Apr. 17th, 2017

One thing I love about Korea is that you can be in a big city (Seoul, in this case). and then BAM! You've stumbled across history. Not just history as in a museum, but real life, breathing (in a manner of speaking), been there for centuries history. It's something that happens so wonderfully often, and a former history major can find bliss. Bliss, in this instance, came in the form of the Seolleung and Jeongneung royal tombs. Old school tombs in Korea aren't stone mausoleums or elaborate buildings. At their core, they're mounds.
You'll find the remains of Korean royalty buried beneath grassy mounds. While these tombs vary based on the time period, the mound part generally stays the same. For the tombs here, they are smaller mounds on top of a tall, flat at the top hill, all of those things covered in grass (incredibly green grass, when I was there). The burial mounds are fairly small, surrounded by a stone fence and guarded by large stone statues all around it. These are the tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.

There are three tombs in this nice little park, located not too far from Gangnam. But before I get into the main attractions, there's another thing or two that deserve a mention. One, of course, is the park I just spoke about. When I say it's nice, I really do mean it. There are a few well trod dirt paths you can take. It's hilly in a number of areas, and there are trees everywhere. It takes maybe an hour (or two, depending on your walking speed) to walk around the park (and I recommend going around, since the tomb structures are at opposite ends of the park). I went in the summer, and everything was wonderfully green (something I really miss, living in a city). I went at a nice, leisurely pace, and tombs aside, it's a great place for a stroll.

On top of the park itself, there's also a smattering of buildings to present how the tombs were run, once upon a time. There's the tomb keepers house, with a 500 year old, beautiful in the summer/spring gingko tree beside it. There's the guard house, because grave robbing is something that happens all over the world and throughout history (and something that fills me with anger and sadness). There's also few other shrines, housing memorial tablet, just outside the tombs themselves. While not a representation of anything ancient, there is a really great history centre right near the entrance. The information is provided in English as well as Korean, and there you can get an excellent English brochure. I really recommend picking one up, since it's always a plus to have historical context when visiting somewhere, partially a UNESCO World Heritage site (which these tombs are).
Now, onto the tombs. There are two tomb areas, though three tombs. In one area is the solitary tomb of a king (and it's an interesting story how he got there, but more on that in a bit), and the other are the tombs of a king and a queen. The first I'm going to talk about is Jeongneung. This is the tomb of King Jungjong, the 11th ruler of the Joseon dynasty. He was a king who ascended to the throne after his older brother was deposed in a coup and one who attempted to bring about reforms in his kingdom based in his belief in Neo-Confucian thought. It didn't end so well, since his top advisors were particularly radical and people don't tend to like radical reforms thrust on them. After his death, Jungjong was buried beside the grave of his second consort, Queen Janggyeong. His third consort Queen Munjeong, however, wasn't going to let that stand, and had his tomb moved to the present day location. Unfortunately for her, this area proved to be a bad choice, given that it had a tendency to flood, and she didn't even get buried beside him after her own death.

There are two main areas for the tomb. The first is the ceremonial area. This is a wide open area, a large field. Like the name implies, this is the area where any ancestral memorial rites (and they are performed, to this day) happen. The area beings with a small stone bridge passing over a small stream. This is the Forbidden Stream Bridge. This bridge is where our world and the spirit meet. It's only natural that the spirit world is important to the area where dead royals are laid to rest and honoured. The stone leads up to a tall, free standing gate. It is two red poles with an almost fence-like top, where the symbol of swirling red, yellow and blue circle graces the top. Passing the bridge means you have entered a place close to the spirit realm, but walking through the gate means you have entered a scared space. When you walk through it, you can almost understand why. There's a feeling, knowing that you have passed into the space of the dead. In a country that honours the dead so thoroughly, that truly means something. Whether the feeling is nothing more than that knowledge, or a bit of spiritual history passing over you, I'll let you decide when you visit yourself.

