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Scaling Sapa’s Slopes

Spoiler alert: today’s title is a bit of a misnomer, as very little cardiovascular exercise was undertaken while visiting Sapa. Treks to the shrouded peak of Fanxipan can take between two and four days, and I suspect that one of us would have expired in the heat.

Even lacking said adventurous gumption, the landscape around Sapa is simply breathtaking. The bus from Hanoi teased us with glimpses of the sunset horizon high above us before the light disappeared, leaving us lurching and weaving precariously along invisible roads. The only thing we could know for certain was that the road was going up, at an alarming angle, and that the other drivers on the road were no more inclined to use their brakes than in the city.

Sapa is similar in many ways to Da Lat; it’s a cool, mountainous city which seems to leave a lot of familiar Vietnam behind. The buildings are bright and strangely European, and the city contains open parks and amphitheatres that couldn’t in any way fit into the larger cities’ dense urban landscapes. Dogs roam freely as in any other place in Vietnam, but the skinny short-haired whippets have now been replaced by huskies and samoyeds, who wouldn’t stand a chance in the country’s hotter lowlands.

Our first night, we wandered in search of food along the outside road of Sapa and were confronted by a pitch-black, yawning abyss. The city limits are right on the edge of the mountainside, and all we could say for certain at night was that there was land *somewhere* far below and far above us; Flat Earthers would have had a field day at this apparent edge of the world. Come daybreak, the view is no less astonishing.

Hundreds of metres below, the valley floor is carved into rows upon rows of rice fields, stepping from Sapa far down to an icy river. Yet more hundreds of metres above, the towering columns of Fanxipan vanish into cloud, almost blocking out the sun itself. There’s no such thing as a boring drive around the area, and no need for a booked tour – just rent yourself a scooter, pick a direction and try to remember to stop the bike before taking any of the hundreds of photos you’ll want to get.

The road northwest of Sapa winds lazily upwards to a break in the mountains, then immediately and alarmingly downwards into the next valley. Every turn brings you to an even better viewpoint, and it’s only when you look back that you realise how far you’ve come. Within minutes, the churning waterfall you saw far beneath you is now spraying the top of your head, the tiny stream below now a rushing whitewater.

The only tragedy of this experience came in the form of one solitary pothole ejecting my phone from the bike; upon realising this fact a few minutes later, I discovered via the Find My iPhone app that some questionable Samaritan had picked it up and was driving away into the distance. Despite extensive questioning in the area indicated by GPS, and after yet more extensive negotiating days later when said person finally got in touch with my emergency number, I never again saw my phone. Let today’s lesson be: don’t trust the bike’s front pockets, and/or just avoid the damn potholes.

The following day, we were fuelled with the urge to head quite the opposite direction, down into the villages and rice paddies below Sapa. The route is reasonably straightforward: pay 70,000 VND (about £2) at the toll gate, then follow the road downward to the valley floor. All straightforward in theory, except calling it a ‘road’ is charitable at best; while you’ll pass multiple hardworking teams of roadlayers that will undoubtedly have the path smooth as silk within a year or so, currently it’s a steep incline of jagged rocks and unpredictable gouges in the floor. The journey downwards wasn’t so much ‘driving’ as ‘not crashing’ while holding the brakes and balancing very carefully while gravity took you for a ride. The only source of confidence I had that it was even a road was the streams of possibly-suicidal drivers hurtling up and down with apparently no concern for their own wellbeing or that of their bikes.

Having survived the plummet, the green carpet of the valley base was a welcome oasis of wind-brushed grass and the occasional belch of water buffalo. The cold waters of the river demand at least a cursory paddling, particularly in the heat of the day; I had to go Full Tourist and acquire a long-sleeved shirt after the deceptive coolness of the previous day’s drive turned me a gentle shade of magenta, and even in the mountains the Vietnamese sun is nothing to take lightly.

And with that, our final stop in the country had to come to a close. Vietnam is an unquestionably stunning country, with far more to do than a month’s travel can sufficiently allow for, but we gave it our best.

