Sitting on a Red Rock

Trip Start Mar 02, 2004
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Trip End Apr 02, 2005


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Jeolla,
Wednesday, September 29, 2004

It's off-season on Hongdo, the Western-most populated island in South Korea. Some 1100 kilometres beyond the Yellow Sea lies mainland China, but here one might as well be on the far side of the moon, if it weren't for tourists strolling the beach while gabbing on their cell phones.

It's hard to imagine that this rough and stunning scrap of rock was settled in 1679, and harder still to guess what potential anyone saw in the place, centuries before the fast ferry service would make it easily accessible. But then, Koreans are a tenacious people and some 500 people still call the island home.

The island is shaped like a figure-8, and only small areas in the middle and to the north are inhabitable, while the rest of the island--the majority of which is a protected nature reserve--rises high and craggy above the sea.

Hongdo means Red Island, and under a green carpet of trees and grass, the rock juts out in red and pink and gray columns in all directions. The wind drives cool and damp from China, and the sky promises rain but hardly delivers. Surely the weather is not always so favourable.

It was from this part of the country that the great Korean admiral Yi Sun-shin repelled a Japanese invasion force in 1597. On the mainland he is celebrated in maritime museums and with a shrine on the tiny island he used as a base for his fleet.

But on a peaceful afternoon in early autumn, the western islands are the destination of choice for more ambitious domestic tourists. To a landlubber, life out here appears a hard-scrabble existence, though the fishermen must make a decent living, their goods commanding astronomical prices on land and at sea.

On a cruise round Hongdo our tour boat tethers up to a trawler in open water and offers up fish at it's freshest. The guide and an assistant clamber aboard the fishing boat to help with the process.

In a swift and profitable operation, one fisher butchers and guts, one fillets, while another cuts the fillets down to bite size and the guide, a fast-talking salesman with a mean-looking facial skin disease, proffers the fish at $35 a plate. The bigger fish fight the hardest, their headless gutted bodies still flailing on the fillet board.

Returning to our tour, the guide barks incessantly into a load-speaker, pointing out caves, a rock formation in the shape of a penis, another roughly the appearance of the opposite sex. In the murky blue water meaty jellyfish the size of umbrellas wash by.

At other points, I receive rough translations of the guide's yammering from Yee-ha, a comp-sci student from Incheon, in town to visit his family during Chusok. I meet him on the ferry from Mokpo, and am impressed by his English, influenced as it is by a seven-month stint in New Zealand. "My name is Yee-ha," he says cheerfully. "Like the cowboys shout."

On Hongdo his father invites my travel companion, Connie, and me to lunch with the family. Over kimbap--Korean sushi--and searingly spicy fish stew, Yee-ha's uncle produces a small bottle of soju, and laughs appreciatively as I toss back a shot of the fiery liquor. It's not so bad if you let your palette absorb it, the slightly sweet finish helping to calm the senses.

On the boat cruise, I return the favour, and uncle and I break through the language barrier. Liquor knows no language, and appreciating someone's national sauce speaks clearly.

At sea, the heavy cloud cover breaks at intervals, and sunshine blasts down on rock and water. On the western side of the island, at sunset the light pokes through the clouds in the distance, over a tower of rock now haloed in an orange glow.

At the end of the pier, big black and white-striped mosquitoes fight the wind for purchase, not like the small silent pests of the city. Here, Seoul seems a million miles away, the air is clean, sea-sweet and pungent. I should stop writing and get up. My beer is empty, my bladder full, and it's about time to negotiate dinner on an island where almost no one speaks English. But the sunset keeps me seated.

A small group of Korean mainlanders sitting near me, drinking and chattering pleasantly, break into cheers, and looking up from my papers, I see the halo of light over the rock explode into an aurora of pink and orange and red. It's the most beautiful thing I've seen in six months in Korea.

I had no camera, no pictures to show even a pale glimpse of it. Just an overwhelming feeling of awe that lingered while the light retreated, as quickly as it appeared, leaving pink-hemmed clouds and a dark mass of rock and rippling water.

David,

Hongdo and Seoul,
September 26 and October 11, 2004

Postscript: I travelled to Hongdo, and Jeollanam Province, with my friend Connie, an equally ambitious traveller and ex-pat from Vancouver. Our vacation was a smashing success, considering I'm not the easiest person to travel with.

We spent a night on Hongdo, and the rest of our stay in Mokpo, a city at the end of the south-west line of Korea's railway system, in a towering hotel with a great view, mothball-scented rooms, and carpets with the long black burn marks of cigarettes past.

In the course of four days we plied the seas, entertained the locals, shot fireworks into the night sky, and got stranded for almost five hours on Admiral Yi's island.

Travelling during Korean Thanksgiving, when more than 75 percent of the population hits the road, it took just four hours to cover the 300 kilometres between Seoul and Mokpo.

The return trip, at the height of the Chusok traffic jam, took over 10 hours. Still, this was my first real taste of Korea outside Seoul, and I was not disappointed.



[Nov 2009: I've noticed that this travelogue gets more visitors
than any of my others including my recent India blog. Wow! It's amazing
that you're reading it, but who are you? I'm very curious to know and
would appreciate if you left comments so I know what you think. Thanks
again for reading! Dave/darkstar.]
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