A man-made pond in the middle of Gyeongju, Anapji has been impressing people for over thirteen centuries. We strolled along the pond while the sun was setting, when the park is at its most gorgeous.
Anapji was built in 674 by the great King Munmu of Silla, who used it as a pleasure retreat from his nearby palace. The lake fell into disrepair after the fall of Silla, but was completely recovered and restored to its original state during the 1970s.
Five traditional pavilions surround the pond, which is now enclosed by stone walls. At night, the lights come on, bathing the woods, water and pavilions in beautiful color. This is the most popular spot in Gyeongju for a nighttime stroll; we were shocked by the line of people waiting to get into the park. Definitely worth penciling into your evening plans when you’re in the city.
Gyeongju is a small city 50 miles north of Busan, known as the “Museum Without Walls” due to its incredible wealth of historic treasures. This was the capital of the powerful Silla Kingdom which ruled most of the Korean peninsula for nearly 1000 years (57 BC – 935 AD) and is without a doubt the most rewarding excursion you can make from Busan.
We took the KTX bullet train from Busan Station and arrived in Gyeongju in 28 minutes. Less than a half-hour. That’s significantly less time than it even took for us to reach the train station from our apartment. I’ve taken showers that last longer. The train cost ₩10,000 ($9) per person, and was unbelievably smooth and fast. It was mostly through tunnels, though, so you couldn’t see the countryside whipping past.
The Silla Kingdom is among the most long-lived and powerful dynasties in Asian history. They started in the Gyeongju/Busan area, and were the first to successfully unite most of the peninsula. It was a strict monarchy, with a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, and no chance of social advancement for the great majority of people. Sillans spoke Korean, wrote in Chinese characters, practiced both Confucianism and Buddhism, and battled with the Korean-speaking Goguryeo Dynasty for control of the North.
Although Gyeongju’s period of prominence lies over a thousand years in the past, the sense of history is still present in the modern-day city. The most conspicuous remnants of its rich heritage are the amazing royal tombs where kings and nobility were buried. These large, perfectly rounded hills covered in bright green grass pop up all over Gyeongju, like miniature replicas of the mountains that are always visible in the distance. There are 35 royal tombs and over 150 smaller mounds in the city itself, with many more found in the surrounding environs.
In the Daeneungwon Park, tourists have the chance to peek inside Cheonmachong, the Heavenly Horse Tomb, which is one of the most important of the burial sites. When it was excavated in 1973, over 10,000 artifacts were found inside, including a golden crown and a saddle engraved with a winged horse, which gave the tomb its name.
We had two days in Gyeongju, and had just enough time to hit most of the major highlights. Over the next couple posts, we’ll focus on this historic and gorgeous mountain city.
The $150 million dollar Busan Cinema Center is an architectural oddity which opened to the public during the Busan Film Festival in October, 2011. Its cantilever roof is the world’s largest and seems to break the laws of gravity. And at night, it lights up in spectacular color, adding a splash of beauty to Busan’s most modern neighborhood.
We walked over to the Cinema Center directly after having my protective post-LASIK contact lenses removed at the Sojunghan Nun Ophthalmology Clinic. It had been just 24 hours since my surgery and, with the lenses freshly off, I was really seeing with my new eyes for the very first time. We couldn’t have picked a more impressive visual smorgasbord than the amazing Cinema Center.
The building seems to make no sense, with a curving roof supported only at one end by an inverted cone structure, which acts as the main entrance and houses a cafe. Underneath the massive roof, there’s a screen and open air seating for 4000 people, and spread across its three buildings (the Cine Mountain, BIFF Hill and Double Cone) are three further screens, lecture halls, restaurants and a performance art theater.
The complex most fully lives up to its potential during the Busan Film Festival, but there are daily screenings of classics and current hits during the rest of the year — although the website to check showtimes is Korean-only, there are American films shown often, almost always subtitled. But even if you’re not up for a movie, it’s worth taking a nighttime stroll by the Cinema Center to check out the amazing LED display on the bottom of its 60×160 square meter roof.
Straight across from Busan Station, a traditional Chinese-style gate welcomes you into Shanghai Street — the nexus of the city’s Chinatown. We visited this hectic and very un-Korean neighborhood during its annual celebration.
The Chinese and Koreans have had a rocky relationship since long before the founding of either nation, but the contemporary Chinese presence in Busan only dates from 1884, when the city officially established diplomatic ties with Shanghai. A Chinese school and a consulate were established in the present-day Shanghai Street, which resulted in a number of Chinese settling here permanently.
A couple months ago, I would have never been able to tell the difference between a Chinese and Korean street, but now it was immediately clear. As soon as we passed through the Shanghai Gate, we found the street signs and restaurant names written in bewildering Chinese instead of the simple Korean characters we’ve learned to recognize. And mixed in among the Koreans wandering the neighborhood and partaking in the festivities was a noteworthy number of… Russians?!
Yes, even more so than the Chinese, it’s the Russians who now inhabit this area most prominently, particularly along a specific strip of Chinatown known as Texas Street. The name comes from the days when US soldiers used to prowl the neighborhood in search of cheap booze and cheaper sex. The Americans are now gone, and Texas Street has been thoroughly Russified, with advertisements for vodka visible among the numerous sex dens. I’m glad we were walking around the neighborhood during the day, as it can get pretty seedy and dangerous at night.
Russians on Texas Street in a Korean Chinatown. It couldn’t get much more internationally jumbled than that, unless they were all wearing lederhosen and eating burritos.
Because of the rain, we didn’t stick around the festival for long; just enough to catch the end of a musical performance, and the beginning of that ancient and revered Chinese ritual of noodle-speed-eating. This was fun, especially when one of the contestants began laughing uncontrollably, shooting noodles out her mouth and nose, all over the table. She didn’t win.
The largest market in Busan, and almost definitely the biggest I’ve ever visited anywhere, is in the central neighborhood of Bujeon. Calling it a market town is no mere hyperbole — just the covered portion comprises a full grid of streets and alleys, and you can easily get lost in its chaotic, densely crowded streets.
If Bujeon were closer to our apartment, we’d be there daily. Everything under the sun is sold at the market, from food to household goods and electronics. We saw a woman peddling puppies (presumably as pets), a flea market of vintage clothing, bakeries selling sweets, squiggling octopuses and squids. Pots, pans, aprons, fruits, spices. Everything a Korean kitchen could ever possibly need. Should your kitchen need a cook, I’m sure you could talk one of the thousands of sweet old ladies working there into coming home with you.
And it’s unbelievably cheap. A bag of chili powder which was twice the size of the bag I’d just bought from a supermarket was half the price at Bujeon. For less than a buck, Jürgen and I shared a strange rice-cake which was shaped and served like a corn dog, complete with ketchup and mustard. Then, after being offered samples, I picked up two delicious green-tea doughnuts for about $0.60.
Bujeon has its own subway stop, and is within easy walking distance of Seomyeon, which is basically the apex of downtown Busan. Definitely worth a look.
The only thing which Koreans love more than taking pictures is having their picture taken. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find in Busan an entire museum dedicated to the art of posing for funny photos. But still… I was surprised. The Trick Eye Museum, underneath the Heosimcheong Spa, is one of the most bizarre places we’ve been in a long time.
If you don’t like having your picture taken, stay far away from the Trick Eye Museum, which is also not recommended for anyone who’s overly serious, or those who have any semblance of pride. Basically, if you’re not willing to act like an idiot in front of the camera, you won’t have any fun here. But everyone else, and especially kids, should prepare for a good time.
The entire point of this “museum” is to provide setups for funny pictures. An upside-down room makes it look like you’re standing on the ceiling. Stand in front of Mona Lisa with a paintbrush. Lay down on the floor and hang on for dear life to the painting of a cliff. Peer into a gentleman’s briefs. Wrap yourself in the coils of a serpent. Crawl into bed with a surprisingly buxom Mike. Will the hilarity ever stop?! No, it won’t… it goes on and on, for room after room after room. This place is huge and if you haven’t had your fill of funny-posing pictures by the end of it, then you, my friend, have some issues.
Juergen and I visited right after a three-hour session in the Heosimcheong Spa, and were loosened up enough to throw ourselves into the picture-taking with abandon. After all, we’d just spent hours prancing around naked in front of other men, so screwing up our faces for a silly photo wasn’t exactly a tall order. Please enjoy our photos … if you can stomach the sad spectacle of two grown men acting without dignity.
If you’re not in one of the city’s numerous spas, the preferred method of relaxation seems to be playing on your smart phone. On the subway, in the park, at dinner, walking down the street, while driving, while talking to your friends. At the beach. Busanites are plugged into their phones in a way that seems obsessive. But they always look like they’re having fun, so who are we to judge?
And as soon as we can, we’ll be buying phones just like theirs! Enjoy this latest collection of random photos taken around this always-on-the-go city.
The largest fish market in South Korea is found in downtown Busan, next to the busy shopping area of Nampo-dong and adjacent to the Lotte Aqua Mall. That it occupies such a valuable, central location speaks to how important the fish trade has always been to the city.
The market is massive and seems to go on forever. Thousands of stands with what must be billions of fish compete with each other for customers, and there’s no doubt who’s in charge: the hardened, crafty women known as the Jagalchi Ajumas. “Ajuma” means “married woman”, and these ladies conduct almost all the business at the market, whether that’s the business of beheading a fish, prying open a clam, or haggling with a customer. Most likely, they could do all of these things simultaneously.
We were amazed during our visit; the Jagalchi Market is like an aquarium, with every sort of fish imaginable and some species I’d never seen before. Among countless others, I saw colorful shrimp the size of trout, blowfish, shark, sea urchins, monkfish, mollusks, and the slightly off-putting penis fish.
Of course, the big difference between this and an aquarium is that these fish are waiting to die. To be ripped apart in the most horrific ways imaginable and then consumed. I saw a group of eels who had been skinned alive, still squiggling around in their pail. There’s enough material here to fuel a thousand gore flicks… just substitute “human” for “octopus”. That’s what was running through my head, as I watched a group of plucky octopuses working together to climb out of their bucket, only to be whacked in the head by their insidious Ajuma keeper. Soon, she would choose one to hack to pieces and then serve as a still-twitching meal. Hollywood, take note.
There are a few different sections of the Jagalchi market. We started in the outdoor zone, with a nice view over the port, and then moved into the Dry Fish area, where dried sardines, kelp and cod are sold in unbelievable volume. The centerpiece of the market, though, is the new Shindonga building, built in 2006. The exterior design features white winged shapes, creating the impression of giant seagulls descending onto the building. Inside are yet more stands and restaurants where you can eat sashimi; similar to the Millak sashimi hall we visited, but on a different scale.
We had a great time in Jagalchi — it’s one of the absolute highlights of Busan.
It’s been five months since Jürgen and I lost our French Bulldog to cancer. We’ve been able to distract ourselves with travel, but every once in awhile (and especially after seeing a French Bulldog on the streets), I’ll feel that empty pang of sadness, and start wishing I had a dog again. Luckily, there’s a place in Busan where I can go to purge myself of such silly whims.
Across the street from Exit 3 of the Jangsan Metro, there’s a pet store. On the bottom floor, it’s just your normal shop selling puppies and pet supplies. But upstairs, chaos reigns. This is the Puppy Cafe, where about twenty dogs of every species, age and size are running around, vying for human attention, wrestling with each other, pissing, barking and generally acting insane.
On entering the cafe, we were greeted by a deafening chorus of barks. “NEW HUMANS!” Of course, it was the biggest dogs who wanted to jump on us; a golden lab who needed to lick our faces (“I must!”) and a heavy black lab that almost knocked me down. Over the noise, the waiter (attendant? nanny?) asked us for the ₩8000 ($7.20) entry fee, then prepared a free coffee while we acquainted ourselves with the gang.
Let’s see, there was Stinky, Stanky, Stupid and Stonky. We sat down on chairs and pet whatever dog forced his way between our legs. The big ones were more successful in this, particularly the black lab who got to know my crotch on a rather intimate basis. One nasty little white dog in a coat decided to try adopting me, and sat at my feet shivering and snarling at anyone else who got too close. I didn’t really want to cuddle with her, but felt bad shooing away something so rotten and alone.
We moved into a separate area for the smallest dogs, and I found my favorite of the day: a snow-white Pekingese, so soft, cuddly and pliable. He had no problem with me picking him up, and immediately settled into a comfortable position on my lap. Jürgen welcomed a little pinscher onto his lap — two Korean girls who were there petting poodles told us that the pinscher was, and I quote, a “whore”.
The cafe was a blast; the dogs were cute, funny and friendly, and we had a great time playing with them, although we did stink like hell when we left. I’m surprised that more doggie stores don’t offer a place for people to sit and play with their dogs. Especially in a city like Busan, where apartments are small and schedules are hectic, dogs are a luxury that don’t fit into most people’s lives. A place like this, where you can come and get your puppy fix, seems like a no-brainer. And I’m sure the dogs love it.
Busan’s aquarium is one of the largest in South Korea. With a unique location underneath Haeundae Beach, and a vast array of marine life in tanks which hold over three million liters of water, it’s little wonder that the aquarium is considered one of the city’s top experiences.
More than the sharks, penguins, otters or jellyfish, there’s one wild species which stands out in the aquarium: the Human Child. This unpredictable creature travels in schools of up to thirty, and emits high-pitched squeals to communicate with others in its pack. Though harmless in appearance, this animal can be dangerous; using its diminutive stature, it will often hide itself near your legs. Should you unwittingly kick it, the creature will unleash its hideous sonic cry.
When we visited, there were at least nine separate groups of toddlers in the aquarium. Very cute, but they seriously hindered our appreciation of the exhibits. I mean, I’m not going to shove the three-year-old away so that I can gawk at the soft-backed turtle. (I might nudge her, though). And we could forget entirely about the special shows, such as the shark- or penguin-feeding.
Children aside, the aquarium was cool. Not as large as I’d expected, but there was a lot to see on its two floors. The tanks were made of spotless acrylic glass, perfectly-lit, and easy to see into. The exhibits were well-maintained, the water was clean, and there was plenty of information in English. The massive main tank is reached through a glass tunnel, and holds giant sharks, beluga whales, and a variety of fish which apparently don’t taste good to sharks.
Our favorite exhibit was the jellyfish room, with a huge collection of them held in colorfully-lit tanks. I’d never heard of the Upside-Down Jellyfish, before. Other favorites included the giant octopus, the sea horses and a section called “Dangerous Fish of the Ocean”.
At ₩19,000 ($17.10), the aquarium isn’t exactly a bargain, but for anyone with an interest in the marine, it offers an interesting and well-designed experience.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.