Myths and Legends of China 09: Mountains & Lakes

The three places in today’s stories are real live places in China (and Taiwan) that people visit as modern day tourist attractions. Although, no one is visiting them just now, thanks Covid, there are a plethora of photographs, Wikipedia articles, and travel blogs about all of them. I didn’t get the chance to go to any landmarks myself, but I still think it’s cool that these traditional folk tales were inspired by stunning natural landscapes that still exist today.


The Goddess of Mt. Wu

The Immortal Maiden Yao Ji was Queen Mother Wang Mu’s twenty-third daughter. Not only did she grow up to be beautiful, but also kind-hearted. Wang Mu loved her especially dearly. Yao Ji’s natural disposition was vivacious, and she was never able to remain idle. Every day she would sneak out to go and play. Wang Mu had no way to catch her.

One day, Queen Mother Wang Mu came out to relieve her boredom and saw that Yao Ji looking right into the mortal world. Angrily she said, “Even if Heaven has tasked you to play, what are you looking at the mortal world for, that place can corrupt your eyes!” Yao Ji didn’t believe it, she pointed to a red-crowned crane and said, “That crane is pure white like jade, how could that corrupt my eyes? I want to be like that, to fly everywhere and finally see what the mortal world is like.”

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Wang Mu hastily tried to talk her out of it, saying, “The mortal world is a sea of bitterness without end, and you are a royal princess, a golden branch with jade leaves, you simply must not go no matter what!” Yao Ji didn’t listen, she simply sat atop her cloud looking down. She saw many people’s houses were just thatched cottages, their food vegetable husks, and their clothes were damaged and rotten cloth. With a sigh she said, “Oh, truly bitter!” Wang Mu heard this and smiled to herself, then she said, “Still, Heaven is good, we have exotic food without end, and unlimited fine silks and lace to wear…”, but the more Wang Mu talked, the more disgusted Yao Ji became, she resolved to go to the mortal world for a time!  Queen Mother Wang Mu defied her, and sent her instead to the Dragon Palace of the Eastern Sea.

The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea had a plan for Yao Ji from an earlier time, only at that time she was still young. Now she came as a guest, the Dragon King received her with special attention. He poured the wine himself, and said happily, “Beautiful maiden, our social position and economic status are in harmony, we are a match made in Heaven!” Yao Ji heard this and her face splotched red. She left the palace in less than the space of one breath, and simply went straight to the human world.

On the road, Yao Ji encountered many people fleeing trouble, leaning on beggars sticks and carrying worn out baskets, pulling along the elderly, carrying the young on their backs, and weeping endlessly. Yao Ji saw this and felt extremely sad. She just wanted to rush forward and ask what happened, so she failed to see the black clouds gathering in the sky. A fierce wind whistled by; twelve evil dragons were in the process of stirring up trouble. Yao Ji hurriedly started steering her rosy clouds. She approached the evil dragons and used sweet words and gracious language to persuade them to not work any more evil deeds. But the evil dragons paid no heed, going so far as to make even more of a ruckus. Yao Ji couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled a jade hairpin from her head, and brandished it at the twelve evil dragons. A ribbon of golden light flashed past, and the evil dragons all dropped dead.

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When Queen Mother Wang Mu found out that Yao Ji had gone to the human world and killed twelve dragon princes she became angry and resentful, however when she heard she was staying in the wild mountains, she also felt the pain of love and ordered her other twenty-two daughters to find Yao Ji and bring her back.

The twenty-two Immortal Maidens went down to the human world where they encountered many setbacks and finally found Yao Ji. They said to her, “Little Sister, our mother misses you day and night, with no thought for tea or rice, come back to Heaven with us.” “It isn’t that I heartlessly do not go back. Elder Sisters look, the common people are suffering hardship, how can I not care about that?” Yao Ji said this and at the same time pointed into the distance. There on the mountainside was a wild tiger in the middle of chasing a person, it overtook the person while they watched.

b6f64566dcc44579bf44103f162e93d0Elder Sister Cui Ping hurriedly caught up some silt and cast it out. The silt became dozens of arrows that shot the tiger down. Before long, at the foot of the mountain an old grandmother was climbing up, her complexion was pale and wan, she was weak and looked like she had a serious illness. Elder Sister Chao Yun immediately plucked out several hairs from her head, and cast them in front of her. The hairs changed into the reishi mushroom that grants miraculous recovery and saved the old woman’s life. Then, everyone heard a burst of work chanting, and turned their heads to look. In the river, passing by, was a boat floating on the water. The backs of the barge haulers pulling the boat were all almost bent to the ground, but the boat’s progress was still quite slow. Elder Sister Song Luan faced west and blew out a breath, the blow started a favorable sailing wind that pushed the boat forward. The barge haulers straightened up their backs and smiled. Everyone had just heaved a sigh of relief when suddenly they saw in a far off field a patch of dried up yellow, a drought had caused this severe damage, how would the farmers earn their daily living? The Immortal sisters thought and thought; they felt sad and cried. Their tears turned into rain that began to fall with a sound like hua-la-la. Very soon, the field had become a lush green.

When they had finished these things, the Immortal sisters had a contradiction in their hearts: their mother needed to be taken care of, but the common people also should receive blessing and protection, what to do? Finally, everyone made a unanimous decision, one half would return to Heaven, and the other half would remain in the human world. The eleven elder sisters who stayed behind plus Yao Ji blessed and protected the ordinary people of the human world day and night. Later, they transformed into the twelve mystical and beautiful peaks of Mt. Wu. Included among these, closely overlooking the Yangtze River, reaching through the clouds is the transformed Yao Jin Xian Nu Peak.

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Split the Mountain to Rescue the Mother

At the very top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua there is a giant stone a hundred feet high that has been cut neatly into three parts. In the side of this giant stone is a 7 foot high, 300 pound Crescent Moon Iron Ax. Legend has it that this is the historic place where Chen Xiang split the mountain to rescue his mother. That giant stone is called “Ax Splitting Rock” and the axe is called “Mountain Opening Ax”.

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It is said that one year a scholar by the name of Liu Yan Chang went to Chang’an (the ancient city of Xi’an) to take the Imperial examinations. When he passed through Tong Guan (a county in Wei nan, Shan’xi) he climbed Mt. Hua to go sightseeing. He had heard that the goddess San Sheng Mu of the West Peak Temple was absolutely accurate, so he went into the temple to request a Qian bamboo stick to have his fortune told. He wanted to ask about his future prospects. However, that day San Sheng Mu just happened to be away from home attending a feast, and the boy watching the door did not dare to casually grant a Qian fortune stick. Liu Yan Chang even drew three Qian, but they were all blank and he became very angry. He took up his brush and wrote a poem on the wall of the temple reproaching San Sheng Mu.

When San Sheng Mu returned home, she saw the inscribed poem and became ashamed and angry. She found Liu Yan Chang and saw that his appearance was stately and grand, and immediately came to feel admiration towards him. She transformed into a mortal woman and came to Liu Yan Chang’s side. Liu Yan Chang also liked the dignified and elegant San Sheng Mu. The pair of lovers soon became parents. Not long after, Liu Yan Chang passed his exam and became eligible for the highest imperial civil service. San Sheng Mu gave him a son called Chen Xiang, and the whole family lived on blessed and happy.

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Time flew by, in the blink of an eye Chen Xiang was six years old. One day San Shang Mu’s elder brother Er Lang Shen Yang Jian found out that San Sheng Mu was living a mortal life, even going so far as to bear a son. He was furious. He sent out his spirit eagle to capture little Chen Xiang. Then, in a rage, Yang Jian found San Sheng Mu and yelled at her for having no shame, for violating the law of Heaven, and forced her to hand over her jeweled lotus lantern. The Jeweled Lotus Lantern was her Mountain Guardian Treasure, but in order to save Chen Xiang, San Sheng Mu had no choice but to give it over to Yang Jian.. After Yang Jian took the lantern, he released Chen Xiang, however he pushed San Sheng Mu down under the giant stone at the top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua.

After nine years Chen Xiang had gradually grown up into a thoughtful young man. One day, his father explained what had happened to his mother. Chen Xiang heard this and was filled with grief and indignation, but at the same time was determined to go to Mt. Hua and rescue his mother.

