Come to Ulleungdo to get away from it all in the true sense – not the way the spa-resort brochures mean. The scenery is spectacular, offering vistas of spun-cotton clouds lazing over volcanic cliffsides, seabirds and fishing boats, quiet harbours dotted with piles of nets or buoys, and jagged coastline that could easily be from the set of Lord of the Rings. It’s that beautiful. And that’s it.
Thankfully, there are no amusement parks or huge resorts; the most touristy that this place gets is a lone cable car that gives great birds-eye glimpses. Beyond that, there’s not much to do except watch squid dry.
An extinct volcano some 135km east of the Korean peninsula, Ulleungdo today is mainly a fishing town that sees enough tourism to warrant a sprinkle of hotels and restaurants, but there’s none of the neon clutter that characterises so many other tourist areas. At night the brightest lights are the lamps on the squid boats and the lighthouses. In the rainy season the green hues are even more vivid, saturating the hills like an overtoned colour photograph. In autumn, the hills are a patchwork of reds, greens and yellows from the turning leaves.
This small volcanic island was captured from pirates after an order from King Yeji, the 22nd king of the Shilla dynasty, in order to secure the east coast of the peninsula. From then until 1884 the island remained essentially a military outpost, but from that year on migration to the island for settlement was sanctioned by the government.
Thanks to the rugged topography and isolation, the island is only sparsely inhabited and farms are tiny. Most of the people live in villages along the coast and make their living harvesting fish and summer tourists. Other industries include the production of taffy made from pumpkin and woodcarvings made from native Chinese juniper – all offered for sale at the island’s many tourist shops. Everywhere you look there are racks of drying squid, seaweed and octopus.