After eight months of living on the outskirts of the great city of Seoul, I finally decided to tackle that eternal conundrum: Where does the heart of South Korea lie, Seoul or Busan?
Seoul is undoubtedly the largest and most cosmopolitan centre of South Korea. Busan, I've been told, has the appeal of nature with its sandy beaches and towering mountain ranges.
My companion and I travelled by subway to Suwon station and jumped aboard the midnight Mugunghwa train to Busan. The fast and popular KTX will get you to Busan in 3 hours but we were looking for a budget option and figured we would spend the five-hour trip getting some sleep then be ready to see the sights in the morning.
We wearily disembarked at the very sleek and modern Busan station. Even at 4.30 in the morning, the station was crawling with travellers waiting for the subway to open. Busan is well-equipped with a three-line subway system and information centres at each station to make navigating the city a simple task for newcomers. We snapped up our Hannaro travel cards from the vending machine and were good to go.
Our first port of call was our guesthouse located in Namcheong-dong on line 2. We were warmly greeted, treated to a brief orientation by our host and sent on our way.
As soon as the sun began to rise, I was struck by the contrast between city and nature. Undulating mountain ranges tower in the background of skyscrapers, apartment complexes and highways. I could already feel a distinctly more laid-back and reflective atmosphere compared to the frenetic energy of Seoul.
There is no greater way to get the lie of the land than to pay your 3000KRW to ascend Busan Tower. It stands 120 metres tall, which makes for a sensational view. There is the familiar Korean landscape of building stacked upon building in a seemingly haphazard fashion. But, then, there is the harbour and a blue, crystal ocean scattered with fishing boats out to search the waters.
We picked up our jaws and scrambled down to Jagalchi fish market at the harbour to test our sensitivities with sights of the strangest sea creatures I have ever seen. We wandered around the nearby shopping district including Gukje market and stumbled across archways proclaiming the annual Busan International Film Festival.
Day two was disappointingly misty and rainy but we were determined to make the most of our whirlwind tour. We decided on Beomeo temple and began another subway excursion. Jumping out at Beomeosa station, we walked a few metres to the bus stop where we grabbed a ride up into the Geumjeong mountains.
Visiting a temple is always a thoughtful, peaceful experience. Centuries old Beomeosa is set amongst bamboo shoots while boasting a series of ornate buildings, some more restored than others. The grounds were surprisingly busy with worshippers in a ritual of bowing, removing and replacing shoes. Just up the mountain slope we discovered a series of imposing statues forming part of another smaller temple.
Without a doubt the magic of Busan can be found at its glorious, sandy beaches. Gwangalli beach was a 10-minute walk from our guesthouse. This beach gives an amazing view of the 7420m-long Gwangan Bridge which stretches across the sea.
At night the bridge is lit in an array of colours while young and old recklessly set off fireworks at the shoreline. We met a flock of kamikaze seagulls at trendy Haeundae beach. After a handful of chips were thrust into my hand by a nervous looking Korean child, we proceeded to toss them into the air and shriek with fascination as the gulls hovered inches from our heads.
I headed back towards Seoul and my small town in the suburbs with the heat of the Busan sun still burning on my skin and the images of its landscape burning in my heart. Seoul has the thrill of metropolitan living, but Busan has soul-reviving tranquillity with a dash of urban comforts and excitement.
It is necessary to venture into both cities to discover the unique experiences they offer. It is through their contrasts and comparisons that Seoul and Busan find their magnetic charms.