Friday, December 19, 2008

South Korea 2008 - Northeast South Korea

One of Korea’s redeeming features, at least while traveling during the winter, is that it is eerily devoid of western-tourists – especially once you venture away from the big cities. This feeling of escapism was felt no stronger on this trip then when I made my way up the northeast coastline of South Korea. North-South Korea doesn't get many western tourists; however, they do get the odd uninvited visitor from the north. In fact, most of the entire coastline is fenced off with barbed wire and lookout points and beaches are lit up at night in order to spot intruders. The best place to catch a reminder of this threat is the coastal resort town Jeongdongjin, where the a captured North Korean submarine lies on display next to a US battleship. Jeongdongjin also boasts a quite spectacular hotel built in the shape of a vessel on a cliffside, making it a noteworthy stopover.
My first stop in this region was a night in Samcheok. Although there's not really a whole lot to see within the town itself, there are quite a few interesting spots to visit within its local bus-route proximity. Amongst these are the enormous limestone cave at Hwanseon Donggul and the rather exotic Haesindang Gong-won park at Sinnam where the locals erected, erm... erections, in dedication to a young girl who drowned in the nearby seas with her chastity still intact.
After Samcheok, I headed up to Sokcho and the glorious Seoraksan National Park. It was just my luck however that my one day in this hikers paradise happened to coincide with the worst weather I was to experience on the entire trip. It still didn't stop me from taking a nice hike through the park to one of its many mountain caves, as well as riding the cable car up into the mountains. There was also another memorable, if somewhat creepy Korean-cuisine experience awaiting me in Sokcho, where I ordered a ''squid sashimi' to go along with my spider-crab main course. Despite being decapitated into pieces, the raw squid pieces were still far from dead and wiggling and sucking inside my mouth as I chewed them down! Again, one of those 'only in Korea' type experiences.
For more photos/information on this segment of my trip, check the website here:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

South Korea 2008 - Busan & Gyeongju

There's no rest for the wicked as they say. After the long flight from Abu Dhabi to Seoul (via Doha, Osaka and Incheon), Dusty and I woke up first thing the next morning to catch the speed train to South Korea's southeastern port city of Busan, located in the Gyeongsangnam-do province. It was in fact Busan Aquarium - located in the heart of one of South Koreans favorite summer spots, Hae-undae Beach, that attracted us to this dynamic city. The Busan Aquarium, along with Scuba in Korea, allows guests to scuba dive into their main tank, which happens to be swarming with turtles, groupers and mainly... sharks!
Giant gray nurse sharks, sand tiger sharks, lemon sharks, leopard sharks, and white tip reef sharks are all on display and swimming around aimlessly in the tank looking out, hoping to get a taste of some of the viewers gawking from the outside. But while it may be true that some of these intimidating sharks look as if they wouldn't mind devouring a nice human for lunch, the dives are carefully timed between feeding hours so divers and sharks are able to share the tank in relative peace. Despite the obvious harmony and calmness, the audience on the other side of the glass gave us a rock star-like reception. The Busan Aquarium dive is a must for shark enthusiasts and so far no accidents have been reported......yet.
For more photos of the trip, check out my website:

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

South Korea 2008 - Seoul

Seoul, or more likely nearby Incheon airport, is probably the first port of entry for many travelers entering South Korea. Being one of the largest metropolitan complexes in the world, the city itself may not really be considered 'attractive' and there may not sport to many 'tourist attractions'. However, there's plenty to see and do here including the Changdeokgung Palace, N'Seoul Tower and the Inwangsan mountain trails. It's at night where the city really comes alive. There's always a show going on - like the excellent martial arts comedy show, "JUMP" which Dusty treated me to and the city never seems to sleep. Seoul's vibrant shopping centers are open almost all night long. It's also a great place to get a taste of some of Korea's 'esoteric' cuisine - including the infamous dog soup.
One must-do side trip from Seoul is a bone-chilling tour of the demilitarized zone separating South Korea with its northern counterpart, better known simply as the 'DMZ'. The 4km stretch of no-mans land divides two similar cultures yet two completely different worlds. Nowhere else can the tension be felt any more than in Panmunjom, where top-ranked taekwando expert North and South Korean soldiers stare each other down all day in a game of international intimidation. The US military cadets who act as guides on the tour, put on by the United Service Organization, don't exactly alleviate the tension by constantly reminding us that world war three could break out at any minute if we so much as wink at the North Korean soldiers - not something you'd really want to add to your CV. A walk down one of North Korean incursion tunnel, apparently built to transport some 30,000 soldiers is a firm reminder that the cold war is still going on in some parts of the world. A less intense day trip from Seoul is the Korean Folk Village, near Suwon.
For more photos of my trip to Seoul, check them out here:

