Category Archives: City Guide

City Guide – Busan

Following on from Sunday’s guide to Seoul, here’s a guide to Busan. Now, some would say that the best thing about Busan is the international ferry terminal. Now, I would never as mean-spirited and nasty to say such a thing. Though, Busan is somewhat different – an acquired taste. Rough around the edges, raffish, edgy and raw- much like the wonderful, abundant seafood . It is also in some parts smelly and crowded – due largely to a booming population following North Korea annexing all bar the southeastern corner of South Korea during the Korean War, from which the city’s infrastructure has never completely come to terms. The city’s mish-mash geography of steep hills and valleys, bays and harbours, rivers and plains has made cohesive development challenging yet has led to innovative if not somewhat eclectic solutions, one of which being Gwangan Bridge.

Map of Busan's coastal areas

Busan – and its residents – pull no punches. There’s no pretenses and fewer formalities compared with other parts of the country,this is all punctuated with a sharp, piercing brogue which often confounds both foreign visitors and Koreans from other regions. While, Seoulites tend to be vain, pretentious and consumed with money and status, Busanites are blunt, down-to-Earth and true to themselves bugger the consequences.

View of Busan on a gloomy day

As mentioned earlier, Busan’s metropolitan area covers a mish-mash of geography which in turns creates a disjointed, crowded yet sprawling urban area. The main regions of interest to the traveller in Busan: are the Old Downtown area and port district in the wards of Jung-gu and Dong-gu, Haeundae – Busan’s beachside resort and answer to Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Seomyeon – Busan’s more central new downtown district and junction of subway lines 1 and 2, and Gwanganlli – Busan’s second most favoured seaside suburb.

Exterior of Busan Museum

First, let’s look at old downtown and the port area. Busan rail station is located right in the heart of this area with the international district to the west and port to the east. The international district is a hodge-podge of ethnic restaurants, bars and saucier venues. It was originally home to Texas Street – the main drinking and nightlife centre for US GIs but with the Americans no longer based in Busan, the district has largely seen Russians (both ethnic Russians and Russians of Korean descent), Chinese and Filipinos take their place. Many Russians escaped the crippling poverty of the Russian Far East to work in the ports of Busan and a significant Russian community exists. There’s also a large presence of Central Asians, notably Kazakhs and Uzbeks, though many again are of Korean descent. The area is a bit of a dive to be honest but is interesting in its own way nevertheless – where else in Korea can you find a decorative Chinese gate a hundred metres away from Filipino restaurants and exclusively Russian cafes with haggard looking Russian mamasans manning the entrance. It is quite dangerous after dusk so is best avoided at night as many of the drunks seem to get punchy as the night wears on. On a side note, Busan is also very popular with tourists from Japan and scattered all around Busan, particularly in Haeundae, are establishments catering to Japanese tourist.

Busan Tower in the daytime

Further south of the international area is the old downtown shopping district. The famous Jagalchi fish markets are worth a look where you can sample or just view the many wonderful and varied seafood delicacies on offer. The shopping district contains a series of malls and pedestrian arcades and is quite good for picking up bargains. Bear in mind, this area also can get a bit edgy and unpleasant at night, it’s the only place in Korea where in the one night – my friend’s first weekend in Korea – we were followed by a disgruntled, seemingly xenophobic group of men who verbally let us know they didn’t particularly care about Americans (he’s American) and we were denied entrance into a restaurant despite being well-mannered, sober, able to speak limited Korean – apparently the food and drink available and being enjoyed by Korean patrons was not on offer for us and our kind and we told to leave. All I could say was ‘Welcome to Korea‘! - On a side note Busan is the only place in Korea I’ve ever been to which had a segregated ‘foreigner’ bar located within a larger Korean bar, my friend and I stayed around for one drink and the amusement of feeling like caged animals – surprisingly we were the only foreign patrons! – but it soon wore off.

Bell pavilion near Busan Tower

Straddling above the old downtown district is Yongdusan park which has an impressive statue of Korean legend Yi Sun-shin along with Busan Tower which is quite nice and worth a visit, especially if you take the escalator up from the shopping district.

