Ambling through the heartlands of Turkey: Trabzon to Cappadocia

Ambling through the heartlands of Turkey: Trabzon to Cappadocia

Part 2 of my Turkey holiday in March 2018. For part one, see:

I leave the apartment swiftly this morning. My bag is pretty much already packed, I just throw the last things in, put the keys on the desk and wave goodbye to my host, who wakes up briefly to say thanks. Outside, I take the Dolmuş to the Otogar and along the way I get teased by the driver. The back was quite full, so I am sitting next to the driver, pinned there once a lady sits on my right. He asks me some questions, which I can’t answer, then giggles at me a few times, repeating something that sounds like ‘Inglize’. Nonetheless, he stops for me in the right place and points to the crossing to the Otogar.
I now have over an hour to wait, as I was a little too keen to get here. There is a little cafe, so I enter in the hope of a nice simple menu to point at. I have no such luck, but I do encounter another Turk who finds my language skills amusing. He lays out the menu verbally, so naturally I end up with a sandviç and a cola, as those are the ones that sound the same to both of us. It does for a breakfast and passes the time till my bus is due to go. I wave the ticket at the driver, he is not very fussed, and find my seat. I read for a bit as we leave Trabzon. I have seen these industrial neighbourhoods enough over the last couple of days, so a bit of Lucy Hounsom’s Starborn is a pleasant escape from reality. However, as we progressing inland, it gets more and more stunning. I had seen how great it looked around Sumela Monastery, but this time we continue towards the snow line. P1140784.JPGDespite the difficulty of taking photos out of a moving bus, I just can’t help but try and capture the beauty of the snow-capped mountain passes that we go through. The mountain ranges are just continuous in all directions and there are several feet of snow just near the road. P1140788.JPGOn either side of the road, there are barriers, which I can only assume are there to stop snow drifts moving, as they have mounds balanced against them.

As we head back down from the heights, I assume that I have had my pretty scenery for now, so go back to my book. As we approach Erzincan though, it gets spectacular again and when we arrive in the Otogar I just don’t know which way to look. The city is in a valley and the land around is green and fertile, but in all directions are vast mountains, covered in snow. P1140796.JPGI wonder why Turkey doesn’t have ski resorts with so much snow. I Google it. Turkey does have ski resorts, loads of them, and they’re really good. Apparently Erzurum (a city a couple of hours from here) is near one of the most popular. I have to wait for a local bus a while, so I message my friends about going skiing here next year.

The public bus that takes me to the railway station is a relaxed affair. It dawdles through the city centre, stopping to pick up everyone who so much as glances in its direction. Most don’t go very far and I’m pretty sure many don’t even pay. This is a publicly run bus, rather than a private Dolmuş and when asked why they faire dodge on public transport, that answer is usually some version of: ‘what do I pay my taxes for?’ Nonetheless, it gets me comfortably to Erzincan’s Gar, an unnecessarily large station given that it only gets two trains a day: one in each direction. P1140813.JPGIt is well over an hour till my train, but I don’t mind, there are dozens of others sitting around already, for the same train. I wave my e-ticket at the person in the kiosk and they wave me through, so I find the Büfe, a little building on the station platform. Like station cafes all over the world, there are pictures of old trains on the walls, lots of tea and half a dozen staff sitting around drinking it.P1140809.JPG

I do the food mime at one of the staff, but rather than try and talk through what they have, he shows me to their store room and lets me pick out the stuff I want. I sit and read with a pastry and a large Çay and the time passes. After all the frantic activity of the transport and life in Trabzon, the very relaxed life of TCDD (Turkish State Railways) is a relief. No-one is getting anywhere fast, so why be in a rush or impolite about it. Everyone is very chill. The train actually arrives early and the calm of the station is shattered. P1140817.JPGThe arrival of the train is like the coming of the circus around here:all the staff have something to do and, all of a sudden, have their best uniforms on. The little extra time means that many of the passengers get off. The children run up and down the platform, some teenagers take selfies with the old steam engine sitting on display and the responsible adults buy some food. This lasts a good twenty minutes, in which time I had found my seat and have made myself comfortable.

At departure time, one of the engines (there are two on this long train) makes a lot of noise and most people get back on. The train starts to move at walking pace, just trundling along, to let everyone know it really means to leave. A few more people get on. Then, just as the back of the train is about to leave the platform, someone shouts. I guess something or someone has been forgotten. The train shudders to a halt again and waits another 15 minutes. I am in no rush, neither are these guys. When the total journey time is over 24 hours, what is another 15 minutes here or there?

At last, we get under way. The train slowly gathers speed. I get my phone out to measure just how fast we are going. P1140834.JPGWhen the train hits 40mph I am impressed. When it reaches 50mph I am quite astounded. It almost reaches 60mph, but not quite. That would be extravagant. The average speed on the old railways of Turkey is 30-40mph. But that is not the point. As the sun sets over central Turkey and the train snakes along the banks of the Euphrates, there is nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. All around are still those snowcapped mountains, the river is running high and the hills around are littered with small farms. The train goes through tunnels and across bridges, it navigates gorges and mountain passes. For hours it follows the mighty Euphrates (although it is just getting started here in Turkey) along its course. P1140862.JPGI can only assume that the German engineers who built this line in the 19th century decided to follow the river because, on the whole, rivers are pretty flat. Compared to the vertical mountains everywhere else around here, the river forged a path of least resistance, so they followed it. It makes for a stunning journey.P1150008.JPG

By the city of Divriġi it is getting dark so there is nothing more to be gained by gaping out of the window. We stay for a while, with lots of passengers getting on and off. Suddenly, there are soldiers on board. Men in full khaki with guns in their holsters. Three of them come into my compartment and ask to see my ticket. It had already been checked a couple of hours before by a much friendlier ticket inspector. I fumble around and get my phone out. I am beginning to regret buying an e-ticket, it is much less solid when showing it to someone and feels less official. That, and my passport, seem to satisfy them and they head on. I am really glad when the train gets going again. I read for a little while longer, but a long journey like this is tiring and at 8pm I decide to bring my bed down and go for an early night. My brain doesn’t agree though, so for several hours I lie awake, listening to the sounds of the train and the lights going past, something I normally find soothing but tonight I find infuriating.




It is a very long night on the train. At every station, I wake up and then fight to fall asleep again. As the sun emerges before 7am, I give up on sleep and get changed to get off the train. It was really warm overnight and I have drunk almost all the water I had with me. I have a headache, I smell and there is likely to be several more hours to go. So I read. It is not easy to concentrate, but I am enjoying the book, so it makes the time pass. Around 8.30am, we reach Irmak, which is the end of the line for now. The main station in Ankara and the lines from it are undergoing major renovation. I stumble off the train with the rest of the passengers and we a experience the bane of train travel throughout the world: the rail replacement bus service. Maybe it was the brief moment of exercise or the cool air, but the moment I get on the bus I fall asleep soundly until Ankara Gar.

The old station at Ankara is a classic piece of Brutalist Architecture, but it is positively beautiful compared to the new high speed station that sits on the other side of it: this one looks exactly like an airport. I walk through both to get to the metro stop I want, and this involves going through two security and bag scanners and walking around a third, as well as going up and down two sets of escalators. That being said, it would have been a lot longer to have walked all the way around both stations. The Metro takes me to the intercity bus station and there I stock up on food and, with a little help with pronunciation, get sold the right bus ticket. All this time, I am hardly in a state to notice anything much and stumble from place to place. With some food in me, I am a little better.

The journey from Ankara to Nevşehir is relaxing an uneventful. I read, I sleep, I read. It starts to rain outside. The scenery changes, from the untidy outskirts of Ankara, to the green fields around. We pass a huge lake, and beyond it the land is impossibly flat. As we get closer to our destination though, the land gets mountainous again and I can see the grassland turning into the rocky moonscape of Cappadocia.

At Nevşehir, the final transfer is easy. The bus company show us to several minibuses that go to the surrounding towns, including Göreme (guh-reh-meh), where I have just booked a hostel. I’m glad to have it all sorted for me at this point, as I can hardly focus on moving my legs around properly, let alone planning travel. However, I still check where we are going on my phone and notice that while we are in the right area, we are not going to Göreme. I assume the bus is going in a loop, so I do nothing. Only when we reach Ürgüp and everyone else gets off, do I realise that I must be on the wrong bus. I try and talk to the driver, but all we can exchange are place names:

‘Göreme?’ I ask

‘Ürgüp’, he points at the ground

‘Ürgüp’ I nod and also point at the ground, then shrug and say ‘Göreme?

He just waves me off. I have no energy to be angry. Göreme is only a couple of miles away, so I know there must be a Dolmuş that will take me there. I hunt around the area until I see something with the right name on the front and wait for the driver to ask him if it is correct. I am standing there some ten minutes and no-one appears. Passengers get on, but I don’t want to risk the wrong bus again, so I don’t. Then out of the blue, the driver that bought me here beckons at me. He takes my bag and puts it back in his bus

‘Göreme’, he smiles at me. There are some other passengers who have now go on, going further afield. I can only assume he has taken pity on me and is doing a little diversion to get me where I wanted to go. As we approach the village, my excitement grows again. This is the heart of Cappadocia and the rock ‘chimneys’ are stunning. I have been here before, nearly 7 years ago, and I faintly remember these places. The driver smiles again as he gives me my bag and continues on his way. I find my hostel, check in and fall onto my bed. Not sleep yet though, I stuff some food in my face, have a shower and then, finally, fall face first into my bed.P1150018.JPG

It is only an hour later, when some room mates appear, that I get up again. It is only 7pm. I venture outside to see Göreme in the falling dark. It is clearly a tourist trap: every store is either a souvenir stall or a restaurant. However, right now they are all but empty. Every single place has more staff than customers. Neither do the staff pounce on me like I expect. Perhaps because I am dressed down and alone, looking like a local, but no-one pays any attention to me. It is quite nice.P1150021.JPG


In at the deep end: Travelling to Trabzon, Turkey

In at the deep end: Travelling to Trabzon, Turkey

It has now been over a year since I came back from my 5 months travel across Eurasia, a journey I have milked endlessly for this blog. Now I have saved up enough money to actually go on a holiday again, so look forward to another splurge of travel writing for two weeks…



Is it a normal Friday? I wake up around the time I normally do. I wave to my housemate as he goes out to work and I have the same breakfast. But sitting in the corner of my bedroom is a backpack, full of clothes and supplies for the next two weeks.

Just as I am feeling relaxed and ready for a holiday, I realise that there is laundry still not yet done. I throw the clothes in the washing machine for a half an hour spin. Drag them out and hang them over several radiators. Get the heating on. Time is ticking away till I need to have left.

Sod it. I just stuff the drier clothes in my bag and put the dampest ones on: they can dry out as I walk.

Gatwick turns out to be easier to get to than I thought, even without the expensive express. I guess this is the first time since I lived in London that I have gone to an airport. Despite it being over a year since I last flew, it appears I still remember how to do the airport thing: 15 minutes from arrival I am through check in, security and I have found an uncomfortable seat in departures. Now I have too much time. The delayed flight doesn’t help. So far, it has all been rather mechanical, like I am going on a business trip or a routine: I guess there is too much to organise to get excited about where I am going.

It is only around 2 hours into the flight that it finally really hits me just where I am going. We are flying past Vienna, Austria, the city the Ottoman Empire never managed to conquer. But what makes that notable right now, is that the second half of my flight is all over former Ottoman territories. That Turkish empire had a huge reach, both east and west. Now I am flying to its heartland and successor: Turkey. This will be my 5th time in the country, but two of those were just to Istanbul.

I am already in Turkish hands though, not just obvious because of the airline name, but by the tea. This is my first Çay of the holiday, albeit an airline, plastic version of it. There is a faint aroma of Prit-stick about it. But Çay it is. (Pronounced almost the same as Indian ‘Chai’, it has the same linguistic root)


So keen am I, to escape the confines of the airport, for today at least, that I run outside without so much as a glance at the tourist information desk. This costs me dearly: Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport is not on the city’s metro, nor is there a simple shuttle bus into the centre. Instead, the exit to the airport is thronged with Taxis, private bus companies and queues of people waiting for something. After the pristine calm of the airport, this night scene of honking horns, racing taxis and shouting people has the feel of a battlefield. Going back inside means going through security again (Turkish airports have a bag scanner at the front doors), so I ask a guy in a kind of uniform.

‘Take coach to Taksim’ he says

‘Is there a shuttle bus to metro?’ I ask hopefully, perhaps lessening my time in one of the crowded coaches I can see coming and going.

‘Metro?’ he looks at me, then nods sternly, ‘take coach to Taksim, then get metro’.

Given that I have no better information, I stand in the longest queue for the coach to Taksim. I start to wonder if the guys who run the coaches pay people to stand around in uniform and recommend them. The map indicates that the nearest metro stop is not all that far away and given Istanbul’s notorious traffic, I want to get on it as soon as possible. As the queue inches forwards, I see a little local bus with Kadikoy on it. I know that this is a metro stop. Not the closest, but better than Taksim. I duely piss off the bus driver by giving him a 50 lira note for an 8 lira journey and find a place to stand on this standing room only bus. Much less stylish than the coaches, I feel a lot more comfortable here: everyone is speaking Turkish (except a German and American chatting in the corner) and everyone is just trying to get somewhere. There is none of that false holiday glamour which infects airports and airport transfers all over the world.

