One thing I love about England is the plethora of well-marked trails. Sure, Korea is covered with mountains covered with trails, most of which are well-marked, but England has trails everywhere. Whether you are in a rural or urban area, you can generally find a marked trail and probably a book detailing more information than you would ever want or need about it.
We decided to check out the Cumbrian Coastal Path, since we were staying nearby. So, early one Sunday morning, we parked up at the Maryport promenade and started walking to Allonby. The roundtrip would be roughly ten miles– a nice, gentle hike on flat land.
Well, the CCP is sign posted. However, this portion of the path is either promenade or overgrown plants and grass. Clearly, it will not be giving the Hadrian’s Wall walk a run for its money.
It was nice enough scenery, but cutting a path through brush gets old fast. We stopped in Allonby for Sunday dinner at the pub (along with the rest of the town, it seemed) and turned around.
We often break long paths into multiple trips, but I think I’ll just read Ruth’s blog for an account of the rest of the Cumbrian Coastal Path. If people going on long walks impresses you, Christian Nock is also walking the entire UK coast, but without stopping. His blog is really a collection of links to newspaper articles about his walk, but you can also donate to help homeless vets there.
We were staying at my in-laws’ caravan in the Lake District for a few days and casting about for things to do, when Craig saw an irresistible notice in the local newspaper. It seems that hound owners and enthusiasts get together to check out each other’s young. They call it the Bitch Produce. Excellent. We were in.
We drove to nearby Frizzington the next day for the 10-mile race. Unfortunately, having only been to greyhound tracks, we were ill-prepared for this sort of dog race. Everyone else was properly kitted out with wellies and binoculars, because the spectators stand on top of a muddy (it’s England, after all) hill and watch the dogs in the far, far distance.
We did have a little cash to lay bets, so we ignored the mud and just moved around the hill following the old men’s cues. For the record, all of my bets were on winners, but Craig only placed money according to my guesses once. So, we walked away with £25, which covered our entry fees with enough to spare for a couple of ice creams. Win!
The day after we left Scotland, we went to Great Gable in the Lake District for a nice hike. There are many routes to the top, and Craig assured me that we would be taking one of the less strenuous ones. And I believed him.
Once we got past the sheep, who were clearly trying to tell us to just turn back, we parked up at a pub/ camping ground and made our way past several enclosures full of sheep toward the mountain. Unbeknownst to us at the time, those few minutes were the last bits of clear weather we would enjoy.
The path began with a gentle climb, and I was feeling like my walking poles were a bit over the top, like I was one step closer to turning into one of those Korean hikers I mocked for wearing $1000+ worth of gear to hike up a 200m high hill.
Soon enough, I understood why Craig had wanted to bring them. The path quickly grew steeper as the stony dirt became loose gravel. Not my favorite combination at all. As I gingerly made my way up the hill, trying not to slide/ tumble down, Craig regaled me with the story of a previous trip up Great Gable which entailed basically being stuck at the top in the cold rain. Lovely.
Eventually, we reached the top without breaking any bones and were rewarded with a lovely view for miles around lucky not to physically bump into any other hikers. With the weather continuing to worsen, our plans for a nice picnic at the top devolved into a quick couple of photos and an even quicker snack.
As we hurried back to the car, we passed a man carrying a bicycle. Then another. I stopped the third and learned that the four of them were riding coast to coast to raise money for GOSH, the UK equivalent of St. Jude’s. I guess they thought donators weren’t really getting value for money if they didn’t include any mountain peaks.
As I’m writing these posts, I’m realizing just how far behind I am. In June (six months and one week ago), we went to Edinburgh pretty much immediately upon our return from Iceland to see Billy Bragg. We decided to make a trip of it, and stayed three nights at the Lochend Apartments.
It was about a 30 minute walk from the CBD, but that’s fine, because the CBD is mostly just full of tourists. The distance from the center also meant that for the same price as a chain hotel room, we got a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and washing machine. That’s my kind of trade off.
While we were there, we also decided to go to the US Embassy, so I could get extra pages put in my passport. I could have gotten a new passport with my married name and nothing but blank pages, but we didn’t think we had ten days. HAHAHAHA! Oh, well, live and learn.
The embassy was an entertaining way to while away a morning, if you have absolutely nothing to do. There were three people, including myself, there for “citizen services”, but one woman (of the three staff visible) carped for about an hour about how we should really be going to the London office, because none of us were Scottish residents. Apparently, that ratio of one staff person per passport was too much for her to handle.
After a lengthy wait, my passport was taken off me and I was told to return several hours later. Sticking one booklet inside of another booklet and affixing it is time-consuming. Suddenly with a bit of time to fill, we decided to to for a walk.
Arthur’s Seat is a nice little hike, if you want to feel like you’ve done some exercise, without actually really doing any. It’s only about 100m high, and you are rewarded with 360° views of Edinburgh. The down side is that about a thousand other people will be there, too, and the path is only 1.5 people wide.
As it was conveniently located nearby, Arthur’s Seat fit the bill. At the appointed hour (the embassy has very short hours for dropping off/ picking up passports), we retrieved my passport from the guard– apparently peeling off backing and sticking the pages in had tuckered out the actual staff.
All that was left for us to do was head over to Queen’s Hall for Billy Bragg. I tried to find the set list, but… it wasn’t on the first page of Google. At any rate, what I can reliably report six months on, is we had good-ish seats and he played a bunch of new songs, most of which I quite liked, as well as all the old ones you expect to hear. In other words, a great show.
The morning after Withered Hand and Thorir Georg, I woke up feeling rough, having had a bit too much cheer the night before, but we were on the road to the Blue Lagoon just after 10. We arrived by 11, and it was clear even from the parking lot that this is a tourist trap.
Pictures of the Blue Lagoon are clearly all taken facing away from the sauna, café, restaurant, and gift shop. It’s like a mall that happens to have a lake outside. Entry is about £30 if you need a towel. There are many other extras, such as a robe and slippers, but we weren’t interested. We put the mud on our faces and relaxed in the hot water, but, really, it’s just wastewater from a power plant, and there are hot spring pools all over the country.
We paid an extortionate amount for a mediocre cup of coffee before driving into Grindovík, so Craig could watch a soccer match. At 6˚ C, it was too cold for me, so I hung out at a pizzeria. Once again, I didn’t hear any Icelandic. Everywhere we went, we heard lots of English and German, but very little/ no Icelandic. Next time, we’ll have to find out where the locals go.
After the game, it was finally time for some hiking. We (Craig) had found an 11-mile trail starting in Grindovík in our (Craig’s) pre-travel research. Unfortunately, we had the little problem of getting back to the car, so we just walked two hours out, and turned around.
The directions to spot the beginning of the hike weren’t clearly written, but we saw a marker and followed it to a good place to park. All along the way, the markers were closely spaced and often next to cairns, so they couldn’t be missed. My kind of hike. The walk was flat (another plus for me), but there were hills all around.
The ground was moss-covered lava and was either extremely spongy or sharp and crunchy, with very little in between. It really does look similar to the moors, but even more otherworldly, because of the texture and complete blackness of the ground. Despite the flatness, it was hard on my knees because the crunchy areas were basically loose gravel. The “gravel” was just lava instead of another kind of rock.
Sunday morning, we were on our way north to Grundarfjörður by 8AM, so Craig could watch a 4th division game. The scenery was beautiful: mountains, craggy fields of moss-covered lava, lots of horses, some sheep, flocks of seagulls, and a lone puffin walking down the street. That was the only puffin spotted the entire week, and I missed it, because I was looking at a (completely run-of-the-mill) house.
The 2.5-hour drive followed the coast, but we only saw a few towns. Two-thirds of Icelanders live in Rekjavik, so the rest of the country is isolated and sparsely populated. Grundarfjörður is a whale-watching destination, but we could only find one place serving lunch on a Sunday in the high season. We paid over 5000 KR for a light lunch, further reinforcing my belief that only tourists go to restaurants. Again, the only other language I heard was German.
Monday was a busy day, so we had another early start. We drove to Kerið, a small crater lake, then to Geysir, followed by Gullfoss, before finally arriving at our second apartment, in Laugarvatn, a small town which seems to exist because of its location in the Golden Circle.
Kerið was indeed quite small. We (and everyone else we saw) had a quick look and were off again in about five minutes. If it weren’t right on the way to Geysir, it wouldn’t be worth seeking out. Even being on the same road, it’s just a good chance for a quick stretch of the legs before continuing on.
Geysir is actually two geysers: one big but irregular one, and one smaller one which spouts at 8-10 minute intervals. We arrived just at the tail end of an eruption from the smaller one, so we watched the water bubble for 5-6 minutes before the next one.
It sprays water about 20-30 feet high, then the water is sucked down before a second blast. We thought that was a pretty good show, so we decided not to stand around in the cold hoping the big one happened to erupt while we were there. Last on the agenda for the day, Gullfoss is the biggest waterfall in Iceland. It’s not very high, but it has a lot of water and flows through a deep crevice. Live’s video, Heaven, was shot there.
Interesting factoid: the Hvítá River, which Gullfoss is part of, was once privately owned. There is a memorial at the falls of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the former owner’s daughter, because, legend has it that she threatened to throw herself into the falls if plans to build a hydro station went through.
No one was threatening suicide while we were there. The entire day was sunny, but with freezing gale-force winds, which made standing around being sprayed with water pretty unpleasant. In warmer weather, we probably would have stayed a bit longer at each site. As it was, we had a quick look, took some photos, and headed for cover.
On Tuesday morning, Craig was finally able to sleep in. The places we stayed weren’t furnished with blackout curtains, so Craig was up and moving by 4AM at the latest most days. We had a very lazy morning, and we finally got moving and started walking around Laugarvatn Lake after lunch. Within 15 minutes, the land had turned marshy. Stepping ankle-deep in icy water ended the walk for me. So, Craig went to a women’s football game in Selfoss, and I lazed around the apartment wishing we could get more than four channels on TV.
On our last full day, we headed back to Reykjavik by way of Þingvellir, the historical ancient meeting place of Icelandic chieftains. It’s a massive rift valley where tectonic plates meet. You can walk along it from the top or bottom. We chose the bottom, and walked along for about 45 minutes. The busloads of tourists all stayed topside, so we had the valley to ourselves.
In the end, the path petered out a bit and became more difficult to maneuver than I felt like dealing with, so we found a good place to scramble up, and continued following the path until it started raining. We turned back to the parking lot and went up to the top to get a good view of the waterfalls.
As hikes go, it wasn’t much, but it was a good end to our trip. We got to see a place of both historic and geologic significance and enjoy it away from all of the crowds. My only gripe is that there were so many people with tripods set up that we had a hard time getting a decent photo of our own. So, here’s a picture of an underground house we walked past.
Let me backtrack a bit from my previous post to our flight, because it was probably the worst airport experience of my life. Our flight was at 7AM, so we arrived at Manchester Airport at about 5. The line was down the corridor, because Easy Jet hadn’t thought to have more than three staff checking people in for about a dozen flights.
So, everyone crawled ahead to the single agent checking the regular line, until the “last minute” call for each flight was given, then all passengers for that flight would move to the two lines for agents checking late passengers. That’s right– there was one line for “on time” passengers (basically, everyone when they arrived) and TWO lines for “late” passengers (pretty much all of the same people, but 90 minutes later).
Once our bags were finally checked, we were ushered through a fast track security line. I’m sure the security staff enjoys having to rush and have multiple fast track lanes because Easy Jet can’t be bothered is too cheap to schedule enough desk staff. Security cleared, it was a mad dash for the plane, as increasingly dire warnings were announced over the PA system. Well, Craig and I ran, anyway. Other people stopped to pick up some breakfast along the way.
Things went much more smoothly in Iceland, presumably since EasyJet had nothing to do with immigration or customs. Well before 9AM, we were in the arrivals duty free stocking up on beer and wine. That’s right, there is an arrivals duty free. You will pass all kinds of departure duty free, but the staff will politely redirect you with their perfect English.
The 45-minute drive to Reykjavik was a great introduction to the Icelandic landscape—its rugged and similar in appearance to the moors, but is actually moss-covered lava.
It was beautiful, and I couldn’t wait to go for a hike, despite the cold, gloomy weather. However, we were there for a music festival, so first things first. We spent the day in Rekjavik, and after dinner, we walked to the Kex Guest House for a pre-festival open (free) show. When we bought our tickets, we didn’t realize the first night would be free, so we really could have gotten a one-day pass for half the amount, since we weren’t planning to attend any more shows until the last night. Live and learn.
