One of the greatest things about life in Korea is the ample outdoor recreational activities.  I’ve been mountain biking and rock climbing, but my strongest passion has been the national pastime:  hiking.  The three top destinations on any Korean hiker’s list are the three highest peaks in the country: Seoraksan, Jirisan, and Hallasan.  I wrote about climbing Seoraksan over the Chuseok holiday in my last post.  As soon as I found an opportunity, I reserved myself a spot on a trip to Jirisan with the Seoul Hiking Group run by an extremely high energy Korean named Warren.  Warren has so much energy that he does not require sleep, so the plan was this: depart on the bus late Friday night, sleep on the bus until our 3 am arrival, then begin the 35 km hike with flashlights.  The summit would be reached at the far end of the trail before turning back and following another trail down to a parking lot at the far end of the park where the bus would be waiting for us at 5 pm.

View from Jirisan

Seoraksan is an “aksan”, meaning stone mountain, so it was a phantasmagoria of jagged granite peaks.  Jirisan had a much subtler flavour with vast chains of steep hills with very little exposed rock.  Some people like Jirisan better because the more moderate terrain is easier to walk through.  Murphy’s law made the walk a bit more challenging for us.  The bus got lost so we didn’t arrive until 5 am.  Then, Warren started trail running to try to make up the lost time.  All my hiking and biking had me in pretty good shape, but there was no way I could run five sixths of a marathon over rough terrain.  There were a couple of guys who could keep pace with him, but the rest of us just busted our asses the best we could.  Still, we weren’t making up the time.  Around noon, my friend Megan spoke up as the voice of reason.  She said she wanted to slow down and just do the 12 hour route, because, she was not enjoying the pace, she could not even see the scenery going by, and despite all of this, we still were not going fast enough to complete the 16 hour hike in 14 hours.  She couldn’t have been more correct.  When we finally made it to the shelter where you have to make your decision to head down to make it a 12 hour hike, or continue on for the 16 hour hike, Warren was there waiting.  Even he hadn’t made it there in time to complete the 16 hour route.  Still, it was so painful to look at the peak so close at hand, only to have to turn and head down without reaching it.  The trail down was the roughest part of the hike.  I was feeling

Farmhouse Near Our Accomdations

rather dejected from having not made it to the peak.  To add insult to injury, I was so spent from the pace we kept in the morning that I limped my way off of the mountain using my walking stick and nursing my left knee.  It was taking its vengeance on me for the hell I put it through in the morning.  Then, we got to the lodgings only to find that there was no vegetarian food for the barbecue.  I proceeded to stuff my face with bagels and went to my room and passed out.  I can’t say it was my most successful Korean mountain expedition.

The Summit of Hallasan

Next on the list was Hallasan.  At 1950 m, Hallasan is the tallest mountain in South Korea.  It is a volcano whose lower slopes form Jeju, the largest island in South Korea at far southern end of the country.  Because of its distant location, this was going to require a more extended trip.  I decided to go over American Thanksgiving along with my friends Rick and Bobbie, from school and the fair Megan, with whom I had already climbed the other two peaks.  (OK, so we didn’t make it up Jirisan.)  The problem was that Rick and Bobbie did not want to climb with the weekend crowds, and Megan only had the weekend off.  The solution: climb it twice in two days.  What can I say, I’m a glutton for punishment.

Friday’s climb started out cold, grey, damp, and miserable.  From the city we could only see the base of the mountain, as the rest was buried deep in the clouds.  We trudged heavily up through a mist filled forest feeling the cold permeate through every layer of clothes we were carrying.  It made me wonder about Jeju’s reputation as the Hawaii of South Korea.  Sure it is far to the south, volcanic in origin, and very popular for honeymoons.  But I had always pictured Hawaii a little warmer!

Three quarters of the way up, something magical happened.  We broke through the clouds into a fantasy land of frost sculptures glittering in bright sunlight and framed by a brilliant blue sky.  The warm moist air flowing over the Pacific is forced to such heights by the mountain that it cools and leaves behind the most spectacular deposits of hoar frost.  In some places it made trees glitter as though they were incrusted with jewels.  On others it formed huge white crystals that clung to the railings and ropes like angel feathers.