Some way into the trip, a middle aged couple get on at the back of the bus. The driver is at the front and there are no ticket machines further back, so I assume they are faire dodging. A moment later though, the man fishes a bus pass out of his pocket and passes it to the man in front. Without a word between them, the pass is passed up the full bus, from person to person, till it is handed over to the driver.

He shouts down the bus in Turkish, probably something along the lines of ‘Two passengers?’ because the man who has just got on shouts back, ‘Evet’ and there are two bleeps, then the pass comes back down the bus and the man puts it away. It is strangely trusting and yet delightfully normal.

I hop off the bus at Pendik and finally join the metro. P1140500Luckily for Londoners like me, every metro service in the world is based, in some way, on the London Underground. Working out the ticket machines and getting down onto the track is no bother and I am swept into the city centre where I change for the only trans-continental sub-aqua train in the world: the Marmaray Line. This is still a marvel to me: an underwater train across an earthquake fault line. It is viewed with indifference by the locals who use it.

Now I am in the centre of historic Istanbul. P1140506It is not about modern engineering triumphs here, but some of the most beautiful architecture of the last 2,000 years. It is nearly 11pm now, so it is a bit late to appreciate it. Instead, I dash to the hostel I have booked. I last stayed here four and a half years ago, but it has not changed, I walk straight in and over to reception around the back. It would be nice if the staff recognise me, but I’m not holding out hope, instead, a bald and bearded man glares at me:

‘If you come back in 15 minutes, you’ll be his problem, not mine’, he prods his finger at a hovering colleague. Then his laughs, ‘just kidding, give me a second to sort this lot out and I’ll be with you’.

The guy has a soft Turkish accent, but evidently has been around backpackers for many years. That is how you run a hostel reception. As he shows me through the corridors to the dormitory, he remarks on the aroma.

‘Smells like shit in here. It really shouldn’t. Fucking old people, they should all be shot.’ I think he is joking.

The dorm is stifling and hot, full of snoring men and the bed is tiny, noisy and hard. The time is now nearly midnight, but my body clock says it is not yet time for bed. I have to be up early and I actually quite hungry. I am in for quite an uncomfortable night.


I must be backpacking again.




Istanbul: the centre of the world, the crossroad of civilisations and home to wonders of the ancient and medieval world. I have about 45 minutes to appreciate it this morning before I have to go. And that is only because I woke up earlier than planned. It is 7.15am and there is a fog hanging over the city. The street of hostels is silent, but for a solitary moving car. The range of eclectic building styles, from medieval wooden structures to corrugated iron boxes, makes the street an interesting sight. P1140514I wander up to the historic centre, where the sun is just rising to illuminate the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. P1140529Sultanahmet square is always pretty, except really early in the morning before the litter pickers have been around. I am arriving just as these guys finish the job by going in waders into the fountain to remove the rubbish of the previous day. P1140544Around the fountain there are trees with their own little patches of earth, as part of the neatly arranged cobbles that mark out the area between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I sneak a few photos of those early risers, tidying the place up. There are one or two other tourists and soon we are joined by residents returning from morning prayers. The only things that spoil the scene are the large police barriers to control crowds and the lumbering riot control truck, sitting in the corner, its engine running. That thing is basically a tank and it feels wrong to have it in such a pretty place.

That’s all I have time for, I have to wolf down a lot of a Turkish breakfast and then I am on a mini bus off to the airport again. I don’t like travelling like this and frankly that is all it has been so far: travelling. I haven’t really stopped and looked at anything. The flight is quite a bit shorter though, so by 1.30pm I am in Trabzon, my first proper destination, and I can finally slow down.

But first… I am due one of my customary epic hikes. I dash directly out of the airport again, but this time I have a plan: through the car park, across the motorway and off up the hill to the apartment I am staying in. Trabzon does not really do hostels, it is not a tourist location like that and hotels tend to be on the expensive side, for businessmen. As a result airbnbs and similar are the cheapest accommodation for travellers. The place I have found is up quite a hill, through a large housing estate on a slant. I am off the tourist trail and away from the affluent centre of Turkey: this much is obvious. Where there are pavements, they are cracked and broken, the road surface is patchy and uneven and I have to watch my feet. The place is not untidy, just careworn. P1140571.JPGThe shops around sell things people need, not what people my dream about. The air is cool, but the direct sunlight warms me up rapidly and by the time I reach the apartment I am exhausted. And the building is firmly locked. I knock and walk up and down, but that doesn’t seem to help. Two girls walk up to me and talk to me in Turkish. I look baffled at them

‘Only English’, I say, ‘or Deutsch’, I add, on the off chance.

‘English!’ one of them brightens up, as if my nationality helps, ‘Hello!’, she says. Then they walk off with no further comment. I make a call to the number I was given for the room and that appears to be the answer: I speak to a friendly Turkish man who is on his way.

It turns out that he owns the entire building and rents out all the rooms, but since there is no-one else here and I want a single room, I am on the top floor in the room next to him. Never mind that half the lights in the stairwell don’t work, he will get that fixed. Meanwhile, don’t trip in the pitch dark. He briefs me on the cosy room and then has to dash, but I stop him with the most important questions: how do I get places and, crucially, how do I get back?

In the smaller cities of Turkey, there are no metros, there are no trams and there are not even local buses. There are the Dolmuş (Doll-mush). These are minbuses, barely larger than taxis, who belt around set routes (although I’m not sure who sets them) and pick up and drop off anyone anywhere. P1140684They are not taxis, they follow fixed paths and have capped faires and you are always lift sharing: they literally won’t leave till the driver has enough passengers. The major downside is that they show relatively little information on where they are going, and if you speak no Turkish, it is pretty hard to know what the hell you are going. The advantage of Dolmuş is that they are very regular and very cheap. With instructions on how to get back, I am happy to venture out into the unknown.

The first place I must go on one of these minibuses is the ‘Meydan’, the central plaza and the hub of the Dolmuş system. I grip my phone tightly and watch as we progress in the right direction, praying that I have got the right minibus. These tiny diesel beasts must be contributing to most of the pollution on the planet: they belch out black smoke as they accelerate at terrifying speed, then promptly stop for traffic lights before accelerating again. At least we cover the 6 kilometres really fast.

