Thomas Ross Hallock

Asia 2012 – Part 8 – Busan

This post covers September 20th and 21st of my 2012 trip to Asia. Start with Part 1 if you want the whole story.

My first waypoint in Busan was an island park called Taejongdae. Google Transit said it would take two hours to get there, so I opted to take a taxi instead. (Taxis are really cheap in Korea, by the way.) I was starving when I got there, so I had some lunch at a really dirty-looking restaurant where as far as I could tell, the only person working there was an old lady who was preoccupied with shucking some sort of onion on the sidewalk out front. The only customers were a party of old Korean guys eating and smoking up a storm. I got some kind of soup with a whole fish body in it… I discarded lots of bones and fish eyeballs, but the soup was actually really good.

Taejongdae park has a hop-on / hop-off train that shuttles people around to points of interest on a loop through the park. I had a lot to see, and the train was cheap, so I took it. I only made two stops: one at the observatory for a few minutes, and another at the lighthouse, where I hiked down to the rocky cliffs, took some pictures, and made a new friend.

I met Min Jeong (이민정) while she was attempting to take a photograph of herself on the steps of the lighthouse with the ocean in the background. I offered to take her photo (and did a darn good job) and we struck up a conversation. Min Jeong was traveling all by herself and was happy to converse in English even though she is still learning it. Her hometown is a city just south of Seoul. We exchanged stories about where we were coming from and where we were going to. She said that her friends would be amazed that she met an actual foreigner in her travels. I was just as amazed to have pulled a new Korean friend out of thin air… they are rare where I come from! The awesome thing about traveling to a far off place is that meeting people becomes just this easy; explaining what it’s like where you come from can immediately flourish into an interesting conversation.

Busan, like just about every city in South Korea, has an observation tower for Tourists. The Busan Tower was Min Jeong’s next stop, and she invited me to go with her. We took the bus from Taejongdae to Nampo-Dong, Busan’s central business district and site of the Busan International Film Festival. The area was full of shops, street food, yellow sneakers, and tourist-types. We stopped for some fish cakes at one of the restaurants, then began hunting down one thing I wanted to eat in particular; I think it’s called hotteok, and was something Hojeong recommended to me in an email. It’s a delicious sweet and salty bun thingy that’s usually sold out of a street cart. We found a cart selling them and got in line. Before I got the bun, I was shocked to see a pile of cash on the customer side of the street cart… apparently customers are trusted to make their own change‽ I could hardly believe it. Anyways, the hotteok was everything it was hyped up to be. One of my biggest regrets of this trip was that I didn’t go back for seconds … or sevenths for that matter!

Steps leading to the Busan Tower entrance were nearby, so we ascended them and took the elevator up for a lovely view of the city. I was especially mesmerized by the lights on the front of nearby Lotte department store. We took some photographs and headed down after we had seen everything.

My plan was to find one of the spas and stay the night for cheap in the communal sleeping room. Hojeong said that the spas were mostly by Haeundae beach. I explained to Min Jeong that’s where I had planned on staying for the night, so she hailed a cab and told the driver where to go. For some reason, I regret telling her this. We agreed to meet the next day.

The cab dropped me off at Haeundae beach, but I saw no sign of any spas. There was, however, an endless array of neon-glowing love motels occupying every block in the district. The photos I took don’t do it justice. Every building, some 15 stories tall, was going crazy with neon lights advertising itself. When you go into the lobby of one of these motels, you are presented with a menu of sorts that describes each room with a photo. If the room is available, the photo is illuminated. The rooms are all rather cheap, bottoming out at around 50,000 won per night. Most motels were full though, so I had to visit a few before I could find a vacancy. I don’t remember the name of the motel I stayed at, but it was somewhere right around here.

My room may as well have been designed by Quagmire from Family Guy. The bathroom door was veneered with an image of giant lips, the “art” for the window shades was straight off the flaps of an American freight truck, and my bed, as a commemorative tribute to Michael Jackson, somehow seemed to fit right in with the theme. The room had ‘his’ and ‘hers’ computers side-by-side, underneath a massive flat-screen TV. Unfortunately, the computer keyboard layouts were set to Hangul with no indication of how to change the layout back to English, so I couldn’t use them very effectively.

I met Min Jeong the next morning at the aquarium by the beach, and we took a taxi across the Gwangan Bridge to a restaurant that serves raw fish soup. It was nothing like sashimi and tasted a bit like mild pickled herring, but very delicious. Apparently Pohang is famous for this soup, but Busan’s was pretty good too. We then walked through a fish market where old women would do their best to try to convince you that you needed to buy their fresh catch right now! Somehow I genuinely felt guilty for not buying their giant octopuses, eels, and flounders.

I had to take the bus back to Pohang in about an hour so our choices were limited to attractions in the immediate area, so we went to a nearby amusement park called “Me World” and bought tickets good for three rides. Nobody seemed to be around, and the place had a bit of an eerie vibe to it. We made our way towards the roller coaster in the back. There was a single girl operating the entire ride; Min had to get her attention before she would let us on. We got in the first car and only halfway through the ride did I notice that our car was all by itself. I thought it was rather strange to ride a roller-coaster in a single car, but it was thankfully nowhere near as harrowing as the one in Lotte World since there were no close clearances, and no loops.

We used our next two rides on the ferris wheel and the flume ride respectively. I really wanted to stay in Busan for another few days, especially since I had a new friend with which to share the experience, but I had already promised Hojeong that I’d be back in Pohang for dinner with her and her friends. It was hard to say goodbye to Min Jeong, but we promised to keep in touch, and we have been doing just that in the past three weeks since I’ve been back.

Here is a photo of one of the many fish cake stands you can find in Busan. This one was at the bus station. Apparently, you can just walk up to this trough and start eating them. When you are finished, the attendant counts your sticks and charges you accordingly. Feel free to scoop up some broth and sip it to wash everything down. I stared at people eating out of this thing for about five minutes before I figured out how it all works. It’s actually a pretty efficient way to eat hot food on the go.
Here are some funny dried red mushrooms I found for sale outside the Busan bus station. I bought one but it somehow became wet and moldy by the time I got back to America despite my best efforts to keep it dry. Does anyone have any idea what this strain is called and what diseases it’s supposed to heal?

Continue on to part 9 – Pohang and Gyeongju

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