South to North in less than 12 hours

South to North in less than 12 hours

Maybe it’s because I’m from one, but I seem to seek out islands wherever I go. There’s something I’m drawn to about the feeling of being contained by water on all sides, the closeness of people and communities and living at the mercy of nature. So it was pretty convenient that islands and weather stations go together like kimchee and soybean paste stew.

Jeju-do (do = island) is a pretty popular tourist destination for both mainlanders (as they call all other Koreans not from Jeju) and foreigners alike. It’s pretty lovely with beaches and tangerine orchards aplenty. There also seems to be one of each geological formation there, so generally pretty spectacular to look at.


View on Jeju from farmland to coastland

I went to Jeju Island to stay on a farm as a WWOOFer, working on the farm in return for room, board and knowledge. It was a really wonderful experience. Life just seemed to slow down to a crawl and the sun on my face and sweat on my brow made me feel alive. I fertilized an entire tangerine orchard – probably the only time in my life I’ll be able to say that! And fed pigs, built a rock wall, drove the farm truck from here to there, moved piles of lumber from one spot to another. It kind of felt like most of my childhood summers and weekends, actually. Minus the tangerines.


Lodging for farm workers


Lunch materials, from the ground to our bellies


Hejern, the multi-tasking farmer


Minseo and broccoli flowers


Cooking pig food over the fire (we ate some too), tangerine trees in the background

On the farm I made a new flexible friend. Minseo (Min) is a yoga instructor and was another WWOOFer, there to learn about organic farming techniques, the farming lifestyle, and to explore different meditation techniques. Hejern, the farmer, is a devoted meditator, and has in fact built a circular mediation room where he teaches the people staying on his farm about meditation and how it relates to his own personal philosophy and the way he runs his farm.


I can do that I just don’t wanna


New litter of puppies


Bibimbap, all ingredients grown on the farm

While on Jeju, I visited the climate change monitoring centre that is located there and interviewed one of the specialists. He spoke about the different instruments used to monitor weather events and gave a tour of the facility.

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Weather radar atop a hill

While Jeju is considered to be a pristine natural destination with much pride taken in their crystal clear waters and fresh, fresh air, the interviewee spoke about the decline in air quality he has witnessed on the island and how, despite its reputation, it is not immune to the hwangsa and fine particles that blow across the peninsula. Nor to the changing climate, despite its reputation as a natural paradise. And as if on cue at the end of the interview, a pod of dolphins swam by.

One travel tip I’ll recommend to anyone traveling in Korea (which you may find common sense, but hey…) is to get your international driver’s license. It’s illegal to drive without a Korean or foreign driver’s license and rental companies won’t rent you a car if you don’t have one. So I found myself on a bus tour in order to get around. The island is about 50km by 30km so my initial plan of walking fell apart fairly rapidly.

I promised myself I’d never do a bus tour, so I was a bit surly as the tour began, and became surlier with our first stop: the Jeju Trick Art Museum – where you can stand in front of a painting on a wall and take a picture which looks like you are petting a panda. Or being eaten by a hippo. As you like. I was not happy.


Someone stop her!


Check out the woman in the back left corner

But then things turned right around. We went to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a volcanic crater sticking out of the south-eastern part of the island. With 500 stairs up, I felt I’d earned the view.




On the beach below, we met the “Jeju Women Divers” who have become tourism stars.


The women sing a traditional song before beginning their dive


Over the next 4 or 5 hours they will collect abalone, urchins, sea cucumbers, muscles, sea snails and other underwater delicacies

The slogan of Jeju Island is the three Ws: Wind, Water and Women. This slogan… let’s say… confused me. Until our tour guide explained that traditionally, men’s role was as fishermen who worked during the nights, and would go out on the fishing boats for days and weeks at a time. This meant that women were the ones who took on the tasks of farming and diving for shellfish. On a given day, a visitor to the island would look around them and all they would see is women.

These women divers played a very important role in the economic survival of the island, accounting for over 10% of the population in the 1960s. These days there less than 500 women who collect seafood, for sale to locals and on the international market. And their average age is over 50. The spend 4-5 hours every day underwater with their nets, sometimes holding their breath for up to 2 minutes. Talk about fit.

The tour guide was a source of wonderful local knowledge, providing at the very end of the tour the sad history of the ideological struggles manifesting on the island in the 1940s and 1950s and the mass slaughter of tens of thousands of communist radicals, communist sympathizers and villagers in 1948, and the imprisonment of tens of thousands more. She offered a personal take on South Korea’s political situation, the ongoing conflict with the North, the country’s changing culture due to rapid development, her sadness at the separation of the two Koreas and personal wish for reunification.

She said something that interested me very much, that 7 years of development in Korea is equivalent to 70 years of European development. In Seoul, you get the impression that this modern city has always been this way. On Jeju, however, you get to see more of the people engaged in a rural agricultural lifestyle and realize that it was not long ago when people were living very different lives, in houses like these.

