I enjoy a week hanging out in Busan. It’s a fantastic week eating Korean fried chicken, silk worms, the ever controversial dog meat and everything else that the city has to offer. At first I hated Busan but by the time I left I was sold on it’s quirky beauty.
Igadae Park hugs part of Busan’s massive coastline. Wooden bridges jut out from cliffs and suspension bridges cross inlets. The winds are strong and the sea is roaring. Water washes into the narrow rocky inlet. As it rushes out it makes the sound of grating like sandpaper running over timber. It’s an eerie sound and, at first, takes me by surprise. Small creeks cascade through the forest and into the sea. The leaves here are only just starting to turn yellow while in the northern mountains they are already colouring the mountainsides red. The path overlooks the Oryukdo Islands and container ships cruising in and out of the massive port. What a contrast.
Jagalchi fish markets
Multicoloured umbrellas and more permanent stalls line a narrow street. Older women sell fish with bored eyes take naps or watch television; not bothering to call for customers. The squid sellers seem to have plenty to do though, cleaning their produce to make it easier for purchasers to cook and eat. With hats pulled down over their eyes, masks often covering their noses and mouths, and long sleeves and pants covering the rest of their skin, the sales women add to the market’s colourful spectacle. Fried fish is on display at stalls along one side of the market. A restaurateur takes charge, possibly after hearing my stomach growl, and calls me into her shop. Seven thousand won ($AU/US7) results in a massive pile of food in front of me.
Yeongdu Island and Bongnaesan Mountain
I leave the market at a bridge that will take me to Yeongdo Island so I can hike up Bongnaesan Mountain. Yeongdo Island is more fishing village than part of a megatropolis. Tiny shops are crammed full of fishing nets nets, ropes, anchors and chains. I wonder how anyone can choose what they want but fishermen and sailors probably order in advance and the shop owner just digs it out for them. Leaving the main roads I twist my way through narrow lanes. At times I am baffled by how scooters or motorbikes get to be parked at the top of flights of steps.
I find the entry to the Bongnaesan Mountain park hidden down a lane at the top of a hill between an apartment complex and block of decrepit shops. A woman is sweeping leaves off the ramp next to the steps and an old man paints park benches at the top of the steps. The woods are lovely for hiking with the leaves just starting to turn yellow. The views from the summit (395m / 1,250 feet) are a spectacular 360 degree view of Busan’s city, mountain and coasts. The port and fishing harbours dominate the waterfront areas while the concrete jungle is relegated to the gaps between the borders the ports, fishermen and mountains allow.
I walk the ridge between the three summits of Bonganaesan Mountain. The views are amazing. The mid-afternoon sun turns the sea silver as clouds create darkened patterns. Cargo ships dot the waters. A beautiful pagoda tops the second peak of Bongnaesan. From the third peak I turn back to look at where I have been. The mountain dominates my view and I could be anywhere in the wilderness. Bongnaesan blocks the city from my view and all is quiet around me.
I follow the trail steeply downhill until I reach the fishing village behind the apartment complex. It feels relaxed in the golden hour. Families cast lines off the wharf, boats bob in the small lock, freighters and fishing boats at anchor are silhouetted against the sun. Men drink soju (vodka) and makgeolli (rice wine) at rough tables around food stalls. Village the men are shooting the breeze over alcohol, kimchee and cigarettes. The beautiful Jeoryong Coastal Trail starts here in this village and will take me back towards the mainland. The path is a mix of metal walkways that hang out over the sea and concrete paths that follow little rocky bays. Like the Igidae Coastal Path this is no place for those with weak knees or struggling lungs because there are many steps. I watch the fisherman standing in silent meditation along the coast. Some have made their way onto the tiny rocky islands that dot the sea. Another on a different island used two ropes to haul himself across the water separating it from a rocky cliff. The sun sinks dramatically behind the mountains that line the opposite side of this bay. It’s one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a long time and I am enthralled by the beauty.