I arrive in a bustling square, a mess of layers, covered in trees and people, all watched over by a statue of Attaturk. P1140562It is rather overwhelming, not least because I can tell no tourists come here. Nothing is written in English, everyone here is local and I feel totally like an outsider. Not that anyone treats me like one, every shop I walk near, I get spoken to in Turkish and several times I have to apologise for not speaking their language. Being as culturally inquisitive as I am, I sit on a step and eat some crisps. I am really hungry. Someone else is hungry, or just saw some tasty crisps, because a child wanders over to me and says something commanding in Turkish. This is the second time today and I really don’t know how to react.

‘Sorry, only English’, I get a blank look, ‘do you want some crisps?’, still nothing. I proffer the bag in her direction; crisps are grabbed. In a moment of great hygiene, or something, when she drop one of them, she picks it up and gives it back to me. It occurs to me that she might be a beggar, but then she walks off back to a parent and some friends and they share a laugh that is a little too loud for me not to hear. I might be being bullied, but I can’t tell, so I go in search of a museum.

I find the museum. P1140565It is closed for renovation.P1140567

The centre of Trabzon is slightly historical, in that it has tightly packed streets and lots of tiny shops, but there are very few old buildings and the stores are all very modern. I see numerous McDonald’s and preferable Turkish alternatives which look no more healthy, as well as local and international clothing stuff. For someone who likes looking at random historical things, it is a little bit underwhelming for such an historically important city. Trabzon was the last city of the Roman Empire, by some definitions, finally falling to the Ottomans as late as 1461. I sort of expected a huge citadel or something.P1140577

However, as a human being, it is nice to see other people with high standards of living. This is not poverty tourism, as most people here seem to be doing alright. I loop back around to the square and decide to have a kebab. Actually, I have a Kofte, a special Trabzon one, I am informed. I find the restaurant with the English speaking waiter and he talks me through the menu. So starved of intelligent conversation since I left home yesterday morning, I am willing to chat about menu choices to listen to something that isn’t: ‘here is you room/flight/food’. We do talk about the language though, naturally:

‘I learn English at local school here. It is very good’ he explains to me

‘Are there a lot of English speakers around here?’ I ask, since I have not encountered any of them.

‘Yes. Yes. Very good English’

‘I thought many Turks speak German?’ I ask in hope.

‘Yes’, he replies nodding, ‘but they are all in Germany’

I have been effectively vegetarian for the last few months, so it is a little odd to be having meat, but I decided before I came to allow myself the odd local dish if it seemed appropriate. The Kofta is nice, but the highlight is what follows: my first proper Çay in Turkey. Sipped from a little glass cup, overlooking the square, as the sun goes down. It is just about perfect. Çay is served in little glasses, only about 100ml, with no handle but boiling hot. This makes it hard to drink. They have it with no milk and it is stewed for so long it is very bitter. Many Turks have it with a lot of sugar. I prefer it without. The Turks drink loads of the stuff, usually while smoking outside.

The English speaking waiter gives me instructions on how to get the Dolmuş back to my room, so I manage to squeeze on one and get back to the city outskirts and to my room without a headache.

Ultimately though, this has been a trial by fire today. In a city where there are no tourist information offices (that I found), few English speakers and no simple metro map to follow, I have been lost. In London I have got so used to understanding what is going on around me and how the systems work. It is quite a shock to be back somewhere where I don’t know the rules. It is quite exciting, but nonetheless, I am having to relearn the skills of asking people for help and waiting before diving headlong into things.




The square central is so much more empty this morning and so rather than there being queues of people waiting for Dolmuş, there are queues of Dolmuş waiting for people: they don’t go until they are full enough to be worth making a trip. I dash around the various lines, in this very unattractive part of the city under a flyover, trying to find the one to Maçka. There are dozens of place names and destinations, but none of them seem right. And then I spot a larger Dolmuş heading down a hill, with the right destination. In the spirit of a good backpacking holiday, I sprint after it, almost falling head-over-heels down the steep road. It turns out that longer distance trips start from a little hidden place away from the centre, but crucially nearer the main road. How anyone who isn’t local is supposed to work this out, I have no idea.

Like anything not state owned, journeys have to make a profit for the driver and when I get on the Dolmuş for Maçka and Sumela, I find out this is the argument being made. I, and the three young Turkish guys at the back, want to go to Sumela, but it is twice as far and no-one else wants to go there. But where there’s a will (or rather, money) there is a way. Of the three guys, the one best at English approaches me:

‘You go Sumela?’ he asks, pointing at me, ‘you go Sumela,’ he repeats, now pointing at himself and his friends. ‘Pay on alti lira’. There is then a hurried exchange between them, ‘sixteen lira’. So the driver is paid and it makes it worth the trip for him. This makes it a lot easier for me too, as I don’t have to change in Maçka. As we drive, the three guys introduce themselves:

‘I, Melih’, the first one says. It sounds like Milly, which makes it easy to remember, ‘I am from Izmir’. I know that place too. Excellent! The other two introduce themselves as well, but I haven’t the ear for Turkish names and so since neither are Suliman or Mehmet, I quickly forget them. They are from Elazig and Adana respectively though and all three are students on their holiday. The drive into the mountains is increasingly spectacular. Right out of Trabzon it gets very vertical, with snow already visible on distant peaks. Tall evergreen trees line the steep walls and the road, despite cutting through a lot of rock, winds alarmingly.

Sumela basecamp appears. It is a little log cabin by a stream and such is the dramatic change in climate, it looks quite Swiss. Nearby, amongst the trees, is a small waterfall which the guys want to drink from and then take a selfie with. P1140601They are only four years between us, but these twenty-one year olds make me feel ancient. They literally cannot see anything without taking a selfie, or three, with it. That being said, their determination to make conversation is admirable. We stop in a cafe for a Çay and chat.

‘What part of university?’ Melih asks me, ‘I teacher, you artist’. I don’t feel like correcting their use of the word ‘you’, it would take too long. I have worked out what they mean though:

‘I study History and Economics’, the third guy discovers Google translate to help explain the words I have just said. He is studying political science, so now we are all covered. I could also mention, at this point, that I finished at university nearly four years ago, but pretending to still be a student is so much easier for conversation. They get through two Çay and two cigarettes each as we struggle through more details of our lives.

