Thursday, 3 April 2014

A week in Jeju-do

From 26 March to 1 April, I attended the 19 International TOVS Study Conference on Jeju, Korea.  I arrived two days prior to explore Jeju.  The first day I described in a previous blog post.  Here I describe the rest of the trip.

Tuesday 25 March

Unlike yesterday, I decide to try the (expensive) hotel breakfast at Hana hotel.  They have many different things, that I would consider rather lunch or dinner than breakfast, and most things are not vegetarian. They do have corn flakes and milk, and I settle for that.

Today I follow Jeju-olle in the opposite direction, heading east from the hotel.  It has started raining softly as I depart from the hotel in the morning, and the forecast has intensifying rain in the afternoon. I still wake up early due to the jet-lag, so I can start in good time with the hike.  I hope to eat lunch in Gangyeong, so I should be there on time.

Eastward, Jeju-olle soon descends into the Jungmun valley, and I cross the river flowing down the gorge on a set of stepping stones.  On the other side I momentarily lose the trail, as I am passing along "Pacificland", an entertainment park with "Dolpin and monkey shows".  This is the kind of sadistic torture sell against any refrain from direct, ALF-style action should be considered immoral.  What a shame that this exists. Is it because I'm in Asia, or do torture shows exist in "The West" still?

The difficulty of Jeju-olle is highly variable.  One moment it's tarmac, the next moment it passes along a somewhat tricky rocky passage, tricky enough for me to momentarily use my hands.  It's good hiking, although even in the rain I meet a lot of other hikers.  As far as I can tell, they are all Korean.  Overall, Chinese make up a very large share of Jeju tourists, but I have yet to identify Chinese hikers.  But I could miss if some are in the crowds of Koreans.

주상절리 (Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff)

Next, I pass along 주상절리 or the Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff, a famous part of the coast, with spectacular basalt hexagonal columns.  To join the queue of tourists bussed in as part of their Jeju trips which may be as short as a day (advertisement encourage tourists to spend the night on Jeju, rather than fly-in fly-out the same day) I would need to pay an entrance fee, which is not my cup of tea.  I get a new map from the small tourist station here, and continue along the coast.Suddenly I come across a giant, spectacular, buddhist temple, the 약천사 (Yakcheonsa) temple. It has started raining more heavily, and I take off my shoes (as required) to go in.  Inside, buddhist monks are singing while kneeling in front of three huge Buddha statues.  I had no clue there was such a temple here, but this must be one of the major sites on Jeju; and one of the few authentic man-made ones.  Great to see that Jeju has those too, apart from the plethora of museums for teddy bears, chocolate, sex, greek mythology, hello kitty, "3D alive", "believe it or not", and dozens of others — supposedly there are well over a hundred places calling themselves museum, and under the influx of huge masses of Chinese tourists, their number is growing rapidly.  So it's good to see some authenticity on Jeju "Las Vegas" island.  The temple has three stories, and I spend quite a bit of time inside, aweing at the work of previous generations. Certainly the most impressive man-made thing I am to see this week.
약천사 (Yakcheonsa) temple

약천사 (Yakcheonsa) temple

When I get out it has briefly stopped raining, and I continue on Jeju-olle in the direction of Gangjeong.  The rain intensifies again, and large amounts come flowing off the tangerine greenhouses that dominate this area.  They remind me of the banana plantations on La Palma; although not as tropical, they are a genuine non-touristic local source of income. And they block the view.  There are less people hiking here, but that could also be due to the heavy rain or the proximity of the Gangjeong naval base, a Korean base built for US ships that is under construction, and which has destroyed a part of the coast.  A small number of peace activists still live permanently in Gangjeong, which they are turning into a peace village.  Indeed, Jeju-olle abruptly turns inland as the beautiful Jeju coastline suddenly makes place for walls and cranes.

In Gangjeong, I'm not paying attention terribly well, and at first miss the peace village while passing straight through it.  After walking around for 20 minutes and asking for help, it turns out that the peace center is right in the middle of the village, and that I should have seen it straight away.  I don't see anybody inside, but decide to enter and greet.  Someone rises from a sofa and calls me welcome in OK English.  Moments later, a man enters who later introduces himself as Mario from Japan, where he spends a good deal of his time in Okinawa. Coincidentally, we have arrived at roughly the same time.

