Busan for Chuseok

Almost three weeks late, but I hope to do justice to our trip to Busan over the Chuseok holiday, so here goes.

Getting There:

I had only been teaching fulltime for about a week when my co-teacher surprised me with the excellent news that there would be a 5 day weekend coming up at the end of September for Chuseok, which is the Korean version of Canadian/American Thanksgiving. During Chuseok, Korean families make rice cake and other traditional foods that they bring to their family ancestral sites. There, they give worship to their ancestors and leave them food that they can enjoy in their afterlife.

The week leading up to Chuseok, when I took my somewhat ill advised walking trip to Seongnamsa, I spotted a few families here and there tending gravesites, giving their ancestors a ready-to-welcome-guests appearance for the holiday. Needless to say, my students were also all very excited about Chuseok, though I suspect that that had more to do with the 5 days of freedom from long school hours, after school classes and evening/weekend hagwon that they would be enjoying than the visit to graves.

But I digress.

Thursday afternoon, I met James, other Kat, Mo and Chanel at the KTX (Ulsan’s “fast train” station). This was a blessing since the KTX is only a 5 minute drive from my apartment; usually I spend a good hour getting to meet-up points since I’m somewhat “in the stix.” Once I finally managed to hail a cab (I conveniently forgot that Thursday was the actual day of Chuseok and that most cabs driving around were off duty), I arrived at the KTX with plenty of time to people watch; I was not disappointed! Everywhere I looked there were families dashing to and fro, mothers dragging little ones decked out in traditional dress to their given trains and family rendezvous. Let me tell you, you have not seen cuteness until you’ve seen a 3 year-old girl trying to keep up with her family on chubby legs that aren’t quite long enough to avoid tripping over the hem of her very poofed out, hot pink traditional gown that makes her resemble a miniature of version of Mulan’s spunky grandmother. If you’ve seen the Disney cartoon, you’ll know what I mean.

From here, it was on to Busan for 2 nights of fun and (well-deserved?) relaxation! The tone of our trip was set when the woman who runs the hostel we stayed at called to let us know she would pick us up from our subway station; have I mentioned before how incredibly helpful and kind the people here are? True to tradition, she met us with her mother in tow. As there were 5 of us in our little ensemble, the woman crawled into the trunk of the *whew!* SUV and graciously let us have the seats up front. For anyone who has never stayed in a hostel and has bad dreams about them, let me put those nightmares to rest. This hostel was amazing! It was on the top floor (44th!) of an office building, had floor to ceiling windows with an amazing view of the diamond bridge, and was decked out with indoor slippers, snacks, ice cream bars, breakfast, beauty supplies and more! Talk about full service.

That first night, given that it was Chuseok and not much was open, we managed to find a Western-styled pub called “700 Beer”, and no, it did not have 700 different beers on tap. One of the things about Korea that you come to accept is that Western food is a wee on the pricey side, so you’re either going to end up broke, starve, or develop quite the palate for Korean food. Luckily for me, I find Korean cuisine delicious, but I’m not above saying that it was an awesome break to have chicken fingers and fries for dinner instead of rice or ramen.

After dinner, we met up with some friends and headed to Gwangalli beach where some foreign-friendly hangouts are, and where we spent a bit of time sitting on the beach, looking at the diamond bridge, and holding fireworks the wrong end up so that they almost hit people. Ok, that last one was all me. Luckily, some newly met friends jumped in just in time and I managed to get the fireworks pointed the right way before they did permanent damage to other Kat. *Sorry about that*

Along the way,  Uri met some great people who couldn’t stop dancing with him and buying him drinks, and the Korean men were all very impressed with how flat Chanel and Mo’s stomachs were…it’s a weird sort of night when you have a drink in Korea.

Exploring the City:

Friday is when we really got to know Busan. We woke up early and got a good head start on being eager tourists, even managing to snag a ride from a friendly cop who gave us a lift to Gamcheon cultural village when he saw us helplessly looking at our map in the street, trying to figure out where the heck we were. It was a good thing he offered to stop directing traffic and give us a ride, because it was another 10 minutes of steep, uphill driving to get to the cultural centre of the village. Once at the top, and after completing my “I’m in the back of a police car!” moment of glee, we poked around the village and got some great shots of it and the harbor it looked out over. There’s nothing like exploring the nooks and crannies of a cramped village that’s so abundant with colours, pictures of penguins, art installments of fish and lighthouses, and book cafes that what should be a claustrophobic atmosphere is really a cozy mountainside community. When the houses are separated by only a foot or two of space, and in some areas not even that, creating an air of traditional charm and peacefulness is an awesome feat indeed.

After wandering the hills, and stopping to admire the lovely temple tucked out of the way and the monks who lived there, we decided to head to the market. Since we had a hard time finding that as well (Busan seems bigger than Ulsan, even though it’s not), we stopped off at a small restaurant to grab some bibimbap and directions before setting out again. Directions weren’t the only thing we almost ended up with though; we passed a couple selling veggies on the street and their little dog was too cute to resist, when they offered to sell him to Chanel, I’m pretty sure he almost came with us.

After not buying the dog, we arrived at the market to see what else there might be for sale. The markets in Ulsan are of a decent size, but nothing compared to this. This market stretched out for about 5 blocks, was above and below ground, spilled into the streets and had people pulled up eating Pajun and drinking Makali at one stall while the vendor next door hawked sweaters with cat faces on them (James bought one). While the rest of us didn’t buy anything this time, I’ll definitely be headed back to scavenge for more traditional, Korean items. Like postcards, those are somewhat hard to come by here. The most common items for sale are socks, handheld fans and combs…and those are used in abundance, especially the combs; I’ve started quite the lovely collection of combs in my desk drawer, having confiscated them from female students more interested in fixing their hair than learning English. Such is a middle school ESL teacher’s life.

Thoroughly tuckered out after all the walking, misdirection and long subway rides, we headed back to the hostel for some rest before meeting up with the same friends and checking out the local nightlife. This time, we decided to visit the more well-known Hyundai beach. Besides the good company and late-night food, James also introduced me to triangle bibimbap and, as Chanel puts, every time she turned around it seemed James and I had found another CU that sold the bibimbap and were eating it in triumph. Seriously though, it really is that good.

Catching a Show:

Our last day in Busan, we decided to return to Hyundai beach so we could see it under the sun. Had we been thinking, we wouldn’t have left our backpacks with our swimming gear in the lockers at the subway station before venturing to the beach. We thought just to check out the beach, having heard that the water was beyond freezing and that not much swimming gets done…we were wrong. Instead, the beach was alight with foreigners and locals catching some rays and waves, and we were even privy to a rather outward display of intimate affection from a Korean couple frolicking in the water. At one point, the woman’s dress ended up on her boyfriend’s body, and that was the least exciting part of the show. For a country that’s generally pretty conservative about any form of PDA, our little group couldn’t help but stare open-mouthed at the scene before us, kind of like when you pass a train wreck and can’t look away. Happily, this was a lot more entertaining than that.

With wet clothes (Chanel and I ventured pretty far into the water despite our lack of swimming gear) and happy, if tired, hearts, we stopped for lunch before catching the bus back to Ulsan. Having put Busan as my first choice of cities to live in when I was initially applying to teach in South Korea, it was great to be able to see what life might have been like; but as much as I loved Busan and can’t wait to get back and explore the temples, fish markets and light houses that we missed this time round, I’m happy with my little piece of Korea, even if it does sometimes feel like it’s “out in the stix.”

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