London

I’m now working in IT which is mostly good fun so I don’t have much time for blogging anymore. I’m also learning a lot of new technologies too which is interesting. In fact the only reason I have time now is that I’m heading up to Manchester by train to meet up with a good friend from University, which means I have three hours to kill. Additionally as I got an advance ticket I managed to grab a first class ticket for less than £20 one way, which as the train was pretty damn full was probably a good idea. It was nice to get a table, a bit more space and free food and drink (which alone almost made up the extra £7 it cost over standard class.) the only problem with first class is that its a damn Voyager as my friend Dave would say and the seats aren’t any more comfortable than standard class (I’d go so far as to say they were less comfortable.).

However last weekend I headed down to London a couple of days in a row. The first evening I headed to a gig of Earthless and Pontiak, these are both American rock bands that are fairly heavy but also pretty damn good. I wouldn’t have gone on my own, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. The second band only played four songs in their entire set (including encore) and the second lasted for a good 20 minutes, which was really cool to listen too. It was a little long for my tastes (and I did get a little bored halfway through) but it still managed to work well as a song.

The gig was at a great little venue called Borderline which is just a short distance down Charing Cross road from the Astoria. It is a great little venue, and I can’t wait to go back as I’m sure it made the music even better. The Astoria is one of London’s more famous music venues and it has now been shut so that a CrossRail station can be built underneath it. I have to admit its not my favourite venue, but a lot of famous gigs have been played there. After CrossRail is finished the venue is apparently going to be re-opened – hopefully they can make it into a decent venue at the same time :p.

When we went to the gig we went on the bus from Oxford to London which is probably the nicest bus journey in the country in terms of quality. Even so you get 4 seat across rather than 3 you’d get in other countries. The only bonuses are the toilets which were decent enough and “free WiFi” though on 2 out of the three buses I took it didn’t work with my iPod touch at all – and with the other it was barely functional – “broadband” only to the standards of developing world free hostel internet. That said it still manages to take the timetabled 1 hour and 40 minutes to get to London even on the way back after midnight which means that that estimate is really only an aspiration of how long it will take most of the time which isn’t really very good.

I mention this as when I was in Cambodia I was talking to the people who owned my hotel about the buses you can take there and they didn’t believe that the buses in Cambodia were better/as good there as in the UK – sadly it is true. Mostly because those who are rich enough take the train – though to be honest Via Barriloche in Argentina spanks the first class train I’m on now in terms of comfort – maybe we should sell our railways to the Argentineans :p.

As we went on the bus we got in a little further into London than you would on the train so we got a nice walk down Oxford Street including the eastern end which I have never been down before. Oxford Street is quite nice and Selfridges is in a very impressive building though the sign outside seems more than a little tacky to me. What surprised me is that even though the east of Oxford Street is fairly posh overall it is more like Nanjing road in Shanghai than Orchard road in Singapore.

The next day I headed into London to meet up with some other friends who I mostly know online in Hyde park this was great fun until it started to rain and then we decamped to the pub in Kensington to the south of the park. This was great fun and I had a great day. Unfortunately I stayed a bit too late missing the last train back to Oxford so I had to take the bus home taking bus three of the weekend. After all that excitement I was due a relaxing evening before Monday morning.

The trans siberian in Mongolia and Russia

After a good nights sleep we awake to be crossing the Gobi Desert, this is a pretty large desert in the south of Mongolia, we saw quite a bit of wildlife including sheep and deer as well as some traditional Mongolain yurts – it was mostly just scrubland. However there did appear to mostly be mobile phone reception. Also for breakfast some enterprising mongolians got on and we bought a surprisingly large number of mutton dumplings for US$3 each. Even though the Mongolian currency isn’t even in xe.com’s top 85 (which even includes the Cambodian currency which isn’t really in use) they didn’t seem to know how many tögrög’s there were to a US dollar so they asked for US$4 after giving us the food – the food was excellent though and at US$3 a good deal by any standards. As there wasn’t much else to do we headed down to the dining car after breakfast where we had some tea and a chat with the other people in the car.

After lunch in the dining car which was pretty good we arrived in Ulan Baator the capital of Mongolia, where a lot of people on the train got off, we did as well to have a wander around the platform and experience the high temperatures of -10ºC. It wasn’t as cold as I had thought though and like the rest of Siberia the thermals I’d put vast efforts into buying in Xi’An was wasted. It does go down to -40ºC in January though so they’d be useful then. I was surprised at how rich the capital of Mongolia appeared to be, I was expecting to see a country that was poorer than Vietnam and India, whereas instead I saw somewhere much more comparable to the development of China.

