One of the fun things about living in a different part of Asia is being close to a new set of vacation spots. Korea is an easy trip from Mongolia, and we recently met up with friends to explore Jeju Island, off the south coast. Amateur anthropologist that I am, it’s interesting to visit resort areas in the off-season — you get an unvarnished view, sort of like being backstage.
Because Jeju is volcanic, some of the coastline is stunning, with cliffs and black sand beaches. There’s a huge tourist infrastructure in Jeju that includes a lot of packaged experiences and museums for every interest: Hello Kitty, citrus fruit, shells, Leonardo Da Vinci, sex, African art, dolls… I could go on, but you get the idea. (UPDATE: check out this Wall Street Journal Asia piece on the “museums” of Jeju.) Most of the tourists come from Korea and China, and we found that English is not widely spoken, at least not this time of year when there are relatively few visitors.
But get a bit off the tourist trail and you can still find the traditional culture. There is a village where people still live in (modernized) thatched stone houses amid the protective walls and preserved original buildings.
Jeju also is famous for women divers who fish for abalone, octopus, oysters and pretty much any other food that lives underwater along the coast. They are taught from childhood to hold their breath while diving as deep as twenty meters/sixty-six feet and continue to dive until they are in their sixties. The museum about the divers is really interesting, far more substantive that most of the tourist trap-museums on Jeju, and it’s only recently that they began to use wetsuits instead of cotton shorts and tunics. We were lucky to see some women come ashore with their catch:
All well and good, you say, but where’s the Mongolian angle? First, Jeju, like Naoshima, offers accommodation in a ger camp for those who want it. (I had no idea these were so widespread or popular!)
Second, see this rock?
This rock is a Big Deal, not just an interesting rock formation but an actual saviour of Jeju:
Yes, here in Mongolia Chinggis Khan, his armies and his warrior-descendents are regarded as the toughest people on the plant. Whereas on Jeju they were terrified to the point of suicide by crafty Islanders.
Just goes to show how people write their own histories, eh?