Busan, South Korea

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My bedroom view

Before moving out of Asia later this year I wanted to do a few more weekend city trips. I’d visited North Korea in 2013, so decided to check out the South. I didn’t really gravitate towards any particular city so when a few friends recommended Busan, I  said alright, & found a cheap flight there. This cheap flight left Hong Kong at 2am.. and arrived in Busan far too quickly; 3 hours later. The joys of budgeting… that said, I decided that I’d not enjoy my first day walking around on 2.5 hours sleep so booked my hotel, K-Guesthouse Premium Nampo (recommended!) from the night before. Totally worth it. Jumped on the Airport Limousine bus, 6000 won ($5/£4) which dropped me off pretty much on the hotel doorstep, 50 mins later in Nampo Dong. Checked in, ate some breakfast, and then.. slept for 3 hours. A simple and cheap room, I was not expecting such huge windows with such a great view!

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Breakfast view

Woke myself up a little with a coffee and headed off.. to find more food at MooMoo Burger & Smoothie, situated in Milhanjum Vegan Bakery Exit 11, Jungang Station. I’d read that google maps didn’t work in South Korea but I generally found if I connected to WiFi and scrolled around that area, it would work when I was offline (not always – but mostly.) 

After sampling many of the delicious breads, (mini free tasters – not so sure about the grey Mugwort Ciabatta) eating a burger and buying two muffins and a custard roll for later (just because I could…) I headed towards the bus top to get to Gamcheon Culture Village. On my way I stumbled upon the ’40 Step Culture & Tourism Theme Street’ which consisted of 10 sculptures depicting the difficult of daily for displaced Koreans during the war. It was a pretty bright & colourful area – worth a walk around, and was especially impressed with this drum in a second hand store.

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Gamcheon Culture Village

After taking a 25 minute bus ride to Gamcheon Culture Village (very easily, price of ticket shown on the bus, change given) I walked a further 10 minutes up a hill, and arrived at what is described as the Macchu Picchu of Korea… Personally I thought it was nothing like an ancient Inca civilisation in a remote mountainous area of Peru.

Macchu Picchu is uninhabited and the ruined and restored stone structures are predominately brown, unlike the very colourful village I was now standing in. There was also too few llamas (note, zero) to make this comparison. A friend later said that the village reminded her of Bolivia, which triggered my memory of Colombian villages on the hillsides outside Bogotá so perhaps there is something in it resembling South American villages  – perhaps just not the ancient ones.

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Anyway, it’s certainly a fun place to visit. It felt like a Korean Disneyland without the rides. So many cute quirky murals, statues and photo opportunities. Oh the photo opportunities! An Instagrammers dream!

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Note the queue for the photo with the statue… 

 

It’s still a fully functioning residential village but there are a huge amount of food stalls, cafes, restaurants & shops. There probably was a vibe of some sort, but not my kind of vibe, so it passed me by…

Despite potentially sounding like I didn’t enjoy it – I really did. I spent a very happy hour in the sun on a roof drinking grapefruit-ade (and sneakily eating my custard bun..) reading, and admiring the colourful houses and rollings hills around me. 

Afterwards I twisted my way down the little alleyways and the ‘stairs to the stars’ until I ended up at a bus stop, and got on a bus.. I hoped it was going somewhere useful to me (no English on the little mini bus..) 

 

Thankfully it took me to Tongsang metro and I jumped on a train to Seomyeon. It was really easy to navigate, the ticket machines have touch screens that let you choose English, and all the signs on the platforms and trains are also in English. 

My google maps wasn’t working but I knew the vague direction I had to go in, and had the address in Korean. I stopped to ask a lady if I was on the right street, but she didn’t seem to know (I think she thought I was asking where the restaurant was) and asked a man standing by. He quickly snarled at me ‘How old are you?’ to which I responded, ‘How old do you think I am?’ And he laughed a creepy laugh and pointed the way I’d come from and said ‘Come with me.’ Obviously I said no, and another man approached with an iPhone and took my paper, putting the address on it, into his phone. The other man grunted again, ‘Come with me’ – again pointing the opposite way to which I thought I needed to go, and I said no firmly, making a wave of the hand. iPhone man confirmed I was where I thought I was & going in the right direction… Weirdo man made this really odd loud grunting-shouting noise a few times whilst walking towards me. The lady started saying quickly and in a cheerful voice, ‘just laugh and smile – big smile – ha ha ha’ and then the man started to walk off. It was a pretty well lit street with people around but not a nice experience. Not really wanting to think about what that mans agenda was.

So, exhausted I headed up to Dajeon Cafe and ordered a delicious traditional (veganised) Korean meal complete with sides. Knowing I was near another, ‘very cool and Instagrammable’ vegan bakery (so said tripadvisor) I detoured there on the way home. I bought a sesame cream bun to eat for a snack the next day. The next day in reality was an hour later, in bed (8:30pm) with a cup of peppermint tea. It was delicious and and perfect end to the day. 

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Awake at 7am with the sun streaming through my window; coffee in bed before a quick breakfast overlooking the harbour; then I headed to the Busan West Bus Station for a day trip to Gyeongju, recommended to me by a friend. Not realising that I’d read the Central Bus Station timetable, with buses every 15 mins I was a little shocked (and pissed off) to find out I had to wait two hours for the next bus.  Wandering around the station I saw a coin operated karaoke venue… In Japan I went to baseball nets and arcades, in Korea, why not karaoke? 

Time went quickly. Only costing 500 won (U$0.40) for two songs I belted out the Killers, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Green Day, and RATM. It wasn’t until later I realised that the last (well, only time) I’d karaok-ed (?) RATM was in North Korea, at a Foreign Diplomats Club, very drunk, very uncomfortable – being forced on stage by friends. I smiled at how different things were now (for me only, sadly not North Korea… yet.) 

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Gyeongju

Just over an hour later I reached Gyeongju. Expecting a traditional quaint village I was shocked to step out of the bus to face a sea of motels and crappyish looking shops. I went into a cafe and got directions from a super helpful, smiley barista to the historical part of town. Phew. I rented a bike from the first rental store I saw, which was the crappist of all bikes I saw that day. Also a size too small. But, whatever, the sun was shining and I could pedal it – happy to be back on two wheels.

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I had no idea where I was, or where to even go, and my google maps showed nothing at all – aside from the dropped pin of ‘veg…’ where I planned to go for lunch, and a blue dot showing where I was – which was all I needed. I successfully navigated the my way to the restaurant, ate a fairly average falafel wrap, (as expected, I was happy enough a veggie place existed) and planned where to head that afternoon. If you aren’t a sober vegan you will be spoilt for choice on restaurants, cafes and bars! There are tonnes of traditional Korean restaurants as well as pizza places, cool cafes, craft beer and wine bars.

Google maps online again, and full of food I headed to the Gyochon Hanok Traditional Village, winding my way through the smaller streets, admiring the beautiful roofs and cute, colourful and often ‘inspirational’ murals. This village was made of ‘Hanok’ (traditional Korean houses make of rock/timber) centered on the life of the Choe clan. The historic area became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2000. Much of what can be seen I believe are remnants  and reconstructions of 7th-10th century houses, temples, theatres, pagodas and palaces during the Silla Dynasty (who ruled from 57bc – 935 ad.)

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I spent an hour or so walking and cycling around the gorgeously aesthetically pleasing buildings, made even more so by the visitors in rented hanoks; traditional Korean dress. In a country focused heavily on technology and the modern/future, this is one of the most popular destinations to get a glimpse of older traditional cultural Korea and the locals seemed to love being dressed up and posing. Was I a little jealous? Yes, yes I was. 

 

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After visiting the Cheomseongdae Observatory, a tower; 9.4’ tall built in the 7th century, which to me looked like an oversized chess pawn I headed towards the Donggung Palace, but was side tracked by a little forest with an inviting path uphill – seemingly away form the crowds. I was right. I spent the next 30 minutes sat alone overlooking the Choe village  and admiring the hills in the background with only the sound of birds and the leaves rustled by the wind, writing, and just being. To be honest, this was my favourite part of the trip so far. 

My last stop was intended to be a tour of the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, a collection of grassy mounds and a museum. I didn’t actually enter the complex, but didn’t realise this until I got home! I ended up walking around a few mounds nearby and went inside a housing, looking at an excavated one.  Sadly not knowing any Korean, I learnt nothing about it, but a little look online tells me.. almost nothing more! I believe the Royal Tombs were built during the Silla Period (57 BC to 668 AD) and excavated in the last century. 

With time to spare I spent an hour sipping an iced coffee in the park, reading in the sun, before pedalling my way back through the pretty Hwang village area to the bike rental shop, especially admiring the roofs. Such beautiful roofs. 

 

If I had more time I also would have headed over to Golgulsa to see the Ancient Buddhist Rock Carvings and sculptures 20km away.  I admired the sun setting down on the rice paddy fields before napping the rest of the way back to Busan. 

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Again using my dropped pin but no actual navigational streets on google maps I managed to find my way to a Bibimbap restaurant which had an English menu with a vegan option on it. Woo hoo! The area itself was worth a visit – a labyrinth of little shops and restaurants, buzzing on a Saturday night. I think had I had an actual map and tried to find it that way it would have been harder, so many little alleys – just focusing on moving closer to the red dot seems in hindsight the easiest way! 

