A Travellerspoint blog

The world is your octopus

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For some mystifying reason, I was really apprehensive about arriving in Hong Kong. Almost didn't want to go.

Sounds very strange now I think about it, but as I stood in line outside Shanghai's main railway station, awaiting customs and passport clearance before boarding the sleeper train that would take me out of mainland China, doubts began flooding my head.

Weird and wildly exaggerative thoughts.

Hong Kong was the size of a broom cupboard, wasn't it? And it's got a population of two billion, hasn't it? People there literally cannot move. And it's more humid than a Korean sauna. All backpacker accommodation is in damp, windowless cells not fit for human habitation. And I've booked a place in Mong Kok. Mong Kok! That's where all the triads hang out, isn't it?

Seriously, it was like a sickness. I stared at the China exit stamp in my passport for what felt like hours, wishing I wasn't leaving the People's Republic, hoping my train would stall and i'd be allowed to disembark in Guangzhou - or better yet, we'd take a wrong turn and end up back in Beijing. Yes, Beijing was great wasn't it? Lots of space there. Nice food too. Great guesthouses if I remember rightly.

Ooh er. Scary.
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To this day I don't understand what that was all about. I guess I should have reckoned on suffering an attack of 'the fear' at one point or another on this trip, but never would I have thought it'd be whilst clickety-clacking down the line towards Hong Kong.

The most inexplicable part of this whole episode is that all it took to finally break my delusional state, and return my heart rate and breathing to near normal, was to spot through the train window the glowing green man signal of a pedestrian crossing.

A flippin green man light. Crazy.

It was a signal I'd seen umpteen times before, as it was exactly - and I mean a 100% exactly - like those that you find in London.

And then I noticed the cars. They're on the left side of the road! Then the road names, not only written in English but also sounding so familiar too... Waterloo Road, Argyle St, Nathan Road...

The truth (obvious to anybody who isn't carrying a disorientated-travellers fog around with them) is that Hong Kong is a lot like home. Tons like home. Even now, 12 years after the British were finally kicked out.

OK, it's hotter. For early December it's more humid than I'm used to, but still comfortable rather than unpleasant. And sure, there are a lot of people wedged into a pretty small area, and most buildings climb up and up as if they're all taking part in a concrete race towards the heavens, but it just didn't bother me. Any lingering concept of personal space had been left well behind. Probably in Berlin.

Sure, if you journey up Nathan Road in Kowloon, continuing north past Mong Kok MTR station and onwards, the vibe of the place is much more 'China' than London. Compare that to walking around the shopping centre beneath Two International Finance Centre - a total dead-ringer for Jubilee Place beneath Canary Wharf.

London has the Oyster card (why am I shaking as I type that word..?), but in Hong Kong the world is your Octopus.

Hong Kong has the jump on London on this one, as not only does your plastic Octopus get you around town by bus, tram or subway, you can also use it to pay for milk, a newspaper, or a meal in a restaurant.

Enough with these comparisons though. The most enjoyable parts of Hong Kong, at least on the surface, are those that are unique to region.

With the Star Ferries chugging around the harbour, equal parts tourist and commuter friendly, Hong Kong has created perhaps the most atmospheric pool of water of any major city. And of course, there is that stunning skyline. Impressively imposing even when a tad grey and bleak.

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The chance to ride the world's longest covered escalator system probably doesn't have many people rushing to book a Hong Kong holiday, but it's a pretty ingenious means of getting around nevertheless. When you consider that the terrain forces much of Hong Kong Island to be built at a 45 degree angle, this useful moving walkway can zip you from Central up to the mid-levels in a fraction of the time it'd take if you had to slog up the streets unaided.

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Nothing quite beats the view from The Peak though. Climb up from the harbour, through Hong Kong Island's financial district, and onto the near-vertical in parts Peak Tram. Reach the top, pray for a bit of sun, and suddenly you get to see this...

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It's a sight that's been captured and converted into a million postcards, but in my eyes it never becomes boring or staid. Perhaps the perfect place to wonder exactly what it was I was ever meant to be worried about. Hong Kong is just great. I'll be going back on the way home and I can't wait.

Hopefully next time I'll manage to avoid paying any casinos in Macau a visit. Yeah, kinda forgot to mention that here. Well, that'll have to be a story for the next post then.

Posted by Serge78 14:38 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Shanghai rocks

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I had less time in the city of Shanghai than it took to sail there from Japan.

Just over a day. But it's never about how much time you've got, just how well you spend it. I had a ball in Shanghai.

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Rock Band. Get yourself the full outfit - guitars, drums, mics the lot - grab a small posse of (newly found) friends, choose a rock 'classic' to butcher and away you go.

Belting seven shades of soy out of a plastic drum kit is about as much fun as is legal in China.

