Nov 2, 2022

Korea

Jeju

🇰🇷 South Korea

Seoul ↔ Jeju is the busiest passenger air route in the world. More than twice as many people fly it annually (17M) than the second busiest route in the world, which is Tokyo ↔ Sapporo (8M).01 Without any bags, a one-way flight will run you an almost unthinkably cheap $30, though that easily doubles once you add a small suitcase and backpack.

We flew to Jeju from Busan, not Seoul. Still extraordinarily cheap. But this talk of luggage reminds me of two quirks of flying, the first universal, and the second Korea-specific.

  1. Our bags are easily carry-on size in America, and check-in absolutely everywhere else. Especially with budget flights around Europe and Asia, it’s not so much the sizing requirements that get you, but the weight limit. The total amount you can carry on is usually a cool 15 lbs, but our little suitcases easily clock in at 22 lbs alone. Add backpacks full of electronics and snacks, and there’s no way to make it under. So, while we get the nice carry-on-only badge in USA travels, internationally we’re always checking one each. Never had an issue yet.02

  2. Korea airport security was obsessed with our middle names. I never, ever put my middle name on any tickets. But this would not fly, even on domestic trips. I needed to get my tickets manually written out by a (very patient) agent, after which I would visit security, who would turn me back around because I didn’t have the special secret stamp on this handwritten modification. Then back to the (now also apologetic) agent, who applied secret blue ink stamp. Then back to security, who—ironically?—didn’t even seem to be interested in document details, just the presence of such a stamp.03

Jeju City

Jeju felt like if you turned the development clock on Busan back about twenty years.

I have come to now firmly believe there is a kind of Island Life vibe that any water-encircled vacation destination adheres to. These ingredients are:

  1. The pace is relaxed
  2. You need a car

We, unfortunately, did not have a car. We walked and took busses around as much of the city as we could.

The city isn’t especially walkable, but it’s doable. We went from the rocky coast, down some long ocean stretches, up to the top of the hill in town, and back down through the markets.

The city waterfront is mostly packed cars and vans having an awful time parking, which made me feel not so bad about the whole on-foot thing.

Tetrapods

Just offshore are piles of concrete blobs that look like some kind of concocted geometrical object you’d study in 300-level college math. Color me intrigued.

That I took a picture of this, and am showing you, really pigeonholes me personality wise, I think.

To add to the mystique, they even have boardwalk billboards with photoshopped personal doomsday scenarios re: concrete objects.

It's like, eerily close to being a B-movie poster.

Thankfully, with the help of Google Translate, the next billboard solves the mystery. It turns out these things are called tetrapods, and their purpose is to disperse waves. It makes sense—I’m imagining a wave trying to crash through them, but only small volumes of water can filter through each of the channels.

It reminded me of something odd I’d seen several months back. In Donostia, Basque Country (Spain), the waterfront had piles of what seemed to be precisely shaped rocks. It looked like someone had spent a ton of time making hundreds of blocks be a certain size, then dumped them all in the water. Could these be fulfilling the same function as tetrapods?

From Donostia, Spain.

The Local Hill

I see way more old people out and about in Europe and Asia than I do in the USA. At least, I think I do. It makes me scared of growing old in the USA. Being put in a big building accessible only by car. Leaving only once in a blue moon.

In Europe, they teem at decoration-less cafes. In Korea, they hang out in parks and on outdoor exercise equipment.04 Stoically and gruntingly and haltingly doing practiced movements. Some of them (the movements) seem well-considered. Some seem random, cooked up by the geezer’s imagination. Those are my favorite.

This one also had rock walking path that I think is supposed to improve blood flow, cure cancer, etc. I took off my shoes and walked the whole thing, back and forth. It was excruciating. Some old ladies said something to me after, and I did my usual tactic of say random loud words and laugh.05

Here's a good illustration of the challenges of using Google Translate for stuff in the wild. In the precautionary notes (bottom right), one sentence is translated as: "Do not use within 1 hour after eating, and use it in the afternoon when your feet are swollen." Now, as it reads, it pretty clearly tells you that you should use it in the afternoon. But if you're familiar with translation errors, it could easily be that this should have been translated as "...and do not use in the afternoon..." While mostly harmless here, this gets more entertaining if you're trying to read something like cleaning supplies or medicine.

