Beauty & Wretchedness on Jeju Island
One great thing about walking everywhere in a new town is how fast you get to know its layout. As the 737 left the Gimhae tarmac, I watched the landscape already imprinted on my memory unfold in glorious 3-D from my window seat. I was able to name many of those sunbathed hills as we swooped south-west — I could even see my house! Then Changwon, then Jinhae came into and slipped from view, and we were soaring over inlets and bays and bridges and shipping, and endless, placid sea…
And then something awful happened. Half an hour after takeoff the pilot announced, first in Korean and then in English (I was the only obvious westerner on board) that we were approaching Jeju Airport, that the temperature was zero degrees Celsius…
..AND THAT IT WAS SNOWING.
But this was Jeju Island, “the Hawaii of Korea”, veritable heaven-on-earth, most temperate hideaway in the land! This was the mythic isle the staff at school had implored me to go for my winter vacation. The only possible option, to hear them tell it.
“I want somewhere warm,” I’d said, “Since I’m forced to take this unwanted and undeserved holiday. I don’t ski and my nickname for snow is White Death. My first reaction on seeing a snowboarder is homicidal rage. I want somewhere I can move around outside without freaking planks strapped to my feet. Where can I go that I won’t freeze to death?”
“You must go to Jeju Island,” they invariably answered, their eyes misting with emotion. “It is the only place.”
The plane descended, and with it my heart. I could see right away there would be no native girls greeting me, swaying suggestively to the heavenly twanging of a thousand ukeleles. Maybe a fat Eskimo on a snowplough:
The limousine bus dropped me near City Hall. Snow was swirling around like swarms of biting insects. The wind was cold enough to sting. On the way a kind stranger with great English had told me, “This is the first snow all year.”
“Fantastic. Do you know the forecast for tomorrow?”
“I think cloudy all day.”
“Splendid. I have to climb Mt Halla.”
“It’s too late today. They won’t let you.”
“I mean in the morning. I’m going there today.” No point wasting a day sitting in a hotel room. “I’m camping at the bottom tonight.”
“It’s possible. Get the bus over here.” He walked me to the stop. “Tell the driver, ‘Seongpanak’.”
“Okay, thank you.” But I had no intention of getting any bus, snow or no snow. I skulked into a Dunkin Donuts, downed some calories poring over my tourist map. It was warm in there but I had some walking to do. Into Paris Baguette (the bakery chain over here) for bread and peanut butter and cream cheese and pastries. And back into the wind and snow.
And off I went along Rt 1131, the north-south artery connecting Jeju City with Seopwipo, with a slight bend in the middle where it skirts Halla-San, highest peak in South Korea. Few lunatics braved the footpaths:
A brief stop for more “food”…
..and past some garden art that seemed a tad ominous:
I was wearing waterproof boots, rare for me, but I was so glad for the rarer sense I’d shown in bringing them:
I only had six or seven miles to walk, and within an hour I’d left most of the city behind. I got glimpses of the infamously shy Halla — or was it one of the subsidiary volcano-lings? — a benign-looking pine-swathed lump. I came to a beautiful temple, Namguka…
..and diverted to enjoy its unearthly, snow-enhanced atmosphere.
This is the only thing snow does well:
It was magical in there. While I wandered about, taking pictures subtly…
..and enjoying the hypnotic poetry, or prayers, broadcast softly over a loudspeaker, a succession of Korean families stopped in to do their New Year’s temple ritual before fleeing to their heated cars.
I had no heat to flee to, though, just a tiny, flimsy SILICONE-NYLON TARP WITH NO FLOOR BECAUSE LIKE AN IDIOT I’D BELIEVED THAT I WAS ABOUT TO SOJOURN IN THE MEDITERRANEAN OF THE ORIENT.
I made one more diversion, at Sancheondan Altar, the place where, in 1470, a stone altar had been built so the good citizens of Jeju could make sacrifices (I don’t know what kind but I doubt the victims were plants) to the gods of Halla without risking their lives any longer in the dangerous weather up there on the summit.
Bad weather? On Jeju? Wait a minute…
Sancheondan is also the location of the largest, oldest black pines in all of Korea:
I was the only fool in there to see the sights. Three dogs roused themselves to bark halfheartedly at me before retreating to their very inviting-looking kennels. I went back to the road and soon reached the turnoff to Gwaneumsa — a famous temple — and a little further on, the only legal campsite in miles, at the starting point of the Gwaneumsa Trail, the steepest one, “often used by mountaineers” — the one I was going to use in the morning before descending via the Seongpanak Trail and ambling towards the sunny shores of the south-east…
But first, there was a bus stop at the junction — with a roof. I sat in there a while and ate the greatest lunch of my life: four tiny but delicious sandwiches (their crusts kindly removed), a custard-filled pastry-like object, a Dr You-brand muesli bar coated with chocolate, and a Snickers. While I devoured all this, a group of elderly people appeared from who-knew-were and stood under the roof, ignoring me, and filling the space with the reek of kimchi and whisky.
Sated, I sighed and rejoined the weather, passing this dol hareubang (“stone grandfather”, the symbol of Jeju; hundreds dot the island, carved from the local basalt) which may well have been a fibreglass replica…
..and towards my date with mighty Halla-San:
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote