Seonyudo

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Memorial Day weekend came a week late for this American this year, as Korea’s version of the holiday is June 6th. Luckily, it’s still celebrated with a Monday off of work, and I decided it would only be fitting to usher in the spirit of summer with some camping – on a small island off the west coast of Korea. Seonyudo caught my attention way back in November, when I stumbled across some random blog raving about the islands’ beauty and enticing combination of bike paths, scooter-rentals, and lack of cars. I didn’t want to get my hopes up or anything, but online reports made it sound like our trip would be nothing short of an epic adventure.

About camping: I am by no means an experienced camper. Luckily for me, hiking and general outdoorsy-ness are incredibly popular in this country, so cheap gear is everywhere. I picked up the cheapest tent I could find – 30,000 won at Lotte Mart (Korea’s Wal-mart). Combined with a 10,000 won waterproof picnic blanket from Home Plus and the cheap sleeping bag left behind from the previous tenant of my apartment, I hoped I’d be set.

Getting to the islands from Ulsan is no easy task, to say the least. It required 3 buses, 1 train and 1 ferry, starting on a late Friday evening KTX to Daejeon. Travel wisdom from the weekend: book trains well in advance on a holiday weekend in Korea. In Daejeon, we stayed at my favorite love motel (my favorite for its name – the Bijou Motel, close proximity to the train station, kind ajumma who runs the place, and being the only place I’ve stayed in Daejeon). After one stop at a chicken and beer hof, we called it an early night in anticipation of waking up to catch a 9:30am bus to Gunsan.

Gunsan is a small port city in the middle-ish of the west coast. There were a surprising number of foreigners milling about the bus station for such a small city; apparently we weren’t the only ones taking a weekend island trip. We had a bit of trouble tracking down the #7 city bus to the ferry terminal, which we never would’ve found without the help of a very friendly young Korean woman. After a 30 minute wait for the bus and a painfully slow 45-minute ride all through town, we finally made it to the ferry.

Seonyudo & Gogunsanislands map

Waiting in the ferry station, we found a rather intriguing English map of the islands, featuring what appeared to be several small villages, some beaches, no fewer than three ‘Mud Flat Experiencing Fields’, and the mysterious Golden Rain Tree Colony. Oooooooh.

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The ferry ride was a pleasant but rather unexciting hour and a half. Apparently it’s also possible to ferry to China from Gunsan, which – considering the speed of our ferry – must take about a week! But something fun to think about nonetheless.

And finally! We were on Seonyudo. Many golf cart-taxis waited around the port, taking people to pensions or on island tours. We walked over to the beach to set up our tents. On the way, we came across a big group of scantily-clad, already drunk foreigners, and decided to set up our tent far, far away.

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The camping area was a small strip of beach separating the sea.

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Tent set-up successful, ready to tackle the wilderness.

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Our camp-site. Perfect! Except for the lack of showers…

By the time we got our tents set-up, we were hungry and eager to sample some of the island’s seafood. We chose the most inviting seafood restaurant on the main road and ordered three of the cheapest things off the menu – raw fish with rice, seafood noodle soup, and 산낙지. For those unfamiliar, 산낙지 (san-nak-ji) is live octopus. It’s not actually alive, but just recently chopped up so that the legs are still wriggling about. Like how chickens run around after their heads have been chopped off. This more or less made the dish look like a plate of live worms. Yummmm! But it actually tasted great – much better than worms, I’d imagine. By far the freshest tasting octopus I’ve had in 8 months!

Here they are in action:



Eating live octopus can be a bit of a challenge. The tentacles still suction to the plate, and also the insides of your mouth. Apparently they can also suction to your throat on the way down, which is a potential choking hazard (but mainly only if you’re really drunk). The tentacles very conveniently wrap themselves around your chopsticks, which makes picking up the thin little ends much easier. All in all, considering my rather recent 4.5-year stint as a vegetarian, I wasn’t nearly as grossed out as I expected. I’d even do it again!

Our energy sufficiently replenished, we decided we couldn’t be there another minute without getting on some scooters. I was pretty anxious about getting them, as the walkways were pretty packed with golf carts and people walking and biking, but the excitement of driving a scooter quickly triumphed over any anxieties.

The process for renting a scooter went like this: find bike/scooter rental stand. Wait while the owner tracks down five scooters/borrows one from random guy riding past. Pay 15,000. Get a 30-second demo of how they work, and a quick reminder not to drink and drive. And go!

No license? No ID? No insurance? No problem. Seonyudo is perhaps the easiest place to rent a scooter anywhere. I guess the scooters aren’t allowed on the ferries, as they didn’t seem at all concerned with us running off with them. They also didn’t seem particularly concerned with anyone’s safety, but I guess people don’t really sue each other so much over here.

Aside from a near-crash trying to avoid a golf-cart-taxi on a steep hill approximately 45 seconds after starting, I found scooter-driving to be pretty easy, and very fun. There’s nothing quite like zooming along the coast, wind blowing through your hair, nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see to either side…

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Scootering around, we passed many groups of touring Koreans, the older and drunker of which thought it was very funny to wave and shout hello! and cheer us on. The people we met on the island all seemed to be on vacation, and much friendlier than normal.

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Seonyudo connects to two other islands by small bridges, which are bikable, and pose an interesting challenge when full of other tourists.

In an hour, we found we were pretty much able to explore all the island paths reachable by scooter. The islands are beautiful, but certainly not very big. As far as the strange sights listed on the map, I’d say Korean Tourism advertising has a tendency to give a name to every little spot that doesn’t necessary merit such a significant title. There was unfortunately no “Golden Rain Tree Colony” to be found (although perhaps there was and we just didn’t spot it). There were plenty of mud flats open for experiencing, but we did not partake.