For now, we head to Hanoi Airport (albeit one phone down), ready for the next adventure – to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

In Ninh Binh

Today’s adventure is one we only decided at the last minute, so was a bit of a gamble. Our original plan was to endure the 14-hour slog to Hanoi and consider our next plan of attack, as most travellers do when heading north of Hué.

Quite by accident, however, I came across a few like-minded blogs singing praises of Ninh Binh – a wonderfully-named, slightly-less-frequented stop a few hours south of Hanoi. Known otherwise as the ‘Ha Long Bay of the Land’ for its dramatic mountainous backdrop, it isn’t famed for its wild party atmosphere – which isn’t even remotely a problem for me.

As seems to be tradition, we rolled into the silent town at around four in the morning, aggressively sleep-deprived and confused. With one last tinnitus-inducing honk, the bus belched away into the night and we were left to fend for ourselves until the sun rose. By the time our hotel opened its doors we’d already napped by the side of the river, with bats flitting around overhead and cheery octogenarian joggers sashaying past us.

Ninh Binh proper is a nice enough but relatively bland town, with the usual amenities and industrial parks – when equipped with a scooter, however, your options are somewhat more varied. Most visitors stay in the Tam Côc district, a few minutes’ drive west of town and closer to the sightseeing action: proportionately more expensive, but a neck-achingly gorgeous scene to wake up to.

Our original plan was to stay in Ninh Binh for two nights before continuing northward, but that went out the window as soon as we took in the view. Sunscreen applied, bike refuelled and banana pancakes inhaled, we set out into the landscape.

The surrounding countryside has no shortage of experiences for anyone with a romantic or nomadic soul. If you struggle to take a decent photo of Ninh Binh you either need to get your camera or your eyes looked at – the nearby national parks are dense, sweeping jungles of plant and animal life, with brilliant-white storks flocking overhead and neon fish burbling downriver.

Visit Thung Nham national park during early morning or later afternoon to make the most of the thousands of birds flying to and from their mangrove nests, or take a tour along the river and through the maze of caves interconnecting Ninh Binh’s mountains; the Trang An boat tours are slightly less crowded than those from Tam Côc and take you past floating temples, through looming canyons and, for the film buffs, through the set of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.

Driver further afield to Cúc Phúóng National Park to really lose yourself in the wilderness. Part national park, part wildlife sanctuary, the rangers are committed to protecting the local species of monkey and turtles. A guide will walk you through enclosures of gibbons and golden-headed langurs, many of whom are caring for highly-protected babies. After taking the tour, I got the impression that they truly care for the animals at Cúc Phúóng, and encourage them back into the wilderness once their numbers are high enough.

As late afternoon draws in, the light falling below Ninh Binh’s mountains paints a truly stunning scene. Commit yourself to the short but demanding walk up the 500 steps of Hang Múa to Dragon Peak – a rough, rocky path with a 360-degree panorama of the spectacular landscape. Unsurprisingly popular with travellers around sunset, the more daring/death-defying adventurer will clamber over the jagged rock up to the stone dragon itself for unsurpassed views of Vietnam’s beautifully chaotic terrain.

It’s hard to drag ourselves away from Ninh Binh – harder still to think that we nearly skipped it entirely. I can’t recommend enough that travellers in Vietnam dedicate at least a few days to exploring its dramatic countryside and taking all the mountaintop #backpackerselfies your hearts desire.

Sadly, leave we must – and, once again, Hanoi will have to wait as we change route once again. Rather than following the much-driven path to Vietnam’s capital, we’re opting for the scenic route to Cat Ba island. We’ve got high expectations, but Ninh Binh is a tough act to follow.

Dà Lat, The City of Eternal Spring

Tired faces slumped against the sun-heated glass of our bus from Mūi Né to Dà Lat, we made our way up into the spectacular heights of the Vietnamese highlands. Even if the sudden increase in elevation hadn’t been a factor, the view was breathtaking.

Still a little haggard from our rude awakening, our plan was to nap as much as possible on the journey. We quickly decided that would be a waste after the first hairpin bend as we rose into the highland fog, a smooth green canopy carpeting the valley hundreds of metres below. We had the bus largely to ourselves, with the exception of an old couple and their tiny granddaughter, who made a point of beaming at me whenever I made eye contact.

