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Entries about spring

Traffic jams in fascinating Yellowstone

Written by Birgit, pictures mostly by Sam

sunny 28 °C
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We left the Grand Tetons early in the morning, as we wanted to have a chance to get a spot for the next two nights at the first come – first serve campground at Lewis Lake. The last two days it had filled by 2pm, so with being there around 10:30am, we figured we should be fine.
While the theory sounds good, practical life proved us wrong. We had not factored into our equation the long waiting time to even get into the national park, nor the fact that on this Monday morning Lewis Lake should already be full at 10:49am. Fine, so a change of plans was needed. We decided to spend our day to explore the south western bit of the park to see Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring and to head out of the park to West Yellowstone to find a campground for the night.
Old Faithful performed as expected: shortly after 1:17pm we were among the big crowd of people watching it erupt nicely. After a couple of minutes, the show was over and within minutes the area was empty again, as people had dispersed in all directions.

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We headed off as well and hiked along the bike path and a boardwalk to see more of the geysers and hot pools of the area. All over the place there was something going on: geysers were spitting steam, hot pools were boiling and there was just a fine note of sulfur in the air.

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At Biscuit Basin the looks of emerald pool were tempting us to take a dip. But looks can be deceiving: we probably would not have enjoyed being boiled in there and anyhow there were enough signs around to tell us that leaving the boardwalk is not only dangerous, but also unlawful. So we enjoyed the looks of the volcanic features without touching or getting closer.

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Our next stop was supposed to be the Midway Basin, the location of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones with this plan. And many others before us were so adamant to stick to their plan that by waiting in the left lane to turn, they caused an enormous traffic jam which backed up more than a mile. Eventually we figured that with us being stuck in traffic anyhow, Sam should have a goo on foot to see the Spring, while Max and I stayed in the car, inching our way forward very slowly. Eventually Sam got back to the car and we headed on to our last destination for the day, the volcanic features along Firehole Loop Drive.

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And then it was time to leave the park in order to find a place to stay for the night. The drive from Madison junction to West Yellowstone is just 14 miles / 23 km, but it took us well over an hour to cover the distance. We’re not really sure why we were stuck in an enormous traffic jam again, but we suspect that it was either people watching some deer or some deer crossing or standing on the road. Still, no matter what it was, as we were quite tired and keen to get to a campground, we were really happy once traffic started moving again.
We tried our luck at a National Forest Campground north of West Yellowstone, which was full already. As the next free governmental (and consequently affordable) campground would have been over 20 miles further, we opted for a private one 5 miles down a gravel road. It was just already way too late for another long drive.

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At night I tried my luck to still reserve a space in a campground in Yellowstone, such that we’d not have to go through the ordeal of getting out of the park just to get in again the next morning. It seemed that there was still availability at Fishing Bridge RV Park (where we had already a reservation for Wednesday night), but somehow I did not manage to reserve it and half an hour later, even that one slot was already gone. Hmmm….
The next morning, I used the WIFI at the campground and spent lots of time on German tax questions. That is not really what I consider fun and it’s just so energy draining. So I was happy when I was done. And it felt like a reward for the work I had done, when I got a call from someone in Yellowstone welcoming me for this evening to stay at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Somehow I must have managed to reserve a site after all and just did not see the confirmation page or got a confirmatory email.
That was so great news! After our first experiences with traffic in Yellowstone we were already at the point to just spend a day outside of the park without having a reservation inside… But now, as we had a reservation after all, we were ready to hit the road, get some groceries and gas in West Yellowstone and to explore the area between Madison and Norris. We stopped at all the key sites along the way: Terrace Springs, Gibbon Falls, Beryl Spring and Artists Paintpots.

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Still, the best came last: a stop at Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest one in Yellowstone. It features not only geysers and hot pools, but also fumaroles and mud pools, i.e. all types of volcanic that exist. The landscape was fascinating and we were happy that we had made the stop at Norris.

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From there it was only a short drive via Canyon to Fishing Bridge through the Hayden Valley which is one of the prime spots for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. We figured that it was perfect timing to go through the valley in the late afternoon / early evening as we hoped to see some wildlife.
And yes, our plan worked out. We got to do much more wildlife viewing than what we expected. It took us over 2 hours to drive the 16 mile / 25 km stretch from Canyon to Fishing Bridge, as we got stuck in a gigantic traffic jam.
While traffic was still moving, we got to see already the first bison in the distance. When traffic first started stopping, we attributed that to the three dark wolves up in the hills and the grey / white wolf just on the other side of the Yellowstone River. But after we had passed the craziness of that bottleneck, traffic did not get better, but worse. It got to the point that we only got to move forward the distance of those cars in front of us which gave up and turned around.

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So we opened our roof and Sam started heating up the remainder of yesterday’s soup. After all we were standing more than driving and when moving our speed did not surpass 2 mph anyhow.
Eventually Sam and Max headed off to get some exercise along the road. With Max biking and Sam running, I soon lost sight of them as they passed the cars in front of me. A bit later I got to see lots of ducks and Canadian wild geese along the river and eventually in the rear view mirror a couple of bison. And to keep myself busy in this somewhat frustrating standstill, I at least took a couple of pictures.

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Some more time passed and, a guy that eventually had started running along the traffic jam just like Max and Sam came back and reported to everyone who was interested the reason for the traffic jam: a big herd of bison was crossing the road somewhere in front of us and as they were not just crossing, but also idling on the road, there was simply no way to move forward. I must say that it was a big relief to hear that it was wildlife stopping us and not necessarily just sightseeing tourists. Even though realistically it is always a combination, as those people close to the wildlife cannot hesitate to take pictures and consequently slow everything down.
A couple of hundred yards / meters before the actual bottleneck Sam and Max waited for me and got back into the car. And eventually we started moving again and got to our campground around 9:30pm, so much later vs. what we had planned for.
After so much driving and so many traffic jams we were a bit hesitant about how to spend the day. The ranger at the information center convinced us that our plan of going to Canyon to see the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a must see item. You should not have come all the way to Yellowstone without having seen that… So after spending a bit of time on the beach of Lake Yellowstone, back we went through the Hayden Valley to do as he suggested. And this time we were held up a bit by sightseeing tourists just stopping in the road or partly blocking the roadway, but it was just so much better than the day before. We did stop ourselves a couple of times at various pull-outs to take pictures and observe the wildlife. We specifically liked to watch the bison. With their huge size they are just impressive and at the same time they are surprisingly fast when chasing a competitor or their preferred female – after all this time of the year is mating season for them.

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The Upper Yellowstone Falls from Uncle Tom’s Point along the South Rim were already quite impressive. But nothing could beat the view of the much higher (300 ft / 100 m) Lower Yellowstone Falls from the bottom of Uncle Tom’s trail. It was quite an adventure to get down the over 300 steps and steep grades, but the view was definitively worth it – specifically as the sun was coming in at such an angle that part of the waterfall looked just light green instead of white.

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After having seen the Lower Falls so close, we still wanted to see how they look from the Artists Point Overview. While the view was nice, we were not too impressed by the crowds of people there and left quickly after having taken a couple of pictures.

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The way back to camp proved to be much more relaxed and fast than yesterday evening and despite a bit of backed up traffic here and there, we got to Fishing Bridge in a mere 35 min.
Our next day in Yellowstone was dedicated to the Northern part which we had not seen so far. So we went up through the mountains along Mt. Washburn and the Yellowstone river to Mammoth Hot Springs. As the campground there was full by the time we arrived, this would be our last day in the park.
So we visited the lower and upper terraces – a phenomenon we had not seen so far. With their lively colors and a constant stream of hot water trickling down the active springs, it was a really nice sight. But also the older and now dormant features were quite impressive – a white and grey landscape surrounding dead trees.

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And with that it was time to say good bye to Yellowstone and to head towards the next adventures.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:00 Archived in USA Tagged traffic lake terrace spring geyser yellowstone elk wolf bison jam sulphur Comments (0)

Volcanoes, thermal springs and geothermal energy

Tongariro National Park, Taupo

sunny 26 °C
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Once again, we found ourselves back to typical NZ roads: it was very windy towards Tongariro National Park and seemed to take ages to finally reach the town of National Park. According to our guidebook, it was the fourth National Park worldwide, but a quick internet search revealed, that there must have been at least more before that (and hey, no one in Yellowstone talked about being the second oldest national park with one in Mongolia of all places being almost 90 years older). It definitively is one of the few mixed cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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We had intended to stay in the national park at the DoC campsite. As it was more than full, we backtracked to National Park and found a nice uncrowded spot next to a backpackers lodge. Contrary to the DoC campground, we’d be able to enjoy the luxury of flush toilets, warm showers, a fully equipped kitchen and cozy lounge area – a much better value for money.
Sitting in the lounge editing pictures, Sam felt the earth shake twice. And indeed, there were three tremors that evening out of which Sam had felt two. None of them had a big magnitude, but just enough to feel them.
Contrary to most other people staying in our campground, we did not plan to hike the Tongariro Crossing which is often dubbed the best day walk in NZ. So we did not have to get up to catch the 6am or 7am shuttle, but were able to sleep longer in the next morning.
We took it easy and realized that we took a good choice. After all, the foggy clouds only vanished between 9 and 10 am. And that’s when we headed off towards Whakapapa Village. We took the short Nature Walk along a creek and then headed into the info center of the National Park. The displays were very informative, specifically in regards to the volcanic activity in the area, but also in respect to the local Maori culture.

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We could not resist to drive up all the way to the Mt. Ruapehu ski area. Along the way, we had excellent views of the conical and perfectly symmetrical Mt. Ngauruhoe (which is also known as Mt. Doom of the Lord of the Rings) and Mt. Tongariro.

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As we passed the northern slopes of Mt. Tongariro one of its many side vents smoked and fumed. We could not resist to play mind games on ‘what if it erupted just now’. I’m not quite sure if I would have really wished to see a live eruption. Anyhow, after some minutes of observing, we concluded that Mt. Tongariro was just going about its normal business and that there was not more coming and headed on.

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We stopped for lunch in Taurangi which features a small skate park in its center - just like most NZ small towns. From there we enjoyed a pleasant drive along the shores of Lake Taupo. At a viewpoint overlooking the lake, we were more impressed by the group of skydivers being dropped close to us. And indeed, Taupo claims to be the world capital of skydiving with over 30,000 jumps per year.
It was perfect weather and pleasantly warm. Consequently, the beach was very crowded. And also Reid’s Farm, our campground for the night, was similarly crowded. We were there early enough to still find a spot next to the Waikato river. Sam and Max could not resist to take a dip in the clear water and Sam even swam against the current which exactly matched his swimming speed. What a great sunny day. So there is nice weather in NZ after all!

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While our spot along the river was indeed very scenic, it did put a damper on our enthusiasm that every half an hour one of the drinking backpackers decided to relieve himself in the river. Seeing this and how many of the other campers behaved, we do understand why many freedom camping sites in NZ get closed. It’s sad to see that many people do not honor the luxury of being able to camp for free and fail to return the favor by following even the simplest rules.
We got up early enough to see the early morning fog raising above the river. As soon as the fog had vanished and the sun was coming through, we were on our way to Huka Falls – the impressive and probably most visited natural highlight of a trip to NZ. We were not surprised that there were busloads of tourists around. At least, the viewpoints were designed in such a way that it was possible to admire the falls without having anyone else blocking the view.

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Our next stop was a Waikirei Terraces, which is a nice little spa using the hot thermal water discharged by a close by spring. We took the walk around and were reminded so much of what we had seen in Yellowstone a couple of months earlier. But the Maori carvings helped to remind us that we were on a different continent after all.

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From there we headed further into the valley to the Waikirei boreholes viewing platform. In total, there are over 160 boreholes to source the geothermal power plant a bit further down by the Waikato river. It was impressive to see how many pipes led down the valley with all kinds of appliances helping to control pressure and flow of the hot water.

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Having seen the sheer extent of how geothermal energy is being used and knowing that there are seven more of these geothermal power plants in the surroundings, it is not surprising that as a result places like the Waikirei Thermal Valley are seeing the effects. We liked the walk anyhow and all over the place it was steaming and boiling. And with the laser thermometer we had been given at the entrance, we were able to check temperatures ourselves. That was fun for Sam and Max alike. And I had fun watching the two of them. Still, it seems that the valley has lost much of its appeal since reduced water levels changed the dynamics and none of the previously 15 geysers is active anymore.

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The other attraction of the place were the animals. We got to feed the chicken, fowls and peacocks until eventually Max was overwhelmed by how vigorously they requested more food. The sheep, goats, rabbits and lamas were much more laid back, but happy to be fed none the less.

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Otmar had recommended to us that we visit the Taupo bike park. And indeed, Max enjoyed again having a dirt track to ride on and try his skills at doing bunny hops. While he rode and I watched, Sam took a quick dip in the hot waters springs down where it meets the cooler waters of the Waikato River.
Once we left, all three of us were ready for some exciting days to come. We hoped that the next two days would justify the couple of hundred kilometers detour we were planning to drive.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:36 Archived in New Zealand Tagged volcano valley waterfall spring geyser thermal tremor Comments (0)

On spring break

Seoul

sunny 22 °C
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An arrival time of 5:55 in the morning is never really pleasant. That is even more true when you have not really slept on the plane and when flying east. In other words: it felt rather like 3am in the morning when we headed towards Korean immigration. It was no problem to get our passports stamped and before too long we were in possession of all our belongings again.
We quickly found the airport train and headed towards ‘Digital Media City’ where we were picked up by the manager of our guest house in his Jaguar. Wow – that is a first!
The best news of the day was the fact that our room was already available for us. We were delighted to finally get some sleep and around noon time felt recovered enough to have a look around.
It was excellent weather. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and clear (no comparison to the humid and dusty air we had in Kathmandu) and the temperatures were very pleasant. It felt like a really nice day in European spring – with the obvious difference that people around us did not look European at all and that everything written was illegible to us. Even though we had gotten used to that already in Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal, it continued to intimidate us a bit not being able to figure out where e.g. a bus was going.

