The further east you go along the Cheonggye Stream (청계천) the more the engineering of its western end gets stripped away and the more you’re able to step into its past. The process culminates in the Cheong Gye Cheon Museum (청계천문화관) and Cheonggye Stream Shack (청계천 판잣집), close to where the stream begins its southerly turn near Yongdu Station (용두역), but just a bit further on you can come face to face with the Cheonggye’s sorriest period before you even leave the station.
Near the exits at Majang Station is a terrific photo collage by the Japanese priest Nomura Motoyuki, who, between aid activities, photographed Seoul and, in particular, the Cheonggye shanty towns, from 1973 to 1985. Compared with today, the Cheonggye of the 1970s is unrecognizable – the wood and tin shacks along its banks look ready to collapse at any moment, more reminiscent of a south Asian slum or refugee camp than anything that squares with notions of Seoul. Kids with dirty faces play amid piles of trash and squalor, while another is bathed outside in a plastic bucket.
They’re fascinating images to hold in your head as you make your way to the stream today, just a couple hundred meters or so from Exit 2 or 3. It’s simple but pretty here: a plain stretch of water with some patches of reeds and grassy banks the color of hay. On the opposite bank a high concrete wall blocks the wide series of tracks that lead to Seoul Metro’s Gunja Train Depot, and this and the flyway running overhead blunt the stream’s charm a bit but don’t detract too much. There’s of course a two-lane bike path running along the stream, but you’ll also find what is one of the cutest features we’ve come across so far: the Children’s Bicycle Safety Experience Learning Center (어린이 자전거 안전 체험학습장). This little patch of concrete is separated into two parts: one with S-curve patterns and figure-8’s for absolute beginners to practice on; the other, for slightly more advanced riders, having curving paths and gently banked curves, as well as miniature crosswalks, street lanes, and bike traffic signs for learning traffic rules. Didn’t come with your own ride? No worries – there are bike rentals available near the entrance.
Walking to the stream from Exit 2 you might notice a sign advertising the Sancheong Medicinal Herbs Park (산청 약초 공원) at the stream, but when I arrived at its banks the only trace of the Herbs Park I found was the large sign marking its location. The absence, I assume, was because I visited in February. Just a few steps west of where the park was supposed to be was another streamside attraction, the Cheonggyecheon Ecology Classroom (청계천 생태교실), a white canvas building with displays and dozens of rows of chairs inside, but this too was closed.
A walk in the opposite direction, from Exit 4, past the Hankook store with its tires wrapped in gold foil like wedding bands for giants, will lead toward Hanyang University and Wangsimni. After a bit you’ll both start to pick up a university vibe and clearly make out the enormous Bit Plaza complex off to your right.
There’s a bit of the old school to the Majang area, readily visible on a small market street along Majang-ro-40-gil (마장로40길), which is the side street after U-turning from Exit 3 or 4. Rough around the edges, there were just a few elderly hangers-on milling about, including an old ajumma wrapped up in mismatched scarf, hat, and jacket, bent over and pushing a low cart before she paused to wind up and spit a gob of unwanted saliva onto the street.
After returning to the main street I swung right onto Majang-ro-42-gil (마장로42길), where a guy was doing some welding work on the corner, having run an extension cord out of his adjacent shop and across the sidewalk. After sidestepping the sparks I continued on but nothing really caught my eye until just before the end of the street when I noticed a steep set of stairs labeled Salgoji-2-gil (살곶이2길) running up to my right, just the kind that I can’t resist exploring.
I went up, and after winding through some narrow, concrete-paved alleys I found myself in a gravel and dirt parking lot in the middle of a rather isolated neighborhood that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. There was almost no one about, and it seemed part slum, part abandoned, though I couldn’t figure out how much of which. There was a vegetable plot and a couple dirt paths winding around it and alongside buildings, some trash strewn here and there, and a single old woman sitting outside and keeping an eye on me. There was something odd, yet at the same time quirkily endearing about the place, both traits likely brought about by its relative isolation from the rest of the area.
Anyone familiar with Majang is probably wondering by this point When are they gonna get to the meat? Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten, for if there is one thing Majang is synonymous with, it’s meat.
For nearly half a century, since the city’s main meat market moved here from Jongno-gu in 1963, the Majang Livestock Market (마장 축산물시장), has been providing an estimated 70% of all beef consumed in Seoul. Along with the country’s largest meat market, Majang-dong also used to house a number of slaughterhouses, but these were moved to Doksan in 1998. Today the market occupies 28 acres and contains thousands of shops selling, in an oh-so-literal way, everything beef and pork related but the squeal.
You can get to the market by going out Exit 2 and then turning left on Majang-ro-35-nagil (마장로35나길). This will take you past a pair of enormous white warehouses on your left, abandoned-looking and surrounded by high brick walls. Upon first seeing them I surmised that this was where the old slaughterhouses used to be, and decided to walk around the large block to see if I could confirm or deny my suspicions. I turned left on the street just before the wall, which was lined with butcher shops with shiny metal hooks dangling from runners in the ceiling. As the wall lowered I could partially make out a huge pile of twisted scrap metal in the yard in front of the first warehouse, and when I reached the opposite side this was revealed to be a storage space for KEPCO, the Korea Electric Power Corporation. The second warehouse, of which I could only make out a gutted-looking second floor poking above the wall, was less clear.
Just past a brand new elementary and middle school is the market’s south entrance, a large arch overhead reading ‘Welcome to Meat Market.’
