If you’ve eaten in a restaurant today, odds are some of your meal came from Garak Market (가락시장). This is where many of Seoul’s restaurateurs come to restock their kitchens. Cheaper and fresher and bigger than just about anywhere else in the city, it’s the mother of all markets.
Let’s start with the numbers. Korea’s first and biggest public wholesale market, Garak covers over 540,000 square meters. On an average day, the total tonnage of foods bought and sold is 7,300, and 10.4 billion won changes hands. 130,000 customers visit and 42,000 vehicles pass through its gates. Out on the edge of town, it doesn’t see many visitors who aren’t either neighborhood residents or in the restaurant business, but it’s well worth the trip. Even for the market-jaded (read: me, just a little bit), its size, expanse, and ag-industrial character make it unlike any other market in the city.
To start exploring, go out Exit 1 and walk along the metal construction fencing until you arrive at a small entrance on your right. That fencing runs for several hundred meters on both the north side of Jungdae-ro (중대로) and the west side of Songpa-dae-ro (송파대로), and along the latter an enormous construction site is rising, a colosseum of rebar and scaffolding and poured cement, with cranes extending above at 45- and 90-degree angles. These are the beginnings of the new Garak Market, which the city claims will be the ‘world’s biggest eco-friendly wholesale market’ by 2018. Next to signs that say ‘파는사람도사는사람도행복한시장!’ (‘A happy market for sellers and buyers!’), the standard computer-generated images on the fencing made the finished product look more like a next-century residential-commercial complex than a wholesale market, more the kind of place where beautiful people wear synthetic white jumpsuits than one where fallen lettuce leaves rot on the ground, so it’ll be interesting to see just where in between the final product ends up.
For now, though, there are no white jumpsuits. Entering the market, rows of stalls with sliding glass doors sat in the construction’s shadows, each with their name, phone number, and market ID number on signs above them. Many were closed when I stopped by on a weekday midday, though in a sign of more active hours fleets of yellow or green flatbed lorries were lined up in front of them, their diminutive size making it look like a parking lot somewhere between real life and Legoland. In the seats of some of them drivers took catnaps and an old woman sat on the ground selling chestnuts.
It was quieter than I expected; I’d anticipated a constant wash of deal-making chatter and beeping lorries, but as I walked along the pavement, scraps of cardboard and fallen vegetables underfoot, the scene felt downright tranquil. I must have shown up at the wrong time.
Not that things were dead, certainly. Far from it. Women were pulling long strands of olive-black seaweed – it looked like film strips that had been dipped in oil – and gathering them into bunches for sale. The smell of the seaweed, along with lettuce, both fresh and rotten, and garlic crept into my nose, and into my ears the putter of motorbikes, the smack of cardboard box hitting cardboard box, and that expected beeping, coming from reversing forklifts.
Wandering down the covered aisle on the backside of the stalls I passed garbage bags filled with slices of dried zucchini, boxes of red bell peppers and green chilies brighter than traffic lights, and piles of enough garlic to ward off an army of vampires. And if you just want the dirt-scratchers and have no use for the whole bird, outside there was a guy with a cart selling chicken feet by the pile.
A bit farther in Garak started to look more like a typical market. It was busier here, most places were open, and the stalls spilled out onto the street to sell their produce. Signs with the products on offer and their prices were invariably written in black magic marker on pieces of cardboard or Styrofoam. Things were generally about 50-60% cheaper than what I typically pay at my local HomePlus. Persimmons and pears were stacked in little pagodas. Trucks were parked in the middle of the street, selling gaudy hiking pants and shirts to market workers.
As I kept heading north, away from Jungdae-ro, the market kept getting more unfamiliar and more interesting. Thus far it hadn’t seemed completely dissimilar to the many markets I’d already visited throughout the city, but when I arrived at the next row I was met by large connected sheds the size of small airplane hangars, with thousands of cardboard boxes of fruit and vegetables stacked up inside, and past these was another enormous long building, this one filled with parked cars, piles of refuse, and more boxes and boxes and boxes of peanuts and cabbage and whatever else you can pick. Around them men were busy stacking, sorting, and separating. Side aisles were lined with the offices and storage sites of wholesalers, many specializing in one specific type of produce or another.
