“Lets just dump them in the Han River,” the American military doctor tells Mr. Kim in the opening scene of the Bong Joon-ho directed film, The Host (괴물).
“Pour them into the sink. Empty every bottle to the very last drop. And that’s an order.”
The 2006 action flick starring Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona was inspired by real historical events. In July 2000, the US military admitted to dumping 75 litres of the toxic chemical formaldehyde into the River Han. The South Korean government has since pledged to clean up the river, which also serves as the drinking water source to over 12 million people.
The River Han spans nearly 500km in length and flows tortuously through central Seoul. This inlet to the Yellow Sea had a mythic place in my psyche: countless Korean dramas and movies have been filmed on this very location.
It’s never a dull moment: runners and ambulatory enthusiasts can be found on the pedestrian walkway at any time of the day. Bike tourism has experienced a surge in growth in recent years. The Hangang (한강/漢江) bike path is part of the 4 Rivers Trail that opened in 2012. The network of trails extends south to Busan, which is a popular route among avid cyclists.
At Ttukseom Hangang Park on the river’s north side, dragonflies hum in the autumn air and the wind whistles across the water. The river was used for the rowing regatta during the 1988 Summer Olympics. Across from the park, Seoul Olympic Stadium sits empty and idle–a harrowing contrast to its glory days. With no occupant, the stadium has not hosted a major sporting event since the summer games.
Time passed quickly while I was withdrawn in saunter. Nightfall drew near as I approached Banpo Bridge. The Moonlight Rainbow Fountain set the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest bridge fountain. It was installed September 2009 and shoots as far as 43 metres horizontally. 28 water pumps and 380 nozzles draw 190 tons of water from the river itself and is continuously recycled.
Hunger befell me: a sign that I should retire for the day. I continued on however, choosing to finish at Dongjak Bridge. I look out in the distance to see Seoul Metro Line 4 crossing the river and quickly vanish from my line of vision.
My woes began when I realized leaving the waterfront would not be simple and clear. Dusk settled into the sky when I reached the base of Dongjak Bridge. My discernment for an exit was severely hindered by the darkness. A jolt of panic rushed through my mind and my chest raced like a beating fist. I was lost and needed a deep breath of air to push back the anxiety.
I took a few moments to scan my surroundings to spot a staircase that ascends to the bridge-top. The Gangbyeon Expressway unfortunately separated me from its accessibility. It was a test in patience to not cave to frustration and thankfully, a discreet passage caught my attention soon enough. A tunnel went underneath the motorway and to my checkpoint.
Atop the bridge, a walking path runs adjacent to traffic briefly before it descends into a car park below. The sudden transition in locale had me confused and bewildered. I traipsed through the alien environment by either divine stupidity or great faith. It paid off fortunately. A pedestrian bridge revealed itself on the opposite end of the parking lot.
I took a short break to look over 서빙고로길 (Seobinggoro Street). The cluster of apartment towers surrounded by highway gave this district a profound sense of being nowhere. It didn’t occur to me the National Museum of Korea was hiding in plain sight.
The walk to Ichon Station was lengthier than I imagined, which didn’t bode well. My feet burned from pounding so much pavement. Cars, buses and scooters sped by on the six-lane roadway. Urban life replaced the riverside serenity but my mind had stored enough images of the excursion to last a lifetime.