ONE of the rewards and, indeed, privileges of frequent travel is sometimes getting an opportunity to revisit a place. And sometimes you find an ugly duckling has become the proverbial swan.

For me that is Seoul, South Korea’s thriving, thrilling capital. When I lived there for a year a decade ago, the sprawling city was completely without, well, soul. It was bleak, surreal at times and almost completely unwelcoming. The culture seemed opaque and the conformism was stultifying.

The architecture was austere, uniform and relentless. The traffic was annoying, the food was "take it or leave it" and even the award-winning Incheon International Airport felt like the life had been sucked out of it, being deserted most of the time.

But what a difference a decade can make. A recent return visit to Seoul revealed just that: it has found its own soul. Like some giant pop stage, the once dour and dull cityscape seems to have burst into life, full of choreographed energy and a real sense of purpose and place.

This metamorphosis was clearly aided by the "Psy" (real name Park Jae-sang) phenomenon — a fat and playful Korean pop star whose contagiously popular song "Gangnam Style" (Gangnam is the Rodeo Drive of Seoul) became a world sensation in 2012. It attracted more than a billion YouTube hits and fans everywhere, including UN secretary-general and fellow Korean Ban Ki-moon.

Suddenly Seoul has become East Asia’s capital of cool, a title long claimed by Tokyo.

With four distinct seasons and a harsh and relentless winter, the arrival in mid-April of the capital’s spectacular cherry blossoms would have made even Vivaldi weep, such is the glorious celebration of the season and the kaleidoscopic display.

Apart from the grounds of the five remaining royal palaces dating from the 1400s, Seoul is a fairly grim urban sprawl, bisected by the characterless Han River and dominated in the north by the Namsan mountain, atop which sits the ubiquitous concrete transmission tower known simply as N Seoul Tower.

But one radical improvement is Cheonggyecheon Stream, the massive urban renewal project that saved the life of a once important rivulet. This 10km park with the replenished stream as its centrepiece has brought astonishing new life to the dreary sector of the city.

The restoration of the sacred stream was a controversial move costing billions of won, but the park has become the magnet for locals and tourists alike that was foretold by the city planners. The project involved the demolition of unsightly but necessary overhead motorways that had completely hidden the waterway during Seoul’s post-Korean War industrial and economic awakening and building boom.

Rerouting traffic and providing public transport alternatives have actually improved flow in the congested Seoul streets, though nobody who lived through it will forget the nightmare of the construction process a decade ago.

Contributing to the improved traffic flow is the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, one of the most complicated and efficient underground and overground rail networks in the world, with its 17 lines and a route map that looks like a bowl of multicoloured noodles.

Getting around in Seoul is easy, when you know how. The subway is the best way to traverse the city, though be warned, etiquette is paramount for Koreans. No pushing, running, eating, jostling or loud conversations are condoned, and it is almost a competition to see who can be first to offer their seat to an elderly or infirm passenger. English among taxi drivers is almost non-existent, so be prepared with your destination neatly written on a piece of paper by your hotel receptionist or a kindly Korean friend. A mobile phone with local access is almost a must.

One of the most charming neighbourhoods in central Seoul is Insadong, the culture and crafts district, which I called home. Basically it is one street crammed with shops selling antiques, pottery, art works, traditional crafts and even some quirky sex toys.

As is my wont in any city, new or familiar, I head for the highest point, in this case N Seoul Tower. The 1969 structure contains overpriced restaurants and gimmicks but the view, on a clear day, is spectacular. The tower itself becomes an attraction at night when digital art is projected onto its concrete facades.

As with most major Asian cities, shopping in Seoul is a major draw card. Huge department stores such as Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae are voluminous and stuffed with every brand or item you can hope for. While there is an awful lot of polite bowing and smiling, finding an assistant who speaks passable English is a mission in itself.

The best retail memory ever has to be entering Lotte’s main store at opening time and being greeted by an army of smartly dressed shop attendants and treated to the soaring chords of the "Triumphal March" from Aida. It is almost comical, but after such a performance you feel obliged to part with some precious won.

One of the most charming neighbourhoods in central Seoul is Insadong, the culture and crafts district, which I called home. Basically it is one street crammed with shops selling antiques, pottery, art works, traditional crafts and even some quirky sex toys.

In the back streets there are some excellent traditional Korean restaurants serving delicious bulgogi, which is finely sliced beef marinated in a piquant sauce and cooked on a tabletop grill. Beef or pork ribs, called galbi, are another delicacy. The absolute treat for me is samgyeopsal, unseasoned pork belly which you cook yourself on the Korean BBQ, adding garlic and onions, and then dip in spicy ssamjang paste before wrapping in lettuce.

Your clothes reek after an evening meal in these restaurants, particularly in winter when ventilation is limited, but it is a small price to pay for glorious gourmandising, Korean style.

One aspect of Korean entertainment that takes a little immersion is the drinking. There are all sorts of arcane rituals around knocking back the local firewater soju, which causes all Koreans to go bright red after two sips and then become uncharacteristically friendly. For the more timid the Korean rice wine cheongju is less scary and makes a fine accompaniment to the BBQ delights.

Nightlife in Seoul is prolific but no evening on the town is complete without a visit to the notorious Itaewon neighbourhood, located near the main US Army base and filled with bars, clubs, massage parlours, shops selling clothes and kitsch, restaurants and lanes lined with hookers and hopefuls. There is even a section quaintly called Homo Hill with its discreet collection of gay bars.

On Itaewon’s main drag, if you will pardon the connection, there is invariably a fight going on as some tattooed US soldier discovers his southern drawl and beer breath aren’t quite enough to charm a demimondaine into his clutches and a pimp steps in to negotiate. The US military police are usually on hand to crack a few skulls and settle offended sensitivities.

One of the great symbols of Seoul, the six-century-old Namdaemun Gate, is back to its former glory following a multimillion-dollar rebuild after some nutter burnt down the wooden part of the structure in 2008.

The imposing gate is one of the original eight that gave access to the city during the Joseon Dynasty and in its lee is the teeming Namdaemun market, which is open 24/7 and sells anything from Korean housewares to silk and fake Gucci handbags.

From my office tower window the gate became my symbol of Seoul and the evening commute involved negotiating the inscrutable driving habits of Koreans as I guided my bright red American Ford Taurus through the sea of black Hyundais and Kias.

Almost a metaphor for Seoul itself, the beautifully restored Namdaemun Gate signifies a link with the glorious past while having the sheen of something new.

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Fri Oct 28 19:36:49 SAST 2016

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