Accidental Island

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I had gotten on the wrong boat.

I purchased a ticket to Binjindo—the most famous of the islands of Korea’s Hangryeo Marine National Park–but instead boarded a kind of a multi-island sea bus transporting the venerable inhabitants to the villages dotting a handful of the other islands, where they scratched out a living from farming, the odd bit of tourism, or whatever the sea managed to provide. And as it was the last boat of the day, there would be no getting to Bijindo.

Instead I took in a deep lungful of the clean, salty air and reminded myself that many of my best travels have been the result of mishaps, happy mistakes that forced me to veer off the path. Surely Bijindo wasn’t the only island worth visiting. The hand of the universe seemed to be nudging me in another direction. Who was I to push back?

I reminded myself that many of my best travels have been the result of mishaps, happy mistakes that forced me to veer off the path.

After several stops we arrived at our boat’s final island, Yongchondo, where I was told that I could find some accommodation. I strode off the pier and into the village of Hodu (“walnut”), a cluster of small structures huddled together on an isthmus between two main landmasses. The houses were squat and sturdy—uber-quaint hanok and more homely, modern abodes–clumped together and hunkered down against the relentless island elements. Narrow footpaths acted as the village’s streets, and aside from one van parked at the harbor side, there wasn’t a car in sight,. This probably had to do with the fact that, save a single shore road heading out of the village, there was really nowhere to drive.

Downtown Hodu

Soon I found Hodu’s one place of commerce, a house with a hand-drawn sign reading: “Convenience Store. Minbak.” I roused the owner–a woman who sported the tight perm ubiquitous to the Korean ajumma. Even in her late 50’s, she was surely one of the youngest residents of the village. Korean islands, it seemed, were a very geriatric affair.

The woman led me out the door and escorted me to my minbak (a kind of no-frills homestay). She peppered me with the usual questions as we walked (“Where are you from?” “Are you married?”), and I politely lobbed back my well-rehearsed answers. She was surprised to have a customer in late February. I got the impression that Hodu managed to escape the tourist footprint even at the height of the summer season. In fact, other than my accommodation, I only saw one other minbak in the whole village.

“Do foreigners ever come here?” I asked.

“No. Never,” she said, laughing. “You’re the first I’ve seen.”

Hodu’s other minbak

After unloading my bag into my minbak, I set off, winding my way through the narrow alleys of Hodu. The little homes were nearly all painted white, though the wind and saltwater air had done their best to strip away the coating, revealing scrapes and splotches of grey concrete underneath. The more prosperous places had tiled roofs of blood red or bright blue, while the simpler huts had to settle for corrugated metal.

As quaint is it may have appeared, Hodu was still a working village, with implements of marine labor piled and stacked up in any available space. This usually took the form of thick grey ropes, coiled like gnarled worms, or giant, clunky styrofoam floats. In between some of the houses were small plots of cultivated land, home to sprouting green even in late winter. These little fields were fenced in by low walls made up of stacked stones, lending the village a rugged, almost medieval look. For a moment I felt like I could be on the coast of Normandy, New England, or even Greece. It seems that old sea villages share some of the same characteristics world over. They’re often stony and tough, obstinate places standing in defiance of the punishing elements that surround them.

Like their Japanese neighbors, Koreans have a taste for seaweed of all kinds. February must be prime harvest time for miyeok, the darkish kelp served up in birthday soups across the peninsula, since all around the village the locals were gathering, washing, and drying the stuff on the ground or on racks. It was a miyeok explosion, with the skin of the sea plant hanging from rope lines everywhere, blowing in the ocean wind like ragged clumps of hair. As I made my way to the harbor, I spied an old man hanging up huge strands of the stuff. As I approached, he stopped his work and met my eyes.

I offered a shallow bow, as well as a formal greeting, but he just cocked his head and stared, taking me in with an inscrutable gaze. It would be a stretch to call these islanders friendly, but they weren’t exactly hostile, either. They just had no idea what to make of me.

I left the village behind me, strolling up the tiny coast road, whose surface was in disrepair, cracking and crumbling from erosion and disuse. On one side was a wall of rock topped with trees; on the other, the sea.

As I made my way up the road I came upon an abandoned school in a clearing below. The dirt lot in front of the empty building was littered with piles of rubbish, making for a thoroughly ugly scene. I was suddenly saddened by this school. It had been made useless by time, abandoned by the students themselves, who grew up and sensibly emigrated off the island in pursuit of a modern life. Now there were no young people left. The building had outlived its usefulness and now just sat as a neglected, hollowed-out museum of trash.

The young people left long ago. Who will be around after the old are gone? Is it possible that much of this country’s rural heart will just be abandoned, left for nature to reclaim?

I’ve traveled extensively in the Korean countryside, and it is shocking to consider just how aged the rural population really is. Children only appear as visitors, while the local residents are deep elderly–all hunched backs and lined faces. The young people left long ago. Who will be around after the old are gone? Is it possible that much of this country’s rural heart will just be abandoned, left for nature to reclaim?     

As I approached the island’s second village–a larger settlement lacking the cozy splendor of Hodu–I noticed another, even smaller road, leading up inland to my left. A sign reading “POW Camp” pointed up that way, so I turned off the main track and hiked up the rise, passing through fields of high grass home to a family of bleating black goats. At the top was a clearing with another sign, indicating the physical location of the camp. During the Korean War POW, camps were set up on many of these southern islands, as water makes for the best guarantee against escape. As I scanned the clearing around me, I could make out little remaining infrastructure of the camp itself, other than a half collapsed wall and a round depression in front of me that had served as the foundation of a building of sorts. These ruins looked much older than sixty years old and did little to impress, since there was so little of them to take in. Still, they got my imagination rolling. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been the first foreigner on this island since the last American soldier left in 1953.


I made my way back to my minbak in Hodu, but this time over the spine of the island. I followed the road, which was now a dirt track, up toward the main peak of the island, into Yongchodo’s deep pine woods. As I pressed on, I heard the sudden snapping of branches to my right, catching a glimpse of a deer bounding off into the underbrush. I had seen deer on a couple of other occasions on the peninsula, but still felt my heart stop.

Taking in larger wildlife is a rare thing in Korea; any time it happens the moment must be savored. That’s exactly what I did, and it paid off, for just five minutes later I scared up another, this one a buck, and pretty massive by Korean standards. He blazed down the side of the mountain in a frenzied crackle, crushing any brush in his path. By the end of my little ascent I had stumbled across two more – more deer in one hour than I had seen in more than a decade in the country. And the best part was, since climbing up from the second village, I hadn’t come across a single human being. I’m sure they would have just gawked at me anyway.

The road soon dissolved into a hiking path, which itself disappeared under the cover of the forest. The only thing marking the ascent was a series of orange tape pieces tied to the tree branches and shrubs, stubbornly visible in the dissolving light. I pressed on, sweating hard under my thick winter jacket and fleece, almost running up the mountain in a race with the sinking sun.

Soon I found myself at the top, where I gasped to catch my breath and took in a partial view through the trees. I bundled up against the piercing winds and looked out to sea, where I noticed a squall some miles out, a black cloud streaking into the churning waves. The storm obscured the sun, whose final rays arced through the fringes of the dark mass in incandescent blasts. Beyond that I could see Tongyeong, with its fat mountain and string of cable cars, and in the other direction, right there across across the water, the twin rises of Bijindo, which would just have to wait until next time.

 


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