Location: Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa, South Korea (3 locations)
Visited: June, 2012 and Sept, 2013
Site Type: Cultural
Opinion and Background:
I know what you are thinking… what the heck is a dolmen?
It is the same question I thought to myself when I looked up the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea last year. The article I stumbled upon went on and on talking about how the Korean peninsula alone has about 40% of the world’s dolmen sites. It was my last WHS on my Korea list and I must admit that I felt a little embarrassed for not knowing what it was.
Dolmens are a Neolithic style of burial site built out of stones, usually in the shape of a table. Think of the style of architecture of Stonehenge and you have a pretty good idea of what a dolmen looks like. However, the architecture itself is not what makes dolmens special. Take it from me, no one was marveling over these ancient people’s engineering genius. It is what they represent that is important.
Dolmen sites usually date from 7000-4000 years ago, squarely in the stone age of humanity. Although we are thought of as a social species, burying one’s dead and marking the spot of burial is a higher form of thinking unique to our species. Maybe I am going out on a limb here as this is solely my perspective, but I feel that the existence of dolmen sites, especially in large amounts, are essential proof of homo-sapiens’s big leap forward beyond all other members of the animal kingdom. It doesn’t seem to make logical sense to care about someone who no longer contributes to the survival of our species, but alas, we are the only ones fascinated and influenced by our ancestral history.
I have been to the dolmen sites in Ganghwa and Gochang and let me be frank, Ganghwa is not worth the trouble at all. If you are a lifetime resident of South Korea and have done pretty much everything else, and own a car, knock yourself out. Otherwise, go to Gochang instead. Getting to Ganghwa using public transportation is a complete nightmare. It takes well over 2.5 hours from Seoul and once in the island (connected by bridges), public transportation is very scarce. Even taxis, which were kind of expensive given the distances, were not frequent. In addition, the dolmens in this area are kilometers from each other, meaning you will have to walk for a long time, spend a bunch of money on taxis (if any), or drive from one dolmen to the other. Given that rental cars were about 70 USD a day, in my opinion, it is simply not worth it. For its credit however, the single dolmen I got to see in the Ganghwa site was the largest and most impressive one of all.
Gochang on the other hand, was quite a pleasant surprise! To get to the dolmen site, you first have to get to Gochang city (by bus is easier), and then take a bus to the “goindol” site (the Korean word for dolmens). There are about 3-4 buses that go each day (oddly, negotiable), and come back at very clearly scheduled intervals. This is one of those sites that you can do as thorough or lazily as you’d like. There is a trolley that takes you on a clear sweep of the area, which is what most local tourists do. Very few people decided to walk around and I must say, I highly recommend it. Gochang has a few hundred dolmens in 6 different pit areas, all accessible by walking. The largest dolmen in Asia is also about a 3 hour hike (round trip) up a nearby hill.
I ended up spending about 3 hours in this site and if I had more time, I definitely would have checked out the newly discovered 6th pit and done that hike to see the biggest dolmen. I also completely skipped over the indoor museum as I figured it must be similar to the one I saw in Ganghwa. The single best part of the whole visit however, was that all of this history was basically left for us alone to explore. Despite the trolley (which just glances over the dolmens), very few people actually look around much of the dolmens at all. Definitely one of the least visited UNESCO sites I have ever been to.
1) Completeness and Originality (14/15): The dolmens in Ganghwa are not all completely excavated, but overall, they are in pretty great shape.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (7/15): I spent around 3 hours, and even though I would have stayed longer, I doubt many would share my enthusiasm.
3) Cultural Significance (9/25): While dolmen sites as a whole are of huge cultural significance to the planet, no individual site (minus maybe Stonehenge) would be considered irreplaceable.
4) Personal Impact (6.5/15): The main pit in Gochang was pretty awesome. Hundreds of stone s scattered across a very peaceful field is hard to replicate. It was a good weekend getaway.
5) Logistics (4/10): Ganghwa, like I said, is a logistic nightmare. Gochang on the other hand was relatively easy to get to, but only because I know some Korean, which I had to use extensively. I imagine that it would be a bit more of a challenge if I didn’t speak a word. This is just one of those off the beaten path places, and at a couple of bucks to enter, definitely worth the trouble.
6) Uniqueness (2/20): Much like temples, dolmens are found all over the world. In addition, most look pretty similar, so I wouldn’t call this place unique at all.
Combined Score: 42.5/100
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