Hunting Down History: The Baekje Kingdom

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Viv stands on steps up onto fortress wall

promenadesignMongchontoseong Fortress, in Olympic Park in Seoul

In the area of Songpa, south of the Han River in Seoul, are remains of the Baekje Kingdom, notably two earth-wall fortresses and many relics from excavations there.

Mongchontoseong Fortress is inside the Olympic Park, a very large green park with wilderness areas, lakes and other interesting features, the main one being the Fortress.

Take the subway to the station of the same name on Line 8 and follow signs to World Peace Gate. Once inside the park there are big boards with maps and information to guide you round.

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Part of fortress wall

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Walking the walls

The Korean people have lived through a history of division and then unity, followed by more division and then unity. In the past, the peninsula was divided into smaller states and then was re-united by whoever was in power.

As a very brief summary, the major kingdoms of the past were the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla, which were then united into the United Silla Kingdom. This was later followed by the Goryeo Dynasty, and then the Joseon Dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty lasted around 500 years and was the last unified kingdom before the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s.

We wandered around the park and along the fortress walls, reading the information boards, and later went into the new Seoul Baekje Museum. As we did this we began to get an idea, a picture in our minds, of what this ancient place was.

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Some of the excavations in the fortress

In the Three Kingdom Period on the Korean peninsula, the Baekje Kingdom was centered around this area of the peninsula, along the Hanggang River, as it was called then. Its main city/town was known as Hangseong. Archaeological excavations and research from Samguksagi (the Historical Record of the Three Kingdoms) are proving that Baekje had two capital earthen fortresses (sometimes called castles). The first, Pungnaptoseoung to the north, was built in the early Baekje Kingdom before the 3rd century, and was an important center of marine transportation. The second, Mongchontoseong a little south of the first one, is thought to have been built under the reign of King Geunchogo after the 4th century and served as a high fortress overlooking the entire area in case of a war. It was built at the end of a natural slope extending from Namhansan Mountain, and the natural landscape of the Hanggang River was used as part of the wall. So, it was here that Baekje was able to lay its foundation as a powerful kingdom.

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?an old tomb stone
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View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate from the fortress

We didn’t actually go to the Pungnaptpseong Fortress, but learned that this was where 30,000 troops of Goguryeo (one of the other Kingdoms) under King Jangsu attacked Hanseong, Baekje in 475. It is said that the castle surrendered after the 7-day attack and that Baekje King Gaero (reigned 455-475), who was in the southern section of the castle, tried to escape to the west, but was killed.

But, we spent quite a while rambling around what’s left of the Mongchontoseong Earthen Fortress. The place attracts many visitors, as it is a significant historical site and is pretty with fields of canola flowers, barley and grass. There are many walking paths, and we saw numerous working Koreans taking advantage of this space to walk during their lunch break.

As you walk along the top of the now-grass-covered earth walls you get a good view out over the park and to modern Seoul and huge groups of apartment buildings. In this park, too, we saw a number of squirrels and pheasants, and heard many other birds.

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Gommal Bridge

The fortress/castle is a 2.3 km-long earth fortress wall (about 1.4 miles), in a roughly circular shape, the walls ranging between 6-40 m (about 20-131 feet) high. The area inside the castle walls is 216,000 square meters (about 54 acres). Songnaecheon Stream flows along the walls and serves as a moat. A pretty bridge crosses at one point. This is the Gommal Bridge (Gommal-Dari). “Gommal” means a bridge found in a dream village. “Gommal”, derived from the archaic “Ggummaul”, is an old Korean word for “Mongchon”. The information board explains that “this classical and beautiful Korean word was given to this bridge in March 1986.”

Laid outside the castle wall are wooden barricades. Houses and other buildings have been

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View of modern Seoul and World Peace Gate

found here, along with storage pits and a pond. Thousands of pieces of earthenware, Chinese-made porcelain, bone, armor, and such, have all been unearthed here.

At one spot in the center of the fortress enclosure you find an ancient site of dug-out huts and some old tombs remaining, with stone chambers and soil mounds typical of the early Baekje period (200-475 AD). They are closed off, so you cannot actually get into them, but you can see where and how they were situated. Also found in the area was a hearth proving pre-historic habitation, as well as stone tables, fragments of stone swords and Baekje earthenware. These discoveries led researchers to believe that this area was a base for Baekje culture for a long period.

