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On Walkabout At: Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream

The Cheonggyecheon Stream in downtown Seoul was a controversial project when it was first proposed, but I would think just about everyone would have to agree it is now a winner. The Cheonggyecheon wasn’t always a winner though.

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Since Seoul is surrounded by mountains there are a number of streams that rush down the side of these mountains to drain rain water into the mighty Han River. One of these streams is the Cheonggyecheon. The Cheonggyecheon only tended to be full of water during the summer monsoon season and dry the rest of the year. However, occasionally during periods of heavy rain fall the stream would jump its banks and flood the downtown Seoul area.

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To solve the problem with flooding, the Korean monarchy in 1406 under the reign of King Taejong, ordered the construction of a drainage system for the stream to prevent flooding. Workers labored for two years to dredge and expand the stream in order to flood proof the stream. In 1411 more work was done on the stream with up to 53,000 workers building stone embankments and stone bridges across the stream.  However, as Seoul expanded the Cheonggyecheon took on another purpose besides being used for flood prevention, it also became the city sewer. Residents would dump their excrement and trash into the stream so it could all be washed down the stream to the Han River and eventually out to sea. However since water didn’t continuously flow through the stream often the excrement and garbage would just sit in the stream bed. It is easy to imagine how bad Seoul must have smell not to long ago when the local sewer was the Cheonggyecheon that ran right through the center of town. Here is a picture of the Cheonggyecheon right after World War II in September 1945:

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With the end of the Japanese occupation Korean leaders would look to develop the Cheonggyecheon area. In the 1959 South Korean President Syngman Rhee had the Cheonggyecheon covered over with concrete. In 1968 an elevated highway was built over the concrete covered stream in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city:

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Well now you can see the Cheonggyecheon again and you don’t have to worry about it stinking either because it is no longer a sewer but a city park. The decision to revert the Cheonggyecheon back into a stream was the brain child of former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak who is now the President of South Korea. The then Mayor Lee wanted to use the Cheonggyecheon project to jump start urban renewal in Seoul. The urban renewal did not come cheap though:

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The construction of the Cheonggyecheon began in July 2003 and concluded to much fanfare in September 2005. The total budget was a whopping 386,739 million won and just like any construction project in Korea it had it’s own corruption scandal as well.  Despite the costs and scandals the Cheonggyecheon has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages. Visitors to the Cheonggyecheon can explore the stream by following a couple of recommended walking courses:

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For this posting I decided to walk Course 1 from Dongdaemun to downtown Seoul. Here is where I began my walk in the Dongdaemun area of Seoul:

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Compare the above picture of the Cheonggyecheon now to what it was just a few short years ago:

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I definitely prefer the stream over the highway that is for sure. Anyway as I continued down the stream I noticed this huge statue on one of the bridges near Dongdaemun:

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This statue is of a garment worker Chon Tae-il who set himself on fire on November 13, 1970 in protest of the poor worker’s conditions at the time.  Continuing down the stream it is quite obvious the kids love walking across the various stone paths across the stream:

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Here is the view back towards the Dongdaemun shopping area:

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Here is one of the various bridges that crosses the Cheonggyecheon:

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Every bridge across the Cheonggyecheon is drastically different from each other with the above brick bridge being one of the more tamer bridges. From this bridge I started following the path adjacent to the stream and was able to get some pictures of the fish that live in the stream:

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Here is another picture of a child with his parent walking on one of the stone paths across the stream:

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Here is a waterfall that cascades off of one of the vehicle bridges and into the stream:

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Here is a picture of a young kid playing with the fish in the stream:

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This is one of the things I love about the Cheonggyecheon because a lot of kids in Seoul may have never seen fish in a some what natural setting as this. All throughout my walk I saw kids running towards the stream and pointing out fish to their parents. I think giving kids such an experience is a great return investment for the citizens of Seoul who funded the project.

Besides having different themed bridges the stream also has walls with different themes as well:

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The picture above is a replication of old Koguryeo kingdom paintings while the picture below is a wall with a waterfall:

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One thing you can’t help but see when walking down the Cheonggyecheon are all the drab and ugly buildings of Seoul:

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There can’t be a building uglier than the Jongno Tower though, that seems to loom over Seoul no matter where you are like the all seeing eye of Sauron’s Tower in Mordor:

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Seriously how many buildings out there are more gaudy than the Jongno Tower? Not many. However, something that isn’t to gaudy is this Joseon era bridge that was uncovered during the reclamation of the stream:

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The Gwangtonggyo Bridge was first constructed in 1410 and was the largest bridge in the old Joseon capital of Seoul. The bridge was used by foreign envoys to pass across while visiting Seoul. While passing underneath the bridge you will see inscription on the pillars that describe the repair and maintenance history of the bridge:

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What is most interesting about this bridge is that some of the stone blocks used to construct the bridge has elaborate engravings in them:

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These engravings exist because some of the blocks used to construct the bridge are left over from the construction of the royal tomb of Sindeokwanghu who was the second wife of King Taejo. It is amazing that such cultural history was buried underneath asphalt back in 1959 only to be uncovered again with the opening of the stream in 2005. This is another benefit of the stream, that it is helping to reclaim Seoul’s cultural history.

Continuing down the stream not to far from Gwangtonggyo Bridge is the beginning of the Cheonggyecheon at this large waterfall and fountain:

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This is located in the center of the city and not to far from City Hall. You will know you have reached the beginning of the Cheonggyecheon because you cannot miss the most God awful public sculpture I have ever seen:

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Not only is this sculpture ugly, but it was expensive as well costing the South Korean taxpayer $4 million dollars. The artists who made this monstrosity found it to be so ugly they haven’t even come to Seoul to see it. Personally, I have always thought it looks like Mr. Hanky mixed with food coloring.

I can honestly say despite the costs and scandals the Cheonggyecheon that runs through Seoul today is a huge improvement in the quality of life for the citizens of Seoul. The Cheonggyecheon may not be the San Antonio River Walk, but it is still a step in the right direction in the greening of Seoul.

Most importantly it is one of the few places in the city and the only place in the downtown area where all the citizens of the city can congregate together. You see kids playing with their parents, young couples walking hand and hand, old grandmas sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. It is truly a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

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