Finally: Torres del Paine & Held in Puerto Natales

 Los Cuernos from Mirador Pehoé
Los Cuernos from Mirador Pehoé

Was more than two years ago since I made the trip to Patagonia, and I’ve since posted most of the 3 week trip but stopped before I completed all the posts and forgot about it till now. Sorry about that, follow the link below to the post that’s dated in the right sequence, but also means that it is hidden behind two years of posts.

This includes the final part, when my group was held in Puerto Natales for 3 days.

Preview for Tromsø, Norway: 1-12 March 2013

 Hints of Aurora Borealis in Laksvatn to the east of Tromsø, Norway. 
Hints of Aurora Borealis in Laksvatn to the east of Tromsø, Norway. 

For a little more than a week in March, I made the trip up north, way up north to Tromsø, Norway to catch the aurora activity during this year’s solar max. What a trip it turned out to be. There was no CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) during that two weeks and I spent most of the time caught in a snow storm, but it was a trip to remember for a lifetime, maybe not as I have plans to go back there in the future. Anyway, while I work on my “opus”, enjoy this photo. 

Bohyeonsan Observatory, Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do

 Somewhere in the middle of this photo is the big dipper. Just about the only one I can recognize in a typical night sky. This was taken from the peak of Bohyeonsan close to the observatory. I agree, it could have been taken from the village too, but...
Somewhere in the middle of this photo is the big dipper. Just about the only one I can recognize in a typical night sky. This was taken from the peak of Bohyeonsan close to the observatory. I agree, it could have been taken from the village too, but…

The idea for this place came about one day while I was browsing the contents of Korean Airline’s inflight magazine and I read about a small village north of Yeongcheon very close to the large city of Daegu. This town decided they needed an identity and a signature dish. And it so happens that there is an observatory right on top of Bohyeonsan 부현산 and apparently they nicked-name the village “Star City” for us English-inclined speakers, and since there seems to be quite a number of Korean parsley growers, they started making a fuss out of grilled pork belly 삼겹살 and parsley 미나리. 

And as it always goes with me, time to check it out. Interesting combination. Stars and parsley. I recall the time I was in turkey close to the Syrian border where every meal seems to have a large side serving of parsley and how I loved it. 

 I took a picture of this map just in case I need to get around, and my GPS was useless. Never had the need to do that, but I post it up just in case. 
I took a picture of this map just in case I need to get around, and my GPS was useless. Never had the need to do that, but I post it up just in case. 

Well, the first problem is that Yeongcheon is quite a bit of a distance from Seoul. In fact it is smack close to Busan, for those that don’t know where Daegu is. I didn’t think that public transport is a good idea so I drove there instead. Door to door from Seoul figure 4-5 hours including stops along the excellent rest stops operated by EX. I’ll go on a longer post one day, but these rest stops are spaced 30-40km apart and they are like a fully spec-out mini malls. 

 You can't miss it when you see this sign, just go straight and you will go through a village. The observatory requires a drive up a mountain pass.
You can’t miss it when you see this sign, just go straight and you will go through a village. The observatory requires a drive up a mountain pass.

This time I navigated with the help of a Garmin GPS for the zoomed out Kee of what’s coming in 10km and auto routing from Daum maps on an iPhone set to see what is coming up 1km ahead. 

Ok now star village in Korean would be 별빛마을, literally translated. I don’t recall seeing that on the sign boards, would be better following the brown sign for Bohyeonsan Observatory. The highway exit close to Yeongcheon would be 북영천IC and head up north. Star village would be right at the foot of the mountain, you can’t miss it as you will get to see a big sign when you enter the village. 

I don’t know if I should even recommend a place to eat this special grilled dish. It’s not that difficult to make it as long as you have fresh ingredients. So I’m taking an educated guess that any farm or restaurant in the village do a good version of it. 

What did I do? I arrived at Star Village around 5:30pm, hungry, and eager to have something to eat. Turned into the first place I see that looks like a restaurant and they seem to say that they do have samgyeopsal and minari. Seems that you order the pork and then either 0.5kg or 1kr of parsley (aka Minari 미나리). And then out comes the grill pan, and the kimchi side dish and doenjang sauce. And may I add that being a village, everything is made at home and taste way way way better than anything you find in a big restaurant. In Korea, go rural and go small. 

So. Pork grilled on a hot plate is nothing special. It is not even marinated. But the fresh parsley, how can I say it… Korean parsley doesn’t have that parsley-ish smell and taste that we are all used to. When fresh it is slightly sweet. So you grill the parsley a little next to the pork (I believe it’s to soak up the lard) and the you wrap the parsley around the pork. And it is freaking good. Parsley adds that little extra texture to the pork and sweetens the package. Naturally I started off eating the leaves and then realized the stalks are good too, in a different way. I’m not going to describe the taste here but rest assured, at least for me, it’s a Michelin 3 Star dish – apparently what they rate for something worth making the trip all the way to have a go. 

 While I never had a sip from that kettle, I guess this is where the hot water comes from. This type of heating system is seen in most countryside restaurants. I love it. 
While I never had a sip from that kettle, I guess this is where the hot water comes from. This type of heating system is seen in most countryside restaurants. I love it. 
 If I heard it right, this is a 2 year old kimchi
If I heard it right, this is a 2 year old kimchi
 The beanpaste here sure tastes different, like it has not gone through a machine.
The beanpaste here sure tastes different, like it has not gone through a machine.
 Grill some pork belly (unmarinated) with fresh parsley next to it...
Grill some pork belly (unmarinated) with fresh parsley next to it…
 And there you have it, a Yeongcheon speciality - samgyeopsal minari combo
And there you have it, a Yeongcheon speciality – samgyeopsal minari combo

And man were the village people friendly. Started asking for a place to stay and they even gave a call to a nearby community center and found that it was open. The name and contact is as follows 별빛문화센터 (011 9586 3928 tomz2001@naver. com). You get a room where you sleep on the floor, Korean ondol style and shared bathroom but it is clean and the manager, again is super friendly. 

While at the restaurant we got to talk And got help from the workers at a nearby Bohyeonsan astronomy museum as they also had dinner at the same place. And it turned out to be a chance encounter. 

 First weekend of spring, the flowers are in full bloom, and the parsley are in season.
First weekend of spring, the flowers are in full bloom, and the parsley are in season.

So the museum is back down where I came from, and after dinner the next session was at 8 pm. The place is shut till the session time. People wait inside their cars. The reason is that in every session there are guides bringing guests around the tours and the planetarium. 

As we recognized the people working there we got a special treatment. They gave a personalized tour, including a university student intern giving a lecture of the stars and constellations outdoors with a high powered laser pointer. I knew the big bear, or plow, but never knew where the rest were. And the laser pointer did its job. Got to use the telescopes too, not the large one they use for research but big enough to see craters on the moon and clusters of stars. All these were on roof top and you could see the retractable sliding roof covering the place. The sky on this night was clear enough to see almost everything. 

Apart from this ground level observatory museum, one could also drive up to the top of Bohyeonsan. In the evening I was there, the car park was the only accessible place, the observatory on the peak of the mountain closed to public. I spent 30mins there taking photos and during that time they were other cars coming up close to midnight. I couldn’t say it was an ideal place to take photos there are towns polluting the lights along almost all horizons. And the wind here is strong too. 

 Moon taken through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory with an iPhone.
Moon taken through one of the smaller telescopes at the observatory with an iPhone.

Well, for this trip I was only there for one night and I can sum it up to be a long long drive and had a unique dish where i probably went overboard with the amount of parsley I ate and ended with a great personalized tour of the observatory museum. The people here are great, no English unfortunately, so brush up your broken Korean before coming. There’s apparently a farm nearby for horseriding, which I didn’t get to check yet. Overall I loved it, but the 8-9 hours of driving in total probably requires a long sleep to recover from. 

Recommended destination. As usual, drop me a note if you need help. 

 Nice clear night on 13th April 2013
Nice clear night on 13th April 2013

An Afternoon in Yeouido 여의도, Seoul

 Along Yeouidaero main street
Along Yeouidaero main street

This small urban island is the home of many company headquarters, the seat of the Korean parliament and just about very major TV stations in Korea. Not to forget the occasional mega churches. Situated in a piece of land on the Han river, it is an island because a small stream cuts it off the mainland. So the southern part is just a stones throw to the mainland while the northern section requires a larger medieval catapult to get to land. 

 Plenty of parks by the riverfront, the running and cycling path here goes all the way close to Incheon
Plenty of parks by the riverfront, the running and cycling path here goes all the way close to Incheon
 Pile of trash behind the National Assembly building
Pile of trash behind the National Assembly building
 Food... mmmmm
Food… mmmmm

The western part of Yeouido has tight security, and there is where the National Assembly building is, where the politicians hang out. I don’t even bother to take out my camera as I’m sure security guards don’t like any pictures taken. There’s not really much to take here, mainly drab government building, that box with a dome on it and perhaps KBS station. 

