A couple of weeks ago, my boss offered to send NJ and I on a two night trip to one of three cities in Asia: Hong Kong, Seoul, and Busan; flight and hotel paid for.
This has been his habit for several years now; a bonus of sorts for successful school years, but usually we have more notice and time to prepare. We chose Busan, because pollution concerns keep us out of China, and we’ve been to Seoul before. Busan sounded interesting, and the opportunity to eat some authentic Korean food again was hard to pass up. However, we didn’t know anything about Busan, other than its geographical location.
In fact, we had so little time to prepare, and so many other stressful things were going on, that by the day of our flight, we still hadn’t had time to print any maps, learn even basic phrases to get by with, or even research places to go see. We were so convinced that the shortness of the trip (only one full day) and the horrible weather forecast (rain) would mean more, unneeded stress that we decided we might just eat and stay in the hotel room exclusively.
I am so glad we didn’t.
Even though we didn’t have a map. Or any plans. Or speak a lick of Korean…. We still had an amazing time, and it all started the moment we got off the plane.
I am used to being able to speak the language of the country I am in. I have a fairly conversational level of Japanese, and when that fails, usually a mixture of English and Japanese works. In Taipei and Seoul, we didn’t need any of the native language at all, because there was enough support in the former two to get by.
Busan is different. The city likely doesn’t see the levels of tourism that other places see in East Asia, and translations were few and far between. The subway maps were really hard to navigate. Luckily, a kind young man stopped to help us. He helped us buy our tickets, led us through the gate, and then escorted us halfway to our destination, through two separate transfers. When we finally parted, it was with a nod and a smile. One for one.
We stayed in an old area of Busan known for its film festival and night markets, Gwangbok-ro. Our hotel, Aventree Busan, is part of the Agoda brand, and I can’t recommend it enough. The staff were extremely friendly, and when I realized I’d forgotten to pack our power converters, they lent us one for free, even though the hotel requires a deposit. Two for two.
Our first night, we went to the self-proclaimed “best chicken in Busan” restaurant, and indeed, had some of the best chicken we’ve ever tasted. Spicy, sticky, soy-sweet chicken with thick cheese fondue and fries changed our minds at first bite: we wanted to explore, weather be damned. Our server was delightful, and helped us choose a meal that would fit our spice tolerance. Three for three.
The next day, we left early, determined to make the most of our one day and explore as much as possible. A brief breakfast at Coffee Mr. Dutch (an excellent coffee and tea house) and we were on our way to Bosu-dong Book Street, which is about as amazing as it sounds. An entire city’s block worth of book stores. Book stores and only book stores, with so many books that they were using the overstock as high beam bracers and door frames. So many books that each store could pick a specialty: an encyclopedia store, art book store, children’s book store, and more. A very dangerous place to be for a bibliophile, as they have books available in many languages, and many, for very cheap. Four for four!
Next up was Bupyeong Kkangtong Night Market, teaming with fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, and cuts of meat. Motorcycles buzzed their way through the throngs of people and old men pulled massive fruit carts that looked far too heavy for their hunched frames. Old women in visors haggled the prices of kimchi and fish, and children dashed about on sandals that looked ready to fly right off their feet. Five for five.
We took a short break at a Starbucks nearby after perusing the markets, when I recalled that the Trick-Eye Museum should be nearby (and after looking out the window, we found it pretty quickly). Hard not to go to a fun photo opportunity when it presents itself, and for a measly $8USD, we couldn’t pass it up. Below are some of the shots NJ got of me (and six for six!):
At this point we were pretty tired and hungry. NJ picked the dinner that night, and Korean BBQ won. We found a really nice, open-air place on Pigs’ Feet Alley (and while I didn’t try the specialty, I admit the smell was mouth-watering). Korean BBQ restaurant styles have one huge advantage over Japanese-style BBQ: they use hoses to suck up the excess smoke, so the air around the table stays fresh. The meat was heavenly. There really is nothing like authentically marinated and prepared Korean BBQ. The restaurant owner also cooked half our meal for us, showing us how to cook the meat in the proper fashion. Seven for seven!
But our night of food-tourism didn’t end there: I bought rose ice cream from a vendor, NJ and I shared in hotteok, a sweet desert pancake filled with a mixture of brown sugar and roasted seeds. I’m linking a recipe because everyone in the world must try this at least once in their lives. We finished the night off with boba tea. Too full to think, and too full to care! Eight for eight!
All of that was done leisurely, and with a flight leaving at 4PM the next day, we knew we’d only have time to squeeze in one more thing. When we’d first arrived in Gwangbok-ro, I’d noticed a strange escalator.
Turns out this escalator actually takes people up a mountain. We rode it happily, luggage in hand, to go to Busan Tower, because the weather had turned miraculously sunny, and in my life, I’ve never had a good view of a city when I plan to go see it. Busan Tower is absolutely worth going to see on a clear day. The view is tremendous, and it was the perfect final inning for our perfect game in Busan.
All in all, a well-spent trip. Even without a map, or a plan, or any Korean language skills to help us. This trip taught me that spontaneity can be a wonderful thing, even in a completely unfamiliar environment. So, my suggestion to you: get out there, and get lost!
If you’re interested in seeing the rest of the photos, and our visit to the Model Ship Exhibition Hall in Busan Tower, check out my Flickr gallery here: