The Cheonggyecheon: The Underground River of Seoul’s Future and Past

Scroll below for Cheonggyecheon Photos


Seoul: Repetitive Concrete or Emerging Visual Wonder?

There tends to be confusion when people write or think about Seoul.  Is Seoul one of the new great and must-see cities of Asia; or is it a city plagued by pollution, overpopulation, traffic and stale, archaic architecture?  After perusing the Internet, an individual could draw different conclusions.  According to a poll conducted by Lonely Planet (A well known travel publication with a very organic community), Seoul was the third most disappointing city to visit in the world.  According to one of its readers,  Seoul is

“an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it. . . So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.”

Those are harsh words.  However, there is conflicting information regarding Seoul.  In fact, it appears the New York Times has been involved in a recent love affair with Seoul.  While the poll conducted by Lonely Planet occurred in 2010, the Times placed Seoul number three on its list of thirty-one places to go in 2010.  The reasons provided by the Times revolved around the rapidly advancing design and fashion industry which included art exhibits, revamped fancy cafes to drink lattes, and an emerging culinary scene suited to please the most skeptical fashionista or cultural elitist.

So, how does the New York Times and one of the world’s foremost travel communities differ so much on their opinions of Seoul?  First, the community of Lonely Planet and the editors of the New York Times focused on different aspects of Seoul.  The Lonely Planet is built around budget traveling while the Times was clearly focusing on the more affluent side of Seoul’s culture.  Nevertheless, there is a better explanation for the discrepancy. Seoul is both claims. 

Seoul is ugly, polluted, crowded, and full of communist-style apartment buildings.  As an amateur photographer, I constantly have to post process the skies of Seoul in my photographs because they are constantly dreary and gray. 

On the other hand, Seoul looks amazing from the heights of the 63 Building.  The canvas, design, and color of the Seoul skyline is diverse and intriguing enough to make even Picasso’s head spin.  When I stand in Gangnam or Gwanghwamun Square, I’m in awe of such a modern and sophisticated looking city, and I often forget where I have been living for the last year and a half. 

A good portion of Seoul looks austere, run-down, and bland.  Yet even within these areas are bright lights, futuristic buildings with mega video displays, uniquely and fervently decorated restaurants or cafes, and birthing signs of a beautiful, intense and creative monster about to be unleashed from years of captivity.  In Seoul Ascending by John Bowe, he effectively captures the current state of Seoul.

“In what might be described as a hundred Bilbaos a-blooming, Seoul’s government has made an inspired decision to commission a retooling of Seoul’s heart, soul and mind, to tear up large swaths of the city and replace them with the best in cutting-edge global design. Like a makeover patient in a salon chair, covered in eye patches, bits of tin foil and skin wraps, the city is a patchwork of mega-construction sites like Daniel Libeskind’s Yongsan International Business District, a 32-million-square-foot multiuse complex that will yield an entire district; a brand-new high-tech, eco-friendly City Hall; and the 30-year Hangang Renaissance Project, whose parks, cultural areas and artificial islands along the Han River banks will create public access to open space and nature where literally none existed. The flagship of Seoul’s design investment is Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a cluster of biomorphic forms surrounding the old city wall, featuring a museum, library and retail space as well as 323,000 square feet of green space.”

If anything, Seoul is a product of its past.  Its appearance is the direct result of a recent meteoric and euphoric rise to prominence on top of a history of submission, war, and oppression.  How fast and far along has Seoul developed?  According to Kehl Beyern in “The Rise of South Korea,” South Korea was

“among the poorest countries in the world with income levels on par with African nations recently liberated from colonialism; yet, by the end of 2011 it was richer on average than the member states of the European Union. This gives South Korea the distinction of being one of the few states that has risen from aid-based to wealth within a relatively short time.”

The small peninsula of South Korea has progressed from being on par with the poorest nations in Africa to becoming the 15th largest economy in the world.  When an individual views Seoul through its proper filter, they should expect to see sprawling views of the past becoming infected with signs of recent success and an emerging future.  Museums, coffee shops, clubs, and restaurants are easily altered and begin to reflect changes before the major infrastructure of the city. Thus, I think both publications point to truisms about the state of Seoul.  The City of Seoul is in a major state of transition.  Its appearance looks caught in the past, but its recent success is beginning to manifest in the form of cultural hotspots followed by slower changes in the city’s infrastructure.


