When it comes to feelings about the desert, there really is no indecision. You are either in or out. There is no in-between. Some see it as a wasteland, hot, arid and forbidding. Sand, sky and scrub. Certainly not worth visiting, much less living in. Others see it as everything they have ever dreamed of. A perfectly blank canvas where they can create any story their imagination can render. A vast landscape of endless opportunity whose only limit is one’s own vision. The latter are the people who made Palm Springs.
Utilizing what they had, the first visionaries took advantage of the hot dry air and natural thermal baths. Imagining cures for a host of conditions amongst the cactus, smoke trees and palms they built curative spas designed to give sufferers hope. People came from all over the country to spend time resting and rehabilitating in the shadows of the towering San Jacinto mountains that tower over the surrounding area.
The 1930’s were a time when America’s Wild West was long gone but Hollywood westerns were all the rage. Enterprising Palm Springs entrepreneurs found ways to cater to the desires of city slickers who wanted to experience an era they had missed. They founded ranches where visitors could come and spend time riding horses, working with cattle or just eating hearty food around a roaring campfire. Singing songs by a chuck wagon fulfilled the romantic dreams of these “dudes” who wanted to spend days riding the range and nights camping under the brilliant stars that are still visible today.
Hollywood made many of these western movies in the rugged canyons nearby Palm Springs. The stars took a liking to the laid-back lifestyle and word got around quickly that life in the desert provided an opportunity to let loose without the prying eyes of the Hollywood gossip machine. The Tennis and Racquet Clubs were popular and massive pools provided the perfect landscape for a decadent cocktail culture. Glamour was king as large Spanish Revival mansions began to sprout in the downtown area. The Movie Colony, Las Palmas and Mesa neighborhoods roster of residents began to read like a whos-who of popular celebrities of the time.
The celebrities wanted entertainment and enterprising impresarios provided it. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs opened in the downtown area. Ritzy hotels provided luxurious surroundings for those who wanted to reside temporarily. Casinos, technically illegal, opened in the nearby deserts. The mafia made inroads. Bands played, liquor flowed and people danced late into the night to big band sounds. Visitors commonly reported VIP sightings. Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were just a few of the luminaries frequently seen around the town.
The post World War II era was a time of prosperity and change for Americans. Many found financial opportunities that hadn’t existed in their life previously. They wanted to live the good life. Relax, live a little and enjoy a bit of luxury that hadn’t been available for the masses for a long time. Freeways were built throughout the country that made travel easier. The space race made people dream a little bigger. Palm Springs was advertised as easy to reach luxury for the common man. Hotels were built with massive pools heated by endless sunshine and shaded by towering palms. People arrived in masses. Fashionable stores opened along wide boulevards to cater to their desires. A casual style was popular. Tiki bars, Hawaiian shirts, dark sunglasses and cocktails in the evening with friends.
Many people who sampled what Palm Springs offered wanted more. They were easily enticed to establish at least a part-time residence. These new jet-setters weren’t interested in old styles. A new style of architecture that matched the era was needed. A modern style of flat roofs, large pools and glass-walled opulence that broke down the barrier between outdoor and indoor living became all the rage. Large tracts of affordable houses with high designs were built by competing architects and builders. Maybe no place in America better displayed what the “future” might be like. Abundant enthusiasm was everywhere.
In the surrounding area vast palm lined golf courses, a dizzying 120 for a population of just 500,000, were built. The neighboring desert communities of Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta were expanded and developed. Gated communities lined the wide roads named after celebrities. Houses were built along the fairways, designed for affordable luxury and a relaxed country club lifestyle that seemed possible even for common people. A place to celebrate their hard earned success after a life of work. The deserts lack of water seemed distant as 1 pool was built for every 4 people and air conditioning helped combat the afternoon heat. Year-long tans were possible. Long imagined dreams were coming true. A comfortable retirement could be had that was filled with entertainment, activity and companionship.
Somewhere Palm Springs lost a bit of its way. Boxed between these newer communities and the towering mountains the city began to be seen as a retirement community. Palm Springs didn’t have the room to expand to meet this new market and perhaps it suffered a little. With the jet age, many of the celebrities drifted to further, more cosmopolitan locales. Palm Springs had always sold a dream and perhaps it lost a bit of its imagination. Perhaps it’s Golden Age had passed. It sat, preserved in the desert heat waiting for a new set of dreamers.
But the desert always welcomes people with visions. Artists rediscovered the area. Members of the LGBT community, sometimes disenfranchised elsewhere, found acceptance. Creative people, often outpriced in other areas of expensive California, found that the low prices of the desert offered opportunities. A new generation of Southern California creatives tricked up the existing hotels, revitalizing them with style reminiscent of their storied past. Stylishly hip young people Instagrammed fun-filled weekends to the world. The popularity of mid-century modern architecture and style drove many to rediscover and restore the vast reservoir of stylish houses found in most neighborhoods. Small motor courts were turned in to exciting hidden enclaves favored by young celebrities and the stylish wealthy. Modern hotels and spas were built, all with a style that tipped it’s hat to the past.
This new Palm Springs is what we found on our month long visit to the desert. We caught the end of the season (anytime avoiding the summer heat). We rented a cool mid-century modern styled apartment in the Racquet Club Estates area near the wonderfully revitalized Riviera Hotel. We found stylish shops to visit along the twin boulevards of Indian Canyon and Palm Canyon Drives. We spent scorching afternoons at happy hours in old-school cocktail bars reminiscent of Rat Pack days or re-imagined Tiki Bars that perfectly capture the colorful past. We visited the coolest retro hotels where we found stylish SoCal hipsters enjoying themselves in football field size pools. We toured uniquely styled houses that have been restored so well that they probably exceed their past glories. People were friendly and welcoming and we enjoyed many conversations in the cool cafes in the stylish downtown area.
Our favorite memory will be the tour of a house for sale next door to Frank Sinatra’s famed Twin Palms estate. Once owned by his lawyer, the layout suggested late-night cocktail parties attended by celebrities partying around the gorgeous pool surrounded by luscious palms. Closing our eyes for just a minute, we felt we could almost hear Dean, Frank and the rest of the Rat Pack cavorting next door late into the night. We saw a lot of things during our month in Palm Springs that they would certainly recognize and definitely would approve of. We felt the original founders would be proud of the current crop of dreamers that seem to be once again imagining Palm Springs future.
I imagine travel for most people as a well-planned endeavor. Getting the most out of your cherished two weeks off from the daily drudgery is probably some of the most well thought out plans a person makes during the year. Weeks spent searching websites trying to find the perfect hotel, flight and entertainment usually follow months of reading dreamy destination brochures filled with glossy pictures of a glamorous life somewhere on a distant side of the globe. Some seek advice from a travel expert, often a lady behind a desk covered by brochures who seems to have been everywhere and tasted the buffets of every gleaming cruise ship that plies the seven seas. Some attempt to make life simpler by booking a prearranged trip that meets most or all of your travel dreams. Spending more time dreaming and less time studying the details is compelling to those whose busy lives don’t allow much opportunity for the work it takes to plan the perfect trip.
Being on the road continuously means we are nearly always busy learning about and exploring the area where we currently reside. Figuring out public transportation and taking care of our daily needs occupies a large portion of our time. We have become very efficient at fulfilling the necessities and because we normally stay in one area for extended periods we normally have plenty of time to focus on exploration and enough time to plan further travels.
Over the last few months, we have picked up our pace. Our travels through China, Vietnam and Cambodia didn’t allow a lot of time to plan onward travel. In one 4 day period we changed hotels daily. Planning transportation, hotels, meals and things to do started to become less well thought out. Combined with the increasing summer heat our schedule was wearing us out. We increasingly wanted to find a cooler place to stay for a month to rest up and get ready for a planned trip home to California to attend a wedding.
In the last 7 years, we have already surpassed most of our dreams and visited most of the places we ever imagined we would get to experience. We have visited nearly every country in Asia that interested us. Looking at the map, we had thoughts of seeing the Philippines but checking the weather report found it was already hot. Singapore looked fun but we thought it might be small for a whole month. We had never thought of visiting South Korea. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go, we just hadn’t considered it. Like most Americans, I don’t think we knew much about the country. We knew of the war almost 70 years ago. We knew we liked kimchi and we didn’t like the Gangnam song. A weather check said that it was still quite cool. The flight from Phnom Penh to Seoul was inexpensive (as long as we didn’t mind a long delay in Kuala Lumpur). A cheap flight was available for our return to the U.S. We made a quick and virtually uninformed choice and booked an apartment and flights to Seoul.
After the heat of Cambodia, the morning air at Incheon Airport felt positively brisk. We nodded in and out of sleep after boarding the hour-long commuter train to Seoul. We passed along the coastline on the clean and modern train. Our destination was Seoul Station where we would catch a taxi to our apartment. After a no sleep night in Kuala Lumpur we were anxious to get to our new home. We were staying in the Gangnam area which until now was just a song title. We now knew that “Gang” means river and “nam” means south in Korean, so we were staying just south of the Han River in a nice suburban area.
