Weekends have been a little different round our way recently. Back in October, our British neighbours downstairs finished their contract and went back home and they were replaced by a nice Canadian couple. Our new neighbours wanted to learn some Korean and were going to free morning classes on Saturdays in Seoul so we ended up going along too. I have to admit at this point that we stopped going to our Korean Hagwon (private academy) after 2 months as we were fed up with having to make the long journey to Bundang twice a week through heavy traffic and we weren't really enjoying the course. So this free class seemed like an ideal alternative.
The free Korean classes are apparently run by volunteers, young guys and gals who want to get some teaching experience on their resumes. They do a great job, really focussing on getting the pronunciation correct and going at a steady pace so that you have time to really absorb what is being taught. Despite the fact that we've already been learning Korean we went with our neighbours to the super beginners class just to really reinforce what we already know. Our new favourite Korean word is 고구마 (goguma) meaning sweet potato just because it sounds funny if you say it in a silly voice! We get a short talk on some aspect of Korean culture at each class too which is interesting. We found out the other day that kimchi (Korean spicy fermented cabbage) might be able to cure cancer which was a bit of a revelation! I think we have finished the super beginners class now and should hopefully be starting the beginners class in the new year. Our Korean is still shockingly poor but I think we're at the stage now where we understand what people are saying when they're speaking to small children or their dogs so it's a start at any rate! The only drawback is that the free classes are at 10am to 12pm on Saturday mornings and are in Gangnam in Seoul which is an early start for the weekend but they are completely free. The classes we were taking at the Korean Hagwon were pretty expensive which is another reason why we quit them. Finishing at midday is a good excuse to go to Dos Tacos for some tasty burritos too, which is never a bad thing! Also, having a reason to get up early (we have to leave our apartment at 8am) and get into Seoul gives us the impetus to actually start exploring our new capital city, something we have done shockingly little of so far.
On a very cold, windy Saturday afternoon in late November we went to Gyeongbokgung Palace in Northern Seoul after our Dos Tacos lunch. Gyeongbokgung translates into English as the "Palace of Shining Happiness" and it was first built way back in the 14th century and was the largest palace in Seoul. Unfortunately, as with many of the great cultural buildings in Korea, it was nearly destroyed by the Japanese government during the Japanese occupation of Korea. According to Wikipedia "From 1911, the Japanese government systemically demolished all but 10 buildings during the Japanese occupation of Korea and ultimately constructed the Japanese General Government Building for the Governor-General of Korea in front of the throne hall." Since the late 1980s, the Korean Government have been restoring the palace and there's now about 40% of the original buildings standing again. It is still a pretty big palace complex so it must have been huge back before the occupation.
Inside the Gyeongbok Palace complex. The building in the centre is Geunjeongjeon Hall, the Throne Hall, where the King would greet foreign envoys and ambassadors.
Close up of Geunjeongjeon Hall (Throne Hall). Apparently this building is Korea's National Treasure No. 223. I don't know why but the National Treasure numbering system here really tickles me!
We witnessed the changing of the guards while we were visiting the Palace. It was a very colourful ceremony, with a band of musicians in bright period costumes playing traditional instruments accompanying the guards with their beautiful banners.
Guards at the entrance to the Palace. Note the nicely painted ceiling of the gate and the Throne Hall in the background.
If you looked back out of the main entrance gate you got an interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new with the towering buildings and heavy traffic outside.
An ornate drum just inside the Palace complex, near the gate.
The beginning of the changing of the guard ceremony. The guards' costume included long bird feathers in their caps which I thought made them look a bit like owls.
Some of the beautiful banners being carried by the guards.
All the guards formed up into ranks in the main courtyard. It was a pretty incredible sight with the mountains rising up behind them.
The band of musicians formed up and ready to march. The music sounded very strange to my Western ears but I liked it. It sounded extremely "Eastern" (to me anyway) with lots of rhythmic percussion and an odd, thin, reedy sounding wind section.
The wind section, replete with my favourite instrument of the lot, the giant conch shell!
The percussion section, including the bizarre looking instrument on the right.
There seemed to be a few ceremonies being staged for the tourists at the Palace that day. I think another one was a recreation of members of the Joseon Dynasty era (1392–1897) Royal Family going out on a trip accompanied by their guards, musicians and other servants. That was very colourful too and had everyone snapping away like mad on their cameras and with this being Korea, home to a population seemingly obsessed by taking pictures of everything (most people here seem to have digital slrs rather than the standard compact point and shoot cameras), it was a hell of a snap fest so to speak!
A recreation of the Royal court preparing to depart on a trip (I think!).
We had arrived a bit too late for the English speaking tour of the Palace complex so we just wandered around on our own armed with a map. I don't think we really did justice to the Palace and all the other royal buildings as it was so cold that day we rushed round it rather quickly. I think if we had visited on a slightly more pleasant day it would have been a really nice place to stroll around as there were pretty extensive grounds including a lake stretching out behind the main palace buildings and it's surrounded by craggy hills (or mountains - not sure if they're too big to be hills) that rise suddenly up from the ground as hills often do here. We did look around the main sights though and we used the toilets in the National Folk Museum (located in the Palace grounds) though I don't think that counts as properly looking around it! Maybe we can try again in Spring!
A traditional bowl shaped sun dial in the Palace complex.
A Korean tour guide armed with a novelty stick topped with a white foam hand commands the attention of her audience.
Gyeonghoeru, the Royal Banquet Hall, was used to hold important state banquets during the Joseon Dynasty era.
Hyangwonjeong Pavilion, was a small, two-story hexagonal pavilion built in 1873 with a little bridge leading out to it.
Part of the roof of the National Folk Museum of Korea.
An ornate building (perhaps a well or a bell pavilion) located just outside the Palace that has become a sort of traffic island. I liked the way it was oddly juxtaposed with the new skyscrapers.
One of the only pieces of graffiti we've seen in Korea was just outside the Palace complex.