When it comes to islands in South Korea, only two names usually come to mind: Jeju-do and Nami-seom. However, when 2 of my friends and I visited the country in January, we decided to give both a miss, and instead, set our sights on Ganghwa-do in Incheon.
A rustic backwater just a bus ride away from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Seoul — Ganghwa island is a hidden gem that is well off the beaten track. While it lacks the natural beauty of Jeju and the romantic undertones of Namiseom, this obscure refuge for ancient royalty is a microcosm of South Korea, comprising just about everything that is quintessential about this beautiful country.
No visit to Ganghwa Island would be complete without witnessing the world-renowned dolmens which dot the landscape. Recognised as UNESCO World Heritage sites, these prehistoric tombs are composed of gargantuan boulders and are very much the Korean equivalent of the Stonehenge. How ancient Koreans even placed the boulders in such a perfect balance still remains a mystery.
But perhaps the most eye-catching feature of Ganghwa aren’t its cultural relics or dolmens, but the ominous barbed fences spanning across the entire northern coast, guard towers and military checkpoints. Situated precariously close to North Korea, Ganghwa’s geopolitical conundrum stands at odds with its history as a refuge for royalty fleeing the invasion and civil strife on the mainland.
While nowhere as immersive as a visit to Panmunjom — Ganghwa’s Peace Observatory still gives visitors an unparalleled close-up experience with North Korea.
A glance through one of many pay-to-use viewing stands reveal clusters of dilapidated houses with Marxist slogans painted in red; men and women on bicycles greeting North Korean troops and; a faint cityscape in the distance, yet with no roads leading to it. The observatory also boasts a picture and information gallery, as well as Korean war relics, that provides a truly enriching experience. Like scrutinising a specimen under a microscope, the Ganghwa Peace Observatory offers visitors an opportunity to peer into a world that many of us only catch glimpses of in the media.
Ganghwa is best explored in a taxi — local buses are few and far between, and most only cater to the islands’ main roads. More often than not, taxi drivers will know the locale better, and our affable taxi driver was more than eager to take us to a hole-in-the-wall seafood establishment in the renowned fishing town of Oepo-ri.
Quaint and picturesque, Oepo-ri felt like a fishing village lost in time. Rickety fishing trawlers haul in the day’s catch before heading back out into the vast open sea, and throngs of locals wade into the expansive mudflats looking for clams and octopi. From oddly dressed folks to the interior decor of the restaurant we patronised, everything in this little town exuded a sort of 70s/80s vibe.
Naturally, having seafood in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a fishing village outside of Seoul means the food was ridiculously cheaper than the exorbitance of Seoul’s Noryangjin market. Lunch was a sumptuous meal of fresh hoe (Korean sashimi), oysters, fan clams, sea squirts, baby octopus and a whole plethora of other sea critters complete with a spicy fish stew — all this for just RM 90 per person!
Lamentably, due to our tight schedule, we had to keep our itinerary short. We ended our visit at Yeonmijeong, a modest pavilion overlooking the Imjingang and Yeomhagang rivers.
Deriving its name from the swallow-tail shape of the point where the two rivers meet, Yeonmijeong is the perfect vantage point for witnessing one of the most astounding sunsets in the world. Subtle in its beauty, it is worth noting that Yeonmijeong was also a flashpoint of conflict between major powers throughout Korea’s tumultuous history.
Besides the dolmens, Peace Observatory, Oepo-ri and Yeonmijeong, Ganghwa is also home to many ancient forts, shrines and temples. Chojijin and Deokjinjin Fortress still bear the scars of battles past, while Jeondungsa and Bomunsa Temple both feature unique architecture and religious relics. More adventurous travelers can visit Chamseongdan altar on Manisan, which, according to Korean folklore, is the origin of the Korean nation.
This article was contributed by Douglas, a writer from the online shopping cashback site ShopBack.my.