I got to Sangwangsimni mid-morning on a late June day. It was hot, just starting to hint at the sweltering weather of Seoul’s worst months, but that didn’t seem to be stopping anyone from getting out to get their business done. I came out Exit 4, where the traffic lights above the road, Wangsimni-ro (왕십리로), had lane-specific signals. Perhaps certain lanes switched directions at certain times of the day, but for the moment things were even-steven, three eastbound and three westbound.
The street was lined with a mix of new and old businesses – portrait studios, restaurants, salons; a small produce stand on the north side of the street had put out a banner reading ‘야채 vs 과일’. Nearing Wangsimni Station, I noticed that the sign for Wangsimni-ro-21-gil (왕십리로21길), in addition to the usual Korean and English, was also written in tiny Chinese and Japanese script down at the bottom. Curious to see if there was a Chinatown or Little Tokyo that I didn’t know about, I followed the sign as it pointed south. Except for a single Chinese restaurant there was nothing un-Korean about it, and considering what’s considered Chinese food in Korea you’d need to be awfully generous to say there was anything foreign about it at all. (Elsewhere in the Sangwangsimni area, however, I did spot a cell phone store that had a large advertisement in Vietnamese across its front window, so there may exist a sizable overseas Asian population. I just couldn’t find anything.)
In fact, the street seemed like a very typical commercial spine running through a working-class neighborhood of red brick apartments. There were restaurants, internet cafes, grocers, fried chicken pubs, and cosmetic shops, and around those were stores for sewing machines, paint, and neon signs. A truck rolled slowly through selling wooden spoons, mats, and woven straw sandals.
Sangwangsimni is not far from Sindang, and Wangsimni-ro west from Exit 6 displayed some of the same industrial shops we’d seen there. Small machine or woodworking shops huddled together, piles of metal or wood shavings on their floors and the occasional screech of metal being cut emanating from inside. On the sidewalk a man was taking a hacksaw to a piece of steel he had clamped in a vise he’d set up al fresco in front of his shop.
If you turn left on Wangsimni-ro-31-gil (왕십리로31길) the road will go uphill, soon quite steeply, through a residential area to Muhak Peak Neighborhood Park (무학봉 근린공원). The park is veined by shady walking paths between trees, which, judging by a stone marker alongside one of them, straddle Seongdong-gu and Jung-gu. The park of course has the standard exercise equipment, and there was also a basketball hoop set low enough that I could dunk on it, which, believe me, is pretty low. The best spot in the park, though, is a pavilion in one corner that offers expansive views of the north side of the capital, all the way from Wangsimni across to Sindang and Dongdaemun and Jongno beyond.
Another good vantage point is the arced pedestrian bridge above Wangsimni-ro-31-gil where Muhak Peak Park begins. I walked up and peered back towards where I’d come from. The main thing I could see, in the middle distance, was the vast empty lot stretching from Sindang to Sangwangsimni, where a new apartment development is scheduled to go in and where for the moment construction cranes were poised in giant Ts above the ground.
If you come out of Exit 1 at Sangwangsimni, more or less all that’ll be around you are tall ivory metal walls separating the road from the construction site. I found one side street that led between walls and could see that in some parts they were still in the process of tearing old buildings down, even as a new church stood almost finished.
Exit 2 sets you northwards on Muhak-ro (무학로), and after a few blocks I came to the Cheonggye Stream (청계천). It was running slowly between reedy banks here, and there was a tiny sandbar under the bridge where a standing egret and seven sitting ducks all crowded for space. The water here was shallow enough that other ducks could stand or even sit on the streambed. Tiny little fish seemed to find the spot agreeable as well, and a few schools of them clustered there, the egret being kind enough not to bother them.
One last curiosity: If you turn right on Majang-ro (마장로) on the way from the station to the stream, up on the right a short ways will be the headquarters of the Korean Baduk Association (한국기원). Baduk is the game we call Go in English, and it’s a pretty big deal in Korea, big enough to attract hundreds to the outdoor games in front of Jongmyo and to have its own TV channel, Baduk TV, ads for which were on the headquarters’ windows, their tagline reading ‘생각의 힘’ (‘The power of thought.). Of course nothing is anything in Korea without a pretty spokeswoman, and next to the TV ads were large signs with the actress 이영아 (Lee Young-ah) doing her best baduk aegyo.
Muhak Peak Neighborhood Park (무학봉 근린공원)
Left on Wangsimni-ro-31-gil (왕십리로31길)
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Straight on Muhak-ro (무학로)
Korean Baduk Association (한국기원)
Straight on Muhak-ro (무학로), Right on Majang-ro (마장로)