Newfoundland, Canada (1): Whisteling whales and icy icebergs

19.05 Amsterdam: Thank you, Dutch Rail!

It was tough to leave family and friends but it was time for the second leg of my tour. I had a long journey ahead, with special thanks to NS, our Dutch railway company. I had found a dirt cheap flight from London Gatwick to St. Johns, Canada. My outbound flight from Amsterdam was at 6 AM and it normaly takes only 1,5 hours. You know our country is tiny; Den Helder in the North to Vaals in the South in just over 3 hours, 4 with traffic). I, however, had to sleep-over at Schiphol Airport Departures area since our railways doesn’t run night trains for us, Southerners whereas the Dutch in the West have a superb night schedule. Boohoo!!

Hey, it was swell to spend a night with drug addicts and prostitutes. Joking!!! I just had to write this to help stamp out this international misunderstanding. Yes, soft drugs is legal in the NL [in small quantities] but really, don’t expect to find addicts at every corner. Actually, I read somewhere that the NL has less drugs issues than other [comparable] countries. So give us a break, please!

20.05 Signal Peak in St. Johns, Labrador: It’s a whale, it’s a whale!!

I reached St. Johns, the largest town on the Island of Labrador in Newfoundland, around noon. After more than 24 hours of non-stop travel, I had to take a tough decision: to sleep or not to sleep. The Jet Lag Prevention Protocol stipulates to persevere until the early evening but I felt really tired. I decided to ignore the fatigue, put on my hiking boots and set course to the famous Signal Hill trail. The reward came instantly in the form of stunning scenery.

imageimage

At Signal Peak’s summit I noticed some movement in the bay deep down below. A fish, I thought. Correction, a big fish! I thought: wow, that is a really, really, really big fish!! Then, gasping in disbelief, I realised it was… a humpback whale! I couldn’t help it and shrieked ‘whale, whale, whale!!’. I now understand that I may have come across as a person in need of immediate help. The local couple that rushed to the ‘rescue’ looked a little vexed initially but then laughed about my bona fide excitement.

image

It seemed to be my lucky day. Only minutes later I spotted a flock of the rarest species. Their Latin name is Homo Sapiens. Lol! They had found a bald headed eagle sitting on a nest. Wow, now that is a big bird!

image

When arriving in St. Johns’ I felt strangely unadjusted, you know just not in traveling mode. Could it be that one’s ‘globetrotter vibe’ could already distinguish after 2 weeks at home and/or 1 business meeting? I had read up on travelers that couldn’t adjust to their normal lives anymore but I was experiencing the opposite; homesick upon arrival. Great start, miss van Dijk..

I was pondering upon this topic on that first hike when I felt my enthusiasm re-ignite concurrently with each curve of the trail, view point and wild life spotted. My body and soul re calibrated, got back in balance. I was hungry for new adventures. Tired? Heck no!!!

21.05 Atlantic Ocean: Icy icebergs from heaven

The first adventure planned was a kayaking tour but I had a change of hearts. I decided to be sensible; the odds to spot a whale were close to nil as they hadn’t arrived from their migration yet. The nearest iceberg was 50 nautical miles (92 km) off shore, so not kayaking there! And I was weary about the water temperature; the Titanic sank close to St. Johns and I remember that water was 4 degrees so any splashing could lead to common colds, pneumonia or worse. So I booked a boat instead. Better!

Alana, an amazing young Canadian redhead, joined me. She praised icebergs and without exaggeration, icebergs are BEAUTIFUL! They are in my top 5 of most awesome sights. They seem to be sent straight from heaven with their bright baby blue color. (Scientific note: the blue color is caused by the refraction of the light in the air pockets that resides inside the ice mass. The air gets stuck when fresh snow compresses and transforms into new [iceberg] ice. Glaciers grow in the same manner as a matter of fact.

image

image

image

image

image

image



There is nothing heavenly about Canada’s National dish, poutine, which is chips topped with melted cheese -so far so good- and… gravy (in Dutch: vleesjus). Jikes! Okay, poutine is perfect at 3 in the morning after a heavy night [because then all fatty foods taste divine, right?].

