Itaewon: The Unlikely Capital of Muslim Korea

Itaewon-ro - Itaewon's high street.

Itaewon-ro – Itaewon’s high street.

Itaewon (이태원) is a popular district in Seoul, just north of the Han River (한강) and south of Namsan Park (남산공원) and its iconic N Seoul Tower (which I already wrote about in Namsan and the N Tower post). It is a popular tourist destination with its many bars, pubs, and restaurants serving international cuisine and beverages. Tourists who decide to stay in the landmark Hyatt Hotel or Hotel Hamilton have plenty of shops to go through here while some of the lonelier soldiers stationed in the nearby American Military Base can perhaps shop around on the (in)famous Hooker Hill, Seoul’s own Red Light District located just south of Itaweon-ro (이태원로).

The more seedy side of Itaewon. Here, the backstreets near Hooker Hill.

The more seedy side of Itaewon. Here, the backstreets round Hooker Hill.

The district is quite possibly the most liberal area in the whole of Korea where one can be openly gay or transgender. Of course, this is still Asia, so we can’t really say that Itaewon is just like any other liberal Western city. Also Korea is a particularly orthodox country where even straight couples found kissing in a public place can easily find themselves frowned upon.

With all the Korean liberalism and American soldiers patrolling the streets after dark side by side with Korean prostitutes, Itaewon can be thought a rather unlikely home to Korea’s main Muslim place of worship: the Seoul Central Mosque (서울 중앙 성원) that’s located just next to Hooker Hill. Yet I believe this just goes to show how open and accepting Itaewon is, also when it comes to foreign cultures and their fashions, cuisines, ideas, beliefs.

Notice over the outer entrance to the mosque. The entrance itself styled after traditional Islamic pattern design.

Notice above the outer entrance of the mosque. The entrance itself is styled after traditional Islamic pattern design.

Me in front of the Seoul Central Mosque.

Me in front of the Seoul Central Mosque.

I meet my Korean friends in Itaewon late in the afternoon and after some browsing in a number of shops on the high street, we make our way through the seedy backstreets surrounding Hooker Hill towards Seoul Central Mosque. If you’re a newcomer, this really doesn’t seem like a place you’d like to find yourself in after dark. It is really quite surprising to find an important temple like this one within such an area, not only due to this area’s reputation but also because of the dilapidation of the backstreets. Nonetheless, the outer entrance as well as the inner buildings of the whole Islamic complex have not fallen into the shabby state of disrepair. The outer entrance, the mosque walls as well as the interior are decorated with complex mosaic patterns so familiar to those who at some point visited any of the Arab countries. The mosque itself is quite large and sports two tall minarets. Owing to the fact that it is built on top of a hill, those minarets can be seen from quite far away.

Sunset over Itaewon. On far left, the 2 minarets of the Central Seoul Mosque

Sunset over Itaewon. On far left, the 2 minarets of the Seoul Central Mosque are clearly silhouetted against the orange sky.

The Seoul Central Mosque has quite a recent history. It was raised in 1976 primarily with the financial help of the Malaysian Islamic Mission and is now the heart of the Muslim community of South Korea which nowadays amounts to circa 35,000 people.

Seoul Central Mosque.

Seoul Central Mosque.

The community itself also dates back only to the recent 20th century. In fact, one might say it started with the Korean War as it was during that time, in the year 1950, that Turkey sent its soldiers to aid the United States and South Korea’s military. After the war ground to a halt some of the troops of the Turkish Brigade remained in the country in the character of peacekeepers, aiding humanitarian efforts while at the same time introducing Koreans to the tenets of Islam. Shortly a new Muslim community was born in Korea.

I guess this little bit of history wraps up what I wanted to say and write here. Hope you all enjoyed what you read and perhaps learnt a thing or two. Thanks!

Oh and if you fancy reading a bit more about the Turkish Brigade click on the link below:

The Turkish Brigade on Wikipedia

South Korea (대한민국) – The Background of My Trip

Traditional Korean colours used in traditional style architecture.

South Korea is a country that I intended to visit for a very long time. Contrary to many people who fascinated with neighbouring Japan delve themselves in Japanese language studies, splash out on sushi dinners once in a while or get completely consumed by the lively Japanese pop culture, I became enchanted by the sound of 한국말, the Korean language, and later on the Korean culture.

Whenever I met a Korean traveller surprisingly many of them would frequently about explaining the whereabouts of their homeland, ever so often referencing their neighbour – Japan. It is true, sadly, that the land of sushi and ninjas is far ahead of Korea in terms of popularity. I find that almost everyone is familiar with some part of the Japanese culture, from cute animes and mangas, through the mentioned ninja assassins, insanely wan geisha ladies, ending with raw fish. Who of us has never heard words like sayonara or arigatou? Or perhaps of such urban monsters like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka? I could go on listing Japanese motor companies, but I think I have already illustrated my point well enough: Korea remains a mystery to many Westerners!

I did a little survey and asked around if any of my friends and acquaintances know anything about Korea. Well, the obvious first thing to come up was taekwondo, the Korean martial art. Few of my acquaintances surprised me with their knowledge of kimchi,  a Korean staple in the form of fermented spicy cabbage. And finally there was Kim Jong-Il, the infamous North Korean dictator who complete with massive sunnies features on a number of slogan t-shirts. To my dismay, the colossal companies like Hyundai or Samsung were thought to be Japanese… (This is a point where my lovely Malaysian friend would dejectedly say “facepalm”!).

Myeongdong (명동), Seoul, is a lively and colourful paradise for shoppers from all over the world.

So, why Korea? Well, the reason why I fell in love with Hankuk, as Korea is known to its residents, is exactly this particular obscurity and mystery in which it is shrouded. While I was studying the language and progressing from beginner level to intermediate, I got to know more and more about the Korean culture. Although, not only through visiting Korean BBQ places or indulging in the delicious bibimbap, but also through film and the growing popularity of K-Pop music. In fact, almost everything I know about the country is a result of my own research. Hardly anything was served to me on the proverbial silver platter, which is a privilege often enjoyed by Japan-lovers. The efforts I spent researching, reading, surfing for information, watching, and listening made the whole process of discovering Hankuk much more rewarding in the end and personally precious.

So, truly, I have become a fan of Korea and therefore try to promote it as much as I can. Other people’s lack of knowledge about the country I grew to love began to irritate me and finally when once upon a time a certain man happily announced that Korea lies between Singapore and Indonesia (!) I thought that dark times lay ahead indeed. And then all of a sudden I seemed to have gained a new and most definitely larger-than-life ally – Psy, the South Korean celebrity.

Korea Seoul Psy Gangnam Style 싸이 강남스타일

Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ (싸이의 ‘강남스타일’).

In the summer of 2012 the world changed forever owing to the rapidly growing popularity of Korea’s musical export: Psy’s hit 강남스타일, more popularly knows as Gangnam Style in the Western World. Complete with its inane and at the same time Makarena-like contagious dance, Psy’s loony little ditty took the globe by storm and, in the minds of millions of Westerners, slammed South Korea on the map of the World.

Yet Psy’s most laudable exploits took place already after my memorable trip, for it was in the late spring 2012 that I boarded an Air China airbus and flew to Seoul, Korea’s capital city. From there, I made my way south to Busan, Ulsan, and back to Seoul through the wonderful city of Gyeongju. It was short but unforgettable journey filled with local food, chats with local ajummas (super friendly Korean middle-aged ladies who just love it when a cute Westerner speaks a bit of their language), modern and historical sights, and many many more exciting things that I shall describe soon!

Destination
1 Seoul, South Korea
2 Busan, South Korea
3 Ulsan, South Korea
4 Gyeongju, South Korea
5 Seoul, South Korea

Namsan and the N Tower

Namsan Mountain (남산) and the N Tower. Seoul. South Korea.

Namsan Mountain (남산) and the N Tower.

