CHAPTER VII. Corean inns - Seoul - A tour of observation - Beggars - Lepers - Philosophy - An old palace - A leopard hunt - Weather prophets - The main street - Sedan chairs - -The big bell - Crossing of the bridges - Monuments - Animal worship.
During the time that I was in Seoul - and I was there several months - most of my time was spent out of doors, for I mixed as much as possible with the natives, that I might see and study their manners and customs. I was very fortunate in my quarters: for I first stayed at the house of a Russian gentleman, and after that in that of the German Consul, and to these kind friends I felt, and shall always feel, greatly indebted for the hospitality they showed me during the first few weeks that I was in the capital; but, above all, do I owe it to the Vice-Minister of Home Affairs in Corea, Mr. C.R. Greathouse, in whose house I stayed most of the time, that I saw Corea as I did see it, for he went to much trouble to make me comfortable, and did his best to enable me to see every phase of Corean life. For this, I need not say, I cannot be too grateful.
The great difficulty travellers visiting the capital of Corea experience - I am speaking of four years ago - is to find a place to put up at, unless he has invitations to go and stay with friends. There are no hotels, and even no inns of any sort, with the exception of the very lowest gargottes for soldiers and coolies, the haunts of gamblers and robbers. If then you are without shelter for the night, you must simply knock at the door of the first respectable house you see, and on demand you will heartily be provided with a night's domicile and plentiful rice. This being so, there is little inducement to go to some filthy inn entirely lacking in comforts, and, above all, in personal safety.
The Corean inns - and there are but few even of those - are patronised only by the scum of the worst people of the lowest class, and whenever there is a robbery, a fight, or a murder, you can be certain that it has taken place in one of those dens of vice. I have often spent hours in them myself to study the different types, mostly criminal, of which there are many specimens in these abodes. There it is that plots are made up to assassinate; it is within those walls that sinners of all sorts find refuge, and can keep well out of sight of the searching police.
The attractions of Seoul, as a city, are few. Beyond the poverty of the buildings and the filth of the streets, I do not know of much else of any great interest to the casual globe-trotter, who, it must be said, very seldom thinks it advisable to venture as far as that. No, there is nothing beautiful to be seen in Seoul. If, however, you are on the look-out for quaintness and originality, no town will interest you more. Let us go for a walk round the town, and if your nose happens to be of a sensitive nature, do not forget to take a bottle of the strongest salts with you. We might start on our peregrinations from the West Gate, as we are already familiar with this point. We are on the principal thoroughfare of Seoul, which we can easily perceive by the amount of traffic on it as compared with the other narrower and deserted streets. The mud-houses on each side, as we descend towards the old royal palace, are miserable and dirty, the front rooms being used as shops, where eatables, such as rice, dried fruit, &c, are sold. A small projecting thatched roof has been put up, sustained by posts, at nearly each of these, to protect its goods from sun and snow. Before going two hundred yards we come to a little stone bridge, about five feet wide, and with no parapet, over a sewer, in front of which is an open space like a small square. But look! Do you see that man squatting down there on a mat? Is he not picturesque with his long white flowing robe, his large pointed straw hat and his black face? As he lies there with outstretched hands, dried by the sun and snow, calling out for the mercy of the passers-by, he might almost be mistaken for an Arab. His face is as black as it could be, and he is blind. He is one of the personalities of Seoul, and rain or shine you always see him squatting on his little mat at the same spot in the same attitude.
It is only seldom that beggars are to be seen in Cho-sen, for they are not allowed to prowl about except on certain special occasions, and festivities, when the streets are simply crammed with them. It is then that the most ghastly diseases, misfortunes, accidents, and deformities are made use of and displayed before you to extract from your pockets the modest sum of a cash. I cannot say that I am easily impressed by such sights, and far less horrified, for in my lifetime it has been my luck to see so many that I have got accustomed to them; but I must confess to being on one occasion really terrified at the sight of a Corean beggar. I was sketching not very far from this stone miniature bridge on which we are supposed to be still standing, when I perceived the most ghastly object coming towards me. It looked like a human being, and it did not; but it was. As he drew nearer, I could not help shivering. He was a walking skeleton, minus toes and fingers. He was almost naked, except that he had a few rags round his loins; and the skin that hardly covered his bones was a mass of sores. His head was so deformed and his eyes so sunken that a Peruvian mummy would have been an Adonis if compared with him. Nose he had none - et ca passe - for in Seoul it is a blessing not to have one; and where his mouth should have been there was a huge gap, his lower jaw being altogether missing. A few locks of long hair in patches on his skull, blown by the wind, completed a worthy frame for this most unprepossessing head.