SPRING HAS officially arrived. Pleasant winds awaken all life hidden from the sharp cold of winter, and cherry blossoms fill the air with a subtle pink hue. However, with the mid-terms just around the corner, I was stuck in the library all day, dying to take a break from all my books and notes. Luckily, I found a way to enjoy a short trip, through the blue bus 710. Stopping in front of the Yonsei University Main Gate, this cobalt vehicle happens to pass by several landmarks close to campus. Itching to embrace the warmth of April, I quickly scurried down Baekyang-ro, hopped on the 710, and embarked on a one-day trip to the most interesting places in Seoul.
The Oil Tank Culture Park
My journey started when we stopped at the World Cup Stadium West bus station, where the entrance of my first destination is located. The Oil Tank Culture Park had initially been a derelict oil depot that was recycled and redesigned into a cultural complex. At first glance, these massive constructs looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic film. Their cylindrical exterior was covered with rust; concrete walls revealed their steel framework and signs that read “Danger! Falling Rocks” were everywhere. However, as I approached these ominous constructs, I noticed that these seemingly desolate structures were connected to new buildings that were sleek and almost futuristic. Without changing the original structure of the oil depots, the modern constructs resonated a sense of unity and preservation of the past and the present. This odd blend of the dilapidated and the newly-built was unlike any other, filling these dead cylinders with a new breath of life. This feeling of vibrance is amplified by the Maebong Mountain that surrounds the park with its lush trees and wildlife.
There is a total of six oil tanks, respectively named T1 to T6 that each serve a specific purpose: community center, performance hall, museum, and more. The interiors of these constructs were refurbished with modern technology like automatic doors, but they also maintained the original pipes and valves of the old days. While all of the tanks were interesting, there were two that I found most memorable. Curious about the original appearance of the oil depots, I visited T3 a silo preserved in its original form. The interior of T3 was stark and creaking with rust in every corner, yet the durability of its crude façade resembled a fallout shelter. After taking a glimpse into the past, I walked back to T2, now a performance hall with an amphitheater on top of the depot. In the theater, the seats were made from recycled concrete stepping stones, adding to the whole theme of preservation. Though the yard in front of the oil depots was empty on my visit, the Oil Tank Culture Park is expected to be more vibrant when the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market, a marketplace for food trucks and craftsmen, opens again on April 5. Leaving this apocalyptic theme park, I retook the 710 to my next destination.
I got off at Changdeokgung Station, and walked towards Ikseon-dong, the oldest hanok* village in Seoul. I noticed two things that make this place stand out among other similar locations. First, Ikseon-dong is significantly smaller than other traditional towns. I was able to look around the entire area in just an hour. Because the most famous spots are all next to each other, visitors with little time to spare can check out all the trendiest places. However, this convenience comes at a cost. The narrow alleys and the tiny radius of the town drive all the people into a small area, leaving almost no room in the already tight pathways.
Secondly, just like how the oil tanks were refurbished for better use, so were the old houses of this hanok village. Navigating my way inside this miniature community, I noticed that the shops had an exquisite blend of traditional, retro and modern architecture. While retaining its original state, each building boasts its unique interpretation of hanok. One example was the comic book café, simply named Comic Book Store. All the essential framework in traditional Korean architecture, such as the wooden columns, roof frames and floors were present, but other parts of the shop were redesigned with modern trends such as huge glass windows and LED lights. The props inside the shop were retro, with typewriters and lamps resembling those from 20 years ago. This combination of the past and present made it seem as if the two eras were coexisting. Oddly enough, this amalgamation of distinct styles seemed natural, as they complemented each other well, creating a cozy and comfortable atmosphere. It was as if all those different styles were meant to be placed under one roof.
After enjoying myself in the crowded but pleasant Ikseon-dong, I walked to Jongmyo Shrine, which took just five minutes. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site**, Jongmyo is the supreme state shrine of the Joseon*** Dynasty where the royal ancestral tablets are enshrined. As a dynasty founded under Confucianism, Joseon heavily emphasized ancestral worship; a practice that is still kept today during the Korean holidays. Picturing the colossal and extravagant façades of many holy places, I was astonished by the modest and microscopic entrance of the royal shrine. Also, while most tourist spots in Korea are open to everyone, Jongmyo only admits 300 visitors in each guided tour which is held every hour. Immediately, I understood that this place is sacred.
As I followed the guide around Jongmyo, I could not help but compare the solemn royal shrine to the dazzling royal palaces. In contrast to the extravagant and vibrant décor of Gyeongbokgung Palace, everything in Jongmyo is kept simple to represent solemnity, piety and tranquility. The height of the buildings is kept short, the roofs are not elongated, curves are almost non-existent, and the entire palette of the shrine is limited to black, dark red, green and white. Yet, Jongmyo seemed to paradoxically flourish with life, as gigantic trees, chipmunks and magpies inhabit the whole area. There are also huge courtyards covered with crudely cut stone, which made walking on the tour a mission to see who could avoid tripping the most. With a determination to return for another visit, I headed back to the bus station for my final destination.
Though Daehak-ro may not seem any different from Sinchon, the former is Seoul’s theater and performance district. The first thing one would notice when arriving in Daehak-ro is Marronnier Park, a perfect place to relax and enjoy various performances. As I approached the center of Daehak-ro, I saw walls plastered with colorful posters of diverse musicals, plays and comedy shows. The streets were also covered with brochures and pamphlets, and signs of performance halls. As the mecca of performing arts, Daehak-ro boasts a broad spectrum of theaters that host shows every day for an average of \20,000. I was surprised when I found out that all those posters were for performances that were on-going because I counted almost 30 to 40 different performances. The nightlife is well and alive in Daehak-ro, but one different thing is the atmosphere of the neighborhood. Instead of the smell of alcohol, the streets were filled with a healthy enthusiasm about art. Excited pedestrians were humming the songs of the musicals showcased in Daehak-ro, and other groups were reenacting memorable scenes from the plays they had just watched.
* * *
As I hopped on the 710 for the last time, I realized that Seoul still has so much more to see. By perfectly preserving and converging relics of the past with the modernity of a metropolis, Seoul amplifies the best of both worlds. After spending countless hours preparing for the exams, I found this trip especially refreshing. Though I went to all four destinations in one day, those under time pressure can always visit one landmark at a time, as bus 710 will always be waiting at the same place every day.
*hanok: a traditional Korean house
**UNESCO World Heritage Site: a protected landmark selected by UNESCO as culturally, scientifically or historically significant
***Joseon: the name of the dynasty of Korea from the 14th century to the late 19th century