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Published: August 11th 2018
Greetings! Greetings this time from South Korea, country number 78! I believe I last wrote just about to leave Japan, and was quite sad to do so. Indeed, it has been a bit of a culture shock arriving in South Korea, at once similar but also really very different to its neighbour across the Sea of Japan. I can say it took me a full day to get used to being here. I took the fast ferry from Fukuoka, and arriving in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city at 3.5 million people, the differences were immediately apparent. I think if I were to have come here directly from England, I would have noticed what other travellers I have spoken to have noticed – it is a clean, efficient and well-organised country. Coming from Japan, it seems less clean, less efficient and less organised. I have come to realise though that any country would probably seem so after Japan! I noted on my journey over here, that despite all my travels, this was the first time I was travelling by the super-fast hydrofoil mode of transport, and that the boat seemed to float a couple of metres above the
sea (very strange, I’m really not quite sure how it does that!) as it made the typical eight-hour journey by ordinary ferry in just three hours! I also noted that this was, as far as I can recall, and with the exception of a few trips over to France, the first time I’ve ever arrived in a new country by boat.
Stepping off the ferry, I think the first thing I noticed was that the cars drive on the right. I couldn’t believe it, but I hadn’t actually noticed that in Japan the traffic drives on the left. I am so used to going to another country and having to adjust to cars driving on the right, but since they don’t in Japan, as with England, it didn’t even register! I’m quite glad that this quite important fact dawned on me on the bus journey from the ferry terminal to the train station in Busan, as it could be very much a disaster if I didn’t! I also noticed some bad smells walking down the street, uneven payments, and litter…! I was also quite surprised that it took me about 10 minutes to locate the Busan metro station from
the main train station. The signage system was just awful and made me walk in circles, and asking around six people for directions to the metro, half of them ignored me, the other half didn’t know – the latter I found surprising considering this was the main train station in the city, the former just plain rude. In the end a kindly family showed me the direction, and I journeyed on the metro to the nearest station to my lodgings here. After getting out of the metro, on two separate occasions, a local Korean asked me if I needed help, as I must have looked a bit lost. And this has happened on a number of occasions over the last few days – on the whole, people here are just so friendly and helpful, and really seem to go out of their way to help the traveller like myself.
I shortly arrived at my lodgings during my stay here, the highly flamboyant and colourful 9st Traveltel. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce the first part – ninest, or ninth street? The second part I believe is an abbreviation of “Travellers’ Motel”, as opposed to the usual “motel” in
this country, which is generally a pay-by-the-hour “love motel”. It is certainly not this, and I have found the owner, Mr Song, to be extremely friendly, welcoming and helpful. I checked into the largest room I have stayed in on my trip so far, the bathroom seems bigger than many a business hotel I stayed in in Japan, the bedroom even bigger! There are also amenities galore in the room, I believe the owner has thought of everything: TV with free on-demand films, kettle, fridge, all manner of toiletries including hair gel and hairspray, and even a whole PC! Breakfast is a feast, and on my first morning, the owner showed me how to make “bibimbap”, a favourite of mine since enjoying Korean food for the first time a few years ago in the plentiful food courts of Singapore. It is indeed, a lovely place to stay.
I can summarise my first three days here as follows: on Thursday when I arrived I was in culture shock, feeling quite sad to have left Japan and missing it; on Friday I was beginning to settle into travel in South Korea; and today, Saturday, I have had a most enjoyable day
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
A super-fast hydrofoil service, crossing the Sea of Japan in just three hours
here, and feel just about accustomed to it now, and very ready and excited to explore more of this country over the next week and a half.
In greater depth, on my first day, and after settling down into my room, I just took an evening walk around my local area, and up to nearby Seomyeon, the beating heart of the centre of Busan. I enjoyed my first Korean meal in Korea, called “shabu-shabu”, which is a hot-pot type of meal, which you cook yourself on the table by adding meat and vegetables to a boiling pot on a hotplate in the middle of the table. Although Seomyeon appears to be the centre of Busan, it really is quite a strange city indeed. The whole urban area is huge, at 770 sq km – as a comparison, Seoul, with a much larger population of ten million has an urban area of just 605 sq km. What makes it so large in area is that much of the city is made up of lofty, forested mountain ranges – the urban area sprawls across the valley floors in between these mountains. The metro lines which run through the city run along
these valley floors and are very long, the two main ones being over 40 stops each. Being so big, travelling around to see the tourist sights really does take quite a long time, around an hour or so in journey between the main ones. At the same time, Busan is really quite a stunning and beautiful city, reminiscent somewhat of Rio de Janeiro, with its skyscrapers at the base of forested slopes, and also with some of its low-rise former-slum housing working its way up the mountainsides (the so-called slum areas seem to have developed and become much more gentrified now, as I guess South Korea’s economy has grown and developed over the years). It has been a very interesting first port of call in South Korea, unusual as most people here seem to start in Seoul. I have taken a bit of a back-door entry into the country.
