Vladivostok

Two hours out of Vladivostok, the sea is as still as a mill pond. We are outside on the top deck, wondering if we can see land yet. The fog is thick, a lone seagull is following us: land cannot be far, yet I see nothing. We have slowed down. It is beautifully eerie. The stillness belies the excitement I am starting to feel. We are told docking will be delayed due to Russian war ships ahead. Then we stop and I can now just barely discern the grey outline of islands. The excitement is suddenly palpable: a young girl skips towards her mother as soon as she too spots one island, a young man re-enacts the famous Titanic pose while his friend takes a photo of him, Russians returning home start moving their bags to the exit.

Our crossing to Vladivostok was so calm!


Half an hour from docking, we see the culprit of our delay going the other way – maybe he was docked in our spot.

Vladivostok port is huge, so many freight carriers, cranes, tugs, the activity is on either side of the port is fantastic – to think that we are at the southern tip of Russia, so far from the capital! The famous bridge is barely visible, then we see the famous Vladivostok sign above the ferry terminal. What can I say? My excitement cannot be contained. Everybody is taking photos, selfies, photos for each other.

Why were were delayed a Russian Navy Sovremenny-class destroyer the Bystryy (715) – Быстрый -Quick (or Rapid)

Tugs preparing to lead us into Vladivostok port


Jong and his lovely wife


Vladivostok ferry terminal


One of the ferry staff had told us, the group of 12 motorcyclists from Korea plus the 3 Japanese motorcyclists who joined the ship in Japan, to wait in a particular area. Pretty impressive how he tracked us all down! It turns out that all motorcyclists and car drivers, ie all the passengers who just brought hand luggage on board, are to disembark first.

We are here dockside in Vladivostok

Immigration and customs security is painless and as we enter a ‘holding hall’, we are greeted by a cheerful and welcoming Svletlanya, our agent Yuri’s partner. There are 5 of us on her list as all the Koreans are being handled by another agent, 3 Japanese and us. One is missing and we wait over an hour for him. It turns out that he is travelling with a car and a motorcycle (?!) and wanted to leave a minimum in his vehicle… At least we had time to sign the dozen pages of customs forms each which Svletlanya had prepared for us by the time he arrives with the largest suitcase I have ever seen and boxes on a makeshift trolley!!

Yuri, from Links Ltd, picks the 5 of us up in his van and takes to our respective hotels. It is an interesting introduction to Vladivostok, driving past an unfinished Hyatt hotel, unoccupied for the past 5 years for some reason, up steep narrow muddy paths to a hostel to drop one of our Japanese (he changed hotels the next morning!) and manoeuvering in rush hour traffic remind us of the Russian road ‘rules’. Then once we have all checked in, Yuri takes us to a bank to get Rubles, and a telecom company for Sim cards. We bump into our Korean friends there!! It feels like we have met up with long lost friends. It is amazing how the travelling community bonds so quickly! Yuri recommends a place nearby for dinner, Republic, a chain of restaurants in Vladivostok, and the 6 of us trundle off there and we invite 3 Koreans to join us. No more Kimchi!!! I will not miss it… I don’t think…

Communist era mural – Vladivostok is far but still ours said Lenin


Yuri


Vladivostok train station

Inside Vladivostok train station


The next morning was an incredibly efficient customs process: Yuri and Svetlanya had everything in hand between them, like a well oiled machine. She was already at the customs office when Yuri brought us over just after 9am, having started the process for us before we arrived and Yuri then drove and took us here and there, to various offices, getting more forms signed. By noon, we were all done and ready to leave the port on our bikes. As always we will write up the border process on our blog, but for now, I would like to say that we highly recommend Yuri. All my communication with Yuri over the past few months and once we arrived has been fantastic. Anyone needing to ship to or from Vladivostok should contact Yuri Melnikov, Links, Ltd, email: ymelnik@links-ltd.com or yuri.melnikov.links@gmail.com, web site: http://www.links-ltd.com. And he goes out of his way to help in any way. When we left him, he was going to take one guy to a hardware store, another to buy a motorcycle jacket and the other somewhere else.

This Japanese carried his new motorbike in his new car

Some days back, I had asked Yuri if he could recommend someone to take us on a tour of some of Vladivostok’s tunnels. Well, there again, he went ahead and organised it for us and our 3 Japanese motorcyclists joined us. I am glad we had time to bed down our new Heidenaus in Korea as the fog is so thick today, it is like rain. The convoy of Yuri, the Korean in his van and the 4 motorcycles wend our way through Vladivostok traffic up to Fort 7, not before turning off the road up a windy muddy track. Our first bit of off road on the Heidenaus – it feels so familiar so quickly.

Following a Japanese car following Yuri through Vladivostok


Russia acquired the area that contains Vladivostok in the 19th century: China and the Mongol empire had controlled the area first, but China, afer a war with Britain felt it no longer had the resources to control the area and overestimated Russia’s military power of the time so agreed to hand the area over through the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 rather than risk another conflict. Vladivostok was initially created as a military outpost. Considering how far it was from Russia’s political political centre, and due its proximity to Japan, Korea and China who all eyed Russian territories, Russia had to fortify the peninsular. The first fortifications were built in the 1870-1890s. A series of 16 forts and several hundreds of smaller structures were built on the Peninsular and Russian Island and comprise 140kms of tunnels. We visited Fort 7, which is now a ‘museum’, open for tours. It was built in 1910, has a network of 1.5kms of tunnels, of 5m thick walls. Interestingly, while Fort housed 400 military personnel, had stores and ammunitation that could keep them underground for 2 years, the forts and tunnels were never required to be used to defend Vladivostok. A sometimes creepy feel, especially as you walk along uneven terrain, down steep long passageways, in total darkness apart from your personal tiny torch, it was nonetheless fascinating to visit.

About to visit Fort 7, Vladivostok

Map of Vladivostok’s 16 forts

Fort 7 tunnel which has a network of 1.5kms of tunnels

Part of Fort 7, Vladivostok

Fort 7 original canon, Vladivostok

On Fort 7 outside wall

Time to leave Vladivostok fortress, still foggy at 2pm


2 hours later, it is time to bid Yuri farewell and godspeed to our fellow travellers as we head out of Vladivostok and they return to town. A brief but memorable stay in Vladivostok for us.

Communication from now on will be intermittent but we’ll do what we can. Better get some sleep now before our first long day.

– Anne

“I am sailing, I am sailing”

We look out of our hotel window eastwards as the morning sun climbs higher over the Sea of Japan, which, in a few short hours, we will set sail upon. Today is the first day of real adventure on this trip according to Anne, I however feel that when we set off from Vladivostok, we will be on our way back. Interesting that we each have different views on how we perceive the road ahead, but both agree that then last two months have been very comfortable, certainly reflected by my expanded waistline.

View from our hotel in Donghae, Seoul


Which way to Donghae passenger terminal?


We had scouted the location of the Passenger Ferry Terminal on arrival yesterday since highway 42 ended at the main port entrance where we ascertained our entrance was around the corner. A five minute ride in non existent Sunday morning traffic had us entering the port and being directed to join a group of four motorbikes parked outside what we learned was the ferry logistics office. Other travellers, who what where: questions in our minds as we park alongside a mixed bunch of bikes, all really loaded, including spare tyres. We quickly learn that three of the four are Korean brothers setting off on a six month journey that will take them across Russia, Mongolia to Europe ending in Spain in December. They all speak good English and over the next half an hour, we are joined by another six motorbikes and scooters all with Korean riders. We have a small army of adventurers with everything from BMW1200GS to 110cc scooters, maybe a motorcycle enthusiast can identify all the models, I could not.

Some of our band of motorcycles


All new Korean Facebook friends


Almost all are carrying replacement more off-road oriented tyres, their current road ones are all partially used. We have no spares but put new, what we think are, long life tyres in Vancouver, Heidenau K60 Scout. It would be interesting to do a comparison on how we all ended up. Ours must last until Turkey some 10,000 miles / 16,000 kilometres distant, which, based on previous experience, should be doable. We shall see.

You call that a top box? THIS is a top box!!


We have become so used to seeing western adventure motorcyclists in our travels, online and in electronic media that we forget that others, ie Asian, have that thirst for adventure as we do. We exchange blogs, look at each other’s bike setups. Anne and I are taken with the mesh seat covers which create ventilation passages for air to flow. Our Scotoiler attracts some interest as did our panniers and spot lights.

We all have to undergo the same customs process and this is detailed in our Visas and Borders section. We do get to ride without helmets, at 30 kph, to the customs inspection area. It is always a nice experience to have the wind in your hair, even for a couple of minutes, but I would not risk it on the highway. We spend a couple of pleasant hours, mostly waiting before the Customs inspection is complete and we ride into the bowels of the ship to leave Streak and Storm to their slumbers.

Riding around Donghae port, wind in the hair


Waiting for VIN inspection and x-raying of all our belongings


We have to then go in reverse through immigration, security, and customs to collect our hand luggage and then return in the opposite direction. We had a booking made for us, but still had to pay and collect tickets so we joined a somewhat chaotic scrum at the booking/ticketing counter that shared the same space as the access to customs/immigration. Still it all worked out and half an hour or so later we have passenger tickets in our hand as we climb the gangplank onboard the ‘Eastern Dream’. We are told our cabin is open, we do not have to collect our key? Open the door and guess what, we are sharing! Our advertised 2 person cabin now has four floor mats jammed in so closely that the outside mats are bent upwards by the wall. Even in the 90 person room you get a curtained off bunk. Not what we are paying USD$200 pp for! Our Russian roommates kindly leave to allow us to change from our motorcycle gear and then Anne feels a visit to the information office is warranted.

Our private 1st class cabin, really?!


We are told that four to a room is company policy for first class, even though the advertising pictures show two mats per room. We are told to come back at 15:00, but shortly afterwards we are approached by a staff member to be told the other couple has vacated our room, hopefully to one of their own and we have our own place. All I can recommend is that you are probably better off in a cheaper bunk bed than pay this amount for a shared room where the sleeping mats run up the wall to fit. We would do that if we came this way again. We find different maps onboard rating these rooms as first and second class cabins, company greed at work here I think.

In preparation for departure we are treated to a lifejacket demonstration, unlike the airlines I have flown with, they show the light works and test the whistle. I think the airlines could learn something from this. Now where is the cupboard with our lifejackets?

As we get underway I can hear playing Rod Stewarts ‘Sailing’ over the loudspeakers. For mostly Korean, Russian and Japanese passengers someone has a sense of humour, I wonder how many people get it. We sail out of Korea having only spent a few days glimpsing this intriguing country. We have so many questions, what is Korea’s history?, why are roofs and walls painted blue? We both agree that we would like to return, not on motorbikes, and see and learn more, probably as a stopover on the way to Europe one day. As always, we have met kindly and generous people whose paths we will never cross again and their actions cannot be returned by us. It reinforces our view of the positive nature of people around the world, not just when major tragedies strike, but everyday kindness that exists worldwide.

As I am writing this blog, Anne plays a Dido song which has the words , “I will go down with ship” ha… I prefer Rod Stewart “Sailing” any day, it has an upbeat floaty appeal to me. Must stop looking at the lifejacket cupboard.

The sea is calm, a big benefit for fair weather sailors such as ourselves, may it last the full 22 hours of the journey across the Sea of Japan. Hey, is that not the place where what’s his name lands all the missiles he fires? Maybe a moving ship is like being on a motorcycle in a lightening storm, keep moving and you are insulated by the tyres. Must stop looking at the lifejacket cupboard. At least we have four.

On the ‘Eastern Dream’ ferry from Donghae to Vladivostok


I think there must be a good couple of hundred passengers and we have not seen most of the motorcyclists again. We have meal vouchers, the benefit of being first class passengers, interestingly at meal time, the majority of diners are Korean or Japanese, the Russians seem buy the instant noodles and eat them in their rooms or on deck.

We wake to calm, thankfully but misty views as we plough on towards Vladivostok. Breakfast and lunch pass without the low cloud lifting, we must pack to be ready for arrival.

All ready to pack, now if I can only get those lifejackets in the top-box…..Stop it

– Anthony

Relaxing in Imgyemyeon

As we ride into the tiny village of Imgyemyeon, just 40kms out of Donghae, I spot a tall motel. It is too soon to get to Donghae, so we pull over and I go back to have a look while Anthony stays with the bikes. For some reason, the place has a good feel, I am shown a lovely room, I quickly check the current availability and rate at the hotel we had booked for 2 days later in Donghae and decision is made, we’ll stay here for 2 nights. A good base to spend the remaining of our time in Korea (locals only refer to their country as ‘Korea’, not ‘South Korea’).

Imgyemyeon is not a quaint, pretty little place, but a thriving farming community. It feels gently alive. Our 2 nights here were spent repacking, washing, walking, blogging, eating, exploring, shopping, eating, using Google translate to communicate and of course sleeping. While we didn’t sleep on the floor this time, the mattress was not only rock hard, but was circular – we had the love room!!!

Enjoy your stay in Imgyemyeon through the photos.
– Anne

Our love bed, with mood lighting above, Imgyemyeon

Sign in the shower, Imgyemyeon

Is it soap, moisturiser, cleanser?!

Dinner of tofu, mushrooms and ground beef, Imgyemyeon

Dinner in Imgyemyeon

Cooked eggs in the local supermarket?

Yes, cooked egg for breakfast but brown!

Dried octopus

Most advertising has a photo of happy woman

Take your pick

Not sure what this completely painted hut was about, Imgyemyeon

So many farming hardware shops in Imgyemyeon

Local police car – choose the appropriate number to call, Imgyemyeon

A walk along the river, we try out the various exercise machines, Imgyemyeon

Cabbages for Kimchi, Imgyemyeon

Most delicious dumplings, Imgyemyeon

Inside a dumpling, Imgyemyeon

Rice field in Imgyemyeon

Bridge over Imgyemyeon river in Imgyemyeon

On the edge of Imgyemyeon

View of Imgyemyeon with our tall motel

Fish ladder on the Imgyemyeon

Walking and cycling track sign, Imgyemyeon

Imgyemyeon is on Korea’s extensive walking/cycling cross countryntrack!

Temple in Imgyemyeon

Imgyemyeon

Imgyemyeon

Enjoying peaceful Imgyemyeon

Seoul

Waiting to board our flight from Vancouver to Seoul, we eagerly watch for any new pallets being driven to our plane to see if we can spot Streak and Storm. At each sight of large brown crates we rush to the window for a closer look, no, still not them… Time to board, we wonder if they’ll be on our flight as planned… 11 hours later, after a smooth flight, practicing writing some Korean words to memorise them when we see them on the road and having well and truly contoured North Korea, we arrive in Seoul.

Crossing over Russia

Staying well away from Pyongyang

Our immediate feeling at the airport is that everything is clean, calm and ordered. It is hard to describe the atmosphere. It is immediately clear that we are not to jay walk and walk on the correct side of the pedestrian crossing as identified with arrows – saves bumping into people walking in the opisite direction.

We get our first taste of hotels in Korea, although this one is clasified as a ‘tourist’ hotel. As you open your hotel room door, you are greeted with slippers in a sort of vestibule, and a little step to the main door. In the room is a tray with all sorts of men’s grooming products, even a hair brush (can you imagine using this hair brush?!) but the funniest is the large spray can which looked like hair spray, except for the picture of a cockroach lying on his back. Anthony reckons it too is a man’s grooming product designed by women who probably consider men to be cockroaches! The bed is super hard which I am looking forward to.

