Busan, South Korea – December 2013
We had arranged to meet a friend that my friend Matt had made while staying in the hostel in Seoul. Because of the prohibitively expensive roaming charges, Matt and I were relying on free Wi-Fi wherever we could find it to use our phones. This made it quite hard to find Hyun, whose sense of direction was not great and ambiguity in communication of where we were waiting lead to us walking up and down the road a few times. While we were waiting at a bus stop for her, we were approached by an old(ish) man who seemed delighted to be able to say hello and practice his English. I was surprised that he could actually speak English as his attire and lack of teeth suggested he was homeless! His first question, after ascertaining our nationality, was to find out what university we had attended. It seems that the importance and significance of education escapes very few places and people in Korea. Matt and he spoke for a short while before he finally asked for Matt’s phone number. Surprised, and confused as to why he would want it, eventually Matt obliged to make him go away, as we could not seem to shake him and we had to go and find some Wi-Fi to get in touch with Hyun.
After finally finding Hyun she set about searching Naver (the Korean equivalent of Google, used by everyone for a wide variety of internet services) for a place nearby to eat and found us a famous restaurant, featured on television for its pork soup. It wasn’t far away, about a five minute walk through a food market that had various other restaurants nestled inside it. There was quite a queue to get in, much to the dismay of the other restaurants in the vicinity, all selling the same dish, with no queues. The kitchen of the restaurant seemed to be half inside and half outside with the staff working as a very efficient and well-oiled machine. The interior was rather cramped and it was not particularly well decorated. There were the usual screenshots featuring the multiple appearances of the establishment on the various food shows on national TV. I have been told that in Korean tradition, if your restaurant is successful when it is first opened, you should never change the interior or look of the restaurant while it is still busy as this will make you lose your good luck. This certainly seemed to be the case with this place.
It wasn’t long before we were seated at the back and our food arrived shortly after. Only one dish was on offer, as could be seen by what was being cooked next to the queue by the door. The usual assortment of side dishes of vegetables was added to by a pot of miniscule shrimp. Hyun told us that these were used instead of salt, so by adding these highly salted shrimp, it removed the need for a salt shaker on the table. The soup was very good, a light, watery soup base made from boiling pig bones, with roasted pork and spring onion on top of boiled rice, which sat at the bottom of the heated bowl. Korean restaurants all give a jug of water to the table, without asking or charge. During the meal I got out my guide book and we decided to go and see the mountain near Myeungnong.
There is a cable car that goes from Geumgang Park to Hyujeongam Mountain, for the reasonable price of 7,000 Won. It took longer to wait for the cable car to set off that it did to actually get up to the top. Once there we went looking for a vantage point to see the city. There were stunning views on the way up from the cable car showing most of the city. As it was a clear day we could see all the way to the skyscrapers at the end of Haeundae Beach.
At the top there was a very thick forest covering the top of the mountain which made seeing the city very difficult. At places around the top there are a number of gates as there was once a fortress situated at the summit. There were four to see, but it was rather a long walk between them. We managed to find only one which was very grand, again constructed in the old Korean styling. We also found some very large boulders, rounded by erosion, littering the mountain, which were useful for climbing to see over the trees. While they did not offer a total clearing of tree cover I did manage to see out over the rolling mountains that surround Busan.
There was only trees and haze all the way to the horizon. It was amazing to think that just a few kilometres in the other direction was a city of 3 million people, and here, was nothing, as far as the eye could see. We failed to find the village that had replaced the fortress, and as we were running out of time we had to head back down. While waiting for the next car down I climbed on top of some other boulders and could see the northern side of the city, stretching off into the distance with seemingly endless sprawl of twenty-something storey apartment blocks.
The city of Busan, being surrounded on all sides by mountains, has grown by creeping up the valleys and around mountains with the CBD being by the large port area at the coast. I went to climb another rocky outcrop that I’d found to take a few last pictures while we had good light. I managed to climb above and I could see all the way to the end of the city, where it reached the mountains. I could see the rolling hills and mountains leading all the way to the horizon. All of them densely covered in trees; no houses or cliffs breaking the dark green blanket.