Monday, December 15, 2008

South Korea 2008

These photos were taken from my trip to South Korea in November/December 2008. I had about 10 days on the entire trip. The main objective of this particular expedition to the far east was to meet up with my little brother Dusty, who had just recently landed himself a teaching job in Seoul. However, I was able to turn what was a routine family visit into a nice little trek along South Korea's east coast. South Korea unfortunately gets a little overlooked by travelers when coming to this region as opposed to Japan and China. However, South Korea has plenty to offer travelers of all types.
After a rather arduous flight on Qatar Airways that went all the way form Abu Dhabi to Doha and then to Seoul, via Osaka – I finally arrived at Korea's Incheon International Airport. Dusty and I immediately headed off to Busan – South Korea's largest southern port. Our main reason for coming to Busan was to go shark diving in the Busan Aquarium on Hae-undae beach, where you can walk amongst giant gray nurse sharks, sand tiger sharks, lemon sharks, leopard sharks, and white tip reef sharks, as well as giant grouper and sea turtles . After Busan, Dusty and I headed up to Gyeongju- the old capital of Korea's illustrious Shilla Kingdom.
After parting with Dusty in Gyeongju, I made my way up along South Korea's northeast coast where I visited the country's finest hiking ground, Seoraksan National Park and Samcheok - where I made the side trips to the coastal resort of Jeongdongjin, the magnificent limestone cave of Hwanseon Donggul and stared in disbelief at the phallic monuments of Haesindang Gong-won park in Sinnam. Dusty and I met up again in Seoul where we ventured to the city's highlights: Changdeokgung Palace, N'Seoul Tower, Inwangsan mountain and the Insadong shopping district. We also took the USO's DMZ tour and took a couple of steps inside North Korean territory – an absolute must for geopolitical-aficionados.
It's not just the sites and activities that makes South Korea such an intriguing destination but Korea's got quite a unique cuisine. Hanjeongsik is the full-course Korean meal which includes rice, soups, meats, vegetable dishes and kimchi-the soured cabbage that has become Korea's staple dish. However, those brave enough may want to explore some of Korea's off the beaten track dishes. Dog is of course the most notorious of these dishes. However, it can actually be quite tasty – like a very lean beef. The same can't be said for steamed silkworm, which are sold in packs near the smoked almonds. My advice is to stay far away from these.
The most deadliest dish we consumed in Korea was blowfish. This highly toxic fish can cause fatalities if not served right but it's also a delicacy in these parts. We found a restaurant in Busan that specialized in pufferfish and I must say it was absolutely delicious! Squid is consumed at an alarming rate in South Korea – almost in a similar way as french fries are back in the States. Dried squid is sold everywhere; however, the biggest surprise must have been the squid-sashimi in Sokcho. Although cut up into pieces, the squid is still alive and moving, with its suction-cupped tentacles still fully functioning when you pop them in your mouth... one of the many 'Korea-only' experiences this country offers!
To view more photos from this trip, check the main website:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Greenland 2008 - Tasilaq

