4 corners, 7 seas

Tokyo, Blade Runner, and 2049

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”

I first came across this lovely video montage of Tokyo cityscape footage set to the mournful tones of the Blade Runner score while writing this post about Ghost In The Shell; with the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, about to be released, the gods of the Youtube algorithm just (perhaps not so) randomly served it up again as part of my morning Youtube spiral (recommend hitting play and listening while you read):

The footage is great, the buildings standing like sentinels with their winking red lights, the trains and motor vehicles pulsing along the arteries like the lifeblood of some sentient being; and Vangelis’ Blade Runner Blues is just the perfect track for looking out over and down into a vast cityscape like that, and pondering what it all means. It’s a perfect match really, and whoever made that video did a great job.

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

Watching it again just now, it got me thinking (once again) about how Blade Runner seems to have influenced so many people to want to visit Tokyo – despite actually having very little to do with Japan. The scenes that people want to find in real life, so to speak, when they visit Tokyo are the cityscapes of Blade Runner’s dystopian future (2019!) Los Angeles, and the street-level scenes in that LA’s undercity. The only clearly Japanese elements are the Japanese background signage and advertising (including the prominent Coca-Cola geisha billboard the car flies past), and the old Japanese guy running the noodle stand Deckard eats at:

…and yet, for most Blade Runner fans Tokyo is the city that seems most closely to evoke director Ridley Scott’s vision; hence all the videos people post on Youtube of Tokyo set to the Blade Runner score – the one above is just my favourite among many, here’s an awesome time-lapse on the same theme:

…and hence articles like this about photography like this. Richard Corliss (film critic for Time) describes Blade Runner as being “set in the year 2019, in a big city that suggests a Tokyo gone daft.”

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

I guess it’s the combination of Tokyo’s top-down immensity and its mostly bland and monolithic architecture, with the bottom-up neon and noise of its shopping & entertainment districts and the nitty gritty of the street-level details, the alleyways with their steam-billowing soba stands and fog-windowed ramen joints, that invites the sensory comparison. But there’s also something altogether more difficult to put your finger on… perhaps I can describe it as the soulful alienation one can sometimes feel in Tokyo – the biggest aggregation of humanity on Earth which yet somehow often feels like the loneliest place on Earth.

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

Pop a plastic umbrella and go for a lone wander in Shinjuku on a rainy day with Vangelis on your earphones, and that’s about as close as you can get to recreating the atmosphere of the film without actually going jumping across rooftops in a storm while monologuing about moments “lost, in time, like… tears… in rain.”

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

And that brings me to the point of this post; where to go in Tokyo if you’re a Blade Runner fan hoping to catch some Blade Runner-esque top-down cityscape visuals and bottom-up street scenes during your visit.

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

For the former, heading up to one of the city’s various skyscraper viewing decks at night should do the job nicely. Take your pick from Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (in Shinjuku), and Sunshine 60 (in Ikebukuro). They all have great views of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, and you see the major hubs lit up like the synapses of some huge bioelectrical organism, all those countless red lights winking away from the buildings as though the city itself is making some sort of chromatophoric display, relaying some mysterious message in a pattern of light that can only start to be grasped from on high.

Shinjuku Blade Runner night scenes

On the other hand, to find something akin to the street scenes in Blade Runner, consider this quote attributed (in the On the Edge of Blade Runner documentary) to Ridley Scott: “The future is old.” When he and his team were designing the sets and props for their future city, they concocted something that looked simultaneously futuristic and worn; there are in fact many locales in Tokyo that capture this layered and textured feel of new built upon old, but there are three spots in particular that I’d recommend visiting – all conveniently located a short walk from Shinjuku station.

As noted above, a solo wander under an umbrella in the drizzle through Shinjuku is the best way to ‘feel’ Blade Runner in Tokyo – to be more precise, the specific part of Shinjuku I’d suggest doing this is the Kabukicho red light district. It’s hardly an exact match to anything in the movie, but the onslaught of neon and the dense gathering of shady characters makes it about as edgy as Tokyo gets, kind of futuristic yet most definitely grimy and dirty under the nails.

An alleyway in Golden Gai

But the two places that really nail it for me are Golden Gai (Golden Street) and, most of all, Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley), the latter better known as Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. Click the links to read about them in more detail in separate posts, but essentially they’re two small alleyway areas that have survived intact through the decades of rampant development around them, retaining the character of Tokyo immediately post-war while the rest of Shinjuku sprouted skyscrapers, heavy infrastructure, and department stores galore; the future is old, and Golden Gai and Shomben Yokocho are what’s left of old Shinjuku.

Omoide Yokocho

Golden Gai is a few alleys packed full of tiny little bars (only big enough for a handful of patrons at a time) each with their own unique styling, and it’s a great place for a beer or two after a wander through Kabukicho. Shomben Yokocho is a pair of intersecting alleys running through a small city block nestled right next to the Japan Rail train tracks outside Shinjuku Station, both of which are lined with small eateries. At the intersection of the two alleys, right in the middle, there’s an awesome little noodle joint which serves absolutely killer soba and udon; they have seven seats and you wait in line until a seat becomes available, and once it does you’ll be expected to sit, order, pay, and leave with an absolute minimum of messing around – someone will usually be waiting for your seat, so don’t sit there photographing your food, just eat it! The gruff blokes behind the counter, and the way the customers call out their orders as they sit, all with minimal airs & graces, means a bowl of noodles here should scratch your Blade Runner noodle scene itch (my usual order is the ten-tama udon, though the ten-tama soba is their most famous).

Given the location of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in West Shinjuku, you could hit that first for the cityscape night view, then find your way to Shomben Yokocho for a bowl of noodles, followed by a wander through Kabukicho to Golden Gai for a drink; this little Shinjuku walking itinerary should be satisfying to any Blade Runner fan visiting Tokyo, and even if you’re not a Blade Runner fan it’s still a cool way to spend a few hours on an evening! Wait for it to rain, grab your umbrella and your camera, and hit the streets of Shinjuku… after first watching this:

(or just go for the full movie on Amazon!)

Any questions about any of the places mentioned above? Give me a shout below!

Heading to Japan? Click the banner to pre-order a JR Pass:

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See also Ghost In The Shell

For more posts on Japan, click here

For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here

Check out my guides to hiking in Kyoto and Tokyo

For my Japan overland travel guide, click here

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to Amazon and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them. This commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you, and thank you in advance should you choose to purchase anything via the above links!)

Posted in Architecture, Japan, Movies & TV, Tokyo

Viewing the Disputed Kuril Islands from the Shiretoko Peninsula

View from the road over the Shiretoko Pass

View going over the Shiretoko Pass (note the snow – it was June!)

Hokkaido’s remote Shiretoko Peninsula in the far northeastern corner of Japan was a place I’d wanted to go ever since I spent a ski season in Sapporo. At the time I’d made a trip out that way to Abashiri (famous for its once-notorious prison) and taken an ice-breaker cruise out on the frozen Sea of Okhotsk, but the Shiretoko Peninsula is largely closed off in winter so I hadn’t been able to visit.

It was a neat little trip anyway, the icebreaker cruise in particular:

Fields of snow in Hokkaido

On the train across Hokkaido

Icebreaker cruise in Abashiri

Icebreaker cruise in Abashiri

But having not visited Shiretoko at that time, I wanted to go back to northeast Hokkaido again in summer to see the peninsula, and even more so to catch a glimpse of the controversial Kuril Islands.

This island group, consisting of Kunashiri, Eterofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islets, was taken from Japan by the USSR at the end of WWII, and is still claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories.

I’m not getting into the whole history lesson and debate surrounding the rival claims, but history has seen the Kuril Islands (and Sakhalin, directly north of Hokkaido) change hands a number of times – you can read a full explanation of all the changes of possession here.

For me as a traveller with a close interest in Japan & Russia, these islands have always had a certain allure. I doubt I’ll ever go there due to the effort involved – they’re not off-limits, but due to the lack of regular transportation from the rest of Russia and the absence of any transportation from Hokkaido, they’re quite time-consuming and expensive to get to (they’re administered from Sakhalin, and to get there you have to go via Sakhalin by irregular light aircraft flights or long ferry crossings)

But you can see them easily from Hokkaido’s east coast on clear days – from the Nemuro area’s Nosappu Cape you can see the nearby Habomai Islets and Kunashiri, and from the east side of Shiretoko you can also see Kunashiri.

So, when I was leaving Japan a couple of years ago and thinking that I may never be back, or at least not for a long time (incorrectly – I’m tapping this out on my iPhone while sat on the bank of the Kamo River in Kyoto!), I finally made the trip up to Shiretoko.

It’s a pretty long way from Tokyo – I broke the journey with a visit to Sendai & Ishinomaki (where I’d volunteered after the 2011 tsunami) to see friends and see how the reconstruction was going, and then took the overnight ferry from there to Hokkaido and finally a 7-hour train across Hokkaido to the town of Shiretoko Shari.

The road to Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula

Beautiful weather for the ride up to Utoro

This town is a short bus ride (one hour) from the peninsula’s main town of Utoro, and is the closest you can get by train. If you’re keen to properly explore Shiretoko, it’s better to stay on the peninsula itself in Utoro (west coast) or Rausu (east coast); but I was rushing it and decided to base myself in Shari for 2 nights and just make a day trip over to Rausu from there.

The bus schedules for this (changing in Utoro) gave me half a day in Rausu; I was hoping to jump on a whale watching cruise (pods of orcas are frequently seen), but the schedule doesn’t work – if you want to whale watch, you need to stay in Rausu at least one night or Utoro for 2 nights (you can do it as a day trip from there, but not Shari).

So with whale watching out, I simply hiked up to the Rausu Kunashiri Observatory to try and catch a glimpse of Kunashiri. It wasn’t looking promising, with a dense fog rolling in off the sea; conditions on the west coast were clear that morning and the views were lovely going over the Shiretoko Pass, but on the east side Rausu was completely enveloped. There was little for it though other than to hike to the viewpoint anyway and hope to see something.

Rausu, Shiretoko

Looking down on foggy Rausu

It takes about 45 minutes to hike up the road from Rausu’s main street, I’m not sure if there’s a hiking trail but the road’s fine (it’s just an access road, so very few cars). Perhaps halfway up I heard the thrashing and crashing of something big coming up through the undergrowth on the slope next to the road… as Shiretoko is serious bear country, home to enormous Ussuri bears as well as the slightly less massive Asian black bear, I cacked my pants and legged it away up the road before it emerged (bear attacks are increasingly an issue in Japan). Looking back, I watched and breathed a sigh of relief as a deer hopped over the crash barrier onto the road; she froze when she saw me, and as I was slowly pulling out my camera and framing the shot, she bolted back the way she’d come.

Feeling bad for her wasted effort, I continued on up to the observatory, where I gazed out over an empty void, an impenetrable sea of fog. Quite funny really, going all that way to look at Kunashiri and then not be able to see it! Should you also be weird enough to want to visit Shiretoko in order to see the Kurils, I’d advise having a flexible schedule and being ready to stop in Rausu for a few days – foggy conditions are common up there.

So I gave up and entered the observatory’s museum, which gives the history in some detail, stating the basis for Japan’s ongoing claim:

History display at Rausu Kunashiri Observatory

History display at Rausu Kunashiri Observatory

History display at Rausu Kunashiri Observatory

History display at Rausu Kunashiri Observatory

…they also have a bunch of propaganda displays like this (outstanding Engrish fail on the first one):

Kuril Islands propaganda

Kuril Islands propaganda, Rausu

Kuril Islands propaganda

It’s all pretty interesting if you’re into your history & politics, but what I really wanted was to catch a glimpse of Kunashiri, so I went back up on the roof for as long as I could before needing to head down for the last bus.

And just as I was about to do so, the fog suddenly started shifting, revealing a peak here and a peak there as it rolled by; watching for 10 minutes or so, I got a good look at the overall outline of Kunashiri, though my photos are all terrible with only one point ever visible at a time, and the clouds closing just as fast as they opened. These are the best couple:

Kunashiri's peaks peeking above the fog

Misty view of Kunashiri from Rausu, Shiretoko

So, as you can see, I didn’t see it very clearly at all! But I did see something at least. And I was struck by how close it really is to Hokkaido; you’d be across in twenty minutes with a speedboat, if not for the fact the Russian navy would sink you first!

It really is a case of ‘so near, yet so far’. Given that ten thousand Russians now call Eterofu and Kunashiri their homes of 3 generations and counting, it seems unlikely that they’ll ever be Japanese territory again – there are very few Japanese remaining who ever lived there, and very few who would want to live there now even if they could. The return of the unpopulated Shikotan and Habomai was proposed by Russia some years ago in exchange for Japan dropping its claim to Eterofu and Kunashiri, but this was rejected by Japan. Seems to me that’s the best offer they’ll ever get, though.

Who knows, it may yet happen – if it does I’d expect a regular ferry service would then start from Hokkaido, so perhaps in future it will be possible for travellers to visit these remote Russian-held islands from Hokkaido.

Until such a time, you’ll have to either make do with looking from afar, or actually go and visit them from Sakhalin.

(In the summer months, Sakhalin can be reached by ferry from Wakkanai at the northern tip of Hokkaido, see here; there are also daily flights between Sapporo and Sakhalin)

For practical information on visiting Shiretoko, see the Japan Guide page here

Any questions or comments about the Shiretoko Peninsula or the Kuril Islands? Give me a shout below!

With the recent extension of the shinkansen system to Hokkaido, it’s easier than ever to get to Shiretoko overland. Click the banner to pre-order a JR Pass for a 40-dollar saving:

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Read more on whether you should get a JR Pass

For more posts on Japan, click here

For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here

Check out my guides to hiking in Kyoto and Tokyo

For my Japan overland travel guide, click here

Posted in History, Hokkaido, Japan, Russia

Crossing the Great Seto Bridge (Seto Ohashi) from Okayama to Takamatsu

The Great Seto Bridge spanning the Seto Inland Sea

Photo credit: see below post

(I wrote this during my last visit to Japan, but only just getting around to sorting the pics and posting it now!)

Today I crossed the Seto Inland Sea from Okuyama to Shikoku via the Seto Ohashi (瀬戸大橋, Great Seto Bridge), for no real purpose other than to do so (ah, the luxury of travelling on a JR Pass!), and was treated to the most quintessentially Japanese scenery imaginable…

Crossing the Great Seto Bridge from Okayama to Takamatsu

Myriad islands with their pine trees clinging to rocky outcrops over the sea, fading away into the hazy distance; the sloped, tiled roofs of fishing villages, their boats at harbour; boats large and small criss-crossing the waters, transporting people and goods to and fro; this series of monumental bridges, these engineering projects on such massive scale imposed upon, dominating, and yet somehow augmenting the breathtaking beauty of the landscape; the brutal ugliness of the belching chimneystacks of all the heavy industry along the coast contrasting with and framed by the bamboo-clad mountainsides beyond; an old fisherman perched on a rock far below with his rod set to the waves, from this high vantage point seemingly as still as a watchful cormorant awaiting his catch…

Heavy industry along the Seto Inland Sea

Crossing the Seto Ohashi (actually a series of three bridges) is like seeing early-21st Century Japan encapsulated in a 20-minute stretch of railway, and if you have a JR Pass and are heading east or west between Kyoto/Osaka and Hiroshima/Fukuoka, I’d even suggest taking a half-day detour from Okayama to Takamatsu and back (if it’s a nice day) just for the sheer hell of it, just to cross this bridge and catch a glimpse of Shikoku, the staggeringly beautiful yet least-visited of the major Japanese islands.

It’s actually quite hard to take any decent photos from inside the train though… I took loads, but those you see on this page were the only semi-decent ones even after cropping etc. It’s especially hard to get any of the bridge itself (hence the borrowed image at the top of the post)

The Great Seto Bridge

Crossing the Seto Ohashi

Crossing the Seto Ohashi

Takamatsu is also a good place for lunch and a stroll, being famous for its sanuki udon (there are a few restaurants around the station area), and the remains of the old castle are a short walk from the station, so it’s a good little detour – especially if you’re an otaku like me!

A rusty old billboard sign in Takamatsu

A lantern shop in Takamatsu

Takamatsu Castle

Any questions or comments about the Great Seto Bridge or Takamatsu? Give me a shout below!

Click the banner to pre-order a JR Pass for a 40-dollar saving:

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Read more on whether you should get a JR Pass

For more posts on Japan, click here

For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here

Check out my guides to hiking in Kyoto and Tokyo

For my Japan overland travel guide, click here

(Photo credit for top pic: Sora (Flickr), used under Creative Commons Licence)

Posted in Japan

The JR Pass: is it worth it?

A shinkansen bullet train passing through Maibara Station

So, the JR Pass; man, how I always looked on with envy at all the tourists (including family & friends when they visited) just breezing through the Shinkansen gates, flashing their JR Passes like a wave of a wand, to be whisked away here, there, and everywhere at high speed on Japan’s iconic bullet trains. For me as a legal resident of the country, the JR Pass was unavailable, a magical land of affordable super-fast transportation from which I was forbidden; a round trip from Kyoto to Tokyo alone would’ve cost me around 10% of my monthly salary as an English teacher, so how I longed for one of those passes. Had I been able to get my hands on one, I would’ve absolutely caned it!

