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Korea and Japan
Seoul (South Korea) to Beijing (China), September 2010

The journey from Seoul to Sokcho gives us a first impression of South Korea outside the capital city Seoul. The ride takes us through a hilly landscape and it doesn’t take long before we conclude that South Korea is still a surprisingly green country. The hills are still forested and outside Seoul, the high-rise buildings are rapidly substituted by small houses in an agricultural rich environment. In less than four hours we drive from Seoul, located on the west coast of the country, to Sokcho, a small fishing town on the east coast of South Korea.

Our main reason to travel to Sokcho is country’s most famous and spectacular national park: Seoraksan. It is a beautiful park and also a great destination for people who like to hike. South Koreans are also very fond of hiking, so try to plan your visit outside the weekend if you want to beat the crowds. In Sokcho, we decided to stay in a small hostel with the name ‘The House’. This hostel, managed by the very friendly and enthusiastic Hyo-Jun Yoo is an example of how a guesthouse should be managed. We are not exaggerating if we say that this is one of the best hostels we have visited on our journey so far. The rooms are nice and clean, the included breakfast is great and unlimited, there is free wifi and Hyo-Jun Yoo is a huge source of information about the town and the area. He even has great restaurant advices. He advised us to visit a popular local Korean buffet restaurant where we had to chance to taste all kinds of typical Korean food. For less than € 7,- per person (and that is a really good deal in South Korea), we tasted all kinds of national dishes including the South Korean version of Sushi. It was also the place where we ate for the first time raw fish (of course, with the exception of raw herring which is famous in The Netherlands).

View on the harbour of Busan in South Korea
In the hostel we also met a Dutch couple who travelled all the way to South Korea by car. It was a weird experience to see a Ford Transit van with a Dutch license plate on the parking lot of the hostel. The young couple travelled in eight months from Europe through Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia to the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where the drove their van on a ferry that brought them to South Korea. The encounter with this couple was very clarifying for us because we also have the plan, somewhere at the end of next year, to do a part of our journey by car. And we always thought that a 4WD jeep would be the only alternative for such a journey. But this couple proved that it is also possible to use a less fancy car. The big advantage is that the purchase price of a Ford Transit is much lower, that the car is easier to maintain, and that it is much bigger, which means that we can sleep in it. On the other hand, a Ford Transit is less robust, which means that we probably have to limit the roads we use to paved roads and the better sand paths. So, the encounter was enlightened, and they provided us with valuable information which we can use for our decision about the car to buy.

After a couple of days in Sokcho, we travelled by bus, via the city of Pohang where we had to change busses, to the town of Gyeong Ju. Gyeong Ju is a former capital of the Shilla dynasty. A couple of temples and many of the king tombs survived, which makes the town a great destination to visit. Especially the king graves, which look like big mole heaps, give the city a strange appearance, because they are scattered around the city. Some graves are more than ten metres in height and there is one grave that is open for visitors. After a couple of days in Gyeong Ju, we took the bus to Busan, the second city of South Korea. The bus ride was less than two hours! It is so great in South Korea that the country is so small and the transport connections so good. It makes it a very pleasant country to travel in, especially when you compare it with the huge distances in for example China.

Busan was for us not only a destination to visit, but also the departing point for our short visit to Japan. We managed to buy two cheap return tickets with Busan Air for the trip to and from Osaka in Japan. The only limitation was that for this low fee, we only could stay a maximum of eight days in Japan. At the start of our long journey we planned to skip Japan, because of the high cost of living. But when we saw this offer, we decided to go. Eight days is not much, but it is long enough to get a first impression of the country. We spend several days in Busan before we took the flight to Kansai International Airport, one and a half hours by train south of the city Osaka. We planned to stay a couple of days in Osaka, and he majority of the days in nearby Kyoto, which is located only half an hour by train from Osaka. This was the prefect combination for us. Osaka is one of the most modern cities of Japan, while Kyoto is seen as the most beautiful and traditional one.

Geishas in the city centre of Kyoto

Like South Korea, Japan is a very modern country. Also the Japanese people are friendly and especially neat, but in some way also distant. It is not easy to get really in touch with the Japanese people, partly caused by the limited knowledge of the English language. And that is surprising because Japan is an economical tiger with a lot of connections with the rest of the world. It seems that many Japanese people know how to read and write some English, but that they are afraid to speak it, just because they don’t like to make failures and look stupid. And that is typical Asian. Appearance is very important in Asian cultures and people don’t like to lose face.

Osaka is a modern living-working-shopping city with no real sights. It is the perfect city to wander around and see how people live, work and shop. A couple of days are more than enough. Kyoto is a different story. It seems to be the most beautiful city in Japan because of the fact that many temples and old building survived the rapid developments of last fifty or sixty years. It is also one of the most traditional cities of the country. You will still see some women wearing the beautiful kimono’s (even the young women) and if you are really lucky, you might even spot a Geisha like we did. And that is special, because the estimation is that there are only around eighty Geisha’s left in Kyoto, and they don’t show themselves in public very often. Kyoto is also the city where we treated ourselves on sushi. Many people in the west are crazy about sushi and we never tried it before. So when we were in Kyoto, we said to each other that this is the right place to try it. We went to a specialised sushi restaurant and ordered some assorted sushi plates to try the different kinds of sushi. Our conclusion was clear. We like the sushi and sashimi with grilled, cooked or smoked fish very much, but we weren’t really fond of the sashimi and sushi with raw fish. We can’t really understand why people like to chew some time on tough and flavourless raw fish like cod or octopus. But we finished the dishes and were glad that we tasted the sushi in the country where sushi is born.

After our brief visit to Japan we flew back to Busan where we took the following day the train to Seoul. We stayed there for a couple of days before we flew back to Beijing in China. It was already September 20th, just a couple of days before the parents of Ivonne would arrive in Beijing, to join us two and a half months on our journey through Tibet, Nepal and India. On September 23rd we went to Beijing Capital International Airport to pick them up. The reunification after almost a year was warm. We spend four days in Beijing to see the main highlights before we took the city bus to Beijing-Xi railway station where we boarded the train to Lhasa in Tibet. The trip took almost 48 hours and it was great way to talk about all the things that happened last year.


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