We wanted to visit Da Lat for a few reasons. On a practical note, it lay directly between us and Hoi An, a certain stop on the journey. Secondly, the city is known for its pine forests, its unusually French aesthetic and – most importantly – its almost perpetual early-spring temperature. Small wonder it’s earned itself the nickname of ‘The City Of Eternal Spring; Da Lat made me actually consider wearing a jacket for the first time on this trip.

We checked into the hotel (lovely owner, fourth floor room, no lift, tiny stairwell, great cardio), dumped our bags and saw what we could see of the town. A large lake is the centrepiece of the area, around which you can take horse-drawn carriage rides, go for a run or – in my case – underestimate the length of the lake and bitch about wearing flip-flops for a two-hour walk.

The town has a charming personality to it, admittedly in a strangely non-Vietnamese sort of way. Designed as a French resort town in the early 1900s, you could absolutely believe it’s a purpose-planned city – but it still has a soul, and the roads are inescapably Vietnamese in their urgent and strangely cohesively chaotic sort of way.

Having left the dubious roads of Mui Ne behind, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity for some cool-weather exploring. We had to change hotels (just as well, as the building opposite was undergoing incredibly noisy construction) and luckily found one just across the road (the floor directly underneath said noisy construction), before renting a scooter and heading out into the great green yonder.

I had a scooter in Korea for about a year before having my accident (not to protest too much but it *was* 100% their fault), in which time I would drive to/from work four times a day on relatively mad Korean roads. In the Philippines I drove more or less daily on mostly lawless but fairly empty Philippine roads.

Vietnam is an entirely different world of driving. Everybody seems to know exactly what they’re doing, so your first job is to look like you know exactly what you’re doing as well. Make sure you know where you’re going, stick to the right side of the road and for God’s sake don’t hesitate or you’ll find yourself at the back of a very, very long line of bikes that wasn’t there a moment before. Our newfound Swiss friend Daniel put it best: “In Vietnam, it seems crazy but there’s a system. You could walk across the road with your eyes shut if you dare – but you need to know the system.”

Having got ourselves some wheels, we fled the town and followed the long, lazily winding mountainside road. I had been looking forward to the drive for a few days, which of course meant that for both days of scooter ownership the weather made a point of raining heavily whenever I turned on the ignition – but that’s what pack-a-macs are for.

The road eventually took us to the Elephant Falls – an out-of-the-blue waterfall next to a temple boasting the tallest Buddha I’ve ever seen. If the waterfall was dramatic, however, the route to its base was something else, particularly when you’ve decided once again to wear flip-flops in the rain. What starts out as steps quickly turns into roughly-cut notches in the rock faces that aren’t always as obvious as they should be. The scramble down to the waterfall basin is worth it, as you stand on a rough chunk of stone with water exploding either side of you. The upper views are equally photo-worthy, as well as giving you the opportunity to donate either money or, apparently, sweet wrappers to the tiny Buddha shrine on the platform.

Due to nobody’s organisational foibles but our own, we failed to successfully book the bus we planned to Hoi An for our last day, but just managed to get the last two seats on the 14-hour night bus to Da Nang – which, as you can imagine, we’re both super keen on. In anticipation of half a day of possible misery, we allowed ourselves one last outing on the bike to the expansive Tuyên Lâm Lake, once again made all the more dramatic by the exciting addition of rain.

Now I get to see what the last two seats on a 14-hour sleeper bus in Vietnam look like. There’s a chance I may resemble a pretzel on the other side, but it’ll be worth it so long as I have something to write about.

PS.

To any parents of mine who might be reading this, I’m being a very safe driver so do try not to worry. X

Korea’s ‘Smallest’ National Park, And How It Lies

IMG_2976The nature of blogging means that I have the appearance of a hectic and action-packed life. If I were to post in a fashion similar to denizens of the Twitter Abyss, you’d be treated to close-ups of me vaguely picking my nose while playing Far Cry 4, or to us dancing wildly around a very confused dog when the ‘ooga chaka’ bit comes on during Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling; as it stands, this site’s feed seems to miss out all the boring bits, eg. the full-time job which actually brings us to Korea.

