This is a very bittersweet post for us here at Seoul Sub→urban. On the one hand, we’ve reached something of a milestone: Namtaeryeong marks the 100th station that we’ve visited for the project. When we began we had no idea where it would go or how long it would last, and the idea of covering a hundred of Seoul’s countless neighborhoods seemed far off, if not impossible. To have reached this point and to have had so many other good things come our way – a magazine column, radio segments, a book deal – is incredibly gratifying, though even more gratifying has been the chance to explore and to get to know intimately a city that we really love and to share that process with so many people, not just other expats but Koreans too. Throughout it all we’ve had a great deal of help and support, and all the ‘thank you’s that we owe people could fill a book, but we’re particularly grateful to the folks at Nanoomi, SEOUL magazine and Seoul Selection, TBS eFM, the various websites who have republished our columns and helped bring our work to a wider audience, everyone in the media who thought we were worth writing or talking about, and 김소이 and Andrew Haglin for their personal support. Also, and most importantly, to all of you who’ve read our posts and followed us around Seoul. We never imagined we’d get such a positive response to this project, and the feedback and support we’ve received from you has been so, so gratifying. Thank you.
Sadly, though, this post also marks the end of Liz’s tenure here. Those of you who follow the blog regularly were no doubt already aware that Liz has left Korea to embark on a year-long round-the-world trip with her boyfriend (and good friend of mine) Andrew, and Namtaeryeong is the last station she shot before departing. Liz’s work has been instrumental to the project and I was incredibly lucky when she said yes after I asked her to undertake the blog with me. She was a great partner to work with, and so often her camera brought to life aspects of the city that my writing never could. She’ll be missed, but she’s on to great things and hopefully she’ll be back in the future to do a special guest post or two when she passes through Seoul again. In the meantime, you should follow her along on her travels at thiskentuckygirl.com where she’s posting photos, a write-up, and a one-minute video of each day of her trip. It’s amazing and addictive and induces unhealthy amounts of envy. You’ll love it. And now, on to the post…
Wedged between Umyeon Mountain (우면산) and Gwanak Mountain (관악산), Namtaeryeong is a curious little area with a small residential neighborhood isolated from the rest of the city, linked to it only by the subway and Gwacheon-daero (과천대로). This makes it feel like an American suburb, and that sensation is only made stronger by actually walking through it. By Exit 1, a side street leads off the highway into the neighborhood, where homes line up on a clean grid, practically nothing is taller than three stories, and there’s none of the irrepressible commerce spilling onto sidewalks that’s so ubiquitous in most parts of the city. There are some small local businesses to be sure, but they mostly keep things indoors.
On the station map this area is called Jeonwon Village (전원마을), but ‘village’ gives the wrong impression, as it’s a pretty well-to-do place. When I said ‘homes’ I meant actual homes as in houses; there are very few apartments here. Most of these houses are made of brick, with gambrel roofs, and are surrounded by brick walls with metal gates. Most houses also have actual yards, and while most of them are microscopic in comparison to yards in American suburbs, in Korea any yard at all is a pretty big deal. Some yards have gardens, some have evergreens or persimmon trees, some have clotheslines, and some have small playsets for toddlers, complete with tiny plastic slides. There were solar panels on roofs and a car with a ‘USC Dad’ bumper sticker.
Lest we be tempted to think that we’d somehow been zapped across the Pacific, there were enough signs to remind us that this was still Korea. Vegetables had been left to dry on mats outside, there was a path leading to a hiking trail in the mountains, and, tucked in the neighborhood’s southeast corner, people working in a garden next to a series of sheds wrapped in a black mesh covering.
On the neighborhood’s north side was Seoul Electronics High School (서울전자고등학교) and the offices of the CJ online mall. Something else was in the works too, as along the east side of Gwacheon-daero was a long gray metal construction fence, dotted with absurd pictures of untouched forests and pristine waterfalls. Further north, beyond the school, the side of a mountain had been razed. Below a stripe of trees running over the crest, the now smooth face had horizontal lines of fencing running across it and tarps covering the lower sections, perhaps to prevent rock slides.
Nestled below the surrounding mountains, the Namtaeryeong area was, on the day I visited, both beautiful and sinister, accented by the sharp autumn foliage, but also loomed over by heavy dark clouds and periodically brushed with rain. In a way, that contrast was matched by the two other features of the area.
Just outside Exit 4 was the main entrance to Capital Defense Command (수도방위사령부). This, obviously, is not on any map, but it takes up essentially the entire west side of the area. From the sidewalk, carpeted in wet gold and brown leaves, all I could see were the driveways leading back to the compound’s buildings, which were well out of view. The driveways had black and yellow-striped barricades (some spiked) on them, necessitating any car entering or exiting to slalom between the barriers. They were also watched over by helmeted soldiers, dressed in camouflage uniforms or long green pea coats and armed with short-nosed rifles. Curiously, the cars that I saw going in and coming out weren’t unmarked or even government vehicles, but regular old Kia Mornings and Hyundai Sonatas.
Across the street, north of Jeonwon Village and Exit 2, was Jeonggak Temple (정각사). On the way there I passed a city bus depot, where buses were filled with compressed natural gas and got baths from jumbo-sized versions of the automatic washers found in drive-through car washes.
Next to the base for the Korean National Police, Unit 868, the temple had a large golden Buddha statue on a platform in the courtyard in front of the temple. Fat and happy, he looked over a much smaller version of his newborn self that was flanked by a white elephant and a pair of deer. A canopy of brightly colored paper lanterns led up to the temple’s main door, which was framed by green and orange dragon heads. The place was simple. There was a small garden, and behind the temple seaweed hung out to dry, rather inefficiently considering the day’s weather. Across from the temple’s west side, water flowed out of a tunnel in the hillside into a concrete channel before disappearing into another tunnel below.
Capital Defense Command (수도방위사령부)
Jeonggak Temple (정각사)
Straight on Gwacheon-daero (과천대로)