Taipei view from the Earth God Temple

I was in Taiwan when the covid-19 pandemic started, which was pretty much the best place to be. The government there didn’t wait for Chinese authorities or the WHO to confirm human-to-human transmission, and immediately started screening inbound passengers from China and asked everyone to wear masks, practise good hygiene, and avoid crowds where possible.

They’ve basically been ready for the next one since SARS in 2003, and the vice president being an epidemiologist probably helped. It was hard to get masks and sanitiser for a month or so, when this pic was taken:

…but they quickly ramped up production and introduced a rationing system to make sure people had enough.

It was also one of the fastest countries to apply border controls, and has generally done an excellent job so far of controlling the virus – it was mind-boggling watching from a distance as places like the UK and US so badly screwed up their own responses.

I was hoping to ride the pandemic out in Taipei, and I was initially allowed to overstay for 10 weeks beyond the end of my tourist stamp (see my post here for a bit more on life in Taipei during the pandemic). Unfortunately that wasn’t extended and I had no way to stay longer, so I had to either go back to the UK or go to the one other place near Taiwan that would let me in, which was Korea.

My quarantine room in Korea

Korea’s initial response wasn’t as fast and effective as Taiwan’s, and it suffered the first major outbreak outside China – however, after the bad start they got their shit together and even managed to be the only major economy to keep their border open to short-term visitors without also letting a ton of imported cases in and losing control of the virus. This was achieved by setting up an extremely strict quarantine system for everyone arriving in Korea – either at home for citizens and residents, or in government-managed facilities for temporary visitors (at visitors’ own expense). See here for a detailed account of quarantine in Korea and here for the rest of my stay in Seoul.

But after 14 days of quarantine and 76 days of relatively normal life in Seoul, I had to move on again. It still wasn’t possible to enter Taiwan, so back to England it was.

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram and an excerpt from the little rant that went with it about arriving back in the UK:

being out of options I came back to England. Absolute joke. Walked right through the airport without speaking to a human being. Coming from Korea I didn’t have to self-isolate as it’s on the safe list, but nobody checked where I’d come in from anyway, or where I was going, or how I was getting there, or even what my temperature was (never mind an actual covid test)

In Korea I’d experienced a month of semi-lockdown in Seoul, which was triggered by a spike to 300 cases per day. It worked, and a month later they were back down to double figures.

By contrast the UK was up to over 20000 cases per day before Boris Johnson realised he’d better finally do something that his science advisors told him to do many weeks earlier (but which he seems to have resisted because it wouldn’t be good for his popularity). So now we have this lockdown, and even once it ends most of the country will probably have tier 2/3 semi-lockdown conditions through the winter.

Care workers are busting their asses and the rest of us are asked to curb our lives in lockdown – we’re all doing our bit, but the government is totally failing to do theirs. Useless

And that was before the new variant made everything even worse, which happened right after the government ended the lockdown far too early and against the advice of scientists (yet again), leading to yet another, stricter, longer lockdown which still continues as I write this.

At this point in the UK it’s already too late to stop the virus, so it’s basically just a case of waiting for the vaccine to be given to enough people for things to start getting back to normal. To be fair the vaccine rollout is the one thing that seems to have been done well by the UK in this pandemic and is progressing at pace, so hopefully things in the UK will be normal or at least normal-ish later this year. And that goes for everywhere else with an adequate vaccine supply – but there are many countries (still the majority globally) which don’t have that, so a lot of people around the world are unlikely to get it this year and a lot of countries around the world will still be messed up while others are getting back to normality.

I’m guessing this all means that borders will start slowly opening again soon, but most countries will probably only let you in with proof of vaccination.

The whole thing also has me wondering about the whole “digital nomad” thing. It sounds great, being able to travel around staying for a month here, two months there, chasing the sun or the snow or ticking off travel ambitions all while you work from your laptop; but then what happens when the shit hits the fan, countries close their borders, and most travel shuts down? You probably end up having to go back to the country you’re actually a citizen of – most others won’t let you in, and even if you can go somewhere (like I could to Korea for a few months) your income might be decimated. Mine certainly was, and any other travel blog you read will probably say the same thing.

For example, the traffic over on my Korea snowboard website this ski season was 90% down, and the income from it was 98% down. Meanwhile here on this website I’d put a ton of work into a Tokyo guide for foreign visitors heading to Japan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which obviously didn’t happen in 2020 and now look set to go ahead in 2021 but without any foreign fans. So that project ended up being a lot of time down the drain, and thousands of dollars of lost income.

Which is to say, job security isn’t great for digital nomad travel blogging – that obviously goes with the territory, but for many the pandemic saw that go from being a potential problem to a very real and immediate one.

Furthermore, despite this romantic notion of being a ‘citizen of the world’, of nowhere and everywhere, once again we see that your passport really does make a difference. This winter under lockdown in the UK hasn’t been a lot of fun. But (despite the idiot politicians in charge) at least I could come back to a country with a great health system that would treat me (without billing me) if I did get sick, which has developed vaccines and is rolling them out quickly, and where daily life for most of the population has remained safe & comfortable enough (although dull & frustrating). Again we see that the accident of birth on one or other side of a border can make a huge difference.

So was it all bullshit, being a digital nomad – or on the other hand, in the long run might the pandemic be seen as having accelerated the trend? One thing that always sucks about it as a long-term lifestyle is visas – take Thailand for example, which for years now has been host to a revolving population of digital nomads, some staying for a few months at a time, but others staying for years with visa runs every couple of months as necessary. It always seemed to me that Thailand (and others) would be smart to introduce some sort of long-stay visa for remote workers, allowing people to legally stay for say a year while working online, charging a visa fee in lieu of income tax.

Well, a whole bunch of countries have now started schemes along these lines, with more likely to follow: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Anguilla, Barbados, Bermuda, Caymans, Mauritius, Costa Rica, UAE, Iceland, Estonia, Croatia, and Georgia all now have some sort of remote work visa system for long stays. Although it is also worth noting that they’re mostly only available to those with income above a certain level, which is usually way more than I’ve ever earned online (50 grand in some cases) and I’m pretty confident is way more than most of those digital nomads in Thailand (and elsewhere in SE Asia, Central America and so on) have ever earned. But it’s a start, and it’ll be interesting to see if it becomes an established thing.

Even for many people who either can’t or don’t have any desire to be digital nomads, the pandemic has been a first experience of working remotely. Most of my friends in the UK, for example, have been doing their regular jobs from home during the various lockdowns – some like it, some don’t, but either way it’s definitely been a demonstration of the possibilities provided by modern tech for doing remotely what used to require everyone to commute for. In the future we may well also look back on the pandemic as being a key event in changing work cultures, perhaps with it becoming the norm for people to do a combination of office work days and remote work days.

This post is starting to ramble beyond the scope of a travel blog, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out once the pandemic is finally under control globally. It did expose the insecurity of being a digital nomad, but it has also shown the viability of widespread remote work becoming a new norm.

When the covid-19 pandemic started, I was in Taiwan which was pretty much the best place to be. The government there didn’t wait for China or the WHO to confirm human-to-human transmission, and immediately started screening inbound passengers from China and asked everyone to wear masks, practise good hygiene, and avoid crowds where possible. It was also one of the fastest to apply border controls, and has generally done an excellent job so far of controlling the virus – it was mind-boggling watching places like the UK and US so badly screwing up their own responses.

I was hoping to ride the pandemic out in Taipei, and I was initially allowed to overstay for 10 weeks beyond the end of my tourist stamp (see here about life in Taipei during the pandemic). Unfortunately that wasn’t extended and I had no way to stay longer, so I had to either go back to the UK or go to the one other place near Taiwan that would let me in, which was Korea.

Korea’s response hadn’t been quite as fast and effective as Taiwan’s, and it suffered the first major outbreak outside China – however, after the bad start they got their shit together and even managed to be the only major economy to keep their border open without also letting a ton of imported cases in and losing control of the virus. This was achieved by setting up an extremely strict quarantine system for everyone arriving in Korea – either at home for citizens and residents, or in government-managed facilities for temporary visitors (at visitors’ own expense). This was my quarantine room in Incheon:

Korea did bar entry to many nationalities as a reciprocal response, as those countries had first barred entry to Koreans during the early months of the pandemic. This didn’t apply to Brits though so I was able to go there, and as the UK government was clearly not doing a good job Korea seemed like the best option – except I could only stay 90 days total and would have to spend the first 14 doing an expensive quarantine stint. The hope was that by the end of 90 days, Taiwan might have set up some similar system by which I’d be able to go back there and avoid the UK.

That turned out not to be the case, so once my 90 days in Korea were up I did end up coming back to England, where I’m writing this now and where I guess I’m stuck until things start getting somewhat back to normal in the hopefully not-too-distant future. So the Korea plan turned out to be a waste of money really, but it was worth a try and (quarantine aside) Seoul was still a good place to spend a few months catching up with friends, eating & drinking, and doing some hiking.

You can read my detailed account of the quarantine experience here, and the rest of this post is just to share a bit of what I did after that.

Honestly, that first day after quarantine it just felt amazing to be outdoors breathing air that hadn’t come through ducts, even though the weather was shit. Actually the weather was awful for weeks, raining cats & dogs a lot of the time and leading to severe flooding in parts of the city – if you’ve seen Parasite you’ll recall a key scene in the film where torrential rain leads to their apartment flooding, and that does sometimes happen in rainy season.

Dude having a smoke and a drink during a downpour at the convenience store opposite my airbnb:

Was much better once rainy season ended:

And life continued largely as normal in most of the city, albeit with everyone wearing masks everywhere and things definitely being a bit quieter than usual. This was especially obvious in tourists areas like Myeongdong which was an absolute ghost town compared to usual, and also the normally heaving nightlife was subdued as clubs had been closed following mini-outbreaks and a lot of people were avoiding bars. Itaewon in particular was badly affected (I’m guessing a bunch of bars & clubs there won’t survive the pandemic), and Gangnam & Hongdae were pretty quiet too.

