Centuries ago, Seoul was a fortress city. Stone battlements enclosed it, with gates and watchtowers and soldiers. The walls of this fortress ran along the mountains that form the city’s natural borders, rising and falling in steep stone increments. At night the gates were shut to keep out roaming tigers.
Time and progress have destroyed much of the fortress wall, but in the last few years large sections of it have been restored. It’s now possible to retrace most of the 18 kilometre circuit, but it’s quite a hike. The restored walls look shiny and factory-square at the top, but at the base you can see the old Joseon-era stones, rough circular blocks expertly placed together, covered now in moss and ivy.
Seoul may have long outgrown the fortress wall, but its architectural legacy is still evident in the great gates of Dongdaemun, Namdaemun and Seodaemun. These imposing stone sentinels guide the basic layout of the old city; they’re major landmarks facing East, South and West – Dong, Nam, Seo – in line with the principles of geomancy. But many Koreans don’t know of the northern gate, Sukjeongmun (also called Bukdaemun), largely forgotten in the middle of Mt. Bugak’s forested slopes. This gate was built to satisfy geomantic requirements and was usually closed to regulate the flow of negative energy around the palace.
This part of the wall is perhaps the most interesting: it has great views of the sprawling city on one side and quiet forests on the other. And it is the only part of the wall that still serves its original function. Sukjeongmun is very close to the president’s official residence, Cheonwadae (the Blue House). Security is tight. In 1968 North Korean agents in civilian disguise attempted to storm the compound with grenades and sub-machine guns. They got very close to the president, and things got very messy before all the agents were captured or killed. Tourists today require their ID cards or passports to walk this section.
The security cameras and lines of razor wire that snake along the outsides of the wall do help to put you in the fortress mentality, and you can’t help but peer into the forests and imagine North Korean infiltrators – or Mongol raiders – moving stealthily through the trees.
It’s not as impressive as the others, really a smaller version of the great gates, but walk through Sukjeongmun and you’ll reach a small forest clearing, just outside the limits of the old city. Standing here in a quiet, medieval silence, it seems unthinkable that an enormous modern city lies behind those wooden doors and stone battlements.