Saturday, September 25, 2010

Jeju Island

Last Tuesday was the start of the Chuseok holiday, and my friend Aaron and I left Gunsan in the morning and took a bus 2.5 hours south to coastal city of Mokpo. Ferries leave from Mokpo to Jeju, a large island off the coast. There are domestic flights to Jeju from many cities, but even a month ago flights from Gunsan were already sold out since it was a holiday time. Most of the ferries were already sold out too, but luckily we were able to book tickets to come back on Friday. I was excited to go but a little apprehensive about the weather and my travel partner. My worries proved completely unfounded as everything went without a hitch and we had an awesome time.

We got from the bus terminal to the ferry just as they started boarding. There were many Korean on the boat, but SO MANY foreigners too. It's so strange how I've gotten used to seeing only a handful of foreigners in Gunsan, so when I see more it's a little overwhelming. It amazes me that I could talk to all of them AND they would understand me! Incredible. You have the option of booking luxury rooms, family rooms, seats, or general seating Korean-style on the floor. You have to take your shoes off and there are just hoards of people lounging, sleeping, playing cards, etc. We hung out on deck most of the time, chatting with other passengers (met one from Spokane!) and watching the scenery. I was SO happy to be on the water... I felt relaxed and at home and the 5 hours flew by.

We watched the sunset over the water and got into Jeju City at dark. Surprisingly, there were no free taxis outside the terminal, already busy with the holiday crowds. We hopped on a bus and I was so impressed with the patience of the driver as English-speaking passengers tried to ascertain where the bus went. All the transportation and service people on Jeju proved to be incredibly helpful and friendly over the next few days, not at all jaded by the tourists. We made it to the City Hall area for dinner and drinks before calling it an early night at our hotel.

We got up early the next morning headed to the trail head for Hallasan. Hallasan is the highest mountain in Korea and sits within the only National Park on the island. There are two different trails to the peak, so we decided to go up one and down the other. It was drizzling and foggy when we started, but we hoped for the best and plowed forward. Actually, Aaron hoped for the best and I grumbled in disappointment. He said he would start charging me 100 won (about 10 cents) every time I complained about something, and it made me remember that if I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all.

The rain stopped and by the time we got into the valley, it was fairly clear. It was steep and grassy in a glowing green, reminding me of a cross between Peru and Scotland.

When we climbed out of the valley though, we got back into the clouds, and as we neared the top we couldn't see anything. In fact, we could hear a crowd of voices, but it wasn't until we were about 30 feet away that we realized we had reached the peak. Usually you can see into the crater at the top of this extinct volcano, but today this was our view.

We headed down the rocky trail, and decided to just appreciate the hike for the good exercise. It was over 18 kilometers, so a pretty decent day hike. We went back to the city for tea and then a Mexican dinner. How I miss ethnic food! We got chimichangas and burritos, with nachos as an appetizer... and the nachos even came before our meal, so novel! In Korea, all the food is served at once, so staggered courses felt like a treat. Then we caught a bus out of the city to a beach on the north side of the island. There was a designated camping area... but there was no one else there. We had this beach completely to ourselves. It was my first time sleeping outside all year! It was a beautiful spot, but crazy windy that night. I woke up about 20 times as the wind violently rattled the tent, but felt decently rested and got another early start.

The coast is striking because there is so much volcanic rock, the black contrasting with the tropical blue-green of the water and the white surf. We took the bus to Manjangul, which is the largest lava tube in the world. It was cool to walk through part of it, but just a dark tube so no point in posting pictures. Then to the far east side of the island to Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic tuff cone right on the water. The rock is so porous that water soaks through and there is no crater lake.

You get a nice view of the sea and west to Hallasan mountain. This is also a popular spot for the haenyo, the traditional female divers of Jeju that use no equipment as they dive for seaweed and seafood. We weren't there at the right time of day to see them though. For lunch we tried a regional fish soup called 갈 치 국 (gal chi gook), a red-pepper based soup with the local hair-tail fish.

