Archive for September, 2009



Of all the pieces of advice we never received about Japan, probably the one we missed most was IF YOU ARE THINKING OF GOING IN THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, DON’T‼‼ This year the juxtaposition of the autumn equinox and another holiday on 19th September, together with an official bridge day to make it all a five day weekend, left this as possibly the worst time to head off on our rail passes: no spaces in the hotels, everywhere thronged with tourists and even some difficulties making reservations on the trains we wanted have made the trip run somewhat less smoothly than we would like. In particular, the hours spent on the internet and phone finding all the accommodation booked solid have made us seriously reconsider our policy of being spontaneous and going with the flow.

So from now on instead of being a spontaneous ad booking at the last minute we will revert to being completely disorganised and booking at the last minute. Ah well.

A second piece of useful advice might have been “if you must travel then, avoid Kyoto at all costs!” Hiroshima was crowded, but manageable. Kyoto was mobbed and is less easy to walk around. The buses were packed, with long queues, and the very nice people at the “foreigners'” Tourist Information (not to be confused with the normal Tourist Information Centre, which has little information not in Japanese) advised us to get a local train to a spot about an hour’s walk from the Golden Pavilion rather than wait what promised to be the same amount of time for space on a bus. The information centre, incidentally, is a bit of an oasis. On the ninth floor of the station building (in a department store so busy that the lifts down were full and skipped the 9th floor altogether) it is quiet, light, roomy, equipped with free internet and a variety of newspapers and magazines (in several European languages) and space to sit and read them.

It was a good choice, although I had to be deliberately vague about the length of the walk in order to avoid a mutiny. It was a hot afternoon – the morning having been stolen by accommodation searches, breakfast and the strangely magnetic attraction the shopping centre under the station seemed to exert – and small legs did not appreciate the exercise as much as they might. Still, we wandered not quite randomly through quiet residential districts and streets lined with small local shops and restaurants, all a far remove from the manic bustle of the centre. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines looking for water, the owners of the property rushed out, eager to help. But there was no water in the machine so, in a very Japanese way – courtesy being extremely important – they rushed off to get four glasses of water for us, the whole exchange being managed with many bows, lots of “arigatoo”s and not a few “onegai shimasu”s.

Finally we emerged on to the main road at the Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), another popular destination in the series of Kyoto’s endless series of huge and impressive temples and shrines (and a UNESCO world heritage site), but, philistines that we are, gave it barely a passing glance before continuing up the road to join the throng queuing for Kinkaku-ji Temple, best known for the Golden Pavilion.

The pavilion itself is stunning, no question, especially when seen from the far side of Kyo-kochi (the “mirror pond”), with its reflection in the calm waters. A place of peaceful reflection and contemplation, at least in another universe or at another time when there aren’t 10000 people fighting to get a photo of their friends or family in front of the classic image, we couldn’t linger if only because the movement of the crowd was bringing a new meaning to going with the flow and we duly ooh-ed and ahh-ed our way around the grounds before being spat out the far end.

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

By this time hunger, as well as tired legs, was taking its toll. The restaurant we selected (using the criterion of the first open place we saw) gave us another new experience. Rather than going to all the trouble of telling the staff what we wanted, we put our money into a vending machine and selected the appropriate button for our meal. Then – wonders of technology – an electronic voice told the staff what we had ordered. So much simpler than us just telling the servers ourselves. All cynicism aside (not an easy task for me) the result is good value: tasty, reasonably priced and as it seems with most Japanese fast food served on reusable crockery rather than stuffed into polystyrene boxes whose useful life is destined to be about 30s before they are abandoned to lie in landfill for a couple of million years.

An hour back on the bus gave us some idea of the size of the place, and took us past more huge temples and the Imperial Palace, but by then we were more than happy to head back to our Japanese-style room – futons on the tatami mat floor, or as Julie dubbed it “very expensive camping”. A good day in the end, if not quite the one we had planned.


On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1


I’ve decided: the official “camino de los Inca” (Inca Trail) is clearly a tourist trap designed for over-organised under-achievers: who, seriously, knows what they are doing six months ahead of time?

