Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Jeju Island Photos
Last week was Lunar New Year, also known as my last holiday in Korea. I got Wednesday to Friday off, and headed to Jeju Island on Thursday. Located south of the peninsula and taking advantage of a warmer climate, Jeju is known as the "Hawaii of Korea", and is a popular destination for Korean honeymooners. Even though it was February, the island's tourist spots were quite busy with Koreans taking in the scenery.


As usual, I had to wake up inordinately early (actually this time, 4:00am!), and stupidly took a taxi to the airport half an hour earlier than the first bus, only to wait half an hour for the check-in counter to open. Apart from that and being squished into a middle seat for the hour-long ride, the trip over was uneventful and I arrived on the lovely island at 8am, hours before I normally start my day.

I had booked into a hostel on the other side of the island, but instead of going directly there, I took a slow bus around the eastern edge of the island to see the volcanic caves and sunrise peak. I wasn't quite sure how long the trip would take but set off gallantly and tiredly to explore.

First stop: 만장굴, or Manjangul volcanic caves. I should first note that Jeju is a volcanic island (this will be useful to keep in mind), and one of its attractions is a system of lava tubes several kilometres long. The cave was... well, cavernous! The lava structures are almost perfectly preserved, so one can see the flows of lava on the floor and ridges on the cave walls. The section open to the public is a kilometre long ending in a magnificent lava structure.

The cave was a bit off of the bus route, so instead of walking back I took a taxi to the next stop, 일출봉 (Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak). This is a volcanic prominence on the eastern tip of Jeju famed for its beauty. In true Korean fashion I climbed the stairs to the ledge around the volcanic crater. I imagine the beauty of Sunrise Peak would be amplified at sunrise, but it was quite stunning nonetheless.

After the excitement of sightseeing, is was getting late in the afternoon so I decided to bus to 서귀포 (Seogwipo), the city I was staying in. I arrived in time to walk around the city and take some sunset shots. I was a little concerned though: when I arrived, I was expecting to see at least a few other foreigners around the hostel or the waterfront, but there were no others. After the sun set I ordered a beer and sat, pondering a lonely few days.

This mood was quickly dispelled when I returned to the hostel and met Cormac, an English teacher from Ireland. His friend Kevin quickly joined us, followed by Allie, Colin, and Kim, and all of a sudden I had new friends and plans for the next day.


The Irish and I woke up early and met in the lobby at 7:30 to start our plans: hiking Mt. Halla. 한라산, as it is known in Korean, is the dormant volcano central to Jeju and the mountain with the highest elevation in Korea! The peak looked rather imposing from Seogwipo, and on our way there our hesitation grew as the bus wound up through an increasing snow pack. I would have been far more comfortable heading on a ski trip than a 10km hike.

Although we had loaded up with food in the city, we still felt unprepared at the base, especially as all the Koreans around us looked like professional mountain-climbers in their crampons, hiking poles and activity-appropriate clothes. (In contrast, I was wearing four layers for warmth, but had only light hiking shoes and no gloves or tuque.) We wisely headed to the gear shop to equip ourselves, and I bought a hat and gloves and a pair of simple crampons to help with traction.

We set off in good spirits, aware only intellectually of the 9.6 km hike and 1200m elevation gain ahead of us. The first 4km were a breeze as we hiked through gorgeous snow and bare trees on a gentle incline, however at some point the hills got more frequent and demanding, and soon we were constantly hiking uphill and making much slower progress.

Though we had thought we'd started quite early enough, we were actually cutting the timing quite close. Since it is unsafe to hike the mountain once the sun starts to set, there is a checkpoint a few kilometres from the summit where the ascent is closed at noon. As we got closer to the shelter, the time crept up past 11, then past 11:30, and when we arrived at the shelter we had only three minutes to spare before they closed the path to the summit! Though planning to rest, we had to forge on ahead, resting only after we were safely past the checkpoint.

We started the hike at about 9:30, so it had taken us around two an a half hours to reach this point; now the really difficult part began. We had only two kilometres to go to the top, but still about 600m to climb. And climb we did, slowly and painfully and with many breaks.

The rest of the group got ahead a bit around this time, leaving Cormac and me to bring up the rear. About a half kilometre from the summit, my legs almost gave out. If I had walked even ten more steps uphill, I told him, I would have collapsed, vomited or probably both. I quickly found a perch on the side of the trail and told him to go ahead to the summit. I gave up, and decided to rest until the Irish picked me up on the way down. I took a self portrait, titled: Steve, conquered by the mountain.

