Castaway on an island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – Day 2

Waking up on Castaway’s boat in Ha Long Bay and walking to the sundeck for a relaxing morning would have been fantastic.  It was cloudy and we had to transfer to a smaller boat soon after breakfast and hustled across the side to the other vessel.  A few hours on these choppy seas caused the worst hangovers to grow exponentially worse.  Luckily that wasn’t me.

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I jumped up and down enjoying the sway of the ocean while dancing to a fellow traveler’s tunes.  Some of my companions huddled inside fearing each swell while the bravest of us enjoyed the salty spray aboard the bow.  Green islands skirted along either side towering over of us when suddenly someone spotted a massive jellyfish off of starboard._DSC9518 _DSC9525 _DSC9531 _DSC9547

Lighthouses and tour boats grew scarcer the further away from the mainland we sailed.  Unfortunately the trail of littler seemed to intensify as each luxury liner was replaced with smaller local fishing & market boats.  Around the next bend we began spotting small floating houses and villages; their nets already hauled in from a morning catch.  It was suddenly clear that no one wanted to haul the trash that these natives generated and we all felt a twinge of guilt for bringing even more garbage to the seas.  At least everything we brought would stay aboard and get shipped back to shore.

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Slowly the waves died down and a happy calm swam across the ship.  Our vessel turned and glided between the green monsters which now protected us from each treacherous wave.  As the waters calmed we began to see more floating houses and islands with tropical beaches.  Most of these lush paradises were devoid of all signs of humanity.  Simply a beautiful beach protected by an overgrown jungle filled mountain.

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Before we knew it our boat slowed and turned towards one such beach.  Castaway Island was clearly inhabited, albiet there were a few shanties, a solitary bar and 2 docks roped off in the waters.  We landed, had a beer and found out that electricity would only be on for a few hours in the evening.  Rock climbing began after lunch as did tubing and some other festivities.

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After eating I tried my luck at rock climbing debuting the cliffs for our trip.  Without too much struggle I reached the peak of the “easy” climb.  It was by no means easy but certainly a ton of fun.  I took my free beer for making it up and waited while plotting my ascent of the “hard” path to secure 2 more cold ones.

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My 1st belayer's awesome tatoo!

My 1st belayer’s awesome tatoo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile tubing began with a hilarious group of Brits who affectionately referred to me as “dirty Mike” and themselves as “& tha boys.”  Conner an unusually short gentleman was hilariously tossed great distances from the tube; a fate I later found out that it was inevitable as I too flew into the tropical waters.  (no one went nearly as far as Conner in this dwarf tossing experiment)

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After getting a good laugh I took a chance on the tough climb.  Harnessing up, my belayer (who was an expert climber) gave me some last bits of advice.

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“Keep breathing.  Follow the crack on the right.  At one point you’ll need to brace your back legs and use a technique called ‘stemming’.”

Alright, I thought to myself.  I got this!

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Lake Jusanji & Juwangsan with Seoul Hiking Group

Friday night; might as well hop a midnight bus to Juwangsan with Seoul Hiking Group!  In the wee hours of the morning we arrived at Lake Jusanji to find a nearly full moon illuminating our path before us.  A short 30 minute hike brought us to the lakeshore where we found a light mist gliding over the surface of the lake.  A few of us broke out sleeping bags and napped as the chilly morning air combined with a slowly moving morning sun.  We lingered a few moments after the sun rose capturing the serenity of this picturesque lake featured in Korea’s famous film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.  If you get to the bottom you’ll even find a fun video of the whole excursion!

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Lake Jusanji

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Lake Jusanji

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Lake Jusanji

Next up was a short bus ride to the “long hike” through the waterways beneath Gamebong, one of Juwangsan’s sister peaks.  The flat path switched back and forth along the river as we splashed our way along.  Despite the pristine beauty surrounding us Juwangsan proved to be the emptiest Korean National Park I’ve been to yet.

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

I ran across the other side to snap photos of everyone crossing when suddenly I heard a scream!  Turns out a member of our party happened upon a swimming snake; Warren warned us that they were likely venomous so we kept our distance.  Sort of.  A go pro on a selfie pole kept scaring it towards the rest of our cameras and it seemed particularly keen on heading in my direction.  Luckily we were able to keep our distance in spite of its speedy swimming and snapped some splendid shots!

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park – river snake. Anyone know the name of this snake?

Continuing along our trek we quickly came across another baby snake scooting along above the water.  He was much more timid and just hid in the brush as we passed.  The chilly river water flowed freely down the rocks creating a beautiful series of waterfalls.   It was tempting to take a dip but we continued onward eager to reach the summit and break for a snack.

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Juwangsan National park

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Juwangsan National park

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A mildly snowy Christmas in Bukhansan

Brian and I woke Christmas morning ready to hike Bukhansan National Park!  We met in the subway and half slept through our 70 minute ride to Dobongsan station.  The plan was to hike up the same path I took in my first excursion to Bukhansan National Park and then head over to Jubong and come down the path my brother and I took.  We hoped that the recent snows were still blanketing the forest floor in the mountains.