Once you pass through the gate, there is a long stone path that leads up to the shrine where the actual ceremonies are performed. It's the Worship Road. There are two parts to this road, one slightly higher than the other. There is a reason for this, and for all these two parts serve the same purpose, they are different. The taller of the two paths is for the spirits, and no person was able to take it (to this day, there is a sign telling you to stay off because this is only for the sprits. Why take chances, right?). The lower path was reserved for the king. It's an interesting thing, I think. Most of us think that, in the minds of many people (and in their minds as well, which usually leads to bad things, quite frankly) think that the king is the most important person in any kingdom. We'd assume that he would have the highest honour, that his pathway would be above all the rest. Yet here we see that it's not. For all that he might be highest in the kingdom, the ghosts of the dead and any other spirits that tread there are still given the higher honour. There is one more thing for the spirits, past the stone walkway. At the base of the hill there is a ritual table for the mountain spirit. Mountains are incredibly important for Korea, and part of what determines where things are built is based on mountains. Trying to appease those mountain spirits is also something that is important in Korean history.

Then, you come to the hill that houses the tomb of the king. You can't get to the top of this hill, and actually can't get very close to the hill. This is a tomb you can only see from a distance, which was a bit of a let down, to be honest (the other ones don't have this problem). It's a great view from way back, when you stand back behind the red gate and look out. You see the mound and stone around it, but you can't really make the statues that surround it. They are stone statues of tigers, sheep, military officials and civil officials. Thankfully, this isn't the case of the other tombs.

The Seolleung area is home to two different tombs, one for a queen and one for a king. The first one I got to see was the one for Queen Jeonghyeon. She was this king's third consort (the first one died, the second one was deposed), promoted from concubine and outliving her husband for quite a long time. Sadly, they don't really give a lot of information about the queen at the site, focusing more on the two kings. While this gets an unimpressed look from me (because, argh), there's really not that much written on her, at least that I could find. After visiting and being left unsatisfied, I tried to do my own research, and it was hard to find more than a few basic facts (she is, however, a character in a Korean drama called 'King and I'. It looks a lot like a Korean version of the Tudors, and the focus is more on his second wife. Think of it as Jeonghyeon as Jane Seymour to the second wife's (Lady Yun) Anne Boleyn). Thankfully, you can climb up to this tomb. There is a path up one side, where you can see the burial area. The burial area itself is (obviously) closed off by a fence, because they don't want anyone wandering around. While the angle is a bit awkward (you're looking from a bit of a slant), you can see everything at this tomb. The statues (animals and officials once again) are quite large and weathered with time. The features you can still make out, though some are better preserved than others. You can still see the wear that comes with rock standing outside guarding a queen through the years. Interestingly enough, there is no shrine, gate or walkway here. It doesn't really say anything about it, but I'm left to assume
that those that lead to her husband's counted for her as well. Her mound is smaller as well. Cue another sigh.
Finally, the last tomb belongs to King Seongjong, the 9th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty. Seongjong took the throne at age twelve, and he was not trained to be a king. He was the second son of the crown prince, who died. Thanks to some scheming relatives (of course), he ended up taking the throne woefully unprepared. Seongjong couldn't start ruling on his own until he was twenty, so he devoted that time to learning how to be a king. He was a spectacular student, causing some to worry he studied too much and it was going to effect his health. He also came to love poetry, and was quite the poet himself. It all worked out in the end, because Korea enjoyed prosperity and peace under his rule. The Grand Code of State Administration (Gyeonggukdaejeon) was completed under him, and it became the main statute of the dynasty. Seongjong was a great king, and remained one until his death at age thirty-seven.

