Wednesday, August 5

The kings of Seoul

South Korea’s capital city is home to no less than four royal palaces. It was established in 1392 by the Yi Dynasty, which ruled Korea until the Japanese occupation of 1910. The first king, Taejo, began construction of Seoul’s largest palace complex soon after declaring it his capital. Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395, dominating the heart of downtown Seoul. It remained the centre of administration until 1592 when it was burnt to the ground by invading Japanese.

The site remains derelict until 1867 when the complex was finally rebuilt by Regent Prince Heungseon Daewongun. The prince built a sprawling complex of 330 wooden buildings only to see it largely demolished by occupying Japanese in 1915. Less than ten percent of the structures were left standing until the early 1990s when restoration of the site began again in earnest. Today, a more modest structure of a dozen or so buildings stands. Construction is planned to continue until at least 2020.

Garry and I spent a leisurely afternoon touring the palace grounds as part of our whirlwind tour of Seoul. Normally, the palace is entered via an imposing main gate called Gwanghwamun. However, the gate is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration and thus is completely surrounded by enormous temporary shed and scaffolding. The gate leads to an outer courtyard called Heungryemun where we arrived in time to see a colourful ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony.

Perhaps the most spectacular section of the complex is Geunjeongjeon, or the main throne hall. From the outside the hall appears to have two stories, but inside it becomes clear that the building is a single structure with a soaring central atrium. The entire structure sits on the edge of expansive cobble-stone plaza, enclosed by a red-pillared colonnade. Behind the hall rises Mount Bugaksan, forming the perfect natural backdrop.

Equally impressive was nearby Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. It’s a two-story structure covering a massive 931 square metres, which sits on an island in a large, manmade lake. This majestic venue was used to host lavish banquets. Impressive stuff.

Garry and I also visited a second palace while in Seoul. Changdeokgung is considered the city’s most picturesque royal venue. Its buildings are laid out in harmony with the hillside on which it stands. It’s also home to the landscaped ‘Secret Garden’ filled with peaceful ponds and pavilions. The only way you can view the site is to join an organised tour. This 90-minute venture took us past most of the main highlights, but rarely gave us time to pause and absorb the spectacle as it unfolded.

Much like Gyeongbokgung, the throne hall was an automatic highlight. Injeongjeon also sits on the edge of a broad, cobbled plaza, surrounded by a colonnade. Again, like Gyeongbokgung, access to the central plaza is gained via another impressive colonnaded plaza. However, it was the equally stunning labyrinth of neighbouring buildings that captured my imagination. Each has beautifully decorated eaves, painted in bright, bold designs. It was hard to believe that this entire complex was only restored in the last twenty years, having suffered the same destructive fate under Japanese occupation as Gyeongbokgung.

The secret garden was actually a minor disappointment. The grounds and their surroundings were certainly pretty, but nothing like the stunningly manicured landscapes I’d seen in Japan. Tourist literature had given me the distinct impression these grounds would prove as spectacular. Perhaps the most memorable location was an artificial lake where the elegant Buyongjeong and Yeonhwadeng pavillons sat.

The entire scene is nestled in a tree-clad glade, reached by following a winding road from the main palace and cresting a small hill. Overlooking the lake is a terraced hillside capped by a two-story pavilion, Junamnu, that once served as the royal library. A similar single story structure nearby was once the primary book repository. Its contents were moved to the Seoul National University by the occupying Japanese early last century. It seems that invasion and occupation are a constant theme in Korean history.

The dominance of warfare on Korean culture is apparent everywhere. For example, access to the city’s underground metro stations and pedestrian underpasses is always via a lengthy flight of stairs. Every station sits far deeper than elsewhere as they double as handy air raid shelters. We also came across a photographic exhibition in the centre of town where row upon row of images from the Korean War were on display. It difficult not to be astonished by the images of a bombed and shattered Seoul, including the very location we were standing in.

However, perhaps the most fascinating image of war can be found outside the national war memorial museum. Its grounds house the most extensive display of military hardware I’ve ever seen. Everything imaginable was there from rows of tanks and armoured troop carriers, to B52 long-range bombers and missiles. The grounds even included a MIG fighter impounded after its pilot defected from North Korea and flew south.

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