Running Abroad – Our Travel Tradition

Running Abroad
Finishing a half-marathon at the top of the world.

I’m late to the starting line. I’m cold. I’m disoriented from a trip that started yesterday – kind of – in Phoenix and left me 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The pack for the Midnight Sun Run 10K left without me moments ago. I have the road through Tromsø, Norway, all to myself. This is my initial glimpse into the country, a barometer of its personality.

I’m the first to say that I’m not really a runner. I’ve coaxed myself through several half-marathons, plus sundry shorter races. Yet 10K races have become my way of tapping into the countries I visit. This is my third race abroad; they each leave me with a medal – and plenty of thoughts.

Running Abroad: Travel Tradition for the Active

One morning in New Zealand, I slept in while my wife, Sarah, went for a run. Her path intersected with a local race. She didn’t have a number plate or a timing chip, but she followed its route for awhile. And she decided on our new travel tradition – we’re going to race wherever we travel.

A half-marathon is barely enough time for Sarah to warm up at home. But during a vacation, that or a 10K is a good distance. We pile the miles on when we travel, taking in multiple hikes that stretch as long as 15 miles. We walk as much as possible in every city. For me, a 10k is a good challenge … especially to keep my time at less than 50 minutes.

Running Abroad
One of these days, I’ll be photogenic in a racing photo.

We got the plan rolling during a trip to Iceland. We found the Miðnæturhlaup, or Midnight Run. It’s a nice cruise through Reykjavik. The course passes a zoo, athletic fields, churches. Best of all, it ends at a city-run geothermally heated pool called Laugardalslaug.

By the time we ran the race, Sarah and I had embraced Iceland’s love for its hot tubs. We saw families and friends lounging in tubs, which they usually followed with an ice cream bar.

The Miðnæturhlaup also reinforces our impression of Icelanders as cool and laid-back, more so than people we encountered in recent trips. They weren’t likely to strike up conversations like Kiwis or Aussies. They wouldn’t tell you all the insider spots to visit, unprompted, like a Costa Rican.

And don’t expect them to "woo-hoo!" like Americans do at passing runners. Sure, running races prompt wacky spectacle in Americans. Some racers revel in outrageous outfits and costumes. The spectators love screaming at passing runners. If you go running abroad in Iceland, you’ll find the inhabitants are are made of cooler stuff. I heard an occasional golf clap, but that’s it. Later, Sarah told me she waved her hands in the air at spectators and gave a yell, which seemed to boggle their minds.

The racers themselves are matter-of-fact. They get on with their run, and save the grins for the pool afterward. When it’s time to run, run. When it’s time to hot tub, get communal.

A Party with a Run in the Middle

I figured out what happened in Iceland: It exported its love for race hooplah to South Korea.

The Hi Seoul races started off with cowboy boot-clad cheerleaders leading the entire pack in warmup stretches. A news camera crew milled about, noticed me, then shot footage of my entire stretching routine.

Running abroad Hi Seoul 10K Run w/Walter!
Happy runners at the Hi Seoul race

And in South Korea, it’s never too early or too bright for fireworks. A brace of rockets whistled into the air, and the boom echoed among the tall buildings. The theme to Star Trek: Voyager followed, and the 10k was underway. So if you want commotion when you’re running abroad, this is your race.

The race passed workaday portions of Seoul, far from the palaces, the souvenir shops of Insadong and the carts selling boiled silkworm larvae. It connected to the Han River, and ended in a public park.

As we ran, spectators yelled "Ite!" I can only guess it means "go" or something like it. The race, the runners, the spectators added up to a lively and outgoing experience. At this point, I had been in South Korea for more than a week. It confirmed my impression that South Korea is happy to see you and wants you to have fun -- even if the population wonders why you’re here instead of in Japan.

At the finish line, I collected my second foreign race medal – plus a technical t-shirt and a can of spicy chicken. Perfect for post-race recovery!

Racing at the Top of the World

The Midnight Sun Run is the first time I’ve ever run a race the day after arrival. The previous races came mid-trip, after we’d had a chance to mingle, to form impressions. We slept through most of our first day here; we woke at 3 p.m., which doesn’t look much different from 3 a.m. at this latitude.

running abroad
Here’s where you can run a 10k race 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

So, what is Tromsø, Norway, all about? As I start reeling in stragglers, I notice lots of revelers in skimpy dresses. A desert dweller like me wonders how they handle the cold.

