Urban escapes

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Urban escapes

A city’s parks say a lot about a city.
In their size, structure and aesthetics, urban parks can reveal how much a city cares about its citizens. To visit the major parks in Seoul is to find that most are fairly well groomed and kept up. Almost too well groomed for my liking, giving off an air of artificiality in their neatly trimmed grass and orderly surroundings.
Most of the parks in Seoul are less than three decades old, which is evident in their newly planted trees and shrubs, and recently paved trails. There are no grand, sprawling oak trees to sit under. At the same time, there is little graffiti in sight either, no overflowing trash barrels, no roaming gangs or brawls.
Parks in Seoul may not be cozy or have much history but they are pleasant getaways from noise, concrete and grit. And they provide ample activities for residents. The city and district offices that manage the parks offer special programs throughout the year to visitors, such as a wildflower observation class at Namsan park and a frog observation tutorial at Yongsan park.
A tour of seven major city parks, with ratings for each provided, indicates that some underrated parks are worth inspecting. Some parks have themes, such as Independence park and the World Cup park, but the vast majority simply provide respite.

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1. World Cup Park
This nascent spot, which opened last May to commemorate the soccer tournament, sits next to the World Cup stadium in Sangam-dong, at the very west of Seoul.
The park consists of three mini-parks -- Pyeonghwa, Haneul and Noeul.
Pyeonghwa park, or peace park, lies in front of the World Cup stadium, with a wide bridge linking the two. Along the park trails loudspeakers boom World Cup music. A large artificial lake and bicycling trails add to the surroundings. The streams are clean and there is no rubbish around.
Haneul and Noeul parks sit on a hilltop adjacent to Pyeonghwa. The hill served as the city’s main garbage dump for 15 years before the area was developed into parkland. The way to Haneul, or sky park, is a zigzagging wooden staircase. When you reach the top of this grassy crater-like hill, a fine view of the city awaits.
Tall, natural grasses, some rising more than a meter, bend in the breeze everywhere. Walking through the fields of this park is almost like navigating the Great Plains of America. In fact, some visitors prefer to just sit and relax among the reeds. Five wind turbines, set down because of the park’s wind-prone landscape, provide electricity for a portion of the city.
Noeul, or dusk park, is a similar grasslands with an abundance of wildflowers and plants that blanket the grounds. Kim Tae-gu, a first time visitor says, “I never knew such a grandiose park could exist in Korea. This place is really awesome.”

2. Boramae Park
This somewhat secluded park, which was once the Korea Air Force Academy, opened in 1986 in Dongjak district, southern Seoul. The park’s main attraction is a wide, inviting lake surrounded by benches. Splendid willow trees circle the lake (see photo above), which is home to numerous ducks. A pigeon feeding area typically is packed with toddlers busily fattening the birds, while a small zoo which houses deer, peacocks and other species serves as a quiet attraction. Visitors are not allowed inside the grassy, fenced-in areas, but the grounds provide ample seats for strollers to rest and reflect.
At one corner of the park, groups of senior citizens play the board game go in the shadow of a tall, bronze monument that honors the victims of industrial accidents.

3. Olympic Park
A jogger’s dream, this immense sea of greens and grays offers much more than great running trails. Where else in Korea can you storm the walls of the Mong-chon fortress, an earthen series of palisades dating to A.D. 300, and then take in a weekend bicycle race at a velodrome? The running trails are well defined and offer a variety of terrain, including steep hills and steady flats. The fortress features distance markers lining the trail, to go along with a panoramic view of Mongchon moat.
From inline skating around the World Peace Gate, to learning how ancient people lived at the pit house site, or absorbing culture in the sculpture gardens, Olympic Park provides many diversions. However, this versatility does have its downside. With something for the whole family to do, the park can become crowded, even on a rainy Friday afternoon.

4. Yeouido Park
This used to be an open concrete area for bicyclers and inline skaters. But in 1997 the plaza underwent a major renovation and opened as a long, rectangular grassland in January 1999. Now the spot features lakes, ponds, bicycling trails, pavilions and an open square to hold cultural events, such as plays. A statue of King Sejong, one of Korea’s most exalted rulers, sits at one end of the park. The curvy asphalt avenues of the park offer private spaces for visitors wanting to sit down and enjoy the environs.
The park is a favorite getaway during lunchtime for men and women who toil in Yeouido offices. The park is also a great place to visit for couples on a date and for families to spend quality time. “It’s much more relaxing to have a green park instead of a vast asphalt square like this used to be,” says Jeong In-je, a Yeouido resident.

5. Citizen’s Forest
Although advertised as a great family park, this isn’t one. On the other hand, it’s great for a date. With what seems like numerous benches and pavilions spread throughout the park, including in a few out-of-the-way spots in densely wooded areas, the serene atmosphere is recommended for getting in touch with a loved one. And once the foliage starts to fill in, not only will the poplar trees provide cooling shade, but also needed privacy for the lovebirds.
But for those not interested in the courtship ritual, the Yangjae-dong park offers more sporty alternatives. There are eight tennis courts, a basketball court set in sand and numerous trails perfect for jogging and biking. “Barefoot Park,” a pathway of small pointed rocks designed to pinpoint pressure points in the feet, is popular with salarymen on their lunch break looking to blow off some steam. And with a foot-washing station right by, there’s no reason not to indulge in this painful but strangely refreshing practice.

6. Independence Park
Visiting here has been known to bring tears of patriotic pride as well as generate a salute or two. Standing on what used to be the notorious Seodaemun prison grounds, which flourished during the Japanese occupation, this park was opened to the public in 1992. There are grassy patches and benches, but the main function of the park is to honor Korea’s struggle against colonialism.
The park holds much historic architecture, such as the Independence Gate (built in 1898) a tall granite martyrs’ monument, and Seodaemun prison cells (originally built in 1908), which visitors can enter for 1,100 won. Historical information about the atrocities committed by the Japanese against Korean independence activists is available. Thick vines cover the walls of the prison, resulting in a strange sense of sadness. This historic park also served as a mecca for the anti-Japanese movement during the colonial period.
Because it lies next to a busy Seodaemun intersection, the noises of cars are quite audible. Loudspeakers are mounted in the park and they periodically blast patriotic songs recalling the plight of those who fought for freedom.

7. Yongsan Park
This park opened in 1992 on what used to be a U.S. Army golf course. The park can be tricky to find because the sign is nearly invisible. Visitors can see -- and hear -- helicopters from nearby Yongsan Garrison, disturbing the sense of solitude. This rectangular park is ripe with budding zelkova trees that were planted less than five years ago.
Loudspeakers play contemporary music, which generally comes off annoyingly shrill. The trails and grassy patches are well spruced, but the lake is not litter-free.
There is a sense of emptiness in the park, despite a small picnic area, metal sculptures and trails that wind through the grounds.

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THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS OF HOME
Seoul has 1,559 parks, ranging in size from a big back yard to a city block to a mountain. Nineteen of the parks are operated by the metropolitan government while the district offices maintain the rest. Besides the traditional parks with grassy fields and hills, there are two park-like open plaza in the city (Gwanghwamun and Wongudan), seven arboretums and four sets of grassy spaces on large streets. Most of the parks in Seoul are easily accessible by subway or bus.
For more information, visit www.parks.seoul.go.kr or call (02) 318-4359. Each park boasts its own home page and management office number.


by Choi Jie-ho
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