The Trails of Stolby

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The camp inside the park is super close to the central stairs – great for us! On the days it wasn’t pouring, we made our way up and out into the main bouldering/hiking section. Many day visitors don’t go too far along this route, being content with reaching the picnic/play area at the top.

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Past the stairs, almost immediately after, is First Pillar. It’s nice, not particularly climbable in the upward direction but fun to scramble around on. There are little training boulders scattered around, including some for kids.
The path from there splits. On the first day we visited the yellow/blue trail. The markers are a vivid stripe of blue and another of yellow on trees and rocks around the park. It’s a pretty short hike and really focuses on climbable boulders and pillars.

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Some of the rocks have names, some of them don’t. We found a fun one to climb on the way to Ded (grandpa) pillar. Here we got to scramble through a little stone chimney and wander around somewhat above the treeline.

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There was a nice little ascension point at the base which was a good warmup for the slightly harder second half of the climb, just out of sight of the picture.

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Ded pillar is a pretty popular one. We met a few families climbing around on it. There’s a low easy section that’s a lot of fun to run around on and has some hollow sections that fill up with rain to make ponds. From here you can see over the park and into the city. There was a whole family leaning over to take a selfie with Krasnoyarsk. Ded rock also has a much, much harder second portion.

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You can climb on the taller segments but the path is hard and not straightforward. We only know this because we saw an old man gripping his way around the rock. He was leathery and cut, probably climbing these rocks most days.

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Around the loop we hiked, skipping Perya Rock, instead reaching in about half an hour Third Pillar (3rd rock!). Lots of good climbing on this one! The paths in this part of the forest intersect rather freely, so we had to make sure we were on our trail several times. There’s at least one path that goes from this area all the way back to town.

Right nearby is Fourth Pillar, and then the trail loops back around towards first and second pillars.

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Back to camp we went, let the rains pass for a day, and headed out again. This time we went on the purple trail. This trail goes way south into the explorable region of the park, does a tight loop, and returns. It’s a lot more hike-y and way less climb-y than the other trails, though there are still some good rocks to be found. It has a lot more bog and mosquitoes, so that’s not as nice. But the wildlife is wilder – we saw a pack of wolves (wolf and german shepherd mixes mostly) running not 40 feet from us. We did not get a picture, but we also didn’t get eaten, so yay!

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Along that route we saw a lot of weathered rocks – large pockmarks and crevices.

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And plenty of good rocks for climbing.

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Some more difficult than others.

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We actually got to the end of the purple trail, dire warning sign and all! It makes sense in this park – the land here is supposed to remain free of human interaction, and the only way to guarantee that is to ban most humans from entering the true nature reserve. The chipmunks living past this line in the forest do not get fed nuts and berries from tourists.

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Out near the final rock someone had set up a little picnic area, a little disused. We saw some traces of previous visitors but really, if you want to be alone in nature, this is the spot.

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On our way back we had the pleasure of searching for the Cain and Abel rocks. This was a fun diversion for a while and really got the sweat flowing. The trail we came in by is at ground level, while the ‘loop’ portion of it is ten or more meters above that, so we spent a lot of time climbing straight up a very steep slope looking for the loop portion of the trail. We got lost for a while, going much further east than we intended, and had to backtrack.

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Finally our legwork paid off – we found the trail and the rocks we were looking for.

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The view from the top was grand. The day was clear and we could see the park stretching on and on.

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There were other large rocks within out sight and we could see where parts of the forest had been burned or hit by disease. A real bird’s eye view!

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The rock we were on had some climbable rocks jutting out pretty far over the cliff proper. Here Natalie climbs those rocks while I sit grumpily afraid of heights for her in the background.

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The nature in the park is remarkable. Trees here grow huge from the tiniest cracks in the pillars. One day they’ll help force apart the rock and cause their eventual collapse.

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Here is one such fantastic tree, its roots crawling all over the rock searching for any purchase. We were not the first people to sit in it for a picture, we definitely won’t be the last. That tree is rooted in tight.

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Done with Cain and Abel, we headed home. On the last stretch back we encountered Farm Rock (ferma). We’d been seeing signs for this rock the whole time we were here, and we finally found it! It’s a good short-hop bouldering site with lots of interesting low-height routes. Why it’s called a farm, I have no idea.

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We had a great time hiking and climbing in Stolby. Since we were there taking pictures, we also made this map of the paths we explored!

