Downtown Seoul? This river runs under it

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Downtown Seoul? This river runs under it

Cheonggyecheon means "clear creek" in Korean, but the river of that name that runs through downtown Seoul -- and covered now by an expressway -- is about as far from clear as can be. But that could change soon, because the mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, has pledged to restore it. In the meantime, the city will be offering tours of the forgotten river.

The river runs east to west from Bugak mountain northeast of downtown, through the Dongdaemun district and along Jongno. It began to be covered with roads in 1958, and its downtown segment was completely covered by 1978. Before it was hidden from view, it had an average width of 50 meters and was about 85 meters wide at its widest point.

The tours begin next week and will be run every Tuesday through Oct. 29. The tours begin at 2 p.m. and are scheduled to end at 4 p.m. Expected to take the trips below ground are merchants with shops near the river and environmentalists, but anybody who is curious about Cheonggyecheon can apply for the tours at the city's Web site (www. metro.seoul.kr). Up to 120 people can take each scheduled tour, which begins with a bus ride from Seoul City Hall to a place where you can go down to see the river. The rest of the tour is on foot, and in the dark.

The Seoul city government set up the tours to convey to citizens the urgency of restoring the river. The city plans to take a survey of the participants after each tour and says it will incorporate the results into its business plan for the restoration. "We aim to gather public support for this project," said one official at city hall. "Once the citizens have seen with their own eyes the erosion of the underground structures and the unhygienic environment, I am sure that they will understand the need of this project."

Some merchants around the area are skeptical about the project, because the work it would entail could hurt their business. Transportation experts have sounded a louder alarm: Some have said the work would cause a traffic nightmare, because the 120,000 or so cars that use the Cheonggyechon Expressway -- which would be removed under the plans -- every day would be squeezed into other roadways.

Along with learning the history of the creek, and getting a noseful of foul odors, people who take the tour will get to see ancient, crumbling bridges, such as the Gwanggyo, that was built about 600 years ago. Masks, helmet and flashlights, but no noseplugs, will be provided.

by Brian Lee

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