 I'm sure you will not miss the mega church here
I’m sure you will not miss the mega church here
 ... I don't believe they're a group of backup singers
… I don’t believe they’re a group of backup singers
 ... you know, like a mountain... where you pray.
… you know, like a mountain… where you pray.

In the middle of the island is a large park and avenue, and it makes for a nice stroll when the weather is good. Which is the case. There are sculptures in the park and there are areas where you have to look out for cyclists and small kids learning to ride. 

 IFC Towers
IFC Towers
 It is not an impressive set of buildings without the sculpture. @IFC
It is not an impressive set of buildings without the sculpture. @IFC

At the time of my walk, the IFC towers and shopping mall was just opening. As every IFC franchise in this part of the world requires multiple buildings, it’s worth going around looking for the best juxtaposition of sky scrapers for that fine art photo or two. In fact I don’t ever believe I knew that this place was being built at all. There were barriers the last time I was there, but every building looks the same in the 21st century. This one is no exception, except for the photographer looking for shapes to capture and opposing figures and interplay of highlight and shadows. I probably spent most of my frames here walking around the building. 

Just me, walking around with Leica M2 and Nikon S2 rangefinders and two lenses (24mm and 50mm).

Foods of Wan-do and Cheongsan-do, South Korea

Steamed Seafood & Abalone – Jeonbok Jjim (전북찜)

I just looked it up, jjim is translated as “steamed” but it is basically a stew with less soup than the usual, so it is really steamed with usually plenty of sauce of the spicy variety. Just about every shop sells this. Randomly picked this one on the way from Wando bus terminal to the ferry terminal. One of the cheapest I’ve seen, 38,000₩ for a medium plate that’s enough for 3 person with rice. It has abalone, squid, octopus, crabs, mussels, scallops and other seafood I cannot name served on a bed of bean sprouts and what looked like Korean water parsley (미나리) with hot chilli paste sauce. The sauce is more sweet than spicy, but tastes quite well with rice. Rice would e require at the end of the dish to wipe up all the sauce. The banchan here comes with kimchi that tastes more sour and you can kind of taste the fermentation. They like to serve the banchan here on a canteen type plates with shallow separates that serves four types at a time. Never seen this in Seoul other than canteens. Anyhow, tastes great and very filling especially when you finish off the sprouts. 

Abalone porridge – Jeonbok Juk (전복죽)

It’s porridge, with sliced abalone, and greenish stuff that I later learned was the interior parts of the abalone that lies between the abalone and the shell. The stuff is then mixed into the porridge giving a sweet tasting gruel. Nicer in winter than summer but I’d happily eat this anytime. Price usually ranges around the 10,000₩ tag. Tastes even better if the shop puts more slices of abalone. Usually looks like less than a whole abalone in most shops I’ve tried it. 

Shellfish bibimbap 

Served with different types of shell fish sashimi on a bed of lettuce. You’d dump in the rice yourself and put as much gochujang sauce and sesame oil as you would personally like and stir it into a nice uniform consistency. The shell fish gives the texture into every bite but I’m not sure that it lends too much to the overall taste. Other than being healthy, I can’t say that it’s a dish I like to order if I was a taste freak. 10,000₩ poorer for the privilege. 

Instant Noodle with Abalone – Jeonbok Ramyun (전복라뮨)

Now this is a strange one. Instant ramen is popular cheap breakfast dish. Salty, MSG and a sinful serving or never expired noodles, but with two fresh abalones inside. Had this one when I got off the ferry on Cheongsando island. That’s 8,000₩ bowl of the best combination made with Nongshin ramen. They did add some bits of additional spring onions to make it look healthier. 

Abalone and Seaweed Soup – Jeonbok Tteokbaegi 

Two things Wando region is famous for. Abalone and seaweed in casserole dish. Tastes slightly salty, but not ramen salty. Probably a lot less salty than a jiggae too. Just nice as far as my taste goes. Served with rice and the usual banchan on canteen plates. Really good for hangover I think. Not that I plan to get drunk here though. Of course no need to do so to try this dish. At the shop I tried this, I counted 2 medium sized abalone. 10,000₩ dish. It looks great as a hangover dish!

Abalone Pancake – Jeonbok Paljeon (전복팔전)

I love paljeons. Even better when I spotted the abalone cousin on the menu. That’s one expensive pancake at 15,000₩. It’s made of batter with strips of whole spring onions including the oniony bits and the leafy parts and with uniformly spaced small abalones. I did not count the number of abalones but suffice to say, there’s enough to cover the whole 20cm radius pancake. Taste? With the soya sauce with chilli flakes as a side dip, really good. In fact so good I think this is my favorite Jeon so far because of the chewy texture. Look for it in restaurants. I got mine in Cheongsando close to the ferry terminal. 

Jeonju, Jeollabuk, South Korea: Bibimbap Town

Directly south of Seoul, is the small town of Jeonju. There is plenty of history in this town, I’m sure, but this trip is not about history but about eating. No, I have not sold out yet, it is still a travel site, and not another “foodie blog”.
Back to the topic at hand… Jeonju is just 3 hours away from Seoul, enough to get there in the morning, have lunch and dinner and then come back before midnight, which is what I’m going to do.

At the Express Bus Terminal, the bus leaves from Central City terminal about every 10 minutes. There are two classes of bus, but I’d go for the more expensive service that cost 17,900W one way. According to the map, it is just about 200km away, but as usual, traffic jam plus heavy rain means that the trip took 3 hours. There will be a break half way to Jeonju, and the rest stop i surprisingly well equipped. There is a small supermarket, and plenty of shops selling sit down meals or korean junk food. They even have toebokki and sundae (korean blood sausage, not ice cream).

 Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!
Highway rest stop: Korean junk food… and it is good!

The bus ends up in Jeonju’s Express Bus Terminal (전주고속버스터미널) in the north of the town. By now it is already quite late in the afternoon, around 2pm and I’ve not have my lunch yet along the way. At least it’s time for a proper lunch. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the bus terminal, which is convenient.

Seungmidang Restaurant
First Bibimbap mission takes me to Seongmidang restaurant (성미당) close to the Gaeksa landmark. It is hidden in a small street, but with a GPS you will never be lost looking for location 35.817413, 127.145264. Even at 3pm there is a queue here. The couple in front of me are Japanese, which makes this restaurant famous in Japanese guide books too. Normally I would avoid places like these, but maybe there’s no harm giving it a try.

 Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.
Seungmidang Restaurant exterior. I was so hungry I didn’t spot the “high end audio” shop next door.
 Entering the restaurant...
Entering the restaurant…

There are 2 types of bibimbap here on the menu, raw beef and normal. It is not cheap at all. But at least the banchans are plentiful and not too bad tasting. And soon the main dish arrives in a brass bowl that is heated so much that the stuff inside sizzles. You mix is around and get the beef sort of cooked. The rice is already mixed with the gochujang sauce, unlike most bibimbaps I’ve had in Seoul. And the hot bowl creates a layer of hardened rice where it contacts the bowl. They call this nooroongji 누룽지, which I used to hate, but started to like after some time. What’s important is that the dish smells great.

 One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality
One way to tell a good restaurant is the sparse menu. This one is not the simplest one I’ve seen, but it still screams quality
 Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.
Bibimbap before mixing. The red stuff is the beef. Gochujang is already mixed into the rice under all the toppings.
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IMG_3351-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

After mixing, and pre-diving in… I could still smell the dish while writing this up.

One sentence reviews the whole dish: its damn good.

The gochujang sauce that they use is on the sweet side. Not terribly spicy, but the whole thing just balances together. I eat very quick. And best part of it all, the layer of burnt rice at the bottom with the burnt gochujang sauce. I notice locals pouring soup at the end to soften the noorongji, but I quickly developed a way to scrap the crunchy bits off the bottom. And it was good.

Well, I’m here as a tourist…
… so I better do what tourists usually do. After the nice late lunch, its time to walk around to let the food settle and get ready for dinner. Just a street to the north of the restaurant is the Gaeksa. Wikitravel describes it as an ancient hotel. It looks like a small building with an over engineered roof but I don’t see how it could be a hotel for a town. There are maximum of 3-4 rooms, so perhaps it is for VIPs only. Locals are just hanging around here having a picnic.

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IMG_3368-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Gaeksa

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IMG_3371-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

More Gaeksa. And so I lied. There were not that many people here today. Perhaps it was forecasted to rain?

A few streets to the south east of the Gaeksa is a park where Gyeongijeon (경기전) shrine is located. I believe the attraction here is the portrait of Taejo Lee, the founder of the Joseon dynasty is placed. In the central building, there is indeed a portrait. Otherwise the buildings look very chinese inspired. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to tell that this was in Korea if I saw the exact building in China. Other than that, not much more I can say about this place. There are plenty of photo groups walking around with large lenses (I don’t know what’s with these people, walking around a park with a 70-200 f2.8. If they are shooting birds, I can think of better places than parks… not to mention they probably need a 600mm for all these small birds).

 IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg
IMG_3390-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Strange logo at Gyeongijeon park. I don’t understand Korean yet, but it doesn’t look like “toilet” to me.

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IMG_3392-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Now this looks more like a park

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IMG_3397-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

I suppose this must be one of the shrines…

 IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg
IMG_3399-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

… and yes it is, and this is the portrait people came to see. Perhaps photography is prohibited here. Anyway.

Time to move east to the Hanok Village. Short review: I thought that I would be looking at old buildings. What this is, is a mash of old and new reconstructed buildings. The attraction here seems to be more the shopping than the building. There are restaurants, shops selling handicraft, a nice shallow granite “stream” on the walkway and even an Italian restaurant. Nice place to take a walk, but disappointing historically.

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IMG_3422-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Traditional meets modern

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IMG_3423-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

On the way to the Hanok Village, there are more bibimbap restaurants than any other

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IMG_3431-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Smack in the heart of the Hanok Village. And I’m sure you were expecting some old stuff too…

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IMG_3441-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

For the benefit of doubt, lets assume this is a renovated old house. This is an inn. Which I presume is getting healthy business.

Why should I complain too much. The aim was to walk enough so that I can go on to the next restaurant for more bibimbap around dinner time before going back to Seoul. By the time I was done with the Hanok village, my watch registers 7pm. Sounds like dinner time to me. I backtracked using the cookie crumb feature on my Garmin and back to Seungmidang Restaurant as there is supposed to be another competing restaurant near by that is just as popular.

 IMG_3463-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg
IMG_3463-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Evening in Jeonju, enroute to the next meal destination…

Gajok Hwegwan Restaurant
This restaurant is located at the south west corner of the intersection at 35.817154, 127.146157. The korean name is 가족 회관. You have to go up one flight of stairs to the second floor and enter an entrance full of pots of ingredients. This place is more of a factory than the first restaurant. Everything is piled high, waiters and waitresses with trolleys with banchan arranged and stacked up on trays ready to unload onto new tables very quickly. And the bibimbap arrived very quick too. Everything efficient.

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IMG_3480-LR-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Restaurant’s army of ajummas at work.

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IMG_3471-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Le Banchans

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IMG_3476-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

and more Bibimbaps

How did it go? I loved the banchans here. Probably better than Seungmidang. Too bad the Bibimbap was normal tasting. Still quite ok, but nothing magical like Seungmidang I believe it could be because of the gochujang here doesn’t taste as good. But overall it was a good meal, rescued thanks to the banchans. At least that’s how I feel.

Then again two bibimbaps in the span of 4 hours is probably too much for a day. After dinner, it was time to take a taxi to the bus station for the 3 hour long trip back to Seoul. I guess I’ll have to come back again to do the other restaurants in the future. And I think I might have tasted what is definitely the best bibimbap so far. And that’s a big feat for a small town!

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IMG_3483-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Ticket back to Seoul

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IMG_3484-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Night bus. Man, that TV screen is tiny from the back!

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KRJeonju-2011-08-13-23-05.jpg

Resulting path that I took around downtown Jeonju

*End of Post*

Shanxi Province, China: Pingyao

Pingyao Old Town

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Yamen Government Complex

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Pingyao City Wall

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Group of senior citizens relaxing outside the city wall

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Street seller on south street

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Main tower on Pingyao’s south tourist street

I blame a previous issue of Silverkris (Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine). I tend not to take any more airline magazines as they all turn out to be paper weight after it leaves the plane, but now with a camera phone with enough resolution, I can take a picture of the page and read it later. And so it was, one edition had an article on Pingyao. That’s in Shanxi, Shanxi with single “a” and not the one where the terracotta warriors are located. It was not a long article, just one page, and something about not being affected by the cultural revolution and the fact that this small town was the first financial hub in China about a hundred years before Shanghai. And so during the long weekend in May, when I was out of ideas of where to go, Pingyao came to mind. Wouldn’t be that bad to decamp over there for a few days just to chill out.

The only issue is getting there. One idea was to go to Beijing and then taking a train, but that seems to take a whole day. Another way is to go through the capital of Shanxi Province, Taiyuan, just about 2 hours by bus. I like the chinese bus. Dirt cheap (though train would be cheaper) and full of locals. So… mind made up, and ready to go.

