Pusan in Oct 1999….
The city of Pusan was the second largest city in South Korea at the time of our vacation, with a population of around 3.6 million people. Pusan is found on the Southeastern coast of South Korea at its furthest Southeastern point. It is a huge port city as there are many, many, many containers of merchandise landing in or leaving Korea every day. I chose to go there because it was such a big city and because it was close to Kyeongju, although my husband thought it would be interesting to be in a city with such a large Asian port. Kyeongju, where the Sokkuram Grotto is found, is just north of Pusan but somewhat inland.
I am calling the city Pusan, as that’s what everybody called it back then. In recent years the way you are supposed to spell certain Korean names and words in English has changed. Places like Pusan are called Busan and spelled Busan if you’re searching for it anywhere now. My old neighborhood, Karak Market is spelled Garak Market. (Actually, it’s now called Garak Bon 1, having to do with the subway stop). If I am talking I still try to pronounce those ‘B’s like part ‘B’ and part ‘P’ and I try to pronounce my ‘K’s like part ‘K’ and part ‘G’ the way they said I should. It’s so difficult I can hardly do it now. What I mean is it doesn’t matter that they want us to spell the words differently because the pronounciation is the same as it always was. We spelled Kyeongju as Kyongju. Now it’s really Gyeongju instead. I find it’s all hard to get used to.
We took a bus from Kyeongju to Pusan one morning and arrived downtown. I found an ‘inn’ that had a large room upstairs in a building in the main busy streets. It was cheap, like $23, for the night. But during daytime and early evening hours there was a jackhammer in the area making a loud racket and I didn’t like that. It was more crowded and dusty here than in Seoul. Recently while searching online, I found out that Korea is much more densely populated than Japan is and I was surprised. For our second night in Pusan, we tried to go and stay at a hotel I thought would be nicer. It was called the Royal Hotel and it was beside the main park associated with Pusan Tower, in the heart of downtown.
We had to wait outside on the pavement on the street in front of the hotel for a while before they let us check in, which is hard to do when you’re weary. However, it was great to be staying there because there were places to go outside at the end of the hallways of the hotel that were like shared balconies.
While on this small balcony area outside at the hotel, I took pictures of the downtown and the harbour. People always marvel at my pictures of Pusan, saying the buildings and houses “are on top of eachother!” It looked like they squeezed what they could in an area that was too small but left the mountains uninhabited. A lot has changed now and there are new huge bridges to islands, an astoundingly large yachting complex, more museums, bigger shopping centres and taller elaborate condominiums to live in. I found it difficult because normal amenities were lacking like buying a cup of coffee or even getting a meal easily somewhere. I think there were less public restaurants there at the time and I looked for vending machines to buy a little cup of coffee like I found everywhere in Seoul and there weren’t any. At that time in Seoul, many places had vending machines outdoors where you’d put in 35 cents and get a small hot drink in a little cup. These drinks were a prepared instant coffee or lemon tea or job’s tears tea (‘nut’ tea) drink. These little hot drinks helped my sinuses a lot when I lived there, as I was sick some of the time with an infection. The pollution and lack of heat in my building didn’t help.
We went to the park that had the tower in it that was beside the hotel and we walked up a long, winding tree-covered road for pedestrians-only to get there. The trees hung over this road so you couldn’t see anything but branches above you. Everything was dark and shaded while you went up the hill. I loved it because there were big birds that seemed to be similar to mockingbirds calling out and flying in these trees while we walked up the winding road to get to the park. And we had to wave to many people and say “Hello!” here. On the main street leading up to the road to the park, outside of the park, the mood of the people was lively and so happy. There were families and children everywhere. A group was cooking outside and asked us to try the treats they were making. They told us they were making ‘pumpkin treats’ that seemed to be like frothy, sweet-tasting blobs. It was nice and good of them to be so friendly. I had never heard of Koreans doing this or making such food.
Perhaps things are not the same today, but we found that the people in Pusan looked a little different on the whole than the people in Seoul. Many had darker skin. We thought it was remarkable that the distance from Seoul and warmer climate made a noticeable difference in people’s looks.
While we were in Busan I wanted to see the Fortress from years ago that was in the area. It was similar to the NamHanSanSeong wall. We got in a taxi and asked to go there but the taxi driver brought us to the wrong place. We were dropped off way outside of Busan on a rural road surrounded by mountains. We met an old couple that was hiking to the fortress. I realised we were let out where Koreans would make a long, long hike for many hours to get there.
While we walked along the road when we were basically lost outside of Pusan, Robert asked me, “Is that a rooster crowing?” I said “No, it wouldn’t be a rooster out here….!” and as I watched the edge of the property beside us, a goat appeared. Another goat appeared beside him. They were looking at us curiously. I could not believe how lost we were and thought it must have been a rooster that Robert heard after all.
While we were trying to sleep that one night at the Royal Hotel, I heard horrible loud music. There was a nightclub in there somewhere underneath us! And the booming racket went until 3 in the morning! We had trouble getting any sleep or rest that night. When I looked down at the street at the many signs from our window I saw we were in a kind of entertainment area. I saw signs for “no rae bang”, which is common to see in Korea. It’s karaoke. The ‘no rae’ is a ‘song’ and like I mentioned in a former blog post, ‘bang’ means ‘room’.
There were many karaoke places all over Korea and there still are. I went to one in Karak-dong with Sang Hyun in the fall of 1997 and it was nice to see what it’s like. We got a few beers and no one else was there that evening. You could choose songs from the list of songs available. Most were Korean pop songs but a few English songs were available at that time – these were the few old Elvis songs approved by their government, a few Anne Murray songs and a few John Denver songs, ha ha! I asked Sang Hyun to sing a popular Korean song by a kind of a Korean rap singer. I didn’t sing. What was different was that while all the songs played (just tacky music) you had to look at your own screen to read the lyrics, and the screens showed half-naked women the whole time! Women, Korean and caucasian, in bikinis making suggestive poses, changing to another picture and another one on and on. Over and over and over. I was kind of angry and it ruined things for me. I don’t think Sang Hyun understood my feelings and I did not mean to take out my anger on him but I kind of did. I wonder if they still do that nowadays there? For a while around the millenium karaoke became popular in the U.S. and Canada and many businesses sold karaoke machines so people could do karaoke at home, but it’s gone out of fashion. I see many NoRaeBang signs in videos of Korea now when I look. Karaoke was a big part of Korean culture back then and it still is.
(I’ll finish my Pusan story in my next blog. Thanks for reading!)
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