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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #622: Namhansanseong

Namhansanseong was the ‘contingency capital’ for the Korean Joseon Dynasty, built as a mountain fortress in the early 17th century. I visited it on a day trip from Seoul – although it lies only some 25km outside of the capital, it took me 1.5 hours to get there by metro and bus. Looking at the number of large parking lots and restaurants, the site must see huge crowds during the weekends (over 3 million visitors already in the year 2010, before WH inscription!).

Entrance to Emergency Palace area

On a weekday though, the place is the domain of elderly hikers. Most of them actually got off one bus stop earlier than I did, for the start of the trails that run on and alongside the walls. I eventually found myself at the roundabout of a tourist village, wondering what to do. I noticed some more traditionial looking buildings a bit to the north. These turned out to be the newly restored Emergency Palace, plus ticket and information stalls. I first went to get a ticket, which I was given for free although there is a usual entry fee of 2,000 Won. Maybe it was a special day, or were they just happy to welcome a foreigner? The ticket by the way is for the Emergency Palace only, the rest of the site is free of charge.

At the entrance of the Palace an older man in traditional custome was strategically posted to catch any innocent visitors. He turned out to be an official guide with good English. So he enthousiastically took it upon him to show me around the Palace and tell all about it. Besides an ancestral shrine and offices, the Palace contained modest living quarters for the king and the crown prince – I gathered from the guide that their wives stayed in Seoul! The buildings have been freshly painted and just as many other South Korean sites are a bit dull in decorations.

Woodwork at Emergency Palace

After the Palace I went for a walk. One can hike the whole wall along the four entrance gates. That was too much for me, so I walked from the center outwards first to the East Gate and later (after lunch) to the South Gate. The route to the East Gate goes on a normal pavement through the not so interesting parts of Namhansanseong’s tourist town. The gate itself, though spectacularly located against a steep hill ridge, lies next to a heavy travelled road.

The South Gate is (according to the nomination file) by far the most visited of the gates. It seems to be the preferred starting place for hikers, the trails aren’t so steep here. I didn’t really know where to go and quickly retraced my steps to return to the bus stop.

At the South Gate

Looking back after having now visited all South Korean WHS, I must say that I found Namhansanseong the least interesting (although it has some competition of other recent nominations). There is actually a second location to this WHS (“the remains of two Sinnam advanced defensive posts”) which none of the reviewers has checked out yet – so maybe we can get a new angle from that?

Published 11 January 2017

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Responses to WHS #622: Namhansanseong
Kyle (winterkjm) (10 January 2017)

I think I am in the minority, but Namhansanseong is far more interesting to me than Hwaseong Fortress, which was never actually used for anything. Granted, the gates at Hwaesong do stand out!

1) There are vast sections of wall that are basically in ruins (outer wall), other sections are moderately restored and reflect early 17th century fortress design in Korea.

2) Namhansanseong is a Provincial park and the nature can be stunning, particularly in Spring and Fall.

3) The fortress was under siege for a month in one of the most famous battles on the Korean peninsula.

As Els mentioned, there are at least 2 downsides, the tourist village in the fortress center is not particularly interesting or scenic. Secondly, the reconstructed Emergency Palace, which was criticized by ICOMOS is an example where Korean enthusiasm for cultural heritage and tourism runs a fine line between education and lack of authenticity.

Perhaps I am biased after 2 visits and a 5 hour hike. That much effort requires positive affirmations!