A Stream Through the Heart of Seoul

A Stream Through the Heart of Seoul

South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is perhaps best known among visitors for its historic palaces and colourful markets, as well as being a gateway to the Demilitarised Zone separating the two Koreas.

There is another attraction, however, that many senior travellers will find memorable, particularly those with an interest in urban renewal and the greening of cities.

Cheonggyecheon is an 11 km long stream that runs from east to west through central Seoul. Since reopening in 2005 after extensive redevelopment, it has become a popular tourist attraction, a linear park and an outdoor art gallery. Fish live in its waters and it attracts birds to the area.

Visitors will find much to reward them: fountains, waterfalls, bridges (some of stepping stones), wishing wells, sculptures and other artwork, and street musicians and entertainers. It’s popular with locals too. You’ll mingle with groups of schoolchildren, couples, office workers taking a break and older people relaxing.

Entertainers along the banks of the Cheonggyecheon.   Image: © Alan Williams

You can take a long, leisurely walk along the stream’s banks. Or if you prefer, you can simply sit and dip your toes in the water while watching the passing scene.

What most visitors are probably not aware of is the stream’s intriguing and sometimes turbulent history.

Cheonggyecheon was once a tributary of the Han River, one of the longest rivers on the Korean peninsula. After the Korean War in the 1950s, the country began modernising and Seoul’s population soared. Many people settled in crowded conditions along the stream. Already heavily polluted, it became an open sewer.

In 1968 an elevated expressway was built on top of Cheonggyecheon, leaving the stream hidden and largely neglected. So it remained until after the turn of the century.

Stepping stones across the Cheonggyecheon stream.   Image: © Alan Williams

In 2002, the then Mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-Bak (later to become South Korea’s President), launched a massive project to rehabilitate the stream.

Many social and political problems surrounded the project. The expressway, one of the city’s major roads, was demolished. A vibrant, 40-year-old flea market in the area had to move, affecting the livelihoods of many. Displaced vendors were promised a new, high-quality flea market area but this didn’t materialise. There were complaints of lack of proper public consultation and allegations of corruption. But the project continued and the restored Cheonggyecheon opened in September 2005.

A composite photograph showing the dramatic change in the centre of Seoul can be seen in this article about the restoration project here.

The demolition of the expressway and corresponding improvements to public transport led to fewer cars entering Seoul and more people using trains and buses. Monster traffic jams remain, though, as one would expect with more than 25 million people living in the greater Seoul area.   

The stream today is not ecologically perfect. Because it is no longer a natural stream, water has to be pumped in from the Han River and other sources, and sent flowing along its course. It is expensive to maintain and costs are rising each year.

But few would argue that it has not brought something special to the heart of Seoul. The stream’s history notwithstanding, visitors who choose to stroll along its banks will surely enjoy the experience. Which traveller doesn’t want to take a break from hectic sightseeing occasionally?

Header image: © Sane639 | Dreamstime.com

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