The cityscape changes from businesses to homes. The residents line the course, cheering the runners as they pass: "Heja, heja, heja!" They wave, they smile, they clap.

The course drops to the shore. Even in June, snow covers many of the surrounding mountains. I forget that I’m even running, that I slept my day away in a tent, that my timing chip might not even work since I started so far behind.

I cross the finish line, get a finishers medal and settle in to wait for Sarah’s half-marathon to start. Her race is a far bigger event, with runners carrying their home countries’ flags – quite a few people are running abroad. The Norwegian spectators cheer the foreign visitors, sometimes throwing out a phrase of Spanish or Italian.

And once again, I experience the connection that brings runners together at races. And I look forward to my next race in a foreign country, wherever that happens to be.

My next adventure running abroad will be the Song Hong 10K in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Travel to South Korea: Three Good Reasons

travel to south korea, hiking
The hiking near Busan – and the mountainous terrain – was a surprise. Great trails!

I decided to travel to South Korea not because of a travel agent’s advice or a guidebook. Nope – an enthusiastic pitch from a waiter at a local Korean restaurant sealed the deal.

My wife and I were eating our way through bi bim bap and banchan when the waiter asked if we’d ever been to South Korea. We hadn’t, so he launched into his spiel. We’d been in many times, so he knew us well enough to have a grasp (mostly!) on things we like.

Here what he said:

Hiking
You might not think of travel to South Korea if you’re a hiker. I know I didn’t. But South Koreans love hiking, and they have trails everywhere. Even in a sprawling ubercity like Busan, you’re a subway ride from more trails than you can hike in a single day. We saw ancient rock walls made to repel Chinese invaders, temples and 360-degree views of a city of staggering size.

travel to South Korea
Grill it yourself South Korean style.

The hiking in Jeju, an island off the south coast, was also a revelation. You can hike to the top of a volcano, and you’ll find many other short hikes no matter where you go. There’s even some underground hiking: The Manjanggul lava tube is also very cool, if overdeveloped. The scope of the cave – a UNESCO World Heritage site – still blew me away, so I’ll forgive the over-paving. And it makes me wonder what other lava tubes lurk out there for those with time, patience and a sense of adventure.

Food
It makes sense: If you like Korean food, travel to South Korea for the real thing. Here’s what I learned: The Korean food is tasty and varied, but the Korean spins on American foods and desserts fall flat.

travel to South Korea
Inside Spa Land, the most relaxing place on earth. (Courtesy of visitkorea.or.kr)

Even on our Asiana Airlines flight, the food was shockingly good -- by a long shot the freshest, healthiest, best-tasting airline food ever. Korean Airlines has a fare special to Seoul (and other Asian cities), and I’ve heard its in-flight meals are great, too.

Once on the ground, we tried the usual staples like bulgogi. But was also ate abalone that had been alive moments before (tastes like ear cartilage to me) and boiled silkworm larvae. Definitely get into into the street food – one of my favorites was some sort of fried dough with what appeared to be black bean paste.

As for desserts, many will look pretty. But they’ll be dry and bland. Just as a novelty, be sure to try something from a South Korean Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s sure to confuse you.

Relaxation
Our friendly waiter insists that spas (aka jim jil bang are a top reason to travel to South Korea. You know what? We agree. There’s a place in Busan called Spa Land that is now one of my favorite places on the planet. It’s a massive glass-and-steel structure packing just about every sort of sauna you’ve ever imagined into several floors.

travel to South Korea
A gratuitous photo of cute South Korean dogs. Just because.

It cost us about $15 for a four-hour stay. I could go on a lot longer about South Korean spas – but my earlier blog post will give you an idea of what to expect.

Karaoke (I didn’t consider this a good reason …)
OK, our waiter friend struck out on this one. Sure, I was in a metal band for nearly a decade. But as a guitarist, not a singer. So you won’t find me singing karaoke -- and I won’t travel to South Korea to hit the karaoke bars.

That said, if karaoke is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of places to indulge yourself. And if you’re Caucasian in appearance, you’ll probably cause a stir and gain some admirers. So go have fun!

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Inside My Head – Fear of Heights

Looking into the crater - for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.
Looking into the crater – for scale, note the people in the left side of the frame.

I wish I could stride along the rim of this volcano’s crater. After months of waiting, endless hours looking at photos of it, and then finally marching from the Rangipo Desert up the thick scree on its slopes, I’m here.

And I’m too afraid to appreciate it.

