Introduction to Busan

Last weekend Leyla and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary (time does indeed fly when you’re having fun) and we decided to do so in the city of Busan.

Living in what is essentially a small provincial town, we fancied a trip to the nearest big smoke and Busan did not disappoint.  It is Korea’s second largest city (after Seoul, unsurprisingly) and the nation’s largest port.  We travelled to and from by ferry (an hour and a quarter by fast catamaran) and the docks are indeed expansive – easily bigger than the whole of downtown Oslo, possibly larger than the Norwegian capital’s entire waterfront.

Having alighted at the ferry terminal we went in search of a taxi to take us to the hotel.  Instinct led us to the front of the line of cars only to find there were no drivers in them.  A man behind us called out and asked where we were going.  Once we had agreed on the name of the hotel (pronunciation of English in Korea is taking some time to learn), he retired to a huddle of other drivers for a few minutes’ discussion, after which one of their number was offered as our man and we hit the road.

Quarter to seven on a Friday evening is definitely rush hour in Busan and our driver was out to slice through it as best he could.  Generally his lane-cutting, ducking and diving were smooth and artful but he did manage to get hooted at a couple of times when pulling out; once by a charging eighteen-wheeler with one of those Hollywood-style, loud, low, ship-like horns.  Hearing one of those go off seemingly inches behind your head when sitting in the back of a slow-moving Hyundai Sonata heightens the senses somewhat.

Life affirmed and taxi intact, we eventually arrived at our hotel by Gwanganli Beach where our fourteenth floor, sea-facing room gave us a superb view of the Gwangan Grand Bridge.  This impressive piece of engineering is Korea’s longest double deck bridge and reportedly the largest of any type in the country.  At nearly seven and a half kilometres long it makes an imposing sight as it crosses the sea from one side of the bay to the other and looks particularly spectacular when lit in various colours at night.  We divided the remainder of the evening between a hotel restaurant and a hotel bar on the top floor enjoying the view.

Gwangan Grand Bridge from the beach at night

Saturday got off to a leisurely start with coffee and doughnuts on the waterfront watching the human and vehicular traffic go by (poseurs duly spotted).  Next step was to venture into Busan’s underground rail system and head for downtown.

Luckily for us, the ticket machines on the Busan Underground have a button for English and once it had been pressed, I found the whole ticket purchasing process a whole lot simpler than I do on similar machines in London.  Cheaper too: a day pass for the entire network is 3500 Won – about one pound seventy-five at current average exchange rates.

Our first destination was a combined Russia/Chinatown area not far from the port.  We went looking for stores or stalls that might be selling much-desired foodstuffs that we have been unable to find on the island.  What we found was a seedy looking street of bars, fast food cafes and shops full of cheap plastic tat.  Russia appeared to be represented by the extensive signage in Cyrillic, China by the aforementioned plastic goods.  The area no doubt comes alive after nightfall and it proudly proclaims on banners strung overhead that it welcomes the US Navy.  Gerrard Street it ain’t.

Moving on to the Seomyeon area we found a more of a flavour of Busan.  Here were tall, densely packed buildings with seemingly every available square inch of street-facing frontage covered in gaudy signs advertising the pleasures to be found within, be it banks or rock ‘n’ roll bars.  A narrow street with an unbroken line of stalls down its centre is marked on the map as Food Alley and it looks and smells like a quarter-mile of street-food-lover’s paradise.  If I attempted to describe what was on offer I would never do it justice.

A few minutes walk away is the Lotte Hotel and Department Store.  We went for a look around the clothing floors of the store and were suitably impressed by the vast amount of wares on offer.  The culture gap was very apparent though as ninety percent of the offerings did not appeal to us at all: from the men’s part, shiny suits, even shinier shoes and ties that are bright enough to blister your eyeballs don’t quite do it for me.

A block away from the largesse of the Lotte we found a little Japanese restaurant that specialised so intently on its simple, wholesome food menu that it did not even offer drinks apart from water (which was complimentary).  Having been introduced to the menu by the amiable proprietor we feasted with delight upon two huge bowls of noodles in broth and walked away sated having parted with only a fiver for the pleasure.

Later in the evening we went to Monk: a recommended jazz venue.  The evening’s band entertained us with some talented renditions of standards in what felt like a far more relaxed manner than the slightly more out-there style we had become accustomed to in Oslo.  That said, the write-ups for the venue say that things can get very experimental there: it would be interesting to see how far that might go.

