Sunday, May 11, 2014

Suwon's Hwaseong Fortress

When I hear the name of Korea's eighth largest city, Suwon, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that a Korean-American friend of mine has family who lives there. An odd bit of trivia. Unlike me, the rest of the country thinks, "Oh, that big fortress wall." They are referring to an ancient fortress that is Suwon's most famous historical site and tourist attraction, and, yes, it has a wall. I visited about one week ago, on Children's Day. (It was one day before Buddha's Birthday, or, as I like to call it as of right now, Buddha's Eve.)
One of the gates to Hwaseong Fortress, seen from atop the wall itself.
The Hwaseong Fortress (華城/화성 -- I should point out that 성 itself means "castle" or "fotress", so this is really the Hwa Fortress) was built in the end of the 18th century, during the Joseon Dynasty, and it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The wall of the fortress is astoundingly long: 3.5 miles (5.7 kilometers) in length and running over two hills. It is also impressively well-maintained; you can walk or jog along the length of the entire wall and enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding city the entire time.
Paldalmun (팔달문), the southern gate of Hwaseong Fortress. It's quite beautiful to look at, but because it is detached from the rest of the wall and stuck in a giant rotary amidst traffic and ugly modern buildings, some of the charm is admittedly lost.
In my opinion, walled cities that have survived from antiquity to the present day have a very distinct charm. I'm thinking Avignon and Chiang Mai, both of which I really enjoyed visiting. But in those two cities, despite their historical flavor, the old walls not only preserve a bit of the culture but also give off a somewhat claustrophobic air. Avignon is, to put it bluntly, cramped. And Chiang Mai's old city is small enough that you can never walk too far before you hit the wall, quite literally.

Suwon's wall is different. It's as wide as a jogging path in a park, and as I said before, it's a very pretty and well-maintained space in such a big, busy city. Nothing about this wall actually seems belligerently imposing; it's grand, but it's peaceful. All the gates, turrets, and sentry points feel like they were constructed less for war than for sightseeing. Of course, Hwaseong Fortress has hundreds of years of history that I know nothing about, so this could be my ignorance talking.
Walking up the first hill of the fortress wall from the Paldalmun entrance; quite a steep climb, but worth it.
Anyway, I visited the wall with friends on a beautiful spring day. The entrance fee is usually 1,000KRW, but thanks to a certain golden holiday, we got in for free. All we did was walk around the wall, take photos, and watch tourists ring a giant bell to grant wishes as we munched on snacks. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon. Of course, there were tons of other things to do in the fortress complex itself: performances, culture centers, maybe a museum or two? I don't really know. But I was content to hang out with my friends with nothing planned and very little on my mind.
Hwahongmun (화홍문), the north water gate of the Hwaseong Fortress, through which the Suwon River flows. It's a beautiful spot that I would like to come back to one day. But there are so few days left...
In addition to hiking the fortress wall, my friends and I explored the enormous shopping complex that sprung out of the loins of Suwon's main train station. Tip for future reference: its food court is amazing. I also met up with Greg, whom I first met in Laos, for dinner (in said food court), and it was nice to catch up with him and get an update on his plans to move to Southeast Asia permanently.

So that was Suwon, in a nutshell. I was happy to strike another Korean city off my map (I've now been to nine of the ten largest cities), especially now that my days here are numbered and the opportunity to travel freely won't come again for a while. It's been strange, thinking about what I should do with the three months I have left. Even planning this trip to Suwon took that into consideration: I literally asked my friend, "So, where have you not been yet?"

And the question now is, "Where will I go, before I go?"
Many flags wave proudly along the top of the fotress wall. This one reads 巡視 (xúnshì/순시, which means to patrol or inspect). "Keep your eyes peeled," I think, "for the impending future."

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