…and so when I returned to Japan years later as a tourist, I got a JR Pass and proceeded to do exactly that! In 7 days I did:

Hakata – Shin Osaka
Shin Osaka – Kanazawa & back
Shin Osaka – Inari (Kyoto) & back (for Fushimi Inari Shrine)
Shin Osaka – Tokyo & back
Shin Osaka – Takamatsu & back (over the Great Seto Bridge)
Shin Osaka – Hakata

(I arrived & departed on the JR Beetle ferry from Korea – not covered by the pass unfortunately)

…which was ¥95,880 worth of tickets for ¥29,000. Not bad!

I was seriously going for it though – having previously lived in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto, I wasn’t spending time exploring those cities, but was catching up with friends in the evenings while taking day trips to places I’d always fancied visiting but hadn’t been able to justify the expense. I went to Takamatsu literally just to see the Seto Inland Sea and go over the Great Seto Bridge, because I’m a geek and because, well, I had a JR Pass so fuck it, why not?! I doubt the majority of JR Passes get thrashed quite so heavily, but you can easily get your money’s worth.

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JR Pass Example Itineraries

Basically, if you’re doing anything much more than Tokyo – Kyoto return (26,800 yen), a JR Pass is going to be good value; 29,000 yen for the 1-week pass, and obviously the more you use it the better value it becomes. If you’re landing at Narita, you can use the Narita Express to & from the airport on days 1 & 7, which comes to over 5,000 yen; add a round trip to Kyoto, and you’re already saving money. Any other travel you do on top of that – perhaps travelling back to Tokyo from Kyoto via Kanazawa, or taking day trips from Kyoto to Nara or Osaka, or from Tokyo to Nikko, plus all your local JR journeys on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line etc – is money saved.

A 1-week sample itinerary of Narita – Tokyo – Kyoto – Kanazawa – Tokyo – Narita would be 39,000 yen bought as separate tickets, so a healthy saving.

A typical 2-week route might be Tokyo to Fukuoka and back e.g. Narita – Tokyo – Hakata (Fukuoka) – Hiroshima – Osaka – Kyoto – Tokyo – Narita, which would already be 60,000 yen without including any daytrips (e.g. Nagasaki from Fukuoka, Nara from Osaka, etc). As the 2-week pass is 46,000 yen, it’s great value for this itinerary.

However, if you did either of those itineraries without returning to Tokyo i.e. fly in to Tokyo & out from Osaka / Fukuoka, then the pass would no longer be worth it.

If you’re not sure, sketch your itinerary out and total up the train ticket values using Hyperdia to see if a pass would save you anything (see here for how to use Hyperdia)

How to Buy a JR Pass

If you want to get a JR Pass, there are now two options – buy a voucher before departure, which you exchange for the actual pass at the ticket office after arrival; or, simply buy one in person at the ticket office. Prior to 2017, the former was the only option; since March 2017, passes have also been sold over the counter. The price for a 7-day pass is 33,000 yen bought over the counter in Japan (vs 29,000 yen bought online in advance).

2-week passes are 46,000 online or 52,000 in Japan

3-week passes are 59,000 online or 65,000 in Japan

So, if you’re organised and like saving 40 to 60 dollars, online is still the way to go – I have an affiliate partnership with Japan Rail Pass, so if you click on one of my links to their site (like this one) or one of the ads on this page and make a purchase, you save 40 dollars and I also get a bit of commission (at no extra cost to you) – it’s a win-win, so if you’ve found my site useful or interesting please consider it!

If you’re not so organised, you can just rock up at the ticket office of selected major stations (Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata, Niigata, Sendai, & Sapporo, and Narita, Haneda, Kansai, & Chitose (Sapporo) airports) and buy it then & there – the crucial requirement remains that you entered the country on a tourist stamp or visa, and not a work or study etc visa.

The JR Pass really is the best way to cover a lot of ground in Japan. Next time I have one, should there be a next time, I reckon I’ll ride the Komachi Shinkansen (to Akita) and the Hokkaido Shinkansen just for the hell of it, because they’re the two coolest-looking trains on the planet (the Akita Shinkansen is red, and looks to me like the long-nosed tengu, and the Hokkaido Shinkansen is the racing green one). Don’t care if it makes me sound like an otaku (geek) – I am, and those trains are awesome!

Any questions about the JR Pass? Give me a shout below!

Click the banner to pre-order your JR Pass now:

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For more posts on Japan, click here

For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here

Check out my guides to hiking in Kyoto and Tokyo

For my Japan overland travel guide, click here

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to purchase a JR pass, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending it because it’s awesome, and if you’ve found my site useful please consider using my links – thank you in advance should you choose to do so!)

Posted in Japan, Overland travel

My Failed Tibet Trip: Permits, Solo Travel, Getting Stuck in Xining, and the Amdo Route from Xining To Chengdu

A mosque in Xining

Cold, tired, and hungry, I finally dropped my bags and plonked myself down on the bed; all I had to do now was go out for food and then shower & sleep, before getting up next day to take the world’s highest train across the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa. I was finally about to take the one trip I’d always wanted to do above all others, to Tingri, Shekar, Everest North Base Camp and the Rongbuk Monastery – the monastery where my Great-Grandfather (EF Norton) and his companions had made offerings over 90 years earlier for a successful first ascent of the world’s highest mountain. Famously, the mountain did not grant their wish – the 1922 expedition ended in tragedy with the deaths of 7 porters in an avalanche, and the 1924 expedition saw Mallory & Irvine disappear off the mountain and into legend. Did they make it? Possibly. But without knowing the answer to that question, Norton’s 1924 high point remained the world altitude record for almost three decades, and the Great Couloir he climbed on the north face is still referred to as the Norton Couloir to this day. I’d grown up with this story, in houses with his paintings of Tibet hanging on the walls, and it’s fair to say it left me with a burning desire to go there myself! So here I finally was in Xining, on the edge of Tibet, about to take that trip.

Labrang Monastery, Amdo Tibet

There was one thing to do before going out for food though – quickly check my emails to confirm everything was still cool with my Tibet Travel Permit. The TTP is a special document required by all non-Chinese citizens wishing to visit Tibet – I’m not going to get into all the political and historical issues that swirl around the status of Tibet here, but suffice it to say that Tibet is a very sensitive issue for the Chinese government and they exercise very tight control over who visits, how they get there, and what their movements are once they’re there. For a really solid and ever up-to-date explanation of how the TTP works and how to get one, see the outstanding Land of Snows website, travel regulations page here; in a nutshell, you have to join a guided group tour by private vehicle with a licensed tour operator who will obtain the TTP for you, for that specific tour on those specific dates, with them meeting you off your specified flight or train in Lhasa (or at the Nepal border if you start from Kathmandu, though that’s not presently possible following the 2015 earthquake) and waving you off again at the end (you can’t enter Tibet any other way, in any other place).

So I opened my email, saw there was one from my tour operator, clicked on it… and felt my heart sink like a stone.

Labrang Monastery, Amdo Tibet

I’d arrived in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, a full three hours earlier, having hauled ass for a few days overland (as is my wont) from Taiwan by ferry and then by train via Wuhan and Xi’an. I was intending to just check in to any old cheap hotel near the station to crash for the night, having not booked ahead as I’d found myself stuck without wifi in Xi’an. Xining’s a big city, so I knew I’d be able to find something – or so I thought…

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Xining is actually the Tibetan Plateau’s largest city – in addition to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) itself, most of the modern day province of Qinghai, plus the western half of Sichuan and little corners of Yunnan and Gansu provinces, were all historically Tibet. Sitting at 2,400m on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Xining has long been the meeting point of Han China, Tibet, and the Muslim regions to the west (Gansu & Xinjiang); this mix is reflected in the Chinese dragons adorning the minarets of some of the city’s mosques, the Tibetan cowboys and red-robed monks rubbing elbows with white-capped Hui Chinese (Chinese Muslims) in Han Chinese eateries, and the combinations of Chinese, Tibetan, and Arabic scripts in use on shop signs around town. Tensions also exist; I’ve never seen a train station so heavily-patrolled by such heavily-armed police and military, some guys toting heavy automatic assault rifles while others leaned on enormous spiked staves (no shit – full-blown Medieval weaponry is still in use in China!)

Labrang (Xiahe), Gansu

Exiting the station, the cold November air at first felt crisp and refreshing; due to the altitude, Xining experiences some pretty frigid temperatures in winter and they were already kicking in, my breath clouding in the evening air.

Xining Station stands at the back of a wide open space, itself separated from the city’s main central area by the Huangshui river, and the subway was still under construction (it’s slated to enter service in 2021), so I took a lungful of the crisp air, shouldered my pack, and set off towards the main thoroughfares of Jianguo Dajie and Dongguan Dajie.

Labrang Monastery

I figured I’d find plenty of hotels there, and indeed I wasn’t wrong; the problem turned out to be finding one that would actually take me. Now, the situation in China that only some hotels take foreigners is nothing new (on previous visits I’d stayed at a number of hotels that I doubt registered it properly, most obviously the hotel-slash-brothel we stayed at in Chongqing), but this was the first time I’d actually encountered it myself (though I would do so again just a couple of weeks later in Guizhou).

(see note below for a bit more on Chinese hotels and foreigners)

Time and again I walked into a hotel and was asked for my ID; upon showing my passport (rather than a Chinese national ID), I received apologetic smiles or annoyed frowns and was turned away. Nobody spoke any English and my spoken Chinese is pretty crap, so it was hard to work out what was going on or ask where I could possibly go. I just kept on walking to the next hotel, toes and fingers numb in the cold, shoulders aching, stomach rumbling, and getting more and more pissed off.

Labrang Monastery

Most of these hotels were run by Hui Chinese families, and a number of them kept saying the same thing to me – I didn’t understand, but kept hearing the word 穆斯林, Musilin (Muslim) again and again. At first I thought they might be telling me I couldn’t stay because I wasn’t Muslim, which sounded like bullshit, but eventually I asked one lady (who seemed especially keen to help) to write down what she was saying (my written Chinese is way ahead of my spoken Chinese, owing to familiarity with the characters as a Japanese speaker). Turns out they were all trying to tell me the name of a hotel I could actually go to, the Xining Muslim Mansion (西宁穆斯林大厦, Xining Musilin Dasha); now I’d realised what was going on and was armed with a hotel name and address, I was a bit less pissed off – I knew what I had to do and just had to get on with finding the place.

Easier said than done though, and in fact I never did – I wandered around and eventually went in another hotel to show them the address and hopefully get directions; and lo and behold, this guy spoke excellent English! He said there weren’t many places in the city where I’d be able to stay, but luckily one of the others was literally just round the corner. It was a 4 star hotel and way out of my budget (at least it had a piano in the bar which they let me play), but no way I was walking around any more so I thanked the guy profusely and went round the corner to check in.

Labrang Monastery

Had I booked ahead, I’d have found there are actually a couple of hostels listed in Xining, along with plenty of hotel options (including multiple branches of 7Days Inn and Jinjiang Inn, which are decent budget hotel options). If only I’d been able to get online! Or, perhaps I should say, if only I’d booked ahead! I simply hadn’t anticipated that I’d have any difficulties finding somewhere near the station, so when I was without internet in Xi’an I hadn’t prioritised going to a cafe to make a reservation for Xining.

So, anyway, there I was a short time later, sat on the bed in a hotel I really didn’t want to stay in in a city I didn’t really want to be in, with a cracking view of one of Xining’s many mosques, reading this email with the crushing news that my Tibet trip was off.

A mosque in Xining

The other people making up my tour group were apparently all travelling as a group already, and they’d cancelled their Tibet trip at the last minute. That left only me, but the minimum tour size was two – if I still wanted to go, they said I’d just have to pay (almost) double.

I then spent most of the evening and the next morning writing emails to my tour company to try and agree a compromise fee for doing the tour as a single traveller (they came down a bit, but not enough for me to be able to afford it), and also sending emails to a bunch of other tour agencies to see if I could possibly work out any alternative, such as using my existing TTP to board the train and then paying some sort of supplement to switch to a tour with another operator, or some such.

Labrang Monastery

But of course, the red tape-bound and glacial wheels of Chinese bureaucracy don’t allow for any flexibility when visiting Tibet; your TTP is for specific dates, for a specific tour, with a specific operator. If anything doesn’t work out with any of the above, you need a completely new permit – and the TTP takes several weeks to arrange, which is longer than I had left on my Chinese visa anyway.

What a load of fucking bullshit. And what a load of bullshit that the tour company wouldn’t run the tour without such a hefty single surcharge – I understand why, of course, and that perhaps their margins are super-tight – but one of the other companies I’d considered while originally researching, and then emailed again in desperation from Xining (who really tried to find a solution for me, and have thus won my business for whenever I do finally make it to Lhasa), told me they always guarantee tours will run as booked once confirmed, even if cancellations leave only one guest. Of course, with good old hindsight, as a solo traveller I should’ve checked such policies before booking anything; that realisation came too late for me, but at least I can pass it on to you (see below for tips on booking solo trips to Tibet).

Labrang Monastery

I ended up booking another night at the hotel, went to the station and rescheduled my Lhasa train for the following day (in hope more than expectation), and spent the rest of the day trying to work something out. But all to no avail; following in my Great-Grandfather’s footsteps to Tingri, Shekar, and Rongbuk, was going to have to wait.

In the end, I settled for the next best thing I could do from there – a trip through the Amdo Tibetan region to Chengdu, i.e. through the Tibetan prefectures of the modern day provinces of Qinghai, southwest Gansu, and north Sichuan. As the TTP is only required for the TAR, you can travel freely through Qinghai and the Tibetan parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan as you please (except during the occasional period of unrest, when the authorities close roads). And so I ended up travelling through the Amdo region from Xining to Chengdu.

Labrang Monastery

Amdo is the historical name for the northeast portion of the Tibetan Plateau, essentially the main bulk of the modern Qinghai Province plus a corner of Gansu and a big chunk of Sichuan provinces (Tibet historically had three regions – Amdo, U-Tsang, and Kham. U-Tsang roughly equates to what is now the TAR, and Kham is the southeast portion of the plateau, composed (in terms of modern administrative entities) of parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, plus a corner of TAR).

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I followed the Amdo route described on Land Of Snows here (do check that page out – the pictures are much better than mine!), travelling by bus to Rebkong (Tongren), Labrang (Xiahe), Taktsang Lhamo (Langmusi), and Songpan, before finally reaching Chengdu. The monasteries in Rebkong and Labrang were pretty amazing, and as they’re fairly sizeable towns things were still largely open as usual despite the season (it was off-season, so there were very few tourists, Chinese or international). As in Xining, the population in the towns is a blend of Tibetans, Han Chinese, and Hui Chinese, seemingly with Han running most hotels, Hui mostly running restaurants and stores, and Tibetans working for the monasteries or as farmers and cowboys. Outside the towns, the population is entirely Tibetan, leather-skinned nomads in leather jackets and cowboy hats or traditional Tibetan wear flagging the bus down as we drove across soaring high altitude grasslands, the old men reciting incantations and clicking prayer beads as the bus negotiated an icy series of hairpins… no idea if it was simply the correct time of day to be saying those particular prayers, or if they were doing their bit to keep the bus on the road!

Labrang (Xiahe), Gansu

But to be honest, as fascinating as the towns and monasteries were, and as spectacular as the scenery was, it was a pretty lonely and tough bit of solo travel; I was often communicating in broken Mandarin with Tibetans whose Chinese was little better than my own, and the only real conversations I had in 10 days were with a Tibetan guy who spoke great English (and took the opportunity to complain bitterly about the government), a German girl I bumped into in a restaurant, and a Hui Chinese waitress in Langmusi who’d studied English at university in Lanzhou.

The highway kissed 4,000m at the highest point between Langmusi and Songpan, and in Langmusi itself I was sleeping at 3,300m. I didn’t suffer any adverse altitude effects, but damn was it cold! As it was off season, Langmusi was virtually shut down; I lugged my bag around a series of shuttered hotels and hostels (getting the absolute shit scared out of me by a Tibetan mastiff behind one of them as I looked for the staff – thank god it was on a short and solid chain, or I reckon it’d have had my head! I seem to look like a tasty morsel to aggressive dogs), finally checking into a place with no running water or heating, and an utterly foul outhouse toilet across the yard. Visiting that toilet at night was not fun! Thankfully my bed was equipped with an electric blanket; I also slept fully clothed in 3 layers, gloves and a beanie, and I still absolutely froze my balls off. They’re hardy people alright, living up there on the Roof of the World.

Main street in Labrang (Xiahe), Amdo Tibet

And for some, life is very hard indeed; elderly Tibetan beggars are sadly a common sight in the Amdo region. I’ll never forget the sight of one old woman begging on the frozen ground outside Zoige bus station (where we pulled in between Langmusi and Songpan), bitterly cold at 3,500m and it wasn’t even yet December. Living rough must of course be a harsh life wherever it happens, but doing it up there I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to survive.

The Langmusi part of the route really was a rather odd experience overall, with everything closed up, giant dogs (and their barking at night), wretched beggars, and harsh conditions; the one person I was really able to talk to, the waitress in the restaurant I ate dinner at, showed great interest in the copy of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun I was reading, which gave me a great excuse to linger in their warm restaurant nursing some hot tea long after I’d finished my meal! Walking back into town from the monastery that afternoon I’d detoured along the river, a river which at an altitude of 3,300m should have consisted of the clearest mountain water but was in fact full of a staggering number of Red Bull cans. Not beer cans, not water bottles, just huge quantities of Red Bull cans. Why there’s so much of it being consumed up there, I have no idea; perhaps it’s tourists bringing it all up, perhaps it’s a local favourite. Either way, whoever’s responsible for dealing with the empties is doing a seriously shitty job.

To be fair though, having said all that, Langmusi did also seem like a place that would have a nice vibe to it in the warmer months, and with everything open and the outdoors being bearable enough to explore (the horseback trips are recommended by Land of Snows) – and preferably a hotel with running water and functioning toilets! – I think it’d be an awesome place to visit for a couple of days, the state of the river notwithstanding.

My final stop in Amdo was Songpan, more of a Chinese mountain town than a Tibetan town – if you’ve been to Yunnan and done the typical route, it’ll probably remind you a bit of Shangrila or Dali:

City wall in Songpan, Amdo Tibetan part of Sichuan Province

Songpan, Sichuan

Songpan, Sichuan

It’s a picturesque place alright, the city walls surrounding a lovely-looking old town (though how old the present structures actually are, I have no idea) with mountains visible in the distance. There are also lots of butcher shops with yak cock & balls hanging up out front!

Butcher shop in Songpan

From Songpan a 6-hour bus ride gets you down to Chengdu, and the day I did it it took me from the clean air of the Tibetan Plateau to this unspeakably grim foulness:

Chengdu on a day with high PM2.5 levels

More on the ‘Airpocalypse’ here

(As outlined on the Land of Snows page, instead of going straight from Songpan to Chengdu there’s an amazing looking nature reserve (Jiuzhaigou) you can detour via, if you have the time and budget for it – note the entry fees are remarkably steep)

So, after the frustration of my failed trip to Lhasa & Everest, I unexpectedly ended up in Chengdu (not for the first time) via the beautiful Amdo region; I have to say, at that point I was severely over China. Amdo was amazing to see, but it wasn’t what I’d gone all that way to see and it really wasn’t the most enjoyable bit of travel I’ve ever done. Arriving in Chengdu in that horrendous smog, I was really thinking “just get me out of this fucking country,” and started searching for flights to Bangkok (the vague plan had been to go to Nepal from Tibet, and then perhaps try overlanding to Thailand through India & Myanmar). In the end though, being me, I ended up overlanding it all the way to Bangkok from Chengdu (well, from Japan actually!) – I had the thought of trying to get to Myanmar through Yunnan, but (while possible) that turned out to be too time-consuming and expensive to arrange (and would require a 2-entry Chinese visa and some serious backtracking), and I’d done the usual Yunnan route before, so instead I ended up having this neat little stop in Chongqing, this frustrating run through Guizhou to Yunnan, and then finally testing out (successfully) the possibility of getting from Xishuangbanna (southern Yunnan) to Thailand in one day via Laos thanks to the new 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. It was all a bit of a waste of time and money to be honest, and I felt better as soon as I crossed the border out of China; and being stamped into Thailand a few hours later by a smiling and jovial border guard felt great.

I haven’t been back to China since then, but I know I will – there are still some footsteps for me to follow in Tibet…

Hints and tips for booking a trip to Tibet as a solo traveller

First of all, get the most up to date information you can – there is no better resource than the outstanding Land Of Snows, whose owner Lobsang takes the time to personally respond to all requests for advice and information. The site is kept bang up to date, and that’s where you can read what the present state of play is with the TTP, and also with the Nepal border (closed since the 2015 earthquake and still not yet open to non-locals).

Make sure to book your tour at least a month or so in advance, to allow plenty of time for the permit to be processed.

If you’re travelling alone, you’re vulnerable to the sort of situation I ran into if someone else cancels – the best way of avoiding this is to book a tour with one of the larger companies (I’d gone with a smaller one, and obviously came to regret it) which guarantees the tour will run even if the other guests all cancel, and try to join a tour with a decent number already booked. I agree with the position taken by Land of Snows that it’s better to book with a Tibetan-owned (rather than Han Chinese-owned) operator to make sure the profit stays locally in Tibet – so with that in mind, I suggest solo travellers book with one of the larger operators recommended by Land of Snows.

I’m not going to name the company I had trouble with, but I will recommend the other company that impressed me with their attempts to help while I was stuck in Xining, and with whom I’ll be booking next time I attempt to visit Tibet; they’re called Explore Tibet, and are a fully Tibetan-owned & operated company recommended by Lobsang of Land of Snows. They’re one of the larger fully-local operators and have a policy of always running tours once booked, even if cancellations leave only one traveller, which makes them a safe bet if you’re travelling solo and want to avoid the kind of issues I experienced. They were also very quick & easy to communicate with while I was making my initial enquiries, and especially while I was firing off desperate emails from that hotel room in Xining!

Note on “No Foreigners Allowed” Hotels in China

Prior to the early-2000s, hotels in China were required to have a specific permit in order to accept foreign guests. This permit no longer exists, but it seems the belief in its existence persists – perhaps encouraged by lazy or corrupt individuals in local law enforcement positions who prefer to see foreigners funnelled to a smaller number of pricier establishments. In the space of a couple of weeks I came up against it in Xining (as above) and then Guizhou (as here), though I’d never encountered it on previous trips despite staying in some pretty shoddy spots (possibly including some sort of brothel in Chongqing); it made me wonder if there was a crackdown underway, though it could have simply been down to the locales in question. Xining is home to many Tibetans and Muslims, at times restive populations, and so is a somewhat sensitive area for the authorities and perhaps the smaller hotels there genuinely aren’t allowed to take foreigners without permission. No such security concerns exist in Guizhou though, but as it’s one of the least visited corners of China it could simply be that local hotel management really don’t know otherwise, and local law enforcement is either lazy or incompetent (and they actually got involved when I was there, escorting me to a big mid-range hotel when I was trying to check in to a small budget hotel).

Reading up on the situation though, it seems that for the vast majority of hotels in China it’s perfectly legal for them to take foreign guests – so long as they register them in the system, which in many cases is the issue as they either don’t realise they can actually do that, or just don’t know how to do it.

For more on this, check out these reports here (lower half of the post) and here (the whole post!) by a long-distance cyclist with fluent Mandarin and a history of fighting (and winning) battles over being allowed to stay at small hotels in Chinese backwaters. She even wrote this ‘how to’ guide for registering yourself on the system if the hotel staff don’t know how! Something she’s apparently done many times, proving that if you know what you’re doing, speak fluent Mandarin, read Chinese characters well, are very persistent, and have the patience of a saint / stubbornness of a mule, you can probably manage to stay at most hotels in China!

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After Chengdu, I made this neat little revisit to Chongqing, then tried out the overland route from there through Guizhou to Yunnan, and from China to Thailand in one day via Laos.

Remember to get a VPN service before arriving in China; I always use Express VPN, which you can sign up for by clicking the banner above. If you’re wondering what a VPN is and why you need one in China, check out my post on the Great Firewall.

For more China posts, click here. Also check out my China overland travel guide

Any comments or questions on visiting Tibet, or on the Amdo region? Give me a shout below!

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Posted in China, Overland travel, Tibet

Life in Beijing: Airpocalypse Now

One night while living in Beijing I coughed and hacked and spluttered all night long, with an itching and burning in my throat that nothing would alleviate.

I didn’t sleep much that night, and when I finally did wake up in the morning, shattered, I awoke to the horrifying sight of blood flecks across my pillow.

Had I been at home, or in Japan, or New Zealand or Canada, I would’ve gone straight to the doctor, terrified; but I was in Beijing, and I knew exactly what the cause was and exactly how to fix it.

The cause was PM2.5, and the solution was simply to leave China.

Check out these three pics taken from the exact same spot (a rail bridge near my old apartment, looking along Chaoyang Lu towards the CBD):

Beijing on a clear pollution day

Good day

Beijing on a moderate pollution day

Normal day

Beijing on a day with severe PM2.5 air pollution

Scary day!

PM2.5, if you’re not familiar, means particulate matter (i.e. tiny particles) measuring just 2.5 micrometres in diameter.

2.5 micrometres is the size of many bacteria, invisible to the naked eye, and small enough to penetrate the alveoli of the lung; PM2.5 is therefore the most harmful constituent part of air pollution (though far from the only harmful part).

Much has been written about how China’s phenomenal economic boom of the last few decades has come at terrible cost to the environment; the factories turning out the cheap trinkets and electronics parts for export around the world, the power stations belching out their fumes, and the huge quantities of coal burned every winter to heat the northern cities while the temperatures plunge below zero, all combine to put huge amounts of PM2.5 in the air. On some days it can be so bad you can’t even see the tops of the buildings around you, earning the epithet Airpocalypse Now.

The problem affects cities throughout China, with the worst-hit being Beijing and surrounding cities in Hebei Province, the northeastern cities of Shenyang and Harbin, and the western cities of Xi’an, Chengdu, and Chongqing.

Severe air pollution in Xi'an

This one was taken in Xi’an

Chengdu on a day with high PM2.5 levels

…and this is Chengdu

On the really bad days you don’t want to go outside at all; you just want to stay inside with the windows shut – but even then, you start getting a film of soot on everything inside your room and have to dust and sweep it all off. And you know that shit’s in the air you’re breathing…

It’s not like that every day though, far from it in fact. If you catch Beijing on a sunny day in spring or autumn with a clear blue sky it can be quite lovely; summer is hot & sweaty, but the heavy downpours of summer rain are welcome as they scrub the air of pollution. Winter is the worst, as the above-mentioned burning of coal for heating greatly increases the PM2.5 levels; thankfully many days in winter see a fierce wind ripping across Beijing which blows away the pollution (sorry, Korea!) but makes it brutally cold. Cold though they may be, the windy days are far preferable to the smoggy days.

You can check the present level and weekly forecast on the excellent aqicn.org; see this page for an explanation of the scale.

The Great Wall of China snaking away into the smog

The Great Wall snaking away into the smog (this wasn’t a particularly bad day)

So, you’re travelling to Beijing and you’re wondering what to do about the pollution. My best advice would be to try and have enough time to be flexible with your plans – there really is absolutely no point going to the Great Wall, for example, when the PM2.5’s hitting 200; you won’t see the views, and it’ll be a pretty unpleasant experience. Check the forecast, and try to do any shopping, museum visits, or hitting specific restaurants you want to try, on the bad pollution days; and of course, aim to make outdoor excursions when the pollution’s less bad.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get clear blue skies every day, but don’t count on it!

The other thing you should definitely do is take a good mask with you – and that means a good, properly fitting mask, with a fine particle filter. See here for a guide to choosing an effective mask; aqicn also has a list of recommended masks.

Another grimly fascinating thing is hiking up a mountain in China to the point where you’re above the smog, and can actually see the dividing line in the air like this:

Above the smog on Taishan

From the top of Taishan

Smoggy view of Beijing from Xiangshan

Looking over Beijing from the top of Xiangshan

Scary stuff! Fact is though, that severe air pollution is part of life in early-21st Century China; if you’re like me in wanting to travel partly to see what life is really like in different parts of the world, then perhaps you can simply consider dealing with the air pollution as part & parcel of that. It’s horrible when it’s bad, but you have the luxury of leaving at your ease, so try to take it in stride as part of the China travel experience.

As for those who call the place home, it’s something they’re going to be dealing with for a long time – but (hopefully!) not forever. A couple of recent events – the 2008 Olympics and the 2015 military parade for the 70th anniversary of WWII – have demonstrated that the air in Beijing can actually be drastically improved in a short time by enacting a few pollution-reduction policies. I was there for 2 days just before the parade in 2015, and the weather was lovely – deep blue skies and fresh, clean air. When it’s like that, Beijing really does have its moments.

These pollution-reduction policies include halving the traffic by only allowing odd- and even- numbered registration plates on the road on alternating days, and closing down all the factories in Beijing & Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei for a fixed period. Of course this latter policy is pretty radical from an economic perspective, so there’s no chance of it being a regular thing – it’s only for when the eyes of the world are on Beijing. But the fact it does work, and quickly, does give hope for the future i.e. if & when the majority of power is generated from renewables.

View through the train window of Guangdong on a smoggy day

View through the train window of Guangdong on a smoggy day

View through the train window of Guangdong on a clear day

…and how the same area looks on a clear day!

The more difficult long-term problem is going to be the waterways; the River Aire in my hometown of Leeds was so thoroughly dumped full of shit during the Industrial Revolution that it was devoid of life for over a century (though the fish have finally returned in recent decades), and China’s poisoned rivers are likely in an even worse state. It’s unlikely to affect you as a traveller (beyond how wretched it looks should you take a boat on the Yangtze), so I won’t go into more depth but if you’re interested have a look at the crazy photos here.

Hopefully one day in the not too distant future the denizens of Beijing will be breathing clean air and looking back at the late-20th / early-21st Centuries the way Brits look back at Dickensian London; until then, try to avoid visiting in winter, pay attention to the forecasts on aqicn, pack a good mask, have alternative plans for bad-air days, and hope for the best!

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Also, remember to get a VPN service before arriving in China; I always use Express VPN, which you can sign up for by clicking the banner above. If you’re wondering what a VPN is and why you need one in China, check out my post on the Great Firewall.

For more China posts, click here. Also check out my China overland travel guide

Have you experienced the Airpocalypse? Leave me a comment below!

Posted in Beijing, China

(How NOT to) Go to Guizhou: the Hidden Beauty of China

“Go to Guizhou, the Hidden Beauty of China,” the TV advised me.

“No thanks mate – I already did, and it was kinda shit,” I replied.

I was sat in my Airbnb in Taipei, doing some work with the TV on in the background, half-watching a CNN panel pissing their pants about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest scandal. The frequent salvos of advertising that seem to make up half of CNN’s airtime were at that time pushing this ‘Go to Guizhou’ ad hard, bombarding their viewers with images of beautiful limestone karst formations stretching away into the mist and tiered waterfalls tumbling down cliffsides into emerald pools; colourfully dressed Zhuang or Yao villagers were shown giving performances of traditional music & dancing or serving up the local specialties; lush rice terraces were shown cascading down hillsides into dramatic river canyons.

(The video embedded above isn’t the CNN ad, but definitely contains some of the same footage so I’m guessing is the work of the same organisation)

It really did look like an amazing place on the screen – and to be fair, from what little I’d actually managed to see of it in the flesh a few months earlier, it really was that beautiful. But my own trip through Guizhou en route from Sichuan & Chongqing to Yunnan (and thence to Southeast Asia) had proven to be a frustrating endeavour, the beauty mostly seen only through rain-spattered bus windows.

I’d arrived in Chengdu from the Tibetan Plateau after a failed attempt to visit Lhasa and points beyond, and was aiming for Laos and Thailand; this involves travelling via Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, and would usually suggest a backpacking route through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to get there. But I’d done that route before, and was looking to see something new; a dogleg route through Guizhou, one of China’s most overlooked corners (by foreign visitors and the rest of China alike) seemed like an interesting alternative.

So from Chengdu I’d revisited Chongqing (it was fascinating to see it again almost a decade after our hilarious hotpot experience there, to see how much it had changed yet somehow stayed the same), and then left Chongqing on the train to Guiyang (provincial capital of Guizhou); this was the old, slow type of train, with some lovely views as it trundled along river canyons and past looming mountain ranges. It was blissfully quiet for most of the 9-hour journey, until we stopped somewhere about 2 hours north of Guiyang where the train picked up a full compliment of passengers. It got dark then too, making those last 2 hours pretty dull and uncomfortable (though hardly the worst journey I’ve experienced in China), so it was nice to finally arrive in Guiyang.

To the rest of China, the province of Guizhou is synonymous with the twin scourges of excessive rain and excessive poverty, the most backward part of the country’s backward interior, as boonies as it gets. Yet in Guiyang I found myself in a city as presentable as any other provincial capital in China, if not more so than most, and one that seems to have avoided the worst of the environmental carnage going on elsewhere; certainly not the most exciting of places, but I found it to be friendlier and more likeable than most big Chinese cities.

That said, it’s still a dirty great city mostly consisting of faceless concrete blocks, and it was Guizhou’s natural attractions I was keen to see, so I just stayed in Guiyang for a couple of nights to work out what I was doing – I stayed at Shu Hostel which is a decent place, and the manager (or owner maybe, I wasn’t sure) was a great source of information.

The province of Guizhou covers an area roughly the size of Cambodia, so there’s obviously far too much to see in just a quick run through; I figured I’d just pick one area to stop off and check out for a couple of days between Guiyang and Kunming.

Guizhou’s attractions are many, both natural and man-made; the mountains, limestone karst, river canyons, lakes and waterfalls provide great natural beauty, and the many hill tribe villages have become the focus of “heritage-based tourism”.

These sights are spread across the province, but those lying roughly along my route to Kunming were Huangguoshu Waterfall (near Anshun, a couple of hours outside Guiyang), and the Maling River Canyon and Wanfenglin Scenic Area of karst cones (both near Xingyi, roughly halfway between Guiyang and Kunming).

Huangguoshu looks stunning – it’s China’s largest waterfall and Guizhou’s most famous attraction, and is apparently well set up for tourist visits with accommodation options in Anshun and good transportation connections from there. I should really have gone there first, then on to Xingyi, but I was on a tight budget and in a bit of a rush so opted to head directly to Xingyi – I was more interested in Maling Canyon & the limestone karst than I was in Huangguoshu falls, plus Xingyi is roughly equidistant from Guiyang and Kunming, making it an obvious place to break the journey being around 4 hours from each – at least, in theory…

But, of course, ‘in theory’ and ‘in reality’ are two different things. The bus trip from Guiyang to Xingyi was fine, bar the absurdly inconvenient location of Guiyang’s long-distance bus station out on the edge of the city – a common strategy for newer bus stations in China, to reduce inner-city congestion. A sensible system and it’ll work fine once the Guiyang subway extends out there, but until then it involves a long bus ride and is a bit of a pain in the ass!

The fun & games really got started though once I arrived in Xingyi; as had happened two weeks earlier in Xining, I fell foul of China’s longstanding but until recently unenforced laws requiring hotels to have special foreigner licences. Traipsing through the cold evening (it was November and Xingyi is a thousand metres above sea level) from hotel to hotel around whatever bus station it was I’d been dropped off at (I really wasn’t sure where I was, and couldn’t get online) I was repeatedly turned away, until finally the front desk staff at one of them asked me to take a seat while they made a call.

So I took a seat for ten minutes, glad to be in out of the cold and next to a heater, and got a bit of a surprise when a PSB van turned up; three burly armed cops demanded my passport and told me to get in the van. What the living fuck?! Is this me disappearing into Chinese detention for a spot of ‘correctional treatment’, culminating in a forced TV apology for my democratic ways? Well, no, probably not; I hadn’t been up to any political agitating. But I wasn’t too keen to get in a PSB van without knowing what was going on; the cops spoke no English, and the hotel guy spoke just a little more. But that was enough for him to say the PSB were there to help me, and there didn’t seem to be anything else for it, so I got in the van. They then drove me miles across town to the Xingyi Yike Hotel, which was, as had been the case in Xining, a far pricier place than I was intending to stay at. I had no idea if there were any other cheaper hotels where I’d be allowed to stay though, and in any case these PSB guys weren’t going anywhere until they’d seen me check in, so I just had to suck it up and pay. As it turns out, if you check Agoda for Xingyi there’s actually a decent number of options in town – 7Days Inn is a good bet if you’re trying to keep costs down; there are also a few options in Wanfenglin, so that’s probably the best place to stay if you’re there for the scenery.

Not only was it painful to pay that much for a room, it stuffed up my plans for visiting Maling Canyon and Wanfenglin the following day as I was now nowhere near the bus station, and the poor English at the front desk (and my poor Chinese) meant I couldn’t work out the local transportation from the hotel, other than to just take taxis everywhere. Given that I’d just blown way more than I wanted on accommodation, and would have to do so for two more nights to check out both scenic areas or one more night to check out just the canyon, it all started to seem like it wasn’t worth it; in the end I decided to be satisfied with having seen Guizhou’s karst through the bus window, and having snatched a glimpse of Maling Canyon from the highway when the bus had crossed the Malinghe Shankun Bridge the previous evening, and so I checked out and, thus defeated, headed for Kunming.

Speaking of bridges, check out this list of the world’s highest bridges – of 91 bridges on the list, fully 40 are in Guizhou, and of the 33 on the ‘under construction’ list, 15 are in Guizhou. That gives you some idea of how dramatic Guizhou’s scenery really is! Definitely a place with sights to see, and no wonder it’s being pushed as a tourist destination.

But it’s all well and good saying ‘Go to Guizhou’ and promoting it as a destination for international visitors when you don’t even allow most of the hotels in one of the main sightseeing areas to accept foreigners!

So anyway, having seen Guizhou’s beautiful mountains and canyons through the bus window, but not actually managed to visit any of them, I made for Kunming; fittingly though, even that proved harder than expected. The bus departed 30 minutes late, then with some major construction taking place on the highway we took some crazy back roads through the mountains, and it took several hours more than it should have; there was also a random change of bus, the passengers with all our luggage waiting on the dusty roadside for half an hour to be picked up (though this was actually something of a relief as the first bus had an absolute swarm of flies buzzing around inside, landing repeatedly on ears and noses). This all led to a very late arrival at Kunming’s East Bus Station (not yet connected to the city’s subway system), and I then had to deal with a bunch of shitbag taxi drivers trying to rip me off before managing to work out the bus to get downtown. To top the day off, the guy at the hostel had no idea about my reservation and I ended up in a crappy room with no hot water, just because. But that was just one of those days.

So, between the accommodation and transportation misfires, I didn’t have a great visit to Guizhou, though the massive potential for tourism in the province was obvious. I should also mention the region’s delicious cuisine, which is very spicy and also very diverse due to the ethnic diversity; the street snacks in the market were awesome. The people are also kind & friendly – shout-outs to the guy I chatted to on the train who pointed me the right way at Guiyang Station, and to the random girl who stepped in to help me flag a taxi in Xingyi just as my blood was starting to boil!

Had I had more time to be flexible / a bigger budget / done my research better and booked ahead, things would’ve gone better, sure, but I was travelling on the fly after other plans failed to work out and, at least for the time being, Guizhou isn’t as easy as other parts of China for winging it. What I will say for sure is that it’s a gorgeous place, and were it a country in its own right I reckon it’d be world-famous for being a beautiful one. Hopefully the accommodation situation will improve over time (including more options for budget travellers), and once the transportation catches up with eastern China it’ll be much easier to get to and around Guizhou. Until then, perhaps the best way to visit Guizhou (or Xingyi, at least) is by train from Kunming, and do a cycle tour of the area – like these guys did.

Though you probably won’t have to wait long for the transportation to improve; shortly after I passed through Guizhou the new bullet train line opened from Guiyang to Kunming – too late for me to use, but could be helpful for you (not to mention everyone who lives there). Guiyang is also already connected by bullet train to Guangzhou and Shanghai, with further lines to Chengdu and Chongqing scheduled to open in late 2017 / early 2018 (the 9-hour journey I had from Chongqing will be cut to a mere 3 hours or so).

According to this Wikipedia entry on the new Zhaozhuang Bridge, Xingyi is also getting a metro system – this should make things much easier for checking the area out. Furthermore, I guess that by the time most people ever read this, the Xingyi – Kunming highway which my bus couldn’t go on will be spick & span and in service, and Kunming’s Line 3 should have opened (it was supposed to open in June 2017) to connect the East Bus Station to the rest of the system, and the journey from Xingyi to Kunming will be a breeze.

Such is China in the early 21st Century; the gleaming tendrils of the high speed railway system feeling their way out to the darkest corners of the interior, the new highways blasting their way through mountainsides and soaring their way across deep river canyons, China building her way to the future. Travel there at this point in time is often still very frustrating, especially travelling in the country’s west which can sometimes feel like going a decade back from the coast, but even when it doesn’t go to plan it’s always fascinating.

So, yeah, Guizhou is indeed the ‘Hidden Beauty of China’, and if you have time for something extra between, say, Yunnan and Yangshuo, perhaps you should consider going.

Any questions or comments about Guizhou? Give me a shout below!

Also, make sure to sign up for a VPN service before heading to China so you can use the internet as normal (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?). I always use Express VPN:

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See my China overland travel guide here

Posted in China, Overland travel

A Stroll in Chongqing: City of Bridges and Spices, Phlegm and Trash

Historical courtyard in Chongqing

Why are you even here? This wasn’t the plan at all. You were supposed to be in Tibet.

A chaotic street scene in Chongqing

Crossing the road, you tuck in behind the old bloke bent under the weight of an enormous load of empty plastic bottles as a concrete mixer rumbles by, on its way to feed the new-growth forests of faceless tower blocks conquering the trees somewhere on the edge of this vast and booming conurbation, the truck belching a cloud of exhaust fumes into your face as it passes; holding your breath you sidestep back out past the bottle collector, straight into the cloud of cigarette smoke emanating from some gormless scooter driver’s helmet, from the kind of cigarettes they smoke here which reek like there’s a whole pack in every single stick.

Painted doorway, Chongqing

At least the smog isn’t bad today, the air having earlier been scrubbed by the rain, but you’re coughing and spluttering as you find a crack in the railing and finally escape to the relative safety of the sidewalk’s cracked pavement. But now here comes yet another smartphone zombie, eyes down and glued to the screen, a walking accident waiting to happen; but you won’t be involved, turning your shoulders and adjusting yourself to avoid a collision, spitting an off-hand curse in his ear as you pass.

And that’s not the only spitting going on; far from it. You hear it somewhere close at hand, that awful sound of someone hacking and retching up the thickest phlegm from the deepest recesses of their respiratory tract; it actually sounds like they may even have managed to hawk a lump of lung tissue up into their own mouth… then comes the pregnant pause before launch, that brief moment as they savour the flavours of a mouthful of mucus while you try to spot the danger – and there he is, it’s the old timer a few feet to your right, you spot him just as he lets fly and you watch, horrified, as an enormous globule of sputum splats down on the street with a diameter of inches, not far from your feet. It doesn’t matter how many times you see and hear this little piece of performance art – you never find it any less grotesque.

A fruit vendor sells his wares on a busy Chongqing street

A flash of colour catches your eye across the street among the greyness, distracting you from the bodily fluids you’re about to step around; a vendor hawking oranges off a hand-pulled cart he’s just parked right there on the pedestrian crossing that you should’ve used, piles of rubble visible in the wasteland behind the barrier beyond him.

A fruit vendor sells his wares on a busy Chongqing street

Pausing to take a photo, you sidestep again as a leather-faced woman squeezes past between you and the traffic, a bamboo pole across her shoulder with a large bag of something-or-other on either end, her red coat another flash of colour. It’s a popular colour here, red, being associated with good fortune; red coats, red lanterns, red shoes, red cars, red boots.

Public dancing in Chongqing

And now you come to the source of the music you’ve been hearing wafting up the street, snatches caught between the blaring of horns and the low rumble of the city, getting louder and louder as you draw closer until it drowns out even this heaving metropolis; it’s a common sight, one you’ve seen all over the country, the synchronised troupes practising their dance routines in public spaces to bizarre trance remixes of pop melodies. This lot are mostly female, mostly middle-aged or elderly, and don’t have the snappy routines and well-drilled timing you’ve seen elsewhere; but they’re having fun and keeping fit, and holy shit are they cranking out the beats! The volume is deafening, like standing right in front of the speakers at some dance music festival, the vibrations felt in your very bones. A number of onlookers sit and stand around the edge of the little square, looking utterly bored despite the decibels, dawdling with hands in pockets and cigarettes dangling out the corners of their mouths. You catch one bloke’s eye and nod a greeting; he just looks back at you impassively as he draws on his cigarette.

Old guild hall area in Chongqing

Nod hanging unrequited in the air, you turn off the main road down the steps into this little preserved historical district of old Qing-era buildings within which your guesthouse is tucked, an island of old-world charm surrounded by a grim industrial modernity. Arriving by dark the night before it looked shabby, but even in the drab light of this dreary day it’s a pleasingly nostalgic district, having a faded grandeur that’s somehow reminiscent of a hillside town on the Mediterranean, or the pictures you’ve seen of Havana, Cuba.

The old Guangdong Office in Chongqing

Old guild hall buildings in Chongqing

Old guild hall buildings in Chongqing

Descending away from the thumping beats above, you pass between the crumbling facades of old merchant courtyard buildings and the Huguang Guildhall, the paint cracking and peeling, occasionally catching glimpses of the interiors through an open portal or two, glimpses of the hillsides and the mighty river over a ramshackle wall or two.

Old guild hall buildings in Chongqing

Old guild hall area in Chongqing

An old man stoops at a doorway, his shoulder bent to a length of bamboo loaded with bags of produce; a restaurant perhaps? It’s certainly a handsome building and would make fine surrounds for a meal. Beyond it, you find yourself looking up at one of this city’s many towering bridges as it spans the river, carrying on its double decks both a road and one of the light rail lines composing a gleaming new public transit system that wasn’t there on your previous visit but 8 years before; you also see people crossing it on foot, and would do likewise. How to get up there?

Bridge over the Yangtze, Chongqing

As you search for a way up and round onto the bridge, a scruffy little dog appears above you at the top of a flight of steps; you regard one another for a moment, before he canters past and pauses, looking back at you. Seems like you’re supposed to follow, and so you do, back up another flight of steps that leads back up to another road, this the one running over the bridge.

Old guild hall area in Chongqing

Old guild hall area in Chongqing

The little dog vanishes as suddenly as he appeared, but he showed you what you were looking for, and now as the road gets up behind the old yellow buildings you see the garbage-strewn no-man’s land on the slope between buildings and bridge, a middle-aged lady rummaging down there with a bin liner, picking out and bagging the recyclables.

Modern tower blocks behind traditional buildings, Chongqing

Chongqing, City of Bridges and Garbage

As you walk out over the Yangtze you’re battered by sporadic gusts of wind and flurries of the cold November rain which is starting to fall again, the girl in red boots walking up ahead holding her umbrella flat against her face like a shield; you don’t have one, so you just hunch your shoulders and walk, stopping to take pictures when the rain intermittently stops.

Walking across the bridge over the Yangtze, Chongqing

There, over on the far side of the murky waters, stands a double-towered skyscraper shining gold from head to foot. It’s the tackiest building you’ve ever seen; back there, a woman sorts through piles of trash to pick out a meagre living, and over there a gold-plated skyscraper stands like some garish beacon of nouveau riche kitsch.

Skyscrapers on the Yangtze River, Chongqing

You’re in Chongqing, the so-called “biggest city you’ve never heard of”, the City of Bridges, the City of Spices, the City of Phlegm and Trash, this ugly, beautiful city of hills and fog and rivers and smog; and it occurs to you that you’ve just experienced the most condensed ten minutes of early-21st China you could possibly imagine, an intense 10-minute microcosm of all the contradictions and juxtapositions you see when travelling round a country racing forwards in its development while its industrious people hustle and dance in the streets…

Have you been to Chongqing? Any questions or comments? Give me a shout below!

Read about Chongqing’s awesome fiery cuisine

See all my China travel posts here

Check out my China overland travel guide

See here for some history on the Huguang Guildhall

…and if you’re heading to China, make sure to sign up for a VPN service before arriving so you can use the internet as normal (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?). I always use Express VPN:

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Posted in China, Chongqing

Life in Taipei: the Taiwan Receipt Lottery

If you’re travelling in Taiwan, you may notice that shop staff seem particularly keen for you to take your receipt; you may even notice members of public scrambling to scoop up discarded receipts from the floor.

The reason is the rows of digits printed near the top, just above the date:

Taiwan receipt lottery numbers on shop receipts

Every time you make a purchase in Taiwan, you’re actually getting a free ticket for the Taiwan receipt lottery (officially, the Uniform Invoice Lottery, 統一發票, tongyi fapiao); those digits on the receipt are your numbers. The draw is held bi-monthly, and prizes range from 200 NTD (around 6 US dollars) for matching 3 digits, up to a fairly whopping 10,000,000 NTD (over 300,000 US dollars) for an exact match on the grand prize number.

This was all started in the 1950s as a way of ensuring businesses had to run everything through the tills properly and thus report their taxes properly (something they were apparently not doing previously!)

It’s still going to this day, so it must be considered that paying out the prize money is less of a hit than chasing unpaid sales taxes, though it seems unlikely a company could fiddle the books so easily these days.

A 7-Eleven store in Taiwan

A horde of Chinese tourists outside a 7-Eleven in Jiufen. They probably all discarded their receipts… and perhaps missed out on some prize money

Anyway, as a visitor you have two options – ignore the whole thing and throw your receipts away, or keep them all and have a go at playing!

If you choose not to bother, try to put your receipts in the charity boxes (where available) so any winnings go to a good cause; otherwise, rather than binning them just leave them out for someone to easily take.

If you do decide to give it a go, the draw for the Taiwan receipt lottery is held on the 25th of the month after the end of each 2-month period e.g. receipts from January & February enter the draw on 25th March. You can check the results here (official page, in Chinese) and here (English-language blog); due to the schedule, unless you’re staying for a fairly lengthy visit you’ll likely have already left Taiwan by the time of the draw. Small prizes can be redeemed at a post office in Taiwan, while for larger ones you have to go to the bank; you’re obviously not going to fly back to Taiwan to redeem a 200 NTD prize… a 10,000,000 NTD prize, on the other hand, and you’re flying first class!

So, how much does one usually win? Well, in my last spell in Taiwan I was there for 10 months and played 6 times (4 full periods and 2 halves); I averaged one 200 NTD prize per 2-month period. That’ll buy you a good bowl of ramen, or a couple of rounds of luroufan and bubble tea; not to be sniffed at, but then is it worth the hassle of hanging on to all those receipts and the time you spend going through them all to check if you won?

To be honest, not really! But it’s a quirky little facet of life in Taiwan you could try, and you never know – you might just hit the jackpot!

Have you tried the Taiwan receipt lottery? Win anything?! Leave a comment below!

