Happy Seollal — Korean Lunar New Year — readers!
Not only is this the Year of the Dragon, which happens to be my Chinese sign, but this post is also, by some sweet cosmic synchronicity, my 100th on TGTW. My first post was published on January 29 last year. I’m proud to have kept this leaky little rowboat afloat so long in these turbulent times (the turbulence seems to follow me around) and hope you’ve been enjoying the journey.
So how am I spending this most important day in the Korean year? Well, I’m blowing an hour or two of it on this post, resisting the magnetic lure of a glimpse of dusty blue through my living room/bedroom/study window. I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.
I can venture out in my walking shoes after that — my plan thus far is to stop into the waffle place I just discovered round the corner (if it’s open), try not to do or say anything embarrassing (if that’s possible), jot down yesterday’s tale in my journal, and perhaps brave another bus ride (I’ve learned how, at last, like a real grown-up) to somewhere I can observe the locals dressed up in their Seollal finery and doing what they do.
I’m also on vacation now. Yes, already, despite not having actually done any work. I’ve been ordered to take half of my paid winter allotment this week, and the other half in a few weeks’ time — reward for a few gruelling weeks of sitting in my chair, learning a few Hangeul, doing a 45-minute conversation class with a few kids in the afternoon, and a handful of group chats with a few English-speaking staff. Oh, and scanning the internet for holiday ideas.
This being mid-winter, and the snow of the icy north having little appeal, I decided to snap up an obscenely cheap plane ticket and fly south-west tomorrow morning for 45 minutes to a place dear to the heart of every Korean, Jeju Island:
If you’re an English teacher in Brisbane, you’re quite possibly chuckling knowingly. We hear about this virtual Shangri-La soon enough from every Korean student we teach:
“As you know, Jeju Island is very famous.”
I doubt there’s a Korean in the land who’s not been there at least a couple of times; a great many couples spend their honeymoons in this, ahem, “Korean Hawaii”. It wasn’t high on my to-do list, though I warmed to it (almost literally; it’s the most temperate part of Korea) as I did my reading.
Simon Winchester started his journey through Korea on Jeju, and it was also the location of the first contact between Europeans and Koreans, when Dutchman Hendrick Hamel and 35 shipmates were shipwrecked there in 1653, captured by locals, sent to Seoul to entertain the king and kept captive for 13 years until several escaped to Japan and finally made it home.
There are also the Haenyo, the famed female sea-divers who dive for abalone and conch (and tourist cameras), and the island’s amazing history, which has included Mongolian invasion as a staging post for their failed Japan invasion (they grazed their horses here), and later invasion and colonisation by the Japanese, as well as a brutal post-war massacre of leftist “agitators” — like many islands, Jeju apparently earned a reputation as breeding a certain rebellious spirit.
But the big attraction for me is the shield volcano of mighty Halla-San, at 1,950m the highest peak in South Korea. The volcano, which last erupted in 1007, essentially makes up the entire island. There are also 370-odd “parasitic” volcanoes and numerous lava tubes, and the great peak in the island’s centre is surrounded by national park and has UNESCO biosphere and World Heritage status.
You can see Halla in the centre in this picture (ignore the “Cheju do” which is just an alternative pronunciation of Jeju; do means province):
The “Jeju” on the north-central coast is Jeju City, where I’ll be landing and starting my almost-completely-unplanned weeklong journey. Possibly starting tomorrow (gulp!), I’ll be walking south, camping on the north side of Halla, and rising early to climb the mountain. They won’t let you start after a certain time as it’s an eight- or nine-hour return trip.
There’ll be snow up there and I’m taking waterproof boots and lightweight crampons, a hassle as I’ll be hiking round the island in running shoes and will have to carry the boots. Then I’ll be hiking down the eastern side and aiming for the coast, thus avoiding much of the north-east, which is apparently buffetted by icy winds at this time of the year!
Then comes the fun part. A string of hiking paths follows much of the coast. They’re called Olle, and you can read about them here. They’re maintained by volunteers and are a greener, saner alternative to the theme parks and tour-bus tourism that apparently overruns much of Jeju. I’m taking a tent, or maybe just a tarp (but those winds!) and will amble, ramble and gamble my way round the island, clockwise of course, through the second city of Seogwipo and up, somehow, to Jeju City for my return.
There are also some fascinating temples to explore in which Buddhism has merged with the indigenous shamanism, and even semi-wild ponies, descendants of those Mongol steeds. Temperature and opportunities permitting, I hope to camp at least some nights, but am prepared to lash out for a cheap off-season room and hot bath when necessary.
Oh, and I’m not taking a stove — I only brought my alcohol model to Korea, and am not even sure I can buy fuel for it here. So I’ll be eating what I find, and if I get desperate there’s always those ponies. Not sure what my blogging opportunities will be: I don’t have a working phone yet, but maybe in a hotel or PC bang (internet cafe) in Seogwipo…
Have a great Year of the Dragon, everyone! Tempting sunbeams are poking their way in, and I gots to ambulate…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote