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    Lunar New Year in Gyeongju

    Working at an international school is fun for many reasons, one of them including regional holidays off of work. Lunar New Year was the second week in February, and we traveled southeast with some friends to Gyeongju (경주). Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea. Often, people travel from Seoul to their hometowns to spend time with extended family. Thanks to a friend, we were able to get standing room tickets on the KTX speed train. We left Saturday morning and two hours later arrived in Gyeongju!

    Gyeongju is an important historical city. It was the capital of the Silla kingdom which ruled about two-thirds of the peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. Today, it’s no longer the capital, but a smaller city. There are many historical sites, which is a draw for tourists.

    Where We Stayed
    We rented an AirBnB cabin with two other couples. The owner, Minmook, was a wonderful host. He went above and beyond! He made multiple trips to pick us up and drop us off at the house, take us to a grocery store, and get us to the bus stop. He brought by fresh fruit on multiple nights. The guys got to chat with him and hear his interesting story. Minmook lived all over Korea, built the three houses on his property, and recently started a blueberry crop. Though the house is a little out of the way, we highly recommend it! (It’s an easy ₩5,000 taxi ride to the main bus stop and attractions.)


    Gyeongju sunset


    Gyeongju sunset with hanok roofs


    Boys grilling meat


    We tried Hwangnam bread, which is original to the region. The pastry is filled with a dense, sweet red-bean paste. It was first baked in 1939 and is now sold throughout Korea.


    Traditional Gyeongju bread - Hwangnam bread


    Korean fish and bowls


    This was the commons area where we cooked, ate, hung out, and enjoyed the firewood stove:


    Cabin stove and room


    The house had two bedrooms. One had a Western style bed, and the other room used the traditional Korean mattress pads called a yo. David and I stayed in the mini-living room and also used a yo. The bedroom areas had ondol heated floors, which made for some cozy sleeping:


    Sleeping floor mats


    One day, we visited Bulguksa Temple (불국사), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admission cost ₩5,000 for adults.


    Travel friends


    Bulguksa walkway


    Iron dragon door knockers


    Bulguksa Hanok roof


    Bulguksa Seokgatap tower


    Prayer rocks:


    Balanced prayer rock stacks


    I found a cross!


    Bulguksa cross detail


    Bulguksa architecture and roofs


    Bulguksa Hanok roof


    Child with a bird water pipe


    The next day, we decided to hike to the Seokguram Bell Pavilion, which we could see in the distance from our house. We went way off the beaten path and walked up and down some major hills. My phone said we climbed 155 flights! We also took a wrong turn so our hike ended up being over five miles. But we enjoyed the company, sunshine, and fresh air. When we got to the bell, we only stayed five minutes because we saw the bus and didn’t want to wait another hour to get back into town.


    Hiking buddies - selfie in mirror


    Seongdeok stucture


    Ringing the Seongdeok bell


    Though there was a lot more we could have seen in and around town, our weekend was perfect. It was a relaxing retreat to be outside the city.
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    Seoraksan National Park

    We spent an afternoon of our weekend in Sokcho at Seoraksan National Park. We did some unexpected hiking and climbed to new heights.

    Seoraksan National Park (설악산국립공원) is a tentative UNESCO World Heritage site. It was easy to get to the park entrance from Sokcho; we took the 7–1 bus to the end of the line. (For anyone visiting from Seoul, T-Money cards do not work on Sokcho buses. Bus fare costs ₩1,200 per person.) Park entrance cost ₩7,000 per person. The entrance gate was crowded with people visiting over the Chuseok holiday.


    Seoraksan National Park entrance gate


    Seoraksan entrance gate


    The bronze Jwabul Buddha Statue sits near the entrance at over 14 meters high:


    Seoraksan Buddha


    Buddha looking over Seoraksan National Park


    The park was beautiful. The weather still felt like summer, so it was a perfect day for a hike. First, we bought tickets for the cable cars. We scheduled our tickets for the 5:00 pm ride. (Tickets cost ₩10,000 per person. Buy ahead – they do sell out!) We vaguely heard about and decided to take the Ulsanbawi (울산바위) trail. It was around 4 kilometers long, and we figured that’d be a good distance to cover and make it back in time for the cable car.

