[Korean culture and travel] Visit to Ganghwa Island

Visit to Ganghwa Island

(Media1=William Harlow) Just a short distance from Seoul is Ganghwado (do is island in Korean among other things such as map). This island is large, picturesque and historic and is well worth a visit.

You can’t get there by train; however, you can take buses from Shinchon or Yongdeungpo in Seoul or from the bus terminals in Incheon or Bupyeong.

After you get to Ganghwa city you can take local buses around the island. Taxis are also available; however, due to the size of the island and the traffic, this can get expensive. Of course even better is if you have a car and can drive to the island and this makes it easier to see the sights.

Driving is made easier with the completion of the Choji Bridge that in addition to the Ganghwa Bridge are the two ground routes onto the island.

Jeondeungsa Temple is one of the must see place in Ganhwa Do, Photo by Cultural Heritage Administration

The island is ideal for tourists and there is much tourist information available to include maps in Korean, English, Japanese, and other languages. These will help you get around.

Once you get out of Ganghwa city, there is much to see. Goryeogunji Palace site was once the capital of Korea during the Goreyo dynasty. It was moved their as a safety measure during the 1232 Mongol invasion. Seoul did not become the capital until the Joseon (Chosun) dynasty. The place was used to store the Korean archives as well by the royal family during the 39 years around the invasion.

Also on the island is the Jeondeungsa Temple (sa means temple). This is one of the oldest temples in Korea and dates back ot 381 A.D. This temple was occupied briefly by the French during their 1866 incursion onto the island.

Chojijin, Picture by Cultural Heritage AdministrationThe island is also famous for its’ sea food that can be expienced at either the Choji or Hwangsando raw fish villages located on the south west corner of the island near the Choji Bridge or the Changhuri or Hwangcheonri raw fish villages in the northeast portion of the island.

The island is also famous for its’ Ginseng, Turnips, mugwort, and other agricultural products. While all these locations are nice to visit, it is the historical significance of the island that I find most interesting.

Ganghwa island guards the entrance to the Han River and Seoul. The Yeomha Gang (gang means river in Korean) was the main water highway to Seoul for foreigners during the 19thCentury. As a result it was well guarded by the Joseon dynasty.

Of course in the strictest geographical terms it is not a river at all but a strait that separates the island from the mainland.

During the 19th Century the Americans called it the Salee River. For the purposes of this story I will call it the Ganghwa Strait. Joseon built numerous fortifications called “Jins” to prevent any unauthorized passage up the strait and were authorized to engage any unauthorized vessels in the straits.

There were three major forts on the southern end of the island along the strait. Chojijin, Deokjinjin, and Gwangseongbojin have all been restored and are great places to visit. You can buy inexpensive admission tickets to them individually or buy a package to see them all for only a few dollars (or course you have to use won). The forts have old cannon and historical displays’ in both Korean and English. The stories of their role in defending Korea (Joseon) in the late 19 th Century are very interesting so I will briefly relay them here.

In 1866 the Joseon government decided that Catholic missionaries were adversely impacting their ability to govern the nation and decided to suppress the religion. This resulted in the execution of hundreds of Catholics along the Han River near where the Jeoldusan Martys’ site located in Seoul.

The French viewed themselves as defenders of the faith in the region and launched a punitive expedition against the forts in Ganghwado in 1866. The Koreans refer to this as the Byeonginyangyo or 1866 foreign disturbance. (Yang means foreigner from overseas. The Koreans didn’t really care about the precise nationality of the foreigners back in those days. Yo means struggle or disturbance). The French captures a few of the forts, burnt a temple, and figured they did enough to punish the Koreans and departed the island.

In 1871, the Americans used the pretext of looking for a missing ship as an opportunity to attempt to open up Korea for western trade. The Joseon dynasty had a policy of keeping the country closed to all foreigners as they had seen what was happening to China during the Opium wars. The Americans arrived off of Incheon with a small fleet of five ships. They spent a month talking to low level Joseon diplomates.

During the negotiations, the Americans said they were going to take soundings up the Ganghwa Straits. The Koreans said nothing; however, their forts were under orders to fire upon any foreigners entering the straits. The Americans viewed silence as consent. This was a mistake. As the smaller gun boats started sounding the straits, the Koreans waited for them to get to the bottleneck in the strait near Gwangseongbojin then open fire without warning.

The Americans withdrew. They then demanded a treaty of trade that Joseon refuse. In retaliation, the Americans attacked up the strait capturing Chojijin, Doekjinjin, and Gwangseongbojin. At Gwangseongbojin the fighting was very fierce. It is often called the Korean Alamo due to the strong resistance the Koreans put up.

Among the items captured by the Americans was the large yellow flag with the Chinese characters for generalissimo on it. This flag is called the Sujagi Flag. It spent many years in the Naval Academy museum in Annapolis, Maryland and is now displayed in the Ganghwa History Museum. The Koreans refer to this event as the Shinmiyangyo or 1871 Foreign Disturbance. This event had several historical firsts. It was the first time the United States Medal of Honor was awarded for an overseas action. It was also the first time a photographer accompanied troops on an overseas expedition. The pictures taken are on display on some of the historical markers.

Of even greater historical significance was the 1875 Japanese attack on Chojijin. Called the Yunyoho or Japanese Invasion of 1875, this resulted in the Ganghwa Treaty of 1876 that was the first foreign treaty signed by Joseon under foreign pressure. This treaty started what would be ever increasing pressure by the Japanese that eventually resulted in their occupation on Korea in 1910 ending the Joseon dynasty. All three forts are very close together and are really worth seeing not only for their historical significance but also for the beauty of their natural setting.

Last but not least of places to visit on Ganghwa do is the Ganghwa History Museum. Locacted in Dolmen Park, this modern museum has artifacts and displays that cover the history of the island from the Stone Age through to modern times. Admission is very inexpensive (about 1500 won per person with some discounts available). Besides artifacts are other displays to include dioramas depicting key historical events that took place on the island. Outside the museum are short trails that take you passed Stone Age dolmens (rocks balanced on other rocks) that were created by early inhabitants of the island. These dolmens are a testament to the ingenuity and skill of our ancestors and are well worth seeing.

Chamsungdae in Manisan, Photo by Cultural Heritage Administration
We cannot leave Ganghwado without mentioning Manisan. This mountain has hiking trails that can take you to the summit where a reproduction of a stone alter that is told of in the tangun legends about the original founding of the Korean people. Anthropologically, this story is probably a metaphor for how early human migrations resulted in the merging of people to create the modern Koreans. However, you interpret the legend, the hike up to the summit and back on Manisan is well worth it.

Ganghwa Island has a lot to offer and is very close to Seoul or Incheon. It is a great way to get out of the city and see interesting historical and cultural things. It is a getaway I highly recommend.

By William Harlow/Media1 Photo by Cultural Heritage Administration

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