Exploring the Great Wall of ... Korea
Co-workers used to ask me, what is there to do while stationed in Korea? I remember laughing in reply. For some time I have been completely enthralled with the history of East Asia, a history very different but no less important that the Euro-centric version we learned as children. The thought that I could possibly run out of things to see and do in a country and culture as old as Korea, was quite funny to me then. It is no less so now.
My favorite place in all of Korea is conveniently located on the outskirts of Seoul and is actually visible from the MWR golf course at Sungnam. I’m talking about Namhan Mountain Fortress or Namhansanseong, sometimes referred to as the Great Wall of Korea. The fortress consists of 11.7 kilometers of stone, masonry walls, closely following the terrain as Korean fortifications generally do. These long walls connect what is essentially five distinct peaks, creating a massive, hollow interior filled with numerous temples, palace compounds and a village. The massive fortification served as the last refuge of the Korean royalty, army and people for centuries, and ultimately the very spot where the Korean king was forced to surrender his nation to invading Manchu hordes.
There has been a fortification of one type or other on the site since 672 A.D. when a Unified Shilla Kingdom was constructing defenses against Tang Dynasty China. While the original fortification was made of wood and timber in keeping with the style of the times, it was in the 1600s during Yi Dynasty Korea that stone-clad walls were first constructed on the site. Work continued on the fortress up until the 18th Century when the grey brick parapets and cannon embrasures were added. Command and control of garrison personnel was executed by royal officers in massive, wooden, two-story command posts issuing orders to soldiers at gates and guard posts spaced along the long wall.
The fortress has borne witness to many of Korea’s most turbulent historical events. These include anti-Japanese guerrilla activity during the colonial period and anti-government demonstrations under successive military governments. Arguably, the site’s most famous moment came with the First Manchu invasion of Korea in 1627. As a response to this massive incursion, Korean King Injo fled to the sanctuary along with 13,800 soldiers and a personal bodyguard of 3,000 fighting monks. While the Manchus failed in every attempt to breach the great walls, the continued logistical support of such a large force eventually took its toll and after 47 days, the king was forced to surrender. Lost along with Korean self-determination was a long-standing relationship with Ming China and two princes taken as hostages by the Manchus. This momentous event took place not far from where U.S. military personnel and their spouses daily tee up for 18 holes of golf at Sungnam Golf Course, oblivious to the historical significance of the location.
While the hands-down best time to make the trip is when the Autumn foliage is at its brightest, I’ve made the trek in each of the four seasons and it is worth a visit any time of the year. Check online before planning a visit, however, as the location is closed to the public a couple times per year.
It takes roughly three and a half hours to complete the full circuit at a brisk hiking pace, and several stretches are downright challenging as the walls really do rise and fall with the steep Korean ridgelines. The more adventurous hikers will be thrilled with several kilometers of as yet un-restored wall sections along the Eastern side of the fortress. This extension was built to cover perceived weaknesses in the approaches to the fortress proper and is truly impressive, if difficult to access and—frankly—find. Still, it makes for a great tromp through the woods uncovering further walls, gates and cannon positions. These few intrepid adventurers will find themselves in possession of a knowledge of the fortress far surpassing that of the more than 3 million average visitors each year.
Casual hikers will find a network of hiking trails criss-crossing the interior of the fortress. These are delightful walks through the voluminous forest, anchored at each end by the restored masonry of the walls. While the trek around the perimeter can be quite a hike, these shorter courses are a bit less adventurous but still provide a pretty good feel for the immensity of this historical defensive work. Regardless of which method of viewing the fortress you choose, each of the four major gates as well as the numerous smaller “secret” gates is worth the time to climb over, peruse historical data posted in English and take pictures.
Hikers and foodies alike will appreciate the small village located near the center of the fortress “bowl”. The local specialty is “tottori,” a dark, brown flour made from acorns and most dishes are served with some type of acorn product. Many familiar dishes are served here substituting the tottori for standard wheat flour and the change in taste is memorable, adding yet another dimension to the wide palette available in Korean cuisine. Additionally, as with most popular Korean hiking destinations, shops sell everything from back-packs to brand name attire to power bars.
In addition to all this, within the fortress walls lie over 200 buildings of historical significance. Chief amongst these are the Haenggung Temporary Palace, Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine and Sajik, an important alter for royal sacrifices. Additionally, four temples remain within the stone walls, Gaewonsa, Mangwolsa, Janggyeongsa and Hyeonjeolsa, each of which is worth a closer look though it would indeed be a long day to hike the entire wall and then walk to each of the temples.
Lying so close to Seoul, there really is no excuse not to make the trip down to visit such an historically and culturally significant site. You’ll take in great scenery, learn a thing or two about Korea, eat well and get a great workout, escaping the pollution and traffic of Seoul. All-in-all, a trip to Namhansanseong is a day well spent for those seeking interesting activities while stationed in or simply visiting Korea.
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