It is now two trips out of two within a month to different Korean cities for festivals of light that have left Elizabeth and I wondering if our attempts at making the most of precious time off work by seeing and experiencing as much of this country as possible are really more worthwhile than nights in in front of downloaded, poor-quality English telly. The first, the Lantern Festival in Jinju, was hellish to get to but pleasant upon arrival; of the second, last weekend’s sojourn to Busan for its annual International Fireworks Festival, the opposite could almost exactly be said. However, our time there really allowed us to experience full-on and first-hand some of the delights and downsides of Korean public behaviour.
We arrived via train in the early afternoon and checked in to a small and likable hostel. I was particularly impressed by the pictures of Spiderman on the walls. With the festival not due to kick off for a good six hours we decided to explore the area, but with our hostel only five minutes walk from Gwanganlli beach – the prime vantage point from which to view the fireworks – we got only as far a local burger joint and a couple of newsagents for beer and playing cards before deciding to settle down on the sand under the sun. The beach lies within a cove and the fireworks are set off from boats and other floating bodies on the facing water in front of a hugely unnecessary but quite impressive 7km-long suspension bridge, and by 3 o’ clock there was already a row of eager observers sat along the seafront. We spread out our shiny new silver beach mat behind them and dotted around us a few of the largest objects we had with us – the rucksack and my shoes – in order to save space for anyone we might be meeting up with later. This didn’t work. Within half an hour limbs and other bits and pieces had covered every grain of sand around us other than those already under our stuff. Legs would lie either side of a tactfully-placed shoe intended to reserve a square metre or so of beach, and more shiny silver mats would be manipulated like pieces of paper in the hands of bored 6th graders to weave in order to gain as much floor space for their owners as possible. Before long we surrendered and moved the bag and shoes onto our own mat, and within seconds the spaces they had occupied were filled. We felt and looked a bit like extras from a scene out of Where’s Wally.
Time passed by quicker than expected as we people-watched to keep boredom at bay . To our left were two or three young couples, utterly oblivious to anyone or anything other than each other and their camera phones. I sometimes wonder what they actually do with all the photos they take – whether or not they actually get looked at again. Behind us sat a middle-aged couple huddled together. When they ordered from one of countless fried chicken peddlers (so annoying these guys – they’d trample with their big boots through the sand, kicking it all over people and into their drinks) they remained equally huddled apart from when an outstretched hand wordlessly offered us a drumstick each. Directly in front of us were three older ladies who, as time passed, slowly took over more and more of our personal space. First they would place a section of their shiny silver mat over a tiny corner of ours, and then hand us tangerines, grinning, to try and buy our compliance; then they would gradually slide it further and further towards the centre of ours. It was clear they were waiting for others and trying to generate enough space for them, and they picked their moment perfectly – when Elizabeth had gone to the toilet. She wouldn’t have had it, but they plied me with pizza, kimbap, more tangerines and even a cupful of Powerade as a family of five or six squeezed in next to the original three. Finally, to our right was a girl on her own who sat on a see-through sheet of plastic getting visibly irked by everyone’s apparent desire to feed the foreigners and not her. She left before the fireworks started and was replaced by another singleton – a man who didn’t have his own mat so sat on ours.
A couple of hours before 8, the due start time, it started to drizzle. By now the whole area was well and truly packed. Despite the fact that the beach was covered to the extent that it was invisible, wet sand footprints still managed to find their way onto shiny silver mats. This coupled with Korean’s infamous impatience turned the 50m stretch to the toilet into a half-hour round trip that had to be navigated carefully round umbrellas and body parts. Men, women and children – many of them less than half my height – would barge anything that got in their way. Budding entrepreneurs would get in everyone’s way, trying to sell disposable macs, umbrellas, and more fried chicken. We only had one umbrella between us, and when I decided to stand for a while to stretch my legs, the three old ladies spread out onto our mat even further. I assumed that, given the puddles that had started to form on the floor, people would begin to stand too, especially as the fireworks started. I was wrong. The rain had picked up and thousands of umbrellas hovered a metre or so above sea level as the show began. A pair of girls behind us who had arrived just 30 minutes earlier had the audacity to tell me to sit down, but with everyone else on the floor I had little choice.
So, as I sat looking at the tops of umbrellas in front of me and the occasional firework that went high enough in the sky that I could see it from my sandy puddle, with Spice Girls blasting out from massive speakers behind me (who was the DJ?!) and legs horribly cramped and splayed out in about twelve different directions, I wondered if this particular cultural visit had been worth it. I was in no mood to get my camera out, anyway. Actually, the group in front of us decided to leave about 15 minutes into the show, so we got a pretty good view eventually and the fireworks were spectacular. The music playlist didn’t get any less bizarre – we were subjected to an eclectic mix of Korean tunes, dramatic classical anthems and the occasional arbitrary Western pop song – but the fireworks really were very good. The closing explosions were big enough that you couldn’t see black sky whichever direction you looked – an impressive sight given the scale of the whole event (different sources have informed me there were between 1 and 5 million people on the beach). Afterwards, we discovered that our hostel had a capacious supply of films in a cosy living room, so we dried off using hair dryers and sheltered there for the rest of the night.
I wonder how an experience at a similar event in England would differ. Given the generally overly-polite tendencies of the English in public situations I think we would have managed to keep our shiny silver mat our own, but I doubt we would have been given so many free tangerines. One of the best things about these weekend trips that you can make whilst in Korea is the fact that you feel like you’re on holiday – travelling, checking in to a hostel and then sitting in a t-shirt under the sun on a veranda with an ice-cold mug of beer along the seaside is not something that I do in England in late October – so in that sense I love these trips around the country. I just wish this one could have been a little less cramped, and sandy, and wet.
From the burger place – about 3pm.
On the beach – about 4pm.
Getting darker – about 5pm.
The bridge – about 7pm.
The fireworks – 8pm – 9pm (not my photo!).