23 November 2008

Incheon: Ganghwa Island

I spent the day over on Ganghwa Island, a remote, rural part of the City of Incheon and famous for its dolmens and fortresses. I had counted on spending just a few hours there, but I ended up finding so much to see that a full day was barely a teaser for me. I may have to return there on my next road trip.

First, some driving notes. My Seongnam apartment is right next to the Bundang-Suseo Urban Expressway, which becomes the Dongbu Expressway upon entering Seoul. I was able to make the entire trip on freeways and normal highways today, paying no tolls, and felt very happy about it. My route took the Dongbu Expressway to the Olympic Stadium, transferring to the Olympic Expressway westbound, which ends near Gimpo Airport; from there on, National Highway 48 took over all the way to Ganghwa Island. This being Sunday morning, traffic was light, and I was able to go well in excess of the 80 km/h speed limit; it took me only 30 minutes to clear the freeway portion, and only 30 more minutes to Ganghwa Island.

I have to mention another thing about Seoul driving. Although not shown on my atlas and navigation system, Seoul has its own system of numbered thoroughfares. This is necessary, as Seoul's thoroughfares tend to change names every few miles. The even-numbered routes run east-west, with numbers going up higher from north to south; the odd-numbered routes run north-south, with numbers going up from west to east. These routes are indicated by blue-and-white hexagonal symbols on signs. Some examples include Route 50, which includes Jongno; Route 51, an eastern north-south route that uses Seongsu Bridge and serves Seoul Forest and the fashionistas of Apgujeong-dong; Route 61, Dongbu Expressway; Route 70, North Riverside Expressway; Route 88, Olympic Expressway (alluding to the 1988 Olympics); and Route 90, Nambu Beltway which follows the city's southern boundary from Gimpo Airport to Olympic Park. Among these routes, freeways (i.e. 61, 70, 88) are indicated by an extra red line on top.

I loved driving the Olympic Expressway this morning. The freeway follows the south bank of the Han River for the length of the city, extending 25 miles. With light traffic, conditions seemed very similar to those encountered by my father as he drove the route in his Pony in the 1980s. The views of the river, as well as Namsan to the north and the skyscrapers of Yeouido, were spectacular, and even the bridges, spanning the river about every mile or so, looked quite nice. I added to the magic by playing some Mariah Carey as I drove, as a tribute to my past drives on New York's Hudson Parkway (which offers similar views) and as a nod to Seoul's hordes of Mariah fans.

National Highway 48 took me through the city of Gimpo, formerly a rice paddy field now being filled up with new suburban developments. It sits across the river from Ilsan, which already has had similar developments since the 1990s.

My first stop on the island is a history museum, designed to give an overview of the island and its past; I needed it, as I admit that I never knew much about Ganghwa. Admission is 1,300 won, with free parking; most Ganghwa sights have plenty of free parking.

The above shows the construction of a dolmen. Ganghwa has almost 200 dolmens in existence, and their styles reflect elements from both South Korean dolmens, found in the far southwest, and the North Korean dolmens, found about 50-60 miles to the north.

A few days ago, I was visiting Haeinsa to take a look at Tripitaka Koreana. Here is a scene depicting the carving of the woodblocks. Although Tripitaka Koreana is now in faraway Haeinsa, it was produced right here at Ganghwa, and kept here for decades. Ganghwa Island served as the temporary capital of Korea when the Mongols invaded and took over the mainland; nearby, there are ruins of the temporary palace, which I did not bother to visit.

The main bell for the island. It is a typical Korean bell with a single-dragon hinge at the top. But it doesn't have acoustic enhancements that are typical of other Korean bells.

This battle flag belonged to the Korean defense forces stationed on this island in the 19th Century, when Korea was doing everything to keep foreigners out at all costs. Actually, this flag now belongs to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and has been back here only since last year, and only on a loan. Keep reading for the reason why.

In the 1860s, the Korean royal government, ruled by the Prince Regent due to the young age of the king, his nephew, adopted a closed-door policy. No foreigners other than the Chinese imperial envoys would be allowed in Korea, as the foreigners were introducing egalitarianism, Christianity, and other corrupting influences. But the foreigners, particularly Westerners, were swarming China and Japan for trade opportunities, and certainly wanted to expand to Korea too.

