The Beautiful Island of Brač

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Brač is gorgeous. The sun hits green shrubs and flowers, turquoise blue water, and white cliffs. It’s far enough away from the mainland that it lives in its own little bubble, and while we were there it almost felt like we were alone on the island. It’s large enough to explore and hike for days, but small enough to be able to see much of it during just one visit – the perfect size for a day trip.

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We woke up early and hit the docks to catch our ferry. It’s fairly inexpensive and the trip lasts an hour or so. We caught the one to Supetar.

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On the island, the options are walking, biking, or driving. Biking would have been fun but we wanted to see a village on the other side of the island, so car it was. There’s exactly one rental agency so it’s a good thing the owner is a nice guy.

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Our first hike was a pretty short one – just a few minutes’ drive to the east of town. There wasn’t really a place to park so we pulled off on the side of the road in a gravel patch and walked up.

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The goal of this trek is to see an ancient Roman carving of Hercules that was found in an abandoned quarry on the island.

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And there his is! Hercules himself. The carving shows signs of aging but it’s remarkably well preserved for something so old. The other cool part about this quarry is the abundance of tiny fossils in the rocks. It’s not a good idea to take any, but hunting them down is a treat.

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And while we were hunting we saw an old friend! Jumping spiders are cute, and live literally all over the planet.

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Our next stop, sort of unintentionally, was in Splitska. We hadn’t planned on it, but there were signs for a winery that caught our eye and we stopped by. There’s a whole post coming on that tomorrow!

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Next up, a drive across the short axis of the island. This took about 45 minutes and had some nice stretches of curvy road. The speed limit is pretty slow on the island, and there are slow vehicles on the roads. Still, our car zipped around in a fun drive.

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We arrived in the town of Bol seeking a monastery that supposedly made delicious dessert wine. It still might, but when we went it was pretty closed. To make up for it, the beach nearby was clean and relatively warm.

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The town is a standard touristy beach town, but it is very pretty. Everything is fairly expensive so we ate a small pizza – acceptable but not great. Don’t come to Brac for the food. The drinks however, are great.

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We ordered a glass of prosecco from the major winery in town. I enjoyed the dryness of it, but Natalie wished it were sweeter. By the winery is a dock, and we watched the fish swim around in the placid waters.

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These are pipe fish – skinny, long, and quite elegant. There was a big school of them right next to the shore, probably attracted by all the food waste from the town.

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It was getting late and we still wanted to see the peak of the island, so away we went.

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Along the way we stopped at a lookout to take in the ocean.

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Sailboats!

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Our camera doesn’t have a great zoom, but it can still make out the detail.

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In the middle of the island away from the cliffs and beaches, we drove down a forest road.

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All the way at the top of the road was this massive comm tower. This is not quite the peak of Brac, that was up a few minutes walk.

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We gazed on the landscape as sunset came.

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That stub of land is the famous Zlanti Rat, the premier beach near Bol.

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Away from the ocean was the wide span of cliffs we had just come up.

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At last the sky began its orange glow.

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Around us were some buildings, probably an old watchtower.

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One of the more beautiful sunsets on our trip. We stayed until the sun went down, then drove back to the ferry. We were lucky we made it when we did – apparently we caught the last one back for the evening!

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Hiking Baikal Day 3: Back to Ulan-Ude

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It’s our last day on Baikal, and we’re determined to make the most of it. We hunt for agate on the shore and explore a small stream feeding into the lake. Small fish dart in the stream shallows, bees buzz between flowers, and the grass ripples in the wind. Everything is green and alive with the hum of summer.

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Don’t worry, I found a spider for you.


On the way to town for lunch, we pass a group of guys. One is in a tracksuit and holding a selfie stick, while the other two strip down to their underwear and dash into the water with shouts and howls. They manage to stay in the water and swim for a few minutes before they return to land. Because the water temperature hovers at a bone-chilling 50F even now, it’s an inspiring if not unsurprisingly short display.

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Watching the guys jump around in the water.
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Oh yeah, we also got a selfie with them.


