Korea: Of Trains and Temples, Mad Markets and Meals

Day 4 (27/04/11)

Dad suggests we go up to the 24th floor of the hotel for breakfast, when we arrive it is something like 18 000 Won for a basic buffet. I look at Mom and Dad and tell them I can’t in good Korean conscience pay that much for food in Korea. Both agree it is pricey so I lead them out into Namdaemun to find more affordable fare. There was a funky looking cafe right near the hotel, shame it doesn’t open for breakfast. We end up at a franchise coffee shop – I think it was called Joe’s Sandwich – which was overpriced but not nearly as expensive as the Ramada buffet.

We returned to the hotel after muffins and coffee to collect our things for the next few days as we’d be leaving the majority of our luggage at the Ramada while heading south. A quick taxi ride took us down to Seoul Station where we duly boarded the KTX for Busan. This was another Korean thing for my Dad, he likes trains so hopping aboard a 300 km/h express train to go from one end of the peninsula to the other seemed a no brainer. Dad’s only real compliant, the track was so smooth it didn’t feel like 300 km/h. My counterpoint, at 300 km/h I don’t want to it feel anything but smooth! Dad conceded the point but a rickety steam train through the Rockies it was not.

The landscape of Korea is eclectic. Well, that might be a misnomer but the line of the railroad track often cut through cities and towns but then adjacent to a high-rise apartment complex would be farmlands. South Korea doesn’t have a suburban section to it, its too small and I don’t miss it at all.

In a few hours we arrive in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city and major port. Busan is the cool funky alternative to Seoul. Lively and vivacious but not quite so crammed to bursting and full of manic energy. It’s the cool cousin that people don’t see often enough. The hotel (which we haven’t pre-booked, freaking my parents out a bit as this is not how they travel) stands just off the Busan (KTX) Station plaza. When I inquire about rooms it turns out they do have one which suits our needs, if I’m willing to sleep on the floor minbak style. That’s fine by me. My parents flatly state they won’t be resting that way, instead they get a lovely concrete mattressed bed.

On the ride down I flipped through my Lonely Planet (Korea) to figure out what to do in Busan with parents. In about five minutes the choices were clear – Beomeosa Temple and the Jagalchi Fish Market. Mom wanted to see something religious while in South Korea and the fish market just looked too fun to pass up.
I’d later find out they had booked this trip for the cruise back to Vancouver, what we did for around $15 each would have been nearly $200 each from the ship. Chances are my wing-it tour was better overall and definitely a better value.

Having checked into the hotel, I immediately took them to Texas Street which isn’t nearly as seedy at 2PM as it is at 2AM. We amble through the narrow streets, which are also being bedecked with lanterns for Buddha’s birthday. The streets of Busan land squarely between the rural roads of Dongducheon and Oyu while not overwhelming as the skyscrapers of Seoul.

Dad sops up the last of the jajangmyeon sauce.

For lunch we stop in at a Chinese restaurant in the area and I ordered everyone some Jajangmyeon noodles. Dad looks suspiciously at the black sauce until he mixes it through the noodles and after receiving his ‘po-ku’ (fork in Korean) takes a taste and smiles contentedly. Another Korean cuisine success! Jajangmyeon is basically noodles with a salty, sweet soy sauce paste with meat and vegetables mixed into it. Mom enjoys it too, but she’s much easier to cater for as she’s game to try just about anything.

After lunch we pile onto the Busan Subway system and head north to the end of the line to disembark below Beomeosa Temple. Even the taxi ride up the mountain proves entertaining, as for some reason the cabbie winds through narrow alleys only wide enough for one vehicle leading to a number of wriggling taxi maneuvers to avoid trucks and motorcycles and a liberal sprinkling of schoolchildren.
He drops us off in the parking lot of the temple and Mom looks around for a ticket booth. There isn’t one. Admission to this temple is free. The Buddhists could easily charge for admittance, it’s a spectacular complex, especially done up for Buddha’s birthday.

Beomeosa Temple claims the top of the mountain and complex unfolds in unhurried leisure, encouraging, I suppose, deep meditations upon life and the universe. It seems to go up and up and up. Instead of one major structure it is a coalition of smaller buildings, each one tucked upon the mountain at the place it seemed to fit most naturally. Walls are infrequent since the hillsides and surrounding mountains and valleys offer natural terminus points.

Gate at Beomeosa Temple - added colour for Buddha.

There is a central courtyard with buildings around three-side, the fourth being the cobblestone path up to the courtyard. The workers are busily preparing here in particular for Buddha’s birthday. In another one of those ‘small world’ moments that seem to pop-up with regularity in my life, an African woman nearly walked through a photo I was trying to take. I laughed it aside and we chatted briefly. Turns out the family now lives in the Toronto area but had visited Vancouver, I asked where they were from.
“Togo.”
“Oh, j’ai aller Togo douze annee… ago.”
That got their attention. Many people have been to Vancouver, not nearly so many have visited Lome, Togo. But I have.
The mother of the group beamed when she realized that and I spoke in my broken, rusty French.
Speaking French, in South Korea, talking about Togo. How I love it.

There is a serenity and solitude atop Beomeosa which I recommend anyone in South Korea take the time to search out. South Korea often seems wired for speed, but there are places where time slows.

A monk at one of Beomeosa's temples.

While wandering the grounds, we stumble upon a temple stay group and the monks look barely young enough to be in their robes, let alone leading groups. And a temple stay is exactly as it reads – people pay to stay in a temple and for a day or a weekend observe and learn about Buddhism.

I drag Mom back to the main temple and force her to go in, we remove our shoes and enter the incense laden space. We select our prayer mats and steal glances at the other devotees to get an idea of what we’re supposed to do to go through the motions in the temple. Some of the people are amateurs and others are truly devout. This is South Korea, so it wasn’t a major surprise when one of the devoted stopped mid genuflection to pick up her mobile phone and tap out a text before returning to her prayer. I managed to mimic a man well enough and after a few minutes we departed the temple. I’m by no means a Buddhist but I wanted to experience it atop the mountain.

Serenity.

We realize we’ve pretty much seen the public grounds at Beomeosa and as we prepare to leave we spy a monk in too perfect a position not to snap a picture.

Monk before fireplace.

The taxi ride down the mountain went quicker and was cheaper than the ride up but we returned back to the station and reversed our course back into Busan and past where we had been to reach Jagalchi Market.
On the ride down, I came to the realization that my grandmother on my mother’s side must have been part Korean. As she got older she pretty much became a Korean halmeoni (ajumma).

Mom meeting the locals.

Ok, things I’m not great at in writing, describing in vivid detail buildings – hence why Beomeosa Temple isn’t nearly as intricate as it could be and while the Jagalchi Market write-up isn’t going to do it justice.

Jagalchi Market needs to be experienced to be believed. After two years in South Korea I found myself gaping at some of the sights and smells and sounds of this raucous place. Set on the harbour it is THE fish and seafood market. Just stall after stall of little Korean women offering every imaginable variation and combination of ‘fish, sea, shell and food.’ If I gaped, Mom and Dad were dumbstruck. It overwhelms the senses. From the hawkers selling their wares, to the scent of tonnes of fresh seafood, to the sounds of the seagulls cawing for snacks, to the sight of fish – living, dead and drying everywhere the eye looks, to nearly being attacked by a knife wielding ajumma due to me asking the name of the long silver sword-shaped fish upon her chopping block. Fish, crabs, skates, rays, squids, octopii, oysters, gooey ducks, clams, conches – if it comes from the sea and is found anywhere near Busan it’s available at Jagalchi Market.

Seller at Jagalchi Market.

What’s more, there is a big building that appears to be a warehouse, and it is, it is the fresh seafood warehouse where the small stall saleswomen come to pick up the choices to sell for the day. Here resides even more selection of marine life than I’d ever imagined. This is where many restaurants get their fish, but it’s also possible to buy it just for a family meal. It’s more fun to nearly be skewered by an ajumma at a stall though.

His job... separate mini-squid from their inkwells.

Before leaving the market, we wander through another pedestrian market zone near the Pusan International Film Fest zone. Myeong-dong writ tiny, but I had never seen a tiny little store that only repairs women’s shoes… heels in particular.

Then it was time for dinner. A good friend of mine (CWB) was living in Busan then and we got together for galbi dinner. Now galbi is one of South Korea’s best contributions to the world of cooking. It’s BBQ, but at your table. The four of us chowed down on meat grilled to our likely over hot coals sunken into the table before us and covered with a grill. We ordered some beer and soju and then bulgogi.
I knew, KNEW, Dad would love this. It’s meat. All the side dishes are avoidable if he finds them too spicy, plus there is (nearly a Western) salad, and some raw vegetables (also grillable). I set the meat out upon the grill and after a few minutes of banter, the meat was ready to be eaten, either straight off the rack or popped into a lettuce or sesame leaf.

Three of us dug in hungrily to the various types of side dishes available as well as the delicious bulgogi. Then I caught Dad’s face.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.”
“Dad…” I know my Dad, I know his looks.
“It’s too spicy.”  Which surprised CWB, Mom and me, since none of us had really tasted any heat or spice at all. The meat did have some red sauce splashed over it, so I can only imagine that he managed to snatch the most-splashed piece of meat. My Dad would have unhappily sulked there, not complaining but passive-aggressively growling at us but refusing to ask for something else.

CWB and I quickly hail the servers and select two other meat dishes that are without any sauce. And like a toddler who finds out they don’t have to take their nap and can have some candy, Dad’s visage changes and he’s super happy and afterwards admits how much he enjoyed, “the meal, other than that first dish.”

After galbi dinner with CWB in Busan.

Korean restaurants often specialize in things. The galbi restaurant offers no dessert, but that’s okay as we stroll through the streets of Busan until finding ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

After all that, it’s getting late, we’re all feeling a bit tired. CWB was up late dealing with personal issues and I’ve dragged my parentsdown from Seoul all over Busan in the course of the day. So we cap things off with the most harrowing taxi ride I’ve ever been in. I’m positive that at one point the GPS voluntarily ejected itself from the vehicle because it feared for its well being. I’ve never been more happy to be wedged in the middle seat of a car than I was when this guy was driving and aiming (and sniping) every bump, pothole and curb while blissfully ignoring any and all traffic laws. When we screeched to a halt, CWB rolled out the door and clutched the ground while I wobbled away nervously, throwing I didn’t care how much at the cabbie. I’d have paid him double on the promise of NEVER picking me up again.
I’ve been in some dodgy taxis throughout Europe, Africa and Asia but his driving triumphed in fear factor over the dilapidated wrecks of Africa or the lawless roads of Cambodia and Vietnam.

After that, a return to Texas Street seemed anti-climatic.

And so that was a wild Busan sight seeing and surviving day.

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3 thoughts on “Korea: Of Trains and Temples, Mad Markets and Meals

  1. Pingback: So you wanna be a traveller | Byron and his backpacks
  2. Pingback: Korea: Korean Folk Village with the Folks | Byron and his backpacks
  3. Pingback: Friday’s Photo of the Week (Busan Galbi with CWB) « Byron and his backpacks

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