Reflections on Korea

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Korea. A land about which I knew nothing but the television show M*A*S*H and a vague memory of Seoul hosting the 1988 Olympic Games. I came on a whim because a friend had told me that there were cycling paths along some rivers. I opened the guide book on the flight to Seoul and marked a heap of places I might like to see. In the end I visited almost none but discovered so much more than the authors of Lonely Planet even wrote about.
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It started with a week in Seoul where I met a group of guys who would become my friends. There was Rene the Swiss cyclist with whom I would share many beers and meals across the country. Dean the Vegemite loving Australian who introduced me to the joys of eating out and drinking beer when we met up again in Busan. But mostly Dean taught me a lot about mateship when he woke at 6am today to carry my 25kg bicycle box on the subway all the way to the airport; a trip of 1 hour in each direction because I couldn’t get it there myself and he thought it silly for me to pay up to $30 when the subway would only cost $3 and be much simpler than trying to communicate with a taxi driver and cram my bulky luggage into the taxi car. There was Julian the German soccer fan who introduced me to the pleasures of attending live sports events in foreign countries when we went together to the Asian Games. Without that inspiration I doubt I would have gone to the Samsung Lions game in Daegu. I have invited Julian to join my family for Christmas when he is in Australia. And how could I forget Ted, Martin and Mark with whom I shared stories and laughs, including that night out when I became drunk for the first time in over a decade. Shrek and Fiona were the perfect hosts at G Guesthouse in Itaewon where they went over and above the call of duty. I particularly enjoyed a conversation or two with Fiona about how they came to run the hostel and their desire to travel. If you are ever in Brisbane do look me up because it would be my pleasure to show you around and give you some travel tips. I made even more new friends around the country who I hope to meet again on our respective travels. But there is a serendipidy about meeting the same people time and again in hostels, cities and bars across the country. (I should mention that before Korea I wasn’t much of a drinker and I will return to my near tea-totalling ways when I return home again … but when in Korea … ).
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My time cycling Korea was amazing. And I certainly need to thank Mark who took me hiking at Gwanak-san for his friendship and help with that. He helped map out an amazing route through the mountains and came to the rescue more than a few times when I found myself stuck on busy roads, unable to find an ATM that would accept my card, and when I had little homesick and fatigued meltdowns. We’ve exchanged copious Facebook Messenger correspondence and I look forward to continuing our friendship over fried chicken and beer when I am next in Korea and maybe a hiking adventure somewhere along the way. As a cyclist I rode mountain passes that I thought would surely be too long, high and steep for my flat country experience. I camped in pagodas surrounded by golden fields of rice. I communicated with sign language and a few rudimentary Korean words with locals and shop keepers in rural towns that would rarely see tourists. I got burned by the sun, blown by the wind and soaked by the rain. I joined the cycling masses of Korea. And while I never quite played music out loud like the locals do (actually, I don’t even have an iPod so I didn’t play any music while riding) nor wear the full fancy cycling outfits, I was there on the roads and cycle paths immersed in this cultural experience receiving thumbs up and cheers from those who saw my heavily loaded bike.
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I hiked the mountains of Seoul and Busan. Their rocky landscape the thing of my dreams and their flora so exotic. Autumn leaves turned the forests yellow and red. Often I watched the leaves tumble from the trees in gusts of wind like yellow and red rain.
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Five years ago I spent nine weeks on a motorcycle touring the southern Australian states. It was a life changing and affirming experience that had a profound effect on me. As I sit on the plane home from Busan I know that this five weeks in Korea has helped me take another giant leap in my journey through this incarnation. I learned and experienced so much on so many different levels because I was open to change.
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As a nation, Korea has captured my heart. The landscapes are stunning and the people are amazing. I want to see it in all four seasons, even the stifling hot summer and bitter cold winter. I love the playfulness that comes out in Korea in the strangest ways. Like the carriages in Yangyang and the brightly lit caves. Couples culture at once amuses and inspires me. It’s funny to see young men and women in matching outfits but adorable to see older couples still holding hands. The museums here are second to none and either free or ridiculously cheap. And it is a country where creativity abounds in statues, scarecrow competitions, festivals and fireworks. In Korea you can get married, ice skate or practice your golf swing in shopping malls. This is the kind of place to which I could easily return to cycle, hike, meet new people and explore the many more things the country and its people have to offer.
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Right now I am traveling home. After six months on the move I am ready to settle down in a place that is home. That place is not geographic as much as personal. This blog might be quiet for the next three weeks as I will be focusing on family, friends, work and time out.

