Monday, April 27, 2015

orange you glad you came?

Here's the dilemma.

You are visiting a country for the first time -- and you have about seven hours to see as much as you can.  What do you do?

That is the problem with each new port stop on a cruise.  My usual answer is to choose one activity that sums up the port city, and then focus intensely on a small piece of the culture. 

Visiting the Matisse Museum in Nice last year is a perfect example.  But I had a problem with that method on this trip.  I had conducted no prior research on any of our stops.

The other answer is to sign up for one of the ship's bus tours.  That is what Roy and I did when we stopped at Jeju Island in Korea today.  It turned out to be a more strenuous tour than we had expected: nice portions of tour stops, but too much bus.

Cruise ship excursions all share one rather annoying characteristic.  They are like a Whitman's Sampler.  Lots of choices, and not all of them are chocolate-covered caramels.

I knew of Jeju island only from its reputation of housing political prisoners during the South Korea dictatorship days.  Otherwise, it was a mystery to me.

It turns out that the island has been a major player in Korea's history.  When the Mongols invaded Korea, it acted as a launch pad for two Mongol invasions of Japan.  Both of which collapsed when typhoons saved the land of the rising sun from the Khans.  But the Mongols did leave ponies behind -- some of whom end up on Korean restaurant platters these days.

No rice is grown here due to the island's shallow soil.  But it has long been a tangerine and orange producer.  The fruits were once so expensive that a small orchard could finance a child's university education.

The island is now a tourist destination -- with 300 daily flights in the summer months.  And most of the foreign visitors (about 70%) are from China.  Our guide made a small joke that the waves of Chinese visitors are far more pleasant than the ones that came from the north in the early 1950s.

Our small tourist invasion had three major stops -- a botanical garden, some coastal rock formations, and a temple.

The Yeomiji Botanical Garden was the high point of the tour for both Roy and me.  The curators have created a building with five greenhouses covering five distinctive types of plants and gardens.  Everything about it was aesthetically pleasing.  Including the structure itself that could have been built by Gustave Eiffel.

My favorite collection was the tropical fruit tree greenhouse.  I knew that the macadamia tree originally came from Australia.  But I had never seen the green husks that surround the nut's shell. 

The Jusang Jeollidae is a series of volcanic columns formed quickly when the magma from the volcano, that formed the island, interacted with the cool sea water.  They reminded me of the basalt columns in Northern Ireland and Cornwall.

We then visited the Yakchumsa Temple -- a very impressive complex of Buddhist buildings.  The size of the complex, with its intricate woodwork, was well worth the visit.

You can identify the temple as Korean by its roof line.  Japanese temple roof lines are flat; Chinese temples have upswept roofs; the Korean temples take an intermediate architectural road.  That is your comparative architectural lesson for the week.

The place looks ancient.  It isn't.  Construction started in 1988 (yes, 1988, that is not a typo) and was completed in 1996.  The place looks so clean and shiny, it could have been a exhibit at Disney World.  Even this painting inside the temple had a cartoonish look -- though no more so than some of the saint paintings I have seen in Mexican Catholic churches.

But even the cathedral at Chartres was once new.

By the time we left the temple, we were hungry.  Conveniently, we were bused to an incredibly fancy resort hotel for dinner.  And here it is.  The dinner, that is.

Actually, the main course is not there.  It was a beef dish highly flavored with garlic -- a perfect complement to one of my favorite Korean foods: kimchi (fermented spiced cabbage) that is there.

Was it the best Korean meal I have had?  No.  After all, it was hotel food.  But it was more than adequate to hold us for the hour-drive back to the ship.

The big question is: Would I return to Korea based on this experience?  Of course, I would.  This short visit has not satisfied my desire to know more of this ancient country.

But that will have to wait.  We are now on our way to Kobe, Japan.  After a bit of sea time.

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