But I was just passing through. For a true expats guide to Shanghai life, check this.

Posted by Serge78 21:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

The boatman

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I left Japan as I had entered - on a boat. But in contrast to my nippy three hour scoot from Busan to Fukuoka a fortnight ago, I departed Osaka port with two full days of choppy waters ahead of me.

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48 long hours of sailing until, hopefully, we'd spy Shanghai and the towering steel and glass monuments of Pudong. And I'd be back in China.

Although it was an all-Chinese crew aboard the Su Zhou Hao, first impressions of boat life were definitely Japanese in flavour. Stood in line, each crew member greeted me (and every one of my 40 or so fellow passengers) with a smile, bow and 'Hello' / 'Nihao' / 'Konichiwa'. As I was shown my cabin, I spotted a large vending machine stocked to the brim with cans of Asahi and Kirin in just about every size imaginable (surely the stingy 250ml can is redundant though?)

With two stacks of bunks my cabin could sleep four in total, but I shared the space with just two others on this trip. They were both Shanghai residents, but totally different in all other respects. One was an older man, mid-50s, quietly spoken (almost to the point of shyness) and hardly ever in the cabin – instead preferring to spend his time slumped untidily on one of the communal sofas near the ship's restaurant.

The other was probably 40-something, and specialised in spontaneous bursts of belching and farting. Very very loud belching and farting. Other than natural gas production, his only other purpose in life was to royally piss me off as much as possible. This he achieved with particular merit on numerous occasions by loudly returning to the cabin, setting free a finely tuned bottom burp, before making his escape. And his final parting gift was always, without fail, to LEAVE THE BLOODY CABIN DOOR OPEN. Born in a barn, I'm sure of it. Born in a barn, on a fart farm.

So for large parts of the crossing I had the cabin to myself. In the corner, a slightly sketchy 14” TV played films at set times of the day. And it didn't take me long to realise that the crew member who was in charge of film selection must have had a rather droll sense of humour. Ladies and Gentleman, we are on a boat, and therefore all films chosen for playback whilst on this golden voyage must contain a nautical reference in their title – no matter how vague or contrived.

I'm not kidding. We had “The Island” (starts ok then drifts), “Ocean's Eleven” (groan), and most interestingly - “The Flood”. Watching this made-for-TV 'classic' made me homesick beyond belief. And here's why. The plot of “The Flood” involves London getting absolutely trashed by a couple of inches of sea surge.

A stellar cast fleshes out the drama – Robert Carlisle stars as the guy who, in every scene, mumbles “Nobody understands me!” before storming out of the room in a huff. Then there's the bloke who played Neil in The Young Ones, this time appearing as the token Met Office scapegoat (or is it the dog from the Churchill ads?). And not forgetting Poirot, here acting out the role of the tireless and tieless of-the-people Deputy Prime Minister. If BAFTAs were awarded for Best Eyebrows in a Supporting Role, he'd have walked it.

Alongside these heavyweights of the small screen, you've got the revolving New Scotland Yard sign, a Tube map that hides a route of escape from the rising damp, multiple RP accents, all shot in a sub-Bocho shaky cam stylee that you'd thought went the way of the dodo at the tail end of the 90s. I loved it. It made me long for soul-sapping smileless commutes, overcast and drizzly afternoons during the cricket season, and good old fish & chips. The killer puddle hits central Londontown around 8pm, sadly perhaps too late to clean the streets of the hundreds of cretinous free-sheet distributors.

I've never really had the best sea legs, a fact this trip further underlined. On the evening of the second day I went upstairs to the restaurant to find it completely empty, save for two members of staff. Within seconds of sitting at a table, I'd worked out exactly why I was dining alone tonight – the boat was bouncing around the sea so violently that anything not nailed to the floor found itself hurtling forwards, then backwards, and then forwards and backwards again, in an inescapable loop of dizziness. I ordered, exactly what I can't remember, but no sooner had the waiter written down my request than I lurched up and out the door towards the nearest toilet. Fearing the worst, my face hovered over the bowl, but nothing...

Taking a deep breath, I took several wonky steps back to my table. Forwards, backwards, forward, back. A couple of minutes later, the food arrived. Big bowl of rice, plate of something else. Looking out the window in an attempt to fix my eyes on the horizon (fruitless as it was pitch black outside), I heard the disquiet murmuring of my stomach once more. And just as I'd shoveled a load of rice into my gob, my gag reflex kicked in and I was again up and out the restaurant door, flying face first towards the mens cubicles. This time it was no false dawn, and the rice returned, along with lunch and probably a bit of breakfast, into the bog beneath. Then followed about five minutes of toilet hugging before I was able to stagger over to my cabin for a lie down.

