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Friday, November 14, 2008

Open Air Pool

August 2008. It's been too hot for too long, and I'm receiving the first few drops. Nothing serious yet, but it will change quickly. And I forgot to bring an umbrella.

The first shelter is 10 m behind, a taxi waiting 20 m ahead. I decide to go ahead.

Wrong pick. All of a sudden hell breaks loose and whole buckets start falling over me. The time to reach the cab, I'm soaked to the bone.

The drivers studies me and his face tells it all : "I'm sorry, but I can't take you : you would ruin my seats".

Stupidly standing under the pouring rain, I'm cursing myself. I've got no choice but to walk back home.

And then I realise that I can also swim back home.

Cheonggyecheon is right in front of me but I won't even have to step in : right now, it's as if I were already in the streamlet, taking a shower. Besides, the water feels good and warm. So why not enjoy it fully ?

I'm "swimming" on the sidewalks with a big smile on my face, now. Crammed under small umbrellas, passers-by roll their eyes or smile back. Some look almost jalous. At the Jongno-Sejongno crossing, I meet a fellow swimmer. We wave happily at each other, and for the first time I understand that we are the only ones not looking stupid, after all. It's a beautiful city, a beautiful day, a beautiful moment.

Home is getting closer and I'll have to find a way in without flooding the entrance. But that's a different story.

Gwanghwamun Square

The new Gwanghwamun Square (광화문 광장) will be inaugurated in June 2009.

Actually, the square is a rectangle stretching over 740 m all along Sejongno, from Gwanghwamun itself (still under renovation in its original location) to the Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin at the cross with Jongro and Shinmunro.

Until now, eight lanes of traffic were separated by a thin green band hosting old gingko trees. The idea is to develop the central section, open it to the public, and turn the whole street into a large plaza for special occasions. So this rectangle will be 10 to 34 m wide depending on the days, and much bigger if you include the large pavements on both sides.

The street itself will be fully paved to turn the landscape into a continuous plane of mineral and water. Forget about natural shade in the central part... I gather authorities wanted to make sure they could easily monitor crowds in such a strategic space. A reminder ? Within a few hundred meters : Korea's Presidential Grounds (Cheonghwadae) and Central Government buildings, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the US Embassy...

People will access this new cultural hub via lateral pedestrial crossings, and a gentle slope starting from Gwanghwamun Station, under Yi's feet. The Admiral will have some company : a statue of King Sejong himself, a little higher on the strip. After all, this road is named after him, not the great commander. Besides, two Haechi statues are to be installed on each side of Gwanghwamun. And not just to celebrate the new symbol of Seoul (see "Goodbye HiSeoul, hello Haechi") : you can see the stone lions on almost every old picture of Gwanghwamun.

On certain pictures, a streamlet appears in front of the gate. The Junghakcheon, which connected to Cheonggyecheon, will be restored on the Eastern side of the Square, but symbolically : in this one meter wide and five centimeter deep Amazon, even maemis should be safe from drowning (remember "Save Korean Maemis" ?). More spectacular waterworks shall animate Gwanghwamun Square around Yi Sun-shin.

The concept ? 600 hundred years of history celebrated in thematic sections, with a central section devoted to "Art" which, thanks to the new pedestrian crossings, almost draws a bridge between two local cultural spots : the Sejong Cultural Center and the less famous KT Building, a cool place where I like to have a drink while listening to decent jazz (friendly live concerts).

Overall, it will reinstate downtown's traditional center and shorten distances between major cultural places. Passers-by will again own the heart of the city, and enjoy a better view on its most prestigious and beautiful perspective : Yi, Gwanghwamun, Gyeongbokgung, Cheonghwadae, Bukhansan.


A movie on the restoration :

ADDENDUM 20090730 and 20090811

see updates right before the inauguration ("Gwanghwamun Square - Preview") and a few days after ("Gwanghwamun Plaza - The Aftermath").

Seoul Velib'

I enjoyed my first ride on a Seoul city free bicycle, and it definitely beats the Parisian Velib'.

Well... actually, I didn't use the automatic system (not implemented yet in Jongno-gu*), but the simple rental service, a partnership between the "gu" and the condo. Each building has its own 10-bike station, and as a resident, I don't have to pay anything. I just have to check-in and check-out at the management during office hours. When the full systems work, I can just like in France pick up any bike I fancy anywhere and drop it at any station.

On the upside, it's free and there is no time limit : I just have to bring it back before the office closes (the coach wouldn't turn into a pumpkin, but my face might be flushing like a strawberry). And since it works with a standard lock, I can park almost anywhere.

Beyond the concept, the green bicycle itself is really comfortable and quite light : since (unlike Parisians) Seoulites don't tend to vandalize nor steal things, the City didn't have to order Velib'-style 500-pound armored tanks. You wouldn't want to ride the Grey Panzer on such a hilly city. I wish this V1 came with headlights, though.

Another thing : Seoul was not meant for bicycles, and cars keep ruling the traffic. Few drivers are used to 2-wheel vehicles and that can be dangerous, particularily on a big road. Still, the situation is changing dramatically and very quickly : many kids learn to ride, bike shops have been multiplying over the past five years, tens of kilometers of bike lanes are created every year, and the local administration is more than eager to accelerate the process.

If many axes are already covered (ie you can ride marathons along the riversides), some touristic hubs could be improved. For instance, I was disappointed to see** no specific lane or crossing on the Sejongno restoration project in Gwanghwamun, which at least (and at last!) empowers the passer-by at the heart of the city.

Anyway. Lanes or no lanes, Seoul is definitely on the right track.

I rediscovered my native Paris with the Velib' and I intend to do the same in Seoul.

* For instance, Gangnam-gu plans : 250 stations and 3,000 bikes, 30 mn free + 1,000 KRW / 30 mn (see "Bike craze has Seoul putting in a ‘Velib’ program" - JoongAng Ilbo 20081021)

** To be honest, I only saw drawings and paintings of the project... and in this country artist's renderings are as trustable as three-dollar bills, particularily when buildings or real estate are involved.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Korea snubs History

As History unfolded itself yesterday, South Korea lamely produced this first official statement : we will not renegociate the US-ROK FTA.

Come on.

Even Iran came out with a white flag. China's Premier Wen Jiabao made a new display of his great intelligence, and only Russia uttered harsh critics via Dmitri Medvedev.

This is not only the worst way of starting a discussion but an embarrassingly counter-productive way of showing muscle.

Instead of congratulations (not to mention French-style contrition for the way the country is coping with multi-ethnicity at home), this friendly country acted if it were the sole member of an obsolete, Bush-era-, segment-of-one- coalition of the unwilling.

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