Sunday, March 22, 2015

Guide for Hiking Chiaksan in Wonju, South Korea

Korea isn't a big place. It's roughly the size of the state of Minnesota for my fellow Yankees.

But you know what they say: great things often come in small packages. One benefit of living in such a geographically compact place is that you can visit just about anywhere in the country in a day or over the weekend.

If you're eager for an outdoor adventure but only have a single day or weekend to spare, Chiaksan in Gangwon-do, Korea is a great choice. Read on for details and directions!

A Mountain of Myth and Beauty

If we're talking mountain ranges in Korea the best known are Jirisan and Seorraksan. These are beautiful places to visit and worthy of their reputations, but they're often crowded with hikers.

Chiaksan isn't quite as spectacular as it's more famous brethren, but it still makes for a worthwhile destination and -- bonus! -- it's far less crowded.

Chiaksan is located in Gangwon-do about 30km from the city of Wonju.

Like all but the most remote and abandoned trailheads in Korea, the base of Chiaksan is a busy place. You'll find an array of stores and vendors selling everything from reliquary beads and Buddhist trinkets to kimchi pancakes and rice wine.

It might be a good idea to fuel up before your hike and the kimchi pancakes sizzling on griddles are sure to satisfy a hungry stomach.

Once you make your way through the distractions and delicious smells of this mountain bazaar you'll arrive at the entrance to Chiaksan. The entry fee to Chiaksan is 2,500 won per person, cash only.

Not far from the entrance is Guryeongsa Temple.

Guryeongsa Temple is a medium-sized temple complex built during the Silla Dynasty. Built on the side of a steep hill, you enter the temple complex through a pavillion, towering wooden statues of the "Four Heavenly Guardians" looking down at you, and then climb a steep flight of stairs into Guryeongsa Temple.

As with most Korean temples, the air will likely be faint with incense and the rhythmic chanting of monks at their prayers will echo off of temple walls. It's a pleasant and relaxing environment to spend a few minutes before setting off on your journey.

Hiking the Trails

From Guryeongsa Temple it's a 5km hike to Birobong, the peak of Chiaksan. For roughly half of that hike the trail is easygoing -- more of a leisurely walk than a hike, really.

You can follow trails through forests of towering pine, through quiet bamboo groves, down into valleys where the trail runs alongisde a bubbling mountain stream, or criss-cross between the two.

About 2km from the base of Chiak Mountain is Seryeong waterfall and from there the hike gets steep. I'm talking a Jekyll and Hyde transformation from the earlier part of the hike, so if you plan on trekking to the peak of Chiaksan make sure you're well prepared.

If you're not up to the challenge there's a lovely botanical garden located between the Seryeong waterfall and Guryeongsa Temple. It's a wonderful place to relax and simply enjoy the beauty of nature.

When you need a break from Seoul, or if you're just in the market for your next outdoor adventure, head for Chiaksan. It's a beauty of a mountain and one of Korea's better kept secrets.

Getting There

Unless you have access to your own transportation, Wonju is going to be your base of operation for a trip to Chiaksan.

Take a bus to Wonju. Exit out the front of Wonju Bus Terminal and take local bus number 2-1, 31, 33, or 35. Any one of these busses will take you to a stop called "sanghanjuyooso".

From "sanghanjuyooso" you'll transfer to either the 41 or 41-1. It's about 10 mintue trip from Wonju Bus Terminal to the transfer, and another 30-35 minutes to get from the transfer to Chiaksan.

Chiaksan is the final stop for both the 41 and 41-1. Bus fare is 1,200 won per trip, but your T-Money card (a public transit card available from most convenience stores and at most bus and train stations -- essential if you're travelling in Korea!) will work as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mount Elbrus Guided Climbing Expedition

Climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia is supposed to be a breeze. Well, from the South route anyway. The north route on this mountain is an entirely different challenge. A proper mountaineering experience unlike say Kilmanjaro.

Climbing Elbrus involves quite a bit of preparation from a physical, mental and logistical point of view.

A typical Elbrus trip itinerary

Apparently walking to Russia could take quite a while. So you will need to make another plan to improvise. the best form of transportation being what modern man calls the aeroplane. Upon arrival in the awesome city of Moscow the fun and games begin. The first challenge is finding a taxi. Once you have done that, the task of explaining your destination and negotiating a price is next on your list. Not an easy task when no one speaks English. The drive through to central Moscow takes about 1.5 hours. The airport is about 50km outside of central Moscow and the traffic is a nightmare. Upon arrival in the hotel, its a quick vodka, shower and... time to hit the streets of Moscow. And don't try and hit them too hard as you may come off second best. There are some pretty cool restaurants where you are faced with yet another challenge. You will be required to negotiate your way around a menu in Russian and waiter who, you guessed it, only speaks Russian. What we suggest you do is close your eyes, move your finger up and down the menu and where ever your finger stops... order that. Oh, and don't forget the vodka. After dinner, a little ramble up to the Red Square to see the Kremlin is definitely in order. Please do not try and spray-paint your name on the Kremlin walls. Somehow the Russian secret service does not approve of this sporting activity.

