Sent to the volcanic island of Cheju, 60 miles south of the Korean mainland, for mountaineering training, I didn't know a thing about the place except that it was said to be an example of a diminishing "real" Korea.
After two days of climbing steep trails and rappelling off granite cliffs to black sand beaches below, I now sat in a tiny fish-house restaurant, surrounded by a group of half-drunken Koreans, many of them gawking at this wide-eyed American. I was becoming pleasantly warmed by a strong potato-based alcoholic drink called soju.
A Korean soldier friend was translating for me, in his slurred, broken English, the equally slurred conversation directed at me by the owner-manager-cook of the restaurant.
"He say he newspaperman. He work on peninsula but government doesn't like what he say so he fire. He come to Cheju Do and open restaurant."
Cheju Island, as I later learned, has served as an area of exile for Korean radicals and criminals. Fortunately for me, this man who had prepared my spicy fish soup was not a criminal, and he ordered for me -- on the house -- another bottle of soju. Our waitress giggled from behind her hands after she gave me the bottle, in the respectful, two-handed manner of the country.
This friendliness pervaded most of my experiences with the people of Korea I met during 14 months there. It is a country I will revisit.
The first Europeans to tell the Western world about Korea were Dutch sailors who shipwrecked on Cheju Island during the summer of 1653. Their ship, the Sparrow Hawk, was sailing from Taiwan toward Nagasaki when it met strong and deadly Cheju winds that forced it onto the rocks of the island's south shore near the village of Mosulp'o. Thirteen years later, eight of the men made it back to Holland and spread the word.
Today, with annual exports of $35 billion, the Republic of Korea is an industrialized nation of world economic importance. The 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul will focus further attention on the country. But the island of Cheju is another story. A picturesque, subtropical paradise of unique natural beauty, it is a place clearly separate and different from the mainland. Cheju's people, too, have historically been somewhat independent of the mainland's ways. Even their dialect is difficult for native mainlanders to understand. For centuries the island was known by Koreans as "the place over there."
This is not to say Cheju is unpopular with mainlanders. Far from it: Because of the island's relatively mild weather and its historical, cultural and geographic differences from the mainland, Cheju is a favorite vacation site for Koreans -- particularly honeymooners. Aside from its romantic aspects, the island offers lots to do, with 18 sandy beaches, fishing, camping, diving and, during the winter, skiing and shooting.
Cheju Do is oval-shaped, surrounded by the clear turquoise and deep blue waters of the East China Sea and the Korea Strait. Its shores are dramatically rocky, and 6,397-foot Mount Halla towers over the island. There is a crater lake and alpine vegetation at its peak. About 300 minor volcanic peaks give varying contour to the rest of the island.
Warm sea currents from the south and Mount Halla's protection from cold winds of the north allow cultivation of oranges, pineapples, bananas and some species of palms on the island's southern shore. In the winter, snow-peaked Mount Halla provides contrast to the valleys of green and fruited orange groves.
Above all, Cheju Island revels in its traditions. It has long been known as the land of three abundances: rocks, wind and women. All are immediately evident to any visitor to the island.
Some of the world's highest wind velocities have been recorded on the slopes of Mount Halla. The houses and fields throughout Cheju are enclosed by rock walls to protect them from the winds.
The rocks of granite, basalt and lava were strewn across the land and into the sea during the Earth's Tertiary period, when volcanic eruptions created the island. (The volcanoes, however, have not been active in more than 300 years.) To cultivate the land, farmers have to remove the rocks from their fields, and visitors can see the countless wind-breaking walls that create patterns across the land.
Lava rock also was used by the islanders to build their houses, which they finished off with thatched roofs of rice straw. The thatching was tied down with rope and stones, in defense against the wind. Many of these sturdy old houses are still inhabited. They are in contrast to the modern Cheju houses, which are constructed of brick and topped with tile or corrugated iron roofs of bright orange, blue, yellow or green. They add blocks of orderly primary colors to the sprawling green landscapes.
Cheju's third abundance is women, and just as the straits separate the island from the mainland, so does the history of the women of Cheju Do. On the Korean mainland and throughout Asia, women historically have been subservient to their men. But in traditional Cheju society, the women worked and the men stayed home to care for the children.
