My Paradise: The walled city of Suwon

by Marvin Haynes
Stripes Guam

Many if not all of us have at one time or another passed through the modern city of Suwon while heading to or from any number of work-related or vacation destinations during a tour in Korea.  Interesting, perhaps, from the highway or KTX, one has to make his or her way to the older part of the city to really appreciate what Suwon is and was for the Korean people.  I’m referring, of course, to the 18th Century fortifications that once protected the seat of power of Yi Dynasty (Joseon Era) Korea.

Often referred to as “Suwon Castle”, the site is more appropriately described as a walled city and is called Hwaseong by the Koreans.  Constructed by the order of King Jeongjo from 1794 to 1796, the terrain-following walls are definitively characteristic of Korean fortifications throughout history.  The crenellations and supplemental structures along these long ramparts reflect a mixture of Ming and Qing Chinese influences and represent the last major fortification constructed by the Yi Dynasty before its demise.

The walls stretch a total of 5.7 km and vary between four and six meters in height.  The fortifications include command posts, four main gates, sentry posts, “secret” gates, observation towers, crossbow platforms, a pair of fortified floodgates, and several pavilions.  The walls are nearly contiguous, with only one section surrounding the South Gate incomplete as of this writing.

Built to protect the royal palace within (Haenggung Palace), the entire course of the walls can physically be walked in just over an hour and a half.  That said, the number of things to see and do along the way make this a very unrealistic goal.  I’ve visited the site at least five times, and most recently it still took nearly three hours.  This is just the wall itself, expect to spend another hour in the wonderfully rendered Suwon Hwaseong Museum and another at Haenggung Palace.

I usually begin at the eastern end of the city nearest the Changnyongmun Gate complex.  Sited near the impressive Dong Jangdae (Eastern Command Post), it is also the location of a traditional Korean Archery (Gukgung) range.  Here, young and old alike can experience the ancient Korean martial art, one which formed the mainstay of Joseon military forces from the Mongol conquest of 1259 until the military reforms of 1894.  Additionally, the site coincides with a restaurant and visitors center.

If you arrive early enough in the day to complete a circuit of the walls before dark, I recommend you progress counter-clockwise as this offers the best view of the various sites along the way.  If however, your visit begins later, try to time it so you crest Paldal Mountain (the high terrain at the western end of the battlements) as the sun begins to set.  Especially on a clear day, the view of the fortifications set against a beautiful Suwon sunset is worth the diversion and extra planning.  Regardless of which way you go, even the climb up Paldal Mountain isn’t terribly laborious and so the entire length can be accomplished by even the most inexperienced trekker.

Most noteworthy amongst the featured fortifications are the north and south gate complexes.  Called Janganmun and Paldalmun respectively, each is a fully-enclosed, double gate complex constructed in the Ming Chinese manner.  Just to the west of Janganmun you’ll also find the partially enclosed Hwaseomun gate complex, considered a national treasure.  The Hwahongmun or fortified floodgate is another unique construction, designed to allow fresh water into the city but still keep out any unwanted “guests”.  Dongbuk Gaknu is another national treasure, a beautifully constructed pavilion sited to take in the scenic views of the city and walls to either side.  Finally, the secret gates or ammun allowed the garrison to sortie out and attack their besiegers or clandestinely take in supplies.  These were constructed to be nearly invisible from a distance and provided the defenders a local tactical advantage in spite of an overall disparity in numbers or capabilities.

The wall is discontinued for about two hundred meters northwest of the southern gate and a hundred meters east of the same.  The modern city of Suwon has taken this ground and yielded little of it over the years with a modern shopping venue now located within view of the massive, three-story gate complex.  That said, progress is being made and the southern floodgate, the Namsumun, was reconstructed as recently as 2012 after being destroyed twice by floods and once by occupying Japanese forces.  This necessitates a note since the maintenance of such a carefully reconstructed and preserved set of historical fortifications requires that a portion is almost always being renovated or restored.  Still, these sections under restoration are kept as small as possible and don’t interfere with the enjoyment of a visit.

Besides the fortifications themselves, the Suwon Hwaseong Museum is definitely worth a visit.  In spite of my many trips to Suwon, it was only recently that I finally found my way to the museum and it was well worth the time.  The first floor deals mainly with King Jeongjo and his reign.  One of the most successful kings of the latter Yi Dynasty, the monarch’s accomplishments are laid out along with multiple artifacts to include original texts and farming implements from the period.  Most noteworthy on the first floor is the scale model of the city’s fortifications.  Beautifully rendered, it provides an excellent, birds-eye view otherwise attainable only by flying over the city some three hundred years ago.

The second floor is dedicated to the planning, construction, and garrison of the walled city.  These exhibits offer extensive English language explanations and make effective use of dioramas to explain how and why the walls were built the way they were.  The wing dedicated to the garrison, the king’s elite bodyguard, is truly fascinating.  The organization of the force, its equipment, training and daily life offers great insight, especially for U.S. Service Members and their families that form part of the modern defense of the Republic of Korea.

Finally, Haenggung Palace lies only three blocks west of the museum.  The royal residence is laid out in the Ming Chinese Style and so is a virtual labyrinth of courtyards and alleyways.  The royal chambers and innumerable servants’ quarters have all been restored with representative samples of each type furnished as they would have been at the time the palace was built.  Life-sized dioramas complete the presentation and help to provide a much clearer understanding of how the ruling elite lived in Joseon Korea.

While the palace is impressive in its own right, the demonstrations held just outside the main entrance are not to be missed.  These include a changing of the guard processional on Sundays, Hwaseong Fortress Construction Ceremony on Saturdays and a civic culture club performance of any number of Korean cultural aspects Tuesday through Friday.  Exemplary amongst these is a demonstration of the 24 Korean Martial Arts as practiced during the late Joseon period conducted Tuesday through Sunday.  These energetic actors introduce the weaponry available to the royal bodyguard and demonstrate the uses and techniques of each, putting on a great show in the process.  The outdoor performances are suspended during winter months (December thru March) so it’s best to check the schedule online beforehand at http://english.swcf.or.kr/?p=12.

Lying only 30 kilometers south of Seoul, the city of Suwon is a readily available destination and worthy expenditure of down-time.  Hwaseong and the sites within provide valuable information on an interesting period of Korean history and culture.  A great day spent in the land of the morning calm, a trip to the walls of Suwon City simply shouldn’t be missed.

How to get there

Hwaseong can be reached by any number of means, the easiest being simply to drive to Suwon (take the BukSuwon exit off the number 50 expressway) and follow the signs.  Brown road signs with white lettering indicate Korean historical sites and will lead you straight to the fortress.  Ample parking is available near Changnyongmun in the eastern end of the fortification for a nominal fee.  Additionally, a trolley departs from this location for those who prefer a more leisurely trip to the top of Paldal Mountain, though this precludes any close examination of the sites along the way.

By train from Seoul you can take the number one line (the dark blue line) all the way to Suwon station.  Then take a taxi or the number 13 bus to Changnyongmun.  The bus will stop inside the wall between the gate and the archery range.  A taxi will, if otherwise undirected, probably drop you off just outside the gate complex and you’ll need to walk through.

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