What is it like to live on Ulleungdo island in South Korea? How is the transportation? How to prepare for moving to Ulleungdo island? In this Expat Interview, Monique shares her expat life on Ulleungdo, a beautiful island with crystal clear water, rocky and rugged coastline, and great fresh seafood.
About Ulleungdo Island
Ulleungdo is an island 120 km off the coast of Korea in the East Sea. It is tiny, about 11km by 12 km, and because it is a volcanic island, there is very little flat land. You can expect beautiful scenery, crystal clear water, rocky and rugged coastline, and great fresh seafood. It takes about 3 hours to get here by ferry, but this little gem is well worth the journey.
Ulleungdo is called Korea’s ‘Mysterious Island’, and that really is an apt name. Sometimes when the fog rolls in over the mountain it really can feel like you are living on the set of Jurassic Park!
When did you move to Ulleungdo Island?
My husband Chris and I have been teaching English in Korea since February 2017. We were previously situated in Seongju, a tiny farming town in the south of Korea. I guess you could say that we are really attracted to small towns, rural living, more than the bright lights of the city.
Late in 2017, we received an email detailing a really unusual place to work: Ulleungdo. After spending a few minutes furiously googling where it is and what it looks like, we applied for the post. We moved to Ulleungdo in February 2018, and we have a full year’s contract to teach English here. We are the only two foreign teachers on the island, so it is quite an unusual place for expats to find themselves!
Why did you choose to live on Ulleungdo Island?
We love Korea. Our jobs provide us with the resources we need to travel both within the country and internationally, which is a dream come true. However, we are both adventurers at heart, and we love to travel off the beaten track. When we heard that there was a possibility of moving to this strange and far-flung island, we both separately got butterflies in our stomachs.
This is always a good sign when thinking about relocating as a married couple. If you both can get excited about the idea separately, then you know that you are both equally into the move!
Ulleungdo is an adventure. It doesn’t have the amenities of a big city, and there’s really only one place to get a hamburger! But for us, it is important to move to places that stretch us and help us grow into better people and better travelers. Ulleungdo certainly does that.
How to prepare for moving to Ulleungdo Island?
Moving here is quite difficult, especially if you do not speak Korean well. We had to get help to find a local moving company (called a Taekbae or 택배 in Korean) that was willing to move our belongings to the island.
Ulleungdo is only accessible via ferry, so be careful when you need to move here. International companies are great because they speak English, but they are far more expensive and really not worth it.
Even getting ourselves to the island was difficult. We ended up spending an extra night in the city of Pohang, as our ferry was canceled due to bad weather. In the end, it worked out beautifully, as our belongings took the same ferry as us, and we could comfortably move into our apartment the day we arrived.
What is the cost of living on Ulleungdo Island?
Ulleungdo is not the cheapest destination in Korea. Here is the cost of living on Ulleungdo Island.
We have found that groceries can be more expensive, and more sporadically available, as everything depends on the next ferry. That being said, you can order food and other household items online and even with delivery, this is a cheaper option.
Be prepared because you can’t get everything you want on the island, there are no big stores or supermarkets here. Be prepared to travel between the little towns to find what you need, and give yourself plenty of time because you’ll have to order some things online.
Eating out is about the same as you’d expect anywhere in Korea. You can get a burger meal for around $3-$5, and eating out generally is around $15 to $20 dollars per person.
If you want to eat the fancier things, such as fresh raw fish, or the island’s specialty of Hanu Beef, you are looking at a more expensive night out!
Accommodation is expensive on the island, as space is at a premium. We receive accommodation as part of our teaching contract, so I am not sure of exact prices, however, our flat in Seongju had 2 bedrooms and a living space, whilst here we live in a single room apartment.
There simply aren’t big living spaces available here, so you need to be okay with having very little space to yourself.
Transport is very cheap here. There is a bus that runs the entirety of the island, and it costs less than $1 for a short trip and just over $1 for the longest trip which is an hour!
You can get a TMoney card and load it with cash so that you don’t have to worry about having the correct change. There are also taxis available and you can bring a car onto the island on certain ferries if that’s more your thing.
In general, though, the taxis are quite expensive and everybody just takes the bus.
How to overcome difficulties when moving to Ulleungdo island in South Korea?
Ulleungdo was not an easy place to settle into. The best example is the fact that, although we had informed our employers that we were not bringing a bed, (they provide basic furniture as part of our contract), when we arrived they still hadn’t sourced one for us.
We had luckily invested in an air mattress, and it arrived just in time on our first day so that we didn’t have to sleep on the floor. However, our employers didn’t know where to find blankets or pillows, as many shops were still closed for the Winter!
So our first night was spent on an air mattress covered in every piece of warm clothing we had. It was miserable. Luckily we soon found a bed and some blankets and were much happier on our second night.
My advice to any new expats is to check when you are arriving. Between October and April, many shops close as there are heavy snow and few tourists. So you might want to plan to bring extra blankets or necessities as there is no guarantee that you can find them as quickly as you need them. Be patient, try to be understanding, and realize that there is very little English spoken on the island, so studying up on Korean will help.
Did you experience any discrimination from locals in South Korea?
We were warned that island people may be grumpy-looking and come across as rude, but that simply is not the case. We are definitely minor celebrities here as the only two foreigners on the island.
Of course, there are difficult people wherever you go, but Ulleung locals are for the most part warm, welcoming, and understanding. We have felt much less isolated because of the friendliness here.
Also, if you are here as a teacher, know that the Korean teachers are not from Ulleung either, so they are more than willing to chat as best they can and help you to feel comfortable. Everyone at the schools has their own stories of the difficulties they face on the island, so you will not feel alone.
How to overcome culture shock in South Korea?
Because we moved here after having been in Korea for a full year, we did not face culture shock. However, I did feel some isolation and shock at just how far out we are here.
