I mentioned in my previous post that Jared and I have made a goal of visiting all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Korea. Ganghwa Island was the first on our list!
Though we have already visited UNESCO sites Changdeokgung, Suwon Fortress, and Namhansanseong, we saw them prior to knowing about the Korea Tourism Organization’s passport pilgrimage. We will be returning to these sites, which are all very close to our home, to get the stamps for our UNESCO passport. I was so excited about KTO’s program that I wanted to get started immediately. For our first stamp, we chose an area that we had never visited before and was outside of Seoul. We didn’t want to drive too far away though, so we chose to visit Ganghwa Island. Ganghwa is north of Incheon and considered part of Incheon’s municipality. It took a little over an hour to get there, and it would probably have been faster if we had beat Monday morning rush hour traffic. (Monday mornings are the only mornings Koreans care about getting to work on time.)
When we visited the KTO headquarters and got our UNESCO passports, I also picked up a brochure about Incheon (and Jeongseon, and Taebaek, and Yang Pyeong, and Cheorwon, and just about everywhere in Korea. I have plans.) The Incheon brochure had several pages about Ganghwa and a little route to follow around the northern part of the island. We modified the brochure’s route to better fit our interest and quickly had an itinerary for the day.
We started with the Ganghwa Peace Observatory. It is located high on a hill on the northern part of the island and overlooks the Han River (the same river that follows through Seoul). On our way to the observatory we had to stop at a checkpoint. A ROK soldier checked our IDs and asked where we were going (or maybe he didn’t. We were a little lost and it came up in conversation.) It was really strange to go through a checkpoint. I go through gates and past guards almost daily here in Korea. Every time I go on post, I have to show my military ID. I see soldiers constantly, and it isn’t weird. This checkpoint was weird. We were driving down a two lane country road, and suddenly the road is blocked. That was when I realized how close we were to North Korea. The entire reason we live here is because the US Army is here to help defend South Korea and deter North Korean aggressions. I know that. However, it really isn’t part of our daily life. I don’t walk around thinking about how North Korea is, ya know, north of us. It’s funny that something like being stopped at a checkpoint on a tiny road can very suddenly make everything seem real.
We arrived at the observatory and could see the river stretched below us. Across from the river was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Right there. I always get excited about seeing new countries, and North Korea was no exception. We walked up an ridiculously steep hill to reach the observatory and immediately went to a patio area that had binoculars. ₩500 ($.50) gave you about a minute to peer into the country next door. There were farm fields, roads, a person on a tractor, ramshackle houses, and something that looked like an obelisk. The farm fields quickly gave way to high hills and mountains in the distance. The ground looks very lush and fertile. It was beautiful and fascinating. I thought about how strange it must be to be a person in that town (part of the larger area of Kaesong). To look across the river, and see a huge white observatory full of people staring into your life; it would be creepy to know that people are using binoculars to watch you drive your tractor. Although, I suppose that might be lower on their list of worries.
The observatory had a few displays set up. There were pictures of the village, of Yeonpyeong (an island bombed in 2010), and of the war. We saw North Korean money and memorials set up about reunification. Though informative, I was much more interested in staring across the river. The most amusing part was when we paused near a tour guide who was with a Japanese woman. He kindly pointed across the river and explained to us, “North Korea.”
After the observatory, we continued our tour of Gangwha. We next went to see the Ganghwa Dolmen. A UNESCO World Heritage site! Dolmen are ancient stone burial markers. There are over 70 dolmen on Ganghwa Island and several more scattered throughout Korea. Dolmen in Korea date back to the 7th century BC. The most famous dolmen on the island is called the Ganghwa Dolmen, and that is where you can get the UNESCO stamp. It is estimated to weigh between 150-225 tons, and archeologists believe it took 200-300 people to lift the top piece into place. This is important because it means that there was some type of tribe or someone with enough power to gather all these people together to lift a big rock. Neolithic history has never been the most exciting to me, but it was interesting to see and to realize how long humans have been on the Korean peninsula. And I got my stamp.
After the dolmen, we had some delicious beef and leaf for lunch, but I failed to chronicle this part of our adventure. We moved on to our last stop and saw the Goryeogung Palace, which was built in 1270 and used by the Goryeo Dynasty for almost 40 years. The grounds are much smaller than other palaces we have visited, but the architectural style is very similar. We didn’t spend very long at the palace because it was mid-afternoon and quite hot.
It is only now that I write this post that I realize that in one day, on one island, we saw three major points in Korea’s history. The ancient dolmen from Korea’s neolithic cultures, the palace representing Korea’s dynasty era, and the peace observatory- remembering the Korean War and the modern division of the peninsula. I love that this country has so much history, and so much to see if you are willing to go find it. I hope that each UNESCO stamp journey turns out as well as this one!