Brilliant Concert Season III
A group of us from the hostel attend Busan’s Brilliant Concert Season III at the Citizens Park. We brought drinks, snacks and plenty of travel stories to keep us entertained for the night. Not having purchased a ticket, we made our way to the free area outside the roped off area and joined the locals in setting down a picnic site. Shortly before the concert we noticed a few older Korean women break through the white ‘security’ tape around the paid seating area. The ‘official’ people in white jumpers did nothing to stop them. This is to be expected because the older Korean women are to be respected at all times here. They can get away with pretty much anything – so they do. In fact, one ‘official’ even started holding the security tape down to make it easier for the elderly ladies to break into the ticketed area. Soon a wave of Koreans started to just follow suit and before long the white tape was removed. We couldn’t exactly see much from our spot in the free seats but it didn’t matter. We could hear the music drifting over the crowd and could take in the atmosphere and experience of an outdoor concert.
We ate, drank and told travel stories.
10th Busan Fireworks Festival
I am late arriving at Gwangali Beach for the 10th Busan Fireworks Festival. I find myself crammed in an alley with thousands of other late-comers. It’s a massive crush but again, there is no aggression so I am never afraid for my safety. The sky erupts with colour and light. The crowd coos “ooh” and “aah”. Mobile phones are raised to the sky to record the spectacle. We miss some fireworks from where we are tucked in this corner behind the building but it doesn’t matter. We are here at the festival and still get a grand view of the spectacular production. Some people leave the festival so the crowd surges forward to fill the gaps they left. I decide to go with it so see a group of older Korean women holding each other’s jackets to stay together. I grab the last one’s jumper as if I belong and let myself be pushed forward with them. It’s like being toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. And then I am at the beach with a million of my closest friends watching the fireworks explode into the sky. The finale is particularly spectacular as the whole sky is filled with light and shape.
I have been admiring Jangsan’s brooding mass so head in that direction. A steep road takes me past an apartment complex, into the small houses and narrow streets that are so much a part of Busan’s charm. This area is characterised by images of musicians and musical notes painted on the concrete fences and walls. Soon the houses give way to forest. It amazes me that Koreans have retained their mountains as green spaces. The road to the temple is steep and relentless. But the reward at the end is a peaceful and relaxing space. Everyone bows at the entrance gate so, despite not being Buddhist, I do the same. I could see the temple’s gold statue from the main road long before I started the climb and now it stands tall and proud surrounded by lush green forest that is slowly changing to autumn yellows and reds.
A sign indicates the path to Jangsan’s peak. I recognise the characters from a cheat sheet I wrote at the larger sign on the main road. It’s a busy day at Jangsan but I never feel crowded. I hear Korean voices drifting between the trees from time-to-time as our paths cross but their jovial conversation does not intrude. Everyone is walking in small groups. It seems that hiking here is a social engagement undertaken at a painfully slow pace. I’m not the fastest hiker but still I find myself overtaking the locals as they meander their way uphill.
The hill is steep and unforgiving but stunningly beautiful. There are rocky outcrops and autumn colours everywhere. Pine trees are bowed by the wind and the path winds through a landscape so foreign to my eyes. I will miss these mountains of Korea when I return to my home in the subtropics. I like the pine trees, changing seasons and rocky terrain. I reach the crowded peak at 634m above sea level. The views over Busan are amazing. I can see the whole city, including a pocket that is new to me because it has always been hidden behind mountains during my other hikes. I look back towards Haeundae Beach from where I started my hike and across Gwangali Beach past which I have hiked twice on my way back to the Kyungsung University area. In the distance I can see the Idigae Park and also Yeongdo Island where I hiked Busan’s coast.
The walk down is, as always here in Korea, steep and tricky. It’s my practice to wear an old pair of joggers when taking to the trails and I always notice that where I pass the locals on the climb they are much more sure-footed coming down in their non-slip, ankle-supported boots with balance-inducing trekking poles. But I want to savour this my final hour in the Korean mountains: a place that has captured my heart.
With Rene the Swiss cyclist also in Busan and a tip from a friend living in Korea, I went out to a restaurant for boshingtang. For those easily offended, please do not read on because boshintang is dog meat stew. This Korean dish is something I had heard about since childhood and it has been a controversial topic of conversation often throughout my life. But while in Korea, I decided to give it a try. The meal was started with some offal that you dip in a sauce and eat. Then came the soup, to which you add all sorts of things like ginger, herbs and chilli coated onion grass. The meal was delicious and filling. The meat itself has a distinct flavour that can probably most be compared with lamb but is slightly different. It was certainly a dish I would eat again because it ticked a lot of food boxes for me: hearty, healthy, full of flavour and cheap.