We managed to hang on until after filling the house with groceries and getting unpacked before taking well-deserved naps. When we awoke the next morning we were ready to begin our visit. We found Seoul to be a huge city of 10 million inside an even larger metropolitan area that hosts 25 million people which is about half of the total population of South Korea.
Seoul is an ancient city but has not always been known by its current name. We decided to make the massive National Museum of Korea one of our first visits. The museum showed us the history of Korea and displayed an excellent collection of art and artifacts from ancient to modern times. We also spent most of a day at the excellent Seoul Museum of History which focused solely on the interesting history of this ancient city. Different rooms had displays that followed the life of the citizens from times past until modern days. Both museums were excellent and free and easily reached by Seoul’s huge subway system that transports its citizens virtually anywhere they want to go in the city.
The city began to warm as spring temperatures and bright skies brought people out to enjoy the changing seasons. Seemingly overnight trees blossomed all over the city. The excitement was contagious as we walked along the river or through some of the many vast parks as everyone seemed to be out enjoying the sunshine. The most popular of the blossoms were the beautiful cherry trees that lined many streets. Many people dressed in brightly colored traditional costumes called Hanbok were out and posing with the trees strategically placed in the background.
Korea had a difficult 20th century. Japan occupied the country from the early part of the century until after World War II. After the war, the country was divided by the superpowers and soon after the devastating war destroyed much of their country and killed millions. We visited the War Memorial which gave us an excellent understanding of the war and the conditions that lead up to it. With much of the world’s attention focused on this area now our visit to the War Memorial gave us unique insights into current events.
Many of Seoul’s historic buildings were damaged or destroyed during the 1900’s. South Korea has made great efforts to preserve what is left and reconstruct many of the most important buildings. Our visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace was a perfect example. The main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the palace once had 7700 rooms and 500 buildings. Mostly destroyed during the Japanese occupation and left in ruins after the war, many of the buildings have been beautifully rebuilt using traditional means.
When we visited, South Korea had just hosted the Winter Olympic in Pyeongchang. In 1988 Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics and many of the parks and stadiums are open to visit or attend a game in. We visited Olympic Park and enjoyed walking amongst many of the stadiums that were built for the games. The Olympic museum is located in the park and told the entire story of the games. Later we visited the Sports Complex area where the main Olympic Stadiums were built. The two professional baseball teams in town were having their rivalry games at the big stadium and we had fun in the atmosphere the fans created for the game. Baseball is very popular in South Korea and the fans are famous for their boisterous enthusiasm.
Seoul is very modern and a shoppers paradise. We visited several huge malls during our stay. The Lotte World Mall area that surrounds the Lotte Tower was worth a visit. The tower is the 5th tallest building in the world and when viewed at night when it is lit is quite the sight. Another building we visited was the Dongdaemun Design Plaza located in downtown that hosts an art museum and features some of the most modern architecture anywhere we have been.
We enjoyed our stay in Seoul. We found it very modern with a great appreciation for their past. The city is extremely clean and organized. Transportation is easy by subways or buses. We found the people reserved but very helpful when we interacted with them. We didn’t get as much chance to enjoy the food as we would have liked. Seoul wasn’t the cheapest place we have visited but it was mostly affordable with plenty of things to do for free.
We were happy we picked South Korea. With as little effort as we made to research our choice, we felt we could not have picked a better last stop in our Asian travels.
We arrived on the tarmac at Siem Reap airport just after dark on a warm, humid night much as we had 14 years before. It had been a quick flight from Hanoi. After 6 weeks in frozen China and a month in the pleasant temperatures of Vietnam the heat shocked us. We and our fellow passengers quickly stripped off sweaters and coats that most had brought on the plane.
While our arrival was much the same, it was quickly apparent that not much else was. Cambodia was not on most people’s travel radar in 2004. The immigration area of the terminal was much smaller at the time. We vividly remembered the row of baggy suited officers sitting in a row with grim faces who scrutinized our passports and begrudgingly passed them to the next equally rumpled staffer for approval. None ever made eye contact and all seemed imposing.
Now replaced by a modern chaotic facility filled with foreign faces packing the roped queues, the officials seemed more interested in collecting the visa on arrival fee of US 30 dollars each than scrutinizing passports. No dollars in your wallet? No problem, the convenient ATM spits out crisp 100 dollar bills right at the counter.
Just as we had bee 14 years before, we were met by a tuk-tuk and quickly transported down the bumpy road toward town. Other than the tuk-tuk, nothing else was the same. What was once a backwater town of mostly dirt roads is now a bustling city of bright lights, paved roads and every kind of diversion a tourist could think of. Massive hotels line the airport road, interspersed by restaurants, bars, nightclubs and massage parlors all doing brisk business to large crowds of westerners and Chinese tourist groups. Everything was still rough around the edges but nothing was as we remembered.
Of course everyone who visits Siem Reap is probably interested in visiting the amazing Angkor temples. Single and multi-day passes are available but are quite expensive. Where once we were limited by time, money is our current limiter and so we selected the mid-priced 3 day pass. We limited our visit this time to specific temples and were primarily interested in photographing them.
The weather was so shockingly hot we had trouble leaving the air conditioner in our modern hotel. So much so that it took 7 days to use our 3 day pass. We thought that by visiting in the late afternoons we could avoid the crowds and have better light to photograph the temples. Not so. Where Angkor was once off the beaten track for normal tourists it is now firmly on the mass tourism circuit. Angkor Wat is the most spectacular of the sites and we chose it as our first stop. The crowds were huge, all groups and wilted single travelers. Everyone seemed sweated through and most were in various stages of fatigue. Everything from slightly slowed down to those who had given up and were just sitting in any shade they could find. The site was still amazing, but it was so overwhelmed that it was difficult to really enjoy. Even photography was challenging as every view was swarmed by selfie taking singles or group posers in front of anything attractive.
Over the days we also visited the Bayon at Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm and a few of the smaller temples near Ta Prohm. The smallest of the temples were the most fun as they were the only ones where we could beat the crowds and have any type of feeling that the original explorers must have felt.
On the days not spent at the temples we made our way around town. On our earlier visit we had trouble finding much to do. The famous backpacker watering hole “Angkor What?” was once located on a dirt road with nothing around it. It is now surrounded by hundreds of brightly lit restaurants and bars on the so called “Pub Street”. Any type of food from Mexican to Italian to Japanese can now be found in the ceiling fan cooled patio restaurants along the streets. Bars, from tiny local joints to laser lit discos, fill up the rest of the area. Three night markets surround the area and plenty of street vendors take up any other space not used. We found a few less obtrusive places to enjoy a few beers, but mostly found cheap and delicious food in other areas of town nearer to our hotel. We did get a chance to visit the classic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor which was the original hotel in town and enjoyed a beer from the veranda overlooking the river at the Foriegn Correspondents Club.
After a little more than a week we decided to move on. Prior to arriving in Cambodia, we hadn’t made any specific plans past Angkor and didn’t really know where to go. Some people we met seemed to enjoy Battambang and so we decided to catch a bus there. We were told it was less touristy than Siem Reap and we looked forward to the opportunity to ditch the tourist crowds and perhaps get to see some of the “real” Cambodia.
Battambang was surprisingly larger than Siem Reap. To be honest we didn’t find much to do. At one time their was the so called “bamboo train” that was popular to ride. The railway has been repaired for real trains and it no longer runs. A bat cave looked interesting but proved to be quite distant and we decided not to visit. The bat cave has millions of bats that leave the cave at sunset and might have been fun. Most tours combine it with the nearby “Killing Caves” from the Khmer Rouge time and we really did not want to visit any of these grim reminders of the past.
It didn’t really leave much to see. The heat increased but we still managed to spend some time walking around town and along the river in the cooler evenings. We were surprised to find lots of excellent bargain priced restaurants and spent many morning, afternoons and evenings in the quiet cafes enjoying delicious Khmer food along with many western choices. A few art galleries in town were interesting and we spent some time visiting.
Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh. After another long bus ride through the countryside we arrived to this modern Metropolis of about 7 million. Hotels were popping up everywhere and the city gave off a look of a combination of Bangkok and Hanoi. We stayed outside of the tourist area around the river and very close to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Our room was on the 9th floor so we had excellent views over the city from our balcony. Because Tuol Sleng is a popular stop with visitors many restaurants have opened in the area and it was convenient to get out to restaurants during the day.
In the interest of truth in travel, we didn’t do much in Phnom Penh and probably wasted an opportunity. After 12 weeks of backpacking around China, Vietnam and Cambodia we were spent. Every time we got motivated to go anywhere the heat deterred us from anything but going out to eat. We found a nice expat bar close to the hotel where many of the young westerners in town for work gather in the evenings for beer and we spent some time hanging out there. We found long lunches and dinners in the local cafes to be relaxing and to be enough time spent out of the hotel during the hot days and evenings.
Even though we were 1 block from the Tuol Sleng (S21) Genocide Museum and could literally see it from our balcony, we chose not to visit. Cambodia seems to be moving quickly away from it’s tragic past and we thought perhaps we wanted to remember the country for what we saw during our visit and not for what it was in the late 1970’s.
