Friends, fresh air and food in South Korea

Our time in South Korea could be summed up with three Fs: Friends, fresh air and food. Or, come to think of it, three Ms: mates, mountains and meals. Or maybe three C’s; chums, countryside and cuisine… Ahem. You get the idea.

The spring sunshine and blossom in Seoul was a delightful backdrop to our explorations of this vibrant city. We enjoyed the changing the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung palace.

Wandering along Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream that runs through the centre of the city. Riding the cable car up to Namsan Peak for love locks and city views. Visiting Insa-dong’s quirky shopping district. Seeing the beautiful blossom at Yeoido spring flower festival. And dancing on Gangnam Street’s  eponymous stage. For the children there were numerous museums and parks. But the real highlight was catching up with friends that we’d made whilst trekking in Nepal. Yuni and Jo were wonderful local guides and it was great to have their insight into Korean culture.

From Seoul we spent two nights in Busan but the wind and heavy rain meant it was hard to explore. We ended up succumbing to pester power and shelled out to visit the Busan Sealife centre. The boys enjoyed it but I cant help but think they got just as much enjoyment looking at the tanks of fish, eels and octopi in the seafood market.

Jeju Island was the destination for the second part of our trip. We arrived at our accommodation in Seogwipo by chance with the aid of a helpful coffeeshop manager. We had snuck in to use the wi-fi and having struck up a conversation he phoned his friend who worked in a hostel round the corner. Kenny the owner of Slow Citi hostel did us a great deal and we got a free night on the understanding that our boys would play with his son. Now thats a win:win. The sign on the reception wall reading ‘Don’t be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ was rather apt.

Jeju is a volcanic island to the South of the mainland. It is a big holiday destination for the Koreans. This is probably why there is a museum/theme park for everything. From sex to dinosaurs; teddy bears to chocolate. Happily we managed to avoid these and spent our time enjoying the fresh air whilst exploring Jeju’s stunning coastline. It was sunny but the sea was pretty chilly, that didn’t deter the boys from taking a dip at Jungmung & Hyeopjae’s beautiful beaches.

The football fans amongst you may recognise Jeju as one of the venues from the 2002 World Cup. Many of the islanders we met claimed to have met David Beckham et al and would let us know at the earliest opportunity in our conversation.

We used Jeju’s extensive bus service to get around and at a bus stop one day we met some Neuro surgeons who were on Jeju for a conference. They couldn’t figure out which bus to get and ended up hailing a taxi. It was a little complicated but certainly not brain surgery.

We spent a day climbing Mount Hallasan. The route up was not particularly scenic but the views across the island from the top made it worth it. Hiking is somewhat of a national past time in Korea. There are an abundance of outdoor clothing stores and people get kitted up in technical clothing for the shortest stroll. Even in Seoul we saw older people on the metro decked out in vibrant rain coats (we dubbed them the ‘Goretex grannies’). We must have looked woefully underprepared. As we learnt in Nepal, Koreans take a good supply of treats with them on a hike and the boys were kept happy by a steady stream of sweets and chocolate.

I couldn’t write about our time in Jeju without mentioning the incredible Haenyeo. These female free divers collect sea products by diving to depths of up to 20m. It is somewhat of a dying art as young women no longer want to take up the profession. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their sixties still diving to collect sea slug, sea weed and other such delicacies.

Which brings me round to the last F; food. Korean food is delicious and with the help of Yuni and Jo we managed to navigate some dishes that we may not have known about (or dared try) otherwise. Culinary highlights include: Naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth), Hotteok (pancakey thing with a sweet gooey middle), Pakeon (green onion pancake) Bindaettok (mungbean pancake), Jokbal (pig trotters), Modeumhoe (mixed raw fish/seafood platter – I’ll pass on the sea slug next time) and of course the famous Korean barbecue.

It had not been high on my list of countries to visit on our round the world trip. In fact I didn’t know much about South Korean apart from kimchi, Gangnam Style and the troublesome neighbours in the North. But I soon fell in love with the warm people, beautiful scenery and delicious cuisine. The one downside was that we only spent two weeks there. Annyeoghi gyeseyo Korea. I hope we meet again.

Our six month travelversary

About this time last year we made a decision that led us to where we are today. There’s no way we could have predicted on that bright and breezy day in Brighton that a year hence we’d be in South Korea but here we are exactly six months since we landed in Delhi and what a ride we’ve had! 

  

We are often asked whether it is difficult to travel with young children. Usually the question is posed by young travellers who don’t have kids. My stock answer is that life with children is life with children. We have the same issues on the road that we’d have at home: disagreements over screen time (George), drama over getting dressed (Tomas), refusal to get a haircut (both) and I still often impale my foot on lego when I go to the loo at 3am.

  

We’ve mediated sibling squabbles at the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Their clothes always need washing and they need to eat all the bloody time. But that’s life with children! Now they have six months travel under their belts the boys are seasoned travellers. They can sleep anywhere, greet the locals in their lingo and ‘Home’ is wherever we drop our backpacks. 

  

We have continued with our nightly ritual of sharing a highlight (or highlike as T calls them). As we approached the half way point  of our adventure we reflected on all we have done so far. Trying to nail down a highlight from each of us for the past six months was tricky but here they are:

  

Nick has really enjoyed having time together as a family and we both agree that trekking in the Himalayas was the high point of our journey so far. 

  

I have also loved making new friends, spending time with old ones and eating all the food!

  

For George it was the camel trek we did in Jaisalmer and eating scorpion in Beijing of course!

  

Tomas has enjoyed seeing rabbits in all the countries we’ve visited and the pony trek he did on his birthday in Nepal.

  

Together we have experienced more of the world (and each other) in six months than we’d have managed in 10 years of family holidays and for that we feel truly blessed. Here’s to the next six months there’s no knowing where they may lead!

  

 

 

Cruising the Yangzi River

After many planes, trains and various forms of automobile, we decided it was time to slow the pace down for a few days and book ourselves onto a cruise up China’s longest and most beautiful river, the Yangzi.

 

For the first time in a while, arguably since we left the Himalayas in December, this was to be a trip where the destination was irrelevant compared to the journey itself. 

 

Despite a jittery start involving a bus driver refusing to drive the bus, an occupational hazard some might suggest, we were eventually transported from Yichang to Maoping Port, home of the immense Three Gorges Dam, where we boarded our new home for the coming three nights. 

 

The word cruise may conjure up scenes of opulence, we were however on a bog standard Chinese tourist boat. Our “luxury” cabin, in estate agents’ parlance, was compact and bijoux, comprising of two single beds, a desk and a shower over a poorly plumbed toilet. But we soon settled down as the ship set sail westward up the vast river.

 

We were, unsurprisingly, the only Westerners on board and, for some of our fellow passengers at least, we were as much of an attraction as the Three Gorges themselves. I say we, but of course I mean the Boys who have been the subject  matter of more photos with strangers than we’ve managed to capture of them. I had hoped quietly that the novelty of their presence would wear off after day one. Alas their appeal proved timeless, to the point where our cohorts were still mega-pixelating their way into our cabin (uninvited, but still welcome) on the final evening. Some were still perplexed, if not bemused, at Tomas’s attire, or lack thereof. Yes, despite the cooler weather in China he still insists on being underdressed for every occasion. 

  

Apart from one young boy the average age of our fellow passenger was somewhere in the mid sixties. The men smoked, drank and played cards whilst the women sat around in small groups setting the world to rights. Everyone was friendly enough but our lack of Mandarin did exclude us somewhat from life onboard. 

 

As we sailed our merry way up the Yangzi, we enjoyed the scenery and the occasional opportunity to stretch our legs on shore visits. These being rarer than we’d anticipated as the itinerary we were sold was entirely different to that of the boat. I’d wax lyrical about the temples we visited if only the English translations about them had made any sense. Nevertheless Sam and I enjoyed the architecture whilst the boys were more interested in perusing the souvenir stalls.

 

Happily we did at least get to see the gorges. The most imposing of which were the Qutang Gorge and the Wu Gorge. So impressive is the former that the Chinese have even featured it on their ¥10 bill. A cheesy photo opportunity if ever there was one! 

  

Dining on the boat was a eclectic mix of the familiar: fruit, various Chinese dishes and the occasional peanut butter sandwich; to the less familiar (and slightly peculiar): sausage meat with sweetcorn and fish scented boiled eggs. The latter ended up being binned on the grounds that they were insanely disgusting.

