South Korea: Jeju Island

I should note that, even though this entry is about Jeju, it’s not about all of it.

You would have to be a hardcore, masochistic, insane individual to even ATTEMPT to see everything Jeju has to offer in only three days.  Even then, you STILL wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

I make this statement almost solely based upon my bike experience on Tuesday.  Usually, renting a bicycle is a great way to get to see a lot of stuff in a short amount of time if you can’t rent a car (or drive in the first place).  Plan was to rent the bike, get it from Seogwipo to Aqua Planet Jeju and back within a day, stopping at a few sights along the way.  The map with no legend relating to size or distance appeared to make that trip look reasonable.

Ahem.

Let’s start with the impressive stuff first.  There’s a pretty neat rock formation in Jeju called Oedolgae.  On a cloudy day, it might not be as impressive, but when Jeju is blue and beautiful it really does make for a nice scene.  It was close to the hostel and the day was bright, so it made for a natural first stop and, aside from getting shooed out of the way by a family because I had the audacity to be in their shot, it was a really beautiful experience.  The skies were still blue at that point.

Next, off to the waterfalls.  Jeju has three notable waterfalls – Cheonjiyeon, Jeongbang and Cheonjeyeon (not a mistype).  Two of them were within easy cycling distance, Cheonjiyeon and Jeongbang, with Cheonjeyeon being reserved for the next day when I was in the Jungmun tourist district.  Both waterfalls were beautiful in their own way, with Cheonjiyeon being at the end of a long inlet and Jeongbang actually emptying directly into the sea.  Stunning views from each one, and the sky was still blue.

At this point, I decided to make my way to a beach that was recommended by a Korean magazine , “10 Magazine”, which specializes in making top ten lists.  The beach also happened to be near the Soesokkak Estuary, where the water from the crater of Mount Hallasan empties into the sea.  Apparently the beach is a favourite of locals and boasts a combination of salt water and cool fresh water.  Sounds like a can’t miss!

Well, here’s where the map started to deceive me a bit.  See, Jeju isn’t big.  I wouldn’t call it “manageable” without some form of transportation.  Be it a car or a scooter, you need something with an engine and my two legs just weren’t going to cut it.  I wouldn’t come to that realization until a bit later, so I made my way off to Soesokkak.

Man did that take a long time.

Once I got there, I found a beautiful estuary with clear water and lovely rocks and… no swimming on the beach.  I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on but, best I could tell, there was some kind of construction happening on a barge ferry that was supposed to go into the estuary and, as a result, nobody was allowed to swim.  Slight disappointment, but I looked on my map and saw another beach (what looked like) not too far away and figured I’d make a bike for it.

Well, not too far away ended up being too far away.  Like I made it to a scenic outlook where I got a great view of some cliffs, and the beach was another 15 kilometers away.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the fact that I’d been biking most of the day, was exhausted, it was 2 pm and, if I had made it to that beach, I would be biking 30 kilometers to get back to the hostel.

Plus, the sky was becoming decidedly less blue.

Disappointed, I figured I’d go for the “sure thing” beach tomorrow, Jungmun Beach, which has actually been voted Korea’s best.  I started the bike ride back and managed to get to the hostel before the rain started to dump.  Stupidly, I tested fate and went to get a snack and got rained on.

Hard.

Nothing to worry about once I got back.  The hostel owners gave me a towel to wipe my coat down with and I had time to upload some pics to Facebook.  The day wasn’t over just yet and my goat of making it to Aqua Planet hadn’t yet been realized, so I figure that would be the next stop.

This was, of course, without me having ANY information on when Aqua Planet closed.

I got some basic directions from the hostel staff – head to Dongmun Rotary, grab the bus in front of the 7-11 (which 7-11?) and get off at some stop that I’m totally blanking on after the fact.  Still, seemed nice and easy.

And it was.  Bus came, I got on it, and I sat…

For a while.

There came a time when the driver mentioned the stop to me as a sign on the highway but drove right past saying I would need a taxi.  To his credit, he took me to the bus stop where a ROW of taxis were waiting for me.  Hopped in the first one I could find and headed to Aqua Planet Jeju!

Now, just so you all know, I freaking LOVE aquariums.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I was so let down by 63 City.  The aquarium there was shite.  Aqua Planet Jeju decided they were going to one up Okinawa, Japan, by building the largest aquarium tank in the world and having it as part of their facility.  And they did, if only by a few litres. 

Part of the lure was going to see a whale shark.  I had already seen one in Osaka, but I had my newer, better camera on me and I wanted to see what I could get.

I get to Aqua Planet at 7pm and am told I only have an hour before it closes.  The staff are super concerned I won’t have enough time to get my $35 worth (it’s an aquarium, they’re expensive), but I bought the ticket anyway and was off.

Totally worth it!  Beautiful displays, “helmet viewing” for the penguin habitat, where you could actually stick your head into a dome that came right up where the penguins hung out.  Fish from the Antarctic, which I never remember seeing at another aquarium (not saying it didn’t happen).  Massive schools of sardines doing their whole “sardine ball” routine.  Plus, whale shark.  Not as big as the one in Osaka, but still beautiful and impressive, especially given the ambiance they set up as part of Aqua Planet.

I make it out of Aqua Planet with about 10 minutes before close and snap some pictures of one of Jeju’s UNESCO designated natural heritage sights, Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchubong), which I would later find out takes an hour and a half to two hours to get to from my hostel, which meant it wasn’t getting visited this time around.  I make my way out to the parking lot and….

Nothing.  Only a few cars.  NO taxis.

Now, any other country in the world, including Canada, this would worry me.  This, however, is South Korea.  After getting my bearings, I found a restaurant, asked a lady there to call me a cab, told the cab driver to take me to the nearest bus station that went back to Seogwipo (which, admittedly, took a few tries) and I was in front of a bakery at a bus stop that, I kid you not, had the words “remote outpost” on it. 

Again, any country other than Korea, worries.  Here, no worries.  Got back on the bus, back to the hostel, no problems at all.

Get back to the hostel for  relatively good night’s sleep.  The new plan is to head to the Jungmun Tourist district, where all of the big hotels are.  There are also a few big sights and my goal today was to see Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls, the Teddy Bear Museum (I know, I know…) and head to Jungmun Beach for some swimming.


The day started with a DUMP of rain, so much so that I had to buy an umbrella from a 7-11 – the raincoat wasn’t going to cut it.  Still, I knew that weather came and went down here so I hoped the bus to Cheonjeyeon, just in time for the rain to break!  Timing!

Cheonjeyeon is actually a series of three waterfalls.  It’s name means “Pond of God” and it has a big mystical history on the island.  Among other things, nymphs used to come down from the sky and have sex in the waterfall.  Hey, if I were a nymph, I could think of a worse place.  There is also a beautiful bridge spanning the falls and good viewpoints for each one.  I was a bit worried that three waterfalls might lead to “Fall Fatigue”, but each one was different enough and beautiful enough to sustain my interest.

Next up, Teddy Bear Museum!  Yes, stupid, kitchy, and something that, out of everybody I know, would be something only I would do.  So that’s what I did!  And you know what?  Cute as hell!  A little inappropriate at times, like when they did the teddy bear re-enactment of the battle of Normandy, but you had a Mona Lisa bear, a bear depicting the first Superman comic, bears breaking down the Berlin Wall…  Again, really kitchy, but really damn cute.  Definitely a worthwhile part of the day.

Now in a bit of Alanis Morisette style irony, in that it may or may not be irony, the perfect rainy day activity ended up being where I was stuck after I had already seen it.  Not the best song lyric, I suppose, but as soon as I was done watching a teddy bear concert version of Elvis’ Hawaii show, the sky began to dump again.  Fortunately (maybe not for my heart or stomach), there was a Lotteria in the museum (junk food and toys, natch!) so I was able to sit out the (not too long storm).

Began the walk down to Jungmun Beach and went past the chocolate museum, which I would visit (and be thoroughly disappointed with) later.  The beach itself is pretty spectacular, an arc of sand nestled in between giant volcanic rocks.  No beach umbrellas which, if you’ve seen the absolute beach abuse that happens in Busan, was a surprising blessing. 

I find a place to drop my stuff, right next to a waterfall that may or may not have been designed specifically for tourists when I notice one white guy in the water.  Like, literally, everybody else was Korean and there was one white guy.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Justin!  The same guy I went hiking with two days ago at Hallasan.  I had stopped by a GS25 after the waterfalls to grab some beach beers and offered one up.  Did some jumping in and out of waves and Justin was nice enough to try and teach me how to actually pick a good one to ride (without a board), raising my surf awareness level from “none” to “some”.  Good running into the guy again.

Plus, the waves were pretty awesome.  Not too massive or anything, but big enough and fun enough to play around in.  As I would learn later, big enough to leave you hurting as well.

The sky started to cloud over again, so Justin and I said our goodbyes and I made my way to the Jeju International Convention Centre, behind which there was a viewpoint for some naturally made volcanic columns that jut out of the water like hexagons.  I went back up the hill to that chocolate museum, went in for a disappointing visit.  Here’s a point of reference.  Given the choice between using the Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder Willy Wonka character, they went for Depp.  Yeah, that about cuts it.  So it seemed like an even bigger waste of time when, while walking to the ICC, it REALLY started to rain and my umbrella exploded.  Thanks, 7-11.

My back was starting to seize a bit at this point and I had to make the choice of seeing these columns or going home on the next bus.  Well, long story short, I toughed it out through the rain, saw the columns, which were impressive by themselves, and was treated to a nice rainbow behind some Jeju Grandfather statues on my way out.  Now, my back is a bit sore.  Still, worth it. 

Should have skipped the chocolate, though.

I would definitely go back to Jeju.  I think I saw a fifth, maybe less, of what the island has to offer.  Next time, Daina’s coming with me and we’re renting a car.

I’m in Seoul again and treating myself to a pretty nice single room at Backpackers INSIDE (actual spelling).  Resting up and getting ready for one of the big reasons I came back to Seoul in the first place.

DMZ.

No apprehension about going, don’t feel like I’m risking anything, but it will still be an interesting experience to say the least.

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