This was at the top of Namsan, where there’d normally be a sea of tourists jostling for elbow room:

Great views as usual though:

After that hike up Namsan I realised I’d made the comedy error of forgetting both to top up my subway pass or to bring any other cash or card with me, so then spent an hour and a half walking back to my airbnb on the other side of the river and up & down over a couple more small mountains. Which I didn’t mind at all, as it’s always interesting to walk through residential areas of a city you might normally never see, and it was a nice evening too. Snapped this (of the skyscrapers on Yeouido island) from the bridge over the Han:

This spell in Seoul was also a good opportunity to update and add to my Seoul hiking pages, including my favourite route up Gwanaksan again:

These weird Star Trek trees have sprouted outside Sadang Station (near Gwanaksan) since my last visit:

I also did several hikes on the ridge along the southern edge of Bukhansan National Park to check the best trails and put together this hiking route. Great terrain and views up there:

Couple of random neighbourhood shots displaying leisure time priorities in Korea:

I’ve written plenty on this blog about all the great hiking in the mountains around the city, but another really neat thing about Seoul is there are lots of smaller hills here & there which have been left as islands of real forest within the concrete forest. If you live near one of them you can go and stretch your legs in natural surroundings without even having to take the metro anywhere, and some of these parks are connected together by bridges so you can string them together for a longer walk. I went for a wander from Express Bus Terminal Station down to Naebang through a couple of these parks, connected by this pedestrian bridge over a major road:

While these mini forests are no substitute for the real thing, they’re a pretty cool feature to have right there in the middle of such a high density urban environment.

It wasn’t all plain sailing in Seoul while I was there – almost half of my time in the city coincided with a 6-week partial lockdown, with all the bars shut, most cafes shut, and a 9pm curfew for restaurants. This obviously wasn’t great, but everything else stayed open so it wasn’t awful either – but what was especially noteworthy was that they did this in response to having over 100 cases per day in Seoul, with the intention of getting it back down below that threshold, and it worked. Meanwhile the UK was spiking to thousands of cases a day due to everyone relaxing after the end of the first lockdown there, but the government was just dithering on, pretending the shit wasn’t massively hitting the fan again, and not responding until far too late (again). It was infuriating being in a country taking pro-active and effective measures while watching the UK blundering into a disaster, and that was the situation in which I found myself heading back to England.

The contrast between the arrival at Seoul-Incheon Airport and the arrival at London Heathrow was staggering, and it was immediately obvious to me why Korea was doing a pretty good containment job and the UK had totally failed to. But that’s a rant for another post…

I was woken up by the sound of a disembodied female voice speaking in heavily Korean-accented but clear English:

”This is an announcement of government support team. Your meal will be served shortly. Please do not open your door except at the allotted time”

I’d only been asleep for a few hours, had fallen asleep in my clothes with the light on in an unfamiliar hotel room, and was woken from the middle of a dream. Needless to say it took me a while to work out what the hell was going on, as the same message continued playing in a stream of a dozen different languages before repeating again. It went on for a good 5 minutes, by which time I’d realised it was being piped through a speaker in the ceiling near the door.

Such pre-recorded messages were piped in through that speaker in multiple languages in a fixed daily pattern, mostly just before and after the three daily meal times to provide general information about waste disposal and so on.

The most dystopian went like this:

“This is an announcement of government support team. In this temporary living facility, cases have been reported continuously. Do not come out of your room to prevent the transmission of covid-19. Especially be careful not to close the door when you get your meal and leave your garbage bag in front of your door”

Another warned that leaving the room would result in immediate arrest and deportation.

This was the room I’d checked into late the evening before:

My coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport

…and the view I woke up to that morning:

The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport

To be fair, if you’re going to be stuck in one room for 14 days that’s a decent room to be stuck in, and it wasn’t a bad view to be stuck with either. The large building with the angular roof is a casino (illegal for locals to gamble in, hence it being right next to the airport). Those in rooms on the other side of the hotel had views out over Incheon International Airport, probably not as nice but they said it was cool watching the planes coming and going (although far fewer than usual of course).

And this was the breakfast I found when I investigated outside my door after the announcement finished on that first morning:

A meal served during my covid-19 quarantine in Korea

Nothing fancy, but a decent enough breakfast. The meals were served thus:

Covid-19 biohazard waste disposal and food delivery bags

The orange biohazard bag outside my neighbour’s door across the hall is how you throw out your trash while in quarantine. Upon arrival you’re given a stash, one per day:

Covid-19 biohazard waste disposal bags

So life in quarantine followed a highly regimented pattern. Breakfast at 8am, lunch at midday, dinner at 6pm, with the piped messages before and after each meal. You drop the trash out when taking your meal in, and apart from meals you’re forbidden to open the door except when the staff knock. They do a scheduled round after the evening meal, starting from 7pm, to take everyone’s temperature and verbally check you’re okay and ask if you have any symptoms. These aren’t hotel staff, but medical professionals in full hazmat gear. All very polite and friendly, but still it feels very much like you’re in some dystopian sci-fi movie. I suppose in many ways 2020 basically is a dystopian sci-fi movie.

The most surreal part was arrival at the airport. Coming into the immigration hall you first hand in your coronavirus form at a desk, based on which you get sent to different procedure lines e.g. foreigners with residency get to do quarantine at home, so are processed differently. But if like me you’re entering on a tourist stamp, you get sent to the government quarantine line. They take a local contact number & address, and he checked the number on the spot so make sure you have a friend ready to take a call at your approximate arrival time. Then you have to download the quarantine self-assessment app on your phone or tablet to report your symptom status every day while in quarantine.

The app for home quarantine is different and actually monitors that you don’t leave your house, also requiring you to check in at regular intervals so you can’t just leave your phone at home and go off for a weekend somewhere – I was actually given the wrong app initially, so my friend got a confused call from the local government office the next day and had to explain I was in government quarantine and not staying with her.

After that there was another desk to provide some more details, and then finally the passport control line. When they stamp you in they give you a lanyard to wear, which signals the staff on the other side that you’re going to quarantine. They grab you when you come through and take you to fenced off waiting areas for quarantinees to wait for buses (all very well distanced), and a short time later we boarded our bus which then sat there for well over an hour (presumably to wait for another load of passengers, but in the end no more joined us). It was quite late and we were initially told we’d be going to a hotel near the Everland theme park way over on the southeast side of the greater Seoul conurbation (Incheon Airport is on an island on the west side of it all), but after that long wait they ended up just driving us to the Grand Hyatt near the airport. And that was a good stroke of luck – the price you pay is fixed at 100 USD per night regardless of the hotel, so the Hyatt is a score (it would actually cost more than that just to book it for a regular stay in normal circumstances). The Everland hotel looked ok too though to be fair.

Once at the hotel you line up again to get tested, and again to pay and be checked in. I think the extra staff at the airport were all military, while the staff at the hotel were from the CDC (Center for Disease Control)

The test wasn’t exactly painful, but it’s pretty unpleasant – the swab goes in through your nose and scrapes the very top of the back of your throat. You’ve probably never had anything do that before, and it feels totally gross. But it was okay, and the result is delivered to your room the following evening.

If positive, you get hospitalised (which you don’t have to pay for) until your case is resolved. If negative, you get to stay in your deluxe prison cell for another 13 days.

If you develop a fever or other symptoms during your stay, you get another covid test and if positive you get hospitalised. Thankfully I didn’t have to have a second test – the one on arrival was more than enough!

The whole arrival process is quite time consuming, but very well organised and it’s actually really impressive that Korea set all that up in order to keep its borders open without importing uncontrollable numbers of covid cases. Most countries have either closed their borders to foreigners, or have just totally lost control of the virus situation (no coincidence). It was a relief to finally get to the room, but it wasn’t horrendous or anything – although I have to say, if you do it after a 12-hour red-eye from a completely different time zone it will be a seriously trippy experience.

Anyway once you’re in and the novelty & confusion of the first day are behind you, you have a lot of time to fill in between meals. You have a TV and wifi, one guy said he spent the entire time bingeing Netflix (probably a common strategy), another said he was working on a book so used it as writing time. Personally I treated it as a 14-day harmonica woodshed, I probably averaged 3 or 4 hours of harmonica practice per day. Hopefully my neighbours didn’t hate it…

Looking across at the other wing of the hotel (built at a slight angle, so you could see into a small portion of the rooms near the windows) I saw one room with a family in it and two young kids literally bouncing off the walls, lots of people sitting in the window playing on their phones, and most bizarrely one guy who kept standing in his window butt-naked which was an unwelcome surprise on several occasions.

And that’s life in quarantine. The strict regime makes it feel like a luxury prison, and insects landing on the window was as exciting as it got, but as long as you take something with you to pass the time (or are happy just bingeing the internet) it isn’t all that bad – especially if you get lucky with your hotel like I did.

Insect visitors:

On the last day you get escorted out early in the morning (7am in our case, so you’re out of the way before breakfast) and loaded onto shuttle buses to a nearby metro station, and then you’re finally free.

If you’re wondering about the food, no it isn’t fantastic. But it’s not too bad on the whole, each meal bag has a tray with a main dish and a few sides, plus an assortment of fresh fruit, canned drinks, water, and snacks like chocolate bars, cereal, or instant soup or noodles. You have a kettle in the room so you can make those later, and make tea & coffee.

On that note, a warning to fellow caffeine addicts: take a coffee supply in with you. They did provide a few sachets of coffee in the room, and canned coffee was sometimes provided with breakfast (not every day though), but I was very glad I took some with me. At one point I was rationing out what I had left to make sure I didn’t end up having to do caffeine cold turkey for the last few days, but the canned coffee supply was good for those days as it turned out which saved the day. Seriously, worrying about running out of coffee was the most stressful thing about quarantine! (actually, you could probably order a box in from Amazon – deliveries are allowed but not for fresh food)

Anyway, this was all they provided to start with so taking your own is a good idea:

Here are a few of the meals I was served:

A meal served during my covid-19 quarantine in Korea
A meal served during my covid-19 quarantine in Korea
A meal served during my covid-19 quarantine in Korea

I guess they get the meals in from a catering company then microwave them on site prior to serving. Sometimes the food was only lukewarm, sometimes piping hot – I was at the end room on the top floor so I think my meal was dropped off either first or last, hence the hit & miss temperature. There were a couple of main dishes I thought were pretty bad, but most of it was fine. The worst thing was the lack of variety, and after 14 days I was extremely bored of rice.

