Aeogae sits just south of Ahyeon and Chungjeongno, north of Gongdeok, east of Ewha, and about a kilometer west of Seoul Station, and despite being surrounded by these fairly popular and busy neighborhoods, Aeogae had always been one of those blank spots for me, a spot on the map about which I had no idea. This, combined with the fact that it’s not all that far from where both Liz and I live, left me rather intrigued to visit when the station’s number came up recently.
The neighborhood around the station lies in a valley between ridges to the east and west, centered on Mapo-daero (마포대로), which links Gongdeok and Chungjeongno. The reason I hadn’t heard much about the place before is that there simply isn’t all that much of note in the area; it’s mostly a typical residential-commercial mix.
There were a few small restaurants, pubs, and real estate offices outside of Exit 1, with newer apartment towers further ahead; things generally getting newer and nicer as one moves south towards Gongdeok. After a couple blocks it’s basically just apartment complexes on this side of the street. In fact, the most notable thing is apartment complexes to be. About a half-block back of Mapo-daero there’s an enormous area that’s been emptied out and is now just a dirt expanse but will eventually be turned into a Prugio development. The site covers several square blocks, and its sheer size and the heavy-duty trucks parked on ramps cut into the dirt slopes vaguely reminded me of open-pit mining sites. On the opposite side some older houses perched at the top of a hill.
Given Aeogae’s location it’s not surprising that this type of development is occurring. As I walked through the east side of the neighborhood it seemed quite quiet at first, without much going on. There were a lot of small businesses, but most were closed, and only a few, single people here and there were walking about. Eventually, though, I stumbled upon two more large development sites where fencing surrounded vast expanses of dirt. One, where a pair of backhoes were going at it, was bound to be a screen golf facility; the other was on its way to becoming apartments.
This latter site, which was just outside of Exit 3, had dump trucks entering and exiting through a gate constructed just a few dozen meters from the station, and, like the site opposite, ended at a ridge topped by red brick homes. Just before those, on a small rise barely big enough to contain it, stood alone building, three or four stories tall, half of it intact, half of it falling apart, looking like something airlifted out of a horror film.
It was obvious that Aeogae would look very different five years from now, and it probably looked very different five years ago as well. Just steps beyond this third major construction site was a neighborhood that I first took to be abandoned. The homes here were old and desiccated, and many of them had refuse of all sorts just tossed onto their roofs and into the spaces between homes. There were no signs of life, and just as I was about to come to the conclusion that the entire area had been vacated I noticed a single bare light bulb shining through an open window. A minute after that I caught snippets of a conversation between two men that drifted outside from one of the buildings, and watched an old woman step out into the alley to fetch a bucket.
Now it wasn’t clear just what the status of the place was. Some of the homes had clearly been deserted and many buildings had official signs on them that read 공가 (abandoned building), yet there were apparently some people still sticking things out in this incredibly down and out neighborhood. The black cat that was curled up on one of the roofs, surveying the scene, seemed to know much more than I did.
Aeogae does have one more particularly unexpected trick up its sleeve. A short walk from Exit 4 and left on Mapo-daero-18-gil (마포대로18길) is St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (한국정교회), the only Russian Orthodox church in Seoul. Although not that big, the church’s oxidized copper-green dome and matching cross are easily noticeable from the street thanks to the fact that it sits atop a small promontory. I walked up the steep side street toward its old white sign, the paint chipping, and then followed the street to the right as it curved around the church. In the back was a small gray gate that led into a courtyard and then to the church on its opposite side.
Inside, the church was quiet and unlit, save for a few candles. Some daylight seeped in through the windows, but the day outside was overcast and gray and the interior remained dim. No one else was there.
I was raised Catholic, but this was the first time I’d ever been in an Orthodox church, and the result was an odd sense of double displacement. For one thing, it was clearly and recognizably Christian – I was well familiar with most of the angels and saints depicted on the bright paintings that covered the underside of the dome and many of the walls – but plainly of a different tradition. Instead of an open apse with an altar, there was a sanctuary closed off by an iconostasis, an elaborately carved wooden screen, with each segment bearing the gilded visage of an important figure: Jesus, Mary, St. Nicholas, the angel Gabriel. There was also a central dome, and below it hung the horos, a chandelier-like structure with images of saints and angels. It felt vaguely familiar, yet still strange, like meeting a second cousin: you’re aware that there’s a fundamental connection, but, really, you’ve got no idea who this guy is.
The other displacement was geographical. Although I’d noticed nothing in the neighborhood to indicate a Russian or Slavic or Greek population, inside the church it felt like Eastern Europe: the stern-faced, bearded white men in the paintings; the intricate woodwork of the pulpit and priest’s throne, so unlike the clean, modern style that Korean churches favor; the simple sensation of stillness. The only thing that suggested that I was still in Korea was the hangeul that appeared here and there.
I walked up the stairs to the balcony in the rear, to get a view of the church’s interior from above, and I could vaguely make out the pounding of construction equipment coming from somewhere nearby. From the balcony I could get a better view of the painting occupying the underside of the dome as well as the lower half of the one partly obscured by the wooden iconostasis in the bema.
As I stepped back out onto the stairwell to descend the steps I noticed a package, tied up with twine, with a Russian address written on it in Cyrillic. Taped to the top of the box was a typed-out list of the contents, in English and Korean, that read like the label you’d find on a box on the floor in God’s basement just after He’d moved:
Introduction of Orthodox Church
The Tower of Babel
Birth of Jesus Christ
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (한국정교회)
Left on Mapo-daero-18-gil (마포대로18길)