Amid Ganghwa’s beauty battle for souls left scarsTraveling to an island when the weather is bitterly cold, as it has been recently, might seem insane. In most cases the images that pop into people’s heads when they think of islands are sandy beaches, bikinis and a pina colada sitting under the hot sun.
But even in winter, Ganghwa Island, to the far west of Seoul, offers an excellent opportunity for a relaxing and enjoyable experience.
The island is more than sandy beaches. Ganghwa is a living and breathing museum of historical and religious artifacts with relics scattered everywhere, as if a thrown at random by a whirlwind. Some are even found in odd places, like the middle of a rice paddy or in alleys lined with small bookstores or 24-hour grocers. And in winter there is no heavy traffic, which enhances the pleasure of a visit.
“Although it was my first visit, I had a good time,” said Kwon Dong-jin, who stayed on the island with his girlfriend, Jeong So-hee. “Since there wasn’t any traffic, we enjoyed the scenery more, especially historical sites such as Mount Mani. It’s odd how Ganghwa is so rich in significant relics, but they seem to be part of everyday life here.”
To the children of Ganghwa, historical and religious sites are so familiar that they play soccer in front of buildings that date back nearly a century.
Traveling to Ganghwa isn’t difficult and barely requires a map when starting from Seoul. Simply continue driving west. Ganghwa is connected to the mainland by two bridges. Start at the one on the northern end of the island and the first thing that appears is Gapgotdondae.
This place may appear mundane, especially as a flashy eel restaurant is right next door.
However, Gapgotdondae has enormous significance for Korean Catholics. It is a holy site where many Catholics were persecuted in the 19th century. Back then Ganghwa was one of the few places where cultures and ideologies from the Western world found some purchase on Korean soil. As such, it was also an area of conflict. The persecution of Christians began in 1866. Most were decapitated and their heads placed on stakes to warn others against converting to Christianity. According to staff at the Gapgotdondae church, over 100,000 are rumored to have been slaughtered.
Gapgotdondae was also where the main road began that took Catholic priests into the country. Today there is only a single grave that represents the death of many believers.
There is also an open air Mass on occasional Sundays that is held next to the grave, alongside a stone cross. These take place when the numbers in the church exceed 150; that rarely happens in the frigid winter.
Getting back in the car and driving towards the Ganghwa county office, the next place to visit is the Ganghwa Anglican Church. This church is difficult to find. It is surrounded by small shops and one could easily miss the entrance, since the alley to the church is very narrow.
Constructed in 1900, this was the first Anglican church built in Korea. It was dedicated a few years after the first baptism in Korea, which took place in Ganghwa in 1896. The church takes the form of a hanok, or traditional Korean house, and retains all its original features.
After leaving the church and driving towards the dolmens of Bugeunri, one can stumble upon the Ganghwa Sanseong, which sits alongside the road. The fortress is surrounded by residential houses.
From the top of the fortress the past seems palpable. It’s easy to imagine rows of guards standing along the thick stone walls. The fortress dates back to 1232 and took 13 years to build. In 1232 the Goryeo dynasty moved their capital to Ganghwa Island, to build resistance against invading Mongolians. The fortress stood the test of time, even though the dynasty that created it did not.
Slightly beyond the fortress to the north is Bugeunri. The road there is narrow, but provides a nice view. Most houses on Ganghwa are hanok and there are plenty here, providing good photo opportunities.
On the way to the Oepo harbor there are some attractive dolmens, although the road there is very narrow and skilled driving is required to avoid a fall into the ditches that line both sides of the road.
There is a Hajeom stone tomb among the dolmen that could easily be missed. It sits in the middle of a paddy field and could be mistaken for a huge rock. However, it’s a relic that dates back to the bronze age. The stone tomb is that of a king and takes the form of a huge table.
After passing through numerous paddy fields and a flat landscape that allows Ganghwa’s natural beauty to manifest itself, a harbor appears in the distance.
This is Oepo Harbor, a small town on the west coast. Here, one can see the shoreline the island is famous for; the mud along this coast is used in skin treatments. The mud flats are also an ecological treasure and contain a vast diversity of marine life. Oepo Harbor has a fishery market where salted fish and prawns are sold. Large-eyed herring laid out to dry is a common sight.
Driving to the south, one can stop at Mount Mani. Even on weekdays hikers climb up to visit Chamseongdan, a stone altar ― according to legend it was made by Dangun, the founding father of Korea. It takes roughly an hour to make the ascent.
Not too far from Mount Mani is Onsuri Anglican Church. Like the Ganghwa Church, Onsuri is located within a small alley surrounded by residential houses. The entrance, however, is much more imposing and looks very different from traditional Korean buildings.
The structure itself looks authentic. The church was finished in 1906 under the guidance of the Reverend Fredrick Richard Hilary. He was assigned to Ganghwa by British missionaries in 1898. Although repairs have been made, the church retains its original design.
The last stop before heading back to Seoul is Chojijin, the remains of a fortress established in 1656. Since its construction the fortress has endured attacks from French, American and Japanese fleets between 1866 and 1875. Damage caused by cannonballs during the attacks can still be seen on the outer wall of the fortress. A nearby tree also bears battle scars.
The fortress presents an impressive spectacle, but the view of the open sea from within the stone walls is simply stunning. Some visitors venture out to the foot of the fortress walls, where there are open waters and fishing is available. From the fortress battlements it’s also possible to see the bridge heading back towards Seoul. Large flocks of migratory birds, which are frequent visitors to the island, fly above.
Traveling by car around Ganghwa Island can take as little as three hours, although this would not be long enough to include a trip to Seokmo Island. Ganghwa is undoubtedly one of the best day trips available for those who do not want to be disturbed by a huge tourist crowd. The main problem for foreigners is signage. Although some signs include English translations, those located at religious sites are in Korean. Therefore, if you are not familiar with the Korean language, it is best to travel with a person who can be both a guide and a translator.
by Lee Ho-jeong