Hello, South Korea: Busan

Our flight to South Korea departed at 1 am and arrived at 7 am which felt like 5 am to us, so our first day in South Korea was a pretty sleepy one. Luckily, being in South Korea felt like a welcome return to our normal life. Despite the fact that everything was in Korean, it felt very familiar. We took the subway from the airport to our apartment (Airbnb) in Suyeong-Gu. There were pedestrian lights, and cars (mostly) stopped for red lights. Everything felt a little bit calmer, and we realized that for 29 days in Vietnam we had been carrying a little bit of extra tension. We checked into our Airbnb using a keypad and opened the door to a cute studio apartment with a bathroom and small kitchen. Our first kitchen since we left the US a month and a half ago!

We were pretty excited to cook again! We were looking forward to exploring Korean grocery stores and markets which can be its own kind of cultural experience. First priority, though, was finding something to eat for lunch, and for that we decided to try our first Korean restaurant. Jess had looked up some cheap kinds of food and then found on Google Maps that there was a restaurant with one ₩ symbol (think one $) a block away. We walked in, sat down, and immediately discovered this was going to be a new kind of challenge. The menu was on the wall and was only in Korean, and the waitress only spoke Korean.

Eric trying to make sense of the menu

Eric got close enough to the menu that he could use Google Translate’s camera app to try to decipher the menu. He reported back that the best he could tell there was pork something and mixed something. We each picked an item but then had to try to communicate it to the waitress. Eric was trying to communicate the third thing on the list by counting: “one, two, three!” and then pointing at his third finger. Jess took a picture of the menu from her seat and then pointed to the option she wanted on the picture. We were not sure what exactly we had communicated, but two bowls of soup and a lot of small dishes arrived at our table.

Our first Korean meal!

It became clear as we were eating that we had succeeded in ordering two different dishes. It also became clear that Jess’s bowl had pieces of tripe in it in addition to the pork. The tripe was a bit chewy and Eric was glad Jess ended up with the guts because he was too tired to be adventurous that day.

We downloaded Korean keyboards to our phones to see if we could get a better sense of what we were eating using the text translator which often works better than the camera. It was a bit tricky to figure out how to construct the Korean words since words are comprised of syllables which are constructed with consonant sounds and vowel sounds. At the time we did not know what sounds any of the shapes made, so we were just trying to stack them together until they looked like the words we saw. With some practice we figure out that syllable sounds are built from left to right and top to bottom. Eventually we deciphered that the first item was pork soup, the second item was guts soup and the third item was mixed soup. Checks out!

We learned a lot about the Hangul alphabet in this process. Hangul was created by King Sejong the Great in the middle of the 15th Century. It was specifically designed to improve literacy rates which were very low with the traditional Chinese language system in place previously. The alphabet has 24 letters of which ten are vowel sounds. The shapes of the letters were even designed with their pronunciation in mind. They are categorized by the shape your tongue makes when you say them. For example, ㄴ is an “n” sound and the upward part of the letter shows that your tongue touches the front upper part of your mouth when you say it. This makes learning and recognizing Korean letters very easy! We found being able to sound out words extremely helpful when bus stop names, subway maps, and bus destinations were written only in Hangul. Even though we did not understand any Korean words, we could figure out relatively easily if we were going the right way. 

This also proved to be useful because online maps are very difficult to use in South Korea. Allegedly, South Korea has barred the exportation of location data to servers outside South Korea as protection from North Korea. This means you cannot download Google Maps offline. It also means the map on Google is like a photograph, and it does not gain any resolution when you zoom in. We wandered around Busan with a combination of Google Maps, Maps.me, and Naver Maps, switching between them when one did not show us what we wanted. Naver is a South Korean Company that provides many many services.

On our first full day in Busan, we slept in – for once we did not have to wake up early to avoid missing breakfast – and made ourselves eggs with kimchi and weasel coffee for breakfast. Before leaving Vietnam we had bought a Vietnamese coffee maker and a small bag of weasel coffee – the kind where the weasel eats the coffee bean and poops it out. Allegedly the weasel’s digestion does something to the coffee bean to make it taste better. It was very good coffee, and it was nice to have the option of NOT sweet coffee for once. 

After breakfast we set off on a mission to walk to the Haeundae beach which is the most popular of Busan’s beaches. We were not in any particular hurry so we walked towards a green hill which looked like it might have some hiking paths on it. We wound our way up steps through the woods until we got to the top of the hill. From the top of the hill we had a great view down to Busan where we discovered a funny feature of the city. Tall buildings all seem to be built in clusters of sameness. There are different clusters and each of the clusters has a different design aesthetic, but the buildings in each cluster look the same.

