30 September 2008

Introduction to Busan

It's the evening of September 30th, I am at a run-down tourist hotel in Busan's Nampo-Dong district, and I couldn't have gotten away from Seoul at a better time.

First, here's a recap of my last visit to Busan, which was my first ever, and a day trip from Seoul, way back in 2005.

Now, on to today. It wasn't too good a day back in Seoul, with the meditation therapy not going according to plan this morning. As I returned to the apartment to prepare for my journey down here, the news feeds only got worse. The top two news items were that (1) a citizen's group had its leadership arrested, for "taking orders from North Korean agents" in China, and that (2) 150 members of the main opposition party, the center-left United Democratic Party, have been invited by North Korea for a visit. The point that the Lee Myung-bak regime wants to make: the leftists are fronts for the North Koreans, and therefore grave threats to the sovereignty and freedom of South Korea (not to mention its alliance to the US Republicans). It looks like Lee is resorting to the same tactics once used by his dictatorial predecessors, in order to consolidate power in face of growing disapproval over his tax cuts for the rich.

Add, to these, the various hardball Christian missionaries in the palaces yesterday and at the stations and in the subway today, as well as blatantly Christian subway ads for even snack products, and I've been fed up as hell. I do hope the US annexes South Korea, just to remind these Christians and right-wingers how miserable it is to be without sovereignty, as was the case back when the Japanese were here a century ago. (And no, I don't want South Koreans voting in US elections; otherwise, the Republicans will be in power forever.) Speaking of all the American benevolence these bastards talk about all the time, I do think annexation, and the resulting rude awakening, will be the biggest benevolence America can ever offer them.

I decided to distract myself during the long ride on the KTX bullet train. Since the train was a French TGV trainset anyway, I decided to pretend that I was riding through the French countryside - despite the Korean announcements and the presence of off-duty South Korean Army privates around me. For most of the ride, I listened to Mariah Carey and Sarah McLachlan on my iPhone, to further distract myself. The animated onboard public announcement movie was describing the dream of my KTX train as "running from Seoul, through Beijing and Moscow, all the way to Paris" - something I will look forward to in the future, once the megalomaniacs running the governments of both Koreas today are gone once and for all. Even a neighbor's magazine, with a United Airlines ad touting its daily nonstops to San Francisco (with convenient connections to Los Angeles, New York, and over 200 other US cities), seemed to help. Yes, I am starting to miss the US - even after W and the Christian extremists have successfully polarized the society in many different ways, something Lee Myung-bak is trying so hard to replicate here. Besides, my novel protagonist, Sarah Radcliffe, is a flight attendant who works that very United flight, and I'd love to say hi to her.

During the final ten minutes of the run, the train monitors started showing archive footages from Daehan News, a government-produced short news program that was shown in cinemas before every movie from the 1950s to the 1980s - back when television sets were either luxuries or unheard of. Though government propaganda of the times anyway, watching those historical archives helped me break back into a Korean state of mind, without getting too upset. The footages shown today included 1950s street cleanups, 1960s transfer of important American technologies, and a 1960 Major League Baseball exhibition match between Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees played on South Korean soil.

The bullet train did hit 302 km/h - but wasn't able to sustain that speed for long, due to the rugged South Korean terrain and the required intermediate stops at Daejeon and East Daegu. From Daegu, conventional tracks, dating from 1905, had to be used, instead of the dedicated high-speed tracks which won't open for another two years. Even with that, the 260-mile run took 164 minutes to complete, just a minute over schedule; the US equivalent would be getting on a train at Union Station in Los Angeles, and gambling on the Las Vegas Strip three hours later. Once the entire route is high-speed, and additional tracks allowing bypassing Daejeon and Daegu are also completed, the run will only take 110 minutes; at that time, native Korean bullet trains will also augment the current French TGV trainsets.

No photos of any of the crappy stuff from Seoul and on the train today; maybe that is a good thing. However, I did take a small number of photos upon arrival in Busan.

Fresh fish for sale at Jagalchi Market, which has all sorts of seafood items available, mostly from the South Korean waters but some imported from Russia as well. It's also possible to buy domestic beef and pork here (pork is only 1,500 won for 400 grams), though few people visit this market for red meat.

I found this calico cat wandering around the market streets.

Some of the fish sold at Jagalchi is live. I can pick one, and it will be served to me on the spot. I am supposed to eat it live, in some cases. I ended up eating across the thoroughfare, in the trendier, posh part of the neighborhood instead.

Signs are in Korean AND Japanese here. Not only is Busan a short 160-minute train ride from Seoul, but it's also a short 3-hour ferry hop from Fukuoka. Lots of Japanese tourists visit Busan for a quick day or overnight stay. Also common around here are Westerners, probably Russians from Vladivostok, only two hours away by air. If it ever becomes possible to travel to South Korea via North Korea, many Russians will come over land too, as Vladivostok is very close to the North Korean border, and the trip would simply consist of heading down the eastern coastline of the Korean peninsula.

Crossing the thoroughfare into the newer, trendier area of Nampo-Dong. As opposed to Jagalchi Market, which is populated by older people, this area is the domain of young couples on dates and fashionistas looking for the latest style. This particular section of Nampo-Dong is called the PIFF (Pusan International Film Festival) Square. While PIFF actually happens over in Haeundae at BEXCO (this year's festival will start at about the time I return to Seoul), the square is here, because this is the original cinema and movie district of Busan.

As the sun set, I headed up Yongdusan, just like last time, though entering the tower was not part of the agenda this time. Visible here: a floral clock in front, and a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin further back. Admiral Yi built the Turtle Ship, considered to be the world's first ironclad, which destroyed the Japanese navy during the Hideyoshi invasion of the 1590s.

A traditional bell pavilion.

Yongdusan (龍頭山) means "Dragon Head Mountain," so appropriately, a dragon is here, holding a jade marble.

This Buddha is located just to the side of the escalator to and from Yongdusan. It adorns the entrance to a golf practice range. Behind me is a small Buddhist temple.

After dark, I covered a lot of ground in Nampo-Dong's trendy PIFF Square area as well as the neighboring traditional Gukje ("International") Market to the west. No photos to share due to the darkness, but I was a bit relieved to see not only the couples and the fashionistas at PIFF Square, but also the variety of alleyways at the traditional market, each one different from the next. One alley was full of eateries; the generic Korean term for such an alley is "Meokjagolmok" (먹자골목), literally translating to "Let's Eat!" Alley, and Gukje Market's Meokjagolmok is the most interesting in the entire nation. Another one had toys, yet another jewelry, yet another light bulbs, and yet another had boutiques selling handmade traditional Korean dresses. Lots of things to see - but no photos to show for my troubles tonight.

Also welcoming to my ears were all the conversations going on in Busan's peculiar local dialect. Fortunately, most Korean dialects can be easily understood by speakers of the standard Seoul dialect and other regional dialects; only Jeju Island's dialect is unintelligible.

Tomorrow should finally take me into the Haeundae resort area, which I had to avoid like a plague last time due to W's visit there. It should be a good day, I hope - assuming the prevailing conservative politics of Busan doesn't get to me first. Even though the previous President, leftist Roh Moo-hyun, hailed from Busan, Busan has always been a bastion of conservatism, supporting the military fascist dictators (who rewarded the area handsomely with priority economical development, ahead of liberal regions of the southwest), and even yielding former President Kim Young-sam, who, despite being a democracy activist (and former political prisoner under the fascists), is nevertheless conservative.