The early morning air in Seoul is soft and heavy with mist. As I stretch out in the cool damp grass, the world is painted in lavender. My fingers idly pluck at blades as the sky tints pink, warming despite the chill in the air. The amorous Han River mirrors the abundant sky, enthralled by the kaleidoscopic moods of the air.
I too am captivated by the scene. The prodigious high rises of Seoul reach towards the now vivid orange sky, marching outward to infinity. They are giants; monuments to human ingenuity and progress; antagonists to the gentle mountains rolling across the horizon. They speak to me across generations, their multi-linguistic signs heralding a new era in the life of the city. They whisper secrets about the future, now while it is quiet, while most of the city silently sleeps.
Gentle clouds roll in as the sky becomes tranquil blue. I am no longer alone in my grassy haven. People filter in from all over the city, eager to share the sunshine and delicate breeze. They unfurl blankets and set out picnics. Motorboats skim across the surface of the river and bicycles buzz through winding footpaths. Children chase each other through the trees as bemused parents look on. The city has awoken and once again it thrives.
Closing my eyes I imagine the Han River before the arrival of people and construction of skyscrapers. I picture it flowing silently from the mountains, gradually gaining momentum until it rushes ecstatically into the Yellow Sea after a journey of over 500 kilometers. I see trade ships proudly roaming it waters, bringing prosperity and growth. I see wars being fought for its control and the waters running red. I imagine, much later, the same waters rippling beneath the oars of the 1988 Olympic rowers, testaments to the peace which long ago stilled the gentle river.
Restless, I wander into the city where gleaming office towers interweave with traditional palaces and temples. It's only a short subway ride from the Han River to Insa-dong, Seoul's famous artists' neighborhood. A small knot of streets in Seoul's Jongno-gu district, Insa-dong has specialized in the antiques market for centuries. It's fusion of the traditional and the modern make it a perfect microcosm of Seoul itself. Historical architecture abounds, most notably Jogyesa, a Korean Buddhist temple and Unhyeongung, a former royal residence.
Any wanderer could easily pass the hours perusing the many antique shops and galleries lining Insa-dong's alleyways. Here, contemporary art mingles with ancient pottery and vintage jewelry. Books with well worn covers wait to tell their stories while hand made paper begs for new stories to be written. There is something here for every eye, and I browse slowly, finding treasures among the multitude.
Weary shoppers can stop for a cup of tea in one of the many traditional tea houses or modern cafes in the area. I order a warm cup of daechu-cha, or jujube tea. Its aroma and deep red color are equally as pleasing as its sweet flavor. The tea is served in a beautiful earthenware cup with slivers of jujube and pine nuts floating along its surface. Some say the jujube helps alleviate stress, and curled up in my chair, I can certainly feel its magic. Fully relaxed, I drift back into the street and head home, arms laden with bags.
By now the sun is sinking low in the sky, peeking between the industrial giants before disappearing beneath the mountains. I sit down at an outdoor restaurant with a friend and order steaming pots of soon dubu jjigae, a favorite of mine. The spicy soup brimming with tofu and vegetables is served in a stone bowl which keeps it bubbling hot long after it arrives at the table. My skin flushes as I eat spoonfuls of the spicy liquid, warming me as the air cools and the night rolls in over the city.
We finish our meal and seek out the highest bar we can find for a glass of wine and a view. The mountains in the distance are a study in texture and hue. They multiply and saturate until the deepest blues melt into the soft night air. We sit silently a long while and a feeling of gratitude swells inside of me for all of seen and done and learned over the past year. Meanwhile the light of day softens into the glow of night.
The neon lights of the city beckon us, drawing us back into its center. The intersections are draped in webs of pedestrians, all eager to partake in Seoul's legendary nightlife. Vendors line the busy streets and a mosaic of street food smells fill the air. There are thousands of bars and cafes in the city, but no matter which one we choose, we always manage to find a familiar face or discover a new friend. Tonight should be no different. Surely some adventure awaits us in the ever vigilant city of Seoul. Another chapter in an infinite volume, a story as of yet, untold.