THE NEXT MORNING Justin and I bid farewell to the rest of the guys in our hostel room, including Wille from Finland and a guy from Malaysia whose name I can’t remember. We head on to the Seoul Central Station to catch the train to Busan. It’s just a little past 1 in the afternoon when we board a semi-express train, and as with all transportation in South Korea, the train leaves on schedule.
Not really much happens on board except Justin talking with three young women for about half an hour, with their conversation mostly in Korean. On one occasion, one of the women looks at me and smiles. “Welcome to Korea,” she says. “I hope you have a great time.”
I smile back. “I will.”
Justin relays to me that the women are going to Daegu and will stay there for the night before going to Busan the next day.
My memory of the rest of the trip turns into a blur of me eating a burger and looking out the window as the train snakes through the Korean countryside. Swathes of fields and mountainsides are regularly interrupted by towns that look more and more rustic compared to the glamour of Seoul. One station even looks old-fashioned with red bricks for the walls, like it came from early 20th century England.
It’s already dark when we reach Busan. Getting out of the train, the temperature plummets again. The cold is still way beyond my tropical-blood treshold, but it’s more manageable than Seoul’s. Google says it’s negative two degrees Celsius.
BUSAN IS SOUTH KOREA’S SECOND LARGEST CITY and the country’s largest port. Surrounded by the sea and mountains, the city is a nature lover’s playground. There are mountains and pathways to hike, and on certain times of the year, beaches to swim. Of course, the proximity to the sea means its markets are teeming with fresh seafood, some of which are still alive. A bit inland, Busan’s urban trappings, including trendy bars and shops, have also been appealing to city slickers. It’s not a stretch to say that here, there’s something for everyone.
The locals themselves are proud of their city. Speaking in a distinct dialect and defined by a loud and raw personality that’s a clear contrast to “sophisticated” Seoulites, Busanites, according to some, radiate more vibrant character and charm.
Looking today at its glitzy cityscape and its calming natural facets, its hard to reconcile that Busan was once just a fishing village with a bloody history. Once a part of the mighty Silla empire, Busan was made a major port in the 15th century, opening it up to trade with Japan. Its strategic location proved to be very attractive to the Japanese, who launched an attack in 1592, but proved to be unsuccessful following the valiant efforts by Yi Sun-shin. The admiral was eventually killed but not before dealing crippling blows to the Japanese naval fleet, reminiscent of the Spartans in Thermopylae.
Back at the present, Justin and I easily find our hostel, the Kimchee Busan Original Guesthouse, located just a stop away from the central Seoyeon Station. After checking in and resting for a bit, we hightail it to the Gwangalli Beach, where we plan to catch the lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, the sky is covered in clouds tonight and the only lights we see are the neon lights of Busan’s nightscape. We enjoy the really cold sea breeze for about half an hour, walking along the beach until we reach the eastern end. Justin then tells me to wait at a corner of a street while he disappears into a coffee shop. He needs to use the toilet, he tells me.
Actually, he secretly buys a cake for me, which we eat back at the hostel, sharing it along with cans of beer with a group of Koreans and two Japanese visitors. And thus we celebrate my first birthday outside the Philippines since I turned three.
WE START TOURING LATE the next day as Justin starts having trouble with his ATM card. Much of the morning and early afternoon are spent looking for a bank where he can try to fix the problem, and then in a bank where he has to contact his bank in Canada. We have a very late lunch at a buffet restaurant in Seoyeon, and Justin volunteers to pay for both of us using his credit card.
With just enough time for one place, I choose the Haedong Yonggungsa in the far eastern reaches of the city, mainly because its pictures are some of the most prominent in Google searches of Busan. Getting there is tricky, though, and we get down a station too early. We walk the rest of the way, but it turns out to be much farther than expected. The view going there is really nice, though, with the wide highways and open spaces reminding me of coastal California. The late afternoon sun provides a really warm feeling, contrasted by the blue ocean.
It’s almost sunset when we arrive at the Haedong Yonggungsa. Whereas most Korean temples are built on mountains and hills, this one is built on rocks beside the sea. It was constructed in 1376 by a Buddhist teacher called Naong during the Goryeo Dynasty, though was destroyed by the Japanese invasion.
Reconstruction started in 1970, beginning with the main sanctuary, and efforts have been meticulous. The temple itself can be reached by going down a series of steps leading to a rocky outcrop beside the ocean. The gentle lapping of waves, combined with the general calming vibe of a Buddhist place, eases away all muscle aches from all the walking.
Back at the hostel later in the evening, we meet a few more fellow travelers along with one of the hostel staff members. I can’t remember the staff member’s name (it starts with R), but she shares the same birthday as mine. We celebrate it once more by having a large box of Korean fried chicken delivered and sharing it around the hostel’s common area, along with a box of donuts Justin bought earlier.
I PART WAYS WITH JUSTIN the next morning, as I decide to stay one more day in Busan to make up for the half day we spent trying to fix his ATM card problem. Meanwhile, he decides to go to Gyeongju with Felix, a traveler from Germany whom we share our room with at the hostel.
Farewells bid, I start my Busan tour by heading to the Gamcheon Culture Village. Local government efforts transformed this once poor slum district into one of the most popular attractions in the city. Colorful houses dot the hillsides, and there’s a palpable artistic vibe walking walking around its narrow, winding streets.
I head next to the Jagalchi Market, the country’s largest seafood market. It’s a really busy place, and the whir of activities – not to mention the smell – can be really overwhelming. But it’s a great way to see a cross-section of Korean life, looking at vendors and buyers going about their daily lives. I walk a bit around witnessing the bustle before going to the subway for the next stop in today’s itinerary.
Just before noon, I arrive at Yeongdo-gu, an island district off the coast of central Busan. The island is connected to the mainland by the Yeongdodaegyo Bridge, the first bridge in the city to connect an island to the mainland. The district’s main attraction is Taejongdae, a large natural recreation area where a well-maintained trail leads to viewpoints of Busan’s rugged coastline.
Of course, I can’t leave Busan without going to its most famous shoreline, the Haeundae Beach. In summer, Hauendae is crowded with swimming and sun-worshippers. Today, in the dead of the winter season, swimming is prohibited. But it’s still filled with visitors enjoying the relaxing effect of the sea.
Suddenly I hear a voice calling my name. I turn around and see Justin running towards me. It turns out his trip to Gyeongju didn’t push through as Felix had to meet his Korean friends. While I was busy going around Busan, Justin went to relax at a spa. And in a remarkable coincidence, we find each other in Hauendae. But now he decides to stay in Busan, while I plan on going to Gyeongju tonight by bus.
We laugh despite the lingering feeling of having to go our separate ways once more. But for now, we still have the rest of the afternoon to enjoy the city and laugh at the irony of fouled up itineraries.