Ramblelust

Two Savages in Southeast Asia

R&r

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Golden orb and sky,
Time slowly passing as keys
Tick tack tick tack tick.

A pretty lazy day as days go. The packs never left their posts next to our beds. The farthest we walked was to a cafe for some wifi and relaxation. The nearest we got to an oreum was thinking about climbing Sunrise Peak, and then deciding we’d rather sleep.

We still ate like starving cows, though. I woke up around an hour before Evan and started fixing our breakfast of a pumpkin, half a cabbage, and 4 eggs. He was in the men’s dorm, still snoozing, when it was nearly ready, and since he has no sim card I had very little hope of reaching him in there. Except that he had Wifi. So I started a Google hangout with him, pointing my phone’s camera at the sizzling cabbage and eggs. Needless to say, he was up and dressed pretty fast.

We lazed around the hostel as long as possible, coming up with excused to avoid stepping into the oven outside, but eventually dragging ourselves out to see if we could catch the haenyo show. We couldn’t, and in fact there was no sign of anyone doing it. We remembered the haenyo yesterday saying that they were on a month’s vacation, since there was some kind of fish in the water that made them want to stay out.

Defeated, we swung back by our hostel to pick up our laptops, then went cafe-ward and fooled around on them for as long as possible, wasting away the heat of the day. I sipped a kkangkkong (kumquat) tea, made from Jeju kumquats, and Evan had a fruit smoothie. It’s awesome that tea here doesn’t just mean caffeinated, steeped beverages, but basically any kind of flavored water.

We grabbed some bread for tomorrow’s breakfast and hoofed back to the hostel, where we wasted yet more time and finally decided to try going for a snorkel. We returned to the area we thought the haenyo show was in, assuming that there would be something of interest there, but the water was murky and totally devoid of fish. Twenty minutes or so in, we decided we’d had enough and again went back to the hostel to waste time.

Eventually came dinner, and today we decided to join in on the Korean BBQ offered by the hostel itself. Everyone was doing it, it seemed. On offer was a heaping helping of bbq pork (a fatty cut, as is popular here), kimchi (of course), rice, bean sprout soup, makali, and soju. We decided to go for a glass of makali each, and were pretty silly thereafter, but the rest of the hostel crowd plowed through all the soju and, once it was gone, tucked into the makali hardcore. We saw people walk out to the nearby convenience store and return with bottles of beer. It was quite a party.

But we are boring, and we have to hike. We explained as much to the fellows and ladies at the table as they tried to foist more alcohol upon us. We still got to laugh and share stories with them, so it was a great evening. A wonderful end to a totally nonproductive day. :)

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

Reroute

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Turning the corner,
The sunrise bright in our eyes
Leads us on the path

We awoke, bright and early, as we’re now (a little) accustomed to doing. We had a bit of a false start an hour early as some of the other hostel denizens piled out of the place to drive to sunrise peak, but we woke up on our own time at a reasonable 5:30. Evan cooked us a breakfast of eggs and toast, three eggs each, which we set upon with vigour.

It was still? already? warm when we set out from Joseph’s Guest House, but we were undeterred and pushed ahead. The path seemed to lead in and out of every street in Woljong Beach, but we pressed on, assuming we’d get somewhere. With our directional senses sufficiently defeated, we finally emerged out of town and onto the coast road. We followed it for some kilometers, obliging the trail as it occasionally decided to take us along seaside volcanic rocks or dart inland through a town. Our morning passed by uneventfully, excepting one point at which we lost the trail as it led directly through a farmer’s fallow field, dropping us into town around 11am.

Our first act, upon arriving in town, was to refuse to pay 4000 won (about $4) for two peaches at a farmer’s market. We passed by some ice flake cafes that were closed. Eventually we reached the stamp box ending trail 20, which left us at the Haenyo Museum.

We took our sweet time exploring this place, reveling in its air conditioning and our ability to leave our bags at the door. In any other country we would fret for the duration of our museum visit about our passports, laptops, and other possessions in the bags, but this is Korea. We learned about the Haenyo, who are women divers that provide not only livelihood for their families but also a large percentage of Jeju’s exports, even today as their numbers dwindle and their average ages increase. It’s a dying art, and few women who practice it are left.