I am brought to the peace restaurant, which turns out to be right by the Jeju-olle.  It's rather a shed, but inside some 20 people are finishing their lunch.  There is still food left for me, and they have plenty of vegetarian alternatives.  I am introduced to an American activist who has made this his home.  Finally someone with whom I can talk "normally". He explains the history and the background of the peace village to me. The navy base is built by the Koreans, but the design is fully American, and the official story of the base motivations simply doesn't hold. It's supposed to be for the Korean navy and motivated by the conflict between South and North Korea, but this is as far from the North as one can get, so it makes no sense.  It's also supposed to be able to welcome civilian (!) cruise ships, which again doesn't make sense for a military base; it would be a world first, and what giant cruise ship would call at a small village turned into a navy base?  Rather, every corner of the design echoes US military aircraft carrier ships, and the strategic location for the South China sea.  It's really about China, no matter how much the government denies it.

We continue our conversation in the Peace Library, near the Peace Center. The activists aim to turn Gangjeong into a peace village.  It is clear that the base is being built and can't be stopped anymore.  But activism might still have an effect in the longer term.  By turning Gangjeong into a peace village, with a peace center, peace library, peace restaurant, and frequent peace-related events, perhaps they can influence visitors, perhaps even military soldiers coming off the base.  And there are rumous that Korean political plans are not limited to this one military base, but that they might plan more.  To turn Jeju into Okinawa.  Locals and peace activists want to prevent that, so this activism is a long-term effort. Every morning, they get up before sunrise to perform 100 bows at 7:00, in front of the base.  And at 11:00, they have a catholic mass.  This detail, I find the most surprising element of the protests.  In Korea, the catholic minority is a progressive force, not a conservative one like in Europe and North America.  Activists and villagers are trying to get the pope to visit Jeju on his Korea visit later in 2014, but it appears that no Jeju visit is planned in the preliminary programme. In the evening, I take the bus back to Jungmun Resort and move from Hana Hotel to Lotte Hotel.  From now on, my stay is financed by the International TOVS Working Group (ITWG), where TOVS is TIROS Operational Vertical Sounder, and TIROS is Television Infra-Red Orbital Satellite. But ITWG includes microwave and sub-millimetre.  Lotte Hotel is incredibly luxurious.  As I enter, at least a dozen employpees are standing in a huge lobby, directing us (a large number of conference-goers just arrived by bus) to the check-in reception.  ITWG pays my stay and my breakfast, which is not included by default.

The entrance is on the 8th floor, and my room is on the 10th.  As often in luxurious hotels, it seems the assumption is that everybody takes the elevator; the stairs can only be recognised by the "emergency exit" sign.  As I enter my huge room (with two beds, one seems to be King Size, the other Full Size), a bathroom with a bath /and/ a shower, electronic controls for everything, and excellent wired internet, I hear a growing noise (some would call it music) from outside.  I enter the balcony and below me is a huge show ongoing, that I later learn to identify as the nightly Volcano Show.  10 floors down, in the garden surrounded by the hotel's three wings, is a big pond with artificial rocks and an artificial waterfall behind.  The waterfall operates daily until 22:00, and in the evening is the Volcano Show.  Holographic projections have monsters (dinosaurs?) coming out off the water and the rock, and big flares of fire are meant to destroy those.  Or perhaps it's a fight between different monsters.  All of this show is performed under quite loud music, and an increasing racket from the artificial waterfall. From my large balcony, I have a good view of the show.

Considering that the hotel advertises with this, there must be people who like it.

Wednesday 26 March

The next morning is the beginning of the conference.  There is a large selection of food for the breakfast in the "Italian Restaurant", for which my coupons are valid (there is also a Korean Restaurant, and a Japanese Restaurant).  But even in the "Italian" one, there is abalone porridge, squid soup, and many kinds of meat.  I'm not convinced that Italians eat that for breakfast.  An army of hotel employees walks around to ensure nobody needs to wait more than 30 seconds for tea or coffee, and that any food nearing completion is replaced promptly.  The one thing I'm looking for first — bread with cheese — seems to be the only food imaginable they do /not/ have.  I settle for muesli with milk, along with one of the six different kinds of juices (banana, pineapple, tangerine, and some others.