The cable-car ride down offered more chance to take some pictures of Busan from high up. I got on as soon as I could and waited near the open window so that I could take a clear photo, nobody else minded and they quietly enjoyed the descent, just me taking photos. The view was amazing, although with the evening drawing in a haze had started to form and visibility was a little lowered. However I could still see all the way to the sea and to the skyscrapers of Haeundae in the distance. The world cup stadium was visible in the foreground with a shaft of sunlight making the white cladding glow. When we got to the bottom station and walked through the park it had started to get very cold. Hyun said that she had to go to work soon so we all walked to the station and parted ways.
We had a look inside the Lotte World department store. It looked just about brand new (in fact the other half of the building was still under construction). Once through the entrance, you’re lead to a giant circular atrium with a fountain right in the middle. There are food shops surrounding the ground floor and every other kind of clothing, accessory and homeware store you could possibly need hidden in the depths of this giant shopping centre. We decided that it was way too crowded to do any shopping, so we stopped to get a waffle from the “Waffle Bant” cafe. In Korean, they don’t have an “eff” sound so waffle is pronounced “wah-pul” and “bant”, quite an odd choice of name. It was a tasty waffle. After we’d finished we saw that the lights had dimmed and everyone was looking at the fountain. So we found a spot to watch and sure enough a show started. There were projectors, spotlights and computer controlled spray nozzles that, when combined, produced a screen made of water. It could also “print” in water too, creating shapes and words in falling water. Then the music started and it started to produce an effect that looked a lot like the northern lights, which was pretty cool. It seemed to stick on that and while everyone was stationary and watching the fountain, we used the opportunity to escape without too much difficulty.
Once outside we crossed the bridge that lead to one of the islands that make up the southern part of Busan, Yeongdo. The northern part of the island is very industrial with shipping, fishing and manufacturing so there wasn’t much to see. We crossed the road and walked back across the bridge, watching the last light from the day fade behind the hill that was across the bay. Then we headed into Gwangbok, the main shopping street in Nampo, which had Christmas lights up. Considering it was now dark, you wouldn’t know. There were so many lights, everywhere, it was really bright. And there was a sea of people that had come out to have a look. Thousands of people taking photos of each other and themselves made passing through the crowd hard work. We were stopped at one point by someone who asked if he could take our picture with him! I’ve never been asked it before, so Matt and I agreed, purely for novelty value. The man said “thank you so much, I like to take pictures of foreign tourists as we do not see them so often”. This, I thought, was a little hard to believe, but it was still funny to us. We made a few more friends by helping take pictures for people and a few enemies by walking in front of the camera when someone was taking a photo. Had we waited for everyone, we could have been there for hours, it was mad.
Despite the festive lights, trees, sleighs and plastic reindeer, it wasn’t very Christmassy; I think the Koreans just went a little over the top with their decorations. We left the main street, turned down a few side streets and it was much less busy. The shops had turned into restaurants, which was perfect as we were getting peckish. We stopped at one that didn’t look too busy, but also wasn’t deserted. There was yet more confusion when ordering as we both had to agree on the same dish, we were unaware that all dishes were cooked on the table. There were no English signs, and Matt didn’t notice one in Korean that said this. Nevertheless, we settled on a dish with octopus, spicy sauce and glass noodles, served with the usual sides and a bowl of very watery soup, which I left. It was very good, it tasted fresh, the octopus was not rubbery and the sauce wasn’t too spicy. We waded back through the crowds to get the train to Busan Main Station, so that I could buy my ticket for my train back to Seoul on Monday evening.
From Busan station it took us about an hour to get back to the hostel, drop off our bags and head out to find a bar. We had seen one recommended in the guide, and we had noticed it by its odd name before. It was about a five minute walk from the hostel to Thursday Party, a bar themed on concepts from American teen movies from the ‘90s. It had table football, beer pong, loud American music playing, and various posters on the wall, all in English. It was table service only, so we were given a seat and a menu. We ordered the cheapest beer on the menu labelled “draft beer”, no brand given. It arrived, along with free popcorn and breadsticks, in a glass tankard that had been left in the freezer for quite a while. Which made the beer very refreshing, despite the sub-zero temperatures and wind outside. It was a nice atmosphere and we got talking to the girls, Jong Eun and Jong Mun, sharing our table. They were a little shy as their English wasn’t so good, but Matt was happy as he could practice his Korean, and after a few drinks we were all good friends. We originally came for one beer, but as it was cheap, tasty and served in a welcoming atmosphere we stayed for quite a few more. My phone ran out of battery so I don’t know what time we got back to the hostel, but it wasn’t early.