The word saetgang (샛강) is one of those uber-specific words, like schadenfreude or 木漏れ日 (komorebi) (the Japanese term for the dappling effect of sunlight filtering through trees), that makes you feel your own language is missing out. It refers to a small channel or tributary in a river that separates an island from the mainland, the island in this case being, of course, Yeouido. Providing access to the southeast corner of the island, Saetgang Station puts visitors within easy reach of much of what the other stations on the island do: wide New Seoul boulevards, glass and steel office towers, and tree-lined side streets full of identical apartment buildings. First floors hold cafes or restaurants, while bars or noraebangs for the local salarymen are found in basements. There’s also the landmark 63 Building a short walk away, but best of all Saetgang also drops you off right by some of the island’s superb parkland.
KBS, with its headquarters near National Assembly Station, is a significant presence on Yeouido, and coming up out of Exit 3, the first thing I saw was a giant poster for a new KBS 2 show draped down the side of a building. On the sidewalk in front of me was a long rack of red Seoul Public Bikes that anyone could rent for a few hours of pedaling around the atypically flat expanse of the island, and immediately to my right was an entrance to Ankara Park (앙카라공원), also known as Jame Park (자매 근린공원). The second name means ‘Sister Park’ and points to Seoul’s sister city relationship with the Turkish capital, which the park was built to commemorate in 1977. A signboard in Korean, English, and Turkish provided the explanation of the park’s origins and gave an ‘Introduction to Tukey,’ as the English translation read, noting that 5,400 Turkish soldiers served in the Korean War. They suffered a high casualty rate according to the sign, with 741 killed in action and a further 2,765 wounded.
Marking this entrance to the park was a statue of two women with their arms upraised in a gesture of exultation, and besides this, other small sculptures line the walkways that meander between Ankara’s flower beds and well-tended shrubs. Surrounded by these and the usual assortment of exercise equipment and gazebos was the park’s centerpiece, the Traditional Turkish Vineyard House (터키 전통포도원 주택). Built in 1992 and decorated with folk articles brought over from Ankara, the replica house is built into a man-made hill. Stone walls form its lower portion, while the top of the first story and the second story are whitewashed and crisscrossed by slats of plain brown wood. Bay windows with wooden shutters protrude from either side of the home, and atop it all a small chimney sticks out of a red tile roof. All of this gives the building an endearingly rustic and, in comparison with its surroundings, exotic sort of feel, and makes for an arresting sight when viewed through the trees from the sidewalk, especially if you don’t already know it’s there.
A sign at the park’s main entrance (slightly further down Yeouidaebang-ro (여의대방로) from the exit) had photos displaying the house’s interior, where a low couch with elaborately designed pillows surrounded a hookah sitting on a Turkish carpet, and overhead a metal and glass chandelier dangled from the ceiling. In the kitchen, dishes were set on racks for display and jars of spices lined up on a shelf. I walked up a set of stairs on the side of the house facing the park entrance, but steel shutters were pulled down over the door. On the ground next to it a slab of cardboard was laid out, another piece of cardboard rolled up and placed underneath one end, as if forming a pillow, making me think that a homeless person had used it as a bed and perhaps was planning on sleeping there again that night. Walking around to the back of the house, which was actually the front door, I found that that too was closed, but there was at least a sign explaining that Sunday was the wrong day to come. The house is only open on weekdays.
If instead of going into Ankara Park you make a U-turn out of Exit 3, cross Yeouidong-ro (여의동로) (look to your right as you do and you’ll get a clear view of the National Assembly building), and go down a flight of stairs, you’ll find yourself in Saetgang Park (샛강생태공원), one of my favorite in the city. Forming a crescent along the entire southern side of the island, the park runs along and around the narrow waterway that makes the difference between Yeouido and Yeongdeungpo and gives the station its name. For some time this was a rather neglected and unpleasant bit of land, but in the 1990s a major project to transform it into an eco-park was initiated, turning it into the wetland it is today. As I’ve mentioned before, despite being, in a sense, artificial, the park doesn’t feel that way. In fact, in certain spots it can feel like one of the ‘wildest’ places in Seoul. Sandwiched between two major roadways, it’s not as if you’re going to forget you’re still in Seoul – the drone of traffic is ever-present – but within the park non-natural things are kept to a minimum, and compared to other parks Saetgang is under-visited, so there are plenty of opportunities to find yourself utterly alone on its walking paths, at least for a few moments.
