Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit

During my time in Busan, I've found there are areas of this city where foreigners are ubiquitous, and then there are other areas which are more exclusively Korean, and your chances of seeing another obviously foreign face are quite low. By this admittedly very rough and ready measure, Busan's Children's Grand Park would have to fall into the latter category, given that last Saturday I must have seen several thousand Koreans there during the course of the day, and the total number of obvious foreigners (i.e. non-Asian in appearance at least), not including myself, amounted to one. Since he, like me, seemed to be part of a Korean family, it's possible that the Grand Park is way off the tourist trail, especially considering it was a five-day holiday weekend (Monday was Children's Day), and in theory at least, the foreigner teaching community should have been freed from the bondage of their hagwons and were out running loose in the wild.

Recently, the temperature here has been rising into the uncomfortable range which merely forebodes the arrival of even more oppressive degrees of heat as the real summer rapidly approaches. They say Korea is famous for its four seasons, but forgive me if I blinked and missed the spring this year, because it only seems a few weeks ago that it was snowing in Busan. Under the circumstances, I was concerned about visiting a park, which being English evokes images of gardens and wide open spaces. But my fears of getting sunburned were misplaced - the Children's Grand Park is a heavily forested affair and wonderfully cool compared with exposed exterior.

After being here for almost a year-and-a-half, I would have to say Korean tourism and leisure often seems to be a case of 'almost, but not quite'. It's as though the Government recognises that it's important to provide public facilities and even try and promote them to foreigners as part of 'Korea Sparking' (the promotional branding inspired by Korea's ubiquitously questionable electrical wiring), but somehow the authorities seem to fail in a way which Koreans probably don't see but which a foreigner would probably raise their eyebrows at. In the Children's Grand Park, this means that a bridge across a river, which in a Japanese park might be a faux-period wooden construction, is a functional concrete affair with a satellite dish attached to it so a nearby food vendor can watch TV as they sell their high-mark-up drinks to their captive audience. An overhead cable strung across the lake - which used to be Busan's main reservoir and is supposed to be shaped like a map of Korea - detracts from what might otherwise be an unspoilt picturesque view.

But none of this detracts from the reality that overhead cables notwithstanding, the smell of relatively pristine forest on a warm spring day marks an excellent alternative to breathing Busan's otherwise polluted atmosphere. And for those seeking a little more excitement in their lives than a quiet walk through the woods with hundreds of Koreans, the Children's Grand Park has a small amusement park with roller-coaster and some other rides.

While the younger people catapulted themselves around the forest at high-speed, the older Koreans were to be found playing badminton and using the public equipment in a nearby public exercise area.

Meanwhile, in this Children's Park, the young children themselves were being posed for photographs beneath the statue Park Jae-hyuk - 'one of the greatest patriots in Korea' says the description (he threw a bomb at the head of Busan Police Station under the Japanese occupation).

But in the name of making love, not war, the park may also provide a home for equally clandestine activities if the graffitied claims of sex in some of the picnic areas are anything to go by.

This is probably not what the park authorities have in mind when they launch their 'Romantic Zone' area next year.

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