 

On the final night, with the Boys sound asleep and Sam continuing her recent winning streak at Scrabble, we docked in our final port, Chongqing. A dazzling skyline by night, unfortunately dismal by day, when we finally disembarked. 

 

 

 

 

China

Due to the visa restrictions we didn’t have a whole lot of time for our China explorations. Now that we are out the other side it is safe to say we packed a lot into a short time.

 

On the whole we found China a really easy place to travel, despite the obvious language difficulties. There are super efficient trains, a great choice of hostels and Chinese curiosity about the children was unobtrusive (apart from one time an entire family invaded our hostel room to gawp).

  

Our first tick on the places-to-see-in-China list was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace’s buildings are imposing and beautiful. One can not help but imagine the fear and respect they would have commanded back when they were not surrounded by skyscrapers. 

 

Our visit to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù was fun if surreal. Surreal in part because it is such an iconic and familiar structure but more surreal because of the toboggan ride back down to the car park and the resident bi-lingual Mynah bird.

 

On the high speed train out of Beijing we hurtled past vast swathes of agricultural land with mile upon mile of fruit trees and poly tunnels interspersed with the odd town and/or power station. 

 

We spent a few chilled days in Pingyao exploring the ancient city walls and temples in between lots of lego time for the boys whilst we worked on the plan. The beauty of Pingyao is somewhat jaded by an ever-present layer of dust from the coal mines nearby. We particular enjoyed Ri Sheng Chang Old bank – the birthplace of modern banking. And Pingyao’s Newspaper museum which is a collection of front pages from around the world and we had fun playing guess the news story. 

  

The Army of Terracotta Warriors was next on the itinerary so we took a train to Xi’an. The three sites are housed in huge buildings and truly awe-inspiring. The statues are quite eerie, they so realistic one could imagine them coming to life any second.

  

We decided last minute to cut short our time in Xi’an so we could to fit in a Yangzi River cruise where we were able to be still for a couple of days as we sailed past the stunning scenery (read about it in Nick’s blog soon).

 

After noticing a dinosaur museum in our guide book it was just a matter of working out how we would fit in a detour to Zigong. The seven hours we subsequently spent on buses were well worth it and an added bonus were the beautiful landscapes we passed on the way, rolling hills and rice terraces. The dinosaur museum itself was a big hit with all of us, dinosaur models, skeletons, fossils and a real life excavation site! 

  

We enjoyed Chengdu not least for its most famous residents (pandas) and by far the biggest bed we’ve had so far! Nick took the opportunity of a DVD player in our room to introduce the boys to Star Wars. 

  

We took a day trip to Leshan to see the Big Buddha (it really is very big). And we loved wandering around People’s Park. Where we discovered a festival atmosphere with groups of couples ballroom dancing round sound systems. 

  

A storm in Shanghai gave us a long delay at Chengdu airport which although frustrating saved us the cost of a night’s accommodation. The weather system hung around and we had a wet and windy stay in Shanghai, exploring the city clad in down and goretex. 

 

Highlights include: a great day exploring the vast Science & Technology museum, seeing the cityscape lit up at night from the 87th floor of the Jinmào Tower, wandering round the French concession with its gorgeous Art Deco apartment blocks and the spectacular Acrobatic show we saw on our last night in China. 

 

Food references littered my posts from India but my taste buds were not set alight in China. We tried lots of street food and local delicacies; Peking duck and xiaolongbao were our favourites but I definitely didn’t fall in love with Chinese cuisine. 

   

The boys enjoyed the food more than us. They couldn’t get enough noodles and dumplings. And at Dōnghuámén Night Market they even tried snake and scorpion. G should have been on commission from the stall drumming up quite a bit of business with his proclamation that the scorpion was delicious!

 

We enjoyed China but we weren’t blown away. We didn’t experience the great highs and lows of our travels in India and Nepal. Where getting a train was an adventure in itself. With everything so easy the journey was, dare I say it, a little dull. Maybe we just didn’t have the time to appreciate it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye India

Our last month in India took us on a whistle stop tour of Tamil Nadu and to ultimate relaxation in the Andaman Islands.

