As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon, I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.
May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival
Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.
During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.
I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”
The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.
As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.
There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.
I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.
Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.
May 20th: Busan Global Gathering
This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?
I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.
Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.
Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?
Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.
After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.
On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.
Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.
Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival
I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.
I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.
There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.
This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.
In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).
I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).
There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.
Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most of the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!
The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told us the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.
Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.
After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.
Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.
I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!