There’s a knack to enjoying short, sharp visits to large, intimidating cities.
Book yourself some bloody good accommodation.
By “good”, I don’t mean expensive, plush, or in the thick of the action. A balcony on the 18th floor and crisp Egyptian cotton won’t make a blind bit of difference when you’re sitting there alone, wondering what to do with the empty hours stretching out before you. No, what matters primarily is the host: someone who is besotted with their city, and not just willing but actively keen to pass on their inside knowledge so that you, too, will grow to love it as much as they do. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of AirBNB which (when you get it right) embodies all of these glorious traits. (I wish I were paid by AirBNB to advertise their services. I’m not though, sadly. I’m just a fan. Although if you’re considering trying it then use this link and we’ll both get £13 off when you make your first booking. Everybody wins).
Of course, this didn’t happen when I went to Busan and left it far too late for decent accommodation. So I ended up in my worst kind of place: a basic, faceless backpacker hostel next to the train station, and I arrived in bucketing rain which took away any remaining joy. To make it even less appealing, I’d paid for a single room, but all this meant was that I got shoved into one of the 4-bunk dorms with the promise that nobody else would be joining me, and strict instructions not to use the linen on any of the other pre-made beds. And so it was that I spent my first night in Korea’s second city sleeping on a lower bunk with rain-damp clothes hanging next to my face, and a cardigan rolled up under my head to bolster the pathetically thin pillow.
It’s so glamorous, this travelling lark.
I was in an area known for its cheap restaurants on a road known as “Texas Street”. Most uncharacteristically for this country, it’s not recommended for women to walk around there alone after dark, so I skirted the edges and instead found myself at a street market.
It’s easy to assume that these places are designed for tourists (indeed a few streets away there was an area literally called “Shopping Area For Foreigners”) but it was surprisingly busy for a Thursday night, and mine was the only western face. I collected various cups and paper packets of food (fried chicken; tteokbokki (stodgy cylindrical rice cakes); fried rice) and wondered, not for the first time, how the majority of Koreans are so slim. (Hiking. Hiking is the answer).
The next day the rain was, if possible, even worse; but the nice man at the shop next door lent me a giant umbrella so off I duly trotted. Now Korea has a thriving tourist industry, apparently (albeit predominantly Japanese and Chinese, rather than westerners) and as such there are multiple tourism offices in every city, translated announcements on certain buses, and the occasional English menu. There’s one thing left to sort out: the maps. They have an aversion to scale. They just don’t seem to grasp its significance.
But since Googlemaps simply does not work in this country, and an equivalent called Navermap is used but doesn’t have an English translation, the freebie tourist maps given out at hotels and displayed on street corners are often all one has to work with. At least in terms of identifying where one is located in relation to the rest of the city. They cheerfully tell you that oh look! This temple is just down the road! And why not pop over to that park whilst you’re at it? No need to take a bus, it’s just a few blocks over!
And then you start walking and half an hour later you find yourself at the next handy board-mounted street map and look for the “you are here” sign next to the temple since, you smugly tell yourself, it’s obviously just around the next corner, but ten minutes later you realise that You are in fact Here about half a centimetre down the road from where you were before. (But later that evening you will look for a restaurant and trudge for 40 minutes, based on that afternoon’s experience, only to discover that, in fact, it literally was just around the corner and you are now halfway to Seoul).
And then there’s the additional fun element that they enjoy playing a guessing game with the nameless green areas dotted around the cities. So it’s pot luck as to whether that innocuous green splodge is a nicely traversable park – or foot-sucking marshland – or a whacking great mountain in the centre of the city. All of which make disconcertingly regular appearances. Sort it out, Korea.
Which is a very long-winded way of saying that I decided to walk down to the river since it was surely only a brisk 30 minutes away, but after 25 minutes I realised that I was only at the first subway station and there were three more to go before my intended destination. So I gave up and hopped on the metro instead. And even that took me 20 minutes to reach downtown. SORT IT OUT, KOREA.
So where does one go when one is feeling a bit lost and unsure in a big city under menacing black clouds and constant rain?
The largest fish market in the country, obviously.
As everybody knows, the quickest route to a smile is traipsing up endless corridors surrounded by cramped tanks of unidentifiable sad-looking sea creatures.
Well, it certainly gives a sense of perspective, that’s for sure.