If you have veggie or religious dietary requirements you can specify this on arrival and they cater to your needs, though I doubt this extends as far as being able to ask for pescetarian or keto.

Here’s a few more window pics to finish up with, watching the tide roll in & out and dreaming of fresh air:

The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport
The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport
The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport
The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport
The view from my coronavirus quarantine room at Incheon airport

For some thoughts & pics of Seoul after I left quarantine see here


If you have any questions about the quarantine system in Korea give me a shout below and I’ll do my best to answer.

For more Korea posts click here

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Taipei view from the Earth God Temple

The above photo is Taipei from the Earth God Temple in Nanshijiao, but I’m writing this post in Korea, where I recently did a 14-day stint in government quarantine in order to enter the country (after having to leave Taipei following the end of Taiwan’s coronavirus overstay amnesty at the end of June). More on all that soon (see here), but first here are some photos of life in Taipei recently – thanks to Taiwan’s early and effective response to the pandemic life has been mostly pretty normal other than the border being closed to tourists and people wearing masks everywhere (they’ve basically been ready for the next one since SARS in 2003, and the vice president being an epidemiologist probably helps)

This was taken around Valentine’s Day, and perfectly sums up my feelings about that particular occasion:

And here’s Dom getting stuck into St Patrick’s festivities a month later:

A few obligatory Taipei 101 snaps:

Street view of Taipei 101
View of Taipei 101 from Yuanshan Station
View of Taipei 101 and a small temple in the park
Taipei 101 view from Fuzhoushan

This last one’s from Fuzhoushan, hike report here

A few random murals spotted around town:

Nanshijiao
Nanshijiao

No, sorry I don’t know why the dolphin has a toothbrush or why there’s a giant crab on the side of that building. Pretty cool though.

Weather was fantastic throughout winter and spring, beautiful blue skies but not too hot:

Taipei street view from my balcony

Afternoon rays at Baoan Temple:

Taipei Baoan Temple

These flightless birds are a common sight in Taipei’s city parks and on the hiking trails in the surrounding mountains:

Linsen Park, Taipei

An awesome tree in a parking lot. Glad it’s been left there through the years:

Xingtian Temple, with covid station (temperature check & sanitiser) at the entrance:

Xingtian Temple
Xingtian Temple

This next one was taken in January or February, when the whole world should have already been taking precautionary steps for the likely arrival of coronavirus but most countries failed to do so. Taiwan acted early and it paid off. It was hard to get masks and sanitiser for a month or so (i.e. when this pic was taken), but they quickly ramped up production and introduced a rationing system to make sure people had enough:

A few random comical touches (the first one always makes me think of My My, Hey Hey from Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, and no I didn’t arrange the animals in the last one):

Taipei random street scene

And this lego cat’s a spitting image of the kitten my friends adopted last year:

…though he’s not a kitten any more:

And finally a couple more hikes I did recently were Qixingshan again (but in better weather, route info here):

Yangmingshan

…and walking up to the Hongludi Earth God Temple in southern New Taipei, with its massive statue of the god in question and a whole bunch of random statues on the road up. I didn’t find the best route up, but did find a good one coming back down through the forest along the ridge. So I haven’t written this one up as a hike yet, but plan to go back at some point and find a better route to write up:

Nanshijiao
Nanshijiao
Nanshijiao
Nanshijiao
Taipei view from the Earth God Temple
Taipei Earth God Temple
Taipei view from the Earth God Temple

See more Taiwan posts here, Taiwan travel guide here, Taipei hiking guide here

View from Mt Hood, Oregon

When I visited home last year I finally had the chance to scan the rest of my old pre-digital pics, resulting in a series of photo posts of travels past. Here’s a bunch of pics from two day-trips we took out of Portland, Oregon during our USA road trip (full story here, including the crazy hillbilly who freaked us out in the Rockies)

We stayed in Portland for a few days with our friend’s friends, while our other friend’s parents (whose van we were using for the trip) came to hang out with us and check out Portland’s craft beer and northwest Oregon’s scenery.

The first day drive we took was a loop out to Mt Hood and then back to the city along the Columbia River. The main stops were the Timberline Lodge high on Mt Hood, and Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Timberline Lodge, Oregon

Timberline Lodge was used for the exterior shots of the hotel in The Shining, but its other claim to fame is having America’s only year-round ski resort thanks to the Palmer Glacier. It also commands sweeping views of the surrounding terrain (the photo at the top was from the Timberline car park)

Multnomah Falls

From there we drove down to the Columbia River and followed it back to Portland, stopping for a quick hike at the spectacular Multnomah Falls. It’s a 2-tier waterfall with a combined height of 189m, we didn’t have time to hike right to the top but the shorter hike up to the bridge was nice. If you’re looking for a good day-trip out of Portland and you have wheels, a loop round Mt Hood and Multnomah Falls is a good call.

The other trip we took was to Astoria (also on the river but in the other direction, towards the ocean) and on to Cannon Beach on the coast. Astoria’s a pretty little town and the beach is a stunner, but the real motivation for this was 80s childhood movie geekery. Recognise this house?

Goonies house, Astoria, Oregon

It’s the legendary Goonies house which is in Astoria, just round the corner from this school:

School from Kindergarten Cop

…which was the school in Kindergarten Cop. A bunch of other movies were also filmed there, including another 80s classic Short Circuit and the American remake of Japanese horror The Ring.

Astoria’s a popular place with Hollywood producers, and to this day movie nerds visit the town because of the Goonies (you’re asked to keep a respectful distance from the house, but are welcome to go have a look and take pics from the road)

And if you recognised the house, you definitely recognise the beach:

Cannon Beach, Oregon

That massive rock that lines up with the medallion at the end of the movie is Haystack Rock. But even if you don’t care about the Goonies, it’s a beautiful spot and worth visiting.

The driving time’s about 3.5 to 4 hours for each of these routes, so each one makes a pretty full day out with stops. I knew very little about Oregon before going there, but I’m glad we did!

Bryce Canyon hikes pass through incredible scenery

Bryce Canyon

As well as Zion National Park, we also visited Bryce Canyon en route from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas as part of our USA Road Trip. Bryce Canyon made for a fairly long detour on our drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion, but it was well worth the effort. From the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, it takes a couple of hours to drive to Zion, or slightly longer to drive to Bryce, and it takes a couple of hours to drive between Zion and Bryce. So with an early start it should be possible to leave the North Rim, drive to Bryce Canyon, fit in a short hike, and drive to Zion by the evening. That’s not quite what we did – we’d spent the morning at the Grand Canyon, then drove to Bryce in the afternoon and camped near (but not in) the park. Then we did one of the Bryce Canyon hikes the following morning before an afternoon drive to Zion where we arrived in time for an evening hike there too!

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a canyon, technically speaking, but rather a set of large amphitheatres in which stand thousands of mysterious rock formations called hoodoos. Actually, they’re not all that mysterious – they are the product of well-understood geological processes – but they do have an enigmatic appearance, standing there in fantastic rows of pink and orange rock. There’s a wide choice of Bryce Canyon hikes you can do, ranging from quick one or two hour jobs up to multi-day affairs requiring hiking permits. There’s a well-maintained and paved rim trail that you can follow for a few miles with various spectacular viewpoints, and a number of trails descending from the rim and passing between the rock formations below. We only had a few hours at Bryce Canyon, so we took in the main viewpoints on the trail rim and then did the Navajo Loop trail. It’s a great little hike, and though it’s nothing too strenuous there is a steep climb back up to the rim via a series of switchbacks. For more info on the trails at Bryce, see here & here.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon, Zion NP, southern Utah generally, and really the whole of the southwestern US are just incredible places. The scenery is nothing short of astonishing and it’s an incredible region to drive through. For the outdoor enthusiast there are so many options, from short hikes on maintained trails in the national parks to serious multi-day backcountry treks, a person could never exhaust the opportunities for adventure. And I have never seen the night sky so full of stars as I did in Utah – lying back in a camping chair with a cold beer after a pleasant hike and looking up at the tapestry above is pretty hard to beat!

Have you done any Bryce Canyon hikes? How were they? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Also, make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand.

(This is an affiliate link i.e. if you use it to purchase insurance, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from World Nomads – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase a policy via my link!)

Zion National Park, Utah

During our road trip around the USA we visited several of that country’s incredible national parks, namely Rocky Mountains National Park, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Redwood National Park, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Park. Some of them we just drove through, stopping off for some pictures here and there, but we camped out in a few of them and managed to fit in a couple of short but beautiful hikes.

Zion National Park is located in the southern part of the southwestern state of Utah, a state famed for its geological wonders including Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Monument Valley, to name just the more famous of them. Zion National Park is basically composed of two connected canyons named Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon; Zion Canyon is the more often visited of the two, and that was where we camped for a couple of nights en route from the Grand Canyon to Vegas. On the first day we arrived quite late from Bryce, and after setting up camp just had time to walk the Emerald Pools trail as the sun was going down – the evening light looked spectacular as it struck the pink streaks which run through the sandstone strata of the canyon’s walls. It’s a nice short trail you can do in an hour or two, taking you a little up and then along the canyon wall to a few small pools, the waterfalls that feed them, and some fantastic views. You can take the shuttle from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and get off at the Emerald Pools trailhead. A lovely little hike.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

On our second (and only full) day in the park, we went further up Zion Canyon to hike the Narrows. This is a very narrow slot canyon with sheer rock walls towering over you as you wade up the river – this is a river hike, meaning that you are mostly walking in the river itself, and you are ankle-deep to waist-deep (or possibly even swimming) depending on the water level. Doing this in summer, we were generally only knee-deep so it wasn’t too tough, but you have to be careful with your footing as the water isn’t clear – be careful not to drop your camera! The full hike is 16 miles long, taking one long day or two more relaxed days, and requires a permit. However it is possible to hike the first section of the canyon without a permit, which is what we did; you just take the shuttle to the last stop and then proceed on foot into the canyon. You can hike up the river for a few miles before heading back to the car park. It’s slow going wading through the water, so this actually makes for a good few hours’ worth of hiking. The scenery is spectacular, and apparently it gets better and better if you do the full hike as the canyon gets narrower and narrower and the walls higher and higher. It was a real shame we didn’t have time to do the whole thing, and we turned back with regret; should I ever return to that part of the US, I’ll make it a top priority to do the full Narrows hike. Make sure you’re sensibly clothed for walking in a river (footwear especially) and pay heed to the warnings on the park website about flash floods – do not attempt this hike during or following periods of rain.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

Zion National Park (and Utah generally) is an amazing place – highly recommended whether hiking or not!

