|Seyeonjeong Pavilion in Bogil Island, a birthplace of poet Yun Seon-do's iconic literary works / Korea Times File|
Author Michael Gibb goes island hopping in Korea's unpredictable, alluring sea
By Park Han-sol
Fueled by the "sugary, milky, hot, completely unhealthy" taste of Korea's homegrown instant coffee label Maxim Gold, an English backpacker starts another of his days on a rattling ferry that takes him to some of the most isolated islands along the coastline of South Korea.
Perhaps for Michael Gibb, a man born in the British Isles, and now living on an island off Hong Kong, the trip across the treacherous sea and thick fog to reach the islands strewn around the Korean peninsula in the year 2018 was destined from the start.
"It was a mixture of 'Can I get there?' and 'Will there be anything interesting when I get there?'" Gibb told The Korea Times explaining how he came to select a total of 30 islands to visit ― among thousands to choose from ― for his book "A Korean Odyssey: Island Hopping in Choppy Waters," although some didn't make the final cut.
|'A Korean Odyssey: Island Hopping in Choppy Waters' by Michael Gibb / Courtesy of Camphor Press|
The bits and pieces of Korea's historical and cultural trivia that accompany each of his trips are always a delight to come across. They don't feel like unwelcome, in-your-face, classroom history lessons that jolt you out of your fascination with the story.
Instead, from Korean's iconic yet complex sentiment known as "han," which Gibb says carries a "sense of resignation, a sense of permanent sorrow like a never-ending winter's afternoon," to heavier political, historical incidents that shaped the Joseon Kingdom and modern-day Korea, their peeking faces are just enough to provide insightful answers to questions you will naturally come to harbor during your read.
Some of the more well-known events the author covers in his chapters include the Incheon landing operation during the Korean War (1950-1953) aided by the lighthouse on Palmi Island, the tragic Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 in the waters off Gwanmae Island and the ongoing Korea-Japan dispute over Dok Island (more commonly referred to by its Korean name, Dokdo, or its Japanese name, Takeshima).
But he also dabbles in the topic of modern day slavery on the salt farms of Sinui Island, the history of early missionaries on Godae Island and Oe Island's transformation from a nearly barren land mass into a garish European-style botanical estate.
With a sprinkle of self-deprecating jokes here and there, he doesn't shy away from exposing unpleasant, sometimes downright dreadful, sides that one grudgingly comes to accept to be a part of a solo backpacking trip. Sometimes, he missed the island buses that come only to meet the ferries to take people to the village, leaving him stranded in the rain. Other times, his trip was interrupted by either the red-faced tourists overindulging in soju, island kids harassing him for being a foreigner, or a swollen ankle rendering a few days of nice walks impossible. But in the end, these elements are what make his unconventional trip all the more real and fascinating.
|Hong Kong-based journalist and writer Michael Gibb / Courtesy of Michael Gibb|
"I literally looked at a map one day with the hundreds and hundreds of islands around Korea and thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to go from the Baengnyeong Island in the northwest all the way around the peninsula to Dok Island in the East Sea?'" he recalled.
"I've never really looked at Korea from the outside and it just captured my imagination. And once something gets into your imagination, even if it's a slightly crazy, eccentric idea, it doesn't go away easily."
He added that he wanted there to be a book available celebrating aspects of travel, history and culture of Korea he finds just as exciting and rewarding as those of its more internationally recognized East Asian neighbors, China and Japan.
If he had to choose, Gibb absolutely recommends visiting two islands: Hansan and Bogil. Both located to the south of the peninsula, they are connected to two significant figures in Korean history ― legendary Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who defeated the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Hansan Island during the Imjin War, and poet Yun Seon-do, who mused on pastoral life in exile on Bogil Island, away from the troubled political climate.
"As expats, we didn't really talk about going to the islands of Korea. I've got friends who have lived in Korea for 20 years and say they've never been to these places," he said.
"Some people might say the reason is that there's nothing there. Sure, it's not like going to Phuket or some other islands in Thailand full of bars, restaurants and parties. But it's a completely different feeling. You've got to have a little bit of imagination and romantic idea of travel in you."