In 1866, a French military division invaded Ganghwa in hopes of securing a foothold for trade. The arrow-armed Korean troops fought back, and inflicted heavy casualties on the French, while suffering few casualties of their own. The French gave up and left, and for now, the Prince Regent's policy was working.

Meanwhile, in the same year, an American merchant ship named General Sherman sailed up the Taedong River to the north, visiting Pyongyang for trade opportunities. But it wasn't allowed to dock, so it tried to head back out to sea - but it got stuck on a sandbar. The Korean mobs burned the ship and murdered the American sailors.

The US responded in 1871 with its own invasion of Ganghwa Island. This time, the Koreans suffered massive casualties, while the Americans suffered relatively little. The victorious Americans captured the Korean battle flag, and occupied the island for a while, but when the mainland refused to do anything with them, they left - just like the French, but with the flag.

The Japanese, who had been given a rude awakening by a visit from Commodore Perry of the US in the 1850s that forced their nation open, came in 1876. They did to Korea what Perry had done to Japan: force a treaty that opened Korea to the world. The contents of the treaty sounded pretty good, and Japan vowed to work in Korea's best interests; however, it was a setup to ensure that Japan would have a head start in Korea's future. Eventually, other powers came to Korea, including the French and the Americans, but it was Japan who not only hung on, but outright annexed Korea in 1910.

On the museum grounds is a fortress, showcasing this cannon. I am in the northeast corner of the island.

Next to this fortress is the original two-lane road from the mainland. Just ahead is the original bridge to the mainland. In the old days, a visitor would've seen this museum first upon entering the island. Neither the road nor the bridge is in use today, as a new four-lane bridge is in use to the north; it's a bit of a detour to get down to this museum.

I came out to a rest area nearby for a lunch. Here's a look at a sight that was very common during the industrial era, but much rarer today.

The stove on the left heats the room; little more than an iron shell with sheet metal chimney, it is assembled for the winter, and disassembled for summer.

The right has a stack of the stove fuel: coal cartridges. During South Korea's industrialization, modern coal-fired furnaces were a great luxury, even though they were not as effective as the even later oil- and gas-fired ones. As South Korea entered the post-industrial era, oil and gas took over as primary heat sources, fueling the built-in centralized heating systems in modern buildings. Stoves like the above became very rare.

However, as oil and gas must be imported, but coal is abundant within South Korea, it costs much less to burn coal for heating. And given the difficult economic situation this year, coal is enjoying a resurgence, like it did when South Korea had gone bankrupt in 1997. And while at it, the stove above can also heat drinking water and tea, if a kettle is placed on top.

I drove south, about 2/3 of the way down the east shore of the island. The island has a scenic coastal loop that circles it, which is served by dedicated county buses.

Here is another cannon, at another fortress. This fortress is named Gwangseongbo. This is where the bloody 1871 battle against the American invaders took place over a span of 48 hours.

Looking north from within the fortress.

The left (west) side is Ganghwa Island. It is separated from the right (east) side, the city of Gimpo, by a channel as seen above, about a mile or so wide. Ganghwa borders this channel and Gimpo to the east, Incheon Airport to the south, Yellow Sea to the west, and Han River and Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, North Korea to the north. The island, the fifth largest in South Korea, measures about 10 miles east-west and 15 miles north-south, probably even smaller than that.

I am moving on. In the southern portion of the island is this peak, about 1300 feet tall. The peak's name is Manisan. On top, there is an altar with significant mythical history. Every year, when South Korea holds its national athletics festival that pits metropolitan cities and provinces against one another, its flame is lit there. That is South Korea's Delphi and Mt. Olympus combined.

It's an hour of steep climb on foot to get up there. I decided to save that for next time.