Have you been to Zion? How was it? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Also, make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand. (This is an affiliate link i.e. if you use it to purchase insurance, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from World Nomads – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase a policy via my link!)

View of Volcan Maderas from Volcan Concepcion

View of Ometepe Island and Lake Nicaragua from the concepcion volcano

I first heard about Nicaragua‘s Concepcion volcano while doing the Tongariro Crossing hike in New Zealand (after a ski season in Queenstown), about how this active volcano along with its smaller near-neighbour Volcan Maderas forms a beautiful figure-of-8 shaped island (Ometepe Island) in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. I learned this from two English guys I was doing the Tongariro hike with, who were also backpacking around the world but in the opposite direction; they’d said it was a tough climb, but they’d also said that the stunning location and incredible views made it a great climb, and so that was the Central American volcano we (my then-girlfriend and I) found ourselves climbing a few weeks later (following my quest for the Mysterious Cities of Gold)

The Concepcion volcano visible across the lake while waiting for the boat to Ometepe island

View of the Concepcion volcano across Lake Nicaragua as we waited to board the boat to Ometepe island

Getting across Lake Nicaragua in the first place – a lake, but the size of a small sea – was almost more gruelling than climbing the volcano. The boats leave from San Jorge on the lake’s southern shore, but we were too late for the larger car ferry and had to go on one of the small boats which didn’t look very lakeworthy, never mind seaworthy. The wind was right up that day and the lake’s surface was chopped up into small, rapid waves which tossed our little boat about such that it really did feel a bit like being in a washing machine. Our stomachs both held out for the shortish crossing, but the scene on board was a misery of vomiting and it was a great relief to reach the terra firma of Ometepe. Needless to say, when we left the island a few days later we made sure to catch the car ferry and thus were able to enjoy a nice relaxing crossing, enjoying the views of Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas instead of the views of peoples’ lunches being spewed over the side. In short, take the ferry!

(a word of caution though; the large bags all get piled up in a luggage area, separate from the seating, and a bunch of island youths boarded the ferry and then as it departed practised their dives and backflips off the side and swam back to shore… it was great watching their acrobatics, but try to make sure your bag isn’t on top of the pile – mine was, and someone (one of the divers, I would imagine) went into a side pocket and took my first aid kit. No great loss, and I hope the contents came in useful for someone, but do double check you have all valuables with you and not in your big bag)

Rough crossing on Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe

Lake Nicaragua gets very choppy when it’s windy, making for a rough crossing

Once on Ometepe Island, we took a bus around to Altagracia on the far side of Volcan Concepcion. We were planning to work out the climbing route and whether or not we needed a guide once we arrived in town, but as it turned out we were greeted off the bus by a waiting guide offering his services for the following day, a wiry middle-aged local man who spoke very little English and who we took an immediate liking to. He explained that he already had one customer (from Australia) signed up for the morning, and asked if we would like to join them to make it a group of four. I don’t recall his price, but it was very reasonable – a good day’s earnings for him, and for us a bit less than we’d have paid to a tour agency (the benefits of cutting out the middle man!). He knew what he was doing, he know where we were going, and he had a calm and patient demeanour… as to whether he actually had the skills to bail us out if we got into trouble, I have no idea and we didn’t have to find out – but we did climb Volcan Concepcion while it was actually erupting! With volcanic gas spewing from the crater like that, it would definitely have been off-limits had it been located in Japan or New Zealand, but with the lax health and safety laws in Nicaragua we could climb it anyway. Our guide took us up the appropriate route to keep the wind behind us so that the gases were blowing away from us… I suppose we’d have had a problem if the wind had changed direction, but our man seemed perfectly confident and we decided to trust him. If things had gone wrong it would have been our fault for climbing an erupting volcano, but we chanced it and we got away with it. Perhaps not the smartest decision, especially considering the awful loss of life in the recent eruption of Japan’s Ontake, for example… health and safety laws exist for good reason. But with that said, it really was pretty amazing being up there on the crater’s edge – lying flat on the rim, behind us was the incredible view of Ometepe Island’s figure-8 surrounded by the deep blue of Lake Nicaragua, and before us we could peek over the lip into the rancid gaseous nothingness spewing out of the crater while holding firmly on to our hats – the wind was absolutely blasting over the rim and to stand up would probably have resulted in being blown clean off the top and into the crater with fatal results. An awesome memory, but one which we unfortunately didn’t get any pictures of as our camera battery had run out before the top and our Aussie companion never came through with the promised email of his pictures… no point in speculating as to why not, but this was before Facebook and wifi were ubiquitous and it’s funny to think about how much harder it was to share pictures not so long ago (the pic at the top of the page was the highest one we got)

The twin volcanos of Ometepe

The climb itself is really quite tough work, a proper slog up the steep sides of the volcano, but the view gets better and better as you ascend. We started, very early in the morning, by hitching a ride from town to the trailhead in the back of a passing truck, and then hiking up the first 1,000m or so through the jungle. That was hot, sweaty work, but after we emerged above the tree line it became one long scramble up the increasingly steep final 600m over loose volcanic scree, which meant two steps forward, one step back, the whole way up. At 1,600m it’s not a huge mountain, but it was harder work physically than, say, Mt Kinabalu which is 2,500m taller (though you don’t have to worry about altitude effects, as Volcan Concepcion isn’t high enough). We were up and down again in just about six hours or so, but my legs felt it for days afterwards – the next day was pretty much a write-off. As we were descending the final bit of the trail, which passes through farmers’ fields and banana plantations, our guide stopped and chopped us all a banana down (he assured us that he was friends with the plantation owner), and that was surely the most delicious banana I have ever eaten or ever will! That was followed with fish soup back at our guesthouse, which turned out to be a bowl of soup with the entire cooked fish laid across it – and this was like no fish I’ve ever seen, but more like some sort of prehistoric lake monster… I could’ve eaten a horse right then though, so lake dinosaur soup was a good call. The Concepcion volcano hike is a tough but rewarding day hike, though if you want something a bit more chilled then Volcan Maderas is apparently much easier; and if you don’t fancy hiking, you can rent bikes instead and explore the island, or just chill out by the lake. Whatever you do there, Ometepe Island is an awesome travel destination and worth including on any Central American itinerary.

Have you been to Lake Nicaragua or climbed the Concepcion volcano? How was it? Any questions about Volcan Concepcion or Ometepe island? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

See my Nicaragua overland travel page here

Make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you use them to purchase insurance, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from World Nomads – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to use my links)

The Grouse Mountain ropeway

Halfway up the Grouse Grind

Canada is an enormous and beautiful country with many world class hiking trails through breathtaking landscapes of jagged peaks and glacier lakes… but unfortunately I never did any of them. I went to Canada primarily to snowboard, and I did a whole bunch of that and it was in Vancouver that I got my instructor’s licence and worked at Cypress Mountain. It’s a great city to live in if you want to combine city living with an outdoors lifestyle – the Vancouver / Whistler area also has great climbing and mountain biking, both of which I also sampled (the mountain biking in Whistler has to be seen to be believed). As for hiking, though, I only ever got around to doing one single trail – the city’s most famous, the Grouse Grind (plus the Stanley Park Seawall, if that counts as hiking!)

Grouse Mountain is one of Vancouver’s three ski areas, and the easiest to visit if you don’t have a vehicle – the mountain is accessed by cable car, and city buses take you right to the lower cable car station. It’s also open year-round as a sightseeing destination, so even if you don’t want to hike up it’s worth a visit to take in the city views from the top (where you can find restaurants, bars, bears (real ones), shops, and various activities on offer for kids).

The Grouse Grind hiking trail

My fellow Grinders taking a breather. It’s basically like climbing a great big staircase through the forest

The Grouse Grind is a short, steep hiking course from the car park at the lower cable car station up to the main building at the top. The trail is only 3km, yet the vertical gain is 853m – it’s basically a giant staircase, and takes most people 90 minutes to two hours. Some take much longer, while others pride themselves on doing it in some amazingly fast times – the record is a (pretty bloody impressive) 25 minutes. Make sure you have plenty of water if it’s hot, and there isn’t much that needs explaining in terms of logistics – head to Grouse, walk up the steps, enjoy an ice cold beer at the top – and, in most cases, take the cable car down! If you’re taking the bus, it’s number 236 from Lonsdale Quay (the Seabus runs between Waterfront station in central Vancouver and Lonsdale Quay on the North Shore). Oh, and one more thing – the Grind is closed from December to May, so if you’re in Van in winter forget the hike and grab your snowboard!

Grouse Grind isn’t a mind blowing hiking course or anything, but if you’re staying in Van for a while it’s something you should probably do at least once; if you’re only in town for a short time, Grouse Mountain is a good place to get a bird’s eye view of the city and the Grind is a good way to get up there.

Other well known hiking options around Vancouver include Mount Gardner and Killarney Lake on Bowen Island, the Baden Powell trail, the Chief (in Squamish, halfway to Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway), and the Seawall around Stanley Park. (Stanley Park is right next to downtown Vancouver, very easy to reach, with a couple of decent beaches, and the Seawall only takes a couple of hours to walk around – with great views – so it’s a nice way to spend an afternoon, preferably followed by a bowl of ramen on nearby Robson Street)

Have you done the Grouse Grind? What was your time? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Also, make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand. (This is an affiliate link i.e. if you use it to purchase insurance, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from World Nomads – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase a policy via my link!)

Mt Ngauruhoe, seen from the Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing in early spring

Tongariro National Park is located just south of Lake Taupo in the centre of New Zealand‘s North Island, and is home to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The Northern Circuit is a 4-day circumnavigation of Mt Ngauruhoe, and one of those legs is individually famous as a one-day hike called the Tongariro Crossing, which crosses the saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe (these two mountains, along with Mt Ruapehu, form the massif around which the national park is based).

