Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Life in South Korea

We've now been living in South Korea for about 4 months.  We’re coping OK with the weather but so far but we’ve only had a few days of very cold weather. I chatted with someone from Siberia recently who told me she actually prefers winters in Siberia because there’s less wind there ... (I told her they must be sending it all over here to SK). Of course we’ve had to buy everything from scratch (coats, gloves, scarves, footwear, hats etc) as we never needed them in Reunion.

Seoul by night, from our flat

Language-wise we've both been having Korean lessons, but my (French) husband in French and me in English.  We’re both only at the “What is this ? This is a pen” stage.  We know how to read the alphabet but when you decipher a word you don’t necessarily know what it means as most vocabulary is completely different to English, although you can sometimes use your imagination – the Korean words for ‘glass’ and ‘door’ put together mean ‘window’. ‘Han-deupon’ is a cellphone (‘handphone’) for example.  So day-to-day activity is carried out in basic English and/or basic Korean and/or sign language.  I’m actually worried that next time I’m back in the UK I’ll be speaking pidgin English to everyone !  V. managed to have his hair cut at a hairdresser’s where they don’t speak a word of English.  Women being fussier about haircuts, I went to one where I knew they spoke some English.   

not as complicated as it looks actually (image from

 I’ve managed to take the bus a couple of times as well – not as simple as it sounds because unlike the subway system it’s not very non-Korean speaker friendly.  Also the bus drivers, like the taxi drivers, tend to have a whiplash-inducing style of driving.  I’ve actually seen a woman standing in a bus fall over because the driver braked so hard ...  V. got his Korean driving license too, be interesting to see the reaction of a French or British policeman if he has to show it if he gets stopped.  He needed the Korean driving license (I’ve got an international one) for when we hired a car and did our road trip round the peninsula at the end of October.  It was interesting to get out of Seoul, to see that are lots of tower blocks everywhere (just like Seoul) but also a lot less English spoken and less foreigners – although in Seoul there aren’t that many foreigners really.  So when we were sight-seeing if our paths crossed that of a bunch of school children they’d all be shouting “hello, how are you” 60 times to us !  Anyway around the country there are some remarkable and less remarkable sights, you realise how old the country’s history is, but also how much it has suffered from repeated foreign invasions.

Other interesting experiences were V. tasting silk-worm pupa (a great delicacy here) and having a violent allergic reaction to them.  He’s not an allergic person and often ate wasp larvae in Reunion so we were surprised.  I can just imagine him seeing a European doctor for the first time who asks him if he’s allergic to anything “Oh yes, just silk worm larva ...”.   

silk worm larva, known as beondegi in Korean

Also on the health front I found out that only 0.5% of Koreans have my blood group (A-), the same goes for all negative blood groups (in Europe its about 6% per negative blood group) , so basically if you’re Rhesus negative and you ever need a lot of blood you’re unlikely to get it here.  So if you were wondering what to send me for Christmas now you know – some A- blood !  

In October during one of my Korean tea ceremony classes we heard a very loud siren going off everywhere.  Apparently every so often there are drills in case of an attack by North Korea.  In fact an armistice was never signed at the end of the Korean war, there was just a ceasefire.  I’d like to go on a trip to North Korea, but about 2 weeks ago they tightened security and it’s currently not possible.

Korean tea ceremony (photo Wikiepdia)

We did a temple stay last month. A group of us went on an organised trip to a Buddhist temple in Ganghwado – I wanted to go not so much for the religious side of things but cultural as Buddhism and Buddhist thinking is an important part of life here even though Korea is the most Christian country in this part of Asia.  So we participated in meditation, chanting, ‘work’ (chrysanthemum flower picking) and calligraphy.


tea with the head monk

during a service

This being Asia everything takes place sitting on the floor, including eating meals (you sleep on the floor too).  But the ‘high’ point was getting up at 3:45am to do 108 salutations at 4am in the temple during morning service ...!   A monk who misses morning service would have to do 3000 salutations to make up for it; apparently this takes about 8 hours.

Less spiritual was the visit I made to the world’s one and only toilet shaped house built by a Korean to raise awareness of all the people without toilets.  It really is a lived-in house (see my picture below). 

I also recently visited the House of Sharing and museum for former “comfort women” from WWII – not an easy visit, but eye-opening all the same.

Suggested reading :
Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Korea tourist campaign video

I like this video. The music's good, and I think it manages to combine old and modern Korea successfully. What do you think?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Riviere des Remparts and Roche Plate

All photos by Philippe Letellier.

Before we left Reunion for South Korea we wanted to take a trip to Roche Plate, which is a small village in the river-bed of the Rivière des Remparts, only accessible by foot or by 4-wheel drive vehicule. Roche plate literally means 'flat stone', and it is situated at just over 700m altitude. 
As I'd already been there on foot, and as I own a Suzuki Jimny (soon to be sold before we leave) we chose the easy option!

my Jimny

looking up the Remparts river valley

Remparts is a French word which literally means 'ramparts', but in this context means the cliff walls on either side of the river valley.


view to the side when travelling upriver

The 'road' is a 13-km long dirt track

and crossing other vehicles can sometimes be difficult as although the river bed is wide, the actual track you can drive on is quite narrow, but we got there safely in the end.

don't attempt this drive if there's been heavy rain

We stayed in the gîte (lodging) in the tiny hamlet of Roche Plate.  This sort of hamlet is known on Reunion as an îlet.

Roche Plate gîte

the gîte's electricity comes from solar panels

The îlet used to be a larger village, but in 1965 an enormous landslide nearby led to it being evacuated, and most people have never moved back.