Like the queen, you can climb up to the side of the burial area. It's still cordoned off, but you can get closer than the other tomb, and it's at a better angle to see. The fence around the area is taller and in the traditional Korean style, and there seem to be more statues here. It looks much the same as the tomb of the other king, though it's still very cool to see. Another plus is the wonderful view. You turn around, and you're looking out towards the city. Over the tops of green trees, you see tall silver and black building rising into the sky. It's one of the juxtapositions that I love so much about Seoul- the way the natural and the city smooshed together. That was the last look I really had of the park, before I went home. It was an awesome look to end the day with.
There are a ton of ways to cross the Han River, which cuts Seoul in two. Most of those ways are bridges (for both cars and the subway lines), and crossing them is a lovely view. While not visible in every place crossing the Han (it's a long river), in a number of places, if you look out, you'll see an island out near the middle, with a very large building on it. The building looks a little curved, and shines gold under the sun. It's big, it's splashy, and it's called Building 63. The name comes from the sixty-three floors, which makes one of the tallest buildings in Korea (number three, though that might not last that much longer, with a new tower being built near Lotte World). It does have the honour of being the tallest gold clad building in the world (remember when I said flashy?). It's not just a tall building, of course, because why would I be writing about it if there wasn't something to do there? Rest assured, there is something to do.

Building 63 sits on the small, man-made island of Yeoido, which itself sits in the middle of the Han river. The area it's built is a nice one, where a five minute walk will bring you down to a section of Hanyang Park, which is the park area along the river. Inside Building 63, there's a number of things to do. There is an aquarium, an art gallery, two different theatres (one an Imax -the first one opened in Korea- and the other for stage performances), a wax museum and even a buffet restaurant that claims to be the best in Korea. I can't comment on the buffet (or any of the other smaller restaurants in the building), but I can assure you that the lines were long, so they had to be doing something right. On a similar note, I can't give you a personal opinion on either of the theatres. This, again, goes back to long lines and a lack of reservation for the theatre production. While I was there, it was a masked dance performance and a dinosaur short in the Imax (obviously, the shows change periodically). Both looked incredibly interesting, and I wish I could have caught them.
Now, onto what I can tell you about. During my day in Building 63, I took the time to visit the wax museum, aquarium and art gallery. The first of these attractions I went to was the 63 Wax Museum. I'm going to come right out and say it- this wasn't the best wax museum I've ever been to, not by a long shot. It was small, and some of the wax figures looked a little shoddy. The Chamber of Horror section wasn't all that scary, though there were some great figures of the classic horror movie monsters (and the witch there, clearly based off the one from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was great in a creepy way). All of that said, it was still worth a wander through. The main figures here are historical ones (of all forms, which was nice) and some pop culture related ones (musicians, athletes and even a superhero or two). For the historical figures, there's a huge array, from composers such as Beethoven, to painters like Van Gough, to politicians galore (a personal favourite was the very well done King Sejong the Great, who I've spoken about many a time before. This was an excellent statue, and the detail was superb). A personal hero of mine, Mahatma Gandhi, also made an appearance, sitting crossed legged in his traditional white garments and with his walking stick. While his statue wasn't as great as Sejong's, it still made me happy to see him there (fun fact- whenever someone asks those 'if you could meet anyone, who would it be?' questions, Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth I are always my go to people). For the figures of pop culture, the winner for me was Spiderman (you can never go wrong with Spiderman). He's there in his blue and red glory, just waiting for you to wander up beside him and take a picture. Besides him, there are also athletes (David Beckham), politicians of a more modern nature (Obama), musicians (Michael Jackson) and some other random ones (giant teddy bears dressed up to look like Harry Potter or Wonder Woman). The best one, however, for both size and detail, is the figure set designed to recreate Da Vinci's The Last Supper. It takes up nearly an entire room, with a long table going from one end to the other. It took three years to completely put together, and it's clear why- the details on each of the disciples is spectacular, and not only in the wax figure itself. They're arranged just as the painting depicts, and the table matches as well. A lot of thought went into creating this exhibit, and it worked out well. The minute you walked into the room, you knew you were looking at Da Vinci's The Last Supper.
Wax museums, in general, are rather silly things, if you think about it. The main purpose, in my mind, is photo opportunities. You get to stand beside all these famous figures and take pictures, be they serious or silly ones. This wax museum was no different, and people looked to be having a great time of it (myself included). They were posing beside the figures, trying to make themselves fit in or to look like they were doing something crazy. It was fun, and that's why I really recommend a visit to the wax museum.