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But we were fortunate to get help in our first steps to use public transport: someone from the guesthouse took us to the convenience store to get bus tickets and showed us where to catch the bus to Hongik University.

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In this lively and young neighborhood we explored the pedestrian zones around there until we got hungry and headed for Korean BBQ. It was fun to observe how the food was prepared right in front of our eyes at the table. Eating itself turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as the food was significantly hotter than what we had realized. Still, it was a great experience and once we had gotten over the initial shock in regards to the pungency of flavor, we really liked it.

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After a bit of strolling, we headed home – but not before stopping at a confectionery to get some strawberry cake to take home.
What followed was a perfect evening: We used the Wii with big screen at the guesthouse and while watching Kung Fu Panda on a big TV once Max was in bed, we helped ourselves to the German Benediktiner beer that the guesthouse offered for free (just like soft drinks, round the clock breakfast, instant noodles, etc).

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Our visit of Seoul had been intended as a break from more serious sightseeing in Nepal and in Mongolia. It was the cheapest flight connection between the two countries and we felt like a stopover would do all of us good.
Even though we had no intention to systematically check out all of Seoul’s many sights, we figured that we might as well go to explore a bit. So after a very relaxed and late breakfast, we headed off by bus to Bukchon Village. This area of Seoul is nicely built on sloping hills and features many old traditional Korean houses, called ‘hanoks’. At a tiny eatery, we had soup. This time we were not quite so surprised as the day before to find out that it was almost too hot for our taste buds.

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Exploring the older parts of the village proved to be interesting. In the narrow streets, there were lots of tourists – like us – trying to get the perfect shot of the old houses with the Seoul skyline in the backdrop.

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But there were also lots of local Koreans there. Many of them were dressed in the traditional Korean attire, the ‘hanbok’. We had passed already lots of places that rented hanboks out by the hour and suddenly realized that this must be a very viable business.

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By the end of our tour, Max was so hungry and we were so helpless to come up with local non-spicy food options, that he simply got a portion of French fries at the local McDonalds. Sam and I got ourselves some dumplings called ‘bibigo’ that we prepared ourselves in the kitchen of our guesthouse.
Some Taiwanese guests of the guest house treated us to some excellent fruit: they let us share their crates of strawberries and oranges. Well, the ‘oranges’ were very special: the ‘hallabongs’ are a specialty of Jeju Island. And indeed: they were excellent!
After all of us had survived Nepal without getting a ‘Delhi belly’, Sam’s luck was fading and he spent a sleepless night. Luckily Max and I were not affected. While Sam finally managed to catch up some of his lost sleep on the next day, both of us had a nice day in the guest house. We played, read and did what we enjoyed most. And not very surprisingly: I had no chance to beat Max when playing various Wii games.
That day, the first floor of the guest house was filled with a group of 15-year-old boys who were celebrating a birthday. They had their moms with them who prepared food and did what 15-year-old's do: they played on their mobile phones, they used the computers in the guest house to play and the fought their fights. But no matter what they did: they were extremely loud. Not just as loud as what I would have expected of 15-year-old boys, but significantly louder than that. While this might not be surprising, I did wonder a bit that their moms did not intervene in any way. After all, there were a couple of other guests around as well.
Eventually our Taiwanese neighbor took the initiative to yell at them around 2am at the morning that it’s time to shut up and that others are trying to get some sleep. Talking with her in the morning, she said that such behavior seems to be acceptable in Korea – and she should know being married with a Korean husband for more than 10 years.
We slept very long the next morning – still living on Nepali time 3 ¼ hours behind Korea – but after our quiet day yesterday, headed out again today. Taking the train to Seoul Station was super easy. Contrary to the buses, the trains and subways are signposted and announced in English such that we understood where we have to go. Once more we agreed that Seoul features an excellent and affordable public transport system.
From the station, we walked to Namdaemun Gate, one of the old entry points of the enormous city wall dating back to the 14th century. We had a quick photo stop.

