When I think of my time spent in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city and primary port town, I recall multicoloured rows of containers being loaded onto cargo ships; the swift metamorphosis of modern cityscape to quaint mountainscape to deep azure of the sea; BEXCO, a convention centre, hosting the Busan Craft Beer Festival (where I savoured grilled tteokbokki or rice cake in a spicy sauce, and the best IPA beer that South Korean won could buy); Busan Cinema Center unabashedly showing off its massive red carpet, which gave us a picture-perfect background; Dongbaek Park and its promises of a promenade fringed with pine and camellia; Haeundae Beach, where over 300,000 stay up to watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day; and, finally, yachting underneath Gwangandaegyo (Diamond Bridge), which is lit to shine as bright as the gemstone it is named after at night.
This way, Busan is a city of plenty. You can call it a centre for film, politics, commerce, marine activities and festivals, or a place where the city, the sea and the mountains exist in perfect harmony. I’d, however, call it the jewel in South Korea’s crown.
Across the country, there exists a dichotomy between a city’s identity as a modern cosmopolis and a relic of Korean culture. After the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea opted for rapid modernisation. But while skyscrapers have come to dominate the capital city Seoul, Busan is still defined by its bountiful natural history and culture. It has an unmistakable air of quaintness, and until its high-rises overshadow its mountains, it will remain firmly connected to its roots.
The best example of this presented itself at Gamcheon Cultural Village. Imagine a hillside with shops, cafés and houses of all sizes and colours. Sprinkle your surroundings with photo zones and tourists wearing traditional South Korean attire (hanboks). And if you still feel dull, look for an ice cream called ‘rainbow snow’.
Gamcheon wasn’t always this wonderland. During the Korean War, Busan (then Pusan) was not under North Korean occupation. So Gamcheon (then Gamnae) became the ghetto for South Korean refugees.
Of course, if there is one shade that is absent here today, it is that of being a ghetto. I walked around enamoured by the masterful murals that embellished most of the shops. One of them showcased a group of children completing a jigsaw puzzle. To my utter disbelief, two of the children were actually moving! Well, not exactly…the artwork was so realistic, I couldn’t differentiate painted children from real ones.
While Gamcheon may have forgone its past identity with a flourish, this wasn’t the case everywhere. As I soared above Songdo Beach and the ocean in a cable ‘Busan Air Cruise’ car later that day, watching a forested mountain float under my feet, it was easy to imagine how the place must have looked millions of years ago.
The journey took us to Songdo Sky Park, where I hiked one of the connecting mountain paths. The route had pine and lovely blue flowers, and gave me a view of the busy harbour and a lone fisherman by the rocks. Back at the sky park, I gobbled up a sausage corndog and discovered the spectacular banana milk manufactured by Binggrae. (First of the dozen I chugged on the trip.)
My tryst with Busan culminated with a hearty Korean meal. While the rest of my tour group proceeded to an Indian restaurant at Haeundae district, I set my gaze upon the nearby Geum-suga. It was a gogi-gui (Korean barbecue) restaurant that served Korea’s meat de résistance, beef bulgogi.
One by one, the bulgogi strips were placed atop a deep-dish electric barbecue. As they began to crackle, my guide suggested I try each piece with a different banchan (side dish). The kimchi (a delicious fermented cabbage) gave it a zest, but it was something as simple as Korean brining salt that made the meat taste best. With the occasional swig of makkoli (a milky rice wine) and soju (a white liquor, best enjoyed with beer) added to the ensemble, I would have let this become my last supper. However, that would mean missing out on my first bullet train experience the next day.
The KTX 148 bullet train to Seoul promised to finish a 325-kilometre northward journey in less than three hours. Unlike the film Train to Busan, where (spoiler alert) people were mauled by zombies, the train from Busan was an absolute, 300 kmph, joyride. Though most of the route was tunnelled, it was pleasing to watch the sun set behind a scenery of paddy fields and hillscapes. I was caught in a trance until we pulled into Seoul and entered a different, urban universe.
By all yardsticks, Seoul is a metropolis at the peak of civilisation. Look up anywhere to find futuristic skyscrapers—complete with glass panels and curvy designs, right out of a science-fiction film—pierce through the clouds. Look straight ahead and find a 10-lane road, scuttling pedestrians and speedy taxis. Look anywhere else, and discover fluorescent billboards inviting you to party, dine or sing (or to do all three together at a noraebang). There is Myeongdong market, which is Times Square on steroids if you ask me, with as many carts selling different kinds of street food as it has cosmetic stores (South Korea is a haven for beauty products). Starfield COEX Mall, with its two-storey Starfield Library, has 13-metre-tall bookshelves and over 50,000 books. And the pretty Insadong, where gugi-cha (goji tea) can be relished at a traditional teahouse.
Seoul has come a long way since the Korean War, which heavily crippled its economy. You may even say that it has overcompensated, becoming one of the world’s most technologically advanced cities. Being the headquarters for companies like Lotte, Samsung and Hyundai helps. But, by no means, is it a prosaic concrete jungle—Seoul has soul. Even in its many contemporary and tech-based attraction, there was as much for the heart as was for my inner geek.