Porch into our hotel room

Free toileteries

Once we connect to wifi and I find yet another frustrating email from our shipping contact here, Wendy: in addition to being asked a few times before our departure if we had arrived yet, despite having given our departure and arrival dates several times and her having our Airway Bills with all the details, and my asking several times where we would meet on Monday 12th, we arrive to find out that our bikes arrived a day early and she wants to meet us at the airport at 19:30 that evening, equivalent to 3.30am for us – sorry, not tonight! Same time tomorrow she suggests. And no word from the shipper… Pretty disappointing to say the least as this means we will be charged additional storage fees for having our bikes there over 24 hours. It is already equivalent to 1am for us but we decide it is in our interest to return to the airport asap and start the customs clearance process to save us time and money tomorrow.

The whole customs clearance process will be detailed in our Visas and Borders section soon, but suffice to say here that the customs staff at the airport terminal were incredibly helpful. The customs officer we were directed to immediately called an interpreter. They had our Airway Bill in their system as we understood our name being mentioned. Within the first half hour, three people were involved and placed 6 phone calls. We then lost count of the number of calls and people involved, I think another 5. At one point the interpreter came over just to chat with us – it was her duty she told us to be with us while the paperwork was being processed. When she had to leave, after the official closing time, another customs officer called us over to her desk. She spoke good English and she too explained that it was her duty to chat to us so that her colleague could continue her work for us and feel less pressured that we were just waiting alone. Such amazing courtesy and consideration. Two hours later, we had all the paperwork we needed to clear the bikes out of the warehouse the next morning. Time for some dinner and some sleep before an early morning for the next stage of getting the bikes out.

Every government office or bank provides these

Delicious dumplings

Breakfast is a funny mixture of western and local food. We try our first kimchi, pickled chilli cabbage, it gives a bit of flavour and a bit of a bite to otherwise bland food. By the end of breakfast, we can see that are growing to enjoy Kimchi already. The next day was another whole process made the more interesting by a series of ‘helpful’ signs – which office are we meant to go to?! Yet again, someone came to our rescue: one of the Korean Air Services staff organised a car to drive us to a building to collect the original Airway Bill. It would have taken us hours to walk there and back. Paid the warehouse charge and after returning to the first office, got more signatures and stamps, we were ready to be taken to the warehouse to receive the crates.

Information sheet


Where to now?!


Crate removed

Time to finish reassembling the bikes

2.5 hours later, we are on our way!!! We are back at the hotel by noon – plenty of time to go into Seoul but not before lunch. We had been told of a great little restaurant around the corner from our hotel and decide to give it a go. What a feast, great dumplings. With Kimchi again of course. We are struck by the assault on the senses, just in our little area alone.

Left then first right to our hotel

Quiet Incheon where our hotel is

Cash machine

Toy arcade?!

We take the airport express subway into Seoul centre, which is 60kms away. Again, we are struck by the efficiency, cleanliness and ordered feel of the subway. It seems that a lot of thought has been put into making travel easy and stress free.

Next train approaching

Reserved for pregnant women, whether showing or not


Subway entrance for kids

I have a little wandering tour planned out to take Anthony on. When time is limited, I prefer ambling the streets rather than visiting important landmarks or museums as I find you get a better sense of the place as it is today, and can still read about the history. I had read of an arty suburb called Gahoe-dong with good views of the city. Getting there would take us past the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Palace, where one can watch the changing of the guards, except on Tuesdays, that’s today.

Impressive motorcade near the national palace, Seoul

King Sejong statue in front of the National Palace, Seoul


Seoul

As we meander the streets, we come across two young ladies taking lots of photos of each other. Too photogenic, I ask them if I can take a ohoto of them and ask why they are in traditional dresses. Just because they are spending the day together Vivi tells me as Chong-Ing from Busan on the right is visiting her. There is something special to see people proudly wearing their traditional dress. After them, we came across many more, young and not so young.

Vivi and Chong-Ing

Steps in Gahoe-Dong, Seoul

View from Gahoe-Dong, Seoul

Seoul

They do like cutesy cartoons to give messages

We stumble across an amazing art exhibition

Police barricade to military base – with plastic plants on top!

What a full first day, a sensory feast but we can’t wait to get out into the country side tomorrow and visit some old temples.

– Anne