Chance to dally in a playground worthy of Gods
Last Sunday, on a windy but warm day, my friend and I escaped hectic city life for Seonyu Island. And yes, the gods and I made the right choice. It takes three hours to get to Gunsan from Seoul by bus, and another one-and-a-half hours to the island by ferry from Gunsan, but it’s well worth the visit.
On the crossing to Seonyu, a number of large and small islands can be seen, leading first-time visitors to wonder which they are bound for. Seonyu is one of over 60 islands which form the Gogunsan Islands. The name was originally the Gunsan Islands ― until Korea’s naval force, formed in the early Joseon dynasty of King Sejong, moved its base to the current Gunsan area and took the name along. The island group was later named Gogunsan (go means old in Korean).
Seonyu was also originally three separate islands until sand bars formed between the three, connecting them. The island is also connected to its neighbors, Jangja and Munyeo Islands, by bridges, and there is another bridge between Jangja and Daejang Islands, allowing easy access between the four without needing a boat. That is only if you have enough time, however, as the islands are bigger than one might imagine. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit Munyeo Island, but managed to visit the other three.
There are no taxis on the islands, so you can travel by foot or on motorcycle-drawn carts, four-wheel motorcycles or bicycles. We hired bicycles, as I had always wanted to ride along the beach, feeling the cool wind. A paved road along Seonyudo Beach is convenient for bicycle riders.
The white sand spreads for about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) and is shaped like a bow, with Mangju Peak on its side. We left our bikes beside the road, removed our shoes and walked down the beach to paddle in the cool water. The soft sand tickled my feet as the waves rolled in and out. The stones were so round that it was not at all uncomfortable to jump around on bare feet.
Lying on the beach with my feet in the soft sand while gazing at the clear blue sky and listening to the happy laughter of children, I had to wonder if heaven could be much different from this.
There are two peaks on Seonyu Island that are worth hiking: Mangju and Seonyu. Both are popular as excellent sites from which to watch the sunset. Mangju Peak was named after a legend: a loyal royal servant, who had been banished to the island, went up the peak every day to gaze in the direction of Hanyang (old Seoul), where the King resided. Mangju translates as “missing the king.”
Jangja Island is connected to Seonyu Island by the Jangja Bridge and was thus named (Jangja means “strong man”) because a man as strong as Hercules was born there.
The Jangja Bridge has a great view of the neighboring islands. We came across people fishing from the bridge but they said they had had no luck.
On the island, however, we met a resident who had just pulled his net from the sea. His catch included a fine spotted flounder, crabs and starfish. Children sat around him, describing to me what he pulled from his net.
“This crab is still alive,” a boy said, poking a crab with a stick. “Did you see? It moved,” he said proudly.
After saying good-bye to the children, we rode our bikes to Daejang Island, which has the well-known Jangja Halmae (grandmother) Rock, on top of Daejang Peak. The rock was so named because it looks like a woman carrying a baby on her back.
A senior resident of the village told me a legend about the rock’s origin.
“About 500 to 600 years ago, there was a couple living in this village,” the old man said. “The husband went to Hanyang to take the state examination and the wife stayed here with her baby. After a while, she heard that her husband had passed the exam and was coming back to the town.
“Greatly pleased, she went to greet her husband carrying their baby on her back, only to find him accompanied by a second wife. She, in despair, stopped walking and became a rock,” he continued. He added that there is a Halbae (grandfather) Rock across the island, facing the Halmae Rock.
As Daejang Peak is known as the best place to look over the Gogunsan Islands, we started climbing the hill on a narrow trail that only one person could walk on at a time ― not, I believe, the “official” way to the peak. The trail, which a middle-aged woman directed us to, seemed as if it hadn’t been used for a while.
At first, we could hear birds singing and see purple wildflowers and white chestnut blossoms, making the journey pleasant. But then we came across small graves and a deserted house next to the grave, which might have been used for the three years of mourning. We didn’t feel scared because it’s a scene we could observe in any small Korean village.
We no longer dared to conquer the peak, however, because it was very steep from there on. From the pathway, the blue sea and green rock islands spread before our eyes. Beneath us were fishing boats and a cruise boat that travels around the islands. In the village, fish and squid were spread on the ground drying.
We then had to hurry back to the pier to catch the last ferry back to Gunsan.
“I think a one-day trip is too short to visit the islands,” said my friend, Rhee Yun-jin. “Not only that I wanted to visit many places, but also I wanted to stay on the beach longer and to observe the sunset. I also heard that it’s really nice to go fishing at night. I want to come back and stay longer.”
“It was so nice to visit the island,” said Tetyana Skyba, a Russian living in Gunsan. She visited the island with her son, husband and a friend’s family. She said she had always wanted to visit the island because she was told about its beauty so many times.
“The water was so clean and most of all, there were not many people,” she said with a smile.
How to get to Seonyu Island: Take a bus from Gangnam Express Bus Terminal to Gunsan. Take a taxi at Gunsan Bus Terminal to the Gunsan Coast Passenger Terminal. It takes about 15 minutes and costs about 8,000 won ($8). Take a ferry to Seonyu Island from the terminal. For ferry times, check out www.gyerimhaeun.com.
How to get around Seonyu Island: Rent a motorcycle-drawn cart and driver for 30,000 won per hour, a four-wheel motorcycle for 20,000 won per hour or a bicycle for 3,000 won per hour. Prices are negotiable.
What to eat: Seafood is your best choice. There are a number of restaurants near the pier, and most of them sell seafood, such as sea squirt, sea cucumber, crab preserved in soy sauce and raw fish. They are creatures caught in the wild, not cultivated by humans, the residents stress. But as it’s an island, you should be aware that the food can be very salty.
by Park Sung-ha