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Seoul Baekje Museum

The small Mongchon Museum of History on the north side has historical relics discovered during the excavation of Mongchontoseong Fortress and Pungnaptoseong Fortress. Notable are some precious golden relics of the Baekje kings, a seven-pronged sword called Chiljido (that testifies to the outstanding iron-smelting skills of the time), and many pots. The history of human settlement here goes way back. The museum is free and open daily, except Monday.

There is much more to see in the Seoul Baekje Museum, also in the Olympic Park. More on that later.

 

 

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Seoul Olympic Park and World Peace Gate

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Peace Plaza and Flag Plaza from higher in the Olympic Park
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A small section of the Olympic Park

In 1988, twenty eight years ago, Seoul hosted the summer Olympics, a first for South Korea. Right now, Rio de Janeiro is hosting the summer Olympics, a first for Brazil (and South America).

Every Olympic city-host constructs stadiums, parks and other buildings for the games, for all the competitors and all the visitors. Seoul was no exception, as they were really proud hosts.

The Seoul Olympic Park was created in preparation for the 1988 Games, although large parts of it existed already, and many sports and music festivals are still held in the 6 stadiums dotted around the edge of the park. Many Seoul residents come here to relax and unwind regularly, and on the day we were there we saw many groups of city workers walking during their lunch break.

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The vast Flag Plaza with the flags of all countries that competed in 1988

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Part of the earth fortress wall

The Olympic Park, in the area of Songpa, south of the Han River, is a very large, green park with wilderness areas, lakes, a musical fountain, trails, bridges, wild flower garden, rose garden, and museums (Mongchon, SOMA Museum of Art, Baekje Museum, Olympic Museum). A massive 1.6-mile Baekje-dynasty earth fortification, called Mongchontoseong, built in the 3rd century AD, runs through the north part of the park and the Mongchon Museum has artifacts from the Baekje kings (more on all those later). On the east and south east side are attractions built for the Olympics: a swimming pool, tennis courts, three gymnasiums, and the velodrome. Outside the park is the enormous Olympic apartment complex.

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World Peace Gate
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World Peace Gate , with pillar masks

2flagplazacloserThe main entrance to the park is across an expansive plaza, called Peace Square, which leads to the World Peace Gate, which definitely qualifies as one of the Olympic statues/sculptures/structures. Beyond the World Peace Gate is the Flag Plaza, still flying the flags of the nations that attended the 1988 Olympics (South Africa was not one of them due to sanctions in place because of Apartheid). The plaza is ringed with fast food outlets, coffee shops, a convenience store, kiosks to rent bikes etc.

 

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Trikes for rent
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A few of the many sculptures

Over 200 sculptures are scattered on the sprawling lawns in the south part of the park, close to the SOMA Museum and Baekje Museum. They were designed and made by sculptors from around the world, and are a great way of showcasing many different ideas. It’s fun to just stroll, looking at the sculptures, admiring some and being perplexed about others. Many people also like to have a picnic near the sculptures. This also became a popular location for movie and commercial TV filming.

To get there: Take subway Line 2 (green) to Jamsil, and change to Line 8 (pink) and go to Mongchontoseong. Follow the exit 1 to Mongchontoseong Fortress/Peace Gate. The park is open 6am-10pm daily.

peacegatefront2About the sculptures and special structures:

Here I will talk about the World Peace Gate and the pillar masks.

First, the stunning colorful World Peace Gate, started on December 31, 1986 and completed on August 31, 1988. This is the work of architect Kim Chung-up, who designed it to celebrate the spirit of the Seoul Olympic Games—peace and harmony—and also to symbolize the ability of the Korean people. This was the last work of the famous Korean architect (1922-May 1988). The steel-reinforced concrete structure beckons as soon as you exit the subway station—the pillars stand with “wings” that look like bird wings or outstretched arms, welcoming.

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A pillar mask
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Pillar mask with double head
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A fierce mask—eagle-tiger, perhaps?

On the edge of the plaza, leading to the Gate, are 30 line pillar masks made by sculptor Seung-Taek Lee, a famous Korean interdisciplinary artist, born 1932. The bronze masks are mounted on stone pillars 3m/9ft 10inches high, which are also lamp posts, and are also meant to welcome people to the Gate. Most of them are interesting double-faces, some looking almost like the totem poles I spoke of earlier (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/totem-poles-in-korea/ )

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Part of the mural. and a pillar mask

The mural on the underside of the roof wings of the World Peace Gate is called “A Painting of Four Spirits”. Blue and red are used to symbolize Um and Yang, which is an oriental symbol of the universe and creativity.

Four spirits guard the gate. A red phoenix guards the south, a black turtle guards the north, a white tiger guards the west, and a blue dragon guards the east. The spirits are depicted as ascending towards heaven and signify the strength of Koreans and their freedom.

An eternal flame is underneath the gate, as well as a declaration of peace calling for world

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Rod and the Eternal Flame

harmony and happiness for all citizens of the world, regardless of ideology, race, or religion. The Korean people are very proud of this gate. And quite rightly so.

In the following post I will showcase some of the other sculptures.

One of Korea’s Best Folk Villages

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The main entrance gate
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Traditional houses on a dirt alley

Nagan Eupseong Folk Village

Rich in History and Well-Preserved

This was the second stop on the JRS day tour out of Suncheon.

It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011 and I can easily see why, as it’s one of Korea’s best preserved fortress towns and traditional folk villages. We’ve always been interested in folk traditions in any country, so we were delighted to visit here and learn more about Korean old customs.

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A fortress-like stone wall surrounds the village
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One of the lovely gates

Very brief history: In 940 a small village on the site changed its name to Nagan-gun under the Goryeo Dynasty. It began to flourish in the later 1300s under the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty. Then, in 1397 Kim Bin-gil raised an army against Japanese intruders, built an earthen fortress wall here and defeated the enemy. However, during King Sejong’s reign (perhaps Korea’s most important king) from 1418-1450, the wall was rebuilt with stone, and the village within it further developed, remaining virtually intact and unchanged for hundreds of years.

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View across village from a gate
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Rice paddies on the other side of the gate

It is very much a tourist attraction now, with 1.3 million visitors recorded in 2013. But, the beauty is that it is also still a working, living village and not just a showpiece, where all the workers go home to someplace else at night. It’s unique for its setting, completely enclosed by stone fortress walls with three main gates, built to protect the inhabitants from marauding Japanese pirates. The gates were built in a grand style with painted curving tile roofs and beautiful decorated eaves. If you climb up on the wall from one of the gates, you get a good view out over the village, and across to rice paddies outside.

The village is crammed with narrow alleyways, leading to vegetable plots, penned animals, a lotus pond, many fruit trees, and adobe and stone thatched homes, and a few larger buildings with slate roofs.

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Sesame plot
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Sesame drying outside a house
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Kimchi pots, someone sleeping on the step—you could almost image you were in the 18th century

We thought a visit here was a wonderful way of getting a glimpse of what rural life was like hundreds of years ago, and continuing today in some places. It’s fascinating to wander along the narrow dusty lanes with mud and thatch houses, trying to imagine what living here would be like. Our time was rushed, but what we saw was very interesting: village life and how they are maintaining some traditions. There are of course modern touches now—like electricity and cars and motorbikes—but still it’s a different way of life; small houses in a small community—maybe around 100 households now, with 280 people living in the area. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see old houses, with shiny new cars parked in the dusty yards. Each house has an enclosed yard, and we see fruit trees, small patches of vegetables, sesame drying on straw mats or a tarpaulin, a dog or a baby sleeping in the shade. We’re told that each house has 3 rooms in a line, an outhouse, a shed (for equipment or cows) and a toilet.

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One house showcasing what can be made with rice straw
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Preparing the rice straw
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Totems at village entrance

Outside the entrances to the village are special totem poles carved from wooden logs—they are often grouped in twos or fours and are kind of like guardians of the village. Each pole has a funny or scary face carved on it. Inside, all the houses have a street number, many etched on a wooden totem pole. Probably the guardian of that house.

Inside, a couple of the larger buildings have curved tile roofs; they were/are the official buildings, like the prison (fun to visit and watch a re-enactment of a prison beating), the governor’s house, the administrative office and the village school. The other houses have thatched roofs and it was interesting to see that many of them have pumpkins growing on the roofs.

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Note the pumpkins growing on the roof
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Many pumpkins are carefully nested on the roof

Many houses are still inhabited, some are guesthouses now, a few are small shops or cafes, and some are demo places for traditional folk arts and crafts (for example, items made of rice straw, pottery, a wishing rope, calligraphy, and traditional Korean musical instruments). We were interested in the rice crafts, and what you can do with rice straw.

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General Lim Gyeong-Up Pavilion

The scientists in our party also noted the large stacks of rice straw, many covered in black plastic. The straw is ammoniated, which is a way to improve digestibility.

The oldest and biggest tree in the village is a giant Ginkgo bilobe, which some believe is as old as from 1397. On our way out we also noted the Monument and Pavilion of General Lim Gyeong-Up. He was governor of Nagan in the 1620s and was much respected for good works. It was erected in 1628 when the General left Nagan. Sacrificial rites are given to him on Full Moon’s Day every year.

