One evening, on returning from my excursion up a mountain, back in December 2017, I decided to do something differently, and have my dinner outdoors at one of the roadside stalls of the place. It was my first experience of street food in Busan.
Roadside stalls with hygiene
Contrary to what you would expect in Thailand, for example, the Koreans do take hygiene at heart. So, vendors do use plastic gloves when handling food and all of their dishes are single-use.
Most of the dishes were simply some form of rice cannelloni as can be seen on the pictures. The sauce was pretty good and in the cold evening of Busan, it did provide a refreshing change from habitual food (although I must say I tried also some delicious kimchi).
Most people just eat standing.
Indeed, one of the lovely things about street food in Busan is also the atmosphere around. The night lights, the stands and the street’s setting combine to give it a homely atmosphere. Eating out should be done more for sharing in the atmosphere of locals. One local student helped to translate for me my order and was quite curious to know from where I was. Koreans have always been welcoming and helpful everywhere I went, and Busan was no exception to the rule.
Finally, if you prefer eating in a restaurant, there are many places where you can eat kimchi or a full set meal for a very reasonable price.
For once, I truly enjoyed “going local”. But then, Korea is a place where even foreigners are gladly welcomed to share the local life. Probably one of my best experiences traveling around Asia. Busan, itself, has a more “rough” feeling to it, but locals are quite friendly and nice.
On my visit to Busan, one of my targets was the Gamcheon Culture village. While being the first place I visited after the Gwangandaegyo bridge, I have waited a while to write about it. In fact, the place is very famous in Busan and the beauty of the setting is so lovely, that it requires some effort to give it justice.
The history of Gamcheon
Originally, Gamcheon did not really have an artistic legacy at all, but was placed in a very interesting spot, against a mountain, with the associated curves and complex turns. Interestingly, most of the inhabitants are refugees from the Korean war and followers of the Tageukdo religion. The Tageukdo is the symbol which is part of Korea’s flag (also known as the yin and the yang).
Nowadays, the followers of this religion are few in Gamcheon. Since 2009, the city of Busan attempted to redevelop this area by focusing on making about 300 empty houses the center of street art. This gave a new impulse and made of Gamcheon one of the symbols of Busan.
Art in the street
The beauty of Gamcheon is that the redeveloped art project is closely mixed to the city life of the inhabitants. You can walk along the main street which circles all around the little village. Or you can delve into the city and try some shopping, like for these cute little bears (3,000 KRW each).
You can find some murals such as the “wall of love”.
There is also a lot of subjects for detail shots in the village. Such as an old and worn out roof.
When looking at details, the tightly packed houses make also for interesting photographic subjects.
You can also check my periscope account to find a live video I made walking through the village.
How to get there?
Gamcheon is not a lost place, but I elected to walk up there instead of taking transportation, and it was a quite strenuous climb.
You must first take the metro to Toseong station and take exit 6. From there, either you catch a minibus, or you can climb all the way to the top. It was frisky on that day, so a good day for a walk! Taking the minibus down sets you back about 1,000 KRW, but the driving is quite vertiginous in those steep streets!
One of the main sites upon arriving in the city of Busan, in Korea, is the Gwangandaegyo Bridge. Spanning 7.4 kms over the Busan bay, from Namcheon to Haeundae, it offers a gorgeous sight from the Gwangalli beach. Obviously, that was the first spot I hit upon arriving in Busan.
A bridge which looks its best at night
The bridge is illuminated at night, so it is no wonder that it looks its best then. Beyond the spectacular view on the bridge spanning across the bay, this bridge can also be seen from a mountain nearby, called the Hwangnyeongsan.
But on my first evening in Busan, I just went down to the Namcheon beach, as it was the more accessible area to shoot the bridge. That evening, I was lucky as the moon shone over the sea, giving the whole area a perfect flavor.
To the left, there are a number of buildings, offering an interesting contrast to the bridge, and further down the animated area (where I confess I did not go).
But the real best shot can be taken after a short hike up Hwangnyeongsan.
The view from the mountain
As mentioned, Hwangnyeongsan has the best views on the bridge and the bay.
The climb is steep, but the whole road is paved, so not much of a challenge.At a point, you will find a viewpoint platform. In winter, not a lot of people do this hike, so I had the whole place all to myself.
In the sunset and during the blue hour, Gwangandaegyo Bridge then becomes magical. Obviously, you must use a zoom to exclude all the trees in the way, but still, the general view of the bridge is quite impressive.
As the night sets in, the colors and the impression gets closer from what you you can see when you are on the Busan beach.
After this, I went back down, this time looking for some food.
How to get there?
There are two places where I shot the pictures in this post. The first one was near the MRT Geumnyeonsan, and involves walking down to the beach.
