The city wall of Seoul (part II)

The City Wall Today

          Today, only 10.5 kilometers of the original 18.2-kilometer city wall remain standing. The longest unbroken section of the wall runs over Mt. Bugaksan to the north, with only a short gap before continuing over Mt. Inwangsan to the west. There are shorter sections on Mt. Naksan to the east, running between the gates of Hyehwamun and Heunginjimun [commonly known as Dongdaemun, or the ”Great East Gate”], and on Mt. Namsan to the south. Probably the most popular course is the one running from Inwangsan to Bugaksan, in part because it was inaccessible for so long.

            Mr. Gu, a long-time resident of Seoul, was excited at the propect of visiting the city wall with his two elder brothers. ”My heart is leaping  at the thought of this rewarding trip,” he said. ”We’ve lived in Seoul for forty of fifty years and have only ever seen the Sky Drive and Palgakjeong Pavilion on Mt. Bugaksan.” Ms. Jo, who works in dowtown Seoul, in sight of Mt. Inwangsan and Mt. Bugaksan, visits the city wall about twice a month: ”I really like how you can see the whole of Seoul at a glance from the top, and there are a number of places along the wall where observations platforms have been set up to allow people to enjoy the views.” Her coworker, Mrs. Lee, agreed. ”If we just want to experience Seoul’s history, we can always visit the palaces,” she noted. ”But walking along the city wall gives us a sense of what Seoul was like in the past, and shows us how it was founded on principles of pungsu [feng shui]. It offers a new perspective on the city of Seoul.”

            Since most of the wall follows the mountain peaks and ridges, walkers are treated to a solid workout in addition to the beautiful, panoramic views of city. Heading east from Changuimun, the wall climbs steeply up Mt. Bugaksan, and visitors follow along a winding stairway. Once at top though, the fresh air and sweeping vistas of Seoul nestled between mountain peaks wash away any fatigue.

            Once walkers  are able to take their eyes off the city below, the wall itself offers a journey through history. The three different styles of architecture are clearly visible, from King Taejo’s original wall and King Sejong’s renovations of King Sukjong’s construction centuries later. The original wall consists of smaller, irregular stones fitted togheter to form fortifications that look and feel very organic. When King Sejong rebuilt and renovated the wall, larger  rectangular sones were used, with smaller stones inserted in between to plug any gap. This wall still feels quite organic, but the lines are much more uniform. The 18th century construction is the most distinct, as square granite blocks were cut to a uniform shape and size to build a sturdy, imposing wall. There are a number of areas, such as the sections adjoining the northenmost gate of Sukjeongmun, where all three construction styles can be seen next to each other.

            The observant walker will notice that certain blocks in the wall are engraved with characters. Some of these record dates of construction and the names of those in charge. Also, since laborers were mobilized from all corners of Korea, some stones mark the sections built by workers from each part of the country. Finally, the entire wall was divided into 97 sections of aproximately 180 meters each. Rather than simply numbering these sections, the builders used the text of One Thousand Characers, a primer for learning the basic Chinese characters. The first section, at the peak of Mt. Bugaksan, is labeled with the first character in this text, the character for ”the heavens”. The sections continue in order to the east, or clockwise, finishing once again on the peak of Mt. Bugaksan with 97th character, the character for ”to pity”.

            Finally, there are the features of the wall itself. The most visible and iconic are the battlements atop the wall. These feature narrow gaps and wide ”teeth”, the latter of which are each punctuated by three loopholes. The two outer loopholes are cut straight through wall, but the center loopholes are angled steeply downward, allowing defenders to target attackers both far away from and close to the wall. There are also smaller square bastions and larger curved bastions located along the wall. These structures offered defenders  a greater field of fire, allowing them to cover walls on either side. The most imposing structures along the wall are the many gates. Of the four great gates, the eastern gate, Heunginjimun, and the southern gate, Sungnyemun, now stand in the middle of busy city streets; Sungnyemun is curently being rebuilt after it was nearly destroyed by fire in 2008. The western gate, Donuimun, was torn down by the Japanese during the colonial period, although it is scheduled to be fully restored by 2013. Only the northen gate, Sukjeongmun, still stands in its original environment.

Trekking as a New Trend

            The Seoul city wall is a precious cultural heritage that offers a glimpse into the history of the city, but it is also a living part of the city today. Encircling what is now the center of Seoul, it can be accessed from various different points, leaving walkers free to choose from short strolls to longer walks that travel up and down mountain ridges. In this day and age, when people often seem to be in so much of a hurry to get where they are going that they do not take the time to stop and look around, many are making an effort to slow down and spend more time thinking about the journey itself than about the destination.

            Among those seeking to enjoy the journey, trekking has become quite popular. In fact, a new educational institution called the Korea Treking School has been founded with full governement suport for the purpose of introducing the Korean people to this relatively new pastime. According to the school’s website [], ”While the goal of mountaineering is to overcome danger and adversity, and achieve a sense of accomplishment through adventures and challenges, trekking seeks to eliminate as much danger as possible, allowing the trekker to enjoy the scenery and become a part of nature in a safe and relaxed environment.”

            There are a number of long trekking courses around the peninsula. Mt. Jirisan is the highest peak on the South Korean mainland, at a height of over 1,916 meters, and its deep mist-shrouded folds hold a special place in the imagination of Koreans. In recent years, a trails that circles the mountain, known as the Dulle Trail, has been restored for trekking. This trais runs for some 300 kilometers and passes through land that is largely undeveloped and still in its natural form. The trail is divided into smaller sections to allow for shorter, single-day trips.

            On Jejudo Island, off the southwestern tip of Korea, the Olle trail runs along the shoreline, circling the highest mountain in South Korea, Mt. Hallasan (1,950 m). There are currently 15 different trails along this route, spanning some 215 kilometers along the southern shore from the western end of the island to the eastern end, and there are plans to add even more trails in the future. Closer to Seoul, construction is currently underway on a trekking trail that will run around Mt. Bukhansan. In March this year, the 64-kilometer Sulle Trail, the first section of the longer trail, was opened to the public, and the entire trail is expected to be completed by 2013. With this, trekking looks to take its place in Korean culture next to mountain climbing as a new lifestyle that nurtures both body and soul.

Part I

Source: Koreana magazine, Vol. 24, No. 2 Summer 2010, p. 85,86

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