His­tor­i­cal Source

Business Traveler (USA) - - DESTINATIONS -

In Korea’s pre-in­dus­trial era, when Seoul was a frac­tion of its cur­rent size, a stream me­an­dered through its cen­ter. Its name was Cheong­gyecheon – to­day it is com­monly re­ferred to sim­ply as“the Stream.”

After the Korean War, how­ever, things changed: the Stream be­came lined with shan­ty­towns and in­creas­ingly pol­luted and dirty. In 1958 a road was built over it, fol­lowed by an el­e­vated free­way in 1976. The once iconic Stream was grad­u­ally for­got­ten in the rush to­wards an in­dus­tri­al­ized fu­ture, and the whole area be­came some­thing of an eye­sore.

At the turn of the mil­len­nium Lee Myung-bak, whose con­struc­tion com­pany had ac­tu­ally built the free­way, made restor­ing the Stream a ma­jor part of his cam­paign to be­come Seoul’s mayor. (Lee went on to be­come the country’s pres­i­dent.) In 2003, as city mayor, he gave the green light for the $360 mil­lion recla­ma­tion project to be­gin: the free­way was torn down, the sur­face road ripped up, and pump­ing sta­tions in­stalled to bring 30 mil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter from the Han River, en­sur­ing a reg­u­lar flow that the orig­i­nal stream never had.

Cheong­gyecheon re­opened to the pub­lic in 2005 as a lin­ear park­way that stretches from Cheong­gye Plaza all the way through cen­tral Seoul to Dong­dae­mun and be­yond. Set below street level, more than 20 bridges span the Stream’s to­tal length; its walk­ing paths and walls are con­crete or stone – though trees have been planted in many stretches to off­set this ap­par­ent“green space” con­tra­dic­tion.

Ini­tial re­ac­tion to the park was mixed – but wor­ries about traf­fic prob­lems were ad­dressed by ex­ten­sive rerout­ing schemes, ded­i­cated bus lanes and im­prove­ments to pub­lic trans­port. When it be­came clear the re­vi­tal­iza­tion project had im­proved air pol­lu­tion, had a gen­uine cool­ing ef­fect on the CBD in sum­mer, and boosted bio­di­ver­sity, ev­ery­one was won over.

“Cheong­gyecheon is one of our big­gest suc­cess sto­ries. We re­al­ized the city did have a lot of con­crete and the time had come to re­vi­tal­ize it,”says Mau­reen O’Crow­ley, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of tourism and MICE divi­sion, Seoul Con­ven­tion Bureau (SCB).

How­ever, just as im­por­tant as the Stream’s aes­thetic beauty is the fact that it has been a cat­a­lyst for eco­nomic devel­op­ment in the CBD. Con­struc­tion of high-rise build­ings is forging ahead in the blocks flank­ing the west­ern sec­tion of the Stream – and many of the of­fice work­ers who fill these build­ings like noth­ing bet­ter than to take their lunch down to the Stream. Kore­ans have an in­nate love and re­spect for na­ture, and Cheong­gyecheon of­fers pre­cious respite from city stress. sur­round­ing dis­tricts. (The Stream it­self con­tin­ues on for the same dis­tance after Dong­dae­mun, curv­ing round to the south and even­tu­ally flow­ing back into the Han River.)

I start at Cheong­gye Plaza, a mod­est square that backs onto the broad south-north boule­vard from Seoul Plaza up to Gwangh­wa­mun Square and Gyeong­bok­gung Palace – the main home of the Joseon dy­nas­tic rulers and ar­guably Seoul’s most im­pres­sive palace. This wide road leads down to City Hall, Seoul Plaza and some of Seoul’s top ho­tels.

In the square stands a spi­ral­ing statue that could be a seashell or a uni­corn’s horn. Above it rises the rec­tan­gu­lar block of the Seoul Fi­nance Cen­tre. The Stream be­gins in style, with a 10-foot wa­ter­fall that is back­lit in var­i­ous col­ors at night. A wish­ing well close to the first bridge tempts vis­i­tors to toss coins – all for a good cause, as the money is col­lected reg­u­larly and given to char­ity.

The sec­ond bridge, Gwang­tong­gyo, uses great gran­ite blocks, Stone­henge style, some with an­cient carv­ings of clouds and Bud­dhist sym­bols. After that comes Gwang­gyo bridge, across which a busy road car­ries in­ces­sant lines of traf­fic.

Turn left and one block north is a large cross­roads with two clas­sic ex­am­ples of an­cient and mod­ern Korean ar­chi­tec­ture: Bosin­gak is a beau­ti­ful old bell tower whose 15th-cen­tury bell was used to sig­nal the open­ing and clos­ing of Seoul’s four great gates, while di­rectly across the road rises Jongno Tower, a tri­an­gu­lar glass and steel ed­i­fice topped by a“float­ing”oval sum­mit. One of the most dis­tinc­tive mod­ern build­ings in Seoul, it is owned by Sam­sung, one of Korea’s great chae­bol con­glom­er­ates (oth­ers in­clude Hyundai, LG, Han­wha and Lotte) that still wield great eco­nomic power in the country through di­ver­si­fied hold­ings in a wide range of in­dus­tries.

Turn south from Gwang­gyo and you are quickly en­gulfed in the shop­ping ma­nia that is Myeong­dong, Seoul’s tourist re­tail dis­trict and one of its busiest precincts. The war­ren of small streets is packed with brand out­lets and sou­venir stalls.

Back in the peace­ful en­vi­ron­ment of Cheong­gyecheon, be­tween the bridges, step­ping stones cross the Stream – a fine source of youth­ful high jinx and photo ops. Dozens of small rapids pro­vide a rest­ful coun­ter­point to the dis­so­nance of the busy city above.

North of this sec­tion is In­sadong, Seoul’s arts and crafts dis­trict, where tra­di­tional restau­rants and tea­houses share the al­ley­ways with art galleries and more sou­venir stalls than you can shake a stick at.

Samil-gyo is the be­gin­ning of the end of the CBD’s sky­scrapers; from here to Dong­dae­mun the Stream is flanked by low-rise build­ings. In the wa­ter carp and a host of other species swim, preyed upon by herons and other fish­ing birds. The wa­ter is crys­tal clear and not a sin­gle item of rub­bish lies on the ground. Now you pass the labyrinthine cov­ered mar­kets of Gwang­jang and Dong­dae­mun mar­kets, whose stalls are stuffed with house­hold items, food­stuffs, trin­kets and much more.

My walk ends at Dong­dae­mun; to the left is JW Mar­riott Dong­dae­mun Square, opened in 2014, the at­trac­tive 170-room ho­tel sits right by the Stream.

Turn left and an­cient He­ung­in­jimun Gate looms in front of you, but turn right and a mon­u­ment to the mod­ern world stands even taller. This is Dong­dae­mun De­sign Plaza (DDP), a curv­ing, space­ship-like con­struc­tion de­signed by the late Zaha Ha­did. It opened two years ago, a mix of con­fer­ence halls, de­sign shops, a mu­seum and cul­ture park.

The sur­round­ing area is Seoul’s fash­ion dis­trict, and it’s a pop­u­lar place for events. The land next to DDP is now owned by Seoul City, which plans to de­velop it with more ho­tels and re­tail space – the city’s plan­ners never sleep.

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