Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Biking on Seonyudo Islands (30 – 31 October)

On the weekend of my first trip with Adventure Korea (www.adventurekorea.com), I discover that the Gunsan English Learning Centre which is next door to my school, has six…SIX…foreign teachers on staff.  I was told that there were no English teachers there.  The only reason I now know this is because the entrance to the Centre is in the side road that I take from my apartment to the nearest stores and I happened to be walking past the centre as three teachers were leaving work.  I’m invited to the annual English festival the centre is hosting the next day and a Halloween party hosted by someone named James even though I have yet to meet James.

The next morning, I pop by the festival just to show my face since I’ve already made plans to go to Seonyudo Islands for the weekend.  I’m impressed by number of people present so early in the morning and find myself torn between having to meet NZ2, who is also going biking on Seonyudo Islands, and wanting to stay at the English Festival longer.  I have a brief moment of eye contact with a gorgeous Brit, say a few words, and then I’m on my way to meet NZ2 feeling rather excited to know that there are still so many foreigners in Gunsan to meet.

With perfect timing, I meet NZ2 outside his apartment complex as arranged…where the Adventure Korea (AK) bus has just pulled up.  We’re able to take the bus to the harbour instead of taking a taxi and praying that our pronunciation is correct.  From here, things move more swiftly, and we’re soon on the ferry surrounded by delightful gas fumes.  Fortunately, the weather is perfect so it’s a smooth ride.  The fish and seaweed farms near the Islands are fascinating and several boats seem to be ‘parked’ on the shores leading to the ferry terminal.

Fish (or seaweed) farms

Arriving on the Islands

On the Island, we deposit our bags in the waiting van, and walk towards the bike rental place.  The Islands are really popular with tourists during the summer so 40 foreigners seems to be a bit of an invasion at this time of year.  At the bike rental place, I’m suddenly confronted with the stark reality of this trip; it’s been nearly 20 years since I last rode a bike and I can’t help scoffing at the saying that it all comes back naturally.  The trip suddenly seems ominous as I attempt to ride a bike that seems far to big for me.  In addition to a lack of confidence on the bike, I have to dodge oncoming Island taxis driven by somewhat manic Koreans who openly gawk at the waegooks.

Island taxis

At our hotel, we’re assigned rooms and settle in before starting the actual bike trip. 

If you ever book into a traditional Korean hotel room that
advertises 'futon-style mattresses', this is what they're talking about.

From the onset, it’s clear that we’ll pretty much be finding our own way around the main island since the hills are enough to kill the very unfit group members like myself.  The views, however, are spectacular and three hours later, with a very sore butt, my new friends and I agree it’s time to hand back our bikes and go for a walk. 

The walk happens to take us past several seafood restaurants where you can choose your (unidentifiable) dinner from the tanks outside.  A guessing game ensues before we see a group of people from AK sitting on the steps near the sea.  The group of Korean men who openly stare and take photos of us are amusing and some of us are tipsy enough to just smile, wave and point our own cameras in their direction while they make a hasty retreat.  The sunset that we watch over the sea is spectacular and quick.

New Experiences

Dinner is an interesting affair where I’m coerced into tasting kimchi, a Korean staple which tastes a lot like pickled onions, and clams which taste like rubber.  The rest of the meal is not bad and I rather like the kimchi even though I still can’t hold my chopsticks correctly.  Busan Jeffrey attempts to provide a chopstick tutorial.

A day of firsts, I have my first taste of Soju which I’ve been cautioned is the downfall of many a foreigner in this country.  I rather like the taste of Soju, which is quite similar to vodka, and can’t help wondering if I am becoming a Korean.  Since our bonfire in the barbeque is not allowed, we carry wood down to the beach where a decent bonfire is made and a crazy evening of fireworks and silly word games ensues coupled with alcohol.

The next morning, a few brave souls are up early to see attempt to watch the sunrise followed by the rest of us lazy sods who only make it up in time for breakfast.  With over an hour to wait until the morning’s hike, three of us set off for a walk on another part of the island.  We don’t get very far since there’s so much to stop and look at and we’re somewhat disappointed to realise that the hike includes half of our morning walk anyway.

Surviving the Hike

Getting to the viewpoints on the mountain seems rather arduous and, at times, it’s tempting to just give up.  Another New Zealander and I are determined to make it to the top of the viewpoints even if it kills us – which, at this point, it may very well do.  The reward of the view from the top, however, is spectacular.  Getting back down the mountain is another story entirely since there’s lots of loose rocks.  It’s inevitable that I would end up on my butt sliding down the mountain instead of walking.  I can’t believe that the small scrape on my hand, however, turns into a ridiculously large bruise!

Back at the beach, it’s time to go clamming.  These are not the same clams we ate last night but rather long ones that kind of look like asparagus stems or really wet cigar casings that move and attempt to burrow under the sand.  It’s fascinating to watch Kim driver clear the top level of sand, near the water, pour salt over the air holes and wait for the clams to be tricked into thinking the tide has come back in where they’re pulled from their homes and tossed into ‘mass graves’.  I feel a bit like the Walrus (at least, I think he’s a walrus), in Alice in Wonderland, when he leads all the baby oysters to his plate to be eaten.  In the end, we decide not to eat the clams and we even dig a hole for them before covering them with sand once more. 

Further down the beach, the Moses miracle is happening.  Twice a day, at 11 o’clock, the sea seems to part, the sandbank widens considerably and you’re able to walk from the beach to the little island nearby.  It’s an interesting experience – particularly since the ‘sandbank’ consists of only oysters, shells and barnacles rather than sand.  Many Koreans are eagerly looking for oysters which they proceed to shell and eat on the spot.

After a fantastic weekend with perfect weather, it’s time to head to the ferry back to Gunsan.  I’m grateful I only have the hour ferry ride home and not the four hour bus back to Seoul like everyone else. 

The seagulls that followed our ferry all the way back to Gunsan.

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