Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chuseok (9 – 12 September 2011)

Korea’s two biggest holidays are Seolnal (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Thanksgiving).  2011 is a fantastic year with public holidays since most of them fall on either a Friday or a Monday and therefore create a long weekend.  This means that it’s really feasible to go away for a couple of long weekends that would otherwise be too tightly scheduled.  This weekend is no exception and we’ve signed up for the Ullengdo/Dokdo trip with AK.

This trip is particularly exciting: Dokdo is a seriously controversial topic in Korea – one that most foreigners have never even heard of prior to coming to Korea.  To sum up, it is an island halfway between South Korea and Japan.  Both countries claim ownership of this little island and it is the source of much hostility, among other things, between Korea and Japan.  Korea has gone a step further and built a research facility on the island and there are reportedly around 2 000 people currently living there.  We’re excited to see what all of the fuss is about and my colleagues are quite envious that I will get to see Dokdo – something that many of them aspire to see in their lifetime. 

The Adventure Begins 

Catfish and I head to Seoul on the 20:00 bus to meet the AK group at the Express Bus Terminal pick up site at 23:00.  Once we’re on the bus, we have six hours of sleeping fitfully on the bus, which always seems just a little bit too cold overnight.  By 6am, we’ve arrived at Chuam Beach where we’d planned to watch the sunrise.  Apparently this is the beach from which the sunrise that is used on one of the famous television news stations was filmed.  The constant drizzle ruins any hopes we’d been harbouring about seeing the sunrise; instead, a few of us merely watch the sky lighten somewhat while standing huddled beneath umbrellas while the rest of the group sleep on the bus.

After a hidden sunrise at Chuam Beach, we make our way to the ferry terminal where we split into two groups since AK was not able to get ferry tickets for all of us on the same ferry.  However, the second ferry is one of the faster ones so we arrive on Ullengdo no long after the majority of the group and we’re soon trudging uphill, in wet flip-flops that are determined to fall off, in a constant light drizzle on our way to our hotel.  The rain doesn’t dampen our spirits though as we take in the magnificent aqua waters that surround the island of Ullengdo, which lies just about 100km off the East coast of South Korea. 

After ditching our bags in our rooms, we all head out on a rather wet walk around the island.  The views are breathtaking though as we skirt along the slick path around the base of the rocks while the weather-angered oceans beats the rocks below us.  The constant drizzle does little to quell our contentment of a weekend away and it seems to encourage many people to try bridge jumping on the way back to the hotel. 

Standing on the edge of the bridge, looking down into the tourmaline-coloured waters, I can see several rocks on both sides of me but I can’t see how deep the water really is.  Several people have already jumped ahead of me so I decide to take the plunge into the salty but surprisingly warm waters below.  What was initially supposed to be a 10-minute stop turns into nearly an hour of jumping and taking posed photos mid-jump.  The result is that we get back to our hotel just in time for dinner and a tour of the Dokdo Museum before Catfish and I decide to turn in for a very early night after a rather eventful day.

You See These Rocks... 

Sunday morning brings even more drizzle so we start our day with a three-hour bus tour around the island. One of the first things that is pointed out to us is “Turtle Rock,” a giant rock just off the first beach we pass.  Considering the event of the previous week that made national news – where a foreigner assaulted a Korean man on a public bus the previous Sunday – it seems inevitable that someone repeats the idiot’s catchphrase of “You see these rocks” followed by, “My rocks are bigger than yours.  This continues all through the tour and it soon becomes clear that we’re on the party bus of the three tour buses; we’re also on the bus that copes the best with the slick and steep mountain roads as we notice the one in front of us smoking a little more than desired as it strains its way up the rocky paths. 

By the time we finish our tour, the rain has cleared up enough for a more pleasant hike – which Catfish and I opt out of in order to hang out with other foreigners down at the harbour where drinking games ensue.  The Korean guides are exhausted when they get back from the hike in time for dinner and drinking with Seokjin.  We head to a different part of town where we’re shown a giant, ice-dispensing penguin and take a photo before heading back to the hotel to eat chicken and drink more soju.  This is also the moment that Seokjin chooses to tell us that we can staff on the next trip, which thrills us. 

Ferry Ride From Hell 

Monday morning is another early start as we board a ferry for Dokdo at 7:00am.  The constant rain over the weekend had make it uncertain as to whether or not the ferry would run that weekend at all so we’re excited that the sea is deemed sufficiently calm for the ferry road to Korea’s most controversial island.  We board the ferry excitedly and settle into seats near the back of the boat that looks like it can carry approximately 300 people.  We’ve barely left the dock when I realise that this trip is not going to be smooth sailing – and many people seem to be feeling it judging from the number of people around me who are reaching for their barf bags.  Catfish also moves out of her seat and people start lying down in passageways in a desperate attempt to beat the rising nausea that is quickly spreading amongst the passengers.  I have a very sensitive gage-reflex and the sound of people puking all around me is enough to turn my stomach inside-out, stomp on it repeatedly and swallow the unpleasantness of the experience over and over unless I can tune it out somehow.  I turn my ipod up to its maximum volume, apologise to my ears, close my eyes and try to breath only through my nose as I attempt to block out the wretchedness that now surrounds me. 

Approximately an hour into the trip, Catfish comes to tell me that the doors have been opened to allow passengers onto the deck since so many people are sick.  She also warns me not to go into the bathrooms that have recently been re-decorated.  As we make our way carefully over the bodies of rather ashen-looking people who have more than succumbed to seasickness, I try hard not to breathe while taking in the sight of hundreds of people feeling the effects of the battering of the ocean as it flings the boat around.  The movie scenes of people projectile vomiting that I’ve seen in bad action and horror movies are nothing compared to the sight of roughly 280 of the 300 people around me who have given up even trying to find barf bags.  Outside on the deck, the air is a bit fresher although the smell still lingers as people around us continue their descent on what has rapidly become a ferry ride to hell. 


By the time we reach Dokdo three hours later, the ferry reeks of the contents of the stomachs of the majority of the passengers.  We’re all grateful to finally be at Dokdo, which, in all honesty, is just two large rocks, one of which has a large research facility built atop it.  We’re allowed to get off the ferry at Dokdo for just 10 minutes due to the number of people who have been sick.  It doesn’t take long to take a few photos but many people are simply happy to be back on firm ground while others are curled into tight fetal positions and begging not to be forced to get back on the ferry from hell.  Unfortunately, staying on Dokdo permanently is not an option and we’re all reluctantly herded back onto the ferry for the return trip to Ullengdo.  Mercifully, the return trip is much smoother and we’re back on terra firma two and a half hours later where ambulances are waiting for several of the more severe cases of seasickness.

Sadly, we have only another hour before boarding the next ferry that will take us from Ullengdo back to mainland Korea – something that many of us are painfully aware of and dreading.  Fortunately, the second ferry is larger, more comfortable and, thanks to insufficient seating, some of us get bumped up to first class seats for the smooth trip home.  At Pohang, we’re happy to be off the ferry and boarding the bus back to Seoul – grateful that we won’t be going anywhere near a ferry in the foreseeable future – as our Chuseok weekend winds down. 

No comments:

Post a Comment