 Our final hours in Kerala were spent in between trains in Trivandrum and rather than carry our packs about in the heat we retreated to the cool of a cinema. The film was not really suitable for the boys (Tomas remarked that he “wouldn’t let his Nana watch it!”) and we couldn’t follow the whole plot not understanding the Tamil dialogue but it was a great experience to be caught up in the enthusiasm of the audience who cheered each time, the star, Ajith Kumar appeared on screen.

 Our next stop was Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India. Whilst geographically satisfying to stand at this point there was little else to recommend it. Unless you like your hotel rooms decorated in the style of early ’90s teenage boy; black, grey and red colour scheme complete with Spider-Man ceiling fans.

We took a straightforward night bus to Kodaikanal in the Western Ghats where we revelled long walks in the cool mountain air and enjoyed the many playgrounds and town’s quirky tourist attractions. As well as the local street food specialities of roasted corn and bread omlettes.

Next stop Madurai. Home to the huge and fascinating Meenakshi temple and tastiest curry we’d had in a long time.

We spent a happy few days pottering around Pondicherry. From our fantastic guesthouse in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram we strolled along the seafront, explored the different markets and learnt about the beautiful Kollom that decorate the pavements here. Not to mention stuffing ourselves on the French delicacies this ex-colonial town has to offer.

 Chennai was pretty forgettable save for the fantastic food we found in a canteen near our dingy hotel. It was so good Nick had two breakfasts.

 An early morning flight took us to the Andaman Islands. Where we downed devices and savoured the lack of wifi. We chilled on the gorgeous beaches of Havelock and made our own fun with washed up paraphernalia. We walked through rich jungle and I got the pure pleasure of taking George snorkelling above a coral reef for the first time.

Next we shifted down another gear and cycled our way round idyllic Neil Island. G and T got up to mischief with the two resident boys whilst Nick and I enjoyed the company of other adults. Our highlight was a boat trip to a nearby island to snorkel and fish (and in G’s case jump off the prow of the boat into the deep water).

 For our wildlife fanatic’s fifth birthday we went hunting for snakes at Wandor on South Andaman. Much to his delight (and our relief) we found a particularly venomous one with the help of a serendipitous meeting with a reptile expert from Madrid Zoo. Our accommodation at Wandor was superb; peaceful and serene.

 Calcutta came as a bit of a shock. Full throttle, high volume India. The most unhelpful people we had encountered and the most frustrating bureaucracy. Plus I got a night time visit from a small rodent.

 Despite all this we really enjoyed our time there. The boys got to ‘play Holi’ with neighbourhood children. We soaked up the atmosphere across the city as we walked around the flower market and ghats. The boys particularly enjoyed Khalif Street pet market with its multitude of birds and fish.

We visited the marble palace, Victoria Memorial and Kalighat Temple. We marvelled at the Calctta traffic Police’s white uniform and had a great evening catching up with friends we had made earlier in the trip.

 So there we have it. The final leg of our Indian adventure. We got round a lot of the country in our 131 days. We slept in 22 hotels, 9 guesthouses, 3 night buses, 3 homestays, 2 beach huts, 1 sleeper train, 1 ashram and a desert.

 We learnt a little bit of Hindi and made a lot of friends. We got through several pairs of shoes and several more pairs of sunglasses. The boys had their cheeks pinched approximately 900 times. We ate a lot of curry. And we fell in love with India. Watch this space I’m sure we’ll be back.

Don’t worry be Hampi

As we approached Hampi we were greeted by an incredible landscape. Paddy fields and banana plantations interspersed with surreal giant boulders sitting on top of each other at improbable angles (I still have no idea how they came to be here and need to pick my Geologist Uncle’s brain).

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We’d heard a lot of positive things about Hampi but spent the first day feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Hampi Bazar is the kind of traveller enclave that offers respite from the onslaught of Mother India. However after a month of easy living on the beaches of South Goa we were over the same same but different chill-out vibe.

We had breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of our guest house and loved seeing all the beautiful birds including parakeets and kingfishers as we looked out on the river.

We had a wander round the nearby sites on our first day, giving us time to recover from the sleeper bus journey. We visited the Virupaksha Temple. With its troop of resident monkeys and Lakshmi the temple elephant this was lots of fun for the children.

