▲ The 19-kilometer-long Olle trail 15 takes hikers on a meandering path along country roads, beside coastal waters and through verdant farmland. Photos by Lee Hae Sun (left and top), Darryl Coote (bottom right)
If hiking were an Olympic sport, Korea might dominate the podium, probably with a Jeju native claiming the gold medal. This is in part due to the Olle walking trails which have transformed the island into a trekker’s haven with 15 routes that almost circumvent the island. The trails are long, winding paths that cross the coast, skirt through forests, traverse many oreum or secondary volcanic cones and saunter through villages. The enthusiasm Koreans have for hiking and for the Olle trails in particular resulted in a number 8 ranking in the Samsung Economic Research Institute’s Top 10 Hit Products of 2009. The trails were also deemed to be the most desirable destination in South Korean by a recent Korean Tourism Organization poll.
The latest installment in Olle’s routes, trail 15, opened Dec. 26 and begins where number 14 left off, at Hallim Harbor. The day I embarked upon this 19-kilometer hike was warmer than average for February and instilled in me a false sense of confidence that this would be a walk in the park. The walk from the harbor started rather unromantically with industrial refuge and concrete structures, but this was quickly replaced by fleets of squid boats, men mending nets and the smells of diesel fumes and fresh fish.
The trail does not linger near the harbor for long but juts up through Hallim village and enters the Gwiduk farmlands, where the smell of the harbor is replaced by the scent of onions, garlic and cabbage. Throughout the trail, my olfactory organs were constantly met with the aroma of wet soil and citrus, but the overwhelming scent of spices mixed with sweat from my walk reminded me of why I came to this island and, more importantly, why I stayed. This was by far the most enjoyable part of the trail. The rolling hills were transformed into green seas and violet coasts under the cabbage patches. Men and woman toiled in their fields as Halla Mountain, with its summit covered in snow, stood grand and imposing against the sky; a timeless Jeju that seemed unaware of the suitclad denizens of Jeju City and the Jungmun tourists wading through attraction after attraction.
▲ Olle trail 15, like most, also takes walkers through villages. Photo by Lee Hae Sun
To signify the end of the farmland, the trail passed a colorful Shamanic temple, a perfect spot to rest before heading on to Nameup forest where there are remnants of doldam, or stone fences, which once surrounded a stone fortress built during the Koryo Dynasty to ward off the Mongolians. Most of this washed over me. I had been so impressed with Gwiduk that everything else paled in comparison. By the time I arrived at Geumsan Park, roughly the trail’s halfway mark, muscle fatigue had begun to set in and the “trek of self reflection,” as founder Suh Myung Sook intended all the Olle trails to be, became a trial of putting one foot in front of the other while counting down the kilometers until the end. For a non-hiker like myself, 10 kilometers was enough, but I had an article to write and even had I wanted to stop, I would have been completely lost. It seemed a safer bet to follow the subtle orange and blue ribbons that mark out the path to their end.
Geusam Park is designated as a National Monument by the central Government and is home to more than 200 species of subtropical plants. The forest is part of a gotjawal area, known to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I was hot from exertion, but these trees made me stop my determined stumble to the finish. They were thin with gray bark and each had sinewy, brittle vines corkscrewed around their trunks. They must have grown in unison, for in the places where the vine had been broken there was a prominent and permanent indentation in the tree.
Once through Geusam Park, the trail ascends Gwaoreum at about the 15 kilometer point. I cursed all the way up the rubber and rope path that lay over the red soil and every time I thought I had reached the peak of the oreum, the path kept going up. Finally, at the top of Gwaoreum, also known as Gonebong (Gone Peak), I collapsed on a wooden bench. As my muscles ached and my chest heaved I turned on my side and looked out across the west side of Jeju. The sun had muted with only an hour before setting and its light reflected off the ocean. From the top of Gonebong I was able to see the purple and green patchwork of Gwiduk farm lands, other oreum that were dwarfed by the one I was on and yet others that were even taller. Jeju Island is a place I see as being so small, a place I describe to those back home as a four-hour motorcycle ride to circumnavigate, but from where I was lying Jeju was bigger than I had ever seen it before. It had beaten me and would never know it.
Overhead I saw an airplane, one of many I had seen that afternoon, probably filled with day-trippers and honeymooning couples, of businessmen in shiny suits, coming in droves to Jeju for the Olle trails. I wondered how long before this solitary journey would become a trip one takes alone amid hundreds of other walkers on their own searches for self-reflection.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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