“Your neck of the woods,” is an American phrase taken to mean an area to where one was traveling. Last week, featured writer Steve Miller explored part of Seoul with a local resident to get his insights on what it was like living in a city with more than 10 million people. This week, the series continues as Miller travels to Daejeon, South Korea. It’s a small city with a population of a little over 1.5 million and serves as the main transportation hub of the nation, connecting major rail and highways.
Ahmed Salem was born and educated in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He’s been working in Korea for a few years, not as an English teacher, as many expats do, but instead as a rocket scientist. His research and efforts have helped propel the Korean Space Program to new heights in recent years and he couldn’t be happier about being based in what he likes to call Korea’s “Geek City.” That’s probably why the amateur photographer adopted the online persona “Gray Fox,” homage to one his favorite video game characters.
When speaking with Salem about Daejeon you can feel his excitement about Korea’s fifth largest population center. During the week, he doesn’t just commute between his office and apartment, but actively seeks out new areas and places to have fun. Again, this is something that can’t be written about in a guide book, it is something that must be experienced. That’s why when you ask him how he found a particular establishment, his stories often begin, “I was driving by, when I saw…”
That’s exactly how he discovered the restaurant to which he took me. Pascobi (파스코비, 대전 유성구 노은동 553-2, 042-825-3496) with its Italian flare had an assortment of delicious foods on their menu, brings in many locals, but Salem wanted to know more about those operating the restaurant, so he struck up a conversation with the chef. Not only was the chef fluent in English, but had a friend working in Dubai. The connection allowed the two to become good friends and cemented his desire to explore more of the city.
Korea’s coffee culture is well documented. For much of the day I spent with Salem, he drove me to café after café. One might think that visiting so many cafés would be boring, but you’d be wrong. What made the trip interesting was listening to Ahmed tell his stories about each coffee shop. He had distinct memories about how he found them and what features stood out – what their specialties were – all from a man that really didn’t dive into coffee until coming to Korea. That last bit of information alone should give you an idea how great the local cafés in Daejeon are.
After showing me all the great food and coffee at his local coffee shops, I had to treat Ahmed to one of my favorite Korean treats. Many convenience stores sell pouches of coffee and cups of ice for W1,000. This iced beverage is perfect on hot days, as can be ascertained by his response after taking his first sip, “That’s a sin for one thousand won.”
The final destination my guide led me to was Dusang-dong. He described it as the “Hongdae” of Daejeon because it had “everything there.” For those without cars, it’s located near City Hall Station. The district has more great restaurants and coffee shops, as well as fun arcades for those looking to swing a bat, play some video games, or dance the night away in clubs.
The restaurants and coffee shops we visited are located in back alleys and around the corners throughout Daejeon. I don’t think travelers armed with a guidebook would have been able to find as nice of places that we visited. It’s only seeing the city through the eyes of a local can you experience Daejeon like I did, and for that I am thankful.
Next week, The Korea Blog returns to Seoul to look at one neighborhood that many tend to avoid, but some absolutely love.