I leave for Indonesia for one month from 15 November. So I won’t be quiet or settled for long. That journey will be very different to this. I will be going to the place where my grandmother grew up and the culture from which I derive so much of my character. I hope to hire a motorcycle for the trip, rather than taking on the physical challenges of cycling. And I will know when I leave Australia that I have a home to return to … I am no longer an aimless wanderer but a traveller coming and going to explore options, seek out experiences and enjoy all the world has to offer.
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PS: My guilty pleasure in Korea was Baskin Robbins. I think I ate a double junior almost every day. Just saying 😉

Jangsan hike (Busan)

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I wake early on my final day in Korea. I plan to simply walk back to the other hostel near Kyungsung University, finish some work and maybe get one final meal of friend chicken and beer. But the sun is shining and it seems a waste not to enjoy one final hike in Busan. So I eat some jam on toast (the staple free hostel breakfast in Korea), fill my water bottles and set off with no real idea where I will go. As I follow the road out of Haeundae I see many locals wearing hiking clothes heading out for the day. But I am more intrigued by the women collecting mushrooms from the sidewalk and city garden beds.
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I stop at a sign that shows there is a temple nearby on the ascent of Jangsan (Jang Mountain). I have been admiring Jangsan’s brooding mass in my many walks to and Haeundae this past week so I take it as a sign. 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.
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Soon the houses give way to forest. It amazes me that Koreans have retained their mountains as green spaces. I fear that in Australia developers would just bulldoze the trees, stabilise the soil and sell the land for housing. But here the green space is vast and beautiful.
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The road to the temple is steep and relentless. But the reward at the end is a peaceful and relaxing space. 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.
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A few of the faithful have made their way up the mountain, whether by car or on foot, to worship and I do my best to respect their needs. Everyone bows at the entrance gate so, despite not being Buddhist, I do the same. It’s quiet so I try to take my photos discretely without capturing the image of any locals. It’s not easy but I wouldn’t take photos of Christians praying in a church so I want to extend the same courtesy here.
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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. I should have been doing this all the time I was hiking in Korea and not just on the last day. While many forest trails have English signs, in older areas where there are fewer foreigners this is not always the case.
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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.
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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.
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I reach the crowded peak at 634m above sea level. I am chuffed to have hiked all the way here from the beach. It’s as challenging a walk as any we’ll find near my home city in terms of altitude gain and steepness.
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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.
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There are many Koreans here on the summit all taking photos of each other in front of the view. I still love their colourful hiking outfits and the way they have embraced the selfie stick. A friend recently asked me what I love so much about Korea and I think their passion for the outdoors is one of the biggest drawcards. Here is a whole nation of people who share my deepest loves: hiking and cycling.
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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.
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Back down on the streets of Busan I walk along autumnal streets to Centum City shopping centre where I cool off in the air conditioning, take in some Korean shopping centre action and access the subway home to my hostel.

