The island of Jeju, Korea’s southernmost territory, is a pretty interesting place. It gained a great deal of publicity a few months back when it became (provisionally) one of the ‘New 7Wonders of Nature’ in November 2011. The second in a continuing series (the ‘Seven Man-made Wonders’ were confirmed in 2007, and we have the ‘New Seven Wonders Cities’ to look forward to later this year), the official website for this harmless bagatelle amusingly states that the voting process will take “democracy to a new, global level.” I think the choice of Wonders in both categories so far selected tells us more about national pride (or lack of it) and the power of the telephone vote than anything else. There’s no doubt though that Jeju (or at least its amazing volcanic landforms) is an extraordinary place.
Jeju is just two hours away from Taiwan by plane, and with new budget air routes to Korea recently opening, together with some quite attractive package deals available, it’s a very attractive proposition for a short break, and a great one for anyone with the slightest interest in either natural beauty or geology.
With Spring Break this week (and a major lack of students to teach) I took advantage of one of those cheap-ish package deals to explore the island, staying (for, I think, the first time in my life) in a five-star hotel to boot! The trip hasn’t awoken me to the delights of luxury hotels – the Jeju’s Hyatt (at the Jungmen resort in the south of the island) looks marvellous and was quite nice but honestly the money would have been much better spent elsewhere, were the hotel room not included on a cheap deal. Jeju however, despite suffering to a degree from the development scourge that’s destroying so many wonderful places I’ve been, was well worth it – it’s a rather magical place.
It’s hard to put a finger on what’s so refreshing about Jeju. The outer rim of the island is heavily developed and much of it is hardly attractive these days, yet there’s a certain northern quality to the light, a freshness, that is highly appealing.
Many of the island’s tourist attractions sit firmly in either the ‘family friendly’ or ‘kitsch’ categories, and include an extraordinary glut of museums showcasing everything from shells to sex, and from teddy bears to tea. There’s also lots of cultural interest as well, with a few preserved (or rebuilt) settlements of traditional stone-walled, thatched-roof houses, and a truly amazing tradition: diving grandmothers or haenyeo: ladies in their 60s or 70s, who daily struggle into full wetsuits, don masks and snorkels and wade into the frigid sea in places such as Seongsan to dive (up to twenty meters!) for seafood and other treasures of the deep. These amazingly hardy old women are surely the island’s true wonders, apparently being able to hold their breath for up to two minutes.
I got a welcome glimpse of a haenyeo one freezing cold morning of the trip, but during my short stay, my focus was on the island’s renowned volcanic wonders, such as mind-boggling Manjanggul Lava Tube, the longest known lava tube in the world at 7 kilometers, and the awesome Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), a beautifully preserved volcanic crater peak on the island’s eastern tip. There are hoards of tourists to jostle with on the short (15 minute) trek to the top; if anything the Sunrise Peak is best seen from a distance, when its sheer-sided bulk, looming out of the ocean into the china-blue sky, is hard to forget. Better still, from an airplane. The circular crater jutting out of the blue ocean is a familiar tourist brochure image, and looks quite unreal.
Towering over everything on the island, both literally and figuratively though, is Hallasan, the 1950 meter-high extinct volcano which rises out of the center of the island, and the highest mountain in South Korea. By regional standards the peak is not especially high, and it’s a much easier climb than the other famous treks in the Asia/Pacific region such as Yushan, Fuji, Rinjani and Kinabalu, but Hallasan is obviously a source of enormous pride for the locals, and no wonder – it’s a wonderful place!
Hallasan can be climbed in one day, and there are a choice of five routes on the mountain, although only two actually reach the rim of the crater at the summit. The trails (including the summit routes) are also open year-round now as well, although you’d need crampons and sticks in winter. For our climb, we combined these two summit trails, ascending by the popular Seongpanak Trail, and descending by the much quieter Gwaneumsa Trail.
The trailhead of the 9.6 kilometer-long Seongpanak Trail, to the east of the mountain, was swarming with Koreans when we arrived about 9:30 on a cold but cloudless Sunday morning. The weather this first day in April (as it was for most of our short stay in Jeju) was magnificent – full sun, blue, cloudless sky, and with a refreshing chill in the air (temperatures drop below freezing at night on the mountain. There’s a small visitor center at the start, which sells welcome hot noodles and drinks, and a large car park, although we arrived by taxi – about 30,000 won (US$27) from Jungmun Resort.
The trail is gentle almost all the way up the mountain, and the ascent time of 4-5 hours usually given for the trail is very conservative. We did it in just under four hours, moving at a pretty leisurely pace with several breaks. A quick walker could easily climb to the summit from this direction in three. The trail is very lovely though, much of it through dense deciduous forest with low-growing, variegated bamboo carpeting the ground below. Signs in English at irregular intervals mark the distance travelled, and stones give the altitude at certain points on the route. Starting at around 800 meters above sea level, there’s a vertical ascent of 1,100 meters to climb, yet it’s a gradual ascent, and an amazingly painless one (by Taiwan standards, at least!). After crossing a little stream around the five kilometer point, the path starts climbing a little more stiffly, and the first patches of snow made the going more slippery on the steeper bits.
A trail on the left (apparently 40 minutes there-and-back) leads to a viewpoint above an Oreum (parasitic volcano) on the side of Hallasan, one of over 360 secondary cones that pepper the island, giving it a distinctive appearance. We continued straight on, however, as we had a time issue. It’s important to note that there’s a time restriction for those climbing to the summit. To be allowed to complete the climb to the crater, hikers have to reach Jindallaebat Shelter, the second (and last) shelter on the trail, by 12:30 pm (a little earlier in winter, a little later in summer – times are posted at the trailhead in English). It takes 2 hours or so (less if you’re quick) to get to this point from the trailhead, so a 9:30 start should allow plenty of time.
Jindallaebat is an important rest stop before the final, slightly steeper ascent to the cone, and sells hot noodles (at least on weekends; you have to bring the used paper bowl and chopsticks down with you afterwards, though) and drinks. More important, if hiking in spring, they sell simple crampons for 5,000 won (about US$5). Snow lies on the upper part of the trail probably until late April, and investing in crampons here (if you didn’t bring any with you) is probably the best money you’ll spend on the mountain, especially if planning on descending by the steeper Gwaneumsa Trail. By the way none of the shelters on Hallasan are designed for overnighting, which isn’t allowed. They’re simply intended as a temporary rest stop in harsh weather.
It’s a steady ascent now towards the cone, which is rather an anti-climactic sight from this side (Hallasan doesn’t show its best face from here), and a wooden boardwalk changing to a wide stairway of wooden sleepers climbs up the cinder slope, to reach the edge of the huge, shallow crater. The highest point of the mountain is actually atop the inaccessible cliffs opposite – but there’s little difference in height around the crater rim, and standing at the viewpoint on the rim certainly feels like standing on the roof of Korea!
Walk round the crater edge to the right and the Gwaneumsa Trail soon drops off the peak, through an enchanting forest of stunted Korean fir trees. Just a few minutes from the summit, the crowds of the Seongpanak Trail have dwindled to a steady trickle, yet the scenery immediately becomes far more interesting. As the trail descends (mostly on a raised wooden boardwalk, covered in thick, drifts of compacted snow as we pass – our crampons were absolutely essential here), the cliffs of the true peak of the mountain soon rear above as the volcano shows its much more impressive northern face.
It’s a fairly steep and rather icy descent through the forest of stunted conifers and dead, sun-bleached tree trunks to a large flat area (probably a helicopter landing pad) and a marvellous view back up through the broken wall of the crater to the peak above.
The boardwalk continues descending into a deep valley below, crosses a picturesque suspension bridge and makes the first of several disconcerting uphill stretches, climbing high onto the opposite side of the valley, with great views, to reach the Samgakbong Shelter, which has a final wonderful view past a shapely, pointed little peak to the summit, now high above.
This descent to Samgakbong has taken nearly two hours, yet we’ve covered barely two kilometers. After the hut, the trail dives into woodland, and it’s a long slog down to the Tamna Valley Shelter; the going is easier (the snow eventually ceases around the 1,000 meter mark), but it’s a fairly monotonous woodland walk. Immediately after the Tamna Valley Shelter, the trail dives into the picturesque wooded Tamna Valley itself, then climbs stiffly up the far side before meandering on through the woods, crossing several other small streams, each of which have carved small but impressive chasms through the volcanic rock. One of the streams disappears underground for 400 meters at a place called Guringul Cave, the last major landmark on the hike. Less than half an hour later, the trail emerges into the large car park beside another visitor center, at the northern foot of the volcano, where waiting taxis vied to give us a lift (15,000 won) into the island’s capital, Jeju city.
Although slightly shorter (8.7 kilomneters) Gwaneumsa Trail is steeper, involving an extra 300 meters of vertical climb, and is a lot more demanding than Seongpanek Trail, so it’s no surprise that it’s much less popular. On the other hand, it’s far more scenic, and would be a much more rewarding route to climb Hallasan, ascending the much more rugged northern face of the volcano, which is certainly the more impressive approach to the peak. Heading down took us over four tiring hours (with only very short rests), but that was mainly because even with crampons the going was a bit dicey in many places on the upper part of the descent. I suppose it would take about five to climb the volcano from this side in better conditions. I’d certainly recommend it over the more popular but scenically much less impressive route from the east along the Seongpanak Trail.
HIKING ELSEWHERE IN JEJU
Jeju island has a well-developed network of about 300 kilometers of trails called Olle (‘narrow paths’), mostly along the coastline, which makes for some lovely, undemanding walking. The stretches we followed are all very easy and quite developed (wide trails, often wooden boardwalks). Look out for trail marking ribbons much like those used in Taiwan. Tourist offices around the island have free maps with Olle routes marked on them, and there’s at least one website devoted to the network.