The Power of Expectations


On my way to visit the modern art park the other day I passed an elderly Korean lady in the car park. She was sitting under an umbrella in the blazing sun, on a day when most people had headed either for the beach or the aircon. She was selling oranges. She had picked an unfortunate spot, as visitors to the art park were few and far between. So, overwhelmed by a feeling of fondness for Jeju, its denizens and produce, I bought a few oranges. They were huge, and clearly straight from the tree, but slightly anaemic looking. I decided to give them a couple of days to fully ripen.

Yesterday evening I tried one. It was the most bitter orange I have ever tasted. ‘No matter,’ I thought, ‘I will make it into tea with honey, and give the others more time to ripen.’ This I did. It tasted a bit weird, but ok.

Breakfast today. There is half an orange sitting in the fruit bowl looking delicious. ‘I’ll try it again,’ I said to myself. Peeled the skin off and some of the pith. Picked out the seeds. Hmm, still a remarkably sour orange. In fact, it doesn’t taste very much like an orange at all. More like… search for elusive flavour… a grapefruit. I eat some more. Yes. It is, fact, not an unpleasantly sour orange, but a delicious juicy grapefruit! Yum.

Jeju fire festival

Jeju fire festival, with the tagline “the hopeful rejuvenation of fire spreads throughout the world,” is a brilliant mixture of agricultural show, Proms in the Park and Guy Fawkes Night. It takes place over four days, and includes traditional events such as thatching, stone lifting and neokdungbegi (Korean dice). There are performances of traditional and modern music and dance. But the undoubted climax is when they set fire to a mountain.


The activities during the day are good fun, and a reminder of the agricultural roots of the festival. The afternoon begins with a spectacular riding display team who can not only leap on and off (no hands), somersault and pick up a ribbon from the floor whilst at a canter, they can also stand on their horse’s back and skip (with a skipping rope) or juggle.


If you look closely you can see some astonishing horseback acrobatics

Exhibitions of the history of horses on Jeju, and the history of the festival, explain the good agricultural reasons for burning the dead grass, such as improving the grazing and reducing parasites. A walk around the oreum soon provides a reminder that such concerns are not obsolete.


Jeju ponies grazing by a tomb

The festival also has a spiritual component. The fire symbolises regeneration and rebirth, and wishes for prosperity are attached to the pyres and burnt.


Performances in the evening are a celebration of Jeju’s culture, and its links with other cities around the world. Traditional dances mirror the farming and diving pursuits of historic Jeju life. There are extraordinary performances from Jeju’s cultural partners, in particular a phenomenal display of martial arts from a group of Chinese boys. One boy can stand on one leg, with the other foot behind his ear, whilst on another man’s head!


On stage here is a German brass band group, whose performance of wimoweh was unforgettable.

During the day it is possible to see the immense amount of preparation, and safety precautions…

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Once it is dark there is a torch-lit procession to the edge of the oreum.


Then they set fire to the pyres and the mountainside. Marked out in fire against the dark oreum are the words 2015, Jeju fire festival (2015 체주 들불 축제). After hours waiting in the numbing cold people edge closer to the warmth. A line of fire sweeps across the oreum like the breakers at the edge of a wave. The air is distorted with a haze of smoke and heat. There is music and dancing too and then the crack and dazzle of fireworks, and lasers lance out into the distance in a spectacular combination of old and new. Attention gradually drifts back to the stage where performers stand, framed by the backdrop of burning hillside. The strong rhythmic beat and raw melody of traditional song pour out and bind the ritual indisputably with a land and its people, with a cycle of death and rebirth, with hardships faced, resilience found through community and hope restored.

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A foray into Korean cuisine

One of the Saturday morning activities on offer to the children is international cooking. This is something of a misnomer, as it’s blatantly Korean cooking with the addition of spam, but they learn some useful skills, have a good time, and get to eat what they produce. This week it was my job to shepherd them to the cookery school, and generally be on hand in case anyone accidentally incinerated themselves. It’s quite like watching an episode of Delia, as all the ingredients they need are laid out for them on little plates, and they combine them in roughly the right order in a big pot.

