I’m off to Seoul this coming weekend, which makes today’s blog post especially timely. Come along as I relive the sweet – and bitterly, bitterly cold – memories of another winter holiday in the Korean capital that took place almost exactly a year ago.
Today’s mission: an afternoon stroll around Seoul’s historic Dongdaemun gate.
Saturday, 06 February 2016.
After a four-hour flight from balmy Manila – which I’ve documented in a separate trip report – I found myself back for the fifth time in South Korea’s bustling (and, at that time of year, ferociously freezing) capital Seoul.
Well, perhaps “bustling” isn’t the right word to describe Seoul on this particular stretch of the calendar. I was in town during the long Seollal weekend, and by the time I rolled into the city on the express train from Incheon Airport, many of the locals had already gone the other way (or were in the process of doing so), fleeing to their home provinces for the duration of the extended holiday. This was no mere coincidence: most of my annual journeys to Seoul (this weekend’s upcoming trip included) have so far taken place either during Seollal or the autumn Chuseok holiday, and deliberately so. Neither of those two major Korean celebrations is a good time for intercity travel, since the roads would be clogged with traffic and trains would be packed from end to end; think of the Holy Week exodus in the Philippines and you’ll get the idea. But for those planning to stay put in Seoul, or perhaps venturing out no further than the surrounding area, the advantages of near-empty streets and crowd-free subways – as well as special seasonal events – are difficult to ignore.
Having dropped off my luggage at the guesthouse where I was to spend the next few nights, I made the most of the remaining sunlight by setting out on a stroll across the neighbourhood.
My first stop was a mere stone’s throw from where I was staying. Behold the massive, undulating silver-grey curves of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP).
This wasn’t my first encounter with one of Seoul’s most striking modern landmarks (read about my previous visit here), nor would it be the last; in fact I went back here the following evening to see a rather unique nighttime exhibition. But more on that in a future post.
North of the DDP, after crossing Cheonggyecheon – the redeveloped stream that runs through the heart of Seoul – I finally met the landmark that gave the Dongdaemun area its name.
Originally built in 1398 during the reign of King Taejo, the grand portal as we see it today was constructed in 1869 on the orders of King (later Emperor) Gojong. Although officially named Heunginjimun, this elegant and exalted title never really caught on, and the label by which the gate is more widely known remains the simple Dongdaemun (literally meaning “East Great Gate”).
Note the semicircular wall that envelops the outward-facing facade of the gate, erected to provide additional protection against enemy attack. I’ve read that none of Seoul’s other Joseon-era entrances has this feature, not even the monumental Namdaemun (Sungnyemun).
Just across the street north of Dongdaemun was a small public park, bordered along its eastern edge by a restored section of Seoul’s old city wall and offering great views of the Dongdaemun area…
…and it was within this park that I found the entrance to the Seoul City Wall Museum. It’s not a large place as museums go, but I personally think it’s worth a short stop if you’d like to learn more about the great stone fortifications that have surrounded the ancient heart of the Korean capital for centuries.
So much for Day 1. I covered a lot more ground on Day 2, but let’s save that story for the next post.