Bijindo – A hint of Thailand in Korea

Bijindo is an island just south of South Korea.  After enjoying a sunrise hike in Hwangmaesan we took the ferry from Tongyeong Ferry Terminal to Bejin Island (do means island in Korean).  The 40 minute trip went quickly as sea spray and fresh air came over the sides of the boat while a few seagulls entertained us by trailing behind and snatching chips out of the sky!

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Once on Bijindo it was easy to find our pension.  The whole island only has a few hundred people living on it in one small village and another smaller beach-side hamlet.  From afar it is easy to confuse Bijindo with one of Thailand’s many tropical paradises.

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Sunrise hike to Hwangmaesan’s Royal Azalea Festival – Seoul Hiking Group

Waking up at 4am is never easy, even when the bed calling your name is Seoul Hiking Group’s big purple bus.  We arrived at Hwangmaesan in the middle of the night as half the group snored away.  Most of us decided to let the cool mountain air wake us up and strolled through the undergrowth.  The sun began peaking out from behind the nearby mountains as our trail took us upward.

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Halfway up the mountain we got our first glimpse of azaleas.  Hwangmaesan was famous for them and a “pink mountain” was advertised but we were wary since azaleas back in Seoul were already starting to fade.  We held out hope but I didn’t think it would be as glamorous as Goeje Island’s pink mountain.

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Lucky for us it was stunningly beautiful!  The mountain was indeed covered with azaleas, unfortunately many of the pink flowes had already fallen from their bushes.  We still enjoyed a stroll among the flowers and a welcome change from the typical hungover mornings that Seoul hands you on a normal weekend.

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Pink Mountain, Bamboo forest & Macro Photography on Goeje Island – Seoul Hiking Group

The other weekend I was supposed to join Seoul Hiking Group at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival.  This famous festival is flocked to by foreigners and Koreans throughout the country.  Too bad I missed the bus in the morning and missed Jinhae entirely!  Ronda and I scrambled to book another bus only to discover they were sold out until 5:00 PM that evening.  We opted to take a bus directly to Goeje island where we could meet the group for dinner and enjoy some coastal hikes.

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That turned out to be incredibly lucky for us because the buses got stuck in a torrential downpour.  In Korea a downpour means traffic.  Remember how the whole country was converging on this festival?  Well that combined with  confusion about a new pickup and how to handle the rain turned a 6 hour bus ride into a grueling 10 hour trek.  Most of the group still managed to snap a few choice photos at the festival but it certainly ruffled a few feathers which nearly led to a mutiny by some unhappy hikers.  Truth be told I’m not sure what revolting against the volunteer or bus driver would do but I’m glad that a few other hikers quashed this idea before any blood was shed.  Unfortunately there was an aftermath of drama worse than the prom king & queen’s breakup dividing the grade in twain.  Maybe I’ll write about that after all this macro photography goes up.

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So imagine all this action on a 10 hour busride while Ronda and I are stuck in a rainy stroll around Goeje.  We were definitely happier and focused on minute details around us to capture these memories before heading to a 찜질방 jimjilbang(Korean Spa) to warm up.  We enjoyed some riverside bird-watching with our artistic photography instead of the landscape & landmarks you are all used to seeing from me.

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At last the the call came in.  Buses were heading from Jinhae to Goeje but it would be at least an hour and a half so we weren’t in a rush to find a taxi.  We grabbed a bite to eat, stocked up on booze at the local 7-11 and jumped in a cab.  Swerving around the mountains with an ocean cliff below reminded me of the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam only this time I wasn’t on a motorbike and didn’t trust the cabbie on the slick roads.  It was easy to see how our buses got lost on the dark winding roads and delayed the meal until after midnight!

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When the group finally arrived our regular dinner BBQ ensued.  Rumor has it a handful of the revelers started playing spin the bottle which may have divulged into some even more risque acts as most of us hit the hay.

