Travelogue Mauritius 7: Epilogue

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jun 22, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Epilogue
21-22 June 2013

We’d already made the executive decision not to bother with any of the tour options on the South of the Island (Curepipe and the volcano, Chamarel and the 7 coloured sands, the tea tour, the zoo etc), so all that remained to do on our last full day was nothing.

We slipped into the comfortable routine of our decadently multi-course breakfast and again watched in fascination as the chef at the hot buffet effortlessly flipped out our 2 perfect omelettes. He uses small cast iron frying pans each on its own gas ring. You choose your fillings from a row of dishes – cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, chillies, ham etc – and he scoops as you choose, finishing off with expertly cracking the egg/s one-handed into the bowl, giving it a quick whisk and pouring it into the pan just as the other omelette is ready for a flip (which he does with a flick of the wrist like it’s a pancake). A few seconds later and omelette 1 is ready to go and he’s wash-rinse-repeating the whole process. Quick as lightning and every omelette perfect. When asked his secret he says it comes with 25 years of doing it – and he can’t remember when last he dropped one!

Breakfast behind us, we headed down to the water for a bit of kayaking. It was really hard work because the wind was up, so the water was choppy. We’d started paddling North up the Mont Choisy public beach, but were being pulled out to sea by the current so turned to head back. Easier said than done! Although I was maintaining a steady movement, there were times when I was just staying on the spot! A lot of work for no progress, I can tell you! Amazingly though, once you pass the point where the piers on either side protect the hotel’s little lagoon, it’s another story entirely. From paddling on the spot, it almost felt like I shot forward! Hallelujah! It really was quite a work out – so lucky I had a week’s worth of sugary breakfasts to fuel the machine!

The beach crew told us that it was 10 minutes to waterski time, which made for great timing – and gave me just long enough to spend some quality time with the jewellery peddlar on the beach. Mauritius is known for pearls of course, but also haematite (a silvery black shiny stone) and sandstone (brown glittery stones from Chamarel), which are often coupled with amethyst and turquoise from Rodriguez and Madagascar. They’re also big on shamballa bracelets, made with shiny stones made from the volcano’s lava. I got a black Shamballa bracelet and a haematite necklace with black pearls… And ended up getting a matching haematite bead bracelet thanks to the skiing being delayed because the speedboat battery was dead!

There was nobody else in the queue to ski so the crew agreed that I could go for one long circuit (they’d insisted I could only have 2 short turns the first time since there were others wanting to go). The water was quite choppy from the wind, but it was still a good ride and I enjoyed it immensely.

Taxing stuff done with, the loungers called. And we succumbed to a few blissful hours of rest and relaxation.

But there’s only so long we can keep still – and this was further tested by “Music Day”, which was a seemingly endless poolside karaoke caterwauling – so early afternoon we headed off for an amble that ended up taking us the full length of the public beach, around the point, through Club Med and the (very fancy) Le Cannoniers (with its gorgeous water features and old lighthouse historical monument (which they’re using as Bob Marlin’s Kids’ Club (very cute), through Pointe Aux Cannoniers and all the way to Grand Baie. We punctuated the trek with a few Phoenix breaks when a waterside spot grabbed as and, predictably, ended up at The Beach House. No point fighting something that works.

Cabous was in attendance, looking quite (beach chic) scruffy and doing the rounds being friendly and welcoming to the patrons, who again seemed to mostly be South Africans.

We were a bit peckish by this point so ordered nachos to share. Best ever!! (Self-confessed) Dorito’s, brilliant bolognaise, salad, cheese and cheese sauce with a healthy dollop of guacamole to top it off. Perfect accompaniment to yet another perfect sunset.

Nowhere near ambitious enough to walk back (and under the gun to get back for happy hour at The Pirate) we caught the bus – with a bus stop directly outside the Beach House with the exact right bus pulling up to it at the exact right moment, how could we not?!

The Pirate was quite a bit busier than it had been on any of our previous visits. A combination of people we recognised having their parting shot, new faces having their welcome rounds and us. The waiter seemed to recognise us – although he was very poker-faced about it – and brought us chicken fritters as bar snacks instead of the usual peanuts. Very welcomed alongside a few Blue Marlins.

Dinner was again in the smaller dining room and the theme for the evening’s meal was clearly seafood. We were served crab soup and the buffet was all fruits de mer, fish pie, fresh fried fish and whatnot. Pudding was a bit disappointing for me since it was a kind of eclair thing with butterscotch sauce… But a big dollop of coffee mousse on top to ruin it all.

Nonetheless, our resort had been great and the food largely excellent; our positioning for daytrips and excursions perfect. If we had it all to do again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. On the whole, it hadn’t been as expensive as I was anticipating. Sure, resort prices are ridiculous, but with options across the road and up and down the street, this could be largely mitigated (for us, seemingly not so easy for the more remote resorts we’d seen dropping off our cruisemates). It definitely also helped to have half board, so main meals were taken care of but allowing the freedom to explore without the fear of missing out on all the lunches and teas that make up the value.

Worry of any sort messes with the island lifestyle and we can’t be having any of that!

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Travelogue Mauritius 6: Trou Aux Biches

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Trou Aux Biches
20 June 2013

With plan in mind to catch the (free) glass-bottom boat from the pier at the hotel at 9.30, we were braced for breakfast at 8.45. Deviating from the usual combination, I went “death by chocolate” and upped my usual pain chocolat with a pancake with cinnamon sugar, syrup and chocolate sauce matched with a cup of hot chocolate… Before embarking on my usual yoghurt, omelette, ham/cheese/bacon baguette story.

Sugar-rushing and ready to rumble, we were pier-side with time to spare – and alongside a German couple as our only boatmates. We alighted and settled either side of the glass-bottoms, with a very clear view of the seabed since the water is very clear and very shallow. There wasn’t much to see though; it was all sand and rocks (and water of course).

The driver took us out a bit and pointed behind us to the shore. Fascinatingly, we could see rain coming toward us in a clearly defined curtain, moving from over the forest behind the public beach, toward us from the North. Before we knew it fascination turned to horror and we were getting pelted (well, engulfed by light drizzle that was at an angle to cut straight below our tarpaulin roof) and getting drenched! Luckily, the rain moved very quickly over us – and of course it’s warm so not so bad… and our objective was after all to jump in the sea so, by definition, to get wet anyway.

But not yet apparently.

Somehow, the skipper’s attention had been diverted by a passing dive boat that had cut out so we ended up performing a towboat function to shore. Maybe not so bad as we towed them to the beach at Trou Aux Biches, which looked gorgeous and to be a perfect afternoon excursion.

Finally, we were back out to sea and ready to start snorkelling… Only to find we were one set short for our little group. Christian and I were to be sharing a set, so I took the mask and snorkel first and we jumped off the boat. The water was fab and warm but the current quite strong, pulling to the North. No a concern though because we had no particular course, so just bobbed around checking out the thousands of small brightly coloured fish swimming beneath us.

Then disaster struck. I passed the mask to Christian and the elastic snapped as he was putting it on. And it fell out his hands. And sank. The water wasn’t very deep, with us being able to stand on tippy-toes on some of the bigger rocky outcrops on the sandbed. We tried this to get a better look at where the mask had fallen, but only succeeded in getting some toes shredded from the unsteady footing. The German chap swam over to help, but was a little too leisurely so by the time he reached us, we weren’t even sure whether we’d moved position because of the current and even less sure what it might have done with the mask! We swam around for a bit looking out on the off chance we’d spot it, but with neither of us having a mask and only one snorkel between us, there was slim chance of anything productive coming of it.

We got back to shore a little disheartened, but it didn’t last long and we were soon cheery again on our trusty poolside loungers. After a couple of hours of reading and relaxing, we were ready to head off to see what Trou Aux Biches had to offer.

The walk down the main beach road was very pleasant, with decent pavements lined with cheery bright bougainvillea and of course the intermittent beach views. The wasn’t very much to see or do at Trou Aux Biches though (just a few souvenir shops) so we decided to walk a bit further in the hope of finding a lunch spot on the beach. No such luck. We walked all the way to Pointe Aux Pimentes (about halfway to Port Louis if the map we were using is to scale!) and didn’t find anywhere suitable… So we turned around and walked home.

No loss though, it was a very pleasant walk. And we did eventually get lunch – across the road from our hotel at The Pirate! Nothing fancy, just shared a pizza (they put chicken on their Regina as standard. Genius!) and a few Blue Marlins, but it was great.

By then it was 4pm, so we moved back to the hotel and spent a few hours playing games at a table at the end of the lunch deck with the waves lapping beneath us, watching the sunset. Simple pleasures.

We played until dark, then returned to the room to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was yet another masterpiece, with a Chinese theme for the usual 4 courses. Chicken noodle soup to start, with a plated assortment of bitesize Chinese treats to follow; then a stirfry buffet (chicken, beef and pork all equally delicious!) and a rice pudding to close.

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Travelogue Mauritius 5: Mont Choisy & Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy & Grand Baie
19 June 2013

Our concerted efforts to already charter the North, West and East coasts combined with our growing ambivalence toward the central and Southern “attractions”, moved us to decide that an agenda of nothingness at our own resort was to be the order of the day.

We managed to be at breakfast by 9 and made a leisurely lion’s feast of the fares for the better part of an hour, with little else on the itinerary bar a wander down to the watersports to see what might take our fancy.

That turned out to be an easier decision than anticipated since some schmuck had broken the (only) skis the day before, we’d missed the morning snorkeling trip and Christian’s injury precluded the pedelo, so kayaking it was to be. Nice enough, enjoying the sea and sun – and clever to start against the current to make for an easy return journey.

The tough stuff done, we made for a dip in the pool (not to be Captain Obvious, but the sea is very salty) and some downtime on the loungers; books in hands, anticipating the most challenging part of the rest of the day to be coping with the Sade (album, seemingly on repeat)… Then the rain came. Nothing to write home about – just a gentle drizzle, from patchy clouds and without affecting the temperature – so we moved to the covered patio to see if it was worth waiting out.

The entertainment staff at this resort are very exuberant, taking any opportunity to chat, try and rope you into some activity or another or generally ensure you’re having (their idea of) a good time. The head animator caught us and soon was plying us with riddles and challenging us to solve visual riddles with little pieces of stick he carries around in his pocket. Fortunately, the seemingly arb points he kept awarding us soon amounted to a cocktail reward, but we decided to leave on a high and go to Grand Baie for lunch.

Of course, once we were showered, dressed and on the bus, the sun came out and belted down all afternoon!

Nonetheless, it made for a very pleasant afternoon at the Beach House, where we wetted with ice-cold Phoenix draughts and whetted with a delicious creamy marlin in white wine pasta and a chicken and prawn curry and rice. We’d hoped to catch up with our new friends from Cape Town, but the poor wi-fi signal our side and their poor mobile network connection their side was making comms by any of the usual methods a challenge. Sadly, when we managed to chat later, it seems our forays in Grand Baie had overlapped so we could easily have hooked up!

We caught the bus back to Mont Choisy, but jumped off halfway to enjoy a sunset walk along the beach. Amazingly, not only are the roads and beaches spotless, but we passed a team of ladies raking the needles and cones from the thicket that runs between the road and the sand. Job creation or not, their contribution certainly makes this island life idyllic!

Sundowners and backgammon saw us through to dinner – yet another meal… And 4 courses of it to boot! Chicken soup and feta salad served to start, buffet main where we had pesto spaghetti with spicy lamb meatballs (and tried the fish parcels wrapped in cabbage), then a multi-layered chocolate and vanilla cake with custard to end.

Amazed at how doing so little can make one so tired, we mastered a chill evening with a few episodes of our newest find, Seed.

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Travelogue Mauritius 4: Ile Aux Cerfs

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jun 19, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Ile Aux Cerfs
18 June 2013

Having settled into island life quite quickly but thoroughly, a 7am wake-up seemed like a tall order… Although a necessary evil for our full day catamaran cruise and waterfall tour on the East coast. Tightly securing caution from the wind, we set 2 alarms and requested a wake-up call from reception to ensure that we were up and out in time for our collection, and a hearty breakfast beforehand.

I’d plotted and planned the breakfast element, reckoning that there was no need to rush the carbo-loading since we’d been briefed that the tour starts with a cross-country drive from our position in the North-West to our departure point dead East, pausing to pick up other passengers en route. My logic allowed a decadently leisured lingering on the yoghurts, pastries and juices based on the premise of the other type of carbo-loading – loading the proteins into a handy carb take-away. Baguettes are perfect for that! It was a cinch packing a 1-egg omelette, a handful of ham, a chunk of cheese and a healthy smattering of bacon into a forearm of French roll and twisting a serviette nappy-style around the bottom to keep everything together.

With that, we were off with our new taxi-mates – 5 sullen Indian oldies from Durban at the back (1 with an annoying wheezy throat-clearing cough and splutter thing, which grew tired very quickly) and their 6th riding up front with the driver, telling stories of SA corruption and how unsafe and sad everything is (not the stories we should be taking overseas with us).

Fortunately, the next couple we picked up was a lot more up tempo and there was soon a better vibe all round. They are from Cape Town… And we were hardly surprised when the next pick-up was a couple from Jo’burg! We did mix things up a bit when the last passengers turned out to be a couple from Maputo, on holiday celebrating his 45th birthday.

We were dropped off at the docks and handed over our shoes (which was mandatory, and a little unsettling) at the jetty and alighted the speedboat taking us out to the catamaran. We were joined there by the other half of the tour group – a herd of animatedly excited Chinese people and a young British couple.

