Sunday, 26 August 2012

South Korea

Welcome pack

We have been in South Korea for over 2 weeks now and we can say that it is a beautiful country and the people are again so friendly.  When we arrived, after the shock of the heat, we decided to stay in Donghae for a couple of nights. The hotel we stayed in is what is classed as a ‘love hotel’.  You enter the dimly lit reception, there is a wall of brightly lit pictures, showing you all the different rooms available along with the price for a few hours and a price for all night.  You press the appropriate button on the room you would like and slip your money through a small square hole, to the receptionist. Nobody ever needs to see your face – except me being a daft Scots lassie, unaccustomed to such practices, was bent down sticking my head through the hole trying to have a conversation with the lady, who spoke no English. You get a superb welcome pack with your room card which is full of goodies, as is the room - certainly enough products (creams, gels, hairspray, brushes, combs)  that when you leave the hotel, you don’t look like you’ve just had the time of your life. When you check out, you just leave your card in the tray in the lift and you’re gone!

Heart shaped bath

The city is bustling with colours, all trying to attract our gaze, as we walk through the streets at night.  We went into an outdoor shop, of which we have found out, there are many in South Korea, and struck up a conversation with the owner and although his English was little he managed to give us a few hints as to what to see in Korea.  We wish we could have talked more to him as he must have fascinating stories to tell of his own adventures, climbing some of the highest mountains in the world, including K2.
The National Parks in Korea all have campgrounds so we decided to head north to Seoraksan National Park. It has one of the highest mountains in Korea (3rd highest I think).  We get pitched and as always, there is quite a bit of interest in the bike and then in the tent.  We realised when we got to the campground why there are so many outdoor shops – Koreans love the outdoor life and they do it in style, some of the set ups here are tremendous. When we have a walk around, Iain is constantly saying ‘no, you can’t have that, it won’t fit on the bike!’. We go to bed and are fast asleep when we hear ‘Iain Patterson, Debbie Simpson’ being shouted. We are like startled children waking from a nightmare, I grab Iain and say ‘did you hear that?’ again we hear our names being called. We jump out the tent to be met  by Jeong. We had been in contact with another Korean biker through Horizons Unlimited and he had told Jeong we’d be up here so he came to find us and with the sidecar, we’re not difficult to find. We go back to Jeongs tent and have a beer before again going back to bed. The next day, Jeong invites us to use his tent (a big ex US Army tent, I felt like I was in an episode of M*A*S*H) as it is going to rain heavily later. Well he got that right!  Jeong showed us around Sokcho City and was extremely kind and generous to us, for which we cannot thank him enough.

Jeong took us up to the ‘DMZ’ area – the demilitarised zone. This is an area, 2km either side of the border between North and South Korea where military activities such as troop stationing, arms allocation and military facility installation are prohibited. This was created on July 27 1953 with the conclusion of the Armistice Agreement. At the Unification Observatory, you can look over the border into North Korea but that’s as close as you get. We visit the DMZ museum and the Korean War museum both of which are very interesting.

Last beach in South Korea and the first beach in North Korea (after the small wooded island)

We got new neighbours on the campsite and they invited us over for lunch, which was very tasty. Korean food has bundles of taste and our taste buds are alive again. We are getting to grips with chopsticks (Iain more so than I) which causes great amusement for the Koreans that we eat with. I think they appreciate that we are trying but I usually give up half way through and reach for the fork or spoon!
We take the bike out for a short spin one day and upon our return Iain noticed oil all over the rear wheel. Upon further inspection it turned out that the final drive bearing had collapsed (Jake – please note that this happened the day after he spoke to you!!). Luckily Iain had a spare bearing and seal with him but just needed a bearing puller to split the damaged one. Our next tent neighbour offered to drive him into Sokcho to get this done. Unfortunately, they had no luck but Jeong to the rescue again and he took us to a backstreet guy who was able to do it. Once that was done, it didn’t take Iain too long to have it all back together in working order.

While in the park we walk to Ulsan-bawi Rock. It's a long slog up hill, in high humidity but well worth it when we reach the bottom of the rock, as we look out over the treetops of the forests we've just hiked through. There is a steep staircase which carries on up the actual rock - I'm not good with heights where I don't feel safe (even if it is 100% safe) so I choose to stay at the foot of the rock and watch the chipmunks playing while Iain carries on to the top. Upon his return, he confirms that for me, I made the right choice to stay where I was!

Iain's view from the top

We eventually leave ‘the big tent’ and say goodbye to Jeong . We have another couple of nights in the ‘love hotel’ after leaving the park as we need to get things washed with hot water (clothes and ourselves!) and having air con for a couple of days is heaven. It has rained every day since we arrived in Korea and the humidity has been 90%+ - this basically means that our clothes and anything that’s not in its bag is wet - it’s incredible!  I love our ‘love hotel’ - the standard of room for the price is excellent and any other hotel in Korea has a lot to live up to. This time we have a round Jacuzzi bath with is great for washing the clothes.

Although it was raining, we decide to move. It’s very easy just to stay in one place and end up not seeing much so it’s on with the waterproofs and into the rain. We ride south to Sobaeksan National Park and as it’s still pouring down, check into a hotel there. The main holiday season in Korea has ended and that along with the rain means we are the only customers. The lady is very excited to meet us. The hotel has no restaurant but she offers to feed us, but not so excited that she didn’t charge us for it. We ate and retired to our room, where a few hours later I was doubled up in pain. I didn’t sleep much as I was up and down all night to the loo. We decided to move to the city of Andong the next day. My problems hadn’t subsided even though I hadn’t eaten again and the next morning again it was no better. We asked at the hotel reception for a medical centre and they gave us a map and pointed us in the general direction. As we stood on a street corner pondering over the map, a kindly Korean gentleman asked if he could be of any assistance. He ended up taking us to the doctors, speaking to the nurse and the doc, ushering me in to get my injection and then round to the pharmacy for the tablets. All this treatment cost me less than £15. He also wrote on the packets when I needed to take the tablets. It could have been quite tricky for us to do all this by ourselves. Again, the kindness of strangers warms your heart.  

So, as I type, I’m feeling much better and will be fine in a day or two I’m sure.

North Korean sub which entered South Korean waters and was captured in 1996

I am hanging onto that rail with all my strength!

Iain at the top of Ulsan-bawi rock

Friday, 17 August 2012

From Russia with Love

When we were in Mongolia, we contacted Yuri Melkinov, in Vladivostok, who is ‘Mr Shipping’ there. We asked if he could book us onto the ferry going to South Korea (SK) on August 8th and the reply we got was ‘unfortunately not, all ferries booked for next 4 weeks, first space available on August 29th’ – there was no way we wanted to wait that long to get on the ferry.  Also, that was only a week before the APEC Summit starts (Vladimir Putin and others are in town) and everything will stop in Vladivostok while this is on which would mean another 2 weeks to wait. Also, we’d heard that Vladivostok was expensive to stay in so didn’t want to be there too long. We decided that we would take a chance and go to Vladivostok in the hope that we got a cancellation for the ferry.
We set off and made good distances the first few days. We left Chita one morning and on a fuel stop later that morning, we struck up a conversation with the fuel attendant. As we chatted, he was looking at the bike and saw a sticker for Motocamp Bulgaria and said’ Oh, you’ve been to stay with Doug and Polina’ – we were like ‘What????’ There are folk in the next town to Motocamp Bulgaria who don’t know that Doug and Polly have it yet this guy, in the middle of Russian nowhere knows this. We were astounded. As it is, when Doug has been travelling in Russia, he has been in to this garage a couple of times and obviously made an impression on this guy. Later that night, we were struggling to find somewhere to stay and had looked at a couple of possibilities but decided to keep moving. We stopped in one small town and the local kids showed us where the hotel was but again, it looked pretty shabby and there was no parking for the bike. As we sat pondering our next move, a Police jeep went past so we called on them and asked about a hotel with safe parking. They took us back to the hotel (which was in fact the building behind the one the kids showed us but was still not so good) but still no parking. One of the cops said we could leave it at the station, so we followed them there. When there, Iain chanced his luck and asked if we could sleep there too. Guess what, they said yes! So we had a room next to their gym and snooker room, with no bars on the window either! The next night, we were again helped by the police but he wasn’t taking Iain’s hints of a night in the station.

Lovely Lisa

The following day we headed for Khabarovsk. In a fuel station about 700km from there we met Lisa, a biker (and Doctor) from Khabarovsk. We chatted and she gave us her mobile number and said to call her when we got to the city and she would help us find a hotel. Great! As we arrived into Khabarovsk, about 5km from where Lisa said to ring her from, the rain started so we pulled into a side road to put our waterproofs on. As we did, a car turned in and stopped. We thought he was just looking at the bike but he said ‘hotel?’ and started to use his phone. I said ‘thanks but we have to ring a friend who will help us’ to which he replied ‘your friend is Lisa?’ – ‘Yes’ I replied – ‘I am Lisa’s brother’ – so he called her and she came to meet us. What are the chances that driving into a city, where we’ve never been in our lives, that the very person that turns onto the same road as us, at the same time, would know who we were. Again, we were astounded. I know I keep saying about it being a small world but it’s instances like this (and the fuel guy who knew Doug and Polly) that reinforce this view. So Lisa gave us the option of a hotel or one of the local bike clubs, so we opted for the bike club. She took us to meet the president of the Lynx Amur bike club and he let us stay at their clubhouse for 2 nights while we cleaned the bike up.

Ivanich - Lynx Amur Bike Club
 She also took us sightseeing each day and we liked Khabarovsk that much that we stayed another 2 nights but moving to a hotel as we needed internet access. We emailed Yuri and he came back and told us that there was a cancellation available for the 8th and they would get the tickets for us. Khabarovsk is built on 3 hills and each hill has its own church. In the dip of each hill runs a tributary to the main river –the Amur. It’s a beautiful city with lots of monuments, parks and attractions. In one of the parks, on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, there is a dancing fountain show which was quite spectacular to watch. It’s quite an expensive city but well worth the visit – apart from the Harley Davidson Saloon where 2 pints cost us £12!! The beer was good but not that good!

'All bikers welcome' at Lynx Amur

 We headed for Vladivostok on the Sunday to be there in plenty of time to get organised for the mid week sailing to SK. It was a long ride and at 8pm we were still looking for somewhere reasonably priced to stay. We were outside one expensive hotel, using their free wi-fi, when a guy pulled up in his car. He made a phone call and gestured for us to follow him, which we did.  He took us to another bike club, the Russian Samurais and one of the guys, Dmitry said we could stay at his house. This was great news.  It is a huge house with 4 floors, high up in Vladivostok and each level has a balcony with great views overlooking the city.
Vladivostok at night
The new bridge will be open soon
The next day, he took us to see Yuri and Svetlana to organise the tickets for the ferry. At night we went out for a ride with a group of other bikers from the city over the bridge to the Russian Islands. We’d never heard of these but we saw a beautiful sunset before riding back to the city.
Dmitry on his Harley

On the Russian Island with Vladivostok in the background
The next day we took the bike down to the port and left it there to be loaded then finalised the customs etc. In the afternoon, Dmitry offered Iain the use of his Honda Pan European (the same bike as the Brit cops use). So with me on the back of Iain and Dmitry on his Harley we set off for a ride out of the city and some lovely food in an Armenian cafe. On the way back, we pulled into the gun club that Dmitry is a member of and Iain was able to do some shooting.  At night, along with a few other bikers, we rode to the local beach ‘Shamara’. Again, we were not expecting what awaited us.  It is like a beach resort on the Costa Somewhere - bright lights, beachside restaurants, cafes and arcades. Right up until the last night, Russia kept on surprising us.

Iain on the Pan European

Iain on the Harley

When we entered Russia on June 1st we were both a little bit anxious. When we were growing up, Russia was always the ‘bad guy’ so we really did not know what to expect but we are so glad that we came to Russia. The people have been outstanding with their generosity, taking us into their homes without question and being so very kind to us.