The conference is quite relevant to the work I used to do, but less so for my new project.  I still most of the talks interesting, so I'm not bored.  It is held in the same hotel, and — in my view — as severely overstaffed as the hotel itself is.  Quite a contrast to the previous edition of the conference, at Météo-France 2 years ago. We have Jeju chocolates and Jeju biscuits for the breaks, which also serve as poster-viewing sessions, and lunch is Korean.  My lunch coupons say Vegetarian, and on delivering the coupon I get a large notice which says Vegetarian, which I am to place in front of me.  Every day, lunch consists of various kinds of Kimchi (pickled vegetables, of which there are many many kinds), some kind of soup, and a main dish.  They care well for my vegetarianism, and are not confused by what it means. And by the end of the conference, I'm fluent with chopsticks.

After the last talk but before dinner, there is some spare time.  Signs in the hotel point to the private hotel beach lounge at Jungmun beach. It's only a few minutes walk down some stairs full of signs warning guests to be very careful and not fall of the stairs.  The beach is pretty, it seems natural as the sand is not really white.  There are waves, shells, and tourists, and the cliffs around the beach are quite steep. It really gives a secluded area, and if it wasn't for the various private beach lounges belonging to various luxury hotels, one might momentarily forget one is in the middle of what must be one of the most touristic development peaces of coastline in east-Asia.

The evening has a welcome dinner hosted by KMA, with a (professional?) Korean toastmaster (toastmistress) speaking flawless English.  She announces the VIPs one by one, and every time there is a music jingle as they walk to the stage where they are volunteered to say some words. Most of the words are not terribly interesting.

The food is a buffet, and all vegetarian choices are in green.  The food is very fancy, and there are not a lot of vegetarian options.  In fact, the only vegetarian option is the sole non-Korean food.  My meal consists of pasta with sauce and salad.  I'm really quite happy with that.

Thursday 27 March

Mostly conference.  In the evening I find some time to walk around, before we meet up for dinner.  There are a number of people whom I know from before, and we're five heading out of the resort for dinner.  We go in to the first restaurant we find.  Most restaurants in the area are Korean style, which means sitting on the elevated floor with tables barely large enough to put ones legs below.  Locals generally sit with their legs crossed.  We start off with a severe faux pas, namely by entering the elevated floors with our shoes on.  The waitress frantically gestures us that we should absolutely not do so, that the elevated area is to be entered on socks only.  At the middle of each table, there is a stove.

The menu is only in Korean, but there is a picture-menu.  I brought my phrasebook, and I try the sentence for "I'm vegetarian" (FIXME korean phrase).  To my pleasant surprise, this is succesful, and I order a nice vegetarian meal.  It comes, of course, with kimchi and soup; those are not even listed on the menu, they are simply coming with every meal. That is to remain so for the rest of my stay.

The others order a large plate of food to be shared with four people. I think they had no clue /what/ they ordered, except from looking at the pictures.  As the food arrives, the waitress lightens the stove on our table.  The sea snails that the others are eating are still crawling in their shells, cooked alive minutes before being eaten (alive?). We're in Korea now. After dinner, we go to a bar called Monkey Beach, next to the hotel. This is where the social events for this conference happen.  I am introduced to a game which is apparently similar to curling.  Two teams need to shove a flat cylinder over a course approximately 4x longer than wide, where there are zones numbered 1, 2, and 3, followed by an abyss implying 0.  The team closest to the abyss wins, with the number of points depending on the exact configuration.  I'm having fun, but I'm tired and don't stay late.

Friday 28 March

Today I get up early, because I want to visit the Gangjeong navy base for the daily peace protest.  At 6:30 I ask the bell desk to order me a taxi to Gangjeong.  At first they don't understand where I want to go.  Gangjeong?  Navy base?  Yes.  They're too polite to ask why.  Gangjeong is not a tourist destination, or at least not anymore.  The taxi is very cheap, just 8500 ₩ (FIXME €) for some 10 km.  Impressive.

