Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jeju Redux

I've been back in Korea for almost four weeks now, and I'm amazed at how strangely normal everything here seems. The trip home was fabulous, but I was actually pretty happy to get back to my apartment, my friends, and yes, even my job here. I may not miss Korea itself very much when I leave, but I sure will miss my people.

Anyhow, I can now highly recommend that potential Englishee teachers start with the February intake, as second semester is soooo much easier than first. Doing what I did - beginning with the easy semester and then being like, "Wait, what happened to all of those holidays and school events?" the next semester - is a little bit tough. Happily, I'm now doing a repeat of the easy road. And our first holiday was only a few weeks into the semester.

Apparently our first time in Jeju wasn't enough - not enough warm weather, not enough tromping around in nature, and not enough sleep (stupid roe deer). So Paul and I decided to go back again, with a few extra days in hand thanks to the Chuseok holiday. This time we rented a car instead of a scooter (protection from the rain and more time for nature tromping) and stayed in love motels instead of camping (more sleep - sort of).

Our main goal for this visit was to climb to the top of Hallasan - the tallest mountain South Korea. Having not yet even vanquished my local foe of Mudeung mountain, I was quite nervous, and rightfully so - hiking in Korea is brutal. Koreans don't believe in switchbacks, seem to love climbing over big rocks rather than smoother trail materials, and - because you couldn't possibly have gotten enough exercise just climbing to the top of a mountain - there are usually workout equipment stations along the way. I comforted myself with the guide books that say the trail we planned to take is much less steep than most hiking trails in Korea, and by the impressively large number of hikers who climb that very trail every day. Never mind that the estimated time to get up the mountain (just one way) is 4 hours, and that if you don't reach the half-way point by half past noon, you're not allowed to climb to the summit. Oh, and the other fact that I was (am) so very out of shape. Poor decision? I think so. Too stubborn to let the mountain get the best of me? Definitely.

On our second day on the island, goaded on by the pictures of that damn deer on the "Protect our local fauna!" billboards (we were not going to let that island or its fauna get the best of us again!), we ignored the forecast for a second day of rain and drove to the trail head. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, hideously early in the morning, it started pouring. And I don't mean cats and dogs. It was more like pumas and dingoes. We squinted through the rain-washed windshield at the vague outline of three hikers who were apparently going up the mountain anyway - full hiking gear in place but perhaps a few marbles shy of an ideal collection. A bit of a shower is one thing, but hiking in this deluge would have bordered on masochism. So we sighed, choked down our remaining roasted eggs, and drove back down the mountain to see some of the sights we'd missed the day before.

Ilchulbong from a distance
We climbed up the Seonsang Ilchulbong and took the ferry over to Udo and back. Encouraged by how much we were able to accomplish during the day (since we got up so early), we stashed our hiking provisions in the little love motel refrigerator (soggy kimbap, anyone?) and planned to get up ass early again the next day. Surely the weather would be better - if it rained like that again, the entire mountain might wash away and it'd be a moot point anyhow.

Come Monday morning, the sun was actually shining and the two intrepid hikers dragged themselves out of bed, trying not to think about the fact that our friends were all going to spend the day on the beach. We drove to the trail head - the sun was still shining. We decided to go for it. As did everyone else on the island, apparently. The trail was packed with hikers of all ages and abilities, from grandparents to small children. I'm not sure how those on the extremes of the age spectrum made it to the top and back, as we perfectly healthy young(ish) folks were struggling. Hard. The trail might not have been quite as steep as most others in Korea, but it was still no laughing matter. The beginning seemed easy enough, and we thought we were just going to breeze right up to the top, but maybe 100 kilometers in, things got rocky. Literally and figuratively. I'm not sure whose decision it was to "pave" large portions of the trail with big chunks of volcanic rock, but it was a bad one. Makes climbing very hard on the feet and ankles.

At the summit! And still standing!
Four and a half hours after we started, we had huffed, puffed, snacked, gasped, tripped (me), and hauled our way to the top. The top of Hallasan sits in what seems to be a perma-cloud, and a chilly rain was falling during the final portion of our ascent. It stopped when we reached the summit, though, and the cloud even cleared away long enough for us to get a few pictures of the volcanic crater-like hole in the top of the mountain (which does not, by the way, look anywhere near as cool as it does in photos that they use to advertise trips to Jeju). The glassy lake that I was expecting was more like a muddy puddle, and the summit was so crammed with other hikers, they were nearly all you could see besides the cloud that we were in. Oh yeah, and the crows lurking around, hoping I'd drop some of my lunch. Fat chance, birds. Even if I had dropped part of it, at that point I'd probably have fought them to get it back. We stayed there for about half an hour, then began our descent.

I did not expect that the way back down would be even more difficult than the climb up. Our legs were already fatigued, and the rain had made all of those rocks very slippery. It's a real miracle that I got down the mountain without breaking something critical, like my arm or face. But we did finally make it to the bottom, stumbled our way to the car, drove to Jeju City, and found a nicer-than-usual love motel with decent pillows to rest our exhausted, aching bodies.

It may have been painful, but as we flew home the following morning, I was quite happy to have finally climbed The Highest Mountain in Somewhere. Good thing, too, as that "happy feeling" stuck with me all week, making even the set of stairs to my classroom seem like an almost insurmountable obstacle. It's probably not something I'll do again, but at least I can tick it off the bucket list. Hike the highest mountain in Korea: Check!


  1. Looking at the pictures, I'd never have thought that you guys had to take an excruciating hike to get there! You don't look sweaty and fatigued at all!

    Glad you got to go back to the same area as before -- without experiencing scary roe deer noises again! :-)

  2. Go girl!! I'm very impressed.

    Missing you xxx


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