I find an off-camber lip. The wind pushes me toward the inner lip, and every rock seems to slip out from under my feet. The very ground under me frightens me -- it buttresses out
unsupported, ready to crumble and swallow everyone on the rim.

A wind-swept ridge.
A wind-swept ridge – with a steep drop on either side.

I don’t how to put my fear in a neat compartment with the right label. Am I afraid of heights? Hmm, I love to fly -- helicopters, airplanes, from a Cessna 172 to a 747.

No – it’s a fear of falling from a high place. And imagining the anticipation of hitting bottom.

Here at the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, it nearly freezes me. I hunker down to lower my center of gravity. I grit my teeth through a few photos and then plunge down the slope – which is steep, but covered in cinders that won’t let me fall far or fast.

Just try finding a better view. Oh, and this is the start of the drop down the scary ridge.
Just try finding a better view. Just be sure you can enjoy it past a fear of heights.

I can count on this sort of paralyzing, stomach cramp-inducing anxiety at least once per trip. There’s always some sort of epic hike everywhere I go. And epic hikes usually mean some high place with lots of exposure.

What I felt that day in New Zealand has already repeated itself. On the Laugavegur hike in Iceland -- there are plenty of spots where a false step could send me sliding hundreds of feet down an icy slope with an 80-degree angle. Near Busan, South Korea, scrambling up a rope headed to the peak of Geumjeongsan. On the Besseggen trail in Norway’s Jotunheimen, the trail plunges more than a thousand feet in barely a half-mile. The hand- and foot-holds leave me little margin for error. Straight down, a rocky pitch. On either side? Two frigid glacial lakes.

I know this is something I’ll never master. My gut will clench every time I look down and envision possibilities that could lead to the last few moments of my life. I wish I could not only contain my fear, but also keep it to myself. But I also project it to my wife, who handles this sort of thing so much better than I do. As I worry for the both of us, it scrubs some of the shine from what should be perfect moments in life -- I anticipate these places so much. I think about them every day leading up to a trip, and the anticipation makes it hard to think straight or get any decent sleep the night before.

Like they say in Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before and will happen again. No matter where I go, there will be a high place that waits for me, someplace where I have to just keep moving forward.

My goal isn’t to be free from fear. No, that’s too much to ask. All I want, all I will try to do, is to not let my fear ruin the moment.

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Travel Blogs or Guidebooks: Who Do You Trust?

The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.
The guidebook promised a fairly flat, easy, short hike.

It’s one of those days when I feel like torturing a travel guide editor. I imagine stuff involving ants, honey, jumper cables and possibly a Weed Whacker.

“A short, mostly, flat hike,” the guide book entry promised.

Hours ago, I planned for that short, mostly flat hike near Busan, South Korea. I skipped my typical day pack, its 120-ounce water bladder and its snacks tucked into multiple pockets.

I want to find this writer. And bury him up to the neck in sand. Smack him in the head over and again with one of my 24-ounce water bottles … but frozen. Between each hit – “Did you even go there, jackass?!”.

The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.
The Hangul characters on these signs are about as helpful as some travel guidebooks.

I hate being underprepared. I would’ve had my pack, my GPS receiver, probably a windbreaker. It turns into a wonderful hike, from Beomeosa Temple to the forlorn out-of-season Geumgang Park. We have to watch our water, and there’s that nagging “what if we really screwed up?” worry in our heads. We meet friendly Korean hikers – which is redundant, I guess – who show us the way to the highest peak. They also seize our camera and make us pose for a few hundred shots.

As nice as our hike is, this episode marks an important shift in travel preparation. It makes me trust guidebooks less, and bloggers more.

A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.
A rare shot of Sarah and me in the same photo.

If you read Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, you’ll be convinced that guidebook writers can’t make a living without being on the take. And that they can’t possibly do everything they write about. But they have to write about it whether they’ve done it o not.

Which is why guidebooks are only helpful for getting a few ideas. When it comes to activity and seeing the truth first-hand, I say “rely on the bloggers.” Sure, not all bloggers are great. But find one that speaks to your destination, and you have yourself a major leg up in planning your trip.

And that is the point of everything I do here. I want someone going to one of my destinations to search for information, find me, grab some ideas and have the best time possible. At least they can use my writing with the confidence that I’ve been there, for real, and not concocted something to satisfy the publishers paying my bills.

Asia’s Novelty Act – Me!

Photobucket
This orange-clad troublemaker and her friend (taking the photo) got it all started. Notice the ubiquitous Asian “I’m having my photo taken” peace sign.