There's another reason I suggest it as well. Just before you leave the museum, there is a small workshop area. That area is where you can get your hands immortalized in multi-coloured wax. There are vats of different coloured waxes and cold water, and a staff member takes your hand (positioned however you want, from splayed fingers to peace signs. There are even couples who got their entwined hands, which was adorable) and dips it in for the process. It's uncomfortable, of course (hot wax is, you guessed it, hot), but not particularly painful. You can either get a multi-coloured rainbow design, or get a colour that fades into white. It only takes about ten minutes for the whole thing to finish, so it's a quick and really cool way to memorialize your visit.

Next up was 63 Sea World. I'll admit that the Coex Aquarium spoiled me when it comes to aquariums. Because of the location, the aquarium in Building 63 can't be as big or elaborate as that in Coex (Coex has much more space to play with). While it was impossible to measure up to Coex, it was still a nice, medium sized aquarium that had lots to see. There are the basics that you will see at nearly every aquarium you'll ever visit- seals, fish from all over the world, a section devoted to marine animals that spend at least a fraction of their time on land (otters, frogs, etc), and the giant tanks filled with sharks, rays, big fish and some other things I couldn't even begin to classify. There are a few highlights that I'd recommend, of course. There are penguins, which I will always love to see. This time, however, there were not just the small penguins, but an emperor one as well! Granted, it wasn't all that big, but it was still a new kind of penguin for me to see! The most interesting thing to see was the coelacanth. This is a fish you might have heard of before, since it was in the news within the last decade or so. For a very long time, the coelacanth was thought to be extinct. It wasn't until one was caught that scientists realized that this was not the case. It's very cool to see, a fish that dates back to the dinosaurs, and is rightfully hailed as a 'living fossil'. There are a number of feeding shows as well (penguins, seals) and even a synchronized swimming show where swimmers perform in the big pool with sharks, fish and other sea creatures create the background. There is lots to see in 63 Sea World, and for all it's smaller, it's not a disappointment.

Finally, the highlight of Building 63. Both the wax museum and the aquarium are fun, but they're not what you're there to see. If you're visiting one of the tallest buildings in Seoul, than you're there for one thing: the view. That is where 63 Sky Art Gallery comes in. On the 60th floor of the building, there is the highest art gallery in the world. Getting to this gallery is a harrowing experience for those of us scared of heights. Since the elevator is clear glass that runs along the side of the building, it makes sure you see everything outside as you go up and up and up. I maybe got to floor twenty (if that) before I had to close my eyes and wait for it to be over. Slight height induced panic aside, it was worth the trip up. The art that was displayed when I was there was a mixture of traditional and modern. There were paintings and sketches, along with photographs and more abstract pieces. The works are all done by Korean artists, and are interesting to see, especially since there is such variety to look at. There are plenty of places to sit to take it all in, and a cafe if you want to contemplate the art (or take in the view) longer over a hot coffee. The art is lovely, but the view is even better. Much like Seoul Tower, the walls of the floor mainly consist of picture windows that peer out over the city. On a very clear day, you can see all the way to Incheon (it's roughly an hour and a half drive), and even on not-so-clear days, you get a beautiful view of Seoul Tower itself. You tower over the city of Seoul, and when you look down, everything else seems so small. You can see the length of the Han River, and it's a stunning view. For all that I'm afraid of heights, I'll be the first to tell you that a view from the top is the best thing you're ever going to see, and Building 63 proves that all over again.

I left just after watching the sun beginning to set over the city of Seoul from the 63 Sky Art Gallery. It was spectacular, and a view I wouldn't have missed for the world. Building 63 might not have been the most exciting thing I've done during my stay in Korea, but it was an excellent way to spend the day, and a utterly fantastic way to end. If you listen to nothing else, remember this- sunset over looking Seoul is amazing, and Building 63 is one of the best places you're going to get to see it.

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April 2017

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