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The next day promised more confusion as some saw the schedule say depart 10am and others saw 830 hike along the coast.  Volunteers were told the first hike was optional but that most people should do it because its awesome!  Diana went around every door and knocked finding some of them locked (a detail that many complainers failed to find relevance in).  The itinerary was clearly stated and everyone on the trip was a mature adult.  If they wanted to sleep through or not even set their alarm then they would take the 10am bus or figure their own way out.  Unfortunately for us the already upset travelers jumped on this delay as another reason to hate us all.  First because we were leaving people behind and then after stopping to check if anyone who wanted to leave wasn’t on the bus and then because we were now behind schedule.

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Luckily that’s where the drama seemed to die out.  A handful of unhappy hikers took their own route home and missed the beautiful cliffs in Hallyeohaesang National Park and a wonderful afternoon that brought us to a bamboo forest and pink azalea covered mountain!  Enjoy the rest of these awesome photos. 🙂

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Moral of the story?  Goeje island is wonderful.  Seoul Hiking Group is for adults who can handle themselves and flexibility on a family-style, budget trip.

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I’ll refrain from calling out any of the specific drama that is apparently still swirling around this weekends faux pas.  There were certainly some organizational concerns and a tempers flared.  I wasn’t present and for that I can’t help but feel slightly responsible.  Well, not really.  I’m a volunteer and there’s no guarantee that my presence would have changed anything.  It certainly wouldn’t have stopped the rain, traffic, or personalities on the bus.

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Bukhansan National Park’s highest peak – Baegundae

Last summer I made the responsible (albeit disappointing) choice to skip mudfest in lieu of staying healthy and climbing Bukhansan National Park’s highest peak, Baegundae.  Leaving the following Thursday for an extreme trip through Vietnam  I knew that I didn’t want to fight a multi-day hangover or any bruised limbs from the alcohol supported escapades at one of the dirtiest festivals in the world.  As a result I offered to lead a hike up Baegundae with Seoul Hiking Group.  That’s how Brian and I came to meet some new hiking buddies, Heidi & Jason!

The Korean language barrier presented some difficulties finding the right entrance.  At first we ended up at the same entrance Brian & I had taken a few months back which was a 4 hour trek to the base of Baegundae.  This time we were searching for the 1.5 hour route!  Luckily my Korean was capable enough to buy a map and ask for directions so we quikcly found a cab and arrived at the Baegundae-Sogwicheon Information Center.

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When first stepping on the trail we had roughly 500m of vertical remaining in the 835m climb up Baegundae.  It began as rough cut stone steps and boulders surrounded by th_DSC6490e natural beauty of Bukhansan in the summer.  Green trees with the occasional flower flanked our path as the sweat rolled down our faces.  Jason, a first time hiker was soon converted to a naturalist and took regular breaks to get a full feel for mother nature’s splendor.

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A few minutes in we found ourselves at a “temple.”  It had none of the usual pizazz with a bland roof instead of the typical painted parapet.  We were greeted by two “mountain dogs” as a Korean woman approached.  There was a small antechamber for prayer with a spectacular buddha but otherwise this locale appeared to be the simple residence of these pleasant folk.  We played with the dogs for a few moments and said our thanks before continuing the trek.

 

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Son Doong Day 2 – Jungle & Descent

Mother nature’s alarm clock began to ring as soon as light shone through Hang En’s massive entrance above us; with any luck we’d arrive at Son Doong by this afternoon but as the chorus of cicadas and swifts convinced me to check my watch I decided that could wait.  5:15AM, I think I’ll snooze for another hour or so.

My second wake up was on my own accord as I met Howard, Deb and Thanh by the fire.  Declining tea or coffee I opted for a brief swim to wake me up instead.  Over a steaming breakfast of  Vietnamese noodles with veggies and eggs we discussed some of the cultural American anomalies and stereotypes.  After deciding colour vs color, why the imperial system is just plain ridiculous and hearing a few caving stories it was time to get moving.

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

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Departing Hang En in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam

First we took a brief detour staying in  Hang En’s main chamber.  Bouldering up the sandy rocks afforded us a dazzling view of our campsite below.  In spite of being half-broken down by our porters it was still a spectacular view.  We soon climbed back down and donned our remaining gear.  The trek out of Hang En sported some massive passageways and difficult terrain.

We crossed the Son river at least once and climbed some hundred odd meters to a glorious overlook.  Playing with the silhouettes and lighting we were able to snag some sweet shots as the porter team disappeared in the distance.  But now it was time to say goodbye to this former contender for world’s largest cave.  We began our descent and quickly approached the monstrous mouth of the cave and exited back into the jungle.  We would follow the river for nearly 2 hours before climbing up the gigantic riverbank and back into the undergrowth.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Along the trek the sun beat down on us as butterflies stole the stage.  Every few hundred meters we encountered a swarm of the symmetrical critters.  Howard learned (from a National Geographic team) that the best way to attract the beautiful insects is actually to urinate.  No one tried it since they seemed to be flocking to us anyway.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Butterfly!

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Sloshing through the knee-deep river when it finally came time to exit the waterway we were quite ecstatic.  Little did we know that the wooded path before us would be much more difficult.  We weaved around and over muddy rocks and logs while the trail snaked upwards as slippery as it was steep.  Deb pointed out hand and foot hold as I trailed the group taking photographs of our jungle journey.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

Distracted by the natural chorus and beauty all around I ignored Deb’s hand hold trusting my own balance when the  log beneath my feet suddenly gave way!  Reaching out I caught my camera in my left hand and grasped a slick log with my right.  Luckily my left foot landed firmly on a rock after only sliding a foot or two.  Checking myself for injuries I was relieved to find I only banged up my shin but it certainly was a necessary wake-up call as to the potential peril’s of our trek.

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Heading through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park’s jungle to Son Doong, Vietnam

After a quick recovery and another 30 minutes of climbing the trail leveled off.  We were told “5 minutes more” before a lunch break within view of Son Doong’s entrance!  Slowly finishing our morning journey Deb and I were chatting away.  I probed her with questions about the jungle and the local people, I was intrigued by her and Howard’s worldly adventures that frankly seemed otherworldly to a simple laymen like myself.  Suddenly I spotted something black and yellow glittering just above our heads.  “Stop!” I shouted to Deb, “What is that?” I pointed to a spider hanging just off the path.  A wondrous web was sprawled out nearly a meter across with a fist-sized Golden Orb spider lurking in the middle.

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Golden Orb Spider (roughly the size of my hand and they eat birds!)

I mentioned to Deb  that I’d seen much smaller Golden Orbs in the Costa Rican rainforest near Arenal Volcano and she reminded me that the natives collect the web for nets just like the aboriginal Costa Ricans.  I went around the next bend to grab any non-arachnophobia companions and show them the journey’s biggest creature so far.  We posed with gloved hands for scale of the black and yellow critter.  It’s spots and stripes shown in the afternoon sun as our stomachs rumbled louder luring us back to the permanent camp for Son Doong’s “guards.”  There are two rangers/guides posted at all times just in case.

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om nom nom nom!

Upon arrival we were greeted with heaping plates of homemade spring rolls, fresh watermelon, bananas and snacks galore.  We ate and enjoyed some bird watching as the anticipation of our momentous descent became too much to handle.  As we finished eating the porters began fitting harnesses while Howard and Deb reviewed some safety techniques and protocol.


The first few feet of our descent brought a cool embrace from a light breeze exiting the black abyss below.  A short rope climb brought us to the last stretch of jungle before I squeezed feet first through a tiny hole.  Crouching low my backpack snagged on a rock behind me; I reached behind and detached my tripod releasing me from the clutches of the sharp stone.

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

Bats swooped around the corner just over Deb’s head.  As I came around the bend I noticed my companions peering into the blackness as Howard and the rest of the Vietnamese team checked the ropes.  After getting the all clear we got a quick tutorial and began one at a time.

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Son Doong was discovered by Ho Khanh in 1990 before being explored by our guides Howard & Deb in the late 2000’s

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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In awe at what we are about to do. Become among the first 200 people to enter Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

A series of 4 ropes would bring us  halfway to the bottom.  In between each we had to disconnect and reconnect with some veteran help.  Below us the river rambled through rock formations in the darkness.  The second half of our entry would bring us closer to that waterway but didn’t require safety ropes.  Carefully we climbed down the bulbous stalagmites to arrive at the first river crossing.  An orange rope dangled above as a handhold in case the current was swift in this waist deep passage.

