Unlike most Yellow Sea islands, GANGHWADO (강화도) is close enough to the mainland to be connected by road – buses run regularly from Sinchon bus terminal in Seoul via Gimpo, taking around ninety minutes to arrive in Ganghwa-eup (강화읍), the ugly main settlement; from here local buses dash to destinations across the island, though the place is so small that journeys rarely take more than thirty minutes. While this accessibility means that Ganghwa lacks the beauty of some of its more distant cousins, there’s plenty to see. One look at a map should make clear the strategic importance of the island, which not only sits at the mouth of Seoul’s main river, the Han, but whose northern flank is within a frisbee throw of the North Korean border. Would-be adventurers should note that this area is chock-full of military installations, and closed to the public.
Before the latest conflict, this unfortunate isle saw battles with Mongol, Manchu, French, American and Japanese forces, among others. However, Ganghwado’s foremost sights date from further back than even the earliest of these fisticuffs – a clutch of dolmens scattered around the northern part of the island, dating from the first century BC and now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Misty remnants from bygone millennia, Ganghwa’s dolmens are overground burial chambers consisting of flat capstones supported by three or more vertical megaliths. The Korean peninsula contains more than 30,000 of these ancient tombs – almost half of the world’s total – and Ganghwado has one of the highest concentrations in the country. Most can only be reached by car or bike, though one is situated near a main road and accessible by bus. From Ganghwa-eup, take one of the buses bound for Changhu-ri, which depart every hour or so, and make sure that the driver knows where you want to go – ask to be dropped off at the main Goindol (24hr; free), a granite tomb which sits unobtrusively in a field as it has for centuries: a stone skeleton long divested of its original earth covering, with a large 5m by 7m capstone. The surrounding countryside is extremely beautiful, and you can combine a visit to the dolmen with a delightful walk. One of the best places to head to is the village of Hajeom (하점), not far to the west, where the roofs of some houses have been traditionally decorated with distinctive patterns. From the hills above Hajeom it’s possible to view the North Korean bank of the Hangang, though sadly the propaganda that the North used to boom across the border from giant speakers can no longer be heard. Visual propaganda still remains, however, in the form of giant slogans best seen from the small mountain of Bongcheonsan (봉천산), a forty-minute walk north of Hajeon – the message visible across the border translates as “Yankees go home”, a request that would doubtless be more effective were it not written in Korean.
The south and east coasts
The south and east coasts
To the south of the island is Jeondeungsa (전등사), a pretty temple dating from the fourth century – when Buddhism was just taking root on the peninsula – making it one of the oldest temples in the country. It was also the venue for the creation of the famed Tripitaka Koreana, eighty-thousand-plus blocks of carved Buddhist doctrine which now reside in Haeinsa temple near Daegu. To reach the temple, take one of the half-hourly buses bound for Onsu-ri. About 5km west of Onsu is Manisan (마니산), the main peak of the island, which affords wonderful views of the surrounding islands.
Studding Ganghwado’s east coast are three fortresses – Gwangseongbo (광성보), Deokjinjin (덕지진) and Chojijin (초지진) – which are best seen by making use of the bicycle lanes that run alongside the main road; otherwise, buses run every hour or so. Gwangseongbo (daily 9am–6pm) is the northernmost and most interesting of the three, and dates from the mid-seventeenth century; its strategic importance will be obvious to all visitors, as it peers out over the channel that separates Ganghwado from the mainland.
The small settlement of Oepo (외포; pronounced “Way-paw”) on the island’s western coast is by far the most appealing place to stay; small and delightfully old-fashioned, it’s a little like stepping into the Korea of the 1970s, before the country’s “economic miracle” mopped up old traditions by the bucketload. There are no particular sights, so wandering around to soak up the atmosphere is the order of the day. There’s an appealing little fish market near the dock, and restaurants all around it; you can even stay above one at the impossible-to-miss Santa Lucia (032/933 2141), the only building to take advantage of the village’s views of SEONGMODO (석모도), another island just across the water.
Ferries (every 30min; 10min) run to Seongmodo from Oepo’s tiny terminal, and ornithophobes should note that large flocks of seagulls tend to circumnavigate the vessel for the entire journey, waiting to catch thrown crisps (and highly proficient at doing so). Buses (15min) meet the ferries and head to Bomunsa (보문사), a charming temple that constitutes the island’s main sight. The complex is a five-minute uphill pant from the bus stop, with a small tearoom (9am–5pm) at its entrance; many choose to give their legs an extra workout by taking the mountain path behind the temple, which leads to a clutch of small grottoes that function as Buddhist shrines and boast wonderful sea views.
Ferries back to Ganghwado dry up at 8.30pm, but this is a wonderfully peaceful place to be stranded – there are restaurants and simple accommodation around both the temple and ferry terminal, as well as bicycle hire immediately off the ferry ramp for those with the muscle to pump up and down the island’s hilly roads.