Son Doong Day 4 – The most glorious bath ever taken

Grimy and ready for a bath, we arrived at Son Doong Camp 2 after frolicking beneath the Great Wall of Vietnam in the muddy Passchendaele Trench.  We were greeted with our porter’s friendly smiles.  Most of them refused a hug and instead adroitly maneuvering a cup of tea into my hand convincing me to chow down on a scrumptious lunch.  We cleaned off (barely) and ate up before setting off again.  Ahead of us were two dolines and hundreds of meters of cave between the jungles; with any luck we’d arrive in time to take a detour to our first scrub since the river crossing near the cave’s entrance._DSC8071

Our bittersweet departure meant that we would soon be leaving this enchanted fantasy world.  A world of awe inspiring natural beauty just around each bend.  Beauty shrouded in a seemingly endless blackness that melts away as we approach.  Son Doong captivated us on the way in and was sure to follow through on its promise to amaze as we climbed back into the Garden of Edam._DSC8090

 

Immediately the heat began beating down on us; a gentle reminder that deep inside Vietnam’s Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park Queen ruled with a merciless red-hot fist.  With every step, with every boulder, every precipice we surpassed Mother Nature continued to crank up the heat.  Just past noon we happily took a shady break in the jungle but quickly moved on; we were even more excited to descend the far side of this mini-mountain in search of cooler temperatures.  Resting at the edge of the shade we pondered abandoning our lives awaiting us back home and simply turning back into the wonderland._DSC8094

 

A cold rinse in the cave’s river was enough to motivate my legs so the dreams quickly dispersed and off we went venturing back into the refreshing darkness.  The descent grew trickier as the trail fell lower; we took a different path with massive razor sharp boulders lining the trail.  No, not lining the trail.  They were the trail!  These multi-meter jagged edges were common throughout Son Doong but never before in such prevalence.  One thing was certain, this passage made me incredibly thankful for Oxalis’s bright orange Kevlar-like gloves.  I paused to don the glowing gauntlets and by happenschance turned around catching a truly magical sight.

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Rain began to fall in the doline behind us!  Floating hundreds of meters down amusingly similar to snow in the 40+ degree Celsius forest I couldn’t help but crack a smile!  Slowly the flurry transformed into a downpour and I decided to snap one quick photo before turning back around.  I thought it would be best to continue onward before the already slick rocks became even more perilous.  The maze of boulders beneath me made for slow going but luckily the rest of my party wasn’t far ahead.  Before I knew it I approached a sheer cliff where a few of my companions lingered.

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Dozens of meters below we could make out the faint sound of hear a stream in the pitch black.  We weren’t heading all the way to that tumultuous waterway but our 10 meter journey required a safety rope.  Deb began tying a bowline around us before guiding each of us one by one along the last few meters of this descent.  One at a time we half climbed-half swung from razors edge to the safety ropes.  Mr. Ky awaited us below as the river grew into a thunderous echo throughout the chamber!  After a quick horizontal stint we finally began to emerge from a small tunnel; our campsite directly in front of us and the doline to the left illuminated the end of today’s journey._DSC8124

If trekking teaches you anything its certainly that just because something is within your sight that doesn’t make it “close.”  Another hour or so of bouldering brought us back to the world’s best campsite.  We dropped our packs and grabbed some soap, tonight we could gloriously clean off 3 days of filth.  Mud, BO and grime combined with other unpleasantries Son Doong threw at us turning each of us into a foul aromatic concoction!  Miraculously the journey to this narrow waterway brought us past yet another marvel; a chamber who’s walls were lined with million year old fossils!  In awe of these creatures frozen for eternity we eventually surrendered to the thought of being clean and sought out that refreshing water.

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Swimming into the chilly creek was another reminder how deep we were.  The water felt great but it was enough to prickle your goose bumps.  I should point out that our bathtub was narrower than an airplane aisle; we had to go in single-file for a scrub; oh and it was deep.  Who knows how deep but within seconds none of us could stand and we began bracing our backs and legs on opposite walls.  Getting out proved even more difficult that returning as the first bathers stayed near the edge and we swam under or somehow gallivanted over each other.

