4 corners, 7 seas

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 streets 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!

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!

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

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!

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Posted in Chengdu, China

A Suggested Hokkaido Ski Tour Route

Rusutsu ski resort, Hokkaido

Hokkaido’s powder is legendary, and the larger resorts like Niseko and Furano have been popular for years now with international powder hounds, especially those from Australia and New Zealand (what with the opposite hemisphere seasons and the lack of jet lag involved between there and Japan).

But there’s a lot more to riding in Hokkaido than just those main resorts, and in fact your chances of scoring all day freshies are better at quieter local hills like Teine than they are at busy Niseko.

So if you’re going riding in Hokkaido, it really is a good idea to visit a bunch of hills rather than limiting yourself to a single major ski resort; the best way to get around and hit a few different hills is of course to have your own wheels and do it as a road trip (rental cars can easily be arranged from New Chitose airport).

That may not be an option for many visitors though, but even for non-drivers it’s still possible to use public transportation to get around a few ski hills during a short trip to Hokkaido.

As an example route, here’s what I did a few years ago when I was living in Kyoto; I don’t suggest following the exact same timings, as I only had a week off from work and opted to travel by ferry as a money saver, so it was a really rushed trip – I’d previously lived in Sapporo so didn’t mind rushing it so much, as long as I got my Hokkaido powder fix! You’d want to do it a bit slower, perhaps with a few days in Niseko and a few in Sapporo, but it should give you an idea of a route you could follow and the transportation you could use, adapting it to start and finish from the airport if you’re flying in & out.

(in the event, my return ferry was cancelled and, following an alarming encounter with an angry lady armed with a pair of kitchen scissors, I ended up enduring a time-consuming, expensive, and stressful 2-day journey back to Kyoto by local train… full story here)

My Hokkaido Ski Tour Route

Map of my ski tour route in Hokkaido

Map of my ski tour route in Hokkaido

1:Niseko 2:Rusutsu 3:Teine

I arrived by ferry from Maizuru (in northern Kyoto prefecture), a journey of some 21 hours, docking at Otaru late in the evening (long-distance ferry travel in Japan is a good way to go if you don’t have the luxury of a JR Pass – it’s a nice, relaxing, cheap alternative to flying, and you get to see some beautiful stretches of coastline you’d otherwise likely not see… just be prepared (see above!) to be flexible in case of bad weather cancellations)

After checking into a hotel, I went in search of some food and chanced upon one of the best ramen shops I’ve ever been to; the owner, one Matsubara-san, spoke great English and shouted me a few beers as we chatted.

After a night there, I caught the first train to Kutchan (the town next to Niseko), took a local bus from the station up to Niseko itself, checked into a guesthouse, and then got out on the slopes.

The following day, I checked out and caught the morning Donan Bus to Rusutsu, taking all my stuff with me; leaving my bags in a locker I got an afternoon lift ticket, rode for a few hours, and then caught the evening bus onwards to Sapporo.

I then stayed in Sapporo for a couple of nights, riding at Teine and celebrating New Year with friends, and then headed back to Kyoto (as noted above, that didn’t exactly go according to plan and the journey home was rather eventful)

Obviously the schedule I was on was super tight, and this was a very rushed itinerary; but if you adjusted it to start from New Chitose airport, have a few days in Niseko, hit Rusutsu for a half-day en route to Sapporo, and then have a few days in Sapporo while hitting Teine, Kiroro, and Kokusai before flying out, you could hit five hills in a week – though I personally dig Teine so much I’d go there on each day in Sapporo!

You could also tack on a visit to the resorts further inland like Furano to make it a 10-day or 2-week job. Furano is easily reached by train or bus from Sapporo, and can even be done as a (long) day-trip from there.

However you do it, enjoy being up to your ass in the best powder you may ever ride!

Posted in Hokkaido, Japan, Snow

Drunk Sleeping on the Train in Japan – and Getting Stranded in the Wrong Prefecture!

The cool air wafting across my face, combined with the train’s extended lack of motion, coaxed me out of my slumber.

“Shit,” I thought, “where the hell am I?”

To which the answer was: I was drunk and jet-lagged on an empty train in the Japanese countryside, which was standing stopped with the doors open at some station. It looked very much like this station was the last stop, but exactly where this station actually was I had no idea. Looking confusedly at the time I realised I must’ve overshot Kyoto by at least an hour, and it was now after one in the morning… fuck!

Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture: after sleeping on the train I woke up on the wrong side of it!

Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. I woke up on completely the wrong side of it, with no way to get back!

I’d arrived in Japan the week before to take up a job teaching English in Kyoto, and after an absurd boot camp at my company’s regional head office in Osaka (a ‘training course’ which was more about breaking our spirits than it was about training us how to teach English) I’d started my job in Kyoto.

This had all come about because I’d had to leave Canada (unwillingly!) when my Canadian visa expired, where I’d been teaching English as a side-gig to teaching snowboarding (Vancouver is both a ski town and a popular study English abroad destination for ESL students). I’d heard this Japanese company was conducting interviews in Vancouver, and the start dates were just after I had to leave Canada so I went for the job and thus found myself back in Japan a short time later.

While teaching in Vancouver I’d made an awesome bunch of Japanese friends – students and staff from the school – who mostly lived in Osaka and Tokyo, so when I’d got the job in Kyoto we’d started making plans to hang out in Osaka (Kyoto and Osaka being located right next to each other in the Kansai region).

My manager from the school, a died-in-the-wool Osakan (people from Osaka are crazy about their food) had always insisted that the Japanese food in Vancouver was rubbish and she’d show me the real deal if I ever went back to Japan. Well, now I was, and she came good on that promise.

She invited me to a dinner party at her friend’s place in Osaka on that first weekend, and we ate an absolute feast of amazing home-cooked Japanese (and Italian) food washed down with copious volumes of quality French reds and a bottle of anejo tequila. This dinner party started at lunchtime, and I ended up boarding a midnight train back to Kyoto thoroughly pissed up, still a bit jet-lagged, and full to bursting with food. Unsurprisingly, I dozed off in pretty short order.

It’s something you see in Japan quite a lot: people totally passed out on the train, either due to alcohol or work-related exhaustion, sleeping like babies, and always going completely undisturbed. Any Japanese or long-term resident of Japan can probably tell you a story or two about waking up at the end of a line. It’s not so bad when it’s a subway line and you can just get back on the other way, or even better the Yamanote line which just goes round and round central Tokyo – one of my Japanese mates once slept for a full 8 hours on the Yamanote line after a heavy session!