Mildly relevant picture, but these Spam gift sets still crease me up every time I see them.

Mildly relevant picture, but these Spam gift sets still crease me up every time I see them.

So I spent the morning watching 20 children compile a dish called Budaejjigae (or army base stew). This was invented just after the Korean War when American canned food made its way off base and into the diet of the locals. The students ate their versions with evident relish, and I thought to myself that if 14 year old boys can make this successfully, how hard can it be? I acquired a copy of the recipe they were using (in Korean, obviously) and headed off to the local supermarket.

Finding things in an unfamiliar supermarket is not easy. Double this when they are labelled in Korean. Double this again when you aren’t completely clear what they are in the first place. This was how long it took me in the supermarket. Luckily I’m now a regular at this particular establishment. I appear to be memorable for my habit of going in and buying all the dog-food in the place, although my mime of ‘where do I find the bin-liners?’ may have contributed. Anyway the lady who weighs the vegetables kindly helped me out with a few things, such as kimchi and the teeny weeny prawn things. She was definitely surprised that I wanted them and treated me with a benign and gentle bemusement which suggested she thinks there’s hope for me yet.

I returned home with my purchases and no small feeling of satisfaction.

Ingredients, including spam and the world's largest spring onions called 'pa'.

Ingredients, including spam and the world’s largest spring onions called ‘pa’.

Then I attempted to combine all the ingredients as the students had done. I was a bit confused by the quantities and my translation app rendered the word I had assumed meant ‘spoonful’ as ‘the large liquor’. As I hadn’t noticed the students sloshing the spirits about that morning, I thought that this was probably wrong.

Eventually I had the stew and the fluffy egg dish which accompanied it bubbling away in pans, and they didn’t look bad.


I poured myself a glass of wine, and with satisfaction, waited for my first Korean meal to cook. And waited. And waited. Long after the time when the kids had all been on coaches back to school, my eggs with teeny weeny shrimps were still floating under water. But there was an ominous aroma of burnt spam from the bottom of the other pot. So I dished it all up, avoiding the charred bits, and stuck it on a plate.

And after the hours of shopping, assembling and cooking…

…it tasted exactly like a pot noodle.

Mount Halla and Korean xenia

This week I climbed Mount Halla. Hallasan (san is Korean for mountain) is the highest mountain in Korea. It is 1950m (6400ft), almost double Snowdon, so this post might be just a little smug.

There are only two trails that go up to the summit of Halla, so it made sense to go up one and down the other, taking a taxi back to the starting point. We walked up the slightly gentler but less scenic trail, and back down by the steeper but more beautiful route. Including a little detour to the observatory on Sara oreum (purely because it is the eponymous oreum of one of the school houses) we were walking for 10 hours.

Sara oreum view

The view from Sara Oreum


The crater in Sara Oreum

Koreans take their hiking seriously. The track up Halla is the M25 of the hiking world. There are frequent queues and pulling in and out to overtake slower traffic. There is also a definite hiking uniform, comprising orange or yellow gortex and walking poles.


The start of the trail


Dawn in the carpark

We were warned to make an early start, as if you aren’t at a certain point en route by 12.30 you aren’t allowed up to the summit. Apparently they are very strict about this, and, having seen the route down, I applaud their desire to prevent tourists from tumbling in the dark to their doom. So we were at the start and raring to go at 6.15 am.  It was barely dawn, but even so there was about one space left in the carpark.


The lower slopes


The first refuge


The higher slopes


The crater lake at the top of Halla, called Baengnokdam (white deer lake) after otherworldly creatures who come and play with the white deer that apparently live there. No evidence of either!

