I entered the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) station with my Korail Pass in hand. The pass offered a 20,000 Won (19 USD) discount for my roundtrip to Daegu, a benefit only offered to tourists. By 11:30 I was on the train speeding toward Daegu at 150 miles per hour.
I already spent most of my vacation week in central Seoul, and thought it was worth paying Daegu, South Korea’s third biggest city and a historical sight, a visit just to change up the pace of the week. Also, I have a college friend, Carolyn, residing in Daegu and teaching English to public school kids. I thought if I’m going to do a random day-trip, to a new place where I actually know someone and who speaks Korean would make the trip more interesting. Carolyn and I would meet for dinner after she was done with work. Until then, I would wander the city on my own.
It took about an hour and a half to reach Dong Daegu Station and as I lily-padded from WiFi hotspot to WiFi hotspot, I tried to research what the heck I was actually going to do in Daegu before dinner. Though I do some research before my trips, I really like the go-with-flow method of travelling, too, though it is a bit anxiety-inducing. I soon found that the easiest way to reach the city center AND get an introduction to the town would be with a Daegu city bus tour, a 4,000 Won (approx 4 USD) ticket to the main sights of the city.
Stepping out of the station, I was instantly hit with the impression that Daegu was small– much smaller than Seoul. The sheer lack of people and commuters outside the exit intensified the vastness of the station relative to the city, and accentuated the ugliness that is massive on-going construction. A new, yet very familiar, feeling hit me instantly as I stepped into the sun: heat. I had only five days off from the tropical humidity of Kaohsiung in July, but my break from it in Seoul was enough to decrease my patience and tolerance for summer heat. The heat fell on my body in layers, like a heavy, velvet curtain dropped from a high ceiling onto my shoulders and back. And though I wanted to flail my arms and free myself from its clutches, I would never get this metaphorical curtain off of me. It was unsettling at first. Getting to grips with my new, shadeless environment, I moseyed my way toward the City Bus Tour stop as indicated by the colorful brochure I picked up outside the station. I followed big, equally colorful English signs first straight then right, along a fenced off sidewalk, then left and straight again until the fence ended and I was on a new sidewalk facing a major road steaming in the noon-day sun. The bus was parked near a lamppost that sported a sign with rainbow text “Daegu City Tour.” It was set to leave in three minutes, but when I boarded I was the only passenger in a 50-seater bus. Even the driver seemed surprised to see me.
I opened my official City Bus Tour brochure and looked at the stops ahead. Not knowing much about the city other than it was big on textile and clothing manufacturing, I thought Seoswang Market, a traditional market that sells everything from dried fish to textiles to jewelry, would be a good place to explore. An elderly Korean woman, the day’s “tour guide” boarded and looked at my foreign face with mild fear. She didn’t speak any English and I speak no Korean whatsoever, beyond “anyeongha-seo” and “kamsamnida” which mean “hello” and “thank you.” Through her mobile phone’s translation app we communicated haltingly and with frequent giggles about where I wanted to go and how the City Tour worked. Until 5:00 P.M., I could go to any tour bus stop in town and wait to board the bus that would take me to the next major tourist spot. In the meantime, I was settled on seeing the market.
After a year in Asia, I started to sense that sightseeing in most cities should be left for the evening, especially during the summers. Maybe arriving in Daegu in the heat of the afternoon wasn’t such a smart idea. I started to get that feeling when the bus let me out at the Seoswang Market entrance and saw only a smattering of senior citizens going about their daily work, zipping along sidewalks on their scooters to do deliveries, and fanning themselves in shady doorways and the awnings of storefronts. Seoswang has a multi-floored indoor market that resembled Beijing’s Silk Market to a large extent, glimmering cheap to expensive goods available for purchase from shrewd store owners if you were willing to put up the fight to haggle. Seeing as how I wasn’t really in the market for cheap souvenirs and only to explore, I spent maybe ten minutes inside the air-conditioned marketplace before stepping outside again in the common market. The common market was filled with a seemingly random assortment of goods for sale. Within a 100 meter stretch, you could buy anything from a freshly killed chicken to 3,000 Won ($3 USD) pants to “antique” vases to a freshly fried lunch. Daegu being more southern and less cosmopolitan than Seoul felt more like Kaohsiung than ever when I approached the food stalls that filled the center walkway of several wings of the common market. Fried and sweet meats, vegetables, oily crepe like pancakes with sauce, and of course deokbokki (rice cakes in spicy-sweet sauce) appeared to be the everyday fare.