Basically the haenyo are freedivers, organized into 3 classes based on the depth they are qualified to, who dive for abalone, mussels, seaweed, etc. They go out to sea in groups and have a lively social scene. The average depth a haenyo dives to is 10 meters, and they begin to learn the trade at the tender age of 6 or 7. The tradition started in the mid 1600s as women gradually learned the practices of the men, and men were gradually phased out of the diving profession. Haenyo culture has been exported to Japan and mainland China, but here on Jeju there are now only about 4,000 practicing haenyo, with none of them below 30 years of age and few below 60.

After we finished our tour, it was blazing hot and hazy outside, so there was no reason to rush in leaving town. We tromped over to a seafood restaurant (can’t get enough of ‘em) for lunch, then decided it was still to hot to go anywhere so we napped in a public pavilion (these are a strange thing I have seen no place but Korea, where people nap in them almost habitually and we have also seen people camping in them). Post-nap, it was still too hot to leave, so we played on the internet provided for free by the haenyo museum.

After that, we finally decided that a) we could leave and b) we hoped to finish the entire next trail before nightfall. So we struck out.

Most of the trail was fairly flat with some interesting fields and views along the way. We still haven’t seen Hallasan, the great volcano in the middle of the island, but such is the haze. We paused at the trail 21 halfway point for a snack at a promising-looking hut, which turned out to be ice cream made of tangerines (it is difficult to describe how delicious and appropriate this was for us).

As trail 21 wound up, we lazily (tiredly, we justified to ourselves) decided to take the detour around a mountain that lay ahead rather than charging over it. This put us practically into town, where we received a call from our walking buddy for tomorrow, proudly stamped our trail 21 completion stamp (trail 21 is the last trail!), and booked ourselves into the first accommodation we could find, which felt rather like someone’s temporarily abandoned apartment, with toothpaste half used still in a bathroom cup and a selection of hair products in the tub.

Dinner brought us another adventure as we asked around at the places nearby to our hotel whether they served food. One man who spoke decent English said that, no, they didn’t serve food, but a place just a few minutes away did. “Just a few minutes away? How far to walk?” we asked. “To walk? It is 5 minutes by car.” “We have only our feet…” “Get in.” So we got in.

It was our second pseudo-hitchhike in as many days on Jeju, and we chatted a bit with the driver as we went, about where we were from, where we were traveling, etc. He let us off at a brilliant restaurant where we had a bowl of seafood soup, including an entire crab and probably 2 dozen mussels, as well as some strange squishy squirty chewy animals, for 16000 won. It even came with “dessert”, by which I mean a tall, cold glass of local orange juice.

Even though the walk back to our apartment was far, and my feet’s arches and pads feel totally defeated, we are excited to walk with Jim tomorrow. To bed!

The Hills Have Hikers

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…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.

Going Olle Way

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Soft breeze caressing
Tired bodies while the leaves
Fall, confused and brown.

We began our hike of the Jeju Olle trail this morning, setting out from our hotel at a bright and early 6am. We felt a bit sticky even before shouldering our packs… I guess we’ll be more vigilant in our selection of hotels next time.

Returning to the spot where we found the ganse last night, we stamped our notebook and penned in the date we are starting the trail. We almost immediately lost it, not yet accustomed to the marks that are used to show its path, but took it along a freshwater canal to the sea, then up the hill to a restaurant where we got a steaming breakfast of “hangover soup”: beef and beef blood and seaweed. The blood is strange, it just comes in little gelled cubes that almost have the texture of mushrooms? But we downed it with alacrity: climbing that hill without any breakfast had been hard.

Evan nicked his foot using the toilet at the restaurant (how did he do it? I’m not sure.), so we quickly doctored it on the sidewalk outside. A local hiking up the hill came by, and asked us where we were going, whether we were going up the hill, too? We told him we weren’t sure, we were just following Jeju Olle. He walked away, seeming pleased.

The trail wrapped us around behind the hill to take a large staircase up it. At the top, with our brows slick with sweat, we were treated to a fabulous view of the Jeju harbor and a drinking fountain from which to refill our bottles. A herd of old Korean people were also at the top of the hill, contentedly using the exercise machines for greater fitness.

On our way back down the oleum (small, inactive volcano hill), we ran into an elderly Korean fellow who looked curiously at us, his dark eyes shining. “Can I ask you just one question?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” we answered.

“Where are you from?”

“San Francisco!”

“San Francisco..” he said wistfully, “and what are you doing here?”

