Dageu days, Dageu nights

This is a bit delicate. There’s no easy was to say this, so…on my last night in Daegu, I spent a night – on my own, I should make clear – in a Love Hotel. I even paid extra for an upgrade (not what you’re thinking). Let’s face it, if you’re going to spend a night in a Love Hotel it’s probably advisable to stay away from the bargain basement rooms. May as well go for the VIP option, ran my logic. I had planned to stay in the boring business hotel that I’d been in for the previous week, but another conference had rolled into town and there was no room at the inn.

I’d already looked through an uninspiring list of hotels online – Daegu is not blessed with great hotels – before downloading the Daegu chapter of the Lonely Planet. This was hardly inspirational either, on many levels, but it did recommend the Hera Motel, a Love Hotel near the train station. A quick look at Trip Advisor (modern travel in a nutshell) brought up some positive reviews – some very positive reviews – and I decided to take the plunge.

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Hera Love Hotel, Daegu, Korea

Staying in a Love Hotel is entirely normal in Korea. Maybe not staying in one all night, but visiting them is an accepted part of life. They are literally everywhere, judging by their numbers pretty much the entire population must frequent them at least occasionally. Mostly they crowd around bus and train stations – which attract that sort of thing – but you can come across them anywhere. Love Hotels are not brothels, they are there to serve a need – so to speak.

Ubiquitous and well used, their normality makes them anything but seedy. Well they are a little seedy, but mainly they’re just a bit tacky. Not the floors, which are scrupulously clean, before you get the wrong idea. Tacky and kitsch would be the most accurate description of my room at the Hera, also spotless and very spacious. True, there were an alarming number of tissue boxes dotted around, I assumed someone had been suffering from a cold.

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Downtown, Daegu, Korea

Like Korean toilets, there were way too many buttons in the room. Given where I was staying, pressing the wrong button could have unforeseen consequences. I was cautious. So it was that between turning the AC off and on and off again, turning down the ‘mood’ lighting, and trying to stop the fridge from making a noise that implied it was trying to leave Earth’s atmosphere, I’d managed to turn on the bed’s heated blanket. I didn’t realise this until some time later, around four hours later.

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

No one, absolutely no one, could have slept in a bed that hot. It was almost at boiling point. First I had to work out what I’d done to turn it on and reverse the process. Then I had to take the duvet off and leave it to cool down for 20 minutes with the AC on full blast. When I was finally able to crawl into bed it turned out to be one of the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in. Something about that still seems surprising, but investing in a good bed is just sound business sense for a Love Hotel.

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Traditional herbal medicine market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

I’d spent the day wandering through Daegu, including two of its most famous markets. The fabulous traditional medicine market seemed to be having a festival, including live music. The video is a bit shaky, but you get the picture. While earlier in the day I’d visited the colossal Seomun Market. Walking amongst food stalls and through the fish market was a bit overwhelming, but a lot of fun. I even got street food from a stall holder who could explain in English what I was eating. Something totally unexpected. All around me were foodstuffs that I couldn’t identify, some of them in my lunch. The food was delicious.

Daegu’s history stretches back 3500 years, it has always been an important centre of population. It prides itself on having been a hotbed of opposition to Japanese colonialism at the start of the 20th Century, and more recently for being the birthplace of Samsung. The corporate headquarters of which are on all organised tours. Today the tourism board refers to the city as Colourful Daegu, but it is also known as ‘Apple City’ and ‘Textile City’ after two other, pre-Samsung, industries. At an official dinner I learned another name, ‘Fashion City’. We were treated to a catwalk display of incredible traditional clothing.

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Seomun Market, Daegu, Korea

Daegu is a city that grows on you. After a shaky start, I enjoyed my time there, although in the height of summer, when it can hit the mid-30s with intense humidity, I might revise my opinion.

Colourful Daegu

My first impression of Daegu was disappointing. Architecturally, it has an high rise concrete aesthetic that I wasn’t expecting. Most South Korea cities are similar, their ancient buildings destroyed by conflict, ancient and recent. Traditional buildings were wooden, fire claimed many historic gems. Closer inspection revealed Daegu to be a town of youthful energy, with wonderful traditional markets and lovely parks. There is little in the way of mainstream tourist attractions, but wandering the absorbing and lively streets was great fun.

Modern history has not been kind to Korea. The very existence of Kim Jong-un, the latest and plumpest in a long line of the tyrannical dynasty that has ruled North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953, is proof of that. This throwback to the Cold War is only part of the story of modern Korea though. It’s a history that is as dramatic as any, but one I knew little of before coming face-to-face with it in Daegu, South Korea’s ‘colourful’ city.

