One of our favourite activities in Busan is climbing the hills that pierce through the urban blanket of the city. Although the homes and office blocks make every effort to ascend the steep slopes, towards the top they surrender to pine forests and curated activity areas. After work finishes we’ll eat lunch (normally the rice and eggs that the hostel supplies combined with some veggies from our own stash) and then exchange the concrete forest for a more traditional wooden one.
At the summit of the closest of these hills is Democracy Park. It was the first hill we climbed in Busan and the views it offers are worth it. From our hostel the route to the park is north, through the busy shopping area around BIFF (Busan International Film Festival) Square and then along the narrow but picturesque residential streets that cling to the hillside. This is the tough part of the journey as it is entirely stairs.
Our first attempt at visiting the park was hindered slightly by the fact that we didn’t know where the entrance was. We climbed several winding sets of stairs, squeezing between houses with barking dogs and the odd water hazard in the form of waste water, tossed blindly from a front door or bathroom window (I didn’t know it was a bathroom window until I walked past and had a view of the occupier enjoying their shower). However at the top of these stairs we were met with dead ends. After the third or fourth time returning to the road that circles the park we looked back towards the peak, scouring the treeline for an entrance. We didn’t spot one, but we saw a group of three Koreans heading downwards. They vanished behind a group of houses and then reappeared from one of the few staircases we had yet to try. Bingo*.
We discovered that the park is a fitness park, full of free to use outdoor exercise equipment. These are fairly common in Busan (we saw plenty in China too) however his one was especially well equipped with a croquet lawn, badminton courts (yes, plural) and an outdoor gym with free weights! If that doesn’t excite you please skip to the next paragraph. To those still reading – I know! Free to use, in the outdoors, fully fledged free weight section. And a squat rack, bench, incline bench, covered floor section, loads of machines, a set of cable flys and a set of parallel bars. I went back one morning for the express purpose of working out and there were about 10 older guys working out in there. One of them introduced himself to me and then told me that I must be a gentleman because I am british. I was halfway through a set, mid gurn, pouring with sweat and felt nothing like a gentleman but I think I managed to graciously accept the compliment anyhow.
Democracy parks had two focal points once you reach the top. Coming from the south, the first one you reach is a memorial to the fallen crew members and captain of the warship Pak Tu San PC701. When the war broke out the fortuitous positioning of this ship led to the discovery of a North Korean freighter carrying hundreds of soldiers south under the cover of night. The Pak Tu San managed to sink the freighter but lost two crew members in the ensuing gun fight. Their busts are present at the memorial, as well as one of their captain. The second focal point is the park museum which houses an impactful exhibit about the invasion of south Korea by the north. There is a room with bean bags on the floor where you can watch a selection of short films which feature news footage set to traditional music. You also have the opportunity to be locked in solitary confinement by a member of staff. There are a number of cells which you can sit in and at the press of a button someone will come, lock the door and leave. You can call them back to let you out at any time obviously but even with that extra reassurance it seemed too dark an activity to take part in. Neither of us tried it.
Continue north and you come to the much larger Central Park. Just before you reach it though is the impressive UN Memorial. This huge sculpture was built to thank the UN forces who came from countries all over the world to aid South Korea in the Korean War. It’s an imposing sculpture, thrusting skywards at the top of an expansive staircase. At the base of the stairs is a series plaques with pictures and description of key moments from the war. The final plaque bears the message “We will never forget the Korean War. National security and patriotism will always be in our hearts”. Military service is mandatory for men in Korea. Every now and again you are given a subtle reminder that this nation is still technically at war. At the base of the staircase a young Korean man stopped us and asked where we were from. He said he served in the military police and makes sure to thank everyone he meets from other nations for the aid that South Korea received during the conflict. Neither of us were alive while this conflict was going on and I felt completely unqualified to accept his thanks. I have always viewed military service with an amount of scepticism, that the use of force is always indicative of a failure, even if it ends in ‘victory’. But I am a child of peacetime, I have never felt threatened. It is very easy to be cynical about the role of the military when your life has never depended on it. I’m glad the staircase was long because I had a lot to think about as I climbed it. Yet another belief of mine that has been challenged by this journey.
*This is a south korean/american actor, from the TV show Lost, so it’s an ultra appropriate gif.