On my second day, yesterday, I began to really understand and appreciate the attractions of Busan, and the friendliness and warmth of the Korean people. It has taken a bit of time to get out of the mode of speaking Japanese, and I have started learning Korean using the same
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
I love this, very polite service in Japan!
amazing app, LingoDeer. Although at first glance, due to the different writing systems and alphabets, it is really quite surprising to see that Japanese and Korean are actually quite similar - they are in fact linguistically related. For example, in both languages you need a topic marker as a suffix to indicate the subject of a sentence, “wa” in Japanese, “eun” or “neun” in Korean; sentences in both languages follow the “subject, object, verb” structure; some words are quite similar, such as newspaper: “shimbun” in Japanese, “shinmoon” in Korean; and both languages use the suffix “ka” at the end of a statement in order to make it into a question. I find these similarities really very interesting, and also quite useful in learning some basic Korean! Just as in Japan, the people seem so happy that I can at least say a few words in Korean - sometimes it has made people laugh, in a friendly way, simply by saying “thank you”. After a hearty breakfast at this fantastic “traveltel”, I took a loooong metro ride on Line One up north towards the Beomeosa stop. From here, it was a 20 minute ride on a local bus up the nearby
forested mountain slope, and into a whole new world away from the concrete jungle below. This was the Beomeo-sa Buddhist Temple. It was beautiful! In most of the places I’ve visited so far, tourism here appears to be just a steady trickle, and mostly national Korean tourists. This meant that a visit to this stunningly sited Buddhist Temple, on the slopes of a beautifully forested mountain overlooking the skyscraper-full valley below, actually felt like a visit to a religious place of worship, and not a tourist circus. I enjoyed a very relaxing 20 minutes or so in the main temple hall in my own peaceful meditation, surrounded by local people in prayer. The vista of temple roofs with forested slopes in the distance was very photogenic, and the tranquil sounds of the forest all around were indeed a world away from the concrete valley below. After this, I took a bus back down the mountain, and another very long metro journey way over to the eastern part of the city, to visit what is actually the largest bath house in Asia (it seems that, although not as much as the Japanese, the Koreans also enjoy a good, hot public bath),
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
My goodness, is that even possible...?!
Spa Land, located itself within what is officially the largest department store in the world, Shinsegae Centum City (there was even a Guinness World Records plaque to show for it!). The spa was just wonderful, and very similar to the Japanese bath house. After an hour of hot bath, sauna, cold bath, bubbly bath and so on, I enjoyed a good hour or so in the huge relaxation area attached, with places to lie down, comfy chairs to take a nap in, foot baths to relax in and much more besides. I followed up this very relaxing experience with delicious Korean meal number two, a bibimbap, at one of the many restaurants on the top floor of the Shinsegae Centum City department store. Here, I made a bit of a faux pas – I believe I misunderstood what the waitress was telling me to do with the bowl of liquid she brought out with the straight-out-of-the-oven bowl of bibimbap rice, and poured it into the hot bowl (apparently it was actually a form of soup which you are meant to consume with a spoon). It immediately hissed and steamed, and the table opposite me looked horrified and motioned for me
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
Really, how does it do that...?!
to stop. They very helpfully showed me what to do and how to eat it, which I was very appreciative of. I feel this family will tell the story for years to come of the time a foreigner poured his soup into his bibimpap – what a daft thing to do! After this, another, and final, long metro ride back to my lodgings.
And today has actually been even more jam-packed than yesterday! I woke up really quite full of energy and the desire to explore more of this city, and experience more of South Korea. After breakfast, I took the long metro ride all the way to the south first, to the Jagalchi Fish Market. This is one of South Korea’s most famous markets, and was certainly a sight to behold, seeing all kinds of marine creatures being sold by rather feisty-looking women with flowery blouses, wellingtons and sun-visors (flowery blouses and sun-visors seem quite the in-thing for the older ladies to wear here, along with big, bushy, permed hairstyles…). It was actually quite heart-rendering to see a lot of the beautiful sea creatures still alive, gasping their last breaths of air as they try to stay alive
as long as possible in their tiny tanks crammed with others of their kind, and not knowing that very soon they’ll end up as dinner on someone’s plate. Whilst it wasn’t an experience to turn me vegetarian, I found it quite sad, though also at the same time quite photogenic. Although I had planned to, I didn’t end up feeling like I wanted to enjoy the delights of the second-floor fresh fish eateries of the market, particularly as I tend to avoid seafood when I travel due to a few bad experiences in the past.
