Ah, Busan! There are so many things to see, so many places to visit. When in doubt, start off from the gateway to Busan at Busan Station. Walking outside the station and crossing the street brings you to Busan Chinatown and Texas Street. Just a short walk away lies Choryang Ibagu-gil, the living, breathing monument to the modern history of Busan and Korea. Like the story of Ariadne and the Labyrinth, Choryang Ibagu-gil leads the travelers into the mazes of the shantytown, into the past of the city.
Choryang Ibagu-gil is an urban hiking course and a prime destination to experience the stories, traditions, and the lives of Busan’s past. This 2 km long–road starts off at the former Baekje Hospital and leads to Kkakkomak, the location of Ebagu Archive Center. Ibagu is the word for “story” in the Gyeongsang dialect, which suggests what the visitor would find on the road.
The road starts at the former Baekje Hospital. This building, which is about 60–70 years old, was used by the Imperial Japanese Army and the US Army in the past. Today’s building houses design shops and galleries. People can find right next to the building the traces of Namseon Warehouse, which used to store dried pollacks brought from Hamgyeong-do before the opening of the Gyeongwon Line.
The road then slowly begins to climb upward into a narrow alley, which leads to the Mural Alley. Looking at the photographs and poems on display brings people the images of displaced refugees and laborers starting and ending their days on this hill. Faded black-and-white photographs testify to the fear of the displaced refugees and the difficult times back then, bringing visitors one step closer to the past.
In front of the Dong-gu Inmulsa (Famous Figures) Wall stands Choryang Church, where former President Rhee Syngman used to attend during the Korean War. This is the first protestant church to be established south of the Hangang River in 1892 and is known to have played a significant role in the March First Independence Movements in Busan.
This is the place where the shantytown part of the Choryang Ibagu-gil Road begins. The neighborhood and its maze-like collection of alleys seem to exist in its own bubble, almost like a movie set. Moreover, the scenery of the area testifies to the hard times of the 1970s and the 1980s. Following the Ibagu-gil Road, people can witness the unfolding of history, from its start as mountainside shantytowns built by the war refugees during the Korean War to its expansion as the housing sites of laborers working in the docks later on.
Lastly, people can finally make out a silhouette of a staircase standing nearly vertically at a distance: 168 Stairs. Gasps and gaping faces surround the stairs, especially from those who remember the times when these sights were common. Below the stairs, they find a well, which is said to have served 400 people in the surrounding areas and still survives to this day. The grandfathers and fathers who used to live in these small houses standing shoulder-by-shoulder next to one another are believed to have jumped off the stairs whenever the rumble of a foghorn reached the neighborhood. After all, a ship entering the port meant that they had some work. A funicular system serves today’s 168 Stairs. The sleek funicular running next to the old stairs of memories is the stark contrast between the past and present of Busan.
Ibagu-gil Road now passes around the Kim Minbu Viewing Point and Dangsan, leading into the mountainside road. This decked road takes the visitors in a wide loop around the mountain. It is a great place to enjoy the view of the Busanhang Port, so the road feels like a part of the trip, rather than a connection. The next stop on the Ibagu-gil Road is the Yoo Chihwan Postbox. Standing in front of this slow postbox, which sends every letter that it receives a year later from the day it was written, people can’t help but wonder at the beautiful scenery of the Port of Busan and the mountains that surround the port like natural curtains.
People realize that time has shaped Busan away from the tragedy of the war and the difficult times during the economic development into something else—this dynamic and new Busan, where culture and history throbs with life, was the result of that process.