Looking across Lake Taupo towards Tongariro and Ruapehu

Looking across Lake Taupo towards Tongariro

This was the hike I’d come to Taupo to do, following a ski season in Queenstown – I would have liked to do the full Northern Circuit, but as it was Spring there was still a lot of snow up there and doing the full circuit would have been a fairly serious undertaking which I wasn’t equipped for (and certainly didn’t fancy tackling by myself!). On the other hand it was easy enough to join a guided group hike for the Tongariro Crossing (arranged through one of the outdoor companies in Taupo), with crampons and ice axes provided and a guide with the appropriate know-how and gear to cut the ice steps which were necessary at one point.

Mt Ngauruhoe

Whilst it isn’t compulsory to have a guide to do this hike, in winter and spring I think the only way you can arrange transportation to and from the trailheads is by joining a guided group. In the summer months, there shouldn’t be any issue with arranging transportation from Taupo and then just doing the walk by yourself – just make sure that you have the map, the proper equipment, and know what you’re doing in an alpine environment. The Tongariro Crossing has proven fatal for a number of hikers over the years who underestimated the potential dangers of alpine conditions, so if you’re a backpacker who fancies trying a famous and beautiful hike but doesn’t have much mountain experience, it would be wise to go with a guide even in summer (the Tongariro Crossing official website has all the relevant safety information and advice)

Winter conditions on the Tongariro Crossing

As for the track itself, it’s 19.4 kilometres long and takes up to 9 hours depending on the conditions. We were hiking in snow at the higher elevations, with very strong winds at one point and delays while our guide cut new ice steps, so it did take the best part of a day. The usual direction is from Mangatepopo Valley to Ketatahi, and the first part of the hike is actually the toughest as it involves a steep scramble up to the south crater. The quads definitely got a workout, and as we sat resting at the top of the climb a couple of English lads explained to the group that they’d recently climbed a volcano in Nicaragua which was much harder, so this didn’t seem too bad in comparison! They also said that the volcano in question – Volcan Concepcion – is on a very beautiful island in Lake Nicaragua, and that it was well worth the effort… as I was on my way to Central America after NZ, I immediately put that volcano on my to do list – and, a few weeks later, climbed it. After the climb up to south crater, the second part of the hike sees you crossing an alpine plateau with the main crater and several beautiful lakes (which we couldn’t see as they were still frozen and covered with snow), before finally descending down a forested path on the other side. It’s said to be one of the best single-day hikes in the world, and to be honest it probably did live up to its billing. I don’t think I’ve done a better one, anyway. So if you’re heading to New Zealand’s North Island and keen for some hiking, put the Tongariro Crossing on your list.

Tongariro Crossing in summer

How it looks without snow (photo credit: zwennie, used under Creative Commons license)

Have you done the Tongariro Crossing, or the full Northern Circuit? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

See my NZ overland travel page here

To search & book accommodation in Taupo click here

Airbnb also has plenty of options in Taupo, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link

Also, make sure you have a good insurance policy. World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas – most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand.

(These are affiliate links i.e. if you use them to purchase insurance or book a room, 4corners7seas will receive a commission – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to use my links)

Abel Tasman Coast Track

After spending the ski season in Queenstown, I needed to get up to Auckland for my onward flight to Fiji. One must of course fly to Fiji (unless you’re on a cruise ship or you happen to have a yacht), but I had no intention of flying from Queenstown to Auckland when there was an interesting overland route available! Having already travelled around New Zealand’s South Island a few years earlier when I visited Kaikoura (for whale watching), Aoraki (Mt Cook), Milford Sound, and Franz Josef Glacier, this time I headed straight up to the Abel Tasman national park at the South Island’s northern tip to do some hiking & sea kayaking before making my way over to North Island for the first time. Once on North Island, the plan was to travel from Wellington (New Zealand’s capital) to Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city) via the usual tourist spots of Lake Taupo (to do the Tongariro Crossing hike) and Rotorua (to go caving in the nearby Waitomo Caves).

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Abel Tasman national park is located near Nelson, which is the northernmost city on South Island. Getting there by bus from Queenstown involved two legs, with an overnight stop at Fox Glacier. But that was fine by me, as South Island’s west coast road is one of those spectacular drives that you never forget – I’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice and I highly recommend it.

South Island’s stunning west coast road

View from the Queenstown - Wanaka road

View from the Queenstown – Wanaka road

The alpine scenery between Queenstown and Wanaka is followed by some nice lake views (of Lake Wanaka and its close neighbour Lake Hawea), and then you reach the coastal stretch which really is incredible.

New Zealand South Island west coast road scenery

The Southern Alps are right on top of the west coast, so as you drive north you have the ocean to your left and the mountains towering up immediately on your right, with the road spanning a series of rivers as they drop down from the Alps through spectacular valleys, canyons which quickly open and close their jaws to you as you drive past – have your camera at the ready and try to be faster with it than I was! (or better yet, skip the bus and get your own wheels for the drive)

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

(I used Atomic Shuttles for this trip up South Island, and the driver for the first leg was a typically jovial Kiwi who had a grand old day chatting away to his handful of passengers – and who, as it turned out, was married to a Japanese woman and had spent many ski seasons in Japan… the stories he told of waste-deep powder snow certainly helped plant the seeds for my eventual decision to go chasing powder in the Land of the Rising Sun)

Ice climbing at Franz Josef Glacier

In 2005 I’d visited Franz Josef Glacier and tried a spot of ice climbing, so this time at Fox Glacier I just stopped for the night and continued on the next day without visiting the glacier itself. I would’ve liked to see it, but I was budgeting for the upcoming trip to Fiji and Central America so had to give it a miss. The drive from there up to Nelson wasn’t nearly as spectacular, but still nice enough.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Upon arrival in Nelson, I arranged (through my hostel) a hiking & sea kayaking trip along the Abel Tasman Coast Track with a local adventure sports company – this entails an early morning pickup from your Nelson accommodation, a roughly 2-hour drive to the park, and then into the kayaks for half a day paddling your way north along the coast in turquoise waters past golden beaches with nary a soul on them.

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Eventually our guide led us to pull into a beach where we had lunch, and then we hiked back the other way along the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which is famous as one of the designated Great Walks of New Zealand. The whole track is a 3-day trek (or longer), and though we only walked 3 hours’ worth it was stunningly beautiful.

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Abel Tasman Coast Track

The fine sand beaches and clear waters really do look like they’ve been imported directly from a tropical paradise brochure… not the kind of scenery for which New Zealand is known internationally, but every bit as gorgeous as the more famous lakes-and-mountains views.

Then it was on to Picton and the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait to North Island, a couple of nights in Wellington, and then up to Lake Taupo to do the Tongariro Crossing

Have you been hiking or kayaking on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, or driven the South Island west coast road? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Search & book accommodation in Nelson here. Airbnb’s also a good option, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link

Make sure you have a good insurance policy – World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand)

These are affiliate links i.e. if you use them to purchase insurance or book accommodation, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to use my links.

Mountain scenery along the Overland Track

Overland Track overview

The Overland Track is a multi-day trek through Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain – Lake St. Clair National Park, which I walked with a couple of visiting hometown friends (my frequent travel companions Mike & Ross) towards the end of my time in Australia following a ski season in Thredbo. It’s a 65km trail which is usually done in five days, but we did double legs on the middle and latter days to make it a 3-day job (my companions were pressed for time, squeezing in as much as they could on a one-month round the world trip). Once you reach Lake St. Clair there’s a ferry to the visitor centre at the far end of the lake, or an optional extra day’s hiking around the lake. We took the ferry!

Wallaby outside our tent

Morning visitor

It’s a cracking walk, with each section taking you through completely different scenery – the terrain on the first day is mountainous as you round Cradle Mountain, and then the middle part is mostly crossing alpine grasslands (which I thought almost looked like Africa – not that I’ve been to Africa!), before a final section of forest trails. We also had the good fortune to see a tiger snake up close, and the even better fortune that it didn’t bite Mike as he almost stepped on it.

Cradle Mountain

Cradle Mountain

Where to sleep on the the Overland Track

There are a series of maintained huts along the route providing dormitory beds and with campgrounds outside. It’s first come, first served and you have to carry a tent in case the huts are full when you arrive. We didn’t even attempt to score beds and elected to camp both nights as a matter of preference. Doing the trail from north to south in the usual five days, you would overnight at Waterfall Valley Hut, Windermere Hut, New Pelion Hut, and Kia Ora Hut; then if doing the optional walk around the lake you would also spend a night at Narcissus Hut (where the ferry jetty is located).

Overland Track, Tasmania

Overland Track, Tasmania

On the first day we walked a single leg as we had to travel from Launceston in the morning and didn’t have time for any more, meaning we camped at Waterfall Valley Hut. Then on the second day we covered two legs to reach New Pelion Hut, and on the third day we walked two legs to Narcissus Hut and made it in time for the last ferry of the day – just as the heavens opened following three days of perfect hiking weather – and were gorging ourselves on Hobart seafood a couple of hours later! I was happy enough doing the long days that we did and covering the distance in three days, but of course it would be a good idea to take five days and go at a more relaxed pace, unless you fancy a tough walk. There are also a number of interesting-looking side trails, including to the summit of Cradle Mountain near the start and a number of peaks within reach of New Pelion Hut in the middle, so you could even turn it into a one-week affair. The Overland Track and its side-trails certainly justify taking however much time you’re able to take.

Jetty on Lake St Clair

Downpour as we waited for the ferry at the end of the hike

Transportation for the Overland Track

In terms of transportation and other practicalities, unless you’re doing it in winter it’s compulsory to do the Overland Track from north to south, meaning you must first travel to Launceston. From there you can take a bus to the park visitor centre (where you have to register and pay the entry fees), and then from there there’s a shuttle bus to the trailhead. There are no waste disposal facilities on the trail and you must carry out all that you carry in, so be a bit smarter than we were and don’t carry any canned food – empty sweet corn tins become a real chore to carry. Gas camping stoves are forbidden so you have to take a (liquid) fuel stove with you if you want to make hot food and drinks. We visited an outdoor shop in Launceston where we rented our tents and a stove (and whatever else we didn’t already have), and they also arranged our bus tickets and we made use of their baggage-forwarding service. This is definitely worth doing, as you can send ahead everything you don’t need for the trail and pick it up in Hobart after you’ve finished the trek, meaning you can continue straight on to Hobart from the end of the trail instead of having to backtrack to Launceston.