The morning after and the sea had returned to calm. With the sun on full beam we spied land, and sailed straight towards downtown Shanghai. The Oriental Pearl, Jin Mao and World Financial Centre towers glinted back at us in arrival, and I was in the People's Republic for a second time. Even better, I'd returned to solid ground at last.

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Posted by Serge78 10:43 Archived in Japan Tagged boating Comments (0)

Temple time

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You've gotta hand it to those cheeky Esoteric Buddhists. They sure know how to pick a remote spot to build a temple.

Or, in the case of those on top of Koyasan mountain, about 100 temples.

Roughly half of them open their doors to the public as shukubo, allowing overnight temple stays in the company of monks as they go about their business.

Getting to Koyasan is half the fun. After an hour's ride south from central Osaka, the train begins to climb the outer reaches of the range that includes Koyasan, slowly making it's way to Gokurakubashi. Here you jump off the train and onto a mega steep cable car, whereby you're winched further up the mountain slope towards your destination. At the other end of the cable car all that remains is to board a bus for the final leg - a 10 minute ride into town. Congratulations, you're now over 900m above sea level, and finally amongst the temples of Koyasan.

Almost makes you feel like a true pilgrim.

The meals served during my temple stay are vegetarian, filling and wholesome. Unlike most strands of Buddhism I've encountered, alcohol is offered to guests (indeed some of the monks enjoy a drop of sake now and again), but something (stupidness?) makes me ask for green tea instead.

I was staying at Muryôkô-in, home to perhaps the most famous Swiss-born Buddhist in all of Japan - Kurt. Now known by the name Kurto Gensou, he settled on Koyasan with his Japanese wife just over a decade ago, and it is a total honour to have him as our host for that morning's ceremony.

He comes across as a calm and thoughtful man who has done a lot of reading - he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of other faiths - and a lot of reasoning, and has reached an understanding of the world that most of us are still some way from achieving. After the early morning meditation and chanting, Kurto takes time to talk to us as a group (there's five other guests staying overnight at the same time as me) over a pot of green tea. He asks us about our impressions of the ceremony, Muryôkô-in and Koyasan, explains some history and also talks about the future - the year on year increase in tourists could soon bring about changes to the Koyasan landscape.

He gently links many of our questions to answers in Buddhist teaching, without in any way sounding preachy. Admittedly my experience of such things is limited, but he is the only religious person I've ever met who has talked passionately about the similarities, not the differences, among people of other faiths. Now why can't representatives of all religions do that?

And they let you drink booze.

After breakfast, with a few hours before my train back to Osaka, I headed off towards Okuno-in. The 30 minute walk took me along a path lined by hundreds of moss-covered Buddhist graves, all leading up to the big one - the last resting place of papa Koyasan himself, Kobo Daishi.

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Known as Kukai whilst alive, and renowned as the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi may or may not have looked like this.

If you're thinking temples, and more specifically Japanese temples, then one city is never going to be far away from your thoughts. Kyoto is temple town and no mistaking. There may be as many as one and a half thousand temples within and around Kyoto, but armed with a one-day bus pass I could only hope to see two or three.

But I picked two or three real goodies. First up was Kiyomizu-dera, which apart from being a fine looking temple in it's own right also offered fantastic views back across Kyoto.

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Right the way on the other side of the city, the Golden Temple, or Kinkaku-ji, was also well worth the bus ride. Just one tip, don't do as I did an enter the temple grounds the same time as a large tour group. Unless you enjoy being trapped on an inescapable human conveyor belt of pushy camera addicts and their cheesy grinning view obstructing accomplices, that is.

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If you believe most guidebooks, Nara - a city only half an hour by train from Kyoto - is a much more managable spot to go temple tramping. And they're just about spot on, as most of Nara's main attractions can be walked to and around in a day or so. I spent only a few hours there, perhaps by this point suffering from the infamous "templed-out" syndrome that effects many a tourist, but enjoyed what I saw.

And my Nara visit also helped to clear up a long running debate I've been having with myself - just what is the world's largest wooden object?

Apparently the answer is Daibutsu-den, within the grounds of the Todai-ji temple complex.

The world's largest wooden object is not, as I had previously believed, Keanu Reeves.

Posted by Serge78 12:53 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

I say eel, you hear cheese

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I should have read the warning signs from the start.

The fact that Sakura, a restaurant recommended by the Japan By Rail guidebook I was clutching, enjoyed a delicious 27th floor view over Osaka from the Hankyu building should have told me that this was not going to be a cheap backpacker kind of place.

Then there was the staff member who had to consult his manager as to whether he could let me have a table - eventually they managed to squeeze me in at the bar but only on the condition that I was back out the door in an hour tops...

But I was in, looking about as out of place as a blue-shirted Evertonian in the Kop, my just-hiked-up-Fuji appearance clashing badly with the other seriously suited clientèle. And I was hungry.

