Tuesday 6 November 2012

Day 585: The Last Visa

I've been rather quiet the last few days because I've been putting most of my energy into - read: stressing over - getting my last visa sorted out for my return home through Russia.  I'm pretty sure it's a success story and unless the sky falls in or the gremlins take over, I'll have the visa in my hands by the 13th... and if so, it will turn out not to be the hardest visa I've ever applied for: USA, China, I'm looking at you!*

Still, it's a lot of messing around getting paperwork ready, trekking over to the consulate through multiple stages of a new public transport system to meet a short and nebulously defined target opening time.  I had one dummy run getting those issues sorted out on Monday, was greeted very politely and helpfully by the consulate staff today and charged a sum of money so much smaller than the one Mike got sucked out of him that he is likely to have a nervous breakdown when he hears what it is.

So there you are - unless something goes drastically wrong, I'm coming home through Siberia in the winter, and adding South Korea and Germany to my list of visited countries (very briefly).

Countries visited over 21 months:
  1. France
  2. United Kingdom
  3. United States of America (inc Hawaii and American Samoa)
  4. Fiji
  5. New Caledonia
  6. Australia (inc Tasmania)
  7. New Zealand
  8. Indonesia (Bali)
  9. Singapore
  10. Malaysia
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Vietnam
  14. China
  15. Japan
  16. South Korea
  17. Russia
  18. Germany 
  19. United Kingdom
It feels like there should be more than that! Also it feels very strange that it's coming to an end.  Oh well, tomorrow I'm off to see some more anime.

* It is true that the visa application process is more complicated for citizens of some countries, notably the US and UK.  In fact it feels as if the Russians are openly collecting data on visitors from these countries well beyond what's relevant, no doubt in retaliation for similar activities on our governments' part.  Among the questions I wasn't really prepared for were the names, addresses and phone numbers of my last two employers and the names, addresses and phone numbers of my institutions of higher education + dates of starting and finishing. Not many people carry that information in their heads, so think of it if you're going to be applying to Russia for a visa and are making a longish trip to a consulate to do so. Also, we are required to confirm that we haven't done any of a number of obnoxious things, as per the USA immigration card, as task I always find quite entertaining. I think the other stuff you need is spelled out around the Internet.  For a transit visa: all tickets and bookings, passport, photograph, insurance (for some countries more than others but you should have it anyway), cash for the fee. The 'invitation' is not required for transit visas, though it is for others.

Friday 2 November 2012

Day 581: Manga

Today, instead of anime, I did manga.  I'm actually not a big, big fan of manga despite its links to anime.  I like my comic strips coloured in, like the French/Belgian ones. I rarely even buy those, because I hate to spend so much money on something I can read so fast. But I found out the Manga Museum had a free open day today so it was definitely worth going along.  The Manga Museum should probably be called a library.  It has a few little exhibitions in odd corners, but it's basically many, many bookshelves filled with manga comics.  They call this the manga wall. There is a long wall dedicated to translated manga, with plenty in English and French as well as other European and Asian languages. There are tables and a cafe where you can read and that's about it.  I stayed and read manga for a several hours. Course, I couldn't really take any photos of the manga, so here are a few bits of Kyoto I visited during the last few days.

Inside a temple compound, the Tojo I think
More of the same temple

The Kyoto Tower reflected in modern buildings
The riverside walk
Old style houses along the river banks

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Day 578: Anime

One of the things that's different about Japan compared to other countries I've been to is that I'm already a big fan of some parts of Japanese culture: origami and anime.  I was really happy when I discovered how cheap basic orignami paper is here, then the first boutique shop I found yesterday (well, after the sweet shop) was the fancy paper shop. I'm going to be buying myself a Christmas present in there before I leave!

But today I'm going to the cinema.  It takes longer to pick out a movie when you don't understand a word of the cinema's website.  Here is what Google Translate said about the movie I chose: Fuse.

