Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The missing luggage was delivered safely to the house after 10pm last night. I was asked if we were carrying back rocks by the delivery man.

After a month of travel it is pleasant to be back in our own home, back with our puppy who looks less puppyish than when we left. Yet I am not tired of travel. I still listen to the jets as they fly above our house and think about how I would like to be on them. Maybe back to Europe next time, but with a stopover somewhere in Asia.

The holiday had many highlights. In China it would be walking along the Great Wall, the serenity around the big Buddha in Leshan and watching pandas play in Chengdu. Despite all the pushing peasants and taxi touts, we also met some lovely, helpful people in China. Hong Kong's fun came from the precarious transport up to the Peak and Lantau. Japan had quiet walks, cherry blossoms, volcanos and cities of neon.

We will visit all those countries again, if we get a chance to. Each is different and each has far more to see than we have yet seen.

But now it's time to enjoy the relatively unpolluted skies of Australia, to eat better yum cha than in Hong Kong and fish without bones. And I'll keep on dreaming of that next holiday...

Monday, April 9, 2007


After one month travelling through China, Hong Kong and Japan on plane, train, cable car, trishaw and whatever else you can imagine we have finally made it home again. It is always nice to return to your own home, a place where everything is familiar.

Almost everything is familiar. Where once there was lawn now there was a jungle and the green waste bin wasn't large enough to hold all the clippings when I returned it to its former state.

Our final day in Tokyo started with me running around to find the Kinko's in West Shinjuku to print out our Cathay Pacific online check-in documents. We then checked out of the hotel and caught the subway to the Tsukiji fish markets to find more dried seafood.

I guess that the markets are closed on Sundays because there was only one dried seafood stall. The rest of the open shops were sushi restaurants for the tourists.

As usual we were running late and overloaded for the Narita Express. My backpack frame had broken, so I was forced to drag my 25 kilogram back along the ground. Judging by the black dust on bottom of the bag I was doing a service for Shinjuku in cleaning up the floor.

The flights back to Sydney were pretty fun, with only a few rough periods. The food was delicious and I had not seen the Little Britain Abroad episode on the IFE. The Cathay crew were very helpful, the air fresh enough for me. If only we had those lie flat first class bed maybe I could have had a good sleep on the plane.

Instead I saw the stars for the first time in a month, watched a meteor burn up in the atmosphere. Below the bright lamps of the shrimp and squid fleets were brighter than any stellar reflections. I knew when we were passing Taipei because the cloud cover below suddenly took on a glowing red tinge, like a hidden hell. Lightning flashed in the clouds over Indonesia, natures fireworks.

As we crossed into Australia I watched the sunrise beneath the clouds, turning the cloudscape into a desert scene. Then I felt the plane shake as we passed into the clouds themselves.

Unfortunately, my big bag did not appear on the luggage belt at Sydney Airport. I hope it has not disappeared into the hand of thieves because some of the contents are difficult to obtain in Australia. Plus my dirty laundry could be considered a weapon of mass destruction... oh, now it makes sense. I'll keep my eye out for people in sunglasses following me.

The holiday is over and it is back to work tomorrow. Now for sleep!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Saying goodbye to Japan

This will probably be the last post from Japan. This afternoon we catch the Narita Express to the airport, a flight to Hong Kong, then straight onwards to Sydney. As I said before, I will miss Japan, miss travelling. But it will also be nice to be home, to see our dog again, to see friends.

I am not looking forward to doing housework again, to our garden or to the routine which rules our everyday lives. Each time we travel we bring back with us new memories and new ideas. There is always something positive to take away from each location. The grass may not always be greener on the other side, but it does offer a new perspective.

So goodbye Japan for now. I'm hope we'll be back in the future.

A walk in the park

It took until the second last day, but I found it! No, not the singing toilet. Its location is still unknown. I'm talking about Gokuri, Miracle of Grapefruit. This drink sustained me during our first visit to a hot and humid Tokyo. Since then it seems to have disappeared from the vending machines that dot the landscape.

On the last trip I found Gokuri in a vending machine at Matsumoto Station, minutes from our train's departure. This morning we were walking down the North Eastern entrance into Shinjuku Station when we came upon a shop called ranKing ranQueen. This chain of stores (also spotted in Shibuya) only sells the "Top 5" items in a variety of categories from drink (Gokuri was only number 4!?!?!) to cellulite removers. So Tokyoites, remember to keep Gokuri's ranking high, because I have no idea where else I can buy it!

We've been meaning to visit the Shinjuku National Garden (Gyoen) for a long time and today we finally made it through the crowded gates. The sunny, warm weather was perfect for lying under the cherry blossoms and thousands of locals appeared to agree. We weren't complaining, mind you, because they lent a festive and friendly air to the park as they savoured sushi and sake on their big blue mats. The park was big enough to share with everyone.

Like Mount Fuji, it is difficult to understand the Japanese obsession with cherry blossoms until you see them for yourself. The Shinjuku gardens house many types of fruit blossoms in different shades of pink and white. Petals drifted softly to the ground or covered the surface of ponds. Clear spaces in the waters reflected the images of the overhanging cherry blossom trees, while the light upon the paths was filtered through the green and red Spring foliage of the maple trees.

The park is a beautiful, restful place that feels like it is miles away from the neon cacophany of urban Shinjuku.

Just for a change, we caught the train to Shibuya, ate yummy Japanese burgers and shopped in the cheap Shibuya 109 department store. Nearby, Tower Records has an amazing range of limited edition soundtracks while Seibu Loft is full of interesting things for the home and office. Browsing Japanese shops is a lot of fun, both for the wierd range of goods on sale and the people who shop there.

