Thursday, May 28, 2009

postcard from japan

In Tokyo we have the advantage that we have solely missed throughout our trip so far: local knowledge. A friend of mine - Hannah - has been living in Japan for seven months now, and she has generously volunteered to ease us gently into the Tokyo experience, as well as act as our base camp for the center-piece of our Japan trip: climbing the 3770m Japanese icon: Mount Fuji.

Tokyo is certainly a headrush experience, although too expensive for us to fully enjoy - three days was too much time here. Still, there were definite highlights.

(Direct Youtube link)

One such highlight was playing with all the latest top-of-the-range gadgets at Sony's Tokyo HQ made for a fun evening, though it will come back to haunt me (and my bank account) one day as it made me fall in love with the idea of owning a digital SLR camera.
Climbing the aforementioned Fuji-san is easily the hardest physical activity I've ever undertaken. It was a heavily presumptuous - perhaps bloody foolish - plan to begin with, the whole day was totally dependant on us successfully hitchhiking up as far as the road goes (2400m) and back down again afterwards. Given that we saw roughly 15 people on the mountain all that day, we would have to be very fortunate indeed.
And it was this that summed up the Japanese personality perfectly. By nature very shy and conformist, whenever we asked for help people would go out of their way, offering more help than we had wished for. So on our way up the mountain we managed to flag down a woman driving home, who - despite not speaking any English - insisted on driving us all the way up to the 2400m starting point.
You should watch the video for a decent indication of the experience, but really, we were putting on brave faces for the camera. It was just a seemingly neverending trial of ever-increasingly steep, and unstable rocks and snow to traverse. It was seldom (though occasionally) dangerous, but it was always grindingly difficult. As we were climbing out of season, the trial was covered by snow, meaning we had to invent our own route up the mountain.
Luckily it was worth it for the view of the snowy crater at the summit, and for the slide back down afterwards. My trousers were torn to shreds, and my backside still aches a week later, but after a six hour hike to the summit, we get down - mainly sliding on the snow - in under two.
We needed to as well, as sunset was approaching and with it any chance of there being anybody left at base camp - let alone anyone willing to transport us back to the nearest town. Indeed we get back to our 2400m starting point and there are just three cars left.
We start walking the 28km down the winding Mount Fuji road. Sleep deprivation is setting in, and Simon is falling asleep whilst walking. Worst case scenario: we have to walk all night to reach the town, meanwhile Hannah is worried about where we are, and has maybe even called Mountain Rescue out for us.
Half an hour later however, and the 2nd of the three cars stops for us, and - again giving us more than we asked for - drops us right outside the train station of his town, from which it is an easy 20m ride back to Hannah's house. By combination of grit determination, energy, generosity and luck, we had tamed Mount Fuji.
In Japan, there is only one way to celebrate: Karaoke. Typically this involves hiring out private rooms for your group for an hour at a time, for about ₤7. The clincher though, is that it includes all-you-can-drink alcohol. Hannah takes us to her local establishment, and it's a great evening as social inhibitions get thrown to the wall with each successive drink and each more ambitious song choice. Gorillaz is followed by Oasis, then by an acutely optimistic rendition of Scissor Sisters - I Don't Feel Like Dancing.
The personal highlight is remarkable: Hannah had remembered from my days running a music pub quiz in Nottingham that I had a soft spot for a song by Belinda Carlisle called Runaway Horses (she had been the only person in the bar of 50 people to guess the intro correctly), and though I had no memory of this myself, when the song suddenly popped up as the next track it, and the ensuing hairbrush diva scenes that followed, were a genuine classic holiday moment . The night rounds off with a mass-singalong of Take That - Back For Good, and I personally am left feeling as though I have finally discovered entertainment utopia.

Other Japan highlights?
  • Visiting the peace museums, memorials and relics of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima
  • Wondering around Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo at 5:30am
  • Kyoto's incredible collection of beautiful Temples and shrines
  • The deservedly renowned public transport system - bullet trains and all
  • Beating Simon at a long-hyped game of air hockey
  • Spotting Geisha in Kyoto and cosplay girls in Tokyo.

So Japan? Amazing country. And it's possible to do it on an affordable budget if you're a committed shoestringer. For us though, it's another flight, this time to Malaysian Borneo, another change of scenery, and one final culture shock...

Wish you were here,

Photos: (no login required)
Japan rating
: 8.3/10
Friendliest person met: Both saintly car owners who picked up us hitchhikers
Scariest moment: The fear-wracked decent from Mt. Fuji.
Most beautiful sight: Summit of Mount Fuji.
The Soundtrack: Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
Still to come: Malaysia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Friday, May 22, 2009

postcard from egypt

With only four days in Egypt, and half of day one spent trapped on the world's least punctual ferry, our intentions to explore the less visited Western Egypt have been scrapped.

Finally getting out of port at 11pm, we barter a taxi driver down from ₤5 to ₤2 (we probably could have got it for ₤1.50 if we had really pushed) to take us the 6km drive to some nearby budget accommodation.

Luckily, it (New Soft Beach Camp in Tarabin, should you ever be in the area) is great. Sleeping in beach huts on a gorgeous beach, with a gorgeous spanish omelette breakfast, and only five guests staying in the whole place? Yes please. And all for about ₤4 each? Idyllic.

The next day we find ourselves in Dahab. The reworked plan for Egypt is now to unwind for a couple of days on the beach to round off the first leg of the trip. For this privilege we are paying the cheapest accommodation I have ever been granted: ₤1.80 for the night. Again, as it isn't peak season yet, there's a feeling of having the town to ourselves.

Cairo, then, has been planned so that we arrive early morning (6:30am) off an overnight coach, see the Pyramids, then fly out again the very same afternoon. Neither of us is particularly keen to see the city, it doesn't have a good reputation.

Said reputation seems fairly justified. Most upsettingly, every guy (and it is the men, the women of this comparatively liberal country are friendly and fun) who strikes up conversation with us is guaranteed to eventually try to sell us something.

Again, we've been warned not to expect too much of the Pyramids themselves. Undeniably impressive themselves, the illusion is somewhat ruined by their location not in the middle of the desert, but in a Cairo suburb, adjacent to a big coach park, and swarming with the most sophisticated touts I've yet come across.

The Touts of the Giza Pyramids methodology
"Hello Sir, would you like me to take your photo with the Pyramid?"
"No Sir don't worry, it is for free"
"Sir, the photo would look very cool if you wore this Arabian headscarf in it. Try it on please"
"No Sir, of course I do not want your money"
"Sir, you should come here and climb atop this camel, then the photo will look really good"
"No Sir, it is for free, for free"
Oh yes Sir, this is a good photo. Perhaps we go for a little walk on the camel now?"
"No no Sir, no problem. It is free, it is free."
"Sir did you enjoy that ride? That will be ₤5 please"
"Sir I can not let you down from the camel until you have paid for your camel ride"
"Sir you must pay for your camel ride"
"No Sir I cannot let you down"
"The Police, Sir? (Begrudgingly ushers camel to the ground)"

(please note that this tale comes from Simon, my zero-tolerance policy on touts remained steadfast throughout)

Still, we're glad we did see the Pyramids, and going inside one of them was the most humid, claustrophobic, sweatiest experience of my life.

And then, it is time to leave the Middle East. The second leg of our trip has undergone major restructuring: word on the road is that Vietnam has been spoilt by a massive influx of tourism recently (a predicament I'm content to blame on King Tory himself Jeremy Clarkson, and the rest of his Top Gear goons), and we have less time for our trip after Japan than we had originally planned (just over three weeks) so we've instead decided to see Malaysia and Thailand rather than the original Vietnam > Cambodia > Laos > Thailand route.

That's all in the future though, and first we've got the matter of a flight to Japan to deal with. Aboard a plane on which we are the only two white people, the (half full anyway) aircraft crew treat us first to seats with extra legroom, then to a full second meal after we had just finished our first one. To top it all off, the in-flight movie is Slumdog Millionaire, a film I've been desperate to see since it rampaged the Oscars a few months back.

