Don't Forget about Daegu, South Korea!
Daegu doesn't necessarily have the flash and flare that Seoul has, but it's an interesting city in its own right. It is one of the biggest cities within Korean, so surely it has to be. Daegu seemed to me to be a city that was looking to define itself. It was a city that had a variety of areas and activities, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the common theme of it all. However, I suppose it's my fault that, as a washed up English major, I'm always hunting for some defining theme or narrative among my travels that may be non-existent. But alas, I thought long and hard and have sorted out what I consider to be a defining feature of all of the areas I visited in Daegu. Daegu thrives on the fact that it is, more or less, one monstrous metropolitan market.
Although perhaps it wasn't miraculous that I came upon such a conclusion as the three biggest tourist draws are the traditional medicine market, Seomun Market, and Yasigolmok (Daegu's shopping district). It was a short weekend within these city limits, but we weren't limited by the shortness of our visit. As per usual, it begins early on a misty Saturday morning with a speedy train from Gyeonggi Province to another inviting Korean city yet discovered. We decided to stay at a cozy hostel in the downtown area by the name of "Danim Backpackers".
I would certainly recommend this place to anyone who will be coming through Daegu. It isn't the physical hostel that makes this place warm and inviting, but rather the helpful staff. The hostel is run by several young Korean guys who aim to make your stay the best it can be. Upon first arriving, we were given a competent map from one of the owners, and were able to muster up an itinerary in minutes with his help. This turns out to be pretty important when you're looking to see as much of a city as humanly possible in a limited time frame. I should also mention that the owners also quickly bought a little bar down the street after opening up the hostel. Thus, your residency there includes a free beer, and you can pretty much put your feet up and enjoy your own personal bar. They'll even cook you a free sweet potato on the heater. Well, maybe that isn't typical. More on that later.
Daegu's Medical Market
Bri and I headed off towards the famed medical market in Daegu. It has been in operation since the middle of the Josean Dynasty(1392-1897) under King Hyojong. At one point, the Daegu Medical Market was considered to be the foremost herbal medicine market in the world. I knew I had entered the heart of the market when my nose burned with the potent scent of ginseng. The area was a vast and varied collection of stores that sold everything under the sun (I suppose that's a pun considering it's a herbal market). There were powerful herbs growing in bottles that looked like they predated the Canadian Constitution.
...And they probably did. I can only theorize that that the potency of all of these herbs is undoubtedly true. I base this on the fact that a society would probably, after centuries, stop using a specific herb if it wasn't effective. Roots such as ginseng have passed the test of time with flying colours. I personally drink ginseng and organic green tea at work regularly. The flavours are wonderful, the aroma is intoxicating, and I feel like I might even get a little energy from it. I should also mention that a steaming cup of ginseng tea will crush a devious hangover with a burly fist. I'm not saying it's turning my body into a Greek statue, but it certainly isn't hurting. There is, however, a limit I believe to what can be considered medicine. In fact, a specific instance within this very market comes quickly to mind. I entered a shop where I was greeted by a kind Korean man who was eager to show me something near the back of his store. He came to a brown clay pot at the back of the store, and removed the straw cover that was drooping over it. To my utter surprise, it was packed with white squirming maggots basking in the rich soil. He pointed to the maggots, then flexed his biceps and looked at me while mumbling something that sounded like "stronger." And that, my friends, would be the limit to what I can accept as medicine.
We wandered around the winding alleys intoxicated with the smell of smoking herbs and steeping teas. Eventually we came upon a cultural center and museum. Korean children shouted one excitable "Hello!" after another as we made our way through the playground and into the main entrance. Once in the museum, we examined old Korean medical diaries and watched a few videos with English subtitles. The crown jewel of entering this museum was finding a room full of traditional Korean garb (known as "hanbok) and a small backdrop to take pictures. Our eyes lit up with excitement as we eagerly traded our boring North American clothing for those artificial silken linens. I could describe it to you in detail, but it really wouldn't be fair to save us the embarrassment. So, here are some of those glorious pictures:
Okay, you can stop laughing now. We gathered what integrity we had left and headed back out for a quality look at the rest of Daegu.
We were headed for Seomun Market which is multistory complex that exemplifies chaos. On our way we wandered across a peculiar site. Suddenly, in front of me there was a full-fledged cathedral. Christianity really only began to take hold in Korea within the last 40 years, so I find it interesting to see these types of sites. There is quite a large Christian population within Korea now, so I wasn't necessarily surprised. I was interested because I stumbled across a cathedral that was built recently that aimed to appear like an aged cathedral in Europe. In Europe I got used to seeing how time can age the stone of a cathedral. I was used to the gargoyle that watched over the cathedral and looked withered. I got a peculiar feeling that I was at Disney World looking at an artificial adaptation of a famous building. It was an absolutely beautiful building, but it was all a little too curious and unusual for me.
Daegu Jeil Presbyterian Church
At last we stumbled into Seomun Market. It apparently boasts more than 4000 shops in six different sections, and I could feel it. It's one of the first times that I have felt claustrophobic in an open-air section of a market. Motorcycles and scooters swerve past you and narrowly miss as you look casually upon the goods for sale. There seems to be enough fish there to feed all of Daegu for the next century. As I wander through Korean markets I find myself wondering how there can possible be any fish left in the waters near the peninsula. China and Japan have also certainly done there part to deplete the supply of marine animals near Korea as well. Seomun Market was interesting, confusing and at times disheartening. Some of the products that were being sold were alive and too cute to be sold as food. They were also too alive to be kept in those conditions. I can't say I was particularly pleased with everything I saw there in that regard, although it's not something I lose sleep over, because at the end of the day I'm not going to agree with everything another culture does. If everything resembled Canada, then traveling simply wouldn't be worth it. Some stay at home to avoid culture shock, but that's the reason I travel.
After an extended walk, a visit to the zoo-like Dalseong Park, and a delicious dinner, we made our way back to Danim Backpackers. We
quickly met two other friendly hostelers. It didn't come as a particular surprise to find out that they were also English teachers. It's become heir apparent that if you're foreign in Korea, then you're probably either a teacher or involved with the American military. We had arranged to meet up with a friend who we had met in Busan earlier in our travels, but first we went to the aforementioned hostel bar. The owners poured us healthy shots and took care of us throughout the early evening. Speaking of healthy, they actually cooked a sweet potato for us in the bar as snack food. The first hilarious part of it was that they had no working kitchen, and the second being that it was cooked on the heating column in the middle of the bar. It sounds a little preposterous, but it turned out to be pretty good (and very hot) after about an hour.
They invited us all behind the bar and we took a few great photos before we headed off into the wild expanses of the Daegu nightlife. We ended up at a bar called "Urban" which laid claim to more foreigners than I had seen in my entire Korean travels previously. We successfully met up with our South African accomplice and enjoyed the night's festivities with a live band to cheer us on. Daegu seemed to have blocks and blocks a vibrant nightlife which I didn't necessarily suspect. It was definitely a great night overall, however I found myself turned off by the fact that entire bars could be filled with foreigners in a foreign country like Korea. The foreign influx is primarily due to the American military presence, as Daegu has several military bases in and surrounding the city. There were moments when I felt like I was in a bar in Toronto, and this is what I was trying to escape in the first place. It seems strangely paradoxical to hold onto everything Western for your dear life while you're living in the East.
We were awoken bright and early by our trusty, yet definitively unwanted, alarm. It seems like our schedule has become almost entirely inverted as, due to our hours at work, we sleep in during the week yet wake up early on the weekends. We caught a bus to travel about 70 kilometres outside of Daegu to the precious Haeinsa Temple. Haeinsa is one of the "three jewel temples" of Korea. This establishes it as one of the three principal Buddhist temples in all of Korea. Haeinsa, Tongdosa, and Songgwansa each represent one of the three jewels of Buddhism. It is a remarkably important temple for all Buddhists across the world. I felt nothing short of privileged to be able to visit this national treasure. The grounds of the temple were beautiful as the sun slowly set, but it was what one of these buildings actually possessed inside that made Haeinsa truly remarkable. Much to my pleasure, UNESCO agreed on it's value, and thus another heritage site can be added to my list of those I've visited.
We walked up the steps directly behind this pagoda and up to Daegwangjoen, also known as the main hall of Haeinsa. It is another fine example of Korean architecture and profound attention to detail. If you read my last blog, then it won't come as a shock that it burnt down during the Japanese Invasion of 1592. It was, however, rebuilt and we can all at least be thankful that the Tripitaka Koreana did not burn down. It would have been a travesty to humanity to lose the Tripitaka Koreana. It is the world's oldest and most comprehensive intact collection of the Buddhist canon. It was hand carved onto over 81,000 wooden printing blocks in the 13th century and there isn't one error to be found in the entire collection. They informed us not to take pictures, but I simply couldn't leave without sneaking one picture. I covertly turned my flash off and hoped for the best. Light kindly poured in through the wooden barred windows as if to illuminate the collection just for me. As a lover of libraries, books, and history, this was truly a moment for me.
I'm sure no one who worked on this remarkable collection during the 13th century could have ever imagined that I would, a little less than a thousand years later, view its mastery. How could they? But perhaps that is part of the wonder of viewing these magnificent human achievements. These places will retain their value and significance forever and for everyone. There is a distinct universality to it all that, as UNESCO notes, "requires protection for the benefit of all humanity."