    Our hike started out easy. We wandered by pretty mountain views and Buddhist temples:


    Seoraksan National Park


    Seoraksan temple


    We saw a lot of Koreans in hiking gear, which we thought was silly. The beginning of the path was paved and flat. There were even bathrooms along the way. After a while, the trail changed to a rocky path and our ascent really began. We understood the walking sticks after that.


    Seoraksan trees


    David in Seoraksan National Park


    In the distance, we saw the granite peaks of our destination. And then it hit me. We were hiking all the way to the TOP of Ulsanbawi. Afterwards, we found out it has an elevation of 867 m.




    The Gyejoam Temple (게조암) is a good halfway marker. There were some food vendors there, but we just topped off our water bottles from a spring. Also near temple is Heundeulbawi, the “rocking rock.” No matter how hard people push it, it can never be knocked over. If you have enough force, the rock does shift a bit:


    David pushing Heundeulbawi rock




    Then, we hit the stairs. The 800+ stairs that are strapped to the mountain and take you up the top. This one was of the steepest climbs I’d ever done. It didn’t help that we hadn’t eaten anything but half a muffin. Thankfully, we had some granola bars and nuts.

    After about 2.5 hours (the last hour was torture), we FINALLY made it! We were surprised to find a small souvenir shop at the top. There were men selling Korean iced tea for ₩5,000. At that point, it could have cost three times that price and I would have paid it. It was the best iced tea I’d ever tasted. It was a hard climb, but the views at the top – wow!


    Celebrating making it to the top of Ulsanbawi




    Leah at the top of Ulsanbawi


    David at the top of Ulsanbawi


    Ulsanbawi peak


    Ulsanbawi peak view


    Leah jumping on Ulsanbawi


    The climb back down the mountain took only 1.5 hours. We were booking it to make it in time for our cable car ride. Funny enough, we ran into some people who worked at the school we worked at in Turkey. Our time hadn’t overlapped, but we heard about them living in Korea from mutual friends. It’s crazy we had to hike a mountain in order to meet them!

    I don’t know how accurate it is, but my phone said we climbed 140 stories to get to the top. Here are the death stairs:


    Ulsanbawi stairs


    After we finished the trail, we had some time to spare. We climbed down to the stream and soaked our feet in the cold running water. It felt SO GOOD! A Korean man saw us, thought we were funny, and had to get a photo with us. (Us probably meaning David and his red beard.)


    Leah soaking her feet


    Posing with Korean man in a stream


    We (finally) got some lunch at one of the many restaurants near the entrance. And then we took the cable car up to the Gwongeumseong peak (elevation 670 m). There was a cafe at the top and we snacked on hotteok and enjoyed the view.


    Seoraksan cable car


    Seoraksan cable car view from the top


    It’s probably for the best that we didn’t do much research on the trail before we got to the park. If you do the hike, don’t be like us and eat a meal beforehand. There are several other trails in the park that we didn’t have time to do including one that takes you to a waterfall.

    I’m not sure if we’ll be able to, but I’d love to make it back to Seoraksan to see the fall colors!



    Ihlara Valley & Picnicking with Turks

    Some of my friends hiked the Ihlara Valley several years ago, and we decided to check it out on our girls weekend. (Ihlara is about 50 miles southwest of Göreme.)

    We asked the hostel owner how best to get there. He said there were too many of us to hitchhike and public transportation would require too many transfers. He said we could go with a tour group, but we didn’t want to see the other parts of the tours. We ended up hiring a mini-bus. There were 7 of us, and it cost 38TL each (about $18 USD). It worked our perfectly. The driver dropped us off at the entrance and picked us up about 5 hours later at the end of the trail.

    Ihlara Valley has four entrance points. We decided to hike the entire 16 km. Entrance to the valley cost 5TL (or was free with the Müzekart).




    For whatever reason, I thought we were going to a crater-type area that would be very flat and desert-like. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It didn’t look or feel like we were in the Cappadocia region!




    The canyon was absolutely gorgeous. The Melendiz Stream ran along the trail:












    There were a couple of rock churches along the way. Two were right next to each other. I wonder how that worked way back then… Was it like parts of America where there’s a church on every corner? It’s always cool to see the frescoes:




    Very few people hiked the first section. As we got closer to the middle of the valley, the trails became crowded. There were several restaurants near the entrances. The tour groups and Turks didn’t go very far, though. By the time we got to entrance three, we had the trails to ourselves again.








    It looked like we lost our way a couple of times on the last stretch. It weaved in and out of farms. These ladies waved and said hello. They were hard at work!




    We ran across a shepherd a little further down. He was excited to meet us and offered to take our photo.




    This is what he took:




    Carved into the canyon walls were rock houses from the Byzantine period. Wikipedia says: Due the valley’s plentiful supply of water and hidden places, here was the first settlement of the first Christians escaping from Roman soldiers. In the Ihlara Valley there are hundreds of old churches in the volcanic rock caves.






    Near the end of our hike, we passed a family of Turks picnicking by the water. The little boy with the yellow ball motioned to us and said, “Come!” The Turks also motioned and said, “Gel!”




    And so we did. They had a feast of a picnic set out. After we finished eating, they packed everything up, so I think this was all their leftovers:




    The family was so sweet. The boy and one other man spoke some English. Between that and the Turkish we know, we had a grand time. They took lots of photos with us and we enjoyed the mid-hike snack and çay. Turkish hospitality is the greatest. This was one of my favorite Turkish cultural experiences:






    The trail ended at Selime Monastery. We explored it for a little while, but were all tired. Our driver picked us up and we went back to Göreme. I loved Ihlara! I definitely want to bring David back here sometime.


    SB14: Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

    After Krk, we left the coast and headed to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The park was my favorite part of our trip! Plitvice is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The drive there was beautiful with mountains and forests, but the road was crazy with a lot of switchbacks.

    Entrance to the park was 110HRK, which is about $20. (Price conversions were tricky this trip… with a lot of initial sticker shock!)

    My professional guestimation is that we saw 16,939 waterfalls.


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    We walked along footbridges that weaved in and out and over and around the waterfalls. We scored big being there during off-season. We heard that during peak season it can be so crowded that you’re shoulder to shoulder with people the entire walk.


    Plitvice footbridge



    Purple flowers


    Wood pile


    We took a ferry across one of the lakes. We had a funny culture shock moment on our return ride. In Turkey, we’ve learned to be aggressive in lines. Our ferry was packed. Some people had to stand in the aisles. We sat on the benches at the very front. As we pulled up to the dock, we immediately stood up so we could be the first ones off the boat. And we looked like idiots. Everyone very methodically and in true Western style exited the boat row by row. People didn’t even stand up until it was their turn. Shame on us.


    David on the ferry boat


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    Everywhere we looked… waterfalls and more waterfalls!


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    On our way out of the park, we made one last stop.


    Plitvice Waterfalls


    Here’s our travel group:


    Our travel group


    The water came over the footbridges in some spots:


    Chacos and water


    So much so, we had to walk across bridges on the footbridges. As David said in his Vine video… “walking on water!”


    Footbridge bridge


    It was an awesome last waterfall to see!


    Jumping by a waterfall


    David and a big waterfall


    Where we stayed
    We stayed at Hotel Bellevue. We chose this one over Hotel Plitvice because it was cheaper. It was very basic and fairly clean, so it worked for a night. The hotel was a 10 minute walk from park entrance #2. It was nice that we didn’t have to worry about parking.

    Where we ate
    There were no towns or villages by the park, and our only option was the restaurant in Hotel Plitvice. After we dropped off our bags, we walked across the street for dinner. We had a really weird Grand Budapest Hotel moment. There was a grand dining room with white tablecloths and napkins, but only a handful of the tables were being used. The meal was average. The breakfast the next morning at Hotel Bellevue was awesome. It was just what we needed before our hike in the park! We stocked up on snacks and fruit before we got there, so we had plenty of munchies for our hike.


    Here’s a recap of our trip:
    » Day 1 & 2: Zagreb, Croatia
    » Day 3: Bled, Slovenia
    » Day 4: Ljubjlana, Slovenia
    » Day 4: Škocjan Caves Park, Slovenia
    » Day 5: Krk, Croatia
    » Day 6: Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
    » Day 7: Split, Croatia


    Hiking in Kizilcahamam

    Two of our teacher friends told us about Kızılcahamam and we went to check it out. Kızılcahamam is a small town about 50 miles north of where we live. It’s still a part of the Ankara providence, but it is far outside the city and feels like a completely different place.

