Tuesday, May 19, 2020

There and Back Again: Video Tours

My favorite videos on Youtube these days are the walking tours, in which someone carries a camera through a cityscape or landscape.  They range in length from half an hour to two hours and more.  I usually watch them on my TV through the Youtube app, which gives them extra vividness; I've caught myself thinking about buying a larger TV, but I don't have a good place to put one and 42 inches is really big enough.  They usually have no narration or musical soundtrack, so it's easy to get lost in the experience, but as often as not I just start one up and let it run as I do other things.

I first stumbled on some from Japan, starting with this one taken at night during a thunderstorm in Tokyo. The rainy soundtrack can be restful all by itself.  Youtube algorithms directed me to others.  Snowy landscapes or cityscapes are also pleasant, especially since you don't have to cope with the snow yourself.  (Here's one I found later, of snowfall in Manhattan.)  I also enjoyed these videos of Halloween in Japan.

When the quarantine started, I began sharing some of them on Facebook.  It occurred to me that these videos might alleviate feelings of confinement -- they do for me -- and when people began posting suggestions for home-schooling activities, I began looking for walking tours of other countries, in Europe or South America or the United States.  I passed along this tour of the inside of the Statue of Liberty.

Finally I found some walking tours of places in Korea.  This one, of Seoul by night, is taken from the air and is breathtaking.  I was interested in areas familiar to me, and Seoul Walker provides plenty.  Some of these videos were shot before the epidemic, but Seoul Walker has kept busy, and there are several from the past month or two.  I used to spend a lot of time in COEX Mall before it was renovated several years ago, and I don't much like the new version but it's nice to see what it looks like nowItaewon is not my favorite district of Seoul, but I recognized the streets and even the stores.  Here's a Saturday afternoon in Gangnam, of "Gangnam Style" fame.  Here's a student district that I visited, I believe, on my last visit to Korea in 2018.  There are a couple of videos featuring Insadong, an artsy / touristy district not far from City Hall.  I know it well partly because friends took me there on my first few visits, but it's also a good place to buy gifts for friends and family when I return to the US.  It's also adjacent to Jongro (pronounced Jongno), where I spent much of my free time on my last several visits to Korea.  Finally, here's a tour along the ocean in Yeosu, a seaside city in South Cheolla province where I visited a friend on my most recent trip in 2018.  We walked along this very route.

I find this video rather chillling: it's a residential district of private houses, probably owned by moderately (though not extremely) rich people, with no stores or street vendors; it has the same kind of emptiness as upscale housing developments in the US.  I've never been there nor am I likely to go even if I am able to return to Korea.  On the other hand, here is Nami Island, a popular tourist attraction; I have a vague memory of going there or to an island like it in 2003 or so, but in any case it reminds me of parks I've walked around since then.  And here's a video of a train ride to Seoul from Gyeongju, a southeastern city that was formerly the capital of one of the ancient Korean kingdoms.  I've been there twice, and took this ride myself a couple of years ago.

It might seem odd that I prefer the videos set in cities, where the camera passes among crowds.  For me that's a (paradoxical?) pleasure of being in a city: to be surrounded by a river of people, while still being anonymous.  (As anonymous as an old white man can be in an Asian city.)  Or look at this one, of Provence Village, a tourist attraction northwest of Seoul: I don't feel left out and isolated among these people, I feel included, contained, safe.  Once in a great while someone will single me out to talk on the street or in a subway station, which is fine.  As I've written before, subways - at least in Korea - are social places, where a lot of interaction happens between people, offering their seats to others or just striking up conversation.  At the end of the day I'm glad to go back to the friends I'm staying with for dinner and more talk, or watching TV together.  But the city is one of the great human achievements, and I always feel satisfaction being in one, especially when it's as well-run as Korean cities tend to be.  Not perfectly run, of course, no human construction will be perfect, but well-run.

I have mixed feelings about these Korean videos.  On one hand, they bring back good memories; on the other, they remind me of places I may never be able to see again.  I'm nearly 70, and who knows when it will be possible to travel to Korea again as a tourist? But for now, I'm grateful to be able to see these places again.