Tuesday, June 14, 2011

[SEOUL] The Grand Palaces of Jongno-gu

There are around six palaces in Seoul. I know they have: Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung, Deoksugung, Unhyeongung, and another one whose name I just forgot, --Guigung something. The first three along with Unhyeongung and the Jongmyo Shrine are all located in Jongno District in northern Seoul. The suffix -gung means “Palace” by the way. After reading one too many info stands I’ve come to know that most of these palaces were built because the other was destroyed by an invading force or the reigning monarch just wanted a different residence for himself or his parents, etc. “Look, Pa, we just can’t live under the same roof anymore. I’ll just build you your own palace a few hundred meters away, okay?”

Judging from the DIY walking tours I did, Changdeokgung seems to be the biggest since it also contains the Secret Garden, the guided tour for which already covers two hours. It's also the one designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the structures that once stood at Gyeongbokgung have since been transferred there. Gyeongbokgung is the one with the perfect location right in the middle of Gwanghwamun. Changgyeonggung is linked to Changdeokgung. Both used be one big palace. Unhyeongung is a smaller one near Anguk station and not as grand as but still manages to maintain an air of royalty. Deoksugung is located in Jung-gu, just opposite Seoul City Hall/Plaza south of Gwanghwamun.

Gwanghwamun is actually the main gate of Gyeongbokgung, hence the -mun suffix (Japanese “-mon”, Mandarin “mén” meaning “Gate”). It’s nice to hang out at Gwanghwamun Square because of the many sights you'll see. If you walk north from Namdaemun (currently under construction, Arson victim) you’d end up at Gwanghwamun Square, but before you do you'll pass by Cheonggyecheon first. At the square itself, you'll be greeted by a monument of Admiral Yi, a Joseon Dynasty navy commander revered by many as a hero. A few hundred meters behind him is the giant statue of King Sejong. To his right is the US Embassy while behind him is Gwanghwamun itself. Behind the palace is the picturesque mountain of Bugaksan.

You might want to postpone your trip to the palaces at the latter part of the week. Two or more of them are closed on Mondays or Tuesdays. A DIY tour is possible if you start early in the morning, if you'd like to cover all of them. Good luck to your legs. I started gallivanting in Seoul’s palaces on a Wednesday, beginning with the twins Changgyeonggung and Changdeokgung at 11 AM. Had I started my tour at around 9 AM I could have visited Gyeongbokgung as well and I would've been paralyzed from waist down the next day. If you plan on doing this, make sure you have plenty of water and comfy footwear. There's an entrance fee ranging from 1,000 t0 3,000 won depending on the palace. Entry to the Secret Garden is only possible via guided tour (KRW5,000 aside from the Changdeokgung entrance fee) which takes two hours. I believe you can do a DIY tour but only on Thursdays. A package ticket is available for 10,000 won valid for a month after purchase for all of the major palaces.

The palaces of Seoul have almost the same layout. You have the main gate which is almost always the one to enjoy celebrity status (ex. Gwanghwamun) and then a mini bridge over a stream flowing from the palace lake. Gyeongbokgung and Unhyeongung do not have this bridge. I am not sure if Gyeongbokgung did before its restoration. After the bridge is a square followed by another gate which leads to the biggest palace in the area. This is usually the King’s Throne Room, in front of which is another big square with a walkway at the center lined with stone markers for the ministers. The other palaces in the area will most likely look the same and function as a meeting room for the king and his ministers, royal residences, sleeping quarters for the palace crew, etc. There will also be pavilions and endless gardens within the vicinity. This is why during the Japanese occupation most of these palaces were downgraded to parks since they are, after all, giant parks. Lovely giant parks.