For more posts on Taipei, click here

For my guide to hiking in Taipei, click here

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Posted in Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: a Stroll Around Zhongshan

Street art in Taipei's Zhongshan District

This little bit of public art in Taipei’s Zhongshan District depicts a scene from a Chinese proverb, which tells us that though a hare may be faster than a snail, a snail will still win a race up the wall.

Street art in Taipei's Zhongshan District

Zhongshan is one of Taipei’s central shopping areas, with a handful of large department stores just outside the station (the restaurant level of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi is a good place to try Din Tai Fung’s amazing xiaolongbao), and with all sorts of independent fashion stores and all the coffee shops & restaurants you could ever ask for lining the side streets and alleyways.

Graffiti mural in Zhongshan, Taipei

There’s something of an artsy feel to the backstreets north of the station, and an urban ‘park’ along the centre of the street running north – south directly on top of the MRT Line 2 (the red line). You can actually follow this park from its southern end at Taipei Main Station all the way up to Yuanshan Station, where it feeds in to Taipei Expo Park & Yuanshan Park, and the Keelung River beyond that.

The music robot in Zhongshan, Taipei

The 音樂機器人 or ‘Music Robot’; you can make it play tracks off your phone, though I never tried it

The full length of the park is a good option if you’re in central Taipei and looking for a running route – in fact, it’s pretty much the only option beyond laps of one of the small city block parks dotted about (Linsen Park, also in Zhongshan and containing the remnants of an old Japanese shrine, is the largest) – but if you’re just looking for a stroll, it’s best to walk south from Zhongshan Station to Taipei Main Station, perhaps after a nice (but pricey) coffee in one of the independent cafes in the back streets north of the station.

Christmas decorations at Mitsukoshi department store, Zhongshan, Taipei

Trippy Christmas in Zhongshan

Although this ‘park’ is really more of a street with a decent pedestrianised public space down the centre, the quirky art installations and drink & snack joints along the sides make it a decent spot for a wander; also, if it starts raining look out for the escalators and elevators going down to the underground shopping street – this runs all the way from Taipei Main Station to Shuanglian Station, is a godsend when the heavens open, and is worth having a look in its own right.

Have you been to Zhongshan? Any comments or questions? Leave a comment below!

For more posts on Taipei, click here

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Posted in Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Remnants of the Empire of the Sun

Rinzai Zen Temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

As a former resident of Japan who moved to Taipei, it was fascinating to see the Japanese influence on this originally Chinese culture, Taiwan having been a Japanese colony for 50 years from 1895 to 1945; this influence is actually most obviously present in the cuisine (and also if you dig in to the linguistics there are plenty of Japanese loanwords in Taiwanese Mandarin), but there are fewer obvious physical reminders (i.e. Japanese buildings) than you might expect.

A fair number of Japanese buildings are still standing though, some in full use and others just bare remnants; if you keep your eyes open and know what they look like, you’ll spot them here and there.

The Shinto shrines, especially, have by and large not survived, their old torii gates today standing lonely testament to what was once there – as Shinto was used to instil patriotism and loyalty by the colonial power, it was quickly cast off after 1945 as a symbol of imperial control.

This rather forlorn torii is all that remains of Houtong Shrine, on the hill behind the town’s (also abandoned) coal mine:

The abandoned Japanese shrine in Houtong

The abandoned Japanese shrine in Houtong

(Houtong is mostly known these days for being ‘Cat Village’, but it’s also the starting point for a couple of cracking hiking trails up to the former gold mining town of Jiufen)

These two torii stand in Linsen Park in central Taipei’s Zhongshan area, near where I used to live:

Pair of torii gates in Linsen Park, Taipei

Pair of torii gates in Linsen Park

I would sometimes run a few laps of the park (the climate in Taipei not usually being favourable for my preferred longer-distance routes), and from what I understood of the information board next to the torii, the Japanese built a fairly large shrine there which attracted a kind of shanty town featuring all sorts of vendors and small businesses operating out of shacks around the shrine’s perimeter. The shrine fell into disrepair after Japanese rule ended, and the shanty town was eventually cleared out and turned into the park you see today; not sure what happened to the people living and doing business there (though I can’t imagine it worked out well for them), but the park provides some welcome green space in the centre of the modern city.

The head Shinto shrine in Taiwan, the Taiwan Grand Shrine, stood on Jiantan Mountain near Shilin Market, on the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel. The best-preserved Japanese shrine in Taiwan is apparently the Taoyuan Shrine, repurposed post-1945 as the Taoyuan Martyr’s Shrine.

The Japanese-built Buddhist temples, on the other hand, have remained mostly in use, what with Taiwan also being a largely Buddhist country; there are a number of Taiwanese temples of the Zen Buddhist sect (Zen is Chan in Mandarin), a sect most strongly associated with Japan. One of these, the Rinzai Zen Temple in Yuanshan, is the most obviously Japanese building I’ve seen in Taiwan (though the original Japanese wooden temple is now tucked away in the middle of a larger compound):

Rinzai Zen temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

The red lanterns are a nice touch of Chinese flair on an otherwise typically Japanese wooden temple hall

Chinese entrance gate to the Japanese Zen temple, Yuanshan, Taipei

The front entrance, very much Chinese in style, hiding the Japanese temple hall within

Contrasting Chinese and Japanese entrance gates to the Rinzai Zen temple in Yuanshan, Taipei

The side entrance has this pair of contrasting gates, the red Chinese and wooden Japanese standing side-by-side

Another interesting little spot is this small Buddhist rock shrine, which I visited as part of a hike in the Beitou District – although apparently of Japanese origin, it is these days festooned with Tibetan prayer flags:

The old rock shrine

Not far from there, in the Xinbeitou hot spring district, there’s a Japanese temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect called Puji Temple (Fusai-ji in Japanese). I visited Puji Temple on the same hike as the above rock shrine, though amusingly I managed to bodge the photo with my fingertip (the joys of iPhone photography…) and didn’t notice till I got home:

Japanese Temple in Taipei's Xinbeitou area

The Wikipedia page is only in Chinese (or Japanese), but you can see some fingertip-free pics there! Also see the excellent Synapticism blog.

Back in central Taipei, the busy Ximending district, an area known for its shopping and youth culture, is home to the remains of Nishi Honganji Temple (Xiben Yuan in Mandarin), which was the Taiwan branch of Japan’s Jodo Honganji Buddhist sect (the enormous head temple of which is located in Kyoto, just northwest of Kyoto Station). The most prominent feature is the temple bell, on top of a mound next to the main road (Zhonghua Road) a short distance south of Ximen Station:

Old Japanese temple bell, Ximen, Taipei

The temple’s main structure is gone, but some subsidiary buildings still stand and have been renovated. It’s a calm, open public space which contrasts nicely with the cluttered bustle of Ximending; see this page from the Taipei City Government for more information and photos.

The Japanese also constructed a series of European-style administrative buildings in central Taipei, which continue to serve as the homes of various museums, government ministries, etc. This is the same style of architecture that gave rise to, for example, the Amsterdam Station-esque facade of Tokyo Station, a trend in late-19th and early-20th Century Japanese architecture to go for grand European-style buildings as symbols of Japan’s industrialisation and ascendence as a modern world power.

The restored Meiji Era facade of Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station

See the Wikipedia page on Japanese architecture here for more information and examples, and see this neat blog post on examples of this type of architecture still seen in Tokyo today.

This Western-Japanese architectural style was brought to the colonies of Taiwan and Korea (and also Manchukuo i.e. Manchuria / Northeast China) in an effort to modernise and Japanicise them; in Taipei, the Qing-era city walls were torn down in favour of the wide boulevards running past the cluster of Japanese-era buildings standing at the heart of Taipei to this day. Following are a few examples.

The Red House, just outside Ximen Station in the Ximending shopping area; originally a market, repurposed as a theatre, and now where most of Taipei’s LGBT venues are located (it was under renovation when I went by with my camera, so I couldn’t get a shot of the main octagonal building which is covered by the scaffolding):

The Red House, Ximending, Taipei

The Presidential Office Building, originally the office of the Japanese Governor-General:

Presidential Office Building, Taipei

National Taiwan Museum:

National Taiwan Museum

The Control Yuan building:

Control Yuan Building, Taipei

(There are fewer surviving examples in Korea, though a few prominent ones in Seoul are the old Seoul Station, (one side of) City Hall, and the original Bank of Korea building; many more were torn down post-independence, most notably the Japanese Government Building which had intentionally been constructed over part of Gyeongbokgung Palace as a sign of authority. The remaining colonial buildings now have protected status)

You could easily visit Taipei and never notice these buildings, or see them but not realise they were built by the Japanese; but if you’re a bit of a history or architecture geek like me, spotting them can add a little extra interest to your exploration of the city.

Have you been to Taipei? Any comments or questions about the city’s colonial architecture? Leave a comment below!

For more posts on Taipei, click here

For my guide to hiking in Taipei, click here

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Posted in Architecture, History, Japan, Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Qilou Buildings

A typical qilou street in Taipei

I’m not sure why I stopped and snapped this picture at the time, but it captures a really typically Taiwanese scene – the guy doing the dishes in the gutter after the restaurant’s closed for the night, the lanterns, the other guy about to get on his scooter, and the recessed sidewalk of the qilou (騎樓)… away from the night markets and the central clusters of neon, this is actually how most of Taipei looks late at night.

(Never been too keen on seeing the dishes being done like that, but the food’s always great and I never got sick!)

Qilou buildings like this comprise much of the urban fabric of Taiwan’s cities (and are also common in Hong Kong, Macau, and parts of southern Mainland China, most notably Guangzhou); the residential upper floors protrude out above the commercial units along the ground floor, the resulting overhang allowing for a recessed sidewalk with a roof overhead.

If you spend any time in Taiwan you’ll quickly come to see why this is desirable, providing as it does shelter from both the sledgehammer of the summer sun, and the bucketloads of torrential rain which so often fall. Walking around in Taiwan on hot or rainy days would be absolutely brutal without the qilou protecting you!

They’re not so common in outlying suburban residential areas, such as New Taipei City, where the huge new modern blocks of flats are usually constructed without a qilou design, but folk living out there tend to zip around everywhere by scooter anyway, and you’re unlikely to find yourself walking around there while travelling in Taiwan.

One thing that always does my head in, though, is people filling up the qilou space with their parked scooters – not a design flaw in the qilou, so much as people being totally inconsiderate with their scooter habits! But the often crappy (and far-too-frequently dangerous) habits of Taiwan’s scooter drivers is another topic for another day…

For more Taipei posts click here, and for my Taiwan overland travel guide click here. Also check out my Taipei hiking guide here

Posted in Architecture, Taipei, Taiwan

Life in Taipei: Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung

Xiaolongbao (小籠包, literally ‘little basket buns’) are a specialty of both Shanghai and Taipei – small dough parcels of pork and soup, they’re like bite-sized explosions of delicious joy in your mouth.

A basket of xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung, Taipei

Originally from Shanghai, xiaolongbao became a local staple in Taiwan with the wave of mainland immigrants that fled there in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, as Mao’s communists defeated the Kuomintang nationalists. The Shanghai and Taiwan styles have diverged slightly over the years since – the Shanghainese say theirs are the original and best, while the Taiwanese say that although xiaolongbao originated in Shanghai, they were perfected in Taiwan (the main difference is apparently how thick the skin is, and how soupy the contents – the Taiwanese version having thinner dough and a touch more soup).

I’m not going to weigh in on that debate, because in Shanghai I’ve only sampled the cheap street food version (which were also really good), whereas in Taiwan I’ve had the Michelin-starred restaurant version so it’s hardly a fair comparison! What I can say is that those Michelin-starred xiaolongbao were hands down the most delicious dumplings I’ve ever eaten and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and they should definitely be on your to-do list for a visit to Taipei.

Enjoying xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung

Happy campers

The place is to go is Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐), a Taipei-based restaurant which now has branches all over the city and all around Taiwan, plus a few overseas. I’d already been living in Taipei for months by the time I finally got round to going – I’d eaten plenty of xiaolongbao from mom & pop stores, street stalls, and night market vendors, and they were all really good, but I’m not a fan of lining up for food and needed some extra motivation to do so for xiaolongbao. That finally came in the form of a group of friends visiting from Japan, and though we had to wait for 45 minutes for our table it was worth every second!

The dumplings at Din Tai Fung are pretty damn expensive by usual Taiwan dumpling standards, but it’s also one of the cheapest places in the world with a Michelin star (and therefore the only one I’ve yet been to!); the service is impeccable, the food is amazing, and it’s great being able to watch the kitchen staff preparing the dumplings to order behind glass screens and see the precision and efficiency that goes into such a seemingly simple dish.

Xiaolongbao and Taiwan Beer at Din Tai Fung

Wash your xiaolongbao down with a few bottles of the local brew

Din Tai Fung has locations in all the big department stores around town; the main ones are Sogo and Takashimaya, so find the nearest one of those and there should be a Din Tai Fung in the basement food levels. Or just head to their flagship restaurant on Xinyi Road near exit 5 of Dongmen Station, or the huge one in the basement of Taipei 101 Mall (at the base of the famous Taipei 101 skyscraper); it’s crazy popular, so be prepared to go on a waiting list for up to an hour (perhaps more) if you go at a busy time.

The staff at Din Tai Fung speak excellent English and are well-used to serving foreigners, so they’ll explain the various options and the correct method for eating them with the accompanying shredded ginger and dipping sauce. There’s a range of dumpling fillings available in addition to the classic pork, including chicken, pork & scallion, and shrimp, and red bean or sesame buns for desert. Everything we had was absolutely amazing – the xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung were seriously so good they put a massive grin on my face for the rest of the night!

Have you had xiaolongbao in Taipei? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

For more Taipei posts click here, and for my Taiwan overland travel guide click here. Also check out my Taipei hiking guide here.

Posted in Food, Taipei, Taiwan

A Near Miss With One of Thailand’s Deadly Rich Kids

Bangkok traffic: Thai driving is some of the deadliest on Earth

Bus, car, tuk tuk, bike: survival of the biggest? (photo credit: see below)

So there I was, bottle of Singha in hand, strolling along the street through On Nut (a suburb of Bangkok) towards the Skytrain station to go meet friends, when this car brushed past me – a matter of millimetres from connecting – angled off the road, and crumpled itself into first the lamppost and then the wall directly in front of me. Had he been an inch further over, or had I been one second further ahead, I would’ve been squashed very much between a car and a hard place.

This was one of those typical roads which make up the capillary system of suburban Bangkok; not the wide thoroughfares which compose the major arteries, not the alleys of central Bangkok with their houses and shop fronts opening to the street (and, accordingly, high foot traffic and – one would hope – therefore more careful driving), but a narrow road between the high outer walls of housing developments, very much for the favour of suburban drivers rather than those on foot.

Fact is, like pretty much all major SE Asian cities, most of Bangkok outside the downtown core just isn’t a very walker-friendly place; but I am very much a walker, someone who likes walking here, there, and everywhere, and started out trying to do so when I first moved to Bangkok. This was in the winter months, when the relatively cooler and drier weather makes walking (just about) bearable – in the months of the hot season (March to May) and wet season (June to October), the idea of walking any real distance in Bangkok is mental!

But living there in the cooler months, I fancied I could try walking a bit – at least for the couple of miles to the Skytrain station, instead of taking a songthaew or a sketchy motorbike ride. The songthaews get horribly packed, they get snarled up in traffic, and they leave you breathing all the fumes; the bikes are way faster and more comfortable (and more expensive), but I just don’t like getting on bikes in SE Asia… the drivers all have helmets, but you don’t get one as a passenger… and I’ve seen an accident in Vietnam and an accident’s aftermath in Cambodia, and you ain’t getting me on a bike.

Anyway, much as I may love Bangkok, I quickly learned that even with decent weather walking can be pretty unpleasant in the Thai capital; the roving packs of soi dogs can be outright dangerous (and the guard dogs in peoples’ gardens are also thoroughly obnoxious as you pass), the waterways you cross smell utterly foul, the suburban bushes are overflowing with garbage, and, as I experienced that evening, walking puts you in the line of fire of some of the shittiest driving on the planet.

As I walked along that narrow road with no sidewalk I kept myself between the drain and the wall, as you do, the small space which serves somewhat as a pedestrian walkway. As you walk along there, the cars are passing perhaps two feet from you, so it’s pretty close already; all it takes is for someone to fall asleep at the wheel, be a drunk-driving piece of shit, or somehow or other lose control and drift over slightly, and you could find yourself directly in their path.

I guess this guy who missed me by a whisker in his shiny sports car (not so shiny any more, dickhead – ha!) had dozed off perhaps fifty metres behind me as he drove along this straight stretch of road, and drifted over to his left; thus he angled off the road, just missed me, and wrecked his car right in front of me, right where I would’ve been walking a second later.

“Holy. fucking. shit!” pretty much sums up my immediate thoughts, followed by, roughly, “well, shit, this car just nearly killed me but now I’m the closest person to the scene of an accident and I guess it’s on me to help the occupants, if I can.”

I didn’t yet have a Thai SIM card in my phone so I couldn’t make an emergency call, but I could see a few people looking on from the 7-Eleven at the corner of a side street up ahead, and some were on their phones; so I just went to check on the car’s occupants, ready to (at least attempt to) recall and finally use some long-since-forgotten first aid training, if necessary.

