Tag Archives: nature

Falling for Seoraksan National Park

With Autumn upon us and the lack of changing leaves here in Hong Kong, I’m beginning to long for the fall colors that can be experienced in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere. While living in South Korea, my friend and I ventured the 6 hour bus ride from our home town of Daegu to Sokcho for some fall foliage. Sokcho is a city located on the northeastern coast of Korea, not far from the North Korean border. The city is known as a gateway to nearby Seoraksan National Park, where we spent most of our weekend.

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Seoraksan is one of Korea’s most popular National Parks and is listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is known for its stunning natural beauty, rare flora and fauna, and Buddhist temples. From the park’s main entrance there are many trails, with some peaks measuring over 1,200 meters above sea level, as well as access to a cable car. We decided to hike the Biryong Falls and Ulsanbawi courses.

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The Biryong Falls course is a short hike from the main entrance of the park. “Biryong” which literally means flying dragon is an easy hike which leads visitors to a serene waterfall that is hidden deep within the forest. As with most things in Korea, Biryong has a unique back story. It is believed that “long ago, the villagers suffered from a dire drought. The villagers found that a dragon had stopped the flow of the stream from the fall. They offered a maid as a sacrifice and the dragon disappeared into the sky, thus letting the stream flow once again.”

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This is great trail for anyone who wants a simple and easy hike. The course is quite flat and well maintained except for a bit at the end that involves some rock scrambling. The trail passes a thick bamboo forest, various sheer cliffs, and three waterfalls, making it a unique trekking experience. I really enjoyed taking in all the fall foliage along the path. The leaves here appeared to be deeper and brighter in color as the trail wandered along the lower elevations of the park.

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The Ulsanbawi course is a longer hike and known as one of the park’s more difficult hikes. The top is 876 meters above sea level, here you can enjoy panoramic views of Daecheongbong (the highest peak), Sokcho, and the East Sea. According to legend, Ulsanbawi comes from the city of Ulsan in South-Eastern Korea. It is said that on its way to the making of Kumgangsan (one of the best-known mountains in North Korea), the rock fell in love with Seorak and decided to stay here for good.

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The fairly arduous 4km hike takes roughly two hours to reach the peak is well worth the effort. The views from the top are simply breathtaking. I really enjoyed all the rock scrambling and climbing the 888 steps to the top. Although it was a bit crowded, it was still a peaceful experience. It’s easy to see why Ulsanbawi is one of park’s most popular hikes.

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If you have the time, I highly recommend adding Seoraksan National Park to your Korean itinerary. Only two and half hours by bus from Seoul, the park can be easily visited in one day. It’s a beautiful place to explore during any season and the nearby city of Sokcho is a quaint little coastal town that is an added bonus.

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For more information be sure to visit the Korea National Park Service Website.

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Wander Pi Wednesdays: Creatures of the Night

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

Night hiking through the jungles of Borneo, I happened upon this fuzzy caterpillar going on his way through the jungle. While not a rarity, I found it somewhat humbling to see the sheer amount of wildlife that comes alive during the night, just going about its business. The antithesis of insect sounds of the night to the bird and monkey calls of the day time is truly a wonderful experience. After just moments of trekking, I truly saw how the jungle is an enormous living entity.

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Wander Pi Wednesdays: Bali’s Jatiluwih Rice Terrace

Every Wednesday, I’ll be sharing one of my favorite photos from my travels.

Out of all my travels thus far, Bali was probably the most surprising. After hearing of other people’s experiences, I was expecting to encounter masses of tourists just about everywhere. While this is certainly true for some parts of the island, it’s still easy to find places that feel far removed from the chaos of the more built up areas. Case in point, the Jatiluwih Rice Terrace; 700 meters above sea level, this beautiful rice terrace is considered to be Bali’s oldest and most complex agricultural system. Designated a UNESCO Cultural Landscape, Jatiluwih offers a breathtaking panorama and a tranquil retreat from the island’s more developed areas.

