The Number 1 Bus to North Korea

It looked ominous. Suddenly we were surrounded by dozens of tanks and army personnel carriers. On every street corner soldiers stood guard. The sound of the tanks rumbling was only superseded by the occasional screech of fighter jets overhead.

The tranquility of our ride on Bus Number 1 along the east coast of South Korea had come to an end.  I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised, as Bus Number 1 from Sokcho heads up to the North Korean border. The destination for the day was the Demilitarised Zone in Goseong, also known as the DMZ. The observatory there is the closest to North Korea and the northernmost point of South Korea.  More than one million people visit this area on an annual basis. Visitors can see the Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) and the Haegeumgang in North Korea, and unlike many other observatories, there are no restrictions on photographs.

As luck would have it, the South Korean army was staging a military exercise, and this underlay the seriousness of the ongoing tension between North and South Korea. Looking out the window of the bus was like traveling back in time, as the villages had a 1950’s appearance.  This region is a long way from the modern mega-cities that are in other parts of the country.  The road winds its way north, past farmland and beautiful beaches. However there are constant reminders of where we are, as the beaches are fenced off with barbed wire and there are a number of observation lookouts along the coast. The threat of invasion from the North is still extant.

 After an hour’s bus ride we arrived at the last stop, a little bus depot on the side of the road. We then had to walk the last fifteen minutes to the DMZ registration office. It was a quiet day with only a few visitors and the souvenir shop vendors looked sleepy.  Once we registered ourselves, the officer ordered a taxi to take us to the observatory.  To get there we passed the border crossing between the two countries. There is a multi-laned highway leading up to several check points, however they are not operational. There is nowhere you can access North Korea from South Korea.  After passing a military checkpoint, where the car was carefully inspected including the boot, we were cleared to access the observatory.

There is a time limit of one hour to be on the site.  We were lucky to get the best taxi driver in Korea on the day, and he drove us right to the top of the observation point, saving us the walk up the hill from the carpark. He lent us his good binoculars then left while we explored the surreal environment that is the DMZ.  The first thing that struck me was how peaceful it was, after all it was still an active war site.  The weather had turned and we found ourselves looking into North Korea on a grey, misty day.  The sound of tank artillery from the distant military exercise by the South Korean’s gave the experience a poignant soundtrack. Up here at the observatory it was quiet, with only a handful of visitors, although the big viewing platform with many seats and mounted binoculars hinted at how many people frequented this place. However, it wasn’t just people looking across the border, also facing the one party dictatorship of North Korea were giant statues of Buddha and Mary; a symbolic gesture of the openness of South Korea.

The ride home on Bus Number 1 offered the same adventurous view as the journey north.  More tanks and army on the move, but by now we were used to them.  This was only an exercise and I can’t imagine the terror that the local population went through during the active War in 1950 – 1953.  I see the old people and know that many of them have families across the border, that they may never see again. A sombre feeling juxtaposed by the peaceful landscape that we were passing through.

Back in Sokcho, we finished the day off in the Abai Village, eating a delicious North Korean meal of Ojingeo Sundae (오징어 순대) stuffed squid sausage.  The village consists of a small group of houses and shops located on what used to be a sandbar offshore from the main city of Sokcho. As the North Korean army retreated from South Korea in 1950, a large number of North Koreans ended up trapped on the southern side of the newly established border between the two nations. With nowhere else to go, what began as temporary accommodation eventually became permanent.

My hope is that in the near future the Korean people will once again be united to live in peace and as one nation, and that Bus Number 1 will take passengers all the way to Pyongyang.

The Hiker and the Heavenly Maidens

The sun’s rays transformed the water into a river of gold, the trees danced in the breeze and the path leading up the mountain beckoned me to explore the Park’s treasures. It was springtime in South Korea, a perfect season to experience the beauty of Seoraksan National Park. I was staying in the small town of Yangyang in Gangwon province, near the park, and it was here I met a local woman who offered to be my guide.

We set off from the Osaek Hot Springs and headed towards Daeseung Falls.  The track followed a mountain stream and I stopped frequently, not because it was an arduous walk, but the mountain views took my breath away.

My guide pointed out a waterhole in the river and commenced telling the Korean myth about the Woodcutter and The Heavenly Maidens. In the story, the heavenly maidens descend to Earth to bathe in a secret waterhole in the mountains.  They are spotted by a woodcutter who steals the clothes of one of the maidens, preventing her return to Heaven.  While listening to the tale it dawned on me that I was familiar with it. My wife, who is a storyteller, told this story to school students when we had previously visited Korea.  It was one of her favourite myths and here I was, in the very place of it’s birth. Not only was the landscape beautiful, it now felt magical.

