Mountains, Fireworks, & Beaches for Buddha’s Birthday – Seoraksan National Park with Seoul Hiking Group – A sneak peek

Thank you Buddha for being awesome, oh and happy birthday! This weekend I jumped on another night bus with Seoul Hiking Group and took a 15 hour, 25km trek into the mountains before some R&R on the beach. It was another incredible adventure watching the sun rise & fall over the ocean, a Korean mountain rescue, spotting a rattle snake, stunning views and an all around great time. Enjoy this sneak peek, more photos & a video coming “soon.”

Sunrise over the East Sea enroute to Seoraksan's toughest trail - Dinosaur Ridge.

Sunrise over the East Sea enroute to Seoraksan’s toughest trail – Dinosaur Ridge.

A new hiking buddy, Eric, enjoying the stunning views along Dinosaur Ridge, Seoraksan National Park

A new hiking buddy, Erik, enjoying the stunning views along Dinosaur Ridge, Seoraksan National Park

Mountain Rangers descend from a helicopter to help an old Korean man succumbed to heat exhaustion & dehydration along Dinosaur Ridge, the toughest trail in Seoraksan and possibly all of South Korea.

Mountain Rangers descend from a helicopter to help an old Korean man succumbed to heat exhaustion & dehydration along Dinosaur Ridge, the toughest trail in Seoraksan and possibly all of South Korea.

Hapojae Beach in Yangyang, South Korea.  Famous for the "finest sand" in all of Korea

Hajodae Beach in Yangyang, South Korea. Famous for the “finest sand” in all of Korea

Playing with long exposures & fireworks at hajodae beach, Yangyang South Korea

Playing with long exposures & fireworks at Hajodae beach, Yangyang South Korea

Top 10 Travel Photos of 2014 #5

2014 was my most traveled year yet.  I had the good fortune to bring in the New Year in the Philippines before returning to my job in South Korea.  Summer vacation was spent backpacking Vietnam and Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) brought me to Japan.  I ventured to Shanghai before heading back to America for the end of the year holidays and all along these crazy adventures my camera followed me.  Tens of thousands of pictures were narrowed down to roughly 30 finalists before I selected my top 10 travel photos of 2014!

#5 brings us back to Korea with my favorite hike of 2014.  Dinosaur Ridge is a grueling trek through Seoraksan National Park.  We began at 3am with a steep climb to Daecheongbong’s 1708m peak before hiking along a cascade of peaks shaped like a stegosaurus’ back.  My legs were like jelly after 15 hours on the trail covering roughly 25km and nearly 3000m of elevation change.  I’ve never felt so accomplished and drained at the same time as the final hundred meters of decent into the valley and can’t wait to go back again in 2015!

Check out #4 here!
Check out #6 here!

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!


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!




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!


Crowded sunrise at the top of Daecheongbong


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


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.


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.

_DSC4404 _DSC4408

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.


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.


Posing at the top of Dinosaur Ridge’s first peak


Dino Peak Panorama 2

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

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Seoraksan – 3 Germans, a Finn and me

11 months ago I jumped on a bus for the first time and headed to Sokcho; Seoraksan was on my mind.  I was told Seoraksan National Park was the best place to go during Korean Autumn sporting a natural medley of colorful foliage.    This time I was invited to join some European friends and happily agreed to join in.

We stayed at Smile Guesthouse for ₩20,000 ($20) a night and I highly recommend it.  The staff spoke great English and helped us plan the trails, call taxis, recommend restaurants and more.  Definitely the best hospitality I’ve seen in Korea.  After arriving Friday evening we decided to wake up early and hit the trails right away!

First stop for anyone entering Seoraksan at the main entrance is the cable car line.  Tickets were ₩9,000 ($9) and the line seemed absurdly long but only took about 15 minutes.  We left at 9:00 AM with a 2:10 PM time slot giving us enough time to hike Ulsanbawi and stop for lunch beforehand.  Of course anyone who enters at the main gate makes their first “ooo’s” and “aaah’s” at one of the world’s largest Buddhas!

Enjoy this autumn photo walk of our trip up a dreadful amount of stairs to the top of Ulsanbawi, back down towards a cable car for a ride up Gwongeumseong Fortress culminating with a riverside stroll to the magnificent Biryeong and Yukdam waterfalls in Seoraksan National Park.




Big Buddha

Big Buddha

Big Buddha

Big Buddha

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi

Heading to Ulsanbawi



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1 year anniversary, wait what?

