Ten years ago, a certain someone went to Cuba, but never posted the pictures. And this week, another certain someone very close to the first certain someone went to Cuba, and took more pictures. And here they are:
There is so much to see and do in Japan, so it’s a good thing we had almost four weeks to spend there! We bought a Japan Rail 21 day pass, allowing us unlimited train rides around four of Japan’s islands. And we took major advantage of it.
The first night we were here, we walked up to a ramen counter and sat down. The conversation went like this:
Owner: “Hai!”. Meaning, “Yes, please order, I am busy”.
Deah: “Hiiiiii….”. As in, “Hellllooooo!”.
Chris: Dies laughing.
That was in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, (after a ferry ride from South Korea). We sampled the local ramen specialty, saw some old style shrines and temples, and visited a Mongolian Invasion museum and a robot museum (opposite ends of the spectrum!). And then we took a train to Nagasaki, to see two sites: the “Battleship Island”, an old coal mine island that has been abandoned since 1974 (and is the evil lair in 007 Skyfall), and the Nagasaki Peace Park, ground zero for the atomic bomb. What a moving place, especially with the tens of thousands of folded origami cranes, homage to a young girl named Sadako who died after the bombings. From there, we went to Beppu, a hot springs town, to visit the seven different “hells”, or hot springs, as well as get buried in volcanic sand and stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese style room with futons and tatami mats).
Then we were ready to move on to Honshu. We stopped in Hiroshima, and then Himeji, to visit the White Egret castle, one of the remaining 12 originals from the shogun period. This is where Chris accidentally bought a whole plate of cartilage and liver yakitori. I declined. We also went to the island of Myojima to see the floating Tori shrine- really beautiful. And then we made our way to Kobe, to stay with my college friend Kirsten, and go to sake factories, sing karaoke, and try some Kobe (Wagyu) beef! So good, it melts in your mouth, literally. I was so sad when that last piece was eaten. From Kobe, we also took a day trip to Mt. Koya to visit a very old Buddhist cemetery, which was set in a lovely cypress forest atop a mountain.
From Kobe, we went to Kyoto. We skulked around the Gion area long enough to spot some geishas, and we visited the imperial palace and the Golden Pavilion (a bit overrated). We went to the really beautiful bamboo forest at Arashiyama, and took a quick commuter train to see the fushimi-Inari shrine, which is three kilometers of gorgeous vermillion tori gates, lined up one after another, up a mountain. Just beautiful.
Skipping Tokyo for the time being, we took the super fast Shinkansen trains past Mt Fuji, past Tokyo, and over to our third island, Hokkaido. We spent the weekend at another onsen/ryokan (Japanese style room with a hot springs bathing room) at a lakeside village called Toyako. The tiny town featured a lake, a volcano, a national park for hiking, and nightly fireworks. Also tame deer! It was very relaxing, and got us ready for our time in Tokyo.
Then, to Tokyo, the biggest city in the world! Although I have to say, that with everyone using public transportation, the streets are not as crowded as I thought. We went to watch a sumo wrestling practice, and went to the Palace Grounds (actually you can’t see much). At night, we went up to the 48th floor observation deck of the government building, and also to the 52nd floor bar of the Hyatt hotel (that was in the movie Lost in Translation)- what a view! Chris got up early and went to the fish market tuna auction (I slept in). The Edo-Tokyo History Museum was a really good history of the city since the 1700’s.
Last stop was Osaka. On the way, we went to the home of Hattori Honzo, now a ninja museum and demonstration. Very fun- the whole town has ninja mannequins on top of buses, underneath benches, in the corners of shops. Then we had one more Wagyu beef dinner- so, so good. We went to the ramen museum, where we learned all about Momofuko Ando, the inventor, and we even got to make our own cup and customized noodle and toppings. Too fun. We saw a few more sites around Osaka, such as the Osaka castle and Tennoji Park, and then were ready to prepare for our flight home.
On May 9, we flew from China to Seoul, South Korea. We spent the next week in Seoul, visiting various sites such as the Jongmyo Shrine, the old city walls, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, and a couple different history museums.
Another day, we had lunch and walked around the area called Itaewon, full of servicemen and restaurants from all over the world. After lunch, we spent the rest of the day at the Korean War Museum, comparing their version of the war with the version we saw in North Korea.
