Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Arriving by boat from Korea, our first real impression of China was to walk out of the port in Qingdao and find ourselves on a dual carriageway.  Above our heads was another road on a flyover.  The only traffic on the vast expanse of tarmac was a single tiny motorbike powered truck, which despite the abundance of road space did its level best to run us down.

The minimal traffic turned out to be an anomaly, as Beijing’s streets would show us later that day, but the unashamedly homicidal driving was not.  Owning a car is a relatively recent opportunity in China, but Chinese drivers already show an impressive mastery of their lethal potential.

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This is not typical Beijing traffic, there are usually many many cars trying their best to squash those who are in tiny tin can vehicles or riding bicycles with no helmet.

Across the road, we were in Qingdao proper, and here there were all sorts of wonderful things to see.  And all the more wonderful after a nice refreshing brush with certain death.

China wasn’t all hulking utilitarian modernity and trample-others-at-will hurry!

This China was something like the China of my imagination.  Bustling streets were full of people shopping, or sat eating on little plastic stools.  At every corner a truck piled high with produce was parked, fruit and vegetables spilling out onto dusty streets, and a brisk trade was done at the tailgate.  At one intersection a crowd clamoured for huge leafy cabbages, at another leeks and apples, at the next oranges.

The impression I got walking through old Qingdao was that this was the real China.  Ancient and bustling, winding streets, simply dressed people slurping noodles on low stools.

The next six weeks would dismantle this conceit entirely.  Not just in its particulars, but in the idea that there’s any such thing as the real China at all.  I still can’t make sense of what China is, and isn’t.  I’m not sure the Chinese know either. Continue reading “Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management”

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One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

Today marks the end of our first year on the road. In 365 days we’ve visited seventeen countries and two sort-of-countries (Hong Kong and Macau), sort-of-visited another country (North Korea), crossed over two more (France and Belgium), and sailed in sight of another three (The Phillipines, Palau and Papua New Guinea). We’ve crossed borders 31 times (33 if you count the Korean MDL), once every 11 or 12 days on average. Gosh.

Seven of these crossings we made by boat, one by air, and the rest overland (or bridge).

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Leaving Russia for Japan by ferry: much more exciting than flying!

We’ve been on three continents, and ventured across both tropics and the equator. We’ve travelled thousands and thousands of kilometres — 4000 of them on the world’s longest passenger railway, 3000 by bicycle, and 8000 on board a cargo ship.

We’ve seen the great wall of China alone at sunrise, climbed sacred mountains, had a Russian sauna next to the biggest lake in the world (then jumped in), hiked ancient pilgrimages, floated in hot springs, sipped cocktails on top of skyscrapers, abseiled down a 60 metre waterfall, motorbiked down dirt roads to deserted beaches, learned how to rock climb by ourselves, roamed the temples of Angkor, snorkeled with sharks (plus a sea turtle, a ray, and a conger eel), and been surprised to find scores of whales breaching and splashing their tales, metres away from our boat.

In a sense these moments are what travel is all about, the peak experiences that make you feel truly fortunate to be alive, and to have the opportunity to travel. But they’re not what travel is made up of. They’re one day in 10, sometimes much less. Day to day, travel for us is about soaking up a place, trying the food, drinking the coffee, hanging out in the beer gardens, sitting in a temple watching the world go by. Continue reading “One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary”

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight.  To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me.  Which was in Korean, obviously.

I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers.  Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff.  The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.

Don’t press the help button.

The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate.  People will stare at you.  Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance.  Help will seem a long, long time coming.

Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy.  Look at the places.

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Perfectly clear.

When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk.  Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past.  One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.

In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night.  These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains.  But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.

Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop.  We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.

Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably.  Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.

The history of this wall isn’t all ancient.  In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.

It was January the 21st, midwinter.  Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.

A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea.  They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.

Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking.  The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills.  A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views.  After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall.  Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint.  Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.

Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled.  Passports are required, and registration.  The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all.  But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.

Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas.  This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south.  But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.

As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.

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Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.

Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers.  The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t.  Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave.  Perhaps not.  Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism.  The boys went straight to the police.

So Choi Gyushek had been warned.  When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious.  So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.

26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled.  A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire.  Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea.  One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.

Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured.  He defected, and then he found god.  Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection.  In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.

But it gets stranger.

The South decided to launch a revenge mission.  Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers.  They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward.  The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process.  Then the mission was called off.

In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.

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The army approach the hijacked bus.*

All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide.  The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.

But it goes on.  In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained.  The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone.  Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths.  In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.

Funny place, Korea.


*Image from populargusts.

Birthday Boat: Japan to Korea by sea

Birthday Boat: Japan to Korea by sea

There are tons of options for getting between Japan and Korea without flying.  Well, four anyway, which is four times more than from Russia to Japan.

Three different ferry companies ply the Hakata to Busan route at various speeds, and you can also get a longer overnight ferry from Osaka to Busan.  (FYI: Hakata is the same place as Fukuoka, where we went to the sumo.  They used to be separate places but they fused, so now both names are used.)

We nearly plumped for the ferry from Osaka, since we finished our trip in Kyoto, but with the Willer Express bus pass it worked out cheaper to head down to Fukuoka on the bus and get a Camellia Line day ferry from there.  Partly it was cheaper because, wait for it, we got BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT.  Hello Korea.  The list price for a second class ticket is 9000¥ each, about £60, but we paid about £40 because we were sailing in the month of our respective births.  Alas, this seems to have been a one year only offer.  It was good while it lasted.

Getting the ferry was fairly easy, if a little labyrinthine.  We booked online, and after one last Mister Donut breakfast, arrived at the port on a city bus directly from Hakata station.  Easy peasy.  They even had a big sign in the port with the timetable and price of the bus into the city, complete with ‘how to catch the bus’ instructions.  Nothing left to chance.

We checked in at the Camellia Line counter, where we had to pay a fuel surcharge (I think this happens with all the ferry companies).  Then, as if Japan wanted to wish us farewell in style, we were directed to one last vending machine.

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The 500 yen port fee has to be paid in cash to this bad boy.  Fortunately we had just enough yen left to pay for this, plus a peculiar corn stick from the shop next to the departure gate.

We made the mistake of letting a Korean tour group get ahead of us in the queue to board the boat.  Starvation might have set in during the wait, if it hadn’t been for the corn stick.

On board, we were directed to a rather flashy cabin, with a view out the front of the boat, and only two other inhabitants.  They were very excited that we were from England (saying Britain or the UK generally provokes polite bewilderment), but the conversation sort of died after that, so we had a nap.  The second class cabins are tatami mat rooms with roll out mattresses that accommodate about 12 people, most of them seemed a lot fuller than ours, and windowless.  Perhaps it was the birthday cabin?  Or maybe we got special treatment for being foreign, this definitely happened in Japan and Korea a bit.

We watched Japan disappearing from view in a Russian doll procession of islands, getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sea.

Trapped inside because of rough seas and wet decks, after our nap we had ample time to explore the boat.  Unfortunately it didn’t take ample time, there being not all that much of it.  We were tempted by the karaoke booths but they were a bit pricey, so instead we engaged in Asia’s second favourite pastime: taking selfies.  Clearly we weren’t doing it properly though, because a lady intervened and moved us to a gaudier backdrop, while enthusiastically gesturing that we should make a heart with our arms.  Her art direction was better than her photography.

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I had a quick onsen, with several Korean ladies who all wanted to borrow my soap, then there was just time to watch the Korean news before we arrived.  As would become a theme, this was quite similar to in Japan (the hosts bowed deeply to their viewers at the start and end), but shinier and brasher, and somehow a little more hard faced.  Korea has all the politeness of Japan, but feels a little sterner.

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Soon enough the bright lights of Busan twinkled into view, and we were there.  Another country, and the start of another adventure, this time with more pickles than ever before…

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Our Kumano Kodo hike didn’t start that well.

The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka.  Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky.  Kodo means something like ‘old ways’.  Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century.  There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).

The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.

After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing.  Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.

Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine.  We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.

Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan.  It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you.  Travelling here is absurdly easy.  Thirsty?  There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee.  Hungry?  There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times.  (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…)  Tired?  Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds.  They also have coffee.  Free coffee.  What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.

Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous.  At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus.  A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills.  We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.

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After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier.  Hikers got on at every stop.  The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points.  Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.

We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.

At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.

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We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.

The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention.  And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.

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The water and scoops you can see bottom left here are for temizu, a Shinto purification ritual involving washing your hands and mouth.  But we didn’t know that at the time.  Arthur thought they were for symbolically feeding water to the stone dragons around the shrine…

As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.

I put down one foot, 
then the other foot, on the
Kumano Kodo.

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The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.

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Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.

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After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan.  Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency.  Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall.  Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works.  Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then.  So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.

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There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.

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I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.

Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest.  Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8.  A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town.  It didn’t say if they went quietly.  The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.

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After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages.  There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road.  We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall.  The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.

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While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before.  We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange.  This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.

Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.

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Obviously we had to try this.  It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before.  A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too.  The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us.  I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.

From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.

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The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building.  It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.

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After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu.  It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away.  Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen.  It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night.  I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.

On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.)  In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site.  Being there was like going back in time.  It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata.  The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.

A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay.  A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.

When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.

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Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe.  Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.

Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan.  The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking.  There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.

Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.

Going to an onsen has some procedure about it.  You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time.  Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.

Showering in Japan involves sitting down.  First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner.  At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall.  There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective.  When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.

Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.

Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so.  I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company.  The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall.  I think the dads had more children to look after.

Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin).  Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed.  All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.

After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent.  I slept the best I have in years.

Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe.  You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down.  The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place.  Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind.  I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.

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“I hate Mondays.”

Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town.  That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though.  His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.

Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.

Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.

Life’s hard sometimes…