Environment, Korea, Streams, Creeks & Rivers, Urban Walking
Comments 10

Down the Dirty River

I’ve been in Korea a couple of months now, and inevitably much of the novelty has gone. But I still get surprised quite frequently. The “pagan” bonfire was one example — falling down the drain was another — and there was a quaintly bizarre incident on my coastal walk last week that made me go, “You’re not in Sandgate anymore, Goat.”

That story soon.

Tonight I want to talk about my local river. It’s neither a pretty tale nor a pretty river, but I’ve been pretty positive in recent posts, and Disgruntled Goat…

From ‘The Simpsons’

..is bleating to be heard…

The tale begins on my second or third day in Jangyu, with a stroll to the Daecheong River, five minutes from home:

Downstream, the Daecheongcheon joins the Nakdong, longest river in Korea, part of the Pusan Perimeter in the Korean War:

My three years in Japan — and the mess I’ve described in my neighbourhood here — should have steeled me for what I encountered:

Just as in Japan, I slumped disconsolately along this pitiful waterway, which originates a few kilometres back on the slopes of Bulmo-San. It’s still pretty back there, with little cascades and beautiful forest. But the urge to Control, Concrete and Contain nature, so beloved in Japan, is obviously a favoured approach here too.

My immediate concern, however, was that dead cat. Someone, presumably in a primitive attempt at disposing of the body, had laid newspaper on it and set it on fire:

My stroll was just beginning.

A lot of people live within spitting distance of this dismal stream. Its banks are a favourite place of recreation. Perhaps in spring, when the trees bordering it are in leaf, or bloom, it’s a nicer place to stroll or sit and relax:

But it’s just so artificial. So ugly.

I’ve been in plenty of much bigger cities around the world where the rivers still look like rivers, even if they’re not in perfect health.

Someone in local government has a sense of humour:

That was my introduction to the Daecheongcheon.

A few weekends later I crossed the bridge one Sunday afternoon, heading to the local burger joint for lunch. I looked upstream at Bulmo-San, and down at these poor kids, who’ll grow up thinking this is what a river is meant to look like:

I’d climbed a mountain the day before, and suddenly had an idea for a less energetic afternoon hike. After my bulgogi burger, I returned to the river and started hiking its banks downstream.

This time it wasn’t the concrete that struck me (Ouch! Was that concrete?!) — it was the utter contempt shown to their waterway by so many locals.

See that soccer ball below? There’s not enough water for it to float, but notice that nobody plucks it out. And if you look at the pictures on this post, you’ll see six or seven of them, lying next to the other trash:

Was this a river, or an open drain?

Fido gone to that doghouse in the sky? No more need for a kennel? Chuck it in the river:

Got a pile of old computers and electrical stuff that’s past its prime? Wrap it in a blanket — keep it tidy — and chuck it in the river:

Down I went. I grew up taking my playground of beach and mangroves and estuary — and healthy creeks — for granted:

There must be some fish in the stream, because I saw the odd heron or egret valiantly probing the shallows. But God, I wish I could read that sign:

There was rubbish everywhere — from fast food wrappers to bottles and cans, from car parts and cigarette packs to broken toys and TV sets — on the banks and in the stream itself.

I’m not sure the concept of litter — let alone river ecology — is widely known in Korea. In two months I’ve counted four rubbish bins. Nobody drinks the tap water…

I left the tower blocks behind and entered the rural fringes. The older part of town, grimier and often in a state of decay:

I’m making it seem wholly bleak, but there were positives. I was off that infernal road, for one thing. The birds, the quiet. I even fancied that if I ignored the piles of citrus peel, the reeds clogging the stream…

..resembled the fields of golden corn in an old Bruegel print I have at home:

After a few years in Asia, you get good at this kind of thing.

No fat peasants feasting in the fields here, though:

I went through this dank underpass…

..and scared the hell out of some teenagers:

I left the river for a look at the Mugye Dolmen, which meant a traverse of an utterly filthy wasteland of backstreets — with more citrus peel, and yes, another ball:

This old house has been left to rot and cave in beneath the newer towers. You see this everywhere:

Back to the river.

My path ran out. I was just about in farmland. I approached a ginger cat — a live one — on the bank. It ran off. A stout old farm woman, who might indeed have stepped out of that Bruegel painting, started waving and calling out. I reluctantly approached her and she rattled on and on, presumably thinking me lost. I tried to assure her I knew all too well where I was.

Then I thought she was asking my age, so I scratched it in the dust with a convenient rusty can. She seemed satisfied, and — I think — told me her own, but I lack the vocabulary to confirm it. I started back upstream. The cat had made it to the opposite side of the river. When a cat can cross a river, you know that river’s in trouble.

My expedition down the Daecheong was over, and I wasn’t too disappointed.

An hour later, I reached the dead cat again. I was nearly home.

The Han River in Seoul — a cautionary tale. Thanks, Carl!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. I couldn’t really see the resemblance to the Bruegel painting at first, but then I dimmed the lights and squinted. Yes, you’re right, it’s the same!

    Are you telling me the river is that putrid that it’s actually a health risk to retrieve your soccer ball?!

    I think of some of the creeks we have here where they suddenly turn into a concrete storm water drain, but your local ‘river’ takes the cake I’m afraid (yellow cake?)

    I’m sure you’ve never been bailed up on a walk by someone wanting to know your age before. You’re getting an interesting collection of walks going over there!

    • Quite a contrast to the beautiful scenes you’ve been presenting lately, Greg! I suspect the balls are there through a combination of laziness and fear of dirt (rather than poison) — and very, very bad ball skills!

      Yes, the age thing. People here (and Japan) can be amazingly direct about such questions, considering how frustratingly indirect they usually are! I’ve been asked the question by lots of students as well.

  2. “Put the cat out.”
    “He’s on fire.”

    I wonder how much of that stuff hasn’t been washed down from higher ground during heavy rain… you’d be surprised what little creeks can turn into following a storm.
    But, yes, I wish people would respect their waterways.

    • Yes, ordinarily I might agree, Andrew — but I know what’s upstream as I’ve walked it several times, and there’s no housing, nothing. If it did enter the water up there, it’s because someone threw it in.

    • Haha, great! For a few delicious seconds I was lost in a bucolic riverine fantasy. I think I may have struck my head on an underpass.

      • Carl says

        Seems you are followed by a number of Bruegeliophiliacs. Ha! The reason that observation worked is because it actually IS quite similar in texture, but light years from Bruegel in every other way. Reminds me of the kind of parallel a Uni lecturer might draw, and at the time you think “Of course, how astute” but later you go “Hang on…thats friggin ridiculous”. Well done.

      • Astute, yet ridiculous — that’s me. Yes, I’ll take care not to upset the Bruegelists next time! Might get myself pitchforked…

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