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A Different View of Hong Kong

In Hong Kong you don’t take the tour bus to find good food. You don’t need to know where you’re going; you just press start.
-Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

I planned this trip to be different in some ways. Hong Kong is still a familiar city to me, despite aesthetic changes over the years between my visits. On this short journey through Asia’s premier international city I experienced the familiar and the new.

Star Ferry

Familiar Star Ferry in Kowloon

Months ago my friend in Hanoi asked if I could meet her in Hong Kong–it would be her first time there and she knew that it wasn’t far from Taipei. I took this as an opportunity to not only see my friend but also as an excuse to return to a city I hadn’t seen in over seven years. Unfortunately, problems with my friend’s visa prevented her from traveling–it meant that I had to quickly come up with new plans for sightseeing in Hong Kong.Star Ferry View

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I escaped to Hong Kong often while I lived in Shenzhen–it was a mental rejuvenation trip of sorts to run from the chaotic mainland city to a more westernized city just a short distance away. As I didn’t have much money back then, I opted for cheaper meals and wandering through the streets of Central for most of those trips. I could only dream about fine dining in Hong Kong while earning a little more than $1,000 per month across the border.

Hong Kong Convention Centre

Hong Kong Convention Centre

This time around I had a healthy bank balance thanks to the relatively low cost of living in Taipei. I didn’t have to worry about budgeting as much (although I still thought about the cost of a lot of things because Hong Kong can be very expensive).

Despite not being able to see my friend from Vietnam, I was able to see a couple friends from New York who have been living in Hong Kong for about six years. I was also surprised to find a friend from Taipei was traveling around at the same time. I had a full day planned just to see my friends.

Hiking across Lamma Island

Lamma Island

Lamma Island

On the first day I met up with my Taipei friend and headed to Lamma Island on the ferry.

Sok Kwu Wan

Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

The weather was nice as we arrived and we began hiking from Sok Kwu Wan Pier to Yung Shue Wan on the other side. We began our hike in the wrong direction–a matter that I noticed after checking my offline map with GPS after 15 minutes of walking. It turned out to be perfect timing for misdirection as a thunderstorm rolled in as we reached the line of restaurants on the water. We decided to sit down at LoSo Kitchen and have a local Hong Kong beer (one amber and one pale ale) while waiting out the storm.

hong kong beer

Hong Kong amber

The rain dissipated as we finished our beer and we decided to brave the uncertain weather for the hike–the woman running the restaurant said it was only an hour hike rather than the two hours I was previously told.

Lamma Island

Power plant near the beach at Lamma Island

It was an easy hike across Lamma Island–there was only one five-way intersection at which we were pointed in the wrong direction (along with four other tourists). Other than a few scenic spots, there’s not much to see along the trail. And the town around Yung Shue Wan was busy and foreigner-friendly (i.e., more western-style bars and restaurants). Rather than hang around for another drink or a light meal, we headed back to Kowloon to refresh ourselves for our respective evenings.Hong Kong night

Drinks, dinner, and comedy in Wanchai

Nearing dinner time, I headed out of my hotel, which was not the hotel I had thought it was. I thought I had stayed at a hotel called Evergreen the last few times I was in Hong Kong, so that’s what I booked. This was not the same hotel. Fortunately, it was decent for the price and location (next time I might stay farther outside Kowloon/Central).

I met m friends in Wanchai at The Optimist for happy hour drinks. For such an expensive city, Hong Kong has some great happy hour deals. There isn’t a set discount, but Optimist has a tiered menu of inexpensive drinks, like a bramble or margarita for HK$48 (about US$6). The atmosphere of the bar was lively and it got crowded just before my friends arrived–like so many newer bars and restaurants in Asia, it looked like all the other trendy joints in Manhattan or Brooklyn. We only stayed for a drink before heading to the 30th floor for Italian food at Pirata.

bramble cocktail

Bramble at The Optimist

This was better than the Italian food I had with my uncle years ago. It was so good I forgot to take any photos (also the restaurant was dark, which would’ve made it difficult). I was told that Pirata is owned by the same group that owns Optimist, which explains the decor. Unfortunately, we were not seated near the window for views of the city.

After dinner we headed to another bar for a comedy show featuring British comic Stephen K. Amos, who was quite entertaining. Certainly not an experience I had expected when I first planned the trip. The opening act was a Scottish comedian who spoke quickly with a thick accent, making it difficult to understand much of the act. It reminded me of the guy from Glasgow I met in Edinburgh years ago (I have no idea what that guy said).

Wandering around Stanley

Stanley Hong Kong

Stanley, Hong Kong

On the second full day, I headed to Stanley on the south side of Hong Kong Island. I had heard it was a nice area, but had never been there. I decided it was a better choice than attempting a hike of Dragon’s Back trail with potentially rainy weather. It was a long bus ride from Kowloon to Stanley, but the views from the winding roads in the hills of Hong Kong Island made it more worthwhile. Once I arrived, I didn’t know where to walk or what to see–I just wandered.Stanley Hong Kong

The street market was nice to walk through if I had been interested in buying souvenirs, and it led to the coast with rocks against the waves. From there I took the coastal walkway to Stanley Market and its more popular shops and restaurants as I searched for lunch.

smoked duck salad

Hami melon salad with smoked duck

That’s when I found Pinot Duck. It wasn’t nearly as crowded as the other restaurants in the area and the prices looked reasonable, plus I love duck. I ended up ordering Xinjiang hami melon salad with jasmine tea smoked duck. I was tempted to order more, but I decided it would be better to have something light and then go out again later. The hami melon was sweet to complement the savory flavor of the duck. There was also a slight citrus flavor to the salad dressing that held the opposing flavors together. After looking at what other customers ordered, I was tempted to eat more.

Instead of eating more, I wandered the streets some more and ended up at the Hong Kong Museum of Correctional Services. As it was free, I decided to take in the air conditioning for a bit. While not the most interesting museum, it did have quite a bit about Vietnamese refugees in the early 1990s.

streetcar Hong Kong

View from the streetcar

Back to Wanchai for drinks

On my ride back to Central Hong Kong, I decided to stop in Wanchai to search for some dinner and nightlife. I got off at the wrong stop from where I wanted to be, but ended up with a cheap happy hour of rum cocktails Rummin’ Tings. With the magic of Wi-Fi, I was able to locate the beer bar I had wanted to try, a bit farther away–I was told to take the streetcar (another first for me in the city and a cheap choice for transportation). Fortunately, The Roundhouse – Chicken + Beer (there are two) was not far from the stop as it started raining again.

Roundhouse Hong Kong

The Roundhouse

Roundhouse has a great selection of craft beer, both imported and domestic. Of course, I went with the domestic beer because craft beer in Hong Kong didn’t exist last time I was there. I tried Young Master Brewery’s Mandarin Citrus IPA and Kowloon Bay Brewery Nut Brown Ale and Imperial Stout. Neither Kowloon Bay beer was particularly good–the imperial stout tasted too light for such a strong beer and nut brown was alright, but lacked a bit of punch. The citrus IPA was a much better choice–it was a double IPA with more flavor, but it was still light enough match the day’s humidity.

Young Master Citrus IPA

Young Master Citrus IPA

I ended my trip with a ride back to Kowloon on the Star Ferry from Wanchai. As I stared at the lights of the city, I wondered how much more there was that I could enjoy in Hong Kong–the sights and sounds that I hadn’t previously experienced. As I have friends there, and it’s an inexpensive flight from Taipei, I will likely return to discover those new places, or just the ones that went unnoticed before.Hong Kong night

Have you returned to a place that was familiar just to seek out new experiences? How was it?

Head in the Clouds at Qixingshan

The weather was beautiful in Taipei on Saturday. I planned to wake up early and get out into nature for the day, and headed to Yangmingshan National Park, an area I hadn’t been to since my first time in this city over a year and a half ago.

My previous trek through the national park was brief–I had no idea where to go and had to head back to Taipei to meet a friend earlier than expected. I at least got to hike a little and see the area around the visitor center, which is worth checking out once.

Welcome to Yangmingshan

Welcome to Yangmingshan

This time around I planned a little better–I decided to hike the tallest peak in the Taipei region at Qixing Mountain. Qixingshan, or Seven Star Mountain, is an inactive volcano that still emits plenty of sulfur fumes (who doesn’t love the aroma of rotten eggs while hiking?). The summit reaches 1,120 meters (3,675 ft)–not nearly the highest peak I’ve hiked, but still a decent trek.

After nearly an hour on the bus (it would take longer, but the bus didn’t make all its stops because no one got off and no one wanted to get on either), I got off at Qixingshan bus stop, figuring that was the easiest spot to start from on my trek up the mountain. I was wrong.

Just off the bus

Just off the bus

There was no trailhead near the bus stop. There was a map that indicated I had a long way to walk to get to the trailhead for Qixingshan. It wasn’t far, but the path toward the visitor center to start the hike was cordoned off, possibly due to damage from the most recent typhoon.

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

Time to start hiking along the bamboo trail

While the weather in Taipei was beautiful all day–low 80s, not too humid with a cooling breeze–the weather as I stepped off the bus turned to chilly and cloudy. Well, cloudy isn’t quite the right word here as the clouds were around me. I wouldn’t call it fog either. I was just in the clouds in the mountains. And with the strong wind howling, the clouds moved rapidly around me.

Such a beautiful view...

Such a beautiful view…

I contemplated heading back to Taipei for the pleasant weather, but I had already spent an hour traveling and decided I might as well see if the clouds would dissipate (they didn’t). The higher up the mountain I hiked, the thicker the clouds became.

I still found fellow hikers along the way–people as crazy as I was to hike in such conditions. Of course, those people had light rain jackets; I was wearing a t-shirt. While parts of the hike were strenuous, I didn’t so much sweat as I had condensation form on me–the weather conditions, according to the visitor center, were 17°C and 99% humidity.

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

We reached the peak of Qixingshan

I’m sure the views from Qixingshan are beautiful. But I saw nothing. It was difficult to see more than 20 feet ahead.

On the way down, rather than tempt fate and hike to another peak in the clouds, I headed back toward the main visitor center to catch a bus back to Taipei. Unfortunately, the trail splits a few times along the way–and the direction signs do not say anything about the visitor center. This forced me to ask people heading in the opposite direction for some help (that reminds me, I need to study more Chinese).

The way down was much longer than the way up, which certainly isn’t pleasant for the knees. If I had come prepared, I might’ve stopped at the hot springs in Beitou on the way back home so I could relax and recover. Instead, I headed home and climbed six flights of stairs.

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

The sulfur fumes were strong along this part of the hike

As the weather cools in Taiwan, I’ll probably plan a few more hikes–there are still some short hikes around the city that I haven’t yet done. There are also hiking groups that take weekend trips to the more challenging mountains in central Taiwan.

Has the weather ever hampered your outdoor activities? And did you still continue with your plans?

Finding Nature in Tokyo at Mt. Mitake

As the weather cooled in autumn, I searched for new outdoor activities around Tokyo–it was almost late October and the foliage was beginning to change with the season. I hoped for a better view of the fall colors than I had the previous year.mitake-view

The previous year I hiked Mt. Takao and Mt. Oyama and even spent days in most of the parks throughout the city. I searched for hikes that weren’t too difficult or too far from my suburban apartment–most destinations were at least an hour from that home in Kanagawa.mitake-river

I decided to head to Mt. Mitake, which is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park (a fact I didn’t know at the time), because it wasn’t too far out of the way and wouldn’t be too crowded (or so I had read). I was also inviting a friend to hike along with me, so I didn’t want to find anything as challenging as Mt. Oyama.mitake-bridge

It was a bit of a walk from the train station to the trail–a cable car was required to get to the trail; it was insisted upon by my hiking companion. We walked along the road in the hope that it led in the right direction–it was a while before we saw a sign that sort of pointed in the right direction; the sign came after we crossed the footbridge over the river.mitake-cable-car

We wandered from the cable car through a town along the way that had some old-style houses that were mixed with newer additions for remodeling.

