A Little Time in Japan and Little Time in China

Kumamoto-Jo Castle
Kumamoto-Jo Castle in Kyushu – Japan
Mt. Aso - Kyushu
Mt. Aso – Kyushu

Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.

We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.

Narita Airport - Tokyo
Departing Gate at the Narita Airport – Tokyo
Beijing International Airport
Arrival Gate at the Beijing Airport

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Bumpy ride to Beijing!

It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.

The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.

We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.

Inside the Forbidden City on a Smoggy Day

Waiting on a Visa…

We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.

We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Military Museum - Beijing
Military Museum – Beijing

The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.

Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?

Four Years and Seven Days Ago and I’m back in Shanghai

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In the span of two long days we packed and stored our NYC life, grabbed a direct 14 hour flight from EWR to PVG, and checked into our new temporary home in the former French Concession (FFC) in downtown Shanghai. We chose Shanghai because we are familiar with the city and will be able to have a longer visit.

In 2008, the Chinese Consulate in Seoul granted my husband and I both 30 day Single Entry Visas. It was pretty much just enough time to hit up the major tourist draws – Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai. Back then, China was frantically getting ready for their world stage premier and the Olympics was just the first act. There were other events unfolding behind the red curtain which were causing headaches for everyone for travels, locals, and officials alike. Securing travel visas was difficult. We made due with what we were granted in Seoul and just saw what we could. This allowed us to budget only 5 nights. This time it will be a 3 week visit.

This time, the Chinese consulate in New York granted both of us 90 day multi entry visas which are good for a year. This will allow my husband and I plenty of time to visit what was missed back in 2008 including a proper visit to many cities like Shanghai. We will also witness what has become of China after four years of rapid expansion and construction. So far, it’s obvious that much has changed and this country is still rolling along at full Maglev speed.

Shanghai still appears to be caught up in a construction frenzy. Streets are constantly being swept in the former French Concession and it is not uncommon to see a Bentley speed by while strolling down Huaihai Road. Will the things we see in China’s cultural capital be a stark contrast to what lies ahead? I’m enjoying it all none the less.

The first week was a blur of jet lag and it still hasn’t sunk in that there’s several more weeks – and possibly months – ahead in this journey. At least the jet lag only lasted a few days, Shanghai looks sort of familiar and the transition from living in NYC and now in Shanghai is not very difficult – just warmer.

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Not so Dead Cities of Syria

Imagine having a UNESCO Heritage site all to yourself? This is what I found late in the day when I got a ride out to see Al Basa and Sejilla from Hama, Syria. The two sites aren’t officially recognized by UNESCO but are both protected by the Syrian Antiquity law and listed under the category of archaeological sites and registered by the Syrian Minister of Culture.   It’s getting late in the day 4:30 and the overseer at Serjilla is waiting in his car as this lone visitor shows up. The place closes at 5pm and I’m given the look which tells me to pretty much get a move on with a smile. So there’s about 10 acres of area (lots to cover and “enjoy”) and time is ticking. I’m sure some backish (tip or bribe) will extend my welcome but it’s something I don’t like to do.

The one thing great thing to my timing is that I’m able to see the area by myself and the quality late afternoon light will hopefully give me great shots. I’ll need these later since it will allow me to examine what I only had time to take a picture of.

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Beginning in the 4th Century, this area once housed a wealthy group of Christians settlers. Things like the bath houses and fertile land, and it’s closeness to trade centers like Apamea and Antioch all together can only conclude that this was a village of well to do citizens. The soil is so fertile that it presently is the site of  many working fruit orchards and oil groves.

The houses, baths, temples, sarcophagi (tombs) and churches they are housed in can still be identified and it doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture what this village used to look like when it was occupied many centuries ago. The town was at a crossroads between the trade destinations of Antioch and Apamea and continued to be inhabited by the same Christians despite being conquered by the Crusaders in 1098 and later the Arabs in 1123. An earthquake is what caused this village to be abandoned in the late 12th century. Many archways, walls, and whole rooms are still fully intact which is amazing. It’s not too hard to envision what the village must have looked like centuries ago.

It’s a wonder why it’s not recognized by UNESCO. This is a big reason to check out and support sites that are not on the list. It’s very important to treat them with care and respect they deserve and allow them to be open to others in the future.  This should go unsaid but please don’t climb up or take away things that need to stay there. Pictures should be the only souvenir you take back with you as tempting as it may be to stick one little piece of rock in your pocket.

The Bearded Rockskipper and why we travel

The Bearded Rockskipper is what those odd fish/lizard/snake creatures are called.  I had been combing the internet just to satisfy my curiosity.  I can get a bit obsessed when it comes to figuring out why?, what? or how come? while traveling.  I guess it’s why I travel because I will hopefully always be curious.

My walk along the shore in Grand Baie Mauritius turned into a marine biology expedition for this travel geek.  Just what was that shiny, dark green creature hopping to and fro amongst its neighbors the sea urchin and fiddler crab.  Of course, when I got back to my hotel and asked the innkeeper about it, it all got lost in translation (gave me a quizzical look) and he gave up and moved on to more imperative things.  I can’t blame him since this was probably a discovery for him when he was 2 years old and something really not interesting him.

Experiences like this one and many others on the road exemplify the true meaning of traveling and how it makes an outsider look at an unfamiliar world with fresh eyes.  Trying to rap my head around why locals live their lives the way they do, what the local version of the squirrel or minnow in this case is, what are the social norms and what’s considered acceptable behavior (don’t really like pissing any one-off), and understanding there are things that can’t be simply explained .  This is what travel is to me.  Always asking why or what is that?

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Jetlag Express from Shanghai to Casablanca VIA Tripoli

36 hours from China to Morocco. I’m on a train from the airport to Casablanca and it’s only been  an hour but feels like it took 20 hours.  We are arriving to Morocco after a 36 hour-long Qatar flight 550 from Shanghai where we each racked up almost 8000 miles of distance along with a dose of mind-boggling jet

Air Terminal @ Tripoli

lag.  I’m Traveltired to say the least.  The flight itself felt like we were tagging along a Chinese missionaries sponsored by the People’s Republic peace corp (if there is such a group is doubtful) because we were just about the only passengers not equipped with a yellow safety helmet and military issued backpack.  The flight dropped all of those workmen losing their flying virginity in lovely Tripoli.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to get off to check out the airport but the graveyard they call their runway was enough of a visual souvenir.  The plane is now 90% empty. This was a Boeing 777 which can seat up to 550 people. The flight attendant still refused to give us an upgrade to first class.  Too tired to care.

 

 

Libya Air Fleet or spare parts?

The 3 hour trip to Casablanca from Tripoli got us landed in the middle of the afternoon Western Europe Time .  There was just enough day light to get to the hotel, find something edible nearby and to find ways to keep our eyes open since it would be a bad long-term move if we turned in before 8pm. It was our only time to see Casablanca. We just wanted to see a little bit of the city while overcoming the harshest jet lag I had ever experienced.  The hours from the airport to the pillow was surprisingly hassle-free, my head didn’t burst and the little pill had no problem helping me get to sleep later.  A good night’s sleep was imperative tonight since this adventure wasn’t close to being over. We had booked a morning Marrakesh Express.  Don’t worry I’m not going to reference the song as tempting as it may be.

 

The train, like in most places, is the best way to go from Casablanca to Marrakesh May Day weekend 2008.  Taking a plane was just ridiculous since it’s expensive, we didn’t need to get anywhere fast and besides, we would miss the opportunity to witness inside and outside scenery of the humid train.

One of the pitfalls of planning a RTW trip is the things which can’t be avoided.  We had traveling in this part of the world before the severe heat, Ramadan and here we had May Day.  Being in Morocco during that particular weekend isn’t ideal since it’s Europe’s equivalent to the US Memorial Day long weekend holiday.    Like us, they usually hit the road and descend in the thousands near by attractions like Marrakesh.  The euro was strong and still is years later. For many, its great place to spend a few Euro on rugs and other bric-a-brac found in cute shops inside the Media and on a spa treatment back at the luxurious Riad.  The USD just wasn’t allowing us to go crazy and proposed a challenge to our planned budget.  We were just about half way through our year-long sojourn and had already had some unplanned budget overrides.  We just had to just roll with the Euro backed punches like we had done from the start.

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Why waste more time and money on worrying about forces that were out of our reach.  We were determined to enjoy Europe Morocco since we had just spent 2 days getting there . Our fiscal pains temporarily were forgotten in the steam of our Tagine and help of a few bottles of local beer. The common theme on such a trip is to manage with what we had and we did.  We found beautiful yet reasonably priced Riad called Riad al Faras for $85 USD, and enjoyed a few days of walking around the Medina, enjoying the company of those also staying at the Riad.  At the end, it only took a medium size chunk out of the budget but it was one of minor indulgences we treated to ourselves that year away.

The Great RTW Trip: Where to end it!

Beach in the Seychelles – La Digue

Planning a RTW trip for a year is something that one can never spend enough time doing.  No matter how long you plan and how much research is done, there’s always unplanned incidents which that can throw a huge wrench into any well thought out itinerary.  My only advise is to have two things.  A really good optimistic sense of humor and strong will to forge ahead after something didn’t go as plan because it will happen.  Unplanned events and Force-majeure, aka acts outside of human control, may include those pesky local holidays that your trusty LP guide never seems to give the heads up about, forces of nature or just the weather,  locals or people dressed in military gear (official, unofficial or somewhere in-between) taking over the government, protests which turn bloody mad, and a let dramatic and continuing  tanking of the USD greenback.  Let’s just say things got expensive real fast and we won’t even talk about the rise in food prices.  Well, may I just say a few words because it’s happening again.  The NYTimes featured an article about the U.N. addressing the rise of food costs.  This is a big heads up to people traveling overseas.  Developing nations will be hit the hardest.  The Philippines seem to be fine for now since corruption took care of that according to Bloomberg.com.

One of the things that can be planned which will hopefully offset some of the unfortunate incidents along the way is where the end of the line will be. How can you make a nice ending to a long journey? This is where the Seychelles comes in.  It’s an expensive destination compared to most but it’s a once in a lifetime experience given it’s locale and limited access.  Flying from JFK in NYC to Mahe International in a single trip cost about $2000/person and the shortest trip is 20 hours.  Flights also don’t go everyday.  The added advantage of going here on a RTW trip is that you can include it on one of the many RTW package deals if you are a savvy traveler.  I would also consider transiting through Madagascar and as well as Mauritius while you are in the neighborhood.  It’s much less expensive now, both amazing islands full of good food and natural wonders,  and very safe despite what the media reports, but I do recommend checking out the U.S. and the U.K.‘s excellent travel advisory reports before booking.  in Madagascar and do yourself a favor and look into a private car to take you around when you get there since public transport, as adventurous as it seems, just takes time away from buying vanilla beans ( to freshen up the backpack) and spending time checking out the lemurs and baobab ave.

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The one thing shortcoming about the Seychelles is the currency situation.  There are plenty of illegal money changers in the center of Mahe but the Seychellois Rupee can only be used by locals.  The Seychellois rupee which is right now .083 to the USD but it doesn’t matter because everything from postcards to the crappy vegetarian pizza is priced in euro.  The Seychelles are amazing and worth every Euro just need to use them wisely.  The bus is 5 rupees to get anywhere like the big supermarket in town which has a good assortment of goods available for reasonable prices.  The bus will also take you to the airport so you don’t have to pay NYC prices for a cab.

The Seychelles is a place where everything is just right.  It’s relaxed, people are genuinely friendly and enjoy life.  We also didn’t know when we would be in this neck of the world again so why not blow the rest of our budget.  The family run hotel called Daniella’s Bungalow’s we stayed in was a bargain (100 Euro/night including breakfast) It’s located down the street from most of the nicest properties on Mahe like  the oceanfront Le Meridian which was going for $300+ Euro.  It wasn’t oceanfront but it was good enough for Keanu who jogged past my husband and I as we lugged out backpacks from the bus stop to Daniella’s after a bumpy flight from Mauritius.  Daniella’s didn’t have an oceanfront location but it was a 2 minute walk from a deserted beautiful local stretch of beach.

Where ever the RTW world trail ends make sure it ends on the best note possibly because it will be the last taste you will have of absolute freedom.  Being somewhere like the Seychelles makes all of those missed destinations, unfortunate encounters with dubious others, injuries and other unpleasant events disappear with the ocean tides of the sapphire blue lagoon.  For the last days of the sojourn it will be only you and the guy that runs the unofficial shuttle boat Keanu probably used going back and forth from the Le Meridian.