As I arrive, nobody is in the peace center, so I head for the peace restaurant, expecting people eating breakfast.  They aren't, so I continue on my own to the navy base.  As I walk along the road, I recognise one of the people (an older Korean person) who I saw last Tuesday.  He speaks a little bit of English.  We soon arrive at the base, where the wall is full of pro-peace banners, and across the road is a permanent stand with peace-related literature and art.  We get some mattresses from the floor and lie them next to the wall.  We are three doing the peace bows this morning, and some others are walking around doing other things. Exactly at 7:00, a loudspeaker starts saying things in korean.  During every paus, we bow: from standing, down to kneeling on the mattress, while bending down to the ground.  And then we stand up again.  After a few iterations, I recognise that each sentence ends with the same words: "Jeju-ro olimnida".  Perhaps this means "Bow for Jeju"?  The 100 bows last more than 30 minutes in total.  It certainly is a good morning exercise, here in the Jeju morning sun, and a unique experience.  Too bad it's so early in the morning that I won't manage to come every day...

I head back to the hotel (by bus) for breakfast.  After a long conference day, Viju and I decide we don't feel like eating Korean food /again/, and head into town searching for western food.  This is a failure. After walking for more than an hour, we've probably passed some 50 restaurants, of which 90% or Korean and the rest either Chinese or Japanese.  Finally we give up.  Later we learn there's a pizza place moments later.  Back at Jungmun Resort there is a pizzeria in the hotel, but this one is very expensive, the cheapest pizza costs 5x more than a full meal in one of the Korean restaurants.  The other alternative are burger places, but they serve no vegetarian food.  I end up eating only a small portion of untasty fries, just before the last restaurant closes. Attempting to find western food here is a guarantee for failure.

I briefly join to the Monkey Beach bar, but I'm tired so I head back to the hotel.

Saturday 29 March

Now it's weekend, but in the morning we have working group sessions.  Not everybody has arrived.  In particular, the co-chair of our working group is apparently still sleeping, after having stayed at the Monkey Beach bar until 06:00-ish.  I have apparently missed a lot.

After lunch, two excursions are planned: first a visit to the 만장굴 (Manjangul) lava tubes, then a visit to a spectacular rock in the sea. Today it's raining and it's raining hard.  The bus was ordered to drive the mountain road, so he does, but there is nothing to see due to heavy rain and dense fog.  At least it's dry in the cave.

The lava cave is spectacular, well worth its status as a Unesco world heritage.  It's also full of buses full of tourists.  We're one of those busloads now, and as the others, we get too little time to explore properly.  We have time to run to the end, take pictures, and run back. Today we get the impression what Chinese tourists bused through Europe must be experiencing.

The second trip is cancelled due to the intense rain, and replaced by a visit to the women divers museum.  This starts with an incredibly uninformative 7-minute video in a room where we barely fit, and then we have 20 minutes to explore the 3 floors of the museum with over a 100 people.  Unique to Jeju, it is traditionally a women's job to dive for seafood (FIXME NAME)  This is done without any special diving equipment, even though they might dive 10 metre below the surface. The museum honours those divers, but is not incredibly informative. Fortunately, I discover that one of the tour guides has some personal stories to share, from her own family.  She took the women divers diploma, but not many young people do.  Most of the women divers are in their pension age, but still on-going.  The oldest is more than 80 years old.

Sunday 30 March

Today we have excursions all day.  We were supposed to do a long hike on Halla-san, the major volcano of the island, but even though it's stopped raining, it's foggy and the tour guides have decided to change the plan. Later I hear from someone who hiked to the summit on his own, and the fog cleared up so it was finally great; but this opportunity I have missed this week.