From the fish market, I took a very short metro ride (only two stops this time!) to Toseong, from where I hopped on a small minibus which, although packed, very nimbly made its way up a series of very steep, hairpin turns up the nearby mountainside, on the way to the amazing Gamcheon Culture Village. Originally a slum area, Gamcheon got an arty makeover in 2009 when a group of students decided to brighten up the area with a range of colours and pictures all around the place. Today it is a gorgeous area, reminiscent once more of Rio, like a shanty town up
one of its mountainsides, but gentrified, colourful and a whole heap safer. It was also the most touristy place I’ve visited here – in fact, I didn’t realise this city had tourists until I came here, as all other places I’ve been to only saw a steady trickle of Korean visitors along with myself. Still, it was really great fun to wander around the quirky houses and streets, and eventually down a series of 148 steps nicknamed the “Stairs to See Stars” from the old times, as when the locals used to climb it laden with heavy goods, they used to end up seeing stars! I thought this quite funny. Fortunately, having taken the bus to the top, I ended up walking down it, but I did see a local old lady making her way up very slowly, presumably home after a day’s shopping down in the valley. I also met a fellow Sheffielder! In an ex-shanty town in a South Korean coastal city of all places. It was great to talk with him, find out which areas we grew up in, schools we went to and so on. It turned out we didn’t know anyone in common, but it
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
The eastern sea is indeed so blue
was still a pleasure to talk with him.
I caught the wrong bus back to the metro station however, and ended up about 20 minutes later at another metro station even further down the line than I wanted to be – darn! This meant my next and final destination for the day was an even longer 20-station journey away on Line Number One, back up north again. Ah well, it gave me a chance to catch up on the History section of my Korea Lonely Planet guide, and do some people-watching on the metro. I got to thinking on this journey that Korean people can really be quite stunningly attractive, with their high cheekbones and chiselled-in-ice features. They seem quite similar in looks and appearance, as well as the sound of their language, to the Mongolians, and I believe share the same ethno-linguistic heritage. I actually really enjoy hearing Koreans speak their language – similar also to Mongolian, it sounds both aggressive and quite captivating, with their “aspirated” consonant sounds “ch”, “j” and “s” particularly pleasant to listen to. Well, it was a long journey, I did quite a bit of thinking!
Twenty stops later I ended up
JR Beetle from Fukuoka to Busan
Approaching Busan, South Korea - a city of skyscrapers amongst mountains
at Oncheonjang station, ready for my final visit of the day. Since it was actually quite near closing time, I took a taxi, rather than walk the 15 minutes, up to the entrance to Geumgang Park. From here, it was a stunning cable car ride up to the heights of the Geumjeong-san range of forested peaks in the north of the city. The cable car floated straight out of the skyscraper-strewn urban landscape, and up pine-covered slopes towards the amazing views at the top. Being so late in the day, I was also the only passenger in the car, which was actually quite nice. From up there, I could really appreciate how unique the city is – rivers of urban sprawl flowing around, through and amongst hills of green forest. It was really quite spectacular, and I took many photos. Although I had limited time up there, I still managed to fit in a nice green onion pancake at one of the eateries, a walk to a nearby hermitage, the beautiful and isolated Hyujeong-am Hermitage (a place where I could have spent much longer, and would have loved to have stopped the night on a temple-stay or similar), and finally
up to an observation post with stunning views over the north of Busan and the rural landscapes beyond. Having in mind that that was the direction I’d be heading in tomorrow morning, when I leave Busan and make my way into the interior of this intriguing country, I hopped on one of the final cable car rides back to the bottom, took another long metro ride, and arrived back in my traveltel, with a pot-noodle and salad-pack bought at the local convenience store to enjoy for dinner as I write this, my first blog entry for the South Korean leg of my travelling adventures this year.
Indeed, after a bit of getting used to the change from Japan, I am really quite excited now about the prospect of heading further into this country tomorrow and exploring more. In the morning I head to Gyeongju, the ancient Silla capital of the southern part of the Korean peninsula, where I hope to learn more about the Three Kingdoms which existed here from the 1st
century BC to the 10th
century AD. From Gyeongju I head to Andong, to visit the nearby Hahoe Folk Village, a settlement apparently unchanged by the modern
era, where local villagers apparently still live as they have done for centuries. Since I plan to only spend two nights each in Gyeongju and Andong, I plan to write up my next from Andong in a few days’ time, with stories to tell I believe from both.
So thank you for reading this one. I have enjoyed a wonderful entry into this intriguing country, which I hadn’t realised I actually know very little about. I look forward very much to learning more about it first-hand as I begin my travels through it tomorrow.
Until the next time, all the best for now.
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