Jeju mandarins

The local markets were ripe with their own varietal of mandarins. Juicy, sweet, a little floral fragrant. Imminently consumable.

We lucked out in that fall seems to be the perfect time to visit Jeju.

KFC, Baskin-Robbins, and Jeju Black Pork

This is the food segment of the post.

KFC = Korean Fried Chicken, of course.

Korean fried chicken will forever have a special place in my heart. But the most specialist place, an inner sanctum in my love for oil crunch bird, belongs to Jeju. Here I had the best Korean fried chicken of my few years.

We even went back. Going back to places is one of the greatest joys of slower travel. It's something you can't do otherwise without some serious guilt.

Here’s something random: Baskin-Robbins06 is huge in Korea. And it feels nice. I can’t remember the last time I went to one in the states, but I remember them being more I’m sorry you’re here than sleek corporate. Specialty flavors, cute stores, expensive tasting menus.

The star of the culinary show in Jeju is black pork. Jeju has a special breed of local pigs with black skin, whose flavor is supposed to be quite special. They have a whole street dedicated to the experience, restaurants all specializing in Jeju black pork.

I hate to say it, but… I could not tell the difference between this and all the normal pork I had at KBBQ in Seoul / Busan. I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s just me. (And Julie.)07

But there was a star of the show: Banchan Bot. He rolled around delivering the requisite million small plates to all the tables, receiving far less affection from the staff than I would have expected given his cheery demeanor and tireless bumbling efforts.

I remained grateful for, and sometimes embarrassed by, banchan. Like an embarassment of riches. I order one small dish, and end up with eight to ten accompaniments.

The only downside was, on the handful of occasions I really didn't want small piles of bean sprouts and bland meat and kimchi, I felt obliged to eat them anyway.

We spent a few nights hanging out at BEDURI SQUARE (배두리광장), chatting up Jae and Lloyd,08 proprietors and equal halves pizza nerd and beer nerd. Not only were they kind and generous—pouring tasters of freshly tapped beers and ciders on the house—but it’s just fun to be somewhere where you can tell the people are excited about what they do. It was surprising to find the best pizza and beer we’d have in Korea on Jeju Island, but I’ll take it.

Some good vibe touches, like endless projected video of just driving around California. In the last photo they're trying to explain to me how the regional dialect of Jeju differs from what you'd encounter in, e.g., Seoul. I'm pretty sure this is illustrating parts of letters that you can see on street signs in Jeju that don't appear in other dialects of Korean.

Seogwipo Coastal Walk

It’s a little hairy to be catching busses way across the island, but both of our day trips worked out well.

Seogwipo is the main “other city,” sitting past Hallasan mountain on Jeju’s southern coast.09 They have a nice walking path that meanders around the craggy perimeter.

Hiking Hallasan

Finally, got the rush of fall colors I’d been looking forward to.

Hiking here is funny in how over-the-top nice the infrastructure is, combined with how over-the-top prepared everyone is. Washington State, USA has a lot of hiking. But most trails have:

  1. Forest (dirt) road leading up to it
  2. Parking lot, maybe
  3. Composting toilet
  4. Some kind of sign that shows a map and says “watch out for bears lol”
  5. The trail is almost entirely dirt, with some sections that involve scrambling around tree roots and rocks
  6. People trail running it with just a water bottle
  7. At the top, people have packed a sandwich maybe

My experience of hiking in Korea was:

  1. Paved road with public bus service
  2. Convenience stores and visitor center
  3. Full running water bathrooms, even at the top
  4. Extensive guides and signs, even with stretching directions
  5. The trail was 100% a man-made wooden walkway. Even flat sections were an elevated boardwalk
  6. Everyone was decked head-to-toe in $1000s of Arc’teryx gear, plus hiking poles. For the wooden walkway.
  7. People at the top were eating elaborate multi-part meals, complete with hot food transported in vacuum-sealed containers10

I’m probably doing a bit of apples vs oranges here. Hallasan is the highest point in South Korea, and it’s a special mountain for them, so the infrastructure is going to be good. Probably a more apt comparison is Mount Rainier in WA, which is also heavily infrastructured.11

This will never not surprise me when it happens. Actually as I write this, just had one of these explode at high elevation police station in Taiwan. Fortunately, because it's not the USA, nobody came out and shot me.

On the hike down, I kept noticing this strange rail-looking thing running alongside the plank trail. Finally, the mystery solved itself when we came across a tiny train mounted on it. It’s a tiny person / gear transport! We passed some workers doing trailside pruning on the way down, who I think had used it.12 So cute. So delightful.

Here’s a lovely memory I have from this day—a mountain vignette, if you will. We waited a long time on the side of the highway for the bus back. At some point, a taxi pulled off the road. A door opens. A woman stumbles out, pukes all over the ground. Door shuts. Taxi drives off without woman.13

Tl;dr if this isn't a killer ad to come to Korea in the autumn, I don't know what is.

I Guess This is Just the Funny Sign Section Now, Isn’t It

(Sound on + unmute video to appreciate) American airport voice lady (where else is she? Chicago? NYC?) trying to pronounce Jeju.

But what? But what!? But good? But steady?

New, from McDonald's the McLiquid, a cheeseburger + shake delivered right to your bloodstream.

Hey, if a train can give you announcements in first person, why not a sign?

It hadn't even occurred to me this was something I ought to worry about. Everywhere's got their vices, I guess.

Bye Bye, Korea

There are a few places that have had the calm before the storm feeling to them. Prime travel destinations, but yet uncrowded by tourists. In those ranks, I’d count Basque Country, some pockets of the Balkans, and definitely Korea.

Footnotes


  1. Source: Wkp. ↩︎

  2. The only time I’ve had a bag temporarily lost is when I volunteered to take a later plane on an overbooked flight from Zurich to Oslo. I was heading to a dance camp in Sweden (long story), and my bag never made it down. But good on them, the next day they drove my bag from Stockholm all the way out to the tiny town hosting the lindy hop convention (Herräng) and plopped it with guest relations. ↩︎

  3. One other quirk: Korean flights were the only ones that found and removed the batteries in our suitcases. They’re not kidding around. ↩︎

  4. The outdoor exercise equipment is shockingly ubiquitous. ↩︎

  5. Nice thing about not being able to communicate is when in doubt I just assume every interaction went swimmingly. ↩︎

  6. TIL Baskin-Robbins is stylized with a hyphen in between the words. ↩︎

  7. Regarding the flavor of Jeju black pork, I need to quote Wikipedia in full (emphasis mine): Until the later twentieth century, these pigs were kept to dispose of human waste. They were housed in sites built below the outside latrines where their “food” was directly delivered. From the 1960s, this practice gave way to more conventional feeding. Some believe that the change has adversely affected the flavour of the meat. ↩︎

  8. If I got either of their names wrong, forgive me! It has been a while. ↩︎

  9. One thing I could never quite figure out: where is everybody? For being such a heavily traveled place, I couldn’t figure out where the hordes of Seoul vacationers were. There didn’t even seem to be any mega resorts in Jeju City. My best guess was a corollary of the you need a car on an island directive. If you start panning around on Google Maps, you’ll see hotels and resorts all over the island. So I guess people are just dispersed all over, rather than being concentrated in Jeju City? ↩︎

  10. OK but the hot food at the top is an amazing idea, I’m totally going to start doing that. ↩︎

  11. Still though, the ubiquitous hiking poles for a wooden walkway with railing really got me. ↩︎

  12. They all had sleeping bags up there. Whatever they’re being paid, it’s not enough. ↩︎

  13. This was just before the final stretch up to the trailhead. I don’t recall her being especially equipped for hiking. Where did she go? ↩︎