“We came to hike Jeju Olle.”

“Jeju Olle!” he laughed and smiled. “Thank you!” And he walked away, trudging up the hill and listening to his iPod.

We wandered along the Olle route, following blue painted arrows, ribbons, the ganses (metal square horses), and wooden signposts as they presented themselves. There was at no point an accurate map provided to us, so we just had to follow what we found. It was spiritually refreshing to hike past ancient Buddhist temples, along historic hiking trails, through fields and over low-tide lava fields. We knew that this was the right choice for ending our travels.

Around lunchtime, we arrived in a small town with a few convenience stores, one of which we dropped into on a lark. To our happy surprise, they carried the Olle passports! The passports are used to mark completion of the Olle trails, at stamp boxes placed at the beginning, middle, and end of each trail. They also entitle the bearer to discounts at some guest houses and food establishments. No sooner had we gotten the passport (and a pile of snacks and drinks) than we came across the middle-of-the-trail stamp box for trail 18. We excitedly pressed the inked rubber into our book, certain that no self-respecting North American vandals would leave such tools unmolested in our home countries, and continued down the beach.

This beach was black sand, all made of ground up volcanic stuff. It looked inviting but the day was already growing hot and we weren’t as far through our hike as we might have liked. We pressed on through the town, arriving eventually at the Anti-Japanese Sentiment Museum.

This was truly an experience. We don’t have any such things in the States, and while the translation could have been a bit better (“History of Anti-Japanese Stentiment Museum” might have worked?), it was indeed a museum about Anti-Japanese Sentiment on Jeju, particularly during the Japanese colonial occupation. The fight against the Japanese was apparently begun by the haenyeo, the Jeju women divers, whose profession we’re not exactly sure of (although we understand that it involves diving in some way). There were brutal exhibits depicting torture performed by the occupying Japanese soldiers, and in greusome detail many massacres of Jeju people were discussed. Anyway, it was air conditioned, fascinating, and only cost 500 won ($.50).

Now to search for a guest house. We officially completed trail 18 at the museum, and we began trail 19 there as well. No guest houses were forthcoming, so we followed 19 out of town and into the next town. Disaster: we asked at a few guest houses, and they were all full.

Eventually, the kind, English-speaking owners of one guest house offered to call around for us. They managed to find us a bed not too far away, which we cheerfully walked to, bowing and thanking them for their efforts.

At the guest house, we plunged into the unheated shower with reckless abandon, thrilled to be washing the day’s sweat and the night’s… whatever was in that bed… off of ourselves. We hung our sweaty gear up to dry and struck out to find food. Our efforts were soon rewarded by a seafood place along the ocean, where we ate incredible spicy seafood soup (shopowners here are very hesitant to give us spicy food, but we managed to convince them we’d eat it. Sure enough we swallowed every bite of food on the table.). A brief stroll along the piers assured us that we didn’t want to sleep outside, as what appeared to be large and small cockroaches skittered about with our every step. We laughed as they occasionally misjudged where the edge of the pier was and launched themselves into the sea below.

We’ve collapsed happily into bed. Maybe a half hour more reading books, then it’s off to sleep so we can wake up early again tomorrow.

Jeju Olle Over the Place

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Jeju at last! We touch down in Jeju International Airport just after 1700, too late to make any real progress on the Olle. More importantly, we have neither map nor trail passport, and no idea where the next section of the trail begins!

Rewind a bit: before our Jeju flight, we start our morning late, still a bit tired from last night’s river dessert run, with a sumptuous leftover breakfast of fried chicken, slightly soggy fries, delicious red grapes, equally delicious banana, milk, and half-eaten red bean cakes. Yeah, it’s a strange mix, but it packs enough of an energy punch for the next task!

Being the super-prepared travellers that we are, it’s only just dawned on us that we’ll need some basic Korean to navigate the largely English-free shores of Jeju. Despite being a top destination for tourists – the Seoul-Jeju route is the most heavily used flight route in the world, with over 100 flights daily in peak season – those tourists are largely Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. When it’s not swarming with tourists, the island is a loosely-knit collection of quiet fishing villages containing roughly 450 000 residents in total. Most of those live in Jeju and Seogwipo, the two main cities on the island. English proficiency is mainly confined to those cities, English-language tour busses, and the odd hotel or cafe owner in the more resort-ish towns. It’s time for a Korean crash course!