Stolby Nature Reserve

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The Stolby Nature Reserve (also called the Stolby National Park) is a treasure of Krasnoyarsk. It covers a huge area, in keeping with the general hugeness of its part of the world. The open-to-visitors part of the park is only 3.5% of the total acreage and yet this tiny slice holds enough to keep anyone entertained for days and months. Its singular in-park campsite plays host to scouts, school groups, vacationers, live-in travelers – anyone with a tent or a group of friends to split a bungalow with. A tent spot is ~350 rubles, or about $7 a night. One of our campmates had been living in his tent and exploring the park for almost a month on an extended vacation from Germany. We, and most other visitors, stayed for about 3-5 days at a time. That’s enough to get a good glimpse of the park and visit, but not linger, on most of its trails.

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Stolby is famous world-wide for its free-climbing. The park is filled with stories-tall rocks full of pockmarks, crevices, and grippy surfaces. Climbing heaven in other words. Aside from the rocks the park is home to (from the informative sign) : 780 types of plants, 295 types of mushrooms, 171 types of lichen, 257 types of moss, 212 types of birds, and 58 types of mammals.

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Getting to the park usually involves taking a bus (the 80, 50, and 19 are the main busses that go there) unless you want to drive. They cost some small amount of rubles (when we went it was 22r) and there’s a ticket-person walking around the bus who takes your money and gives you a ticket receipt. If you’re unsure, like we were, just ask “Stolby?” and they’ll give you a da or nyet. Krasnoyarsk is relatively used to tourists despite being far from the main western stops of Moscow and St.Petersburg. The stop you want is called “toor baza” (тур база) – literally, tour base. This is a bit tricky because the google results for park entrance put you three stops down. If you pass the zoo you’ve gone too far, it’s one stop before that.

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A blurry shot of the spot where the bus will drop you off.
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And the actual entrance to the park on the other side of the street.

Once inside the park there’s a little guard post. There’s no entrance fee, a map costs a few dollars. There are little kiosks up the main trail of the park that sell snacks, water, souvenirs, and maps. These are great for day hiking, but won’t help for long-term camping.

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One of the many kiosks. Sunflower seeds are a must, and the fruit piroshki are quite good.

People buy and bring seeds to feed the chipmunks and birds in the park too. The hike up to the ‘central point’ of the park takes an hour or two depending on pack weight, and just past it is the campsite.

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The central stairs leading up to the main park trails.
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The tent area in the campsite. There are also bungalows further up.

The camp is really nice – platforms for the tents, running potable water, enclose squat-toilets, free-to-use gas stove and sink, and frigid showers (sometimes the sun warms up the water a little). It’s way better than most paid campsites we’ve seen so far in our trip. They don’t sell food though, so anything you want to eat has to be brought up from a store.

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A word of caution : some of the rangers at the campsite do not speak English. Since there’s only one ranger there most of the time, there’s a very good chance the person you find will not speak English. Prepare yourself for this by downloading the Russian language in google translate or have a phrase dictionary, or have a friend write out what you want to say. Some useful words for this are : hello (Здравствуйте – zdrastvayte), we want to camp(хотим лагерем – hotim lagerem), tent (палатка – palatka), one(один – adin), two(два – dva), three(три – tri), four(четыре – cheteire), five(пять – pyat), days(дней – dnei), how much does it cost?(сколько стоит? – skolka stoeet?), and is there space(есть место? – yest mesto?). On the upside the camp seems to not fill up very often and they do take reservations if you can get a Russian speaking friend or hostel host to call for you.

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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 Baikal, Day 2

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Our second day of hiking Baikal’s eastern shore begins with moonset, followed by sunrise. We decamp and hike north to Turka, a shoreside town where we get breakfast and ask about a bus to Ust-Barguzin so we can get hike Svatoy Nos. We’re directed to a bus stop outside the town’s grocery store and wait for a bus that never arrives, so we decide to walk on to Goryachinsk, through pine and birch forest, sunny fields, and stony shoreline. Around midday we set up the tent in the shade of a tree and nap to the sound of lapping water on the rocks. It feels strange to see so much water but smell no salt, feel no ocean spray, hear no cries of gulls.