We were there to see Withered Hand, but the opening act, þórir Georg, was really good. I tried to buy his CD after, but he didn’t have any. Neither did any of the local music shops. BTW Reykjavik has an astounding number of music shops. I guess people still buy CDs in Iceland. But I digress.
Eventually, Withered Hand came on. He played with a full band, including Pam Berry, from a 90s group I’d never heard of: Black Tambourine. The new songs were great, but six months on (yes, I’m behind), the album hasn’t been released, although it should be out in the spring.
After three days tooling around the country, we headed back to Reykjavik for the second Withered Hand show. We arrived early, so had a drink in the “Irish pub” next door, for 1000 KR each. Aside: someday, I will visit Ireland. I do not expect a single pub to bear any resemblance to the “Irish pubs” found in the rest of the world, despite most of those pubs looking virtually identical to one another.
Drinks consumed, we went to get our wristbands. There was no record of us, but since it was the last show of the festival, the guy let us in. So, we could have attended both shows without paying anything at all. It all seemed to be done on a shoestring, so I guess we did our part by being honest. 🙂
Dan (Withered Hand) and Pam came in and got drinks while Craig was at the bar, so he looked over their shoulder at the set list. He told them that I would be upset that Love in the Time of Ecstasy wasn’t on it, but they just gave me an apologetic (poor loser) smile on their way upstairs.
They didn’t revise their set list on my account, but it was a good show, and I really like the new songs. So, next spring, I should be able to buy them. And I will, even though I’ve already gotten live versions off Youtube. (Don’t tell anyone.)
My overall impression of Iceland is that it is a pretty great place. If I ever have the chance to live there, I will jump at it, high prices and cold weather be damned! 🙂
Since my long ago days in university, I have longed to visit Iceland. Okay, it was initially inspired by the dozen or so very hot Icelanders who were recruited for our track and field team, but in the intervening decades, I’ve found out that Iceland has a lot more to recommend it than just really hot men.
For one, there’s knitting. Lots of knitting. Even men knit. I know other men knit, but even Franklin Habit isn’t as cool a name as Þórgnýr Thoroddsen. In fact, so many people knit, that hand-knit Icelandic sweaters can be had for very reasonable prices, even from the souvenir chains. I settled for some Lopi wool (okay, not the softest stuff) which I will eventually knit into a lopapeysa. I know, Freyja isn’t the most challenging of lopapeysur, but I know myself, and stranded knitting is not my thing.
There is also so much hand knitting, that you can score yourself a major deal at the Red Cross, or any other used clothing store. I was too cheap to splash out 25,000KR on a new sweater, but I did get a used one for 4,000KR. That’s less than we paid for a lunch of soup and coffee for two!
Bargain hunter tip: the Red Cross outside of the CBD has lower prices and a better shopping experience. As in, it (unlike the other location) does not resemble Filene’s Basement. Both locations are on Laugavegur: 12 and 116. Here are some other second hand shops in Reykjavik.
While you are walking up to the good Red Cross, you can stop in at the Phallological Museum. It’s a bit pricey (1000KR, I think), but it was raining, so it seemed like a good way to spend thirty minutes waiting for the weather to clear. It is surprisingly informational, but some of the displays are a bit odd– home decor fashioned from foreskin, anyone?
Another bargain hunter tip: stay in an apartment. It’s about the same cost as a hotel, but you have cooking and laundry facilities. Food is seriously expensive in Iceland. That 4,500KR lunch was not atypical. At one place, we paid 6,900KR for a bottle of wine that cost 7,000 won at Emart.
I’m sure there are hidden gems serving delicious food at reasonable prices, but we didn’t come across any of those. In fact, everywhere we ate, all we heard was English and German being spoken, even in little towns far from the usual tourist spots. It really seemed as if restaurants existed for the tourist trade, regardless of how out of the way they may be.
You can also bring in 4kg of food, 3l of wine, and a 12-pack of beer. We did not know that, and were flying Easyjet, so it didn’t really matter, so we did our shopping at the baggage claim duty free. It doesn’t really sell food, other than the usual assortment of chocolate, though.
We saw the sights, hiked, and watched soccer, but I’ll save all that for next time.
