Life in a hammock. I think I could do it.

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Sometimes when I look back through my photographs, I realise I miss the crucial ones.  Usually there is no shortage of sunset and sunrise snaps, or even stunning scenery, but the images that eventually help me to tell a story, I may not have thought relevant at the time.   In the case of my visit to Pulau Dayang Bunting, it was all there, full in the face, but overcome by a sense of shyness, I hesitated to take out my camera to take the shots that could  accompany the story.  The story of have and have-nots, the story of how little we really need to be truly content and happy…

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Shade was waiting for me at the quayside, as arranged.  Wiry and strong, he hoisted my suitcase up the steep and slippery steps on the way to his car.   From the pictures and description of the airbnb I had chosen, I was certainly not expecting to be collected in a luxury car, but Shade clearly lived modestly.  My suitcase comfortably fitted into the car boot, precariously fastened with a piece of string.  Rain was kept at bay by a large sheet of plastic covering  the back windscreen and fresh air pierced the taut tarpaulin stretched over the side passenger window.  But the engine was running fine, and on an island that mostly basks in sunshine,  who needs windows anyway when natural ventilation keeps everyone cool.

On our way to the house, Shade offered to give me a quick tour of the island.  Much smaller than the main island of Langkawi, Dayang Bunting did not take long to explore by car, especially as one side of the island is uninhabited and only accessible by boat, or on foot of course… armed with a machete to hack a path through the jungle.  A pity really, as that part of the island is home to the ‘Lake of the Pregnant Maiden’, a freshwater lake formed after the surface of a large underwater cave crumbled  and the cavity filled up with water.  Unfortunately, attempts to forge a hiking trail through the jungle had long since been abandoned, the thicket too dense and fast growing to turn it into a viable tourist attraction.

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The island itself was divided into two parts, connected by a narrow, seemingly sturdy bridge, but barely wide enough to allow motorbikes or bicycles to get past each other, let alone accommodate the width of a car.  At least this bridge was still intact, because the smaller one that we needed to cross to reach our final destination had recently collapsed and was under repair.  The bridge had been in a dire state for some time, and although all island dwellers had expected its imminent demise, it had not stopped anyone from using the bridge until it finally gave way…  ‘Just so you know,’ Shade clarified, ‘We now have to go through the school grounds…’  as he veered the car onto the school premises, passing through the school gate, skirting the playground and exiting through another gate at the other side, before turning into the last stretch to his home.

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My accommodation was comfortable, clean and with all the  essentials: my own private bathroom, a whirring fan to keep things cool, a TV and ample WiFi access…  plus a spectacular view over the bay.  As the main aim for this part of my holiday was relaxation, I spent plenty of time lounging in the hammock outside watching life at the seashore.  Local fishermen set traps to catch crab; others washed and rinsed their fishing nets after hauling in the early morning yield and the local ferry service was running smoothly, like clockwork.  Every morning, just before sunrise, the village water buffalo lumbered past my chalet, slowly submerging into the cool of the sea, looking for food.

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Intent on not lazing about all the time, I borrowed Shade’s bicycle and ventured to the other side of the island.  Not where the lake was, but just over the hill…  Unfortunately, the bike was not exactly in best shape lacking gears to get me up the hill, and brakes to make it safely down again.  I pushed the bike along on foot, not wanting to risk life and limb.  ‘Take the motorbike,’ Shade had recommended, but with vivid and recent memories of e-bike rides in China, I much preferred to give the bicycle a go.  Shade looked sheepishly on my return, and agreed that maybe the bike desperately needed a decent overhaul before he would lend it to another visitor…  ‘Although,’ he added, ‘most of the guests happily use the motorbikes..’

