The West Sea Islands
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Gyeonggi’s perforated western coast topples into the West Sea in an expanse of mud flats – the tidal range here is said to be the second biggest in the world after the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, though this is challenged by Britain’s Bristol Channel. Whoever the silver medallist, the retreat of the tides is fantastic news for hunters of clams and other sea fare; it does, however, mean that beaches are in short supply. Fear not, Korean land rises again across the waves in the form of dozens of islands, almost all of which have remained pleasantly green and unspoilt; some also have excellent beaches. Life here is predominantly fishing-based and dawdles by at a snail’s pace – a world away from Seoul and its environs, despite a few being close enough to be visited on a day-trip. Quite a number of these have next to no traffic, making them ideal places for a ride if you can find a bike to bring along.
Up the Gyeonggi coast from Incheon is Ganghwado, an island whose dolmens betray its ancient history. Just to the west is delightfully quiet Seongmodo, home to an enchanting temple. Ganghwa is connected to the mainland by bus, but there are other islands that can take hours to reach by ferry; two of these are Deokjeokdo and Baengnyeongdo, both beautiful and sufficiently far away from “regular” Korea to provide perfect escapes for those in need of a break. Swarms of less-visited islands are also there for the taking, if you’re in an adventurous mood.
In case you haven’t guessed already, the suffix -do (도) means “island” in Korean; accordingly, you may see signs for “Deokjeok Island” and so on.
Four hours’ ferry-ride from Incheon is BAENGNYEONGDO (백령도), almost tickling the North Korean coastline and as such home to many military installations. In 2010 the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, suspiciously sank just off the island, seriously damaging relations between the two Koreas for details. Baengnyeongdo literally means “White Wing Island”, due to its apparent resemblance to an ibis taking flight, and although the reality is somewhat different you will find yourself gawping at Baengnyeongdo’s spectacular rock formations, best seen from one of the tour boats that regularly depart the port. Some of the most popular are off Dumujin, to the west of the island, while at Sagot Beach the stone cliffs plunge diagonally into the sea.
The tranquil nature of these islands is sometimes diluted by swarms of summer visitors – it’s best to visit on weekdays, or outside the warmest months. Ferries (3 daily) head to Baengnyeongdo from Incheon’s Yeonan pier, departing at 8am, 8.50am and 1pm; return sailings are at 8am, 1pm and 1.50pm. There’s also simple accommodation on Baengnyeongdo, though given the island’s distance from Incheon – and the recent military problems – it’s best to organize this at a tourist information office before heading out.
Possibly the prettiest and most tranquil of the Yellow Sea isles, DEOKJEOKDO (덕적도) feels a world away from Seoul, though it’s quite possible to visit from the capital on a day-trip. There’s little in the way of sightseeing, and not much to do, but that’s just the point – the island has a couple of stunning beaches and some gorgeous mountain trails, and makes a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Around the ferry berth are a few shops, restaurants and minbak, while a bus meets the ferries and makes its way round to Seopori Beach (서포리 해수욕장) on the other, quieter side of the island – also home to a few minbak. Most who stay here for a day or two spend their time chatting to locals, lazing or throwing back beers on the beach, going fishing or taking the easy climb up to the island’s main peak. Some adventurous souls make their way to Soyado (소야도), an island facing the ferry berth, and only a few minutes away if you can flag down a fishing boat. There’s even less to do than on Seongmodo, though there are a couple of motels and minbak if you look hard enough, and you can rest assured you’ll be one of very few foreigners to have overnighted on the island.
Unlike most Yellow Sea islands, GANGHWADO (강화도) is close enough to the mainland to be connected by road – buses run regularly from Sinchon bus terminal in Seoul via Gimpo, taking around ninety minutes to arrive in Ganghwa-eup (강화읍), the ugly main settlement; from here local buses dash to destinations across the island, though the place is so small that journeys rarely take more than thirty minutes. While this accessibility means that Ganghwa lacks the beauty of some of its more distant cousins, there’s plenty to see. One look at a map should make clear the strategic importance of the island, which not only sits at the mouth of Seoul’s main river, the Han, but whose northern flank is within a frisbee throw of the North Korean border. Would-be adventurers should note that this area is chock-full of military installations, and closed to the public.
