Last week, the office here in Korea was closed due to the annual summer vacation – which provided a very welcome yet unexpected chance for me to explore the country a little more. I booked a flight from Daegu (the closest airport to where I’m staying) to Jeju City as well as a hotel room in the same city. The island of Jeju is Korea’s largest island, also with Korea’s highest mountain at about 2000 m height, and is located in the south of the country. It is, next to Seoul, possibly Korea’s most famous tourist spot, with Seoul – Jeju City being the busiest flight route in the entire world. I had read about all this before, but I guess it still didn’t prepare me sufficiently for the reality…
There weren’t many seats left on the flights when I made the reservations two weeks prior to the vacation, so I only left on Sunday afternoon. As the airport is located in another city, my trip there was quite long: taxi ride to the local train station, 30 minutes train ride, and then another short taxi ride to the airport. But eventually I got on the plane and was on my way to Jeju. After less than an hour, I could see Halla-san, the island’s 2000 m high dormant volcano, peeking out from the clouds, which were hiding the rest of the island. But as we were descending further, my initial awe quickly turned into disappointment: I could spot hardly any nature from the plane, but city after city on the coastline, many of them with plenty of skyscrapers, as well as hundreds of large greenhouses in the less populated areas. This would definitely not be the nature and hiking vacation I had anticipated.
After landing and a short bus ride, I checked into the hotel and immediately headed out again, hoping to catch a glance of the sun setting above the sea. I arrived at the harbor just in time to witness a spectacular (but quite kitsch) sunset, with couples taking selfie after selfie at the seafront. I walked on along a pier to a small lighthouse in order to catch at least some fresh air and also to get away from the masses of people, the lights and the noise, which I had really not been expecting to this extent. From there, I had a good view over the city I would spend the next week in: blinking lights everywhere, a theme park between the huge hotels, and a large stage where they were playing a peculiar mix of Korean techno music, cheesy 80’s love songs and “We will rock you” at an unbelievable volume.
I spent the following days getting used to these new circumstances and covered mostly the entire city on foot. While doing so, I visited many of the well-known sites, such as Samseonghyeol, a temple where the island’s three founding fathers are said to have crawled out of three holes in a ground, Mokgwana, another large temple right opposite of my hotel, and Yongduam, a stone formation at the shore, which is said to look like a dying dragon. I also spent hours walking around the Dongmun market area, taking pictures of all the interesting food stands selling everything from seaweed and pigs’ heads and feet to ginseng roots and dried fish. Whenever I wanted to escape the selfie-stick-holding masses, I headed for the less touristy sites such Sinsan Park close to Samseonghyeol or Sarabong Park, a hill located close to the harbor. Although this is supposed to be the best place to watch the sunset from on the entire island, both the sea and the city were hidden in the clouds when I reached the top. Also, the pagoda on the top had looked much more impressive from below than it did up there.
But I didn’t spend all the days in the city. Starting from the Intercity Bus Terminal, I made some little excursions. One day, I headed to the village of Seongsan at the east coast of the island. Village is an understatement of course: There might not be many inhabitants, but the roads are lined with coffee shops and fast food restaurant chains. I had come here to see the volcanic crater Ilchulbong, one of the most famous sights of the island next to the main volcano Halla-san. However, it was not the nice hike up a mountain which I had expected. I passed a huge parking lot, filled with cars and several large tour busses, and ended up at, yes, the ticket counter to get to the volcano. So I paid my entrance fee and among a huge group of Korean and Chinese tourists slowly walked up to the top. “Walk” is a much more adequate word than “climbing” or “hiking” here, as your feet won’t even touch natural ground for the slightest moment: After a short concrete / paved stone path, you arrive at the wooden stairs, complete with handrails and leading all the way up to the top of the mountain. Every few meters you will encounter a viewpoint, a roofed resting area, or a heart defibrillator. The top of the mountain consists of the same wooden stairs, arranged in a way to vaguely resemble an amphitheater with the crater as the “stage”.
Another excursion I made was to Hallim Park, or Hallim Gongwon in Korean. I learned from my prior mistakes, so I boarded an early bus and arrived at the park shortly after it opened in the morning, at around twenty minutes to nine. The area was absolutely empty, no people, no cars on the parking lot, so I was a little worried whether I had gotten off at the right stop. But I found the park right away, paid the entrance fee and found what seemed to me the most “natural” area on the entire island: Palm trees, shadowy gardens, water fountains and two refreshingly cool lava / limestone caves. It’s quite ironic that the park was actually created entirely artificially from tons and tons of soil thrown on barren land. Still, I really enjoyed the two or three hours I had almost completely to myself before the tour busses arrived yet again. But by the time they did, at around 10.30, 11 o’clock, I had seen most of the park already. So I walked rather quickly through the quite pitiful bird park with all the birds in their tiny cages as well as yet another “traditional village”. After I spent some time at the nearby beach, I boarded the bus back to Jeju-si.
My personal highlight was my last evening on the island: Right in front of my hotel, at Gwandeokjeong Pavilion, they were doing a free concert. Running under the title “Summer Night in the Old City Acoustic Concert”, three Korean artists / bands were performing, mostly with guitars and singing only. The music was perfect, the setting in front of the traditional temple breathtaking, and the atmosphere created by the setting sun beautiful.
Some quick tips if you’re considering a trip to Jeju:
- Get the English bus timetable from the tourist info as soon as you arrive at the airport. It includes info on all the major bus lines, as well as travel times and bus fares. It’s even useful if you do already speak / know how to read Korean.
- The free map of Jeju-si (also available at the tourist info) is a great help if you want to explore the city on foot, but also for orientation while on the bus.
- The bus system is fairly easy to use. Ask the bus driver whether he passes by the station you want to go to (“[Station name] e gasseumnikka?”) if you’re unsure. Busses run frequently and are punctual and all major stations are announced as well as displayed on a screen in both Korean and English.