In which I arrive, somewhat frazzled, at Busan’s crowded beach area.
Canary Wharf, London, Thursday 5 June, 3:30pm. Every time I leave the office for a trip, no matter how much I’ve tried to tidy up all my loose ends in advance, the departure from work is stressful. I had left a good hour to finish my packing before the taxi was due to arrive at my front door, but last-minute panics at work delayed my departure homewards and ate into half of that contingency. I arrive at home flustered, throwing the last few things into my suitcase, grateful that I had a packing checklist to tick things off against. The taxi arrived early, and I have to make the driver wait as I double check everything, just to make sure.
Although on previous departures the stress levels have eased as soon I get into the taxi, this time they don’t start to dissipate until I am cleared through security at the airport.
Once again I have been relying on the duty free shops for last minute gifts for hosts and friends in Korea. I acquire a random collection of cheese, anchovy paste, Earl Grey tea and biscuits from the Harrods and Caviar House concessions. I really must be more organised in future, and plan in advance who is going to be getting what gift. And next time I really must try to find half bottles of champagne, which is what one of my hosts always asks for. Learning a lesson from the previous year, I don’t buy any alcohol at Heathrow, instead planning to buy it in transit at Incheon, where it is much cheaper.
A beer in the airline lounge helps to ease things further, and once I get on the plane I slip into the familiar routine of a comforting red wine and bibimbap, and deciding what in-flight movie to watch.
There isn’t much to choose from. I hadn’t heard of the drama Man in Love (dir Han Dong-wook) or the rom-com Marriage Blue (Hong Ji-young), but there were two big box office films on offer: The Face Reader and Secretly Greatly. I decide to try the latter, leaving Face Reader for my return flight.
Secretly Greatly is a lightweight piece about sleeper North Korean agents in South Korea. Its premise reminded me of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You, but Kim’s novel is a lot darker. The movie is part action, part comedy and an inoffensive way to spend an hour or two if you have nothing else to do, but definitely not worth making the effort to see. It was based on a successful 2010 webtoon (by manhwa author Hun), and thus was sure of a strong opening at the Korean box office, and continued to do well, becoming one of the biggest Korean films of 2013 (#6 in the rankings, at nearly 7 million admissions nationwide). It was fine to pass the time until I nodded off to sleep, and I managed to stay that way almost until the plane approached Incheon.
In transit at Incheon I have to unlearn my lesson from last year. Although the duty free whisky is cheaper than Heathrow, you can’t buy it unless you are departing from Korea. As I’m passing through on the way to Busan, I will arrive down south without any decent whisky for my hosts. Stupid of me.
A further disappointment awaits. I arrive at Gimhae airport outside Busan to find that the SIM card sales desk has closed at least half an hour early. For the foreseeable future I’m going to be spending vast amounts of money on mobile phone roaming charges. Cursing, I set off in search of the Haeundae limo bus service, and soon I’m on my way to my hotel.
Because it’s Friday night. Because it’s Memorial Day, a three-day weekend in Korea. Because it’s the last weekend of the Busan international motor show. Because today was the Haeundae Beach Sand Festival. Because it was only the second weekend that the beach had been open that year. In fact, because of most of the reasons why I’d had to commit to spending an arm and a leg to find a hotel room on Haeundae Beach in the first place. And, of course, because it’s Busan. For all these reasons, the traffic is nose-to-tail all the way from the airport to the beach.
I ring my companions for the evening to tell them I’ll be late. Fortunately, they are caught in the same traffic jam, probably fifteen minutes behind me.
I finally check in at the hotel and get a cab to Marine City, where I am to meet Min, her husband and her cute one-year-old daughter, Jin. Min is a friend who had lived in London for a while, improving her English. She now runs an English Academy in Busan. I had also known her elder sister, Nam-hee, in London and was hoping that she would be available to meet up this evening too. But she had had a baby boy a couple of days beforehand and was unable to come. Their parents will be delighted at there being two healthy grandchildren.
Min, her husband and daughter are all excellent company. The local soju (C1 – a brand I hadn’t sampled before) together with the upscale sashimi soon enables me to relax and unwind from the traffic.
We head back to the hotel for 2cha, strolling along the beach in search of a pojangmacha. Things have changed unrecognisably since I was last looking for a drink on Haeundae beach around 14 years ago. Gone are the tents where you can get your fortunes told or where you can get cheap sashimi and soju. Everything is now built upon, and we have to make do with a new beachside bar. The beers round off the evening nicely as the moon sinks behind the hotel silhouettes.
My friends head off home as it’s well past Jin’s bedtime, and although the beers and soju have kept me going, the evidence of my photos tells me that I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open. The beach is still thronging with people, and buskers are putting in very professional performances right outside the back door of my hotel. I grit my teeth and ring home, wondering how much Vodafone were going to be charging me for the privilege.