A river runs through it: Seoul’s new downtown

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A river runs through it: Seoul’s new downtown

The greatest urban renewal project in modern Seoul history ends tomorrow: the restoration of the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) stream, Cheonggyecheon, will be finished after two years.
A city can pack a lot into nearly 6 kilometers. Here’s our breakdown of what’s what along the newest addition to the capital’s few landmarks.
Those wanting to walk the full length of the stream might want to start at Cheonggye plaza, which is next to the intersection at Gwanghwamun street. The plaza is difficult to miss, measuring 7,000 square meters (almost 2 acres). The stream has been planned so that the upper half focuses on cultural and historical aspects to Seoul, while the lower half emphasizes nature.
At the plaza, a miniature replica 1/100th the size of the entire stream has been carved into the paving stones, complete with its own running water and 22 tiny bridges. The water from the miniature flows into the real stream, after going through a fountain and dropping off the waterfall.
The waterfall creates a pool surrounded by eight long semi-rectangular stones collected from all of South Korea’s provinces. The original design called for collecting stones from each of the original eight provinces in the peninsula to symbolize union and harmony, but the plan to bring stones from the North Korean provinces never got off the ground.
Close by is Gwangtonggyo (gyo means “bridge”), which was restored, not rebuilt ― the bridge was covered whole when the stream was paved over in 1958. When it was still in use, however, it was one of the widest bridges crossing the stream, at 16 meters long (52 feet), 12 meters wide and 3 meters high. Although the bridge has always been in the busiest commercial district of Seoul, it hasn’t exactly stood still: during the renovation it was moved 10 meters from its original location. Another bridge, Gwanggyo, was built in its place.
These two bridges showcase the architecture of the Joseon Dynasty (1393-1895), with Supyogyo having been constructed during the reign of Korea’s most popular monarch, King Sejong (he reigned from 1418 to 1450). The other bridges are much more modern, having been selected from among designs submitted by members of the public.
Gwangtonggyo’s original footstones and pillars were used to reconstruct the bridge, and from the color of the stones, it’s clear which are old and which are new. Under the bridge, visitors can see carvings of vines, clouds and religious symbols.
Historically, the construction of the bridge was an act of vengeance. King Taejong of the Joseon Dynasty ordered its construction, using stones from the tomb of his apparently unloved step-mother, the queen and wife of King Taejo. The stones were placed upside-down, so that people could walk over her.
On the walkway under the bridge, visitors will find that some of the path’s stones protrude out of the ground. These stones mark places where artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty were found during the stream’s reconstruction.
The stream is also well-lit: in addition to streetlights installed along the walkway, colored lights and underwater ambients using optical fibers have been set up to brighten the waterfalls and trees along the stream, in order to make it one of the city’s rare night attractions. An array of spotlights will blast star-shaped images onto the water near Dongdaemun market and piano-keyboard-shaped shadows on the banks.
The overall effect is similar to waterfront areas in other cities, with family restaurants and cafes lining the banks, which have paths lined with street artists and buskers, breathing life into the neighborhood.
Further down from Gwangtonggyo is a temporary steel bridge where Supyogyo used to stand. The original bridge was moved to Jangchungdan Park near Namsan when the roads were built over the stream in 1958, and the city plans to move the bridge back to its original location.
Besides eye-candy, the stream offers less tangible benefits: wind is said to blow 50 percent faster over the stream than elsewhere downtown, making a cool breeze in the summer, letting air circulate around the city, distributing heat and scattering smog.
It has also resulted in a few surprises. Already, catfish and carp have been seen swimming in the water, even though city officials say they haven’t released any fish into the stream. The water level is also much higher than it was originally; even before it was paved over, Cheonggyecheon was often dry. Rain only made the stream shallow, allowing housewives to do their laundry in the water. It was only after the Korean War that the ramshackle housing build along the banks polluted whatever water was left.
After the restoration, however, 12 tons of water run along the path every day, keeping the water level at 35 centimeters (14 inches). The water isn’t free, of course ― it will cost an estimated 1.6 billion won ($1.6 million) a year to draw water from the Han River, but the city has lined the floor of the stream to stabilize the water level, and aims to keep the water clean enough for fish to live in.
Another highlight of the stream appears not far from Gwangtonggyo: a mural made from 5,120 tiles, stretching 192 meters, depicting royal guards accompanying King Jeongjo on a march from Seoul to Hwaseong fortress in Suwon. The mural is a reproduction of a painting by the famous Joseon artist Kim Hong-do. Though the participants in the march are clearly labeled, don’t bother trying to find the king. The palanquin is depicted, but there’s no image of King Jeongjo, because during the Joseon Dynasty, kings were not supposed to be painted. One can assume the king is in the middle of the march.
Before you reach Ogansugyo bridge, where an extension of the Seoul city wall used to stand, you’ll see five pieces by contemporary artists. Each piece measures 10 by 2.5 meters.
The city has tried to revive not only the stream but also its history, going so far as to create a replica of the place where women used to do their laundry, between Dasangyo and Youngdogyo. Stepping stones were also laid on the stream by the laundry site.
Passing Hwanghakgyo, next to the area where a traditional flea market used to be, visitors will see the “wall of hope.” The 100-meter walls on both sides are covered with tiles that have drawings and writings containing messages of hope from 20,000 citizens. There are also waterfalls on the wall with diode lights installed behind them, which are turned on at night.
Most people seem pleased by the stream.
“I used to think that Mayor Lee Myung-bak was doing this for publicity and personal ambition, but who would have done it if it weren't Mr. Lee?” said a housewife visiting the stream with her two sons. "Before it was restored, this place was so desolate, but now I think it’s really nice."
The stream has already become a place for the weary urbanite to take a breather.
“In the past, I would rush back to the office after lunch, but these days I often take a walk with my co-workers,” said one office employee who works near the stream.
“Cheonggyecheon is like an oasis in this desolate city,” another person said.
Keep in mind that there are some things visitors to the stream can’t do. Number one among these is bring pets. Another is smoke. In order to prevent accidents, people can’t go down into the stream’s gully when it rains, which could result in the water from the stream overflowing. Don’t worry about the plants, though ― only plants that can survive a full immersion have been planted alongside the water.
Water from rainfall will merge into the stream, and square blocks on both walls will open to release water faster. In order to help the flow of water, the city did not build anything that might block it, such as benches or movable toilets. Instead, there will be signs that indicate that a toilet is nearby.
One last thing for the casual stroller: if you want to walk the whole length, plan on at least three hours.

by Limb Jae-un
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