Our friend and host, Taejin, willingly helps us learn the rudiments of his mother tongue. We start by learning to read, which he jokingly refers to as “elementary school, first year”. Fortunately, the Korean syllabary is highly logical, having been designed about 500 years ago by a king who wanted a character set his subjects could read. Phonemes map directly onto symbols, which are grouped together in sets of two, three, and (very rarely) four. We work our way through the consonants by way of a sort of rhyme: ga na da la ma ba sa, a ja cha ka ta pa ha! Then it’s on to the vowels: first the basics, then the “y-” sounds created by adding a second bar, then the combination vowel sounds like “wa”, “wu”, etc.

After an hour of practice speaking and writing the Korean alphabet, Taejin decides to test us. We walk over to the library, reading random signs along the way (one sign reads as a Korean-ized version of “Chevrolet”!). We get a rush of power, feeling like we’ve made progress: we can actually start to make sense of the lettering, even if it’s only as a stream of sounds! This helps a lot in building your vocabulary, since you can start to read things, notice patterns or repeated sequences, understand place names on a map…

…and then Taejin drops us in the deep end: we head for the childrens’ section, pluck a book off the shelf, and start reading. It’s harder going than we thought, but the sounds slowly take shape. There’s one book about animals, and something about mosquitoes, and another for practicing the consonant sounds. While there, we also search for some books on Jeju, which Taejin helps us translate. We’re getting even more excited now! There’s lava caves, beautiful field paths, cute guesthouses, submarine rides, even snow-capped Hallasan (but only in the winter months, alas!) There’s also a couple of temple stays on the island, a sort of overnight deal where you keep a monastic schedule (that means waking up at 0400) while learning about the ancient traditions and rites. Let’s hope there’s enough time after all our hiking!

Now it’s definitely time to head for the bus. We start walking over, but just barely miss the 5200 to Gimpo airport. No problem; there’s plenty of time and lots of taxis, so we hail one and ask it to pass the bus on its way to the next scheduled stop. We lurch to a stop with barely enough time to throw ourselves out the door, clip our packs back up, and sprint fully laden to the bus. On board, we collapse into the seats and catch our breath; we made it!

We reach Gimpo with a gnawing hunger – breakfast was a long time ago – so Taejin looks up a restaurant. Blog-recommended, no less; blogs are the preferred source of local information here, with popular search engine Naver providing a special section in the results just to surface relevant blog entries. I get a delicious heaping portion of cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables and hard-boiled egg in a sweet chili sauce, while Valkyrie opts for the bibimbap. Mini-lesson: “bibim” is mixed, “bap” is rice”, so “bibimbap” is mixed rice!

…and we catch our flight, which doesn’t even reach normal cruising altitude before descending towards Jeju International. On the ground, we puzzle over the bus schedule briefly before deciding just to grab something into town. We end up in the main downtown area by this octopus-like intersection, still map-less and passport-less and food-less and hotel-less. Now this is more like it! We remember this confusion state from our bike trip. You get used to it, start to delight in its randomness a bit, because it means that you have to deal with actual people to solve your problems. (Here the Internet isn’t an option; we have a phone, but data is expensive, and 95% of the useful information is in Korean.)

We manage to find an available room on the third try: it looks alright, kind of basic, and at 30 000 KRW (27 USD) definitely cheaper than we were expecting in peak season. What gives? We’re not about to complain, so we instead go about solving our other problems. We find a map at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, where the concierge happily hands over a small green booklet containing an overview of the routes with some other touristy information. It’s not quite what we’re looking for – scale’s too large, no descriptions of landmarks – but it’s enough to start with. We notice that the list of trails includes their starting points, which in Jeju is by the Dongmun market intersection. Where’s that? Here we get another spot of luck: the Ramada has free open wifi, so we mooch that just long enough to locate Dongmun and start walking.

Closer to the market, we try asking around for the trail passport. It’s supposed to be this Camino-style booklet that you can stamp at the start, middle, and end of each trail section. If you get two or more stamps in a day, you can go to certain hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants for a small (10-15%) discount. No one seems to have it, though; maybe we’ll find one as we hike tomorrow. The food problem we solve in the underground mall by Dongmun. Our meal is cheap but unremarkable, probably a low point of our culinary experience in Korea thus far. Valkyrie uses the underground mall wifi to make a call to her parents, then we verify the location of Dongmun and head back to our hotel.

