Island of Gods.

The combined efforts of three massive volcanic eruptions, between 1.2 million and 300,000 years ago brought into existence South Korea’s largest island, Jeju. Located to the south of the Korean mainland, between China to the west and Japan to the east, Jeju is otherwise known as the Island of the Gods, and not without reason.  

A walkway through alpine forest on Jeju Island © Nisha D'Souza

A walkway through alpine forest on Jeju Island © Nisha D’Souza 

Unlike mainland Koreans, who believe they have descended form Dangun (the demigod born of a deity and bear-turned woman), the indigenous people of Jeju have their own three myths of origin: that of the cosmos, the island itself, and its human inhabitants. The latter tells a tale of three demigods, Ko, Yang and Bu, who rose from volcanic caves (or lava tubes, earlier believed to lead to the sacred Underworld), deep in the earth to marry three princesses from another land (arguably Japan). This union laid the groundwork for the rise of the Tamna Kingdom, upon which Jeju’s culture is based.

Molten lava has reconstructed the island in unique ways © Nisha D'Souza

Molten lava has reconstructed the island in unique ways © Nisha D’Souza

The Manjanggul caves are essentially lava tubes, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Nisha D'Souza

The Manjanggul caves are part of the Geomun Oreum lava tube system, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Nisha D’Souza

A pagoda © Nisha D'Souza

A pagoda © Nisha D’Souza

Oddly enough, like its myths, most things in Jeju tend to come in threes, whether they be “samda” (the three abundances) of wind, rock and women, or “sammu” (the three absences) of thieves, gates and beggars. More notably however, Jeju was once known as the “island of three misfortunes” due to its high mountains, harsh winds and unproductive soil. All said and done though Jeju’s crowing glory in the threes department is unquestionably its three UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites; Halla National Park, Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) and the Geomun Oreum Lava Tube System. Access is conditional on ones level of physical and mental fitness, and the ability to stay calm if you cannot feel your toes.

Seongeup folk village, at the foot of Mt. Halla, in an important part of the islands heritage. © Nisha D'Souza

Seongeup folk village, at the foot of Mt. Halla, in an important part of the islands heritage. © Nisha D’Souza

Seongeup folk village, at the foot of Mt. Halla, in an important part of the islands heritage. © Nisha D'Souza

Seongeup folk village, at the foot of Mt. Halla, in an important part of the islands heritage. © Nisha D’Souza

Even modern take-away restaurants in Seongeup folk village are built in the traditional style. © Nisha D'Souza

Even modern take-away restaurants in Seongeup folk village are built in the traditional style. © Nisha D’Souza

The tourism economy of Jeju is predicated in part on the uniqueness of its culture and its astounding natural diversity. In 2011, Jeju was named one of the seven New Wonders of the World and is a step further in achieving its dream of becoming the World Environment Capital. Even as forthcoming developmental plans (especially the construction of a naval base) continue to cast a mighty shadow over Jeju, its people are more determined than ever to stand by their motto of “First Conservation, then Development”.  

Young girls play their part in protesting the construction of the naval base © Nisha D'Souza

Young girls play their part in protesting the construction of the naval base © Nisha D’Souza

Children's drawings in support of dugong protection © Nisha D'Souza

Children’s drawings in support of dugong protection © Nisha D’Souza

Jeju’s unique position as an autonomous province made it the perfect location for the 2012 World Conservation Congress (WCC), organized by IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in September. The delicate balance between development and conservation was the dominating theme of this “Environmental Olympics”, a double-edged sword that the people of Jeju are more than familiar with.

My most poignant realization after 12 days of being relentlessly punched with information related to the environment and biodiversity, was that the sheer amount of information available to us can often translate into no information at all; which all said and done is an excellent excuse to take a break and enjoy a cup of tea. Needless to say, mind boggling amounts of green tea was consumed during this trip. 

Dol hareubang, are large statues dotted around Jeju. They are considered to be gods offering both protection and fertility © Nisha D'Souza

Dol hareubang, are large statues dotted around Jeju; they are considered to be gods offering both protection and fertility © Nisha D’Souza

A butterfly in Yeomiji Botanical Garden © Nisha D'Souza

A butterfly in Yeomiji Botanical Garden © Nisha D’Souza

The Seonimgyo Bridge at Yeomiji Botanical Garden, is adorned with seven heavenly nymphs (from a popular Korean legend) © Nisha D'Souza

The Seonimgyo Bridge at Yeomiji Botanical Garden, is adorned with seven heavenly nymphs (from a popular Korean legend) © Nisha D’Souza

Tea time gossip © Nisha D'Souza

Tea time gossip © Nisha D’Souza

A marine in Jeju © Nisha D'Souza

A marine in Jeju © Nisha D’Souza

The fashions of Jeju © Nisha D'Souza

The fashions of Jeju © Nisha D’Souza

Pork Bulgogi, a staple at Korean barbecue restaurants © Nisha D'Souza

Pork Bulgogi, a staple at Korean barbecue restaurants © Nisha D’Souza

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