Isle Denial

Islands are funny little bodies of land. I harbor a very stereotypical view of what an island is (probably due in part to my chilly west-central Wisconsin upbringing). I cant help but to picture the quintessential sandy nub with a handful of palm trees – all bearing ripe fruit – ready to sustain a wayward traveler. Idealistic notions aside, islands are so neat. They are these tiny little models of greater society that don’t feel tiny (until you have been there too long, or the island really is tiny). If you are inland a bit, it can often feel like you are in any ol’ place, with a built modern world – operating just as it would anywhere else. You can imagine my surprise then; each time I visit a new island (tropical or otherwise).

A few weekends back, I visited the island of Jeju. In case you aren’t in the know, Jeju is the most famous (and largest) of the 3,000+ islands that litter the South Korean coast. Jeju is so popular that the flight route between Jeju and Seoul is the busiest in the world (10.5 million passengers in ’14). It goes without saying that the island is insanely popular (with Koreans and foreigners alike). Despite the hype (and my recent proximity for the past year), this was my first visit in the 2 years I have lived here now.

Koreans love to parallel Jeju to the Hawaiian Islands. Having had lived in ‘The Islands’ myself, I was skeptical of the comparison. Its true that Jeju had a very different feel from the Korean mainland. Given its southern position in relation to the peninsula, it is considerably warmer on the island yet it still maintains a temperate climate (four distinct seasons). Nevertheless, the southern location is enough that the island can sustain multiple varieties of palm trees (all introduced in the last 60 years). The island is also of volcanic origins – lending to similar feeling landscapes and even coastline as compared to the infamous ‘Sandwich Isles’. Like the volcanically active island of Hawai’i, Jeju even boasts a few black sand beaches (which I have yet to see).

This travel opportunity was brought to me by a group of adjussis (older, married Korean men) whom I have been hiking and traveling with for the past couple of months. Early on Saturday morning I convened with an anxious and excitable  Poly (like the parrot) who was my introduction and point of contact with the pack. We were at the ferry terminal (conveniently located across from my school) an hour before our departure and in the company of a few hundred of our closest friends. After some heeing and hawing we were corralled onto the large ferry and soon underway.

It wasn’t long before we made our way from our resting room, over to the cafeteria where a large box of sashimi and soju (a strong clear Korean alcohol ~ 40%) was procured. Breakfast is served. Our 5 were joined by 5 adjummas (older, married Korean women) and soon a full 9AM party was in swing. After sneaking away to take some photos from the top deck, I retired to our shared resting room where I claimed a bit of floor space and a vinyl-rectangular Korean style ‘pillow’. Having attended a birth-party the night prior, I was pretty beat with only 5 hours of rest. Sleep came easy and the wake-up call too soon. Again I made my way to the top deck to snap some photos as we sailed into Jeju Port. By now it was early afternoon. The sun was hot and the landscape shrouded in a balmy amber haze. I spotted tall Washington Palms adorning the otherwise industrial, aquatic landscape.

Once on shore and after bidding adieu to our complimentary adjumma company, we made off to meet up with our hired driver. It took a bit, but finally we were in the comforts of our posh black Hyundai Starex (van). Our driver, a slight attentive man reminded me of my Uncle John of Kansas – albeit a bit younger and more oriental in nature… Lunch was some sort of fish soup with a side of baked fish and other nautical dishes. An hour later we were driving along the coast in search of our accommodation. The 3rd floor hallway leading into our room overlooked the sprawling volcanic peaks of Halla Mountain, the patio off the backside of our room offered a view of the sea. I was afforded only enough time to brush my teeth before I was whisked back into the van. Only to be dropped off with Poly a few kilometers down the coastal road. Him and I embarked on a 12k afternoon trek as the others tried their hands at fishing.

Our hike was segment 17 of the Jeju Olle Trail, which is a 400+k route that circumnavigates the island primarily following the coast. The circuit is divided into 21 portions. Our route was fairly domestic, passing restaurants, coffee shops, convenience stores and even Jeju International Airport. Nevertheless it was nice to be on a coast so different from that of my surrogate home – Yeosu (which is a peninsula). Towards the end of our walk, we were rewarded with a salty sundown complete with all the colors you would expect in a sunset on an island likened to Hawaii. Our hike finished right in downtown Jeju City. Being dinner time, we made straight for the open air market in pursuit of some fresh fish. After a pit stop at a chocolate shoppe, we finally settled on a restaurant that would kill and fillet our fish right there. Soon we were joined by the hapless fishermen, and throwing back soju shots paired with cuts of raw fish (basically breakfast for dinner).