Which gives us quite a surprise, for the innocuous alleyways we walked down to get there are now teeming with neon signs, blacked-out windows, and female silhouettes. Turns out we’re in the red light district of Jeju, and our hotel is actually a love flophouse. Now we see it: there’s a bottle of lotion on the table at the end of our bed, a smell of stale cigarettes, a slightly worn and seedy feeling to the bedsheets. Oh well; it’s what we’ve got for now, and it’s not terrible, so we stick it out for the night. Extra showers tomorrow, I guess…

Oppa Gangnam Style

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Psy’s op op op op
It all seems so clear from here
Oppa Gangnam style

We had a delicious breakfast of pastries and saw Taejin off to work (more like he saw us off to the city, but..). We decided to start our day with a rousing hike up Namsan, which we unfortunately couldn’t do yesterday. About 20 minutes into it, we started questioning our choice to go to Jeju for a hiking vacation… it’s hot here, and hiking with the packs can only be hotter. But, too late now!

The view from the top of Namsan is beautiful, with still-extant ancient fortifications framing scenes of the modern skyline. A few chain-link structures sit covered in love locks (a couple writes their names on a padlock, then locks it to the chains and keeps the key). Seoul tower stretches up into the sky, but we don’t pay to go up since it’s pretty hazy anyway.

On the way back down, we stopped at a spot we noticed on the way up: the cartoon art museum. We happened to be visiting during their annual Seoul International Cartoon Arts Festival (SICAF), so we got tickets to join in the fun! Several locations around the area are participating with various events and exhibitions. The first one we stopped into was a series of mechanical animations built by a Korean Canadian fellow, who was tickled pink that we came to hear from him. He snapped some photos with us and gave us his business card.

The exhibits became stranger as we continued, with one featuring a crew of costumed employees, one of whom was in a mocap suit, acting out a battle between giant armor suits (mecha). We had no idea what they were yelling at each other, except when they talked about their mecha, called “Prototype”. We thoroughly enjoyed the strangeness of this experience.

There was a hall of Gundam art and one of Canadian cartoons (some of which are very weird, look up “The Cat Came Back” if you have the chance), and a coffee shop was showing a live action version of a popular Korean web comic. Eventually we decided that we’d had enough comics for the day, so we set out to stroll along a river Taejin had recommended. It was a lovely walk, although quite hot, with nice bridges and well-kept paths.

Eventually came the day’s main event, where we took the subway through rush hour traffic and met Taejin at Gangnam station. We take in the vast consumerism of the place, with malls built everyplace that they’ll fit, including, Taejin informs us, places that used to house historic bakeries that were torn down for the purpose of malling. People stride around with their perfect plastic surgery faces and bodies, and we felt very much like we understood Gangnam Style. We used one of the media poles located along the street to send a strange photo of ourselves to our parents.

For dinner, we got Korean fried chicken. This is totally different from American fried chicken, as it has no horrifying greasy coating or weird salty crunch. It’s just delicious. We failed to down all the chicken we bought, but we packed it into a box and grabbed a bottle of rice alcohol (750mL for just 1,200won; about $1!) for later.

Just on top of Gangnam station is a bright display which reads GANGNAM STYLE, which bears the silhouettes of two dancers. Taejin told us that Psy himself used to be on this sculpture, but he apparently sued the city over it as he no longer appears. We got into the appropriate poses and had some kind passerby take Gangnam photos of us.

Taejin, like all good Koreans, gets daily exercise, and we accompanied him on his run this evening. We ran about 5k to a dessert cafe street, during which we paused to taste milk (why the guy was giving milk samples at 11pm on Friday night along a river, I’ll never know). We ordered a trio of delicious juices, coconut, passionfruit, and watermelon. We got a cab back to his house for just about $4, which is an amazing price to pay for a cab all the way across town.

To finish the night, we ate some fried tofu and cucumber and washed it down with the cheap rice alcohol. I can attest that the alcohol isn’t very good, but Taejin says there are better sorts to be found in Korea. Maybe we’ll get some on Jeju.

Sleepless in Seoul

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There is at least one essential truth of travel in our modern age: red-eye flights suck. It’s always too loud, too uncomfortable, too cold, too crowded, too something to get a good night’s rest. On Malaysia Airlines during the month of Ramadan, this is compounded by the need to eat breakfast before the daily fast starts. No sooner do we finally sink into sleep than BAM! it’s 0430, the lights come on, and there’s a breakfast service of nasi lemak with some weird Western-looking stuff in packages next to it.

On the ground in Incheon, we grab our bags and head out to find the bus to our friend Taejin’s place. He lives about 30km out of Seoul, so we’re expecting a pretty hellish itinerary to get there. Not so; the buses in South Korea are of sterling quality, so we pay 12000 KRW (6 USD) for two tickets and are soon aboard the 5200…

…where I promptly catch up on missed sleep as Valkyrie gazes out the window, watching the hills go by. About an hour later we emerge from the nice, cool bus into the steamy South Korean summer, except by this time we’re used to Malaysia and Vietnam and Cambodia which are all even more sauna-like. Taejin is waiting for us at Ori Station, and we walk with him back to his place for a quick shower and clothes change before grabbing a delicious lunch at a nearby restaurant. The kitchen there only makes one dish per day, which is perfect; we’re not in a state to decide anything! In Korea, meals come served with a series of small side dishes: there’s the ubiquitous kimchee, some other pickled vegetables (radish, I think, and some cucumber), and bean sprouts in sesame oil (the sprouts here are MASSIVE). As a bonus, these side dishes are essentially bottomless as long as supply exists. Just finish off the dish, say “Yeogiyo!” to get their attention, and ask for more.

After lunch, we head for Ori Station again, this time to catch the bus into Seoul. It’s still pretty early, enough so that we have time for a few of the Seoul sights. There’s Insadong Street, full of kitschy but cute souvenir stalls – for a midsize sum, you can even get your picture taken in Korean traditional clothing. We head on from there to Changdeokgung Palace, a centuries-old palace complex. The gardens are extensive and beautiful, but can only be visited by guided tour; if you don’t care to listen to the tour, just tag along with any group (regardless of language) and mill about in the back to check things out at your pace.

Sleep deprivation is setting in, but you know what offsets that? Food! More specifically, sugar, which we find in the form of red bean shaved ice and glutinous rice cake toast with ice cream. Yum! We wash it all down with spoonfuls of awesomely-spiced (think cinnamon, not red pepper) red bean soup, complete with delicious water chestnuts.

Finally, we head up into the traditional area proper. There’s a few guesthouses in the area, but mostly it’s all private residences in these ancient houses with beautiful eaves up on a hill overlooking the downtown core. We discuss the logistics of hiking up Nam-san (the South Mountain) to round out the day, but eventually decide against it: it’s not a super-easy hike, the mountain itself is kind of across town, and we’re both exhausted. So back to Bundang it is, except there’s one more stop to be made for dinner at a fantastic seafood restaurant. We get this massive hot pot deal with the largest mussels we’ve ever seen, abalone, and other seaborne delicacies. No surprise that we leave the restaurant stuffed to the eyeballs and more than ready for some good sleep!

In Korea, all men are conscripted into military service, which they must perform for two years. However, the less militarily-inclined can commute this service to a fully paid three-year stint in a Korean-owned company. Companies have to apply for the privilege of allowing Koreans to complete their service in this manner, and the part about Korean ownership is observed strictly; apparently Google applies every year, only to be summarily denied. For this reason, such positions are rare, but it sounds like anyone who can takes the opportunity.

Tomorrow we’re headed back into Seoul for the day. Taejin won’t be able to join us; he’s one of the fortunate few who has managed to take employment in lieu of military service, and although he had today off he still has Friday to go!

Double Dutch

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Last, happy hurrah
Malaysian flavors no more
Time for something new.

We woke up and puttered around our hostel. There was no articular hurry to get out of there, not when our flight from KLIA isn’t until 11:30 pm. We reluctantly pack our stuff, then shuffle off to our final Malaysian breakfast. It’s important that we get all the Malay/SE Asian flavor possible today before we shove off.

Breakfast includes a final pair of fresh coconuts and some curries we know we like at a Dutch restaurant in Malacca. We dawdle, but eventually pick up our things and head towards the bus station.

It’s a brutal walk. It’s about 30C outside, and with our backs unable to ventilate through our packs it’s truly punishing. We slog through the humid hot for a while, but eventually take refuge in a Tesco’s air conditioning. We’re in no rush, anyway.

