Monday on my side of the world was Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day. It is a big fall harvest feast people go back to their hometowns for and it marks the end of summer. Since my family is on another continent right now I decided to leave Seoul and go to Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two islands halfway between Korea and Japan. Ulleungdo is an island famous for two things: pumpkins and squid. It’s an odd combination but that’s just Korea for you. Dokdo is a rock way out in the middle of the ocean that is important for political reasons to both Korea and Japan.
The first stop was Ulleungdo. To get to Ulleungdo my group took an overnight bus to Donghae, a town on the east coast about five hours away from Seoul. The bus got to Donghae a little bit before 5:00 AM and our boat to Ulleungdo left at 7:00. While everyone else stayed on the bus catching some sleep before we got to the island I decided to go out and watch the sunrise over the beach. Donghae is apparently famous for it’s beautiful sunrises but the overcast skies unfortunately meant that all I saw was a black sky gradually turning into a lighter shade of grey.
After a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Donghae, we arrived in Ulleungdo, about a hundred miles off the coast of the mainland. When we got off the boat, we were welcomed by a rainstorm. The entire time on the island would be interrupted by on-and-off rainstorms. Because we were all already soaking wet we went right from the hotel to the water. The coast in Ulleungdo is absolutely gorgeous. It’s not very beach-y. Cliffs go straight into the water and there are trails carved right into the cliffs. To get from the trails to the water there are bridges scattered about to jump from. Because the water is so clear and blue it would be easy to assume it would be like the tropical water found elsewhere in the Pacific but, sadly, it ended up being freezing. Thankfully there were plenty of distractions from the beauty of the rock formations and water that kept my mind off how cold I was.
The next day was just as rainy but we had a tour around the island scheduled. The tour took us along the coast and stopped at various rocks that supposedly look like animals, lookout towers, traditional houses, and spots along the coast. By the time the tour was halfway over I was just as wet as I was when I jumped into the ocean because of all the rain. When the tour was over I dried off and went hiking up Seonginbong Mountain, the highest point on the island. The hike started off on a paved road that made the hills of San Francisco look like the plains of Kansas. The steep slope wasn’t short either. It lasted for about a kilometer. When it finally turned into an unpaved path it leveled off for about twenty feet until the seemingly 90 degree angles started up again. After another four kilometers of torture, we reached the top and were treated to a near-360 view of the island. As neat as the view from Dobongsan was, with all of Seoul underneath it, the from from Seonginbong was definitely the better of the two. You could see all the mountains plunge into the sea and many of the trees beginning to turn colors.
After a disappointingly short night’s sleep, I woke up early with one of the other people on the trip and went to Dokdo, an island about three hours east of Ulleungdo. Dokdo is disputed territory with Korea and Japan both laying claim to it. The island itself is tiny and not much more than a giant rock sticking out of the water but it’s located in rich fishing grounds so both seafood-loving countries see the water around the island as economically important.
The boat to Dokdo is in no way able to handle big waves, and with the heavy rainstorms going on there were lots of waves. I’m not being remotely sarcastic when I say that about three quarters of the passengers were on the floor clutching their seasickness bags for dear life. I saw more vomit on this boat ride than I ever care to see again. People were lying on the floor looking like death was imminent and others were leaning over the side of the boat letting their projectile drift away wherever the wind and water took it. About an hour into the boat ride I started feeling like an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island in the 1800s. I was on a crowded, rocking boat filled with seasick passengers who were all looking out to sea, hopeful for any trace of land. Luckily, I was not one of the miserable majority although I did start to feel pretty dizzy towards the end.
As luck would have it, land eventually popped up on the horizon and we docked on Dokdo Island. There really is nothing to do on Dokdo other than admire the scenery. It’s too small and steep for anyone to live there. The fact that there is even a ferry that takes people out to the island is really just a symbolic “Screw You” sent out to the Japanese who also think they own the island. From what I was told, the vast majority of the trips do not dock on the island. They merely sail around it. I think the captain realized his boat full of seasick Koreans would have probably organized a mutiny and decided he needed to let them touch solid ground before heading back to Ulleungdo.
Since the island is so tiny the short time we had in port was long enough to see just about everything. This pretty much consisted of tall rocks, clear water, green moss covering everything, and lots of birds. I had never seen an island quite like this. As I said before, this is really more of a big rock than an island so it was just a different experience being on land that remote. Any other time I’ve seen an “island” of comparable size, it was located right off the shore of a bigger piece of land but this was out at sea with no other land in sight. It was a very Gilligan-esque feeling.
The ride back to Ulleungdo was a bit easier as were traveling with the current this time, although I did still see my fair share of people who did not look like they were having the time of their lives. After we landed in Ulleungdo we went back to the hotel to get our bags and got on another boat to go back to Donghae. Four hours later we were back on the Korean mainland and in a bus headed for Seoul. I got back to my apartment around midnight, passed out, and had probably the best sleep of my life. When I woke up I had rotated 90 degrees in my sleep, my head and arms were hanging off one side of my bed and my legs were dangling off the other side. All-in-all, it was a successful escape from the crowds of Seoul that had the prettiest geography I’ve seen in Korea; even if the sky was spouting rain as the people around me spouted their breakfasts into the sea.