Insects of paradise
The toothpick slides into the snail shell easily enough, but when I try and pull out the fleshy innards, I am met with resistance. Finally, with a grimace and a suction noise, the pale blob comes free, and I pop it into my mouth before I can change my mind.
My table applauds as I take a gulp of Hite to wash the whole thing down. I keep the chewing to a minimum, taking the easy way out.
It is our first meal on Bijindo, a minuscule island in Hallyeohaesang National Marine Park that is a 45-minute ferry ride off the coast of Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang, difficult to even pinpoint on a map. We are in one of the few restaurants on the island, which is actually just a large, white tent with a few tabletop grills and plastic patio furniture. The ajumma who runs the place had brought us a pile of toothpicks and a large bowl of sea snails, setting them in front of us with a smile. “Service,” she said, letting us know that this little treat was on the house.
Bijindo is a bra-shaped island — two mounds of jungle connected by a thin strip of white sand —far from the luxurious shores of Jeju or the rowdy beaches of Busan. Our trip to Bijindo was motivated by a desire for a cheap substitute to an exotic paradise. We had blown any vacation money months before, and it was hard to beat 20,000 won a night for a pension. There was also a thrill in going to a place most of our Korean friends had never even heard of.
As the sun sets, I subconsciously wait for the familiar glow of neon signs to temper the darkness, but not even the faint light of a GS25 can be found on the lonely island.
This lack of consumerism — the blood that seems to run through Seoul’s pulsing veins — is the first indication that we are far, far away from the big city.
The second was the swarms of insects that befall this rural Korean land. In contrast to the roaches of Seoul, which hide themselves in daylight, enormous cockroaches here swarm the cracking sidewalk, scorning the daylight and scattering every time our feet hit the pavement on our walk to the beach.
The women in our group are shrieking while the men kick the bugs with their feet and laugh.
We joke that “bijin” must be the ancient Korean word for insect. One roach scurries over to the shore and plunges headfirst off a rock, then cuts through the water with the ease of a synchronized swimmer.
“No way,” says my friend. “They can swim like dolphins.”
The beach is pristine and looks just like the photos on the brochures at the ferry landing. There is plenty of unoccupied sand, fresh air and cloudless skies.
The white powder, however, isn’t impervious to creepy-crawlies either. Narrow, black-shelled bugs are burrowing out of the sand and onto my beach towel. They are extremely difficult to kill. I might be more alarmed by the situation if I wasn’t in paradise, stretched out in the sand, fingers sticky from the strawberry popsicle I’m eating, and watching the translucent sea fade to a bright blue in the afternoon sun. It’s hard to be troubled by anything under these conditions.
The jungle trek we take the next day turns out to be not only the worst route on the island for escaping the insects, but also the most undeveloped hiking I’ve done in Korea. There are no asphalt paths or neatly laid out staircases.
In fact, we don’t pass a single other person on our hike, and I realize with a sense of awe and admiration that this mountain is the only place I’ve been in Korea that denies me cell phone service.
A thick canopy of trees blocks out the sunlight, dangling vines make us work to find the trail and an array of arachnids in sticky webs leaves me continuously ducking my head and scratching my skin. But the scene from the top of the mountain is well worth the hassle: jagged cliffs plunging straight into the foaming water beneath us, mist-covered islands in the distance and absolute silence beyond the wind and our own heavy breathing.
The area near the beach is a maze of alleyways lined with dilapidated shacks and crumbling concrete. Laundry lines string them together. Weeds grow high and undisturbed. An old woman is squatting on the ground shucking corn in a red bucket, gossiping with her friends.
We are headed to the beach with the mission of finding the lone freezer filled with beer we had spotted earlier. I smile at a barefoot toddler teetering past us down the street, his father trailing behind.
“Hello!” the man says loudly, smiling. “How are you?”
We return the greeting, but it’s obvious he doesn’t understand the rest of what we say, and that he is practicing the few English phrases he knows with the “wayguk saram” on the island. We pass a group of old folks sitting on the ground, preparing dinner, chatting, sleeping, unfazed by the cockroaches scurrying over their mat. A particularly plump roach lounges on the corner of the mat, as if it were napping as well.
Life moves slowly here on Bijindo — even for sea roaches — and it’s easy to forget you’re still in Korea. There are no briefcases, smartphones or hordes of people rushing to get somewhere important. Instead, there are picnic mats, ocean views, warm cans of beer and good company.
We buy a few cans of Cass from a makeshift store selling sparse, dust-covered packages of ramyeon and crackers, and wander the darkening streets until we hit the shore. It must be peak tourist season, but the beach is eerily quiet and deserted, aside from a couple strolling hand in hand along the wet sand. No one is squealing and lighting off fireworks, and there are no boardwalk restaurants churning out laughter and thumping K-pop.
There is only the sound of calm waves licking the shoreline and receding. Rewind. Repeat.
Take a bus from Seoul’s Nambu Bus Terminal to Tongyeong, which runs from 08:00 to 23:30 each day. The journey takes about 4 hours and 30 minutes. Or take a bus from Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal to Tongyeong, which is available from 07:10 to 24:30 each day. Travel time is approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes.
Tour Course Information
Course : Tongyeong (통영) - Jeseungdang (제승당) - Somaemuldo Island (소매물도) - 3 hours 10 mins
Hours : High season 09:00~16:00 / Low season 10:00~16:00 (winter)