My friends know very well how unaffected I am with nature (A.K.A. I am not a nature lover!). I remember how bored I was when I, together with my colleagues and friends, visited the World Natural Heritage Site Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Underground River) in Palawan Island in 2012.
It is not that the Underground River in Palawan was not spectacular. It is spectacular. Besides, it would not be inscribed a World Heritage Site (WHS) status if it was not. For something to be elevated with the status of a WHS, the site must be spectacular as indicated in the concept of “outstanding universal value” attached as an important criterion for the inscription.
In all honesty, Palawan was a spectacle. I was not even just talking about the Underground River but the entire island itself. The Coron Island Natural Bionic Area, a site in Palawan Island included in the tentative list of Philippines’s entries for the UNESCO WHS for instance, is a paradise. The topography of Coron is a picturesque image similar to a baroque architecture. The waters of the area are crystal clear that a view from above is a colorful image of the marine biodiversity in Palawan.
But I think, it is not the kind of spectacle my tastebuds would want to consume. I guess I am more attracted to the artifice. I am more inclined to appreciate the genius of the human person than the natural occurrences and phenomena (i.e. earthquakes, erosions, and volcanic eruptions) that created amazing and outstanding natural accidents.
But I have one irony.
I always wanted to see two natural heritage sites: Jeju Island and Ha Long Bay.
These are the only natural heritage sites in the UNESCO list included in my bucket list. In November 2016, I had a chance to visit Vietnam but never had a chance to visit the famous Ha Long archipelago.
However, in February 2019, I finally had a chance to experience Jeju Island first hand.
The official name of Jeju Island in the UNESCO list is Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes. A world heritage property comprising three components combining the natural landscapes of the sea, the underground and the mountains.
The three components in the UNESCO list are the Geomunoreum, Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, and Mount Halla. The amazing quality of the Geomunoreum lava tube system and the exhibition of diverse and accessible volcanic features in the other two components demonstrate a distinctive and important contribution to the understanding of global volcanism. As a matter of fact, scientists are still researching the volcanic system of the island despite dormancy of all volcanoes and the emptiness of the lava-tube system.
Geomunoreum is regarded as the finest lava tube system of caves anywhere, with its multicolored carbonate roofs and floors, and dark-colored lava walls.
The Seongsan Ilchulbong is a giant fortress with a dramatic natural landscape from the base (from the entrance – it is like looking at an ancient Korean castle as presented in many Korean dramas) to its peak (with its cone-crater that resembles an amphitheater).
Many Koreans and tourists visit the site during the new year to see the beautiful first sunrise of the year; hence, the monicker Sunrise Peak.
On the base of this dormant volcano, is home to the Korean Female Divers known as the Jeju Haenyeo.
In 2016, the culture of these women divers was inscribed on the representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Some of these women are in their 80s. As a cultural practice, these women go diving 10m under the sea to gather shellfish, such as abalone or sea urchins for a living without the help of oxygen masks.
With knowledge of the sea and marine life, the Jeju Haenyeo harvest for up to seven hours a day. Before a dive, prayers are said to the Jamsugut, goddess of the sea, to ask for safety and an abundant catch. Knowledge about the practice is passed down to younger generations in families, schools, and local fishery cooperatives.
Mount Halla, lastly, is the highest volcano in South Korea. I was told that the mountain is a spectacle in itself with its waterfalls, multi-shaped rock formations, and lake-filled crater. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to see this natural beauty.
On a different note, I thought it would be interesting if South Korea considered Jeju Island as a mixed category instead of isolating it as a natural heritage site.
The Jeju Island experience made me realize how the locals incorporated nature into their everyday life.
For instance, the volcanic stones around the islands were transformed into something functional that eventually became cultural assets of the Islanders.
I am specifically referring here to how the stones were functionally used to become houses, walls, and deities.
Upon arrival at the Jeju International Airport (CJU), visitors are welcomed by dol hareubang, literally translated as the “grandfather statues.”
These are black statues made of volcanic stones and are considered by the Islanders as their ancestors. These statues are everywhere – in public spaces, in parks, in market places, in houses, in public transportation terminals, in restaurants – everywhere on the island. The folks call them the grandfathers equivalent to ancestral guardians. Many of the Jeju locals believe that the spirits of the first generations Jeju Islanders live in these stone deities.
No visitor will miss these statues for most of them are between three and six feet high.
Somewhere in Southeast Jeju is the Seongeup Folk Village where traditional stone houses are still erected. Walking into the village was like walking back in time (and walking into Batanes – see Batanes entry here). I was so amazed at the ingenuity of the different structures and other functionalities of the houses in the village: a toilet was also a pig pen (please use your vivid imagination how this works). The Jeju black pork is said to be very nutritious.
The stones are arranged with some open spots for ventilation. The kitchen is communal.
It is also important to note that this village is not just a tourist village – locals are still living and striving to continue the traditional ways of their everyday life.
One thing unites Jeju Island and its people: the impact and influence of seismic and volcanic energy. Besides, scientifically, Jeju Island is said to have been formed by interruptions of underwater volcanic eruptions some 2 million years ago.
I may be an outsider but I hope the State party of the Republic of Korea sees the value of the necessity of revising the site from Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes Natural World Heritage to a Mixed Natural-Cultural World Heritage Site category especially for the unique juxtaposition of the natural landscape with its traditions and cultures (i.e. the female divers, the grandfather statues and the folk village) in the future.
Jeju Island: WHS
25 February 2019