Yi Sun-shin guarding Busan Tower

Haeundae Beach and its surrounding area has been popular with Koreans for aeons and year after year is gaining further popularity with Westerners and foreign tourists, and it’s easy to see why. The beach itself is a nice, broad expanse of sand – though make sure to avoid going in the peak of summer as you’ll be sharing the sand with 500,000 others. The best time to go is around September/October when the weather’s still warm as for some unknown reason Koreans refuse to swim unless it’s the middle of summer and they can share the experience with half a million compatriots! There’s also plenty to keep you entertained outside the beach with luxury hotels, a casino, an ever-increasing number and variety of foreign restaurants, and a somewhat more laidback, easygoing attitude present than mainstream urban Korea, of Busan at least. Haeundae’s where Koreans go to relax and for the most part it’s a more relaxed, easy feel. It is also home to the popular Busan International Film Festival, or BIFF.

Haeundae Beach - Busan's favourite playground

Seomyeon – at the junction of subway line 1 and 2 and geographically central to the metropolitan district – is a mass of department stores, office buildings and shops fanning out over an expanse of roads, alleyways and streets in which daytime shoppers and office workers are replaced at the night by people in need of good food and a good night out. There’s plenty of restaurants and bars about however it’s almost exclusively Korean as for the most part you can’t drag foreigners away from Haeundae or the Kyungsung-Pukyong university district – not far from Haeundae – with its mass of bars, nightclubs and eating venues.

Gwangan Bridge from Gwanganlli Beach

Gwanganlli Beach is a nice expanse of sand surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars along with a plethora of seafood restaurants. Yet, it has one slightly unusual attraction. When you look out to sea, approximately one mile away you find the impressive Gwangan Bridge. Busan has such a problem with traffic and infrastructure due to its crowdedness and topology, it’s recently taken to building over land rather than just on land. It’s an impressive sight particularly at night when the bridge is colourfully lit.

Wall of Remembrance, UN Memorial Cemetery

Another place well worth a look is the UN Memorial Cemetery located to the east of the old downtown district and west of Gwanganlli in Nam-gu (district). The grounds are beautifully manicured with monuments, plaques and graves honouring the thousands of young soldiers from over a dozen countries including Canada, Turkey and Ethiopia, who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Korean War. Busan Museum, nearby the cemetery, is also worth a visit.

UN Memorial Cemetery, Busan

One last place just to the north of metropolitan Busan that you really should visit is Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist temple, a series of well-maintained, beautifully decorated Buddhist pavilions perched along the rocky coastline.

Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist temple, just outside Busan

So, that’s Busan. Yes, it’s a bit rough and ready, and jagged around the edges, but that’s what gives it its appeal. Definitely worth a visit, and a weekend at Haeundae on a warm September-October weekend is a must.

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City Guide – Seoul

I had a family member ask for some info on Seoul so I thought I’d take what I wrote to them and pass it onto this blog.

I visited Seoul numerous times during my seven years in South Korea and always marveled at its size, sights, mass of humanity, fast pace, crowds, and the beauty of its gardens and palaces. It’s starting to get the accolades it deserves as a great Asian city. Sure, it’s a bit crowded, and can be smelly or dirty in parts but that’s what makes it real. 10 million-odd in the city and another 10 million-odd in the surrounding satellites, what do you expect? Nevertheless, the city has done a brilliant job in the past decade of beautifying public spaces, making the city cleaner and more accessible,  more user- and tourist-friendly, and a city to be noticed.

Seoul map

Seoul’s a nice stop over for 3 or 4 days with there being plenty to do – whether you’d like to take in some culture, history or shopping. I’d strongly recommend you visit at least one of the royal palaces & gardens and first one of those should be Gyeongbokgung (Seoul’s royal palace & answer to the Forbidden City). I’d also recommend visiting Changdeokgung palace which has a secret garden on its grounds – it’s somewhat surreal to be in a Sherwood Forest setting in the middle of 20 million megalopolis. Both of those palaces are on the northern fringe of the downtown area and easily accessible by public transport. Deoksugung, near City Hall on the southwest fringe of the downtown area is also worth the visit if you have the time.

Gwanghwamun gate at the entrance of Gyeongbokgung palace

Despite holding 10 million people with just as many in surrounding satellites, Seoul is a very compact, densely populated city – the entire region including satellites covering an area comparable to metropolitan Sydney or Melbourne. All major sites are accessible by Seoul’s subway and if not by buses or taxis. However, there should be few times when you need to catch a bus or taxi – which are a fraction of Australian prices – as the subway is numbered, colour-coded, easy to use, frequent and abundantly signposted in English (as well as Chinese & Japanese).