_DSC7640365 days ago I landed at Incheon International Airport and immediately began one of the biggest changes in my life.  In spite of some difficult times I’ve had an incredible experience full of adventures. So I guess its no surprise that this year living in South Korea has flown by!   Sitting down to start writing this I was getting ready for the biggest adventure of my life when suddenly my 2nd (awesome) job in Korea begins to ask about renewing contracts 6 months down the road.   It gave me something to ponder in my month of backpacking around Vietnam and I am leaning towards signing a 2 years contract at my current school.  But before making that decision I’d rather reminisce about some of the great experiences I’ve had in my first year here!

132-_DSC1207aBefore coming to Seoul I heard that hiking was a big past time in Korea but I had no idea how much I would get involved.  Sure I loved hiking and camping in America; I even did an awesome backpacking trip in my final weeks but I never would have guessed that I’d have the opportunity to climb so many mountains and hike through different national parks every weekend!  I started out with some solo exploration and small group trips into Bukhansan National Park.  I quickly realized that this was a habit I wanted to continue as I fell in love with the landscapes and ease at which I could escape the bustle of the megalopolis.


March brought about two pivotal moments in my enjoyment of South Korea.  I started an amazing new job and found Seoul Hiking Group!

_DSC9883 Over the next few months I would travel all around South Korea 2 or 3 times a month with SHG to cities, temples, beaches and mountains around the country and I am looking forward to being a trip helper in the fall.  With Warren Kim’s help  (the leader of SHG) I have visited dozens of UNESCO world heritage sites and can’t wait to keep exploring the culture in between the mountain air.  I have a new favorite hike in Seoraksan National Park, getting to Dinosaur Ridge is a grueling journey that began early in the morning but I can’t wait to go back!

_DSC3077I’ve visited dozens of temples, & a handful of palaces; Ben helped me tour Seoul and I later explored lantern festivals and all the sights and tastes of this new wonderland.  In large part, I’ve fallen in love with the culture of South Korea especially trying crazy new foods.  Everything from silk worm larvae on my first weekend to raw octopus and raw beef salad has made its way to my plate.  There have been intestines, pigs ear and all kinds of crazy delicacies but my favorites are the many types of Korean Barbeque, a lengthy list of soups and most definitely 오징순대(ojingo soondae) or squid sausage!


Teaching, the good the bad and the ugly

I came here to teach and starting in Korea at a Hogwon immediately was unsure of that decision.  My “school” was poorly run by an administration of businessmen and marketing professionals who had zero understanding of English or teaching pedagogy.  These telltale signs quickly revealed how scandalous the school was as I was greeted with repeated late paychecks, a stolen pension and we discovered that rent & health insurance had ceased to be paid!   The story grew deeper with sit-ins, lawyers and regular yelling matches with the boss while all 11 foreigners sought new jobs.  In spite of it all I still loved my students and we had a blast learning English through songs, dances and games as the little munchkins taught me about Korea.


Luckily I got out and went to a fabulous new school where things couldn’t be better!  Sure every class has its bumps along the way and summer in Korea can be so hot that sweat just pours down your back forming an awkward “butt-river.”  Yeah its gross.  I wish I could wear shorts!  But that being said my new job is still freaking amazing.  I teach in a Western style school on a team with amazing coworkers and (see paragraph#1) am already considering another year or two.  My 4th grade has an amazing co-teacher and 36 wonderful students; we take regular field trips and deal with highly appreciative parents and professional administration.  A highlight of working here is definitely the vacation time (roughly 4 or 5 times as much as my former hogwon) which let me backpack for a month in Vietnam and will allow me to come back to America for 3 weeks in the winter!


20140628_215520Seeing people go:

This is probably the toughest part of living abroad.  Sure I’ve dealt with a shitty job, the occasional rotten apple in the classroom and parents who don’t get it but when a friend you’ve been bonding with and hanging out with for the last year reminds you they leave the country in 2 weeks its certainly cause for a crazy night out. Well how else would you gonna handle it?

Its easy to make friends with fellow expats here; you have more in common than the average person back home and can certainly commiserate over culture shock.  So when you meet someone that you actually become friends with the connection instantly grows deeper.  That being said we all seem to find ourselves flittering over the surface of friendship for fear of being hurt when they leave.

Most people teach abroad for a year or two.  I’m looking at doing about 3 and a half years but that still means I’ve got an end date.  Every 6 months a new influx of foreigners arrives which means there’s a large exodus too.  Saying goodbye to new friends has been rough but I will always cherish the memories that we made together and will look on the bright side.  Now I have even more couches to crash on and locals to show me around as my buddies return to their respective hometowns and move on to bigger and better things in Europe and around the world!

