Sunday, 17 August 2014

강화도 | Gangwha Whistle-Stop Tour

It's vacation time! \o/ We have two weeks off school for summer vacation, and after the stress and pain of Summer Camp week (my body picks the best times to mess up) I was very ready to just kick back and get on with some good old-fashioned exploring.

Nick's parents visited for the first week of the holiday, so we packed in a LOT. Day 1 was a tour of Gangwha, an island near Incheon and the place where one of Nick's co-teachers grew up. He picked us up bright and early and very kindly drove us around. A personal tour! It was so wonderful and we probably learnt a lot more than if we'd just tried to go out there ourselves (although we probably would never have even thought to go). It's a wonderful island, so different from the packed streets of Incheon and Seoul that we've seen so far. It's much more similar to the countryside I'm familiar with at home.

It's got a long, sad, hardworking history, like much of Korea, and definitely a great place to visit if you have the chance, and are interested in gorgeous scenery and extensive history.

First stop on the tour was , an old fortress that saw a terrible battle with some American troops in 1871. For a military area, it's strangely beautiful.

Forever finding doorways that are too small.

This guy was very excited by the view.
This little lookout point is 용두돈대, which translates roughly to the Skyrim-esque 'Dragon Head Lookout', because it looks like one.
After feeling quite tired from the pretty intense hike as well as the heat (it was a BEAUTIFUL day), we ate some ice cream and jetted off to a Buddhist Temple (Jeondeungsa / 전등사). It's the first proper one we'd been to since arriving in Korea. Again, the people building it had something of a penchant for mountains, and I'm really not the healthiest person in the world. Wheeze.

Apparently a load of French troops attacked this area in 1866 and stole a lot of artefacts. Rude.

Apparently this building was dedicated to the architect's sweetheart, who then betrayed him. Legend has it that the human-shaped figures "holding up" the 4 corners of the roof are meant to be her likeness as a sort of eternal revenge. Harsh.

We went to look at what appeared to be the main temple building to ogle the pretty offerings and prayers, and after bowing to the monk inside and saying hello, he beckoned us over and gave us some grapes. He asked a lady nearby to tell us something, but as it was all in Korean we had to worriedly call over Nick's co-teacher to just find out that he was sharing some food with us but wanted us to wash them before we ate anything. Cute!

This butterfly was enormous, like, the size of my hand. I swear.

A building halfway through restoration. Thought it looked really cool.
Flowers for mi madre.

Back down the mountain, it was time for lunch. 배 선생님 took us to a nearby restaurant where we had the BEST bibimbap I've had. All of the vegetables were really flavourful and not bitter in the slightest, and the rice was great too. I'll assume it was Gangwha rice, which I have been told is very, very good, if not the best Korea has to offer. Apparently this restaurant is very old and well-known, so that would explain it, but still. My Korean skills still aren't great yet, but I'm pretty sure it was also very, very cheap.

Next, we went to the Gangwha Peace Observatory. It was quite a distance away, so I ended up nodding off in the back, and completely missed the military checkpoint(!) where we had to hand over some contact details in the event something bad happens. Erk.

The Peace Observatory overlooks the northern strip of Gangwha, over a rather large and serious-looking fence, into North Korea. Which explains the strong military presence in the area. There are binoculars situated all along the balcony so you can actually see little towns on the coast, as well as some really beautiful-looking mountains. It's so peaceful, it's easy to look at what the news shows us and think of it as some horrific, grey country, forgetting that it was once part of the same beautiful country I currently call home.

We took some photos and took the opportunity to Skype some friends from home to show them the view, only to realise it really could be anywhere in the world. They just had to take our word for it, because hey, it's a strip of mountains and some sea. We could be in Europe, or China, anywhere.

Inside the observatory building, there's a large museum about the history of the area, from the American and French invasions, to the Japanese occupation, all the way through the Korean war to the potential benefits of reunification. Did you know that if North Korea agreed to reunify with the south, or at least peace, you could build a trainline that links up pretty much the entire world? I could get a train from London all the way to Korea or even Japan.

배 선생님 seemed quite sad. He told us how he used to tell his students that maybe one day they could take a field trip to their brother country and see the famous mountains, and likes to think that it could be possible in his lifetime. He likes to think that it is possible that one day he could ride a train across the world to London to see us again. I like to think that too.

There's a room in the observatory full of similar wishes from visitors, domestic and international. They're strung up all over the room, hung from the ceiling, and it's really quite bittersweet.

Before we got too sad, we all left for our final destination, Gangwha History Museum, where we learnt some more about the events we'd read about that day, as well as seeing one of Korea's oldest 'buildings', the stone dolmen. They're monoliths, mysteriously similar to many ancient stone structures found around the world. Like the Egyptian pyramids, they're burial monuments for powerful ancient Koreans, who were buried with food and weapons ready for the afterlife. There are something like 60-80,000 dolmens to be found worldwide, and at least 40,000 can be found in South Korea alone. Mind blown.

We headed on the long journey home, accompanied by a wonderful sunset, and the kind of incredible sleep that only comes with being really, excellently, exhausted from a great day out.

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