On a hike to kimchi and kindness
The hospitality on Jeju Island makes for an ideal South Korean walking holiday
THE Korean woman in stretch pants and jumper, a blue scarf knotted at her throat, awaits us at a bend in the lane. She bows deeply and smiles, then points the way to her house, past pocket-sized fields hemmed by stone walls, cherry trees smothered in springtime blossom, neatly tended vegetable beds and wire enclosures where hens forage in the dirt.
A greenhouse planted with tangerine trees stands next to the house. Swallows nest in the eaves, flitting about to observe the two of us easing toes out of hiking boots and donning slippers by the front door. She shows us our room; there are no beds, but built-in wardrobes reveal mats, quilts and pillows. A tray, set with cups of milky coffee, is placed on the floor in front of us. Our host hops up and down with the grace and agility of a child, though she must be in her 70s or 80s.
The minbak (bed and breakfast) is in Nansan-ri, a village 5kmfrom the northeast coast of the volcanic island of Jeju, an hour’s flight from Seoul. We have just walked 18km of the Jeju Olle Trail, a hiking path that loops 400km around the coast and countryside of Jeju.
Roughly the size of Flinders Island, Jeju’s natural wonders have drawn generations of holiday-makers from the mainland, and earned it several UNESCO plaudits. Its dormant volcano, Mount Hallasan, is South Korea’s highest peak and Jeju boasts the world’s longest lava tube. The oval-shaped island is studded with 368 oreum, inactive volcanoes that afford hazy views of shady forests, swaths of greenhouses and fertile terraced fields spreading to the coast.
The idea of the trail ( olle means a narrow path leading from the road to one’s doorstep) was conceived by journalist Suh Myung-sook, whose slow walk across Spain on the Camino de Santiago inspired her to create a pilgrims’ way in Jeju. Koreans work grindingly long hours and get few holidays. Suh hoped that Jeju’s subtle beauty would revive jaded minds and work-weary bodies.
Using picks and shovels, volunteers unearthed forgotten forest paths and linked them with country lanes and beach and cliff-top tracks. The Jeju Olle Trail opened in 2007; there are now 20 routes, between 10km and 20km in length. We plan a six-day hike: Routes 1 to 4 along the south coast and Routes 13 and 14 up the west coast, travelling by bus in between. We have light backpacks, a guidebook and pockets full of Korean won (there are no ATMs in the villages), but no booked accommodation. Despite a grim weather forecast, the freedom is exhilarating.
Buoyed by the kindness of a young stranger who helps us buy our first ticket at the Jeju City bus station, we are on our way, ready to feel the pulse of Jeju’s coastal villages, journey to its rural heart, clamber up volcanoes, sleep on the floor and eat kimchi for breakfast.
Climbing Malmi Oreum, the path is springy matting underfoot, but the sky is chucking it down. As well as wearing anoraks, we are toting umbrellas, and I fear we will lift off, Mary Poppins-style, on the next blast of wind. We buy warming pot noodles from a woman in a hut on the edge of a wood. Seongsan Ilchulbong, the famous volcanic tuff cone, is swallowed up by swirling cloud when we stop for the day at Gwangchigi Beach.
The next morning we set off in drizzle, but the weather picks up and before long it is T-shirt warm. Each day we leave the main roads for country byways and seaside tracks. Signage is excellent. The terrain is mostly gentle with occasional steep climbs.
Citrus trees, barley, buckwheat and tea thrive in the rich volcanic soil. We pass fields where teams of women pull onions from the earth. On the summit of Mang Oreum, woodpeckers cheeping in the birches, we meet an old woman harvesting wild greens for dinner. Another shoulders a sack of fungi along the road. Burial mounds shelter in tiny walled fields in forest clearings. We pass mossy statues called dol hareubang, bulging-eyed stone grandfathers believed to bestow protection and fertility.
Along the south coast we catch sight of black dots bobbing in the blue sea; these are the haenyeo, legendary female free-divers. These Amazons of the ocean wear heavy lead belts, and haul ashore mesh bags loaded with seaweed and shellfish. At Haevichi Beach, we sidestep seaweed laid out to dry on netting weighed down with stones. A woman bags up shellfish and zips off on a Hyosung scooter, the fresh catch perched between her knees. Most haenyeo are in their 60s and 70s. Jeju’s young women are not following in their mothers’ footsteps and it is feared that this generation of divers will be the last.
With a bit of help from kindly Koreans, we find lodgings at the end of each day. A local plasterer directs us to our smiley host at the Nansan-ri minbak. At Yongsu Pogu, a west-coast fishing village, the pension is closed, but the quayside cafe owner phones the proprietor who returns from the supermarket to welcome us. From our balcony we gaze across fields and wind turbines to the brooding and misty Mount Hallasan. We wake refreshed on a mat on the floor, and eat dried fish for breakfast. It is the last day of our hike. The sun is high in the sky and the ocean a fathomless blue as we amble through seaside villages.
At Hallim, the end of Route 14, we sit on the harbour wall and chat to an e-commerce worker from Seoul. We ask how many routes she has done. She says she flies down one weekend a month to hike another.
‘‘I’ll finish next January,’’ tells us. ‘‘I live in a tiny flat. My job is pressure, pressure, pressure. After walking on Jeju, I return to Seoul refreshed.’’
Top Drying squid at Yongsu Pogu on the west coast of Jeju Island above left Dol hareubang, stone grandfathers bestowing protection and fertility above right Dinner at a minbak consists of an assortment of dishes