There are some neighborhoods in Seoul that have their own distinct character or spirit. Then there are neighborhoods like Chungjeongno that don’t feel quite like their own place but rather sponge up elements of the neighborhoods around them. West of the station, you quickly find yourself on the edge of Ahyeon’s large furniture market; to the east are new office and apartment towers that spill over from Seodaemun and downtown’s western edge; southeast you run into the homeless and eccentricities that tends to wash up around Seoul Station; and the lower-class neighborhoods of Aeogae’s northern end extend into Chungjeongno’s southwestern reaches.
That last part of the neighborhood was where I began my visit, leaving Exit 6 and immediately heading up the sloping street in front of me that led directly to the east end of the Ahyeon Furniture Arcade. A shop with large glass windows, selling kids’ furniture, had a picture of a smiling robot painted on its wall, saying, ‘I’m your friend.’ Now, it’s one of my cardinal rules – a rule that, I hasten to add, has kept me alive this long – that a robot that says it is my friend is a robot that is not to be trusted. I suggest you don’t by your kids’ beds there.
As I came to the top of the rise I could see a huge, denuded hill in the distance, a dun-colored expanse whose only features were the trio of stationary earthmovers sitting idly on its slopes. It was the same swath of land being readied for apartments that I’d walked past when visiting Aeogae recently, but it appeared even more stark from far away, as if someone had simply hit reset on the entire neighborhood.
I then turned left on Sohn Kee-chung Gil (손기정길), which eventually leads up to Sohn Kee-Chung Athletic Park (손기정체육공원). Now, we actually visited this park quite recently, via Seoul Station, and I wrote it up for that post, but because Seoul Station is the April 2012 SEOUL magazine column, this post might actually go online first. And because I don’t want to rewrite everything, I’m just going to copy and paste the park info from that post here:
Longtime readers (and those savvy to Korean athletic history) may find Sohn Kee-chung’s name ringing a bell, as we earlier had a run-in with a Sohn memorial when we visited Sports Complex Station (종합운동장역). We touched on his history in that post, but to briefly recap: Sohn was born in 1914 in Sinuiju (신의주), on what is now the North Korean border with China. Because Korea was under Japanese occupation at the time, Sohn was forced to compete under the Japanese flag and a Japanese name, Son Kitei. In Berlin he set an Olympic record, and on the medal stand he used a pin oak sapling he had received as victor to cover up the Japanese sun on his chest.
Befitting a park dedicated to Sohn, the emphasis here is on athletic facilities, and there are several terraced into the slope, including tennis courts, a nice soccer pitch, and even a ping-pong table. Additionally, there is the Sohn Kee-Chung Culture Center (손기정문화센터) and Library (독서실), housed in handsome red brick buildings with ivy climbing up their sides.
There are two sculptures of Sohn in the park. One is a large rendering of just the elderly Sohn’s head, looking out from the park’s highest point over a wonderful view of the rooftops of central Seoul. In front of the sculpture is the pin oak (손기정 월계관 기념수) that was given to Sohn upon his victory in the 1936 Olympic marathon. According to the nearby plaque, Olympic medalists were originally presented with crowns of Mediterranean laurels, but starting with the ’36 Games the laurels were replaced with pin oak. The oak that Sohn received was planted at Yangjeong High School (양정고등학교), Sohn’s alma mater, but when the high school relocated the former site was turned into the athletic park.
The second statue is partway down the slope, and captures Sohn in a pose as the runner is more commonly remembered. The bib on his chest identifies him as racer number 382, the number he wore in the Berlin race. He is midstride, his head cocked at a peculiar angle, straining to outrun the other athletes and, just as surely, the shame and burden he was made to carry.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
The neighborhood that Sohn Kee-chung Gil cuts through is a lower-class area, and among the brick apartments I passed one wooden shack that looked like it was about to tumble down, and a couple more wood, cement, and tin shacks on a side street. There was clearly no one living in the former, but I wasn’t sure about the latter.
The area is very hilly, and though it’s generally all uphill from the station to the park, the smaller changes of elevation en route were sudden and disorienting, reminding me of a less extreme version of the Escher funhouse that is Chongqing, China. A number of cement stairways and ramps had been built into the neighborhood to deal with the terrain, which sometimes resulted in ghetto renovations like the one I looked down on as I stood on one of those stairways: residents had coiled barbed wire on the tin roof just outside their windows because the elevation had made what would otherwise have been an inaccessible spot a simple dangle and drop from the steps I was standing on.
