Monday, June 05, 2006
More friends massing and with miraculous timing, the 2006 summer Toukasan festival kicked into full swing. Nothing short of a full scale parade, complete with street dancers, blaring megaphones, sizzling fresh snack foods, various game stalls, dressing gowns - I mean yukata - and of course Kirin and Asahi beers on tap! The carnival days and bender nights went on, punctuated with reviving Vietnam coffee.
Like a fire fading in the night, the festivity wound down. I thanked my cherished friends, bid farewell and sayonara. The Nozomi bullet train pulled away, bound for Tokyo once again, while I contemplated. My geographical destination was fixed, but what of my soul? Is home really a place to hang your hat? Will I ever meet these kinds of friends again...?
Saturday, May 27, 2006
I need to get out of the city. A coastal town has gotta have surf somewhere. So off I go to check out the sea air, some salty waves, and cash in my chips with one super size me statue of Buddha, the Daibutsu.
The garden gnomes kept staring at me. The little tykes have no respect while under the protection of their beanies. I contemplated knocking one off, but my almost lost luggage is already overweight. Besides, I'm sure lightning bolts would blaze out of Buddha's blaring eyes the minute I lay a finger on one. Like Indiana Jones about to swap the golden idol for a bag of sand with death looming overhead.
So I pray for some good fortune instead... Have a look inside Buddha's head. Great minds think alike. And some decent company wouldn't go astray. So I pray...
A crowd gathered and came my way. Some super star sexy babe stood beside me, posing for her paparazzi squad. With my pea-sized camera, I joined in the foray. Suddenly it turned into a nice day.
Eriko's friend, the very attractive Asaka, proves a good mate, providing an overnight crash pad on this derailed and absurd odyssey. With my flight from Tokyo still weeks away, Asaka kindly stores my baggage while I splash some cash on a bullet train back to Hiroshima. Calling on reliable old friends...
Thursday, May 25, 2006
In fact we had troubles from the outset. Our team lost one before we even got started as Sachiko had to bail for work reasons. James and Heather missed the booked bus out of Hiroshima, despite my fruitless efforts (with abundant luggage) to stall the driver - no, Japanese buses wait for no passenger, they have a schedule to beat! I have the loaned hiking boots for Heather in my hot little hands and I am going to Fuji alone??
After a flurry of text messages, Heather and James are on the next bus to Yokahama and we arrange to meet the next morning somewhere in downtown Tokyo. With all my luggage I arrived at Eriko's, alas too late. She'd already left and gone to work -
FUCK!James and Heather came out and shared in my shit soup situation. Stranded in a strange city with more baggage than you think, I call the only other person I know in the vicinity. Asaka who I'd met at my birthday, saved my soul a dozen times over the coming weeks, starting with taking care of our luggage at her family home.
We got to Yoshida, one of the two base towns, without further predicament - a miracle. Transport to the 5th station is finished for the day. Basically in the off months the conspiracy is such that it's impossible to dawn summit via the shortest path. Plan C is to get a good night's sleep and set off walking from base town at 5am. Heather decided the hostel was too expensive and wouldn't accept our offers to pay. So after dinner in a cosy restaurant full of country music, she took to the street while James and I slumbered in the hostel.
At the crack of dawn we started hiking. Past the coffee vending machines and through the torii gate, we wound our way to the junction of track and road. Time for a banana and chocolate breakfast. It was here while munching on a bit of choco that I noticed a plastic bag in the roadside ditch full of porn manga (Japanese style of cartoon) magazines. I reefed one out to take a gawk at what this phenomena is all about. The magazines were all in mint condition and I imagine how they came here. Perhaps some poor guy's female companion got a bit upset at his regular purchase of the propaganda and decided to chuck this month's subscriptions before he noticed... Who knows?
Last night's dinner didn't agree with me and the public toilets marked on the map were nowhere to be found. After diarrorhea in the woods, my strength was sapped for the remainder of the day. Heather wasn't exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed either after a night spent on the street. James on the other hand was soldiering on with a military mission in mind. We made the 5th station before the weather closed in then caught the last buses down the mount. This time it was Fuji a no go.