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The Wonder of Coron

One of my favorite destinations in the world is located in the Palawan region of the Philippines. There are few places in the world that feel so remote and untouched. It is one of the handful of unexplored and untapped tropical paradises left on Earth. From stunning limestone cliffs to deserted beaches, Palawan is unlike any place I have explored. I love it so much I have traveled to the province on four separate occasions. There is something about the area that always calls me back. Perhaps it’s the jungle-clad mountains, pristine beaches, unspoiled coral reefs, remote lagoons, friendly villagers and magical sunsets. Palawan is such a picturesque paradise that I almost feel a bit guilty sharing it with the rest of the world in fears that it will be become the next Phi Phi Islands. Even so, it’s a magical place that must be explored.

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Most travelers to the region often decide to explore El Nido which is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and serene secret coves, yet, another area definitely worth checking out is Coron. Located in the most northern part of Palawan, Coron is just as stunning as El Nido and offers some of its own unique sights which set it apart from its more popular neighbor to the south. Many also argue that the underwater life in Coron is much more impressive than El Nido’s, and I would have to agree. The paradise is home to the eastern half of Busuanga Island, all of Coron Island, and fifty other smaller islands and islets.

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All the islands in the region are part of the Calamian Archipelago. This archipelago is home to some of the most impressive natural wonders in the world. From crystal clear fresh water lakes to pristine coral reefs, Coron has a lot to offer as an island destination. Most journeys to Coron begin in Busuanga at the Francisco B. Reyes Airport where the tarmac often has to be cleared of cattle. This tiny airport is the gateway to the area’s many destinations. Landing here is a unique experience and the ride to town is even more surprising. Driving along the cattle surrounded empty dirt roads, I knew I was going to love Coron.

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The town of Coron is about a forty minute bumpy, yet scenic ride from the airport. The town itself is authentically Filipino, you won’t find any massive hotels or resorts here. Instead, visitors can enjoy the local culture as it was meant to be. I personally preferred the town of Coron to El Nido as it wasn’t as touristy. I really enjoyed the local vibe that could be felt in Coron. The only downside to the municipality is that all beaches in the area can only be accessed by boat. Still, most of the beaches are only a short boat ride away and there some natural sites that can be experienced right in town.

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Some of the most popular places to visit in town are Mount Tapyas and Maquinit Hot Spring. Climbing Mount Tapyas is an easy endeavor as it’s more of a hill than a mountain, measuring some 680 feet high, even so, the views from the top are stunning. It’s the perfect place to photograph the town and surrounding islands. I highly recommend hiking up just before sunset.

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Maquinit Hot Spring is another popular place to visit. Only minutes from town, the hot spring is the perfect place to unwind after a day of island hopping. Hidden amongst a mangrove forest and right on the ocean, it’s definitely worth checking out. I really enjoyed spending an evening here under the stars with a beer in hand and relishing in the peaceful environment.

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Coron is home to numerous island hopping tours. One of the most popular and my personal favorite is the Coron Island Tour. This full day excursion makes stop at Kayangan Lake, Blue Lagoon, Siete Pecados, Banol Beach, Quin Reef, and the Coral Garden. The untouched nature and abundant sea life witnessed on this journey is unparalleled. It’s one of the many reasons why I have returned to Coron three times.

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Kayangan Lake is Coron’s most popular destination for it is simply one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This hidden freshwater lake is nestled within a mountain that is surrounded by the sea. The crystal-clear water of Lake Kayangan is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The location makes it even more magical as it seems worlds away from civilization. It’s difficult to put into words the feeling I got when I swam out to the middle of the lake and I floated on my back and gazed up at the limestone cliffs surrounding me. It was truly one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life. The underwater views are really beautiful, including a moon-like landscape and hundreds of tiny fish.

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Another highlight of Kayangan Lake is the steep, yet short climb to the lake. From here, visitors can enjoy views of the sea and the stunning Blue Lagoon. This is probably one of the most photographed spots in Palawan. It’s a picture perfect sight that looks almost too heavenly to be apart of this world.