So I began with Changgyeonggung which was smaller than Changdeokgung, or maybe there just wasn’t as much to see. There are side exits leading to the gardens. The one to the east has a lake and a modern looking house built during the last decades of the Joseon dynasty. Wait, it looks like Changgyeonggung is actually bigger than Changdeokgung in terms of land area but Changdeokgung definitely has more palaces. Anyway let's not argue about surface size. Determining which is larger won’t solve the world’s problems. Going back to topic, still at the eastern garden is one of the kings’ Taesil. Taesil is Korean for “placenta” or was it “umbilical cord?” Damn my memory. Anyway they did that before, bury the placenta and make a monument above it. The palaces are all in the middle. The western garden is boring except for one structure that looks like a human sacrifice altar. There are a lot of trees and walking paths just perfect for lovely afternoon walks.

You climb some steps up the wall and you'll see the entrance to Changdeokgung. Money down! The Changdeokgung/Secret Garden combo is the most expensive of the bunch. Perhaps the ticket price is linked to the UNESCO World Heritage site tag. It won’t disappoint you, though. The walk is long but the sight is marvelous. Changdeokgung has the most palaces and they start to look the same after quite a while. Well, not really. Perhaps the ones by the entrance kind of look the same but once you go farther inside you will see how they start to differ in terms of structure, color, and style.

The Secret Garden tour started at 2:30 PM. With the beauty of the said garden you really can’t tell why it has to be kept a secret. Perhaps the title is owed to its location deep within the palace walls. After almost two hours of walking I realized why you need to have a guide. It would be very easy for you to get lost inside, perhaps slip and hit your head on a pavilion, and slide unconsciously towards the murky green lake. Never to be found again. Eek! Hahaha. The many pavilions of the Secret Garden will get you hooked. A little trivia from the tour guide: How did the King reach such great heights above the hill? He rode a horse or went about being carried on a movable chair. Maybe next time we could toss in a few thousand won extra for a movable chair too. A very old Juniper tree from China will greet you as you end your tour. That tree just looks so tired. You would also be if you were around 750 years old and all you ever do is stand on one spot. At least no one dared or cared to chop you.

I went for a little side trip at Bukchon Hanok Village after my twin palaces tour.My legs were, like, “Are you fvckin’ kidding me?” The village was some sort of residential area for the nobles during the Joseon era. Some of the houses were preserved as living remnants of a bygone era. Most of what have been preserved are roofs. Some of them have kept a traditional village motif in terms of architectural design while some have opted for a more modern approach resulting in a rather peculiar hybrid of traditional roof and modern body. Still it is nice to look at. There are two areas where most of the structures are grouped together. Other than those two, many of them are scattered around the vicinity. Another must-see is the park on top of the hill. That’s the caveat; it’s on top of the hill. I only reached as far as the observatory before I gave up. I wanted to just roll down that hill out of exhaustion but there were vehicles passing by and I just wasn’t in the mood to be a hit and run victim that day.

I reserved Gyeongbokgung for the next day. As usual, I woke up late. I arrived just in time for the changing of the guards’ ceremony. Gyeongbokgung is huge, too. Now I really don’t know which is largest. Come to think of it, Gyeongbokgung seems to be the biggest. Within the vicinity of the palace are two museums: the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea. I still prefer the one at Lotte World but these two are also good venues for a quick Korean History lesson. I only tried the Folk Museum, not that big. Gyeongbokgung has a beautiful pond full of lilies with a pavilion on the island in the middle, connected to the garden by a bridge.

Behind Gyeongbokgung is Cheongwadae (Blue House) where the Korean President resides. You need to send a request for a tour by email at least 10 days before your visit. I sent mine but I never received a reply. You can take a picture from Gyeongbokgung’s northern gate.

Unhyeongung is a mini palace that served as an alternate residence for another king. Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to details. Admission is free during lunch hour (12 PM - 1:00 PM). I was lucky enough to bump into a kind lady who happened to be the English tour guide. She toured me around the place for free and talked a lot about the history connected to the place. The impromptu tour was unexpected but very much appreciated.

All I could say is that despite their similar appearance, the palaces of Jongno-gu got me longing for more Korean History. I am now even considering attending MA Courses wherever I could find one. Those palaces and pavilions serve as connections to the past. What’s awesome is that they actually give you a wave of nostalgia for a page of history that is not even yours. It’s weird like that.

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