Shinjuku's north entrance was noisier than usual tonight with a politician holding a rally. It's local election time in Japan. It's a pity, because I had enjoyed escaping New South Wales prior to the state election, with all the awful advertising.

I can't believe that this is our last night here. I look out our window and see a rainbow of neon, pulsing and flashing with life. I'll miss that.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Snow, Streams and Steam at Hakone

Each gust of wind covered us in a cloud of rotten-egg gas. The landscape was stony and bare, except for paths of leafless shrubs. Grey water bubbled from steaming vents in the ground. Behind us Mt Fuji loomed large, covered in snow and cloud.

We were at Owakudani, a dormant volcano whose collapsed sides had exposed springs of steaming sulpherous water. Hirohide-san had kindly picked us up from Hakone-Yumoto station and driven us up into the mountains. Hot springs steamed out of the rock besides the road as we neared Owakudani, itself visible from afar by the white clouds coming directly from the mountainside. Yet we could also see patches of melting winter snows. It was the three phases of water at once!

Even more impressive was the sight of Mount Fuji. We were fortunate, for almost the entire mountain, including the summit, was visible. It is truly an awesome sight, looming large over the countryside with nothing else besides it to diminish its height.

We ate eggs boiled in the hot springs of Owakudani. The iron and sulphides in the water had reacted with the proteins to stain them black, but they tasted great.

Our next stop was over and through the mountains to Gotemba, Hirohide's pretty home town. I had met Hirohide, or Hiro as he preferred to be called, while on my morning walk to work in 2005. Hiro is a researcher and lecturer at Numazu University, but was spending ten months in Australia as a visiting researcher at my workplace. He had kindly offered to take leave from work and show us around his local area.

Gotemba is also the home of major Japanese and US military bases and we passed helicopter gunships sitting on the tarmac and flying overhead. It seems an awful waste to place military baes in the area, for it has such spectacular views of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately, snow thwarted Hiro's attempt to drive us up to the base of the mountain, although the views of the winter landscape were worthwhile in themselves.

We ate a delicious lunch of tonkatsu (crumbed pork). I have never tasted pork so tender and sweet as this. We were given a mortar and pestle to grind roasted sunflower seeds, to which we added a sweet tonkatsu sauce. Great fun!

Steep and winding roads lead us to the area of Hakone that appears in all the photographs, the big caldera lake called Ashi. Motorised cruise boats disguised as paddle steamers or sailess men of war roam the lake with a cargo of tourists. Besides the lake near the town of Moto-Hakone is the famous red and black torii, others mark the entrance and exit to the town.

Part of the old Tokaido road between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto lies besides the lake, marked by giant cedar pines. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate the wives and children of local nobles were kept at the capital of Edo and the nobles themselves were required to visit Edo every alternate year. The movements of weapons and soldiers was strictly controlled to prevent rebellion.

We visited a reproduction of one of the Imperial checkpoints along the road. Here, samurai and other officials monitored the movement of people along the Tokaido road, paying particular attention to the children and wives of nobles. The nearby museum, well worth a visit for the many artifacts on display, told the tale of a young girl who tried to return to her homeland to see her father and was executed by the soldiers at the checkpoint. Women who supported illegal travellers could be cast into slavery, the men tatooed for their crimes.

Nearby to the museum is a pretty park with great views of the lake and, if weather permits, Mt Fuji. By this time the clouds had closed in and the great volcanic mountain was no longer visible. But we had seen it and were more than satisfied.

Hiro drove us back to Hakone-Yumoto, which looks to be a lovely little town built in a mountain vallery around a burbling stream. It was wonderful to have a local guide and Hiro ensured that we saw many areas that may have been a bit troublesome to see otherwise. It's always fun to talk to someone who lives in the country you are visiting!

Our Odakyu "Romance Car" train took us all the way back to Shinjuku station in comfort. We wandered around neon Shinjuku, visiting the "youth" 0101City department store. The basement houses Diamante Jesus, a store for Barbie Doll wannabes, while from Level 4 upwards are clothes and shoes for the cuties, goths and punks that gather in Harajuku on Sundays.

The Japanese make Australian fashions, in fact anywhere else in the world, look positively boring. If you tried to wear in Sydney what they do here the conservative locals would probably charge you with something. I'm going to miss the colour and craziness of the people and the cities when I return to Australia. I have to admit that it is not something I am looking forward to. It's nice to be able to walk the streets late at night and enjoy the zany atmosphere without worrying that some drunk or druggy is going to mug you. And its like this every night, not just for Thursday late night shopping!

I can't believe that this holiday is almost over. I don't want it to end. I just want to sit in this hotel room and gaze out over insane Shinjuku, then nip out for a quick but delicious sushi or soba and to walk amongst the cherry blossoms in the park.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Searching for the Singing Loo in Shinjuku

Ever since we spotted a picture of this moving, singing toilet in a book we've wanted to see it for ourselves. All I knew was that the Ten Chi toilet was in the Lemina Building located somewhere in Shijuku.

Our search began in West Shinjuku on the 26th floor of the L building. According to the Lonely Planet the Toto Super Space showroom was located here. Toto make those arse-warming-and-washing toilets used across Japan. I love them, our hotel room has one and it certainly saves on toilet paper.

The showroom was a pretty staid bathroom fixtures display, the nearest working toilets nothing more exciting than your average Japanese loo.

The sky was as blue and as clear as it has been through all of our time in Asia, the chilly air invigorating (to me, B was just cold). What better opportunity to spot Mt Fuji from Tokyo? So we caught the lift up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower 1.