I was feeling quite virtuous and well-organised when, two weeks before we were due to arrive, I contacted a travel agency (Incapoint) only to find that the official trail was booked out for several months: there are though a number of alternative trails set up since numbers were restricted in 2002: you can mountain-bike parts, take a series of ancient Inca paths at the other end of the valley or, and for some reason this caught our eye, get up at four in the morning to start the four day climb over the Abra Salkantay (Salkantay Pass) that the more adventurous Inca used to reach Macchu Picchu. You need to be young, adventurous and in good physical condition to attempt this trek, and ticking none of those boxes I decided to do it anyway. Seriously, it is described as challenging and although the distances sound quite modest for hiking over flat ground 17km is a long way when you are chasing one of the few available oxygen molecules at 4600m above sea level.

So it was that Éanna (17), Síle (11) and I found ourselves on a bus that was slowly filling up with other passengers while porters and guides outside threw luggage – we hoped ours, but it seemed quite random – up onto the roof. A long bus journey later we were dropped in the village of Mollepata, where we were to breakfast in one of a series of restaurants that, miraculously, seemed prepared with very similar and similarly priced menus. This breakfast is not included in the package (causing our party the first of a number of rows with the tour companies: it had been made clear to us but not to everyone) and was twice the price we had been told by the agent. Still, we ate gratefully and quickly, keen to move on.

The outskirts of Mollepata

The outskirts of Mollepata

Leaving Mollepata and starting to climb.

Mollepata is at 2900m, a height where in Europe we are used to finding glaciers or at least pockets of left-over snow but here in the tropical Andes it is a different story and the town nestles in a fertile green valley, not exactly rich farming country maybe – it is arid, sandy and many of the fields are perched vertiginously on the edge of a cliff – but you can see how it is possible to live and even make a profit from the land.

Setting out

Setting out

Setting out.

Starting out, we introduced ourselves with names and ages, my admission of being a lad of 48 summers provoking a sharp and rather unnecessary intake of breath. Most of the rest of our multinational group – 2 Poles, 2 Belgians, 3 Australians and one New Yorker completed the team – were in their twenties and thirties and appeared to regard such an ancient as a liability rather than a source of wisdom and knowledge.

The first days walk was mostly on a rough dirt road, with occasional shortcuts as Edwin our guide termed them: steep, winding paths that cut off a few bends in the road while also robbing us of breath. It was uphill, not usually steep while following the road but hot, dusty and relentless. Still, slowly but surely the mountain tops that had surrounded us in Mollepata were shrinking to the point where we were looking down on them from a considerable height, though the ones in front of us didn’t appear to be getting any smaller at all.

Mirando atras

Looking back.

Enterprising locals had set up a number of stalls on the route to sell water, fizzy drinks and snacks at reasonable prices (especially considering the effort involved in getting the supplies up there): much welcomed but the accompanying rubbish was a real disappointment. A continuous trail of plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus lines the route. Mostly, according to the guide, this is not the fault of the hikers but of the support teams: the cooks, the porters and the local traders. I don’t know if the hikers can be absolved quite so easily but it is certainly true that the campsites and lunch stops were not well-maintained and it was depressing to arrive at a stop and leave the rubbish we’d collect on the route in a bin, only to find an open tip on the slopes as we left the stopping point.


One of many stalls servicing the hikers.

As day turned to evening, we continued the relentless climb, the temperature began to plummet and we finally caught sight of the peak of Salkantay and, nestling beneath the glacier, the campgrounds for the various tours.


The snow-capped summit of Salkantay finally appears behind the valley walls.

By the time we reached the camp, at some 3600m above sea level, it was close to freezing if not already below. Any expectation anyone might have had of a session round the camp fire was quickly dispelled: we had neither fire nor energy: we drank tea, ate wearing gloves and collapsed into the tents to try to sleep on the hard stony ground, though not before we managed to gaze in wonder at the stars: the Milky Way lit up the night sky in a spectacular display that far outshone the best I have ever seen it achieve in the north. Little wonder the Incas knew a thing or two about astronomy.