Ah, back to Tokyo. I expected to be away more than a week, but in those temperatures I really didn’t feel like it. If I’d known I would have bought a rail pass outside the country and saved some money. Not a big deal, and I’ll know in the future!
Changing money in Japan takes an age. You have to fill in a form which then seems to be analysed by at least three people before the money is handed over. The banks are also strange compared to Britain in that they just have people at counters, with no armored glass to hide behind. I guess there are no armed robberies in Japan?
I missed most of the scenery on the way back. Part of that was because I spent a lot of the time asleep, and part because of low clouds and rain on the Eastern part of the route. At least I could tell that I was going fast from the way the raindrops went upwards as they were blown back along the windows. However being unable to see Mt Fuji because of the bad weather was somewhat disconcerting.
I was intending to return to Marui House, where I’d stayed in Tokyo before, but that was full. Instead I spent the first couple of days in ‘Villa Yamanote’ (named after the Yamanote railway line which passes close to it), another gaijin house owned by the same woman. When someone left I was able to move back into my old room and meet up with some of the people who’d been staying there before.
Villa Yamanote was fine except that it was in a fairly sleepy part of town (near Shin-okubo station) and inhabited by a mad Frenchman. I think he was just lonely, but that wasn’t surprising as I never heard him talk about anything except how bad France was, and was dragged into the loud discussions on a couple of occasions. Perhaps I’m just too nice, but I really did feel like telling him that I couldn’t care less about Europe, which was why I was in Japan…
Another guy was visiting from Israel and making a living as a juggler. I met him outside on the street as he practiced with his new batons, the old ones having disappeared in the mail from Hong Kong. He hadn’t yet tried lighting them as the balance was different. Another couple were Australians who had been studying Aikido and Japanese and were taking a tour of the country before returning to Australia.
The first night back I hurried off to the Internet Cafe I’d visited before, only to find the door locked and the signs missing. I guess it closed down in the time I was away! Seems like half the Net Cafes around the world close down when I’m around, in future I shall try to find a worldwide dialup PPP service and use that, or perhaps just wait for cheap sattelite phones.
Instead I visited the Warung I Balinese restaurant on the grounds that I’d never eaten Balinese food before. The food was great, but beer was expensive and service took forever. If I’m ever in Tokyo on an expense account I’ll give it another try.
Shibuya is a pretty busy part of town at night, and full of touts of one sort or another. One guy was trying very hard to persuade me to sign up to some kind of cheap international phone service even though he hardly spoke English and I’m only in Japan for a few more days. One very odd guy came up to me as I was watching the big TV screen on the side of one of the buildings, and asked if he could pray for me. I have no idea what sort of cult he belonged to, but wished I had my ULC ordination card with me. Hopefully being an ordained minister would have got rid of him.
Otherwise I’ve been trying to plan a trip to Mt Fuji and fit in all the places I’d marked in my guidebook to visit. I’ve been told that I should reserve a place in a hut on the mountain rather than just turn up, so that means I’ll be going on Friday instead of tomorrow. John, one of the Americans who’s staying at Marui House, has offered to lend me his wet-weather gear, which will come in handy. He’s another person who’s done this before and had to buy his while half-way up the mountain! After all this I’d better go and climb it now.
I managed to find another Internet Cafe in Harajuku, which was more expensive but pleasant. Persuading them to let me use the floppy drive took a long time though. Harajuku is actually quite a cool place, with lots of weird people wandering around and ‘Condomania’, a store selling any kind of condom that you might desire. Even in mid-week there were a few freaky people hanging around Yoyogi Park when I went back for a longer look. It’s not the most impressive Park in Tokyo but not bad for an afternoon walk – and free.
Oh, another neat little thing about Japan – on some of the pedestrian crossings, as well as the red and green lights they also have a set of red bars alongside which count down to the time when the lights change, so you know how long you’ll have to wait! One strange thing though. The kanji for Tokyo station is two space invaders, and many of the trains have Schwa alien symbols on the windows, but at forty-five degrees. Does this mean that the Tokyo railway system has been taken over by aliens?
Today I moved house and stopped off at the Nezu Fine Art Museum, which was nice but a bit disappointing. They have a large collection there, but the galleries are so small that perhaps only 2-3% of it is on show at any one time. However, the gardens were nice and also free. I did find a nice postcard of a painting of a cat to send to my mother…
I also marked the rest of the route on the world map that I’m carrying. The dotted lines are slowly turning solid as I travel, and my large wad of plane tickets is diminishing. Whew, I’ve been travelling for nearly seven weeks now, and have plenty more to go before I get back to Europe. I feel as though years have passed since I was in Bangkok.
Well, there ends another very short update. My brain is so fried by the heat that I’m not writing much, which is probably a good thing. Tonight I shared a rice dinner that John cooked, and we chatted with a couple of middle-aged women who’d just arrived from England via Rome. They have a slight problem in that they were intending to pay for part of the trip on one’s credit card but her son accidentally cut it up the day before she flew out, thinking it was the old one which had just expired. Ooops… As we talked a couple of people rang offering jobs as buskers or jazz dance teachers, but they didn’t feel like trying either of them to supplement the money they had.
Ooh, there’s a TV program on about the Florida Keys, I kept meaning to go there, but never got around to it. Kind of ties in with a dream I had last night about going to see a space shuttle launch but missing it (I have lots of dreams like that, for obvious reasons). The dream came true to some extent, I was about two hours late waking up.
The world is starting to seem rather like London did until recently. I lived near there for several years and when my friends had fewer babies and mortgages to deal with I visited the city a lot. Most of the time I used the underground (subway) and so it felt like a lot of little islands of streets that I knew seperated by vast expanses of the unknown. Only when my friend Pey-Wen came to visit and took me walking around the city did I discover how they all fit together. Now I know my way around parts of Bangkok, Taipei, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc, but in between is just airports and trains. I hope that eventually I’ll be able to fill in a lot more of the gaps, but that could take a few decades… my world map is slowly filling up with the lines showing the route I’ve taken, and just for fun I thought I’d start occasionally including a table showing the limits of my travels.
Still, I now know that Hiroshima is on what the Japanese refer to as the ‘Inland Sea’. It’s not truly landlocked like the Caspian Sea, but more like the Aegean, a body of water surrounded by large islands. In the middle are many smaller islands and lots of boats. From Hiroshima the island of Miya-jima is only a half-hour tram ride and five-minute ferry ride away.
The island is most famous for the Itsukushima-jinja shrine, which appears on many tourist posters and in many Japanese guidebooks. For many centuries no commoners were allowed to set foot on the island, so to visit the shrine they had to come by boat and pass through the ‘floating torii’ (the large wooden square archway on the approach to a Japanese shrine) out at sea. There are also a number of very large parks, and Mt Misen in the middle. I stocked up with a large bottle of drink and some munchies, then headed out.
The first thing I noticed after getting off the ferry were the deer wandering around and dozing in the shade of the trees in front of the souvenir shops. They seem perfectly tame and were quite happy to be petted by the kids. They did, however, take a very strong liking to any bags which smelt even remotely of food.
Down on the beach people were hunting for things amongst the gungy seaweed which covered the lower half, and more deer were fighting over the remains of a large cardboard box. The tide was low, so I walked out towards the torii for a closer look. The red paint was faded, and the lower four feet or so covered with barnacles. Just above them many people had inscribed graffiti. The seaweed appeared to be alive with crabs, and more rushed away into deep holes whenever I put a foot down on the wet sand.
Having satisfied my curiosity, soaked my trainers and socks, and worked out that I wasn’t going to see the famous sight until high tide, I decided to head for the top of Mt Misen. The weather was too damn hot so I invested $15 in a cable-car trip. Even that required a long walk through the park to find the bottom of the cable. That would have been very nice on a cool day. As I walked through a single-file group of deer adopted a collison course, but must have decided at the last minute that I had no food, and turned away.
The cable-car trip was quite fun and gave some good views of the city from above the trees. I was sure glad that I’d decided to take it and not try to walk – the mountain top was much further away than it appeared from the description in the guide book. At the top visitors were requested to leave bags in lockers because it was also a monkey sanctuary. I’d already finished my 1.5 liter bottle of apple-juice drink so I dumped it and grabbed a can, which only lasted a few seconds.
Outside the terminus were some funny warning signs, including one drawing of a monkey sinking his fangs into the arm of a tourist who’d tried to stare him out. Above was a viewing area and some seats, from where you could see most of the other islands in the Inland Sea. I considered calling that the peak and going back, but hell, I was almost there… or so I thought.
I walked past the crowds of monkeys and along the path, which rather worryingly began to descend. It slowly began climbing again then weaved around the mountain past various shrines, one containing a pot over a fire which has supposedly been burning since around 800CE. Some were closed as this was now quite late in the day.
Mt Misen is claimed to be 526m tall, but seems closer to infinite. As in Zeno’s Paradox, just when you think you’ve reached the top you find another set of steps about half as long as the previous set. I was soon glad that there was a promised rest house at the summit. The steps began to pass through rocky areas, then came to a stop at a small shrine. Oops… no rest house. Luckily I spotted a gap between two large rocks, and it was hidden behind.
Prices were high, but the view from the roof was great, with Hiroshima, the surrounding towns and the islands spread out in front of me. I was then really glad that I’d gone to the trouble of going up there. However, I didn’t have much time to look around as I needed to be back for the last cable-car, so soon I was on my way back down.
By the time I returned to the shore the shrine was closed but the torii was surrounded by water. I snapped off a few pictures and took the ferry back to Hiroshima, then changed my clothes and finished off the day at a Japanese curry shop. Their idea of curry is certainly different to the English variety, but still very nice. Sort of rice and bread-crumb coated chicken with curry sauce. Cheap too…
Where I’ve been
Furthest North: John O’Groats
Furthest South: Singapore
Furthest East: Tokyo
Furthest West: San Francisco
Don’t forget nail clippers!
Don’t buy 1/2 liter bottles of sunscreen, shampoo, etc – each weighs about half a kilo and you can buy it as you travel.
Well, on to Hiroshima, a place-name that I’m sure most people will immediately recognize… Living here must be strange, with tens of thousands of foreigners visiting the city solely because they or their ancestors once destroyed it.
Japanese laundrettes are good, they even provide a stock of comics to read while you wait. I couldn’t understand much of the story, but I think that those in the Hiroshima laundrette must have been issues of ‘Big-Breasted Babes Weekly’. From the look of things a common Japanese sexual fantasy must be to be beaten up by high school girls in short skirts and stockings… Still, some of the mainstream American and British comics I’ve read weren’t much more restrained, and I guess there are worse things to do with your time.
It also had a vending machine for ‘Pocari Sweat’, so I finally got to try some. It does, indeed, taste a lot like Pocari Sweat (whatever a Pocari might be). To quote the can, “Pocari Sweat is a health-oriented drink which supplies water and electrolytes lost through perspiration. Pocari Sweat is highly recommended for such activities as sports, physical labor and even as an eye-opener in the morning.” It would have opened my eyes in the morning, that’s for sure…
Enough of that traditional “ain’t this place strange?” business. I’m really not like some of the people I’ve met here, moaning about how these foreigners do everything wrong and nothing would meet US safety standards. I didn’t come here to live with Westerners in expensive Western hotels and only venture out in air-conditioned coaches with Western guides. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the things you might find weird if you ever get to visit these places, or the neat little things that people in other countries do.
Incidentally, if you do find yourself having an urge to sell everything and run off around the world I’d recommend it. If you’re a native English speaker you should be able to get jobs teaching English (there were many job ads in Taipei), and if you’re female some of the Western women I’ve met regard hostessing here (basically chatting with Japanese businessmen and pouring their drinks) as well-paid, safe and not-very-illegal work. Hong Kong would probably be a different story… Either way, as long as you keep enough money for a plane ticket home you’re unlikely to get into too much trouble.
Hiroshima is a strange place for the obvious reasons. The famous A-bomb dome is located close to the point where the bomb exploded, and in the photos I’ve seen it always appeared to be in a large park. This is not entirely true. I took the tram from the station to the hotel, and was looking out of the windows as we approached the river. The route passes along a street packed with department stores, hotels, restaurants and McDonalds outlets, then suddenly there it is, the broken, skeletal remains of the old Industrial Promotion Hall, just as it was at 8:16am on August 6th 1945. The contrast is dramatic, and somehow makes the memorial far more poignant. Rather than being hidden away in parkland, you can clearly see that it was once just another workaday building in the city.
Across the river is the Peace Memorial Park, which at 8:14am that day was a bustling residential and commercial center and two minutes later was just rubble. Considering its background the Park is a very pleasant place and contains a number of memorials to the people who were killed. Aside from the Cenotaph which is dedicated to all the victims, possibly the most famous is the Children’s Peace Memorial. This was dedicated to a young girl who developed leukemia a few years after the bomb was dropped, and was convinced that if she could fold a thousand origami cranes the disease would be cured. When she died she was buried in a coffin full of cranes, and literally millions more are piled up at the various memorials around the Park, sent in by Japanese schoolchildren or left by visitors. Hidden away just across a bridge on the West side is a small memorial to the Koreans who died, many of whom were brought to Japan for forced labor in the factories, and accounted for more than 10% of the dead.
There are many other plaques around the city detailing the effects of the bomb. While looking for somewhere to eat the first night here I walked directly under the point where the bomb exploded and passed the old Bank of Japan building, one of the closest buildings to the explosion which is still in use after repairs. The two points are about a five minute walk apart. Many of the other concrete buildings in the city were only damaged by the bomb rather than destroyed, and several are still in use today. This is in part because much of the damage occured in the firestorm which followed the explosion, and concrete survived where wood was completely burnt away.
Returning from ‘Spaghetteria San Mario’ (a cheap and interesting pasta restaurant where I can recommend the Japanese seafood spaghetti and Darjeeling ice-cream) the A-bomb dome was a spooky sight lit from the inside against the night sky.
The locals, however, seem to treat the whole area as just another park. As I stood gazing at the ruins a group were holding an impromptu ballroom-dancing lesson nearby and some teenagers on the other side of the river were letting off fireworks (another favorite Japanese pastime).
The phone booth on the way back to the hotel is plastered with cards showing partially-naked girls and telephone numbers, so perhaps I’m in a somewhat dubious part of town again. They clearly do good business, as I’ve seen people in there most times that I’ve passed. The hotel, incidentally, is only about 1/4 of a mile from where the bomb dropped.
I wonder if when my parents read about that they ever imagined that one day one of their sons would spend a large part of an afternoon lounging on a park bench only a hundred yards from where it blew up. Hiroshima turned out to be not much colder than Kyoto.
The A-bomb museum is quite fair in most respects and hard on both sides where appropriate. The exhibits are horrifying enough without needing much propaganda to go with them. Perhaps the only exceptions were that nuclear winter has been pretty much debunked and they made a fair amount out of the lack of warning before the bomb was dropped. As far as I remember (I don’t have any history books with me) that was just standard military incompetence – the planned leaflet drop was cancelled because of bad weather, but the attack still went ahead. They also made no mention of the Japanese nuclear weapons program.
Anyway, I’m not going into the politics too much – I’ve read enough history to understand why the bombs were dropped, and aside from the radiation almost as many people were killed by the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. To me the real issue is not atomic bombs but the idea that indiscrimate slaughter of civilians is a worthy military tactic – I find that idea difficult to agree with. Once that was accepted the atomic bombings were inevitable. Many of the survivors on the videos seemed to agree with this, wanting to end wars as much as abolish nuclear weapons.
Otherwise Hiroshima is quite a nice city and worth visiting as a base for trips into the surrounding area. I was planning to visit the castle today but ran out of time. I wasn’t that upset because like many Japanese castles it was partially dismantled last century and the bomb flattened the rest. The current castle is a concrete replica, which looks rather pretty from a distance. Tomorrow I’m planning to visit one of the islands near here where there is a famous shrine.
I have been eating well here. Aside from the sushi and spaghetti, today I finally stopped off for tempura, the Japanese equivalent of fish and chips. I can recommend it, it’s yummy. I’m glad I had a tolerant waiter, as he had to show me how to eat it with hand-gestures and demonstrations since he didn’t speak English. I am, though, starting to pick up a few words of Japanese (and Kanji characters) to go with the Chinese. I can see now what people mean about languages being easy to learn when you’re living in a foreign country.
Hmm, my bottle of ‘Afternoon Tea’ is almost finished, and I’ve been watching ‘Predator II’ in Japanese and a Japanese pop show while writing this. I don’t know what the current program is about except that a lot of Japanese girls are asking questions of a Japanese woman and the male host keeps getting in the way and making jokes.
On that subject I think that if there was one thing I could change about Japan it would be the way they treat women here. The younger generation seem a lot more relaxed, but there’s still an idea that they should have to marry young and stay home to look after the house. Also, many of the Western women I’ve met here have tales of being molested in crowded trains and all of them who’ve been here more than a few weeks have tales of seeing Japanese girls and women molested in similar circumstances. In most cases it’s just ignored.
I really do love Japan. From some of the stories I’ve heard about Japanese working hours and school discipline I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I lived here, but aside from the cost it’s a great place to be as a Western visitor. Fairly easy to get around and very friendly people who all seem to want you to like their culture.
Anyway, here I am in Hiroshima lounging around in my Yukata in a fairly traditional room in a cheap hotel. Should you ever come here then I’d recommend it, the place is called ‘Minshuku Ikedaya’ and it’s great for under $40 per night. It’s a little strange though, there’s a mix of about 50:50 Japanese and gaijin (foreigners) here, and the Japanese people mostly wander around in their normal clothes while us gaijin are taking the chance to pose in the traditional Japanese robes which come with the room.
In my opinion this place has the best combination where bathrooms are concerned, Japanese baths and Western toilets. The bath is communal and a lot like the hot-tubs I’ve visited in California. Wash and rinse before you get in, then soak for as long as you can last in the very hot water. Unlike the hot-tubs they aren’t usually intentionally mixed, though Margaux and Cathy (the two Australian girls I mentioned) did say that they had some problems with directions the first time they used one and ended up joining the men… I think I hit rush-hour, as this place only has fifteen rooms and we had about eight guys in the bathroom at once. Anyway, a soak at 40-50°C certainly does wake you up in the morning!
Oh, and air conditioning! Hallelujah to whoever invented air conditioning, because after three or four weeks without it I can see why we need it…
Back to the plot. I didn’t do much more in the way of sightseeing before I left Tokyo. By the time I’d chatted a lot more with the others in Marui House to find out more about transport and suchlike, booked my train ticket, done some laundry, etc, etc, there wasn’t much time left over. I have some ideas of the places I still want to see and should have a week when I get back.
I was able to visit the Imperial Palace Gardens one day, but the sky was cloudy and light rain was falling so I didn’t stay long. I went on to the shrine to the Japanese war dead and the shrine museum. I’d seen that on TV a few months ago in a documentary about the Japanese Kamikaze pilots and there were many displays there about the numerous different suicide attacks. I’d heard about the planes before I came here, but didn’t realise that they also had manned torpedos, suicide motorboats with large explosive charges attached and even men in diving suits carrying bombs on long poles which would detonate if pushed against the underside of a ship. Like most people I’m still astonished by the whole idea. I can understand the reasons, but I’m still amazed that they actually did it.
Most of the museum was in Japanese rather than English, but I was
given a leaflet which explained some of it. One unexpected display was dedicated to the female nurses who had been killed during the war, one of whom had accumulated an impressive collection of pressed flowers, and another included a wooden plaque on which was mounted a bent piece of metal. This was part of a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine and years later presented to the surviving crew members by the survivors of the USS North Carolina, “with apologies for the damage we did when we hit it”.
I was slightly concerned when I was visiting the shrine that I might offend someone whose relatives had been killed in the war, but aside from one strange look no-one seemed to care. About half the people in the museum were Westerners, including Mark from Marui House who also ended up there. I’ve felt the same way in Hiroshima, and a couple of older people seem to have freaked out when they saw me walking along the street.
One major crisis occured when Margaux and Cathy had their money and passports stolen, a real surprise in such a relatively safe society as Japan. They had moved out and were looking for an apartment, but because of the theft I last saw them sleeping on the floor outside the door of my room. They were able to borrow some money so hopefully they’ll be sorted out by the time I get back. Luckily both of them had travelled a lot before so they could deal with having that happen on their second or third day in the country.
I took a look around some of the big shopping areas in Tokyo while searching for Net Cafes. I did find one in the Sony building where the company show off all their new toys, and they even had some computers on display with Net connections but no keyboards so I got to check out some Web sites. The Net Cafe was a lot like the one in Thailand, very flash and no way to use the floppy drives. I’m coming to the opinion that they’re really split into two categories. The cheap ones seem to be run by people who know about computers and realise what I can do with just a mouse and modem, while the expensive ones are run by people who know about Cafes and are very paranoid about the computers – you can’t use a floppy drive in case it has a virus, but you can reformat the hard disk or delete all the files by hand. Luckily I also found one of the former in Shibuya (‘Dream Train Internet Cybercafe’), and it’s damn cheap at only ¥500 (<$5) per hour. They even provide free iced tea.
Japan is very much a cash economy. Few places take credit cards and even when buying a $200 train ticket you usually have to pay in cash. This can make life tricky as banks are only open until 3pm during the week and some to noon on Saturdays, and are about the only place to change money. Very few ATMs will take foreign credit cards and almost none will take foreign ATM cards (the wondrous exception being the 24-hour Citibank machine in Shibuya – Hallelujah). Worse still, many ATMs are in the banks themselves (in Japan just about anything is available from vending machines, including bottles of whiskey, but they won't risk leaving ATMs out on the street) and unavailable outside bank hours.
Consequently you need to sure to always carry enough cash to last a day and preferably enough to last a weekend. I'm not used to carrying $300 around with me in cash, in most countries so far I've been able to take money from my bank account from ATMs whenever I needed it and in China I only spent about $120 total in ten days and rarely had more than $20 cash with me. Should you ever be stuck for cash in Tokyo, the aforementioned Citibank machine is opposite the second '109 Building' after you leave Shibuya Station, and should take most foreign ATM cards. Should you need Internet access, the Net Cafe is opposite the first '109 Building'.
As expected, I gave up and took the 'shink' to Osaka. The trains are very efficient and airline-like, to the extent that your ticket tells you which seat you will be sitting in and there are marks on the platform to show you where the door will be when the train stops, exactly on time. With comfy seats and travelling at well over 100 mph they're pretty good for the price. I even got a window seat so I was able to see a lot of the scenery. Much of the trip was through urban areas, but I saw quite a lot of rice growing and forested mountains. Another TV crew was filming at Tokyo station, but this time I think they missed me.
The ryokan (inn) I stayed at in Osaka was nothing special but OK for a couple of days. I was slightly worried when I arrived because the ground floor was in pieces while workmen renovated it, but at least they didn't make much noise. As there were only two floors this did mean that only about four people were staying there and the bath was out of action. Outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, where most of the gaijin houses are located, the ryokans and minshuku seem to be the best places to stay. Prices vary from about $35 per night to $500+ per night depending on location, opulence and services, but those at the low end are OK.
Getting there took a long subway-ride then walk through a large shopping center, and that made me wish that I could have reduced my baggage-load even more. I'm still tempted to wrap my video-camera up in my sleeping bag and mail both back to my parents. In Tokyo I was using my space blanket (aluminized plastic sheet) for bedding and aside from crinkling a bit at night it seemed to work as well as the sleeping bag but folds up to about half the size of a Coke can. If any of you ever want to make this kind of trip, or if I do it again, I'd recommend just taking one of those (about $10 from camping stores) and leaving the sleeping bag at home.
There have also been odd times during the trip when I've woken up in the morning and wondered what the hell I was doing and if I should just buy a plane ticket back home, and I had some trouble getting out of bed to the airport in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The problem isn't anything like homesickness (I suspect that if I have a home these days then it's the Internet), I think the primary reason is just all the hassle of having to pack and take a bus to the airport, check in, etc, etc. Hopefully that won't be so much of a problem in the future as I'll only be flying every two or three weeks.
This whole trip seems to be split into two chunks, the bits where I have people to visit and the bits where I'm by myself. So far I've been tending to do more when I'm visiting people and I also get a much better idea of what life is really like in the places that I'm travelling to. When I'm by myself I'm often quite lazy and I've probably missed several places that I really should have visited. However, after years of working in an office that's made a nice break.
I do think sometimes that really the people are turning out to be more important to me than the places, because as much as I like history, I'm more interested in seeing how people live in different countries than just seeing old buildings and parks. What I really like is having people around to say 'hey look, this is how we do things in my country – isn't it neat?' I've certainly enjoyed the times when I've been visiting people far more.
In Kyoto I was able to do both. Months ago Shozo, a guy from Osaka, posted to soc.penpals about the club he was running at the university, dedicated to encouraging interaction between Japanese and English-speaking people in the area. He was looking for English-speakers to come along and give talks, but I mailed him and suggested that I dropped by while I was in the area. We arranged to meet up while I was here and he'd show me some of the sights. Osaka was holding a big festival that day but as that meant it would be very crowded we decided to meet up in Kyoto instead. The city is one of the big historical sites in Japan. He seemed pleased because he'd replied to many similar messages from people around the world and now finally one of them had turned up and called him!
To get there I had my first taste of the normal Japanese trains, the express only took about twice as long as the shinkansen and was much cheaper. I'm sure that a similar distance in England would cost a lot more. Kyoto station was just as confusing as Ikebukuro and I was worried that we'd miss each other again, but luckily we didn't. Kyoto itself was very, very hot and at 36°C I suspect it was the hottest place I've ever been.
We visited the movie studios as Kyoto is apparently also the center of the Japanese movie industry and I took a film foundation course just before this trip. The places we were able to visit were quite interesting as examples of old Japanese sets, and we watched as some scenes were filmed for a Japanese Samurai TV show. As we did so I spoke for a while with a Japanese businessman who seemed for some reason to be convinced that coming from England I must be a Knight. I don't think I managed to explain to him that I wasn't!
The souvenir shops were very unusual, selling everything from T-shirts (I was going to buy one but those that I liked were too small) to nunchaku and brass knuckles. I looked around for something I could buy for my parents but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Shozo bought himself a very nice towel, and afterwards I wished I had too so I could have sent mine back – it's very thick which is nice, but heavy…
We also took a look at one of the shrines near the river. One thing I'd noticed in Osaka was that a lot of people seemed to be sleeping rough – seven or eight spent the night on cardboard on the forecourt of the gas station near the ryokan. More seemed to be living under the bridge in Kyoto. I'd seen none in Tokyo and was surprised to see them out here. I can only assume that either I was living in too touristy a part of Tokyo, or Kansai (that whole area) is just poorer than Tokyo.
There were also a few cormorants out in the water. Cormorant fishing is traditional in this part of Japan. The fishermen tie string to the birds and let them catch fish, then pull them in. The string around the neck prevents them from swallowing, so the fishermen can then recover the fish. Opinions vary on whether they make more money from selling the fish or running tours nowadays.
Fishing does seem to be pretty big in Japan though, most of the times when I've turned on the TV there's been a fishing show on at least one channel. Japanese fishing rods seem to be very high-tech, some even include an LCD readout of the amount of line you've reeled out… The Japanese game shows I've seen seem pretty bizarre, but the ads are the best. I can understand what two or three of them are for, but that's about it.
Back in Kyoto, the Yasaka-jinja shrine was very pleasant, much more colorful than the one in Tokyo, and Shozo and his friend (a girl who stayed with the same family when he was an exchange student in Durham) showed me the correct etiquette at a Shinto shrine. We also stopped for a little while to scratch the temple cat who was dozing in the shade. Perhaps I should have joined him. The grounds were very pretty with large ponds containing fish and turtles.
In the evening we visited a Japanese restaurant where I was able to try various dishes that I'd never had before. The octopus was a bit strange, but I liked the rest. He reminded me that I was eating beef, as I'd forgotten about all the hysteria about British Beef since I'd left the country. I hadn't been eating much over there but was now just treating it as another dish on the menu. Anyway, we were given raw beef tongue and a hotplate to cook it on, and it tasted nice.
I did want to stay in Osaka another day, but failed to communicate this with the staff at the ryokan, or perhaps they had no rooms, so I set off for Hiroshima instead. Turning up at the station there were no seats available for a couple of hours on the normal shinkansen, so there I was supposedly on a budget but zipping along on the 'Nozomi Super-Express' shinkansen, the fastest train in Japan at nearly a hundred and eighty mph. Hell, the difference in price was only about five dollars and at the rate I was going I'd have got through more than that in cold drinks before the two hours were up. I was so hot that I'd drunk six cans in the two hours between leaving the ryokan and getting on the train!
Oh, on that subject I can recommend the 'Royal Milk Tea' and 'Kirin Afternoon Tea' (at least the one in white cans). Both are very yummy, hot or cold. Cold is preferable as drinking hot tea out of a metal can presents obvious problems.
The super-express was impressive. The normal shinkansen engines have a sort of friendly face look at the front. The Nozomi trains look far more businesslike and even threatening, and seem like something out of a Gerry Anderson SF show. Just looking at the first few feet of the train you can tell that they're fast. I really should have taken a few photos but my brain was too fried to even think about it.
The trip was pleasant, but I didn't see much scenery. Part of that was because of all the tunnels along the way and part of it was because I spent most of it talking. Sitting alongside me was Hiroshi Maeyama, a businessman running the sales department of a company making parts for compressors. Bizarrely enough the company he worked for has a British branch in Milton Keynes, only a few miles from where I was working there, so he knew the area. He lived in Chiba. I did mention Gibson's novels, but I don't think he'd ever heard of the guy.
Along the way I mentioned that I'd never had a proper sushi dinner, just on airplanes, and as neither of us had eaten he invited me to join him for lunch after we arrived at Hiroshima. We went to a sushi restaurant in the station and had a very nice lunch there. This time the octopus tasted much nicer, and the meal included other seafood that I'd never tried before such as sea urchin. Although I was expecting to split the bill he even treated me. That was very kind, and I guess I now have my own story of wonderful Japanese hospitality to add to the many I have heard in the past.
Ah well, the beer's run out and the time is nearly 1am. I'll leave this for now and write more about Hiroshima in a day or two! Kampai!
Luckily Japan isn’t quite as expensive as I’d heard. Or at least Tokyo isn’t. You can survive quite comfortably in the city for about $40 per day, but if you want to do more than that your cost of living increases rapidly. Staying in a gaijin house (basically a Japanese-style house full of foreigners, most of them working in the country) will cost $25-30 per day and another $10-15 per day will buy you two large bowls of noodles and some munchies.
Travel is another problem. I’m supposed to meet some people in Osaka on the 25th, and then want to travel on to Hiroshima and possibly visit Kyoto on the way back. The train fares would be a minimum of about $240, and taking the shinkansen (which we know as ‘bullet trains’) would be more like $400. I want to save the money, but they’re so much more convenient that I may just load up my Visa card. The big problem is that they go direct, but on the normal trains you have to change five times to go from Tokyo to Osaka. I really don’t fancy that with all my gear. Ah well, my worst-case budget allowed $100 per day in Japan, so I’ll still come in under that. I hope…
Well, here I am in Tokyo, and I’ve done pretty well for the first two-and-a-half days. In fact I think I’m still around my $50 per day budget so far. This is, of course, because I haven’t done too much. The day I arrived I didn’t get to the house until 8pm (more on that later), then stayed up ’til 4am talking to people. Heavy rain came down overnight and poured until late the next day, and I was up chatting until the early hours again. I’m told that there’s a typhoon near here and the rain we’re seeing is the extreme edge of it.
I’d planned to be climbing Mt Fuji tonight, but after checking the weather forecast and talking to a couple of guys who’ve already done it (they agreed with the Japanese saying `a man is wise to climb Mt Fuji, but a fool to do it twice’) I’m going to leave that until I get back from Hiroshima, climb up during the day and stay overnight at the summit to see the sunrise. That’s another trip which will be fairly expensive (the huts at the summit charge about $40 for a mattress for the night) but it’s one of the things I really wanted to do when I came here. As I may never return to Japan I’d better at least try to do it this time.
Instead, therefore, I’ve been chatting to one of the American guys who’s staying here and catching up on this writing business. I couldn’t understand why I seemed to have spent so much time in front of this computer until I did a word-count. So far I’ve written about 35,000 words in my journal and 20,000 words in these update messages. Phew, at that rate by the time I get home I could have written a couple of novels. This is also why I haven’t written too much personal email, I’ve been so busy with the rest of it!
BTW, in case you’re wondering why some of these messages are in straight chronological order and go into tremendous detail whereas others are chatty and jump around a lot, that all depends on how much time I have and how far behind I am in the journal. If I’m in a hurry and I’ve already written the journal entries then I just censor^H^H^H^H^H^Hedit them down and mail them out, otherwise I write this from scratch and then edit it and expand it for the journal. I’m hoping that the messages I’m sending aren’t too long for people as I’m sure I’m often going into far more detail than I should. Let me know if I’m boring anyone. Sorry too for the garbage which appears in some of the emailed messages, but that’s so that people reading the Web version have some explanatory links to follow, or special formatting – if you’re using Netscape mail then you should also see them.
One of the really nice things about this country is that ordering food is a breeze. In Hong Kong or Taiwan, for example, the menu was usually in Chinese and the staff often didn’t speak English. Here the staff usually don’t speak English but even the cheap noodle shops usually have menus with pictures and most places have plastic replicas of the food they sell on show in the windows. In the worst case you can pick something you like the look of and copy down the kanji to show to the staff. Japan is also full of vending machines (from ‘Pocari Sweat’ to rumored machines dispensing used high-school girls’ panties) and one restaurant had the bright idea of setting up a vending machine with pictures of all the dishes on the buttons. Put your money in, pick the dish and hand over the ticket when you sit down. Neat. Of course the result of this is that I’ve eaten a lot of things I didn’t recognize, but that’s half the fun.
I’m thinking of starting a guide to 7-11 stores around the world. Unlike some American chains they have a very different selection of goods on offer in different countries (as do the other store chains like Circle-K). In Hong Kong there were a lot of munchies like potato chip plus many kinds of preserved fruit and other fairly Chinese food. In Taiwan they added very nice hot dumplings and tea eggs. Here in Japan they have shelf after shelf of those things that I can’t recognize, with labels that I can’t decipher. I guess I’ll try some before I go and see if I can work out what they are.
I’m staying in ‘Marui House’ in Ikebukuro, which isn’t a bad place for a short stay. The long-term residents have a lot of complaints, but so far it’s been fine. I have a small Japanese-style room with a futon and fan, with a shared kitchen and bathroom down below. As far as I’ve seen there are no cockroaches and according to one of the residents the only rat they ever saw turned its nose up and scampered away after a brief look. It’s far better than the place I had in Hong Kong, and only costs a little more ($26 per night).
The main business in the surrounding area seems to be strip shows, the sidewalks are full of advertising boards showing cute Japanese girls wearing part of a school uniform or bikini. With a $50-150 cover charge I’m sure they’d better be good…
The flight to Japan was, well, different. I had a couple of scares before I took off. Firstly I checked the exchange rates between NT$ and ¥ and mistakenly worked out that there were ¥60 to $1 rather than ¥110, and then when I went to check-in China Airlines wouldn’t give me a seat because I hadn’t reconfirmed it. This is bizarre, as only one airline has ever wanted me to reconfirm any flight, and none has ever expected me to reconfirm the first flight on a ticket. Luckily, after a long wait while yet more school kids interviewed me, I got the last seat on the plane (literally, right at the back) and just had time to change my remaining money and get to the gate before it took off. There was no safety demo (not that I really bother watching any more, but that’s still unusual) and several ‘Remove Before Flight’ tags were still in place. I considered liberating one as a souvenir but thought better of it. The plane was full of yet more astoundingly cute Taiwanese girls, both as passengers and crew. Sigh
On the plane I was faced with only the second sushi meal in my lifetime and I still couldn’t remember whether I was supposed to eat the black bits surrounding the rice or not. The rest of the trip the Taiwanese kid in the seat next to me was staring at everything I was doing on the computer and was particularly impressed with Doom. I noticed that most of the people returning from the toilets behind me also slowed down for a surreptitious look at what this strange gaijin was up to. I was starting to feel even more like a cyberpunk and scanning through the guidebook I wondered if I should make a stop in Chiba, where several of Gibson’s characters hung out. Unfortunately I doubt that the genetic engineering shops have been built yet.
Immigration took over an hour, and then when I walked through customs with a rucksack and a passport with recent stamps from Thailand they were not impressed. They questioned me for ten minutes, then checked all my bags and even my shoes. This was completely bizarre as they failed to look in most of the places where I would have put things if I had wanted to smuggle something in. Perhaps they were just bored. Anyway, I chatted about Sumo for a few minutes with one of the customs guys and then they gave up and let me go. Just over two hours after the plane landed I was finally in the arrivals hall.
The monorail and train ride to Ikebukuro added another hour or so and then I spent another half-hour just looking for the right exit from the station. It’s so large and the signs are so confusing that finding my way around was pretty tricky. Eventually I escaped and arrived at Marui House soaked with sweat and ready for a shower and change of clothes. Again I’d read that Japan should be cool, but it wasn’t. Not as bad as Taipei though.
Sunday after the rain stopped I headed for Yoyogi Park where the Tokyo freaks hang out. I was planning to visit the Net Cafe near there if I could find it, but had arranged to meet a net.friend at 7pm so had little time. I was sidetracked on the way by the Meiji-jingu Shrine, one of the best Shinto shrines in Japan. It was very different to the shrines I’d seen in China and the rest of Asia, but quite pretty. The cloudy sky rather let it down in that respect.
One interesting thing about the shrine were all the prayers which had been left there. People write them on wooden blocks which they then tie onto frames under trees. There were hundreds there wishing for everything from money and good jobs to boyfriends.
The Park was entertaining but quite empty. Outside the gates some Japanese rockers with a boombox were giving a very impressive dance display, and inside the rollerbladers were showing off. The real weirdoes were hanging out on a bridge over the railway line. One girl was putting on a very strange dancing display and another kept stripping down to her underwear so that people could be photographed with her. The punks seemed quite normal in comparison.
I returned to Ikebukuro station to meet my friend, but didn’t find him. As I said it’s a really confusing place and I suspect that we ended up at different exits. I told him to meet me at one particular exit, then later discovered that there are two exits which are both signposted with the same name. Aaaarghhh… He’s off to China now so I guess that’s the last chance.
Instead I ate then returned to the house. Another American guy had just moved in and two of the Australian girls (are all Australians that tall, or just the ones who travel?) returned to tell us all about their experiences in Yokohama the night before. They’d met a couple of Japanese guys who’d taken them to a car show. The cars and vans all pulled into a car park and then showed off their stereos. They played loud music while the passers-by danced to it. Another car was fitted with a remote-control suspension so that the owner could stand back and make it ‘dance’ along. Must be something about Yokohama and cars as I’m supposed to go to an X1/9 owners’ club meeting there the Saturday after next. That will be nice, as I’ve only seen one X1/9 in the whole of Asia, a red one parked near my friend’s house in Taipei. That will probably make me nostalgic for mine though, sniff.
(For those who don’t know what an X1/9 is, it’s a tiny little two-seater Italian sports car. In many respects it’s half a Ferrari, basically the same design with the engine behind the seats and a lift-off roof, but two-thirds the size, with half the engine and half the performance. Very cute and a lot of fun to drive because it’s like an adult’s go-kart, just think about moving the steering wheel and the car turns. Or if you’re brave like me, you can steer with the gas pedal instead. Fun!)
Their friends turned up to take them out again and we were invited to see their ¥8,000,000 ($80,000) Chevy Astro Van. This was like no Astro Van I’ve seen before. Aside from the three cellular phones and GPS sattelite navigation system the entire trunk area was full of speakers and amplifiers. I couldn’t work it out exactly, but from the brochure they showed us the system appeared to be at least a thousand watts and required its own power supply seperate to the van’s battery. The large one-farad capacitors hidden away in one corner were also a little disconcerting. We all admired it from a distance just in case they turned it on by accident.
All in all, Japan’s a very interesting place so far and I have an itinerary that I think I can afford. Fingers crossed…
P.S. At 2am the rain is pouring down outside so heavily that I can’t hear myself type over the noise it’s making. I’m sure glad I’m not half-way up the mountain tonight…
Taiwan was supposed to be expensive, but I didn’t really notice. Sure, it’s more expensive than China or Thailand, but my basic ‘survival cost’ (i.e. the amount I would spend if I just sat in my room all day and ate enough to live) was under $25. Outside of China my accomodation bill alone has usually been higher than that.
Money is getting to be an issue at this point though. Having worked in a fairly well-paid job before starting this trip I’m not used to having to think before spending $5, whereas I certainly do now. I’m trying to stay under $50 per day on average and by the time I leave Taiwan I’ll have averaged just under that, including $150 worth of RAM for my laptop. It also includes all the departure taxes that I’ve had to pay so far at about $15 per country. As I’m just coming to the end of the freakout zone with one flight every four days or so that’s already accounted for almost 10% of my expenditure!
Japan, of course, is the place to watch out for. I’m hoping I can keep down to perhaps $75 per day, but I can probably afford $100 per day if I have to. That does have to include about $300 in train fares, so I’ll have to find cheap accomodation wherever possible. I’m a little glad now that the space shuttle launch I was going to seems certain to be delayed into February next year as I can get back home a couple of weeks early, save maybe $700 and get a temporary job while I sort out what I’ll be doing.
Now onto more exciting stuff.
Leaving Hong Kong was in many ways far nicer than the previous flights. No need to get up early in the morning, no expensive taxis, just a fast, air-conditioned bus. Also, as I’ve now mailed back almost everything I don’t need my bags are somewhat lighter and just about managable. The flight was my first moniversary, one month since I began this trip. Somehow I couldn’t imagine that I’d been travelling for a month, but also couldn’t imagine that I’d been working only a month before. Sitting in front of a computer terminal all day just seems like a bad dream.
This time I was able to see Hong Kong Airport in the daylight and the area was far more run-down than even Tsimshatsui. I was surprised that some of the buildings were still standing.
Thai Air won the ‘even slower than last time’ award for checking in, though this time they spent over fifteen minutes on just one person and the other two in front of me went through quickly. They seem to be very, very strict on baggage mass, which is strange when the display for the baggage of the passengers in front was oscillating between 12 and 23 kg! They forced the first guy to repack his bags so that he got the weight down to the level they’d allow, but I really don’t trust airport weighing machines any more. So far on this trip they’ve claimed my rucksack was anything from 6kg to 15kg, and I sure haven’t mailed back over half of what I brought with me. The flight was quite entertaining too. One of the stewardesses was very diplomatic when a young kid was in her way and she was trying to serve the meal: “I hit you if you don’t sit down…”
Not that I’m really coming down on the airline, I mean they’re quite cheap and once they’re off the ground they’re great. But I have to have something to moan about.
Someone once told me that Taiwan was more Chinese than China. I think that’s certainly true at the airport. The baggage took an age to turn up and then followed a scene reminiscent of jackals feeding – I guess everyone was by then as fed up as I was. One guy resorted to climbing up on top of the carousel so he could get his bag as soon as it appeared, I pulled mine out of the throng with no worse damage than the totally mangled address tag. Now that’s the kind of airport I expected in Beijing!
I found a hostel in the guidebook, called them, and took a bus to Taipei Railway Station. I thought that Taiwan would be cooler than the rest of Asia, but was sadly mistaken. Almost as soon as I stepped off the bus and crossed the road I was soaked with sweat. By the time I found the place where the hostel was marked on the map and failed to find it I was wishing I had mailed my computer and cameras back to my parents as well.
Luckily an old Chinese guy worked out where I was heading and pointed me towards it. With great relief I dumped my bags, ate the proferred watermelon slice and grabbed a shower. Just in time to change my clothes and then the heavy rain began. I nipped along to the Circle-K to grab some munchies then waited out the rainstorm.
Taiwan seems to be a very wet country. There was at least a brief rainstorm every day I was there and long ones on two days. As I was only in the country for four days and didn’t feel like walking around in 30+°C temperatures wearing a trenchcoat this meant I didn’t get to see very much. This wasn’t helped by the way I was locked out one night. I came back at 3am after visiting a friend and discovered that someone had bolted the door from the inside as well as using the main lock. As they didn’t answer when I knocked I spent several hours wandering around or dozing on the steps until I was woken by a guy going to work in the morning. Consequently I spent most of the day asleep.
The other people in the hostel were a mixed bunch. A couple worked as English teachers, and there were more ads on the noticeboards from schools who were looking for them. In some respects I wished again that I’d allowed longer for this trip and worked on the way. Another guy was an English businessman who was doing QA work on a product he was having manufactured in a factory there, and another was a writer from Scunthorpe who’d been travelling for five years and was expecting to return to England before the end of the century. Again he’d been working as a teacher for several months, and was about to take the ferry to Japan. He was also wondering how to politely turn down a rich Chinese woman who’d taken a fancy to him.
It was quite a nice place, with a room to myself and a shared kitchen and bathroom. I only spotted a couple of cockroaches scuttling away into hiding when I turned my light on. The owner lived there himself and would often be handing out watermelon slices to anyone who was around. The guys upstairs also fed me mangoes and betel nut while I was waiting for someone to unlock the door to my floor. The mangoes were nice, the betel nut certainly caused a bit of a buzz, but tasted horrid. I eventually threw it away because I couldn’t stand the taste.