They are taking it really easy and I soon discover why. The way up to Sumela Monastery, the whole reason for coming here, is shut. The foot access is closed and the whole building is still under restoration (my guide book said it’d be sorted by early 2017). However, a short hike up the road and I can see it far up the cliff face; it looks impossible.P1140591

Clinging to a high mountainside, Sumela Monastery is just astounding. In that Byzantine way, it looks a little like it might be from the 1930’s: semi-ornate, semi-budget. But of course, it was built originally 1,500 years ago and was last upgraded 700 years ago. If you have an image of a grand, ancient, mountainside retreat, hidden amongst trees on a sheer cliff face, this is it.P1140611

But that is all I am seeing of it today. The Dolmuş is waiting to take us back to Trabzon. I get woken up in Maçka. Once again, someone has to make money, so the driver wants to wait around for more people to fill his bus up. Melih and his friends take me to a cafe to pass the time and I am given Sütlaç: a creamy dessert in a clay bowl. Selfies with Sütlaç are also necessary. P1140622Back in Trabzon, we get out of one Dolmuş and I am shoved onto another. If you have friends who speak Turkish, they can get you on the right bus faster than you can blink. But they are going elsewhere. The guys were kind of fun to travel with, except for the cigarette smoke; much more laid back than me, with a constant friendliness. But we have to make a hurried goodbye.

Ayasofya is the Turkish spelling of Hagia Sophia, the name of a number of former and current churches everywhere they copied Constantinople. Trabzon has its own Ayasofya, but this one is a little bit of an argument. I approach it from being dumped on the side of the main road. The sun is setting behind me, so it looks properly stunning. A 13th century Byzantine church by design, it looks more Eastern than I’ve seen, even in Turkey. P1140642My guidebook tells me it is Armenian in style. An octagonal ‘dome’ is set across the cross formation and nearby is a tower, built only a 100 years later, but looking 1,000 years less sophisticated, with rough cut stone and a wonky roof. After the Ottoman conquest, it was made a mosque and after Turkish independence it became a museum. This is common across Turkey, as mixed legacies are a cause for controversy. However, this Ayasofya was bought by a religious group back in 2013 and they have tried to turn it back into a mosque. A court declared this illegal, so now it stands as half and half. In fact, just as I approach it, I hear the Call to Prayer, so I let the locals pray and have some food instead.

This leads to my great discovery of Kaygana. P1140650A local speciality, it is half way between an omelette and a crepe/pancake. As I eat through it, I really can’t tell which one it is, but it tastes amazing. I also have more Çay. Because why not. Breaking me out of my relaxed mood is the realisation that it is mother’s day back home, so I take advantage of free international roaming (recently bought in by the EU) to call my parents and wish my mum well. P1140654Prayers over, I look inside the Ayasofya, and it is very oddly divided. The single set of double doors have a dividing line down the middle. To the right there is carpet and you have to take your shoes off: it is a mosque. To the left, there is no carpet and you can walk into it as a museum. The Christian frescos adorn one end, isolated by a sheet from the mosque, where a few people are in silent prayer. The structure of this ancient building is, like so many Byzantine buildings, remarkable. Plaster covers up concrete and brick layers, all fairly ordinary since the 18th century, but not common in the 13th, except in the Byzantine empire, where they largely retained the Roman methods of construction.



The following morning, I head straight for the Otogar (main bus station), trying to figure out how I can get to Cappadocia tomorrow and Rize today. The front of the building is just a series of shops and takeaways and inside is not all that much better. Concrete floor, dirty windows looking out onto a dusty forecourt and a string of small boutique-like ticket selling desks to all kinds of destinations.P1140691 Not even expecting anyone to understand my English, I resort to trying to say the name of the place I am going tomorrow: Erzincan. This has no accents or anything, so I think I am in the clear. But no. After several baffled looks by people who approach me to offer help, I point at the place name on one of the signs on the side of one of the desks.

‘You say: “Err-zee-jan”’, the current man who is trying to help explains. ‘Go over there’ he points to a completely different desk, which, unlike the current one, doesn’t say Erzincan anywhere on it. At this desk, I ask for Err-zee-jan and it is like magic:

‘Today or tomorrow?’ is the first question they ask. I am so relieved I didn’t have to try and explain at length that I wanted to go tomorrow.

‘Passport’, he takes my passport, puts it down and then walks off. I look around, slightly baffled. This is a guy who doesn’t give a damn. A colleague walks up and finishes the transaction, so I have a bus out of here tomorrow. Next in the challenge for not giving a damn, is the ticket seller for the buses to Rize, my destination today.

‘Can I buy a ticket to Rize please?’ I ask, as politely as possible. She looks at me like I have crawled out of a swamp:

‘Eleven thirty’ she says. Then starts serving the next person. I wait politely till he is finished.

‘How many lira?’ I ask again, holding a 20 note in case she didn’t understand that I wanted to purchase a ticket, not just enquire.

‘Twelve’, she replies, then promptly stops paying attention again.

‘Can I buy?’, I stress a bit more, pushing exactly 12 lira in her direction.

She sighs, writes out a ticket then points out the door behind me.

‘Bus there leaves at eleven thirty’, end of conversation.

I could be annoyed, but actually I am kind of happy that these ticket vendors don’t care about me. It means that me, and by extension, all tourists, do not dominate their lives. I am just an inconvenience and they have no need to suck up to me or anyone else. This is a good thing. Although they could be a little more polite to someone so obviously out of his depth.

The journey to Rize is rather uncomfortable. The bus is fine, but I am on the south side of the bus as it goes along the coast, so I get the full benefit of the sun’s glare with none of the sea breeze. Plus, a huge Turkish man sits next to me, despite the space in the rest of the bus, and proceeds to manspread for the full hour and a half.


Rize gives a much nicer first impression than Trabzon. There is no grimy industrial shipyard, instead having something approaching a park on the sea front, albeit cut off from the rest of the city by the motorway. P1140719When engineers were building the motorway network, they obviously decided that the line of least resistance was to build along the coastline, as the interior of Turkey is so mountainous. This means that every seaside city has a motorway cutting across what could otherwise be the prettiest part of town. Other than this, I immediately notice that it is a more conservative place than even Trabzon, which is a world away from liberal Istanbul. This is the actual city where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is from. Almost all the women I see wear headscarves and even the men are modestly dressed. Rather than banners of Attaturk, there are pictures of Erdoğan everywhere.

Rize is built into a mountainside, so to get to anything, you have to walk up. P1140702Using tiny paths and steps from back alleys, I navigate my way toward Rize castle. P1140697Like just about everything in Turkey, Rize castle was first built by Justinian, presumably as a base against the potential invading Persian armies from Armenia. Now, buildings cluster around it so closely that I’d have no idea how near I am to it, if I hadn’t been looking at a map. I follow the signs as they appear, but two ladies outside a local mosque do a fantastic mime, letting me know that this entrance is locked and I need to walk around the hill to get in.P1140699 The castle is a building site. Half of it is roped off by workers with wheelbarrows and cement, replacing old bricks and repaving paths. The only impression I get of the castle are sheer walls, as by the time I am close enough to see it, I am right in front of it and once I am in it, I can’t see it. I’d wondered why there were no good photos of it online, I find out it is because it is impossible to get a good view of it. P1140713Nonetheless, at the top there is a cafe and they serve Çay, so I am sorted. Their food selection is a bit naff, all western, so I go for Pizza, as if you have to have western food, might as well go big on the cheese.