That being said, the last month or so has provided a bounty of blogworthy distractions and, except for the abovementioned nosepickings and workgoings, pretty much has been a constant stream of Doing Stuff. I can tell because my thighs feel like two angry pigs fighting over a truffle after we dominated Korea’s smallest national park, Wolchulsan, along with recurring partners in crime Nate and Alysha.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

If you squint, you can see the Cloud Bridge roughly dead centre.

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When I say ‘smallest’ national park, I’d like to reiterate the standards by which national parks tend to be measured. Admittedly, the park is surrounded fairly closely by a busy highway, and you can see distant civilisation from every angle – however, what Wolchulsan lacks in square kilometres (a mere 41km²) it makes up for in violent, perpendicular angles. Within minutes of setting off, we’re sticky and panting in the late Spring afternoon, even under a constant awning of foliage; deceptively sturdy iron walkways have been hammered into the mountain at often improbable angles, occasionally starting to resemble ladders more than paths.IMG_2732

LIES

LIES

Yours shiny truly.

Your shininess truly.

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Optimistic signposts along the way reassure lucky hikers that (for example) the scenic Cloud Bridge(Gureumdari, 구름다리) is a mere 0.3km away from that spot. The bridge does indeed come into view promptly – as a thin shadow across your face as you look directly up, precisely 0.3km above your head. The steep climb to the bridge provides an ample workout for one’s legs, arms, core and silent hysteria (note: the writer’s own fitness may affect his personal standpoint on some matters of physical exertion).IMG_2771

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It’s when you flop onto the ledge hugging one end of the 55-metre suspension bridge that you first see how far you’ve come, and it’s usually then that you work out who amongst you suffers vertigo. The monumental backdrop of Cheonhwabong, the park’s mountainous peak, sweeps into the forest below, eventually diminishing in the distance into farmlands and lonely-looking shrubs. On this particular day, the fieldworkers had apparently taken to incinerating stretches of their land, lending a dramatic if faintly alarming tone to the already impressive view.IMG_2798

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If travelling with a mixture of acrophobes and sadists (honestly a terrible combination when at great heights in the middle of nowhere), be warned that the wholly-secure suspension bridge will…shake, slightly, if one is overly enthusiastic bounding across the several-hundred-metre drop. While amusing to some, the mountain’s acoustics are remarkably effective should anybody shriek involuntarily on a creaking platform above the treetops.IMG_2871

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Putting into context how laughably easy the arduous uphill scuttle has apparently been so far, it’s from this side of the bridge that the park landscapers apparently started to get a sense of humour. Iron steps and railings are knocked deep into the stone of the mountain at the sort of angle which could only accommodate a suicidal Slinky. While never actually worried for my safety, I marvelled at the views I had while climbing of the very tops or very bottoms of my fellow hikers as we ascended (all of whom had lovely scalps and bottoms, so no harm done).IMG_2879

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The panorama from the actual peak (at least our actual peak, as we had no intention of getting to the actual actual peaks on this occasion, or possibly lifetime) is staggering. It’s the sort of view Peter Jackson would drop hobbits and dwarves on to do a helicopter fly-by of. By this point in our journey we hadn’t seen or heard any other climbers for a long while; our last encounter had been blaring hymns out of his phone at an incredible volume, but there wasn’t a sign of even his musical presence anywhere in the valley. Feeling like The Only People In The World, at that altitude, with a can of Sour Cream Pringles, was entirely blissful, albeit a touch windy for some of the more sadly airborne Pringles.IMG_2908

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The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

The moment we realised this was the wrong bloody way.

