Thursday, September 9, 2010

Smile! You're Traveling. (part 3)

Hello hello. I was planning a long, extensive blow-by-blow recounting of my trip to Jeju this summer, but now I've been home for two weeks and I'm sick of these blog posts taking hours to write. So I'm going to give you the short version. Okay, shorter version. And there may be some extra "o"s because the Hangul sticker I stuck on the "o" key on my keyboard cover is coming off and I'm too lazy to buy a new set of stickers off eBay. So if you don't like it, deal.

Jeju is a resort island not too far off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. Many Koreans like to refer to it as "the Hawaii of Korea" while many foreigners prefer to refer to it as "not nearly as exciting as Hawaii." Having never been to Hawaii I have no basis for comparison. There are two ways to get to Jeju from Korea: plane or ferry. The plane trip only takes about an hour but it's a little more expensive and if you're traveling during peak season you have to book well in advance. I didn't start planning my trip until I figured out that I couldn't afford my planned trip to Taiwan so I took the ferry, which travels overnight from Busan. If you have the time and don't want to spend extra money, I highly recommend the ferry, there's a great party atmosphere on board so it's a lot of fun. On the way to Jeju I shared a three-person cabin with a stranger with a large backpack and another stranger that wandered in drunk late at night and never left. He was still asleep when I disembarked in the morning. But that's why I called the top bunk.

The best thing about Jeju is probably all the natural volcanic formations on the island. On day one I headed straight for the Manjanggul lava tubes, visited the hedge maze on the way back to the bus stop and ended the day at Seongsan Ilchulbong (a.k.a. Sunrise Peak) at the eastern tip of the island. It was a great day but by the time I got to Seongsan Ilchulbong I was so ludicrously drenched in sweat that I spent about an hour on the floor of my hotel room lying in a pool of the stuff trying to get my energy back. Korea is hot and humid as fuck in the summer, and Jeju is no exception. On the plus side, the floor of my hotel room was linoleum so my back made fun fart-like sounds whenever I moved. At night I ran into a Canadian couple sharing some beers and eating chicken with a few younger Koreans. One of my newfound Korean friends, trying to make conversation, came up with this chestnut about yours truly: "You. Bruce Willis. Face, yes. Body, no." I can't say it was totally unfair. (To my credit I've lost weight since I've been here. I'm not sure how much since it turns out my scale in LA was broken and weighing light, but I'm definitely on different belt loops now.)

On day two I headed southwest and ended up in Seogwipo and the resort town of Jungmun. Saw some waterfalls, found a minbak in Jungmun (boarding house), and decided that I was ready to murder just about anyone in the word if it meant that I would never perspire again. (Koreans don't sweat. They don't use deodorant either, apparently for that reason. I don't know how they do it.) For dinner I ended up at a Western-style bar and restaurant called Gecko's where I drank a few too many pints of Guinness with some Irish gentlemen and played darts with an American chap with an extensive beard. I think one of the best things about being an English-speaking ex-pat abroad is that you run into all sorts of oddball misfits, drifters, scalawags and other assorted characters that you end up swapping stories with exclusively because of your shared mother tongue. The Irish gentlemen were extremely friendly once they understood that I knew how to get my balls busted, and they were proud to see that I was drinking Guinness, although one of them soured a little after he commented that I must be Irish and I told him my whole family is German. There were no ill feelings, though. Guinness is a wonderful, magical thing.

When I had procured my room at the minbak, the manager had asked for 25,000 won, I had communicated that I wanted to stay for two nights and needed a shower, and she had responded by asking for 30,000 won. At the time I assumed that, despite my nonexistent command of Korean (luckily the Korean word for shower is "sya-weoh") and her poor command of English, I had successfully communicated my plans and gotten a great deal for two nights. Not too long afterward I realized that the conversation may not have been as effective as I had thought and the manager might not have realized that I planned to occupy the room for two nights. Since I was planning to hike Mount Hallasan and leave most of my possessions in the room the next day, I figured the managers would probably realize what was up the next morning when they peeked inside and saw a lot of dirty T-shirts and other assorted flotsam around the room, but I was a little worried nonetheless. Eventually I decided to scrawl my best approximation of "Afternoon I return" (오후 저는 돝아가세여, if I remember correctly) on the back of a receipt and left for Hallasan the next morning hoping for the best.

Mount Hallasan, Korea's highest peak, was a great hike.  ("Mount Hallasan" may be redundant since I think "san" means "mountain.") On the advice of my guidebook (Lonely Planet's Korea (Country Guide) - pick up a copy at and make me a buck) I took the Eorimok trail up and the Yeongsil trail back down. This western approach doesn't lead all the way to the rim of the volcano's crater, but my research had indicated that the trip to the rim was for more advanced climbers. I never even saw a trail to the rim on my trek, but the terrain certainly looked steep. The Eorimok trail started with a fairly steep but even climb through deciduous woods and leveled out into a grassy plane above the tree line. I took the trail up to the Witseoreum shelter, then took another trail which was open but under construction part way around the crater until I turned back to return to the Yeongsil trail. The Yeongsil trail didn't seem too exciting until I got to the section that hugs the edge of the mountain and gives a spectacular view of all the peaks and valleys around Hallasan. I'm glad I took the other trail up, though, because the Yeongsil trail was more or less an endless trek down a slipshod staircase of boulders. These Koreans with the friggin' rocks, I don't understand it. Do they want to break their ankles? I was also glad that I picked up one of those collapsible walking sticks before I got on the ferry in Busan. At the base of the Yeongsil trail there was a building that I thought was a temple at first but turned out to be a general store, which was better than a temple since it had ice cream. On a hot day, given a choice between enlightenment and ice cream, I will happily take the ice cream.

