It’s not Dokdo, but still worth the tripULLEUNG ISLAND -- The country’s hottest tourist attraction at the moment may be Dokdo, the Korean islets in the East Sea claimed by Japan as Takeshima. But after returning from a trip there, what is more likely to linger in your memory is another island named Ulleung, which serves as a gateway to Dokdo.
Ulleung island almost automatically reminds most Koreans of two specialties ― squid and pumpkin taffy. The first sight that welcomes visitors to Dodong port on the island is an eye-catching granite statue of a squid, about the size of an adult human being.
Considering Koreans’ love of the seafood, which they eat like popcorn at movie theaters, it’s easy to understand why there’s even a squid festival in the summer, which makes it the high season for travel to the island. Thus, spring may not seem the ideal season to make the rocky boat trip there, but Ulleung residents beg to differ.
To the natives, who number about 10,000 and make their living from fishing and farming, spring ― especially April ― is the most awaited time of the year on this island, which was named for its heavy snowfall.
When spring comes to the island after a long, snowy winter, spring greens start to bud, meaning more delicacies to enjoy for tourists as well as natives. This volcanic island primarily produces such sturdy crops as potatoes and corn, and the spring greens, quite delicate by contrast, are available only in April.
A voyage to appreciate Ulleung’s charms, however, is not an easy one. If your starting point is Seoul, you first need to go to a port on the east coast of the peninsula such as Pohang in North Gyeongsang province, about a six-hour drive from the capital.
From there, you have to take a two-and-a-half hour boat ride to the island. The boat travels between the island and the mainland only once a day, which makes it harder for people to casually plan a trip. On top of this, there’s a budget problem as well, with some travel packages to the island costing well over 350,000 won ($350), which is enough for a red-eye flight weekend getaway to Tokyo.
Once you set foot on Ulleung, however, you might not want to go back to the peninsula, but instead want to remain embraced by the beauty of life on an island. Ulleung residents proudly share stories about some city residents who have moved to the island permanently after a casual trip.
Not that Ulleung is an easy place in which to get around. This volcanic island has a hilly and rocky terrain, while cliffs that are easily more than 90 meters (295 feet) high lie offshore. This made it hard to build a paved road on the island, which is why residents fondly recall former President Park Chung Hee, since he did just that in the 1970s.
Before then, it took residents days of walking to travel from one side of the island to the other. The rocky conditions prevented the completion of construction of a road all around the island, however, and in the northeastern part the road is still unfinished.
So here’s what you can do as a tourist without many options: Take tourist minibuses or call taxis, whose guides and agents (most of them native islanders) are readily available in the Dodong port area. If you insist on taking your car to the island on the ferry, you can do so, but it will cost you unnecessary money and energy. The rocky and hilly geography means there are narrow, winding roads with hairpin turns. If you’re not familiar with the island, it is extremely difficult to drive. No wonder the taxis on the island are all four-wheel-drive vehicles, not the kinds of sedans you see in cities.
Once you get on a tourist minibus, the driver acts as a guide, providing explanations of the island’s big attraction of rocks along the seashore road. The bus stops along the way to give tourists a chance to view the rocks, which can look like a lion, bear, crocodile, elephant ― you name it. Just driving along with a view of the ocean on one side, however, makes you realize the beauty of the island.
After about a two-hour drive, you get to the Nari Basin, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island. Following the hilly road a vast valley appears, where visitors can catch a glimpse of the traditional architectural style of houses, such as neowajip, whose roofs were completed with wooden boards to prevent them from blowing away in the strong wind.
Ulleung island is said to be abundant in five things ― wind, rocks, water, juniper trees and beautiful women ― according to the natives. On the other hand, the island is free, they say, of three things ― snakes, thieves and pollution.
What makes the Nari Basin area a good place to visit is the restaurants serving the island’s specialty drink ― makgeolli, or crude rice wine brewed with pumpkin or corn husks, which tastes sweeter than the typical product. The appropriate side dish for the wine is a potato patty, since the island grows many potatoes.
Although it is not accessible by the tourist minibuses, another attraction on the island is Seonginbong Peak, known for its postcard-perfect scenery at sunrise.
To enjoy food, an important part in making the visit a journey to remember, the Dodong port area, the bustling “downtown” of the island, is a good place to go since it is crowded with shops specializing in dried squid and pumpkin taffy. Some spring greens are also available, both dried and fresh.
The area is also full of small, rather shabby restaurants, serving specialty items like honghapbap, or rice cooked with mussels, along with spring greens like myeongi or “mountain garlic.”
There are more than five types of spring greens on the island, but “mountain garlic” is a must-have, according to one restaurateur, a typical middle-aged woman with a broad smile who was too shy to give her name. Another special food to enjoy is ojingeo naejangtang, a soup made with squid intestines, which tastes much better than it sounds.
So, you’ll bring dried squid and pumpkin taffy back home as a souvenir, but you’ll soon find yourself longing for the mountain garlic and squid intestine soup.
by Chun Su-jin
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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