Since time shows no sign of slowing down – indeed, I’m starting to believe it’s speeding up – I’ll try to be more succinct in my writing and try to keep out the unnecessary details. But it’s not easy.
So without further ado, here’s the last chapter of my vacation, the Jeju-do portion.
When making preparations for my vacation, my energies were unevenly spread. That is to say, I spent a good deal of time and energy organizing, planning and simulating that first week. My thoughts rarely moved beyond that. Luckily I had the benefit of a magic-planning-genie named Greg who ironed out all the major details for me in Japan. When it came to Jeju-do, though, I was flying blind. I had no room reservations and my “plan” was little more than a vague list of the things I wanted to see on the island. But as, you’ll see, it all worked out anyway.
Honestly, by the end of week two, my introverted self felt drained and rather angry at having to share earth-space with other human beings. A full day hiding in a hostel room in Busan helped me feel a little more gracious towards humanity by the time I boarded a plane once again.
Jeju-do (제주도) is also known as the “Hawaii of Korea” though it’s too far north of the equator to be tropical. It’s a popular honeymoon destination and has a plethora of (often strange) museums and parks as well as natural wonders like caves, mountains, and beaches. The most iconic image of Jeju-do is the stone man. Guardians or markers of some sort, they are volcanic stones carved in the shape of…well, a man. The other symbol of Jeju is Hallasan (한라산): the main volcano that formed the island.
My first task when I fly into Jeju city is to find a hostel and establish a home-base for the day. Luckily, I’d done a little research the day before and found a place close to the airport with decent prices and reviews: Yeha Guesthouse. I take a bus there, get a room, grab some maps, and go back out to explore the downtown area.
Right next to the water is Yongduam Rock (용두암 – Dragon Head Rock). It’s swarming with busloads of Chinese tourists clamoring to take their picture in front of the lumpy piece of volcanic stone that’s much smaller than I expected it to be. I’m less interested in the rock itself than in the things around it.
It’s not long before I realize that there isn’t much I’m actually interested in seeing downtown, so I take a bus from the terminal to Loveland. Yes, Loveland. Such an innocuous name for something dedicated solely to the obvious manifestations of love (ie: sex). Actually, it was Grrrl Traveler’s blog review of Love Land that initially sparked my interest in coming here. It just sounded so strange (like a lot of other things in Korea).
Pretty much everything in the small park pays tribute to the human body and sex. Most of these are in the form of statues and miniatures – some more realistic than others – but all rather tasteful or whimsical. Even the bathroom doors can’t escape special decorations.
While I genuinely admire some of the larger than life statues, I think it’s the signs that amuse me more.
The car in the background of the third one is rigged to jiggle back and forth while producing recorded moaning sounds. How is that not funny?
My primary interest in Jeju-do is the natural beauty, however. Love Land was the exception.
I head out early the next morning to hike Hallasan (the main volcano). There are several trails, two of which go to Baengnokdam Crater (백록담) at the top, but only one trail is accessible by bus: the 9.6 km “easy” trail. I don’t mind, particularly since I have all day and want to see the crater.
The morning is foggy with a chance of rain. I buy a plastic raincoat at the store, just in case. I’m feeling pretty prepared, with water and snacks to eat along the way. The only mistake (as I later learn) is hiking in my Chacos.
Hey. I know people who’ve hiked in those shoes and this trail was advertised as “easy” and “not dangerous.” I’ll let you judge on that last one.
See? Totally “safe” right?
Needless to say, I find myself scrambling over rocks and half-formed steps much more than I expected. I discover a new pet peeve of mine: the sound of people walking behind me, particularly if they’re breathing heavily. It’s like being chased. I hate it so much I often just stand to the side and let them pass. Thankfully, I spend a good chunk of my time relatively alone on the path.
The smell at the restroom stop halfway reminds me strongly of the Skate fish I ate with my parents a couple weeks ago. The thought is simultaneously funny and revolting.
The gloomy weather and the predominance of leafy trees most of the way prevents me from taking many pictures. There’s not much to see anyway. That and the fact that the path becomes more challenging as I get closer to the top. As I slip over porous and slime covered rocks, I try to avoid thinking about how I’ll make it down.
I finally reach the top and am, to say the least, a little underwhelmed by the view. Even a little disappointed. Just check out this comparison between expectation…
The view away from the crater – with the clouds covering the base of the mountain – is more interesting. I meet a friendly German couple, on vacation from studying in Seoul and a group of Koreans (university students I presume) who share their snacks with me and call us their “mountain friends” (as in: we just met while hiking).
And I finally have to use my glorified trash bag poncho when it starts to sprinkle.