At that time, one of the Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin clutched his finger in contemplation, realized that Chen Xiang was going to Mt. Hua to rescue his mother, wanted to help him. He turned into a Daoist Priest and went to the foot of Mt. Hua. When Chen Xiang came to the base of the mountain he ran across the Daoist priest, explained his reason for coming, and asked about the road up the mountain. Lu Dongbin said, “If you go up the mountain like this, you cannot succeed. It would be better to first train with me.”

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Chen Xian honored Lu Dongbin as a teacher. Every day he rose early and went to bed late, practicing martial arts, and quickly became proficient in all eighteen styles of martial art. Lu Dongbin saw this and was very pleased, saying, “Very good! Your martial arts training is already complete, you can go up the mountain. The key to open the mountain is at your Uncle Yang Jian’s place. He has a dog and an eagle; they are very fierce. I will give you two small pills, the round one can subdue the spirit dog, and the long one can tame the spirit eagle. I hope you and your mother can be reunited soon.”

Chen Xiang took leave of his master, and carried an iron pestle up the mountain to find Yang Jian. When he got to the Gate of Heaven, he saw a bunch of Celestial Generals escorting a haughty and pure god. Chen Xiang knew that must be Yang Jian, he went firmly up to him and saluted, only to hear Yang Jian  sneer and say, “Heh heh, you really came!” saying this he raised a three pointed two edged knife and struck at Chen Xiang’s head. Chen Xiang raised the iron pestle and did his best to resist, there was a sound – ka-cha, and the knife snapped into two pieces. Yang Jian was angry and surprised, he let out a bellow and called forth Xiao Tian Quan, the Barking Celestial Dog. Xiao Tian Quan opened his bloody mouth wide like a sacrificial bowl, rose into the air and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the round pill, Xiao Tian Quan swallowed it in one bite, and suddenly his jaw was tightly shut, it lay down on the ground in pain and began rolling around. Yang Jian then called forth the spirit eagle. The spirit eagle spread both wings, hid the sky and covered the earth, it spread its talons like knives and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the long pill, the spirit eagle ate it in one bite, both wings froze in midair. Er Lang Shen saw that the spirit dog and spirit eagle had been defeated, he had no choice but to order the Heavenly Generals to fetch the key to open the mountain — a glittering, shining, crescent moon ax.

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Chen Xiang took the crescent moon ax and went up Mt. Hua calling loudly as he went, “Mother! Mother!” Chen Xiang called from the North Peak to the East Peak, he called from the East Peak to the South Peak, but from beginning to end he could not find her in those places, worried he cried out loud. A mountain spirit was moved by this, and said to him, “Oh filial child, your mother is in the West Peak.” Chen Xiang heard this and stopped crying, climbed the Western Peak as if he were flying, soaring into the air with each jump, raised the crescent moon ax high, and did his best to split the peak. There was a loud, earth shattering noise, the peak was split open, San Sheng Mu slowly came out.  Mother and son saw one another at last, they embraced one another excitedly and cried bitterly together.

Chen Xiang welcomed his mother back home and the family of three at last resumed their happy and blessed life together.

Notes: I actually climbed Mt. Hua on my 2012 visit to China, but I climbed the Eastern Peak because we wanted to stay the night a the peak and watch the sunrise as is the custom. I say climbed because we did spend about 7-8 hours walking up the endless stairs (no switchbacks here), but only after we took the bus up to the gondola. People in better shape than me climb the whole thing! No matter which peak you visit, it’s a stunning experience and I highly recommend it if you’re going to be in the Xi’an area. This was one of my lovely views.IMG_3109


The Legend of Sun and Moon Lake

In the jewel island of Taiwan, there is a beautiful scenic lake called Sun and Moon Lake. Beside the lake are two towering mountains, one is called Mt. Da Jian, and one is called Mt. Shui She. This is the origin of these names and a beautiful story about them.

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A very long time ago, there lived in a large lake, two evil dragons, a male and a female. One day, at noon, when the sun arrived in the sky over the lake, male dragon suddenly leapt up and in one gulp he swallowed the sun into his belly. At night when the moon rose into the sky, the female dragon also flew up and swallowed the moon into her belly. This pair of evil dragons swam to and swam fro in the lake, sometimes swallowing the sun and moon down and sometimes spitting them back out, playing by batting them around. It was as if they were in the middle of a performance, a pair of dragons with trick pearls. They only pursued their own pleasure. They didn’t consider that because the human world had no sun or moon, everywhere was dark. The threes all wilted, birds in the branches no longer sang, nearly ripe sugar cane dried out, cows and sheep couldn’t find grass to eat and nearly all starved to death. Days became unbearable, and the people all cried out in a wailing sigh.

In the village there were a pair of clever and courageous young people – Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they saw this state of affairs and their hearts were filled with worry. They pledged to seize and return the sun and moon. But how could they fight the evil dragons? Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She arrived outside of the evil dragon’s cliff cave dwelling, and eavesdropped on the two dragons’ conversation. Actually the things that they were most afraid of were the golden ax and golden scissors buried at the foot of Mt. Ali

Having found a way to subdue the evil dragons, Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She climbed mountains and waded rivers, and arrived at the base of Mt. Ali. With no thought for tiredness they dug and dug until they couldn’t tell how long they dug. A crack in the rock finally showed a ribbon of golden light, they dug again a bit more down, and sure enough they dug out the golden hatchet and golden scissors buried under the mountain.

Carrying these treasures and full of confidence they returned to the side of the big lake. The two evil dragons were in the middle of playing by swallowing and spitting up the sun and moon. Brother Da Jian dashed forward bravely with no personal concern and jumped down into the lake, brandishing the golden axe and chopping fiercely at the evil dragons. Suddenly he chopped the male dragon’s head right off. Sister Shui She saw a timely opportunity, raised the golden scissors in both hands and ka-cha, sheared off the female dragon’s head.

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Both dragons were dead; however, the sun and moon were immersed at the bottom of the lake. Brother Da Jian tore down the male dragon’s eyeball and swallowed it; Sister Shui She swallowed female dragon’s eye; and both people instantly turned into giants. Brother Da Jian dredged the sun up from the lake bed, and Sister Shui She pulled up a palm tree from the lakeside propping it upward, and pushed the sun back up to the sky. The sun was once again joyfully hanging high in the blue sky. All living things also glowed with vitality; the people cheered and frolicked with joy. After the sun set behind the mountain, Sister Shui She dredged up the moon from the lake bed, and Brother Da Jian used the palm tree again to push the moon back into the sky. The gentle radiance of the moon once more spilled fully across the earth. The people were extremely happy. They wanted to show their appreciation for Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She, but it was discovered the two had already transformed into two majestic mountains.

The people arrived at the lakeside where the sun and moon were previously swallowed, they found that the island in the center of the lake had divided it into two halves: one half was like a round sun, and the other half was like a crescent moon, so they named the lake Sun and Moon Lake. In order to commemorate the selfless devotion of Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they named the two mountains separately as Mt. Da Jian and Mr. Shui She.

Notes: I didn’t go to Sun Moon Lake on my 2019 visit to Taiwan. It is a very popular destination, but I was worried it was just going to be a crowded tour group and I also had limited time. I don’t regret my choices, but I may go to the lake if I ever get to go back to Taichung. I was curious about the shape and the mountains so I did some Google Mapping. I found the Shuishe mountain and the trailhead is quite near the lake, but I can’t pin down where Dajian Mountain is (the only one I found was much farther north near Taipei?). I’m not really sold on the idea that the lake looks like a sun and moon. The island is super tiny, I almost missed it because I didn’t zoom in enough on the map! This helpful satellite view from a Chinese source shows us where the sun (right) and moon (left) “shapes” of the lake are, with the line running through the small island of Lalu (拉魯島).

