#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan

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When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

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#30 How Travel Opened Up My World to Live Music

Travel: Hey, meet “Music Festival”.
Me: Hello, nice to meet you.
Music Festival: Well, lucky us, because the pleasure is ours.

In these times where many people think vinyl discs are for antique collectors, where most of us hardly buy CDs anymore (if we even ever did, and what the hell are ‘singles’ anyway?), sometimes the only ways to show our love for our favourite band and music are to listen to them religiously and regularly and track their progress on their official social media page, checking out new material as they come onto the scene. And then of course, when they go on tour, we scrimp and save and buy the more-often-than-not exorbitant tickets to watch them in the flesh for a measly 2 hour gig.
While I do listen to my music with gusto and passion, I was never one to “go all out”, attend concerts and buy their t-shirts and stuff. For one, I never budgeted for that sort of thing — I was a poor student, plus I grew up as the Napster generation. My love and my support are what that really count, my cynical side thought: they can make their money from people who can actually afford. Continue reading

#29 Thank You for Those False Expectations

I feel the most alive right before visiting a place I’ve never been in my life. I remember myself, sitting on a train heading south towards Lake Constance from Ravensburg (the town where I stayed with my host family), inhaling the familiar scent of leather upholstery mixed with black coffee, staring out at the emerald and sienna and earthy tones of the countryside, and the thing that occupies my mind the most, is imagining what the lake looks like in summertime.

Last time I was nearby, the trees were topped with snowy caps, everywhere, save for the asphalt autobahns and winding roads, was blanketed with a sea of white white white. What shade of blue would the lake be now that it’s summer? Would I still be able to see the mountains in Switzerland? Do the seagulls here squawk like their cousins in Brighton and the French Riviera?

The train slid into the station at Friedrichshafen Station, where I followed the flow of day trippers and bikers and everyone else to the other platform to catch a connecting train heading eastwards to the famed lakeside town of Lindau…

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#12 Eight Lessons On Rail Travel – Beijing, China

Travel Dates: 2 – 7 May 2009

Not many people enjoy reading a descriptive travel piece without any extra value towards their base of knowledge, so I shall give some travel ideas and dish out some advice about going to Beijing  instead. What’s of utmost concern to you, the free and easy traveler? Getting to your destination of choice, before anything else!

Lesson #1: Travel guide books may have some doubtful content, but they are mostly right! Believe what Lonely Planet says, at least the travel advice!

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We sit, we stand, we whine and we grumble…in the hard seat carriage

My journey to Beijing is an exhausting, close to hellish, train ride, but nevertheless rather ‘adventurous’ and thus made it pretty unforgettable indeed. It did occur to me to book tickets in advance, but since we decided to take the train from Shenzhen (China) instead of Hung Hom (Hong Kong), we needed to buy them in Shenzhen. And we didn’t want to make the extra trip across the border, so we just simply hoped there were tickets to Beijing while we arrived in Shenzhen. Bad move, because there weren’t ANY seats left, let alone sleepers! Booking train tickets in China can be a bitch, so unless you go to a travel agent, you can’t get return tickets, because tickets are only sold at the point of departure. The only good thing is that we paid RMB260 for a one-way ticket, and that’s half the price of a hard-sleeper and near 1/10 of a plane ticket. Money saved in exchange for some physical hardship. Aah, come on, this is what travelling is ALL about! :)

Lesson #2: Always buy tickets in advance to avoid surprises and potentially uncomfortable situations, and especially if you can’t bear to stand throughout a 24-hour train ride.

We were determined to get our asses to Beijing the next day, so in the spirit of adrenaline-charged adventure, we bought a “no seat” ticket, which is essentially just a standing space confined to a particular carriage on the train. This proved to be a challenge, especially the culture shock at first. When Lonely Planet mentioned that hard seaters could be quite unbearable and not for the uninitiated, they were absolutely right. In a narrow aisle space of less than 50cm along the carriage stood at least 25-30 people who all purchased “no seat” tickets.

Lesson #3: Know your threshold before you embark on an adventurous journey.

After 1-2 hours of standing, and with the prospect of standing for another 23 hours at the back of our minds, we decided to sit in the aisle, while people continued to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisle, going to the extremely unsanitary bathroom, or just near the doors for a smoke. It was warm and stuffy, people were eating and YELLING at each other (no fear, this is how Chinese people conduct a cordial conversation). The smoke from both ends of the carriage wafted in and filled the space, since there was civic mindedness in people to close the carriage doors. On top of this olfactory annoyance, there would be annoying standing passengers who would plonk their butt down onto a seat they didn’t pay for, and ask a paid seated passenger to scoot aside to make space, and they usually do because they want to avoid making a scene. Essentially this means that you won’t be spared from having your private space invaded even if you DID manage to secure a hard seat for yourself. For the pampered tourist, this would be the part where you will flung your prissy ass across the tracks and contemplate suicide because you won’t be able to stand this nonsense.

Lesson #4: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

Very soon, adversity forced us to learn the Chinese way. Whenever someone stood up to use the bathroom, we would take their seats until they return to give us the evil eye, of which we would promptly ignore and dismiss. Close to nighttime, after 10 hours of sitting/crouching/standing like an illegal immigrant smuggling into another country, we decided to conquer some space, and sat at someone’s seat and just refused to get up, managing to get 2 hours’ of nap while the rightful passengers stood and watched us (rather patiently, in fact). At this point, I realized that these people must be regulars in these situations and they are quite nice indeed to not have demanded for their seats back, knowing that standing passengers have much rougher time on the ride than they do.

Lesson #5: Be flexible and willing to part with a little money for some precious slumber.

We didn’t learn the Chinese way quick enough though. By 2am, we felt the exhaustion settling in and we were desperate to look for a place to sleep. Looked for the train conductor in hopes of upgrading to a sleeper. No luck… Decided to go to sleep in the restaurant car instead. Passengers need to be paying customers in order to stay there, so we paid RMB35 each for the standard snack set they had on the menu to earn the right to stay until 6am. I later learnt that we could actually spend that RMB35 and stay in the restaurant car from 10pm to 6am, but it was good enough for us to have a bit of personal space for 4 hours. Even though the seats were too short length-wise and a little hard in spite of the padding, I promptly fell asleep, curled up like a fetus, only awoken by a crick in the neck…

Lesson #6: The beautiful moments on a journey are transient and unpredictable, when they appear, just sit back and enjoy.

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Sunrise, sunrise…

The sun began peeking out from beneath the flurry clouds at a little before 6am. The scenery of the countryside was dream-like and whimsically beautiful. A thick blanket of fog shrouded the rolling plains of farmland somewhere 8 hours south of Beijing, around one-third of the journey left (near Jinan perhaps?). The sunrise was spectacular, since we were facing seawards towards the east. The weather was balmy and crisp, very promising for a great day out in the city…though it was really too early to tell since we were still far from reaching our destination. We were recharged even though we barely slept, but the little shuteye and the prospect of actually surviving this “worth a story-telling session” train ride perked us up and gave us the strength we needed to endure till the end. Continue reading

#11 “Are You Chinese?” (你是中国人吗)? – Dubai, UAE

Travel Date: 10 Dec 2009

I had a 26-hour stopover in Dubai on an Emirates flight on my way to visit my boyfriend in France, and I planned to spend some time to see this city of gold rather than sitting around in the airport terminal which really resembled a classy shopping mall more than anything else.

After a grimy afternoon traipsing along the creek and having sand and dust blown in my face every now and then, I decided to explore the ethnic enclaves near Al Satwa and Al Rigga, upstream of the creek from the more popular Deira area. For people who are more familiar with the sparkling skyscapers and beautiful manmade islands of Dubai, these urban neighbourhoods where the locals make merry and pick up cheap haberdasheries are probably very much unheard of.

I didn’t want to spend a bomb on dinner in this notoriously expensive city, especially having known that there are a lot of delicious local Arabian food to be had in this vibrant area. In the day, the stifling heat sent everyone scurrying for respite, but at night, it was an oasis brimming of colorful lights, street vendors hawking affordable wares and people, mostly men, hurrying along the streets, running errands and doing some evening shopping. I only planned to stay in the area for an hour or so, just to get a quick bite and a feel of the place before heading off to more familiar landscapes like the Dubai Mall, and also knowing that it wouldn’t be entirely appropriate for a young foreign girl to be wandering the streets in a rather complicated neighbourhood where the population consists of a complex mishmash of workers from Africa and South Asia and low-income families. Continue reading

#10 Lady on the Minibus – Hong Kong, China

Travelling to foreign places can be an exciting and daunting experience for many, let alone wandering the unfamiliar labyrinths of new cities alone. I was in this situation myself a few times, walking around a city by myself, guidebook and map tucked safely away in my tote bag, hoping that I’d never have to pull them out and risk looking like a fresh-out-of-the-airport tourist. There’s this sense of trepidation, the fear of the unknown, yet at the same time, I felt this rush of satisfaction, knowing that I’m challenging my personal boundaries and building a new me that I never knew I could be.

This story is the first in a series of foreign encounters’ tales I’ll be writing about. Enjoy.

Lady on the Mini-bus in Hong Kong

I was on study abroad at the University of Hong Kong and my hall of residence was 15 minutes away from campus. It was one of the furthest halls away, allocated to me out of a balloting process so I couldn’t complain there. But I must say, those precious 15 minutes that I initially hated ended up featuring some of the most interesting fleeting moments I experienced in the city.

I was, as usual, running super late again, and missed the shuttle bus that I could have taken for only 2 dollars with a student bus coupon. Dang, I thought, as I hurried down to the minibus-stop at the side of the road, frantically tossing back the black and white scarf that was unraveling off my neck. Hopped onto Bus No. 8, eagerly awaiting the bus to move so I can for once get to class before the mid-lecture break. Three stops later, a lady with a heavily-tanned complexion from many happy days in the sun and sunglasses atop her coiffure plopped down on the seat across the narrow aisle next to me and gave me the kind of once-over that would make anyone uncomfortable.

I was happily chatting away on my cellphone with a friend, so I smiled nervously at her and quickly glanced away. After I put down my phone, she started talking to me in a mixture of English and Tagalog, and couldn’t stop for the next 5 minutes while I looked at her with an incredulous expression on my face. Realizing finally that I didn’t quite understand anything she said, she asked, “Are you from Indonesia? Are you working here?” Continue reading