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I ventured further for a blind swim as the rocky walls gave way to an expansive chamber.  Without light to guide me I decided it best to keep my journey to a minimum.  There was no way of telling how big it truly was but swimming back to the small gap with light and playful sounds of new friends was an entirely unique experience for my senses.  Practically no sound came from the river or cave down here and there was definitely a complete lack of light.  I imagined myself being in a sensory deprivation tank in a psych experiment before freaking myself out and heading for shore.

After some extensive scrubbing we were all sufficiently “not dirty.”  No one was clean.  We were still in the jungle after all and bathed while wearing some of the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever had the misfortune of donning.  Oh well, it’ll have to do until tomorrow night when we can have a proper swim in Hang En!  We ventured back to our campsite with the world’s best bathroom view.

By the time we arrived the fried chicken and array of Vietnamese delicacies complimenting Howard’s chips were ready.  Everyone enjoyed the rest of the rice wine with this meal since a few porters promised to rush ahead and get another shipment from a friend meeting him on the road (they do this all the time and love their rice wine even more than we do!)  After eating the meal a few of the Vietnamese joined us for a game of Tien Len and somehow our faces were all covered in charcoal as punishment for losing again!  So much for that bath.

When the rice wine ran out talk about how porters like to arm wrestle began rustling around the table.  Trying our luck amongst the foreigners a few matches gave clear results.  The most obvious was that I wasn’t going to win.  Toby, Chris & Julian all fought hard but Julian came out as our champion in a finals match between Julian and Toby that the porters were placing bets on!

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Moments later a heavily tattooed porter showed up; the one who had recently spent a few years in Taiwan but more importantly had schlepped over 70kg all day!  Julian stood half a head taller and clearly had broader shoulders.  But this guy was a muscle man for a living.  He was clearly in better shape than any of us and was the porter’s favorite.

Thanh walked over to referee announcing a best of 3 matches.  First and last would be lefty!  A murmur went through the crowd as most of the contestants groaned.  All but Toby  who hid his left handed dominance in our preliminary matches.  He suddenly became a surprise favorite and the bets started to bring our campsite to a dull roar when Thanh gathered everyone’s attention for the first match: Julian vs. our tattooed trekker. Continue reading

Seoraksan in autumn – Seoul Hiking Group

I love Seoraksan National Park, I hate early mornings.  3 am.  “I can do this!” I thought to myself.

Nope.  I give up, you win this round nature.  I closed my eyes. 5 more minutes was all I needed.  Then I would be ready, after all Seoraksan is famous throughout South Korea for its fall foliage.

The bus slowed to a stop and idle movement turned into shambling zombies slowly rising and departing half asleep.  I willed myself to get up, eyes still closed I peeked with my left.  There was Warren.  No wait.  He was on the other bus.  Gotta channel my inner Warren and get people ready to go!

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Dragging myself off the seat I grabbed my bag and headed into the crisp autumn morning.  Wait, this isn’t morning.  We are here well before the asscrack of dawn.  With any luck we’ll see dawn’s beautiful spectacle from the top of Korea’s 3rd highest peak, Daechongbong.  We started off in the darkness only to find hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Koreans with the same idea.  Never have I ever seen such a traffic jam on a hiking trail!

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Slowly the crowd thinned out as some of us ducked, dived, dipped and dodged our way through the line sneaking ahead only to find the crowd grow dense yet again at the next staircase.  Climbing ever higher the wind began whipping through the leafless trees (at this altitude in mid-October the leaves have already fallen).  A purple-orange hue crept over the horizon threatening to emerge moments too soon.   Forgetting the soreness in my legs I pushed ever onward, stopping only for the occasional traffic jam from 3am all the way until up 1708 meters to the top of Daecheongbong by 6:45!

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Crowded sunrise at the top of Daecheongbong

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My German buddy Peter giving the sunrise a hug from 1708 meters

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What a view!  Last time I tried this hike I was too sore and all too slow.  Yeah this was my second time summiting Daecheongbong but there’s something magical about watching sun rise over the ocean from nearly 2 kilometers up.  Slowly more of our 90 person group wandered to the peak.  We had about a dozen of us up here snacking and snapping away; I knew Jungcheong shelter was just a few hundred meters below and decided to skip a big breakfast at the peak in lieu of warmer conditions.

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Descending is a downright pleasant experience after turning it up to full throttle on Daecheongbong’s steep trails.  We strolled among the branches and rocks and were inspired by Dinosaur Ridge to our right when I suddenly became unsure if my knees would hold out for that exhausting finish.

