Thursday, 9 October 2008

Seoul City Walking

Picture the scene. It was a hot and bright day in summer at one o’clock in the afternoon. There I was with an iced coffee in my hand, a camera round my neck and wearing my Ray Bans. I was at peace with the world. Green foliage was in abundance.
People were sitting on rocks dipping their bare feet in the cool running water. Some were in the sunlight whilst others were taking advantage of the shade beneath the bridges. A steady flow of them were just ambling along the banks of the stream others were walking at a brisk pace. All seemed to be enjoying the ambience and serenity of the moment. Different languages were being spoken but mostly Korean. How wonderfully relaxing and idyllic. This really was quite surreal.
I’ll tell you why. The banks of the stream are of concrete and stone. The sound of birdsong was missing and there was the hum of traffic. I looked up and realised that I’d forgotten that the stream is below the level of the roadway.
I was in downtown Seoul-a bustling, thriving, energetic and vibrant city and this was the starting point of my journey along the banks of the Cheonggyecheon stream. Truly a city retreat for all to enjoy. My journey commenced at an imposing landmark which is tall and shell shaped. I call this “ the Upside Down Ice Cream cone “ in front of which is a fountain releasing jets of water high into the air only to form a waterfall at its base. Stone walkways cross the stream, steps give access to the pavements and bridges enable traffic to flow unhindered. Thus the Cheonggyecheon experience began.
The journey for me that day ended at Tongdaemun Stadium which is in the process of being demolished to make way for a wonderful park.
The stream is approximately six kilometres in length and flows from East to West through downtown Seoul eventually meeting the Han river which in turn flows into the Yellow Sea.
In 1968 an elevated road was built over the stream. This lead to huge numbers of street vendors competing with pedestrians for pavement space. Additional vehicular traffic added to the density of the areas concerned. Needless to say pollution increased.
Then in 2003, the current President LEE Myung Bah then the Mayor of Seoul began the project to restore the stream to its natural state. The elevated roads were removed. However, such was the damage cause by development and neglect that there was insufficient water left. Now huge quantities of water have to be pumped in on a daily basis to create the rejuvenated waterway.
This enlightening project reached fruition in September 2005. I was fortunate enough to be in Seoul that month to be able to enjoy and appreciate this remarkable achievement.
Seoul being such an innovative city has created a conceptual attraction thereby enhancing its reputation as a world leader in achieving harmony with nature in a busy metropolis by the best use of a natural feature.
At night the Cheonggyecheon stream was transformed into a haven of nocturnal tranquillity. I retraced my steps made during the daylight hours and I found the difference astonishing. Throngs of people who normally were unable to take advantage of this city retreat did so. Families were in abundance as were an influx of tourists. The lights and sounds of this city filled the night air which added to the appreciation of this attraction.
The success of this example of foresight is assisted by the close proximity of numerous restaurants, coffee shops, top class hotels, department stores, exhibitions, underground shopping plazas, jewellery shops, medical equipment suppliers, a variety of stalls selling assorted goods and food and of course Tongdaemun Market.
I am a frequent visitor to Korea and in particular to Seoul. By using local transport, when required but mainly on foot, I discover more aspects of this sparkling city every time I return. Cheonggyecheon is a perfect example of the ingenuity of the Korean mind whereby the natural attributes of a city, more especially the capital city, have been preserved and improved upon for the benefit of the populace be they Koreans or foreigners.
I shall certainly return to Cheonggyecheon upon my next visit to Seoul to experience this phenomenon.

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