Noraebong (the first story of many amazing stories)

The story begins one Saturday night in early September; I’d been living in Korea for just a matter of weeks.  It was only my 3rd or 4th weekend and I was hoping to meet some European friends I’d made hiking the week before; they said jump on the subway to Hongdae and meet them at the park.  Easy enough, I’d been there once before and would just finish a blog post and be off.

At roughly 11:30 I left my apartment rearing for a night out only to enter the subway and find it abandoned with no trains in sight.  Oh well I thought, must be on the late night schedule.  I realized something was wrong after a few moments in the eerie quiet and not seeing a train approaching on the monitors.  I didn’t have a working Korean phone yet which meant no internet access and I’d have to ask for help the old fashion way.  As luck would have it the lone attendant spoke exactly zero English.  Even so that was enough for him to wave his hands and point to the clock making me remember that someone had uttered these dreadful words “subways in Seoul actually shut down at night” (unlike NYC). As the passing comment resurfaced in my memory I knew I just find an alternate route.

Distraught but not at a complete loss I decided to hail a cab.  As a stroke of luck there were 3 waiting on the curb and I gave my best Korean “Hongdae” pointing to a map of where I wanted to go.  It felt like a story straight out of a sitcom where each cab stared blankly before shouting a definitive “NO!” and driving off.  Well, now what?

No internet at home yet, no idea where to go I opted to pop in 7-11 and grab a beer while sitting on the curb in front of a pizza joint that I knew had open wifi.  Might as well regroup and enjoy a brew before I give in to an early evening.   Suddenly my coworker Susan walked up; she too was hoping to have a 7-11 beer and joined me on the curb.  I told her my sad sob story about not making it to Hongdae and we both laughed.  Then we laughed again at how I had asked her a few weeks earlier if her apartment also didn’t have hot water since I couldn’t find the right button.  Oh the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

One beer led to another as we people watched from the curb when a Korean man stumbled over (he had clearly had a few beers by now).  He introduced himself and brought an offering of shrimp CAM01321chips.  Being courteous Susan accepted and the gentleman was off,  I had never tried them so we dove right in (they taste slightly better than they sound).  A few moments later he returned carrying 2 beers and insisted that we take them too!

As we were enjoying our new free beer another coworker walks by with the same 7-11 idea for his evening.  We fill Brian in and give him one of our extra beers as the mysterious Korean returns with more beer, more chips and 2 other drunk businessmen.  After we exchange drunken introductions he invites us all to noraebang (karaoke room).  Brian and I had never been so we exchange glances and ask how much it costs.  Once again he insists that he’ll pay so we follow him down the road for what was to be one of the most memorable evenings in Korea.

We cautiously entered the private room to find a massive horse shoe couch on one end and table already laden with soju, beer and snacks in one corner.  On the opposite end were two fans and a massive television playing a scene that could have been from the mountains in a Sound of Music.  Our Korean friends grabbed the remote, plugged in their favorite Korean song and began belting out some tunes.  It took us a moment to figure out which buttons to push but eventually we queued up some Bon Jovi, Oasis, and some other English classics.

After a Build me up Buttercup duet our Korean friends decided they were either too drunk to sing or just wanted to hear our heavenly voices echoing throughout the chamber.  Moments into my glorious rendition of Bon Jovi’s Its My Life I was presented with a standing fan; I’m not sure if it was supposed to cool me off, provide a cool reverberation or act as a mic stand but I went with it.  By the end of the song our drunk Korean buddies were attempting to belt out the tunes while everyone jumped between the couches.

Moments later Wonderwall began and once again all the foreigners grabbed the mics and started serenading our new friends.  Turning towards the fan I sang my heart out when suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder.  Spinning around I found our Korean businessman holding a fire extinguisher on his shoulder and pretending it was a video camera!  Behind him one of the other Korean men was trying to show his affection for Brian’s wonderful singing by hugging him dearly (and possibly licking his cheek in an awkward scene that belongs on a train in Eurotrip) while the rest of us continued to sing.

This absurd evening became a basis for my noraebang expectations but in spite of many attempts to recreate the chaotic splendor nothing has since compared.  Especially when you consider how we darted out of there giggling like school girls and afraid that the gentlemen would decide to re-neg on their offer to pay for the evening.  We ended up finding a new hangout in Mokdong as reverberations of our escapades echoed down the alleyway culminating a story that I have now retold countless times.