I had ordered mine for lunch time. Wrong timing! I tried to save the meal with a cheese top-up to mask the taste of gravy. The waiter returned my plate with more cheese… and more gravy, transforming the dish to a gravy soup with soaked fries. Yuck! Even Alana agreed (and my apologies to all [Canadians] who feel insulted by my poutine review).

imageimage

Moscow & St. Petersburg, Russia: Mrs’ van Dijk reunited

28.04-4.05: Moscow and St. Petersburg; culture, culture, culture and churches

I reached Moscow ten days after boarding the Transsiberian Express in Vladivostok. I was dirty and dead tired. All I wanted was a steaming hot shower, a strong coffee and a soft bed. The fancy hotel that I had booked to spoil my mom and sister should offer all of the above but it was still many hours before formal check-in time. I nevertheless went down for a baggage drop-off and guess what? The hospitable hotel hostess turned a blind eye and checked me in. I guess I must have smelled like a pig…

Since my mum and sister wouldn’t arrive before the evening I had ample time for ‘scheduled maintenance’, a synonym for a beauty retreat in the vocabulary of my friend Marion Corbet. It was amazing how good it felt to be clean again. And how quick human batteries can recharge; within the shortest time I bubbled with energy once more. Ready for new craziness 🙂

Linda dancing

image

I had invited my mom and sister to Moscow for two reasons. The first was to let them experience the dynamics of globe trotting and to become part of my adventure. They have been my biggest fans and support on my Corners tour and have supported me in tough times during the journey [and before]. Secondly, I wanted to restore our tradition of ‘mother-and-daughters-day’. This tradition is sweet and simple: every year (at a minimum) we take some time out to spent together. Just us lot. No intrusions allowed, niece/nephew calamities excluded. Our annual event had been on the back burner since I moved to Dubai to all our displeasure. Mom en Peggy accepted my proposal without thinking, which is why -after a lengthy visa process- we re-united at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

image

I know every family is different and that relationships between mothers and daughters and between sisters can range from being great to gruesome or even broken. We belong to the first category. My mom, sister and I are close. I can’t recall any issues or disagreements, honestly. I had been solo on the road for several months so it felt like a warm bath to be in each other’s company. No distractions, no next appointments; fantastic! We talked and talked and… talked and went from the one coffee to the other to food breaks and a drink now and then. Mom’s bags bulged out with sweets and savory that would have fed us without any need for other meals, which Peggy and I loved. Oh, and when we weren’t indulging, we of course explored the magnificent Moscow; we went to the Red Square, the Kremlin, the Armoury, took hop on-off buses and much more. The Armoury impressed us the most; it is definitely the place to be for any good old fashioned jewel thief!

Our discussions revolved mostly about life and love and [remotely] related matters. Probably those are not too appealing for non-van Dijks, but, more importantly, they are strictly restricted to the Clan van Dijk. What happens in the family stays in the family. The rest of the blog is therefore pictures only, without comment 😉 Here is hoping you will enjoy nevertheless!

Moscow

image

image

imageimage

image

image

 

St. Petersburg

image

image

image

image

image

image

Transsiberian Express, Russia: Chug, chug says the little train

19-28.04: Vladivostok to Moscow… a helluva ride

I have been thinking long and hard on what to write about the Transsiberian Express (or Sibi for insiders). For starters because this train actually doesn’t exist. Anyone expecting to board a ‘Polar Express’ train as in the eponymous movies will be in for a disillusionment. There is no Sibi brand; no trains covered in Sibi stickers, no dedicated radio adds, website or ticket booths to get you all mellowed up for this mighty experience. For Russians, trains get you from A to B,  if -but mostly when- the airfares are too high. People thought I was mental for traveling by train for pleasure.

So why all the fuss? Well, the Transsiberian line happens to be the longest national railway link in the world. It runs from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the North West, covering 9,289 km and 7 time zone in 8 days (!!).

Processed with MOLDIV

Once a week there is a direct train but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone -if I would recommend Sibi all together. That would be mental and physical torture (more below), but more importantly, it defeats the purpose of the Sibi experience because half of the fun is to disembark and explore the Russian territory across.