Then to the south side, where we saw two different waterfalls before heading to our next campsite. This side of the island has more of a lush jungle feel, and is even more laid-back. At our next beach we set up camp as the sun was setting, again the only campers until a Korean couple came much later that night. We were pretty tired from a full day of walking around with our packs, and walked with aching legs into the small "town" area for dinner. We had 똥 돼 지 (ddong dweji), which is pork BBQ from a local black-skinned pig. It was SO delicious. Amazing flavor, good side dishes, Hallasan soju, and us being ravenous all contributed to this being one of my favorite meals in Korea. After the meat we decided to share some bibimbap (rice with veggies), as it is common to eat a rice or noodle dish as a sort of "dessert" at the end of the meal. I'm usually too full for this after eating BBQ, but today it was perfect and we joked about our morphing Korean eating habits.

It wasn't as windy on the southside and we slept better that night, with the sounds of the waves and birds so nearby. In the morning we had the beach to ourselves for a good hour. It was already sunny and warm at 8am, and the water was clear and warm too. In my mind, it was an ideal place to swim. But there were big signs prohibiting swimming, saying "The beach is only officially open for swimming in July and August." I am about 99% sure that this has nothing to do with safety-- no rip tides, stinging jellyfish, or sharks-- just that those are summer months and "appropriate" times to swim. If any one has any light to shed on this prohibition of swimming on a perfectly good beach, please let me know!

It's September, barely the shoulder season, and warmer than any beach I've ever been on in Washington state. I thought maybe they didn't want to pay lifeguards to staff the beach all year. Aaron had brought a mask and snorkel, so I enjoyed my favorite clandestine moments on Jeju of swimming in the early morning and watching fish. At 9am sharp, a loud voice started shouting in Korean over the loudspeaker. I doubted they were saying good morning, and I quickly scrambled out of the water. So much for my lack-of-staffing theory. By that time tourists were pouring in, and they looked scandalized that Aaron and I were in bathing suits. This is the one part of Jeju I can't reconcile- how can it be this tropical paradise with great weather and numerous beaches and yet discourage swimming 10 months of the year?

We took in more of the coastline seeing cliffs and basalt columns. It was a hot day, my muscles were sore, and I was a little tired of carrying my backpack. But it was a GOOD tired. The kind of tired where resting and eating feels amazing, where you are so appreciative of every little thing. We walked up to another waterfall, stopping at a corner store for snacks before the entrance to the falls. I sat there in shade, completely blissed out. "I LOVE sitting here. I am SO happy about eating this kimbap. This iced coffee is EXACTLY what I want. I'm so GLAD I have plenty of water!" The few days before Chuseok, I was having a rough time and not exactly grateful for everything. I think it took coming to the island, and unwinding into the beauty of the land and water to shake my mind from its negative thoughts. Sometimes tiring yourself out is the only way to release the pent-up energy you need to let go of. Traveling allows you to focus on visual beauty and also on meeting your basic needs, and somehow this combination is very therapuetic.

I have to give Aaron props for being an awesome travel buddy. He is waaaay more laid back than I am, and is able to accomplish something without over-analyzing it or getting stressed out. I do more research though, so we were a good balance to each other. By the time we got back to Jeju City, we had time for a late lunch before boarding the ferry for the 5 hour trip back to the mainland. Those 3 days felt expansive and clearing, and we got back to Gunsan with most of the weekend still left! Happy Chuseok indeed.


ElizaBeth said...

I can't believe you think the world's biggest lava tube doesn't merit a picture!! I loved reading about your experiences as always. You really made me pause with the 'visual beauty and meeting basic needs' analysis of what makes vacation a unique way to unwind and reset ourselves. And, I definitely would have been in the water with you. WTF Korea? Let people swim!

Ally said...

LOVE reading about this and seeing the fasinating and amazing pictures! It's always a bonus when you're in them too ;)

AmberAnda said...

Haha, really Eli, the lava tube pictures just look like a black pit : ) Thanks for commenting ladies, always great to hear from you!