A couple of weeks ago was the Korean harvest festival called Chuseok – a three-day holiday that, this year, fell on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, thus creating a five-day weekend. In addition, my delayed summer holiday followed on immediately, giving me twelve consecutive days of non-work.
On Wednesday, I held a coffee morning here in Cheonan, which got a pretty good turn-out. I was given a late birthday present of some chocolate cake/pie, which was very tasty. Afterwards, three of us set out on a quest to locate a cat café in Cheonan – in which we eventually succeeded.
The following day, Chuseok Day itself, I headed up to Seoul and met a group of friends for a walk around Gyeongbokgung – the main royal palace. It was busier than I’d expected and pretty warm, but we had a good time looking at the fantastic architecture, posing for photos and browsing the exhibits in the Folk Museum. After that, we had food and drink in a Bukchon café and played card games. I’d told people I wanted to see a film in the evening, but that didn’t pan out; those of us still remaining had dinner at a cheap Korean restaurant in Insadong before heading home.
Actually, I headed to Zach’s home, as I’d invited another group of friends to a day of gaming in Sinsa on Friday. We only actually played two games. The first was a Burning Wheel one-shot run by Peter – which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to actually be a one-shot which is to say, we finished it on the day).
Our disparate group of characters were supposed to retrieve an Elixir of Life from a dragon’s hoard to give to a dying princess. Most of us had ulterior motives. The game ended with the prince drinking the elixir himself (thus becoming immortal) and escaping with a magic sword of truth and killing one of the last surviving characters causing the victim to come back as a ghost and haunt him. Our cheer at this happy conclusion caused the coffee shop staff to ask us to be quiet. After dinner we played my game Islands of the Azure Sea, which I’d just updated. I’m starting to think a maximum of eight players is rather too many.
I had a wedding to go to on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I met Natasha – an Englishwoman I and my ex-girlfriend met while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, and who was visiting Korea for a couple of weeks – and Alisha a friend from the Tolkien reading group. We headed back to my place so Natasha could drop off her bag, and they peered at my cat in her hiding place. Then we went up to Sinbu-dong, the city centre area, and spent an hour at the cat café (which is called The Cat) that I’d previously located. Jocelyn joined us while we were there.
The café is divided into two areas, a larger area with the entrance and counter and so on, and then a smaller, but still reasonably big, area partitioned off with a large window running the length of one side and glass sliding doors on another side. Before going in here – which is where the cats hang out – you have to change your footwear for cheap rubber sandals and clean your hands with disinfectant, as well as putting your possessions in a locker.
When I was there the first time, the owner told me he had eighteen cats. They include a Maine coon, a Scottish fold, an American curl, a sphynx or two, some oriental shorthairs, a couple of munchkins and others. The cats – apart from the munchkins – are all very friendly and seem quite happy. The Maine coon has its back shaved, for some reason, and one or two cats with long fur look like they could do with a bath – I’m not sure if their greasy fur indicates an illness or the fact that they get petted a lot by people with sweaty hands. There was one big cat – an Abyssinian, I think – that gave all of us a hug.
After the cat café, we went to the Arario Gallery – which I’d never been to in my ten months in Cheonan. I got Alisha and Jocelyn to pose next to a couple of Anthony Gormley sculptures. The current exhibition was by a Korean artist called CI Kim and included an interesting range of media, from found art washed up on a beach to big plastic triangles to paintings of children holding emotive signs.
We went for coffee downstairs in the Coffee Bean. Jocelyn left us, but Eve joined us, and after a bit we met Mike and Tera and their friend Brandon for a trip to Taejosan, a nearby mountain, home to Gakwonsa, a Buddhist temple with a big Buddha sculpture. After looking around the temple, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Then we (minus Alisha, who had to return home) headed back to Mike and Tera’s for a game of Cards Against Humanity.
On Monday, Natasha and I started carrying out our plan to head down to Busan and see some of the south coast. We got to the KTX station in Cheonan nice and early and therefore arrived in Busan nice and early. We hadn’t identified anywhere specific to stay, but we decided on Haeundae because there are plenty of hotels, motels and suchlike around there. Our plan was to ask at a few places and see what was reasonable in terms of price. In the event, we checked out a small pension first and at ₩50,000 for a room for the two of us it seemed OK and our search came to an end. We probably could have found some where nicer, but it was par for the course for Korean pensions.
We walked up an down the beach. It was sunny and breezy and a big embankment of sand had been built for the forthcoming Busan International Film Festival festivities. The purpose of this wall, we could only guess at. We had a burger for lunch at a fancy-ish burger place – best burger ever, according to Natasha – then walked around the coast towards Gwangan. We took pictures of the mermaid statue and the fourteenth century (or earlier) Hae Un Dae carving in the rock, walked around the APEC conference building, craned our necks at the blue skyscrapers and tried to find the Busan Museum of Art. When we finally located it, it was closed – it was Monday. We had a coffee at a Twosome Place (no, really – it’s one of the many coffee shop chains in Korea) and played cards.