Click for a gallery of Hallasan Photos

Saturday dawned bright and clear, promising an even more stunning day on the mountain.  Megan and I ascended dry stairs through a crystal clear forest, pierced by shafts of brilliant sunlight.  Then, at about the same place we broke through the clouds the day before,  a big black cloud descended on us.  What yesterday was a mad frolic through a winter wonderland, soon became a death march into a strengthening, icy, stinging wind and ever deepening cloud.  To make it worse, the frost sculptures had all been melted away by the morning’s sun.  When we finally reached the summit we couldn’t see anything past the railings.  We both had only one thing on our minds: lets take a picture and get the heck out of here.

As winter deepened, I continued my hiking locally on gentler trails with the help of some light crampons (metal teeth that strap over the soles of your boots).  The average winter temperature is very similar to Windsor’s but far more stable.  While it never got colder than -15oC, and there was very little snow, what snow there was stuck around and was quickly packed down on the trails into a layer of ice that made the crampons so helpful.  There was never anywhere near enough snow to cross country ski on.  However, the consistent cold and mountainous terrain did create a whole other recreational opportunity: frozen waterfalls.  The last and only time I have climbed ice was 13 years ago when I was in teacher’s college in Thunder Bay.  There was something incredibly satisfying about the “thunk” as your axes and crampons went home into the ice.  Then to easily work your way up a brobdingnagian chandelier of icicles, in a feat that was considered impossible only 60 years ago is something that has to be experienced to be understood.  I had always wanted to try it again, and now I had finally found my chance.

I signed up for three Saturdays of ice climbing school with Peter at Sanirang Dot Net.  Peter ran a great outing to a sport climbing crag in the fall to give our climbing club students a chance to climb some real rock.  I was really looking forward to another chance to climb with him.  Soon we were trudging up frozen streams wearing our mountaineering double boots, with full fledged 10+2 ice climbing crampons, learning the French technique for non-vertical ice.  I tripped over my own feet with astonishing effectiveness as I muddled my way learning the new techniques with the long straight french piolet style ice axes.  When we finally hit vertical ice and I strapped my wrists into the sportier short curved axes, the magic was back.  “Thunk, thunk; Thunk, thunk, Step up; Thunk, thunk; Thunk, thunk, Step up.”  The X-body technique I learned in Thunder Bay came back just like riding a bike.  Peter’s N-body technique took more time, but I was hooked.  I ended up bringing my students out to the indoor ice climbing gym in northern Seoul, and joining Peter for one last Saturday on a real frozen waterfall before the first rain of spring rotted our beautiful ice away.

With all the ice and snow, I needed to warm up, so when I had a week off at the beginning of February for Lunar New year,  I booked myself four days of live aboard diving in the Similan Islands of Thailand.  I took the red eye to Phuket (Poo-ket) where I had booked myself a room in a hostel where I could sleep for what was left of the night before heading to the dive boat.  When I arrived at 3:45 am, the hostel was dark and locked up tight as a drum.  There was a note on the door with a number to call for after hours check in.  I had the cabbie call for me.  No answer.  He called again and said that someone was one their way.  I wasn’t so sure about that.  It seemed more like the cabbie wanted to be on his way.  There didn’t appear to be much choice so I plunked myself down on top of my bags on the bench outside the hostel, and took in the street scene.

It was incredibly active for 4 am.  The street was brightly lit and alive with shirtless muscular young men unloading vegetables from an endless procession of small trucks and motorcycle rickshaws.  Don’t get me wrong: I would have much preferred a nice warm bed.  But it was fascinating to watch the preparations for the next day’s market.  It was another one of those “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” moments.

Phuket at Night

Sure enough, the sun arrived before the hostel staff.  I didn’t find myself in a bed until 7am!  At noon, the van arrived to take me to Khao Lak to board the Dolphin Queen.  We were to have 22 divers aboard, mostly living four to a small bunk room on the lower deck, though there were some private rooms available.  The guests where mostly young Europeans, creating a very multinational crowd with at least seven languages spoken on board.  We were split into teams of four divers based on level of experience and assigned a dive master.  My team consisted of Fabio, our divemaster, Nicolas (aka Jacques Cousteau) the Frenchman, Carina the dazzling Danish blonde, and my dive buddy Maria.  Maria was a girl after my own heart, a 5’9″ muscular, strawberry blonde, vegetarian, Swedish, marine biology student.  She had just come from a few days of rock climbing and was one her way to Australia for go to school for a semester on exchange.  This was going to be a rough trip!  You can’t imagine how hard it is underwater trying to figure out which incredibly gorgeous Scandinavian blonde is your buddy!  Maria was very kind to me.  She dove behind me so I could concentrate on the fish!

Guests and Crew of the Dolphin Queen

We got up each morning, had coffee and toast, then went for a dive.  When we finished the morning dive, breakfast was waiting for us.  Then it was up to the sundeck for a couple of hours of reading while we breathed off our nitrogen.  Then it was time for dive number two.  Lunch was served as we surfaced.  They always had a separate table of vegetarian food for Maria and I.  And Thai food is some of the best cuisine in the world.  Once we were fully stuffed, it was back to the sundeck for more degassing before our afternoon dive.  Dinner was at six followed by our 7pm night dive.  Then we immediately passed out in our bunks so that we could do it again tomorrow.

We dove for a day and a half in the Similans.  The second afternoon we left the Similans and steamed to the islands of Koh Bon and Koh Tachia.  Our first dive at Koh Bon got very interesting.  About halfway through the dive, one of the other dive masters spotted a Manta ray.  We all headed over to him and laid low on the sand behind a wall of coral so that we could watch the manta without scaring it away.  We watched fascinated as the manta danced in and out of sight in the distance.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long as we were approaching the no-decompression limit.   We backed away from the other divers so as not to scare the manta away from them and started a very slow ascent.  At around 35 feet another manta came to play.  It swam up with a huge remora on its belly along with a good dozen other fish hanging around its gills.  About 15 feet away from us, it arched upwards and popped its chest out to try to blow the remora off.  It was an incredible explosion of fish!  He danced around us for most of our safety stop before gliding off into the blue.

A Local Thai Boat

During that night we steamed out to Richelieu Rock.  Richelieu is a sea mount that doesn’t quite break the surface at low tide.  It was first explored by Cousteau himself.  It is covered in purple soft corals and teaming with fish and incredible numbers of tiny crabs and nudibranchs.  They figure Cousteau either named it after Cardinal Richelieu’s purple robes, or the literal translation of Richelieu: rich place.  At one point I saw a needle fish eat a tiny bait fish.  It swam over me so close that I could see the little fish moving down his throat as he swallowed it!

After a second dive at Richelieu we went back to Koh Tachia and saw yet another Manta.  We found Nemo’s whole family in one anemone, and saw his buddy Scar the Moorish idol everywhere.  I couldn’t count all of the lion fish, stone fish, and morays.  At one point we saw two morays sticking out of opposite ends of the same rock.  It looked like one moray with a head at either end!

For our final day we did two morning dives at Koh Bon.  On the last dive, a final Manta came to say goodbye.  In total it was 14 dives in 4 days.  I’m now at 152 dives and about 93 bottom hours.  I guess I have to do another trip like that to get to 100 hours!  I was actually dived out.  Skin was flaking off my hands from being wet so much, and my feet were getting raw from my fins.

That night when I returned to Phuket, I found myself a delicious Thai meal in a funky little restaurant decorated with antique toys from the 1950’s.  On my way back to the hostel, I walked past a Blues bar and heard the most amazing sound coming from inside.  I went in and had a drink to an old friend who is no longer with us.  The music seemed to permeate through to my soul.  Then it went down my arm and made the bottle in my hand quiver.  My physics classes know that is just the resonance of sound in a closed air column, but that night it felt more like magic.  I sat for hours letting the music go right through me and wondered over how goddam good it felt to be alive.