(Vladivostoc)

I myself underestimated the importance of the hop on/offs. I was limited in time due to my Moscowegian deadline so I could only hop-off twice. Russia punished me badly for exchanging Sibi days for Japan, I had 2 very, very long legs ahead of me…

My Sibi experience started troublesome. I almost missed the train in Vladivostok. I wasn’t late (really, I wasn’t!) – the train left early I guess. Guess? Yes, I guess, because Russia doesn’t do English (editorial: not even in Moscow and St. Petersburg). It is therefore the absolute winner of my Corner’s Award for ‘Most difficult countries to travel in/ biggest language barrier)’ with special recognition for the absence of English signs and English speakers.

Can you picture me, Linda, in a confined area for 8 days with NO ONE to talk to? I was thankful to meet the ‘three Olegs’. Two of them were on Sibi too. They had just started to learn English so I instantly promoted to English tutor, yes, a Dutchy can be a tutor too (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king…). We covered thousand-and-one topics simply because at some point we would get stuck on a trivial word.

The occasional chats with the Olegs were basically the only time killer on the train. Normally, one can enjoy the scenery from the window but the Russian landscape was pretty boring. My timing wasn’t the best; spring hadn’t really started, so the land -mostly plains and modest hills- was still dry and empty. I can’t share the views because the windows of the train were too dirty to snap pretty pictures.

The next best time killer would have been… the Internet. Not in Siberia though. Internet + Siberia = NO, or better, NOOO!!! The odd minute here and there was insufficient to browse, let alone place a Skype call. TV? NOPE.  One channel and Russian only. Books/e-readers? Another NO. My travel bag only fit one book but if when reading ’24-7′ such book is never thick enough. The e-reads that I had downloaded on my stolen iPhone somehow hadn’t sync-ed in the Cloud so weren’t accessible on my new phone.

So what to do then? Food? Nope-nope. I knew that Sibi was notorious for bad food so I had stocked up to circumvent their poor catering. My bag bulged with instant noodles since I knew boiling water was available on the train. Great idea… until I found out that my noodles needed 5 minutes of solid boiling. The hot water got them semi-soft – at best. Disgusting! Boy, I wished their labels would have been in English so that I would have known that in the store…

Final attempt to kill time: sleeping. And this was… another NO. The bed was short and narrow (maybe 185x 50 cm). My effective width halved because of a broken ‘fall protection handle’ in my [top] bed. I toss-n-turn pretty badly so I kept my bum frantically pressed against the wall.  Not the best position for a relaxing nap. What also didn’t help (sarcasm!) was the softness of the bed;  a table with a cloth has more bedspring then the Sibi bed.

So, the bed wasn’t the place to be. The first night I was even afraid to jump in for a whole other reason. I shared the berth with three potent Russian knuckle draggers (in Dutch: mannen die me mijn botten met 1 vinger konden breken). The berth had an inside lock and I pictured what they could do to a woman asleep. Nothing happened of course, I got out alive and unharmed. Hurt, yes, but that was 100% bed-related.

The last NO was the shower. Actually, I can’t complain about the shower because there was none. Baby wipes to the rescue once more.

Irkutsk

Three nights later, I reached Irkutsk at 5 AM. I had 17 hours to spend and aimed for Lake Baikal. This is the world’s largest fresh water lake which completely freezes over in winter. When I visited [in April] it was still covered with floes. Mesmerising!

I had wanted to go sledge dog driving but had missed the season by a week. So I went for a horse back trail instead. I told my guide, Nicolay, that I had ridden for 24 years and of my horse, Adrian, but he shrugged and made me take his riding test nonetheless. (Ahsan, no comments please, even our pics playing your ‘game of kings’ (polo) didn’t help). So, I obediently demonstrated stand-and-sits, side swings, trots and a canter.  The ride was fabulous though, it fully restored my Vitamin H(orse) levels and made me feel alive again after so much inactivity on the train.

Sometimes good things happen without asking. I got an unexpected hitch hike back to the railway station. (Did someone stick a sign on my back saying ‘helpless tourist’?)  We listened silently to 80-90s music because my driver could not speak English. Interesting.

