Illustrations by Ah-young Jung
Hollym, 2011, 144pp
How can one write a whole book about a stroll down a street tucked in behind the Deoksu Palace? How can one spend a whole day there?
Well, in part, the clue is in the title – the walk is slow. We start before breakfast, sitting under an ancient Pagoda Tree pondering on its age; there is a chapter on Slow Travel; a chapter on the joys of a little sit-down after lunch; and the book’s back cover carries an endorsement from Carl Honoré, the author of “In Praise of Slow”.
But although we don’t cover much ground geographically, Gibb uses the buildings and other points of interest along the way as gateways to go off on little detours exploring Korea’s history, pleasurably extending our little ramble.
This is Seoul’s diplomatic quarter, where most of the foreigners set up their legations when Korea first started opening up to the ouside world. It is the environs of the Deoksu Palace, where King Gojong took up residence after the Japanese murdered Queen Min – conveniently located close to the Russian embassy where he could take refuge. So most of the historical musings in this book relate to the late Joseon period or the colonial era. But we also touch on early Joseon history with the tomb of Queen Sindeok (the second wife of King Taejo, the dynasty’s founder) which was originally in the area until it was moved to northern Seoul by the vengeful son of Taejo’s other wife.
If you have been on one of Peter Bartholomew’s guided walks of the Palace Area of Seoul, some of the material in this book will be familiar. But Gibb is an equally genial guide who has some additional stories to tell.
The book is beautifully produced, and illustrated with atmospheric paintings of the area by Ah-young Jung.
As I was reading the book, I was wishing that there was a nice illustrated map to highlight the items of interest that were being discussed. It was not until I had finished the book that I noticed one tucked inside the back cover, so carefully folded into the binding that it easy to miss.
If you’re in a hurry, this slim volume won’t delay you long. But of course much of the pleasure in this book is in turning the pages slowly, enjoying the illustrations, and maybe going off on little mental detours of your own. This is perfect gentle holiday reading. You don’t need to be in Seoul to read it, but you will want to sit for a while under the Pagoda tree on your next visit.
- Buy at Amazon.com (not currently available on Amazon.co.uk)
- Strolling through pages of Jeong-dong’s memory lane, a feature on the book and interview with the author, Korea Times, 4 March 2011