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. 

Breeding our own Mosquitos?

We had only left Pokhara that afternoon and we were already pining for the mountains. Our drive had taken us on a pretty twisty route through the hills with waterfalls and gorges before descending into the Terai, the plains of Nepal.  
It was here the heat hit us. The thermometer rose rapidly and even at 6pm it was 35 degrees. It was getting dark so we decided to pull into a petrol station to camp. Unlike a few months ago, at that temperature we needed to have all the windows and hatches open to let what little breeze there was in. Not to worry we thought as we have great mosquito nets.  


That evening though as we lay sweating in the heat all of us were bitten all over. The next morning there were hundreds of mosquitos in the truck, where had they come from? This seemed to repeat itself each night for the next few nights and no matter how careful we were they always seemed to be there in the morning. We sprayed the truck each morning before driving to kill them and were pretty confident this many were not getting through the nets. Were they breeding in our waste tank? We closed up all the plugs but still they came out.
We had decided to drive to the Western end of Nepal to maximise the driving in Nepal and minimise it in India and we were glad we did as the road was good and traffic a lot lighter. Crossing the border was straight forward and whilst other vehicles were waiting to cross the bridge we were just waved through with them even unlocking the gates to let us across. The border guard proudly stated “we are open 24 hours for international visitors”.


Mind you the bridge is nearly 800metres long and is only just wide enough for the truck. I waited for a gap in the foot and motorbike passengers and flashed my lights to say that I was coming. To no avail nobody paid any notice and tried to cross anyway. Meeting in the middle of the bridge the foot and bicycles squeezed past, as for the motorbikes, well I wasn’t reversing!
After the relative calm of Nepal, we soon descended into the chaos of India. This is most evident from the driving where you need to be on constant alert to avoid either hitting something or someone hitting you. We had a lot of kilometres to cover to reach Amritsar so we’re not too impressed when we were held up in a traffic jam for over an hour especially as the jam was caused by impatient drivers refusing to queue up and then consequently blocking everything as nobody could get through.


In India they are building lots of new roads but for some reason they never seem to complete the bridges.

It wasn’t long until we hit the Grand Trunk Road. This was a modern motorway with three lanes so you would think that driving would be easier. Except everyone drives in whatever lane they wish regardless of speed so sometimes tractors are in the outside lans, sometimes in the inside land and sometimes people just straddle a couple of lanes to make life difficult for everyone.
As we approached Amritsar it got hotter and hotter, hitting 42 degrees. We were only 50kms short of our destination but as it was getting dark we sort refuge in a petrol station again. They may not be the most glamorous spots but they are generally clean and the staff friendly. That night the heat broke. A storm came through with nice cooling winds and when we woke up in the morning it was a lot more bearable.
The next morning we headed to Mrs Bhandari’s Guest House. This is an overlanding institution as it’s been looking after overlanders for 50 years. In fact Gilly had stayed here before 23 years ago when she had travelled to Asia on the back of a truck. It’s a lovely place, a tranquil oasis in the outskirts of Amritsar and a great place for us to prepare for the next leg of the journey. We gladly parked our truck in the garden of the colonial guest house, there was even a pool to cool off in as the days heated up.


You may recall we were in Amritsar a couple of months ago with Gilly’s mum. As tempting as it was to just sit around in the guesthouse gardens we decided we still needed to go and see again some of the sights. The Golden Temple is just magnificent and especially when it is lit up at dusk so we headed down there to walk around the lake that it is set in, admiring the views and watching the locals who were either bathing, praying or also just out for a stroll.



We also had to go back to Charming Chicken, a restaurant we had visited on our previous visit. It is a simple place but the food was just as juicy as the first time and we left very full.
On our final day in Amritsar it was time to get ready for the next stage of our journey. For Gilly and the girls this meant packing as they would not be coming with the truck for the next few weeks. Instead they would be jetting off while I drive the truck across Pakistan and up the Karakoram Highway before hopefully us all meeting back up in China.
For me it was time to load the truck with goodies so I would have everything I needed for the next few weeks.
It will be strange driving alone and a bit stressful especially as I am still on the “wrong” side of the road for my steering wheel.
I say I will be driving alone, we never did find out about those mosquitos. For the last few days they seem to have disappeared. I hope they are not coming along for the ride with me!

Reflections on Nepal


Lucy
Nameste Nice Nepal. 
Nepal is full of exciting and interesting culture and many different nice people. 
We went for a 12 day hike into the mountains. We walked many, many, many kilometres; ate many chocolate bars; and told many, many stories. 

When we returned back to Pokhara, Daddy had to leave to get his Pakistan visa just before his birthday. We made friends with two other sets of Overlanders, it was good to meet other people driving around Asia. I loved going to the cafe next door, The Bee Charmer. Upstairs there was a little boy called Babu, he had the sweetest baby chicks and everyday we played with them together. I went to Babu’s birthday party. There were 3 sweet dogs nearby. One was a stray dog we named Foxy because of her ears were like a fox and she had the nicest orangey fur. Alisha and I wanted to adopt her. 


Bye bye Nice Nepal. 
Alisha 
Nepal was an instant relief after crazy India. We found that Nepal was less nuts then India but a bit far off a European country. Kathmandu is about four notches less on the crazy scale then Varanasi, an Indian city. (To be honest it might of been five but who cares) but the rest of Nepal was pretty (it was more than pretty actually but I can’t spell baeutiful or is it beautilful you see, I can’t spell it).
The Himalayas were awesome. I know most people say ” Oh the only reason I went to Nepal was to go trekking” but there is a lot more to Nepal then that. It’s a whole form of culture on it’s own. Most people look over Nepal, they prefer to go to Tibet for the Himalayas. Even if they go to Nepal they only look at the mountains not at the culture but they should it is really interesting. I bet Mummy or Daddy will write about the amazing mountains and the scenery and blah blah blah. I enjoyed meeting all the different people on the mountain, there was a lot of people who where all very friendly and I beat a lot of them at cards;)

When we spent two weeks in Pokhara that was fun I got to go and buy vegetables on my own (when you don’t have a permanent address and you can’t go anywhere without a grown-up it’s a big deal) the local shop owners got to know me and always smiled and waved as I walked towards them. They where always super friendly and never once called me baby (whooooohooo).

Gilly
We only left the mountains a couple of days ago and already I miss them, especially as it is 38°C in the lowlands. Our two treks in Nepal: up the Kalaigebdiki Valley and up to Mardi Himal Base Camp, were all we had hoped for and more. Both teahouses treks, the first gave us not only amazing mountain views but also a glimpse of village culture. The second was mostly through uninhabited forest but the highlight was the final days views from above the tree line and Steve and I getting up to the Base Camp. It would have been nice to have done it together but I’m so pleased we were able to do it, and we didn’t have to drag the girls up that high. I’m amazed at how much they enjoyed the trekking too, they deserve credit for how well they did. They rarely complained about the walking and loved the novelty of sleeping in new places, meeting new people and hours of telling and hearing stories. 


The big earthquake, 2 years ago, has left it scars. We saw lots of rebuilding in Kathmandu which added a lot of dust to the already horribly polluted atmosphere. The Nepali people stoic, warm and welcoming and everything was working although sadly for them tourist numbers are way down. Education seems to have a big focus with kids smart in the uniform setting off every morning for school. The children who lived around the area we stayed in Pokhara, were all enthusiastic and spoke some English. Although sadly, we did see some instances of child labour, many were just helping their parents out but some appeared to be working independently in businesses. 


We loved our 7 1/2 weeks in Nepal so much that we have already decided what to do when we come back, another trek into a more remote region. We would have happily stayed for longer but after so long in one place the road beckons.

Steve
I loved Nepal. It’s a friendly country with some of the most amazing scenery on the planet. After the chaos of India, Nepal felt so much more relaxed. Not that it didn’t have it’s own chaotic places such as the traffic in Kathmandu but once out trekking that all just faded away.
The culture and the sights of the Kathmandu valley made for an interesting week but the highlight for me was the two treks we did that took us high into the mountains. It was good to see we were all pretty fit and that we managed the altitude well so that we could enjoy the breath taking scenery. I just could not get enough of the views and I am keen to come back to do some more trekking. Heading up to Kagbeni and glimpsing into Mustang has me eager for more.

Pokhara was also a pleasant relaxed place to hang out and a great place for the family to stay while I had to head back to England for a visa. We have a lot of driving in front of us so it was nice to leave the truck parked up for a while and to use our own two feet to get around.
The treks were amazing. It was not just the scenery but the simple life of moving from tea house to tea house. Meeting other interesting travellers as well as engaging with the owners of the tea houses. We soon settled into a daily rhythm and the worries of the wider world just faded away. Sitting looking in awe at the mountains just seemed to make everything so insignificant.