I am sorry to say that I have not yet introduced you to June the cat. June is a pear-shaped tabby cat with beautiful green eyes and a rather large tummy that resides at the farm. He lives in the tea barn, but clearly loves having people around and is extremely noisy and likes to make his presence known by miaowing constantly until you give him some attention. He is also very indecisive, a trait he shares with many of our feline friends. The main crux of his indecision is whether outside is better or worse than inside, which, when you have spent the last hour trying to heat the house with a small gas heater, is rather irritating! Nevertheless, we enjoyed having him around.
The following day, we started work on making the house more livable, and we began to understand the scale of the task Eric had before him. It sometimes felt like an episode of Rogue Traders, as we pulled down brick cladding that had been glued in place with the tiniest blobs of cement. A makeshift fireplace had been installed next to the front door, and one of our jobs was to knock this down as the position was less than ideal. We attacked it with a sledgehammer, which was very fun, and the bricks came down like badly stacked Lego. I think Lego would actually have been sturdier. Worryingly, as we got down to the base of the fireplace, we discovered that the thin tiles were charred. When we lifted them up, we found that the wooden floorboards underneath had caught light with the heat produced and had completely burnt through, leaving a large hole and evidence that the fire had started to spread outwards. It was extremely lucky that the house hadn’t burnt down!
On our way to complete errands in town, we stopped for lunch at the restaurant near Eric’s flat. I had realised that I had lost my mittens that I had bought in Mongolia and was feeling a little despondent as I had grown rather fond of them. Luckily I had left them in that very same restaurant, and the staff had kept them for me! Eric told us that stories of lost items being returned to their rightful owners are commonplace in South Korea – you could lose a wallet full of cash, and it would turn up again with the money untouched; it is a very honest culture in this respect. Feeling much happier, I gobbled up a bowl of bibimbap, which is a rice and vegetable dish. You get a bowlful of rice which is covered in different types of vegetables – for instance carrots, beansprouts, kimchi, and a dollop of spicy sauce. It arrived looking like a pie chart of chopped veg. It usually comes with an egg, and this may be cooked already, or if your rice is hot, you may be given a raw egg to crack into your dish. You then give it a really good stir, and once it is all mixed together nicely, you tuck in.
After lunch, we finished pulling down some shelving and removed lots of old nails from the wood, before tidying, sweeping and mopping the floor. Eric and Luke then moved a massive fridge into the house from the barn, that both of them had spent a long time cleaning out, only to discover that it didn’t work! This didn’t really matter as the house was fridge temperature anyway!
Eric made us a lovely warm chicken salad for tea, which we served on a huge plate we had found stashed away, and we drank makkoli to wash it down. Makkoli is a milky sort of rice based alcoholic drink. We had also tried soju, which is more like Japanese sake and is more of a spirit, also traditionally made form rice. Makkoli has a gentler, sweeter flavour and is not so potent, so I found it more pleasant to drink. Eric had shown us how to serve drinks properly – for makkoli, you have to swirl the bottle first several times by rotating your wrist so the sediment disperses. Then you pour the drink out for each person in turn (starting with the oldest first), holding the sleeve of your pouring arm to show you have nothing concealed there (and to stop your cuffs dipping in the person’s drink). The person receiving the drink should do so holding the cup off the table with both hands. After everyone has been served, someone else should serve you – it is considered rude to pour your own drink. That night I remembered all my manners and poured the makkoli correctly.
The next day we found the sun was shining brightly, the snow on the plantation had melted, and it looked like the perfect day for cutting firegrass for the pigs. I cobbled together some potato cakes for breakfast, turning into a gluey handed dough monster in the process. We spent a rather pastoral morning making hay whilst the sun shone. Eric used the weed whacker to scalp the fields, whilst we went along behind gathering armfuls of firegrass in a wheelbarrow and throwing it into the pig pen. The pigs were out exploring, so didn’t know about their comfy new bedding. Once we had a small mountain in the pen, we went for lunch at a small café in a nearby village for breaded pork cutlets and a delicious radishy salad.
In the afternoon we went on an expedition. Jeju is a peculiar place, full of hidden gems and abandoned curiosities. There are all sorts of museums, for it is a prime tourist destination, and there is even a ‘mysterious road’. Apparently if you park your car on the hill, and then take off the handbrake, the car will roll upwards, not downwards. Why? That is part of the mystery of Jeju. We drove past the mysterious road on our way to our next port of call, but it appeared to me just like any other nondescript strip of tarmac.
The car was parked next to a tangled, overgrown field and we clambered through piles of junk, until we saw what appeared to be an abandoned castle, or stately home. It looked rather incongruous in the middle of the Jeju countryside, surrounded by Grecian pillars, covered in white plaster, and with a series of pools and archways leading up to the main entrance. We could see a chandelier in the hall and furniture laid out as if someone had been living there, but had hastily upped sticks. In fact, the whole thing was built as a film set and once filming had ceased, had subsequently been left to nature. It was enormous, and even though the building materials must have been temporary, it would have been a huge investment to build something of that size. It had a forlorn, battered appearance and we gazed at it for some time from different vantage points, marvelling that someone would create something so vast, only to leave it marooned like a deserted luxury yacht that had been caught in a storm and had come to rest on distant, uncharted soil.
We spent that night on our own at Eric’s flat as we had been given a day off to climb Mount Halla, the highest mountain in Korea, and Eric arranged to collect us the day after that. We took the opportunity to have a shower, something we had been loath to do at the farm as it was so chilly!
The following day dawned bright and clear. We rose early, donned several layers appropriate for mountain climbing, and set off for the bus stop. As the bus neared the start point, the scenery grew more and more snowy. When we disembarked, we found the car park was a slippery ice rink of frozen snow. We stopped at a small shop and after long debate purchased a single pair of crampons to go over my shoes. Luke was deemed to have better balance and we could only afford one pair!
It was the perfect day for a hike, and fairly quiet at first, most people having set off somewhat earlier so they could make it to the checkpoint for 12 o’clock. This meant that we had to march up the snowy trail to be sure we would get there in time – if you are late, you are not allowed to continue to the summit. However, our training with our heavy rucksacks did us proud and we made it to the checkpoint with ten minutes to spare, where we encountered hordes of brightly dressed Koreans in top of the range hiking outfits tucking into instant noodles. Unfortunately, a rancid smell was emanating from the toilets, polluting the fresh mountain air, so we didn’t hang around. Hiking is a favourite activity in Korea, and in Busan we had noted the high street was packed with outdoor clothing shops. Korea is a Gore-Tex lover’s paradise! Everyone seemed to have crampons, high tech trousers, expensive jackets, gaiters, and hiking sticks.
Higher up, the trail grew steeper, the snow deeper and the fir trees that flanked the path were smothered in white, making the whole look like a scene from a Royal icing frosted Christmas cake. The closer we got to the summit, the more people we encountered, until eventually we were walking in single file, a multi-coloured procession picked out brightly against the snow. The trees thinned out, and the wind whipped cruelly about our ears. The fences were frosted with a thick layer of icicles that seemed to defy gravity, swept and carved by the wind. They clung on at bizarre angles, as if frozen in time – if set in motion again, they would fly through the air like a flurry of arrows.
The views from the top were breath-taking. As Hallasan lies at the centre of the island, we could see the sea nearly all the way around, and could admire the bumpy oreum-peppered landscape. We gazed in wonder, then climbed a little further to the lip of the crater. In warmer seasons, there is a crater lake, but this was frozen and covered in in snow. There was a flock of crows at the top and they made a dramatic contrast flying across the huge sweeping hollow of the crater, black against white. The summit was pretty busy, but the atmosphere was fantastic. I can’t describe how lucky we felt to have chosen this day above all others to do the hike. The sky was a perfect blue and we could see for miles around. We had a picnic of bread and cheese and were pleasantly surprised to discover that the enormous apple we had to share was in fact an Asian pear – something we had never come across before, but that is utterly delicious and definitely best appreciated at the top of a volcano in winter. Needless to say, we got cold pretty quickly and the layers we had peeled off with the heat of the hike were duly replaced. We started down just as the mountain rangers got their megaphones out to chivvy people along. I was thankful of my crampons as the compacted snow was rather slippery and it was very steep. Meanwhile, Luke was enjoying slipping and sliding his way down like the groups of shrieking school children, so we were both happy. Halfway down though, Luke had worn a small hole in one of his soles and found he had a shoe full of ice. I resolved to buy him a new pair of trekking shoes for Christmas!
We strayed from the main path to visit another frozen volcanic lake, and sat watching the crows galloping comically in the snow. When we got out our crackers, the watchers became the watched and they perched on the fence, regarding us in that curious sideways fashion that birds have, that is engaging and unnerving in equal measures. We cautiously fed them a few crumbs to enable photo opportunities and actually found their table manners to be rather better than expected.
This detour had allowed us to fall behind the crowds, so we had the rest of the walk virtually to ourselves, and seized the opportunity to sing Christmas carols at the tops of our voices. Only one man was fortunate enough to witness this impromptu concert.
Back at the flat, we were delighted to hear the news that our neighbours, David and Joanna, were engaged! We had heard on the day we visited Mount Fuji that our friends Cas and Steven had also got engaged and began to wonder if in visiting these iconic volcanoes we somehow were triggering eruptions of affection. We returned to the restaurant we had visited twice before, and had Korean barbecue to celebrate and drank a toast of makkoli to our newly betrothed friends, surprising all the staff with our knowledge of makkoli etiquette.