July 29, 2013
There are few things worth getting out of bed for at 4a. If you or your spouse is in labor, if your house is on fire, and mountain hikes that lead to ocean sunrises. In our case, the mountain in question is a formerly volcanic hill that sits on a peninsula jutting out into the sea. And on this day, we were fortunate enough to scale the 20 minutes of illuminated steps on the way to the top of Ilchulbong (which translates into Sunrise Peak) before anyone else. Our reward was several peaceful minutes alone at the top surrounded by the black ocean before us and the barely visible deep forested crater that caps the dormant volcano below us. We watched as the light slowly brought the crater to life and everyone from a middle school hiking club to Americans with Starbucks in hand clambered up the steps to join us before the sun arrived at 5:50.
We ate clam porridge seaside and headed on to Manjanggul, the longest series of lava tubes in the world. Manjanggul, then is the opposite side of the volcanic activity that created so much of the otherworldly scenery of Jeju. It’s a natural subway tunnel that lava once rushed through on its way to the surface. Despite the heat wave outside we were close to shivering by the time we finished the 2km walk underground.
After three days of relative rest in the shadow of Ilchulbong, we boarded a bus along the coast for Seogwipo, a city of 154,000 that lies in the center of the island’s southern coast. We found our hotel and headed out to Jungmun, a nearby beach town filled with kitschy museums like ChocolateLand, the Believe It or Not Museum, and the one we chose, the Teddy Bear Museum. It was exactly as it sounds, a series of animatronic displays of teddy bears adorably singing Elvis songs, exploring the North Pole and firing machines guns during the battle of Normandy.
From the museum we made our way down to Jungmun’s beach, where the full balance of Korea’s gender dynamics was on display. I’ve spent a lot of observational time here, studying women, not in a creepy way, but more out of fascination with what clothing is and is not socially acceptable. With hundreds of people swimming and sunbathing, only two Korean women wore bikinis. Or only two wore them without also wearing a thigh-length sheer swimming dress, so what you end up with is being able to see the bikini, only in theory is the rest of the body is covered.
The body coverage would not be so striking if not for the fact that a high percentage of women under 25 regularly wear mid-thigh mini-skirts. Sleeveless shirts are off-limits, but holes are cut out of the sleeves to bare the shoulders. Also about 1/3 have had their eyes surgically broadened. In the Seoul subway, there are dozens of full length mirrors, and it is not unusual to find a woman giving herself a once over. It’s as if young women, are at once encouraged to draw attention to their bodies, but at the same time being shamed into covering them. Men have none of these rules.
The next day we boarded the bus again to finish off our journey around the potato-shaped Jeju. At the southwestern tip we boarded a ferry (really a glamorized motor boat), to tiny Gapa-do. It is possible to walk the circumference of Gapa-do in about 90 minutes and its highest point is only 20m above the sea. There are perhaps three dozen houses and two giant windmills, leaving the rest of the island split between fields of barley and rocky beaches. This set-up leads to stunning views of the land set against the sea from just about every vantage point. We took about three hours to take it all in, strolling both around the coast and across the diameter of Gapa-do, saving an hour for herb and seafood pancakes and seaweed soup.
In the evening, we came the closest we’ve been to the World Cup watching the local side Jeju United take on Chunnam Dragons at Jeju World Cup stadium. The designers of the ground did everything they could to tie it to the island. The roof which closely resembles a clamshell is meant to look like a volcano and the path to the stadium is lined with the hareubangs the phallic statues that have historic significance to the island. The three World Cup matches that were played here are memorialized with a statue and a plaque.
The game is a bit hollow. The stadium was designed for three games in 2002 and the giant crowds they drew. Eleven years later, it dwarfs the less than 10,000 supporters who brave the steady drizzle midweek to watch a mid-table domestic club. As with the baseball game we are led through chants by an enthusiastic cheerleader with a microphone, although his companions this time aren’t bare-midriffed dancers, but two guys hold signs with the lyrics. We are again allowed to bring in our own food and beer. Jeju and Chunnam struggle through a dour midseason 0-0 draw.
The next morning, the clouds that have enshrouded Jeju since we arrived a week ago on a very foggy ferry finally broke. For days we had tried to get a clear glimpse of Hallasan, the mountain that looms over the rest of the volcanos that dot the island’s landscape. Fittingly, this was also the day, we would hike up Hallsan, the 2nd highest peak in Korea after Changbaishan, the crater lake topped mountain on the Chinese border that we had scaled in 2010.
It took 10 hours round trip, punished our calves on the way up and our knees on the way down, but the view from the summit left us deeply satisfied. From the top we looked North and saw Jeju-si where we had arrived, we looked South and saw our adventures in Seogwipo and Jungmun and there just off the Southwest coast was Gapado where we had been just yesterday. Save for the last stubborn clouds, we would have seen Ilchulbong to the East.