Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Over the Oreum

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Oreums are inactive volcanic rises that dot the Jeju landscape, with roughly 360 of them on the whole island. They range from the small coastal blips, maybe 150m or so high, to the massive foothills of Hallasan in the centre. In the muggy summer heat, climbing one with a full pack is quite the challenge: you’re sweating buckets, panting in the sauna-like haze, squirting water down your back to keep it cool. Your heartbeat hammers through your entire body, and you start to question your sanity for deciding to hike…and then you’re standing at the top, overlooking some section of coast or a few small fishing villages, or maybe the serene bay in the shadow of imposing Sunrise Peak, before descending again into the dirt tracks and valley roads of rural Jeju.

Not to get too cliche, but I suppose it’s a fitting metaphor for life. If I’m waxing all poetical, it’s only because today marks the beginning of my 27th year on this planet.

We’re hiking today with Jim, a private English teacher/tutor and part-time volunteer with the Jeju Olle Foundation. Since he works mainly in the afternoon and evening, his volunteering duties take him to the various trail sections, where he gives English-speaking hikers some company as they wind their way down the circuitous path. Trail 1 takes us past the Jeju Olle Information booth, which is partway up the path to our first of two oreums for the day. After catching some views from the top, it’s on to the long slog along the bay into Seongsan proper, the town marked by the 190m-tall volcanic crater that is Sunrise Peak. This being the east coast of Jeju, Sunrise Peak is one of the best places to catch the sunrise from, although getting there involves a 30-minute hike uphill.

We roll into Seongsan about 0930 and reach the base of Sunrise Peak by 1000, getting lost briefly on the way at a mostly unmarked uphill section off one of the side roads near the port. Hiking with Jim is interesting – since this is part of his volunteer duties, he’s looking to see what the trail looks like through fresh eyes, perhaps eyes attached to a head without fluency in Korean. He bemoans the lack of good English-language material, and mentions several times that the airport desk needs better international support. (This remark comes as a surprise to us; we didn’t even know such a desk existed!)

The trail has been relatively good to us so far, the weather not so much so. Where’s this promised rainy season? I’d trade my shorts for a spot of rain right about now.

Sunrise Peak is tempting, but we’re both tired out; we’re going to take a day of rest in Seongsan, maybe get some snorkelling in, and then hike it in the morning the day after before continuing on down Trail 2. In the meantime, we grab some food, including a bowl of miyoek goek (seaweed soup) as a birthday ritual – this is apparently what people eat on their birthdays here. No idea why, but it is very tasty, and it serves as a perfect lead-in to the seafood pancake and abalone porridge that follows. This latter dish is a local Seongsan specialty, but the dish we’re served has a bit more of a risotto texture than one of porridge. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be? No idea.

After that, we look around for a place to stay – ah, some rituals of self-powered travelling never change! The first place doesn’t pan out, but we get to use our super-basic Korean proficiency (thanks, Taejin!): by reading the signs visible over the smaller houses, we find another guesthouse and are soon paying for a room there. Then there’s a long wait, since checkin isn’t until 1500. We pass out on the benches outside, wake up when it gets too hot even to lie there in peace, step inside, sleep a bit more, check our email, wander outside to see if the Haenyeo are doing their tourist demonstration (they aren’t), head into a supermarket (yay! the guesthouse has cooking equipment, so we get to cook a meal for the first time in forever!), spend forever in their air conditioning, eat some rice balls in a convenience store, and finally amble back in the ebbing heat so we can heave our packs into our rooms.

After that, we hit up a cafe that Jim pointed out: Cafe Coji is a quirky joint that specializes in little chocolate cakes, bread, and shaved ice. We opt for the little chocolate cakes, which are named after the Korean word for Sunrise Peak. Yum! Then it’s back home to cook a meal of dumplings with a stir-fried red cabbage and tofu mixture. Restaurant food is tasty, but the salty sauces and gut-busting portions can get a bit much after a while. We raise our glasses of Hallasan Soju, which tastes kind of like a mid-range vodka – nothing spectacular, but nowhere near as gag-inducing as, say, Absolut. As a nightcap, we pick up some Udo peanut rice wine, leaving us pleasantly buzzed for the long and incredibly relaxing sleep we plan to have. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