I thought I spotted Mt Fuji, but it wasn't as obvious as with our trip up to Matsumoto last year. No matter, we'll be in the area tomorrow visiting Hakone. However, the views across Tokyo were fantastic. Most buildings in Tokyo are low to the ground due to the danger from Earthquakes. Shinjuku is a more stable geological location and there were a number of skyscrapers around us. Helipads and the railway tracks of the window cleaners' apparatus were visible on their roofs.

Crossing back over to East Shinjuku the remainder of the day was spent mainly on shopping, though we did search for the Lemina buidling out in front of the Mitsukoshi Department Store. Better luck next time! I didn't check my watch often enough and we missed out on going for a walk amongst the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Park (last entry 4pm). Hopefuly we will get another chance on the weekend. I feel much more exhausted from the shopping than the sightseeing.

I really admire the quality and elegance of many Japanese goods. We visited a furniture store and most of the furniture looked simple, yet very classy. The food, both local and western is prepared and presented well. Their average bakery/patisserie item is as delicious as anything similar we ate in France. The fruits (I'm munching strawberries now) are top quality. Tonight's sushi was incredibly flavoursome.

One failing would have to be the television here. Such nice TV sets, such crap programs. Just saw the Japanese version of Deal or No Deal. No pissing or chilli eating contests at all! In fact I haven't seen a single one of those classic Japanese gameshows since we arrived. Do we just get back too late?

Whatever my complaints about Japanese television, they pale in comparison to what I think of CNN. So little news in so much time! No mention at all of the disaster in the Solomon Islands, yet endless "analysis" and updates about the British soldiers' return from Iran. They could show news from across the world, yet all they do is focus on US non-news, terrorism and the Middle East. Even Channel 10 news is more informative. If this is the type of news that Americans watch at home then it is no wonder that they seem so ignorant. It's a pity that there are no other English language channels here at the hotel.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Karma Kamakura

Inside the cave locals placed their coins in the small wicker baskets and ladled the Zeniarai Benten shrine's spring waters over the basket, soaking the money. Legend says that the money will be bring great returns once spent.

As Australians we had a great advantage over the locals. A plastic fifty dollar note. No worries getting that wet!

The Odakyo Line's rapid express to Fujisawa was a glorified suburban train with squashed inward facing seats. Not great for sightseeing, but the departure point was close to the hotel. After yet another late night that was very important as it meant we could wake up that much later (but still too early).

At Fujisawa we changed to a tramway called the the Enoshima Dentetsu or Enoden line. This is a cute little train that runs through a narrow path, giving passengers a good view of some lovely little house gardens. After Enoshima the Enoden line runs along the coast. We watched locals attempting to surf in near non-existent waves. They were probably too busy enjoying the sunny weather to care.

Disembarking at Hase station we walked up to the Hasedera temple, with its large wooden "kannon" (Buddha statue). The temple gardens are very pretty with many spring flowers and a wonderful view across the bay.

A lunch of soba noodles, tempura and rice recharged the batteries. It's the first time we have had both on this trip to Japan. Last time I went crazy over soba, especially the cold zaru soba.

The Daibatsu, an 11 metre high bronze statue of Buddha was not as impressive as the Lantau island statue in Hong Kong, although its history is more interesting. It was originally enclosed within a wooden temple, but this was washed away in a tsunami.

After one false start we took the Daibatsu hiking course northwards. The initial steep steps upwards were daunting, but the serenity and beauty of the surroundings quickly overcame the misgivings. The path wound its way up along the hill ridges, thick exposed tree roots a constant tripping hazard.

We passed under green and red maples, pink cherry blossoms and a forest of cyprus pines. Above us falcons circled, while other birds sung a constant symphony. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in Japan.

The trail emerged into a quaint (and undoubtedly expensive) little community with spectacular views over the ocean. The Kuzuharaoka Jinja marked the end of our walk along the trail, the shrine appearing to be more of a picnic spot and blossom appreciation location than place of religious significance.

The road down to the Zeniarai Benten shrine was steep and guaranteed that we were not climbing back up. There we washed our fifty dollar note and admired the huge koi. You don't see koi that size in China it seems. Probably eaten.

One more shrine interrupted our walk to Kamakura station: the Sasuke-jinja had a classic path of torii, though some were new and unpainted, while others had rotted away. The lead up to a peaceful set of shrines, adorned with many dog statues.

The Enoden line returned us from Kamakura to Fujisawa, from where we caught the train back to Shinjuku and a evening trip to Yodobashi Camera and a dinner of Japanese curry. No little laptops as cute as the one I'm typing on.

Kamakura is a really pretty place to visit. The Daibatsu trail provided a total contrast to the flashing lights and crowds of Shinjuku. There are many aspects to Japan and it's well worth trying to explore as many as you can.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Let's go Kawagoe!

Imagine eighty people dragging a four tonne three storey wooden float down a street. On the float musicians are playing flutes and striking drums, while at the top a human sized doll watches over the proceedings. Now imagine twenty-nine of these floats parading past centuries old Japanese architecture through streets lined with tens of thousands of onlookers.

It would be spectacular to be in Kawagoe during the Autumn festival. But October is a long time away, so the town dubbed "Little Edo" was a lot quieter today. The black, grey and brown Edo-era tiled warehouses have been converted into shops selling a good range of souveniers, dried foods and sweets, many derived from the long purple skinned potatoes that seem to be the theme ingredient of the town.

In lieu of the festival I visited the Kawagoe Festival Museum, where a couple of floats are displayed, along with audio-visual presentations. The old staff in the museum are eager to share their knowledge through the language barrier. It's surprisingly interesting.

We walked through the chilly rain to the Kitain Temple. We were starving by this stage, for we hd not eaten lunch and it was after three. For the second time a hanami matsuri (cherry blossom festival) came to our rescue. There were lamps and tents set up amongst the temple ground cherry trees. We ate yakitori (skewers) and yakisoba (fried noodles) under the tent.

The temple grounds are home to the Gohyaku-Rakan statues, 538 disciples of the Buddha carved from stone. Their postures and expressions are almost comical.

The train to and from Kawagoe left from right under our Shinjuku hotel. It was pleasant to get out of the city and pass through the suburbs, with their tiny manicured gardens and snapshots of daily Japanese life. One the way back a group of teenage girls dressed in exquisite kimonos boarded the train.

At Kawagoe station we saw a vending machine selling a Yakult drink called "Thorpedo" with Ian Thorpe's face plastered all over it. So does it contain any performance enhancing drugs?

I'm surprised the Kawagoe isn't mentioned in the Lonely Planet. The JNTO representative recommended it to us and we agree, it's a very interesting little town to visit and convenient too!

Back in Shinjuku, B had a hair cut while I bought up N-gauge model railway parts at Sakuraya. Amazing how cheap and how good the N-gauge stuff is in Japan. I'm looking to setup a miniature version of our rail trip to Takayama last year, as a reminder of our holidays.

More trains tomorrow, this time to Enoshima and Kamakura.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Venus on Planet Tokyo

A shopping centre decked out like an old Italian town, complete with painted sky and uniformed attendants marching with glowing red batons. It's Venus Fort, located in the Odaiba area of Tokyo, adjacent to a multistorey showcase of Toyota cars which includes an automated car driving a indoor circuit. It's quirky Tokyo with a cafe that serves a delicious cup of hot white chocolate.

We arrived at Aomi station in an automated "monorail" on the Yurikamome Line. It's more like a bus constrained to a path as there are no rails as such. Still, the views from the elevated "track" are great, showing off Tokyo's harbour area and Rainbow Bridge (which just looked white to me, even in the evening). It makes a nice change from the lack of views on the subways.

After waking up late in the morning, just in time for the included hot buffet breakfast, we caught the subway to the Ginza area so we could pay a visit to the helpful Japan National Tourism Office (JNTO) for maps and brochures. It beats whipping out the big all-Japan Lonely Planet.

From Ginza we walked past impossibly expensive brand shops down to the Tsukiji Fish Markets. B ate a lunch of mixed sashimi (raw fish) on rice. I've tried sashimi, but would rather not eat it if I can help it. Don't like the taste or texture.

The small produce and fish stalls around the markets were closing by 2:30pm, so we walked to Shiodome and caught the monorail. The rest of the day was spent browsing the clothing stores. I'll get my chance to see electronics soon. And sightseeing begins again shortly, which I am greatly looking forward to.

Star Wars Lego is even cheaper in Japan than Hong Kong. Why is Australia so expensive?

It was strange reading the Sydney Morning Herald this morning and seeing a tsunami warning issued for the Eastern coastline. I'd expect that for here. There was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake last week. Hopefully the plate tectonics will be taking it easy for the next week.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Konnichi wa Nihon!

We said goodbye to Hong Kong today and hello to Tokyo today. The Airport Express to Hong Kong airport was fast and comfortable. Though it was nice to get some cash back we were a bit sorry to return the Octopus cards. These stored value cards were not only used as tickets on the MTR and trams, but also for purchases in bakeries, supermarkets and other shops. So nice not to fumble for change. Sydney is long overdue for this technology.

Both of our Cathay Pacfic flights have been superb, with the exception of the food. The entertainment system wasn't working properly on this flight and was rebooted a number of times. This seems to be a common problems across airlines.

Our flight path took us near a number of storm clouds and things got bumpy as we skimmed along the high altitude cloud tops. Seems to be a common problem for flying north across the Pacific.

Caught the Narita Express to Shinjuku for the seventh time, it is all very familiar to us now. That's the nice thing about staying here in Shinjuku. There's a lot to see (and many places to shop), but we know our way around and we can relax now. Upon entering the hotel room we had a pleasant surprise. What was once a slightly run down beige and white room with a great view is now a hip looking space complete with a widescreen LCD TV and, still with a fantastic view. Cool!

We saw many cherry blossoms on our ride into Tokyo, so hopefully we'll get a chance to walk amongst them during our stay here.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bonkers in Honkers

I told B that we should go sightseeing during the weekdays so that the sights would not be crowded with locals. It's the weekend and I don't think any local was sightseeing. No, they were out shopping like us. Such crowds!

No sightseeing for us during our last full day in Hong Kong. Instead we did the local thing and hit the streets in search of bargains. After a late breakfast of congee (rice porridge), yiew tiao (deep fried dough stick) and a deliciously smooth milk custard (ty the ginger flavour!) we set out.

Our quest started nearby to the hotel at the Jade Market. Which is real, which is fake? Neither of us like jade jewellry much and the nicer statues are expensive. Next was browsing the "factory outlets" at Sham Shui Po. They are all local brands and not very nice.

Apliu Street, also at Sham Shui Po, is sort of a Hong Kong street market version of Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town. Stalls and shops selling all sort of electronic goods. The nearby Golden Computer Arcade was completely packed with young shoppers and computer shops. I felt a primal male urge to aquire some of the flashing lights and shiny computer cases for myself, but just couldn't find a need. Besides which, Tokyo awaits.