When I got back to the minbak the manager was attempting to communicate something I didn't quite understand. Eventually her husband managed "money" and I gave them another 30,000 won. All was well. And they gave me a roast sweet potato. You gotta love Korean hospitality.

Jungmun has a lot of tourist attractions, but the less expensive minbaks are up the hill from the more expensive "pension" hotels, resorts and attractions. (There were a few pensions up the hill where I was, including a Smurf-themed one that I wished I had noticed before I selected my lodgings.) I was pretty exhausted from the
trip up Hallasan but I managed to stroll down the hill towards the beach and at least take a look around, in the hope of finding a place to eat. I swung by the outside of the Teddy Bear Museum, Museum of Sound and Chocolate Museum (only the most high-minded entertainment in Jeju), went past the Pacific Land dolphin and monkey show facilities and ended up at Jungmun Beach. I think I only got my feet wet twice on the whole trip despite the fact that I was on a tropical island. Honestly going to a crowded beach isn't so fun when you're a chubby, pale, hirsute lone foreigner who's often carrying all his possessions on his back. (That was probably the thing I liked best about the island beaches in Tongyeong - no crowds!) I checked out a much-touted seafood buffet near the beach but it was packed and cost more than I was willing to spend. Down the street from my minbak there was a row of Korean-style restaurants  but when I checked them out most of them had nothing available to eat for one person. Some of them even flat out sent me away and told me to go further down the street. This is probably my one major complaint about Korean culture: there is absolutely no place in Korean society for an individual on his or her own. Especially when it comes to food. The dishes at most of the larger restaurants are cooked at the table and only served in large portions designed to be shared with a group. Typically they don't even have anything for a lone diner. Also, if you're out to eat in Korea and don't want to have what your friends are having you're shit out of luck. If the group is going for samgyeopsal, you're eating samgyeopsal or nothing. (Well, nothing but side dishes.) If I had walked the other way I would have walked into town instead of the tourist district and I might have found a hamburger stand or kimbap shop, but I really wanted to try some local Jeju specialties like their famous black pig. As it turned out I eventually found a place that had haemulpajeon (seafood scallion pancake) on the menu, which is technically a side dish but I wasn't in the mood to get technical about a thing like that at the time. Never did get to try the black pig. Clearly I need to do more to subjugate my individuality.

My last day on the island I went to Jeju City so I would never be close to the ferry terminal for my departure. I think it's good to schedule at least one day in a vacation that's more or less a blow-off day - it cuts down on the stress from feeling like you have to be doing something amazing every moment of your vacation. I caught a movie, got some passable Mexican and excellent Indian food, and saw the Samseonghyeol Shrine, where the three brothers who founded Jeju are traditionally believed to have sprung from three holes in the ground. ("Well, well, well," I uttered, stumbling upon the three holes.) I think the best part of that trip was the animated story of the three brothers with its hilariously just-off English translation. I'm not sure why but I kept thinking that if you gave the whole thing a death metal soundtrack it would make for an unusual but passable episode of Metalocalypse. Lines of narration like "The brother ate meat and wore leather clothes" definitely added to that impression.

The trip back was not a highlight as I had voluntarily bought a third class ticket instead of booking a cabin. I knew third class involved sharing a room with many other passengers and sleeping on the floor, but I hadn't realized that I would be on a rough carpet with no pads or blankets save a brick-sized vinyl-covered foam block. I don't exactly remember the conversation between me and my co-teacher when I booked the return ticket but I definitely should have asked more specific questions about the accommodations. Plus the dude next to me slept at an angle so his legs were all up in my shit all night. What the fuck, dude, sleep perpendicular to the wall like a normal person. Jeez.

So that was the Jeju trip. Now I'm back at school for another semester of English educationalizing. Next week's lesson is all about Chuck Norris. I'm trying to keep it fun this semester.

Chuseok, a.k.a. Korean Thanksgiving, is coming up in a week or two, and I have the whole week off but no travel plans as of yet. I talked to Mo about traveling to Andong but he wants to see if he passes his driving test first. So I don't know if you'll be seeing a part four installment in a couple weeks or not. For now I'm just preparing to enjoy my break between quarters for my accounting classes, and trying to meet all of the new Western teachers. One of them is in my building - another South Africa gentleman. Seems like a nice guy.

That's it for this installment. Tune in... later. And buy some shit off Amazon. How about the Jim Jarmusch classic Dead Man or Judas Priest's Screaming For Vengeance?

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