Down the mountain was in response to the death of his grandfather, Hamaji girls and your shotgun. In the town of fullness, hearing the strange rumor her for the first time what you see what you hear. Draw the blood of humans and dogs, eat the (Dama breath) raw living, of a person disguised as humans - that those who called <- - Fuse Xi>. For violent crime and that they cause. Hamaji encounter wandering, and Sino white-haired youth wearing a dog's face soon to town looking for a place to stay. Set in Edo unfolds Aquapolises fictional story of a girl straight
Some people may wonder why I'm going to see a movie I won't be able to understand.  Well, for one thing I'm OK with piecing together the meaning from other cues and anime is all about the drawing.  For another you can't really learn a language without listening to it.  After seeing the movie, I can do better than Google on the plot summary.
Himaji is a bounty huntress in a world plagued by werewolves, descendants of an illegitimate relationship between a queen (or goddess) and a wolf. Unfortunately for Himaji, her compassion interferes with her work and that's before she falls in love with Sino, who happens to be a werewolf himself.  Sino doesn't keep his secret long: a little habit like ripping people's hearts out and eating them soon becomes apparent, especially when you have to rescue your girlfriend from would-be agressors. Fortunately, Sino only eats the hearts of baddies, so he's redeemable in principle and Himaji may have the key to saving him.  
To be honest, I'm not quite sure how she did it or where he went to in the end because the solution was embodied in a letter. Too bad for me, obviously speaking the language would help.

Monday 29 October 2012

Day 577: Kyoto and Nijo Castle

Yesterday, it rained all day so but today is fine so I decided to go for a walk around Kyoto.  The city is built to a grid system with many narrow alleys (like the one I live in), the buildings are mostly terraces and low rise houses, and at first I thought it was going to be nothing but boutiques and little restaurants.  Then I found the arcade, which I suppose is a series of covered alleys with even more boutiques and small grocery shops. Everything is very, very nice, even the fruit and fish are beautifully presented.  The people who run the food shops stand at the entrance bowing to passersby, not at all like the rest of Asia where they greet you with a communication that basically means 'get over here and buy something NOW!'  So far, Kyoto lives up to Japan's reputation of being refined and polite.

I was going to do a lot of walking today but then I happened on Nijo Castle so I went in to explore that instead. I remember it coming up in one of my courses as an example of how some architecture expresses status and sets out to dominate the person who wanders in to it.  The main way most castles do this of course is by making sure nobody wanders anywhere without a proper invitation.  This is still the case really: visitors don't get to wander around at will, even through the gardens and are encouraged to stick to a single route. But I suppose that's more in the interests of conservation. What is really meant is that Nijo Castle advertises the fact that you can't force your way in with huge irregular blocks of stone, and lets you know your place in the hierarchy when you do get in by making you wait (or not), then having you received in one of a strict hierarchy of rooms, all of which contained more tatamis and painted screens than you could afford yourself.  Standard stuff, really.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Day 575: Getting set up in Kyoto

So much for the older Japanese way of life - today I get to deal with the modern world, first and foremost some cultural differences surrounding money.

Lunch on the train: the rice parcels are sort of the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich, then there's... the other stuff... I'm not sure what it is, but it's quite nice

The internet says Japan is a cash based society which is probably at least still partly true. We, on the other hand, are plastic based societies.  We're not used to carrying loads of cash around and anyway we have withdrawal limits.  To make matters worse, it's apparently the case that most Japanese ATMs won't accept our cards and we have to go to airports, post offices or 7-11s (specifically, not any grocery store)..

I was already feeling the cash flow pinch in Narita.  It happened like this. I was at the airport waiting to withdraw money and the American woman in front of me asked me if I thought the machine was accepting her request for money in dollars or yen.  I was completely disorientated by this question, so when she eventually told me she had successfully withdrawn 3000 yen, I merely thought that didn't sound a lot and I would take 5000.  I should have completely dismissed her as the not very experienced helium-head she was. 5000 in cash is about 60 USD and only just enough to get through a couple of days in Narita including the smallest helping of barbecued eel. Next, my future landlord in Kyoto got back to me and said his credit card machine was broken and he hoped I would pay 3 weeks rent in cash on arrival. Oooops! It's one thing to do that at, say, Vietnamese prices, but here I'm paying 71,000 yen for 3 weeks (which is still good value for Kyoto). I'm pretty sure my weekly withdrawal limit is no more that 50,000 yen. 

Besides, I have to get to Kyoto first - another 10,000 yen - and the internet says that tickets can only be bought on credit cards at select ticket counters at best. Fortunately, things are less dire than they seem.  50,000 yen really is my top cash limit, but the reported problem with the ticket machines are due to Americans (mostly) not having those chips with PIN numbers on their credit cards. The only real problem is that it's completely non-intuitive to use, even in translation. I thought about Mike while I was riding the Shinkasen, that's really his thing.  I thought you couldn't really tell how fast it was unless something was really close, but maybe that's a European thing as well.  The only train I usually ride back home is the TGV.

My desk / dinner table / living room
Living space
I booked a Japanese style room because I knew I would get more floor space, but of course I have to figure out how to use it!  Actually, I am very, very happy with it. I'm pretty sure the western style rooms have that plastic parquet on the floor and I have nice warm tatamis.  I don't have to contend with a double bed takig up space, instead I have stacked mattresses that I can even move around.  The room could probably do with a few pictures, especially with the low furniture which leaves big expanses of wall, but otherwise it's pretty great.  I have a tiny kitchenette, a tiny bathroom (with tiny bathtub), and - very important - a relatively large concrete covered space in which to leave my shoes so I don't trample the tatamis with them.

My bed, but I move it away from the curtains at nighttime and arrange the coffee table as a night stand.

Food shopping
The next challenge, since I am self-catering, was to go down to the local supermarket and see what I could get to cook.  It turns out that if you want to avoid cooking in Japan, nothing could be easier.  There's a huge range of takeout meals, snacks and so on.  It's cheaper than eating out, but I thought I could do a bit better. I decided to stick to buying things that are more like condiments or pickles since I wouldn't have a clue how to start making those. Fish is cheap and plentiful, along with whole cuttlefish, large chunks of octopus and other sea foods, so I'd better make the best of those.  You can buy big packets of mixed fish chunks right off the counter, though it does seem that fish that might be eaten raw is about twice the price of fish for cooking.  In the end, the biggest challenge was cooking anything with my very limited set of utensils and space. OK, it's also true that when I had to pay for my shopping I stood helplessly holding out my pile of strange coins while the nice cashier took the ones she wanted.  That's another cultural difference - throughout SE Asia and even China we didn't have to deal with coins all that much.

I can still manage to cook dinner - well, it has been about 5 months since I had to.
PS: I'm slowly catching up on the China posts. There's one about our trip to the Great Wall further down.  For me, that was one of the highlights.

Friday 26 October 2012

Day 574: Boso No Mura

The reconstructed rural idyll
The real 21st century thing
 I knew from last time I was in Narita that there was some kind of museum of domestic architecture nearby called boso no mura (meaning village in a forest, I think).  I'm interested in domestic architecture and wanted to spend my second day there. There's a range of rather fiddly options for getting there, but the one I chose, especially since it's a beautiful day, was to take the train one stop to the next village then walk about 2km.  It couldn't have worked out better - the countryside is full of tiny backroads and paths, more flowers and butterflies than I would have expected at this time of year, bright sunshine and, especially, crystal clear air. It turned out that learning the hiragana proved useful already because the signs were a lot more helpful than the map I printed out.  See, that says boso no mura!

That's a little cemetery in the background, at a crossroads.

In the end the biggest risk wasn't getting lost, but getting distracted by the many interesting detours I could have taken on the way to the museum. I am thinking that although Japan is surely THE most expensive of Asian countries this is surely related to the fact that you can potter around in it without getting hassled to death.  That's quite a big compensation for doing without a bunch of things.

This is a burial mound I passed on the way.  It turns out there are about 100 in the immediate area but this is one of the largest

The boso no mura museum isn't exactly on the international tourist trail.  It's the kind of place where you find school field trips in the week and family outings at the weekend.  You can get tea and cakes there, see how your great-granny lived, just after a really thorough spring clean anyway, and go for a woodland walk among the ancient burial mounds afterwards.  Still, it's the ideal place for tourists who are usually interested to see the traditional lifestyles of the country they're visiting while having a good time.

