Hitchhiking with Monks – Busan

My last days in South Korea were spent in Busan, a buzzing port city for seafood lovers which holds also a very unique cemetery.

Highlights:
  • The only one if it’s kind: The UN War Cemetery
  • Jagalchi Fish Market where one can buy (nearly) everything that can swim or float
  • Visiting the quiet but lovely Chungnyeolsa shrine with couchsurfer Jin
  • Hitchhiking with three monks to Beomeo-sa temple
  • Trying to spot Japan on Haeundae beach

Maria and I departed upon our arrival in Busan, my last stop in South Korea and it’s second largest city. It is set on the southeast corner of the country facing Japan across the Sea of Japan. As it is quite a nice port city, it is well worth a visit when traveling in South Korea.

Upon my arrival, I spent some hours in a nice little café writing diary and lost myself in thoughts before I met my new couchsurfing host. Due to the fact that the heating in her apartment did not work, she had booked some kind of a guest room in a condominium which actually was nothing less than a nice hotel apartment. It gave a wonderful view over the north of the city over a beach and the seaside.

That was also the first place for me to visit the following day, Haeundae beach – according to the guide book the most beautiful in South Korea. As I like all places I may watch the sea from I was happy to go there. It it reminded me heavily on Miami though, being surrounded by huge housing complexes – just the beach strip was smaller. I sure do not hope that this is the country’s finest beach (might be the nicest urbanized beach however…). Nevertheless I spent quite some time wandering up north along a coastal path, where I discovered a little fishing port and a lot of seafood restaurants.

On the way back into town I came by a billboard advertising “Shopping, too, is always a pleasure”. It actually fits the South Koreans who seem to be crazy shoppers. Having the latest, newest items seems to be very important everywhere you go. Especially the “right” brands are a huge deal. Everywhere present are outdoor clothing ads for example. American and European outdoor brands are worn by about 50% if the people you see on the streets. You could pick any one of those urban cowboys and drop him off on Mt. Everest – he likely has the right equipment to survive. In Seoul, I also noticed people carrying many shopping bags of luxury products – actually I believe they re-use those bags and it is more about the message…

Having been in the War Memorial Museum in Seoul, I was very interested in visiting the only UN cemetery which is located in Busan. I made it there in time to see the flag ceremony, surprised to see only a handful other visitors. The cemetery is a very quiet and peaceful place. Having seen quite a lot in Europe, Russia, and Asia I can say that a lot of effort was put in this one. Many nations have established memorials for their fallen here, the US also erected a wall of remembrance. Even the very little streams are named after some outstanding soldiers. Also quite interesting is the photo exhibition where one can see several pictures of soldiers then and nowadays, when they returned as veterans to the cemetery. Moving are the stories of relatives who decided to be put to rest here as well besides their husbands and even brothers.

Busan being South Korea’s last beachhead in the Korean War, the UN cemetery was established in 1951 after the UN forces, led by the Americans, landed in Busan as well as on Incheon close to Seoul, eventually pushing North Korean forces back north, annihilating them in the process. 2,300 soldiers from Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the USA have been laid to rest here. Flag ceremonies are at 10am as well as at 4pm (Oct.-Apr.)/5pm (May-Sep.).

Next morning I took a stroll over Jagalchi fish market. Directly at the waterfront I could see hundreds of street vendors selling all kind of fish. I also visited two indoor fish markets where people pick living fish and seafood at ground floor level from huge water containers and eat it on the spot. A local specialty: Baby octopus still wiggling on the plate. I thought that would be a little exaggerated but when the first plates with fast moving tentacles past me, I knew it was the truth after all.

I met two couchsurfing members that night: MJ who owns a really nice café where I spent some hours to write diary. And Jungmin, a young guy who took me out for Korean BBQ in a wonderful, buzzing student restaurant.

My last day in Busan was likely the best and a highlight of my stay in South Korea: In the morning I met Jin, a couchsurfer from Busan. I had asked her to show me one of her favorite places in the city, without going into more detail. When we met she lead me to Chungnyeolsa, a local shrine that indeed was one of her favorite places in the city – and I liked it too! Besides all the buzz of a big city it was a very nice place of peace. The shrine honored the fighters that died during the Imjin War (1592-98) in Busan. Even today the city’s defenders are held in high honor!

My final sight to visit was Beomeo-sa, a principal temple in South Korea. It is quite some way from the city center. From the subway, I started to walk up the mountain road instead of taking another bus, enjoying the woods along the way. I wondered how hitchhiking in South Korea might work and started to hold up my thumb. After some tries, a sedan stopped and when the back door opened, I was very surprised to see three monks in the car, the one in the back sitting cross-legged on the rear bench. I was warmly welcomed and upon being asked where I was from, they were very happy to hear that I come from Munich – praising Bayern Munich. They drove me right up to the temple and with a lot of good-byes and smiles we departed. Surely a ride I will remember!

Like Bulguk-sa in Gyeongju, Beomeo-sa is set wonderfully against a mountain side in midst beautifully colored woods and has seen a lot of restoration work in the past years. I especially liked the combined drum and bell tower. A highlight themselves were the South Koreans: Beomseo-sa being a point of entry (or exit) for a lovely hiking route, dozens were dressed in very colorful outdoor clothes which made me smile more than once.

Coming back to Busan, I quickly made my way to the international ferry terminal where I left from the same evening. After boarding the ship, I found my mat inside a room for ten. Standing on deck a little later, I enjoyed the night view on Busan’s harbor while the big ferry was pitching and tossing underneath me. A Japanese tour group joined me after a while and after watching me from the distance, one after another started coming up to me asking for a picture. It took about 15 minutes until everybody of them had been bold enough to ask. When they finally took their group picture, I did not let the chance go by and had my picture taken with all of them as well. With many smiles and “thank you” I was quite happy that my first encounter with Japanese was as happy as this.

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