Seoul, South Korea: Bukchon Hanok Village Area

So I actually debated about blogging while in South Korea.  Not because I’m not enjoying it or anything, but I’m spending five or six days a week working at Korea University, which means I’m not really making new travel discoveries every day.  I thought about blogging about the school day but, as a teacher, I decided against that as it would inevitably turn into some rant against schools-systems-kids-staff, and none of that would be all too professional for somebody who’s making a career out of this education thing.  So a daily post is out.

However, having been to Seoul before, there is a LOT here that I haven’t seen.  The city is huge and drips history at just about every corner and, where it doesn’t, it’s covered in electronics and craziness, making it one of the more exciting, deep places I’ve ever been.  It’s a city I could live in.

When I do something big, or see something big, the blog gets updated.  If I don’t, it doesn’t.  Simple as that.

That being said, today was a big, big day.

The original plan today was to check out The Dark Knight Rises, but I managed to cover that last night with a couple of teachers from my summer camp.  Didn’t think I’d get in on a Saturday, but apparently there is a thing in Korea where people just don’t go to movies alone, so if you go to any theatre on an opening night, you have a reasonable chance of getting a seat if you don’t mind not sitting next to your friends.  Koreans mind.  Westerners?  Not so much.

Anyway, today was free so I thought I’d check out a few of the palaces that I didn’t see last time around.  Seoul has six major palaces and I saw three last time I was here, but one of the major ones I missed was Changdeok palace.

Out of all the palaces in Seoul, Changdeok is best known for its use of the natural surroundings to create a kind of harmony.  To wit, the big attraction within the palace is the “Secret Garden”, which everybody always knew about but only the emperor and his family were allowed to go in.  Today, everybody can go in… with a guide. 

After taking my time getting up this morning, I ended up missing the first English guided tour by about twenty minutes, so I grabbed a ticket for the 3:30 tour (there’s only two a day in English) and wandered the area.  Good thing is that the area around Changdeok is pretty historical in and of itself.

In fact, one of the great things about Seoul is that all the palaces are relatively close to one another.  You’d be doing a massive injustice to them and your physical well-being if you tried to do them all in one day, but it would be possible.  Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeongung and Deoksugung are all fairly close, a maybe a twenty minute walk between each one, but the closest to the site was a little guy called Unhyeongung.

Unhyeongung isn’t actually a palace – you can tell because it’s not painted like a palace, only palaces can use the colours – but an old royal residence owned by the father of King Gojong. 700 won (70 cents) to get in for a nice, quick little side trip.  Nothing you really need to go out of the way to see, but since it’s close to just about everything else, why not?

One of the really neat things about all the palaces being close together is that, naturally, a village sprung up between them all.  That village is the Bukchon Hanok Village, which serves as a combination residential area and museum.  Most of the buildings are relatively intact, there are lots of little museums displaying traditional arts, but people are also running around doing their everyday business.  It’s hilly as all heck, but you’ll turn a corner and get a view that is straight out of ancient Korea, minus a telephone wire or two.  A couple of vistas give you some good views of the modern city and the old palace, too.  I saw a few signs for the Museum of Chicken Art, which I passed on the last time I was in Seoul.  It might be calling me.

After sweating through my shirt quite profusely – the hottest and most humid day since I’ve been here – and grabbing a snack of spicy rice noodles (ddukboki!), because when it’s hot, you need spice, I made my way over to Changdeokgung.

The palace itself is impressive enough and, yes, it really does nestle nicely into the scenery.  The palace was the second palace built in Seoul (1405) and has survived a few Japanese invasions here and there.  It was the official royal residence for a while and is a UNESCO Site.  It’s darn impressive to walk around and you can see most of it for 3000 won, but for an extra 5000 won you get to see the Secret Garden.

Pay the extra 5000 won to see the Secret Garden.

First off, it’s the best looking stuff in the palace.  Changdeokgung is impressive, but I found Gyeongbokgung more impressive and Changdeokgung is comparable to the others in terms of aesthetics if you don’t go into the garden.  Once you get in there, you’re met with various pavilions all overlooking small ponds and pools, lotus lilies, beautiful trees, and even though you’re part of a large group (you have to be), it feels less busy than the main grounds.

The last stop of the day was a completely redone Gwanghwamun Square.  The main gate to Gyeongbokgung is now complete, there is a new statue of Sejong with a museum dedicated to him and Admiral Yi Sun Shin (the man who is credited with repelling the early Japanese invasions) underneath the statue, both of which are pretty darn neat, especially the video game like recreation of the Admiral’s big naval battles.  The fountains in front of Yi’s statue above ground have been redone, there’s some green space.  Basically, everything looks a ton better than the last time I saw it.  Way to go, Korea!

Don’t know what the next entry will be, exactly.  I have a DMZ tour booked for late August, but I’m trying to get it moved up to this Saturday since I happen to have it off.  If that doesn’t happen, might be doing some hikes in the mountains around Seoul, or I might end up at the old Olympic park, or…  I don’t know, something.  Seoul has a lot to offer!

Talk to you when I’ve got a reason to!  The photo galleries have been updated with a Seoul one, so feel free to take a look at all the other photos.  Later!

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