Solo Trek to Saryangdo, South Korea
Updated: Jul 25
Did he really just say that? I think to myself, annoyed.
"Every Korean person I see isn't wearing a mask," is what I want to say, but in my kindergarten level Korean, I'm only able to spit out, "Korean people no mask."
The little old man replies 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 my engineering university? And fine, I nod, and point to the mask diligently waving off my wrist like a flag. Seeing it as a symbol of surrender, the man walks 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 now we're well on the way to Saryangdo, South Korea. I'm happy at the first victory of the journey, which does sort of feel like a battle to begin with.
To say that travel has been difficult lately is an understatement. Due to strict quarantine rules in South Korea, I'm stuck in the country for my summer vacation. A quick google search of "best hikes in Korea" led me here, for better or for worse. However, even domestic travel isn't free from obstacles. Busses are running less frequently, and when I arrived at the station, I had to step through some extraterrestrial box that allegedly eliminated any viruses on my person.
I'll take this victory, mask and all.
Arriving at Saryangdo
The wind is still bad, but the ferry arduously lurches 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 confront tomorrow zigs and zags, jutting bright green against the cobalt canvas.
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.
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. The human inhabitants of the island aren't wearing masks, and everyone 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 calm 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.
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, half listening,ready to move on.
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, and I'm shown to my room. I always feel spoiled when I stay in a hotel, but this time especially so. My patio opens up to the most pristine beach I've ever seen. The blue and green sea dissolves into the brightest sky, and the horizon is dotted with mountains.
The white haired man, his wife, 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. 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 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).
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 this doesn't help calm my nerves a bit.
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.
As far forward as the eyes can in front of me, there is rock.
This can't possibly be correct, I think to myself, and momentarily consider turning back.
A man comes up on the trail behind me, the only person I'll see for the next few hours. "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.
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 the acrophobes, 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.
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 mountain side. 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. I look back at the hike I just finished.
The pension 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 go sit on the beach before finding something to eat (please let there be something other than cat lady's shop.) The white haired man trundles on over.
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. I am always welcome, Elin, he says as we raise classed to cheers one last time. He will see me in Atlanta one day, he adds, glass clinking. Would this man really visit me in the United States?
I imagine that white haired man in the bright Hawaiian shirt, bursting with energy, showing up t my door. I imagine the laughs we'd have and the stories we'd tell in our respective languages.
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. The ferry departs every two hours (weather permitted). And while there are numerous other pensions, I 100% recommend staying at Dandihae Pension.