Last stop for the night was a nightclub: The Vinyl Underground.  Thirty seconds round the corner from Monk, you can’t miss the place because it has a large banana-on-white sign by the door that shamelessly mimics the Warhol cover of The Velvet Underground’s debut album.  The vibe inside is friendly and the music – at least on a Saturday night – a comfortable mix of mostly electro house.  I want to play a set there.

On Sunday we visited the next bay up from our hotel: the Haeundae Beach.  This popular area is a naturally beautiful piece of coastline and most of the city’s most exclusive hotels are to be found here.  It is a fair way from the central areas by Underground though and the feel was more tourist trap isolation than integral part of the city when we first arrived.

Our main reason for visiting was to enjoy the much-recommended Sunday brunch at the Ventanas Grill in the Novotel Ambassador Hotel.  In a relatively small restaurant commanding lovely views of the bay, we tucked into Japanese-style sushi (not the wriggling stuff) that was the freshest we have yet encountered as the first course of what was a marvellous meal.  It being our particular day of celebration, we were also treated to a rose and a lovely cake that added to what was already very good service.  I second the recommendation.

The time to return to the island came all too soon after.  We look forward to visiting Busan again before long.

License To Bil…

Yesterday I went to obtain a Korean driving license.  This is apparently mandatory if you plan to spend longer than a couple of months here and intend to drive.  Also mandatory according to colleagues who advised me in Oslo was the surrender of my British license.  I was not keen on that part at all and thankfully I found out once I got here that it has been changed.

Mr. Lee from our project support team drove two of us a good hour or more into the mainland to reach what appeared to be a major dedicated driving test centre tucked away in the back-end of nowhere in particular.  Step One was to complete the two sided application form in duplicate, all of which was written solely in Korean: over to you Mr. Lee.  He was indispensable and a thoroughly good chap too.

Step Two was to present the completed form and three passport-size photographs to a woman at a counter who gave the paperwork a quick glance before ushering us towards the doorway that lead into the room behind her.  For those in doubt there were coloured lines and arrows on the floor showing the way.

Here we met an other woman who asked us to complete Step Three: raise both hands and proceed to open and close them simultaneously for a coupe of seconds; to demonstrate one’s ability to grasp a steering wheel perhaps (?).  What would one have to do to fail this task, I wondered.

A couple of paces away from her was a man to see for Step Four: an eye test.  This involved standing three or four metres away from one of those charts on the wall where the characters get progressively smaller from top to bottom and reading out what he pointed at while covering one eye and then the other with an implement not wholly dissimilar to a soup spoon.  My colleague went before me and was simply asked to identify numbers.  When I stepped forward the first thing I was pointed to was a character from the Korean alphabet; challenging.  Numbers followed and we both clearly passed as hand-clench woman promptly applied about a dozen assorted ink stamps to each of our forms, tore off a section for her records and pointed us towards the exit with the remains.

Mr. Lee led us through to a separate building with a large, L-shaped counter and a lot of seats for waiting on arranged around it.  For Step Five we handed over our forms, Alien Cards (residence visas), passports and British licenses to a pleasant young woman behind the counter.  We then sat and waited for fifteen minutes or so while she did whatever she had to do; after which we both received our documents back plus a Korean driving license each and a smile.

We were able to fast-track past the full written and practical tests because Korea has an agreement with the UK to accept the licenses of qualified drivers.  The same can not yet be said of qualified riders though.  While both of us have full motorcycle entitlement on our UK licenses, the entitlement was not transferred to our Korean licenses because, I was told, there is no agreement in place to do so.  I can ride anything up to 125cc with my Korean license and require an International License from the UK to ride anything larger.  Just as well I obtained one en route.

Let’s dine…

Two weeks have passed already.  I think I was over the jetlag by the end of the first week.  Now I am rediscovering the rhythm of the six day working week on site and enjoying the increase in warmth and sunshine as winter becomes spring.

We are located on the shores of a bay encircled by steep, conifer-clad hills.  By day the pale-coloured rectilinear forms of this young city’s industrial architecture stand out against the backdrop of green slopes and blue skies as the buildings huddle by the waterside.  By night the view is black cut through with neon and fluorescent lights of all hues and thoughts of Blade Runner come to mind.

