People Watching in Seoul: The Gallery

I toddled off to Seoul this weekend to do some people watching and to see what I could collect using the iPhone 4S camera (my usual optics are being dysfunctional!). Here are the results, Insadong, ‘The Palace of Prospering Virtue’ Changdeokgung, Bukchon Hanok Village, the 63 Building, Saetgang Eco Park and Cheonggyecheon Stream.

On Saturday I spent the first couple of hours, firstly observing the old folk in Tapgol Park (Jongno 3 Subway Station) and then trudging through the August showers in Insadong. Also known as Pagoda Park, Tapgol Park is located at the former site of Weongaksa Temple and is from the Joseon era. It was the first modern park constructed in Seoul. Weongaksa Temple existed during the Goryeo Dynasty, but renamed when it was enlarged by the Joseon’s. It was destroyed during the reign of Yeonsangun and Jungjong due to the policy of repressing Buddhism. The park is of great historical value and national pride as it was the starting point of the March 1st, 1919, Independence Protests and there are monuments around the park to commemorate this.

From here just across the main road is Insadong which is undeniably touristy. Weekend crowds and inflated prices conjoin to make that obvious. In saying that it doesn’t prohibit the neighbourhood’s many tea shops, antique shops, calligraphy stores, restaurants and art galleries from retaining their own giddy charm. It’s a  challenge to install a mall in an old area and not be appalled by the result.

In all its offbeat eccentric glory, Ssamzie-Gil (쌈지길) has managed to enhance and add a youthful vibe to the community, not annihilate it. The open-air, four-level structure plays host to impish art installations and features a peripheral ramp that tilts both window shoppers and serial spenders past tiny shops selling clothing, crafts and jewelry. There is a lovely open air café on the top deck and a wall encrusted with the love tokens of countless Seoul Romeo’s and their Juliet’s.

Mr. Sinatra was 20 minutes late, traveling prostrate on a subway train from Pyeongtaek. During the journey he was apparently attacked by an irritating mother and her over-zealous ambition to try and force her perambulator onto the train. We met at Anguk station and ate lunch at Mins Club where old-world architecture meets new-world cuisine. The restaurant is housed in a beautifully restored 1930’s hanok. The original name of the Mingadaheon (Min’s club) was Minikduga (Minikdu’s home), but the place was renamed and remodeled in 2001.  Minikduga was designed by Gilryong Park (1898∼1943), the pioneer of Korean- modern architecture. The exterior of the building looks like a traditional Korean house while on the inside it is decorated in a  with Victorian furniture, fireplaces and traditional 30’s wallpaper. We had the set menu with Confit of Duck @ 31,000 won. From here we strolled over to Changdeokgung before a trek over to Bukchon Hanok Village for some enticing views over Seoul.

On the way back to the guesthouse Songwontel near the Jongno-3 station we stopped off at a Cafe Bene and took on the famous Blueberry Smoothie.

In the evening I fancied eating at one of the street restaurants, just outside the guesthouse are a multitude of these eateries. Unfortunately my appetite for seafood was destroyed by a series of encounters both on the East and West coasts of SK and seafood was the dinner on offer.  We found a place with a spicy soup and Kimchi pancake which was surprisingly good. This area of Jongno is very lively on the weekend and we found a number of stylish bars in which to imbibe a couple of Cass beers.

The following morning after alighting at Yeouinaru Subway Station (Seoul Subway Line 5)  we took a 10 minute stroll through the Han River Public Park (past cycle hire) to the 63 Building (known as the yooksam Building, 육삼빌딩), which has stood on the eastern tip of Yeouido Island since 1985. It is hard to miss if you are in the vicinity and unsurprisingly, given its name, it has 63 floors but is actually 60 stories high (3 are below ground). The gold shine reflects the Seoul sunlight like Wonka’s golden ticket. When it opened to the public, it was Asia’s largest building. Since then it has been far surpassed, however it remains a major attraction in Seoul because it is home to around 90 stores, an aquarium, IMAX theater, art galleries, wax museum, as well as several major financial institutions. It has on the first three (above ground stories) a stunning piece of corporate art made up  of hundreds of perspex tubes, some containing roses and which is backlight to form a futuristic wall space. Outside and hidden partly because of current construction work, is a modern tree sculpture which provides some interesting photo opportunities for non-conventional views of the tower.

