Editor’s Note: With a new photographer coming on board, we’re taking the opportunity to experiment with a new layout. We’d appreciate some feedback, so let us know what you think, either in the comments thread or on Seoul Sub→urban’s Facebook page. Thanks! And now, I’ll let Joshua introduce himself…
New photographer’s note: Hi, my name’s Joshua. I’ve been living in Seoul for nearly a decade and I’ve been a reader of Seoul Sub→urban since near its beginning. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to explore this city even more and have the chance to contribute to this great project. What else? By day I run a training firm, 1221, and in my off time I run (literally run) most everywhere in the city: it always surprises me how far one can jog in Seoul without crossing roads. Taking pictures is how I remind myself to slow down and focus, as well as share this city and what is hidden within it.
Outside of Exit 5, Olympic-ro (올림픽로) was lined with ginkgos, autumnal torches with their tops aflame in yellow. Pines were showing their first signs of rust. I swung a quick left onto Olympic-ro-51-gil (올림픽로51길), and up ahead was an incongruous green slope between buildings, like the berm that train tracks often run on top of.
That green slope was Pungnaptoseong (풍납토성), the ancient earthen fortification that once surrounded what was likely the first capital of the Baekje dynasty (18 BCE – 600 CE), Hanseong Wiryeseong. We’ve already covered the history of Pungnaptoseong in some detail in our recent Cheonho post and the history of its sister structure, Mongchontoseong, in the post for that station, so I won’t rehash all of that information again here. What’s unique about the remaining section of wall near Gangdong-gu Office Station, compared to those at Cheonho and Mongchontoseong, is its size. While the latter two have more on-site information and auxiliary facilities, this portion of Pungnaptoseong is relatively plain, featuring only the rectangular glass plaques common at Seoul historical sites, but is twice the size of the section adjacent to Cheonho Station. Cutting a large J through the neighborhood’s apartment buildings (Most of the side of the wall nearest the Han River was washed out in a 1925 flood.), here Pungnaptoseong is just a long stretch of earthen mound, sequestered by shin-high ropes and bordered by a walking path on one side. In its plainness it reminded me of the Circus Maximus in Rome, where I lived for a short time in college. While the Coliseum and Forum more or less matched my preconceived ideas about them, the Circus, scene of epic chariot races, was just this underwhelming open space where people walked their dogs. It held a vague, slightly ghostly architectural shape, but compared with so much else in Rome there was precious little to hint at its importance. Bordered by old apartment buildings and its path used by people to walk their dogs, Pungnaptoseong had a similar anonymity.
I started walking along the path, going northeast, beginning near a guy selling grapes from a truck parked on the street, the recorded sales pitch mingling with the radio from a nearby store. The grass on Pungnaptoseong looked freshly mowed and a couple of empty plastic beer bottles lay crushed on the grass at the mound’s base. Most of the surrounding neighborhood seemed a bit more Gangbuk than Gangnam, with older, simpler apartments, red brick buildings, and small local businesses. Reaching the top of Pungnaptoseong’s J, I briefly swung back out to Olympic-ro, which was lined with paint stores and businesses selling windows, bath fixtures, piping, or ventilation systems, before heading back and looping around to the other side of the earthen wall. There was no walking path there, so I started to wander through the adjacent back streets, where I passed cram schools, dry cleaners, and a senior citizen care center. It was remarkably quiet, and in some places one of the loudest sounds was the brittle leaves tumbling along the pavement. Walking south, the skyline ahead of me was a single unbroken screen of identical apartment towers, the huge Parkrio development near Mongchontoseong.
At the far end of Pungnaptoseong the structure made a wide U-turn next to the highway before ending in a parking lot and a small park at the tip of the J’s hook, and it was near here that I watched an ajumma blatantly disregard the rope and troop right over the top of the mound to get to the apartment building on the other side.
Further south, nearer Olympic Park, apartment complexes and other buildings were slightly newer. Walking that direction from Exit 4 also brought me to the last, blunt, unlovely section of the Seongnae Stream (성내천), where it ends its journey to the Han by flowing down a straight concrete channel alongside a flood pumping station. It might leave the view spoiled, but at least it should prevent another disaster like 1925’s. Above the stream was a long, straight walking and bike path leading towards the Han River Park, shaded by trees on either side, their leaves turning crimson.