Unfortunately, I feel we may look back on Cambodia as a missed opportunity. Of all the countries we have visited in the last 7 years this is the one we learned the least about. It is partly because of the way we have been travelling for the last few months. Living in hotels and eating in restaurants is not our preferred way of travel. Especially in countries like Cambodia we felt as if we were always surrounded by other tourists and were confined to see things designed for them. Angkor was still impressive but we found it overrun. Everyone seemed to speak English and Cambodians seem very friendly and good natured so we should have been able to have some good conversations. But we didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the heat or travel burnout or just a general lack of ambition.
Cambodia has changed a lot in the 14 years since we first visited. I seems like a country moving in the right direction. The people seem happy, but to be honest I leave the country not really knowing for sure. We have one more country to visit on this Asian leg of our endless journey. It will be cooler and perhaps we will find our enthusiasm again. I hope so.
There are places we know we will return to. Like unfinished love affairs, they live in the corners of our mind, waiting to be rekindled. Over time the images move through our dreams, usually altered by time and further experiences. As we add distance the colors may become brighter, the smells more intense and the tastes more vibrant. We find these places returning to our conscience thought when we discuss travels or tell stories of our earlier life. We recall them with smiles on our faces and excitement in our voices. We realize we would like to have another opportunity to see if our memories match reality. Could actuality match the misty recollections we visualize in our thoughts?
We traveled to Vietnam in 2004. We were younger and far less experienced travelers then. We moved faster, collecting places and countries with a rapidity that didn’t always allow for much introspection. Occasionally a place would resonate louder than others but lack of time, family needs and work commitments didn’t allow us the opportunity to fully see the destinations we had traveled to. The deep greens of the rice paddies, the colors of the rivers, the warmth of the humid air and the smiles of the people stayed in our thoughts. We wanted to return but other places called more aggressively for our attention. It took us 14 years to have the time and opportunity to return. As we sat in the chilly winter mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, we realized the time had come to see if our dreams were true.
We caught a flight from Kunming, China to Hoi An, Vietnam…. Honest smiles…
Sitting on our balcony early on our first day we already felt it. The warmth of the cloudy morning felt wonderful. For the first time in 2 months, our skin was not covered by extra layers for warmth. Watching the town wake up was instantly enchanting, Motorscooters filled the morning, busily taking adults, children, packages and even pets to destinations unseen from our sidestreet perch. We felt a contagious energy that caused us to immediately take notice.
Hoi An seemed the perfect place to begin our exploration of Vietnam. Perhaps a calm before the busyness began. We spent 6 days wandering the streets enjoying the cool of the mornings and evenings and happily welcoming the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.
We wandered through the riverside market, enjoyed relaxed coffee filled afternoons in cafes hidden down quiet alleyways, and evening strolls along the river or food cart lined backstreets. The warm golden glow from the yellow buildings of the French inspired old town was gorgeous and cast a wonderful light on sunset walks through the narrow streets. The food was excellent. Watching the tourist boats at sunset from the bridge that crosses the tiny river was captivating. Thousands of tiny candles flickered amongst the boats on the water as the lantern-lit buildings reflected in the water.
Unlike our earlier visit, the town has grown and has definitely been discovered by the tourist hoards that overfill the most popular shopping areas. We found that, with a little effort, it was easy enough to still find the honest smiles of the local people we so fondly remembered from our dreams. We felt there was a distinct possibility of this city being overrun by poor development and mass tourism. Still, whether we were in our hotel, walking on the back streets or just watching the local population from a cafe on a tree-lined street, we sensed a happy people who were satisfied with their situation. When we smiled, people smiled back. When we talked to people they warmly responded with good words and thoughts. We found Hoi An to be the perfect start for our journey.
Well developed streets are common in any city in the world. You may find a market, a butcher shop, a 30 seat restaurant or a motorcycle repair shop. Some may have a poultry farm, barber shop, a daycare and a construction company. A rare few may even have a seafood company. I found all of these on our street outside our hotel in Hanoi. The street was actually a 40-meter alleyway and none of these enterprises had a permanent storefront or office. They existed in and on the alley and all did a bustling business.
As we made our way around the city, we realized our alleyway was not at all uncommon. The wide sidewalks of the Old Quarter of Hanoi are filled with makeshift entrepreneurs. Motorcycles are parked by attendants on every available space. The trees that line the streets provide shade to portable plastic seat restaurants turning out tasty treats of every kind from single charcoal grills tended by the most efficient cooks anywhere we have traveled.
The traffic is overwhelming and not mastered without effort. With time, what appears like madness becomes manageable. The motorcycles are like droplets in a neverending flow of a great river. The occasional car or bus is interspersed in the tide. Bicycles, trishaws and cart vendors fill in any available space that might remain.
On first attempt, crossing this rushing river feels more like running with the bulls than crossing a street. It doesn’t seem even Moses could part this sea. You learn that to cross, you must become your own droplet and carefully migrate your way in small increments.Being aware overcomes being scared. Newcomers are easy to spot by their inability to manage. When mastered you feel as a bullfighter must when he is in the ring. He must trust his ability and manage his fear. Once mastered, you can begin to enjoy this city of constant movement. It is unique and beautiful and over the 10 days we stayed here on 3 different occasions during our travels in the north and it became our favorite. We learned to love the city for what it is, an energy-filled city as fascinating and exciting as any.
We arrived by bus to the first destination we had not previously visited. A three-hour bus ride took us through first the outskirts of Hanoi and eventually rice fields in the process of being planted. We had planned a homestay in the countryside near the city of Ninh Binh. The bus driver said he knew the area and would drop us off near our home for the next few days. We eventually passed an area of beautiful limestone karst that jutted abruptly from rice fields. Workers with conical hats maneuvered buffalo pulled plows in some fields while large groups of others hand planted each new rice sprout. It was gorgeous and was the perfect picture of Vietnam we had been seeking.
The driver spotted a sign that listed our homestay at a crossroads. The sign said 0 kilometers and he indicated this was the place. All we saw was an ancient graveyard surrounded by towering palm trees in the middle of flooded rice fields. Before we had time to gather our thoughts that something must be wrong, our bags were unloaded from the bus and the bus drove on towards its destination.
We walked through the arched entrance to the graveyard and didn’t know what to do. We have stayed in some crazy places in our time, but we saw nothing that looked like the pictures we had seen on the internet. Luckily a man on a scooter came along and using sign language indicated this was indeed not the place and pointed us down the road. It seemed a long way to walk and luckily a passing motorist stopped and asked if we needed help. He knew of our homestay and thankfully said he would take us there. He drove us down several dusty roads into a small enclave of recently built cement block houses. We were thankful we didn’t have to walk.
Our host met us and after a refreshing freshly squeezed welcome drink he took us farther into his property. We passed a wonderful garden filled with fresh vegetables of every imaginable type and lush foliage including papaya and banana trees. He had built several brick cottages with verandas that held hammocks and beautiful flowers. The interior was equally as nice with wooden floors, a dining table and comfortable beds. It was perfect.
We spent our days riding bicycles in the surrounding area. A peaceful ride on a cool afternoon took us to the spectacular Trang An area. A boatsman rowed us through scenic waterways that meandered through the lush green karsts. The waterway led through 3 caves, each leading into a more scenic area. Temples were built on flatlands and islands and multicolored birds frolicked in the reeds. It was seriously one of the most incredible natural areas we have ever been.
Another day we went to Mua Caves and climbed the seemingly endless steps to the top of a mountain that gave commanding views over the entire area. The back side of the mountain provided a perfect view of the Tam Coc river area in the distance. On our third day, we braved renting a motor scooter to take us on a more distant journey. The nearly deserted roads made for easy riding and the cool day was perfect for visiting the spectacular Bai Dinh temple. Judging from the massive parking area we were lucky to be one of the few visitors on this nearly deserted day. Later we even had time to visit the backpacker haven of Tam Coc.
We woke early on our last morning and waited for our onward bus at the end of our dirt road. We were slightly shocked that the building next to where we were waiting proved to be the village slaughterhouse. The sounds were slightly frightening as many goats lost their lives as we waited in the still dark morning for our bus. It seemed amazing that a visit that started in a graveyard and ended outside of a slaughterhouse would still be remembered by us as a scenic wonderland that we will not soon forget.
Halong Bay may be the best known and most visited destination in Vietnam. Whether a backpacker or luxury traveler, most itineraries include a visit. When we visited in 2004 the town of Halong Bay was small with a couple of recently built modest luxury hotels and several junk style boats that took visitors on day-long tours of the spectacular natural area.
That is not what we found in 2018. Halong Bay is a quickly developed sprawling city of large hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, malls and a huge bridge. The small amount of junks that once plied the bay have been replaced by a massive fleet of hundreds of medium size cruise ships carrying huge amounts of package tourist groups on multiple night excursions around the congested bay.
The skies were cloudy and we felt we wanted to wait for a photogenic day to take our cruise. We checked into a medium size, brand new hotel some distance from the main central area. The price was cheap and many small local oriented restaurants were nearby. The forecast showed a weather change in the next few days and we decided to see what the town offered.
The Lunar New Year (Tet) was rapidly approaching the following week. Houses and business were decorated with banners, flags and flowering trees. Small businesses were closing shop and it was obvious people were thinking of vacations rather than business. Most residents of Halong Bay are not originally from the local area and normally return to home villages for the holidays. We checked on buses and were told it would be a tough ticket if we waited too long.
Finally, the weather broke and we booked our overnight cruise. A medium priced boat offered good food, karaoke, cooking classes and lots of drinking. We visited the same basic things we had seen in the past, a cave and a beach area, only now they were completely overrun by rude, drunken tour groups that frankly spoiled any natural beauty we may have seen.
Another night in the hotel and we booked the last bus back to Hanoi before Tet began. I came away with a disappointed feeling of the entire experience which was reminiscent of any number of once pristine natural locations (Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Waikiki, and part of Bali) that, in my opinion, have overdeveloped and seem to cater to the worst elements of tourism. The bay is still spectacular but seemed diminished by poor planning.
To the hills….
We celebrated Tet in Hanoi. The town was basically shut down and was in full celebration mode. Mixed generation families strolled Hoan Kiem lake enjoying ice cream and the cool weather. Roads were closed to traffic and musicians entertained the smiling population. Everyone seemed to be dressed in their best clothes and all were involved in a happy conversation. Sitting by the lake, we were greeted by adults and children with smiles and kind words. The mood was contagious and while we were anxious to move on with our trip, our 3-day delay was some of the most enjoyable we spent on our trip.
Eventually, buses were again available and we made our plans to visit the northwestern hills of Vietnam. Sapa would be our base for several days. Sapa is famous for its rice terraces, traditional villages and cool weather. Unfortunately, the terraces were just recovering from a wet and snowy winter and the temperatures would be cold rather than cool. We knew it was not the optimum time to visit but felt we would be missing an opportunity to visit an area we had not seen before.
A grueling 6-hour bus ride brought us to Sapa. While Hanoi was back to business, Sapa was still in full Tet celebration. People from surrounding villages were gathered in Sapa to enjoy their time off from their normal lives. The town was filled with villagers in wonderful traditional clothing, all gathered in groups in the lakeside park or central area of the small town.
Most visitors do some kind of trekking in the hills to visit outlying villages. We had planned to participate ourselves, but actually found we could have an “authentic” experience just staying in Sapa town. We spent our days sitting in the many restaurants, cafes and parks and just observing the environment of happy citizens enjoying their last few days of holiday.
We were able to visit a nearby village and we found it enjoyable but touristy in a good way. The rice terraces were indeed incredible even if not at their most beautiful. The roads and town were a bit rough around the edges but we enjoyed our stay immensely. We had conversations with Hmong villagers in the park and posed for many photos with the families. The easy pace and cool weather made our stay comfortable, relaxing and very interesting.
We again had an amazing visit to a unique and beautiful country. It was not the country we had visualized over the years in our dreams. Like everywhere else in the world, time and progress have changed the country. We saw things we had seen before and we saw others that were new to us. No doubt while some of our future dreams will be altered from the past, they will not be diminished. I can’t say what the future will bring to Vietnam.
In our last few days in Vietnam, we spent a lot of time enjoying the peaceful area around Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. Sitting on a bench and enjoying the city as day turned to night was a great end to our trip. We sipped coffee by the cathedral and ate delicious food in the infinite amount of cafes.
We had the pleasure of sharing a seat at the lake for an hour with a young woman who worked nearby. We spoke of our travels and her life. She grew up in a traditional village and had attended university in Hanoi. Afterward, she had stayed to pursue a career. She talked at length about her own battles of traditional family ties vs. a desire to move into the future. She had just visited her home for Tet and had experienced pressure to marry and start a family and perhaps even move back to help her family. She also felt a pressure from modern expectations of job, possessions and making the most of her hard earned degree. She seemed the perfect representation of the crossroads we witnessed Vietnam being at. Traditional culture vs. a modern future. I wished her luck with her journey and encouraged her to follow her heart. She smiled the smile I had so often seen so often on the faces of so many Vietnamese. An honest smile even in times of trouble or stress. I hope she, and Vietnam, will find the correct path forward. I want my dreams and hers to become reality.
Perhaps the essence of travel is discovering if your dreams are real. We conjure images of far-off locales based on what we read, hear or desire and spend a lot of time and effort searching to discover if the vision we see in our head can be matched by any form of reality. While most don’t see past a warm sea, gentle breeze, swaying hammock and slightly bronzed skin, a few have more vivid visions of their own personal paradise. Some travelers have more advanced imaginations and maybe their travel palettes have a few more additional colors than the average housewife visiting Hawaii has.
Throughout history, some of these ‘destinations’ have become legendary. Whether they actually existed or not, their descriptions have driven many an intrepid soul to follow their calling, no matter the cost or hardship that may have had to be endured.
Countless conquistadors spent their lives searching for El Dorado, the city of gold and untold riches, some undoubtedly meeting perilous fates during their journey. Although it may have been just myth, the explorer Ponce de Leon will always be associated with the search for the eternal life provided by the Fountain of Youth. Whether just in fictional accounts or not, the Holy Grail and it’s promise of eternal abundance led many Arthurian knights on fruitless journeys. While probably based only on legend, many an ancient mariner must have spent their nights on watch keeping one eye out for the utopian paradise of Atlantis.
A more modern destination that may only exist in the writer’s imagination is the Tibetan city of Shangri La. Described by British author James Hilton in his 1933 book “Lost Horizons’ as a mystical valley high in the isolated mountains of the Himalayas and populated by a harmonious people who lived happy and nearly immortal lives. The name has now become synonymous with any utopian paradise where people might find eternal satisfaction. The novel was such a success that many areas have claimed to be the inspiration for the book’s location. China even officially renamed the city of Zhongdian in 1997 to take advantage of the book’s notoriety.
This Chinese Shangri La is located at nearly 11,000 feet in the northern mountains of Yunnan Province. With towering mountains surrounding a valley, friendly people and an ancient lamasery high atop a nearby peak, this version of Shangri La seemed to be a good destination for the second 3 weeks of our tour of China. We would head north from Kunming stopping in several ancient towns, gradually gaining altitude until we reached our final destination high in the mountains. Could we find the promised paradise? We were destined to try…
The bad weather of Zhangjiajie had delayed our departure flight for a couple of days. After a couple of days hanging around the hotel and enjoying the cultural treasure that only the local McDonalds could bring, we were finally able to depart for our next destination of Kunming. We were leaving late in the day, which meant a long wait in the airport before departure but the airport was nice and we strangely had it almost to ourselves for the whole time we waited.
Kunming was just a brief overnight stay before we found our onward travel. Arriving after dark, the city gave off an odd vibe as so many of the buildings were brightly lit up. Even hospitals had displays that were more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the large modern city Kunming looked like the next morning. We would again be traveling by buses which are cheap and frequent in China making for easy scheduling. Just show up and buy a ticket on the next bus and off you go.
The bus journey was a long 6 hours. The views were nice as we climbed upwards towards our first destination of Dali. Small farms were visible in tight valleys along the way. Many tunnels and bridges made up the route. We were the only tourists on the bus and the locals seemed more interested in sleep than scenery, so most closed curtains so we could not see as much as we would have liked. We stopped along the way in a nice rest area and made friends with the local dog and stocked up on cookies for our ride.
Historically speaking Dali is an ancient city with a long past. Once it was a kingdom of its own, separate from the rest of China. Modern Dali is made up of two cities, the old and new. The new section where the bus station is does not give off much of the history that we were seeking for this trip. Upon arrival, we caught a taxi and made our way to the old section of town.
Located in a wonderful location between a huge lake to the east and snow covered mountains to the west the old city holds a perfect position to spend several days. After China opened up to tourists, Dali became a popular backpacker destination. With friendly locals and cheap prices, many came for brief stays and ended up hanging around for longer periods of time.
In deference to Dali’s backpacker past, we chose to stay at a wonderful hostel just outside the western gate of the walled old town. We joined an excellent collection of travelers, all with different goals for the city. Some were there to tour the villages that surround the lake, some were here to hike the canyons in the nearby mountains and some seemed to have made a home of the hostel and mostly wanted to take advantage of the cool air, blue skies and cheap beer.
There was a camaraderie between the mixed group that we found enjoyable. Spirited conversations took place around the nightly fire, pool table and bar area. Food and drinks flowed each night of the 6 nights we stayed. Fresh-faced gap year students mixed with salty travelers who gave off auras of many nights spent in shady foreign nightspots. Certainly, future books would be written about adventures had in this area.
We spent our days wandering the streets of old town. Cafes and small restaurants filled our afternoons. Dali does not offer much in terms of ‘must see’ places, but the town is perfect for wandering and just enjoying the blue skies and springlike weather that are so uncommon in China.
We seemed to be the only Westerners in town as we rarely met foreigners during our days. We continued to be a curiosity to locals and many stopped us to take pictures with us. It was rare that we set on a bench enjoying the warm afternoons without people pointing and sneaking a photo of us. A tour group of 50 spent 20 minutes of their city tour posing with us, in groups and singles until every possible combination of pose had been captured. If there is a Chinese Facebook, we must be famous somewhere.
Nights were spent sitting in the restaurant, listening and participating in conversations with young people just getting started with their travel stories and grizzled travel veterans who probably didn’t desire us to know their “best” adventures.
Soon enough we were off again, climbing higher into the mountains to our next stop of Lijiang.
Into Thin Air…
A three-hour bus ride brought us higher into mountains. Old lungs, age and overweight American bodies began to betray us as we made our way up the hill to our next hotel. Excellent views over the ancient city rewarded our effort as we met the family who runs the small inn. We drew pictures with the young girl while Grandma cooked our breakfast. We quickly made friends and through sign language, smiling and “Ni Hao” greetings we felt at home.
Lijiang was nearly destroyed in 1996 by a terrible earthquake that left more than 300,000 people homeless. The Chinese government completely rebuilt the old city which now is a World Heritage Site. Winding lanes along tiny streams with ornate bridges and gorgeous ancient architecture greet the visitor as cool afternoons are spent meandering the stunning city. Historic inns, picturesque squares and intricately carved woodwork are all to be discovered on breathtaking walks during the clear sky winter days.
To some, it may seem a bit Disneyfied, but we found it to be spectacular as we visited Wu Mansion, Black Dragon Pool and any number of courtyard houses. Sacred and snow-covered Yulong Mountain dominates in the distance from most points of the old city. 5 days were spent watching Naxi dancers in the square, Tai Chi practicing locals and enjoying delicious meals of mysterious meats and vegetables we had no idea existed.
Almost no English is spoken in the town, which made conversation difficult. All of the stores along the narrow walkways have translated signs but even these did not always help us determine what was for sale. We still do not know what is sold in the “Copper is Petrified Pork” market.
In the Mist…
The air grew thinner as we ascended further north into the even greater heights towards Shangri La. Our bus drove along dizzyingly narrow roads of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge area. Tiny mountain mining towns along the winding river, populated by more sheep, pigs and yaks than people lined the narrow passages.
Eventually, we made our way out of the narrows and into an area of large plateaus filled with tiny farms. Prayer flags and stupas marked the road as the air grew thinner and the architecture became more Tibetan in style. Thousands of pigs ran wild and the clothing of the people took on a homemade quality that we had not seen in other areas of China. More influenced by Lhasa than Beijing the area displayed a very different atmosphere than we had seen before.
We were a little shocked our first visions of Shangri La. Ultramodern buildings and unique architecture of a combination of Tibetan and Chinese style lined the wide boulevards of the city. Skies were crystal blue and the air was frigid with a constant breeze. While we had expected a tiny village dominated by a huge monastery, we were surprised by construction everywhere that reminded us of a ski vacation village in the high mountains.
Nearly the entire old town section of Shangri La was burned in 2014. The government has again nearly rebuilt the entire area maintaining it’s unique architecture of wooden buildings and narrow streets. We found our hotel along the narrow pedestrian-only streets and liked it immediately.
The hotel was small and decorated in a style representative of an Indian/Tibetan lodge. A warm fire in the common area greeted us as we enjoyed our ginger tea served by the gracious hosts. It helped compensate for the lack of oxygen and warmed us from the chill.
We spent our 4 days walking the streets of both the old town and more modern surroundings of the new city. We have never visited such an odd place in all of our travels. It is difficult to describe without seeing. We made our way by city bus to the Songzalin Lamasery that lies along a mountain range just north of the city. It was spectacular. Smaller than the Potala Palace in Lhasa but still grand, we spent hours walking through the buildings that are occupied by some 600 monks. The interior of the buildings featured painting covered walls telling the story of Buddha. Huge carved statues of Buddha soared high in the towering interiors. Gold covered urns and statuary surrounded the giant icons and beautiful tapestries hung everywhere. The smell of incense and candles filled the air and created a magical ambiance. Despite the grand appearance, the entire complex gave off a feeling of simpleness and peace. It was the highlight of our 3-week visit to Yunnan province.
We followed our dreams and imagination to the heights of the Himalayas much as described by James Hilton in his book many years before. I don’t know if we found our Shangri La, but we thoroughly enjoyed our journey to the heights of Yunnan. We saw places we had never seen before and enjoyed strange food and music that we did not conjure in our imaginations. We enjoyed unique cultures and interacted with strangers that eventually felt like friends. While we did not find eternal life, rich abundance or a magic land of incredible wealth I suppose we did, in fact, find everything we were looking for. Maybe it was the journey to Shangri La that was exactly what we had dreamt of.
Any traveller who has taken more than a few trips will develop a travel style. A typical pattern of behavior that leads to the greatest enjoyment of the area around them. Some will find the companionship and easy planning of group tours best suit their tastes. Some may find the adventure and self-sufficiency of independent travel more to their liking. Solo travels to exotic locations fit the desires of a few intrepid souls. The frugal life of a backpacker surrounded by thatched walls may be the calling of for some. Life on a luxury cruise ship or in ritzy hotels may make up another voyagers dreams.
As happens in all areas of one’s life, other people are going to judge you. You will be ranked according to the travel choices you make and the way they are perceived by others. Those who follow a microphoned guides flag on a well-worn route in some old school European capital will not be thought of in the same light as those who huddle around a faraway pot of spicy broth shared with exotically dressed locals. Those who road trip through the amusement park filled countryside of a palm-fringed beach paradise will not rank well against the intrepid soul who sails independently around the gale wracked cape of a storm-ravaged no man’s land.
However, if there is one thing we have discovered, it is this. If you are having fun and are content with what you are doing, it doesn’t matter what others think. In the last 6 1/2 years, we have tried many different travel styles. From road trips on bumpy Central American highways to backpacking through the sweaty backroads of Southeast Asia to cushy long-term stays in slick seaside bungalows in toney European dream cities, we have probably tried all the different varieties of travel.
Over time, we have found our style. Renting apartments for a month or so in comfortable locations has become our norm. Places with access to well-stocked markets where we can shop for local ingredients that make up the majority of the meals we prepare ourselves. Locations that offer good transportation infrastructure that allows us to move easily around the area we live. Good access to communications so we can stay in touch and easily access the information we need to stay on the road continuously. Places that are easy on the eye and, if they are off the beaten track, not so far that we couldn’t get back pretty quickly if we needed to.
For sure, we do not occupy the highest rungs of the most intrepid travelers. But we have had a lot of fun and, although at a snail’s pace, managed to see some pretty far reaches of the globe. Although we have surpassed our travel dreams, there are still a couple of countries that are high on the list that we have hesitated to take on. As best as we can guess, they require quicker moves and less normality than we are used to in our chosen travel style. These countries provide less access to the easy pace, routine, communication and normalness that makes up our travel life. They are both vast countries that may possess the most diverse landscapes anywhere on earth. They need to be seen. We have visited them both in years past, but never on our own or without someone else’s help. One of them is India and, to be honest, we are still not up to that challenge. The other is China….and we are going.
We left our tiny Hong Kong apartment in the early morning before the subway rush began. We struggled to get our overstuffed suitcases through the turnstiles and down the rapidly moving escalators. After a couple of quick line changes, we reached the East Rail Line that would take us to the border at Shenzen, China. It was only a one hour ride but our excitement was intense. We easily acquired our 10-year Chinese visas during our stay in Hong Kong, so we had everything prepared for our crossing. Entry was smooth. We cashed our Hong Kong dollars and got Chinese Yuan from the ATM. We were in.
A pleasant ride on the Shenzen subway took us to the massive Shenzen North train station. Towering ceilings, high-speed trains, McDonalds and KFC greeted us in the futuristic station. Our first glimpse of ancient China was anything but old. We boarded our shining new train for our rapid ride to Guangzhou. We have ridden high-speed trains in France and Japan, but this train seemed smoother and faster. Passing 300 kilometers per hour got us to Guangzhou quickly. We only had a brief stay in this massive terminal before we caught our second high-speed train onward to our final destination.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Xingping, a tiny town on the Li River halfway between larger Guilin and Yangshuo. This area of the Guangxi Province is most famous for its beautiful and unique limestone karsts that populate the entire area. Guilin was the hub for this area’s tourism until Yangshuo developed enough to support the many tourists. Among the major interests of the area are river rides on rafts, hiking in the hills or riding country roads on some form of two-wheeled conveyance. The most beautiful scenery in the area may be along the river in the small town of Xingping which is said to resemble Yangshuo before it was developed.
After our initial impression of fast-moving trains and gleaming engineering, Xingping presented more of the picture of China we expected. The potholed roads and bad or nonexistant sidewalks looked even worse in the light rain that was falling when we arrived. The town is very small but no one seemed to have a clue when we asked them directions to our hostel. In fact, they did little more than stare at us and point in different directions. We have become used to at least someone speaking English but China was going to be different. Sign language was going to have to work.
Luckily we spotted a homemade sign for the hostel and arrived after a wet walk. The night was arriving just as we were. The hostel was old but attractive in a rough way and as we met some of our fellow travelers we felt we had started our Chinese adventure on the right foot.
We passed our 3 days in Xingping simply. We walked along the river and took a ferry to a nearby village. The rain kept us from hiking the spectacular mountains that rose high above the river but the weather was still warm enough that we weren’t kept inside much. Everyone was friendly towards us and seemed to greet us with the phrase “Hello, Babu”. We eventually figured out that they were saying “bamboo” and were referring to the bamboo boats that give rides down the river. Much of the tourist trade is selling boat rides and they were just making us an offer. It was a question rather than a statement. We enjoyed walking the cobbled ancient street that ran through the town. We toured an ancient Chinese theater that has been in operation for an eternity.
In the days of old, many fishermen in the area traditionally used cormorants to fish the waters of the river. They tie the bird’s necks so they cannot swallow and light lanterns to attract the fish to the boats. They let the birds do the work unless they are using nets. The fishermen are mostly gone now, but a few still demonstrate their skill on the river. We were able to locate one of the old gentlemen and enjoyed spending some time with him on the river as the sun set on our last evening.
The next day we made the short move to Yangshuo. If mass tourism hasn’t quite found Xingping, it has definitely discovered Yangshou. We stayed nearby the famous West Street area of town. West Street runs from the main access road into town down towards the river. It is lined with every type of tourist attraction you could think of. Wax museums, underground ice skating, loud discos, themed restaurants and hawkers loudly trying to attract attention to whatever they might be selling. It is loud, brash, garish and was quite a shock after the quiet streets of Xingping.
Luckily our hotel was quiet. We spent our three days in Yangshuo enjoyably. We hiked up one of the nearby karsts. The view was incredible from the top and well deserved after the breath-stealing climb up the thousands of muscle destroying steps. We walked the pleasant streets of the small town that was much quieter in the mornings.
Most daringly we even rented scooters for a whole day. Riding in the traffic of town was frightening even though the scooters were pretty easy to ride. Helmetless and with no warmup we thrust ourselves into the busy streets and hoped for the best. Once we arrived in the countryside the traffic subsided and we began to enjoy the freedom of making our own way through the unique mountains and farms that made up the scenery. We enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant in a tiny town with chickens, ducks and cows wandering just outside the open air setting near the river.
We spent one night in Guilin to make onward transportation easier. The town was modern and seemed huge compared to the first two towns we had visited. We did get out to visit the colorfully lit Sun and Moon temples on a lake in the center of town. It made a fitting end to a busy first week in China.
Brad and Angelina…
Our second week began with another bus ride. Heading north this time, we got our first experience with the Chinese highway system. 6 hours of some of the most amazingly engineered road we have ever travelled on.
The freeway to Fenghuang had more tunnels and bridges than we had ever seen. It was almost as if the designers were attempting to make a statement. At times, it seemed we were continuously either in a tunnel or on an elevated bridge. The tunnels, some more than a mile long were cut through the rough mountainside. The bridges spanned the valleys in between the mountains where small villages and farms lay along the rare level ground. Sweepers in orange suits patrolled the roadsides every mile or so, sweeping the roads to apparently keep a nice shine on the engineering achievement.
Our next destination was the ancient Chinese river town of Fenghuang. Popular with Chinese tourists but less known by the western world, this city lies along the Tuoliang River and was founded more than 1400 years ago. The ancient center has been well preserved and offers the visitor a chance to witness how China must have appeared to visitors many years ago.
Stone city walls, stilt raised houses and narrow streets that lead to bridges of many designs greet the visitor in the central area. Open only to pedestrians, life in the old city comes with all the smells, noise, dampness and congestion one might expect in an ancient city. Wooden guesthouses line the cobbled streets and vendors pull carts laden with goods down alleyways filled with open restaurants and vendor shops. Having noodle soup from a steaming pot in an open-air food stall on a misty morning as the town awakened on a winter morning fulfilled our dreams of China from the olden times.
Spending late mornings and early afternoons wandering routes along the river and across the many bridges or down the many alleys and up the winding streets of the city made for interesting days. We never saw another Western tourist for our entire stay. Chinese tourists and locals seemed to find us quite interesting and we always attracted a crowd wherever we went. Everyone, especially children, seemed to be tickled when they would say “hello” and we would answer back. So many brave locals asked for pictures with us that at times we felt like celebrities. At first flattering, but a little irritating after a week, we had our first taste of what it might be like to be famous. We could understand why many celebrities might become testy.
If the daytime beauty of the city was unique in our travels, the nights were even more so. The entire town along the river is lit just after dark. Not a few buildings or select streets. Everything, literally everything is aggressively lit. Multi-colored lights make the bridges, temples, houses and ancient dwellings glow like a Chinese version of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. Every version of music from classical Chinese to bongo drums to Karaoke to thumping disco is piped at full volume over the riverside. The peaceful surroundings of the morning become a strange nightclub that continues loudly until 11:30 PM when the cacophony thankfully stops. Nowhere we have travelled has such a dramatic personality change from morning to night.
Farther north in Hunan Province, we reached our next destination. A three-hour bus ride brought us to the small town of Wulingyuan. Located just outside of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the town gives off a bit of a ski area vibe. Winter finally caught up with us and the weather turned colder and a chilly haze hung in the skies.
Zhangjiajie is most famous for its towering mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley floor below. When viewed from the surrounding mountains these peaks rise through the nearly constant mist and create a unique vision that has inspired artists for centuries. Most recently it is said that much of the inspiration for the settings in the movie Avatar were taken from this classic Chinese wonderland.
We found our nice guest house a short distance from the bus station. The park was located a short walk from the park. We purchased our 4-day pass and made plans to visit the park over the next few days. We were told that the heavy clouds might hamper our view from the upper peaks so we decided to hike the lower portions of the park to start our tour.
Much of the town was shut down because we were so offseason. We had our guesthouse to ourselves and made good friends with the owner and his family during our stay. Mostly only small local restaurants were open and we were welcomed and remembered in each place we stopped to eat. The restaurants generally did not have menus and the fact that they remembered us and our orders made communication on our second visit much easier. Many seemed surprised that we returned more than one day and we quickly felt like regulars.
The park has free buses which transport you everywhere within the park. We used them to take us to several nice trails that we enjoyed leisurely strolls on. Many Chinese tour groups were visiting but we saw very few independent tourists.
On our second day, rain kept us from the park. However, the longest cave in China is located a few kilometers from Zhangjiajie. The perfect place to stay dry on a rainy day! Upon entering the cave we took a half mile boat ride to the end of the cave and then made our way back to the entrance over the next few hours. The cave was warm and with all the stairs and hills, we eventually were in short sleeves and felt much warmer than the winter day we had left outside the cave. The cave was spectacular and for some reason free when we visited, which was nice for our tight budget. Like in Fenghuang, the Chinese decided to garishly light the cave with multicolored lights. It made the cave interesting to look at but in some ways we felt it diminished the natural beauty of this scenic wonder.
Finally, we got a clear sunny day and we had our best day in the park. We rode the 1000 ft outdoor elevator to the top levels of the park and hiked trails to get views over the scenic peaks below. The tallest peaks were over 1000 meters and when viewed from the lofty trails above were among the most incredible natural views we have ever witnessed on our journeys. We returned to the valley floor after a full day by taking the skytram lift. It carried us down through towering peaks and gave an incredible birdseye view of one of the great natural wonderlands anywhere on earth.
We felt lucky to have been granted at least one sunny day to view the park. The next day the weather turned cold again and sleet and snow forced the airport and lifts into the park to close. Our flight was canceled and we had to extend our visit while we waited for onward transportation.
It proved to be our only hitch during our 3-week visit to China. We are glad that we decided to try a different style of travel. The change of pace has been challenging at times and forced us to do things that we normally would not. We have gotten out of our comfort zones and taken on challenges that we weren’t sure we could do without help. Perhaps we will be inspired to reevaluate our travel style in the future and add a little more risk.
For now, we are on our way to the next 3 weeks of our visit to China. Hopefully, it goes as well as the first 3.
For the second time in a month, we found ourselves in Shanghai’s massive Pudong airport. Last time we were headed back to the U.S. and booked a nearby hotel to spend our long layover in. Stretching out for a few hours in a comfortable bed and having a relaxed meal is a rare luxury that we enjoyed when we had the chance.
This time we were going in the opposite direction and had already spent a long day of travel from San Francisco. Our stopover this time was 3 hours. Long enough to be uncomfortable but not long enough to leave the airport. We still had a couple of hours more to fly and we really missed the opportunity to relax in the comfort of a hotel. The excitement of getting to our destination didn’t deter us from napping on the next leg of our flight. Already being awake for more than 24 hours has that effect.
We landed in Hong Kong a little after midnight. It is always odd finding your way in a new city when arriving after dark. Landmarks are harder to pick out and not all services are working as usual. We were lucky that our new apartment was directly next to a bus stop for the night bus into town. We found the bus easily and 1 hour and 22 stops later we arrived at our new apartment.
If Hong Kong is noted for only two things, which of course it isn’t, they would probably be expense and population density. This means two things for budget travellers. One, you’re probably not going to stay in the nicest parts of town and two, you are going to get a tiny apartment. Not really a problem for us generally but Hong Kong is in the extreme. On Hong Kong Island 500 square foot apartments can easily be US $1,000,000 dollars to buy and we heard tales of some penthouses in tonier buildings that can push 50 million.
We were lucky to find an apartment in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon for a price that fit our tiny budget but we would have to make a sacrifice in terms of space. Our smallest apartment ever was in Paris and it was 140 square feet. It was hard to imagine we were going even smaller here. This time we were only going to have 80 square feet! Luckily we would be on the 12th floor and would have a nice view over the city. We hoped that skyline views would make the apartment feel bigger than it was. If only we could get our old and tired bodies up the rickety wooden ladder to the elevated bed each night, perhaps a month in our tiny home would be tolerable.
Sham Shui Po does not put on the most attractive face that Hong Kong has to offer, especially to our jetlagged eyes at 1 AM in the morning. The buildings are pretty worn and the streets are very narrow. Everyone lives in buildings from 10 to 40 stories, with the taller ones generally being the newest. Busy storefronts line the sidewalks and many of the streets are pedestrian only, so temporary stalls have opened in the streets also. Clothes are hung to dry outside of every window and traffic is in endless movement. We made our way up the tiny elevator and through the crowded hallways to our room. It looked even smaller than the pictures, but the skyline view lit up as it was, was quite beautiful and made us excited to start our visit, after a hot shower and a nice long sleep.
We spent our first few days getting the house organized and seeing the main sights of the town. We learned the metro system and found groceries. Markets were close by and a metro stop was literally outside our building.
The metro is one of the best in the world and can take you virtually anywhere in town within 30 minutes. Despite being swarmed at all hours it was easy to navigate. We bought convenient Octopus cards which make ticketing a breeze. The cars were clean and safe. Signage was available in English, although we found that very few people speak English. We were generally the only non-Chinese riders in our area of town and found many young children stared at us when we were riding. We understood that being a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier than everyone else would be quite startling to young eyes. With a wave and a smile, we could easily make friends with them and this generally got other people smiling and entertained us for our ride.
We started our visit by making our way around Kowloon and the main areas of Hong Kong Island. Our first look at Victoria Harbor was from the famous Star Ferry. For nearly 100 years the tiny boats have provided service between Hong Kong Central and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. For a fare of around 30 cents, they carry you on the 9-minute ride across the harbor. The skyline, when viewed from sea level is breathtaking. The 10th highest building in the world is here and several others are over 1000 feet. It is said that Hong Kong has more buildings over 14 stories than New York City.
Walking through the streets on the island side of the harbor was amazing. Like man-made canyons, the streets cut a narrow path through the towering buildings that lie beside them. Not much of the past has been preserved here as every bit of the tiny amount of buildable land has been used to its maximum potential. Very few of the colonial British buildings have been saved. We had just watched “The World of Suzie Wong” a couple of days earlier and the classic stone buildings and easy access waterfront shown in the movie have all been replaced by glass and steel. Suzie definitely doesn’t live here anymore!
The hills rise quickly from the Central district towards Victoria Peak. The steepness could be intimidating if not for the Mid-level escalators. This series of moving stairs, the longest in the world, whisk you easily upwards until you are well above the shining harbor below. From the top you can slowly wind your way back down the narrow streets and alleys, being sure to stop in one of the trendy bars or restaurants found in these upscale neighborhoods. Art galleries and antique shops abound and we always made sure to stop in one of the many tasty bakeries along the way.
Back down the hill, we found the easiest way to make our way was by tram. Referred to locally as “ding ding’s” the double-decker electric trams are the easiest and cheapest way to get through the city. Packed with tourists and locals alike, it takes a few minutes to get a seat. Once you do, if you have as much time as we do, relax and enjoy the ride for the entire route. From the west end of town all the way to the Happy Valley racetrack, the slowly moving trams provide the perfect speed and vantage points to take in the most interesting sites of the city. Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay neighborhoods pass by, each unique and interesting in its own way.
Of course, the highlight of anyone’s visit is to take in the spectacular view from the top of Victoria Peak. Views of the skyline and harbor are jaw-dropping in the daytime and even more so at night. It is even possible to see off the back side of the peak to the other side of the island. These views probably give a better idea of what visitors saw many years ago.
Touring all through the madness of the city can be exhausting after a few days but that proved to not be a problem. We spent days visiting the many urban parks around the area. Kowloon Park and Nan Lian Park were favorites and gorgeous but the best still had to be Hong Kong Park on the island. A teacup museum in a colonial building, an arboretum and a beautiful aviary surround a lake and waterfall that seemed miles from the city but, in fact, were right in the center.
We also found that most of the museums in town were free. What an excellent idea! We found the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum interesting and in an excellent building. The heritage museum in Kowloon Park explained the architecture of the town. The hands-down best museum was the Hong Kong Museum of History. It explained Hong Kong’s history from prehistoric times all the way to the turnover to China. Entire temples, Chinese opera stages and colonial-era towns were built inside. Histories of the different ethnic cultures and examples of their villages were built. Full-size boats and displays of the Japanese occupation were outstanding. We expected to stay for an hour but ended up spending an entire day. A highlight of the city that shouldn’t be missed.
Eventually, we had to get out of the city for a while. We set off first for another island called Lantau. On the far side of the island is a small fishing village called Tai O. A metro and long bus ride seemingly took us back in time to a more simpler time when Hong Kong was just a fishing town. Boats instead of roads carried people to their houses built on stilts. It was a weekend and jammed with tourists, but we still enjoyed visiting temples, food stalls and restaurants all on elevated walkways and bridges. We even took a 30-minute boat ride to see dolphins. We didn’t see dolphins but the inexpensive price of the tour still justified the chance to see the town and coastline from the water.
Our longest adventure was by hydrofoil to the former Portuguese settlement of Macau. The hour-long ride at speeds up to 50 knots was fun and was just about 1 hour. Macau is packed with tourists from China who come to visit the massive casinos located there. We were more interested in seeing some of the historic Old Town. The style and architecture of the buildings definitely reminded us of Lisbon. The route from Senado Square to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church was packed with shoppers but we still were able to enjoy some of the old world style that seems to have been erased in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, we had to leave much too soon and perhaps would like to return sometime for a longer visit. Standing on top of the ancient Monte Fort gave us commanding views over the town and made us realize how much we didn’t have a chance to see.
As our stay continued we actually stayed around our own Sham Shui Po area more and more. Each street seemed to feature a different specialty. One had toys, one had electronics, another had food. We visited streets filled with flower shops and another that sold everything to do with birds. We especially enjoyed watching the old men who take their caged birds with them for a “walk” and socialize with each other along the way. Another street is called goldfish street and is lined with aquarium and pet stores. Another street morphed into the biggest display of Christmas items we had ever seen. Each alley and street provided a unique experience.
Maybe our favorite times were in the evenings in our tiny apartment. With the curtains open and the lights of the city on full display, we spent what seemed like hours just looking out over the city. Nightly laser shows over the harbor were visible from our viewpoint and watching the endlessly bustling crowds on the streets below will be memories we won’t soon forget.
I don’t believe that there is an ancient lava field flowing beneath the ground. I don’t think it causes an electric current that draws people from all over the earth to its center. I don’t think that the electric current has curative powers or even gives people extrasensory powers. I don’t think restorative energy flows upward from the ground and can be felt if you believe in it hard enough. The well-dressed lady in the art gallery does. In fact, she is convinced of it. She told me about it at length after I had complimented her on her ceramic work and had only known her for a few minutes. She described it in detail, with eyes twinkling and voice whispering. I think she was speaking from a place in her heart and was being totally serious. She truly believed…but I didn’t. I wish I did…but I don’t.
I do however believe that there are places where magic might sometimes be real. Places where people from different backgrounds and with different ideas come together to share dreams and create energy that can be felt. I usually find these places a little ways off the normal path. In places that are a little uncomfortable or difficult to live in without seeking out the assistance of others. Somewhere beyond the first line of mountains, or in the thick of a forest. Up a long valley just past where the last bridge crosses the river. Maybe in a desert full of strange trees and giant granite boulders that rise up out of the ground in odd ways and with shapes that require you to name them. Places so high and so dry that most people without enough time would write them off as a wasteland. Places with immense beauty that might not be apparent at first glance.
These places are usually populated by people that see things a little differently. Artists, writers and creative types abound. Maybe a few outcasts are mixed in. Hippies, bikers, free thinkers and people that found life in the normal places just wasn’t for them. Maybe people that are looking for a new beginning or at least an opportunity to live with a few less rules. Conformity is generally not necessary but acceptance of others is.
I think when we eventually decide to stop traveling we would like to settle in one of these places. We have discovered a few of them along our way. After being exposed to so many different cultures, cuisines and ways of life for the last few years, it seems it might be difficult to return to what we used to call normal. Regular life just feels uncomfortable.
We can feel the end of the journey calling. It is still only a light viewed faintly in the distance, but with each passing month, it grows brighter. It feels as though we should begin planning an exit strategy. For the first time in our lives, we will be choosing a place to live based on what our interests are and not just what we are forced into by school, jobs or convenience. It is a more difficult choice than we expected.
We haven’t retraced our path often over the last 7 years. 3 years ago we spent a month in the high desert of Southern California. We thought it had some of the magic we might be looking for. The Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree just felt right then and we wanted to see if it could be a permanent stop some day. It might be worth taking a second look.
Joshua Tree is a small town of only 4,000 or so people. An eclectic mix of citizens populates the town. Artists, hippies, retirees, free spirits and ex-military are common. Rock climbers, musicians, bikers, tourists and temporary residents fill out the mix. The town anchors one of 3 entrances to Joshua Tree National Park and, for us, provides the easiest access to the most attractive parts of the park. It has one bar, one coffee shop and a cool vibe that we like.
We arrived during the two-week arts festival. Resident artists open their homes and studios to visitors and it provides a unique window into that segment of the population. It is an excellent time to make your way around the area meeting artists. The houses are spread out and visiting a couple dozen takes you along many dirt roads and into many areas you might have missed otherwise. The artists are all friendly and seem glad you made the effort to find them.
We bought a yearly pass to the park and put it to good use. We visited almost daily during our stay. We hiked desert trails, climbed boulders and saw lots of animals. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, rabbits and even a bobcat made appearances during our stay. We found the best time for sightings was during the weekdays around sunset when we mostly had the park to ourselves. After record rainfalls last winter the animals are plentiful and look heavier than we had seen in the past. We even pulled over to watch many tarantulas cross a section of road one evening just after the sun went down.
Of course, sunset and sunrise are the most beautiful times to visit the park. If the skies are filled with the right amount of clouds there is a good chance for incredible sunsets. The vivid colors are amazing, sometimes so bright it appears the entire sky has caught fire. Cloudless days can be just as amazing if you visit the park after dark. The Mojave Desert has some of the darkest skies anywhere in America and on moonless nights the stars can be incredible. We brought snacks and chairs and made our way a short distance into the desert and waited for the light show to begin. The Milky Way was incredibly bright and the stars shined so intensely that I don’t remember ever seeing so many. The desert was so dark and quiet, it seemed we were alone in the world.
We enjoyed our afternoons relaxing around the town. Whether discussing authors in the local bookstore, having a chat with the librarian or enjoying a perfectly brewed cup of coffee under a shade tree on a patio, most days were spent relaxing in the perfect weather. While the rest of the country has taken a turn toward winter, we enjoyed warm afternoons and pleasantly cool nights for our entire visit.
We were surprised at how easy it was to make friends with people we met. We enjoyed their stories and they seemed impressed with our travel stories from recent years. We had an opportunity to look at a few houses during our stay. The town has become increasingly popular with people from the Los Angeles area. Good because they have brought with them great style and have made many improvements to some of the local housing. Unfortunately, with the new popularity comes increased prices and less availability of housing.
I don’t know what the future will bring for us once we decide to settle down more permanently. We may find a home here in the high desert or we may not. If we do, I think we will find an incredibly beautiful place with lots of friendly and interesting people. If we don’t then we at least got a second look at a place that has a little magic and a lot of beauty amongst the boulders and crazy trees that we found during our stay.
It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.
We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.
We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?
Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.
Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.
Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.
Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.
Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.
A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.
Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.
The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.
We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.
Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.
The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.
Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.
We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.
I have seen the future. It is filled with tall buildings, bright lights, endless noise and millions of people. Excitement, entertainment and enjoyment take place above your head, below your feet and in your face. The future goes non-stop and doesn’t conform to any normal positions of the clock. It’s bigger and more bright than I ever imagined.
The future is reached by a train that speeds across the countryside at 200 miles per hour. The train passes volcanic mountains, verdant rice fields and miles of well tended farmland. It arrives on schedule, to the minute, in a massive station filled with well dressed people moving at a pace that immediately demands your full attention. Like a choreographed dance, the pedestrians move fluidly and efficiently through the maze of underground passageways, all the while multitasking with the latest smartphone that everyone interacts with continuously.
A taxi provides transport to an apartment in Ikebukuro, a somewhat distant neighborhood of Futureworld. Typical here, the apartment is tiny and equipped with everything needed, but nothing extra. A slight lean to the right yields a skyline view of Shinjuku that shines brightly at night from our tiny balcony. A busy 4 lane freeway runs very close outside the window 24 hours a day. That doesn’t seem unusual except our apartment is on the seventh floor. Highways in the sky in this land of tomorrow.
As a tourist, where do you start?
Need to find a restaurant? Been to cities where there is one on every corner? In the future they have one, or more, on every floor of multiple multistory buildings for multiple blocks in a row. It is estimated there are 100,000 restaurants here. Plastic food recreations display the menu in brightly lit windows. Every variety of food is available in every kind of restaurant. From glimmering penthouse view restaurants with the latest fusion cuisine to three seat open grills with meat on a stick and charcoal fires. If you want it, you can find it.
Want to share lunch with the animal kingdom? There are cat cafes, dog cafes, owl cafes and rabbit cafes where, for a fee, you can be accompanied by a pampered furry friend. You can dine with a penguin (or two). You can watch a robot show or be entertained by a host of animated characters of any number of types. A full on disco, decorated with neon colored fish tanks is available, if you need one.
You may ask where the nearest old town area is. A place where things slow down to a quieter pace. A place where a tourist can relax and stroll slowly through some historical old world culture center from days gone by. It doesn’t exist in the future. There are some ancient, ornate temples here or there. But look up above the ancient structure and try not to notice the second tallest structure in the world flashing its lights in the clouds above.
Wherever you go, you will probably go by train. Metros below the ground. A driverless elevated trains passes through and above the futuristic building in the harbor . Monorails speed passengers to the airport. A last tiny tram rumbles roughly through the valley of skyscrapers that have grown around its rickety rails. You may ride all of them in a single journey to some trendy corner of Futureworld.
The metro is not just a form of transportation. It is an amazing engineering feat that is a destination in itself. More than 120 miles of track. 179 stations. 6 billion passengers a year. Grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries and souvenirs are all located underground. Virtually an entire city underground. With the right combination of elevators, escalators, and subways, you can leave the front door of your 40th floor apartment and travel 20 miles to your office in a distant skyscraper office building . Return home in the evening, stopping at a gourmet market and picking up your dry cleaning, all without seeing the sky. No need for an umbrella in Futureworld.
Shopping is an art form here and everyone seems well practiced. Teenagers start young in the eclectic streets of Harajuku. Schoolgirls in uniform crowd Takeshita Street looking for the latest outlandish styles. Boybands with cotton candy colored hair make an appearance outside a trendy bistro, swarmed by giggling fans with smartphone cameras. The styles are beyond anything I have seen and reflect a life in a city that changes trends by the minute instead of by the year.
In Futureworld, malls are destinations and are always full. Our local mall is called Sunshine City. Appropriate as we have spent many a rainy summer afternoon there. Also fitting because it is more of a city than a mall. It has two indoor amusement parks, a museum, a performing arts center, an aquarium, an international food area that must have 40 full scale restaurants. It has an virtual reality attraction called Sky Circus which is located on the 60th floor of the attached office building. That’s correct, 60th floor! It has a center atrium where some performance is usually taking place. Perhaps a meet and greet with the latest J-Pop idol or any number of Pokemon or anime characters. Not the normal local mall.
As shoppers become more sophistacated they eventually migrate toward the Ginza. Every big city has designer stores, but not like this. The streets are blocked to vehicles on Sunday. It is the perfect time to make your way down the cavernous main shopping street. If big budget shopping has a mecca, Ginza is it. Every famous designer, jeweler or electronic manufacturer of any note has a multistory complex dedicated to their wares. The stores are packed with shoppers and judging by the stylish customers, sales must be good.
You may think that a megacity of 30 million people would be reminiscent of some grungy futurisitic movie where grime and despair have invaded every portion of existence. I haven’t seen it. No graffiti. No litter. No homeless people. People are orderly and wait in lines. Women leave Gucci purses on chairs to save their place while waiting in coffee shop lines. No one takes their chairs or more importantly their purses. Everyone bows and seems polite. Shopkeepers seem genuinely glad that you have chosen to do business with them. Mothers encourage youngsters in strollers to wave back to old strangers visiting from far away. There is no tipping in Futureworld.
This has not really been a normal tourist month spent in a faraway destination. There really is not a defining example of what it is like to live here. It is too big, too complicated and too diverse to define. It is too intense to get to know intimately. There are too many crazy things at the end of too many tiny alleys in too many districts to ever see in a lifetime, much less the time I spent here.
I was wowed by the great cities of Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. They are wonderful and each stands by itself as a great world treasure. Tokyo is different. I’m not really wowed, I’m dumbfounded. At times I have come around a corner and been stunned by what I have seen. My jaw has literally dropped. It doesn’t seem fair to compare other cities to this metropolis. It is my new standard for bigger and better. Everything past this point will be compared to what I have seen here. If this is the future, I can’t wait to get there.