Our dreams of snow were quickly diminished as we started up the crowded street. It looked just like Omok-ro, our street at home with a little ice and snow on the fringes of the sidewalk.  The route looked the same as my last hike except no one was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  We weren’t expecting it to be completely snow covered but were longing for a few traces of that wonderful white fluff!

Stopping at the ranger station to check on our trail our hopes grew a little.  The ranger’s English wasn’t that great but she highlighted the main path up.  When I showed her that I wanted to hike across the ridgeline from Juanbong to Jubong peak she glanced at our shoes.  Spouting something in Korean I shook my head; I knew she was asking if we had crampons (spikes that you can attach for extra traction).  That meant it must be icy up there which means SNOW!

Maybe we were acting like our kindergarteners playing in the snow, we really were two grown men excited for the glory of this winter treasure.  When we got on the trail we were quickly rewarded with a semi frozen stream flanked by a snowy forest.  _DSC7802

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The occasional snow-covered staircase was replaced with a bouldering path that led us to the first Buddhist temple.  Juanbong silhouetted the many buddhas in front of this vibrant shrine.

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While inside the temple we appreciated the storytelling artwork and adroitly designed meditation rooms.  A passerby invited us to join them for a light meal in an antechamber but we politely declined.

“감사합니다 gamsahabnida (thank you) we have 김밥 gimbap.  먹어요에  주안방 Mogoyoe juanbong (We eat at juanbong).”

Well, my Korean is getting better but I guess half of what I said was in English.  I think the only thing she actually understood was that we didn’t want to eat with her.  We didn’t dwell on our lack of communication skills and got back on the trail!

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Continuing upward the path crept back and forth between a beautiful white carpet and crunchy brown leaves.  At one point there was a clear divide showing where the looming mountain kept half the trail perpetually engulfed in shadow while the other side still shone with the days’ sun. Continue reading

A day in the mountains

Hiking is a popular pastime in Korea.  So popular that Bukhansan National Park was awarded the guiness world record for most visitors at a national park per square foot.  They get about 4 million hikers each year and the trails are always crowded.  Today is Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving and a holiday where everyone goes home, so I’m hoping the trails won’t be packed.

It was just over an hour on the subway to get to Dongbansan subway stop.  My guidebook told me to get off here and walk with the lines of hikers past outdoor equipment shops and restaurants.  Some of the shops were closed for the holiday but it was still busy here in the shadow of Bukhansan.  The view from down here got me pretty excited to start hiking; was I really going to make it to the top of that peak today?

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I picked up a bottle of Makali; supposedly its a common “hiking” drink.  I had a few liters of water in my camelback but figured if I run out it is quite refreshing and “when in Rome,” right?  I opted not to try the grilled delicacies being hawked by the street vendors, maybe when I don’t have a day of hiking in the mountains ahead of me.

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It was a longer walk than I anticipated before getting to the actual park.  Shops lined the hiker filled streets, each with their own advertsiing eccentricity.  Most of the Koreans had hiking poles and were covered from head to toe.  All I had was my camera, a backpack, shorts and a t-shirt.  I figured I’ll be alright without poles and the cover up is due to Korean’s wanting to be as pale as possible.  About a kilometer later I arrived at the info station, picked up a map and up I went.

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At first the path was well laid with cobblestones and bricks.  There were many people hiking up with me and we quickly arrived at Gwangnyunsa; a Buddhist temple.  The outer walls were elaborately designed in a similar fashion to what I saw at Gongbuk Palace.  As I entered the inner courtyard I heard soothing music coming from the temple when my eyes were drawn to a display with magnificent white candles embroidered with Hangul lettering.

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Unable to read any of it I made my way towards the temple.  Inside were beautiful Buddha statues, a Korean man praying and even more decorations.  I walked the temple grounds for a few more minutes taking in the serenity.  It felt very “zen” and was a great way to start my hike.  Maybe next time I’ll learn a few Buddhist hiking prayers and pay proper respects.

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I continued on.  The path quickly grew steeper as I passed a lone saxophone player.  He too was playing a soothing tune; perhaps reminiscent of the nearby temples or maybe he was just having a good time.  Upward I went, and up and up.  Hiking along a stream the path soon turned to cobblestone steps and grew rockier.  I passed less people it was still crowded.  I stopped frequently to let someone come down the steep stone steps and before long I found a fountain and grabbed a drink.  This might be the last one before I dip into my reservoir.

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Hiking onward and upward the climb continued to grow.  Luckily there were steps carved out of the rock.  Crossing a bridge I found myself stairing at at hundreds of multicolored paper lanterns.  They decorated the path for a few kilometers when suddenly my trail turned into a wooden staircase.