If you follow the Seongnae upstream, to Olympic-ro’s Exit 3 side, it takes you into Olympic Park (올림픽공원), and here the stream is gorgeous, running around beds of reeds and droopy willows, some of autumn’s first fallen leaves drifting atop the current. From a bridge leading towards the rest of the park I could see the great lump of Mongchontoseong in the background, walkers silhouetted at its top, backed only by the blue sky and, off in a distant corner, mountains outside the city.
At the Gangdong-gu Office entrance to Olympic Park was a tall statue that looked something like a cubist-industrialist saguaro cactus. Composed of metal cubes and triangles that gleamed in the afternoon sun, it’s a representation of a chiljido (칠지도), the seven-pointed Baekje sword that you’ll see in logos and on numerous signs in the area, not least of all at the excellent Seoul Baekje Museum (한성백제박물관) on the south side of the park. Follow the path down from the statue and it will bring you past two football pitches, one a women’s pitch, the other the Songpa Football Stadium for the Blind (송파시각장애인축구장), the latter much like a futsal pitch, with low walls on the sides and mini-goals.
Looking at a map of the area you might notice that the northern corner of Olympic Park is sliced off from the rest, cut off by Gangdong-daero (강동대로) as it veers toward the ramp to Olympic Bridge (올림픽대교). I had thought there’d be an underpass connecting the two sections, but there wasn’t, and in fact that triangle on the other side turned out to not be part of Olympic Park at all, but a completely different park, Seongnae Reservoir Ecological Park (성내유수지생태공원).
Walking back towards the station, I came to a viewing platform above the eco park that looked out over a smattering of willows and other trees among a small sea of reeds. The reeds were brown with autumn, and their tops had all turned to feathery seed heads, bowed over, a soft grayish-white so that when they swayed in the wind the effect was not unlike the froth atop ocean waves. From the sidewalk, the staircase leading down to the park was rather shamefully littered with seven or eight coffee cups, cigarette butts, and even three pizza boxes. At the base of the stairs was the entrance to a boardwalk that circled through the park, and when standing on the boardwalk the tops of the surrounding reeds were just below eye-level, which made the surroundings feel larger and more expansive than they actually were. From that vantage point the sun caught the seed heads square, seeming to light them up and turn them as white as a grandfather’s hair. About halfway through, the boardwalk brought me to a platform built around the base of a willow, what seemed like the perfect spot for an in-the-city summer picnic.
Outside Exit 2, Seongnae-ro (성내로) led past the Gangdong-gu District Office, opposite which was a small plaza with what looked to be a fountain for use in summertime. Restaurants, banks, phone shops, and billiard halls lined the road, and a bit further down was a large construction site where rebar poked up out of a giant open pit.
Near Seongnae-ro’s eastern end was what the Gangdong District website calls Imitation Accessory Street. Designated a specialized area in 1999, 224 shops here sell supplies and accessories for making jewelry: pendants, earrings, bracelets, tiny round beads in dozens of different colors. Walking among the shops I passed a window where sparkly fake diamond necklaces rested on heart-shaped black velvet display busts. In another, stud earring varieties were pinned on display boards like specimens of tiny exotic insects in a collector’s study. One store’s front window was filled nearly top to bottom with shelves holding bags full of gold hoop earrings, each bag a different size or shape: heart, square, starburst. There were rhinestone studded skulls and gilded butterfly brooches and plastic jugs holding tiny silver charms. Strands of fake pearls in shades of aquamarine and pink hung from racks in one shop, gold and silver necklaces in another, and, in a third, spools of bronze-colored chain were lined up, ready to be cut to custom ordered length. Stumbling back toward the station, I felt as if I’d woken from an Etsy fever dream.
Left on Olympic-ro-51-gil (올림픽로51길)
Seongnae Stream (성내천)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Olympic Park (올림픽공원)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Seongnae Reservoir Ecological Park (성내유수지생태공원)
Straight on Olympic-ro (올림픽로)
Imitation Accessory Street
Straight on Seongnae-ro (성내로)