A Chinese border city across the Yalu River from North Korea and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ji’an: Former Koguryo Capital on the Yalu River and UNESCO World Heritage Site
The city of Ji’an (集安 |집안) is a former capital of the ancient Koguryo (Goguryeo) Kingdom, a once powerful Korean polity during the Three Kingdoms Era, located on the middle reaches of the Yalu (Amnok) River in China’s Jilin Province. Ji’an is the location of a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom.
Ji’an is haunting — this small and relatively remote Chinese city sits across the river from an equally remote part of North Korea and the modern city has grown up amid the remnants of a lost kingdom. In the first century AD, the Koguryo established their second capital here along the banks of the river encircled by defensive walls. A mountain fortress in the steep hills above housed the royal palace and provided additional refuge in times of war. The city was sacked in 244 AD, but later rebuilt, before the Koguryo moved their capital to Pyongyang in 427 AD.
For Lord of the Rings fans out there, Pyongyang is Minas Tirith and Ji’an is Osgiliath, the once glorious capital laid to waste by the forces of Lord Sauron.
Today Ji’an’s downtown remains hedged within the contours of the old city walls and a stroll in the central park contains piles of ancient brick here and there. Throughout the city are dozens of towering mounds made of earth and stone. These mounds are the once magnificent resting places of royalty and nobles, now covered in grass and weeds along roadsides and in farmer’s backyards. Many once contained beautiful wall paintings depicting the spiritual beliefs and daily life of people 1500 years ago. A few of these mural painting remain, their vivid colors as striking today as when they were painted over a millennium ago. In the fog-covered hills above, the former palace complex lies in ruins.
From the first to early fifth century AD, the Koguryo Kingdom, with Ji’an as its capital, rose as a regional power in northeast Asia. Famous for its formidable mounted warriors — sons of the region’s rough and mountainous terrain — Koguryo drove the Chinese Han Dynasty from the Taedong River Valley in 313 AD and engaging in wars with neighboring Chinese and nomadic states to the east and north as well as the Korean rivals of Baekjae and Silla to the south. In peacetime, Koguryo also served as a conduit of culture, adopting Buddhism from China and helping to transfer it to Japan along with other arts such as metallurgy and mural painting. Ancient Japanese royal tombs in Asuka, near modern-day Nara, are based on the Koguryo tombs in Ji’an and Pyongyang.
When the Koguryo Kingdom moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427 AD, they reestablished the same pattern of a walled-city along the river, protected by a mountain-fortress and palace complex in the hills above — modern day Mt. Taesong. At the same time, the Tomb of King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo kingdom, was moved from Ji’an to a valley outside of Pyongyang, where it exists to this day.
Ji’an is not easily accessible from other parts of China. There are long-distances buses from Dandong (4 hours), Shenyang (6 hours), or Tonghua (2 hours) in northeast China.
The main reason to visit Ji’an is to visit the Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UNESCO Site is made up of a number of locations spread throughout the Ji’an, including the remains of Guonei City, Wandu Mountain Fortress, the Tombs of Koguryo Royalty and Nobles, the most famous of which is pyramidal Tomb of the General, and the Stele of Gwangaeto.
The city also has a museum dedicated to the history of the Koguryo kingdom.