(Direct Youtube link)

Top flight, Egypt Air, thanks. We arrive in Tokyo jet-lag free, refreshed, and prepared for a major cultural change of scenery.

Wish you were here,

Egypt rating: 6.5/10
Friendliest person: Enjoying a bit of a song and dance with the group of 10 girls at the Pyramids.
Scariest moment: Losing sight of Simon as he got taken off on the back of a camel, hours before our flight.
Most beautiful sight: The Pyramids - from certain angles.
The Soundtrack: Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes.
Still to come: Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

postcard from jordan

Time is in short supply now, and we are not getting to spend as much time in countries as we would like to.

Jordan, we boil down to it's two essential destinations, the first of which is Petra.

Familiar to millions as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and as the scene of a couple of chase scenes or something in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (although I'm one of those people that has never actually seen the film), Petra is a colossal playground of incredible natural colour and ancient architecture.

It's expensive (₤26!) and takes effort - on our second day we walk 20km to ensure we see the essential sights everybody sees, and do some hiking around rarer ventured sections.

Has we not, it would have been a day spent trudging round alongside the masses of tour groups, but Petra is most certainly a location where the more you put in, the more you get out. The result is the most rewarding day from the five weeks of the trip thus far.

From Petra we head to Wadi Rum where we spend 24 hours in the middle of the desert, as guests of a Bedouin family. We sleep in Bedouin tents, go jumping off sand dunes, and bomb around the desert in a 4x4 van exploring some of the more impressive desert scenery. It's all very good fun.

It's hard to tell after such a short stay, but the Jordanians are roughly as hospitable as the Syrians, who I was waxing lyrical about a couple of weeks ago. It's still a joy to be welcomed to a country like this.

The ferry to Egypt is a nightmare. Expensive as well (₤45), the boat takes three hours to leave the port, three hours to cross the sea, and four (!) hours to dock at the other side, a failure for which they bizarrely and unfathomably blame on the 'high' (yet barely existent) winds. By our rough calculations, we reckon it would have only taken slightly longer to walk the journey (were it possible).

Thank goodness then, that we are prepared for entertaining ourselves whilst in transit. I have on my ipod the full first series of 24 (neither of us have ever seen it) and on the ferry we manage to watch the five remaining episodes of the series. I dread to think how the journey would have been without them.

The boat docks at 10pm - way past schedule - and we still have to get through passport and luggage control. There is no chance we are going to be able to get to our intended bed - 70km away - tonight...

Wish you were here,

Jordan rating
: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: The guy who we asked for directions to Irbid bus station, and he walked us the 20 minute route there.
Scariest moment: none.
Most beautiful sight: Petra.
The Soundtrack: Chemical Brothers - Push The Button.
Still to come: Egypt, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

postcard from israel

We had been warned about two things before entering Israel. First, that the political situation can change very suddenly, so we should pay attention to current events as we enter and explore the country, and secondly, that crossing the border into Israel - especially for those with Syrian border stamps in their passport - can be a time consuming, and sometimes unsuccessful, ordeal.

We hear stories from fellow backpackers of people being questioned for an hour about their intentions, border guards hell-bent on picking holes in plans or making people crack and declare secret Arab loyalty.

A little of this turns out to be true. What we don't anticipate though, is that the border guards will in fact be a flotilla of 18 year old, attractive (and in Israel they are all attractive), uniformed girls. It appears as though this is Israel's national service in action: as the boys protect with guns elsewhere, the girls protect with pens here.

A 90 minute wait is followed by five minutes questioning by two such ladies, and some light critiquing of the Syrian Government later, we are through and on our way to Jerusalem.

After a month of being largely separate from any kind of backpacker scene, in Israel we are thrown right back into the center of one. The hostels are busy and vibrant, and it is good to be back in like-minded company.

Jerusalem itself is an expectantly serious affair, creaking as it is under the weight of 3000 years of religious and political history. It's a beautiful city - particularly the claustrophobic, bustling and ultra-holy old town, and I take my reverential moments with some of the very origins of today's religions by visiting various holy places of Muslim, Judaism, and in particular Christianity - by touching the stone Jesus was laid on after he died.

