Monday, 22 October 2012


           We had headed to Busan with intentions of sight-seeing. So how come my life was being threatened in a jazz bar? This wasn’t how Busan was supposed to be. Rob and I were sitting in a jazz bar, chatting to a pretty hostess, like foreign characters in a Murakami novel. We were the bar’s solitary guests, sharing a free bottle of whiskey and a bowl of strawberries gifted by the middle-aged bar owner and his gangster brother. Debating with them who was better, John or Paul? Admiring the gangster brothers’ scars and tattoos, including some fresh ones he got from a recent trip to Japan. Being asked as we were leaving if we were leaving because we were afraid for our lives?. I think we were. That was the second time someone has threatened my life. The first time it was a half crazed Iranian in the middle of Ramadan who pointed a knife at me and asked if I wanted to die that night. In his defense, hunger can drive people to do all sorts of strange things. But this was different. Our bar owner friend wasn’t hungry. He was quite drunk though and he seemed as sincere in his question as we were in our fear. Meanwhile, the girls (Mary and Mel) were having a drink in a ladies only club that they thought was going to be a male revue club but turned out to be a lesbian bar. All four of us had just wanted to find a quiet place to have a drink and all four of us got more than we bargained for. But Busan is the fifth busiest port in the world, so I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that it had a seedy underbelly or that we had stumbled into it. Before the bar episode, we had visited, almost by accident, an area called Texas Street that lies straight across the road from the train station, easily accessible for the majority of travelers who enter Busan by train. Here, for a couple of blocks, signs in Korean and English mingle with signs featuring the distinctive but unusual for Korea, Cyrillic script, advertising a multitude of bars and massage parlours. The ladies standing on this street were all Russian, smelling of cheap wine, bad perfume and desperation. I was a little intimidated by these middle aged peroxide blonds with acne scars and bulging muscles, looking like slightly prettier versions of those “female athletes” from the old Soviet bloc, a more feminine version of disgraced shotputter Nadzeya Ostapchuk. Burly Russian men also stood on the street, issuing promises of a good time to the lonely and curious. This was different from anything else we had experienced in Korea. Mary was petrified, clinging closely to Rob as if his Ukranian heritage could somehow protect her from the Russians. Needing to escape the street, we stopped at one bar for a drink. Inside the bar, the Russians were replaced by Filipino girls, as young and pretty as the Russians outside were old and ugly, who flirted with the mostly American GI crowd. We stayed for a drink and made our way back to our hotel, thankful that we all still had all of our organs. Of course, we were staying in a love motel, the type that you can book for hour-long interludes, the type of place where round beds, mirrors on the ceiling, dildo machines, an extensive pornography collection and condoms at the counter are considered par for course. Love motels are cheap though and you can get a good night sleep, as long as you can sleep through the amorous noises emanating from the other rooms.

