Crowds, Chaos and Recreational Rage
For better or worse, Seoul knows how to collect and transport human beings. Such an enormous space is nonetheless chocka with at least two people per square centimetre or so, and it appears that public gatherings are a true testament to such statistics.
I will apologise in advance, and draw particular attention to the latter part of the title; at present, Meg and I are merrily cursing and castigating the majority of the populace after a particularly intimate day with Personal Space Invaders.
I know that, as English natives, we are accustomed to a culture of social aversion to one another, never allowing ourselves to be in the same breathing space as another human. This has its upsides and downsides; while we are free to shuffle and scratch at our leisure, we lose something in human interaction (and are incapacitated when presented with a bus full of half-occupied seats). In Korea, however, space is a luxury, and personal space is relatively mythological.
This was particularly driven home as we embarked across Seoul to a fireworks show this evening. Being the well-prepared things we are, we aimed to be there an hour before the show itself, in order to get a good spot. As we reached the station, however, it became apparent that this was not to be: see photos for reference of the sheer scale of the similarly-minded crowds.
Getting on the train felt like the horizontal equivalent of crushing cardboard boxes with one’s own body weight, or – possibly more literally – like a rugby scrum. We tethered ourselves to a pole in the carriage and made ourselves as small as possible alongside hundreds of others who, quite contrasting with ourselves, seemed surprisingly content with their present lot in life. The heat was equivalent to the metropolitan pit of Hell, yet no shouting/swearing/complaining was to be heard from anyone but ourselves.
On a more positive note, we witnessed an amazing reenaction of the ‘safety guide’ videos otherwise ignored by commuters: a girl who, after failing to rugby-tackle her way into the carriage’s enormous brick of humans, trapped the handles of her bag in the closed doors as the train was about to depart. Two men on either side of her (in the five-second window before the secondary ‘safety doors’ shut on the entire bag/her arm) pulled emergency levers by the door simultaneously, then yanked the bag free before silently retaking their places waiting for the train. No words of exclamation or thanks were exchanged, they just did it. On the Tube in London you’d get laughed at before becoming a YouTube sensation.
Arriving at the riverside park, it was obvious that we were not early. The park was swarming, miles across, with locals setting up for the fireworks show. We found a spot roughly 3ft x 4ft on the grass and claimed it for ourselves (ie. Meg passed out and slept on me while I tried to reach my Soju on her other side). An hour later – 35 minutes later than planned – the fireworks start…and we are instantly overrun by a mass of families who seemingly erupt from the earth behind us, kicking my camera out of the way and standing on our food and drink as they completely block our view of the fireworks display in a human Great Wall of Korea. The three minutes of pyrotechnics we saw before giving up and leaving were spectacular, though.
The last laugh’s on us, though – they had to get home at the same time as two-thirds of Seoul.
There are photos here of our day in Insadong as well, but I’ve spent my energy and creativity ranting again, so am running out of adjectives. It was good. I saw a small dog, and a wooden sword which Meg wouldn’t let me get.