After a brief induction to their catamaran, how things work about and the running order for the day, we settled ourselves on the big nets at the front – (coincidentally?) alongside all the other Southern Africans. We were the first to order drinks – Stags, the only local beer we’d yet to try – which seemed to set the trend and soon there were clinking bottles cheering good health and happy birthdays on our side of the boat, while the Chinese girls busied themselves taking photos (of themselves and us) and making their first (of what proved to be many) outfit changes.

The weather had started off good, but unfortunately it got a bit cloudy and windy, neither of which are ideal conditions for our exposed position. Things improved somewhat when we sailed into the sheltered lagoon where we were anchoring to take the speedboat transfer to what had just been referred to as “The Waterfall” up to this point and which we assumed would be quite some spectacle. Well, you know what they say about assumption.

The waterfall turned out to be little more than 10 metres (maybe, tops) at a dead-end junction not wide enough to allow 2 speedboats simultaneously. The driver of the speedboat ahead of us was delighting his passengers with daredevil back and forthing, wetting the people at the front as he darted toward the waterfall, close enough for them to be showered with spray, then backing up quickly again. Our driver wasn’t quite as much a prankster, though he did get close enough for us to get a light spritz (which enthused the Chinese no end, happy-snapping pics of us since the South Africans all happened to be at the nose of the boat).

All in all, it was a bit of an oversold but underwhelming element of the tour… Although it was a laugh (probably because of the Stags and the – likely uncoincidental – good humour of our group).

Next on the agenda was the BBQ lunch on-board the catamaran, which again proved to be a bit disappointing. I suppose it’s tough to bulk cater for people, using only the limited galley space and a small braai grill on the back of the boat… And even worse to grill for South Africans when it’s such a big part of our lifestyle that our standards are so high. Needless to say, very average rice, coleslaw and pasta salad and hopelessly overdone and sat-too-long chicken and fish weren’t the lavish on-deck feast the pictures on the sales materials had presented. At least we hadn’t upgraded to the lobster lunch (served in the same sorry state) as the Mozambicans had done in light of their birthday celebrations.

After lunch we were speedboated to our afternoon on the island, Ile Aux Cerfs. It was lovely. With the lagoon and beaches sheltered from the wind, we were able to properly enjoy the golden sands and azure waters. It’s not very far from the mainland (opposite Le Tousserok) and has an 18 hole golf course in the middle that the fancy resorts on East coast can access by speedboat. On the beach itself there is a bar and restaurant, ice-cream hut, plenty of loungers and enthusiastic waitrons milling around to cater to your fancy, but we opted to rather take a turn around the art and craft market and then chill with the Cape Town couple, swapping stories, sharing tour tips and generally having a marvellous time frittering the day away.

All too soon it was time to get back on the speedboat to get to the catamaran for the return journey (to the coast to catch the taxi transfer back across the island). The journey back seemed quicker than the ambling sail in the morning – perhaps sailing with the tide, perhaps the company and the merriment from the Stags – slowed only by our occasional wander into a sandbank, which we seemed to just wait out until the tide drifted us over it. Very island-style.

We were all relieved to get our shoes back – most in the firm belief that we’d seen the last of them – and it was a very different ride back in the van, mostly because the Indian oldies had predictably gotten there first and placed themselves 2-by-2 in the row seats, so we were split up and inserted among them, which livened the whole bus somewhat with group chatter, meaningful glances and giggling. I was positioned next to Cough and Splutter, but that wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits (nor raise theirs).

We waved goodbye to our friends from the day, having enjoyed their company immensely – and having made promises to meet up for lunch in Grand Baie later in the week. Having seen more of the island, we realised how fortunate we were to have chosen to be based in Mont Choisy – an easy bus ride to Grand Baie and Port Louis and on a road with several entertainment options, whereas these resort ‘estates’ are far more remote, no doubt having anything and everything you might need contained inside… At extortionate hotel prices. We also have a small resort with probably 60 or so rooms horse-shoed around the central area, whereas the resorts that we’d seen on the East coast all seemed much bigger with several hundred rooms. I’m sure that there are upsides associated with that kind of scale, but I prefer our homely spot, with more than we need and being able to come and go and feed our whimsy as the mood takes us.

We were very pleased to reach our hotel and get a shower and fresh clothes on, in time to make our way to dinner, which had been moved to the smaller restaurant upstairs to better accommodate the smaller winter (can’t believe this is their winter!) complement of guests. Another magnificent meal, with spicy fish soup followed by a mini pizza, with a buffet for mains. We had a few smaller portions of everything with guinea fowl, roast beef and lasagne from the main buffet and a delicious tagliatelle bolognaise from the pasta mini-buffet.

Another day successfully done and dusted in Mauritius!

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Travelogue Mauritius 3: Port Louis

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Port Louis
17 June 2013

We’re settling in nicely with the breakfast routine and got a slightly earlier start having not had the travel lag to wear off. Meats, cheeses, yoghurts to start; omelette, sausages, bacon and beans for main… And a cheese, ham and bacon baguette for the road.

Feeling confident about the public transport system, we set off for the bus stop across the road in the direction of Port Louis. Even with 2 false starts (buses headed to other parts of the island), we still only had a 10 minute wait, tops. The 16km bus ride shouldn’t have taken as long as it did (about 45 minutes), but these buses stop ridiculously often with some bus stops as little as 50 metres apart – although it doesn’t cause the chaos it would cause at home, even though most roads are single carriageway, because there is much less traffic and congestion. Probably because there are convenient and affordable buses so people don’t need cars.

We took the bus to the end of the line – the Port Louis Bus Terminus and consulted the map we’d acquired at the hotel to determine that we were across the highway from the waterfront and on the same road as the market. Looking up to the hill on the left we could see the Citadel, so were optimistic that it’s be easy enough for us to get to the (only) 3 things we wanted to do in this city.

We started with the market, which is a few blocks of stalls and shops, fortunately closed off for cars since the pedestrian traffic is manic enough! We soon discovered that everyone sells a combination of the same things – knock-off clothing, souvenirs, spices, pashminas and pearls. It made shopping easy though and a few simple price comparisons and some haggling and we had the few items we wanted. Thankfully, there were very few hecklers, so largely is was a painless experience (although this could just be relative to the last few places I’ve been, which can be a shopper’s heaven or a nightmare, depending on one’s patience levels).

The city is laid out in a neat grid, although it doesn’t feel like it with the veering on and off pavements to avoid stalls, shoppers and general people-traffic. The only trouble we had finding our way to the Citadel was the fact that none of the street names are marked – and for a big grey building on a hill it is surprisingly tricky to spot as you get closer, thanks to the narrow streets and multi-storey (but no means skyrise) buildings. Nonetheless, we managed to find it and, a short steep hike later, we were standing in the battlements and enjoying what must be the best view of the city.

The Citadel was built by the British and named Fort Adelaide after the King’s wife. It was thought to be built to protect the 1,000 odd British settlers that were here when they changed the slavery laws and emancipated the French’s slaves. It was thought that this would lead to strife, which didn’t seem to happen and, like Durban, they just imported cheap Indian labourers to work the sugarcane fields instead.

Being a relatively young city, there isn’t much else of historical importance to see, besides the Black Penny Museum… Which we went past, but didn’t bother going into, on our walk along the esplanade at the Waterfront. We did almost go into the Keg & Marlin on the promenade, but decided against it thinking that since we’d managed to avoid KFC, Steers and Debonairs, we might as well maintain the day as authentically Mauritian.

The Waterfront doesn’t hold much of interest, just a few glossy buildings with label-brand shops and the to-be-expected handful of restaurants and cafes. It is clean and pleasant though and the waters relatively clean and clear for a working harbour.

Having completed the full circle of the town, we headed back to the bus terminus and – with some difficulty since it was obviously school-leaving time for the day and there was a mess of scholars everywhere – found our bus stop. Luckily, there was a bus to Trou Aux Biches (the next stop down from ours) about to depart. Not so luckily, we had to stand… Which proved to be quite a challenge as the bus jerked and jiggled down the narrow roads. I’m sure that the school kids behind us were having a good giggle at our jellying, but at least those on either side of us had the good manners to just stare.

We got back well in time to enjoy a refreshing swim and admire the sunset from the comfortable vantage point of a poolside lounger, then retire to our balcony for some Vonta and backgammon until dinner.

Dinner was a plated soup (consomme) and starter (divine chicken and mushroom vol au vent type pie thing), then buffet main course (we opted for rare steaks, egg and veg chow mein and crispy skinny chips). There was a pancake buffet for dessert, but we just didn’t have any room!

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Travelogue Mauritius 2: Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Grand Baie
16 June 2013

We set off from the hotel at about 2pm for our excursion to spend the afternoon in Grand Baie. We’d had advice from the chaps from Durban the night before that the island was easily navigated by buses, which were easy enough to catch since our hotel was positioned on the main beach road between Port Louis (the capital) and Grand Baie (the tourist haven, teeming with entertainment options and nightlife). This opinion had been verified by another fellow (coincidentally also from Durban) we’d met at our morning skiing session. So, on leaving the hotel, we politely declined the taximan at the door, offering a ride to Grand Baie for 500 Rupees. A few minutes wait at the bus stop 50m down the road and we alighted for a bargain 22 Rupees each.

The buses are a bit shabby, but not dirty, so the savings were a welcome tip – especially since Grand Baie was only a 4.5km ride away.

Being a Sunday afternoon, most of town was closed, including most of the highbrow label stores in Sunset Boulevard, which is a mall made up of quaint little cottages each housing a small store. This didn’t matter to us as it wasn’t what we were after anyway and we were quite happy to wander up and down the waterfront and beachroad, stopping to look here and there, but mainly just getting our bearings.

Some time later, we took a break in a lively spot called The Beach House – bright and white-washed, overlooking the sea – with an ice cold Phoenix draught in hand. It was only as we were leaving that we spotted all the posters and plaques in the entrance and realised that it’s Cabous Van Der Westhuizen’s bar. Perhaps this was why the tables on either side of us were all South Africans. Or perhaps not; this island is full of Saffer tourists (like us)!

Needing to fuel the rest of our sight-seeing, we did an on-the-run take-away from a bright green foodtruck on the beachfront that had a mouthwatering chicken donner displayed. It was served with all the usual schwarma trimmings and sauces… But on a baguette of course! It was a great sandwich!

We’d done some tour price comparisons as we went and stopped in at our operator of choice to confirm a cruise on the East island and waterfalls for Tuesday. 100 Rupees cheaper than the lowest price we’d had – and a third of Ziad’s price!

Pleased with our purchases, we celebrated at Cokoloko, taking advantage of their 4-7 happy hour “1 litre Big Daddy beers for 160 Rupees”, with the box of popcorn they served alongside, which for me was a win compared to the endless flow of nuts served everywhere else.

Not wanting to miss out on our already-favourite happy hour at the Pirate, we got to the bus stop for 5.30 and were soon on a jam-packed bus headed back to Mont Choisy. While it’s easy enough to catch a bus to our area because of where we’re positioned between Grand Baie and Port Louis, we learned that some buses are better than others route-wise and we had taken one that veered inland a bit where we were coastside. No mind though, the conductor was kind enough to point out the best disembarkation point for us and we had no more than a few hundred metres walk to get back to our hotel.

…at quarter past six, with plenty of time to relax at the Pirate, sip a Phoenix, recap our day and discuss plans for the week ahead before we were due at dinner, which only stats at 19h30. We were in no rush, so even made time to induct our balcony with a few games of backgammon, sipping on Vonta (Fanta and vodka).

Dinner was a completely different format, being a 4-course set menu rather than all the previous buffets. I was a bit worried about this, being the fussy eater I am, but it turned out all good with a creamy soup starter; shrimp and pineapple cocktail; mixed grill and berry cheesecake.

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Travelogue Mauritius 1: Mont Choisy

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Jun 17, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy
15 June 2013

How very early 5am is in winter! Especially when you’ve been out on the red wine the night before… And you’re so excited for your holiday that you wake up at 3.30, afraid you’ll oversleep (and end up getting up at 4.30, half an hour before the alarm goes off!) Fortunately, Mother was uncharacteristically on-time so we were bags packed (in her new car) and en route to the airport (in fully econo mode) with time to spare.

… Which we wisely spent at Wimpy, carbo-loading for the journey ahead.

Good thing too because, while our short 4 hour hop of a flight was just about back-to-back feeding, we’d never have lasted through the first 2 rounds of snacks to have our first main meal “lunch” at 11. A really respectable ravioli though, well done BA!

We landed at the Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, which is in Plaine Magnien at the very south of the island while our accommodation was at the very north. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as we soon found out with an easy 40 minute (private car) commute. Like in Sri Lanka, we found ourselves on the only highway on the island, fortunate that it ran exactly from where we departed to where we wanted to go. Hardly surprising though, since Mauritius is only 65km from north to south and 45km east to west, so nowhere is really far from anywhere else!

Our driver initially took us to the wrong resort, but was soon sanctified when it was apparent that it was an easy mistake to make with Mont Choisy comprising several resorts, hotels, motels and villas… Most with Mont Choisy in the name! Second attempt fruitful, we discovered Hotel Mont Choisy Coral Azur to be our home for the week. We hadn’t even taken our bags out the car when the driver pulled up because the resort seemed fancier than we expected but, to our surprise and delight, this was it… sparkling pool, loungers, palm trees, blue skies and even bluer sea!

We checked in and the porter escorted us to our room, 218, a lovely upstairs suite with private balcony overlooking the gardens and the Indian Ocean beyond. The room is mostly an obscenely large bed (made up of 2 three-quarters side-by-side), reassuringly made with just a mountain of pillows, a sheet and a purely decorative runner – in contrast to the down duvets and electric blankets at home.