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9 Days in Taiwan 1/2: GeoParks, Butterflies & Temples

I have been told over and over by native Taiwanese and twitterpated Taiwanese tourists that I simply HAVE to go to Taiwan, that it is nothing like China, or possibly it was everything I love about China with none of the Communism. It’s so close to Korea, the flights are easy, but the weather is hard. In January 2019 I had a spare 2 weeks before I would meet my friend for our whirlwind Middle East tour. It seemed like a great chance to finally see the Ilha Formosa. The rest of the holiday that winter was so much, I forgot I didn’t write about Taiwan until my Facebook Memories started popping up this January. Faced with an unexpected rainy week on my holidays in “sunny” Spain, it seems like an opportunity to fix that.

I went to three main cities: Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I ate more delicious food than I thought could exist on such a tiny island, and I enjoyed local sightseeing, temples, and natural wonders. In the first post, I’m going to give a little historical context and then talk about the natural beauty and the temples I visited. In the second post, I’ll share my more urban tourist experiences and saving the best for last, the food.


A Very Very Brief History

I used to live and work in mainland China (in Jinan, and later Yanjiao, a small town outside Beijing), plus I studied Chinese history, culture and language in university. I knew Taiwan was different, but I didn’t really understand how much.

Taiwan separated from China when the Kuo Min Tang fled there after Mao and the Communists took over mainland China in 1949. China under the KMT government was part of the Allies in WWII. We gave them money to fight the Japanese, but they ended up using it to fight the communists, and still lost. Most of the Western World didn’t recognize the communist government of China until the 1970’s. We were busily still supporting the Taiwanese government as the rightful government of all China.

A few countries at a time slowly came to realize that the communists weren’t going anywhere, and then Nixon had his famous visit to Beijing to stand on the fake Great Wall and show solidarity and that was pretty much it. Since then, China insists that Taiwan is a part of China and everyone just sort of humors them. We make separate treaties and trade agreements, plus Taiwan has a different language, flag, currency, government and legal system from mainland China…. but, ONE COUNTRY! (says China)… Taiwan is starting to disagree.

Of course Taiwan has a strong Chinese identity and history, but it diverges sharply at 1949. At the end of the Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan and the Communist (Mao) government claimed the mainland. Mao’s government worked hard to erase a lot of history in order to position the Party at the top and center of all life in China. It was huge disaster and tens of millions of people died from persecution and starvation. Plus temples and relics were destroyed or stripped of decoration and re-purposed as Party business community halls. Some time in the 80s, the government went “oops” maybe we need history after all, and started rebuilding both physically and narratively. Therefore almost everything you see nowadays in China is a reconstruction, and the few practicing monks and nuns in the temples are there under very strict observation because someone told China that civilized countries don’t murder all their religious leaders. (most of the literature on this is academic research and NOT readily accessible in Wikipedia, you can take my word or you can go ask a Chinese Studies scholar). Although, now with Hu… who knows?

Taiwan, on the other hand, continued the Nationalist traditions that were started in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that finally eliminated the monarchy and established a “people’s” government… although arguably back to the Boxer Rebellion because everyone was so fed up at those Royals supplanting Traditional Chinese Culture™ with Western European goods and values… and opium…The point is that the KMT were basically in favor of traditional Chinese culture, where the Communists were pretty opposed. So while mainland China went through this holocaust level cultural purge (The “Great Leap Forward” followed by what is still referred to as the “Cultural Revolution” which makes it sounds like hippies dropping acid and doing free love), Taiwan and other Chinese communities in Asia (Malaysia makes this super ovbs, too) were continuing to move forward with a more normal level of cultural changes influenced by post colonialism, globalization, and technology just like everyone else.

2000 years of shared history, followed by 60 very divergent years brings us to the ‘same but different’ cultures of mainland China and Taiwan. So while China firewalls out anything it doesn’t like and creates its own online reality, arrests anyone who dissents, and sends religious or sexual minorities to reeducation camps, prisons, or organ harvesting factories, Taiwan is a proud democracy that legalized same sex marriage last year. While that sounds a little behind to most westerners, its stunningly progressive for Asia. They were actually the first country to do it.

Lastly, a quick note on the spelling. Mainland China adopted a variety of romanization (“roman” letters, like the ones you are reading now) called “pinyin” while Taiwan used the older form Wade-Giles. Some brief examples (minus tone marker): Beijing /Peiking, Gaoxiong /Kaohsiung, Deng Xiaoping /Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Guomindang /Kuomintang. Although now-a-days a lot of things in Taiwan are romanized in Pinyin, those places which were internationally codified with Wade-Giles spelling still remain. Pronunciation remains a challenge for those who have not studied the language because neither system is intuitive for English speakers. (try typing the pinyin spelling into Google translate to listen).

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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This was part of a package bus tour I took, but honestly, if I ever go back to Taipei, I want to take the public bus out here and spend a whole day at this park. This website has some very nice English language explanations about the rock formations and erosion patters, if you’re curious.

I do love the science, but I have to say that I, like most of the visitors, was more enchanted by the fairy-tale like shapes that these rocks have come to embody. When I arrived, I got a little pamphlet showing the most famous formations. It was a little bit like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all, and I kept getting distracted by not at all famous, but still amazingly beautiful rock formations like joints and fossils all around.

The most famous rock is the Queen’s Head, which you may have seen on listicles of “cool things to visit”. The line to get a photo from the best angle was insane, and because I was in a tour group, I had to choose between standing in line for the famous rock, or going to see all the others. Still, I got a glimpse of Queens Head rock from the queen angle by wheedling past the line creatively (really the line is for people who want to pose with it, you are allowed to take a picture from anywhere). In case you can’t tell, it’s the one in the background that looks sort of like woman’s head with an updo or royal headdress.

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The park is well aware the Queen is their biggest draw, and that it is eroding a little more every year. It won’t be long before her neck erodes entirely and she becomes Marie Antoinette instead. To maintain tourism, the park has named a new “Cute Princess Rock” which is shaping up to become the main attraction when the old queen dies.

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Other rock formations I found include the Elephant Rock & The Pineapple Bread Rock. Pineapple bread is just cut to look like a pineapple.It doesn’t taste like and isn’t made with pineapple (unlike pineapple cake which is, but looks like tofu squares).

One little island turned out to contain at least 3 of the targets: the peanut rock (far left), the fairy shoe (about 3/4 on the upper right, kind of looks like a sandal) and the pearl, or globe (far right, the lower sphere, yeah, I know there’s like 4).

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Our tour guide challenged us to find a particular rock and take a photo of it that matched the angle in the brochure. The angles of these rock formations matters quite a bit. The queen doesn’t look like a queen from any other angle (see below). In this case it was a gorilla, and you had to walk all the way around to the side facing away from the path to see the illusion. Most people were taking photos through the hole in the rock without ever realizing they were at the gorilla! (I won the scavenger hunt).

Looking at the brochure and the website, it’s painfully obvious I saw only a tiny part of the park, and I had a very limited time to try and find and appreciate these unique formations. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but a full day return is on the top of my list for a second visit to Taipei (right behind the food).

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

This was a short stop on the same all day bus tour. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be easy to get here on public transit, so a tour to Shifen might be the only way if you aren’t renting a car. We were pretty rushed at this stop, and the waterfall itself is a medium length walk from the car park with lots of stairs and long bridge.

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I felt a little like I was playing tag with the scenery. I just about had time to get there take some pics, stare longingly at the cool water for a couple minutes and hike back to the bus. There is nothing “cold” about winter in Taipei. I saw pictures online of people in the snow, but I think it must be a real rarity. Locals did tell me the weather on my visit was unseasonably warm, but rushing around the geopark and speeding through the countryside to see the waterfall had me soaked in sweat.

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Nonetheless, it is a remarkable waterfall. No mere trickle through the rocks as far too many advertised waterfalls can turn out to be, this was a broad and strong roaring fall. If you are lucky enough to have more than 20 minutes here, there are also several restaurants and picnic tables where you can enjoy the waterfall over lunch.

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Kaohsiung:

I actually only included Kaohsiung in my travel plans after I read that one of the only sites of mass butterfly migration was near there and was going to be happening during January (when I was traveling). Like waterfalls, butterflies are an irresistible draw for me. I do enjoy a butterfly park, where many species are raised for ecological conservation or just because they’re pretty, and visitors can walk through a mesh enclosed garden to see them, but I also treasure butterflies in the wild. It always feels like a tiny little brush with magic when they pose for me.

