On a dim, chilly, overcast winter’s day in Seoul, Diego pokes around one of the Korean capital’s smallest royal residences.
Ahh, Korea. I may be thoroughly, utterly, irretrievably smitten by its next-door neighbour Japan, but Korea has also managed to tug at my heartstrings in a very special way – so much so that travelling there has become almost a yearly habit. The tumultuous, troubled, and often painful shared history of these two nations only adds to my fascination for them, and imbues every visit to either one with a significance that goes beyond mere curiosity.
Now then, how shall I put it…
As trite as it may sound, I just want to get to know the both of them better.
Thus endeth the prologue. Now lace up those walking shoes and join me as I begin to recount my third visit to a country that never ceases to amaze me with its history, its culture, and its near-impossible beauty.
December might seem like an odd choice of month to travel in a corner of the world known for its harsh winters, but as I discovered on my very first visit to Korea, winter lays its own particular charm and brand of beauty over everything in sight. Moreover, even though temperatures were considerably below my usual level of comfort, the season had only begun to set in and I was blessed to have avoided the very worst of it. (February would be a more appropriate choice for those seeking death by hypothermia.)
My morning flight brought me to Seoul just a little past noon, and by the time I was done unloading all my luggage at the hostel where I would spend the night, there was still a bit of daylight left for exploration. Not all that much – no thanks to a thick layer of cloud that veiled the city under premature darkness – but enough.
I was staying in the Insadong area, a delightful district of Seoul better known for shopping than history. That said, wherever one happens to be in the marbled congestion of the Korean capital, history is rarely more than a short walk away.
A short hop and skip southeast of Anguk Station – so close, in fact, that it would almost seem they’ve built the subway stop especially for it – sits the former royal residence known as Unhyeongung. The hanja characters in its name (雲峴宮) conjure up images of clouds and steep hills, though the reputation and legacy of this compound’s most famous resident aren’t quite as peaceful as the romantic epithet might suggest.
Inside the outer gate sits a broad sandy field, on the other side of which are the dark-roofed structures that make up the core of this royal palace, nestled within a low wall of artfully assembled brick and tile.
I suppose it might be a stretch to call it a “palace”, in view of the fact that no reigning king (to my knowledge) actually considered it his official residence. On the other hand, it was most assuredly “royal”, in that it was the childhood home of a man who would later be crowned King, and eventually Emperor, of Korea.
The austere, almost rustic appearance of this compound right in the middle of the glittering capital seems especially ironic when one considers that in the 1860s, the future king’s father and regent – perhaps Unhyeongung’s longest resident – spearheaded the reconstruction of the long-ruined Gyeongbokgung, which subsequently regained its dormant role as the Korean king’s main palace. The contrast between the majestic, richly ornamented halls of Gyeongbokgung and the dark, mostly unpainted timbers of Unhyeongung (not to mention their relative sizes) is quite striking.
All in all, an easy and relaxed start to my brief Korean holiday – and very different indeed from the tense, almost surreal experience I went through the very next day.
But all that’s for another post.