My Little Pussy from Mujin Comics, is the title of the horrid manifestation I have souvenired. It is so appalling and unbelievable that folks back home won't understand how so, without personally inspecting this trash. Is there a connection between this genre and the psyche of it's audience?
Later in Akihabara, the Electric City where one finds all sorts of Japanese computer sales and boffins bargain hunting for their PC parts, I discovered a side of Japan I'd only heard whispers of in the past. James and I were shopping around for prices on laptops and checking out the specifications. A lot of the stores don't have English operating systems so we really had to try many different shops. In this wandering we discovered that the shops sell mountains of porn rather than so much computers. It's hardly a taboo subject with customers forming very long neat queues for the checkout, waiting patiently to gorge into their several purchases. Depictions on the covers or a quick scan will soon disgust you I'm sure. Who writes / draws this stuff anyway and where do they get their ideas from? With the sheer volume of stock and sales it is undoubtedly a massive industry here in Tōkyō alone. Scary stuff.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Shanghai - an industrious butterfly in a continual state of metamorphosis.Most people arrive by regular transport in a normal state. Following is the long story of how I got there, and my return to Japan.
A long time ago in the holy? city of Lhasa, a few travel friends and I had just finished a 7 day jeep tour around Tibet. My ipod survived well over the guaranteed 3,000 metres, but not unscathed. AMS symptoms for ipods is forgetfulness: the alarm clock was fine but the chronometer reset itself during the night. Lucky for me there were plenty of noisy buggers in the alley to wake me in time to go to the airport.
Due to timing, skipping breakfast was unfortunately part of my plan. Turning the corner, several taxi drivers pounced on me before I bit back. The bus beyond patiently waited for me to emerge past the gauntlet. These taxi drivers act like pack wolves, it'd have been like watching an episode of National Geographic.
There's the regular X-ray procedure to pass through before boarding. The staff waves her magic wand up and down my body, turns me around, then gives my wallet pocket a squeeze on the scale of sexual harassment.
My window seat was occupied by a woman who insisted that I simply swap with her seat, next to Mr Elbows.
There's a train ticket desk at Xi'an airport which is great because the staff speak English. According to them there's no hard-sleepers for 10 days. Nor is there any hard-seats for 5 days. The good news is she can sell me a standing-space ticket on tomorrow's train. The bad news: it's a 16-hour journey and the standing-space costs the same as hard-seat; also I've just realized I can't afford the hard-sleeper ticket anyway. Next she tried to sell me a 3-star hotel room, and another one, only Y100... Showing her my thin, almost empty wallet was all I could do to stop her.
Next a taxi driver claimed it was cheaper to take his taxi downtown than by bus. I told him it's impossible as I showed him my bus ticket. Getting off the bus, a well dressed hotel tout accused me of not knowing how to get to the Youth Hostel, which I had visited last time. How many more numpties do I have to wade past today!
Checking in at docked me Y25 (for the bed) and another Y25 for the key deposit. That leaves me Y18 for the bus to Shanghai airport and Y1 in change. I already decided on the previous occasion that I stayed at the 7 Sages that the atmosphere was comfortable and the place quite relaxing. Seeing my financial dire straits, the manager was kind enough to give me free dinner, a massive bowl of beef and noodles in a soup.
Next morning I deliberately slept in to kill time before check-out. Having retrieved my Y25 deposit back, I called the airline to bring forward the Shanghai to Hiroshima flight date. Once again the manager kindly covered the cost of the phone call and he also offered me free lunch, this fried rice was better than all those we'd eaten in Tibet put together.
6:45pm was the scheduled departure time. It was a good idea to show up early to join in the big squeeze effect of doubling the train carriage population capacity. It seems there were more standing-room tickets sold than I expected. So much more that there wasn't even room for people to sit on the floor in the aisle. Standing-room literally means exactly that! Luckily I'd kept stock of a few goodies for the 16-hour stand: chewing gum, 1 packet of Oreo cookies, 1.5 litre bottle of water, and some peanuts. I was carefully rationing my water intake to save enough for the 21 hours wait in Shanghai's PuDong airport. About 2 hours out from Shanghai, a seat had been vacated and I took it. Less than 15 minutes later I was sound asleep. Just short of Shanghai station I woke up to the sight of the cleaners finishing their sweep and my water bottle gone!
The bus to the airport was straightforward. All I had to do then is wait... My ipod played and played until the battery went dead. Using my remaining money I bought a bowl of 2-minute noodles. When I asked the information counter for their paper cups, I received a tiny paper cone, much like a coffee filter paper, that disintegrates after the 2nd refill. Later in the night some official airport hotel tout suggested I stay in a hotel. He asked if I had 100 US$, 100 Euros, Y100, a hundred anything; then warned me that the airport closes from 2:00am to 5:30am. Shanghai PuDong airport has rack metal seats which are quite hard to sleep on. Nevertheless I discovered a few cleaning staff (along with their snoring) had joined me on adjacent benches by 3:00am.
Fred, taking a flight later. He offered to get coffee. I said I would be in Heaven if he wanted to buy me one. Knocking back my long black and chatting away, I said bye to Fred then went to check in for my Hiroshima flight. I was 100% refused entry at 8:28am because check-in closes 45minutes prior flight time! Asking about next flights: tomorrow's flight was booked out; there was no flight the following day and there were available seats the day after that! In desperation I asked about flights to other Japanese cities TODAY. The staff gave me a flight to Osaka 6pm that evening, at no extra cost (just as well). More waiting... I played mind games with the electronic flight listings board...
3:00pm check in started for this flight and I was 2nd in line. The duty free shops had no interesting booze stock at all. Flight to Osaka was good with a chat with the 2 lovely Japanese ladies in my row. Immigration gave me a hard time letting me in because I had finished my 2 working holiday visas and now I was entering on a tourist visa with only 5,000 yen. I rushed to buy a shinkansen ticket back to Hiroshima but it was too late for that. There was 1 night bus service left and it cost 7,000 yen. I ripped the extra cash out of the VISA account, paid, jumped on the first bus and then made it to the connecting bus with only a few minutes to spare. I sent an email to my friend Kate, announcing the bus arrival time of 6:10am. She asked me to loiter around and have a coffee, for her extra 2 hours sleep in. So, at the Hiroshima train station's McDonald's branch I slowly put each bite into my stomach. I took not the first but the second street-car to Tokaichi just to further delay waking up the lion.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Day 3 of our tour took us to the base of highest mountain on the planet. The funny thing about this place is, once you are here, you are already well past half-way to the top! Still a far way off in the clouds, the death zone isn't the #1 tourist attraction. Why do we come here then? To brag to our mates? For our own personal exploration - bollocks! Yoga and astro-projection can take you anywhere. Then why? It is a desolate, cold and harsh pile of rocks in the sand. Not enough sand-castles at the beach as a child? My answer is: I'll let you know when we go there next time! Not a rhetorical question, however there are just as many answers as there are metres of altitude.
Approaching the base camp had a few hurdles. The one that sticks to mind is the compulsory, no alternative, Chinese government bus service... There were dozens of small 2-wheel-drive broken down buses in a back parking lot. No such thing as a schedule here... Lots of prospective passengers were stranded in the middle of the desert, holding a ticket. I'm not sure if the word service is appropriate!
The bus drove us up to the Rhongpu Monastery and dumped us there. We welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs. Walking past this yak, we got our first glimpses of the giant mountain. Feels pretty good. Especially after stuffing our faces with a Snickers. If you ever wondered why yaks and mountain goats spend a lot of time sitting on their arses, it's an altitude thing. You get into the swing of it. After walking up the morraine and past Hotel California, we soon arrived at a cosy Base Camp and filled up on hot drinks.
The cairn atop the nano-hill serves as a divider between the expeditionists and the tourists. It also makes for the perfect prop for taking some great photos. According to one of the Nepalese guides, this is the largest number of separate expeditions to ever exist in the Tibetan Base Camp. 30 separate parties will make the attempt this season - that's not counting the Nepal base camp!
Saturday, May 06, 2006
I'd decided to go vegetarian for the week. Meat dumped on the filthy streets doesn't exactly pass my minimal hygiene standards. In a post-tour celebration, our gang discovered while eating the Italian gelato that rats live in most places throughout Tibet, even as residents romping around in the ice-cream shop while the staff are entertained by their antics! If rat shit on your pillow is too much for you, don't even bother making it to Lhasa, let alone the wilds beyond.
Our first day out was great. All of them were actually, but I've got to start somewhere. We realised early on that Tibetan people, ie. people that don't live in Lhasa, are fairly poor. Any way to make a bit of money is a good way. Even standing at the top of a 4990 metre pass in knee-deep snow with a yak on a string, one can make a real killing when a bus loaded with camera-toting tourists rolls past.
Yam drok tso (lake) is this beautiful turquoise colour, even under overcast skies. Annina and Petri who will remain forever known as The Finish Couple, had joined forces with Koichi in another vehicle that caught up with ours at the lake. Their humour kept me reeling through our many meetings throughout the country.
These monasteries, such as Panchen Lama's Palchoi Monastery, are something everybody will see when visiting Tibet. The entrance fees will undoubtedly be higher than your guidebook says, so take some extra cash or don't visit them. Despite asking, there's no student discount either. Our driver decided to take us to a site that possibly no-one has ever visited before: a road-side flour mill. We were confused at first as to why we were stopping at... no-where in particular. A wash of fresh air woke us up and our curiosity was sparked. Free taste-testing on the grains and we witnessed the grinding process. Amazing! Michael Jackson said it doesn't matter if you're black or white, but this is true one-up-manship. The miller man was black and white all over!
On the second day we spent longer at the Shigatse monastery than our driver hoped. We later learned that the shear distance of the afternoon drive all the way to Shekar and the condition of the road was draining to say the least. If you've ever seen the Paris to Dakar Rally imagine something just as enduring!
We are envious of our driver who sees these sights every week, whereas we might only ever visit this fascinating monastery once in our lives. The monks may choose to live in squalor conditions, but they all wear these trendy boots and there is money (perhaps some counterfeit too) pasted to every nook throughout the monastery.
The rally segment of our journey is supposed to be for 4-wheel-drive vehicles only but a few times we passed a Citroen blasting a way through the construction site. Amongst the rubble here, gender equality is reality as Tibetan women work alongside their male counterparts in the dusty mess.
Finally upon arrival at a crumby hotel, the place had the monopoly in town and made it hell for us to simply check in to the Spartan room. The hotel does have a restaurant though, with menu items such as an individual singular vegetable, steamed bum and curd breast.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
At DeQing airport (yet another naming dilemna) my fixer tried lifting my backpack off my shoulders 4 times before asking me to check it in myself. His lifting effort was much the same as a wet fish hand-shake. Next he snatched up my ticket, passport and boarding pass and runs past the queue for security checking. Eventually his head pops out and he waves me down the line.
Before take off, I swear the stewardess said,
...seats in the upright position, and open your song book,- I half expected everyone to start chanting or more likely perform bad karaoke. Snow capped mountain ranges fill to the horizon out my window, many peaks are higher than our plane!
The Potala Palace just pops up as the bus pulls into the city. Like a cancer, the consuming anti-culture is rapidly homogenising Lhasa. Still, plenty of prayer flags flapping in the breeze, dudes wearing the holy marone and orange robes pushing past me, golden-capping and replacement teeth for sale amongst other assorted souvenirs from the metre-by-metre markets lining the Barkhor.
I've formed with a Danish and a French couple for our Land Cruiser trip starting tomorrow morning. I better cash myself up for the journey. On our return to Lhasa, hopefully Tibet will be quieter after the week of national holiday concludes, and visiting the sights might be less crowded...