A stroll along a fortress wallSuwon is quite similar to Seoul, yet very different. It is a modern city, but not completely so. Modernization could not efface Suwon’s traditional appearance entirely, because for the past two centuries it has been surrounded by the Hwaseong Fortress wall. Built to ward off invasions, it now holds back the tide of modernity, at least to some degree.
Hwaseong has an interesting history. Built in the late 18th century to be the strongest fortress in the nation, it was not put to the test for more than 100 years.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when Japanese rule over Korea began, that the fortress sustained damage. The Japanese partially destroyed the fortress wall, supposedly because they believed there was a relationship between a nation’s spirit and its buildings.
Much later, in 1975, Hwaseong was largely restored; in 1997, it was selected as a Unesco World Heritage site. The restoration continues to this day.
The fortress was planned by King Jeongjo the Great, the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty, who ruled from 1776 to 1800. King Jeongjo wanted to move the royal court from Seoul to the Suwon area. With that plan in mind, he moved his father’s tomb to nearby Mount Hwa, and built the fortress wall. It is believed that in doing so, King Jeongjo wanted both to express his filial piety and to strengthen his own authority.
As part of his campaign to make Suwon the new capital, the king paid people to relocate under Mount Paldal, and had reservoirs created in the area to encourage farming. Construction of the fortress began in early 1794 and was completed in the fall of 1796; about 700,000 people were involved in the construction project.
Hwaseong Fortress was built to be the strongest in the country, and was very modern for its time. The king’s scientists recommended that the fortress design incorporate natural lookout points. They also recommended the use of bricks instead of mud.
At that time, making bricks was a time-consuming process that used a lot of fuel. But the king decided the investment was worth it. It was the first time in Korea that a pulley system had been used in heavy construction of this kind, which is why it was completed relatively quickly.
Amazingly, there still exists a document, called “Hwaseongseongyeokuigwe,” that describes the Hwaseong construction process in full detail. For instance, the report includes the information that between Sept. 1794 and August 1796, 11 major dinner parties were held for soldiers at the construction site. Even the amount of rice and fish consumed at these dinners was recorded.
Explanatory drawings accompany descriptions of the smallest details of the construction process. This book is so specific that Han Young-woo, a history professor at Seoul National University, once deemed it “scary.”
Aware of the fortress’s unique historic value, the Suwon city government has put extra effort into restoring it in recent years.
From 1999 to 2003, the city spent 258 billion won ($225 million) on Hwaseong; this year, it will spend nearly 90 billion won, even though the entire city budget is just over 1 trillion won.
Within the 400,000-pyeong (325-acre) area enclosed by the fortress wall, modern life goes on as usual; this is not a palace like those in central Seoul. Still, there is some control over development; only 6 percent of the buildings within the wall are more than four stories high. And there are certainly historical sites as well.
A haenggung was a sort of royal luxury hotel, a place for the king to stay when he traveled in the country. Most haenggungs in Korea had 150 to 180 rooms; Hwaseong’s has about 570.
Besides the king himself, the heads of the royal guards used to stay in Haenggung when they trained their soldiers at the fortress. The street in front of Haenggung is called Jongno, just like the district in Seoul; they are the only two Jongnos in the country.
Haenggung is the only building within the fortress wall that charges an entrance fee. It’s 1,000 won for adults. Every Sunday at 2 p.m., there is a re-enactment of a guard ceremony in traditional costume. Haenggung is closed on Mondays.
King Jeongjo’s portrait is exhibited here ― sort of. The Japanese absconded with the real portrait; this one was drawn in 1992, without benefit of a model. The only guidance the artist had to work with was the belief that Jeongjo closely resembled his grandfather.
People who take Yeongdong Expressway to get to Suwon and visit Hwaseong Fortress usually leave their cars at Changryongmun, the east gate. Just inside Changryongmun, there are military exercise grounds where anyone can try his or her hand at archery. Next to the archery center, called Gukgungjang, is a large building called Yeonmudae, where soldiers were trained 200 years ago.
The most common trekking course for visitors is from Changryongmun to Paldalmun, then to Seojangdae, Hwaseomun, Janganmun, Hwahongmun and back to Chanryongmun. The course is about 5.7 kilometers (3.5 miles) long and takes about three hours to finish.
The fortress wall is interrupted around Paldalmun, where it could not be restored because of the traditional markets there. On the bright side, this would be a good place to stop for Ji-dong sundae (sausage stuffed with noodles).
After seeing this unique fortress, visitors might also want to take the opportunity to enjoy some Suwon galbi. As not very many people know, the galbi here has a distinctive taste. About 25 galbi restaurants in Suwon are keeping the tradition alive.
As it happens, this weekend is a good time to come to Suwon. The town’s Galbi Festival runs from today to Sunday at the Suwon Sports Complex in Jowon-dong.
Also, underway since yesterday is the annual Suwon Hwaseong Cultural Festival, which also continues through Sunday; it features fireworks, cultural events, a royal costume show, a court food festival and traditional dance.
Visitors can participate in re-creations of traditional civil service examinations, royal court life and the building of Hwaseong Fortress.
The festival’s highlight is the reenactment Saturday of King Jeongjo’s march to visit his father’s tomb. It’s about a 2.5-kilometer walk from Suwon Sports Complex to Paldalmun, and about 7,000 people will join in the march, in traditional costumes.
For more information, visit www.suwon.ne.kr, or call (031) 228-3471~3.
by Son Min-ho, Choi Sun-young