In the thick of Seoul’s business district, with concrete riverbanks and sparse vegetation, Cheonggyecheon isn’t exactly unspoilt nature. All the same, it’s an escape: it breaks up the urban monotony of its sleek city surroundings and brings you down below the level of the streets to the restored river.
Forgotten under layers of expressways after the Korean War, Cheonggyecheon only began to thrive again with the help of Lee Myung-bak and a $384 million recovery project, completed in 2005. The restoration of the stream cut air pollution, enhanced the nearby ecosystem, and even yielded some economic benefits, inspiring other cities to follow suit with similar revival projects.
It’s one of those places where you go to see the locals, not just the sight itself. As we meandered along the banks, we saw parents sitting by the water on picnic blankets, enjoying the sun while their kids sat at the edge of the river, sloshing their feet around in the water. Two elementary-school-aged girls stood in the stream, pushing each other back and forth until one of them fell over backwards into the water. She emerged completely soaked, and after her initial surprise she stood up again, eyeing her friend unhappily.
A teenage couple walked in the shade of the nearby trees and the grasses that line the riverbanks, holding hands, talking and laughing to one another. Underneath the bridge in a dark, shaded tunnel, dozens of people– teenagers, twenty-somethings, little kids and their families– sat crowded together with their feet in the water, chatting in their respective groups. We couldn’t understand why they wanted to sit in the cool, dark tunnel on such a beautifully sunny day, but the shaded spot attracted crowds of people.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves– though the children had a particularly enviable abandon, playing in the water without concern of appearance or respectability, getting their feet wet, walking in the stream, splashing each other. “Kids are the same everywhere,” Dan remarked.
Starting at the waterfall and walking along the water, the concrete banks turn to brown gravel, and the surrounding bushes become wilder, more unkempt. The colorful statues in the center of the stream depict ancient subjects– elephants, dragons, warriors– in a fancifully modern style.
About an hour subway ride outside of Seoul, Bukhansan National Park is hardly unspoilt nature either, though closer to it. We saw groups of Koreans decked out in full hiking regalia, covered head to-toe in North Face and equipped with walking sticks, hats, hiking boots, fanny packs– but the trails were often half-paved, at times lined with power cables. On the way to the park we passed dozens of shops selling serious hiking gear. The park lacked the sense of sweeping wilderness that I often associate with American national parks, but it had charms you’ll find only in Asia: colored lanterns line the path, and ornate temples make for many a stopping point as you hike the short but relatively steep slope upwards.
As we approached the top of the mountain, I stumbled upon a line of Buddhist statues clustered together in the shade of the trees. Quiet music emanated from some unknown source nearby. A woman bowed to them, then went on her way. Away from the multitude of other visitors swarming the park, I enjoyed the rare moment to be alone, looking at the jagged mountain peak jutting up behind the statues’ silhouettes.