House in town near Mt. Mitake

House in town near Mt. Mitake

Before embarking on the adventure through nature, we stopped at Musashi-Mitake Shrine, which seemed to be intended for dogs and dates back to 1307 (though most of it was built much later). This shrine is at the summit of the 3048-foot mountain.

Musashi-Mitake-Shrine

From the Musashi-Mitake Shrine we hiked into the forest, away from the few people who were spending the day in the park (mostly with their dogs).

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

A stone dog at Musashi Mitake Shrine

We didn’t really choose a path through the wilderness on the outskirts of Tokyo; we just followed the nearest trail that sounded interesting–it claimed to lead to waterfalls and a rock garden. We had no idea how long the hike would take us or how difficult it might be. We wandered up and down some hills and hoped that the next turn around the mountainside would take us to our scenic destination.mitake-waterfall

The hike felt like it took longer before we reached Nanayo Falls. It was a pleasant stop at the small waterfall before heading back to the cable car; we didn’t even make it to the rock garden and second waterfall. Had I been hiking alone, I might’ve taken a longer route through the park in an attempt to find Mt. Otake and probably would’ve gotten lost along the way.mitake-forest

It was probably best that we departed Mt. Mitake when we did as evening was approaching with the early autumn sunset. We boarded the train for central Tokyo where I could change lines and head back to the suburbs and my hiking companion could do the same but in the opposite direction (and much closer). The long train ride felt good on my legs (though not so much when I had to stand again). I slept for a significant portion of that ride that took me close to two hours.

mitake-gate

The entrance to Musashi Mitake Shrine

After numerous hiking adventures on my own, it was a different experience having someone with me. It was more fun to have someone to talk with along the way, but more difficult to go at my own pace. Sometimes I prefer to be alone with my thoughts in nature–the cathartic experience of hiking.

Is it a better experience to hike on your own or with other people?

An Extended Hike Through MacRitchie Reservoir in Singapore

“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

On my second day in Singapore, I decided to take a hike to make up for my previous day’s failure. That first day I attempted to go to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a large rainforest park in the outskirts of Singapore, only to discover that the park was undergoing renovations (supposedly they were improving the trails or something like that). That’s when I decided to head for the MacRitchie Reservoir, which is a much larger park than I expected.macritchie-reservoir

MacRitchie Reservoir, which was created in 1868, is popular among locals–there are numerous trails for people looking for little exercise. I saw groups of people out for a stroll as well as those jogging around the reservoir and surrounding forest trail. There were even a lot of people renting kayaks.macritchie-reservoir1

I originally thought I could walk to the reservoir from the MRT station, but I was definitely wrong. After a failed attempt at getting a bus (I was on the wrong side of the street), I checked out the stops listed on the bus stop but didn’t see a stop for MacRitchie. That’s when a kind local came up and offered some assistance–she told me which buses I could take and where to get off; she even took the same bus and pointed me in the right direction after I got off.

As I arrived at the reservoir, I headed for the trail around the water before turning off onto the forest trail. As I entered the park, there were a lot of monkeys playing in the trees and plenty of people watching them (there are signs in parks in Singapore reminding visitors to not feed the monkeys or carry plastic bags that monkeys might mistake for food). Along the trail I also noticed some small monitor lizards (I’m disappointed that I didn’t see any of the larger ones).macritchie-monkeys

The sign pointing to the forest trail said it was about 5 km to the TreeTop Walk, which is sponsored by HSBC (nice to see them doing more than laundering money for drug cartels).

What I didn’t realize is that the trail to the TreeTop Walk doesn’t go around the reservoir–it’s a trail through thick woodland, so you can’t see the reservoir. I also didn’t realize that while it’s 5 km to the destination, it was more than 5 km to finish the loop and then find the way back to the park entrance. I somehow found an exit along the way to the main road and bus stop nearby that would take me back to the MRT.

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

The forest trail through MacRitchie Reservoir

I was only a short distance into the forest trail–the noise of Singapore had already disappeared in the distance–when it started to rain (it is a rainforest after all). There are plenty of shelters along the trail, so I managed to find one before I got soaked with my camera. It cooled the weather until I made it to the TreeTop Walk, but it heated up considerably after that and I was desperate to get out–there were others I encountered on the trail who wanted to get out faster as well.

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

The HSBC TreeTop Walk

the TreeTop Walk had a beautiful view, especially considering the air cleared after the rain. After walking through the humidity after the rain, the view wasn’t as energizing as one would hope–I was sweating so much I felt like collapsing on the bridge (and it only got worse when I saw the signs for more than 5 km back out of the rainforest in either direction). The route I took back out of the rainforest took me along a country club golf course, which made the experience a little more surreal in my humidity-induced delirium (maybe it was a mirage).

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I was tempted to stay on the bus to see where it went just because I was exhausted and thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning on the ride to the MRT station.

Instead of heading back to my hostel to shower again and possibly take a nap, I decided to head farther from my hike to Bayfront. I wandered around the Marina Bay Sands mall to cool off in the air conditioning (and with the hope that I could find some affordable food (nope)) before dragging my tired legs to Gardens by the Bay, which is a story for another day.

View from the TreeTop Walk

View from the TreeTop Walk

I got to end my day with dinner at a little sidewalk buffet restaurant in Little India where I met a Dutch tourist and a few locals who ordered plenty of beer and even more food. I even met the owner of the restaurant who joined us for some of the beer and food. Somehow I paid less than half of my bill–certainly nothing to complain about.

Despite a hot and exhausting day, it was the kind of travel exhaustion I needed to rejuvenate myself (though my feet would disagree).