Our driver picked us up outside of the market, and made for the middle of the city to drop a few of us off at the nightclub “Aroma Night Superdome” which is supposedly the only nightclub in Jeju and one of the largest in Korea. He took us right to the door where a steward was waiting to escort us in. I immediately felt under-dressed as I was still in my hiking attire. We were handed off from one attentive steward to the next before we were seated at a private booth just left of the main stage. It would be nice to get into what all the night entailed but the lengthy description would almost certainly warrant its own post. Ill just say it was definitely one of the most peculiar nights of my life, with a highly mechanical stage, constant rotating performances, lasers, confetti, and a roof that opened into the night sky. I would say we got there around 9PM and finally departed at sometime around 2AM.

After a taxi delivered us back to our accommodation, we took turns showering – watching golf in the downtime between. I would say it was about 3AM when I finally was able to get some shut eye. Being that I was positioned on the floor in the middle of the main room, morning came abruptly and with great commotion. To my dismay it was just after 6AM when I was roused. We quickly packed our things, and met our driver out in the cool autumn air of the quiet parking lot. He took us into town, to a restaurant of his recommendation. It was closed. Soon we were at another and dinning on some sort of fish soup with similar aquatic side dishes as the previous days lunch. After breakfast we went back to the accommodation to drop off one of our members who was feeling quite tired and then started the long drive down and around to the southern coast. It was a beautiful drive with our van juxtaposed between Hallasan and the rugged sea, but it wasn’t long before I had dozed off. I awoke maybe 40 mins later as we pulled into Seogwipo (Jeju’s second biggest city). The driver dropped us off at a busy palm tree lined parking lot overlooking an island dotted sea. Soon we were underway on Route 7 of the Jeju Olle Trail (the most famous of the 21 routes).

As the trail wound its way through stands of palm trees and other tropical vegetation, we had to pick our way through hoards of Chinese tourists. It was a pretty queer dynamic. Me the quintessential tourist with my group of Korean tourists, touring the most touristy of Korean destinations but outnumber 9 to 1 by this flock of opposing Asian tourists. Anyway, after maybe 3K, they were packed back onto their buses and we were free to continue uninhibited. Soon after our breakaway, we stopped at a small market filled with Jeju wares. Here we grabbed a few local brews of makkoli (a sweet milky rice wine), my favorite of which was the citrus.

Our 15K trek was picturesque. Sun, sea, dramatic coastline of basalt and lush vegetation to tie it all together. Towards the end we even passed a small waterfall pouring its cool clear water onto a undulating round stone beach. By early afternoon we were again reunited with our driver, and soon speeding north for lunch in Jeju City. Lunch was yet another fish soup variety served out of a trough in the middle of the table. We had a side of tasty baked fish and the now standard complimentary dishes. A few bottles of the local soju were followed to my dismay (but not surprise) by yet a few more. I personally like water after a day of hiking in the sun, but that’s just me I guess. Despite having ample time, the group was antsy to get a move-on (pretty common theme as it turns out). We went back to the market from the previous night and purchased a few different cuts of raw fish to be consumed on the ferry ride back home. I was looking to buy a handkerchief  with a map of the island on it but was assured I would have a better opportunity to do so at the ferry terminal.

So off we were to wrap up our 27 something hours on the island.

After parting ways with our Uncle John lookalike, we headed into the bustle of the ferry terminal. While the group congregated in some sort of indecision, I wandered over to a brochure stand. Moments later I turned to the sound of my name being called. Low and behold, it was my buddy Phil from Gwangyang (the city just N.E. of me). In the midst of catching up, I was abruptly summoned to the ticket counter. With boarding pass in-hand, we made a stop at the duty-free store. Nothing but cigarettes, whisky and perfume of course.

Despite being exhausted; the ferry ride home was filled with photo shoots on the top deck, raw fish & soju, massage chairs and a fun new card game with Phil and the boys. The 5.5 hours flew by and we could soon see the lights of Yeosu from the ferry’s windows. It was a chilly night as we filed out of the belly of the ferry and onto the wharf. I didn’t have to walk more than 50 yards before I was at my scooter. I said my farewells to Poly and the gang and was soon buzzing to the front of the traffic ques. It was a surreal feeling when minutes later I was on the same route I use to get home from school, my day and some change on the subtropical island already feeling like a distant dream…


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sboedecker1024 on November 3, 2015 at 9:29 am

    How did you get yourself wrapped up in this group of ajosshis? Very cool ~ sounds like an awesome trip, and typically Korean.


    • Ohhh you know Steph just another night at the 찜질방, making best friends. Yes. So typical – for better or for worse 😉 Have you been rubbing elbows with the ajosshis since your return!?!


  2. Posted by Krista James on November 3, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Thank you for sharing Mark. Super entertaining and very interesting….


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