An island adventure on two wheels seemed like a fitting conclusion to what has been a rather remarkable year on the travel front and an excellent 41st birthday celebration.
As an ‘island gal’ I have a compulsion to visit other islands and Jeju seemed liked the perfect contrast to the sprawling modern cities of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya where I have spent the last two weeks. Pitched as the Hawaii of Asia and Korea’s number one honeymoon destination, the selling point for me were a couple of lines I read on the internet about it being a great cycling destination.
Thanks to the online newspaper the ‘Jeju Weekly’ and the assistance of the Korean librarians I spent the previous week with, I was able to organize accommodation in locally owned pensions. One of the ‘pensions’ promised to organize a bike that I could use for the four days. My adventure seemed to be coming together perfectly.
However upon arriving at the pension, the promised bike looked like it might have been dragged out of an ‘inorganic pile’. The tyres were flat, the gears only semi operational and the break handle twisted around at some obscure angle that had me puzzled. I dubbed her ‘trusty green rusty’ and headed off to find the local bike shop. Amazingly I did manage to find the bike shop – the pension owner had loosely indicated a direction on a Korean langaage map. The bike shop looked like the trash compactor out of Star Wars with bike bodies piled high in all directions. It seemed I had found ‘trusty green rusty’s’ ancestral midden! Sadly the door was locked and nobody was at home.
However just around the corner was a drycleaners with a collections of bikes standing in the front window. After an animated exchange (yes all those funny storytelling sounds and faces can have practical uses), the drycleaner wheeled my bike into a side room and pumped up the tyres. This was my first taste of the kindness and generosity of the Jeju people that I was to be repeatedly showered in over the next few days. A few more charades at a nearby garage and the brake handle was operational again – I headed off with the wind in my hair for a ride along the coast.
After a couple of hours of cycling I was feeling peckish and started to look for somewhere to eat. I passed by a rather rough looking restaurant, that consisited of a marquee ,a couple of tanks of live fish sitting outside and a chalkboard signed in Korean. Inside people sat around two tables talking and laughing loudly. I peered in tentively. A man came out, “ You like sashimi?” I gathered he must be the owner and I was getting a taste of direct marketing. After a series of failed communications I resigned myself to whatever fate had in store and the bill that went with it.
However it turned out I was the invited guest at a celebration of ‘Universe Day’. Exactly what ‘Universe Day’ might officially be about, could well remain a mystery to me for the rest of my life. Here’s what I experienced. Platefuls of delicious food and super fresh sashimi – local fish caught that day; Korean whiskey, the usual enquiries about my marital status, folk songs sung with gusto and incredible warmth from a group of people whom I couldn’t really ‘talk’ to. It seemed I couldn’t eat enough and if for a minute my mouth looked empty I was surrounded by hands pushing food into my mouth. At the conclusions of the meaI,any offer of money was refused and so instead I played a tune on my ‘travel recorder’ and partook happily in a round of photographs.
Universe Day…..seems to me everyone should celebrate it.
I arrived back to the Sunset Pension to more gifts of food -manderins, kimche (spicy picked cabbage) and fire roasted sweet potato freshly dug. I took these and added them to my small bag that I would take with me the next morning on the bike.
The plan was to rise at the crack of dawn and cycle to the eastern side of the island to a port town called Ojo-ri, where I would stay in another pension, the Sun Rising Pension. It was owned by a local poet and it’s claim to fame was that 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature had stayed there while making a documentary all about the island. Funnily enough the pension I was staying in was called ‘Sun Setting Pension’ located on the western side of the island, just out of the town of Hamlin. It stood marooned in a sea of cabbage fields, next to the local fire station. From my balcony I looked out towards the sea and a little island.It was really quite charming and at $40 a night with ocean views, my own bathroom, kitchen and spacious bedroom with flowery pink wall paper – I had nothing to complain about.
Nothing to complain about that is except the dogs - the owner had three – and they liked to sing at night. I didn’t complain but I didn’t get much sleep either. I woke on my birthday feeling pretty jaded. For the first time in three weeks I did not have to jump on a bus, in a taxi on an aeroplane or open my mouth to talk. I was still nursing the dregs of a cold I had picked up in Japan and to boot I twisted by ankle as I jumped up off my yoga mat. Was the universe trying to tell me stay in bed?
After my birthday breakfast – one green tea cup cake found the evening before at a tiny little coffee and cake shop called ‘Leelee Story’, a bottle of alovera juice served in my Kyoto compensation cup (I didn’t make it to my favourite Japanese city on this trip but bought a ceramic mug as 2nd prize), kimchi, an apple and eight delicious macha chocolates – I climbed onto ‘trusty green rusty’ and headed off.
I should add at this point, the only really useful map I had was in Korean and I really had no idea how far I was going to have to pedal. The island is 74km west to east and 49km north to south – as the crow flies. There is however in the centre of it a very large volcano – Mt Hallasan and the island is dotted with some fifty plus oreums – a bit like Auckland’s volcanic cones. There is no such thing as a straight road on Jeju and wanting to avoid the main routes I set out on what proved to be a very convoluted route that was all up hill!
Does any of this sound to you like a birthday treat? If I was sane I would have gone back to bed. But I am mad, determined and dressed to pedal. My cycle frock was an extravagant ‘Anna Stretton’ ritual birthday purchase. Frilly dress, stripey socks, red clogs and flowers in my hair I was ready!