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From there we headed on to Namdaemun Market. We had street food – excellent steamed and fried dumplings. Standing there, we met some very friendly locals who even let us have a try of what they were eating.

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Along the previous city wall, we headed to Namsan Park. There were lots of locals enjoying that warm spring weekend hiking up the hill.

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At the photo view point, they admired the cherry blossoms and took lots of pictures of themselves and the beautiful view of the city. To note: Koreans do not say ‘cheese’ when trying to get a shot of smiling people, they say ‘kimchi’ (which is their version of hot marinated cabbage).

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Once we passed the upper station of the cable car, it got really crowded for the remaining couple of hundred meters to Seoul Tower. Many people seemed to be there to fix their love locks on the many fences foreseen for that purpose.

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We had walked enough for today and decided to take the cable car down the hill. From there it was just a short distance to the next subway station.

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In the bus from Hongik Station to our guest house, we met our Taiwanese neighbor again. She had spent another day shopping and we finally found out why she is spending most of her week in Korea shopping: seemingly Korean cosmetics are renown in Asia for their excellent quality and great value. We were not interested in any shopping efforts and rather concentrated our efforts on the good Korean food and treated ourselves to kimbap (a kind of sushi rolls), Soup and dumplings.
The next day, Sam took a tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), i.e. the area around the border line towards North Korea.

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He was reminded very much of the inner German border which over years had been setup in a very similar way. In today's Germany, not much of that remains, except some remaining watchtowers and a green band in which wildlife and rare plants thrive. Let’s see if this will happen to the Korean DMZ as well at some stage. For sure, the South Koreans are dreaming of a re-unification. The future will show how realistic that is - considering that China probably prefers having North Korea as a buffer towards the South.

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Just like the former German border line, the DMZ also serves as a refuge to rare wildlife and plants, but is fully active. There are mines, the watchtowers are manned and there is a very tense atmosphere – specifically nowadays that Mr. Trump is rattling against the North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Being in the border zone you can listen to loud propaganda played from both sides - trying to convince the respective other side of the benefits of the own system.

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There are even a couple of North Korean infiltration tunnels. One of them is open to the public and can be visited as part of the DMZ tour. Since the tunnels have been discovered, they have been blocked off. And supposedly there are now sensor systems in place to detect any further underground blasts. And there are some remains of the Korea War on display - such one of the last locomotives that moved freely between the two countries.

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In the tour bus, the same thing happened to Sam that happened since he had arrived in Korea: everyone deducted that being ‘Austrian’ means coming from ‘Australia’. But there were also lots of other misconceptions present: his neighbor in the bus suspected that Korea's main export products are rice and ginseng. Seemingly he had forgotten about Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai Motors, Kia cars or the fact that Korean cargo ships dominate the world market.

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That’s probably one of the big frustrations for Koreans: living in the shadow of their better known neighbors China and Japan and despite being the 5th largest export economy of the world being virtually unnoticed internationally. Let’s see if Korea will be able to make use of the upcoming winter Olympics 2018 in PyeongChang to share some facts about it with the world.
When Sam was back in the afternoon, we took a hike up the hill behind our guest house. Surprisingly enough, we even managed to discover a small playground – the first one since we had arrived in Korea. The lack of playgrounds in Nepal had not surprised us at all, but considering what a well-developed country South Korea is, this came as an unexpected shock.
The trail around the top of the hill was very beautiful. There were nice flowers blooming all over the place and there were hardly any people around. It was an excellent escape from the bustling city around us which we truly enjoyed.

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Our last day of the break we had taken in South Korea, was not very exciting. We had to pack our stuff, had a late breakfast at the guest house, went shopping (thanks, to the staff of the guest house and to Google Translate for the excellent help – otherwise it would be much more difficult to get around without speaking and reading any Korean!) and ended up at Burger King.
In the late afternoon, the manager of the guest house drove us to the airport train in his personal BMW 7 series (which probably cost him more than our year of traveling as a family of three).
As we headed to the check in, we could not resist comparing Incheon airport with its counterpart in Munich. It was very clean, well laid out and perfectly organized. And indeed, in the most recent airport rankings it had ranked #3 just before Munich which landed on place 4.
Korean check in super correct: wants to see tickets out of Mongolia, does not want our sleeping pads next to the backpacks. Good flight.
We recapped that it had been five very pleasant days in Korea – a country that we’d be happy to return to one day (well, if it wasn’t for so many other places we’d still love to explore as well!).

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 10:54 Archived in South Korea Tagged park airport spring bbq orange dmz wii Comments (0)

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