I could describe the ascent a bit, but it’s probably easier to put in some photos to give you an idea. Basically we walked upwards for a really long time. Quite a lot of it was stone or wooden stairs. Occasionally there were refuges with toilets and Korean pot noodle for sale. But I did discover a Korean custom – the giving of fruit. I don’t know whether I had a hungry gleam in my eye, or whether my fellow walkers were just being exceptionally hospitable, but by the time I reached the summit I had been given 3 tangerines, a banana, a packet of nuts, some magic beans, and a biscuit. I feel quite bad that I hadn’t stocked up with any items to reciprocate.


At the summit, Korean people have a picnic. Now I had brought a couple of slices of gluten free pizza and a tangerine (of my own) but I have to admit that this really didn’t cut it. Out came little tubs of rice, meat, fish, octopus, sauces, kimchi (obviously) not to mention bottles of soju (the local brew) and whisky(!).

Thus revitalised, everyone sets off down again. The path twists downwards through valleys and woods, across a rope bridge and along the side of a steep ravine. Which was fine, until the part where they were replacing the track. Imagine a series of railway sleepers to walk on, precariously balanced on metal rails, a stride apart, interspersed with ropes, welding equipment and other trip hazards, on a path narrower than a pavement, alongside a 200ft drop. I was quite pleased that I hadn’t been on the whisky at lunch.


Crows waiting for those who fall by the wayside?


Halloween treescape


Anyway, everyone seemed to make it down safely. It hadn’t occurred to me before that hiking could be a communal experience, but here it certainly is. Halla goes straight to number one on my list of memorable Korean experiences. There are lots of other walks in the national park. Next time I’ll know to stock up on fruit before I set out.

Pioneer spirit

Jeju is not the ideal place for gardening. Being a volcano, it is almost entirely made up of rocks. I will concede the fertile, mineral-rich soil. But since this is mixed with solidified lava and basalt, without back-breaking toil it is of limited use.

It might seem an unlikely spot, then, for Mr Bumyoung Sung to decide to build a bunjae (bonsai) garden. What’s more he started 40 years ago when there wasn’t much machinery available. He moved to Jeju from the mainland. His wife, Jungsook Ma, was not happy. She would have returned to Seoul, where their children were, had she not fainted after doing her final bowl of Jeju washing-up. She came round with a poem in her mind, which she then wrote on a sack which was lying nearby. She decided to stay.

In the eternal universe

There is a small but robust country

named Korea

At its southernmost lies

an island of fantasy and peace…

They had quite a few problems, aside from the terrain. Lots of people thought they were mad. Some people got angry because they associated bonsai trees with Japan, at whose hands the people of Jeju had suffered brutally. Others thought that bunjae art was cruel to the trees. But Mr Sung was not to be deterred. This is what the garden looks like today.

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It’s called the spirited garden, and genuinely is very beautiful and tranquil. You have to suspend cynicism a bit, particularly when reading about the beneficial effects of growing bunsae on a person’s character, but it is a very impressive achievement. I think Mr Sung would have got on well with Rowena Cade (the lady who carved the Minack theatre and gardens out of a cliff in Cornwall).

My second pioneer of the day was Hendrick Hamel. He worked as a secretary for the Dutch East India company and, while travelling from South Africa to Japan, was shipwrecked off the coast of Jeju. The treatment of the thirty-six survivors veered between an audience with the king, flogging, imprisonment and forced labour, though they brought some of it on themselves by their propensity to steal boats whenever they could. The king of Korea (Hyojong) was not keen to release the men, since he assumed they would reveal important state secrets to his enemies. After thirteen years Hamel managed to escape to Japan, and eventually back to South Africa, where he was involved in a protracted argument about how much pay he was owed. What elevates this above your typical story of seventeenth century derring-do is that Hamel wrote a ‘journal and description of the kingdom of Korea’ and was the first person to bring any reliable information about Korea to the western world, where it was largely ignored.

