There are five major palaces in Seoul, but my Lonely Planet guide said that Chandgeokgung was one of the best. I was informed that the only way to explore the palace was by guided tour, so I tried to rush over for the last tour of the afternoon. When I arrived it turned out that on Thursdays there are special performances so there are no tours. I was allowed to tour the palace grounds on my own, with an English map/guide (my favourite way).
This is the inside of the king's throne room. The outside of this building looks as though it is two stories tall, but when you look inside you realize that it is just one giant room.
I'm not sure why, but many of the buildings had raised hallways, set on pillars. At one point I saw a group of elderly Koreans try to walk under one of them and a little old lady stood up too soon and bonked her head. Ouch!
Many of the best views were to be found behind the buildings though. Here, the terraced wall had many plants and trees and even sculptures growing on it (the sculptures were just placed there though).
This is the magnificent foliage along one of the main pathways. I thought it could not get better than this, but I had yet to reach the Secret Garden.
When the palace was in use up until the early 1900s, the Secret Garden was off limits to anyone but the Royal Family and perhaps only the highest of government officials. It has some of the freshest air in Seoul, and you can't help but feel honoured when you stroll through it.
I wish I had better lighting, but this is the impressive Royal Library at which the king and Crown Prince would have studied classic literature. Sometimes government exams were held by this well shaded pond and I could only imagine it was one of the Royal Family's favourite places (it was one of mine).
The reason there was no tour was that a special performance of Korean traditional art was going on in the Secret Garden today. There was some "interesting" traditional music that I'm pretty sure won't be joining the Hallyu (Korean Wave) anytime soon, but the highlights were the Jeongjae dance and the Pansori opera.
The Jeongjae dance I saw featured many women in brightly coloured robes, twirling and whirling in unison as they played a traditional game. The goal of the game was to throw an object through the hole in the screen behind the dancers. Any dancers who missed were punished with a stroke of black paint to the face, while those who were successful were given a large flower.
Pansori is a traditional opera which features multiple characters, but only one performer. The performer seems to usually be a woman, and there is a male drummer who will randomly interject with sounds of wonder and awe (I'm sure there was a reason for his interjections, but obviously I couldn't figure them out). I consider the performance a success because the parts I found humourous also seemed to be humourous to all the Koreans as well. It is the sign of good art when it can communicate with everyone regardless of language.
After the presentation, any guests could dress up in the traditional costumes and have their pictures taken. The magic was lost though when some of the overly tall white tourists tried on the costumes, it must be said.
After the presentation was over I went back to my stroll through the Secret Garden, but I was soon approached by Ji-eun (on the right). I can't remember her whole story, but she was a journalist somehow connected to the Ministry of Culture in either Seoul or Korea. She said that she noticed I seemed the most interested in the performance of all the foreigners there (I'd say so as well), and she wanted to interview me for her report. Later she took my picture and said that I might make it on to her company's website with my article. I'm still stunned by it all actually.
Soon after we ran into Han Pyeong-hwa (left). Han means one in Korean, and Pyeong-hwa means peace, so she told me her nickname in school was "one piece." She learned to speak English in The Philippines, so she spoke with a slight Filipino accent (which I found slightly humourous, in a charming way).
Before I left the palace I also met an incredibly friendly woman whose name I have not yet learned (she told me her face was her business card, second from the left). She teaches English teachers at a Seoul University, and is the most remarkable person I've met so far. On this day alone she met me, Pyeong-hwa and Ji-eun for the first time and invited us out for dinner with her at the fabulous Hilton hotel. Ji-eun had a deadline to meet for her article, but Pyeong-hwa and I agreed to come along.
On our way to our table she stopped and introduced everyone to a random Korean couple who were celebrating a birthday. The couple invited us to have a picture taken with them (not the picture I have shown above). It was her first time meeting this couple too.
Later two more of the mystery woman's friends came and joined us (the two women on the right in the picture above).
The service at the Cilantro's restaurant in the Millenium Hilton Hotel in Seoul defies description. We were waited on by no less than three Korean servers who all spoke English, and our host was so well known by everyone at the restaurant, that I'm pretty sure a fair bit of what we received was complimentary.
Long story short, my host loves to travel and she has invited me on a five day tour of the Korean country-side with her next weekend (my last). Our accommodations will be taken care of as we will be staying at the homes of her friends along the way, and I have been assured that the scenery is among the most beautiful in Korea. I also mentioned that I planned to visit Scotland next summer and she said that she would be living in London at that time and invited me to stay with her and her husband, and told me that she would give me a tour of London (she has lived there before, as well as Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, and Philadelphia).
My last two weeks look like they will be busy, but may very well be the best of my entire stay. Now I wish I had more time.