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Pausing for photo breaks, a few snacks and a regular breather we crossed a river and made it to Huiungak shelter by 9:15 (10am was the latest we could leave if we wanted to attempt Dinosaur Ridge).  Warren and a few dozen of our hiking buddies were waiting and snacking when suddenly Warren told everyone to head to the first peak of Dinosaur Ridge for a picnic.  Up there we’ll have a magnificent view and an abundance of sunshine; the only advantage to Huiungak shelter was a water supply and the ability to buy ramen or canned tuna.

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The steep climb to Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak combines 2 series of rope climbs as we scrambled up the rock face.  In between these treacherous paths lies a narrow, flat, stony walkway.  Here we began to catch some glimpses of fall colors before getting to the final set of ropes.  Pulling hand over hand we ascended to a precipice with a handful of (mostly Korean) tourists and a stunning view.

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Posing at the top of Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak

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Dino Peak Panorama 2

Click for an awesome panorama from Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak

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Seoraksan: getting to Dinosaur Ridge

Dinosaur Ridge, the name alone tells me that Seoraksan’s main ridge will likely be my favorite hike in Korea.  After a 3 am start I found myself at the first of MANY peaks just before lunchtime and suddenly wasn’t so sure.  But there I go, getting ahead of myself again.

A few weeks ago I hopped another midnight bus with Seoul Hiking Group (Thanks Warren, Breanne, Tom, Ashley and the other helpers!).  A few short hours later we awoke at 2:30 in Seoraksan National Park; gates opened at 3:00am sharp so we got in the line with 100’s of Koreans.

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Yes, you read that right.  At 3am there were literally 100’s of Koreans lined up to hike this amazing trail.  The moon shone nearly full above and when the figurative bell tolled we “sprinted” up the steps.  Okay, so maybe 100’s of people clamoring along rocky steps with an absurd incline isn’t exactly sprinting.  It wasn’t too bad in the pitch black outside of the occasional ajusshi”forgetting” that their headlamp was on when they blinded you.

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3am start in Seoraksan

After a few hours of darkness we found ourselves on what we could only assume was the first ridge.  The view below eerily brought images of the River Styx with dark clouds floating through shadowy valleys to my mind.  Suddenly the moon came out from hiding behind the clouds.  A little illumination was all we needed to begin making out the stunning greenery below.  The muted colors pushed us onward promising a better view in the coming hours._DSC2949 _DSC2924

Stars and a magnificent moon provided enough light that we began switching off our headlamps.  Or was that the sun creeping over the ridge ahead?  Either way the scene kept growing around us as the climb settled down.   The first push upward was rough but along the ridgeline the elevation changes were minimal.

 

 

 

 

Reds, and oranges crept over the Eastern horizon mixing with the deep blue above Donghae (동해.)  The sun began illuminating what Koreans refer to it as Donghae (East Sea) while most maps label the beautiful body of water as the Sea of Japan.

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Dusk in Seoraksan

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1 ajusshi, 2 ajusshi, red ajusshi, blue ajusshi

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We continued our trek as that orange glow spread through the mountains and trees before us.  The trail shone wonderfully as a few small climbs created a small bottleneck.  We welcomed the respite happy for a water break and a moment to enjoy the growing scene beneath us.

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Sunrise in Seoraksan

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Dusk in Seoraksan

The sun now climbing above its first hand we soon found ourselves at the first rest stop.  This lodge lay just beneath Daecheongbong, the tallest peak in Seoraksan.  Gauging our time my group decided to save Daecheongbong for another day, we took a quick pit stop to refill our water before taking the fork back towards Dinosaur Ridge.

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Korean Sunrise over Donghae 동해, the East Sea (or the Sea of Japan) in Seoraksan National Park

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Hiking one of Seoraksan’s ridgelines

Back on the trail we caught our first glimpe of Dinosaur Ridge!  Well, we thought it must be Dinosaur Ridge anyway.  Now well into the morning hours the true beauty of Seoraksan presented itself for us to take in.  Breathtaking views were all around us with endless mountains to the west, spectacular ridges, the East Sea and Ulsanbawi in the distance!

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Our first glimpse at Dinosaur Ridge!

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