ISLANDS OF THE SOUTHERN STRAITS: Exploring the seas off MokpoSINAN, South Jeolla ― This trip required much more preparation than usual because it would carry me roughly 60 kilometers (37 miles) out from the coast of Mokpo, the southernmost tip of the peninsula, 400 kilometers from Seoul.
The weather wasn’t making things easier. It was the first week of the monsoon season and the weatherman had just forecast ominous storm clouds on the way, moving a heavy downpour toward the southern region.
But it was too late to cancel my plans.
It was a little reassuring when Park Gap-sik, captain of the ferry “Jeonnam No. 213,” bellowed that the day was “perfect for going out to the deep sea.”
Apparently the man trusted his instincts and years of experience more than he trusted any weather agency. He said the ocean waves had to be “much higher” and the skies “much darker” before he started worrying about venturing from harbor.
The trip consisted of touring four islands in Sinan county, which is the only remaining county composed entirely of islets scattered throughout the southern Yellow Sea. Over 820 islets of various size make up the county. Many are uninhabited, while others have small and large towns, with 47,000 residents spread out among the islands.
Just 20 minutes after we left port, the boat was already pulling near a small island ― Oedal, our first stop.
Oedal is rarely marked on South Jeolla maps because it is so small (and located so close to the mainland). Just by standing on my tip-toes at the small port where we arrived, I could see ― more or less ― the beach on the opposite side of the island. Thirty families live there, mostly earning their living by farming, supplemented by tourism. The island is famous for its uncrowded beaches and snug bungalows, one reason it has become a favorite place for young lovers from the mainland wanting to get away for a while. Their frequent presence earned Oedal the nickname of “Sarang seom,” meaning, “Love Island.”
“We’re building more beach houses, tents and an outdoor seawater swimming pool that overlooks the beach,” said Kim Bog-hee, a tourism department staff member at the South Jeolla provincial government, and a good travel companion for two days.
From Oedal, we headed further out to sea. Rain pelted the windows and the wind picked up. Mr. Park suggested that we leave the deck and come inside the ferry. We were making 23 knots, about 40 kilometers per hour, but it didn’t seem slow each time we met a wave. The boat swerved, throwing a few passengers who weren’t sitting off balance and one of our fellow travelers started to vomit.
In another hour, we were safely on Bigeum island, 55 kilometers from the mainland. This island is much larger than Oedal, with enough people to support a supermarket and Chinese takeout places.
Just beyond the town, however, the island seemed desolate. There were plenty of acacia trees, a lake and beaches, but few people. Bigeum has three well-known beaches: Myeongsa Simni, Wonpyeong and Hanuseom, which attract tourists from far away due to their seemingly endless sandy plains, from which beautiful sunsets can be viewed. Narrow lanes bordered the sand, and Yoo Yeong-gwan, from the Sinan county office, explained that the county was building a bicycle track for visitors to pedal around the island.
The island is also known for its sun-dried salt and gold spinach, both of which sell in Seoul’s major department stores as Bigeum specialties.
Lying on Wonpyeong beach that night, I smelled sweet brier and the salty wind. The middle-aged woman who owned our lodge, who had been watching the nightly news on television, told us it was pouring with rain in Seoul. The sky over Bigeum, in contrast, was clear and shone with countless stars.
The next morning, we headed out to Ui island. Ms. Kim called the island “mystical” and said visitors feel an odd attachment and a longing to stay there. Maybe that’s what happened to Jeong Yak-jeon (1758-1816), a biologist during the Joseon dynasty who described 155 kinds of marine creatures in his work “Jasaneobo” while he was on this island 200 years ago. He ended up staying for 16 years.
Ui is also loved by photographers because it boasts a variety of scenery despite its small size. Aside from the beach and rocky cliffs, there is a forest, a grasslands where the residents raise black goats, and sand dunes that are some of the highest in Asia.
For lunch, Park Hwa-jin, the village head and the owner of the Damoa lodge and restaurant, suggested we go out on his motor boat. I found out that the ride was included in the service he provided for visitors who ordered sushi meals at his lodge.
Several hundred meters from the shore were the fishing net he casts every morning. He pulled the end of the net from the sea, revealing several sea bream and flat fish, still wriggling.
“Choose,” he said.
For a moment, I was at a loss, but pointed at a red sea bream and a larger flat fish, and Mr. Park threw the net back into the water.
Back inside the lodge, we had fresh sushi, tofu made from Deokmok beans and a sweet potato soup ― enough for four people for 40,000 won ($42).
We packed our bags for the fourth island. I was just getting adjusted to the churning waters by then, but the expression on Mr. Park’s face was grim. Looking out to sea, the sky was turning black. The storm was coming. Our captain said it was not a good idea to go further out to Jeung Island, our fourth destination, so we decided to return to Mokpo. That voyage took three hours.
Seeing our sullen faces, Mr. Park tried to console us.
“This is how far the sky permitted us to go,” he said. “Its not up to a person to decide on a trip around the Sinan islets.”
by Lee Min-a
How to travel around the islands off Mokpo:
First, go to Mokpo using a KTX bullet train departing from Yongsan station, or take an express bus bound for the port city from Seoul Express Bus Terminal in Banpo.
All passenger ships depart from Mokpo Port’s passenger terminal near the train and bus stations. The ferries charge between 10,000 won ($11) and 20,000 won for travel to the following islands.
To get to Oedal island, take the Sinjin Ferry that departs from Mokpo port every two hours from 6:50 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It’s a 30-minute ride. Contact (061) 244-0522.
To get to Bigeum island, the Namhae Prince, Namhae Queen and Gold Star ferries offer round trips between Mokpo and Bigeum four times a day. Contact (061) 240-8355.
To get to Ui island, you need to travel via Docho island by a Seom Sarang ferry departing from Mokpo. It’s about a three-hour ride. For those who want a direct ride to Ui island, Sol Travel agency is offering a two-night, three-day, package trip for 139,000 won. Call (02) 2279-5959 for information.
Ferry transport for the JoongAng Daily reporter was provided courtesy of the Sinan County Tourism Office.