By East Greenlandic standards, Tasilaq is a megalopolis. Over a third of East Greenland's 6,000 people live here. Compared to Kulusuk, Tasilaq is a bustling, modern metropolis with everything one could need and desire. There's a post office, hospital, two functioning ATM machines, a couple of supermarkets, a football field, a disco/bar and a tourist information center. Perhaps more importantly, for travelers at least, there's a couple of places to stay and a nice network of local travel agents willing to arrange a variety of adventure trips. These include kayaking, iceberg safaris, helicopter rides, hiking & camping, whale watching ,etc. In peak season accommodation does get fully booked up so I was lucky to find a place at the Hotel Angmagssalik. The hotel had several trips going daily so I managed to join one of their iceberg cruises.
Robert Peroni at the Red House arranged a spectacular boat trip through the Sermiligaaq Fjord all the way to the Knud Rasmussen Glacier. This was a truly fascinating journey through tantalizing icebergs and ice-choked fjords. We saw several whales along the way there and back. A pair of humpbacks swam peacefully around our boats as we all gawked and took photos, on the way back one particularly enthusiastic humpback whale put on a truly stupendous show, dancing around the surface with its arms and flipper, leaping out of the water in spectacular fashion. The glacier itself was nothing short of breathtaking. There was also an abandoned US military base scattered with rusty barrels, cranes and military vehicles, etc. In all my travel experiences, I'd probably rank the Knud Rasmussen Glacier expedition somewhere in my top ten, as it contained pretty much everything you could ask for in a truly authentic Arctic adventure. All that was missing were some polar bears!
For more photos of the trip, check here:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Greenland 2008 - Kulusuk

A town with only 310 people living in it, Kulusuk may seem a strange portal to the world's largest non-continental island. However, the traditional fishing village of Kulusk happens to be just that for many travelers and tourists coming into East Greenland. As Tunu's administrative capital, Tasilaq is bereft of the required flat space, Kulusuk is in fact home to East Greenland's busiest international airport. Air Iceland sells packages from Reykjavik, including 1-3 day tours. The tiny airport terminal is by no means fit to handle the amounts traffic of day it gets during peak season.
The village of Kulusuk is located about 15 minutes walk from the airport. It is a small and simple place with a population of just over 300. While there isn't a whole lot to see or do in the town itself, Kulusk is located on at the banks of a bay merging out into the iceberg infested north Atlantic Ocean. For most visitors, Kulusuk is nothing more than a stop-and-go place en route to Tasilaq. However, the scenery is simply mesmerizing and if its your first visit this part of the world, as it was mine - than its definitely worth the effort to spend at least a night. Fortunately I bumped into local resident Icelander Johann Brandsson, who conveniently owns the Kulusuk Youth Hostel and was able to do just that. For the day tripping tourists, the locals do sometimes put on a traditional dance and kayak hunting show.
Getting to Tasilaq from Kulusuk can be an adventure in itself. The traditional method is by helicopter. However, I managed to get a local fisherman to take me along in his fishing boat. It was quite a boat ride, zooming through icebergs that looked like skyscrapers in our tiny boat. A whale even surfaced right in front of the boat - another thing you'd only see in Greenland!
To view more pictures, check out my site:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Iceland 2008 - Skaftafell, Vatnajökull, Jökulsárlón, South central route

