Since the world is aflutter over the North Korean Army Of Beauties at the Olympics and all, this is an appropriate time to take a look at some World Heritage Sites in the DPRK, don’t you think? First off, let’s take a trip around Kaesong, specifically the
Within the mountain-ringed basin of Kaesong City and extending into the foothills to the west, the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong comprise an ensemble representing the ruling base of the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) with its associated tombs.
The ensemble embodies the political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual values of the capital of the unified Koryo state as it transitioned from Buddhist to Confucian philosophy, through the geomantic layout of the city, palace and tomb complexes, the urban defence system of walls and gates, and educational institutions.
The serial property consists of twelve separate property components, five of which are separate sections of the Kaesong City Walls forming parts of the triple-walled Koryo defence system. This included the innermost Palocham Wall of 896, within which the palace was later built; the Outer Wall built 1009-1029 to surround the city, connecting the mountains that protect it according to geomancy (Mt Songak, Mt Puhung, Tokam Peak, Mt Ryongsu and Mt Jine); and the Inner Wall of 1391-3.
The other seven components are the Manwoldae Palace archaeological site and remains of the Kaesong Chomsongdae (an astronomical and meteorological observatory); the Kaesong Namdae Gate (the main southern city gate in the Inner Wall); Koryo Songgyungwan (a former high state education institute which educated Koryo national officials); Sungyang Sowon (a Confucian private school on the site of the former residence of Jong Mong Ju, 1337-1392, a Koryo minister whose assassination marked the overthrow of the Koryo); Sonjuk Bridge (where Jong Mong Ju was assassinated) and Phyochung Monuments (two stelae commemorating Jong Mong Ju); the Mausoleum of King Wang Kon with associated Seven Tombs Cluster and Myongrung Tombs Cluster; and the Mausoleum of King Kongmin.
The picture above is on the standard DMZ-visiting tourist itinerary, it’s the Koryo Songgyungwan also known as Koryo Museum. Those two ladies in the foreground, those are the interesting thing though —
— see, even if you’re travelling by yourself, in North Korea you always have to have two minders with you, plus your driver; and when the thoroughly recommended Tongil Tours put together our visit…
… “Miss O” and “Miss Kim” were the minders they arranged for us. Well, alright then, if our North Korean posse is going to be cute little girls and a perpetually amused driver, we’re just fine with that!
When we finished the museum, which didn’t take long, found an unexpected treat outside; the grounds were being used for a wedding ceremony:
So if you’d ever wondered what a contemporary North Korean wedding looks like, there you go!
And yes, unscripted photos like that are officially out of bounds, you’re supposed to take pictures only of things approved by the government, but my minders let me push that quite a bit. Actively cooperated with snapping some NORTH KOREA IS BEST KOREA! memes for Instagram in fact:
North Korean propaganda is pretty hardcore, yep.
Anyways, back to the monuments:
This is the Kaesong Namdaemun, last of the original gates of the walled city and mainly notable for the 14 ton bell inside.
This is the Sonjuk Bridge, which has immense cultural significance as the site of a famous assassination and consequent symbolism of loyalty, but to the untutored eye just looks like a rather small concrete bridge. So we convinced Miss O to model for us to make it more interesting.
(Made a game of this actually, everywhere we’d stop Miss O and Miss Kim would offer to take pictures of me, because that’s the way tourists are supposed to work, and we’re like “I know what I look like, here I’ll take pictures of you.” Much more interesting, don’t you think?)
This is the Sungyang Sowon, a Confucian private school of moderate historical interest. But this picture’s clear enough of the marker to note something interesting:
This site was inscribed on the World Heritage list at the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee in June Juche 102 (2013).
This is the Mausoleum of King Wang Kon, which has indeed monumental significance as the tomb of the first king to unify the Korean peninsula … unfortunately, it was looted and defaced during the Japanese invasion, and everything there now is a reconstruction.
