Posted on 03 June 2012.
Change is a constant theme on this blog, one that’s unavoidable when you talk about Seoul, but there are few places in the city that have undergone it quite so dramatically as Yeouido. In the Joseon era, this island, whose name literally translates to ‘Useless,’ served as a sheep and goat pasture, and that’s pretty much how it stayed until the Japanese built the country’s first airport here in the early 1900s. Still, it wasn’t until the ‘70s and Korea’s major industrialization that the island began its transformation into the financial and political center it is today.
This focus on finance and power has led Yeouido to sometimes be referred to as the ‘Manhattan of Seoul,’ in keeping with the unfortunate national habit of making overstretched and not very accurate comparisons (see: Jeju is the Hawaii of Korea; Garosugil is the Paris of Korea; Seoul National University is the Harvard of Korea). Despite the rather overextended metaphor, Yeouido does exude an air of Serious Business, and its status as the country’s seat of economic power does at least mirror that of Gotham. Hit up the neighborhood around noon on a weekday and watch the sidewalks turn into rivers of power suits.
When you step out of the subway station, the first thing you notice is, of course, the many tall office buildings, most of them covered in various hues of tinted glass – purple, cobalt, black, aquamarine. There’s so much reflective glass in this neighborhood that if you left some kindling out on the street, sooner or later the sun would probably hit the right angle and it would catch fire. Many of the buildings exhibit commissioned outwork out front, usually a sculpture in a style that emphasizes geometry over detail.
Yeouido isn’t all work and no play, however, as I found out via a few hours in the neighborhood on a late autumn afternoon. The island has some of the city’s nicest green spaces, and is one of the best spots in the city for recreational biking.
Seoul initiated a public bike system just over a year ago, and although the city’s size and terrain have kept its scope relatively limited thus far, the program’s proved popular and there are plans to expand. If you’re looking for a free ride in Yeouido, however, you’re in luck, as it’s the program’s hub. All over the island you’ll find racks of crimson and white bikes available for public use. They’re free for the first 30 minutes, after which you’ll have to pay a very modest fee. Alternatively, you can purchase a one-month or six-month subscription. More info is on the website (Korean only).
At first glance, Yeouido might seem like an odd place to set up a public bike program like this, but it’s got a few things working in its favor that made it a sensible place to start. For starters, it’s flat, which much of Seoul is not. The wide roads and sidewalks leave plenty of room for bikes (practically every street on Yeouido has a bike lane), and there’s a lot of parkland as well.
And those parks? They’re good ones. We’ll start with Yeouido Park (여의도공원) (which we also visited when we went to Yeouinaru Station), a long strip that divides the island in half, just a couple blocks from Exit 3.
Yeouido Park is divided into four sections: Traditional Korean Forest (한국전통의 숲), Grassy Field (잔다마당), the Cultural Events Plaza (문화의 마당), and Ecological Forest (자연생태의 숲), from northeast to southwest. If you come from the station you’ll first arrive at the Cultural Events Plaza, a paved expanse dominated by an enormous taegeukki waving in the breeze. Its edge is ringed with pickup basketball courts, most of which were being used when I passed by. There were also fathers playing catch with sons and a pair of old ladies sharing a tandem bike. Stands on the plaza rent out balls and rollerblades if you don’t have or don’t want to bring your own. As its name implies, the plaza also hosts events and concerts, and on the day I was there a group of workers was setting up a stage for some type of performance. While they worked, the enormous sound system blared out the same adult contemporary song over and over again.
South of the plaza, the Ecological Forest was peaceful, save for the Olivia Newton-John soundalike wailing through the trees. A boardwalk loops through the trees in this section, which the signage says depicts miniature versions of a variety of eco-zones. I came across a photo shoot taking place on one stretch of the walk, a not uncommon occurrence in the park, which is a popular place for shoots, both professional and amateur, thanks to its varied and picturesque scenery.
On the other side of the plaza, the Grassy Field is an open space of gently undulating knolls, dotted with trees. It’s a great place for a picnic in warm weather or for playing in the snow in winter. Like in the Ecological Forest, there’s a small pond here, overlooked by a country-style thatch-roofed pavilion. In the northeast corner you’ll find a statue of King Sejong the Great, similar to the one in Gwanghwamun.
The Traditional Korean Forest, at the far north end, is a simple, unflashy section where walking paths wend between the trees, all of which are species native to Korea. There’s another pond here, at the divide between the forest and the field. It’s probably the prettiest one in the park, and as I admired it I watched four ducks paddle around and occasionally plunge into the water in search of something to eat.
The other park on Yeouido is the Yeouido Saetgang Ecological Park (여의도 샛강 생태공원), which forms the island’s southeastern border and connects with the Hangang Park to create a green loop encircling Yeouido. A short walk from Exit 1, this is, without exaggerating, one of the nicest green spaces in Seoul. Though it’s an engineered wetland, the sculpting is minimal and prevents the park from feeling artificial, save for a couple spots. Even in those spots, however, I was so taken by just how damn nice the place was that I hardly cared.
Although it’s not quite big enough to get lost in – the drone of traffic is always present, often visible, and the tops of office and apartment towers hog the horizon – it’s still the most ‘natural’-feeling place that I can remember visiting in Seoul, with the possible exception of Bukhansan. On the mountain, however, you almost always have to contend with crowds, whereas in the Ecological Park you can frequently find yourself alone on the dirt walking paths, with nothing for company but the bent willow trees and the breeze rattling dried reeds like rainsticks.
Near the entrance to the park from Exit 1 is a small stream and cascade that tumbles into a pond where two more ducks, one white, one brown, were bobbing up and down. Above the pond is the wonderful Saetgang Bridge (샛강다리), a pedestrian span linking Yeouido with Yeongdeungpo. This thin, curvaceous span has two triangular wings formed by cables linking diagonal poles with the walkway, making it look like a lithe metallic dragon.
Lastly, something that doesn’t really fit in anywhere else in this post because it’s just so, well, weird, but that I have to mention because, well, precisely because it’s so weird. While I was walking down Geukjegeumyung-ro (극제금융로) from Yeouido Park back to Yeouinaru-ro (여의나루로) I walked past a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and literally had a Wait…did I just see what I think I saw? moment. Was there a car parked inside that Coffee Bean? Were there four cars parked inside? There were. And there were people reading at tables just as natural as can be, completely indifferent to the fact that at the next table there wasn’t actually a table. There was a car.
I looked up at the Coffee Bean sign. A Hyundai one was right next to it. Was it a café with a showroom in the middle of it? Or was it a showroom surrounded by a café? It was like one of those perceptual illusions: Is it a young woman or an old hag? A vase or two people facing each other? The questions didn’t end there. I get the appeal of having a coffee while you look at new cars, but why would you want to drink coffee surrounded by a bunch of mid-priced family-friendly sedans? Wouldn’t the scent of coffee interfere with that new car smell, and vice versa? How soon will I be able to sip on a Frappuccino while I browse whiteware? And, most pointedly: Huh? (To see it for yourself, go out Exit 4 and turn left on Geukjegeumyung-ro.)
Yeouido Park (여의도공원)
Yeouido Saetgang Ecological Park (여의도 샛강 생태공원)