Although many of Iceland's main tourist attractions are crammed in the southwestern corner of the country, within a hundred kilometer radius of the capital city, Reykjavik - to come all of the way to this fascinating country and only stick to the tourist hotspots of Reykjavik, the Golden Triangle and the Blue Lagoon would be a real shame. Although Iceland is by no means a large country, going from place to place can take a little longer than it may look on map given that most of the highways are located along the parameter. For this reason, given my time limit, which was about a week - I chose to stick to two main bases. The first of course being Reykjavik, the second being Skaftafell National Park - Iceland's largest and most popular national park. The Skaftafell base-camp is located on the southern edge of the Vatnajökull ice cap - the largest glacier in Europe by volume. Skaftafell is an excellent place for hiking within the mountains piercing the glacier. Walking on or through the glacier itself with crampons and ice-axe is another activity that can be arranged at the Skaftafell Visitor's Center. Longer hikes deep into the heart of the glacier can also be arranged.
One fascinating and easily accessible day trip from the Skaftafell National Park is the mystic Jökulsárlón Lagoon. Due to ice breaking off the Vatnajökull glacier, the glacial lake is packed with luminous blue icebergs creating one the most picturesque places in Iceland. Scenes from the James Bond films, A View to a Kill & Die Another Day were filmed here and one feels just like agent 007 riding the monstrous boat / 4WD truck through the lake.
Skaftafell is accessible from Reykjavik by Flybus, Iceland's premier public transport carrier. Even though a return ticket costs a whopping 150 Euros, one has to remember the buses do run off of some the world's most expensive petrol. Also, the bus ride is an adventure itself. Flybus allows tourists to make the return trip in alternative routes, one along the southern coast road via the picturesque coastal town of Vik as well as making several waterfall stops, including Sellfoss. The return bus-ride goes through tranquil inland landscape of Iceland's southern countryside via the thermal pools of Landmanlauger and the aptly named town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, near the striking Systrafoss waterfall. These various stops certainly added an extra dimension to my Iceland experience.
As always the full photos/write up can be accessed at my main site:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Iceland 2008 - Reykjavik, Geysir, Gullfoss, Blue Lagoon, etc.

Many of Iceland's most popular tourist destinations are all crammed, conveniently within a hundred kilometer radius of its capital city, Reykjavik. Reykjavik, being the world's most northerly national capital city, is a unique place. Walking around in the midnight sun, the term 'city' may not be the best way to describe the place, but by Icelandic standards - Reykjavik is huge. While Reykjavik may not have the many historical sites and monuments of many other European capital cities, it has a bohemian and laid back feel to it. Unfortunately, one of Reykjavik's most prominent landmarks, the Hallgrimskikja Church was undergoing some major renovation at the time - so I was unable to try climb the steeple for views of the downtown area. The statue in front of the church pays homage to Leifr Eiríksson, the man accredited to first discovering the Americas from Europe long before Christopher Columbus and co. made their voyage. The Perlan, a massive dome-topped structure overlooking the city was open however. The Perlan is actually a huge water tank which supplies the city with its water. The building also contains the Saga Museum and the rooftop walkway offers great panoramic views of the city. Reykjavik comes alive at night in which tourists are all invited to join the 'runtur' - the nightly pub crawl.
Reykjavik is the portal to many interesting day trips. Perhaps the most notable of these day trips is the 'Golden Triangle' which includes Geysir, Gullfoss and Pingvellir. Geysir is the world's most sought after natural geyser, and the one in which all of its namesakes are named after. Geysir goes off every 5-10 minutes, opposed to Yellowstone's which takes about an hour to reload, making Geysir undisputed world's premier. Next up on the Golden Triangle is the magnificent waterfall, Gullfoss. In fact, is Europe's largest waterfall and a truly spectacular site. The final piece of the Golden Triangle is Pingvellir - the site where Iceland's parliament was founded. The surrounding lava-constructed environment offers some excellent views and hikes. Another popular destination easily within reach from Reykjavik is the world-famous geothermal spa & pool, the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon's warm creamy blue water, set in the lava-valley backdrop, is rich in volcanic minerals such as sulfur and silica, making it a healthy destination, as well as picturesque. Another activity I engaged in while in Reykjavik was whale watching. Although nowhere near as intimate as in Greenland, we did see several minke and humpback whales, as well as puffins along the way.
To view more photos/write up of the trip, check my site here:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Greenland & Iceland 2008

Throughout my entire travels, one accolade that had still been eluding me was to get up and close to a bona fide iceberg. In fact, prior to summer 2008, any sort of "Arctic experience" I had was virtually non-existent. The exceptions being maybe strolling through streets in the midnight sun of St. Petersburg, or a trip through Sweden's southern region of Scania. However, this hardly constitutes for an 'Arctic adventure'. While I'd always fantasized about making the icebreaker vessel journey through Antarctica, the costs and seasonal dilemma has always rendered this plan to nothing but a personal reverie. Greenland however, being only a short two hour flight away from Reykjavik, Iceland was a much more realistic and accessible destination to see icebergs. With both Iceland & Greenland being destinations I had been intrigued about for quite some time, it wasn't before long that I had my Lonely Planet Guides, flight bookings and was ready to go.

