SEOUL, South Korea – With the flood of 22-year-olds swamping the cliché that is Hongdae, Seoul any given Friday or Saturday, it’s no wonder a 29-year-old like myself can feel like he’s 49. Granted, Seoul is where it’s at–sorry Busan, but I can’t picture living anywhere else in Korea ever again, unless I’m in Gyeonggi-do and Seoul is nearby. However, any expat in Korea should make an effort to check out Korea’s largest six or seven cities, and see what’s in store for them. One city that should be on the map for anyone canvassing Korea these days is Gwangju –Korea’s most indie of cities.
Keep in mind that centuries ago, Gwangju was the dumping ground for those dissidents against the State and a place of exile, and all throughout the 20th century it has had a long history of rebellion against those in power, mostly from trade unionists and students. This is the city that emphasizes the arts and the human rights movement, more than any place else on the peninsula.
>As Korea’s 6th largest city of some 1.5 million people, it’s nowhere near the major two population clusters of the Northwest (Seoul, Suwon, Gyeonggi, Incheon, Daejeon) and the Southeast (Daegu, Busan, Ulsan).
>It has the largest night club in all of Korea Which is conveniently located by the bus terminal.
>It has the most delicious food and specialty meals in all of Korea, hands down. Anyone who’s been all over Korea will tell you this. The nearby small town of Naju probably has the best pears in the Korea as well.
>For a major city in Korea, it does have a subway line (just one), but you often feel like you’re in the country with the way the city is so spaced out and full of ma and pa stores, small colleges and campuses, flea markets and farmers markets (with lots of beat up looking tarps to cover them), and mountains that are as tall as any in Korea that can be seen for miles and miles.
>Everywhere you go, there are lots of areas with pebbles and rocks, with make shift tents propped up on them peddling octopus, which is loved in Gwangju, apparently.
>Koreans in Gwangju and the surrounding province are known for their thick accents that are hard for other Koreans to understand, much the way the Busan dialect comes off as shrill and incomprehensible to Seoulites.
>Historically, it is probably most known for Korea’s “Tiananmen Square Equivalent;” that is the Democratic Movement of May 18th, 1980 (and subsequent days) where thousands took to the streets to protest the military dictatorship at the time, which would last about seven more years afterwards. Lots of fierce fighting that made the place look like Mogadishu for a few days, ages ago. The edge of town has a monument and cemetery dedicated to the tyranny inflicted and the loss of liberty at the time, so that we may never forget. There is also a memorial park in the Sangmu area.
>Gwangju gets as hot as hell in July and August – about as humid and sweaty as Florida, and it’s just not fun…unless you’re one of those people who really, really likes hot, humid weather. Gwangju gets more sunshine than anywhere else in Korea, and is known as the City of Light in Korea.
>Gwangju, like its sister city Daejeon, is fast becoming a technology manufacturing powerhouse.
>Virtually all the action and anything worth talking about happens in the downtown area. Also, Chonnam University Back Gate Area is to Gwangju what Hyewha is to Seoul: the college/alternative scene.
>Another area, known as Hana, is popular with Korean gangs and a lot of people in manufacturing. It’s a shady crowd, but interesting. There’s a bar shaped like a giant piggy-bank, and clubs with fake marble statues that try to be like some cheesy rendition of ancient Greece or Rome.
>Gwangju’s Biennale Festival every two years and Kimchi Fest every year draws in the largest crowds of Korean tourists, and there is also a butterfly festival every year worth checking out (on the outskirts of town).
>Gwangju is something of an art town and a college town, and possibly a bit on the young side as well. In that regard, someone might argue if Busan is the San Francisco of Korea and Seoul the New York of Korea, than Gwangju would be the Boston or Seattle of Korea.
>"Kumho World" is a massive flea market full of furniture, electronics, computers, appliances, cameras…you name it. Worth a peak.
>While most of the people you meet in Gwangju are in there for only a year, there are plenty of older teachers who have been there for years and years and can’t picture working and living anywhere else in Korea.
>Gwangju’s baseball team, the Kia Tigers, won the Korean World Series last year. You can see them practice at the Mudeung Stadium sometimes, near the bus terminal.
>Mudeung Mountain has some of the best hiking in all of Korea, and the look of the foliage in the fall will take your breath away.
In terms of nightlife, the best bars are Soul Train, Mike and Dave’s Speak Easy, Wa Bar, Rock and Roll Bar, and Song’s Beer…if you want to be surrounded by other foreigners. Of all those, I would have to say Soul Train is the best, as there are more Koreans that frequent that place, and it’s the best chance for someone who’s interested in meeting a Korean for dating to check out. Mike and Dave’s caters to the under 25 crowd (mostly), but Song’s Beer continues to get better and better over the years and has become a respectable hof for foreigners to crash in.
Another bar called Crazy Horse with a Wild West theme is a great place to bring friends for a few rounds. Within its vicinity are the most indie ventures in terms of bars and nightlife in Gwangju. Plenty of small, nameless bars with lots of vinyl recordings you can bring a date into, as well as some larger New York style modern bars such as 89th St, Zen, and ZZXZZY. For the ultimate indie experience, walk into Ellington, full of plush velvet and woodwork like an old 1920s bar, after you’ve had about ten drinks, sometime after 2 a.m. Request some Art Tatum and order a Heineken. That’s calling it a night.
On the main street of downtown area lies the wedding street, which is kind of romantic actually, with all these expensive wedding dresses and spray-on canvas pictures of newlyweds that probably cost an arm and a leg. There's always some Hyundai parked to the side with wedding flowers and ribbons all over it. Up and down the street are trees that almost give Gwangju a Brooklyn kind of feel to it. There’s a stream up and down the middle of the city that looks great during the day, and has lots of pitched tents and drinking amongst the locals at night.
Not to far away is the GIC, or the Gwangju International Center, which works with Korean college students, English teaching expats, and even migrant workers and all the tough times they face here. Saturday mornings they teach elementary Korean for absolute beginners. This is a great place to go if you’re new to Gwangju and Korea, and are looking for friends and a social network. They also have a monthly publication.
The tourism center across the street hands out maps and give directions to all the best sites and restaurants in all of Gwangju. There are plenty of restaurants that serve some of the best Korean food in all of Korea (and of course the world), for as little as ten dollars or thereabouts. Gastronomically, you will not go unsatisfied. The Culture Complex has been moved and downsized in recent years, but is still a pleasant oddity in Gwangju, with its resilient modern art and ubiquitous parts of Korean history and culture displayed in iconic fashion all down the ages. Did you know that Admiral Yi Sun-sin hailed from Gwangju? (He led the naval struggle against Japan in 1590)
The edge of downtown also contains the art district, which is well swept and kept neat, most of the time. In the winter months, many lights are propped up all over the place, and it becomes a festival and market at the same time, with vendors selling everything from their own paintings, to brand new eye glasses, hiking boots and even traditional Korean clothes.
For those who live in Seoul or Busan, the good news is Gwangju is easily accessible by train, but more so from Seoul, as you might have to transfer once or twice coming from Busan. Between Busan and Gwangju, you can expect up to a four hour long bus ride either way, with only one bathroom stop in the middle, so plan accordingly.
All and all, Gwangju is a city worth checking out, where you will meet many long term foreigners and warm-hearted locals in some of the most interesting bars and venues Korea has to offer, while eating the best Korean food money can buy. Here’s looking at you, Gwangju.
There are several buses that leave for Gwangju daily from Busan. For schedules go here.