THE ANCIENT VOLCANIC SEDIMENT that rises up alongside Jeodeong’s coastal walkway is a reminder of how tiny and insignificant we are on, my God, this island alone, not to mention the world or its history. The bilingual leaflet that describes the island’s jagged edges is too overwhelmingly scientific to be educational to anyone without a degree in geology; we plebs have to settle for merely uttering “Holy shit…” during the entire two-hour experience. It’s enough to convert one to pantheism.
Though it’s easy to claim this natural perfection as proof of God, it’s tricky, too, because it all feels so random. The whole island looks like a thrown-together series of happy mistakes. A volcano erupted ages ago in the middle of nowhere, leaving behind a mass of rocks and plants. Its appearance is arbitrary. It wasn’t made for us.
And yet, here we are. Somehow, people cultivated this land and chose to raise families here. These are true rural Koreans, unaccustomed to foreigners and forced to put up with expensively-clad mainland tourists on a daily basis.
The ferry leaves only once per day, from ports in Pohang and Mukho, in Donghae, at 10 a.m. A ticket is not cheap — between 60 and 70,000 won one-way — and earns you a seat on the massive ship otherwise occupied by Koreans sleeping on mats strewn across every square inch of aisle in dim grey light, like Jews shipping off to America during the 1940s. Arrival time is roughly 1:00, and the grand and picturesque view of several-hundred-foot-tall rocks jutting out of the sea is dazzling and quickly spoiled by the construction of what will probably be a very nice and expensive-looking terminal, effectively modernizing nature to the point where, I suppose, the Korean government believes it ought to be.
In the meantime, visitors cannot help but be incessantly reminded that they are tourists by the dozens of street peddlers, guesthouse owners and taxi drivers waiting for the daily arrival of fresh money each afternoon, like waiting for manna to drop from heaven. (It’s worth noting, though, that by virtue of its being a national park, the island is impervious to Homeplus, Lotte, Shinsegae, and even Starbucks or Paris Baguette. The only chains here are a handful of convenience stores.)
Local delicacies cost upwards of 15,000 won — variations of steamed rice with fresh crustaceans and seaweed. Modest Korean-style buffets are the most common and healthy option for dinner, as well as being the cheapest at 8,000 a head, which offer rice, grilled fish, potatoes and some truly unidentifiable side dishes.
Though most accommodations will be costly (we found the clean and new Blue Motel and bargained the owner down to 60,000 per night), the bus system is cheap and easy if you can read Korean. We travelled to Cheonbu in the north by way of circling the entire island for an hour. Buses cover every village and attraction on the island, and any destination a bus can’t reach is, with determination and patience, probably hikeable.
We wanted to find Albong, a modest 500-metre-high volcanic peak, but discovered it only listed on half the island’s maps. We instead found an old and vacant observatory, and followed the scenic path up to find a smattering of graves. The pathways through the rural graveyard are evident but well overgrown; small vines even had enough time undisturbed that they blocked the way completely, forcing us to duck underneath and ask ourselves: When was the last time anyone set foot here?
We follow the signs leading to the Nuri Basin, the only reliable flatland on the island. An hour of walking left us sweaty and exhausted, so we hitched a ride with the first public bus that passed us, only to discover we’d made it 80 percent of the way. Koreans (rightfully) laughed at us.
Mountainside lunch was a pancake made of deodeok, which translates to codonopsis lanceolata, a root so obviously uncommon in the West that there’s no easier name for it, and a sweet-and-sour grape liquor, a cross between rice and grape wine, said to restore energy and cure poison. Down the road lies a small traditional village, with huts made of straw outside and basic cement rooms within, with tunnels under each room leading from the kitchen (which is basically a ditch) to heat the place from underneath. To think that someone lived in these as recently as the early 1940s, while in North America people watched Casablanca in theatres, is confounding and painful.
But I get the sense that the Ulleungese (impromptu demonym) are proud of their heritage. While I was waiting for the bus later, a goat herder in Taeha explained to me that each of his goats cost him 500,000 won, and that this was a very good price. I had no choice but to believe him. It suddenly zoomed into light, the contrast between him and the men and women in neon orange Gore-tex who kept his island afloat with cash.
Our last stop was the Bongnae Waterfall, which is small but awfully pretty — a fact perhaps not believed by the local government, which has hired a construction crew to make loud noises near its base, presumably in an effort to make it even prettier. We returned for a quick lunch in a tiny noodle soup shop wallpapered in graffiti and only serving one dish: a fishy kalguksu. When we arrived, slightly before 12:30, it was empty; when we left, slightly before 1:00, the lineup reached past the front door with Korean tourists in bright hiking fashion, drunk and happy to wait in line.
I won’t belabor the point with another reference to how Big Bad Civilization is destroying this peaceful rural beauty, because that’s kind of unfair — if it weren’t for the emphasis, I’d never be able to go, and the locals couldn’t afford to host us. But I will say this: If you live in Korea, you must visit Ulleung-do. I just hope you get a chance before the weight of its construction begins to sink it.