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Sleepless in Seoul

Seoul-fogOutside the hotel room silence reigns in the streets of Seoul, South Korea. The bedside clock reads four. I stare at it, willing the numbers to change. I shift onto my back to gape at the chalk pigmented ceiling. I am hoping its blandness will lull me to sleep. I search the bed for a cool spot, I burrow into the pillow for a cradling nook. I sigh, frustrated, then turn to glare at the timepiece again. The last digit has increased by one. I get up and walk to the refrigerator, yank the door open. I gaze at the array of miniature glass bottles. I contemplate opening one. Instead, I move to the window and pull apart the curtains. Through my silhouetted reflection city life hangs in poetic balance, countless illuminated buildings humming with electricity while innumerable others enfold their charges in sheltered oblivion. Beyond the sixteenth story floor-to-ceiling glass, nameless night beckons. I hear its song wavering through the skyscraper tips barely discernible from the other side of the vitreous barrier.

“In my yearning to escape from the manufactured world I have fled to isolated pockets “out there…””

I twitch closed the shades, switch on interior lights. In the pale chartreuse gleam of my chamber, I get dressed. I surreptitiously poke my head out. A nocturnal hush envelops the corridor. An inner voice warns me this is not a propitious time to be out. Anything is more bearable, though, than these taut white walls and that despicable red-numbered clock. I squirrel into the passage, resting my palm against the closing panel to maintain the noiseless murmur of a dreaming lodge. No late guest stumbles past as I walk the hall, no lovers’ whisper reaches from behind mute chamber portals. There is not even a concierge in the dim lobby. Black fills the atrium’s grand windows. Fear makes me swallow hard. I consider going upstairs, waiting out insomnia in bed with the comfort of television. I tiptoe towards the entrance, peep through transparent frames to see a narrow alley bathed in the flaxen blush of a lamp-post. It looks docile, inviting me into the nocturne. As I step out an ebony breeze chills my earlobes. I sniff the air inhaling whiffs of baking dough, fermented cabbage, heated asphalt. It is the scent of Seoul, a perfume the sun masks.

Seoul-pavement-BTA few cars whiz by, their wheels whooshing on the moisture-laden pavement. Garish advertising screens continue selling fragrance and fashion, their dazzle heightened by the somber neighborhoods. Faceless structures, so innocuous I ignore them, lurk ready to ambush me as I pivot blind junctions. A woman hurries by on the other side, her heels rat-a-tatting in haste. Her strides fade in bittersweet symphony to my pace. Two blocks later a security guard lounges against a brick façade, his cigarette a radiant pinpoint in the gloom. Several yards later a hunched senescent sweeps rubbish into his dust pan. Our gazes briefly meet; we nod at one another, conspirators in this obfuscating kingdom. I pick my way through dim-lit alleys, steering past dead ends, negotiating the warren of pedestrian routes. Artificial beacons become my sole guide along the moonless maze, coaxing me further from familiar quarters. Despite the incessant buzz of industry and the labyrinthine splay of fabricated alloys, I feel at peace.

“This boundary between day and night transforms Seoul’s personality from banal arbiter to mysterious sibyl.”

At the corner, the thoroughfare forks in two. I have no destination, so I haphazardly pick the one to my right. I realize there is no true darkness in a modern metropolis. Violet haze hovers above me. Fog thickets obscure the sky refracting every scattered neon beam into a creamy luster which swathes me. Seoul glows from within. I have never noticed the imposing scope of a shuttered municipality. My waking moments in cities are occupied by navigating its people, managing its harsh efficiencies. Now the humdrum lanes from which I avert my scrutiny hum with sensuous color. Traffic signals alternate red and green splashing their dyadic hues onto the coruscating ambient palette. Mauve fluorescent marquees, citrine incandescent diodes, persimmon warning indicators, pearl cubicle bulbs, ultramarine restaurant placards all flicker and flare around me. This boundary between day and night transforms Seoul’s personality from banal arbiter to mysterious sibyl. Mist and simulated luminescence combine to construct an enigmatic tranquility. Even the smug digital crossing signal in its squat striding pose appears mystical.

Seoul-night-BTI catch the billboard tinted glint of a stream. I follow its course underneath an overpass to where it cascades into a plaza bordered by twin rows of steel towers. A solitary sparrow sips from its indigo lit ripples, balancing at the edge of a cement rock platform. Surprised to discover wildlife here, I stalk it as it hops across slab archipelagos, crossing the rivulet. A darting shadow distracts me. I flinch startling the bird who flies off into the starless void. I reach an overarching pedestrian bridge, keeping to the tenebrous margins afforded by high walled embankments. In a clearing updraft created by broad-shouldered properties a hawk circles. A rat scuttles past me on its way to forage a trash bin. As I climb the stairs to the other side of a highway, a lone cat watches me before strutting off on its hunt. The sidewalks are no longer vacant. Who knows what else traverses the dim corners alongside me? Furtive rustlings and surreptitious scampers reveal that this domain I wrongly attribute to humans belongs to a camouflaged diversity of creatures.

Seoul-silhouette-BTI loiter at a street light feeling my senses sharpen in the soft bedewed atmosphere. The grey subtleties of this hour become distinguishable: the imperceptible slate concrete crack, the silver lost coin in the gutter, the charcoal stray slinking into bushes. My pupils widen to seize the gloaming. My nerve ends tingle with adrenaline. Everything comes into focus, even the tentative breeze worming its way from the soaring edifices to under my jacket collar. In the cooler temperature I glean warbles from the handful of trees lining the avenue. The same zephyr that caressed my neck flutters the leaves. Faint chirrups accompany me from barred shops to empty square. The night itself speaks to me through Seoul and suddenly, in this bastion of civilization, I feel a part of the greater cosmos. In my yearning to escape from the manufactured world I have fled to isolated pockets “out there,” forgetting in the process the magic of an ever-present wilderness churning quietly in our midst.

Seoul-steps-BTThe cold air, the moody boulevards, the long walk have done their job. Giddiness overwhelms me. My head seems detached from my body, my toes are numb, my legs leaden. The haze lightens as my eyelids grow heavy. Making my tottering way back to the hotel, I promise myself that I will heed my surroundings more carefully. I will pay attention to the subtle rhythms of movement among the iron girders, seek out micro-systems in the macro frameworks. A dove coos from a tiled rooftop, gentle reminder that life is a matter of listening for the sounds we want to hear.


Gaecheon used to be an 8.4 km creek which once flowed through the city before connecting to the Han River. As Seoul expanded, Gaecheon’s shores were an ideal spot for new settlers to live. Years of occupation then industrialization led to its eventual demise. In an effort to bring back nature into the metropolis, encourage ecological design, and promote pedestrian friendly roads, Seoul restored the stream. Now a long urban park, Cheonggyecheon incorporates art, culture, nature, and business in a bid to create a more holistic capital.

What are your favorite night sounds? Do you have a city where you love to explore at night?

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