After an infuriating failed attempt at a round trip – discovering after a very steep descent that our route took us further into the mountains rather than, as was preferred, out of them – we climbed back up the knotted rope-ladder and prepared our knees and ankles for the jellifying return journey down the mountain. A much shorter trip later, we’ve lost the normal use of our legs and we’ve seriously pissed off a peacefully dozing toad in a rock-pool.IMG_2939

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I take comfort knowing that, at least for a week or so, I don’t have to do anything horrible like adventuring or seeing more beautiful scenery. I suspect my 25-year-old knees couldn’t take it.

 

 

Towers, Bears and Geese

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Under this mystique of sophistication, wit and impeccable gramm(er)ar, it may surprise you to learn that, deep down, I can, on occasion, be profoundly lazy. I’ve never been one for footing balls or chasing steeples – anything where there’s the slightest chance I might embarrass myself in front of large groups –  but have come to love the rare, glorious moments where I can experience the suicidal joy of snowboarding. If ever I were to find myself plummeting down a sheer mountainside, I’d like to at least be strapped onto a fibreglass spatula. On the slopes, I can at least be assured that falling over and embarrassing oneself in front of large groups is a commonplace event.

Living in the green low(ish)lands of Somerset, mountains are a bit sparing to come by – so this pastime, while immensely fun, has had a habit of occurring roughly once every two-to-four years:

2006: Lapland, Finland; -25° in the Arctic Circle, with the Aurora Borealis above and a swearing, pre-bearded Benjamin falling over a lot under the watch of an ex-military snowboard instructor

2008: Wanaka, New Zealand; having already blown the backpacking budget on skydiving and hostels, went all-out on the Treble Cone slopes in Wanaka. Got stuck in a white-out on the mountainside, managed not to fall off the mountain

2011: Ehrwald, Austria; never one to actually pay for anything if I can get away with it, managed via Mum/’s magazine to blag a travel-piece on Ehrwald & Mt. Zugspitz. Brought brother along, drank weissbeer, managed not to fall off the mountain

2015: Bear’s Town, Namyangju, South Korea; two years after I’d previously lived 20 minutes away from Bear’s Town ski resort, I travel across the entire bloody country to finally get there. Confidently avoided any potential falling-off-mountain scenarios.IMG_7572

Swallowing the guilt of leaving Millie in the care of our fellow dog-addicts for one whole night (pathetic, I know), we occupied ourselves for the 4 hours to Seoul on the now-familiarly-far-too-hot bus – Meg by sleeping 80% of the journey and myself by discovering Banner Saga on the iTunes store.

After a now-familiarly obnoxious reunion with Lori (the only remaining Namyangju-based member of the obscene Osan Crew of 2012/13), we detoured back to Jinjeop via the astonishingly shiny and alarmingly tall Lotte World Tower – the name given to the work-in-progress tower we watched grow in Jamsil when we’d pass through on a weekly basis. I remembered it as a wee bairn of a building, all scaffolding and catherine-wheel blowtorch embers in clear view of street level. Understandably, I feel, I initially failed to recognise the looming, perspective-distorting behemoth of a skyscraper sticking out of the ground when we arrived. Already 94 storeys high, it’s still got another 29 to go – and will be the fourth tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa, Shanghai Tower and the Abraj Al-Bait – and will be the single tallest building in the OECD (ie. Western economic world).

It's a big 'un.

It’s a big ‘un: still another third to go.

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I’m throwing out these statistics to try and convey the whoah, cor blimey, f**k me effect the place had on me. Of course, being Seoul, the bottom seven or eight storeys have already been devoted to a top-class, glass-plated, esculator-bound shopping mall with no possibility of convenient escape. Giving in and lending our custom to a Hard Rock Cafe on the top floor, we ate our burgers, experienced all-American (read: incessant badgering) treatment by an entirely bilingual and very lovely pan-cultural staff, considered self-harm while waiting outside H&M for a full hour and finally, somehow, managed to get back to Lori’s home castle.IMG_7632 IMG_7639 IMG_7636 IMG_7631

Hard Rock Cafe - just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

Hard Rock Cafe – just in case you accidentally find yourself abroad.

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I’m already over-budget on words and I haven’t even got to the cold bit.