We’d checked in at about 5pm and in the quick once-over of our room and discovery of our balcony we realised we were in the midst of our first Mauritian sunset, so decided to do a quick up-and-down our road while it was still light.

A short adventure revealed a road generously dotted with holiday accommodation, restaurants and shops. We spotted signage for a supermarket (which we wanted to visit to buy stocks for our minibar since the hotel prices were predictably extortionate), but couldn’t seem to find the shop. Arrows pointing in both directions but the centre point seemed to be an Indian restaurant on one side (bannered as Indian, but also serving Chinese and pizza!) and a clothing shop on the other. We were flummoxed, so decided to consider our next moves over a beer at Le Bay des Pirates – a decorated-to-death bar, restaurant and dancefloor with thatch overhangs, banana trees, barrel bar tables and a wooden boat centrepiece. It was 6.05 on Saturday and they offered a Happy Hour from 6-7 on weekends, so it seemed like kismet!

We tried the local Phoenix, which is quite strong tasting and bitter, and then the Blue Marlin, which is equally strong but sweeter. And then tried each again to secure our first impressions.

The only other patrons were an entertaining couple – Terry and Antony from Durban – who’d been to Mauritius before and had lots of sage advice for us, and who were generally well-travelled so we shared anecdotes about the highs and lows of various places. They also solved the mystery of the missing supermarket for us, explaining that you have to go through the clothing store to get to it. Thinking they meant “past” rather than “through”, we nipped back to the clothing store. True as nuts, you have to go through the clothing store, through the ensuing souvenir store and only then get to the supermarket! Three stores armadillo’ed all using the same entrance! We stocked up on water, Fanta and a couple of cans of variant of Phoenix – lighter and with lemon – that would serve as poolside wetties for the following day.

Having not eaten in a few hours, grumbling tums encouraged us to return to Coral Azur for our dinner (since we’d booked half board so our breakfast and dinners were included). We were met with a sumptuous buffet with everything you can think of and piled plates high with an odd mix of a bit of everything – pasta, roasted chicken, curry, sausage stew…

Full and tuckered (even though it had only been a 4 hour flight, commuting had taken the entire day), we turned in early and watched a few episodes of series on the laptop (real 2013 travellers) before turning in.

A gloriously long night’s sleep later, we made no rush to up and out to breakfast, served until 10. When we did, we discovered it was a beautiful clear-skied, sunny day – perfect for a leisurely breakfast on poolside deck. We plotted our day over cold meats, cheeses, yoghurts and full fry-up, deciding to try the watersports first, lounge at the pool until our meeting with our tour operator at 1.45 and then catch a bus to Grand Baie for the afternoon.

Taking a walk to the beach, we presented ourselves at the hut that serves as hub for the hotel’s watersports. The staff all speak good English and are friendly and very helpful. A pleasant surprise that the hotel includes the usual non-motorised activities (kayaks, windsurfs, lazer boat, pedelo etc) as well as a range of motorised (water-skiing, inflatables, glass-bottom boat snorkelling etc) all for free!

We started with the water-skiing. Despite a decade or more since the last time I skied, I had no trouble getting up and thoroughly enjoyed my laps on the smooth-as-glass open waters. Christian wasn’t so lucky and aggravated an existing rugby groin injury, likely ending his skiing possibilities for the holiday. Nonetheless, we were able to grab kayaks and took a trip up and down either side of the coast – even able to catch a rather spirited local church service on the seafront on the public beach a few properties down.

While we weren’t out for long, kayaking takes a different kind of fit and, lacking upper body strength as I do, I was grateful to have a lovely sit by the pool for an hour to relax after the morning’s activities.

Our tour operator, Ziad, met us at 1.45 to run through the “what to do” options on the island. The guys at the resort’s beach hut had told us about some of the tours that operate from the hotel and we were horrified when Ziad’s prices averaged three times what we’d been told! This made us more resolute to get another opinion in Grand Baie before committing to anyone. We politely let Ziad finish and headed out the hotel for our outing to Grand Baie.

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Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 24, 2013 Under Travelogue

23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! :D

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Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Apr 23, 2013 Under Travelogue

22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! ;)

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Travelogue Japan 4: Kyoto

Posted by cl@rks on Sunday Jan 11, 2015 Under Travelogue

07-11 January 2015

While there wasn’t much pressure to catch any specific train since we’d pre-bought 7-day rail passes, the 1,2km trek in the snow with all our luggage was decidedly unappealing so the commitment came in pre-arranging the transport to the station. Our host in Yuzawa, Gabriel, had thus kindly booked 2 taxis to fetch us on the morning of departure to get us to the Echigo Yuzawa station in time for our planned 09h16 train.

The whole exercise went off seamlessly and we were soon (literally) bulleting off back to Tokyo, from where we would connect to Kyoto (since there are no bullet trains any more direct for our flight path).

Tokyo Station is HUGE. Since we had an hour between trains, we had a wander around and even surfaced to street level to get our bearings. The shops in the station are predictably mostly food and travel supplies, although as with everywhere else it wasn’t food you’d readily recognise so there was lots to pore over.

We bought echiben for the journey: beautifully prepared and presented lunch boxes composed of a variety of elements that are sold at stations and on the trains. With 20 or more options at our stall alone, we were spoilt for choice.

The one we eventually chose was divided into 2 compartments. The left had 2 rashers on a bed of sticky rice covered in light egg shavings. The right had hire katsu (like pork schnitzel) and battered beef meatballs accompanied by little cupcake cups respectively housing a floret of broccoli, a floret of cauliflower, pickled cabbage and a small portion of spaghetti bolognaise decorated with fresh peppers. It is all so pretty that opening the box feels more like opening a present than a lunchbox!

On arrival in Kyoto we were spared the usual game of “where in the world are we?!” by our host’s precise and accurate directions (which had been automatically delivered alongside our travel itinerary on confirmation of our booking – Airbnb is great!).

It was not even a 5 minute walk from the station to our house (for the next 4 nights) and it was easy to navigate even with our bags even though our road has no pavements thanks to Kyoto’s ingenious road markings, with painted lanes for pedestrians on the outer edges, bicycle lanes next and a single car lane in the middle. Japanese are so compliant and obedient that everyone sticks to where they’re supposed to be and it’s a wonderful experience for all concerned!

Our landlord, Jesse, was at the house when we got there and was really friendly and helpful and a wealth of advice on what to do and where to go. Fortunately, his suggestions matched the majority of items on our existing Awesome Detailed Itinerary and the new additions fitted in easily with our plans.

The house itself was incredible. A 3 bedroom with 2 Western double beds in one room upstairs and easily space for 4 or more futons in the other 2 rooms, 1 upstairs and the other off the entrance hall downstairs. We had a cosy living room with tiny couch and a few low rattan button stools around a little coffee table, modcon iPod deck and a sliding door leading onto a charming tiny zen garden.

The main bathroom was off the lounge, cleverly with the basin area doored off from the bath / shower room (which wasn’t much taller than me and housed a wall-mounted handshower and weird little 1m x 1m zinc knee-deep sunken bath) so we’d be able to get ready in the mornings in tandem. The loo was off the entrance hall where we’d come in, that was big enough to house a dining room table and be the storage area for the bicycles that came with the rental.

Our kitchen was little more than a narrow passage that ran from the front door to the bathroom alongside the dining room and lounge. It wasn’t wide enough to have two people pass each other!

First item on the gameplan as Geisha-spotting. We’d read that Gion was the place, but Jesse narrowed our search to a small alleyway just before the river. Our house was so conveniently located that it was a “left turn along the main shopping street until a left into the alley before the river; if you get to the river, you’ve gone too far.”

True’s nuts we spotted a Geisha within minutes of meandering in the assigned spot! Truth be told, we spotted one Geisha, followed her and saw her exchange words with another coming directly towards us… and got a (surreptitious) photo of her as she passed! Granted, she looks like a ghostly blur in the background, but still…

Excited from our Supreme Touristing, we set about finding a dinner spot. Easier said than done with literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from – and all look equally unattractive! We eventually homed in on a beef and leek restaurant for dinner. We had the special, which was exactly that! A rice bowl with tender strips of beef and leek, so full of distinct flavours.

Since our house was so comfortable, we were keen to initiate it so walked back along the main road, Shijo Dori, doing some window-shopping en route. The area is very upmarket and picture-perfect with wide covered pavements and uniform illuminated name boxes outside each store. The city has gone to a lot of trouble to create ambience, decorating the eaves of the pavement roof with stylish banners and lanterns. They also pipe music onto the streets (plinky-plonky classical Japanese).

Our trusty 7Eleven provided us with beer and snacks for the night and breakfast supplies for the morning (which promises to be complicated to maintain since bread comes 6 slices to a pack, cheese 7 and ham 8).

Thursday was allocated to walking touring and sightseeing.

Our route took us first to Higashi Honganji, the mother temple of Shin Buddhism, one of the largest Buddhist denominations in Japan. The Founder’s Hall is one of the largest wooden constructions in the world (at 76x58x38 metres with 175,967 roof tiles, 927 tatami mats and 90 pillars!) and was renovated in 2011 for the 750th memorial service of the founder, Shinran. The temple complex is big and awesome and was a good induction to Kyoto, noted for being Japan’s cultural hub.

Nijo Castle was next on the list and 600 Yen (R60) gave us access to the compound to view the exhibits in its 2 palaces, various support buildings and expansive gardens.

The castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun (bearing in mind Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan). It is one of the finest examples of the early Edo period and Monoyama culture in Japan because of the style of its building designs, lavish paintings and carvings that Iemetsu generously commissioned. In 1867 the castle the castle became the property of the Imperial family, who donated it to the City of Kyoto in 1939, whereupon it was renamed Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle).

By contrast, lunch was a quick and efficient affair at a diner we walked in to by chance where you order from a vending machine that issues a little ticket which you present to the server who was stationed on the inside of the u-shaped seating counter.

The food was served super-quickly but was, as always in Japan, excellent quality and very tasty. Even this cheap and cheerful diner served us complimentary tea and a small bowl of soup on arrival – the Japanese are supremely hospitable! Unbelievable that again the whole restaurant was run by one person in the kitchen and one server – and there’s still enough time for the little extras, sincere smiles and all the please and thank-yous that come with any exchange in Japanese.

Vowing to try another vending machine diner within the remainder of the trip, we set off to see how the other half lives, at the Imperial Palace.

The complex is a stately affair with looong wiiiide gravel driveway leading up to the Palace gates. That were shut. Tight. Fail.

Still, the gardens and water features were nice. And we ticked another sight off our list.

We took a long walk along the Kamo River, me mostly entertaining myself with Japan’s most prevalent soundtrack: traffic light signals. The Japanese government seems to have put a lot of thought into the less fortunate by incorporating ridged tiles into their pavements. Striped tiles run along the centre of the pavement for general walking in a straight line and dotted tiles indicate where there’s an intersection to turn off the path (eg at a traffic light mid-block) or where the pavement ends (eg at an intersection). They combine these tactile signals with audio ones at traffic lights, with a different tone for east-west crossing versus north-south and different sets of tones for each intersection. Thus, a blind person would presumably be able to track their journey using the audio tones instead of road signs (of which there are precious few, mind you). The result for the sighted tourist is a great game of “bing-bong, bing-bong”, “doodooladoo” and my favourite “pew, pew-pew!” which may very possibly have made a long walk feel longer for my comrades! :D

Our route deposited us at a beautiful temple and pagoda in Gion. This must be a local sight of popularity too since there were several couples dressed in traditional regalia, slip-slopping (with socks!) about in their kimonos and shogun robes, taking lots of photos of themselves. The kimonos are mostly quite spectacular and the shogun outfits look quite comfortable being multi-layered loose-fitting robes… but it’s a big victory for tradition that they’ve retained the slops and socks part of the get-up.

The socks all seem to be the same: white, mitten-style with a pocket for the big toe and another bigger pocket for the other 4 and they seem to be sewn from cotton rather than knitted. The men’s slops – tatami-style straw ones with fabric thong – look comfy enough, but the ladies ones all seem to be misshapen and ill-fitting. They narrow at the front, so almost everyone has foot overflow on both sides and the thong seems impractically tight so the wearer is constantly shuffling to get into and stay in the shoe. We surmise that this is tactical to maintain the ladies’ weak and vulnerable facade, shuffling along with tiny little steps. I think it might force me to pull a Malory and demand to be carried everywhere!

En route back from Gion, we did see our 3rd Geisha. She was crossing the bridge across from us and turned down the same little alley Jesse had told us about. He obviously really knows his stuff!

Apparently you can still hire a Geisha to come and entertain you, but it costs a small fortune. Then she pitches up just after dusk, with a little beautifully wrapped gift and sings for you or recites poetry or some other artisanal song and dance. Not one for our itinerary or budget!

Since we’d planned a daytrip to Hiroshima leaving early the next day, we foraged for dinner at our trusty 7Eleven and Christian finally got to try a Japanese curry and rice (tasty but unremarkable).

On returning from our Hiroshima daytrip, we were surprised by Lixi and RoRo with some quality sake and nibbly bits of melt-in-your-mouth-fresh crusty French loaf with genuine Wagyu beef (which is the same as Kobe beef but not necessarily from Kobe. Qualifying as Kobe beef requires parentage and grandparentage on both sides to be from Kobe for the sacrificial cow to qualify). Lix lightly fried the beef and it was everything it’s been made out to be – soft as butter and full of flavour!

They had sourced the goods from a local premium food market, which they told us was the mecca of all things imbibable and promised to show us the next day.

