Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I Looked Like a Terrorist... But in a Good Way

So if anyone has read the post below, it says that one may fly on RyanAir with only one 10-kilo carry-on item. Well, on all of my 5 RyanAir flights I meticulously managed to scrap by that rule without paying a single surcharge.

You see, I actually had about six carry-ons with me. One was the one that I showed at check-in, which left me with five more. The second went around my waist and was barely visible, although it was actually quite large (it was a fanny pack [bum bag in the U.K.], and I packed my heaviest items in there). The third was a camcorder and cassette case, which, luckily, I wrapped around my neck and kept behind my jacket. Another carry-on I opened up and asked if it is okay to take it on board for free, since it was all newspapers of various kinds, and they said okay. The papers combined actually weighed about 5 kilos! And my last two carry-ons were sundry items, which I put in all my pockets. Now I wore pants with 6 huge pockets, 2 jackets (i.e. 4 more pockets), and another item, so I had 10 pockets to store stuff.

Basically, this meant that check-in was a pretty dull moment. I would look like a terrorist, coming to the check-in desk with all my pockets loaded with items that, from the way they looked packed inside my pants and jackets, could have been mistaken for explosives. Then after check-in, I would go to a small corner and unload all of these items into the original bags, which were empty. I was able to transport one bag for free of charge, since I told the check-in people every time that it was indeed empty and simply for souvenirs that I would buy along the way.

Pretty funny, actually. This ended saving me a minimum of 70 euros on the trip.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Few Notes on RyanAir...

RyanAir is, generally speaking, Europe's cheapest airline. It is completely no frills. I'm surprised they don't tax people for oxygen, because they tax and charge for almost anything (that's not meant as a jibe to RyanAir... simply some dark humor). No meals are included in the ticket price. Seats don't recline. There are no magazine holders tied to the back of the seats for the person sitting behind someone to keep their reading materials sturdy. The only free luggage allowed is one 10-kilo carry-on item (you can check in luggage, but that costs extra). But, hell, what do you expect for a ticket that costs 20 euros one way from Barcelona to Paris, for example?

Well, that's another thing. RyanAir is a cheap airline, but there are several "catches":


1.) You must fly light (i.e. one 10-kilo carry-on), as checking in luggage isn't free (on the contrary, it's actually quite expensive)

2.) The airports used by RyanAir, especially in bigger cities that have multiple airports, will probably be those furthest from the city center.


In fact, I was flying from Stockholm to Barcelona to Paris. In each leg of my journey, I knew to expect a long flight, since I would actually be flying into Nykoping's Skavsta Airport (100 km south of Stockholm), Girona's Costa Brava Airport (92 km north of Barcelona), and Paris Beauvais Tillé Airport (85 km north of Paris). Each time, it took about about 60-90 minutes to reach the airport from the city, or vice-versa. And, more often than not, your shuttle bus ticket(s) to the actual city--if you're going to Stockholm, Barcelona, or Paris, that is--will cost more than the actual flight.

All are important things to keep in mind when purchasing tickets on RyanAir to certain destinations. Luckily, for cities such as Dublin, Edinburgh, or Riga, they only fly to the main airport, since that's the only airport available. So do some research before purchasing tickets on RyanAir, for you may realize that you're not heading exactly where you expect. :)

Cheap Travel? Where?! 5 Affordable Destinations...


So with the unfolding global economic crisis, several currencies are tanking -- some rapidly, some not so fast. The U.S. dollar is down against just a few currencies this year, but overall, many destinations have become bargains for U.S. travelers, the biggest of which I will list on this blog for those interested in planning an affordable vacation.


1.) ICELAND - The country which, without any doubt, has suffered from the credit crisis more than any other, so it's no surprise that this is a budget destination now, due to a rapidly falling Icelandic krona. Actually, the exchange rate looks to have stabilized at about 120 kronas = $1, but when I was there back in June, it was about 75 kronas : $1, which means that Iceland is now much, much cheaper. It will still be somewhat pricey, though, since this country used to be the world's most expensive travel destination, but at least it has become much more affordable. I suggest traveling there from May to September, since, due to its northern geographic location, the country does not receive much daylight in winter time. Conversely, in the summer time the sun barely goes down, especially from June to August. The only question is: what will be the exchange rate come then? Icelandair.com is offering great promotions out of several U.S. cities, since its planes are half-full now, as Icelanders cannot afford to travel to Europe or even the U.S. at this exchange rate.


2.) SOUTH KOREA - The won has been in the range of 1,300-1,450 : $1 these past few weeks, which is a bargain, compared to the 950 : $1 that it averaged less than a year ago. Tailor made suits and general costs have thus come down by at least a third, so planning a trip to South Korea would be a smart choice.


3.) MEXICO - The peso is down, so anyone planning a spring break vacation in Cancun can expect local costs not to hit the U.S. consumer that hard in dollar terms. :)


4.) AUSTRALIA - Talk about a currency collapse... Having been almost at par with the U.S. dollar back in the spring, the Australian dollar has fallen to the range of 1 USD = 1.50 AUD as of recent. In other words, the currency has fallen by half, meaning now is a great time for U.S. dollar earners to go and spend their greenbacks at the Land Down Under.


5.) UNITED KINGDOM - The pound, or sterling, is at a multi-year low against many currencies, and the U.S. buck is not an exception. At a rate of 1 GBP = 1.50 USD, prices in the U.K. finally don't appear that ridiculous to Americans anymore. Not that it is cheap there, but, hey, dollar-wise, rarely has there been a better time to go.
P.S. The above photo of Reykjavik, Iceland, is courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/aevar/407156201/ .

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Days 116-118: Edinburgh, Scotland and the Long Way Home

I liked Scotland and I liked Edinburgh, but not as much as Glasgow, which I visited on a day-trip to Scotland from Ireland back in January.

Edinburgh had a much prettier skyline thanks to the Castle, and the exchange rate of 1 pound = $1.50 was much better than $2.00, but Edinburgh didn't captivate me like Glasgow did. And I don't know why.

Oh, for the record, the locals all call the city Edin-bur, so don't add in the "g" ending. Apparently, that's the correct pronunciation :)

And one more note: for one reason or another, it always tends to rain in Scotland... well, almost always. ;)

The castle, at 11 pounds and no student discounts, is too expensive, in my opinion. It is Edinburgh's most famous landmark, but 11 pounds is just a bit too steep. Luckily, haggis, at only 5 pounds, is both tasty and not expensive for travelers using the U.S. dollar these days.

On my way back home, I spent the night in Dublin Airport. For one reason or another, time went by a lot faster than my last night at an airport: at Heathrow in London back in August 2006.

And there you go... that's my 115-day trip, totaling some 16 flights, 5 ferries, roughly one-and-a-half weeks on a train. This is some 18.5 hours on video, 6,200 photos, and $9,200 later. Not a bad once-in-a-lifetime investment, if you ask me.

P.S. Now that I am home, I will finally be uploading pics of my travels to this blog, so anyone reading this, stay tuned, this isn't the end... yet. :)

Day 115: Bratislava, Slovakia

It feels like deja vu... I realized how this day I would be in three countries in one day: waking up in Austria, then going to Slovakia for most of the day, before flying into Scotland near midnight. This was similar to the wake up in Denmark, go on a day trip to Sweden, all before flying into Germany program we had on my group Euro trip in January.

This was possible, though, because Bratislava and Vienna are almost the same city, aside from the fact that they speak different languages and are the capitals of Slovakia and Austria, respectively. They are only about one hour apart on a train, though, and are actually Europe's closest capitals. So, in order to save time, I decided to fly into Slovakia and fly out of Bratislava.

Bratislava has actually come a fairly long way from its sorry days in years past. I could not help but remember the mediocre reputation the city garnered from the "Eurotrip" movie and from others who visited, but the city looked fairly rich when I was there. Certain differences with Vienna were noticeable, but Bratislava is one of Eastern Europe's richest cities today, not least because, due to its lower wages and flat tax, Slovakia got so much foreign investment in recent years that the car plants of many famous brands, such as Kia and Toyota, are in Slovakia. Kia's advertisement in Slovakia is actually kind of unique: made in SlovaKIA (get it?). In fact, today Slovakia is the world's number one car producer in terms of per capita figures.

Bratislava deserves to get more tourists than it does, as most are transit tourists coming from one of two directions: Budapest (Hungary) or Prague (Czech Republic), or simply day trippers from Vienna, like me. While it is a small city of some 400,000, its Old Town is remarkable.