Back down the hill and up another one, is the Tea gardens. Rize is the heart of the Turkish tea industry. Between every bloc of flats, perched on a hillside, are rows of tea plants. It is one of the greenest cities I have ever seen, as everywhere they are growing Çay. The Tea Gardens are at the heart of it. Having had far too much of the stuff over the last couple of days, I actually find one more too much, but I appreciate tasting what fresh Çay is like, from the people who grow it. P1140755The gardens themselves is a sort of mini-park, a grove of trees (that do not grow tea), making it a very pleasant place to relax and sip your hot beverage.

On the way back to the Otogar, I walk through the seaside park. There is a lovely breeze and I hear the afternoon call to prayer. It is a lovely moment of serenity. Other people are walking around me, going for walks and chatting with friends. P1140774One man, with a fantastic moustache, comes up to me and asks me something in Turkish, I reply with my, now customary, phrase:

‘Sorry, English’

‘Ah’ he says, ‘Where are you from?’

‘London, England’ I reply. So far this is like a dozen conversations I have had, so I smile and continue walking, but this man follows me.

‘Why are you here?’ he asks. I assume he means this less pointedly than he said.

‘Holiday. I am a tourist.’ I smile again, hoping that is what he wanted to know. Apparently not, he calls over to a young couple and confirms that the man can speak some English, as he now translates for the moustachioed man:

‘Are you single?’, this has taken quite a turn. In the confusion I forget that neither of the men might have meant it in the way an English speaker might, so I reply slightly defensively:

‘Yes. Why to do ask?’ There is a quick exchange between the two.

‘He is Police’, the young man says and the moustachioed man pulls out his wallet and shows his ID. Handily, the Turkish for Police is ‘Polis’

‘Where are you going?’ he asks, through our translator. This has got slightly scary fast, so this time I answer with more detail than he probably wanted:

‘Back down the coast, over the bridge, to the Otogar and then on the bus back to Trabzon, where I am staying.’ I deliver this all in one go.

The policeman picks up the key word: Trabzon.

‘You are going to Trabzon. Okay. Have a nice day’ and that is it. I thank the impromptu translator and walk off a little faster than I probably should have.


Pages of a travel diary: Week 20, Homeward Bound

Pages of a travel diary: Week 20, Homeward Bound

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from 2016. This week I travelled around Tokyo and then back to my family in rural England.


Day 133, Sunday 18th December: Tokyo, Akihabara

My final journey in Japan is the three hours out of the mountains and to Tokyo. Upon my arrival, everyone is instantly helpful. At the main railway station, a random man shows me how to use a route-finding machine, which plans and prints the ideal routes to your destination. It is nothing that an app can’t do, but I imagine it predates smartphones and I don’t have that app. When I arrive in Asakusa, the area where my hostel is, a tourist helper instantly gives me directions to my hostel. I am not used to this kind of efficiency.

Near the hostel is a great temple and market, so it is my chance to remind myself of the great Japanese temples and do some Christmas shopping at the same time. P1120324.JPGUnfortunately, it appears that tourists who come to Tokyo view the temple as the tick in their cultural box, so it is densely packed with clueless tourists wandering around. However, at the heart of the magnificent wooden building, surrounded by hundreds of people taking selfies, is one woman in silent prayer. I spot her as the one still person in the room and she is totally unmoved by the mania around. I admire her dedication.P1120326.JPG

Akihabara, the ‘electric city’. It is a name known around the world as the hub of all things geeky, nerdy and techy. P1120327.JPGYou know when you have arrived: every one of the huge buildings is lit up blindingly with signs and pictures: computer tech, anime, manga, video games. The streets are filled with the kind of people you’d expect, from all over the world, bought together. I go into the tech shops, looking for some specific things as presents for people. P1120333.JPGEven the first one I look into has a range on offer that rivals the website Amazon, with lists of graphics cards, cables, motherboards, SD cards and so on, most of which is on display. P1120331.JPGDoing the quick currency conversion, I find out that they are all good deals compared to buying in the UK, but for the higher priced ones, I still don’t actually have the money.

There are retro gaming stores, action figures and manga shops and the list goes on. P1120329.JPGHowever, there is another side to this area. Many shops have higher floors, labelled ‘adult’ or similar, which I find slightly disturbing. Similarly, while doing a search on my phone for cinemas around the area, the results were flooded with brothels. I find it unfortunate that tech and entertainment has to be so closely associated with sex.

It is not just for this reason that I feel a little uncomfortable, being in Akihabara. I consider myself quite nerdy. I enjoy video games and love playing with technology, but I consider it only one aspect of my life. Here, I see people where it is their whole life. Their passion for ‘geek culture’ is what defines them and, for some reason, that makes me feel totally out of place.


Day 135, Tuesday 20th December: Tokyo

My time since Himeji has been a bit lonely. There have been no travelling companions, hardly even a friendly chat in a hostel dorm room. I have seen some great places, but have seen them alone. Today is the last day in Japan, and that is not going to change now. I finish my shopping for Christmas and I get a haircut so I am presentable for when I get home. However, I want to do something nice to end the trip, so I go somewhere I know will suit me just perfectly and round off my time in Japan: Tokyo Imperial Palace.P1120402.JPG

Most of the Palace and the grounds are not open to the public because, like the best palaces, it is still in use. However, the east gardens are open. I enter across the great moat through one of the gatehouses. These are solidly built: a stone base, with plain white walls above. The roofs are in proper curly style. P1120400.JPGThe bridge across the moat is a road now, with small trees along it, which might make it hard to raise in times of crisis. I don’t think the modern Emperor worries too much about these things. Inside, the traditional buildings contrast beautifully with the skyscrapers I can see on the other side of the moat. P1120404.JPGOnce inside the second layer of walls, the East Garden is huge. Parts are detailed and pretty, like the temple gardens I have seen before, while others are open lawns, much more like British gardens. There are not many visitors in this large space, so it is quiet and restful.P1120406.JPG

As I walk, I think about the trip, how long I have been away and just how many difference places I have been to. This chilly garden in Tokyo compared to the deserts of Jaisalmer. Halong Bay, and the city if Yazd. The canals of Venice and the floating towns of Inle lake. My aim was to see as many different cultures, so many contrasts and see how different we are, or how similar. The landscapes certainly are extraordinarily different as you cross Eurasia, but you can always find empathy with the human stories. I started in an island monarchy, famous for its tea and its polite manners, and here I am in Japan. Countries are all connected through their histories, neighbours always learn from each other, even when enemies. I can confidently say now that there is no break point, no line between Europe and Asia. On maps, the line goes through Turkey, but it has so much in common with the Balkans and Greece on one side, and Iran on the other. India too, has a history intertwined with Iran. And in turn Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, share a background with India. In the east, a common cultural thread that we associate with China is felt strongly. Never though, is it a case of influencer and influenced; no one culture imposes on another. We all learn together.


