Thursday, May 29, 2008

An island idyll part two - four days of ups and downs

Jeju is home to a huge array of intriguing attractions, and it was a tricky task to try to narrow down a selection for my four day visit. The places I didn't manage to see, for reasons of time and location, sound just as appealing as the ones I did. Who could resist Jeju Mini-mini Land, museums dedicated to stone tortoises and teddy bears, a Goblin Park and the only chocolate museum in Asia? Well, sacrifices have to be made on every trip, and all these fell by the wayside. At least there will be plenty to see if I ever return to the island.

My first full day was spent in and around Jeju-si, the relatively sprawling capital of the island. After finding enlightenment in Loveland, I decided to start my day at Tamna Mokseokwon, another sculpture park, a short bus ride out of town. Though it doesn't quite have the same impact as Loveland, this park is just as much a labour of love, even obsession, with hundreds of lumpy, strangely peaceful stone statues, and a selection of sculptures made from twisted roots, buried for centuries in Jeju's volcanic soil. The park also features a haunting display of traditional Jeju burial statues - pairs of angular figures, some with malevolent grins, some with expressions of deep concern, charged with the task of watching over the island's dead.

After a little wandering around Jeju-si itself, and taking a moment to pause at the tranquil Samseonghyeol shrine, I headed east towards one of the natural wonders of the island, Manjanggul Cave. Apparently the world's longest lava tube, Manjanggul is a eerie tunnel of lava-hewn striations, jagged rock formations, stalactites and stone pillars. The cave is a stark and impressive look at the volcanic forces that shaped the island, although I was a little disappointed not to catch a glimpse of the infamous Jeju Cave Spider.

That evening I took the 'limousine' bus service from Jeju airport, through the glittering resort town of Jungmun, to the Southern city of Seogwipo. From here, a twisty taxi ride the next morning took me and my intrepid companion to the slopes of Hallasan, the central peak of Jeju, and at around 2,000 metres, the highest mountain in Korea. From the bottom of the Eurimok trail, it's only a 700 metre ascent to the top (although not to the actual peak), although still a relatively challenging hike, when buffeted by strong winds and surrounded by noisy parties of school children.

The rest area at the top of the trail was over-crowded with even more kids and a battalion of soldiers, enjoying their ramen noodle and kimbap (rice roll) lunches, so we pushed on, taking an alternative route down. The descent was much more pleasurable, with some spectacular views across the island and areas of stark beauty, but the hike felt more like something we were pleased to have endured than a great experience in its own right.

I spent the afternoon relaxing in Jungmun, strolling among waterfalls, over canyon bridges, and through a brilliantly designed botanical gardens, before getting on another bus headed east. My destination this time was the small, slightly shabby town that has grown up around Seongsan Ilchubong, or Sunrise Peak.

Seongsan is a small, cratered mountain on the eastern tip of Jeju, famous, as its name suggests, as the best place to see (and make a wish on) the sunrise. I stayed in a Minbak (a 'homestay', or small, family run hotel), which sits at the base of the mountain, so there was no excuse not to get up before dawn and make the short, steep climb to the peak. At the top, I joined an expectant group of early risers as the sun struggled through the heavy clouds and softly illuminated the crater.

A leisurely walk down Seongsan was followed by a little obligatory souvenir shopping at the base of the mountain, a boat ride to the nearby Udo Island and slightly underwhelming submarine trip. I then set out in search of the Jeju Haenyeo Museum, which had been recommended to me as possibly the best museum in Korea.

As with most island cultures, the people of jeju were traditionally very reliant on the sea, with diving for shellfish, seaweed and other delicacies playing a particularly important role. Haenyeo are women, who since the 19th century have carried out the majority of this diving, becoming the main breadwinners in many families, and heading up a matriarchal society at odds with the mainland's Confucian values. Though the culture is now dying out (with only around 6,000 women divers today, compared to over 30,000 in 1950), it is still very resonant, symbolising the island's independent spirit.

The museum is housed in an airy, modern building near a beach still used as a departure point for present day Haenyeo. It simply but very effectively tells the divers' story, with evocative displays and an array of artifacts, from the arsenal of tools used to spear sea creatures to traditional cotton diving suits. Haenyeo still work without oxygen tanks, and follow a punishing schedule, diving all day for nine-day stretches (depending on the tides), with only a buoy as a lifeline. The museum does an excellent job of explaining both the hardships and rewards of the Haenyeo lifestyle, and their reasons for pursuing it.

The impression given is of unstoppable, almost supernaturally resilient, people, battling the elements to support their families and their country (Haenyeo are also famous for their role in the resistance during the Korean War). Looking out at the choppy sea and treacherous rocks from the museum's viewing gallery, this doesn't seem like an exaggeration. Though I didn't get to see the Haenyeo in action, the museum, with its deft mixture of information and storytelling (such as how Haenyeo fought with the resistance in the Korean War), helped to build an inspiring picture of the culture.

On the way back to Seogwipo, I spent an enjoyable cinematic hour at the Jeju Shinyoung Cinema Museum. This is another well-presented (though slightly run-down) museum, which seems to feature many intriguing insights into the history of Korean film, although very little is in English. There is some translated interpretation, but only for the more generic aspects of the development of 'world' cinema, which seems a shame, especially as the South Korean film industry has become internationally prominent in recent years. A display of original film posters made up for the lack of information, though, as did the museum's picturesque grounds.

My final day on the island was enlivened by a few hours spent spectating at the Jeju International Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, after which I again took the limousine bus back to Jeju-si, and enjoyed another curry at the Bagdad Cafe. An early flight the next day brought me back to the mainland, and in a few hours I was back in the classroom, daydreaming of an island of palm trees, off-beat museums and daring divers.

A short history of Korea film from
More about Haenyeo from the Korea Sparkling website
New Korean Cinema at Google Books
Jeju Life article on the Bagdad Cafe

Photo galleries:
Jeju day three
Jeju day three
Jeju day four
Jeju day five

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Bloomin' monsoons