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In the afternoon I had a spontaneous haircut looking out over the Tungabhadra river. It may not be the best style but it is definitely the best view I’ve ever had during a haircut.

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The next morning George and I wandered down to the ghats to catch Lakshmi the elephant have her morning bath. We were told she would be there about 8.30 but in fact arrived nearer 10. It was worth the wait. She seemed to really enjoy her bath and George loved feeding her bananas and having a smooch (blessing). I really enjoyed the one to one time with my boy as we shared bananas and chai and watched the world go by.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon touring the ruins in an Auto Rickshaw. This is when I fell in love with Hampi. Trying to imagine life in its hey day when it was a bustling commerce hub and home to 500,000 people. The boys had fun running around playing hide and seek and being explorers. George got a driving lesson from Sadiq our tuktuk driver.

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The sites in Hampi are spread over 36 square kilometers so it is easy to explore in relative solitude, unusual for India where tourist attractions are often overwhelming with the number of people. The grand elephant stables were a highlight for the boys. We stumbled on an art class at the Vittala Temple, it was really lovely to see all of their watercolour paintings of the impressive stone chariot.

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We had fun over the river in Anegundi. It shares the remarkable landscape and ruins of Hampi but remains a sleepy village. The boat across the river squeezes on motorbikes with the passengers and one wonders how it can possibly stay afloat.

We had a fab thali and the boys played with the cafe owner’s daughter. After lunch we explored the ruins of army barracks and elephant stables. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between these stables and the ornate ones across the river that housed the royal elephants and the boys enjoyed chasing lizards.

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It was great fun to be the only people around, scrambling over boulders, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune as we went. A couple of local boys tried to sell us baby birds but we declined, it wouldn’t be a very jolly life for them in our backpack!

The streets of Hampi Bazar are car free. There are rickshaws and the odd motorbike but the kids could play and make friends without us worrying they were going to get run over.

I’m happy to say that after a couple of days exploring the ruins we really enjoyed our time in Hampi. And would definitely recommend it as a great place to go with children.

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On being Intrepid

For me being intrepid meant being active, adventurous, outdoors and seeking the next thrill. Indeed, one of the main reasons for leaving the nine-to-five (more like seven-to-eight) was to take my family on an adventure around the world and broaden their, and my horizons. We wanted to leave the fish bowl and explore what’s outside. And, as is clear from our previous blog posts, we’ve clocked up many miles (and spent many pounds) actively being intrepid.

So, I must confess, sitting still on a beach in Goa and just being present in the moment was not really on my agenda. Sitting still does not come naturally to me, as some of you know.

Having been here for a few weeks, however, I’ve realised that being intrepid doesn’t always have to be huge, tiring strides up mountains or hours spent on expeditions. My two sons have shown me repeatedly that being intrepid can be as simple as learning to jump off rocks into the sea and swim back to shore again. Or taking off your armbands for the first time and wading into the sea alone and free.

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Or having the confidence to walk up to other children on the beach and then build such a bond that we enjoy their company for a few fun-filled precious days. They flourish and continue to stretch themselves in ways that I hadn’t anticipated before we arrived in Goa – and stood still – and it’s been beautiful to watch.

But as I watched my sons being themselves, being intrepid, I realised that something still wasn’t right. What was wrong, I wondered. Then, within a few days of our arrival, it struck me. It was Christmas Day, the sun was setting and I was watching my boys mess around in the waves. That was it; I was only watching them and not being and playing with them. It’s very difficult to admit, but sometimes being a dad is bloody hard and I don’t know what to do for the best. “Leave them be, they’re playing well on their own”, although sometimes that’s perfectly true and appropriate, it can easily become a default setting, a comfortable place with limited risk but filled with missed opportunities. There was only one thing for it. I dived in, joined the boys and I enjoyed the best Christmas Day of my life. The sunset wasn’t bad either!

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So as the boys are relishing being intrepid still, I’m enjoying learning from them and just being still. As one of my best friends said recently before we left; somethings are just more important than others. So perhaps putting less emphasis on being intrepid and more on being with the Johnsons is more important.

Happy New Year!

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