South Korea’s Saryangdo Island for a Pandemic Break

Saryangdo, South Korea's ragged ridge hike. Photo by: Erin Honigman "The best hike in South Korea!"
Saryangdo, South Korea’s ragged ridge hike “The best hike in South Korea!” Erin Honigman photos.

Hiking Saryangdo, an Island off the Coast of South Korea

By: Erin Honigman

The boss and his pointing stick giving directions in Saryangdo
The boss and his pointing stick giving directions in Saryangdo.

Wow.

Did he really just say that? I think to myself, annoyed.

“Every Korean person I see isn’t wearing a mask,” is what I wanted to say, but in my kindergarten level Korean, I was only able to spit out, “Korean people no mask.”

South Korea's Saryangdo Island for a Pandemic Break 1The little old man replied in perfect English, “Yes, but when you board the ferry, YOU need a mask.”

How do folks in the middle of nowhere speak better English than students at an engineering university? And fine, I nodded and pointed to the mask diligently waving off my wrist like a flag. Seeing it as a symbol of surrender, the man walked away triumphantly, momentarily assured that I won’t be spreading any viruses today.

At least the ferry is running. When I arrived at the ticket office only ten minutes earlier, a woman took one look at me before crossing her arms in a big ‘X’ shape and shouting, “Cancel!”. I suppose even mechanical giants like ferries aren’t immune to weather.

Luckily, the windy weather and the ‘X’ woman have changed their minds, and soon we were well on the way to Saryangdo Island, South Korea. Although I’ve lived in Korea for way too long, I haven’t heard much about Saryangdo and had little expectations.

I was off of work until September, but due to global restrictions, I had to cancel a trip to visit my boyfriend in America. I needed some domestic travel to ease the pain. A quick google search of “best hikes in Korea” led me here, for better or for worse.

The theme of this hike? Surrounded by blue in Saryangdo, South Korea.
The theme of this hike? Surrounded by blue in Saryangdo, South Korea.

Arriving at Saryangdo

The wind is still bad, but the ferry arduously keeps lurching forward. And suddenly the colors all fade into one along the horizon. The most brilliant shades of sapphire blue contrast with the white clouds, sitting low in the sky. The mountain ridge that I’ll cross tomorrow zigs and zags, jutting bright green against the cobalt canvas.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

Aboard the ferryboat to Saryangdo Island, South Korea.
Aboard the ferryboat to Saryangdo Island, South Korea.

I’m aware that I feel intensely, suspiciously calm. It’s a feeling that I can only describe as knowing that every decision you’ve made up until now is the correct one.

I depart the ferry, tagging along behind the five or so other passengers. Why have they come out to this little speck of land in the middle of the week? I wonder if they feel the same calm.

Street Cats Everywhere on Saryangdo

Saryangdo is like no place I’ve experienced in Korea. The island is populated by street cats, and one relieves himself only a few feet away from me.

My sole souvenir from Saryangdo, South Korea: a handkerchief from the pension owner's wife with a map of the hike.
My sole souvenir from Saryangdo, South Korea: a handkerchief from the pension owner’s wife with a map of the hike.

The human inhabitants of the island aren’t wearing masks, and every one sports a healthy tan. It’s the kind of small-town Korea where there are no foreigners, yet no one stops to stare or make me feel out of place, because, who cares about foreigners?

Abruptly, the silent spell is broken. A black truck barrels up to the ferry stop, dust flying. A little man with a Hawaiian shirt and blinding white hair hops out, full of energy. “Get in!” yells the pension owner.

I really have no choice but to oblige. There are no taxis on this island, so the only other option is to walk an hour to my lodging.

The man pulls over on what you could call a highway, meaning one or two cars pass by each hour. “Car out!” he yells, gesturing to me to exit the vehicle, as he crosses the road to show me a map of Saryangdo’s ridge trails.

Underneath the wooden map, there is a big stick, which he grabs to emphasize his explanation. I wonder if it’s there by happenstance, or if that’s his personal pointing stick, kept tucked away safely for this very purpose.

He shows me where I will be starting and ending my hike tomorrow, and I nod, eager to continue on to the pension and rid myself of this bulky, touristy backpack.

For those who have acrophobia, I recommend descending backwards.
For those who have acrophobia, I recommend descending backward.

Dandihae Pension and beach

Wow. There’s a trend in this narrative, and it’s that my jaw is consistently hitting the ground.

We arrive at the pension. My room (a free upgrade) has windows and a patio that overlooks the most unspoiled beach I’ve ever seen.

The blue and green sea dissolves into the brightest sky, and the horizon is dotted with mountains.

Giving up Lives in the City

The family who owns the pension and I make small talk. They tell me how they gave up their lives in the big city of Daegu to move here seven years ago.

They own three pensions in total and are totally at home on the island, along with their big golden retriever. They seem different than most people I meet in urban Korea.

Relaxed?

Lighter, maybe? Happier. Relaxed. That’s it, relaxed. They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Korean but somehow, we understand each other perfectly.

I go for a swim and grab some snacks and beer for dinner. When I say this island is populated by cats, it’s seriously no joke.

The only convenience store within walking distance to the beach is filled with them, and the smell is what you’d expect. I’d suggest canned foods only.

