Gangnam-gu, Seoul, the wealthy and modern area south of the River Han is not really the place you’d expect to spend a leisurely afternoon roaming around grounds viewing the tombs of two kings from the Joseon period (1392-1910) – tombs need a lot of space and greenery, and in Gangnam you’re more likely to be browsing in designer stores or jostling off a crowded subway and into a modern office building.
But in the middle of all the shops and office blocks is a huge area of pine trees and 500 year-old ginko trees where we can visit Seulleung and Jeongneung – the tombs of King Seongjong (the 9th king r.1469-1494) and his second queen, Queen Jeonghyeon, as well as the tomb of King Jungjong (the 11th king r.1506-1544). It’s a great place to get a glimpse into Korean history whilst enjoying some open space away from hectic city life.
Now that I’ve visited several tombs of Joseon kings, I’m getting familiar with their layout as it’s always essentially the same. So after walking around the grounds we came across the now familiar red gate (signifying holiness) standing at the beginning of the stone path that leads to the sacrificial building. Behind this building is the tomb.(The tombs of the queens are usually similar to the ones of the kings but more simple and they don’t have a sacrificial building.)
When we get to this point we have to start concentrating on where we are supposed to walk. The stone path is divided into two —the elevated side is for the dead King and the lower one is for living people. So that means that NO ONE should walk on the elevated part.
The signs on the walkway are clear about this and encourage us to keep the tradition of the past and not walk on the elevated spirit walkway but keep to the lower path. Visitors don’t always obey the rules though and there have been sightings of mere mortals stomping merrily down the spirit walkway – outrageous. (I don’t know what happens if you break these rules as I am a rule follower!)
There are more signs when we reach the spirit stairs leading up to the sacrificial building where the memorial rites were carried out for the king in the past. The stairs for ordinary mortals are the more simple stairs to the right of the spirit stairs (see above picture). Everything has a meaning here including the colours and design of the building – the small sculptures of monkeys and other animals on the eaves of the sacrificial building, called japsang, are meant to exorcise evil spirits.
As we approach the tombs, the surrounding buildings of the city are hidden by the pine trees and just for a moment I feel as though I could be miles away from Seoul. But once up on the mound we can see the Joseon period nestling in modern Seoul.
Although other tombs including the tomb of King Sejong can be seen close up, these tombs are all fenced off. So we have to be content with peeking over the gate into the private world. A stone military officer with a sword, stone sheep and tigers surround the tomb and are guardians of the dead King. And in front of the tomb is the mangjuseok – a pair of stones that guide the dead King to his tomb.The modern buildings encroach on the Joseon world, but for me, the juxtaposition of old and new was one of the interesting things about visiting these tombs – as most of the tombs of the Joseon kings are outside Seoul. (These tombs were built here when the area south of the River Han wasn’t part of the capital – it was just surrounding countryside. How things have changed!)
There are lots of paths through the surrounding woods with not a car or Louis Vuitton handbag in sight! So although it’s not free to get in – it costs 1000 won – it’s definitely worth popping in for a walk and a break from the city. And for 10,000 won you can get a pass with unlimited access to the grounds for a year. Definitely worth it, I think.