(NOTE: I'm going to expand these entries when I get home, using my notes in my little Moleskine notebook.)
Liz and I just got back from three days down the Yangtze -- it's mostly flooded (140 meters, about 3/4ths of the top level, or so I understand) so some of the most distinctive features are gone, especially in the Little Three Gorges (no rapids to speak of -- spectacular cliffs, though).
The big problem we had was that the cabins (separate 2-bed cabins for each of us, at a very slight discount) we booked on a Chinese tourist (not foreign tourist) boat -- despite being promised otherwise -- had NO heat. I'm pretty sure it hit zero degrees C or close to it, and the damp winds blowing through drafty cabins didn't help. The last eight hours were fairly hellish, in that we ended the trip with a night-time tour of the Three Gorges Dam -- hell, we'd paid for it, and we thought it meant a ride on a warm bus. Which it did, as well as an aquarium, a historic horse pageant, and some random little temple, all to keep us occupied while the boat was going through the locks.
It was midnight by the time we finished at the temple by the ferry dock, and the nice warm tour buses had gone away, leaving us to wait among the food vendor tents stir-frying dinner for the tourists. The tour guide the boat company assigned to us (whose English was barely functional -- as I got more and more frustrated with our general situation, I tortured him by pretending not to understand anything he said) told us we had to wait an hour in the cold -- it turned out to be 2-and-a-half. That, and the unheated 4-hour bus ride from Yichang (where we docked) to Wuhan made us long for luxury. So we checked into the Holiday Inn Tian An Wuhan City Centre, to be certain we had HOT water and LOTS of room central heating. God, I feel so decadent.
More later, but they're closing the hotel Business Centre for the night.
Ah, the wonders of modern technology. I'm at the Chung King Hotel in Chongqing, and I tried using the slow and cranky Internet connection in their Business Centre, to no avail. Instead, I'm using a borrowed iBook (thanks Liz!) and stealing the WiFi in the hotel lobby, for a much faster, more pleasant, and ENTIRELY FREE experience.
Arrived in Chongqing tonight after a 25-hour, 2087-kilometer train ride from Beijing. As I was, near as I can tell, the only foreigner in the off-season on a train not really set up to deal with foreign tourists, it was an quite an experience. More later.
Still no luck on getting a replacement guidebook. Experiencing Beijing unemcumbered by information is still pretty good, though I'm not being very touristically efficient. I have managed to see the Forbidden City, and tomorrow I should manage a section of the Great Wall. Mostly, I've spent a fair amount of time wandering aimlessly or riding cabs.
Since i have to meet Liz in Chongqing, I went to Beijing West Station this evening to buy my train ticket to Chongqing, which puts me there on Christmas Eve -- I hope. Merry Christmas to you, too.
Beijing West Station, should you ever visit there, is the biggest freaking train station and the biggest freaking madhouse I have ever seen. I'm not looking forward to returning in a couple of days.
I did NOT lose the pages of Thomas Cook's Guide I had photocopied (no sense in taking the whole book), but it wasn't very helpful here -- I used the printed copy of Duncan Peattie's free China Train Guide I downloaded back in Tokyo. It told me which train I needed, though communicating that desire at the train station was rather difficult. But I succeeded, and I'm booked into a soft sleeper on train number T9, departing Beijing West Station on the 23rd at 16:25 and arriving in Chongqing 17:13 the next day. I hope.
I'm taking a break to type this at an internet cafe near Tiananmen Square called Quan Yi, a place that looks like a cross between a computer center and a 1930s movie version of Singapore. Only 20 RMB an hour.
I've arrived in Beijing, and it looks my ad hoc trip to China has become even more ad hoc -- I arrived in Beijing, only to discover that I left my guidebook on the plane! And no, none of the bookstores I visited (including the department-store-sized Beijing Book Store and the big foreign-book store that I remembered seeing mentioned in my guidebook) have ANY guidebooks to China as a whole. City guides to Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Fodor's Guide to Nova Scotia and Lonely Planet Bhutan, yes, but not China. I've asked Liz (whom I'll be meeting in Chongqianq on Christmas Eve) to bring along an extra guidebook, but until then I'll be muddling through.
Whoops, a bit delayed, but I guess I should have mentioned what I'll be doing for my New Year's vacation.
As I said in a previous posting, I'm not going to Russia after all -- at least, not yet.
Turns out that getting visas was more difficult than I thought -- Russian visas require an invitation and an itinerary of where you're going, and the agency I talked to here said that getting three sets of visa needed (Russian, Mongolia, and China) would not be possible -- so I bagged that plan and went back to Plan A -- a short hop to China with no real agenda.
Which really was Plan A -- a low-key, aimless wander that somehow morphed into a rigid itinerary that required a hand-made multi-color Gantt chart to sort out.* The New Improved Plan A has only three components:
1) Arrive Beijing December 18th 2) Leave Hong Kong January 6th 3) See the Three Gorges somewhere between 1 and 2 (I'm meeting a co-worker, Liz, who'll be in the vicinity then).
Yet another simple plan that mutated. This one cost me ¥32,000, and we'll see if it's worth it.
The simple plan was the notion that I should, in case my digital camera became inoperative (due to dead/unavailable battery, full-to-capacity Memory Sticks, equipment failure, theft) bring a film camera as a back-up. I had in mind something like a disposable camera or two, but...
1) ...while shopping at Yodobashi Camera, I stumbled over their hobbyist film section. Slide film, black-and-white print film, large-format film, papers, developing chemicals -- all the sort of stuff I hadn't seen since high school. I remembered my feeble efforts to emulate Ansel Adams, and my particular fondness for Ilford black-and-white film.
2) Somewhere in a box at home, I still had my old Canon FTb SLR camera, which my dad bought sometime during the Nixon administration. Primitive by today's standards -- all metal construction, no electronics except for the light meter, and manual focus -- it's been absolute brick of a camera, in performance and -- sadly -- weight.
3) So I bought a couple of rolls of Ilford black-and-white film, dug the Canon out of a box in the back of the closet, and loaded her up. Years of neglected maintenance took their toll on the camera: it took one shot, then immediately jammed.
4) And of course, I still had that idea stuck in my head of taking black-and-white photos with a film camera. So I was susceptible, while browsing in Yodobashi Camera with Liz, when I encountered an in-store special: a Pentax MZ-60 35mm SLR body, with two Tokina lenses (28-80 mm and 100-300 mm zoom) for ¥31,900, tax included.
5) Which I bought, along with a dozen assorted rolls of film (Ilford XP-2, HP-5, and FP-4; Kodak Kodachrome 64 and 200). Liz was also tempted, but she called her husband, who managed to talk her out it.
So I managed to go, in only a few easy steps, from pondering a disposable back-up camera to an entire retro-technology system and the requisite retraining. Now I have a couple weeks to relearn basic photography principles and how to operate this camera. I did quickly learn to stop flicking my thumb onto the non-existent film-advance lever, a habit ingrained by years of using my old-fashioned Canon. Let's see if I can figure out the rest before I leave.
That whole plan came apart at the seams, a prime example of an idea eventually evolving into unrecognizablilty.
My original plan, when I conceived it months ago, was to take a simplified, stripped down vacation: my trip to Paris probably had more planning than it strictly called for (I bought *5* different guidebooks, for God's sake, for a weeklong stay).
So I wanted to do something:
1) outside of Japan. I was tired of domestic. but also
2) close to Japan, relatively speaking - Europe, the US, and Australia/New Zealand are about equally far away -- or at least on the same scale -- and being packed into a cattle-class airplane seat for 10 hours each way just didn't appeal.
3) with a flexible itinerary. Being tied to a schedule -- especially within the confines of a short vacation -- also didn't appeal.
4) relatively inexpensive. Blowing a large chunk of money in a short time (as would be the case if I traveled to Europe or North America) is also not my idea of a good time for a causal trip.
My original plan was to go to China, on the grounds that it was very close and very cheap, and that I could also travel randomly on railroads and go wherever the heck I felt like it. Unfortunately, I got the bright idea of concocting an itinerary almost immediately, one which took me on arc from Shanghai to Beijing to Harbin to, finally, Vladivostok. From Vladivostok, I was planning to take the ferryboat that runs between there and Japan. But I discovered that the ferry stopped running after December 22nd, so if I wanted to do this journey I would have to do it in reverse. So plan stuck in mind, I altered it.
This led to further complications: I was depending upon a schedule that was fundamentally brittle; that is, it relied upon my catching very specific trains, often trains that run only once a week. So, already I was violating my principle of a trip that didn't require a great deal of advance planning. In my zeal to work out that the schedule (which I said that wasn't going to do in the first place) I even had to resort to railroad guidebooks, websites, and an elaborate Gantt chart using two colors of ink and four colors of highlighters just keep everything straight. (See photo to the right)
Worse -- and I really should have considered this from the beginning -- it turns out Russian visa requirements are very strict as to time and place of travel, and stops along the way that must be arranged in advance in order to get the visa. Of course, I found this out at practically the last minute: when I contacted an agency that arranges these things, they told me three weeks was insufficient to plan the journey that I was considering, given the visas that had to be obtained.
In international security circles, the policy wonks would call this plan evolution "mission creep": the gradual move away from a simple initial plan to something more elaborate or unrecognizable. So, ironically enough, if I want to take a vacation it looks like I have to go back to Plan A: a cheap flight to China and taking trains around for no apparent reason.
Well, that's not strictly true, either. It turns out that one of my co-workers, Liz -- or maybe I should say, a former co-worker, since I don't predominantly work for that company anymore, just part-time -- is planning a trip to China, to visit her aunt, who's teaching English in Hunan province. As we both would be in the same country (yes, I know it's a very big country), I'm considering combining our journeys to some extent. That depends upon what I kind of arrangements I make in China.
I just paid for my air tickets -- leave for Beijing on December 18th, return from Hong Kong on January 6th, staying longer than I intended because of the cost of the tickets -- and now I'll see if I can stick to my original plan of not having a plan.
On a happier note, it's way past time to think about my New Year's vacation (anything to get my mind off of the debacle in the U.S.: it's that or taking up drinking).
Japan essentially shuts down for at least a week or two from about Christmas to New Year's. Previous years I've done little, because flights (especially to the US or Europe) are too expensive, and tourist places in Japan are either crowded or closed (I went to Kyoto a couple of years ago, and the museums and castles I wanted to visit were shut down). This year I thought I'd try something a bit different, a bit closer to home, and probably not terribly over-priced. Also, as Tokyo is far enough away from most everywhere else in the world to make air travel irritatingly uncomfortable, I'd prefer not to travel very far.
Essentially, my possible itinerary (or itineraries) works out something like this:
1) Train to western Japan to catch a ferryboat from Fushiki to Vladivostok (sails on the 17th, 22nd, & 24th of December), where it arrives two days later.
2) The Trans-Siberian Railroad westbound from Vladivostok, to:
2a)Ussuriysk, Russia, 2 hours down the line, and transfer to a local train bound for the Chinese frontier and then a Chinese train into Harbin, China (about one day).
(Oddly enough, the Thomas Cook Railroad Guide I bought today at Kinokuniya Books says that I could, in theory, take a train from Ussuriysk through China to Pyongyang, North Korea. Once a week, takes three days, if I'm reading the timetable correctly.)
2b)Chita (or Tschita--the spelling seems to vary), 3 days down the line, and transfer to the Trans-Manchurian railroad to Harbin (2 days, if I'm reading this timetable correctly)
(and from Harbin to Beijing to Shanghai and back to Japan, either by plane or ferryboat)
2c)Ulan Ude, Russia,3-1/2 days down the line, and transfer to the Trans-Mongolian railroad to Ulan Batar, Mongolia and/or Beijing (1 and 2 days, respectively)
(and from Beijing to Shanghai and back to Japan, either by plane or ferryboat)
I haven't worked out a complete timetable yet (I might need a Gantt chart to pull it off), but I'm still wondering if this is a reasonable itinerary.