The next day we walked a short distance up the river. (If you carry on uphill for 17 kilometres you come to a place called Nez de Boeuf at 2000 metres altitude, from where you can walk or drive to the Piton de la Fournaise volcano).

path heading uphill alongside the river

 We found a lovely waterfall.

Many filaos or casuarina trees grow in this area. They have quite distinctive red roots which you can see in the photos below.

By the way, don't confuse this Roche Plate with the other village of Roche Plate which is located in the cirque (volcanic caldera) of Mafate.

Further reading:
You might be interested in this account by a horticulturist of his hike down from Nez De Boeuf to St Joseph.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Madagascar - Tsingy de Bemaraha

For this, my third trip to Madagascar, we headed to the island's west coast and the Tsingy de Bemaraha, a nature reserve located in the Melaky Region. The area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990 due to its unique geography, preserved mangrove forests, and wild bird and lemur populations. It has only been open to the public since 1998.
Please note that as our camera was broken during this trip unless other mentioned all photos below are by Vincent Grafhorst, a wildlife photographer we met who was travelling in the same places at the same as us. Please visit his website at:

Spiny chameleon (furcifer verrucosus)

To get to the Tsingy we first had to fly to Antananarivo (Madagascar's capital) from Reunion, then take a domestic flight to the west coast town of Morondava. There we met our 4WD driver, and were ready for the 8-hour dirt track journey to the Tsingy (no A/C in the car!).

male panther chameleon

We stopped 45 minutes north of Morondava at the Avenue of the Baobabs, an impressive alley of huge baobab trees (Adansonia grandidieri), which includes trees that are over 800 years old and reach a height of more than 30 metres.

Avenue of the Baobabs

Avenue of the Baobabs

Of eight species of baobabs that exist, six are native to Madagascar.

Zebu cattle under a baobab

Girls trading water lilies for sweets

Baobabs are sometimes called 'upside down trees' as it can look as if they have their roots in the air.

Avenue of the Baobabs at sunset

Avenue of the Baobabs at sunset

After 200km of dusty driving we finally arrived at the Manambolo River, whose canyon forms the southern boundary of the Tsingy Nature Reserve.

Ferry loaded with a truck crossing the Manambolo river at dusk

Manambolo river gorge

On a boat trip down the river the following day we saw ancient burial tombs along the gorge banks. You must avoid pointing at them as wherever you are in the park pointing with the finger is a serious fady (taboo).

rock face, Manambolo river gorge

On the other side of the river is Bekopaka, the nearest village to the Tsingy and a base for accommodation.

two young girls doing each other's hair

The western region of Madagascar is mainly peopled by the Sakalava, one of 18 ethnic groups of Madagascar.

Bekopaka at dawn 

The Tsingy were created when the limestone seabed rose to create a plateau around 200 million years ago, which was little by little eroded by heavy rainfalls and wind  over the centuries until it became its actual shape. The result is a maze of jagged razor-sharp limestone pinnacles often towering several hundred metres in the air. 

View of the Tsingy rock formations

On our first day in the area we started by visiting the 'Little Tsingy' (Petits Tsingy) which are surrounded by a dry deciduous forest, particularly well adapted to the extreme changing climate conditions of the area,  and then in the afternoon we took the boat trip along the Manambolo which I've mentioned above.

Little Tsingy, with the forest behind

On our second day we visited the main 'Great Tsingy' (Grand Tsingy) area. You visit them using walkways, bridges, ropes and climbing equipment.

View of Tsingy at dawn

The word tsingy is Malagasy for "where one cannot walk barefoot" or "walking on tiptoes".

another view of the Tsingy (source)

The Tsingy once gave shelter to the Vazimba, the first inhabitants of Madagascar. Legend has it that some Vazimba still live in the Tsingy...

a path through the rock formations

The UNESCO World Heritage site is formed of the National Park (666 square kilometres) and the adjacent Strict Nature Reserve (853 square kilometres). Tourists are not allowed to enter the latter.

bridging the gap - a tourist crossing a suspension bridge in the Tsingy

The park is also home to over 100 species of birds, eight species of reptiles, and 11 species of lemurs, including Von der Decken’s sifaka.

Madagascar scops owl

You should know that the Park is only opened during the dry season from April to November, since it is inaccessible during the rainy season (mid-end November to mid-end May). The Great Tsingy are only accessible between May/June and the beginning of November.

Monarch butterfly on grass

After our time spent exploring the Tsingy we headed back to Morandava, spending a night halfway in the town of Belon'i-Tsiribihina, then another night at Kirindy Forest Reserve, a private park about 40-50 km northeast of Morandava.

Belon'i Tsiribihina (source)

About 100 square kilometres in area, Kirindy has the greatest density and diversity of primates in the world.

Red-tailed sportive lemur clinging to a tree

Golden silk orb-weaver spider in web

Fossa, Narrow-striped mongooseVerreaux's Sifaka, Common tenrec, Greater hedgehog tenrec and Red-fronted Brown Lemur are also found there.

Red-fronted brown lemurs

Verreaux's Sifaka lemur

Red-tailed sportive lemur

One of my most memorable experiences was during the night we spent at Kirindy, when we were woken by the sound of the claws of a fossa walking across the wooden terrace of our cabin!


Our next trip was three months later when we headed to South Korea for the start of a three-year stay there.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like:
  • Ile Sainte Marie - in 2004 we spent a week on this island off the north-east coast of Madagascar.
  • Stone Forest - in November 2009 National Geographic magazine published an article about the Tsingy. 
  • For more pictures of baobabs and lemurs see this post about Mayotte.

Useful links:

Useful guide book: