Cabin Fever: In Which We Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the Rain.
So, flushed with success and accolades (well, my aunt told me she liked it) from my first tentative venture into travel blogging after our visit to the museum on Tuesday, I was ready to take on another challenge. Therefore, when B and her visiting daughter, 'J', suggested a visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace here in Seoul, I jumped at the opportunity. Never mind that the weather report had predicted virtually 100% chance of rain for the entire week; we'd been in Seoul for a month; it had been raining for most of that month, and, by God, a little rain was not going to stop us. Besides, I reasoned, how many people would really want to go visit a palace on a rainy day? Since I loathe crowds, I even eagerly hoped we might have a chance (in perpetually-crowded Seoul) to actually see some of the palace with fewer than 7 or 8 thousand other people. On top of that, I also reasoned that, rain or no rain, we would be inside the palace for most of the time anyway, so a little rain would be no problem. Thus it was that, armed with our umbrellas and cameras, we headed out into the morning drizzle to the subway, bound for Gyeongbokgung Palace.
When we emerged from the subway 45 minutes later, we found a crowd of people huddled at the exit who were all grimly observing what had, during the course of our journey, become a torrential downpour, clearly hoping that it would cease - or at least slow down - which, of course, it did not. Once it became clear that there was no respite in sight, we intrepidly popped open our umbrellas and marched out into the downpour and toward our fate.
Now, I was going to provide my readers with a virtual tour - you know, a descriptive running commentary accompanied by stunning photography (admittedly, 98% of them taken by Son #1, who is very talented - and, equally importantly - has a much nicer camera than I do.) My plan was to take my readers from place to place in the palace 'with' me, feeling as though they were on the tour with me. However, that was not to be, mostly due to this:
Yes, gentle reader, it rained, poured, stormed, gushed, and cascaded. It did so ceaselessly, mercilessly, and torrentially, soaking our shoes, our clothes, and even our umbrellas to the extent that, as J pointed out, "It's raining in my umbrella." Ultimately, it drove us to abandon the tour and agree that, since we live here, we could always return in more clement weather. Our main concern was that B's visiting daughter J might be disappointed, but fortunately, J has seen more of Korea during her 2-week visit than most people see in their entire stay here, and was in complete agreement with this plan, providing she got the requisite photo taken with one of the historical re-enactors posted at the Grand Entrance Stairway, which was duly accomplished:
So, when it came right down to it, we saw several parts of the palace, palace grounds, and the Entry Gateway, which were all exactly what you would have expected and/or wanted to see as a tourist in Korea, although by no means did we see the entire complex. We shared this experience with hundreds - maybe thousands - of other people, sloshing through courtyards, up stairs, through passageways, and around the charmingly tranquil - if somewhat rain-swollen - lake complete with its own pagoda, all while the rain continued to do its thing. So, while I can't really provide you with a step-by-step virtual tour, what I can do is share with you with what we learned about going to a Korean Palace in the rain.
- Weather doesn't affect attendance Rain - torrential or otherwise - does not seem to in any way affect the number of people who do anything in Korea, unless it somehow causes more of them to do it. Crowds are to be expected anywhere you go in Seoul, and no exceptions are made for rainy days. In fact, rainy days feel even more crowded, as one is required to navigate not only the usual crowds, but also their umbrellas as well, which occupy even more space.
- Korean palaces are laid out differently than palaces in Western Europe. I know all my readers will be nodding their heads and murmuring, "Why yes, of course, everyone knows that" but clearly I was absent on the day we covered 'Layout of the Typical Eastern Dynastic Palace' in World History 101. Therefore, while I was aware it wouldn't exactly be Versailles, what I was expecting was a tour of an actual palace building with actual rooms (Throne room, Royal Chambers, Royal Reception Hall, Scullery, Ballroom, you get the idea), after which we'd troop out to the grounds for a tour of the gardens and the various outbuildings ( the dairy, the blacksmith, the gazebo, and the gamekeeper's cottage, ending up in the stables, which had been turned into the Gift Shop.) But no. As it turns out, 'Palace' in this case really means something along the lines of 'Palace Compound.' Kind of like Royal Summer Camp, where you would do your eating in one building, and your entertaining in another building, and your receiving of foreign dignitaries in another building, and your royal Arts and Crafts in yet another building, ending up your busy day bunking down in yet another building. Anyway, the point is, once we got there, the fact that it was still pouring rain was, in fact, fairly significant, because we were standing or walking in it for the majority of the tour - at least the part of the tour that we stayed for.