Day 136, Wednesday 21st December: Tokyo to Rural England

There is only one journey left to complete, unfortunately it entails flying almost half way around the world. I get up at 4am and pack my bag for the final time. The subway station is closed, so I walk to the train station, Ueno, where I am due to get my train from to the airport. It early and cold, so I am able to hit quite a pace and don’t lose any time over it. However, now I need to find the station; there are several. Inside the JR station they don’t list the train that I know I will be catching, there is not one till an hour later and it is stupidly expensive. I glance around desperately and see a sign to another station. It is not what I have on my piece of paper, quite, but it is close. I assume that the guy in the hostel misspelt the station name.

I sprint outside, following the signs, through a garden. I get a text, but ignore it, as I need to concentrate. I get to the first entrance. It is closed. Around the corner is another, it is also closed. Third time lucky, the entrance is open. All but one of the ticket machines are down, but I get there. There is now only minutes to my train. I hammer the screen and get my ticket, and then march confidently up to the barriers. The man smiles and lets me through. I run down onto the platform and get on the train; there is only one minute to departure.

I relax, put down my bag and reach for my phone to see what text I received.

I don’t have my phone.

I have an instant decision: do I try and find my phone, and potentially end up missing this train, and possibly my flight, or do I stay on the train and get home, but lose my phone.

I run, bag back over my arm, up the escalator and to the barriers. They are sitting casually open, as they do in Japan, but as I run through they try to close. I am too fast for them and they snap shut behind me. I run back to the ticket machine and indeed, there is my phone, left while I was picking my ticket. I run back, try to smile and gesture with my phone to the barrier man. He smiles and nods, and the barrier reopens. I almost fall down the stairs onto the platform and jump on the train. My bag almost gets caught in the doors as they close.


Nothing is open at the airport, so I sit on a bench for a bit till the place comes to life. I check in and we take off with no trouble. I fall asleep instantly. This is only the first stage of the flight: back to Seoul, but there is food. I had missed it, but they left a little card on my tray table, so I am able to claim it as I wake up.

The transfer at Incheon airport is impeccable and I use the small time I have to have my last taste of proper Korean food. They know how to do spicy.

I sleep a little more on the second and final flight. It is still not even 7am in the UK and I am trying to reduce jet lag. When it reaches 8am UK time, I wake up and force myself to stay that way. I have lots of work to do. I have notes to make, and a story about Vikings to write. This idea, which started on a boat in Vietnam, has now reached the point where I can do it properly. What else do you do with a 12 hours flight?


My first encounter with a British person after getting out of the airport is the bus driver to take me back to Oxford. I try to buy a ticket from them with only £20 notes. They grumble at me. In retaliation, I offer them Yen instead. I get them to smile. Believe me, this is an achievement. They give me a £5 note in the change, one of the new ones. I had heard of these, but this is my first one. I get excited.

The UK looks so messy compared to Japan, so unplanned and uncoordinated. I wish I could say that I was happy to be home, but now it just feels weird.

In Oxford I walk over to the railway station, no time to lose. There is a train sitting at the platform bound for London Marylebone: that’s new. There weren’t trains that did that route when I left. I get on and go to the town near where my parents live, where my Dad is waiting with his little old car. We get back home in time for tea.



Pages of a travel diary: Week 19, Speeding across Japan (without high speed trains)

Pages of a travel diary: Week 19, Speeding across Japan (without high speed trains)

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from 2016. This week I travelled from Hiroshima in the South, to Fujikawaguchiko in the Japan Alps.


Day 127, Monday 12th December: Hiroshima

The Hiroshima peace memorial museum is shockingly clinical. It doesn’t dwell on horror stories but describes the impact of an atomic bomb detonation with scientific detail. How badly buildings were damaged, the creation of radioactive rain, the burning effect on human flesh…It is brutal in its honesty, without sensationalism and the centre is dedicated to bringing about peace and an end to nuclear weapons. It is dignified and thought provoking.P1110960.JPG

I am very glad to see how many world leaders have been here, signed the guestbook and made promises to change things. In fact, a map shows just how few countries actually have nuclear weapons. There is progress, on the whole, to disarmament, but still a long way to go.

The museum stuns me, but I do notice one discrepancy. They name ‘Korean Labourers’ amongst the dead. Anyone in South Korea will tell you that they were slaves, taken from their homeland. It is an uncomfortable reminder that Japan is still uncomfortable talking about its own war crimes. But that is not to lessen the horror of the first use of a nuclear weapon on a civilian population.

The memorial to the victims is separate, it is a dome under the ground. Inside the main chamber, a circular room, there is a tile for each of the dead. I stay a while.


In search of something more uplifting, I visit Hiroshima Castle. It is a well-crafted replica, containing a museum that recounts the history of the area.P1110966.JPG From the top I spot a mountain in the distance; I feel like climbing it.P1110968.JPG

Arriving at the shrine that marks the beginning of the mountain trail, I immediately take a wrong turn and end up walking through an abandoned garden. I can’t see a way through at the top, but I don’t want to turn around, so I forge on. I feel like any Japanese who might be watching would be offended as I trample through long grass, seeds sticking all over my coat. At the top of this short climb, I am confronted with a fence. Despite my long coat I clamber over it and then spend 20 minutes cleaning myself down, in case I encounter someone and they think I am a walking hedge.

The rest of the climb is very pleasant in the cool and the exercise clears my head and makes me feel a little more optimistic. P1110976.JPGMuch like Mount Inari in Kyoto, the path is framed by an almost-tunnel of wooden frames. Once again, at the top is a graveyard. From here I can see some of the city of Hiroshima: every bit the modern metropolis. This is not a city that has wallowed in self-pity in the last 70 years, but has flourished till it is unrecognisable.P1110978.JPG


To save on the long-haul train journey back to Kyoto, I am stopping off at a city along the way: Himeji. This time, I have some food and drink and am ready to change trains with short connection times. As a result, I set out in late afternoon and pull into the station in Himeji feeling well rested in the late evening. There are not many hostels here and the one I find is tiny, but welcoming. Once I have put my bags on my bed, I return to the entrance/lounge/kitchen where the host, Daisuke is chatting with a young Malaysian, Jin, who is trying to practice her Japanese. I ruin this by chatting to them both in English.

