Our departure from Japan was a little emotional in two ways: first of all, we were sad to leave the country after two fantastic months of traveling, meeting friends, and eating delicious food. Second, when we arrived at the check-in counter to get our ferry tickets previously booked and paid online, the lady behind the counter started typing frenetically on her keyboard and printed a long google translation for us: “Sorry, the booking agent did not forward us the payment and your reservation was cancelled. You can book a new ticket for double the price.”… (Little advice here: DO NOT BOOK ANYTHING THROUGH DIRECTFERRIES.UK! All of our complaint emails were left unanswered). We tried not to think too much about it, and the most important was that we still managed to get the ferry to Busan, in the south-east corner of South Korea. During the ride, we tried to memorise the usual words (“delicious”, “thank you” or “more kimchi please”) but quickly realized that we would have a hard time adapting our brains to this new language.
We arrived in Busan and directly felt thrown back into the “real” Asia: Loud traffic, people shouting, unreadable street signs, but more importantly: plenty of street food. Also, let’s not forget about the typical Korean mushroom haircuts, the porcelain skin and 90’s clothes with oversized round glasses (honestly, about 90% of Koreans have the exact same style). We started well with some delicious kimchi dumplings, forcing our stomachs to readjust to the spicyness that had been absent of our diet in the previous two months. We strolled along the famous Haeungdae beach (with massive sand constructions that day) and later enjoyed the skyline night view.
Even though Koreans from Seoul consider Busan to be small, we spent quite a significant amount of time getting lost in public transportation, often getting the help of old men that literally took us by the hand and pulled us through the crowds to bring us to a metro entrance (although often not the one we wanted to go to).
We visited the main tourist sights of Busan that are the Haedong Yonggungsa seaside temple and the Gamcheon Folk Village that locals mysteriously call the “Macchu Piccu of Korea” although it would better be described as an “artsy favela” – a big district composed of small colorful houses crammed on the steep sides of a valley. In fact, this village was built by refugees fleeing the north when the communists pushed all the way south and Busan was then the only city left under “southern” control.
Next stop was Gwangju, in the south-west of Korea, a place that is usually excluded from the typical tourist route. We went there to meet a friend, Maria, that teaches English in a Christian school. First thing first, we had some cold noodles dish (one interesting fact: you are always given a pair of scissors when eating noodles in Korea, as they are extremely long… or because their metal chopsticks are damn slippery!), as well as some spicy tteokbokki, delicious rice cakes that are pronounced “toppoki” (one of our favorite Korean words).
Maria and her friend Christin took us a little out of town for a walk in a beautiful bamboo forest park, where some old Korean artisans displayed traditional craftsmanship, such as bamboo fan making or calligraphy. In the evening, we had an amazing Korean BBQ: ribs meat with plenty of tiny – and for once quite healthy – side dishes consisting of seaweed, kimchi, pickles, and plenty of salads (Oh had we missed salad!). The concept is simple: You take a salad leaf in your hand, fill it with meat, raw garlic, sauce, rice, etc., roll it all together and bite!
On another rather lazy day we went for a little hike close to town. It was an interesting experience because we walked up a mountain along a lift bringing Korean “hikers” in high-heels to the top. They looked at us with curiosity, sitting comfortably on the lift, while loudspeakers blasted K-Pop and more traditional songs along the entire way. Later that day we enjoyed some cold noodles North-Korean style together with Maria. Perfectly suited for the hot day! We did complement them with some heavy cakes after that, but why not?
The next day, Maria invited us to her school – she had organized a special English day about “love”, and we were the guest speakers. We first didn’t know what to talk about, but in the end it was easy for Rebekka as a “love scientist” and Quentin decided to talk about his love for food. The challenge was to adapt the level of English for the 200 young Korean students. It was a fun experience, and after that it was the turn of the school’s 10 best english students to give presentations. All talked courageously about their own fears, about love and god. A few were actually hilarious, including one young boy that explained how god was amazing because he created McDonald’s, Korean drama series and sexy K-Pop girls bands.
We spent the night sleeping at the school, sharing dinner and breakfast with the students that kept staring at us with curiosity (the food was very tasty!). We felt like real guest of honor, as everyone and especially the teachers were all extremely sweet and caring for us. We received presents before leaving, and had to promise to come back in one year time!