Bear’s Town was a surprise in a number of ways. Firstly, the journey from Lori’s to the slopes took a total of twelve minutes (a fact which I would have exploited far more beforehand, had I known). Secondly, for three of us to get everything – snow jacket/salopettes, boards, boots and lift pass – cost a total of 170,000 won, or 50-60,000 each: about £35 for all I needed to go snowboarding for a day. For anybody not familiar with ski prices, that’s laughably cheap. Thirdly – and best(ly), the nature of ‘slow mornings’ in Korea meant that for practically the entire day we could slide around the mountain with relative freedom from crowds, and nip back up the mountain lift in no time at all.IMG_4352

Seriously damn stylish.

Seriously damn stylish.

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Meg always finds a new friend.

Meg always finds a new friend.

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Before I describe the day, I’d like to point out that Meg is now not only willing, but suggesting we go back for Round Two. I emphasise this point in contrast to the stream of profanity which flowed from my beloved girlfriend’s mouth as she passed through the inevitable ‘falling over and swearing a lot while you hate everything’ phase of snowsports. However, less than an hour into the experience, thanks in no small part to Lori’s expert guidance and my ability to not fall on Meg while I helped her balance, she was braking and manoeuvring like a star. I took this as my cue to try out the full stretch of Big Bear (comprising both the smaller Little Bear slope and the remainder of the immediate mountain) – which, I’m egotistical enough to admit, I managed well enough without actually falling over once, and somehow succeeding in doing that quick ‘zig-zag’ thing (shop talk) which speeds the board up but, more importantly, looks cool. The girls would have been so impressed but, sadly, had been diverted by churros and chocolate dip by this point.IMG_4355

It wouldn't be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

It wouldn’t be Korea without some form of dwarfish mascot.

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'F#@k.'

‘F#@k.’

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It’d been a long day’s slipping, sliding and swearing, and we were all feeling the après-ski, pre-galbi glow of a good day’s farting around. We’d been waiting at the highway-side bus stop for a while when we heard the group of jindo guard-dogs barking at something interfering with them behind our shelter and, upon peering through the scratched plexiglass pane, it became apparent what was riling up the previously silent hounds.IMG_7684 IMG_7689

'You from round here, stranger?'

‘You from round here, stranger?’

Murderer's eyes.

Murderer’s eyes.

I wasn't the only victim.

I wasn’t the only victim.

I like to think I normally make a point of avoiding unnecessary profanity in this blog, but trust me when I say that these feathery sons of bitches were goddamn mean. Two rough-as-arseholes geese seemed to be making a point of harassing the guard-dogs, hissing and honking, for no apparent reason other than their own avian satisfaction. I made the fatal mistake of leaning round our transparent hut to try and get a shot of them, and the bastards rushed me. I wasn’t the only one – a fellow Korean Bear’s Town-goer tried to get a few snaps but was himself harangued and honked at as we both tried to get away from their jabbing faces. The bus miraculously arrived just as I was wondering if geese somehow had teeth as well as beaks, and we left the flapping psychopaths to further torment the poor canines.

Shaken and terrified.

Shaken and terrified.

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I can't do Dalk Galbi's food-pornography justice.

I can’t do Dalk Galbi’s food-pornography justice.

We consoled ourselves with the somewhat predictable choice of dalk galbi (how I love thee), gathered our stuff, bid adieu to Lori and found our way back to Dongseoul Bus Terminal. One sauna-bus and The Grand Budapest Hotel later, we were back in Gwangju; aching, goose-traumatised and tired, but home.

hur hur hur

hur hur hur

(Green) Tea Time

Definitely green.

Definitely green.

It’s felt very odd since I moved back to Korea. Not because of any (non-existent) regrets, or feeling alienated – quite the opposite – but because it’s felt remarkably normal to be here. The first time around, we reached the airport and didn’t have the faintest bloody idea what to do next. Now, we know how the transportation works, we can (poorly) muddle by with our infantile grasp of hangeul and we know what to expect from the country in general. It’s a weirder sensation not feeling displaced – but it does make it a hell of a lot easier to buy groceries.IMG_8788

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

Mandu, or Korean dumplings, also with green tea.

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The flip-side of our too-cool-for-cats familiarity with Korea is that we’ve been absolutely rubbish at Getting Out There since we got settled in Gwangju. We’ve popped out for a stroll in the mountains with our school and we nipped up to Seoul for a laugh, but we hadn’t really Done An Adventure until last week – when I threw down my Playstation controller and demanded that we leapt into action.

[note: some artistic embellishment may occur RE: pivotal action roles in this scenario. Meg may have expressed enthusiasm while I was hunting Templars in the Caribbean]

One of the problems we faced whilst near Seoul was that, although conveniently close to the country’s capital, there wasn’t much else to be discovered in Gyeonggi-do; almost everything worth seeing seemed to be on the southern half of the country. Now that we live in the southern half of the country, we should really live up to our latter-year resolutions.IMG_8918

So, after a brief brainstorming session where I outright refused to walk up the bastard great mountain Mudeungsan (surely a blog-to-come later in the year…), we settled on Boseong, the celebrated traditional green-tea fields on the southernmost edge of the country. One of the destinations we never quite managed to get around to before, Boseong is on most online lists of ‘Top 10 Places To Take A Selfie In Korea’, ‘Top 5 Edible Places In Korea’ and/or ‘Top Korean Tea-Related Destinations’, and so on.

Meg likes pine trees.

Meg likes pine trees.

One of the many upsides of our location is that we’re within a 5 minute scoot of Gwangcheon Bus Terminal, from where we can get pretty much anywhere on the Korean mainland. Hopping on a (gloriously empty) coach to Boseong proper, we then hitched a further taxi ride on the other side to the Tea Fields themselves. A note to wary travellers: regardless of how alluring the violet, fuzzy lining of the taxis waiting outside the bus station, I’d opt for a local bus to the fields instead; 10,000won is enough to get to the other side of Gwangju, so a 10-minute saunter for 13,000 didn’t come off as a good deal.

The Boseong Tea Fields are contained in a reasonably small area – maybe a square kilometre or two – but what it lacks in expansiveness it makes up for in sudden altitude. After a peaceful stroll through lines of pine trees, the ground suddenly takes off and shoots up a hundred metres. Tattooing this drastic slope are rows after rows of violently green tea crops, ripe for the picking by peckish tourists. I can’t vouch for the actual raw edibility of the plants, but the elderly ajummas and ajushis were cackling around us while chewing leaves, so presumably it’s delicious and/or that’s just the sort of thing ajummas and ajushis do.

Meg can't quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

Meg can’t quite handle the sheer quantity of tea.

The pinnacle viewpoint for the fields – and for the surrounding countryside, which drops two hundred green-hilled metres onto a distant valley floor – is spectacular. Owing to the masochistically steep incline of the mountain, most of the initial shots might be blurred or feature other heaving, sweaty adventurers, but there’s usually a break between couples’ selfies where you can get a shot for yourself.IMG_8884

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

Simply not enough selfies in the world.

As seems to be typical of any kind of exploring in Korea, the second we stepped off the obvious beaten path, we were entirely alone. Rather than backtracking down the mountain-ladder, we instead wandered further round the landscape – rewarding us with another of those ultra-rare, gloriously Silent Moments. Surrounded only by forest, away from the crowds, the sensory-depriving silence was enough to make the blood in my ears louder than the world around me. The loud, ecstatic greeting from (presumably) the groundskeeper sweeping a muddy stone staircase moments later served as a fine reintroduction to Korea.

'What's that sound?' 'Your heartbeat.' 'Oh.'

‘What’s that sound?’ ‘Your heartbeat.’ ‘Oh.’

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In favour of heading straight back home after circumnavigating the fields, we instead took the bus to Yulpo, a nearby beachside town, offering a Pine Forest Beach to explore. This decision cost us 1,200 won (about 60p) and bought us the single most spectacular mountainside-road spectacle I’ve seen in Korea. Huge mountains wrapped around tiny, distant fields on the valley floor stretched out into the water, and (owing to our disgustingly late departure in the first place) the setting-sun light blinding us on each left turn around the mountain burnt everything like fire. Excuse the poetic waxing: it just describes the experience as best as I can, and I owe it at least that.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight - entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Unbelievable and, thanks to the direct sunlight – entirely unphotographable views whilst moving.