Our first view over Busan

We also found a lot of open air workout facilities on this hill. They were tucked away in small clearings and quite a lot of people were using them. The facilities were surprisingly elaborate for outdoor gyms, with free weight benches and upside down traction hangers. 

We found an exit off the hill that led us to a working temple and an elementary school. We managed to navigate our way into the city on the other side and crossed a bridge where the building cluster phenomenon became even more obvious.

Building clusters

After a short while, we found ourselves on the Haeundae beach. It is a beautiful, clean beach. The sand was rougher than the beach at Da Nang, Vietnam, but it was very clean. The water here was also much cooler than in Da Nang and it was very refreshing to roll up our pants and walk in the surf.

Haeundae Beach

We were starting to need a snack, so we wandered over to an area near the beach that had some restaurants. There was a coffee shop on the corner in a building that indicated it had restaurants on multiple floors. We decided to explore what else was in the building and come back to the coffee shop if necessary. On the third floor we found a restaurant and asked to see the menu. There were some expensive items for ₩20,000 ($16.90) but also a cold noodle dish, which is a typical food in South Korea, for ₩7,000 ($5.92). We sat down at a table and ordered the cold noodle dish and a salad. The waiter said, “no, three”, and pointed at the page with the expensive items. We tried to use Google Translate to confirm that we needed to order three items from that page, and the waiter nodded in response. We were not entirely sure we were actually communicating. We did not understand why, as two people, we needed to order three things, or why it needed to be from a particular page on the menu. This menu even had English on it, but there was nothing explaining the rules for ordering. Since we were looking for a snack, not a full meal, we got up apologetically and left. We went to the coffee shop downstairs instead and ordered a personal pizza to share.

On our way back home, we walked through a cute neighborhood where we ordered a black sugar boba milk tea. This neighborhood was particularly fun because an Instagram artist (@harrydan_gil) had turned street features into funny art pieces.

Street grate turned fly swatter with fly courtesy of @harrydan_gil

After that neighborhood, we found another green hill park to walk through. This one had lots of trails that led further to the mountains behind the city, but we were just cutting through. We had seen on Maps.me there was a temple or place of worship marked that we thought might be fun to find. Maps.me led us on a pretty funny walk. All the paths were labeled on the map, but some of them barely looked like paths at all. It was pretty impressive given the poor quality of South Korea’s mapping in general. We did ultimately find a place of worship which was a small Buddha tucked into the rocks.

Place of worship on the mountain

The next day, Eric had a work call, so he stayed behind in the AirBnb while Jess hiked up a nearby mountain, Geumlyeonsan. The mapped paths seemed to be a bit different from the actual paths on this mountain, which was a bit confusing. Jess walked up a long set of steps and then turned left only to walk on a long, meandering path downhill. It still looked like she would eventually make it to the radio tower at the top, but at some point she stopped following the mapped routes and went straight up hill. The views from this mountain were also very pretty, and there were also lots of outdoor gyms. We think Busan might have the highest proportion of outdoor gyms per capita of any place we have visited. When she reached the peak, Jess turned around and walked back down another way to complete the loop. It was a bit slippery going down because the steps were sandy and had wet leaves on them. She made it back down in time to meet Eric at a coffee shop right on schedule!

In the afternoon, we strolled on the Gwangan beach near our apartment. It was also a pretty beach with nice cool, clear water. It had these funny sand dunes that meant there were pockets of deeper and shallower water. Eric thought maybe it looked like he could walk on water.

We also wanted to see the Igidae Coastal Walk, so we took the subway a few stops and walked to it. The Coastal Walk runs for three miles along Busan’s south-eastern coastline and ends with a glass sky bridge where you can see the ocean crashing below you. It is a windy path along the coast with a series of bridges and steps, some of which lead into the woods and back out. Since Jess had already walked five miles on her mountain loop and it would be getting dark soon, we opted not to walk the entire stretch. We turned around at a pretty part with a nice view of Busan and walked back. 

We had the option of getting back on the subway or catching a bus to get home, but we decided to walk home on our last night in the city. Gwangan beach was particularly pretty at night with the buildings illuminated.  There were a lot more people on the beach at that hour than there had been earlier in the day. 

Gwangan beach at night

Busan was definitely a quiet recovery from our month in Vietnam. It was calm and peaceful, the subway played a delightful tune every time a train was arriving, and the weather was cool enough to walk around comfortably. We loved how much nature surrounded the city and how easy it was to disappear into the woods or stroll on the beach. It was definitely a nice way to ease into the rest of our time in South Korea.

The next day we took the subway to Nopo station where the Busan Central Bus Station is located. (Oddly named as there is nothing central about it). From there we caught a bus to our next destination – Gyeongju. 

Bus to Gyeongju

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *