In the storm: barefoot hike on a mountain during a thunderstorm

Intense adventure over the Easter week-end. I had met Yuan, my trail-running barefooting friend for our first common barefoot hike. Weather predictions were fair, and although a low cloud ceiling could be seen, the day looked to be acceptable for a hike. Little did we know that it would transform into a barefoot hike on a mountain during a thunderstorm.

In Ma On Shan country park

Our starting point was in Ma On Shan country park, at its northern extremity, near the MTR station of Tai Shui Hang. The goal being to climb one or two of the local mountains (and where apparently Yeung, the third member of the group was quite familiar).

The climb appeared perfectly normal at first, with mostly earth and a few rocks. It was when we arrived to the top of the mountain, that things starting getting awry. We first had to clamber down rocks, to get to a position where two interesting rocks were present: the diamond rock and… a phallus rock!

Phallus rock
A very interesting rock, shaped naturally as a phallus.

The pic is courtesy of Yuan, my barefooting friend. And instead of a selfie, here a “footie”.

Barefooting is fun!
Barefooting is fun!

In the very same area, as we were climbing down rocks (and yes, it is rock scrambling, not simply going down), we came across a local species of chameleon, strangely very unafraid of us.

Chameleon
Chameleon spotted in the Ma On Shan park

Slippery path

Going down the mountain gives us already a good taste of what it was going to be later under the thunderstorm. Most of the trails were muddy, or muddy on rocks, which proves to be extremely slippery, as it had stormed just the day before. Progression was thus slower and quite cautious. This rendered us to one of those donkey paths often used by villagers in ancient times. This one being the “Mui Fa” ancient path.

Barefoot trail running on the Mui Fa ancient trail

The best part was getting to a clear fresh stream, where I managed to cleanse a little bit my legs and my arms. Little did I know that we were up for yet another extreme challenge.

In fact, after taking the Mui Fa ancient trail, Yeung decided to take us up another 540 m-high mountain… Just for the fun!

A slippery slope is just… slippery!

I guess I never really understood the meaning of slippery slope, until I climbed this mountain. Very steep slope, mud was freely detaching in some parts, making it extremely difficult to climb barefoot (and even with shoes). I had to use the local trees and my hiking stick at full to progress on this mountain.

Climbing a slippery mountain barefoot

Eventually, we arrived after some rock scrambling (but I kid you not, it was really climbing up rocks), to a sort of plateau with some unstable rocks where we made a pause nonetheless.

Dirty feet and slippery slope.
The state of my feet after climbing the slippery slope.

An unforeseen storm

The violence of the storm caught all of Hong Kong by surprise on Saturday, but fortunately, we were well on our way down the mountain when we took the brunt of it. Winds reached 100 kph, and in its violence, it was just short of a typhoon.

Thunderstorm over Shatin
The thunderstorm seen over Shatin

In terms of nature, it was interesting to observe a Hong Kong Newt, a form of Salamander up on the mountain, far from any stream.

Hk newt
A Hong Kong newt spotted on the mountain far from any stream during a thunderstorm.

Surviving the storm

The remainder of the story, for which, unfortunately, I don’t have pics, was a race to get down the mountain, as best we could. Unfortunately, the normal mountain trail transformed itself into something just short of a wet slide. I think I must have fallen a half dozen times, and on some very slippery sections, did not have other choice but to do a controlled slide downward.

It started getting scary when the thunderstorm got over us and lightning started striking. For the record, about 9,000 lightning strikes took place over Hong Kong during this storm. We were particularly exposed being in altitude and in this particularly nasty storm. However, with a lot of luck, we made it to the cover of the trees, which meant less chances of a direct hit on us. After that, we found finally the Mui Fa trail, and it brought us to a stream inflated by the waters of a flash flood.

And this allows me to illustrate yet another advantage of barefoot hiking: no problems at all with walking in the mountain torrents!

For the record, as some people might consider it irresponsible to be hiking in a thunderstorm, in the morning, nothing advised us of such a sudden and brutal storm, all that was mentioned by the HK observatory was “showers”. The brutality of the storm suprised many in HK and even caused a loss of life (boats capsized, and at least one person struck by lightning). When I noticed warnings of thunderstorm, I asked my companions to shorten the hike, but to get down was quite an endeavour, supposing to pass through several hills. Nevertheless, we were extremely lucky to have escaped with no loss of life and limb, so the lesson is simply to postpone hikes even if showers are forecast.

The inexorable descent to hell of the “Umbrella Movement”

Yesterday, the leaders of the 2014 movement called “Occupy HK” or also the “Umbrella Movement” went down yet another rung into what seems to be an inexorable descent to hell.

Old man protesting at oathgate
The “Oathgate” protests of November 2016.

After wonderfully squandering a unique leverage and negotiation position afforded by 3 months of continuous occupation of the streets of Hong Kong, the “Umbrella movement” faced, in the subsequent years, a determined push by Beijing to terrorize any independence wannabes.

The Legal Case

Originally, you have the “historic leaders” of the Occupy movement spearheaded by such figures as the law professor Benny Tai and then you have the “kids” who took over, such as Joshua Wong and the rag-tag group of students who ensured the occupation. The criminal case decided upon yesterday focused on those historic leaders, whom the judge convicted of “public nuisance”.

On a strictly legal standpoint, the case is probably justified as the initial movement launched by those activists has brought the city to a standstill for three months with little to show for this movement in terms of result. What Hongkongers do not exactly realize is that generally, the right to protest is always strictly kept under control, especially in democracies. Blocking a whole city was something exceptional, to the measure of the stakes at hand.

There is no doubt that the leaders convicted did encourage the public to occupy the streets in an attempt to pressure the HK government. As such, from a strictly legal standpoint, the judge stood little leeway when deciding on their outcome. Nevertheless, looking at the legal case is only looking at half of the issue.

The political undertones

It is widely known that after the huge alarm set out by the “Occupy” movement in 2014, and its ignominous ending in failure, Beijing set out to mete out a special brand of punishment on everyone involved from close or far with the movement. Lawmakers were disqualified (to be honest after making a disgrace of themselves), the “kids” were sent to prison or shut out of any professional career in Hong Kong, and the HK government has set out to enforce more diligently the heavy hand of China on the city.

But all of this could be expected. The unrealistic goals, the childish and immature manner in which the “Occupy” leaders behaved when trying to fix their goals, or even when they got elected to the LegCo, the legislative assembly of Hong Kong, ended up harming their public image.

Oathgate protests
The oathgate protests in November 2017

Over the three months of the protests, and later over the past five years, public support dwindled particularly among youth. Those who were at the forefront of the movement in 2014, learned that they should live the Chinese way, meaning just try to make money, and hold no ideals or hopes.

In a way, the Umbrella Movement was given an extraordinary chance to change the political destiny of a city. But because the “kids” of the Umbrella Movement were naive and because they seriously underestimated Xi Jinping’s China, they just ended taking the movement down all the rungs of Chinese hell. Although it has become mainly a mouthpiece of Beijing, the SCMP published one editorial which truly reflects the feelings of most of the population.

A discredited movement

To add to the discredit of the Occupy leaders, the antics of some people such as Howard Lam who invented some “torture” by Chinese agents (he later admitted self-inflicting injuries), ended up precipitating the movement into irrelevance.

Nowadays, the only persons who believe democrats still hold any relevance in Hong Kong are the Western journalists who played a great role in the international echo of the photogenic movement. The majority of the population moved on and probably even hates the democrats for failing to make good on their promises.

A perfect sign of this was in the public present at the court to support the leaders of the Occupy movement: only middle aged people were present. The youth that was at the heart of the Occupy movement in 2014 did not even bother showing up.

This was already true in 2014, but time has proved this even more: China won the political battle and is about to win the battle of minds. All Hong Kong’s youth has left is either the pursuit of money or the pursuit of leaving Hong Kong.

A day in the life of a refuelling ship

Hong Kong is one of the biggest world harbours. As such, it is one of the huge transiting places for container ships. On the way, these ships need to refuel. It was thus that I had the opportunity of sharing the life of the crew of a refueling ship for a few hours, during one of their shifts.

The life of this ship is shared between refuelling the ships which transit through Hong Kong and taking in oil to fill its tanks. There are two crews of 5 people who share the grueling 12-hrs shifts.

Captain at the helm
As two o’clock ring, the captain gives the departure signal and heads into the sea

As we got closer to the container ship we had to refuel, the crew took its positions.

Crew in position
Crew in position as the refueling ship nears its client.

A strenuous work

While interspersed with long periods of inaction, the work aboard the refueling ship can also take its toll, because of the long periods of work. The crew ensures continuous shifts between filling its tanks and refueling, which go up to several hours, with just two or three hours to rest.

As we were nearing the container ship, the workers started hoisting the heavy buoy to separate both ships.

Preparing for boarding
The crew prepares a buoy to isolate from the ship they are about to refuel.

Despite their hard work, all the men of the crew were extremely welcoming for the photographers and very helpful in guiding us.

Refueling a ship

This day, we were to fuel a Japanese container ship, the “Hyundai Harmony“, with Panama flag. Initially, this all started with having to moor both ships together, to avoid any issue during the delicate refueling operations.

Loaded rope
A crewman of the “Hyundai Harmony” throws a loaded rope to the refueling ship.

This also involved crews of both ships throwing loaded ropes to reach the other ship and pull the heavier ropes.

teamwork to moor ships
The crew of the Hyundai Harmony, pulling on a cable to moor both ships together

The crew of the Hyundai Harmony then started pulling the ropes to secure both vessels together.

On the refuelling ship, Two heavy motors started pulling a very old and fraught rope and brought the two vessels together.

The mooring operations on the refuelling ship: two heavy engines pull the mooring ropes
Rope on the ship
Mooring rope on the ship

After mooring alongside the ship, several of the crew members of the refuelling ship boarded the “Hyundai Harmony” to help them to connect the hoses for fuel resupply.

Crew preparing hose
A crew member prepares the hose for connection onboard the container ship.

This also gave way to some exchanges near to the connection pipes. Interestingly, the Hyundai Harmony was using maritime diesel for propulsion in China, and heavy fuel for propulsion out of China. It also tells how regulating maritime energy consumption might help to solve the pollution problems which keep affecting our planet.

Crew exchanging
The Chinese and Filipino crew of both vessels exchange around one of the diesel entry vents.

Once the business end of the transaction initiated, we started exchanging with the (very friendly) Filipino crew. They soon warmed up to us, and offered us some coke (with actually a Vietnamese package!)

A big family

The beautiful part of that trip was that the welcoming nature of seamen. We were quickly integrated in the group and were even invited to share the dinner of the crew of the refueling ship.

Sharing a meal in the mess
Sharing a meal in the mess

The ship’s mess was really a men’s room, complete with pinup on the wall.

Pinup on the wall
Pinup on the wall of the refueling ship’s mess

To give an idea of the ship, I did film a walkthrough, starting with the first mate’s quarters.

Walking through a refuelling ship.

Despite their hard work, the crew also knew to smile, and this allowed me to get this lovely portrait of a member of the crew.

Crew member
A member of the crew of the refueling ship

The moments of happiness were also present among the Filipino crew who joked playfully among them.

Filipino crew
Filipino crew of the refueling ship

Soon, and after some hesitation, as there was no proper gangway to reach the other ship, we decided to head to the container ship and see closer our new friends.

A common practice, yet a whiff of danger

Both crews jumped very easily from one ship to another, the frequency of the maneuver probably inoculating them to the inherent danger, but for my friend and me, it was the first attempt. We however benefited from the friendly advice of one of the crew members who gave us some tips on how to cross the most safely possible. As the sea was calm and the ships were quite close, the danger was limited, except for the grease present everywhere on this fuel ship, which made metallic surfaces quite slippery.

Crossing between ships seen by GoPro

In the end, we managed to set foot on the other side. On our request, the crew accepted to accompany up topsails, to the bridge of the Hyundai Harmony.

Climbing up on the Hyundai Harmony

We took a selfie at the top.

Selfie on the top bridge
Selfie on the top bridge of the Hyundai Harmony

Drone views of the refueling: taking off from a ship, a challenge for the compass!

This refueling operation was an occasion for me of testing takeoff and landing on a reduced space, namely a ship. For a drone pilot, taking off from a ship spells great trouble, as everything is metallic… So the compass becomes just crazy. The key is to master the “hand launch” (which can be pretty easy, if you go through the route of the automated launch). The key here, being to use the on-screen “launch instruction” rather than the remote control. Indeed, when using the on-screen launch program, the drone automatically rises to 1 m 20 above its launch point (your hand). This minimizes risks of getting hit by the propellers, but you should clearly raise your hand well above your head.

While I took also a number of shots in horizontal perspective, I believe the portrait mode of the Mavic Pro allowed to get the best impression of the length of the container ship.

Container ship by drone
A view by drone of the container ship “Hyundai Harmony”

Other shots shop the refuelling ship in operation next to the container ship.

