Dokdo – the history, the mystique, the uncertainty…..

Late on a hot Sunday afternoon, eight of us from Gyeonsangnamdo arrived in Pohang. The next morning we were joined by several others from our province, plus other teachers and education department staff from all over Korea. We were part of a group of about 70, bound for the islands of Ulleungdo and Doko. The history of Dokdo and it’s disputed ownership has been well documented. The purpose of this trip was to further enlighten us and actually visit Dokdo!

Prior to the trip I had asked my Korean friends about visiting Dokdo. The answers I got only added more mystique to the trip. “It all depends on the weather on the day…..”, “If the weather is too bad, or the sea too rough, you may not be able to land on Dokdo….” Hardly words of certainty! Next came the stories of failed attempts to land on the island…and then came the statistics. “ Only 50 percent of people who travel on the ferry to Dokdo actually get to land there.” As our Dokdo trip continued, this 50 percent success rate figure somehow worsened... I started hearing “30 percent”. Would we come this far only to be disappointed? I started checking the weather for Dokdo every few hours….

Dokdo is actually a small group of islets a few hundred kilometers off the east coast of Korea. Officially considered part of South Korean territory (check out the disputed history with Japan for yourself) it is now open for visitation – “if the weather is good”.

On Monday morning we left Pohang and traveled to the popular island of Ulleungdo. Well know for it’s fresh seafood and pumpkin products, we were able to sample and purchase pumpkin bread, pumpkin-toffee candy and of course pumpkin maekgoli! Upon arrival we had a look around Ulleungdo, hiked up a very steep mountain and took in the amazing scenery. Later on we settled into our hotel and had a lecture on Dokdo and practical communication methods.

The following day was the appointed day to attempt the landing on Dokdo. I checked the weather again. Good news! The wind had dropped from the previous day. But was it calm enough to land there? After breakfast, we were told our Dokdo ferry departure time had been delayed. Of course, I had to immediately check the updated weather forecast! The wind had changed a little! Our changed schedule meant we were able to spend more time checking out Ulleungdo, walking around the seashore taking photos of the interesting rock formations and cliff faces.

Finally, after lunch, we received the news – “we need to board the Dokdo ferry at 2pm”. As the bus driver was driving us to the ferry terminal, he announced “I have tried three times to get to Dokdo and failed on each attempt.” It seemed a successful landing on Dokdo is considered a major feat! By now, we were filled with anticipation! As we set out for Dokdo, the ocean looked fairly calm. It must be a sure thing now, I surmised, surely? If landing is not possible, then the ship circles Dokdo and it is viewed from afar. Not bad I suppose, but hardly ideal.

After about one and a half hours, finally Dokdo was in sight! It’s rocky crags and green hilltops standing proud in the middle of the East Sea. The ocean was so calm, almost surreal. It was meant to be and we landed! We were given about 30 minutes to walk around the bottom of the rocky cliffs and take photos. It seems, for the general public, walking up the top of the cliffs and mountain paths is not permitted. Armed guards blocked the way. The scenery is very picturesque, we were all pretty excited to be there as we made the most of our limited time.

We hopped on the ship and made our way back to Ulleungdo, satisfied with having been able to land on Dokdo. That night we gathered together at the hotel and had a few drinks, played card games and relaxed.

The next day we did a final tour of Ulleungdo. We took a cable car to the top of a mountain look-out, looked around a small museum and walked around the streets near the ferry terminal. We sat near the fishing boats drinking pumpkin maekgoli, watching with interest as the local fishermen brought their catch straight from the boats and into the restaurants. In the afternoon we boarded the ship and arrived back in Pohang about 7pm.

It was a great trip! We had a lot of fun getting to know each other and exploring Ulleungdo and Dokdo together. We even got a special Honorary Dokdo Residency Card with our name on it.

Thank you to Jin and the Education Department for organizing this trip and inviting us to join. If you get the chance, visit Ulleungdo and try to visit Dokdo too - if the weather is good…..

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