“He dismantled her tomb and rebuilt the bridge using the stones–upside down–so people would always walk on top of her grave.”
The real reason I got interested in Korea was its history. When I was in college, I took a course in Korean history to help fulfill a degree requirement. It turned out so enthralling that I took another semester of it and continued studying it after college. It’s Game of Thrones in Asia. It’s chock full of “You won’t believe what happened next” stories.
You wouldn’t get that impression when visiting Korea’s famous sites. The people who put together the tourist materials have a knack for surgically removing any life from historical places. The plaques next to buildings say things like, “This building is *** meters wide and *** meter long. It has *** columns. It was located in the ***-dong neighborhood, which used to be part of the ***-dong neighborhood.”
Did I put you to sleep?
Yes, that information is technically correct, but it doesn’t say WHY this is historic. It’s from this frustration that I started working on creating the Dark Side of Seoul Tour. People outside of Korea don’t know Korean history. Honestly, after living here for over 12 years, I’ve realized that people who grew up inside Korea don’t know as much as well. There are some Koreans who get upset that I do a tour about what they think isn’t the “correct” history.
If the term “correct history” doesn’t make you cringe, I suggest you read some George Orwell. Here we are with people taking to the streets and with international organizations criticizing the Korean president for forcing schools to only use government-approved textbooks, laying out their own “correct” histories. Listen, just look at the news on the internet, radio, newspapers, and television. You’ll have multiple reporting on the same event, with modern recording equipment, and they all have different accounts of news events. History is even more vague.
With that said, I worked for over a year, researching all I could, using multiple resources, before I started the tour. I consulted with real life historians, and I still do. One of the historians went on the tour after I started it. I was nervous that I had gotten some facts wrong. In fact, not only did I get everything right, he added more tales to the tour. This isn’t, as I think one person put it, some preppy white boy making stuff up about Korea. Everything has been researched and backed up. In fact, the story that utilizes the quote at the beginning of this post comes from plaques in Korean and English right there on the Cheonggyecheon River.
True, though, some of the more modern stuff is anecdotal. And the ghost tales of hitchhiking spooks and voices in wells are just that–ghost tales. I believe that ghost stories and urban legends are reflections of a society’s anxieties. A spooky yarn is but one more window into a culture.
I’ve been doing the tour since 2013, and I still don’t get tired of it. The “Extended Edition” is what the tour originally was–a two-and-a-half hour walk through northern Seoul. But it’s long. Some people really loved it. Others grew tired after a while. During peak season it became an issue. Young people would convince their friends to come along, who really were more interested in clubbing afterward in Hongdae than learning about Seoul’s dark history. I called them the “club kids.” They’d straggle along in the back, talking the whole time while I was telling stories. And then they’d go and give negative reviews that I made up everything–the same stuff that they weren’t even listening to. I had one tour where one faction almost got into a fight with some ruder-than-usual club kids. After a few people got too tired to finish the 2.5 hour tour and one person even had an asthma attack, I decided to split it into two versions. Now only the hardcore take the full tour.
We’ve had a few tales inside the tour itself. Some self-proclaimed clairvoyants have claimed to see the same little girl following us during the first half. One person started hyperventilating at a place where a massacre had occurred. We had a homeless man join us out of curiosity, who wandered away when he figured out it was in English. We’ve been kicked off of palace property by guards and let inside closed palaces by guards. Just recently, I was telling some news about the attack last year on the American ambassador. Soon after I told it, the actual ambassador walked by us and said hello.
In the end, this is all about having a good time. We have no agenda on this tour. We don’t want to make Korea look bad. If anything, we want to make Seoul more interesting. The most common feedback I get is that guest get a deeper appreciation for Seoul. They thought of it before as a generic Asian concrete neon city. Now they see it as a rich complex place that has a tale to tell.
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