I proceeded to Bomunsa, which is not on Ganghwa Island itself, but rather on another sizable island to the west, named Seongmo Island. The only way to get there is by ferry. With the nearest ferry dock closed for winter due to silting, I had to take another dock farther away. Cost is 2,000 won per adult and 1,000 won per child, plus 14,000 won per car; the ferries are large enough that even several 45-seat tourist buses can get on. Crossings are frequent and take under 10 minutes, but nevertheless, I would have preferred a bridge. The return trip to Ganghwa is free.

The entire island is a no-passing zone, and driving there is quite frustrating due to the narrow, winding roads and the morons in their Hyundai Starex vans, Ssangyong SUVs, and delivery trucks. My frustrations with those types of vehicles are really getting to me now. Nevertheless, it makes sense to take the car to the island, even with the 14,000 won extra cost; there is an intra-island bus connecting the dock to the temple, but it's slow and infrequent, and the island is large and hilly enough that walking is not an option. The island also has plenty of minbak (민박), the Korean equivalent of bed and breakfast, at extremely affordable prices, like 20,000 won per night.

Bomunsa charges 2,000 won per adult, plus 2,000 won for parking. This means that I spent 20,000 won in total just to visit yet another Buddhist temple. But given its description, I thought I'd rather visit it now than have regrets later. Of course, a card-carrying member of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism may enter any Jogye temple for free.

After 5-7 minutes of extremely steep climb from the parking area, I arrived at this turtle tombstone. Sure, they are everywhere in South Korea, and they are no longer exotic to me. But this one's head is that of a dragon, and I had to take a photo.

At one corner is this amphitheater, where hundreds of painted statues are being set up. Quite a sight - and they are far from done.

This is an altar using a grinding stone. Love the props - various Buddhas, figurines of baby monks, and even a harubang from Jeju Island. The lower right shows a portrait of my transgender matron saint. Bomunsa is a temple dedicated to Kwan Yin.

Bomunsa is famous for its grotto, which sits inside a natural cave (though covered with large stone bricks) and houses 23 Buddhas. I couldn't take photos of the inside, but it was a nice (if small) space. The grotto dates back to 635, with renovations in 1812.

The temple's main hall is Geungnakbojeon (Hall of Supreme Bliss and Treasures). Love the twin dragons over the front doors.

Here's another turtle tombstone, this time with the head of some monster I can't identify. The turtle's shell is also lined with Buddhist swastikas. Quite a sight!

The tombstone tells me that I am headed up to a Kwan Yin monument. It's another 419 steps up from the temple courtyard to the monument.

And there is the monument. Glad to see my transgender matron saint again. Unfortunately, she is being scrubbed, so the altar is off-limits today.

This Kwan Yin was carved in 1928 by the head monks of Bomunsa and Pyohunsa; the latter is a temple located in the Diamond Mountains, now in North Korea. Not much in the way of artistic merits here, as this is more of a pilgrimage site for the devotees of Kwan Yin. Certainly, she looks very genderless here, and even the caption boards identify her simply as "God of Mercy" in English.

This tuxedo cat is a companion to the Kwan Yin. Screaming children scared it away shortly after this photo, however.

I see many dogs in South Korea, even though dog meat soup is a delicacy here (including at Ganghwa Island!). On the other hand, few South Koreans like cats, and I don't see many cats around.

Kwan Yin has this beautiful look to the west. In the foreground is the parking area near the shore. The Yellow Sea extends beyond that. And for the past several years, air traffic to/from Incheon Airport has filled the sky above. Aircraft noise is a contentious issue at and around Ganghwa Island, and the residents demand that a new approach path be designated farther away from the island.

No wonder this is a pilgrimage site. Despite the cost and the extra time involved, and despite the long, steep climb that rivals the height of many skyscrapers, this was certainly far more than "just another Korean Buddhist temple" to me. I feel that I did the right thing by coming out here. As other pilgrims, many of them fashionistas in their Ally McLesbian miniskirt finest, surrounded me, I saw myself in them too.

I am back down to the courtyard, halfway down to the parking structure. I am looking back up at Kwan Yin. The bottom boulder has the grotto underneath it.

I took the ferry back to Ganghwa. All in all, this detour cost me two hours, and it was already getting a bit late. I decided to scratch my Ilsan sightseeing plans for today. Ilsan will be covered tomorrow morning, just before I return my car to Yongsan.

I drove on to the biggest and the most accessible of Ganghwa's numerous dolmens. I went through Ganghwa's main township while at it; despite its overcrowding and its sorry architecture, I liked it, especially with some of the town walls and gates still standing.

And here it is. I've only heard of this thing, and even though I had come to Ganghwa before in my childhood, I didn't come here then. It's so nice to see it now.

It's not all that big - it's barely taller than a tall man - but it's still an impressive structure. I can only wonder what kinds of technologies were involved in putting that large stone over the two smaller ones.

A side view of the dolmen. This dolmen has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, though tourist infrastructure is only being developed now. There is a small tourist information center, a restroom, and a dirt parking lot (free) but that's about it.

Near the dolmen, there are replicas of other Stone Age structures from around the world.

This is another dolmen. It's typical of ones found in Anak County, South Hwanghae Province, North Korea. I certainly look forward to a future, when North Korea opens up, and my Korean road trip can include key sights north of the DMZ as well.

Here's a replica of one of the Easter Island statues.

This formation represents Stonehenge. I had ended my England road trip of 1998 in the Stone Age, by visiting Stonehenge; now, I end my South Korea road trip of 2008 in the Stone Age, next to a dolmen, and being reminded of Stonehenge while at it. While this dolmen park is surrounded by hills and a few villages, and therefore feels less desolate than Salisbury Plains, the atmosphere nevertheless feels similar, due to a wide, open expanse of grass. It's a shame that (1) I am not in my "Oxford Gothic Princess" black outfit (back at Stonehenge, it had consisted of a peacoat, a mini, and lace tights, with white blouse), and that (2) no crows are flying around to add to the mood either.

Another dolmen replica. This one is typical of Liaodong Peninsula in China, just northwest of North Korea.

Another dolmen replica. This is a type commonly found in southwestern South Korea. Its design - a thick top stone - makes it reminiscent of formal Go boards.

I got back on National Highway 48, fueling at an S-Oil gas station before leaving the island. The price of gasoline today was 1,388 won to the liter; that's well under $4 per US gallon now, and given that I was paying upwards of $4.50 per gallon in California earlier this year, I'm loving it. Of course, South Korea is one of those countries, like Japan and the European Union, that heavily tax gasoline to fund transportation projects and encourage mass transit; given that, it's sweet to have such low prices now, while still benefiting from mass transit and excellent expressways funded by those taxes.

Once back on the mainland, Gimpo traffic proved to be brutal. Traffic was building on all routes into Seoul; given that all that crazy traffic of yesterday, much of which involved cars leaving the Seoul area, had to return this evening, it was to be expected. I got so tired that later on, I had to park on an alley for an hour of nap. The heavy traffic continued well onto the Olympic Expressway, though the electronic status boards said that traffic was merely congested (지체 in yellow), not gridlocked (정체 in red), and indeed it was moving at an okay rate. My eastbound drive on the Olympic Expressway was less pleasant than the westbound run this morning, nevertheless, partly because much of the eastbound stretch uses the original 4-lane freeway from the 1970s (the westbound lanes were built completely new in 1986), and many of the 1970s barriers still exist, separating traffic into two sets of two eastbound lanes. This, plus increasing numbers of morons in their BMWs, really drove up my road rage level. While I've been taking it easy with most moronic drivers impeding my progress, I've made my displeasure clearly known using my horn and bright lights when it came to BMW drivers. The worst thing is that while I don't have to deal with Hyundai Starexes and Ssangyong SUVs in the US (though Ssangyong's Rexton SUV is really a clone of the Alabama-built Mercedes M-class, only with a different skin), I will have to deal with tons of BMWs even after I retire my own.

The nighttime Seoul riverside view was still great, however, despite some of the bridge lighting being turned off to conserve energy. Nevertheless, it took me three hours to return to Seongnam, including the nap stop. I made sure to stop for a dinner at Themepolis (the shopping mall/bus terminal at Yatap district) before turning in for the night.