Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jeju-Do 제주도: Part I

 Images courtesy of

Home of an UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Jeju Volcanic  Island and Lava Tubes. I guarantee that you will visit at least one museum on your stay here, because Jeju Island offers the most unique  collection of museums I've ever come across.  There is the Chocolate Museum in southern Seogwipo City for chocolate lovers. There is the cuddly Teddy Bear Museum--again in Seogwipo--home to generations of teddy bears, over a hundred years in the making. And then there are the Sex Museums--three of them! "Love Land" is an outdoors sculpture park in northern Jeju City that offers a romp through a garden of creatively altered anatomical parts. The Health and Sex Museum near Seogwipo takes on a more "Ancient Rome" feel, with white pillars, grand murals, and videos designed to educate about the history of sex in various cultures of the world. One exhibition featured the Chinese foot-binding "Lotus Shoe." Alas, I did not make it to three out of three, but there is also a World Eros Museum/Museum of Erotica under the Seogwipo World Cup Stadium. 

 Chocolate lips!

A very cuddly teddy bear

Yeah, all you're getting is a picture of Lotus shoes.

Ahem. On to more serious matters.

We flew into Jeju Airport on the northern part of the island. After spending a night in Jeju City, we set off from the Intercity Bus Terminal due west, to circle around the island. Our lodging was a wonderful find--a comfortable 민박, or minbak, just off the main highway in southwestern Jeju, about a thirty minute bus ride from Jungmun Resort (중문관광단).

What is a minbak? Minbak are homestay-style lodging, sometimes with the added bonus of a bed-and-breakfast, and offer great deals, as low as 15,000 won a night (roughly 15 dollars). Our room had ondol, the heated flooring system, roll-out beds, and a TV. The showers were down the hall, and a restaurant was just through the sliding doors, which offered delicious fish and seaweed soup (a version of 미육국), as well as the wonderful instant coffee brand--Maxim--after. At least five side dishes came with the main course, ranging from kimchi to purple rice.  The minbak was a nice stay in an idyllic countryside, far outside of the city...little did we know, the "idyllic" part was about to be tested.

GEPIK (Gyeonggi-do Province) Foreign English teachers typically get twenty vacation days when school is out of session, so you've gotta take advantage and go traveling while you can. My friends and I hightailed it over to Jeju-Do at the end of July, eager to get away from the downpour of monsoon rain engulfing the rest of our province. However, Jeju-Do attracts infamous typhoons during the summer months, and we were about to go toe-to-toe with one.

Now, I've been obsessed with Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea, from the moment my overseas job became a reality. It's a sleeping shield volcano that last erupted in 1007. During its slumber, the sapphire-blue "White Deer Lake" filled its crater, and in June, pink azaleas erupt up and down the slopes like wildfire. It is one of three spots making up the UNESCO world heritage site on Jeju. Sounds awesome, right? Yes, of course it is. I had no idea when I was going to be back on Jeju-Do again. With the typhoon poised to strike soon, there was no doubt in my mind: I was going to climb Mt. Halla, with or without the weather's blessing.
Image courtesy of:

My friends had doubts. Considerable doubts. As in, "yeah...rain, wind, and foggy conditions? No thanks." They wisely decided to stay behind. Refusing to be deterred, I was out and waiting for the bus at 6 am.

It turned out to be a good idea I left so early, because my bus information was out-of-date. I wound up in Donghong-dong, stood around, puzzled, and then caught a bus that said it was going to a town where I could transfer and catch a bus up to Hallsan.


This transfer bus stop proved to be the most elusive yet, as I stood in a roundabout and slowly deciphered the bus stop signs, none of which were the ones I was looking for. I talked to bus drivers, and each time, we came away from the conversation half-understanding each other. They kept telling me to go back down the road, but I had no idea what exactly they were directing me to. I stood out here like an albino peacock, so naturally, everyone was concerned. One young soldier came up and asked me, "Are you O.K.?" Not really. After all, it was nearly 10, so I'd completely lost my early morning start.

It was then that I saw it: the North Face jacket. When you hike in South Korea, you will come to find that every hiker is always immaculately dressed in North Face (or Red Face) gear, while you toddle along in sweatpants and a rain poncho. I followed the jacket down to-- Yes! Hiking boots! I ran over to the hiker and asked if he was going to Hallasan. He wasn't! But he pointed me down an alleyway that I must have walked past a dozen times. There was an express bus terminal with buses heading up to the pass. I flung myself on the first one and was on my way.

Perhaps because I had worked so hard to get there, I didn't mind so much that Hallsan was completely smothered in fog, giving me no chance of a view whatsoever. Also, because of the stormy conditions, the mysterious crater lake was also off-limits. Well, I could still say I hiked on the highest mountain in South Korea. I joined up with a hiking group (that's another thing--if you're hiking alone, other hikers will always be quick to adopt you) and me and my new friend Su Hyeon*  passed the time practicing the other's language.  The trail eventually flattened out to a boardwalk. We followed it to an overlook of a nice rainy bank of clouds.

A particularly flattering picture

Well, at least we still had food. And lots of it. We followed the boardwalk to where it circled around a small, ghostly lake, and broke out the kimbap, hard-boiled eggs, plums, and kimchi. And on the way back, we saw a white-tailed deer. It looked like in light of the stormy weather, the namesake of the crater lake had come down to see me.

I took the cross-country bus and found my way back to the minbak--this time without getting lost. The storm was right on my heels. That night, as my friends and I slept, the winds picked up and the heat went on and off. I woke up to the howling winds scratching at the windows early in the morning. It was so pitch-black out that I couldn't see anything. Still half-asleep, I drifted down the hall to the bathroom. In the middle of conducting business, the rattles became successively louder. I looked up, blinking, to see that the ceiling was sinking in. Any second, and it could collapse.

That woke me up. I went and alerted the owner, who was busy hammering down panels in the men's bathroom.

This was my first hurricane, so to speak. The entire world was engulfed in rain, hammering against the roof and splattering across windows. The electricity tried valiantly to stay on. My friends and I holed up in the neighboring restaurant for a while, our sole source for food. During a break in the rain, my friend and I ventured outside. Gnarly trees had been blown back flat, and debris whirled through the air. The owner called urgently for us to come inside. Although we couldn't understand all of what he said, the finger he drew across his throat made it clear: the wind was whipping old rusty roof panels around like toys, panels that were easily sharp enough to decapitate.

By evening, the typhoon died down. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were ready for the sun-drenched beaches and swimming beckoning on the south side. 

Beach at twilight

*Names have been changed for the sake of privacy. 
Disclaimer: The above is depicted as fiction, not fact. 

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