A Whirlwhind Weekend in Jeju

Last weekend we were lucky enough to go on a weekend trip to Jeju island with our co-worker Youri’s hiking group. You might remember the group from our day trip to Sinsido back in March. We said at the time that it was our favorite day ever since arriving in Korea and so we knew going into this trip that we were going to have an amazing time surrounded by warm and friendly people. There were a few things making me nervous though as we pretty much didn’t know anything in advance such as where exactly we were staying, how we were getting there, how difficult the hike would be, or anything really…

Youri had invited us along almost 3 months ago so we had been looking forward to the weekend for a long time and had already paid our KRW150,000 each (£105). With everything accounted for in this price including all food, drinks, transport and two nights accomodation it was an insainly good deal as we’ve heard Jeju is usually very pricy. I take my hat off to Youri and her husband for organising everything for over 40 people at such a great price, I can’t even imagine how difficult that must have been!

We started the weekend by meeting up at a park in Sangmu at about 9.45pm on the Friday and were greeted by huge smiles from Youri and her husband as well as tons and tons of boxes which they explained were full of snacks and beer for the trip. By 10pm everybody had arrived and we all boarded our coach (disco bus – check out those lights!) and set off for Mokpo. It took just under an hour to get there and we passed the time listening to music and to speeches given by various members of the hiking group… all in Korean so we were pretty clueless but we made sure to try and clap/cheer at the right points!

At the Mokpo ferry terminal we were each given a bag of snacks and our tickets for the overnight ferry and I noticed mine and Jod’s both said “room 303” on. I thought that was strange as Youri had said we would be split into men and women in the accomodation and I was expecting dormitary style rooms with bunkbeds for some reason. We boarded the ship which was kind of like a small, old-style cruise ship with a restaurant, shop, arcade, karaoke room, bakery and all sorts of other things to see.

Following the rest of the group along one of the corridors we were surprised to see everyone take off their shoes and then pile on in through a huge opening covered with a curtain into a big room with no furniture, but lockers along one wall. It turns out tonight we would be sleeping all together in here, full clothed just curled up on the floor! This was so much fun for us as we had never done anything like this before and I was really excited for a new experience (heads up – this trip was full of them!), although a bit worried about how tired we would both be tomorrow for the hike…

We dumped our bags and heard an announcement saying that the ship was about to depart – it was around 12.30am. Some of our group bedded down right away and others headed up to the top deck for some food and drinks. We followed them up and enjoyed delicious fried chicken (Korean fried chicken is seriously the best, it’s ALWAYS crispy) and an ice cold beer. Being Korea in June it was still warm outside even at that time of night and with the ocean breeze, and it was lovely to get into the holiday spirit. I was pretty tired by this point as I’d been up since 5am and we’d been at work all day so Jod nipped back to the room with me and helped me set up a makeshift bed out of my backpack and jacket, and then went back upstairs to carry on the party. I popped my headphones in and was surprisingly out like a light. The room was pretty dark even with the curtain rather than a full door, and I didn’t hear people coming in and out throughout the night. It definitely helps that Korea is so ridiculously safe so I didn’t feel worried at all about having all of our stuff out in the open, like I might have done if we were somewhere else.

At 5am the lights in the room were turned on which woke me up and I stumbled to the bathroom to wash my face, brush my teeth and change into my hiking stuff. It was crazy busy in there but I managed to freshen myself up and was feeling quite human and pretty excited when I got back to the room. I can’t say the same for Jod though, he required a bit more persuasian before waking up and getting ready!

I hadn’t felt the ship moving at all the whole time we were aboard which was a relief as I definitely didn’t want to start the weekend with motion sickness! I suffered from it really badly when we rode a coach to Busan the month before so I had taken the precaution of taking some travel sickness medicine the night before and it worked a treat. If anyone in Korea is considering going to Jeju for the weekend I really can’t recommend the ferry enough. Prices are so cheap compared to flying, you save on the cost of a nights accomodation and you can even get a private room if that’s more your thing – a basic twin is KRW131,000/£90 between two of you, not bad at all.

