Thursday, November 29, 2012

24 Hours in Jeju

On the ferry leaving Jeju
We returned to work on Thursday after Chuseok for two days of work before the weekend. For the second consecutive Saturday I woke up early (though this time before the break of dawn) to get to U-Square to catch a bus. I met the rest of the our little traveling gang (two other teachers and the mother of one of them, who was visiting from the states) to catch a cab to the station and we took the 6:20 bus to Mokpo. The sun came up during the 50 minute bus ride, and after arriving in Mokpo we made our way via taxi to the ferry terminal.
The idea of going to Jeju thrilled me when they invited me to go along, but I underestimated just how interesting and enjoyable the ferry ride would end up being. It was a large boat with four decks with cabins above the space for vehicles. There was a restaurant with Korean food, as well as a bakery, a convenience store, and a souvenir shop (that I saw...there were parts of the boat I didn't fully explore). After boarding, we made our way to our ticketed space on the ferry. We were in an economy cabin, which was an open room about the size of my apartment. We left our shoes on a rack in the hall and went in to claim our stretch of floorspace along the wall.
If I end up going back to Jeju by ferry (which I plan on doing at some point) I'll get economy tickets again. Soon after we sat down, our room and the rooms around us began to fill up with Korean hikers, most of whom were chatting jovially and many of whom were toting boxes and bags of food and drink. The atmosphere was very friendly and lively, which felt appropriate given my own excitement about visiting the island.
When I first started thinking of trying to work in Korea I toyed with the idea of trying to get a job in Jeju. It's a very popular vacation destination here. Its southern location makes its climate milder than the rest of Korea, and the tallest mountain in South Korea, Hallasan, is located on the island as well. We postulated that many of the people we saw wearing hiking clothes and toting packs and poles were on their way to climb Hallasan. The combination of these volcanic sites, the warmer climate, and the lush vegetation lead to Jeju being considered sort of Korea's version of Hawaii.
Thinking of it this way intrigued me when I started daydreaming of going halfway around the world to teach for a year. This was also when I still figured I would be living like a hermit for a year, so being on a semi-remote island halfway around the world didn't seem to daunting. Now that I've been here a while, it seems that working on Jeju could be inconvenient for someone looking to travel often. The island isbeautiful, and there seemed to be a lot to do there to stay busy. But living on Jeju would add several hours and plane or ferry ticket expenses to any travel on the mainland.
This may not be too bad, however, as the ferry ride was very enjoyable. We grabbed some food from the bakery and restaurant after the boat set sail, and spent a couple of hours out on the decks just watching as we passed dozens of islands off the southern coast on the way out of Mokpo. I was still tired from the early wake-up and travel, so I went back to our little room and stretched out on the floor for a nap. I ended up sleeping for around an hour, which was much longer than I expected to manage on a floor in the daytime surrounded by strangers. I felt surprisingly comfortable, though, and shortly after I woke up we arrived at Jeju.

The boat brought us in on the north side of the island. From there we took a taxi to our hotel on the south coast of the island. The ride took less than an hour, as Jeju is not a very large island. The hotel was right on the coast with an ocean view. We grabbed some lunch and went to explore before night fell. The coastline near the hotel was rather rocky, but there was a spot to climb down on the rocks at the water's edge, which I loved. My parents sometimes reminisce about a trip we took to Yellowstone when I was younger. Along the way, we stopped in the Badlands in South Dakota. They tell me that I had a blast scrambling around some of the rocks there, and I can believe it. I don't have any technical rock-climbing experience, but this spot provided just the sort of minimal challenge that I find enjoyable. We played around there for about half an hour, and I took some video.

Since we weren't able to get in the water on this part of the coast, we ended up requesting a cab from the hotel desk, and went to a beach area a few miles away. We arrived shortly before sundown.

Although Jeju is the closest thing Korea has to a tropical vacation spot, the weather was already slightly chilly, it being October, so I was a bit nervous about going into the water. Even so, we made our way out into the surf. There was a long stretch of clear, shallow water that was barely to my knees. We walked through the water for about 200 meters before we finally reached a spot that was deep enough to actually swim a bit without scraping against the bottom. There we dove into the waves, bracing for the cold.
I'm very glad we found this beach and got to it before sundown, because it was a thrill to be floating in the ocean again, for the first time since being in the Outer Banks this summer. As much as I love the mountains, as it gets colder I find myself reminiscing more about staring out at the waves crashing in or of treading in the surf, bobbing up and down. As I floated out there, I tried to capture some of the spirit with some video looking back over the stretch of shallow water we walked through to get out to the waves. Sorry for the shaking. I was treading with my legs and one arm while holding the camera with the other. Hopefully it does give an idea of what a gorgeous scene it was:

Before long, that sun had sunk beneath those buildings, and we trudged through the water back to shore, shivering from the chill. We caught a cab back to the hotel before having dinner and enjoying an evening exploring the hotel grounds. The next day we took the taxi back to the other side of the island (while taking in some spectacular views of the forests on the island's interior) and were on the ferry back to Mokpo that afternoon. The photo at the top of this post was taken as we were leaving Jeju. It was a lovely ferry ride, as we were able to watch the sunset over the ocean.
It was a fantastic weekend, the second in a row for me. Even though we were only on the island for about a day in total, it provided a restful break and felt like a wonderful escape. Jeju was much quieter and quainter than I expected, at least the parts we saw. It is likely much busier during the regular tourist season, but I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the natural beauty of the place, especially the little stretch of coast near our hotel. Sure, it was chilly and short-lived, but I really did feel as though I'd had a taste of paradise, especially while floating out there in the waves.

Before I sign off for this post, I want to thank the other teachers who invited me to join them for this trip! They've taken great care of me while I've been here, making me feel very welcome and helping me find my way around here. I really enjoyed traveling with you guys and I look forward to doing so again soon!

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