Across the next street were the arch-roofed auction houses, where restaurateurs and others who need to buy in bulk come to bid on the daily offerings, much the same way that proprietors of Seoul seafood restaurants do at Noryangjin. The warehouses that house the auctions are divided by product – there’s an entire warehouse just for onions – and hold numerous metal shipping containers. Some of these had their door open, revealing heads of lettuce or cabbage packed floor to ceiling. Auctions take place at night, so the warehouses are rather somnambulant during the day. While they waited for something to do, one group of guys huddled around a portable metal stove while another group played cards and gambled in the bed of a pickup truck.
Lastly, beyond the auction warehouses, is Garak Market’s Collected Food Arcade (식품종합상가), the most ‘market-like’ section of the market, with numerous small grocers and small shops specializing in this or that, all bunched together around the narrow aisles and under one roof. What you’d find in your neighborhood market is what you’d find here: butchers, grain sellers, banchan shops, sesame oil, piles of red chili powder like magic dust. At the west end of the arcade there’s even a full supermarket.
And that’s just the produce section of Garak Market. Well, actually, not all of it. Cross the multi-lane street that runs from the market’s south gate to its north gate, and on the other side there are yet more fruit and vegetable sellers in the northwest corner. At this point I’d had more than my fill of things from trees and the ground, so I turned back in the direction of Jungdae-ro.
As soon as I did I could smell it. Just a few dozen meters south was the Seoul Dried Fish and Marine Products (서울건해산물) section of the market. I entered through the doors on the building’s northwest side, into the hall’s dried seafood section, where pretty much everything that came from the water but didn’t have any water in it anymore was for sale: big sardines, little sardines, sardines you could practically only see with a microscope; round fish, flat fish, gray fish, brown fish; things with tentacles, things with fins, things with eyes, things shredded into rough white strips.
The building was like a mini-Noryangjin, and as I moseyed south and east I had a watery sense of déjà vu. The concrete floors were covered in water, with tiny puddles collecting in depressions, and a strong, wet smell filled the air, though it was somehow not as bad inside the market as it was from the street outside. Men split crabs and women shelled cockles, and in one corner a man flipped a knife around with samurai precision as he sharpened it on a motorized grindstone for one of the vendors. All of the workers wore ankle-length rubber aprons, making them look like friendly waiters in a BDSM-themed restaurant. Gurgling aerators provided the soundtrack as I wandered through the aisles, between big pink and gray prawns, octopus tentacles as long and thick as my leg, and lobsters with their pincers rubber banded shut like restrained convicts. Fish were stuffed in trays big enough to fit them and exactly no bigger, abalones in small plastic bags appeared enlarged and distorted by the fun house effect of water and plastic, and whole octopi were slapped out on tables, looking, well, not looking like anything really, just blobs of gray thing.
Leaving the fish market, I passed some of the stray cats that were hanging around and headed next-door to the livestock market (축산물직판장), where the salty smell of the sea was replaced by the rich-sour odor of blood and flesh, the sound of gurgling aerators by that of sharpening knives, and the cracking open of crustaceans with the slicing of meat. While the produce section was a palette of greens and reds and oranges, and the fish market one of silver and gray, the livestock market was all mottled pink, white, and red. Stalls were packed so tightly together that the market almost felt claustrophobic, and I occasionally had to lean out of the way of the hanging racks of ribs, legs, flanks, and shanks that dangled from hooks like nightmare chandeliers. More butchers were in the basement, cutting up viscera and offal and hooves and shanks. Big gobs of coagulated blood awaited their trip to one of the city’s haejangguk restaurants, and sliced up organs and entrails floated in tubs of water before they got sent off to your local gopchang jip. Or just head upstairs. On the building’s second floor are some restaurants, presumably very fresh.
