Sunday, November 30, 2008

In the middle of somewhere

The best things in life aren't things.
--Art Buchwald
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit down in one place and wait for something interesting to happen. This idea was presented to me by a friend in college, and her wisdom at that young age continues to impress me as I go through life. She's right time after time, and this has been especially true during our travels. Liz and I aren't see-as-much-as-possible travelers, even though we've tried that several times on this trip. Discovering the depth of a place is what has revealed our best experiences.

If you asked most travelers about their trips through Thailand, few would probably mention the town of Phitsanulok. Located in central Thailand between the bustle of Bangkok and the natural beauty of the northern provinces, Phitsanulok is just a simple Thai town with little to offer the sight-seeker. It has a train station, several markets, a few hotels, and a riverside nightlife scene. The nationally-revered Buddha image at Wat Yai is probably the town's most significant tourist draw, but that alone wouldn't be enough to pull in most foreign travelers on their way north to the cultural hub of Chiang Mai.

We stopped in Phitsanulok as a base for a side trip to the ancient city ruins of Sukhothai, an hour away. While we enjoyed the ruins for their historical value, our time in Phitsanulok extended beyond what we had initially intended simply because the town was such a pleasant place to just be. Its strangely comforting to try to live a normal life in someone else's normal town.

Over three days, we enjoyed walking around, getting the lay of the land, eating three square meals a day, and taking time to learn and practice speaking a bit more Thai. We mastered numbers, greetings, basic commerce ("How much is this?"), and the always necessary "What do you call this?" so we can ask for something we've enjoyed in the future. After several meals in the same small morning buffet, we were greeted with smiles and encouragement at our communication attempts. We started recognizing and passing people we'd seen several times on the street, and they recognized us as well. We found the post office, talked to high school students and shopped at the local market.

The highlight for both of us, I believe, was a string of interactions we had with a little girl and her mother over three days. Its amazing how much you can truly communicate without language. I hope I never forget the feeling of those three days. Its richness will certainly outshine any souvenir I could possibly hope to bring home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Returning from our Vacation

"But you're on vacation...for a whole year!" is perhaps your protest. But after hiking for seven weeks, we felt our bodies needed a break. So we hightailed it down to southern Thailand to the island of Ko Phangan. We arrived safely after much adventure involving a tourist bus and boat that was nothing like what was advertised, while having a bit of a stomach bug that we probably unfairly attributed to some yummy treat we had from a street vendor. How we ended up on said tourist bus is also another lesson in why we shouldn't talk to strangers. But no harm came of it all and now we are savvier travelers (until the next incident!).

After some antibiotics and rest, we both recovered, it stopped raining (it turns out that while November is considered part of the dry season in Thailand, it is the rainiest month of the year for Koh Samui and Koh Phangan!) and we enjoyed beautiful weather, quiet, empty beaches, and some amazingly great food. Quite by chance we found Haad Khom and the wonderful people of Ocean View Resort. Most of the places we stayed on the island had ten-page menus of pretty non-descript western and western-style Thai food. Ocean View is run by a foodie, with specials every night like steamed white snapper with lime. Absolutely amazing. We could have spent a month there happily biding times between three (or four!) meals a day on the beach.

But alas, we felt there is so much we want to see and lest we kick our selves later on, we decided to end our vacation and head north. We head to Sukothai (ancient capital city ruins) tomorrow, and hopefully we'll meet up with some friends from my NOLS course in Alaska. I'm sure we'll have stories! In the mean time here are some pictures for your enjoyment.


Ko Phangan:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Hello Thailand!

With a quite a bit of sadness, we bid farewell to Incheon Emo, my mom, sister and the comfort of the known in Korea yesterday. We hopped on a flight to Bangkok arrived around 11 pm, took a bus into the city, got off in a mess of foreigners from all over the world and a whole host of stores, bars restaurants and street vendors catering to backpackers needs - it's like Disney World for potheads. We're back in the heat and humidity again (can you tell we live really far north!?) and spent today wandering around in a bit of a daze. For me it's been a tough adjustment not knowing how to read anything nor be able to say anything other than thank you, which still usually comes out in English. I go back and forth between feeling like a jerk and loving the complete foreignness of it all. It's interesting to shift gears from "traveller" to "tourist." We had a great day just wandering around the area without consulting a guide book too much. We ate several interesting things too, including what I think was a deep fat fried omelet. The Thai food issue will surely be interesting. We'll probably spend one more day here and then head south for some beaches and relaxation - although I'm sure the south will still provide lots of fun stories to share!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Final photo sets from Korea

Although they haven't been appropriately sorted, we've posted a bunch of photos from our last two weeks of hiking and our week of relaxing and family time in and around Seoul.

Click on the picture for a full sized slide show.

North of Songnisan National Park to Woraksan National Park:

North of Woraksan National Park through Sobaeksan National Park:

North of Sobaeksan National Park through Taebaeksan Provincial Park:

Some of Liz's pictures from Woraksan to the end.

