Where: Ganghwa-do, an island in the West Sea/Yellow Sea, Incheon province, Republic of South Korea; at the mouth of the River Han; about an hour and a half north-west of Seoul, depending on traffic.
When: I went to Ganghwa-do three times whilst living in South Korea – which is a sign of how lovely it is. The first time I visited with J in June 2011, I then took my brother there in May 2012, and then returned with my parents in September 2012.
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 three to four hours from Dongtan (where we lived) and because there is a direct local bus from Seoul.
I have to confess, we also went here as I wanted to knock another UNESCO world heritage site off the list.
I returned the other two times because Ganghwa-do is just lovely: it’s a slice of wild, rural Korea about an hours drive outside of Seoul; there’s loads to see and do here; being so close to North Korea is interesting; and it’s really easy to access but not much visited, so you can have some peace and quiet by the still sea.
One of my favourite places in South Korea is a set of small islands, next to the North Korean border. Ganghwa-do (do means island or district in Korean) is an island in the north-west of South Korea.
Ganghwa’s location at the mouth of the River Han makes it a very strategically important place and its northern coast along the Han River is the border between North and 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, with herons in paddy fields, misty mountains, long shadows, pine forests, hidden temples on mountain peaks. On our first visit to the island, we arrived at misty, sunset golden hour and it was just magical.
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 (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. Even after my three visits there’s still loads of sights, temples, castles, tourist attractions, mountains etc. that I’ve missed. We could have spent a week exploring all the fortresses, tombs, dolmen sites, beaches, coves, mountains etc.
Ganghwa is one of Korea’s hidden jems, and for anyone visiting Seoul I would highly recommend that you take a day trip out here to see the beautiful side of this fascinating country.
Getting there and getting around
We caught bus 3000 from Seoul’s Sinchon bus terminal and it took us about two hours to travel to Ganghwa-eup bus station.
Sincheon bus terminal is actually just a bus stop on the right hand side of the road, close to exit 1 of Sincheon subway station. If you need help to find the stop, there was a bus stop map in the underground station. When we were there, bus 3,000 departed approximately every 15 minutes. Visit Korea has up to date transport information on the bus routes to Ganghwa-do and also more comprehensive directions to the bus stop.
Ganghwa-eup bus station has toilets and an information centre, which supplies really useful island maps. It’s also next to an indoor market if you want to buy food or random stuff.
On the island we were able to get buses to each of the sights we visited: bus 31 went to Oepo-Ri; bus 1 and 26 went from the bus station to the dolmens and the Ganghwa Peace Observatory; bus 2 and 27 went from the Peace Observatory and the dolmens back to the bus station. We did have to use Ganghwa-eup as a hub, but as the island is so small this wasn’t a problem.
On the visit with my brother, we took the bus to the Peace Observatory, but got off too soon, so we ended up sat at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, for an hour or so – on the North Korean border. It was strangely interesting to watch all the goings on in the fields and villages, on both sides of the border.
Next time, I returned with my parents and after the mishap with G, we decided to take a taxi from the bus station to the peace observatory. This cost us ₩20,000 (about £10).
Coming back from our first trip, to get back to Seoul we caught bus 88 to Yeongheungpo Station, which is in the south of Seoul. This took about 2 hours.
Coming back from the second and third trip, both times we jumped off the 3000 bus at Songjeong Station, then took the metro home. Songjeong station is one stop up from Gimpo Airport, which is a transport interchange. You can view a Seoul subway map on the SMRT website.
Transport to and from the island cost about ₩7,000 won each (about £4) and 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.
What we did on our holiday
On all three trips we essentially did the same two things: visited Bomunsa Temple on Seokmodo Island and went to the Peace Observatory to see North Korea.
Bomunsa Temple, Seokmodo Island
Bomunsa Temple is a Buddhist temple with a cliff-face, stone carved Buddha. It’s on the island of Seokmodo, which is off the west side of Ganghwa-do.
Oepo-Ri (yeah, you know me) is where you catch the ferry to Seokmodo island. The ferry runs every fifteen minutes, right up until midnight, and costs ₩2,000 return for foot passengers (about £1.20). They took our ticket when we boarded the ferry to go to Seokmodo and we were a bit worried about not having a ticket for the return journey, but it was okay and they just let everyone on for the ferry trip back (I think they know that if you’re on the island you’ve gotten there by ferry and so have paid).
The ferry journey took about fifteen minutes to get to Seokmodo and it was great: partly because this is a really gorgeous area, but also because the sea-gulls were brilliant! The tourists on the boat threw them scampi fries and they caught them in mid-air. They were like cool sports stars!
Every time I visited, the local bus has been waiting at the harbour to take people on the road loop around Seokmodo island. This stopped at the end of the mountain ridge for the peeps going hiking, and at Bomunsa temple for the rest of us.
On our first trip, just as we got to the temple we saw the daily parade of monks and old ladies. Bomunsa temple is where people come to to pray for sons and grandsons, which seems like quite an old fashioned idea to me, and which is probably why there were no young people in the parade.
The bus dropped us off at the cluster of shops and restaurants around the temple entrance. We then walked up through the temple gate and up the really, really steep hill to the temple. The walk took us about fifteen minutes, with many stops for me to catch my breath.
Entrance to the temple was ₩2,000 (about £1.20).
