Seongsan Ilchulbong: Sunrise Peak

Being away from home can be hard, but when you have an amazing boyfriend who comes to visit and go adventuring with you, it makes the separation a whole lot easier. In February, Mike came to visit for a too-short, 11 day adventure. One of the adventures we went on included a cab, bus, and plane hop over to Jeju Island, just off the coast of Korea. Even at the end of February, the island was almost tropical by my Canadian standards. And even though the weather posed some wardrobe problems (where the heck was I going to ditch my newly bought, wool pea coat?!), it also offered plenty of opportunities to ditch the cabs and walk everywhere. Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement: it should read ditch the cabs and walk and bus everywhere, since walking around the 240km coastal path of the island would have been next to impossible.

All weather-talk aside, our few days in Jeju were amazing, but there’s one day in particular that stands out: our last day, when we hiked up Seongsan Ilchulbong with the rising of the sun.

Sun peaking over the volcano's edge

Sun peaking over the volcano’s edge

Thinking to make the most of our last day in Jeju, Mike and I forced ourselves into an early wakeup, and grabbed the first bus to Ilchulbong. While we didn’t quite make it to see the sun rise from the peak, we did make it in time to sip coffee in the quiet glow of a sun slowly starting to peak out from behind the dormant volcano. As poetic and beautiful as that may sound though, and which it was, the coffee served the added purpose of turning this definitely-not-an-early-morning person, usually a firm green-tea drinker, temporary Oscar the grouch into a more normal person who was only slightly tempted to grumble about the overladen pack on her back, and who made the relatively short walk up to the crater with a smile that masked those internal grumbles very well.


Carrying logs up the volcano for early morning work

Carrying logs up the volcano for early morning work

All grumpous wumpous jokes aside, the minute I turned and looked down at the view, any minute feelings ofdiscomfort from the heat and heavy bag went right out the window and into the vast expanse of the East China Sea that lay sparkling before me. Not to mention the myriad of muted colours that showed more clearly as the fog lifted with the sun. By the time we got to the old volcanic crater, we were hot, sweaty, a little tired, and very, very happy. It also may have helped that as soon as I set down my “heavy” bag, I turned to see 3 young men, and one not so young man, cresting the peak…all carrying huge logs that they were using to rebuild the lookout. When I saw them with their back harnesses and heavy lumber, I definitely had a “dear god Kat, stop whining” moment. And that was before I saw the last guy, who had obviously drawn the short straw. No back harness in sight to help, this not-even-breaking-a-sweat guy was beasting two logs on his shoulders, with no support to stop them from overbalancing him and sending him all the way back down to the bottom. Impressive doesn’t even begin to cut it, and the fact that he made the trip with barely a rosy grin was jaw dropping……and certainly should have made me rethink the shaved-ice dessert I bought a few days later. And consumed in its entirety; but what the hell!

Needless to say, the climb up Seongsan Ilchulbong was great for a number of reasons, but most of all for the unexpected moments of incredulity that always seem to sneak up on me in this country. We may think that some of the things that happen in Korea are topsy turvy and defy certain logic, but there’s no denying that the people here work harder, drink more, and ultimately live longer than most Westerners. There’s gotta be something to it!

Too busy taking pictures to ride

Too busy taking pictures to ride

After Mike and I spent some time at the top, we made the much easier climb down to where some local farmers were tending the fields around the base of the peak, and kids were attempting to scramble (ok, cling awkwardly, and be pushed by many hands) onto some ponies grazing in the same area. You know that old joke, “How many {whatever’s} does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Well here, it was more like “How many people does it take to get two kids on a pony?” In this case, about 6 adults and 2 siblings to whip out all of their iphones and take pictures, and one horse owner trying to calm down 2 very unimpressed children. Isn’t it great how we’ve started to focus more on capturing the moment instead of enjoying it? *small sigh and apology for the slightly biting sarcasm* Hey, at least the family put on a show for us; I can say I was definitely more amused than the kids, owner and, from the looks of it, the horse.

Women's dive centre at the base of the volcano

Women’s dive centre at the base of the volcano

Since we had a few hours to kill before we had to leave for the airport, Mike and I decided to walk around the base of the peak and see what we could find. What we found was a tiny bit of paradise (at least for me). If you follow another set of stairs down the peak, you’ll find yourself in a small cove nestled into the side of the volcano, and it’s brimming with volcanic stone, a black sand beach, and a decades-old female dive centre and restaurant. The coolest part about this dive centre was that the women who ran the place were still the original cast and crew, that’s to say they were 65/70+ year old bad asses who completely reverse typical Korean gender roles with their diving mastery that’s been handed down for generations. More about them in a different post; they were too cool not to give them their proper due.

Divers slicing up some fresh seaslugs

Divers slicing up some fresh seaslugs

Taking in this incredible dive centre, wandering tourists can catch a dive show (in which the ajumas don their gear and dive for all sorts of fresh and tasty seafood); or, if you don’t happen upon this place at the right time for the show, you can still order some fresh seafood. The best part about it is you get to pick the wriggling creature you want right out of the tank that’s being fed with seawater, and then the women squatting behind the low tanks will grab your creature in question, plunk it down on a cutting board and slice and dice until you have a tasty snack that was still alive when they started slicing and dicing.

*I’m aware I sound facetious, and maybe those of a slightly more delicate stomach don’t like the sound of this, but it was actually really cool in a “I’m human and am at the top of the food chain” kind of way*

Mike chose one of these bad boys to noms

Mike chose one of these bad boys to noms

Needless to say, Mike with his ever-hollow stomach just needed to try a sea slug, so we paid the 5 000 won and were treated to our very own slice and dice show. If you’re lucky enough, you can squeeze onto one of the picnic benches that looks out onto the cove and sea…but if it’s too busy (as it usually is), you can still find a spot to sit Korean style (on the floor) inside, and look out the windows to one of the best views I’ve ever had during a meal: watching the morning light play on the lush green of a dormant volcano, with waves slowly eroding it’s magnitude from the bottom up. Mike would of course love for me to mention the fact that I, who am usually quite adventurous, was a little hesitant to sample the “it was just wiggling” slug until he speared a piece with his chopstick and held it out for me to taste.

*insert a little thank you to him here for making me try it, because it completely rounded out the experience of our time at the dive centre, and was actually a little moreish*

Catching some rays and waves...and a great view of Sunrise Peak!

Catching some rays and waves…and a great view of Sunrise Peak!

As if this weren’t enough, the dive centre also boasted two speed boats that, for 10 000 won a person, you could board to take a joy ride around the volcano and see it in all its glory from the water. And yes, we absolutely did that too. There’s nothing quite like being cozied up with a bunch of giggling Chinese women who were also there to take in the sights, and have them smile at your boyfriend because he is “sooo handsome!” instead of looking at the volcano they paid to see . *maybe I preened a little, maybe*

As we left Seongsan Ilchulbong to head to the airport and home, I couldn’t help but remember the advice my parents gave me when I was younger: take chances, have fun and don’t be afraid to get dirty. While this sounds remarkably Ms. Frizzle-like, it’s also remarkably true. When you’re in a new place and your facial muscles are squinching in a “mm not for me” kind of way, smooth them out and eat the sea slug anyway. Chances are the new experience (or food) will be delicious, and even if it’s not, you’ll have one hell of a story for the dinner table.


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