Black tiger snake

Tiger snake (not the one we encountered. Photo credit: see below)

Safety… and Tiger Snakes!

We were lucky with the weather and it only rained just as we were waiting for the ferry, but you definitely need to be prepared for all kinds of weather. The Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service’s Overland Track page has all the information in greater (and more up-to-date) detail than I’m giving here, so do take the time to read it and heed the safety warnings – and make sure you’re up to date on snake bite first aid! I remember them giving us an A4 sheet at the start of the trek describing the three types of snake found in Tasmania – the white-lipped snake (not so venomous), the lowland copperhead (dangerously venomous), and the tiger snake (extremely venomous!) – and what to do in the event of a snake bite. I recall reading that sheet and thinking that we almost certainly wouldn’t see a snake anyway. But on the third day of the hike, I was walking immediately behind Mike along a narrow trail as we were carrying on a conversation, with Ross a short distance behind us… and as Mike rounded a bend in the path, he froze in place with one foot up in the air, a huge black snake coiled up right there on the path in front of him. I didn’t see it straight away and bumped into Mike’s back, knocking him forward just as the snake bolted off into the bush, his foot coming down right in the spot where it had just been snoozing! Of course, the vast majority of snakes are never intentionally aggressive and only strike when surprised or left with no other choice… but if Mike had been a little less alert, or the snake had been a little slower to bolt, it would’ve been surprised all right, as he’d have trodden on it! So there’s probably a pretty high likelihood that he’d have been bitten. Given the distance from there to the nearest hut (I think it was a good 3-hour walk, so probably a good hour’s run) he’d have been in serious trouble in that event – and the huts don’t have medical facilities and anti-venom anyway, so there’d have been further delay while waiting for evacuation (by helicopter?)… in short, it would definitely have been a touch-and-go emergency situation. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and instead we just gawped at this enormous black snake as it thumped away through the undergrowth – moving at speed, its body was only making contact at the points where it was sidewinding off the ground, with most of the snake actually just in the air as it moved side to side – with each twist as it pushed against the earth, it made an audible thudding sound. The thing was huge! According to the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service snake page they measure from 1m to 1.8m when fully grown, and this one was at the upper end of that range. It was also really solidly built, and by far the largest wild snake I’ve ever seen. But it was really a beautiful creature, a shiny jet black from tip to tail, and I’m glad we encountered it without anyone (man or snake) getting hurt.

Have you done the Overland Track? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Overland Track scenery, Tasmania

If Tasmania isn’t on your itinerary you could hike up Australia’s highest peak near Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains, Mt Kosciusko. See my Australia overland travel page here, and more Australia posts here.

Search and book accommodation in Launceston (we stayed at Launceston Backpackers, which was decent – spacious, with a garden and a beatup old upright piano in the common room you can tinkle) & Hobart (we stayed at Hobart Central YHA, which was exactly what you’d expect – cheap, no frills, clean, central location, did the job).

Airbnb’s also a good option, if you’ve never used it before you can get a 30 dollar discount if you sign up with this link

Make sure you have a good insurance policy – World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand)

These are affiliate links i.e. if you use them to purchase insurance or book a room, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to use my links.

(Snake photo credit: David Becker, Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license)

Hiking Mt Kosciuszko: group shot in front of the summit ridge

Hiking Mt Kosciuszko

At 2,228m Mt Kosciuszko is the highest mountain in Australia, located in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. The nearest town is the small ski resort of Thredbo, where I was based for the ski season of 2004. Towards the end of that season, a group of us who worked together at the Denman Hotel (be sure to visit the Denman’s Apres Bar – where I earned my keep – for a few post-hike cocktails!) decided to hike to the summit from the ski area’s top lift station with our snowboards strapped to our backs and then ride back down to the village. So this is really more of a snowboarding post than a hiking post, but if you’re reading this because you’re planning on hiking Mt Kosciuszko from the Thredbo side in summer you’ll hopefully still find this write-up useful.

The trail starts from the top of Thredbo’s main Kosciuszko Express chairlift (which runs year-round), and as it’s entirely on a raised walkway (for environmental protection) there should be no navigational issues at all when doing this hike outside of the snow season. Just ride up the chairlift (or walk up the Merritts trail under it if you don’t want to cheat!) and then follow the trail to the summit. The NSW National Parks website has more information, including the estimated walking time of around four hours for the 14km round trip.

Hiking Mt Kosciuszko in winter

It’s a different proposition during the snow season (i.e. both winter and well into spring until the snow eventually melts), as the trail is covered by snow and the conditions can be very dangerous. A number of skiers and snowboarders have lost their lives in the Thredbo backcountry, so you really shouldn’t go there if the conditions are wrong or you don’t know the area – in fact I wouldn’t usually recommend going into the area at all during the winter, and ski patrol will block access from the top lifts during periods of heavy snow. But Mt Kosciuszko is popular with cross-country skiers, and if you do want to get up there on skis or with boards you should do so on a clear blue-sky day in spring with no clouds on the weather forecast and no avalanche warnings for the area. If any of that isn’t right, don’t chance it. Furthermore, if you don’t have someone with you who knows the area (and therefore which mountain you’re aiming for), don’t chance it! With all that said, we had an absolutely cracking day even though it involved a lot more hiking than it did riding. Rather than it being one single slope, the route for hiking Mt Kosciuszko takes you up and down over a series of ridges, so we found ourselves hiking up one side, riding down the other, and then unstrapping to hike up the next.

Kosciuszko Ridge Avalanche

The Mt Kosciuszko ridge shortly after avalanching

As we were taking some group photos on the penultimate ridge before the Kosciuszko summit, we spotted another group hiking along the Kosciuszko ridge – and they actually triggered an avalanche, sending huge boulders of ice breaking off the cornice and tumbling down the ridge. The main thing I remember about it was the incredible noise, a deep rumbling almost like a couple of fighter planes were making a low pass somewhere in the near distance. Watching and listening to it, it was pretty clear that to be caught in one of those would almost certainly be fatal, and in fact we couldn’t tell at first if any of the figures we’d seen on the ridge had fallen. But they continued on their way, having heard it but not been able to see it from their position (in the bar that evening it turned out that we knew one of them – a local photographer who was out there to shoot some backcountry skiing – and he told us how it’d sounded from where they were i.e. they shat their pants and ran for it!)

After seeing that we continued on to the summit, took some more group photos and took in the beautiful views and clear air, and then set off back to the village. The return journey was obviously easier with more of it being downhill, but we still didn’t really manage any extended runs. The longest single downhill section was dropping off the main Kosciuszko ridgeline just below the summit – but obviously we had to stay well away from the overhanging cornice we’d seen avalanche a short time earlier. So, while it was a great day out in the mountains with great friends, it wasn’t really a day of great snowboarding – if you want a good day’s riding you’re better off sticking to Thredbo’s pistes, and if you want to climb Australia’s highest peak you’re better off doing it in summer! But if you do want to combine the two, take due care and have an awesome day.

Have you been to Mt Kosciuszko? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

For more hiking ideas, another great walk I did in Australia was Tasmania’s Overland Track. Also see my Australia overland travel page here, and more Australia posts here.

Search & book Thredbo accommodation here, and make sure you have a good insurance policy – World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (most travel insurance companies won’t cover you if you’ve already left your country, and this can be a crucial point as I once found out the hard way in Thailand)

These are affiliate links i.e. if you use them to purchase insurance or book a room, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them – this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending them because I know and trust them from personal use; thank you in advance should you choose to use my links.

Maid cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo

Akihabara: ground zero for the weird & whacky otaku Japan that exists mostly in the fantasies of nerds who love manga & anime or shitty J-pop music. It’s niche rather than representative, but it’s an interesting little corner of Tokyo to visit at least once.

The vast majority of Japan simply isn’t like that, but Akihabara (aka Akiba) is where you find a Pokemon shop next to a porn DVD shop next to an Evangelion figurine shop next to a dildo shop next to an electronics shop next to an AKB48 shop, all drenched in the neon glow of anime dreams (don’t know what AKB48 is? Ignorance is bliss, but here you go). And out on the street in front of all that you’ll see the girls in French maid outfits touting for business.

The business in question isn’t anything of the red light nature, though it often has a (somewhat misunderstood) seedy reputation among those foreign tourists who’ve heard of it. A maid cafe is basically just a cafe where your food & drink is served by waitresses in French maid outfits. Apart from the outfits and the garish decor (think children’s play area with everything in bright primary colours), the main difference is that the maids play games or pose for silly polaroids with you, and sometimes give dance performances miming along to CDs of the breathlessly giddy bubble gum that is J-pop.

The only creepy thing you might see there is some of the other customers – solo grown men paying to play Connect 4 with young girls in maid costumes. But whatever their internal motivations, they really are just paying to play Connect 4. In 2008 a social misfit drove a rental truck into the crowd in Akiba before jumping out and going on a knife rampage in what is remembered as the Akihabara Massacre, and it’s definitely a place for misfits.

But it’s also a place where people don’t have to be as uptight as usual, in what is mostly a very uptight city – e.g. see the video at the bottom of this post. Maid cafes aren’t a sex industry business, but that said, it can definitely be an awkward and weird experience if you go to one as a non-Japanese speaking tourist. You’re certainly welcome to visit and they do their best to accommodate (they may or may not have English-speaking maids available), but you can expect the whole thing to be rather baffling.

It helps to have an idea in advance how it works – essentially you pay for a fixed amount of time in the cafe, and the price depends on which menu set you choose. You basically have to choose a drink (coffee, tea, fruit juice, simple alcoholic drinks), and you can also take a food option but don’t expect anything great – for example, an omelette served on rice with a big smiley tomato ketchup face on top. The cakes are probably the best bet if you want a bite to eat.

The other thing you select from the menu is which games or other extras you want to do with the maids. By which I mean stuff like having them sit and play a game with you, or posing for a polaroid photo together while you wear some comedy moose antlers. That sort of thing. You basically pay the maids to do comical stuff with you, and definitely no sexy stuff.

First time I went, I took the cup of tea and polaroid photo set, resulting in the monkey ears photo at the top of this post (my mate Paul got the moose antlers). Note that you’re not allowed to take photos inside, so the polaroid option is the only way to get a memento (we got these pics at the maid cafe called Maid Dreamin, which has multiple locations in Akihabara; their flyering staff should be easy enough to find near the station).