By about 5.45 we were off the ship and on our way to our first stop – breakfast. We piled into a traditional Korean restaurant just after 6am, pretty much filling the place just with our group. We were greeted with baskets of lettuce, smoked fish, black pork skewers and various banchan like dried fish, different types of kimchi, egg-battered tofu and more. We also had rice, soup and grilled fish which I found really difficult to get the bones out of with my chopsticks in what would become a recurring trope of the weekend. There was SO MUCH food which we struggled with a bit, not being used to eating a meal like that so early in the day, but we did our best as it was definitely needed to fuel what would come next.

We drove towards our main destination for the day – Hallasan National Park. The focal point of the park is Mount Halla – a shield volcano and the tallest mountain in South Korea at 1,950m (twice the size of Scafell Pike). As we got closer the mountain really loomed large on the landscape and looked very impressive indeed. We checked the weather forecast on our phones and were relieved to see that the temperature would only reach around 24 degrees rather than the 30 we had been expecting. We arrived at the coach park, put our lunch in our backpacks, had a last-minute dash to the loo, snapped some photos with the group and then we were off at about 7.50am.

I was really pleased that the steepest and most difficult  part of the hike was first and was through a forest. That meant lots of shade and lots of beautiful birdsong to keep us distracted, and the comforting thought that once this part was done, the rest would be easy! With so many people in the group we all headed up at different speeds. Jod and I ended up reasonably near the front of the pack and settled into our own pace. It turns out Jod’s pace was quite a bit quicker than mine though as after the first twenty minutes or so I lost sight of him and I also couldn’t see anybody behind me. That meant the climb was really peaceful and I didn’t have to worry about anybody hearing my huffing and puffing, that is until a literal mini-train of people zoomed up past me through the forest, why did nobody tell me there was a ride to the top?!

We were again really impressed with how mantained the trail was, there were lots of handrails for the really steep parts and 99% of the first hour was up stone or wooden steps. While that was good for getting in a rhythm, just imagine climbing up a really steep staircase for an hour…. ouch. I was beginning to understand why Korean people wear their head-to-toe long sleeved hiking outfits made from technical fabrics. I had splashed out on a pair of hiking pants for the trip (even accidentally haggling the price down by 50% due to a communication error) and they were so comfortable and cool. My top half was a different story, however. I was wearing a regular vest top with a hooded jacket over the top. I didn’t take the jacket off for the whole hike as I didn’t want to get sunburnt or bitten which meant the back of my vest top ended up wringing wet through. I was SO sweaty and gross! Still beats the sunburn Jod got just wearing a teeshirt though…

We met up at the point where the trail changed from red to orange on the map and enjoyed a drink from a cold mountain spring – bliss! The next hour or so felt amazing after the first part, like a walk in the park. We were out of the forest now and  it really didn’t feel as if we were so high up. We mostly walked together except for one part where Jod raced on ahead and two old Korean men each took me by the hand and shouted after him “Hey you! Don’t forget your wife!” and scolded him for leaving me – hilarious! They were so cute and were asking us all about where we were from and what we thought about Korea and did we like kimchi…ha!

At about 10am we reached a mega impressive rest stop with bathrooms, sleeping rooms, tons of benches and places to sit. We found the other few members of our group who had already arrived and sat down to chill with some drinks. Of course in Korea you can’t drink without anju (snacks) so a couple of the guys whipped out their pen knives and chopped up a few whole cucumbers for us to share, which I just thought was the funniest thing. We waited in the sun for the rest of our group and just after 11am everyone had arrived. We opened our lunches which were doshirak boxes with hotdogs, kimchi, dumplings, vegetable pancakes, cherry tomatoes and other bits and bobs along with boxes of rice. We ate up and then just carried on relaxing, chatting and enjoying the atmosphere – Koreans sure know how to hike. Jod even had a nap for about half an hour although I did have to keep waking him up to put more suncream on!

Finally at about 12.20 we started our descent, down the other side of the mountain. It was so beautiful and the views of the valleys beneath us filled with clouds and lush, green vegetation reminded me of something from the land before time or jurassic park – my photos really don’t do it any justice at all. I remember thinking I was really glad we didn’t come up this way as although quicker it was steep steps right from the top almost all the way down and the people we passed coming up in the midday sun looked like they were having a bloody hard time of it!

