Saturday, July 31, 2010

Case geomancer

It's hard to believe now, but the people who designed Seoul centuries ago put a lot of thought into it. Old Seoul, centred on the Gyeongbokgung palace which is now next to the presidential Blue House, was in an auspicious location. This was because of the positive fung shui: there were mountains to the north and a river to the south.

Today, the entire process seems kind of stupid. There are 20 million people in the area, which is so crowded that the government now wants to build a new capital somewhere else just to ease up on the crowding. The fung shui also doesn't seem like such a good idea now. The mountains in the north of the city, supposedly its guardians, pose a huge threat. In 1968, North Korean commandos used them to make their way to the Blue House, where they were stopped just short of killing the president.

The location of the city, in the far northwest of what is now South Korea, means that it has been within range of North Korean artillery all this time. Its gleaming international airport is even farther north and west, a few minutes by air from North Korea. Despite all that, I've been drawn to the mysterious, shadowy mountains in the north end of the city for a long time. There are taller, more accessible ones still farther north, but the ones just north of the palace, the Blue House and the old city have a particular appeal for the history, the geography, and architecture that's all rolled into one.

Starting at Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul's answer to Tiananmen Square, you can see Gwanghwamun, the front gate of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace in Seoul. The palace was first built in 1394, the gate in 1395.

Much like Tiananmen Square, the area is crawling with the scrawniest-looking cops and soldiers to be found anywhere in the entire country.

A view south from Gwanghwamun.

Just west of Gwanghwamun are the headquarters of the "Ministry of Public Administration and Security" (행정안전부), a name every bit as imposing as some of China's more nefarious government buildings and agencies. Among other things, the ministry is in charge of assholish displays of force.

This is a better view of Bugaksan behind Gyeongbuk palace and the presidential residence. For about 40 years after the 1968 raid, this mountain was a restricted military area. An ID card suffices to visit, but I thought I needed my passport, so I passed and went to the mountain just to the west.

There's a race every year that goes up Inwangsan and then Bugaksan. Of course, it sticks to the roads. Going up the steep, narrow path to the top is a different kettle of fish. I was running and, not counting time spent staring at the view or taking pictures, ran 8 km in about an hour.

At the pass between the off-limits, barbed-wired Bugaksan and Inwangsan is Changuimun, an ancient gate to Seoul. Tucked away in the mountains, you'd never know it was there. I was more or less lost when I got here, seeing as how I ended up at a security gate prompting soldiers to ask each other, "are you going to talk to him? No, you do it."

Bukhansan seen from Inwangsan.

A view down at the "ancient" fortress walls. Elsewhere on Inwangsan, you can see fortress walls being built.

The rectangular complex in the middle of the picture with grass to its left is Gyeongbok palace, one of five in Seoul.

At the back of Gyeongbukgung is the Blue House, where the president lives. You can see it on the right at the base of the mountain surrounded by a lawn, with a distinctive blue roof.

A view down the way I came, with the Inwangsan skyway highlighted. Namsan is in the distance, along with much of central Seoul.

Finally, a look south across the city.

1 comment:

Timothy Holden said...

Love the site. Please keep it up.

I lived in Seoul for two years myself and I've been missing it a lot recently, so it's been great to see all your pictures, especially of the Cheonggyecheon Museum, which I lived right next to at Wangshimni Station, but never actually visited.