Cheonggyecheon is the stream that flows to the heart of Seoul, considered important to the city since it became the capital of the Joseon Dynasty centuries ago. It’s not just any other river, the Cheonggyecheon was in the middle of Seoul’s transformation over the years, influencing and bearing witness of the lives of people during the time.
The 8.5km stream also had has its share of up and downs — from its golden days, decline, destruction and more recently, it’s restoration. The transformation story is so inspiring, that different cities are using Cheonggyecheon as a case study to transform their rivers, too — including Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo.
It was Mama who told me the story of Cheonggyecheon years ago, so this was the chance for us to see it for ourself.
The stream is close to 10km long, while the main attractions were about 5km long, so we had to start somewhere (instead of blindly going to one part of the river).
We went to the mainstream part of the stream that had fountains and the waterfall (Gwanghamun Station). Here we took the stairs down. It looked more like a park with a clear, slow and shallow stream rather than a river. Seoulites were sitting by the narrow stream, dipping their legs while chit-chatting. The whole place seemed so man-made that it felt less natural.
Well, we had to walk another kilometer more to get a more natural scenery — more trees, bushes and rocks. The stream was still shallow. It was more peaceful here than the fountains, so it was a nice walk.
Here’s the location:
… but our Cheonggyecheon tour isn’t over.
The Museum and Makeshift Houses
We took the train to Yongdu, to reach another side of the Cheonggyecheon. Some 5-minute walk later, we arrived at the Cheonggyecheon Museum and the Cheonggyecheon Makeshift Houses.
Just opposite the houses was the Cheonggyecheon Museum, was a museum that thoroughly explains the history of the stream and major events that led to its restoration.
I’ll try to keep this short. This is what I gathered from my visit:
Centuries ago, as Seoul turned into a capital, settlements were built along the riverbanks. As people lived their daily lives by the river, they were heavily dependent on the it. The development of city was concentrated on areas surrounding the Cheonggyecheon. Everything was ok.
During the Korean war in the early 1950s, Seoul was in a dire state. Refugees from all over Korea flocked Seoul, building makeshift houses (setinggan) by the river banks, turning the once glorious areas into shady shantytowns. There were more people there than the Cheonggyecheon could support. As more people polluted the river, it deteriorated — the river reeked as it was filled with waste, spreading illness to those who were living close by. Gradually, the Cheonggyecheon was covered since it was a sore sight and literally, toxic.
In the late 1950s, Seoul gradually recovered from the war and was ready to make a comeback. The makeshift houses were torn down and the Cheonggye Elevated Motorway was built on top of the covered Cheonggyecheon to reduce traffic congestion.
During the ages of Seoul’s rapid growth, development was their main agenda. Commercial complexes were growing like mushrooms along the Cheonggye Elevated Motorway (just like how trade centers was concentrated on the Cheonggyecheon centuries back). It wasn’t until some of the buildings started collapsing that it hit Seoul, that it had put too much emphasis on development that it was losing its soul.
So they decided to bring back Cheonggyecheon in the early 200s — getting rid of the elevated highway, uncovering the and then restoring the Cheonggyecheon to what it is today.
Is it not a romantic story?!
Of course there’s more juicy details about Cheonggyecheon’s boom, decline and restoration, but you’ll have to see it at the museum for yourself. I think we were kept entertained, the experience was really good.
On the opposite of the museum, we saw the replica of the kinds of makeshift houses that was one built on the riverbanks, up-close.
Here’s the location:
Overall, it was a good experience to understand what Cheonggyecheon is all about.