To only see Seoul on a Korean vacation is an absurd task. Like an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, you simply can’t experience all the city has to offer in the unfortunately short time you have. (And, also like the barbecue, you leave feeling bloated and confused, wondering where all your money went.)
Enter Busan. Busan is Korea’s second city: its Los Angeles, Lyon or Montreal, sitting on the southeast coast of the Pacific. There are five mountain ranges, six sunny beaches and noticeably few worthwhile touristy spots. This is nice. It means that, as a visitor, you can go to the country’s largest markets and be surrounded by locals who are there to actually shop; climb a mountain and you’ll be surrounded by Korean hikers. From a tourist’s perspective, it’s humbling.
I am, of course, biased, having lived in Busan for nearly two years and having visited Seoul precisely thrice. To be honest they’re both beautiful, graceful and bustling metropolises—but, as with any city that’s not the country’s largest, Busan just feels cozier. This two-day itinerary is meant to reflect that.
A full two-day guide for GoMad Nomad – go on! Read it!
The distance between Huế, Vietnam’s pre-communist capital, and Savannakhet, a sleepy Lao city by the Mekong River, is over 400 kilometers of thick tropical forest, sparsely inhabited by dark-skinned mountain tribes. The border checkpoint, somewhere in between, lies truly in the middle of nowhere. Four hours got us this far, and it would be longer until Savannakhet: five hours by bus, and unimaginably longer if the bus, say, left without us.
Which, of course, it just did.
I’d asked my girlfriend to wait where it had parked, in case the driver tried to leave (unimaginable!), and jogged up to the bank to exchange our Vietnamese money for Lao kip. I was figuring out how best to mime “commission rate” to the English-impaired teller when a Dutch guy, mid-20s with a mullet, who’d been sitting behind us on the bus, opened the door and nervously announced: “Um, our bus is leaving.”
I looked out the window and saw two things: first, my girlfriend, looking incredulous by the empty parking space, mouth open and arms outstretched; second, our big grey bus, leisurely rolling away from her.
So now we found ourselves in this high-speed chase—me, my girlfriend and the Dutchman whose name I never learned—on three separate bikes, racing down this dusty mountain road. A canvas-covered shipment truck drove ahead of us, and when we overtook it, I glimpsed the edge of the cliff a few metres away. Beyond that, the whole Lao mountain range spread out into the horizon; everything was high-noon bright, but hazy, too, because of the mountain fog. The wind blew my hair hard but I turned into it, squinting ahead, honing into our target.
In that moment, I felt exactly like James Bond.
Finally, long after many of my esteemed peers, I’ve been published in the Globe and Mail.
We hadn’t slept longer than an hour when the disinterested, pale-shirted, tired-eyed Chinese airport security guard padded over and shook us awake. I knew immediately that our plan had failed. When you travel like this, very rarely do things go as expected.
Flustered by interrupted sleep at 1:30 a.m. and a lack of any Chinese ability whatsoever, we tried to explain, to plead that we had nowhere to go and a flight leaving in only nine hours. We didn’t have enough cash for a hotel, let alone enough to hire a taxi to drive us to one; Qingdao International, for all its efficiency, is squat in the middle of nowhere.
But the guard would hear none of it. Instead, he listened to two Chinese girls behind us, pleading the same case; they’d been sleeping, too, on the conjoined metal bench behind us, hoping to score a free night’s rest before their domestic flight home the next morning.
The shorter one turned to me. “We cannot sleep here,” she told us.
Yeah, I replied. I got that.
We hopped along wet rocks covered in fungus, beside families searching for seashells at 10:30 p.m. Buskers played guitars and sang under yellow lamplight in the chilled mid-autumn air. Gruff men in thin shirts fired up skewers of pork and onion on the sidewalks, and the smell of charred meat filled the streets and our piqued our noses. The city felt alive.
My first narrative for GoMad Nomad, a nice little travel magazine for stories and destination guides. Very down-to-earth and practical.