Seoul is a great place to visit, but cast your net just a little wider and you’re bound to haul in a bountiful catch of historic eye candy from outside the capital.
Since this was a family holiday, we’d been doing pretty much all of our sightseeing together from the moment we arrived in Korea – but today was an exception. By prior agreement, the 14th was set aside as an opportunity to do our own thing, so our merry band of travellers broke up into small groups and went on separate excursions.
For my part, I reverted to my default solo-traveller mode and set off on an out-of-town day trip, full of history and culture and architecture and pretty much everything that would probably have bored the living daylights out of more than half the people in our party, had they chosen to accompany me.
The journey began at Seoul Station, one of the country’s main transportation hubs and the terminus of its growing high-speed rail network.
My destination wasn’t all that far from Seoul; in fact, I could have easily hopped onto a Line 1 subway train and reached it in about an hour. Then again, as a railway enthusiast, I was eager for a taste of South Korea’s conventional train network and decided to take one of the less frequent (but faster) intercity services.
Today’s ride was the Saemaul 1041, departing from Seoul at 09:35. This train belongs to Korea’s second-fastest long-haul rail service, the fastest of course being the high-speed KTX.
A little over half an hour later, I got off at my destination: the historic city of Suwon, capital of Gyeonggi Province and one-time contender for capital of the entire nation.
There wasn’t all that much to gawk at around the station itself, except for those with a burning interest in either mid-rise urban sprawl or billboards written in a foreign language.
Of course, I didn’t come all the way here to stare at either urban sprawl or billboards. A bus ride into the historic centre of town brought me within a short walk of this splendid monument – the starting point for today’s expedition.
Welcome to Paldalmun, the southern gate of the mighty Hwaseong Fortress. Constructed in the late 18th century on the orders of King Jeongjo of Joseon – supposedly as the first step in his plan to move the capital here from Seoul – the fortress consists of more than 5 kilometres of walls and towers that once surrounded the entire city of Suwon (which of course has now far outgrown this ancient boundary). Heavily damaged during the Korean War, Hwaseong was subsequently restored and is now a World Heritage Site.
Except for certain sections that have not yet been restored, and probably never will be (including the area around Paldalmun itself), the wall runs on an almost uninterrupted course around the old centre of Suwon, making it possible for visitors to do a full circuit along or near the route traced by the fortifications. I didn’t have the time or the energy to attempt a complete circumambulation, but I was determined to cover at least the long stretch leading uphill from the southern gate.
A brief stroll down a side street brought me to a ticket counter, where I paid the nominal admission fee and received a sticker to place on my jacket. It’s their way of easily telling apart those who’ve forked over the tiny 1,000-won fee from those cheapskates who might try to take advantage of the lack of turnstiles or other physical barriers along the route (and, perhaps, those innocent souls who might have wandered onto the wall without knowing that a fee was being charged).
Some words of caution for those planning to go on this wall-top stroll. It’s certainly far easier than your typical back-country hike, but there will be quite a bit of steep uphill walking to do, so wear comfortable shoes and pack plenty of water (especially on a hot day). For those whose legs aren’t up to the task, a gaudily decorated tourist bus covers a large part of the route so this is one option worth considering.
Exhaustion notwithstanding, I found it a rather pleasant walk, and as the elevation increased I’d sneak the occasional glance back the other way to see the marbled congestion of Suwon spreading out far below me.
At the summit of Paldalsan, the hill overlooking the historic centre of Suwon, I encountered a gaily decorated pavilion named Seojangdae. Originally completed in 1794 (and most recently rebuilt less than a decade ago), this once served as Hwaseong’s western command post.
Off to one side of Seojangdae is this interesting rook-like archers’ platform, said to have been designed to allow skilled crossbowmen to shoot down invaders attempting to approach this part of the fortress.
I’m not the least bit surprised that they decided to put a command post on this lofty perch. The views of the surrounding terrain are hard to beat.
I say, is that a palace down there? No worries mate, that’s our next stop.
The wall keeps going on for miles from this point, but I didn’t have a lot of time to spare as the whole family was supposed to reassemble in Seoul later that day for a group meal. From Seojangdae, I took a shortcut through the wooded hillside in order to quickly reach the palace we saw earlier.
In due course, I found myself facing the monumental gate of the Hwaseong Haenggung, King Jeongjo’s official residence in Suwon. Much of the palace was destroyed in the early 20th century during the colonial era, but it was eventually rebuilt and opened to the public in 2003.
Near the palace complex stands the Hwaryeongjeon, a shrine dedicated to King Jeongjo that was erected not long after his death in 1800. The unpainted, weathered timbers of this small compound offer an interesting contrast to the brightly decorated – and rather fresh-looking – buildings of the newly restored palace next door.
There’s plenty more to see in Suwon, but in the next hour or so I managed to visit only a few other places in the city before the time came to return to Seoul. We’ll have a quick look at those sights in the next post, after which we’ll sit down and enjoy a splendid Korean dinner in the lively shopping district of Myeongdong.
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Thank you for your detailed report! 🙂
What things surprised you the most in terms of contrast between Korea and Japan?
An interesting question, for which I have an interesting answer: it wasn’t so much the differences that surprised me as the similarities. I’ve spent far more time in Japan than in Korea and the former almost feels like a second home to me now, but whenever I’m in Seoul I have this sensation . . . mm, not sure how to describe it but there’s a certain sense of familiarity, of being at home, akin to the comfort I feel when I’m in Japan. I can’t attribute it to any single factor, as it appears to stem from a great many things that I’ve observed in both countries: the polite interactions, the marbled mix of old and new architecture, the efficient transport networks, the advanced technology, the hierarchical nature of society, the burden of a long and often painful history.
Having said that, I do think that they’re very different from each other, with Korea perhaps coming across as a bit rougher around the edges – but, and I really need to stress this, NOT in a negative way! It just strikes me as a little less rigid, a little less micromanaged. Whether it’s train stations that are perhaps a tad scruffier, queues that aren’t quite as straight, pavements that aren’t quite as level . . . little things that add up to the overall picture. I actually like rigidity and micromanagement and all that (a reflection of my own structured personality) but I also appreciate experiencing contrasts, and Korea is in the wonderful position of being so much like a country I love very deeply (Japan) whilst having its own unique way of doing things.
Thank you for your elaborate reply! 🙂
It sounds like the countries feel somewhat similar to you, but the differences are also present and discernible.
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