From almost anywhere in town it’s a long ride to Oryu. The train leaves its urban tunnel, and by the time you’ve passed Sindorim many of the passengers left seem headed back to Bucheon or Incheon after forays into the capital. The station itself has the open feel of a provincial depot, with platforms that feel broader for being in the sunlight and rusted rail ties piled up in the spare space alongside the nearly dozen tracks.
Out of Exit 1, there was a little meandering walking path squeezed between Seohaean-ro (서해안로) and the tracks, replete with benches and some greenery. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower. The strip was separated from the rails by a metal fence that had been painted with trees and flowers; on it hung paintings by local art hagwon students that were now cracked and faded from long exposure to the sun.
The neighborhood to the south held brick or stone apartments and homes, many of them with small trees or shrubs growing in the narrow space between the buildings and the brick walls along the street. Numerous other homes had potted plants on the steps up to their doors. What businesses were around were small and independent, and there was a peaceful hush in the streets. It didn’t feel like my day to day Seoul. Another sure sign that I was all but out of the city: rolling through the backstreets was a truck indiscriminately spraying its white trail of insecticide, futilely attempting to rid the neighborhood of its mosquitos.
Down at the end of Seohaean-ro-34-ga-gil (서해안로34가길) I spotted a set of concrete stairs between buildings. They led up to some wood and dirt steps that, in turn, led up to a path up a large hill, thick with trees and bushes. Insects rattled and cicadas whined in the grasses as I followed the trail up, eventually coming out on a small rest area at a hairpin turn in a concrete drive. Besides a wooden platform, there were piles of small sandbags next to a tiny pillbox painted in camouflage. I followed the drive up a few dozen meters until I reached what appeared to be a military installation of some sort – the gate was open, but the area was fenced off and surrounded by coils of barbed wire.
Back down in the neighborhood and a bit further west, I found myself on Oryu-ro-8-gil (오류로8길) running parallel to Seohaean-ro. It was livelier, lined with shops, but I still felt as if I was in a small town. There were fewer chain stores and people were dressed more casually. Most places in Seoul (at least for those of us without a car) one has the sense of city as universe – walk and walk and walk, but all that walking will only get you to another part of the city. Here, however, I had the sense that if I stepped off Oryu-ro-8-gil that would be it. I’d be somewhere else.
To get to the north side of the neighborhood I passed through a pedestrian tunnel west of the tracks and came out near a recycling yard. Out front, the workers had arranged three dinged-up metal bookshelves, which were lined with scavenged books they were selling for 500 or 1,000 won.
Oryu-dong’s north side was a lot busier than its south side, with newer buildings, more chain stores, and more noise. Exit 3 came out on a plaza, where a butcher and a flower shop stood just across from the escalators. There was a bronze statue of dancing figures, a net-less basketball hoop, and groups of old folks gabbing on shaded benches.
A small side street connected the plaza with Gyeongin-ro (경인로), and a number of love motels were tucked in the alleys in between. Somewhat surprisingly, Oryu seemed to host a fair bit of nightlife, not all of it innocent. Particularly down Gyeongin-ro to the east there was no shortage of singing rooms (in all guises – -방, -장, -연습장), and there was also at least one massage parlor and one place billed a 캬바레, which, well, I have no idea what an Oryu-dong cabaret is.
Turning to the left on Gyeongin-ro and then right on Gyeongin-ro-19-gil (경인로19길) put me at one of the entrances to the decaying Oryu Market (오류시장). Wedged into twisting back alleys, the market was covered by a corrugated metal roof supported by rusty crossbeams, below which buckets were placed here and there to gather water from leaks. The place felt claustrophobic. Shops in the market were small, housed in cramped, low-ceilinged stalls, and the aisles between them were often only wide enough for two people, touching shoulders, to walk down at a time. Wires with dangling plugs wound around pipes overhead, the electricity running through them lighting up occasional bare bulbs. The concrete floor was chipped and cracked, nearly all shop signs were handmade, and on every surface paint was peeling. The smells of fish and sesame oil hung in the air.
Many of the stalls – I’d say at least half – were closed down. There were very few customers, and the loudest sound in the market was a TV playing in one stall that hadn’t shut yet. Some abandoned corners of the market had been turned into dumps for rubble, busted chairs, unused wooden pallets, and plastic stools. In one such corner there was also a stack of charcoal briquette holders and a drying rack with eight stiff cotton gloves on it. At first I thought these had been discarded and forgotten about too, but I then noticed that the wall next to them formed the back of a tiny barbecue restaurant that faced the street outside.
The market also had, or, to be more accurate, once had a second story, and I cautiously made my way up a rickety-looking set of stairs to see if I could poke around up there. The door at the top was locked, however, and, given the state of the building, I decided not to press my luck and hurried back down and out.
Oryu Market (오류시장)
Cross plaza to Gyeongin-ro (경인로), Left on Gyeongin-ro (경인로), Right on Gyeongin-ro-19-gil (경인로19길)