Lunar New Year has come and gone, bringing the world two weeks further from the tumultuous year of the rat (2020) and diving straight into the hopeful year of the ox (2021).
Although Lunar New Year is the most widely celebrated holiday in Asia, my school was still planning to be in session. Whether it’s a national holiday or a global pandemic, my school never closes. After several families, however, mentioned they would be traveling during the holiday weekend, the administration at my school decided to hold the following week’s classes during the weekend prior to Lunar New Year so they wouldn’t lose business from any traveling students; therefore, giving everybody Thursday and Friday off as well as Saturday and Sunday — four consecutive days. It was a last minute decision, but not so short notice that I couldn’t book a trip.
I have been in Korea for nine months and never traveled outside of the greater Seoul area. This may sound like a waste to some people. I mean, who moves across the world and then doesn’t explore their new country? Well, consider the COVID-19 pandemic, government lockdown regulations, travel bans, then factor in my school not allowing days off of any kind, and it’s simple to see why cross-country exploring hasn’t been possible.
Busan was my destination of choice. Located on the southeast coast of South Korea, Busan is known for its beautiful beaches, mountains, and temples. Even though COVID-19 numbers are low in Korea, there’s a lot of social stigma around traveling (even from other foreigners), so I decided to take a solo trip. One of the perks of taking a solo trip is the ability of choosing your pace, and not coming home from vacation feeling as though you need additional recovery days post-vacation. I wanted to go to the beach, eat good food, and sleep in a bed wrapped in a down feather comforter. I don’t know who coined the “treat yoself” phrase, but that was the theme of my entire Lunar New Year weekend.
I booked a first-class ticket for Friday morning on the Korean Train Express (KTX), the high-speed train line from Seoul to Busan. It took two hours to travel across South Korea on the bullet train, and the trip offered views of large Korean cities, farms, and mountains.
Upon arriving in Busan, I noticed the air quality was significantly better than Seoul. The northwest corner of South Korea tends to get extremely smoggy, and even though the weather had been clear, a brownish haze still hung in the air throughout the week; but Busan was a different story. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and it was 15 degrees warmer than Seoul.
I checked into the Wyndham Hotel, located in the center of Busan, and conveniently placed adjacent to Busan Station. When I booked the room, I added a note that said “I prefer a room with a view, please.” Whoever was in charge of booking took my note seriously, because my room had an incredible view! Located on the corner of the top floor, two of the walls in my room had windows and I was able to see the Busan skyline, ocean ports, ships, mountains, tourist districts, China town, and everything in between — all from my room! Plus, it had the down feather comforter I so desperately desired.
On Friday afternoon, Songdo Beach was my first stop. The beach was surrounded by lively restaurants and bars painted in a rainbow of vibrant colors. Ships, paddle boats, and jet skis danced across the water; and a line of cable cars traveled back and forth across the bay. I rode in a cable car over the water, and halfway through I recalled my fear of falling. The view was incredible, so my inner panic didn’t bother me as much.
After arriving to the opposite end of the bay, I explored the park along the mountainside and grabbed lunch from one of the shops. The directions for how to return to the beach area weren’t clear, and the main trail was roped off, so I walked down the mountain, and ended up in a parking lot with several locals who were fishing. They were catching fish right out of the ocean and taking them to the outdoor market at the end of the lot to be cooked. I joined alongside them in fishing. I tend to do things like that when traveling alone, joining in on activities with strangers. People never reject me though, they just have me along and welcome me into their group. By the end of it, we’re not strangers to each other anymore.
Busan International Film Festival Square, a night market and popular shopping street, was my second destination. The street was filled with carts on either side, and delicious foods sizzled on the grills atop of each cart. There were also carts overflowing with candy, homemade smoothies and pouched beverages. Fortune tellers and palm readers sat in booths at the end of the street. The atmosphere reminded me of a fair. I ate a cheddar-sprinkled twisted potato on a stick, and a bowl of dumplings.
On Saturday I went to Gamcheon Culture Village — one of the most charming places I’ve ever visited in my life. Originally built during the 1920’s and 30’s, the village came to be when the Busan city administration decided to relocate its poor Korean population to an area secluded from the port. The village holds great significance throughout Korean history and served as a safe place for refugees to relocate during the Korean War. Conditions in the village were slum-like for many decades, but students, artists, and residents as part of the Village Art Project in 2009. Gamcheon Culture Village has become the number one attraction in Busan, featuring picturesque colorful houses, painted murals, shops, museums, and cafes.
Dadaepo Beach is where I spent Saturday evening. The high tide started to roll in around 5 o’clock, and people gathered along the shore to watch the sun disappear behind some mountains. Ships dotted the horizon, and shells washed up in the waves, as surfers entertained the crowds during the last moments of daylight. I love the beach, but there was something magical about this beach. All of the features that make for a perfect beach day were at Dadaepo Beach and they were swirling around me all at once.
I visited Busan International Film Festival Square for a second night of dumplings. The women working the cart recognized me from the night before and excitedly offered me a place to eat on the side of their station. Several other people visited their cart and stood alongside me as we ate dumplings and drank warm fish soup. The ambience of this night market was particularly warm and inviting.
Rain sprinkled from the sky on Sunday, but I had purchased a nighttime seat on the express bus back to Seoul. (There were no train tickets left from Busan to Seoul since I booked my trip so last minute during the busiest travel weekend of the year.) After eating lunch in the hotel restaurant, I took a taxi to the Rovin Museum Cafe, a vintage tourist spot at the edge of Busan.
Upon sight, the Rovin Cafe immediately took me back to a time prior to my existence. Retro cars from the 1950’s and 60’s sat outside of the cafe and a pay phone hung on the exterior brick wall. The cafe’s interior was filled with antique cameras, lamps, jewelry, a jukebox, and vintage Coca-Cola items. Customers were able to buy pizza, milkshakes, and drinks from an authentic soda fountain. I couldn’t believe I was simultaneously standing in present-day South Korea and 1950s America.
The express bus departed Busan Central Station promptly at 8 o’clock, and arrived back in Seoul shortly before midnight. The holiday weekend went by too quickly, but were some of the greatest days I have spent in Korea so far. After a COVID-filled year of the rat, I’m crossing my fingers that the year of the ox is never-ending color, delicious foods, and sorbet sunsets at the beach.