But if it’s the last train of the day, you’re gonna have to fork out for a taxi or somewhere to sleep… and if it isn’t a subway line, but a long-distance JR train, and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night in the wrong prefecture, then you have a problem!

So there I was, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, in what appeared to be the wrong prefecture. It’s only 26 minutes from Osaka station to Kyoto station, but I woke up some 90 minutes after boarding, at the end of the line, at 1:30 am, in some place called Maibara.

I dragged myself to my feet, the situation dawning on me slowly at first, and then sprang into action as I realised I might be stranded… I drunkenly lurched off the train and stagger-ran along the platform towards one of the JR station staff, yelling, “Kyoto! Kyoto?” at him, gesticulating at the empty platforms around us.

He saw this wild-eyed drunken gaijin mess coming at him, mastered his panic, and raised his crossed forearms in a big X, the universal Japanese symbol of ‘sorry / you’re screwed / can’t help you’.

My Japanese was still very basic at the time, but I was able to ask him a question or two and understand enough to know that that was indeed the last train, and that the next train back to Kyoto was indeed in the morning, at 5 o’clock.

What I wasn’t able to understand was where exactly Maibara was. Maybe not too far, I hoped, and went out to the taxi rank.

…where I learned a cab would cost hundreds of dollars! “Okay, you’ve gone pretty bloody far,” I realised, “so what now?”

And I saw the shining lights of a 7-Eleven, that 24-hour beacon of hope in even the most obscure of Japanese towns. There I could ask for directions to a karaoke place or internet cafe to crash in for a few hours; he pulled out the map and showed me I’d gone flying past Kyoto and was round the other side of Japan’s biggest lake, Lake Biwa, in Shiga prefecture.

He also explained that the nearest karaoke places and so on were in the next town back towards Kyoto, a place called Hikone.

So that became my mission; get to Hikone, get an overnight deal in a karaoke room for a few hours’ kip, and get the first train to Kyoto.

Unfortunately in the store I’d also realised I hardly had any money – just about enough for a karaoke room and the train, but not for a taxi to Hikone (and I didn’t have my ATM card or any money yet in my Japanese account).

There was a policeman out front of the store, so I checked with him the correct road for Hikone and how long it would take to walk. He laughed at the question, but reckoned it’d be about 45 minutes.

So I marched off through this chilly spring night past fields of rice paddies under a bright moon, listening to the croakings of an army of frogs, cursing my idiocy, and copping regular facefulls of spider’s webs. That policeman was full of shit! He’d clearly never walked it, and even though I shook off my drunken legs and got my march on it still took about two hours; on and on I walked, laughing at myself, cursing myself, and occasionally appreciating the moonlit countryside and the orchestra of frogs, and finally arrived in Hikone.

By that point there were only a couple of hours left to kill before the train, so the money I’d earmarked for a karaoke room was instead spent on some food and a hot drink from another 7-Eleven, and I slept on a bench for an hour outside the station until it opened up for the first train.

And so, finally, tired and hungover, I was on the train heading back to Kyoto… it gradually filled up, picking up more and more passengers at each town along the line, a horde of grey-faced grey-suited salarymen on their way to a new week of grind, early morning commuters heading from their homes in Shiga to the office in Kyoto or Osaka – a daily routine I was glad wasn’t mine (it was Monday morning and I had Sundays & Mondays off), and I wouldn’t have swapped places with them even in my shattered, post-drunken, thoroughly disheveled state. They were starting another long week of commuting and working, while I was on my way to crawl into the blessed sanctuary of my futon, utterly knackered, but one lesson the wiser – that lesson being, avoid drunk sleeping on the train in Japan!

And I never did so again – whenever I was drunk on the train after that, I always stood by the doors! Though it proved not to be the last of my misadventures on Japan’s railways

Have you ever fallen asleep on the train in Japan? Where did you end up?

Posted in Japan, Kyoto

The Great Firewall of China, and why you need a VPN

Great Wall, Simatai section

A Great Wall of the bricks and mortar variety

If you’re visiting China, the Great Wall is likely to be somewhere near the top of your list of priorities; but the Great Wall of China isn’t the only wall you’re going to come across – you’re also going to have to deal with the Great Firewall of China.

The Great Firewall of China

Just as the Great Wall once protected China from the Mongol hordes, the Great Firewall now ‘protects’ Chinese netizens from the perils of foreign influence. Basically, any website operating in China must be subject to Chinese government oversight and censorship, and the only way the CCP can ensure this is if those websites are hosted on Chinese servers.

Any website operating from servers outside China cannot be ordered to do or change or remove anything by the CCP, so their solution is the Great Firewall – that is, they simply block anything they don’t like, and track any users attempting to distribute or access such data.

A few years back, they would often allow websites through but block specific pages and search results e.g. when I was there in 2012 during this major scandal involving a Party bigwig’s son crashing his Ferrari and dying (while allegedly playing sex games with his two female passengers, both of whom survived but with severe injuries, and all three found naked or semi-naked), I could access the Guardian and BBC sites but when I tried to open the pages on that particular story my connection was severed; at the same time, even Google searches for the word Ferrari resulted in a blank screen.

These days (since President Xi came in), they seem to take a more blanket approach and simply block entire sites which are deemed to help spread information which undermines the Party; this tends to apply to most western news outlets and social media.

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So what does the Great Firewall mean for you as a traveller to China?

It means that without a VPN, you’ll be unable to check Facebook, Tweet about your adventures, Google for information on your next destination, or read many of your preferred news sources.

If you’re not sure what VPN means, it stands for Virtual Private Network; think of it “as a tunnel, between your computer and a server operated by the VPN service” thus allowing you to bypass the Great Firewall.

(Note that Hong Kong and Macau aren’t behind the Great Firewall – for now, at least, they maintain their online freedom and you don’t need a VPN there. This will probably be the case until 2047 for Hong Kong when the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires, and 2049 for Macau when the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration expires; after that, it’s probably up to Beijing what happens)

The first time I went to Mainland China, not having much internet access didn’t feel like such a big deal – it was 2007 and the internet actually wasn’t as useful then, and we mostly used the Lonely Planet guide to navigate and find accommodation. In 2012 it was really frustrating being there without a VPN, and by the time I went back to live in Beijing for a while in 2013, a VPN was pretty much essential (especially for someone working online). I tried a few out, and found Express VPN to be the most reliable VPN service to use in China.

