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Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream: History to Know, and Where to Go

Seoul’s Famous Cheonggyecheon

The History

The Cheonggyecheon is a stream that runs through Jongno-gu in downtown Seoul. Fed by water from the Suseongdong Valley in Mount Inwang, it flows west to east, meeting the Jungnangcheon and then emptying into the Han River.

The Cheonggyecheon in 1904, then called ‘Gaecheon’.

Cheonggyecheon in Joseon

Originally, it was a naturally formed, naturally flowing stream. It was an essential resource for people living in the area, but it was also a great hazard to people’s lives. Korea’s winters are incredibly dry, but its summers are very humid, with a monsoon season dropping massive amounts of rain on the country for a month straight. As such, the stream was prone to flooding, causing immediate danger to the people living alongside it. The reigns of Kings Taejong and Yeonjo of the Joseon era saw the stream go through construction to build bridges and walls, as well as further maintenance to turn it into part of the city’s drainage system. As such, it was named ‘Gaecheon’ meaning ‘open stream’.

A Blight on Seoul

During the Japanese occupation period, which lasted from 1910 until 1945, the stream was renamed ‘Cheonggyecheon’ as we call it today, which means ‘clean natural stream’. Though an increase in population as well as industrialisation had prevented it from living up to this name. As such, the Japanese nicknamed it the “city’s cancer”, and even attempted to cover it up after calls from residents to ‘fix’ the issue of the dirty stream, though financial restrictions prevented them from doing so.

Credit: unknown

After the end of the Korean war in 1953, Seoul saw an influx of people relocating to the city, and as many people situated themselves along the stream, this once-clean water source became polluted. Ramshackle shelters were built along its edges, trash was discarded into it, and its sandy nature only amplified its problems, leading to it becoming a huge eyesore for the city.

Cheonggyecheon in 1968. Credit: Homer Williams

In 1958 work began to cover the stream. In a project lasting nearly 20 years, ending in 1976, the Cheonggyecheon was hidden under an elevated motorway that stretched 5.6km. Factories and markets were built alongside the highway, as well as the famous 31 Building – Seoul’s very first office block and, at 31 floors and 110 metres high, was the tallest building in Seoul on completion of its construction in 1970. The Cheonggye Road, as the highway was named, became a symbol of Korea’s successful industrialisation and budding modernisation.

Credit: City of Seoul

Cheonggyecheon: Renewing Nature

The Cheonggyecheon remained concealed and forsaken for over 25 years. It wasn’t until 2003, under the view of Seoul’s then-mayor Lee Myung-bak, that work started on the stream to remove the highway and restore the stream: in its neglect it had run nearly dry. As part of the city’s attempt to bring nature back into the capital, the Cheonggyecheon was restored by fixing its deteriorated concrete and pumping 120,000 tonnes of water in from the Han River and groundwater from subway stations, as part of a full restoration project to turn the stream into a modern, eco-friendly area, and one that preserved history and culture, which was completed in just two years.

The Cheonggyecheon as we now know it reopened in 2005, and have evolved even further from the clean, urban stream that it was at the time. Nowadays, the Cheonggyecheon see 60,000 daily visitors, including Seoul residents and tourists from near and far. It plays host to a variety of lantern festivals, art installations, and other cultural events, and is home to many species of plants, fish and birds.

What to See and Do at the Cheonggyecheon

Cheonggyecheon Stream

The Cheonggyecheon plays host to many festivals and cultural events all year round. The most popular are the light festivals, which usually happen around Buddha’s birthday in May, and also sometime in the autumn. It’s also fun to go during the summer, when they often have an overhead art installation of sorts – usually umbrellas! Also, around Christmastime you can see light displays and concerts in the evenings.

Credit: Trip.com

As well as festivals and arts events, its popular to simply go for a walk along the stream. People often picnic on the steps by the edge of the water, or even let their feet dangle in the water during hot weather.

Two particular areas of the stream worth walking are the main Cheonggye Plaza with its waterfall and fountain down to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you can meet the end of Seoul’s city wall. Walking this way will take you beneath Supyo Bridge, built in 1420 and renamed for the water level installed next to it after it was invented by the king at the time, King Sejong. You’ll also pass below Gwangtong Bridge; the biggest of all the Cheonggyecheon’s bridges built during the Joseon era, constructed in 1410 and which contains the stones from the tomb of Queen Sindeok, intentionally placed upside down by the 3rd king of Joseon King Taejong, demonstrating his power and ruthlessness that got him the throne.

Credit: Mina Oh

Another area worth visiting, where you can see part of the Cheonggyecheon’s more modern history, is the section just south of Sinseoldong Station, where the Seongbukcheon meets the Cheonggye. It’s here that you can see some of the concrete support pillars that held up the highway that existed over the stream for nearly 30 years.

Cheonggyecheon Huts

Credit: Travel Notes

The ramshackle houses of the 1960s may not longer exist, but you can see a replica of them by visiting the Cheonggyecheon huts experience centre. It’s a reconstruction of several buildings that used to be there, including homes, a convenience store, coffee shop, a comic book store, and even a school. They feature authentic relics and daily items from the time, and you can also try on old-style Korean school uniform.

How to get there: 530, Cheonggyecheon-ro, Seongdong-gu, Seoul
Yongdu station (line 2, Seongsu branch), exit 5, Jegi-dong station (line1), exit 4, opposite the Cheonggyecheon Museum.
When to go: Open Tuesday – Sunday. Closed on Monday. Free entry.
Accessibility: Enter from street level by a small ramp to the wood decking entrance. Narrow access inside the buildings.

Cheonggyecheon Museum

Not far from the Cheonggyecheon huts is the Cheonggyecheon Museum. The two locations are actually connected but offer quite different opportunities. At the Cheonggyecheon museum you can learn more about the history of the stream in its many iterations, and also find out about its ecology.

How to get there: 530, Cheonggyecheon-ro, Seongdong-gu, Seoul
Yongdu station (line 2, Seongsu branch), exit 5, Jegi-dong station (line1), exit 4.
When to go: Open Tuesday – Sunday. Closed on Monday. Free entry.
Accessibility: Enter via a flight of stairs, or via an accessibility ramp. Navigation inside is via wide hallways with smooth flooring.

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