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Returning to our beach at dusk, we were surprised to find this land bridge connecting the beach to a small island. Many people were out with flashlights, seemingly scavenging for something. Oysters? Seaweed? We weren’t sure.

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I quickly realized I had forgotten to bring bug spray, a potentially very hazardous mistake. Apparently unavailable anywhere on the island, we settled for some bug-repellent incense and hoped for the best. Burning that while hanging out in the evenings, and staying inside my tent for the rest of the night, I came away from the weekend with only 4 mosquito bites – a record low for me and camping weekends! Maybe I’m not as attractive to Korean mosquito, or there’s something in this bug-repellent incense – either way, I like it.

We spent our evenings on Seonyudo making our own entertainment on the beach with some drinks, some music (in particular this one), and a deck of cards. At one point we were joined by some jolly, drunk and bicycling Seoul National University professors, who I was surprised to find had recently moved back from Ohio. Apparently, the pensions back in the main part of town provided more entertainment – bonfires, drumming, fireworks and noraebangs all night. But I was much happier to have some peace and quiet on the beach.


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Is there anything better to wake up to? I think not.

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And on the other side of our tents: some mud. Prime for experiencing!

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The morning sun blanketed the beach in mist. Many people were out on the sand in the low tide, digging for more things. You could actually rent little shovels for 1,000 won to dig for things, right next to the bike rentals.

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“The ghosts of Seonyudo”

After a rather ridiculously long breakfast/lunch at the single restaurant we could find that served something other than seafood (which we all agreed we couldn’t stomach before noon), where we met a few more groups of vacationing foreigners – including one from Birmingham, my neighbor! – we rented some bicycles from the scooter guy.

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“We are on a tandom bicycle.” Cute.

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I was stuck on a small ridiculous bike for some reason, completely inept at handling the island’s steep hills. It’s name was “The Raging Dwarf”, as given by us.

On our bike ride, we found many interesting things:

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A lighthouse shaped like two praying hands.

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Being reclaimed by nature.

Some big rocks beckoned us off-trail for a while, where we found many giant gross bugs. Luckily, they were quick to scatter wherever we were walking. There were so many running over the rocks, it reminded me of the masses fleeing from Godzilla or some such.

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They ranged in size from 1-3 inches. Really. Eeeeewwwww.

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Our private beach on the other side of the buggy rocks.

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A refreshing foot bath in the sea.

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A view of our beach, or what would be a view of our beach if you could see it through the mists.

Midway through our second day on the island, we were all feeling a bit in need of a shower. But without any sign of a jimjilbang or public facilities anywhere, the only option seemed to be the ocean. The water wasn’t very warm – quite freezing, actually – and it was a rather gray day, but we could not be deterred. Bathing in the ocean in your clothes is a surefire way to attract a lot of attention, by the way.

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The islands rise out of the mists…

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…and into more mists.

Our bike tour ended with the steepest hike in my life, which involved going both up and down on (mostly) all fours.


More island eats”

The most popular seafood on the island appeared to be cuddlefish, sea slugs, and these giant, flat, crazy-eyed guys–

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Mmm…looks…delicious?

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These kinds of fish were hanging up drying everywhere. I think they look super gross all mangled together in that bag. Blech.

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Our last night on the island got really cold. Unfortunately, the camping area doesn’t really have anywhere to build a fire, or much to use to make one. Some guys had one going in a big oil can, but unfortunately we hadn’t come so prepared. We gathered what sticks and dry things we could find and were given some charcoal by nearby picnicers. Alas, pine needles only last for so long, and so I spent the night shivering in my sleeping bag. Next time, I’ll be better prepared!

The only other thing we needed to complete our American-style Memorial Day weekend was some barbeque. Lucky for us, bbq is ridiculously omnipresent in this country. While searching for a spot, we found some older Korean men who insisted on giving us all shots of whiskey and some raw fish. It was extremely fresh, as they were taking the fish still wriggling from a bucket and slicing them up right in front of us. I’m not sure why Korean people tend to be so willing to share their food with strangers, but that’s one cultural difference I’m a pretty big fan of.

Our last morning on the island, we had a very nourishing breakfast of Korean-twinkies and Doritios, quickly packed up and went for one last walk. Where we came across a rather startling sight:

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It’s difficult to see, but this is a group of ajummas, high up the side of a mountain, climbing a sheer rock face sans any harnesses. I wish I could describe this scene better. They were cackling away as their friends scrambled up to join them. There seemed to be some ropes you could hold on to for support, but from our view down below it looked like a climb better suited to climbing harnesses and ropes. Crazy ajummas.

Seonyudo had a whole nother breed of ATV-riding, rock-face-scaling ajummas, really not to be messed with.

On the ferry home, many people had water bottles and containers filled with things from the sea – small crabs, shellfish, some animal that looks like a little stick. It was interesting. We sat next to a woman who kept offering us shrimp-flavored snacks. She didn’t want anything to do with our Doritos. Again, I’m a big fan of the Korean food-sharing culture.

And thus began our somehow-11-hour journey back to Ulsan… Book train tickets ahead on holiday weekends! Lesson learned. A 3-hour delay in Daejeon can be improved by checking into a Love Motel for a shower.


Quite a long post for such a small island, I realize. While they’re a bit touristy, the islands are a ton of fun and I’m definitely glad I made the trek out to visit!

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