Having gotten my fill of market for, oh, the next year or so, I left through the south gate and crossed Jungdae-ro. Much of the Garak Market area is very residential. To give you an idea of how residential the sign over Exit 8 says the exit is for Olympic Family Town and the station map labels the east-west road on the complex’s far side Family-gil (패밀리길). On the actual street sign it’s Dongnam-ro (동남로) but, really, the former is more appropriate. The entire expanse on this side of the station is just apartment building after apartment building, and the sidewalks are patrolled by moms, kids, and strollers.
Grocery is not the only type of shopping you can do around here. Quite recently we visited Munjeong Rodeo Street (문정동로데오거리) from Munjeong Station, but it’s equally as accessible from Garak Market, just walk straight out of Exit 6, to Dongnam-ro, where you’ll see the statues of cowboys on broncos and the big white dimpled LF Outlet building on the corner. The several blocks of Rodeo are quiet and calm (at least on weekdays, when I’ve always been there) and lined with dozens and dozens of name brand stores that sell things at markdowns sometimes as high as 70%. Even better, though, it’s just a much less frenetic place to shop than Myeongdong or even Geumcheon Fashion Town (금천패션타운) around Gasan Digital Complex Station.
There’s a bit of everything, clothing-wise, on Munjeong Rodeo, including a vintage shop, but there seems to be a particular abundance of places to pick up Americana apparel like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister and to stock up on outdoor gear, with the North Face, Kolon, K2, Black Yak, and Mammut all represented here. And if you need a bit of a break from shopping, duck down Dongnam-ro-6-gil (동남로6길) to relax under the 500-year-old twin zelkova trees (느티나무) by the Memorial Stone for the Origin of Munjeong Village (문정마을유래비). The post for Munjeong Station has the dirt on those.
Back nearer the station, the east side of Songpa-dae-ro is also full of residential apartment complexes, though it shows a great deal more life than its Olympic Family Town counterpart. Numerous sleek now office towers and business crowd around Exits 3 and 4, and the back streets are lined with several arteries of restaurants, noraebangs, and bars, including one with the atrocious name ‘Cass Kiss’ that I think I’ll be staying far, far away from.
Lastly, two parks round off the neighborhood. Out Exit 5, take the first right and you’ll soon come to Geonneomal Park (건너말공원). Your prototypical neighborhood park, it has a large central dirt plaza with basketball and badminton courts, while there’s also playground equipment, a walking path, rest shelters, and flower bushes. A trio of inverted cones made from lots of small stones provide some decoration near the entrance.
The second park, Biseokgeori Park (비석거리공원), or Stele Street Park, is a short walk straight out of Exit 3. Up a set of stairs and on a small rise above Songpa-dae-ro, this small plot – barely a park, really – has a plaza that surrounds a large tree, a few pieces of exercise equipment, and some ajeosshis and their soju. What makes it worth a stop, though, are the 11 stone tablets on the park’s southern edge. These tablets are songdeokbi (송덕비), constructed to praise local officials’ achievements and built with funds squeezed from the local commoners. The tablets in the park were originally spread out through other areas, but were assembled here after the park was constructed.
Garak Market (가락시장)
Hours | 4:00 – 19:00 (?); Most stalls closed the 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month
Auctions at night (18:00 – 21:00 (?))
Munjeong Rodeo Street (문정동로데오거리)
Straight on Songpa-dae-ro (송파대로), Left on Dongnam-ro (동남로)
Memorial Stone for the Origin of Munjeong Village (문정마을유래비) and zelkova trees (느티나무)
Straight on Songpa-dae-ro (송파대로), Light on Dongnam-ro (동남로), Right on Dongnam-ro-6-gil (동남로6길)
Geonneomal Park (건너말공원)
Straight on Jungdae-ro (중대로), Right on Jungdae-ro-10-gil (중대로10길)
Biseokgeori Park (비석거리공원)