About halfway up the Exit 3 escalator, I heard a loud crunch followed by a sound familiar to anyone who’s ever floored the gas pedal only to have their car’s wheels spin uselessly in the mud. As I neared the top I could see a cloud of white smoke wafting across the sidewalk, and stepping off the escalator I saw the source: a white minivan had completely crossed the centerline near the intersection and struck a black sedan head-on. The driver of the minivan wasn’t moving from their seat, either stunned or wary of getting out of their vehicle and facing the rightfully enraged driver of the sedan, who was being restrained from approaching the minivan by the driver of another car while the sedan driver’s traumatized daughter, wearing a backpack, her face glossy with tears, screamed at her dad.
Despite the reflexive rawness of the emotions and action, from an objective point of view things weren’t so bad. It looked like no one had been hurt, and even the two vehicles weren’t in that bad of condition. It was even rather impressive how others had responded – while the one man restrained the angry victim, preventing things from escalating, two other drivers were directing cars around the accident, helping to keep traffic flowing as smoothly as possible.
After rubbernecking for a bit I kept walking down Gwangnaru-ro (광나루로), which runs along the north side of Konkuk University’s (건국대학교) campus. We’ll save explorations of the uni for when we actually get to the subway station named after it (especially since there’s another university we’re visiting in this post), but if you’re looking to get to Kon-dae’s back gate, that’s just a quick right down Gwangnaru-ro-24-gil (광나루로24길), by the big green KU sign. As you’d expect from a street near a university gate, Gwangnaru-ro-24-gil is lined with cafes, PC bangs, print shops, bars, and cheap restaurants, as well as tall Korean firs. Not a bad place to pause and watch the students walking to and from campus.
The university influence, both Kon-dae’s and nearby Sejong University’s, shows up on Neungdong-ro (능동로) where, south of the station, a surprising number of quirky and hip boutiques and salons staffed by twentysomethings line the sidewalks underneath rows of leafy trees. Just outside of Exit 4 you’ll also find University Culture Street (대학문화의거리), administratively known as Neungdong-ro-19-gil (능동로19길), a long strip full of inexpensive restaurants and a mix of bars, noraebangs, and the occasional shop. Predictably, it was pretty dead on a Sunday afternoon, but it looked like it might be a pretty lively place on a weekend night. The street runs for several blocks, all the way to Dongil-ro (동일로), and as you go west, away from the station, more and more love motels start popping up, and business cards featuring girls clad only in lingerie and come hither looks dot the pavement.
Just outside of Exit 5 is Gwangjin Square (광진광장), the entrance to which is marked by a large steel sculpture entitled ‘The Dream of Gwangjin-gu (광진구의 꿈)’. Shaped like a crescent moon that’s been cleaved vertically down the middle, the work is by Yi Sang-min (이상민) and Yi Sang-ok (이상옥).
The triangular park is mostly covered by a large paved plaza where a pair of elementary school boys played net-less badminton and a lone skateboarder worked on basic tricks. Gwangjin-gu is sister city with Ereğli, Turkey, and on the north side of the plaza is a gift from the Black Sea town, a square structure of light gray marble that I believe is the type of fountain used for wudu, Islamic pre-prayer ablutions, though I could be wrong. The fountain has gold and khaki green detailing and two faucets on each of its four sides, half at hand washing height, the others with low basins for washing the feet.
Benches edge the park’s western side, and two old men were stretched out on them, taking naps. It’s at that end that you’ll also find a stone engraved with the poem ‘Gwangnaru (광나루)’ by 황금찬 (Hwang Geum-chan).
Only a few steps north, and smack bang outside of Exit 6, is Sejong University (세종대학교). Wikipedia tells me it’s known for its hotel management, animation, and rhythmic gymnastics programs, which is a fabulous combination.
