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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A weekend in Taipei, Taiwan

A weekend is just enough to get a taste of Taiwan and realize you want to go back again before you’ve even left.  Taipei has an excellent public transit system, free wifi and lots of cultural & crazy experiences.  Here’s a quick preview of Ronda and my trip as we met my college buddy Andrew (who flew in from Japan with a few other friends).


Night Markets

If there’s one thing that Taiwan is known for its certainly the diversity of its night markets.  We stopped by at least 3 different markets and although some were “the biggest” or “best” according to a guidebook we found them all to be wonderful.  They sported an assortment of sights and smells including the infamous “stinky tofu” and all the parts of animals that you may not have wanted to sample.  I highly recommend just about anything on a stick and if you can handle the smell, stinky tofu is a delicacy!

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Night markets are easy to find and almost every subway station has *insert Taiwanese name here* Market listed on the exit signs.  We always felt safe but I advise anyone going to a public place like these market be careful with your valuables!

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Wulai

Wulai is a mountain village boasting the largest waterfall in Taiwan, an abundance of natural hot springs and the opportunity for a jungle adventure.  Luckily its only a 45 minute bus ride from Xiandan station at the end of the Green Subway line.  You can take a taxi for about $600NTD ($20USD) or ride the bus like we did for $15 NTD ($.50 USD).  Once there I recommend taking the cable car over the river to see the waterfall.  It was stunning and I can’t wait to share more; enjoy these photos for now. Continue reading

Son Doong Day 3 – The Garden of Edam

 

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Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam

Son Doong’s Garden of Edam peeked through the next passage like a half moon keeping a wary eye on foreign travelers.  Hiking once more in the dark, our headlamps illuminated bulbous calcite deposits left by a millennia of rainy seasons carving its way through this ancient waterway.  In another million years our passageway will likely be sealed by this natural cave evolution._DSC7659

_DSC7660Sending Deb and Mr. Ky ahead as our models, we made use of the vantage point provided by the calcite domes. Setting up the photograph wasn’t too difficult with such natural beauty.  The tricky part was accounting for the clouds that kept rolling in.  At first I thought they would bring some stunning contrast to the shot but quickly realized we would have to wait for them to clear.

 

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Hiking from Watch out for Dinosaurs to Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

Finally the clouds dissipated with a resounding “ooo, ah!” and “holy f*ck!” from us white folk.  Snapping a shot of the Garden of Edam’s lush entryway with white stalactites completing a scene that will be ingrained in my brain forever.  Eager to join the jungle’s chorus (or at least get a closer vantage point) we went out once again.  Climbing down the calcite stalagmites proved to be a simple task. As we reached the left wall. a dried up riverbed lead the way among boulders as we headed straight for the doline’s base.

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Slick, but not as fickle as Watch out for Dinosaurs’ red carpet we were able to make the ascent as a group.  Of course Thanh, Carla and I trailed for some excess photography.  By the time we reached the mouth of Son Doong’s second jungle (that former watchful eye) everyone was relaxing on a vine-laden outcropping while a misty cloud surrounded us.  We joined for a water break and some friendly banter about the differences between British, American, Canadian and French Canadian English.

 

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Climbing into The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

Garden of Edam’s lush overgrowth was littered with all stages of life.  We found dozens of crushed snails, many as big as a baseball!  Monkeys descend the treacherous walls of this doline from the deep jungle outside, especially when it rains.  Once down below they smash these snails for a quick snack.

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Looking back at our ascent

Massive trees loomed 30 meters above while Thanh pointed out 3 stages of a gorgeous mystery flower. It bloomed by sprouting a pink stalk that eventually fanned out for a peacock like display.  We climbed over downed banana trees and every moss or fern you can imagine as a cacophony of birds and bugs echoed from nearly 300 meters above!

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong – The Garden of Edam

The heat & humidity climbed the further that we did.  Coupled with the thought of our next feast being prepared by Mr. Tu and the porter team, we were convinced not to dwell up here for too long.  It took about 30 minutes to get through three doline where we could barely make out the campsite below. At first on our right was an archway massive enough to house a skyscraper!  Howard let us know that passage was sealed off although the river previously flowed through it. Within the last few million the calcite formations grew too large and diverted the river.  That very change in course created the cavern we had just passed through and rewarded us with a wonderful vantage point after a brief climb.  The river is apparently now creating a 3rd path since ours was nearly stopped up and may be impassable in a few hundred million years.

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Desending to Hang Son Doong’s Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

Moments after arrival Mr. Tu and the porter crew laid a new feast before us.  It was impossible to predict that fried chicken & french fries would be freshly made this deep into the jungle but they were just as delicious as the Vietnamese stir fry that accompanied tonight’s dinner.  After eating we switched over to Vietnamese card games and challenged the porters managing to walk away a little cleaner than the night before.    The bad news was that we walked away cleaner because of a new penalty, we still lost 9 out of 10 games and were delivered rice wine and kneeling penalties which meant you had to kneel on the hard rocks until you won a round!

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

 

After the sun set we went into overdrive setting up a night shot of the campsite surrounded by the green mouth of the doline.  Thanh, Mr. Ky and Chris hiked partway up the boulders and used our headlamps to illuminate the scene.  Half of the remaining crew lit the foreground while Carla and I snapped these once in a lifetime pictures of the entrance to Son Doong’s 2nd doline.