This has changed, but women still are highly respected on the island. Indeed, they play a vital role in its seafaring tradition.
The island's diving women, or haenyo, are an enduring, if curious, attraction. These amphibious gatherers, who range from 15-year-old schoolgirls to 70-year-old grandmothers, look like seals bobbing in the waves as they dive to depths of up to 60 feet for abalone, octopus, sea urchins and crabs. It seems that they will catch and bag any creature they can outswim.
The haenyo used to wear white, one-piece cotton swimsuits, but they've switched to the warming insulation of black rubber wetsuits. Without oxygen tanks, they free-dive to the sea bottom with only the air in their lungs; they can remain there for three to four minutes. When they surface with their catch, they pierce the air with a high-pressure, oxygen-deprived shriek.
Lim Wan Ho, a Korean soldier who grew up on Cheju Do, told me this story of the haenyo and the traditional Cheju life style:
"From once upon a time until now, Cheju Do women have been sea women. A young man had a wife. She went to the sea. But once she went to sea and she did not come back. He waited quietly for her forever on the seashore. Finally, he became a stone like this."
Lim was referring to the smiling grandfather-stones, the tolharubang, found throughout the island. These man-like images, carved from lava rock, are estimated to be from 300 to 500 years old. They resemble statues found on Easter Island, Okinawa, Fiji and Bali, according to anthropologists, and are regarded by Cheju natives as fertility symbols. Replicas of the statues are best sellers in souvenir ships around the island.
Manjang, a four-mile-long lava tube, is another popular sight on the island. When the island's volcanoes were erupting, streams of lava flowed down to the sea. In some areas they crusted over after cooling on the outside. The liquid lava inside flowed out, leaving a long cave-like tube. Manjang reputedly is the longest lava tube in the world. Visitors can enter the cave and follow a lighted path for about a mile.
Dragon Rock, on the island's north shore near Cheju City, is famous for its serpent-like silhouette and the legend of a vain dragon that tried to climb from the sea into heaven, only to be petrified by the gods. Another story says the dragon descended from Mount Halla and was turned to stone when it tried to enter the sea. Whatever the legend, the "dragon" is a large piece of volcanic rock that has been sculpted by the sea.
Sunrise Peak, on the island's east shore, is the crown of another extinct volcano. It rises 182 meters above the sea, which breaks against it on three sides. Visitors climb cut-rock stairs to the top for one of the best views of the island. The top of the cone is huge, open and grassy -- it looks like a displaced moon crater. Rock cliffs and long green fields slope to its shores below. The peak is the first point on the island warmed by sunlight each morning.
At the village of Songsan at the base of this mountain, visitors can sample Cheju delicacies such as fresh boiled octopus or dried squid. Live fish also can be selected from tanks to be prepared as shushimi, a Korean-style sushi.
The Chongbang Waterfall, which cascades 75 feet directly into the sea, is another popular sight on Cheju Island. There are several waterfalls around the island, and the pools below some of them contain man-eating eels, the Koreans say. For visitors who don't care to swim with monstrous eels, revenge can be had at most restaurants, where eels are served fresh daily. Eelskin wallets and handbags also are available.
At the center of the island, Mount Halla -- designated a national park in 1970 -- is a hiker's pleasure. The summit can be reached in about 2 1/2 hours from the base, and is regarded as one of the three sacred peaks of Korea. At the top of the island you can see the Korean mainland.
Just inland from the southeast coast, Songup, the island's 15th-century capital, stands as a living monument to tradition. There are 300 stone and thatched-roofed homes here, as well as several tolharubang. Visitors can wander freely as they observe villagers working at centuries-old tasks.
But even as these traditions endure, Cheju Island is developing and changing. With modern travel and communications, the island and its way of life is meshing with the mainland. To many Koreans, the unique Cheju Do culture is moving further into the past.
After the 1988 Summer Olympics awaken the world to Korea, chances are Cheju Do will become yet another commercial tourist haven. For now, though, it is still "the island over there." Fariss Samarrai is a free-lance writer currently at work on a novel set in Korea.