A beacon for weary travelersGADEOK ISLAND, Busan
There are times when you feel like your battery is running down ―like you can’t hang in there anymore, going through the motions and feeling lonely in the middle of a crowd. That means it’s time to escape from your fatigue, from your life and from the people in it.
It’s time to go find a lighthouse.
There are 49 manned lighthouses along Korea’s shores, and in 2002, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries announced that seven of them would be opened to the public for overnight visits.
This unusual service attracted a lot of attention, and a lot of visitors ―many of whom, apparently, enjoyed themselves a bit too much. Because the lighthouse keepers got tired of dealing with intoxicated guests (and various other hassles), the lighthouses were declared off-limits to the public again.
Except for the one on Gadeok island.
Not many people (not even Koreans) know about this extraordinary place for a short getaway. For the amazing fee of 15,000 won ($15) ―that’s per group, not per person ― anyone, Korean or foreigner, can spend a peaceful night at the lighthouse here, and be greeted by a spectacular sunrise over the sea. (For expatriates only, Kim Min-cheol of the ministry’s Busan office says he’ll open the Yeongdo lighthouse, which is closer to the city of Busan.)
So if you’re willing to go easy on the soju for your hosts’ sake, a relaxing weekend getaway is yours to be had.
Some lighthouse keepers say that a lighthouse is like a mother ― always there with a light to guide you in the dark. You’ll understand what they mean when you step into the guestroom in the Gadeok island lighthouse.
The lighthouse is an hour’s boat ride from Busan. The boat is the kind of small commuter ferry on which all of the passengers ―middle-aged and elderly, mostly ―seem to know each other. They’re total strangers to you, but they might offer you candy in their wrinkled hands, making you realize that you’re indeed entering a different world.
About 4,000 people live in the several villages on Gadeok island. The ferry’s last stop is Oeyangpo village, and that’s where you’ll get off. From there, it’s about a 40-minute walk up the mountain. If you want to, you can arrange for one of the lighthouse keepers to come and pick you up, but they’re so busy that you wouldn’t want to impose.
Not that Kim Heung-su, 39, and Kang Sung-kun, 30, won’t be glad to see you. On the contrary, they seem happy to have a visitor. The two of them were working last Sunday and Monday; the third staffer was on break. (Each lighthouse keeper works seven days straight, followed by three days off.)
Mr. Kim’s day starts just before sunrise. An important part of his routine is to do five daily checks of the weather, the ocean’s salinity, any shifts in the wind and some other details, and report them to the government’s weather bureau.
Since the lighthouse was opened to the public, they’ve also had to put extra work into taking care of the facilities. Visitors are far from a constant presence here, but Mr. Kim says he gets a group at least every other week.
Neither Mr. Kim nor Mr. Kang has the careworn look that you get used to seeing on people in the city. Born among the mountains of Gangwon province, Mr. Kim never planned on working in a lighthouse. But after he finished his mandatory military service, he “happened to hear about something called a ‘lighthouse keeper’” and took the required exam, which he passed on the first try.
Reserved and shy, the two of them are kind enough to offer fried eggs to a visitor. Eggs, which, after all, made their fragile way all the way from the mainland to get here, are something of a luxury at the lighthouse. Apart from that, Mr. Kim said he’s pretty well satisfied with his job.
“People used to think of lighthouses as prisons without bars, since they’re so isolated from the world,” Mr. Kim said. “That isn’t true today. We’ve got the Internet, and we take shifts. I’m happy about the job.”
That Internet connection, though, is startlingly slow. “It takes 20 minutes to send one single e-mail,” observed Mr. Kang.
Not that Mr. Kang doesn’t like his job. When he introduced the guest room, his face was glowing with pride, and with good reason. It’s a big room, about 35 square meters, with everything from kitchenware to a shower to a sofa to a bed.
By far the best thing about the room, though, is the ocean view. There are two big windows. Through one, you can see the rocky cliff overlooking the sea; through the other, the lighthouse itself, standing 40 meters high. Opening your eyes and seeing the sunrise from your bed is an unforgettable experience.
There are actually three buildings here ―the lighthouse itself, the residential quarters built in 1999 and, between them, the original Gadeok lighthouse, which dates back to 1909. For centuries, Gadeok island was a strategic point for sea battles, most famously during the Imjin War of the late 16th century, when Admiral Yi Sun-shin led the Korean navy in repelling the Japanese invasion.
But it was Japan itself that pressured the Joseon Dynasty court to build the original lighthouse. Mr. Kim, who’s worked at Gadeok for nine years, used to stay in the historic building, which he describes as “extremely small yet extremely sturdy.”
He’ll show you around the place. Now registered by the Korean government as a “tangible cultural asset,” the historic lighthouse is notable for the beauty of its architecture, which fuses Gothic, Japanese and Korean styles and bears the pattern of a plum flower, the symbol of the Joseon Dynasty.
The modern lighthouse seems statelier, if only for its sheer height; at 40 meters, it’s one of the tallest lighthouses in the country, serving as a guiding light for ships and boats in the South Sea. “When Busan opens a new harbor in the coming years, our lighthouse will play a role as a landmark,” Mr. Kim said with pride.
What attracts visitors, however, isn’t the fact that it’s a landmark. It’s the atmosphere ―serene and relaxed, with a touch of romance. You might find yourself a bit bored here at times, but you’ll return to the world fully charged. Your battery will probably likely run low again one day, but there’ll always be a lighthouse waiting for you, like a mother.
by Chun Su-jin
For information (in Korean) about staying at the Gadeok island lighthouse, call (051) 971-9710. To make a reservation, you’ll need to provide your Korean ID number or alien registration number (the extra security measures are taken because the lighthouse is located within a small military base).
To get there from Busan Station, take a subway to Hadan station on line No. 1, then transfer to bus No. 58-1. Take the bus to Noksan wharf. (You can also take a cab to the wharf from Busan Station for about 15,000 won; the ride is about 40 minutes.) Boats leave the wharf for the island every day at 9 and 11 a.m. and at 1, 3 and 5 p.m.; the cost is 2,400 won.
Expatriates interested in staying at the Yeongdo lighthouse should call the maritime affairs ministry at (051) 609-6545 (or, rather, have a Korean acquaintance do it, since only Korean-language service is available).