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:
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.
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.