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Walking seemed to be the best way for me to check out the island and I do enjoy hiking.  But even this exploit came to an abrupt end when a well-intending local insisted on giving me a lift home on her motorbike…  So much for my endeavour to get in some exercise.  As we approached the entrance of Shade’s home, she stopped abruptly, motioning being frightened by the dogs which freely roamed the premises…  Malaysia being a predominantly Muslim country mostly adheres to Muslim rules and dogs are a big no-no.   Shade had needed a special dispensation from the local imam to be allowed his dogs.  ‘Well,’ he had argued, ‘living at the end of the road, the dogs are here to protect my home and property…’

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His Airbnb accommodation consisted of a few beach-fronted huts, a spacious indoor dining  room for entertaining guests, and a romantic, secluded area for al fresco meals by candlelight.  In his younger years, Shade had been a chef in a renowned hotel but had since made playing host to foreign and local patrons his purpose in life, leaving the cooking and kitchen duties to his wife.  Whilst his father scoffed at the way Shade lived, ‘Look at your brothers in Kuala Lumpur…  One a pilot, the other a flight attendant.  They lead a comfortable life…’, Shade relished in greeting his English speaking guests in an accent polished to British perfection.   His father had been employed by the British military when Malaysia was still under British rule, so mastery of English had been a must in the household, and something Shade took great pride in.  Visitors from far flung places, as well as Malaysian tourists, have become regulars at his airbnb, and rather than quenching his thirst for knowledge by travelling himself, Shade’s international guests and neighbours are his window to the world.

Would I recommend the airbnb on Dayang Bunting for a break?  Definitely!!  The food was sumptuous, the hospitality unrivalled, the relaxation real.  So much more Malaysia than the touristy stretch of Langkawi.

Life in a hammock, simple and uncomplicated.  Quite tempting.  I think I could do it, one day …  just not yet…

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In the wake of Typhoon Damrey.

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The sun was out this morning, hesitantly, briefly, still having to battle with persistent clouds…  Flood waters are receding and the tiny vegetable patches across the road are breathing again.  The mountains are  visible in the distance, wisps of cloud dressing their flanks.  It is three days after Damrey first made landfall in Southern Vietnam.  The unrelenting downpour of the last few days has fizzled out, yesterday a mere drizzle, heavy rains only rearing up their ugly heads once in a while…  Schools are still closed, the government is not taking any chances.  But we are a private school where profits have been hit hard by cancelled lessons.  Maybe today we will have our normal schedules again…

Strengthening to the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane before reaching land, typhoon Damrey wreaked havoc and brought destruction to the Southern province of Khanh Hoa, and much of Southern and central Vietnam. At least 27 people were killed, 22 missing.  Houses collapsed, trees were uprooted and electricity cables snapped in its wake.  For two days, violent squalls of driving rain trailed ferocious gusts of winds, its effects extending as far North as Da Nang, and the picturesque town of Hoi An, which I visited just two months ago.

Quang Ngai City, where I live, is near the coast, in the centre of the country halfway between Da Nang and Khanh Hoa.  The town was not directly in the typhoon’s path, merely on the periphery and thus was spared the most damaging high winds that pummelled the more southern areas.  A few  sudden early morning gusts, strong enough to rip out a tree in the park, but no major damage to buildings, at least not in the neighbourhood directly surrounding the school where I work.

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But Quang Ngai City is in a low-lying region, hemmed in by the sea on the East and mountains on the West, and there was significant threat of serious flooding from the heavy rains accompanying and following the tropical storm.  And flooding it did.  Not only did the infrastructure struggle to cope with the amount of rainfall in the town, there was also the water flowing down from the mountains adding to the deluge.  Roads became quickly inundated, drain grills clogged with leaves and debris and unable to swallow the flow.   Street cleaners no match to the task…

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Floods are not uncommon in this part of the country so roads have generous kerbs, and houses and shops are built slightly elevated to avoid being swamped.  Luckily,  the waters did not burst into too many houses in Quang Ngai, but the normally bustling street market  was disrupted.  Street vendors moved to higher ground to sell their wares, whilst shop keepers sat forlornly at their shop fronts waiting for customers who stayed away. Only those with a real reason to be out, ventured through the flooded streets, fiercely pedalling their pushbikes, riding motorbikes at speed or slowly to escape stalling or braving the waters in the safety of their four-wheel drives..