Descending the mountain is painstaking work. The rain makes the already slippery rocks more treacherous. I stumble a few times and am forced to slower than I did when coming up. I start to feel grateful whenever other hikers are nearby. I’d hate to have an accident and not have anyone around to help me. Thankfully, it does get easier the further down I go and by the end I practically run to the trail head. Never thought I’d be so happy to see a parking lot.
I make my way back to the hostel hoping to avoid movement for the rest of the evening. The girl working the front desk generously shares her dinner with me. She even helps me make reservations for the next day. I plan on going to a guesthouse in the Northwest part of Jeju. A friend from church recommended it, saying it was a good place to get out of the city and enjoy the coastal view.
Unfortunately, I wake up to rain. It’s the first time this whole vacation that the weather hasn’t been conducive to outdoor activities. Too late to change my plans, though. I take the 30 minutes bus ride to Hagwi-2 ri and check into the hostel there. Unlike Yeha Guesthouse, which had the professional attitude of a hotel, this place is more casual. It feels kinda like crashing at a friend of a friend’s place for the night: awkward at first but ultimately good. I’m notably the only non-Korean there.
Refusing to let the weather limit me, I don my trash bag poncho and go out to the water. The rain keeps fluctuating from a barely perceptible spitting to full-on pouring. The seacoast road is an actual road, not a walking path like I’d imagined. With the wind and rain, it seems dangerously stupid to walk along the narrow shoulder but my other option is turning back and staying inside. Yeaaaaah, no thanks. Most of the cars I see are going the opposite direction anyway.
Partway, I meet a family doing the same thing. Good, I’m not the only crazy one. The husband is quite chatty. His wife and son don’t speak to me at all, whether from lack of English skills or just withdrawn personalities, I’m not sure. They’re nice enough though. The dad even invites me to have dinner with them but I have to decline. I already paid in advance for a group meal at the hostel. We reach the end of the road together and taxi to where they joined me. From there it’s just a short walk back.
I stay silent during dinner – everyone is speaking quickly in Korean – but I understand just enough to get the gist of some of the conversation. I get to know some of the other guests while playing card games and during the post-dinner drinks.
“Where are you going tomorrow?” a few ask me.
“I’m going to the eastern side of Jeju to explore the caves and to see Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak).”
“I’m going that direction. Do you want to go together?” my current conversation partner, Jong Chan, offers. “I have a rental car.”
I consider the question for a second. I’ve been perfectly fine taking the bus so far, but the convenience of a car is highly tempting. Plus, from him it feels like a genuine offer. I decide to trust my gut. “Sure.”
It’s amazing how much smaller Jeju-do feels when you travel by car. The first stop the next morning is Manjanggul Cave (만장굴), a UNESCO world site. It’s a lava tube meaning that the whole system was formed by underground lava flows. I haven’t been in many caves (none come to mind actually) but even I can see what makes it different than a typical cave.
The temperature drop is quite noticeable even from the entrance. The floor of the cave is bubbled and uneven – pockmarked with little puddles formed from the water constantly dripping from the ceiling. It’s so dark, even with the dim lights illuminating the path, that most of my pictures come out blurry. I refuse to use flash though; I hate how it looks.
The next stop is Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak (성산 일출봉). It’s a small mountain crater on the coast. The aerial photos of it online are quite striking (just Google it). It’s one of those places that is more stunning from a distance. The crater itself is too big to take in when you climb to the top.
The sun finally comes out (it’s been cloudy all day) as we hoof it up the stairs. It’s nothing like my Hallasan hike but my legs are still sore and the 15 minute climb is pretty steep. The sight from the top (the view away from the crater), and the wind, make it worth it.
The next morning – still traveling together – we take the ferry to Udo (우도): a small island near Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. It’s possible to travel around the island by car, by foot, or by bike if you plan on staying the whole day there. We only have a couple hours so we rent a motorcycle and explore what we can in that time. The Coral Sand Beach is pretty stunning, if for nothing else than the vivid blue of the water there.
Jong Chan and I part ways at the airport (he’s returning to his home in Seoul). I have a few hours left so I walk along the coastal road (walking by Yongduam rock again). Incoming flights pass right above me in one place, flying so low I have to plug my ears from the deafening noise.
I take more random pictures until it’s time to leave. It’s been an incredible vacation but I am more than ready to return home.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect blend of experiences. When I finished my first week with my parents, I thought there was no way the next two weeks could top that. And I was right. But neither were they inferior. Each chapter was so different; it’d really be unfair to compare them. The whole thing reads kind of like pieces of a story (which is why I referred to them as chapters) with a slow progression from family to traveling independently and (mostly) alone. From plans to flying by the seat of my pants. And of course, I met so many people along the way and had interesting conversations with all of them.