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Ganghwa Island
Ganghwa Island : Korea’s Island Fortress Witness to Dramatic History-Written and photographed by Robert Koehler
For centuries, Ganghwa Island has served as both a getaway—in the very literal sense—and a gatekeeper to Korea.
In the 13th century, the Korean royal court fled to the island fortress, strategically located at the mouth of the Hangang River, as the Mongols swept down upon Korea. In the 19th century, French, American and Japanese invaders attacked the island, waging fierce battles below its bastion walls. Later, more foreigners, this time Christian missionaries from Britain and elsewhere, would set foot on the island, dotting the countryside with Korean-style churches—some of which stand to this day.
Located just an hour’s drive west of Seoul, Ganghwa Island still gets a large number of visitors, although mostly in the form of tourists. History buffs love its old walls and citadels, while its beautiful Buddhist monasteries provide weekend solace to world-weary refugees from Seoul. Hikers head for Mt. Manisan, with its ancient altar and spectacular views of the sea, Travel while the more culinary-inclined are content simply to consume the island’s famous fresh horse crab and other bounty from the surrounding waters and mudflats.

International Cuisine
Historically, Ganghwa is most famous for providing shelter to the Korean court during the dark days of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. The first Mongol invasion, launched in 1231, led to a Korean surrender and a heavy tribute burden. Determined to resist, in 1232 the royal court, led by King Gojong of the Goryeo Dynasty (r. 1213—1259), evacuated the capital of Kaesong (just across the DMZ in today’s North Korea) in favor of Ganghwa and safety from attack by the landloving Mongols, whose fear of the water was so severe they would not cross even the narrow strait separating the island from the mainland. It was a impressive logistical undertaking for a medieval kingdom. The court stayed at Ganghwa until 1270, when they finally sued for peace with the Mongols, who had spent the better part of forty years laying waste to the Korean mainland.
Unfortunatel y , most o f the old palace and fortifications were destroyed when the royal court returned to the mainland. In the Joseon era (1392— 1910), a new palace complex was constructed after the Qing invasion of Korea in 1636, but this, too, was torched by French marines in 1866; only three buildings remain. Still, the old palace ground, located in the administrative hub of Ganghwa Town (Ganghwa-eup), is worth seeing.
An old gate from the Joseon era town wall still remains, too.

Getting There: The old Goryeo palace site is near Ganghwa Elementary School in Ganghwa Town.

Western Barbarians
Standing sentinel at the mouth of the Hangang River, old Korea’s highway to the royal capital, Ganghwa also hosted some of Korea’s first interactions with the West in the late 19th century. These interactions were not entirely peaceable, however. In 1866, the French— enacting vengeance for a brutal crackdown on Catholics by the Korean royal court that left nine French missionaries dead—attacked the island. The raiders were repulsed, but not before they’d burned and looted much of the island in good imperialist fashion. In 1871, American marines attacked Ganghwa’s fortresses in retaliation for the burning of a US ship and to persuade (unsuccessfully, as history would have it) the Koreans to sign a trade treaty. Finally, in 1875, the Japanese attacked the island and forced the Koreans to sign the Ganghwa Treaty, which marked Korea’s “opening” to imperial powers of the West and Japan.
The old fortifications are still very much in place along the island’s western coast (i.e., guarding the strait with the mainland). The most impressive of these is the Gwangseongbo Citadel, a series of defense walls, gun emplacements and command posts where Korean defenders fought to the death against US Navy bluejackets in 1871. Other historic coastal batteries can be found at Chojijin and Deokjinjin, too.

Getting There: Buses to Gwangseongbo, Deokjinjin and Chojijin run from Ganghwa Bus Terminal.

Hiking to Heaven
Ganghwa's most notable topographical feature (other than being surrounded by water, that is) is Mt. Manisan, a 468 meter peak that rises gently out of the southern interior of the island. Crossed by well-kept hiking paths, including a full flight of stone steps to the top, it sees a good many weekend hikers from Seoul, even in winter.
The peak offers fine views of the West Sea and the Korean mainland (provided the weather’s good, of course).
The mountain is best known, however, for the Chamseongdan, a stone altar on its peak. It is said that Dangun, who founded the Korean nation in 2333 BC, held sacrificial rites to heaven here. Annual rites are still performed at the altar on National Foundation Day (Oct 3). The upper ridge line is quite rocky, so wear your hiking boots.
The best sunsets on the island, however, are seen from the peak of Mt. Goryeosan (436m) in the north of the island. Beautiful sunsets can also be had from Jeokseoksa Temple on the western slopes of the mountain.