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Beginning the descent into Son Doong, the world’s largest cave!

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Holy Crap, Son Doong!

After crossing we took a water break while the bats continued to zip around us.  Howard told more stories from his treks around Vietnam and most notably Son Doong’s original exploration.  Eager to see more of this main event scoured the vicinity with our headlamps.  This damp chamber was full of fabulous rock formations but Howard sensed our anticipation and we quickly moved onward.

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Day 1 inside Son Doong

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1st river crossing, Son Doong

The pathway ahead was strewn with massive boulders.  Thanh led the way under each rock as our passage grew narrower you got a sense that above these massive stones the chamber was many times as big.  Before long we met the next river which would act as our guide over the next series of boulders before we arrived at the crossing.  On the other side we took our packs off, grabbed some soap and had a group “bath.”  This would be our last wash for the next 3 days!

As clean as we could get deep in the Vietnam’s jungle we set out one more time.  The trail on the far side of this river was slippery but we managed to keep a good pace anyway.  The following chamber’s sandy pathway weaved through spider webs.  No, web isnt’ the right word.  These are more like nests of white silk half-burrowed into the sand.  As the webs thinned out the crickets grew more prevalent when someone spotted fresh mushrooms on the left, perhaps they would be added to tonight’s dinner.

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Son Doong’s darkness

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mushrooms, rocks & spiders

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Black stalagmites covered in sand

Suddenly the cavern expanded; blackness surrounded us as we hugged the right wall and were told a great landscape lay just ahead.  The Hand of Dog is a massive stalagmite, not quite as large as the world’s biggest in the previous chamber.  The structure itself is dwarfed by the chamber surrounding it instead of taking up the almost every cubic meter making it a much more formidable sight in one of the most voluminous caverns in the world.  To make it even more impressive just past Hand of Dog’s peak is the first doline, a collapsed portion of the cave where light and rain come in turning it into a green oasis.

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Son Doong, aka the world’s largest underground darkness

Deb was sent ahead to climb the stalagmite while Thanh posed significantly closer on a “small” round stalagmite.  Kate set up shop on another rotund rock near the cameras and after a few practice shots Howard assigned “light painters.”  Their job is to pan back and forth with their headlamps while we use a long exposure to capture as much of the scene as possible.  In a few takes we had what everyone hoped were stellar photographs (see for yourself!) and continued towards the sunlight in the distance.

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Hand of Dog silhouetted in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, Son Doong

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Hand of Dog with Deb on top

We crept closer to Hang Son Doong’s first doline, aptly named “Watch out for Dinosaurs.”  As we approached following the line of stalagmites along the western wall it was instantly apparent that the abyss beneath us fell off in a sudden cliff.  Focused on the encompassing darkness I nearly missed the stunning campground that appeared as I slipped past Hand of Dog.  A cloud formed just beneath the doline as the temperature changed.

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2nd campsite in Son Doong with cloud cover in front of Watch out for Dinosaurs, a jungle inside the world’s largest cave!

The green gours in Watch out for Dinosaurs peaked through a cloud that formed above our tents but would elude us until the following day.  Arriving at the 2nd campsite our tents were already set up by the porters and soon began our feast.  Tonight’s Vietnamese dinner was a barbecued set of pork ribs, beef paired with a chicken & veggie stir fry.  One of my new favorites, a spicy tofu was present with our rice & rice wine staples.

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2nd campsite in Son Doong

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2nd campsite in Son Doong

After eating Thanh taught us the Vietnamese version of the card games Uno and Asshole/President (Mau Mau & Tien Len).  These games are wildly popular among the porter team but after arriving at camp by 4pm we were still able to hear Howard’s jungle rescue story after a flash flood trapped some of his team in a distant cave for nearly 2 days.  He reminded us that the breathtaking view here would easily make it the “best toilet in the world,” the alien jungle bursting forth in the distance promised an enjoyable stay on the throne but wasn’t enough to keep me from going back to the card games.  Unfortunately they instituted a “loser gets painted with charcoal” rule.  You can tell us foreigners need practice.

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Foreigners losing at Vietnamese card games, Son Doong