Click for a gallery of photos of Old Phuket

I still had three more days left and I was determined to make them count.  I started out by walking around Old Phuket Town for the morning doing a photo essay.  I hadn’t read anything positive about Phuket.  It had been billed as touristy, expensive, and highly westernized.  I guess it depends on how one defines Phuket.  Phuket is an island fringed by beaches loaded full of overpriced tourist resorts and beach umbrellas.  But, then there is the Phuket I found: Old Phuket Town, the slightly run down colonial capital, filled with amazing Sino-Colonial architecture, a dozen shrines, tailor shops, fruit stalls, textile stores, hardware stores, and fabulous restaurants.  A nice meal in a swanky restaurant was $5.  For a buck, you could eat the same food with the locals at one of the stalls by the vegetarian shrine.

Longtail Ferry to Koh Yao Noi

For my next adventure I caught the bus to Bang Rong Pier.  The term bus is used loosely.  It consisted of a mid-sized pickup with a bench along either side of the bed and a cage over the back to hold the canvas roof.  At the pier I boarded a longtail boat to Koh Yao Noi.  Riding aboard the longtail was an adventure in and of itself.  The middle two thirds of the wooden boat was a covered cabin for the passengers.  The cabin top was fringed by high rails to which was lashed a truly remarkable quantity of cargo, that made capsize seem inevitable.  The front third was open air seating, and the after third was the only thing that had changed since Marco Polo walked past.   The boatman was seated back there with the contraption that gave the boat its name.  A huge marine diesel was mounted on a swivel above the stern post with a ten to fifteen foot shaft protruding out the back like a huge tail with a propeller at the end.  The engine could be tilted up and down like an outboard for operation in shallow water, and canted side to side with the aid of a tiller to steer the boat.  I actually paused for a moment to consider my odds of survival if I boarded such an odd and listing craft.  The bilges appeared dry, there were actually life jackets on board, and besides, the water was really warm.  What the heck!

A Longtail up on Plane

It actually proved to be a surprisingly smooth, quiet, and fast ride.  At one point we were passed by a smaller longtail that was actually up on plane!  I arrived in Koh Yao Noi, a small Muslim fishing island and climbed into a tuk-tuk or taxi.  The tuk-tuk was actually just a smaller version of the vehicle that had been given the name “bus” in Phuket.  The tuk-tuk whisked me away down the winding road to the north end of the island.  I felt like I was back in Jamaica: I had been on tamer roller coasters!  My wild local transportation finally delivered me to my destination: The Sea Gypsy Restaurant.  Heather and Mike, a couple of American hippies built the grass roofed open air restaurant in the rainforest overlooking the beach.  This place had everything that Leonardo DiCaprio’s mythical island had in the movie The Beach: laid back long haired people, a beautiful beach, spectacular cliffs, and no tourists.  And it had two things that made it even better: it really existed, and Mike had bolted the local cliffs for climbing.

The Sea Gypsy Restaurant

Heather had booked me a bungalow for the night.  All the cheap ones were booked out so I was forced to crash for the night in a place the size of my apartment in Seoul, that could comfortably sleep four!  In the morning I hopped on another long tail with my guide and headed for the cliffs.  My guide was a young Thai man who had lived for years in Montreal where he had worked in a climbing gym.  Now he splits his

Rock Climbing Area on Koh Yao Noi

time between being a cheese maker in Switzerland and guiding rock climbers in Thailand.  What a life!  He had the most slow deliberate climbing technique I have ever seen.  Every hand and every foot was easily and purposefully placed.  Watching him, you were utterly convinced that he could have stood, in every position he was in, forever without getting tired.  Then I tried the same climbs.  I was grasping for handholds, searching for footing, and desperately trying to complete each move so I could find a rest.  I tried my best to get him to teach me some of his magic.

I was back aboard the longtail that night to return to Phuket for my final adventure of the trip.  The next morning it was time for elephant trekking.  We started out at local farm where we saw how pineapples and other local fruits are gone.  Then we headed to the sea turtle nursery.  On the way our guide told us stories about the 2004 tsunami.  Just before the parking lot for the sea turtle nursery was a small navy ship that was stranded a half kilometre from the beach by the tsunami.  It was quite a testament to the awesome power of that wave.  At the nursery we saw sea turtles at every stage of development from smaller than a hockey puck to bigger than a briefcase.

Sea Turtle Nursery

Then we headed back inland were we boarded bamboo rafts and were poled down a river through the rainforest.  Once again it was like being back in Jamaica!  We paused after the rafting trip for some lunch then proceeded to a small zoo where we watched monkeys making moves that would have made even my climbing guide jealous.

At the back of the zoo, we finally reached the main event: the elephant farm.  The elephants trundled in, each bearing a handler sitting on its neck with his left leg crossed on top of the elephant’s head, and his right leg down along its neck behind its ear.  Two or three tourists were seated on a large steel chair strapped to the elephant’s back over a thick stack of blankets.  The elephants headed for the elephant port, a large elevated platform that allowed the tourists to step right on or off the elephant’s back.  The tourists disembarked, then the elephants hit the showers.  Each handler brought his animal to a hose, gave it a good long drink, then rinsed it down with cool freshwater.  There was a long pause with the hose over the ears which act as radiators to cool the animal’s enormous bulk.  The bathed elephants proceeded to a feeding station where the last group of riders fed them a snack.

Elephant Hitting the Shower After a Hard Trek

Once they were fed, they returned to the elephant port where it was our turn to board.  The most surprising thing that one discovers in stepping barefoot onto the back of an elephant, is that they are furry.  The hairs are in thick bristly bundles about 2mm in diameter, 15mm long, and spaced about 10mm apart.  They are so sparse that when viewed from 2m away they disappear.

I was strapped into a chair big enough for two and off we went up an alarmingly steep and eroded looking trail.  I had to lean forward really hard to stay balanced on the chair.  The handler gently kicked the elephant in the back of the right ear to make it go faster, and carried a plastic pipe, presumably to bonk him on the head if he got out of line.  Once the trail levelled out I jiggled away in my giant chair and started to think that this was actually a very silly touristy thing to do.  Then at the far end of the trail we stopped.  My elephant handler climbed down and motioned for me to climb down onto the beast’s neck.  I untied my seatbelt and down I went.  I handed the handler my camera and posed for some pictures, fully expecting to get back on the chair and return to the farm.  Instead, my handler climbed up onto the chair and the elephant resumed his march.  I had to learn fast how to balance on the neck of a moving elephant.  I didn’t have the confidence to lift my left leg onto his head.  Having both legs down kept my centre of gravity low and gave me tremendous leverage to keep from falling.  But this also kept my right foot too low to kick him in the back of the ear.  Instead I leaned down and tapped his ear forward with my hand.  It also meant that one of my legs would get a pretty good squeeze when the elephant turned his head.  When we reached the steep hills, we were going down this time.  I had to lean way back to stay balanced.  This torqued my boney knees forward into the backs of his ears.  I pointed my toes outward as far as I could to try to get my knees to bend sideways a bit to make it more comfortable for him.  Soon we were back at the farm where he got his shower and I got to pet his trunk and face before heading back to Phuket.

Riding on the Elphant's Neck

It was another red eye flight home to Seoul but this time with a twist.  I arrived in Beijing at 8:30 am to transfer to my 5:30 pm flight to Seoul.  This would actually give me enough time to tour The Forbidden City.  The problem is that you can’t enter China without a visa that must be applied for a month in advance.  On the shuttle from terminal to terminal, I cased the place out to figure out if I could sneak out of the airport and grab the subway into the city.  There didn’t seem to be anything standing in my way.  I also wondered what Communist Chinese jail would be like if this went badly.  I found the check in counter and tried to check my bags in for the final leg of my flight.

“You’re too early.  Your flight doesn’t leave until 5:30 tonight.”

“Well then what can I do with my bags for the day?  (So I can sneak out of this place.)  Are there lockers or something?”

“Just wait a minute.”

She had a long chat with her supervisor in Chinese.

“Would you like to fly back to Seoul earlier?”

Lets see: A chance to clean up and get a good night sleep before going back to work, with no chance of Communist Chinese jail, or The Forbidden City?  I guess The Forbidden City will have to wait for another trip!