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As I climbed flight after flight another soothing melody grew louder.  Finally at the top of the stairs I saw a sign for Cheonchuska Temple.  I took the brief detour and was rewarded with a stunning view of Dobongsan Peak silhoueting the temple. As I came closer I saw hundreds of Buddha statues enhancing the already peaceful atmosphere.  I crossed the bridge to further explore the temple and found elaborate decorations, more statues and a drinking fountain.

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I began to explore the temple but was immediately drawn to the breathtaking view of Seoul.  I lingered to snap a few photos of the scene before continuing into the temple.  The zen-music and monotone chants could be heard throughout and brought a natural peace to the forest.  I explored a few antechambers and was drawn in by the sweet smells of incense before taking a refreshing drink and continuing my climb.

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Exiting the temple my trail somehow grew steeper.  With the stairs behind me, the rough bouldered trail made for slow hiking.  A few hundred meters and I found myself at Madangbawi, a massive rock with a stellar view of the city.  There were Koreans lounging all over with rice cakes and mini-picnics.  I decided to keep going; the peak couldn’t be that much farther and I wanted to eat at the top.

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A sign told me I was a mere 500 meters from Juanbong, the peak I was aiming for!  Unfortunately it didn’t mention that the rest of the climb was nearly vertical.  I found more hikers here as the travel grew slower; I welcomed the frequent breaks to allow someone to come down the mountain.  Glancing out over the forested scene below I lightened my load with a quick drink from my camelback before continuing upward.  Some bouldering led to a series of much needed ropes and beams to continue the climb.

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Before long I could see the peak again.  I was greeted with one more set of stairs and another series of beams to pull myself up the nearly vertical climb.  This was more intense than I had antcipated; I felt surefooted and well balanced, happy for the lack of wind that there were people all around me.

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Bracing my feet against the poles I slowly pulled myself up by the ropes.  I took one step after the next when suddenly I was at the top!  Nearly 2 hours of climbing had paid off with a 360 degree view of mountains, the megapolis and a forested valley below.

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The city is so humongous that you can’t even see the end of it. It just keeps going for miles and miles.  Sweaty from my climb I sat down to enjoy my lunch with the wind cooling me off. After eating I exchanged picture taking with a stranger and basked in the afternoon sun.  In the distance I could see some rapellers finish their picnic and get ready for their descent.

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Lingering a moment longer I took out my guidebook to determine how best to make my own descent.  It recommended following the ridgeline to another peak and making my way down a different path.  Eager to see more of the park I ignored the “not for the faint of heart” warning.  How bad could it be?  I took one last picture of the ridge I was about to hike and made my way back down the path this time taking the left fork deeper into the park.

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Before long I found myself at the next peak.  The hike between them was mild compared to what I had seen.  Throughout my trek I saw minimal wildlife and was quite suprised to find a cat stalking its way about.  I paused only briefly at Podae Peak before continuing onward.  The natural beauty at this peak shrouded more of the city and although quite amazing it paled in comparison to my previous 360 degree view.  Again I was drawn towards the sweet sound of music when I found a lone piper playing a beautiful ballad for the green valley.

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The ridgeline had few travelers and was barely wide enough for one.  Crossing paths prooved to be a delicate dance I was glad I only did a couple times.  A few more meters and I came across my steepest descent yet.  In order to get to the next ridge I had to climb down a steep series of ropes.  I was slowly struggling my way down when my backpack became tangled in the ropes and I heard shouting in Korean.

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I stopped and looked confusingly at them and then I understood “turn” and “change,” quickly realizing they were advising me to turn around and go down backwards.  Climbing down as a baby learning how to tackle its first flight of stairs I made it to the bottom where I met the couple who helped me out.  I said a quick gomabsuenida (thank you) and stood in a small alcove to let them pass before ascending an equally difficult series of poles and ropes.

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The climb up was worse than the way down.  It was just as steep but even slicker with fewer foot holds.  Bracing one foot against the pole and pulling hard with my hands I was able to gain some leverage and slowly make my ascent.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like before the ropes and poles were here.

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Finally at the top I ran into my first white people!  A group of European students had been hiking all day and was enjoying a break.  I decided that I deserved a rest after that climb too.  Felix, Ines and Adam were from Switzerland, Croatia and Poland respectively.  Enjoying the conversation we decided to head down the mountain together.  I’m not sure if they were lured by my English or the fact that I had an English trailmap, but I wasn’t complaining about my new friends.

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The rest of the way down was significantly more tame.  There were steps and rugged rocks but down was easier than up and there was no longer a need for ropes to steady ourselves.  We stopped briefly at a brook and took in the natural beauty of the stream flowing over a rock now green with algae.  Even with the easier climb we stopped more than once to rest our legs; everyone was sore from all the climbing.  A few more kilometers and we were finally down the mountain.  We took a quick subway ride and grabbed some chicken for Chuseok dinner before exchanging emails and heading home