Busan at night.
We visited Busan, Korea’s second largest city, a few times, usually taking the KTX (Korea’s answer to the bullet trains) down from Seoul. The KTX operates magnetically, in essence levitating its way through the Korean countryside at speeds greater than 300 plus kilometers per hour, leaving only a small opportunity to snatch glimpses of life through your window.  At these speeds, it really is blink and you miss it. One of our main reasons for visiting Busan was to visit the UN war cemetery. A visit to the cemetery, seemingly macabre, completed our trinity of war related visits-first we had visited the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between the North and South, then to the Korean War memorial in Seoul and now finally, the United Nations War cemetery. Busan had been the last stronghold for the South Koreans and allied forces in the early part of the Korean War and was the only major city not to fall to the communists. Maybe because the Korean War was the first major conflict that the United Nations was involved in, this cemetery is the only one in the world maintained by the U.N. It seems to be a responsibility that they take seriously, with immaculately groomed lawns and well-pruned trees. The cemetery lies on a plateau above the port, a peaceful but poignant last resting spot for bodies of many of the soldiers from many of the countries involved in the war. Mary and I made our way to the New Zealand section to honour the 45 New Zealand soldiers that had died during the war. Thirty-four of them had found permanent residence here. A memorial commemorating those New Zealanders that had died during the conflict had been erected in 2005. Its inscription is trilingual, written in English, Maori and Korean. The design was based on a moko (tattoo), seen as a sign of adulthood, an indication that the wearer was able to bear pain and take on responsibilities. The moko personified New Zealand as the mother of all of those who served (and died) during the war. Along the sides of the memorial are 45 cuts into the stone, each one representing the loss of a New Zealand serviceman during the conflict.
New Zealand's war memorial at the UN war cemetery.
The visit to the cemetery made me contemplative, thinking of the sacrifice of those men who had served and in many cases died overseas and thankful that I hadn’t had to do something similar. A trip to Beomeosa Temple, one of South Korea’s largest temples, is a great place to contemplate. It lay in hills of dense (for Korea) forest. A tall bamboo grove grew beside the main temple. Mist and low cloud added to the clichéd Asian look of the temple. Cliché isn’t always bad though. Sometimes finding a place exactly as you pictured it is as exciting as discovering something new. Beomeosa is a functional temple, with a small community of monks living on site. The temple offers overnight temple stays for interested foreigners; a tradition that I think had started about the time of the 2002 World Cup and had continued ever since. We were interested in doing this, especially after looking around the temple grounds as well as offering something more pure than staying in a love motel. We approached the temple office to enquire about doing a stay but this is when things turned a bit pear shaped. For a start, no one at the office spoke English; none of us spoke Korean. When we eventually managed to communicate what we wanted, after a long discussion and exercise in advanced body language, we discovered that the cost was exorbitant, three times more than we were willing to spend on accommodation. So we had to spend another twenty minutes explaining that we were too cheap to take up their once in a lifetime experience and that we were awfully sorry about wasting their time.
 Buddhists being Buddhists though, they were pretty relaxed about the turn of events and just to show there were no hard feelings, they invited us to enjoy a cup of tea and apples with the head monk. He happened to speak good English (where was he during the overnight stay negotiation process). We talked about all the usual things foreigners are asked when meeting a Korean for the first time, like “do you like kimchi?” and “do you like Korea?”. A potentially embarrassing situation turned out fine, and we were able to leave Beomeosa with a pleasant taste in our mouth (and not just from the tea and apples).
Tea and apple with the head monk.
Busan is famous, or at least world famous in Korea, for many things but it’s maybe best known in Korea for Haeundae Beach, a pleasant but relatively nondescript looking sandy beach for anyone who comes from a country with decent beaches. To Koreans though, Haeundae represents beach nirvana. Described on Wikipedia as one of the world’s greatest beaches, Haeundae lies largely dormant for all but two months of the year. Come the start of beach season though, which seems to be a randomly-generated, pre-determined time sometime in summer, Haeundae is cluttered with up to two million souls, all determined to enjoy their small part of sand that they can call their own. Umbrellas and beach towels fill up every available inch and people wallow in a small swimming area that only goes up to your waist, patrolled by a surplus of over zealous lifesavers. And then on the first day on non-beach season, it goes back to be largely unused. We went there at the start of May and then again at the start of July and there were no more than 10 people on the entire beach. If we had went back weeks later, the beach would have been packed. As it was outside of beach season when we went though, we could command a nice slice of prime beach real estate for ourselves, in between taking dips in the ocean.
           Just off Haeundae lies the Busan aquarium that offers interested people a chance to go diving with sharks, of the impressively big but hopefully not very aggressive type. Our instructor told us to keep our hands close to our sides and to not try and touch the fish or the two grumpy sea turtles that were also present in the tank. No need to worry about that, I thought. I valued my hands and had seen the size of the teeth of the sharks we were diving with. Teeth that size are not to be messed with. Our dive lasted for about 45 minutes. For the first 20 minutes, I forget about the sharks, I was so intent on making sure my breathing was right. But then, one beast swam right over my head and caught my attention. All of my attention. They must have been well fed. The sharks could have taken half of me in one go but didn’t. Sharks may be one of the most feared animals in the world and you could argue either way if that reputation is justified but there is no argument that they are majestic creatures. Diving with sharks, even in a controlled environment such as this, was pretty special.
Shark diving.
      You would think that diving with sharks would be the most dangerous thing we did that day. Wrong. The taxi drive back from the KTX station back to our apartment proved to be much, much more dangerous. Nothing suggested that this driver was part of a racing team. His taxi wasn’t a Ferrari or painted racing red or complete with fiery streaks. Nonetheless, I made a fatal mistake. Exuberant from our diving, I asked the driver to go quickly. My mistake was that I didn’t know how to say go slow in Korean. And Korean taxi drivers do not need a second invitation to go fast. Road rules are mere suggestions to them; stop signs are ignored, red lights approached with a blast of the horn, a slight decrease in speed before the car rushes through. If you dare to attempt to put on your seatbelt, they treat it as a personal affront, as if you should put 110% trust in their crazy driving. There seems to be one unmistakable truth about Korean taxi drivers: they are all borderline crazy and this one was a certified, escaped from the loony bin, crazy. We watched as the speedometer approached 200 kilometers per hour. He laughed at Mary, who was sitting in the front, watching the road, hands over her eyes, peering through the gaps. Michael Schumacher didn’t respond to our groans, our ooh ahhs. Close misses seemed to be missed by him. But they were all too apparent to us. The only positive about the speed he was driving at was that it dramatically cut down the time it took to get home. Just as our moods were turning from a feeling of fear to one that knew and accepted that we were all going to die, the trip come to an abrupt end. On a day that started with shark diving, who knew the real adventure sport would be the taxi ride home. And the first chance I got, I learnt how to say go slow in Korean.


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