Ha Long Bay

Yesterday morning I went off to Ha Long Bay which the hostel had booked for me. It meant staying overnight on a boat, with my own room and the biggest double bed that I’ve ever slept in.

I’d been told that I’d get there by bus, however the streets around are too small to fit a bus down. A tour guide rocked up on a moped, told me to get on the back in t-shirt, shorts and flip flops with no helmet, and drove me through, and sometimes onto, the traffic to get the bus. I was bricking it, my travel insurance definitely would not cover that, and he was rather amused.

Over the past couple of days we’ve been into caves, climbed up to viewpoints and kayaked.

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Hanoi

Yesterday morning I arrived in Hanoi, and annoyingly so, my visa to allow me to stay in the country for longer than two weeks was approved within an hour of me leaving the airport. At the hostel I was asked what my plans in Vietnam are and have had up until I get a train to Hue sorted out for me.

I tried not to do a lot yesterday and felt very much as though I had to be switched on – the roads are a complete nightmare to cross and you literally have to walk into the traffic and hopefully won’t get hit by a car/bus/moped. My internal monologue whilst crossing is along the lines of “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck ohhh shit.” I’ve seen people carrying things just sellotaped to the back of their bike, as well as a parent riding with what must’ve been a one-year-old child in between his legs.

I went to the Hao Loa Prison museum, which was used by the French to imprison the Vietnamese and later on used by the Vietnamese to imprison the Americans during the Vietnamese War. Most of the museum was based on how the Vietnamese were treated when they were inside, though it was interesting to hear about how the Americans were treated inside – a lot, lot better. After I went to check into the hostel properly, nap, and go to the road where the train passes through a few times per day.

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The Hanoi Train Street is different because instead of traffic, bar a few mopeds, it’s a pedestrian road with train tracks which you can walk on (obviously not when the train’s coming). There’s a few bars there that are like hostel bars, where they encourage the foreigners to have a “Choo Choo Beer” and chat – the staff yell out “Choo Choo” when they give you the beer.

 

Today, I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which I wasn’t fussed by, and then the Citadel, which I still wasn’t fussed by. After some pho, spring rolls and a Vietnamese Coffee I headed to the History Museum which I was expecting to be modern history, but instead it was more archaeology based. The area around is quite nice with a lake and stuff, but I didn’t feel it was worth going to. On the way back to the hostel I picked up some Bahn Mi and was inside when it started pissing down.

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Quite possibly the cheapest beer I’ve ever had at £0.66

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Overall, I think I’ve struggled with the city, but then it is very different to anywhere I’ve experienced. I’ve eaten better than anywhere else so far, and I think if I give Vietnam a chance then I’ll get used to the chaos and really like it here.

Tomorrow I’m off to Ha Long Bay overnight which is one of the reasons why I chose to come to Vietnam. I’ve heard from the people that I’ve spoken to who have already been that it’s definitely worth a visit.

Tokyo

Before Tokyo I spent a couple of nights in Hakone. There’s a well-known daytrip that you can take, where you go up a ropeway then a cable car up a mountain to view Mt Fuji on a clear day (it wasn’t), then go down and get a pirate ship across a lake to a town, where you can wander or get a bus somewhere. To be honest, it really did feel like a pump-the-tourist-through kind of place and I did want to go back to bed halfway through.

With Tokyo, I was here ten months ago and had done most of the tourist things. I’ve been to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Senso-ji Temple, the Robot Restauant, Mirikan, Harijuku etc., and a lot of that was better the first time around. If I’d been better prepared I could’ve seen some sumo, gone Mario Kart street racing (couldn’t apply for an International Driving License whilst in Australia with my UK one) and visited the Digital Art Museum, which I wasn’t aware that sold out heaps in advance. There was another Pokemon shop here too which was laden with cretins, so I’d definitely recommend Osaka’s over Tokyo’s.

I did come with the intent of buying a new, good camera and to try it out in the city, which I’ve done. I took it out to Senso-ji at night and a few other places. My favourite was Gotokuji Temple, which has a shrine to cats.

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This time around, I do still think that Tokyo would be best done with company, and it’s been difficult to get around. Relying on offline maps has been useful, though I’ve made a spelling mistake which added an extra 40 minutes onto a journey. I’ve also found that when using the Metro and to change station, I feel like I’ve gotten off the platform, and into the depths of Narnia to find the next station, taking upwards of ten minutes sometimes. It makes changing at Bank/Monument on the London Underground seem like an absolute dream. With that said, I know I’ve been in Tokyo for too long this time, though I still would like to spend a couple of days here with some company.

Tomorrow evening I’m off to Vietnam, and how long I stay there depends on whether or not I get a visa for more than 14 days approved before I arrive in the country – me being as organised as usual.  I’m looking forward to eating Banh Mi, Banh Xao, and being in relatively small cities. Honestly, I don’t know much about the country so hopefully like being in Seoul, I’ll learn heaps.

Osaka

Whilst travelling I have a few personal rules, including why I will never put anything in a hostel bathroom sink, the amount of people in a dorm (though this is a bit different in Japan) and staying in a hostel near public transport so I don’t damage my back so much. Another one of mine is not letting hungry become hangry, so I set off to get some lunch straight after arriving in Osaka.

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Best ramen ever.

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One of the travel bloggers I follow described a bowl of pork rib ramen as one of the best dishes she’s ever eaten so I went out to eat exactly that. This was also the one time the GPS on my phone decided to work too, so I took that as a sign. All I can say is that the bowl of ramen was glorious; the pork so delicious yet I knew it was so bad for me; the broth was the best I’ve ever had and the noodles were perfect. Sometimes I describe my life as a series of first world problems, and I couldn’t decide whether or not that made the top 5 or 10 of best dishes I’ve ever eaten, as I’ve eaten three-Michelin-star standard food.

I didn’t really fancy being a tourist, so I went back to the hostel and chilled. I noticed in the corner of the room that there was this metal post with a rope, so I took a closer look and it seems like instead of a fire escape, we have a harness and if we need to make a quick escape we are expected to teach ourselves how to abseil down a building. Obviously 100% safe.

Yesterday was a bit of a meh day, but I was in a good mood. I started off at a Pokemon Center – if I did not have a budget for this trip and wasn’t living out of a backpack for the next 3+ months, I would’ve totally bought everything in sight. It was nice to see other people who were older than me having a moment whilst in that shop, because I was too.

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View from the ferris wheel

After, I set off for lunch and a walk, then opted to travel on the ferris wheel in the tourist area. As my day trip was going to be Himeji Castle which I did last week, I thought that I’d go to Osaka castle, and go to a much better castle for a day trip for the following day. Osaka castle wasn’t much on the inside, just a museum with a view from the top, equal to the view from the ferris wheel.

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So, today, I was going to go to another castle. I’ve wanted to go for the past fourteen years; I’ve kind of been twice in England and the one I can actually visit was built whilst I was in high school. After a Google search, I found out that not only could I not visit Hogwarts at the Japanese version of Wizarding World of Harry Potter, there was in fact a typhoon destined to hit near Osaka today. Brilliant.

This morning I headed off to a convenience store to stock up on some food and booze, and I’ve been a grown up today, finalising my India trip, forgetting to pay off my credit card bill and researching a couple of things for when I get to Tokyo and beyond. Unfortunately, I have not yet managed to end up on BBC News like I did when I got caught up in Cyclone Debbie, but I should be able to move on towards Fuji tomorrow.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima is primarily known for having an atomic bomb dropped on it by the USA army in August 1945. At the end of 1945 it is thought that the bomb had killed 140,000 (+/-10,000) people. In school I’d learnt about World War I and II and visited areas in France and Belgium and got a better understanding about what actually happened during the World Wars. As I’m in Japan and have no fixed timeline as to where I want to be and when, other than a flight to Vietnam the week after next and to end up Egypt and Jordan by the end of the year maybe, I thought I’d come here to get a better understanding of why the atomic bomb was dropped, and how the city was effected as a result of it.

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I’ve been staying in hostels in Japan, which are more often than not capsule style. It’s like living in a drawer.
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Bento Box on the train up to Hiroshima

Upon arriving, I got to the hostel before it started pouring with rain. I’d given up my seat on the tram to an elderly woman and couldn’t help but think if she grew up in the area, what affect the atomic bomb that was dropped would have on her, her family and the people she knew. I ditched my backpack at the hostel and headed for the Atomic Bomb Dome, having a look around before heading to the Peace Memorial Museum.

The museum went into great depth about the events that occurred both before and after the bomb was dropped, and the effects that it had on the local people, families and area. One thing that really surprised me was how severely injured people who were as far away as 9km from the bomb were, some dying from the radiation that they were exposed to that day, or by the following week.

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After being in the museum, I went back to walk around the Dome, and whilst I’m only 24 and arrived in Hiroshima a few hours before, I got a sense of how much the area must have changed in that one second when the bomb exploded. The Peace Park had once been a busy street but now serves a purpose to inform people as to what atomic weapons are capable of, as well as the upsets and damage that they can inflict.

Today, I started off at Miyajima Island which is known for having a shrine and deer on the loose, and with my Japanese Rail ticket I could ride the ferry for free. I didn’t really find that there was too much to do – I chose not to ride the cable car up to the top of the mountain as I didn’t really fancy that, and I had a deer try to eat my hand as I’d just eaten a pasty. There’s pastries known as Momiji Cakes on the island, flavoured I think with maple syrup from the island and I even saw some Kit Kats in that flavour too.

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It started pouring with rain so I decided to get the ferry back and go to Osaka Castle, around 50 minutes on the tram. Spent an hour or so there – there’s a museum inside and a lookout on the top, though I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I’d missed out on the museum.

Tomorrow, I’m still staying in Hiroshima for the night, but I’m thinking of heading to Nagasaki as I’ve done pretty much all there is to do in Hiroshima and have paid for my bed for the night. After Nagasaki will come Osaka, then I’m back in the Fuji area, though I have really researched being in that area this time. After Fuji will be Tokyo, I think with a bit too long a stay, but I have a few options for day trips.

Fukuoka

Last year when I flew to Japan I got taken aside by a customs officer, shown a section from a folder in English asking if I had any narcotics, gold bars, wads of cash, etc. on me. This time was no different; I got my passport stamped, picked up my backpack from the carousel, went to get my passport checked to leave the airport and I got stopped. The Botswana stamp on my passport raised concern so after having all my luggage and phone swabbed, looked at, being presented the English page of a folder with pictures of contraband,  and questioned about my time in Japan, why I’m there and what I’m doing, I was free to go.

Upon landing in Fukuoka I felt excited to come back to Japan; I hadn’t been a huge fan of China, and in Seoul I felt as though I was dossing as opposed to travelling. Japan feels familiar to me as I’ve been here before and I’ve really planned the next two weeks. Last time I was in the country however, I had worked for around 20 days with just one day off on day five or six, and the night prior to leaving I went out and the hangover wrote me off for about a week. This time, I’m really going to make the most of my stay.

Travel days I try not to do a lot; I use them to Google what’s about and to be a grown up. Last night I went to some Yatai stalls – there’s a few in a row next to the river here, which is basically an outdoor restaurant with a few seats. I opted for a beer to celebrate being in Japan, and a few meat skewers. One of the options I went for was just chicken skin on a stick which was glorious – if the world needs more of one thing, let that be bbq’d chicken skin.

Today I woke up at a semi-reasonable time and made it to the reclining Buddha, 20 minutes from the city on the train. I have been trying to not rely on my phone so much but it is so much easier just to Google what platform I need to be on when I cannot read the language. The Buddha is in quite a large area with a few statues, taking about an hour to look around the site before heading back into the city.