Yekatarinaburg (Y’burg)

My train left Irkutsk late at night, and this time I was more “Sibi-proof’. I accepted the no shower, bed, food, friends, reading material. I didn’t met a new Oleg, so I spent my time mostly in silence. Ample time for self reflection and I found that unexpectedly good experience.  Nevertheless, I was eager to hop off the train in Y’burg’. Y’burg is a surprisingly picturesque and vibrant city with wonderful people, such as Oleg (Novoselov, ‘Oleg no 2’), who show me around town. Thanks!

imageimage

Processed with MOLDIV

Y’burg was also special because… of the opera. I had never been to one before and went to their premiere of Carmen. It was sung in French (at least attempted) and subtitled in Russian and since I speak neither languages I was happy that I had read the story line before the show. Opera has a new fan, it was stunning.

The next day I messed up badly. I missed my train! I had mixed up local time and Moscow time on the ticket and arrived 5 minutes too late. Russia has many time zones and therefore they print both times on the tickets. This is really handy as soon as one gets used to it, and I had been fine until Y’burg. I was devastated because I didn’t want to be late for my mom and sister in Moscow. Four gentlemen recognised a woman in distress and asked what was wrong. They deliberated and offered to chase the train 200 km up North. They raced all the way pretty much ignoring all traffic rules in the book. We reached at the next station; sprinted to the track, I put my first foot on the rung and heard the whistle blow. I had made it!

When -after 10 nights- I finally reached Moscow and had checked in to a fancy hotel room [to spoil my mom and sister] I couldn’t believe how happy a person could be with a cup of decent coffee, a hair wash and a soft bed….

Crazy linda

 

 

Tokyo, Japan: Three hand(s)ful of people

imageBest sushi ever. Tsukiji, Tokyo

 

17-18.04: Plan, Do, Err, Get lost, Check and Act (Deming cycle – Tokyo style)

I had thought that going to Tokyo would feel like going ‘home’. I mean, I was certain at that point that I would move to Japan and Tokyo would then be the most logical place to live. It worked out a bit differently though. As you know from my previous blog, my time was restricted to 1.5 days. Tokyo is huge so this sightseeing expedition had to be planned meticulously and run as a military operation. So I sat myself down in my Command Control Center, the local gyoza restaurant (yummy) around the corner of the hostel and worked out the strategy.

I hit the road as soon as possible. Well, not the road but the metro. Things got complicated in a heart beat. Tokyo appeared to have two rail operators offering 10 odd packages, some blended products, and tickets were deer, as everything in Japan. So I saw, thought and bought… the wrong ticket. My first mistake was surmountable; I had taken a train with my metro-only pass so had to pay a top-up. No big deal. The second mistake was more awkward; I had managed to get into an area where I should not have been able to get. The railway officer insisted on ‘fraud’ and wanted to charge a hefty fine. I was utterly indignant, and it may be possible that had come across because the officer got increasingly aggravated. A Japanese lady helped to lull the situation and got me out without a fine after a long debate. My mood had dropped to rock bottom but I reckoned it couldn’t get worse. yeah right.. the next hurdle was imminent 🙁

This time the hurdle had a name, ‘Shinjuku Station’. It was Big & Busy and I had been warned in advance. I thought I was used to vibrant cities being a resident of Dubai but, wow, how many people can fit on 1 square meter! In Tokyo not a handful but three hands full. It felt as if all 38 million inhabitants had assembled in Shinjuku. Crowds don’t bother me normally but this was intense. Things got worse when I got lost. Yes, I, Ms. Linda van Dijk, had lost my way INSIDE a metro station! It took 2 hours to find my way out of this ‘village’ 100 meters below the ground. Damn absence of English signage and -speakers. My forehead was covered in clammy sweat when I finally saw daylight. The funny thing is that I must have passed a hundred exit signs in Japanese. If you ever visit Shinjuku -or other place in Japan- look for this: 出口.

Processed with MOLDIV

 

Fortunately, my good planning paid off afterwards and I saw many highlights within no time and no major trouble.

Shibuya crossing (the picture that everyone knows)

image

Tokyo Sky Tree

Processed with MOLDIV

Imperial Palace East Garden

Processed with MOLDIV

No major trouble excluded one great idea going south. I had planned to see the Tsukiji fish market which trades 2000 tonnes of seafood is daily (yes really!) on my last morning. The place is renowned for its food stalls so of course I had to sample it. I felt wretched to move on to Russia and adjust to a new culinary standard, which I feared by no means at par with the Japanese), I suspected for example that supper in the plane would be -at best- a tasteless sandwich. That depressing thought made me think and I got the best idea ‘ever’; I bought a few extra pieces of tuna sushi of the finest grade, had it packed on ice, carefully placed in my day pack and bought a mini bottle of sake at the airport. This was plan: when the flight attendant would ask me if I wanted their crappy meal I would reply ‘thank you but no thank you (hell no!!)’ and demonstratively take out my mini sake and sushi. How is that for a ‘last supper’. It went fine until the last step;  she came, I said ‘no’, put the sake on the tray and the sushi box out and opened it… to see that the tuna had turned dark brown. For those unaccustomed to sushi, that is a BAD sign, a VERY VERY BAD sign. Damn, inedible! So I had not only flushed 25 euro down the drain but I also ended up supper-less. That is because of course I didn’t want to go back to the hostess to beg for the crappy sandwich…. Grrr….

image

Hiroshima, Honshu, Japan: Blasted away by history

13-14.04 Hiroshima: how origami cranes cannot undo the aftermath of brutal nuclear force

After a quick goodbye to Mateo I boarded my second Shinkanzen, the train used for Japan’s luxurious high-speed network. Shinkanzen stirs up mixed emotions amongst the Japanese because its operator, the Japan Railway Group, discontinued all other (cheap) express lines thus monopolising Skinkanzen. True, it costs an arm and a leg but it is really fabulous; ALWAYS on time, clean, fast, etc. Our Dutch national railway company (NS) should go on a field trip to Japan; they already panic when Autumn hits and tree leaves cover our tracks…

image

My next stop would be Hiroshima. I didn’t really know what to expect, I mean, this city was bombed ‘back to the stone age’ at the closing of WW-II. There is so much controversy on the legitimacy of the nuclear bomb; many believe the war was already ‘over’ and the US government ‘only’ dropped it to assess its destructive power. I don’t have the full picture and irrespective whether true or false, I firmly believe that nuclear weapons should never be used [again]. Hiroshima petition attempts to convince the world of the same.

image

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial ‘blew me off my socks’ unexpectedly. This ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’ is the ruin of the Exhibition Hall, located only 150 meters from the bomb’s hypocentre. It is flabbergasting that this building stood upright whilst its vicinity burned to the ground.

Processed with MOLDIV

Behind the dome I met some ‘bomb survivors’. They excel at telling moving stories, for example the story of Sasado Sakaki. This 2 year old girl was 1.5 km from the detonation and whilst seemingly without a single scratch she died of leukemia at age 12. She believed she would recover if only she could fold 1000 origami cranes. Some say she was 300 short but her father says she exceeded it. Her class mates folded another 1000 to cover her in her coffin. The bomb survisors taught me on the spot how to fold a crane myself. It was one that could actually fly…

Sasado’s story is immensely sad but actually ended gruesomely.  Covering her with the cranes was necessary because her body had been subjected to scientific research, leaving only her head for the ceremony. Broke my heart!

Sasado has become a leading symbol and a heroine in Japan. Her memorial is flooded at any given time with an abundance of the most beautiful cranes. I saw many visitors reduced to tears (yes, me too… my emotions were all over the place at that point). Walking through the actual museum and through the displays of torn, burned clothes, twisted steel, pictures of burned bodies and videos of survivors was tough. I could still feel the sheer horror and pain. Oofff!!

I really needed a cheer-up after such intense, emotial day. So I had some fu trying to explain to non-english speakers how to take a repeat shot on my camera  result below; jump) and went to Hisroshima’s highest view point to sample their best Sake and witness the sunset from above.

14-15.04: Miyajima: my oh my….

From the viewpoint I could already see my next stop in the distance, the island of Miyajima. Miyajima is voted a top 3 scenic spot by the Japanese and it is flocked in Summer. I can now understand why. It is perfect;  the weather, the scenery, the hikes, the temples and shrines. I could have stayed much longer if only Kyoto wasn’t waiting for me…

Kyusho, South Japan: about love at first sight and earthquakes

11/12.04 How I ended up in Kumamoto, South Japan

I LOVE Japanese food. Japan therefore HAD to be in my itinerary Period. I knew little more of Japan than that Tokyo was the capital. Consequently, I thought 2-3 days Tokyo plus 1 day for its rural area would be ample of time. And maybe if Japan would have been like Hong Kong I could have gotten away with it. But Japan isn’t, it is humongous. It has 29,000 kilometer of coastline for example. I thus clearly needed a change of plan; add more time, inbound in the South, trains to the North and a outbound via Tokyo to Vladivostoc.

For those who also know little about Japan, here’s a mini overview. Japan is an island nation. It constists of 4 major islands; Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. It has 6,848 smaller islands. The country is lush green all over the place and predominantly rugged or mountainous. The temperature ranges from cool in the North (hidden gem for skiing) to tropical in the South (jackpot for diving/sunny island retreats). In short, if you look up ‘heaven’ in the dictionary you will get a picture of Japan. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I touched down.

So why Kumamoto? Japan is renowned for terrific hiking and it offers a bonus feature; vulcanos. I was eager to tick the box ‘summit an active volcano’ off my bucket list and fancied Mount Fuji (world-famous active volcano, 3,800m). Unfortunately, it is ‘closed’ until May because too many people die due to extreme cold. Since death on the mouontain doesn’t sound appealing at all, I needed an alternative.

image

(Mount Fuiji. Courtesy of an unknown photographer)

Vince (of the Yangze cruise) had a cool suggestion. He summitted an active volcano in Kirishima on Kyushu Island in the South. I anyhow wanted to start in the South, so that was an easy decision made. All I had to do was to fly to Kagoshima, take some trains and a taxi. I did not spend much time preparing for this endeavour because I was too submerged in Beijing. I had noticed that information in English was scarce, but how difficult could it be, right? Ehhm, wrong…

Firstly, I never reached Kagoshima. Once I knew my departure date I had missed out on all reasonably priced flights. The nearest airport was Kumamoto and that didn’t look to far away on the map. Now, I told you that Japan is BIG, so in short, it was not near at all. I needed a 50 minutes bus to a railway station, hurry to catch the last high speed train of that day, and somehow get a room booked on the way. Not impossible if only for those few “minor” challenges:
1: No data. It seemed impossible to buy a sim card, so I could not use the internet. Disaster! I could not check the train time table, use google maps, book a room or use the translator
2: No English speakers. No one spoke English and most signs were in Japanese only. Fudge, China had been child’s play compared to Japan.
3: No clear maps, at least not to me 🙂 The online maps were outright confusing. Did I really see two Kirishimas, 200 km apart? Which one was the right one?
4: No Lonely Planet guide. I hadn’t bought a travel guide yet (as China didn’t sell in English) so I was literally in the black.

It was 6 PM at night, I was all alone, in an unknown country, tired and overwhelmed. All I wanted was sushi. So I decided to call it a day. I checked in at the first random hotel that looked OK to regroup. So that is how I ended up in Kumamoto.

12.04 Kumomoto-jo, what it looked like just before the earthquakes

Kumomoto is famous for its castle so I paid a visit on the next day. Japan has taken their castles very serious. Shiro or jo’s served to impress and intimidate rivals not only with their defenses but also with their size, architecture and elegance, and were the residence of the daimyo (feudal lords) and their samuraj.