Even with a VPN, sometimes it just doesn’t work – the government is always trying to block them and they have to reroute, like a game of cyber cat & mouse. There are cheaper options out there than Express VPN, but it seems you get what you pay for. As I work online a good connection is crucial, and the first couple of VPNs I tried were a bit of a nightmare; once I switched to Express VPN, I could work (almost) normally. They have servers available in 145 cities across 94 countries, and you can select which one to route your signal through allowing you to jump around if one goes bad.

This last point is also very useful for region specific content, e.g. videos which are only available in your home country but you want to watch from overseas. This of course isn’t limited to being useful in China; for example, living in Japan before Netflix became available there, a VPN enabled you to route your signal through the States and use Netflix USA.

So it really is a useful service to have if living overseas, and again, essential for even a short visit to China. In my experience, Express VPN is a solid option and by far the most reliable I’ve used – my account is presently inactive, but whenever I go back to China I fire it back up again before heading there.

And that’s one more important point to be aware of – you can’t set up a VPN once you’re physically present in China. The VPN companies’ homepages are all blocked within China so that Chinese users can’t just sign up and easily circumvent the Great Firewall, which means you have to get your VPN set up before arrival.

Sign up for Express VPN here:

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(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to sign up with ExpressVPN (or buy the Lonely Planet on Amazon), 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them. This commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. ExpressVPN is a great service I personally recommend for your trip to China; if this post was helpful to you, please consider signing up using the above links. Thank you in advance should you choose to do so!)

Posted in Uncategorized

How to Visit the Great Wall of China from Beijing

Great Wall, Simatai section

Hiking along the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai

The Great Wall of China lives up to its name (not to be confused with the Great Firewall of China!), stretching thousands of miles across China from northeast to far west (you can dig up wildly varying statistics, depending how the measurement is taken). There are many points from which you can visit sections of the wall, but the vast majority of visits are made from Beijing; this is eminently practical, as the closest sections of the wall to Beijing are only 50 miles or so from the city proper, and chances are that Beijing is on your itinerary anyway.

Simatai section, Great Wall of China

The Great Wall at Simatai

To visit the Great Wall from Beijing, you can either make a DIY visit on public transportation, or join one of the bus tours sold at every guesthouse, hotel, and travel agent in the city. I’ve done both and both were good, though there are better and worse ways to go about it.

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Great Wall Sections Near Beijing

This site has a handy list of the sections you can visit near Beijing. In a nutshell, Mutianyu and Badaling are the closest and the most heavily-visited; Simatai, Jinshanling, and Gubeikou require a bit more time to reach and so are less visited and offer good hiking opportunities; and Jiankou is a pretty rough and wild section which looks well worth the extra effort involved, if you have time.

The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China

Badaling Great Wall

Bus Tours to the Great Wall

With regards the bus tours, I’m not a big fan of tours generally but they’re a convenient way to do it; your transportation is all sorted and you just have to show up at the pickup spot on time in the morning. Also if you’re keen to get out to one of the more remote sections of the wall, a bus tour is the easiest way to do so; one thing I would suggest avoiding though is a bus stour to Badaling or Mutianyu; being the closest parts they’re also the most popular, and armies of touts lie in wait for the tour buses every morning, ready to bombard you with offers of insanely overpriced bottles of water and cans of Red Bull, packs of low quality postcards, and all manner of tatty tourist shite. I haven’t been to Badaling by bus tour, but I’ve heard the horror stories so I have no intention of ever doing so – Badaling is best DIY visited by train in the afternoon (see below). The same tourist shit show occurs at the other sections too if you take a bus tour, but on a much lesser scale than at Badaling and Mutianyu (I refer here to bus tours visiting Mutianyu only; those which involve hiking from Jiankou to Mutianyu (see below) should avoid the worst of it).

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

Jinshanling Great Wall

In our case, on my first visit to Mainland China with my mates Ross & Mike we took a hiking tour to the Jinshanling & Simatai sections; this involved a 10km walk along the wall, with the bus dropping us at the start and picking us up at the end point (which was a restaurant, with a buffet meal factored in to the tour price). It was a really awesome hike actually, in cool November weather, along a crumbling and atmospheric section of the wall:

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

A few touts did latch onto us at the start, but I just ignored them and marched at a fast pace which did the trick. At the end there was the option to zip line down over a reservoir, which Mike decided to go for; it was the slowest zip line I’ve ever seen and looked totally lame, so I walked down with Ross.

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

I would definitely recommend hiking from Jinshanling to Simatai, but unfortunately Simatai was bought and redeveloped a few years ago and access to Simatai is no longer possible from Jinshanling (they’re separate areas with separate ticketing). After being closed for a few years, Simatai is now open again as part of the new Gubei Water Town tourist development; the water town basically looks like tourism industry imitation bullshit, but 10 Simatai watchtowers remain open for a 90-minute hike (advance reservation required – see here) and it’s possible to get there by direct public bus (2 hours) from Dongzhimen Station (as described here). For a longer hike (5 hours or so), you should go for Gubeikou – Jinshanling or Jiankou – Mutianyu.

The Simatai section of the Great Wall of China

Again, the two bus tours that I’d avoid like the plague are Badaling and Mutianyu; if you’re short on time and just want to make a half-day trip to one of the closest sections without doing a 5-hour hike, it’s far better to visit Badaling by train and it’s a nice section of the wall as long as you avoid the tour bus shit show.

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Visiting Badaling Great Wall by Train (or bus)

You can easily reach Badaling in an hour by train from Beijing North Station (located next to Xizhimen Station on Beijing Subway line 2). It’s a regular commuter train requiring no advanced reservations (which can be such a headache to get for the intercity trains), so you can just rock up at Beijing North and get a ticket for the next train. Disembarking at Badaling station, it’s a 15-minute walk along the road (turn left out of the station and head uphill) to the Badaling Great Wall entrance gate, where they charge a 40 yuan entry fee (you pass a bunch of souvenir stalls and restaurants on the way, so you can grab some lunch if needs be).

The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China

(You can also reach the Badaling Great Wall by public bus from the Deshengmen bus station near Jishuitan Station (subway line 2); tourist bus 877 goes directly to the Great Wall in the morning, while the other buses run throughout the day. I once took one of those other buses, but this isn’t really recommended unless you can read the Chinese characters for Badaling well enough to pick them out from the list of stops on the side of a bus while a lying bastard taxi driver distracts you and insists that there are no more buses today and you have to take a taxi. Fuck those guys; they are without shame! Furthermore, other than bus 877 which goes direct to the Wall in the morning (which I would avoid anyway for reasons given above), the rest of the buses leave you with a longer walk than the train so I really do recommend the train – unless you’re being adventurous and catching the bus to Badaling from the Ming Tombs as per here (the Ming Tombs can be reached on the Beijing Subway’s new Changping line). If you’ve done that, I’d love to hear how it went!). The train’s also way more comfortable, and from the windows you catch glimpses of the Juyongguan Great Wall section shortly before reaching Badaling.

The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China

The Badaling section was fully restored a long time ago and is the most well-maintained section of the Great Wall; it therefore doesn’t quite have the ancient atmosphere we felt at Simatai (possibly now lost there too since the redevelopment), but it’s still really impressive and stunningly located in the mountains.

Summary: Which Great Wall Section Should You Visit, and How?

To sum the above up; if you don’t like bus tours and want to DIY it, go to Badaling by train at lunchtime for an afternoon visit, avoiding the heavier morning bus tour crowds. If you don’t have much time so just want to go to one of the sections nearest Beijing rather than doing anything more involved, again, go to Badaling by train in the afternoon. Otherwise, you should go for a bus tour out to hike Gubeikou – Jinshanling or Jiankou – Mutianyu, or perhaps the redeveloped Simatai. I haven’t been, but I reckon Jiankou looks particularly cool; I’m dubious as to whether Simatai is worth visiting since the redevelopment, but it might fit the bill if you want to do a decent hike without walking for 5 hours (and it’s still a beautiful area). I would personally completely avoid the tour buses to Badaling, and those visiting Mutianyu only (as opposed to the Jiankou – Mutianyu hike).

Have you been to the Great Wall? How was it? Any questions? Leave a comment below!

Posted in Beijing, China

Following the Path of the Setting Sun that Leads to El Dorado and… The Mysterious Cities of Gold! (Central American travel for 80s cartoon geeks)

The Mysterious Cities of Gold: if this picture brings back memories for you, read on! If it doesn’t, read on anyway!

It may well only be because I grew up in the 1980s and therefore have nostalgia for that time, but it seems to me that the 80s were something of a golden decade for kid’s cartoons – Transformers, Ninja Turtles, and Thundercats, to name a few, are the stuff of childhood memories. The slew of recent big screen movie versions of 80s cartoons is evidence of how cherished they are by a generation – Hollywood knows this and seeks to cash in, though unfortunately they put douchebags like Michael Bay in charge and the results are predictably shit. But actually, having said that, going back and watching most of those cartoons again today is also pretty disappointing – aside from the pleasant feelings of nostalgia they induce, they do tend to be a bit crap. All but one:

The Mysterious Cities of Gold

There’s one 80s cartoon I’ve watched again as an adult and still absolutely loved, and it was the one that made the greatest impression on me as a kid; in fact, I honestly think it’s one of the reasons I ended up so obsessed with travelling and exploring the world (it was certainly the earliest influence I can recall for my wanderlust, perhaps along with The Hobbit). More specifically, it made me want to go to Latin America and see the ruins of the ancient Mayan and Inca cities – those readers who know it will probably already be humming the tune in their heads by now:

The Mysterious Cities Of Gold was a Japanese-animated, French-written & produced, historical mystery adventure which in places veered wildly off into the realms of science fiction. Set in the 1500s during the Spanish conquest of Latin America, it told the story of Esteban, a young Spanish orphan in possession of a mysterious gold amulet who goes to South America on a Spanish galleon, picking up his companions Zia (who also has a medallion) and Tao plus a few others (trustworthy and otherwise), and going on a quest to find the fabled cities of gold and, hopefully, the meaning of his amulet and the answers to his identity and destiny. Along the way they acquire a solar powered galleon and a solar powered aeroplane in the form of a golden condor, the gold-obsessed conquistadors pursuing them at every turn, and end up in Central America doing battle with the Olmecs – a pointy-eared alien-looking race with a volcano-housed solar power array, cryogenic chambers, and a death-ray equipped flying saucer in the form of a giant Olmec Head (the Olmecs were actually an early Mesoamerican civilisation, and the Olmec Heads are large stone carvings that they left on the east coast of what is now Mexico).

But I know if you’ve read this far and you’re feeling the nostalgia, the thing you really want to see is the first flight of the golden condor. So, here you go:

I hope that sends shivers down your spine! And how about that music? The same music plays during all the most awe-inspiring scenes throughout the series, and it still triggers that childhood sense of wonder when I hear it… and I’m surely not the only one – the above video is actually a fourteen minute edit someone made of bits of the cartoon featuring that music, the “song of mysterious awesomeness” as they call it. Once you’re done watching the flight of the condor, I suggest playing the video from the start as you read the rest of this post!

And here are the reimagined sci-fi Olmecs:

The Olmecs, as depicted in The Mysterious Cities of Gold

The Olmecs as depicted in The Mysterious Cities of Gold, as primary antagonists in the show’s final episodes

The Olmec flying machine in The Mysterious Cities of Gold

The Olmecs preparing to massacre the Mayans with their death ray flying machine

So yeah, it was all pretty far-fetched! It was also very dark in places, with first the avaricious conquistadors (looting and plundering the Inca lands) and then the Olmecs providing some pretty nasty bad guys – the Olmecs at one point capture the children and intend to use their cells to bring back the cryogenically frozen members of their people, which was some pretty full-on stuff for a 6-year old! But this giddy combination of the mystery of ancient civilisations (portrayed broadly accurately) with these utterly bonkers sci-fi elements invoked a sense of wonder which really struck a chord with my childhood self (and so many other kids at the time), and I really am not joking when I say it’s at least partly responsible for my wanderlust today.

And before I continue to the travel tips part of this post, if you didn’t already realise it the entire series (39 episodes) was released as a DVD box set a few years ago and you can buy it on Amazon here. It has absolutely stood the test of time and deserves its status as a classic, and it’s well worth watching again.