Looking towards the reconstructed merchant's street at boso no mura.

The farmhouse kitchen with views into the living area and workroom
View across the living room towards one of the tatami rooms, in what I imagine was quite a fancy family house.

Altogether different and much older style of accomodation built in a sunken pit with a tent of thatch over it.

Miniature terracotta army outside one of the burial mounds.  After seeing the big one in Xian it was an interesting association.
 I returned to Narita more or less the way I came and went to find some barbecued eel and sake.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Day 573: Narita

That's Mt Fuji, just under the airplane's wing

Well, here I am in Japan!  Narita - location of Tokyo's international airport, and most civilised place in the world for a layover - is just as sunny as the last time I saw it. The air is clean and I can see the colour of buildings a mile away, so I am taking my first breaths of clean air for some time. I have a tiny hotel room equipped with everything anyone ever needed including a nightshirt and a toilet that comes with its manual glued to the wall.  I also have a bathtub, so first bath in months as well!  I spent the rest of the day learning hiragana so now I can read a whole load of stuff and not know what it means.  Just as Chinese signs and billboards were starting to become comprehensible!  I do prefer the instant internationalisation of the Chinese character system really.

After sleeping until 11 o'clock, I wandered down Narita's main street, looking for somewhere affordable to have lunch. There are lots of restaurants with plastic models of their dishes outside the window, but I was looking for something basic and hit on a bakery which did a 500 Yen (6USD) lunch plate.  It included:
  • 1 slice of quiche
  • 1 sausage roll
  • 1 croissant sandwich
  • 1 slice of baguette with cheese
  • 1 salad bowl
  • 1 egg soup
  • 1 ramequin of yoghurt
  • 1 choux pastry
Of course they are all tiny, but also beautiful and tasty.  I also ordered lemon verbena tea, which cost nearly as much as the lunch and came with more accessories than I really knew what to do with, including an egg timer and two strainers.  The teapot seemed to be one of those magic ones that never run out of tea, despite looking very small and transparent.  I think I love Japan nearly as much as New Zealand.

Narita's main street is a mixture of trinket shops, food shops, and restaurants.  The content of the food shops seemed weirder last time I was here, or maybe I've seen so many strange foods over the last few months that I'm immune.  The most common food product at the moment seems to be bags of large golden rice crackers which I'm going to have to try at some point.  At the bottom of the hill, just before the temple complex there is a gathering of barbecued eel restaurants where I may have to indulge tomorrow, even though it will set me back a bit more than 500 Yen.

Narita's temple complex involves some very beautiful buildings set in a large and lovely park where I spent the afternoon wandering around listening to birds and looking at carp as big as my leg.  The Japanese do parks and landscaping better than the Chinese.  They don't think that nature needs some help from music blaring over it from loudspeakers or brightly coloured ornaments in all the trees.  I found Chinese art at its best to be monumental and quite austere, but when it comes to the everyday human or natural scale, they tend to the cheap kitsch as everyone says. 

Last time I was here in Narita, I found the temples full of things I didn't understand, and I suppose that's still the case, but this time I at least found out that they belong to the Shingon branch of esoteric Buddhism.  We tend to associate the word esoteric with magical stuff, but it seems that esoteric schools of Buddhism mostly differ from others by believing enlightenment is potentially accessible at any time.  It's kind of funny that despite this it's one of the most secretive religions as regards its teachings.  The cynical part of me thinks that's so lots of people don't pop up saying 'I tried this at home and it absolutely did not work!'.  When I read about Shingon I found some of the traces of Indian influence it preserves to be quite interesting.  It uses sanskrit characters in a few contexts and a fire ceremony descended from the vedic fire ceremonies for Agni. The school has been present in Japan since about the 8th century. I was really more into nature today, so that's what all the photos are of.

PS: speaking of China, it isn't because I didn't like it there that there are no Chinese blog posts, it's because I didn't have time to write any!  We did a lot of zooming around and were nearly always crammed into smallish spaces at least with each other, if not with a lot of other people.  It's not really a situation that's conducive to writing. But now, that I do have time, I'll tell you about Chengdu in a minute, how about that?

Sunday 21 October 2012

Day 569: Great Wall of China

We really didn't want to go to the main touristy section of the great wall. We wanted something more isolated where we could do some proper hiking.  Our hostel offered a tour to Jinshanling, so that's where we ended up.  It's about a 3-hour ride from Beijing but it was well worth it. We had a gloomy kind of day, so perhaps not ideal for photos but it real life, it just made the left over autumn colours stand out more. For once, in China we are not in a big crowd, though some of the locals certainly still make a point of following the few tourists around.  Otherwise, it really made me think of the scene in Mulan (which I've watched with Antonia a whole lot of times), just before the Mongols raid the wall. We could have done with an extra hour there, or even staying in the hotel at the base and hiking all day, but that would have taken a lot more organisation and prior research.  Anyway we probably walked 5 or 6 km along the wall then back again.

Only fly in the ointment: the included buffet lunch was almost laughably bad - and I've had a few, even in China so I do know.  It was as though they really wanted you to feel you had to order something extra off their menu to make a real meal, but we didn't even have time for that.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Days 536-538 & 543-544: Chengdu

The new 'old' street and high rises in the background.  The high rises aren't hazy because it's a bad photo - this is really how everything looks.
  Our plan was to use Chengdu for rest and recovery between some excursions.  It would be a very pleasant city if it were not for it's perpetual pea-souper and air in which the smell of cement powder is all too detectable.  It doesn't help that it's rather humid as well.  Apart from that, it has nice temples, a new 'old-style' district and a huge pedestrian street.  Now that it's been a while since I arrived in China, I've forgotten how wonderful it felt to have pedestrianised streets again.  It's been the first time in over a year.  We have figured out by now that Chinese people use the temple precincts as parks, quiet and beautiful places to relax, chat or study.  It's a bit hard to tell what part the religious activity that still exists plays in all this. Anyway, we decided to make like the Chinese people and go and hang out in the temple near our hostel and take photographs.

More old and new.
What people do at temples: the old guys under the bandstand are listening to an orchestra of birds hanging in cages from the trees.  Mike is photographing the bird cages to remind himself they're for real. I'm photographing the lot of them.  Antonia is commenting adversely on the level of kindness to animals involved in this activity.

Having discovered temple restaurants in Kunming, we were a bit disappointed to find that the famous restaurant at this temple was closed for renovation.  Not to be deterred, we looked up vegetarian restaurants in Chengdu and discovered a Taiwanese chain called Vegetarian Lifestyle within walking distance of our hostel.  After that we went there for dinner every day, timing our arrival for the late afternoon when they were in the middle of their team building exercise!!  The food was very, very good, and although everyone says it's a bit expensive, that's expensive by normal Chengdu standards. After dinner, we went back to the hostel and drank cheap beer in the common room, while wondering if our laundry would ever dry and trying to learn Chinese characters.

Antonia picks out her next book in Chinese in Chengdu's pedestrian shopping centre (ahem!)
We also bought two trips from the hostel, one to the Sichuan Opera performance.  This is really a varied selection of snippets from operas rather than a full opera, but that surely makes it more suitable for a short performance to tourists.  Much later, in Guilin, we saw people performing real opera around the lakes at night which of course involves a lot of talking you need to understand to follow the plot. We weren't supposed to take pictures at the Sichuan Opera but I guess someone did anyway. This is the only one that came out.

Our other tour, of course was to see the pandas.  I was feeling seriously tired of being herded around in tour groups by now (see the Jiuzhaigou post, when it turns up), and would have gone independently but they make it hard, so off we went.  Sure enough our guide got us in front of all the panda enclosures at the most photogenic moments, offered us the opportunity to have our photos taken with a baby panda for several thousand yuan (I'm not kidding!) and led us through the museum at a jogging pace.  As usual, I felt we could have done with another couple of hours and Antonia got really into drawing the pandas but kept getting interrupted half way through a drawing, but there you go.

Pandas eat like Romans

The red panda is wondering why it's sharing a path with us.

What pandas mostly do.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Day 534: Dragon Gate, Kunming, China

We're in Kunming China.  I must say it's a relief to be in a modern city after much of SE Asia.  I had no idea what to expect from China.  Kunming is modern, clean, just like a European city.  There's lots of night life.  Great public transportation.  The air is definitely polluted as is the lake but they're actively working on cleaning things up.  Amazingly enough, virtually every single motor scooter in the city is electric.  They are working on converting the busses to electric and maybe eventually the cars.  The people here know there's a problem and they are actively working on it, politics aside.

Today we took the public bus (which cost 1 yuan or about 17¢) out to the nearby mountains and walked (from 1840m) up to the Dragon Gate temple at the top (2175m).  It's roughly like walking up the Bastille in Grenoble but prettier in a way.  There's all these little temples along the way.  The route is completely paved with lots of steps.  Very easy walking.

Initially a man on the bus told us to follow him.  He spoke just a few words of English.  It was quite hard communicating but he was genuinely very friendly.  Eventually we met a group of foreigners, 2 Canadians, a Swede and a local named Ming. They took us in and we spent the read of the day with them.  We ate lunch with Ming's family at a tiny Buddhist vegetarian restaurant half way up this mountain in a temple, it was amazing.  We then continued to the top, then walked down and took a bus to the bottom the rest of the way.  We then went to dinner with them in a typical Chinese noodle place.  Wow, people are really friendly here, we were amazed.

I'm also impressed with how easy it is to get around here.  The language does pose some problems but we have managed to find someone to speak some english when needed.  The buses and trains are very well connected and the hotels we're staying in are about $30 a night.  I really thought we'd need some sort of package tour here but so far, it's not necessary. 

Tomorrow we take the night train to Chengdu. 

Saturday 15 September 2012

Day 533: First day in China: Kunming

Kunming railway station

Our first move after having breakfast was to wander over to the station (actually just over a km away) to try to buy train tickets for Chengdu.  On the way we found more lovely pedestrian district, then some big avenues that are pretty easy to walk along and cross over (compared with other places we've been recently).  In fact, nothing is hard to do here at all.  Even buying a train ticket would have been easy, were it not for a few stubborn attempts to buy them with a foreign credit card which were firmly rebuffed by the train station staff. Having got our tickets we decided to take the bus back and discovered that was also easy.  Mike took us for lunch in a hole in the wall very Chinese restaurant which he chose and discovered belatedly that the characters for basic foodstuffs are not among the ones I've mastered.  He was hard-pressed to order something that didn't contain pork and beef and wasn't sure if he succeeded in the end.  Antonia and I went for the basic 'point at a picture with the end of a broomstick' approach to communication which worked for us.

Demonstration over some dispute with the Japanese about ownership of some island or waters around it or something
After this, we went for a stroll on Jinmafang, the central pedestrian district, and discovered to our surprise that we had arrived on the day of a demonstration.  I honestly hadn't expected that in China and of course, at first we had no idea what the demonstration was about.  There were lots of police officers about, but they were behaving just as they do in France: generally facilitating the passage of the demonstrators through traffic and other pedestrians and hanging around looking visible in case things got rough.  We eventually discovered that the demonstration is over an island in the South China Sea or the waters around it.  We don't really know much more than that but we eventually found a demonstration stage right in the centre of the pedestrian area with Japanese flags crossed out and stuff like that.  We had a nice time wandering around the very expensive malls and department stores here, looking at models of incredibly expensive out-of-town real estate and 120USD pairs of trainers.  We did eventually find a shop that sold kid's trousers at no more than US prices and we were able to stock up on winter trousers for Antonia (who has done nothing but grow, since the last time we were in cool climates).  It's only going to get colder from now on.  We're already digging out our warmest jumpers, and perhaps that's why we seem to have colds.  We went back to our hostel, where I for one, slept from 5pm to 9pm.  At that point I woke up and requested aspirins, then went back to sleep until 5.30am.  I woke up feeling fine, so lots of sleep seemed to work.

Friday 14 September 2012

Day 532: Border crossing from Vietnam to China

From here....

... to here!
We woke up at 5.15 am to make the Vietnam-China border as soon as possible after it opened.  I was regarding the crossing with some trepidation, even though everyone who's done it recently says it's not a problem. And it wasn't, thanks in part to this great information from the people who went across just a bit before us.  We took a private car right up to the Vietnamese emigration building. It's a more expensive option than the shuttle buses but still reasonable for 3 people with lots of luggage and a time schedule to keep. We really wanted to get the 10.50 bus to Kunming, knowing it would still arrive pretty late, and we were going to lose an hour as we crossed the border into China.  There is really nothing to say about the emigration and immigration procedures at all.  We were ushered through efficiently by people on both sides who spoke English well enough for the purpose and a lot better than we spoke their languages.

Then we arrived in Hekou where everything is completely different. There is a barrage of Chinese characters of which I understand about 200. This is really interesting because it means the signs here are more intelligible than in Vietnam where I only understand about a dozen words. The down side is, I can only recognise those city and street names that I've memorised - so far Hekou and Kunming. Apart from that, it is much more like a European town here.  There is a pedestrianised high street, the first I've been on in over a year.  I felt so happy sauntering down it.  It is lined with boutiquey shops just like at home, that would be interesting to potter in.  The other thing I noticed when we crossed the border is how the whole ambiance changes.  This is generally true for borders in Asia, just as it is in Europe, but this was very marked.  I just spent six weeks in Vietnam and although the people are very pleasant I haven't heard people laughing and joking loudly in all that time.  As soon as I got to Yunnan, people in general are much more laid back, laughing and talking loudly and generally being laid back.

Armed with the map from our fellow travellers' site (immigration didn't give us one), it was easy to find the ATM and the shuttle bus to the out-of-town bus station.  Buying a ticket to Kunming was easy.  Finding our bus and getting on it was easy.  Even communicating wth the driver to find out if there would be a lunch stop was not too hard.  We hit on two solutions: the first was that the driver lent Mike his cellphone to talk to an English speaking friend.  We have noticed Chinese people do this very readily.  While he was doing that, I was drawing a steaming bowl with chopsticks.  Both drew the same response - we would be stopping for lunch at 3pm.

We took the day bus through Yunnan because we wanted to enjoy the scenery and generally avoid being exhausted.  Sure enough it was wonderful, first the mountains, then as we got lower down, a kind of rolling farm country which reminded me a lot of the south of France.  We started off on a smart smooth highway on which I thought the bus drove frighteningly fast (I'm not used to smooth roads anymore), then we got onto what seemed like muddy country lanes lined with plane trees.  The lunch stop was a stand at one end of a walled car park.  We bought a red ticket from a lady at one end of the stand and three ladies at the other end filled up our plates with a mixture of various things.  Fortunately it was all good. This is where we got our first taste of Yunnan toilet facilities.  Note for Americans: hole in the floor toilets don't phase us, lack of doors is a new one.  At least in this one had the stalls all in a row with partitions.  The next one had this cozy circle arrangement so you can see the people you're chatting with as you go. Hmmm... and no toilet paper, that goes without saying.  

Anyway, we arrived in Kunming about 9pm, negotiated a taxi ride with a tout who only ripped us off by about 1 USD, so that was fine and staggered into our very nice hostel (The Hump) right in the middle of Kunming's large and beautiful pedestrian district.  I love pedestrian districts!!!!

Thursday 13 September 2012

Days 529 - 531: Sapa

Waiting for the night train in Hanoi station
Sapa towm

It almost looks like someone sneaked a picture of the Chartreuse in here!
With the rice fields it looks a little different
 Sapa is a very pretty place high up in the mountains at about 1400m altitude. We arrived on the night train at about 5am and we spent most of the first day sorting out our trekking for the next two days.  We went on the standard village group trek for about 10km and a private trek of 15km which cut through slightly wilder mountains before heading down into the same valley.  We also went to Catcat which is a little village area very close to Sapa tourists are encouraged to visit by themselves.  You can of course just wander around the mountains on your own but there are no real hiking maps so it's taking pot-luck and running the risk of getting lost.  We had the same guide on both of our trekking days, a girl called Sam from one of the minority groups from this area.

Curly landscape

Antonia, Penny and Sam with umbrellas/parasols depending on need

Evening and autumn descend on the mountains