 I didn’t know at the time that I have made some of the last pictures of this gorgeous place. Two days later Kumomoto was struck by two earthquakes of resp. 6.4 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. Japan announced a state of National Crisis. Tens of people died and thousands got injured. Material damage is in the billions and it is said that the quakes will impact the Japanese economy. What a tragedy! I was ofcourse glad that I had evaded the danger but I can help thinking that -if I would have been there/close, I could have joined the rescue teams and helped the people in need.

image

 

12/13.04: Aso’s toxic smoke (what an aso…)

During my ‘regrouping night’ I had resolved my travel itinerary chaos; I replaced Kirishima by Mount Aso, the largest active vulcano in Japan and amongst the largest in the world. A respectful replacement, don’t you agree? Aso-san actually consists of 5 vulcanos. The Nakadake is the one that is active. On my hike, I was lucky and unlucky; Nagadaka was highly active and emitted toxid smoke. Although this was a fantastic sight to see, it meant that the authorities had set a 2 km no-go perimeter. I alternatively climbed one of the highest peaks, mount Kijimadake, which surprised me with a view on 4 of the 5 Aso volcanos. Awesome!

One closing note on Aso – and I am sorry if this only comes across for Dutch speakers, as Aso is in Dutch short for an a-social person, let’s say in English… an asshole. When I reached Aso City I had to laugh all day. Yes, Aso City (asshole City) really exists! I always knew there was a place especially for aso’s/assholes… So next time that you meet an aso/asshole, just tell him to p#ss off to Japan! 🙂 🙂 🙂

13/14.04: How I fell in love with the Japanese

I had been recommended to stop-over in Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka prefecture by a fellow traveler in Aso. I still don’t understand why because I didn’t find much of interest. What did happen there is that I fell for the Japanese. Here are just three extraordinary stories.

The bank officer
Japan is expensive… I had spent almost all cash in 3 days that I thought would get me to Tokyo. I am not complaining but no cash is no fun. It was even less fun to get new cash. The ATMs didn’t work. A senior bank officer came to the rescue when his ATM also failed. He put on his coat and escorted me for 2 hours (!) from bank to bank until one finally worked. How amazing is that! I brought him a big box of chocolats afterwards. The whole staff was gleaming with pride. Very special!

The chef
It became even better that night. A hostel guest asked me to drop a note in Japanese at a nearby (tiny) restaurant. I don’t know what it said but it made the chef laugh aloud. I instantly became his Guest of Honor and was sat down on the ground (Japanese style) with two locals. We were his only clients for several hours. So there I sat, not understanding a word they said yet patiently awaiting the tantelising food to reach my plate. Yummy! Biggest surprise? I was not allowed to pay. Huh? Wow!

Mateo
Ex-US citicin Mateo gave the last push. He spent his whole morning to help me get my sim card, stamps and long distance rail passess sorted. This would have been quite cumbersome on my own. He dissapeared for an hour to return with specially painted postcards, soaps and candy as a present for my onward journey. He was the sweetest ever! We went for lunch together untile it was time to part ways; Hiroshima was waiting for me.

image

And finally, the ‘tube’
I had heard about Japan’s tube hotels. Tube hotels, as the word already suggests, offer (cheap) rooms in the shape of a tube. Image to sleep is an ‘MRI scanner’ with fellow sleepers above and below. I just don’t know about that. Altough I can appreciate the efficiency. My hostel didn’t have real tubes, but rather, ehmm, ‘holes in the wall’. I can’t recall that I had a smaller room in my whole life. Luckily I am not clausterofobic

image

South-Central China: Paunchy pandas and gorgeous gorges

31.03: Fire alert at Chengdu airport

China is on another planet. Honestly! I already realised that at the conveyor belt for luggage retrieval at the airport. Conveyor belt? Yes!  I am used that people wait a meter from the belt, quietly step forward to pick their suitcase, walk to their cart, load and leave. Okay, I agree this is the sophisticated case, and yes, I have had people park carts AT the belt (and if you are one of them, please could you try to stop it, there is simply not enough space for carts).

Chengdu however took it to another dimension. I barely heard the alarm indicating the belt initiation because peril broke loose (in Dutch: de pleuris uitbrak). People started shouting, bulldozing carts to the belt, leaning forward on/over the belt and pushing an occasional person out of the way. For a moment I thought I had missed a fire alert announcement and reasoned that people were frantically trying to rescue their valuables. But people relaxed once reunited with their belongings so that did not add up. I was astonished. What an interesting start of this China Adventure.