First was our visit to Samsung D’light, an ‘experience store’ where each product’s features were demonstrated with creativity. For instance, I wore the Samsung’s Gear virtual reality headset and sat on a motion chair that swayed with the movements of a rollercoaster ride that the device displayed. My heart was in my mouth at a couple of places. I also took part in a ‘personality test’, where Samsung’s technologies—display, sound, camera and motion sensing—were used to collect responses to determine my personality type. (‘Calm, thoughtful and intellectual’, in case you were curious.)
While this was delightful, Hyundai Motorstudio in Seoul’s satellite town, Goyang, was exhilarating. We took a guided tour of their 12-step main exhibition,‘Into the Car’, which traces the entire manufacturing process and adds a creative touch to each step. I was particularly enthused by step 5 (assembly) where robot arms showcased their dexterity, and then put up a sweet dance performance. Step 11 (design) had a room filled with aluminium poles that reacted to our movements. The cherry on top was the final step, which simulated the experience of driving a sports car (complete with 3D glasses and motion seats).
As for another Korean giant, Lotte, the idea was to add to the city’s skyline—Lotte World Tower, the world’s fifth-tallest building. Upon reaching the place, we took a lift (‘Sky Shuttle’) to the 119th floor and accessed the glass-floored observatory. With bustling Seoul dwarfed and condensed into a lattice of white buildings and roads, I felt on top of the world in every sense of the term. Even the mountains looked like molehills.
The rest of my exploration of Seoul had less to do with technology and more to do with the city’s immense universal appeal. Just take its chief cultural export, Cookin’ Nanta, for instance. Certainly, there’s something that makes this 22-year-old musical stage show a roaring success—in over 310 cities in 57 countries. Without divulging much of the details, it involves the hilarious exploits of four cooks racing against the clock to prepare a wedding cake. The show works because of its globally admired ingredients—a light-hearted story; stellar performances involving acrobatics, percussions and slapstick humour; and, most importantly, the fact that it is sounds and actions, and not language, that communicate the story.
It is a similar tale when we transition from this fictitious kitchen to a real one at Yoree, a fusion restaurant in Paju, a city near Seoul. Here, the owner chef adds her expertise in French cuisine to Korean fare, and comes up a mouth-watering feast. The restaurant has an interior filled with European vintage décor—everything from a grandfather’s clock to Portuguese cutlery and nutcrackers of all sizes. The food I had—watery kimchi soup, mung bean jelly and the mildshrimp with yogurt cream—was starkly different to traditional Korean fare. It was sweeter, milder, and, honestly, tastier. The best of both worlds, isn’t it?
I have harped on endlessly about Seoul’s universality, but there’s one place I haven’t mentioned yet. It is Cheonggyecheon in the downtown area, a waterway that flows beneath pretty bridges and prominent historical structures, till it touches the horizon. One evening, I noticed that the area was abundant with young couples, just as it had been at Lake Zürich when I visited Switzerland in June last year. Suddenly, there was no difference between the two, otherwise vastly different, places. I remember thinking to myself—whilethere’s nothing more universal than love, don’t you fancy yourself a city that lets you express it freely?
I flew Korean Air’s direct flight from Delhi to Seoul (approx. ₹80,000 round trip), which I found comfortable despite travelling economy (I’m about 6feet and 100kg). I went for the Korean meal (a delicious beef bibimbap), though you can opt for Hindu meals too.
There are plenty Korail bullet trains that leave daily for Busan and Seoul.
Where to Stay
>BUSAN Novotel Ambassador Busan (from approx. $185 per night) is a five-star hotel near Haeundae Beach. It has 229, mostly sea-facing, rooms.
>SEOUL The Plaza Seoul, Autograph Collection (from approx. $180 per night) is a gorgeous five-star option. It has over 400 rooms and a location in the vicinity of Myeongdong. The MVL GOYANG (from approx. $170) is another five-star hotel. It boasts of a very modern design.
Where to Eat
>BUSAN Sejeong is your go-to place for cheap Korean fare. For Indian, visit Namaste Haeundae.
>SEOUL I cannot recommend Myeongdong enough. Try eggdrop (Korean egg toast) and yangnyeom-tongdak (seasoned fried chicken) here. Another great Korean haunt is Seokchon Yetteo. And for dessert, have the green tea ice flake at Osolluc.
What to See & Do
>Jagalchi Market to find a vast variety of seafood.
>The Nurimaru APEC House, where world leaders congregated during APEC South Korea 2005.
>Gyeongbokgung Palace, once the palace of the Joseon dynasty, is located at the heart of the city. Twice every day, a guard-changing ceremony (at 10am and 2pm) takes place. Afterwards, do visit the National Palace Museum and the National Folk Museum of Korea in the area.
>The K-Style Hub at Cheonggyecheon is a one-stop tourism information centre.
>Visit Bukchon Hanok Village, which is filled with traditional Korean houses known as hanoks.