Two Savages in Southeast Asia


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What a day! From our sunrise hike up Sunrise Peak to a maekli (rice wine) toast in a small fishing town at sunset, today had a magical quality that you only experience once you get off the beaten track. Of course, it was not without its sacrifices: sunrise is officially at 0547, but in our opinion the really cool part is the preceding half-hour where everything slowly gains definition. With a half-hour hike to the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong (as it’s known locally), and allowing extra time, that meant leaving the hostel at 0500, which meant waking up at 0430. On the other end, our sunrise hike meant a slightly later departure from town than we’ve been managing other mornings, causing us to hit the last oreum at 0930 in pretty much peak daytime heat. Ouch. (Still worth the view, though.)

Ilchulbong itself is a volcanic tuff cone that slowly became connected to the mainland as sediment piled up in its wake. The sloping sides of the volcano have since eroded away, leaving this improbable-looking cylindrical thing jutting out above the town. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which for the villagers nearby means their days of carefree playing about the inactive crater at top are over. Trail 2 spends most of its time winding around the nearby bay, giving us a deep sense of futility: by the time we get to the midpoint of this section, we’re maybe 3km actual distance from where Trail 1 starts.

The last oreum offers a stellar view of Seongsan Ilchulbong and town, its bay, and the village of Onpyeong where Trail 2 ends up. It looks small, and we worry that we might not find a place to stay, though those fears are eventually proven misplaced. Before that, though, we still have 7km of trail to cover, taking us past overgrown graveyards, through field after field after bloody field, to the Wedding Pond which has some backstory about this king who threw three princesses into a box – with the malfunctioning rainy season, the pond has all but dried up – and finally into Onpyeong itself. We stop for lunch and manage to order something off the menu by reading it in Korean: it’s a bibimbap dish, some vegetables mixed in rice that looks to be dyed with squid ink. The side dishes are the best we’ve had so far: egg-ham pancakes, delicately seasoned sliced fish cakes, and the usual assortment of pickles both spicy and not. The culinary acumen of the staff here is driven home by the rhythmic chopping motion coming from the open-style kitchen – there’s a man slicing onions at breakneck speed, so fast you can barely see the knife. YUM.

Now we deal with the sleeping issue. We manage to find a sign for a guesthouse, and in an Olle first get a room without having to ask around! Only one problem: we ate through our snacks today, there’s no convenience store or breakfast joint, and Trail 3 goes nowhere near the next town. Solution: hop the circumferential 1132 bus to Shinsan, the next town over, to grab some breakfast and snackfoods at the store there. We spend some time down by the water, where we run into our second drink truck (think coffee, not beer) for the day; the other one was at the start of Trail 2, just after crossing the causeway out of Seongsan. Back to Onpyeong for dinner, where we lap up some delicious abalone porridge and raw fresh catch seafood. We’ve never had raw octopus this tasty – when you get it back home, it’s always leathery tough. I use the standard “Yeogiyo” (literally meaning “Here”) to pay up, which elicits a storm of laughter from the next table as though it were the most hilarious thing possible to see a white person trying to learn some of the local language…oh well. We shrug it off and have our romantic maekli toast down by the water, sipping it discreetly out of a squeeze water bottle (no idea if public drinking is illegal here, but we haven’t seen anyone do it.)

So yeah, amazing day. We’re off to catch some sleep; we’ll need it, since there’s a couple of longer trails coming up. Trail 3 is 20.7km with a pair of oreums at 7km or so, and Trail 4 is 23km with an oreum midway through. From there, Trails 5 and 6 take us into Seogwipo mostly following the southern coast, so we’re hoping to cover them both in a day before taking a rest day in town. That’s three hiking days to Seogwipo. Yay! Maybe we’ll even stay in the public bathhouse there, since that’s supposed to be a truly unique experience.