For several kilometers on the south side of the river, Line 2 jumps aboveground and traces the district borders between Yeongdeungpo-, Guro-, Dongjak-, and Gwanak-gus, before burrowing back down and continuing to the tonier eastern districts. While it’s in view, the line runs through Sindaebang Station, perched on its platform above the Dorim Stream (도림천). Below a concrete canopy where trains run and cars sit in a small parking lot, the stream is a black trickle of near stagnant water, begrudgingly curling around the thick concrete pillers that support the tracks overhead. All four station exits open onto the same cross-street above the stream, where popcorn-colored ears of corn steamed, fruit was sold in shrink-wrapped Styrofoam packs, and a vendor sold socks and counterfeit Atlanta Braves hats, the A too thick, the ends of the cross too curly. There were a string of tent restaurants outside Exits 2 and 3 as well, but they were closed for Sunday.
A bit of a shame for the owners because, contrasting the gloomy setting of the stream immediately underneath it, the neighborhood outside Sindaebang was abuzz, no doubt prodded along by the exquisite April weather and the fact that the neighborhood’s cherry trees had just begun their showy two-week run.
To start off I went south from Exit 1 on Nangok-ro (난곡로), where the cherry trees were about two-thirds in bloom, but it was the scent of grilling waffles from a take-out stand that filled my nose. Nangok-ro was a street of a type I’ve seen countless times before: a semi-main road on the axis of a subway station, lined with cosmetics shops, phone stores, fried chicken joints and the like. A couple blocks from the station I passed a community church where the glass accordion doors on the front had been opened up and parishioners at tables slurped up bowls of janchi guksu al fresco. Up ahead I could make out the ridges of Gwanak Mountain (관악산) a few kilometers to the south.
Weather so nice calls for a walk and I acceded, taking advantage of the walking and biking paths that run alongside the Dorim below the tracks. I went west from Exit 2, first going past a concrete plaza that abuts the stream and provides space for kids on BMX bikes to wheel around. On a large column someone had spray-painted
Although it still ran slow and shallow, outside, in the sunlight, the stream felt fresh and unfettered. Banks of reeds and sand were on either side of it. Two ajummas had spread out a blanket on the latter, where they chatted beside a pair of emptied bottles of makkeolli, while nearby a pair of young girls explored the reeds. Downstream, two magpies did the same.
A shaded bike and walking path ran alongside the banks; above, a second ran on an embankment between the stream and Sindaebang-ro (신대방로). This one was much more popular, no doubt for the cherry trees whose white blossoms formed a canopy overhead. They appeared even thicker along the stream’s north side. Yeouido and Namsan are two of the most popular and most well-known spots for cherry blossom sigh-ting (to put a descriptive emphasis on the action), but if you’re looking for less extreme crowds, or simply a new place to enjoy the splendor, Sindaebang is probably one of the best unknown spots to do so, at least that I’ve come across.
I left the cherry trees behind and went down Daerim-ro (대림로) from Exit 3 towards Siheung-daero (시흥대로) and its wide, traffic-busy lanes. On the way there I noticed a few storefronts’ signs written in Chinese, indicators that I was getting closer to Daerim and that area’s Chinese enclave
After reaching Siheung-daero I turned right on Sindaebang-gil (신대방길) to loop back toward the station and came across more of the cross-West Sea influence. First I walked down a strip of the street thick with restaurants, punctuated only by the occasional noraebang or shop. A block or so on, the restaurants largely gave way to stores, small grocers, and an assortment of shops selling things like clothing and bedding. There were butchers too, and a Bongo truck selling quilted pillows, both rectangular and cylindrical, from its bed. It was almost a neighborhood market without quite being one. A few more steps and I found myself in front of a red paper lantern hanging outside of a little Chinese shop, a few shelves inside lined with imports from the Middle Kingdom. Underneath the lantern, four plastic stools sat in front of a bank of four phones, set up for cheap calls home, just like those we’d seen in the market in Daerim. A bowl of dried chilies sat on one of the stools.
Sindaebang-gil was an interesting little street, wending aimlessly through the neighborhood like a river, its many turns having seemingly no rhyme or reason to them. It’s dotted with modest Chinese restaurants, bars, and voices, but also has plenty of Korean versions of the same, and there’s mingling of those types of things with highly localized takes on trendier businesses: cafes and boutiques and the like. Perhaps best of all, it was utterly devoid of anyone in a hurry. Whatever anyone on the street had to do, they were content to do it slowly.
When I got back to the station I set out to explore the part of the neighborhood closest to Exit 4, which basically consists of the large and ridiculously popular Boramae Park (보라매공원).
Out of the station, I hooked around to my right to follow a blue, green, and yellow candy-striped concrete wall along the stream, passing a building for bike rentals that had a queue out the door. The rental place was followed by sidewalk vendors selling piles of shoes, socks, and stuffed animals; puffed rice snacks; potted plants; and a mishmash of household goods divided by type into long rows of yellow plastic bins. Just beyond all that was a man who’d commandeered a park bench to sit on, a plastic tarp in front of him where he had piled up logs of arrowroot (칡) for sale. Arrowroot is usually sold near entrances to hiking trails, as it’s believed to be good for energy, and usually sold pressed into a juice that looks like water with chunks of dirt in it. The guy here, though, was selling it in its natural form, evidently by weight, to judge by the scale that was also set on the tarp.
The entrance to the park was crowded, almost like Gangnam-daero (강남대로) on a Friday night. I had to slow down and practically jostle to get to the park’s south gate. Local entrepreneurs both took advantage of this and exacerbated things by setting up pojangmachas to sell snack foods; some of them had even set out plastic tables beneath umbrellas. These were mostly occupied by old folks eating jeon and drinking makkeolli, some of the men playing janggi while they ate.
Boramae is a large park, 424,106 square meters to be specific, and yet it was utterly packed. I’d never seen so many people at a park anywhere, ever, and when I asked my Korean friend who had accompanied me if she had either she said that she hadn’t. I won’t say that every bit of available space, both on the grass and on the paths, was taken up because that would be exaggeration, but if you’d wanted to ask the group picnicking on the adjacent blanket if you could borrow some gochujang you wouldn’t have had to raise your voice. The density also gave me plenty of opportunity to observe a phenomenon that I still continue to marvel at, namely, Koreans’ ability to play sports and engage in physical leisure activities in what are, to a Western perspective, game-off-inducing spaces. Where an American such as myself would see a spot to set down a blanket for some sun tanning, four Koreans see a space for a doubles game of badminton. Three different groups – one booting a soccer ball about, one flying kites, and one improbably engaging in the use of a baseball bat – somehow seemed to occupy the same space at the same time, and yet the only collision I saw in three hours at the park was when two boys rode their bikes into each other headfirst. This, however, was done on purpose and both wheeled away laughing.
The other primary activity thatBoramaeParkvisitors seem to engage in is creating a de facto dog park. Pet ownership has ballooned inSeoulin the past decade, and seemingly every third or fourth group of people had brought their dog with them. A special, and popular, subset of this activity was making your dog look as absurd as possible. This included, to name just a small, though representative, sample, fitting them with tiny plastic shoes, dressing them in doggie tutus, and dying their cheeks hot pink so it appears as if they’ve stolen makeup from a Chinese opera singer.
It wasn’t just the near-perfect weather that was creating the glut of visitors, however. AsSeoulparks go, Boramae has an embarrassment of riches in terms of facilities and features. The center of the park is dominated by an enormous expanse of grass, perhaps the size of four soccer pitches, called the Boram Central Green Plaza (보람중앙 잔디광장), where the days’ favored activity was kite flying. A dozen and a half hovered at various altitudes like laundry strung between apartment balconies. Near the south entrance is a large pond with a musical fountain, though this had not been turned on for the summer yet. Likewise a second fountain to the north of the Green Plaza remained dormant and both the Eco-pond and Rice Paddy (논) on the park’s east side were, for the moment, empty.
‘Boramae’ means ‘falcon,’ and the park is thusly named because it sits on land that once served as the site of theKoreanAirForceAcademy, for which the falcon was the symbol. The park was opened in May of 1986, but the aviation legacy is kept intact by the Air Park (에어파크) on Boramae’s north side. Here you’ll find several decommissioned Korean Air Force fighter jets, supply planes, and a helicopter on display.
The historically inclined might also take interest in the statue of independence activist 김마리아 (Kim Maria) just east of the Air Park. Born 김진상 (Kim Jinsang) in South Hwanghae Province in what is now North Korea, Kim first became active in the independence movement in 1919, while she was studying in Tokyo before returning to Korea where her agitation resulted in her arrest and torture. Granted medical leave, she escaped toShanghai, where she became a representative for Hwanghae in the Korean Provisional Government. After continuing her studies at theUniversityofChicago, Kim returned toKoreawhere she died, in 1944, as a result of chronic health problems brought on by her earlier torture.
The younger and more activity-minded might want to skip the statue and head for the Inline Skating Rink or the X-Game Area (X-게임장), which is really just a fancy way of saying ‘skate park.’ Less mobile visitors can make use of croquet courts (called Gate Ball Ground (게이트볼장) in Korean) or join the groups of old men playing yutnori (윶놀이), though, judging by the yells and the serious pre-throw concentration on display, this one’s not for the faint of heart.
Above all, Boramae is a family place. A young kid spun his dad around while he sat cross-legged on a low-wooden disc with a well-greased axle. To me this looked like a recipe for centrifugal vomit, but, for the moment at least, the dad had a smile on his face. A little girl eating hot pink cotton candy was making a delighted mess of things, a sticky film smeared around her mouth and a small tuft having somehow clung to her chin, like Colonel Sanders at a rave. Other families had clearly opted to make a full day of it, staking out a claim early and pitching a tent.
Despite the crowds I’d managed to enjoy myself, the weather and joyful feel that pervaded the park ensuring as much. It was, however, nearing closing time, and so a bit begrudgingly I left and made my way back towards the station. Many of the sidewalk vendors had packed up shop, but the guy selling arrowroot was still there, unmoved from his spot on the bench, and, judging by the pile in front of him, not having had anyone pick up some to take home.
Dorim Stream (도림천)
Boramae Park (보라매공원)
U-turn and follow the stream to the entrance
Hours Mon – Fri 9:00 – 18:00, Sat – Sun, holidays 10:00 – 17:00