During some of those nights we have stepped out to explore the local restaurants.  Korean cooking seems to be based around ingredients served either as plain and as fresh as possible or prepared in a very pungent spice mixture.  The most famous example of the latter is probably kimchi: a spicy pickled vegetable, usually cabbage, served cold.  I rather like it which is just as well because it appears to be ubiquitous.

A colleague took us to our first Korean barbeque restaurant earlier in the week.  The lighting was bright, the décor was simple and half the room offered floor-level tables and seating while the other half was raised to a more ‘western’ altitude.  Even mid-week it was virtually a full house and lively conversations all around gave a lively buzz to the atmosphere.

Sunk into the middle of the table was a convex disc of non-stick treated metal with slots around its outside edge and a gas burner beneath it; looking somewhat reminiscent of a 1970s car hub-cap.  This was our barbeque.

The waiter immediately brought water, kimchi, salad leaves, raw garlic and three or four other assorted dishes to the table.  We ordered beef and he came back with a plate of thinly sliced, well-fatted meat looking just like streaky bacon but a brighter red.  On the same plate were some small slices of orange-fleshed melon, carrot, onion, potato and two different types of very unfamiliar mushrooms.

Bit by bit we hub-capped the lot and it was great.  The fat on the beef aided cooking, augmented flavour and thankfully burnt off in the process.  The two mushrooms – one a sliced fat-stemmed affair with a small cap, the other in slim bunches of tendrils almost like spaghetti – were creamy and almost sweet to taste.

The accepted dining method was to take a salad leaf of your choice (there were two types with very distinct flavours), add filling as desired from the barbeque and assorted dishes, bundle into a package and consume with pleasure.  My favourite mixers were a very spicy savoury sauce akin to kimchi flavouring, some weapons-grade wasabi paste and the raw garlic.  Accompanied by some sips of chilled soju (a local rice-based, vodka-esque tipple) it was a most enjoyable introduction to Korean dining.

Living by the sea, in the Far East, walking past countless restaurants that have tanks full of live fish in their front windows, we decided on Friday night to try a nearby Japanese restaurant and order some sushi.  Not such a good idea.

The as-fresh-as-possible side of Korean dining can mean minutes post mortem for some fish and seafood and there were oft-repeated tales around the Oslo office such as one about a man being served fresh octopus at a business dinner and having to eat a tentacle that was still writhing as he placed it in his mouth.  It sounded a bit dramatic and perhaps embellished to hear it then but now I can believe every word of it.

Having been obliged to order a set menu written in Korean, our meal started safely enough with some salad, kimchi (like I said: ubiquitous) and white fish sashimi.  It was the third course that will stick in my memory for quite some time to come.  The waitress brought five small dishes on a plate.  One was octopus, two looked like shellfish minus the shells, one was black and knobbly like perhaps sea cucumber and the fifth was fleshy tubes the diameter of my little finger that looked disconcertingly like the colour and texture of a human tongue.

The octopus on this occasion was chopped into small enough pieces and seemingly dead enough to be typical, harmless rubbery fare.  The piece of black knobbly thing I tried crunched like cartilage so may not have been sea cucumber.  The fifth dish was the shock.  Lying motionless from arrival, it suddenly started writhing with life the moment I pushed the tip of a chopstick into it and it would not stop.  On closer inspection, the presumed-dead black knobbly stuff moved on occasion too.  Dinner was suddenly a rather lively affair.

After hastily concluding the meal (with some cooked dishes, thankfully) we met friends and related our experience.  According to them, it seems most likely that the fifth dish was eels that had been skinned alive – apparently a local delicacy.  Somehow I do not think it is a dish I will ever sample.  We will be mostly sticking to the barbeque restaurants in future!

All Change Please

Two postings ago it was Monaco, last posting it was the Arctic Circle, this time it’s the Far East.  Good thing I have a frequent flyer card.  The difference being, this time it’s permanent – relatively speaking – a lot longer than two days anyway.  Greetings from Korea.

This project is about the design, construction and installation of a Floating Production, Storage and Offloading vessel (FPSO) which is essentially an oil tanker with the engine removed and a pile of other equipment added on deck.  Seeing as ninety percent of the world’s shipping manufacture now takes place in this part of the globe (I am told), it was not surprising to find that while the vessel is destined for Norwegian waters, it is to be built at the Samsung yard in Korea and we have a significant project office on site.  What was surprising was the speed with which we moved here.

We landed on Sunday afternoon (local time) and the jetlag is still wearing off.  Once the unpacking in finished and things have settled a little, more news will follow.