 

When Howard brought the BBC reporter to this very same location he approached from the darkness behind us.  They rappelled down the Great Wall of Vietnam (which I would get to see tomorrow); upon turning the corner the commentator saw The Garden of Edam and exclaimed “Fuckin’ Hell!”

“Cut!” shouted his director.  BBC is family friendly so they had to reshoot the entrance a few times before finally managing “Fffffreaking hell” which was usable.  Howard’s anecdotal stories like this were a great addition to the trip.  ONe of my other favorites was his adventure to Coral Reef, 18 hours beyond the Great Barrier Reef; well maybe the camera man he brought to Son Doong who accidentally burned Howards hand and then forced him to carry all the equipment in a climb after nearly breaking his “good” hand.  If you want to hear them the best thing is to head to Phong Nha and join one of these trips!

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Hang Son Doong Camp 2 just beneath The Garden of Edam

 

Son Doong Day 3 – Watch out for Dinosaurs

Breakfast our second morning in Son Doong proved even more delicious than the first.  Sitting at a picnic table eating fruit-filled fresh crepes boggled our minds as we imagined the prehistoric scene awaiting us in the distance.  We broke camp and were on the trail by 9:15 AM heading under the boulders on a new path towards Watch out for Dinosaurs.

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Son Doong Campsite #1

Howard and Deb had been taking people on a more perilous elevated path where the stones were less secure.  Luckily they recently discovered a lower route which required ducking and crawling among the jagged edges surrounding us.  I closely followed Thanh and he regularly reminded me to keep my hands off the camera on this dangerous stretch.

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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Son Doong – On the trek to Watch Out for Dinosaurs

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Skylight above Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Squeezing through we reached the cavern’s right wall and were greeted with a cloudy sky leaking into the doline.  Watch out for Dinosaurs began with a treacherous climb among slippery mosses and loose rocks.  We split us up into groups of 2 plus a guide in case loose stones began raining down from above.

I waited patiently at the bottom hoping to snap pictures on both ends and left in the 3rd group.  The climb slowly turned from gigantic stones into a mossy fern-filled path.  Rocks were replaced with pebbles as a slick dusty path snaked its way upwards. Climbing through the cloud nature’s green presence continued to grow.  By the time we reached the summit we were deep into a jungle with the first peak offering a mind-blowing view of our ascent.  90 degrees to the left a series of verdant stalagmites, smooth and rounded with age, stoically defended us from the abyss.

 

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Son Doong – Climbing Watch Out for Dinosaurs

Next to these green guardians were a set of plate-like green gours filled with life.  Droplets glistened as they fell from the massive opening to the jungle hundreds of meters above.  By the time I reached the top Kate & Chris were playfully catching droplets in their mouths while Howard supervised with a camera in a scene out of a Flintstones grade school recess.

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Eager to join the fun and games I reluctantly stayed my crossing to snap some shots from a distance.  The next chamber silhouetted everything beyond with an unimaginable darkness.  That darkness we would eventually penetrate after a leisurely afternoon in nature’s green playground.

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Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Son Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

I_DSC7522t was atop the second precipice that I met Mr. Phuoc, a park ranger, who completed this scene with a broad Vietnamese smile.  after I ventured out and back he patiently waited for me to be the last one down the far side of the doline.  Along this descent Mr. Phuoc pointed out scenery and some alien insects while assisting with my photography.  Despite a distinct lack of English we communicated and carried on very well.

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Son Doong park ranger – Mr. Phuoc relaxing in Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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_DSC7507We soon caught up to Chris who had paused his venture to setup a brilliant shot with Kate & the whole doline.  I took the cue on the scenery and managed to find a pool that sported a magnificent reflection of Watch out for Dinosaurs.  Thanh waited at the top and was an excellent model as a few others climbed a nearby calcite mound for a higher perspective.  By the end of our photo session Mr. Tu (our cook) had arranged a glorious picnic for all.

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Leaving Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Picnic with a view of Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

The afternoon meal had tons of Vietnamese snacks sitting between sliced fruit and dozens of peeled hard boiledeggs.  There were crackers, cheese and coconut Vietnamese snacks.  Oh, and don’t forget the kit-kats & oreos!  We devoured the meal before departing for the dark cavern; a speck of sunshine barely visible from the next doline.

 

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Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

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Han Song Doong – Watch Out for Dinosaurs!

Back to Seoraksan & Sokcho – A sneak peak

Yeah, I’m crazy enough to go back to Seoraksan only 3 weeks after my second adventure into this masterpiece of a national park. (don’t worry the rest of the pics from my first trip there with Seoul Hiking Group are coming soon!)  Thanks to Warren & Breanne for another awesome trip!  Enjoy this sneak peak of my journey up Daechongbong and skipping Dinosaur Ridge to explore the lush valley below.  After a long day of hiking we relaxed on the Sokcho beaches and perused the fish market where my Korean classes came in handy!  We ended with a trip to the DMZ border and got a glimpse into the reclusive North Korean state.

View of Dinosaur Ridge from Daechongbong

View of Dinosaur Ridge from Daechongbong

Seoraksan

Seoraksan

Seoraksan's lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Seoraksan’s lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Seoraksan's lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Seoraksan’s lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Seoraksan's lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Seoraksan’s lush valley beneath Dinosaur Ridge

Moon rising over Seoraksan ridgeline

Moon rising over Seoraksan ridgeline

Playing with fireworks!

Playing with fireworks!

Soon to be dinner at Sokcho's fish market

Soon to be dinner at Sokcho’s fish market

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peaking into North Korea along the East Sea

peaking into North Korea along the East Sea