Then we took the subway and walked to Busan Museum – also closed. So we walked up the hill to the Cultural Centre, finding a friendly cat on the way. Natasha marvelled at the chandeliers in the concert hall lobby and we watched some musicians have their photo taken on the plaza outside. We went back to Gwangalli and had seafood for dinner, watched the lights on the bridge and a lightshow projected on the rain from a jet of water.
The next morning, we spent an hour on the subway to the Intercity Bus Terminal, an hour on a coach to Gohyeon – the main city, it seems, on Geoje Island – then well over an hour on a bus out to Haegeumgang. Actually, the driver dropped us off at a nearby village – even though the route information said the bus terminated a Haegeumgang – and we had to wait for another bus for another ten minute ride.
As we hadn’t really researched exactly where we wanted to go, I asked a ticket clerk at the bus station in Gohyeon what was a good beach to visit and she recommended Haegeumgang and told us which bus to take. Haegeumgang is a picturesque, rocky island and it has no beach – so I may have used a word that translates more accurately as ‘coast’. We didn’t take a ferry around the island, but, after a lunch of more seafood, we walked up a nearby hill to a view platform with great views in most directions. When I tried to reach the actually summit, I found it to be closed with a padlocked, barbed wire-encircled door.
After missing two buses, we took a taxi back to Gohyeon (₩17,000) and a coach back to Busan, then subwayed to the Museum of Art – which was open. The museum was pretty massive, but its spaciousness made it seem like there wasn’t that much stuff in it. We wandered around all the galleries, admiring, in particular, a collection of works about Korean-Japanese relations, such as the painting of two dogs biting each other, a series of woodcuts telling the story of a Japanese-run mine and a huge mural of corpses and Buddha statues based on the Gwangju massacre.
We headed back to the pension for a shower, had dinner at the burger place and met Jessica for an all too brief chat.
The next day, we headed back to the Bus Terminal, with all our bags this time, and caught a coach to Suncheon. Once we’d checked in to a hotel – Hotel BMW, ₩35,000 for a room – we caught a bus out to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park – the site of Korea’s biggest wetland.
We dutifully walked around the museum first, reading and forgetting various bits of information about wetlands, then looked for something to eat in the ‘cafeteria’ and the ‘convenience store’. Rather inconveniently, as we were both hungry, they had nothing more than small pastries and crisps. After eating a packet of crisps each (actually, mine was a dried tofu snack), we started walking through the wetlands on jetty-like walkways, taking pictures of the massive fields of reeds and the occasional heron, crab and bunch of mudskippers.
On the far side of the reed fields, we walked up the familiarly named Yongsan, a forested hill with an observation platform looking out over the bay. I took lots of photos of the view, including distant hills and islands and the circular reed beds on the coast. Natasha was particularly taken with the maroon-ish colour of some of the vegetation.
After a convenience store lunch and a brief encounter with a couple of Mormon girls (one Korean, one from Salt Lake City), we headed back into town and then out again to Seonamsa on another pretty long bus ride. We walked around this Buddhist temple at dusk as the monks were performing some sort of ceremony. This began with monks taking turns to perform epic drum solos on a giant drum in the entrance building (on the ground floor of which was a shop, the attendant of which harassed Natasha as she looked around). Then the monks gathered in one of the halls for chanting and praying. It was nice and peaceful; there were a few other tourists around, but not many.
The following day – Thursday – was our last day together and we decided to check out Yeosu Expo – the site of a world exposition last year. I was a little confused about what was going on there because there was also a garden expo in the area, but that turned out to be in Suncheon. Yeosu is close to Suncheon, but is a separate town. Yeosu Expo is also a terminus of a KTX line, so it seemed like a good place to head back home from.
Unfortunately, there was really nothing going on at Yeosu Expo – there was some sort of ‘character festival’ for kindergarteners and the nearby aquarium seemed to be open for business. Most of the exhibition halls were closed and empty and the whole place seemed a bit sad and dilapidated for something that is only a year old. We had a strange French toast-croque-monsieur thing and a drink in a café on the site and played some cards then caught our train home. It was a regular train rather than KTX – four hours to Cheonan, five to Seoul – as it was at the most convenient time.
It was great to spend time with Natasha and quite satisfying to use my minimal expertise to show her around. It was also good to finally have my summer week off work, even though it was a pretty tiring round of early starts and long bus and train rides. It was also a little weird to consider that Natasha is a link to my ex-girlfriend and that our lives are pretty close, but completely divorced from each other. But it’s only loneliness that makes me dwell on this, I suppose. But Natasha was great company – it was lovely to spend time with someone as good-natured as her; her being British was a bonus, too.
Although there was lots of moving around, this short, concentrated burst of travelling works quite well, I think. Busan is a great place to spend a couple of days on holiday, and there are lots of places on the south coast that would be worth exploring; the little that we saw was very pleasant – even Yeosu Expo had a certain charm. The experience makes me want to explore more of the country – just not necessarily by myself.