Too soon my guide had to return home, so I hiked on by myself. Seoraksan National Park is a popular destination for Koreans and foreigners alike, especially in Autumn when the leaves change colour and the park becomes a spectacular kaleidoscope of Autumn hues.  Hiking in Spring however has the advantage of the park not being so crowded, so for much of the time I was on my own.

As I was walking along I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, and at one particularly deep waterhole imagined that perhaps the maidens also came there to bathe. Although the track to the actual setting for the waterhole in the myth, the Twelve Angels Bath (십이선녀탕) was closed due to maintenance, I sensed the whole area alive with the presence of the maidens.

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of voices. I turned around and saw seven catholic nuns approaching. Wearing their traditional habits, they appeared to be floating towards me. Was I dreaming or had some heavenly maidens stepped out of the story and come to visit me? We greeted each other and the nuns proceeded to climb down to the water, take off their shoes and soak their feet. I couldn’t believe the myth was unfolding in front of my eyes.  Unlike the woodcutter in the story, I had no intention of stealing their shoes, but being a photographer I wanted to take a few photos. They nodded their assent and asked me to come and join them to share some fruit. Together we sat, our feet cooling in the waterhole, eating watermelon and enjoying the sunshine.

Eventually it came time to leave and continue my journey. I was saying my farewell when they said, ‘Stop, we a have a gift for you.’ They all stood up and sang. Their voices, pure as the snow melt soared up the mountainside and into the heavens.  Tears welled in my eyes and I felt blessed. After we parted, I could not stop smiling for the rest of the day.

Seoraksan National Park is a truly magical place, with its sublime landscape and great hiking trails where you can meet cheery hikers and if you are lucky, perhaps a heavenly maiden!

Jeju Island

Last year I spent one month hiking and photographing on Jeju Island in South Korea. I often leave the images sitting on my computer for a while before I make a final selection. I want to be able to detach my emotions from the place and time.

The Jeju Diaries

“Hello, how are you? I love you!” I’d only been in town a couple of hours and I was being proposed to. Although I have had this kind of ‘unconditional love’ thrown at me before, from perfect strangers, this time it was from an Ajumma ( Korean for Aunty) at the Dongnum market in Jeju City. As she proclaimed her love to me, showing off her remaining teeth, all I could do was reciprocate. “I love you too!” This was the only bit of English that she knew, but it was enough for us to get engaged, in a different way. I took her photo, and in exchange presented her with an instant photo from my new icebreaker tool, a Fuji film Instax camera.

I have just arrived on Jeju island, South Korea, where I am going to be hiking on the Jeju Olle, a series of walking trails around the island.

Jeju Island South Korea
The best way to get to know a new place: go to the market and meet the locals.

On Route 1

This was my Indiana Jones moment. The little bridge was flooded nearly knee high.  The only way across without getting really wet was to use the outside ledge of the bridge, a barely one foot wide bit of concrete with a two metre drop to the creek below.

I am on trail 1 of the Jeju Olle. It’s a wet and windy day and there are few walkers to be encountered. I’m doing the trail in reverse, not because I want to be different, but there was a communication breakdown between the bus driver and the bus stop! I ended up at the finishing point first. Never mind. The tracks can also be traversed in the opposite direction. I just had to follow the orange markers instead of the blue ones. As a bonus, there was a beautiful bamboo walking stick left at the bus stop; the perfect aid for crossing  slippery bridges!

The first trail turned out to be a fitting introduction to the Olle, as I passed through the town of Seongsan and into a countryside, dotted with stone-walled houses, volcanic landscapes and the odd fellow hiker, who also enjoyed hiking in the rain.

Along the way I introduced myself to the local horses and cows and finished the hike feeling tired, sore, wet and glorious. My final reward, besides a bottle of makgeolli and a bowl of ramen, was the stunning view of the Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), from my minbak.

Jeju Island South Korea

This view inspired me to set off the next morning to climb Seongsan Ilchulbong, in the company of busloads of tourists. The first thing that I noticed upon reaching the summit was that someone was clearly making a fortune selling handy selfie sticks. There were more selfies taken on the peak than at a teenager’s party. I was inspired to start a new photographic project; the selfie series. Jeju Island South Korea

On Route 2

Why go around a hill when you can climb over it? Or if you are climbing an oreum, the Korean name for small inactive volcanoes, make sure you choose the steepest and most direct way to the top! By the time I reached the top of the second oreum I was ready to down my pack and stay there. Not only was I tired, but the view was sublime.

From the peak you can see a large slice of the east coast of Jeju. I looked out at where I’d been and what lay ahead of me.