Changing of the guard at Namdaemun, 2007

Dongdaemun (or Heunginjimun),  and Namdaemun (Sungnyemun) – which burnt down in 2008 but is undergoing restoration – gates are impressive structures which marked the eastern and southern boundaries of ancient Seoul. They are both located in downtown Seoul, Dongdaemun to the west where an impressive precinct of fashion outlets and malls exist, and Namdaemun to the south next to the famous Namdaemun Market, where you can pick up virtually any nik-nak you could ever want.

Namdaemun Market

N Seoul Tower on top of Namsan, also in the downtown district of Jung-gu, is another place you might like to visit, particularly at night where you can amble up or get a bus to the peak and then onto the tower if you choose to get a look of Seoul metropolis. Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul was once little more than an open sewer in post-war Seoul which was then covered up by concrete with an elevated highway built on top by dictator and ‘builder of modern Korea’ Park Chung-hee (it was rumoured he built the highway so he could get from the Presidential Blue House to his favoured drinking establishments quicker). The highway was dismantled, stream uncovered, cleaned and replaced with a picturesque stream and public space by then-Mayor, now-President Lee Myung-bak. To the north of Cheonggyecheon and nearby Gyeongbokgung and the Blue House is the district of Buk-chon, noted for its heritage hanok buildings.

Cheonggyecheon stream, downtown Seoul

Not far away from Namsan is Itaewon, the international district and still home to Yongsan Garrison – Seoul’s US Base – however they will be moving out soon to Pyeongtaek, 90km south of Seoul. It’s undergone a bit of gentrification in the past decade, it used to be a foreign ghetto frequented by GIs and other Westerners, but has become somewhat of international cuisine hub with restaurants from all corners of the Earth. For those interested in the arts, alternative and youth scene Hongdae is the place to be. Whilst, Insadong is the place for traditional arts at an often inflated price. Another happening place in central Seoul is the shopping district of Myeongdong, filled with malls, arcades and alleyways selling all matter of fashion items. Myeongdong is a popular stopover for Japanese and Chinese tourists seeking the latest Korean fashion.

Cooling off outside the Korean War Museum nearby Yongsan Garrison

If you wish to visit the DMZ, which I’d strongly recommend, the best group to do it through is the USO who have been running the tour for decades, you’re bussed from the base in central Seoul, Samgakji near Itaewon, to the border some 50km away. You’re then accommodated by US soldiers who provide informative and interesting details of the DMZ, Panmunjeom and the Korean War itself. You will also visit the observation deck, go by the Bridge of No Return, visit Panmunjeom – for the obligatory photo – and enter the 3rd North Korean ‘tunnel of aggression’ infiltration tunnel.

Panmunjeom - where perpetual tentative truce & riven reality meet

If you’re interested in seeing glitzy, modern Seoul, south of the river is Gangnam. Four decades ago the Gangnam district was an assortment of rice paddies, farms and villages but is now home to the main financial and shopping districts along with numerous entertainment, nightlife and sporting facilities. Gangnam is where the rich, the nouveau-riche and all in between go to be seen, COEX Mall is a modern, impressive shopping centre with plenty of Western food outlets, and the area around Gangnam Station could easily pass for downtown Chicago, New York or Tokyo with its impressive corporate skyscrapers and ambitious architecture. The Olympic Stadium isn’t too far away in Jamsil and will give you real nostalgia as they seemingly haven’t applied a coat of paint to the place since ’88, if security is as lax as when my mate & I were there you’ll also have the honour of running on the famed track! For those with a sporting preference, Seoul World Cup Stadium to the west on the north side of the Han may also be worth a visit.

Jung-gu - downtown Seoul

If you’re interested in looking at the latest electronics, Yongsan is the place to go. It’s a series of malls, buildings and arcades filled with the latest electronic gadgets and almost entirely comprised of surly staff who seemingly don’t want your money but don’t feel ashamed to mark up the price 25% for foreigners regardless. It’s worth a look nevertheless.

Ceremonial procession outside Deoksugung palace

That’s Seoul in a nutshell. A city with just about everything. I’d recommend visiting in September to November when the summer heat has cooled somewhat and the autumn colours are about. Spring is also a nice time of year but you run the risk of the dreaded Yellow dust travelling to Seoul between March and May.