10th Busan Fireworks Festival (Busan)

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After enjoying dinner with Jan of the Korean Randonneurs, I catch a subway to Seouyong near Gwangali Beach to catch the 10th Annual Busan Fireworks Festival. The subway train pulls into the platform at 7:59pm and I join the stragglers running towards the beach for the 8:00pm start. It’s hectic but no one is pushing or shoving. Some people push children in prams while young couples try to hold hands as they run. There’s no traffic so we take over the streets. We hear the first official boom as the fireworks start and crane our necks down each alley to see whether we can see around the tall buildings.
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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.
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The sky erupts with colour and light. The crowd coos “ooh” and “aah”. Mobile phones are raised to the sky to record the spectacle and share on the ever present Facebook. A few foreigners carry cameras with big lenses but the locals are all using their Samsung phones (I don’t feel so out of place here with my big Samsung Galaxy Note 2 😉 )>
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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.
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And I find myself pinching myself in disbelief at the wonderful experiences I have enjoyed here in Korea. Just being here at the fireworks in this crowd is such a blessing. I find myself unable to stop smiling.

The crowd cheers as the fireworks burst into the sky.

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 a fantastic experience that makes me think of 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.
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As the lights come back on I realise just how many people are here. It makes me feel happy to realise that all these millions of people all over Busan have the freedom and health to be here watching something that is put on purely for joy.

The Brilliant Concert Season III (Busan)

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After a quiet day indoors, I met up with a group of friends from the hostel to 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. It didn’t take long for someone to tell us that alcohol was prohibited in the park so we hid it for a while until we noticed plenty of Koreans drinking beer and soju as well. Besides, no one could tell in the dark.
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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.
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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. It’s my first picnic style concert and I enjoyed it a lot.
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We ate, drank and told travel stories. Three of us met in Seoul and are preparing to leave to our respective homes. We had some shared experiences we could compare. One person in our group had only that day arrived in Korea from Japan, where some of the others had also traveled. All up, it was a fun social night.

Jagalchi fish market and Yeongdo Island hike (Busan)