Before the latest conflict, this unfortunate isle saw battles with Mongol, Manchu, French, American and Japanese forces, among others. However, Ganghwado’s foremost sights date from further back than even the earliest of these fisticuffs – a clutch of dolmens scattered around the northern part of the island, dating from the first century BC and now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The small settlement of Oepo (외포; pronounced “Way-paw”) on the island’s western coast is by far the most appealing place to stay; small and delightfully old-fashioned, it’s a little like stepping into the Korea of the 1970s, before the country’s “economic miracle” mopped up old traditions by the bucketload. There are no particular sights, so wandering around to soak up the atmosphere is the order of the day. There’s an appealing little fish market near the dock, and restaurants all around it; you can even stay above one at the impossible-to-miss Santa Lucia (032/933 2141), the only building to take advantage of the village’s views of SEONGMODO (석모도), another island just across the water.
Ferries (every 30min; 10min) run to Seongmodo from Oepo’s tiny terminal, and ornithophobes should note that large flocks of seagulls tend to circumnavigate the vessel for the entire journey, waiting to catch thrown crisps (and highly proficient at doing so). Buses (15min) meet the ferries and head to Bomunsa (보문사), a charming temple that constitutes the island’s main sight. The complex is a five-minute uphill pant from the bus stop, with a small tearoom (9am–5pm) at its entrance; many choose to give their legs an extra workout by taking the mountain path behind the temple, which leads to a clutch of small grottoes that function as Buddhist shrines and boast wonderful sea views.
Ferries back to Ganghwado dry up at 8.30pm, but this is a wonderfully peaceful place to be stranded – there are restaurants and simple accommodation around both the temple and ferry terminal, as well as bicycle hire immediately off the ferry ramp for those with the muscle to pump up and down the island’s hilly roads.
Misty remnants from bygone millennia, Ganghwa’s dolmens are overground burial chambers consisting of flat capstones supported by three or more vertical megaliths. The Korean peninsula contains more than 30,000 of these ancient tombs – almost half of the world’s total – and Ganghwado has one of the highest concentrations in the country. Most can only be reached by car or bike, though one is situated near a main road and accessible by bus. From Ganghwa-eup, take one of the buses bound for Changhu-ri, which depart every hour or so, and make sure that the driver knows where you want to go – ask to be dropped off at the main Goindol (24hr; free), a granite tomb which sits unobtrusively in a field as it has for centuries: a stone skeleton long divested of its original earth covering, with a large 5m by 7m capstone. The surrounding countryside is extremely beautiful, and you can combine a visit to the dolmen with a delightful walk. One of the best places to head to is the village of Hajeom (하점), not far to the west, where the roofs of some houses have been traditionally decorated with distinctive patterns. From the hills above Hajeom it’s possible to view the North Korean bank of the Hangang, though sadly the propaganda that the North used to boom across the border from giant speakers can no longer be heard. Visual propaganda still remains, however, in the form of giant slogans best seen from the small mountain of Bongcheonsan (봉천산), a forty-minute walk north of Hajeon – the message visible across the border translates as “Yankees go home”, a request that would doubtless be more effective were it not written in Korean.
To the south of the island is Jeondeungsa (전등사), a pretty temple dating from the fourth century – when Buddhism was just taking root on the peninsula – making it one of the oldest temples in the country. It was also the venue for the creation of the famed Tripitaka Koreana, eighty-thousand-plus blocks of carved Buddhist doctrine which now reside in Haeinsa temple near Daegu. To reach the temple, take one of the half-hourly buses bound for Onsu-ri. About 5km west of Onsu is Manisan (마니산), the main peak of the island, which affords wonderful views of the surrounding islands.
Studding Ganghwado’s east coast are three fortresses – Gwangseongbo (광성보), Deokjinjin (덕지진) and Chojijin (초지진) – which are best seen by making use of the bicycle lanes that run alongside the main road; otherwise, buses run every hour or so. Gwangseongbo (daily 9am–6pm) is the northernmost and most interesting of the three, and dates from the mid-seventeenth century; its strategic importance will be obvious to all visitors, as it peers out over the channel that separates Ganghwado from the mainland.
The West Sea is far better known abroad as the “Yellow Sea”, a reference to the vast quantity of silt deposited into it by the Yellow River, which flows from the Chinese desert. Be warned that few Koreans will take kindly to this term, even though it’s the accepted international name; there’s nowhere near the intensity of debate that the East Sea/Sea of Japan on the other side of the country has inspired (see Victims of nautical nomenclature), but those who want to stay on the better side of their Korean friends should refer to the body of water off the Gyeonggi coast as the “West Sea”, or even better, the Korean name, Seohae (서해).