Sitting comfortably in the heart of Seoul and overlooking its ancient palaces is Namsan (남산), which in Korean stands for the South Mountain. This name, a token of the past, is proof that in times long gone by Namsan Mountain demarcated the southern border of the once small Seoul city, a city that since those times has grown out of proportion. Surrounded by a leafy large public park, Namsan offers a number of hiking opportunities to the locals, while from the top one can admire the panoramic view of the vast urban sprawl that constitutes the South Korean capital.

Sun setting over Namsan and Itaewon disctrict.

Although Namsan amounts to mere 262 metres in height, it can be easily spotted from various areas of Seoul. This is due to one of the city’s landmarks. Located on the peak of the mountain is the N Seoul Tower, which amongst Koreans is more commonly referred to as, simply, the Namsan Tower or the Seoul Tower. Needless to say, visiting Namsan deservedly landed on the top of my things-to-see-in-Seoul list, and so it should for any traveller!

The N Tower. Namsan.

It’s a beautiful evening in May and it’s already dark. I’ve met my friend Ju-young for a traditional Korean dinner and now we’re driving to Namsan. With some difficulty we find a parking spot – on a warm evening like this Namsan is particularly popular with visitors. We’re very late and from the parking area need to go at a trot to catch the last cable car to the summit. We manage by the skin of our teeth! Once on top it’s a short distance to the foot of the N Tower. The only problem is that the said distance is made up of a flight of big wide concrete stairs. I speed ahead to catch one of the last lifts going up the tower while Ju-young, owing to her high heels, lags behind a bit. Once again we are successful and within moments are transported by the world’s fastest lift to the observation deck up top. One interesting thing worth mentioning here is that the N Tower’s observation deck, which usually functions as a rather pricey restaurant, is actually revolving! Admittedly, not at a break-neck speed that would make your food fly off your plate along various trajectories, but at the pleasantly sluggish speed of 1 revolution per 48 minutes. Hence, if you do stop by the restaurant it really is worth hanging around for almost an hour enjoying your meal and the slowly changing view outside.

South Korea Seoul Namsan N Tower Nightview

Seoul seen from the top of the N Tower.

Ju-young and I take our time walking around the deck, taking pictures and trying to recognise Seoul’s other landmarks hidden away in the neon jungle that surrounds us. The panorama around is breathtaking – the lights of the city seem to illuminate everything as far as the eye can see. Seoul’s territory seems to have no limits! To the north we can see the busy Myeongdong, Seoul’s prime shopping district; immediately west of us is Itaewon, the perhaps most international and liberal area of the city that even contains a mosque! The flow of the high-rise buildings is only interrupted briefly to the south by the Han River (한강) that majestically wends its way through the centre of Seoul. Beyond it arise the skyscrapers of Gangnam and Apgujeong, Korea’s plastic surgery capital. After that the lights fade in the distance.

Locks of love piled one on top of another at the N Tower’s observation deck.

Ju-young and I take the lift down and stay awhile at the large viewing platform at the base of the tower. Most of the visitors tonight turn out to be young couples who arrived here with their locks of love and who can sometimes be found in the shadows stealing the occasional kiss, or even snogging – something that according to the strict Korean social norms is most definitely not permitted in public. Soon Ju-young and I board the cable car and descend.

The River Han, seen from the N Tower viewing platform.

The River Han, seen from the N Tower viewing platform.

One last thing I’m going to say here is that Namsan Mountain really is quite an institution in Korea. Probably there isn’t a Korean around to whom the name wouldn’t mean anything at all or wouldn’t bring up childhood memories. Why? Well, over the course of time Namsan snuck it’s way into the Korean folklore and now occupies a warm cozy place within a sweet nursery rhyme Moon (달) that Koreans sign to their kids:

Moon moon what kind of a moon [달달 무슨달]
Round moon like a plate [쟁반같이 둥근달]
Where is it right now? [어디어디 떴나]
It is over Namsan [남산 위에 떴지]

 

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South Korea (한국).