Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Korea Travel Update

Traveling in Korea fills me with a certain type of dread. I feel like I am stuck in a scene from a modern-day Brave New World, in which society has been ordered by some fascist eco-planner.

I have been traveling extensively across the countryside, from Seoul in the Northwest to Daegu in the Southeast. One thing which strikes me is that there is nothing which you could describe as a suburb. Korea is all brown scrubby hills leaning over valleys with small agricultural fields and the occasional industrial building. There are no houses.

From time to time, you will come upon a populated area. These all look the same, and consist of a number of apartment building complexes, each containing between two and ten buildings, each of which is between ten and twenty stories. These buildings are made of concrete, with a significant number of small windows, but no balconies. Each of the various complexes has a name painted on the top of each of its buildings (close to Seoul, these will be in English first, then Korean below). In a sad but perhaps telling contrast to the barren look of these apartment building complexes, the names all attempt to convey some sort of magical tranquility: “Peaceful Hills”, or “Scenic Vistage” or “Joyful Shores”.

On each building, underneath the name of the apartment complex, painted in an even larger size, is a number. I’ve seen hundreds of these buildings, and for some bizarre reason, all of these buildings seem to be numbered between 100 and 200.

Anyway, the effect is that any resident of any building in Korea could say something like “I live in High Valley 104”, and everyone who lives within 20 miles would not only know exactly where this person lived, but could probably actually see it from wherever he happened to be standing at the time.

Now, it’s probably very efficient to organize your living in this manner. It certainly lends itself to the use of public transportation, for instance (ironically, though, Koreans seem to shun public transport as much as everyone else in the world – traffic in Korea is horrific and when one looks around, the cars are all filled with a single commuter).

Furthermore, it is perhaps unfair for us Americans to criticize a population with as much density as they have here in Korea. There are about 50 million Koreans living in an area smaller than Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, the uniformity of the scenery in Korea is just dismal. Outside of the centers of large cities like Seoul or Busan, the countryside seems to lack any variability or dynamism. Every apartment complex looks just like every other one. For hundreds of miles.

I should note that it is not lack of wealth which causes Korea to have organized itself in such a manner: GDP per capita in Korea is over $20,000, putting it firmly in the first world. No, something else has caused Koreans to all want to live in concrete apartment buildings.

I am sure that I am missing something. To be fair, I have not traveled deeply into the countryside, nor have I spent any real time exploring. I am only conveying my initial impressions. But after my third trip to Korea, I can say that these impressions are confirmed upon each return.

This is mainly a gripe about aesthetics – none of this diminishes my profound admiration for the success of the Korean people. Their auto companies regularly eat ours for lunch, and one can hardly buy a quality flat screen television from anyone else. In about thirty years, the Koreans have lifted themselves from something like poverty to a real seat at the global table. They are bright and cosmopolitan

But their architecture stinks.