Songji-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do, 18 May 2016, 6pm.
We continue our drive southeast along the coast of Haenam County, heading towards our destination for the day: Land’s End. The official name for the village is Songho-ri, Seongji-myeon, but Land’s End Village, Ttangkkeut Maeul, is much better as a marketing tool, ensuring everyone knows its geographical significance.
We are in no hurry to get there. There is still plenty of daylight left. As the sun gradually sinks behind us, it illuminates Dalmasan – sometimes known as the Geumgangsan of the South. The mountain is the last serious orographic peak in the south-western spur of the Baekdu-daegan before it disappears into the sea. Somewhere near the top of the mountain is Dosolam hermitage, beneath which is Mihwangsa Temple, which has the distinction of being the southernmost temple on the Korean peninsula. It was on my list of things to see if I had time, but with the sea and the islands looking so beautiful I was not inclined to make a detour.
Suddenly the view to our right opened up: an empty beach, a perfectly flat ocean, the sun low in the sky. The road in front and behind was empty too, as it had been for most of our drive, so I put my foot on the brake and pulled over to the side of the road. The spot demanded that that we get out and drink in this rather special place. The car came to a leisurely stop just in front of a sign announcing that the road ahead was going to be particularly scenic. We were happy where we were and went for a brief stroll on the beach.
As it happens, that beach was the best view we got from the road itself. A few miles later as we continued our drive, Insoon spotted a little track leading down and to the right, off the main road. “Why don’t you go down there?” she suggested. It was the first time she had made an impromptu direction. She had until then been kind enough to respect my detailed itinerary, only making recommendations when they would further the objective. As we descended the track, we realised that it was the driveway to two very upscale waterside properties. Our first thought was to turn round and leave, as this was clearly private property, but then I decided to play the ignorant foreigner card. If challenged, I would simply say: “Oh, is this private property? I didn’t know…”
We left the car between the two very stylish slate-grey properties and walked down to the edge of the beach, fantasising about how much the houses would cost. “You could buy one of them, and then I could come and visit you,” offered Insoon. My own fantasy would have been the other way round.
No-one seemed to mind our being there. Someone came out of one of the houses and started working in the substantial area of garden in the back, ignoring us and going about her own business. We would have been happy staying by the water’s edge for another hour or so in the calm of the late afternoon, but the practicalities of getting to our destination, on balance, persuaded us back to the car.
As we continued along the road, we climbed up a gentle hill at the summit of which was our hotel for the night. We would return there later, but for now we wanted to head down into the village. On my itinerary was “Ttangkkeut Lookout at Sunset (sunset approx. 7:30pm)”. I had done enough research to know that there was a funicular railway up to the lookout, or you could walk up. We continued down the other side of the hill and turned right into the little village where, dodging the roadwork contractors on the way, we came to a halt at the bottom of the funicular railway at about 6:45 and took stock. The railway had stopped working at around 6pm, but a shopkeeper gave us the options – a drive back through the village and a left turn would take us to the lookout via the road; or there was a walk of about 20 minutes that started the other side of the monorail station and led to some unknown destination.
We decide to be lazy and drive, only to be thwarted by the contractors who were conducting an extremely efficient operation tarmacking every road in the village in quick succession. While we gathered our thoughts, we headed down to the quay to check out the lie of the land: what was the ferry timetable for the following morning? Where could you buy tickets? What restaurants were there for later that evening? We got our answers, and feeling more confident about our stay we turned back to the funicular railway station. If we couldn’t drive to the lookout, we might as well take the walk.
As it happened, this was absolutely the right thing to do. Given the choice, what would you do: drive to the top of a hill and see a view that you would see later from your hotel window? Or take a pleasant stroll with woodland to your right and the sea to your left, ending up at a monument that officially announced that you were at the end of the Korean Peninsula? I had assumed that the monument and the lookout were the same thing, but no.
Despite the loveliness of the day, the sunset had not really taken off. As the sky got greyer, as the sea blended into the sky at the horizon and the islands gradually accumulated a skirt of light mist, we made our way to The End. The destination was a tall, narrow pyramid-shaped spike, Ttangkkeut Tap, which provided the official photo opportunity. There was also an observation platform overhanging the rocks, shaped like the prow of a ship, where young couples could re-enact the Kate Winslet / Leonardo di Caprio scene from Titanic. It was a lovely place, completely deserted.
We loitered for a while as the sky got slightly darker, watching the fishing boats head back to the harbour, listening to the chugging of their engines drifting through the mist, and watching the blue colours drain greywards from the sky. We returned to the harbour area very contented and at peace.
It was now nearly dark, and we selected a random restaurant which served hoedeopbap with miso soup. As I’m driving (and despite the fact that the hotel is only a two minute drive away) I stay away from alcohol, but on the way back to the hotel we pop into a convenience store to buy some instant coffee and muffins for tomorrow’s breakfast, and I add a beer to drink back in my room as I make sense of the day and do the necessary correspondence to keep my trip on track.
The main subject of my correspondence during my time in Haenam is a three-way email conversation between myself, my friend Hwang Jihae in Gwangju, and Jihae’s assistant (and translator) in London. Jihae wants to surprise me when I get to Gwangju with a stay in a Korean garden. Without wanting to spoil the surprise, she wants to know if Insoon will be staying in Gwangju or whether she will be heading back to Seoul. She is also concerned with whether I am happy to stay in a place with no en-suite facilities and where I would need to travel a long distance to take a shower. I assured her that the arrangements sounded rather like my accommodation at University, so I could probably survive for one night.
It was all very mysterious. If I she had told me up-front the surprise she had in store for me I don’t think I would have been able to focus on my travels down south – I would have been far too excited. As it was, all I knew was that I would be faced with some unusual sleeping arrangements, and that was something I could file away in my mind and not get worried about.