Arriving in the dark meant we were greeted by the bright lights of Busan, somehow different from those in Japan. For a start, I suppose, a sparkling skyline is really only found in Tokyo. Most Japanese cities are pretty low key, even when they’re not low rise.
Busan is not low key. It’s Korea’s second largest city, a busy port, seaside resort in the summer, and full of buzz even in December. The skyline is a uniquely Korean mix. Part Japanese-style high rise patchwork: vertiginous compartmentalised buildings, countless small windows glittering, and part Chinese-style grand flashing gesture: technicolour illuminated bridges and vast glass faced monoliths. Below the skyline hints of Russia were back too, in a renewed popularity for shiny tracksuits and 90s fashions, and a visible military presence on the streets.
We had one night in the city, so we chose a hostel on the edge of Chinatown, which is near the train station and the port. It was a five or ten minute walk from the port to the train station. Asking people in the port for directions caused utter confusion: everyone assumed we were looking for the bus to the train station. Eventually we figured it out, and overtook the bus on foot, despite the gale force wind trying to blow us back out to sea. We stayed at INSIDE Busan, a funny little hostel housed in five custom built mini buildings grouped around a courtyard. It was a nice change, and a fitting intro to Korea, to stay somewhere with some interesting modern architecture. A big contrast from mostly-old Japan.
Dinner was also a fitting intro to Korea: I utterly failed to order anything vegetarian. Picking tiny pieces of pork (not mentioned on the menu) from my black bean noodles attracted even more staring than we were already getting for a) being white, and b) getting noodle sauce all over our faces. Korean food is saucier than Japanese food.
I did sneak a couple of mussels from Arthur’s seafood noodles, which were delicious. Mussels beat oysters for me, though the rich, sharp, spicy sauce may have been the clincher. Also delicious were the pickles, which come with every meal in Korea, and are replenished for free if you like. This first meal just came with the jolly yellow ones, but often you get seven or eight different types, which are almost a meal in themselves.
I feel bound to mention at this point that these pickles are traditionally made using fish sauce among other things, so they’re unlikely to be strictly veggie. It seemed churlish and somewhat futile to avoid them when every meal was a challenge to not order meat, and then eat round it when it came anyway. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, because I am. Also, did I mention they’re delicious?
Next up on New Experiences On Our First Night in Korea was a night cap: apricot soju. We’d had soju before, during our brief brush with Korea on the Eastern Dream, but this version was sweet and borderline palatable, which was new. (To recap, drinking regular soju is comparable to being punched in the mouth.) The apricot version didn’t have the depth of something like sloe gin, but it went pretty well with a chocolate truffle and a game of bananagrams.
Next morning I woke up older, so Arthur made me eggy bread and coffee.
As the birthday celebrator, I also got to choose the morning’s activity, so we went for an artsy wander round a part of town known as Gamcheon Culture Village. To get there we took the metro to Toseong and walked up the hill (use exit 6 and take the first right). A handy map board just outside the station helped us on our way.
There were also some signs directing you along the route, but I think we lost them somewhere and started going rogue instead.
Basically we just walked around and looked at interesting things, and it was lovely. Crisp cold, but the sun was shining and the air was clear. We spotted some plants drying in big round trays on a roof, fish curing on a washing line next to them. And by scrambling up through some tumbledown allotments we found a lantern bedecked shrine nestled into the cliff face, complete with broom to keep it tidy (of course).
From the shrine we kept climbing, and eventually reached a view out across the bays that Busan is ranged around. To get a proper vista we had to fight our way through several metres of trees and thorny undergrowth, then climb up a large pile of rocks, but it was totally worth it.
Apparently Gamcheon is known as ‘the Santorini of the East’. I’m not sure if I’d read this and it sculpted my perceptions, or if I independently came to the same idea, but the little brightly coloured houses flowing down the hillside to a narrow bay did bring a Greek island village to mind. It’s doing it a bit of a disservice to say that, because of course it’s nothing like Santorini really, but beautiful in its own more down to earth, urban, Korean sort of way. I think Koreans are keen on it because it’s old, small scale, and a bit rough around the edges. Definitely a contrast to the smooth, shiny city centre.
On the way back we saw some of the street art that gives the ‘cultural’ bit to the cultural village, as well as some of the more run down areas. Gamcheon was previously a bit of a shanty town, and the arty side of it comes mainly from a 2009 scheme to regenerate the area by introducing cultural projects and attracting tourists. I think it’s worked quite well, you get the impression that the unique windy streets atmosphere of the place has been preserved rather than sanitised, though more money is coming into the area. We saw a fair few hipster family sorts milling around the shops and stalls.
There are lots of other things we could have done in Busan: a sea cliff temple, city viewing tower, parks, museums, an aquarium, or the world’s largest department store (dear god). I’m really glad we (I) chose this, it’s an interesting side to the city, and I had a great time wandering about in the fresh air.
We could have stayed a lot longer I’m sure, but we had a train to catch, so back to the station we went. We’d booked online the night before to be sure of a seat to Daejeon, a little over two hours away. They have a system where you’re booked onto the train, but you don’t get assigned a seat until you pick up your physical ticket at the station, so if you arrive at the last minute as we did you might end up standing. Fortunately we got seats, but they were a few rows apart. We just had time to grab some lunch at Paris Baguette, a fancy European style bakery/sandwich shop, before we boarded our train. This was definitely a birthday treat: it was well over £10 for food and coffees. But yum. Also I didn’t feel like picking meat out of my birthday lunch, which was the only alternative to my delicious tomato and mozarella ciabatta sandwich. I’m sure we took a photo of this, but I can’t find it, so instead, here are the beers we had when we got there.
More on these (and loads of other delicious stuff) next time!