Who knows, it may even inspire you to book a trip! As I said, it definitely inspired me to travel, and this is especially true of course for my desire to travel around Latin America; I’m yet to visit South America (it’s at the top of the list along with Nepal & Tibet), but I have backpacked the length of Central America from Mexico to Panama. It’s a great region for travel, with so much to offer – beautiful beaches, towering mountains (many of which are active volcanoes), steaming jungle (and all the teeming wildlife therein), great food, even greater coffee, rum & tequila, gorgeous lakes, the faded grandeur of the old colonial architecture, great hiking and scuba diving opportunities… pretty much everything I love in a destination other than snowboarding… but the jewel, for me, was the chance to visit the Mayan ruins that I’d first seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold and had dreamt of ever since.

My companion on this trip was my then-girlfriend, who was a great sport about me insisting on planning our route through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to include all of the Mayan sites that were depicted in the Mysterious Cities of Gold. After much reading around fan forums, viewing of clips and googling of photos for comparison, I had a list of the ancient sites depicted or visited in the cartoon.

Which Ancient Cities Were in the Mysterious Cities of Gold?

The first part of the series takes place in South America, where they visit the Inca sites of Machu Picchu and Winay Wayna in what is now Peru. It’s near Machu Picchu that Esteban and pals obtain their golden condor flying machine, which it turns out they can control using their mysterious medallions; it flies them on autopilot up to Central America, escaping the clutches of the Spanish conquistadores and bringing them to the ruined Mayan cities, their eventual confrontation with the Olmecs, and the truth about their own pasts.

The specific Mayan cities featured in the cartoon are:

In Mexico: Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Uxmal

In Guatemala: Tikal

In Honduras: Copan

Check out these comparison shots:

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza, as seen by me

The golden condor flying over Chichen Itza in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

The golden condor flying over Chichen Itza in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

Steps and pillars at Chichen Itza

The same pillars at Chichen Itza

The main pyramid at Uxmal, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

The main pyramid at Uxmal, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

The main pyramid at Uxmal, as seen by me

The main pyramid at Uxmal, as seen by me

Tikal, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro

Tikal, as seen in the Mysterious Cities of Gold intro (with Zia)

Tikal

Tikal, as seen by me

Palenque doesn’t feature in the intro sequence, but its buildings are clearly depicted in one of the episodes; likewise, Copan doesn’t feature in the intro sequence but is one of the sites they visit in an episode (Copan is particularly noted for its steles, and we see Esteban chancing upon them as he runs through the jungle).

Mayan pyramid at Palenque

One of the pyramids at Palenque

How to Access the Mysterious Cities of Gold Sites

This map shows our route in red, and the Mayan cities featured in Mysterious Cities of Gold are blue numbers 1 – 5. Green numbers 1 & 2 are two other Mayan sites we visited which weren’t featured in the cartoon:

Map of the Mysterious Cities of Gold

Blue: 1.Chichen Itza 2.Uxmal 3.Palenque 4.Tikal 5.Copan. Green: 1.Tulum 2.Coba

Chichen Itza is located near the Mayan Riviera region (Cancun & Playa del Carmen) and can be visited as a day trip from either – bus loads of cruse ship passengers do exactly this, and it’s by far the most heavily touristed Mayan site. It’s also one of the most impressive, but the large crowds of visitors and vendors of tatty souvenir junk unfortunately rob it of any deep sense of mystery. We actually visited as a stop en route from Tulum (another Mayan site – see below) to Merida; catching the first bus from Tulum to Chichen Itza, we left our backpacks at the luggage office in the bus terminal there while we checked out the ruins for a few hours, then jumped onto another bus to Merida, arriving in the evening.

Uxmal is located near Merida, but the only way we could find to visit it was on a guided tour; not usually my thing, but I just had to see it because it’s this:

We booked the tour through our guesthouse in Merida, and it was a full-day job including two more minor Mayan sites in addition to Uxmal itself. Seeing the main Uxmal pyramid was awesome, but I didn’t really enjoy being ferried around in a minivan on a group tour by a guide who monotonously recited his information as though on autopilot. Due to the less straightforward access, I’d probably only recommend this one if you’re a serious history buff or Mysterious Cities of Gold fan!

Palenque is very straightforward to visit, being just outside the modern town of the same name. We simply caught a public bus from Merida to Palenque, and took a colectivo (shared taxi) to the ruins in the morning. Palenque was also the first site we visited to really spark the sense of childhood wonder I was chasing; although the buildings are less impressive and imposing than those at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, the location on a steamy jungle-clad hillside gives it a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere.

Tikal, deep in the rainforest of northern Guatemala, was the most impressive of the lot. The city itself has the best collection of pyramids we saw – of similar stature to the Uxmal pyramid, but greater in number – and is surely the most impressive ancient site I’ve yet personally seen after Angkor Wat. The remote jungle location gives it an atmospheric setting, and the wildlife alone would have been worth the visit on the day we went – we saw monkeys, tropical birds, vultures, army ants (my feet and legs get swarmed all of a sudden and I copped a few painful bites before I managed to sprint out of their way), and even a snake eating a frog – the victim was still alive and struggling when I snapped this pretty useless blurred photograph:

A snake eating a frog, Tikal

The pyramids of Tikal rising enigmatically above the forest canopy is quite a famous image, and one which will be familiar to Star Wars geeks as well as Mysterious Cities of Gold geeks (there’s a lot of overlap there, I know) – it was used as the rebel base on Yavin IV in the first Star Wars movie (and again in Rogue One):

The pyramids of Tikal as seen in Star Wars

The Millenium Falcon arriving at Yavin IV

Tikal is near the town of Flores (a town built on an island in the middle of a lake in the middle of the jungle, which is a pretty cool place for a town); from Flores, it’s about 90 minutes by road to Tikal. You’ll want at least two nights in the area, and you can stay at one of the lodges at Tikal or a Flores hotel; we stayed in Flores for two nights, making a day trip to Tikal from there.

Copan is the name of both an ancient Mayan site, and a modern Honduran town in the same location (its full name is Copan Ruinas). To visit the ruins, simply take a bus to Copan and stay in the town for a couple of nights, and you can walk to the ruins from your hotel. Copan can be visited as a stop en route between Guatemala or El Salvador and Honduras’ Bay Islands (Central America’s main scuba diving Mecca). Travel between Copan and San Salvador is a bit of a long-winded faff, see my Honduras and El Salvador pages for more details on the bus routes involved.

The Copan ruins are also home to some boisterous and colourful locals:

Parrots at the Copan ruins

All these sites are great and all worth visiting, with Tikal and Palenque the stand-outs for me. Uxmal is probably only worth going out of your way for if you’re a massive Mysterious Cities of Gold geek though!

Another point of interest for movie buffs is that Predator was partly filmed in the Palenque area, and the waterfall where Arnie has his final showdown with his alien opponent is Cascadas de Misol-Ha, located between Palenque and the beautiful mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas; we took a minivan from Palenque to San Cristobal via Misol-Ha and another nice waterfall called Agua Azul, which was a nice little route (though I recall it being quite a long day).

The Misol-Ha waterfall

Misol-Ha waterfall; we were there during rainy season, so the volume of water is far greater than seen in Predator

Other Mayan Sites we Visited

In addition to the above Mayan sites that featured in The Mysterious Cities of Gold, we also visited the sites of Tulum on Mexico’s Caribbean coast (south of Cancun), and Coba in the jungle a short distance inland from Tulum. Although not seen in the cartoon, both are also worth visiting if you’re in the area and (despite its modest size) Tulum is particularly photogenic thanks to its cliff-top coastal location; it’s also home to lots of Ctenosaurs (a large species of iguana) and these lizards are quite happy to pose for you:

The Tulum Mayan ruins

Have you been to the Mayan cities in Central America? Are you a fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold? Got any questions? Leave me a comment below!

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Posted in Central America, Movies & TV

Kyoto City Walk: Tetsugaku-no-michi (The Philosopher’s Path), Keage Incline, Nanzenji and the Silver Temple, and Mt Daimonji

Tetsugaku-no-michi during cherry blossom season

Tetsugaku-no-michi, the Philosopher’s Path, is a pretty 2km path alongside a canal in northeast Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan. It’s named for the early-20th Century philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who used to stroll along it in quiet contemplation on his way to work at Kyoto University.

Philosopher's Path hiking map

Satellite view of the route. Red: Keage Incline, Philosopher’s Path, and Mt Daimonji; Green: (approximate) route on the Kyoto Isshu Trail between Mt Daimonji and Keage

Philosopher's Path hiking map

Terrain map of the route

The canal is part of the Biwako Canal system which brings water from Lake Biwa down to the Kamo River in Kyoto; the water flowing over the famous aqueduct at Nanzen-ji comes from Lake Biwa, and is the same water flowing along by Tetsugaku-no-michi. If you have the best part of a day to spare, you can actually start walking from Lake Biwa and follow the canal all the way to the Philosopher’s Path; it’s a great hike, especially in spring.

Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei

Lake Biwa (as seen from Mt Hiei), the source of the water flowing next to the Philosopher’s Path

Alongside Tetsugaku-no-michi the canal is lined with hundreds of tightly spaced cherry blossom trees and so is absolutely spectacular (and spectacularly crowded) when they bloom in early April – Tetsugaku-no-michi is probably Kyoto’s single most famous cherry blossom spot. If you visit at that time, bring your best camera and be sure to sample the matcha (green tea) and sakura ice cream – but don’t be expecting to be able to do any philosophising or quiet contemplation!

Cherry blossoms along the Philosopher's Path

Full bloom at Tetsugaku-no-michi

Throughout the rest of the year, the Philosopher’s Path is a nice enough place for a walk, though it’s also quite unspectacular in its own right and may be a little underwhelming to many visitors. For this reason, it’s best to do it in conjunction with some other sights – the most obvious being the Silver Temple (Ginkakuji), which stands at the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path, and Nanzenji, another famous temple near the southern end. Visiting these two temples via a walk along Tetsugaku-no-michi is a nice way to spend a couple of hours, and you can also do the Daimonjiyama hike up the hill behind the Silver Temple to one of Kyoto’s best viewpoints, and include a visit to the Keage Incline (another great cherry blossom spot) which is located near Nanzenji, just behind Keage subway station.

Keage Incline at full bloom

Keage Incline at full bloom

To take in all of the above, you can start from Keage Station on the Kyoto subway Tozai line; coming out of exit 1, turn left and walk uphill for a minute then turn left again up the steps between the houses. This brings you to the top of Keage Incline, a set of rail tracks on a slope which was used to raise and lower boats between the Lake Biwa Canal at the top and the Okazaki Canal at the bottom; the rails are still in place and a couple of pieces of old equipment are on display. The Incline is lined with cherry trees and looks amazing when they bloom (again, expect serious crowds in early April).

The forest path to Nanzen-ji

The forest path from Keage Incline to Nanzenji

The water coming from Lake Biwa splits at the Incline; most of it goes down in pipes to the Okazaki Canal, but some of it runs along a channel through the woods to Nanzenji & Tetsugaku-no-michi; once you’re done taking pics of the Incline, follow the water around at the top into the woods and down the path alongside the water channel. After 5 minutes or so you’ll arrive at Nanzenji via the back door, emerging from behind the famous aqueduct. Although the aqueduct isn’t a temple structure and was (only!) built in 1895 as part of the Lake Biwa Canal project (whereas the temple was founded in 1291 and the oldest extant buildings date to the late 1500s, the temple having burned down several times before then), the aqueduct has become Nanzenji’s most famous feature. The temple’s buildings are beautiful too though, with an impressive sanmon (entrance gate) and notable Zen gardens; the grounds are free to stroll around, but you have to pay to see the interiors and gardens (though you can actually see into one of the gardens from the path through the forest). From Nanzenji, follow the road north past Eikan-do (another famous temple, worth visiting if you have time and are happy to pay the 600 yen entrance fee – it’s especially renowned for its autumn colours) then turn right to find the southern end of the Philosopher’s Path, where the water emerges again having flown over the aqueduct and behind Eikan-do.

Autumn leaves in front of the Nanzen-ji aqueduct

The Nanzenji aqueduct (Nanzenji is famous for its autumn colours)

Now it’s simply a case of strolling along beside the canal, though if it’s cherry blossom time there’ll be a whole lot of people who’ve had the same idea. There are a number of small temples located just off the path (signposts point the way) if you’re interested, and also plenty of cute little cafes and souvenir shops; again, be sure to sample the matcha & sakura ice cream if you’re there in blossom season!