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Most houses have an identifying (and guardian) totem
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Re-enactment in the jail yard

It’s a really interesting place but we had limited time, plus it was so hot and humid it was actually not very pleasant. Generally, one wouldn’t choose to come here in the hot summer. We missed a lot so it would be fun to return one day, in cooler weather and spend more time.

Open daily, with hours varying depending on season. Adults 4,000 won (US$3.30), middle and high school students 2,500 won (US$2), and elementary school children 1,500 won (US$1.25).

Guardian Zelkova Trees

I wrote about a couple of old trees in Korea recently (see here https://vivskoreanadventures.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/venerable-old-trees/ ).

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Zelkova at palace in Suwon

In many parts of the world villages have collective expressions of spirit belief, as in the reverence paid to a particularly large old tree that has shaded generations of ancestors. It’s believed that there’s a special spirit, or sometimes a God, of the tree and that this spirit will protect the village and villagers under certain conditions.

Here I want to focus on the wonderful old Zelkova trees that we often find at temples or palaces in Korea. These amazing trees stand as a welcome near the entrance to temples, usually in the temple or palace gardens. These are Zelkova serrata (Japanese zelkova, Japanese elm, or Keyaki), a type of tree that’s native to Japan, Korea, eastern China, and Taiwan.

Besides being beautiful old trees, they are lovingly looked after by generations and often propped up if necessary.

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Zelkova sign at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace

The first one we found was at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace in Suwon, an old city about 48 km south of Seoul. This zelkova on the edge of the entrance courtyard to the palace is more than 600 years old and is very sacred. It has grown here and protected Suwon city since before the construction of the Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung Palace.

It was believed that there was a God of the tree, which would punish anyone who broke one of its leaves or branches. There is a legend that if you make a wish to the tree the wish will come true. A plaque near the tree suggests: “Make a wish for your family or friends to the tree, which still holds the spirit of King Jeongjo. Write your wish on the paper and tie it to a straw rope around the tree.” Many people do this and there are lots of white papers tied to the rope. We asked our Korean friends about this, and they laughed and said, “maybe we believe in that. But it’s a good thing to try.”

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At the Folk Village
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Viv M makes a wish at the Folk Village

The next tree was at the Naganeupseong Folk Village, which we visited on a day trip organized by the conference held at Sunchon National University, in Suncheon not far away. It’s a really interesting Folk Village (which I’ll cover in more detail later), established during the Chosun Dynasty and at least 600 years old. It’s thought that the tree is a similar age. This tree didn’t have ropes with notes tied to it, but close by was a special small hanok house with a table outside. There, visitors could get a strip of yellow paper, write a wish on it and then tie it to a piece of twine strung out like a clothes line. I did that (but the wish is a secret!)

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At Naesosa Temple
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At Naesosa Temple

The final zelkovas that we found on this trip were at Naesosa Temple (I’ll write about that in more detail later). It’s an ancient Buddhist Temple, built around 633 AD, on the Byeonsan peninsula (the same peninsula with the salt fields and cliffs I wrote about). Trees are all around, as the temple complex is surrounded by the fir forests of the Buan-Gun National Park. But, the huge zelkovas are different. They are very big, and very much a part of the temple proceedings—bedecked with strings of colorful banners and thick straw ropes in different shapes. So nice to see.

 

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Suwon Palace and Fortress

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Entrance to palace complex
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map of this huge palace complex
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Viv shows one of the lovely palace flags

Suwon Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung (Palace)

A famous part of Korean history and now a World Heritage Site

Mind-boggling in size and complexity

Our friends Jongsoo Chang and Mi Kwon live not far from the town of Suwon, so this was a perfect place for a day trip. They have visited before, and really liked it, so they were happy to show it to us. We parked and then just wandered around at will in the palace, and later walked up the hill to catch the little train for a circular tour around the walls.

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Just inside the palace entrance, this 600-year-old Zelkova tree is a place to give thanks
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One of the many courtyards in the complex

It was free when we were there at the very beginning of August, because authorities were trying to promote tourism, which dropped because of MERS. The little train was also free, but we still needed a timed ticket.

It was a really interesting visit for us—unfortunately it was so hot and humid, as it normally is in Korea in August, and the ground at the palace really muddy and full of puddles in places because of the recent rain. But, we’re happy we went as it’s an important site; one that most tourists wouldn’t get to as it’s quite far out of Seoul (40+ km) and not that easy to get to without your own transport.