Home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu, Korea

Home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu, Korea

Tree, Daegu, Korea

Tree, Daegu, Korea

Street food, Daegu, Korea

Street food, Daegu, Korea

When Korea was divided by Cold War realpolitik, World War II and the Korean War had bequeathed the nation utter destruction. The future course of the two Koreas propelled the south towards a progressive and prosperous future; the north retreated back into the Dark Ages. Samsung’s share of the global smartphone market holds an unflattering mirror to the posturing of Kim Jong-un, a man with a cheese fetish who presides over a nation that cannot provide its people with food or energy. Plenty of propaganda, but you can’t grow fat on propaganda, however hard you try.

Under the retrograde rule of his family, North Korea has brutally repressed, starved and murdered its people. It’s a terrible history, but one precipitated by a national disaster brought on by the conquest of Korea by Imperial Japan.

Street festival, Daegu, Korea

Street festival, Daegu, Korea

Daegu, Korea

Daegu, Korea

GIant teapot, Daegu, Korea

GIant teapot, Daegu, Korea

Your guess is as good as mine, Daegu, Korea

Your guess is as good as mine, Daegu, Korea

Book sellers, Daegu, Korea

Book sellers, Daegu, Korea

Close to my hotel in downtown Daegu was a lovely park with a brightly painted temple. I paid a visit and came away with some burning questions: Why didn’t I know Korea was a colony of Japan from 1905 to 1945? What is a National Debt Repayment Movement? And what the hell was The Hague Secret Emissary Affair all about? What I did know was that here, in the centre of Korea’s fourth largest city, was a connection with my current home in The Hague. A proper whodunnit?

Wedged between aggressive neighbours, Korea has been invaded repeatedly since the 16th Century. Japan went first, quickly followed by China. The 17th Century saw the arrival of Europeans, this didn’t improve things. Christianity and unfavourable trade concessions were unleashed on the country. In the mid-19th Century the French invaded, followed a few years later by an expansionist United States.

Temple to the National Debt Repayment Movement, Daegu, Korea

Temple to the National Debt Repayment Movement, Daegu, Korea

Temple to the National Debt Repayment Movement, Daegu, Korea

Temple to the National Debt Repayment Movement, Daegu, Korea

Mural, Daegu, Korea

Mural, Daegu, Korea

Public transport, Daegu, Korea

Public transport, Daegu, Korea

The Japanese invaded again in the 1890s, this time fighting alongside Korean allies against China and its Korean allies. Eventually Russia held sway until it was defeated by Japan in 1905. Unable to maintain its independence, or play others off against each other, Korea finally became a colony of Japan.

Japanese rule could largely be summarised as brutal, culminating in the forced enslavement of tens of thousands of Korean women as sex slaves during World War II. Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the true extent of its war crimes in Korea continues to sour relations to this day.

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Japanese rule gave rise to both the National Debt Repayment Movement and the March 1st Movement. The former was an attempt by the Korean people to raise money to pay debts owed to Japan and reclaim Korean sovereignty. That’s right, in the early 20th Century, ordinary Korean citizens tried to buy their country back from Japan. The former home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu resident and founder of the National Debt Repayment Movement, can still be visited.

Beginning in 1919, the March 1st Movement was a national wave of resistance to Japanese colonialism. Demonstrations across the country were met by repression from Japanese authorities. In Daegu the marchers avoided Japanese police by using a secret path to gather and proclaim independence. As elsewhere, dozens were killed, hundreds wounded and thousands imprisoned. The path the demonstrators took is still there, today a national monument.

Depiction of historic route for March 1st Movement, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic route for March 1st Movement, Daegu, Korea

Historic route for March 1st Movement, Daegu, Korea

Historic route for March 1st Movement, Daegu, Korea

Home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu, Korea

Home of Sang-Dong Seo, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

Depiction of historic, Daegu, Korea

What about The Hague Secret Emissary Affair I hear you say? A failed attempt by Korea to legally overturn Japanese control of their country at the Second Peace Conference in The Hague in 1907. Their emissaries were denied entry to the conference, European powers and the United States (all of whom had their own colonies to protect) effectively handed Korea to Japan.

A Korean adventure

Other than a passing understanding of the Korean War, a little knowledge of Korean food, and a biased Western media view of Kim Jong Un (who I’m sure is charming when he’s not eating burgers while watching peasants starve to death), I didn’t really know very much about Korea, north or south. Two weeks of working and travelling in South Korea taught me a lot, but also led me to the conclusion that it may be impossible to truly understand Korea.

