The trip back to Korea from Japan was also by ferry, and was at least as comfy and pleasant as the trip there (and shorter too… Fukuoka-Busan took only 6 hours as compared to the 19 for Busan to Osaka.) As with the first ferry, there was a jimjilbang (I’ll use the Korean name for public bath this time , Noraebang (likewise, Korean for Karaoke rooms) and various other entertainments that made the trip fly by.
We only had a single night back in Busan, and were staying with the lovely Alice this time as well. Almost the whole time we’d been in Japan we’d been pining for Korean food. Not that our Japanese meals weren’t good… several were fabulous. But Korean food has a strange way of growing on you, so we were delighted to spend our evening in Busan at dinner with Alice and a couple of her friends and diving back into Korean cuisine with mouths open wide.
That evening Sarah went out to an open mic night with the dinner crowd while I headed back home to bed to nurse the cold I’d picked up in Japan (the second so far in just over a month of travel. Boo!)
The next morning we woke up bright and early to catch the bus to our next destination: the provincial city of Gwangju.
The new harbour bridge under construction in Busan, South Korea
Our cabin on the Fukuoka-Gwangju ferry. Going in this direction the trip took only 6 hours, so beds weren’t really necessary. Headed the other way it was an overnight trip with the boat toodling around waiting for Japanese customs to open, taking 11 hours, so the beds would have been quite desireable
Gwangju is, in some ways, to Korea what Hama was to Syria: a medium sized city that once was the site of a popular uprising against the government that was brutally repressed. In Gwangju’s case, this took place in the 1980 before Korea had truly transitioned to a democratic government. The citizens stormed police and army barracks after some student demonstrators had been killed by police, and with the arms they liberated, took over their own town. And were crushed by the army’s reaction, where hundreds were killed and scores more injured.
Also like Hama, Gwangju had fabulous food. We were actually just changing buses in Gwangju, but managed to fit in a spectacular meal of kimchijigae (kimchi stew) and dolsot bibimpab (rice mixed with veggies and egg, served in a hot stone pot that cooks and crisps the rice in situ.) This meal perhaps had the best selection of side dishes and kimchis of any we’d yet had in Korea, and we got on our bus to Jeomam absolutely stuffed.
Spectacular lunch in the Gwangju bus station. On the left is the big pot of kimchijigae. In front of Sarah is the dolsot bibimbap. Clockwise from the bottom left around the white bowl in the middle are: cabbage kimchi, green chilis in sweet red chili paste, soy sauce, sheets of nori-like seaweed, little pieces of green onion and potato omlette, radish kimchi, cucumber kimchi, spinach greens with sesame oil and green onion kimchi
Jeomam wasn’t much of a town… a hotel, a convenience store and a couple of restaurants. But it also had a ferry dock, which was our reason for being there. We waited in the warmth of the bus (thanks driver!) for fifteen minutes and then boarded the boat headed for Imja-do, a small island (“do” means island in Korean) in the Yellow Sea.
Imja-do had appealed to us for a couple of reasons. First, it was a true slice of rural Korea. With only 5000 people on the (roughly) 20km x 10km island, it was considerably less busy than even Yecheon had been. Second, Paul, a lovely sounding couchsurfing host lived on the island. Paul met us at the ferry dock following our 20 minute ride and in a few minutes we were cozy inside his apartment, sheltered from the winter weather that had come on strong while we’d been in Japan.
The car ferry to Imja do
A poster on the ferry explaining how to identify North Korean military ships and submarines, and how to distinguish them from South Korean ones
It didn’t take long at all to get to Paul’s place, and to meet Sam, his dog (Sam wasn’t quite technically his, but for all practical purposes he was, so we’ll just continue to call him Paul’s dog.) Though the sun had already set, we headed down to the beach and spent dusk (and a bit of full darkness as well) walking along the beach and getting Sam his daily exercise. The beach was strewn with floatsam and jetsam and it was entertaining to try to identify just what each of the shadowy items we passed by was. Probably the coolest thing to regularly wash up on the beach are the glass fishing floats from North Korea… It seems as though these would be much tougher to make and use than plastic ones, but I suppose if you’re short on petrochemicals, but have lots of coal and sand then glass is the material of choice.
Towards the end of the walk pretty much all light was gone, but our senses weren’t completely deprived as the sounds of crashing waves and the occaisional boom of the Korean Navy’s offshore gunnery practice kept us company as we headed back to Paul’s car.
By the time we were done with our walk, it was getting pretty late, so we just sat at home and chatted over a few cups of tea before heading to bed.
The next day Paul had to go to work (which was pretty much next door as he lived in the teachers’ apartments for the schools he taught at.) Meanwhile, we headed out into the cold to do some exploring around the island.
As mentioned before, Imja-do isn’t a huge island, so we wandered on foot past the island’s farms. In spring, tulips are grown on Imja (which provides at least some hint at an explanation for the the Dutch style windmills dotted across the island.) In the summer rice is the crop of choice on Imja. In fall it’s cabbages. But by mid-December, the only things left in the fields were leeks. Many of these were being harvested while we were there, mostly by old men and women huddled in moveable tents that sheltered them from the wind, but provided no wamrth at all. I can’t begin to imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to spend hours a day picking, cleaning and bundling the leeks in near freezing temperatures on Imja.
Around the fields were many small villages of perhaps 100 people each. These were about the furthest things possible from Seoul or Busan. Instead of traffic, neon lights and concrete skyscrapers, the villages featured tractors, rough stone walls constructed without mortar and corrugated metal or tile roofed hoeses
At the end of the road, we wandered up to the gap between two hills then on up to the summit of the northern one for a look back out over what we’d passed through before.
