On Expectations, Movie Spoilers and First Impressions
Jeju Island is the Korean version of Hawaii. At least that’s what we read in the guidebook. I read this and thought: “oh oh, bad news”. You see, I like to travel to places with a minimum of expectations and preconceptions. That way, I can keep myself open and flexible to whatever ends up transpiring. It’s like a movie trailer that gives away the plot of the movie you are about to watch, spoiling the surprise. Regardless, once the word “Hawaii” had been uttered, it could not be taken back, and we were often tempted to compare our trip to Jeju with our two week cycling trip around the Big Island.
Our first sight of Jeju, from the ferry, was of a seemingly endless sea of buildings, an urban jungle named Jeju City. Soon after that, we were cycling along a cycling path on the sidewalk, with numerous parked cars blocking the path and requiring us to get off and back on. The road next to us was noisy and congested, and we couldn’t see the ocean.
Frequently the sidewalk went down and then back up, at cross streets, with a small step, a small nuisance, but when you do it a hundred times, especially with a trailer, it’s taxing. Drivers turning into these side streets seemed out to get us, or at least they never looked before turning into the side streets at speed. It didn’t help that we had just finished cycling from Seoul to Busan, mostly on a high quality dedicated bike path.
When we finally arrived to the first beach, Iho Tewoo, we set up our tent in the only remaining spot, directly under a bright lamp, so bright in fact that one could think that it was daylight right through the night. There was a crew building some sort of concrete structure right on the beach nearby, so it wasn’t exactly peaceful, and the beach was unimpressive in the evening light. At that point Jeju Island seemed a far cry from Hawaii, but first impressions can be deceiving…
Beaches + camping
When we emerged from our tent the next morning, not too early, the water took on that addictive turquoise tint, the sand was warm and clean, and the construction workers were nowhere to be seen. Things were about to improve, a lot. We spent the next ten days cycling around the circumference of Jeju Island, mostly camping at beautiful beaches.
In Heupjae, we took a rest day, which turned into two rest days when we woke up to driving rain and tornado strength winds. An endless stream of couples without kids, no doubt most of them on their honeymoons, walked by our tent, smiling at Neil. A bride and groom had their photos taken at the beach, while a group of Korean highschool girls in short skirts posed for a group photo, with their identical and oh-so-red lipstick on.
Food: Endless Variety and the Walk of Shame
The variety and quality of Korean dishes continued to astound us. We had an amazingly succulent grilled mackarel (godeungeo-gui), rice porridge with abalone (jeonbokjuk), and hand cut and freshly made noodles in a thick black soybean sauce (jajangmyeon). Most main dishes come with an assortment of side dishes (banchan), almost always including fermented cabbage (kimchi), a national obsession. One of our favourite side dishes was a pile of cute little fish with scallions. The best dessert was a flat doughnut filled with sunflowers seeds (ssiat hotteok), folded in half and stuffed in a small white paper cup, to be eaten immediately while steaming hot (watch your tongue). Most Korean towns have branches of the large chains Paris Baguette or Tous les Jours, but we weren’t too impressed by the quality of the baked goods, which were usually and oddly individually packed in cellophane.
In Wando, a cute fishing town, the street right by the water was lined by restaurants with huge aquariums at their entrance, holding the seafood alive before it would be eaten. Every evening we walked along this lane back and forth several times in what we called the “walk of shame”: since all the menus were in Korean, no one spoke English and we couldn’t recognize any of the creatures, it was a bit difficult to decide where and what to eat! The fact that many of the restaurants served raw fish meals (hoe) costing upwards of $100 / person didn’t help. Pointing at what others were eating was hardly helpful when we couldn’t tell what it was they were eating. Eventually we decided that the best strategy was to take a chance and be adventurous: choose a random dish from the menu, not too expensive, and hope for the best…
Coastal Bike Route: Follow the Blue Line
The “coastal bike route” around Jeju Island is marked with a conveniently painted blue line on the road, so it is easy to follow. However, sometimes the line disappeared, leaving us scratching our heads – perhaps they ran out of paint? Other times the blue line followed the busy coastal highway (#1132), while there was a nice quiet road by the ocean.
On a few occasions it looked like the cycling lane was blocked by rocks, when in fact on closer inspection it was seaweed laid out to sun dry – a source of income for some of the island dwellers. Most of the way around the island, one can cycle right by the ocean, which is amazing for cycling, but the conservationist inside me cringed every time we cycled on a paved road so close to the beach.
Quirky Jeju: Sex and Teddy Bears
As we cycled into Jungmun Resort, we kept our eyes open for signs for the beach, as well as the Teddy Bear Museum. Say what?! Yes, the influx of young Korean tourists, many of them on their honeymoons, has led to the development of lots of quirky tourist traps, such as three (!) sex museums, a “Believe it or Not Museum” and so on. All this with barely a foreign tourist in sight.
We couldn’t resist checking out the Teddy Bear Museum, where an Elvis Teddy Bear starred right next to a Teddy Bear couple getting married. After visiting the museum, we kept on cycling down towards the beach, or so we thought – after a steep downhill we reached a dead end at a huge hotel. The whole Jungmun Resort with its fancy hotels, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and all those “good” things, felt very much out of place. Especially since most of our time as cyclists was spent on quiet roads by the ocean or staying in small and much less developed villages.
Neil: on Cycle Touring With a Baby
While cycling around Jeju, we met Louis and Suzanne, a couple from Montreal in their late sixties, who were spending three months cycling all the cycling paths in South Korea. Like others, they were very surprised and elated to see we were cycling with an eight month old baby. On the other hand, I thought to myself, their families must think they are about as crazy as ours do! On the other hand, Neil has his parents at his disposal 24/7, plenty of time to play and explore, new people and toys every day, so we figure we are doing alright.
As during our previous four weeks in South Korea, Neil continued being a star, often surrounded by fans who wanted to touch him and take his photo. Neil quickly fell into the rhythm of the trip. We made sure to feed him, change his diaper and tire him out by playing with him before putting him in the trailer, and he fell asleep pretty reliably, often for two hours or more. This gave us a chance to get some cycling in. With us waking up whenever Neil woke up, taking at least two and a half hours to put up our camp and taking a two hour lunch break, and the sun setting at 6pm or before, our cycling days were significantly shorter than ever before (we cycled up to 50km a day). But they felt just as full and satisfying if not more…
One thing that wasn’t clear to us before the trip was how easy it would be to travel with cloth diapers. It turned out to be very easy and in many ways easier than disposable diapers: disposable are quite expensive here, and it relieved us of the need to carry a huge stack of diapers and replenish it regularly. Everyone has a washing machine, so it’s no trouble to get them washed. Then there’s the mountain of waste we didn’t have to leave behind us – the environmental argument still holds, even (especially?) while travelling.
Island on the Island on the Island: Jeju, Udo, and Biyangdo
Along the northwest coast of Jeju Island, there is a little island by the name of Udo, the name meaning Cow Island, although we have yet to see the supposed resemblance of the island to a cow lying down. We cycled around the circumference of Udo island dutifully.
Some blog posts told us that Udo Island is undeveloped, and is like what Jeju Island used to be. The huge Dennis Cafe perched opposite the gazebo where we camped told us a different story: a huge number of tour buses arrive to the small island every day, puking their passengers at all the nice spots one after the other, as if on a stampede. On the coast of Udo sits an even smaller island called Biyangdo, that we cycled to. This lineup of smaller and smaller islands reminded me of a babushka: cycling around Biyangdo, I half expected to find an even smaller island on its coast.
Transportation: Ferries and Poopy Diapers on Buses
There’s something about catching a ferry to an island which feels so much more natural than flying. We were going to catch the ferry from Busan to Jeju, until we found out that the ferry operator had gone bankrupt… Oops. This little accident cost us some extra subway and bus rides, no mean feat with all our gear. On the other hand, we got to experience the wonders of emergency poopy diaper changes on the bus. On the way to Jeju, we went via Yeosu, an unattractive town whose claim to fame was hosting the Expo in 2012 (who the hell cares?).
On our last day on Jeju, we had a ferry to catch in the afternoon. We spent the morning on a quiet and scenic detour off the coastal bike route that took us to Manjanggul, an impressive 9km long lava tube. We seemed to be making very good time, but there was nowhere to have lunch, and we kept pushing ahead. Finally, on the outskirts of Jeju City, Neil demanded a break. By the time we were done, time was short. We rode as fast as we could, and just before the ferry terminal, the bike route went down a hill which culminated in a long flight of stairs. Stairs on a bike route, whose idea was that anyway?! We arrived to the terminal, bought our tickets and boarded the ferry. Immediately after we got on to the ferry, it left…
Our alternate route on the way back from Jeju led us to Wando, a cute and unassuming fishing town. The main street was lined with colourful fishing boats, and metal shelves with freshly caught fish drying in the sun, abuzz with flies. The six hour bus ride back to Busan seemed to drag on forever, and the bus stopped at literally every town on the way.
Busan: Relaxing, the Korean Way
We took the opportunity of being back in Busan again to revisit Heosimcheong, a spa that is like a tasteful Disneyland for (naked) adults. There are many different dipping pools, saunas and waterfalls to choose from, including the champagne pool (full of bubbles), a salt pool and a green tea pool. Neil had a lovely time in a lukewarm pool that has an artificial black rock cave (we practiced rock climbing above the water). Although Koreans are famously overworked, they seem to have figured out how to relax in a most ingenious way. The next day we caught the night ferry to Japan. After a pretty incredible six weeks in Korea, I was a little bit sad to leave, but also excited to experience Japan. That’s at least what I was thinking while enjoying the on-board hot tub…