En route to Sohn Kee-chung Park you might spot a patch of trees down one of the side streets to the left, as I did. There’s an apparently nameless park here, which is a popular place for the area’s oldboys to get some exercise, but if you hike up, the park’s north end offers some superb views in that direction, including part of Inwangsan (인왕산) and model-toy seeming cars streaming down Sinchon-ro (신촌로).
Step out Exit 5 and you get a totally different neighborhood. Suddenly, on Jungnim-gil (중림길), things are gentrified. There are Italian and Japanese restaurants, boutiques, softly lit minimalist salons, and even a craft shop. Literally twenty feet away and you’ve jumped up a couple income brackets just like that.
I followed Jungnim-gil down to where it truncates at Cheongpa-ro (청파로), a couple blocks from Seoul Station, and here, again, things shifted. There were several disheveled storefronts on the main drag, and the pungent smell of fish hung in the air as I passed a shop were a man was feeding dried chilies into a machine that ground them up and spat out flakes into big tubs. Not far away a couple of the area’s homeless had built and were warming their hands over a fire in a big metal bowl on the sidewalk, half of the long wooden plank used for fuel burning away as the other half hung out, resting on the concrete.
Further north on Cheongpa-ro is Seosomun Park (서소문공원), though it’s more easily reached by walking straight from Exit 4. I reached the park that way, where it sits just before a pair of train tracks, and as I approached the boom barriers came down and the red warning lights began flashing as a KTX slowly rolled in toward the station.
As its name implies, the park occupies the site where the city’s minor western gate used to stand, and during the mid-20th Century it was the site of a fish market.
Near the park’s entrance I noticed a sign that declared it the ‘Seosomoon Martyrdom holy land’ (서소문 순교성지), which led me to think that the park would commemorate killed Korean independence activists. It turned out, however, that the ‘Martyrdom holy land’ part was explicitly religious, as it was here where nearly 40 early Korean Catholics were killed during the 1800s as part of a purge meant to root out Western influence. One of the park’s centerpieces and the first thing you see upon entering is a large memorial sculpture of the Crucifixion. Several smaller stone and metal sculptures dotted the park, and they were just abstract enough that I couldn’t tell whether they had religious meaning or not.
The east side of the park had a second large sculpture, this one a statue of the Goryeo General Yun Gwan, who was a major figure in extending Goryeo domain northwards into Khitan territory in the early 12th Century. Around the base of the pedestal three homeless men napped on spreads of newspaper.
Back at the station, I went out Exit 7, which again put me practically right in front of the Ahyeon Furniture Arcade, but instead of exploring that again I took the immediate right onto Kyonggi-daero (경기대로), a very nice, tree-lined street that ran through a relaxed neighborhood. The street is named after the nearby university, and features the cafes and cheap restaurants you’d expect to find.
If you’re heading directly for the uni, though, it’s quickest to go out Exit 8 and swing left on Chungjeong-9-gil (충정로9길). If you see the giant silver building like a 1950s b-movie UFO, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Just past that is Kyonggi University (경기대학교), its wall outside of campus lined with framed copies of old paintings of tigers. I stepped around some construction work going on and went up the stairs to the university’s front plaza, past an ivy-covered rock wall.
The plaza didn’t seem to go anywhere. A pair of buildings hemmed it in, and the only option for movement that I had was a narrow road leading off to the left that I walked down for about five minutes before finding myself off campus. Simply put, there’s just not much to Kyonggi-dae – a few unremarkable buildings jammed together on a hilltop, some satellite buildings elsewhere in the neighborhood, and significantly little common space. The campus map showed a small but pleasant-looking park at the campus’ rear, but it seemed that the only access to it was through one of the buildings, and I didn’t care to walk in and try to find my way back as the school was more or less shut down for winter break. It seemed like it would be a downer of a place to go to school, more like an office complex than a university, but a sign out front displayed some fairly ambitious campus redesign plans so it’ll be interesting to see if things change once redevelopment is completed.
Ahyeon Furniture Arcade
Exit 6 or 7
Sohn Kee-Chung Athletic Park (손기정체육공원)
Left on Sohn Kee-chung Gil (손기정길)
Seosomun Park (서소문공원)
Straight on Seosomun-ro (서소문로)
Kyonggi University (경기대학교)
Left on Chungjeong-9-gil (충정로9길)