I was pleased to move back North of the River to Myeongdong. This is known as the centre of Seoul and is popular with locals and tourists alike, with buzzing pedestrianised streets, shops, cafes and restaurants all adorned with neon signs.
In an effort to reduce pollution Seoul has transformed one of the overpasses (which used to be choked with traffic) into a pedestrianised walkway filled with flowerbeds, and even a paddling pool, a trampoline and a piano! It was like an urban park for strolling or sitting. We strolled over one evening and I tried out my camera settings photographing the rather grand Seoul Station.
In other efforts to make the city more green, there is also a former underpass which has been transformed into another urban park for strolling (Cheonggyecheon-ro; more in a later blog). And, in efforts to prevent people breathing in second-hand-smoke, there are designated smoking areas, like an enclosed bus shelter where you can smoke. You can’t smoke on the pavements generally in the pedestrianised streets of Myeongdong, which is wonderful for non-smokers!
We also visited SK Telecom to see some of their latest technology. Ironically, the website wasn’t working so we couldn’t book a slot online, so we just turned up. They very kindly greeted us and gave us a demo on their self-driving car prototype which is currently being tested and they expect to be used widely in about 5 years. The demo involved wearing a VR (Virtual Reality) headset and it was really strange “driving along a road” but not having a steering wheel or even having to look where you’re going. They demonstrated a pedestrian stepping out and the car breaking and reacting to other hazards. They also demonstrated a smart-house where a robot will cook dinner for you. Yes please! We were suitably impressed.
We also visited Dongdaemun Design Plaza, which is contains the large UFO-looking Arts complex designed by Zaha Hadid. The plaza is surrounded by tall shopping malls so there are no shortage of restaurants, cafes and shops. We tried some rather unusual purple candyfloss!
In Dongdaemun Design Plaza we were approached by some shy students asking us to answer their questionnaire. We always get this – students have approached us in Singapore, Hong Kong etc! They were asking us what could be improved about Seoul. We couldn’t think of any improvements as Seoul was pretty perfect… except for air pollution. This was my biggest problem overall; on the second day the air was visibly polluted with a smoggy haze which didn’t shift for around a week and the mountains we saw the previous day were obscured from view. I always suspect smog, but in a new place I’m never sure – is it just low cloud? So I looked up the World Air Quality Index and was appalled to find it was at a Red (Unhealthy) score, meaning that “everyone may experience health effects”. We have air pollution issues in the UK but on the same Index, most of Europe was Green (Good), with a few Yellow (Moderate). I was shocked to find how bad it was in Seoul – apparently it is caused in part by pollution from China’s fossil-fuel-burning factories blowing in the wind over to Korea, plus the air pollution created by Korea itself. For the first time ever I considered wearing a mask, however after doing research I understand a simple face mask won’t stop you breathing in particulates; only a gas mask will do that, and that seemed a tad impractical!
We waited for the least smoggy day to take the cable car up Namsan Hill which has great views over the city in every direction. We arrived in the afternoon and had a hot drink at one of the cafes up there, before watching the sunset.
I was slightly alarmed to see these large cases of smoke masks in every metro station. It’s good that they are prepared, but also terrible that this is a reality there, and also unthinkable that there probably nowhere near enough gas masks for everyone.
Overall I really enjoyed Myeongdong, and it was also home to the thrilling Lantern Festival…
next blog: Lantern Festival, Seoul, South Korea.
previous blog: Historic Seoul, South Korea.