Where is Jeju Island?
Never heard of it? I thought my geography was pretty good. I know locals call the Mongolian capital “U.B.” and that the capital of New York isn’t New York, but I was completely stumped by Jeju. Was it near Seoul? Were we to take a ferry? No and no. Jeju sits off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula and, far from being unknown, it has an international airport that services 300+ flights a day.
So there you go. Jeju very much.
The vacation vibe hit us as soon as we landed, with sea air wafting over the tarmac and through the terminal, where crowds clad in leisurewear meandered in a state of relaxed bewilderment. Many of those 300+ flights a day carry tour groups from across South Korea, Japan and China, including some who are redefining the parameters of holiday headwear. Sightseeing? Arc Welding?
These were the first impressions, but our Jeju Odyssey was to take in a lot more than headwear appreciation and selfie-stick shock (more on that later). With the help of Jeju local, Jeung (great guide and great company), Haejoo had once again pieced together a wonderful program – this time encompassing vulcanology, culture, politics, cuisine and norebang (aka, karaoke).
Jeju #1 To start proceedings, we were treated to a meal. I won’t say much on the matter. But abalone, sea urchin, acorn jelly and seafood pancake were involved.
Jeju #2 Next stop was a meeting with the Jeju Tourism Organisation’s Mr Shin, an exuberant gentleman who gave us an outline of challenges Jeju faces as a travel destination. As we observed at the airport, Jeju has indeed become a tour-group magnet. Visitor numbers had jumped by 30% in the last year or so, putting a strain on infrastructure, and causing some disgruntlement among locals, who put up with crowds yet watch as money is spent at the privately run duty free outlets, and casinos. Getting the balance right between financial gain and environmental/cultural cost will be a tough task for the people of Jeju.
Jeju #3 Next stop was the coastal village of Gangjeong, where villagers are waging a David versus Goliath battle against the SK Government’s construction of a massive naval base on the village foreshore. It has been more than five years since protests began, and legal avenues have been exhausted, but those opposing the base continue to rally at the site – a concrete carbuncle between the beach and Gangjeong’s tangerine orchards.
After a look at the area, we were met by protestors at the community centre. They spoke of how their community had been split by the issue. Some had accepted incentives (which in some cases weren’t 100% delivered), some had been jailed. Many families were divided on the issue, yet protesters continued to voice their anger at the massive military presence being built on their doorstep. More info at http://savejejunow.org.
Jeju #4 Visiting one of Jeju’s eight casinos certainly wasn’t on the schedule. But after a heart-stopping meal of ‘black pork’ and beer, a walk was in order, in the hope of regaining some pulmonary capability. And, really, you couldn’t avoid the nearby casino: standing between the main road and the beach, it glistened with faux roman architecture, lightshow fountains (plus Dutch windmills), globulous swimming pools and an Eastern European jazz trio noodling in the bar (one member playing organ and bassoon).
Down a neon-lit walkway and past the security/ID check (Korean nationals are not allowed into Jeju’s casinos) sprawled the games room. I expected high-dazzle, but the space looked more like a B-grade conference space with bad feng shui. Games tables were scattered irregularly across the area – mostly baccarat, but also blackjack, roulette, and something involving dice. Men and women in rusty leather jackets and clunky jewellery flicked cards and made odd hand gestures while puffing on cigarettes. K-pop mumbled in the background, black-clad employees meerkatted their way around the tables and chips went clickety clack…as they no doubt still are.
Tour de Jeju
A glorious day beamed through the hotel breakfast room, so I finished my tangerines, persimmons, corn flakes and dishwater coffee, and went for a ‘quick’ walk to the beach. The road snaked past golf courses and the back-end of resorts, and spat me out on a sweet little bay scattered remnant beach furniture. Birds flapped among the vegetation that, due to the cliff face, hadn’t been manicured by hotel staff.
Sensitive to Haejoo’s schedule, I scampered back up the hill and took a shortcut through one of the resorts. Bad move. These multi-level, pool-obstructing edifii suck you in never to be seen again. When passing staff members I tried to look like I belonged at the resort, but the absence of monogrammed sweater and selfie-stick marked me as an interloper. I didn’t want to be there; they didn’t want me to be there. A side entrance was my escape, but I then spent days winding past shiny black saloons trying to find a familiar landmark.
By the time I got back to the hotel it was indeed time to leave and, after a quick stop for coffee, we headed east for a day of sightseeing…
Jeju Sightseeing A We could not have had a better day to promenade along the cliff tops, looking down onto tessellated rock formations and the alluring ocean. The crowds of selfie-stick toting sightseers only added to the enjoyment.
Jeju Sightseeing B Seongeup is a beautifully restored 14th-century village, with pampas-roofed houses and a perimeter wall made of volcanic rock. All helpful when the Japanese invade (as they were once wont to do). The wall’s use is obvious; the pampas-roof not so much. Factoid: a grass roof keeps out rain, but allows smoke to escape slowly, so plumes won’t be spotted by marauding pirates. Here endeth the lesson.
Jeju Sightseeing C Jeju was formed by volcanic activity, and is pockmarked with hundreds of craters – the youngest being Seongsan Ilchulbong, jutting out from the western coast. Its image can be seen on posters, postcards, refresher towelette packaging, water-bottle labels…
Yet to see it firsthand is still breathtaking. As is the climb. Even so, thousands hit the trail everyday, to soak in the view and make use of their selfie sticks.
Jeju Sightseeing Lunch Abalone on a bed of rice cooked in a dolsot (hot stone pot). Mmmm. This was followed by a late-day stroll on a beach on Jeju’s northwest coast – at a little spot that was once favoured by Koreans opting out of the career-focused frenzy of modern life. Development put a stop to that, although the area is still quaint, yet to be shadowed by rambling resorts.
There were more activities that evening, involving lava tubes, sashimi and the 1985 hit ‘Take on Me’ by A-ha. But some things are better left on Jeju.