“Ladies and gentlemen.....please ensure your seat belt is fastened as we prepare for landing,” the comforting female voice in an Ethiopian accent cut through my ears forcing me to open my eyes.
From my seat I could see a breath taking scenery, which got more striking as the plane descended to the ground.
Finally at 7am on a Sunday, we landed successfully at Incheon International Airport, in South Korea’s Capital Seoul. Read carefully, not North Korea! It was a long two-day journey by air that started at Kigali International airport on a Friday afternoon.
After about 6 hours wait at Seoul airport, I embarked on another one and half hours journey to the beautiful Jeju Island where I arrived on a Sunday afternoon to attend Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) Week 2016.
Jeju pronounced by locals as Cheju or Cheju-do, —is the largest island in South Korea and one of the nine provinces of country. It covers about 714 square miles of surface. To call it beautiful is an understatement. No wonder its official name is the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and one of the 7 wonders of nature.
The ‘Special’ province is situated in middle of East China Sea (part of the Pacific Ocean), lying in the Korea Strait, southwest of South Jeolla Province, of which it was a part before it became a separate province in 1946.
The Island is a leading tourist destination, boasting of mild weather and scenic beauties of beaches, Hallasan national park with diverse flora and fauna, waterfalls, cliffs and caves. To put it into context, Jeju has the beauty of Musanze, Rubavu and Nyungwe national park combined.
Jeju is said to have the world’s longest volcanic lava tube, registered as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage.
The Island has become a popular destination for tourists- mostly South Americans and Chinese. For Chinese, it is understandable because the island is just a two-hour flight from Beijing.
A Brazilian native, Rafaela, whom I met at one of the popular nightclubs, the Monkey Beach, told me that Jeju Province has a policy of allowing Chinese to travel to Jeju without a visa and there is willingness for the province to grant Chinese property owners permanent resident status.
According to the New York Times, nearly half of the 6.1 million Chinese tourists who visited South Korea in 2015 visited Jeju, a fivefold increase from 2011. Available figures show that, Chinese now own 2,050 acres (830ha) on Jeju, up from just five acres in 2009.
However, the American culture is steadily sweeping across the attractive Island. At Monkey Beach, you could vividly see a new generation of Koreans doing all sorts of stunts I have only seen in American movies.
After a work-laden week with Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) Week 2016, we decided to go out-and-about. Monkey beach in Jungmun was recommended…and off we went. We were four people in a taxicab; it cost us about W4000 (about Rwf 3000) for a 7-minute drive to get to our destination, little did I know I was headed for the surprise of my life.
I had not gone to a nightclub in a long time.
At the entrance we found a waiter, and in his Asian accent he said, “Welcome to Monkey Beach, here is a free shot of liquor to usher you in.” You should have seen my eyes! Never in my life have I ever tasted alcohol; thanks to one of my friends, he offered to take my shot and I survived huddle number one.
At the counter, I asked for a bottle of water and the waiter was fast to ask if I had used a cab to get to Monkey Beach, which was the case. He said that they would offer me drinks that are twice the price of the cab ticket as long as we presented it.
Well, my two friends ended up getting themselves a bucket of alcohol (yes, only in Jeju they serve a cocktail of liquor in buckets). I was left wondering how these people make profits.
The club has darts, a set of pool tables, shuffleboard, foosball, and the basketball (quite small hoop for a competition every night). And then there was a water slide…I mean, who puts up this in a nightclub?
As if that wasn’t crazy enough, the club has a giant skipping rope. I tried this! Two lads stand on stools to swing this huge rope, and then a bunch of partygoers join in to skip at once. I had never been occupied in a club.
I will not say much about stripper poles, but the highlight was the dancing competition. As the night heats up, the public is given scorecards of 10 and 5 and one person voluntarily goes to the dance floor, the DJ plays their favourite song, which they dance too. The public’s verdict decides which gift you go down with; no one goes empty-handed here.
As far as I can remember, each person who danced at least walked away with two bottles of Whiskey (no hyperbole by the way!)
It was hard for me to find something to eat for my entire weeklong stay in Jeju- as my hunt for my favourite beans, cassava, and Matooke proved a hard try.
Here I was in a place that only serves seafood, Kimchi, pumpkin soup (for Christ sake!), Jeonbokjuk, abalone porridge, the list is endless.
I gave up on lunch and dinner; I only survived on continental breakfast, which has a bit of boiled eggs, rice, baked beans and a glass of milk plus a piece of yellow banana.
A warm reception
I was humbled by the politeness of Koreans...they are possibly few of the most humble and kind people I have met. With limited English, they are willing to help, willing to show you around. And how they bow (hands on the laps) to greet; such a gesture of humility.
An old man, in his late 40s offered to show me directions on my first day as I struggled to figure out my way around.
In November 2011, Jeju was named as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature through the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign by the New7Wonders Foundation.
The most popular tourist spots on the island are Cheonjeyeon and Cheonjiyeon waterfalls. This place harbours the greenest Eco zones I know of.
To get to the waterfalls, you use the Cheonjiyeon wooden hiking path, which is 1,168m long. It was built to improve the health of the visitors while observing the beautiful scenery around Cheonjiyoen Lake.
I was with two Rwandans and they were all wishing we had the same Eco Park on one of the hills around Kigali. I can only hope that the proposed cultural village at the peak of Rebero hill will get an investor soon.
Above the falls is Seonimgyo Bridge, which symbolizes the legend of Cheonjeyeon. Seonimgyo Bridge was completed in 1984, and cost the Korea Tourism Organization about W400 million. On the bridge’s steel columns, there are 14 nymphs, 7 on each side with each nymph about 20 m in length.
Standing in the middle of Seonimgyo Bridge, you will literally see the ocean kissing the skies. The bridge connects Cheonjeyeon with the Jungmun Tourist Complex, and is intended for pedestrian use.
At Seonimgyo Bridge, I literally kissed the sky and for a moment I felt the breeze of paradise waft over my head.Follow https://twitter.com/AthanTashobya