Monday, July 9, 2012

Exploring Jeju in a Transformer Van

I woke up at 8AM on Saturday, nice and refreshed with a robust three hours of sleep under my belt. I walked down to the FamilyMart to get some breakfast and caffeine. The store clerk who served me at 10PM and 5AM was still working when I walked in at 8AM. When I paid he gave me a funny look and then pantomimed sleep while raising his eyebrows in a questioning manner. I told him I had very little and he laughed at my obvious sleep deprived state.

Mr. Ko brought the van to the dorms right at 9AM. The van fit twelve people and it was just enough room for all of the students from Sonoma State and Delaware State, one student from Jeju, Professor McCuan and Mr. Ko. Not to say that it was not a tight fit, the van had these seats which would fold to the side and could slide around laterally which made getting in and out of the van a complex ordeal filled with movable parts and confusion. After we all piled in we hit the road but not before going through the Jeju City McDonalds drive through for a quick morning snack. Our first stop was The Manjanggul Lava Tube, the largest lava tube on Jeju Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As we drove the scenery changed from large apartments and busy streets into vast wetlands and fields of greenery with small villages scattered on both sides of the roadway.   This was a very different Jeju than the urban Jeju that we had been exploring for the past week. The buildings were older, the streets less maintained the people more weathered. On the left side of the road we could see the vast ocean for miles before disappearing into the misty horizon.  Near the shore there was a number of different industrial marine fishing tools scattered along the rocky coast. As we drove we saw divers bobbing down in the ocean gathering various sea creatures, older women drying out seaweed on the asphalt, and windmills generating power hundreds of meters off the coast.  We passed rural village after rural village, their roofs hanging low and their streets crooked and steep twisting and conforming to the shape of the land beneath them.  During ride we were listening and singing along to pop music which was about having drunken flings and the sadness of last love, which was slightly hilariously mismatched with the scenery.

Lava and Lunch

Soon we turned more inland and after driving through the lush greenery we reached Manjanggul. We were greeted by a pretty standard parking lot and welcome center, so we all disentangled ourselves out of the jigsaw of the Hyundai van and were welcomed by the hot humid of Jeju made our way to the tube. The entrance Manjanggul is steep staircase surrounded by overhanging trees and foliage, leading downwards to what appears to be a massive pit. With each step the temperature and the humidity went down substantially, it was like walking into an icebox and it felt amazing. At the bottom of the stairs we gathered slightly in the cave and were given an explanation of the network of lava tubes on Jeju. The entire time droplets of water would fall around us hitting the cobblestone pathway formed by ancient magma cooling and hardening. The ceiling was around 15 feet above us and the clearing was about 10 feet wide. On this clearing we were told by a tour guide speaking Korean and Ko translating that Manjanggul runs 7KM but only 1KM is open to the public, we were also given a more in depth explanation about how Manjanggul was formed.

The tour of the lava tubes was very informative but for the most part I was wandering off and just staring at the sheer size of the cave. The word “tube” completely describes the shape and layout of the cave; it really is a giant tube.  Walking through Manjanggul I felt as though I was on an alien planet, wandering around the halls of the palace of the queen. The entire place has an eerie organic feeling to it. The walls are made up of dripping magma and nothing is completely flat, yet it is a structure massive enough fit a fuselage of a large plane. Basically it reminded me of the tunnels on the alien planet in Prometheus so this made me weary of touching anything around the cave. It was a very otherworldly place.

When we walked out of Manjanggul all of our glasses and lenses fogged up as we were hit with the hot and humid air once again. It felt like walking into a sauna, I again realized how much harder it was to breathe in the humid air. We again piled into the jigsaw-van and made our way to a village by the coast to get some lunch before making our way to Seongsan Ilchulbong or Sunrise Peak. Again we took a route going along the coast and passing traditional villages allowing us to have a passing peek into their daily lives.  For lunch went to a Korean barbeque place and again had delicious pork with a number of side dishes. The Korean student who was with us, Jae Hyuk, sat at the same table as I did and helped prepare the pork and explain the side dishes. Our meals here seem to always take about an hour if not more, it is a refreshing change for me to sit down and take my time eating rather than just stuffing my face with the most food as quickly as possible.  

Mr. Ko and the Korean tour guide. Ko did a great job translating the tour guides  geological jargon. The tour guide was actually a graduate of Jeju National University.

Some of the trees before the cave

More pictures of the descent.

Trees growing out from the pit.

From the landing of the cave

Most of my cave pictures are of textured darkness

The largest lava column in the world

I did create my Most Delicious happiness

Lunch, before the main dish of pork

These guys were hiking from the DMZ to the tip of Jeju. To experience all of South Korea 

Diving Grandmas, speedboats and stairs

After our feast of a lunch we hopped back into the van and went to Seongsan Ilchulbong or Sunrise Peak. At this point in the journey I didn’t really know where I was going, I was just sort of going with the flow in my silly-stupor of sleep deprivation.  Basically what I heard was “hike up mountain, cove, women divers and speed boat”, it sounded pretty awesome to me even though I did not know exactly where I was going.  When we reach the parking lot it is clear that this place is a hot spot for tourists. The welcome area is completely packed with droves of mostly Asian tourists posing by the sign or heading to Dunkin Donuts to get their fill of fatty glazed deliciousness. Behind the packed chaos of the parking lot was a mystical looking mountain, its peak covered in dense hot fog so that only the base was visible. To the left of the peak was cliff leading down to a beach surrounded by the high walls of Sunrise Peak. Ko tells us that we need to hurry down or else we will miss the show. I don’t know what show he is talking about but I headed the warning and ran down the stairs to the beach below, stopping occasionally to take photos of the insanely beautiful scenery.

 As I walked down I could hear singing and I could see see three or four figures in wetsuits preforming some sort of dance. When I got down to the beach I realized that these were the female divers of Jeju or haenyo. These particular divers where the most senior on the island, ranging from 60 to 80 years of age, but you would never guess by the way that they dived. They wore wet suites and weighted belts which allowed them to dive under for extended periods of time. All of the divers had been diving for decades and could hold the breath for an absurd amount of time. After ten or so minutes a diver swam back to the shore holding an octopus that she had caught. She emerged from the water with a giant smile on her face as the crowd clapped enthusiastically.  She posed for pictures with the tourists jokingly swinging the octopus towards people who seemed at all scared of the multi-legged ocean beast.   It was all in good fun until one tourist dropped the octopus and then put one of its legs in his mouth, everyone laughed and hooted but then he walked away with the octopus. All of the sudden the energy took an icy turn, people started yelling at the man in Korean and he seemed to brush off their jeers. Ko explained to us that he did not pay for the damaged octopus which put the diver out of about twenty dollars. It put a damper on the otherwise fun exchange that the divers were having with the tourists.

After we had all taken numerous photos of the divers Ko asked us if we wanted to ride on the speedboat, the ones that we had seen cutting in to the cove as we walked down the stairs. We all were game for a little adrenaline rush, although I was slightly nervous as I have never been a fan of harsh natural bodies of water, and after seemingly chaotic roadways in the city I didn’t know exactly how insane the speedboat driver would be. No doubt he would be fairly insane. We all put on our lifejackets and we scooted back, he waited until he got a safe distance from the shore before throttling back and jetting us up and over the waves. We all screamed and laughed as the boat bounced off the waves and cut right and left. Ko sat in the bow and was taking rapid fire photos to document our excited faces. We slowed down by the cliff side to take photos as the driver of the speedboat pointed out interesting aspects of the cliff. After a brief pause in the water we were off again, this time the driver veered left and right making extreme turns in the water, all the time with a giant golden toothed grin on his face.

When we docked we were all excitedly scampered off the boat still glowing with adrenaline induced happiness.  The speedboat ride completely woke me up I felt as though I just awoke from a perfectly timed nap, and I was ready to climb Sunset Peak. We made our way out of the cove and started to head towards the peaks base where hundreds of stairs separated us from the top. We aggressively climbed that mountain, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the fog that surrounded us. The more I walked the more I sweated and absorbed the humid cloud we were walking through. But that did not matter. I wanted to get to the top just to get to the top; I knew the view would be non-existent but I didn’t care. The path itself was crowded with tourist and we had to awkwardly navigate around the slow walkers who were cramping our aggressive stair climbing style. The majority of time the view was only fog, but it just added to the ambience of the climb. It made the whole journey more mysterious I had no idea what I was looking at our how high we were. When we got to the top we all exchanged victory high fives and had a brief description of the things that we couldn’t see that were apparently all around us. On the route back we took care not to slip and fall 600+ stairs down to the base.  We all piled into the van exhausted from the long day and drove back on the coastal road and back to our dorms. 

The misty mountain of "Sunset Peak"

Erica hiding from the wind and the rain 

Ko adjusting his camera and Jae Hyuk

Tourist gathering around the divers 

Erica, Ethan and Holly posing in front of Sunset Peak

Ko taking photos of our insanity during the speedboat ride 

The speedboat driver giving a big thumbs up, indicating that we were not to die 

Heading up Sunset Peak

The crowded stairs up Sunset Peak

The route up Sunset Peak is crowded with tourists

Elijah and a random kid who decided to imitate the pose. Photo courtesy of Jae Hyuk

Ko and Elijah hugging at the peak. Photo courtesy of Jae Hyuk


  1. Awesome posts, I felt like I too had only 3 hours of sleep the night before whilst reading this.

    Cities are fun, but getting out to the countryside is one of the best ways to get to know a country.

    Ko has a legit camera setup. I'm curious to see his pics!

    1. I realized my memory was less than vivid during those excursions. Sort of just a fun fog of memories. I hope to get some photos Ko took by the end of the trip, I will post them up here when I get them.

  2. Hello. I was wondering if you could give me the contact of Mr Ko because my friends and I are planning to visit Jeju and we would like to get a van with a chauffeur too!!


    Samantha Quek