A day trip to Ein Gedi means traveling 410m below sea level to the lowest point on the earth's surface, the site of the Dead Sea.

Floating in the Dead Sea is perhaps how you imagine it - you're in water but it's impossible to sink, difficult to swim, and perfectly possible to just lay there, reading a newspaper. Care is required, however: a tiny drop of the ultra-salty water that enters your eyes, mouth or any open wound will be an intensely unpleasant experience.

In stark contrast to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a party town. Upon arrival we could easily be in an Australian city. The beach is long and inviting, the high-rise hotels sketch along it, and the hostels are packed with hedonistic, self-interested travelers.

It's not particularly a criticism, after five weeks of what I'll perhaps overstatingly call high-brow traveling it's welcome respite. Days therefore, are spent on the beach, and nights are spent with alcohol.

I'm standing at our hostel reception one afternoon, and the receptionist is having an argument with one of the hostel's long-term residents. She's having to remind him that it is against house rules to bring your gun (in this case, a two foot long Assault Rifle) onto hostel premises.

Also in Tel Aviv we get on a couple of computers and create fake-letters from our old universities confirming that we are currently studying there. We use them as 'proof' to get student ISIC cards that will save us plenty of money throughout the rest of our travels. We also spend half an hour in the 5-star surroundings of the Sheridan Hotel stealing a towel, after I lost mine in Jerusalem.

Our main night out in Tel Aviv sees us heading to a recommended dance bar called Lima Lima, before leaving again five minutes later, put off by the Garage music playing within, and the atypical garage crowd that comes with it.

Nearby though, we hear noise coming from the roof of a nearby apartment block - there's a party going on. Drawn by the appeal of raving on the cheap, we gatecrash. At 6:30am we leave - with the music still blaring out across Tel Aviv's skyline - and go for a walk along the beach with new friends.

Our further exploration of Israel is hampered by the country's Independence Day, a two day public holiday in celebration of the country's birth that will see systems like public transport grind to a halt. We hit on an idea of hiring a car instead to explore Israel's Northern regions.

Nervous about the manic local driving style, Simon is taking every precaution possible as we set out. We have been driving for two hours though, when he takes a roundabout exit too tightly, jolts the car up the kerb, and punctures both the (puny new style aluminium, apparently) wheels.

It is five hours later when a replacement car is brought out to us and we are back on our way again, and we would waste another two hours the following morning detouring to visit the rental company to fill out mindless paperwork. Meanwhile at the time of writing we are still awaiting confirmation that the incident was covered on our insurance. The excursion had not started well.

With our newly-thinned itinerary we go hiking down though a canyon in Yahudiya Nature Reserve, the highlight of a precarious hike being a unavoidable decent down a 9 metre ladder into a deep pool, followed by a 30 metre swim to the other side.

Elsewhere, we take a quick dip in the Sea of Galilee, and go exploring the especially politically tense area along the United Nations disengagement zone between Israel and Syria. We stop off at bomb shelters, abandoned buildings, disused tanks and an observation point overlooking the 1000 soldier UN base.

At one point Simon is at the roadside photographing a snake, when the air fills with a wailing sound. We look at each other as we realise: it is an air raid siren. Rushing back to the car we take off down the road with little idea of what to do, except drive. We shortly after pass through a village, and notice that everybody appears to be going about their lives as normal.

The next morning we are driving through more populated areas, and it happens again - sirens start blaring out across the landscape. This time though as we continue, we pass cars pulled up at the side of the road. Beside them people are standing, seemingly praying. As it is the public holiday of Independence, the air-raid siren signifies two minutes silence in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Wish you were here,

Photos: (coming soon)
Israel rating
: 7.4/10
Friendliest person met: Chem the Depeche Mode fan in Tel Aviv, or Teresa and Eva, the German sisters in Jerusalem.
Scariest moment: Air-raid siren.
Most beautiful sight:The waterfall pools in Ein Gedi national park.
The Soundtrack: Bat for Lashes - Two Suns
Still to come: Jordan, Egypt, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.