DAEGU (대구) is Korea’s fourth largest city by population, and a major centre of business. The core of town is effectively one large shopping mall, the department stores supplemented by a lattice of streets devoted to particular products. Herbal Medicine Street is the best known, as the city has for centuries been a centre of herbal medicine, but you could also head to Steamed Rib Meat Street or Rice Cake Street if you’re hungry, Shoe Street or Sock Street if your feet need clothing, or Washing Machine Appliance Street if, well, your washing machine needs maintenance.
For all this, it has to be said that Daegu as a city is not particularly attractive. However, in a country obsessed with appearance, it’s hard to talk to a Korean about Daegu without being told how beautiful its women are; the city is based in a geological bowl, which makes for very hot summers, very cold winters and very delicious apples – this fruit that pops out of the surrounding countryside is said to keep the skin pimple-free, as well as providing the blanching effect that Korean girls crave. There are few notable sights in central Daegu, but it’s a pleasant place to shop, or to catch up on your partying if you’ve been trawling the Gyeongsang countryside. Outside the city boundaries Palgongsan is a wonderful park to the north of town, while Haeinsa is one of Korea’s best-known temples, and just a bus ride to the west.Read More
The Daegu subway fire
The Daegu subway fire
On February 18, 2003, a calamitous event took place under Daegu’s downtown streets, one that was to have a heavy impact on the Korean psyche, and a terrible comedown after the spectacular success of the previous year’s World Cup. The simple facts – around two hundred killed in a subway fire – do not even begin to tell the story, with failings before, during and after the event bringing about a national sense of shame, and a level of introspection previously unseen in a country accustomed to looking abroad for excuses.
A few months before the fire, a man named Kim Dae-han had suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Ostracized by his family and friends, and losing his sanity, he decided to take his frustrations out on society. During a Tuesday morning rush-hour, he wandered into a subway train armed with gasoline-filled containers, which caught fire as the train pulled into Jungangno station. The fire spread rapidly through the carriages, owing to the lack of any fire-extinguishing apparatus on board; both the seats and the flooring produced toxic smoke as they burned. Kim managed to escape, along with many passengers from his train, but the poor safety procedures on the line meant that the driver arriving in the opposite direction was not informed of the problem, and pulled in to a plume of thick, toxic smoke. At this point the fire detection system kicked in and shut off power on the line, leaving both trains stranded. The driver of the second train told passengers to remain seated while he attempted to contact the station manager, and when finally put through was told to leave the train immediately. He duly scurried upstairs, but in his haste had removed the train’s key, shutting off power to the doors, and effectively sealing the remaining passengers inside – death on a large scale was inevitable. The total count has never been fully established, as some bodies were burnt beyond all recognition.
The families of the victims, and the country as a whole, needed someone to blame. The arsonist was sentenced to life in prison, avoiding the death penalty on the grounds of mental instability; he died in jail soon afterwards. The incident raised some serious questions, primarily about safety being compromised by a thirst for profit, and the treatment of the disabled in Korean society – a baptism of fire for incoming president Roh Moo-hyun. Safety on Daegu’s subway has since been significantly improved, and facilities for the disabled have improved across Korea. At least some good may be coming out of one of Korea’s biggest modern-day disasters.
The Tripitaka Koreana
The Tripitaka Koreana
One of the most famous sights in the land, the eighty-thousand-plus wooden blocks of Buddhist doctrine known as the Tripitaka Koreana were first carved out in the eleventh century, over a 76-year period, in an attempt to curry the favour of the Buddha in a time of perpetual war. Though the originals were destroyed by rampaging Mongol hordes in the thirteenth century, the present set were carved shortly after that, and once again every possible measure was taken to please the Buddha. The best wood in the area was tracked down then soaked for three years in seawater before being cut to shape and boiled. The slabs then spent another three years being sheltered from sun and rain but exposed to wind, until they were finally ready for carving. Incredibly, not a single mistake has yet been found in over fifty million Chinese characters, a fact that led other countries to base their own Tripitaka on the Korean version. A superb feat of craft, patience and devotion, the outer spines of these blocks are still visible today at Haeinsa temple, and the set has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.