Goodbye Steve……Hello Seoul

What Korea?!? That doesn’t make sense! How can you drive from India straight to Korea??

Well, as regular readers will know, due to the risk of kidnapping by the Taliban we decided we didn’t want to take the girls through Pakistan. Whether the risk is real or just perceived is a whole another discussion but that is what we decided. However the truck still needed to get to out of the Indian subcontinent somehow and since our routes through Nepal and Myanmar closed off (see our earlier blogs), Pakistan was the only non-shipping route. So feeling like a good mother but terrible wife, we waved goodbye to Steve in Amritsar. Having already taken the train from Amritsar to Delhi a few months ago with my Mum, it was really easy getting back to Delhi and jumping on the metro to the airport. A few hours sleep in an airport hotel and we were good for the 2am flight to Seoul. 

Seoul was such a world away from the craziness of the Indian sub-continent. It hadn’t been our first choice when we were looking for a place to wait for Steve to drive through Pakistan. Unfortunately China was out because we plan to use up our visa time in the truck and nothing else fitted well with the weird flight combination to get from Delhi to Kashgar. It turned out Seoul was a perfect spot to send 12 days. We had booked an studio apartment in the centre of the city, right next to one of the Royal Palaces. Our time coincided with both Buddha’s birthday and the Royal Culture Festival, a big series of events in the palaces, so there was plenty to do.

The Lotus Lantern Parade is held the Saturday before Buddha’s birthday, a hundred thousand lanterns are paraded through the centre to Jonyesa Temple. Huge, intricate sculptures made entirely of paper lit up the night sky. They were followed by thousands of people in groups dressed in matching flowing silk traditional Hanbok carrying smaller lanterns, the affect was breathtakingly beautiful. Each group was lead by a monk or nun, the symbols and messages were all of love to the world. At the temple were thousands of other lanterns lighting up the sky.


The following day we returned to the temple where the street was closed for hundreds of stalls, you could meditate; eat temple good; there was dancing; singing; stalls from other Buddhist countries; and loads of activities for children. So many things in fact that in the 5 hours we were there we only saw half of it. It was incredibly welcoming and inclusive, even for us non-Buddhists who don’t speak Korean. They even had a big cordoned off area, only for foreigners, marshalled by kind English speaking volunteers who showed us how to make the Lotus Laterns, the special symbol for the celebration. It took us an hour and a half to stick on the delicate petals onto the frame, we loved it though and were very happy with the results. 


After school each day we explored the city, especially the Palaces where we part in all the different activities for the Royal Festival. Everywhere we went people where so kind and helped us understand what was going on and helping us to join in, even if we didn’t share a language. 


The girls were given a leaflet on the street advertising a Cat Cafe, where you can go and have a coffee surrounded by 40 different cats. How could we possibly pass by? As you can imagine they absolutely adored it and insisted we returned for another couple of hours on out last day, after my “treat” an English church service. Korea has its own quirky cafe culture, we felt we had to try out the Poo Cafe for a chocolate ice cream its own squatting toilet. It’s hard to believe it is only 2 1/2 weeks since we were faced with some of the worst toilets of the trip halfway up a mountain in Nepal and now we can make jokes about it.


Sushi and ice-cream, were the things that the girls were most looking forward to when they got to Korea. Their 2 favourite foods have been off the menu recently, since we’ve been in countries with regular power cuts (I know, sushi! I didn’t try it till I was 26 but this is a different generation). I tried reminding them that sushi was Japanese and told them about the similar Korean gimbap (seaweed rolls filled with rice, vegies and other good stuff), either would be good they reasoned. Within 24 hours of arriving we managed to find all three and kept them up as a regular fixture in our diet. Without Steve’s influence there was no fine dining but lots of little local cafes and quick healthy eats at the food stalls in the bustling local market as well as cooking in the apartment.


Driving through the city on the airport bus we were amazed to see hundreds of people dressed in Hanbok, traditional Korean dress. We assumed it was some special event or festival but no, it’s just a really, really popular thing to do. Hire a gorgeous dress and take a turn around town in it, taking thousands of selfies as you go. The Royal Palaces are so keen on the outfits adding atmosphere, they even give you free entry of you are dressed appropriately. It seems a particularly popular thing to do for a date, with the couple choosing matching outfits. Just how British teenage boys would react if their new girlfriend asked them to wear matching dusky pink silk baggy pants; with a matching embroidered jacket; and a natty black mesh top hat, I can only imagine! The girls of course loved this whole idea. The choosing and trying on at the hire shop was part of the fun, with the lady offering style advice, doing our hair and adding the accessories. Looking like glamorous ladies of the Joseon Court we promenaded to Gyeongbokgung Palace dressed in the finest pink, green and blue silk gowns. It was great fun. 


Apart from missing Steve, it has been a great 12 days here in Seoul. Ideally we wouldn’t have felt the need to separate but it all worked out well and it’s been a good time away from the trip doing something completely different. The next part of the drive looks like it will be amazing but also very challenging. We are ready……now we have had our fill of sushi and ice cream. 


Here’s what the girls thought of Seoul:


Lucy

I spent the first few days going over to the window to look out at the traffic. I couldn’t believe it all the cars were lined up neatly in the right lanes, there was no noise either. No horns, nothing! We couldn’t believe it. A lady said to us when we were crossing that weren’t we scared walking around a new city just the 3 of us. Alisha just looked at her like she was crazy because we came from India we found Seoul very clean, safe and orderly. 

The Lotus Lantern Parade was great fun to watch. I got given 2 lanterns, a paper flower and some sweets from the people in the parade. After the parade we walked up to the end where there was a stage and we danced two Korean folk dance with everyone, it was a bit like the doing hokey-cokey and the conga line. The next day we went back to the main temple and we made lotus lanterns, there was a competition and us kids got a notebook and stickers. There was a lot of other things to do I made a pot; did some printing; ate lots of interesting vegetarian food and played lots of games.

All week we saw ladies in Hanbok traditional dress with puffy skirts and little jackets made out of colourful silk. Eventually, we had worked hard enough at school that Mummy said we could dress up in them. Mine was a pink dress with a green jacket, it wasn’t that easy to walk and especially run. Going to the toilet was a bit of a fix. We were worried about spilling stuff, so we only drank water. But I still loved wearing it, it made me feel like a real lady. We went into the big palace and took lots of photos. Alisha pretended that she was the Empress and I was her lady in waiting, helping her gently lower herself onto the ground.

There was a special Royal Festival on near our apartment, there were a lot of activities but my favourites was the reinactments. Actors dressed up in proper costumes and told the stories of when the newly married princess came to visit the ancestor’s shine. The princess and the empress had amazing head dresses with every type of hair ornament you can imagine. They were so big when they bowed they nearly fell off and the needed 2 maids to help them. 


We had been looking forward to Kidszania for ages but it was so crowded we only managed to do 3 activities for the whole 5 hours we were there but that was the only bad things about Korea. 

Alisha

When we arrived in Seoul we where flabbergasted by the temperature and the calmness of the city us just coming from India where it had hit a high of 42 degrees and it is completely nuts. We stayed in a loft apartment, although it was only one room it was a very large one and very modern although we customized it a little when we brought back 8 different lanterns from the lantern parade (I’m sure mummy will elaborate on that).


I enjoyed doing all the cultural things like the lantern parade and making our own lanterns, mine was striped all different colours. In Korea children are very special so when we went places like the royal palaces there would be activities for children so like in one palace there was Korean knot making where they taught you how to make a special knot. It was called a cross knot because the string crossed over to make the knot. I liked doing all the cultural things where we did interesting activities.

What kept on making us laugh was the amount of make-up shops there where in Seoul. In fact there was probably more cosmetic shops in Seoul then the there are in the whole of Australia. They gave you free face masks for going in the shop, I’m not sure I face the brussels sprout one or the snail slime one they gave mummy. What we all loved was a cat cafe in the middle of a shopping street it had over 40 cats and we loved it so much that we went there twice. Lucy has been making me tell her yet more stories, this one is about the cat cafe she wants us to have when we grow up. 

Racing to the Top

There’s nothing like a bit of spousal rivalry to spur you on in the morning. It was five in the morning and I had been listening to the wind shriek through the cracks in the tin roof for the last two hours, it didn’t look very promising for my attempt to reach Mardi Himal Basecamp that morning. It was so tempting just to roll over and snuggle down in my sleeping bag but Steve’s success the preceding morning spurred me on. Definitely the right course, as outside the wind sounded far less threatening and was starting to drop and I had an apple pancake waiting. It was time to make for the top, now could I just do it 5 minutes faster than he did, just to bug him.

With Steve’s return from London with his Pakistani visa a few days early, I had decided we had just enough time to squeeze in a quick trek. Poor man, just 16 hours off the plane he was strapping on his boots and heading for the hills. It promised to be worth it though, with amazing views of Machapuchchhre and the Annapurna range, as we trekked up a forested ridge to the bottom of Mardi Himal. A relative “hill” at 5587m compared with its neighbours, some of which make the world’s top ten for height.

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The first days trek, mirrored the trek that we had done the previous week. The first hill was just as much of a killer as before, maybe even worse as we knew how long it went on for. We spent the night in the same basic but quirky teahouses we stayed in before. We reclaimed our triple bed room, with just enough space for the beds and looked fondly upon the tarp and lose plank walls. That night we even listened nostalgically to the chorus of snores from the other rooms, it was good to be back in the mountains. The lovely lady remembered us too, greeting us with smiles and the kids with hugs. This time the weather was glorious and instead of huddling around the fire away from the storm, we sat outside enjoying the warmth.

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The next two days was pleasant hiking through rhododendron forests. It was hazy so no mountain views but the forest was full of ladybirds. Up until about 3 years ago the Mardi Himal trek was only for those hikers with tents and their own supplies, they then built a few small tea houses. Since then it has become a lot more popular, Dil had to call ahead to the teahouses to secure beds for us. It was a good idea, when we arrived at Low Camp there was a bit of an uproar with hikers trying to claim booked beds. They were still trying to finish another building, they had promised the room to a group of German guys but still hadn’t put in any windows or concrete on the floor. The workers busted a gut till dusk making it habitable. The owners of the teahouses were very good at trying to accommodate everyone, putting people together to share. There was always overflow space with everyone bunking down in the dining room with the staff and the porters. The advantage is that is nice and warm but not good if you don’t like snoring. Like the last trek, we usually had 3 beds pushed together for the 4 of us. Away from villages and any road, these teahouses were far more basic with just a few rooms separated with plywood walls. The Dining Rooms were sociable places though, filled with trekkers, guides and porters warming up around the fire. We met so many interesting people from around the world, the girls particularly loved chatting and playing cards. So much so that Alisha didn’t even complain when her kindle ran out of electricity (recharging wasn’t an option in the higher places), usually we can’t separate her from her beloved books for too long. The cooks also manage amazingly cooking up tasty, hearty dishes for everyone out of the most basic of supplies.

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The corridor looking into our room at High Camp, yes that is 2 extra beds end-to-end in the passageway.

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High camp was way above the tree line and at last we started to see the mountains through the haze. Alisha powered ahead of us all, while Lucy kept to a steady pace telling me stories. They both hiked amazingly and cheerfully, even overtaking many adults. Lucy lost her “cutest on the path” crown to a sweet and very blonde Canadian baby, being carried up by her parents. Hiking with them, people we passed all cooed over her, I think Lucy was just relieved that someone else was getting all the cheek squeezing.

That afternoon as we huddled in the dining room at High Camp the rain started to lash down; followed by a massive hail and thunderstorm; and finally snow. We were in bed by 7.30, even cosier in just 2 beds, listening to the storm around us. At 5am, I came back from the loo with information for Steve, “The good news: it’s clear! And the bad news: it’s clear – time to go.” We’d agreed the previous evening that the girls shouldn’t try to make it to Base Camp but that one of us should try. Through some sort of wonky logic, Steve reckoned it should be him. He set off up through the snow by himself determined to make it to the top. The girls, Dil and I followed him soon after. Our climb up to the second viewpoint was filled with breathtakingly stunning views of Machapuchchhre (Fishtail Mountain) and the Annapurnas. After an hour of tricky climbing we arrived at the viewpoint. While I marvelled at God’s creation and the way the sun was sparkling on the snow, the girls got busy. While many hikers were gasping for breath in the thin air, those two were humping around huge snowballs to make a huge “Korean snowlady and her dog Tommy Boy”. Which of course came with a personality and back story.

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Steve meanwhile was making great progress towards the top through the ankle deep snow. He returned to High Camp glowing and triumphant 5 hours later. We had planned to descend some way that afternoon but knowing how disappointed I was not to do it, he said I must try it the following day. We could just about squeeze in another day if we then hoofed it down to the bottom of the trail the same afternoon. I have to say I was beginning to regret our decision by mid-afternoon as another storm whipped around the exposed ridge. We are by now all very stoic about grim toilets but the thought of another visit to the stinky squatter was not attractive, especially as we were all having to drink a lot to help with the altitude affects. Mind you venturing down out into the storm wasn’t attractive either, it was time for another mug of sweet milky tea.

The wind started howling at 3am the following morning, I rolled over sad but a little relieved that my attempt at making Base Camp wouldn’t be possible as the walk along the ridge was treacherous in high winds. By 5am the wind had calmed down and Dil and I were off before the kids had even risen to find their Easter eggs left by the high altitude Easter Bunny. It was a stunning walk up crisp underfoot; with the mountains perfectly clear in front of us; and a blanket of cloud below us. There were several other hikers and guides from the camp working their way up the path, we even had enough breath to chat a little. At the top viewpoint, I came across the most welcome sight I have ever seen in the mountains – a man selling tea and chocolate bars!! Yes!! Unbelievable though it may seem, every morning in the season he hikes up 800m with flasks and sets up shop on a rock at 4000m. Still going well and now with the chance of teasing Steve about his time to the top, we kept on. At last 2 1/2 hours from High Camp we got to Base Camp, it was stunningly beautiful, just time for a few photos before the wind threatened to restart. We were ready for the tea and mars bar on the way back down, it tasted so good!

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Back down at High Camp, Dil and I were still going strong, so after a quick tea and teeth brush, we continued down. Physically, ascending to Base Camp and descending to the jeep track at Sidling, it was going to be challenging. We refuelled with our usual dal bhat (Nepal’s national dish of rice, lentils and vegetable curries) 2 hours further down. Then it was down, down, down on a steep leg-punishing forest path to a promised hot shower and western loo. We made it to Sidling in the late afternoon, Dil and I had been walking for 10 1/2 hours. We had ascended 1000m and then descended 2500m, over a distance of 18km which tells you how steep it was. By 7pm, I was ready for bed and slept like a log.

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We thought the excitement was over with the end of the trek but hadn’t counted on the jeep ride on the scraggy track scratched out from the mountain. The track even beat some of the crazy roads we’ve taken the truck on over the years. With dodgy paths past landslides; deep mud holes; and 4 river crossings including one driving along in the river, we were very glad the driver was very competent and careful. We picked up vegetables and people on the way, piling them on top of the jeep when we ran out of space inside. At last we made it back safely to Pokhara it had been a short sojourn to the mountains, just 6 days, but it had been well worth it.

Oh yes….I made Base Camp 10 minutes faster than Steve;) but he claims his ascent was in the snow so I guess we are equal. In the end it’s not how fast you but it’s all about seeing and enjoying some of the most amazing views.

Separated and Stationary

Up until 15 days ago for the last 3 years, 7 months we have never been apart from more than a few hours at a time. We are a unit, our little overlanding family. We might argue and constantly get on each other’s nerves but we’ve made it more than 3/4 of the way round then world so far together. Most of our friends and family were laying bets that we’d not even last a few weeks. All of that changed on the day we got back from our trek, when Steve flew off to London to get his Pakistani visa. Having been told he could only get it in his home country, there seemed no other alternative.

 

Pakistan looks like our only driving option left since the border between Nepal and Tibet has been closed since the earthquake and Myanmar’s border with China is closed due to unrest. We made a decision that we won’t take the girls through Pakistan, after looking at the FCO advice etc. We might be being overcautious but we would never forgive ourselves if anything happened to them. We’ve heard so many good things about the Pakistani people and having travelled there myself 20 years ago my main memories are of warmth and hospitality but we are playing it safe. Steve is just happy for a chance to catch up with me on his country tick list but I’m so jealous he gets to drive the Karakoram Highway. The girls and I will meet him on the other side in Kashgar, China.

 

So while Steve was off, the girls and I settled into a routine in the outskirts of Pokhara, parked up in a grassy carpark of almost always empty August Resort. Having been there before the trek too, we reacquainted ourselves with our neighbours. We used the time to do double school, 4 hours a day compared with the usual two. Being stationary meant that we could do lots of art and crafts. As always, a lot of the girl’s studies are based around the countries we are in so we skipped ahead a bit making Tibetan prayer flags and sand mandalas, as well as Chinese opera masks.

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The other great thing about being stationary for a while was the chance for the girls to have a little more independence and responsibility. Alisha was very happy popping to the neighbourhood shops to pick things up by herself. Lucy made good friends with Prassana, a little boy who lived next door. They bonded over his family’s baby chicks who roamed in the carpark, everyday they spent ages playing with them with the other neighbourhood kids. Lucy was even invited to his birthday party. Everyone in the area was very friendly and we felt very relaxed. The girls and I were so tempted to sneak a sweet young stray dog, that we saved all our scraps for, into the truck and adopt her.

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Babu's chicks, Pokhara

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One afternoon we took a sewing class with Back Street Academy at a women’s fair trade cooperative and made iPad cases. Alisha absolutely loved using a treadle sewing machine and the warm-hearted ladies were very kind about my complete inability to get the dam thing going.
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I had been worried that I would feel a bit lonely but on our first afternoon, a friendly young German Overlander knocked on the door and introduced herself. We were having such a good chat that she ended up staying for supper, and the following day she brought her van to the carpark while her husband went off on a rented motorbike for a few days. We hung out, ate, hiked and sheltered from the heavy thunderstorms every afternoon. It was great to have the company of such a lovely girlfriend. The next door cafe also had lovely people in it, so I wasn’t at all lonely. After her husband came back, we hung out with him too and a few days later, Ester and Thomas – Swiss Overlanders turned up in their MAN truck. Having seen only one overlanding vehicle and one group of bikers in the whole of Asia, it was great to spend time with people who understand this way of life. Food, stories and skills were all shared,¬†we were very thankful for the company and that now our new windscreen fitted in Delhi no longer leaks.

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We missed Steve but our time gave us an opportunity to mentally regroup and prepare for the challenges of the next 5 months, which looks like it will be some of the most challenging parts of our trip so far. I think we were almost a bit sad when we got the great news that Steve’s visas was ready. With him back a few days earlier than we had anticipated we found we had just enough time to do a 7 day trek up to Mardi Himal, which had caught our eye on our other trek. We’d heard it was a great quiet trek with amazing views, so I persuaded the rest of the family to try to squeeze it in before we have to head south-west to India again.

I was lovely when Steve finally arrived back after an exhausting long flight via Bangkok. We had just one short evening for a join birthday celebration, Steve spent his birthday at the Pakistani visa agency in London and I will have mine on the trek next week, with our new friends.

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