Off the beaten track in Busan, Lonely Planet’s No 1 place in Asia to visit in 2018
- One minute you’re watching high rollers cruise past the Haeundae Beach casino, next minute you’re strolling an island where time’s stood still
- It’s easy to get away from it all in South Korea’s second city
“If your crops have been ravaged by water deer or wild boar, call this number,” reads a flier posted on the wall of a small waiting room for passengers. The bus I’ve arrived on lets out a hiss as the driver releases the brakes, then it circles a roundabout and lumbers uphill, back the way it came.
I’m in Busan, South Korea’s second city and Lonely Planet’s Best in Asia pick this year for its “stunning confluence of scenery, culture and cuisine”.
The scenery stands out as I walk up a quiet road with a slope smothered by kudzu vine on one side and a harbour town on the other, to a tunnel with a wildlife crossing over the top. Emerging from the other end, I can see a small village below. Black goats are bleating and fowl are clucking.
Busan may have the country’s busiest port, some of the most futuristic cityscapes in Asia, and night illuminations that turn the ocean into a spilled cocktail of neon and LED, but it also has some 380 kilometres of coastline, including dozens of rocky islets and islands.
At the western edge of the city limits is its largest island, Gadeokdo, where I have come this morning to catch some glimpses of the old Busan. The island has a population of less than 4,000, and a bridge connecting Gadeokdo to the mainland only opened in 2008.
Locally, Gadeokdo is known as “the island of history”. It’s the site of Cheonseongjin Fortress, where Korea’s most revered war hero, Yi Sun-sin, lived during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. Also on the island is a granite dolmen dating back to the bronze age.
The settlement I am strolling through, Oeyangpo, may be something like Busan was before it became Korea’s first international port in 1876 – a scattering of fishing villages.
The hub of the action here is the pier, where fishermen sit with cigarettes hanging from their lips and lines cast into the water. Four skiffs are anchored nearby. The lanes are deserted, and the inhabitants I do see, pottering around garden plots of mammoth cabbages or sitting on porches, are swarthy from the sun and wrinkled with age.
What makes Oeyangpo a real find are its buildings, which date back to when Japan established a naval base here during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. A long house, painted black, was once a barracks. In the yard, military order long ago gave way to a confusion of kimchi pots, styrofoam buoys, and weights made of stones and fishing rope.
Just outside the village are concealed bunkers covered by bamboo. The camouflage designs on the entrances to the caverns are fading, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive second world war site in Korea.
Having got my fill of history, I go to the much larger town of Daehang Harbour and order a late breakfast of sea squirt bibimbap. The dish has plenty of attitude, with its raw, bitter, briny flavour outmuscling the rice, lettuce, and even the red chilli paste.
The next stop is Haeundae, on the other side of Busan. The beachside district is one of the places where the South Korean dream is playing out, much like Gangnam in Seoul.
Porsches and other status symbols cruise up and down the main strip, while the Paradise Casino beckons high rollers; the influx of the nouveau riche has made Haeundae’s flat prices among the highest in the country. Three condominimium towers are going up at the eastern end of Haeundae Beach, the highest of them 101 storeys tall. When it opens in 2020, it will be the second tallest building in South Korea.
While the beach is the main attraction in summer, at this time of year visitors are drawn to Haeundae’s Dalmaji-gil Road, which meanders along a rocky cliff from Mipo Port, an enclave of sashimi restaurants, to the surfer hideaway of Songjeong Beach.
Cherry trees line the road, their blossoms rusty red and goldfish yellow. Pleasant as Dalmaji-gil is, a wooded path running right below it offers more of a taste of nature, passing palm fronds, ferns, and pines. This is Course 2 of the Galmaet-gil (Seagull Path), a set of nine trails that take in Busan’s best scenery. Lower still is a third option for walkers, a disused railway line.
After following the Dalmaji-gil up a gradual rise for half an hour, I come to a pavilion at the top of a hill and a plaza where an arts and crafts market is slowly coming to life, with stallholders arranging pottery, handmade soap and jewellery.
“May I take a picture of your artworks?” I ask a woman behind one of the tables.
“Pictures of a masterpiece? You mean me?” she says cheekily before dodging out of the frame.
Overdue a coffee, I venture up to the fourth floor of a building that looks like two puzzle blocks put together and step into Bakehouse. Momentarily distracted by trays of pretzels and croissants, I gamble on a new menu item called a baviccino, which turns out to be a lavish affogato. It’s a reminder of how far the country has come since the era of cheap vending machine coffees.
After a detour to the laid-back village of Cheongsapo, where I discover creative murals and several cosy cafes, I head up one last hill. At the top, I happen upon a father teaching his son tai chi between the beams of a raised pavilion – a dose of slow motion in a city of fast thrills.
It’s late in the day, but there’s still time to visit Beomjeon-dong, a neighbourhood that held little of interest until four years ago. Now, though, freedom-seeking Busanites gravitate there for Citizens Park, a space about four times larger than Hong Kong’s Kowloon Park.
Passing a relocated camphor tree and an eight-sided pavilion, I reach Hialeah Lawn Plaza, which seems to stretch almost to the horizon. It is more open space than I recall seeing in any Asian city. Yet until recently, Busan was as crowded as Seoul.
During the Korean war, from 1950 to 1953, Busan was the only part of the mainland that wasn’t seized by communist forces from the north. The hilly port city’s population swelled by about 75 per cent as refugees from across the peninsula streamed in, and by 1955 had reached one million; makeshift shacks stood cheek by jowl wherever space could be found.
Citizens Park owes its creation to the closure of a US Army base, Camp Hialeah, which had occupied the site of a horse racing track dating back to the Japanese colonial era. Parts of the former base have been incorporated into the park, notably the round-walled officer’s club, now a history museum.
Walking along the park’s Path of Fun, then the Path of Memory, I am surprised to see a cluster of robot statues in a field of old telephone poles. Right next to this, watching over the scampering youngsters and selfie-takers, stands a sentry tower manned by a fake US soldier.
With dusk approaching, the muted colours begin to grow shadowy. I make my way to an exit, wondering what other pockets of Busan might be ripe for renewal in the near future – and what other layers of history might lie concealed.
From Seoul, the easiest way to reach Busan is by KTX (about US$54 one-way). The journey by high-speed train takes about two-and-a-half hours.
Attracting high rollers with its casino and families with its kids zone, Paradise Hotel Busan is a Haeundae Beach landmark. Rooms start at US$180.
Kitsch decor aside, the Kent Hotel offers value for its location on the doorstep of hard-partying Gwangalli Beach. Rooms start at US$72.