The very last km or so was back though the forest and as we crossed little babbling brooks, saw the sun streaming through the trees and even found a cute little cat lying lazily next to a tin of tuna I was saying to Jod how happy I was and what a great time I was having being outside and seeing all this beautiful nature. Literally about 5 seconds later I was distracted as I was taking a step and went right over on my ankle. The pain was instant, shooting through me and I was sobbing on the floor before I even really knew what had happened. I’ve gone over on my ankle loads of times as I have zero balance (evidence: still can’t ride a bike at the age of 26) and was even congratulating myself in my head earlier that day on how well I was doing to negotiate all the steps so well without incident. Not so.

Straight away a really kind Korean man ran up from behind us, crouched on the floor with me, rolled my sock down and started liberally spraying my ankle with some kind of ice spray. At the same time, his wife was gesturing to Jod to help me sit on the edge of the step so that my trousers wouldn’t get dirty, Korean people really are the sweetest. I could tell it was a bad sprain and I was feeling so pathetic and crap for ruining things and really trying to stop ugly-crying before anyone in our group came across us. We waved the Korean couple on their way and they were nice enough to leave the can of ice spray with us which I thought was so lovely. After a couple of minutes Jod helped me up and I hobbled the last half km to the carpark leaning on him. It was absolute agony to put weight on my left foot and it had already started to swell and bruise.

We waited to meet the rest of our party in the carpark and in that time I managed to pull myself together and stop crying. It had started to feel a bit numb by this point and I was just trying to think really positively and not let it ruin the rest of the trip. I’m writing this a week later and while the swelling has mostly gone down, there are big purple and yellow bruises on both sides of my foot and it’s still pretty sore! I didn’t really rest it for days afterwards so that’s probably why, but at least it wasn’t broken.

Once everyone was back on the coach, our next port of call was a small beach front with a stall selling fresh seafood. Youri said that the famous Jeju female divers dove around here which was very exciting!

Some of our group headed into a tent to enjoy some of the seafood. We tried some special soju that’s made in Jeju and shared some plates with all kinds of…things. Haha I have no idea what anything was except for the octopus which I really enjoyed. Whatever the orange thing was nice too although I definitely wasn’t a fan of the seaweed, it tasted to me like when you’re swimming in the sea and accidentally open your mouth. Jod and I would never have been brave enough to order anything like this if we were on our own and the chance to try stuff so fresh out of the ocean was brilliant.

I just remembered too, we were sitting in the tent at picnic tables and at one point everyone on one side stood up and the table nearly capsized! I really thought I was going to end up on the floor again.

After the seafood we were treated to some iced coffees by a nice chap from the hiking group (much appreciated in the heat) and then were back on the bus to head to our hotel. We stayed at the Raja Tourist Hotel and were split into groups of four for our room allocation. Youri, two other ladies and I went up in the elevator to our room and I don’t know why after the ferry but I was really surprised that there were no beds! There was a regular bathroom, dressing table, mini bar fridge, TV, wardrobe, etc, but no beds. I thought originally that these rooms were cheaper because the hotel doesn’t have to wash any bedding or anything but it turns out there were matress pads, duvets and pillows in the wardrobed for us to make our own little floor-beds, so I’ve got no idea. Either way it was another fun first for us!

We had showers, got changed, watched some TV (all in Korean, obviously, so I haven’t the foggiest what was going on) and then all met up back downstairs. It was a ten minute bus journey to our destination for dinner, and we were greeted by tons and tons of seafood when we entered the restaurant, unsurprsing really as we were on an island!

We enjoyed a delicious, spicy seafood stew packed with beansprouts and other veggies, huge prawns, scallops, clams, crap, abalone and probably more. It was all so delicious and probably our favorite thing that we ate all weekend. Once we had eaten most of the seafood we added noodles to make a kind of spicy, seafood ramen – lush. Alongside this we had banchan, smoked fish (so delicious) and a huge tray of hweh (thinly sliced raw fish – mackeral and something else) which I was obsessed with. I feel like I ate most of it by myself and then I felt bad but it was so good dipped into some wasabi/soy sauce. Again this meal was something we would never order ourselves and it was so helpful to have people show us how to properly eat all the shellfish with chopsticks. There was also a lot of beer and soju consumed and so many toasts!

