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! 🙂

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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.

Euliji Observatory771891_image2_1

(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.