on…Jeju (제주)

Posted: 21/06/2013 in Asia, Korea, Outdoors, Photography, Travel
Tags: , , ,

In a country with hostile neighbours it comes as no surprise that most people in Korea have traditionally been reluctant to travel. Even after the rapid development of the economy, and a huge increase in disposable income, few Koreans seem to enjoy travelling. I say this not from some dry UN statistic, but from general conversations and by visiting various places in the world. Compared to Australians, Germans, British and even Japanese, Koreans don’t really clog up the international flight map. This is mostly because of the working schedule which leaves little time for long holidays overseas. The only red days in the calendar are those that cling to the traditional family festivals like Chuseok and Seollal – the harvest festival and Lunar New Year.

The boat from Udo

The boat from Udo

So when Koreans do get time to go on holiday where do they go? What constitutes the exotic for this nation of workaholics? Where is the Korean Hawaii, Tenerife or St Tropez? How do people escape the grey apartments and white shirted offices? There is one resounding answer – Jeju.

Jeju is the self-governing island located to the South of the Korean peninsula. It’s near enough to be a comfortable flight and to get instant noodles and kimchi. However, it’s just far enough, and isolated enough, to have its own dialect, climate and cuisine. This distance from the rest of Korea gives Jeju a sub-tropical edge which has affected all aspects of life here. Jeju is the ultimate destination for all Koreans; you rarely get through any conversation about travelling without the name Jeju cropping up. Everyone knows someone who has been to Jeju. It’s one of those ‘must see’ places on any Korean bucket lists.

jeju-do (23)

I have always been luke warm to must see destinations, I feel so pressured. With this weight of obligation and the lack of other viable destinations (I’ve been in Korea 2 years) I chose to go to Jeju for my last holiday. Apart from the flight I actually spent very little time researching the place. I imagined it would be one of those step off the boat and select the best option places. There are countless things to do in Jeju but I would caution against being too casual because the weather and the public transport can be quirky. Despite a couple of grey days and some timetable wrangling, I found Jeju to be everything I expected and a little bit more.

The airport was much bigger and more urbane than I expected, I thought it would be more akin to one of those Caribbean places that James Bond arrives at. Instead of light-hearted trans-atlantic banter with Felix Lighter – I settled for a taxi. Like most Korean taxi drivers the guy had no idea where my hotel was, and forget using a map because taxi drivers don’t understand the world as seen from above. They work on more of a medieval approach to directions – half instinct half rumour. Eventually he found the hotel which was a cheap love motel turned into a family friendly budget hotel. The owner seemed genuinely surprised to see a guest but the room was large and clean. The best feature was a framed seashell.

Fish in the Spirited Garden

Fish in the Spirited Garden

After seeing Jeju-si (the city) and the hotel district I was pretty disappointed. Most places didn’t seem much different from the average Korean town. The sea comes close to the shore leaving little in the way of a beach, and the ferry port is just a small industrial area. Some of the major hotel chains seemed a bit provincial and drab. However, this was only the city and Jeju-si isn’t Jeju-do. ‘Si’ is city and ‘Do’ is island. After a brief night of fear wondering what I had done, the next two days were amazing.

I visited the Eastern side of the island using local buses. The scenery was verdant and a welcome pleasure from the back of a rickety bus. After nodding off several times I kept seeing small forests and green pastures through my half closed eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was home on the roads between Lancashire and the Lake district – they even have dry stone walls! On closer inspection the trees were much different from those found in England. In fact, nature itself was a slightly different shade in all its examples. Islands are separated from the processes of natural history on the nearest landmasses. This gives Jeju its distinct trees, plants, and fruits.

jeju-do (18)

On the second day I headed west on an organized tour. The tour was excellent and gave enough time in each place without ever getting bored. The tour guide was informative without feeling the need to entertain. The mixture of scenery and attractions was always stimulating and I would go back without hesitation. I got the chance to walk along the coast, visit Buddhist temples and there was even a buffet at a famous bonsai garden.

jeju-do (21)

I am purposefully leaving out details because I hope the pictures can show a glimpse of the colours and scenery that make Jeju so popular. I decided pretty quickly that I will return to Jeju and go hiking up the Halla volcano. Until then, like most Koreans I will keep dreaming about going to Jeju.

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