This is the Tomb of King Kongmin, definitely the high point of all the properties far as we’re concerned, and monument to a tragic love story:
The tombs represent a true Korean love story, which took place in the 14th century. The Queen Noguk (who was a Mongolian princess) was married to King Kongmin for about 20 years before she finally got pregnant. The King was overjoyed and there were great celebrations leading up to the expected date of birth for the child. Unfortunately, the Queen died during childbirth (and also the child) and the King was heartbroken. He withdrew from public life and left the decision making to high ranking officials.
The King decided to construct these tombs beside each other, leaving a small passage between the tombs, so that the spirits could be together in the afterlife (take a picture of the tombs joined by this passage). When the King died he was placed in the tomb beside his queen with great wealth and other items that it was thought would be of use in the afterlife.
Well, for five hundred years anyway, until the Japanese arrived and couldn’t find the entrance so they blew a hole in the top and looted it.
It’s a bit of a hike up to the mounds, but the scenery is well worth it:
We’d say make sure you see it … but it’s another on the Official Tour List, so if you’re in these parts you’re pretty much guaranteed to be seeing it whether you want to or not!
Now, to finish up on a lighter note, my posse was unusually challenged by my visit, because we’d arranged to visit all the World Heritage properties, and that somebody would a) want to do this and b) get the permits to deviate from the set piece tours … is vanishingly unusual apparently.
First, you notice above that the Kaesong Chomsongdae is on that list? Well, despite a combined 19 years of tourist guide experience in my crew, none of them had any idea where it was, never mind visited it.
And in North Korea, you do not have GPS, you do not have maps, you do not have street signs; if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not supposed to be going there, pretty much. But after driving around in circles for a while, the driver eventually figured that the entrance must be this nondescript parking lot at the side of the road we’d passed a couple times, and…
OK, there’s our UNESCO stelae, and our National Treasures marker, clearly we have indeed found the right place … but there’s nothing but fields around, where on earth is this observatory? OK, there’s a path to follow…
… aaaaaand it ends in this ten foot high concrete platform.
Right, well, if you do make it to Kaesong, you can be satisified with visiting at most eleven of this site’s properties. Really, your experience seeing this in real life —
— should you be able to find it! —
— will not be significantly more rewarding than seeing our pictures has been. You’re welcome.
The last of the properties we’ll highlight here is worth seeing, the Outer Wall, if you missed it above
the Outer Wall built 1009-1029 to surround the city, connecting the mountains that protect it according to geomancy (Mt Songak, Mt Puhung, Tokam Peak, Mt Ryongsu and Mt Jine);
OK, that sounds pretty neat. And again, my peeps had never been there, but this time at least the directions were clear, the most impressive portion was straight out the only road this direction out of Kaesong…
… and we drove, and we drove, and we drove. The paved road turned to gravel, then hard dirt, then more like a track rutted beyond any sane expectation our car could proceed, and we’d descended into a valley where it was inconceivable there could be any mountain-connecting wall anywhere, not to mention that even at the not much more than walking speed we were making we must be miles past any conceivable distance walls would be built at from the city, and the country people we passed were looking at us with the kind of expressions one would associate with a spaceship full of aliens flying past…
Turned out, we had in fact driven directly past the property stelae a good three-quarters of an hour ago, barely past the present town outskirts.
Now how on earth could all four of us manage to totally miss that, you ask?
Well, you see, this is what the Outer Wall looks like from outside the wall:
But if you look closely at the right, you see how it’s not really a “wall” in the sense of something above the ground, it’s more like a cliff, with the inside level at the top?
Well, if you’re in a car and driving from the inside, and you don’t know to look at the sides as you pass, you just drive along the road which is also level with the top, and it descends down to outside level before you have a chance to notice the marker in your rear view mirror, it also being hidden by the cliff drop referred to as the “wall” here.
So there you go, that’s how to spend a much more entertaining time in Kaesong than the standard stops on your DMZ visit; get Tongil to set things up for you to go places no tourist ever goes, and you’ll get even more off the regular track than you’re supposed to, judging by our experience!