Michael Gibb’s Korean Odyssey: a great way to enjoy Korea without the the visa and quarantine

A Korean OdysseyIf I were to win an insane amount of money on the lottery, here’s how I might spend it. I’d charter a boat (and crew – I’m no sailor), and maybe a guide / interpreter, and go on a slow sea voyage for a couple of months from Busan to Mokpo, taking in some of the south coast’s islands and ports, and enjoying the scenery, history, stories, people and cuisine. I’ve already explored two such islands: Hansan-do and Bogil-do, but that leaves dozens more to experience.

Michael Gibb, whose Slow Walk Through Jeongdong we much admired, has already done something similar, only more of it. And he’s done it the hard way: by public transport. So, whereas the most direct route between, say, Cheongsan-do (location for the filming of Im Kwon-taek’s Sopyeonje) and Geomundo (the site, briefly, of a British naval base known as Port Hamilton) is a sea journey of around 35km, Gibb had to catch a ferry to Wando (20km) from where he could take a bus to cover the 150km to Yeosu, from where in turn the ferry journey to Geomundo looks to be around 80km. No wonder that in the space of a year (albeit in an island odyssey interrupted by several trips back to his home in Hong Kong) Gibb only manages to cover a couple of dozen islands. Maybe he covered a few more, but if so they don’t merit a mention in his book.

He works his way round anti-clockwise, from the islands of Baengnyeong and Yeongpyeong, a few kilometres from the North Korean coast but just south of the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, to the contested island of Dokdo in the East Sea. Some islands are selected for their history, others for their location. But even where an island seems to have nothing to offer on paper, Gibb will extract an experience or a story to make the trip worthwhile. For example, on a trip from Boryeong port to Oeyeon-do, a destination selected purely because it happened to be the next ferry scheduled to leave, Gibb discovers Natural Monument #136 (as well as some noisy card-playing ajummas and some bedbugs).

He is a bit of a purist when it comes to what constitutes an island. By restricting the definition to a piece of land that can only be reached by sea, he excludes from his itinerary “easy wins” such as Ganghwa Island or Jindo (accessible by a road bridge) and Jeju-do (reached via a busy international airport). But there can be no doubt that, by travelling on public transport you get to see more of life, and the richness of Gibb’s narrative gives immense pleasure as he takes you on the journey with him. And travelling alone gives you more opportunity to interact with people along the way and to experience the kindness of strangers.

Wherever he goes, Gibb tells the stories associated with the places he visits, whether they be folktales, historical facts or more recent events. On the west coast we have the pansori tale of Sim Cheong the filial daughter (the action takes place off Baengnyeong-do); various tales of the early missionaries and other foreigners encountering Korea in Joseon times; the Incheon landings (Palmi-do) and the sad tale of the Sewol tragedy (Gwanmae-do) or modern-day slavery in the salt-farms of Sinui-do.

Particularly on the islands of the West Sea a consistent story emerges: an ageing population, youngsters leaving the islands for a better life on the mainland, with the result that one wonders whether in fifty years’ time some of these communities will still be there.

On the South coast there are, perhaps, richer pickings for a cultural tourist, including Hansan-do (site of Yi Sun-sin’s famous victory) and Bogil-do (Yun Seon-do’s garden retreat), but the eccentric garden creation on Oe-do, and the British naval outpost on Geomun-do, provide interest from more modern times. Gibb waxes lyrical about the themes of Im Kwon-taek’s landmark movie Sopyeonje (filmed on location in Chongsan-do) in a passage that will bring tears to your eyes and which will make you want to reach for that DVD in your collection and watch it again (or watch it for free on the Korean Classic Film YouTube Channel).

The book is an easy, enjoyable read, conveniently divided up into bite-sized chapters of an island each. Read one or two in bed each night before turning out the lights. For the next few months the only travel in Korea you’re going to be doing is virtual, and this is a really pleasant way to do it.

In case you’re minded to follow in Michael Gibb’s footsteps (though I’m sure if you were to speak to him, he’d recommend in hindsight a slightly different selection), these are the islands he visits on his odyssey:

  • Baengnyeong-do, Yeongpyeong-do, Palmi-do and Silmi-do (in Incheon-si)
  • Godae-do and Oeyeon-do (in Boryeong-si, Chungcheongnam-do)
  • Eocheong-do, Jangja-do (in Gunsan-si, Jeollabuk-do)
  • Wido (in Buan-gun, Jeollabuk-do)
  • Heuksan-do, Sinui-do, Haui-do and Gageo-do (in Sinan-gun, Jeollanam-do)
  • Gwanmae-do (in Jindo-gun, Jeollanam-do)
  • Bogil-do and Cheongsan-do (in Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do)
  • Geomun-do (in Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do)
  • Mara-do (in Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do)
  • Hansan-do (in Tongyeong-si. Gyeongsangnam-do)
  • Oe-do (Geoje-si, Gyeongsangnam-do)
  • Ulleung-do and Dok-do (Ulleung-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do)

Thanks to Camphor Press for the review copy.

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