Yesterday was my last full day on Jeju
-do. Ben, Matthias, and I set out for Mount Hallasan, which is THE volcano on Jeju Island, and is Korea's highest peak to boot. There are several routes you can hike up Hallasan, ranging from "short" to "long" to "only the psychotic attempt this." The boys wanted to go the longest route (see option C above), and I told them if that was the case I'd see them on the flip side, as the long route required a departure before 6am and a return in the dark, and you can be sure that would guarantee a cranky day out of me. They were set on the long route until late Monday night, when after scootering all day and frozen solid and really quite beat they realized 5am wasn't looking so attractive.
So we agreed to meet and leave before 9am and tackle the short route. To give you an idea of what we're talking about, the dude at the front desk dubbed it "short" and "not steep;" my Korean roommates were more realistic and translated that "short" meant three and a half hours EACH WAY. Yeeee-ow! What the hell is the long route?? Apparently the "real hikers" (those that do the longest route and swear it's nothing) clock in a good 11-12 hours round-trip. No thank you.
I should also say that the roommates showed me their pictures from the hike. There were like ten. Ten. And I'm thinking to myself, if you came all the way to Jeju and hiked this big volcano, wouldn't you take a few more shots? I mean, it's not like you do this every day.
Yeah well no more than 0.2 kilometers into that mountain I was clutching my chest and gasping for air. You should have heard the three of us, wheezing like a bunch of overweight asthmatic octogenarians. I now understand why there weren't more pictures.
We tackled the volcano at a pretty good pace, moving ahead at a solid clip but pausing several times for water or photos or loudly whining over the unhelpful markers every third of a kilometer mocking how little you've come. The loud groans and exasperated expletives were predominantly mine. I mean, really. If I've just scrambled up the side of a mountain so steep I'm trying to keep myself firmly rooted to the ground and not falling off the side of the planet, wheezing and gasping as I go; telling me I've only made it laughably far is just cruel.
We made it to the top (not the actual top, the short route doesn't get you to the peak, but for all intents and purposes -- for MY purposes -- it's the top; it's pretty damn close) in about two hours, which is record timing according to all of the guidebooks and websites and associated literature we came across while mapping out our trek. (The general consensus is three and a half hours each way.)
The two hours even included a fit of giggles I was overcome by, and by "fit of giggles" I mean outright howling with laughter as I clutched my chest and bent over in half and nearly collapsed to my knees I was laughing so hard. Not even kidding. I couldn't breathe, I was gasping for air, tears streaming down my face, howling harder and harder.
The whole time the two boys quizzically looking back and forth between each other and Ben demanding "what? what is it? WHAT IS SO FUNNY? why are you laughing at me??" because all I could do is point and once or twice gasp "you!" before being overcome all over again. The two geniuses finally decided that it was the altitude, as they were sure altitude could cause hysterics. Geniuses, those two. (Hi boys!) When I was finally able to regain mastery over basic breathing and speaking, I explained that biting into an apple (we had purchased three enormous, juicy, and perfectly delicious apples on the way to the bus) while listening to Ben gasp and wheeze for breath was too much and it caused me to laugh, which was hard in itself as I was sufficiently wheezing and gasping and trying to eat an apple and hike a mountain at the same time, and it completely snowballed out of control.
Enter the howling and the tears streaming and the doing everything in my control to remain upright and not drop my apple at the same time. Absolute hysterics. I can't remember the last time I laughed that hard. It felt good.
We hung out at the top for an hour or so, eating the strawberry jam sandwiches I packed for us despite the boys' utter amusement and mocking me with jeers of "we're not hiking Everest!" when I made them (I'd like the jury to note there were no such jibes or mockery as they were chowing down), and laying on the wooden deck and trying to soak up as much warmth as we could. It was FREEZING up there. FREEEEEEEEEZING. The wind was INSANE. It was howling and whipping and merciless. I had to hold on snugly to my hat, and even then it blew off once.
So cold. We were above the clouds. In the blazing, brilliant, blinding sunshine. It was surreal.
The hike down was better than the hike up, and not only because the gasping for breath had substantially abated. We hiked down a different path on the southern face of the volcano (hiked up the northern side), which was spectacularly colored in vivid reds and oranges and yellows. Gorgeous, brilliant fall foliage everywhere you looked. Also, the hike down required constant attention to where you stepped, as it was almost entirely comprised of hopping from one lava rock to the next. (The hike up wasn't particularly rocky, save for a few patches here and there.) There was far more to stimulate the eye and the mind on the way down.
We were a bit more leisurely about it, full of exclamations and taking boatloads of photographs.
I told the boys that the Korean roommates warned that when you come to the end of the trail you aren't really at the end, there's a two kilometer walk to where the bus picks you up. Ben was all "screw that" and managed to snag us a lift with a couple down to the bus stop. (He then tried to convince them to drive us into town, at that point pushing our luck, and thank goodness we were already at the bus stop because they kicked us out of the car in response.) We tried to flag down another ride into town, but gave up after the eighth car passed us by with no luck. The bus was only supposed to be thirty minutes or so, and although we were worn out and freezing, thirty minutes wasn't the end of the world.
We then witnessed a taxi driver pulling up and honking and throwing a fit and picking a fight, being restrained by others, screaming at the top of his lungs, taking swings, kicking the guard booth, refusing to leave, sitting down and then laying prostrate, making his limbs as heavy as he could to avoid being dragged off, getting up only to tear down the guard booth barrier -- we were wildly entertained. Absolutely no idea what that little tantrum was about, but we were laughing almost as hard as he was screaming, and Ben got some good action shots out of it. And then, just when things couldn't get any better, some dude pulled over in a nice, new, big SUV and said "Jeju city?" and we were all YES PLEASE! And we scored a free, comfortable, enjoyable ride into the city, listening to Korean music and perusing through a coffee table book full of the most gorgeous images you can imagine, all taken by this guy (I sat up front and held his camera for him, which had a lens on it like you'd see photographers toting in the Serengeti as they photograph lions in the wild; come to think of it, he's probably done that too).
We made it back to the hostel a little after 5pm, and agreed to mellow out and regroup for dinner. Did laundry for the first time in nearly two weeks (cannot begin to tell you how good it feels to have clean clothes), showered, and enjoyed not being on my feet for a bit. Brian, a Korean American whom the boys managed to meet in that short timespan, joined us for dinner. Needless to say it was quite handy having Brian with us, as we didn't need to so much as glance at a menu before a feast was placed in front of us. Delicious. The boys had traditional barbecue pork, the most popular Korean meal (the one I tried with BJ & co. in Busan), and I had bibimbap. I made myself a little pork taco with the garlic and the chilies and the assorted goodies, all wrapped up in a big leaf, to compare to the Busan pork.
For those of you keeping score, this place was infinitely better. The bibimbap was fantastic, and even Matthias ordered one after watching me wolf mine down in record time. From there we went to a bar down the street, with shelves and shelves and shelves stuffed full of literally thousands of records. The boys couldn't stop exclaiming "look at all that vinyl!" So we hung out there for a bit, had a few of those stout beers I like, and giving the bartender rock 'n roll requests. Ben couldn't stop wondering at us sitting in Jeju, an island off Korea, drinking stout beers in a really nice bar, listening to Bob Dylan and David Bowie and The Moody Blues, among others.
Another great day. Thoroughly enjoyed myself, and will probably be praising Jeju as the highlight of my Korean tour and recommending it to others, just as I had hoped.
Absolutely loved it.