I caught a cold and stayed home the next day, while Chris visited the DMZ.
After Seoul, we headed to the east coast, for the express purpose of visiting the Haesindang Penis Park. The park is full of statues, benches, sculptures, and artwork, all in the shape of penises. The story goes that a young maiden drowned off the coast of this fishing village, and after that no fish could be caught. One day a fisherman exposed his penis to to the sea, and the fish rose to the surface. And so the villagers concluded that the ghost of the maiden was unhappy and could only be appeased by penises. And so here you go.
From the east coast, we took a bus to the south and the city of Busan. We did a little sightseeing there, picked up our Japan rail passes and ferry tickets, and tried some Korean street food, such as mandu (dumplings) and pajeon (chive pancakes).
On our last day, we visited the Lotte Department store- 13 floors, including an aquatic show, a four-level cinema, a gym, petting zoo, and a sky terrace offering amazing views of the city. Kind of a weird way to spend an afternoon, but fun.
And now….. We are headed by hydrofoil jet to Japan, our last stop on this trip.
*We entered and exited China four times in the last two months, so I waited until the end of our China visits to post this.
* I wrote Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau, and Tibet as separate posts because of their unique cultural or geographical identities, even though technically they are part of China.
On April 4th we walked over the border between Macau and Zhuhai, and boarded a bus to go north to Guangzhou, China. We spent the night there, and then took a train to Yichang. We chose that as our first stop because we wanted to see the Three Rivers Dam and the beautiful gorges and rivers in the area. I have wanted to see that area ever since seeing the movie The Painted Veil, which was filmed in that area in 2004- the last film that was made in the area before the dam was built. We went on a tour of the dam- the largest in the world- and took lots of pictures. Unfortunately our tour of the dam was not in English. But we figured out most of it anyway. In Yichang, we stayed in a nice hostel, which thankfully had heat, which was good because it was super cold there. So cold, I had to break down and buy a jacket, even though it’s April already.
From Yichang, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, home of the terra cotta warriors. I happen to love overnight trains. The best duration is 12 hours. You board the train around 7 or 8 pm, settle in, read for an hour or two, then pop a sleeping pill, put on your eye mask and earplugs, and sleep for 8 hours. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, and an hour later you’re there. Drop your bags off at the hotel, and you’re ready to go sightseeing. It’s way more comfortable than a long bus ride, cheaper than a plane ride, and you save a night’s accommodation costs. Plus you get to see some scenery.
Although I do have to say that I like the Thailand trains better than the Chinese trains. Thai trains, in 2nd class, have long rows of bunk beds, that convert to table and chairs during daytime hours. All the bunks have a privacy screen. Once you’re in it for the night, you’re pretty cozy. Chinese trains, in 2nd class, have three tiered bunks, which means you basically can’t sit up right in any of them. No privacy curtains. Alongside one wall of the train are tiny pull-down tables and chairs. Tiny. We did two 2nd class Chinese trains (called “hard sleepers”, even though the beds are fairly soft), and two 1st class (called soft sleepers, not actually any softer). In first class, they have two sets of bunk beds inside a private cabin, with a small table in between them. The door closes for privacy and you can control the lights, and they have a tv in them, although I never used it.
So, we arrived at the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi’an. They were made 2,200 years ago, to celebrate the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, considered to be the unifier of China. Discovered by farmers digging a well in 1976, so far over 8,000 warriors, including archers, infantry, cavalry, and horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians, and generals have been uncovered. About half are on display; the rest are still under cover until the preservationists can figure out better techniques for preserving the delicate polychrome lacquer painted on the statues. They were quite a sight, and a lifelong goal of mine.
Afterwards we walked around the walled city of Xi’an, sampling some food and seeing their Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The city is pretty far west, so we saw some of the Uigur, Chinese Muslims, with their big bee-hive head scarves all wrapped up around their hair.
From Xi’an, another sleeper train to Beijing. There we explored Tiennemen Square and the Forbidden City, both not far from our hotel. Tiennemen Square is pretty boring, really, just a big square, but The Forbidden City had all kinds of courtyards, palaces, apartments, alleyways, etc. Afterward, we climbed a hill just north of the Forbidden City, and got a look at it from above. There you could really see Beijing’s pollution. Kind of sad.
