Why, he turned it into a botanical garden.
That's right: the entire island is one big open-air greenhouse, overflowing with plants, trees, and jaw-dropping flowers. It's apparently one of the most beautiful sights in Korea, famous nationwide.
There was a certain mystique about it; I'd only caught intoxicating glimpses of the island in the distance as I sunned myself on Geoje's beaches, or of its interior in travel brochures. What I'd seen piqued my interest. So, finally, after at least three wasted weekends (despoiled by prior engagements with Jirisan and Gyeongju, or poor health), I took the bull by the horns and set out to find the island come hell or high water.
The Sunday after the Second Christmas, May 31st, I seized my chance and strode down to the bus station. I boarded the bus for Jangseungpo, a small civic area just on the other side of Okpo, on the eastern shores of the island.
I figured I could either hop a ferry there or, if it was too pricey, grab a cab from thence to Wahyeon Beach, where I knew for a fact there was a ferry terminal servicing Oedo. After some initial confusion (I didn't get off the bus soon enough and had to hike a few kilometers back to the city center after the bus driver kicked me off), I located the ferry terminal and walked in. The price was ₩19,000...a bit steep, so I got into a cab and went to Wahyeon, hoping it'd be cheaper. It wasn't much better at ₩17,000...but when you add in the ₩9,000 I spent just getting to the beach, I actually lost more than a little money on the deal. Oh well, at least the Wahyeon route is more direct: you can see Oedo Island, sitting like a green jewel in the misty haze a few miles offshore.
I paid up for a ticket, then went and sat on the quay (actually on the breakwater, a huge pile of cement weights shaped like children's jacks in a haphazard jumble). And I waited...and waited...and waited.
The ferry was late. Not that the day wasn't enjoyable, mind you. This was May and it was getting on toward summer, but things weren't beatin' hot yet, and there was still a lovely cool breeze blowing off the ocean. So I laid back on one huge cement jack, put my hat over my eyes, and just relaxed for a bit.
The ferry eventually did come, disgorge its passengers and let us on. Then the novelty began.
The first I knew that I was in for a unique ride was when the ferry captain relinquished the controls to his first mate, came back to the passenger cabin and started singing karaoke. (He wasn't half bad, either...a nation of singers.) Apart from that, he talked. And he talked fast, too. He was pointing out the various sights and sounds of the places our boat was passing, but as he was speaking Korean, I only caught a word here and there. He even pointed to me once and asked me if I was single. He had to translate it into pidgin English before I got it. I replied in the negative. Then he asked if I spoke Korean (in Korean). Fortunately I did understand that, and knew enough to reply.
"Hanguk mal jom haeyo," I said, to the delight of the passengers. I speak a little Korean.
First up on our touring list was Haegeumgang, the jutting peninsula at the southeast foot of Geoje-do, famous for towering rock cliffs and pinnacles. If it looked impressive from the beaches and the air, it was incredible up-close on a boat.
The sun was descending, and it caught the bushes and trees and green leaves clinging to the rock faces and the peaks of the cliffs and lit them with auburn fire. Shadows played in the intervening spaces between the stone towers, and lit the green water with an ethereal glow. Anybody who's a fan of The Goonies really needs to come to Korea and take that tour.
And we didn't just circle around these rocks, either. The pilot bravely steered his craft in between them, and even partway into them. All the passengers piled out on deck as he maneuvered the ferry into some of the tightest spaces in these waters, all for our benefit. There was one tiny sea-cave that I swear I thought we were going to go straight through, only to stop at the last minute, close enough to reach out and touch the soggy lichen-covered walls and get dripped on from above. It was an astounding experience.
But even that paled in comparison to what happened when we actually got to the island. After making a circuit of Haegeumgang, we went straight to the cement pier at Oedo and disembarked. After forking over another ₩8,000 at the gates, we were free to wander around the island wantonly for an hour and thirty minutes.
How can I begin to describe the loveliness and bewitchment of that place? The air was heavily perfumed; a thousand sweet scents crammed in on my senses, nonetheless beautiful for their addition. The sinking sun illuminated every leaf, sprout, bud and shoot with that same golden glow I'd noticed on the peaks of Haegeumgang. Plants from every corner of the earth were busy exploding with flowers and new growth. There was a peace garden, a Greek sculpture garden, a cactus garden, and more flower gardens on that small patch of ground than I'm sure exist on any other island in the history of the world. There were palm trees, perennials, shrubs, bonsai, yucca plants, and more kinds of blossoms and blooms than I could ever have learned from a book in a year, all splashed all over the bumpy topography of the island's small interior.
In a daze I wandered hither and thither, almost forgetting to check my watch, eyes wide open, desperately trying to suck in and retain every single sensation the place had to offer. There were breathtaking vistas of the East Sea, visible from lookout points and a two-story cafe cunningly built atop a cliff; there was ice-cream for sale at a booth by the entrance; there was wisely another booth selling extra cameras and film. The gift shop was nicely decorated and sold things like candles and incense (scented with the flowers of the island) at steep but affordable prices. The path from the gift shop led to the greatest overlook of all, spanning 200 degrees of the East Sea, the island's mountains, Wahyeon Beach, and the coastline of Oedo itself.
My soul was washed clean, my mind was blasted by beauty and my heart contentedly massaged. I had no camera (I lost it on Jirisan, remember?) but the disposable one I'd grabbed was used up. Part of me worried that the film quality would be substandard; most of me, mollified by a concentrated dose of natural beauty, was content that everything would be OK.
I waited out the final 20 minutes on that overlook, soaking up the view and the deliciously cool sea breeze; then I boarded the ferry back for Wahyeon. The ferry driver's karaoke was the cherry on top of the sundae. He even had a sort of giveaway sweepstakes of sorts during the ride back; the prize was a whole dried squid. We parked at the pier, disembarked, and went our separate ways. I climbed the familiar, steep hill to the south of Wahyeon to reach the bus stop. I waited for a nerve-wracking 40 minutes for a bus to appear as the sun set behind the hill and things began to get dusky; but luckily one did come and I returned to Gohyeon in a timely manner.
I had been absolutely astounded, twice in one day, by the absolutely unforeseen and unsuspected lushness and beauty of the southern region of Geoje and Oedo Islands. The rough pinnacles of Haegeumgang warrant the ₩17,000 ferry fare, without doubt; but Oedo is absolutely a must-see at any price. The beguiling scents and heart-stopping sights of that tiny rock, built by the generosity of a magnate and lovingly maintained by Korean staff, are well worth the trip and the precious hour and a half allotted to view such gorgeousness.
It'll add five years to your life, I promise.