IT’S a chilly night, the coldest since the past two I’ve spent here. It was expected, what with the constant drizzling and hazy overcast skies all the time. Here on the highway it’s even colder, if such a thing is possible. You’d never know travelling in a car with the windows rolled up. But on foot, it’s a whole different story.
I have walked down the gently sloping road from my hotel to the flyover. There is a small bridge off the main road, leading to a glass elevator. There is a restaurant on the opposite side, now closed, with a Buddha statue on its rooftop, outline faintly illuminated by the buildings in the background. A string of fairy lights frame its signboard, all in Korean.
The elevator finally arrives and two girls emerge, chattering to each other. I let them pass and step in. Seoul is relatively safe and peaceful, even for women, who can be seen walking down dimly lit streets late at night. No one turns to look and stare. Most people mind their own business.
The elevator only goes up. I feel like I’m in a sci-fi film, gliding vertically along in a transparent capsule, a portal to another dimension, another timeline.
Another dimension is indeed where I come out. The elevator may not be a real time machine, but from where I am standing, a little bit of both the past and the future can be seen. Constructed in 1970 to deal with traffic congestion, the Seoul Station overpass connected the east and west sides of the city for decades. But over the years, the highway gradually fell into disuse, and was officially closed in 2015.
But instead of pulling it down, the government gave it a makeover, with some foreign help. Reopened in 2017, the highway is now called Seoullo 7017 (the first two digits being the year it was started, the last two when it had a rebirth). Only this time, it accommodated pedestrians. It is 10 metres wide and around a kilometre long, but there are steps and escalators from place to place, so you can get off wherever you want.
In the darkness and silence of the night, I can see huge cylindrical planters sprouting flowers and shrubs. The planters are lit from underneath and the ground is bathed in the soothing deep blue. Near every planter there is a sign bearing the scientific name of its plant.
At first, as suspected, I see no one around since it’s 10pm and the main road traffic has thinned down greatly. But to my surprise, I soon spot people — and quite a few of them. Lone pedestrians, some with heads bowed low, hugging themselves to keep off the icy draft; friends walking in pairs and in larger groups, talking noisily and laughing — it is a different world up here.
So this is what it feels like to walk on a flyover, I think to myself. Obviously, flyovers are not a new concept — we have several in Pakistan. But when you are standing on one, the perspective changes completely. All of a sudden, the enormity of the structure itself — a seemingly never-ending road — and the tall buildings around, seem to reverse magnify your existence. You are an ant in giant city.
Seoul never seems to tire from lights and the city’s skyline is studded with jewels any given night, its urbanity and modernity standing in beautiful contrast with nature. Travelling near the Han River, one can see the shimmering reflection of the city’s lights, while the background is edged by its mysterious black hills.
I see a place called the Magnolia Café, (Come in We are Open!), serving hot coffee and baked products — any hot drink is welcome on a night like this. But as I contemplate giving in to the warm aroma of coffee, another sensation draws me, so I walk on.
Twelve-year old Chaeun, face framed by dark hair, is sitting at a big white piano, struggling to remember chords. Her mother, Namsung, stands by smiling proudly. I try to chat but they speak Korean, so we are left with speaking in gestures.
There isn’t just one piano here on the flyover — they’re scattered at random. An American group of teenagers is playing the next one, while another ahead of that is occupied by a lone man playing by himself. It’s truly mesmerising to be outside like this, listening to music, good or bad, being played in the night. I can’t help but be filled with longing to experience something similar back home, music freely performed in public.
The walkway has many stops — a tourist information centre, a café, a gift shop and plenty of eateries where people enjoy light meals and snacks. I’m not the only one feeling tranquil — one man sits alone, his back to the world, staring down at the brightly lit Namdaemun market below.
The cold wind hits my face but there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here right now. It is perfect, sitting in this sky garden, listening to gentle tinkling of a piano somewhere near, the notes scattered by the breeze.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2018