The meal wasn’t particularly special, but it was filling, warm, healthy. And all this made me very happy (still enough room to eat one a chocolate muffin I bought from the bakery the day before.) 

I walked towards BIFF (Busan International Film Festival) Square, soaking up the lights, sounds, smells of the stalls and enjoying the buzz of the outdoor market.

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My final stop was the Jagalchi Fish market and Busan harbour. Looking at the huge variety of fish and marine creatures caught filled my heart with joy, at their beauty, and sadness at their imminent slaughter. 

The harbour was pretty, but nothing on Hong Kong. No harbour does really… ( I may be biased… but I’m also right!)

My sleep interrupted that night by unbearable itchiness thanks to two mozzies (RIP) that somehow got into my little room on the 10th floor – I again woke later properly to gorgeous sunshine and enjoyed my coffee overlooking my first stop of the day, Yongdusan Park.

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After check out I headed up via neon flashing light escalators (like the ones at work..) admiring Busan Tower, a Buddhist Temple, intricate wall designs and their descriptions (yup) before sitting reading in the picturesque gardens for a while. 

 

Next stop was the Busan Museum of Modern History. A fairly small and simple museum ten minutes walk away I was greeted by two very enthusiastic Korean children (also visiting the museum) asking where I was from, and welcoming me to Busan. I was told the history ‘is exciting but very sad.’ My heart melted. Before they left the exhibition they came to find me to wish me an enjoyable visit and a good day! So gorgeous!! 

A few years ago I did a free online course on modern Korean history. It is shameful how little I’ve remembered but the exhibits thankfully did jog a few things in my memory. The museum had an exhibit on the March 1st 1919 Movement, the first display of resistance to the Japanese Occupation, though they didn’t escape Japanese Occupation until the end of WW2, and it was also only in Korean.

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I sat inside a replica tram watching a really enjoyable video showing photos of old Busan, with a fictional conversation between a boy from the countryside and, (perhaps) his uncle from the city. The rest of the museum detailed history during the late Joseon Dynasty period; trade, industry, life under the Japanese, the Korean War,  relationship with the USA, and finally a little on the more recent political and governmental transitions.

Before heading to Moo Moo for another burger and to stock up on some dinner for the plane, I made my way, via Gukje market to Bosu-Dong Book street – started up by a internally displaced refugee couple during the Korean War, as a place to sell second hanf magazines.

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If you like books, it’s great. If you love books (like me) it’s truly wonderful. I probably looked a bit weird seemingly smiling massively at nothing in particular (my love of bookshops) but as I’d been stared (and often smiled) at all weekend it made no difference. I suppose really though, it never makes a difference to me! 

Hungry and excited for burgers I arrived to find it closed. Sat on their stairs I managed to jump on their WiFi, to find, as I thought, nothing vegan even remotely close to me. After I resigned myself to a lunch of Oreos, Pringles and perhaps bananas if I was lucky, I spotted a Subway. Glorious glorious (pretty bland but bread and fresh food) Subway! 

Refuelled I walked up to Busan station to explore Choryang-dong. I didn’t really know what was there but read some reviews the night before that it was a good place to go and cute area to walk around, and up. And up I went, past a lot of photos of people of old and murals and statues.

I then reached a tiny monorail station, named the ‘168 steps monorail’, but opted for the 168 steps instead. Climbing up you get a great view of the city and I finished my afternoon, and time in Busan, sipping an iced coffee, writing, thinking, smiling down at Busan below.

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So what did I think of Busan? I truly had a great weekend. I lead a busy life, and the last month, busier than usual (honestly, I do think I probably write that every month.) But with huge life plans forming (moving back to London, doing my Dive Master in Komodo) plus a recent visit from a mate and my Mum – both fabulous, fun times) a weekend alone to unwind and wander, sleep, write, read and people watch, was utterly fabulous. Whether my overall exhaustion made the city more or less appealing? I don’t know. I’m really glad I went, and wouldn’t change anything (especially having to wait two hours for a bus and ending up doing coin karaoke!)

 

The people, yes, they loved to stare, but I’m used to that, especially in HK, and Asia as a whole, and they were generally very friendly and almost always responded to a smile – many times people asked if I wanted help, and two girls came rushing to my rescue when I got trapped inside a subway station… not as exciting as it sounds – ticket malfunction! And people really seemed to take to Humpty – lots of laughter and smiles. Busan also has a big seaside resort, so there is a whole area and experience I didn’t venture  too.  I know Korea has a lot more to offer than I saw, especially in regards to it’s natural beauty but I think if you want a little bit of everything, and especially if Seoul is just that bit too much of a big city then Busan is a great place to go. 

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