The Cheonggyecheon

This leads me to the my recent photo-shoot of the Cheonggyecheon.  The Cheonggyecheon was a forgotten stream buried under concrete and a highway in an overpopulated area of Seoul.  In 2003, against heavy opposition, Mayor Lee Myung-Bak initiated a restoration project to remove the highway and reopen the stream.  Since it opened, over 10 million visitors have enjoyed the stream and most of the objections have been silenced.  The stream’s renovation successfully met its goals of reintroducing nature to the city, promoting a more inviting urban design, and reducing the overall traffic of the city.  

The Cheongyecheon begins downtown near Gwanghwamun, flows through Dongdaemun, and eventually merges with the Jungnangcheon which empties into the Han River.  The total course runs nearly eleven kilometers, and the Cheonggyecheon has been divided into five zones.  Most expats and citizens of Seoul are familiar with Zones 1 and 2 which cover the downtown and the Dongdaemun area.  

However, the true beauty of the stream emerges in zone three as it begins to widen and becomes home to both bird and aquatic life.  The Cheonggyecheon possesses over twenty bridges and several landmarks.  The Cheonggyecheon represents the transitions taking place in Seoul.  Although its history dates back to the Joseon dynasty, its restoration is part of the process linking the opinions of budget travelers on this Lonely Planet to the cultural aficionados of the New York Times.  In Seoul, there exists a visual past and future.  The only question is if you would like to come witness the transformation.


Directions to the Cheonggyecheon

For directions to the Cheonggyecheon, I recommend taking line 5 on the subway to Gwanghwamun Station. I always suggest exit three for the amazing view. When you depart from the exit, you’ll be looking at the statue of King Sejong. Make a u-turn and walk in the opposite direction. Stay on the left side of the street and you will also pass the statue of Lee Sun Shin. Stay on the main road and walk until you see the bright red and blue cone. This is the start of the Cheonggyecheon. For other points of entry, please visit the official tourism site here.

Zone 1

Zone 2


Zone 3 and Beyond

Articles Cited and Links

Lonely Planet-Cities – So Misunderstood.


New York Times- 31 Places to go in 2010 and Seoul Ascending.


Demagaga- The Rise of South Korea 



12 Comments Add yours

  1. Absolutely AWESOME and inspiring photography Brent…..I always enjoy your work….


    1. kaliber411 says:

      We are huge fans of each other! I love your pictures of the Northwest, especially since I’ve never been!


  2. Those are some amazing shots, so glad I found your website!


    1. Thank you. And fear not, your creamy brown hairy balls made me quite hungry.


      1. Haha!! Thanks for stopping by, keep an eye out for more interesting concoctions I come up with! 😉


  3. Very shortly this web page will be famous amid all blog users, due to it’s nice articles or reviews


  4. Meghan says:

    I appreciate that you see the city for what it is: a sprout bursting through oppressive cement. Now I want to plan a day to walk the entirety of the 3 zones. Your blog is fantastically curated by the way.


  5. Kayla says:

    This photography is incredible! And I feel as if I have gained a true understanding of all aspects of Seol. Thanks!


  6. John Robinson says:

    Great Post and wonderful photos.
    I just spent ten days in S. Korea, 7 were in Seoul the others in Busan. I also appreciate the complexity and diversity of Seoul. I walked along Cheongyecheon, and enjoyed it very much. What I enjoyed as much is climbing up from the stream and wandering the many neighborhoods it bisects. They may not be touristy but show a genuine everyday life of Seoul that can easily be missed if one sticks to the “attractions.” Don’t miss the attractions they are popular for a reason, but get out and wander, and do as i did know where Cheongyecheon is and when you find it follow back to where you started, luckily for me the Westin Chosun was only a short walk away.
    Great site, wish I had seen it prior to my trip, will definitely use it to guide me on my next trip hopefully in Spring 2015.


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