Thursday, 16 May 2013

Walking the Cheonggyecheon: Part 1

One of the many things I like about Seoul is its abundance of pleasant walking spaces. There are of course the mountains, national parks and hiking routes scattered around the city outskirts, but even in the dense urban centre one can find numerous parks, palaces, cycle-paths and other recreational areas in which to go for a relaxing stroll. Over the last decade or so, Seoul's local government has tried to change the city from an industry-orientated urban landscape to a city that values the well-being of its inhabitants. In doing so, it has established several rejuvenation programs, such as the Han River Renaissance Project, which I talked about in this post,

But perhaps the most famous and successful of these programs is the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon, an historic stream that starts near Gwanghwamun, then passes through Dongdaemun, before finally joining the Han River some five miles along from its starting point. Originally used as part of the city's drainage system during the Joseon era, after the Korean War the stream attracted poor settlers and immigrants who built shantytowns along its banks. Due to the deteriorating conditions that followed, the government covered the stream with concrete in 1958, and later built a highway passing over it.

For decades the Cheonggyecheon remained hidden and neglected, and by the early 21st century it had almost dried up. But in 2003, Seoul's then-mayor Lee Myung-Bak initiated a project to restore the stream. The highway was removed, the stream was dug up, and water from nearby rivers and other sources was pumped in daily to restore its flow. In 2005 the finished stream was opened to the public. Despite initial opposition from groups who feared the social and economic risks involved with the project, the Cheonggyecheon was widely lauded for its beautification of the area, and for providing new semi-natural habitats for wild animals. It's also become one of the city's most popular tourist attractions.

Angela and I had both visited the Cheonggyecheon several times in the past, but we had never walked its entire five-mile length from Gwanghwamun to the Han River. So on a recent Sunday afternoon we did just that.

The stream starts with a waterfall.

When we visited, there was a charity event taking place. There were hundreds of yellow plastic piggy banks representing the money raised.

There was also a culture fair taking place just near the entrance to the stream, with dozens of different stalls selling international foods, each one representing a different country.

As you can see, the stalls went on for quite a distance, and we didn't have time to see them all.

Soon we entered the Cheonggyecheon.

There were lots of lanterns along the stream as part of Buddha's Birthday and the Lotus Parade.

This image shows the Cheonggyecheon during the heavy rains of the Korean summer. The stream provides protection for up to 200 years of flooding.

As well as many birds and insects, the stream is home to numerous species of fish.

A statue of Chun Tae-Il, a young factory worker whose self-immolation by fire in 1970 was a major turning point in the movement to recognise labourers' rights in Korea.
A nearby market.

The stream is lined with several colourful murals and statues.

Click here to continue the walk in Part 2!

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