My jadedness lifted a little when I saw a large sign pointing in the direction I was going saying ‘Greek Mythology Museum’. Now I have to add here that Jeju is a strange collection of things. Yes it was recently awarded the title of ‘one of the seven new natural wonders of the world’ and there are places on the island that are very beautiful. But there are places that look like the Costa del sol and Surfers paradise – so you have to be careful about where you look and what’s more it appears that anyone who ever had an obscure interest in anything has come here and opened a museum. There’s the Teddy Bear Museum, the Chocolate Museum, the Da Vinci Museum, the Sex Museum, the Bike Museum – honestly the list is almost endless. I did not make it to any museums – though I would have quite liked a reading from the Delphi oracle for my b’day but when I did at last find the said museum – it was still under construction and all I managed to do was to get a photos of me with my Sagitarriun side kick, the cenetaur.
Back roads are really the way to go – one you avoid tourists, two you avoid traffic and thirdly you see real things – like cabbage fields, radish fields, manderin orchids and perfectly symmetrical green burial mounds that mimic the oreums.Einstein said he got his best ideas while riding his bike. I was seized by the thought “ I’m going to bury my parents in my back yard when the time comes!” Followed by a series of entertaining thoughts about where this decision might lead – I’m not sure if that I idea constitutes as one of my best but it’s certainly interesting observing your internal train of thought. Anyway ,when did we get sold on the idea of putting dead people together in one, huge public place?
After a couple of hours at a speed I can only call puddling, I was confronted by a main road – it was very busy road with several noisy lanes of traffic. However there did seem to be (according to my map) an ‘option two’ which more of less headed straight across the base of the mountain. I hadn’t seen the legendary Mt Hallasan at this stage – the mythic creator of Jeju, Grandmother Seolmundae apparently veils the mountain when people are too noisy. That main road I just refered to would in my mind constitute a permanemt cloud curtain on the noise front. the truth is had I seen Mt Halla, I would have dropped ‘option two’ instantly, as fool hardy, swallowed humble pie and hit that abnoxious main road…but I hadn’t so I didn’t.
Things to ponder while you pedal – public cemetries and gold courses. Are they in anyway related? Option two seemed to flanked by golf courses, very expensive looking ones that came with country clubs that just seemed to ooze exclusivity. Give me a cabbage field any day. They are, to their credit, quite quiet. The only sounds being the occasional hum of a golf cart and the thwack of clubs contacting balls. That and me panting. I have always held to the belief that there is no shame in getting off and pushing your bike. I got off a lot that day – it was by birthday concession and necessitated to some degree by the increasing tendancy for the brake pads to lock on the back wheel. Eventually I resorted to disconnecting the back breaks, which left me with the prospect of vaulting over the handle bars should I suddenly need to stop.
Much to my disgust my road petered out at a particularly large osentasious country club. After much pointing at the map and crossing of arms, the general consensus was that I would have to turn around, back track and take the main road I had developed an aversion to. There is nothing a determined dog – year, Sagittarian likes to hear less than the words ‘back track’. I was pissed off. Though quite a few of the pissed off bits flew away as a I free wheeled back down the mountain – I’m sure part of the lure of cycling is the pure pleasure of flying down hills.
The main road proved to be flat and had a cycling lane and a fascinating sign started to appear with some regaularity, directing people to the ‘Mysterious Road’. I was intrigued. Was this put up as a carrot for weary cyclists? I later discovered in a guide book, that the ‘Mysterious Road’ is a road that despite its incline, cars roll up the hill instead of down. How I longed for some gravity defying forces to come my way. I was aware that it was getting late and I still had a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps I had cycled 40 -50km but I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to my destination. Exhausted and knowing that it would promptly get dark at around 5pm, I started to think of a plan ‘B”. All day I had been passed by light trucks, sporting the brand ‘Kia Motors’. Some of them would slow right down to have a good stare at the strange looking foreigner, others wave and shout what sounded like worlds of encouragment. Many of them had empty trays. I decided to try and wave one down. Hitching hiking with a bike – how hard can it be?
It just so happened that I decided to try out my thumb outside a military training camp – I didn’t know this at the time as the camp was obscured by trees. But at regular intervals, men in bright red shirts would jog by and give me a friendly wave, throwing in some English greetings for good measure. I would smile and wave back. After a while I noticed that they were the same men jogging round and around and like wise they must have noticed that I was going no where fast. They came over and very politely enquired if I was OK. I explained I was trying to get to Ojo-ri, that the brakes on my bike were playing up and I had no lights. An older third man in black joined the younger Adonis like men in red and he had a phone. After a phone call and much discussion, one of the men in red announced that they were ‘military men from the Republic of Korea army’ He was a Captain and his friend a 2nd lutenient and that I had been invited by their commander to join them for dinner after which I would be taken (with bike) to Ojo-Ri.
And that was how I was rescued my the Korean military and spent my 41st birthday dining in a mess hall. Quite a story, really. I was so overwhelmed by their kindness. (they bundled me off with a bag of fruit for my travels) that I forgot to take any photos and it was only later when accompanied by the captain to the ‘Sun Rising’ pension that I thought to grab a snap shot of this exceptional young man.
Mr Kang, the poet (the pension’s owner) I think was rather impressed by my military escort , a large bus containing me, the bike and the Captain.
So there ends my day, nearly – Mr Kang knocked on my penison door as I was about to climb into bed with a book of poetry for me as a gift – thus ended one of the most unusual birthdays I have ever had.
My 42nd year began with a bike ride with a poet but that’s another story.