On a hike to kim­chi and kind­ness

The hos­pi­tal­ity on Jeju Is­land makes for an ideal South Korean walk­ing hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - JILL HOCK­ING

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.’’

PIC­TURES: AN­DREW LECKY

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

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