It began by dismissing my last class early, a rapid change into thongs and boardies, a mad dash to Seoul station and a three hour train ride across the peninsula. This being Korea, land mass is small and trains are fast – our KTX express did the whole trip in the scheduled time, despite stopping for an apparent ‘fire’ in one of the carriages and a drunken businessman vomiting all over himself, splashing my travel companion in the process.
After that unpleasantness we arrived in the cooler, fresher air of coastal Busan – Korea’s second city and a major port and beachside party town. It was 1:30 in the morning as we took a taxi to Songjeong beach and I’d been up since 5:30 the previous morning . I was already running off sheer enthusiasm and home-made gimbap (Korean style sushi involving radish and spam).
Songjeong is a classic Asian beach – flat as a green onion pancake with a well-developed front of shops, motels, bath houses and noraebang (karaoke rooms). By night it was a cool, well-lit and quiet spot for beers and snacks on the beach plus a bit of a swim. Another great thing about Korea is that even this early in the morning there were a few people around splashing and drinking – public consumption of alcohol is totally on for young and old, and while you can’t walk around barefoot without raising an eyebrow, you can raise your wrist with a beer in hand just about anywhere.
Drinking is probably the only liquid-based recreation Songjeong has to offer, considering that the water’s depth might best be described as three feet and shrinking. Despite the incredible lack of waves or water I had just started working on my bonsai backstroke when a lifeguard appeared waving us back to the shore. He told us the beach was closed until daylight ‘for safety.’ I grumbled ‘beaches are for the people’ and walked towards the shore, the black depths lapping treacherously around my shins. As we walked back to our towels some kids were letting off handheld fireworks, ragged streaks of green and red poking into the blackness. I grumbled ‘in my country…’
We lay down on the cool sand and revelled in the scattered light of several tiny stars – you don’t get stars in Seoul anymore. It actually got a little too cold, and then my dreams of watching the sun rise over the East Sea were dashed somewhat with the realisation that Busan faces south for the most part. The sun came up on our left, but it was still lovely.
By seven o’clock we were walking along Haeundae beach, Korea’s premier beach. It’s a long stretch of decent sand and the water looked much nicer than at Songjeong. While it has nothing on the rockiest patch of Sydney coastline, the powerful sun combined with sheer width, and the tangled masses of houses winding up the hills around the beach’s edges certainly made for a great view. Busan is a city that hugs the coastline, but it doesn’t really have that artificial Gold Coast feel, what with the random hills and temples poking through the concrete and glass.
It’s a party destination though, but thankfully we got there during cleanup, the magical transition between the beach’s drunken hangover and family friendly fun times. The last of the seriously soused party-goers were being swept off the beach, and the massive daytime hordes had not yet filled the thousands of blue umbrellas that line the beach. It was getting murderously hot though, and we saw two fights break out – one between an old man and a young guy on the sand that contained a few punches and some of the worst Korean swearing I’ve ever heard, the second between two groups of adjumma (middle-aged Korean ladies) cleaners, arguing with incredible ferocity about the correct way to hose out a toilet. It was kind of cute, one group had green uniforms on and the other had yellow ones, it was like the king’s musketeers skirmishing with the cardinal’s guards, only frumpier, and with a lot more purple hair (or a lot less, depending on how you read Dumas).
We had a pleasant walk through a green hillside park with a small pagoda and a large circular building apparently being used for the upcoming G20 summit. Behind that building however, was a much grander structure – Gwangan bridge. A white, stately construction, Gwangan bridge stretches elegantly across the water with the merest suggestion of a curve, its two uprights draping lines of suspension down to the dual roadways below. We got a much better and much cooler look at the bridge from the window of a coffee shop across the water. It was only 9 o’clock.
I wasn’t going to go home without a look at Jagalchi, Korea’s biggest fish markets, and a fascinating tourist draw for those who like it writhing and raw. Put me down for one of each, I said, and off we went, witnessing another fight on the subway, this time between an old man selling merchandise on the train and a reluctant customer cum passenger. Apparently they were arguing over the impolite sentence she used when saying, ‘no thanks, I’m all right.’ I shook my head.
The fish markets were everything they promised to be – corridors of indoor outdoor open air aquatic flavor lined with row upon row of tanks bursting with God’s tastiest creations. You wouldn’t think the sea could hold such a variety of scales, fins, tentacles and spiky, pulsating things that shouldn’t be eaten but are. And Koreans eat the lot. Nothing is wasted that comes from the sparkling depths – even bunches of seaweed and square-faced sting rays are abundant. But the best things about about Jagalchi were the teams of adjumma working with cleavers to turn a pile of squid into white mince, and the fish tanks crowded like a peak-hour train, slimy black fish sliding over the edge for a breather, sometimes flipping out onto the floor in their enthusiasm. We had an early lunch of raw fish and went back to the station, the bright morning already intensifying into white hot midday. We took a slower mugunghwa train back to Seoul, and for most of the six hour journey I slept like a gutted fish – sprawled out, white and dead to the world.
All in all, we’d spent 11 hours in Busan, and not a minute wasted.