An intrepid adventurer tackles volcanoes, stinging rain, whipping winds and crashing waves.
THE air outside Jeju International Airport was warm and charged with expectation. Absent, however, were the Aloha dancers. So, it wasn’t quite the “Hawaii of Asia”, as Jeju is often positioned in tourism promotions. But perhaps it doesn’t need such labeling – the island has already won acclaim as one of the world’s “New Seven Wonders of Nature”.
Jeju has everything for every traveler – just figure out which segment of traveler you belong to. The thoughtfully designed Tourist Information Booklet (published in 2013) offers suggestions: Type A – Nature lover, Type B – Culture vulture, Type C – History buff, and so on till Type G: All by myself.
We didn’t seem to belong snugly into any “type”, and so we opted to do “My Jeju, my way”, which was the title on the booklet’s cover anyway. Seriously, we were here to climb the tallest mountain in the whole of South Korea. Yes, Jeju has it too, the highest point in the country, at the top of Hallasan, 1,950m in altitude.
“Welcome to Jeju-do,” beamed Kim, our sincere-looking taxi driver. “Yes, Hallasan very famous, and tallest. But no climbing. Tomorrow, rain. Day after, also heavy rain,” he apologised.
I couldn’t believe my ears, to hear this after we had come all the way from Malaysia. As we pulled out into the highway, I tested him, “But when it rains, Jeju can be more beautiful, right?”
Well, at least it said so in the booklet. By nightfall, the TV weather report had confirmed Kim’s forecast. More dreary news followed. A ferry with four hundred passengers had capsized just north of Jeju. Our host country was gripped in suspense, disbelief, anger and torment as rescue operations went underway.
The news was live on every channel. What could be worse than bad weather? It was beginning to look like the Land of the Morning Calm was crumbling into the Sea of Calamity.
The rain stayed in the clouds the next morning. We brought forward our Hallasan hike (originally scheduled for the following day) and reluctantly settled for a shorter but steeper trail that would have us up and down in five hours max (if the sky didn’t burst into a torrent).
We’d have to forsake making the summit too because the final stretch of this trail had been closed for conservation purposes. Given the circumstances, it seemed an acceptable compromise.
Hallasan, lying in the centre of Jeju Island, is an outcrop which surged from the sea aeons ago as a result of volcanic activity. Of the five hiking routes, only two, approaching from the north and the east, offer access to the summit.
The return journey on each of these two routes would take 10 hours, and there are cut-off times for turning around – not exactly a walk in the park, even on a cool sunny day. If you make it to the top, you will encounter a crater lake, Baengnokdam.
We had opted for the Yeongsil trail, the shortest route up, about 3.7 km in distance. From the trailhead, we confidently bounded up the wooden steps into the mountain forest. Even now in mid-April, the scene was still a monochrome blur, a landscape overlaid with tall barren maples, each tree seemingly straining to sprout the first leaves of spring.
In the grey, it was easy to spot the vibrant colours of the trail markings and the clothing of hikers. We made it into the open after 1km of gradual tramping, eventually leaving behind the sounds of cawing crows and trickling creeks.
We passed Yeongsilgiam Rocks and Bi (Rain) Waterfalls. The waterfalls had dried up, and seemed to thirst for the rain to break anytime. A plateau was soon reached at the top of Beongpung Bawi (Folding screen rocks) and from here, at 1,700m in altitude, the peak of Hallasan came into sight.
After resting at Witseoreum Shelter, we side-tracked up to Nambyeok Junction, the nearest point to the summit. And immediately, we stumbled onto an alpine landscape of fir trees, snow-clad slopes and frozen streams, remnants from the winter ice-cap.
We back-tracked and descended Hallasan via the Eorimok Trail, a moderate trek 4.7 km in length, coursing through wide open spaces, occasionally treading over lava rocks where neat boardwalks ended. Thanks to clement weather we remained dry when we left the trail and stepped into the restaurant, where we had a well-deserved lunch of abalone porridge.
The next day, we trekked up Seongsan. This is a volcanic structure known as a tuff cone, formed when magma interacts with water, creating a hill with a broad and deep crater on top.
This unique work of nature, at the north-east corner of Jeju, is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and tops the list (in the information booklet) of “must-see and must-do” for foreign tourists.
Additional advice offered therein: “Prepare water and handkerchief”.
On the rain-drenched morning that we marched up Seongsan, there was little need to bring any water as there was a sky-full, and my hankerchief quickly became a sodden affair in my side pocket.
At a height of 182 m, the peak was easily bagged, and offered a poetic view of the sea lashing the coastline. The crater of the tuff cone was immaculately turfed wall-to-wall with tall grass.
The hike turned out to be a fun outing despite the jostling crowd of sunrise pilgrims, but also because we enjoyed the stinging rain, whipping winds and crashing waves.
Not all the visitors were foreign tourists. A teacher we met told us of his frequent visits here, organising field trips for his students.
“It was unfortunate that many students were on board the sunken ferry coming over to Jeju during the school break,” he shook his head, his eyes wet. It could have been the rain.
Food for raw energy
Forget the signature spicy Korean kimchi dishes for the moment. For the extra energy boost required for our climbs, we carbo-up with plenty of hot noodles.
For protein supplements, we experimented with more exotic but natural foods: raw seafood and meat.
We tasted the raw abalone and octopus caught fresh from the sea by women divers along the coves of Yongduam or Seopjikoji. Other varieties of seafood sashimi can be found in many local restaurants, such as those along Seogwipo’s Chilsimni Food Street. Dishes include raw fish, crabs, snails, lobsters and even urchins!
The ultimate protein-packed meal must be that of raw beef and raw horse meat. To avoid any possible stomach churn, we tried these “specialty foods” only after our hike, for muscle tissue replenishment.
Nutrition aside, the food tasted pretty darn good.
> Lee Meng Lai is an accountant turned marketer who believes both lobes of his brain should be equally utilised. He’s trekked the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro, Mt Kinabalu, and the volcanoes of Indonesia, but hasn’t quite figured out whether it’s the journey or the destination that