Returning to the Han River Park the next projected stop was Saetgang Eco Park which opened in 1997. The lush (brochure speak) wetland is home to six kilometers of walking and bicycle paths and is the habitat to 14 kinds of birds, including the kestrel. It should be a refreshing urban getaway! The longish hike proved harsh for Monsieur Sinatra, he really does need to get an exercise hobby :-). Heading South towards the Eco Park, (which I mistook for Seonyudo Park, the numpty rides again), the midday sun was proving a trifle energy sapping. We passed dry streams, pungent and chocolate coloured stretches of very “not-so-eco” looking water and a multitude of dead insects tortured into submission by the midday sun. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly in this eco-system the poor buggers die! On reflection the hiring of cycles is the future if ever I return to this area of Seoul.

Passing under the monumentally gorgeous steel serpent that is Saetgang Foot-bridge we settled under the main road bridge to escape from the heat.  (Exit 2 of Singil Station, Line 1 or 5 if you don’t feel like trekking) We were not alone, one section seemed to be a bikers graveyard and in another a place were men defeated by the sun lying prostrate on slabs of granite.  Some did, I have to say, look as though they lived there, conveniently supported by a porta-bathroom adjacent to our exit point. From here an ascension into Yeouido Park and then Cafe Bene heaven (for Blueberry smoothies) was the order of the day. Some people think worshipping at an alter is the shortest way to heaven, whereas I believe Cafe Bene is more fruitful and akin to Nirvana on a hot Seoul summers day!

From the capitalist village of Yeouido we headed North by subway to Cheonggyecheon Stream.  The stream was controversial both at its inception and delivery due to the projected construction costs and future maintenance. The stream runs through the centre of Seoul but for three decades it was totally buried beneath a busy downtown highway. In 2003, as part of a vast urban renewal project, the highway was removed and the stream was recovered and turned into a pulchritudinous 5.8 km urban park. Demolishing roads in favor of urban parks is a development project I would thoroughly support but there are questions in Korea about its sustainability given the operational costs.

The Cheonggyecheon stream was formed during the Joseon Dynasty in order to provide drainage for the city, an open sewer but so was the Serpentine! It lasted for hundreds of years until the 1940s, when the city became so populated that a shanty town popped up around the stream and began polluting the area. The stream was gradually covered over with concrete, and by 1976 a 5.6 km elevated highway was built on top of it.  In 2003, city planners tore it down to revitalise the area and help Seoul remake itself as a modern environmentally friendly city. The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project took two years and cost around $281 million, but it has created a thriving stretch of green public space in the middle of the city. This urban park took 75% of the material torn down from the old highway and reused it in construction and the rehabilitation of the stream. Now fish, birds and insects have made their way back into the urban river, and the area surrounding the park is about 3.6 deg C cooler than other parts of the city. The restoration has served as a catalyst for an estimated 22 trillion won ($1.98 billion USD) worth of capital investment in Cheonggyecheon-area redevelopment that would not have otherwise been invested and this has to be considered when being negative about its operational costs.

Pro’s and cons:

  • Provides flood protection and can sustain a flow rate of 118mm/hr.
  • Increased overall biodiversity by 639% between the pre-restoration work in 2003 and the end of 2008 with the number of plant species increasing from 62 to 308, fish species from 4 to 25, bird species from 6 to 36, aquatic invertebrate species from 5 to 53, insect species from 15 to 192, mammals from 2 to 4, and amphibians from 4 to 8.
  • Reduces the urban heat island effect with temperatures along the stream 3.3° to 5.9°C cooler than on a parallel road 4-7 blocks away. This results from the removal of the paved expressway, the cooling effect of the stream, increased vegetation, reduction in auto trips, and a 2.2-7.8% increase in wind speeds moving through the corridor.
  • Attracts an average of 64,000 visitors daily. Of those, 1,408 are foreign tourists who contribute up to 2.1 billion won ($1.9 million USD) in visitor spending to the Seoul economy.
  • Lee Chul Jeh, the Director of the Water Conservation Center at the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements has concerns, the most credulous one pertains to the maintenance water for the stream. Rather than getting it from the wastewater treatment plant, as was originally planned, the water is pumped in from the Han River. An enormous amount of electricity and therefore fossil fuels are used to pump that water, which makes the stream a greenhouse gas contributor.
  • Another group of citizens who are not satisfied are those who have been displaced and now cannot afford to move back to their former neighbourhood.

From here it was time to head back to Chungju, until next time!