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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Saryangdo with Seoul Hiking Group 3.0

This weekend Seoul Hiking Group took our usual night bus to Saryangdo was pleasantly uneventful.  Little did I know but my 3rd trip to the island would be just as stunning as the first.   A true testamant to the natural beauty Saryangdo possesses.  We arrived at Goseong Dino Park at 5am for a quick hike to fossilized dinosaur footprints and a gorgeous sunrise among the islands.

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As the mist cleared we jumped back on the bus to the ferry terminal.  Arriving early we enjoyed a breakfast of muffins and fruit while watching the calm morning water as locals got to work on their boats.

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Waiting for the ferry

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Virtual Hiking Saryangdo’s Jagged Ridge Trail again

We just got back from my 3rd trip to Saryangdo with Seoul Hiking Group.  The 1st time got me hooked on Seoul Hiking Group which lead to dozens of other outdoor adventures.  In the fall we went back and I realized this place was my favorite hike in all of Korea.  Last year’s panoramas and videos inspired this trip and I hope yo enjoy the new video with a daunting perspective of the Jagged Ridge Trail.  Photos are up too!

Saryangdo with Seoul Hiking Group 2.0 (with Panoramas!)

Our ferry departed for Saryangdo at 7:30am which meant another midnight bus out of Seoul.  This misty inslet was full of fishermen in the cool morning air as we embarked on the final leg of the journey to revisit my first Seoul Hiking Group excursion.  We dropped our bags off at the pension and got on the trail shortly after arriving.

Waiting for the ferry to Saryangdo

Waiting for the ferry to Saryangdo

Saryangdo is a small island to the South of the Korean peninsula.  A short ferry ride from Tongyeong its likely that we were the only foreigners on the whole island so it was no wonder that any time we ran into Koreans they were excited to see us.  There’s a single road that loops around the mountain forming this gorgeous sanctuary.  That series of peaks was our goal for today and after a 45 minute climb we were rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding seas at 281 meters above.

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Leaving the first peak the trail switched between stairs and rocks with an awesome rope climb in the distance!  Just beyond we would encounter a suspension bridge (the cables of which I decided to climb for an even higher vantage point).  Seoul Hiking Group continued its tradition of making fast friends as our group mixed and mingled among the mountains.

Saryangdo Cable Climb

Martin you’re my favorite photographer!

 

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I’ve really started to enjoy leading the trips and always look forward to seeing friends among the regulars but perhaps my favorite thing about Seoul Hiking Group is the acceptance that everyone shows towards new members.  We inevitably have some first time hikers, some with fears of heights or other nature dangers and everyone bands together to become a weekend family!

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We got lucky with the weather on this late fall afternoon.  The morning mist cleared around us for jawdropping views.  One of my favorites were the islands to the south  still shrouded by mist in an optical illusion making us wonder where the sea truly began.

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Pausing for a snack and photo break a few of the group decided to reenact Titanic.  While waiting around another loving aspect of Seoul Hiking Group emerged.  Sharing.  Most of us are teachers and know that sharing is caring but that usually mean you to let everyone else eat your coveted Cheetos (which are super hard to find in Korea) or all that dried fruit & nut mix that you slaved together.

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After enjoying our break the trek grew a bit more trecherous.  The next peak climbed to 400 meters and was the highest on Saryangdo.  The path was interspersed with stairs as usual but there were many times we trekked up loose rocks and around jagged edges.  Okay so there often was an “easier” trail through the woods but I prefer to keep things interesting and enjoyed “spider manning” it up the ledges.

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Nearly there we were stopped by a lovely Korean group who insisted we share some of their Makkeoli and kimchi.  Not wanting to be rude a handful of us chowed down and chatted in broken Korean.  Hikers tend to be good people and look out for one another but no where else have I encountered such generosity among strangers as in Korean mountains.  A few hundred meters later my buddy Martin and I were stopped again and offered a delicious veggie ramen!

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Saryangdo Jump

Martin you’re my favorite photographer!

 

Finally at the peak we dilly dallied with some snacks and photo shoots enjoying our surroundings before crossings the vertigo inducing ridge.  Last time I was here I admittedly went across on my butt.  That was 8 months ago and I’ve been an avid hiker ever since gaining confidence in my legs and balance.  Wait a minute, is there internet service up here?  I took a moment and Skyped my brother, Ben, while shimming accross the half meter wide trail.  To the right a sheer cliff, to the left a sharp decline followed by a sheer drop.

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Luckily its only a short distance before you hurdle a gap and find yourself back among the trees.  Before long a Makkeoli mountain man can be heard banging away with tables full of foreigners enjoying his homemade concoction.  Just after he served us the delicious potion he went back to his drums for Pikachu’s big entrance! (video coming soon)  Martin ran down the trail with Pikachu “ears” and an Austrian flag around his neck flapping like a cape!  We sang happy birthday for 2 of our hikers and most of us even dared to try myeolchi (anchovies like fish).

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I opted to skip the long hike this time and took a slick leave, laden trail straight back to the road and eagerly got back to our pension early enough to relax before dinner and the evening festivities began.