At the top of Sham Shui Po's Dragon shopping centre was an amusement park with a currently non-operational rollercoaster and ice rink. A local boy band was making an appearance at the shopping centre and lots of young girls were gathered around the vantage points.

Next, Mong Kok yet again. Too many choices for cameras, phones and other electronic goods. The streets were packed with people, the atmosphere overwhelming. Shoes, sports clothes, again too many choices, though not always to our taste. The Esprit Salon provided some relief, while B had her eyebrows done I was treated to a complimentary soft-drink and a seat. That's an innovation I would like to see in Australia!

On our way back to our local area we stopped again at a multilevel shopping centre filled with tiny stores selling anime and gaming paraphenalia. A few shops sold photos and posters of young idols. I regressed to childhood and purchased some Star Wars Lego - very cheap - to display in my work area. Why didn't they have Star Wars lego when I was 8 years old? It would have made choosing birthday presents much easier.

At the Temple Street Market I found a stall selling rip-off Star Wars figurines amongst a wide range of other cartoon and movie characters. One bag held a good selection, except that a figurine inside had a white hand printed on his head. Perhaps a member of Count Dooku's mob?

I do sound like a nerd, don't I.

We ate a dinner of radish cake, pippies and stir-fry at an open air restaurant besides the market, helping some British tourists, here for the Rugby Sevens tournament, to order. [Bugger, just saw John Howard on the TV again. Isn't there any escape???]. The most amazing thing about today was that we only took two photos, and they were just before we returned to the hotel!

We've enjoyed staying in Hong Kong, though it does feel like time for a change. There is lots more to see and next time I would like to walk some of the heritage trails in the New Territories and on the islands.

Next stop Tokyo, Japan!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Hanging by a thread

The thread was more of a fat steel cable and there was more than one of them, but it still looked small in comparison to the height above ground. We were travelling on the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to the Tian Tan Buddha statue looking over Lantau Island. The entire ride takes about 25 minutes.

When you see the cable car in front of you suddenly accelerate down the cable you think you are in for a rollercoaster ride. The truth is much milder. Even the winds closer to the summit didn't trouble the car greatly.

Suspended high above the ground we were treated to spectacular views of the ocean, airport and scrub below. There is a trail that follows much of the cable's route, but more people were seen running down than up. As we neared the summit tombs were seen built into the mountain, good feng shui according to an older Hong Kong resident in our cabin. However, the most awe inspiring view is of the cable system's route as it soars up the mountains. It's not for people scared of heights.

There was low cloud blowing in arround the Buddha statue, mostly obscuring it from view. Tian Tan is the largest outdoor Buddha statue in the world and requires the climbing of 260 steps in order to reach the base. Closer up, the passing mist lent a mystical air to the Buddha, his kindly face looking down upon us.

After another, slightly less spectacular due to the cloud, ride back down the mountain in the cable car we arrived at the CityGate Outlet Centre. B found a couple of things to purchase in the outlet shop, after which we caught the MTR back to our hotel area and wandered until late through the Temple Street and Ladies Markets, eating dinner in a hawker centre.

I should mention lunch (which was also breakfast due to our laziness). We had a second Yum Cha lunch. Again there were no carts and instead we had to order from a menu. Also again was that the flavours didn't seem as good as in most Sydney yum cha restaurants and we were distinctly disappointed.

Last full day in Hong Kong tomorrow. It's been wonderful to stay in a city that is so easy to traverse by public transport and foot. Not certain what we will do tomorrow, but I'm sure we'll have fun.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

All manner of transport

During our time on this trip we have caught all manner of transport, from a trishaw in Beijing to the Maglev in Shanghai. We've been on a hydrofoil on the Yangtze and a couple of sleeper trains across China. And many flights with more to come.

Today was special for the number of different modes of transport we caught in a single day, the day that we left China proper and returned to Hong Kong.

1. Taxi

The taxi drivers wanted RMB100 for the trip from the hotel to Guilin's airport and refused to use the meter. We knew from experience that this was a blatant rip-off. The concierge haggled down to RMB80 and we took it, with time running out. It's a pity to have to suffer cheating on your final day in a country. We met many honest, decent Chinese people, but also quite a few out to rip us off.

2. Aircraft

A China Southern flight took us from Guilin to Shenzhen. Though pretty smooth, the seat pitch was the narrowest of the Chinese carriers and we were each only given a small bottle of water and face wipe. Perhaps this was due to the shortness of the flight - only 50 minutes. Unfortunately, the skies over Guilin were overcast and smoggy so we missed out on the spectacular views from the incoming flight.

3. Minibus

Our original intention was to do some shopping around the land border crossing area into Hong Kong, but when presented with the option of going directly to Hong Kong from the airport decided to take that easier option. We were packed into a minibus for the short ride to Shenzhen's ferry terminal.

4. Catamaran

The TurboJET to Hong Kong was a comfortable, modern and fast catamaran that raced us through the placid Pearl Delta to Kowloon. We passed tiny, dingy fishing vessels, small container boats with their own cranes, bigger ships and even a drilling rig. The closer we approached Hong Kong, the more the pollution appeared to subside.

5. Walking

We lugged our two heavy backpacks and one day pack from the ferry terminal to Tsim Sha Tsui. They had definitely increased in weight since the start of our journey. The air in Hong Kong was warm and humid, fresher too compared with mainland China.

6. Mass Transit Railway (MTR)

Tsim Sha Tsui to Yau Ma Tei is only two stations by the underground, but any decrease in walking time was appreciated. The Octopus stored value cards make it so easy.

A quick walk to our hotel, the Dorsett Seaview, same as before, then out again for a lunch of noodles and wonton. Then back to the MTR for a ride to Central on Hong Kong Island.

