Many good and bad things happened during the winter in Seoul last December (2017). We rang in the new year with the worst argument ever, missed our international flight back home, cried and begged the airport authorities to let us board the plane to no avail, and was left stranded on the road in the middle of the night with no help.
But when I think of Seoul, I feel elated for reasons that I am not aware of. The winter we spent in Seoul is hands down one of the happiest times of my life spent in a city, thanks to no one but the kind city itself. With all the ups and downs of life actively bubbling, Seoul stayed in the background calming me down as we explored the city. In the end, when we finally boarded the plane after a week of cries and laughter, I knew I was saying goodbye to my favourite city in the world.
It took me a year to figure why Seoul, a city full of tourists, shops, vehicles, and crowds became a favourite so strong that every now and then, I dream of going back to spend another winter in Seoul all by myself for longer, much longer.
Winter in Seoul is pure magic
To me, winter is home, winter is the season to bloom. Seoul in December is all about streets full of people loaded with layers of black coats, colourful beanies, long scarves, and cold hands holding onto hot mugs. There’s a cool wind in the air but warm and cosy heating in the rooms. The heating across the city is so well done – subways, shops, houses – that at no point the harsh winter gets to you. At one moment, you are freezing in the cold and at another shedding off layers in a cosy cafe. The constant search for cosy warm corners made this freezing season in Seoul full of warmth.
Bookstores in plenty
If I were to make one thing mandatory in everybody’s travel itinerary, that would be a visit to local bookstores. The setting and book collection at a local independent store tells so much about the culture of a place which is often hard to figure otherwise. Seoul is filled with independent bookstores each with a character of its own. Given South Korea’s love for theme based cafes and stores, bookshops here come with a twist too. While the cold wind blew outside, Seoul’s bookstores were a happy and warm escape. I picked up a lovely title called The Firekeeper’s son (a Korean tale for children) for my niece from a store called What The Book, one that will always remind me of the happy winter in Seoul.
Everything they sell is made in Korea
Shopping during travels is neither a priority nor an option (budget travel woes) for us. In Seoul, that changed. When in Seoul, shopping isn’t about hoarding but relishing Seoul’s markets that thrive in its subways, streets, and independent stores. Unlike most other tourist destinations, stores in Seoul sell domestic products (and not ‘made in China’), charge tourists the same amount as they charge the locals, cater to locals and tourists alike, and have Korean speaking vendors that make the transaction much more fun. Besides, shopping is an integral part of the culture and doesn’t seem like an activity set up to trap tourists and there are genuinely useful things for everyone from cosmetics to clothes.
Anonymity in the crowds
If India is the epitome of staring, South Korea is the opposite. We were literally invisible to the crowds and in a way that made us feel very comfortable. Be it the crowded metros or Seoul’s old empty lanes, we weren’t treated differently or even given ‘touristy’ attention that sometimes makes you feel out of place. It made living in the city enjoyable because nobody really cared when we did act a little out of place. This anonymity that rarely comes when travelling abroad was a unique feature about travelling in Seoul. The coolest part was that when we did needed a local to help us, they were always there. In fact, we haven’t met locals as kind as the ones we met in Seoul. Perhaps this indifference to the tourist is the reason why South Koreans are considered ‘dry’. But all one needs to do is ask, and you will get the kindest attention in return.
Intelligent things to do
It’s not only about the vast number of ways in which Seoul can keep you entertained, but it’s also the variety and uniqueness of activities available that impressed me. We may have explored a tenth of the things in Seoul, but none of them was the same or even similar. One can go on a graffiti village hike and learn all about it, watch a musical or a performance, meet a bunch of youngsters and get drinks with them, or just walk around and find creative people at work in different parts of the city. The city has an intelligent vibe to it that gets your creative juices flowing as well.
Having raised in a small town, I never thought I would love a city so much. Crowds, chaos, and far too many options disturb me. Seoul, though, is so well managed and organized that the chaos seemed easy to navigate. It seems like everyone knows the rules so well that small acts like crossing streets to hopping on metros appear like rehearsed performances of top-notch quality. No doubt that it takes time to understand the systems and rules but once we learnt those, a crowded city like Seoul became a cakewalk to move around and explore.
Have you been to Seoul in winters? I am curious to hear if I am the only one obsessed with the city or if its a general consensus.