The market is truly gigantic and what I don’t really understand is that, as in other similar places I’ve visited, everyone seemed to be selling more or less exactly the same thing. How does anyone make any money? How do shoppers know which is the best? Why was that eel still thrashing around after its head had been chopped off?
I did a loop and can safely say I’ve never seen so many crustaceans under one roof. I also didn’t know they made crabs that terrifyingly enormous or that unwatched abalones can undertake remarkably speedy bids for freedom.
The place has to be smelt to be believed. Luckily for me, I was coming down with a cold (never thought I’d be so grateful) and it hung as a vaguely pungent but not unpleasant aroma rather than the nose-throttling stench others describe. That was probably why after perusing the stalls, I still felt capable of hanging around for longer and indulging in a seafood feast.
The second floor is dedicated to eating, with a plethora of barely-distinguishable restaurants vying for space. The decor isn’t too different from the downstairs level; it’s open-plan, utilitarian, and slippery with the occasional entrail. Most of them specialise in raw fish but the platters looked gigantic and expensive and I was concerned about being fed live octopus so I wussed out and went for a seafood stew instead.
The waitress cheerfully nodded when I attempted to ask whether it would be a suitable size for a single diner. In fact, what appeared could fairly be described as a cauldron containing a small marine ecosystem. There was the better part of an entire crab; a whole squid; a teenaged octopus; countless clams, mussels, oysters, sea snails (winkles? What is the difference?), not to mention vegetables and noodles, even more sides than normal, a dish of rice . . .
It was a similar affair to the barbecues I’d had before, simmering away over a camping stove until the vegetables melted into the stock.
“It’s a bloody good thing I’ve not eaten today” I thought darkly, before brandishing my chopsticks and getting stuck in.
Progress was slow as I hoiked out one critter at a time, until one of the waitresses took pity on me and came over to provide expert assistance. (This has happened to me on more occasions than it hasn’t. It’s not really intentional but I find that if you gaze sorrowfully at the array of equipment in front of you, drop a chopstick, and appear generally inept, even the most cold-hearted server will want to get rid of you some time before midnight and that alone is enough to have them personally hurrying along your progress).
She yanked morsels from their shells, crushed crab legs, used scissors to deftly chop up tentacles, filling a bowl with fresh, delicious seafood which she kept encouraging me to eat at as she went. Occasionally she would source a particularly prime piece and plonk it directly into my astonished mouth. I felt like a baby bird being fed by its overworked mother.
Afterwards, I was far too full to head straight back, and I realised I needed the loo. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn towards a pink-signed cafe which did indeed have a toilet, but also turned out to be an example of a peculiarly Korean institution: the multiroom. These are cafes, divided into separate rooms all from a single narrow corridor, so that each party has privacy. Each one is equipped with a TV, often a games console, and sometimes a karaoke machine. Although they’re not to be confused with the “room cafe” – a similar concept, except the privacy is greater and they’re generally used for . . . other stuff. To be honest I wasn’t entirely certain which one I’d accidentally entered, and feared that as a single person I stood out, if possible, more than ever; but felt I ought to hang around for a while in return for using the facilities so ordered a tea and tried and failed to watch Harry Potter. The girl’s giggles next door almost convinced me that I was somewhere less than salubrious, but on my second trip to the loo I was gratified to encounter an open door and a bunch of spotty youths playing computer games. Result! Not a law-flouting love cafe after all!
The next day I awoke with a full-blown stinking cold. So I booked for another night and spent the day in bed watching Netflix with waves of guilt at not exploring the city until I realised that I was doing exactly what I would have been doing in London had I felt so pitiful, and besides everyone needs a day of recovery from time to time.
I know I didn’t get as much from Busan as it no doubt has to offer. It’s a very strange city in terms of geography; originally sandwiched between the sea and several steep mountains, which now rise between the skyscrapers. The office blocks and ramshackle homes have crawled into the valleys and met around the other sides; the peaks embraced by the spread of humanity and standing untouchable, vast, not serving as much more than a nuisance when getting from one side to the other. Oh, they offer great views, of course. I just didn’t see them. Maybe next time. But when I come back, I’ll be staying at an AirBNB, begging for local knowledge, and bringing Peter with me. If nothing else, cities are always better when you’ve got someone with whom to go out drinking.