A few days after arriving back in England, officially homeless and unemployed, we headed off to the Fox and Hounds. Despite the owner’s lack of imagination in terms of names, the room was quite nice and the food was good. Even better, the entire town seems to be populated by ukelele players.
By mid-evening, the place was packed, and we were the only ones sans ukelele. Craig tried to take a few photos, you know, because awkwardly taking photos of strangers is man’s work. Sadly, he wasn’t able to get a good shot.
Eventually, we got tired of listening to the oddest jam session in history and toddled off to bed. In the morning, we were up and on the moors by 5AM. We basically just followed other people’s paths, a foolhardy method for people as directionally challenged as the pair of us, but we made it back to the hotel just fine.
Along the way, we ran into grouse blinds, which I had never seen before. Craig spent some time as a grouse beater as a kid, so he explained the whole thing to me. It all sounds a bit ridiculous to someone coming from a place where a year-long “Sportman’s Paradise” (read: every animal you might want to kill and eat) license goes for US$100. Apparently, hunters pay £150+ to shoot grouse one day a year. To make it more exciting, or something, “beaters” (aka teenaged boys) flush the birds, so the hunters can stay in their hides and just shoot. Sounds sporting.
The next morning, we walked a bit of the Esk Valley Walk/ Esk Valley Way, from Danby to Glaisdale. I’m not sure how many miles we put in, but the entire thing is only about 35 miles, so I can safely say we walked not that far. (Craig keeps a spreadsheet of how many miles we walk each day. He has his way, I have mine.)
At any rate, the Esk Valley Walkway (since apparently the name is undecided), is a nice, gentle walk. It’s meant to take about three days, but we completed it over something like five, over the course of the summer. Wouldn’t want to squeeze it all in at once. Besides, we had plans in Matlock Bath.
After navigating the steepest, twistiest, narrowest roads I’ve ever seen, we met up with some of Craig’s Glastonbury friends at the Fishbowl for a few drinks and to see Boo Hewerdine. Since he, once again, did not play Geography, Craig gave him a bit of stick while buying his latest CD. Did I say “a bit”? I meant “so much that Boo signed the CD, ‘Sorry for everything.'”
While catching up before the show, I managed to wangle an invitation invited the two of us over to his friends’ house the following night for Eurovision. It was amazing! I had only ever seen it parodied on comedy shows, but the reality is so much worse than I had even imagined. I can’t believe the US hasn’t gotten in on this. Surely, each of the fifty states, DC, and Puerto Rico could come up with something even more ostentatious and outlandish. ‘Muricavision. Get on it networks!
Ever since the “gils” had become a thing, I had wanted to hike the Haebyeongil—the Taean Coastal Walk. It’s a bit out of the way, on the west coast. So, it kept getting pushed back as other, easier to get to, places took priority. With our departure from Korea imminent, it finally became a now-or-never event. The trail has five sections, and we decided to tackle the first (or maybe the last), a 12km section from Kkoti Beach to Baeksajahang.
We arrived to find a cold, windy, gray beach and wondered if this was really the best we could have come up with for that weekend. We found a map and set off. That is one thing I miss about Korea—you could always find a map. I imagine it comes as a shock to Koreans when they turn up for a hike in the US or England and end up needing Search and Rescue to find them.
When the drizzle turned to rain, we took that as a sign to find a hotel, despite having only covered the 2km, or less, to Bangpo Beach. Fortunately, there were a few to choose from along the beach, as the rain was falling steadily by then. I really, really, really don’t like being out in the rain. Knowing my “dry” clothes are getting as wet as I am doesn’t help, either.
The first place we came to seemed nice enough. Really, a bed and en suite bathroom are all we look for. That it was clean, had a fridge and cable, and a lovely view (in lovely weather, anyway, when we checked in, visibility was about 50 feet) was just gravy.
Given the weather, we decided the best restaurant in town must be the one in front of the hotel. We got our favorite: exploding shellfish. That’s another thing I’ll miss about Korea. The US and the UK don’t trust diners to cook their own food, over an open flame, especially food prone to explode while cooking and/ or cause illness if eaten before fully cooked.
In the morning, we set off of the remaining 10km in the sunshine. It was a nice enough hike, but for a “coastal path”, there were a lot of wooded bits. We did get to have a little giggle here and there at Korea’s attempts to have handicapped accessible areas. Along the beachy bits, there were random sections of sidewalk which either led to nowhere or would have required a second (at least) person to lift a wheelchair up and over obstructions in the path.