Continue reading “Shanxi Province, China: Pingyao”

Leica camera CLA in Seoul

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IMG_0479

I have a couple of Leica Ms and of all of them, my favorite has to be the M2. However that M2 is also the only mechanical camera in my possession that is in need of overhauling. Clean, lubricate & adjust as they say it, or simply CLA. Doesn’t take long to do a search on the Internet before I stumble across a supposedly nondescript shop in Chungmuro (충무로) that came recommended. GPS coordinate is approximately at 37.562063, 126.990041

To get there, take line 3 orange line to 충무로 station and get out at exit 5. Continue straight towards Myeongdong and one you pass a big tower called Kukdong Building, turn right and immediately turn left on the next small junction. About ten meters later on your right will be a small camera shop called Yeongsang 영상 Camera. Go up to the second floor and there is a black and white photo developing shop. In a small corner of the shop, the old man there will CLA your mechanical camera.

 IMG_0458
IMG_0458

Mine took only 2 hours. About the time it takes to develop a roll of film and cost a reasonable 100,000₩. The finder all clear now an all mechanical parts humming along, it’s cheap and at the same time fast. I was initially expecting a week before pickup. Who knew I could browse the camera shops around the area and pick it up on the same day.

 IMG_0454
IMG_0454

Highly recommended shop. Thanks to rangefinderforum.com for the initial directions. Shop opens 10am to 7pm. However the owner is sometimes downstairs in a used camera shop.

Patagonia: Civil Strife in Puerto Natales & Evacuation

12 January 2011: The road to Puerto Natales

It was supposed to be a simple day, we were suppose to drive to Punta Arenas today, and I would split up with the group and go alone by bus to Ushuaia. But the last few days there were some rumours about a civil strife in this part of Chile, mainly in Magellanes region over the rise of heating fuel. The whole region was supposed to go into a protest mode and they showed their displeasure by trying to hurt the economy of their own region, and in this place it means shutting down the tourist machine. At this point we were not too sure about what that means, there were police at the hotel this morning in Las Torres but they didn’t know what the latest status was. All we heard is that at Punta Arenas, the road to the city was blocked by protestors and tourists will have to walk the whole distance.

The choices then was either to drive back to Argentina to escape the blockade, or continue the drive to Punta Arenas, and have the option to spend the night at Puerto Natales if the situation was not favourable. Even the drive to Argentina was not guaranteed as the protestors could block the border too.

It was basically plenty of unknowns and at worst case it was a regional lock down.

But anyway we loaded up the bags into the cars and started the easy drive down south and we did not encounter many cars on this day.

Continue reading “Patagonia: Civil Strife in Puerto Natales & Evacuation”

Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

7 January 2011: Argentina to Chile

 Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park
 Old truck at lunch stop in Esperanza
Old truck at lunch stop in Esperanza

A whole day of driving. From El Calafate we cross into Chile today and will spend the next few days in Torres del Paine National Park, arguably the highlight of this trip, but I think they are all equally awesome. We took Ruta Nacional 40 in the loop towards the border, stopping for lunch and bit of sightseeing in the small town of Esperanza, then westwards on small highway 7 and joining back to Ruta 40 again. 

At the border crossing, the Argentian side is just a few buildings in the middle of nowhere, easily a km away from the actual border. Passport control was simple enough, we just had to queue up behind a bus that was coming in from Chile. In Chile, we got onto a road called Y205 and after 3km drive, we come to the border crossing, where luggage scan and passport control was required. The border post in Chile, in fact even the road here, seems much better than the part in Argentina. This border crossing is in a small town, and when I checked on google maps after the trip, it seems to say that the town is also called Torres del Paine. There’s a souvenir store next to the immigration booth, which is just swell as bus load of tourists can shop while waiting for their cohorts to finish the formalities. 

 Before Lago Sarmiento, when the road goes from paved to gravel and with the Cordillera in the background. On the road up ahead is part of the group walking around looking for things to shoot.
Before Lago Sarmiento, when the road goes from paved to gravel and with the Cordillera in the background. On the road up ahead is part of the group walking around looking for things to shoot.

First stop is our stay for the night at Laguna Verde, but first I got the first glimpse of what I was about to see over the next few days, including a drive past Lago Sarmiento and onto gravel road before reaching Estancia Lazo on the banks of Laguna Verde. Its a working ranch in a really pretty (and I don’t usually use that word) by the banks of Laguna Verde. Spent the rest of the day and the next morning exploring the banks and taking pictures of the laguna in the foreground and with Cordillera del Paine in the background. I can stay here forever. 