I came across the idea to go to Greenland rather accidentally. I was surfing the Internet one day, searching for photos of icebergs for an exercise I was developing on Antarctica for my students, when I came across the Flugfélag Airlines (aka Air Iceland) website advertising 'day trips' to Kulusuk, a tiny village located on an island just off the east coast of Greenland. Although, I'm not one for guided day trips, I realized that this was a unique opportunity to 'kill two birds with one stone', as the intriguing volcanic hotspot island of Iceland was another destination on my 'countries-to-do list'. So, after some articulate planning, I booked flights on 3 separate tickets online: Abu Dhabi-London via British Airways, London-Reykjavík (Keflavik) via Icelandair and then Reykjavík-Kulusuk via Flugfélag Airlines.
As stated earlier, Iceland was always a place that I'd wanted to visit. This unique geothermal-powered island offers plenty for the adventurous independent traveler. There's the requisite tourist sites: the 'Golden Triangle', which includes Europe's largest waterfall Gulfoss, Geysir - the world's most consistent geyser and the Pingveller National Park. Traveler can also enjoy hiking through Iceland's unique volcanic landscape, walking ontop of some of the world's largest glaciers through ice caves and crevices, participating in the 'runtur' - the traditional Icelandic pubcrawl and exploring the quirky capital city Reykjavik, soaking in the waters of the world-renowned geothermal hot spring of Blue Lagoon, whale or puffin watching, scuba diving along the volcanic rift, etc. This tiny island really has it all. With exception to the diving, in my short time in Iceland, I managed to pull in all of the aforementioned activities.

Iceland is also noted to be one of the world's most intellectual societies. Reykjavik apparently boasts the largest number of newspapers per capita. Icelanders are liberal-minded people who also supposedly enjoy one of the highest qualities of life in the world. Evidence of Icelanders love for the arts is evident walking around the nation's capital as museums, galleries and libraries are scattered on every corner. There's an active music scene in Reykjavik with local acts performing in various bars around town. Located right on the epicenter of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a geological hotspot and the volcanic activity that arises from this forms the country's unique landscape. Iceland is one of the greenest countries in the world with over 70% of its energy being generated from renewable sources - most noticeably geothermal power.
Although only a short two hour flight away from Iceland, neighboring island-state Greenland seems a world away. Tunu (aka 'East Greenland'), with a landmass of 1,457,000 km² and a population of only 3,800 people (that's 0.0026 persons/ km²), East Greenland is about as isolated and remote as you can possibly find. However, about half of that population resides in Tunu's administrative capital, Tasilaq. Tasilaq's picturesque setting, on a bay surrounded by mountains and fjords, means it is bereft of the requisite flat space needed for an international airport. For this reason the region's airport is located at nearby village of Kulusuk.

One popular way to see Greenland is through packaged tours on Air Iceland from Reykjavik. There are day-tripping tours as well as others that offer a couple of nights accommodation in Greenland. While these may be the easiest and most financially practical way of experiencing Greenland, these stop-and-go packaged tours are, in my opinion at least, unadvisable as in Greenland the weather dictates everything. There is no guarantee whether or not conditions will permit traveling by certain land, sea or air routes. Shorter excursions, such as succint iceberg cruises and local hikes are usually doable. However, to really see Greenland, longer, more adventurous and drawn out excursions are required but may not always be guaranteed to depart on their scheduled dates. I had to wait around several days for the Knud Rasmussen Glacier trip. The wait was certainly worth it though as I'd rank that particular trip amongst some of my all time favorite traveling experiences. It was not only the glacier itself but the entire boat ride through the iceberg and whale filled fjord that made the trio so special. The moral of the story is that patience is a virtue one must pack in their rucksacks when traveling in this part of the world.
In the end, gorgeous Greenland turned out to be quite a difficult place to leave behind. Was it the breathtaking views of tranquil crystal blue water meandering through the ice-filled fjords, or perhaps the tantalizing humpback whales who would surface and dance majestically from the depths of the ice cold ocean, as if perfectly choreographed specifically for the awestrawk admirers and cameras waiting at the surface? Was it the magnificent, gargantuan picture-perfect icebergs that rose up like state of the art ice structures as if on display at an avant-garde architectural conference? Well that too….. But when I say that Greenland was a difficult place to leave, I mean just that … it actually was a difficult place to leave. The reason for this is that in Greenland, weather dictates everything, especially when it comes to traveling. When heavy fog roles in, the runway in Kulusuk becomes practically invisible to incoming planes and it's not that rare for all incoming and outgoing flights to be canceled for and entire day - if not more.