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On Saturday, we – the teachers – stayed indoors, relishing in the unexpected day off.  No one had thought about stocking up on food; few of us make it a habit of daily watching the news or the weather, and let’s face it, there was hardly a reference to Typhoon Damrey on BBC World News…  We only learned about the impending storm when on Friday evening an email was sent notifying us there would be no classes on Saturday.  Cause for celebration, rather than shopping…  We played cards, read books, watched movies… a day of relaxation.

With no easing of the rain in sight, and the fridge looking distinctly bare on Sunday, we braved the tempest and walked to the nearby supermarket…  We waded through ankle  –  and in places almost knee – deep water, got drenched by passing motorbikes and emptied the pockets of our raincoats after the trickle and drip of rainwater funnelled in.  The supermarket was open, all but deserted but the shelves were still stocked…  We did not explore the older quarters of town beyond, where flooding was causing more serious problems, as we learned from Facebook posts from our Vietnamese colleagues.  Just getting in some basic staples to see us through the next few days was enough of an adventure.

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Monday saw better weather, a little respite from the savage rains.  After three days of leisure (Friday was my normal day off), it was good to get out and about.  With the roads to the supermarket quite passable, I wandered further, eager to explore different parts of town.  It quickly became clear that other areas of the city had suffered much more serious  flooding than my neighbourhood… But in these places, where insurance for natural disasters is probably unheard of, life has to go back to normal as soon as possible and livings have to be made…

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I went out again this morning, Tuesday.  The flood waters have dissipated, leaving roads damp and cluttered.  Piles of accumulated debris still litter the streets.  But the market is back to normal, maybe a little busier as people need to replenish their food stores.

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A new tree has already been planted and the uprooted tree chopped up and removed.  Workmen on ladders are repairing stretched and broken cables.  The kids are making the most of another day off from school…

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By tomorrow, everything will be back to normal in Quang Ngai, but maybe not in other parts of the country which have been much harder hit…

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Residents are transported by boats through floodwaters in Hoi An after Typhoon Damrey made landfall. Picture: AFP/STRSource:AFP

 

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Just two months ago…

In the touristy town of Hoi An, just 100 km further North, people had to be evacuated by boats from  houses and hotels as flood water cascaded through the town.  The damage there is much more widespread and the effects more long lasting.  We had a lucky escape, it could have been so much worse…

 

Travelling with the locals in Malaysia.

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After a short couple of weeks in China recharging my batteries, I was on my way again in mid August.  Malaysia this time and travelling solo.  After all the rushing around, it was intended to be the relaxing holiday, go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens.   A bit of culture in the main cities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, catching up with some friends followed by a spell on the beaches of Langkawi and Pulau Dayang Bunting.   The perfect way to spend two weeks on my own.

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Hotels can be a little isolating for the lone tourist, so I stayed with friends and relied on airbnb instead to guarantee some human contact and guidance from locals along the way.  Apart from my flight to and from KL and accommodation, I left every bit of detail to the last minute…  I figured there would be trains, buses, ferries and even taxis to take me from A to B, so why worry…   Not having a fixed itinerary meant I could change my plans on a whim and see where sudden impulses would lead me.  It was an interesting and unexpectedly liberating experience…

Of course, not everything went swimmingly, to the contrary.  In Kuala Lumpur I got stranded at a bus stop near the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) after hiking on my own along cobra infested trails.  I admit, at the time I wondered about being the only one on the path, but I had not been able to locate the visitors’ centre and assumed that a clearly signposted track would have been safe…  I decided to turn back at the point where the path blended into the jungle and I had to clamber over trees and tree trunks and hoist myself up on ropes…  and a suspicious rustling in the undergrowth warned me of company ahead.   I was not brave enough to find out whether it was friend or foe, and retreated rapidly to the tarmacked road and other signs of civilization.

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In the afternoon, I took no risks and found a guide from the centre before  further exploring the forest and its waterfalls.  Despite an unpleasant encounter with leeches, it was a great way to learn more about the conservation and restoration of a little area of jungle just outside the Malaysian capital.  The guide dropped me off outside the centre, next to a nearby shopping centre.  ‘You will easily find a taxi here,’ he argued, but every taxi driver I approached, shook his head and refused the fare.  ‘Too far,’ they claimed.  ‘I am not going in that direction,’ another one insisted…  I plonked myself down on the bench at the bus stop, not sure how to proceed.  I had yet to work out how to use taxi apps such as Uber and  Grab…  Conversations in broken English with the locals were not very fruitful either.  It then dawned on me that if I were to change my destination to another local touristy spot nearby, Batu Caves, I might be in luck with the taxis, especially as from there I could easily catch the train…

‘No need for a taxi,’ a young man exclaimed, face beaming, ‘You can get the free bus to Batu Caves’.    ‘You mean ‘free’ as in ‘I do not have to pay’????’ I queried…   There is such a thing as a free bus???  As if summoned by magic, the free bus appeared within minutes and the young man immediately boarded to explain to the driver where I wanted to be dropped off.  It was a long journey; the free bus clearly did not take the most direct route but I certainly saw plenty of the not-so-touristy-areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur…  Feeling a little nervous, I kept an eye on good old Google Maps  (local SIMs and plenty of data are an absolute must these days…) to help me decide the most optimum point to get off and when I felt Batu Caves was within walking distance, I signalled to the driver that I had arrived at my destination.  I took a quick peek around Batu Caves and found ‘India revisited’ with its Hindu Gods, bright yellow garlands and Southern Indian food on sale: massala dosa and  parotta…  before sauntering to the train station to continue my journey …

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Most of my travel around Malaysia went flawlessly.  Kuala Lumpur itself had an extensive and efficient public transport system consisting of monorails, commuter trains and light rail transit, as well as city buses …. with rules befitting a predominantly Muslim population.  Taxi fares required some prior negotiating, but once I had figured out Uber and Grab, taxis were definitely reasonable.   In Penang, when walking was not an option, they were the best way to get around .  And with fares for internal flights at rock bottom prices, even flying to Langkawi and back was very affordable.

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I only spent a short while on Langkawi itself, opting instead to stay a few days on the quieter, neighbouring island of Pulau Dayang, in a small airbnb establishment, Barkatt Chalets.  After a hectic summer I was looking forward to peace and tranquillity, to lying in a hammock watching the ebb and flow of the sea, to being away from the hustle and bustle of tourist fare and noise.  The island was home to only 200 people, mostly fishermen;  a small hotel attracting mainly Malaysian visitors; and Barkatt Chalets.   Airbnb reviews had been glowing, describing Shade, the owner, and his wife, not only as perfect hosts, but also as perfect cooks.  I would be in for a treat…  if I could get there…

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Access to the island was by ‘local ferry’, a small fleet of speedboats shuttling the islanders back and forth for work or shopping.  ‘Let me know when you get on the boat, I will be there to pick you up,’  Shade had promised me.  ‘Just tell them you are going to Selat Barkatt, they will show you which boat to take.’   Having left the touristy beach stretch of Langkawi in the morning, I arrived at the small ferry terminal by taxi, but decided to first purchase my onward ticket for Penang to use later that week.  A fellow traveller at the Sweet Monkey Backpackel Hostel,  where I spent the previous night,  had had her ferry trip to Langkawi delayed because tickets had sold out.  ‘Better safe than sorry,’ I thought, as one of the shopkeepers in the small terminal offered to look after my suitcase whilst I trudged to the other, bigger building just down the road.    ‘Don’t worry,’ she put my mind at rest, ‘if you miss the early ferry, the next one will be around  2 pm.’

Of course, by the time I returned to collect my suitcase, the local ferry was a mere speck on the horizon.  With just an hour left till the next one was scheduled to leave, I sat down with the shopkeeper for a refreshing cold drink…  ‘No need to wait at the pier,’ she explained. ‘ I have already spoken to the ‘captain’.  He will let me know when everyone is ready to board.’  We whiled away the hour and were joined by the ‘local’ American lesbian who made it everyone’s business to know her business.  With no sign of the captain or life on the jetty, we had another drink and listened to the tales of woe of being an American lesbian at sea and living on a boat.  ‘Don’t worry,’ the shopkeeper kept on reassuring me, ‘the captain is probably waiting for some more people before he wants to leave…’

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It was a sultry afternoon and rainy season in Malaysia..  Outside dark, menacing clouds had gathered  and it did not take long for the rain to start.  A trickle at first, but soon it came bucketing down.  As the conversation with the shopkeeper had all but dried up, I ventured outside to keep an eye on things, just in case a ferry might make it across the water…  I sat patiently, resting my feet on my suitcase, whilst the heavens opened even further.

The advantage of being a solo traveller is the ease with which you strike up random conversations with random strangers.  So it was that I initiated a chat with a British couple who had recently retired to the smaller island, part-time I should add: winters in Malaysia and summers in the UK.  Their presence this summer was merely due to the building works going on at their new house, stilted to keep it safe above rising and receding water levels.  ‘Ah, yes,’ they explained, they had given up on the ferry service, and purchased their own boat…  You could be sitting at the terminal for ages waiting for a ferry to arrive or leave…  Unfortunately, as they were expecting a full load of wood to be delivered, there was no room for me in their boat to take me across…

Eventually, the downpour subsided and the captain gathered his passengers onto his boat…  I sent a message to Shade to alert him that my departure was imminent and it looked as if I would make it to the island at long last…   The ferry was not exactly the lap of luxury, but rather a small motorboat kitted out to take passengers.  We walked down the slippery steps on the quay side and the captain helped with my suitcase, whilst I negotiated the gap between the edge of the jetty and the rim of the boat…  By then I was already quite damp, so I did not care too much that the benches inside had rivulets of water streaming down the back and immediately soaked my clothes.  The tarpaulin stretching over the door was clearly not that effective in keeping out the lashing  rain…

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Shade, being a gentleman of his word, met me at the quay side and hoisted up my far too heavy suitcase…  Maybe for a trip like this, a backpack with just life’s essentials might have been more appropriate…

And if you are wondering whether getting off the island was any easier…  On Friday, Shade dropped me off early, at 8 am, in time for the first ferry of the day, at about 8.30am.  After a three-hour delay, watching more heavy showers before finally the sun came through, we were finally picked up.  At least I only needed to catch a ferry to Penang in the afternoon; the rest of the passengers would be very, very late for work…  No one worried, it was part of daily life.

Was a visit to the island of Dayang Bunting worth the endless waiting on the quayside…??  Next post…

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Kyoto: the mystery world of Shinto and Geishas.

 

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Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture.  The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan  Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.

Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn  complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town.  Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door.  Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor.  As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding…  There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable.  I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience…  somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.

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With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit.  Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to  make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town.  Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy.  On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..

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Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism.   Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later.  It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara.   After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both.  In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.

Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me.  I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’,  in Kyoto.  Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist.  As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.

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Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’.  Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods.  Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’.    Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another,  and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard.   Not all shrines need bells, though.  Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand…    However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.

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Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.  Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies,  straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps.  The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city.  Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.

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Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling.  At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity.  Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads.  Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away.  Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness.  And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell.  But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack…   Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable???  We did not ask…

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Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha.  And ‘geishas’ we did see.  Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it.  At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies.  But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.

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‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening.  That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’  It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off.  The place was crowded.  Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one.  And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule.  After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction.  At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house  – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.

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Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko.  It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.

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And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day??  They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time…  They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up.  We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…

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Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho.   Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns.  Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool.  Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet.  Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.

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Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen  Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down…  And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…

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Another country, another mountain to climb: Mount Fuji.

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Was I interested in climbing Mount Fuji, my friend M. asked.  When have I ever  turned down such an invitation: travel, hiking, reaching the pinnacle of a mountain?   Not exactly sure of the precise location of Mount Fuji, it certainly sounded exciting enough, so I accepted without hesitation.

Japan had not been one of the ‘must-see’ destinations on my travel itinerary, but my original brief of three years ago – collecting as many stamps in my passport as possible within the next five years – gave me plenty of room for indulging in sudden whims.  Plus, as the Japan trip would follow close on the heels of my Tibetan adventure, the 3776 m altitude of Mount Fuji would be a mere trifle.  My body  would already be very well adjusted to the lack of oxygen at higher altitude moving from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau to the summit of Mount Fuji in a matter of a few days…

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With my return flight from Lhasa to Shanghai booked for early Friday evening, I reckoned I had allowed ample time to catch my flight to Tokyo on Saturday morning…  Unfortunately, whereas the punctuality of trains in China is a feat to be admired, the same does not apply to air travel.  Flight delays are a common, daily occurrence…  and it was no surprise our plane took off late from Lhasa so we missed our connecting flight in Xi’an.  At least our flight was not cancelled; we were lucky.  In the end, I made it back to Shanghai in the small hours and arrived at M.’s  doorstep around 2.30 am.  Just enough time for a quick chat, repack my bags for the next trip, and a very short nap before setting off for the airport again for our 9.00 am flight to Tokyo…

Tokyo did not impress: yet another metropolitan city full of skyscrapers and dazzling lights with just more sushi on offer than other similar places around the world.  At night the brazen neon glare shielded a possibly star-studded sky; it was hard to know with so much light pollution.  Japanese technological brilliance opened a window on a future world flashed with colour and make-belief and heated toilet seats…   The humble toilet was definitely in a league of its own here, with gadgets and devices that pamper, sprinkle and spritz, make flushing noises on demand or provide soothing background music turning something rather uneventful into a totally different experience…  What a contrast to Tibet and Lhasa where we considered ourselves fortunate to be visitors before too much progress and modernisation will inevitably erode its traditions and unique character …. and its ablution facilities with a view to die for.

Nevertheless, Tokyo was clean, contemporary and easy to navigate.  Its metro and train systems were overwhelming at first glance with a spider web of colours crisscrossing the underground map  – not unlike London’s metro system, just on a much grander scale. The vast, enormous stations took some getting used to, but people in Tokyo are friendly and hospitable and English is widely spoken, so there was always help within reach.

And then there was Mount Fuji, of course, the ultimate goal of the trip.  Located about 100 km south-west of Tokyo, on clear days, its iconic shape is often visible in the distance, and in the winter the snow capped peak of the still active volcano forms a magnificent backdrop to the city.  Luckily for us, Mount Fuji last erupted about 300 years ago, and there were certainly no rumblings that might have interfered with our plans…

Tokyo is hot in July, with temperatures soaring well above 30 degrees Celsius.  I had packed accordingly: shorts, strappy tops, floaty dresses and sandals plus indeed a few essentials needed for the climb to the summit of Mount Fuji such as hiking poles, a pair of leggings that I could wear underneath my shorts, an additional thermal layer that I could hide under my fleece…   I had reluctantly accepted M’s offer of a pair of warm gloves and a woolly hat, but refused the padded ski jacket. I felt totally prepared for Mount Fuji and did not want to cram my backpack with unnecessary clobber.  I like to travel light…

I was not in the slightest bit perturbed  when our ‘Mount Fuji Tour’ coach stopped at a hire shop to give everyone the opportunity to stock up on extra clothes to stave off the cold.   ‘Wimps,’ I thought, surely it would not be that bad to live through near zero temperatures for just a couple of hours, or even less.  I had braved the Peruvian Andes near the snow line, I had barely shivered on Poon Hill in the Annapurna Range and had felt quite comfortable in a pair of long trousers and long sleeved t-shirt at 5000m on the Tibetan Plateau…

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After a quick lunch and stocking up on much needed water, chocolatey high energy snacks and other hikers paraphernalia we set off.  Our trek started at the Fifth Station, already at an altitude of 2300 m, and would take roughly six hours…  Six hours???  It did not seem that far…but our two guides were adamant we would reach Ninth Station around 7.00 pm and spend the night there after dinner..

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Not only did the guides make sure we followed the correct path, they also set the pace…  We walked slowly, painstakingly slowly to allow our bodies to gradually adapt to the increasing altitude and avoid anyone falling victim to altitude sickness.  But even if we had been in more of a rush, the sheer number of people on the often narrow track made it impossible to speed up.  We plodded along relentlessly on paths strewn with basalt pebbles, worn smooth over time and reminders of the last eruption of the active volcano we were treading on.  We clambered on all fours over huge rocks, hoisting and pulling ourselves up on ropes at the side.

All the while the temperature kept dropping as huge misty clouds started to envelop us.  Daylight was fading and in shady corners on the mountain, pockets of frosty snow stubbornly  clung to life.  The warmth of my fleece was suddenly very comforting and I definitely felt relieved after having the chance to put on my leggings to cover my bare legs…  Had I maybe been just a tad too optimistic about how cold it might get at the top?

At exactly 7:00 pm, we arrived at our lodgings, a small hostel at the Ninth Station located at 3,580m above sea level and a mere 200m below the summit.  After a quick dinner, we took to our Japanese style dorms: thin mattresses on the floor with an arrangement of duvets to wrap around us, sleeping about 7 in a row…  Washing facilities were a ‘short walk through the fresh air’ away and, admittedly, I was immensely grateful for the heated toilet seats that had seemed such an unnecessary extravagance in the heat of Tokyo.  And, the lodge had a small supply of warm clothes to rent which I gratefully took advantage of; somehow the cold near the top of Mount Fuji felt very bitter and temperatures would definitely dip nearer sunrise.

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After having barely any time to sleep or rest, we started our final climb at 2.00 am: an endless string of bobbing headlamps trailing towards the peak.  There was a real chill in the air and not even the effort of the last push to the top had anyone breaking out in a sweat, regardless of the many layers we were wearing.  At the summit,  tea houses were already in full swing, selling warming drinks and soups to keep us going in anticipation of the appearance of the sun.   We scattered across the top, everyone vying for a little space at the front to catch the best view and take the best photographs of the sun’s dawn reflection in the lake.  We stood only meters away from Mount Fuji’s caldera, the crater left at the top of the volcano after its last violent eruption and we posed next to the sign at Mount Fuji’s summit before retracing our steps downwards, first to the lodge for a well deserved breakfast and then onward, back to Fifth Station where the coach would pick us up.

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If the ascent had been long and arduous because of the altitude, the descent was tricky because of the loose volcanic rock and debris which made the path slippery and treacherous.   Definitely a case of gracefully sliding along and using both walking sticks to avoid too many falls…  We made it in just under four hours, legs wobbling like a jelly…

Would I recommend climbing Mount Fuji??  It rather depends…  If you are looking for photographic thrills, there are much better views of Mount Fuji from the surrounding areas, plus the snow cap in wintertime adds more drama.  However, if you, like me, have a box to tick, then you just grit your teeth and put up with the monotony of staring at red volcanic rock for as long as it takes you to haul yourself up the mountain and back down again…

So where to next??  Base Camp Everest?  Mount Kinnabalu??  We’ll see…  I have another twelve months to decide…

The awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet

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Our ride eventually arrived at 10 a.m., an hour late.   As our previous driver had been involved in a little collision on the way to our hotel and was delayed by police enquiries, a new vehicle and driver had to be found..

We had a long journey ahead, all the way from Lhasa to Shigatse (284 km), Tibet’s second largest city and another must-see destination on every Tibet itinerary.  Expecting at least a six hour journey, followed by a visit to another monastery before the fall of darkness, time was tight and opportunities to take pictures of the unfolding scenery scarce.  We traversed through agricultural areas, green patches brightened by the yellow blooms of brassica;  the brown hues of barren mountains towering in the distance.  On occasions, we passed small villages.  Streets were lined with houses not only displaying prayer poles, but also Chinese flags…  Nowhere else in China are Chinese flags so ubiquitous as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  A display of loyalty to China, or compulsory? A question we never asked our guide; some things are taboo and remain unsaid.  You can never be sure of the eyes…

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Our drive shadowed the course of the Yellow River, named for the colour of the silts that are carried downstream in its flow.  Along its banks, strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind and we briefly made a stop – not at the most scenic part unfortunately – to allow us to take some snaps.  But apart from that, and a short break for lunch, we carried on relentlessly to make sure we reached Shigatse in time before the local police office closed.  As foreign visitors to the town, our presence in the city needed to be officially registered and our permit for Tibet inspected.  Whereas Chinese tourists have free access to Tibet and travel unchecked, foreigners have to obtain prior permission for a visit and their movements are closely monitored.

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As the whole of China adheres to the same time zone, evenings in Tibet remain much lighter for longer compared to the Eastern side of the country.  So although we did not arrive in Shigatse until early evening, we still managed to explore the Tashilhunpo Monastery before the onset of dusk made photography more challenging, or impossible even.  We walked around the ancient buildings, again watching Buddhist locals making kora and wondered about the little heaps of random pebbles piled on the steps, yet another means for worshippers to keep track of the number of times they circled around the stupas.   We were too late to witness the great monk debates or the chance to ask questions about their life; we just watched them wandering down the street towards their homes at the end of the day.

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Our last whole day was reserved for the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet: majestic snow topped mountain peaks, enormous Alpine lakes and impressive glaciers.  As we steadily climbed from Shigatse towards the Kharola Pass at an elevation of just over 5000m, spectacular scenery unfolded at each bend in the road.  An emerald green lake, streaked and flecked with brown stripes and patches was festooned with endless strings of gently fluttering prayer flags.   Just like many mountains are considered sacred, lakes are equally revered and prayer flags often hem lakes and rivers as well as brighten up the sides of holy mountains.

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Near the top of the mountain pass, we were enthralled by the spectacular Kharola Glacier.  We did not stop at the most touristy site, but our driver slowed down enough for us to get a few shots, before parking the vehicle just around the corner.  Away from the throng of too many tourists, we hiked up closer to the densely packed snow clinging to the cliff, a massive ice tongue covering the top of the Kharola Mountain.  We huffed and puffed our way up, definitely struggling to catch our breath in the thin air.  At moments like this, I am always pleased to see I am not the only one affected and the younger ones amongst the group also needed plenty of rest breaks to cover maybe one hundred meters in total…  Of course, even at the spots with fewer tourists, local Tibetans did not miss the opportunity to supplement their income with posing for photographs and selling Tibetan prayer flags.

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We ended our list of must-see attractions between Shigatse and Lhasa with the famous Yamdrok Lake.  This enormous freshwater lake is one of four particularly sacred lakes in Tibet and everyone, including the Dalai Lama, makes pilgrimages there.  Along the shores, small towers of rocks possibly tally the number of times devotees walked around the lake.  Not a mean feat as each circumambulation on foot (making a full circle) takes around seven days.  Yamdrok Lake derives its name from its perfect turquoise colour and is surrounded by all-year-round snow capped mountains making it a popular location for wedding photography, as well as attracting numerous tourists and Buddhist devotees.  No wonder that on each outcrop and stretch of usable land near the lake, locals are trying to encourage visitors to have their picture taken with a yak or Tibetan mastiff .  Stalls and tables hem the path to the viewing points and it is hard to resist buying at least some small souvenir from the locals.

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So, I did not go to Everest Base Camp…  A pity.  But maybe on another trip back to Tibet or Nepal… who knows…

Looking for the real Lhasa.

Initially, Lhasa disappointed.  It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads.  The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet.  This was Lhasa, Chinese style.  Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this?  We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us…  No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire.  We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’.  It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it.  But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government.  No photographs allowed inside though…

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Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress.  With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.

After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet.  The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us.  Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings.  And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.

The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth.  The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance.  Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs.  Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.

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Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’.  Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object.  Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas).  Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain.  Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas.  Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples.  It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra.  In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times.  However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too.  But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…

Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it.  The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets.  Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest.  Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..

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Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus.  The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m.  The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence.  No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus.   The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans.   As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

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