Akihabara

I’ve been to a maid cafe 3 times, all in Akiba (there are also a few across town in Ikebukuro and down in Osaka’s Den Den Town). The first time was great fun with a mixed group of guys & girls, Japanese & foreigners; the next time was with my American friend when he first moved to Tokyo and fancied checking one out, and last time I went was with friends (a British-American couple) visiting from Korea who again fancied checking one out. To be honest those second two visits were just weird and awkward, and if you go without any Japanese speakers in your group you can probably expect the same.

But yeah that first time was genuinely fun. We all ordered different things, and each was served with a different set of instructions – I was told she would pour the milk in my tea until I told her to stop, but the way I had to do that was bunch my hands on top of my head like cat ears and say “neko neko” in a squeaky voice (neko means cat). Someone else ordered a fruit shake, which involved repeating a series of actions and words the maid did & said while she made the drink in a cocktail shaker. We just all had a good laugh at each other doing all this ridiculous nonsense, and I guess it was fun because we were a decent size mixed group – it definitely helps to go with Japanese friends who can explain exactly what the fuck is going on.

So should you go to a maid cafe? Well it’s nowhere anywhere near the top of the list of cool things to do in Tokyo, but sure, if you’re curious there’s no reason not to. Just don’t expect it to be anything fantastic, and do expect it to be quite a baffling experience. And if you want a stupid picture of yourself like mine up top, you now know where to get it.

For something a bit more – for want of a better word – adult to do in Akihabara, go and check out the old Manseibashi Station just over the bridge. It was a grand old train station bombed out in the war, and the surviving base structure has now been renovated as a kind of artsy shopping centre with a couple of nice cafes and a craft brewery. The Chuo Line trains continue to run right over the top of it, and it’s quite reminiscent of similar places you see in post-industrial northern English cities like Leeds and Manchester. More info on Manseibashi here (along with a few other ideas for random things to do in Tokyo)

And finally check out the Tokyo Dance Trooper video. The first shot is in Akihabara, and when the maids all join in dancing with him on the crossing (the same crossing where the massacre occurred) I think that was genuinely spontaneous:

If you dig Japanese anime, check out my post here about post-apocalyptic future Tokyos

More Tokyo posts here, and check out my quick guide to Tokyo

Japan travel guide here

Any questions about maid cafes? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you

Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura’s a cute little town located on a gorgeous stretch of coastline an hour north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.

It offers lovely scenery, a laid back atmosphere, and famous seafood (crayfish in particular), but the main draw is the daily whale watching boat tours in the bay.

Whale watching in Kaikoura

Kaikoura is blessed with the year-round presence of sperm whales which come to hunt in the abundant waters of a deep submarine canyon just offshore, while there are also seasonal visits from migrating whales of other species including humpbacks and blue whales (if you’re lucky). Dolphins are also a common sight, and on the day I went whale watching we saw a huge pod of dusky dolphins somersaulting around the boat in addition to the half-dozen sperm whales we’d sighted. I got lucky as that was a particularly successful outing, but whale sightings are so common that you’re offered an 80% refund if your trip strikes out; 95% are successful.

Sperm whales in Kaikoura
A rare double sperm whale sighting
Dusky dolphins in Kaikoura
Dusky dolphins
Dusky dolphins in Kaikoura
Dusky dolphins

The local Ngati-Kuri Maori people used to hunt the whales in these waters (as did the Europeans who came and established whaling stations in the area); now they own & run the whale-watching operation, adhering to strict guidelines regarding how many boats go out at any given time and how close they get to the whales. This ensures the whales aren’t disturbed, and the historical & cultural information shared by the onboard guides is fascinating. Kaikoura really is a fine example of how coastal whaling towns can transition to profiting from whale tourism instead of whale hunting – take note Japan (for further reading on that matter see this article by my friend Sean (from Tohoku tsunami volunteering days) contrasting the fortunes of Kaikoura with the Japanese whaling town Taiji (made infamous by the documentary The Cove) and offering constructive suggestions for Taiji’s future, an article for which he was doxxed and threatened by Japan’s batshit crazy far right nationalists)

Sperm whales dive for extended periods to great depths, hunting by echolocation in the pitch darkness. The crew use sensors to track the whales’ echolocation clicks to be positioned nearby when the whales surface for air. They usually hunt solo, so you see the whale surface and spend a few minutes floating at the surface to breathe, before humping its back and raising its tail to dive. This is when you can get the classic shot like the one above. Sperm whales don’t tend to be so playful and usually just ignore the boats (though they used to defend themselves fiercely against whalers – the whale in Moby Dick was a sperm whale), so don’t expect to see them jumping around for the cameras the way e.g. humpback whales sometimes do. Still very cool to see.

Boat crew using sensors to detect sperm whales
Whale watching boat in Kaikoura

The boat may look crowded, but actually there’s plenty of space on board for everyone to get a good vantage point.

Due to the restricted daily number of tickets it’s a good idea to book in advance once you’re sure of your dates, which you can do here. It’s also easy enough to book your boat trip after arriving in town, either through your hostel/hotel or by going direct to Whale Watch Kaikoura, though you may have to wait until a later slot if they’re booked up.

Whale watching isn’t the only game in town though, so if you do end up having to wait you can use the time for a whole bunch of other activities like dolphin swimming or seal kayaking (I didn’t do any others but heard good reports, especially of dolphin swimming)

One of the best things you can do in New Zealand is just simply drive somewhere a few hours away. This is especially true if you have your own wheels (though the bus rides are lovely too), and especially true on South Island (especially on the west coast).

The scenery’s gorgeous throughout the country, but a few roads in particular which stick out in my memory are the road linking Queenstown to Wanaka over the Crown Range, the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau, and that jaw-dropping section of Highway 6 down the west coast of South Island which I already wrote about on one of my hiking pages here, quote:

as you drive north you have the ocean to your left and the mountains towering up immediately on your right, with the road spanning a series of rivers as they drop down from the Alps through spectacular valleys, canyons which quickly open and close their jaws to you as you drive past

Instead of writing any more about it, as I recently finished scanning the rest of my old analogue photos here’s a bunch of pics of NZ’s stunning scenery as seen on various road trips I took there. They’re scanned from faded old hard copies and were taken on a shitty old camera by a rank amateur, so the quality sucks; but the scenery speaks for itself and these pics should give you an idea of just how epic it is.

View of the Queenstown area from the Crown Range road:
Queenstown

The only pic I actually have from the west coast road is this one (which doesn’t include the full drama of the mountains but is still very pretty):
New Zealand South Island west coast road scenery

Franz Josef Glacier (not visible from Highway 6, but a short detour off it):
Franz Josef Glacier

Milford Sound Highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound:

And a few pics of Milford Sound itself, swapping the road for the sea (our boat was accompanied by a pod of bottlenose dolphins):
Milford SoundBottlenose dolphins in Milford SoundMilford Sound

Another cracking drive is the road between Greymouth and Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass – I did this one too (on a public bus) but failed to take any pictures.

Thinking of heading to New Zealand? It really is one of the best places I’ve been – stop thinking and get it booked! Check out my main New Zealand page here

Kabukicho's Godzilla head

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be the second summer games held in Japan’s capital, and the fourth in Asia (following Tokyo 1964, Seoul 1988, and Beijing 2008). Tokyo’s changed a lot since 1964 (and is surely a much easier city for non-Japanese speaking visitors to deal with these days), but since then Japan has also hosted the FIFA World Cup, Rugby World Cup, and two Winter Olympics, showcasing excellent sporting facilities and public transportation.

Most recently Japan did a great job hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and we can be confident Japan will do a similarly stellar job of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games (though the wisdom of having the Olympics at the height of the Tokyo summer is somewhat questionable – make sure you’re prepared for the heat & humidity)

All that said, Japan will very much be an unknown quantity for most visiting fans, and probably with more of a language barrier than you may have experienced when attending other Olympics. As a sports fan with years of experience living in & visiting Japan, I figure I can therefore be of help to fans visiting Japan for Tokyo 2020 – these pages should hopefully be of use with helping you decide where to stay and understand how to get around, as well as ideas for other non-Olympic things you could do in Japan while you’re in the country.

Ajinomoto Stadium, Chofu, Tokyo, venue for the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony

See my detailed Tokyo guide here, Yokohama here, and Sapporo (hosting the marathon) here

For transportation advice on how best to travel around Tokyo (and the rest of the country), click here

Japan’s an amazing place with an incredible amount to see and do, so if you’re flying all that way I strongly suggest you also take the opportunity to travel about a bit and check out some more of the country outside of Tokyo while you’re there – for suggestions click here, and see my quick guides to Kyoto and Hiroshima

How to get online here

Useful resources here

Getting stuck somewhere isn’t usually what you have in mind when dreaming of seeing the world, but if you do much long-distance backpacking it’s bound to happen at some point – in fact, it’s all part of the fun.

You might get stuck somewhere you never planned on staying and end up falling in love with it, or perhaps even a person you end up meeting there. Or you might get stuck in some random shithole but come to see it has a certain charm, lovely locals, a great music scene or whatever; or you might get stuck in some random shithole and find no redeeming feature at all to your time there, but rather a test of your patience or maybe your negotiating skills as you try to get out of there.

But the rough always goes with the smooth when you’re travelling and playing things by ear, and these unplanned stopovers can be some of most memorable experiences you have on the road.

Rickshaw ride in Siliguri
A rickshaw ride through Siliguri

Like the time my friend Danny and I got stuck in the Indian town of Siliguri for several days after leaving Darjeeling, days we spent in frustration failing to buy tickets at the train station before going back to the hotel to eat copious quantities of dopiaza while watching heavily censored gangster films and arguing over Scarface quotes. Despite all the wonderful and crazy things we saw in India, it’s always those few days stuck in Siliguri we talk & laugh about the most when we reminisce about that trip.

A couple of years before that, Danny and I (plus 2 other friends) found ourselves stuck in Rome for a few days after our passports were stolen on the night train from Vienna while interrailing around Europe (I’ve shared quite a few scrapes with Danny!)

