February 6, 2013
Cheonan: Same Day, Different City
Cheonan. What to say about Cheonan? It’s the general census among both foreigners living in Korea, and Koreans themselves, that the country’s cities have an identity problem. The problem being, that they don’t have an identity.
Sure, there are little differences. Busan and Pohang have beaches. Seoul appears to be ten times bigger than any other city in the country. People in Daegu are extremely friendly, and Daejeon’s downtown Dunsan area is glitzy than many of its counterparts. Yet, all Korean cities follow the same formula: tall, grey apartment blocks that look slightly more polished than those seen on British council estates. Streets lined with an assortment of Paris Baguette, Daiso, Lotteria, Angel-in-Us, Mister Pizza, Nature Republic and Dunkin’ Donuts. There are a few places that feel different – most notably those in Gangwon-do, like Sokcho and Samcheok, and historical places like Gyeongju -but even small places like Jeungpyeong feel exactly the same as the larger cities, just in miniature.
So, what made me like Cheonan so much? As part of the resolution I’ve made to myself in the run-up to me leaving Korea, Gil Dong and I decided to head to Cheonan on a day trip. I really liked Cheonan, and could easily envisage myself living there. But, I’m not entirely sure why.
On the surface, Cheonan seems like every other Korean city. It has the same shops. The famous downtown area, Yawoori (야우리), doesn’t seem that different from similar areas in other cities. I have to say that Daegu’s Dongseongno (동성로) downtown area is still my favourite in Korea, no question about it. Upon exiting the bus terminal, the first thing you see is the giant Shinsegae department store – a common fixture in many other Korean cities.
In my home country at least, every city has a very different vibe. You could never confuse Newcastle for Manchester, or London for Edinburgh. Harrogate couldn’t be muddled up with Bath, and nobody could get Bristol and Bournemouth confused with one another. Yet, minus the occasional famous building or landmark, Korean cities, well, they’re just all larger or smaller versions of each other.
The weekend before visiting Cheonan, Gil Dong and I wound up in Uponeup, an area of outstanding natural beauty that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Yet last weekend, in Cheonan, if I were none the wiser to my location, I’d have believed someone had they told me I was simply in another neighbourhood in Daejeon.
So, what did Gil Dong and I do in Cheonan? Well, we ate a fantastic platter of Korean savoury pancakes and washed it down with some makkeolli at lunch. We went shopping in H&M and bought some new clothes. We visited a cat cafe, which was ingeniously named ‘Cat Chup’. We visited a place called Minaritgil (미나릿길), an area of back streets with all kinds of things painted on the walls. In short, we did absolutely nothing that was remarkable, but dammit, we had fun.
What’s the point of this rambling, then? Because this post is really a ramble, isn’t it? Well, I guess it’s to say that even a short trip out of town (Cheonan is only an hour from Daejeon on the bus) can be enough to refresh you, and give you the buzz of going somewhere new, even if it doesn’t really seem that new. Travel is all around us and if I can find its joys among the often identikit cities of South Korea, you sure can find it wherever you are.
So there you have it, folks! Now, I want to hear from you! Do you find the cities of Korea to be eerily identical? Is there any other country where you feel this way? Are you traumatised by the final photo? I sure was when I saw it. Let us know in the comments below, or shout out on Facebook or Twitter.