Hiking through Spirited Away

“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
– Zeniba, Spirited Away

Just before the Chinese New Year, I took a day trip to the far reaches of New Taipei, to the old mining town of Jiufen (九份). I headed out on a long bus ride from central Taipei to this small town in the mountains–the hour and a half ride cost less than $4 and I was fortunate enough to have a seat (on heavy travel days plenty of passengers have to stand for the entire ride, which wouldn’t be much fun on the winding mountain roads).jiufen

I met a few expats and visitors while waiting for the bus–I had just missed it; it turned the corner as I exited the MRT station, so I had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. Two of the expats were showing a relative around and had been to Jiufen before; they told me where to get off the bus and which direction to head from the stop (I ran into them again on the way to the bus back to Taipei).Jiufen Old Street

History of Jiufen

Jiufen has some interesting history, which began with nine families calling the village home, giving the town the name that translates to nine portions. The mountainside settlement became a mining town with the discovery of gold in 1893. Allied POWs were sent to work in the mines during World War II. When the mines were closed in 1971, the town faded into history. In 1989, A City of Sadness, about the 228 Incident in which the Kuomintang massacred anti-government protesters and began the White Terror in Taiwan, was filmed in the town and led to some increased interest in Jiufen. However, it wasn’t until Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away that tourism began to revive the town. Jiufen was the inspiration for the town in Miyazaki’s film, which led to greater interest from Japanese tourists. Jiufen Old Street

Once off the bus, I headed for the old street, which is the touristy thing to do in Jiufen as well as in all the other little towns of New Taipei. The narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, food stalls, and restaurants was crowded with tourists who walked much too slow for my liking. As soon as I saw an opening that led to empty streets, I wandered off the tourist path.Jiufen

Escaping the tourist crowds

As I wandered through winding streets, I escaped the people. After continuing on a path that I only led up, I found myself at the top of the mountain at Lutou (露頭) overlooking Jiufen to the north (it was difficult to make out the characters on the faded sign, which made it difficult to locate on a map). I saw no one along the trail. I did find a broken, discarded motorbike and wondered how it ended up there with no road and all the steps up the mountain.

View from the trail to Lutou

View from the trail to Lutou

I rested at the peak and watched the clouds roll through between Jiufen and the surrounding mountains. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to bring a bottle of water with me–that was my next stop when I finally reached the town again.

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

Boozy coffee before setting out on a second hike

After a break for water and some boozed-up coffee on Jiufen’s old street (how could I pass up some caffeine with Amarula Cream?). I wandered with my coffee through other, wider roads that lead to who-knows-where (maybe I should’ve picked up a map when I arrived).  That’s when I saw a sign for yet another hiking trail–to Keelung Mountain.

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

Almost at the top of Keelung Mountain

I figured Keelung Mountain (基隆山) wouldn’t be too difficult of a hike as I noticed other tourists there. The distance listed on the sign didn’t seem imposing, so I figured I’d take another hike and find another angle to view the town. It wasn’t as easy as I had expected. It was a lot of stairs straight up the mountain.jiufen-harbor-2

This trail would provide an amazing view for the sunset and to watch the lights of the town in the evening. I, however, was not fortunate enough to have a decent sunset or a flashlight to help me down the unlit stairway. More clouds rolled through and it looked like it might rain–the sun was blocked as it began to set behind the mountains. I could just make out the harbor leading to the East China Sea in the distance, but it was disappearing from view.jiufen2

As I looked back at Jiufen, I saw more elaborate tombs on the side of the mountain than homes. Many of the houses are in disrepair while the family tombs are well maintained.

Tombs around Jiufen

Tombs around Jiufen

I headed back to town as the sun set and had a quick bite to eat and more water at the convenience store. I waited a half hour to get on the crowded bus (I was fortunate to have a seat again) bound for Taipei. The next day my legs were sore and I had difficulty getting out of bed, but it was worth the pain of muscle recovery.

Have you visited Jiufen? Where were the best views?

A Crowded View in Taipei

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
John Muir, Our National Parks

On New Year’s Day, I headed to Xiangshan–Elephant Mountain–in southeastern Taipei. I’ve hiked this “mountain” before in much warmer weather. This time around it was a national holiday, and throngs of locals and tourists heading for the hills to catch a better view of the city.xiangshan-panorama

This time around I only wanted to hike, so I didn’t bother bringing my fancy camera. Fortunately, my new phone takes panoramic photos, unlike my fancy camera that lacks some features I didn’t take note of before purchasing it. The clouds broke above Taipei 101 just in time for a better picture. I managed to squeeze in among the crowd to get my photos.

Hiking the Highest Peak in Seoul

a trail of climbing stairsteps forks upstream.
Big ranges lurk behind these rugged little outcrops—
these spits of low ground rocky uplifts
layered pinnacles aslant,
flurries of brushy cliffs receding,
far back and high above, vague peaks.
– Gary Snyder, “Endless Streams and Mountains”

I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit a national park that was so close. It still took about an hour to get to Bukhansan National Park from my apartment–the park is on the outskirts of the city and requires taking a 20-minute bus ride from the metro station. Nonetheless, I was determined to get to the park and hike, even if I did wake up a bit later than I should have. It was a good excuse to test out my new hiking shoes–my Columbia shoes were wearing thin and not capable of the occasionally slick rocky trails.

bukhansan

First view of Bukhansan National Park

Getting to the park wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’d be. There was a tourist information booth just outside the station, and they gave me a list of buses I could take and told me where to get off. It helped that the bus announcements were also in English.bukhansan stream

I wasn’t sure where I was going. I hoped that the trail signs in the park would be better than the ones at Yongmasan and Achasan. Fortunately, the signs were much better, though without a trail map it was a little more difficult deciding with trail to take. I was, again, lucky–I chose the trail that I wanted without actually knowing that it was the one (sometimes it pays to follow the crowd).Bukhansan

I figured it wouldn’t take long to follow the trail that claimed to be only 4.5 km (I’m not sure how they measure distance around here, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t take over two and a half hours to hike that far). It took a strenuous two and a half hours to hike up Baekundae, which at 2,744 ft is the highest peak in Seoul.

Baekundae

View from atop Baekundae

The more than 30 sq. mi. that encompasses Bukhansan was established as a national park in 1983. Its history dates back almost 2,000 years when the first fortress was built in the mountains. A nearly 6-mile defensive wall was constructed in the mountains, but was partly destroyed during the Korean War. According to some of the historic information posted along the trail, the region was used to discreetly move weaponry through the country–I can only imagine the difficulty of lugging all that equipment up the mountainside.

Bukhansan wall

One of the gates through the fortification at Bukhansan (only about 1km from the summit of Baekundae)

The mountains in Bukhansan National Park are beautiful. Rocky cliffs greet hikers as they wind their way up. On other peaks, I watched more adventurous visitors scale the rocky mountainsides–park rangers ensured that all rock climbers were fully prepared prior to attempting the climbs. I enjoy hiking, but I’m not up for rock climbing.

Bukhansan

Those specks on the far mountaintop are people

The main trails are well maintained–I doubt there’s a specific trail for those brave enough to scale the cliffs–and there are even stairs in some places (more worn and natural stairs are in other areas, but they can be a bit slippery).

Baekundae Trail

It’s not THAT steep

The trail leading to Baekundae started out fairly easy for the first hour, but gradually increased in difficulty. Toward the peak, it was a scramble up a near 70-degree slope. The way down is much more difficult, but there are ropes and cables that are firmly implanted in the rock to ensure that hikers don’t fall all the way down the mountainside.

baekundae

Just roll me down the mountain instead

The peak was crowded. Most hikers stopped there for a long rest and a picnic. I love that the Korean concept of appropriate hiking provisions includes bottles of soju, beer, and makgeolli. I enjoyed a beer from a convenience store when I returned to the town on my way back to the bus.

Baekundae

Nice place to lounge after a hike. Now, how do I get down?

The only downside to the hike was the weather–the haze obscured the views that are still spectacular on such days. If I move back to Korea, I’ll have to take the hike again on a clear day. The air cleared up a bit as I reached the summit, so it turned out alright for the day.bukhansan

My new hiking shoes held up quite well in Bukhansan–the lack of tread on my old pair would have probably meant my demise, or at least a broken bone or two. Had I arrived earlier in the day, I would’ve tacked on a few other short trails, but I was tired and hungry (the humidity didn’t help much). Despite only hiking for about five hours, my legs were quite sore the next day. Even after sitting down on the subway, it was rather difficult to stand up again (I also fell asleep on the train for a bit).

Staying Healthy on the Road

Proof that I got at least 45 minutes of exercise in Vietnam

Proof that I got at least 45 minutes of exercise in Vietnam

I’ve previously written about staying healthy while traveling, mostly in relation to avoiding stomach/intestinal illnesses in countries with questionable food safety and hygiene standards. But after my sixth month of traveling, I realized there was more to health than just not getting sick.

I was sitting at my computer during work while living in Taipei when I looked at my stomach. This was more than navel gazing. I was getting rather soft, and it looked like I had packed on a few extra pounds–all those bowls of beef noodle soup, cheap dumplings, and baozi were taking their toll on me. But this wasn’t just about Taiwan; Vietnam didn’t help my cause–it was difficult to walk anywhere in Hanoi, and too hot to walk far in Saigon.

For more than six months before I departed on this current journey, I spent a lot of time at the gym in addition to my regular bike rides when the weather was decent. For the first time in my life I felt I was in pretty good shape.

Getting out for a hike

When I arrived in Tokyo, I set out on a lot of long walks and a few hikes–Oyama and Takao were my favorites. Those hikes were more difficult than what I experienced in Taiwan and Korea (so far), yet I felt less fatigue on those hikes in Japan.

Climbing the steps to Mt. Oyama, Japan

Climbing the steps to Mt. Oyama, Japan

Eating healthier outside and at home

When I realized what I had become, I set out to get more exercise and eat healthier. For most of my lunches and dinners in Taipei I turned to the vegetable options at the local restaurants and cut out the snacks, which was disappointing because I wanted to try more of the local snacks. I also began taking the the YouBikes out more often. And while working, I attempted to get a little exercise in my small apartment–not much you can do with limited space and no equipment.

Cooking up some kimchi pancakes in Seoul (not with the common cabbage kimchi though)

Cooking up some kimchi pancakes in Seoul (not with the common cabbage kimchi though)

Korea has helped me get back into shape for the most part. I’ve definitely lost the weight I gained. Not only am I eating healthier in Seoul, but I’m getting a lot more exercise. Eating healthy is simple here–food prices are quite high. I’m not about to pay $8 for a small piece of meat, which means I’ve turned to a mostly vegetarian diet during the week (I still eat out on weekends to experience the local cuisine). But even produce can be expensive here–at least $1 per apple unless I get lucky with a street vendor.

The finished kimchi pancake before I covered it with hot sauce

The finished kimchi pancake before I covered it with hot sauce

Foods that I’ve found to be cheap or reasonable include tomatoes, green onion, leek, mushrooms, bean sprouts, traditional fish cakes, and tofu. Mixing most of these together makes for a rather tasty and healthy soup. Add to that my usual dinner that consists of either a mung bean and barley soup or kimchi pancakes, and I’m on a healthy diet (that mung bean and barley soup is similar to the soup I used to make often back home). I’ll admit that my meals are a bit boring and I have strayed a bit–a few snacks and even frozen dumplings for variety–but it hasn’t been a big deal.

Not sure how healthy these really are, but fishcakes taste better than tofu

Not sure how healthy these really are, but fishcakes taste better than tofu

Using some estimates with the MapMyRide app, my daily calorie intake is not much more than 1000 (but that doesn’t include going out for a beer after work). And even though I’m not consuming a lot of calories every day, I feel full and I’m consuming my recommended amount of vitamins.

This soup is rather healthy and quite filling. Tastes good too.

This soup is rather healthy and quite filling. Tastes good too.

I’ve gotten in the habit of walking close to five miles every day, during my lunch break and after work. I also took the advice from another travel blogger (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one) and bought an elastic exercise band–there are a lot of sports equipment stores near me. This is a great piece of exercise equipment because it’s versatile, light, and takes up very little luggage space. When I have some downtime at work, I can get a little more exercise in the limited space that 12 sqm provides. There are plenty of websites out there for various exercises, which definitely helps while traveling and living in tight quarters–the exercise routine has to change with the space.

What are your recommendations for staying healthy and fit while traveling (or even when not traveling)?

