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Stories from Four Corners of Korea
by Subhojit Chakladar
Subhojit Chakladar started as a student in Seoul National University soon after he graduated from IIT-Kharagpur and later joined Samsung Electronics which he continues to be a part of. He is a blogging enthusiast, a passionate bird photographer and conservationist. In this article he shares some of his interesting experiences while travelling in Korea.
This week marks the completion of my 7th year in Korea. Back in 2008, when I first set foot here, I barely knew anything about it. My decision to come here was partly driven by the desire to explore a place I knew so little about.Over the years, the list of "places to visit" have shrunk and the list of "been to" places have swelled - so much so that sometimes when my Korean co-workers ask me where I've been on the weekend, I surprise them with a name they've never heard! During my university days, I was an active blogger for Korean Tourism. Partly in search of interesting stories, partly to learn the language and partly to get away from the hordes that descend upon popular tourist spots on the weekend, I sought out the path less traveled. These ventures have been rich harvesting ground for interesting experiences. Sharing 4 such stories from 4 corners of Korea.
NORTH : "Friends" from far eastern Russia
The trip usually starts from a small fishing harbor in a village called Daejin (only a few km from the DMZ). Being so close to the DMZ, the place has a significant military presence. Initially they were suspicious of (mostly) foreigners sporting optics and long lenses. But after a few rounds of coffee and showing them the photos, they open up with stories of how they miss "city life". We have a fisherman friend whose boat we hire to go out in the sea. The coast guard destroyer deployed offshore usually moves further inshore and positions itself close to the maritime boundary to make sure that we don't unintentionally drift northwards. Most of the birds in the sea are black and white specs bobbing on the blue waves but closer to shore we also get glimpses of one of the most majestic birds on earth - the Steller's Sea Eagle as it snatches fish from the surface of the sea.
EAST : Dokdo
This is as far east as you can go with a Korean visa. I had the good fortune of visiting Dokdo in 2010 on a trip for bloggers arranged by Korea Tourism accompanied by the mayor of Ulleung-do and multiple TV channels covering the event. During the trip, we visited the museum on Ulleung-do which was mostly to showcase the geo-political aspects of the region. But I was singularly attracted to the topographical model of the sea floor of the East Sea (as it is known in Korea). I had noticed that the beaches on the island were incredibly narrow and the ships virtually docked in the middle of the town. The reason was clear the moment I looked at the model.
While most people were huddled around historical documents, I ventured over to the model which showed the islands as top of volcanic towers rising from the sea floor. Beyond the island, the shelf plunges rapidly to the sea floor which measures an average of 1.7km deep but can go as deep as 3.7km. Next day, while we were on our way to Dokdo most people enjoyed the shows on the TV on board. I managed to sneak out on to the deck and enjoyed incredible views. Unfortunately due to rough seas, we couldn't dock on Dokdo itself! But traveling with a group of very creative people was great fun. To this day, it remains one of the best trips I've had in Korea.
WEST : Half-a-way to China
I spend on an average 5~6 weekend trips every year to islands in the Yellow Sea during spring and fall. The islands in Yellow Sea serve as pit stops for birds migrating along the east coast of Asia. This is also as far west you can travel with a Korean visa but beware of the logistical hurdles! Many of these islands are actually closer to the Chinese coast than to the Korean coast. The distance and unpredictable sea conditions make travel to these remote islands a logistical nightmare. I go to these places for photographing migratory birds. As a rule of thumb, the worse the weather, the higher probability of spotting more rare birds. At the same time, it means the greater probability of the ships getting cancelled due to rough seas. November is a particularly rough month. So any birding trip to these islands is usually a high-risk high-return venture. But sometimes bets can go badly wrong. The most reliable ship in these waters in called the Harmony Flower - a 3 storey 2500 tonne behemoth. It ferries vehicles on the lower deck and passengers on the 2 floors above. It is also supposedly one of the fastest passenger ferries in the world.
On a clear cloudless November, I set sail on it from Incheon terminal for Sochoeng island. About 80~90km later, we ran into a very rough patch with the waves splashing the top deck windows. It was so bad that the captain had to stop the engines to stabilize the ship being pummeled by 5m high waves. Thankfully we reached our destination safely. That was 2012 but luck was not in my favor in 2013. Having reached the island over relatively calm seas on a Saturday, the weather turned for the worse in matter of hours. I was stranded on the island for 4 days as gale force wind battered the island.
Even though it was a gloomy few days, I became friend with 3 very unlikely people. An electrical technician who was setting up telecommunication facilities for the local military post. He mentioned with a lot of pride that his daughter was the first in his family to graduate from university and was employed in a conglomerate. The second person was a squid fisherman, who was more interested in my travel tales. The third person was the owner of the guest house where I was staying. He was a social counselor and helped with rehabilitation of people who had traumatic experiences. His mother initially ran the guest house but being sick now, he shuttles between the mainland and the island on alternate weekends to run the guest house. Even though the trip was almost total failure from a birding point of view, it was highly enlightening to talk with people very different from me.
SOUTH : Tour de Jeju
After the last semester in university, 3 of my friends and I decided to circumnavigate Jeju on a bicycle. We were all supposed to start from Jeju city at 10 in the morning. But due to some hiccup, I could only reach Jeju in the afternoon. This means I was starting when my team mates were almost finishing for the day. The owner of the bike rental company picked me up from the airport and soon I hit the road. Initially it was drizzling lightly as I cycled west (circumnavigating the island clockwise). But once on the west coast, the skies opened up. The map the rental company gave me soon turned to pulp and with my phone battery almost drained, I was relying on road signs and direction from random people on the road. But good luck finding random people on road when its raining cats and dogs.
To add to the misery, the tube of my rear wheel was punctured. I was standing on the highway, dripping like a crow, when a police vehicle was passing which I managed to stop. They were surprised enough to see a rain soaked foreigner. In halting Korean, I explained them my situation. They looked at each other and spoke something on their radio and asked me to get into the car! It was my turn to get surprised. One of the most common lines in crime dramas uttered by policeman is like "You have the right to remain silent ... anything you say can be used against you in court". I decided to use my drama-acquired wisdom and follow as ordered. To my pleasant surprise, the car dropped me off at the nearest repair shop and gave me a warm cup of coffee. The tube was repaired over talks about Gandhi and Curry! After about 30mins, I waved them good-bye feeling warmer and quite amused, as I cycled towards my stop for the night.
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