The view from the hilltop back over fields and a farm village on Imja-do
Down the back of the hill was the main beach of Imja-do. This was the same beach that Sam had been running around on the previous evening, but here, 12km south at the centre of the major tourist district, there was little other than soft, fine sand (and howling wind!) It looked like it would be great on a summer’s day and was a major tourist attraction when it was warmer, as evidenced by the rows of brightly coloured hotels and restaurants nearby.
By the time we’d walked back along the farm roads to Paul’s place he was done work and we headed out for a visit to a second beach (again to give Sam a bit of a run around) and a quick visit to a fishing village before heading back into the main town for a spectacular dinner.
A Dutch style windmill near the site of the annual tulip festival (which felt a long way off on this chilly December day)
Earlier in the day, Paul had one of his Korean friends phone up and order us a whole duck! This was consumed in typical Korean fashion, cooked on a cast iron hot plate heated by the gas burner in the middle of the table. The impressive array of banchan (side dishes) further helped Jeollanam-do’s claim to have the best cuisine in the country.
Once the duck was completely cooked and most of it consumed, the hot plate was topped up with rice, vegetables and some of the duck fat that had been run off during cooking to make a spectacular (and luxurious) duck fried rice.
By the time this was done we were completely stuffed and were about to leave when the restaurant owner appeared in our room with an a bit of extra food to munch on: the crispy rice from the bottom of the rice cooker, sprinkled with some sugar, turning it into a crispy dessert dish. When this was done and we’d chatted a bit more we were once again getting our coats on when she re-appeared again, this time with a plate of mandarines. As full as we were, we finished these off as quickly as possible, doing our best to escape before yet more food materialised!
Duck dinner on Imja-do. Sarah managed to enjoy it despite her former pet ducks…
That night Sarah and I snuggled up on the floor of our shared room and were quickly joined by Sam who managed to squeeze his way in between/under us to keep warm, no matter how hard we tried to keep him out!
The next morning it was snowing when we woke. And not just minor flurries either… By early afternoonb a layer a few centimetres thick had covered the island. Our first real snow of the trip!
This was our last day on Imja-do, and was actually only a half day, but we managed to pack a lot in.
In the morning Paul’s friend Kan-Wong picked us up and took us on a driving tour of the island. We first visited his salt farm. In the depths of winter salt-making ceased, but it was still fascinating to see the farm and learn about the process… Seawater was pumped into the first wide, flat pan where it was dried by the sun, then the salt-concentrated water was allowed to flow down into the second pan, where the process was repeated until it was completely dried out in the fourth and final pan. Along side of the terraces were hand dug tanks with corrugated metal roofs that the water could be “flash drained” into as soon as rain started and threatend to dilute the saltiness. And since it can, of course, rain at night as well, the salt farmer has to be prepared to spring into action and run off the pans, even if it happens to be 03:30 in the morning!
The highest quality salt was left for up to three years to remove the faintest traces of moisture and, according to Kan-Wong, provide the most delicate salt flavour.
A salt farm, with the covered tank in the front and the salt pans in he background. New pans had a black rubbery coating on the bottom, but old fashioned ones still used broken bits of dark-coloured pottery and tile carefully laid out dark side up and bound tohether with mortar
After the salt farm we headed to the shrimp caves, where shrimp and other seafood were left to ferment at constant temperature for use as condiments. The one we went into hadn’t been used for some years, but it still had a soft but distinct odour of the products that had been produced there in past.
Nearby the shrimp caves we took another visit to the fishing village we’d seen the night before, where the ships crews were busy at their winter’s work of mending nets and wrapping steel cable with plastic to prevent corrosion.
Fishing village on Imja-do. Fishing used to be a big business on the island, and when the fish were plentiful its population had been as high as 20,000 but by the time we visited the seas around the island had been mostly stripped of their life, and the population had gone down to 5,000, most of them farmers
We finished off the trip with a drive back along the 12km of beach to the tourist section that we’d explored the previous day. The comfort of the heated truck cab was far superior to the howling wind and chill air we’d had on our earlier visit!
The view out the truck window as we drove along the beach
Before heading back to the ferry we had one final Jeollanam-do meal with Paul and Kan-Wong, this time kimchi-jigae (kimchi stew) with the usual wonderful banchan (the tempura sweet potato and wonderfully hot-sour cabbage kimchi were particularly memorable. As was the drunk guy at the next table who knocked over one of the partitions that seperate groups of diners.)
The trip back on the ferry was uneventful (a good thing, because we were slightly worried that we might be stuck on the island if the wind was too high for the boats to run) and the bus ride to Seoul via Gwangju was similarly simple (if rather longer than we’d expected it to be.)
Snow on the ground, taken out the bus window on our way to Gwangju
We got into Seoul at 22:00 and headed to our host John’s place and let ourselves in. We had come full circle. Our final few days in Korea would be spent with John, with whom we’d stayed on first arriving in the country.
The usual litany of thanks are due to our Couchsurfing hosts, Alice once again for being the awesome and fun lady she is, and Paul for givng us a chance to experience small-town Korea, as well as some fabulous food and good conversation! Special thanks are also due to Kan-Wong for taking the time to show us around his home, Imja-do. Imja was the truly rural experience that we’d really been hoping for as a contrast to the bright lights and big cities, and the experience couldn’t have been better. Thanks again guys!
Sunset on the Fukuoka-Busan ferry
Tags: Busan, Imja, Imja-do, Llew Bardecki, South Korea, Travel