The only problem I had in Slovakia, though, was kind of a big one. I was heading to the airport on a bus and walked up to the bus driver to buy a ticket, which cost only 18 crowns ($1 is roughly 21 crowns). Apparently, he shrugged, implying that he did not sell them--and started the bus immediately. I didn't have time to get off, and the next thing I know, about 10 minutes later, a ticket inspector gets on board and fines me some 46 euros for riding without a valid ticket. Then he followed me all the way to the final stop -- the airport -- and took my passport until I went to the closest ATM and paid him the fine. I asked for his identity card and receipt, so as to make sure he didn't take the money unofficially (i.e. as a bribe). For the record, though, although I did end up riding without a valid ticket, it would help if the driver would sell them to foreigners at least. I wasn't even asking for change back. How hard is it to tear off a ticket and hand it to a passenger? Especially in the railway station, I did not know where to go to purchase one, and for many day trippers like me, it would be great if the airport bus and several of the main bus routes sold foreigners tickets on board. Apparently, my instance of being fined for not having a valid ticket despite wanting to purchase one is one of many in Bratislava, as I have found out.

Days 113-114: Vienna, Austria

Vienna is actually located further east than Prague, yet it is considered to be a part of Western, not Eastern, Europe. It sure feels like a mix of the two, though. At its airport, there were more flights to Eastern Europe--Tirana, Sarajevo, Kharkov, Minsk, Kiev, Krakow--than to the West. Vienna's two train stations are similarly catered to these two parts of Europe: Westbanhof goes, well, west, and the South train station goes to the east and south. But the city itself feels more like Western Europe when walking its streets.

But first, let's backtrack and start chronologically.

As written in the Paris entry below, my trip to Austria was somewhat longer than I expected, since my flight out of Paris Orly to Vienna was moved up to 1 p.m. from 9 p.m., in essence killing my last day in Paris.

However, by the time I got to my hostel in Vienna, I was so exhausted that all I did was nothing.. It took me about two hours just to stop talking to the girls in the room and get myself on my feet to go and eat some great local Austrian food.

I had a reason to be exhaused, though. My camcorder broke when I was coming back from Versailles. For some reason, the mini cassette was stuck inside and would not come out. I really wanted to catch Vienna on video, so I decided to find a shop that could fix my camcorder. Unfortunately, to fix a camcorder in such a country in not always done on the spot, and I was told that it is too expensive (about 70 euros for one hour), so it would be better to buy a new camcorder. So by the time I arrived in Vienna from the airport and visited this shop and then another, I was told that I would definitely be better off buying a new camcorder, especially since there are now holiday promotions for 99 euro camcorders--and I would be eligible for tax back, too, since this is a fairly big purchase.

Great, only the retail stores closed at 6 p.m. and it was already 5.45. And I still had all my luggage on me and did not find my hostel, not that I really tried. So imagine me running with all my 6 bags of various sizes down one of Vienna's main shopping thoroughfares just to get inside a store on time. Luckily, at about 5.52 p.m., I made it inside and bought the camera by 6.02 p.m. Unfortunately, the cheapest 99 euro camera, a JVC, was sold out, so I bought the next cheapest one in stock: a 119 euro Samsung camcorder. With a 13 euro tax refund that I should receive in the mail some time soon (hopefully), the final price was only 106 euros, or something like $140.

Then I checked into my hostel. And by 9.30 p.m I was back in my hostel from a great Austrian meal of local soup, some bread and meat thing, and some salad. Yummy.

The breakfast wasn't any worse. For one, I purchased two tickets (for two breakfasts, since I was stayingf for two nights), but I was only asked to show my ticket once, meaning my first breakfast at this hostel was, in essence, free. I still paid the money for the tickets beforehand, so I just ended up giving the leftover ticket to the great Australian girls from my room. But this breakfast has to be seen to be believed: for only 3.50 euros, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet, with croissants, butter, jam, cereal, an espresso andhot chocolate machine, liver spread, eggs, bread of all types, sausages and other meat, cheese, etc... Easily the best breakfast of my trip. And the bar in my hostel was advertising happy hour beer for only "one fucking euro." For a traveler on a budget, things did not get any better than that, although, trust me, the last thing I wanted at this time (i.e. after the Paris pub crawl) was a cheap beer. Instead, I needed some sleep.

Which I got after my first night in Vienna. I made sure to get up early, since I had one full day in Austria. Luckily Austria's whole population is roughly equal to that of Paris, meaning Vienna was much smaller and compact. It is truly a beautiful city, but the weather was cold and murky. By midday, it improved, and I truly enjoyed my time in Vienna. I actually saw all the sites I intended to see save for one castle that was quite far our from the historic city center.

FYI...

So in reality my trip is 115 days long, but due to rounding, my blog will have entries that mean my trip seems like it ends up being something closer to 117 days. This is because of rounding.

Quite simply, if all day I am flying and arrive in a city at 3 p.m. and still go out to explore the city, I'll list that as two days rather than one. If I am flying all day, though, and arrive so late that I go to sleep, I don't count this day at all. This means that my entries eventually add up to make my trip seem longer than it really is.

Days 111-112: Paris, France + My Favorite Cities

There are two things that one should never do in Paris:

1.) Hail a taxi from a street
2.) Walk home for two hours in the middle of the night from a nightclub

Unfortunately, the two were related, meaning I had the sheer luck of feeling this double-whammy. First, I ended up going on a falsely advertised 12 euro pub crawl, which was to include unlimited amounts of orange vodka shots but in reality included only one free orange vodka shot with each purchased drink, aside from two initial free drinks. Great, what a scam.

In any case, we ended up having a good time and decided to catch a taxi at 2.30 a.m. back home. Alas, we had no such luck. Then we were told that in Paris the taxis stop only in designated areas, so we had to hail them from a certain location. Thanks, locals! Well, once we found that location, it was freezing cold and we knew it would only be a matter of minutes before a taxi wuld stop to pick us up. We got so desperate that we were holding euros in our hands when hailing them, but still no such luck! The cars kept wizzing past us, either not noticing us or not wanting to stop; others already had people inside.

So, for about two hours (until 4.30 a.m.) I walked back "home" with Adam, a great guy I met on the pub crawl that happened to be from my hostel. Perhaps things were not as bad as they could have been, though, as I did find a 10-euro banknote along the way, and we did not catch hypothermia after all, which is possibly due to the recently-consumed alcohol that was still circulating through our bodies. But what a great late-night/early morning walking tour of Paris we had, as we literally covered about a third of Paris... not that we had much of a choice.

Aside from those incidents, though, I finally understood why Paris is the world's number one tourist city. In short, it offers such a wide array of historic and cultural landmarks. The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arche d'Triomphe, and Versailles are just the beginning. There is so much art, history, attractions, and other goodies in Paris that it is impossible to cover them all, ever. What made it worse is that my flight to Vienna on SkyEurope was moved forward without me having a say in it, so I had one full day in Paris. I tried to make the most of it, waking up at 6.30 a.m. to go outside just as the sun was rising and not coming back until late in the evening. Obviously, I did not see all that I wanted to, especially the inside of the Louvre, but I know I will return to Paris quite soon in my life to see it. Luckily, I did go inside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which is only a bit smaller, and I did have my picture taken in front of the pyramid Louvre entrance.

Paris definitely made it on my Top 10 list of cities (in my Top 5, in fact). The list for my trip, since I know all are curious, is as follows:

1.) St. Petersburg, Russia
2.) Kyoto, Japan
3.) Paris, France
4.) Stockholm, Sweden
5.) Hangzhou, China
6.) Busan, South Korea
7.) Moscow, Russia
8.) Tokyo, Japan
9.) Macau, China Special Administrative Region
10.) Vienna, Austria

Days 109-110: Barcelona, Spain

I was disappointed with Barcelona.

True, the city does have many whacky statues and other types of architecture thanks to Gaudi, the luny architect of much of the city. And they were very admirable.

Likewise, the temperature was great, and quite a contrast with the freezing temperature I had experienced in previous weeks. At some 19 degrees Celcius (about 65 farenheit), it was a welcome change.

But the city was too costly, especially for Spain, which is not exactly a super-rich country. And, for some reason, I was expecting so much more excitement than I got. Barcelona is a great city, don't get me wrong, but it fell far short of my expectations, which I now in retrospect realize were set too high due to things I've heard about the city from others.

What upset me the most, though, is the aquarium. I was contemplating going there, since students were not offered a discount and there were many other things to do. However, after having accidentally stumbled upon it, I decided to give it a go at 17 euros (about $22). This was the second largest aquarium in Europe, in fact, but it turned out to be much, much smaller than I expected. So, coming out of it about forty-five minutes and 17 euros later, I was left thinking how much better, in my opinion, the local Shedd Aquarium in Chicago was.

