Saturday, December 24, 2011

World Heritage Update: Seoul

There are three World Heritage Sites near central Seoul. There is one in the city of Suwon, reachable by the Seoul subway system, but I didn't make it there. If I ever come back to Seoul, it will be at the top of my priority list.

The first site of my visit was Changdeokgung. It was also the first taxi ride I had taken in Seoul, and I took it as a good sign that the driver knew where it was -- I had some confused moments with taxis in Amsterdam, but hey -- Changdeokgung is one of the national treasures, so why wouldn't he know where it was?

Since it was closed on Monday, I made sure to visit on Sunday. There are guided tours in English twice daily, so I got there in time for one of them.

The history of Changdeokgung is sort of a mixed bag. It was built 600 years ago as a "backup palace". 400 years ago, the Japanese invaded and destroyed it and the main palace. For some reason, this one got rebuilt first and became the new main palace. Then, 100 years ago, the Japanese invaded again. During the occupation, Changdeokgung burnt down, and some of the restoration involved dragging buildings over from the main palace. Since then, some more restoration has gone into undoing the previous restoration.

As a result, it's not clear how much is "original", but maybe that it what allows everything to be brightly painted, and more evocative of what things looked like back in the day than a fading old building.

Later that day, I headed to Samneung Park, home to two of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (the one that ruled from 600 years ago until deposed by the Japanese 100 years ago). I later learned that the tombs were required to be outside of the city of Seoul (but within a day's ride so that the tomb could be visited by the king's descendants). Today, the location of these two tombs has been absorbed by the city of Seoul, but I give that as an excuse why the taxi driver nor the first three hotel employees consulted knew where this park was. Finally, someone wrote something down in Korean for the driver and off we went.
Samneung Park

It was a relief when the taxi driver dropped me off and first I saw a park, then a World Heritage sign. I had no confidence how clearly things had been conveyed to him. I ended up having a nice walk on a cold day to see the two tombs (from a little bit of a distance, of course). Then it go dark and really cold, and I took a taxi back home (that's where the card with the hotel name on it comes in handy.)

On Monday, on my free afternoon, I headed to Jongmyo Shrine. I delayed heading over there until about 45 minutes before the English-language tour, since I didn't see any great advantage to getting there more than half an hour early. My request to go there was once again met by befuddlement from the taxi driver. I didn't understand this, since it was a major treasure not far from Changdeokgung. Finally, exasperated, I said, "It's right near Changdeokgung." Rather than recognition, this got me an offer to take me to Changdeokgung. Since I had Jongmyo programmed into my GPS receiver, I figured the walk from the palace wouldn't be too bad.

As it turned out, I couldn't head directly there because I had to follow the roads rather than straight line. Finally, I came to...the wall around Jongmyo. I had programmed the coordinates of the shrine itself rather than the entrance.

I took a quick guess and headed clockwise. After a few minutes, I came across a major road, which seemed promising for an entrance. Unfortunately there was construction along the road, which obscured whether or not there was an entrance -- and blocked the sidewalk. Traffic was at close to a standstill, so I felt relatively safe shimmying along the side of the road...but unfortunately, that did not lead to an entrance. So around and around I went. Eventually, after circling about 90% of the wall, I saw lines of tour buses (the taxi driver had never heard of this place). I rushed up to the entrance a few minutes after the last English tour of the day and figured I might be able to talk my way into joining up with it. But then I was asked for my ticket. Which I had to buy at a ticket booth separate from the entrance. Fortunately, there was no line, so after I forked over the equivalent of about 70 cents, I returned to the entrance...where I was pointed to the English-language tour in the distance. Whew.

Jongmyo Shrine
I probably would have appreciated the introduction to the tour, but what I gathered from the rest of it (and the answers to my questions) was that this is where Jongmyo rulers would come to commune with the spirits of their ancestors (and predecessors). The shrine contains the spirit tablets for the ancestors, and during a ceremony, the spirits come down from heaven and...I guess can be chatted up? I'm not too clear on that part. Anyway, it completed a trio of World Heritage sites from the Jongmyo era...the seat of physical power, the resting place of the leaders' bodies and the resting place of their souls. Three World Heritage sites in 30 hours (and four in 72 hours)...not bad.

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