The Food Issue

Chris and I like to eat. When we lived in Telluride, chair lift conversations would often center around what to make for dinner. I love to go to grocery stores and just wander around when I feel anxious. Checking out grocery stores is also one of my favorite things to do in foreign countries. Chris could talk for hours about the finer points of a good sandwich. The prospect of eating pasta and rehydrated food for many days on end has been one of the most significant drawbacks of extended backpacking trips.

Doing a NOLS course in Alaska changed all that. I learned how to make pizza, bread, cinnamon rolls, and lots of ways to cook pasta and rice. Excited about trying these skills out on our Korea trip, I purchased 7 days worth of bulk food and brought it to Korea. Aside from it being a tad too much food and far too heavy, it helped us ease into the trail with a known menu. We had black bean soup, falafel, quinoa, pastas, pancakes and Parmesan cheese among other items. Additionally, comprehensive spice kit provided a multitude of options.

NOLS uses an indestructible, heavy steel pan called a Banks Fry-Bake for, well, frying and baking. Chris balked at the weight of the fry-bake so I picked up a lighter aluminum fry pan that seemed like a reasonable compromise. The pan didn't work quite as well, but after a few false starts with a chocolate cake and pancakes, we finally mastered its touchy nature. Chris has pancakes down to an art -- first with a multi grain mix we brought from home and now with a "hotcake" mix we've been able to find in most stores.

Ramen noodles were a staple for a while. Sometimes we add egg or tuna and it really warms you up in the rain.

It didn't rain much but cooking in the rain is never fun, even when it's warm noodles

We've also figured out how to dress up plain noodles and all the various enhancements that can be made to achieve the desired effect.

Kuk-su (Korean noodles) with cucumber, carrots and beef jerky

We've also gotten creative with what we can put together from restaurants. For most of the trip we carried around 4 oz. bottles of vegetable oil and sesame oil. We'd eat at a restaurant and then ask if they could fill our bottle with oil. Neither of the proprietors seemed to think it a strange request and both refused our offers to buy it.

Other times we've gotten creative and combined food from street vendors with food from grocery stores.

Liz scores some fried eggs to eat with bread purchased at the convenience store next door

Chris enjoys fried eggs and toast

Sometimes we'd both just crave familiar food.
MMMM Dunkin Donuts

The first time we found cereal we bought a box and a quart of milk, poured the milk in the bag and ate the entire thing -- right in front of the grocery store.

Interesting fusion - pumpkin cereal with pumpkin seeds and black bean soy milk

Dinner is where these newly acquired camp kitchen skills really shine. With the addition of Jeff to the trip, meals have stepped up another notch. However, we realized that somewhere during the last two weeks of the trip, much of our regard for lightweight food choices has been traded for culinary bliss. We packed around apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, an entire bottle of olive oil, and ten-packs of eggs (the Korean dozen). Here is a sampling of our menu:

Freshly baked bread

Add some fresh tomatoes and you have bruschetta

Apple-peanut-onion fried pasta

Flour dredged eggplant

On top of pasta with tomato sauce

Chris's speciality rice and vegetable stew

Tuna sandwiches

Breakfast potatoes

Usually served with Jeff's pan scrambled eggs

My aunt hooked us up with several bags of food that turned into three meals

We've also had some amazing meals at restaurants along and just off the trail. In Songnisan (which is famous for mushrooms), we went back to a restaurant I visited when I was here five years ago. I forgot just how much food they served! We made a noble attempt.



Fried snacks from a truck while waiting for buses

Kimchee and handmade tofu with rice wine, a Korean hiking staple

Breakfast al fresco

We took full advantage of our slow progress to eat well on the trail. Being in the mountains has also given us ample opportunity to enjoy mountain specialty meals. Our bodies may be tired, but at least they are well fed.

Reflections on long distance hiking

Disclaimer: This is a long post with no pictures. I had a lot of time to think while hiking for two months, and I wanted to distill my thoughts on through-hiking here. No hard feelings if you don't make it to the end.

I've been a hiker for as long as I can remember. Growing up in rural northwestern Connecticut afforded my family abundant and easy access to the outdoors. The small town of Barkhamsted is an unsung, beautiful New England gem where roughly half of the town's rolling hills and river valleys are State Forest land. A surprising network of trails provided seemingly endless opportunities for hiking and exploring on weekends and long summer days. My parents' enthusiasm for the outdoors was contagious, and after years of family outings, I found myself heading out into the woods on my own. Sometimes I would venture into new territory, continually looking for the next great secret of Litchfield County, and other times I would return to the same loop hike high above the Farmington River that we'd walked hundreds of times. I still do this same hike almost every time I am in Connecticut. It never seems to get old, and it has become a pilgrimage of sorts.

