Gemstones at the end of the line

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Gemstones at the end of the line

GEOMUNDO ISLAND, South Jeolla While crisscrossing the peninsula on trains during the past year, I've learned that this means of travel is not solely about squid, middle-aged women and out-of-the-way toilets.

Because I don't have any relatives living outside Seoul, I rarely took passenger trains before I started this series. With 14 train tours behind me now, I have come to the conclusion that rail travel provides the best way to experience this country.

After taking almost all available Korea National Railroad packages, from the snow flower trip to a day at the Demilitarized Zone area, I realized that I had missed seeing perhaps Korea's greatest site: its islands. I had actually planned such a trip last summer, but that was cut short due to typhoons.

It may seem odd, but winter and spring are the best times to head for the islands, tour experts said. In the winter the southern islands tend to be warmer than northern parts of the peninsula.

More than 3,000 islands freckle the coasts of the peninsula, and many of those rocks provide must-see views. Geomundo Island and Baekdo Island, down on the South Sea, grabbed my attention after travel authorities said the isles were like that famed Robert Louis Stevenson novel: genuine treasures.

During my year aboard KNR cars, I've had a little boy offer me the leg of a mollusk to nibble on and had, at 2 a.m., an ajumma quiz me about why I wasn't married. They seemed a bother at first until I realized those two and others were just trying to be nice. Thus, I braced for perhaps a similar encounter on a recent Saturday morning train to Yeosu, this time ready to smile back. My train left Seoul Station at 6:35 a.m., but with hardly a sign of squid boy or meddlesome ajumma. There were instead a group of middle-aged men and women ?all sound asleep. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed.

At 1:30 p.m., following a six-hour ride, my tour guide, Lee Kyung-hwan, a round, kindhearted Yeosu native, picked me up at the station and helped me board a ferry bound for the two treasure islands. Standing at the dock at Yeosu, the first thing I noticed was the warm weather ?few Yeosu folks wore overcoats. Mr. Lee said that it's always like that in the southern end of the peninsula. "We seldom get snow down here," he said. Even when it snows in Seoul, Yeosu only gets a drizzle.

Aboard the ferry, I again encountered the group of Middle-aged Travelers from the train, who were now awake but looked tired and rather spaced-out.

In the afternoon sunlight, the South Sea turned azure and the sky was a squawking expanse of boisterous seagulls. I felt relaxed to be in the outdoors and in two hours, there stood Geomundo Island.

Comprising four small islands, Geomundo was once a treasure to the British, whose naval forces were stationed there in 1885. The Brits saw the island as being of strategic importance, a footing for northeastern Asia, and even gave the place a new name -- Port Hamilton. Following the British, the Japanese tried to occupy Geomundo. Indeed, Geomundo in the Joseon Dynasty was chiefly a place to banish wrongdoing politicians and misinformed scholars. The rock gained a reputation for wisdom and a name in Chinese characters meaning "Island of Great Learning."

Geomundo on this recent weekend afternoon was like spring, without the influence of El Nino. At Geomundo, Song Ha-young, another local tour guide, appeared and said afternoons were the best times to take the pleasure boat to Baekdo Island, a trip which was supposed to take place the following morning. After two hours on the ferry from Yeosu, I felt seasick, but I knew I needed to go to Baekdo. About 3:30 p.m., I boarded another ferry and one and a half bouncing hours later reached Baekdo Island, which sits 28 kilometers due east of Geomundo. By now, my seasickness was overwhelming, while the eight Middle-aged Travelers were awake and ready to party. They had taken over the passengers' quarters on the ferry and had asked the captain to play loud, old-style music. Soon they were singing and dancing with the help of some soju and papery squid. They tried to get other passengers, me included, to share in the impromptu celebrating, but were not terribly successful.

After 20 years of guiding tours down here, Mr. Lee said that he can quickly tell if a couple is married or having an affair. The Middle-aged Travelers were the latter, he whispered, and I could see that for myself. There was much changing of partners. The partying went on until we reached Baekdo Island.

Catching sight of Baekdo, I felt that the trip was worth enduring a rolling stomach and the hubbub of the cabin. Rocks in strange and wonderful shapes marked the island, and many of those rocks apparently had legends behind them. Hwang Hye-yeong, the ferry boat captain, came out on deck with a microphone to make one more tour guide as we glided slowly around the uninhabited island. Mr. Hwang, who has been on the job for the last 22 years, was such an expert guide, his speech was a performance in itself. According to legend, once upon a time the King of Heaven had only one nuisance -- his son. As punishment, the king sent his son down to the South Sea, where the son fell in love with the daughter of the Sea King. Noticing that his son showed no signs of repentance, the King of Heaven got furious and sent his subordinates down to fetch the kid. But the king's men made themselves at home at the sea and never came back. The king kept on sending his men, but when the number reached about 100, he lost his temper and turned his son and royal flunkies into stone. Thus was born Baekdo Island.