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

Thus, when I read about the mass migration of the purple crow butterflies I was very excited. There are only two species in the world that overwinter en masse in a valley like this, and the other is the monarch. I’d seen beautiful footage of the monarch masses in Mexico (not open to tourists, btw, to protect the butterflies) and while the articles I read warned me not to expect anything so profuse, it is still the second largest natural gathering of butterflies in the world. I had to go.

I did a lot of research to prepare. Optimal butterfly viewing is 8-11am, but the buses don’t run that early. I actually emailed with the park about this. The best public transit option from Kaohsiung is to take Kaohsiung Bus E25 & E28 (Kaoqi Express) to Qishan and then change to H31 (Qishan-Maolin-Duona) (website link) The problem is the distance and time. The E25 takes just over 3 hours, and then you wait for one of the 6 daily buses to Maolin park entrance and ride another 45-60 minutes. Both E25&28 don’t run before 7am. Nothing gets you to Qishan early enough to reach the park entrance before noon. I also looked into hostel, b&bs or other options closer to the park, but even searching in Chinese with my not entirely terrible language skills, information was scarce. The few places I found online couldn’t take reservations online and were not on the shuttle bus route in any case.

To make matters even more complicated, there was an earthquake in 2005 which decimated a lot of that area, but there’s not a lot of information on what is or isn’t still functional post quake.

I could have just bused in and arrived at noon, and taken my chances the butterflies were not all having their afternoon nap, but I wanted masses of butterflies. I looked at videos as recently as two days before my arrival in Kaohsiung and saw them fluttering all over the roads. In some places, roads were even being shut down to protect the butterflies! So, I booked myself a car to drive me there at the very crack of dawn. I used a company called Tripool, and instead of a 4-5 hour bus trip for 5$, I had a 1 hour car ride for 35$. If it had worked as planned, I still say it would have been worth it.

I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk, but it was barely reliable in the city and there was next to no data about the mountains. Several days of weather patterns led me to hope that a gray misty early morning would burn off into a sunny mid-morning, so I bundled myself in the car at 7am and headed to the Taiwanese countryside.

When I arrived, the weather was still terrible. The car I hired dropped me off here.

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I found what looked like the trail head which had lots of signs about trails and how to spot the butterflies, but they were old and dirty, like no one had used them in years. You don’t know how unsettling it is to be in this kind of fog filled emptiness and see signs that are obviously new (it has a QR code for heavens-sake) but look like they’re from some kind of post-apocalyptic survival film.

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It turns out the reason is that no one HAD used them in years. The original structures from before the earthquake had just been abandoned. Eventually, I found the actual visitors center, which made me feel a lot better. The people there said there wouldn’t be any butterfly activity that day, but the weather outlook for the rest of my time in Taiwan didn’t look any better. Plus, it was 4 hours until the next bus out of town.

I watched a movie about the butterflies with a group of school children on a school educational trip. I didn’t understand that much, but it was mostly fun to watch the kids react to the video (and to me). After that, I decided to hike the trail despite the weather.

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I climbed stairs for hours and saw zero signs of butterfly presence. My photos from the hike look like they should be eerily silent, but the music from the cafe could be heard pretty much all over the trail, and despite the terrible weather, there were a significant number of other tourists out here chattering away. 

Although I found no butterflies for most of my hiking time, I did find plenty of interesting things. There were adorable snails who thought the rainy atmosphere was perfect. There were beautiful tropical flowers, flourishing in the warm winter air. And,  there was an army of giant spiders. I experienced the summer spiders in mainland China, and to a lesser extent in Korea. These are monsters who build webs that are several meters across. I am not kidding or exaggerating. These suckers are like 5cm not counting legs.

Honestly, I rarely see them quite that big in Korea… at least in the cities, and they are really good about not ever coming inside houses, and about building their webs where people aren’t likely to walk. I don’t think they’re considerate, just that it’s a lot of effort to make an enormous web, and they don’t want us to smash it.

The spiders in Maolin think 5cm body length is scrawny. If I was not familiar with the species behavior, I would have totally freaked out. Luckily I know from experience, they are not interested in me. They don’t want to put a web across a path. They will not drop on you from above. That last one is really relevant since, to avoid the humans, a lot of them just built their webs about 10ft up. Where they can catch birds.

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To be honest, I was really surprised there were no butterfly corpses in these webs. And, however intimidating these spiders can look, the webs in the mist and rain were beautiful jeweled works of art.

After a couple hours of meandering, I finally found some butterflies. I saw maybe 20-30 the whole day, and only one close enough to photo. It was a far cry from the hundreds or thousands I had been hoping to see.

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It is awfully beautiful there, but I really wish I could have seen it in action. Just in case the Taiwanese government was exaggerating, I did check the live video feed and some Instagram filters from sunnier days, and it looks like it really is a little fairy land. Next time, I will have to watch the weather more carefully and be ready to rush to Kaohsiung at short notice. The good news is, it’s only a couple hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung, so I won’t have to stay there waiting (Taipei has better food, sorry Kaohsiung), but I will have to have a more flexible plan.

Temples

Taoism (pinyin: Daoism), Confucianism and Buddhism are considered the three main “religions” of China. Taoism is mainly a mix of local folk practices that consolidated after the introduction of Buddhism. It has a LOT of gods and spirits and ancestors and immortals and magic animals. The main goal of Taoism is immortality (although there is a split on whether that means corporeal or spiritual), but you can pray to any of the gods for help with more mundane stuff like health, marriage, or passing your driving test.

Buddhism, often heard of but rarely understood, is a spiritual practice without any gods. Buddhists search for Enlightenment and subsequent freedom from this world which is both an illusion and full of suffering. This takes a few hundred (thousand) lifetimes, so in the mean time a lot of people pray to the boddhisattvas (a little like saints?) for the same mundane stuff they ask the Taoist gods for.

Confucianism is more a total package social structure than a “religion” but it does incorporate a certain amount of ritual and spirit oriented behavior and a very clear “how to live” guide, though not a lot of praying for mundane stuff. To be even further removed from the Western traditions, a lot of people don’t choose just one, but rather go to whichever will serve an specific purpose at a time. They simply aren’t viewed as exclusive “truths”. Honestly, almost nothing we associate with “religion” in the western traditions applies to any of these, but until we have a better word, here we are.

Taipei:

Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple 大稻埕慈聖宮天上聖母 (Taoist) is dedicated to the Tianshang Shengmu (Heavenly Holy Mother), the guardian of sailors and also known as Mazu or Tianhou (Empress of Heaven). It is in the midst of an “eat street” and even has a dining area in the temple courtyard. Far from being serene and heavenly, it is quite lively and bustling.

Taipei Confucius Temple 臺北市孔廟 is more of an interactive educational experience than a holy place. It’s not surprising as Confucianism isn’t really a religion. The scholar Confucius (Kongfuzi 孔夫子) was more interested in the smooth running of things on the earthly plane than the spiritual one. Rituals were an important part of a social order for him, but he didn’t spend much time speculating on any gods or spirits.

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The entire compound is beautiful, but more that that, you get a wonderful English language detailed explanation of the meaning and purpose of each hall (which, under other circumstances I might have transcribed off the brochure, but I feel like you’ve had enough education for one post), a truly early-tech 3D film explaining the history of Confucianism and it’s modern interpretation (it was so campy it was fun) and interactive displays for the six Confucian Arts that Confucius considered vital for any civilized person in a civilized society: Calligraphy, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Computation (math), and Rites (religious, political, and social ceremonies).

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It was a big contrast to the Confucian temple I visited in Beijing which was a beautiful monument with little to no explanation as to it’s historical function. Plus, where Taiwan still teaches pieces of the 6 arts in schools and even holds some public Confucian rites today, the mainland has subsumed Confucian values into the Communist Party Line.

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Dalongdong Baoan Temple 大龍峒保安宮 (Taoist) is dedicated to Baosheng Dadi (Great Emperor Protecting Life). It claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan, or at least the oldest Chinese temple. (Yes, there were indigenous people living in Taiwan before the Han ethnicity mainland Chinese people arrived many centuries ago). It’s been restored many times over the years and is now an important heritage site. There’s several stunningly decorated buildings, as well as beautiful gardens with statues of famous Taoist stories, and a dragon in the lake. I especially enjoyed the tile work of the roof dragons on these temples which is distinct in both color and style from the mainland.

Kaohsiung:

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館 was disturbingly hard to get to, but thankfully I can read bus timetables in Chinese. It probably would have been easier if I’d been coming direct from the city, but I was coming on my way back from the Maolin Butterfly Park. I also missed the last buses returning to the city, but it was ok because I was able to share a car with some other travelers. I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with a tour company, but if you aren’t at least “survival” level in Mandarin, then perhaps plan better than I did.

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Fo Guang Shan is a global sect of Buddhism which started there in Taiwan at the largest monastery in Taiwan. It really is huge, and not only the enormous statue of the Buddha, but the sprawling grounds filled with gardens, exotic birds, and more beautiful statues than you can count.

The grounds are divided reflect the three treasures: sangha (community) where the monks and nuns live, study and work; dharma (teachings) where scriptures (sutras) are housed and ceremonies held; and the Buddha (the teacher) where the famously enormous statue rests at the end of the majestic walkway.

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I think most people come for the third part, and honestly, that’s why I was there. I just took a “wrong” turn at the entrance and found myself walking all the way over to the Sangha, and then meandering back through the Dharma, before finally getting to the Buddha in time to for most of the tourists to leave and for the lights to come on.

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Their website is everything you would expect elderly monks to have created, but if you want to learn more about Fo Guang you can visit. Also, the museum’s website reflects a more worldly involvement and may be more palatable to the modern internet consumer as well as more helpful to the hopeful visitor.


That’s all for part 1. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the historical and natural side of my Taiwan trip. Next time, I’ll write about the more modern aspects including the “old streets” for tourists, a medieval style castle made by an eccentric millionaire, flowers, light shows, street art, and of course what Taiwan is best known for: the food.

Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

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The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

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All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

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Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

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The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

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I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

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Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

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I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

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This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

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I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

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I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

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Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

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We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

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According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

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On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

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We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Autumn at the DMZ

As the weather cools down, so begins the annual reddening of the leaves. Busan is a very warm part of Korea and our trees were still mostly green going into November, so my other two musketeers and I joined the Enjoy Korea group once more to head to the northernmost regions of South Korea, known best for the Demilitarized Zone and the most beautiful Fall Foliage. It seemed like an odd conjunction of activities: the DMZ and a temple in a mountainous national park, but when you live at the southern tip of the peninsula it pays to combine the northern activities.


A little history151339-004-68fcf709

I hope that most of my readers are aware at least in outline of the Korean War and the resultant division of North and South Korea. For those who would like a refresher, here’s a very brief recap:

Japan had been controlling Korea for a while, but was forced to give it back at the end of WWII. Unfortunately, the Allies couldn’t agree on who would replace Japan as the dominant colonial power, so a line was drawn at the 38th parallel and Russia got the North while America got the South. Yeah, they sort of had thier own governments, but it was heavily infulenced by communist and capitalist ideas (and money). In 1950, the North swept over the border in huge numbers and descimated the South… flattened… destroyed and took over nearly everything in only a few days. A few DAYS. The UN decided to get involved and America sent the majority of troops into a war no one was prepared for. It dragged on for 3 years (which seems so fast and efficient nowadays, right?) and finally the Northern armies were pushed back behind the 38th. The DMZ was established as a boundary between North and South to protect  the South from further surprise attacks and it is heavily guarded at all times.

The DMZ

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Our group was not heading to the Joint Security Area (JSA) where official government buildings and occasional meetings between the two countries exist, but rather to a less well developed part of the border that was only recently opened to the public. It’s one of the least developed areas in South Korea; apparently sometimes there are even deer. The Korean Board of Tourism refers to the area of Yanggu as “the natural side of the DMZ

It was a long drive from Busan all the way to Yanggu. We left at 5 o’clock in the morning, but I did manage to get to bed early the night before so it wasn’t too bad. When we arrived in Yanggu, we first stopped off in town for a late breakfast. It was surreal walking through a town so close to the Northern border. There were far more military personel around than in other Korean cities, and it seemed somehow more subdued, although there were still cute street decorations and a wide variety of bakeries and cafes to choose from. We had some delicious waffles made with a Belgian style resting dough recipe.

20161022_123119.jpgAfter eating and stretching our legs, the buses moved on to Dutayeon. The area of Dutayeon is beyond the Civilian Control Line, was closed to civilians after the Korean War and was only recently reopened to the public in 2006. It’s still necessary for us to register ahead of time with the government in order to visit the area, and for some of our group to wear GPS tracking necklaces around while in the park. Of course I volunteered to wear one for our group. Are you kidding? The Dutayeon Park area also includes the warning: “Not all landmines have been found, so stay within the permitted areas.” It’s not your average hike in the woods.

20161022_123713That being said, it is a beautiful area. The river that runs through it ends in a small but powerful waterfall that is the crown jewel of the park, visible across from the pond and from viewing platforms on both sides. There is a loop trail around the park, so it doesn’t matter which way you go from the pond. We headed right and passed by quite a large number of unexploded mine signs on our way toward an outdoor exhibit of mines used in the war, 20161022_125524.jpgas well as other security measures and a mock explosion that demonstrated the sensitivity of the mines by blowing foam bits around in a ball while playing a low volume explosion sound whenever hikers came too close. There were also many happier decorations including party banners between trees, wooden deer and pigs, and a whole wall of paper prayers and wishes.

As the path veered toward the river, we came to a suspension bridge which the Koreans took great delight in bouncing and swaying on as we crossed. Our group of westerners was several hundred from all over Korea, and there were many more busloads of Korean tourists visiting the park that day as well. I know that normally you can get away from the crowds here by taking a side trail or going to a less popular part of the park/beach/etc. However, given the security issues at the DMZ, it simply wasn’t an option. The good news is that everyone was polite and took turns at all the best photo spots.

20161022_132835After crossing the brigde, we followed more winding forest paths through beautiful red trees. We climbed up some stairs to get to a viewing platform just above the falls and then continued on further upriver. When it came time to cross again, there was no bridge, but instead a trail of stones that required us to hop across. Most stones were large enough to allow two people at a time, but not all. Some stones could be easily stepped between and others required jumping. Plus, everyone wanted to stop in midstream for a geourgous photo-op. The end result was a long and patient crossing while trying not to get bumped into the water by people crossing the other way. This was mostly acheivable, except for when the Ajuma needed to pass. These are the ladies who wait for no one and push everyone aside to pass. Behavior that is just rude and annoying on the subway suddenly becomes hazardous when trying to balance on river rocks. Oh, Korea.

20161022_134358.jpgBack on the near bank, we followed the trail up to a gazebo/pagoda hybrid that overlooked the waterfall once more, before following a side trail up and over to a sculpure garden that included various works of outdoor art inspired by the war or the peace as well, as a missile and several tanks that were leftovers from the fighting. One of the most fascinating pieces was a painted sculpture that blended 2d and 3d art. The sculpture was the bust of a young woman, but only half of it was painted realistically, the other half had been painted blue. In addition, the depth was unrealisitc as well. The combination created an illusion of a different perspective of portrait from each angle as you walk around it. There was also a kitchy photo frame where we took a group shot, and a copse of giant eyeballs which was meant to show the sourse of all the tears shed for those lost. There were art pieces made from the objects of war, such as the barbed wire dandilion, and other shapes made from reforged metal. All in all, it was a surreal yet emotional tribute to the history and tragedy.

20161022_151349.jpgFrom the park, we wended our way over to a small war memorial. Mostly we stopped here because it was necessary to file more paperwork for the Eulji Observatory. The memorial was very artistic and very sad. There were nine pillars representing the nine big battlefields in the area (Dolosan, Daeusan, Bloody Ridge, Baekseoksan Mountain, Punch Bowl, Gachilbong, Danjang Ridge, 949 Hill, and Christmas Hill), as well as statues of soldiers, displays of weapons and a whole room the floor of which was covered in shell casings from the war. Growing amid the barbed wire and destruction were small and beautiful flowers. There was a poem there ending in the stanza:

The Land of Guardians

A leaf of grass, a flower, don’t look at them as usual

And please don’t forget

Freedom today is stained with blood

Tears of sublime sacrifice underneath the smiling Peace.

