After leaving Seoul I spent one month in Busan trying to find the best view for every variety of sandwich from the chain bakery Paris Baguette. Kidding, I was actually volunteering at a language cafe where Koreans (mostly university students) came to practice their English, but with a 7:00 – 10:00 pm Monday – Friday shift I had a ton of free time to explore the beautiful Busan coastline.
First, some random Korean observations:
- Riding the subway in Korea you’ll quickly notice that it’s heavily trafficked by old people. I don’t know if it’s because Koreans live longer or they are just out and about more than old Americans… but there are so many old Koreans they have entire sections on each train that are designated for them (and even if the elderly sections are empty and the rest of the train is full, young people will not take those seats…and when the entire train is full young people generally did not stand for old…of course I always did to the astonishment of everyone around me, including the old person). But one of my favorite things to do in Korea was watching these old people (usually women) sprint from the stairs to the subway and/or from the subway to the elevator to beat the doors, and then immediately return to a hunched-back limp. I also loved their colorful outfits, always with a visor.
- Which brings me to the outdoor gyms, another place where I love to watch old people (watching old people has become a hobby of mine…they like to watch me too so it seems only fair). Old people are constantly working out at these outdoor gyms; my favorite activity is the hula hoops (look closely at the picture on the right).
- But what I loved most about Busan was the nature. Much like in Seoul, the southeast region has done an incredible job creating accessible and beautiful trails on every surrounding mountain (and there are a lot) and developing every coastline to provide a trail, viewpoint, skywalk, or workout station. Again, frequented mostly by old people, always dressed in super colorful hiking gear.
Beaches – from top left going clockwise: Haeundae, Songjeong, Gwangalli, Dadaepo.
My favorite coastal trail was Igidae Coastal Walk, just under 5 km of stairs, paved trails, rock trails, nature trails and endless views of the coastline. I liked it so much I did it twice.
I summited three mountains, Geumlyeonsan, Jangsan, and Geumjeongsan (“san” means mountain in Korean):
And loved the randomness of Haeundae Dalmaji-gil “Moonwalk” trail:
Of course I made sure to bring snacks on these various adventures:
Time for a quick history lesson! Most things WWII related that I’ve read/watched generally focus on the war in Europe. Then in Thailand I learned about the Death Railway and Japan’s attempt to conquer Southeast Asia and India during WWII. I guess I hadn’t given any thought to what was going on in Korea at this time, the events of which ultimately paved the way for the Korean War. I had also come to understand that Koreans (generally the older generations) do not hold Japan in the highest regard. Well, after going to some museums and reading Lost Names by Richard Kim, I’ve come to understand some of the background. Here’s some interesting things I learned:
- After many attempted and some semi-successful invasions since the beginning of time, Japan finally conquered and colonized the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and held it until Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945.
- Japanese colonization was especially harsh in many areas. Just a few examples: Koreans were forbidden to learn or speak Korean (only Japanese was taught in schools), they were forced to give up their names and adopt Japanese names, rice farmers were forced by law to sell their rice to the government at huge discounts to be shipped to Japan, and Korean households were required to maintain sharpened bamboo sticks meant to be used against the Americans in case they landed in Korea.
- After Japan’s surrender in 1945 the Korean Peninsula was divided between the US and the Soviets, who never came to an agreement on a unified Korean government resulting in two separate governments being formed in 1948, both claiming to be the one legitimate Korean government.
- Tensions escalated and in a surprise attack, with prior approval from the Soviets and China, the north invaded the south on June 25, 1950…you know the rest.
- Speaking of, it was weird to be in South Korea when this happened…the students I was in touch with didn’t seem to have much to say about it, but maybe it was just too difficult for them to articulate in English.
- It was SO nice having a proper kitchen to cook for a while. The food in Southeast Asia is amazing but I really missed things like raw and roasted vegetables! The produce in South Korea is pretty expensive (nearly everything is imported here) but the local markets had good discounts and I allowed myself to splurge on avocados (roughly $2.50 each…). The chocolate chip pancakes were an exception to healthy cooking for my birthday : ) .
- Of course I sampled Korean food as well:
- Spam is a big thing here. Entire grocery store aisles are full of it. I guess after the war Koreans began using leftover U.S. Army rations to cook, and the love for spam was born.
- The Korean baseball league (KBO) is a big deal here. There are 10 teams and they are named for the companies that own them (e.g., Lotte Giants, Kia Tigers, Samsung Lions). I went to a Lotte Giants game in Busan, they are the same colors as the San Francisco Giants and many people wear SF Giants hats…anyway, the game was a blast and the fans are a riot. Everyone eats fried chicken and Papa John’s pizza (seriously), and drinks beer and soju (everyone at the game is drunk, everyone).
- I really enjoyed my trip to the UN Memorial Cemetery (I believe the only UN Cemetary in the world), dedicated to those UN members who served during the Korean War. The memorial park is absolutely beautiful and they’ve done a really nice job giving each country its own space and special dedication.
- Jogging trails in Korea are on point and made working out again semi-fun.
- It was fun getting to know some local students at the language cafe and even in just a short month you could notice improvements in their spoken English, mostly in their confidence. It’s nice to know that if I ever make it back to Busan I’ll have some friends to reach out to!
- After a month in one spot enjoying a semi-normal life, I’m really excited to hit the road again. My expectations for Japan are unrealistically high because everyone who has ever visited can’t shut up about how amazing it is. But first a quick trip to Jeju Island, “the Hawaii of Korea”.