    Getting there was a breeze! We took a 2TL dolmuş ride from our neighborhood to ANKAmall. Outside the mall, we walked under the overpass, called a number to “reserve” our bus spots, and then paid 7TL for the hour and a half ride into Kızılcahamam. (That’s less than $10 USD round trip!)

    We spent our Saturday hiking in Soğuksu (translation “cold water”) National Park with five of our friends.




    It felt so good to slip away from the city for a little bit.


    Hiking in Kizilcahamam


    The view of the mountains was beautiful. Our weather just started to turn cooler, and it was the perfect day to be outside.


    Kizilcahamam Mountains


    Colorful leaf


    Kizilcahamam view


    Kizilcahamam view


    Hiking in Kizilcahamam


    We saw petrified trees and some vultures (apparently this is part of the tourist attraction for the park?) on our hike. And aside from me falling down a hill and almost breaking our camera (miraculously it didn’t break – and neither did I), it was a perfect day!


    I Am Most Alive Among the Tall Trees

    One of my favorite places to be is in my parent’s maple woods. When I’m home, I’ll often walk or take my dad’s Gator back to enjoy the peace and quiet. It is something I’ve missed while in Turkey.


    METU Forest


    I recently took a hike in the forest with a friend of mine. It was a fairly clear day and it had been a long week. We decided to just take our cameras and see what we could see. As we walked, I slowly began to let go of the week’s tension. Just to be away from the noise and civilization for a couple hours was refreshing.


    Hiking in the METU forest


    As we moved farther down the trail, the city became more visible and soon we could see all of Ankara and the mountains beyond, but we didn’t have to hear the noise. The scenery and the outdoors were beautiful and I continued to see God’s presence in nature.


    View of Ankara from the METU forest


    View of Ankara from the Metu Forest


    Being outside reminds me to take time to appreciate that which he has surrounded us. I’m positive that nature and quiet will always be a comfort to me. Whether I’m in Ankara, Turkey or Vermontville, Michigan, I am sure that I will always take moments to enjoy the beauty and serenity found in God’s creation.


    METU Forest



    Weekend Getaway in Bolu

    Our secondary students took their finals at school last week, and everyone got the day off on Friday. With the long weekend, we wanted to find a cheap place nearby to escape the city. Fortunately, a cabin was available at a mountain retreat in Bolu. Bolu is a two-hour bus ride northwest of Ankara. Some of our friends visited there last year and loved it.


    Ankara to Bolu, Turkey on a map


    The place we stayed at is called Sakintepe. The eight of us shared one of their four-bedroom cabins. We spent most of the time chilling in the living room and kitchenette area. The heated floors made our stay extra warm and cozy!


    Sakintepe in Bolu


    The view of the snowcapped mountains was wonderful.


    Bolu Scenery


    We also loved hanging out with Bear, their German Shepherd puppy and his mom Georgia and dad Montana.


    German Shepherd puppy named Bear


    It was a weekend of both rest and work. Our grades for the semester were due Saturday at midnight. Several of us had new classes for the spring semester and were able to get a good amount of prep work done. It was nice to work by the wood burning fireplace.


    Working by the fireplace


    We were sure to take a break and walk around the forest.


    Hiking in Bolu


    Hiking in Bolu, Turkey


    The dogs loved having new friends to play with. The guys spent a lot of time throwing snowballs to Georgia and Montana.


    Throwing snow at the Sakintepe dogs


    Montana was a funny dog. He carried around rocks as though they were chew toys. He also had a game where he took a rock, rolled it around to create a snowball, then pawed at it till he got back down to the rock.


    Sakintepe's dog Montana rolling a rock


    On our last night, the caretakers of Sakintepe let us borrow their projector. The ceiling was a perfectly slanted canvas. We kicked back and enjoyed a couple of movies.


    Sakintepe cabin


    We highly recommend the cabins at Sakintepe and hope to visit Bolu again.

    But for now, it’s back to school and onto the spring semester!