An early day I'm afraid. Well, I'm not really afraid as days are nothing to be afraid of. The Russian Mafia is something to be afraid about, but I'll leave that story for another time. The flight to Mineralyne Vody leaves at 12H00 arriving at 14H00. Upon arrival, we load up the gear onto the bus and take the 1 hour drive through to an awesome town called Kislovodsk where we check into our hotel for the evening. Once checked in, we hit the town for dinner followed by a vodka or 10. If you are not in bed by 12H00, please come back to the hotel. Breakfast is served. Well this is not tennis. We are here to climb Elbrus remember. You get your own breakfast. After loading the 4×4 vehicles, we take the 3 hour drive through to base camp which is nestled at the base of Elbrus. Why did you think it was called bases camp? Because the camp is home to many night clubs that use excess base in their music? or is it because the camp is home the Revlon's make up production? Nope. Sorry to disappoint you on this one. Base camp in this instance refers to our base for the Elbrus climb. The drive into base camp is both spectacular and nerve racking. The roads have been carved into the mountains leaving vertical drops of up to 200m. The tracks only allow for one vehicle at a time. It is safe to say, that no one interferes with the driver at this stage of the game. The country side out here is so remote. The only reason there would be any one on the roads was to climb Elbrus. Being early in the season, we encountered no one. Once we arrived in camp, we set up the tents, of loaded our gear and made for the mess tent for our first taste of mountain food-cabbage soup. Base camp of Elbrus is situated at 2400m.

After lunch we went on a 4 hour stroll around the surrounding foothills. The two headed Elbrus dragon always keeping a watchful eye on us. The area is well known for its natural springs. The water is the best water you will ever get to taste. We came across a few of the springs where the water bubbles out. The weirdest thing is that the water is sparkling. Don't ask me how that happens. Do I look like a geologist? but man, the best tasting water I have ever had. Dinners on Elbrus are conducted in the mess tent. Conducted in the mess tent? What the hell? Couldn't think of a more appropriate word, so deal with it. If I had spent more time contemplating it, I'm sure I could have come up with a better word, but I have a appointment to get to and don't have the time. OK, so the mess tent. Yip, a place where we have dinner. And after dinner, its cards and some really awesome conversation with people from all over the world with the same interests and ambitions-to climb Elbrus. The ingredients to climbing mountains like Elbrus includes patience, determination, perseverance, self belief, physical strength, being in the right place at the right time and oh yes, the process of acclimatisation. Today, we were going test out the latter of the ingredients-acclimatisation. We took a 4 hour hike up a place known as the mushroom rocks which are situated at 3400m. A pretty easy day with some spectacular view. We are just below the snow line, so not too cold. After lunch, we head on down to base camp. With some time to waste we were challenged by the local Russian guides to a game of soccer. Playing soccer at 2400m is still going to leave you pretty winded. We lost 3-1.OK, so this is where the true ingredients of mountaineering will start to be added to the pot of climbing Elbrus. Are objective of this day was to set up high camp. Basically what we need to do is carry our gear up to high camp. High camp is situated at 3800m. We use this day not only to carry some of our gear, but as an acclimatization climb as well. Our packs weighed about 20kg and included all our high altitude mountaineering gear like crampons, ice axes, thermal gear, down jackets and a packet of peanuts for the snow monkeys that do not exist. Today is a challenging day. Not only because of the weight of the backpack, but also the cold and the angle of ascent. the last part of the climb also sees us forging through waist deep snow to reach high camp. And man is snow an energy drainer. Once in high camp, we off load, have some lunch and head on down to base camp. As mentioned earlier, to climb mountains like Elbrus you need a few key ingredients. Today you will need to cash in on your mental reserves. The day sort of pans out the same as day 5. Yip, we load up our backpacks with the gear we need for high camp and make the 5 hour trek up to high camp. this day does test you. Why, the man in the back row screams out. Well because it would have been the 3rd time that you are going up the same route. The logical part of your near frozen cerebral stump does not understand why and tries to inject your body with a flood of negative emotions. Pa for the course the experts reckon. But what if ma decides to walk on the course? Will that effect the process? 5 hours later and we are sitting in high camp of Elbrus enjoying some warm cabbage soup and our groans and mumbles of the day have been long forgotten.