We make our way to the bus stop and city center to find our favorite cafeteria of the past 24 hours, a tiny hole-in-the-wall kitchen run by a pair of local ladies. One of them greets us cheerfully, takes our order, and in a few minutes comes by with Russian staples of milk tea, pickled carrot salad, and stewed beef and onions over grietchka (buckwheat). There’s also a special today—fried dough balls filled with ground beef.

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We eat slowly, watching music videos on the cafeteria’s television while people bustle in and out around us. Stoytcho makes some small talk with the woman at the counter, and when she finds out we speak English she asks for the words for several foods they have. She says she’s been trying to learn English but there’s not much on TV and she doesn’t have access to the internet. We translate the cafeteria’s menu for her on a piece of paper as a gift for her to practice, and to make ordering easier for any future English-speaking visitors.

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Our translated menu, with English, Russian pronounciations of English words, and the Russian.

There are only a couple of hours before our bus leaves, but there’s something we have yet to do. After watching those guys go running into the water, it seems like a shame for us to leave without swimming in Baikal. Granted, neither of us brought swimsuits (our hosts back in Ulan-Ude warned us it would be too cold until August) and Stoytcho is a bit sick, but when else will we get this chance? We decide to go back to the shore and give it a shot, one at a time so the other person can watch the stuff.

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Some random cows that wander around Goryachinsk.
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Normal people interacting with Baikal in a normal fashion–not swimming.

I go first, stripping down to my undergarments. The wind feels cold on my skin as I face the water and pick my way gingerly over the rocky shore. The first splash of water touches my feet and I suck in air. But keep going, I tell myself. The water becomes ankle deep, then knee deep, and finally deep enough that I can throw myself in and submerge in the icy water. When I come up, I’m hyperventilating and trembling. It’s cold. I swim around to keep myself warm, and after a minute I no longer feel cold. Only a slight tingling feeling remains and I feel like I could stay in, but I see Stoytcho waiting on the shore for his turn. Facing the wind chill onshore is another shock, but after drying off I feel fantastic. Stoytcho and I switch off, and he wades into the water to swim around for a few minutes.

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Not pictured: how cold I felt.
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Stoytcho takes his turn swimming in Baikal.

We have so much fun that we make our bus with only a few minutes to spare and clamber in last. This bus takes us back down the coast through Gremyachinsk and turns inland. A few people get off here and there, but most of us are headed to Ulan-Ude. The sun sinks lower over the pine forests and plains rushing by, casting the sunset-orange glow over everything.

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The stops become more frequent as we reach town, and people disembark at the Buddhist temple at the city’s edge and a few of the city’s suburbs. A woman sitting in front of us catches my eye and smiles. She’s familiar but I can’t place from where. When she stands up to disembark, she walks back to us and hands me a handful of candies in shiny wrappers. Then she scampers off the bus. I grin and wave at her, and she smiles back and I remember—she’s a shopkeeper from Goryachinsk. We wandered into her general store and Stoytcho asked for directions to the bus stop. She must have seen my bewilderment as I stared at all the candy, uncertain of what anything was. Now thanks to her kindness, we can find out.

Hiking Lake Baikal, day 1

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In the morning we set off north-east along the lakeshore. There’s a path connecting large sections of the lake in a walkable trail. The section we were hiking along is not really part of this trail system, but since it’s between a few large dacha villages and people love to vacation here, there’s a long running road all the way up.

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The road is more often than not a two-wheel dirt track. During peak season it might be quite busy but when we went in early July there we found only a handful of cars.

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Between the trees were periodic gaps leading to views or down to the beach. People picnic there, either for day trips or occasionally in camper vans.

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All sorts of windswept trees grew along the shore.

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And we had a great time skipping stones on the endless water.

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The landscape changed frequently from soft sandy beach to pebbles to large rocky outcroppings.

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Some of the nooks between the trees had tables and stools set up from previous visitors.

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More often the spots that were visibly picnic grounds had these upside down bottles nailed to a nearby tree. We never figured out what they were for, if anyone knows let us know!