Our plan for the evening was to find a place that Jesse had recommended because it’s a bottle store by day, but at closing time they wheel in some keg barrels to act as tables and serve directly from the shelves and fridges. The old lady owner even tallies up your bill using an abacus, which is a nice touch!

We found the place, but got turned away because it was too full, so spent the evening at the wine bar across the road instead, people-watching and keeping an eye on a Japanese game show that had girls competing ferociously in a combination of events that would fit anywhere between Pop Idol and a toddler’s birthday party.

On the advice of one of my friends back home, we spent our last day at Arashiyama, a little suburb out west of Kyoto in the Sagano district.

What a great decision!

Our Pasmo passes got us there quickly and cheaply and deposited us in a charming sleepy little town that had a buzz of activity on the main drag from the station to the town’s famous wooden bridge.

The main attractions – besides the bridge, of course – were a temple / gardens combo and a bamboo forest. Both sounded too challenging on an empty stomach so we sourced donburi for motivation. Donburi is a bowl of rice and beef strips with a partially cooked fried egg on top that completes cooking in the bowl from the heat of the rice alone. We operated on instinct with when to break the yolk and when to fold the egg into the rice and seemed to do quite well, turning the gelatinous beginnings into a yummy mess quite quickly. The table had the traditional spice block and a sprinkle of the sesame and chilli salt on top made for a pretty and zesty overall effect.

Even though everything in the town is very close, we managed to get lured in by the shops and spent an hour or 2 happily wandering in and out of the shops, inspecting knick-knacks and buying gifts and souvenirs.

The temple and gardens are quite lovely.
Tenryi-ju was established in 1339 on the grounds of a temple that had been there since the 9th century. The temple has been ravaged by fires 8 times in its existence, most recently in 1864, but each time the gardens survived, maintaining the 14th century ambience and making it one of the oldest gardens in Japan.

On our way from the temple to the Bamboo Path, we stopped to sample another local delicacy – croquettes! Delicious crunchy potato with beefy bits in it. Mmmmm! But then again, I never have met a croquette that I didn’t like.

We’d been told that there is a quaint old train that returns to Kyoto… we ended up catching it quite by accident. Took an “alternate route” back to the station we’d arrived at and ended up encountering the old train at another station we hadn’t even been looking for. Bonus that it took our Pasmo cards AND the end of the line was our Shijo station so we wouldn’t have to even change trains at Kyoto as we’d had to on the way out.

Double bonus was that our station has an exit right into Daimura, the Wagyu store.

More accurately, it is an emporium of delightful things and as we blissfully wandered the aisles of chocolates, baked goods, meat produce and liquors both average and special occasion, servers offered us tastes of this and bites of that.

There are no words to describe the place with any justice: Premium chocolatiers and patissieres displaying perfect wares and packing each purchase as meticulously and beautifully as a gift for a favourite child’s milestone birthday. Beautiful clinical butchery with marbled wagyu steaks carved and displayed elegantly in glass cases. Alcoves of perfectly-lit sake so that just buying it is a romantic experience. Fresh produce like you’ve never seen before – apples the size of melons and fist-sized strawberries, all elegantly displayed.

A real feast for the eyes if nothing else.

We bought wagyu and French loaf just like the night before, but triple the quantity and with an (R18 massive) onion to sautée alongside. Christian treated us to jamon and cheese tapas for starters.

Feeling as lush as the massaged cows that had provided our meal, we languished in an amazing meal in super-comfy digs with amazing friends for the last night of a spectacular holiday.

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Travelogue Japan 3: Hiroshima

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jan 10, 2015 Under General

09 January 2015

When we’d first started planning the trip, we’d debated spending a night in Hiroshima, thinking it to be such a noteworthy city in world history that it would be unmissable. Very watery reviews from a good proportion of travellers + Lix and RoRo’s lack of motivation to go there + an already decided-upon unlimited travel Japan Rail pass made the decision that much easier: Christian, Michele and I would daytrip it from Kyoto.

This turned out to be really easy as our house’s local subway station was 2 stops from Kyoto main station, from where we would catch a Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. We didn’t have to pre-book anything, just up and out by 7.30, through the morning peak hour subway chaos and into the supreme calm that is the big and beautiful Kyoto Station.

The building is all stone and metal inside and even though it’s all grey, it’s neither cold physically nor perceptually. It’s only 4 floors, but the central hall is quadruple volume and each upper level is reached by a set of escalators, which run almost end-to-end up to an open-air roof garden terrace so look a bit like a metallic waterfall climbing upwards to the heavens when viewed from the bottom.

Our tickets required a train change in Osaka, but the lady at the ticket office had told us which platforms we needed for each departure and arrival so it was easy-peasy getting to the right train. It’s all such a well-oiled process and the trains are so clean and comfortable (seats similarly sized to aeroplanes, but with triple the legroom) that all 3 of us slept…

… through…

… and miraculously woke each other up in time for our arrival in Hiroshima.

The station was a bit smaller and a lot easier to navigate than the previous had been – and the tourist office were very proactive in guiding us to all the freebies that were included in our Japan Rail passes, including the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus and the ferry to Miyajima Island, home to Torii Shrine just off the mainland.

The tourist bus was a great place to start, so we hitched a ride in it to Hiroshima Castle.

Established in 1589, the castle tower was destroyed in the atomic bombing and rebuilt in 1958. Inside the tower is a museum of Samurai culture. We were relieved to discover all of this after we thought we’d failed epically after having to remove shoes and don house slippers to view 2 very average exhibitions. Fortunately these were just the entry compound and there was more beyond when we entered the Castle complex beyond.

There still wasn’t much of interest to us so, after a wander past the shrine and tower, we walked through the gardens to the castle complex rear exit.

The most effective walking tour route fortuitously meant we had to tackle an early lunch as next item on the agenda. An easy call since we already knew we had to have the local speciality in the area which had made its name.

We walked through Hondori Street (a long shopping arcade) to reach Okonomu-mura village for our okonomiyaki (described in the guide as “flat cake of unsweetened batter fried with various ingredients”).

We were very pleased that there was an okonomiyaka restaurant directly under the “Welcome to Okonomu-mura” sign. Done.

We were ushered into the restaurant and chose a booth opposite the now-standard counter alongside the kitchen which, in this case, was a wall-to-wall flatbed silver fry counter.

There were 3 guys manning the kitchen, working from the far end to our side: First guy stacks raw cabbage, onion and pork onto a pancake. Next guy flips it over to cook the pork, while he has noodles and specified ingredients frying on the side. Then he pops the ingredients onto the noodles and flips the pancake et al on top of the noodle pile. Then he cracks 2 eggs onto the flatbed grill, loosely scrambles them and shifts the noodle pile on top. The whole pile then sits for a minute while the egg cooks, he flips it to reheat the pancake and deftly chops the pancake-noodle-stirfry-omelette into 6 edible portions using cross-swipes of the flat scraper-lifter tool in each hand and deposits the whole lot on a cast iron skillet. The server brushes the top with basting, adds cheese and seasoning and serves!

Really yummy! AND we managed to double-bill with a deep-fried oyster starter (important as the city is equally known for eating inexpensive oysters in casual setting “oyster huts”).

Our restaurant was close to the historical sites, so we walked the few blocks along the river front. Everything is named Peace -Something so we walked along Peace Promenade to get to Peace Park where there are Peace Memorials and a Peace Museum.

The first sight is the A-Bomb Dome. The building was first built in 1915 as a government office of sorts and was popular for its distinctive – and considered attractive – dome. The building now is relevant as it was the only building left standing near the hypocentre (the epicentre of the blast) from the notorious A-bomb drop on 6 August 1945.

The building soon became commonly called the Genbaku (“A-Bomb”) Dome, due to the exposed metal dome framework at its apex (all the roof tiles and outer casings had burnt instantly in the blast). The structure was scheduled to be demolished with the rest of the ruins, but the majority of the building was intact, delaying the demolition plans. The Dome became a subject of controversy, with some locals wanting it torn down, while others wanted to preserve it as a memorial of the bombing and a symbol of peace. Ultimately, when the reconstruction of Hiroshima began, the skeletal remains of the building were preserved and now serve as a tangible icon of what happened and place where people come to honour the lost and commit to peace.

Over the bridge is the Cenotaph memorial for A-Bomb victims. Quite austere with the eternal candle, giant flagpole, dedications and lots and lots of fresh flowers on display, the monument is the central element in a big quad and park with water features and smaller monuments dotted about.

Behind the cenotaph is the Peace Memorial Museum, offering bargain entry price of 50 Yen (R5).

The museum is a small but well structured collection of photos, exhibitions and artefacts from the fateful day, explaining how it all came to be, what happened and – refreshingly – educating on what’s happened subsequent with nuclear armament and why we need to sustain peace and avoid such an awful thing from happening again. To anyone.

Sure, we learn what happened in history at school, but it’s so “day and date” that you lose the perspective on the human element. The displays really drove home for me how utterly devastating that bomb was. A fireball a million degrees Celsius at its core, reached maximum diameter of 280m in a second. Fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction, flattening buildings within a 2 km radius and burning hundreds of thousands of people to death instantly. 85%of Hiroshima’s buildings were within 3km of where the bomb exploded, so the damage extended to virtually the entire city with 90% of all buildings destroyed beyond repair.

And yet, despite getting the magnitude of the destruction, the display that hit me the most is one of the steps of a bank that have been lifted to be displayed as they were in situ, and you can see how the stones on the wall and steps have been whitened from the heat… except the grey patch where someone had been sitting. The remnant shadow of where someone literally instantly melted.

Our little tour of the peace sights vindicated our decision to daytrip to Hiroshima. Otherwise, it’s a lovely city anyway. Beautifully laid out and pleasing on the eye. Apparently at a British junket in Hiroshima a few years ago the mayor was asked why Hiroshima is so neatly grid-style unlike other major Japanese mazes and he was quoted as saying “We had some help from the Americans.”

I would have liked to catch the ferry across to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine, but with a 20 minute streetcar + 20 minute train + 10 minute ferry, we’d left it a bit late. Oh well, next time.

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Travelogue Japan 2: Yuzawa

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jan 7, 2015 Under General

03-07 January 2015

After our exuberant last night in Tokyo, we overslept and missed our intended 10am departure for Niigata and subsequently ended up on the 12h16 train to Yuzawa (they run more or less every half hour).

The Shinkansen bullet trains are incredible – so fast, yet so solid that you don’t feel like you’re hurtling across Japan. Which is exactly what we did. East to West coast in an hour! I had slept soundly the whole way (having woken with the lurgy that had stricken RoRo on New Years Day) but am told that there was nothing to see as the train is parenthesesed by barriers, blocking the view completely.

Arriving in the sleepy winter wonderland valley of Yuzawa in Niigata, we were instantly in love. Beautiful thick snow everywhere; mountain rising up directly in front of us as we exited the station. We caught a taxi to our accommodation, mainly because it would be too hard to negotiate our bags in the snow (and we didn’t realise the journey would be so short).

We’d been told that what we’d booked was previously a hotel – and we had the whole hotel to ourselves! Our arrival confirmed it: we were to be the sole guests of 3 storeys of slopeside hotel. Quite a contrast to our Tokyo home – which could fit into our Yuzawa lounge – it was big, airy and comfortably furnished with plus-sized couches and king-size beds. The hotel has an unassuming roadside entrance, but the living area has wall-to-wall windows facing the ski slope, which serves as very entertaining live TV!

We got a quick tour of the facilities – including the 2 private basement onsen baths and a detailed review of the remote control panel to operate the heated toilet with all sorts of spray options to rinse and blowdry your bits – and settled into our rooms. Michele had been allocated a first floor room (which was described as 2nd floor because Japanese start counting from Ground), but ended up sleeping in the lounge in the living area adjacent to our room because her heater wasn’t working properly and she said the uninhabited hotel reminded her too much of The Shining. And with The World’s Most Comfortable Couch as an alternative, she was spoilt for choice.

It was a bit late (mid-afternoon) by this point to fuss with ski rentals etc, so we took a walk along our road instead to see what there was, get some supplies, scout a spot for dinner and whatnot. Even with the inordinate amount of snow everywhere, the kilometre walk to the Station was easy enough, assisted enormously by the jets of water spurting out from the middle lane of the road and running from side feeder roads, keeping the road clear of the enormous amount of snow. Our host, Gabriel, had explained that the source of this water was the underground spring – same one that fed the onsen. Very clever.

Our initial preview of Yuzawa revealed that it was different to the ski resort towns we’d previously encountered in that there wasn’t an apres ski bar anywhere to be found. Most other resort towns we’d been to had put equal energy into entertainment on and off the slopes. Also, while everything we’d read pointed to Yuzawa being a tourist town, nothing had indicated that it’s very definitely only a Japanese tourist town since the restaurants we passed were all Japanese menu only.

On returning to the house, Gabriel warned us that we’d be well advised to get to dinner early as everything filled up when the slopes close at 5pm and since the restaurants are all small with only a handful of tables, short of waiting (outside, in the snow) the next easy-access sitting wouldn’t be until around 9 o’clock.

Just after 5pm already, he and his family were on their way out for dinner and he offered for us to walk with them so he could point out his recommendations of restaurants and shops.

We were already too late for the tonkatsu restaurant he had suggested to us but, based on the queue of people waiting in the cold for a table, we assumed it must be as good as Gabriel said and noted to return there the next day, early enough to avoid the queue.

We took our chances and went into the first restaurant without a waiting list, which turned out to be a tempura restaurant. What a luck!