The second place is up on the mountain, but I could not retrace exactly the place; suffice it to say that at a point, after climbing Hwangnyeongsan, you will come across a viewpoint on Gwangandaegyo bridge, on the right of the road.
I was in Busan for a couple of days already, and it was my goal to try and see the fish auctions of the Jagalchi fish market. Descriptions and indications are pretty sketchy on how to get to see these auctions given the early hour at which they take place.
Nevertheless, as there was no public transportation at that time, I grabbed a taxi to get to Jagalchi fish market, and arrived there around 4.45 AM.
A profusion of fish
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Jagalchi, is the profusion of fish available everywhere.
The Jagalchi fish market is one of the most well-furnished markets in terms of fresh seafood, and this general reputation was confirmed seeing the market at 5 AM.
I found out one of the main halls where wholesalers present their produce. While it looks astonishingly clean, the floor was drenched in water and there was quite a “fishy” smell in the air.
It seems unfortunately that I was quite a bit late there, since I did not manage to find the actual auctions of fish. All I did manage to find was an auction for clams. On the whole, Jagalchi fish market has the reputation of having vendors who are quite hostile to pictures being taken, but my experience was quite the contrary. It is maybe because I look European, or maybe also because I did smile and engage my subjects when taking photos.
Life around the market
The interesting thing about a market is the life that gravitates around that market. In fact, vendors need also to feed themselves and need also to rest or have their needs tended to. So, you have plenty of small businesses thriving around, like a sweet potato vendor using an old coal furnace.
The feeling was extraordinarily atmospheric, being out at 5 AM in the cold and seeing first the market, then the scenes such as this small merchant. The world belongs to the early risers, and this is especially true for photographers.
On the technical side, of course, shooting at night is a challenge, but I equipped my Nikon 20mm F.1.8, and this helped me to handle the difficult lighting condition. You could obtain the same results with a (cheaper) 50 mm F 1.8, but then, the inconvenience is that you must stay further from your subject. And nothing engages as much as close range photography for your viewer.
A local breakfast
My original plan was to enjoy a local breakfast at the hotel. However, on the way, my attention got caught by a local shop grilling fresh fish in front of the shop and serving local breakfasts. I think the owner of the shop got scared seeing a foreigner, as she attempted to tell me her shop is closed, before eventually relenting when a local patron invited me to sit down in front of him.
The breakfast was every bit hearty and delicious as expected, with several pickles, a fish soup, and of course, the grilled fish. It was a perfect restoring meal before heading to Haeundae beach, my following stop.
“Train to Busan” always evokes a famous Korean zombie movie, which also is a sort of satire, criticism of social inequalities in Korean society. But such was not my purpose in this post, which is mainly to recount my train travel from Seoul to Busan, and my first impressions of this Southern city.
There is high speed train and there is slow train
Of course, “train to Busan” was a movie featuring the high-speed “KTX” train, which uses Alstom machines. But there are also other, cheaper and more lengthy manners to get to Busan. I mean here the Mugungwha (super-slow omnibus) and the ITX-Saemaul (express train). Sometimes, the pleasure is in the journey and not just zipping from one place to another.
KTX is reputed for being tight and a bit a sort of “Concorde” of trains in second class. I prefered taking the ITX-Saemaul, partly because I was on vacation, partly because I wanted also to experience the pleasure of traveling by train. Sometimes, the pleasure is in the journey!
But taking the time does not necessarily mean renouncing to modernity, so I availed of the possibilty to reserve my tickets online via the Korail website. Prices as of January 2018 were, for a one-way ticket to Busan, of 42,600 KRW for the ITX Saemaul. As a comparison, the same ticket in second class on the KTX would cost 59,800 KRW. Savings is not really the main focus for taking this train thus, comfort and being relaxed was.
The train itself is pretty comfortable and well-arranged, with larger space for your legs than on a KTX. Stations are announced in Korean and in English, so you cannot miss your station, unless you are sleeping.
The trip itself was uneventful if lengthy. But with a good book, time passes quickly!
The train did arrive in Busan
In “Train for Busan”, the KTX train never makes it to Busan, overcome as it is as much by dissensions between passengers as by the zombies. My ITX did arrive in Busan, where I had some slight issues finding the metro. Thankfully, a gentleman went out of his way to help me find the entrance of the metro, even trying to help me to buy a ticket (but I had my cash card from Seoul).
I checked in at my hotel, in a pretty animated area of Busan, near the metro Seomyeon. The hotel I chose was the “Home Hotel”. Pretty newly built, the hotel offers the comfort of modern hotels and the welcome of a family pension. Staff are always very kind, and breakfast, although not very varied, is pretty good. The room does not have much of a view, but when you are in Busan, the last thing you want to do is stay locked in your hotel.