When you pass by Yangu, the land of myth,

Stop at the sight of flowers red as blood,

Regard them as souls bloomed,

And please take your hats off, brooding awhile

Slowing down your busy pace.

20161022_151414.jpgWhile reading these lines, I stood over the discarded shell casings, and under the helmets of dead soldiers, my camera filled with photos of beautiful flowers growing around the site. Although small and far less grand than the UN Memorial in Busan, the closeness of things these men had touched or died in amid the natural beauty of wildflowers and creeping red ivy brought the tragedy of war far closer to my heart than a cemetery or a statue ever could.

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(I don’t have many photos from the day, but thankfully, the South Korean board of tourism has published a few from the area that show the Northern side and interior of the Observatory so you can see them, too.)

The drive up to Eulji Observatory was interesting because for large parts of the ride, we rode with the border fence directly to our right, staring though it toward North Korea, which looked bleak and empty compared to the Southern side of the border. The day had been partly cloudy but with decent sunshine and fluffy white clouds, but as we drove up the mountain, it became gray and misty. Perhpas it was just the elevation, but it did give an aura of doom, gloom and Mordor to our encounter with the border of violent and secretive North Korea. Armed soldiers came on to the bus several times to count us. The Americans were notably less disturbed by the sight of military weapons close up and it was easy to tell which expats were from countries where such things are still uncommon. We were told that photos at the observatory were somewhat tricky, since we were allowed to photograph South Korea and the outside of the observatory, but *not* North Korea or anything inside the Observatory.

Several people tried to take photos of a memorial pillar against the fence, but even though the fence was blacked out, they were asked to delete the photos. The Korean soldiers guarding the area were very polite and respectful, but did ask to see phones if they spotted anyone pointing a phone toward the Northern side. I put my phone in my pocket and went up to the fence to peer through the cracks and get a glimpse of the forbidden North. The mountains and valleys beyond were bereft of signs of human occupation. Behind me on the South Korean side lay the famous Punch Bowl, once a bloody battlefield and now a well developed agricultural area, the land divided into neat geometric shapes for crop management and dotted with low wide buildings. In front of me, through the narrow slat where the tarp covered wire fence met the concrete base, 771892_image2_1I could see one winding dirt road, some tires stacked and filled with dirt or sand to create a barrier, and a lone watchtower surrounded by more barbed wire fencing. Beyond these decrepit signs of occupation, the land seemed as wild and untouched as though looking back in time to before humans even arrived. Coming from South Korea, where all the land is so thoroughly occupied that wildlife is all but vanished, it was a stunning contrast.

96b48f615a34f9c1cd756f6173624324Inside the observatory, there is an enclosed viewing platform that overlooks the North. A brave soldier who spoke some English decided to read an English presentation to our large group. He was very nervous, but it was a great gesture that he wanted to share information with us, so we filled the small auditorium and listened politiely while staring at the mist shrouded emptiness behind him. He told us about famous battle sites around the observatory including Stalin Hill, where the South lost some land that is now part of North Korea, a radio tower used to block signals traveling into the North, and a distant waterfall called Fairy Waterfall where beautiful North Korean women used to bathe nude to entice South Korean soldiers. He also indicated that North Koreans did use the area nearby for agriculture, although to my eyes it looked completely natural and I cannot imagine that the food they harvested there would be anything more than wild gathering.

20161022_161530.jpgI stepped back outside, feeling disoriented from the whole experience, looking back and forth across the narrow fence from a high vantange point where I could easily see North and South at the same time. (hint, the South is on the right, the North is on the left) Large ravens swooped around the peak, effortlessly gliding between the two countries gripped in cold war, alighting on the Northern watchtower, then returning to our parking lot to scavenge for crumbs left by tourists.

4th tunnel

20161022_172650.jpgOur last stop for the DMZ day was the 4th Tunnel. This sounds fairly ominous, because it also implies there are at least 3 other tunnels, which there are. The North has tried on at least 4 occasions to literally tunnel into South Korea to get troops behind the border for a massive attack. Before heading over to the tunnel entrance, we scooted inside the nearby museum for a quick propaganda film. The film was in Korean, but had English subtitiles. They were long, small and hard to read over the video, as well as not being the most accurate gramatically, but I got the gist: North bad, South good, Threat onging. The idea that the Korean War is over is not something that really exists up near the border. To be honest, it doesn’t really exist in Korea at all, but most of the time Korean citizens can ignore their war with the North the same way Americans don’t let the 7 wars their country is involved in affect them on a daily basis. This film was a little startling however, because it didn’t even make an attempt at looking like an “unbiased documentary” and was more in a tone in keeping with propaganda material from the 1950s-60s during the cold war with Russia, or the modern Chinese government propaganda films. I’m not sure how old the film was, but it certainly felt out of time.

20161022_175636After the film, we filed into a large round tunnel. The tunnel we were walking into was dug with a serious drill by the South Koreans in order to reach the less sophisticated North Korean tunnel. It was a long walk, less than 1km I’m sure, but the tunnel was dim and damp and nearly perfectly circular thanks to the diamond tipped drill the Koreans had used to make it. Hard hats were available at the front, but there were nowhere near enough to accomodate our group size, so we simply left them behind. Inside the tunnel was another no photos zone. Fortunately, the internet provides, so you can see some photos that other people (including authorized tour guides) have taken of the tunnel and equipment.

As we stood in line in the dank underground tube watching water drizzle down through a crack in the rock above, someone in the queue pointed out how much like waiting in line at Disney Land’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride it felt. I couldn’t disagree; it was underground, dark, dripping water, although the armed soldiers were real instead of animatronic pirates. In a moment I can only blame on the sheer absurity of our situation, we decided as a group that the experience would hereafter be known as DMZney Land, where the atrocities of war are wrapped up in neat little display packets for visitors to line up and experience by the busload.

20161022_175114Where the modern and sleek South Korean tunnel ended, there were clear toolmarks in the rock, concentric circles left by the drill. Intersecting our tunnel was a much smaller one, no more than 2 sqare meteres, and rough hewn, carved out with picks and dynamite. A small train awaited us, one seat behind the next as the tunnel was too narrow for two abreast. The seats were low and a transparent panel protected us from the threat of falling rocks above, but the sides remained open. We climbed in, feeling even more like boarding a ride in a theme park, expecting a trek through the rugged rock. After a mere 100 meters, the train came to a stop. We could see tool marks, and holes that had been prepared for the next round of dynamite. I forgot for a moment about the photo ban, but when I snapped a few, the soldiers only politely reminded me not to and I put my phone away again.

After a few minutes, the train moved us backward along the rail to our point of embarkation. I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I asked one of our guides to find out why the trip had been so short. Once the next trainful of tourists was on its way, she was able to ask the guard there more about the tunnel and the train. It turns out the reason we stopped is because we had gone right up to the border underground. I don’t think it was actually the border of North Korea, I think it was more likely the border of the non-civillian section of the DMZ, but it was still chilling to realize how close we’d come, or rather, how close the North had come to succeeding in their infiltration plan.

Outside the tunnel is a memorial statue to a military dog named Hunt who died while helping to rid the area of landmines. The tunnel was only discovered in 1990, and although North Korea claims it was for coal mining, there is no sign of any coal in the granite through which the tunnel was dug. American and South Korean forces are maintaining a look out for possible 5th or even 6th tunnels to this day.

Hotel in Sokcho

By the time we emerged from the tunnel, the sun had set, and the mountains were wreathed in the last glimmer of twilight. We boarded our buses in the dark and headed over to our hotels for the night. The only real reason this is of any blogworthy interest is because our hotel had both indoor and outdoor spas and pools. My experience at the jimjilbang in Jeju was great, but highly segregated. Here, we got the chance to sit around in our swimsuits in mixed company with some cans of beer and feel the contrast of the warm spa water and the cold mountain night air. The whole experience started like a jimjilbang, and we had to clean off in the showers before heading outside. The pools closest to the door were cooler, and by the time we got all the way to the upper levels and warmest pools, I was shivering intensely, but it was worth it to enjoy the wonderful outdoor spa.