We ordered the set menu, which was an awful lot of food! A miso soup, big wedge of tofu, small plate of pickled veg (no idea what it was), bowl of rice and a mountain of tempura veg (including an enormous shitake mushroom), fish, calamari and prawns (each easily 20cm long). Everything is served at once and makes for a very busy table! There are always soy sauce and chilli flakes on the table and often another condiment or two, in this case a cellar of sesame seeds. Salt and pepper aren’t standard table items as they are in the Western world.

Our feast behind us, we returned home for an onsen and a quiet night in, enjoying the comfort of our new home with its warm and inviting living room (and the simple luxury of being able to speak out loud after being repressed in Tokyo!)

The onsen isn’t what I expected. I’d thought it would be a sort of warm swimming pool, Turkish Bath style, but its more a hot bath suited to shorter dipping. Our house had 2 onsen – one “personal” one about a metre by a metre and a half and a group one about twice the size (and the perfect width to sit back against the wall and toes touching the other side). Both follow the same format with a small reception room with wooden shelves to undress and redress, hand showers in the onsen room to clean off before entering the onsen, and the onsen itself a simple rectangular bath like the swimming pools of yesteryear when they were still tiled.

Each bath is fed by a continuous trickle of hot spring water and the bath simply overflows like an infinity pool when it’s filled to capacity, draining from the bathroom floor (probably on to somewhere useful if the cistern-basin idea is anything to go by). The onsen also has a plug, so can be emptied if the water gets icky (which shouldn’t be too often since the rules are strict about showering beforehand and there is a constant flow of clean spring water entering the bath). It is very hot so, contrary to our expectation that we’d spend hours languishing in it like a Jacuzzi, we only lasted about 10 minutes.

The next morning we went to the ski hire shop, conveniently just across the road from our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at the rates – R420 for 2 days equipment hire! – and were soon on our way with skis, poles, boot and for Christian and Michele pants and goggles too. I went to secure a ski pass (R700 for 2 full days) while the others went to find an intructor to give them a private lesson.

As promised on our “ski in/out” hotel’s write-up, there was a ski chair lift right outside our door and our pass covered not only our slope, but the whole mountain including the gondola that ran from the Ropeway Station a few hundred metres down the street to midway up the slope which had a few restaurants and shops.

Having snowed all through the night before, the powder was perfect! The slopes aren’t busy at all – not like the mayhem in Europe when I’d learned to ski – so it’s an ideal training ground and a pleasure for the already initiated.

Alex was having her turn at being ill that day so had, wisely and with remarkable restraint, stayed in for the day. I took on the mountain as a solo mission and worked out a run from the gondola station to the very top of the mountain that had me entertained for an hour at a time through a variety of green, red, black and blue routes.

By the end of the day, we’d all fallen in love with Yuzawa and asked Gabriel if we could stay 2 extra nights (conveniently, he was our landlord for our intended next stop so we simply traded properties). I guess we’ll never know what Hakone would have been like but since its main attraction was its private onsen and we had two at Yuzawa anyway, we were very motivated to stay at our lovely hotel.

After a brilliant full day’s skiing, we were at the restaurant for 5 o’clock… and were still second in the queue! Fortunately the wait wasn’t very long though and since they had taken our order while we waited, the food was served to us as we sat down. It was another set menu type thing with the standard miso soup, pickled veg, tofu and rice and the most incredible tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork fillet along the lines of a schnitzel but thick and tender and juicy, served with a mountain of shredded cabbage, carrot and watercress. Its partner condiment was a sticky sweetish barbecue sauce which matched perfectly and there was a creamy light sauce that we only realised afterwards was likely a sort of salad dressing to make a coleslaw type effect with the veg.
Since Alex was still quarantining herself, we made short work of dinner and picked up some beers and sake from the bottle shop to take home for a quiet night in. Made for a really nice evening.

Day 2 of skiing was even better because I had Lixi with me – and it was a great feeling just knowing we’d extended our stay so there would be no mad panic to pack and leave later on.

We made arrangements to all meet at the Alpine restaurant at the top gondola station for lunch and each spent our morning making the proverbial hay while the sun shone.

The slopes were brilliant, so much snow, wide and long runs and, with relatively few people, no queues at any of the chairlifts. Alex and I managed all the runs before lunch, including her first go on a (steep and narrow!) black run ever!

We were pooped by lunchtime so had a lovely long and lingering pizza/pasta lunch at Alpine, comparing notes on who had done what in the morning and watching Ski TV through the big window (although we witnessed far fewer and less spectacular bails than our house’s view).

Alex and I skiied for about another hour and caught the gondola down rather than risking the long black slope in the failing light.

Our onsen awaited and was practically a religious experience for our tired bones and aching muscles! The water was 44 degrees so it took little more than 10 minutes to get to watershed invigoration.

Lovely and clean and toasty – and in no hurry for dinner after our leisurely lunch – we settled around our lounge table, with its traditional floor cushions on 2 sides and The Most Comfy Couch in The World on the other 2, and got stuck into the bottles of local sake we’d bought at the shop Gabriel recommended.

Michele was having her turn at the flu, so decided not to brave the cold for dinner. The four of us wandered up the road heading for a restaurant called Yoshi Toshi (one of the few restaurants with English signage) which Christian had spotted and wanted to try. Unfortunately it was closed, but there was another restaurant directly opposite and a peek through the door showed it was quite full – always a good sign – so we gave it a bash.

Much like the other traditional restaurants we’d been to, it was very small with only 4 low tables and a counter of about 10 chairs facing the open kitchen. We were seated at one of the 4 low tables and given menus… all in Japanese. There was one picture, which looked like a set menu so, since we’d done well with those so far, we ordered 4.

We ordered sake too, which was served the traditional way into a small cup to the point that it overflowed and filled the saucer below. This apparently symbolises the welcoming from the restaurant and the generosity that they will display in looking after you.

The meal was excellent! Tasty miso soup and superb chicken katsu breaded cutlets.

We celebrated our success with a visit to Swing Bar, which still appeared to be the only bar in town and advertised on its signage that its operating hours were 8pm to 3am daily. How odd.

We soon made friends – or rather, in this case, were made friends with – a trio of young US Marines. They told us that their deal is 5 years in the Corps and in return the Marines pay for 3 years university education for them. Seems like a great system. Must rack up since there are apparently 5000 marines on their ship alone!

A couple of rounds of beers and Jagers (the killer mammoth tumbler “shots”) and it was hometime. It was so awesome surfacing to the crisp night air, with all the pretty snow and mountain backdrop for the short walk back to the hotel. Such simple pleasures we miss out on at home.

Our last day was taken very slowly with all efforts concentrated on relaxing. It was raining lightly so nobody was keen on skiing and it was an indulgent day of napping, chatting, slothing and of course onsen, all set to the rhythmic “bing-bong” warning chime that the ski station outside our window made every few seconds as each chair arrived.

The first time anyone left the house was close on 6pm, to return ski equipment, do a spot of souvenir shopping and source a place for dinner.

The first 2 were easy, the third not as much so. We wanted to try something that we hadn’t yet eaten and the task is harder than you might think when the display menus are Japanese only and the 1000 words that the accompanying pictures speak are clearly Japanese as well!

The answer came to us in the form of a glowing billboard opposite the station: Kenchin Soup.

The restaurant looked like such a good find. With a charmingly rustic entrance complete with the traditional sliding paper doors, the inside was warm and comfortable but more ‘functional’ than a lot of the places we’d been to. With wooden floors and normal chairs and tables, we surmised this to be more of a canteen for the locals.

As with most places we’d been to, there was only 1 person working the floor (doorman, waiter and bussing functions) with 2 people in the kitchen. Our server was an old man, who was delighted to see us and ushered us into the back into a private dining room with traditional straw mat floors, low tables and cushions. As had been our lure, he pointed excitedly at the picture of the Kenchin soup in the menu, clearly recommending it to us.

Unique to the local area, Kenchin is a thick Japanese stew containing more than 10 different vegetables, soy sauce and miso paste. The picture on the board looked like a hearty beef or lamb stew but, even though all veg, Kenchin is just as hearty and delicious and there are some of the more exotic veg that you’d swear are meat from their texture and flavour.

We had ordered some side dishes too, including tempura prawns (as big as the monster ones we’d had the first night), hire-katsu (crumbed pork cutlets) and negitoro (minced tuna sashimi served as a tartare-style meatball in a bed of Japanese spring onion). Everything is so tasty; really fresh with sharp and defined flavours.

It was snowing properly by the time we left and we all looked like snowmen by the time we got home.

Our evening round-up (“clearing the stocks from the fridge that would be too cumbersome to carry”) had us in complete agreement that staying in Yuzawa had been a genius move that might just have ruined all future possible skiing holidays for us!

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Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 3)

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jan 3, 2015 Under Travelogue

TOKYO (Part 3)
02 January 2015

Jetlag had set in and all of us were rustling and stirring by 4am. Way too early to do anything constructive though, so everyone stayed nestled with Kindles, phones and tablets for entertainment, dozing on and off until 7.30.

Our shower rotation was less traumatic than anticipated and actually helped prevent our pinhead living area from becoming too crowded (with our mountain of electronics on chargers, let alone our 5 Western bodies).

RoRo whipped us up some heavenly scrambled eggs for a light brekkie and we hit the road just after 9 – almost an hour ahead of schedule.

The roads were quiet and nothing was open yet – a surprise to us seeing as we’d only yet surfaced into the Tokyo afternoon.

We’d plotted and planned the day’s itinerary the previous evening (at – yet another – Hub pub) while we were out, so we had a good idea of what we wanted to do and how to get there. We did however change course on our first stop, Kappabashi, which is famous for being where all the plastic food displays (commonly found outside most restaurants to illustrate their menu) are made. Challenge was that we didn’t know *exactly* where to go and feared getting disheartened if the first sight was a wild goose chase.

Directions in Tokyo are fun at the best of times with a complicated address notation system thanks largely to buildings having been numbered as they were built, rather than having predefined numbers. This has resulted in an awkward retro-fitted address format allocating 3 numbers to each address: block, building, residence. For example, the address for our digs is 3-4-7 Yanaka, Taito.

We caught the Asakusa Line to Higashi-ginza where Exit 3 surfaced us directly outside the Kazibuka-za Kabuki Theatre. Our plan was to get short tickets, which allow access for a single act. Unfortunately, it would appear that half of Tokyo (plentiful donning traditional kimonos, socks and slippers, and umpteen in fur coats) had the same idea so the first act was already sold out and it would be an hour’s wait in the queue to get tickets for the 13h00 act. We satisfied ourselves with taking photos of the building and promising to take in a show in Kyoto instead.

We were just around the corner from the famous Tsujiki Fish Market, where we’d planned to lunch after Kabuki. No problem though, lunch at 11am was game on!

Most of the market was closed for the holiday, but we still got to see some shop owners preparing fresh seafood for their customers – some quite elaborate, like one involving grilling a fresh scallop in the shell, topping it with tuna strips a d salmon roe and then blowtorching it to lightly sear it. Not expensive, but too much of a wait for the make-one-at-a time chef to get to us.

By pure chance we stumbled in Sushi Sen, which had been recommended to us by a local at The World’s End pub on New Years. No queue, so we were in and seated at the counter in no time. We opted for a few platters so we could sample more things. Everything was so fresh! And the soy sauce (like all of them we’ve had so far) so light and tasty you can practically drink it on its own! Sadly, a few of the things we ordered didn’t come, but we chalked it up to “lost in translation” and wrote it off as not to be.

Getting the hang of the spaghetti of subway lines, next stop was digital town in Akihabara, known for it’s megastores of electronic goods. All we wanted was a portable speaker to use with the party iPod we’d brought (and clearly not been able to use anyway in our complete-silence holiday house), but we were unprepared for the FOUR AISLES of options! Luckily it was Christian’s choice or I’d still be there!

We’d been rotating our shopping, having commandeered a table at Starbucks to combat the fatigue from our unintentional early rising but decided that, since we’d done almost everything on the list for the day, we’d head back home for an afternoon nap before dinner (planned to be at Ninja restaurant, themed as just that, where you get ambushed at the door and served by chaps in ninja suits).

When we got back home, Michele and I decided to forego the nap in favour of a quick walking tour instead. We loaded Kappabashi (the plastic food place) into Google Maps and headed off.

We had no trouble finding it at all – clearly easier on foot than by underground as it’s easier to get your bearings. Pity though, when we got there, most of it was closed. A few kitchenware stores were open but, while the Japanese are pretty famous for their quality knives, it held little interest for us. Still, the walk had been worthwhile and even I – navigationally challenged as I am – was starting to recognise landmarks and find my way around.

When we got back, the others were ready to head out – and we’d worked up quite an appetite with all the walking on only a few bits of sushi – so first order of business was dinner, at Ninja in Akasaka.

The restaurant lived up to its name, being quite elusive to find… and then (allegedly?) closed for the holidays. Not the end of the world though; there were so many options around the station.

We had a false start at a tempura restaurant, which looked amazing from the illustrated menu in the window. The restaurants are so small and narrow that it’s not uncommon not to be able to get a single table that seats our group of 5. We ended up having a leisurely dinner at a restaurant that very possibly could’ve been more Chinese than Japanese, but the food was great and plentiful (we ordered about 10 different things – including tempura prawns to assuage our initial disappointment) and really cheap at R900 for all the food and beers for all of us!

Kenny had made contact stating interest in meeting up with us, so the rest of the evening was easy for us, leaving him to play tourguide again.

Kenny did a masterful job of showing us how diverse Tokyo is. We connected at an English pub called Hobgoblin in Rappongi, changed atmosphere with a hip-hop style dark ‘n dingy pub called Geronimo’s, popped in for a beer at a fancy supper club lounge bar and eventually parted ways again when he deposited us at an awesome place called The Train Bar, not so imaginatively named as it is literally a bar in a refurbished train caboose.

