Strap yourselves in, pengyous, this is a bit of a long one! But it is a tale that includes questions of alternate, parallel universes and continued shenanigans.
Ganse – the small Jeju pony that marks the beginning, middle, and end of the Jeju Olle trails. The wooden heads of the beginning/middle/end the ganses also include the stamp pads and stamps that we use to track our progress.
Smaller blue ganse outlines also mark the trail, their heads helpfully pointing in the direction we’re meant to walk in. Occasionally, they include extra information on different parts of a trail (like explaining why Al Oreum is called Al Oreum, which is because al means egg in Korean, and people thought that the oreum looked like an egg.)
Tuesday, March 7th
We were appropriately horrified.
But let’s backtrack.
On Tuesday morning, Alena and I were out of our hostel by 6:00 AM to make the short hike up to the top of Seongsan Ilchubong, or Sunrise Peak. Ilchubong is a crater-like volcano-created thing and the sunrise over it is supposed to be beautiful. It was a nice hike, but due to the clouds on the horizon, we didn’t actually see the sun till it cleared the clouds. When it did, it looked somewhat… fake.
In retrospect, we realized this was the first sign that something was “off”.
Our day continued to take a decidedly non-Olle turn: once we walked back down from Ilchubong, we hit up a Starbucks for chai tea lattes. Why did this tiny town on Jeju island have both a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts? The world may never know.
After Starbucks, we returned to our hostel, where the owners cheerfully knew zero English, and where we cheerfully knew two words of Korean (still the same words: hello and thank you). The latter came in particular handy, because while we were off watching the fake-ish but quietly lovely sunrise, the hostel owner was busy cooking up a bomb breakfast.
This was a great decision because it started raining about five minutes into our drive. But it was all very un-Olle-like. We also ate huge burgers at Haha Hoho burger, a place where people actually spoke English and where confidence in our ability to demolish giant burgers was vocal and heartfelt. (We thus demolished giant burgers in about five minutes.)
After doing a turn around the island, Alena and I headed back to catch the 12:30 boat back to Jeju so we could continue on to the hostel we’d decided to stay at, which was a few kilometers into Route 2. The end of Route 1 included a beach with some horses on it (???), and we also spotted an older Korean couple stamping their own Olle passports.
After stamping our Route 1 completion and Route 2 starting, Alena and I walked along the path to find our hostel. We discussed plans for the next day: the Great and All-Knowing Jim had recommended in the guidebook (we don’t actually know if he wrote the guidebook, but we attribute all Olle knowledge to Mythical Jim) that we stop by the Hong Market to pick up supplies, because there wouldn’t be many food or drinks options along Route 2.
Then we came across the Hong Market, which was supposed to be 5.6 kilometers into Route 2.
This was when we first suspected we had entered into an alternate, parallel universe: how the heck had we already walked the 2-3 km to the end of Route 1 and the 5.6 kilometers in Route 2? Alena and I have begun to develop a fairly good sense of how far we have walked, but by the time we accidentally reached Hong Market, we felt like we’d only gone about 2 or 3km since getting off the boat, not 8. Our chosen hostel was supposed to be 3km into Route 2. We had unknowingly passed it by.
However, it was only about 2pm, and we felt great. We decided we’d just had too much fun, chatting and alternately passing or following the older Korean couple from the beach. Since we’d spent the morning driving around, we had energy to spare, and decided we could probably save a day by just finishing Route 2 then. Checking our guidebook, we picked out a hostel called Seongsan Doongji that was about 3km before the end of Route 2, and offered a discount for Olle walkers. We picked up some snacks at the Hong Market. And we trucked onwards.
This is when we came across the decapitated Ganse.
GANSE IS DEAD we thought. We had somehow covered 6.6km without realizing it, and Ganse was dead. But we walked on.
A little bit further along the trail, before the path began to incline towards the Daesun-bong peak that marked the true midway point of the full 14.5km of Route 2, we re-encountered the older Korean couple. They did not speak English, and we did not speak Korean, but somehow we managed to have a short conversation about whether or not we planned to continue walking Route 2, where we were planning on staying that evening, about how much further it was to our destined accommodations, and about how long it would take. (We also had a brief conversation about why I was wearing shower slippers instead of hiking boots.)
Alena and I walked on while the Korean couple debated whether to continue or not (they ended up deciding to, and we passed each other periodically till we split ways towards the end of Route 2). Right before the trail lead into the woods, we found some Jeju oranges in a plastic bag with a note saying that we could take a bag if we left 1,000 Korean Won in a box (that’s about the equivalent of $1). We paid, got our oranges, and began eating them as we started to head into the woods and up to the next vista point.
“Mary,” Alena said as she bit into her first orange slice. “Do these kind of taste like carrots?”
I laughed. I ate a slice of orange. And then: “Holy shit, Ganse is dead and these oranges kind of taste like carrots.”