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The dusty road continues.

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Some of the campsites we found were better equipped than others. Despite how many visitors this area gets, the shore is remarkably clean and free of pollution or litter. Only immediately around centers of population did we see lots of trash.

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The path was always pretty clear but rarely continuous.

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If the beach became too rocky to walk on, we headed away from the shore and back into the forest.

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And if in the forest we met a gate to some presumably private community, back to the shore we went. There were a few of these along the way actually. Strange for what amounts to public land in the wilderness.

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We finally ran into larger groups of people on a long stretch of beach somewhat near a town. There were some tents pitched nearby and one of the groups had a boat. If would have been amazing to row on the lake, but maybe next time.

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Near the end of the day we stopped for fuller meal. We were not as prepared for this trip as we had been with some of the others. Peanuts and bread and a nutella-like paste we found at the grocery store was dinner.

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It turns out the spot we stopped at for our meal was entirely isolated. It was far from the last group of campers we’d seen, and far enough from the next town to not attract too many visitors.

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Soon the sun began to set.

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This sunset was one of the most beautiful sights on our trip. The lake stretched out, dark blue bathed in orange. The cliffs behind and around us turned orange as well, even well after the last light of the sun fell below the horizon on the opposite side of the lake.

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Beachside jade collecting

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Stoytcho searches for jade on the beach.

Japan is crazy about collecting things, but we haven’t collected much here in Japan beyond a handful gacha toys and fountain pen ink so it’s time to fix that. For our last stop in Japan, we head to a beach in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture in search of jade (ヒスイ). While the beach in this whole region is known for jade, Itoigawa is the closest stop to us via the Shinkansen, so using our JR pass we set out one last time.

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The highway just outside of Itoigawa.

Itoigawa itself is quiet when we arrive, the streets devoid of people and cars during a work day. We pick up a map and some advice from the mini-museum/visitor’s center behind the train station, then walk toward the beach. There’s a highway between us and the shoreline, so we have to go about half a mile north before we find an underpass with beach access. Nearby, we find a 7-11 and grab lunch.

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The underpass entrance, leading to the beach on the other side of the highway.

The beach is a pebbly stretch dotted here and there with piles of concrete tetrapods to prevent erosion. It doesn’t look like much until you’re standing on the pebbles and look down to find the stones glisten with a rainbow of colors. There are green, purple, red, white, brown, and black stones of all shapes and sizes. To find jade, we know we should be looking for stones that feel heavy for their weight and are smooth and cool to the touch, but the color can range from white to green to purple to black. Time to start collecting.

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The stones on the shoreline; perhaps there’s jade in here?

Though it’s a work day, we’re not the only ones on the beach. Other folks on holiday are here too, combing the beach for jade and other treasures and dodging the surf that occasionally rushes past the bowl-shape of the water’s edge.

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A larger than usual wave breaches the bowl-shaped edge of the beach.
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The aftermath of being a second too slow to escape the wave.

At the end of two hours, we’ve collected more than a kilo of stones and it’s time to decide what we want to keep. We try to be picky, because everything we take we either have to carry in our packs or have to send through the mail. We pick out the pieces most likely to be jade, then add in pieces we like for their color or shape. Our favorites are a tan colored stone etched with red and brown impurities, forming the patterns of hills or lakes or planets. We’ve found only five of them in our hours of collecting, so we keep them all.

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Our stone collection, with our favorites in the upper right corner.

After we finish up, we walk the beach and watch the other collectors with their bags slung over their shoulders, crouched down with hands sifting through the pebbles. The sound is unique, more treble than the ocean’s movement of stones, and reminds me of the sound candy-coated almonds make when you shake a box. The clinking of dozens of stones continues, as does the craze of collecting things.

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Holiday-makers and visitors collecting on the beach.

Summer fun at Miyajima Island

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A few hours by train out from Hiroshima is the city of Miyajimaguchi, which Natalie tells me means Entrance to Miyajima. It’s mostly true. The only reason most people visit this city is to get to the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s real name is actually Itsukushima but for some reason everyone calls it Miyajima.