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It’s already late afternoon when we finally reach Goryachinsk and discover that we won’t be going to Ust-Barguzin—we had to catch that bus back in Ulan-Ude. All the buses that stop here in Goryachinsk go elsewhere, mostly back to Ulan-Ude. Someone suggests that we could try waving a bus down or hitchhiking up there, but we’re tired. We’ll just have to try for Svatoy Nos the next time. And for now, at least we have the hot spring of Goryachinsk to soothe our aching feet after 33 km of hiking in two days. The water is so hot that it burns our feet, so we make small pools at the edge of the hot stream to trap the water. It’s the perfect temperature after a few minutes of cooling.

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As the sun sets, we return to the shore of Baikal to continue northward to find a place to pitch the tent. Stoytcho feels tired and achy, the first symptoms I had of my flu the previous week, so we’ll return to Ulan-Ude on the bus tomorrow. We find a small copse of trees a couple kilometers north of Goryachinsk to pitch the tent and watch the sun set, illuminating the undersides of clouds with pinks and reds as it sinks beneath the horizon. We watch the chilling wind blow across the lake as we shelter in our sleeping bags and tent, huddled between the trees.

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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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On the way to Lake Baikal

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Our journey starts out of Ulan Ude, and like much of the rest of our trip, in involves a local bus. First of course, we annoyed the ticket seller lady by changing tickets not just once but twice, due to mistakes of language and Natalie’s illness.

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Loaded up and off we go!

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We got to see a bit more of Ulan Ude, the parts where most of the people lived. The public transit system is fairly extensive in the city.

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One of the grannies sitting next to us had taken a liking to us and started pointing things out along the path. This is a fairly famous women’s only monastery in the forests between Ulan Ude and our target, Goryachinsk.

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The bus stops at this rest stop on every trip. There’s a small restaurant, a bathroom (both free and paid, with differing qualities of smell). Otherwise there’s a little river that runs by there. Not really much to see but boy is it great to uncramp.

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The bus dropped us off pretty unceremoniously on the edge of Goryachinsk. There’s a grocery store there that supplies the holidayers and not much else.

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Old vehicles and older houses populate the town – there’s a lakeside section that has some nicer, newer houses, but the main of the village is old ‘dachas’ – village or summer homes that almost all Russian families have.

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‘For sale’ says the angry barrel.

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A row of lakeside houses we passed one the way to the lake. These are much nicer than the rest of the town.

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We made it!! Natalie holds a victorious bottle of kvas on the shore of Lake Baikal. This has been a lifelong dream for her, and she’s finally there!

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There are waves on the lake surface. They’re not super strong or large, but they do tear up the otherwise placid surface.

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So there we are, walking along the shore when suddenly..

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What’s that in the distance?

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It’s people! People swimming in the lake! For us as visitors this is insanity. The lake is freezing cold and the sun is setting. But for the locals this is not entirely normal, but somewhat usual. Young men in particular seem prone to jumping and swimming in the lake on a dare, especially when alcohol is involved.

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Somewhere around this time we met a family from Ulan Ude on vacation at their dacha. With my broken russian and their daughter’s perfectly fine english we traded stories. When they asked us where we were going to sleep, we told them of our tents and pointed somewhat vaguely to the lake shore. Their response was, of course you’re not, you’re going to sleep in our house, we have a spare bed. We gratefully accepted and spent an evening eating, drinking, and playing games with the family.

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Saying goodbye the next morning. These ladies were badass. Their grandma had lived through the worst of the various revolutions, economic crises, and societal upheavals of the last half century, and here she was calmly chopping up wood for their sauna.

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Next time : the hiking begins!

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.).

Trying (and failing) to hike Son Tra Mountain

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A Buddhist temple and Da Nang’s skyline seen through the midday haze from Son Tra Mountain.

After the amazing nature we experienced in Indonesia, we were ready to tackle Vietnam’s hiking trails. Unfortunately information online was sparse and having not yet fully internalized how poorly the hike from Tumpang to Bromo unfolded, I figured we could just go out to a place, pick up a dirt path, and follow it in and out. There was mention online of biking trails on Son Tra Mountain, which lies on a peninsula just north of Da Nang and wouldn’t be too far from civilization. So one morning we packed our bags and caught a taxi out there to try hiking around the mountain.

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Signs along the road on Son Tra Mountain. This shadeless path seems to be the only path for cars, bikes, and the unfortunate person who wants to walk.

 

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Cars and motorbikes speed past us as we hike up the road.

This hike was a failure, though not in its objectives. We were able to hike up the mountain and see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty. No, where this hike failed was in that it was utterly miserable for two reasons: lack of information made it impossible to find a walking trail and it was swelteringly hot. When we arrived at our destination, we asked the staff at the InterContinental Hotel about hiking trails and though they spoke English, they didn’t seem to understand the hiking part. They directed us to the vehicle road leading up the mountain. This shadeless pavement path was our trail for the hike and the noontime tropical sun beati down on us. The sunblock we applied simply dissolved in our sweat and we burned. It was not a fun hike.

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Stoytcho rests in the shade of a tree.
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The sun shines through the tree’s leaves. We never get full respite from the sun.

We realized an hour in that we weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain and picked a smaller, nearer peak as our destination. It still took us another hour and a half to reach this peak and at the top we collapsed in the shade of a tree, panting and gulping down water. From here we could make out Da Nang’s skyscrapers in the midday haze and see the sparkling blue water along the shoreline below. “We should’ve gone swimming today,” we agreed as we hiked back down the mountain, passed by whizzing cars and passing vehicle debris.

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The shoreline of the peninsula, with its alluring aqua waters. Should’ve gone swimming.
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Incense sticks beside a pile of motorbike debris, probably indicating an accident where someone died. 

For those of you who found your way here because you’re looking for a hike in Da Nang, don’t do this one because it’s hot and just not worth it unless you have a motorbike or bicycle. For those of you reading along on our travels, this is a good moment to enjoy the fact you’re at your computer and not thousands of miles away hiking, sweating, and burning in the tropical sun. For us, this experience is a reminder to know there’s a trail before going. While traveling we’re trying lots of new things, and they won’t always work out. Best to keep the spirits up—and remember more sunblock.

Oh! And there was some cool wildlife:

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A Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) collects nectar from a flower.
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A groundskimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) rests on a leaf in the sun.

 

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A soldier ant (unknown species) defends a line of foragers (from us).
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A planthopper of the family Flatidae rests on my hand and nervously eyes the camera.

Bromo at Sunrise

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A view of volcanic peaks rising above the mist-filled Tengger Caldera.

The Bromo sunrise hike is part of a regular tour circuit and as such we’re not super enthusiastic to do it. But others have effused to us about Bromo’s beauty at sunrise, so on our last morning we wake at 3:00 am to start the hike.

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A light in the dark on our road to King Kong Hill.

With the exception of a few other tourists heading toward the King Kong Hill lookout point, we are entirely alone on Cemoro Lawang’ s roads. After half an hour, we begin ascending via switchbacks up the hill. There are more people here, tourists sporting headlamps hiking up, being driven on ojeks, or riding horses. A few locals wait along the road, asking if we want a ride. Others have set up stalls selling alluring hot tea and instant noodles. With temperatures at around 40 F, it’s hard to resist these.

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A long-exposure predawn shot of Cemoro Lawang.
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A long-exposure, predawn shot of the smoke rising from Bromo.

The pitch black veil of the sky begins to thin at 4:30 am, before we reach the lookout point, and for a moment we’re afraid we won’t make it in time for sunrise. We stop for a few minutes to snap some photos, then scramble up the muddy, rocky path as quickly as our cold, aching legs will take us. We can hear the noise of people just above, and we find ourselves in a rest area surrounded by a low concrete railing. People chatter excitedly and gaze through camera lenses at the tangerine sky, while locals sell keychains and postcards at a table nearby.

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The first streaks of dawn in the sky, with the moon still hanging above in the darkness.

The rote tourism is entirely overshadowed by the beauty of the valley below. King Kong Hill affords a sweeping view of the Tengger Caldera and Mount Semeru (Java’s highest peak and also an active volcano). Bromo exhales a continuous plume of smoke into the air, while Semeru behind releases small puffs from its own crater. The scene is cast in soft lilacs, dusky pinks, and creamy oranges as the sun approaches the horizon. Then the sun takes her first peek over the edge, spilling her warm yellow rays onto the world.

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A view south-west into the Tengger Caldera. Bromo smokes on the left, while Semeru emits a single puff of smoke in the background.
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Clouds rise from the Tengger Caldera and slowly fan over Cemoro Lawang (lights in center).

We watch the sunrise with a dozen strangers. When the first scene of beauty is over, they stir and stretch their cold limbs, and begin to file out, down the mountain. We look around and notice an empty path further up the mountain. Ten minutes climb later, we emerge onto a broad, paved viewpoint with dozens of giggling, chatting tourists. This is the tour group viewpoint, accessible from the road on the other side of King Kong Hill by a few minutes hike, with no journey to Cemoro Lawang necessary.

