If things had turned out a little differently, and Korea were still a monarchy (albeit a constitutional one) in our own day and age, the king and the president would have ended up as next-door neighbours. Whether they’d have been the sort of neighbours to share a pint and swap power tools – or trade curses and accuse each other of lawn gnome theft – isn’t for me to say.
Either way, as typical respectful commoners with a salutary fear of their overlords, let’s barge in uninvited and take a peek at both of their houses.
First up: the president’s house.
Well, as one might expect, Cheongwadae – the official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea – is strictly off-limits to casual guests like you or me. Security in the area was tight, and on the long but pleasant stroll from my starting point at Gwanghwamun Square, I saw both uniformed policemen and dark-suited agents patrolling the neighbourhood. One of those agents very politely (but firmly) asked where I was heading, and after I gave my destination he allowed me to proceed.
That destination wasn’t Cheongwadae itself (since getting killed by sniper fire wasn’t high on my list of priorities that morning), but the nearby Cheongwadae Sarangchae – the Korean presidential museum.
It’s relatively small as museums go, but the permanent exhibits offer a good introduction to Korea’s executive branch, outlining everything from the president’s official residence to how their equivalent of the Secret Service carries out its duties. There’s even a mock-up of the presidential office – and yes, you can sit in the chair.
The ground floor gallery plays host to changing special exhibits. At the time of my visit, there was a rather splendid selection of hanbok on show.
From here, I made my way back outside and walked a short distance east, where I was able to catch a glimpse of the heavily guarded Cheongwadae itself.
My vantage point was near the bottom of the map view above. Unless you’ve booked a slot on one of the official guided tours, this is as close as you can get to the heart of presidential power.
No matter – the king’s house requires no appointment. Just a bit of pocket change for the entrance fee.
I did a 180-degree turn and laid eyes upon the northern gate of Gyeongbokgung, which almost directly faces Cheongwadae.
I’ve visited the palace several times before (twice on this particular trip alone), but because of its sheer size and inexhaustible variety of architectural features, I can always look forward to a new discovery or two. Besides, my previous visits have tended to focus on the southern and central portions of the sprawling compound. I’ve been in the northern half as well, but I haven’t explored it as thoroughly.
Today, let’s have a look at three groups of buildings in this part of the palace.
The collection of three interlinked structures in the next image is centred on the Jibokjae hall, which once stood in Changdeokgung before being moved here in the late 19th century on the orders of King Gojong. The Joseon monarch used it as a library and as a place to receive ambassadors.
To the east of Jibokjae stands an enclosed compound known as Geoncheonggung. Erected in the 1870s, this palace within a palace served as a private retreat for King Gojong and his consort, Queen Min – perhaps better known by her posthumous name, Empress Myeongseong. In contrast to the riotously decorated halls that dominate other parts of Gyeongbokgung, the unpainted, honey-coloured timbers of this regal residence lend it a special understated elegance, an air of genteel intimacy … and if I were a king I’d certainly choose to live in these quarters (most of the time, anyway) rather than in the overwhelmingly lavish royal bedchamber further south.
Torn down in 1909, Geoncheonggung was painstakingly reconstructed in recent years and finally opened to the public in 2007.
One particular section of Geoncheonggung, the Okhoru pavilion, was the scene of Empress Myeongsong’s brutal assassination in 1895.
South of Geoncheonggung is a large stone-lined pond, at the centre of which is a small island crowned by the beautiful Hyangwonjeong pavilion. There was once a bridge on the northern side of the island that allowed more direct access to Hyangwonjeong from Geoncheonggung, but the bridge was later relocated to the southern side.
From here, I went on a relaxed southward stroll across Gyeongbokgung, enjoying the sights without feeling much pressure to take photographs (since I’d laid eyes on them before). This was followed by lunch at the Korean restaurant in the National Palace Museum, also located within the palace grounds.
My selections: a hearty vegetable bibimbap and some tteokbokki.
And that was pretty much the end of my latest visit to Korea. The rest of the day was quite eventful, thanks (or rather no thanks) to the appalling incompetence of my airline … but whether I tell that tale or not, perhaps through a scathing flight review, remains to be seen.
For the moment, let’s end on a happy note. Please look forward to my future posts documenting a couple of Japan trips that actually took place before this one, as well as the continuation of my series about a previous journey to Korea.