The trail wound its way past farmland, laced with stone walls, tangerine plantations and ancient villages. The hiking was a challenge. I could walk the distance but the weight of my pack was taking its toll. Perhaps because the Jeju Olle is inspired by the Camino, my hike feels like a penance. As I entered the small village of Onpyeong Pogu any thought of camping on the beach was automatically dismissed. The local people had built a huge stone sea wall in the thirteenth century to keep away both the Mongols and Japanese pirates. One look at the rocky beach was enough to keep me away too! Instead I was ‘sold’ a fantastic room in a guesthouse, by a young girl who described all the benefits of her parent’s guesthouse. The fact that I didn’t understand a word didn’t deter her enthusiasm. I stayed and was glad I did.

The Shalom guesthouse proved to be an absolute gem. I slept soundly on a Korean style futon on the floor and was greeted by a wonderful sunrise. I was ready for Trail 3.

Jeju Island South Korea

Onpyeong Pogu’s rocky beach

On Route 3

The hard one! The guide book warned me. Route three was described as difficult. Luckily I had help. Jim Saunders is an Olle Trail volunteer and had contacted me via Facebook, prior to my trip. He offered to walk part of the trail with me. Having company not only distracted me from the weight of my pack, Jim was also able to tell me about the history and community involvement of the Olle.

The Jeju countryside is stunning. The trail took us through tangerine plantations, past oreums and along peaceful forest tracks. My highlight of the day was visiting Kim Young Gap’s gallery, a Jeju photographer who had spent over 20 years of his life capturing the beauty of Jeju Island. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he created the gallery during his last days so that he could ensure his works be shared for years to come.  His work gave me an insight into his philosophical connection with the island. The next day I set out to create images inspired by his work.

Jeju Island South Korea Jeju Island South Korea

Lightening the load

I spent the next few days in Seogwipo and made a couple of changes to my plans. My backpack was too heavy to lug around and caused my hiking experience to be an unpleasant one. The tent and the sleeping bag had to go. Besides, I hadn’t discovered any good places for camping. The local post office took care of my camping gear and sent it back to Australia. What a weight off my back!

When I checked in at the local hotel I met a young German fellow who had been in Korea on a working holiday for the past two months. After a brief chat we decided that we would hike together. That afternoon we set off in the rain on Olle track 7-1.

On Route 7-1

A peaceful hike throughout the outskirts of Seogwipo, up a mountain with a huge crater carved out of its centre. Here is one of the few places that rice is grown on the island.

The highlight of the day was stopping at a temple to be greeted by a nun offering a refreshing drink of tangerine juice. It’s these moments that make the Olle special. Not just seeing the island’s sights but meeting its soul.

The rain continued for two more days. And while we waited for a dry day, the island’s biggest challenge loomed large over the city. Mount Hallasan.

Jeju Island South Korea

On Trail 7-1

Sherpa Schatz!

“I am 75 and I work out every day in the gym in Singapore.”

I only just made it to the summit of South Korea’s tallest mountain before him! I was struggling with the last few steps that lead to the crater of Mount Hallasan, baring my teeth and panting. He was grinning. It had taken me and my new companion just on four hours to reach the summit. We didn’t have much time for rests on the climb as the hiking times were strict. Miss the cut at 12.30pm at the middles station and you miss out on climbing any further. We made it with 15 minutes to spare. A short break and we were the last hikers through the gate. Once at the summit, we had to commence the descent by 2pm. This gave us just 20 minutes to enjoy the view at the top. That was fine by me. All I wanted to do was sit down and rest my legs. The climb up the Seongpanak trail is tiring, as you make your way to the top, over countless, slippery rocks. Like walking over a dry riverbed for hours, but on an ascent. The descent took longer, 5 hours. As fatigue set in and the light began to fade, the walk became dangerous. We saw a couple of people slip and fall. I didn’t see the elderly Singaporean couple coming down, so was getting concerned about their safety, when I heard a low humming and rattling sound. Out of the mist appeared a small mono-rail. I had been wondering what the strange construction next to the path was. On this little train, the stragglers and the workers were being brought to safety. The train was small, sturdy and strong; I could think of only one suitable name for it: the Ajumma express.

By the time I made it into my bed I could hardly move. I had just completed a 9 hour hike to the tallest mountain in South Korea, and I was on top of the world. In five minutes I was asleep.

Jeju Island South Korea

At the summit of Hallasan


My original working idea was based on ‘SamDa.’ The three abundances of Jeju – stone, wind, women. I had explored this concepts as an abstraction of the island. The wind and stones came to me on Olle route 9 that wound its way through a valley and past cliff faces. I felt like I was walking in a painting. I was looking for photographic compositions that speak of this ancient place. I found it all in the Olle pathways and the gentle movements of the grass in the wind.