Getting There: Buses to Mt. Manisan run from Ganghwa Bus Terminal.

Never Mess With a Temple Architect
One of Korea’s most beautiful Buddhist temples, Jeondeungsa has a history that goes back to AD 381. It is home to a plethora of cultural treasures, including its 17th century main hall and an 11th century Chinese temple bell that came into the temple’s possession after World War II. When you visit, be sure to check out the corners of the main hall—you’ll notice carved figures of naked women holding up the roof.
According to legend, the engineer building the temple fell in love with a barmaid in town. Unfortunately for him, she absconded with all his money. In revenge, the engineer worked her image into the temple, where, at least figuratively, she would have to hold up the temple roof for all eternity.
Another wonderful temple to visit is Bomunsa, located on the small isle of Seongmo-do (a five minute ferry ride from the Ganghwa port of Oepo-ri). There’s an ancient Buddhist grotto on the grounds of the temple, and in the granite cliffs above the complex is a 10 meter high Buddhist relief, reached by a kilometer long flight of steps.

Getting There: Buses to Jeondeungsa run from Ganghwa Bus Terminal. To get to Bomunsa, take a bus from Ganghwa Bus Terminal to Oepo-ri and take the ferry from there.

Harmonizing East and West
Ganghwa is also home to several hanok churches, built in the traditional Korean hanok style during the early part of the 20th century. The most famous of these is Ganghwa Anglican Church, located on a hill in Ganghwa Town. Consecrated in 1900 and built by a royal architect who participated in the reconstruction of Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace, the church harmonizes Korean palace architecture and Buddhist spatial orientation with a Roman basilica interior. Visit it on Sunday morning, when you’re more likely to get inside.
There’s another hanok Anglican church (built in a much simpler style) in Onsu-ri, near Jeondeungsa Temple.
More intrepid travelers can visit Seodo Central Methodist Church, located on the island of Jumun-do, an hour and 40 minute ferry ride from Oepo-ri (two ferries a day, at 9:30am and 5pm, but the latter requires you to sleep on the island). Also in hanok style, it has a rather unusual second story above its entrance, originally used as a bell tower in imitation of Western church architecture

Getting There: Ganghwa Anglican Church is in downtown Ganghwa Town. Onsu-si Anglican Church is a short walk from Jeondeungsa Temple (see above).
TIP: Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center
Located near Jeondeungsa Temple, the Lotus Lantern International Meditation Center offers temple stay programs every weekend (except the fourth weekend of the month). Visit for more information.
Getting to Ganghwa Island
Buses to Ganghwa Island leave from Seoul’s Sinchon Bus Terminal, reached via Exit 7 of Sinchon Station, Line 2. The trip to Ganghwa Town takes about an hour and 10 minutes. From Ganghwa Terminal, you can take local buses to destinations throughout the island.

What to Eat

Being an island, Ganghwa is famous for its seafood. In particular, it is known for its delicious horse crab (kkotge). Seoul Hoetjip (032-933-5433), located in the port of Oepo-ri, is famous for its horse crab stew (kkotgetang), which you can order for 50,000 won a serving (feeds two). Another specialty of Ganghwa is eel harvested from the island’s famous mudflats. There are a ton of restaurants specializing in eel—particularly roasted eel (jangeo gui)—in the so-called “Deorimi Jangeochon” near the Ganghwa Bridge.

Where to Stay
A lot of folk do Ganghwa as a day trip from Seoul. Should you choose to spend the night, though, there are plenty of places to stay, homestay facilities (minbak) and rental houses (pensions) in particular. “Sea & Gallery” (032- 937-0416,, Korean) blends artwork and European interior rooms (70,000—150,000 won a night) with beautiful views of the sea. Be sure to book a room in advance, though.

 - The article courtesy of Seoul magazine
Date 02/03/2010

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