Two Savages in Southeast Asia

The Hills Have Hikers

| Comments

…only two of them, it seems, and they are us. We start the day roughly 3km into trail 19, only a short walk from the hotel/restaurant strip in Hamdoek. We’ve got a shortlist of urgent needs to fill there:

  • ATM for extra cash, since most ATMs on Jeju don’t accept foreign cards;
  • food for breakfast;
  • water and snacks for the hike;
  • toilet for, er, comfort.

Again, the list reminds us of our daily routine from the bike trip. We manage all four by 0730 – nothing much opens before 0700, really – and are on our way, four delicious-looking tuna salad hand rolls packed away as trail snacks. (We have other snacks, but we’re most excited about those.) After Hamdoek is the arduous climb up Seowoo-bong. It’s not even that high, maybe 150m or so, but it feels like a hot, tired, and sweaty eternity with our heavy packs. (There’s no way we’d pack this much if we’d planned on just doing a hiking trip, but a lot of it is along for the Southeast Asian ride.) Good thing it’s still early, not too warm yet.

The weather mercifully decides to remain overcast as we crest the hill, head down around the cape, and drop onto a road before winding inland to explore the forest paths and lava fields of Dongbok-ri. Somewhere 1-2km off the highway is a fenced-in lava tube, not quite large enough to be navigable. It still looks cool, though, and it fires up our excitement for the larger ones further around the island. The tuna salad rolls are making great snacks!

We get some more use out of our new passports, stamping them at an athletic field 5km from the end of the path. From there it’s through some more forest, then gradually down through the stone-wall-ringed fields to the shore. There we get a pleasant surprise: another hiker, the first one we’ve seen since starting in Jeju! Dan is an American expat from Indiana, of all places, which gives him and Valkyrie room for commiseration over their long-lost homeland. He’s teaching English while completing his Master’s in Public Administration over at Jeju National University, where he’s been for five years. His approach is somewhat different: as a local, he takes his motorbike to the start of a trail, walks it, takes the bus back, then returns home for the night. We swap comments on the advantages and disadvantages of this relative to our homebase-less plans, and then decide to head on: Woljeong Beach is just 6km, and is reputed to be a great hangout spot with some cool cafes and guesthouses.

On the way over, we pass a wind farm and smart grid test center, and Dan explains that his research explores public opinions of wind power generation in Jeju. The island plans to become energy-independent by 2025, and it might have a fighting chance: the exposed beachfront and nearby volcanic rises (“oreums”) provide plenty of prime locations, and the island’s small size lowers transmission losses. Solar plays a role in this plan, and as a volcanic island geothermal is a natural addition to the renewable energy offerings. Still, it’s an ambitious project!

We finally get into Woljeong at 1330, and immediately have a problem: everything’s full. We ask place after place – no luck. We ask in cafes, with Dan helping out on the Korean language end of things. Finally we manage to find one cafe owner willing to place a couple of calls, which bears fruit: there’s a guesthouse 400m inland called Joseph’s Tree with a couple of available bunks. We dump the bags and head back for some food, giving us our second problem: the restaurant ran out of food, and is closed for the day!

No problem; the chef offers to drive us 5km to the next restaurant. Apparently he worked for Walmart and Tesco before coming out here just a couple of months earlier to start a restaurant. (He picked the right place if he’s selling out his stock!) He explains his approach to cooking: he only buys the freshest stuff at the markets, and only a limited amount each day. When he runs out, that’s it; he closes up for the day. After all, he says, isn’t time more important than money? We agree, but it’s not a sentiment many Americans seem to grasp (or many people in the developed world, for that matter.)

The restaurant he takes us to is delicious, and the food we get is reminiscent slightly of Vietnam: pork and vegetables in a spicy broth, rolled into lettuce wraps and served with a bowl of rice (and, of course, the usual assortment of small dishes!) We gobble up as much as we can, then wash it all down with bowls of Jeju makguli, or rice wine. (Yes, bowls: the rice wine is drunk in souplike fashion, bringing the bowl to the lips with both hands.) Thoroughly stuffed, we hop the bus back to Woljeong and say our farewells to Dan, who continues on his hike down trail 20. The public transportation here is excellent! There’s a bus route that circumnavigates the island, with busses arriving every 20 minutes; even the most distant trip on this bus takes only about 90 minutes.

Everything else is a slight blur – not from drunkenness, which our small amount of rice wine could hardly effect, but from exhaustion. We sit around deciding whether to book guesthouses ahead, then reject the idea; it might make it easier, but it would spoil the adventure spirit of the whole thing, wouldn’t it? Then we’d have to go to a specific destination each night, and wouldn’t be able to take these random detours as easily. We try heading back to the cafe where the owner helped us find a place to stay, maybe repay the favor by getting a drink or something to eat – but he’s busy jamming away on his guitar with the shop closed up, so we grab bowls of curry rice just down the way.

Our hostelmates are up drinking beer and eating takeout pizza, but it just isn’t our scene right now. There’s something very peculiar about the hiking (or biking, or other heavy exercise) mode of travel. You’re usually exhausted, hungry, or both. You’re usually first to sleep, first to rise. Alcohol is nice, but you can’t risk the hangover and severe dehydration from overdoing it, especially in this summer heat. (There’s a reason that non-alcoholic beer is so popular in southern Spain.) You have this gruff trail mentality. You feel like you’ve earned every location you end up in, and that everyone else is just cheating; then you go back on that, feeling way too judgmental, like some weird atavistic “us-versus-them” mentality is setting in, the old hunter-gatherer routines that we left behind when we all took desk jobs. Then you laugh off the whole thing and let your delirious exhaustion set in. You finally discover the ability to spend long periods doing nothing, not even contemplating your own life. You learn to micromanage hydration and food energy, to tell exactly when you need more salt or sugar, to take naps at the right times and sleep out the heat of the day.

Well, enough of that rambling. It’s time to pass out.