After two months with a clear goal and worrying about pot holes and police officers, switching to holiday mode was never going to be easy. No complaining though. As we have said before, it could be worse, we could be stuck in a traffic jam in London.
In many ways our arrival in UB was a bit of an anti-climax. The city lacked the charm of some of the other places we visited during the rally, with constant traffic gridlocks and construction works on nearly every corner. These construction works need to be done in the warmer months of the year as the conditions in winter are too harsh. What’s not finished in summer is left undone until next year (hopefully).
Unexpectedly, the pollution levels were not too bad. Later we learnt that in the last few years many nomads have lost their cattle, due to harsh winters, and have migrated to the city with their yurts which they set up in slums around the city centre. Heating up these yurts in the cold winter takes a lot of coal, which is what causes all the pollution issues. A city of two faces: rich people, foreigners included, making humongous amounts of money thanks to copper and other mineralas and former nomads struggling to provide decent food and education to their families.
After visiting Go Help’s Book House project and handing over our beloved Lola, there was nothing more for us to do in UB and it was time to get going with our journey. From now on, it will be just the two of us… and the world of course.
A change of plans on the very first day
Our original idea was to get a Chinese visa in Ulaanbaatar and hop on the Transiberian Express to Beijing. In the end we did none of that. All decent train tickets for Beijing were sold out for two weeks (back to school season). The alternative was a slow journey via slower trains that would have made a great adventure, but perhaps not something our bodies and minds were ready to take on, after two months on the road.
China is not the only option.
You are right. Let’s go to Korea.
The plane took off with us not being able to name any other city in South Korea apart from Seoul. Being ignorant had never been so exciting!
On any other day, having to wait 6 days to get our Chinese visa would have been annoying. This time though, the long wait was welcomed by both of us. It gave us time to slow down, think about the next few months and get acquainted with our new host, Seoul. The city is full of fascinating places where tradition, history and the latest technologies are mixed together in harmony.
Special mention goes to the War Museum. The current situation in the Korean peninsula is nothing but a stupid consequence of World War II, similar in a way to what happened in Berlin. The museum explains (with an emphasis on South Korea’s side of the conflict) what happened during the Korean War. And it does so using 4D cinema shows, plenty of memorabilia and with an outdoor exhibition of war artefacts which is second to none.
Food-wise the city is a gem. Best recommendation? Forget your guide book and just walk in to any restaurant or better still, head over to the lively food markets for a true experience (and punchy kimchee).
Seoul witnessed our first Couchsurfing experience. Whilst Sukyoung was not able to host us, she did take the time to show us around her favourite part of the capital. We talked about education, politics, North Korea and family over a tasty traditional Korean dinner and finished the evening with some amazing views of the city’s skyline.
From Seoul we made our way south to Gyeongju, former capital of the ancient Silla Empire. Unfortunately, like in Seoul, most of the temples and palaces here were burnt down during the dark days of the Japanese invasion and all that remains now is soulless reconstructions of the originals.
However, the trip to Gyeongju is still worth it, the scenery is beautiful and the flower gardens are truly stunning at sunset. If you are lucky you may spot a chipmunk, or two.
Next up was Busan, Korea’s second largest city, and home to what many argue are the craziest baseball fans in the country. Getting tickets at the stadium was pretty straightforward, and for just £6 a ticket you just can’t go wrong. Regardless of the heavy rain, the spirits were high. Bringing food and drinks from outside is allowed, almost encouraged and everyone is there to have fun, dance, sing and get a bit tipsy. The outcome of the game? I don’t think anyone cared. And you know what they say, when in Rome…
Busan also offers a lively fish market, the biggest in Korea, and a picturesque village home to many art galleries, many of which we failed to understand.
Korea thank you for having us
Jeju island lies a few kilometres south of the peninsula and is a popular destination with Korean people. It is not a surprise: with busy food markets, challenging hikes, dormant volcanos and more museums per square metre than any other place in the world, it definitely has something for every taste.
After a couple of nights in the island it was time to head off to the next country. Korea was everything we needed and more: welcoming, clean, easy and tasty. So long, Korea!
Crowded cities, fantastic food, one Great Wall, ancient tradition and a fascinating language – China, here we come.