, the 1998 Olympics, the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the 2010 G-20 summit and now, the March 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit. But there's more to Seoul than mere statistics.

It has been a major settlement for 2,000 years whose foundation dates back to 18 BC. At 10 million residents, the South Korean capital is considered one of the largest cities in Asia. It has got the world's longest circular metro line of 60 km and the world longest underground line of 52 km.

The media visitor to this city to cover the Nuclear Security Summit and the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finds a city that oozes vibrancy from every pore and the best way to view it - particularly at night - is from the Seoul Tower at Namsan in the heart of the city that rises 236.7 metres from its base. Access is by cable car but one can also walk up for free!

At the end of the rainbow, as it were, is a breathtaking 380 degree of the city, a restaurant that revolves every 48 minutes, two other restaurants and gift shops.

At the base of the tower is a seven kilometre walking path and the best time to visit is in April to view the spectacular cherry blossoms. The adjacent Namsan Botanical Gardens is replete with Korea's flora.

Next, take in Chennggyecheon, an 8.4 km public recreation space. It began life as a drainage stream but after the 1950-51 Korean War, with the influx of refugees, it became home to shanties and was eventually covered and an elevated road constructed over it.

In July 2003, then Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak, now the South Korean president, initiated a project to revive the stream. The elevated road was demolished, 120,000 tonnes of water were pumped in annually from the Han River that flows through the city and the stream was opened to the public in 2005.

Going back in time is the Gyeongbokgung Palace built in 1395 and from where the Joeseon Dynasty, one of the three that ruled the country, originated. It's considered one of the biggest and most beautiful of five such palaces in Seoul and has gone through its ups and downs, having been twice partially burnt down and restored.

Also to be visited is the Namsangol Hanok Village, a mini-folk village with a number of traditional Korean-style houses. With its household goods and furniture arranged in the style of the Joeseon era, it provides a fascinating insight into the past and hosts two-three traditional wedding ceremonies every week.

Your next stop should be the Bongeunsa Temple, which was the main shrine of the Zen sect of Buddhism from 1551 to 1936. A fire in 1939 destroyed most of the building and other parts were destroyed in the Korean War. With the reconstruction work still on, the temple is today once again a large and thriving complex.

Insa-dong is a one-stop shop for all those looking for the various aspects of traditional Korean arts and crafts. Initially known as an antique district, it transformed in 1988 when an array of modern art galleries opened.

It's been a vehicle-free streets from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays since 1997, making it a huge venue for outdoor festivals.

Unfortunately, one of the most beautiful buildings in Seoul - the Blue House - is not open to the public because it's the home of the South Korean president.

It's exterior design is based on the architectural techniques used in the construction of traditional wooden royal palaces. The hipped and gabled roof of the building is considered one of the most refined and attractive styles of traditional Korean architecture. It features lines converging at the crest of the roof in a triangle.

The main building and its two annexes are covered with some 150,000 traditional Korean blue roof tiles - hence the name Blue House.

Open it might not be to the general public, but despair not. For the intrepid, there's always a way of getting in.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at



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