Sunday, 30 March 2014

A Philosophical Interlude - To Japan

The water is brown, the colour of milky coffee. Mist encroaches from the horizon, forming pools of cream on its surface. The sky is opaque white. Outside, away from the overhang of the upper decks, a steady rain falls.
The breeze is light. The coffee, under it's pale awning, stretches gently – merely testing the limits of surface tension, never breaking it. There is little motion under the ship. The passengers move about freely, eschewing the handrails that on rougher crossings would be in constant demand.

A line of blue appears on the horizon. It is not the sky – it marks the end of the river estuary, one body of water meeting another, a straight axis under the sine wave of the water. It approaches rapidly, one side milky coffee, the other blue steel, with sea birds flying low across it's surface. We cross, the seabirds diverting from our wake, and the motion of the ship perks up as we reach the sea – still calm, but here and there are tiny whitecaps, just to show that it can, that we're at sea now. China is behind us. Ahead, 40 hours or so away, is Japan.

This is pretty much the reason for my trip. This ferry crossing is the reason I went to China at all. Timing to be in Japan for April was what determined beginning in southeast asia, and contributed to the onward itinerary of Australia and South America.
I am very excited, and extremely nervous. Both feelings are heightened by the fact that for nearly all of my time in Japan I will have company. My two favourite people are coming out to see me there for two weeks each. After 4 months travelling alone, I'm looking forward immensely to seeing them, while being concurrently concerned about how I'll cope with so much company after prolonged opportunity for solitude. The former outweighs the latter, however, by some magnitude.

I think there must be a type of ticket that includes dinner. Either that, or I am missing mine! I'm pretty sure all I get with my ticket is breakfast, and can buy other meals when the cafeteria is open. It doesn't open – according to the sign on the door – for ten more minutes. Yet the tables were laid, food set out, and many passengers have sat down at the previously barren tables and are eating.
There was an announcement, but the boat seems mainly to use Chinese for announcements, so even my scant Japanese is of little use for understanding the tannoy system.

The influx of people has made the windows steam up, so the sea is trapped between two walls of mist now – at least from my perspective. People seem to be coming through with trays now, which is encouraging for the prospect of food.

Mist has been replaced by darkness. At 10pm tonight, we move from Chinese time to Japanese time – one more hour forwards. Instantaneously one hour closer to Japan. The time travel of longitude.

Two flashes – a buoy, perhaps – startle me out of a reverie. The advantage of taking the slow boat is that it gives me time to catch up on myself. The world becomes a manageable size – a few decks and an endless sea are all there is – and I have space in all that horizon to reflect and to plan. The stress of travel is to always be living in the moment, to appreciate everything around you all the time. That becomes terribly tiring after a while. Train rides and ferry journeys take that duty away. It's a rest that flying – however long the journey – does not allow for. The constriction of an aeroplane is simply not the same as the boundaries of a ship or a train.

For the next 38 hours, I will have both boundaries to release my body from duty, and a boundless horizon for my mind to wander.
Ships are fantastic.

Next stop Kobe, and one of my last days of solitude until I reach South America.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Time Passes

Technically, I'm not sure where I am at the moment.
Physically, I'm on the train from Guangzhou to Kowloon which in two and a half hours will deposit me on the Hong Kong peninsula.
I have an exit stamp from China in my passport from just twenty minutes ago. I won't get another entry stamp until Monday, when I (hopefully) take the train from Hong Hom to Shanghai.

Officially though, for the time being, I appear to be nowhere.
Or possibly in a UK overseas territory, circa 1997.

The day before yesterday I left the confines of my sole guidebook. No longer in Yunnan province, I have nothing with me now to refer to at short notice to help me out of a fix or find emergency accommodation.
Having already had it fail in several locations, and finding assistance from friendly locals to be up to the task, this isn't worrying me too much.

My bus from Dali was delayed by 5 hours due to a crash on the road to Kunming. Having left a mere 3 hours' grace between my 4.5 hour journey from Dali and my night train from Kunming to Guangzhou, I found myself telephoning a hostel from the bus to book a night's accommodation in Kunming, and then having to decide where to go from there, and by what means.
I had arranged to meet Jing (I met her in Dalat at Christmas, and she lives in Guangzhou), the day after my train. The plan was to go from there to Hong Kong and spend three days there. Now I had a conundrum: two days in Hong Kong seemed ridiculously rushed, but neither did I want to miss out on spending the day with Jing.

And so I decided this was a good enough reason to breach my voluntary moritorium on internal air travel, and fly.
The flight from Kunming to Guangzhou was much more expensive than the train, of course, but on balance – having tried to get the train once and thus satisfying my good intentions – I would rather have a day in Kunming, a day in Guangzhou with a friend and three days in Hong Kong, than lose those opportunities while sitting on a train.
And I love to fly. So it was nice to take the opportunity for a short flight that I felt was worth the extra cost.

The hostel helped me to book my flight (I had asked my dad to book it while I was stuck on the bus, but the website required a lot of identity card information and a password, so we gave up on that plan), and then gave me a direction to wander in for lunch.
I chose a place where a lot of people wearing chef's whites were eating, on the basis that if chefs are eating there the food is probably good. Understanding none of the menu except the prices, I was going to ask for something for 10RMB (about $1.66), but the man at the desk brooked no argument and told me to pay 15RMB. For this, I had my first (and probably last) taste of Across the Bridge noodles – you're served raw egg, meat and vegetables in small dishes, and a standard bowl of noodles. Then a huge stone bowl of water at a roiling boil is brought to the table, and you tip each dish into the soup – egg, then meat, noodles and vegetables – and it is cooked in the broth.
It was delicious, and I didn't need anything else to eat all day.
How the diners around me were eating theirs so quickly, I have no idea. Their mouths must be lined with asbestos. It took me most of an hour.

After lunch, I adopted a method of wandering a city that has worked quite well so far, albeit straying into the realms of the creepy – picking someone to follow.
For Kunming, this took me to a very pretty section of town with street markets and a central square. For some reason, the feel of the city (in this area at least) reminded me very strongly of Cardiff, so I passed a pleasant afternoon pottering about and feeling very much at home (aside from the sunshine and the possibility of getting four scoops of ice-cream for 60p), before heading back to the hostel to collect my things and go to the airport.

 Tasty, tasty noodle place. 

Just like Cardiff. There are dragons.
And high rise buildings... 

 And giant Chinese arches...

 And derpy lions...

And huge municipal art with lots of kanji on.
Just like Cardiff.

The flight was happily on time, landing at midnight in Guangzhou. It was one of the more interesting short flights I have taken, as depite the lack of a view I think it may have been a training flight for the co-pilot. The take-off seemed late (I thought for a while it would be abandoned for lack of runway), there were many steep banking turns (rather than the gently cambered approach I'm used to experiencing), and I would swear that there were several deliberately severe changes of altitude – both from the feeling of lightness at certain points, and the changes in air pressure. The landing was one of the more exciting I've experienced also (not so much as the belting crosswind in Athens, but it got my attention nonetheless). Still, we arrived safely, so I guess whoever was flying gets to do it again soon. Good luck to them! (I looked at being a commercial pilot, but my eyesight is too bad. I am only slightly jealous.)

I had told my hostel in Guangzhou that I would be arriving later than planned, and they had very kindly made up a bed for me already, so that I was presented with a low bunk to fall into on my arrival at 2am (the airport is an hour and a half by bus from the city centre) rather than an armful of linen.
They were also on hand to argue with the taxi driver who decided to try to charge me 40RMB for the journey, rather than the 14 it should have been. I ended up paying 20, which was fine given it was 2am and it meant not having the police turn up to try to resolve it.

Guangzhou isn't a very touristy city. Most of the traffic for Hong Kong goes through Shenzhen instead, so there is little in the way of tourist-trap attractions. There are, however, several lovely buildings, and an old town that is just that – the old town, with houses and hardware stores and street food, rather than an Old Town selling minority crafts or endless disks of Pu'er tea. 

It is also, apparently, the place to go for electronics. So I tried to get my smartphone fixed. Sadly, the opinion of the repairman was that the chip is busted as it was overheating when he tried to charge it. I considered buying a new smartphone there, but to be honest I'd probably break it again, or lose it, or do something equally insalubrious with it. So I'll live without one until I get home.

That was yesterday. Both days, it's been raining.
The first rain I've seen in 3 months. It's like the return of an old friend.
An old friend that you only ever really spoke to out of necessity, who is interminably boring, but keeps turning up every so often and hanging around for a few days, getting in the way.

On the plus side, for the rest of my time in China I will be in cities. Cities are much better suited for rain.
Well, they are given that I left my waterproof trousers at home, and my hiking boots on a night train in Vietnam.

I think there are one or two buildings I can hide in in Hong Kong, anyway.

I'll let you know.

Monday, 17 March 2014


Scott had left his bags in Lijiang, and was returning there. He'd decided not to go to Shangri-La as two thirds of the old town burned down in a conflagration a month ago (January).
I still wanted to get to the Himalayan foothills, and get as near as possible to Tibet, so I headed up there anyway.

Many of the Korean travellers I shared the bus from Lijiang with were going up also, and we'd booked into the same hostel. This was useful as the bus to Shangri-La was operated by Tina's Guesthouse, and only drops folk outside the Tina's in Shangri-La. We shared a taxi to Tavern 47.

I spent the next three days wearing every item of clothing I brought with me. 

The fire was devastating. The Old Town of Shangri-La now looks like this:

Just one month later, however, they are already rebuilding.

The town will recover in no time. It was and is far more than the old town, although obviously the loss of businesses, livelihoods and the representations of cultural memory will last for longer than the rebuilding will take. 

Yet some of the old town remains, and the other aspects of Shangri-la: the mountains, monasteries, temples and people, are still very much in evidence.

 Monks, goofing around before prayers. Shortly after this, the bell went and a fair number came pelting through the courtyard with their robes flapping about. Sadly, I had put away my camera.

 Somewhere, there are not signs like this. I have not found it yet.

 The two women on the left are taking three steps, praying, prostrating themselves, standing, praying, then taking three more steps. It's a very long road...

 These guys are doing it backwards...

 You don't cook with a blowtorch? You're so weird.

 I see you.

 The world's largest prayer wheel. It's heavy.

I stayed for 4 days, and I only left because there is so much more of China to see and I have a mere 14 days remaining before my ferry to Japan.

Further north is Tibet, for which a special licence is required, and huge swathes of China I simply don't have the time to see. I'll be coming back, one day.

For now, time to head south again.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Tiger Leaping Gorgeous

Got up early. Took minibus from hostel with a group of very lovely Koreans to Tina's Guesthouse at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail.

Walking the part of the trail to the highest point (a section known as the 28 bends – I didn't meet anyone who had managed to remember to count), I was struggling to both see where I was going and follow the trail. At every turn, I'd have to stop and look around to see where the trail went next, and even though it was reasonably clear, it would still take me a few seconds to work it out. Also, my lungs were heaving to bring in enough oxygen. Initially I was confused about it – my legs felt fine, I had plenty of energy, I was definitely fit enough.

Why was it so hard?
One of the great things about altitude sickness is that it's a really good excuse for not realising you have altitude sickness...

I told Scott to take the lead, so I could follow him. It reduced the number of things I had to do to putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing. That was manageable. And so we continued the highest point, and one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.

After that, the route passed through a more wooded area. The baking sun was blocked by the trees, and we had several hours of pleasant woodland trail until reaching the Tea Horse guesthouse. 

We indulged in a beer, but decided to keep going to Halfway House in order to have enough time the next day to walk the extra part of the trail down to the gorge itself.

Sadly, at this point I realised I'd lost my towel somewhere along the route. (No, I don't know how I managed that either.) The view from the room wasn't bad, though.

Day two was similar terrain, but for some reason we took about three wrong turns first thing, which delayed us slightly. After that, it was fairly easy going to Tina's. The route down to the gorge is trickier than most of the actual trail, and certainly steeper, but it is more than worth the effort.

We got back to Tina's at half past two. Halfway through my lunch, I was called for the bus to Shangri-La, which was leaving an hour early.

They let me finish my lunch, though.