I’m curious about South Korea -- and it seems South Korea is just as curious about me. From news television crews to young women asking me to pose for photos, I cause a stir everywhere I go. Here are some encounters that will give you an idea of what it was like:

Day One
One of my first activities is a climb up Namsan Mountain. Now that’s about 850 feet up, pretty much paved. At the top, two Korean women ask me to pose for photos with them. Then I head down -- and two more want a photo. Then a young Korean man says "Excuse, please -- are you from Italy?" I tell him that I’m from the U.S., and he turns shy and repeats "sorrysorrysorry." After these two encounters, the rest become kind of old hat, an expected part of my day.

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Hi Seoul 10K Race – A Running Adventure Abroad

Seoul - a really cool place for a good marathon, half-marathon or 10K.

Being a large Caucasian guy in South Korea is a weird experience. As I warm up for the Hi Seoul 10K run, a TV news crew fixates on me. The camera sweeps over me. Records every move. Captures every lunge, backbend, hamstring stretch.

It’s been like this since I stepped off the bus from Incheon to Seoul. I’ve caught so many glances from the corner of someone’s eye. The Koreans have been discrete. And no look has been hostile. Just -- curious.

The 10k race (and the marathon and half-marathon) brings out the few other Caucasian types – ex-pats who make their living as a English teachers. They stick together in their own cluster before the race.

I’m by myself, though. Sarah went to line up with the half-marathon crew. At 6’2 with a long mop of hair, it’s no wonder the camera hovers inches from a lone white guy like me.

If the TV crew expected me to be fast, they were mistaken. The gun goes off to start the 10K race. I thread my way through the crowd. As the theme from Star Trek Voyager plays, I’m penned into the pack. After about a mile, I can finally reach a natural stride.

The 6-mile route takes me to parts of workaday Seoul. I move to pass someone -- and discover that I’m about to plow over a lad who comes up to my solar plexus. His dad notices that I’ve revved up to pass, and pulls him out of the way.

"Who is this long-haired guy, and what is he doing here?"

Soon, I’m at the finish line. I paw through my race goodie bag -- I find canned spicy chicken and chopsticks. My sweat and the morning breeze make me shiver.

I wait for Sarah to finish her 13.1 miles – and just enjoy being an oddity in Seoul.

Inside a “Love Hotel” in South Korea

love hotel
A look inside a room at Busan’s Queen Hotel

The amenities in a South Korea "love hotel" are not what you’ll see at your local Holiday Inn: flashing colored lights over the bed, a higher-than-average number of mirrors, a "personal massager" for sale in the minibar.

If you travel to South Korea, though, you’ll find some good reasons to check into a love hotel. Here’s what you need to know about the "love hotel" experience:

Why They Exist

In South Korea, it’s not unusual for several generations of a family to live together. Sure, that can make for a close-knit family. But it also detracts from privacy. So when couples feel like gettin’ freaky/frisky/funky, they might leave the family at home and check into a love hotel for a night – or even a few hours.

Why They’re Different

love hotel
An outside view of the Queen Motel in Busan

First of all, a love hotel in South Korea is cheap – as much as half the cost of a conventional hotel. And they’re considerably nicer than hostels or guesthouses: You’ll find a generously sized TV, a computer with Internet and very likely a fancy Japanese toilet that can blast a jet of water a good 12 feet. It’s everything people need while they travel – and then some. Also, you’ll enter through a discreet entrance designed to conceal guest’s identities. You’ll pay through a bank teller-like window (and possibly not even make eye contact with the staff) in cash per day. And I’m serious about the in-room amenities. The staff issues a little care package with things like powdered coffee, tea bags, razors, hair ties, bubble bath gel … and condoms.

Why You Might Think Twice

As far as I could tell, most love hotels allow smoking in rooms. That’s a tough smell to get out of the rooms to nonsmokers’ satisfaction. It took a little arm twisting to make sure it was eradicated from our room – or at least enough to pass muster.

love hotel
A typical love hotel amenity kit

How You Can Find One

It seems love hotels don’t really fly their flag on the Internet. There’s a feeling that the people of South Korea consider them ever-so-slightly tawdry (if necessary). But they stick out in the landscape. Just look for a building that’s on the garish side, likely with a word like "Queen" or "Castle" or somesuch in the name: I saw one called the Wow Motel. If you see neon, fringe and jarring colors, you’ve found yourself a love hotel.