I try not to dwell on the sleeping arrangements for these trips, because we go in for economy. This time we ended up on the floor again, and I gather no one slept terribly well, all of us relying on our excitement of travel to keep us going one more day.

Seoraksan

Early in the morning, after a buffet breakfast, we headed out to the famous national park for some hiking and autumn leaf viewing. The weather was still rather damp, but that just made the colors of the trees and rocks around us stand out more. Seoraksan is quite famous among Koreans for it’s natural beauty, it’s giant bronze Buddha, and it’s fall foliage. Even wih the drizzly weather, the park was still packed to the gills when we arrived. I’m so used to hiking in the woods being a quiet escape from humanity, so this was a very big contrast. Even when climbing the famous Mt. Hua and Mt. Tai in China, I didn’t feel this crowded.
20161023_153116The parking lot had more tour buses than Disney Land, and when we passed through the main entrance, we were greeted with a wide stone road lined with restaurants, cafes and other businesses catering to park-goers. There are several trails that can take over 12 hours, but we didn’t have that much time. After doing some research, my companions and I decided we would see the big Buddha, then walk the short (2 hr) waterfall trail, and finally take the cable car up to the highest peak for  a look around.

Our very first task was to buy cable car tickets, since the tickets are sold by time and sell out early in the day. In fact, even though we;d decided to do the cable car last, nearly all the tickets before 1pm were already sold out by the time we found the ticket office. I gather that most of the year the cars run every 15 minutes, but during the weekend we were there, they had cars running every 5, holding 50 people each, and all of them were sold out by the end of the day. That’s 600 people an hour or about 4,000 people in a single day. And that’s just for the cable car. I really have no idea how many were in the park, but when I say it was full, I’m not joking.

20161023_102755.jpgOur tickets in had, we followed the signs toward the temple, passing more and more restaurants, cafes and other buildings of unknown purpose. We rounded a corner and spotted the giant statue from a distance and made a bee line straight for it. The first thing that struck me was how similar it was to the Buddha at Kamakura I’d seen last year (and totally forgot to write about but follow the link for pics). Both large metal stautes had hidden entrances as well. We took our photos and wandered around the area, watching as other visitors engaged in prayer or selfies or some combination of the two. For me, visiting famous temples is more often an act of tourism even though I call call myself a Buddhist. I imagine it’s the same way that many Christians visit Notre Dame or other famous churches to appreciate the art and history rather than to attend service. I did take a moment to find my center and become mindful of my experience, and my friend made a votive candle offering as well, so we weren’t total gawkers.

The Sinheungsa Temple was burned down in 699 and rebuilt in 710, and many believe it to be the oldest standing Seon (Zen / Chan) Temple in the world. The statue (built in 1992) is 16.9m tall (not counting the nimbus around/above his head) and contains within some pieces of the Buddha’s sari recovered after cremation, and a copy of the Tripitika (the Buddhist “bible”). The Kamakura Buddha is a bit shorter at only 13.5m, but much older, having been around since 1252, and represents a different branch of Buddhism, being a statue of Amida Buddha from the Pure Land sect, while the Seoraksan Buddha or Tongil Daebul (Great Unification Buddha) is from the Seon school and represents the sincere desire for Korean reunification.

Biryong Falls Course

41918_43827_1347Trying to keep ourselves on a decent timeline, we said our farewells to the stunning statue and set off in search of the trail-head to Biryong Falls. We soon joined a stream of Koreans dressed to the nines in their special hiking clothes. For many Koreans, espeically the older ones, outdoor activities are a serious glamour show. All the clothes are brightly colored and brand new looking. Meanwhile, my friends and I were dressed in jeans and hoodies because that’s usually how we walk in the woods at home.

20161023_104649.jpgThe path involved some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Unlike the Busan mountains which are low and covered in a softening green layer of trees, the Seoraksan mountains burst from the treeline with jagged teeth of bare rock, and this day, the whole thing was wreathed in clouds and mist making it even more haunting. We took a wide bridge over a river and ambled joyfully along the forest path, stopping to admire the trees on a regular basis. The Koreans around us took some pictures, but only at designated picturesque spots. The rest of the time they were in a hurry to get moving. So much of a hurry that we were jostled, bumped and even shoved if we were deemed to not be going fast enough. It was like being in the subway… for several km.  We tried to walk on the side of the path, or even just step OFF the path when the hordes of ajuma came barrelling down on us, but it didn’t always work.

Eventually the trail thinned out and it became harder to get out of the way. The ground left soil behind and became a wet and slippery ascent of natural stones that were precarious and challenging to hike up. The Koreans all had special hiking shoes and one or two walking poles apiece for balance and had zero patience with us for hiking in only trainers and not having sticks to balance with. More than once, I was worried that one of the shovers was going to knock me down or even knock me off the edge! It was a big contrast to the DMZ park where everyone had been patient and taken turns on the river rocks. At one point I moved as far off the path as was safe to stop and take my coat off. I got bumped into by people coming from behind 4 times. More than once they looked at me as though it were my fault for not getting out of the way. Heaven forfend we should want to stop on a bridge to admire the view or take a photo. There’s nothing so nerve wracking as having ajuma shove you while you’re balanced on a thin rail of metal over a pounding white water river below.

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However, despite the nerve jangling crowds, the hike was absolutely stunning. There were still quite a few trees dressed in green, but that only served as a better backdrop for the fiery reds and golds that permeated the woods. 20161023_121430.jpgAs our path ascended beside the river, we were treated to the kind of views normally reserved for high class calendars and natural beauty screen savers. My computer randomly shows me stunning nature pics every time I log in, and I swear that one of them was actually from Seoraksan. We climbed up the slippery rocks, clinging to the railing and nearby trees until we reached two more bridges crossing the lower Yukdam Falls. The maps and pamphlets all say it’s just a 40 minute hike from the main entrance to these falls, but it had taken us close to 90, proving that 40 minutes was measured by ajuma walking standards rather than beautiful day in the woods standards. I understand that Biryong Falls was only a little farther up the mountain, but in order to make our cable car time, we had to turn back early.

Cable Car & Tiny Temple

20161023_140905Our last adventure for the day was to take the cable car up to Gwongeumseong. This particular peak is only accesible by cable car and can’t be hiked up to. We’d gotten our tickets as soon as we arrived at the park, so all we had to do was wait for the sign to show our boarding time and file on. These are decently large cable cars, and hold 50 passengers at a go, all standing and no personal space. My friend decided to play elbows for us and wrangled some spaces right along the rear window so we could watch the ground disappearing beneath us as we ascended into the clouds. We were able to see the main park entrance laid out below us, including the giant Buddha off to one side.

img_2155As we rose, the clouds soon fell below us, covering the view of the ground and the sea became visible off to one side. I had known Seoraksan was near the coast, but I had not realized how close to the ocean we actually were until that moment. The cable car stand at the top had more amenities, food and restrooms and coffee shops, but we swept past them and onto the viewing platform. I had read ahead of time that one could walk all the way to the tippy top from here and see an old castle, but after my experience on the waterfall path earlier, I was reticent to follow another stream of hundreds of hikers. We walked around the viewing area and found a distant waterfall, a long streak of white amid the green and brown of the mountains, visible even at this distance it must have been enormous up close.

20161023_145139.jpgWhile searching for more and better angles to take majestic photos of the panorama around us, we stumbled upon a small path leading downward that no one else was on. The small sign indicated there was a temple (templ-ette? I’m not honestly sure how to translate this word in English) about 70m downward. We carefully balanced on uneven, wet and slippery rocks, clinging at times to the chain along one side of the path. 70m isn’t far on flat ground, but it took us a while to cover it on the mountainside. We also stopped to admire the views often. When the path leveled out, we were greeted with a tiny hut, decorated in Buddhist style. We doffed our shoes and went inside. The warm interior was a welcome contrast to the chilly outside air. The ceiling was covered with lotus lanterns and small candles burned on the altar. The air was so still, I had to stare at the candles for a few minutes before I decided they were flame and not electric.

Our whole day had been so hectic and crowded, it was bliss to sit on the plush carpet and just enjoy the calming music playing on the sound system. While we were meditating, the monk came back inside and seemed a bit surprised to see us there. I don’t know if I want to go too far into what I experienced internally, but I definitely received the answer to a question that had been bothering me. My friend also found some answers in her meditation that helped her to find her way again after some troubling times. Buddha isn’t a god, he doesn’t answer prayers or give us things, but quiet reflection is hard to come by and can make a space for us to hear the answers we already knew. This temple, however small and remote, had a sense of peace and purpose. Even it’s name reflected this, translating in English as the “love and happiness temple”.

When I stood to offer a respectful bow to the altar, the priest caught my eye as I straightened up and smiled broadly, bowing to me and greeting me in Korean. My friend was still meditating, so we were quiet and did not speak much beyond greetings, but I could tell he was happy that we had come in with intent and respect.

Once both of us completed our meditations, we headed back up to the cable car feeling cleansed and refreshed. Some other expat tourists asked us what was down the path and I told them. Then they asked if it was “worth it” and we had a small discussion on what that meant. The temple-ette was tiny and not very architecturally or artistically stunning, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the peace we found there was priceless to us.

As the fall moves on, I treasure the memory of this temple most from the weekend experience. Things are not getting calmer or easier for me as an American or for everyone living in Korea dealing with the political uncertainty here. Religion and spirituality are tricky topics, and I’m not out to preach or convert, but the core Buddhist tenant of loving-kindness is something I think we can all use a little more of in our lives.

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I met with some other Americans after the election and someone reminded me that one of the most important roles of the expat is “soft diplomacy”. We go out and show the face of the people, instead of the government, and when we come back, we can tell stories of the people and places we’ve seen, sharing things the news and the movies miss out on. I hope that my travels, stories and experiences can serve to help show the value in diversity, in natural preservation, and in open-mindedness. Thanks for reading, and please be sure to see all the photos from the DMZ and Seoraksan over on Facebook! ❤

 

My Walking Shoes

Tonight I went out for a stroll among the local parks. We found a playground and a bog. There’s something really magical about public parks at night. Lit only by the reflection of the city lights off the clouds, they are tiny little oasis of beauty and solitude. On my way back home, I found myself looking at my feet. This is not something I do often, as I was taught to look up while walking, especially at night, however within the safety of my locked apartment building on the way to my door, I looked down and saw my walking shoes.

wpid-20140605_031219.jpgMy walking shoe of choice is the high-top, black and white, converse. I have loved this shoe since high school, and have probably owned 5-6 pairs since then. I don’t wear them unless I’m planning on doing more walking than from the apartment to the car to the office because I really love taking my shoes off whenever I possibly can, which includes at home and under my desk at work. Sometimes, they live in my car so I can take spontaneous walks. Tonight, I put them on to leave the house, because I knew that we were going in search of the really neat looking playground I spotted last week during the day.

Perhaps because of a somewhat reflective and poetic state of mind brought about by the summer night’s air and the croaking of frogs mingled with the whooshing of cars, I noticed how completely dingy my shoes had become. And then I really thought about that dirt… all the places that dirt has come from. The craggy steps of Huashan, the lava tube caves beneath St. Helen’s, the mulch of the giant Redwood forests, cities, countries, farms, fields, caves, and mountains… my shoes are colored with the grime of wonders.

What color are your walking shoes? What scuffs and stains and ground in dirt from your adventures are they carrying. These shoes do not merely protect our feet, or convey us to our destination. They are a legacy in grime of every great moment they carried you to.

So the next time you put on your walking shoes, stop for a moment. Appreciate that dirt, and remember where it came from, how it got there, and how each step in your journey has colored you with wonders too.

Three Faces of the Great Wall

There are dozens of places you can visit the Great Wall if you are in China. Many of the most convenient are within a day trip of Beijing. Each time I have traveled to Beijing, I’ve taken one of these day trips to a different spot: Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Jiankou. Each of them has something different and interesting to offer, and are all a great way to spend a day. These aren’t the complete stories of each adventure, but rather a side by side view of all three.

Brief Words of Advice

Hire a “private taxi”. Many websites tell you how you can take a bus out to the sites, and you can, but  its hard to explore properly when you have to be worried about catching the bus back. Also, the buses are way overcrowded and you might wait a long time to board, which is just less time for exploring. Private taxis are basically those who own their own car and are willing to be your driver for the day for a set price. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead of time, and don’t pay them until you’re all done. To give you some basic idea of a fair price, in 2005 we paid 500RMB, in 2012 we paid 600RMB. The drivers take you out, wait for you in the parking lot all day, and return you to your evening destination.

Don’t bother going to Badaling. Every tour group in China goes there. It is like the Disney of the Great Wall, and is only good for snapping a pic and buying a t-shirt. It was renovated for Nixon’s visit, and again for the Olympics in 2008. It is crowded, inauthentic, crowded, and full of people trying to sell you overpriced junk. No matter what your personal goals are, I guarantee there is a better section of the Great Wall for you to experience than this one.

Mutianyu & the Ming Tombs

My very first trip to China in 2005, after my contract in Jinan was over, I went up to spend a week with a friend from school in Beijing. Of course, I wanted to go to the Great Wall, so my friend arranged a private taxi to take us to Mutianyu. Despite the fact that it was summer, there were very few tourists at this location, we basically had the wall to ourselves aside from the occasional vendor. We chose to go up the side without the slide, but I have to admit, this is the first part of the Wall I want to take my niece and nephew to, because what kid doesn’t want to slide down the Great Wall of China?

The far side was less developed. It felt almost surreal to be in such a huge space with so few people in it after the last two months that I had spent being constantly crowded by the Chinese. When we reached the end of the open path, we could see beyond the fence that trees had grown up in the wall beyond, and what had once been a symbol of Imperial power, was being reclaimed by the mountain.

One of the great things about Mutianyu (aside from the slide) is its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Many Chinese Imperial families had elaborate tombs, and the Ming are no exception. This is a neat underground tour of the actual tomb, and some above ground museums and gardens. It is definitely worth the stop over if you’re heading to Mutianyu.

Huangyaguan & Guancheng

In 2007, I was working for a state run school, and they decided to take all us expat teachers out to the Great Wall for a day in the early fall. This was the only trip I took as part of such a large group, but it was ok because it was just teachers from my school. The school got us a little charter bus, and off we went.

At the base of the Wall there is a little town where we ate lunch, and there was also a series of beautiful gardens and a museum. This kind of thing is really the proof that not all sections of the Great Wall are the same. While the Wall itself can be slightly repetitive, especially in the well restored areas, these little gems are well worth making multiple Wall excursions, or at very least, carefully choosing which experience you want to have.

The gardens included a stele garden, a maze based on the Bagua (eight diagrams), and a miniature replica of the Great Wall.

The Wall is steep, and the views are lovely. Like many areas of the Wall, the further you get from the entry point, the less well restored it is. If you have the patience and stamina to keep walking you will get to some very different stone work that is the work of dynasties long past, and be rewarded with a view of miles of wall in either direction.

Jiankou

In 2012, I took some friends to China for the first time. Like all first time visitors, the Great Wall was a priority, but they were polite enough to want to make sure I got to see something new. We decided on Jiankou because it was described as being the wildest and least restored part of the Great Wall within a day trip of Beijing. Words like “dangerous” and “experienced hikers” appealed to us. And boy is it worth it.

This is just one more reason to hire private taxis. The driver we hired knew a “secret spot” basically where he and some other drivers were (presumably) bribing local officials to bring tourists into this closed off section of the wall. There are publicly open sections of Jiankou, but our driver asked if we wanted a more restored or more wild experience. Wild, of course, we replied! And so we had a wonderful, private  expanse of Wall that had been unrestored for at least 100 years, if not more.

Huge swathes of the Wall had simply collapsed down the side of the mountain. Stairs were no more than a shamble of blocks. Trees had grown up in the pathways, leaving us with thin, single file paths through the foliage. It was breathtaking. Not a single restaurant or vendor to be found, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks.

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Each one of these journeys was amazing and offered a completely different view of China’s history and achievements. So, if the Great Wall is on your bucket list, I hope this helps you make the most of it.