 Estancia Lazo with Torres del Paine peaks in the background behind Laguna Verde. This was taken during a photographic survey, looking for the best vantage point for that evening and the next morning.
Estancia Lazo with Torres del Paine peaks in the background behind Laguna Verde. This was taken during a photographic survey, looking for the best vantage point for that evening and the next morning.
 Laguna Verde at the water line. Notice the strength of the wind whipping up waves. I think I took one of my favourite shots here the next morning with the pebbles in the foreground on a wide angle lens.
Laguna Verde at the water line. Notice the strength of the wind whipping up waves. I think I took one of my favourite shots here the next morning with the pebbles in the foreground on a wide angle lens.
 Trees in this part of the world grow in strange shapes, primarily caused by exposure to strong winds.
Trees in this part of the world grow in strange shapes, primarily caused by exposure to strong winds.
 Evening setup from the hotel room for a whole night of star trails shooting.
Evening setup from the hotel room for a whole night of star trails shooting.
 Good morning, Laguna Verde!
Good morning, Laguna Verde!

8 January 2011: Laguna Verde to Lago Grey 

 Stromatolites along the shores of Lago Sarmiento. These are calcium deposits that are found all around the shore of this lake. Read up on it online. 
Stromatolites along the shores of Lago Sarmiento. These are calcium deposits that are found all around the shore of this lake. Read up on it online. 
 First closeup view of the Cordilleras while driving along Lago Nordenskjol. 
First closeup view of the Cordilleras while driving along Lago Nordenskjol. 

I don’t know, I think today is one of the best drive in my whole life. No joke. Today we drive around Lago Sarmiento and right by the masterpiece of the park, the Cordillera del Paine peaks while going along Lago Nordenskjol, Lago Pehoe where I think some of the best sights are to be found, and then skirting the end of Lago del Toro and ending at Lago Grey. They call the main bit, which is the one with the black top the Cuernos (the horns). Not to mention the countless stops that we made to chase guanacos, and condors. The only thing we didn’t see today was the puma. 

 Rickety bridge across Rio Grey, close to Lago Grey
Rickety bridge across Rio Grey, close to Lago Grey

Lago Grey is fed by Glaciar Grey, and ice from the glacier breaks off and gets sent by the strong Patagonian winds to the south bank, which is where Hosteria Lago Grey is located. The air here is decidedly cold, and the hotel has just recently been renovated, and it is probably one of the most upscale place that I’m staying in so far in this trip. 

 Rooms at Lago Grey. The light from the windows were blown out, otherwise the icebergs would be visible outside.
Rooms at Lago Grey. The light from the windows were blown out, otherwise the icebergs would be visible outside.

At Lago Grey, you can see icebergs on the beach, and on a good day, one could take a walk along a sand bank onto a small island. 

9 January 2011: Lago Grey

Today is a full Lago Grey day. While I tried to take the walk along the beach, the weather is not cooperating… strong winds, and light rain pounded us the whole day. The wind blew away the plastic cover that covers my backpack. Looks like I will have to come back again sometime in the future. Oh, and I did spot a rare Patagonian Huemul (deer) here on the way back to the Hosteria… call it a lucky day.

 Just in case you get lost at Lago Grey. But there's not much of a path to get lost here.
Just in case you get lost at Lago Grey. But there’s not much of a path to get lost here.
 Icebergs of Lago Grey. Note the incoming storm.
Icebergs of Lago Grey. Note the incoming storm.
 On the small island on the southern end of Lago Grey. Grey's Glacier is visible in the distance.
On the small island on the southern end of Lago Grey. Grey’s Glacier is visible in the distance.
 Incoming storm starting to obscure the Cordillera del Paine peaks. Can't get great weather all the time... too bad.
Incoming storm starting to obscure the Cordillera del Paine peaks. Can’t get great weather all the time… too bad.

10 January 2011: Las Torres

 The Cuernos in the clouds taken on the way from Lago Grey to Salto Grande. I think this is where I took one of my favourite shots of the trip.
The Cuernos in the clouds taken on the way from Lago Grey to Salto Grande. I think this is where I took one of my favourite shots of the trip.
 Along Lago Pehoé. I think the views here are stunning because of the colour of the lake, and the surreal shape of the peaks in the background. It was a cloudy day but with a bit of patience, it was possible to get a nice shot.
Along Lago Pehoé. I think the views here are stunning because of the colour of the lake, and the surreal shape of the peaks in the background. It was a cloudy day but with a bit of patience, it was possible to get a nice shot.
 Shooting the Cuernos from the banks of Lago Nordenskjol.
Shooting the Cuernos from the banks of Lago Nordenskjol.
 Salto Grande waterfall, joining Lago Nordenskjol and Laho Pehoé.
Salto Grande waterfall, joining Lago Nordenskjol and Laho Pehoé.

From the western end of the national park, we drive today again past the central Lago Pehoe while stopping for photo opportunities whenever we could. There’s time to take a walk up to Mirador Pehoé, and a short hike past Salto Grande waterfall for the view of Cordillera del Paine across Lago Nordenskjol. The best time is probably early in the morning or in the evening, and I was there during the noon sun – but the scenery here is so beautiful I don’t mind. Again, the winds here are crazy strong. Don’t bring anything that flaps in the wind since it will probably not stay on you for a long time.

 At Mirador Pehoé. Normally a easy hike after lunch, but made extremely comfortable because of the shrub with the spiky leaves. I found a couple of the spikes in my shoe months after the trip. I call it the asshole plant. Because it is.
At Mirador Pehoé. Normally a easy hike after lunch, but made extremely comfortable because of the shrub with the spiky leaves. I found a couple of the spikes in my shoe months after the trip. I call it the asshole plant. Because it is.
 And this is the result, and mind you this is a panorama from a Canon S95.
And this is the result, and mind you this is a panorama from a Canon S95.

The next few nights, and the last stop is at Hotel Las Torres, a large estancia that has been converted into a resort. This si the closest hotel you will get to the start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres, our last strenuous climb. 

 Guanacos on the way to Las Torres. Notice the sharp triple peaks in the background? That's where we're heading on tomorrow's hike.
Guanacos on the way to Las Torres. Notice the sharp triple peaks in the background? That’s where we’re heading on tomorrow’s hike.
 After the transfer into smaller cars, heres the squeeze through the narrow bridge.
After the transfer into smaller cars, heres the squeeze through the narrow bridge.

The final section of the drive to Las Torres requires that we get off the small bus and transfer to hotel SUV for the drive across a narrow bridge that barely clears the side mirror of the SUV. The hotel has a proper lobby and just about any convenience that you would expect, or not expect in the middle of the wilds of Torres del Paine. It feels that you are not in an adventure while staying here. Its just too comfortable. Maybe there’s a reason for that, the trek tomorrow would be 9km and 800m elevation gain up to Mirador del Torres and back down again. 

 Las Torres lobby
Las Torres lobby

No need to mention about the food here. Steak… You will gain weight.

 Not my usual food picture... check out the chunk of meat. Cut to measure, Patagonian style.
Not my usual food picture… check out the chunk of meat. Cut to measure, Patagonian style.

11 January 2011: Mirador Las Torres

I will not describe the trek in too much detail. Apparently most of the trek is over private land, and you walk along the valley will you get to the base when it becomes a boulder climb up hundreds of meters before you get to the mirador, which is a glacial lake on the top of the mountain – where you realise that the whole trek was well worth the view. I packed sandwich lunch and some fruits so this is a good place to take a break and enjoy a view that I probably not get to see again for some time. 

 On a great day, start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres
On a great day, start of the trek up to Mirador Las Torres
 First junction
First junction
 Trekking along the valley, it doesn't look as scary as this picture. But its not fun to fall, I agree.
Trekking along the valley, it doesn’t look as scary as this picture. But its not fun to fall, I agree.
 Plenty of camping area
Plenty of camping area
 Water bottle refill zone
Water bottle refill zone
 Almost at the end of the trek, now all there is left is to climb to the top of the glacial lake
Almost at the end of the trek, now all there is left is to climb to the top of the glacial lake
 ... looking back
… looking back
 Almost there...
Almost there…
 And voila!!!
And voila!!!
 The large boulders makes it difficult to move around but it is possible to get close to the lake for a souvenir shot
The large boulders makes it difficult to move around but it is possible to get close to the lake for a souvenir shot
 Time for a break
Time for a break

I guess the trek is not as difficult as I made it out to be. I think the trek at Cerro Torre was more difficult even though the elevation gain was not as bad, mainly because it was hotter then. On top of that, my backpack was choke full of camera gear and a mid size tripod. There was not too much water since I replenished it along the way in the stream. 

 Going down, not really easier as it really kills my knee
Going down, not really easier as it really kills my knee
 The GPS helps to tell how far left to get to the hotel
The GPS helps to tell how far left to get to the hotel

 After a long day of hiking, this bridge was the best sight as it signalled that we were close to the hotel
After a long day of hiking, this bridge was the best sight as it signalled that we were close to the hotel

Needless to say once I got back to Las Torres later in the day, dinner never tasted so good. The buffet dinner comes with a big chunk of beef that is cut to order, and I asked for a double thickness chunk of meat. Well deserved. 

 And finally!
And finally!

Great end to an amazing photographic holiday. Or so I thought…