Busan, South Korea

[I’m writing this on the Nazomi-16 bullet train from Shiminoseki, Japan bound for Osaka. I think we just covered about a million kilometers in five minutes. God damn these things go fast. Just about up to date blog-wise]

I left you hanging at the end of my bender^Wcultural visit to Seoul, South Korea. On Friday I woke up bright and early (ie. before lunch), said a sad goodbye to all my hostel friends and dragged my bags to the subway station to catch my train to Busan, on the southern tip of the country. The hostel had in any case been invaded by two or three families and a complement of small kids, which while absolutely adorable liked screaming, suddenly and without warning, apparently as some sort of game. This wasn’t doing great things for my sanity, and so I feel I picked a good time to leave.

As a motorcyclist sans motorcycle, I have a lot of luggage, and in my infinite wisdom I decided to take my favorite duffel bag with me rather than a suitcase with wheels. I love my duffel, I really do, but it means I have to carry all 24.7kg of luggage in one hand, and trips through the subway generally involve me sweating profusely in my motorcycle jacket (which I wear as it won’t fit anywhere else), helmet hanging off my backpack as I curse every kilogram of the knee-high motorcycle boots that consume most of my bag.

I made it to the inter-city fast train to Busan with minutes to spare, and settled into my seat. The ladies to my right were apparently some sort of American religious fundamentalists and attempted to convert me, so that conversation didn’t last too long.

In Busan they seem to have a bit of a tourist drive going, and the train/ferry terminals are filled with charming elderly men wearing yellow ribbons with Instructions to Assist Foreigners. The assistance is enthusiastic if occasionally unhelpful. At the Busan train station I was intercepted by just such a gentleman who instructed me at length on how to use the ticket machine for the metro, and guided me toward the appropriate turnstile. Not having the chance to stop and plan my next move – as I would normally do – I neglected to push my 24.7kg bag under the turnstile prior to walking through myself, and was now confronted with the problem of man + bag staring at me from the wrong side of the gate. I sort of guestured to the man, asking if he could perhaps push the bag under the gate towards me, but instead he attempted to lift it, making sharp high-pitched shouts as he felt the weight. A nearby off-duty soldier ran to help along with several other bystanders, giving me death stares for my attempt to kill one of their friendly volunteers. I fled.

Aside from this my experience in Busan was much as for Seoul. Plenty of napping, exploring markets, meeting people. I managed to pick the best/worst time to come – right in the middle of peak holiday season, and as a result every single hostel in town was booked out. On the upside, the temples were all decked out for Bhudda’s Birthday, which was absolutely spectacular.

I didn’t have anything booked; after a lot of walking around visiting hostels and motels I managed to get accommodation for Friday and Sunday nights, but not being able to get anything for Saturday I decided to leave my bags with the hostel and try for a Korean cultural experience of a different type: a Jjimjilbang. The Jjimjilbang is a 24-hour sauna and bathhouse and more – there’s TV and computers, you can get a massage and lounge around on the furniture. And sleep, for as long as you want, for the low low price of 6000W (about $6). Of course there’s a downside, coming from relatively prude Australia – large amounts of public nudity: you leave all your stuff in a locker, get naked, shower, and then go and enjoy the various hot (and cold) tubs with other similarly naked guys. And by guys I mean old, wrinkly, naked men.

In any case, the plan was to go for dinner with a fellow accommodation-less friend from the hostel the night before, followed by a Jjimjilbang experience. He was a no-show, so I left to seek a bar with my three prerequesites for solo pre-dinner drinks: cheap ($2.50, and not a cent more) pints, streetside tables so I can watch people walking past, and phone chargers at every table (because Korea is amazing). Chilling and Facebooking I ended up chatting to some expats, which turned into another bar, which turned into more bars, which turned into Irish Carbombs, and before I knew it it was 4am and I was sitting in a Korean noodle place with the last remaining expat eating late-night grease. Again, dammit.

Me and the expat-who’s-name-entirely-escapes-me (my apologies) parted ways, and figuring it was probably time to get some sleep before the hangover kicked in, I sat in the street amidst groups of rowdy Koreans looking through my phone for the notes I had made that afternoon on the Jjimjilbang. Obviously I did not want to make any social faux pas re too much or not enough nudity at the appropriate time.

As I was googling two young guys stopped for a chat: Jeayoung spoke a little English, and translated for his friend Seongwon. They were both students, Seongwon was currently doing his military service, and this being Korea and I being a foreigner both felt obligated to show me a good time. At 4am.

After walking for a long time we ended up in another noodle place, even more Korean than the last. They ordered soju as I hid my dismay, smiled and promised my liver I would make it up tomorrow, honest. My liver pointed out that I’d said the same thing three days running now and it really felt it was carrying the team here… I ignored it and continued drinking. The two guys were amazing, insisted on paying for the food and drinks. We talked about travel, found each other on Facebook and I made them promise to come to Australia.

They ended up dropping me off at a different and much more suburban Jjimjilbang to the slightly touristy one I had picked from an English website. I said goodbye to my new friends, decided to leave the public nudity for tomorrow, changed into my Jjimjilbang-issue shorts and tshirt and made my way to the sleeping area.

The sleeping area of a Jjimjilbang at 5:30am is honestly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. There’s a huge floor space, and a selection of leather pillow-cushions and blankets. Scattered randomly in every available space across the expanse of floor are sleeping people – the guys in identical blue, the ladies in identical pink – looking like they’ve just dropped where they stood as part of some crazy art installation. You pick your way across motionless bodies and sprawling arms and legs to find a spot, then you lie down and sleep. I crashed.

Here’s a photo I stole off the Internet. Imagine this, but more sleepy

I woke around 10 resolving to never drink alcohol again. Blearily stumbling around I was utterly unable to navigate my way back to the mens lockers, a route which had seemed so straightforward the night before. After walking in circles for ten minutes, terrified I would walk into the ladies showers by accident and commit the greatest foreigner faux pas of all time I ended up following another guy back to the safety of my locker.

At this point I had a decision to make: I could get changed and walk out, or I could get naked and go for the full experience. I manned up, stripped off and headed for the showers, trying to act like I do this sort of thing all the time.

The crowd was surprisingly young, and judging by the distant stares I wasn’t the only one with a crushing hangover. In the men’s area you had a selection of standing or seated showers, and a little further in three hot tubs, with various levels of bubbles and special additives for health. There was also a lap pool with attached cold spa, sun lamps you could lie under, a massage room, and another spa where water jets massaged your back. I basically tried everything except the mysterious pool with brown water everyone else seemed to be avoiding. I have to say, a hot tub and massage jets are the best thing the morning after a big night.

And that was Busan. From there, I catch a ferry to Shiminoseki, Japan, then a bullet train to Osaka and my motorbike. It’s been a long, long time since I shipped it and I miss it bitterly.

…I also miss my family. Just as much, I promise.

Until next time,

Patrick

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