I took in the aura of the market for several more minutes, wandering stand to stand until I felt a pit in my stomach open up. It was 2:00 P.M. and I still hadn’t eaten for the day. Without any Korean language ability, I settled on scanning the plates of customers already eating at various stands to decide where I would make an attempt to order lunch. I finally settled on a place that seemed to be serving Korean pancakes and chicken. Though I didn’t know it yet, the most interesting part of my day was about to start.
“Anyeong,” I said in my innocent tourist voice, “do you have a menu?” I outlined a box shape with my hands to further get the message across, hoping to break the language barrier with the universality of charades.
“Oh we don’t have a menu here,” a young woman serving plates responded in confident, though heavy-accented, English. Taken off guard, but also relieved that I was going to be able to communicate I just said, “well, how about you can just serve me whatever is the most popular food.” The girl thought for a moment as she turned back toward the grill, “How hungry are you? Do you eat chicken?”
“Pretty hungry and yes, I do.” I said.
“Okay, well take a seat, I’ll make you something.” Success! I sat down and immediately began to chat with girl, self-named Dora, about where I was from and what I was doing in Daegu. “Why did you come to Daegu?” She asked.
“Oh you know, just to see it. Why not? I had a free day.”
“But why?” Dora responded haughtily, “there’s nothing to see here, only downtown at night. And it’s hot now. You know what we call Daegu in Korea? D’Africa. Because it gets so hot and terrible here.” I didn’t really catch where the linguistic connection between Daegu and “D’Africa” came from, but I laughed at the joke because as a first-time tourist here, I was expected to.
“Oh I didn’t know that, but Daegu looks nice so far and I heard it’s pretty historic. It’s a small town, but the people are nice.” I nodded to her. She smiled and then turned back to her cooking as she thought of new questions to ask this naive tourist.
The food was done quickly. Dora placed the hot plates of chicken and instant noodles and what looked like a Korean-style crepe, and I started eating right away. Meanwhile, Dora and her mother, the stand owner, unleashed a flurry of questions. Where did I come from? Where was I staying? How did I get to Daegu? Why was I in Korea? How was Taiwan like? How is New York like? Do I like Korea? And so on. I finished my food, but we three continued to talk about pretty much everything under the sun. Sitting beside me now on the customer-side of the stand, Dora said, “you’re so lucky! You can travel everywhere. I’m always stuck here,” she gestured toward the resturant with a roll of her eyes and wave of her hand. “I have to work every day and my parents won’t let me go anywhere! And you know what?” She leaned in, “my they don’t even pay me!” She began to cry mockingly fake tears into the table, and again I laughed because I was supposed to, but this time more genuinely.
Dora is probably between 23 and 26 years-old. She has a short hair cut reminiscent of her TV show namesake, and a face that smiles easily with cute chubby cheeks that reflect an overall positive personality. Though she makes frequent grammar mistakes in English, she is so outgoing, talkative, and enjoys American slang so much the errors don’t hold her back, it just adds to her charm. Over lunch, she told about her year in Fiji studying English and where she learned her extensive, colorful vocabulary. “It was paradise! I had so many friends!” She excalimed, “But it was a one time thing. My parents can’t afford to send me somewhere again.” She pouted intensely for all of two seconds, and then switched back into her signature ear-to-ear smile, “but now you’re here! Where are you going?” I showed her my Daegu City Tour brochure, “I guess to the places here. I don’t know Daegu, so I was just going to see the really touristy stuff.”
With just a glance, Dora smacked my brochure that I was still holding in my hands, “Ugh, this shit! These f***ing….don’t go to this f***ing shit.They’re ugh! Just no!.” She said with finality as my eyebrows rose to the highest reaches of my forehead at the sound of sudden f-bombs.
“But, wait a minute, there’s NOTHING in here worth seeing?” I said as I laughed, “There’s got to be something.” Dora groaned a bit, but reluctantly opened the brochure, snagged a pencil from the counter and started scribbling her Daegu-ian annotations. “Don’t go here or here,” she said looking at a feature on some parks, “sooooo many grandmas and grandfas. Boring.” (Sometimes, Korean speakers will mix the “p” and “f” sounds). She proceeded to draw two huge X’s over the page and wrote at the top “Grandma. Grandfa,” so I wouldn’t forget.