IMG_5601 Miyajima has five things going for it, and that’s not even counting the ferry ride. Ferry rides are awesome. IMG_5612

First and foremost, the biggest attraction on (really off) the island is the absolutely massive Torii gate literally right off the coast. It’s base is submerged in water at high tide so it looks like the date is floating on the ocean. At low tide you can flock to it, along with all the other tourists. You can get a really great shot of it from the ferry, but try to do the boat at high tide, the shot is much more impressive.

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As soon as you land on the island, almost first thing outside of the boat terminal, are deer. Entirely unafraid, food seeking deer. They’re pretty cute and only a little annoying, but they will eat anything and they have no problem asking for it very directly. If you give them an inch they will try to bite a mile, so watch your fingers. Ignoring them and moving your food out of their way is the best thing to do if you don’t want your snack eaten. You can pet them, they’re pretty harmless.

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After the gate and the deer comes the tchachki gauntlet. A long, covered marketplace holds shop after shop of souvenirs – delightful bells, rice paddles, chopsticks and Torii gate paraphernalia. There you will find the largest rice paddle I have ever seen.

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The other biggest draw for this section is the Momiji Manju – maple leaf shaped egg dough treats with sweet filling, usually red bean, custard, or chocolate. They’re made in these fantastic machines that you can see operating all day long.

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We tasted a whole bunch of them and left with the impression that the chocolate ones are usually the best. It’s entirely worth it to buy an individual one at a particular shop before going for the box. Some are sweeter, others dryer, some have more filling, others have tastier dough. There’s maybe a dozen vendors to try so leave some room for dessert.

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You’ve taken a picture of/with the giant gate, fed the deer, and stuffed yourself on Momiji. Next up at Miyajima, climbing Mt. Misen! It’s the highest mountain on the island and it has a fantastic trail. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, and even with the tourist map it’s a bit of a puzzle.

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Here’s a link to the starting point on the map. To one side is a temple, to the other the trail.

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We wound up getting lost and finding a large shrine near the trailhead where we tried the local healing tea, enjoyed the sound of a hundred or so bell chimes, and listened to a very loud monk prayer chant.

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Just below the shrine were statues of childlike monks with beanies and scarves. We found out they are taken care of by parents who have lost a child, an outlet of grief and parental affection.

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To the side of the temple is the actual trail. It’s wonderfully maintained and wanders through some amazing hillside nature. It goes up and up and up, a climb of at least two hours or so.

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There’s a waterfall along the way, and at the very top is an observational platform and building.

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On your way up you might encounter this riff on the classic rock cairn.

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The views are great and in the building is a small souvenir store supporting the maintenance of the trail where a lovely old man will give you a stamp for climbing to the top!

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On the way back down you can pass by the cable car landing – the other favorite way to get to the top of the mountain and, after passing through more forest and picnic grounds, arrive back at the town market for a well deserved treat.

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At this point you can enjoy the relaxing seaside and try to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Staying on the island can be a pretty expensive ordeal and the ferries do fill up during peak hours, so try to be early.

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We had a great, sunny day running and hiking around the island. It was even a Sunday, right in the middle of summer, so it was as close to busy as it gets. There were plenty of people enjoying the island with us but it never felt crowded. So go, enjoy the standard island-town setting with a few unique Japanese twists, it’s well worth your time.

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And let us know if you find any sandwiches!

Tokyo’s Seaside

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A small Japanese ferry boat.

If you look at Tokyo on a map, especially from a bit further out, you might notice that Tokyo seems to have a bit of oceanside real estate to the south and east. You wouldn’t be wrong, but most of the water found near the center of Tokyo is taken up by the harbor and is, like most harbors, not great for swimming. To get to a usable, quiet beach, you would have to go quite a ways out, which is what we did. About an hour and a half of rail got us to the village of Kurihama, and a bit more of bus and walk got us to the beach of Tomyozaki.

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What a small town looks like on the shore of Japan.

