Thursday, June 08, 2006

Seoul: Castles!

As a final word on Seoul, I'd like to show a few pictures of the castles that dot the city. They add something to the character of the city, giving it an ancient quality that's missing in most of the other cities I've either lived in or visited - including Shanghai.

I'll start with Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was essentially the central Palace to Korea since 1395. It's very large. Unfortunately it was destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation, and has been re-built as a series of identical empty concrete buildings with a half-hearted historic facade. It's ugly, but the location is still amazing - right near the downtown on one side, and facing beautiful mountains on the other. It featured hundreds of people re-enacting palace pagaentry in colorful traditional Korean clothing.

Similar, but more impressive and containing much of the original building construction, was the nearby Changdeokgung palace. Unlike Gyeongbokgung, touring was limited to guided tours, so it lacked a parade-type atmosphere. One of the more impressive points will sound really boring: the beautiful sloped rooves and roof tiles.

But definitely the most impressive castle in Seoul I ran into by accident: Changyeonggung.

You can see from the above photos, when I went there they were having a really interesting traditional musical performance.

Traditional clothes are always more interesting once the show's over:

The castle is very well preserved, instead of being destroyed during the Japanese colonization it was used as a zoo. That sounds like an unimaginable insult until you stroll the palace grounds. They're large and expansive, and even though there's a lot of buildings towards the entrance, overall there's a feeling of being inside a large park.

There's a connecting bridge to Jongymo Royal Shrine, where I managed to miss a huge annual rite by a few hours. Anyway I wandered around the parks out front, where a seemingly endless supply of weird older people of indeterminate housing status did weird things.

I also want to mention Suwon. It's not really a suburb of Seoul, and is very far away, but I still managed to take a subway there. It took about an hour and a half, and I feel the train would have been a better option. For those in the know, riding Seoul subways is just like being on the set of "My Sassy Girl," which is awesome. Anyway, the reason to go to Suwon was both to get out of Seoul and to check out the fort in the downtown area.

I have to say, the actual fort was really boring. The main attraction seemed to be that it was used in the historical soap opera "Jewel in the Palace," which was supposedly really fun, and was popular throughout East Asia. Much more impressive was the large city walls, which are on the top of a rather steep series of hilltops that surround much of the city's downtown.

You have a very impressive view of the city's features, such as this large church - Seoul seems to be an even mix of Buddhism and Christianity, and both of these seem to be much more publicly practiced in Seoul than anywhere else I've been.

Most of the outer wall and the associated attractions were under construction. However what I went to was really impressive. I'm sure that when the site is finished it will be a must-visit attraction to those visiting Seoul - or anywhere in Korea, really. I was surprised to find that South Korea can be entirely traversed with a two-hour train ride!

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