Korea recognises Hamel as making a moderately significant contribution to its history, although after being held prisoner for 13 years I doubt he was particularly complimentary. His shipwreck is commemorated by this large and colourful boat, which he would no doubt have stolen, had he had the chance.

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He also gets a concrete monument on the top of the cliff, and a film and animation have been made about him.




So, an inspirational couple of days. I feel an assembly coming on…

Stairway to Heaven, right next to the road to nowhere!

I’ve driven past this staircase a fair few times now, but today curiosity got the better of me.


It turns out it’s a sculpture called ‘Air Cup’ by Chanjoong Kim. It’s a sculpture of a cup, in a field of tea. I think it’s brilliant.





I like this sculpture, too. The horses have left footprints resembling orange camellia petals. This alludes to Zhuang Zhou, the Chinese 4th century BC philosopher. I’m not exactly sure why, Google wasn’t very forthcoming on this point. The tea field represents his ideal world ‘where things are let be as they are.’

Apparently somewhere there is a whole village made out of chairs. I’ll keep you posted.

Oreum bagging

Half term at long last, and the opportunity to explore a bit further afield! Here are some more oreums for the collection: Idalbong, which has two peaks, and Saebyeol Oreum where later in the year there is a fire festival. You can only climb it until the end of October, when apparently the fire risk becomes too great.


View from Idalbong at dusk


Saebyeol Oreum in the evening sun


There are tombs everywhere on Jeju. This one is at the top of Idalbong.


Peeping through the trees on the way up Idalbong


Jeju ponies on the side of Idalbong


View from Saebyeol towards the two peaks of Idalbong, with the sea in the distance

The world comes to Jeju, and Jeju goes to the world

There’s something about Jeju that disarms cynicism. Banners proclaim to tourists: “We love having you here!” Others proudly assert: “The world comes to Jeju, and Jeju goes to the world.” There’s something direct and sincere about these sentiments. I am rather moved by the ambition and the open-heartedness. And I buy it, because the more I travel around Jeju, the more I find welcome and kindness and an appreciation of irony and delight in the bizarre, which is very attractive.

I love the range of tourist attractions of Jeju. Eclectic is an understatement. Scholarly, kitsch, cutsie or wacky, attractions jostle for the attention of visitors and the industry glories in its eccentricity. I don’t care if government tax breaks or an eye to the emerging Chinese market motivate growth. The result is fun, joyful, crazy and unique.

Last week I visited a tea plantation. Green tea is a major export of Jeju, and is used in a remarkable range of things, including moisturiser, ice-cream and Swiss roll. It makes these things green. Here are some pictures of the somewhat improbably named O’Sulloc’s tea museum.



Who knew that growing tea was so hazardous?



It seems to me unlikely that the key creatures in the tea ecosystem are aphids, ladybirds, snakes and otters. Perhaps I read this wrong.


I genuinely have no idea…



This is cool. When you order in the restaurant they don’t give you a number on an old wooden spoon, they give you device. It plays a little tune when your order is ready.

O’Sulloc’s is really very pleasant. You can stroll around fields of tea, and then have a refreshing brew. Pleasingly this is within walking distance of the global education village.


Last weekend we went to a maze. Conditioned by Hampton Court, we were expecting hedges rather than mirrors, so it was a bit of a surprise when they asked us to put on gloves. Inside was a slightly bizarre mix of cultures, with models of Alice in Wonderland side by side with trolls, sphinxes and batman.



In this theme park you can have your photo taken in front of a variety of cultural icons made out of fibre-glass.

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It might seem a little strange to have a Leonardo da Vinci Museum on Jeju. It’s actually rather well done, with working wooden models of lots and lots of his designs, and their modern equivalents.



None of the man-made attractions come close to the natural ones. This is what you see from the viewing platform on top of Jeoji oreum. Three separate groups of Korean walkers arrived while I was there. Each one took the trouble to point out to me the mountains and islands which could be seen. I found the friendliness on Jeoji as breathtaking as the view. The second picture is down inside the crater.