The last was the coolest by far – small and fun, excellent staff and a wall of CDs which you could give to the bartender to play. We had a raucous time there entertaining ourselves and others until all hours… and felt compelled to literally get the t-shirt to commemorate the experience!

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Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 2)

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jan 1, 2015 Under Travelogue

TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo travel card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our inaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through Roppongi – the really upmarket area – past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hordes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

The pub gave every table a bowl of (cold) noodles on the house to welcome in the new year. A nice touch, but an awkward dish to share.

We left World’s End to go TOKYO (Part 2)
31 December 2014

Our day began as the previous night had ended – later than expected and snuggled in our futons (which were pleasantly way more comfortable than they looked). With first item on the agenda being “waiting for Lix and RoRo’s arrival” (them having been delayed at Gatwick and so missing their intended connection in Istanbul), we made a calculated decision to only rise at 2pm after a midday initial awakening.

Jeff had obviously given up on our previous night’s arrangement for a walk-through (“at breakfast time; we like to up-and-out early,” we’d said) of how things work, but had left us a note which, at 5 lines long, made us wonder what he’d planned to pad the intended tour with.

Test-driving our kitchen/shower/loo set-up between 3 of us did leave us curious as to how all 5 of us plan to manoeuvre the space over the next few days’ ablutions!

Jeff was back by the time our friends arrived… and took the opportunity to tell us that we’d have to be even quieter than the previous night if we didn’t want Grumpy Old Man Next Door to thump on the wall. Oops.

After a quick catch-up, our newly expanded troupe of 5 hit the streets.

Our plan was to hook up with one of RoRo’s mates who lived near Tokyo Tower, so we grabbed a Pasmo card at the Naka-okachimachi station for our unaugural subway journey, to Kamiyacho station.

Kenny was waiting on the platform for us and turned out to be a class tour guide! He took us on a walking tour that started with the Tokyo Tower,  a communications and observation tower located in the Shiba-koen district of Minato. At 333 metres, it is the second tallest structure in Japan, with a lattice design inspired by the Eiffel Tower.

Being in the area, we popped in at Kenny’s apartment to meet his wife, Laura, who was unable to join us as she was staying into tend to their son and brand new (only a few days old) baby daughter. They have a gorgeous home that could probably fit our entire digs in their lounge!

With all the walking (some 6000 steps by that point), only a slice of toast on board, the cold and the premature winter darkness, dinner at 17h30 seemed like an obvious next choice on the agenda. Quite a few places were closed, being New Years Eve, but we were soon settled at Meat Man Yakaniko (“fried meat”) skewer restaurant. A feast of meats – all delicious – on skewers ensued and while we were assured that Kenny wasn’t ordering anything obscure or sinister (in Japanese, so we had no idea), sometimes it’s best not to ask and rather hunker down and enjoy. The Japanese cook to our taste – lightly searing everything so it’s really tender and juicy. And lots of skewers of nibblybits (and not a carb in sight) is surprisingly filling!

Back on the road, we walked through the really upmarket areas, past all the designer label stores. The streets were relatively empty, partly because New Years Eve isn’t known to be prime shopping time and partly because it’s a big holiday in Japan, known for mass exodus of Tokyo to home towns elsewhere.

We took a walk down Takeshita Street, a popular pedestrian-only road lined with major brand shops and smaller independent stores renowned for trend-spotting and -setting. It was much busier than the other places we’d been to, bustling and buzzing with all the shops open and trading.

Having a Plasmo card made traversing the city so easy. We just hopped on a subway to take us to Shibuya, famous for its busy neon billboard-intensive crossing akin to London’s Picadilly Circus. Here we experienced the opposite challenge – previously quite a few of the places Kenny wanted to take us to were closed; here a lot of them were full! The Japanese are quite rigid about seating capacity and weren’t amenable to our offer to hover standing.

No mind, there are so many bars and restaurants that we ended up at a lovely spot overlooking Shibuya.

Sadly, that’s were Kenny had to part ways to get back to Laura, so we bid our farewells and had a last drink while we plotted next steps.

We had previously decided to spend midnight at a temple, so it was just a question of which one. We opted for the Sensoji one in Asakusa, being close to home, so that we wouldn’t have to face the maddening post-midnight throng on the subway.

Plasmos out, we crossed the city in a single swipe, 19 stops and 230 Yen (R23).

It was a good call. Asakusa – cited by The Rough Guide to Tokyo as “the city’s moat colourful and evocative district” – was a hive of activity with food stalls and markets open and tending to the hoardes of people. The queue for the shrine was already several hours long, which seemed a bit excessive for the few seconds each person would get as they were ushered through the shrine to say their prayer.

On our own mission, we got beers from the bottle store and positioned ourselves right next to the shrine to people-watch and soak in the atmosphere as midnight was rapidly approaching.

Midnight itself was a strange one – no countdown, no gongs, no fireworks. The crowd just seemed to know the time and titter excitedly with lots of hugging and selfies as the invisible clock silently struck midnight.

Formalities concluded, we jumped on a (very busy) train to get back to Ueno Station, eager to share our previous night’s finds with Lix and RoRo. Already it felt like “coming home” to exit Ueno and see our fave, The World’s End Irish rock pub, across the street!

It didn’t disappoint.

It was full but we were allowed to hover in the doorway passage. We were soon befriended by an Englishman, who revealed that he’d been living in Tokyo for 18 years, working as a sumo wrestling journalist. You don’t hear that that every day.

We were treated to quite a spectacle as the bar staff surprised 2 of their colleagues with a farewell dedication video. We couldn’t fathom what the occasion was, but their video was long, well put-together and the verbiage must’ve been quite touching since both girls were soon in tears. Cherry on the top was the DJ proposing to one of the two girls! (Hopefully he makes a better fiancé than DJ – the only thing worse than his music taste was his mixing!)

We left World’s End to go to The Hub, one of a chain of English pubs… but we must’ve gotten our wires crossed as the bartender was cashing up when we got there. Ever-courteous though, a waiter escorted us the few hundred metres to the next branch, which he obviously knew to still be open. It was still full-scale pumping!

A few nightcaps, some bleated classics and a handful of new friends later, we called it a night.

Last stop in at our trusty 7Eleven for supplies for the morning. The bread is so funny – packed as “loaves” of 2, 4 or 8 slices. Presumably this is because space is such an issue with little to no storage room. Kenny had been telling us that there is a very strong culture for eating (almost all) meals out because restaurants are cheap and excellent, and groceries are relatively expensive (and bulky to store).

It was easily 5am by the time we got in – and we were likely not as quiet as we should’ve been, crinkling crisp packets, giggling and stage-whispering.

It didn’t last long though and we were all off to bed very soon.

Where we stayed until mid-afternoon on New Years Day.

Poor RoRo was man-down with his cold, so we left him sleeping and went off to our usual Taito area around Ueno Station for a spot of dinner.

We decided to try something (else) authentic so did a barbecue restaurant. Each table is fitted with a chimney and the waitress brings a small circular braai with fitted grid ready coals to the table along with whatever raw ingredients you’ve ordered.

We struggled with the Japanese menu as the pictures were small and blurry, but the English one wasn’t much more helpful as there were no pictures and the descriptions were unfamiliar (like yagan and urate). We ended up ordering by pointing at the pictures on the Japanese menu and did a pretty good job, ending up with some pleasant cuts of beef, pork and chicken. We did have one fail in a portion of chicken cartilage that looked suspiciously like coccyx and had no meat at all. Clearly a delicacy that we don’t understand. We’d also ordered a soup hotpot to share, which was a delicious rich broth with cubes of beef, ramen, egg and sprouty things in it. Delicious.

But quite small, so we ended up at McDonald’s about a half hour later ordering a Quarter Pounder.

Most of the shops were still open so we spent a few hours wandering up and down the rows of stalls, prodding and browsing and buying all sorts of stuff. We’d thought Japan was going to be really expensive, but it’s turning out to be a trove of bargains! We bought ski gloves for under R90, Adidas track tops for R100, Chris got 2 pairs of Adidas corsstrainers for R230 each… we’d probably still be shopping if it wasn’t for luggage concerns!

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Travelogue Japan 1: Tokyo (Part 1)

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Dec 31, 2014 Under Travelogue

30 Dec 2014 – 03 Jan 2015

After a disproportionately exuberant farewell gathering at the Baron all afternoon on Sunday, there was the usual up-at-4am dash to the finish line to get last minute ducks in rows – and perform other essential activities like packing (which had been procrastinated over for days because of the complexity of the warm vs bulk trade-off of winter- and ski-wear options).

Miraculously, everything was done and ready by our agreed-upon 10.30 collection time. Michele, accompanying us to Japan, was to leave her car at the airport while we’re away, which made life very simple thanks to the long-term carport parking across the road from ORT International Departure entrance.

Coup de gras was the radio dedication of Turning Japanese by The Vapours (“I really think so!”) and Big In Japan by Alphaville, that Michele had smsed in to her DJ mate to wish us a bon voyage on-air.

Both of our (Emirates, obviously) flights were very full and our online check-in the day before had warned us that we weren’t sitting together on either flight. We managed to negotiate to be in a row of 3 together on the flight to Dubai, but only Christian and I were together on the second flight (a minor detail since most of that 11 hour flight was spent sleeping, thanks in some part to our Dubai Airport splurge on R130 pints of Heineken).

Arriving in Tokyo, Narita International Airport was a bit overwhelming… especially since Lixi and Roro’s flight from London had been delayed so they’d missed their connection to Tokyo – and it was Lixi who’d done all the major prep (including a 38-page itinerary!) thereby earning unofficial Group Leader status.

Nonetheless, English and helpful people were aplenty so we soon had a plan and a train ticket for the Airport Express that would take us to Ueno Station where we could catch a taxi for the short ride to our digs.

Except we managed to get on the wrong train!

Fortunately, our error only had minor consequences as the train we were on did the same route as the Express, but stopped. At. Every. Station.

Our mistake had been pointed out to us by a lady sitting next to us on the train, who then asked to see our travel arrangements and gave advice on the subway vs taxi options for getting us from Ueno to our local subway stop (from where we had on-foot directions on our accommodation booking itinerary). Thinking we’d reduce our risk by taking a taxi, the lady guided us to the taxi stop and hailed a driver for us.

I’d been warned by our host that our (“truly Authentic! Live as the traditional Japanese do!”) house was off the grid when I’d asked (on Lix’s instruction) for Google coordinates for our Awesome Itinerary, but hadn’t considered that our driver wouldn’t be able to find it either. Plugging the address into his GPS got us close enough, but we ended up trawling the neighbourhood with his Japanese GPS lady sounding increasingly frustrated as she tried to convince us our destination was a park!

500 Yen later and no closer to home, we decided to get him to drop us at the local subway and call our host to come and get us. Turns out we were only a couple of hundred metres from the station, and located in a small alley parallel to the park.

Relieved to be nested, we happily removed our shoes (on instruction) in the little entrance hall and bowed to enter through the small sliding door and into the house. The small lounge is spartanly furnished with straw floor mats, a low coffee table, several cushions and a floor lamp. The lounge leads onto a tiny kitchen with barfridge, single utility table, double hotplate, small sink and, entertainingly, the house’s only shower! …which made more sense when we discovered that the “bathroom” (a loo with a basin cleverly designed on top of the cistern so that water used in the basin automatically gets used to flush the toilet) was also in the kitchen! The whole living area is about the size of my dining room at home and you can touch the ceiling on flat feet.

Up the steep and narrow staircase took us to the sleeping area: a long room with 5 futon mattresses laid out in a row. The room could be subdivided into 3 rooms using the curtain between bed 1 and 2 and the shoulder-height sliding door between bed 3 and 4. Most walls had the same sliding doors, so it was fun sliding them to see what hidey-hole treasures lay beyond. Interestingly the house is an almost 1:1ratio of living:cupboard space. Disappointingly, most were cupboards with bedware or empty for us to store our stuff.

Our host – whose name we’d already forgotten so we’ve renamed him Jeff – lived in a small room off the lounge and reminded us that we were to be very quiet in the house. The house’s owner had told me that several times on Airbnb,  which I’d interpreted as “no loud parties”, but Jeff advised that we were to keep so quiet that in fact pure silence was to be observed upstairs. Turns out that the authentic Japanese paperthin walls combined with the authentic Japanese grumpy old man neighbour and the very-real prohibition on subletting in this traditional Japanese neighbourhood had gotten out landlord into some hot water already.

We assured Jeff that our intention was to use the house for little more than sleeping and to illustrate told him we were heading straight out to experience Tokyo. He gave us advice, directions and a map, setting us off toward Ueno, where we were apparently destined to find food and drink aplenty. So, feeling rebellious at our flagrant disregard for the no-strangers-in-our-hood rule, we hit our streets and discovered that it was an easy walk to all the action.

We kicked off with a celebratory beer (“The Brew”) from our local 7Eleven, next to the subway station entrance where we’d met Jeff. The challenge was juggling the icy cold beer between hands so as not to get either hand too cold, since it was a crisp 3 degrees Celsius out. Easy task for us, so we rewarded ourselves with another from the next 7Eleven, trying a Kirin this time.

Jeff had certainly advised us well; there was loads of life in the few blocks he’d pointed out. We had a bit of a wander, pouring over the big pictureboard menus outside most of the eateries, considering our dinner options… and, predictably, were lured into an Irish rock bar (The World’s End, opposite Ueno Station) for a Guinness (and a tot of Japanese whiskey for Christian and Michele). Great pub, bigger than many we’d passed but still little more than an inflated passage with about 50 seats.

We ended up only eating at around midnight, having struggled to choose what and where to eat among the countless little restaurants that were still open and pumping. Deciding to try lots of things, we ordered shrimp dumplings, fried basil dumplings, barbecued pork and a noodle hotpot. Everything was amazing! Christian ordered a second round of dumplings and Michele a “Magic Pudding” creme caramel dessert and, with drinks, the whole lot came to R328!

Delighted at our feeding, we went on the hunt for a celebratory Jagermeister. Beside the road-level restaurants and bars, there were loads more upstairs, with stacked neon sign markers outside the stairwells to indicate what was where. We soon learned that, presumably since space is at such a premium, “sitting charges” often apply, which will act as good as any other filter to help us narrow the options moving forward in a city where we’re so overwhelmingly spoilt for choice.

We found the Jager – at a ball-busting 1000 Yen (R100) each, (sort of) softened when it turned out to be a veritable tumblerful, easily a triple or quadruple shot each! A good nail in the fun coffin of an unintentionally extended welcome night in Japan, we started heading for home and (one more nightcap en route later) were in bed by 4am (a very respectable 9pm home-time), with many stories under our belt for our travelmates’ arrival, due for around lunchtime.

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Travelogue China 5: Xi’An

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Sep 3, 2014 Under Travelogue

30 August 2014

Not being ones for early-to-bed, it was too tough to stick to our self-imposed 9pm bedtime and we were still pretty chuffed to make it by 10(ish).

There was something very unnatural about a 3.30 wake-up call, but we forced ourselves to get up and out and met our driver at 4am as planned for the cross-city taxi to the airport. We got to the airport in plenty of time (in fact, it wasn’t even open yet), which had us first in the queue with plenty of time to argue with the airline about our (very) overweight luggage.

We were disappointed to arrive to pelting rain in Xi’An (literally translated as “peace of the West”). While one half was trying to silver-line the “it could have been like this all holiday”, there was a definite “why today of all days?!” half bringing us down. Fortunately, our (private) tour guide, Bryan, and his sidekick, driver Charlie Wong, shared a very sunny disposition so we were soon optimistic that the day wouldn’t be a complete wash.

Another small town… of 10 million people… Xi’An has been a town of historical significance for being the birthplace and centre for many Emperors’ rule, most notably in the short but important Qin (pronounced “Chin”) Dynasty who ruled Chou (as China was then known) from 220 – 206 BC. The Qins first unified China – hence it was renamed after them – and formalised the Chinese script and currency.

Xi’An remained capital through the “Golden Age” of the Tang Dynasty some 1300 years ago, with a – very substantial, for then – population of 2 million people. The city was renown for arts and culture and sent envoys around the world to bring back artefacts from other countries, including a giraffe from Africa which had been thought to be a mythical creature!

We faced a terrible traffic jam, which extended the usual 23 minute trip to the Terracotta Warriors to almost 2 hours. A little disheartened, we suggested lunch before the Warriors tour as we’d eaten little all morning (since 3.30am and it was now after 12!) thanks to our 5* hotel packing us a very poor takeaway breakfast consisting of 4 crusty pastries, 1 coffee and an apple – to share! It was a good call, not just to avoid rushing the warriors, but also because serendipitously the hardest rain poured down while we were in our cosy local eatery slurping up a noodle soup and wolfing down a “Xi’An burger” (pulled pork in toasted pita) and portion of pork dumplings.

Spirits a little restored, we entered the Terracotta Warriors complex.

Nothing like we expected, the Warriors are being excavated in large domed warehouses with neat permanent-structure entrance halls explaining what you’re going to be seeing and where it all fits in the (real-life) Dynasty saga.

The Warriors were discovered in 1974, quite by accident by a farmer who was looking for a spot to dig a well and stumbled on some artefacty stuff, which he reported to the government. They gave him 5 Yuan (R8,75) for his efforts and, since all the land in China belongs to the government (the people only have lease on the properties they build on the land not the land itself), their excavation began. The farmer has made himself somewhat of a local celeb though, availing himself a few mornings a week to man a table in the foyer and sign coffee table books. Our morning happened to be one such and we caught a glimpse of this modern day hero in the flesh (but didn’t buy a book since they were all in Chinese).

Emperor Qin’s are located 1,5km from Emperor QinShihuang’s mausoleum, symbolising the main defending force that guarded the capital before the Emperor died (bearing in mind he started building it when he was 25 and died at 39). Their tomb was in place to protect the Emperor’s tomb and be in place for him when he returned to the after-life.

Walking into the first pit, you can’t help but catch your breath. It’s everything you heard it would be and so much more than the pictures prepare you for! 236 metres long and 62 metres wide, it’s estimated to contain 6,000 warriors and horses. Even with only about a third currently excavated, its visual overload. Rows and rows of soldiers facing forward; each one hand crafted with a unique outfit and face, not a single one moulded or duplicated. Unbelievably sophisticated sculpture on such a large scale for now, let alone 2 millennia ago!

Closer inspection reveals the exquisite detail. Hair styles, headwear, shoes and other detail indicate rank (remember this is an army, after all). Each soldier has fingernails and even palmprints! Most of the soldiers’ expressions are sombre or sad, likely reflecting the feelings of the artists who were forced to create them (all Chinese men were subject to one month a year conscription to perform such projects for the Emperor); the bellies of the higher ranked officers are slightly bloated to reflect their pre-battle “liquid courage” indulgence.

The soldiers were made, hollow around a clay coil, off-site and transferred to their positions down the ramps found in each corner of the pit, dug to about 5 metres below ground level. They were placed – interspersed with a few warhorses and chariots (which were made of wood, but can be seen in the fossilised remains) – in rows of 4, each soldier on their own tile stand, on a road made of bricks that are still in tact (2,200 years later!) and bear the imprint signature of their producer! The corridors are divided by clay walls that supported the huge wooden pole rafters covered with mats, earth fill and tilled earth that sealed the Warriors’ tomb and completely concealed them from above.

Sadly: enemies at the time looted the pits for their bronze weapons; the pits collapsed and crushed lots of the soldiers; over time the local people had been using the ground above for burial plots and tombs; and the initial excavation had revealed painted soldiers, but exposure to the light and air made the paint peel within a fortnight… so much of the history is lost to us forever.

… but…

The archeologists have done an incredible job of puzzle-piecing the remnants together (and maintaining the integrity of the pieces in their repair jobs) so it’s still a very worthwhile excursion AND they have stopped unearthing more soldiers until they get a handle on how to preserve the paint, so there’s something to look forward to in the future when they get that right.

Pit 2 is just as interesting – if not just much less spoken-about. Located 20 metres from Pit 1, Pit 2 is in an L shape, 124 x 98 metres, covering 6,000 square metres. The contents are a mixture of the military forces – archers, war chariots, cavalrymen and infantrymen – who appear independently, but could presumably assemble to constitute a complete battle formation when required, as was the distinct style of the Qin military strategy.

While the soldiers were slightly larger than life (to appear stronger and more powerful), the other objects are only proportions of real-life since they believed at that time that the Emperor would come back half size in the next life. So, Pit 2 was a collection of half-size horses and carriages. Or maybe, my sceptical nature says, the half-size superstition suited the frugal Emperor as he made the soldiers from cheap terracotta, but the carriages and horse accessories were all bronze, silver, gold, alloys…

Pit 3 is a 520 square metre U shape 29 metres long by 25 metres wide. From its contents, it’s surmised that this was the army’s Command Centre. Sadly, it was badly destroyed in history, so reveals only 68 pottery figures, 1 chariot and 34 bronze weapons. Swords had chrome plating with a thickness of 10 to 15 micron to act as a protective cover, which is interesting seeing as the Germans and Americans only “invented” chrome plating in 1937 and 1950!

The last thing to visit is the Emperors Mausoleum, with its 81 satellite pits with all sorts of treasures and resources. Offsite (but only 10 minutes away) the Mausoleum Museum is a bit lacklustre after the Warrior pits (which is probably why it only costs 90 Yuan and the Warriors cost 150).

The view in the pits is from above, through glass floors, which is kinda cool, but the lighting is very low (ostensibly to preserve the artefacts) so you can’t see as well as you can in the Warrior pits. There are lots of very well laid-out glass case exhibits, but the artefacts are quite unexciting (crockery, decor, tools, stamps etc) as compared.

It’s estimated that the population of China back then, 2200 years ago, was about 30 million people. 1 million were soldiers and of the rest, about 700,000 people’s national duty conscription was dedicated to this project… which is estimated to have cost as much as one third of the country’s GDP. He had a fully manned and functional palace above the ground – even after his death, with servants continuing their duties and serving food to his empty seat at the royal table “feeding his soul” – and an impressive ready-for-action battalion below the ground. The Emperor does seem (from today’s pragmatic perspective) to have been a bit cooked, allocating all that time and resources to setting everything up for his next life. But thank goodness he did – it’s a spectacular worthy of its arguable title as “8th Wonder of the World”.

It’s a pity that the rain and the traffic jam cost us seeing the other sights of Xi’An from our original tour plan. I don’t think it counts that we saw lovely pictures of the bell and drum towers, city walls, Big Goose Pagoda, Muslim Quarters etc from a delightfully detailed pictorial article in the inflight magazine on our way back to Beijing! Almost a good enough reason to go back and spend another day with our friendly tour guide, Bryan Bai, and his affable driver, Charlie Wong.

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Travelogue China 4: Shanghai

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Sep 3, 2014 Under Travelogue

28-29 August 2014

With a name translating to “high sea” for its coastal positioning, Shanghai is a city of 26 million people (bigger than Beijing) concentrated on 80,000 square km (the size of Suzhou) so very crowded. Driving into the city from our 3 hour commute from Hangzhou, we could see right away that Shanghai is very different to the other cities we’d seen.

Having a long and mottled history all of its own, Shanghai had been one of the 4 dragons of China (alongside Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore) for economic and trade reasons during wartime, where neutrality was important for continued prosperity. This sustained external interaction has left Shanghai with a dialect all of its own, Shangainese, influenced by Japanese and English, but most of the local people speak Shanghainese and Mandarin (like the rest of China).

Predictably, first order of business on arrival was lunch, which we enjoyed at a stunning traditional restaurant on The Bund (waterfront of sorts), with very tasty food that was very flavourful with seasoning.

Having little perspective, we didn’t realise how well located our restaurant was until after lunch when we had free time to explore and take pictures. Directly above the restaurant was the People’s Heroes column, which was also the perfect vantage point to view across the bay at the skyline that included the distinctive dusky pink Pearl of the Orient Tower and, to me at least, looked like a much bigger version of Hong Kong.

The cool thing was that the next item on the agenda was to head over to that side of the river and go up one of the skyscraper towers to see the exact reverse panorama! The buildings are so so tall that many of then disappear into the clouds! We took the 45 second elevator ride to the 88th floor and could see for miles through the ceiling to floor glass walls. A nice touch was a voucher for a commemorative item – a pearl that was shelled right in front of us. Mine and Mother’s were almost identical (and completely different to our tourmates’!), so I gave mine to her to make a matched set of earrings.

We then had an hour or 2 to wander around the Shanghai Museum, which had some awesome exhibits on jewellery, traditional dress, currency and seals… but, disappointingly, the calligraphy exhibits were closed for renovation and I think these might have been the highlight.

Having not eaten for a whole four hours, we were rushed off to dinner (at 5.30!), in advance of our river cruise from Qin Huang Dao Road Wharf. We were well in time and waiting patiently with our tickets in hand when the gates were opened to let us right to the boat. Bizarrely, there was a mad rush and seemingly disproportionate jostling to squeeze through the turnstile. I had an old biddy with her elbows in my back (my very lower back as she couldn’t have been taller than my armpit), who sprinted off (relatively speaking) after she cleared the ticket check. All only became clear once we were on the boat – the oldies were rushing for a window seat in the cabin! If only they’d said – we had no interest in being inside with the spectacular views and photo opps on the upper deck.

Mr Lee told us that Shanghai is like a lady,who dresses up and puts on all her make up at night to look her absolute best. Well, it must take a lot of electricity to power the commitment to neon that makes this lady pretty! But the effect is well worth it – the taller than tall buildings and distinctive landmarks make for a stunning backdrop for our photobook!

It was well after 9pm when we checked into our hotel, the Four Points Sheraton, which was just as palatial and lovely as we’d been experiencing on the rest of the tour.

… and had the best breakfast buffet by far.

… to fuel us for the lightest itinerary (for some) so far, just shopping.

Fortunately, it was a later start as I’d gone to the bar across the road (the Blue Frog) with some of our tourmates and we’d nattered away until 1 in the morning (not hard to do since we’d only gotten out after 10). And very fortunate that Mother and I are dab hands at shopping (practice does make perfect after all!) so could operate on instinct while in (mental) energy-saving mode.

This shopping expedition was to AP Plaza. Although indoors like the Beijing markets, this one was all on one level. Mr Lee led us into the market to a central hub, where he set us free with a meeting place and time. Rows of shops tentacled from the hub and the centre was as huge as to be expected and followed a similar inventory pattern as the others (handbags, watches, luggage, souvenirs etc), which made it very confusing to retain direction as everything looked the same.

Miraculously we not only fulfilled our list – and stuck only to our list! – but we also managed to find our way back to the central hub… where we found several of our tourmates already waiting. We’d all managed to get this far, but nobody knew how to get from here to the bus! We moved together, set off splinter scout group, left people as markers… everything! But 10 minutes later we were no closer to the exit! Of course, it was as soon as we called Mr Lee to come and retrieve us that we stumbled across the right path.