Today sees up taking a crucial acclimatization climb up to a placed called Lenz Rocks which is situated at 4600m. The route is notorious for its crevasses and many a climber have lost their lives on this section. for this reason we climb alpine style. All of us are clipped into each other via a rope. The idea is that if someone falls into a crevasse the weight of the other climbers should stop them from falling all the way in. And crevasses are pretty hard to detect. What happens is that the snow that falls creates a 'bridge' of snow over the crevasse. Sometimes when you walk on them and they are not that thick, the weight of the climber will cause the snow bridge to collapse. Besides the crevasses, today is pretty challenging. The snow is knee deep which gets pretty exhausting to do especially when the effects of altitude and the cold start to take effect on a climbers body. But once again, perseverance and sheer will power sees us siting at Lenz Rocks enjoying the view. After lunch its back down to high camp with the anticipation of a rest day.

Today sees us just chilling out and recovering. We spend the day eating, sleeping and playing cards. The objective is to build up some energy reserves for the final summit night. AAhhh, the final summit night. Something, that is on everyone's mind. Elbrus boasts one of the longest summit nights on any mountain.

Summit day. One of the dangers on Elbrus is the extreme weather conditions. We were all pretty apprehensive as there was heavy snowfall on our rest day and we were worried that it would get worse, thus hampering our summit attempt. We checked the weather at 12 a.m. and made the call. time to make like a Jewish foreskin and be off. Getting kitted up, coffee and a quick bite to eat took about an hour. We were on the ice by Our first port of call being the Lenz rocks at 4600m. The climb to Lenz took us about 4 hours. A quick break and we headed off to our next waypoint at 4900m. We took a temperature reading here and found it to be -25 degrees Celsius. One the group was starting to get frostbite on his fingers. We helped with hand warmers and an extra pair of gloves. As for myself, I could feel the numbing feeling in my toes as they started to freeze. Something that started to gnaw at the back of my mind. Our next slog took us to 5200m. The area is know as the saddle and is the 'saddle' between the 2 peaks of Elbrus. We took a 30 min break and started our final slog up a 50 degree solid ice slope that leads to the summit. OK, I can't say it was exactly 50 degrees as I forgot to bring my protractor with and my knowledge of oblique angles is scary. he group census agreed on 50 degrees so there!!A place where you do not want to fall as you will find yourself sliding all the way down to the bottom of the slope. Most of the group where pretty strong until 5400m. From there on in, it was welcome to Zombie land. The altitude, cold, and pure exhaustion was starting to take its toll. These are the moment that requires your deepest mensal skills. Your body us crying out for you to turn around. Your heart is saying no way. You are walking a think line between, life and death. Once foot in the living. One foot in the dead. Being at altitude is pretty weird. It is like you are on something. And we don't mean the mountain either-that's obvious. Its like you are floating. Tying your shoelaces becomes a challenge as you can't remember how. Anyway, After what seems like an eternity, we reach the summit. Our time of summit is 15H00. We started our summit at 01H00. 14 hours to the summit and we are only half way. The descent takes about 6 hours. We were a bit concerned as a snowstorm was brewing and it would be dark in a couple of hours. Luckily for us a box of ping pong balls was looking after Elbrus for the week and they gave us some magic dust that made us all make it back to high camp alive.

Today was a late start. Not sure why given our easy climb the day before. We packed up or gear and made the 6 hour trek down to Elbrus base camp. Our average pack weight was about 35kg as we had to take all of our gear down in one shot instead of two. Once we reached base camp, it was Russian Vodka time!!!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Vietnam Trekking Guide

So you've decided on the trip of a lifetime. You're going to Asia to see the sights, take in the intoxicating smells and probably eat a lot of fantastic food!

So how do you burn some serious calories whilst on your trip?

Well, forget about the hotel gym (if you're lucky enough to be staying in a place with one) and combine your experience of seeing the country with some burning calories exercise! That's right, in time to get out of the city, and see the countryside by trekking in Vietnam!

So where is the best place to go trekking in Vietnam? Well in our experience, the views and treks on offer in Northern Vietnam, near Sapa are some of the best available! But beware of some of the pitfalls of trekking here.

First things first, you've decided to go trekking in Sapa, but you need to get there first! Your best method is to take an overnight train from Hanoi, which will take all night but you save a nights accommodation and a days travelling! Its pretty comfortable, with a bed and you'll probably share a room with 3 others.

You'll also want to consider going with a tour agency if you're unsure of where to go and how to do it. They can organise your train and trek with homestays all for a reasonable cost.

Now the bad part about trekking in Sapa.

When you arrive in Sapa, a small town near the border with China, you will be inundated with groups of local women who will approach you wanting to talk and chat with you. This is a ploy they use to latch onto you as you wander around Sapa. This is the key point: if you do not get rid of these women now, they will continue to stay with you all day. They will walk alongside with you as you go, talk to you as you try to take in the scenery, and generally be overly helpful as you trek in Vietnam. Sounds good doesn't it? Well, the novelty soon wears off, particularly when at the end of the day they ask you for money for the pleasure.

This is why it is important you are honest with them from the very beginning. We told the women in very strong tones that we did not want to walk with them that day. They were confused and a little upset, but we didn't want them to waste their time all day with us before we didn't give them any money. We thought that was fairer than leading them on all day. Other people in our group didn't say anything, and ended up in arguments at the end of the day. It was a sad situation.

If you do pay them, they will come back the next day and walk with you again!

So when you go trekking in Sapa, just make sure you prepare yourself for the groups, and be polite and firm when you say you don't want any help. It's only fair for you and the groups of eager women waiting.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Best of New Zealand Hiking Trails

Like all Kiwis, we love our backyard and reckon you will too. The New Zealand Southern Alps and surrounds offer an amazing natural environment that makes it so easy to get right into the heart of the outdoors and enjoy easygoing activity in that famous New Zealand scenery. Add to that a unique and colourful history, a burgeoning food culture and genuinely friendly people you've got all the ingredients for the trip of a lifetime.

Over the past 14 years, I have been planning and guiding outdoor experiences in the great New Zealand outdoors so have learnt a lot about what kind of experiences people enjoy and lots of local secrets that add so much to travel memories. The challenge for people visiting for a limited time is to find the best walks and build them into a travel itinerary that suits you. This list is the product of these years of guiding and listening to guest feedback, we are trying to bottle the best of the South Island and package them together in one active easy going fully guided itinerary. So here's our take on the best of New Zealand's South Island, all of which can be enjoyed in a leisurely 11 - 13 day itinerary of the South Island.

1. Arthur's Pass and Castle Hill, Canterbury.

Amazing high country only a 2 hour drive from the international airport, a real alpine national park with great hiking trails and a world renowned alpine train experience - there aren't too many places in the world that can say that. Some great characters in local history too.

2. The Nile River Caves in Paparoa National Park.

Surely one of the most natural glowworm caving experiences anywhere on the planet and you'd be hard pressed to find a more idyllic spot than nearby Punakaiki. We're not sure why but think it's got something to do with the native Nikau Palms and white sandy beaches!

3. Glacier Country, Westland.

South West New Zealand world heritage area - The native bird haven of Okarito lagoon followed by the ice world of Fox glacier makes for a pretty memorable 24 hours. The drive south and over the Haast Pass looks like a perfect place to shoot car commercials.

4. The Southern Lakes - Wanaka, Hawea, Wakatipu & Te Anau.

It's hard to imagine that these huge lakes were carved from the rock by a river of ice hundreds of metres thick, but that's what happened. To give you an idea of how impressive these lakes are, the longest is 80km (50 miles) from end to end! The roadside views alone will be worth sending home to the family but we really rate the high country of Mount Aspiring National Park and the Lake Wanaka district for some great walking with picture postcard photo opportunities around every corner.

5. The Routeburn Track, Mt Aspiring National Park.

One of New Zealand's great walks, the Routeburn offers what we think is the best one day walk anywhere in New Zealand, from Routeburn road end to Routeburn Falls. Don't be surprised if the views around the head of Lake Wakatipu make you feel every so slightly Hobbitish, this is real Lord of the Rings country!

6. Milford Track & Milford Sound.

We should also mention the Milford road, a journey you won't forget in a hurry - for all the right reasons. The added bonus of hiking Milford Track from the 'wrong' end is visiting Milford Sound before we hike - Milford Track and Milford Sound in the same day, we like the sound of that.

7. Martins Bay and the Hollyford Track.

Martins Bay, on the Tasman Sea at the end of the Hollyford Valley, is one of those special places on earth and somewhere we think you'll remember for a long time. Wildlife up close, a real 'Wild West' history and the untouched Hollyford valley make this real New Zealand and one place we think you must visit!

8. Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo.

The glaciers and peaks of Mount Cook National Park were the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary and have a deserved spot right in the heart of New Zealand life. The perfect backdrop for great days hiking in Mount Cook, right at the foot of Aoraki, the cloud piercer. One hour away, is Tekapo, the home to Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve and a night sky the likes you have never seen before awaits.

In a country like ours, it's no easy task recommending where you should go when on your New Zealand vacation, but we are sure that if you are looking for real travel experiences, not just a whistle stop tour of famous landmarks, then you'll love these 'bucket list' hiking destinations.

For more information on New Zealand travel itineraries including these bucket list hiking areas, please contact us now, we'd love to hear from you. New Zealand Trails operates small group guided tour including some of New Zealand's best hiking trails, iconic Kiwi activities with all the comforts of home. For more information about our tours please visit us at: