It was one of those surreal moments that French photographer Jean-Louis Wolff loves. Last January, after a red-eye flight from Toronto to Paris, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport for a fashion shoot - something we had collaborated on countless times for this magazine, in such far-flung places as New Zealand, Mongolia and Seoul, his home of six years. After exchanging hugs, we collected my luggage and headed to a battered, silver bullet of a location bus. At first glance it looked unexceptional ... until you noticed the number plates, which were Korean, and its passengers, Wolff's make-up artist wife, Miae, their son, Marc, seven, and one-year-old daughter, Lilas. There was an overwhelming sense of deja vu until I digested the situation: this was the same vehicle that five months and 18,000 kilometres earlier had picked me up at Incheon airport in Seoul for another job. During that time, the family - accompanied by a video artist, photographic assistant and Cocotte, their gentle giant of a dog - had embarked on what must be one of the most ambitious, and some would say insane, road trips ever: a photoshoot that would take them from Seoul to Paris via China, Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece and Italy, before they made their way back through Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet. Their mission? To connect two cities, two cultures and two continents, not to mention one eccentric couple, by documenting the faces of the women en route. Like a travelling circus, they would arrive in a town, search for unsuspecting beauties, and then Miae, 36, would make them up. 'It was more difficult than I expected,' she explains. 'Every culture and every woman has a different idea of what is beautiful, so you have to understand how far you can go when, in most cases, you weren't able to communicate. There's no point in doing something the subjects don't like or can't understand.' It was up to Jean-Louis, 40, to persuade them to pose for photographs. 'We had to be quite inventive in the Muslim world,' he explains, 'and we weren't able to take any pictures in Iran, all the women were covered in black. But otherwise, most people were happy to be photographed. 'I remember one Uighur girl in Turpan. She was riding on a cotton cart with her father and, as we passed, I quickly asked my assistant to snap a digital photo. We waited for them up ahead, gave them a print-out and persuaded her father to let her come on board for a proper session. Generally, as soon as the women were in the bus, and the curtains were closed, they became quite comfortable. But sometimes you would have to photograph a mother-in-law before you got to the young bride.' Their mobile home-cum-studio, a converted, 35-seat tourist bus, was equipped with everything they would need during the 40,000-km, 12-month journey: a fully equipped kitchen, washroom, heater, water tanks and a generator powerful enough to supply lights, hair-driers, a computer and children's toys. In addition to the portrait series, which will culminate in an exhibition in Seoul this year, the family met various magazines for fashion stories along the way (ours took us to Strasbourg, Jean-Louis' birthplace), made sure Marc kept on top of his studies, and took portraits of local families in exchange for food, a place to park or, as they did in Kyrgyzstan, a few hours of horse-riding. It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, a 21st-century variation on the cliched hippy caravan, but without the Volkswagen. But it was also extremely dangerous at times. I was one of many friends and family, for instance, firing off e-mails begging them to come back when war broke out in Afghanistan. At the time, they were in Kyrgyzstan, waiting for a visa to enter Kazakhstan. Jean-Louis assured us they were far from the action, and that the only effects of the war were increased checkpoints and border bureaucracy. Besides, he wrote, the biggest threat in Central Asia was not bombing or militant Muslims, but poverty-stricken locals so drunk and desperate that they would do anything to get hold of car spares and cameras. 'There were lots of guys who would try and crash into us on purpose, just so they could negotiate damages,' he recalls. 'They are very, very poor, especially in the Aral Sea area. It used to be full of fisherman, but the fish stocks were wiped out so they started hunting rabbits. Now there are no more rabbits, but they still have guns and a lot of vodka.' Outside a remote town in Kyrgyzstan - one of the most scenic countries they visited - the bus was chased for three hours in the middle of the night by five Soviet cars. 'They didn't turn on their headlights, so my assistant needed to use a flashlight to see where the cars were so that they could not overtake us,' says Jean-Louis. Nature was also an obstacle: they can't recall the number of times the bus became stuck in sand, almost went over a cliff or barely escaped being snowed in on mountain tops. And there was a very close call on a beach in Goa, when a strong current pulled Marc and a man towards the rocks. Marc survived, but the man, who was pulled to shore by Jean-Louis, didn't make it. 'There were about four or five times on the trip when we could have died,' says Miae. 'Every time I would pray to the gods and miracles would happen. We were very lucky.' On the trip back, matters grew more tense. 'You could feel the political problems more sharply,' says Jean-Louis. 'We needed an escort for 600 km near the Pakistani border. We were just six kilometres from Afghanistan, and there were all of these refugee camps. We weren't really up-to-date on the news at that time, so we didn't realise the Americans were still bombing the Tora Bora cave complex until we saw a B-52 flying overhead with two fighter planes.' In Gujarat, India, they saw burned cars and houses where there had been Hindu-Muslim fighting, and in Nepal, where communication with the outside world was all but impossible, they made sure they stayed away from army vehicles, which were being targeted by Maoist rebels. More difficult, they say, were the day-to-day difficulties: driving for 12 hours in extreme weather conditions; dust storms; mechanical problems with the bus; frozen water tanks; treacherous mountain roads; overcrowded Indian city streets; shrinking resources; and dealing with irate border officials (China was the most troublesome country to cross, requiring two guides and more than half their total budget). There was also the unavoidable stress of the family living together in such close quarters 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an entire year. A lot of the ups and downs were documented for South Korean television by video artist Kim Jin Sang, who accompanied them for part of the trip. When his documentary was broadcast while they were away, the Wolffs became a sensation. 'Korean television delighted in the scenes where Miae gets angry,' smirks Jean-Louis. 'They love to show the cultural differences between a couple, and how hard it is to marry a foreigner.' Miae admits to a few high-drama moments - not least an altitude- sickness-induced attempt on Jean-Louis' life with a kitchen knife in Tibet. 'At the end of the trip, on the ferry back to Korea from Dalian, China, I thought about our relationship a lot. I now know Jean-Louis better than before, the good things and the bad things, and it all comes down to communication. It was really hard, but we tried our best and we made it.' Jean-Louis also believes the trip has brought them closer together. 'I live very far from where I was born. This year has given me a picture of what is in between my life now and my past. I can touch it. I can see where the faces change from Asian to European, in the Himalayas, among the Nepalese. You could never get that by taking a plane. It was abstract before, but now I can contemplate the difference between me and my wife, not only physically but emotionally. And this will be even more valuable for our children. Marc already realises this, I think. Lilas' age doubled during the trip, and although I don't think she remembers anything before New Delhi, it has affected her. She definitely isn't shy with people, she has met so many.' So what is it like to be home? 'It's strange being recognised in the street,' says Jean-Louis of their recently acquired celebrity status. The family has already appeared on television several times and a book, sponsored by Korean Vogue, was published last month. 'People come up to us and and say how inspired they are by our trip and how they would love to do the same. One woman, when she saw me parking the bus, brought me croissants and a bottle of red wine. She said she saw how hard it was for us in the documentary, and wanted to help. She even gave me 150,000 won [HK$976] to buy diesel.' Miae, who is writing a book about the trip, says she already misses the road. 'It's good to be back, to have a proper apartment and Marc back in school, but after a month I still wake up every morning and expect to see something different outside the window. I'm not used to it always being the same.'