A half hour or so brings us to the bus station, where we buy tickets on the next Transnasional bus headed to KLIA. We’ve discovered that this company, unlike most others, actually runs on schedule and doesn’t make random stops at the driver’s discretion. We wander around the bus terminal a bit, killing time with some final Malaysian pastries (oh, colonialism).

The ride to the airport is uneventful, and we get more food upon arrival. Indian food. Again, the sort of thing we won’t be seeing for a while. We stuff ourselves with naan and curry.

We check in way too early for our flight to get rid of our bags. We finally mail off the postcards we bought a week ago in KL the first time. We sit in Old Time White Coffee for way too long, sipping teh tarik, munching kaya toast, and basking in the free internet. It seems like our flight is never due to leave.

We spend our last ringgit on a book for the trip, seeing as we’ve both ripped through the books we got from Shobee. This one is a detective novel set in Malaysia.

After dozing and internetting and wasting time any way we can think of, we finally board the 11:30 flight to Seoul. We are not gonna be pretty in the morning.

Malaccan Mall Marksmanship

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Another lazy morning spent catching up on email, writing blog posts, and generally avoiding the heat and haze of the real world. Our excuse is that we’re still waiting for our laundry, but that falls apart around 1400 when Sean (the head hostel guy, who as far as we can tell subsists on a steady diet of beer and cigarettes) informs us it won’t be ready until evening…

…but that’s after we grab a lunch of otak-otak, a sort of curry fish paste steamed inside banana leaves. As with most curry dishes here, there’s a noticeable spice to it. Yum!

What to do? We ping Sina and Shermine, who we met at the local CouchSurfing meetup the other night, and resolve to meet up late afternoon for beer and other amusements. Sina remarks that the other amusements should involve pork, as that would complete the non-halal-ness of our sinful debauchery; it seems reasonable enough a request, so Shermine happily recommends a Chinese place for dinner in the expectation that they’ll have some pork on offer.

First, though, it’s off to The Library for beer. As you might guess from the prevailing Muslim culture, alcohol is not exactly in demand here, and so it’s quite expensive: 6 RM and up for even low-quality cans, and usually more like 10-20 RM in bars. The Library is very atas, with prices of 35 RM per pint (that’s about 11 USD!) – fortunately, we hit them up for happy hour, when they offer a 2-for-1 special on draught pints. To sweeten the deal, the pints in question are Erdinger and Franziskaner Dunkel, both imported from Germany. (Hey, globalization isn’t all bad.)

After that, we head to the mall for archery, for in Malaysia (and the other more affluent parts of Southeast Asia) malls are temples to entertainment. In the same mall complex, there’s a roller disco, an aquarium, another archery range (!), a motion ride (6D, the sign informs us, as if a 6-dimensional ride could have any meaning outside the more arcane branches of theoretical physics)…all this, alongside the more usual lineup of cinemas and cafes and the like. 9 RM gets us 12 arrows each, which we fire daringly at the targets with nonexistent skill. Sina and I have one arrow each bounce back at us; they just sit there on the floor the whole time, mocking our lack of bowmanship. I make up for it by landing a surprising number within the outer target circle. Valkyrie draws upon a long-forgotten semester of archery to hit the innermost region once.

Now for the food: we head to a local Chinese rice porridge joint. Valkyrie and I share a steaming bowl of fish rice porridge, which comes with succulent big chunks of white fish in a nice brothy rice mess. To add to the mix, we have a heaping plate of long beans in sambal that we drop into the porridge. SO DELICIOUS. Sina, true to form, gets his pork porridge, and he and Shermine share a side dish of pork to really drive the sin home. We note that all dishes on the menu are translated into English except those containing pork, as if its existence could be hidden by linguistic fiat – who knows, maybe it works. After all, it’s not like the place claims to be halal…

With beer in our blood, archery in our arms, and grub in our guts, we make for the river to catch a spot of relaxation. Everything is quiet during the weekdays, almost eerily so; there’s no sign of the night market down Jonker Walk, no throngs of tourists choking every last passageway of the Old Town. We stay for a bit, then say our goodbyes as we walk back to our hostel to pick up our clothes. We’ll need them for tomorrow so we can escape our mainstream tourism slump along the hiking paths of Jeju Olle! But first, a bus, a flight, a short stay in Seoul with a friend, and one more flight separate us from our pedestrian passions.