Day Tripping: Suwon and Daejeon

버닝 헵번 (Burning Hepburn) – Life Goes On

For the first month or so of living in Korea, it was hard not to feel as though I was on a long, increasingly surreal vacation. Sure, I worked, occasionally, but everything was fresh and new and weird and just waiting to be experienced. It was a personal playground generated by the universe for me and my narcissism. I wasn’t living in Korea, I was having a year-long visit where also I developed my career path. As that feeling faltered and I adjusted to the concept of actually living in this country, I realized: I hadn’t been anywhere outside of Incheon or the main core of Seoul. Thus I leapt upon every chance to leave the city, to prove to myself that there is actually more Korea out there than the areas serviced by the central loop of the Seoul metro.

The Daejeon rock festival was something I heard about through the fleet of foreigners in Korea filling the ranks of my Facebook page. It was the first ever, and was being touted as a major show for both Korean rock bands and rock bands filled with foreigners working in Korea. At first, the band names alone sounded like enough to keep me away, but spare time allowed me to youtube a few of them. When later claims were added that the Daejeon Rock Festival would also be sharing the grounds with an international food festival AND an international beer festival, I became utterly enamoured.

When we arrived at the bus terminal, I was expecting something  bewildering, utterly Korean and incomprehensible. Instead, we wandered to a ticket booth, muttered Daejeon, and showed a time on our cell phones before heading off on our way. The bus out of town of Incheon was one of the first occasions I got to feel like Korea was actually bigger than what I experienced, that life does in fact go on outside of Seoul. It was like the first time as a child that you realize that people actually live in places other than your neighbourhood.

The trip took a few hours, and suddenly we were in Daejeon, another Korean city, with no other foreigners in sight. We considered getting a motel room so we could crash after the festival, but we decided to postpone when the first motel we approached was staffed only by a bedraggled Korean cat lady whose language sounded like it was issuing from her bowels and who gesticulated wildly back at her building, which may or may not have actually just been a tenement where she often loitered. Soon, we hopped a cab and told them, hopefully, the supposed location of the festival.

…Whatever That Means

The confusing part, of course, is that the convention centre was directly across from the river, where another music festival was taking place. As we approached we heard thumping, bewildering Korean techno, and became worried. Is this what passed for rock in this country? We were soon deposited at a nearby centre and discovered food tents, and became relieved that our music would be slightly more grungy. We were, however, confronted with a fresh horror: the “beer festival” was non-existent, and the beer tent served only the regular Korean skunk beers and the overpriced common offerings one can usually find in your local Buy The Way.

Deeply disturbed by the bait-and-switch, we queued up for a pitcher of Cass, before joining the building crowd before the stage. The first band up was Korean, and was a sort of Cookie Monster vocals metal band that does absolutely nothing for me. I marveled, for a while, that the minute Korean frontman could produce sounds that seemed to be produced by meatgrinder in the 9th circle of hell, but beyond that, the music at first sucked.

And then things got better. Western and Korean, the bands began to get lighter, punkier, more fun. I discovered that Koreans can actually pull off a ska band, even in this era. The pop-punk stylings proved to be the most successful, and without the ability to hunt most of these bands through legal or illegal means, I have to stick to just listening to them via their Myspace pages. (Myspace pages! In some ways, Korea is actually 2004!) As good music took over, the festival across the road began to pay dividends, as an enormous balloon saluting Daejeon claimed the sky, and hundreds of miniature lanterns soared overhead into the night above the rock festival.


The fucking hook-em horns, because I am that guy, apparently

A friend, Brigitte, and I stayed for a good five hours, before becoming tuckered out and realizing we could probably snag the last bus back to Incheon. A busload of our expat friends had just arrived, but we bid them farewell and headed home. We found out later that, like a histrionic Footloose character, the mayor of Daejeon had been trying to quash the fun of the rock festival for days, and after “noise complaints” (we were a. in the middle of a convention centre next to a highway and b. right next to a similarly loud festival), the festival was shut down barely a half-hour after we departed.

A week later I joined an excursion to Suwon, another city orbiting in the outer rings of Seoul. As fall creeps into Korea, the places where nature has been allowed to remain rampant become freakishly beautiful, and we spent the early part of the day in another of Korea’s many traditional villages. I wonder, sometimes, if Koreans find these places hokey-charming, the same way most adults back home would think of Pioneer Village. Sure, it’s nice to see a physical manifestation of the fact that people once used to squeeze milk fresh from the teat and make tallow candles, but when you’re there, the guy in the suspenders and Amish beard is named Topher and has an iPhone, and it can take you out of things. For a foreigner, though, the irony and jadedness slips away, because I’m blind to the contrivances. Hey look, there’s people in hanbok doing traditional thingies! Isn’t it cool?

A lady

I wandered for much of the day, taking in a few performances, but mostly keeping to myself and my camera, seeking out more of the Korean nature I often feel completely cut off from in the city. Sure enough, forests loomed around all the edges, already turning from lurid green to the first speckly fall yellows and oranges.

From there we made it to the main part of Suwon, and took to HwaSeong fortress, an enormous structure that once housed the entirety of Suwon before urban sprawl pushed it beyond the walls. Now, it’s a series of fortress walls bisecting the city, zig-zagging through regular streets. I came to wonder if the people who live inside the fortress feel superior to those who live without: should there be any more disturbances with Japan, those inside HwaSeong’s walls will certainly be more encased.

6 flags over Suwon

With a few new travel companions, I made it the entire circumference of the fortress, approximately 6 kilometers, in about 2 hours (slightly more impressive when you consider there was a grueling uphill stair climb twice to manage this). Exhausted and beleaguered at the top of yet another awesome thing somewhere far away from home, I was struck with one of those waves of, “I can’t believe I am doing the thing that I am currently doing.” It’s something that, realistically, I either should be having all the time, or not at all, because much of my current life is basically exactly that.

Suwon traditional village


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