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In addition to the Coron Island tour, another island hopping circuit I highly recommend is the Island Escape Tour. This excursion takes you to Malcapuya Island, Banana Island, and Bulog Dos Island. While a bit further out than Coron Island, these islands are well worth the two hour boat journey.

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Malcapuya is a remote island with one of the country’s most pristine white sand beaches, easily rivaling the sand of Boracay. It is locally regarded as the “ultimate virgin beach” and it’s easy to see why; the sand is perfect and water is crystal clear. Most importantly, the island isn’t developed and you won’t have to fight others for prime real estate on the beach. It’s the perfect place to enjoy some fresh coconut juice and sunshine.

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Another stop on this circuit is Banana Island. While the beach here is not as impressive, this stopover offers some spectacular snorkeling. The coral here is mostly undamaged and there is plenty of sea life to witness. Banana Island offers a few beach huts and cottages where visitors can escape the heat of the island.

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Altogether, Coron is a stunning island paradise that I highly recommend exploring. The destinations highlighted above are definitely worth checking out if you’re in the region. There are plenty of options when it comes to lodging. From low budget hostels to more lavish hotels, there is something for everyone. During my visits, I stayed at the La Natura Resort and the Gran Vista, both of which I can definitely recommend. Coron will surely please and inspire any and all that visit, but remember to protect this slice of paradise and to leave nothing but footprints behind!

Exploring South Korea’s Outlying Islands: Somaemuldo

South Korea has a lot to offer as a travel destination. From the bustling streets of Seoul to the quiet shores of Jeju, there is plenty to see and do in the ROK. While Jeju is Korea’s most famous island and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the peninsula is surrounded by hundreds of other islands which are just as beautiful.

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Starting in the city of Jinju, travelers must take an hours bus ride to the small port city, Tongyeong. Tongyeong is situated on the southern coast and has an extensive local fish market to be explored. I spent some time experiencing the local color here. The people were friendly and explorers can see the real bosses of the fish market; the hardcore ajimas. Ajimas, for those that don’t know, are older Korean ladies who can be seen squatting on street corners selling their produce. From here, you can buy your ticket to the island of Somaemuldo, located in the Hallyeo Haesang National Park.

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The boat ride lasts around an hour, giving tourists a view of some of the smaller islands in the area and a good look at the unique rock formations that can be found jutting out of the ocean. Somaemuldo itself is a small island, but is home to some challenging hiking trails, a small village and a lighthouse that was built by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. There is plenty of beautiful scenery to take in and due to the locals staying close to their homes, explorers get a little time for themselves to see the sights.

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I decided to take the longer trail toward the lighthouse which meant meandering along the ocean front. The lighthouse can be found on a smaller island, only accessible twice a day during low tide. Seeing the mountainous cliffs. the seascape views, and the blue waters made trekking Somaemuldo an enjoyable experience.

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The island reminded me a lot of Hongdo, but it definitely has its own character and appeal. Both islands certainly deserve a visit if you’re living in or backpacking through South Korea. For those closer to Busan and Geoje, Somaemuldo can also be accessed from the Jeogu Port in Geoje.

Exploring South Korea’s Outlying Islands: Hongdo & Heuksando

South Korea is a beautiful country. I think it’s easily one of the most underrated countries in East Asia. From the stunning national parks to the bustling cities, Korea has a lot to offer. I was lucky enough to live and work in Korea for a year. During this time, I explored as much of the county as I could. One of the more remote areas I explored was the Southwestern part of the peninsula near Mokpo. From here, many outlying islands can be accessed, including Hongdo and Heuksando where I spent a weekend exploring. The ferry terminal in Mokpo also services Jeju and most islands to the west.

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Our first destination of the weekend was Hongdo (Red Island). This tiny island is located  to the southwest of Mokpo in the Yellow Sea. The island is a part of Dadohaehaesang National Park; Korea’s largest national park. The entire island itself is declared a National Monument and therefore people are not allowed to enter areas other than the villages. Visitors cannot bring out even a stone from the island since it’s protected land.

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The only way to the island is by boat so you won’t see any cars on the island, just a scooter or two. There are two tiny villages on the island with only a few hundred residents combined.

