Busan Blues

Sometimes things look bleak. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath before you start moving again. Thus it was when we arrived in our first port of call in Korea, the bustling, busy city of Busan. It is a place that bubbles with energy, where change comes frothing to the surface. A mixture of old and new, the stark discordance between tradition and innovation. Busan showcases the Korean phenomenon of rapid developement where high rise apartments shoot up next to Buddhist temples and fish markets fight for space with game parlours, neons ablaze. But this vigorous, almost aggressive city, were transition and movement is definitely in the air, just highlighted our situation all the more. We were stuck. Grounded. Immobile.

The reason behind our lack of progress was Sandie’s rear wheel, which had decided to become uncooperative. When your bike is your home, packhorse and means of transport, cooperation is a not a courtesy, its necessity. So when the hub made its dissatisfaction unknown, with the clutter of broken bearings, we had to stop and listen. Trying to find someone that could speak bike language or even English for that matter turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than we had expected.

Leaving at mid-morning we set off to try and find a bike shop. It was our first experience on the Busan tube, and we swiftly crossed platforms, checked out the locals glued to their phones and zipped across the extended city. Stepping back out into the hot air we made our first incursion into Korean cuisine and tried some Kimchi filled dumplings. The food tasted like our surroundings. It was hot and steamy, spicy with a pungent smell.  Following the streets to the seafront we reached our first hurdle. The bike shop was closed. No timetable or phone number to shed some light on the owner’s motivation to lock his doors and leave. Searching around, we found their rivals across the road and entered the small workshop. The language barrier didn’t budge and we took some time to understand that the bearings were indeed broken and that the quick inspection was not free. What is more, repairs where not possible and no spare pieces could be ordered.

Things were not rolling as smoothly as we had hoped and we had no choice but to head out back into the heat and keep searching. A third shop was our only option. Tube. Walk. Sweat. Fatigue after a month and a half in the saddle with little pause meant things felt much grimmer than they probably where. But our next visit confirmed the difficulty of any repairs or spares and sunk our hopes further. But we did not leave completely empty handed. We were told that a bike store not far might be able to help. With this snippet of knowledge our quest could go forward. After so many dead ends would we find the solution?

Above the restless streets and apartment blocks of Busan there is a refuge of calm. This is the buddhist temple of Beomeosa. Wreathed in mist and surrounded by green forests the temple sits on the edge of the Geumjeongsan Mountain. The city has spread around the slopes, an encroaching mass of urbanisation, surrounding everything. But both the temple and the space enclosed by the Geumjeongsanseong walls have been spared and it is possible to walk in peace. It is therefore the perfect place to hike close to town. After passing between the four protectors at the gate and admiring the painted decorations (always blue, white, red, black and yellow) you can take a steep path up to the extensive fortress. Climbing up the rocky stairs you will reach the north gate. Enter and a small path can be followed heading south, just inside the defensive structures. The whole fortress was built to defend from attacks by the Japanese and Manchu and the stone walls run for over 17 km. The track will pass the Fourth watchtower before going all the way to the South Gate. From here it is possible to go a little further and descend via the cable car, back into the surrounding siege of noise and people.

We pushed open the door into the bike shop. A small dog screamed in rage and Mike smiled as we entered. The dog “Vader” quickly calmed down and we described our touring ailments. Mike could communicate with both the bike and us perfectly and was soon checking the wheel, explaining as he went what was wrong. He also gave us a lot of other interesting information and was extremely helpful. He confirmed that the bearings were definitely dead, and as we had already heard, the spare parts very hard to obtain. Taking into account the problems we had encountered with our snapping spokes, we decided to change both hub and spokes in one go. We could then hopefully leave with much more confidence and not have to worry when we would be cycling in places where bike shops are few and far between. We left the wheel and the next day took both our bikes over for the operation.

Concerning our next destinations we had to work out our path to Laos, where we planned to paddle our packrafts in the coming months. Ideally we wanted to go through China, but this meant obtaining a visa. The alternative was to take a plane to Vietnam, but we preferred to keep flying to a minimum. We were stuck without bikes, so decided to get the visa formalities done in Busan and hopefully save time later on. If it worked we could then cycle north and take a ferry from Seoul.

Gamcheon-dong was a shanty town. Now a tourist attraction, a concave hill covered with small irregular houses painted in bright colours. The overall effect is indeed quite charming and walking through the small streets full of arts and crafts can almost make you forget that here most people prefer to live high off the ground. But once again it also speaks of the speed with which the country is reinventing itself, for the transformation from deprived to contrived has only taken a decade. What is perhaps more interesting are the panels showing historical pictures of the neighbourhood since the Korean war. During the first phase of the fighting, the communist forces all but overran the peninsula and Busan was the last bastion for the South Korean forces. Thousands of refugees flowed into the city. It was the birth of Gamcheon, the irregular shapes built over ages contrasting starkly with the glass clad skyscrapers and living apartments that have sprung up everywhere else.

Getting our visa was easier said than done and once again we were presented with a series of unexpected pitfalls before we could get our passports stamped. The problem stems from the need to justify transport in and out of the country as well as a day-to-day itinerary complete with reservations and a high amount of detail. In our case the ferry did not sell the online tickets meaning we had to purchase a flight reservation. As we wanted to leave by land meant we had to do the same thing to justify our exit. We were turned away twice before we had everything prepared, submitted the paperwork on our third visit and hoped for the best. And of course, Chuseok, a major festival in Korea and a three day holiday meant we would have to be extra patient!

But I am not renowned for that particular virtue, and when the bikes were finally clean, mended and ready, we weren’t going to wait. We decided to head out into the countryside and start pedalling again. I would catch a bus back to pick up the passports once they were ready and thus save time . After a week of waiting it was the right thing to do.

Sometimes things start to look up. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath and hit the road once again!

One thought on “Busan Blues

  1. Pingback: A Path South – Epic Works

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