Instead of going to Changiumun Gate, the main entrance to Mount Bugaksan City Wall, I decide to head to Sukjeongmun Gate instead, which is the easternmost part of the open section of the wall, and the only other access point. As there is no road there, I take a subway to Anguk station, walk north through the charming district of Bukchon Hanok village, and then continue through Samcheong Park. I had imagined there would be a way to walk to Sukjeongmun Gate, and this indeed turns out to be the case. A wooden walkway with steps through a park with some frozen pools takes me straight to the beginning of the wall. It meanders over the boulders, with a staircase, but also a possibility to walk over the rocky ground. The city wall was first built in the 14th century, and while much of it does no longer exist, the Bugaksan section has been restored. When I reach Sukjeongmun Gate, I fill out the admission form, take out my passport, and get a key-cord with a number, which I have to wear during my walk over the wall. All around the entrance building, I see cameras. It quickly becomes clear that I have entered a sensitive military area. Downtown Seoul suddenly feels far away, North Korea and the Cold War very close. On the information leaflet from the information centre, only a handful of spots are mentioned where it is allowed to take pictures, and indeed, it is all but impossible to sneak pictures here.
Apart from the many cameras that seem to be looking at me from everywhere, there also is a strong presence of military personnel. Most of them are dressed in black and wear sunglasses and seem to be without weapons, but there are others who do carry guns. There are many more soldiers than visitors, and whenever I arrive at one of the sightseeing spots, one of the black-dressed soldiers discreetly follows me to make sure I observe the strict rules. It is a pity I cannot take pictures here because the views towards the mountain range just north of Seoul is great. The views towards the city are much less clear, as a layer of haze hangs over the city. Apart from the views, the heavy protection of the wall is a sight in itself, if only because it is still far from the actual border with North Korea. There is a barbed wire fence running parallel to the much older wall; there are countless cameras, big spotlights, and at regular intervals, small shacks which are manned by guards. One of the sights at the eastern section is Sungjeongmun Gate, restored in 1976. A little further north lies Gonjang, a terrace from which I have great views of Mount Bukhan to the north.
Just before reaching the highest point of the wall, I reach the 1.21 Pine Tree Incident spot, which is the very cause why this wall is so heavily protected. On January 21, 1968, a group of North Korean commandoes crossed the border and managed to sneak over the ancient wall, with a mission to attack the presidential Blue Palace which lies on the south side of the hills. They were intercepted by South Korean soldiers, and a fight ensued in which several South Koreans were killed. The shooting took place at this pine tree, in which you can still see the spots of the bullet holes, marked by white and red circles. After the incident, the city wall was for a long time off limits to the public and was only reopened in 2006. A little higher up, I reach a lookout point, the top of Mount Bukaksan, at 342 m the highest hill of the range on which the wall is built. Around the summit, there are plenty of black-dressed men making sure the few visitors stick to the rules. From here, it is a long walk down wooden stairs with a white line in the middle, past more cameras and watchtowers, until I reach Changiumun Gate. Net to it, I find the statue of Choi Gyu-Sik, the Superintendent General who was on duty on that fateful day in 1968 when the North Korean commandoes tried to attack the Blue Palace. His swift action stopped the attackers, but he got killed, together with one of his colleagues. Just across the street, I wait at the bus stop for a bus back to the city. Within seconds, I feel like stepping from the Cold War, which I considered over, to modern-day South Korea where people do not seem to realize that heavy military presence is protecting them only hundreds of metres away.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Mount Bugaksan City Wall (South Korea). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Mount Bugaksan City Wall. Read more about this site.