I exit the subway at Jagalchi and start looking for the famous Jagalchi fish markets. Being a visual person I rely heavily on the sense of sight to find my way around. Having taken the wrong exit from the subway station (there are ten distinct exits at Jagalchi, stretching about 500m along the road). I am always a little disoriented when exiting subway stations; we don’t have them at home so I am unused to traveling without seeing where I am. But it doesn’t take me long to realise I shouldn’t be looking for a fish market. Rather, I should follow my nose.
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It works and soon I am walking amongst the multicoloured umbrellas and stalls that line the market street. I had heard the smell here is strong but I don’t mind it too much. Though I imagine it would be strong in the oppressive heat of a summer’s day. I’ve come just before lunch so the market is fairly quiet; probably because most Koreans are at work, rather than lazily wandering the city.
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Most stalls seem to be run by older women. They look bored, as though a lifetime of selling fish has worn them down. Many don’t even bother to call for customers anymore, preferring to nap or, if their stall is near one, watch television.
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The squid sellers seem to have plenty to do though, cleaning their produce to make it easier for purchasers to cook and eat.
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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. Like the Goat that Wrote said in his blog post about these same markets, there is little concession made here for foreigners with signs and conversation only taking place in Korean. While we come here to gawk, the Koreans come to buy. Gawking doesn’t make anyone money but buying does, so the focus is on those who will buy.
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Fried fish is on display at stalls along one side of the market. It’s after midday and I am hungry but I am not sure how much the fish is or whether this is a sit down meal or walk along snack. But, as often happens in Korea, one restauranteur takes charge, possibly after hearing my stomach growl, and calls me into her shop.
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Ten thousand won ($AU/US10) later I have this massive pile of food in front of me. I was told it would be only seven thousand won but they refuse to give me change for my tenner and I had no exact change. Mental note to self: in future countries I will carry more smaller change and only hand over exact amounts. Mind you, ten dollars for a whole fresh fried fish, soup, rice and small Korean dishes is still a bargain.
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I leave the market at a bridge that will take me to Yeongdo Island. I am going for a hike that was inspired by another of the Goat that Wrote’s blog posts. Just as he did, I am going to hike up Bongnaesan (mountain), which I can see up behind the urban sprawl that lines the island’s coast. I started following the Goat that Wrote’s hiking blog when he was living in Busan and one of the first things I did after I arrived was contact him for tips on where to hike. This was one of his first suggestions.
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I initially struggled to “get” Busan. The city seemed huge and brash. But as I start my second hike here I start to understand it a bit better. Like a stray cat that annoys you with its midnight meowing but endears you with its occassional affection, so too is walking around Busan helping me find the city’s sweeter qualities. We are finding something in common. I love fishing villages and mountains, which is exactly what Busan is beyond the loud urban sprawl. And I am starting to see that perhaps it is these things first and that the city dwellers are intruders on an ancient way of life that will continue despite the city springing up around the villages’ existence.
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Weathered men of the sea maintain battered tug boats in the tug boat harbour. The boats are adorned with truck tyres as padding. I always find it interesting that we humans still use some old technologies despite this being the technology age. The tyres are just one example. Umbrellas are another. Sure, there is no better way to do the jobs these tools do, but still … it’s kind of cool.
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Tiny shops are crammed full of shipping equipment. There’s nets and 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. I see no one in the shops but maybe they are out the back eating lunch, watching television or taking a nap. There’s no room for anyone to stay in the actual shop front anyway due to the volume of stock.
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After crossing the bridge I enter the main streets of Yeongdo Island. Like the rest of Busan, signs shout from all levels of the buildings as businesses compete for attention. I don’t know how to get to the park but just walk uphill because eventually this will lead me closer to the woods and mountain paths.
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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. Maybe there are secret laneways that only locals know. Or maybe the riders are just hardcore.
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After walking uphill for about half an hour I make it to the park entry. It is hidden down a narrow laneway tucked between an apartment complex and a block of decrepid 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. A sign says that I should just go straight up on a pathway to the summit but I manage to take a wrong turn and end up circling the park to the left instead of hiking up. Not that it matters, at some point there will be a path up the mountain for such is the nature of mountain trails: everyone wants to reach the top at some point.
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The woods are lovely for hiking with the leaves just starting to turn yellow. An elderly man is walking in front of me. He must be a local because he’s not wearing hiking clothes. I am so busy enjoying the scenery and watching the man shuffle uphill that I totally miss the temple the path was supposed to pass. Mind you, the woods are dense here and I am focused on finding the summit.
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Having found the trail to the summit I walk more confidently. The views at the top (395m / 1,250 feet) are spectacular. It’s a 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.
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I follow a ridge-top trail between the three summits of Bongnaesan. This mountain is sacred to the local people of Yeongdo because it represents a mother protecting her child. It is said that people born on Yeongdo Island never leave because they feel protected by the mountain mother.
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The views west from the ridge are amazing. The midafternoon sun turns the sea silver as clouds create darkened patterns. Cargo ships dot the waters. Later I will see they are all at anchor, perhaps waiting their turn to load a cargo or maybe this is their home port. It’s an impressive sight to behold.
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A beautiful pagoda tops the second peak of Bongnaesan. It would make a good place to rest on a hot summer’s day or take shelter in a downpour. But today the sun is sinking ever lower and I did not bring a torch so I continue along the ridge to the third peak.
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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. Turning south I look down on seaside apartments and villages but to the north I am alone but for the other hikers on the path.
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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. Drinking isn’t heavily regulated here like it is in Australia. You can buy a bottle of beer, soju or makgeolli at any corner store for less than the price of a bottle of soda and drink it wherever you like. Most little stores have tables and chairs outside for this very purpose and here in the village the men are shooting the breeze over alcohol, kimchee and cigarettes.
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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. But with mindblowing vistas out to sea it’s possible not to notice the steps as your mind takes in the sights.
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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. The guy in this photo was picked up by a passing fishing boat shortly after I took this picture. Another on a different island used two ropes to haul himself across the water separating it from a rocky cliff. One thing I have noticed is that the fishermen are almost all wearing personal flotation devices. These life vests aren’t big bulky and ugly like the ones we have at home. No, they are typically Korean: fashionable and comfortable. The fishermen are all quiet. I wonder what they think about as they fish; perhaps they are meditating with clear minds.
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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.
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By the time I cross the bridge back to the mainland it has long gone dark and the city’s lights twinkle around the bays and mountains. Having looked down on the city from Bongnaesan I have a better appreciation for the yellow and neon glow that rises along the vast horizon. In one day I have gone from totally disliking Busan to recognising that, with time, I could come to like this city too. Perhaps, like a stray cat she could adopt me if I let her.