As far as contrasts go, there are few bigger than that of city and countryside. Japan follows the pattern mostly in terms of building height, density, and noise. Outside of Tokyo and other large cities, it is quiet. Very quiet. The cleanliness, safety, and convenience of the city continue while the rest fades away, leaving only a calm, clean, and modern town.

One of the more interesting things we saw along the walk was this ferry.
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It had heard this lady and went back to get her so she wouldn’t have to wait for the next trip!

IMG_3998 After the town had entirely faded away we found ourselves on a supremely quiet sandstone coast. We might have been the only visitors there at that instant, though later we did meet others. IMG_4019
The view out onto the water was as serene as could be. Though there had been a small harbor earlier along the walk, it was around the bend and back quiet a ways, fairly out of sight and sound.
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We saw a few jellyfish swimming but most of our sightings were on land, quiet dead. The beach was incredibly clean, contrasted for us even further by having just come from Indonesia.
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Tile and beach glass were to be found all over the beach. I felt there must have been a tile factory somewhere nearby, or maybe a ship had spilled a pile of it sometime ago. Either way, we gathered a good sized pile.
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As we walked we collected more beach glass.
IMG_4146 And had fun arranging it all at the end! Too near to sunset to really finish it though. And the tide was coming in to where we were working, if we’d left any sooner we would have had to wade out. The water was unfortunately too cold to swim in. IMG_4155
On the way back we saw a very cool insect, one of Natalie’s favorites. I thought it was an ant.
IMG_4177 But it was not an ant! It was our old friend the jumping spider, disguised as an ant. If you look closely you can see the differently colored legs and the tapered body. At even a pretty close distance it fooled me, and apparently it does well enough to fool ants. An amazing creature! IMG_4193
Our walk back down the side-road from the beach to the main road where we would wait for a bus.
IMG_4197 A hotel at dusk. It was one of the few large buildings in the area. IMG_4210
As we waited to go home a raven started hopping between some nearby buildings.

It’s definitely a day’s excursion from Tokyo to go to the seaside, and to get to swim you have to go even further. One of the major downsides of living in a sprawling megacity is that all the land nearby must be specially preserved or else it will be put to use serving that city and its residents. Japan solves the problem of getting people out of the city through its amazingly ontime and superfast rail system, which we explore next!

Taipei Natural Parks

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A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

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People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

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“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
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A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
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People wandering among the rock formations.
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DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
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Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
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Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
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A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
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A dew-dropped ladybug.
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People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

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The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

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A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
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A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
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A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
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A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
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A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
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The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
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We soak our feet with other hikers.
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A waterfall at the end of our hike.
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An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).

Ha Long Bay and the Tourism High Life

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A lone karst formation and a boat in Ha Long Bay.

The appeal of Vietnam for many tourists is the luxury-level vacations at middle-class prices. You can get an all-inclusive trip here for only a few hundred dollars here thanks to economic disparity, and one tourist’s bargain price is a Vietnamese citizen’s income boon. The result is a vast network of tour agencies, guides and drivers and middlemen, all pushing to cash in on the tourism boom. And nowhere is that more apparent than Ha Long Bay, a bay of thousands of karst islands off the northern coast of Vietnam that now serves as one of the country’s main tourist attractions.

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The Vietnamese flag waves from a sunken beam on the way to Ha Long Bay.
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Visitors arrive at an island resort in Ha Long Bay.

Though there are backpacker guides to the area, we booked two nights at an island resort through our hotel to save time. This included transport to and from the islands, so we were picked up from our hotel, driven in a bus to the port, and took a boat to another boat that finally landed us on a small beach nestled in one of the karsts off the coasts of Cat Ba. With raised bungalows, soft sand, and palm frond parasols, it looked like quintessential island getaway.

