By Utpal Borpujari
When our Busan Air flight BX8119 from Busan landed at the airport in the extreme north of Jeju island, the sun had descended below the horizon, and the lights in the Jeju city had been switched on. A pleasantly cool gust of air hit our faces, quite a contrast from the 45 degree Celsius of New Delhi. It is spring time in Jeju, and like the whole of South Korea, here too the weather is at its most comfortable right now. As our bus drove out of the airport and the city, tearing across an almost empty highway to take us towards the Jungmun Tourist complex at the extreme south of this UNESCO World Heritage Site – thanks to the volcanic lava tubes on this island that once was an active volcano site – I stared at the darkness outside, wondering what was in store for us in a place which our guide Cindy had repeatedly been describing as Korea’s most popular honeymoon destination. No clues from the darkness outside though, of what can be expected.
In Korea, the dinner time starts as early as 7 pm, and by 9 pm, the time when Indian dinner time usually starts, almost everybody is through with their dinners. Well, since we are in Korea, we also follow the local practice, and stop at the popular Han’s restaurant for a buffet spread of Korean dinner. And that’s when the first real taste of Jeju hits me, literally. It’s the famous seaweed soup, the vegetable coming straight off the floor of the Korean Strait. It tasted differently delicious, with a peculiar smell reflecting its underwater origins. Following the soup was a range of Korean vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies, including that of pork that came from indigenous black pig, interspersed with some Japanese dishes and very interestingly, something labeled as ‘Gulab Jamuns’ but bearing no similarity with the popular Indian sweet at all. Our rather uneventful entry into Jeju, given the status of a special autonomous province for its unique culture, dialect and heritage, culminated with our checking into the stately Hyatt Regency hotel at the Jungmun complex, which houses a number of well-appointed resorts.
It was only early next morning, as I stepped on to the balcony of my hotel room, that I got a taste of the real beauty of the place, with our hotel almost jutting out onto the sea below, and with hills covered with thick, lush green vegetation on both its sides. A hurried breakfast later, we moved out, and it was then that I saw what virtually was a whole island turned into a garden, with beautifully manicured flower beds along the streets, rows and rows of flower pots hanging on the streetside railings, and garden after garden of trees groaning under the weight of Jeju’s famous “gamgyuls’, or tangerines. No wonder, the Koreans, accustomed to their well-organised cities, call this natural haven a dream honeymoon destination that, like the Khasis of Meghalaya, follow a matriarchal family system.
We soon were at Seopji Koji, on the way continuously wondering whom were the ubiquitous black statues in the island of. Soon we found out – the statues carved out of the ubiquitous black basalt were of “dol hareubang” or the “stone grandfather”, the island people’s guardian angel. Seopji Koji is one of the most popular tourist destinations within Jeju, with basaltic formations jutting out of the sea, and a huge extinct volcano forming its backdrop. Since it’s spring time, the place is crowded to the maximum, robbing it off the charm that one would surely enjoy in solitude. The chirpy Cindy tells us that the spot, as are quite a few other locations in the island, is a popular shooting location for Korean TV serials and movies. Maybe, Indian filmmakers, now exploring newer and more exotic locations to film their song ‘n’ dance routines, would also discover it sooner than latter. Among the local food I tasted here was a delicious porridge made of abalone, sitting in the glass-walled Mint restaurant on the edge of the sea, with the extinct volcano forming the backdrop. On my way out, I buy some samplings of the famed Jeju cactus, green tea and tangerine chocolates.
Our next stop was the massive Yakcheonsa temple, with a gigantic image of Buddha inside. The Buddha’s birthday, according to the Korean lunar calendar, was just days away, and like in the rest of the country and the island, here too beautiful paper lanterns were hanging in hundreds, to be lit in the evenings. Built in the 1990s in an architectural style of Joseon Dynasty-era structures, its four-storey main prayer hall is claimed to be the largest in Asia. It is here that we meet the comely Yeon-Jeong Lee, the principal of the Tamna Tea Ceremony Academy. The Korean tea ceremony is an elaborate affair, and the Koreans take part in it regularly if only to hold on to a precious part of their heritage. Lee conducts a special tea ceremony for us, and as we follow her instructions, I understand how proud the Koreans are about their heritage. They are not only preserving their culture and heritage but also presenting them to international tourists in their original forms. Something I also got to see earlier at the House of Changwon, at Changwon near the beautiful coastal city of Busan. This typical “yangban” or aristocratic house, built in 1898 by a person called Ducheol, was selected for preservation as a historical, cultural and educational relic when Changwon was chosen to be Korea’s first planned city. Housing traditional male and female living quarters, a heritage museum and a folk culture education centre, the House of Changwon within an industrial city is in stark contrast to how even many important monuments back home in India die a chocking death because of insensitive urbanization.
But let’s return to Jeju. The afternoon sees us going for a yacht tour, during which we do – rather pretend to do – some fishing and view some wonderful basaltic formations. Taking of basalts, Jeju boasts of Manjanggul, one of the world’s longest lava tubes in the world, and the reason why UNESCO chose it as a World Heritage site. The Manjang cave in north Jeju has natural wonders like the “lava turtle”, the “lava pillar”, and the “wing-shaped wall”, all created by the lava spewed eons ago. There also is the Geomunoreum lava tube system that simply leaves a visitor spellbound, apart from the fact that it is considered a treasure for study of geological sciences. If time permits, there is also the opportunity in Jeju to go an expedition to Mount Hallasan, which boasts of a huge volcanic crater at its top. Its smaller cousins Sangumburi and and Songsan Ilch’ubong too are popular with tourists, as is the three-level Cheonjiyeon Waterfall located amidst lush green settings. Jeju is a place for a leisurely visit, but unfortunately, ours was a brief stopover. As we leave, I offer a silent prayer to the Jeju Granddaddy – to give me a chance to return on a longer visit sometime in the future. Jeju locals say he fulfils all sincere prayers, and I would like to believe them.