One Month in Waegwan, South Korea: Exploring lesser-known cities of South Korea
By Steffi Porter
I had spent the past four weeks in the small South Korean city of Waegwan and was now stranded at a tiny airport in Daegu.
Just after being dropped off, with the intention of sleeping in the airport hotel, an announcement had rung over the intercom saying, first in Korean, then in English, that the airport was closing.
The hotel, which I had found out about online, was closed down, and I was alone, in a closing airport, surrounded by people who I shared no common language with. Outside, rain poured, as it so often did during those four, sweltering hot July weeks I’d spent exploring Waegwan and Daegu.
Just as I was beginning to panic, an older Korean man approached me, and in broken English, asked if I was okay. I frantically told him I was stranded, and he explained he worked for the airport, and that he could get me to a motel across the street.
Desperate, though somewhat concerned I was being kidnapped, I let him lead me outside into the rain, and walk me across the street. The walk took close to ten minutes, and all the while I hugged my bags close to me, prepared to run at any minute, terrified of where he was taking me, but knowing I had no choice, other than spend the night in a parking lot outside the airport.
We arrived at a tall building, with the first-floor windows blacked out, and a sign in Korean characters above the door. The man told me this was a motel and showed me inside, where a small, elderly woman sat behind a front desk, and the man told her (in Korean) that I needed a room. Using him as a translator, I was able to pay for one night ($30) and was then shown up an old, rickety wooden staircase.
The hall I ended up in was short and narrow with only about five other doors. The elderly woman opened one for me, and showed me inside, signaling for me to remove my shoes before entering, a custom in many Korean motels and homes.
The room smelled of cigarettes, the bed was just about one foot high, and in the bathroom, there was simply a shower head jutting out of the middle of the wall. The walls were so thin I could hear the people next door moving around and talking in Korean.
I didn’t get a key. I simply had the door shut behind me, and was left alone.
I didn’t sleep much that night, being kept awake by noises out in the alleyway below my window and the fact that my door was so poorly installed I could see around it into the hall.
But I did get to shower, and it was certainly better than staying in an airport parking lot.
This, my last night in South Korea, was certainly the most frightening of the nights I’d spent there.
Ask just about anyone, the idea of walking off with a strange man in a foreign country to a supposed ‘motel’ doesn’t sound like a smart choice, but in my case, it certainly worked out in my favor.
Four weeks in Waegwan
I went to South Korea to spend a month with my boyfriend, Derrick, a U.S. soldier stationed there at the time, in the small city of Waegwan.
Waegwan has a combination of Korean culture and Western influence. The military base Camp Carol is right in the city, bringing with it many Americans, and American food. However, the city maintains its culture pretty strongly.
The streets are narrow and the sidewalks even narrower. Just around the corner from my motel was a block-long outdoor market where locals sold fresh fruit, vegetables, a slew of baked goods, fish and meat, and also had large tanks housing live fish and eels.
Down the next street, vendors sold food, clothing, and novelties at all hours of the day, including one woman, crouching on the front step of a tall building who I saw one morning, with a box of fluffy, wriggling puppies sitting at her feet.
Crossing the Street
Walking around Waegwan, for those not familiar with the city, can be hazardous. My first day there I almost got hit by three different cars before figuring out that if you cross at a crosswalk, there is only a 50/50 chance cars are going to stop for you, and sometimes they even drive up on the sidewalks when they want to park and expect pedestrians will move out of the way.
The G Motel
Waegwan is not the typical tourist destination in South Korea. But for four weeks I stayed at the G Motel, a $40 a night place with dark hallways that glowed neon blue at night.
Upon entry, there was a small glass window, behind which the owners, a middle-aged Korean couple, could be found almost any time, day or night.
The owners spoke no English, and I only knew one Korean word, the word for thank you, so booking my room proved to be a challenge. I found that each day if I knocked on the glass, I could gesture towards a sign where it showed $45 a night in English, and they would know what I wanted.
Somehow, though, the charges never went through straight and some days I would be charged $30, and others 40 or 45. I switched back and forth between paying with my debit card and using Wan, Korean currency.
My room was spacious, considering its low price. The walls were elaborately decked in orange wallpaper, and it came equipped not only with the usual hair dryer and soaps but full-size bottles of hair spray, shaving cream and various other products, the labels for which were all in Korean, so I never really figured out what they were.
An Abundance of Restaurants
The good thing is, you can pretty much find whatever you want in Waegwan. Authentic Korean cuisine, pizza, cafe food, deli food-you name it. However, the style of cooking is a little different when it comes to Western-style foods. For example, they put corn in their pizza.
During my four weeks in Waegwan, I got to know the owner of a local cafe called Ring Pang Donut, who immediately started speaking English to me when I came in, surprising me because I had hardly been able to speak to anyone since arriving.
During my time alone in the city, while my boyfriend had to work, I enjoyed sitting by the window in the upstairs eating area of this cafe with an onion bagel and iced tea latte, by a window that overlooked the bustling streets below.
For dinner, I frequented “Country’s,” a restaurant that served ramyon, which is similar to the college-student delicacy, Raman, but ten times tastier, and topped with a slice of cheese and mixed with delicious spices. During the month I got to experience other Korean foods as well, including a very popular dish, Bibimbap.
Hiking to the Top of Hill 303
On a sweltering, ninety degree day, a day like every other in a Waegwan summer, when pouring rain will come without warning, and the days steadily reach the high nineties, we hiked to the top of what felt like a mountain, but was really a hill, known colloquially as “Hill 303.”
The paths were unpaved, with rocks jutting out at all angles, and the climb was steep, but the top offered a stunning view of nearby cities and was home to the Korean War Memorial.
Traveling to Waegwan was not luxurious nor was it what most people probably think of when they hear “South Korea.” It offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the people in Waegwan.
When I told people I was traveling to South Korea, the most common response I got was “are you going shopping?” Before getting there, I did not fully understand why this was such a common question.
But upon arriving in Waegwan, and then venturing to Daegu for day trips, I understood. There is a lot of shopping in South Korea. That said, I did not buy a single article of clothing the entire time I was there.
In Waegwan, clothes shopping was cheap, but difficult, because I did not speak the same language as any of the store employees, and because stores in Waegwan are laid out a little differently than stores in the states.
For example, the average clothing store was about the size of my bedroom back home, with racks of clothing everywhere, making navigating the stores very difficult. To make matters trickier, store employees would follow me around everywhere I went, talking to me in Korean. So most times I would give up before buying anything.
My reasons for not making any purchases in Daegu were very different. A bigger city, Daegu offered what most people were likely referring to when they asked me if I intended to shop in Korea: lots and lots of designer clothes.
I tried on a simple plaid button-down shirt and was shocked to see it cost nearly $200. My boyfriend and I had fun looking at all the designer labels and prices, and trying on some particularly unusual pieces, and unique mannequin arrangements, which included cone-headed mannequins and ones with flower bouquets where their heads should have been.
Steffi Porter is a creative writer and journalist who has written for The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Hearst Newspapers, and the Houston Chronicle. She is a former writer and editor for her college paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and a graduate of the Institute for Political Journalism and the Fund for American Studies. She lives in New York City.