Navigation was a big problem. The first night I set out to find an Internet Cafe. I had the address, which put it at lane 60 off a big road. I knew already that lane 60 meant that it was a lane starting at building number sixty on the main road, because I’d discovered that while looking for the hostel. What I didn’t realise was that they also divide the roads up into sections, and in each section reuse the building numbers. So section one will typically run from number 1 to number 150 or so, then section two will start again at number 1. This meant that I spent a long time wandering around lane 60 in section one wondering where the Net Cafe had gone, when it was actually in section three.
After a couple of hours I worked out what was going wrong and found it. The Human Space Cyber Te@house (as they call it) was pretty nice and gave out free coffee to net users. This is a big advantage in a country where coffee can cost $4 a cup!
Outside was a very old yellow car, but I don’t know if that was part of the decor or belonged to a customer. As most people in Taiwan seemed to drive mopeds I guessed perhaps the former. The driving style was less crazed than Bangkok but still fairly Asian, and on the first night I saw someone drive their moped into the back of a taxi, luckily at low speed.
Returning from the Net Cafe at midnight the temperature was still 26°C and the mosquitos were out in force. So were the stray dogs and some stray cats, the former are a very familiar sight in Taipei, the latter quite rare.
I spent much of the time in Taipei with a friend from one of the mailing lists I’m on, who spent years working in America as a truck driver, then moved to Taiwan teaching English and is now working for an ISP and creating Web pages. He demonstrated a lot of really impressive things he could do with his graphics software, and I wished I had a copy for myself. My pages would certainly look a lot more impressive.
He now has a Taiwanese wife and two children, Phoenix, about four who’s always running around, and Zephyr, less than a year old and smiling at everything. One night we went out as group to a restaurant near his house, which was very interesting. The owner used to have a popular restaurant in a building at the end of the lane which was close to collapsing, but that was bought up. The new owner propped up the shell of the building and built a new concrete restaurant inside it. The original guy then set up a restaurant in his living room. The decor was a strange mix, including a rubber moose head, many of the owners paintings and some of other peoples’. The food was certainly good.
Other nights we just grabbed some beers and spent hours wandering around or sitting in the park nearby chatting about all sorts of weird topics. The park seemed very different to those in Europe and America, with parents taking their kids to the swings and slide around midnight, and groups of people having midnight barbeques down by the stream. It made a pleasant change from urban Taipei with the trees all around us and mountains in the distance.
He also gave me a quick Chinese lesson so that I could tell taxis how to get to his house. By this point I could actually understand a small amount of the language, along with counting up to ten with finger signs. Not enough to do much, but a small help in a country where very few signs of any kind are in English as well as Chinese.
I felt like a cyberpunk again as I went off one afternoon to visit the Computer Market on a hunt for RAM. My laptop was the cheapest 486/66 I could find for sale last summer, made by a Taiwanese company that even most of the Taiwanese hadn’t heard of. I bought it from ESCOM, a German computer store, and they’d told me that they had no RAM in stock but would get some in a couple of weeks. They maintained that story for nearly a year before I set out on my travels, and I was happy but somewhat amazed to discover the only shop on the planet which actually had the right RAM card for sale. I was a little upset to discover it was $150 for 4MB when 8MB SIMMs were going for more like $50 and guessed I was getting the tourist price, but I couldn’t exactly shop around. I’m glad I bought it, as it’s now a lot faster.
The computer market was quite fun, with a road and lots of alleyways packed with computer stores and guys selling all kinds of software and hardware out of the backs of vans. I also got filmed by yet another TV crew. The real night markets were more impressive though, and much stranger. One of them is at so-called ‘Snake Alley’, the reason being the number of snake restaurants in the area. Although my travel guide claimed this was a tourist area I seemed to be the only non-asian person there the night I visited.
I didn’t really understand what was happening, but the front of one restaurant was truly bizarre. A guy was holding a snake and talking in Chinese through a PA. Behind him a TV played a bad videotape of two dogs fighting, one of them looking badly hurt. After playing with the snake for a while he brought out a rabbit in a cage and kept sticking the snake’s head through the bars. I don’t know if he expected the snake to kill the rabbit and/or eat it, but either way the rabbit survived. A little further down the alley a guy outside another restaurant was happily slicing up and gutting another snake which was still moving. I couldn’t afford to eat any even if I had the desire after that, so I carried on wandering around.
Another alley was full of small food stalls so I grabbed a huge ice-cream then sat at a stall and looked lost. That seemed to work as the owner filled up a bowl for me with strange things and it tasted pretty good. A nearby stall was selling ‘squid-on-a-stick’, and I considered trying one but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve eaten squid before, but only chopped up, not intact on the end of a stick.
I missed my chance to go to the National Museum because of being locked out – I never had the full day I would have needed to go there and see everything. That was a little disappointing, but I did wander around a few other tourist sites in Taipei. The Chiang Kaishek Memorial was very pretty with large park areas to walk around, a museum up on top of a pyramid of steps and numerous kids learning to rollerskate. In the grounds I also found a vending machine with cans of the infamous ‘Pocari Sweat’ drink on offer. The name was so freaky that I was going to buy some to see what it was like, but had no change.
The Lungshan Temple near Snake Alley was very nice. That area seems a lot more Chinese than the part of Taipei where I was staying, but even so the Temple seemed out of place. I arrived late at night, but was still glad to stand for a few minutes next to the illuminated waterfall where the spray could cool me off for a few moments. The temple architecture was very pretty, and the roof covered with large colorful dragons. This is not surprising as the name apparently translates to ‘Dragon Mountain’.
Inside the sounds of modern Taipei were almost inaudible, replaced with very pleasant Chinese music. The air was full of the smoke and smell from incense burning in large golden censers. As the only non-asian in there I sat for a while on a step as I didn’t know anything about Taiwanese temple ettiquette and didn’t want to offend anyone. A very amused young Chinese kid came up to stare at me and left giggling. I watched as numerous people turned up with plates of food as offerings, or lit incense sticks and bowed in front of the statues. Some of the smaller alcoves were also lit by the yellow light of the candles that other worshippers were setting up. Finally I took a brief walk around and left as I had to meet my friend later that night.
Yet again I wish I’d had more time, as I’d originally planned to spend three or four weeks in the country to visit the coast and mountain areas, then booked nine days. Because of my ticket-fiddling in China and Hong Kong I only had four days left. I have a suspicion that this trip will just turn out to be a taste of Asia and I’ll have to come back in the next year or two for longer to see places properly. If I can find a telecommuting job that should be no problem.
Throughout Asia quite a few of the foreign guys I’ve met have commented on how many seriously attractive women there were, but in Taiwan it seemed to be one of the main topics of conversation. They were right too, I don’t know why but they seemed to be everywhere. To an extent I think I’m glad I don’t live there as I’d never be able to decide who I should ask out.
I think Hong Kong is a city that I could live in. I like being by the sea, and the interesting mixture of English and Cantonese. Unlike most of the other Asian cities I’ve visited it’s easy to get around because a large fraction of the population speak English. The public transport system is pretty good too, and I like the ferries.
Strangest thing is the way that people seem to amble everywhere as if they have no idea of where they’re going. Perhaps it’s because I was staying in the tourist area and people were shopping, but I don’t think so. Or perhaps they were just walking slowly to stay as long as possible in the blasting cold air from the air-conditioned shops.
But most of the time when I was walking around it seemed that if I wasn’t having to play tout slalom to avoid all the people handing out leaflets for tailors, trying to get me to stay at their hostel, or offering to sell me a ‘copy watch’ (fake Rolex), I’d be stuck behind a bunch of people ambling along the road, or even across it. I can see that the temperature might have had some effect, but it still seems strange for a city where ‘The business is business’.
The main exception to all of this are the schoolkids, who seem to rush everywhere at top speed, especially in museums. I have no idea at what age the metamorphosis occurs…
I returned to the same hostel/hotel as before, this time getting a larger room with no window. As before, the city was damn hot and the fan didn’t make too much difference. However, the room was cheap by Hong Kong standards. Very little else was, and although the immediate area was full of small, cheap-looking Chinese restaurants, almost all of them had menus only in Chinese. For the first time in years I had to resort to eating in McDonalds…
The most annoying thing about the hostel was the wait for the lifts. They’re really slow and because of that lots of people press the call button then give up and take the stairs. Consequently the lifts stop at just about every floor and often noone’s there. As a result the lifts are even slower… Sometimes I had to queue for ten minutes just to get up to the thirteenth floor. I wasn’t climbing that many stairs in that heat!
The prize for the best cheap food in the city (or at least the best that I found) has to go to ‘Bon Appetit’, a Vietnamese noodle shop hidden away in a tiny alley on Hong Kong Island. For about HK$40 (about $5) you can get a large plate of noodles and a coconut milk and things drink. Shame I didn’t find it until late in my visit, as it was only a short walk and ferry ride away.
BTW, just for future reference, when I say ‘$’ I mean US dollars, and when I’m talking about local currency I’ll say ‘HK$’ or ‘S$’ or something like that.
The harbor ferries were pretty cool. I used them most of the time in preference to the MTR trains, partly because I was staying close to a ferry terminal and partly just because they’re more fun and definitely give a much better view.
They’re split into two decks, the lower deck is for cheapskates like me who want to save $0.10 each way, but has the added advantage that you’re right down near the water and have no windows. This makes photography a lot easier, and Hong Kong is nothing if not photogenic. I eventually had to take strict control over my picture-taking urges as I was running through a worryingly expensive amount of film.
The ferry terminals try very hard to funnel people onto the upper deck to get their extra ten cents, to the extent of trying to hide the lower deck entrance away. I decided to try it out one day, and it’s a very different world up there. For your money you get a lot of upmarket shops and cable TV to watch as you wait. You also get your windows on the ferry, but I don’t see why you’d want them unless the weather was really bad.
I had planned to visit another net.friend here, but completely failed to find him. The phone number he’d sent didn’t work, and neither did the three others that Hong Kong Telecom gave me. I sent a postcard to the address he’d given so that he could call me, but that didn’t work either and I couldn’t work out where he was so I didn’t have chance to try to find it by foot. I had to make do by myself instead.
I spent some time checking out the job prospects as I thought I might want to come back next year. That’s a possibility, but the computer job market doesn’t seem as good as I’d been told. The Chinese takeover is another issue, but I’d hope they wouldn’t throw me out straight away. I’d hoped to talk to some of the employment agencies to find out what they thought, but they couldn’t manage anything more complicated than ‘send in your resume’.
The first full day I just went for a wander around Kowloon, and discovered Kowloon Park hidden away behind the Mosque. This was a Wednesday when all museums seem to be free, so I visited the History Museum inside the Park. Of course being free it was crowded with the aforementioned schoolkids. Hong Kong has certainly had a complicated history, and suffered from a lot of disasters in the last few decades.
I was going to walk down to the harbor, but on the way I passed the Space Museum and spotted the magic word ‘OMNIMAX’ and decided I’d better stop to visit. I hadn’t been in an OMNIMAX cinema since I was last in Boston and couldn’t really miss this one. The museum was a bit low-level for me, but I did rather want to try out the 1/6 gravity simulator. Unfortunately the queue would take longer to clear than the time I had before the films. I actually learnt a few things about cosmology from the Stephen Hawkings film, and ‘The Living Sea’ was entertaining, if preachy.
The only big tourist thing I did was to visit Victoria Peak, which I was told was compulsory. This is the highest point on Hong Kong Island, from where you get a great view of the city. I took the Peak Tramway, which has been carrying people up a steep incline in cable-powered trams for over a century now. I must say, the city looks a lot different when you’re inclined at over forty-five degrees to the horizontal!
At the end of the tramway is a large shopping center and most people seem to just stop there to admire the view while they shop. I also found the famous pagoda which appears in so many guidebook and postcard pictures taken from the Peak. While I was there yet another TV crew turned up, this time from the ‘Home Shopping Network’. I wonder how many more times I’ll be filmed on this trip…
Hong Kong is surprisingly green. I’d expected the whole island to be covered with skyscrapers, but in fact it’s only some parts of the coast. Once you get more than about 500m from the sea you’re out in the wilds.
Not being a wimp, I decided to make the trek to the real Peak, about 150m above. I began the climb with some trepidation as it was surrounded by dark gray clouds – I’d picked a bad day to visit. The walk was long and steep, and the lampposts on the first stretch of road were covered with announcements of eternal love. Angel was either the most sought-after or most desperate, as almost everyone seemed to have been in love with her at some point…
Halfway there the rain began to pour. Luckily I’d stopped to take some photos next to a busstop, so I hurried over to the shelter and waited it out. A few more dedicated people passed by in both directions, but the rain was so hard that I could barely see them from more than twenty meters away.
As the rain stopped I carried on, past apartment blocks with vast numbers of Mercedes and BMWs parked outside. This was clearly a rich part of town. I stopped for a brief look at Victoria Park in the drizzle, and was the only person there, then followed the path up towards the peak. It split into two but I continued along what appeared to be the correct route according to my guide book. Ahead loomed a large collection of communications towers with microwave dishes pointing in various directions. The path lead in front of it but was very overgrown and I didn’t think I’d be going any further without a machete.
I gave up, assuming that I’d either taken the wrong route or that so few people bothered with the climb that nature had retaken the path. It certainly appeared to have taken a dislike to the lampposts as many of them had their tops torn off. Either way, I was about as high as I could get on the Island so I spent a while taking pictures before heading back. This was a little complicated as the clouds which had been raining on the Peak when the city was in sunshine were now raining on the city while the Peak was in sunshine.
I walked slowly back to the shopping mall and stopped to eat. The sun set and I watched the city in the darkness for a while from the Pagoda, which rapidly filled up with crowds. In the distance on the seafront I could see the intermittent flashes as people photographed each other down there. It looked rather like a space battle from ‘Star Wars’.
Returning to Kowloon the reason was obvious. The Promenade was packed with people (mostly young Chinese) snuggling up with their SOs and watching the ships go by… or most often not watching the ships go by.
Hong Kong Park was another strange place to visit. It’s designed to look very artificial, and is surrounded by huge skyscrapers. Somehow they seem to go together with the artifical lakes and waterfalls. Most of the Park seemed to be full of people with huge lenses on their cameras taking closeup pictures of the flowers.
Since I had a few dollars left over I spent my last evening in Hong Kong watching Independence Day. Hmm, I can’t say it’s my favorite film, but at least Jeff Goldblum wasn’t as hideous as he was in Jurassic Park (I’m still waiting for the interactive version where you can choose who gets eaten; he’s top of the list). Somehow believable plots seem to go out of the window any time Hollywood gets near SF…
I am, however, starting to feel rather like a cyberpunk myself, sitting in cheap hotels in Asia typing away on my laptop, with net access a perpetual problem. Aside from China, Hong Kong is the worst place I’ve been for net access. There was a club which met on Saturdays and allowed people to use the Net, but that’s now closed. There’s also a Net Mongolian Restaurant, but that’s expensive and you don’t get to use the Net much. There’s rumored to be a Net Hairdresser. But for another few days, no Net Cafe.
Luckily I switched on the TV for a couple of minutes one night and spotted an announcement for a new computer mall which was opening, so I took a trip down there. There is a Net Cafe there, but it’s not open yet. However, they did let me use their computers free for a few hours so I managed to check my mail and sort out my trip to Taiwan. Otherwise I’d have been in big trouble and failed to meet anyone there either!
I would like to say that China is a strange country, but of course, all countries are strange to those who didn’t grow up there. Each country has its little conventions and rules of conduct which seem weird to visitors. I’m sure, for example, that Chinese visitors to Scotland (where my family originated) would find Haggis as strange as many Westerners find snake soup or fried dog. Actually, even I found Haggis strange until I tried it and liked it.
But most of us tend to forget this. We’re so used to living in our own countries that we can’t even imagine that other people would want to live differently. Travelling through so many in such a short period of time makes that quite obvious. Asia has advantages and disadvantages, but the only thing I have a real problem with is the concept of `saving face’. As far as I know I haven’t really had to deal with it on this trip, and I can see a few advantages to it, but I’ve grown up with friends who I can trust explicitly and not being able to really trust anything that anyone says gets frustrating after a while. I’m sure that the Chinese and others must have some way of working out if a person is telling the truth or not, so I guess I just have to find out what that is.
Anyway, back to China. In many ways, the country just seems to be living in the fifties. It has the same kind of fake conformity that we see in old movies while underneath everything is changing rapidly. I wouldn’t want to claim that the next decade will be like the sixties, but the whole country seems to be full of regulations which are simply ignored because they’re impossible or counterproductive to enforce. Even though the Party is still nominally in control, the country seems more capitalist than many of the nominally capitalist countries in Europe. With such a mixture of communist politics and capitalist economics, I’m sure the Chinese are living in interesting times…
I spent Friday just tidying up loose ends – getting money changed, posting another lot of unneccesary stuff (books, tripod, etc) back to my parents, and changing my flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan as I wanted to see what the Hong Kong job market was like so I extended my stay by a few days. The main Post Office in Beijing was surprisingly friendly and efficient even though I had to visit about six different counters before my parcel was finally accepted. It was also the only time I’ve ever had a parcel checked by a customs official before it was allowed out of the country. Even then I’m not sure what the point was when it only received a cursory inspection.
On the way back I stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some munchies as requested. Since all the packets were marked in Chinese I merely grabbed a few things that looked interesting and hoped that people would eat them. As I returned to the flat the lift attendant already knew which floor I was going to. That’s quite a nice touch.
Saturday involved an early start. Some of the students had arranged a weekend trip to the beach at Beidaihe, and we were to join them. After last-minute packing we were just in time to meet them at the college, then drive to the station to meet some of the others. As we waited a legless beggar came over to see us. One of the students told him that he had no small change. The beggar produced a large wad of notes and explained that this wouldn’t be a problem.
On arrival at the bus-stop things didn’t look too promising. The driver’s head and shoulders were hidden under the bus as he reassembled the engine. He didn’t even have a Buddha sitting on the dash to look after us like most taxis in Bangkok and some in Hong Kong. We climbed on board and hoped that it would start. Only to realise that we’d forgotten one of the students. Oops.
Luckily the driver wanted to wait for as many passengers as he could get, so the final student arrived just in time. The bus rolled off into busy Beijing traffic and we chatted with the students for some time before reaching the open road. I finally fell asleep for an hour or so, and on waking was quite glad that I’d done so.
Overtaking in China seems to involve the following procedure:
Beep the horn loudly
Pull out onto the other side of the road
Check for oncoming traffic – if you see any then beep the horn even louder.
If the oncoming traffic doesn’t swerve off the road, then beep the horn more insistently to show them you’re there.
If all else fails, slam on the brakes and horn at the same time and stop with four or five feet to spare.
I counted three close calls on that trip and was glad I’d slept through some of the others. Ah well, at least the sky was blue now we were away from the city.
Every hour or so the bus driver had to stop to refill the engine with oil. After about three hours (by which time we were supposed to be in the sea) he decided to stop for lunch. A judicious chat with the students persuaded him to keep driving, but in the meantime I had my first encounter with traditional squat toilets. At least they weren’t as bad as some people had made out.
Mountains and a darkening sky indicated our approach to the coast. After about five hours on the road we finally reached the outskirts of the town, only to be pulled over by the cops. As it is supposed to be primarily a resort for Party members we assumed this was an ID check and I was somewhat worried as I discovered that in the rush that morning I’d forgotten to transfer my passport from my other trousers. Luckily he just asked if we were carrying any fruit-knives, and when we insisted we had none he left. Apparently long knives are illegal in that part of the country and I guess we looked trustworthy enough.
We finally pulled into the Chinese hotel that the students had chosen. No rooms were available, but after a brief chat with the receptionist some were discovered. The rules said that Chinese and foreigners could not share a room, or even a block, so we were sent to a special block reserved for foreigners. I must say, the room was the best I’ve ever had for $8 per night. Twin beds, bathroom, air conditioning and just about anything else you could want. The students got us a seriously good deal.
In the last few years I’ve only swum in Florida, where I wore shorts, and they were getting too delapidated so I had neither those nor trunks. I’d planned to buy some in Singapore, but as the water park was closed we never got round to it. Instead we had to go on a shopping expedition, and one of the students demonstrated her bargaining skills again as she helped me buy some. Another had never been in the sea before and found herself a rubber ring.
We reached the beach and set up. The sea was tolerably warm and very rough – we should have had surfboards. We spent about forty-five minutes swimming and then had to go back to prepare to meet the other students who’d preceded us. As we were changing the sky grew very dark and heavy rain began to fall. We grabbed our stuff and rushed off to the shelter of the deckchair stall. The only exception were the two students still swimming, who were in the best position of all for a rainstorm!
After a five minute photo session so that everyone could have their picture taken in front of the double rainbow we walked back to the hotel, showered and napped. We met up with the other group of students and they took us to a seafood restaurant on the shore. It was unlike any I’d been to before in that on the way in you chose a selection of live shellfish, fish and crabs from buckets by the door and they were taken away to be cooked for your meal. I’d previously only seen many of the shellfish on offer sold in shell shops in Europe.
The dinner was huge, as was the supply of beer. Dish followed dish, and I had to work hard to keep up. Most of the shellfish were nice, but I declined the snails and had learnt my lesson before about trying to eat crabs with chopsticks. By the end of the meal the students were a little concerned that we’d drunk three or four bottles of beer each but we pointed out that the English knew how to take their beer and wouldn’t fall over.
The local food in China is very cheap, good, and very messy. I loved the meals that we had in various small restaurants, and none came to more than about $4 per head even with beer. Admittedly hygiene is not up to Western standards, but I didn’t catch anything. I was, however, lucky that I had Tansy and the students to translate as most menus were only in Chinese.
We continued on to the beach, stopping at a stall to pick up more beer and some munchies. One of the students had brought along his guitar, and we sat on the sand illuminated by streetlights and shop lights listening to him play and playing silly games. At midnight the lights cut off, but I still had my video light to keep us going for another half hour or so.
Compared to Beijing the sky was very clear, and many stars were visible. The cool sea air was also a pleasant change. Reluctantly we packed up just before 1am and returned to the hotel. I was spending far too much time looking at the stars and too little looking in front of me on the way back, but luckily one of the students kept me from crashing into things.
The next day we hired a minibus to take us to another beach nearby. We drove for nearly an hour and were then surprised to see people sliding down a large sandbank ahead of us. A cable car took them to the top, then they slid down on the far side. I wasn’t sure if they were using skiis or something like a bobsleigh, but it looked quite fun. Unfortunately the queue would take about an hour to clear so we decided we’d better leave it.