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Beachside bungalows at our resort.
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A praying mantis explores my computer.
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Moonlight over the bay

The primary draw of Ha Long Bay is its jagged beauty, with knife-sharp, rain-weathered limestone karsts jutting from the ocean, crowned with lush greenery that clings to life among the rocky crags and flourishes in places where weathering has formed dirt. Scattered everywhere, the karsts form a maze navigated by the locals in junks, motorboats, and rowboats, all moving people or goods or livelihoods. While many people seem to have switched to servicing domestic and foreign tourists looking to get around the islands, others get by fishing squid and farming shellfish as they have for hundreds of years. From wooden houses built on moored docks, they catch fish, tend to baskets full of shellfish submerged underwater, or wade through the shallows collecting snails and augers for market. They sometimes stare at tourists as the float by in boats or kayaks, but they don’t like the stares they receive in return.

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Coming home: two men disembark from a boat at a floating home. The wires above it are strung between the karsts and carry electricity.
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A man gathers snails during low tide.
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A man paddles a boat with his feet.

The most stunning thing to me at our island resort is the tide. The afternoon we arrived, we swam to another nearby karst with sandy beach and back. The next morning we woke early to find the channel we swam the previous day had become a mud flat, the tide out so far that we could walk to the same beach. We picked our way across the mix of mud and sharp limestone rocks, curious of what we’d find: buried plastic bottles here, bike tires once tied to boats to act as padding against the docks there. But there was surprisingly few signs of life. Besides some scattered anemones that turned inward to stay moist at the low tide and small scattered augers burying themselves in the mud, there was nothing. No coral, no sponges, no algae. If there was anything that once lived here, it might have died out with the coming of the resorts. Their construction brings silt, and silt blocks out the light and chokes out life. It’s the price paid for tourism, for the beautiful waterfront bungalows and (artificial) soft sandy beaches.

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Low tide from the beach in front of our resort. We swam to the middle karst yesterday afternoon. Now, we can walk.
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Augers scattered in sediment at low tide.
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Bike tires, lost from a boat and colonized by shellfish and sponges, now exposed at low tide.

In the afternoon of our last day, we borrow a kayak from the resort and head out onto the water, camera precariously wrapped in a plastic bag. We paddle around the karst islands, looking for something interesting, and stumble onto sites where local tour agencies run rock climbing excursions. Then we make a wrong turn and we find ourselves at the edge of a deep, wide channel. This is the shipping lane in these parts, and we’re not allowed further. We return to our island and circle it to discover an inlet between two limestone towers on the other side. Our island is actually a crescent shape, with a secluded lagoon in the middle, where the more stagnant water forms pond-scum like bubbles we paddle through to reach a rocky, pebbly shore. It’s silent here except for the occasional cry of a raptor circling overhead. This is the draw of Ha Long Bay for us: to feel like you’ve found a secret that even if it’s been discovered before, you alone have for the moment.

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Setting out in the kayak.
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Looking up at the erosion on the karst walls.
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A hidden lagoon on the other side of our island.
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A small, pebbly beach in the lagoon where we made landing.

We board a large junk the next morning, bound ultimately back for Hanoi. Surrounded by chattering tourists, we occupy ourselves in watching the karsts and other boats slip by, a tapestry of blue dotted with white clouds, beneath which the green and gray angles of karsts jut upward and slip downward into the jade-colored water.

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Our junk’s mast.
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Karsts make many areas of the bay impassable for large ships.

As time passes, the islands become less frequent and the clouds thicken overhead to a uniform gray sheet. We hear the crew muttering, and the boat picks up speed to try and beat the storm. We arrive early, but they keep us on the boat for an extra hour—there aren’t any boats available to transfer us from the junk to the mainland. Meanwhile, the sky portends trouble, with whisps of cloud drifting over the mainland and peals of thunder. Just as we’re given the clear to disembark to the mainland, thick droplets begin to fall onto us and the waters of the bay. We scramble into the transfer boat, huddling under its awning to stay dry. Once on the mainland, we hear from a waiting attendant that we’re lucky; with the approaching storm, the government has temporarily halted all water travel to and from Ha Long Bay. Bound for a bus back home, it’s easy to worry about the details of what Ha Long Bay will look like after another decade of tourism. But given Nature’s power, it’s hard to imagine its beauty will disappear entirely.

