The SO-KO Road Trip Blog series is a 5-part guest posting series by UK travel and lifestyle journalist Jonathan Thompson on his 9 day trip through South Korea. Jonathan regularly writes for leading UK media and was recently honored with the ‘Travel Writer of the Year Award’ by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Connect with Jonathan on his social media accounts: Instagram, Twitter
All photography was done by London-based photographer Mark Chilvers. Visit his website!
INTO THE SOUL OF JEJU
The whistles sound all around us as we sit on the rocky beach at Samdal-ri . Hooded heads appear from beneath the waves, closely followed by that unique sound: half shriek, half high-pitched wail.
This is Jeju Island, a tropical haven off South Korea’s southwest shore. And the whistles announce the surfacing of haenyeo – the famous “sea women” of Jeju, who’ve been diving these waters in search of seaweed and shellfish for more than 400 years. As each emerges to fill her floating net with spoils from the seabed, she empties her lungs with the trademark whistle – a time-honoured technique to rapidly expel carbon dioxide – before immediately diving again.
Jeju is the first stop for us on an epic road-trip across South Korea, to celebrate Kia Motors UK’s 25th anniversary. The country’s largest island, Jeju’s beautiful beaches, ancient culture and breathtaking scenery have long made it a holiday favourite, but it also has serious green credentials. The World Conservation Congress was held here in September 2012, and the island is at the forefront of South Korea’s ambitious carbon-free electricity generation schemes.
It’s fitting then, that our ride for this leg of the journey is the Kia Soul EV – a supremely silent electric drive that handles with pleasing precision. Kia’s first battery-electric vehicle to be sold globally, it manages a hefty 132 miles to each charge, which is plenty for our exploration of the island. All we need to remember is to plug the Soul EV into one of Jeju’s many “public fast chargers” at the end of each day (the batteries are mounted out of the way beneath the car, in a special casing which protects them from stone and gravel damage) then simply hop in and drive a fully charged vehicle in the morning.
The food on Jeju is a particular treat, from the traditional Korean barbecue (especially ‘heukdwaeji’ – pork from the local black-skinned pig) to the ever-present (and ever delicious) kimchi. On our final day at Hallim – a village on Jeju’s northern shore – a group of young haenyeo kindly share their lunch of freshly-caught sea urchins with us too.
The women are students at the state-of-the-art Hansupul Haenyeo School: training to follow the centuries-old ways of the sea women. And, according to one of their instructors, Lee Hak Cheul, it’s about considerably more than just future employment.
“These women have a big responsibility to their culture, to their island and to their country,” he tells us. “It’s important to keep the old traditions alive.”
That’s Jeju all over – a sun kissed blend of old traditions and new innovations. After just two days exploring the island in the Soul EV we’re sad to leave, but the open road – and the mainland – beckons…
This story is the first of a five part series. Don’t miss out on the other stories about travelling through Korea in the coming weeks!
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