A Travel Log from JeJu Island, Days 1-3
We had gone over two months without seeing the stars and there may have been a part of us that questioned their existence in Korea. Although we have spent plenty of time enjoying the nature surrounding Seoul and have been on bike rides that lasted well past dark, the light pollution radiating from all the buildings simply drown out the night sky. Every once in awhile, I have been deceived by a passing satellite that I’ve mistaken as an exploding planet. With a week off from school for celebration of the Chuseok Holiday, we stuffed our backpacks with our camping gear and the anticipation grew that we were returning to a way of life we had previously taken for granted. Our subway ride from our neighborhood in Seongnam-si to the Gimpo International Airport literally took longer than our flight to JeJu Island. Jeju-do is the largest island in Korea and, like much of Korea, has a storied past of occupation, rebellion, and democratization which we learned about as we explored the area. By the time we de-boarded our plane and took the shuttle to the terminal, our bags were already spinning around the carousel as another reminder of all things efficient in Korea. After mulling over which bus to take to our Air B and B, we finally sucked it up and swallowed the $6 cab ride that took us to our place in Jeju-si. Located on the North part of the island, Jeju-si has a population just over 500,000 people and is by far the biggest city on the Island. Although upon arrival, we could not tell as our room was right on the water in Dodu-dong. As we pulled up, there was a group of Jeju-do women known as Haenyeo, which basically means bad ass ladies. For centuries these women wet dive in the bays and along the reefs for shellfish and all of the other food produced by the ocean. On this day, they were hauling out the tons of plastic and other garbage that had collected in their sea.
We wasted no time changing into beach attire and walked up to the doduhang bay which had dueling lighthouses and sat were at the base of a hill called dodubong. Jeju island is famous for their black pork and it seemed like a fantastic idea for lunch. The only way we knew the place served pork is because there was a 30 foot mural of a smiling black pig painted on the building. I figured the pig wouldn’t be so happy if he knew he was about to be thrown on the grill or, maybe he just really liked to be eaten by people. Either way, we were drawn in and found a table by the window. We must have looked dumfounded as we tried to make out the Korean on the menu as the owner came over to help us. As often the case, we had no idea what we were ordering, but after the owner’s hand gestures which included a rub and sneak peek of his exposed mid-riff, I was certain we were getting pork belly. The meal was a true feast and though we thought we ordered for two, it very well seemed like we had double the food. Ashlee rolled me back to our room and after a short nap we walked down to the beaches of Ihote-uhaebyeib where there was a dazzling display of gold and black sand mixing together. The beaches were relatively empty as many families were not traveling because of COVID. From our room we had an incredible view of the sun being swallowed by the ocean as rays of pastels were spit back out. I found comfort knowing that on the other side of the ocean was the Oregon coast and as night crept in we walked under the stars. We made our way to a traditional Korean Tea house for dinner in order to balance out our heavy lunch. There is an abundance of farmland on Jeju and the vegetables that we had in our Bimi-bap were some of the best I can remember.
With hopes of hiking up Mt. Halla-san, a 5am wake-up call was necessary. As the tallest mountain in South Korea at 1950m, the peak was often shrouded in clouds. We had clear weather the day before and sunny skies were predicted for the week, so when we stumbled down to our cab and there was a light drizzle we were a little stunned. Even though we had planned to spend 7 days on the island, this was the only day we left open to hike Halla-san. On the curvy drive up to the Seongpanak trailhead, the weather didn’t necessarily improve and, it also did not get any worse! Like any other day we’ve experienced on the trails in Korea, there were plenty of people that seemed to share a similar outlook. The path quickly ascended through a forest still dripping from the rain and into patches of Rhododendrons and bamboo that then gave way to a stand of cedar trees. Over a distance of 6 miles the Seongpanak trail climbs 4,000 ft and as we eased into the final push we rose above the clouds and had views of the ocean below.
The wind was ripping around on the summit and we quickly put on all of our layers while we ate salami, cheese, and crackers. At the top of every mountain we have been to in Korea there is some type of monument or symbol that indicates you are in fact on the mountain that you though you were on. And, for some reason, everyone who hikes that peak has to get a picture of themselves next to that indicator to the point where a very systematic and orderly line forms in which everyone patiently waits their turn. I am truly fascinated by all of this and also have a tremendous amount of respect that Korean’s truly ‘own’ the selfie. Koreans don’t try to do it on the down low or slip a pic in all quick and coy, I mean even if an audience is starting to form, they take their time and do it right!
The longer we stayed up there, the more the views improved. We elected to take the Gwaneum-sa Trail down and although it was shorter in distance, the hike was much more rugged and a killer on the knees! We slowly maneuvered our way down the rocky and rooted path with gorgeous sights along the way. That night we went out to an Indian restaurant which boasted garlic naan that seemed to melt when dipped into an abundantly rich chicken korma.
Neither mind or body were in any kind of a rush to wake up, plus breakfast is not served until well after 10am in Korea. Our calves were on fire and my knees were aching from the brutal downhill on Halla-san. Knowing the best remedy is often an active recovery, we hobbled to a breakfast spot that sat on a hill, overlooking the sea from one window and Halla-san out the other. By the time restaurants open, I am pretty much ready for lunch and it seems culturally acceptable to order a chicken sandwich, cheeseburger, or BLT for breakfast. After fueling ourselves with food and espresso, we packed our bags for the next part of the trip. We heard amazing stories about the beaches on the West Coast of Jeju and decided to head down there and camp for the night. We did not have the option to rent a car, for lack of a Korean driver’s license, and elected to take the bus. Mind you, our bags each weighed around 40 lbs and lugging those on and off public transport is similar to wrestling a greased pig, you know, for those of you who tangle with swine. Our bags each took up a seat of their own on the bus, so we were lucky to be traveling at around 1pm on a Sunday as the buses were empty. After a couple of transfers and aggressive scoldings from the drivers for not bucking our seatbelts or hanging an arm out the window, we made it to our destination at Hyeopjae Beach. The sand looked like fine cut diamonds sparkling in the sun and the water was 50 shades of blue as every 10 feet it seemed to changed color. We were not the only folks enjoying the beach and there were quite a few tents that were clustered in some of the areas blocked by the wind. We dumped our bags in one of those spots as we search for a more secluded spot which we eventually found and was a considerable upgrade.
We walked down to the other end of Geumneung beach where we enjoyed some of the best panini’s I’ve ever had at a place called Geumneung Sandwich (maps.me). I’m not sure if that is the Korean name or just how it comes up in Naver Maps, but either way, we could not have been more stoked! We walked back to our tent with the sun slowly slipping into the sea. I can’t say that we had a peaceful night’s rest as our fellow campers were lighting off fireworks and the diligent workers that maintained the beach decided to keep the park lights until well after midnight. However, when you hear the waves lapping up the sand as you fall asleep, it is tough to complain…
Campsite on Day 3 (maps.me)