Jeju Winter: First Impressions

Or: I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas (for real this time!)

It’s cold. Yes, that kinda goes without saying, but I said it, and I’m going to say it again: it’s cold. Because if you’ve never experienced a northern hemisphere winter you really have no idea of just how cold it gets…

Not that I do, really, yet. Which is a little scary. Today the temperature is 6 degrees, feels like temp of 1. It’s been steadily dropping by about a degree a week since the start of October. It really messes with your head: you start thinking of temps of 11 as “warm”!

Every morning I turn on the radio (English station, obviously) and listen to the news and weather. And every morning I am once again grateful to be living on Jeju Island, the warmest place in Korea. For the last few days it’s been the only place with a morning temperature above zero; this morning Seoul was -10!

Object. Temperatures should not have little lines in front of them. (PHOTO:

A few years ago I was in London in October, November, and the first half of December. It had only just started getting cold, but it was enough to convince me to say “bugger this” and go home where it was WARM. While I was there I went to an expat dinner at someone’s house: Saffers, Aussies and Canadians mostly, I think. Anyway, someone was talking about how South Africans aren’t afraid of anything, coming from Africa: crime, animals, etc. One of the Canadians responded with a smile, “I know one thing South Africans are scared of…the cold!” She came from a place that regularly hit such balmy highs of MINUS FORTY in the winter. Holy cow.

It’s true that we are scared of the cold, but it’s only because we literally have never had to deal with this kind of weather before. Even the coldest places in SA (Sutherland does not count. Only sheep live there.) hit double figures in winter, right?? On the highveld (Pretoria, Jo’burg), winters are short and sharp. Nighttime lows go down to about 0 – 3 degrees, which is pretty flipping cold, but during the day it warms up quite pleasantly to 15 – 18! Durban doesn’t even have any winter to speak of (I once SWAM there in JUNE), and Cape Town is probably the most miserable place, with 10 – 12 degree temperatures and rain (if, you know, the CT weather fairy sticks to the script). Basically, South Africa has the best weather in the whole world. And y’all better appreciate it.

Fellow South Africans KAP and Angelique live on the mainland, an hour south of Seoul. Their maximum temp last Friday? Minus six. Have you ever?? Their forecast for the next six days has three above-zero maximums (and two of those are 1 degree). I have no words to convey the depth of my horrified sympathy. If I am cold here, what must it be like for them??

Also, may I just remind you, this is the first month of winter. There’s still January, February, March… I don’t know how people do this every year. Sob.

On the upside, my winter wardrobe has expanded considerably. I will certainly never be cold in SA ever again (and not just because I now know what “cold” is)! I have proper long underwear, fleece polonecks, a fleece jacket (it’s purple. Totally awesome), two wool jerseys (“sweaters”), lined pants (yes, that’s pants with a warm lining. I know, right), fur-lined gloves, a down jacket, and not one but TWO pairs of fur-lined boots (in two different colours, natch). I also recently bought the world’s most enormous scarf:

It's almost 3m long.

My daily attire consists of long johns, a spaghetti strap top, a long-sleeved vest, a long-sleeved shirt, a jersey (sweater), a jacket, long pants, two pairs of socks, a scarf, a hat or headband, gloves, and a coat. It takes me about ten minutes to get dressed in the morning! At home I’d wear either a jersey or a jacket. Here I wear the jersey over the poloneck, under the jacket, under the down coat. Fun times!

My dear mother, being concerned by my never-ending complaints of how cold it is, offered to send me something from home. It was very kind of her, but really, if there’s some device or apparel to keep you warm, the Koreans have thought of it. You can get neckwarmers and earmuffs and fleece headcoverings that just leave a hole for your face. You get “hot packs”, little packets of I don’t know what that you shake to warm up and put in your pockets or boots to keep your hands and feet warm and toasty for the day.

They come in packaging something like this...

...and look something like this.

You can get woolly headbands and fluffy socks and the most amazing fluffy pyjama pants. You get electric floormats and electric blankets and enormous, soft, fluffy quilts. And don’t forget ondol, the underfloor heating that has been around since the Bronze Age (obviously, the technology has been upgraded since then). Expensive, but soooo worth it. Now if only I had a heated towel rail in my bathroom, life would be perfect.

But the best thing about a northern hemisphere winter has got to be the … say it with me … S! N! O! W!

I’ve been obsessed with snow for as long as I can remember (blame it on Enid Blyton). My Christmas stocking has a snowman holding a sign that says “Let it snow”. But I had never seen it, except for in the distance on top of mountains, and I had certainly never had that magical, movie-world thing, a White Christmas…


The first time I really experienced snow was in Europe with my parents and a sister, three years ago. I was 22 and my sister was 20 but we were total kids in that snow. When we flew into Austria there was snow on the ground: there’d been a snowfall about two or three days before. On the way to our guesthouse my dad stopped to ask for directions. My sister and I seized the opportunity, tumbled out of the car and built our very first snowman…out of dirty, side-of-the-road, 2-day-old snow.

Whatevs. It was awesome.

We also made snow angels in someone’s garden, and threw snowballs at each other at any and every possible moment. We went to the top of the Jungfrau, where there was loads of snow, but none falling. And on our last day in Paris, we awoke to find that a thin layer of snow had fallen overnight. My dad had to de-ice the windscreen of our hired car! It was terribly exciting. Well, for us.

So to have experienced falling snow here has just blown my mind.

The cold doesn’t even matter any more because holy crap there is actual snow falling from the actual sky onto my actual face. Last Friday I had to go to the shop to buy mushrooms, and I walked there and back in the falling snow. Passers-by must have thought I was a complete loon (more than the standard “Oh look, a crazy waygook”, I mean) because I was walking along very slowly, staring at the snow in the streetlights with a look of absolute wonder and a crazy grin on my face. It’s rather like someone who’s never seen the sea before going to the beach for the first time. It’s absolutely amazing to me. I want it to snow moooooore!

And that’s the only downside to living on Jeju: there won’t be nearly as much snow here as on the mainland, but I think that will just make me appreciate it even more. I’m excited for sledding, snowmen and snowball fights, and to go skiing on the mainland in February. Bring it on!

And I may finally get that White Christmas…


3 thoughts on “Jeju Winter: First Impressions

  1. Here’s to your first White Christmas! And the funny thing is, we have the same hot packs in the States that Koreans do here. The only difference is that we only ever use them during skiing or hunting or other outdoor sports, because our buildings have this remarkable thing called HEAT. Haha.

  2. Yay for a White Christmas! It was unnervingly warm in the UK in Christmas 2011. Fear ye not though, we’ve just received some brisk winds down from the Arctic to send temperatures plummeting. I was actually in Poland and Vilnius during that time…the high in Vilnius one day I was there? Minus twenty two. Brrrrr.

    But yes, Korean winters are colder than people generally think they will be. One of my friends, an EPIK teacher from Las Vegas, asked a few of us “old-timers” (been in Korea longer than a year? you’re an old-timet haha!) if a light jacket was enough for the winter. We took him shopping and made him buy a coat.

  3. Pingback: Winter is coming. « The Complainant in Asia

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