Hiking Yongmasan & Achasan in Seoul

I had Memorial Day off this week and decided to go for a hike in Seoul. There are more than a few mountains to hike within the city limits ranging from fairly easy to difficult–I chose a moderate hike followed by an easy one (I think I did that backwards). It was a day of hiking Yongmasan and Achasan.

View of Seoul from Yongmasan

View of Seoul from Yongmasan

Beginning with a hike to Yongmasan

I started from Yongmasan because it seemed easier to get to. I half-assed my way to the trail. I found the artificial waterfall that’s near the trailhead, but I guess someone turned the water off. The road nearby had a locked gate, and I cursed because I thought the trail was closed–actually, I just had to go to the outdoor exercise equipment and walk to a small path that led to the mountain.

Who turned off the water at the waterfall?

Who turned off the water at the waterfall?

The hike up Yongmasan wasn’t too difficult, though some parts were more dangerous and rugged. There were a few steep slick rocky areas to hike up and down on both mountains–I’m really not sure if it’s easier to hike up or down these rocks.yongmasan seoul

Hiking without directions

There were multiple paths along Yongmasan and Achasan, and most of the signs are only in Korean. I found a few in English, but they were in more obvious locations. When I needed to decide which route to take, there was no English to be found. A few times I asked people which way to go–while they didn’t speak English, at least they understood when I said the name of the peak and pointed in one of the directions. Quite a few people seemed to use map apps on their phones–that would’ve been great if I had service, but I hadn’t yet purchased my local SIM card.yongmasan trail

I should’ve been a bit better prepared for the hike. I intended to at least bring a banana and apple to eat along the way, but forgot them at home. I should’ve also brought along a second water bottle.

yongmasan summit

Almost at the summit of Yongmasan

When I reached the summit of Yongmasan, there were plenty of people picnicking. One guy invited me over for a cup of makgeolli, a cloudy semi-sweet and lightly carbonated liquor. We tried to communicate, but it’s a little difficult without a translator. He managed to point me in the direction of Achasan so I could finish my trek.

achasan seoul

I think we’re on our way to the summit of Achasan

Reaching Achasan

As I got closer to the summit of Achasan, I was tired. Seven months without going to the gym has definitely taken its toll. I really just wanted to reach the top and find my way back the city for a decent lunch. There really wasn’t anything different about the view from Achasan as it was from Yongmasan.

achasan shrine

Buddhist painting at the temple on the way down Achasan

Along the way through the hike I passed a few temples and shrines that weren’t of much interest after visiting so many temples around Asia. Along the mountains are the remenants of forts dating back to the Joseon period–I only came across one of them on my trek. There were also quite a few outdoor gyms, with weight benches and everything. It got me thinking about the people who hike a mountain just to get their workout instead of going to the gym.

You can shut up about crossfit now because this gym is a million times cooler.

You can shut up about crossfit now because this gym is a million times cooler.

I followed the crowds either coming up or going down in the hopes that I was heading the right direction. As I exited the park, I followed another group into town because I had no idea which way to go at the intersection.

achasan seoul

Various Buddhas left by travelers from around the world at the temple at Achasan

I ended up a little lost and decided to go into a coffee shop to either use the wifi to check my map or ask directions. Fortunately, one of the employees spoke English and pointed me in the direction of the subway station after I finished my coffee. If I could remember the name and address of that coffee shop, I would send everyone there.

Taipei from Above

taipei-101After two weeks of miserable rain, the weather cleared up in Taipei–we’ve since gone back to clouds and occasional thunderstorms. With some the sight of decent weather, I decided I had to find some outdoor activities rather than just walking around museums. I searched for hikes because there are a lot of mountains nearby.

I chose Xiangshan (象山), or Elephant Mountain, as it has a few trails to choose from and it’s near a metro station. Of course, I found Google Maps does not have one particular extension of the Red Line, which would’ve saved me about 10 minutes changing trains and at least 20 minutes of walking. That extra time could’ve been spent on more hiking–I had to return to the station early as I had to meet a friend.

Anyway, it’s much easier to take the Red Line to the end at Xiangshan Station than to get off at Taipei City Hall (also my apartment happens to be on the Red Line). Either way, there are plenty of signs pointing toward the hiking trail.taipei-101-b&w2

As I got closer to the trail, the city grew quieter. There was less traffic and fewer people. There also wasn’t much in the way of food options between City Hall Station and Xiangshan–I ended up getting a bagel with cream cheese from NY Bagels Cafe, which I must admit is an acceptable bagel that is far superior to anything I had in Pennsylvania or Colorado.

Only a short walk up the mountain for this view

Only a short walk up the mountain for this view

Xiangshan is a pleasant hike that’s quite a bit easier than Mt. Oyama in Tokyo. The trails are well marked and maintained and it wasn’t crowded. For the most part, the trails are obscured by the plant life, but there are some great scenic overlooks with open platforms for photo opportunities.

Just relaxing on the rocks overlooking Tapei

Just relaxing on the rocks overlooking Tapei

The best reason to hike up Xiangshan is to capture some great views of Taipei and Taipei 101. It’s not a far walk from the tallest building in Taiwan. This hike supposedly provides the best views of Taipei 101–I’d agree, but I haven’t been to any other places that compare yet.

On the way back down, I even came across this little phasmatodea, or stick insect, that no one else seemed to notice or care about. They were probably wondering what the foreigner was photographing.stick-insect

There are more trails to other peaks connected to Xiangshan, but I didn’t have enough time or energy for them. I’ll have to head back there earlier on a Saturday or Sunday to hike it all. I’ll also try to hike up that way with a flashlight so I can see the city at night.

Hiking Shoes Wearing Thin

It’s almost time to say goodbye to my hiking shoes. They’ve served me well the last three years–plenty of walks from my apartment to my job at the college and around NYC. They got plenty of use in Panama because lightweight, breathable hiking shoes feel amazing in the heat and humidity of the rainforest, though they won’t protect you in case a snake decides to bite you.columbia hiking shoes

I will miss my Columbia Techlite hiking shoes when it comes to time to throw them away. The soles are wearing thin from overuse. I did a lot of hiking in Japan, particularly up Mt. Oyama. But they still have some life left. More importantly, these are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.

The fact that they’re ridiculously lightweight and have a breathable mesh makes these shoes more comfortable than most–I can easily hike for miles without getting too tired. Even though the rest of my body was rather tired, my feet felt great after hiking about eight miles through Mt. Tamalpais State Park in California. The insole is also well cushioned for less stress on the foot.

columbia hiking shoes

The heel is definitely starting to wear out

Before departing on my current journey through Asia, I contemplated buying another pair of the Columbia shoes. I decided I could live without carrying another pair in my suitcase. I didn’t expect to do quite so much hiking in the Tokyo region though. It doesn’t help that I’ve been walking more than five miles a day in Ho Chi Minh City. Now it looks as though I might have another month or two of long walks before this pair of shoes is retired.

These hiking shoes didn’t last nearly as long as my Red Wings, but they also cost less than half the price. I certainly got my money’s worth out of these shoes.

As a side note, I’ve had a lot of people in Ho Chi Minh City try to sell me on a shoe shine for these shoes that I doubt could really be shined. A Canadian expat told me I’d be surprised what they can do with a toothbrush, but I still think it’s absurd to try to clean a pair of shoes that’s made of rubber and plastic.

Autumn Colors on Tokyo’s Mt. Oyama

After the day I had hiking Mt. Takao, I decided to try another hike on the outskirts of Tokyo. As I couldn’t find many that were easily accessible, I headed for Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture, which is still technically in Tokyo. It sounded like a decent hike with views–even though it was a long hike, there was a cable car that went halfway up the mountain. I figured it was a good way to spend a Saturday.mt oyama foliage

I arrived at Isehara station on the Odakyu line around 10 am and immediately regretted my decision for the day. The line for the bus to take me to the base of Mt. Oyama wrapped around the station. Twice. It took an hour to get on the bus–fortunately they had buses coming every other minute, so the line moved quickly. Fortunately, that hour gave me time to chat with a young woman from Hokkaido who spoke decent English and just wanted to hike for the day. At least I wouldn’t hike alone in the crowd.

mt oyama tokyo

First view of the hills around Oyama

We hadn’t planned on taking the cable car up the mountain, which was a wise decision as the line was again about an hour long. The hike was much more scenic with the foliage–much better timing than my hike up Mt. Takao.

mt oyama shrine

One of the smaller shrines on the hike

There were a few temples and shrines along the main trail to the summit–two of the temples were larger and drew more tourists (they’re also the two stops on the cable car).

mt oyama steps

Stairs lined with Buddhas to Oyama Temple

By the time we reached the second temple, my companion decided to head home. I still don’t understand the purpose of hiking that far and not reaching the summit. Although I must admit, the rest of the hike was much more intense than the first half (or maybe it was because I was already a little tired from standing on line for the bus).

View of Oyama Temple

View of Oyama Temple

Before setting off on the second half of the trek, hikers are supposed to take paper prayer and ring the bell before passing through the gate and up the stairs. Those are the last real stairs I remember seeing. The rest of the trail is rocks and tree roots–some of them can be used like stairs though.

mt oyama trail

Where’d the stairs go?

It took a little more than three hours to reach the 1,252-meter (4,108 ft) summit of Mt. Oyama, at which time I drank a can of beer and had a warm bowl of soba noodle soup. Along the way there were plenty of stops for views of Yokohama–the clear skies made from some great views.

mt oyama view

The view out toward Yokohama

There wasn’t much at the summit other than the shack selling some food and small, uninteresting temple. I forgot which trail I walked up and had to ask around to be sure that I was taking a trail that would lead me back to where I started. It took another hour to get back to the larger temple and the cable car, where I waited for a very small cable car to pack as many people on board before heading to the base of the mountain in a fraction of the time it’d take to hike.

The day started out a bit warm and I put my jacket in my backpack. The warmth, coupled with some more difficult than expected hiking caused me to sweat quite a bit. However, as I climbed higher and later into the day, it grew rather cold–even colder when compounded with the sweat.

The line for the cable car ran up the stairs to Oyama Afuri Shrine

The line for the cable car ran up the stairs to Oyama Afuri Shrine

The cold and sweat was much worse as I waited an hour for the cable car to take me the rest of the way down the mountain (it was starting to get dark and I was almost out of energy). It was even worse when I got back to the town and realized that the line to get back on the bus was backed into the town and I had to wait another hour. I was just happy I didn’t have to wait on line to get on the train home.oyama-cablecar

It wasn’t the most difficult hike I’ve taken, but it was pretty close. Altitude is the only thing that Mt. Oyama doesn’t have. Despite the lack of altitude, it is a steep hike up to the summit. The hike down, and the three hours worth of standing in line, wore out my legs–my calves were sore enough to keep me home the next day. Still, it was a worthwhile hike.

Reaching the Power Spot at Mt. Takao

takao-townOn my second weekend in Tokyo, I searched for a bit of nature to enjoy the non-rainy day (well, it did rain a little much later in he day). It wasn’t as bright and sunny as my day in Yoyogi Park, but it at least my shoes stayed dry for the day. I found a fairly easy train ride to Mt. Takao to the west of Tokyo (but still technically part of the metropolitan area), but not much further than my suburban area.

Mt. Takao has been a sacred mountain in Japan for over 1000 years. At an elevation of 1965 ft, it’s far from the highest mountain I’ve hiked, but still worth the trek. It provides great views of Tokyo, the surrounding forests, and even Mt. Fuji on a clear. I’m almost certain it was somewhere out there through the clouds. Or maybe it was on the other side.

I assure you, Mt. Fuji is on the right side of this photo

I assure you, Mt. Fuji is on the right side of this photo

The main path to the summit is fairly wide and paved for the throngs of visitors. There are some other trails around, but I decided to follow the crowd up in the hopes that it offered the best views.takao-flower-view

Along the walk there were plenty of places to stop for photos–some more crowded than others. There are also numerous markers in Japanese and statues throughout the area, some Shinto and some Buddhist.takao-view

What is Tengu?

