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The Seoul summer days have been blurring into one another, an endless cavalcade of heat exhaustion, errant cicadas flying into my face and a frustrating inability to keep much food down because I’m sweating so profusely it seems my other bodily functions have ceased operation.

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Woke up to this on my phone and stopped breathing, thought it was North Korean missiles; turns out it was just an extreme heat warning. Photo: Arca

Kristi and I are working together today with an intern from New York University named Sharon. Our assignment is for a segment on Koreascape. It’s been loosely defined and planned: grab a recorder and talk into it. Take in the sights and paint them in the minds of our audience with words and well-timed fake laughs and gasps.

Radio can be a supreme piece of theatre at times.

We’re going to Gyeongbokgung Palace and then we’re heading up the mountain to get a load of Namsan tower, where lovers live. Or rather, where good taste goes to die. Afterwards, we plan on rolling back down into an air-conditioned space where we can eat and recover.

Koreascape host and my ever-ready soju partner, Kurt, decides it would be a great experience were we to don traditional Korean clothing (called a hanbok) when we go to the palace. Those wearing a hanbok get in free. The catch is, one must wear the appropriate clothing for one’s gender, otherwise they must PAY… money to get in.

Kristi is excited about this, I’m a little mortified at the prospect of wearing a dress. The producers suggest I wear the men’s outfit - somehow this fills me with more anxiety as I imagine myself being chastised at the palace gates for being some sort of freakish crossdressing infidel.

Biting back my penchant for catastrophising everything, I agree to wear the men’s outfit. Kristi and Sharon are both dressed by the time I arrive at the little shop across the street from the palace. I’m immediately pulled inside by a woman who will be dressing me. I put on some extravagant navy piece with a huge golden dragon embroidered on the front. I’m told I look handsome by the women in the store and as they crowd around me to take pictures and fuss, I want to disappear into the floor.

*

Getting into the palace is no big deal. I’m wearing sunglasses and a neutral face. It also helps that I’m hiding behind Kristi and Sharon as they're waved inside by the guards. Once free to walk the palace grounds, I feel the tension lift a little.

It’s a mercilessly hot day and the sun beats down on us no matter where we stand. Even posing beneath some pretty trees, taking each other’s pictures, feels torturous.

“I want the cute dappled light!” I say to Kristi, who tries her best to take a photo of me standing under a gorgeous tree at the moat’s bank. Even in this shade, the sunlight seems to crash through the leaves and burn pinholes into my back and shoulders.

It’s wonderful to walk through the grounds though, despite the heat and the scratching of my stiff robes.

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Here I am looking uncomfortable, whilst a woman appears to commune with the tree spirit behind me. Photo: Kristi Cheng

The warm air smells like fermented fruit and aged wood and it makes me stupidly giddy when I see a hundred squashed and rotting apricots all over the Emperor’s garden. I think about how fun it would be to roll around on them. I express this desire to Kristi and she tells me I need to drink some water.

As we realise that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to breathe in our restrictive clothing, we decide to return to the hanbok rental store before one of us passes out ... or I hurl myself into the apricot graveyard ... or the black pond.

*

After 2 Gatorades and a change of clothing, we’re on a bus heading up towards the Namsan tower. Kristi and Sharon are talking into the recorder and I’ve got my face pressed against the window's cool glass, thoroughly enjoying my forehead smashing against it with each bump in the road because I am a complete freak.

Korean buses are the best. I love them, they’re not just a mode of transport, they’re an experience. Not only do the drivers have no care at all for your welfare as they break hard and without warning, accelerate before you’re all the way onboard and fling open the doors before the bus even stops: but you can control your own air conditioning above your seat! You can even open windows!

Well accustomed to the psychotic jerking of Seoul buses, I stand up to turn my air conditioning off and open a window, much to the chagrin of everyone in my immediate vicinity. I can see their irritation as a blast of incredible heat pins them back to their seats. Kristi glares at me and then laughs.

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Korean transit cards are adorable, why aren’t Opal cards as cute? Sydney transport doesn’t believe in fun. Photo: Arca

The scenery is something to behold. Seoul’s architecture makes no sense to me. It’s a Frankenstein skyline wherever you look, and I can’t decide whether I like it or not, but I seem to enjoy staring at it constantly - perhaps because it’s so foreign.

We get off the bus at the wrong place and proceed to hike 1.3 kilometres up a mountain at a 45-degree angle in heat so overwhelming and so suffocating that it feels like cotton balls are being stuffed down my throat, into my lungs, crowding up into my head and filling my eye sockets.

It’s unpleasant. It’s glorious.

At the top of the mountain it’s much cooler, less humid and I feel a wild accomplishment in my veins as I suck down the remainder of my warm water. Kristi and Sharon both agree that the air is amazing up here. We take deep breaths. I can smell dirt and trees and running water. It’s revitalising and a welcome change from the near-constant stench of alcohol and sewage permeating the air and curling into my nostrils at street level.

*

Namsan tower is interesting. It appears to be some sort of romantic mecca. There’s a fence with thousands of love locks on them and there are brochures that talk about romance. On the patio outside at the base of the tower, there’s a garish plastic love seat that curves down in the centre, forcing the people sitting on either end of it to slide inevitably into the middle, where I presume they will fuse in a mess of cringe and sweat.

The sign above the seat says: “Is your date awkward? Break the ice by sitting on this love-seat, it will bring you closer together!”

It seems this is where you go with your lover, to be screwballs together as you watch the sun go down over Seoul’s confounding skyline. Afterwards, you can go inside and buy overpriced souvenirs.

As we descend the mountain, Kirsti and Sharon walk ahead of me, chatting breathlessly. I stay quiet and reflect on love. I mean, we'd just visited a literally enormous symbol of love, a place of love, a commodified kinda love but love nonetheless!

Next stop is the Gwangjang market for some real romance.

We’re gonna eat something that’s still moving.

About the Blog

Parallax records the experiences of final year students of the B.A. (Media & Communications) degree who have won competitive overseas internships to work in Asian, Indian and Latin American media organisations.
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