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After two and half hours aboard the ferry from Mokpo, we arrived at Hongdo just before noon. I was instantly taken aback by the island’s stunning scenery and simple charm. The pace of life was far removed from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. There was no sound of traffic, only the sound of a gentle sea breeze and rolling waves in the distance. The air was the freshest I had breathed in months. The salty air was welcoming and very refreshing. Since I grew up most of my life along the ocean I felt right at home.

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As we made our way past the dock and through the narrow alleys of the village, I knew it was a place I was going to enjoy. We found a quaint minbak (homestay/bed) with a balcony that had amazing views of the harbor. After settling in and eating some ramen, we walked back to the dock and purchased tickets for a boat tour around the island.

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The boat tour was a two hour journey along the island’s stunning coastline. Most of the coastline is made of rocky vertical cliffs reaching hundreds of feet high. The deep turquoise sea seemed to beautifully contrast the red rock while evergreen trees blanketed many of the rocks and peaks. The views around the island were amazing. It didn’t look like anything you’d expect to see in Korea. It looked more like the green shores of Ireland.

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After the boat tour we spent the evening enjoying the island’s relaxed atmosphere and trying some it’s unique seafood, including 소라 (sora) which is similar to an edible sea snail/conch.

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The next morning, we explored some of the island’s trails and pebble beaches. That afternoon, we slowly packed up our belongings in preparation for our next destination. We really enjoyed our stay on Hongdo, it’s a great place to relax and take in beautiful scenery.

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Our next destination was Heuksando, an island about an hour from Hongdo. Heuksando is a larger, more developed island, but still just as peaceful as Hongdo. We stayed in the island’s main fishing village. The fishing village was much like the ones you’d see in New England and was well stocked with plenty of fresh seafood.

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The next morning, we took a bus tour around the island with a group of friendly Koreans. The weather wasn’t ideal, but we were able to see some of the coast as the weather eventually cleared. Late that afternoon, we got back on the ferry to Mokpo.

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The southwestern islands of South Korea are worth checking out if you’re living in Korea or  backpacking through the country for an extended period of time. The area is remote and isn’t easy to get to making it an ideal place to get some local colour. If you have the time, I definitely recommend hopping on a ferry in Mokpo to explore some of the remote islands in the region.

The Great “Wild” Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is easily one of the most famous and recognizable landmarks in the world. Known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it has become China’s most popular attraction. People from all over the world travel to the People’s Republic to experience the ancient grandeur and beauty of the wall resulting in many parts of this historical attraction being inundated with tourists. Thankfully, the Great Wall of China is 5,500 miles long with Beijing covering only 342 of these miles. Thus, there are parts of the wall that can still be explored on a more personal basis. One of these sections is Jinshanling.

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While Jinshanling is a bit of a trek from Beijing, about a three hour drive from the center of the city, the end result is well worth the extra time. I absolutely loved this section of the wall. Jinshanling is isolated and stunning. I found the scenery to be quite extraordinary and unforgettable.

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I really enjoyed trekking along this portion of the Great Wall. The vistas of the surrounding landscape were truly impressive and I found the area to be authentic and natural. It offers an organic mix of restored and untouched wall and, most surprisingly, I didn’t see a single tourist while exploring this area.

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I spent nearly three hours climbing up and down parts of the Jinshanling section, which measures nearly seven miles in total. The hike was rather challenging as the varying depth of steps and sheer steepness made it feel like quite the workout, especially in the summer heat. While the steps and elevation changes can be difficult, the rewards are magical and it is totally worth the pain. Hiking up this remote part of the wall made my experience at the Great Wall even more memorable.

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If you’re planning to visit the Great Wall, I highly recommend taking the time and making the effort to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall, you won’t regret it. Very few portions of the wall can compare to the natural beauty and authentic quality found at Jinshanling. Here, you won’t have to worry about battling through crowds of tourists or dealing with ruthless vendors. It’s simply the Great Wall in all its natural splendor, the way it was meant to be experienced.