Bright sunlight selfie.

Bright sunlight selfie.

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#likeomgsophotogenic

#likeomgsophotogenic

In the short time between arriving at the orange-lit Yulpo Beach – with a (well-timed) folk concert blasting out strangely off-key melodies and people dancing on the beach – to us waiting in the freezing cold for an ultimately non-existent bus back to Boseong, we ambled along the sandy stretch to the pier, (Meg) did a few cartwheels in the sand and I bought a sausage. It was a good start to this year’s exploration.

PS. Sorry about the beard, Mum.IMG_9042

Jeju (2): Divine Sex Ed

Halla TreesOur third and fourth days held the promise of either/or climbing Hallasan, swimming at Jungmun or daring the erotically artistic Loveland, and we had company – the bafflingly inexhaustive Pete, whose Wednesday plans we completely ruined by coercing him into joining us instead.Loveland I

Loveland is a miracle of Korea; in a country where sex and sexuality are pretty taboo subjects, it’s only a little baffling to be presented with an ‘art sculpture park’ completely devoted to vivid displays of every conceivable sexual position. As mentioned before, Jeju-do was and is the traditional honeymoon spot for Korean couples – and also used to serve as the Sex Education Island. The ancestral dol hareubang (‘grandfather stones’) dotting the island aren’t accidentally phallic, apparently. Loveland is basically an opportunity to act as obscene as possible, and does in fact encourage such acts by making the statues interactive. My apologies for any/all of the following images.

Loveland IV     Loveland II   Loveland III

Seogwipo BeachJungmun Beach demonstrates much of the essence of Korean tourism: it’s beautiful, exciting and completely crowded. The waves (for an Englishman of tame seas) are clothes-destroyingly strong (as certain people found out – but Meg would kill me for mentioning it) and the weather is fine – but, for the sake of the lifeguards’ ability to maintain order, the entirety of swimmers are restricted to a 100m stretch of the beach, meaning that personal space is a purely theoretical concept.

Above The CloudsFor the gamely traveller, challenges are always a plus when it comes to exploring hitherto unknown lands. The volcanic island currently in question has one, very obvious, geographic challenge – the volcano itself. Hallasan (‘Halla Mountain’) is the tallest mountain in Korea at 1950 metres, and – spoiler alert! – we went ahead and climbed it, along with mad Australian Pete.

CHAMPIONI say ‘mad’, as the walk was a tough one. Around 30-35 degrees, on a humid island, walking up another bastard hill, the travel guide predicted a walking time of 9 hours. We were very proud of ourselves – we made it in around 5-6 hours (Meg reaching the top slightly before me, because she’s a machine)…but Pete spent a little under two hours in total waiting either at the top or bottom of the mountain for us to arrive. I don’t understand how a human being can manage the whole thing in 3-4 hours, and have yet to determine his actual species.Halla Caldera

Crowded DonnaekoOur final day, while sad, promised relaxation at Donnaeko Waterfall – in contrast to Cheongjiyeon, an actual swimmable watering hole and river. Admittedly, our first impression was less than positive – the narrow river was hugely overcrowded and the rocky crannies and nooks were stuffed with rubbish and nappies – but, in a fairly sizeable river plateau between the bottom and the waterfall itself (as the river ran in large, wet steps), we could claim for our very own a peaceful 50-metre stretch of aquamarine water, forested sunlight and actual cold water. After a spectacular few hours of not doing much other than appreciating the environment, we dove into the waterfall, admired the mountain-goat ajummas clambering in their visors over and under the falls and – sadly – embarked for the airport.

Donnaeko Sunlight     Donnaeko

Jeju-do is well-deserved of its popularity; it feels like a completely different country, rather than simply a separate province. Having never been to Hawaii, I can’t comment on the accuracy of ‘Hawaii of the Orients’ – but I can see where they’re coming from.Leaving Sunlight

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