I arrived too late in Busan to enjoy the sunset, so I set out to go and see the famous Busan bridge which extends across the Busan beach. That night, it was in the low negatives (0° to -3° C), which is not a big deal per se. However, where it became though was that on the Busan beach, there was a strong wind blowing in from the sea that got me all but frozen while shooting pics.
That night however, luck was with me, as I managed to capture the Busan bridge with the full moon in background.
Of course, at night and in that cold, people were basically deserting the beach for cafes and bars. Nevertheless, in the distance (and I didn’t make it until there, I am afraid), I managed to see some of the lights and animation of the festive beachfront.
Once I froze myself completely shooting these pictures, I rushed to the nearest Starbucks to grab a hot choco and try to warm myself. And, being ready to explore Busan the next day, I headed back to the hotel while the night was still young.
When in Seoul, an obligatory part of your visit as a first-timer, should be the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok, the old Korean Royal Palace. With the majestic background of the Bukhansan mountain, this palace is in a magnificent position. The Blue House, the presidential palace is also located in the same area, in what is considered as “auspicious” grounds. The position of the palaces is also favorable in Feng Shui terms (back to the mountain). Bukchon Hanok, by contrast is an area of Seoul which retained its traditional architecture houses and hence offers a glimpse into traditional Korea.
Bukchon Hanok, a place for selfies
With its traditional buildings still inhabited by locals and by local businesses, Bukchon Hanok is a perfect location for selfies. Inhabitants are kind, welcoming and gentle and take a great care of their environment.
In fact, the area itself is absolutely lovely and can be the object of nice pictures across the board.
Riding the wave, a number of businesses rent out the Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for tourists.
Obviously, it is only Asian tourists who give into this mania, Westerners would be far less credible… But still, some pretty Japanese girls love to dress up, a bit like foreigners do in Japan with kimonos.
With its quiet areas and lovely settings, Bukchon Hanok is an ideal place for intemporal pictures. Some details betray the girls trying to play the game, though, like the shoes… Or posing next to a very modern plastic radish!
The Blue House
On one end, Gyeongbok heads towards a gigantic avenue of Seoul, Saejong-daero where is located the US embassy. On the other end, it faces the Korean presidential palace, the famous “Blue House”. With its back to the Bukhasan mountain, the setting is quite majestic and throws back to the former royal palace built on the same area.
Of course, security is tight in that area, as back in 1968, North Korean agents had attempted to kill the Korean President by infiltrating commandos at the Blue House. However, the touristic nature of the area and the sheer beauty of the surroundings is absolutely not comparable to the tension that can be felt in France, for example.
A rebuilt palace
Gyeongbok was built originally in 1395, under the Joseon dynasty. Abandoned a first time in the 1500s, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the XIXth century. On that occasion, it drew its inspiration from the traditional Korean architecture used in the original palace.
In the beginning of the XXth century, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they undertook the destruction of Gyeongbok, as it was a symbol of the independence of Korea.
As a consequence, the current Gyeongbok is a reconstruction of the original palace from its ruins. Despite this sad fact, the reconstruction did a good job of showcasing the traditional Korean architecture that you can already glimpse in the Bukchon Hanok area.
The gardens are very peaceful, despite the huge number of tourists.
To the right, you can see the main 5-level pagoda before which many tourists have their picture taken.
A very complex and photogenic palace
As you delve into the various alleys of the palace, you realize that the sprawling complex was almost a small city in its own. A whole area is devoted to the royal harem (and the paradox is that many female tourists love to have their picture taken there).
The most interesting was to see the food storage area. Apparently, the builders of the palace used a natural slope to move food from the jars in the storage area to the palace itself. This complexity and the intricacy of the development give you a small hint of how developed the Koreans were in their golden age.
A fusion of history and modernity
The view around Gyeongbok is mostly free, especially towards the mountain. When you turn towards Saejong-daero, however, the nature of the view changes. It is a moment where you realize that Korea is also a place where history and modernity are intimately linked. The modern buildings towering above the gates of Gyeongbok announce a return to the bustle of Seoul before you even set your foot outside.
Another interesting shot on that side are the guards standing watch at the gate. However, the difficult part is managing to snap a shot without tourists standing by their side.
When returning to modernity, I came across a memorial for the victims of the Saewol disaster, but I will talk about it in another post.
How to get there
When visiting the area Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok are easily combined. Most people start their tour through Gyeongbok as it is on the main Saejong-Daero avenue. My choice was rather to start walking through Bukchon Hanok, then moving to Gyeongbok. It is a lovely transition, especially if you go there in the morning. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to capture girls in Hanbok and relatively empty streets. It is difficult to give instructions on how to get there, but there is no train station or bus stop within Bukchon Hanok, so it will always involve a short walk to get there.
