Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Goodbye Korea, Hello China

So here we are in Qingdao.  We had planned to be on our way out of here today and heading towards Xi’an but we decided to take another rest day instead so here we are!

Leaving Hongseong on Wednesday was so exciting and the start of ‘Bike Back Home’ but the enormity of the trip didn’t quite hit home I don’t think until we rolled off the boat in Qingdao and found ourselves in the midst of a completely alien city, with no knowledge of the local language and no ability to read the local script.  We weren’t long discovering the extent of the Chinese governments fire-wall either which only added to our feelings of disability and vulnerability.  Neither of us had even contemplated that our email accounts wouldn’t work, nor had we thought that we’d be blocked from accessing our travel blog.  Not major problems, but stumbling blocks that we’d like to get over all the same, so we decided to stay put another day.  The weather forecast says that tomorrow will be milder too so that’s an added bonus because right now its bloody Baltic!

It's hard to put into words the excitement of setting off that first morning.  After so long talking about it and planning for it, the day had finally arrived and, loading up the bikes, the reality of it began to set in.  Leaving our apartment behind we cycled down through Hongseong town for the last time, and stopped on the far edge of the town to get our bearings and make sure that we really were ready, that we had everything we needed packed and with us.  We were both giddy with excitement and grinning from ear to ear as we blurted out how great it felt to finally be on the road home and doing something as adventurous as this together, just the two of us and the open road.  Here's a little video of it if you're interested!

Stef's Bike, complete with Bluetoe, our little sock monkey mascot!

Nick and his somewhat heavily loaded bike!

When we left the weather was -4°C.  For the next few days it didn’t get much warmer.  By about 2pm each day the temperature would start to drop and the wind would pick up making it seem even colder.  We rarely cycled on past about 3pm because we weren’t under massive pressure time wise.  The ferry port is only just over 150km from our apartment in Hongseong and we weren’t due to sail until 5pm on Saturday giving us 3 and a half days to get there.   We took a few wrong roads, and a few accidental detours so we cycled 175km to get to the port in the end.  Arriving to Incheon on Friday afternoon was our first mini milestone, and having cycled more that one one-hundredth of the total distance, it put the trip into perspective for us and made it seem a very manageable distance – only 99 more Hongseong-Incheon sized stretches to go!

Day 1 on the road, somewhere just outside Hongseong!

The first of many routing issues where the roads ceased to be sealed!

The road we were on ended at these bike friendly steps!

One bike down, and poor 'ol Nick back up to get the second one!

Checking in to the ferry and getting on board was quite the ordeal.  At customs we had to unload the bikes fully and put all our bags through the scanner, then load them back up again on the far side.  Then we joined the queue of people all waiting for the shuttle bus to the boat.  We battled our way out to the front and got onto the road, waiting to follow the next bus down to the docks.  The port security had other ideas.  They wanted us to board the bus.  We tried to argue that that was insane, they were too heavy to lift, and that we’d just cycle behind the bus there but no, they didn’t even entertain us, just shrugged their shoulders and repeated ‘Bus.  Must. ‘ “Must” is a great word though, because when the next bus appeared, we did get the bikes on, hauling them up the three steps and into the middle of the bus, taking up nearly all the free space and blocking three seats per bike!   It didn’t deter the rest of the luggage-laden passengers though, they flocked on and once the bus was full to bursting point it took off, each of us wedged into place.  Thinking getting the bikes off the bus would be the last hurdle, it was a bit of a shock to then have to carry them up the steps of the gang plank too!  I looked on a bit helplessly as Nick carried his bike up and then came back for mine, wiping the poor damsel in distress look off my face!  Finally onboard we were directed to a storeroom where our bikes were locked away for the whole journey, great treatment altogether, and with the bikes dealt with we went up on deck to say one final farewell to Korea.

With the hassle of getting through customs and onto the ferry done, it finally hit me that this was it.  These were the last moments in the country that had been ‘home’ to us for over four years.  Leaving customs, our alien registration cards were taken from us so now we are, by the very definition of the word, nomads.  We are neither residents of Korea nor are we residents of Ireland, having been gone so long.  Our homes are now what we have with us and, for the next nine months, will be where we lay our heads each night.  It’s an exciting thought but its also a scary one, leaving behind all that we have known as normal, all the constants in our lives and heading into the great unknown, not only just for the next 9 months on the road but for everything after that too.  As we pulled out of the port, a few silent tears rolled down my cheeks for Korea and all that it has given us, the countless experiences, the chance to be immersed in such a foreign culture to ours, the massively tasty and previously unknown to us depth of Korean cuisine, the affordability of everyday living meaning that our very average wages allowed us not only to live as we pleased but also to save, the public bathhouses and their unbelievable range of hot tubs and saunas and lastly the friends we’ve made that will stay our friends for long after we’ve left Korea behind.

Up on deck waiting to set sail.  Bye bye Korea!

This head case and his outlandish fashion sense cheered up our sad farewell!
China, or Qingdao more specifically, is instantly different.  It’s more alive, more real.  The faces of the people are all so different, their expressions varied in a way that Koreans just aren’t.  Immediately the desperate need to blend into the crowd that exists in Korea is gone.  The buildings are higgledy-piggledy, the cars a mix of old and new, the people look they as if they are from all walks of life.  Korea in comparison is like a game of Sim City, everything is uniform and built for a purpose, heavily planned and nothing seems to evolve naturally.  China, in short, is a breath of fresh air.  Cycling down the road from the port I let out a laugh of sheer joy. The sadness of leaving Korea behind was gone and in it’s place was joy and excitement of all the things to come, the places we’ll see, the people we’ll meet, the adventure we’ll have.  

The first of many restaurants where we successfully pointed at some squiggles on the menu and got something tasty to eat for our efforts!

A slightly unconventional wedding photo shoot!


Seems as good as any place to hang your washing!

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