Week 4: A Weekend Expedition on Jeju Island: 6/17-6/24
It's hard to believe it's already been a month here in Korea, the time is going way too fast. This past week we did our usual field research agenda which consists of two solid nights of searching for frogs. We have a set routine where each Wednesday before we do research we typically eat lunch and dinner with our Korean student hosts. They have been showing us a variety of diners and vendors each week and one of the places we feasted at served an Italian twist on Korean style food. My dish consisted of a pasta similar to spaghetti with a more soupy sauce and thinly sliced grilled pieces of beef called "bulgogi". Yes, it was delicious.
It was already dark by the time we settled in so after a quick stroll around the area and checking out the coastline we called it a night and relaxed. We also had our first taste of Korean McDonald's!! They don't have a value menu, which was depressing for me haha, but I survived. Most of the American fast food places have their own spin on some of the items there, one that I tried was the Bulgogi burger. Delicious, sweet meat that tasted to me like barbecue sauce. It was also a nice change of pace to have a place to stay indoors instead of on the beach like our last little excursion..! The next day we would be climbing Mt. Hallasan, which is the highest mountain peak in Korea (~2,000 meters or 6,000 feet roughly) and once an active volcano which formed the island of Jeju.
There are 5 main trails up the mountain and we chose one called Seongpanak. Unfortunately an absolutely breathtaking scenic trail and peak were blemished by subpar weather! It was very foggy and a constant shower of rain kept us from fully enjoying the trail. We had to cover ourselves in waterproof gear (plastic bags essentially haha) which made us look like clowns but we were dry clowns nonetheless. My least favorite part of the trek was the fact that we had to stay on a set trail the entire way. It would have been nice to have had the freedom to explore it beyond the boundaries we were forced to follow, but still it was awesome. Oh wait, I forgot about my other least favorite part - we weren't able to make it to the top!!!!!! Apparently, if you don't make it to a certain checkpoint on the mountain by 1:00PM they block it off! We started a little late at around 11:30AM; made it to the checkpoint at 1:30PM. It was a solid 7.5 kilometers (almost 5 miles) before reaching this dead end point! The total distance to the top is 9.6 kilometers so you can imagine how frustrating seeing that we had to turn back could be, we were so close...especially since we dredged ourselves through the weather to make it that far!! So unfortunately we didn't get to see the breathtaking view above (thanks google images), but I do have some pictures of the attempt! The climb itself was not too bad, however most of it consisted of sharp and wet rocks making the ascent slippery. There were a few spots that felt never ending with almost vertical slopes.
Once being defeated by Mt. Hallasan regulations, we made our descent and figured out our next move. If you couldn't tell by this point in my overall story most of our trips are not planned and our next move is typically a mystery. We decided to take the bus to the southern tip of the island, to another large city here called Seogwipo, and go from there. After deliberating sleeping outside somewhere in the rain or getting a hostel for $30, the obvious choice was the hostel. This hostel wasn't your average 3 bedroom, it was a traditional Korean room called an "odol". It is a one person bedroom with 3 cushion mats on the floor but we managed to fit 3 people into it. The place was actually great considering the price paid, we had all the basic amenities plus more at a community area on top of the roof! The hostel owners were very nice also, with one simple rule - leave the key at the front desk when you leave haha. The trek up the mountain took a toll on us and we were all decently soaked by the continuous rain, so a relaxing night followed.
The next day we left the hostel to explore some local waterfalls and see one of the famous Jeju beaches. Both of the waterfalls were awesome but both were full of a people which made the scenery less enjoyable, haha. We were able to walk to both of the waterfalls from our hostel which was nice. Inbetween seeing the waterfalls we also ventured by a few scenic landmarks including a tidal flat, random pieces of architectural/sculpture landscape art, a cool pier with many fishboats, a small island connected by a large bridge, and much more. We also saw a military style boat that was loaded with huge artillery guns and was off-limits, it was impressive and I wanted to see it in action. We couldn't take a picture of it though and it was heavily guarded.
The only reason I go to the Minnesota State Fair is to buy the food at each stand. Korea is like a 24/7 state fair in this department. You can find food on a stick on basically any populated street, and I've taken full advantage of this. The choices are sometimes a bit odd but I'm determined to give them all a shot, so far my favorite is this corn dog that has an abundance of breading on it and fried potatoes embedded within it, fried, and served on a stick! Delicious. Oh and the best part is that it cost me $1.50. They have all sorts of food though for instance this one lady had clams, octopus tentacles, corn/potato-dogs, some different types of meat, all at just her stand (just to name a few). There were also some even more mouth watering delicacies like "silk worm pupae" if that's what you're in to, yes it looks just as tasty as it sounds! Ha.