1.04: Six for one… when oh when will I know know better

I woke up early due to arrival of my new dorm mate, Henry. This amicable British rock climber/traveler and PhD student-to-be suggested to bike around Chengdu together. Nice idea so off we went, Henry with helmet and I without, because Dutchies just don’t do helmets, sorry. I must have had a bad influence on Henry because he ended without too.

Biking in Chengdu was modestly dangerous because cyclists need to use the major roads in absence of designated cycle lanes. We had tons of fun despite the traffic risks. Witnessing a mass tea ceremony was definitely one of the highlights.

Processed with MOLDIV

The stakes went up when we entered the National museum. We got a little bored because most signs were in Chinese so we invented our own interactivity: bets. For example, we disagreed on the location of Chengdu on a map on display so we needed to figure out who was wrong and that person had to buy a round of beer. Map reading skills…. Yes, I should have know better, I lost! (Note to Claire, since you asked me to refrain from stigmatising language I want to add to the above comment that map reading is a personal improvement area of an otherwise reasonably intelligent human being, and as such is hence fully unrelated to gender).

Processed with MOLDIV

We biked to Chengdu’s top nightspot, which was beautifully located at the riverside. New challenge: no one spoke english and the menu was in Chinese only and very confusing because 1 beer costed roughly the same as 6 beers. So what do Penny-Pinched Dutchies & Budget Brits do? Ofcourse… they order [rounds of] 6 (and apologies for the blackmarking of the Dutch and Brits). That wasn’t the most sensible decision ofcourse because the next early morning I had panda petting scheduled  and trust me, I got punished badly for this mistake.

image

PS. If you visit Chengdu then pls try their hot pot. We dared to eat many uncommon items such as heart and some animal’s skin.

image

2.4: Cutest cuddly creatures

I now understand why WWF chose a panda as logo. Forget it penguins (of the movie ‘Madagascar’); cute and cuddly is reserved for these teddy bears with their big bellies.

One instinctively wants to run up to them and hug them. Part of the fun is that you actually can because they are not aggressive. I went early in the morning to see them at their most active and I can tell you these creatures are LAZY in caps. No complaining from my end though, my body system was nowhere ‘near the green’ yet, so thanks to their immobility I managed to take a few reasonable shots despite the shakes.

When the furry fellas made preparatives to nap, I went back to the hostel and had a nap too. At night, some locals invited us to a local gig. Chinese techno/house plus live jamming on Chinese instruments. Impressive!

Processed with MOLDIV

3-6.04: The LOOOVE boat soon will be making another run….

The next morning I had to take a tough decision. I wanted to finish in Beijing and could travel eastwards via the Yiuzhaigou National Park with possibly the best ever horse riding hack or go via the (South) Center and sail the Yangze river’s Three Gorges -printed on China’s 10 Yuan bank note- and see Xian’s terra-cotta army.

I decided for the Middle because the East was simply to far out and I read some negative reviews on the hack on the internet. So I traveled to Chongquin on a high-speed bullet train and boarded a ‘world-standard’ cruise ship that night that would take me to Yichang in 4 days. Our Chinese Isaac was a little less fun then the series’ since ours spoke little English. This seemed the standard on the vessel; only 3 crew members spoke English and a travel group of 5 Brits and Aussies, who basically adopted me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Processed with MOLDIV

It was unexpected good fun on the cruise liner. I rested quite a lot. Isn’t it funny that if one is somewhat confinement it is much more easy to kick back. I also wrote some blogs, edited pictures and had a great time listening to 80s-90s music with Vince, my new friend from the UK/Aussie group.

Processed with MOLDIV

And then there were ofcourse the gorgeous gorges; the biggest one, the Qutang Gorge (on the 10 Yuan note) was incredible, however, I liked the Lesser Three Gorges best. On tiny tourist boats, we were taken into  a whole new world, brilliant.

Processed with MOLDIV

Another highlight of the trip was not the word’s largest dam (the Three Gorges Dam), no. Much more damn memorable was witnessing a full cruise ship perform the Chicken Dance (in Dutch: vogeltjesdans). Hilarious! Never expected that this song was still accepted, LOL!