Ninety-nine rocks form a jagged line, which gave the island its name. By simply removing a letter meaning "one" from the Chinese characters for "a hundred" you will have Baek. "Do" is island in Chinese characters.

As Mr. Hwang explained through his microphone, each rock has a name -- Bride, Groom and so forth. The only time that Mr. Hwang seemed to lose his place came when he urged the Middle-aged Travelers to go back home -- to their spouses. "Look, the king's son was punished for not going back home. You should keep that in mind."

The eight travelers were silent.

Mr. Hwang then told of another legend, this one about the first emperor of China. The emperor wanted an herb of eternal youth and had sent his men everywhere in the world to find it. On Baekdo, one of the emperor's men found an herb whose scent and taste was fabulous. The herb, known as foxtail orchid, still inhabits the island, Mr. Hwang said.

"Is there any way I could get one?" shouted one of the Middle-aged Travelers.

Alas, said Mr. Hwang, setting foot on Baekdo is not permitted. Some years ago visitors could walk about Baekdo, but they wound up polluting the site and it's been closed by the government for a long time.

Dusk was falling on Geomundo when we pulled in so we headed to a nearby restaurant specializing in raw fish. Geomundo residents, who number about 2,200, mostly fish for a living, which guaranteed the quality of the restaurant. Red sea breams were in-season.

When the Middle-aged Travelers disappeared into a nearby karaoke room for a second round of drinks, I inspected the island's only town, Geomunni. Rows of hanging squid and sliced hairtail fish dried in the sun along many walkways. Save for some kids roller-blading, the village reminded me of the 1970s, when Koreans were not so well-off, but were fun-loving and generous.

Ms. Jang, in her early 60s, runs Geomun Assorted Dried Fish, a shop that faces the sea. The descendant of a high-ranking official from the Joseon Dynasty, Ms. Jang has a right to speak proudly of the place. "My ancestor was exiled to this island in the 17th century for his straight talk to the king. My family has been in this village ever since."

There are a few motels on the island, but I spent the night in a resident's home, arranged by Mr. Song. The next day, I followed the trail of British residents. The town's hilltop cemetery was a big help. During the British occupation, from April 1885 to July 1887, six warships and two merchant ships anchored at Port Hamilton to stop Russia's southward advance. Seven British soldiers died on Geomundo 117 years ago. The passage to the cemetery, a 15-minute-walk uphill, yields a fine view of the South Sea. A stone monument in the cemetery, established by the Korean-British Society and the British Women's Group in 1983, gives the soldiers' names. "Whenever a new British ambassador comes to Korea, the first place to visit and pay respect to is the cemetery," Mr. Song told me later.

Back at the Geomundo port, I encountered the Middle-Aged Travelers again, who had refused to go up the hill. Too tired, it seems. Aboard the ferry to Yeosu, I once again fell to seasickness. A crew member suggested chewing dried squid. So there I was, enjoying my squid, which had been toasted over flames, trying hard to ignore the noise of the Middle-aged Travelers dancing up a storm. Switching to the train to Seoul, I tumbled into my seat, totally exhausted. That's how it should be when you've enjoyed the riches of treasure islands.





The KNR offers the package at 210,000 won ($175). For more information, call the Jigu Tour Agency at (02) 3391-3035.


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Like island-hopping? Then don't skip these




Geojedo and Oedo


If you want to find an exotic, tropical place, Oedo is the spot. Oedo, originally a deserted, tiny islet on the South Sea, was reborn as a spectacular garden by a married couple, who bought the land. Designed after the Versailles Palace in France, the garden is the only place in Korea where you can see 3,000 different tropical plants. Oedo's neighbor, Geojedo, is the second largest island in Korea. After the Korean War, the island was used as a concentration camp for prisoners of war. The Korean National Railroad offers two versions of packages, 175,000 for two days and 216,000 won for three.






Ulleungdo


One of only two islands found in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), Ulleungdo is home to some of the best squid anywhere. A three-hour ferry trip east of the peninsula, Ulleungdo is great for rugged scenery and rocky trails. A volcanic island, it has little flatland outside one basin area. The island is famous for its ecological system, with more than 300 kinds of plants.

In mid-October every year, a squid festival takes place, where visitors can catch boat rides out to sea. The Korea National Railroad runs package programs at 255,000 won for a four-day trip and 227,000 won for three days.






Hongdo and Heuksando

Among the islands scattered on the Yellow Sea, Hongdo is an immensely popular attraction for Koreans. Hongdo in Chinese characters means "red island," for the land looks reddish from afar, especially at sunset. Comprising large chunks of worn granite, the island commands fine views. The real spectacle comes from the caves and rock cliffs eroded by the sea during the last millennium. Hongdo is also famous for its 230 kinds of wild plants. A pleasure boat is available, which connects Hongdo with nearby Heuksando Island. The KNR has a three-day package here for 211,000 won.


by Chun Su-jin

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