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A crewmember stares out at the water as the weather turns dark.
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Lightning strikes in the mountains as the storm rolls in.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

Rainbow Beach + Carlo Sand Blow

After Bundaberg, we drove back down the coast toward Brisbane, 4 days away from our relocation rental dropoff location. The next stop was Rainbow Beach and Carlo Sand Blow in the eponymously-named Great Sandy National Park.

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Fishing in the surf at Rainbow Beach

We got lucky and found a parking spot right above Rainbow Beach (next to the Life saving club), then hopped out and looked for directions to Carlo Sandblow. We’ve learned our lesson by now – hike before ocean swims, lest you want a lot of uncomfortable chafing. In retrospect, and if you’re doing this trip, drive to Carlo Sandblow first and bring water. It’s a long walk. For those of you who want to park at Rainbow Beach or got dropped off by the bus there, here’s how you get to the sandblow from the parking lot:

Head south from the parking lot through the grassy park with the playground, following the street. When the street turns inland, follow it for a few hundred meters and you’ll encounter a stair on your left side. Go up the stairs and follow the sandy path.

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The park you’ll walk through on the way to the sandblow. You could always stop a few minutes and rest in the shade.
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The stairway up to the Carlo Sandblow

When your path diverges, you can take either fork to the sandblow. The left will take you there via Mikado firebreak; the right takes you out to a cul-de-sac where you can walk the paved Cooloola Drive south to the start of the Carlo Walking Track. Either way, the walk is ~30 minutes.

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Walking through suburbia. If you end up walking on a paved street, don’t worry, you’re still on track to find Carlo Sandblow. Just keep heading south.

The Carlo Walking Track is a well-maintained path and we had no trouble following it, which is good because the trail is part of the much larger Cooloola Great Walk that spans ~100 km of the Australian coastline. This small portion winds through dry forest for roughly 20 minutes, filled with Australian birds and bugs.

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The dry forest trail on the way to Carlo Sandblow
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Ants found along the trail. They fold their abdomens above their bodies to keep cool and survive near-lethal ground temperatures.

Then breaks out onto the wavy, golden sands of Carlo Sandblow that span 15 hectares in every direction. There’s no shade from the sun and the intense heat on the dunes is unrelenting, so be prepared. But the windswept sandscapes are well worth it:

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Viewing the sandblow from the trail’s end. If you fancy a long hike, the trail picks up again on the south side of the sandblow. 
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The Queensland coastline, as seen from the sandblow.
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The blue-green surf of Rainbow Beach meets the golden-red sands of the dune. NOTE: No beach access is available from Carlo Sandblow, and any attempts would hurt the dune so don’t try.

Oh, and if you’re going, don’t be a weenie and hike all over the dune. Every person’s step shifts the sand, and too much human activity could destroy the dune’s structure. But fret not, the Queensland Government has provided a sign that tells you where the best views (and photos) are:

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The Queensland Government’s oh-so helpful sign indicating lookout points and other interesting info. 

After exploring the dry dunes for an hour, we hiked back to Rainbow Beach for a heavenly, refreshing swim. Being new to the area, we asked the local lifeguards about any hazards, but there were none beyond jellyfish. Since stingrays are a problem on a lot of California beaches, I asked the lifeguards about stingray risks and they were quick to reassure me. “That thing with Steve Irwin was a freak accident,” one guy said quickly. “Oh,” I replied. I hadn’t even thought of that, but the lifeguards probably field stingray questions several times a year because of it.

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A mummified juvenile triggerfish, about the size of an egg. Dozens of these little guys were scattered along the beach’s high tide line.

We saw neither stingrays nor jellyfish during our two hours of swimming, but there was an odd array of dead juvenile triggerfish, their little bodies mummifying in the sand and sun. The poor little guys probably got caught in a strong storm or current and got swept up here. But it’s just one more thing the tide can bring in Australia.

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Rainbow Beach, as seen from a windswept tunnel in the sandstone of the Carlos Sandblow.