Jong-no and Cheonggyecheon Stream
It’s hard to top that incredible sensation of arriving from a gentle, orderly place like England all tired and drained from jetlag and plunging headfirst into a blurry concoction of street food odours, flashing lights, unfathomable signs, and sapping humidity. Adrenaline, impatient curiosity and a freshly imported Double Decker propel you into the night, occasionally trance-like but always, slightly stupidly, with a smile on your face.
I was staying roughly in an area listed as Jong-no, in what turned out to be a rather charming, peaceful small hotel (Makers). Exit lobby tranquillity, turn left past food stalls and weave through an animated stream of people enjoying the night air as you head towards the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This is an urban regeneration project par excellence, once a muddy, stinky waterway transformed and landscaped into swirling pools and cascades, lined with footpaths and sculptures and light projections, and populated with the whole gamut of Seoul society. A Korean busker croons, tiered steps along the water plead you to sit down, and free wifi penetrates the air, everywhere.
The stream is in close proximity to alleyways filled with neon signs and sizzling aromas. In fact, it seems anywhere is in close proximity to food. The choice is bewildering, especially when you are tired and indecisive but also very, very hungry. In this state it seems the best option is for some Korean Fried Chicken and a beer. This is a staple, and as staples go, I’m sure down with it.
Seoul is huge but sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. Over ten million people supposedly call it home and the population density is twice that of New York (at least according to Wikipedia). Yet I never really felt crammed in or suffocated here. I think this is in part because of the large, palatial open spaces and the visibility of forested mountains, providing the sight of wilderness from downtown (and also from my hotel room window). Indeed, the jagged hills shield the city’s spread from the viewer, particularly the case for tourists like me who largely stick to the main sights concentrated in a bowl north of the Han River.
It is only when you head to Namsan Mountain – marking the southern limit of this bowl – that you grasp a whole new expanse of a city stretching east, west, and south. It also registers that atop this peak is a pointy needle called North Seoul Tower and this is south of where you have been mostly milling about. Which by a process of deduction must have been North North Seoul, meaning there sure is a lot more city out there.
In this context, comparisons to Canberra may seem rather silly. But there is a similar concealed quality to both cities, thanks to the hilly terrain. And Namsan Mountain is just like Black Mountain, complete with a summit road, walking tracks and that concrete syringe reaching into the sky on top. One added feature of Namsan though is the attraction of a cable car. For which there are mammoth queues late Saturday afternoon, impelling a sweaty, breathless hike instead. A hike which is a procession of people, several, pleasingly, struggling more than you, despite looking to have youth on their side. That Canberra hills training comes in handy sometimes.
Along the climb, alternative aspects open up and other high rise clusters emerge in different directions. Finally, with a healthy dose of perspiration, the mountain top offers a view south and glimpses of the Han River. On the other side a whole new city left and right, Gangnam style and beyond. Here, you suspect, stand Samsung Tower 20, 21, 22, 23 and more. Apartment blocks where millions of people live and work and maybe even get dressed up and perhaps dance rather stupidly.
Clearly being Seoul and not Canberra, the North Seoul Tower is obviously more than that, with a multi-level mall, numerous eateries, a giant gift shop and I think even a cinema. There is also the classical 360 degree, glass-encased viewing deck, which offers pretty much the same view as from the base, only higher and with a greater degree of photo-degrading reflection. Still, milling about here winds down some time for the sun to set and the city lights to flicker on, to twinkle, to glow. And a place to eat before embracing the cooler air, gazing out over the lights, and walking down, back down to just a tiny part of Seoul and bed.