Refuelling operations
Refuelling operations on the Hyundai Harmony.

Returning to port

After the refuellng was completed, the tanker ship unmoored and started heading to refill its tanks with more fuel for the next shipment.

A crane operator lifts a buoy
A crane operator lifting back the pipes into the ship

One the pipes were back on board, it was time to bring back up the heavy buoy that avoided our ship creating friction with the container ship. The interesting part was that they did this while on the move. I decided to use a tripod and long exposure to show the movement, while keeping the ship in focus.

Moving away
The refueling ship moves away from the container ship

We could have remained with the crew until 3 AM, the time at which the ship’s tanks would be filled again. However, anxious of getting some rest, we opted instead to hitch a ride on a fast boat which was carrying one of the HK technicians sent to assist the Hyundai Harmony. But this was not before taking a last parting shot of the ship.

Return to the “Calm Morning” land

Last December, my family and myself went back to Korea. For me, it was a return to the “Calm Morning” land, for my family, it was their first trip.

If you remember, my first trip to Korea took place in early December 2017. This was the occasion of discovering some amazing places such as Busan and the wide variety of places in Seoul. Korea and Japan are often compared and contrasted, but, per se, the experience is quite different. Where Japan is a land very much imbued with animism and hence every inch of landscape is infused with spirituality, Korea is more of a familiar terrain for Westerners. Christianity permeated Korea and makes its people also more relatable in various manners. This was very clear when my family expressed a feeling of being welcomed into the country, compared to Japan – where you cannot shake off that feeling of being “gaijin”.

Landing in the “Calm Morning” land at dawn

For logistic reasons, we had to take red-eyes flights from Hong Kong to Seoul. My wife and daughter flew Cathay, while I flew with Korean Airlines. It was actually my very first experience flying with them.

View from terminal one at sunrise
The view from Terminal 1 at Incheon airport in Seoul.

As I flew Korean Air, I landed at terminal 2, whereas most airlines take off from terminal 1. I thus had to transfer terminal with my luggages, in the cold and furthermore, with two times more luggage as my wife had charged me with the gifts for our friends (Check photo below!).

Mitch and Maria-Sophia
Mitch and Maria-Sophia at the airport

Our plan had been of showering at the airport, dropping the bags at hotel and rushing off to make the most of our time in Seoul. Alas! What sounds great in theory is not always in practice. We ended leaving the airport only at… 11! The Limousine bus of KAL took us pretty near to our hotel, namely the Novotel Dongdaemun. It however took pretty much close to 45 minutes!

Dongdaemun, a lively area

Dongdaemun may be a bit far from the historical center of Seoul, yet it is an extremely lively place. It has quite a number of department stores (shopping is thus one of the most important activities over there), but it also has the very photogenic museum of design.

The design museum of Seoul
The design museum of Seoul

This museum is very interesting, not only for its photogenic aspect, but also because at some locations, you can find a piano made available for people to play on.

Piano at design museum
These piano are made available for anyone who wishes to play and offer a performance to the public.

We thus had the occasion of assisting to a four-hand performance by two young Koreans, playing Christmas carols (which I, of course, streamed live on Periscope).

Beyond the design museum, the Dongdaemun area has an extraordinary vibe.

A little photographer

This time around, Maria-Sophia was documenting our trip with her own camera, a small compact Nikon.

Me shot by MS
Maria-Sophia managed to shoot me, as I was photographing her and her mom…You can admire the blue sky behind!

Maria-Sophia also understood perfectly the concept of being close to the subject in her picture of the two pianists.

Design museum piano
A live performance of Christmas carols by the two Korean pianists at the design museum

Later, we moved on to the Gyeongbokgung palace, where Maria-Sophia insisted to take a few shots of Mitchy and me. I have to say she did a pretty good job of it.

And, of course, Maria-Sophia demonstrated her keen eye by catching a snapshot of a lady in hanbok inside the courtyard of the palace.

lady in hanbok
Maria-Sophia captures a dynamic pic of a lady in Hanbok inside gyeongbokgung palace

An unusual encounter

Sometimes around the world, you have some weird coincidences. Here, it was my encounter with a scooter sporting a… Monaco plate!

A surprising sight: a scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul
A scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul.

I could not find any explanation as to how such a scooter was allowed to ride in Korea, nor why it had a Monaco plate… But it was the interesting sight of the day.

The following days, we were to visit Nami island and then head to Busan.