Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Seoul's massive, chaotic Namdaemun street market is not what I pictured when I thought about coming to Korea. It's how I picture the crowded Ichra market in my hometown of Lahore, where I never actually went because my mother was afraid that I'd get lost and never be seen again. If it can be sold, you will find it somewhere in Namdaemun, which literally means South Great Gate in Korean ("nam" meaning south, "dae" meaning great, "mun" meaning door). It's a little different from Hong Kong's street markets in that there you will find just about anything that can be made (toys whose function you can't discern, souvenirs from other countries, Coca Cola flip flops, t-shirts billing a Starbucks in Chiangmai, Thailand, etc.).

Today I saw box after box quantities of large Hershey's chocolate bars, peanut butter, microwaveable hot dogs and bacon stored at room temperature, Korean bills turned into boxers, $30 suit jackets and three deep-fried jumbo squid for a dollar, my favourite. Don't even get me started on the many stores which sold blindingly powerful Christmas decorations, robot Santas and, in a city of 20 million where there are only apartments and parks are just squares, several lawnmowers.

Walking between neighbourhoods in Seoul is a bit like walking into a surreal no-man's land. There are no street names in Seoul, at least not names that anyone knows or cares about, no grid system, nothing. Walking in a neighbourhood is fine because people simply overwhelm cars. If you want to move around the city, however, take the subway, a taxi or drive in a car that has a GPS (I've never seen a car that didn't have one). The space between neighbourhoods is entirely roads, roads that were designed for driving, not walking.

I decided to walk from the Namdaemun market to the seedy Itaewon foreigner district. Itaewon means "foreign pregnancy", named after the Japanese who raped and impregnated female monks in this area during the Japanese invasion of Korean in the 1590s. Itaewon is full of American soldiers with room temperature IQs, foreign teachers who aren't much better, and migrant workers from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and elsewhere. It's like walking into an uncomfortable depiction of a not-so-distant future where poor, lascivious men eke out an uncertain living in a technologically advanced but destabilized society. Nothing about Itaewon will leave you with a good feeling, except maybe the Indian food, which is what brought me there.

Central Seoul is arranged almost like the numbers of a clock around Namsan (literally "south mountain"), which acts as a barrier of sorts. It is an oasis of calm in a numbingly loud city, and also offers spectacular views of the city. Going from Namdaemun to Itaewon by foot requires you to go up this 800-foot hill and to descend into the filth, much like to go to the Piraeus in ancient Athens was to go down to the Piraeus, a phrasing of Plato's of which my professors made sure I was aware.

Of course, when there are no street names and you're standing on the only landmark in the area, you're bound to get lost. Get lost I did, at dusk, in a maze of narrow, confusing streets that sometimes ascended breathtakingly and dropped steeply at other times. After about an hour, just as sunset was starting to make me wonder if sharing the road with reckless cars in this miserable three-dimensional labyrinth wasn't going to get me killed, I saw a Turkish restaurant filled with men of questionable morals. From there, it was a few zigzagging turns and then I was surrounded by Nigerians renting VHS tapes, Americans buying XXXL clothes and old Korean women hauling a tractor's worth of knicknacks on their backs.

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