 

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South Korea Destination: Manjanggul Lava Tube

manjanggul
A slow-shutter look at Majanngul Lava Tube

I can wax poetic about a lava tube all day long. There’s just something cool about walking where glowing lava once flowed. When I found out there was a lava tube on Jeju Island in South Korea, I had to go.

The quest to find Manjanggul Lava Tube is why Sarah and I took a city bus out into the countryside of the island known as the Hawaii of South Korea. We hopped off the bus and two miles up a road. We left the sea behind and headed into a forest of shady trees and huge spiders.

And lava tubes. Lots of them, only a few of them fully mapped and likely many left undiscovered.

But we’re headed to one that’s certainly well discovered. Manjanggul is a well-known attraction, judging from the steady flow of traffic along the road. Taxis honk at us, hoping to take us the rest of the way. But we’re walkers – we decline every few moments with what we hope is a polite head-shake and wave.

And we come to the parking lot. We pay an entry fee of less than $2 – a spectacular deal for a 30-minute walk underground.

manjanggul
Another look at Majanggul Lava Tube.

By this time, I’d been in South Korea long enough to expect even a lava tube to be a bit well-developed. As I feared, Manjanggul is a bit too regular, tame and paved to slake my thirst for the shadowy depths of a former volcanic hot spot. It’s certainly nothing like the Ape Cave lava tube in Cougar, Washington.

On the other hand, Manjanggul is grand, with a ceiling that arches high above. So far, researchers have plumbed about 50,000 feet of it. Only about 3,500 feet are open to the public, though.

It’s nice and damp inside Manjanggul, with some nice lighting effects. The flow of traffic never seems to stop, so you won’t experience the solitude that you can in more rugged, remote lava tubes. But the grandeur that earned Manjanggul status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site makes it well worth the trip to South Korea and to Jeju Island. If you’re creative with camera settings, you can also snag some nice photos.

 

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6 Surprising Things About Seoul, South Korea

Seoul
These two Korean women were very excited to have an American take their photo. Don’t ask me why!

Seoul, South Korea was my introduction to being in a large Asian city. It was a disorienting but welcoming swirl of humanity and activity. Modern exists side-by-side with the ancient. You’ll also be surprised by the mountains and the amount of open space -- especially since it’s so close to the ultimate in high-density sprawl. If you have plans to visit Seoul, here’s a bit of what you can expect.

Architecture Mish-Mash in Seoul

Right next to a modern-but-bland skyscraper, you’ll find a castle that’s hundreds of years old. Look a little further, and you’ll find apartments that would barely meet building codes in the U.S. A few feet further, you’ll see a modern architecture marvel. There seems to be no zoning law, with business and residential spaces elbow-to-elbow. The building aesthetic goes from blocky to breathtaking in the span of a few footsteps.

seoul
I love the crazy looks of this building in Seoul.

Warm Welcome from Residents

Seoul’s residents seem to have a soft spot for visitors – especially those who clearly don’t speak Korean or have any understanding of their Hangul alphabet (few signs are in English). They have a knack for knowing who needs directions, and they are not shy about asking if you need help.

Late Dinners

It seems that South Koreans like to have a later dinner, followed by a lot of strolling in the shopping hubs and the underground markets. So don’t be surprised if the restaurants are empty if you’re an early diner. They don’t dine quite as late as Spaniards, but they definitely head to the table later than many Americans.

seoul
The modern and the ancient co-exist.

Seoul has First-Rate Transit

I absolutely love the subways in Seoul (and Busan, too). There are few places you can’t reach with one of the very inexpensive subway passes. The subway cars themselves are very clean. During the rush hours, they’ll be crowded – be ready for a huge press of humans!

Well-Dressed People – and Pets!

Even during the leisurely weekends, Koreans love dressing up: High heels for the women, ties for the men. When they hike, they’re an oxygen tank short of looking like they plan to summit Mount Everest (the opposite of Australians, who’d show up at Everest base camp wearing a pair of flip-flops). I even saw a chihuahua wearing shoes! It all makes sense because shopping seems to be a full-contact varsity sport in South Korea.

Yes, that’s a chihuahua wearing shoes.

You’ll Be a Novelty in Seoul

Non-Asians are not common. We had people ask to take our photos, have their photos taken with us, and even just have us take their photos. One very kindly hiker even commandeered my camera for 30 minutes to make us pose all over one of the mountains. People might even seem amazed that you chose to visit South Korea – and they love hearing how much you enjoy it. And you will enjoy it -- lots.