For anyone whose trip back up the chain from dinner plate to farm has gone no further than plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays at the grocery store, Majang Meat Market will be an eye-opening experience, in a good and honest way. It’s important to know what your food is, and was, and Majang takes you about as close to the present tense as one can go.
Stepping under the arch I glanced down and noticed a spot where the top of the asphalt had chipped away; the exposed pavement had a rusty hue, perhaps actually having been stained by years of blood. Inside, brigades of rubber-smocked butchers were hard at work, one feeding a slab of meat through a band saw, creating a sound like electrified nails on a chalkboard, while nearby the team in another shop went about their business decked out in all white smocks and caps, which led me to wonder a) why butchers seem to always be portrayed wearing white, and why they actually often do in real life, and b) how every butcher I’ve ever seen dressed this way has never had a single stain on their shirt.
What was once an animal, at the market was deconstructed into product. It dangled from pegs on walls, rolled by on dollies, was ground into chuck, or was sliced and wrapped in plastic. Enormous ladders of ribs hung from industrial hooks, sheets of offal bathed in tubs of cold water like lazily soaking laundry, entire pigs stretched out on metal tables, and the gray shag carpet of intestines was folded over itself in wide heavy flaps on plastic sheeting. Triangular pig ears were spaced evenly on one table and bowls of kidneys looked like mammoth gelatinous versions of their namesake beans. On one counter sat a loose mandible, decoupled from its former body and sawed in half, and hanging from a hook were several pairs of what I was pretty certain were bull testicles. Several stalls were selling tails. The skin had been peeled off and what was left was menacing and surprisingly powerful-looking, like an alien’s tentacle. There were also entire cow heads, skinned but with the horns still attached. Some of these had been wrapped up in heavy fuchsia plastic, the sort of thing I imagined seeing mounted on the bedroom wall of a cattle rancher into S&M.
The amount of meat at the market was tremendous, almost overwhelming. I marveled at how so much could be consumed – that this market, which contained more beef than I had ever seen in my life, by many magnitudes, represented only a small fraction of what was consumed nationwide, and that this represented only a single day in a single country.
It may have been because the heavy scent of protein in the air was going to my head, but as I wandered around the market I felt increasingly happy. In a decade that has thus far been defined by political and economic malfeasance, it was heartening to be completely surrounded by people pursuing truly good, honest work. There were a few shoppers in the market, but on a late Tuesday morning it was populated overwhelmingly by people just doing their jobs. A man in a tiny room on a side alley fed a huge chunk of meat through an auto-slicer, cutting it up into thin ½ cm strips. A steady stream of mopeds and trucks rumbled about, picking up and delivering. In one stall, a middle-aged woman tended to nothing but pig heads, using a coarse brush to remove any excess hair before they could be sold. (Has anyone else ever noticed how pig heads all seem to have a faint smile on their face?)
Along with the sales of beef and pork, a number of cottage industries have naturally arisen in the market to cater to the workers. I watched a woman push a cart through the aisles, selling lunches of toast and ramen to the butchers. A man in a corner stall sold rice cakes and dried seaweed, but business was slow and he was nodding off. On one of the market’s main aisles I spotted a sign for a barber, its accompanying pole spinning away, and tried to think of a single place where I would want less to get my hair cut. Of course, there are also knife salesmen and knife sharpeners. One of these had set up his electric whetstone in an underpass below some rail tracks, and as he applied a dull blade to the grinder the sparks from the metal on metal friction sprayed out like a roman candle, bouncing off the concrete wall in front of him.
The first time that I visited Majang Market my companion and I were passed by a slowly cruising Mercedes with tinted windows, and I remarked, half-jokingly, that any Benz in a meat market must belong to the gangsters who provide ‘protection services.’ She responded that that was impossible. There’s no way to verify the explanation for this, but it’s plausible and, at the very least, entertaining. Although Korean gangsters, I was told, do in fact control many neighborhood markets in the country, largely in the, ‘Awfully nice market stall ya got here. Be a shame if something happened to it,’ way, they leave Majang alone, not because the workers and organized crime have come to any sort of agreement, but because they’ve decided that thousands of people highly proficient in the use of all manner of knives, blades, and cleavers is one population it would be prudent not to
Of course, the point of these dozens of acres and hundreds of shops is to feed yourself, and for anyone who loves beef or pork there literally is no better place in the city. Majang is where you’ll get the freshest meat, bar none. There are certainly a number of barbecue restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood, but you don’t even need to leave the market to eat. The majority of eateries are clustered near the market’s north entrance, opposite the Cheonggye Stream. These range from jokbal places to large restaurants that serve just about any cut of beef or pork you could want, including barbecue ‘sampler platters’ that include three or four different cuts.
To get the fullest market experience, however, you might want to go full DIY. Pick up whatever you want in the market and take it to one of the modest restaurants that will rent you a grill for just a few thousand won and serve up side dishes for just a few thousand more. Take a moment to think about what’s brought your food here, throw it on the fire, dig in, and complete the chain.
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Children’s Bicycle Safety Experience Learning Center (어린이 자전거 안전 체험학습장)
Sancheong Medicinal Herbs Park (산청 약초 공원) and Cheonggyecheon Ecology Classroom (청계천 생태교실)
Majang Livestock Market (마장 축산물시장)
Left on Majang-ro-35-nagil (마장로35나길)