Buckle the fuck up, this is a big one.
With Geongbukgung complete, the next day I set about to find my way to yet another of Seoul’s majestic royal palaces, one that everyone told me was arguably the prettiest of them all, and in the end, I found it easy to see why. But the journey to reach this understanding was not an easy one; Korea had been hard on me from the start, and it was about to get a little bit harder.
Another day, another Palace in Seoul.
I’d heard that Changdeokgung was arguably the greatest and most beautiful of all Seouls’ palaces, so I was very keen to amongst it, especially after being so blown away by Geongbukgung the day before.
This day starting off fairly standard. I made my way to the train station, and was following my amazing map in my lonely planet guide to help navigate the subway system, this thing was honestly a godsend, and I arrived at the palace gates sometime just after midday.
Honestly, 12pm was go time for me, and – for me- it was fairly early. I know, I know, what you’re thinking: 12pm? that is the afternoon, not the morning! Well, after the well-behaved hostel residents in New Zealand, where everyone was either quiet after 10pm, or moved on to the bars… Korea was completely different. People would come in at 1.30 in the morning, turn the light on, talk at full volume… they basically no “dorm-room etiquette.” and as a result, I vary rarely got to sleep before 1am, and I was usually woken up somewhere around 3 or 4 every night. It was not great.
Changdeokgung is, at first glance, very similar to its cousin at Geongbokgung. It had a very grand and regal feel, very open and welcoming, whilst having maybe nicer gardens in general. I knew before going in that the supposed “best part” of Changdeokgung was the restored Secret Garden – however, when I purchased my ticket, it seems the woman at the desk misunderstood me, and gave me only a general entry ticket. I would work out later, that tickets into the Garden were sold inside.
I set about exploring the Palace Grounds, weaving my way through the trees and the buildings. Seoul is such a fascinating contrast of times; wandering through the woods and old shrines of the palace grounds, it feels like a time warp back in history; men and women visit the grounds in traditional clothing, and left alone, the culture and atmosphere sweep over you. Yet, in the distance, the towering high-rises of the Seoul trace the skyline, creating a duopoly of worlds; where the modern meets the traditional.
I tracked the Palace around to a pond on the far corner, into what I’m pretty sure was actually an entirely different palace grounds, attached directly next door to Changdeokgung. I walked through lovely paths under trees shedding their autumn leaves; crunching hard leaves red and yellow underfoot, I started taking more and more photographs.
What amazed me so much about the palaces was the tiny things, little angle in the buildings, the patterns on the doors, and cornices, a raven in an orange tree. I started taking photos of curious things, strange angles. Playing with the landscape around me, and allowed the architecture to influence my view. It was a totally refreshing way to go about my day – it’s funny how a little tiny thing such as the angles of your photos can actually end up shaping your memory of an entire experience.
The next day was more challenging. I was struck by an unremarkable apathy the next day, and I truly, simply couldn’t enjoy myself at all. I lazed about the guesthouse on my phone, not really engaging with anything beyond the black mirror in front of me.
In hindsight, I can put it down to a few things that were really affecting me a bit more g
reatly than they usually did: one of those things was loneliness. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alone as I felt in Korea; It was tough to be separated from people by all kinds of barriers; distance, race, language. I felt like the alien, and it was taking its toll.
The other thing hampering my spirits, was that I knew my departure date, or rather, my “return-home” date was fast approaching, and honestly, I was really excited to go home. I was excited to go home and write, and work on getting my work in short fiction and my novel published – I couldn’t work on that in Korea without my laptop, and it was bothering me. The other thing was, I had come to Korea without a plan, without a schedule of any kind, so even though there were things I wanted to see, I wasn’t in any rush to see them.
The best advice I got was to sit down and write a list (I remember I had to hear this advice from multiple people before it actually started to sink in.) And so I walked to the cafe on the corner, ordered a cappaccino in my very worst Korean, and set about making my list.
I still have the list written down, I knew I wanted at least a week in Jeju Island, and so I planned up until the day my flight left for Jeju:
- Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden. Also Jongmo Shrine.
- Deoksugung Palace (the only one open at night)
- Seonjeongneong Tombs
- Namhanseong, the world heritage fortress
- Bukhansan National Park (2 days?)
- Fly to Jeju Island
Note: I would not get all these things done. (But most)
So, with my list done, I set about completing the first item, and returned to Changdeokgung to finish what I started.
The Secret Garden
Returning to Changdeokgung, this time I was determined to get it right. I paid for my general entry and made my way directly to the Secret Garden entrance, and waited there about forty minutes whilst I waited for the English-speaking tour to begin. I wandered around the grounds some more, determined to find new and exciting angles of things I had already seen, and I took an iced chocolate around to a secluded walkway, and read a few pages of my book whilst I waited.
Soon, the time came for the tour, and it was very much worth the wait. According to our guide, I was there at her favourite time, at the beginning of Winter, when all the trees still had their Autumn colour, and the first thing we did was make a pleasant walk down a terrace lined with trees of red, orange and yellow.
We made our way around this path, the leaves crunching beneath our shoes, as our guide told us the troubled and often turbulent history of Korea – how the country is still technically in a state of war, and how it was actually a Japanese colony as early as the second World War (this was something most people not me actually already knew…oops hehe). She told us about the Japanese ninja who attempted to assassinate Korean Kings and Queens throughout history, as she led us down to a beautiful fishing pond, where the Kings of old would entertain their advisors, and invite them to fish and tell tales together.
Whether or not there was still fish in the pond was a subject open for debate.
At this stage, a lot of people frustratingly began to peel away from the tour guide and start to do their own thing. It’s not actually that big a deal, but for my slightly OCD self, I could see it was beginning to get somewhat aggravating for the tour guide, and it rubbed off on me, anyway.
We made out way down another path, past a place reserved for the princes for study, and learn. It was a really pleasant grove, and I could completely understand why the Prince would like reading and writing there (apparently he
was a bit of a poet? – I may be misremembering that). There was another pond, a nice tree, and the stunning colours of the trees continued to impress.
The tour continued on around the gardens, with each section becoming more impressive than the last. It was difficult to get the shots I wanted; often there was someone in the spot I like taking 400 photographs, or there would be someone walking into frame just as I tried to take picture.
I took so many photos; far too many to try and write about here, so I’m going to dump them all on you at one. Enjoy!
I really can’t recommend Changdeokgung enough – there were plenty of people who told me that it was the grandest of the palaces in Seoul, and in some ways, they were absolutely right. I think from my own personal viewpoint, I found the two palaces very similar, and in terms of the actual structures, the architecture and the sheer size of it, I enjoyed Geongbokgung a bit more. Particularly with all the mountains in the distance, just over the walls.
However, where Changdeokgung sets itself apart, is the impressive Secret Garden. Honestly, it’s more worth going to Changdeokgung for the Secret Garden alone. You learn so much about the history of the Korean Peninsula, and you gain an insight into how the royals used to live their life (who would of thought that the practised farming rice paddies in order to relate to the people?) Definitely, Definitely go. It’s a very cool place, and I was completely enthralled by both palaces, by Geongbokgung’s scale, and Changdeokgung’s beauty.
But after Changdeokgung, I was well and truly palace-d out. I needed a change of pace, but that’s a story for another time.