But I wasn’t even sure who was in there, never mind their condition. If you spend some time in Thailand, you’ll notice that many cars drive around with blacked-out windows. This seems especially true of the cashed-up ‘high-so’ (high society) rich kids who drive around drunk in their daddy’s flash cars, and I now found myself looking at such a car, all smashed up and with steam venting profusely from the engine.

I couldn’t see in through the windows to check how may people were inside, so I just hurried round to the driver’s door, which was still operable – unlike the passenger side which was utterly mangled, as would have been any poor soul sat on that side.

Opening the door, I found the driver was thankfully the sole occupant, a local lad of perhaps 18; he appeared to be uninjured, so I asked him if he was ok… and the smell of hard liquor hit me square in the face. This fucking little dipshit smelled like a goddamn motherfucking whisky distillery, was clearly in no fit state to be behind the wheel, and had just only very narrowly not killed me. He looked blearily up at me through glazed and bloodshot eyes and mumbled something unintelligible; disgusted, I let rip with a torrent of the most colourful expletives I’ve possibly ever unleashed, which I doubt he comprehended a word of – even if the guy did speak English he was too shitfaced drunk to do so at that point in time.

Obviously, if this had been the UK or Canada or Japan, I would’ve stuck around to give the police a statement and tell them that this stupid little prick just almost killed me. But it occurred to me that if I did so that evening, in that city, I might just be making things worse for myself; you can’t exactly trust the police when you’re in a military dictatorship (even one like Thailand which at least outwardly looks somewhat functional), and if this kid was indeed the son of a rich and powerful family he could very likely wriggle his way out of any real consequences anyway – as have so many of Thailand’s ‘deadly rich kids‘.

So did I really want to go through any ballache dealing with the police and the bureaucratic nightmare that might result? I decided not, and hastened away from the scene, leaving this drunk-driving douchebag still sat in the driver’s seat of his expensive wreckage; a short time later I heard the wail of sirens, and hopefully the police found him still sat there and he was appropriately punished. Even if not, he’d just written off an expensive vehicle and I like to think he at least learned a lesson from the resulting financial consequences, or preferably from being ripped a new one by his old man.

So I continued on my way to meet friends in Asok, and told them over beers about my lucky escape; they shared their own stories of the many accidents they’d witnessed in Thailand, mostly involving bikes and scooters. And in the mere four months I lived in Bangkok, I went on to see another three accidents (all involving bikes), but thankfully nothing too serious.

A crashed bus in Bangkok

Found this crazy shot on Flickr! Hopefully no-one was seriously hurt (photo credit: see below)

Looking the stats up, Thailand has the 2nd-highest per capita road fatality rate in the world, behind only Libya. It’s actually quite odd – Thailand is wealthier and more developed than the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and has far better infrastructure, but yet manages to have a much worse road safety record. Surely this is something their government should be trying harder to rectify, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Have a read of this sobering BBC report, and check out this amazing video about Bangkok volunteers who spend their time taking care of deceased traffic victims, with the utmost respect and dignity; truly, truly, very impressive people, but why are volunteers even required to do that? Sort your shit out Thailand (if you’re not too busy jailing people for writing Facebook posts and the like)

So anyway, what does this mean for a traveller to Thailand, and SE Asia as a whole? Well, personally I’ll always take a metered taxi instead of a tuk tuk or moto (air conditioning, windows, and metered fare vs rip-off with traffic fumes in your face – already no contest before you even consider which one comes out worse in a collision), and you will never, ever catch me renting a motorbike or scooter in Thailand or anywhere else in SE Asia. Or in fact anywhere else at all, for that matter, because I don’t have a scooter licence and I know that means my insurance wouldn’t cover me in the event of an accident.

The best way to not be in a bike accident is, of course, to simply not rent a bike; but if you do, make sure you’re actually insured to do so – something which requires you to have a proper licence. If you’re not, and you have an accident, and it’s serious, you’re basically fucked.

You also won’t catch me taking any (more) night buses in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, etc – I have done so on a number of occasions, especially in Indonesia where distances can be huge (think one driver for two days straight, sleeping only at meal stops – as I experienced during a pretty terrifying journey on the Trans-Sumatra Highway, though at least it led to me learning to appreciate Led Zeppelin), but you know, it just isn’t worth it. Crashes do happen, and the night buses can be pretty shitty experiences even when they arrive safely.

And of course you may very well be in an accident through no fault whatsoever of your own – so again, make sure you have decent insurance. Check out World Nomads as they offer flexible travel insurance which you can purchase even after you’ve already left your home country – I once found out how important that bit of small print can be when my camera got pickpocketed (which was, in fact, another lesson I learned in Bangkok!)

Just a week or so after my near-miss with a drunk-driver, I got bitten by a dog… at that point it seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something, and though I stuck around a while longer I stopped walking to the Skytrain and I was already making plans to move back to my beloved Taipei. Bangkok remains one of my favourite cities to visit, but I doubt I’ll go back to live there again!

Any stories or questions about Thailand’s roads? Leave me a comment below!

For more Thailand posts, click here

Check out my Thailand overland travel guide

Photo credits 1:Pedro Alonso 2:Walter Lim (both via Flickr and used under Creative Commons Licence)

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to World Nomads and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m linking to them because I know and trust them through personal experience; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase your insurance via the above links!)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand

Overland Routes from China to Southeast Asia

If you’re looking to travel overland from China to SE Asia (or vice versa) you have four main route options: Guangxi province to Vietnam, Yunnan province to Vietnam, Yunnan to Laos (and Thailand), and Yunnan to Myanmar.

There also used to be a boat down the Mekong direct from Jinghong in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region to Thailand, passing between Myanmar and Laos but entering neither (with no visa required for either), arriving in Thailand near the Golden Triangle. However, this hasn’t been possible since an outbreak of drug-related violence on the Mekong in 2011; the boat was suspended in the aftermath and on both of my visits to Jinghong (in 2012 and 2015), I investigated whether the boat was operating again, in the hope of perhaps taking it, and it wasn’t. As of 2017, this boat still doesn’t appear to have resumed operations, and with the new Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge having opened it seems unlikely that it will.

China to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar route map

Map of the routes from Kunming (Yunnan) to SE Asia

This page mostly deals with the Yunnan routes; the outline for Guangxi is that you can take a train or bus between the Guangxi provincial capital Nanning and the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, crossing the border at Dong Dang, or you can cross by bus further south at Mong Cai for Halong Bay. The Nanning – Hanoi trains are direct sleepers (no change required at the border) running daily, with two services per week actually running direct all the way Hanoi – Beijing (see Seat61 for details).

China to Myanmar Overland

Looking at the three routes from Kunming, be aware that it’s only possible to enter Myanmar overland if you also leave again the same way and pay for expensive permits (which also require you to pay for private guides & vehicles). Of course this also means you’ll need to have at least a double-entry Chinese visa too. So, it can be done but it’s expensive, and it’s no good for onward travel to the rest of SE Asia; it’s therefore probably only worth it if, say, you live in Kunming and fancy a trip to Myanmar and back. See my Myanmar page for more details.

That aside, essentially you have the two routes available from Kunming – head to Hanoi by road or rail, or head to Laos by road via Xishuangbanna.

Highway scenery between Kunming and Xishuangbanna

It’s a great drive from Kunming down to Xishuangbanna

Kunming to Vietnam Overland

The first option, Kunming – Hanoi, involves a 6-hour train ride (or bus) to the border town Hekou, with a taxi from the station to the border crossing; once across to the Vietnamese border town Lao Cai, you can take a 1-hour minivan up to the former French hill station of Sapa, or continue on to Hanoi (another 7 to 11 hours by road or rail).

An interesting alternative route you could take here is to head to Laos through Vietnam i.e. cross at Hekou/Lao Cai and head up to Sapa, then after your visit there head to Dien Bien Phu and cross into northern Laos at Pang Hoc, from where you can eventually continue on to Luang Nam Tha. I actually considered this route when I was last in Kunming, but I’m not the biggest fan of Vietnam after all the crazy shit I experienced there and in the end I simply couldn’t be bothered with it – so I just took the most direct route possible, from Xishuangbanna to Chiang Rai in one day via northern Laos (see below).

Kunming to Laos Overland

Xishuangbanna is an interesting area in its own right, which is an attractive point about this option; an 8 to 10 hour bus ride (it really can vary that much) from Kunming gets you to Jinghong (Xishuangbanna’s main town), and after a couple days chilling there you can head on to Laos by bus.

The bus ride from Kunming to Jinghong takes you through some cracking terrain; most of Yunnan is at significant altitude, but Xishuangbanna is a low(er)-lying jungle area and the overall elevation drop is some 1,400m, most of which is in the middle section of the journey. It’s a really good, relatively new highway which soars along viaducts above the lush carpets of the rice terraces below, plunging through tunnels in the mountainsides and re-emerging onto dramatic bridges over the valleys, everything green and verdant with stands of bamboo exploding out of the hillsides like frozen bursts of forest shrapnel. It’s definitely a cool bus ride, and I even enjoyed it the second time round (which is often not the case); one thing though – if, like me, you hate the sleeper buses in China, get to the bus station nice and early to make sure you have the option of a seater (there are multiple departures through the day, some sleepers, some seaters, but it seems to be only sleepers from lunchtime onwards).

Despite being in China, Jinghong in many ways feels like the biggest Laotian city; it’s certainly a fascinating mish-mash of SE Asian and Chinese cultures, with a whole multitude of ethnic groups present and all the signs in both Lao and Chinese; it’s a far more bustling place than the sleepy Lao capital Vientianne, and worth chilling in for a day or two.

An enormous moth with striking markings

This beauty was at the Boten border post

From Jinghong you can take the bus to Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos (a lovely area to explore, also well worth a few days of your trip), a journey of around 8 hours via Mengla. You might be able to change money when you make a rest stop in Mengla – first time I did this route, a fruit vendor just outside the Mengla bus station offered good rates (and delicious fruit), but the second time we stopped somewhere different and there wasn’t anywhere to change money so I changed some at the border.

The bus was full of fruit & veg!

Be prepared for the possibility of sharing the bus with a load of produce from Mengla!

Be very careful if changing money with one of the many black market money changers hanging out at the border post – make sure you know in advance the correct rate for the day, which you won’t get but make sure it’s not too far off, and watch very closely for some sleight of hand. She tried every trick in the book on me, pretending not to have any 50,000s and trying to give me a huge stack of 10,000s with a bunch of similar-coloured 1,000s hidden in it, then trying to pass some 20,000s off as 50,000s, miscounting the number of bills, and pretending not to have small bills for the last little bit. I insisted on 50,000s, counted it all back out and checked the notes before accepting it, rejected the smaller bills she’d slipped in with the larger bills, and eventually had the correct amount we’d agreed upon. That was already at a rate which was a bit more beneficial to her than the official rate, so although it made her a bit stroppy I didn’t feel remotely bad about blocking her scam attempts. Actually it was kinda fun and I was having a laugh with her by the end of the transaction but anyway change money in Mengla if possible, or just wait until you reach Luang Nam Tha… I only changed at the border that second time as I was going all the way through to Thailand that same day and thought I might need some Laotian kip for food and for the evening bus to Thailand (turned out I didn’t – read on).

Also, if you need a visa-on-arrival remember you need cash to pay for it; the price varies according to both your country and the currency you pay in, and you get a better price paying in Chinese yuan or US dollars than you do in Laotian kip (another reason to avoid changing money at the border).

Deforestation in northern Laos

Luang Nam Tha is a beautiful region, but sadly you’ll see a lot of this – the price of development in northern Laos

From Luang Nam Tha you can then either travel further south through Laos to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and beyond, or cross over to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

China to Thailand Overland in One Day (via Xishuangbanna – Huay Xai bus and 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge)

I don’t recommend skipping Laos – it’s a great place – but if you’ve been before and are in a rush to get to Thailand, since the opening of the 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2013 it’s become possible to make it the whole way from Jinghong to Chiang Rai (or even Chiang Mai) in a single day’s travel. Prior to the bridge opening, the necessity of crossing the Mekong by boat meant spending at least one night in Chiang Khong, Huay Xai, or Luang Nam Tha (I once spent the night at the border town of Chiang Khong, having arrived too late for the boat – even ending up in a face off with a couple of sketchy street dogs)

To do this, you need to catch the 5am bus from Jinghong to Huay Xai, the town on the Laos side of the Mekong (if you don’t get this first bus of the day, Luang Nam Tha is as far as you’ll get). The bus drives from Jinghong to Mengla where you’ll have a rest stop, then crosses the border at Boten. Don’t worry about changing money in Mengla, and definitely not with the scammers at the border – you can use Chinese yuan or US dollars to pay for your Laos visa and lunch near the border, and when you reach Huay Xai in the evening the bus station has official moneychangers where you can change your remaining Chinese yuan for Thai baht, and you can buy your onward bus ticket using baht.

On the Laos side of the border you stop at a restaurant for lunch, then drive the whole way across this beautiful northern corner of Laos to reach Huay Xai around 5pm, the bus dropping you directly at the new international bus station (an impressive setup, part of the bridge development) in time for the last bus to Thailand.

The staff there are very much on the ball – as soon as we got off the bus they were checking whether we wanted to go to Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, or Chiang Mai, whether we needed to change money, and getting us through immigration as efficiently as possible to the waiting bus. Remember to have some small denomination bills (US 1$ bills are best) ready for your Laos departure tax; if you want to go all the way to Chiang Mai, they’ll switch you to a minivan on the Thai side – this would make for an insanely long day though!

I haven’t done the journey in the opposite direction, but as of March 2017 (see Houei Sai – JingHong in final image here, and check locally for the latest information) a bus for Jinghong leaves the Houay Xai international station at 10am; this is too early for direct connections from Chiang Rai, so being in Houay Xai (at the right station) in time to catch this after waking up in Chiang Rai would require taking the first bus at 5am to Chiang Khong (having them drop you at the turnoff for the bridge), then local transportation through immigration and over the bridge. You might want to spend the night in Chiang Khong (the town on the Thai side of the border – a pleasant enough place to spend a night, except for the sketchy dogs) or in Houay Xai itself instead. Or in Luang Nam Tha! (I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done this route from Chiang Rai to Jinghong in one day)

Any updates you can share for future overlanders? Got any questions? Leave me a comment below!

Also, make sure to sign up for a VPN service before heading to China so you can use the internet as normal (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?). I always use Express VPN:

Express VPN advertising banner

For more China posts, click here

See my China overland travel guide here

Posted in China, Overland travel, Southeast Asia

Dog Bites Man: on soi dogs, getting bitten, and rabies shots in Bangkok

Thai soi dogs

Bitten in Bangkok

Khao San Road, circa 3am… (and this is not the first story I’ve told on these pages that picks up at that time & place!) …my Canadian buddy’s waiting for me in the street while I pop in to a bar to grab us two more beers and make use of their restrooms.

(drinking in the street on Khao San, toilets are an issue; you have to use the (paid, shitty) public toilets, pay to use a hotel’s, or, best, pop into a cheap bar to take a leak and grab takeout beers… guys can also pee in alleyways of course, but that’s running a high risk of being cornered by a pack of ladyboys… happened to me once and I only narrowly escaped!)

Heading back out to rejoin him and resume whatever political debate we’d been in the middle of, I suddenly felt the most unexpected of sensations – a set of sharp teeth sinking themselves into my Achilles tendon… this fucking little bastard dog just ran up out of nowhere, unseen and completely unprovoked, and got stuck straight into the back of my leg!

I shook it off, and when it gathered itself to lunge again I aimed a kick at its face, which didn’t connect but caused it to back off. At this point, the owner of the bar intervened – very much on the dog’s side! The mangy little mutt didn’t look like anyone’s pet, but she was obviously fond of it and told me to leave it alone.

Me leave it alone? Haha… I was most definitely not the aggressor here!

Fact is, Thailand unfortunately has an issue with street dogs, or soi dogs (soi is the Thai word for alley); living rough on the streets and forming into packs as wild dogs do, they have tough lives. It’s awful to see animals living in lousy conditions like that, but that’s not the only issue. They can also be really sketchy, sometimes outright aggressive, and human fatalities do occasionally occur directly from dog attacks, and more frequently from rabies contracted from dog bites.

As much as I pity the soi dogs, they also shit me right up; though this was the first time I’d actually been bitten, this wasn’t the first run in I’d had…

Territorial Soi Dogs in Ayutthaya

On my first visit to Bangkok, my buddy Danny and I took a day trip up to Ayutthaya; as we got off the boat across the river from the station, a random dog snapped at Danny’s bare ankle, Danny just pulling his leg away in time. Totally unprovoked, and of course it makes you worry about rabies. A short time later as we walked to the ancient ruins, we rounded a corner to find a pack of seven or eight dogs straggled across the road; their ears pricked up and they all stood and took interest in us, and not in a friendly way judging from their body language. We turned back and found a different route.

Ayutthaya… cool place, but watch out for the soi dogs!

A Face Off with Two Soi Dogs on the Laos Border

A few years after that, when en route from Chiang Rai to Laos, I’d spent the night in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong (this was before the 4th Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge existed, and we hadn’t made it in time for the last boat over the Mekong); my beloved Leeds United FC were playing in the League One Playoff Final that day, and I went off in search of an internet cafe to follow the game (smartphones and wifi everywhere weren’t a thing yet). I totally failed to find an internet cafe though, and in fact the whole town was shuttered up for the night; but what I did find was a pair of stray dogs blocking my way back along the town’s only road.

Attempting to calmly pass them didn’t work; they jumped to attention, growling and snarling and adopting threatening postures. It seemed they’d attack if I got any closer, so I backed off and waited for them to hopefully lose interest or wander off.

But they stayed right there, so I tried to pass again by walking flush against the wall at the side of the street, giving them as wide a berth as possible; but they still wouldn’t let me pass.

I couldn’t see any other way around, but there was a pile of bricks at the side of the road. I picked up a brick in each hand, and decided I’d just call their bluff and walk past them; and if they actually attacked, I’d just have to fucking well bash their skulls in… or get ripped to shreds… even odds, perhaps; any more than two though and there’d have been no chance.

So, thus armed, I approached again; as they snarled and gathered themselves to lunge, I told them (as calmly as I could) to chill out and let me pass, and started walking through.

They snarled; they growled; and then they ran at me. This was it, they were actually attacking, I was in a fight to the death with two dogs… shit! I raised my right hand, brick at the ready, and shaped to smash it into the first dog as it leapt – and the dog slammed on the brakes, whimpered and yelped, and ran away with its tail between its legs, its companion following suit.

I guess they were as scared of me as I was of them; their threat display was menacing, but all it took was a threat display in return and they backed off. These dogs live hard lives, and have likely taken a kick or two before. And so, thankfully, I got back to my guesthouse unshredded (where I eventually learned (via SMS, I think) that Leeds United had lost the final).

Bangkok’s Soi Dog Problem

There are an estimated 8.5 million (Bangkok Post, via Wikipedia) to 10 million (Canadian Medical Association Journal) stray dogs in Thailand with 300,000 in Bangkok, 1 in 10 of which are estimated to have rabies. Dog attacks are a regular occurrence (I can’t find any full national statistics but according to the above CAMJ report, 1.3% of foreign visitors get bitten), occasionally severe enough to be fatal – and even if the wounds themselves aren’t severe, the victims sometimes get rabies and that is virtually always fatal.

Thai soi dogs

By day, the soi dogs look positively wretched and pathetic, curled up in gutters and keeping a low profile; but come midnight when the road and foot traffic dies down and it’s dark, packs of soi dogs roam the streets and you don’t want to bump into them when they’re on the move with their tails up. Half a dozen growling dogs in a dark alley is seriously scary, even if they are skinny little things. Some people even carry weapons for just that reason.

It isn’t just the soi dogs that are scary in Thailand either; pet dogs very much double up as guard dogs, and walking through residential areas at night you’re constantly subjected to aggressive barking from the dogs in the houses you pass. It’s not so bad by day, but even then they’ll still sometimes give you a bit of verbals as you pass. The houses all have high walls and solid gates so it isn’t scary per se, but it’s extremely tedious and they don’t half scare the bejesus out of you sometimes when you’re not expecting it – what’s more, the barking of the house dogs attracts and excites any soi dogs in the area. Between the aggressive guard dogs and the roaming packs of soi dogs, I quickly learned to simply not walk around late at night.

In a perfect world, all of these poor animals would be rounded up, the rabid ones put down humanely, and the rest adopted and taken in by people who would show them a bit of love. Some lucky dogs do get adopted, but given that that’s not going to happen in anything like sufficient numbers what really needs to happen is a large-scale program to spay & neuter enough of the existing dogs to control the future population. The Soi Dog Foundation is a Phuket-based charity also active in Bangkok which runs adoption and spay & neutering programs; if you want to help, check out their website (and here’s the Wikipedia page for more background reading)

Thai soi dogs

So anyway, back to Khao San Road; I’d just been bitten by this little shit that may or may not have been a pet, or perhaps semi-stray, and now the bar owner lady was giving me shit for not being happy about getting bitten!

Although it was a bit like adding insult to injury that she was having a go at me, it was actually a good thing from a rabies perspective. And that was the real issue – although the bite did hurt a bit it was only a small dog and I was wearing jeans and socks, so the wound was light. But a light wound is still enough for rabies transmission, and a rabies infection is a death sentence; if the animal is wild or stray, a full course of shots is required (usually 5 shots over a month) with the first within 24 hours of the bite.

But if the animal is known (e.g. someone’s pet), it helps as the animal can be observed – rabid animals are only contagious in the final days before death, so if the animal is still healthy 2 weeks after biting you, you’re in the clear. You still have to have a shot within 24 hours and a second a few days later, but the full course can be discontinued if the animal can be observed and confirmed healthy within the relevant timeframe.

So, while I didn’t appreciate the bar owner taking sides against me, at least it would help that the bar staff seemed to know this animal… or at least, it should have helped. But when I tried to ask about the dog’s health, where it lived or if it belonged to anyone, she got really defensive; when I persisted (politely) I was told to fuck off, right to my face, with a few guys appearing to back her up. Having seen some vicious beatings on Khao San in the past, I knew I had to just walk away and accept I’d need the full rabies course.

It did occur to me I could still report it to whatever body is responsible for dangerous animals and rabies in Bangkok (if indeed there is one), but it also occurred that the dog would likely then be destroyed, and I’d have made some enemies on Khao San Road – not a good idea when you live in Bangkok and drink on Khao San several times a month! And perhaps that’s why she got so defensive of the dog – she didn’t want it getting put down. Fair enough I suppose.

Hungover Sunday Hospital Visit for Rabies Treatment

So, anyway, there I am on Khao San, they’ve just told me to fuck off and pulled the shutter down to end the conversation, and my buddy has to leave soon anyway with an early morning flight to catch. So we finish those beers and call it a night, and I head home to deal with the bite. This means first thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the wound, then getting to a hospital within 24 hours for the first shot. As I got home at 4am, I decided to get some sleep after cleaning it, and head to hospital when I woke up.

Not how I like to spend my Sunday, especially when hungover! To make matters worse, the public hospitals close on Sundays so I had to fork out for a swanky private clinic (the Sukumvit Hospital next to Ekkamai Skytrain station, near where I was living at the time – yes, Sukhumvit is usually romanised with an ‘h’ in it, but the hospital styles itself without the h for whatever reason). I have to say it was top notch – the doctors and nurses were excellent and all spoke great English – but factoring in the consultation fee, a rabies shot, a tetanus shot, and some antibiotics, made it by far the most expensive night out I ever had in Thailand!

Fortunately (and to my surprise) they said the rabies vaccination I’d had many years earlier was still good, so I only needed two shots rather than the full 5 and this would be the same regardless of whether the dog could be observed or not, so no need to try checking back on it.

A few days later I went for the second shot at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University Hospital (near Victory Monument Skytrain Station), which was far cheaper but still gave exemplary service and care. The young doctor cracked a nice joke referencing Khao San’s reputation for crazy behaviour, asking if I was sure it was actually a dog that bit me?!

This actually happened in the same month that a drunk driver almost took me out when he totalled his sports car right in front of me… seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something! (and I took the hint – I moved back to Taiwan a short time later)

So anyway, a few injections and that was that. Not nearly as good a story as my Canadian friend who got savaged by a monkey in southern Thailand a few months before that and had to get all 5 shots – she was a good source of advice!

Should You Get the Rabies Vaccination Before Travelling?

So is it really worth getting the rabies vaccination in advance before you leave? Well, the shots are likely more expensive at home, but in the event of a bite you only need 2 shots, which will be far less disruptive to your trip than having to make 5 separate hospital visits! And on the one hand, only 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand; but then on the other hand, a whopping 1.3% percent of foreign visitors get bitten by dogs in Thailand! That works out as more than 400,000 tourists per year, which is quite a lot really (and that’s not even counting monkey bites).

One line of reasoning is not to get vaccinated in advance as, in the event you do get bitten, you can then claim the costs back on your travel insurance; this is probably fine so long as you’re never going to be more than 24 hours away from a clinic, you’re able to cover the cost of the full course until you can make your claim, and are prepared to accept the extra disruption to your trip of making five separate hospital visits. I always use World Nomads for my travel insurance, especially as I’m usually buying insurance on the go when I’m already overseas (which most travel insurance companies don’t allow – as I once found out the hard way when my camera got pinched in Bangkok); however, another thing to consider is that if you’re not vaccinated, in the case of severe bites they’ll also want to give you an immunoglobulin injection which a) may not be available outside major cities and b) sounds deeply unpleasant (it’s a big old injection, apparently), so take that into account too.

What to do if You Get Bitten

Firstly, clean the wound thoroughly with disinfectant, soap and water, or whichever of those you have available, and then seek medical attention – remember, the most crucial thing is to receive the first shot within 24 hours. If you’re somewhere remote like rural Laos, you need to get yourself to a large town with a decent hospital as pronto as possible.

As for the animal, if it’s possible to observe it for the next couple of weeks, and if there’s a relevant authority in the country you’re in, then it’s worth contacting them and possibly saving yourself having to do the full course of treatment; otherwise, you have to assume the worst and get the full set of shots.

For more detail, see here

Again, don’t forget to buy a good travel insurance policy! If you did leave home without one, World Nomads will still cover you.

And finally, if you want to help soi dogs in Thailand, here’s the link to the Soi Dog Foundation again.

Have you had any run-ins with soi dogs in Thailand? Been bitten? If you have any questions or stories, leave me a comment below!

For more Thailand posts, click here

Check out my Thailand overland travel guide

Dog photo credits 1&3:Thai Dogs 2:nist6dh (all via Flickr and used under Creative Commons Licence)

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to World Nomads and make a purchase, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m linking to them because I know and trust them through personal experience; thank you in advance should you choose to purchase your insurance via the above links!)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand

One of Those Days: a comedy of errors when taking the JR Beetle

Busan Harbor Bridge

Busan Harbor Bridge

So the other week I had one of those travel days where everything fucks up – and it was mostly my own fault. I’d done the JR Beetle hydrofoil trip between Busan (South Korea) and Fukuoka (Japan) several times before, so I knew exactly I where I was going and what I was doing – or so I thought.

Doing this crossing on regular weekdays you can usually rock up at the port and buy a ticket for the next departure (there are three per day in each direction), but as I was travelling in the Golden Week holiday period and only a had one day spare on my Korean entry stamp, I figured I should book ahead to avoid any headaches. As turned out, booking ahead resulted in major headaches!

Since my previous passage on the Beetle, they’ve for some reason taken down their English website, so I had to use the Japanese one (Korean is also available); I can read schedules in Japanese well enough, so it wasn’t such a problem. But while checking it out, I spotted the discount internet fares… “Hello, what’s this?” I thought, had a read through, and managed to book myself a round trip for 16000 yen instead of 28000 yen, entirely in Japanese. High five to me! Or so I thought…

So a couple of days later I zoomed down from Seoul to Busan on the KTX (the Korean bullet train), arriving two hours before departure; plenty of time for some food and coffee and a nice 20-minute stroll down to the ferry terminal, the location of which I knew well from my previous times passing through the port of Busan.

Except that terminal is now the Busan Domestic Passenger Terminal, for overnight car ferries to Jeju Island. The Beetle these days sails from the brand spanking new Busan International Ferry Terminal, which all Japan-bound sailings switched to last year! I guess if JR Beetle still had an English page, this would’ve been explained; and I guess the port information is probably explained on the Japanese page, but thinking I already knew the information I just booked my tickets and left the site (although I can read Japanese to an extent, I’m not remotely approaching native level – it takes me a fair bit of effort to fully decipher a web page, and information often won’t leap out at me if I’m not specifically looking for it).

Thankfully there was a helpful lady at the now-domestic terminal who spoke good English (my Korean is minimal) and was able to equip me with a map to the new international terminal – which, naturally enough, is exactly where I’d just walked from! i.e. just behind Busan Station. I didn’t really have time to walk back, so jumped in a taxi for 3000 won (the driver was cool; he spoke Japanese, so we had a little Japanese chat about how much we both love Kyoto) which got me there in 5 minutes.

Bit of a fuck up, but, I figured, a mostly harmless and fairly amusing one; arriving at the enormous new terminal, I saw it’s well-furnished with cafes and a food court, and would’ve been perfect for the coffee and lunch I’d wanted before sailing.

(Full info on the new Busan terminal here)

“Ah well, all’s good, at least I know for next time and can update the info on 4corners,” I thought, as I approached the checkin counter.

So imagine my face when they told me my reservation that day was for sailing from Fukuoka to Busan! I’d only gone and booked my discount internet tickets in completely the wrong fucking direction, the exact opposite of what I wanted! She asked if I wanted to cancel my reservation, and obviously I wasn’t about to board a ferry in Fukuoka, Japan, given that I was physically standing there in Busan, Korea, so I had no choice; but that got me only a 50% refund due to the cancellation terms. I then had to purchase new tickets at the full regular fare (thankfully at least a few seats were still available that day despite it being a few days before Golden Week), so that little mistake cost me 200 dollars all in. I say little mistake, because it was one single kanji (Chinese character) word on the booking screen that I’d failed to catch – the column I’d thought was for the destination was actually headed 出発地 i.e. point of departure. I should’ve spotted it really, but I’d failed to pay attention to a single word and thus entered my destination ports as my departure ports. Motherfucker!

That’s the problem with speaking a language, but only partially – you think you’ve done it right, but miss one little thing and you end up totally screwing up!

It was painful handing my credit card over… I even found myself thinking (shock horror) that I should’ve just flown…

But you’re probably here because you don’t want to fly; so, here’s an updated ‘how to’ for travelling by JR Beetle between Busan and Fukuoka, and here’s my detailed guide to all ferry routes between Korea and Japan.

JR pass banner

Have you taken the JR Beetle recently? Any more changes future overlanders should be aware of? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

Click here for more posts on Japan and Korea

For my Japan snowboarding guide, click here

Check out my guides to hiking in KyotoTokyo, and Seoul

Also see my overland travel guides for Japan and Korea

Posted in Japan, Korea, Overland travel

The Best Places to See the Cherry Blossoms in Seoul

Last month I had the pleasure of being in Seoul during the spring cherry blossom season; it’s a sight I’ve seen many times in Japan, so this year it was cool to check out the most famous cherry blossom spots in the capital of Korea.

The Japanese practice of hanami (sitting under the blossoms all day getting drunk) doesn’t really have an equivalent in Korea; it’s more about going sightseeing or taking a walk (cameras, smartphones and selfie sticks constantly at the ready) somewhere with lots of cherry trees. The most famous spots are:

Seokchon Lake

Lotte World Tower

This artificial lake lies in the shadow of the recently constructed Lotte World Tower (the world’s 5th tallest building and the chunkier cousin of London’s Shard) near Jamsil Station, and is the setting for the Lotte World Magic Island theme park, an ersatz fairytale castle riddled with rollercoasters that rises up from the waters like a poor man’s Disneyland.

Cherry blossoms at Seokchon Lake

It’s also the city’s most popular cherry blossom spot (along with Yeouido, see below), with cherry trees around almost the entire circumference of the lake. It’s a spectacular site when they hit full bloom, and Seoulites come out in droves to take selfies under them.

Seoul National Cemetery

Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

My personal favourite, as the crowds aren’t too bad, the blossoms are beautiful (consisting largely of weeping cherry varieties), and the cemetery itself is a lovely spot in its own right. As a memorial to Korean soldiers who died in the struggle for independence and the subsequent Korean War it remains a calm and peaceful place even when busy with blossom-viewers.

Seoul National Cemetery is located at Dongjak Station exit 8.

The Royal Palaces

There are five palaces in Seoul, three of which are good places to combine some sightseeing with your cherry blossom viewing.

Cherry blossoms at Gyeongbokgung palace, Seoul

This is the outer section of Gyeongbokgung palace; the mountain beyond is Inwangsan

Gyeongbokgung is the most important of the palace sites, and though it doesn’t have a huge number of cherry trees they’re well-placed for photography. Changgyeonggung has extensive grounds and gardens, and plenty of blossom trees are scattered throughout; the pond at the north end of the grounds is particularly nice. Deoksugung is quite a compact palace, but has the densest concentration of cherry blossom trees so is also a good call.

Full bloom at Changgyeonggung palace

On the grounds of Changgyeonggung

The other two palaces – Gyeonghuigung and Changdeokgung – do also have a few cherry trees, but in smaller numbers and less photogenically placed; that said, Changdeokgung is directly next to Changgyeonggung so you may as well visit them both at the same time anyway.

Namsan

Namsan is the small mountain smack in the middle of Seoul, with the city’s main landmark N Seoul Tower on its summit. Cherry trees are dotted around the mountainside, and if you’ve just missed the blossoms at the other spots downtown you should head to Namsan.

Cherry blossoms in front of N Seoul Tower on Namsan

The cherry trees are scattered around in ones and twos so you don’t see any dense concentrations of blossoms, but this is more than adequately compensated for by the cracking views of the city below and the larger mountains in the distance:

Looking north towards Bukhansan from Namsan

Namsan cherry blossoms

Namsan cherry blossoms and city view

Namsan cherry blossoms

How to hike up Namsan

Yeouido Park Cherry Blossom Festival

Cherry blossoms (and lots of people and cars) outside Yeouinaru Station

This is, unfathomably, the most famous cherry blossom spot in Seoul along with Seokchon – it was by far the least enjoyable and least attractive spot I visited! There are a lot of cherry blossom trees there to be sure, but they’re mostly lining the main road outside Yeouinaru Station; personally I don’t find concrete and cars to be the best backdrop for cherry blossoms!