A night out in Busan

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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.
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I had dinner on the outskirts of Haeundae and decided to take a post-dinner walk back to my hostel near Kyungsung University. Over the next two hours I walked along Haeundae Beach.
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Unchon Quay with it’s swanky-looking apartments and city skyline views.
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A dark fishing harbour.
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The Diamond Bridge.
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And Gwangali Beach. The walk took me just over two hours.

Igidae Park hike (Busan)

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I set off from my hostel around 11:30am with the intention of buying ice cream and coming back home. My university assignment isn’t writing itself but I get distracted while wandering around and find myself following the roads towards a nearby headland. Along the way I pass some 3D artworks and ‘photo spot’ signs.
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As I continue my meanderings I pass a huge apartment complex. This is the way people seem to live here in Busan: in apartment complexes. The complexes have shops and cafes on the ground floors of many buildings. The buildings are so tall that there must be thousands of people living in each one. These complexes are dotted all along the coastal and mountain areas of Busan. I have been told that they are all rentals. Residents pay a large deposit upwards of $50,000 to secure an apartment but then don’t pay any rent because the landlord takes rent from the interest earned on the deposit.
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Shortly after the last apartments back into a mountain, I pass a small fishing harbour and round a corner to see the Igidae Coastal Path stretch out in front of me. Wooden bridges jut out of the cliffs and suspension bridges cross inlets.
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The winds are strong so the sea is roaring. I stand on a gently swaying suspension bridge and watch as waves crash over the rocks below. 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.
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Where the path is low along the waterline the waves come close to drenching me. There are many signs warning hikers that this is a dangerous area for natural disasters. Loud speakers are mounted all over the headland and I imagine their purpose is to warn hikers if there is danger approaching. Not that any of the hikers seem concerned; this is normal on the Korean coastal areas I have traveled where tsunami evacuation routes are well-signed.
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The trail periodically leaves the coastal bridges to track through the mud under the pine trees. I guess it’s not always muddy but this week we’ve had a few wet weather days. There are many Koreans hiking today in their full Korean hiking uniforms. Most are older; the young people are probably at work. I see no other westerners on the trail; actually, I have rarely come across westerners outside of youth hostels in Korea. It is a surprise given the number of people I know who have spent a year or more teaching English in Korea. I had anticipated more ex pats or foreign tourists here. But outside Seoul’s Itaewon and the hostels I’ve stayed in I’ve seen almost no blue-eyed wanderers.
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I keep following the coastal path around cliffs and past crashing waves. The hustle and bustle of Busan could be a hundred miles away rather than just one mile. The sound of the ocean fills my ears and becomes my entire world for the duration of this 5km hike.
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Small creeks cascade through the forest and into the sea.
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The hike includes many short steep climbs up flights of stairs. As I walk I realise that the climate here in Busan is totally different to that further north. The leaves here are only just starting to turn yellow while in the northern mountains they are already colouring the mountainsides red.
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I reach the path’s end overlooking the Oryukdo Islands. There are many people here taking selfies and group photos in front of the view. Container ships cruise in and out of the port. I imagine all the Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Kia products being exported to the four corners of the world. How interrelated we all are now in this global economy.
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I leave the coastal path and follow a road back towards my hostel. It’s another 5km away. The streets here in Busan all either go uphill or downhill as they wind between the cities many mountains. High rise apartments might dominate but nestled between there are still many shack-like neighbourhoods of blue-roofed homes. I haven’t yet explored the alleyways of these old neighbourhoods but will do so now that I’ve oriented myself a bit better in this sprawling metropolis.