In high school, I got into backpacking and then during my college years at RPI I spent many weekends exploring the mountains of upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. During all that time, and after living and hiking in Washington for four and half years, the longest backpacking trip I'd ever done was six days.

Walking the Baekdu Daegan in South Korea was my first foray into the world of through hiking, and it proved to be quite a different experience than all of my previous backpacking endeavors. The long duration of our trip brought to light new facets of walking in the woods that I may not have ever conceptualized without experiencing them.

Perhaps the most enlightening realization I had was that it is best to approach each day with no expectations. Almost every day on the trail came with surprise events and occurrences. Altering plans was frequently required due to inaccuracies in the maps, changing weather, our fluctuating energy levels and other unpredictable factors. The unknown initially threatens the mind's sense of control. But after a couple weeks of low-level anxiety and concern about what events might transpire, I stopped trying to anticipate the day. I came to view our plan for the day as merely one possible outcome. I would just wake up and walk, and let the day happen. Strangely, this attitude and mindset seemed to leave me better prepared for adversity.

Getting started on a large project can often be overwhelming. The first five-day section of walking forced difficult adjustments that felt more like boot camp than the beginning of a hiking trip. The packs were far too heavy, and after spending summer in the comparatively cool conditions of the Cascade Range, the heat and humidity were stifling. The terrain in Jirisan National Park was rough, making for long days, slow progress and tired bodies. The end of the day rarely brought relief; sleeping was an unpleasant affair, as I stuck to everything--clothes, sleeping bag and pad. Looking ahead to the next two months, I could not fathom doing this everyday. In actuality, this was all acclimation to a new way of life.

When you wake up and hike every day for two months, it becomes something quite separate from a three or four day trip. At home, the scope and length of a four day outing can seem monolithic from a planning and an endurance perspective. But after about two weeks on the trail, we settled into a routine of hiking for five or six days that seemed to go quickly by comparison. The sense of four days composing an entire trip dissolved into the greater scale of the Baekdu Daegan, with any particular multi-day segment completely disassociated from the beginning or end of the whole. On many occasions, it seemed that we had been walking for what felt like a year. Quick memory checks reported that I had been in Seattle just a few weeks ago, though my internal clock suggested that a much longer duration had passed. The reverse effect was also a recurrent perception--sometimes it felt as if we had been walking for days and had not made any northward progress. I have experienced these phenomena at other times in life, but the extent of the effect on the Baekdu Daegan was astonishing. Time is truly relative.

A benefit of having all this time and hiking every day, sometimes through unremarkable terrain, was that I came to enjoy walking on its own accord. Historically, open ridges and summits with views have comprised my hiking motivations. Over the course of this trip, I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride, taking in the quiet of the forest and enjoying being alone with just my thoughts for extended stretches.

Walking across the countryside along a footpath allows the hiker to experience the land at a much slower pace than even a Sunday drive. Yet while travel is slower, the longer duration fosters a feeling of movement over the landscape. Looking back towards where one began and ahead along the ridge to the terrain of the next few days played part in constructing a mental image of the trail from a bird's eye view. This sense of movement--slow, yet progressive motion through the land--brought me a rich sense of enjoyment and accomplishment. Each new section that we covered was added to the existing image, slowly building my own view of the Baekdu Daegan.

Liz handled just about all of the planning for this trip, and as a result I was unfamiliar with almost all of the terrain we hiked through until we were walking through it. There were countless days when we arrived in new territory, and I was so stunned upon setting eyes on it for the first time. My guess is that this is because I had no idea what the land looked likepreviously--it was a complete surprise. On one particular section, it was as if I had hiked three weeks to stumble upon the Yosemite valley, having never heard of or seen photographs of it. The experience was remarkable. Seeing terrain for the first time with absolutely no preconceived notions is something I never intended, but the results were brilliant. I suppose the entire experience of hiking along the Baekdu Daegan is similar. We went out for a walk and found what we did.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Gone, but soon to return

Seven weeks of walking along Korea's spiritual backbone has come to an end. We ended our journey on October 25 after climbing up and over Taebaeksan, a massive mountain with several ancient stone alters on its flanks and summit. The weather was beautifully crisp and cold; a wonderful contrast to the unbearable heat and humidity of the first several weeks. Having started walking exactly 49 days earlier at the base of the Cheonwangbong--the Baekdu Daegan's southern terminus--coming down to the road for the last time north of mystical Taebaeksan seemed a fitting end. We managed to cover about two thirds of the Baekdu Daegan in South Korea, and are already looking forward to returning to complete the section of trail from Taebaeksan to Seoraksan National Park in the future. Who knows, maybe North Korea will open its doors in our lifetimes as well...

We've spent the last week doing day trips in Seoraksan National Park, returning to favorite haunts in the likable megalopolis of Seoul, and visiting with Liz's family. Lots of eating, relaxing and driving around to visit various family members. Korea has treated us very well.

Pictures from the last two sections of the hike will be up soon.