Author: Margot MacPherson Brewer
Date of Trip: August 2013
Identical Korean triplet toddlers dressed in bright green and yellow half wetsuits and matching caps shrieking as they ran through waterspouts over and over again on a Jeju Island beach. Unexpected encounters while travelling can be the most delightful.
South Korea may not be high on everyone’s “bucket list” but should be. It is a country that plays second fiddle on the world stage to its smaller and more efficient neighbour, Japan and also to its much larger and increasingly efficient neighbour, China. Then there is that weird and hard to understand war relationship with North Korea. Not perceptibly more understandable after visting the DMZ except to report that the 236 km and 4 km border is a monument to the ongoing tragedy of irreconciliation.
Korean impressions before I went were a series of headlines and brand names: the Korean War, the DMZ and JSA, Samsung, Hyundai, LG. What I encountered is a country with a troubled past that is both ultra-modern and conservative and places a high value on education and hard work. A high suicide rate among its young people reflects the tragic cost of academic or career failure.
Jeju Island was the first stop on our itinerary and it is an Hawaiian Islands knockoff in the middle of the Yellow Sea off Korea’s southernmost coast. We learned through the various monuments before we saw the hanyeon female divers who once numbered 30,000 on the island. Famous for diving to depths of 200 feet and holding their breath for up to two minutes, these were the women who foraged for the family’s food when their men were taken away either temporarily or permanently. The numbers of hanyeon have dwindled to a mere 3,000 but it was no less impressive to see them dive into the bay and bring up sea urchins from the ocean floor which they offered for the more intrepid tourists to sample.
In this area, we climbed to the top of the humbling and magnificent Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak. Recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage sight as one of the seven new natural wonders of the world, the ascent to the top is straight up a near vertical staircase of carved stone blocks. Daunting in a temperate climate, it was overwhelming and that much more satisfying to arrive (having survived) at the top in the oppressively stifling heat.
Traipsing through Manjanggul Cave on the eastern side of the island was the experiential opposite and welcome for the kilometre long walk deep in the ground through a cool and damp cave which had been bored out eons ago by coursing lava flows. Before we left jeju, we also managed to hike halfway up Mt. Hallasan, the largest mountain in all of South Korea and Jeju’s splendid and imposing centrepiece. Jeju Island is a tropical paradise that is under the radar and hosts mainly an ongoing influx of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Jeju’s location in relation to South Korea combined with North Korea’s nuclear sabre-rattling this spring had clearly discouraged many Western visitors and we encountered less than a half dozen in our travels on Jeju. To the South Koreans, Kim Jong Un’s current list of threats is simply snafu. So we eventually made our way to Seoul. Jeju’s ambient opposite, Seoul is a bustling modern Asian metropolis famous for K-Pop and its most well-known ambassador, Psy who has made Gangnam a must-visit neighbourhood that is not really famous for anything else. There are lots of foreigners in Seoul doing business, teaching English or “here with a tour.”
The spiritual underpinnings of South Korea are Confucianism and Buddhism and the country is dotted with temples where foreigners can briefly experience temple life and live as monks or nuns do through the innovative Templestay program. Sixteen temples around South Korea welcome foreign visitors to partake of their overnight program in English. It can be welcome respite from the environmental and human congestion in the middle of the cities. I would definitely like to go back to South Korea to spend more time doing what wasn’t possible to do or see in two short weeks. The cities have abundant attractions to entice the action-oriented visitor but my most indelible memories were hiking massive mountains and the silence of an afternoon temple visit high above the city of Seoul. Personally if I went back to visit South Korea any time soon, I know I’d head for the hills.