An overstuffed trash can on the Philosopher's Path during cherry blossom season

I call this the chopstick dalek! Evidence of the crowds at Tetsugaku-no-michi during the cherry blossom season

It only takes around 20 minutes to walk the path, though you’re likely to take longer with stops for photos, food & drink, and at the north end you’ll find the Silver Temple. The companion piece to the Golden Temple on the other side of the city (which it was designed to resemble), the Silver Temple is a more humble affair. It was designed by the shogun Yoshimasa, grandson of Yoshimitsu (who built the Golden Temple), and though it was originally intended to be covered in silver leaf it was left unfinished as it stood when Yoshimasa passed away. This gives the temple a strong element of wabi-sabi, a concept in Japanese culture of the beauty of impermanence and imperfection, in contrast to the bling bling of the Golden Temple. It’s the temple’s wabi-sabi that really makes it so popular with the Japanese, so try and see if you can get a sense for it – if not, the Silver Temple is likely to underwhelm. The small and unassuming main pavilion is the original structure dating to the late 1400s though, so even if it doesn’t impress you much in its appearance, you can at least be impressed at its survival of all the centuries of earthquakes, fire and war! It also stands in a famous Zen garden – be sure to go up the hill at the back for a nice view of the surrounding area, especially if you don’t intend to climb Mt Daimonji afterwards.

View from Daimonjiyama

The view from Daimonjiyama

For those who do fancy the fairly short but steep walk up to arguably the city’s best viewpoint, it’s time to hike to the site of one the annual mountainside kanji (Chinese character) bonfires lit during the summer O-Bon festival. Upon exiting Ginkaku-ji, turn right and walk towards the stone torii gate ahead of you; turn right again just before the gate, and then take the right-hand path when you come to the fork a short distance after that (the left fork dead-ends at a school). Now you’re on the path up to the bonfire site and some fantastic views – read my Mt Daimonji hike page here for more details and photos of the spirit bonfire and the hike itself. From the bonfire site, you can either descend the way you came, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can continue up the path to the mountain’s summit (which also has great views – higher up of course, though not as wide open) and from there you can pick up the scent of the Kyoto Isshu Trail (Kyoto Circuit Trail, a 70km hiking path through the mountains) and walk back to Keage along the ridge. Kyoto Isshu Trail board 45-1 is located near the top of the mountain; if you take the path heading south-east from the viewing platform and walk 100m you’ll find it at the Daimonjiyama Yotsutsuji (大文字山四ツ辻) intersection, and from there you can follow the trail boards (in descending order) to trail board 33 at Himukai-Daijingu shrine, a short distance from where you started at the top of Keage Incline. See my Kyoto Isshu Trail page for more details on the trail and the trail boards (the relevant leg of the trail is the Higashiyama Course).

The walk from Keage Incline to the Silver Temple can be smashed through in little over half an hour, but taking it at a leisurely pace with photo stops and time to check out the temples it could take up a couple of hours. From the Silver Temple, if you hike up to and straight back down from the bonfire site, that should take in the region of 90 minutes, assuming you hang out for a bit to take pictures of the view; if you decide to hike back to Keage via the Kyoto Isshu Trail along the ridge, then you can probably plan on it being around 4 hours+ for the full round-trip hike.

Posted in Japan, Kyoto

Visiting the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) Between South and North Korea

North and South Korean soldiers facing off in the JSA, Panmunjeom DMZ

Visiting the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) is one of the most unusual and interesting things you can do on a visit to Korea (or indeed anywhere), giving you the opportunity to take a peak into the hermit state and even step across the world’s most heavily fortified border and stand on North Korean territory.

Centred along the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), the DMZ is the buffer zone between North Korea (DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and South Korea (ROK, the Republic of Korea), and has been since the 1953 armistice which brought a halt to hostilities in the Korean War. No official peace treaty has ever been signed though, so the two remain technically at war and this is the most heavily armed frontier in the world. North Korea has upwards of a million troops standing ready to invade and a conscription period of a decade or more, while all South Korean men must complete two years of military service; the North conducts regular missile tests and is now thought to have some nuclear weapons capability, while the US has 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea as well as the newly deployed THAAD anti-missile system (a controversial move which has caused a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Seoul leading to economic retaliation by China against South Korea’s tourism industry).

North Korean soldier on guard, DMZ

So, in short, it’s pretty serious stuff; and if you like paying attention to the serious stuff, to the history and politics, of the places you travel to, then a DMZ tour is a fascinating way to do so.

The DMZ covers a large area – although only 4km wide, it’s 250km long – and there are multiple points of interest with various different tours available. For the majority of visitors, the main thing to see is Panmunjeom, the JSA (Joint Security Area) where North and South Korean border posts (and guards) face each other directly, and a cluster of UN negotiation buildings straddles the border itself, standing half in the North and half in the South. Not all tours include the JSA, so be sure to double-check what’s included before booking anything.

The day starts with the drive out of Seoul up the Freedom Highway, itself a fascinating experience as you leave the urban sprawl on a highway alongside the Han River, the traffic slowly thinning as you bypass the suburbs; and then you reach the confluence of the Han and Imjin rivers, the Han turning towards the sea but the highway following the Imjin north, and now the opposite bank is North Korea. Fortifications line the riverbank, and you drive under large advertising billboards which mask concrete barricades that can be dropped to block the road at the push of a button in the event of invasion. The traffic thins to a trickle, and eventually disappears; your bus drives along a wide, empty, desolate highway, fortifications running along the riverbank, North Korea facing you on the far side. Not your typical morning drive!

Safety presentation for the DMZ tour

Slide shown during the safety briefing

Arriving at Camp Bonifas (the UN base just before the JSA, manned by US and South Korean forces), you first sign forms acknowledging that you’re entering a potentially hostile area and accepting that the UN / US / South Korean forces are not liable in the event you should be killed or injured by enemy actions, and you then go for a safety briefing given by one of the US officers; it’s fascinating stuff as they refresh your memory on the Korean War and explain the history of the DMZ and the various violent incidents that have taken place there over the decades, most notably the dramatic defection of a Soviet citizen during the Cold War (leading to a firefight in the JSA with multiple casualties), and the axe murder incident in which two American soldiers were killed by North Korean troops while attempting to trim a tree that was blocking the view of a North Korean position in the summer months. The tree was cut down a few days later in an operation involving helicopter gunships, B-52 bombers, an aircraft carrier group and fighter planes, and a large squad of South Korean special forces tae kwon do experts; Camp Bonifas is named for the American captain who was killed.

