I headed out alone to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the first royal palace to be built by the Joseon Dynasty in 1395. It’s currently undergoing restoration after the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the 20th century when much of it was systematically destroyed. Until 1996 the Japanese Governor General Building stood on the site, having been built there during occupation in order to stop the Palace being a symbol of an independent Korea.
Before going anywhere in Seoul, check to make sure that it’s open as a lot of places are closed Monday or Tuesday – I guess this is so they can stay open over the weekend. Entering Gyeongbokgung Palace you go through a huge gate called Gwanghwamun. It’s a jarring experience, walking from the busy, crowded streets of Seoul, surrounded by skyscrapers through a gate and into a quiet, distinctly historical building complex. There were the traditional green and reds on the buildings, with gold detailing and huge sweeping curves to the roofs. Behind Gyeongbokgung is Bugaksan mountain, following the principle of baesanimsu (learn more about this in my Jeonju post).
I decided to take an English guided tour of the Palace, hoping to learn a little about the history of Gyeongbokgung rather than doing my usual wandering aimlessly and trying to translate Korean signposts. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic Korean woman and there was a relatively large group, mainly made up of Americans, a lot of whom had just moved to Seoul to start teaching English. They all seemed surprised that I’d come over for 10 days (admittedly I still can’t quite believe how far I went for such a short trip!). Gyeongbokgung was very similar to the shrine that I visited in Jeonju but on a much grander scale. The ongoing restoration project means that you can see up to 40% of the Palace complex as it was before Japanese occupation. It’s stunning, often said to be the grandest and most beautiful of the palaces within Seoul – I’ll get back to you on that when I do another trip to Korea! The gardens were incredibly peaceful, with my favourite spot being a little temple on an island in the middle of a lake. Korean Palaces are so unlike English castles and palaces. While we do have formal gardens, there’s nowhere near the same emphasis on outdoor spaces. Our climate isn’t exactly conducive to outdoor living!
After a day exploring Gyeongbokgung I headed back to Yongsan for another essentially Korean culinary experience: Korean barbecue (Gogigui in Korean). I’ve never had Korean barbeque before, despite it being one of the more popular foods that have made it over to the UK. If you’ve never had it, find the nearest place to you and go. Because there’s nothing more exciting than cooking your own food at your table. The place we went to was in the local market and was tiny, the kind of place that would be a super hipster pop-up joint if it was in London. Each table had a little coal pit that heated up a metal plate above, where you cooked the food. There was also a brass chimney that winched down over each hot plate to draw the smoke off. We were clearly not trusted to do it by ourselves as the woman who ran the place took one look at us and started cooking for us. One of my favourite things about meals in Korea is that you order your main dishes and then you automatically get kimchee and vegetables with it. We had pork, with onions and whole cloves of garlic and it was delicious.
After this we headed to the local bingsu place for some dessert. Patbingsu literally means red beans with ice and is finely shaved ice that is traditionally topped with, you guessed it, my old friend red bean paste! I steadfastly refused to be fooled against by red bean paste and we got one with fresh fruit on top. Unfortunately it was too tasty for me to take any photos as it was eaten inabout five minutes flat!
My final day in Korea was spent in the National Museum of Korea. It’s recently moved to Yongsan, on land that used to be part of the US Garrison nearby (fun fact, construction was delayed for years as Seoul’s municipal government and the US Army apparently fought over the location of a helipad) and opened its new doors in 2005. The building itself is spectacular, light and airy, constructed around a central atrium with clever curation that leads you in a logical route around the entire museum in chronological order. Unless, like my friend when he visited, you manage to turn the wrong way at the entrance and so experience Korean history backwards. Apparently it was a unique way to learn about the country! I opted to start in Bronze Age Korea and work my way round to modern Korea. There’s various cafes and tea rooms dotted around on each floor and it took me about three hours to make my way round the main exhibitions – take into account here that I like reading all the signs on artefacts! There were also two temporary exhibitions, one on Afghan gold and one on Joseon period printing presses. I’m slightly obsessed with typography and old fashioned printing technology so I spent a good 45 minutes looking at all the printing blocks! One thing that really stood out to me were the iron Buddhas. I’ve not been anywhere in Asia before so I don’t know if this is a uniquely Korean style of devotional art or not but regardless the detail was astonishing.
By far and away my favourite food of the trip was mandu (dumplings). I mean, what’s not to love? Tasty filings, boiled or fried dough, food you can eat with your hands? Obviously my last meal in Korea had to be mandu. We hit a local stall in the market for a mystery selection (I’m 99% sure my friend knew what he was ordering) and headed down to the Han to eat. 10 days was not enough time to spend in Korea. There’s so much I still want to see, so much more to learn about the culture and so much food I’ve yet to eat! This trip was a good introduction, dipping my toes into South Korea if you will. Expect more posts in the future when I make another trip. South Korea, I’m not finished with you yet!