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Once back in the city I went to the Ramen Stadium – basically a food court of ramen restaurants, and you don’t need to talk to anyone to order. It’s potentially one of my new happy places. I’m aware and very OK with the fact that my diet for the next two weeks will consist of ramen, so I went back there for dinner too. During the day I went to a couple of temples and also had a nap before going out for a walk. One temple was pretty impressive and the other not so much, but no photos allowed.

Tomorrow I’m off to use my Japanese Rail pass for the first time. I’ve really enjoyed today in Fukuoka, and excited for the next couple of weeks ahead of me.

Seoul

I was really excited to leave China after being fed up with the humidity, crowds, pushing and hearing people clear their throats out. The reason why I’d chose to visit Seoul was to visit the Demilitarized Zone and the Joint Security Area (known as the DMZ & JSA).

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My first full day was the tour to the DMZ and JSA. Originally I’d wanted to go to a couple of museums and such to learn about the situation between the North and South, however due to my organisational skills (or perhaps lack of) I could only get a tour on my first day. A lot of it you aren’t allowed to take pictures.

After an hour or so in a bus from Seoul, the first stop was the Third Tunnel. The South had discovered by chance that the North had been digging a tunnel in addition to the two they had already dealt with prior to attack the South. The North had apparently been painting the walls black, saying that they had been mining for coal. Just outside of here were a DMZ sign and a memorial with people posing for pictures which reminded me of going to Auschwitz, with people posing for pictures in front of the gates. The Korean War lead to over three million deaths, resulting in a torn nation. I may sound like a miserable fucker, but I think there’s a time and a place for tourist pictures. With that said, I did take a selfie later on that day with North Korea in the background as it’s the only chance I’ll ever get to do that.

Our next stop was lunch, in a building next to the toll/border going to North Korea. We got told basically not to mess around and to keep away as we were being recorded on CCTV by the North. Then, we went to a viewpoint that had binoculars to overlook the propaganda village. The village was built to give the impression to the South and rest of the world that everything in the North is fine. It was also very touristy there, with a few tour buses which I hadn’t been expecting.

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The view into North Korea

 

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Our next stop was the train station, from where tourists can come to the North from the South and have a tour that is similar, with very different information given to them. It wasn’t really anything too amazing, just a train station with the Korean military making sure that people weren’t pissing around there.

The JSA was our last stop, with an armed member of the Armed Forces from the USA as our tour guide. We had to sign a bit of paper literally signing our lives away, to behave in a way in which the UN can keep it’s integrity and not to point or do anything that the North could do to use as propaganda. We got taken to an area in which we could see North Korea, then taken into a building that technically crossed the border to put us in North Korea.

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Looking onto the North beyond the blue buildings
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North Korea to the left, South Korea to the right

After, we went back to Seoul – I slept more or less the whole way back.

The next day was OK – I decided that I’d give Gyeongbokgung Palace a visit, and whilst it’s nice to look around and everything, I don’t think I really care about palaces. After, I chose to go to Seodaemun Prison – a place where the Japanese would imprison Koreans who wanted Korea to be liberated. It was interesting, and I did notice that they said that the prison was in operation until the late 1980s, though not a lot was mentioned about what the prison was used for after Korea was liberated.

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One of the rooms in the prison, showcasing just a handful of people who died in order to liberate Korea,a majority of them had been tortured.

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The prison reminded me of both Fremantle Prison in Western Australia and Dacau Camp in Munich. I cannot for the life of me understand why parents take their cretins to places like this – whilst it’s part of the Korean history, a lot of children were just pissing around.

The next day I chose to go to the Bukchon Hanok village, styled in the same way that the city was centuries ago. It did piss it down, but luckily I had borrowed an umbrella from the hostel, then I went to the Korean War Museum which is closed on Tuesdays, though they do have an outside area with the warplanes and tanks used in the war. From there I went to Gangnam to see what the fuss was about, then back to the hostel.

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One of the more popular drinks in Korea is Soju, which tastes pretty much like alcohol unless you get the flavoured one for au$2 each from 7-11 or any convenience store. I’ve had them nightly in Korea, the flavoured ones are great, but when someone starts talking to me after I’ve drank one I have to sneak off to bed.

During my time in hostels I’ve heard a lot of people say how much they love Seoul. It seems like a place that you can get a lot out of if you’re willing to be social. For me, I’m aware that I am most likely on track to be a cat woman, and whilst I like to have a drink in the hostel I don’t really like to stay up until 7am with people I’ve just met. Had I not been alone, I would’ve had some Korean BBQ and probably gone to see a K-Pop concert. I can’t say that I wouldn’t ever visit Seoul again, but I’d consider a visit if in Asia and with company.

Shanghai

Shanghai has been my final destination in China – the prior three cities I’ve visited because there were places that I’d wanted to visit, but I chose Shanghai as I just needed to fly out.

At the ripe old age of 24, what I was most excited coming here to do was to get my back sorted out. Getting here via a 14 hour train ride here obviously didn’t help me much, and I’ve been having pain for my whole stay here which I think/hope is just my back settling down. As a result, I’ve tried to rest – each day here I’ve tried to do something, but my back is my main priority.

My first full morning I spent in the Museum of Urban Planning. There’s a to-scale replica of the city, updated on a monthly basis. There’s also a photography exhibition in the building which was worth a visit too.

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During the evening I went on a food tour which was pretty interesting. Our first stop served various kinds of pork belly, as well as a plate of noodles there having picked up some Chinese burgers prior. Everything tasted good, but I have eaten a lot of similar things before. Then we went to a seafood place and I was the first to volunteer to try some jellyfish – it tops the list of the worst things I’ve ever tried. There were a few more dishes, but I wasn’t really too fond of them.

Afterwards, we visited a Szechuan place where we had a selection of noodles, dumplings, some veggies and rabbits head, and then went off to go get some dumplings. Overall, I think my favourite stop would’ve been the dumpling place, though I was pretty full and trying to forget about the jellyfish.

Since that, I’ve not done a lot. Yesterday I went to a propaganda museum which displayed China’s political history from around World War II to the 1970s. I’m not very well informed about Chinese history, but a fair few things did start to make sense. Today, I went to the Yu Garden which was nice for a walk, but I just want to rest my back.

Tomorrow I’m off to Korea. It would’ve been nice to be able to explore Shanghai a bit more, but I’m not going to lose any sleep about it as I have to look after myself.

Chengdu

It was a six hour train ride from Xi’an to arrive in Chengdu. Like both Beijing and Xi’an, I’d come here specifically to see something, with a full day or two to explore the city.

My first full day here I wanted to sleep in. After leaving the hostel at midday, I went to Wen Shu Monastery, which is one of the more peaceful places that I’ve visited in China so far. There’s not a lot to do there besides have a look around, but still took an hour and a half or so to get around.

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After leaving the monastery I popped into somewhere for a quick lunch and had a great portion of wontons for under £2, then went to the Tibetan Quarter. There’s a temple/shrine there but I wasn’t overly fascinated with it.

All of the research centres for Pandas are in Chengdu, so this morning I went to the one that specialises in breeding them. I had booked a tour as I didn’t really know how to get there, and accidentally ended up booking a private tour. It was quite handy having the private tour as my guide knew exactly where to go and how to beat the crowds – her guess as to how many people were there was 30,000+.

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They eventually release the pandas back into the wild, however, they are so used to depending on humans that they have been known to not want to feed themselves. As a result have they to go back into care. The reason why they’re inside is because they are not a fan of the heat, and are instead in an air conditioned room. I enjoyed the tour, though I feel as though if there was no queue I could’ve gone around the centre in 45 minutes, rather than two and a half hours.

Today, I’m just being a grown up. The wifi in the hostel is surprisingly decent so I booked up a tour to go to India at the start of October, as well as my travels up until then. The visa for India was a right pain in the arse to apply for, taking around three hours as the website is just crap, but in between now and then I’ll be in Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Tomorrow, I’m getting the train to Shanghai. I didn’t think it through properly and as a result am spending over 14 hours on a train. I’ll be taking it as an opportunity to catch up on the reading that I haven’t kept up with as I have several books on my kindle that need a read.