Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Busan Trip

It's been too long since I've last posted. Here's a long-winded write-up of our trip to Busan last weekend...

Last Friday, we left school at noon to catch a bus for Busan where we would celebrate my birthday and soak up the refreshing cosmopolitanism of Korea's second city.

Because we live in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, we had to take a bus 45 minutes north in order to get the bus that would take us five hours south. That's frustrating. In fact, the time expense to travel around the country from eastern Gangwon-do has been one of the most frustrating aspects of living here, especially when half of the population is connected by a bullet train that crosses the country in two hours. If I had it to over again, I would probably ask to be on the western (Seoul) side of the province for this reason alone.

With that said, the bus ride wasn't too uncomfortable, and we got into Busan early enough to head to “Kebapistan,” the famous-among-foreigners Turkish restaurant in the PNU neighborhood of Busan. My multiple falafel sandwiches were lovely, though not quite as good as they were when I lived in Busan in 2006. That or my memory has inflated their taste in the intervening years.

One of the great things about traveling in Korea is the ubiquity of cheap accommodation. Koreans typically live with their parents until they are married, so, in response to the demand for private space for young men and women, thousands of “love motels” have sprung up across the country, where one can stay in a reasonable, clean room for between 20 and 50,000 won (US$15 – 37). We asked a table of foreigners if they knew of any such places near by and they pointed us to a neighborhood with two in every alley (half way to Jangjeon-dong on the main street in PNU) and we found a nice place for 20,000 won and after a brief walk around the neighborhood promptly crashed.

I had planned the whole trip around the restaurants I wanted to eat at in Busan, and on Saturday morning we headed to a place, also in the university district of Busan, that I remembered for their vegetable panini and tomato soup. We found it with surprising ease, and while it had the same cute decor and English books and games, the menu had taken a significant change for the worse. Gone were paninis and soups, in were sausages and ham sandwiches. The consolation prizes of a couple onion bagels and cup of coffee at Starbucks were not unwelcome though.

From their we went up to Beomeo-sa, the biggest and most famous Buddhist temple in Busan. It was lovely, as it has been every time I've been there. There were lots of paper lanterns strung up today, which was especially nice, something a little different.

We went for a lovely hike above the temple, up to a prominent ridge-line that can be seen from all over the northern part of the city. The weather was shockingly good for mid-December, the day was clear and it felt great to be out and get the blood pumping. We live in the middle of nowhere as far as Korea goes, yet the air was cleaner in Busan, because we live in coal-central in the middle of nowhere Korea, so that was a nice change as well. We met a nice man from Gwang-ju, a recently retired principal, with whom we had a nice conversation on the way up the trail, and who kindly took and emailed us our only picture of the trip.

From there we headed to the vegetarian buffet in Seomyeon, but found it closed (restaurant failure #2 for the day), so we grabbed a quick bi-bim-bap (mixed veggies and rice) and headed for Jagalchi, the gigantic fish market on the pier of Busan. It was as busy, smelly and strange as ever, and we had fully taken that in, we headed a few blocks over to Nampo-dong, the trendy downtown area of Busan.

Nampo-dong on a Saturday night was totally overwhelming. Thousands and thousands of little shops in maze like alleys, all illuminated by dozens of hanging fluorescent lights – shoe designers, clothes consolidators, traditional Korean goods for tourists. After what felt like hours of sifting through piles of clothes (a pastime for Melanie), we had a pieces of clothing we like and headed for the hole-in-the-wall Indian place in Nampo-dong, that I absolutely love. To get there, walk down the main street in Nampo-dong to the Pizza Hut, turn into that alley, walking on the Pizza Hut side, look for a steep, green staircase on your right, about 2/3 of the way down that alley. It's up there on the right.

The Indian Restaurant has only one vegetarian dish – masala curry, and it turned out to be too spicy for Melanie, which was big bummer. So I enjoyed mine as quickly as possible and we hit a second bi-bim-bap place on our way out of Nampo-dong.

Then we got foolish. We headed all the way across the city to go to what is reputed to be the largest bathhouse in Asia. When we got off the subway, we looked at our guidebook to see how to get there and learned that it closed at 9:00. Most bathhouses in Korea are open 24 hours and will let you sleep there, which was our plan, but not this one. So we back across the city, to the Haeundae Beach area, for another jimjilbang that was open 24 hours.

I had a nice soak, especially on the balcony that overlooks the beach – that was special. Melanie had an unfortunate run-in with what may have been a would-be thief (averted by her quick action), and when we met in the clothed, co-ed part of the jimjilbang, we realized there was no way we were going to sleep there. Some jimjilbangs have big sleeping rooms that are closed off from the activity of the rest of the place. This one didn't. So we left, nearing 11:00, eyes shutting and all.

Fortunately we found a reasonable motel fairly quickly (the first one tried to put us in a dirty room) and we got a much-needed good night's sleep.

On Sunday morning we went for a nice walk on Haeundae Beach, which was largely empty, so we tried to imagine what it would look like in July with tens of thousands of Koreans packed onto it. It was cold though, so we headed back to the vegetarian restaurant in Seomyeon, which was open this time. We had our favorite meal of the weekend here, and picked up some oatmeal, flax seed and dried mango on our way out.

I knew it would be pushing it to head to Busan for a normal weekend like this, but for Turkish and Indian food, it was well worth it. And, yes, the Korean temple, restaurant and bathhouse were nice too.


Anjole said...

sounds lovely and tiring. funny how starbucks can be a welcoming site sometimes, even though we might despise their multi national marketing...did you get Korean birthday cake?

Alice said...

Sounds like a fun but exhausting trip. Were there any octopi trying to escape in the fish market?

I'm wondering if there are teachers in your program working in areas that you might prefer to live in, that are going to be leaving Korea soon? If so, would you be able to get their jobs?

Michael Levy said...

Yes, in Korea, foreign multinationals are very welcome. Foreign Mom-and-Pop places are even more welcome, but harder to come by.

Substituted falafel for the birthday cake - a good trade, I think.

No escaping octopuses this time at Jagalchi, but some huge, huge, huge crabs trying to get out of their cages. These things had bodies six inches across, from claw to claw they must have been almost two feet!

We thought about the possibility of moving to Busan while we were down there. I don't think we could stay with the public school system, but if we really wanted to, we could probably get release from our current visa to take a private job elsewhere. At this point though, I'm not that anxious to extend my leave date. ;)