From Palaces to Prisons

Today was a nonstop day. I hit the ground running and got to Changgyeonggung Palace shortly after it opened. This meant the Palace was almost blissfully deserted. After all, what tourist wants to have other tourists in all their holiday photos? At this point I will admit to feeling a little palaced out, however the grounds were really stunning and it was fascinating to read about the State Council. I also spent a considerable amount of time trying to work out how to read the angbuilgu sundial.

The final palace I visited was Deoksugung Palace. The remaining area of this palace is very small in comparison to some of the others I have visited. What is particularly interesting is the presence of a couple of western style buildings, which are not seen at any of the other palaces. Today’s clear sky meant that the sun was in full winter force and I ended up receiving several very cold drips of snow melt down my neck as the rooftop snow thawed.

My palace adventures over, I got the train to the Seodaemun Prison History Hall. This prison is where the Japanese imprisoned thousands of Korean independence activists during their colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. To walk through the grounds and read about just some of the appalling treatment and torture of prisoners was chilling. While there was a reasonable amount of English in the main building, there were a couple of areas where everything was in Korean. This was a real shame, but merely walking through the echoing halls with the knowledge that people were crammed together in the surrounding cells, unable to lie down for lack of space is a sobering and deeply moving experience. I think the most heart wrenching story for me was that of a young woman who was pregnant when she was arrested and was forced to give birth and the care for her baby in the prison.

Unwilling to conclude the day on such a depressing note, I made my way to Namsangol Hanok Village. Built to celebrate Seoul’s 600th anniversary as the capital, it contains a buried time capsule and five traditional hanoks relocated from around the city. The hanoks have furnished rooms that one can view and I took the opportunity to rent a hambok and take a few photos of myself around the village. This was very nerve-wrecking and I felt like all eyes were on me, especially when I walked past a tour group and they all stopped talking. In the end I opted for the aggressive eye contact approach, which quickly had people turning away. All those staring contests with my cat have clearly paid off.

Hitting the Ground Walking in Seoul

My first impression of Seoul is cold. Cold enough to wake me up from my midnight flight state of foggy sleep deprivation. After making it through immigration and retrieving my bag, I’m quick to pull out warm coat, hat, gloves and scarves (yes, plural scarves) before continuing any further. Clearly my body has forgotten what it is like to be in a cold climate after being spoilt by the year round high temperatures and humidity of Singapore. Especially when the cold temperatures in question are hovering below zero and hardened snow still lines the roads.

Land-side, I immediately run into the roadblock of none of the ATMs working for me. This is an issue I occasionally run into with some banks overseas, particularly when the exchange rates differ by a number of decimal places. Normally the quick and easy solution is to go to the next ATM along and, provided it belongs to a different bank, one is in with a fighting chance of managing to take out some cash. If not, rinse and repeat until one encounters success. At most airports there is a whole line up of ATMs, so it is just a case of trial and error to find a bank that works. Unfortunately for me, every ATM in Incheon Airport belongs to the same bank and it did not like my account. Hence I was forced to convert my leftover Sing Dollar at the currency exchange, most frustrating.

This inconvenience over, I purchased my travel card and made my way to my hostel. On the subway I had a lovely chat with a game designer about this, that and the other. It was a nice pick me up after the trauma of my ATM adventure. Parting ways, I took shelter in the subway station while I waited for the hostel reception to open. Backpack safely stowed, I ventured back into the subway armoured with some coffee and a target destination.

I started off by heading to Changdeokgung Palace just in time for the 1130 English speaking tour around the Secret Garden. This section of the palace can only be seen by tour as they are trying to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so I was pleased that my timings lined up perfectly. The dusting of snow that lingered on some rooftops added a beautiful picturesque feel to the whole day. Iced over ponds complimented the wintery feel and after I had finished looking around, I was relieved to take shelter in a café to warm up and eat a late lunch.

After defrosting slightly, I made my to Unhyeongong Palace. This was much smaller, but had a few rooms laid out and mannequins in traditional dress performing various tasks. I was particularly excited to get a closer look at the chimneys and firebox systems called ondols that were used in a historic version of underfloor heating.

Taking a break from palaces and with the weather a few degrees not as cold, I wandered through the traditional Hanok Village of Bukchon. As I tried to outpace various tour groups and hambok wearing tourists, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the residents that have to listen to our racket all day. If I had had a little more time to plan, I may have stayed to try some of the traditional artwork workshops offered in some of the hanoks.

Back on my palace tour and I headed over to the Gyeongbokgung palace. This was very different to the previous two, with a more rigid layout that didn’t flow with the natural landscape in the same way that Changdeokgung palace does. The majority of it has also had to have been rebuilt in recent years due to its past relocations to Japan and various fires. To use a concept from The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, I felt these building lacked historicity. The replicas do not hold the same soul as their originals. Of course this may be because perfectly straight edges in a historical building are practically unheard of, with time wearing smooth all things and fading paint so that we forget that these haunts were also new once upon a time.

I wrapped up my tour with roasted chestnuts from a street vendor and returned to the thawing warmth of the hostel to spend a pleasant evening with the other guests. Overall today has left me extremely impressed with the South Korean government who are making a consertive effort to restore, rebuild and rejuvenate the history and culture of Korea, both with the palaces and the hanoks. Too often today, people are all too eager to leave the past behind, forgetting that the Old can hold just as much beauty, intrigue and life as the New.