This is exactly what happened on the day I was due to fly out. I wound up having one day extra in Greenland and inevitably missed all my connecting flights. Airlines nowadays are not responsible for flights missed due to 'acts of god' and I guess heavy fog is deemed out of Air Iceland's control. Fortunately Air Iceland was able to reschedule a flight back to London with Icelandair at no charge, and I was also able to reschedule my British Airways flight back to Abu Dhabi with little difficulty. The experience though does show how volatile plans can be in Greenland and the need to bring plenty of time and patience along with your Danish kroner in Greenland.

Speaking of kroner, which is used both in Iceland & in Greenland (Iceland uses Icelandic kroner and Greenland uses Danish kroner) - bring plenty of it as neither Iceland nor Greenland are cheap destinations. In fact, the terms 'Iceland' and 'expensive' seem to be synonymous with each other. Iceland is notorious for being outrageously overpriced and I had previously read that back in the days before the widespread use of mobiles and Internet, the world's most expensive phone call was from Reykjavik to Tokyo at peak hours. With the going rate for a bed space in a hostel, bedding not included, at around US$50/night, I'm not going to try and dispute that claim. With virtually everything having to be imported from abroad, Iceland is not exactly a budget traveler's paradise. Sitting down in a restaurant in Iceland would cost about a months salary in some parts of the world and transportation is another pocket drainer. The round-trip bus pass from Reykjavik to Skaftafell (about 6 hours each way) cost almost $200! This shouldn't be too surprising however, considering the bus is running on some of the world's most expensive petrol.
Greenland doesn't fare too much better either. Accommodation is limited and not cheap. With the exception of overpriced hotel restaurants, there seems to be a dearth of locally-run restaurants or cafes. The main killer in Greenland is transportation. Without a network of roads connecting towns and settlements, the main method of transport is helicopter, boat or dogsled - none of which comes cheaply. I had to hire a local boatman to take me from Kulusuk to Tasilaq for over a hundred dollars. A priceless and spectacular journey in itself through massive icebergs and surfacing whales; however, given the overall distance being a mere 20km, covered in less than an hour - a little overpriced nonetheless. My original objective was to get to the western town of Ilulissat, home to Ilulissat Kangerlusa - one of the world's largest and most spectacular ice-fjords. However, when I discovered the airfare for the domestic plane ticket from Kulusuk to Ilulissat alonse was a whopping $2,500 on Air Greenland, I opted to marginalize my Greenland experience to the more accessible Kulusuk, Tasilaq and their surrounding environs.

The cost factor however should not turn you off completely from coming to Iceland or Greenland as the stories, photos and memories one brings back are priceless. Also, there are of course many ways to keep costs down. In Iceland, advanced online bookings can bring lower prices considerably for accommodation and boycotting sit-down restaurants while sticking to cafés & food stalls, and collaborative self-catering in hostels with fellow travelers will save considerably on food expenses. In Greenland, traveling with a partner or in a small group will bring down transport costs by a mile. Also, Greenland is prime-camping ground. Bringing along a tent and sleeping bag, or just renting one from the Tasilaq tourist office, is certainly a viable option.
To view the complete write up/photos of the trip, check out my main Greenland/Iceland sites:
Main site -
West Iceland -
East Iceland -
Kulusuk, Greenland -
Tasilaq, Greenland -