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[Weekender] Meet ordinary but extraordinary people who travel around world

May 17, 2019 - 10:34 By Lee Sun-young
The Korea Herald interviewed seven adventurous world travelers whose journey across continents could provide an inspiration for South Koreans for their next trip. 

Yoon Jin-young (right) and his wife, Shin Seon-a, traveled around the world in a Toyota SUV for three years.

They said travels led them to exotic places and fun adventures, but somewhere along the way, they also experienced self-discovery and gained new attitudes toward life.

From amateur stargazers on a quest to capture cosmic wonders to a solo backpacker searching for business opportunities, here are stories of ordinary yet extraordinary Koreans who have turned the seemingly unrealistic dream of traveling the world into reality. 

Stargazer couple’s overland expedition around the world

Since college, Shin Seon-a and Yoon Jin-young have been stargazers with an insatiable desire for adventure.

“I actually don’t remember whose idea it was in the first place, but as long as I remember, we were on the same page, wanting to make it happen, from very early on in our marriage,” Shin said about her recent trip around the world with her husband.

In September 2016, after four years of planning and saving money, Shin, a nurse, and Yoon, a Samsung employee, quit their jobs and jetted off to explore the world.

Until April, the duo’s life had been on the road, behind the wheel of a 2004 Toyota 4Runner, which they accessorized with a rooftop tent. They named it “Ilshik” or the solar eclipse.

From Canada to Argentina and from Spain to Vladivostok, Russia’s Far East, the wanderlust-stricken couple drove over 150,000 kilometers across 47 countries for nearly three years. Thankfully, the car had no major malfunction or road accident.

“The greatest thing about traveling by  a camper is the freedom. You can drive wherever you want to go and whenever you want. You can also stop whenever, wherever,” said Yoon.

Of all their escapades, the 500-plus-kilometer road trip from Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats to Chile’s Atacama Desert was the most unforgettable, the pair said. Shin described the scenery as ethereal. “I kept asking myself, ‘Is this really Earth?’”

In the middle of the desert, they stopped for two weeks.

When the sun was out, they sipped beer under a shade. When night fell, they stared in awe at the breathtaking mass of stars. Northern Chile is known for its clear night skies -- some say the clearest on Earth -- and is home to top-tier astronomical observatories. It is a place where many stargazers in polluted regions dream of coming.

“We had brought along equipment from Korea like a telescope, camera and mounts,” Shin said. 
The night sky over Chile`s Atacama Desert photographed by Shin and Yoon

Spending a long time abroad has made the two 35-year-olds realize the value of life back home -- family, friends, the sense of belonging and the comfort of being surrounded by familiarity.

“There were times when I was like ‘I need to drive again today.’ ‘I need to plan again.’ ‘What if the police stop me today,’ ‘what if cows block me,’ or just hope the road is paved well.”

Living a life constantly on the move and having to plan ahead for basic aspects of daily life, like where to sleep or eat, can wear you down, said Yoon.

He added, “In retrospect, it was fun though.” 

Instagram-savvy duo’s definition of real travel

Kim Eui-jeong and Choi Dong-hee are among a new generation of social media-savvy travelers who chronicle their adventures on blogs, Instagram and YouTube.

“We’re most active on Instagram,” said wife Kim, 33. The couple have combined followers of nearly 30,000. 

Away from home for two years and seven months now, the pair have so far visited 47 countries across Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania, with their travels captured in over 1,500 Instagram posts and a long list of blog posts and YouTube videos. 

Kim Eui-jeong and Choi Dong-hee (Photo credit: Kim Eui-jeong)

Currently in Australia, the couple plan to explore the African continent before heading home later this year.

Kim worked as a dietitian and her husband in the fashion industry. Two years into their marriage, they began traveling with a budget of 50 million won ($42,000).

“Money ran out after 10 months in Asia and Europe. We went to Australia for a working-holiday experience and saved a similar amount during the one year and two month stay there,” the couple said. It was part of the plan and they had acquired special visas for that before leaving Korea.

“We’re traveling on that money now.”

At first, Kim and Choi, known online as the Toktok couple, were overly ambitious, approaching travel with a checklist of things to do, places to visit and food to eat. “At that time, we thought we would be wasting time and money if we just idled around.”

They eventually hit “traveler’s block” -- a low point where nothing really excited them anymore.

The breakthrough came unexpectedly. In a small Cuban town, they met a 60-something couple who, just like them, were independent, long-term travelers.

“They got up early, shopped at local markets and cooked. They had more vigor than us, seeking out interesting places to visit,” Kim said. “They told us to enjoy being young. They were a true inspiration.”

Kim and Choi at Laguna 69 in Peru

The couple now try to truly enjoy every second of their journey and not push themselves to do things they don’t feel like doing.

“It is OK not to have a plan. Sometimes the best food is served at an unknown restaurant, and the best spot is where you end up, wandering around,” said Kim.

As for life after traveling, they said they want to focus on the present and live every moment to its fullest.

“We will think about it later. Right now, we don’t even know what tomorrow holds for us."

Joy of cycling around the world

In July 2016, Park Su-yeon and Ha Ji-hoon gave up their careers in accounting and IT, sold all their possessions and bought bicycles.

After testing their pedalling skills and endurance during a three-month trip in Korea, the married couple embarked on a once in a lifetime journey to see the world, though their savings fell far short of their target amount of 100 million won ($84,000). 

Park Su-yeon and husband Ha Ji-hoon in New Zealand (Photo credit: Park Su-yeon)

“We were already four years behind our original plan. We thought if we didn’t do it then, it might be too late,” Park, now 38, recalled.

In October that year, the real expedition began with a flight to New Zealand.
Currently in Cuba, after touring Asia and Europe, Park said they did not know when this trip would end.

“Our plan keeps changing, and we still have quite a lot of money left,” she said.

For the past nearly three years, the couple have experienced many adventures, jaw-dropping sights, exotic food and cultures, but above all, meeting good people created the most remarkable memories, they said.

“Travel itself is not life changing. But the people we met on this journey are. They have changed our attitude toward life,” Park said.

“People we met on the road -- many in less-developed countries -- were so generous, willing to help, give and share. They may be poor but were rich at heart,” she continued.

Of all the countries, the first stop on their itinerary, New Zealand, left the strongest impression, and that was also because of the great people they met and the hospitality they had shown.

The two spoke of Warmshower, a unique network of cycling tourists that links members who need a place to stay or rest with those who can provide that -- without any money exchanged.

Warmshower hosts they met in New Zealand offered them a ride to the airport, kept their bags and introduced them to another host in another area, the couple said.

Traveling mainly on a saddle can be a test of physical limits.

The duo once had to ride for 135 kilometers to find a place to crash for the night, with only three boiled eggs for the two to share. What was worse, for nearly one-third of the ride, it rained so heavily that they could hardly see anything. 

Park in Menton, southeastern France

Despite the hardships, they love biking and the freedom it offers.

“We keep saying how much better Cuba could have been, if we cycled,” Park said. Due to a health problem she encountered in Europe, the couple switched to conventional backpacking by bus, train and on foot.

A globe-trotting study of money and life

The story of solo traveler Jung Yun-ho is rather peculiar: Money was his main motivation.

A merchant at heart, he wanted to look for business opportunities outside Korea. He flew to China just a week after quitting his office job.

“I originally thought I would travel around for 1 1/2 years and settle down somewhere and start a business,” said Jung, now 39. “I ended up traveling to 84 countries for a total of three years and two months.”

Jung Yun-ho (left) with street vendors of Jordan (Photo credit: Jung Yun-ho)

Although he never reached the second phase of his plan, he did try his luck at money making while traveling. There were many failed attempts.

In Peru, fluffy llama dolls looked good, so he bought four big ones, along with other Alpaca souvenirs. Most, including the four giant llamas, haven’t found customers yet.

These now take up sizable space in his room in Korea, alongside other products that he bought with the intention of reselling, including 2,000 plastic flying dragonfly toys from China.

There were good moments, too.

In Colombia, where he stayed for eight months, he decided to try his hand at the lodging business.

The area where he stayed --Medellin -- had been infamous as the country’s “murder capital” but was beginning to emerge as a hip destination. He turned his rental home into a guesthouse named “Gangster Guesthouse,” and offered guided tours of the nearby slum.

Despite having promoted it only on social media, he was flooded with reservations. His earnings far exceeded the rental fee he paid to the landlord.

As a traveler, he had his fair share of unforgettable experiences.

In the Peruvian city of Huaraz, he got into a brawl with the owner of a local travel agency after complaining about waiting at 4 a.m. for a ride to the famous Lake 69 -- a service he paid for in advance but never received.

“With a black eye, I managed to get there via another travel agency. It was absolutely beautiful. Worth the drama,” Jung said.

He reported the incident to police, who made the assailant pay him compensation of 35,000 won -- an anecdote he now shares with laughter.

Stories of his trip, which ended in April last year, have been compiled into a book published earlier this month.

“I had many failures in my life in Korea. My book is perhaps a chronicle of more of my failures abroad,” he said.

By Lee Sun-young