May 14, 2014

Tongyeong & the Restless

I rose early after a good night’s sleep in Tongyeong. Out on the streets, an elderly gentleman guided me to a set of staircases leading up to Dongpirang Wall Painting Village,  a decaying neighbourhood that was revitalized thanks to painters who had decorated the walls of the houses in the alleys with charming murals. However cold and unfriendly the people of Seoul may be, it is always balanced out by the kindness and warmth of the Koreans whom I encounter in the rest of the nation.

The artsy neighbourhood was situated on a hill. I made my way down using an alternate path and kept walking until I arrived at the Nammangsan Sculpture Park. Every point of interest in Tongyeong conveniently fell within a 15-20 minute walk of each other in the town of 100,000. The sculptures stared out into the distance where the dark clouds seemed to be clearing up, indicating that it was time for me to catch a boat to one of the outlying islands.

I sauntered to the ferry terminal. I asked a ticket seller what the best island to visit was and bought a ticket there. I sat on the open air deck as the boat made its way out to sea, the waters choppy and the sky again downcast. With the youth of Korea busy staring at their smartphones and getting their faces carved by the medicine man, I was surrounded by the same colourfully dressed members of the 40+ club who I run into when hiking Korea’s mountains. They generously offered me several cups of the national rice wine soju and some baby tomatoes.

After I had imbibed adequately I headed inside to the covered section of the ship, which was just a floating model of a traditional Korean home. There were no seats or tables. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance, and passengers were either sitting or lying on the floor. Many were fast asleep. As the sea churned, the boat swayed from side to side. I used my backpack as a makeshift pillow and indulged in a light nap, occasionally sliding a few inches in either direction as the currents dictated.

As we passed several small islands and ventured further out into open waters, the weather began to clear up. The sun reared its head among the clouds, emerging victorious just as we reached our destination - Somaemuldo. A small town had formed on the hillside beside the pier. On each side were jagged rocks and ancient trees. I climbed a cliff to get a quality view of the return passengers boarding the vessel I had just disembarked.

I had about four hours to explore the island before the last ferry of the day would set sail back to the mainland. After completing a small looping trail on one side of the island and stopping for a quick lunch, I decided to hike to the top of Somaemuldo to get a glimpse of the lighthouse constructed by Japanese colonialists on the adjacent island of Haegeumdo. A small land bridge is available to reach the tiny island from Somaemuldo when the tide runs low. At the top of a mountainous ridge, I reclined on the bare rock and took in the view. The fog cooperated occasionally to give me brief glimpses of Haegeumdo before covering it up again.

According to my rough calculations, I had about 45-60 minutes to spare before the last ferry departed for Tongyeong when I arrived back at the township by the docks. I entered a coffee shop perched on the hillside, ordered a cup of coffee from a rare natural Korean beauty manning the counter, picked a seat with a direct view of the port, and plugged in my phone charger. Just as I was getting settled, the coffee girl approached me with a panic stricken look on her face.

Our communication to this point had been silent and continued thusly. She pointed at the boat and urgently ushered me to go aboard. I pointed at the time and indicated that I still had a good half an hour before the final boat departed. She shook her head, unplugged my phone, handed me my coffee, and made a running motion. I could not ignore her heartfelt concern for my well-being so I waved her a long goodbye (which was reciprocated) and hurried to the ferry, which in fact was the final one of the day and soon set sail back towards Tongyeong.