China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.

 


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.


While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.


I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.


As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.


Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

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Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

Africa · Books

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

Books

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage- book review

My last book review was about my first Orhan Pamuk novel and this one about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is my first Haruki Murakami novel. It’s not like I never heard of this famous Japanese writer, but I just never got around to getting a hold of one of his books.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a 30-something engineer who designs train stations in Tokyo and lives a fairly simple and somewhat dull but satisfying life. But in his teen years in high school in Nagoya, he had a fantastic friendship with four others, two guys and two girls, during which they basically spent time only with each other. They were so close they never cultivated friends with others nor did they even date anyone, because they didn’t want to break the group by bring in outsiders or changing the friendship dynamic if they dated each other. However after going to Tokyo for university, on a trip back to Nagoya, Tsukuru suddenly gets a call from one of his friends telling him to stay away and to never contact them again. Tsukuru is so stunned he accepts it without questions and from then on, never sees them. While this weighs on his mind, he cannot bear to figure out why it happened. However, now in his 30s, his girlfriend senses that the sudden breakup and ostracisation still haunts Tsukuru and she urges him to find out the reason why it happened, by confronting those former friends.

It says something about Murakami that while Tsukuru may live up to his “colorless” description, which he agrees with but actually stems from the fact all four of his ex-friends have colours in part of their surnames while he doesn’t, the story is still compelling enough to keep you entranced to find out just what was the reason for Tsukuru’s expulsion. However, while Tsukuru’s life may seem a little sad and empty, he has come to accept it and even when he was part of the group, he felt like an interloper at times, being self-conscious of his unremarkable personality. The melancholy mood of the story is softened by the key presence of music and art, from the piano piece favored both by a college friend and one of his former female friends to the pottery created by another one of his female ex-friends after her school years.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but I will say the reason was shocking and disturbing, and that in a sense, it did not resolve some of the underlying issues. Eventually, Tsukuru comes to understand that their five-person friendship was not healthy in some ways, for instance, the existence of pent-up romantic urges, though this could not be blamed solely on him, and may have contributed to the break-up. Tsukuru also gets a surprising revelation from one of his former friends about his own character which played a part in the breakup. It is significant that “colorless” Tsukuru was the only one among the group to leave Nagoya to go to university despite his reserved and unremarkable personality, showing sometimes breaking your comfort zone can involve doing something as simple as going to study away from your hometown. This also probably contributed to his eventual expulsion from the group of tightly knit friends.
There are a number of lessons one can draw from Tsukuru and his experience, including that human relations can be fickle and something which may seem strong can suddenly be ended seemingly without any warning. The ending may not be so conclusive either, which fits with the gray and ambivalent overarching theme of Tsukuru’s life.

Books · Travel

Grounded- book review

Christmas is one day away, so enjoy a photo of a very “Imperial” Christmas tree in Taipei, and a book review. Merry Christmas everyone.
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In Grounded – A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, a couple circumnavigate the world by train, bus and ship, without ever going on a plane.
They do this because, according to author Seth Stevenson in the detailed intro: “We despise planes and all they stand for,” (we being him and his girlfriend). As a result, starting from the US, they cross the Atlantic in a container cargo ship, take the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Siberia, go from Japan to China through SE Asia to Australia by ferry, bike, and train, cross the Pacific on a luxury cruise liner, then go across the US by train to where they started from.

The journey sounds like an ordeal but Stevenson pulls it off rather smoothly, despite relying on desperate last-minute luck a couple of times. The writer makes it sound so easy, so much that the main challenge is often pure boredom such as when they cross the Atlantic in a cargo ship and encounter a week of mostly unchanging scenery.

One drawback about such a journey is that they often stay in major cities for very short times, sometimes leaving on the same day that they’ve arrived. I know sometimes people say it’s more about the journey than the destination, and Stevenson emphasizes this as well, but I’d rather read more about Moscow and Helsinki than just a page or two. Stevenson does admit this problem later in the book, wishing that he could see more of Sydney for instance. Similarly, the two cross Japan and China in a blur. The book breezes by and before you know it, they are back to the USA.

Coincidentally, the most interesting part is also the longest time they spend in a country, when they take part in a biking tour that cycles across Vietnam in 2 weeks. It is the only time they travel with other people in a group and the group dynamics and camaraderie turn out to be quite positive, though not with a judgmental overview about the tour guide at the end that was a bit harsh.

There’s a lot of complaining during the trip, as you’d expect when trips involve overnight train rides on hard seats and dodgy freighters and crossing the Pacific by ship. Stevenson also doesn’t hesitate to be candid about his fellow passengers and is downright insulting about rural mainlanders visiting Beijing. Stevenson’s girlfriend Rebecca is a peripheral character throughout the trip but steadily reliable, and one can think he was lucky to have someone like her. Rebecca is so steadfast that even after Stevenson leaves her behind in Singapore to run onto a ferry going to Australia, Rebecca “bears no ill will,” Stevenson assures us, and she flies to Bali to rejoin him on the ship.

Having first mentioned it in the beginning, Stevenson further reiterates his disdain toward flying and stresses how doing that robs travelers of a connection to the world. He explains how the ease of flying has taken the charm out of travel and led to the demise of ocean liners and trains, at least in the US.
He is right on some counts, as air travel has actually become a less luxurious experience (mainly for us plebs who fly economy class) than the past despite becoming more common, such as cramped seat space, long pre-boarding security checks and mediocre food. But the accounts of his ferry and liner trips in this book do not make those modes of transportation sound any more attractive. Props to the author for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific by boat but I feel no desire to do it myself especially after reading how his experiences were.

But weirdly enough, despite all these issues, I enjoyed the book and I found myself wishing that it could have been longer.

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts

Tokyo has a lot of districts, but the most famous and busiest downtown ones should be Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Shinjuku is a large district where the city’s metropolitan government is located, and features some of Tokyo’s tallest highrises. I went up the Metropolitan Government Building tower, which is actually a massive highrise joining together two towers, to take advantage of its free 45th-floor viewing deck. The view was great, taking in neighboring highrises and a vast stretch of the surrounding districts.
At night, it becomes this buzz of luminescent activity including clubs, pachinko parlors, bars and even a red-light district, though this isn’t exactly out of place in Japan. Shinjuku subway station is huge, because it consists of different platforms for different lines, and I actually got a little lost – I couldn’t find the platform for the subway to go back to my hotel and kept walking around in circles – and had to ask an employee for help. He couldn’t speak English but he helpfully directed me in the right direction. It remains the one and only time I’ve ever gotten lost inside a subway.

Shibuya is a well-known shopping district but is famous for something weird – a street crossing that is the world’s busiest. That’s because when the lights turn red, pedestrians from several directions converge creating a special sight. I admit I went there in the evening specifically to see the crossing in effect. The intersection is surrounded by brightly lit stores, buildings and large ads that create a spectacle similar to Times Square in New York. I wasn’t the only one there taking pictures though, and there were even a few Western tourists recording it! This crossing was seen in Lost in Translation, the movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two American strangers in Tokyo who become close friends for a few days.
Those were also the only two downtown districts I visited since with only four days, I had to limit which places I went to in this vast city.

I also dropped by Akihabara, the famous tech and manga neighborhood, twice, but didn’t spend too much time there. I saw the manga and maid cafes, with girls dressed as maids handing out flyers in the streets, and I went into a couple of stores.
My flight back to Taiwan was on AirAsiaJapan at 7.45 am, so I had to race to take the subway and then the airport bus to make it on time or face having to take the taxi which would have cost about US$200. I arrived with just about an hour to spare, but I wasn’t the only AirAsia passenger to do so since the line at the counter was really long. The flight was uneventful but I remember the flight attendants were very, very attractive.
So, this is it for my 2013 Japan trip series. Thankfully, I’ve finished it before the end of 2015!

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Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Shinjuku, which houses educational institutions
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Shinjuku at night
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Approaching Shibuya Crossing
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The lights turn red and this massive collection of humanity flows in all directions 
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Back in Shinjuku
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Tokyo Government Municipal Building, headquarters of the metro government
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