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The architectural decorations are gorgeous
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Re-creaton of part of the hall for the 61st birthday feast

For us, this huge fortress and palace complex is notable for is size and amazing reconstruction and also for the stories attached to it, like the tragic death (assassination) of King Jeonjo’s father and his mother’s special 61st birthday party. The 61st birthday was considered particularly auspicious and marked a major date in an ancient Korean’s life. The complex is also remembered because King Jeongjo, who was extremely filial, stayed at the Palace 13 times when he was visiting and worshiping at the tomb of his father.

(We took a LOT of photos—way too many to put up here—so I’ve put some on to a web page. I’ve you’d like to take a look, go here http://www.viviennemackie.com/Korea_2015/Suwon_Palace.html )

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Entrance to palace complex
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These 3 characters basically say “Long Live the King”

 This fortress complex was constructed in 1794-1796 by King Jeongjo (reigned 1777-1800), the 22nd king of the Joseon dynasty. But, the palace was started earlier at the eastern foot of Padalsan Mountain in 1789, the 13th year of King Jeongjo’s reign, to establish Suwon as a new town. It was used as the Suwon government’s office and as a Temporary Palace, so called because the king did not live here permanently.

The Temporary/Detached Palace was completed by expanding Hwaseong Haenggung from 1794-96, the 18th-20th year of his reign—the same period that the fortress was constructed. The Palace is within the fortress complex. The fortress was built so that King Jeongjo could move the tomb of his father, Crown Prince Jangheon, also known as Crown Prince Sado. His father had met a tragic death in 1762 at the hands of his own father, by being stuffed into a Duiju. A Duiju is a wooden chest for storing rice and beans. A horrible story, but one quite common for that time.

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Imagine being stuffed into this to die!!

It was the largest and most beautiful Temporary/Detached Palace at the time of its construction, because it had almost 600 rooms and was shaped like the main palace in Seoul.

Most of its structures, however, apart from Naknamheon (one of the big halls used for banquets during Lady Hong of Hyegyeonggung’s 61st Birthday Ceremony in 1795), were destroyed during the Japanese Colonial era. After this, a hospital and school were built on the site. Local people organized the Committee for Restoration and Repair at the end of the 1980s. It was reconstructed according to old diagrams etc and you can still see some original foundation and corner stones. The completed restoration was opened to the public on October 2003.

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The Palace:

Courtyard follows courtyard as you wander around the large walled complex. It’s really huge—it wouldn’t be too hard to get lost in there! It’s a really beautiful series of buildings, with curved roof lines, gorgeous painted eaves and beams, and lovely latticed walls.

The reconstruction of the rooms the royalty lived in is fascinating, as is the dining area with the feast for the grand birthday. We learn other stories associated with the palace: the lives of the eunuchs and serving women; a traditional kitchen; traditional musical instruments etc.

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Re-creation of royal life at the time

King Jeonjo was a very well-liked king, during a kind of renaissance time in Korea—he imported new things and brought new ideas to Korea, such as sweet potatoes, eye glasses, a crane for construction, red peppers, tobacco. A big sign on the main building of the palace (called Bongsudang) has 3 characters basically saying support-life-house and translated as “long live the king”.

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Walking the perimeter of the walls is a favorite pastime

Fortress Walls:

Suwon’s impressive fortress walls are free to walk along. They are made of earth and faced with large stone blocks, stretching for 5.7km (about 3.5 miles) and are 4-6 m (roughly 13-20 feet) high and designed to deflect arrows, spears, swords, guns and cannons. For 200 years the walls were collapsing, especially during the Korean War, but 95% have been restored.

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Wall and gate

You can hike around the fortress (ca 2+ hours) or take the train to see the

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Part of the defense system

wall snaking up and down the hill, with its command posts, observation towers, 4 entrance gates, secret gates to bring war supplies to the fortress without being caught by enemies, and fire beacon platform. At the turning point of the trolley/train run is a large grassy field where people can try their hand at traditional Korean archery.

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Viv, Rod and Mi on the train

The Train:

The train/trolley is a bit tacky, as those usually are, but still a good way to see the walls, which are amazing, snaking along up and down. The engine is shaped like a dragon head, which symbolizes the vigorous driving power of King Jeongju. The carriages represent the king’s chair that symbolizes the king’s authority. I love it how Asian countries attach great symbolism to so many things in their lives!

 

**NOTE that these kings had portraits in the Portrait Gallery at the town of Jeongju (south of Seoul), at the Royal Portrait Museum, which is part of Gyeonggijeon Hall.