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Living History in Bukchon
A stroll through the alleyways of Bukchon, the city’s historic residential quarter, offers precious respite from the frenetic pace of urban life and a fascinating, somewhat romanticized view of Old Seoul. Captivating views over the curved tiled roofs of the traditional Korean houses, or hanok, and the pretty patterned stone walls lining the narrow streets are perhaps Bukchon’s most famous feature, a stark contrast to the shiny titanium towers thrusting from the business and commercial districts downtown. History buffs, architecture fans, connoisseurs of culture and most of all, the curious, are certain to be charmed.
Between the Two Palaces
Bukchon is wedged between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace in the north of the city, and this was the village to where high-ranking officials of the Joseon dynasty would catch the last palanquin home after a long day at court spent plotting schemes and taking bribes. Subsequently, the area is steeped history and intrigue.

The challenge to planning a walk round Bukchon is deciding where to start. The village covers a great chunk of acreage, encompassing five dong or neighborhoods, including those of Anguk-dong, Gahoe-dong, Jae-dong, Gye-dong and Samcheong-dong. And there’s a lot to see and do: museums, art galleries, workshops, fine dining, famous artisans who do wonderful things with embroidery, silkand arrow heads, and, course, the unique landscape.
On this particular foray, first stop is the Bukchon Cultural Centre, housed in a refurbished hanok, where you can join free tours and pickup maps and other info, mostly in Korean. Even lacking the expertise of an official guide, it’s fun to poke around the grounds, picturing oneself as a high-ranking Joseon official — the delicate latticed windows are especially delightful.

Set off east along Bukchon 1-gil and passing several real estate agencies that suggest a buoyant local property market, the curved roofs and wooded slopes of Changdeokgung Palace become visible. Making a left, on the corner is an interesting compound set behind an imposing wooden doorway. This is the site of the former royal police station dating back to the last tumultuous days of the Joseon era. It's now used by followers of Wonbulgyo, or Won Buddhism, a relatively new indigenous Korean religion that combines traditional Buddhist thought with Christian social reform. I was shown around by one of the sect’s elders, a stern woman in her 60s dressed all in black who stressed the asceticism of the group’s beliefs. No Buddha figures, for example. Yet the garden, and especially the decorative walls surrounding the complex, are far from austere and well worth some snapshots.

→ Click here for more on Gyeongbokgung Palace
→ Click here for more on Changdeokgung Palace
→ Click here for more on Guest houses in Bukchon
Seoul Meets Hogwarts
Heading north, parallel to the palace, tour guide Cho Young Hee was leading a party of three. The road we were on, he said, covered a stream that the government planned to excavate to create another Cheonggyecheon, the canal opened in 2005 that runs through Seoul north of the Hangang river. Very pleasant, I thought, once the dust settles and the trucks depart. Another such stream would be a refreshing antidote to Seoul’s exhaust-thick streets.
“Even lacking the expertise of an official guide, it’s fun to poke around the grounds, picturing oneself as a high-ranking Joseon official - the delicate latticed windows are especially delightful.”
The next destination is Joong-ang High School, a gothic joy with more than a touch of the Hogwarts about it. The main building bears an uncanny resemblance to Korea University, which is not surprising because the same architects built both institutions. The school is famous because several lovey-dovey scenes from the vastly popular TV drama “Winter Sonata” were shot here, and fans are often found lingering at the main gates buying memorabilia from nearby hawkers. Teachers from the school are said to have played a crucial role organizing the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919. At the back of the school, a soon-to-be renovated March 1st Memorial Hall but currently rafter-high with junk, will be worth a future visit.
A Sea of Korean Tile
From the school, heading southwest into 11 Gahoe-dong, you can slip down any alley and have a good nose around the hanok whose roofs decorate the skyline. The renovated ones are stunning, especially those adorned with climbing pot plants. I particularly like the granite stonework, the black and white rectangular patterned tiles, and the sturdy doorways. These houses retain an air of the archaic, but at the same time, occupy a fiercely modern world: you can’t fail to spot the state-of-the-art security devices and intercoms. You’ll also see some hanok in desperate need of fresh timber and a lickof paint, a reminder that without modernization, many of these houses would be uninhabitable.
“There are no 24 hour convenience stores, no visible overhead cables, no museums and commercial buildings — just hano and pigeons hopping across the sloping roof tiles.”
Tucked into alleys near the school you’ll find the Gahoe Museum and the Knot Workshop, where you can watch talented artisans produce elaborate macrame. I stopped at the Hang Sang Soo Embroidery Museum where Ms. Hang, now in her 70s and designated an embroidery master by the government, still wields needle and thread to great acclaim, producing elegant wrapping cloths (bojagi) and wall hangings, among other designs.
Where the Hanok Reigns Supreme
Continuing west across the road that drives up towards the Bukhansan National Park towards 31 Gahoe-dong, is the setting which is described to have the best views over the village. To be honest, there’s a lot of construction going on and swanky SUVs clogging the tight paths were a pain, but once at the top of the hill, you won't be disappointed. There are no 24 hour convenience stores, no visible overhead cables, no museums and commercial buildings - just hanok and pigeons hopping across the sloping roof tiles. Very tranquil, with an atmosphere not unlike a ghost town.
Jeongdok Library, Gwanghyewon
From 31 Gahoe-dong, go southwards to the Jeongdok Library to contemplate the sight of Jongchinbu, the pavilion where kings would discuss matters of state with their personal advisers, some of whom no doubt lived in Gahoe-dong. It’s also worthwhile to wander around the Seoul Museum of Historical Materials of Education and its exhibits of old textbooks, school uniforms and pins - it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds.

To cap off this good three hour walk, checkout the site of Gwanghyewon, Korea’s first modern hospital, and where the Constitutional Court now sits. Gwanghyewon was built in 1885 at the behest of King Gojong after the American medical missionary Dr. Horace Allen saved the life of a member of the royal family.

At the back is a well-kept garden, home to a very rare 600 year-old lacebark pine. Arthritic-looking, pale and propped up on stilts, the tree is a virtual soul mate for this traveler. It’s time to rest your feet on a nearby bench. As it started to drizzle, I couldn’t help but wonder, if this tree could talk, what stories it could tell.
Written by Michael Gibb / Photos by Ryu Seunghoo
The article courtesy of Seoul Magazine
Date 01/17/2008

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