In September 2015, while living in South Korea, I went to visit a small remote island in the East Sea called Ulleungdo. While the trip itself was smooth and uneventful, my attempt to return to the mainland peninsula was a different story.
It was the week before Labor Day weekend in Daegu, South Korea and I was nearing the end of my tour of living in South Korea after nearly 8 months. During my time, I had been nearly everywhere on the Korean peninsula as well as the well-known Jeju Island off the southern tip. The upcoming weekend would be my last opportunity to explore somewhere new before I returned to the United States. After days of researching and asking around, I discovered Ulleung Island (or Ulleungdo) through a Korean translator that I worked with. He told me that while the island was relatively unknown amongst foreigners, it was considered a “go-to” destination for locals. Upon further research, I discovered that unlike other destinations in South Korea, the Ulleungdo tourism page was entirely in Korean. I immediately knew this was the type of place where I could get immersed in the local Korean culture without the westernized filters.
2 days later I was on my way to the coastal city of Pohang. Ulleungdo was small enough to where there was no commercial airport and the only way on and off the island was through a ferry. After staying the night in Pohang, I arrived at the Pohang ferry terminal bright and early ready to start my next adventure. Pohang was one of three terminals which had ferry’s that went to Ulleungdo. It was extremely busy and crowded and I was one of the last people to get a ticket for the first ferry going out. The weather was sunny and there was no absolutely no wind (this will be important later on). The ferry was spacious, and the seats were comfortable. While the boat had limited entertainment options (no Wi-fi and only Korean speaking soap operas), my 3-hour journey was filled with excitement and anticipation.
The boat arrived in Ulleungdo and there was an immediate scramble for the exit by the ferry passengers. After pushing my way through large families and ferry employees, I was greeted by the salty air of the Dodong port. I walked up towards the dock and made my way towards the center of town. After trying 5 hotels, I was able to settle into a local bed & breakfast and prepare for my Ulleungdo adventure.
(I have posted extensive videos of my three days in Ulleungdo and they can be seen here)
After 3 fun and exciting days in Ulleungdo, I was more than ready to go back to Daegu. I had planned on taking the first shuttle back to Pohang on Sunday morning at 9 AM. I woke up and quickly packed my bag. As I was checking out of the hotel, the owner told me that the weather wasn’t looking good for the day. Not really understanding what that meant I gathered my things and waved down a taxi. Even though the taxi’s on Ulleungdo were the most expensive in South Korea, I gave the taxi driver a majority of my cash and asked that he take me to the ferry terminal located in the next village over. The driver looked slightly confused but took me anyway. When I arrived, the terminal was completely empty. Although I was about a half-an-hour early, there wasn’t even a ferry docked for loading. All the doors were locked, and confusion began to set in. After about 10 minutes of walking around, I decided to catch the local bus back to Dodong, the town I had initially stayed in. By the time I had arrived back to Dodong, it was running pretty hard and the wind had picked up significantly. I found my way to the police station where the only person that was there was a 65-year old Korean man that spoke no English. After 10 minutes of attempting to communicate with him, I gave up and called the Korean Tourism Hotline where I could talk to someone that I could understand. Without mincing their words, the agent told me the ferry would not be coming today and that they were unsure when it would come because there were two typhoons off the coast of southern Japan. For those that are confused, you must understand that this was a time period where the South Korean government was particularly sensitive to ferry accidents. A year earlier, in 2014, the MV Sewol sank killing 304 people (most who were high school students). While the captain of the ferry was eventually found guilty of murder for abandoning the ship, there was significant backlash against the South Korean government due to their perceived failure to enforce comprehensive safety standards. It became evident that the overcautious of approach by the South Korean transportation ministry concerning my situation was connected to that event.
As I left the police station, I faced another issue. I only had the equivalent to $25 USD in Korean Won (KW). While I had plenty of money in my bank account, actually being able to access it was the issue. Before leaving Pohang, I had withdrawn about 300,000 KW ($300 USD) to bring as emergency money. Even though Ulleungdo was an isolated island in the pacific, there were still 4 banks on it, so I figured there would be no issue in getting cash if necessary. However, as luck would have it, I arrived during the first week that all Ulleungdo banks required foreign debit cards to have a chip in order to access the ATM. Unfortunately, neither one of my debit cards had a chip and I would be unable to withdraw any cash during the trip. I also had to immediately pay 55,000 KW ($50 USD) to the hotel owners when I arrived to cover my stay. I then budgeted the remaining money to cover the three days on the island. However, with my stay being extended, I barely had enough money to cover another night in a hotel.
After sitting in shock for 20 minutes, I finally went back to the hotel that I had stayed at, and gave my last bit of money to check back in. I told the owner of my situation, and they said they could help me out. We ended up going to a restaurant which they co-owned and they charged $200 USD to my debit card and gave me the equivalent in Korean Won. This provided me much needed relief and I was very grateful for their willingness to help me out. In addition, I was given free meals on at least 2 occasions by local restaurant owners who sympathized with my situation. For the next four days, I woke up and went directly to the ferry office. It was not until the fourth day when I would finally be informed that a ferry would be heading back to the mainland peninsula the following morning. Sure enough, the next morning the ferry was sitting on the dock and the terminal was buzzing. What started as a three-day weekend vacation turned into 8 days of being stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, none of that mattered as I finally boarded the ferry and headed back towards Pohang ready to take on my next adventure.