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Visitors take photos of Bromo at sunrise.
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Tourists capture photographs of Bromo as clouds spill over the Tengger Caldera and engulf Cemoro Lawang.
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The view of Batok (lower right), Bromo (left), and Semeru (upper right) as seen from King Kong Hill’s viewpoint.

We mingle with the tourists for a bit, enjoying their excitement and watching them take selfies. Then they, too, begin to disperse back to their tour vans and jeeps just over the ridge. We follow them up, curious what this side of the mountain looks like. It’s a cacophony of noise and trapped vehicles, piles of jeeps that have parked each other in on the narrow mountain road now trying to get out with their tourists. I’m incredibly grateful we don’t have to join them.

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A tourists stands on the railing with his camera in the new sun.
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Tourists mill around as locals sell knitted hats, scarves, keychains, and postcards.

As we walk back down, I notice a dirt path leading into the brush.  It first seems to lead only to a rubbish pile, but then it continues up the hill. Stoytcho and I follow it as it crests the hill above the rest area to offer yet another view of Bromo in the rising sunlight. The path then descends and rises narrowly and near-vertical up the next hill. I leave Stoytcho behind to navigate this path alone, higher still, emerging on a ridge about a hundred feet above the rest area. It’s empty, save for one man with a giant camera and his local guide. This is the hidden vista, the one known mostly to the locals and rarely visited.

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The sun rises behind a shrine above the King Kong Hill lookout.
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The volcanoes as seen from the highest viewpoint, above King Kong Hill.
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The clouds rushing over Cemoro Lawang dissipate in the warming sunlight.
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A view westward, along the Tengger Caldera’s edge.

It’s past 6:00 when we start our descent from the mountain, an hour after the tourist hordes have disappeared. The going is faster downhill and the warming air is a comfort after the morning chill. Going is mostly easy. About halfway down the mountain I pause at a faint chittering noise. Glancing up, we see a troupe of monkeys gliding through the trees above us, leaping on bending branches and scrambling along the slender tree trunks. In seconds they are there and gone, off to their daily business now that this mountain home is theirs again.

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Locals pack up their wares after everyone has left King Kong Hill.
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Offerings of flowers and tea left by locals for the mountain gods.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of our hike from Cemoro Lawang up to King Kong Hill lookout point.

The Tengger Massif

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The southern valley of the Tengger Massif, with volcanic cones rising on the left. The massif is the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera more than three miles across.

The Tengger Massif is endlessly photographable, one of those surreal experiences that you’d more ascribe to a high-budget movie or video game than a real place. It’s a massive crater more than three miles across, the remnants of a volcanic explosion millions of years ago. The west side of the crater is a vast, living prairie: grasses ripple in the gentle wind under drifting sea of clouds. To the north lies the volcano Bromo, carrying the torch of Tengger’s volcanic legacy with a low, continuous roar as it sends thick billows of noxious gas skyward. And to the east lies the sandsea, a desert devoid of life except for a few patches of grass eking out an existence on a barren landscape of sand and dust.

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Prairie grasses sway in the wind on the caldera floor, while new volcanic cones rise behind.

 

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Wildflowers bloom in the prairie of the caldera floor.

 

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A foot and vehicle track winding along the caldera floor, between newer volcanic cones (right) and the steep caldera wall (left)

 

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Young lovers.

 

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A shrine to the volcano gods on the caldera floor.

 

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Offerings of food and flowers on a shrine to the volcano gods.

 

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The near-vertical wall of the caldera crater.

 

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A woman harvests grasses along the road, near the edge of the sandsea.

 

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This shrine marks the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Bromo sandsea.

 

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Stoytcho stands in the Bromo sandsea. Mist and fog often limit visibility in this part of the caldera.

 

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An ojek (motorbike) approaches us in the distance.

 

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Locals passing in opposite directions stop for a chat.

 

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An instant noodles cup abandoned in the sandsea, with volcanoes Bromo and Batok in the background.

 

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The guideposts to Cemoro Lawang, at the eastern edge of the Bromo sandsea.

 

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Mount Bromo (left) pictured beside Mount Batok (right). Mount Batok is the only volcano in the park that is not currently active, and greenery has taken root on its sides.

 

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A dust devil forms on the Bromo sandsea between Bromo and Batok, in front of the Pura Luhur Poten Temple.

 

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A view of the sandsea and Pura Luhur Poten Temple as seen from Bromo.