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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?

38 replies »

    • Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun wandering around the streets at night. Not something I usually do, but jet lag forced me to see Seoul in a whole new light. Aside from that, I also really enjoyed discovering Jogyesa Temple. It was a tranquil little haven in the midst of the very modern city.

  1. I’ve never been to Seoul before, but I can well imagine how interesting, almost magical, a city it is to wander around at night. I’ve been in what are (I imagine) somewhat similar places, such as Singapore and Tokyo, and they have a very different atmosphere in the early hours.

    Incidentally, I remember reading about Cheonggyecheon in another blog fairly recently. It sounds like an extremely worthwhile urban project. Perhaps it can be a model for other cities.

    • Cheonggyecheon has had its proponents and critics. It has come under scrutiny for ridding the neighborhood of small independent businesses. Many have questioned how much it is helping the environment since water from the Han River has to be pumped daily into the stream. It remains to be seen what will happen to this project in the future given the high cost of its maintenance. I do hope, however, that more places creatively think about how to incorporate public spaces and ecological corridors into their design. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

      • I see. It’s interesting to hear another side of the issue. The post I read was talking about it mainly from the point of view of a tourist walking alongside it. Well, I guess time will tell whether or not the project was a net plus or minus for the city.

    • Thank you Charlotte! I did feel safe walking around the streets of Seoul, but wherever I walk and whatever the time I stay alert, aware of my surroundings, and pay attention to the hairs on the back of my neck that warn me of potential danger.

  2. I love the way you seize adventure ~ when an opportunity presents itself, albeit an unpleasant one such as not being able to sleep, you take the most unpredictable road 🙂 Wonderful photographs of a world that most never see ~ a sleeping city, that you show is still very much alive. Great insights and inspiration. Wishing you safe travels!

  3. I’ve spent many a night tossing and turning in a strange bed in a strange city. I’ve never been brave enough to venture outside. You’ve given me an idea. 🙂

    • 🙂 Really?! Knowing your penchant for unusual (and tranquil) adventures, I would have thought night exploration a favorite of yours. Thrilled that my story has made you consider the possibility of doing so in the future….

  4. Exploring the city all alone just before dawn (I was hoping you would mention that!) is indeed adventurous and I marvel at the details as if you were writing while walking around. Brilliant!
    A solitary sparrow seems to be imaginary…I have never seen a solitary bird!
    I like to explore new cities but your way is extremely innovative. 🙂

    • Thank you. So happy you enjoyed my little night adventure in Seoul. Interestingly enough I feel I am always running into solitary birds while exploring nooks and crannies or see them flying in circles slowly above my head….

  5. This is a wonderful read. I have spent many a night tossing and turning, debating whether or not I should actually go for a walkabout. You really did it – you crossed that strange barrier of discomfort. Good for you, and thanks for the read!

    • 🙂 Thanks for letting me know what you though of it! The background soundtrack is something I am slowly incorporating for a different reader experience. I love the interesting comments about it. So far, it has taken a lot of people by surprise.

  6. I have never read Seoul depicted in this kind of way, which I think is brilliant! Officials from Jakarta once learned from the South Korean capital about the revitalization of Cheonggyecheon, and only recently results are starting to materialize. Beautiful and evocative write up of this often overlooked city!

    • Thank you so very much. I am thrilled you enjoyed my viewpoint of Seoul! I think it is important for officials to try innovative ways in which they can incorporate sustainability and ecology into the dense fabric of their cities. It is nice to see places that are trying different things to achieve a more holistic urban life.

    • You are so right about human eyes seeing things in the dark that are not there! Night walks have shown me how unreliable our sight can be — shadow and light don’t act the same in the dark. Thanks for the comment!

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