The Sorrento of Korea :-)


Last week I took the four-hour express bus from Chungju to Busan where I’d done a budget booking for 5 nights.  The Busan Olive Motel in Beomil-dong was, it has to be said, dire! The barely heated rooms were like walking into a Twin Peaks set and the draught in the bathroom meant the fast setting of icicles in the testicular region. The bed had a heated blanket and one can only guess the variety of nakedness that had lain upon it!

On a more positive note I’d planned a few activities, which meant that the icehouse would soon be forgotten. The first trip out was to Gamcheon Cultural Village, the Sorrento of Korea. Colourful it may be Sorrento it is not!

I took the orange line to Toseondong Station exit 6 and crossed over the road to catch the bus outside the Cancer Centre (bus 2-2). The bus dropped us off at the top of the mountain at a village information booth where the helpful volunteers sold me a map of the cultural highlights.

Gamcheon Village, also called Taegeukdo Village, was first inhabited in the early 1900’s by followers of the Taegeukdo “Ying and Yang “ religion; Gamcheon housed the city’s poorest people. During the Korean War refugees fled to Busan, UN forces held a 230-kilometer line near the southeastern tip of Korea, known as the “Pusan Perimeter”.

Refugees initially settled in the area near Jagalchi Fish Market, the old centre of town. This area quickly became overcrowded and refugees started to move slightly west and many quickly built shanty homes along the hillside reminiscent of the favelas in Rio.  The Ying/Yang cult followers informed the refugees that they would help them settle if they started to follow Taegeukdo themselves. The partnership resulted in the shanty homes being reconstructed in concrete and the result is what we see today.

Gamcheon however remained poor and regeneration began in 2009 when the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism launched a project to transform the village into a creative community. The streets were decorated with graffiti and the homes transformed into studios and galleries. Since then gaudy sculptures have been added.

The weather was fantastic on my visit; most of the “tourists” were Korean under 25 and in couples or pairs of friends. My first vantage point was the observatory set above the rooftops and adjacent to the lovely Gamneh Cafe. Below this there’s a photo gallery set up by locals portraying village life. Whilst I do get the “Santorini” analogy it’s a little exaggerated; the views across the village and down to the Busan port area are awesome but in no way as picturesque as the idyllic Greek island. I followed the circular route of the map occasionally dropping off the main track to follow the fish arrows to a gallery or cafe. I have to say when doing this initially I felt somewhat intrusive as I caught the odd glimpse of local folk going about their daily business. In saying this everyone was polite and as time went by I consoled myself with the thought that the local businesses are benefitting economically.

The artwork itself is child-like and primitive but on a sunny day the colours pop out and it’s great for kids. You can visit a cartoonist’s workshop and engage in a variety of artistic endeavours at the community centre so it can be a great family day out.  For me it was yet another flavour of Korea and I loved the photography exhibitions and panoramic views. I would recommend at last a half-day visit when in Busan.

The next day I took the subway to Haeundae Station and then the 188 bus to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. I’d wanted to tick this off my list for a while having read many blogs eulogising over its beauty, its actually a 4.5 star attraction on Tripadvisor but this Tripadvisor gives it a 3! Dales Korean Temples quote the history:

“Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (“ Korean Dragon Palace Temple”) was founded in 1376 by the Venerable monk Naong who was an advisor to King Kongmin. One day in a dream, the Divine Sea god of the East Sea revealed himself to Naong.  He was told to construct a temple at the top of Mount Bongrage and the nation would become larger and more stable. So after checking around the nation for a place to build a temple, he found the land where the temple now rests, naming the temple Bomoonsa Temple. However, in 1592, during the Imjin War with Japan, the temple was burned to the ground.  It wasn’t until the 1930’s, over 300 years after its destruction, that the Venerable monk Wunkang, from Tongdosa Temple, rebuilt the temple.  He renamed it Haedong Yonggungsa Temple.”

