I’m not sure how KTX trains in Korea compare to the shinkansen trains of Japan, but one thing they definitely have in common is punctuality. My KTX train departed Seoul exactly on time and then it was a smooth 2-hour, 45-minute ride to the city of Busan on Korea’s southern coast. During that time I watched a few short videos on Youtube and some programs on the train car’s TV screen but I also tried to spend some time checking out the scenery passing by in the window. Much of Korea is mountainous and parts of it remind me of Italy. When I arrived at Busan’s main train station I then had to take a 30-minute metro ride to reach my hostel, which was close to Gwangalli Beach. Thick clouds covered the sky as I emerged from the metro station nearest my hostel and a light rainfall was starting to make everything wet. I found my hostel quickly and then unloaded my backpack.
After getting settled in, withdrawing some money from an ATM at 7-Eleven, and eating dinner, I went out for the evening to explore the area. Gwangalli Beach is one of the major beaches in the eastern half of the city and like all the other beaches in Busan it is a popular spot during the summer. Out in the water is the Gwangandaegyo Bridge that spans the entire bay. At night the bridge is colorfully illuminated and because of this I originally thought it was sometimes called the Rainbow Bridge, but later I was told that it’s actually referred to as the Diamond Bridge. As I walked around the beach at night I came across a group of locals who had set up a table on the beach and were using it to launch small fireworks into the sky. One of the fireworks exploded prematurely on the table, showering everyone around it in sparks, but no one appeared to be hurt. When I got to the end of the beach I kept walking and made my way out onto a pier. A few fishermen were out there, casting glowing lures into the water. Later I was told that they were trying to catch squid that are attracted by the lights. At the far end of the pier I was able to get some better shots of Diamond Bridge before I turned around and went back to Gwangalli Beach. There I came across a section of the beach where quotes from famous people were being projected onto the sand. Half the quotes were in Korean, so I had no idea what they said, but the quotes in English were from notable historic figures like JFK and Ghandi. When I came back to the hostel I wound up talking with the owner for almost two hours on various things, ranging from gun violence in America to the situation with North Korea, and finally sometime after midnight I got to bed.
The next morning I began a very full day of sightseeing, though a lot of it was spent riding on public transit. During breakfast I ended up talking for a while with both the owner of the hostel and a middle-aged Chinese guy named Jeff from Hong Kong. I’m not sure if Jeff is his real name or just the English name he uses for business but what was clear was that he was a friend of the owner and always stayed at this hostel when he was in Busan. Once I had finished eating I got ready for the day and headed out.
My first destination was Haedong Yonggungsa Temple way out on the eastern edge of the city. To get there I’d first have to take the metro to Haeundae Station and then catch a bus that stopped near the temple. A short street with vendors selling food and trinkets leads to the path to Haedong Yonggungsa and then you make your way down to the temple. Haedong Yonggungsa is a buddhist temple that was built right by to the sea in the 1300s and although the original temple was destroyed during one of the Japanese invasions of Korea the temple was rebuilt in the 1900s. Being next to the ocean, Haedong Yonggungsa is a very scenic temple and you can get some good photos as waves crash against the rocks below. Unfortunately for me it was a cloudy, overcast day when I was there, so the photos weren’t as good as they would have been with sunny weather, but I made do. Because Haedong Yonggungsa isn’t that large and isn’t overly ornate you probably won’t spend a lot of time there, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re able to spare the time needed to get out there. I think I stuck around for about 45 minutes and then made my way back to the bus stop.
The rest of my day would be spent sightseeing in the western half of the city. One important thing to know about Busan is that the city is really spread out and you’ll need to budget a fair amount of time for getting around to different places. From Haedong Yonggungsa Temple I took the bus back to Haeundae Station and then rode the metro for a full hour over to Nampo Station. I got off at Nampo to visit the Lotte Department Store tower, or rather to go up on its roof. The roof of the department store can be freely accessed by the public and has a decent view of the harbor and the western part of Busan. Whereas the eastern edge of Busan by Haedong Yonggungsa didn’t have too many buildings, the main part of city is very urban and the area around the harbor is a giant commercial and industrial zone. Way out to the west I could see part of the Gamcheon Cultural Village, where I’d eventually end my day. Had the weather been nicer I would have instead gone over to the nearby Busan Tower and paid to go to its observation deck, however on a gray day like that one it didn’t feel worthwhile to be spending money for a view.
When I came down from the roof of the Lotte Department Store I started making my way west, stopping first at the Jagalchi Fish Market. I don’t normally like the taste or smell of seafood but I thought it would be interesting to see what the local fishermen had brought in that day. Fish, of course, was the most common thing being sold there, but I also saw people selling octopus, eels, clams, and other creatures of the sea. I walked through the market, snapping a few quick photos along the way, and then moved north to the area around BIFF Square. BIFF stands for Busan International Film Festival and although the festival was going on while I was in Busan I didn’t see any actual festivities for it. I did, however, spend some time wandering through the narrow shopping streets that proliferate around there. Just about anything you could want was for sale and it reminded me a lot of the neighborhood near Istanbul University (where I bought the Umbrella of Constantine).
By the time I was done with BIFF Square it was the mid afternoon and I needed to get to the Gamcheon Cultural Village. On my phone I found a nearby bus stop where I could catch a bus to the village and according to the bus schedule another one would be arriving soon so I made a run for it and got to the bus stop shortly before the bus arrived. An old lady sitting next to me on the bus could tell that I was a little winded and very kindly gave me some of her tea to drink. Once again, I was the recipient of Korean generosity. To reach the village the bus had to take a long, winding route up narrow roads but after awhile it finally got there. The Gamcheon Cultural Village looks sort of like Santorini in Greece, but instead of whitewashed houses it looks like an overly enthusiastic art student was put in charge of painting the place. Built on the slope of a mountain leading down towards the sea, the village is a labyrinth of pastel-colored buildings that appears to have been built specifically for social media. There are tons of narrow lanes to explore and street art to discover, but since it is on a slope be ready to descend and climb a lot of stairs. Strangely enough, people actually live in the village, which I would think would be both really inconvenient and somewhat annoying due to tourists like me gawking around the neighborhood. I spent an hour at Gamcheon Cultural Village but seeing as how there’s not too much to do there I suspect some people won’t get much out of it other than a cool photo for Instagram. If you’re the artsy sort of person then you’ll probably love it.
As the light faded I went back to the bus stop and began the long journey to my hostel. Over an hour later I arrived back at Gwangalli Beach and bought dinner from a Korean grocery store. While eating I had a chance to talk with one of the other hostel staff, who was a girl from one of the French islands in the Caribbean. She was working at the hostel for the year but I don’t remember if she was going back home after that or going somewhere else. Later that night I paid a short visit to the Haeundae Beach neighborhood and bought some ice cream while I was there. One of the two flavors I got was called Green Forest and it sort of had a mint flavor. I took a seat on the beach for a few minutes, observing the sights around me. A lot of young people were out and about that night and a pair of street performers were doing tricks for their respective crowds. When I was ready I left and returned to the hostel for the night.
The following day I had a quick breakfast and then got my photo taken with the hostel’s world map. The hostel owner had a map of the world and guests would place pins to indicate where they were from. There were several pins on various spots in America, but none on Colorado so I got to be the first person from my state to place a pin there. With that important task complete I then loaded up my backpack and left it at the front desk.
I didn’t have too much free time that morning before I needed to get to the airport so I couldn’t stray too far from my hostel’s neighborhood. First I got some final photos of Gwangalli Beach and then I went over to Haeundae to check out the daytime scene there. As I walked around Haeundae I got the feeling that it’s sort of like Itaewon in Seoul in that a large chunk of the city’s foreign population seems to live there. According to what I’ve read online, Haeundae Beach is Busan’s most popular beach during the summer but when I was there in October it wasn’t crowded at all. I got a few photos and tried to enjoy the beach as much as I could for the short time I was there.
Soon, however, it was time for me to leave. I grabbed my backpack from the hostel and then took the long ride to Gimhae Airport at the west end of Busan. To be safe I left early and got there with plenty of time to spare, and my flight ended up being delayed by half an hour so I sat around at the airport for awhile. As I waiting for my flight I felt strangely content about my time in Busan. Sure, the city is huge and there’s a lot more I could have done, but I was ok with what had been accomplished. Also there was the fact that I’d be back in Busan several days later, so I knew I’d have another shot if anything came to mind before I returned to the city. Before that, however, I had a three-night stay on Jeju Island ahead of me.