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.