Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

After a chaotic morning on Thursday finalising our visa appeal, an equally chaotic afternoon was promised. A friends of ours was coming down from Seoul with his Korean girlfriend for a flying visit, and while normally we would have preferred to arrange another day, he was heading back home to Japan at the weekend so it had to be. Fortunately, we just made it to the station in time to meet them.

Our first question, before meeting them, was where we should go given that our friend had never been to Busan before. In a sense, everything in Busan is a tourist experience to me, but given his Japanese nationality and the fact that he'd already spent time in Seoul, mountains, temples, parks and the chaos of the various shopping districts are no doubt rather passée. The first place we thought was Busan Aquarium, especially given its proximity to a beach, which certainly provided a change of scenery from the capital. When our friends expressed a preference to go somewhere where they'd be out of the heat, it seemed like the perfect choice, the only downside being the 50 minute subway journey from Busan Station to the Haeundae Beach.

Even though Haeundae is very much the centre of foreigner activity in Busan, I read an article on the failings of Korean tourism recently which said that while the transportation network here was well served with English translations on signs, it was not necessarily so beyond this, and the example of Haeundae was cited - there are no street signs to direct foreigners towards the beach, which in summer, is invariably where they are going. Sure enough, I didn't see any signs, although it may not have been hard to figure out the direction from the bikinis, surfboards, rafts and inflatables heading up and down one of the nearby streets. As it is, it's about a five minute walk from exits 3 and 5 of the station. To further confirm you are heading in the right direction, from the moment you reach the surface you have to run a gauntlet of people trying to sell you things. In fact, at our exit, three bulky and dubious looking Korean men all but blocked our escape because for some reason we looked like we needed a hotel. In the evening, I could well imagine them trying to solicit visitors to a different sort of trade.

We had lunch at Bennigan's, which turned out to be fortuitous. On the fourth floor of the beach front the narrow restaurant stretched the length of the building affording most of its customers excellent views of the Haeundae Bay area. I feel like I've seen the beach almost every night on the local - and sometimes national - TV news of late, and sure enough it was wall to wall sunshades which The Virgin Traveller reckons is a local mafia racket.

We didn't have the time or the inclination for the beach so it was straight into Busan Aquarium, which allegedly is the biggest in Asia, although despite being on three floors wasn't as large as I had expected. I was surprised by the diversity of animal life on display, which included penguins ('jackass penguins'), ducks, frogs and bats among a wide variety of aquatic life. Because our time was short we were too rushed to really take things in, so it became a bit of a smorgasbord of sights and sounds. The two-story tank was noteworthy, as was the large shark tank, which has a tunnel through it to walk through, and I could have stood and watched the mesmerising phosphorous jellyfish much longer than I did. At the end, there was a car filled with fish which may have been part of some marketing exercise rather than an exhibit but afterwards was one of the things I remembered most.

The Aquarium apparently holds hourly events, although aside from feeding the seals and a group of people setting out on a raft in the shark tank we didn't notice anything particularly happening. It's meant to be possible to go diving in the shark tank though it was sufficient for me to see them from two feet away behind the Plexiglass.

There is a major disappointment to the Aquarium though, and one so odd I had to go back and check my photos to make sure I wasn't imagining it - an almost complete lack of explanations of the exhibits in English. For that matter, there's not much for the Koreans either. Beyond the sights and sounds of the experience, places like this should have an educational aspect but this was largely lacking here. It's particularly strange in the context of the Aquarium being a joint venture with an Australian company and the existence of an English section to the Korean website (which is admittedly terrible in that it's almost devoid of photographs and does little to market the venue - clicking on Customer Service merely presents the message "Expect the Unexpected!!", which I suppose is at least self-referentially accurate). So by the end of the experience I felt as though I'd seen things but learned little, which wasn't very fulfilling. At 16,000 won entry per head (about £8) it still seemed worth it, but for somewhere which has aspirations to pull in foreign visitors, it needs a bit more thought putting into it.

We'd originally been thinking about visiting Busan Aquarium with another friend one weekend, but I'm glad that plan never came to fruition now, because when we went the Aquarium was quite busy, so I can only imagine it being unbearable at the weekend.

And what did my wife say, not an hour after lunch, while walking around looking at all the sea life? "I'm hungry". Well, that tells you a lot about the people of Busan. So entertainment, education or subtle form of dietary torture - make of the Aquarium what you will. I'd say someone could open a seafood restaurant nearby and clean up, but they already did - there's a sushi place opposite.

We saw our friends off from Busan Station shortly afterwards, and as we left we stopped to watch the large market ticker outside on the plaza. Despite a positive finish the night before for the US markets, London was inexplicably down over fifty points in what later transpired to be further fallout from the credit crisis, and after our chaotic morning and afternoon, we headed off for an equally chaotic evening.

Korean tags: 생선, 상어, 수족관

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