After dinner Jod and I went for a walk/limp around the area near the hotel and then pretty much just crashed for the night. I was SO tired and again slept like a log, waking at about 6am.

I may have slept really well on the floor, but I don’t think it was so good for my foot as when I woke up it was so swollen and I couldn’t put any weight on it again. I perked up after some painkillers and by the time we went down to breakfast at 7am I was able to walk again, thank goodness. Breakfast was traditional Korean food and I had a small bowl of garlicky cabbage soup along with a plate of rice, kimchi, japchae (glass noodles) and a fried egg. Jod managed a bowl of soup and a cup of strong coffee – he didn’t sleep as well as me!

Our first stop for the day was a lookout point where we could pretty much see the whole island including planes taking off and landing. Jeju is really pretty and it was great to see it from this vantage point, even if walking up to it was quite painful on my rotten foot.

Next we went to look at a volacanic rock formation that looked like a dragons head, although to be honest we spent most of the time watching planes again. They looked so close in real life! Jod bought some sunglasses from a gift shop too so he was very happy, and we bought a magnet for our fridge at home. There were tons of different boxes of orange chocolate for sale everywhere (Jeju is famous for it’s oranges) but we managed to resist thinking they would probably melt on the way home anyway.

The next place we visited was a fish market back in Jeju city. I have to be honest and say by this point in the trip we were kind of fished out and fancied a break so instead of spending the 1.5 hours allocated walking around the market, we just did a quick dash around, tried a sample of orange flavoured rice cake (actually very yummy) and then found a Starbucks to enjoy their free wifi and air conditioning. I at least tried a hallabong juice which is a special kind of mandarin grown on Jeju, and Jod had an iced latte. We definitely felt refreshed and restored after that and met up with the rest of our group right on time, after a quick pitstop to a chemist to pick up some more painkillers.

This being one of our last coach rides we were treated to more speeches, clapping and cheering. The atmosphere the whole weekend was just amazing and so much fun, everyone was really in the party spirit and it was completely infectious.

Our very last Jeju activity was lunch at another traditional restaurant. I didn’t manage to get any pictures of this meal as I was actually really hungry and couldn’t wait to dive in, but it was delicious. We had mackerel simmered in a spicy sauce (which, again, I absolutely butchered with my chopsticks) with rice and banchan, including my all-time favorite banchan dish, sesame beansprouts. I managed to snap a photo of Jod after lunch looking very cool in his new sunglasses.

After lunch it was straight to the ferry terminal where for some reason this time Jod and I were able to completely bypass the queue and go through a special “foreigner” ticket check and walk straight onto the ship, woop! That meant we were the first in our room (303 again) and could put all our stuff down and get comfy. Everyone else arrived a little while later and the ferry departed at about 1.30pm.

Immediately everyone started to crack open the beers and hand around plates of oranges, cherry tomatoes and peanuts for anju. At one point Jod was called over to a group on the other side of the room (bro time) but I was advised not to go with him for fear of a lady drinking too much (!) so I chilled out with an audio book and after a while went out to explore the ship. The upper decks were really peaceful and the views were just amazing with clear, blue skies as far as the eye could see.

As I was sat outside listening happily to my book, Jod suddenly appeared out of nowhere which was a lovely surprise. We took some photos and then met up with some other members of the hiking party in a little seating area.

20180603_160913We were chatting to a guy who had been a navigator and had visited London a few times. His English was fantastic and he was so lovely telling us all sorts of stories and asking us about our lives. We met and chatted to so many wonderful people this weekend and it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. At one point he fetched us some Shin Ramen and seemed really surprised that I didn’t find it too spicy – he kept waiting for me to cough and splutter, haha!

20180603_161701As we sailed through the Shinan Islands back towards Mokpo, he told us there were 1004 islands and all about their history, as well as telling us the best points to take photos.

We finally headed back to the room to collect our things, and disembarked at around 6pm along with a big crate of Jeju mandarins each. After that it was just an hours bus ride back to Sangmu in Gwangju, then a quick taxi ride and we were back at our little apartment in Pungam. We had the most wonderful weekend with so much packed in and made tons of amazing memories. We’re so greatful to Youri for inviting us along and to everyone in the group for once again making us feel so welcome. Even so, I was still pleased to get back to our little home, and our comfy bed 🙂

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