Also within the park is a visitors center and the gorgeous Saetgang Bridge, linking the island and the south bank (both of which are more easily accessed by Yeouido Station), but it’s those walking paths that are the best place to be. Sometimes wooden boardwalks, sometimes dirt paths, they wend between trees, beds of cattails gone fuzzy-topped with autumn, and banks of tan reeds, taller than a person, their downy gray tops bent over in soft hooks. Walking along them I could hear the insistent chirping of birds in the marshes and the occasional rustle of an animal somewhere in the dry reeds. Periodically I’d catch a clear glimpse of the saetgang through the trees, a dull slate or a military olive depending on the light, and now and then I’d spot a heron standing in the shallows, grooming itself, or catch a magpie or mourning dove flapping out of the underbrush and taking to the air.
Walking west took me past the Ecology Pond and through a section called the Night Heron Forest, where a sign cautioned visitors about the presence of snakes. The park here was reasonably wide and paths went deeper into the vegetation, sometimes leading to viewing platforms looking out over ponds or streamlets, the occasional willow rising up out of the water. Walking east from where I entered, the park became gradually narrower, and I could make out the hulking billboards on Olympic-daero (올림픽대로) and the shimmering façade of the 63 Building, where I headed next.
Back out Exit 3, I passed Ankara Park and, just after that, the Indonesian embassy, before turning right on Gookjegeumyoong-ro (국제금융로) and then left on 63-ro (63로). Alongside the blocks of repeating apartment towers the street was lined with gingkos, their leaves turning marigold in the fall as if to mimic the neighborhood’s dominant structure, the 63 Building (63빌딩).
Seoul’s most instantly recognizable building, 63’s signature color is the product of its actually being covered in a thin layer of 24-karat gold. The tower was constructed in 1985, and at 264 meters it was briefly the tallest building outside North America. Named for the number of stories it has, three of those are actually belowground, and, coming from the station, that’s where the casual visitor will likely spend most of their time, as the bulk of the upper floors house offices, while the basement floors house various public attractions.
Coming from the station, the main doors opened into 63 Square, on B1. 63 Square had that vaguely space station-y feeling common to underground malls, produced when artificial lighting bounces off of highly polished surfaces and there are no natural cues to tip your body off as to what time of day it is. A large buffet restaurant sat in the middle, and a few shops – a tailor, clothing stores, a jeweler – and a food court surrounded it, but the main reason people came here was for the entertainment. Just inside and to the right of the doors was the entrance for 63’s IMAX theater, which, when I visited, was showing ‘Penguins 3D.’ Just next to the ticket counter various penguin dolls were for sale, and the lobby was filled with loud kids waiting to go in or having their picture taken in front of the show’s wall-sized poster or the diorama of stuffed penguins and polar bears (geography schmeography).
Down a hallway and around the corner was 63 SeaWorld, where two models of snarling Great White sharks marked the entrance. Korea’s first aquarium, it boasts 54 display tanks and pools that are home to over 400 species, among them stingrays, eels, tortoises, penguins, and seals, the last of which perform in shows. There are the old aquarium standbys of touch pools and an underwater tunnel as well. All in all, not bad, though I’d say that the aquarium at COEX is a bit better, despite its faults.
I continued past the aquarium and the smell of buttery grilled squid filled the air, coming from a small stand just a few steps from where families were filing in to see the fish, making me wonder about where they sourced their seafood.
Also on B1 is 63ARTHALL, a theater that hosts various performances in the evenings, or you could head down two stories to 63 Wax Museum. I’ve never, ever gotten the appeal of wax museums, though if that’s your thing (really?) this is probably the only one where you can feast your eyes on the waxy likenesses of King Sejong or Kim Gu alongside Barack Obama and David Beckham.
Really, though, up is where the once tallest building in Korea’s main attraction lies, and if the restaurants on the 57th, 58th, and 59th floors aren’t high enough for you, the 60th floor is home to an observation deck that doubles as 63 SkyArt, the self-proclaimed highest art gallery in the world. Take a look at the paintings and photography if you want, but the most stare-worthy sight is undoubtedly the one out the windows. Perched right on the banks of the Han, the 63 Building offers clear views in every direction, letting you take in the city’s buildings, mountains, and waters, all in one glimpse.
Traditional Turkish Vineyard House (터키 전통포도원 주택)
Hours | Weekdays 10:00 – 17:00
02) 2670-4089, 010-8903-8621
Saetgang Park (샛강생태공원)
U-turn, Cross Yeouidong-ro (여의동로), Descend stairs
63 Building (63빌딩)
Straight on Yeouidaebang-ro (여의대방로), Right on Gookjegeumyoong-ro (국제금융로), Left on 63-ro (63로)
Hours | 10:00 – 22:00 (Hours for specific attractions available on website)