Jeju and Seoul

28/02/2012

Here I am once again – in a chair, at a desk, in front of a computer screen, lamenting the strictness of whichever section of my contract that stipulates I must stay at school for forty hours of every week, whether there are kids or other teachers here or not. The first lessons of the new term don’t begin until Monday, meaning the next few days will consist of crossword-solving, reading, watching sports highlights, and many, many hours on Sporcle. That doesn’t sound too bad, I bet you’re thinking. It’s not. It’s how I spend lots of my free time anyway. I’d just rather be doing it in bed, not at school; and in my boxers, not a shirt and tie. Being here also makes the prospect of the imminent holiday-free five months a lot more real, so to counter this I’m going to write about the one I’ve just had.

Last Sunday Elizabeth and I went to Jeju on a whim. Having heard about the tropical nature of the island, which is off the south-west coast of Korea, we were a little surprised see snow enroute to our hotel. Although this was due to altitude and not pure temperature it wasn’t warm there, and overall the weather was pretty terrible and contributed to a few unfortunate experiences we had. The first of these occurred on our first full day when we set out to go horse-riding at a remote ranch on the island – the only one of many we could find who felt they could deal with foreigners. It was supposed to be an hour-long trip in total, half by bus and half on foot. The walk didn’t take thirty minutes. It took three hours. If we’d known we were setting out for such a trek we probably could’ve enjoyed it a bit more, as we had good views of both the coastline and the impressive, snow-topped, 1,950m-high volcano in the middle of the island – but by the third dead-end at the top of a steep, slushy hill our spirit was broken and we considered trying to hitch a ride home. It didn’t help that Elizabeth’s shoes weren’t waterproof. As we trudged along a main road that shouldn’t have been there and tried to find ourselves on the map, we got a phonecall from the ranch who offered to come and pick us up so we got to ride in the end, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it, if a bit scared. I was grateful to be on a nice calm horse when I saw Eliz nearly thrown off hers, but since mine was about the same size as me perhaps he just didn’t have the strength.

Food was a trip highlight. We were recommended to try Jeju’s famous black pork – which was really excellent – and for three nights in a row we pigged out on that. We also found the closest thing to a pub we’ve come across in Korea so far, overlooking one of Jeju’s southern harbours, and it seemed no coincidence to do so here, which felt infinitely more laid-back than busy, commercial Ulsan. Perhaps due to higher numbers of tourists in the area, more of the locals spoke passable English; we could walk from one end of our little harbour town to the other; even the driving wasn’t as noticeably horrendous.

Another highlight was feeding the ducks and fish that live in the stream that flows from Cheonjiyeon waterfall. After unsuccessfully trying to get ourselves to one of the island’s more revered spots like the Mt. Halla volcano or Sunrise Peak and then duly giving up, we bought a loaf of bread and showed those ducks how to feast like never before. In Korea you sometimes find people feeding crisps and biscuits to zoo animals or dropping them in ponds, and this new idea of giving bread attracted a pretty large crowd, of both ducks and Koreans. For a moment there, under the grey, drizzling sky – wet and colourless but not too cold – with the help of a bit of imagination it felt like home.

There are countless museums on Jeju island. The museum of Eros,the museum of Africa, the museum of sex and health, the chocolate museum, the teddy bear museum, the world automobile museum, Jeju folk museum, the Hanyeo or woman divers museum – the list is as long and diverse as the line of animals that were ushered on to Noah’s Ark. One morning we opted for the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum where we learned facts and stories about people who could sit in ovens for hours and feed snakes through their nose and out their mouth. There was also a two-way mirror where you could spy on people trying to make shapes with their tongues. That afternoon we met some friends and went for a walk along the coast and beach to climb over thousand year old lava and look at some rocks. Korea’s got some great rocks. Breanna and Andy were staying in the Hyatt, where the lobby bar was surrounded by a pond moat with more ducks and the rooms had remote-controlled lights, so after eating we spend the evening there, at midnight celebrating Elizabeth’s birthday with a cake (a pile of cookies with a candle in it).

It wasn’t a great birthday beginning. There was panic first thing as I thought I’d lost my passport and then we missed a bus to the airport, and when we arrived in Seoul there was nowhere to stay in a recommended area, then the guidebook motel wasn’t very nice, then we started out for another that had been closed down so we were taken to a third which turned out to be an posh hotel that shared a name with where we were looking for, and after getting a bit lost and angry we settled for the guidebook motel that we’d arrived at first about three hours earlier. Seoul had a very different feel to both Ulsan and Jeju. If the latter was laid-back and relaxed, Seoul was its polar opposite: there were high-powered young businesspeople walking with a purpose everywhere; there were tourists from all over the globe (as opposed to just from Korea) in queues for street food on every corner; markets were cramped and overloaded; buildings were dozens of stories high. In contrast to Ulsan there were more than three different fashion styles and a single hair colour as enthusiastic, trend-crazy university students dominated the landscape in certain areas; and there was a gamut of ethnicity, rather than the dichotomy of Koreans versus a handful of white teachers you get here. There was also the sheer size of the place.

We felt like there was so much to do – both in Jeju and Seoul – that we didn’t get round to. On Elizabeth’s birthday it was easy to make an excuse for splashing out on steaks and ribs and spending the evening smoking shisha in Itaewon, the foreigner district, and during the day it was too tempting not to explore the western shops and stalls in Myeongdong. Gyeongbokgung palace was a stone’s throw from our motel (which was disappointing in that there was no jacuzzi in the room or heart-shaped bed) and was impressive, but pretty similar to most temples we’ve seen in the country. We did manage to glimpse Namdaemun market and Hongdae’s busy, bustling university area but by Saturday we were running out of money and there’s only so many times you can turn a pair of boxers inside-out to re-use, so we zoomed home at 150mph on the KTX glad to have got away, but already yearning to return and experience what we missed out on this time around.

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