Sometimes while doing the most inane tasks like staring at your toe nails for example, have you ever been stricken with a surge of creative energy that makes you feel you could do anything?
I have and before it fizzled out I rode with it and some sketching supplies on the subway to Hoehyeon station, emerged out of Exit 5 and walked straight into a noisy, overcrowded, confusing maze called Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest traditional market with 600 years of history.
The first order of business was to orient myself and then locate a discreet corner from where I could sketch without being in the way of either the vendors or the shoppers. I got hopelessly lost instead which wasn’t exactly surprising considering I was a first time visitor to a market that has over 10,000 stores and is visited by 300,000 people a day.
To give you a idea, here’s a list of the items I saw being sold on just one of the streets – hats (all kinds imaginable and more), fur coats, dried nuts, dumplings, spectacles, stone seals, eerie looking ginseng with their sinewy roots stored in clear glass jars and miles of kitchen utensils. I was beginning to believe in the saying that if you don’t find it in Namdaemun Market, you won’t find it anywhere in Seoul.
A map, which I had snagged from the tourist information centre in the meantime showed entire alleys and streets dedicated to cameras, bedding items, watches and jewellery, mountain climbing equipments, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, stationaries and more.
When I spotted yards of army green stretched out in the form of military uniforms, T-shirts, caps, blankets, boots, sacks, compasses, watches and telescopes, I knew I had hit the ‘Military Uniform Street’ on my way back from the ‘Fish and Stew Alley’. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish stew, one of Namdaemun Market’s famed food offerings along with Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup) have to wait for my next visit.
This visit was all about channeling my chance ebullience fuelled by the mood enhancing amino acid in my matcha latte for all I knew and perhaps the fact that I had been feeling pretty sketch-deprived lately. Seoul is still new to me. I don’t know the best spots to sketch from yet. Finding out can be fun but sometimes exhausting too when you just want to get down to business!
‘Fashion Street’ had one little corner squeezed in between a fur coat vendor, shirt, pants and coat seller and a shop selling pink and cutesy Mickey mouse themed merchandise from where I made this drawing. Tons of people came to look and showed various signs of appreciation though I didn’t understand a word they said. What I clearly did understand simply because some things transcend languages, was when fur coat vendor in his excitement dragged Mickey mouse lady by the arm to show how I had put her in my sketch and she self consciously touched her waist and said, “She made me look fat!” and marched off.
and I got to sketch it the other day when I was in the neighbourhood.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese rule, a transport military aircraft called Douglas C 47 skytrain was put on display in Yeouido Park on August 18th 2015 for 3 years. How lucky are we to have our visit coincide with the display of such a unique exhibit?
I had been eyeing it with absolute wonder on my long afternoon walks in the park for the whole month of March, when we stayed in the nearby Glad Hotel immediately after moving to Seoul. It stood out even more then because the park was barren. Waking up from the grey winter, the trees were skeletal and people were scarce, except during lunch hour when they would emerge in hordes from the nearby office buildings wrapped in coats and scarves to get fresh air and stretch their legs in the park.
Three months hence, the scene is different. The park is bathed in sunshine and the myriad shades of green on the trees contrast the aquamarine sky with pillowy clouds floating in it. I see gleeful children shrieking with joy while racing each other around the blue platform on which the C47 is proudly standing, followed by teenage boys and girls rollerblading hand in hand. About 20 meters away, a bunch of school boys in uniform are shooting hoops. Don’t miss the portable basketball goals in the sketch! They are scattered all over the asphalt pavement of the park.
What’s special about this military aircraft on display is that it’s identical to the one in which 15 members of the Korean provincial government flew home from Shanghai in 1945 to land at the Yeouido airport (now Yeouido Park). The provincial government of Korea founded in 1919 in Shanghai was operating as an interim government-in-exile to gain independence from the Japanese rule (1910-1945).
As you can see in my sketch, the display aircraft has a flight of stairs attached to it for visitors to climb inside and explore its interiors. Unfortunately it was closed when I was there earlier this week but fortunately I have time until 2018.
is how I’ve been feeling over the last 72 hours. It is hard to describe but suffice it to say that my body and mind are at two different places, miles apart from one another and I, for the life of me cannot reconcile them. Tricky state to be in really, but if you knew how I got here, you may want to try it too. And I hope you do.
Well, three weeks ago this is how it all started –
Traveling to the land of Chinggis Khan, passing through the same vast Steppes of Central Asia where he and his mighty army lived in and trampled across to conquer nearly half the world had been one of those dreams which you birth quietly while turning the pages of a history book but keep bottled up inside thinking it might be too lofty to see the light of day.
But ours just clambered up into reality after years of planning. And on the way to Mongolia, we spent a week in Seoul in South Korea by hanging out at ancient palaces, sipping persimmon tea inside traditional tea houses, whizzing through local markets in search of mung bean pancakes and shopping on neon lit streets of Myeongdong.
Two destinations clubbed together on the same trip couldn’t have been more different, not just in terms of landscape and the lifestyle of people who live there but also to the degree they transformed us as travellers when we set foot on their terrain. While it was fascinating to explore the mix of quaint and cutting-edge cohabiting in Seoul, the city never pushed our boundaries or threw us out of our comfort zones as traveling in Mongolia did at certain times, especially when we were in the countryside and yet it left the most incredible and also indelible taste in our mouth.
Now that I’m back home in Singapore, there are stories to tell and sketches to share from this epic journey of ours but not until I can steer my mind away from where it is comfortably dwelling, which is here –
and (mostly) here –
…and here –
From our apartment window in Singapore I can only ever see a sliver of sky squished in between two Goliath high rises. Sigh! But then again I have access to running water, privacy, ensuite bathroom and high speed wi-fi. It may not be very long until you hear from me again, after all.