At the temple complex there was a huge bell, which is rung at sunrise and sunset (we think it is to scare away the West Sea dragons); a 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. There were lots of small, stone statues of the monks, and, like the terracotta army, each statue has its own quirks and characteristics. Some of them are playful, some look like they’re asleep, one is covering the ears of a monkey – they are all wonderful.
The reason that most people come to Bomunsa is to see the stone Buddha which is carved in the cliff side. It’s a long climb up lots of steps to get to the cliff face, but it’s a nice walk through the pine forests and at the top you can rest on a viewing platform. 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. 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 Visit Korea website has practical information about visiting the site, including opening hours, special events, transport and price info.
The bus back to the harbour leaves from beside the car park and the gift shop. This bus can get incredibly busy and full up at busy times and we had to be quite assertive to stop people pushing in here.
The reason we had come to Ganghwa was to see the dolmen, which are registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m trying to visit every UNESCO world heritage site in the world, so we had to go here. A dolmen is a bronze age henge site, usually found in the British Isles and Northern France, so it was fascinating to see the same structures on the other side of the planet.
We saw the largest dolmen (Bugeun-ni dolmen) from the bus, on the way to Ganghwa Peace Observatory – and we decided that this was enough for us: we didn’t feel we needed to get up close. Bugeun-ni dolmen is a three stoned dolmen. It is the largest on the island and the top rock weighs 50 tons!
If we’d have 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. The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified, most tense and most politically sensitive border in the world, but in Ganghwa-do, 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.
Ganghwa Peace Observatory overlooks the Han River estuary 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.
The best thing about the observatory is looking through the telescopes into this secretive nation. We saw people in the fields, a lady pushing a pushchair, a man on a bike! North Koreans living their lives and being in North Korea. It’s so strange and silly that we were getting so excited about seeing people, going about doing normal things, but this closed off country is such an infamous mystery, that it’s hard to believe it’s real and to know what it’s truly like.
You can go on an official tour to the DMZ and the peace village at Panmunjom. I’ve done this tour and it’s great: the only problem with this tour is that very often it’s really foggy in this area and so you can’t really see much of North Korea. Also, as this is the contested, propagandery area of the border, a lot of what you see is fake. Here, at the Peace Observatory, we had clear weather each time we visited and I think the villages here were real – although some of the houses did look a little deserted so I do wonder.
Anyway, North Korea looks very stark, the land looks over-cultivated, over-used and stripped bare, but it also looks quite beautiful. We saw mountains which we would love to go explore, estuaries and paddy fields. It’s very sad that the country is so isolated.
Bus 1 or 26 runs from Ganghwa-eup bus station to the Peace Observatory. 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. If you do go, I’d recommend that you ask the driver where the observatory is, as G and I jumped off the bus far too soon and ended up sat at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere (on the North Korean border), rather than visiting the observatory.
It cost ₩2,500 each to get in (about £1.80). There was a cafe and a shop which sold North Korean products.
If you are interested in North Korea, I’d highly recommend a visit to the Peace Observatory as it’s such a contrast to the more famous DMZ area, more peaceful, less ‘touristy and stage-managed’ and so more interesting and real.
Looked at and ate fish
On our first evening in Ganghwa-do, Jeff and I 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 in front of us. 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.
What we didn’t do on our holiday but wish we had done
Visited the altar at the top of Mount Manisan – Dangun is the mythical founder of Korea. His 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. There’s a nice town with a hostel at the base of the mountain and we always said we go back for a weekend here, but sadly we never made it.
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. Find out everything you could ever possibly want to know about Mugwort.
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 (we visited here in 2014). You can go see where these were carved in Ganghwa-do.
Hiking, and biking and beaches etc.
Bought ginseng: Ganghwa-do is famous for its ginseng and lots of people were selling this on the road side.
Where we stayed
Beachy Motel, Oepo-Ri
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 a great view of the harbour, the islands and the seagulls. We spent hours just watching the ships coming in and going out again.
Korea used to have ‘love motels’ which were hotels where people could go to rent a room for a few hours for some illicit loving. Today, the name has stuck, but actually most of these motels are now quite respectable – and the term ‘love motel’ actually just refers to somewhere where you can just check in and get everything you need for a night away. These days, most love motels are quite illustrious, good but cheap places to stay (there are still some interesting, dodgy ones too though). They provide everything you could possibly need: cosmetics computers, jacuzzis, but all for the same price as a hostel.
Our room at The Beachy, which had a huge wide screen TV, nice shower and one of my favourite views, cost us ₩50,000 – about £35.
Incidentally, many of the love motels still have ‘love’ features, such as mirrored ceilings, heart shaped beds etc; and you can still hire a lot of them for just a few hours. Young Koreans often hire one of these rooms for a few hours to get ready for a night out, or to party away from their parents. In some love motels in Seoul, check in for overnight stays is not until 10p.m., because they rent the rooms out to pre-partiers.
I don’t have any contact details for the Beach 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.
We also stayed at the Beachy on our second and third trip too.
Oepo-Ri is a nice little town. It has some small supermarkets, a fish market, the ferry port and one or two restaurants. My dad is vegetarian and so it was hard to find him food in South Korea, but we found that the small cafe by the bus stop served vegetarian bibimbap, so he was okay.
To find a list of accommodation on Ganghwa-do, visit the official Ganghwa-do tourist website.
http://english.ganghwa.incheon.kr. 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.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.