Seoul is a pretty metropolitan city, but every now and again there are these gorgeous pockets of culture that come out of nowhere. You've got your wild artistic passion scratched into graffiti and cafes in Hongdae, your kind of weird and inevitably jade holistic traditions in the jimjilbangs and then you've got Gyeongbokgung Palace; a riveting recreation of the original Joseon Dynasty palace. Nick and I headed out here halfway through our trip and all the photographs you see online will never ever prepare you for the scale and beauty of the palace. We checked ahead for Gyeongbokgung Palace tours and were super thrilled to find that they run three free English tours a day, so in standard fashion, we decided to catch the very last one at 3:30pm. You don't have to call ahead which is awesome, but you should try and get there about 15-20 minutes early because you have to grab a ticket beforehand and the queues are a little long. We were freaking out and managed to make it at the very last minute. (Oh yeah, it's 3000 won a ticket.)
Sooo, welcome to Gyeongbokgung Palace. It's a remnant of the Joseon Dynasty (one of the key Korean empires) and is one of four major palaces in Seoul - it's easily the most impressive. When the Japanese came over and occupied Korea, they destroyed it not just once but twice because - well - people suck is the conclusion really. The Korean government tried as best they could to rebuild it all but the palace is still a fraction of its size, which makes you wonder how monstrously huge it originally was.
We started the tour at a checkpoint where the sweetest lady in a hanbok and the scratchiest microphone led us round. Here's the second gate just past a stone bridge and ring of cherry blossoms. See how you can see straight through both of them? Apparently it's all built that way so that the Emperor could see whoever was approaching from ages away through the open gates. Also, I wasn't kidding about Gyeongbokgung being a hidden pocket of culture - it's pleasantly bizarre seeing the city just beyond the gates to the south and the mountains in the background to the north.
There's something so beautifully modest about traditional Korean architecture. I think it's something to do with the colour selection, the greens and reds are just so calming. (Wow, I sound like the lamest art critic ever.) It might be a little hard to make out from the picture above, but the attention to detail is crazy impressive. I can sometimes draw a stick figure on a good day, but some dude managed to decorate every individual beam with a cherry blossom and all the clay tiles above are a correlating pattern of dragon and phoenix symbols representing the queen and king. Totally giving new meaning the the word dragon lady.
The architecture was all supposed to be influenced by yin and yang, feeding through to the king and queen's relationship and the dragon/phoenix patterns, design of the palace and so on. The king and queen had different palaces beside one another and the king had to go visit her every day, as well as his numerous concubines who had their own little palaces a little ways off near the king mother's palace (yeah, it seems everyone had a palace.). Our tour guide made a point of explaining that the king had a designated poison taster whereas the queen did not, soooo make your own assumptions based on that. Very Marco Polo-y.
Walking past the throne room and concubine's palaces, we came across this awesome pavillion. It was only restored recently and it's normally closed to the public, however they've started opening up exclusive tours inside it to the second floor but you have to book in advance. It's where all the crazy royalty parties used to be held and they would set floating lanterns on the water to add to the atmosphere. Imagine how glorious it would be to be wasted and surrounded by lanterns in that pavillion. Oh man.
That little temple thing in the distance looks tiny here, but it's huge. It's the Korean Folk Museum and it's not actually a monument of the past, it's all made from concrete which probably made life easier for everyone building it. We made the mistake of foregoing this museum and heading to the one at the entrance, which was a little lame - don't bother as it's a lot smaller and just head over to this one.
The tour ends out over at the second most impressive palace - not the queen's, but the king mother's. It's surrounded by apricot blossoms and amazing florals like the ones above, and it's so completely and totally peaceful. Unfortunately a bunch of tourists had to go and ruin the serenity of it all, as while we were turning a corner a woman was holding up her half naked child by the concubine's quarters so that she could shit on the floor. Even though the toilet was right next to her. And that brings me to my next post, How To Be a Shit Tourist...