River of life
The Jungang Line (Central Line) lances deeper into the hinterland every year, adding new stations faster than official maps can keep up.
Casting off from Yongsan Station, we drift lazily by the whitewashed terraces of homes, with their snapshots of daily lives ― people striding through alleyways; housewives patrolling rooftops, stacked with kimchi pots; split-second glimpses of backyards and balconies.
The train canters through the sprawling industrial heartland, with its jagged functional skyline. On and on, past seemingly endless urban conurbation, we are accompanied at every turn by the mighty Han River. Flowing through time, it has been the only constant in this changing landscape. Its glistening expanse is the only thing to attract the eyes of the listless passengers, who look up as if expecting something wonderful to happen.
Gradually the view changes to a gentler jumble of oval brown hills decorated with pretty pines or manicured burial mounds. The mountains rise as we enter Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, with its layered, brooding valleys, fringed with even-aged conifers. There are occasional abandoned hanok, with their delightful angled rooftops; neat scrupulous smallholdings, and frothy white upland brooks, frozen in motion.
The train sighs to a halt. Suddenly its contents spill out onto the platform: an immaculate sailor returning home; a raucous gang of hikers, armed with walking poles and soju; a phalanx of giggling middle school girls, with hands covering their mouths and eyes averted downwards; a mother in pink and green hanbok, animatedly giving orders from her cell phone.
Permeating the frigid morning air, a thick mist lends the river an enchanted quality. Slowly it rolls back, bringing into focus a gloriously wide, shallow stretch of water ― perhaps an ancient floodplain ― braided with bars of gravel and rocky spits; dotted with tiny islets, each one topped with tufts of tall grasses and trees.
As I walk past the ochreous swathes of riverside reeds, nervous Coots begin to patter away; sedate pairs of Goosanders glide to safety, leaving swirling dimples of bright water in their wake. Further out, whispering ice floes go gently by, and there are dark, ruffled veins of rapids, worked by busy Goldeneyes diving for clams.
A distant procession of swans trace the invisible paths of the ice. Weary groups of willows are huddled in various poses along the bank, like a resting army. The only sounds are the ricochet of far away voices, or the gentle slap of ice shelves, which hang suspended over the shallows.
Time passes. Perhaps hours, perhaps only minutes. Suddenly, spotted by the weak winter sun, a large shadow glides over the face of the waters. The king of the winter world, the Steller's Sea Eagle, moves on powerful, sweeping wings: and in its golden talons it bears a freshly-caught fish. Alighting on a far-off sandbar, he pauses to glare in my direction. His majestic figure is somewhat undermined, however, by his bemused, wide-eyed expression, and the fact that a pair of Large-billed Crows have begun to nip his tail. He bows below his snowy shoulders to tear his catch. He dines quickly, before washing his beak in the water. Large flakes of snow begin to fill the air.
This is exactly the kind of habitat where biodiversity thrives. Yet this unspoiled stretch of river, and this endangered eagle, survive only by happy accident ― with no formal government policy, organization or plan to protect either.
At any moment this waterway could be dredged, its rows of willows uprooted and concreted over by yet another ``refurbishment" project ― as is happening to rivers across the country ― indiscriminately destroying their beautiful life under the guise of restoration.
The writer is a conservationist associated with various environmental organizations in Korea. His email address is email@example.com.