On the other hand, it didn’t seem to be a popular trail. The somewhat accessible sidewalks were adjacent to tour bus parking lots, but no one seemed interested in straying too far. So, we were able to enjoy the peace and quiet. If we had had more time, we could have continued on to the next section, but Craig had a game to see. So, we caught the one bus to Taean and that was that for our hiking in Korea.
Way back in April, Craig and I were on a mission to check off all of the national parks in Korea before his contract ended. Juwangsan was the last on the list, mainly because it’s in Gyeongbuk and one of the few places in Korea that is a pain to get to from Seoul. The best thing I can say about the transportation is that I didn’t accidentally act like a jerk in someone’s car.
After a long bus ride made even longer with numerous stops in one-horse towns and towns which wished they had a horse, we arrived at the gates of Juwangsan National Park. Okay, I guess it could have been worse– you can take a single bus from Dong Seoul to the gates of the park. Anyway, we started by checking out departure times, hoping to sort our tickets in advance. No dice– the tickets are sold by machine, but they are the old style “admit one” kind which are only good on the the day and are strictly first come, first served.
We were able to pick up the thinnest, most over-priced poncho available outside of a sporting event. Craig had packed his wet weather gear, but I had not, and the weather was looking a bit iffy. As we left the bus terminal, we passed a pile of at least one hundred discarded ponchos, so I could have saved myself a few thousand won, if I hadn’t been so proactive.
It was already mid-afternoon, so it was too late for any real hiking, anyway. We decided to just stretch our legs a bit before getting a room. We found the entrance easily enough– a coffee vendor had cannily put up a sign.
We walked for about two hours, taking in the waterfalls, and planning the “real” hike the next day. It was nice enough, but we had been on a bus for five hours– I wanted to see something a bit more impressive.
After the somewhat disappointing tour of waterfalls, we left the park in search of a yogwan. Point of note: there are no yogwans in front of the park. We walked for about 30 minutes, asking each of the very eager women standing in front of their minbaks if they had beds, only to be knocked back at every turn. Finally, one took pity on us and drove us to a nearby competitor with A BED (yes, that’s singular).
That room was already taken, but we gave up and took what she had left. A few minutes later, she knocked on the door, and instructed me to give a sour-looking man 10,000 won. She then moved all of our stuff into the room with the bed, at which point his sour expression became understandable. Sometimes, it’s good to be a foreigner. Sorry, Charlie!
Finally unpacked, we did a bit more searching to find an open restaurant and had one of our final giant hiking meals. I’m not sure why Koreans seem to think you need four days’ worth of food in one meal when you go to a mountain, but they do. So, we ate until we were ready to burst. All the while, the ajjuma interrogated us and cheerfully reminded us half a dozen times that she served breakfast.
In the morning, we walked past her place at a brisk pace, wondering if she would come running after us. She had at least explained why everything was closed: we were there a month early. Koreans like to do everything together and at the same time every other group is doing them, and May is month to visit Juwangsan. There is an azalea festival and everyone comes out to see the flowers.
I’m from Louisiana, I’ve seen azaleas. So, I’m happy to miss them if it means avoiding the crowds. Fifteen years in Korea couldn’t make me assimilate.
So, over five hundred words in, and I haven’t mentioned the hike. That’s because it was pretty underwhelming. The lack of crowds meant the restaurants along the trail were being manned by desperate ajjumas. Nobody likes an aggressive ajjuma. I did appreciate the one who stood out by offering hikers a cup of hot tea on their way up as her way of advertising. More flies with honey, and all that.
There was a requisite temple, Daejeonsa. It looked like all the rest, but with a rock formation in the background. We took one or two photos on our way to our planned hike. Our plans were quickly scuppered by glorified police tape blocking the path. We thought maybe it was just that one bit, and headed to the other path leading to that peak, but it was the peak that was closed off.
By this point, the tour busses had started arriving, so we quickly headed up the open trail, trying to get ahead of the strolling masses. For the most part, we were able to avoid the crowds. I suspect that is largely because the crowds were pretty thin by Korean hiking standards. At any rate, I was thankful we hadn’t waited a couple of weeks to make that trip.