I found it relatively uninspiring, noisy disrespectful kids and other tongues loosened by Soju made it less than serene. I suspect the time to visit is just prior to Buddha’s birthday in April when the lanterns will be strung up adding colour to what is to put it simply a pretty ordinary temple in a fabulous but overcrowded setting.  There was not a monk in sight and I cannot blame them.  There were plenty of souvenir sellers and a cornucopia of Korean street food. I’ve read posts were people say photos cannot do it justice my opinion is the photos don’t lie, during the day its not particularly photogenic though I can imagine sunset or sunrise changing the who atmosphere. So there that’s my advice go in April before big boys birthday and at sunset!

UnknownI’d heard that the Shinsegae Department Store at Centrum City station is officially GBofR’S “BIGGEST DEPARTMENT STORE IN THE WORLD”. This is of course true but it ain’t half a monolithic monstrosity, ugly enough to stop an eight-day clock! That’s just the external features, inside as you leave the subway station there’s a plastic or plaster copy (in white) of the Trevi Fountain. Trevi row is lined by oversized images of Korean Baseball players plastered across the huge columns…tasteless! I have to admit I turned on my heels and headed back to Nampo for a stroll around Yongdusan Park, a much more pleasurable experience.

The evening started slowly with an ultimately disappointing Sojourn looking for cask ale in Seomyeon followed by beer in Banana Bar, Beomil. I met two American teachers who led me astray to the Led Saki Bar and another bar called Milk, which I left at 4am to return to Icy Towers; thankfully the heated blanket had been left switched on!

My final full day in Busan was brilliant, the Igidae Coastal Walk, my kind of past time. I’m not going to give the directions, as I want to keep it a Waygook secret!

Igidae Park is one of Busan’s best-kept secrets for strollers like moi, at least as far as the overseas contingent are concerned.  The park is defined as a “little tricky to get to”, but I found a site with good travel directions and the effort was well worth it.  Initially there’s a 10-minute walk from the bus stop to the parks entrance and then a further 10-minute ascent to the start of the trails. It was at this juncture my I realised the effects of the harsh Korean Winter and travails around Myanmar had not just played havoc with my waistline but also my lungs. Green tea diet from Monday week!

A short history lesson! During the 16th century, the Japanese invaded the coast of Busan and proceeded to have a rowdy victory party on the granite shore.  In the night, two Korean entertainers, gisaeng, grabbed one of the drunken soldiers and threw themselves off the rocky cliff, taking their own lives with his. Today the site of Igidae is named in honour of the two gisaeng’s brave sacrifice.

I didn’t follow the road to the right at the top of the hill, instead taking a left guessing the views across towards Gwangalli Beach and the Gwangan Beach would be best atop this higher vantage point. I followed the dirt track first uphill then downhill before rising again and coming to a full stop. Ahead of me was a short but steep climb to a rocky outcrop were the views opened up. It was a privileged vantage point and I gulped in air and gathered my thoughts atop a huge boulder. Below me the view was spectacular and on a prominent ledge a couple had settled down for a picnic. In true Korean tradition they offered up some food and drink to me another lovely moment.

I made my way down the other side as I’d seen a modern green glass covered building below which I assumed was some sort of visitor centre. The path was quite slippery and as I’d not intended hiking my feet were clad in leather Converse baseball boots. Yes I know! At the bottom the green building was a yet unopened visitor centre and cafe suggesting this Waygook secret may not be a secret much longer.

From here park has a well-made boardwalk hugging the coastline, as well as several trails that crisscross the mountainous interior forests.  There are some spectacular views of the Busan skyline towards Haeundae Beach. Passing along the boardwalk chasms and inlets are spanned by small steel suspension bridges that the kids were turning into theme park attractions.

I passed many picnickers and fishermen alongside tidal pools that were used to collect salt water and later salt crystals, and a large sign indicating the significance of a dinosaur footprint. I stopped to watch the female divers slicing up their very much alive sea harvest to the delight of overly virile Korean men. I followed the 5.2 km hike to its conclusion and as I approached the southern end of the hike, the Oryukdo Islands came into view. These five rocky islands are just offshore, and uninhabited.

I climbed back up the hill and over the other side returning to Nampo for some street theatre. Sunday’s entertainment included the “spin the guy with the horse head” game, bouncy castles and other interactive events that the locals were lapping up. I had another walk around the park before downing a coffee and brownie at Holly’s. My three full days in Busan were over, the following morning I headed back to Dullju!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.