Photo courtesy David Nemeth

How long is the coastline of Jeju Island? Ask anyone with an Internet connection and they will tell you that the official circumference of Jeju Island is 263 kilometers. This is mostly a “convenient truth” and fodder for armchair geographers. So instead ask anyone who has attempted hiking those many stretches of the island littoral at the high tide line. Their experience should validate the conjecture that the Jeju shoreline on close inspection is infinite in length. Its jagged edge is ill-defined and anyway zigs and zags and reverses directions so often that it becomes a fractal foil for defeating any measuring device, no matter how sophisticated. On even closer observation the shoreline length actually increases in length. Frankly, the question posed is more likely to inspire a zen koan (kong’an) than a scientific explanation. Is it little wonder then that mystic tourists from around the world can spend their entire vacations on Jeju Island standing alone at the water’s edge just above the splash zone peacefully contemplating the Natural Order?

And how vast in essence is the island’s gorged, gouged, pocked and pitted surface? 1,846 km²? Hardly. “Of infinite size” more accurately the dimension as hiked along any trajectory across Mt. Halla’s crazy quilt of hills, crags, canyons and hollows, where there may be unexpected encounters waiting around every corner.

For example, one summer day in 1973 I was hiking up the rugged middle reaches of Tamna Gorge and discovered on a high shelf in the canyon wall the secluded mouth of a narrow crawl space that wound its way into total darkness. It then abruptly opened in a natural subterranean amphitheater lit by a score or more of burning candles. Most probably I had entered into an uncollapsed segment of a lava tube that some islanders had converted into a shrine of some sort. If so, then I had just missed or perhaps interrupted a rite of some sort. Shades of Gunga Din!

Whoever had lighted those candles had just prior to my arrival either exited by another path or temporarily retreated further into the mountain. Imagine my frustration. My flashlight batteries were weak and it was late in the afternoon so I decided to return to explore the extent and depths of the cavern more thoroughly on another occasion.

A few weeks later I retraced my steps up the same deep and tortuous canyon — but this time more stealthily. I was a stone’s throw short of reaching the mysterious cavern when I suddenly heard voices at close range off to my right. I immediately sat down on a large stone; one of many strewn about the canyon floor by the frequent flash flood waters that careened and thundered down the gorge seaward whenever it rained long and hard upon the mountain.

Three gray-haired women in robes were busy preparing a meal within a low-walled, elevated stone circle. There they chattered away in the Jeju dialect, too preoccupied to notice my arrival on the scene. So there I sat stone-still, observing them from a distance of 10 yards for perhaps 10 minutes. Anticipating the inevitable, I was prepared to face some rough language delivered at high decibels.

But, when the three women finally took notice of me there was no commotion made at all. Instead they briefly convened an ad hoc confab entirely in whispers. And then, to my complete surprise, they beckoned me over to join them. They were entirely hospitable and good natured during the hour or so we spent together. They spoke no English and I had but six months of Korea-language training under my belt at that time. Still, I gathered among other things that they were sisters and also haenyeo. Then they packed up and left.

Before leaving they tidied up the stone circle, which I learned was a shrine to their Mountain God. As we ate we faced a rectangular slab of stone temporarily propped up against the inside of the low wall surrounding the shrine enclosure. There was a food sacrifice neatly laid out in front of this tablet: fruits, vegetables, fish, what appeared to be condiments — and a large bottle of soju. These jovial, gracious women had apparently been imbibing from that bottle during their preparations.

The tablet raised before us was about 20 inches high, a foot wide and an inch thick. Carved into the slab facing us, written in hangeul, were the symbols for “SAN” [Mountain] and “SHIN” [Spirit]. As their final duty prior to departing the three deposited the sacred slab face down into a shallow repository. The repository was a perfect fit for the slab and my guess is that it was probably originally excavated into the floor of the stone circle decades if not centuries in the past. They performed this task with exaggerated care while chanting words I did not understand.

Perhaps I am overly suspicious (not to mention superstitious) but what I remember most about this seemingly random surreal encounter with these members of this Mt. Halla Sanshin cult was that, firstly, they did not try to hide from me the secret location where they hid the tablet, and secondly, that despite their generosity these women never greeted me nor bid me farewell. While not mistreated, I felt less than human in their company and more like an experimental ingredient in their ritual stew. My imagination began to spun out scenarios: Perhaps they thought I was sent to join them? Perhaps I was sent to join them?

The experience anyway had played out in its entirety like a television docudrama. Pre-scripted? If so, my role was “the oblivious stranger.” Thus, though well-fed, I nevertheless felt manipulated. I felt I was missing something. Left alone there and contemplating these thoughts, I had to count my fingers and my toes to convince myself that I was still intact. The encounter was real enough as I have described it here. As for my interpretations? Perhaps they were simply the result of soju doing its work on my superheated imagination that hot summer afternoon long ago.

A few months later I had an unexpected encounter of a more threatening sort. In the dense forest zone of Mt. Halla, east of the peak, there were once many fly-by-night mushroom farms, all remote and hidden away like moonshiner stills in the heart of Appalachia. I am sure these have all been regulated out of business by now.

In 1973, odds were good that if you ran across any barely perceptible path within the high forest and followed it to its terminus you would either wind up at a mushroom farm or out on Jeju 1131 (also known as the 5.16 Road), that serpentine highway that first transversed the island over Mt. Halla to connect Jeju City with Seogwipo Town.

I was trekking along one of these faint footpaths through the forest litter on a cool, clear day around noon when I nearly stepped on a viper. It was lounging at a warm spot on the trail where a spear of sunshine had poked through the forest canopy all the way to the ground. It lunged at me half-heartedly and the maneuver sent me sprawling onto the forest floor adjacent to the path. As I scampered again to my feet to get my bearings, this viper, a short-tailed mamushi, the dreaded “three step snake” of Jeju Island (called this because of its fast-acting, deadly venom), coiled to strike again. But I was safely out of range. So I reached into my knapsack for my little Kodak camera and snapped a shot at close range, and then moved in for another. But the shy viper was already on the move and had dived into its hole before I could snap another.

I waited two weeks to get that roll of film developed. And when the day of delivery arrived at the photo shop I rushed down the block and down the stairs of the nearest tea room to scrutinize the 12 photos on the reel and to find evidence of my snake encounter. Even in the dim light of the Dabang 11 of the photos were distinctly those of mushroom gardens. The 12th image was an unrecognizable chaos captured in shades of gray.

It might have helped me sort out the forest floor litter from the snake if I had used color film (but it was so damn expensive to purchase and develop in those days!). Or perhaps it would not have mattered: the viper after all wore a clever coat of camouflage to match the forest floor — which is why I almost stepped on it in the first place. I turned the photo every which way but to no avail.

So I left the tea room and went next door to the donut shop where the light was better. Several high school girls were gathered around a table there. I took out the photo and asked one student slowly in English “What~do~you~see?”

I had picked the right student. She responded in turn: “I~see~a~snake.”

Photo courtesy David Nemeth

Photo courtesy David Nemeth


Photo courtesy David Nemeth

Photo courtesy David Nemeth

Next week: Going mano-a-mano with a warrior spider.

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