Kathmandu, Nepal. Mid-February 2018. For the first time since I left Korea in January, I am in a country I have not been to before. After my illness over Christmas, the trip to Japan, saying goodbye to some very special people, the packing up of my apartment and the selling off of pretty much everything I owned and reducing my life to a suitcase and a backpack, leaving Korea was actually quite a fraught experience. Maybe it was staying up until 3 am drinking brandy with a very good friend of mine the night before I had to leave, or maybe it was the emotions I was holding off for so long, but the morning I left was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had. My landlord and landlady sobbed as I handed in my keys (I had lived in their building since 2010; my sister had lived in that building before that from 2005-2010, so they had played host to my family for over 12 years). My landlord escorted to me to the street tugging on my elbow and crying his eyes out in the -15-degree winds as we waited at the crossing. I sobbed as I got into the taxi to go to the airport train. I cried throughout the whole ride from Seoul Station to Incheon International Airport. I cried when the plane pushed back. I cried for the first 45 minutes of the flight to Hong Kong. For once in my life I was happy to have to have a window seat so I could turn my tear-stained and crumpled up face away from my neighbour and let all of the emotions out.
Feeling pretty fraught and emotional (and a tad hungover) as I leave Korea for the final time
I was thankful for that window seat so I could turn away and hide my crumpled face
I had planned a couple of weeks’ rest and relaxation at my brother’s place in Victoria, Australia, before setting off on my journey proper. My brother and sister in law had a baby in April 2017 and my dad was going down to visit, so I thought I would tag along since it is easier to get to Australia from Asia than from Europe. On the way down to Australia I wanted to visit some places I have always enjoyed going to in Asia first. I have always loved Hong Kong, and I could do a stopover en route to Bali by flying with Cathay Pacific. I have been to HK seven times, and each time I’m there I have a little tradition of sitting on the Kowloon side on my first night and taking in the view and the Symphony of Lights light show across the harbour, even though I find the light display a little underwhelming. I duly spend my first night there trying to take pictures of the skyline, and I find myself surrounded by Koreans, ironically. The next day it’s a trip to the top of the Peak on the funicular tram and a wander around Central, taking in all my old haunts. I decide to visit the Man Mo temple as well, since on my first trip to HK back in 2005 I went there and had never been back on any of my subsequent trips. I always enjoy a ride along the Mid-Levels escalator and a wander along Staunton Street and Soho too, so I stop off for an afternoon beer to watch the world go by.
We have a panic as I’m leaving Bali. My dad and I have booked a couple of nights in an apartment in the centre of Melbourne as we decided we would want to chill for a bit after our flights rather than head straight down to Gippsland, a four-hour drive from the city. I suddenly get messages from the apartment owner about the key being left in a lock box attached to a bike in another part of the city. I have no way to contact my dad as he is on the plane and his UK mobile might not work. I’ve got 20 minutes to board at this point and I try everything to get the information to my dad, who thus far only has the address of the apartment. Someone mentions the word scam and my heart sinks. I try my dad’s number and he picks up. He’s in a taxi, and just as I get to telling him the lockbox code the phone cuts off. All of his credit has been used up. I now have five minutes until I board, and all the credit and data on my Indonesian SIM card has been used up too. I frantically try to get on the Wi-Fi in the airport and get the information to my brother, and then I have to board. I have never had a take off so fraught, and I’m sure my heart is going to burst right out of my chest. When I transfer in Sydney six hours later I hear that my brother has dashed up to Melbourne and found my dad sitting amongst the homeless and the winos in a branch of Hungry Jack’s, having been deposited there by the taxi driver after being unable to get to the apartment. It certainly wasn’t the restful couple of days we had hoped for.
The morning after the night before – not the best start to our Australian adventure…
The next three weeks is lovely, though. I’m fine with the January heatwave temperatures of 38 degrees, but my dad wilts. We relax, we drink a lot of goon, we play cards, we explore Sale and we take a couple of weekend trips to Wilson’s Prom (we especially enjoy Squeaky Beach) and the Ben Boyd National Park in New South Wales, and see kangaroos and koalas and lyre birds and a wombat and all sorts of iconic Australian wildlife. We see the super blood moon at the end of January and we celebrate Australia Day in typical Aussie style.
I finally do get my couple of days in Melbourne, as I take my final couple of days to roam the city and take in the NGV, a trip to St Kilda, the charming laneways and graffiti-covered alleyways and the cool and funky rooftop bars and hipster coffee shops that I enjoy.
Then I’m off to Bangkok for a few days to meet my friend Freddy, who is working in Shanghai but roaming around Indonesia and Thailand for the lunar new year holiday period. I actually hate Bangkok, and I end up having an extra day all to myself alone there because I misunderstood when Freddy was coming in. I hate the fact that it is so hard to get around the city. The subway routes do not connect in any way to the Sky Train routes. The taxi drivers are supposed to use meters now, and none of them do. Haggling with tuk-tuk drivers is just fatiguing and I fucking hate that I have to go through fights and hassle and fatiguing interactions just to get to places around the city. Nevertheless, Freddy comes in and we spend a good couple of days together visiting the palaces and temples in the city, experiencing the nightlife (Freddy insists we go and see the ladyboys – eye roll) and have a day trip to Ayutthaya to take in the temples and wats and history.
And this brings me to mid-February and sitting at a cafe at the side of the road in Kathmandu. My trip is finally starting in earnest, since I am now in a country that I have not been to before and I am completely on my own again. It was an easy flight into Kathmandu, though getting a visa at the airport was a bit of a hassle: long lines, and a mild panic when I think that I can’t use the Thai baht I have on me (the only cash I have) to pay for the visa (you actually can, it turned out). I step out of the airport and pay the 700 rupees for a pre-paid taxi to Thamel, the tourist area of Kathmandu. I am corralled into a tiny van by the “taxi driver” that I am shepherded towards, who turns out to be the owner of a travel company who insists of giving me the lowdown of all of his wares. Actually, my first couple of days in Kathmandu are to be taken up with editing work I have and other stuff I have to do, so I politely try to tell him that I am not yet ready to book anything. Nevertheless, when we get to Thamel, parts of which are restricted to vehicles, I am met by his young worker, Kumar, who instantly grabs my suitcase and deposits me in the travel company office to run through all of the tour options available to me before releasing me and escorting me to the hotel I have booked. I am, of course, somewhat suspicious, but along the way two Dutch guys with dreadlocks high-five Kumar and greet him like a friend and tell him how much they enjoyed the trip he booked for them, so maybe I’m just too suspicious and defensive.
I do finally get my suitcase back from Kumar and check in to my hotel with no issues
And so here I am in Kathmandu, sipping a coffee on the street in Thamel and I’m poised and ready for my trip and my adventure to begin.