It was a lazy Sunday. We had gone out the night before and I was content spending most of the day doing laundry and lazing around my apartment. Then I got an invite to join Sara, Sejun and her visitors at the royal palace. I rearranged my busy schedule of folding laundry and eating ramen and hopped on the subway to meet them.
We arrived at Gyeongbukgong (Gyeongbuk Palace) in the afternoon. Sejun was running late so we opted for a free tour of the nearby museum before entering the palace grounds. Our guide taught us all about the period of King Jeongjo; he was one of the most popular kings and befriended the Chinese Joseon Dynasty. There was a longstanding bitter tension between Korea and Japan that he couldn’t avoid but he did manage to put Korea into a sort of Golden Age. Although quite modest, King Jeongjo was a large proponent of academia and helped instill a hard work ethic in the Korean people; the improved education and literacy raised the standard of living for many Koreans.
We learned about the king’s 5 meals daily, they consisted of a multitude of dishes which his taste tester would sample to ensure they weren’t poisoned. He sample all of them but rarely finish one; instead he was a nice guy and gave it to his servants. Next we heard about Korean hairstyles and the elaborate decorations that held them up. The queen’s getup often included a wooden “wig” and gold jewelry embedded with gemstones and glass. It could weigh as much as 20 kg (45 lbs)!
There are official records of every ceremony with the food that was served, attire worn and how many guests. Luckily they had two copies of their logbook because the French still have the copy they took in the 1800’s when they tried to colonize Korea. Its used to make sure procedures were the same for any given service.
After the tour we headed through the elaborately decorated walls into a massive sandy courtyard. Much of the palace has cobblestones but Japanese ninjas are much easier to hear when walking over the noisy sand. This was a major concern since between Japanese invasions and fires the palace was destroyed a number of times.
Basking in the sun we took in the scene surrounding us. The modern kings Samsung and Microsoft have tall skyscrapers just past the red walls.
Turning to enter the palace you can see the same pattern throughout the grounds, a gorgeous mix of reds, yellows, blues and greens with the tallest of the four peaks, Bugaksan in the background.
The palace itself is actually a number of buildings and walls lined up in perfect harmony from the King’s Confucionistic views. The balance makes it easy to navigate and we followed the path past a few traditionally dressed Koreans before quickly finding the throne room.
A peak inside revealed even brighter coloring and some ancient furniture. Behind the throne itself rests the famous Korean painting, Sun Moon and Five Peaks. The sun and moon represent positive and negative similar to Yin and Yang while the peaks represent the 5 elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.
After the throne room we continued to explore the palace grounds. Walking through crowds of tourists we came upon a gorgeous pool in front of a raised pavilion. I think this was a temple of some kind; Bugaksan made another appearance before we kept going.
We wandered further through the palace and caught a glimpse of “the Blue House,” Korea’s version of the White House, tucked away in the woods. Unable to get close to it we navigated the maze of buildings before deciding it was time to eat. For dinner tonight we would have Samgyetang, a ginseng chicken soup.
A short walk brought us to the restaurant which exclusively serves samgyetang. It’s supposed to be the best place in Korea to get it and luckily their reputation of hour-long waits was inaccurate today. We sat right down; it was my first time at a restaurant without chairs so we laid out pillows and sat cross-legged. Two kinds Kim Chi were brought to the table; one from cabbage the other radish, I prefer the radish but saved room for the chicken!
With this dish we drank makali, a refreshing rice wine that you drink out of a bowl. Its quite light and is apparently a favorite hiking drink too. The chicken soup arrived shortly after as well; we each had our own chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, walnuts, seeds and other spices. Before we were allowed to eat we had to have a shot of a ginseng liquor, to cleanse the pallet of course.
Eating this soup with chop sticks proved difficult to say the least. It helped us eat slowly and by the end I resorted to the spoon even for my chicken. It was quite a filling meal; the broth was delicious and the chicken incredibly tender, falling right off the bone. The delicate flavors were delicious but unlike what I expected; it complimented the refreshing makali quite well.
On the way out we spotted a case of the ginseng liquor; it ferments in the bottles for 4 years before they serve it and for only ₩10,000 (about $10) you can have your very own bottle. Perhaps I’ll buy one next time.
We ended the weekend with a sunset view of the Han River. The park was full of locals and visitors biking, boarding and enjoying the evenings. We even got a water show from a flying chicken!