There we purchased some dried scallops for B's mother and wandered around Hollywood Street, admiring antiques and jade far out of our price range.

7. Escalator

The longest pedestrian escalator in the world is actually a series of smaller escalators with breaks allowing people to join and depart on the ride up to the "Mid-levels". It went on and on and on, but was pretty interesting for the views of the shops and residential towers alongside.

8. Walking again

From the top of the escalator at conduit road we walked East and downhill through part of the botanical and zoological gardens. You could tell that it was a very expensive area, green and pleasant with quite a few expatriates.

9. Cable tram

The cable drawn tram ride to the Peak is quite an adventure, rising very steeply at 27 degrees at some points. How anyone can ride standing I don't know. The evening views from the Peak Lookout Tower looking out over Hong Kong Island's cityscape were spectacular, but cloud was just starting to obscure them from the top. It was as if a smoke machine was blown over the top of the tower, the lower levels were beneath the cloud.

The ride down again was even scarier, with all passengers seated backwards. B felt sick afterwards.

10. MTR again

A quick metro ride between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui got us there in time to watch the city skyline lightshow from the Promenade. Green laser beams and white spotlights shot out from the tops of the buildings many of which had colourful light displays on their structures.

It was quite as spectacular as I had hoped, but still quite beautiful.

11. Walking yet again

We walked back along Nathan Road towards our hotel. We chose to return here for the surrounding night markets and local restaurants. Tonight we decided to have a change from Chinese food and ended up in a restaurant where the food was prepared and served factory style. Edible, but not great.

It is a relief to be back in Hong Kong after spending two weeks in mainland China. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of wonderful sights we saw and great people we met in China. There were also many negatives. It's a tiring place to travel in and I think we just need some time now to relax in a modern locations where we can catch public transport to the sights and not need to rely on others to drive us around and to speak the language for us. I'm pretty certain that we will return to China again one day, but not for a little while at least.

Tomorrow we may add to our tally of transportation types with a cable car ride up to the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island.


We have experienced every type of pollution during our time in China. Air pollution so bad we can barely speak our throats are so irritated. The water we drink is always boiled or bottled. And as for visual pollution, well the list of ugliness is endless here.

Guilin's air has been the cleanest of our time in China, the water is still dodgy, but the city is actually relatively attractive visually, with the karsts, parks and waterways. Our problem has been noise pollution.

Our first night here was disturbed when a group of Cantonese speakers arrived on our floor. They left their doors open and the old women played mahjong, shrieking at maximum volume late into the night. I shut the door on one group and asked them to be quiet, but they just ignored me.

That's the typical Chinese culture for you. It's so competitive that everyone looks after themselves and ignores everyone else's needs. Want a ticket? Ignore the queue and push in while the clerk is serving someone else. Driving a car? It's up to the crossing pedestrians to get out of the way. Or just take up the entire lane in your slow vehicle. And everyone likes your voice, of course they do, because you are the most important person in the world and everyone should listen to what you say.

Unfortunately, I have increasingly viewed this kind of behaviour in Sydney. Especially amongst iPod users on trains.

We went from a room with a fantastic view of the karsts to one with poor views. And no internet access. I am pissed off!

The noise pollution didn't end when we left the hotel this morning for our cruise along the Li River to Yangshuo. Sitting at our table on the boat were older Americans from the Midwest. Of course, they had to constantly verbalise. Talk, talk, talk, talk. They seemed nice enough, but the gorgeous scenery outside lent itself to quiet contemplation, not self-involved conversation. Thankfully it was a bit quieter above deck.

The taxi drivers in Guilin have been quite annoying, demanding set fees and even petrol money at the end over a metered fare. They wanted to charge us RMB100 for the ride to Zhujiang Pier. By the meter it was RMB68.40, a significant saving. The hotel concierge staff can be quite helpful in this regard.

The ride out to the pier was very interesting, passing rice paddies, stone carving villages, buffaloes and a huge pig standing in the road.

A great parade of boats left the docks for the river cruise. The karst scenery was quite otherworldly. I expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the trees at any moment. The karsts are limestone, the remnants of ancient shellfish, arround which the stone has eroded away, dissolved by the carbonic acid in water and due to vegetation. Interestingly, this is one process by which carbon dioxide in naturally removed from the atmosphere.

We passed bamboo rafts, caves high up the side of the mountains and stalactites growing from above the riverbanks where run-off has dripped down. Buffaloes, ducks and geese wallowed in the shallows, the possessions of the riverside village occupants.

The cruise ticket included a buffet lunch, mainly Chinese food, though the Americans were delighted with the french fries and “Twinkies” (whatever they are). We enjoyed the sweet kumquats, miniature citrus fruit, so much we purchased a bag from a streetside vendor later on.

After all the hype Yangshuo was a disappointment. Lots of tourist good shops, lots of the same old shops existing anywhere in China. At least the shopkeepers were less aggressive than elsewhere, probably understanding westerners' aversion to such tactics.

We visited KFC for its toilets (clean, but squat only for men) and ate some yummy peach egg tarts – different to Australia! Many attractive karsts dot the town, but we had had our fill and had no energy to climb (I am still busy sniffling away). So we caught a bus back to Guilin.

The bus ride was slow, bumpy and dusty. The noise pollution continued with the driver's frequent sounding of the horn. Despite this, we still fell asleep for some of the ride.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. Unremarkable, except that a couple of musicians were playing the lute and Chinese harp, the guzheng, both beautiful instruments.

Tomorrow we leave for Shenzhen and Hong Kong. I'll be glad to be leaving China proper and indeed I'm looking forward now to Japan, a country of manners and cleanliness. China has been a very interesting experience, but it is wearying and it's time now for a holiday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

No update

Network doesn't work in our new room so no update tonight. Noisy Cantonese drove us out. Will take revenge tomorrow in HK.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Floating on air

Is 431km/h the fastest we have ever travelled on land? I'm not certain it counts as we were actually floating above the ground. Today we caught the Maglev, the magnetic levitation train, between Shanghai and Pudong Airport.

I think we finally worked out Shanghai metro's ticketing system. You can't reuse your ticket when interchanging between Line 3 and Line 1 at Shanghai station. But you can when interchanging between Lines 3, 4 and 2! It was a roundabout way to get to the airport and, at RMB50 per person for the Maglev ride, perhaps not the cheapest. But it was a fun, if shortlived, pleasure.

The amazing thing about the Maglev is how smooth and unnoticable the acceleration is. I've caught both the Shinkansen and TGV and neither were as smooth as the Maglev. Wish we could travel to work on one!

The flight between Shanghai and Guilin was the best yet of this trip. Shanghai Airlines seemed okay, though sometimes their English announcements were garbled and the coconut cream roll as a bit stale. The KitKat was good, though. I had forgotten how good chocolate tastes.

I thoroughly recommend a daytime flight to Guilin. The approach over the limestone karsts and the shimmering mosaics of the rice paddy fields was spectacular. It was the sunniest weather all trip, though the smog layer was always visible.

Our room at the Guishan Hotel has wonderful views of limestone karsts. The grounds also seem quite pleasant. We walked down to the local shops, purchasing tiny sweet mangos and bananas from the market vendors, ordered meat and tofu skewers with the help of some giggling schoolgirls.

Dinner was delicious guilin rice noodles and fried fish in a sweet and sour style sauce. Guilin seems to be a relaxed (except for the traffic) small city and a pleasant place for an evening walk.

Off on a Li River cruise to Yanghshuo tomorrow.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Route Canal

Canals evoke the image of romantic travel in me. We passed through part of China's extensive canal network during our approach to Shanghai. It looked very much alive, with barges and low boats carrying raw materials and finished products. Old wooden sampans moored beside decaying buildings or under low bridges illustrated the long history of China's canals, dating back a thousand years or more. So I was looking forward to visiting Zhouzhang, one of the area's famous Water Towns and threaded by canals.

The town itself is quite attractive, with narrow pedestrian (and bicycle) only streets of local brick, but the effect was ruined by the aggressive shopkeepers occupying almost every building. They all sold the same thing, silk crafts, wood carvings, paintings, pig trotters. Worse were the restaurant touts, each advertising the same meal, each trying to get you inside.

There were some pleasant spots, the Quanfu temple with its outlook on to the lake, the lute playing at the Ancient Opera Stage (before a performance of Chinese opera drove us off) and, best of al, Zhang's House, a maze of rooms and small garden scenes.

We took a gondola ride through the canals, which was very pleasant, until the driver started singing badly and demanding money for it.

Our pogo-stick bus ride back to Shanghai was interrupted by a detour to a silk shop where we were treated to a fashion show complete with catwalk an coloured spot lights. Hilarious really. None of the foreign tourists bought anything, but I think the Chinese enjoyed it.

Maybe the smallpox button in the hotel room didn't give me that virtually extinct disease, but I have had a very sore throat all day. Not surprising with all the pollution and Chinese habit of sharing phlegm. So I wasn't in the happiest of moods today and the touts didn't help.

I found the canals we passed during the bus ride back to Shanghai far more evocative. I think that Suzhou may have been a better choice to see these, along with the gardens. Next time maybe...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Bizarre and the Bazaar

It's much less effort to walk ten kilometres of the Great Wall than to spend an hour standing around clothes shopping. Oh my sore feet! At least the pain in the hip [pocket] was only mild, this being China.

We were both feeling much better about China after a good rest and late morning! The hotel is very clean and the rooms appear fresh, but I do have my concerns. There is a switch on the light control board labelled Smallpox. It turns on the downlights, but what else might it do?

Even if the hotel could be a site for biological terrorism, it is convenient. We booked our flight on the 27th to Guilin in the Shanghai Airlines office in the lobby. The flight was picked to depart from Pudong Airport, giving us an excuse to catch the Maglev.

A branch of the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus group is also just over the road from us, so we booked a day trip to Zhouzhang tomorrow. I also wanted to see the gardens of Suzhou, but combining this (an easy train ride) with a trip to a canal town looks troublesome, so it's on the list for a future visit.

After the booking we engaged in that most exciting of activities, crossing a Shanghai street. Still alive, we bought tickets on the light rail back to People's Square. We just don't get how the single trip tickets work. We ask to go to People's Square, but have to exits to change to the subway at Shanghai Station. At that point the tickets are eaten by the gate. We then need to queue and buy more tickets for the subway. I'm certain that we are doing something wrong, but what?

Watching the locals board the empty subway carriages at Shanghai Station's subway is hilarious. They prime themselves when the train pulls up, then sprint (well, they would sprint if they had room to do so) and push inside as soon as the doors open, in order to grab the precious plastic seats. Anything to "win" against other people I suspect.

From People's Square we walked south, then east, our objective being the Shanghai Old Street and Yuyuan Gardens. We turned off into one narrow, busy street with a number of "Islamic restaurants". A beggar dragging a monkey tied by the wrist asked for money. The poor monkey looked unhealthy with raw red patches. It was an awful sight.

On impulse we had lunch at the Xin Jiang Yi Li Can Ting Islamic restaurant and asked the waitress to recommend some dishes. We thought we had ordered too much, but ended up just eating too much. Delicious roast mutton melting off the bone, served with red onion and carrot. Chicken in a red stew, like a curry, strongly flavoured. A rice pilaf with carrots and stewed in mutton broth, so full of flavour. The second best meal in China after the Leshan river fish.

Shanghai Old Street is a tourist trap lined with souvenier stalls, but we couldn't resist purchasing some momentoes, prices haggled far down. Noisy, busy, but still quite fun.

Depsite the many tour groups the Yuyuan Gardens provided a respite from the noise outside. I love the way there are so many hidden paths to follow in a Chinese garden, the framed views, the water, stone and bamboo. It was wonderful to sit down and relax.

Outside the Yuyuan Gardens we braved the crowds once more, but there was no way we would fit on the famous zigzag bridge to the teahouse - it was packed. Instead we walked onwards to the Bund and then down into the sightseeing tunnel.

The tunnel underneath the Huangpu River is super tacky, but fun. A cable car on rails takes you through a light show complete with lasers and those inflatable figures that flap around outside of car yards.

We emerged near the Oriental Pearl Tower, the symbol of modern Shanghai. B was wondering when she would get a chance to go shopping. I told her that we would catch a subway under the river to Huaihai Lu, so we walked in the direction of the station. Then, opposite the Pearl Tower entrance she saw a magical sign: Sephora. Then Zara. Her two most favouritest shops in all of Europe.

My feet were ready to collapse by the time we had dinner. I didn't really enjoy the food at the Yunnan restaurant, but the lime juice and B's apple pearl drink were delicious. The shops were shutting by the time we finished, so it was back to the hotel, past the amazingly tall architecture of Pudong.

Canals await tomorrow!

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Something just snapped in me yesterday as we travelled through the yellow rapeseed fields from Yichang to Nanjing. Maybe it was the smoking, spitting, shouting, shoving migrant workers at Yichang railway stations. Or the polluted air, the disturbing sameness to the cities and the farms. Or frustration at my inability to speak the language or to freely travel around without relying on others. Even the food. Or all of the above. Suddenly my tolerance of China disappeared. I found myself wishing I were somewhere else.

I certainly did not want to be on that train. As we walked up the steep steps to Yichang railway station we were surrounded by peasant workers, belongings wrapped in makeshift bags of sheets. The Chinese push in whenever possible, don't give way. I've learned just to barge in and not care if my backpack takes bystanders out.

Not knowing where to go we passed our bags through the x-ray machine and entered the general waiting room. It was a scary experience, surrounded by crowds of people whose appearance was that of those shouting, shrieking drug addicts you sometimes see on the streets of Sydney. But I guess that this is often a new experience for them too and most are probably very nice people.

Backing out, the security guard pointed us in the direction of the "soft class" waiting room. A helpful local had to point out ts entrance behind locked doors. The soft class attendants ushered us straight to the train, not even bothering to check our luggage.

The soft sleeper cabin was a lot less comfortable than the cabin we travelled in from Hong Kong to Bejing. Four narrow, hard beds arranged in two bunks. Dodgy looking linen. The carriage toilet a dirty squat.

The old couple we shared the compartment we very nice and kept offering pomelos, apples and sunflower seeds. Thankfully they didn't like smoking either, for the overcrowded train contained plenty of smokers in the corridor in defiance of the no smoking sign. However the lady insisted of leaving the door open most of the time. This may have been a good thing as she kept coughing through the night (and no hand to cover the mouth, of course). Probably going to get tuberculosis, SARS or fish flu from her now.

The train stunk of urine and cigarette smoke. It was NOT comfortable whatever the Lonely Planet might say. We couldn't face another night of this, were already worn out from many late nights and early mornings, feeling a bit unwell.

We decided that we were willing to sacrifice some sights for more "stop" time to rest and recuperate. So I rang the wonderful Zhou Yan at CITS on the mobile and cancelled our itinerary post Nanjing, moving forward some nights in Shanghai.Thanks to the wonders of modern mobile technology (2.5G here) I was even able to email the instructions and receive a reply to my mobile phone.

Arriving in Nanjing at about 9:30am we quickly booked an onwards midday ticket to Shanghai (easy!), then spent the next hour in McDonalds near the huge train station. We did try a dumpling place first but it was full and we couldn't order.

The young lady who served us might have spoken English, but their toilet belied the McDonald's legend. It was a squat and it was dirty, with an overflowing rubbish bin of shit covered toilet paper. From the tray cover I'm also concerned about the source of their beef. The cow looks mad and on hormones.

The extensive canal system was visible after Nanjing, which barges chugging up the waters or decrepit boats just sitting there doing nothing. I would love to take a cruise up the Great Canal, just to observe life on either side.

It is good to be in Shanghai. This three star hotel might be a bit far away from the centre of town, but it's got a light rail stop, plenty of shops and a park nearby. Catching a proper modern metro again was also a good feeling, despite the number of interchanges.

We stopped at Renmin Square and walked along Nanjing Road East until we hit the Bund. From the riverside you can see ultramodern Pudong with its famout Pearl Tower and another, much lower, skyscraper showing video on the side of its walls.

I don't want to give the impression that the Chinese are an awful people or that China is a boring place. It's not and we have met many wonderful Chinese who have brought a smile to our faces with their friendliness and helpfulness.

I think we just need some time to rest and get used to the cultural differences again. I'm certainly exhausted after that train ride and I'm certain tomorrow will find us enjoying China once more.