But they were good orange-carrots, so we kept eating them, and as we walked we kept hitting trail markers announcing we’d gone a lot farther than we thought we had. Ganse was dead, our oranges tasted like carrots, the sunrise had been fake, and we didn’t know what was wrong with our understating of time and distance.
We trucked on, but paid extra attention to our guide map and the trail markers. When we got to about 12km, we knew we had to veer off the trail to go find our hostel, and split away from the older Korean couple.
The hostel proved to be very difficult to find. Korean is a really easy language to learn how to read; Alena could more or less read it (even if she doesn’t know what she is reading), and with a handy cheatsheet, I can sound words out with the proficiency of kindergartener learning to read English for literally the first time. Together, we (i.e. mostly Alena) managed to plug the hostel name into Google Maps (which, as I may remind you, is inexplicably incapable of giving driving, walking, or biking directions). Heading down the road the hostel was supposed to be on, we passed what we assumed to be a resort with a handful of empty-looking orange mushroom-ish buildings that were probably condos.
We checked the name of the resort, just in case: it was not Seongsan Doongji. We kept walking. We realized we had passed the pin that marked the hostel on the map. We turned around. The only thing in sight were the ugly orange mushroom condos. We took a side road. Still nothing but the ugly orange mushroom condos.
Then Alena spotted what looked like it might be an administration building, squarer rather than mushroom-shaped, with a raised sun and moon on its front (and still an ugly orange). I saw what looked like a stack of blankets in a window. We cut through the grounds of the mushroom-shaped condos, ignoring the barking of dogs and the car or two in different driveways.
We knocked on a side door. No answer. There were wooden double doors at the front, with one wooden bar slid through the brass handles. I pulled it out, opened the door, and called out one of the two Korean phrases I know: “An-neong ha-se-yo?” Hello?
I threw open the door, and Alena and I went in to see if we could find anyone.
Instead, we found an abandoned ex-hostel, complete with a roomful of stacks of blankets that I had seen in the window.
It was past 5pm. Alena and I didn’t know how far away the next hostel might be. It was getting cold. We stood in the empty foyer of the abandoned hostel and asked ourselves: to squat, or not to squat?
We got the fuck out of there.
The only other guesthouse the Grand Ol’ Guidebook recommended was a lot further off the trail and further away than we thought we could get to before sunset. On my phone, we pulled up a couple of hostel options on Google maps, and went in search of them. Our search slowly lead us back to the Route 2 Olle trail, which we followed to another hostel – also closed. We kept going; Alena recognized the word “minbok” – guesthouse – in Korean on a house.
I knocked, and a woman came out.”Guesthouse?” I asked. She gave me a strange look, shook her head, and shut the door.
We despaired. Our only other option was to follow the Olle trail to the end of Route 2 and see if we could find a hostel at the start of Route 3. Just as we resigned ourselves to continuing to walk, Alena spotted a sign across the street that said Guest House in English.
A nice, younger Korean woman let us into the pension-style guest house, gave us a cute, clean room, and helped order us some KFC for delivery. Showered, with hand-washed clothes drying out on the heated floor of our room, and stuffed full of Korean fried chicken, Alena and I celebrated our return to the normal universe.
end of day: 35,353 steps
casualties: our perception of time and space, Ganse, and our understanding of parallel universes.
Wednesday, March 8th
Having returned to normality, Alena and I continued to appreciate the quietude and beauty of the Olle trail.
After being fed a breakfast of sandwiches and soup, we headed off to finish Olle Route 2, and then began Olle Route 3-A. Route 3 split into A and B – A went inland and over a couple of oreums, while B followed the coastline. Just before A reunited with B along the coast, Alena and I had a delicious lunch of buckwheat dumplings and buckwheat black soy bean noodles that tasted vaguely of tomatoes. On a beach towards the end of the trek, we found a row of stone zodiac animals. The monkey (Alena and I are both monkeys) continued to be the weirdest-looking zodiac animal, and I insisted on climbing onto the horse because I’m about five years old. We then finished Route 3.
casualties: none, thank gosh
Thursday, March 9th
Route 4 is the longest of the Olle trails, and about two hours into it, we came across a really cute dog and when I went to pet her, I dropped and shattered my second water bottle of the Olle trip.
But otherwise, the trek continued to be beautiful and bright and sunny (no pushy winds today), and we came across a few other Olle hikers, who have now ended up in the same hostel as us this evening. We also had dinner at this restaurant manned by this one older lady, who advised me against ordering too much food, fed us till we were stuffed anyway, and kept trying to ask us questions.
I have now resolved to add at least one more phrase to my Korean abilities: “I don’t understand Korean.”
It’s slow going.
end of day: 43,084 steps
casualties: RIP my brilliant green water bottle, which lasted a glorious 6 days. You will be missed.