How to visit Gapado, Jeju, South Korea
In the distance I see two weather beaten, elderly ladies bracing themselves against a tall, stone wall, lost in a squawking conversation about some mundane topic. As I get closer and louder, empty seashells crunching under foot, their heads jerk up. Suddenly I’m the topic of conversation. It’s a foreigner! I give a small wave and say “Annyeong Hayseo”. More astonishment from the ladies – the foreigner speaks Korean! This is Gapado, the last but one islet on the far southern reaches of South Korea. And this is the reaction I get anywhere here, because it’s so under visited by foreigners. With the absence of mass tourism it’s like stepping back to a Jeju of twenty-five years past.
The monk of the lone temple on the island is also surprised to see me. He’s been here for seven years and it’s the first western foreigner he’s had the pleasure of meeting. Inviting me into his sitting room we sit down and begin to talk about life on Gapado.
There are about two hundred people on the islet, predominantly working and/or servicing the fishing industry. Gapado is popular among touring Korean fishermen and caters for them accordingly. But it’s also home to sixty Haenyeo, the eldest pushing eighty years old. When not in the ocean, they’re in the fields tending to crops, the other main source of income for islanders. The monk says it’s always windy, illustrated by an almost complete lack of second storey buildings and trees. In fact there seem to be high stone walls everywhere to protect from the wind. Finally, I ask how many students study at the elementary school – “about twelve,” he says.
And right next door to the temple is the school itself, which, for twelve students, is rather spacious. Wandering into the grounds, discarded sports equipment sits on the soccer field ready to be picked up again when school resumes. Inside the building, doors are flung open to reveal a surprisingly modern interior.
Back out on the main road that intersects the island I pass an assortment of residents going about their business. All stop to look at me as I pass. And I oblige them with more waves and smiles. Four old ladies with push carts occupy the whole road. I wave. They flash me toothy grins as they continue to the local church for a service. Next a father and daughter pass by on a scooter and say “hi”. A Haenyeo in full gear ambles down the street. A man in a pickup truck brushes by and offers us a lift somewhere. Making a stop in a store (almost in someone’s front room) for ice cream, a mother and son look up at me. The kid just can’t stop staring.
After I’d been on Gapado for twenty minutes I realized that there really wasn’t anything to see or do in the traditional tourist sense. But then, it’s the whole island, and the people itself which are on show.
Almost three hours after I had arrived, it was time to leave again. On the wharf-side groups of Korea fishing tourists appeared in the back of trucks as did a group of young school children who have enjoyed a night on the islet as part of a field trip. But again, not another foreigner in sight. So, to observe Jeju as it once was and visit a place almost untouched by tourism, Gapado is definitely a place to consider.
Gapado is located off the southwest tip of Jeju. To reach the islet from Jeju City, take a bus from stand eight bound for Moseulpo at the Jeju City Bus Terminal (3,000 won / one hour). Let the driver know you’re going to Gapado and he will let you off at the correct stop (모슬포항). You’ll know you’re close after you pass Sanbangsan (another five to ten minutes). You’ll have to walk on down past the GS25 (load up on snacks and supplies because they are in short supply on the islet) and onto the road that stretches into the distance. Finally on your right appears an excursion centre for the Gapado ferry (4,000 won one way / twenty minutes). The building’s blue and white decor wouldn’t be out of place in New England. The twenty minute crossing in an aging ferry can be rough, so take the proper precautions to avoid sea-sickness.
There really is a lack of specific tourist sights so wander the island slowly and make sure to walk down the paths between each of the houses. Pop in at the temple, which is actually in a house next to the elementary school. If your Korean is okay, chat with the priest. Done slowly it should take about three hours. Which is when the ferry will return to take you back to Jeju.
It is possible to hire fishing equipment, have a swimming ‘experience’ with the Haenyeo divers and snorkel. Visit http://www.gapari.co.kr for more information (Korean language only).
Maseulpo – Gapado
Gapado – Maseulpo
(Buy your return ticket from the man in the silver hut on the wharf)