Hitting The Heights in South Korea

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On an eye-opening first trip to South Korea, Halima Ali attempts to conquer Sunrise Peak on Jeju island

“Hi”, “Hello”, “Hi” come the endless greetings from teenagers, chirped through laughter while their friends egg them on. This has happened throughout my trip as curious youngsters home in on the tourist. This time, though, my replies are strained. Though I’m not even halfway up Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Sunrise Peak, I seem to be struggling for air.

Earlier, I’d noticed some teenage girls tottering up the long, winding steps in fashionable clothes and heels, while I’d stuck to my trusty trainers. But it’s hard to see what advantage this has given me, as the higher I go, the slower I become and the more frequently I stop to take a break.

Others don’t seem to be struggling this way — women twice my age dressed in tracksuits and large visors giggle and chat as they climb, while infants squeal with excitement as they race each other up and disappear from view. My regular breathers do, however, give me the opportunity to take in the incredible views over Jeju, the holiday island dubbed Korea’s Hawaii.

Looking down, I see the spot where I’d earlier stood watching old ladies in wetsuits preparing to dive into the rough sea before calling off their expedition because the waters were too choppy. On an island where women outnumber men and have routinely undertaken difficult jobs to compensate, these female divers are continuing years of tradition to bring back abalone, an expensive delicacy, plus octopus and other exotic looking fish I feel compelled to photograph.

Sitting on large wet rocks with their wares from the morning dive, they told me they began swimming in the sea with their mothers when they were seven or eight. Today, they’re a dying breed — literally, as most are in their 70s and the eldest is 80. And they’ll almost certainly take their craft with them to their graves, as their daughters and granddaughters are understandably unwilling to enter such a treacherous trade.

Hallabong crazy

The divers are among many curiosities that have occupied me since my arrival in Jeju. I’ve been regaled with stories about three mysterious holes which never fill with rain or snow and the road on which cars magically continue driving uphill, even with their engines switched off. I’ve walked to Cheonjiyeon waterfall, where heaven and earth are said to meet, wandered through darkened caves formed by lava and sat in silence in the Buddhist Yakcheonsa temple.

I’ve also seen several groups of women crouching on the ground, wearing large conical satgat hats that completely shield their faces from the sun. These women spend their days selling hallabong — a local fruit that resembles a large orange.

In Jeju, these fruit are everywhere. The lush green fields that stretch across the island are covered with greenhouses and white plastic sheeting, shielding the precious fruit underneath. On my travels, I’ve passed parades of roadside shops among fruit farms. Curious as to what they could be selling on these seemingly deserted streets, I entered one to find nothing but stacked boxes of hallabong. The retailers across the road were selling the very same thing, a testament to the popularity of the fruit.

Back on Seongsan Ilchulbong, I could certainly benefit from a segment or two of hallabong — anything to give me a much-needed boost. But as I make a final push for the peak, I feel a surge of energy as I realise I’m nearing the top. When I arrive, I find a place to stand and take in the crater-shaped summit, as people jostle around me.

There is something rather curious about this island. Perhaps it’s the way Mount Hallasan rises from the very centre, ensuring the weather can differ in each of the four corners of Jeju at any one time.

And as I survey the land, I feel a sudden sense of satisfaction. I may not have dived into the choppy waters for octopus, like the old women of Jeju, but at least I’ve conquered Sunrise Peak.

This feature was published in ABTA Magazine and on CountryByCountry.com

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