Heavy crowds for th cherry blossoms at Yeouinaru Station

The cherry blossom festival at Yeouido Park

Furthermore the crowds are absolutely ridiculous (partially my fault for foolishly going on a Sunday), but if you’re looking for something like a Japanese-style hanami place then it’s here, as the area holds a cherry blossom festival (which I suppose is what draws the crowds) replete with food and drinks stalls selling all manner of street snacks, coffees, and alcoholic drinks for you to enjoy – if you ever manage to battle your way out of the station! People take their tents along and get settled in for the day, giving it an odd music-festival-without-the-music vibe; didn’t look much fun to me, but I suppose it probably would be with a good crew and a tent full of beer.

(Pro tip: avoid Yeouinaru Station, and instead stroll over from Yeouido Station. Actually: if you’re not after a drinking session, go to one of the other spots instead!)

Other places to see cherry blossoms in Seoul

There are plenty of random little parks and hills around the city which have cherry blossom trees, and you’ll find the odd street here and there lined with them, like this one near Hongdae:

Cherry blossoms along a Hongdae street

The Dongdaemun Design Park isn’t exactly renowned as a cherry blossom spot, but there are a few trees on the grounds and the futuristic architecture would make a good photography backdrop (I clocked them before they were fully open, but failed to get back there for photos during full bloom).

I also scoped out Cheonggyecheon stream, but nice as it is it doesn’t really have any cherry blossoms.

Have you been in Seoul during the cherry blossom season? How was it? Any questions? Leave me a comment below!

(Also check out my guides to the best cherry blossoms spots in Kyoto and Tokyo, and see my Korea overland travel guide. For more Korea posts here)

Posted in Korea, Seoul

On Khao San Road, late night beatings, and sticking your neck out

Street party on Khao San Road

Khao San Road at night: lots of sketchy fun! (Photo credit: see below)

“That little fucker just tried to take my wallet!”

Not from what I’d seen… “You sure mate?” I replied, “looked to me like you just bumped into each other.”

We were drinking and dancing in the middle of Khao San Road at 3am, as you do, drunk on buckets and still chugging big bottles of Singha from the street stalls. I was with this Belgian guy called Albert I’d just met once previously (the week before), a friend of a friend who was living in Bangkok, and if I was a 6 on the drunk scale he was probably a 9; not quite a write-off, but too far gone to make much sense (or remember much later). We’d lost the other guys we’d been out with and were getting stuck in to the weird & wonderful zoo that is Khao San Road in the wee hours of a Saturday night.

Street party on Khao San Road

Street party on Khao San Road (photo credit: see below)

This was a short time before the military took power in the 2014 coup d’etat, before they cracked down on the wildest elements of Khao San Road. Packs of predatory ladyboys prowled on the lookout for foreign tourists too drunk to notice a missing wallet, the party went on all night with no curfew enforced on alcohol sales or loud music, and there were a lot of drugs being taken – not so much by backpacker party addicts, but by the local kids.

The drug of choice was yaba, some sort of shitty amphetamine derivative (crystal meth, more or less) manufactured and smuggled in from Myanmar, and a lot of the local kids were on it, wild-eyed, sweating, and dancing like nutters.

On one occasion around that time, myself and a few others tried to help a girl who appeared to have had a bit too much yaba – her eyes rolled up into her head and we tried to stop her bashing her skull or swallowing her tongue while she had a seizure. The police from the station at the end of the street were absolutely fucking useless when asked to help; nasty stuff, and it definitely seemed to be causing a few problems.

The combination of drunk tourists (hailing from Europe to America, Japan to Brazil, all over the place) with the local party kids, the ladyboys, the hill-tribe ladies hawking their wooden frogs (and the colourful hats right off their heads), the heartbreaking sight of the street kids selling roses and ‘I ♥ DICK’ bracelets, and even the odd random hooker from Sub-Saharan Africa, made for some wild scenes on the street; a total zoo, sketchy for sure, and usually a lot of fun.

(It’s been a bit less mental since the military takeover and subsequent crackdown, but only relative to what it was before – it still qualifies as a madhouse by most measures!)

Bad taste fancy dress masks for sale on Khao San Road

Always a random touch (photo credit: see below)

I say it’s usually a lot of fun, because there are always victims – the Manchester lad who’d been robbed blind by a girl he took back to his room, the Canadian guys who’d had their passports swiped, the Korean girl who’d had her phone swiped. And the high energy atmosphere could sometimes turn sour in an instant; one time I saw a couple of backpackers running from a bunch of tuk tuk drivers who caught them down the street and gave them a short, sharp beating. On another occasion as I was sat with a Korean friend having late night street food a fight broke out just down the road between two groups of Thai kids; my friend went over to see what was happening, and the stall holder (who she was friends with) called her back, warning they might start shooting so she shouldn’t get too close (not that the stall would’ve been a much safer place had firearms been used). Then there was the time I saw a big American skinhead get into an argument with a stall holder; he threatened physical violence, with the result that he was subjected to exactly that. Within moments an entire crew of Khao San lads had descended on him and dished out a brutal 5-second pasting and then disappeared again just as quickly, just like that.

I love Thailand and the Thai people, but you simply do not fuck around with the locals there; sound practice anywhere really, but especially so in Thailand where verbal arguments can quickly become fatal confrontations if someone feels they’ve lost face, and on Khao San Road they’re very used to obnoxiously drunk foreigners and not shy about dealing with them vigilante style.

A busy bar on Khao San Road

Khao San Road, early evening (photo credit: see below)

So when my drunk Belgian mate bumped into a yaba’d-up local kid and got it into his head it was a pickpocket attempt, I tried to reassure him otherwise and change the topic whilst manoeuvring us away from the kid and his mates; any trouble and we would come out of it very badly. Unfortunately, these kids were high as anything and covering a lot of ground with their hyperactive dancing, and before we’d moved far enough away one of them bumped into my buddy again… “That’s it!” he snapped, “I’m not taking this shit!” and went to remonstrate.

So this Belgian guy drunkenly accused this mashed Thai kid of trying to steal his wallet; the Thai kid, high as a kite and with eyes bulging, insisted he’d done nothing. The kid actually looked mortified at the accusation, and I believed him; meanwhile his crew had gathered round, we were outnumbered 5 or 6 to 2 and were the ones causing the scene in the first place, and I urgently tried to persuade Albert to drop it.

“C’mon man, he’s just wasted and bumped into you, you’ve still got all your shit, right? Lets just go get another beer down the road,” I suggested, and he seemed to realise that was the best course.

But just as the situation appeared to be diffusing, Albert had a rush of blood and raised both hands to the kid’s face, middle fingers up in a pointblank double bird.

“Fuck. You!” he shouted, before turning and walking off.

“Shit,” I thought, “what happens now?”

In the space of a second I watched the kid’s face cycle from aggrieved innocence, to shock, to anger; he and his friends started shouting to each other and the other guys they knew on the street, and in moments there were a dozen of them, including one huge guy who emerged from the shadows somewhere who I think had been involved in battering the big American guy a week or two earlier, and now they were all picking up empty beer bottles and taking off after Albert.

“Fuck,” I thought, “they’re going to smear him into a red paste on the sidewalk, and I’m literally the only other person who knows it or has any possibility of preventing it.”

Shit, shit, shit… what to do? Do nothing, Albert gets fucked up; do something, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe I just get fucked up along with him… or maybe I get pasted in his place! He was the one being out of order (not badly enough to warrant getting bottled and headstomped, you might think, but in Thailand, for sure), and I don’t even really know the guy so am I really going to stick my neck out and risk a beating on his behalf?

But although this all flickered momentarily through my head, it wasn’t really a question; doing nothing wasn’t an option. I wasn’t sure what to actually do, but I had to do something…

So I sprinted after them, catching up a few seconds before they’d have caught Albert a short distance from the waiting taxis at the end of the street, and got round in front of them… and then what do I do?

I had no idea, so I just raised my palms and pleaded with them to let him go.

“Wait, wait, please stop,” I said, or words to that effect, and then turning to the big guy who seemed to be the leader, gave the deepest, most respectful wai I could or ever have (the wai is the Thai greeting where you place your palms together with the tips before your face; the lower you incline your head and the higher you raise your hands, the more respect you show).

I started explaining that the guy they were after thought someone was trying to steal from him but was completely drunk so made a mistake and accused the wrong person, but he cut me off with a question.

“Are you his friend?”

“Not really… I just met him once before… but I think he’s a good guy and he’s just too drunk tonight… if you let him go, next time I see him I’ll tell him he was wrong to say those things,” and I wai’d deeply again.

There was a bit more back and forth, the guy complaining about the insults Albert had given, me apologising profusely on his behalf, waiing repeatedly, and ending my English sentences with the humble Thai suffix khap.

Finally it all seemed to be up to the big guy, and the others (and myself) waited for his decision; I was effectively throwing myself on his mercy, and though I tried to hide it I was absolutely shitting my pants, bracing for a rain of bottles to the back of the head.

But the blows never came, and after the longest of seconds he finally let me off the hook.

“Okay, okay… there is no problem. But you,” he said, jabbing his finger in my chest, “you go home right now.”

“Okay, khap,” I said, and we moved away in opposite directions, me heading for my hotel round the corner on Soi Rhambuttri. I tried to find Albert on the way, but I guess he was already gone in a taxi, completely oblivious that he’d just come so close to a vicious beating or that I’d prevented it by practically prostrating myself to the local hard nut; in fact, he was probably still feeling angry about someone trying to pick his pocket, and perhaps even feeling pleased with himself for giving them a mouthful for it.

I never saw Albert again after that, and I left Bangkok a short time later. So I was never able to tell him, and to this day the way he probably tells it is that some little shit tried to steal his wallet and he told them to fuck right off… well… that is, if he even remembers it!

Moral of the story? Khao San Road’s a lot of fun, but watch out for yourself and others and absolutely don’t get into any aggro with the drivers, stallholders, and party kids (and make sure you’ve got good insurance). Show respect and you’ll receive it; show disrespect and you’ll likely get your head kicked in…

Got any Khao San Road stories? Leave a comment below!

For more Thailand posts, click here

Check out my Thailand overland travel guide

Photo credits 1&2:Filipe Fortes 3:NeilsPhotography 4:Ronald Tagra (all via Flickr and used under Creative Commons Licence)

Posted in Southeast Asia, Thailand

Leshan: Big Brawl at the Big Buddha

The huge stone Buddha of Leshan

The Giant Buddha of Leshan in China‘s Sichuan province is one of the largest statues in the world, 71 metres tall, and the largest stone Buddha. It can easily be visited as a day-trip from the nearby city of Chengdu, especially since the opening of the high speed rail line connecting the two cities; however, I was actually staying in the city of Leshan (乐山) for a few days, as I was extending my tourist visa at the Leshan PSB office. PSB stands for Public Security Bureau (gonganju, 公安局, in Chinese) i.e. the police, and the Leshan PSB is known on the Thorn Tree forum for being one of the friendlier and easier PSBs at which to extend a visa – this was certainly also true in my experience.

So on my first full day, after visiting the PSB in the morning and submitting my documents to apply for the visa extension, I took the bus over to the Leshan Buddha in the afternoon. Visiting the PSB is usually something to dread – a week or so earlier I’d made the mistake of attempting an extension at the big PSB office near the Lama Temple in Beijing, which was a soul-destroying, hair-tearingly tedious (and futile) experience – but the Leshan PSB lived up to its reputation for friendliness. The officers there even smiled, which was quite astonishing. By contrast, the visit to the Buddha, itself so composed and serene, turned out to be rather stressful; an awful lot of people were visiting that day (this was during the Chinese holidays, and to get from Beijing to Sichuan I’d endured this journey), and as is often the case in China a certain proportion of them weren’t exactly watching out for others or being very patient or polite about things.

The Great Buddha of Leshan

Such is life in China in the early 21st Century – queues are made to be pushed in front of, space exists to be filled (and if you leave any that’s your own fault), and others are often treated as inconvenient obstacles rather than people. Crowds can be stressful, and some of the people in them can be total bastards; but generally speaking this is merely tedious and annoying, something to either be put up with or perhaps to join in with (if you can’t beat them join them, fight fire with fire, etc). It isn’t usually dangerous though; but when people are being selfish morons on a narrow staircase carved into the side of a vertical cliff-face with a raging river far below, things get pretty sketchy!

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And that’s how you approach the Leshan Buddha; 1300 hundred years ago it was carved into the rock face of the cliffs along the river and can only be seen from boats on the water or from up close, so after paying the entry fee (100 yuan) you find yourself walking up a mountain path to eventually reach the height of the Buddha’s head, emerging at the top of the excavated amphitheatre in which the Leshan Buddha sits. From here you can get a good look at his head before heading down the steps; narrow and steep, they’re cut into the side of the cliff, zigzagging down to the Buddha’s gigantic feet. At points you have a drop off the side right to the river, with just a guard rail in the way; I was standing at exactly such a point when the commotion started.

I couldn’t understand what it was they were shouting about, but two fat middle-aged men with their vests rolled up over their sweaty and proudly displayed paunches got into a heated argument right there on the steps, a short distance behind and above where I was standing. The staircase was completely stacked with people toe to heel on the steps, lined up like hot and bothered dominos, breathing down each other’s glistening necks, and there was absolutely no room for manoeuvre between the rock face on my left and the guard rail (and long drop) on my right. Not a good place for a punch up.

The narrow steps leading down to the Leshan Buddha's feet

The two blokes’ respective families were now weighing in, old and young, male and female, all yelling at each other; I can only guess that one party felt the other had pushed in front of them, or perhaps someone had trodden on someone’s toes… it probably didn’t help that it was a sweltering day with punishing humidity, so tempers were even shorter than usual. Old ladies and teenagers on both sides were now screaming at each other, and then someone threw the first punch; in a split second these two families engaged in a full on brawl on this jam-packed, precarious staircase, clambering over one another to join battle.

And just as the hundreds of people on the steps were lined up like dominos, now they started to fall like dominos; the two fat men had grappled and fallen, setting off a chain reaction down the steps. I saw people tumbling down towards me, grabbed the guard rail, and hopped over it; with my feet on a little rock ledge I clung on to the rail as a mass of limbs and shouting collapsed downwards just in front of me. To this day I’m amazed that it didn’t result in a full-on tragedy; a couple of years later this fatal crush happened during Shanghai’s New Year waterfront celebrations, and I thought again how fortunate all of us on the Leshan Buddha steps that day were to not have been caught up in something similar. No-one was crushed, no-one was knocked off the cliff into the river, and as far as I’m aware no serious injuries were sustained; the falling dominos piled up at a corner of the zigzagging steps, and thankfully the chain reaction didn’t continue around the corner.

I continued to perch on my ledge and assisted the people nearest me as everyone tried to disentangle themselves and get upright again, while these two morons continued in their attempts to trade punches. Somehow word got up to some security guards who appeared surprisingly quickly, working their way as fast as they could (i.e. not very fast) down to the brawl, and somehow they were able to restore something resembling order – I’m guessing it was the uniforms – and eventually managed to get the warring parties to follow them back up the steps, picking their way slowly through the mass of people.

With things calm once again I finally hopped back over the rail to rejoin the line on the steps, and in due course completed the standard Leshan Buddha visit… you make your way down, snapping photos, for the worm’s eye view next to his feet, and then exit the amphitheatre via a tunnel on the other side which ascends through a series of caves back up to the Buddha’s head. There are some other trails you can then wander from there, visiting various temple buildings also dotting the mountainside, and I got chatting to an Irish / Chinese family (they even offered me a teaching job at their school in Wuhan) and we all agreed it was remarkable no-one had been seriously hurt in the fracas.

Close up of one of the Leshan Buddha's enormous feet

Perhaps even more remarkable was that the two families were still fighting as we made our way over to the path back down to the road; they’d obviously kept right on arguing as soon as they’d been brought back to safety at the top of the steps and were still now screaming in each other’s faces a good hour after it’d all kicked off, the security guards standing close at hand and at the ready. Completely ridiculous behaviour, and we could still hear those idiots shouting long after they were out of sight.

Anyway, brawl aside the Leshan Buddha was great and is well-worth a day of your trip if you’re staying in Chengdu. As noted above, Leshan is also a good place for a visa extension at the PSB; this requires staying for a couple of days, and while the town doesn’t have that much else to see it does have plenty of awesome food – the cold, spicy 5 yuan dandan noodles make a great breakfast, and the barbecue joints hit the spot for dinner. You can also easily continue on from Leshan to nearby Emei Shan (somewhere I’ve yet to visit, but will do so whenever I’m next in Sichuan)

Any questions about visiting the Leshan Buddha? Or got any good brawl stories to share? Leave me a comment!

Also, make sure to sign up for a VPN service before heading to China so you can use the internet as normal (what’s a VPN and why do I need one?). I always use Express VPN:

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Posted in Chengdu, China