The next (shopping) experience was more conventional. A downtown CBD, with wide pedestrian paths flanked by tall buildings housing every brand name store imaginable, this was less of the experience that we were looking for on our Chinese adventure, so we skipped the stores completely and (unintentionally) walked the length to get to the station where the slowly snaking trolley bus (decorated as a train, even with a soft “choo choo” periodically) to just soak in the vibe and do some people watching. We were fascinated by a series of really long queues, moving painfully slowly. On closer inspection, these queues were for shop windows selling ‘moon cakes’. Those must be something really special to warrant the wait, which must’ve been well over an hour for the people at the back.

The rest of the afternoon was at leisure, so we attempted to use the hotel business centre to do online check-in for the next day’s flights (unsuccessfully) and buy excess luggage allowance (successfully)… and then faced the daunting task of packing, strategically so that our (substantial) luggage fitted into the total and per-bag weight and size limits.

All packed and ready, we nipped across the road into the mega shopping complex to look for something light for dinner. We popped our heads in at a few places, but ended up with the most unlikely of choices – take away moon cakes from the supermarket. Wow! What a great choice! So so good, with a pork centre similar to a sausage roll in a crispy flaky pastry casing. No wonder all those people were queuing like their lives depended on it!

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Travelogue China 3: Hangzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

27 August 2014

With the tour itinerary getting lighter, we were able to sleep in a bit and still have plenty of time for our breakfast buffet (including ice-cream!) before the 9.30 departure for the day’s activities.

We settled in our tour bus for the 3 hours of travel from Suzhou to Hangzhou (pronounced “hung-joe”), which passed easily now that the busload was interacting as one group abuzz with exchanges about home and the tour (from the Jenkins kids, if nobody else).

The first stop was lunch at a tea farm. Although it felt like we were perpetually en route to a meal (quite routine 8, 12.30 and 6) and the format of each meal was the same (8-10 courses on a lazy susan), the dishes themselves and the variety of locations kept the mealtimes interesting enough.

We opted not to take the presentation at the tea farm since we’d already had a tea ceremony in Suzhou and figured that since it’s all supposedly strictly traditional, you seen one, you seen ‘em all. That might have been a bit dismissive as the locals are so passionate about their tea that they eat, drink and cook with it.

This meant we were on course for West Lake, the big drawcard for the area. Our route took us through the magical bamboo forest where the iconic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed.

The time at West Lake was free time to walk around and admire the scenery. It’s a series of loched manmade lakes, with beautiful thick trees on the banks, large clusters of wild Lotus flowers on the water and a path all the way around so that you can amble along. There were lots of benches and decks to sit and admire the view, mostly under the shade of gorgeous overhanging willow trees. Pretty bridges made for other scenic vantage points and lovely backdrops for photos.

As with everywhere else there were so many people – some even with dogs, of which we’d seen precious few on our trip, and always little chocolate brown miniature poodles. And as with everywhere else, lots of requests to have pictures taken with us.

We would be returning to West Lake for the evening’s entertainment, so there was no objection to moving on to get our hotel. The Courtyard Marriott. Wow. What a grand hotel! Breathtaking lobby, beautiful rooms, astounding facilities. Yet another pleasant surprise on our “bargain package”!

Dinner was at the Lily Hotel and quite different to previous. Same format of course, but much tastier. Hard to tell if this was the restaurant – which did seem much nicer than some of the previous, which had typically understated decor – or the palate of the region.

Then back to West Lake for the show, Impression West Lake which was conceived and directed by Zhang Yimou who is famed for doing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Using the lake, surroundings and an underwater steel stage as props the show is an hour of hundreds of performers and clever usage of lights and sound to create a dazzling epic masterpiece that tells the stories of the classical myths and legends of West Lake. The invisible stage makes it seems as if the dancers are gliding on the water and the mammoth cast is paled by the magnitude of their stage!

We had the best seats in the house (not to be confused with the paraplegic toilets, which we’d taken to seeking out as they were always “proper” toilets) – front row seats on the water’s edge – and couldn’t help but be moved by the triumphant soundtrack… even if we couldn’t quite get a handle on the story.

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Travelogue China 2: Suzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

26-27 August 2014

Monday morning started even earlier than the previous few, reason being that we had to catch the bullet train from Beijing to Suzhou and, as Mr Lee impressed upon us several times, the train waits for nobody!

So there we were, bleary-eyed but well fed, on the bus at 06h50 to cross town from our hotel’s position in the north-east to the station in the south west. As dumb luck would have it, the traffic was on our side and we got to the station with an hour to kill. Rather an hour too soon than an hour too late though.

Mr Lee had prepared us for the getting on and off the train which, in well-oiled-machine Chinese style, was a mere 2 minute window. That’s just 2 minutes at each station for passengers to alight and board! And the train never runs late and never waits for anyone! Miraculously, we Sloth Africans managed to pull it together and get the lot of us and our ever-increasing flock of luggage on board with time to spare.

The train is very comfortable with 15 or so rows of seats in each carriage, 3 to the left and 2 to the right of the aisle. There is a little dedicated luggage space in the front of each carriage and deceptively accommodating shelving overhead, which was more than ample for our carriage’s needs (thankfully our co-passengers were travelling light!). The seats reclined far enough to allow for easy napping and, mercifully, both the toilets that served our carriage had seats and toilet paper. The entire train was pristinely clean and a cleaner still did regular rounds, offering use of her bin bag to clear our garbage and swishing about sweeping as the train hurtled along smoothly and silently at over 300 kilometers per hour.

In 5 hours we covered the 1,400km journey south, to the relaxing part of the tour.

Already the pace had slowed as once we checked into our hotel, the Pan Pacific, we had free time right until dinner. What a relief – the pace had been quite hectic in Beijing!

Our hotel was again top class; quite different to Traders which was a big modern block, Pan Pacific was a beautiful sprawling mega-villa laced around ponds and gardens. An absolute maze on the inside, with our drop-off (and future meeting point) on the 1st floor, our room on the 2nd floor and the lobby seemingly nonsensically on the 3rd floor.

With 2 hours to kill until dinner we popped out the meeting point entrance to see who our neighbours were. No joy from across the road – a greengrocer and dodgy (closed) pub called BlackJack – so we tried heading right.

A bizarre assortment of very functional shops; the only one of any interest was Holiland bakery. Lured in by the pretty cakes and secured by the soft-serve machine, we endured the cacophony of shoppers and store attendants as well as the painstakingly slow-moving queue – thanks to the cashier also being the packer and the store policy requiring each item to be individually packed in little baggies that stuck to each other and resisted opening – for one reason. Fresh sugar cones.

There was an attendant dedicated to the soft-serve machine, armed with a waffle-maker that she was using to make fresh sugar cones. She had a pre-made batter, thin and runny like a pancake batter, that she was spooning onto the heated waffle iron and spreading thinly. A few seconds of cooking and she’d wrap the toasty flat result tightly around a conical wooden mould. Voila! Fresh sugar cone! It felt the time had stood still… she did it soooo slowly… but it was worth it. The product was a still-warm cone that tasted a bit like Boudoir biscuit, with silky soft ice-cream poured inside and twisted to a peak on top. Yum!

We ambled back to hotel and had a lovely sit before having to meet for dinner.

Quite used to the format now, the only adjustment was to being a smaller group now that splinter groups had gone elsewhere. Being just 13 people (which we were assured was not a bad thing in China as their unlucky number is 4 because it had some connotation with death, which is pretty unlucky) we now fitted around a single table and in the small private dining room at our restaurant which, like all the others, shall remain nameless as the signage was all in Chinese only.

Another lovely meal – getting the hang of chopsticks, getting adept at dishing off a constantly swivelling lazy suzie, getting used to one glass of Coke / beer per meal, getting accustomed to no salt / pepper / serviettes, getting to know the company. Having a feast and having a laugh. All good.

We finally got to have the first bit of a lie-in this holiday, only having to wake up at 8 in order to make our 9.30 meeting time.

The plan for the day was a city tour of Suzhou (pronounced “sue-joe”), which is known as the Chinese Venice because it has over 1,400 canals. It is considered to be a smaller city, with a mere 15 million population so had Mr Lee more relaxed, saying that “it nosso busy so don’t have to walk like sticky rice.”

The bus took us to the famous Lingering Gardens. One of 4 most famous gardens in China, it was built in 1593 and belonged to a series of owners since then, accumulating cultivated gardens, quaint buildings and scenic pathways between interesting relics.

There are exhibits of classic calligraphy and paintings of the national flowers – plum (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), lotus (Winter), Chinese rose (Spring) – which can be seen in the gardens. As we walked into the garden, we were greeted by the lotus flowers in bloom on the pond. They are much bigger than expected with great big round leaves. Stark contrast to the controlled miniatures in abundance in the bonsai garden.

Wandering around gardens is not normally our sort of thing, so we did a once-round and buffered the extra time by going to the shop stalls across the road and buying some real bargain souvenirs.

Next up was the embroidery factory. This was no ordinary embroidery! The Masters (and there are only 4 of them) are able to do double-sided embroidery, meaning they can embroider the picture on the top (and I’m talking better-than-photo quality stuff) AND simultaneously create a (different) embroidery on the reverse side! Really amazing stuff!

We got to watch a Master at work. This old lady is 75 years old and has been working at the same factory every day for more than half a century and she only embroiders fish. All day, every day for 57 years and just fish. They are spectacular! She does the most realistic vibrant fish using the finest of stitching (splitting a single thread into 1/24 so you can barely see it), an expert deft hand and a mirror on her lap to monitor the back picture. Unbelievable. Comes at a pretty price too – since it can take years to finish a detailed piece, it can fetch Y500,000 (ZAR 875,000) or more.

From there we went on the Grand Canal tour. This canal runs all the way from Beijing and through Suzhou, with a total length of 1,800km (9x Suez and 20x Panama Canal). Construction was started in 221BC, intending the canal be for military use and merchant trading (silk and tea). It is the second longest, only behind the Yangzhou River; but it’s far from the deepest being mostly only 2 metres deep in Suzhou, nor the fastest since boats may only go at 20kmph.

The canal tour took us through the oldest parts of Suzhou, where the houses back onto the canal and there are steps from their back doors right into the water. Mr Lee got the boat to stop so that we could jump off and nip down an alleyway into the “high street” to see the hustle-bustle of the narrow, noisy, smelly market.

Mr Lee also pointed out Shantang street (“mountain water” street) as a good place to come in the evening for dinner (for once not included in the package). The area had previously been the city’s red light district, but now all that remained of its dodgy history was the red Chinese lanterns, which are now emblazoned with street names in lieu of conventional signage.

The deal was sealed. We returned to the hotel intent on having a rest and then heading back to Shantang for the evening. We got a little sidetracked though since the maids wanted to clean our room shortly after we arrived back (they seem to clean perpetually, not concerned about what time they do what rooms), so we went for a walk in the opposite direction as the previous night.

The walk (or possibly a debilitating luckless visit to a shoe store) sapped mom’s last energy, so she bowed out of the plan and I went ahead and shared a cab to Shantang with our groupmate as planned.

As always, the city looked very different by night and the journey into town seemed much quicker by cab. The cab fare was cheap too, at Y15 (ZAR 26), which like many other coutries makes it viable to outsource transport, not like at home where the cab fare is more than the night out!

We were deposited at the gate to Shantang, since being ancient and very much pre-car it’s a pedestrian-only precinct. It was so pretty with a big glowing arch entrance and a view down the lively street with all the shops open and marked with red Chinese lanterns.

We’d been given a recommended restaurant by Mr Lee, which our hotel concierge had written in Chinese on a hotel business card to help us to find it. It became a sort of treasure hunt looking for “tent-stroke-kappie-square” which is how we remembered what the first (of four!) characters of the restaurant’s name looked like. We wandered down the first of the side roads – a narrower version of the entrance road, now parallel to the canal – and found the restaurant! It was really busy and the hostess managed to communicate that there was a half hour wait. No mind, lots to see and do, so we said we’d come back.

We took a wander down the canal and over a bridge to circle back on the other side. We encountered a lively looking pub, so decided to stop in for a beer to pass the time waiting for the restaurant. We ordered Tsingtaos and listened to the locals warble on the karaoke. Perusing the menu, it looked really good so we decided to go back to our restaurant and check their menu before deciding where to eat.

The original restaurant was ready for us when we returned, but a brief flip through the menu showed that, while the food looked good, it was much the same as the lunches and dinners we’d been having, so we decided to go back to the pub to have a beer and a snack and repeat the process to make a bit of a pub crawl out of dinner.

It was a good call and we enjoyed delicious chicken pops and wokfried pepper beef at the pub. Then the challenge began. We walked around and about, up one street and down the other and couldn’t find another pub! Try as we might, there simply wasn’t another option.

We were not so desperate as to try a karaoke house, easily located by the wailing and caterwalling coming from them. Strange format, the karaoke houses have small roadlevel reception areas and the hostesses escort you to your own private lounge, dark and kitted with comfy couches around the walls, all facing a large screen and all with easy access to microphones. Even assuming they have some sort of soundproofing, the participants are so enthusiastically loud and proud that the result is cacophonic!

We did get to see the whole of the downtown area though and did stop to enjoy street food at some of the many vendors. The highlight was the mini lobsters although, admittedly, I did think they were cockroaches at first glance!

The streets were a hive of activity – and all very very clean. We wandered around, looking at shops and street vendors, buying the odd beer at the local 711 equivalent, and ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, ending on a 23,000 step day!

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