The Vatican
Rome

But really, Rome is as good a place as any in which to get stuck. Those extra few days were not unpleasant at all, other than the sweaty and frustrating first day we spent visiting a police station and the embassy; once that was out of the way we enjoyed a few days of coffee & pizza, sightseeing & partying while we waited for our replacement passports.

The downside was that we blew too much money and never made it to Barcelona and Gibraltar (where our friend lived) as planned.

The upshot was that we met an American girl in Rome and a Canadian girl in Brussels (where we broke the journey home) who I now call dear old friends, and who gave shape to further travels – the following summer two of us went and road-tripped around the States with Anna (when we had this intense encounter with a psycho hillbilly, and also visited Ginny in Victoria) and I later was roommates with Ginny for a year in Vancouver during my ski bum days.

So getting stuck in Rome was one of those times when it actually turned out to be a positive; be adaptable, go with the flow, and it often works out well.

But not always. On another more recent solo trip I got stuck in the western Chinese city of Xining when my Tibet tour got cancelled at the last minute. Tours & permits are required to enter the Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, and my permit couldn’t be transferred to join another tour so I couldn’t board the train to Lhasa.

Labrang Monastery
Labrang Monastery

Nothing good came of this whatsoever; I didn’t fall in love with Xining or anyone in it, and it didn’t prove to be a sliding doors moment that led me to some other serendipitous chain of events. I’d already travelled all over China (all but a couple of provinces) in previous visits, and while the alternative route I took through the Tibetan regions of Gansu & Sichuan prefecture was nice, it wasn’t what I’d specifically gone to China to do. The whole trip was a waste of time & money, and the few days spent in Xining absolutely sucked. While I can’t say Xining has no redeeming features – it’s a sizeable city and I barely know it – my time spent stuck there had no redeeming aspects to it, and it didn’t lead to any silver linings.

I also once got stuck at the Thai-Malaysia border following a nerve-wracking bus ride through the military checkpoints of Thailand’s restive south-east. I was only stuck overnight, but after some initial alarm at the potentially very dodgy situation it ended up being quite an amusing experience when I was put up for the night by a porn-surfing border policeman. Hardly a tale for the ages, but I’m kind of glad it happened and that’s what I mean when I say it’s all part of the adventure.

Perhaps all this doesn’t only apply to getting stuck somewhere while backpacking; you can get stuck in so many ways as you travel through life, stuck living in a place you don’t like or stuck in a dead end job. And sometimes you may find the positives or learn a valuable lesson, but sometimes it might just totally suck and you just have to deal with it as best you can. That’s life.

New Year fireworks in Taipei
New Year fireworks in Taipei
New Year fireworks in Taipei
New Year fireworks in Taipei

…and that’s how they do New Year fireworks in Taipei. We were stood about a mile west of Taipei 101, just up the road from our friend’s bar. The crowds are like this along whichever roads have a view of 101:

New Year fireworks in Taipei

Just miles & miles of people stood there for the countdown & fireworks, and then everyone disperses back to whichever bar or house party they’re celebrating at. My friend who I’ll call the Tequila Monster then made sure that we all had a painful New Year’s Day…

The previous time I was in Taipei for New Year we watched the fireworks from the roof of a friend’s building, which was pretty cool but my blog was a baby and I don’t have any pics.

Hiking Updates

Winter’s usually the best time for hiking in & around Taipei, except that it rains a lot. But the temperatures are way more comfortable than the rest of the year (it does get cold sometimes, but not too cold and not for long) so you can do a good hike without sweating out half your body weight. When the rain holds off and the sun comes out, conditions are perfect. I’ve got 3 new hikes done since the last hiking updates I posted.

First up, Guanyinshan which is located out in the northwestern corner of the Taipei area, on the far side of the Tamsui River where it meets the ocean (it’s the distant mountain you see behind Taipei 101 when you hike up Elephant Mountain). It’s a cool hike, starting from a nice pair of temples and climbing up to views of the city, ocean, and mountains from the summit:

Lingyun Temple, Guanyinshan, Taipei
View of Taipei from the top of Guanyinshan

Next up was Shamaoshan, a subsidiary peak in Yangmingshan National Park. It’s much smaller than the main peaks, but it has a really distinctive appearance when viewed from a distance or on maps (it’s a steep-sided cone) so I’ve always wanted to check it out. Good option for a shorter hike in Yangmingshan, with good views of the park’s main peaks:

View of Yangmingshan National Park from the top of Shamaoshan

And just last week I finally completed the western half of the ridge which runs along the back of the Neihu district (the Neihu part of the ridge is probably the best hike within Taipei proper), starting from Jiantan Station, hiking over as far as Jinmian Rocks (which I’ve been to many times from other starting points) and then backtracking & descending to the National Palace Museum. You get good views in both directions from the ridge, of Yangmingshan to the north (looking very dramatic in that day’s cloud cover) and Taipei 101 and central Taipei to the south:

View of Yangmingshan from Laodifang Lookout
View of Taipei from Laodifang Lookout

See here for details of that hike.

Not a hike but a few of us also had a fun day out visiting Bali & Tamsui towns opposite each other near the mouth of the Tamsui River:

Ferry to Tamsui
Ferry to Tamsui

Random Pics

Sanchong Gang Land: since getting back to Taipei following the Rugby World Cup in Japan, I’ve mostly been staying in the Sanchong area of New Taipei, located on a large and densely populated island in the river to the west of central Taipei. It’s unglamorous and doesn’t usually see many tourists (except for when they pass through Sanchong Station on the subway line from Taoyuan Airport), my Taiwanese friends insist that it’s riddled with gangsters, and it is certainly a bit rough & ready, but it’s also friendly with a real old school Taiwanese vibe I quite enjoy and lots of photogenic little details like this:

Temple in Sanchong, New Taipei
Temple in Sanchong, New Taipei

More Sanchong pics here. I actually moved to central Taipei again last week and I’m not missing Sanchong to be honest (due to the swarms of motorbikes and almost total lack of greenery), but it was a cool place to stay for a couple of months.

The cats in my life: my friends (who also live in Sanchong, 10 minutes from where I was) recently adopted this little legend Bobo:

Bobo the cat

And here’s another one of the resident bar star at Relax Jazz Pub:

Relax Jazz Pub, Taipei

A few more random snaps

Cocktails and amazing Kyoto gin at our mate’s bar… Ki No Bi is fantastic stuff, distilled in Kyoto using locally sourced botanicals (a lot of Japan’s best whisky & sake also comes from Kyoto, the local water being a key reason), well worth trying if you can get hold of it:

Cocktails in Taipei

A bunch of us went to a craft beer festival at Songshan Cultural Park, beer was good and it’s a nice little area to check out. Here’s Tinee & Dom striking a pose in front of the preserved old Japanese industrial building (originally the tobacco bureau during Taiwan’s Japanese colonial era, see here for more on Japanese colonial architecture in Taiwan), with a giant inflatable dinosaur randomly hanging out at the far end of the building:

Songshan Cultural Park, Taipei

This night out was the day Halloween, Gay Pride, and the England vs New Zealand rugby semi-final were all going on on the same day (hence the random make-up), great weather that day too and things were lively. Halloween was actually 5 days later, but as it fell on a weekday the bars all just decided to have it on Saturday 26th instead. The advantages of commercially adopting a festival!

Halloween in Taipei

As for this, no I don’t know but I’m childish so it’s funny:

Comedy sign in Taipei

…and here’s one more foot soldier for the approaching Rise of the Machines:

Food robot in Taipei

See more Taiwan posts here, Taiwan travel guide here, Taipei hiking guide here

For the last 10 weeks since getting back to Taipei I’ve been staying in Sanchong, a rough & ready district of New Taipei across the Tamsui River to the west of Taipei proper. It’s actually on a large island, with a small distributary of the river bifurcating around it and a series of bridges connecting it to Taipei by road (the train lines go under the Tamsui).

In this pic looking southeast from the top of Guanyinshan (a 600m high mountain in the northwestern corner of the Taipei area, and a nice hike) you can see Taipei 101 in the distance to the left, and the big island in the middle of the photo is Sanchong gangland.

View of Taipei from the top of Guanyinshan

Gangland? Well, that’s how all my Taiwanese friends react – omg you’re staying in Sanchong, but it’s so dangerous! It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges, but it’s hardly dangerous and while I’m repeatedly told that gangs do operate there we’re not exactly talking Mexican cartels.

I haven’t seen anything remotely dodgy going on; what I have seen is loads of interesting little neighbourhood temples tucked into the ground floors of residential buildings, street art along some of the alleyways, and plenty of friendly locals who’ll smile & say ni hao as you pass. Oh yeah and loads of cheap, awesome food sold on all the main roads and street corners during the evening rush hour.

It’s a part of Taipei most short term visitors are unlikely to see, and it’s got some real old school Taiwanese character to it; there are downsides, namely the super high density of people (most of whom seem to smoke, everywhere), buildings, alleys, and especially bikes blasting fumes in your face everywhere you walk. There isn’t much greenery around, so I wouldn’t really want to live there long-term. But it’s been a cool place to stay for 10 weeks, and it’s pretty photogenic.

I failed to get any decent food pics as usual, but here are a few snaps of the hood:

Red temple lanterns suspended above the street in Sanchong, Taipei
Temple in Sanchong, Taipei
“…and the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made”
4-faced Buddha statue in Sanchong, Taipei
The Many-Faced God

This amazing little narrow temple is squeezed on to an alley corner near my friends’ place:

Temple in Sanchong, Taipei
Temple in Sanchong, Taipei

Those same friends recently adopted this little scamp, Bobo. He’s an ace little dude:

A lot of bikes in Sanchong:

Temple in Sanchong, Taipei

And street art:

Street art in Sanchong, Taipei
Street art in Sanchong, Taipei
Street art in Sanchong, Taipei
Street art in Sanchong, Taipei
Street art in Sanchong, Taipei
Alley in Sanchong, Taipei
Alley in Sanchong, Taipei
Amusing sign in an alley in Sanchong, Taipei

That last one cracks me up… answers on a postcard!

Staying in Sanchong’s also been convenient for hiking up Guanyinshan and a day trip to Tamsui via the Bali ferry.

For more Taiwan posts see here, also check out my Taiwan travel guide here and Taipei hiking guide here