The women of Jeju can be seen in the markets where they sell their wares. I walk around without an interpreter. This makes taking portraits difficult. But I have to be brave and just take the photos. As I walked through the landscape that also inspired Chusa Kim, I felt strengthened in my quest.

Chuseok II

In my travels on Jeju Island I have encountered three artists whose work has not only been influenced by the visual aspect of the place, but most strongly by a longing for one’s family and kinship.

There was photographer, Kim Young Gap (1957-2005) who portrayed the island in a loving and gentle way. His images evoke a sense of endless time, serenity and love. The painter Lee Jung-Seop (1916-1956) who was strongly influenced by his loneliness and despair from being separated from his family. Finally I visit the Chusa Exile Site, where the celebrated scholar and artist Chusa Kim Jeonghee (1786-1856) created some of his most famous works.

I have been moved by all three artists and it seems a fitting day, being Chuseok, to visit one of Korea’s most respected figures.

Jeju Island South Korea

On a Spiritual Path

I tried to be inconspicuous and take a quiet portrait, but I ended up being invited to share a cup of Makgeolli, dried fish and a group photo. Not enough, the grandmother of the group thought I looked thirsty and gave me a beer as well.

I was on my way to view a large Buddhist temple on Mt. Sanbangsan, it was just on 11am and the good spirit was flowing. I usually like to visit one temple on my trip and Mt. Sanbangsan seemed like a good choice. There are a number of temples on the mountain but Sanbangsa-gulsa was a bit special. Set about 150 metres up the volcano of Mt. Sanbangsan, it is the only cave temple on Jeju Island and people have been praying in it since the Goreyo Dynasty (964~1053), starting with Monk Hye-II when he came to live in this cave, bringing a statue of Buddha with him.

Spiritually nourished I set off on my homeward journey, only to be stopped by a boy selling local mandarins. Now my bodily needs were satisfied as well.

Jeju Island South Korea

It’s a Miracle!

I have moved on to Yongsu Port. What looked like a coastal town turned into a rural village by the sea. It is beautiful, with two small islands crowning the harbour. There aren’t many accommodation options, but I managed to find a room at one of the two pilgrim hostels.This little town is a major Catholic pilgrimage site honouring Koreas first catholic priest and Saint, Kim Taegon Andrea, who happened to arrive at Yongsu-pogu Port on his way back from China to Korea after sailing in a rough storm for more than 20 days.  Saint Kim Taegon Andrea is also the country’s patron saint.

Walking Olle Trail 13 in reverse, I witness three miracles!

The first was while I was looking for an inn to stay, I saw this guy heading off in the correct direction on the Olle trail. As I was hiking in the opposite directions I thought around the three and a half point, “I should cross this man soon, and immediately he appeared. Second, I was thirsty. I only had half a bottle of warm water and still two hours to go. Then I saw two men waving at me and smiling. As we crossed paths I recognised them as Olle companions that I had briefly met a few days ago on Trail 11. As we passed one of them handed me a bottle of cold water and said “Fighting!” Hallelujah! The third miracle  occurred when I sat down and all I had in my bag was a tin of spam. As I opened it the contents turned into lunch. Amazing! That’s when decided that I may stay the night here.

Jeju Island South Korea

A constant companion on Jeju Island:  Mount Hallasan, seen from Yongsu Port

You’re not Fat, you are Strong!

I have always said that I can get myself into trouble in five languages, and Korean is one of them. I decided to stay another day in Yongsu to walk the number 12 Olle. This turned out to be a great decision. About an hour into my walk I caught up with a group of hikers who insisted I walk with them. One young woman spoke good English and her friend was keen to learn some new English words. In exchange she would teach me some Korean. I now had two assistants of sorts, who made capturing photos of the women field workers easier. As a result I was able to take some strong photos. As for my Korean lesson, it seemed that I was a slow learner and the words weren’t sticking with me for very long. I needed to practice more. And then it happened. Feeling keen, I interpreted a question from my companion as to whether she was strong. “Yes,” I said, “you are very strong!” She looked confused and asked again with the word that I thought meant strong.

“Yes,” I repeated. ‘Very strong.” Then she stopped talking with me.

Some time passed and her friend caught up with us and the two young women talked. The good English speaker then told me that her friend wanted to know why I thought she was very fat!

I now realised why she had stopped talking to me, and hastily replied that I said ‘strong’ not ‘fat.’

The misunderstanding was resolved and friendship was restored.