It was a big adjustment to make, especially in terms of shopping and daily activities. It just takes time, though, and once you know your way around, finding what you need becomes a little more fun, like a treasure hunt.
What do you like about Ulleungdo island?
Ulleungdo is one of the most stunning places I have ever seen. I work at 5 different little schools dotted around the island which is really fun.
Even the bus ride to my schools is beautiful. The road runs around the very edge of the island, so you have waves crashing on one side and these massive rocks erupting on the other.
It is an amazing place to explore nature: hiking to the peak of the volcano, snorkeling in the clear deep waters, even exploring the tiny little islands around ours. If you are a nature lover like us, you will adore Ulleungdo.
Are there any bad things about Ulleungdo island that you don’t like?
There are certain things that are inconvenient about living here in the middle of nowhere. Planning a trip to the mainland or internationally requires extra days so that you don’t miss your flight just because the weather comes in and the ferry stops running.
I have also come to learn to love the steep hills I walk up to get to my schools, it is really good exercise and the views are amazing.
When the weather comes in and it is difficult to be out, then I do struggle with my small apartment. It can sometimes be depressing to be stuck in a small space.
What are your favorite things to do on Ulleungdo island?
In the town of Dodong where I live, my favorite thing to do is to take a walk on the seaside promenade. It is a long narrow pathway that is built right into the side of the mountain next to the sea, and it is absolutely stunning. On warm evenings I love to stop off at one of the tiny restaurants along the walk and have a beer while listening to the ocean.
Where do you recommend to visit on Ulleungdo island?
There is so much to see here! Definitely take in the sea walkway in Dodong, and also take the cable car up to the Dokdo viewing platform. From here you get a great view of the island. In the nearby town of Taeha, take the monorail up into the mountains to get a real bird’s eye view of the island.
I would also recommend taking the bus out to Gwaneumdo. This is a neighboring island that you can reach by the suspension bridge, it is truly unique and gorgeous.
Lastly, take a bus up to Nari Basin, the caldera of the volcano that formed the island. Here you can see the only flat land on the island, take in a hike through the forest, or grab a great coffee and some bibimbap with locally grown vegetables.
How to meet new people on Ulleungdo island in South Korea?
It is not super easy to make friends here, and I am so glad I came here with my husband and not alone. If you work at schools you will make friends with the teachers, however, if your Korean is not good it can be difficult to chat to them and build relationships.
Do you hang out with locals or foreigners mostly?
Well, we are the only 2 foreigners, so we hang out together quite a lot! Seriously though, you are going to spend a lot of time with locals, mostly they are super friendly and welcoming, but be prepared for tons of questions about who you are and why you are there.
Where is your favorite place on Ulleungdo island to meet friends?
My favorite coffee place is Ribread, a tiny shop in Dodong that is styled to look like Santorini. This is a great place to hang out and has the best coffee on the island.
There are also many good restaurants on the island, depending on what kind of food you like you can always find something delicious!
A memorable experience at Ulleungdo island
One of the best memories I have on the island is of the first time we explored Nari Basin. It is at the very top of the island, and the weather changes very quickly up there. One moment we were taking a nice stroll through the forest, and the next moment we were surrounded by a thick fog!
It was a little bit creepy, but I must say, although we didn’t get to enjoy the stunning views, we did feel like we were in a movie. It really is incredible how quickly the weather can change on the island, always carry your umbrella!
Did you change your perspective about Ulleungdo island after living here?
Yes, I have definitely become more at home here and realized that although we don’t have shopping malls, there is still lots to buy, eat, and see on the island. I also didn’t realize just how busy it would get during the tourist season, so I’m looking forward to Autumn when fewer people will be around.
What are your advice and tips for moving/ living on Ulleungdo island?
Definitely think very hard about whether you have the right personality for Ulleungdo. You will be some of the only foreigners on the island, and things happen really slowly out here, which could be frustrating if you are a ‘get things done’ kind of person.
Prepare your favorite cosmetics and toiletry items beforehand, because you will need to order all of that online and the Korean system is a bit complex. Get help from your Korean friends to move onto the island, otherwise, you stand a big risk of getting ripped off.
Prepare yourself for a tiny apartment, and make sure you are ready to spend long spaces of time on the island, as the ferry can be canceled for days in a row.
Would you recommend others to live on Ulleungdo island?
Ulleungdo is not for everyone. I would recommend that you live in Korea for at least a year before considering moving out here, as it is important to have some knowledge of the Korean language and culture.
Also be aware that it is definitely not a party island, so if you are looking for a city with a nightlife, then Jeju Island is far better suited to you!
What have you learned from living abroad?
Living abroad has been the best and most challenging time of my life. I have learned to be more flexible and patient and to keep my sense of humor when things inevitably go wrong. I have also learned to both pushes myself to be more outgoing and to be okay with my own company as the situation dictates.
Living in Korea especially has helped me to be more open-minded and to take every day as it comes. Korea has a culture of popping things on you at the last moment, which is super frustrating but ultimately a great life lesson in tolerance and adaptability.
More about living in South Korea
Chances are good that you won’t find yourself living on Ulleungdo, but please consider visiting if you are in Korea. It is the most gorgeous island, with intense natural beauty and wonderful people. Plus there is a squid festival every August, don’t miss out! Some of the most wonderful places are the hardest to get to, and I think that is especially true of our little paradise here.
Monique is one half of the South African blogging duo at MC Adventure Blog. After completing her Masters in Drama Therapy, she and her husband decided that some adventures were needed. They packed up and moved to Korea to be English teachers in 2017. Monique loves learning about new cultures and is especially interested in theatre, psychology, and music. MC Adventure Blog focuses on sustainable, ethical travel, as well as traveler mental health. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.