I run into some fisherman, a few dogs, and a man who moved here for retirement. They all talk to me in Korean as if I too lived there and it’s the most normal thing in the world. I am happy.

The hike

I wake up early with the rising sun. The morning view is even better than the day before, as two kittens are stretching on my patio. They scatter when I make my way down to the office because the owner has offered “a pick up” to the bus stop where I will begin the day’s journey. (I don’t have the heart to explain the difference between pick up and drop off).

This doesn't feel very safe, the author thought.
This doesn’t feel very safe, the author thought.

Before, however, his wife insists that I have some eggs and coffee for breakfast, and I’d be lying if I told you those weren’t the best eggs I’ve ever eaten.

How does food even taste better here?

She gives me a gift in the form of a handkerchief with a map of the ridge. She makes sure I know where I’m going, checks to see if I have enough water (“좋아 – good”), and sends me on my way. Her husband drives me to a bus stop, escorts me to my seat, and tells the driver where to let me off.

The bus meanders up and down hills and around dangerous curves, and each new vista is a deeper shade of blue than the last. I can’t help but smile.

Jeju Island South Korea:
Beautiful Island of the Gods

The bus driver looks at me and motions that this is my stop. I hop off and start up a muddy trail, slick from the previous weekend rains, and steeper than I imagined.

As usual, I did little to no research about the logistics of this hike, and I’m already worried that I didn’t bring enough food. By the time I break through the tree line, I’m already out of breath and can’t focus on anything but moving straight ahead.

 

Wow.

As far forward as the eyes can in front of me, there is rock.

Jirisan the first peak
Jirisan, the first peak on the hike.

This can’t possibly be correct, I think to myself.

A man comes up on the trail behind me. “There is no road,” I say in broken Korean. He laughs, points up, and proceeds to scramble up the rock wall and out of sight.

No Path, No Road

This is a common theme throughout the five-hour hike. Where there is no path or road, just go up. I am on my hands and knees for a large portion of this hike, and when it was time to descend, I choose to scoot down the steep rocky slides like a toddler who hasn’t yet learned to walk. This hike is not for people with acrophobia, and if you do go, make sure you are wearing proper hiking shoes.

The first peak along the trail is called Jirisan, where I sit on a rock and eat a chocolate bar among what seems like hundreds of dragonflies. All around me, there is blue, the bugs are buzzing, and I feel overwhelmed at the beauty of it all.

This is the kind of place that will make you believe in something bigger than yourself.

Sharing a meal with the white haired man: my new friend.
Sharing a meal with the white-haired man: my new friend.

The rest of the hike continues in a series of “wows” at the pure joy of nature, and nervous laughter as I look down the steep edge of the mountainside. The route includes a steel rail on a thin ledge which I cling to as I scramble forward, two suspension bridges, and endless views.

The Saryangdo ridge hike seems to go on forever, and then just as abruptly as it started, it ends. I am truly sad and already feel nostalgia for the long, solo walk surrounded by the magic pools of turquoise and berry blue. For a few hours, the ridge was home, and putting one foot in front of the other was all that mattered. Back to the real world.

The last night

Upon exiting the path near the ferry, I go into a supermarket, looking to reward myself in the form of beer and snacks. The woman working at the register surprises me again by speaking to me in English.

I sit outside with a beer, waiting for my second “pick up” of the day, and two men who also just finished the hike offer me a cup of rice wine. They too are not island residents, and they seem to be the only people shocked at the sight of a solo foreign girl out here.

The pension’s truck comes barreling down the small road, and the owner’s wife greets me with a warm smile and a wave-like I’m an old friend. We arrive back at home, and she gives me a bag of three boiled eggs, as she’s worried that I didn’t have enough to eat (if you’re counting – that’s five eggs so far today).

I relax for a bit, indulging in that post-hike bliss. I go sit on the beach before finding something to eat (please let there be something other than the cat lady’s shop.) The white-haired man trundles on over.

A Family Dinner on Saryangdo Island

map 1

After we discuss the joy of island life, he asks what I plan on eating. Probably snacks and can of tuna, I admit dejectedly. Wrong! He invites me to his family dinner.

His son owns a fishing boat and has just caught fresh 회. He also happens to be a chef; I suppose it’s common to be a jack of all trades when you’re living on an island.

The family dinner is full of laughs, body language, and beer. My plate is never empty; we eat fresh sashimi, pickled potatoes, kimchi, and sushi.

The white-haired man looks solemn as the dinner is winding down, and he asks me to please come back before I leave Korea next year. I’m one of the family. He also says he might visit me in the United States one day.

I imagine that white-haired man in the bright Hawaiian shirt, bursting with energy, showing up at my door.

I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

IF YOU GO

Take an intercity bus to Tongyeong. From there, you need to take the local bus number 670 or a 10,000 won taxi to Gaochi (가오치) ferry terminal. And while there are numerous other pensions, I 100% recommend staying at Dandihae Pension.

Erin HonigmanErin Honigman is an avid traveler in her early thirties. She currently teaches English at a University in South Korea. In her free time, she enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and exploring the mountainous countryside on the Korean peninsula.

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