Course 12 taught me that the Olle track really was a trail where you meet people and make friends. Just don’t insult them.

Jeju Island South Korea

Snakes Alive

It had taken me three weeks and just over 150 kms of hiking to spot not one but three snakes on this trail. Maybe I hadn’t been looking in the right places or I was making too much noise and scared them away? There are actually a lot of snakes on the island and their origin can be explained by this legend:

It’s my last week on the island and I am in Hallim harbour, having now nearly circled it. There are still a couple of Olle courses for me to do. I feel that I have got the images that I wanted, so I will just enjoy the walking.

I must have looked tired. This was the second time this had happened on my trip and it had to stop.

“Hulk Hogan! Hulk Hogan!” the little fellow was calling out and grinning at me. I had just entered a local supermarket at Hallim and he greeted me loud enough for everyone to hear. Great. Hulk Hogan wasn’t exactly the image I was going for. I’m used to being called names. It used to be GI Joe (I ditched those sunglasses) and for a very short time it was Braddo Pitto (go figure) and I could live with that. But Hulk Hogan? I was going to trim my moustache!

Just finished Trail 15. The rhythmical tapping of my walking stick has been a constant companion on my walks. The cicadas sing as I walk past tall pine trees, a yellow butterfly enjoys the late summer sunshine. The light catches the green moss on the rocky path, still visible from the recent clearing of the grave sites for Chuseok. A dragonfly leads the way further down the path. An aeroplane flies low overhead, reminding me of the short time I have left on the island.

I am surrounded by life and death. The stone walls surrounding the grave sites give the landscape a structured pattern. Farmers are busy planting winter crops next to their ancestors’ resting places. the little villages are quiet, except for the sound of passing tractors. Time seems in no hurry here, yet it passes through like the constant wind on the island. Soon this will be all but a memory of Samda.

Jeju Island South Korea Jeju Island South Korea Jeju Island South Korea

Some useful links:

The Jeju Diary – My camera bag


I am about to embark on a month long photo hike to Jeju Island, the largest island in South Korea.  Jeju is famous for three abundances, or samda: wind, stone and women.  These three abundances will be my guiding themes for my photographic project.  I will be hiking on the Jeju Olle, over 200km of connecting paths that will take travellers along the south coast of Jeju Island.  This network of hiking tracks Is inspired by the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Here is my camera bag that I will be taking on the journey:

Olympus OMD EM1 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7
(my main camera with only one lens, means I never have to worry about having to change focal length)
Lumix LX5
(My trusty, sharp, macro, zoom, landscape and always ready camera)
Fujifilm Instax mini 8 plus film
(The perfect ice breaker camera)
iPhone 4s
(It’s a phone, a computer and a camera … perfect)
Spare battery for the Olympus
extra SD cards
Polaroid filter
Camera cleaning gear
Business cards
Note book and pen
Swiss Army knife (I never travel without one!)

My camera bag is an old messenger bag that I bought about 10 years ago in Korea, I have many other bags but I keep coming back to this one.  It is kinda my Dr. Suess bag, old bag, new bag! It is now fitted with a camera box to protect the equipment.

Looking at the list it doesn’t look that light, considering I’ll be carrying a full back pack as well.  But this is about as minimal that I am prepared to go for this project.  I am not taking a laptop, only relying on the iPhone for quick editing if needed. (this works really well with the Olympus’s wifi capability) The phone also makes for a handy third camera. The Instax camera was a last minute decision and is a wonderful tool to break the language barrier. I love giving away photos to people that let me take pictures of them.

On top of fake mountain

I love mountains, which is probably not surprising, as I grew up in Switzerland.  One of my favourite places to visit is South Korea, a country that reminds me of Switzerland.  The Koreans are keen hikers, the train system is excellent and there are lots of mountains. When I first visited the port city of Tongyeong  in the South Gyeongsang Province a few years ago, I took a cable car ride to the top of Mireuksan mountain. From here you have one of the most spectacular views in South Korea. In clear weather, visitors can even see Tsushima Island (in Japan), Cheongwangbong Peak in Jirisan, and Dolsando in Yeosu.

I promised myself, that the day when my good friend Marcel Meier comes to visit Korea with me, I will take him here.  That day finally came last year, as the two of us spent one week in the county for a photo project.  I was really looking forward to revisiting the mountain and to show off some of Korea’s finest views.  Time was short and we only had one day in Tongyeong. Unfortunately the mountain cable car was closed for maintenance and would not be opened for a few weeks!  I was very disappointed but there was nothing we could do about it.  We took our cameras and headed for the local port near our hotel. It was here that we discovered another mountain range.  You won’t find these hills in any guide book!