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Saturday November 5, 2011

Olle for a slower life

IT is normal to get jostled in the bustling streets of the world’s modern cities, and it is no different in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Their chequered past has also given Koreans an innate sense of urgency, especially in the big cities where the pali pali (or “faster faster”) way of life has taken root.

In recent years, however, the republic’s sophisticates seem to be fired up by a new trend: the “Slow Life”.

You may have heard of this global phenomenon that began in Italy and has gripped cities in different corners of the world. The ever-increasing escalation of speed in modern life is making urbanites take stock of their life, and many aspire to snail down and chill out.

If you are curious to try out the “slow life,” subtropical Jeju Island, located at the southern tip of South Korea, is a good place to start. At the republic’s largest and most famous island, they have even tagged it with another catchword, Olle.

The breathtaking Chonjeyon waterfall on Jeju. – Photos courtesy of Jeju Tourism Organisation

It all started in September 2006, when Suh Myung-sook, the editor-in-chief of South Korean current affairs website OhmyNews, decided to pack up her newswoman notebook after 23 years and fly to Spain for a pilgrimage trek at El Camino de Santiago. Believed to be the path of Saint James (Santiago), it has attracted countless pilgrims in search of spiritual healing and rejuvenation.

As has been chronicled, while walking the trail, Suh met a British girl called Henney, who then gave her some food for thought, “If the journey was so great for us, why not build our own El Camino de Santiago in our homeland when we go back?”

This jolted her memory of Jeju with its beautiful and serene Olle, or narrow walking paths, around the island. She resolved to recreate the Santiago route in South Korea. Upon returning home, she embarked on the restoration of the old Olle and the creation of new ones. The first Olle trail was opened in 2007 and some 274km of walking trails have been opened on the island since.

Jeju Olle became an instant hit among Korean hikers as well as foreign tourists. After all, there is no better way to explore the volcanic island with its dramatic waterfalls and crystalline basalt formations.

Yongduam Rock or the Dragon Head Rock, one of the interesting rock formations created by lava from Jeju’s old volcanoes.

One trail will lead you to the breathtaking Chonjeyon waterfall, also known as the Niagara of Korea. Chonjeyon cascades 22m into the Chonje basin, which means pond of Heaven’s Emperor.

According to a local legend, nymphs of the heavenly emperor descend for a bath there at night. A short stroll away, is the Chongbang waterfall, among the few in the world spilling directly into the sea.

Walking around Jeju on the Olle paths snaking through the island is definitely a relaxing way to enjoy the natural wonders of the island. However, try to avoid the weekend and honeymoon season (spring and autumn). I was there on a honeymoon season weekend and had an unfortunate encounter with some urban hikers who clearly forgot to leave their speed at home.

Spring is a lovely time to visit Jeju, though, especially for its breathtaking fields of oilseed rape flowers. Walking through the yellow fields while the vibrant plants brush against you in the gentle breeze is a magical experience. If you tire of the ocean view, you can hike up Mount Halla, South Korea’s highest peak. At the top of the snow-capped volcanic mountain is a crater with its own body of water (a grand lake) and numerous waterfalls.

Then there is Songsan, another volcano that commands its own island a few metres off Jeju’s western shore. Songsan, nicknamed Sunrise Peak, is famous for its spectacular fiery orange dawn view.

Although extinct now (yet word has it that Mount Halla is only sleeping) these volcanoes long ago sent lava spilling over the island, leaving Jeju with columns of evocatively twisted rocks and catacombs.

Walking through the fields of oilseed rape flowers at Jeju Island is an e xperience like no ot her.

Jeju is also “littered” with manmade rocks shaped like phallic symbols and carved with human faces called Dol Hareubang (grandfather statues). Legend has it that a young virgin islander lost her fisherman love at sea, so she flung herself into the water. Consequently, the fish disappeared, threatening their livelihood. A frustrated fisherman peed in the sea, and lo and behold, their fish bounty returned. Locals believed that it was the sight of the penis that placated the young virgin who died without knowing the love of a man. So, to keep her spirit happy and the fish coming back, the islanders erected the Dol Hareubang around the island.

Hence, Jeju is also known as Honeymoon Island. It is common to see newlyweds in their identical “couple wear” holding hands on the trails and beaches around the island. And don’t be alarmed when you see couples garbed in their wedding glory leaning precariously against the rail at the summit of Sunrise Peak. Talk about breath-taking pictures! Some even venture into the lava caves around the island for that wedding picture, including the Manjanggul Cave, said to be the longest lava tube on earth at 13.5km.

Not a fan of caves, I am embarrassed to say I went barely a kilometre into the natural wonder.

Take your pick

Jeju Island is vying to be one of the new seven natural wonders of the world in a campaign run by New7Wonders Foundation, aimed at raising global awareness of environmental preservation. Jeju was chosen as one of 28 finalists, which include the Amazon, Brazil; Kilimanjaro mountain, Tanzania; and the Dead Sea, Israel/ Jordan. They are now calling for last votes which will close on Nov 10, with the final results announced the next day. To show your support, go to

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