I really liked the pier area with the tidal flats. I'm especially interested in marine biology which involves saltwater critters found in the ocean. The flats were abundant with all sorts of weird creatures, with pools that appeared clear enough to be fresh drinking water but with an added saltiness ;). Some people were there for leisure and exploring like us, while some were there harvesting dinner - it really put things into perspective. I'm here on a vacation and this lady over here is collecting clams for her next meal or selling them, I find that incredibly interesting the contrast in lifestyles.
After trekking for miles exploring these areas we eventually took a taxi to our beach destination, Jungmun beach resort. That day they happened to be also hosting a surf competition which was cool and the place was busy with people as expected. A short while after relaxing an American guy who we later found out teaches English on the island invited us to play volleyball with some of his Korean friends. It was a lot of fun and we ended up playing 30 or so games and met a few cool people who were a good time. After the games we embarked on a mission to find where we would be sleeping for the night. Originally, the "plan" for the trip was to save as much money as possible by sleeping anywhere outside we could, because naturally we thought that was a great idea. We even had sleeping bags. So far we had been using hostels but that night we attempted sleeping on the beach, again. Luckily there were no people staying late that night BUT there were a handful of mosquitoes that feasted on our blood which made the night less than ideal. The rising sun was welcomed...and we set off to our next destination with a few hours of sleep keeping us awake.
We had a new agenda today, but first we dropped off our stuff at the same hostel we stayed at the last time - because we decided we are not sleeping outside again haha. Considering the price, it was worth it. Did I mention we were all carrying 30-40lb backpacks around during this whole trip? Haha. Anyways, we took a bus across to the East side of the island to see two geological landmarks of the island - one which is a giant peninsula peak with a crater at the top, the other a 13-kilometer lava tube that stretches underground. We only made it to the first one haha and it was beautiful. There were tidal pools on the peninsula that had some cool areas full of all sorts of creatures and various geological formations. Again, a lady was collecting some sea urchins offshore and after she had dived down many times and caught a huge bag full (think-Santa Clause) she marched up a cliff with her heavy bag of sea urchins; it was insane, she had to have been 70 years old; all the while tourists snapped photos of her living her everyday life.
We decided we'd try for the cave and some other last stops the next day since our bus didn't seem to want to show up and bring us there. We returned to Segwipo and spent a casual night there. Interestingly, on our way home from getting some carry out food - Justin and I were stopped by this man who claimed to be a prophet of God or something along those lines. He was babbling on in Korean and threw in as many biblical terms in English as he could so that we would understand. He ended up joyfully saying that he "saved" us and went on his way. He was an interesting character. OH, haha so funny story - you know how we're in Korea and all that? Well most appliances are in Korean so we have been kind of guessing through trial and error how some things work here. In our hostel room, there was what appeared to be a wall thermostat that we thought controlled the air conditioner. We figured level 10, the highest setting would make our room nice and chilly. Some time went by and we started to notice that the floor felt as though it was about to start on fire...but we weren't putting two and two together so we had no idea that we had TURNED THE FLOOR HEATER ON MAX. For awhile we could barely walk on our floor because it was hot enough to cook an omelette on, but finally we realized the mistake and shut it down. Haha...yeah..........somehow we've survived here this long...
The following morning we woke up early and headed out to explore the caves we missed out on the day before. The caves are called the Manjanggul caves and wow are these caves incredible. They're dark and eerie but full of intrigue - to think that at one point a force of molten hot lava flushed its way through these tunnels that you're currently standing in is mind-boggling. They're impressive to say the least, massive and stretching for miles. We found a bat at the end of one of them, it tried to eat me. The pictures do more justice than any amount of writing can, actually you probably should just get on a plane over here and check them out yourself in person. Just saying.
On our last few hours left on the island of Jeju, we decided to venture to another beach: the Blacksand beach of Jeju. The sand, was believe it or not, black haha hence the name. It was a very fine sand and soft to the touch. The water was chilly even though the air was considerably hot but it felt great. After a few drinks and being buried in the sand by my travel compadres, a few locals came over and sat near us. Eventually one of them came over with paper cups and a bottle or two of Soju (alcohol). He didn't speak English well but managed to get our attention with "Soju", and pointing to some cups as if to ask us if we wanted some. Of course we didn't object. What started as one drink turned into a little drinking party in a circle on the beach with all of them and trying to understand one another. It was a fun experience trying to communicate with them and drinking in the process, like they say, alcohol is the universal language. We drank until we had no more haha, and although that was a sad moment we had to get going anyways. When they found out we were about to take the bus to the airport, one of them gladly offered to take us there by taxi. We went ahead with our new friend figuring he knew the place better than us and after a fairly long taxi ride we made it and he ended up paying the cab tab. We tried paying him but he refused to take it, calling us his brother. We said goodbye and went our separate ways. I'm beyond inspired by the sheer generosity by some of the Korean people we've come across on this trip. I swear some of them truly go out of their way to help out foreigners it's really something, it's so selfless and I love that. Our vacation was quite an experience and loads of fun but I must say it was a real sense of relief getting back into Paju to our place.