Nami island is a little locality in the neighbourhood of Seoul. It shot to fame when the Korean drama “Winter Sonata” became an Asian (and in a lesser measure worldwide) hit in 2002. Since then, the island has sought to build on the fame brought by this unexpected notoriety by creating an environment catering to the tourists, but also with its own personality. As an example, they try to showcase the art of local artists, making the place something catering to K-drama afficionados as well as to hipster bloggers.
Easy to reach
Nami island has another asset: its ease to reach. You can get there simply by taking a metro from any place in Seoul. I was located in a guesthouse in Gangnam for my stay (I quickly regretted that decision). So, for me, any trip even within Seoul involved heavy commutes, in this case, getting to the interchange station of Wangsimni. From there, you must catch the line direction Chuncheon. You have about 1/2 hr to 3/4 hr ride until the station of Gapyeong, where you must get down.
Taking the metro in Seoul
The metro in itself is clean, convenient and fast. The one inconvenience is that you might have to carry any heavy luggage up and down the stairs. Otherwise, signage and announcements are bilingual and it is extremely easy to navigate for foreigners.
Interesting cultural observations
Obviously, for Asia, or the XXIst century in general, most people in the metro are on their smartphones. But it was a lovely surprise to see a young girl knitting to pass her time on the metro to Gapyeong, rather than keying or browsing her smartphone. It is may be the first time in Asia, I that see a young lady passing her time on a more traditional craft. It was a lovely sight to behold.
Once you arrive in Gapyeong station you must still transfer to Nami island. That means either taking a taxi (between 4,000 to 6,000 KRW) or a tour bus (6,000 KRW, but it includes return and transfer to “Little France”, which I skipped). If you arrive too late, you will be drowned in a crowd of tourists all heading to Nami Island as well. You may run the risk of not being able to catch the tour bus, which leaves every hour. I had to stand for the whole way, so my advice, if you can, is arrive and leave early.
Meanwhile, at the station, you can enjoy the local food. I recommend the cheese toast at the little restaurant (cheese apparently includes Cabbage in the Korean recipe).
If after having eaten your cheese toast, you still have time to kill, there is a little coffee shop, but expect it to be crowded as well. And don’t wait too long, or you might not have any seats left on the bus!
Otherwise, there is a little exhibition in the Gapyeong station, showcasing the history of human settlements in the area. Interesting if you wish to know more about the area.
Transferring to the island
Nami island is… an island! That means, you must transfer there, and you have two choices: either taking a zipline (but that involves leaving behind any heavy bags, so not an option for me as I was carrying camera and drone…) or taking a ferry. Prices are around 38,000 KRW for zipline (inclusive the return by ferry) or 8,000 KRW for the ferry. It was around 0° C that day, so most tourists remained inside the ferry.
It must be mentioned that the island declared its “cultural independence”, so that they have everywhere flags and “institutions” (a central bank… guards or so-called “police”) of the “Naminara republic”. This is also to collect a “visa fee” from visitors (but it is included in your ferry ticket).
The ferry can get quite crowded with a majority of Asian tourists (due to the influence of K-drama and instagram).
Upon arrival on the island, i managed to see some locals warming up at an open fire lit to warm themselves.
The crowd makes a difference
Nami island is a very beautiful place, but the crowds of tourists that jam-pack the place do not make it very enjoyable. The best views are out of the beaten tracks.
Besides this aspect, Nami island understood very well how to cultivate the XXIst century instagram-fanatic crowds by providing a number of “instagrammesque” spots.
Upon arrival, for example, a frozen fountain…
The real treasure is elsewhere
As usual, the real treasures of Nami island are found when you walk away from the crowd. Take the side paths and you can discover really lovely scenes. Like squirrels running around and friendly enough to let you approach very close to shoot their portrait…
Or you can find some truly lovely scenes in autumn, without people in your frame. Like this bucolic autumn scene near a little stream.
Or you could fly a done and try to shoot some interesting landscapes… Below, you can see the main alley most people walk through.
Again, walking outside of the beaten tracks is the best chance to get different shots from the thousands of visitors. The natural beauty of the island is not appreciated enough outside of all those crowds rushing to the K-drama spots or being sucked in by the tourist honeypots.
In conclusion: an interesting excursion
Nami island is not a “must see”, but it is certainly worth visiting, as long as you a). beat the crowds; b). take a walk outside of touristic tracks; c). look for nature and not for selfie spots.
But then again, if you must visit Korea and have a limited amount of time, this is one place you can give a pass, unless you are a fan of K-drama and “winter sonata” in particular.