Jeju City Night

One of the things I appreciate about Korea is how safe the streets feel.  Even in Busan, a city of 3.5 million people, you can wander at night without feeling like every unexpected sound or figure signals danger.  The lone man lying on a bench who looks like he’s sleeping is really just…sleeping.  The young guys standing outside the open-late food stall aren’t loitering, they’re…snacking on ramyeon.  Even when no one’s in sight, the street’s silence is peaceful, a chance to hear the trees move, if there’s wind, or the whir of a floor fan as you pass a shop’s entrance, its owner napping on a mat behind the counter.

Not that I roam the streets alone very often, but, you know, if I feel like it I can.  So on my last night in Jeju City, I slowed down on the way back to the hotel, and listened.  And looked.  Peering through the lens of a camera pulls me into the present moment like nothing else.

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Where the Lava Flowed: Manjanggul Cave

Ever since I found myself belly-worming through an increasingly dark and unexpectedly narrow crevice in a cave in Vang Vieng, Laos, a few years back, I’ve been sketchy about spelunking.  Something about the cold, damp walls pressing in on both shoulders and the inability of the local boys guiding us to clarify how far the exit was gripped me with my first-ever claustrophobic pang.  Probably the worst thing you can think of during a moment like that is the possibility of an earthquake, but that of course is what crossed my mind.

“Dude,” I remember saying to my friend Melissa, who was edging her way forward on the ground behind me, “I don’t like this anymore.”

“Me neither,” she said.  “Keep going.”

We emerged– filthy and with big grins on our faces once the light of day had returned to our orbit–but until recently, I avoided stepping inside another cave.  Have you seen the Planet Earth documentary where people go diving in UNDERWATER caves?  That might be the most insane thing I can imagine doing.  I would jump out of a plane first, in a second.  And that’s not high on my bucket list either.  Actually, that’s not even on my bucket list.

Luckily, Jeju’s Manjanggul–a lava tube formed some 200-300,000 years ago from underwater volcanic eruptions–has a high ceiling.

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A 1 kilometre stretch of this 9 km tube is open to the public, and for 2000 Won you can meander through the dark, cool passage and check out lava-ey stuff like flowlines and benches and shark-tooth shaped stalactites.

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There’s also a lava raft called Turtle Rock…

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and a lava column, formed by lava flowing down from the ceiling to the floor.  At 7 m, it’s known as the longest in the world.

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I made three new friends on the way in to Manjanggul: Taylor, Patty, and Meaghan, who I spent the rest of the day and evening with and who all live in Seoul.  If I ever move there, I’d be stoked to hang with them again.  I was definetely happy to find them that afternoon…

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because belly-worming or strolling and chatting, it’s sweet to have cave company.

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Get There:  Take the Route 12 bus from Jeju City and get off at the last stop leaving Gimnyeong–let the driver know where you’re headed.  From there it’s about a 2 km walk.  According to The Rough Guide a bus runs right to Manjanggul from Gimnyeon every hour or so, but finding out exactly when or from where might be tricky if you don’t speak Korean.  It’s a nice walk anyway, though sneakers are probably a better call than flip flops!

After the Beach, the Temple

In the Rough Guide to Korea, my guru Norbert calls Yakcheonsa one of Jeju’s most magical experiences.  The best time to arrive, he writes, is 7 pm on a summer evening, when “worshipping locals chant under the interior glow with their backs to the sunset.”

So I hiked a staircase at the end of Jungmun Beach, grabbed a cab from the Hyatt hotel, and missioned to the temple, which was built in the 1990’s and, according to Norbert, is considered one of the most impressive in the country, despite its less-than-historical 20th-century roots.

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In a smaller sunlit hall to the left, these guys sat perched…

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over 500 Buddhist figurines stacked on wooden shelves, each handpainted with a different face.

I even spotted one with two faces.

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Inside the main hall, locals did indeed chant, though on this particular evening the crowd was made up mostly of Korean schoolchildren, attending Yakcheonsa’s Buddhist summer camp.

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In the back row, sitting on a red satin floor cushion, I listened to the head monk school the kids on how to meditate, gleaning what I could from his gestures, since the lesson was in Korean.  Beside me, a woman folded one leg into her lap and one palm over the other, showing me the correct position before closing her eyes in silence.  Outside, the sun fell.  And the waterfalls, and the beach, and the hot night.  I listened to the monk’s footsteps as he walked between the rows of children, rapping their shoulders with a long stick if they lapsed in concentration.  Two boys cried.  I opened my eyes, and a bird sailed in and landed on a pillar, to the left of the gold Buddha, above the bowed heads and the cushions and the candlelight.

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Get there: You can cab to the temple from anywhere in Jungmun, but if you want to to walk, it’s about a half-hour from the nearest bus stop.  Ask a local for directions and take a slow stroll along the quiet country roads.

The Pacific, a Book, and So Much Blue

After the falls,

the beach.

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(book of short stories care of my wonderful friend Leah in Toronto…thank you Shums.)

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Get there:  Take Bus Route 95 or 99 from Jeju City.  The beach is a 20 minute walk south of the Cheonjeyeon Falls, below the Jungmun Resort.

I recommend.

Waterfalls for Melissa

The winter I was 21 I backpacked through Southeast Asia for two months with three other girls, my old Pentax K1000, and a second-hand guitar.  We landed in Malaysia, wove north through Thailand, and after boating down the Mekong River to a town called Champasak, parted ways in Southern Laos, from which I ventured to Vietnam alone.  Two weeks later we met back up at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and flew to Melbourne. 

The trip remains one of the larger landmarks in my life, shooting up out of the memory plains like a mountain.  Leaving Vietnam I wished more than anything I could stay on and go through to Cambodia.  But the money had dwindled to very little, our two months was up, and my passport held a work visa for Australia.  Time, as it continues to do, required that change occur.

One of the girls I traveled with was Melissa, my best friend since the third grade.  Through the bus rides and boat trips and jungle hikes and dirty-floored hotels and green fields and dust it was clear that traveling had struck us both in the bones, where it stays.  

We spent a lot of time outside.  More than a few times during a hike or while reading a map we came across a sign or mention of a waterfall ahead.  Excited, we’d continue on, but it seemed that always when we arrived the “fall” was a mere few drops against a minor rock, its sound less a rushing of water than a thin trickle into a small pool.  One day when this happened in a place I can’t remember, Melissa said something along the lines of, “I’m tired of these fake falls.  I want to see the real thing.”

I remember laughing because it’s one of those ridiculous things people say when they’ve had the privelege of spending weeks doing nothing but sightsee, but I also had to agree.  I wanted to see a real waterfall!  The kind that thunders down and makes you lose your gaze in its sheets.  I’m sure these exist in Southeast Asia, but we never did find one, and in truth we didn’t make a point of searching.  It was just something we hoped to come across.

Ten years later, I found it on Jeju.

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Actually, I found three.  They’re called the Cheonjeyeon Falls, and they drop into a rocky river on the Southwest Coast of the island, which runs to the Pacific and a gold-sand beach called Jungmun. This is the first one…

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and a glimpse through the trees where the second begins.

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The walk from fall to fall held surprises, like the mossy staircase lit with sun…

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and after viewing the first two, this was a sign I could trust.

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Melissa, I wished it was you sitting with me on the rocks at the edge of the emerald pool instead of these random Korean kids…

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and on the bridge after, where I peered down to the river and across the trees, missing the Asia with you in it.

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Come visit!

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Get there: Take the Route 95 or Route 99 bus to Jungmun from Jeju City.  I’m not sure if it takes you directly to the falls or not, as I hopped off and wandered there based on a few points and nods from Koreans in the area.  In any case, once you’re in Jungmun, you’re close.  Judging by my Rough Guide map it looks like you could bus to the falls from Seogwipo as well, taking Ilju Road.

Price: W2500

I recommend.

Time Travel on Route 97, Jeju

This isn’t the time travel part.

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This is the heading to Sangumburi part…the second crazy-green volcanic crater I peered into on the sweet isle of Jeju.  Same day, even.  It was a Sunday.  I had risen before dawn.  Suddenly the day was so much longer!  So I decided to take in a few sites post-Seongsan country stroll.  After packing up my bags at the minbak–wait, my mom has requested I explain what a minbak is, so I guess this is the time: it’s like a cheap hotel, but run out of the home of an ajumma, which is a middle-aged to oldish Korean woman who can be both charming and feisty.  Mostly feisty.  All ajummas look eerily similar: permed hair, gigantic visors, and loose, multi-patterned clothes.  Some minbaks are cleaner than others, and they’re all very plain: mat on the floor, a pile of thicker mats to make a bed with, a couple polyester blankets, and usually a t.v., not that I was watching any tube on my trip.

So after packing up my bags at the Seongsan minbak, which, incidentally, was the cleanest I stayed in the entire week away (it’s called the Yonggung Minbak–if you’re staying the night in Seongsan, I recommend: see end of post for info) I hopped a bus back to Jeju city, where I checked into a hotel a friend had arranged for me back in Busan. 

The guidebook detailed various bus routes to experience various Jeju sites.  You’ll hear me mention “the guidebook” frequently in these posts, as I fell in love with my Rough Guide to Korea, which was written by a dude called Norbert Paxton.  It’s incredibly researched and beautifully worded, so much so that I read it like a novel, lingering over passages and bits of history and context and studying the same maps over and over again.  Norbert devoured every inch of this country (and North Korea!) during his research trips and compiled more insightful facts, useful phrases, necessary tips, and funny asides than I could ever dream of doing.  Well, that’s not true.  I’m actually now officially dreaming of writing for Rough Guides.  But that’s another post.

Norbert suggested I check out Route 97: a road from Jeju City that cuts across the Eastern half of the island from North to South.  First stop was Sangumburi–possibly, according to the book, Jeju’s “most impressive” crater.  The road that curved along it looked like this…

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And the crater was 2 km in circumference and 132 m deep.

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The best way I can describe it is an extremely lush forest thriving in a giant hole. 

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Sangumburi is a Marr crater, which means it was created by an explosion in an area that was mostly flat.  (If you’re in any way impressed by my expertise here, don’t be–it’s all Norbert.) You can’t hike in, because wildlife live inside it, like deer.  And badgers.  And I’m pretty sure I saw some kind of pheasant.  So I roamed around the rim for awhile and marvelled, again, at just how GREEN it all was.  And the sounds!  Birds calling and bugs buzzing and leaves swishing whenever a breeze came along.  Craters! My new thing.

Then it was off to stop two on the route: the Seong-eup Folk Village.  This is where I time-travelled…

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to a town where people still live in old-school Jeju-style digs.  Seong-eup  is the real deal, not a re-make.  Apparently the government gives its residents financial assistance, in part to keep the village afloat so visitors can check it out.  Though on this afternoon, there wasn’t another traveler in sight.

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There wasn’t a lot of locals hanging around outside either.  But one smiley older guy who knew a little English spotted me across the road and offered to show me around.

He explained that the pairs of hareubang–Jeju’s ubiquitous stone grandfathers–always have opposite hands placed across their bellies…

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and that three wooden poles down at the front of a gate means come on in.  (All poles up: not home.  One pole up: back soon.)

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He insisted on taking this photo, through a hole, in a stone…

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and wanted me to buy some homemade cactus jam, made from the plant’s red blossoms.  I didn’t.  And I’ve been feeling guilty ever since.  It’s not like he was a hustler on Khaosan Road trying to push his product.  He was a sweet Korean man in a folk village with jam for sale.  Damn, I still feel guilty.  If I could actually time travel, I’d go back to Seong-up Village July 25th, 2010, to the heat and the dust and the hareubang, and ask the man how much his cactus jam costs, and buy a jar of it, instead of simply smiling at him with a little bow of my head and saying kamsahamnida before I walked away, never to see him or his village again.  Lesson learned…

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by the jam-less woman in the mirror.

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Mostly, I loved the thatched roofs…

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And that people still live their lives beneath them, in a village on an island in the Pacific, guarded by big-eyed statues sculpted from the rock of ancient, exploding volcanoes.

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Get there: For both Sangumburi and Seong-up, take the Route 97 bus from Jeju City. If you want to see both sites, a bus will swing by the crater entrance about an hour after you were dropped off; just stand back out on the road to wave it down.  Seong-up is another 20 minutes south. 

Yonggung Minbak in Seongsan: it’s a red brick building on the left on the way from the bus stop to the Ilchulbong ticket office.

Phone: 782-2379/Price: KRW 25,000/night

 

Jeju Morning: Volcano Crater and a Country Stroll

Rarely do I rise before 10 a.m. 

But the guidebook said Jeju’s ‘Ilchulbong’–a volcanic crater on the East Coast in a town called Seongsan–was the first place on the island to spot the “orange fires of dawn.”  A sunrise sounded good.  Really good.  So after the Busan plane touched down on a Saturday afternoon, I caught a bus from Jeju-city that rolled along the North coast for an hour or so, checked into a minbak, and wandered out to find dinner–with a crater view, of course.

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It was just a light snack.

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Followed by a beach nap.  And an early night…

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to catch the sun.

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It rose at the top of these steps…

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On one side, the sea.  On the other, the town.  And more sea…

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And in between, the crater bowl.

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Which was really that green.  And much bigger than it looks here…

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Behind the crater, a country road curled along the coast.

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And a mailbox guarded a cemetary…

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with another close by, everything green…

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except the tiny white shelter that reminded me of Greece…

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and the sky, and the water, in the window streaks.

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Get there: Take Bus Route 12 (East coastal road) from Jeju City Bus Terminal to Seongsan; 1hr 30 mins. 

Ilchulbong hike: About 20 mins to the top.  You can climb it any time of day, but arrive before the sun for the first glimpse of Jeju light and a few less people crowding the view. 

Country road stroll:  Hop over to the coast side of the crater on your way back down and follow the trail.  I recommend a slow meander.