The beach itself was pleasant but had no shark nets so wasn’t recommended for swimming. The rusty Armored Personnel Carriers giving people rides along it added an interesting surreal touch. I think the machineguns had been removed. All along the shore motorboats were assembled to give rides, and further down a 4×4 towed people for parascending. I hadn’t expected this kind of thing in China.
We walked along the beach for a while collecting shells, and along with one of the students I tried to rescue some crabs that had stayed out too long in the sun, but they were dead. Perhaps for the best, as otherwise they’d probably have been in a seafood restaurant in a few days anyway. We stopped and chatted by an old fishing boat which was slowly falling to pieces.
Before leaving we decided to risk a ride in one of the motorboats – hell it was only $1.50. We didn’t realise quite what it entailed. We pulled on the lifejackets then climbed in, soaking the legs of my trousers as we did so. I found myself in the front seat, hanging onto the bulkhead and a small handle on the side.
As they pushed the boat out into the breakers it began to roll wildly at forty-five degrees or more. Just as I thought we were going to go right over it turned back, but only because it was hit by a large wave which soaked me to the skin. Another couple followed before the driver got it under control. Soon we were skimming over the waves at high speed. Each wave we hit would throw us into the air and then we fell back to the sea with a thump that ran right up my spine.
You know, I sometimes feel that there are two parts of me. One part is reckless and fearless and will agree to try just about anything. The other is a real scaredycat who’d rather be at home with his mother. This was one of those times. But I must admit, even though I was soaked through by the time I returned it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t screaming because I was scared, just because I was enjoying it. Honest.
A little further along we found another beach suitable for swimming and set up for a long stay. The biggest problems were the umbrellas and deckchairs. We didn’t really want any, but soon we had an entourage of about fifteen people following us along the beach to try to persuade us to rent some. Eventually we gave up and hired an umbrella just to make them go away.
I covered up with sunscreen and headed off into the waves, some of which were five or six feet tall. I spent most of the next couple of hours hanging on to a rubber ring with one of the students, riding the waves. The currents kept washing us into the shark nets until we learnt to keep swimming away.
This time we avoided the rain, and I abandoned the sea when the waves became far too large to comfortably deal with. Even so, I had to fight hard against the current to get out. Only after I began changing did I spot my red shoulders and arms, and realise that all that time on the ring they’d been out in the sun. Ooops.
We packed up and took a train back to Beijing. We’d wanted to take a train there as well, but no tickets were available. Somehow the students had managed to organise some for the trip back. That was far more comfortable and saved two or three hours of travel. However the crowds were incredible. We had to fight to keep moving and trying to keep the group together was difficult, involving a lot of shouting and gesticulating over the heads of the other travellers. Somehow we all ended up in the right seats.
The next day would be my last in Beijing, as I was flying out on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately I woke up with very sore and peeling arms and shoulders, feeling generally unwell and with some trouble walking in a straight line. I spent most of the day dozing on the sofa and hoping that the damn sunburn would sort itself out eventually. By the evening I could at least manage to get to the shop by the base of the flats. They only spoke Chinese, but that wasn’t a problem. The shopkeeper had already worked out that when one of us went down there the question wasn’t “would you like some beers?”, but rather “how many?”
Joyce also had a minor problem that day as the taxi she was in was rear-ended by a car. Luckily she was in the front seat and consequently unharmed. I’m rather glad that I did stay at home instead of joining her as I would have been in the back. Perhaps the sunburn was useful after all…
The Great Wall was one of the tourist sights in China that I really wanted to see. It’s a marvel of ancient engineering, stretching for thousands of miles across China’s highly variable terrain from plains to mountains, built to stop Mongol invasions. It’s also a memorial to bureaucratic incompetence, as, legend has it, the Mongols soon discovered that bribing the poorly-paid guards to let them through was much easier than trying to fight their way over the wall. Britain has Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to stop the Scots (even the Romans weren’t brave enough to take them on), but it was much smaller when built and very little survives today.
We knew that the China Travel Service offered tours to the Wall at about $45 a head, but being poor we decided to make our own way. Rumor had it that buses went from Tianamen Square, so we made a preparatory reconnaisance down there. On the way I spotted something by the side of the road which looked a lot like a crashed UFO – what it was I don’t like to think. We found a bus station that looked promising, so we decided to wander round one of the parks and return early the next day. I also stopped off at the airline office to change my return date so I could go to the seaside at the weekend. I was quite glad at this point that the police examination of the plane when we landed had prevented me from confirming the original dates.
Joyce also wanted to check out trains to Hong Kong as she was planning to travel down there to fly to Australia. We made a brief stop at the new Beijing West train station, which is more like an airport. One unusual feature of all Chinese train stations that I’ve been to is the X-raying of baggage on the way in. I don’t know if that’s to stop smuggling or to prevent people taking weapons on board. The grilles and perspex screens in the Beijing taxis which seperate the driver from passengers are definitely due to violence. Apparently many taxi drivers were injured or killed in knife attacks until they were made compulsory.
The park was difficult to find, and we almost wandered into some major government buildings instead before the cops waved us off. We found a different park instead and made do. That was full of kids’ amusement rides, including dodgems. They seemed very out of place inside a traditional old Chinese pavilion. The day wasn’t much good for photography though. The Beijing smog was so thick it was even blurring out buildings a couple of hundred yards away. That probably explained why my nose was so unhappy.
We’d planned to be back in time for a ballroom dancing lesson at the college. I’d studied some last year so I was itching to try it out, but we just ran out of time. While Tansy and her flatmate were tangoing away we went to the Post Office to post Joyce’s cards. Affixing paper stamps with glue from a pot (rather than preglued) was a new experience, as was the care that the Chinese Postal Service took with their charges. As Joyce handed the cards over, the woman behind the desk threw them on the floor. At least they didn’t make as much noise as the parcels… Still, might as well learn if it’s breakable in the Post Office rather than out on the open sea.
The trip to the Wall called for another early morning. I was pretty much a zombie when we arrived at the bus station, and it was indeed the right place. Two old ladies asked us if we wanted to go to the Wall, then proceeded to try to fleece us for ¥300 for a return taxi fare – we declined. The bus we found was a much better deal at ¥12 (about $1.50) each way.
There was only one minor problem. The bus wouldn’t leave until it was full, so we had a wait of half an hour, which put us right in the Beijing rush-hour traffic. The bus crawled along out of town. A few hours later the guide began talking in Chinese over the PA and we spotted a few chunks of Wall on the hillside. Knowing that the ride would one day end was something of a relief. The bus parked.
The steps up to the Wall were packed with stalls and touts, and we fought our way past them, then struggled up the short stretch of road that followed, trying not to get run over. We paid up and climbed the steps, finally qualifying for our ‘I Climbed The Great Wall’ T-shirts. We were there… yet another place which had previously only been a photograph was now real.
We turned left and headed off along the Wall. It was full of photo stalls and people trying to sell us books and T-shirts. It was remarkably empty of tourists, who all seemed to have gone in the other direction. We couldn’t yet work out why.
This stretch of Wall is very well restored, and would be very scenic were it not for the crowds, shopping mall at the entrance and coach park below. The further we got from the entrance the more partially-collapsed sections of Wall we could see in the distance. The day was very hot and we had to stop regularly to drink water.
We walked a little further before spotting a strange ‘A Camel For Rent’ sign by some steps. Looking over the battlements we saw it tied up down below in front of a clothes line. It was yet another tourist photo-opportunity, allowing you to dress up as Marco Polo and be photographed on the camel in front of the Wall. Crash helmets were also available for the more nervous customers.
They would have to be Westerners though, for the Chinese were totally fearless. They thought nothing of climbing up on top of battlements over a hundred foot drop or walking to the very tip of a promontory with nothing below if it would make a good picture. They also liked to leave their mark behind on the Wall. One of the first things I’d noticed on climbing the steps was that practically every stone was inscribed with Chinese graffiti, and we saw a couple of kids adding to it as we walked along.
We soon discovered why the tourists had kept to the other end of the Wall. This end was damn steep. Going up to the watchtower (which was also full of yet more stalls) was slow, but getting back down was rather harder. We hadn’t quite realised how steep the steps were until we looked back down. Joyce slowly climbed down backwards and I hung on to the handrail and tried not to fall over. We were passed by a couple of Westerners with rucksacks; many people today walk along the Wall and camp in the watch-towers at night.
We stopped for a brief meal of dumplings and the worst iced tea I’ve ever tasted (more like water with a little bit of tea flavoring added) then as we had some spare time we proceeded along the other stretch of Wall. We were less of a tourist attraction at this end and few people wanted their photos taken with us, but Joyce eventually began to refuse to pose. I began to wonder if I should be taking photos of some of the cute Chinese girls who wanted to pose with me. Or perhaps addresses would have been better.
Joyce gave up part-way to the watchtower in that direction but as we still had a few minutes left I carried on. Then time came to return to the bus. Which wasn’t there… luckily we found another which was going back to Tianemen, but again they wanted to wait until filled before they left. After nearly an hour they gave up, and I dozed through the Beijing evening rush hour.
When I woke the city was dark outside and I wondered just how long we’d been sitting in the traffic queue. In fact the time was still only 5:30, but the sky was full of very dark clouds. Shortly afterwards they began to release their load of rain on the city. Pedestrians rushed for cover, as did those cyclists who’d left their ubiquitous plastic cycling capes at home. The bus trudged slowly on.
When we finally arrived at the bus station few passengers wanted to leave and face the heavy rain. Eventually the guide began encouraging them off and we followed. Most of us raced across to the bike shelter and hid under there, hoping that it would stop. Eventually it slowed enough for us to grab a taxi and then trudge back to the flat through the mud. As I walked into the flat I discovered that leaving my laptop on the table had been a bad idea as the strong winds had sand-blasted the exterior, but luckily it still worked. I was exhausted but hungry, and the others soon returned. We hunted out rainclothes (hey, I even got to use my trenchcoat for the first time this trip!) and walked off to the nearby restaurant under the arch of a double rainbow.
Take-off from Hong Kong was just as exciting as landing, with the runway pointing straight out into the harbour. The view was very nice, particularly the first few seconds when we flew over lots of boats. To the North we passed over a lot of mountains as we flew into China.
The crew handed out piles of landing forms. Boy, what a bunch of bureaucracy. I seemed to need to declare just about everything I was carrying, particularly books and my laptop. I guess I’d expected this kind of treatment when entering a communist country. I’d seen too many old spy movies – `Mr Bond, why are you bringing three machineguns, a helicopter gunship and a crate of hand-grenades on your vacation? Please take the Red channel…’
The plane was half-empty, so the stewardesses continually offered more alcohol and was quite sozzled as I tried to catch up on some email. I have a simple attitude to flights; any time someone asks me a question related to food and drink I say ‘Yes’. That’s fine on long haul trips but perhaps not so good on short ones.
Before landing we were notified that there would be extra security, with police coming onto the plane. The pilot didn’t explain why. We landed and stopped away from the terminal. Police cars pulled up and a group of green-clad cops formed at the bottom of the steps. Eventually they climbed up as the Japanese tourists enthusiastically filmed them. The police were checking all passports as we left, comparing names against a list. No idea who they were looking for but I was waved on through. This was what I expected from China.
Immigration and Customs weren’t. I expected a long grilling and waiting hours for my bags to arrive. In fact I was through in five minutes. I had all these forms which I’d carefully filled in and noone cared. They wouldn’t even let me go through the red channel, but forced me into the green channel where my bags were X-rayed and then I was left to work out what to do. I entered the arrivals area with all but one form still in my hands.
I looked for the currency exchange to change some more money, I only had 300 Yuan on me (about $45). Found a sign pointing upstairs so I followed it. Walked right around the floor and found another sign pointing downstairs. Went down again and it still wasn’t there. I can only assume it’s a Mobieus currency exchange desk. I guess you can save money by just building signs and not bothering to build the things the signs point to.
I walked out of the airport straight into a mob of TV cameramen clustered around some Chinese guy who I didn’t recognize. I thought about asking one of the English-looking crews who they were filming, but then realised they were speaking German. Finally the guy escaped and walked off towards the taxis. The cameras turned to follow him and I probably appeared in yet another crowd shot. Geez, can’t get away from them anywhere.
The very long taxi queue rapidly shortened. I couldn’t believe how efficient China turned out to be. Most of the taxis were VW estates, and I took one, handing Tansy’s card to the driver (it had her Chinese address on it). He examined it carefully and set off. The drive through town was what I’d by now come to regard as typically Asian. Lots of street stalls, and unlike Bangkok lots of bikes. Lots and lots of bikes. Bikes absolutely everywhere, and plenty of cycle paths to ride along, or at least cycle lanes at the edge of the road.
The driver stopped twice to ask for directions. The second time a guy walked up as I waited in the car and stared in at me. He obviously wasn’t used to foreigners. Finally we found the right road and with a beep of his horn to warn the cyclists that he was about to turn across their lane we entered it. The college was quite large and stood behind a metal rail fence on which some people had affixed paintings for sale. It seems that everything is for sale in China.
I staggered in under the load and asked for Tansy at the desk. The guard didn’t understand, but a student recognized the name. He told me that she would be teaching until 12:30 and I could wait on the comfy leather-clad sofa in the entrance hall. I was glad to drop my bags and relax. We chatted for a few moments, then he lead me upstairs to meet her. On the way up I spotted the college ‘No Spitting’ sign on the wall. Hmm, different.
She walked into the office looking somehow similar and somehow different, not too surprising after five years – I don’t think I’d seen her since 1991. We caught up on gossip for a few moments, then another visiting friend arrived. Joyce was Tansy’s boyfriend’s sister, and had been in Beijing for about one and half weeks. The three of us went out for lunch, eating from a food stand. The food wasn’t bad, kind of burgers made from fresh meat, peppers, etc and wrapped in pita bread. We also drank some of the local beer, a bit weak and hoppy but pretty good for about $0.20 a bottle. Odd to be in a country where beer is literally cheaper than (purified) water.
Joyce led me back to the flat. It was pretty nice, and the apartment block wasn’t bad if you only looked at the inside. Outside was still a major construction site as there was a rush to build new housing in Beijing for the people moving in from rural areas. This was one reason why everything was so dusty.
We chatted for most of the afternoon. Joyce was spending a few months travelling after her employer made her redundant, and said that if she’d read the Lonely Planet guide before she bought her ticket then she wouldn’t have come out here. Luckily the guide is two years old and China has changed a lot in that time. I grabbed a shower and another change of clothes. The ducts in the bathroom seemed like something out of ‘Brazil’.
Tansy’s flatmate returned around 6pm, by which point I was dozing on the sofa while Joyce wrote letters in her room. As we talked while we waited for Tansy, there was a knock on the door. A couple of students were outside, both carrying pagers prominently on their belts and clearly either entrepeneurs or entrepeneurs-to-be. They invited us to the college administrator’s flat-warming party downstairs.
The stairs had very little in the way of lights, and what did exist we switched on as we went down. Our trip had the feel of a group of archaeologists descending into an ancient tomb. The echoey walls, dust-covered floor and steps only added to the experience.
A number of guests were already there munching on the dishes provided. The very tall and jovial student was soon handing out beer. I grabbed a selection of spoonfuls from the various dishes and dug in. The food was nice, though I wasn’t too sure about the thousand-year-old eggs. I ate most of one before I gave up. Hmm.
Amongst the guests were a couple from England. The wife was born in London near Joyce’s birthplace and now lived near my parents, the husband last worked near my last workplace. Small world, huh? We chatted about that for a bit, then the main dishes arrived. The fish was very nice indeed, but a bit tricky to eat with a spoon. I think I would have preferred chopsticks.
The TV was showing a special presentation to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Party and the handover of Hong Kong next year. It wasn’t bad except that the singers couldn’t mime. The beer flowed freely and one of the students was soon singing happily along and translating for us.
Back at the flat we found a place for me to sleep on the sofa. I was happy as I finally got to use the towel, sleeping bag and mosquito net that I’d been carrying all this time! Sleep was comforting after a long and heavy day. I was really glad that I’d come to China and even happier that I’d come to visit Tansy rather than doing it myself. In fact I don’t think I would have come here if I didn’t have someone to visit. As Joyce said, the guide books were just too forboding.
In the morning we spent several hours on teaching stories. Tansy’s flatmate had worked as an art teacher in the south-west of England, teaching the lowest class of farm-kids. I knew the type well and could understand why she found it a bit trying. I told her about some of the crazed kids at my school and we wondered if they were that way because of the teachers, or vice-versa.
Joyce and I finally left to visit the Forbidden City, one of the Beijing tourist sites that I wanted to see. We took one of the very small ‘bread-loaf’ taxis (so-called because they’re yellow and shaped just like a loaf of bread), which charge only Y10 for the first 10km but are banned from some of the more upmarket parts of the city. They’re pretty good because you can cover much of the city for a fixed price, but rattle a lot and wouldn’t be much good in a crash. The way Beijing taxis drive the latter could be a big disadvantage.
On the way to Tiananmen Square we stopped in traffic. To our right was a city bus full of people. One began waving at Joyce, who eventually waved back. I joined in and by the time we’d started moving most of the bus passengers were waving at us. That was rather nice.
Again the square was full of people with cameras, mostly Asian, who I assumed were tourists. The city walls used to end here and there is a large gate on the South side which is all that remains of them. Lots of birds circle around the tower on top.
Being photographed with famous and ancient monuments seems to be a big pastime in China. The square was full of stalls selling film and also offering to photograph you for a fee. I guess they had instant cameras, or mailed the photos on to you.
Mao’s tomb is directly before the entrance to the Forbidden City, with his photograph prominently displayed. We had to cross the road and took an underpass. Chinese people lined the walls, recovering from the heat in the cool darkness. Some of them were gambling at various games, which seems to be another big pastime in China.
We climbed up and took each others’ photos in front of the picture. Hey, I get to be a tourist sometimes, right? Joyce was grabbed by a Chinese woman who wanted her photograph taken with her, even upstaging Mao. I guess she’d never seen a black woman before. As we left, she took a photo of the two of us as I waved at her. I think that made her day ;-).
We passed below Mao’s picture and walked on to the Forbidden City entrance, then paid up our entrance fee. We walked in, to find a sign proclaiming that we had now entered the ‘Forbiden City’. Ah well…
I’m not as impressed with Chinese architecture as I was with Thai. I think part of that is because they like cold colors like green and blue rather than the red that’s so common in Thailand. The actual design was nice, but the colors let it down a little. So did the large, rectangular green plastic wastebins that were liberally scattered around… Lots of brass cranes, turtles and lions and huge vats. Most were used for incense-burning on major occasions so that the smoke would fill the city. A couple of elephants too. Lots of Chinese tours walking around, the tour guide carrying a large yellow flag.
Joyce told me about how emperors in the past had often got so involved in Forbidden City life that they just left running the Empire to their subordinates. Apparently one loved carpentry so much that he spent all his time working on the buildings and was ecstatic every time one burnt down because he could build a new one. She also explained that fires are very common there with so many Chinese people smoking.
We ended up in the garden at the north end of the site. Very nice with lots of little pavilions and hidey-holes, but a little spoilt by all the people standing in front of everything scenic to have their photo taken with it. This seems to be the big difference between Chinese and European tourists. The former always have to be in the photo, whereas the latter often just take photos of nice views and prefer to have noone in them. I wonder where the difference comes from?
We tried to go back through the City to the Nine-Dragon Wall but Chinese speech and music began playing from the speakers. We were turned back and left the city through the north entrance. As we walked along the road looking for a taxi we saw four or five groups of men fishing in the moat. Crossing the road was exciting. There was a red/green man signal but even when it was green the taxis just ignored the lights.
By the time the taxi returned us to the college I was amazed by how exhausted I was. We had no time to freshen up before heading out to see videos with one of Tansy’s students. Her husband was off on a business trip and she wanted some company. ‘First Knight’ had been requested for a Richard Gere fix. Me, I just wanted to see the computer effects.
We walked to the flats, buying some fruit to take with us, apparently a Chinese custom. When we arrived, we were glad to discover that the lifts were still working. Most of them close in the evening and aren’t available overnight. In true Chinese entrepeneurial spirit the lift attendant had set up a small stall in the lift selling cigarettes, water, soft drinks, etc.
The first problem we had was that the video didn’t work. Tansy explained that I knew about these things, which is true if the instructions are in English rather than Chinese! First of all I tried the obvious step of plugging the video output into the TV, but that didn’t help. After messing around with the Chinese menus for a while I was still stuck.
Our host went to visit a neighbour, and he came in looking like he knew what he was doing. I ate watermelon and peaches while looking at the view off the balcony. In the distance I could see one of the nearby parks and the block where Tansy’s flat was and far down below the street stalls were still busy. The view from so that height was really impressive.
Eventually they worked out that the channel needed to be tuned in, and to our amazement Richard Gere’s face appeared on the screen. Then vanished again as the auto-tuning decided it didn’t like the look of him. Another few minutes of manual tuning and he was back for good, with a round of applause from the audience.
The movie wasn’t great, kind of an Arthurian Western. But it was quite fun as silly movies go, and the computer effects on Camelot were fairly well done. However, at one point the video seemed to skip about ten minutes of the story and what we did see bore little resemblance to the traditional Arthurian tales. I guess that Hollywood couldn’t live with that kind of thing. I still prefer Excalibur.
Tansy wanted to leave to get up early for her class, but we were persuaded to stay for ‘True Lies’ instead. I’d only ever seen the first five minutes on a plane over the Arctic and gave up, so I thought I’d give it another try. Again it was very silly, but funny. Of course, I’m a James Cameron fan, so I’m not too surprised that I liked it second time through. Minor problem – the video ended two minutes before the end of the film. Aargh! Oh well, I’d seen some of that on TV before, and Tansy explained the rest to us.
We left the flat to discover that the lift was closed and there were no lights on the stairs. As we had twelve flights to descend, this wasn’t too appealing. One of the girls had a torch, but it provided only a small amount of light. Luckily I still had my camera bag with me so I pulled out the video light which was far more illuminating. We just had to rush down the stairs fast enough to get there before the battery ran out. Yay, first time on this trip I used that too!
On the walk back to the flat I was surprised by the lack of street lights (Joyce explained that this was a new area and they hadn’t had time to plant any yet), and the number of cars, buses and bikes driving past with no lights on. Why? The travel guide claimed that people do it to save fuel. Hmm, I don’t think I’d go quite that far myself. On the dirt track to the flats we saw a bunch of men outside the shop playing Mahjong under the spot light. I don’t know whether they’d already lost their shirts or were just stripped for action.
Ah well, another well-deserved (or at least well-received) sleep, even if I only slept in bursts because of the temperature. The living room had no airconditioning or fan. China was turning out to be far more relaxed and far more fun than I’d expected.