Receiving final safety instructions before going to the DMZ border

The officer acting as our guide delivers some final safety instructions

You’re then given a series of strict instructions to follow in the border area, such as no gestures, photography only when indicated by your guide, no flash photography, and so on (and there’s also a strict dress code for the day, to prevent your photo being used for propaganda purposes by the North); and with that done, you follow in single file to the border area itself where you see the group of small buildings straddling the border and the large North Korean border post beyond them. North Korean troops were clearly visible keeping an eye on us all from the building on their side, while South Korean troops stood watching back in their combat-ready posture, half-concealed behind the corners of the negotiation huts.

After being allowed to take a few pics of this surreal scene, you enter one of the little blue negotiation huts where you’re free to walk round the far end of the table and stand on North Korean ground. Looking out of the windows in the middle of the room you can see the concrete blocks on the ground outside marking out the MDL, with the gravel on each side a different colour to clearly mark South and North Korean territory:

The MDL border markers in the JSA, Panmunjeom

This photo taken from just inside North Korea

The door at the North Korean end of the room is guarded by a South Korean soldier while you’re there, with another standing by plus your US soldier guide:

Korean soldier guarding the door to North Korea from the JSA negotiation hut

The UN table inside the JSA negotiation hut

After leaving the negotiation hut, we also stopped at the Bridge of No Return before leaving the JSA; this bridge was previously used for prisoner exchanges, although it hasn’t been used for that purpose since the 70s. The MDL runs across the middle of the bridge, and you can’t set foot on it, but you can get a fairly close photo of the rather forlorn-looking bridge and North Korea directly on the other side:

The Bridge of No Return

Some North Korean soldiers were visible through the trees in the vicinity of the bridge:

North Korean soldiers seen through the trees

North Korean soldiers seen through the trees

Despite all the soldiers, weapons, and warnings, as long as you do nothing silly a visit to Panmunjeom feels pretty safe, if a little tense; conversely, it’s also a place where doing something silly would be a very bad idea indeed!

DMZ border markers

Most of the MDL is marked out by these posts

Lookout post in the DMZ

Watchtower in the DMZ

As well as the JSA itself, the tour I did also took us to the Third Tunnel (one of the secret infiltration tunnels the North Koreans dug under the border), and Dorasan (also reachable independently by DMZ train or by Seoul Metro & bus via Munsan & Imjingang stations (see Imjingak resort below), and the furthest you can go without needing the security clearance required for JSA tours); Dorasan station is the last South Korean station on the line to Pyongyang, and not presently in service except for the DMZ tourist trains. Nearby is the Dorasan observatory, a hilltop lookout from where you can look a fair distance into the North using binoculars, principally at the town of Kijong-dong, an ersatz town apparently built entirely for show as a display of North Korean ‘prosperity’ but which stands mostly deserted, yet which flies a huge North Korean flag from the 4th-tallest flagpole on earth (it used to be the tallest, but has recently been overtaken by a few in the Middle East & Central Asia). Bizarre stuff, and most interesting.

The fake town of Kijong-dong in North Korea, with its huge flagpole

How to Visit the DMZ

If you want to visit the DMZ as independently as possible, or are unable to get a spot on a JSA tour (note that children aren’t allowed on JSA visits, and nor are South Korean citizens), you can visit Dorasan and the Third Tunnel from Imjingak resort (near Imjingang station) or on a (non-JSA) DMZ tour from Seoul, the latter necessary if you want an English-speaking guide (or alternatively, visit the Odusan observatory located at the confluence of the Han and Imjin Rivers); however, if you want to visit the JSA itself, you do have to go on a group tour from Seoul.

All visits into the JSA are conducted by the US forces stationed there, regardless who you book the tour with; there is a US forces travel agency called USO (United Service Organizations) which operates on the US bases, and though they mostly serve US military & dependants, civilians are also welcome to book with them. The USO is the ‘main’ tour operator for DMZ tours which include the JSA, though there are a number of other companies operating similar itineraries. I went with USO and actually booked it in person by rocking up at their office on the US base (Camp Kim) near Samgakji station (come out of exit 10 and walk north on the main road for 5 minutes or so until you reach the base entrance – and remember your passport!); I did this on the first day I was in Seoul, and managed to get on a tour towards the end of my week in the city. They don’t have tours every single day, the tours fill up, and it takes several days to get your security clearance for the JSA, so you may prefer to book online if you’re not able to be flexible or you just want to be sure; you can do that here.

I was perfectly happy with the USO tour, and their price appears to be the best, so can personally recommend them; however, in the last couple of years there’s been another tour (this one) operated by another company (PTC) which, in addition to the JSA and a couple of the usual DMZ spots, also includes the opportunity to meet and chat with a North Korean defector. If I were to do it again, that would be my first choice, followed by USO; if neither were available, I’d just book with whoever had space left on a suitable date (hotel travel desks can also check availability and make reservations for you).

It goes against my normal travel preferences to have to plan ahead and book tours this way – like many others, I generally dislike joining group tours and prefer to travel independently, but in this case it’s absolutely worth it and a DMZ tour with the JSA visit is surely the least-touristy tour out there.

A cabinet full of gas masks in a Seoul metro station

Gas mask cabinet in a Seoul metro station

Living in the Line of Fire

It’s quite strange being at this heavily fortified border, seeing these two hostile sides facing each other nose-to-nose, and contemplating the immense destruction and loss of life that would occur were it to all to kick off again, and to then return to downtown Seoul where the throngs of shoppers, diners, and revellers go about their shopping, eating, and partying, just as if everything were normal and the nuclear Sword of Damocles weren’t dangling by a thread over their heads.

I’ve personally spent around 6 months altogether in Seoul, and the truth is that you just really don’t think about North Korea while going about your daily life in the city. There are little reminders here and there – most obviously, the cabinets full of gas masks in all the subway stations, or the obvious military presence if you go hiking on Inwangsan or Bugaksan – and sometimes tensions do flare up significantly, but by and large, the North doesn’t intrude too much on the daily lives of South Koreans.

And should you stay a while in Seoul (or elsewhere in South Korea) you too will quickly learn to pay North Korea little mind; fact is, Seoulites have by and large become desensitised to North Korea’s temper tantrums and antics and simply get on with their lives, hopes, and (comparatively mundane!) fears.

Posted in Korea