From Gyeongju we drove back down South, past Busan, to explore Namhae island, a striking juxtaposition of mountains and sea, and Yeosu, a sleepy, colorful harbor city. We took the coastal road to Namhae first, snaking alongside the glistening water and expansive rice fields dotted with brightly dressed, hunched over figures pulling at the ground under the sun. We went first to our pension which sat along the Eastern coast, a bit removed from the beaches and villages we planned to visit, but with an idyllic view of farms, mountains and ocean. We spent early mornings and evenings on our balcony, savoring the view and, as the light fell, trying to forget the infinity of golden orb spiders that cover the island with soju and makgeolli. At night there was a wind that you felt rather than heard and almost no sounds—it was as if we were the only ones up on the whole island—and so we talked sparingly, aware of each word puncturing the silence, pitching our voices into a void.
Our days were quiet, too, and long and full. Much of the island was empty except for the very old, many of whom were women, both strong and delicate from the elements, like dried up leaves, working alone with their hands. Up in the mountains, ours was the only car on the road although, once in awhile, we'd see an empty tractor or someone in a wide-brimmed hat climbing up the road in an electric wheelchair. The beaches, full of tourists in the summer, were dead except for stray dogs and abandoned except for doorless homes through which you could see tools hanging from the walls. Driving along the coastal road, we did finally see some families and fellow travelers far out in the shallows of the sea, clad in waterproof boots, searching for crabs and creatures in the water. But other than that, Namhae was an unspoiled landscape, self-sustaining but for a few tireless workers. It felt like we had stumbled into a paradise, completely agricultural and old world, that faded when we looked away. How long can a place stay this pastoral and pure, seemingly untouched by development and the speed of change of the rest of Korea? What happens when this generation of farmers dies? When tourism catches up to the fall and winter? For a few days, we got to go back in time to a place expired everywhere but for an older generation's memories, doomed anyway. The beauty of the place and its inescapable fleetingness made for a visceral awe and put us in an alert, nostalgic mood.
After Namhae, we spent a day in Yeosu, a nearby marine city that grew a lot in 2012 when it hosted the World Expo. Despite newer sprawling buildings, peopled parks and some busy roads, the city still felt slow-paced and idle. We walked along the shorelines of the island for awhile, then crossed the Dolsan bridge and ate delicious, fresh hoe in the raw fish town under the bridge, eating the best food of our entire trip as we watched the sea lap at empty tethered boats right outside our window. At night, we drove up to Dolsan Park and watched the night blink out the city with hundreds of couples and other sightseers who were kissing in shadows and whipping out their DSLRs and tripods for shots of the brightly lit bridge.
It was hard to pick the images that best express our time on the islands, particularly in Namhae. There was so much to see and experience and such a sense of wonder that pervaded our trip. If you're ever in South Korea, try to go, especially before Namhae evolves and adapts to the rest of Korea, as it must. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite memories of the place, the ones that remind me of how it felt to be there.