The City of Apples
When I arrived in Daegu, I was informed that the modest city of 2.5 million—fourth largest in Korea—was still considered the south countryside by certain residents. On the bus from the north Daegu terminal into the center of town I saw a baseball stadium (home of the Samsung Lions), a quick glimpse of Daegu Tower in Duryu Park, and at least three movie cinemas. The bus dropped me off at the transfer station for Daegu’s subway. (They have a subway.) This is definitely not the country.
I was in town visiting Janella, whom I met at the CIEE orientation in October. Janella and her friend took me through a quick tour of the city’s central shopping area, full of coffee shops and major clothing outlets. Larger cities in Korea almost always have younger populations than the small towns, and their downtown areas reflect this; shops in downtown Donghae predominantly sell home-style Korean food, hiking gear, and gaucho pants in floral prints. The earliest check-in time at my guest house was 4 PM, so we lounged for a while at Janella’s favorite café, Lala Sweet. I can recommend the blueberry smoothies.
While we were there, I learned more about Daegu from Janella and her friend. There are two U.S. military bases in the city, which means there is a noticeable foreigner population. Daegu is also known for a city that is conscious of healthy living, and its public transportation is wide-reaching and efficient. All the bus stops in town have a complete list of buses arriving at that stop, and all subsequent stops around the city that each bus takes. Daegu is also in the process of completing a third train line to connect with the subway.
I also noticed during my stay that Daegu has a bit of a rivalry with Seoul. Many of Daegu’s youth decide to leave their spacious and perfectly lovely hometown in favor of someplace larger. Daegu is laid-back in comparison to the bustle of Seoul, and I was told that Daegu's residents were friendlier and more polite. Complaints were lobbied against Seoul for its crowded subways (and every-ways), though it was admitted that those who ride the subway in Seoul have a much more orderly way of lining up to either side of the subway door, waiting for passengers to exit the tram before entering. In Daegu, it’s every man for himself.
As the afternoon drew on it came time to look for my guest house. The journey wound up being longer than anticipated, but the story that follows is a prime example of Daegu’s “southern countryside” kindness.
According to the map I’d received with my booking information, my guest house was somewhere near the Jungangno Station on the subway’s red line. It looked to be in or somewhere near a park. Being close to the station, the three of us decided to walk to the guest house. After half an hour of wandering a very small park and seeing nothing that looked like a residence, Janella and her friend consulted their smart phones. According to a different website from the one where I'd booked my stay, the guest house wasn’t near Jungangno at all, but rather two subway stops in the opposite direction. We went underground and took the subway south.
In the Korean cities I’ve visited, tourists and locals can use a transit card to get around. You purchase the card and then add money as you go, and the transportation charge is paid by scanning the card on an electronic pad at the subway gate or on the bus. While Seoul and other cities in Gangwon province use T-Money or Cash Bee, cards accepted by most transportation agencies, Daegu has issued its own transportation card that works only within city limits. Apparently Busan is making a similar change. The way I understand it, issuing one’s own transportation card has something to do with pride and independence as a city.
People who don’t have a card—and it's hardly worth it unless you spend a lot of time in Daegu—purchase subway tokens at kiosks in the station. These kiosks serve little colored coins that you scan like a normal card as you enter the gate. When you are ready to leave the subway, you slip the coin into a slot by the scan pad.
If you get confused, Daegu’s squirrel subway mascots can assist you.
When the three of us arrived at the right station, we paused to glance at a map and see if we could find the street on which the guest house was located. Noticing three foreigners staring at a map, a Daegu resident approached us and asked what we were trying to find. I showed her my guest house’s address. Though she didn’t recognize the place the woman found a transit authority employee, who escorted us into his office behind the gate and searched for the guest house on Naver, Korea’s version of Google. They printed out a map, showed us where to go, and even brought us to the exit we needed to take to get out of the station on the correct side of the street.
It was supposed to be less than a ten-minute walk to the guest house but Janella, her friend, and I managed to get completely lost in the residential neighborhood nearby. An elderly man who lived in the area noticed us wandering around and offered to help. Like most of the Koreans I’d met in Daegu, he spoke a fair amount of English. He didn’t recognize the name of the guest house, but walked with us to a corner store to ask the shop owner about the address.
“This is a country where men can’t grow up being afraid of directions,” said Janella. “If they were, they’d never find anything.”
“Are those guys arguing?” her friend asked as the two men spoke.
“No,” said Janella; “that’s just the Daegu dialect.”
After receiving suitable directions from the shop owner, our guide took us back through the neighborhood. He walked with a limp, but insisted on taking us through the streets. Once we’d found the place (tucked into an alley—figures) he rang the doorbell and didn’t leave until we were safely inside. We thanked him profusely, but he waved it off with typical Korean modesty.
With what little daylight was left to us, we went to the outskirts of Duryu Park. The cherry blossoms were just beginning to bloom, and families had taken their children to the park to rent bicycles and ride about in the dusky light.
There is much more to the park than what I saw; near Daegu Tower is Everland, the local amusement park. I get the impression that Duryu is something akin to New York’s* Central Park—an enormous expanse of green that becomes a popular hangout for the city’s residents on weekends. The lake was being drained at the time we were there, so I can’t comment on the waterfront, but the atmosphere was certainly charming.
*No word as to whether this New York parallel in any way explains Daegu's nickname as "the City of Apples."
The next day Janella and I feasted on Indian food.
I spent a decent chunk of my weekend getting to and from Daegu, but it was more than worth the trip. Daegu has all the comforts of a city without the hassle of an unsupportable population. It's off the beaten path, charming, friendly, and fun. If you get the chance, I hope you go there!