“Oh and don’t go here. So boring. It’s just a store, like outlet. Unless you wanna buy Gucci or something.” Another big X into the brochure.
“Hm, here,” she looked at a page with a picture of a lake, “This place is nice, but you must go at night. It’s a couples area, but everyone in Daegu takes a walk here at night. With dogs, boyfriends, kids, and they play music too. It’s nice.” Double circle for this one. Dora flipped through the brochure a couple more times before writing anything else down. “Actually,” she said finally, “all these places here are walking distance, and you DEFINITELY need to go to downtown. There is actually LIFE there. And shopping and food and sweets and DRINKING.” A flash of light shone in her eyes with the last word. “Ah! Why didn’t you come on a Friday!? Lots of foreigners will be there on Fridays. It’s so much fun. Okay, you know what, I’m going to show you how to get to downtown now. Hold on, let me tell my mom. I’m going to ditch this place.”
And like that, without even getting a word of opinion in, I suddenly had my own semi-tour guide and friend for the afternoon. We visited the century-old Catholic church in Daegu, passed through some smaller city streets with cool street art, and then made it to central downtown where all the shops and Korean retail brands were. If there was ever a sign that Daegu is a small town, it was in the downtown area. Taking a stroll through the most popular streets, it wasn’t hard to notice the same faces over and over again. There was one tall foreigner that I saw twice in two different places in the city during my day there. When I mentioned this to Dora she said, “Oh yeah, and dating sucks here. Everyone knows each other and everyone can see when you’re on a date with someone new. Nothing is secret.”
After a couple of hours together, trying on clothes and people watching, it was time for Dora to go back to work at her parents’ food stand. She dropped me off at a bus stop and told me how to get to my meet up spot where I would meet Carolyn. We exchanged Facebook info and as quickly as I had met her, she was gone again. Once I was on the bus, she yelled from the sidewalk “Next time, come back on a Friday and we’ll drink together!”
I met Carolyn in the major underground mall where the two main subway lines in Daegu connect. The mall was immense and cold because it was air conditioned and sheltered from the sun. It was also packed with all manner of people, especially youth, and it was then that I suddenly realized (after two trips to South Korea) that Korean people are hooked on shopping. Before my phone died, I was able to find a cafe and get on WiFi to tell Carolyn where I was. We met up and headed back to the main downtown area I had just been for dinner. We found a low-key Korean barbecue restaurant in a winding alley way and started to catch up on the last few years since we had seen each other. Korean barbecue usually entails the guests to cook raw meat on their own at a grill installed into the table. Yet, despite the fact that Carolyn had been living in Daegu for a year and that the establishment was a locals’ haunt, we had an overly attentive waiter cooking our food for us. Usually in Asia, a foreign face means, “I don’t know how to do anything.”
After dinner, Carolyn asked me what else I wanted to see in Daegu, and I heard Dora’s voice in my head. “Got to the lake ONLY AT NIGHT.” So Carolyn and I took a bus and then walked a bit to Suseong Lake, known as a popular meeting place for young couples because of its frequent appearance in romantic scenes on Korean dramas. Carolyn told me about the several on-screen couples whose relationships started or ended at this very lake, and the fandom that surrounds it. “Some people will even come here to re-enact some scenes.” There was a fare share starry-eyed young lovers, but higher in number were the families out for evening walks with their pocket-sized pooches. The walk around the lake was so full of people, musical performers, and chatter that it felt like an amusement park at closing when the hoards make their way to the main exit. Instead, at Suseong Lake, families and couples kept arriving and stayed to enjoy a moment of relief from the heat, the sun, and the daily work grind. There is a sense of calm in the endless circular walk around a large body of dark water.
Even Carolyn and I lost track of time as we talked for hours, telling and retelling stories about Syracuse and life thereafter. At about 9:45 P.M. I realized I was pushing dangerously close to missing my train back to Seoul, and we had to walk/trot back to the monorail that would take me through the subway system back to Dong Daegu Station. I made it back with about 10 minutes to spare. The KTX rolled out of the station and I prompty passed out, snoozing through Daejong and other cities we passed on the way hurtling toward Seoul.
Overall, it was a nice day trip and I got to see something new in South Korea, especially that small-town scene. My one regret is that I didn’t have an extra day to devote to visiting Busan. I guess it will have to wait for the next time I visit South Korea, whenever that may be.