Apologies for the long absence from posts; once again there were a number of things that kept us from getting out on the weekends, but hopefully we’re ready to get back to posting on a regular basis. In other, much better news, we’re happy to say that our good friend Angelique Kuyper will be joining the project to help with photography, and last weekend the two of us went out to Changsin Station, northeast of Dongdaemun on the six line.
The area around the station feels something like a cul-de-sac, as immediately to the station’s north the main road disappears into the Dongmang-bong Tunnel (동망봉터널) and the large hill above it is topped with a half-ring of apartment towers, while to the south Jibong-gil (지봉길) cuts a straight line to Dongmyo-ap Station (동묘앞역), running through the valley created by two massive gray-brown rock formations that stand a couple hundred meters back on either side. The two cliffs are huge, smooth, and almost perfectly vertical, but taper away as you head south, so the effect as you move in that direction is the feeling of leaving a little self-contained neighborhood that slowly lets itself merge into the larger city surrounding it.
Leaving Exit 1 we turned west down one of the first side streets we came across to get a better look at the cliff face, which at this point was only about a block and a half back from the main drag. At the end of the street a tiny alley under a sign for chili peppers, sesame oil, and wholesale delivery led through some closed-up shops and right up to the base of the cliff. Most of the doors in the rather run-down building were closed up, but because it was Sunday we couldn’t tell if that was just for the day or for good. One door was open, however, and inside were long tables, sewing machines, and bolts of fabric, along with a hula hoop hung up on the wall. At the alley’s entrance was a pyramid of about a dozen trash bags, all filled with clothing scraps. We noticed other trash bags filled with the same thing around the neighborhood, so it’s likely that Changsin-dong is home to a number of small shops that supply Dongdaemun’s huge fashion industry.
Back on Jibong-gil we passed an old man on the sidewalk who had a machine that air-puffed rice to make bar snacks attached to the back of a motorcycle. Every so often it would emit a loud bang and scare any nearby dogs whose owners had taken them out for a walk.
The further south we headed, the closer to Dongmyo, the more gentrified the surroundings got and the more the storefronts were occupied by large chains. A giant Lotte apartment complex could be seen up ahead on the corner, but off to the west the same views for much cheaper were enjoyed by the occupants of the old brick homes perched on top of the cliff and those further towards Daehangno, spread along the slopes of Naksan (낙산) like homes in an Italian hill town.
Getting off the main drag we turned west on Jibongno-5-gil (지봉로5길) and passed a naengmyeon restaurant, Naksan Naengmyeon (낙산냉면), that had a line of ten people out the door at 2:30. We of course had to know what the fuss was about, but decided to walk around for a while and hope the line had shortened by the time we came back. An hour later the line was gone but there was only one two-person table available, and just five minutes after we grabbed it the line at the door had reformed. In the approximately 45 minutes we were at the restaurant, there were maybe ten minutes when a table was empty, and this was during the trough of the mid-lunch-dinner lull. It was easy to see why. Naksan Naengmyeon serves one thing: bibim-naengmyeon (비빔냉면), and offers it at four different levels of spiciness, each for 5,000 won, and one extra-large size bowl for 6,500. Angelique got the soonhan naengmyeon (순한냉면), which came without any gochujang, and I got the teuk naengmyeon (특냉면), the extra-large size. Both came with generous amounts of cucumber and pear, just the right amount of garlic, and, in my case, gochujang. Angelique named it the second-best naengmyeon she’d ever had; perhaps a bit less widely-eaten, I called it my favorite.
While waiting for the line to diminish we walked through the tiny (And I do mean tiny. At some points I could practically touch both walls just by sticking out my elbows.) alleyways on either side of Jibong-gil. It was a really lovely neighborhood that was completely untouched by the development that had taken place just a block or so away. The alleys wound around between snug old homes and took us past some lovely old wooden doors and more trash bags filled with clothing scraps. Almost all of the faces we saw on the back streets were old ones, and I wondered if they’d lived in the area most of their lives or if development had priced them out of nearby areas where they used to live.
Just a few steps from Exit 2 on the station’s north side, a long staircase leads up the hill above Dongmang-bong Tunnel to a collection of apartments and a church, and the walk up offers great a great view down Jibong-gil to Dongmyo and beyond.
At the top of the hill we crossed Naksan-gil (낙산길), and directly on the other side of the street was a large area of tiny alleys and old brick houses, almost identical to those we’d walked through a few minutes ago, but with one major difference: every home here was tagged with a sign that it was marked for redevelopment and would be torn down.
It wasn’t clear how long the houses had been necessarily abandoned, but in small ways nature had already begun to reestablish itself, enormous spider webs being the most apparent evidence – one particularly large one near the neighborhood’s entrance held at least 50 of all different sizes.
Knowing that the buildings were going to be torn down and pounded into rubble, many of the ex-residents had chosen to simply leave behind unwanted possessions, and by peeking through cracks and broken windows, or by stepping through the occasional door that had been left open, it was possible to get a glimpse of the lives that used to be lived in the homes. A bookshelf, a bike, a laundry basket, a dish rack, pillows and blankets, boots, a Dora the Explorer videotape.
Walking further into the neighborhood opened up lovely views of Bukhansan (북한산) in the distance to the northwest. It was easy to see why this was valuable real estate, and why these homes were going to be torn down so that a developer could build another expensive apartment complex in their place. Looking west across the valley to the other slope I could see that the entire expanse was filled with more empty structures, each bearing the same sign on their front like a white flag, an entire neighborhood of dead homes.
We had seen no one else and thought that every house was empty, but walking back out to the street we spotted an ajumma coming out of one of the homes. When she walked down its front steps our view of her was blocked by a wall, so it was unclear if she was packing up some final possessions, scavenging for things left behind, or if she was holding out till the bitter end.
When we left the neighborhood behind we followed Naksan-gil as it curved back down toward the station, and it eventually brought us across the Jeongeobwon Site (정업원 터), Seoul Tangible Cultural Property No. 5.
After succeeding his father Munjong (문종), Danjong (단종) became the sixth king of the Joseon dynasty at age 12. He was soon overthrown by his uncle Sejo (세조) and exiled to Yeongwol in Gangwon-do, where four years later Sejo decided, just to be on the safe side, that he should be murdered, and the sixteen-year-old was burned to death in his home. According to the story on the plaque at Joengeobwon, when Danjong was sent into exile this was where his young wife, Queen Jeongsun (1440-1521), lived, looking toward the east and wishing for his well-being and, after he died, where she continued to live in mourning until her death. A couple centuries later King Yeongjo learned that this was where the sad queen had lived and erected Jeongeobwongugi (Stele of Jeongeobwon) here in 1771. A corresponding temple served the yangban class.
Although Queen Jeongsun lived at Jeongeobwon, when she wished to gaze in the direction of Yeongwol and her departed king, she would walk north and climb the nearby peak of Dongmang-bong, the same peak we had just visited, where now a neighborhood sits waiting to disappear.
Naksan Naengmyeon (낙산냉면)
South on Jibong-gil (지봉길), Right on Jibongno-5-gil (지봉로5길) 20 meters
Jeongeobwon Site (정업원 터)
Follow Naksan-gil (낙산길) to the right of Dongmang-bong Tunnel (동망봉터널). Continue as it curves around; Jeongeobwon will eventually appear on the left side of the road.
Photography for this post provided by Angelique Kuyper.