This feeling began at Seoul airport, where I spent an unpleasant 4 hour transfer watching what I can only describe as a K-pop choir perform. I went to find food only to discover the extensive food court was hidden in the bowels of the airport. There wasn’t a single window. Assuming these were quirks of Seoul airport I boarded my connecting flight for Daegu…I had a lot to learn.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Spring tree, Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Despite the fact that English is used in all sorts of advertising and on road signs, it seems to be  spoken only rarely. This makes eating, travel and using the toilet an adventure. I like adventure, but sometimes predictable can also be good. Call me old fashioned, but a toilet shouldn’t have its own power supply, come with a control panel with more options than a TV remote, or have a sticker warning you not to get water on the electrics. Nor should a visit to the ‘smallest room’ finish with your rear end receiving a shampoo (no pun intended) and blow-dry. I’m surprised there aren’t more fatalities.

There are, at least, toilets. In Europe if you want a public toilet you look for the nearest McDonalds. In Korea, there are toilets everywhere. The last time I came across a place with this many public toilets was China…Korean public toilets are superior on every level.

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Fish stall, Seomun Market, Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Food is one of the great joys of travel, although I find this works better if you have a basic understanding of what you’re eating. In the absence of a common language, or pictorial menu, I was forced to wander restaurants checking out other people’s food before ordering. Dumb luck had it that I didn’t have many bad food experiences, but that pre-supposes that you’re a fan of kimchi. If you’re not, Korea may not be for you.

No one can hear you scream in space, but after a week of eating Kimchi I’ll bet they can smell you in the furthest corners of the cosmos. Eating here also requires you to know your way around a pair of chopsticks, not the ordinary sturdy wooden chopsticks that I’m used to, but a devilishly tricky Korean version: needle thin metal chopsticks designed to make the novice look like an idiot. In one bar they took no chances, my spring rolls came with a pair of scissors and some ice tongs. Let’s just say I provided a lot of people with entertainment.

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Korean food in Daegu, South Korea

Of course, to eat it’s necessary to have the means to pay. This is not as easy as it may seem. Not many places take cards, certainly not outside the city. This leaves you firmly in a cash economy. Sadly, the Korean banking system has yet to join the 21st Century; in a highly developed economy ATMs don’t often accept foreign cards. This is not to say that Korean ATMs aren’t sophisticated. They regularly double as entertainment centres – playing music videos and showing TV clips – less regularly they dispense cash.

One day, after trying a dozen or more ATMs, I thought I was going to have to throw myself on the mercy of the British embassy. I’ve met British diplomats, mercy is not in their nature. I finally found an ATM that worked, to celebrate I took a taxi to the bus station for a trip into the countryside.

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Daegu, South Korea

Taxis are a litmus test of a nation’s psyche. Taxi drivers in Korea universally wear driving gloves, in my experience this is rarely a good sign. Some are ‘professional’ leather gloves; others are clearly home made, possibly knitted by their moms. 97% of all taxi drivers approach their job as if they’re not just competing in NASCA, but have a shot at the title. None of them understand the English for, “Please, I’m begging, slow down before we all die. Look out for the school children. Arrrgghh!” Coincidentally, 97% is also the the number of Koreans who own and operate a selfie stick.

I did reach the countryside, unfortunately it was the weekend so I was joined there by several million other outdoor enthusiasts. The people of Korea take the countryside seriously. Most dress as if they are attempting an ascent of K2 – from the Chinese side. I have never seen so much technical walking gear, deployed for a short stroll on well maintained tracks guiding you around a temple complex. I’m not even going to mention the disproportionate number of couples who wear matching shoes.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Haein-sa, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

One final piece of insider advice – every tourist map I was given was woefully inaccurate. Why bother drawing a map to scale, where physical features accurately relate to other physical features, when you can draw a map with nice pictures of trees, flowers and mountains? Even if there isn’t a mountain within 100km? Maps are far less helpful, but much prettier this way. I spent my first few days thinking I’d been given a map for a different city.

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Bulguk-sa, Gyeongju, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

Yangdong Village, South Korea

This is what I’ve learned about Korea. Not everything, just the important stuff. If doing battle with toilets and taxi drivers, navigating by maps that may not be for where you happen to be, or taking your chances with food, doesn’t discourage you from visiting, I’d say just go. You’ll have a lot of fun, or others will have a lot of fun at your expense. Either way someone is having fun and that’s the important thing.