I plumped for the eel. A local specialty said the Japanese/English menu. Sounded good. I also asked for a beer, which was served accompanied by a large bowl of complementary rice crackers.

Then came the cheese board. Another freebie, so I thought. Couple of bits of brie, some freshly shaved parmesan, and what was probably gouda.

I'll tuck into those whilst I'm waiting for my eel. Which is taking a while...

Hmm, that's funny. Could've sworn they wanted me out of the restaurant in an hour. Could be difficult if they don't serve up my food soon. Where is it? Another beer you ask? Oh ok, it'll keep me going till the eel arrives...

Ok, I've been here for an hour and a quarter now, had a couple of beers and some free food, but where's the real thing..? I'll ask the waiter. What's that? All my food has been served? You think I should pay and leave now? Er, but what about my eel? What do you mean, what's eel? Here, it's on the menu. Eel. See. I'll do a little eel mime if that helps. Does it? No? Eel. That's what I asked for... OK, maybe it's not an English word you've heard before, fair enough as I can't remember the Japanese for eel either. But i'll point to the Japanese translation underneath, that'll work. Eel - there you go. Is it coming? My eel. What? What do you mean that says cheese? It's got 'eel' written in English above it. Smoked eel, a local specialty, served with a sauce. Not cheese, can't be cheese, for a start there wasn't any smoking or saucing of the cheese you served... It definitely says cheese you reckon..? It costs HOW MUCH?

You're very sorry? I'm very sorry too. I'm bloody starving. And broke now. What's that, you'll not charge me for the cheese? Sorry for the mix up? Yeah, me too. Thank you for that. So, can I still order the eel? Oh. You never have and probably never will serve eel, you reckon. I see. So, somebody must have got a tad 'creative' with the old translating whilst preparing your menu... hmm, just my luck. Maybe it's just a practical joke. Maybe I should have shaved before I attempted to get a table. Maybe I should never have got in the lift in the first place... Yes, see you soon. Lovely restaurant. I'll be back as soon as i've learned the Japanese for 'eel', 'cheese' and 'lost in translation'.

Fish are big in Japan, and Tsukiji in Tokyo is the site of the largest fish market in the world. A whopping 3 billion yen's worth of the fishy stuff is handled at Tsukiji every single day. The scale and spectacle to be found here has turned the market into a major tourist attraction (much to the chagrin of the people who work there, and perhaps also your average Tokyo citizen who relies on the smooth transfer of fish from sea to dinner plate for much of his daily food intake). And so, at 4am on a Saturday morning, a ragtag multinational bunch of backpackers set off from their hostel in Asakusa, me included, hoping to arrive at Tsukiji in time for the big box office event - the tuna auction.

Massive hulking tuna carcasses lie stretched out on flat wagons and the floor of the auction room - a large warehouse deep inside Tsukiji. Market stall traders, agents for retail chains and buyers for food companies all battle it out for the days catch, bidding and counter-bidding furiously until we have a winner. Band-sawed chunks of tuna are then passed on to the victorious.

It's meant to be quite something. I say "mean't to be", as despite us leaving on the first subway of the morning, we still managed to arrive too late to actually witness the auction in progress. By the time we showed up only a couple of tuna bodies remained, lined up like stiffs in a morgue.

But there's a second reason for out-of-towners to get to Tsukiji early, one that tourists can take advantage of without getting in the way of the estimated 60,000 market workers, and that reason is sushi.

Tsukiji has a short row of small restaurants lying within the market itself, their envious position giving them access to some of the freshest fish on the planet. And the sashimi and sushi they turn out is incredible. Opting for different set menus, each containing various combinations of raw fish and sushi, we set the best Japanese breakfast anyone could ask for.

Tokyo felt to me like a city with no middle. There's just no central feature or point around which you can work out where everything else lies. Instead it's several micro-cities, hanging on to each other like pieces from a badly cut jigsaw.

I spent about five days in Tokyo, and for some reason no matter where I wanted to go I always ended up in Shibuya. Apart from an absolutely massive Tower Records (a one-time spiritual home), thanks to Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, Shibuya is also home to the world's most visited zebra crossing.

And Starbucks, yes Star-bloody-bucks, has managed to wangle the prime retail spot overlooking the whole show. Who knows how much they're paying in rent.

I'm shamed to say that I was forced to buy a overpriced cup of watery mud from these people in an attempt to bring you a short video of the crossing. Alas, technical difficulties with uploading my footage means i'll have to rely on somebody else's work as a fall back - check this from YouTube.

I'm hoping that 'technical difficulties' also prevent the uploading of another video - one that features footage of me murdering a Chili Peppers record in a Shinjuku karaoke box. That's a story for another day.

Posted by Serge78 11:53 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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