South Korea has more coastline than Florida, yet somehow we ended up in the country's only landlocked province. Being Midwesterners, we were able to remain stoic about this for quite a long time--almost a year in fact. But this is Asia, and it's summer, and sweating appears to be the closest thing Chungju has to a water sport.* So when I got out of work early last Friday, we made an instantaneous decision to get the heck out of here and find us some beach.
Our train shot into Busan at about 200 miles an hour. We stepped out of the KTX station to find a totally different atmosphere than we'd left behind. Busan is about as far from Chungju as you can get in Korea, but from the train it hadn't looked that different. All Korean cities have the same glassy department stores, the same flocks of concrete apartment towers, and the same backdrop of haze-soaked mountains.
But it was cooler here, and less humid. There was a busker playing guitar under a cluster of trees to our right, and a giant, neon octopus fountain changing colors to the left. I decided it was perfect and that I'd like to stay forever.
I was predisposed to like Busan long before we arrived. Inevitably known as Korea's "second city," Busan has a reputation for being beautiful, arty, and as culturally diverse as things get around here. It has all the assets of Seoul with half the crowd--who wouldn't like that? There's even a Chinatown (I'd been told to expect lots of Japanese in Busan, but here as elsewhere in Korea, Chinese people make up the largest percentage of the foreigners).
We didn't actually see the Chinatown. Or the traditional markets. Or the Buddhist temples. We flopped our lazy butts on Haeundae beach and stayed there for the entire weekend.
Korean beaches are, as you might expect, very well organized. Haeundae was partitioned off into numbered sections, each covered in rows of beach umbrellas. You simply rented a plot under an umbrella (about $7 for the day, plus beach mat) and set up camp. Each mat was it's own little universe; even as the crowds grew there was no jostling or overlapping. Koreans are very comfortable living in close quarters.
Back in Chungju, swimming is treated with indifference. Most kids don't take lessons (where will they go swimming on the farms?). My adult friends were surprised I even knew how to swim. I thought things would be different in a famous beach town, but apparently not. There were hardly any swimmers; just a few ultra-serious guys in swim caps. But everyone--and I mean everyone--had a giant floatie.
The rental stations had piles of yellow inner tubes going for another $7ish each. You simply hitched it up around your waist and waded into the drink. The Korea Strait was throwing up some big waves, and the idea was to drift out and then ride them toward shore. The waves were cold and abrasive with sand, and they pushed people before them like snow before a plow. There was lots of screaming, mostly with delight.
Back on land, the mail arrived. Our beach mat accumulated flyers from local restaurants. Pizza, fried chicken, kimbap, hamburgers, icy bing su; you could just call in your order and it'd be delivered to your umbrella. A few traditional hawkers roamed the beach, singing out their wares as they went. We flagged one down to avoid the embarrassment of trying to speak Korean on the phone.
Aside from a group of Indian guys we were the only foreigners on our part of the beach. Later, we found out this was because Haeundae actually had a "foreigners' section". This was just a stretch of beach without umbrellas, where you could bring your towel and just claim a patch of sand like in the States.
A sand volleyball competition was in progress when we walked by, and a crowd of Koreans stood on the promenade watching with interest as shirtless Westerners flailed at the net.**
At night, the nearby streets grew festively raucous. It was summer vacation for Koreans and foreigners alike, and the bars and restaurants were stuffed. To our delight, we found a Mexican place just off the beach.
Most of the restaurants were open to the street, and the music blasting out of them got mingled and muddled. All the Westerners looked happy and tan, all the Koreans happy and stylish. Aside from an ill-chosen kiwi margarita, I loved everything about it. Next time I'll just get strawberry flavored, and it'll be perfect.
*Chungju is hosting the World Rowing Championship this August. Apparently you have to be some elite international athlete or something to play in the water.
**It seems most Koreans prefer to wear t-shirts or even thin hoodies over their swimsuits, even when in the water. That's not gender-specific.