From just outside the exit, the two most noticeable campus structures strike a befuddling contrast. First, there’s the university’s main entrance, marked by a traditional Korean gate with twelve pillars and brightly painted eaves. Some distance behind it, its lower third obscured by trees and other buildings, a soaring Italianate bell tower reaches into the sky, looking like it’d be more at home in Salerno than Seoul. Approaching the tower, you see that it pairs with a similarly Italianate chapel – sandy stone blocks partly covered with ivy and capped by a red tile roof. The low wall behind the chapel is covered in student murals, most of them reproductions of Klimt paintings.
The Sejong-dae campus is quite appealing, with lots of trees, and in addition to a pick-up soccer game being held on the dirt pitch, several families were using the grounds to take their young kids for a walk and perhaps just get away from the commotion across the street. If you find yourself on campus on a weekday, you might consider stopping by the Sejong Museum (세종박물관) where the university holds a large collection of royal regalia, paintings, pottery, and more inside a squat building on the campus’ north side. Fronting the museum is a lily pond with a pair of matching fountains and a few ducks, four of them asleep on the bank, bills turned backwards and tucked into their feathers.
Just past the university’s front gate, a folding table had been set up on the sidewalk where college-aged artists were painting cartoon characters on the faces and hands of little kids. They were sponging up some of the business spilling over from the kidsplosion taking place in and outside Children’s Grand Park (어린이대공원) on the other side of Neungdong-ro. Immediately outside of Exit 1 an old man in a baseball cap was holding a bouquet of Ppororo, Hello Kitty, Coco Mong, and Tyrannosaurus Rex balloons, while other nearby vendors sold cotton candy, kimbap rolls, assorted pojangmacha snacks, and even beer for the withering parent.
Depending on how you feel about children, Children’s Grand Park may be either the most adorable place in the city or enough to make you call a pox upon Barry White, Marvin Gaye, and anyone else who was ever guilty of aiding and abetting procreation. However, if your sentiments lean towards the latter, don’t be too put off by the scene around the entrance. Yes, strollers may be as abundant as shopping carts at a supermarket, but the park is vast and there are sections where you can find yourself nearly alone and out of range of shrieks, giggles, and any other offending noise, you Grinch you. In actuality, although most visitors are families with young kids, the park is also a popular place for retirees and young couples on dates. The fact that the park is free (with the exception of rides at the amusement park) may have a lot to do with this.
If you’re bringing your own kid but didn’t bring your own stroller (and your kid refuses to man up and walk) there’s a stroller rental just inside the front gate. Conversely, if you did bring your bike or scooter you can check it at the entrance, along with your pet, though you may want to leave the latter at home, as pets are chucked in what are essentially coin lockers.
The 530,000 square meters of Children’s Grand Park sits on land that was, once upon a time, the site of the royal tomb for Empress Sunmyeong, the wife of Emperor Sunjong, who was the last emperor of Korea and the final ruler of the Joseon Yi Dynasty prior to annexation by Japan. Sunmyeong never actually served as empress, dying in 1904, three years before Sunjong assumed the throne, but she was granted the title posthumously. She was first buried here, but in 1926 her remains were exhumed and transferred to Sunjong’s royal tomb in Namyangju. You’ll still find, just south of the main entrance, a collection of Stone Monuments from Yugangwon in the Graveyard of Empress Sunmyeong (순명비유강원석물), Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 134.
The more recent history of the park saw it opened on Children’s Day in 1973 and, after undergoing renovations, reopened on the same day in 2009. It now has attractions ranging from an amusement park to a zoo to a botanical garden.
After you pass through the main entrance, one of the first things you’ll come to is a large lily pond with zigzagging boardwalks running across it. Peer over the edge and you’ll see numerous koi and a few ducks. Beyond that is an enormous dancing fountain where a number of kids stood at the rope barrier, close enough to get splashed, while others, preferring to stay dry, watched from further back.
Northeast of the fountain are some flower gardens and large grass fields where people were picnicking and where some families had pitched tents for the day. The fields here are big enough that a group of teenagers was able to organize a kickball game and play unimpeded. At the edge of the field visitors will find another monument, this one a statue of 송진우 (Song Chinwoo) (1890-1945) that was erected in 1983. Song served as principal of Choong-ang High School (중앙고등학교) and, as the plaque beneath the statue put it, ‘masterminded’ the March 1st Independence Movement. He later became the president and publisher of the Dong-a Ilbo Newspaper (동아일보) before earning the dubious distinction of being the first victim of political assassination in Korea’s modern history, done in by Han Hyun-woo (한현우). He is buried in the National Cemetery.
