It's sometimes hard to imagine that beyond the drab grey concrete and neon behemoths of Korea’s pulsing economy, a resplendent tapestry of tree-strewn hills splatter the country between its planned urban centres. This fact is becoming increasingly apparent to me as my wife and I continue our mini explorations around our Daegu base.
With the rain holding, and the sun attempting to assert itself, we ventured towards Daejeon, a two-hour drive from our apartment. In our ancient, rather worn Lonely Planet book on Korea, the city is poorly represented, at least in the 2010 edition. In fact, it’s described as little more than a commuter city that hardly warrants a visit from the digital traveller of today.
Times have moved on. In the eight years since that book was printed, Korea’s fifth largest city has undergone something of a turnaround, positively reinventing itself as a modern scientific hub, and a green one at that.
The crowning glory of contemporary Daejeon is its large, beatified science-expo park. Extending over an area of several kilometres, it’s teeming with artificial still life: statues and artwork litter the greens almost as thoroughly as Oslo’s Vigeland Sculpture Park (http://www.vigeland.museum.no/en/vigeland-park). Personally, I find these kinds of places so refreshing away from the high-rise blocks and din of weaving motorcyclists; they are important areas to recharge.
Perhaps the main architectural and cultural attraction is the Arts Centre (http://www.djac.or.kr/html/en/). From the back, it’s contours and lines share further similarity to another of Oslo’s buildings, that of the Opera house; colours, too. From theatre performances, live music, and opera (I saw a very wonderful Korean version of Bizet’s Carmen), it’s a venue that would rival several back home in Britain (though for foreign languages, including English, translations are only provided in Korea, so one must either have strong hangul skills or be familiar with texts and productions). Given the Art Centre’s location in the top north-eastern quadrant of the park, it also makes for a good meeting, drop off point, or landmark from which to start strolling.
This section of the city, however, needs no formal purpose for a visit. Our springtime trip to Daejeon (partly inspired by meeting up with a Korean friend of ours and her daughter) was a great time to arrive before the dripping humidity of summer parks itself in Korea for several uncomfortably sticky months. Thankfully, the wide-open nature of the site favourably allow fresh, gratifying breezes to blow freely around. The weather-factor certainly brings out the residents and tourists in Korea like wasps circling a dropped ice-cream.
And it’s easy to see why: pop-up festivals and events pump out their melliferous tunes as punters indulge in the wafting smells emanating from the various mobile eateries of entrepreneurial locals. But, if the calories make you think twice about consuming the sellers digestible wares, there’s a small building housing a ridiculously popular bike-rental business that allows one to explore the whole area. Alternatively, as my pregnant wife and I preferred, one can simply take on the views such as the monument beyond the bridge, the pleasant riverscape, or absorb the energetic atmosphere around the park.
If there are any negatives from a springtime trip to Daejeon at the weekend, it most certainly is the parking, which, like most other places in Korea, is extremely limited and a raging battleground between mechanical warhorses.
Modern Daejeon is festooned with and life and traveller-friendly entertainment opportunities that make the LP’s 2010 impression of the city redundant—here’s a link to the LP’s Daejeon section: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/south-korea/chungcheongnam-do/daejeoni—it’s now a vibrant city that deserves a rightful place upon the digital traveller’s trail.
Thomas Dowling, May 2018