- A free guided tour in English is available. Results will vary. We started off as part of an intimate group of about 35 optimistic English speakers, following our perky guide, who was armed with raincoat, umbrella, rain boots, and a portable microphone that may or may not have had a working amplifier. The purpose of this was for her to be able to use an ordinary speaking voice to communicate historic and cultural facts to our largish group in English. However, this was unsuccessful, due to a combination of noise distortion and the fact that it was never clearly established (to my satisfaction, at least) that she was, indeed, speaking English. I'm sure quite a bit of this stemmed from the fact that her speaker/mike apparatus was of questionable quality. Whatever the reason, it was extremely difficult to understand what was being said. All of us in the group eventually developed a technique by which we would listen to what she said, and then, working as a collective, piece together the fragments each of us had understood to derive meaning. With this technique, we managed to learn that the Rooster is a symbol of fertility, and that the golden entwined dragons on the roof of the Main Palace Building were symbols of power. After the third or fourth building, most of us, exhausted from the strain of comprehension, as well as being soaked, wandered off on our own.
|Our group, gathered around our guide (in pale green raincoat.)|
- Most of your looking will be done from the doorway: At least for the part of the tour that we stayed for, no one actually entered the buildings. Viewing of the interior of the buildings took place from the doorways, which were roped off. Following our intrepid (and still inexplicably dry) leader, our group would mount the stairs and pause at an overhang where a lucky few would gratefully put down their umbrellas for a moment and enjoy being out of the weather while the rest huddled miserably in the runoff from the Imperial Gutters while trying to a) stay dry and b) hear the guide. Once established on the stairs, our guide would speak quickly, authoritatively, and unintelligibly, and then step away from the doorway as we all surged forward to get a chance to peek into the dim interior of whatever-it-was, after which she would pop open her umbrella, stride briskly down the stairs and back into the downpour across the courtyard to the next doorway.
- There are two museums located right by the palace. Both of these are beautiful, informative, and, most importantly, dry. We finally ended up in the National Palace Museum of Korea, which housed some incredible artifacts - including clothing, jewelry, and various records kept by the palace scribes - and gave us a peek into the daily lives of the King and his court. (While the artifacts were fascinating, honestly compels me to admit that, at that point, I would have found anything fascinating as long as it was housed in a dry building.)
|School groups drying off in the lobby of the National Palace Museum.|
- Choose your footwear carefully. Since the Palace buildings are laid out on what was originally a 180-acre parcel of land, you're doing a lot of walking, not to mention - as I have already pointed out - you're traveling between buildings. And when you are walking along numerous cobblestone paths, up streaming staircases, and trudging through small bodies of water, it is most helpful to be wearing something waterproof - or, at the very least, not absorbent. Almost as soon as we left the subway station, Son #1 announced, "TOMS were a bad choice." As it turned out, both of my offspring had made impressively poor footwear choices, given the conditions, and, for the rest of our visit, the two of them squelched along in their soggy canvas shoes; their lone comfort was that they both looked very stylish, if damp, and I suppose that's worth something. I will also say, neither of them complained a bit, which I appreciated. (For those of you wondering about my own footwear selection, I had practically chosen my faithful Keens and therefore was not bothered by the puddles, although - for the record - I was not in the least bit stylish.)
|Son #1 in rain, by the Pagoda Lake. (Note sodden TOMs)|
- They are incredibly beautiful. The Korean palaces were carefully situated and laid out with painstaking attention to the principles of Feng Shui, and this extended to the palace's location in relationship to its natural surroundings; so the views were astounding, even in the rain. In fact, it's possible they were actually better in the rain.
- You do not have to understand the tour, see all the buildings, be dry, or have much elbow room in order to enjoy a visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace. In fact, all of us agreed that our little foray was far more entertaining than it would have been on a bright and sunny day. I'm sure we laughed far more than we would have done ordinarily, and we saw the palace in a completely different way than most people do. It certainly makes for a more interesting blog post, and that - in my book at least - makes all the difference.