I was lucky enough to have a 5 day weekend for the New Year, so I got the heck out of Pohang for a few days. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home away from home, but I’ve been feeling a mite cooped up lately. It was good to get out for a bit.
My destination? Suwon, a city of over a million people just south of Seoul. I have a dear friend whose family lives in Suwon and another whose family lives in nearby Beomgye, so it was a great excuse to see both of them. In between catching up and having an awesome time, I was able to explore Suwon’s crown jewel: Hwaseong Fortress.
My first chance to explore the fortress came the night of my arrival, as I was making my way home from seeing my friends in Beomgye. While walking back to my hostel from Suwon Station, I found myself uncomfortably lost and, in my search for ‘home’, managed to stumble across a little bit of magic.
It was cold–freezing cold–and snow had been falling for some time. The streets were clear, but sidewalks and trees were dusted in a fine layer of white powder. As I crossed a street and realized I had no idea where I was, I saw a huge hill rising ahead of me with what appeared to be a large wall stretching along its crest. Lost as I was, I figured I was still in Suwon, so I made a pretty safe guess that the structure ahead of me was part of Hwaseong. Since getting a good vantage point is an effective way of un-losing oneself, I elected to scale the hill and get a lay of the land.
I made my way up a meandering path, dodging cackling teenagers on plastic sleds and slow-walking couples trapped in each others’ eyes. The icy path made its way under a stone arch and I found myself alone; a series of street lamps and snow-covered benches dotting the white curve of the trail ahead of me. Very faintly in the distance I could hear the murmur of traffic, punctuated by the occasional beeping of a horn; these sounds were muted and dull. Finally, near the top, I got my view of the city.
It was beautiful. The myriad of lights stretched this way and that, the sprawling mess of humanity twinkling like a circuit board below me. I’m a sucker for a good view and, while this was a departure from the natural vistas I prefer, it was still wonderful to experience.
While I was at the top, I managed to catch a glimpse of an impossible-to-miss neon blue Christmas tree–which just so happened to be down the street from my hostel. It was much further away than I expected it to be; I’d gone to the opposite side of the fortress from where I should have. Nonplussed and with a newly calibrated internal compass, I set off in the direction of my bed and walked onwards. I stopped to take the occasional picture and slip on the occasional patch of ice–all the while smiling happily as the snow blanketed the ground around me.
The next day I spent with a good friend of mine from Mongolia. We went around Seoul a bit and, in the process, had some of the best food I’ve tasted at Salmone Kitchen near Garak Market. That’s nowhere near Suwon, however, so I’ll simply submit this picture for your salivation pleasure and we can move on:
That evening, we headed back to Suwon and walked around the fortress. We started at the East Gate, or Changnyongmun (창뇽문). Much smaller than the North or South Gates–Janganmun (장안문) and Paldalmun (팔달문), respectively–the East Gate is non-assuming, but worth a look. Near the gate is a small tourism building where visitors can try their hand at Korean traditional archery, or hwal (활). Unfortunately, we’d missed the last session by a matter of minutes, but I resolved to return the following morning and try my hand at it.
My friend and I continued on along the wall, treading carefully along the icy paths and taking in the glimpses of the city-scape allowed by crenels between the merlons of the battlements. Like my medieval vocabulary? All that just means the gaps in the wall which you can look through.
The walk was awesome, giving us some beautiful views of the Fortress and the city which has grown around it. It was interesting to see the serpentine shape of the ancient, lamp-lit wall winding through a maze of modern structures and roads. As modern and technologically advanced as Korea can seem, it’s sometimes easy to forget how rich Korean culture is. Many expats I’ve met have complained how everything in Korea looks the same. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a fascinating and complex place with wonderful secrets hidden in the folds of its society. An outsider just has to look closely.
Once my friend and I reached the South Gate, we headed to her place to enjoy some tea and conversation with her family. Her mom was awesome and spoiled me rotten with a tasty feast of snacks and tea.
The next day, I woke up a little earlier than I’d planned and headed back to the East Gate. Luckily, this time, I made it in time for an archery session. How’d I do? Pretty awful. Out of the 10 arrows I loosed, only three struck the rather large target and, of those, only two remained stuck. Alas, Robin Hood I am not.
Nonetheless, it was a great experience for me. I was really into archery when I was young (YMCA camp and Boy Scouts) but haven’t touched a bow in over a decade. I think, come spring, I may take up bow and quiver again and try my hand at the sport.
After I finished the archery, I headed back to Suwon Station and embarked on the long journey home. It was New Year’s Eve; I had friends to see and good times to have. As the train rolled away from the station and I found a small nook between cars to crouch–the train was full and I wasn’t able to get a seat–I couldn’t help but reminisce about the weekend. My fantastic 2013 was nearly over, yet the year ahead was pregnant with promises of adventure and excitement. Bring it on, 2014!