Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wonseo-dong's Cheonggyecheon

The quitest side of Gahoe-dong, Wonseo-dong, is about 900 m long and 150 m wide, its Western half a hill covered with "villas" (mostly of the 2-3 story brick kind), and its Eastern half following Changdeokgung-gil, along the Western walls of the Changdeok palace.

Walking along Changdeokgung-gil can be an interesting experience. Starting from Yulgogno (or the palace's parking once you've visited Changgyeonggung), you quickly reach Bukchon-gil, with Yongsusan restaurant at the corner. You want to walk a little bit up that street to enjoy the view behind the walls, particularily at sunset, when the wooden side of Injeongjeon takes the most beautiful red-brown color.

The second section of Changdeokgung-gil displays more hanoks, two buddhist organisations (Eundeok Culture Center, Museum of Korean Buddhist Art), and a couple of small contemporary art galleries.

You then reach a more classic Seoul maeul with its small shops and services, and its non-descript buildings. Here, constructions occupy both sides of the street, but those hiding the palace wall will soon be destroyed. A small stream will be restored there. Nothing as spectacular as Cheonggyecheon but you can imagine how it may change dramatically the atmosphere, transforming this quiet place into a major tourist hub full of restaurants with terraces.

So you'd better enjoy the silence while it's there. Because at this stage of your walk, you cannot hear the city anymore, and the summer air feels much fresher and cleaner because of the mountain and the dense forest on the other side of the wall, next to Huwon (known as "Biwon" or "Secret Garden" during the Japanese occupation).

Further afield, you cross another street to your left, Changdeokgung 6-gil, and if you're riding a bike that's a mean slope, so we're just going to leave it for later.

Keep going straight ahead instead : the street doubles as you discover a more traditional maeul with a bigger proportion of hanoks. The biggest ones are owned by companies or associations, and one of them hosts the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine. Uphill, the hybrid hulks of a Chaebol house and a center owned by furniture maker Hanssem (DBEW - Design Beyond East & West).

At the end of the street, where the wall turns left, lies a small stone staircase leading to a streamlet, where people used to wash their clothes. If you go down, you can see the other side of the walls through a metal grille : an untended prairie below Sinseonwonjeon. In the other direction : two dark holes probably heading, under the concrete, towards the future restored stream. In the water : some plastic trash and two small live crayfishs. Welcome to downtown Seoul.

Go back to the crossroads, where the traditional home of painter Go Hee-dong was saved from certain destruction after neighbors alerted the authorities. Seoul city purchased the site and started restoring the building... at its pace. This house may be empty, it has some history and character, plus an interesting location... in a word : some potential to serve as a cornerstone for the revitalization of this part of Gahoe-dong.

Too many hanoks have been destroyed or replaced by two-three-storey-"villas" between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeok-gung, causing a legitimate uproar and new regulations. Unfortunately, as too often the case, destructions accelerated as soon as rumors of regulations started circulating. But Seoul intends to turn back the clock and restore as many hanoks as possible, starting with a house on Gye-dong-gil now hosting the "Bukchon Traditional Culture Center".

It seems a little bit too late for Changdeokgung 6-gil : as you climb the alley, all you can see are ugly brick "villas". Untill you reach the highest point, where hanoks are back with a vengeance. You're about to enter Gye-dong, another rectangle-shaped dong between Wonseo-dong and Gahoe-dong, and along Gye-dong-gil, which will lead you all the way back to Anguk Station.

Over the past few years and even months, Gye-dong-gil has been changing dramatically. Or rather drama-cally, since it owes much of its recent international fame to the doomed drama "Winter Sonata". I'm not adding "doomed" as a tribute to a two-penny scenario, but as a reminder of the curse this televisual joke cast on Korean image, culture, and tourism (see the red blogule I spilled on "
Bae Yong-june Airlines" a few years ago).

Whatever. A few scenes were shot at ChoongAng High School (JoongAng High School), which explains the two shops selling Hallyuwood artifacts, collectors and posters on both side of its entrance. History used to remember this site as the ground zero of the March 1st, 1919 movement, not the birthplace of a fake love story...

This shameless display of smiling plastic surgery wonders somehow sets the pace for the rest of Gye-dong-gil, a street progressively turning into a fly ribbon for Japanese tourists with its cosy, cute, and romantic cafes / gift / art and craft / flower / all of the above shops.

Miryang Son Mandu is neither cute nor 'bobo', nor even a hanok... but last time I passed by they were still making good dumplings, near the intersection with Bukchon-gil.

Hyundai Headquarters are definitely not a hanok. This tower marks the end of Gyedong-gil and of your stroll, unless you decide to either :

- stop at the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center, or
- follow the "hype" crew, heading westwards on Bukchon-gil for a restaurant in Gahoe-dong or Samcheong-dong, or
- stick to the few true "bourgeois-bohemes", who eventually decided to stay overnight in one of Gye-dong's five hanok guest houses

Take your pick.

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