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Cuzco, Peru, April 2019

More than a year ago, in late April, and into early May 2019, my mother, my youngest sister and I went on a bucket list trip: to see Machu Picchu [wikipedia.org].

Machu Picchu is one of those places that has been in the “oh my god I have to go” since I was a kid. We watched a lot of National Geographic specials when I was young (back in the pre-cable days when we had four channels: ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS.) I’m sure I first came across Machu Picchu on one of those specials. The many shows on the story of Hiram Bingham‘s [wikipedia.org] expeditions and the mysteries of Machu Picchu as well as the possible connection to the Indiana Jones movies, all of which were favorites in my house growing up, added to the mystic of Machu Picchu putting it near the top of my must-see-in-my-lifetime list. While I’ve checked off a lot of places on that list between my life in the US, my time in Europe and living in Asia, Machu Picchu was my first Central or South American site.

I flew via Amsterdam, 31 hours in total to get to Lima. I met my mom and sister in the airport there and took a short flight to Cuzco. The landing in Cuzco was an experience, because of the mountains all around Cuzco the plane makes a sharp banked turn and drops rapidly down to the runway. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.

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We met a representative from our tour company at the airport and they dropped us at our Hotel, right in the center of Cuzco city. We spending the remainder of the first day walking around just to get somewhat acclimatised to life at 3000 meters above sea level. At that altitude climbing the steps up one level to our hotel room had the same effect as jogging a 100 meters or so. We had to work for the coffee we had at a second story café in the main city square, Plaza de Armas del Cuzco.

We started our site seeing on the second day, touring some of the main sites in and around Cuzco. We started just opposite our hotel at the Convent of Santo Domingo [wikipedia.org] which is built on the ruins of the Inca Coricancha or “the golden temple”, possible their most important temple. Much of the colonial architecture of Cuzco is built right on top of Incan and pre-Inca buildings, incorporating the large stones with no mortar in their foundations.

We took a car up into the hills around Cuzco to see some of the more Inca sites: Sacsayhuamán [wikipedia.org], Tambomachay [wikipedia.org] Puka Pukara [wikipedia.org] and Qenko [wikipedia.org]. All cool sites and considering Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are located at 3600 meters above sea level a good warm up for hiking at altitude. We returned to Cuzco in the afternoon and toured the Cusco Cathedral [wikipedia.org] where of course you can’t take photos of the amazing interiors…

The second day we explored the Sacred Valley on our way towards Machu Picchu. We saw the salt ponds at Maras [wikipedia.org], which were very cool. Our guide said there were over five thousand salt ponds but I’m sure he meant five hundred. Still it’s an impressive site, in use for salt production for hundreds of years before the Inca.

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Nearby the Maras salt ponds we visited the Inca ruins of Moray [wikipedia.org]. This was one of the coolest ruins we saw, they look like some sort of arena or man made craters in the earth. A series of concentric terraces built into a couple of large natural depressions. As explained by the guide, the best guess is it was made to create a “microclimate” to better grow specific crops at higher altitudes than they would normally grow.

We finished the second day at Ollantaytambo [wikipedia.org] which competes with Puka Pukara for the best name of the ruins we saw (Machu Picchu is too well known). The ruins of Ollantaytambo are a series of massive terraces going up the side of the mountain known as the Terraces of Pumatallis, a large temple complex including the “Wall of the Six Monoliths” which is made up of six Stonehenge sized blocks, and several Inca storehouses.

The next day we left Ollantaytambo and made our way to Machu Picchu. We entered the city in the afternoon with clear skies and bright sunshine, and met our local guide who took us around for a few hours as the sun went down. Our guide was great, explaining a lot and letting us indulge in our photography for as long as we wanted. And the ruins of Machu Picchu were amazing. The lowering sun casting shadows of the still standing walls of store houses and temples and residences across the grassy plazas. Sheer drops down to the Urubamba River which hourshoes around Machu Pichu.

While we explored the city we saw the requisite llamas, including a baby llama and my sister had an up close encounter with one hungry llama that tried to eat her camera lens when she was changing lenses. Llama spit, yummy. We also saw several viscacha, a type of rodent which looks something like a rabbit, but with a longer tail and short ears. They are quite cute running across the ruins.

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One of the cooler things we learned from our guide is that while the jungle has been cleared from Machu Picchu, since Hiram Bingham first brought it to the attention of the outside world in 1911, no re-construction is done. There has been some rebuilding due to earthquakes over the years, but only if a stone can be identified as fallen since the Bingham’s expeditions using the photos from the expeditions, is it replaced.

Machu Picchu shuts to visitors at sunset, so after a few hours we made our way down to Machupicchu Pueblo or Aguas Calientes [wikipedia.org] the small town in the valley below the citadel. The town is full of tourist hotels and cafes and restaurants. Basically a clean showers, cold beer and hot food for people who hiked the Inca Trail. Also a steady stream of busses up and down the switchback road up to Machu Picchu.

We woke up very early the next morning to take one of the buses up to Machu Picchu to catch the sunrise. Alas, despite waking at 4AM and being on one of the first few busses we didn’t get to see the sunrise. It was cloudy. Low hanging clouds hugged the tops of all the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. On the plus side we got to see Machu Picchu with clouds rolling through the city so we got both the sunny and cloudy experiences. We decided to spend our full day taking some of the hikes.

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First we hiked several kilometers back along the Inca Trail towards Cuzco, several hundred meters up to the Sun Gate, Inti Punku. We got to trek through the cloud forest with clouds rolling up and down the slopes, we walked in and out of the fog. By the time we got to the Sun Gate there were some breaks in the clouds creating a dappled effect on the city below us.

After hiking back to the city we went around the other side of the summit of Machu Picchu to hike the shorter trail to the Inca Bridge [wikipedia.org]. This part of the Inca road system was more dramatic, with sheer drops down two or three hundred meters to the Urubamba River below —with no railing. The Inca were crazy, the Inca Bridge itself is a few planks of wood spanning a few meter gap in a section of the path which is just half a meter wide and running along a vertical rock face.

That night we took the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a car back to Cuzco arriving quite late. The next day was May day so we just chilled in the city and explored some of the sites. Unfortunately the market we wanted to see was not so busy. We did walk around the San Blas neighborhood but many shops were closed for the holiday. So we just had a lazy day, which was just a well as we had booked an adventure for the next day with a 2 AM pick up.

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Our last adventure started pre-sunrise as we caught a bus to drive 4 hours southeast of Cuzco to hike Vinicunca [wikipedia.org], the Rainbow Mountain or Mountain of Seven Colours. A couple of hours on the bus and we stopped for breakfast at a small lodge off the highway. After breakfast we got back on the bus and started to climb up one lane gravel roads. We started about 3,700 m.a.s.l. meters above sea level and over the next hour we climbed a thousand meters up these gravel roads hugging the rising mountains. When we stopped at the parking lot we were 4,700 m.a.s.l. at which point some people are already experiencing altitude sickness to the point of vomiting. Luckily no one in our group was vomiting.

From the parking lot it’s a 5 kilometer hike up to the summit of Vinicunca —which is actually a pass, the lowest point around to cross over the Andes in this region. The foot of the pass is 5,000 m.a.s.l. and then it’s another 36 meters to the very top of Vinicunca. The first part of the hike is a relatively gentle rise, it takes most of the first 4 kilometers to go up, maybe 230 of the 336 meter elevation change. Even though the lack of oxygen means that even this shallow rise makes you out of breath if you go too fast. Everyone goes at different speeds depending on their fitness and age and our guide, who does this every day, went back and forth making sure everyone was ok. I’m not sure if he needed to use it but he carried an oxygen bottle just in case.

My mother, sister and I went at a slow pace and didn’t have much issues with the first 4 kilometers. The last kilometer was much steeper and we were stopping to catch our breath and let our muscles re-oxygenate regularly. At first we were stopping every 100 meters, then every 50 and soon every 10. By the time we got to the last 100 meters we were playing the “10 more steps to that rock and then we will rest” game. And the last 40 meters is a dirt stairway. By the time we got to the top we were going one. step. at. a. time. But we made it to the 5,000 m.a.s.l.. And I did make it all the way to 5,036. An Amazing view, with the colours of Vinicunca on one side, the red valley spread out before you and snowcapped Ausangate wrapped around behind you. (I wrote about this in brief before.) [confusion.cc]

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And that’s about it. We had one more morning in Cuzco for some shopping and then started our return. Flying to Lima and waiting hours for our next flight, where we had to stand in the ticketing lobby for a few hours as they only open the desk three hours before the flight and we had about 6 hours between the flights from Cuzco and our international flights. I came back the way I went, 22 hours via Amsterdam to Singapore, not including the 4 hour stopover in Amsterdam or the 6 hours in Lima. But it was worth it to knock Machu Picchu off the bucket list.

As a last note: it’s always hard to title these travel posts… I started using the city or region and then country and then the month and year long ago. For the most part that has served me well, but there are a few holes in the logic. For example, a trip to multiple major cities or countries — say a trip to Amsterdam with a short side trip to somewhere in Denmark. Do I make two posts? Or keep it as one under “Amsterdam, Denmark…”? I’ve split this type of trip up most times, but that means sometime ending up with a set of photos and a post that are quite small. On this trip I chose Cuzco which is both the city we started in, though we spend nights in two others places, and also the name of the administrative region of Peru that almost everything we went to see was in. So should it be “Cuzco, Cuzco, Peru…” or “Cuzco Administrative Region, Peru…”. Anyway, it’s a minor thing. It’s also a good problem to have, a first world and privilege problem given the cost of this type of travel. So, I’m lucky to have to try and figure it out.

You can see the whole Cuzco, Peru, April 2019 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].

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Petra, Jordan, November 2019

I have been visiting the holy land [confusion.cc] since 2007 and since day one I have planned to visit Petra [wikipedia.org]. I’ve been dreaming about visiting Petra since I was 11 years old and first learned of its existence, like so many people, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And every time I started making plans they fell through. But finally, in November 2019 I managed to make the trip.

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I had one day, so it was a short trip and no doubt did not do Petra anything like justice. Logistics were a bitch, I got up at 3AM and went to the airport to catch a flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat at 5:30 AM. Once there I, and several others, tried to figure out what to do as no agent was there to meet us. After 45 minutes we eventually had an agent arrive and a few minutes later the bus which came from Tel Aviv also (you can save a 100 bucks or so on the tour by taking the bus which leaves at 3AM). After a 20 minute ride we arrived at the border crossing at Aqaba. You have to walk across the border and it’s very chaotic on the Jordanian side as lots of cruise ships dock in Eilat and people take day tours. Since the guides from Israel don’t seem to be able to cross, or at least they don’t —there were Israeli tourist who crossed with me— the various tour groups have to meet up with agents on the Jordanian side and go through the various customs and immigration processes. Lots of people speaking lots of languages and trying to communicate about a overly complicated process. Eventually I joined my tour group, we didn’t actually have much problem, and we boarded a bus. But the bus was too small, we had three people with no seats and it took 30 minutes to organize a second car to take them and meet us at Petra. Then we had another 15 minutes wait as we were stopped for something as soon as we started to pull away from the immigration center. Something not right with our papers…

Eventually we were on our way. The drive was beautiful, about two hours starting in the mountains and later over flat desert past Wadi Rum [wikipedia.org]. I would have loved to add a night to my tour to camp under the stars and then explore Wadi Rum, maybe next time. By the time we got to petra it was almost 2PM and our bus had to start back by 4PM (to make the mandatory “lunch” stop at a local restaurant and then drop people at Wadi Rum before making it back to the border crossing before it closed for the day.) So in the end, I had less than 2 hours at Petra. I did manage to see the key sights, or at least the sights on my must-see list. Waking down the Siq [wikipedia.org], the long, winding passage down into the ruins, and The Treasury [wikipedia.org].

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The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, is the main attraction, the mausoleum who’s facade is featured in The Last Crusade. Sadly there were not Nazis or Crusader Knights, just tourists and camel rides. The Treasury comes into view at the end of the Siq framed by the curvy walls. You can see a small vertical slice as our round the last turn, which grows wider as until you emerge into an open area of shear walls with the Treasury in it’s full glory opposite the Siq. An amazing site, and worth the loss of sleep, the money and the hassle. 10/10 would go again.

In fact, I would love to go back and spend a full day exploring more of the ruins. I basically only made it through the Siq, past the Treasury and along the Street of Facades —lined with many tombs and mausoleums, some grand, some not much more than caves it seemed— and to the Amphitheatre. Beyond that there is the city proper, with ruins of Roman temples and more grand mausoleums, even a crusader fort somewhere. Alas, I had to be back at the bus by 4PM.

You can see my whole Petra, Jordan, November 2019 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].

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Tokyo, Japan, December 2018

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Final stop on our 2018 limited tour of Japan (1, 2 [confusion.cc]): Tokyo. We arrived by train from Nagano [confusion.cc] at Tokyo Station. Our hotel was a ryokan in Asakusa so we loaded into two taxis with our luggage. Once we checked in we roamed around Asakusa and ended up in the Owl Cafe. It’s less of a cafe than what I thought it would be, I’ve seen photos of a cat cafe and a hedgehog cafe in Japan and they are a coffee shop with animals. In fact my daughters wanted to go to the hedgehog cafe but it was a bit far from anything else we were doing, the Owl Cafe was just something we stumbled upon so thought it would be a good substitute. The Owl Cafe was not really a cafe at all, it was an indoor petting zoo. It was odd but the kids really enjoyed petting and holding the animals —there were more then just owls, there were snakes, a sugar glider, even a giant capybara wondering around, you can’t really hold a full grown capybara.

After the Owl Cafe we found a Denny’s because my older daughter saw it an really wanted to go and have chocolate chip pancakes she remembered having at a Denny’s along the interstate on the way to my grandparents house when she was six years old… unfortunately Denny’s in Japan is not Denny’s in the US. No chocolate chip pancakes, not much for all day breakfast at all in fact. But all the kids did find food they liked and, sad to say, we made two or three more visits to Denny’s to fill their stomachs over the next few days.

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Our first real adventure was the next morning, the Studio Ghibli Museum [ghibli-museum.jp]. Getting tickets to the museum is not straight forward, the tickets go on sale in Japan first and at some point you can buy them online via Lawson’s (yes, the convenience store). By the time they went on sale online everything was sold out. But there were lots of tour groups selling “tours” that included tickets to the Ghibli Museum. Tours in quotes because essentially you meet the guide at the nearest train station and walk in a group through the large park to the Ghibli Museum. Not much of a tour. I’m guessing that the tour companies go and buy up all the tickets when they are on sale in Japan and then they are basically scalping them, they cost three or four times the list price. I got the tickets but shame on Ghibli for such shitty customer experience, it’s fucked up. On the bright side, the museum was fun. It’s not real but but it’s got some fun stuff; a mock up of Miyazaki’s studio —complete with pencil nubs stapled end-to-end, which is apparently thing he does or did or whatever— various displays on how animation is made, from the drawing process, to cell painting techniques to multi-layer cameras used to give different layers different movement speed. And, of course, a museum shop where we spend way too much money (note to others we later found another Ghibli shop at the base of the Tokyo Skytree that had more than the shop at the Ghibli Museum, but not the unique things like actual animation cells and limited edition things. So if you are going to buy just the toys, puzzles, cloths and the like, you can skip the crazy crowd.). The other big thing at the Museum is the Saturn Theater which shows original short films. We were really hoping to see Boro the Caterpillar [wikipedia.org], Miyazaki’s first computer animation but, alas, we saw something else, unfortunately there is no other way to see Boro.

All-in-all the Ghibli Museum was worth it for someone who has watched and liked all of the Studio’s work, not sure a passing fan would be able to justify the cost. My only complaint is the ticketing process and the crowds, considering the issues with getting ahold of the limited tickets there were a lot of people, just barely short of fire hazard crowded in places. Even the walk from the train station was fun, we would have made it with or without the “tour” but the leaves on the Japanese maples were in full fiery red glory in the park and we found a shop my kids really enjoyed: B-Side Label [bside-label.com], makers of vinyl stickers. the girls enjoyed just browsing and each picked out a handful of pretty or silly designs to stick on waterbottles and such.

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Our next adventure was teamLab Borderless [teamlab.art]. Which is an interactive image mapping and lighting exhibit. Projected waterfalls that flow around you. Animals you can color and scan and watch wonder around the rooms —and stomp on, causing them to splat on the floor. Rainbow whales swim along the walls, a gallery of color changing lamps in a mirrored room. We have been to the smaller teamLabs Future World at the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum in Singapore a few times. several of the exhibits at Borderless are larger versions of exhibits there.

Still, teamLab’s art is awesome and beautiful. We spent most of the day wandering around. The only drawback was how hot the building is, between the large crowd and the lighting equipment it was very hot. In one exhibit it’s so hot it’s like being in a sauna. But Borderless is well worth a visit. There are several other teamLab exhibits in And around Tokyo too, but we didn’t visit any of them.

To round out our time in Tokyo we did some research before we left Singapore. We watched shows on NHK and YouTube to find things to do. The the key show was on NHK, the Hands-on Fun in Asakusa [nhk.or.jp] episode of Tokyo Eye 2020. within easy walking distance of our Ryokan we found three great things to do: Asakusa Kingyo, Kawarawari kawarana, and Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku.

Asakusa Kingyo [crayonsite.net] is located in an arcade just next to Sensōji [wikipedia.org]. Kingyo means goldfish in Japanese and Asakusa Kingyo is filled with paper goldfish, ceramic goldfish, stuffed goldfish and the like. but the main attaction is a large pool in the middle of the shop where you can sit and try to catch actual goldfish with little paper paddles and a wooden box. The kids caught dozens of goldfish over two or three visits. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them home, we got a ceramic goldfish to commemorate the visit.

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Kawarawari Kawarana [kawarana.jp] is for distressing, you get to break Japanese roof tiles like some karate master. The roof tiles are about one centimeter think and the basic package is breaking five tiles. It’s a fun experience, you can dress up in one of the yukata provided and a Karate Kid headband to have the full experience. Totally worth it.

Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku [guraku.jp] is a do it yourself Taiyaki cafe. Taiyaki are the traditionally japanese fish shapped pancakes filled with adzuku (sweet red bean paste), cheese or custard. At Guraku not only do you get to make the taiyaki yourself, you can bring anything you want to fill them. We were not so adventurous, we took ham and cheese, and made a lot of custard too. In fact we made a ton of taiyaki. We really went for the kids to make but that meant booking for all seven of us. I think we got 24 taiyaki out of it. We had hot fresh taiyaki, and warm taiyaki later and cold taiyaki for breakfast and… and then we tossed a few into the trash.

From YouTube we watched a few videos but the ones that we really used were those about food. We watched a YouTuber named Paolo [tokyozebra.com] and in particular his videos on Asakusa [youtube.com] and snacks in Harajuku [youtube.com]. Of all the foods that were tried there are two worth mentioning.

The first is the giant rainbow cotton candy from Totti Candy Factory (which does not seem to have a website, but funny enough they opened a shop in Yishun Singapore near my house). The size of the cotton candy is way over the top. It’s four flavors like some kind of fat sombrero. My youngest devoured one on her own. But Harajuku is too much for my family, too crowded. We made it halfway down the road, pretty much as far as Totti before they were all “get us out of here”. We took one wrong turn trying to go out a side street that ended up being a dead end (thanks Google Maps). But in the end had to wade back through the sea of humanity down the main road.

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The second food adventure was back in Asakusa: Benizuru (another one with no website). Benizuru makes one thing, this is Japanese “specialization leads to perfection” at its yummiest. Benizuru makes über-fluffy rice flour pancakes. Each pancake is about six centimeters think when they take it off the griddle, before it sinks a little. They are not so much fluffy (though that’s how everyone describes them) as jiggly. In addition to rice flour the chef folds in fresh whipped egg whites just before cooking. Getting a seat is, let’s say, “an adventure” (looking at it any other way will just irritate you.) they don’t take reservations over the phone, and they don’t take reservations for the future only for the same day. They open at eight AM to start taking reservations and are apparently fully booked dry quickly. My sister and I went at six AM the day after all of this was explained to us (we knew about the same day reservations but not what time they started taking them) and we were not the first people in line, there was a couple from Canada in front of us. By the time they started taking reservations the line was 30 people, or more, long. In any case we did get seats for ten AM and the pancakes were totally worth it. I had the basic, just three pancakes with butter and honey. All orders are three pancakes but there are a variety of toppings; in addition to butter and honey they have different (daily) fruits and even eggs and bacon. The whole reservation system makes more sense when you sit inside; there are 12 seats I think, and 6 griddle plates to cook the pancakes. So they can cook two orders at a time. If you’re going to go plan ahead and get up early, the people in front of us and at least those right behind us were, like us, returning after not being able to score a reservation on their first day.

Our last adventure was the Tokyo Sea Life Park [tokyo-zoo.net]. It was our last day and rainy but we took the train and made the most of it. I think though that the biggest hit was the French fries and hotdogs at the food truck in front of the aquarium.

I almost forgot, at some point we took a trip to the Tokyo Skytree [tokyo-skytree.jp], it was a nighttime visit to see the endless sea of lights that is Tokyo. I had a chance to visit the older Tokyo Tower [tokyotower.com] last year and I think it was better designed for the night view, and better positioned, closer to some of the clusters of tall buildings. Maybe the skytree would be better during the day, but the angle of the windows and the reflection on them of the interior lights spoilt the view for me.

And with that our 2018 tour of Japan came to an end.

See my whole Tokyo, Japan, December 2018 photoset on Flickr.

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Nagano and Yamanouchi, Japan, December 2018

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The second stop on our 2018 tour of Japan was Nagano. Since no one in the family skis why did we go to Nagano? Monkeys. Snow monkeys to be precise, at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen [wikipedia.org]. We’ve been to see the Monkeys in the Onsen before [confusion.cc] but my youngest daughter does not remember and my niece had never been.

The trip to Nagano from Nikkō [confusion.cc] is via Tokyo: (almost) all Shinkansen tracks lead to Tokyo. We had a bit of a mishap changing trains in Tokyo we actually got on the wrong train, we were five minutes early at the platform. Such is the efficiency of the Japanese rail network. We figured it out quite quickly as there were people in our seat, but it was not quick enough sine we had to wrangle our luggage, the train had already left the station. The conductor told us that we could just get off at the next stop and take the next train. What he did not tell us is that the train we were on only made one stop between Tokyo and Nagano, and it was almost halfway. Since we were on a fast train it took about 40 minutes before the stop. Then, as our train was a slower one we had to wait on the track for 20 minutes, all because we were 5 minutes early at the platform in Tokyo.

Eventually we did make it to Nagano and our hotel. The first thing we did was to check the weather forecast. We were hopping to see some snow and our best chance would be at Jigokudani since it’s up in the hills. There was only a small chance of snow the first night but there was a 70 to 80 percent chance of a decent snow —3 to 5 cm— the second night. So we decided to spend our first day exploring downtown Nagano.

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We spent the late morning and most of the afternoon wandering around the grounds of Zenkōji

We woke early on our second day in Nagano hopping for snow. Despite the high chance overnight there was not a flake to be seen. Still we hopped to se some at the Jigokudani which is actually in Yamanouchi. We caught an early bus from Nagano station for the hour and a half ride. Unfortunately there was no fresh snow once we go there. There was snow on the hills and old crusty snow on the grass and under the trees. But it had not snowed overnight and what snow there was was melting in the sun.

It was a beautiful walk up from the bus stop to the actual bath used by the monkeys. About two or two and a half kilometers, from the bus stop it’s half a kilometer along a side road to the actual entrance to the park. From the entrance it’s a beautiful walk in the woods, though a bit muddy in the melting snow.

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The monkeys were much the same as the last time we went, but last time it was snowing and that made for an all together more amazing experience. It’s fun to get up close to the monkeys in the bath and take some photos. It’s a bit disappointing if it’s your first time and you realize this is not a natural hot spring pool, it was built for the monkeys. All the travel shows and photos you see hide this but it’s obvious when you are there. Also there are more people crowded around the hot spring than monkeys. It’s a highly artificial photo opportunity. That said you can get some awesome photos.

Back down the hill the kids managed to have a snowball fight with the old snow among the plants around the parking lot while we waited for our return trip.

Other than that we enjoyed some shopping —my kids are obsessed with Japanese stationary so, yea, picked up some markers, pencils, etc. etc.— and my wife and I managed to find a few places to eat local food so she could enjoy something other than convenience store fare, the kids continued lived off of Lawson’s and 7-11, though they did eat soba.

See my whole Nagano and Yamanouchi, Japan, December 2018 photoset on Flickr.

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Nikkō, Japan, December 2018

Normally it takes me about six months to cleanup and post photos from vacations. This year it took a bit longer for… reasons. So, yea, eight months this time.

Last December the family went to Japan again —our favorite destination. We met my mom, sister and niece there and went to Nikko, Nagano and Tokyo. This trip to Japan was delayed a full year, plans were made for this trip in 2017 but unforeseen events caused it to be canceled a few weeks before we were to leave. So we were determined to enjoy it to its fullest.

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Our adventure began before we arrived in Narita, and not on a positive note —feverish and vomiting kids. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Nikko, after three hours and two transfers by train from Narita, both the girls were sick. My mom and I spent most of the first day looking for medicine as the limited stock we brought quickly ran out. We walked around Nikko for several hours, looking for an open doctors office with the help of Google maps. We never found the first place Google directed us to but the second place we finally did find, after walking around in circles for a while, was very helpful… but it was an experience. The office was full of older men and women and, of course, the staff didn’t really speak English and I don’t speak Japanese so we spent some time conversing in single words and hand gestures enhanced with Google translate. “Child”. “Fever”. “Six years old”. “Ten years old”.

The staff was extremely helpful three or four of them gathered around trying to understand me. Eventually one of the staff was able to explain that we should go down the road to a Welcia to find what we needed. After another ten minutes or so of walking we found the Welcia, a very large drug store. Our second adventure in Google translate was trying to translate the labels of the medicines in the kids section —which was not very big, there really are no kids in rural Japan— one-by-one we translated until we found an ibuprofen and a paracetamol for kids. We never did find anything for vomiting and the staff was not so helpful. The guy at the counter was polite but it was obvious he didn’t want to take the time to try and understand, the contrast with the ladies at the doctors office was day and night. Maybe it was small business vs. big corporate employee but it reminded me of something I was told the first time I went to Japan: even though most younger Japanese speak English, the men won’t talk to you, you’re better off talking to the women. This was explained as a cultural stigma; while it is cute for a woman to struggle and speak broken “Engrish”, it’s not acceptable for a man to speak it so they just pretend they can’t understand.

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So, anyway after two days stuck in the ryokan sick everyone recovered and we got to enjoy Nikko a bit. The hotel we stayed at was right on the edge of town and just next to a place called Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) [atlasobscura.com]. A gorge the Daiya river flows though which is overlooked by a line of statues called “Jizō”, a bodhisattva who “cares for the deceased”. The statues are about a meter high sitting on a stone base that is another half meter or so, and dressed with a red knitted hat —like a skull cap— and red bib. It’s quite atmospheric, about 70 of these statues covered in moss, sitting along the trail in the woods with the river rushing through the gorge. We would never have found this place except that our hotel was literally the last building on the street and woods and gorge were right next to us, a five minute walk to where the statues began.

Of course the main reason we were in Nikko was to visit the shrines and temples of Nikkō [wikipedia.org] UNESCO world heritage site. The main attraction was the Tōshōgū Shrine (東照宮); [wikipedia.org], the mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried. Ieyasu was the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, the guy who conquered all of Japan and founded the Shogunate which would last until the Meji restoration, some two hundred years later. They sparred no expense when they buried him.

The Tōshōgū shrine is the most lavishly decorated place I’ve ever been in Japan. It’s the most lavishly decorated place in Japan I’ve ever seen a picture of. When you think of Japanese design you probably think of clean, simple almost minimalist design. Toshogu is the Baroque of Japanese, every inch is covered in carvings and there is no lack of color. Or gold, there is gold everywhere.

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The Tōshōgū is far from the only shrine or temple, there is a large cluster of them. Taiyūinbyō (大猷院廟), Rinnōji (輪王寺), Shinkyō (神橋). We wondered around a few of them.

The other major thing we did was to take a train to Kinugawa Onsen to visit Tobu World Square [japan-guide.com]. We wondered around the 1/25 scale buildings from around the world: pyramids, the Acropolis, New York City —including the Twin Towers. There was Tower Bridge and The Eiffel Tower. A Bowing 747 and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was a blast.

In a recurring theme in all my family travels food was a challenge. We end up eating a lot of foods purchased from Lawson’s and 7-11. They have an impressive selection but you might thing we are crazy to be eating convenience store food in Japan. The problem is I’m vegetarian, my kids are just picky, my sister doesn’t eat gluten and my mom is not a fan of seafood. All in all it drives my wife, who is a foodie, mad. The best thing we got in Nikkō was great soba from a place near the hotel.

See my whole Niko, Japan, December 2018 photoset on Flickr.

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Tokyo, Japan, April 2018

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I was lucky to be in Japan in April, a few days after the peak of the sakura bloom. I had a Sunday afternoon free and one evening. In all the pictures of sakura I strangely find this photo to be my favourite.

You can see the whole Tokyo, Japan, April 2018 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].

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Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 2017

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I took a short trip to Chiang Mai in March with the family. Just a few days. We visited an Elephant sanctuary and a place called the Bua Thong waterfall — for which there is no Wikipedia article a pitty!. The waterfall is also known as “Sticky Waterfall” because the calcium rich waters have created cascading mounds of limestone and there is very little algae on the rocks meaning you can get a very good footing in the limestone and despite the relatively steep incline you can walk up and down the face of the waterfall with ease. It was very fun and refreshing walking around in the cool water in the 40° temperature, lots of green (most of the area was more brown than green this time of year) and lots of butterflies.

The photo above is of the Chedi at Wat Chedi Luang [wikipedia.org] —which does have a wikipedia page! The Wat is very beautiful and I was there just in time to catch the wonderful light at sunset. You can see a few more photos in in the photoset on filckr [flickr.com].

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Ha Noi, Sa Pa and Halong Bay, Vietnam, June 2016

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As usual it takes me more than half a year to post holiday photos and write a few lines about it. This time it’s June 2016’s holiday to Vietnam [wikipedia.org]. A packaged tour to Hanoi, Sapa and Halong Bay.

We flew into Hanoi [wikipedia.org]. Our first stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum [wikipedia.org] followed by a visit to the Presidential Palace Historical Site [wikipedia.org] built by the French as the seat for the Governor-General of Indochina and where Ho Chi Minh [wikipedia.org] later lived as President, though not in the European style palace rather in a more modest and traditional stilt house.

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Later we visited the Temple of Literature [wikipedia.org]. Dedicated to “Confucius, sages and scholars” and home to the first university in Vietnam, founded in 1076 (take that Oxford and Bologna). The most interesting thing is the Stelae of the Doctors which are 82 large stone statues of Turtles with a large — meter and a half or so? — tablet standing on their backs and inscribed with the names of the graduates and staff of the university.

After the Temple we took a rest and had dinner before boarding an overnight train to Sa Pa. An adventure for my daughters who could not sleep. We left late and arrived in Lào Cai [wikipedia.org] before 6AM. From Lao Cai we took a bus up into the hills to Sa Pa [wikipedia.org].

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We didn’t do much in Sapa town itself, just eating and sleeping (and a bit of pool time). We spent our two days treking around two local villages – Lao Chải a Black Hmong [wikipedia.org] village and Tả Phìn a Red Dao [wikipedia.org] (the ‘D’, written as ‘Đ’ in Vietnamese, is pronounced like a ‘Z’). The villages are beautiful, bright green rice paddies in the valleys between mountains but you do spend the whole hike being followed by eager locals hawking things. That gets real old after a few kilometers. I know they are just trying to make a living but if you do buy something from one then you become a target for the rest.

We spent most of a day driving back from Sa Pa to Hanoi and spent the evening in the Lotte Hotel. Shopping, swimming and watching the traffic 30-plus storeys below. The next day we spent the morning driving from Hanoi to the coast to visit Ha Long Bay [wikipedia.org]. We spent the early afternoon sailing among the limestone karst formations that make up the bay and visited a floating village to get a more up-close view via a traditional row boat trip around some of the islands.

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After a night on the boat — another first for the kids, along with the train — we visited Sung Sot cave and Monkey Island beach. And then a long ride back to Hanoi.

The last evening in Hanoi we went to see a traditional water puppet show which was interesting. Very annoying the number of ass holes recording the whole show on their phones or taking photos and forgetting to turn off the damn flash despite being asked in, like, seven languages to no take videos or photos. So unless you are in the front row you get to enjoy the show with 5 or 10 small screens in your view. Ass holes.

You can see full photoset for each location on Flickr:

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Harbin, China, December 2015

It’s been six months since I went to Harbin on a tour with my wife’s family. We just got back from another trip — to Hanoi, Vietnam — two weeks ago so I thought I should finally write-up the last trip before I work on the new one. The photos have been on flickr [flickr.com] for a while, just never got around to the blog post.

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We went to Harbin [wikipedia.org] to be cold. To see snow. Snow there was, and cold also. Negative 30° Celcius. Damn cold. Well, the last day was -30°. But straight off the plane it was cold; -15° or so and -25° or less expected overnight. Our first stop was a local shop selling “proper” winter clothes — jackets, hats, “inner layer pants”, snow pants and boots. Even the guide said the quality is not amazing, they will last the week but you can just trash them or ‘donate’ them on the way out. Getting kids in and out of 4 layers of clothes all week was a trial of patience.

After acquiring appropriate attire, we visited Harbin Polarland. Arctic Foxes, arctic Wolves, a polar bear, penguins and a couple of beluga whales, all in enclosures too small. It was sad. There wasn’t much time left on the first day after that, the sun sets early, but we did visit St. Sophia Cathedral [wikipedia.org], a Russian Orthodox Cathedral — fun fact: Harbin was founded by the Russians [wikipedia.org] to manage an extension to the Trans-Siberian Railway. We also visited a section of the Songhua River [wikipeida.org]. No one was interested in skating or other frozen river activities. It was windy and, as promised, -25°. First day off the plane from Singapore that was too much. I did enjoy the sight of the Wal-Mart Supercenter!

The other major attraction near the river was fast food. The McDonald’s was closed but there was a local equivalent. The kids at chicken and french fries since dinner was underwhelming. Getting kids to eat was also a week-long trial of patience. Plain rice at set meals and instant noodles in hotel rooms formed the majority of their caloric intake all week. Supplemented with crispy roasted seaweed brought from Singapore. Nobody really liked the food, apparently Harbin has a reputation for bad cuisine in China so it wasn’t just us.

We only stayed in Harbin one night and early the next morning we took the bus to Yabuli Ski Resort. On the way there we stopped at a “traditional” farm for a horse-drawn sledge ride and fun with firecrackers. Between that the bus ride and meals that was the end of the day.

Overnight it snowed, not much but there was a enough to cover everything when we woke up. While other members of the tour went skiing or what not we enjoyed the snow making snowballs! We cheated and bought some snowball makers and made piles of snowballs. The snowball makers were a good investment as it was too cold to actually pack the snow without them, unless you were willing to remove your gloves…

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Our next adventure was the “Snow Forest” (according to the guide). After a few hours in the bus driving up into the mountains we arrived as a large gate make of packed snow leading to a small collection of cabins and entertainment — dog sleds, inner tube slides and food. And really loud music, including our theme songs “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (which was also played at Harbin Polarland during the Beluga Whale show) and “Let It Go” from Frozen, oddly appropriate, which we heard over and over the rest of the trip. But what we actually stopped for was a hike through the woods. The woods were beautiful, aside from a few caged animal “attractions” it was amazing. Until the guide left us all behind and we started to wonder if we were getting lost. The snow was deep enough and the path cleared so that we weren’t likely to get lost, except it was snowing and at times visibility wasn’t that great. The kids were tired and some people worried we should go back and not forward. In the end we caught up with the guide at the end of the trail. After that we just headed back to the bus.

Onward and upwards, higher into the mountains we went for an hour or so until we reached “China Snow Town”. It was typical China (my experience); we had to stand around in a waiting area while the guide dealt with entrance payments and paperwork, change buses with our luggage to smaller buses to go to the last kilometer (no outside vehicles inside Snow Town) and then walk and drag our luggage the last half kilometer to the hotel. Snow town is basically one long street and our hotel was right in the middle. The hotel was an experience! Either they remake it every year (the place is only open in the winter) or we just happened to go in a year when it was new/remodeled. Everything was new. All the furniture was fresh wood — it smelled like an idea shop — the toilet was new, the showers were new… new, new, new. And hot. Very hot. While outside it was -20° outside it was closer to 30° inside. If you came in from outside you were drenched with sweat before you crossed the (small) lobby. There was no way to avoid being drenched. Unless you were willing to use the lobby as dressing room to put on all your layer but you underwear.

After check in and dinner I decided to explore the Snow Town. I walked up and down the street. Provision shops, tea houses, restaurants; provision shops, tea houses, restaurants; provision shops, tea houses, restaurants… you get the idea. But everything made of wood, red lanterns (all advertising Budweiser!) hanging all around and everything covered in a blanket of snow. It was nice. The only thing I didn’t get to see was the traditional snow town, which you have to pay for and was part of our tour but for the next day.

Sleeping the Snow Town (at least at our hotel) is an unforgettable experience. I wish I could forget how hard the beds were. They we little more than boards. It’s like the hotel was an endurance test, sleeping on a board in a 30° room.

After surviving our first night, of two, We took an early morning trip up to the mountaintop; driving up the snow-covered road in an Inveco, I felt like I was in a National Geographic special about Siberia:

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The snow on the mountain was more than half a meter deep. I stepped off the path while building a snowman and sank up to my waist. Stay on the path.

After lunch we visited the main attraction, the traditional Snow Town at the heart of Snow Town. We went in an hour before sunset so we could enjoy the day and night-time view. The traditional town, apparently it’s basically a movie/TV show set, is beautiful. Snow piling up on top of steep straw roofs. It was still early in the season so there was only 20cm or so of snow — I’ve seen photo of it closer to a meter thick on the roofs — but it was beautiful. However, it’s small. The traditional part is maybe 20m x 20m square. A couple of houses, a well and shrine with a big bell. That’s it. I stood around for almost an hour waiting for the sunset and the lanterns to come on to take photos. This was one of three times I felt really cold the whole trip standing around, taking my gloves off repeatedly to better use my camera and phone. It was bitterly, painfully cold.

After another hard night we spent most of the next day in transit. We didn’t go back to Harbin itself but to Daqing Lindian Hot Springs resort a few hours outside the city center. This was the kids favorite night – indoor heated swimming! My wife even dared to run outside to one of the outdoor hot spring baths for a while! I owe her $2 for that. It was a good relaxing night. I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit but as part of the tour, in the freezing winter, an afternoon of swimming in hot springs was nice.

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The next day was out last full day and we headed back to Harbin early and then to the main attraction. The whole reason to go to Harbin – the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival [wikipedia.org]. I don’t remember where I first read about or saw something on the festival but it’s been on my list of must see places for a long time. The festival is actually two different things, one Snow Sculpture festival and one Ice Sculpture festival in two different locations.

We started with the Snow Sculpture festival. Unfortunately while the festival is open, it’s not really in full swing until January or February and there were not that many completed sculptures. There was one massive, maybe 100m long, sculpture and they were working on 30m high castle, but a lot of things were still just rough, half carved blocks or pile of snow. Still what we did see was amazing and the snow sculptures were never the thing I wanted to see.

We visited the Ice Sculpture festival, like the traditional Snow Town, an hour before sunset so we could see it during the day and lit up at night in all it’s glory. And it did not disappoint. Despite being the coldest day; below -30° it was a magical experience. The ice sculptures, really buildings made of massive blocks of ice cut from the river, are amazing and lit from the inside in a rainbow of colors. Tragically the kids missed it all, between the bitter cold and not wanting to get all their gear on they decided to stay on the bus and miss out on the Ice Sculptures. Words cannot do it justice, put it on your bucket list.

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The last thing we did before sleep and a pre-dawn flight was dinner in an ice palace. Chinese steamboat in a building made entirely of ice next to our hotel. And steamboat lives up to its name under those conditions; a boiling pot of broth in a room made from ice. Steamy.

Overall Harbin was a great trip, not sure I’d do it again but as a once in a lifetime trip it was worth it. China is hard, and much of the bitching above is just a difference in expectations and culture I suppose. Harbin, while it’s a big city in absolute terms, is a bit off the beaten path making it that much more so.

You can see my whole Harbin, China, December 2015 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].

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Agra and Delhi, India, June 2014

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In June I went to Pune in India for “handover training” on the project which has been the main focus of my work for three years now. I didn’t see much in Pune but since It was a three-week trip I managed to take a weekend trip with two of the other guys from the project. Of course the must see attraction for one’s first time in India is the Taj Mahal [wikipedia.org]!

In order to get to the Taj from Pune we flew to New Delhi early on Saturday morning. Once there we met up with a hired driver to drive us the 200+ kilometer to Agra. With a quick stop in Delhi to see the Red Fort [wikipedia.org]. The Red Fort was built by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal Emperor who built the Taj, and was the residence of the Mugal Emperors for 200 years until “the Britishers” took over.

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You can see how the Red Fort must have been a beautiful place, and could be an amazing place to visit. However… it is in pretty bad shape. Trees down, all the water fountains under some sort of renovation — and what appears to be the workers on this project living with their family under one of the buildings in the middle of what should be a pool. We saw a woman down there doing the laundry and the kids playing.

All in all the Red Fort was not worth the two hours in the 40+ degree Celsius Delhi summer heat.

After a quick fast food lunch — the land of vegetarian McDonald’s “burgers”! We piled in our ride for a tour of India’s $2 Billion Yamuna Expressway [wikipedia.org]. Halfway to Agra we took a short break for our driver to replace a tire and then a few miles down the road to have the tire fixed. I haven’t seen a car tire with an inner-tube before. I think those went out of style in the US before I was born.

Eventually we did get to Agra. Then we go lost. Seem the driver didn’t know the way to the Taj. We drove the wrong way a few miles — which takes some time in Agra — before he asked for directions and we backtracked to the Taj.

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Once there we were told there was only 15 minutes until the ticket counters closed – one hour before the Taj itself closed for the night. And that it was a 600 meter walk from the parking area to the ticket counters. We elected to walk it, running a gauntlet of trickshaw drivers, camel handlers, horse masters and donkey cart drivers who wanted to sell us a ride. They didn’t give up until we were within about 100 meters of the ticket gates. The constant touting was not the part of the walk that leaves an impression. All tourist hot-spots have their equivalent. The smell is the part that sticks with you. It was like walking through an open sewer. It was, without a doubt, the worst smell I have ever smelled. Worse than the pit farms near my grandparents house. Worse than smell of Bangkok back alleys. I mean, you could see horse shit, donkey shit and even camel shit on the road — and you could smell it when it was there. But this was a constant smell of doom, an apocalyptic odor. Something I will never forget. We never identified its source but luckily it was confined to the 600 meters between the parking lot and the ticket counters.

We made it to the ticket counters in time, got our tickets and our booties — which one must ware inside the Taj itself. By coincidence that night was a full moon, and the Taj is open for night viewing during a full moon. We had planned to get tickets for the full moone viewing, unfortunately you can’t just buy tickets for it at the ticket counter — you have to buy them 24 hours in advance. The website makes not mention of this and we were unable to get them to sell us tickets so despite the coincidence we were unable to take advantage of our one night being the a full moon.

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We spent our hour wandering around and taking photos before the guards kicked everyone out and we had to make our way back through the stench. Thankfully it was less intense, maybe the wind have shifted. We spent a night in a nearby hotel.

Next morning we went back for sunrise photos but low hanging clouds kept it from being too dramatic. In any event we walked around for a good two hours taking in the beauty of the Taj itself and the surrounding buildings. The Taj deserves all the praise for its beauty. There is not much to it inside, it is after all a mausoleum. The outside is the glory. It is an amazingly beautiful building. If it had not been for the need to get to Delhi to fly back to Pune for work I could have spent all day just wondering around the Taj grounds and admiring the beauty and the details. Despite the sunset and sunrise being less than spectacular and the daytime haze making for a dull gray sky I took an enormous amount of photos — I doubt I will ever go back.