[The following is the reflective post-experience submission each participant had to write up and submit to Isabu Academy, the sponsors for our trip.]
The typhoon left us soggy, but our spirits undampened. Friday arrived in searing rays of sunshine and we groggily relinquished our floors of slumber after a (rather late) last night of island bonding. Having had an extra day on Ulleungdo due to being stranded was not even close to being the worst thing ever; rather it cemented friendships and allowed many more rounds of charades to be played. Thus, despite sleepiness, we were all in good cheer, ready to have a relaxing morning waiting for the ferry.
A relaxing morning it was not to be, however. No sooner had we stuffed ourselves into the many vans and arrived at Ulleungdo’s shinae had we been informed that we were to do a beach walk.
“That sounds nice,” we all agreed.
“It will take between one hour thirty minutes and two hours,” said the translator.
This was a somewhat unfortunate revelation as most of us were about as well prepared for such an excursion as the Dokdo islands are suitable to set up a luxury golf course. (Note: Dokdo is a barren, rocky pair of islands in the middle of the sea).
That said, we bought some cheap ice water from a nearby vendor (much to her bewilderment at suddenly emptying her cooler of merchandise before 11am), and steeled ourselves against the burning sun with little complaint and copious sunscreen.
The Guide pointed out various volcanic rock formations and we marveled at the famous eroded hole in the cliff-face. It looked very much like a majestic sandcastle that had had a child’s finger poked through to make a window. Everything was very interesting and informative and we listened with intent rapture.
With the instruction that we should not split up too far, we continued on. A few bridges lay ahead, and beyond that a looming spiral staircase that was clearly constructed by sadists, scaling at least a hundred feet up a sheer rock cliff (facts may be hyperbolized due to exertion and post-sun hysteria).
Our determination to be chipper was slipping away with every droplet of sweat as we stared at the stairs and wondered, seriously, if we’d all make it out of this alive.
Giving thanks to all the gods that I was not cursed with vertigo, we climbed.
The top was well worth it; endless periwinkle skies swept with cottony clouds, and a now-still and innocently sparkling azure sea (note: Donghae as it is known to Korea, not the Sea of Japan), so unlike the turbulent gray waves from two days prior.
It was too bad we weren’t on the right side of Ulleungdo, because it would have been a perfect day to be able to see the Dokdo Islands with our naked eyes. Ever since The Guide first started telling us about how that was a main argument in Korea’s favour for the territorial dispute, I’d been hoping to chance a glance of the forlorn, lonely rocks on the horizon.
After a brief rest in a tropical gazebo, drying our sweat in the shade and draining the last drops of our long-since melted water bottles, we ventured on through swaying bamboo forests and undulating trails.
At the very least, it was beautiful – even if we were privately dying inside with every step.
Our mutual discomfort had one rather nice effect, though: it offered even more bonding opportunity. Groups congealed, chatting drowsily in the beating sun, sighing in unison as a sea breeze relieved the sweltering heat. We talked about all the highlights of the trip – the sodden van tour of the island from the day of the typhoon, the awesomeness of the group presentations, the activities arranged for us once we realized we were stranded (everyone claimed theirs was the best, whether it was fishing, the mountain hike, or the waterfall walk).
The thing that got brought up the most, however, was how great it was to be stranded on Ulleungdo, being able to spend more time with each other and getting to know everyone. Everyone – from The Guide, to the translators, to the pension managers, to the fellow English teachers – was great, and it was a truly spectacular crew to be marooned with. Enough couldn’t be said about the organizers of the trip, either – especially all the last minute rearranging due to our extended situation. A true display of Korean hospitality.
Eventually the walk began to come to an end. By the fifth steep stone-crag staircase cut into the side of the island, we were certain that not just the first winding stair but the entire trail had been designed by sadists.
We were also certain that the term “beach” walk had been liberally applied to the hike we’d scaled, fifty feet above the waves, which crashed on bare rock. Not a speck of sand in sight. Then again, not much else should have been expected for a volcanic island. The plus side was all the towering rock formations and tunnels where cool water droplets refreshed us on our last leg of the walk until we arrived at the opposite port.
Arrival happened just in time. Our strength had been ebbing as forcefully as the waves below us. Even so, with a case of a heat exhaustion and an inflamed ankle later, our group quickly recharged on fluids, ice cream and souvenir handkerchiefs, and we were off to the ferry for our final departure.
As we watched the island recede (or rather imagined it doing so as our eyes were mostly squinted shut against the very buoyant boat ride), we were certainly filled with melancholy. If only Japan and Korea could form as solid a bond over Dokdo as our group had, the dispute would be over in no time.
Clap, clap, clap for an awesome time all around.