Perhaps the women weren't as good-looking their Eastern European or Swedish counterparts, either.

It is a still a city that must be visited by everyone at least once in their lives. That goes without saying. But, probably for the reasons outlined above, I felt that I didn't see what I came to expect.

Days 105-108: Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm was one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited. In the winter, obviously, things are not quite as nice as in the summer, but it was still terrific.

The city is actually located on many islands, so with the long summer days come the warmth and picturesque moments. In the winter, it was as good as it gets, which is saying one must make most of the six hours of daylight.

Another pleasantry was the fact that Sweden's Central Bank had cut interest rates by about two percent the day I arrived, so the krona, the local currency, fell against the dollar to 8.40 SKR = 1 USD. Back when I was in Malmo, Sweden, in January, one U.S. dollar bought just 6.06 kronas, so prices, in dollar terms, were down by roughly a quarter--and this made a big difference.

For once in my life in Scandinavia, I wasn't being too price conscious. I actually bought many things in Sweden: good food (rather than the cheapest stuff in town), a teddy bear souvenir, a newspaper, and other items. Sweden's taxes are so high that many of these things--especially alcohol--are prohibitevly expensive, but we found a place that was selling draft beer for about 25 kronas.

In short, I had a great time in Stockholm. It turned out to be, along with Paris, my favorite European city. And it wasn't even that cold out.

Now what could be better than that?

Day 102: Riga, Latvia

Boy, what a difference a year makes.

If things in Lithuania were bad, in Latvia they are now miserable.

A year ago my friends and I visited Riga en route to Vilnius. In the Old Town, stores were open, housing prices were still on the increase, and Latvia's economy was just starting to slow from its break-neck double digit growth. True, economists were worried that its economy was overheating and that the Central Bank wasn't doing enough to contain the situation, but at least consumers had money (i.e. credit) and were on a spending spree. The Old Town shops selling traditional souvenirs, as well as restaurants and eateries, were full.

Alas, some 11 months later, perhaps Latvia's economy is, after Iceland's, Europe's most worrisome.

First, the asset bubble has popped and property prices, which fueled this economic boom, are on a downard spiral. The lat, which remains pegged to the euro, should in theory depreciate in value, but because it must remain pegged to the euro (thanks to EU accession rules), the local currency board wastes millions of euros just to maintain the peg. Latvians are panicking so much, and thus withdrawing cash at such a furious pace from banks, that ATMs were out of cash several days before my visit. With tourism bringing in a lot of money in recent years, this is likely to fan out due to the economic crisis spreading all over Europe. Parex Bank, Latvia's biggest, was nationalized by the government, but not after trying to keep it afloat with a (failed) 300 million euro rescue. Sweden and Denmark are now loaning Latvia some 500 million euros for short-swaps in a dire sign of Latvia's economic malaise.

Unfortunately, the same picture was obvious in Riga, as many of the shops in the Old Town are now closed--and will remain so until things get better. Alas, they will get worse before they get better--and that is a safe conclusion to make.

Latvia's economy will contract next year, and as the EU's third poorest member state per capita, that does not bode well for its citizens.

Having spent one day here, I felt depressed a bit, despite the good weather. It is just so mind-boggling how so many people saw this coming, yet the Central Bank didn't do much to calm the storm before it was too late.

And now most of Latvia's 2.5 million people are feeling the effects of a protracted economic contraction and a drop in living standards.

Day 101: Vilnius, Lithuania

What's nice is that even with inflation, some prices are too good to be true. Take the price of my ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania, for example. From the Belarusian capital of Minsk to Lithuania's baroque capital, Vilnius, a ticket nowadays costs only $8 for the 185-kilometer (115-mile) journey. Unfortunately, due to the speed of the antiquated trains, and also because of the numerous stops along the way as well as customs and border checks, the journey takes about four-and-a-half hours. However, for $8 that is still a bargain, especially since two years ago this ticket was $7. With the dollar being up in both Lithuania and Belarus, perhaps this price will keep falling (in dollar terms) in the future.

Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole, is an interesting place. Due to the country's tumultuous history, nowadays Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian are heard on the street and all three languages are understood. Lithuanian itself is a captivating language and a mystery for linguists, who study it with passion, as it is the language alive today that is most similar to ancient sanskrit. As a new European Union member, Lithuania is still one of the poorest member states of the 27-member bloc, but that results in lower prices. And with one of the most beautiful -- and largest -- Old Towns in Eastern Europe (the second largest, actually, after Prague), it is definitely well worth a visit. As for me, I only stayed in Vilnius one night, for I have been here before numerous times, most recently back in January on a group trip with friends that turned out disastruous just about here (read below).

However, it is best to go in the summer to this part of Europe, since it gets excruciatingly cold in the winters, though coming here at any time of the year is no longer a problem, with Lithuania having joined the EU and the subsequent proliferation of low-cost airlines, such as RyanAir, which fly to nearby Kaunas, Lithuania's second city.

Whatever you do in quirky Vilnius, though, do not go to Zemaicai restuarant and order a piglet under any circumstances, as we ended up doing on my initiative back in January. In "we" I mean me and my nine friends, who ended up coming to Lithuania and pre-ordering a piglet that my Lonely Planet guidebook told me cost about $65 and feeds four/five. Well, the actual cost ended up being some three times higher for the piglet alone, thereby making Lithuania, which was to be our cheapest destination on the trip, our most expensive. And this could not have come at a worst time, for it was the last several days of our two-week journey and just about everyone was low on money, if not completely broke. In any case, this guaranteed that everyone would be broke henceforth. So, for the record, be sure to take the prices in Lonely Planet's Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania book with a grain of salt.

Luckily, I avoided the piglet trap this time around. With its cobblestone streets and warmer temperature then at this time last year, Vilnius was a more pleasant experience--especially now that I was coming here from the East (Russia or Belarus) rather than the West (Germany, for example). It's always better to come to Lithuania from a country that's even poorer, since it looks rich in comparison, so coming from Belarus is an excellent choice. If last year I was surprised by how poor Lithuania looked even after Berlin, which is by far not one of Europe's richest capital cities, I was pleasantly surprised by how civilized and relatively rich it looked after Minsk.

The one low point of my visit here this time around, though, were the ubiquitous signs of the credit crunch and, worse, a faltering domestic economy. With the global financiasl crisis exacerbating, I noticed how Hansa Bank, one of the Baltic States' most common banks, was now gone. In its place was Swed Bank, which, apparently, bought Hansa Bank out. And while talking with my relatives in Vilnius, much of the conversation focused on lamenting about the dire economic conditions of the day: how no one's job is secure anymore, how the excellent growth has ended, how inflation isn't abating much, etc. Quite a dire status quo, especially if comparing it to Lithuania's economic indictators back in January, when, generally speaking, things were looking fairly bright.

Minsk, Belarus (continued)

Luckily, after a week or so of adjusting to Minsk, one usually gets used to it.

And, in that way, I had to get used to my sandbox (a.k.a. brothel), as someone called it. My neighbor, a kind woman of about 60, stopped me on my way out one of the first few days to ask me where the owner of my flat was. I told her that I had no idea, since one of my local female friends found me the flat, and that I only saw him a few days prior to give him the money for the apartment. She then told me that the flat is usually a mess, since the owner doesn't care about it, and that it is usually used for one-night stands by randy men who pay hookers for a whole night and get their maximum enjoyment for this money right there in my apartment.

Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, per se, except that it was clear that the bed sheets were never washed. And that, true to her word, when the shower broke on day #3, the owner didn't bother fixing it.

All in all, for the 16 nights I paid, I only slept there about 11 or 12 of them.

But, at least during the day, I was home quite often... usually to clean up after a party or to cook myself breakfast.

I wished their was heating, though, but with such an irresponsible owner I was not surprised that even that was lacking.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Minsk, Belarus: Days 85-100

Europe's last dictatorship and a Soviet Union time capsule. Or simply "communism with a cappuccino," as the Lonely Planet tourist book company had called this place.

All was great, except my first four days or so here. And except the weather. And except the place I ended up staying at. And except a few other things. Oh, well, I'll explain this in my next post, but, seriously, the people here have become a lot nicer in recent years. Maybe no one still smiles--and neither do I expect them to--but the level of customer service has noticably improved here, as have the visa regulations and border crossing procedures.

So Belarus is catching up with Europe at least in some aspects, albeit at a much slower pace. In any case, at least it's European geographically.

Unfortunately, I have spent so much time here before that I didn't get much sightseeing done, but as far as stories go, boy, are there a ton of them. Since my time at the local Internet cafe is ending, I will update this post tomorrow from Vilnius, Lithuania. )))

St. Petersburg, Russia: Days 81-84

St. Petersburg (or St. Palaceburg, as it should more aptly be nicknamed) turned out to be my favorite city on my trip so far (with Kyoto a close second and Hangzhou in third place), despite the very limited daylight the city receives in the winter and despite the common drizzle.

The city is a real gem.... So much to see, so much to do, and so little time. Even waking up at 6 a.m. every day to be out at 8 a.m. and to come back at 6 p.m., when it was dark already, was not enough time. Indeed, I wanted to see a few more palaces and one monument that I didn't get to see because time had run out. Prices were significantly lower than in Moscow, too, at least for most items, so that made the visit to Piter, as the locals call it, that much more pleasurable.

The Peterhof (Petrodvorets) and St. Isaac's Cathedral was amazing, as was the Hermitage and the city's skyline in general. Actually, the whole city is one large museum, as a local had told me on the Moscow-St. Petersburg train. He wasn't joking.

I have about 700 photos of St. Petersburg (previously known as St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, afterwards Petrograd, then Leginingrad (again), and now, finally and hopefully for the last time--and again, St. Petersburg). This is more than I have of China in total, which only goes to show how much the city offers for tourists to do. It was a great experience, and I can only imagine how great the city is in the summer, when the long, warm summer days lead into the White Nights, when the sun barely goes down.

The one thing that bugged me, though, was the foreigner vs. local prices. Citizens of the Russian Federation pay, on average, about 3 times less than foreigners do, and Russian students pay much less than foreign students. I was dumb enough to ask for a student ticket, after which they would ask for my student ID and always charge me for the foreigner student price, as my ID was in English. Only on the last day did I realize that I was better off paying the regular Russian citizen admission price, since they never check a passport, rather than paying the (foreign) student price. When tourists inquire why they pay more, they are always politely told that they are simply paying the market price, whereas Russians pay lower prices because their tax roubles are used to subsidize their museums for them. Ahh, see what a nice government they have?

In truth, the people in St. Petersburg and Moscow were very polite to me. Only once in Moscow--and never in Piter--had someone balked at me. The people were always very friendly, helpful, and courteous. Perhaps this is why, more than any other reason, I enjoyed these two cities so much. They had seemed a whole world apart from Vladivostok, which was actually 7 time zones ahead but some 6 days on a train away (and, culturally, years away)--and still a part of the same country. Well, that's Russia for you: a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, as someone had once quipped.

Some Moscow Quirky Stories

Sorry for the prolonged delay in updating this blog. It's been more than three weeks since I last updated this page.

As promised, I will start with a crazy Moscow story that transpired right in my hostel.

When I was leaving Irkutsk, I forgot to write down the name of my Moscow hostel. I knew I had two hostels: one that I booked months ago and the second hostel that I booked literally days before, since I would be coming to Moscow earlier than I expected (since I decided to skip Mongolia). The reason I booked a different hostel in Moscow rather than adding days to my original reservation is because this hostel was cheaper and I try to keep my expenses to a minimum--especially when realizing that I have a $350 deficit when comparing my planned expenses to my actual ones. I was positive I had booked Godzilla's Hostel, though, and didn't sweat that I didn't get the address from the Internet, since it was posted on the Irkutsk Baikal Hostel's info board. All I needed to do was copy it down and I was set to go.

So I arrived to Godzilla's Hostel in Moscow on Bol'shoy Karetnyy Pereulok and was told that they didn't have a reservation from me. Strange, I thought, for I had reserved a room for two nights. I told them that they must have lost it and ended up convincing them, rather easily, that I had to pay only the remaining 90% for the first two nights, after which I would end up staying at the Napoleon Hostel. So after I had checked in, I checked my e-mail and realized that my reservation was NOT at Godzilla's Hostel for the first two days, but at a different one. What's worse is that the other hostel was not only cheaper, but I would also be fined a first night fee for no-showing if I did not call them. And I realized that I had screwed Godzilla's Hostel out of 10%, too, since I only paid them 90%, as I was sure I had paid them the deposit online.

This was insane! So I called the hostel I had actually reserved online and asked them if we can work something out where I would not be fined the first night's fee. They told me, yes, it's OK, there will be no fine if I show up the next day and stay for 2 nights, as I had reserved--just on slightly different dates (Nov. 11 and 12 rather than 10 and 11). No problem, I thought! I agreed, and then proceeded to e-mail Napoleon Hostel and tell them to cancel my reservation. Since I had paid a 10% deposit to Napoleon Hostel and was canceling more than 24 hours in advance, I would not be fined at all. So I stayed at Godzilla's Hostel the first night, at the originally-reserved hostel the next two nights, only to come back to Godzilla's and stay my last night there. It was no problem to change my booking in Godzilla's from Nov. 10 and 11 to the 10th and 13th, since there was room available and the reception people were great and friendly. Hours later I was told that I had paid them an extra 1,000 roubles ($38) somehow--and that I was overcharged for my room as is.

I could not fathom how this could be, but, apparently, as I had told them that I had reserved online, the price listed online for the cheapest dorm is more expensive than the actual price if purchased on the spot. So not only did they return me my 1,000 roubles, which I had no idea I misplaced, but a few days later they reimbursed me for overpaying, too. Thus, rather than me screwing them out of 10% profit, they actually screwed me out because of my mistake but happily admitted that forthright without me even inquiring and paid me all the money back. That's what I call amazing customer service... and in Moscow, of all places. :)

P.S. Then this is where the scary part begins. In short, there was a psycho American girl who was complaining about her health on the first night. She had some boyfriend who was supposed to meet her in Moscow, but he ditched her at the airport and she was penniless (literally). So the embassy (U.S. Embassy) took her passport as a deposit and was giving her $25 per day (about 700 roubles) that she had to pay back later. This meant she could not fly out on time either. Every 10 minutes she would complain about her health to the point that the reception girl didn't know what to do. When she heard the word "emergency," she kinda freaked and called the ambulance. So, at 2 a.m., the ambulance arrived and I was there as a translator, translating random questions to the psycho girl, who was giving weird answers all the time. Then they left and said she seemed to be relatively OK. When I checked back into Godzilla's Hostel for my last night, the U.S. embassy personnel arrived and gave her a new ticket from Moscow back to the States, as well as her passport. I'll never forgot moonshining as a translator (voluntarily, though) in Moscow at 2 a.m.--and at a hostel of all places. :)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Days 77-80: Moscow, Russia

Wow, what a change from other Russian cities.

This feels more like a microcosm of Russia than anything else... Awash in petrodollars, Moscow's opulence must be seen to be believed. Much cleaner than any other city I have visited in Russia yet -- and also much, much bigger -- Moscow is hard to explain. But I'll try.

Fashionable and trendy. A city that doesn't sleep. A city with too many cars. Expensive for sure, but cheap eats can definitely be found. A breakfast at a supermarket can be purchased for less than $2, but anything that requires service is automatically four times more expensive, aside from a simple snack at a kiosk. A small frappucino in a Starbucks, though, sets one back by a whopping $6, as does breakfast at a McDonald's. People are nicer than I expected, and that is saying a lot.

Moscow's grandeur is hard to explain. For Russia, this is its showcase capital, and most of Russia's money is circulated through here. What this means is much better customer service and a cosmopolitan feel for a country that discovered a perverse form of capitalism only some two decades ago. This translates to many surprises for the tourist, too, and most of them are pleasant surprises.

In my next post, I'll explain how my first night in Moscow was the most memorable on yet, and all of this happened at a hostel, as surprising at this may sound.

Days 74-76: Trans-Siberian Railway, Part 2 -- Irkutsk to Moscow

This train ride was a lot quicker than the Kharkov train. For one, it was an express train, and a much newer one, too. It was called "Baikal -- Irkutsk-Moscow." The route was a popular one, so the prices were high, but I managed to secure a ticket for only $110 in an open sleeper car (platskart) for a departure on November 5.

What surprised me most was how this car, a platskart at that, was better in all aspects than my more expensive 4-person private berth (kupe) on the previous train. And the people were different, too: for one, there were few noticeable alcoholics. The train conductors were much more polite, too, and didn't sell any bootlegged vodka from Ukraine to the alcoholics at a huge mark-up. :)

Cities we passed through on this train included Ekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Vladimir, and others, although I forgot the exact order. What was surprising is that some cities, such as Nizhniy Novgorod (Gor'kiy) and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), the station names were the ones listed in parenthesis above, even though the cities have been renamed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The highlight of this trip was, believe it or not, meeting and talking to 5 North Koreans. I saw them loading several boxes with the imprints "D.P.R. Korea" on them when the train got going, which surprised me. Then I noticed that two of the five men had jackets with pins of KIm il-Sung on them. I ended up striking a conversation with them, but only one of them spoke very good Russian. The others barely spoke Russian at all, so they must have been in Russia for only a short while. The fluent Russian speaker said that he has been going to Russia since the 1980s to work, and explained that all of these were workers who were here legally. They are allowed to return to North Korea and all have families there, he said. He also said, upon my inquiry, that Kim Jong-il is alive and well and didn't know where I heard the rumor that he had suffered a stroke. He also explained that all of them were from Pyongyang.

I don't know what to think. When another woman asked him what North Korea was like, he said that it's a very poor country, and that is why the workers came here. This candor surprised me. But then he said that foreigners like to visit North Korea and don't want to leave it, because it's so safe (true) and clean (also true). But it's not like that for the right reasons, so his words were definitely well-picked and I could tell that he was educated (he was even reading a Russian newspaper for a while). He was also surprised that I didn't visit North Korea, since I was so curious about it, but then I explained that Americans can't go there for many reasons. He was surprised, but not too much. When someone asked him about reunification with South Korea, he replied that this question has always existed and does so to this day--and added that South Korea is much richer than the North. Since normally a North Korean would not either know or admit this information, his candor surprised me again. Then I noticed he got off before the other North Koreans did, so he was either their escort, translator, minder, or something like that. Oh, and he warned me that if America ever wanted to attack North Korea, it would be a big mistake and that the Koreans would respond with all their might.

I showed my North Korean money, stamps, and cigarettes that I managed to purchase in Dandong, and the remaining four migrant workers were all very surprised. And once the North Korean described above got off the train, they suddenly became lukewarmly interested in looking at my video and photos of life in South Korea, which they didn't want to look at before. They still insisted that North Korea is the true Korea and truly believed in Kim Jong-il's wellbeing, etc. -- and one of the soldiers, in perfect Russian, uttered "Death to the U.S. Army." Surprising, perhaps, but definitely a strong comment.

One of them showed me a photo of his wife and child back in North Korea, so it's too bad that I didn't have a photo of my family or house to show them. I just didn't expect to meet North Koreans anywhere on this trip, but it just so happened that I met them on the Trans-Siberian. ...

Days 69-73: Irkutsk, Russia -- and Lake Baikal (Listvyanka)

Irkutsk was a pleasant city to be in, even for an extended time. I planned on staying in the city for only a few days and then heading off to Mongolia, which wasn't too far, but the price I was quoted at the train station was some three times ($120-140) more expensive than what I planned on paying ($40), so I reconsidered. Luckily, the Russian visa, whether single- or double-entry, was the same price, so I lost only $10 for the difference of a single- or double-entry invitation (the double-entry invitation cost $10 more).

This meant that I would be in Irkutsk for a whopping 5 days. The city, which is considered the capital of Siberia, is home to some 550,000 people. I expected it to be cold when I arrived, but it was -3 Celcius (about 25 degrees) at night, and during the day it got to as high as +10 (50 degrees Farenheit). On the day before I left, though, it dropped quickly, due to a strong wind, and the next day it was from -10 to -20 degrees Celcius.

The city, home to many of the Decembrists of the past, was pleasant, but not particularly clean. It was nice to stroll around and had many wooden cottages. The people, for one reason or another, were much more friendlier and pleasant than in Vladivostok. Prices for Internet were much lower and for food, too (kefir cost as low as 15 roubles per half a liter vs. up to 32 in Vladivostok).

The culmination of Irkutsk, though, was not the city itself, but Lake Baikal, which was located in the Listvyanka village some 65-70 km away. A girl named Anya who I met on the Internet was kind enough to take her car and give me a ride there while suggesting great spots to see. Lake Baikal is not only the world's deepest fresh water lake, but it is also its biggest, containing some 20% of the world's fresh water--more than all 5 of the Great Lakes in the U.S. combined. It was quite a site, especially with the weather getting better and better the closer we approached.

I'll upload my photos of Baikal to this blog in Minsk, hopefully, where I will be for more than 2 weeks, starting from Monday (November 17). It will take too much time to format and then upload them here, but they are truly great. So be on the lookout for that.

P.S. My memory card from China was fixed for free in Vladivostok at a digital photo center. So this means that I will upload those pics, too. Apparently, there was some virus in the memory card that set it to "read only," so the guy who worked there unchecked the box and that's it. Much easier than I expected.

Days 66-68: Trans-Siberian Railway, Part 1 -- Vladivostok to Irkutsk

I was advised by my roommate on the Rus' ferry, Anton, against opting for the cheapest train half-way across Russia: the Ukrainian car of the Vladivostok-Kharkov train, or any car on that train for that matter. It was said to be dirty, cheap, with horrible customer service, etc. The full route, which includes 8 days of non-stop transit, is a long one, indeed. But I didn't listen.

For one, it was the cheapest train available and departed at a time I thought was convenient, so I bought the ticket. Only minutes later did I find out that the time on the ticket for both Vladivostok (departure) and Irkutsk (arrival) were both Moscow time, which means I had to turn the clock 7 and 5 hours ahead, respectively, for the local time for each of those two cities. This meant that I would be departing Vladivostok shortly after midnight and arriving in Irkutsk shortly after midnight local time three days later... some 77 hours total. Fun stuff.

The ride was quick, though. The train might not have been the fastest and made a lot of one- and two-minute stops in small cities, but the time went by fast. We stopped in several large cities, such as Khabarovsk, Chita, and Ulan-Ude. Part of the route later on (after I got off, thankfully) went through Kazakhstan, which I didn't have a visa to transit in any case.

The Russian countryside from the train seemed to be very poor. And there were not many villages, if any, seen for hours. Siberia and the Russian Far East are sparsely populated due to the extreme temperature swings: sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter.

The highlight of the trip was hospitality, Russian-style. This translates into two alkies riding in my 4-person berth along with a soldier who was going home to visit his relatives. The soldier was my age and was drinking along with the alkies. Actually, I switched my berth to be in theirs, since mine had several people who I felt itsy about: gypsies, etc. I was afraid that my things would go missing, so I switched places.

The alkies sure made the trip more than entertaining. One of them missed the train because he was buying vodka. Only two hours later did he make the train, and I could not fathom as to how... Then he told me: "Taxi, we caught up with the train." And how much did this cost, I inquired. "Seven thousand roubles ($280)," he replied. No comment.

Every two hours they would wake up, drink half a glass of vodka and, occasionally, eat a small caviar sandwich, and then go back to sleep, only for this to repeat again and again. And every morning the alkies would have new scars on their faces, presumably from bumping into random objects at night on their way to the bathroom, which was some 10 meters away. Broken drinking glasses also were a common scene every morning, so you had to watch where you step.

Then one of them was fined 1,000 roubles for purportedly throwing up. He claimed he didn't do it, but the train conductor woman called a train officer to arrest him or take him off the train, so he ended up paying an extra 1,000 roubles ($38) so they would leave him alone. He swore he didn't vomit near the bathroom, but who knows.... ?? In any case, 7,000 + 1,000 + 8,000 (original price of the ticket) = 16,000. Geez, for that money he could have flown to Samara, where he was headed, and he would have made it there much cheaper and quicker, too.

Many Russian soldiers were on their was home and we taking this train, so I met them and took some pictures in their uniform. There were many genuinely good people and some bad ones, but for the most part, this trip was very memorable in a typical Russian fashion. :)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Days 63-65: Vladivostok, Russia

Well, two things in Vladivostok were better than I was warned about on board: the people were a bit nicer that I expected, especially at customs, where I was whisked through, and the temperature, at least during the day, was a bit warmer.

The rest...?? Well, to put it lightly, it was either exactly what I expected or far worse. I understand that, by human nature, I would be comparing Vladivostok with the last place I had visited, Japan, which is like comparing apples and oranges.

In any case and by any standards, the city was dirty. It didn't feel rich, although by Russian standards it was. Prices were exorbitant for all things: hotels, Internet ($4/hour), food (half a liter of kefir for $1, a decent lunch: $5). Taxis didn't have meters--i.e. some did, but many of the drivers refused to turn them on and gave a set rate of 300 rubles ($11) for a distance that took 5 minutes to reach by foot. Random security checks, bureacracy far worse than almost anywhere else, etc.

The good thing is that I rarely see drunk people here during the day and night. Poor people, yes, but not many drunk people. Perhaps this is because I am rarely out late, because it feels a bit dangerous (okay, maybe more than a bit). Three quintessentially Russian experiences hit me here already, which I will share:

1.) My stay at Hotel Venice. Now, such a name hints at elegance and comfort, but this was probably more akin to a -5 star hotel. In fact, many locals had never heard of the hotel. It was probably closer to a Love Hotel, minus the anomity and the choice to stay one hour or longer. This place was dirt cheap, located in a few barracks a few minutes' walk down from the railway station. The cheapest rooms went for 600 roubles ($23). There was a foldable bed with sheets and a blanket and that's about it. Well, and some electricity. For 700 roubles, which I opted for, there is a drawer, a free telephone that rarely works, and a bigger room. I was warned that I would hear everything my neighbors were doing, and, surely, that warning didn't disappoint. The bathroom facilities were shared, but I dared not use any of them. The hotel actually was taken off the Internet hotel registry and does not allow foreigners to stay there, which beckons the question: "how in the world did they let me, a foreigner, stay?" Well, in short, I met a young man my age at the train station, who was waiting for a train that leaves in 5 hours. He had a Russian passport and turned out to be a great guy, so he volunteered to register him in the room, but in reality I would be sleeping there. And that's what we did.

2.) Unfortunately, since the hotel doesn't allow foreigners, they obviously don't do the government-mandatory foreigner registration. And I couldn't go to a local government migration office and tell them that I had stayed there. So I went to the Migration Department Office about 15 minutes by foot from Hotel Venice only to find out that it opens at 10 a.m., and not 9 as I had expected. Then I waited in line for about 2 hours until someone would talk to me. I made up an excuse how I had a hotel reserved (Hotel Amurskiy Zaliv), but because it was so expensive, I ended up canceling it (true) and spent the whole night at a discoteque (half-true, as the second half of the night I spent trying to fall asleep in Hotel Venice). She asked me what the address of the discoteque was, and before I had a chance to answer, she added that it was ludicrous that I had done something like that and how if I spend my nights at a nightclub it would be impossible for me to obtain registration. She probably thought I was being sardonic and was very rude, but all I could do was smile, knowing that what I was telling her is the truth. This would mean I am breaking a Russian law that mandates all foreigners to register within 72 hours of their first entry into Russia (minus weekends). I didn't know what to do and thought of calling Svetlana, a nice Armenian girl I had met at a nightclub the night before, to ask her if we could write her address as my temporary place of stay in Vladivostok. Then I realized that it's fruitless, since I had a tourist, and not a guest, visa. After all of this wasted time, I went to a real hotel and asked them they would register me, although I would not stay there (obviously, I would pay for the registration). They refused, and told me that I had to stay there in order to obtain my registration. Heartbroken, I came back to Venice and had thoughts of ditching Russia for the next ferry back to Japan ASAP, only to realize then that this basically means I am cutting my trip halfway and returning back to America--without a ticket back to America as is (via Japan). So I asked them at the reception desk what to do and the people at Venice, who were rude at first but lightened up after they realized what a cool guy I was, recommended a Hotel called Moryak (Sailor). Apparently, Hotel Moryak had rooms for only 1,200 roubles ($44), and they took care of the registration work. Well, surely, this worked. But $45 was too expensive for a Soviet-style economy class-type room. Nonetheless, I had no choice--and Vladivostok has a huge shortage of budget accommodation. This was the cheapest normal place in town (obviously, excluding Venice, which is not normal by any standards, although this was quite an experience), and they did registration for only 20 roubles ($0.80). Unfortnately, luggage storage the day of check-out is not free and is about $2 per bag. God, I still can't believe how, out of despairity, I am paying such high prices for a total lack of modern facilities and almost a total lack of service. Well, at least the location is good.

3.) I was queing at the train station office to find out the price of a ticket to Mongolia from Irkutsk when two Russian security officials and one female accompanying them approached me and asked me to show me their passport. I obliged, sensing that they were real workers and not scam artists. Then they told me to continue inquiring about the ticket and then follow them, which I did. They checked everything I had in my bag, inspected me, asked me some questions, and then let me go some 15 minutes after the whole ordeal started. All without a general explanation of why and what, even when I asked. They just told me afterwards: "Beware, this city has a lot of freaks, so keep your valuables with you at all times... and now at least you'll have something about Russia to tell everyone back home about." ............ "That's for sure," I replied. ................

Days 60-62: The Rus' Ferry

Okay, if anyone was wondering the same thing I was ("why aren't there 'any' Japanese on this ferry?!"), I realized the answer the moment I got on board.

A typical Russian lady (tall, blonde, and brusque) barely looked up when talking to me. Then, after several minutes, she became nicer and allowed me to check in several hours early. I looked around and saw dozens of Russian men loading the ship with cars and other items. By the time I went to sleep and woke up, I had realized that the only normal guy on the ship, generally speaking, was the one sharing a room with me by the name of Anton. He was a computer programmer and not a car buyer like the others--and only drank a bit of beer. At night there were many liters of beer and tons of vodka being consumed amongst the other men, a fight or two broke out, etc. And the weather outside was harsh, so it rocked the boat quite a bit. And there were the typical Russian woman protege-cum-??? on board, too, albeit only about 20 of them. All in all, it was about 120 people: 20 staff, 80 men, and 20 women.

Indeed, even before this ferry took off, I felt as if I had already arrived in Russia, even though it was docked at the Fushiki Port outside Toyama city. Japan felt like a completely different world: politeness, hospitality, etc. While Russians are hospitable in a completely different way, and while the ship served Russian food, which I had missed so much and was thankful for, I realized that I miss Japan and do not want to go to Russia. In fact, the only reasons I was taking this ferry to Vladivostok was because 1.) I wanted to experience the Trans-Siberian Railway, 2.) I wanted to see Moscow and St. Petersburg, and 3.) it was the cheapest option to do all three. Apparently, since only an oligopoly of 2 airlines, JAL and Vladivostok Avia, operate the route, there is barely any competition, which results in high prices. This means whereas a round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Moscow, which includes some 24 hours of flying total, costs about $1,000, a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Vladivostok, taking about 2 hours, costs $900. I didn't have much of a choice here. :)

The Japanese people would feel out of place on a ferry like this, much like I had. At least I speak Russian and liked the food, but for the Japanese this would be like entering a different world. Unsurprisingly, the one Japanese man there was on board had his own VIP room.

Finally we had arrived in Vladivostok, one of Russia's premiere port cities some 40 hours later. And this is where the Wild, Wild West begins. ...

Days 58-59: Tokyo, Japan

On my night bus to Tokyo I had realized that I had crossed the halfway point of my journey. I had seen Southeast and much of East Asia and would soon be venturing into Russia, Mongolia, and Europe. After reflecting on my favorite places, I realized that Kyoto, Busan, Hangzhou, and Halong Bay were my favorite places I had visited in the last 2 months.

Upon arriving in Tokyo and visiting the places I had not visited last year, such as the infamous Yasukuni Shrine (notorious for commemorating 13 Japanese war criminals and being the lightning rod behind rising tensions between Japan and both Korea and China whenever a Japanese PM visits it), I had realized that I really, really like this city. And here is why.

First, Tokyo is not only super clean (like many Japanese cities), but for a city of this magnitude --the biggest in the world, with some 26 million people in greater Tokyo-- it works. People, like most Japanese, are ultra kind and polite. There is always something going on, so it's never boring. There is always somewhere to go, and the prices are not as high as many think. A decent lunch can be had for $5 (500 yen).

I experienced the typical Tokyo experience by first visiting the famous Shibuya crosswalk. Shibuya is famous for the world's biggest diagonal crosswalk, and it's hard to explain the energy that one feels when walking through there; it surely feels like one of those once-in-a-lifetime adrenaline rushes. The district of Tokyo is known for its 25-and-younger fashionistas, shopping for hip clothes and other accessories. It's the younger crowd that usually hangs around here, and Tokyo's infamous Love Hotel Hill is located here also. (For information on what a love hotel is, which is another quintessentially Japanese experience, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_hotel). I also visited Ginza, which is infamous for being Tokyo's answer to New York's Fifth Avenue: a conglomeration of expensive and trendy stores, selling anything from mainly clothes to cars and exorbitantly priced food, albeit a few cheap eateries. At night I visited Roppongi, which is Tokyo's gaijin (foreigner) haven, frequented by gaijin in search of clubs and bars where to hang out. Shinjuku was also a terrific experience: the typical stereotype of Tokyo, with hundreds of neon lights, cafes, people of all ages and Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest in the world, with about 3 million people passing through it daily. And then Akihabara, Tokyo's eletronic haven, was one of my final stops: here there are about 500 stores selling discount electronics of all types, with the culmination being Yodobashi Camera, a nine-story $1 billion electronic hypermarket.

I love Tokyo. I don't know what there is about it, but this is a great city I would definitely consider returning to some time soon. Of all the cities I have visited on my trip so far, the only two I would definitely consider returning to some day are Busan and Tokyo. I don't know what it is about Tokyo that intriques me so much, but this hidden aura truly is mistifying.

Days 56-57: Osaka, Japan

Osaka is a city that's hard to like until you've moved into the very core. The Allied Powers destroyed most of it during WWII, and the only real tourist attraction is Osaka Castle, which is truly beautiful.

Luckily, there is a great downtown district with literally thousands of stalls, izakaya (cheap Japanese eateries), shops, clubs, bars, etc. There is even Amerika Mura, literally American Village, which features many U.S. cafes, bars, and eateries such as Wendy's.

The city also has some very poor districts which reminded me of China. For a while I felt as if I had returned back to some parts of China, only without a visa. There were homeless people sleeping and rummaging through garbage, a lot of dirty streets, etc. But that was only in the district my hotel was located in. However, not all was bad in that part of town: either because it was such a poor part of the city or for another reason, there was probably the only 50-yen vending machine in town. Most of the other vending machines are from 100-150 yen. (FYI, one yen is roughly equal to one U.S. cent.)

I liked Osaka for the nightlife, even on weekdays. It is a great party city, but in terms of tourist attractions, it can be skipped for the nearby smaller but culturally much more interesting Nara. Thankfully, after Kyoto the last thing I needed was even more temples, as in Kyoto I had visited some 15 of them--and Osaka provided just the nightlife vacation that I needed, so to speak.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A few more pics...

















The first pics are with some girls I met in Guangzhou, who also happened to be visiting the city like me. They are both are China.

The other four pictures are with two guys I met from Russia who were studying Mandarin in Harbin. We met in Beijing and went drinking to McDonald's after buying a bottle of vodka... since it was raining outside and we couldn't drink inside the hostel. We bought french fries as a chaser and asked for three extra cups. It turned out great, as did the pics. Have a look. ...

And some pics from Guangzhou...






























































































































































































































































Some pics from Shenzhen (finally!)
























































So my memory card--the one with the majority of my pics--is still locked. I found a service center, but it was closed on that day (last Sunday). I will try to find another service center some time soon, but I had saved these pics onto my USB drive before, so I will upload them now. I still want to upload my pics from Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Dandong, Seoul, and Busan, but I cannot while the card is locked. I tried and the computer declines my request. Most of my pics from Dandong, Seoul, and Busan are on a different card, though, so they can be uploaded with relative ease once I find more time. I hope to get my card unlocked soon, though, because some of the pics on there are excellent.
Whatever the case, enjoy these "salvaged" pics for now.

Days 52-55: Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is one of those cities like Rome, Paris, or London. Indeed, each of these cities is very different, but they each have one feature in common: as Lonely Planet wrote, these are cities that every person should visit at least once in their lifetime.

And after visiting Kyoto, I agree.

It feels very different from Tokyo, as it is Japan's cultural, not economic or political, capital. With over 2,000 shrines and temples (total), the city offers a cornucopia of cultural heritage and beauty. If one gets lost, no matter what the street is, within 10 minutes he or she will stumble upon another temple. Perhaps this is why I like the city so much: getting lost, which I tend to do quite a lot, is actually fun. In its small corners it feels extremely laid back, but just ten meters away is the main thoroughfare, with shopping malls and heaps of people--as well as ultra-modern shinkansen (bullet-trains) not too far off in the distance. It feels like a city of contrasts, with one foot in the present (or future) and one stuck in the past.

Hidden in the alleys of the city (especially in the Gion district), late at night one may find a geisha. Kyoto only has about 100 geisha and maiko (apprentices). A geisha is a traditional female Japanese entertainer, whose skills include performing various Japanese arts, such as classical music and dance. Contrary to popular belief, they are not prostitutes, though they have to remain single during their tenure as a geisha; in other words, if a woman marries, she can no longer be a geisha. I did see one too many of them in Kyoto, though, including two geisha walking around and taking pictures of each other on their cellphones, which leads me to think that there are many knock-off geisha here. Luckily, I did happen to catch a glimpse of a real one late at night escorting a client somewhere.

The weather here, as in Korea, is great in October. Warm during the day, cool in the night--and little, if any, rain. Along with Hangzhou and Busan, Kyoto is definitely on my Top Three list of cities I have visited on this trip.

P.S. So I did get to try soju on my ferry from Busan to Osaka, which was great. The ferry, that is. It has a karaoke bar, a free concert, more space than the Dandong ferry, two restaurants, a store, etc. All of this came at approximately the same cost as the Dandong Ferry, so the PanStarLine ferry is definitely better. Anyhow, a Korean let me try some soju, which was only 20% strong. It didn't taste as bad as everyone says it does. When I asked him, he said that it is still made from rice, and that the prohibition was lifted after the end of the Korean War. So, contrary to the information in my previous post, soju is NOT made from chemicals and is safe to drink... within reason. :)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Days 50-51: Busan, South Korea



Unfortunately, I slacked off in Seoul since I had 4 nights there and was slow in my sightseeing. See, had I known better, I would have picked up the pace and spent less time online, all of which meant I could have come to Busan one day early. But it was not to be for one main reason: I didn't want to go to Busan.

What a mistake I made.

The explanation here comes from what I gleaned from Lonely Planet's characterization of Busan from its latest edition of Lonely Planet: Korea. It said that the city lacks a cosmopolitan feel and is very laid back. Basically, it seemed to say that after Seoul, this is like going to a fairly boring place.

This could not be any further from the truth.

For one, though Busan (formerly spelled Pusan in English) is certainly smaller than Seoul (4 million people vs. 12 million), it is not any less lively at night. It has a terrific fish market; the Semyeon downtown area is bustling for blocks and blocks with street food, shops, cafes, bars... literally everything--and this was on a Tuesday night, when I was there. I could only imagine how crowded it gets on the weekends and Friday night. In the summer and early autumn, Busan's two main beaches, Haeundae and Gwangalli, are teeming with people. It is a huge port city, too, perhaps larger than Incheon (maybe I am wrong, but it is a major port hub in any case). A very pleasant city that reminds me of Hangzhou in some aspects (probably due to its romantic feel).

It's a shame I came here for only one night--and I arrived late from Seoul as is, and now I have to catch a ferry to Osaka in a few hours.

Well, perhaps this means I now have a good reason to come back here. I enjoyed Busan more than Seoul, even judging by the little time I had in Busan. Seoul was great, but Busan was out of this world for what I expected. Perhaps it's all relative to my expectations: I didn't expect anything particular from Busan, while from Seoul I expected a Tokyo-like atmosphere in all districts, which I didn't feel so much. While Seoul certainly has some glitzy Shanghai- or Tokyo-like suburbs, many of the streets are business or residential districts with not many people in the day--perhaps many of them commute to the Central Business District for work.

But I would like to come back to Korea some day. My experience here was great. Seoul is cool... and Busan is amazing. And the Korean people here have all been, without exception, very honest and courteous to me.

Days 48-49: Seoul, South Korea (continued)


Seoul is a pleasant city. Civilized, orderly, timely. The streets are clean and English is spoken much more so than in China amongst all strata. The best part when visiting in October is the weather: aside from the first half of my first day here, the skies have been clear all three days and the temperature in the day-time is about 22 degrees Celcius (roughly 70-75 F).

The party area on weekends is near Hongik University, while Itaewon is the bar haven and is always busy.

But anywhere I went, I could not help thinking about the plight of the North Korean people. No matter what I did--eating, drinking, going out and having a good time--I was constantly thinking how something like this, depending on the particular activity, was either illegal (listening to Western pop music) or completely controlled (moving from city to city) just some 40 kilometers north of where I was. It's even more unusual to know that the people in the North have no idea of what life is like in the South; they think life in the South is poor and untidy and that North Korea is a rich country. This sounds preposterous based on any and all observations!

In any case, Seoul was a pleasant place to stay. I enjoyed it a lot. I didn't try the local brew, soju, though, even though is was extremely cheap: about 960 won ($0.85) per bottle! I was going to buy a bottle at that price for sure... until someone told me that this Korean version of vodka is made from chemicals now rather than rice, since the present laws came into effect during the Korean War, when making soju from rice was deemed illegal due to a massive shortage of the crop. In any case, upon hearing the words "chemical" and "vodka" in one phrase, I quickly reconsidered. Luckily, I can still try soju when I come back to Chicago... if I ever have the urge. All of the Koreans but one I met in Seoul said that, while they all drink it, it tastes disgusting and gets a person hammered fast.

Korea is very different from China in all aspects. I enjoyed both a lot, but the food, people, culture, etc. are very different in all aspects. I like that. The last thing I would like is to go from one country to another to find out that the two are very similar, without any noticeable differences. Luckily I did not encounter this so far anywhere in my travels. Japan, which I will be visiting after Busan, is surely much different, too.

P.S. The picture above is an aerial view of North and South Korea at night. Check out the massive lighting and electricity in the South, whereas a total dearth of electricity, save for one speck of light, is coming from the North. Very eerie.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Days 46-47: Seoul, South Korea -- and the DMZ







The Dandong Ferry to Incheon wasn't the most pleasant journey I've had, but for the price I will not complain. It was by far the cheapest way to get from Dandong to Korea, even if my cabin was very tiny--just enough to recline and sleep, but not turn (with ease). Incheon, with about 2-3 million people, is about an hour from Seoul and is considered a big Seoul suburb. Seoul's population is about 12 million, or roughly a quarter of South Korea's total. It is its undisputed political, cultural, and economic capital.
A few hours ago, I came back from the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. This is the place that Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place in the world." Unfortunately, he wasn't exaggerating. Demilitarized couldn't be further from the truth, by the way, as the zone extends two kilometers south into the Republic of Korea and 2 kilometers north into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There are land mines in numerous places, barbed wire is everywhere, as are border guards, etc. North Korea's million-man army is stationed along the border, as is much of the country's artillery. It is said the North can flatten Seoul within an hour. From the South Korean side, nearly 30,000 or 40,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed. It is a very interesting, albeit tenuous and de facto unofficial, "peace."
What's interesting is the wildlife that has flourished inside the DMZ in the last 50 years, since there are no people there. There are many rare species that have flourished there, which is perhaps one of the only good things that has resulted from the divide of this one nation into two separate and very different countries.
Panmunjeom is a place where these two world's meet. One is a capitalist world, a country that is the world's 12th largest economy. The other is the Hermit Kingdom that has been isolated for the last five-and-a-half decades; it is the world's last Stalinst dictatorship and a place where many freedoms we in rest of the world take for granted today are simply nonexistant. It is also a place of the world's most extreme personality cults: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Scott Fisher, a blogger right now living in South Korea, writes that "It's the edge of the known world butting up against a nation of people trying desperately to keep it away." My tour, unfortunately, included everything but Panmunjeom, which lies exactly at the 38th parallel--the demarcation line. Although the true border swings and winds around that parallel, Panmunjeom is smack dab in the middle and is where the UN-sponsored armistice talks are held in several barracks. The barracks were built exactly half-way into North and South Korea each, and visitors are allowed to enter the building but must leave through the same side they entered from. Basically, you can technically cross into North Korea, but you can't leave through the door that is on the North Korean side if visiting from the south--and vice-versa. The visit to Panmunjeom apparently is precluded by a signing of a waiver to respect all rules, no taking of pictures, and admitting familarity with the strict rules. A strict dress code is observed, too, purportedly so that the North Koreans don't use foreigners and the way they dress in propaganda. From the South Korean side, tourists are taken to this town on a UN car, since South Koreans and 22 other nationalities (among them Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese--hmmm, I see a pattern here) are not allowed inside, as decided jointly by the U.S. and UN. Again, I did not see Panmunjeom, but I did see the third infiltration tunnel that the North had dug and the South had discovered several decades ago. My tour also visited the Freedom Bridge, Observatory, and other sites. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures at most "hot" sites, but it was an interesting visit.
One more--and final--note of interest is the quixotic dream of reunification, which is a touchy subject for southerners. Many think it will come one day--some think soon, some think not so soon. But the fact of the matter is that though many southerners want it, they hesitate when questioned about the financial cost. When East and West Germany reunited, at least the East was somewhat developed, but even for Germany reunification came at a very high price. However, for South Korea, the true cost can be as high as $1 trillion, as estimated by economists, considering the antiquity of the North Korean infrastructure and industry. There is a lack of nearly everything in the Hermit Kingdom.
Perhaps one day its people will get to reap the same benefits and freedoms that many of us have today. Only time will tell as to when that day will come, if ever, but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.
P.S. The pics of the DMZ here are courtesy of Dan Harmon and Scott Fisher. Check out Scott Fisher's excellent memoirs of his visit to North Korea on http://1stopkorea.com/nk-trip1.htm . All of the three pics in this post and more are from this link.

Days 44-45: Dandong, China -- and Sinuiju, North Korea







First of all, I want to apologize for not uploading more photos in the past 2 weeks. In Shenzhen I had no time to do that, whereas in Guangzhou the Internet was way too expensive in my hotel--and Internet cafes were too far away from where I stayed. Finally, in Beijing, I had Internet access, but my memory card malfunctioned. It still says it is locked for "write protect," so I will take it to an Olympus or Fuji service center here in Seoul to get it checked out. It should be a piece of cake for the experts to unlock. In any case, I wanted to upload my photos from another memory card in Dandong, but, strangely enough, this blog was blocked in Dandong. Not in Beijing, not in Shanghai, but in Dandong, of all places. It seems that the Great Firewall, as it is known, is controlled more by local authorities rather than the central government. I never encountered Wikitravel blockages in Beijing (for the English language version, at least) like last year, but in Dandong sites such as The Economist were blocked. Even foreign currency conversion sites were blocked. Anyway, I am in Seoul, South Korea, right now. I have quick, good Internet here, but don't have much time right now. Hopefully within the next day or two I'll upload the 100 or so pictures I've been wanting to upload for the past few weeks. The three pictures uploaded on this post of Dandong are not mine, although they are not any different in substance. I found them all on Google and will upload my own pics hopefully tomorrow or the day after.

Dandong, China, was bigger and more modern than I expected. There are many shopping centers, several KFCs, and many western-style clothing stores. Most people, such as me, come here to see the North Korean border. Luckily, there is also a ferry that goes from Dandong straight to Incheon, South Korea. The standard price in econ class is $141 (960 RMB), but since I locked in a student fare back when I was a student, I only paid 780 RMB ($111). The journey takes 16 hours, but more on that later.

Dandong was interesting. It felt like a small Chinese city, which it is, with only some 640,000 people. It had a recently remodeled but propaganda-laced America Korean War Aggression Museum. All of the exhibits excoriated the Americans no matter what. The museum felt like it was built back in 1960s China. Nonetheless, it was very interesting. The basic gist of the museum was as follows: Americans started the Korean War and are to blame; the North Korean "brothers" deserve their independence and are China's friends; and South Koreans are American cronies. There is some semblence to the truth in some of the aforementioned, but the museum just beats this horse to death one too many times. After three exhibits, it starts to be very redundant, but that did not make it any less interesting because of the topical issue of the war.

Aside from that, the only other attraction in Dandong--and the most popular by far--is the ferry along the Yalu River. There is a Friendship Bridge between North Korea and China, which is probably only about 200 meters long. This is the bridge that is North Korea's window to the outside world, as some 60% of its Chinese trade comes from here. I witnessed cars and trucks passing by about every minute or two. This bridge was built after the North Koreans blew up a neighboring bridge some time ago, which effectively cut it off from the outside world. Near these bridge-and-a-half are several vendors selling North Korean souvenirs, such as the worthless North Korean currency, North Korean cigarettes and stamps, and pins of Kim Il-Sung. I bought all of them except the pin. Now I regret I didn't buy the pin, since I have exactly 25-30 yuan remaining (exactly how much the pin cost).

We took a fast 30-minute, 50 RMB ($7) ferry up to about 15 meters away from the North Korean shore. We saw several commoners, who all seemed to be dressed the same. We saw border guards with guns and several fisherman, one of whom waved back to us (!) after someone from our ship yelled anyong haseyo (Korean for "hello"). I also saw boys playing basketball and some girls entering a building. There were many boats, trucks, and construction machines parked. There was also a ferris wheel, which has apparently never been in use and was built simply to serve as a propaganda tool. Once our boat had come back to China and the sun had set, it was dark--and a very different story. The China-North Korea border could not have been any more different.

In short, it was an eerie scene. The Chinese half of the bridge was illuminated and "shining." The North Korean half, though, was pitch black. In fact, it seemed as if the bridge just ended half-way through--just where the Chinese half ends and the North Korean half begins. Sinuiju, the North Korean border city, only had a few specks of light coming from one place, whereas Dandong was alight all over. I can only imagine what the natives of Sinuiju think when they see Dandong at night and compare the scene to their own plight. It's a depressing picture, to put it mildly.