Seoul in a few photos

11 Sep

Friends, I realise it's time to roll up our sleeves and give you an update. We're now in Seoul, a city that is nothing like I expected. But it's one week in, and I only have a breezy first impression. So, let's do a bullet list!

* Seoul is the city children across the world unknowingly make drawings of. Though the architecture is at times more exiting, the overall impression of large parts of this city is of cookie cutter type buildings. But there's also the frequent contrast between temples and skyscrapers.

* It's smart. Like the stands with umbrella locks provided outside buildings on rainy days, the child seat for toddlers in special toilets for mothers, the free translation hotline advertised in taxis you may call if your taxi driver only speaks Korean. Or if the restaurant of your choice is full, there's the piece of paper hung by the door where you simply sign your name and number of people to keep easy track of the queue and allow you to do something else for the next few minutes than ogle the people at the table you want. And it's the clean public toilet just there where you need it, neatly advertised on the main road.

* It's tech-savvy. Everyone has smart phones – and everyone seems to pull them out when on the metro (free wifi!). The coolest kids even sport antennas so that they may properly watch TV while whiling away their time between stations.

* It's plastic. This is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Plastic surgery ads are everywhere. It seems easier to spot the young people who have yet to go under the knife than to spot the ones who have.

* It's incredibly stretched out. Thankfully, so is the metro – just make sure to bring your Kindle or smart phone to pass those next 40 minutes somewhat sensibly. Or you can sleep…

* It's safe. It's impeccably clean. Everyone's well dressed. We're the scruffiest people in town. Contrary to South East Asia, no one wears flip flops. We do (and people stare at the 1EUR bargain I picked up in Indonesia).

* It's shopping. I thought Bangkok was overwhelming – but compared to Seoul, the Thai capital seems almost limited. Though if you're a European size 38/M or larger, there will be no trousers and only a few skirts for you in this city. It's also surprisingly uniform. Much of the fashion (except the itty bitty skirts) is similar to the Scandinavian style. Though I am struck by how an entire city appears to have agreed on the colours beige, blue, cream-white, green as well as navy stripes.

* It's coffee. Everywhere. Everywhere you go, there's a coffee shop, or a block lined with them. Perhaps because people crave caffeine alongside their 12hour work days or because apartments are notoriously small and it might be easier and preferable to meet friends at a cafe.

* It's tasty. Wonderful, wonderful food – as long as you steer clear of all that pickled stuff. Or bring a boyfriend who happily eats it for you.

 
A quick word on what's next:

We've now finally planned the next few months of our journey. Although it seemed to have no end in January and Asia really was our limitless oyster, we're now drawing closer to the point where we would actually like to see it end.

So. Our plan now is to spend another two weeks in South Korea, then we'll be in wacky Japan for three weeks before we leave Asia altogether and go to New York (hurrah!) as a slight detour before we finally head back to Europe again – which should be at some point in November.

 

On the thankfulness of not understanding

30 Jul

On Gili Air one of these bright clear days, I came upon a woman in her mid-fifties, wearing a green summer dress and a frown, who I could not be happier to not understand.

“So are you going to put the cushions back?” She had stopped in front of me.

“You are not allowed to move the cushions. There is a sign saying, you cannot move the cushions.”

I stared at her. It was true. We had taken more of our share of cushions though there were plenty more available on empty seats.

It was something in her tone that made me slow to respond. Or maybe the strong German accent that came with it.

“So?” she said. “Can we reclaim those cushions?”

“Can't you just take those?” I said. I looked at her to make her follow my stare to the empty beach hut in front with four large cushions.

“I don't want those. The servants sleep on them all day long.”

“But there is no one there now and we have been here for hours. Can't you just take those and if someone else comes, we'll give them the ones we have?”

“I don't want those” she replied, uttering each word slowly and separate from the next.

She proceeded to sigh.

“I don't want those“, she repeated, with one eyebrow raised, talking to me now in an even slower manner, as it would help me understand.

I didn't.

I did when she lowered her voice.

“I don't want those”, she hissed in a whisper. “The servants sleep on them all day long”.

I turned around and looked at my fiancé. But his dark sunglasses revealed nothing.

A moment passed. I gave her the cushion I had under my feet.

She smiled at me. “Thank you”, she said, as to a stubborn child who had finally come around.

I got up and got myself some servant cushions.

 

That same evening, we returned to the hotel late at night. There were no cushions in the small beach huts.

“Uhm”, I said, thinking not too much of it. “They must take them in every night.”

“So they all get mixed up then?”

I understood him. We laughed.

 

Gili palmtree and coral reef

21 Jul

We are on Gili Air in Indonesia and I don't have a care in the world. Time passes unnoticed, one day, five days, ten days and have we really been here already for more than two weeks?

There is an ocean that stretches out of sight. A cloudless sky. And twice daily the ice cream seller nips through the palm trees, accompanied by waves crushing on the sand and a small radio fastened to the top of his ice box. This is picture-book tropics.

There are no cars nor dogs on the island. A few horse-drawn charts make their daily rounds on the sandy tracks. Tourists pleased with life lean out to photograph the chickens who scramble across the road and the sunburned children who drift around like cheerful drunks in the waves.

After the morning swim, I read and read and read and it is time for snorkeling. I see no turtles, but I have already seen four and there is enough underwater wonders to keep me floating for a long time.

When the time comes, the sunset is bright pink and I watch it while I jog on the hard sand by the edge of the water. It is a starry night. After dinner we walk through the small village back to our bamboo hut and snuggle down with each our novel and all I can hear from outside are the waves and I have another attack of happiness and this is all to saccharin to share which is why I have not blogged from this island before, but there you go, I just did.

 

 

 

Incredible Indians

2 Jul

Honestly, when we were re-introduced to the hot, dusty and busy India after our mountain break in the Himalayas, we went into hibernation.

Because once out of Kaza, it hit us that the rest of the country was slowly cooking its inhabitants. The rain had yet to come and temperatures had reached the high forties. It was simply too hot and humid to do anything. And that, my friends, was our excuse for barely leaving our hotel room in Delhi the last few days in India.

Because India is tiring. And we were tired.

After two and half months in India we needed a break from being tourists. And besides, it didn't retrieve our lost tourist spirits that we were staying next to New Delhi railway station. In the competition between wandering out into humidity that left us wet with sweat in alleys smelling of perfume de peepee, fluffy hotel room pillows and our new god, The AirCondition, won. And, we had seen Delhi before, and truthfully, it really was too hot.

So, how was India?

It would be most obvious to tell you about the crazy and wacky, the people curled up on the pavements, how the social mobility ladder is still far out of reach for the many, and how the caste system seems to be hiding in every nook and corner.

But, for every elbow in the ribs from a local queue jumper, there were people who went out of their way to help us. Like the girl who missed her bus to help us figure out ours, the couple who ended up giving us a 20 hour lift, the ones who came with us to ensure we got Indian prices for the souvenirs, and the man who left a nice and warm cafe to walk in the sleet to help us find our hotel. And for every holy cow munching on plastic, every aggressive tout and roadside littered with trash, there were bright saris and turbans, butter chicken and tandoori nan and Indians who were warm and welcoming.

Loved it or hated it?

Before we left for India, we were repeatedly told by other travellers that the country was a matter of black or white. “You either love it or hate it”, they said, “there is no in-between”.

In a way, they were right. India was all the extremes. The highs and the lows often happened juxtaposed. But in the end, there were more good people than bad people, more superb experiences than horrific, and more wacky wonderful memories than anything else.

And above all, India was never boring.

 

 

Leaving Spiti Valley, India: apologies for the oohs, aahs and ouches!

29 Jun

The upper reaches of the Indian Himalayas are among the most remote places on the planet and also the most disaster-prone. The hostile terrain, unpredictable weather and the dirt track that passes as the national highway to Spiti are a dangerous mix and many tourists end up getting stranded. This year we were two of those tourists.

For 10 long days in June, all roads out of Spiti were gone. The road southbound was washed away in four places by landslides and the road northbound was still blocked by moving glaciers. The winter had been particularly long and dreary, and the road north through Kunzum pass (4,551m) was still stubbornly white.

Spiti is spectacular, mind you, but the prospect of not being able to leave one of this planet's most remote inhabited places was daunting to say the least.

Our journey to the Indian Himalayas had come to an abrupt halt. When the snow and landslides started, we had barely made it to Kaza, Spiti's largest village. The snow had come as a surprise while we were still in Dhankar, a mountain top village where boulders had by then appeared on the road. Local drivers preferred to stay in their safe homes and we only made it out by hitching a lift with the Congress Party who were out electioneering.

Our original plan had been to go walking in the surrounding mountains when we reached Kaza. But when rumours started floating around of more incoming bad weather we decided to stay put.

We were already without electricity and water, but there was a German Bakery in the village, Kaza was likely to hear any news about the roads first, and above all, it would be dangerous to move about on Spiti's roads if the rain/sleet/snow started again. Even a small amount of rain could set off new rockslides.

So, like everyone else, we opted for shorter day-trips from Kaza while we waited and hungrily lapped up any news about the roads.

This is Kibber, a small village at 4,270m that used to be highest habitation in Asia connected by road. The distinction is now passed on to a nearby village – surely a rather unpopular one in Kibber..

With views on 5000 metre peaks, even a day-trip to Kibber was rewarding. Pity we were only left to imagine what it would be like to walk in these mountains.

The houses are traditional Spiti houses, with thick walls made of mud and often also cow dung to keep in as much heating as possible.

The road returns

We had decided to not take any chances, and only try the 4,500m mountain passes northbound after someone else had made it past the glaciers and all the way to Manali. On 21 June, the first jeep this year chugged along Spiti valley and across Kunzum Pass. The day after, we were in a jeep out of Spiti.

For the first dark hour of that morning, we kept to the left bank of the river Spiti. We averaged 30 km/h on dilapidated roads (which was rather fast, we would soon discover), with rocky inclines to our right and snow-capped mountains both ahead and behind us. Key gompa, mounted on a crest, was visible from miles around.

Before long, we rattled over a bridge made of wooden planks, nothing else in sight than mountains. As we ducked under a particularly menacing overhang next to a ghostly canyon, one of my fellow (Indian) travellers shook her head. “Why would anyone want to live here? On the edge of the world?”.

Then there was the check point at Losar. Although meant to record any travellers going up into the mountains in case anyone has any problems, our convoy of four jeeps were waved through. The mountain pass we were headed for was not yet officially declared open, so in the Wonderland of India the check point was rendered invalid. Spiti may have been the land of the officially missing roads at the time, I remember thinking, but bugger me if they were going to have any recorded missing tourists on their hands. Reassuring.

As we climbed higher and the air became crisper, the number of messages to drivers painted on the mountainsides increased. Yet, none of the “Life is short, do not make shorter” or “Please honk!” could compete with the sign just ahead of Nako further south in the valley: “For the oohs, aahs and ouches. Sorry, we regret the inconvenience”.

After Losar, a carpet of green appeared on the valley bottom and on the lower edges of the mountains. Like Kashmir, the Indians in our car said. We passed a yak, mesmerised. By this point in our Indian trip, my boyfriend and I had become blase to holy cows. But yaks?!

At 4551 metres, the Kunzum pass was the highest point we were to reach that day. As everyone else passing through this part of the Indian Himalayas, we got out of the cars to walk around the small temple on the mountain top. Believers or not, we needed all the luck or blessing we could get to ensure a safe journey.

Blessed by the deity, we continued downwards from Kunzum. As we winded our way down the narrow road taking us down the steep mountainside, we passed mountainsides still frozen in thick, solid ice.

In India, you see, they cut through the glaciers to bring out the road during summer.

“Do you do this with your glaciers in Norway?”, one of my Indian travel companions asked.

I slowly shook my head, while I pondered how to phrase diplomatically that no, that would be insane.

“No, I think we let them be”, I replied matter of factly. “I don’t think we travel through them”.

But my emphasis gave me away, making everyone laugh.

“That is the difference between Norway and India! We travel through moving glaciers – they travel around them”.

But to be fair to wacky Indians, it's not only down to engineering bravery. In the Himalayas, building roads is tricky. One of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas are not yet stable. Porous mountainsides also means landslides and, in severe rain, the roads themselves may very well plunge to the bottom of the valley. Add to that massive glaciers pressing on the terrain, and it's easy to cut Indian engineers and construction workers some slack.

The road rapidly descended to the valley bottom, where a few stone houses with canvas roofs came into sight next to the blue Chandra river. After hours on remote roads traversing several thousand metre high mountains and with the closest permanent human habitation 100 km away, the Chandra dhaba (small eatery) seemed like a magical place appearing out of nowhere.

And for many travellers, Chandra dhaba has been a godsend. Leaned against the inside of the stone walls, framed newspaper stories tell dramatic stories of how Bodh Dorjee and his wife Chandra have rescued tourists who have been helplessly stuck after a sudden dramatic shift in weather. For us, the Tibetan dhaba owners served up masala instant noodles and hot tea before we headed for new glaciers.

We continued on a dirt road that made us wince to the beat that only very expensive car parts hitting rocks can make.

“How can they even call this a road?! They should say the track is open!” my backseat neighbour exclaimed.

“In our countries, this is not a road!” my boyfriend laughed.

The reply came quickly:

“I don't think it is in our country either!”

After crossing another few patches of glacial ice and small thoroughfares cut out in the snow by JCBs, the road improved (everything is relative – check the first photo below!) and we found ourselves in a green valley packed with sheep.

But soon, we were again driving through water falls, rivers and past patches of snow and ice. And eventually, the three came together in a dangerous mix.

Holding our breath, we drove through stretches of road with waterfalls running under the glacier to our left. The icy water was slowly hollowing out the ice before pouring out onto the road and then plunging down the cliff face to our right.

The climax of the journey was however the rocky road that passed through ten metre high snow walls. The thrill mixed with real anxiety when driving through was confirmed on the other side, where a JCB was waiting and would be waiting for the next few weeks, to clear up the snow when it inevitably would fall down again.

For our South Indian friend who had seen snow for the first time the week before in Kaza, Spiti and Lahaul was surely delivering:

“OOOOOH! That was exciting!”

On the way up to Rohtang pass (3,978m) past new walls of ice but also potato fields, reflecting that we were getting closer to people, the driver of another car flagged us down. There was a jam ahead, he said, they were shooting a Bollywood film on the other side of Rohtang pass.

While a cluster of Indians had pulled out their cameras by the Bollywood stars, I pulled out mine 10 km after Rhotang as we were descending for Manali. Because there, on a small stretch of snow to the left of the road, were thousands upon thousands of Indians happily rollicking about in colourful one-piece snow suits and rubber boots. Ponies and yaks (yay!) tottered around with delighted children on their backs. Snow-mobiles scooted past flapping prayer-flags. Hundreds of local vendors and parked cars brought the passing traffic to an almost halt. We had reached “Snow Point”, a legendary strip of snow visited as a day-trip from nearby Manali by honeymooners and tourists.

After our spectacular car journey from Spiti, the slushy brown snow and short slopes failed to impress. But, the smiles, wonder and excitement of thousands of people experiencing snow for the first time did.

“I didn't expect this many people!”, I exclaimed, making one of my fellow Indian travellers burst out in laughter:

“Come on guys, this is India. 1.2 billion people. If only a few turn up, we're talking thousands!”

I guess that is it. With the chaos, diversity and creativity of 1.2 billion people and a country that fits all of Western Europe, it's simply hard to know what to expect. I didn't see Snow Point coming, let alone snow in June in Spiti, and I did not expect an 11 hour car journey to become one of my highlights from our travels in India.

 

Sweet & sour tones at the puja in Kaza

28 Jun

On top of the flight of steps leading into Kaza monastery were twenty pairs of tiny red rubber boots and colourful crocs. Undoubtedly, this morning's puja would be somewhat different.

The room inside was large, and because the windows and door faced the snow-capped peaks in front of Kaza, it was light and cheerful. The prayer was already underway, so we settled down in silence on the low couch running along the left wall of the room. Three rows of monks sat in front of us, all cross-legged on couches lined with Tibetan rugs, but with a narrow table running alongside them.

Yet, despite the familiar setting, something was different. Obviously different. For one, the monks kept nudging each other, changing places and giggling. Their red robes were attached with safety pins to thick puffer jackets and hoodies. And, the majority of them at one point gave up on following the prayer altogether in order to rather follow the bread basket around the room with their eyes.

In Kaza and its surrounding villages, it is tradition for the second son to join the monastery to avoid squabbles over land. The eldest son gets all the property and any younger brothers are hired by him to work on the land. The majority of the monks in front were therefore children, some of them barely reaching me to my waist.

The music did however ring a familiar bell. I recalled the cymbals and the drum from the pujas in the other monasteries. But Kaza was way cooler than a mere set of cymbals. The mantra here seemed to be a much more inclusive one; the more the merrier! Bring on the conch shells and the horns as well!

It was woooonderful. As we sipped hot milky tea saturated with sugar, the monks struck sweet, sour tones. After an uneven start, they eventually caught up with each other, only to let the music die out with one or two lingering on a bit longer. “It's like a school brass band”, I whispered to my boyfriend, who nodded cheerfully in agreement.

Prayer over, the young monks put on their woolen hats and left the hall. We walked towards our guesthouse to hear if there were any news about our evacuation from Kaza. On our way back, one of the Indians in our group pointed to the old monastery further up on the mountainside.

“Apparently there is an elderly monk there who holds a really good puja. But for this one, the entertainment value was very high”.