After we left the capital we headed north through land that looked similar but more scrubby than the Gobi as we headed towards the Russian border. Like in the Gobi there was also some snow on the ground, though it was a bit deeper than the bare dusting there – that was probably the years rainfall!

The next day we got up and went to the Russian dining car for breakfast, we weren’t sure whether it’d be up to the standards of the Mongolian or even the Chinese dining car, actually though it was pretty good and we had ham and eggs for breakfast. Then after breakfast we soon drew alongside the fairly large lake birkal which we spent about 4-5 hours following the shore of, what made it more impressive was that we only followed about 10% of the shoreline. The lake itself was mostly still frozen however and people were even driving cars over it, though at one point the lake had started to melt. There was still snow on the ground everywhere though it was a little deeper than Mongolia, but not as deep as in the alps for example – of course here it is cold enough that the snow falls and then stays until spring.

After leaving Lake Birkal the line curved around through a couple of tunnels, which were the only tunnels on the entire line, after which the train reached the town of Irtrusk. At this stop we got off the train to try and get some Russian roubles as we’d forgotten at the border, though unfortunately there wasn’t an ATM on the platform, if you’re doing this trip make sure you have enough roubles for the journey – you also may find them difficult to get them in China.

Anyhow after this we headed into the forests of Siberia, where we spent the next three days (well along with the occasional industrial town, and a few open spaces. Now I was impressed by the lake Birkal and I suppose I was impressed by the Siberian forests as well, but really 3 days was too much. The ural mountains also weren’t very exciting and the highlight of that day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk go by. Fun for all of 10 seconds.

China on the Trans Siberian

I don’t have time to write much tonight, but I should at least begin writing some more content. We left Beijing early on the 4th March. First we actually headed south, but mostly west through beautiful mountains to the West of Beijing, unfortunately I was tired so I took a nap – though I should definitely have waited and missed some Siberian trees instead. There were ice rivers and stuff there which was really cool. As we continued on brand new track we slowly but surely made our way to the Mongolian border.

I was also surprised to see the level of development in out here though. There were often places where there was another brand new 2 track railway on the other side of the river valley showing that China is still marching ahead towards becoming a fully developed country.

Shoes and Shanghai national museum

On my final day (Monday) in Shanghai I first had to buy some new shoes. My “bargain” shoes from New Zealand which cost NZ$25 (£8) turned out to be not so great and they were still so wet in the morning that I had to borrow the orange plastic flip flops from my hostel to go across People’s square to the shanghai department store to pick up some shoes as I wanted to have dry socks to try them on.

It might have been a fun challenge to try and complete the whole trip with a pair of flip-flops but it wouldn’t have been fun in Siberia where I head next for sure! I first headed upstairs to the outlet section where they had real (but old) Nike and Adidas shoes. Unfortunately they were all very trainery and unsurprisingly few of them looked particularly good though the quality looked fine. So instead I headed to the lower floor to pick up some smart shoes as I need some and the Chinese don’t seem to have many shoes in the middle ground between trainers and smart shoes – I’ll have to pick some up back in the UK. There I got some good quality shoes for ¥420 but they are rubbing a little at the back so I think it was probably my least bargainous Shanghai buy.

Then after returning the flip-flops and picking up some insoles for my new shoes (which was difficult actually as they weren’t generally sold by shoe shops.) I headed to the shanghai museum. This had some interesting Buddhist statues and some excellent and really detailed bronze and jade work that was worth seeing as well as some interesting Chinese art – they seem to be keen on greyish nature pictures which makes an interesting change and is very different from European landscapes. There was also some good pottery but it was no more impressive than any other I’ve seen in other places. Overall it’s worth visiting but it’s not amazing and it is difficult because everything is catergorized to get a feel for the history. Credit though is due as virtually all the descriptions were in English as well as Mandarin.

After that I returned to my hostel and we went for a traditional Chinese Mcdonalds before I went and caught my train to Xi’An. The train was uneventful though IMO not as comfortable as the Vietnamese first class trains we took there as the beds are a little narrow. It was pretty quick though taking 13.5 hours to cover the 1200km from Shanghai to Xi’An.

Suzhou

On my second last day in Shanghai I headed over to the gardens of Suzhou. I left on the 10.30am train after getting my Xi’An ticket and sitting around for the requisite amount of time. I got to go first class as well which was nice but unnecessary. It was my own fault though as I didn’t specify and I’d specifically asked for a first class ticket to Xi’An – in case I can’t get all my shopping in my backpack I want it to be safe in a normal bag. I shouldn’t complain too much as it was only another ¥5 and I got a free water. The train was pretty quick and I think it got up to 200km/h.

Suzhou was pretty interesting after arrival and I first saw an OK Chinese temple before visiting a quite interesting museum on silk production – they were currently making some silk on an old loom that didn’t even have a mechanical shuttle. After this I tried to go to another museum but I couldn’t find it – on the way I found some canals which Suzhou is partly known for before looking at a couple more gardens which Suzhou is really famouse for. These were good but not great. Partly because I don’t enjoy them that much and partly because it’s winter I’m sure. For lunch I did manage to have a small portion of Chinese dumplings which was good. After this I headed back to the train station where I got my ticket. I had to wait so first I headed to KFC for supper before settling down in the waiting room for my train.

Getting to Shanghai

Note that £1=¥9.71, $1=¥6.84

On Thursday I relaxed in the morning in my private room – the first since Cambodia and the last for the rest of my trip before catching the train to Shanghai. For breakfast I had a “British breakfast which consisted of fried eggs and tomato and orange juice and tea which cost ¥20 (£2). There was no bacon or sausage and to add those would have cost another ¥12 each – making the breakfast cost about the same as at Wetherspoons in the UK.

This was actually a bit of an interesting adventure. First stage was getting to the train station – I was advised to go by taxi but I instantly ran into the problem of how to ask to go to the station as asking for the “train station” in English failed (of course the taxi drivers may have understood the older “railway station” better :p.) so I walked the 500m or so to the bus stop I got off yesterday as that bus went to the station – that was the cheaper option as well as it only cost ¥2. This worked surprisingly well as the bus was quick and clearly frequent as I just missed one and even then only waited a few minutes.

After arriving at the station I was a bit overwhelmed as there were clearly lots of queues to get tickets but I found the information counter and was quickly pointed in the direction of the tickets for the Chinese Shinkansen train (though Shinkansen is being a little optimistic – actually the train was about as fast as a UK express train. Still the train took 84 minutes rather than a minimum of 120 before; also the line extends from Hangzhou onto Nanchang which used to take at least 10 hours and now takes 4 hours which is a big improvement.). This was a surprisingly ordered queue as the only person who did any even slight pushing was me and it was really a draw who arrived first. Getting the ticket was fine too, it cost ¥54 to get to Shanghai and I wasn’t even thrust into first class which was good. This also led to me getting to sit in seat 61 of my carriage.

Before getting on the train I found the waiting room for the train before heading off to buy some lunch from a nearby stall. This was a couple of Chinese sticky rice cakes that were nice but a bit difficult to eat – they were very filling though and slightly sweet. In the waiting room I also got to chat to a Chinese girl in the waiting room while I slowly but surely got the plastic off my ricecakes which was also interesting.

The train isn’t the only part of china that is modern – Hangzhou feels nice too – from my short time there it feels nicer than even malaysia in my view. I think a good comparison to another city would be to Leamington Spa – though obviously it’s much bigger.

Another thing I noticed today is how nice the Chinese’s mobile phones are – they also seem to be keen on western pop songs as ringtones. The girl sitting next to me on the train had the “MacBook Air ad” song and on the bus I heard Nickelback’s new song – sadly Katy Perry’s Hot n’ Cold which seems to be the soundtrack of my trip hasn’t yet made an appearance on anything other than my own iPod touch when I picked it up on iTunes.

After arriving into Shanghai the people weren’t quite as friendly as I picked up a smartcard for the metro. Though they were friendly as I made my way to my hostel which seems to be very nice so far.

Relaxing, trains and Chinese New Year

After the museum the next day I just chilled out in Kuala Lumpur and read the excellent book Absolute Power. This is about an American president who has rough sex with a woman which goes too far and she lands up dead. The problem is that there is a witness; a three times convicted burgler so from there the plot unfolds.

Apart from that I chilled out in my dorm. On the 25th I then took the train to Singapore which actually ended up taking 7.5 hours to complete the journey. This is due to the extreme speed of the Malaysia/Singapore border controls which took absolutely ages to complete. The issue is that Singapore and Malaysia have a lovers tiff over a few different issues including Singapores water usage and the railway line which is owned by Malaysia. I can see why the Singaporeans are upset about the railway. It is hardly used but the space taken up would allow six tracks to be constructed all the way through Singapore. To put this into perspective the Japanese run a Shinkansen up to 9 times an hour between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka with only two tracks (aside from stations which have four tracks – two fast, two slow) and some of those trains are much faster than others.

After arriving into Singapore I caught the bus from the unmarked railway station bus stop (evidence of the lovers tiff from the other side) to the MRT to get to my hostel. After arriving in Singapore I headed down to get some food first of all – as it’s Chinese New Year I expected to have some Chinese food. Unfortunately all the Chinese restaurants were shut leaving me with a choice of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC or fish and chips. After careful deliberation over my difficult choice I went for the fish and chips – however it was only average as it was in breadcrumbs rather than only being cooked in batter.

After this I headed down to the bay to watch some free live Chinese jazz by the waterfront (the venue is actually called Esplanade outdoor theatre) before returning to my hostel at 9pm to see who was there. I liked the atmosphere on the waterfront it was chilled out and relaxed and not tense at all so it was very non-Anglo Saxon in a good way. They do this every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and it isn’t a Chinese new year think so if you’re in town go and check it out.

At this point I returned to my hostel were I met some English guys and we had a few beers before going to Chinatown via the longest wait ever at the MRT ticket machines – if you go to Singapore at festival time get an EZ link card – do not pass go do not collect £200 (which at the current exchange rate is US$200 :p – seriously it’s only US$270 when at the start of my trip it was US$400.) the people I was with didn’t and we had to queue for 30 minutes. After this we hung around Chinatown waiting for midnight. At which point there were some cool but loud firecrackers followed by frankly mediocre fireworks. My local school has put on better for bonfire night in the UK.

Kinkakuju temple and the journey to Hiroshima

I got up at 7am on Saturday to head on the train to Hiroshima. It’s clear at this point that the New Year which is the Japanese equivalent to Christmas has begun and there is a lazy atmosphere in the air. First I headed to Kyoto station to leave my baggage before catching the slowest express bus I’ve ever caught which took 35 minutes to get to the shrine. The shrine was very beautiful and well set with a pretty lake in front of it however after a quick look around as there really wasn’t much to see I rushed back to Kyoto station (I got strange looks for walking at commuter speed through the rest of the shrine – hey I had a train to catch!) so I could get the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I seemed to have bad luck with public transport today as I missed quite a few trains by a minute or less. I did even experience my first late train in Japan as well which was a whole 5 minutes late. The one behind was even worse at 15 minutes late! Outrageous. The Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima was also even full in the unreserved section so I didn’t get two full seats to myself like I usually do and had to make do with only a single seat.

To avoid hypocracy I’m going to criticise the Indian trains in the same way that I critised the Japanese ones but so I don’t bore you like I did with bus-movies in New Zealand I’m going to do it in advance now. The Indian trains all suck for being at least 5 minutes late, it’s a disgrace.

Now I have something else to say about Japanese trains that the British actually do better. I’m deadly serious too.

Now you’re over the shock that Britain isn’t actually that bad with it’s trains I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the automated route management software that the ticket office access which doesn’t seem to easily allow you to compare train changing points on the Shinkansen as well as even a paper timetable. This means they didn’t recommend the fastest train yesterday and on Monday my journey back to Yokahoma will be 30 minutes longer than necessary. Oxford also does better with their automated display boards telling you which train to catch so you get to see what is the “next fast train” to your destination. This would be very useful at Kyoto for Shin-Osaka and Osaka for example.

Castle Himeji

I headed out to castle Himeji on boxing day morning, heading to Himeji mostly on the Shinkansen and changing 3 times on the way. Himeji is unsurprisingly another boring town though it has it’s good points. Firstly they rent free bikes to allow you to explore the town. This wasn’t that useful but did enable me to speed up to the castle (and to be a complete hypocrite I even went on the pavement like the other Japanese.).

The castle itself was actually amazing and was typically very cold. We got to explore the princesses rooms as well as the main keep and it was all very impressive. It could probably do with an update of the décor however as it was mostly pretty boring plain wood – espeically in the princesses quarters which were supposed to be very beautiful.

The main keep was well worth exploring too and it was pretty tall as well. Overall I believe the castle is being done up in January for three years now which will undoubtably fix my complaints. The guidebook also states the guided tours are good but these weren’t available today.

After seeing the castle I went to the nearby Japanese garden which was included in my ticket. This was also excellent and at ¥300 (£2) it was the cheapest as well as by far the best Japanese garden I’ve been to with 8.5 gardens in 1. All of which were relaxing, beauitful and different from each other. After this I zoomed over to the art museum on my bike but it was closed so instead I caught the Shinkansen back to Kyoto. When there I ran into a guy from my hostel and we went to the 1000+ tori walk up a mountain which is where you walk up a 1.5km path that is completely enclosed by tori and was amazing to see. It just kept going on and on and although we only went for 30 minutes it went up a lot higher into the mountains. After that I had another McDonalda before return to the hostel.

Kyoto and Nara

So I arrived into Kyoto late on Sunday and in the evening I uploaded a whole bunch of stuff to Flickr which carried on after midnight and so in the morning I had a lie in and got up pretty late too. First I had a wander around town and went down one of the back streets that still had a traditional appearance (most of Kyoto seems to be an ugly concrete jungle.) and amazingly saw women in Kimonos on the street – unfortunately I didn’t ask them for a photo but it was good to see. After doing that and buying some water I had lunch and then headed over to the railway station to pick up something from the tourist information located there. The railway station building is actually quite pretty and has an enormous entrance though overall it reminds me of a half baked London Paddington. After I left the station I went to a camera store as my “developing world” camera is showing it isn’t well built and is already not working well this led to several surprises – first the Panasonic Lumix range is the same here in Japan as it is in Chile and the UK. I believe the same is true for the Canon range though they have different names here. Secondly there are some cameras with “new” features like autopicture taking when the target is still or smiling or something though it doesn’t work that well which seems to be like the barcode feature on Japanese phones. Thirdly a lot of the cameras seemed to be pretty difficult to use and unintuitive. Only the Lumix and Canon passed this and the Canon is really the better of the two.

After my visit to the camera shop I went to the imperial palace to arrange my palace tour for Wednesday before I headed over to the International Manga museum which was truly excellent. All the signs were in English and even if you aren’t really a fan it was still very interesting to see. They also had an exhibtion comparing Manga with French comics like Asterix. It seems that Manga has been around for several hundred years but came to life in the 19th century and it was influenced by English political cartoon Punch. The museum also currently is running as special exhibtion on the 1000 year old novel Tale of Genji which I really want to read.

On Wednesday I first had some admin and at 10am I headed off to Nara for the day. Once there I heads through the, frankly ugly, town centre to reach the interesting parts of town. First I had some lunch and then went to see the amazing temple complex Kofuku-ji. There was a small section of faded statues which you had to pay for which was disappointing as it was fairly expensive and technically you weren’t allowed to take photos. I’m not a fan of those rules as you are at some sites with seemingly no real reason and if its prevented they are usually the only sign in English at the site – maybe it’s a cultural thing though as there are never signs asking you to not use flash – even though disabling flash on every digital camera I’ve ever used is straightforward. After that I headed to Naras main sight the temple of Todai-ji which is the worlds largest wooden building and contains a similarly amazingly large giant golden buddha statue which takes your breath away. It is even more amazing that it comes from 800AD which makes the UK look like a young country in comparison. After seeing I explored the rest of the surrounding temples (at least from the outside) which were also beautiful before heading to the Nara national museum which contained further Buddhist statues and metalwork (much of which is actually of Chinese design) as well as a gallery on some of the ceremonies performed in Nara for the new year. I actually managed to pick up a local volenteer guide in one of the galleries who told me about the symbolism of the statues. Those with armour are guardians and that the Buddha statue had his hands in a certain pose compared to the Buddha in training to show he was boss – though the easiest way to tell was that the Buddha looked more confident. After this I returned on the train to Kyoto as it was dark and also very cold – I’ve been wearing my hat and gloves a lot here.

The next day I headed to the palace for my 10am palace tour. Even though I left 40 minutes ahead of time I only just made it on time for the tour but we had a wander around the palace grounds and the guide pointed out the sites in excellent English – I have lots of photos too. After that I headed into East Kyoto to see some more great temples and walk along the philosophers path to another temple which I didn’t visit as I didn’t feel it justified the standard ¥500 entry fee. I then walked onto the train station to head south to my second last stop of the day which was to an amazing temple called Sanjusangen-do this was probably the individual best temple in the city. It had loads of explantion in English and contains 1000 man sized gold statues as well as the 28 guardians of Buddhism including the 4 kings (the guardians of the east, west, north and south of Buddhism). To put the 1000 statues into perspective they are 6 deep and there are 5 or 6 along the front for each of the 28 guardians which are spaced about 2 metres apart. The only bad thing was that I only had 30 minutes before closing which wasn’t enough to do the place justice. I also didn’t get a photo of the whole hall as photography is banned.

Finally I went and picked up my “Christmas present” a new digital camera. This is my fourth camera of the trip but fortunately this time the camera just stopped working properly, the Lumix dwp-fs3 (developing world product and the model number fs3) isn’t up for the rigours of real-world use by me and didn’t “disappear”. I also changed allegence from the Panasonic lumix to the Canon Ixy 20 (I’m sure it’s also available in Europe though under a different model number) – down to Panasonic selling models with the same model number as those in the rest of the world but with only Japanese software -even though my Lumix does Japanese. In the evening I went to the hostel Christmas party which was OK but not that great.