We had Peking Duck for dinner, and of course we went to the Great Wall. Talk about another lifelong dream! We went to the Matianyu section, about 70 km from Beijing, chosen due to it generally being less crowded than other sections closer to the city. We took a cable car up to Tower 14, hiked up and along to Tower 26, then returned back to Tower 6 and took a ski lift back to the bus park. All in all, about 8 km of hiking. It was amazing seeing the wall curve and wend its way along the mountains, and all along the cherry blossom trees were just beginning to bloom.
In Beijing, we also visited the Temple of Heaven. It’s located in a beautiful park, and used to be reserved solely for the emperor as he made an annual sacrifice. One temple there is the oldest wooden temple in China. The blue, circular wooden buildings are really amazing examples of Chinese architecture and cosmology.
We met with our DPRK group, and flew to N Korea. When that trip finished, we had one day and night back in Beijing- more Peking Duck. Then we flew to Monglia. When we returned from Mongolia, we had one night in Beijing before our trip to Tibet. No time for more duck.
When we left Tibet, we took the train from Lhasa to Lanzhou, a medium-sized city pretty much in the middle of China. We chose the train because we wanted to see the scenery as we left Tibet. It was amazing. We went over some pretty high mountain passes. I could feel it in the air as we tried to breathe. The Tibet trains have special glass windows to block out UV Rays, because the atmosphere is so thin. Each cabin has special oxygen hook-ups in case you need it.
Last stop in China was Lanzhou. The city was considered the beginning of the Silk Road for all goods leaving China and heading west. The plateau that the province sits on was also probably one of the first settled parts of China, and has an amazing number of potsherds, early bronze items, etc. Even a large number of dinosaur bones have been found here. They have a pretty good museum with several rooms, so we went to it. The Silk Road, Han Buddhism, fossils, and Neolithic Pottery were all nice exhibits. And it was free. I wholly approve of free museums.
After crossing The Yellow River, we headed to the airport. We will fly via Shanghai and arrive in Seoul on Saturday, May 9. Country #84!
Yak butter tea, yak dumplings (momo), yak curry, yak cheese, yak noodle soup. If it had yak in it, we ate it. Yak butter tea? Super, super salty. I’ll stick with sweet tea from now on. Yak meat? Tastes like cow, just a little fattier. Yak are just cows that have adapted to higher altitudes, one adaptation being long hair, like buffaloes.
You can only visit Tibet as part of an organized tour, and it involves alot of paperwork, including a Chinese visa, a Tibet travel permit, an alien travel permit if you leave Lhasa, and another permit if you’re going mountain hiking. We signed up for a week tour, including two days in Lhasa, then an overland tour to the Nepal border, where we would visit a monastery and either stay there, with a view of Mt Everest, or cross over and actually stay at a “tourist” base camp (not the one the hikers use).
Three days before we were supposed to visit, a massive earthquake hit Kathmandu, which caused an avalanche on Mt. Everest. We checked with our tour company, they said we were good to go to Lhasa, and they would fill in the other days with other sites around Tibet, as the road to Nepal is now closed and likely will be for weeks.
So. We met our guide, and our “group”, which consisted of one other person, a very nice Indonesian lady. On our first full day in the capital city of Lhasa -12,000 feet above sea level- we visited the Potala Palace- traditional home and burial place of the Dalai Lamas- (from the Mongolian words “ocean of wisdom”)- and Jokhang Temple, home of a 7th century statue of Buddha, gift of a Chinese princess to her husband, the King of Tibet. Both places were beautiful, inside and out. My favorite parts were the amazing sand mandalas, so perfect and intricate. We learned about the “butter lamp offerings” that Tibetans give- they bring melted yak butter to the temple and pour it into the lamps there. When Buddhists die, they spend 49 days in darkness, in hell. If you made butter lamp offerings in your lifetime, you wil have a light with you in hell, for comfort. After 49 days, it will be decided whether you go on the “white path” toward enlightenment or the “black path”, away.
