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.


Welcome to…erm…well, this is Cheonan, apparently. But I’d believe you if you told me it was Seoul. Or Daejeon. Or Busan. Or…


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.


Maybe this entertaining kid who was, I think, pretending to be a robo-dinosaur has something to do with my enjoyment of Cheonan.


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.


Giant red handbag, anyone? Also, why are the Shinsegae buildings so damn ugly? WINDOWS, ARCHITECTS, WINDOWS.


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.


I’m pretty sure most British cities are devoid of whales, though.


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.


The cutest most huggable resident of Cat Chup.


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.


Ermahgerd! Assorted perncurks!


A beautiful butterfly painted on the walls of Cheonan’s Minaritgil (미나릿길)


Also…there was this. Notice the detail of the anus.


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.

14 Responses to Cheonan: Same Day, Different City

  1. emilyemcgee says:

    Not another cat cafe! I hate those places (in my mind, since I have never been to one).

    It’s so interesting to hear that all the cities in Korea feel sort of the same. I can’t think of any other countries where I’ve felt that way or where I hear people feel that way. What is it about South Korea? We need your theory on this!
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    • This cat cafe wasn’t as good as the first one I went to in Seoul, but still miles better than the dog cafe!

      Honestly, I think it’s urban planning that’s the problem. There’s just very little creativity, and you also have huge franchises that pop up everywhere. For example, the Paris Baguette bakery chain – I used to walk past three of them on my 10 minute walk to work when I lived in Daegu. So, all the downtown areas just feel the same, with the same stores repeated over and over again, but the government is imposing restrictions on coffee shops, pizza places and bakeries so that you don’t have the scenario of several of the same brand within 500m of each other.

      As for the apartments…well, there’s very little space in Korea as over 50% of the land is mountains, yet there’s a huge population, so no real room to build houses – just giant apartment buildings. Some of the newer ones look very nice and glitzy, although I’d say the majority look like concrete monstrosities that wouldn’t look out of place in a rundown neighbourhood in an eastern European capital city.

  2. Colin says:

    As a three year resident of Cheonan, I can say that it does have a lot of attractive features, as hard as they may be to find, but they’re there. I’ve seen the city change a lot in the time I’ve spent here. That being said, I’m still extremely excited to be moving to Seoul in March. While Cheonan does have some cool places to go around, you can only go to them so many times before you start aching for something new.

    • I did enjoy Cheonan a lot, although as I mention in the post, I’m not entirely sure why. The Minaritgil was pretty cool, ditto the little downtown area (Yawoori) that me and my bf went to. Good luck in Seoul, too – which part of the city will you be moving to?

  3. OMG, the huge handbag! And the last photo 😀 hilarious!
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    • I made my bf take a photo of it as soon as I saw it.

      The last photo had me checking my shoes – the Korean writing means, “Don’t poo” and I wondered if I’d trodden in something…

  4. jill says:

    There are definitely parts of Korea that look similar, especially the shopping areas. They sort of remind me of shopping malls – having the same stores and layouts.
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  5. Yes! Although many cities have the same shops and high rises, each Korean city or town that I’ve visited is distinctly different in my memory, depending on my mood that day, the people I was with, the things I did, etc. I work in Seoul, so when I travel to new places on the weekend, I usually feel more relaxed and open to try new things.

    I traveled to Daegu last weekend, and although it’s known as a “conservative city,” my experience was entirely different since I spent the night partying at a booking club. ( Even though I ate Burger King in the morning and walked around Beomeo, which easily could be mistaken for a district in Seoul, my memories of the weekend in Daegu belong to Daegu alone.

    Strangely, I’m not traumatized by the last photo. Have I been living in Korea too long?
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    • The appearance is mainly the thing I’m on about. Each one does have a different vibe. Daegu is possibly the most lively city I’ve ever visited in Korea, and I adore it. Busan…I don’t know why, but I always find people there to have a bit of an irritating Jersey Shore-esque attitude.

  6. Richard says:

    Don’t poo – I love it! I was walking the walls of the walled city of famagusta and passed an old man having an outdoor dump in plain view of all the tourists!

    I’m pretty ignorant about Korean cities – do they have much history or are they fairly ‘new’?

    • Most Korean cities don’t have much in the way of history. A lot of older buildings are reconstructions of things that were destroyed either in the Korean War, or by various invasions by the Japanese. I think that in part contributes a lot to the samey feel of a lot of the cities.

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