Ganghwa-do Island



Where: Ganghwa-do Island, an island in the West Sea/Yellow Sea, Incheon province, Republic of South Korea. In the top left hand corner of South Korea – at the mouth of the River Han, about an hour north-west of Seoul, depending on traffic.


When: June 2011


Why? My boyfriend and I were supposed to go to Busan for the bank holiday weekend, but the trains were fully booked – so we decided to check out the island of Ganghwa-do instead, as Ganghwa-do is only 3 to 4 hours from my man’s house, and connected by Seoul public transport.


I have to confess, we also went here as I wanted to knock another UNESCO world heritage site off the list.





My new favourite place is a set of small islands, about five miles from North Korea. Ganghwa-do (do means island or district in Korean) is a small island in the north-west of South Korea.


Ganghwa is a rural place, free from the ubiquitious sky scrapers and shops that you find across South Korea. This is pretty, peaceful Korea. If you want herons in paddy fields, misty mountains, long shadows, pine forests, and hidden temples on mountain peaks – Ganghwa-do is the place to come to. We arrived at the sunset golden hour and it was just magical.


Ganghwa's location at the mouth of the River Han makes it a very strategically important place. This island guards the waterway to the capital: it's the guardhouse for Seoul, and today it's northern coast along the Han River is the border between North and South Korea.


Ganghwa has a long and important history. Dangun, the semi-mythical king who founded Korea in 2333BC has an alter on top of Mount Manisan, at the south of the island. The island is dotted with UNESCO listed, bronze age dolmens (ie mini stone henges from 1000BC-ish). And there are loads of royal fortresses and tombs on the island, as this is where the Korean court fled to when Korea was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th Century. The island has also been attacked by French, English and Japaneese peeps, and was an important location in the Korean war.


There is loads to do here. We only had a day on the island and so only did three things – but we could have spent much longer exploring all the fortresses, tombs, dolmen sites, beaches, coves, mountains etc.  Even before we'd left the island we were talking about coming back and what we would like to do next time we visit.




Getting there and getting around


We caught bus 3000 from Seoul's Sinchon bus terminal (exit 7 of Sinchon subway station, every 15 minutes). Now, you or I hearing bus terminal would probably think of a huge bus station – but in Korea it's not – it's just a bus stop on the right hand side of the road. It took us about two hours to travel to Ganghwa-eup bus station (which is a proper bus station) as it was a bank holiday weekend and so traffic was quite heavy.


On the island we were able to get buses to each of the sights we visited (bus 31 for Oepo-Ri, bus 1 and 26 for the dolmens and the Ganghwa Peace Observatory – 2 and 27 to come back). We did have to use Ganghwa-eup as a hub – but as the island is so small this wasn't a problem.


Coming back, we caught bus 88 to Yeongheungpo Station, which is in the south of Seoul. This also took about 2 hours.


Just a quick note – we spent about 7,000 won each (about £2.50!) on public transport for the whole weekend – as we used our T-Money cards on all of the buses and on the subway. The T-Money cards are Oyster style cards which you can use on most public transport in South Korea and which are brilliant! As the T-money card charges you per journey, if you get a number of buses in one day, it will often count it as one journey – and so only charge you once. It cost us about 1,000 won (80p) for the two hour bus journey to the island – and then the bus to Oepo-Ri was free.




What we did on our holiday


Ate fish


On our first evening we simply explored Oepo-Ri, watched the ferries, walked through the fish market, got accosted by a very strange singing man, and then went to sample the delicious local seafood in a local seafood restaurant. Our amazing seafood stew contained a whole cat-fish (I think that's what it was), and it was cooked on the table. It was absolutely yum.


The fish in the market is fresh off the boats and it is interesting to go and see them for sale and to choose which one you are going to have for your tea. Some of the creatures are a little strange though.



Bomunsa Temple, Seokmodo Island


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Bomunsa Temple is a Buddhist temple with a cliff-face, stone carved Buddha. Its on the island of Seokmodo, which is off the west side of Ganghwa-do.


Oepo-Ri is where you catch the ferry to Seokmodo island. The ferry runs every 15 minutes, right up until midnight, and costs 2,000 won return for foot passengers (about £1.20). They'll take your ticket from you when you get on the ferry to go to Seokmodo. Don't worry about not having a ticket for coming back. If you're on the island, they know you've paid to get the ferry there - so they just let you on to get back.


Try to buy some scampi crisps before you get on the ferry. Not because you're going to need snacks, but because the sea gulls which follow the boat will catch them mid-air when you throw them up. It's brilliant! They're like sports stars or something. We were very impressed.


When we got to the island there were buses waiting at the harbour to take people on the road loop around the island. This stopped at the end of the mountain ridge for the peeps going hiking, and at Bomunsa temple for the rest of us.


Just as we got to the temple we saw the daily parade – which was mostly made up of monks and old ladies. Bomunsa temple is where you come to to pray for sons and grandsons – although it seemed to be a procession of older ladies praying for the latter.


The bus drops you off at the cluster of shops and restaurants around the temple entrance, and then you walk up through the temple gate, up the really steep hill, to the temple. Entrance to the temple cost us 2,000 won each (about £1.20).


wp239c31d7_0f.jpg At the temple there is a huge bell – which is rung at sunrise and sunset to scare away the West Sea dragons; there is a huge temple which contains three golden Buddhas; a cave temple; a temple which contains a large sleeping Buddha; a temple shop; and an area which we think is the cemetery for the temple monks who have died. It's an area of lots of small stone statues of the monks, and, like the terracotta army, each character has its own quirks and characteristics. Some of them are playful, some look like they're asleep – they are all wonderful.


But the reason that everyone is here is to see the stone Buddha which is carved in the cliff side. It's a long climb up, up lots of steps bedecked with paper lanterns, through the pine forests, but at the top you can rest and the views of the mud flats and the islands of the West Sea are amazing. The rock carved Buddha  is a flat image in the cliff face, and people were going through their Buddhist venerations in front of the statue when we were there. We spent about 20 minutes at the platform, just admiring the amazing view of the islands and relaxing.





The reason we had come to Ganghwa was to see the dolmens, and so I could knock off another UNESCO world heritage site from my list. We actually saw the largest dolmen from the bus on the way to the Ganghwan Peace Observatory – and we decided that this was enough for us: we didn't feel we needed to get up close. The dolmen we saw was the Bugeun-ni dolmen, which is three stoned dolmen (the top rock weighs 50 tons!) and which is the largest on the island (a dolmen is a bronze age henge kind of site – usually found in the British Isles and Northern France).  If we had had our own transport we would have gone off the beaten track to find some of the 70 other smaller sites – as it was, I think we saw quite a few standing stones from the bus.



North Korea and the Ganghwa Peace Observatory




One of the things that I found hard to get my head around was that we were so close to North Korea. We’ve all heard such surreal and horrible stories about this hidden country, so to actually see it, was very strange. I’ve heard that the border btween North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified, most tense and most politically sensitive border in the world. But it's just there! The border between South and North Korea runs along the Han river at the north of the island – and so you can see North Korea. Being all North Korean and pretty, and there. It was weird. I still can't get my head around that it was so close. We could see it and everything! And the road which runs along the top of the island runs along the coast – opposite North Korea. You can get a bus and everything. There is a lot of security, and we had to go through a checkpoint, but still – we just got a bus – along the North Korean border. I never thought I'd do that.


Anyway, the focus of our visit was the Ganghwa Peace Observatory, which overlooks the estuary, the river and North Korea. Inside this high building is an exhibition about the war, some smiley tanks, two floors of observatories with telescopes, so you can look at North Korea in close up, and an auditorium where you can go and hear speakers tell you about what you can see and a little bit about the history. There's also a pretty area where people from North Korea can go and perform ancestor worship ceremonies, for their ancestors in North Korea.


wp4afd2c1a_0f.jpg The best thing about the observatory is looking through the telescopes. We saw people in the fields, a lady pushing a pushchair, a man on a bike! I've heard about the propaganda villages close to the DMZ zone at Panmunjeom which are fake villages, but I think the villages here were real – although some of the houses did look a little deserted so I do wonder. It's so strange and silly that we were getting so excited about seeing people, going about doing normal things.


Anyway – North Korea looks very beautiful. There are stunning mountains which we would love to go explore, and nice estuaries, and paddy fields. It's very sad that the country is so isolated.


You can get to the observatory by bus 1 or 26. The bus stop is right outside the observatory at the bottom of a very, very, very, very steep hill. The bus stop – is by North Korea – and that's just weird.


It cost 2,500 won each to get in (about £1.80).



What we didn’t do on our holiday but wish we had done


- Visited the altar at the top of Mount Manisan - Dangun's altar is at the top of Mount Manisan. You can climb the 900 steps to get there or climb the mountain along one of the hiking trails. At the start of October they perform shamanistic ceremonies on the mountain.

- Visited the fortress and tombs - We saw the walls of the fortress at Ganghwa-eup, but we didn't have time to visit the rest of the fortress or any of the other fortresses dotted across the island. And there are lots! We could have gone to Gwangseongbo Fortress, Deokjinjin Fortress, Chojinjin Forress, Gyondongeupseong Fortress and lots, lots more. You can also visit a number of royal tombs, including the tomb of Queen Wondeok.

- Huge pirate ship restaurant. Quite randomly, we passed a huge pirate ship in the middle of the island, which is apparently a restaurant.

- Mugwort Centre. Go and find out everything you could ever possibly want to know about Mugwort.

- Space museum

- Visited lots of temples, including Jeondeung-Sa – where the 80,000 UNESCO heritage wood blocks (also known as the Tripitaka Koreana) were carved. These are now kept in Janggyong Temple, in the south of the country – but you can go see where they were carved.

- Hiking, and biking and beaches etc.




Where we stayed

Beachy Motel, Oepo-Riwp44c7faec_0f.jpg


The Beachy Motel was right on the seafront in Oepo-Ri. We literally walked up, asked to see a room and how much it was, and then took it. It had the most amazing view of the harbour, the islands and the seagulls. We spent hours just watching the ships coming in, and going out again.


Korea has something called 'love motels' which started off quite dodgy, as well... well, you can imagine. But these are now quite illustrious, good but cheap places to stay. They provide everything you could possibly need, so you can just turn up and still have all the cosmetics etc you need, and often the rooms have special features such as jacuzzis, internet etc – but all for the same price as a hostel. It even had it's own Norebong (private kareoke-room), in case you fancy a sing.


Our room, which had a huge wide screen TV and an amazing shower, and the best view ever, cost us 50,000 won – about £35.


PS – Apparently, many of the love motels still have 'love' features – such as mirrored ceilings, heart shaped beds etc.


I don't have any contact details for the hotel – but if you pick up the free Ganghwa map from the tourist information centre in Ganghwa-eup bus station, this has a list of island accommodation on the back. There were lots of motels in Ganghwa-eup and Oepo-Ri – so our fears of being stranded, on a bank holiday weekend, were unfounded.


To find a list of accommodation on Ganghwa-do, visit the official Ganghwa-do tourist website.




Useful links Official tourist site for Ganghwa. Probably the best place for maps, transport, hotel info etc.  




Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.


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All photos copyright of J Clemo 2011. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.