Our guide told us all about a Tibetan tradition, the sky burial. When a person dies, the body stays in the home for three days. Then distant family and friends- not close family- take the body to a mountain. They hire a special butcher, who takes out the internal organs, and basically carves up the body. Then carrion birds descend on the body, and within minutes, devour it. Then the bones are placed in a large hollow bowl or rock, and are pounded up, added to the internal organs, plus some barley flour and yak butter, and then the birds have a second feast. People paint a ladder on a rock on a mountain to indicate that their loved one’s soul has ascended.
The next day we visited two monasteries, Sera and Drepung. Being a Friday, we could watch the monks debate philosophy and religion with each ither. Interesting, but incomprehensible to us, as it was in Tibetan. Over ten thousand monks lived there before the “liberation” of Tibet by the Chinese in 1949. Now only a few hundred monks live in each. It was due to this “liberation” by China that the current Dalai Lama (the 14th) left Tibet in 1959. The “cultural revolution” of China was between 1965-1976 and resulted in about 45% of the religious buildings, art, and works destroyed. The Dalai Lama, age 81, lives in India, and can never return to China/Tibet. His book, “My Land, My People” is illegal here. Also, Brad Pitt is banned from China for his role in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”.
Aside from the Dalai lama, the second highest lama is the Penchan Lama, meaning “all seeing one”. Chances are good that the two lamas won’t both die in the same two year period, so the one spearheads the search for the reincarnation of the other. This takes place two years after the lama dies, and involves multiple examinations of two year old boys in certain regions. Unfortunately, the current (11th) reincarnation of the Penchan Lama was chosen by the Chinese government without all the required Tibetan tests, and he resides in Beijing. He comes to Tibet for one month every year, but the Tibetans are reluctant to welcome him. So the Chinese made a rule that two from each family must come to welcome him each year or you wil be fined.
The next day we drove out to Namtso Lake, a sacred salt lake very high up in the mountains (5190 meters). We had to pass six checkpoints to get there. The Chinese don’t mess around. Amazing scenery, with mountains over 7000 meters next to us and snow everywhere. The Himalayas in the background, with Bhutan on the other side, and yaks decorated with ribbons and bells, plowing the fields.
The following day we went to Yamdrok Lake, another sacred lake. We brought along some prayer flags to hang. The five colors mean: blue for sky, white for clouds, green for river, yellow for earth, and red for fire. Our guide wrote our names and family and friends’ on them, said a Buddhist prayer, and we hung them in the wind. The Buddhist term for prayer flags come from the word lungta, Tibetan for “horse” and “wind”. Your good luck is supposed to gallop along the wind like a horse. You can also buy small prayer cards and throw them in the wind.
Traditional Tibetans have a fascinating style of dress. Not since Myanmar have we seen a culture that is still so unique, so shielded from western dress (even North Koreans basically wear pants or skirts, and blouses). Here, the Lhasa women wear black or brown, narrow wrap around skirts that go to their feet. On top of that they wear a narrow striped apron, usually in earthy colors, also to their feet. When it is cold, they wear a sheepskin coat, with the fur on the inside, and a canvas or heavy cotton backing on the outside, black to draw in the sun. The women and the men grow their hair long, and braid ribbons, cloth, bells, or cowrie shells into their hair, and then pull the whole thing up and do some kind of wrap around the head thing with their hair, Star Wars fashion. Many Tibetans have very rosy cheeks, a kind of permanent rosacea from the sun and the wind. Women often wear hospital face masks over their nose and lips to protect from the sun, and the men often wear a kind of cowboy hat. They resemble Peruvians. Tibetans over 80 years old wear a white vest with a sun and moon embroidered on it to indictate their age and status. Women from other provinces wear a thicker, sari-type garment wrapped and tied with a bright sash, and some wear a quilted dress/coat that is edged with bright colors and belted.
On Monday we drove towards eastern Tibet, to visit the first building that was ever built there, in the second century AD. People from the east are pretty poor, and when they visit the temples near them, or they pilgrimage to Lhasa, they bring offerings of yak butter, salt, sorghum, tea, or firewood. If they have nothing, they bring pure clear water from the mountain streams. Many of the provincial Tibetans make a pilgrimage to Lhasa every year, where they walk around main temples three times. Some of the really devout ones do the whole circuit in prostrations. They take three steps, then kind of dive towards the flagstones, doing a sort of body slide of 2-4 feet if they have a good slide going. They wear leather aprons to keep their clothes from being torn up, and I think it helps with the slide. They wear wooden or metal blocks on their hands, which they clap together over their heads, then on the ground at their shoulders, then on the ground at their mid sections. Then they stand up, and repeat. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, sliiiide, clap clap clap, mumble a prayer, repeat. They must have abs of steel. It takes hours to go around once.
Our last monastery was on Tuesday, Samye Monastery, built in the 8th century, in a combined Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian style. Lots of Buddha statues in here, and also butter mandalas, like the sand ones but vertical and made from butter mixed with sorghum flour and coloring, kind of like a fondant. Some are pretty amazing, and in January’s Butter Festival, they make huge, 20 meter high towers of butter, with all kinds of decorations and carvings. Tibetans believe that more colors equals more good luck.
And that is Tibet. Tomorrow we take a 24 hour train to Lanzhou, China, on the Silk Road. We probably should have flown, but we like sleeper trains, and we wanted to see the scenery of Eastern Tibet. I will finish up my China blog and post then, so be on the lookout. On Saturday we fly to Seoul, Korea.
With a hankering to try mare’s milk and see the world’s largest equestrian statue, we decided to include Mongolia on our trip. It’s a two hour direct flight from Beijing, and we had a week to kill between our North Korea tour and a planned tour to Tibet. We would have liked to take the train to Mongolia, but it takes two days and also we would have had to wait a day or two to start the train journey, so it would have cut our time in-country very short.
So. We flew from Beijing to Ulaan Battar (after an 8 hour delay due to “weather”), and got to our hostel. The flight flew in over the Gobi Desert and it was amazing to see it from the air. The next day we went to Terelj National park, a beautiful, empty place out on the steppes. We hiked around, rode some horses, and stayed in a ger, which is the same as a yurt (the Turkish word for a round, felt house that can be moved from place to place). A lady named Anna cooked our meals and showed us how to work the wood fired stove (it was pretty cold at night!). It was really lovely out there.
In the city of Ulaan Battar, we visited various Ginghis Khan related places. Lots of giant statues of him all over the place. Including a giant- world’s largest- equestrian statue of Ginghis riding a horse, covered in steel plates. You can even take an elevator up to the horse’s head and stand up there, seeing for miles around, snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Ulaan Battar, surprisingly, has some pretty good food options. We had Russian food, Turkish food, and Mongolian food while we were here. One local specialty is a slightly fermented drink made from mare’s milk. It wasn’t terrible, it tasted like drinking sour cream or yogurt. We also had a local dumpling type food called khushuur, made with meat inside, which is sometimes fried and sometimes boiled in milk-tea. Speaking of, we asked about yak butter tea, a famous Mongolian thing, and were told two different things. One person said only the true nomads- way far away- drink that and it’s disgusting and smells horrible. Another person said it’s simply hot tea with yak milk and salt. A yak, after all, is just a very shaggy type of cow.
We visited a beautiful Buddhist monastery called Gandantegchenling. The Mongolian Buddhists share the same kind of Buddhism that Tibetans do, and both countries fought for independence from China. Many Mongolian monasteries were burned down during the Communist Soviet purges of the 1940’s. In addition to Buddhism, many Mongolians are animists, believing in the spirits of nature, such as wind, water, and sky. There are many awaas around the area, which are rock cairns with prayer flags where Mongolian shamans make prayers for good luck or positive outcomes.
The Mongolian National History museum was really informative, with rooms taking the visitor from Paleolithic to modern times, including a section on the Mongol empire of course. Good stuff. We downloaded the 2004 movie Mongol: Rise of an Empire, but we need one with subtitles. It’s supposed to be a pretty good movie about Ginghis Khan.
Later, in The Day That Would Not End, we went to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. The star attraction here is the USS Pueblo, an American ship captured in 1968. I thought Chris’s head was going to pop off during that presentation. Inside the museum was actually pretty cool, with well made models, dioramas, and a really amazing 130 meter long panorama, painted by 45 artists, featuring over 20,000 human figures at some battle that I’m sure the Koreans were victorious at.