One of the things I hate about only having short windows to travel is that I don’t get to explore a country as thoroughly as I would like. All the same, I try to make sure I escape the confines of the city I’m visiting, and see some of the rest of the country during my stay.
I spent a week in South Korea, and it was nowhere near enough. Based in Seoul, I spent many happy days exploring the city with its skyscrapers, palaces, neon lights and temples, as well as venturing up to the North Korean border and the DMZ (or demilitarised zone) that separates the two halves of the peninsula. But there was still the lure of the rest of South Korea. Fortunately, it is an easy day trip from the capital to Busan, the second city of the country located on its far southern coastline.
The rail system in South Korea is pretty great, and regular high-speed services make it easy to travel the whole way across the country in just 3 hours. I actually love to do these long train trips, where I can sit with a book and watch the world go by. So, ticket in hand (booked online with Korail before I left home and collected at the station the day before), I turned up at Seoul’s central station early on a Wednesday morning.
Seoul’s main station is a shiny chrome monster, and I was swallowed into its belly as I descended the many escalators to the underground track. I wasn’t overly surprised that Korea’s trains are clean and comfortable, and easy to navigate. I settled into my window seat and hooked up to the wifi, and soon we were on our way south.
The line to Busan cuts straight across South Korea on a diagonal, past towns and villages and lush green landscapes dotted with mountains. One of the reasons I love these journeys is the chance to watch the country roll by outside my window, which is exactly what I did as I sat with coffee and a book in my window seat. Watching the world go by, the journey gave me at least a partial insight into the geography of this lush and hilly country.
And then we were in Busan. To be honest, I had very few concrete plans for the day, other than to take the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus and see where it took me. Picking it up outside the station, I followed the bus’s two routes around the greater Busan area. My first stop-off was Taejongdae, where I took a walk along the clifftop with views out across the sea, watching the tankers as they approached the country’s biggest port. I then followed the route around the coast to the Jagalchi fish market.
The Jagalchi market is a huge, 3-storey affair, and offers everything that you could possibly want from a Far East fish market. Huge tiled halls are filled with stalls selling every possible variety of seafood, both alive and not-so-much, presided over by armies of older Korean ladies who made for fantastic photo opportunities at every turn. There were stalls selling dried fish products and, on the top floor, a large restaurant area. Travelling alone and without a word of Korean (apart from hello and thank you), my first reaction was to take one look at the food court, with its floor cushions, round metal chopsticks and Korean-language menus, and run screaming for the nearest McDonalds. But throwing caution to the wind, I sat down at a friendly looking table and, through a variety of hand signals and much pointing at the pictures in the menu, ended up with a fabulous plateful of spicy Korean fish, chillies and kimchi, the traditional fermented cabbage so popular in the country. I’m still not totally sure what half of it was, but it was delicious – even the kimchi.
Resuming my bus tour, I headed next for Haeundae Beach, one of the many popular spots in Busan for catching a few rays and enjoying the water. In true east Asian style, the emphasis was on innocent fun; on an August afternoon the beach was packed, and so was the ocean. Pausing to take photos at the beach-side selfie machine (instantly emailed to my phone for social media sharing!), I wandered the sands and watched local life. A group of middle-aged ladies out in the sea caught my attention – fully clothed and soaking wet, they were playing in an inflatable ring and having the time of their lives. Surely the way to enjoy a day out with your friends, whatever your age.
The final stop on my Busan tour was the UN Memorial Cemetery. One of the goals of my time in Korea was to learn more about both its present and its past, and this little slice of the country is the resting place of hundreds of foreign servicemen who lost their lives in the Korean War of the 1950s. As the North Korean army swept down the peninsula before being finally beaten back to the 38th Parallel, for a time only this corner remained under Allied control, and the cemetery has sections for American, Canadian, British, Australian and many other different troops. It was a sobering place to wander and consider my countrymen, who gave so much for the peninsula and for standing up for what is right. The cemetery is clean, peaceful and respectful, and is well worth a visit.
Heading back to the station, I boarded the train back to Seoul reflecting on the many aspects of my day out. I didn’t see all of Busan by a large margin; it boasts magnificent temples, shopping and more beaches than you can shake a stick at, as well as several major museums including the Busan Museum of Art and the National Maritime Museum of Korea. If you have time, it is well worth staying for a night or two. But if you are on a tight schedule, a day trip to Busan is absolutely possible – and absolutely worth the effort.