Sunday, October 5, 2008

Son of the beach

Ray and I hopped the KTX "bullet train" to Busan on Saturday morning. The one disappointment we had was that the train did not so much bullet as mosey. It turns out that it's only super-fast from Daegu north to Seoul; they're planning on making it un chemin de fer de grand vitesse from here to Busan sometime, but it isn't there yet.

Still, KTX is an amazing thing; the trains run from Seoul in the north to Busan in the south every 20-30 minutes or so all day long, and from here to Busan, a 70-minute ride, costs nine bucks for economy or thirteen bucks first class. We rode economy on the way down and that was pretty comfortable, but the first class on the way back was well worth the money: wide, reclining seats with lots of legroom, along with free newspapers and "flight attendants" pushing refreshment carts, can make all the difference at the end of a tiring day. We were disappointed that first class didn't get back to Dongdaegu Station any faster than economy did, though.

I really wanted to see something of Korea other than Daegu, and I saw a lot, or rather the same few things repeatedly: endless ranges of hills and mountains, almost untouched but for the occasional lone road over one or another of them; every square inch of arable land being cultivated for food, everywhere that was flat-- orange trees, cabbages, you name it (there were many hundreds of mini-greenhouses, plastic half-tubes a foot off the ground and fifty yards long); and an ever-present, severe haze. The weather was gorgeous, and not nearly hot enough for a thick heat haze; I guess the entire country is just smoggy.

Busan is a real city of four million people (unlike Daegu's piddly two and a half million), and I've read that it's the world's busiest port, though we didn't see that part of town. At Busan Station, we ate at a food court, where I had a delicious udon and tofu soup that's the closest thing to Campbell's chicken noodle I've ever had; even the seaweed was m-m-m good. Then we went out to the wide square plaza in front of the station-- Daegu has nothing like it, all full of sunlight and life-- and caught the subway to Korea's most famous beach.

Haeundae Beach is in an upscale neighborhood on the east side of the very large city. The streets by the beach are chockablock with ritzy hotels and restaurants. The beach is a mile long and may have up to 100,000 people on it on a weekend in midsummer; I've seen YouTube videos in which you could walk the length of the beach on sunbathers' backs. We wanted to come while the weather was still nice but the beach was much less crowded.

I can't tell you how much I've missed the beach. Busan really was my first choice as to where I'd like to live, because of its relatively mild weather, its relatively large number of Westerners, and its absolutely essential ocean. (They can call it the East Sea all they want, and the rest of the world can call it the Sea of Japan, but it's obviously really the Pacific. For that matter, there's really only one ocean, you know; it just has islands, such as America and Eurasia, of various sizes in various places.)

Anyway, unlike Florida's beaches, there are hills that come down almost to the water. There was also an International Film Festival Promoting Asian Cinema, which St. Augustine somehow failed to host. We saw, briefly, a panel interview of various gorgeous and unrecognizable (to us) actor types. There were tents and booths for all kinds of promotions, my favorite being for Tsingtao beer from China. (In a fit of temporary insanity, I failed to get my photo taken with the two people in panda costumes.) I caught the same red balloon scudding along the beach three times for the same little kid. And I saw more Americans in a half hour than I had in five weeks in Daegu. And I'd like to say that the lifeguard on the jet-ski, however buff he may be, should not have been wearing that thong.

Afterward, we entrained subterraneously and returned to the train station, then walked across the street to Texas Street, and the "Shopping Area for Foreigners". Ray had hoped to find some clothing stores with large sizes. It has a reputation for being a seedy and dangerous red-light district at night, but at three in the afternoon, it's a sad collection of little shops, bars, and massage parlors, most of which have signs in Russian-- I always forget that Korea actually abuts Russia, barely, and Kim Jung Il can practically see Sarah Palin's house-- because the American sailors who gave Texas Street its name have been replaced by Russian merchantmen and stevedores.

Well, Steve doesn't adore the Russian Quarter. We were approached, halfheartedly, by a few women speaking in Russian whom I think were hookers, but they may have been trying to sell time shares in the Poconos. Hard to say. So we got back in the station and on the train and came home. Funny how I sort of think of Daegu as home already...

I had taken the bus to the subway to the train to the subway to the beach to the subway to the train, and I was tired. But even an hour at the beach, on top of a mountain hike the day before, can revitalize me in ways I never would have expected. My spirit is as high as my body is sore. And that's better than the other way around.

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