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This is the five day market in Moseulpo. It happens on days that end in 1 or 6. An elegantly practical system. I didn’t ask what happened on months with 31 days.



These are squid boats in the harbour. The lights attract the squid, and this is what they catch.


Here is some sort of preying mantis seconds before it accidentally got shut in the automatic sliding doors of the apartment building. I’m actually a bit sad about that.


Anyway, life is certainly full of novelty and interest. Zeph has been to the vet a couple of times, as she hurt herself when she got stuck under the bed, and had to have a hole in her thigh stitched up. Although usually I am quite adventurous about communicating in Korean, I have to admit that this time I was pleased to find a sympathetic English-speaking vet. However, it was obvious that they were used to dealing with smaller dogs. The first thing they did was plonk her on a chest high table. Poor old Zeph was stiff legged with terror, and it took three of us to prevent her from toppling off onto the floor. Then fairly soon they decided that she needed to be sedated, which they also did on the table. Attempting to catch a swaying, dozy greyhound before she hits the deck is no joke, especially as she is entirely made of breakable parts. Then they stitched the wound, but she had a bad reaction to the anaesthetic, and spent the next half an hour staggering around the waiting room, falling over and dripping blood over the floor. So in the end it was just me, Zeph and one vet (who should have left hours ago) in the building, and we decided to put her in the car and take her home and see if she was better in the morning. The vet carried her to the car, and really couldn’t have been nicer.

So at no time have I felt unwelcome on Jeju. However, there are drawbacks to the influx of tourists, and rapid westernisation of the island. Last week was Jeju’s international women’s film festival. The most interesting film I saw was called ‘Spirits: The Story of Jeju’s Shamanic Shrines.’ This was followed by a question and answer session with the American director, and one of Jeju’s remaining Great Shamans. With typical Jeju thoughtfulness, the film was shown with English and Korean subtitles, and the debate was translated into English and Korean. The film was an elegy to the decline in Shamanism, and effects of rapid cultural change. The shamans preserve an historic oral tradition. Each ensures the continuation of local religious stories and practices. A great shaman is one who has memorised the epic myths of the the gods of Jeju, which takes 30 years. The younger generation increasingly look to science, and the western world, for their inspiration, and as a western teacher, I am playing my part in this. It is well to be reminded that there is a cost, and that something profound and fragile could easily be lost. At the very least Shamanism needs its Homer.

Jeju does welcome the world with genuine enthusiasm. It behoves the rest of us to be careful what we trample on.

What to do in a typhoon

On Tuesday and Wednesday the weather was bad. Humidity levels hit 95% and it was rainy and windy. However, I was well prepared. For I had received two emergency texts on my Korean mobile phone. The special ring tone and little loud speaker symbols made it plain I should be moderately concerned about something, but since ‘Teach Yourself Korean’ entirely omits weather expressions, I had no idea what. After some enquiry it became clear that there was a typhoon somewhere about that could potentially hit Jeju, if it didn’t veer off somewhere else instead.

So remembering from one of our induction lectures that the school has a typhoon emergency procedure, I thought I’d better find out what it was. It turns out our emergency shelter is the underground car park. The flats also have signs to an emergency shelter in the basement. And there are loud-speakers which broadcast warnings if required. Which is all typically efficient. Enticing though a giant sleep-over in a multi-storey seemed, I decided to give it a miss unless I noticed hordes of other people heading in the same direction.


Fortunately it was all completely unnecessary. It was a bit windy and rainy. It was moderately hard to stand up straight in the wind. The flat is quadruple glazed, so I didn’t even notice the weather. The only person it upset was Zeph, who woke me up in the early hours of the morning by whining and whimpering. Not at my most alert, I looked round the room, and I couldn’t see her anywhere. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that, not being able to get to the basement, she’d thought that the wisest course of action was to hide under the bed. Which might well have been the case, apart from the fact that the gap under the bed is very small, and she is a very big dog. She’d got stuck!!  And she couldn’t get any purchase on the laminate floor to push herself out.


