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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Being in Busan

I've always considered myself a city girl but Seoul is just a little too city for me. Missing are the leafy parks and tree-lined streets that made Washington and London livable.

As the weather slowly fades into autumn -- stress on slowly -- I realized time was running out to visit one of the must-see places in Korea: Busan.

Busan (or Pusan) is the second-largest city in Korea and one of the most active ports in the world. To say that Seoul and Busan are different is to compare New York City and San Diego. One is a cosmopolitan city of the world, filled with flashing lights and a huge swath of diversity (or, as much diversity as exists in Seoul...). The other is a laid-back beach town, perfect for relaxation and lazy meandering.

Neither is better than the other. They are just irrevocably dissimilar.

It's apparent immediately after stepping off the train that Busan is a world away from Seoul. Absent are the stampede of stilettos stamping down Seoul's sidewalks. Flats, sneakers and even -- gasp -- flip flops are everywhere.

Thanks to KTX -- the same high-speed train as France's TGV -- the trip to Busan now takes under three hours if you're willing to pay premium price (51,000 KRW one way). There are cheaper, albeit slower, ways to get there, too. Hotels are expensive across-the-board, however, so I opted to go down and back in one day, thereby justifying a KTX ticket. It may be a big city but there really is only one must-see sight besides the beach.

Inside Seoul Station

Most people were horrified that I would dream to go "all the way" to Busan just for a day but honestly, three hours isn't that ridiculously far for a day trip. My friends and I have day tripped to New York before and that's more than 4 hours from Washington.

The train ride flew by and by 10 AM, I was hopping onto Busan's simple, three-line subway. After consulting Lonely Planet on the train -- absolutely no pre-planning or forethought went into this trip -- I had a tentative agenda for the day.

One of the best things to happen over the past year is becoming a more independent traveler. If someone had said a year ago that I'd journey across Korea by myself, able to read the language but certainly not speak it, I'd never have believed it. But while there are plenty of times it's difficult to get by -- even a simple transaction like a ordering coffee can be a struggle -- almost everything important is well-labeled in English and Korean. (Except buses -- why, oh why, aren't bus signs bilingual?)

Sure, it would be more difficult to travel in China or an Arabic country where the language isn't as easy to read, but the confidence I've gained is invaluable.

Tomorrow: Busan's stunning Beomeosa Temple
Tuesday: Haeundae Beach, the most popular beach in Korea

Are you a city person or do you crave the country?