After five minutes, some water and a little kimbap, I realized my legs were not so bad after all, and the adrenaline kicked in again. I tested a few steps uphill and revised my decision: I would go for the top. I was alone now, surrounded by a steady stream of Koreans all with the same goal.

It turns out the remaining ascent to the top, though steep, was less challenging since there were stairs. I climbed out of the last bit of vegetation and onto the bleak side of the mountain, drinking in the incredible views whenever I could spare a glance away from my footing.

As I climbed the last few stairs and the Irish spotted me in the crowd of Koreans, they gave a great cheer: "you made it!" It was a sweet victory, and the volcanic crater view from the summit was worth every drop of sweat and wobble of leg. We celebrated with a shot of soju and lunch.

Quickly enough everyone was told that we had to turn around and descend, so we would make it down in the light. The way down was mercifully much easier, though it took a fair amount of time as well. When we reached beer at the bottom, we had been on the mountain for 8 hours. Not bad for a day's work, I'd say.


I went to bed early Friday night and slept in Saturday -- it was wonderful. In the morning, I decided to try a Jeju delicacy: 흑되지, or black pig. The Korean style pork, which I cooked myself on the grill, was so delicious it was worth the two orders I had to buy.

The Irish were heading to the cave I had already seen, so I decided to rent a bike for the day and check out a few of the more local sights. Seogwipo is surrounded by a dramatic coastline with numerous waterfalls so I went exploring. Unfortunately, this coast also contained numerous difficult hills, and my already taxed legs were soon burning as I coaxed the small bike up them.

I soon ditched the bike since I met a new hiking companion, Justin, from Washington State. We were going the same direction, so decided to make our way together for a while along the beautiful coast while having a very interesting discussion on politics.

That evening, after Justin had crossed the island back to his lodging in the other main city, I was alone again, reflecting on the ups and downs of travelling alone. I figured that for the opportunity to meet new people to climb mountains with, for example, you have to take some chances, reach out to people who seem nice, and enjoy being alone sometimes.


Most of the tourists left on Sunday, but I was scheduled to stick around until Monday morning, so I had the city even more to myself. I decided to switch into relaxation mode and hung out on the beach watching the waves splash among the rocks, then walked around the city--really a small town, I realized--to get a sense of what Korean life was like outside Seoul.

Sunset found me back on the hostel balcony with my Kindle, and when it got chilly outside I gave up on the Korean experience entirely, ordered pizza and beer and watched Star Wars. Though not as packed with experience as the days preceding, it was still a great day.


Monday, a work day, found me up again before dawn for the hour-long bus ride to Jeju Airport. However, once at the airport, there was chaos: people everywhere, and the flight board indicating that almost all flights were delayed or cancelled. Uh oh.

With the kind help of an English-speaking airline employee, I found out that my flight had also been cancelled due to fog in Seoul, and I got a standby ticket with the understanding that it would likely be 6pm before they had space to put me on a flight home. I called my boss at work, mostly but not entirely regretfully. Fortunately, the fog lifted around noon and the airline added an extra flight, so I was back in Seoul for the afternoon and only a few hours late for work.

Overall, my Jeju experience was pretty stellar. I combined a day of sightseeing, a day of effort and achievement, a day of exploration and a day of relaxation into a brief but memorable vacation. After an initial worry that I would be lonely, I met some very neat people and reminded myself why I like travelling alone, and I'm now satisfied that I've seen Korea.

Sun setting over Seogwipo harbour, as seen from my hostel balcony.


  1. Gorgeous pics Stephen... another great experience. Not sure I could do the travel thing by myself. I'm glad you found some Irish folk to keep you company for a part of the trip. Dad

  2. A great travelogue and fantastic slide show. You have always been good at creating your own fun and adventures and making new friends! I felt a bit like you at the top of Mt. Garibaldi when you took Dad and I hiking - a bit wobbly legged although going down wasn't much easier. A big sense of accomplishment though and worth every hard step. It sounds like you had a great mini vacation.
    Love mom xox

  3. Wow What a trip, and what fantastic pictures. I think you have another career path available to you should you want it.
    Love you Gabmac

  4. Very nice Steve. Very cool pictures as well. Really liked the part that you met someone from Washington State.

  5. I enjoyed your holiday too.
    hugs, gm