Upon reaching Yakuoin Temple at Mt. Takao, I encountered images of Tengu, a long-nosed sort of Puck-ish goblin. I was a little confused because I recognized the kanji characters of his name and translated them literally as Sky Dog.

There is also a bird-like deity at the mountain. When I first heard about this deity, I pictured Garuda, but I was wrong–there’s no relation between the two deities.yakuoin-takao2

The temple was supposedly first built in 744, but was damaged or destroyed four times by fires and typhoons.

Yakuoin Temple

Yakuoin Temple

As I wandered around the temple, I found that there was a prayer service in progress and joined in. At the end of the service everyone lined up to walk up to the monks and receive a blessing. I’ve now been blessed by Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, and Japanese monks.

No, I didn't buy the shirt

No, I didn’t buy the shirt

Meeting fellow hikers

About a third of the way up, I met four Chinese expats, which made the day more interesting. I guessed they were either Taiwanese, university students, or expats because they weren’t on an official tour following a guide with a little flag. They were fun to talk with and knew enough English for when I couldn’t think of how to say some things in Chinese. They also explained a bit about Tengu and some of the food (like the Devil’s Tongue I tried) and drinks along the trail to the summit.

Sake in a souvenir box

Sake in a souvenir box

This group was also very helpful when it came to figuring out why my bank card didn’t work at any of the ATMs in the area. If I hadn’t met them, I might’ve ended up a beggar at the base of Mt. Takao. Fortunately, the end result was much more fun–we ended up in Shinjuku for dinner at a Chinese restaurant that serves Lazhou la mian (兰州拉面), which I haven’t had since I lived in China.

For those who want to go to Mt. Takao, it takes about an hour to hike up to the summit from the train station, assuming you don’t stop too often for things like photos, sake, or snacks and don’t take alternate trails. There is a cable car and a chairlift that go from the base to about halfway up the mountain for 470 yen each way. The chairlift does not offer better views though. There is no entrance fee for hiking or to go to the temple. I also skipped out on the Monkey Park on the way to the summit.

Have you been to Mt. Takao? Is there anything that I missed seeing on the hike?

State Parks During a Government Shutdown

gov-shutdownDespite the government shutdown ruining a significant part of my short holiday plans, I managed to make the most of the situation. Unfortunately, it involved staying in a freeway-side motel that cost $200 more than I originally planned on spending for accommodation. I was looking forward to spending a significant amount of time in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, but ended up with a day in Mt. Tamalpais State Park and a drive along Route 1 and another road, which cut through part of Pt. Reyes.

From the trail in Mt. Tamalpais State Park

From the trail in Mt. Tamalpais State Park

The trip didn’t start out so well as I attempted to exit San Francisco airport via Hertz–it’s never a good sign when there are about 100 people in line and only a few people working. After an hour, I was told to go to my car, which did not actually exist; I was told my car was elsewhere. Upon reaching the exit in my rented Nissan Versa, I was told I had the wrong car–there were three parking space numbers on my receipt to add to the confusion. Fortunately, the woman working the gate reprocessed my reservation and I somehow saved $20, which was a pleasant surprise as I specifically requested the cheapest car they had.

stinson beach

Overlooking Stinson Beach

My full day in the parks began early on Friday with a drive north of Route 1 and turn off on Panoramic Highway, which reconnects with Route 1. I stopped a few times along the road to take some pictures, which I ended up doing quite often throughout the day, until I found the parking lot of Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

tamalpais state park

Solitude at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, CA

I paid my $8 to park for the day and asked the ranger for a trail route that wouldn’t take more than a few hours. In hindsight, I should’ve tried other trails as well–the park offered some of the best views of the day and was more interesting than the other park I stopped in.

Perfect placement for a park bench

Perfect placement for a park bench

My hike was supposed to take about an hour and a half, but was a bit longer because I took a wrong turn and didn’t notice for about 45 minutes, making the hike a bit more strenuous as well. I’m usually pretty good at reading maps, but trail maps aren’t in the same category.park-stairs

Mt. Tamalpais State Park is home to redwood trees and is adjacent to Muir Woods (I think there’s a trail that leads into Muir Woods). The mountain peak is 2,571 feet, but I didn’t manage to climb that. There are also bike and horse trails in the park.redwood-bridge

As I drove the winding roads, I decided to see how far into Pt. Reyes I could drive. There were signs for the lighthouse, and I wanted to find out if I could at least see it even if I couldn’t go in. All the turn-offs from the main road were blocked with signs about the government shutdown. When I finally came to the end, I couldn’t see the lighthouse.

There are a lot of dairy farms along the coast

There are a lot of dairy farms along the coast

I met a German and Israeli couple at the end of the road. They didn’t understand the government shutdown and I explained how American politicians are just worthless idiots holding the country hostage out of simple greed and stupidity (though I added a bit of anger and profanity to my explanation). We were tempted to move the signs aside and drive further into the park–it’s not like there’s anyone working to actually stop us, right? Instead, we played good citizens and turned around. I told them to head to Mt. Tamalpais for some non-national park hiking.

california coast

The view before turning around because the government closed the road

Have you ever had to change your plans and ended up with an unexpectedly beautiful journey?

Recalling the Rockies

Last night I got news from grad school classmates that Boulder, CO, was mostly under water. Flash floods turned Boulder Creek into a much more dangerous river–and some streets ended up resembling that same creek. I’m fairly certain that the first apartment I rented in the town is now flooded; the second apartment might also be under water.Rockies

Photos I’ve seen online from the Denver Post as well as those my friend posted to Facebook are rather frightening. Fortunately, the people I keep in touch with are all safe.rockies-winter_0002

I decided to go through my old photos, from before I owned a digital camera, and remember the days in the mountains. I couldn’t seem to find my photos from hikes up Mt. Sanitas, overlooking Boulder, but I did find plenty from days in Rocky Mountain National Park. These are all from separate trips: my first time in the park with my parents when I first moved to Boulder, an early spring drive into the park, and a rugged hike up 13,500 ft for which I was not quite prepared.rockies2_0003

For those readers living in the flooded areas of Colorado, I hope you stay safe. I miss the days of living in Boulder and hope to get back there.