So I’m sliding on my stomach trying to reach her, running a very real risk of ending up in a similar predicament, which would have been embarrassing. By coincidence I learnt the Korean word for fire-fighter* this week, but I wasn’t really keen on having them break the door down to winch Zeph and me from under the bed. The alternative of moving the bed was clearly a non-starter, since both the weight and comfort level clearly indicate that it is made out of concrete. In the end I just had to yank her out by her front legs. Poor Zeph, she was not a happy hound!

Anyway, we both survived our first brush with Korean weather, and today it’s hot and sunny, so until my phone texts me of its own accord with a heatwave warning, I reckon it’s safe to go out.


* 소방관 (sobang-gwan)- easy to remember because if your gran went bang you’d certainly need to call them…

Exciting geographical features #1 – the oreum

I to20140920_095745ok 14 children horse-riding on Saturday morning, and it was great.  The sun was shining, the kids were keen and I got to ride too. The instructor commented that I had been taught to ride ‘western style’. No great surprise there except that to me it was they who were  riding western style, like American cowboys with huge pommels on their saddles. Which shows that all geography is relative. It’s hard to debate the merits of the classical European dressage style of riding when the only horse related terms you have in common are ‘walk’, ‘trot’ and ‘canter’ (my latest Korean vocabulary – I taught them the term ‘rising trot’) so we abandoned a fruitless discussion and I got to trot my horse round for 40 minutes so the kids’ horses could follow and they could learn sobo (rising trot).  Luckily animals speak the same language the world over, and my mount quickly got the message that, riding styles aside, he was not the one in charge. It turns out that horse names are pretty much the same the world over too – Nun Oreum roughly equates to ‘Snowy’.


On Sunday I felt that slightl20140921_171442y more aerobic exercise was called for, preferably at some distance from the Global Education City, so I headed over to Songaksan, which is an oreum. As you are well aware, an oreum is a small ex-volcano, formed in the vicinity of a larger volcano a really, really long time ago. Or, in other words, a hill. But a kind of spiky hill. With a crater. There are loads of these on Jeju, and climbing them is a popular pastime. So seizing upon the philosophy of ‘when in Rome’ (a saying which coincidentally I taught my Yr 7 English Enrichment groups this week), off I set. I will say straight away that I had a very pleasant, if somewhat blustery, walk. I climbed to the highest point of Songaksan, even though I had to deviate sightly from the extremely well way-marked path to do so. The view was exceptional.  You can see some of the rare native Jeju ponies grazing on the hillside. There is (apparently) a Korean proverb that all people go to Seoul, but all horses to Jeju. I rather like that.


But, if  you’ve ever found the joy of climbing  Snowdon or Whernside slightly diminished by the wooden walkways which are so essential for conservation but so destructive to that illusion of  walking untrodden wilderness, you will know what I mean by the phrase ‘sanitised countryside’. This the Koreans do to a marked degree. Admittedly volcanic terrain is not very conducive to footpaths, and understandably the authorities do not want people falling off a cliff or into a crater, but wooden

20140921_17592420140921_180003 walkways and rope handrails encircle the oreum. There are information posts, lookout points and even public toilets at frequent intervals. And in case you feel that climbing the oreum is insufficiently challenging, there is a wayside gym! You have to applaud the efficiency and organisation which has gone into the management of Sangaksan. As a visitor, I feel my needs have been anticipated. But it’s not quite my idea of a country walk!

Part of the route around the oreum follows an olle trail. These are waymarked paths all around the island, and they are brilliant. Given that a fairly broad brush approach is taken to cartography here, clear indication of where to walk on the ground is necessary. This is done, not through arrows or signs of little walking people, but by brightly coloured ribbons. It makes the countryside cheery and festive, and every walk seem like a Jeju pilgrimage.20140921_175658