I’d planned to take a trip to Jeju during the last football season, even going as far as booking flights to coincide with the play-off final. Unfortunately Jeju United faltered in the run in and the match that had seemed likely to coincide with our visit ended up being played in Seoul. Turning up in Jeju for a game that was being played three hundred miles away didn’t seem the most sensible thing to do and so I changed the flights and Jen and I went in January instead.
Getting there was quite easy. We flew Korean Air from Gimpo airport and it took about an hour. There are quite a few airlines covering the route but a lot of them will only accept online bookings and their websites are in Korean. They tend to sell out quite quickly too whereas Korean Air usually has seats available up until a few weeks before. Our flight was late on Friday evening so Gimpo was deserted. So was Jeju come to think of it and for a while it looked as if we might have been stuck there as the taxis seemed to have given up for a night.
We got one eventually though and it dropped us outside of a hotel near the harbour in Jeju City. Next morning we had been planning a walk on the Jeju Olle Trail. It’s a route that skirts around most of the island, following the coast for a lot of the way. As we were at the seaside already though we just followed the first path alongside the beach that we came too.
We passed quite a famous rock that is supposed to resemble a dragon‘s head. There’s a lot of this type of nonsense in Korea. It was just a rock with a few jagged bits. Not that any lack of realism was stopping it being lit up with floodlights and being photographed by every visitor to the island. Almost every visitor anyway, I didn’t bother unfortunately so unless you want to google ‘Jeju rock that looks nothing like a dragon‘ you will have to take my word for it.
We did see one of those Jeju diving women though. They are pretty famous, or at least they get a mention in all of the guide books. Apparently it all started off as a bit of a tax dodge about a hundred years ago. The women dived for shellfish whilst their husbands stayed at home and discussed which rocks best resembled mythical creatures. This time I did get a photo.
They used to dive wearing just a flimsy cotton dress according to the guidebook, but it seemed a bit chilly for that. Anyway, the remaining divers are all approaching pensionable age so it’s probably for the best that they dress a bit more modestly these days.
After lunch we’d seem enough of the seaside and we got a taxi to the racetrack. The racing had already started by the time we got there but there is usually a lengthy card in Korea so that’s not such a big deal. There are only three racetracks in the country, Seoul, Busan and Jeju. In addition to the live racing a few races from one of the other tracks are generally shown on the big screen to fill in the odd gap.
It was eight hundred Won to get in and we were just in time for the fourth race. The best thing about Jeju racing is that they don’t use real racehorses. They have some special inter-bred Jeju horses that either, depending upon the legend you read, are descended from horses imported by Genghis Khan, were discovered at the bottom of a well by a long dead King or are the result of letting an over-enthusiastic Shetland pony loose at the stud farm.
Whatever their background, it just looks wrong. The jockeys here are amongst the smallest I’ve seen anywhere outside of YouTube clips of monkeys riding greyhounds and yet they still towered over their mounts. I reckon that when the jockeys wanted to slow their horses down they wouldn’t need to pull on the reins, it would be easier for them just to put their boots to the floor.
I can‘t actually remember now how long the races were, but I’m pretty sure they were over a kilometre. That seems mean to me. Donkeys on Blackpool beach do about fifty yards at a fairly sedate pace. If you galloped them full tilt the entire length of the seafront then I doubt they would stay out of the glue factory for very long.
Being foreigners, all we had to do was look a bit lost and we were soon escorted to a special lounge where a couple of girls found us a table and took our bets. There isn‘t much of a market in Korea for backing horses to win, almost all of the money goes on reverse forecasts. We were betting less than a tenner a race between us but it still accounted for about ten percent of the Tote receipts for some of the races.
As the afternoon went on the horses in each race seemed to get bigger. I did wonder if by the time of the final race we would get to see something that the Trojans would have been proud of, but they didn’t ever quite reach full-size. We got a taxi back to Jeju City and on the way back to our hotel had a wander around the local market where amongst other stuff I bought some cactus flavoured chocolate and some pheasant toffee. Yes really.
I’d recommend Jeju. It was a fair bit warmer than the sub-zero Seoul and there‘s enough to fill a couple of days even without any hiking. The next day we popped into a natural history museum where some of the exhibits looked like they had been stuffed by a kid on a field trip, we visited Loveland where you can pose for photos with statues of naked people or copulating dogs and we called into a large underground cave that I reckon would be a perfect place to cool down in the summer. We’ll probably go back for a football game later in the season and maybe some of the Olle Trail as well.