Travelling to Busan, Korea

Busan, South Korea, is nobody's travel paradise, but its intrigue lies in its position as Asia's no-nonsense blue-collar capital.

Busan, South Korea, is nobody’s travel paradise, but its intrigue lies in its position as Asia’s no-nonsense blue-collar capital.

Hypnotically sliding past miles of squat, grey factory complexes and the kind of drab tumbleweed villages that wouldn’t know excitement if it slapped them in the face, I’m speeding south along a rain-misted highway on a private Korean peninsula press tour. My grim-faced driver – hired to keep an eye on me by Tourism Korea – has abandoned the chatty approach he had in Seoul, where there were plenty of shiny attractions to show me around. Instead, the stormy road to Busan – Korea’s gritty second city and Asia’s fourth-largest container port – is the kind of place where even the most spin-happy PR people grind to a stuttering halt. But while this four-million-strong metropolis – suddenly opening ahead of me like a grubby fan in the coastal valley below – is nobody’s Shangri-La, there’s something intriguing about a city where workaday Koreans, rather than the rich condo dwellers of Seoul, spend their lives. It’s Asia’s no-nonsense blue-collar capital, psychologically twinned with the likes of Pittsburgh, Glasgow and Hamburg.

Weather: Mild but rainy. Temperatures in springtime Busan hover around 20 degrees Celsius – warm enough for Canadians to wander the streets with only one fleece.
Can’t Miss: United Nations Cemetery Remembering the 22 nations that fought the bloody Korean War here, this is the only cemetery in the world permanently administered by the UN (shown next page). Sober-faced visitors wander its tranquil gardens, checking the thousands of discreet stone markers grouped by country – including dozens of Canadians, their headstones clustered around a graceful bronze memorial. Open daily from 9 a.m.
Cool Eats: Nampodong district Don’t be afraid to sniff out the steamy backstreets here. Seafood lovers will find plenty of aromatic broths – including octopus stew and blowfish soup – plus a twitching array of raw seafood treats fresh off the boat. Mains from $4.
Best Bed: Paradise Hotel The leader of Haeundae’s beachfront hotel pack, most rooms at the Paradise have a high-end, Westernized feel. Alternatively, try one of the sumptuous traditional rooms, complete with paper screens and fancy yo mattresses laid on heated floors. Rates from $200.
One thing we need: Nightlife without the drunks. Busan’s streets burst into clamorous animation every evening – without the attendant rabble of imbibers intent on drinking themselves into a puddle of vomit.
One thing we don’t need:Meaningless addresses. Street names and numbers here are erratic and confusing, keeping visitors in a permanent state of nervous bewilderment.

After passing towering portside cranes and damp, concrete-lined streets, we pull up at a Western-style hotel overlooking windswept Haeundae Beach. This wide, sandy crescent is one of Korea’s most popular promenades, but I decide to save it for later. Dropping my driver like a hot noodle, I amble toward the central Nampodong area for a taste of local action. I stroll into the tile-floored Jagalchi Fish Market as if I’ve been there a thousand times and trigger the kind of stage whispers a large octopus might provoke if it lumbered in for lunch. Gingerly perusing tanks of gnarly looking sea creatures – it’s as if the Vancouver Aquarium suddenly became an all-you-can-eat buffet – my appetite remains unwhetted, despite invitations to sample from several smiling hawkers, each viewing me with a kind of amused, freak-show fascination. Hunger still intact, I’m soon back on the early-evening streets. Busan’s neon storefront illuminations are noticeably dimmer than Seoul’s retina-challenging night lights. But as in most Asian cities at this time of day, the narrow thoroughfares are teeming, and there’s a tangible frisson of possibility hanging in the air. I squeeze through the chatty throng and head uncertainly toward Gukje Market, a backstreet commercial labyrinth and strolling smorgasbord of nosh. A kaleidoscopic array of knock-off designer goods wallpapers the stands. I eschew the misspelled Louis Vuitton backpacks and badly printed Gucci socks to riffle through some kitschy Korean-English T-shirts – many replete with sage advice such as “Stay living,” “Relax in nature for the good life” and the mysterious “Dogmania,” strangely accompanied by a picture of a rabid-looking cat. Souvenir shopping has never been easier. Stomach now rumbling, I follow the salty-sweet aromas along nearby Airang Street. The upper floors of this festively lit shopping promenade house dozens of noisy little restaurants, most populated by older teens apparently text-messaging their friends under the tables. I choose one eatery at random and am ushered in by a smiling but silent young waitress who opens a photo-menu in front of me, diplomatically recognizing my likely lack of Korean fluency. A few minutes later a hot stone bowl of shredded pork, crunchy vegetables and sticky rice – topped with an egg that continues to cook as I eat – arrives and I dive into bibimbap, Korea’s best soul food, washed down with a large bottle of ice-cold Hite beer. Showy Seoul may be where most visitors begin and end their Korean sojourns, but tasty Busan is a side dish that’s well worth tucking into.