Halla-san has hundreds of side-volcanoes, according to the tour guide, more than any other volcanic island in the world.  We hike the  Eoseungsaengak  to the summit of one of them.  We're with more than a hundred people, and clearly other busloads of people hike the same route, so there's a continuous queue of people walking both up and down the volcano on the steep stairs.  It's perhaps an elevation difference of 100-150 metre, so although the hike is short, it's not nothing.  For some people it's at the edge of their abilities.  All of this in a fog so dense we completely miss the crater lake.

Next, we go down to the coastal columns I hiked by last Tuesday.  Here it's sunny, and I zip off my trousers.  With the three buses, we join with the countless of others down the wooden path to take pictures of the lava columns before being herded back into the buses.

We eat sandwiches at Jungmun beach.  Both on the bus and at the beach, I sit with a Russian environmental activist with whom I share a passion for the tundra, so it's a quite interesting day.  I ask about what it's like to hike and camp in the Russian wilderness, and I'm told that one should be careful.  Locals from rural areas are wary of Muscavites and in particular of foreigners, and when they are in large groups and get drunk, they could be dangerous.  Being away from civilisation is no guarantee that this won't happen, as they might be driving around on their quads.  I also learn about Powershift, a grassroots campaign to shift from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.  We share stories about our experiences in the environmental and the peace movement, respectively.  An interesting day.  Not many people are thrilled by seeing a vast and desolate tundra landscape, and not many people do sustainability activism.  I think I know only three who do both.  I've certainly never met any from Russia, where many people are apathetic at best.  When we depart at the end of the conference, I feel a bit sad; I should try to make new friends in Toronto, where I've been a bit lonely until now.  Why should I meet people with whom I share so many interests only when we're travelling to a place thousands of kilometres from both our homes?  Oh, and I do miss the tundra a great lot.  I should go there this year.

After lunch, we join another set of bussed people in hiking the easiest part of Jeju-olle.  One the way there we pass through Gangjeong, and I point my new friend at the banners.  In Russia, the military certainly wouldn't tolerate banners and peace activists at a military base.  In Russia, the government is more actively dangerous.  The new hike is nice and near the end some of us go down to the shore, where waves break on volcanic rocks.  It really reminds me of La Palma, and it's sad that I have so little time here.  Such a beautiful island, and so unknown in the west.  And most tourists don't even take the time to see the spectacular nature, whether it's the coast, the volcanoes, or the ecologically unique forests in the inland.  A superb island.

Monday 31 March

The last full day of  the conference, including my talk. I start off a little bit difficult but then it becomes more smooth, and the timing is quite good.  Afterward, several people say they thought my talk was good: well-structured and good slides.  Good to hear.

In the evening, before the closing dinner, one more time to go to the beach.  I collect some shells to take home as a souvenir present.  I've found some good ones!

The gala dinner is similar to the welcome dinner, but without a professional toastmaster.  Buffet food, the only vegetarian options are western, which is okay.  I eat several plates of tortellini with salad. The dinner includes prizes for the three best posters and three best presentations.  An insider from the jury tells me I was really close to making it to the top three presentations.  The winner is the same as last time.

After dinner, we go to a bar.  The Monkey Beach bar is closed, but there is another one.  Our party takes all seats.  I talk to some new people and some people I already know.

Tuesday 1 April

End of conference.  Taxi to the airport.  Flying to Seoul.  At the Seoul Gimpo Airport railway station, I meet a group of Koreans flyering for Greenpeace.  I wish them good luck and take the subway to Incheon airport, then a shuttle bus to my hotel.  I eat an incredibly cheap (5000 ₩) vegetarian meal next to the hotel, fix some errands, and sleep.  My flight is at 10:00, and getting up at 7:00 is good, with the shuttle bus leaving at 7:30.  I'll eat breakfast at the airport.

Wednesday 2 April.  

I try to find yoghurt at the airport, for breakfast, but I fail and eat a muffin instead.  Today is the long flight back.  This time I have pre-ordered vegetarian food.  There are electrical outlets at every seat.  So plenty of time to write my blog.

As I'm writing this it's 17:08 in Seoul, the local time is 22:08, and it's 04:08 in Toronto.  But we've passed the international date boundary, so it's actually 22:08 on Tuesday 1 April, although we left at 10:00 on Wednesday 2 April.  Time travel 2.0.

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