Past the DOM Art Hall and Adventure World (모험의나라) and its playground equipment, you’ll find the compound’s Amusement Park (놀이동산) in the far northeast corner, easily the liveliest part of the park. Since this is an amusement park targeted mainly at kids and since it’s on a small patch of land, almost everything here is very compact and slightly miniaturized. There’s a rollercoaster, but it’s a small rollercoaster. There’s a Viking ride, but it’s a kid-sized Viking ride. Parts of the sky tram are so low that you almost worry you’ll hit your head on them. Two tiny cars run in two tiny intersecting circles at a speed so slow that it’s frustrating to watch. There’s also a small fleet of the sort of rides that you’ll sometimes see outside places like Wal-Mart in the States: little vehicles or horses that judder and shake back and forth when you drop a coin in.
There are rides that adults can enjoy – the rollercoaster, bumper cars, swings (and maybe a Ferris wheel, but this wasn’t operating when I visited) – but mostly this is the preserve of those who usually fall on the wrong side of the ‘You must be this tall to ride this ride’ line. Two things made me desperately wish I was about one meter shorter and twenty years younger. One was a sort of bungee slingshot where kids were strapped into a harness and then slung skywards to bounce up and down in the air for several minutes at a go. The other was called ‘Water Walk (워터 워크),’ and this consisted of a large wading pool, a large helping of brilliance, and a touch of Jesus. Kids would clamber into a big transparent bubble before an attendant zipped it up and attached a tube to pump air in. They’d then give it a shove into the pool and a mad scramble to stay upright inside the bubble would ensue. It looked insanely fun.
The park’s other major attraction is its zoo, which, it has to be said, is hit and miss. On the one hand, the enclosures for the big cats are fairly decent. The male and female lion seemed perfectly content in their surroundings – he chilled out in the grass, she on a rock – and the two Bengal tigers slowly prowled around theirs. The elephant pen could have been bigger but the two elephants – donated by former Khmer Rouge member, current prime minister of Cambodia, and all around shady dude Hun Sen – at least had a pool and a waterfall, which they seemed to prefer to stand behind, rather than under, facing the enclosure’s door and swaying back and forth like mental patients in a padded room.
In the same complex, the three hyenas seemed to have gone a bit mad with boredom as well. Their enclosure was too small, and one of the animals kept loping back and forth in its horse-like way just in front of the glass while another repeatedly jogged up to the rear wall, hopped up onto its rear legs, and propped itself up with its right forepaw before dropping back down, jogging away, and then turning around and doing the same thing again.
The enclosures for many of the birds – owls, pheasants, a black vulture, a peacock – were poor too, little more than concrete cylinders with one or two perches, so small that they precluded any real flying. On the other hand, the partially indoor waterfowl enclave was quite big, and its premises mixed Canadian geese, ducks, herons, storks, egrets, and at least one Japanese crane in a sort of avian United Nations.
Besides what I’ve already mentioned, you can also find a terraced splash pool, Character World, concert hall, and more at Children’s Grand Park, enough to keep you busy for an entire day, or two. And while it helps to be too young to legally engage in a wide variety of other fun activities it’s by no means necessary, provided you can summon your inner child or at least tolerate everyone else’s.
Konkuk University (건국대학교)
Right on Gwangnaru-ro-24-gil (광나루로24길)
University Culture Street (대학문화의거리)
Right on Neungdong-ro-19-gil (능동로19길)
Gwangjin Square (광진광장)
Sejong University (세종대학교) and Sejong Museum (세종박물관)
Children’s Grand Park (어린이대공원)
Hours | 5:00 – 22:00
Zoo Hours | 10:00 – 17:00
Admission| Free, but tickets must be purchased for amusement park rides