I had a 24 hour stop-over in South Korea on my way to America for my university-visiting holiday, and attempted to cram as many experiences as possible into the short time. On the trip over there on Asiana Airlines, I watched A Millionaire’s First Love, ate bi bim bap, learnt I didn’t like kimchi, read the Lonely Planet and worried how I was going to cope in a non-English-speaking country.
I arrived at Ichean (“the winged city – not just an airport”), and very easily figured out that I needed to catch the 602 bus to Anguk station. However, my bus driver did not speak English, and I was afraid he would forget about me, so every couple of stops I would go up to him and ask “Anguk?”, to which he would shake his head, becoming a little more annoyed each time. Finally we reached Anguk station, and with the help of google maps, an address written in Korean, two helpful restaurant owners, and my telephone-number-matching abilities, I was able to find my hotel.
I stayed in the Insadong district in the evening, a delightful area nearby the Josean dynasty palaces and surrounded by tall granite mountains, and due to its steep streets, full of winding narrow alleyways where two houses are never on the same level. There were traditional tea-houses everywhere, and markets on the main street, so the place was filled with laughing and smiling people, buying paper fans, singing karaoke, and clapping enthusiastically to a group of Western buskers playing “When the saints come marching in”. I wandered up and down the road soaking up the atmosphere, and then ate tasty noodles at Shinpo Woorimandoo, again confirming that I don’t like kimchi.
I woke up at 5:30 the next morning, ready to explore the vibrant and clean city. In my rush not to get run over by the crazy traffic, I accidentally stepped on wet concrete, so my footprint is preserved on Yulgokno Street, opposite the Information Booth. I was off to explore the Jongno-gu district between two palaces – a fascinating mix of shops, traditional tiny homes with tiled rooftops, and huge modern houses. I saw the prime minister’s residence with large white gates, many trees, and lots of guards, the Australian ambassador’s house, and got thouroughly lost in the tiny alleyways that weave there way through the neighbourhood. The view from the top of the hill was amazing – the palace buildings, tiled rooftops, skyscrapers and highways all melding together with trees filling all the empty spaces.
Every building seems to have a small piece of beauty by the front door. For tall buildings, a sculpture is required by law, but even the smallest home had some bright flowers growing at the entrance. At first the residents look surprised to see a young Western girl wandering around their neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning, but they all greeting me with a warm smile and nod. Amusingly, Korean houses are numbered in the order that they are built, so its very easy to know which is the oldest house in the street, but finding a particular house is quite a challenge.
Breakfast was warm and fluffy green tea stewed bread, and then I was off to Gyeongbokgung, the Palace of Shining Happiness. This was the primary palace during the Joseon dynasty, first built in 1395. Then it was burnt down by Japan, rebuilt in 1868 (and being forced to borrow money from Japan to do so), torn down again by Japan in 1910, and it is still being rebuilt today, some structures being only three years old. The most important building, the ceremonial hall, is exquisitely constructed, with red walls to ward off evil spirits, and green shutters to welcome kindness. The edges of the rooftops lift gently up, and are home to the heads of water dragons to protect from fire. A high status building such as this is also protected by rows of other gaurdian creatures, including Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy, and Monkey.
The entrance to the ceremonial hall is lined with endearing granite sculptures of animals representing the many virtues of the king. Korean sculpture is quite amazing, able to bring warmth and life to cold stone, and I couldn’t help but smile back at the small creatures sitting atop the steps.
The huge amounts of granite available from the mountain also inspired their heating system of the ondol. The stone floors are heated by charcoal from below, and the smoke is ducted to chimneys that sit as sculptures in the gardens that surround the buildings, decorated with pictures and symbols for luck and longevity.
Behind the palace rises the stunning vista of Mount Bugaksan, a towering granite mountain covered with lush trees, reaching up into the clouds. I contemplated its beauty by the relaxation pavillion, and then it was time for the next palace.
Changdeokgung, the Palace of Illustrious Virtue. The secondary palace of the king, World Heritage listed and first built in 1412, although also rebuilt several times. Similar in layout to Gyeongbokgung, it also features a magnificent secret garden, cool even in the summer heat, and filled with a library and meditation pavilions. One pavilion resembles a lotus flower, and dips two of its feet into the square pond, which in turn surrounds a small tree-filled circular island. This scene is overlooked by the library, and I rested here for a while, enjoying the cool stone against my skin, and watching the birds hunt for insects in the pond.
My contemplation at an end, it was time for me to catch a bus to the airport, and fly to the United States.