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The tour guide led us around a folk village, inhabited by local residents, and showed us the outdoor toilet, the pig pens, the packed-dirt-floored houses for multi-generational families which she herself used in her childhood.


These “grandfathers” are places at the entry to villages and homes and considered symbols of protection


Keeping watch


Small temple in a traditional village



I flew back to Seoul, went to bed, and woke up a few hours later to start the journey to another island, Baengnyeong-do in the North. The ferry left from Incheon, where we boarded with a few plain-clothes individuals like ourselves and a whole bunch of South Korean soldiers. Baengnyeong is a heavily fortified island, and a place where many young men do their mandatory time in the military. The population of the island is 3500 people, with 5000 soldiers added on top of that. Combine the fatigues with guns and barbed wire and bunkers, and my idea of normalcy went right out the window.


The ship that brought us to Baengnyeong, the Democracy 5


Jinju on board


Napping soldiers

The ferry ride was so foggy that you couldn’t see even a foot out of the windows. When we docked, I couldn’t tell if we had arrived or we stopping mid-ocean. At the ferry terminal we were greeted by our interviewee from the Korean Meteorological Administration who works as an equipment specialist at the weather monitoring station. He drove us through the fog on an eerie tour of the island, explaining all the things we could be able to see if it weren’t for the fog. Talk about pathetic fallacy.


View from the top

So you may be wondering why Baengnyeong is so special for the hwangsa story. Well let’s have a look at the geography.


Baengnyeong-do is, as I’ve mentioned too many times already, the northern-most point in South Korea. Thus, it is the first point at which hwangsa and other weather systems are registered on the South Korean meteorological systems. When hwangsa or fine particle dust is measured at the Baengnyeong monitoring centre, it takes in general 3 hours for the dust to reach Seoul. This provides the opportunity to issue warnings to Seoul and other cities, and alert the public about the predicted particle density levels and issue any warnings as required.


Plaque indicating the northern-most point in South Korea


Fishing boats


Army lookout with barbed wire and gun turret



Ok, so how does Baengnyeong Island get its forecasts, you may ask? What data do they use to prepare? Well, the answer is that they are operating on a real-time basis. Essentially, look out the window, what you see is what you get. Well, it’s a bit more complex I guess, though they literally have a remote control CCTV camera for visual weather monitoring on the roof.


LIDAR sending its laser miles into the night sky

This real-time nature of weather observation seemed to penetrate the attitudes that came across in the interviews as well. Any questions about the equipment, fine. Any questions about the observation techniques, ok. Any questions about the future of air quality, no comment. Not even a thought offered about the forecast for the end of the week. It was very interesting.


Stunning rock formations


Our tour guide from the KMA giving us a tour in the middle of the work day – now that’s island time


Trenches lined the perimeter of the island and the tops of most hills


Spikes for protecting against North Korean ships


KMA weather monitoring centre on the hill in the background




Barbed wire border

On our final day there, the fog finally cleared. Kind of. This is North Korea, about 10km off the coast.


The North

While we were up at the lookout, several tour busses pulled up and off piled a bunch of excited mainlanders, some pointing and yelling, “Mr. Kim, Mr. Kim! I see Mr. Kim!” The military tourism thing is somewhat troublesome to me, and made me very sensitive about talking to the locals, being sure to focus on my subject at hand, dust, and not to engage in the sensationalization of what is their lived day-to-day experience.


Further fortifications


A soldier plays on a decommissioned tank with his family, visiting from the mainland


Entrance to underground shelter – the week prior to my visit residents had spent several hour in shelters before the island was evacuated




Abandoned farming machinery


The tourism industry is still a tough sell on the island, despite this cheerful map


Taken from the departing ferry, two soldiers – one in uniform and one in plain clothes – wave goodbye to their families


Sailing away from the north of South Korea

Back in Seoul I spent the last few days as a tourist. I visited palaces, checked out sights around the city and spent some time at a traditional Korean bath and fomentation (look it up) spa. And after a bitter-sweet goodbye dinner with my new Korean friends featuring makgeolli, Korean rice wine, it was time to say goodbye.


Colourful lanterns in downtown Seoul


Cherry trees losing their blossoms


Blossoms on the ground


Palace throne room


Amazing drapes


Faded colours can’t hide the beauty of the temple’s architecture and design


Noryangjin Fish Market


It was vast with every sea creature you’ve ever imagined


This for example…


Or this.


Plant or animal?


Human-sized crabs


In line for fish tails


Crab wrangling


Proud of her lobsters


Preparing ginseng on the main street


Smoggy sunset on my last night in Seoul

Now back home, I have my work cut out for me processing the material, having it all transcribed and translated and starting to digest everything I’ve learned. It’s an exciting stage, refining the story and getting to the heart of the hwangsa phenomenon!