By this point, we are sitting on the floor around a low table, which has a heater underneath and we are using the table cloth as a blanket. It is homely in a very bizarre way. Jin is an energetic and geeky woman, always smiling, with her eyes magnified by large glasses. She travels with a teddy bear. She is also firmly an independent traveller, who has been around a lot. She is desperate to see snow while she is in Japan. We quickly get talking about all the places we have been and I am reminded why I like proper backpackers.P1110998.JPG




Day 129, Wednesday 14th December: Koyasan

From my base in Osaka, it is not too far up to Mount Kōya: Koyasan. It is a private train that goes there, not JR, but I really can’t tell. They run as efficiently, as punctually and as cheaply. P1120105.JPGAs the train climbs in height, the temperature drops and the cities disappear. And all of a sudden, I am in the mountains, there is a river running past and proper untamed forests around; quite rare in central Japan. This is the location of the station of Gokurkubashi, the end of the railway line and where we change onto the cable car.P1120109.JPG It only lasts 5 minutes, but is so steep that it is tangibly even colder. All along the way I have been on near-empty trains and the cable-car has only a couple of other people. Koyasan is a holy site, but it is not a big tourist destination at this time of year. It is the heart of one sects of Japanese Buddhism and a site of pilgrimage, but is more popular in the warmer summer months.P1120113.JPG

Although there is a town up here, I immediately get the impression of an isolated mountain retreat. The Western Temple Complex is a small temple (by the standards of what I’ve seen so far), with no flashy designs, looking snug amongst the trees. P1120126.JPGWalking further along the tiny road, I sort of wonder why I am here. It is freezing cold, nowhere is really open to tourists and there is little at all to do. However, I am enjoying walking around in this silence. P1120127.JPGLeaving behind the empty courtyards, I walk down another small, treelined road, towards one of the other entrances. They maintain the old gatehouses, where ‘undesirables’ (including women) used to be stopped from entering. Anyone can come into the area around Koyasan now, but the building is old and endearing. P1120139.JPGIt is tidily Japanese, but is also careworn, made of modest materials and obviously comes from a less wealthy age. That is what strikes me about everything here: it is undoubtedly Japanese, but in the traditional sense, rather than in the modern, high-tech, way.

Walking back towards the town, I see the Tokugawa mausoleums. It was Tokugawa Ieyasu who reunited Japan in 1600 and his descendants who isolated Japan and ruled with an iron fist till 1868, known as the Edo Period. Tokugawa Ieyasu therefore has a controversial legacy. He was a great general who created one of the longest periods of peace in Japanese history. The country flourished in many ways during the Edo period, but also fell behind the rest of the world in a big way. They protected and nourished Japanese culture, but was isolationist and maintained a strict social order. P1120142.JPGI don’t know what to think about Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descendants, as I walk up the steps to see their mausoleums.

Just as I am arriving, it starts to snow. I am standing before the (relatively) humble final resting place of two of Japans most significant leaders, surrounded by trees, in total silence, and it is snowing. The argument over whether they were right or wrong disappears in the beauty of the moment.


I have noodles in a warm café for lunch, then walk into the forest, to the graveyard of Okunoin. This is one of the holiest places to be laid to rest in Japan, and it is not a graveyard as Europeans would understand it. P1120159.JPGThe graves, more like little shrines, are gathered, close together, beneath the tall, thin trees. It is already a forest and they fill in all the gaps. Through it runs a small path, wide enough for just two people side by side. As the forest thickens, the already dim and overcast sky is blocked out, making it feel like late evening. And still it snows, not settling and in no hurry, but it lightly snows. It should feel sad, morbid even. But I don’t feel like that. Walking alone in the forest of the dead, I feel calm, optimistic and content. In a way I have never felt before.


Day 132, Saturday 17th December: Fujikawaguchiko

The Japanese don’t distinguish breakfast from the other meals of the day. So, as I settled down in the warm hostel café for my ‘local breakfast’, I was surprised by the arrival of rice, fish, salad and everything you might expect in an evening meal. I’m not complaining, its good stuff and they offer unlimited rice refills, so I am pretty stuffed as I go outside.P1120240.JPG

In the pursuit of the best possible photos of Mount Fuji, I walk away from it today. There is a lake on the other side of Fujikawaguchiko, which is pretty large. As I set off, I can see ice on the ground everywhere. I watch my step as I make off around the lake to get to the far side. It is bloody freezing here, much more so than yesterday and I can’t work out why. Then I emerge out of the shadow of a closer mountain and it makes sense. In direct sunlight, it is actually quite warm, but without it the clear skies make it freezing. P1120250.JPGNote, I am still wearing sandals. As I walk around the lake, the closer mountains get out the way and Mount Fuji emerges in all its glory. The town is just a little smudge now, but the mountain looks as fantastic as ever. It reflects in the clear blue lake.P1120268.JPG

I reach a bridge, which had thought was the middle of the lake. It is not, there is a hell of a lot more lake. I have been walking for over two hours now, taking photos and if I want to go all the way around it is going to be many more. I get a really quite brilliant and clean photo of the mountain and retire to the warmth of the hotel, taking the shortcut back across the bridge.


On the way around, I had spotted a cable car that was closed, so this afternoon I head out again to climb the mountain path without its help. It is a steep woodland path, in direct sunlight, which helps me warm up and keep going. Totally unplanned, I find that the half-way point also provides excellent Fuji views, over the town and forest, with the sun as Fuji’s wingman. P1120304.JPGBy the time I reach the shrine and top of the cable car, my coat is over my shoulder and my gloves stowed away. It is a glorious winters day.

Pages of a travel diary: Week 18, High Culture in Kyoto

Pages of a travel diary: Week 18, High Culture in Kyoto

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from 2016. This week I was in Kyoto.



Day 122, Wednesday 7th December: Kyoto


It is a bright, clear and cold morning in Kyoto. I walk down the very straight streets and over the Kamo river to the meeting point at the start of a walking tour. P1110485.JPGThe guide is a Ukrainian called Yuri, who has been living in Japan for several years. When he finds out that I am British, he comments enviously:

‘The Japanese women love the British. They think you are all gentlemen’, he says, with the distinct impression that he doesn’t believe it.

There are about a dozen people on this walking tour, despite it starting early on a winters morning, and we all introduce ourselves, then head off into the Geisha district. I only know about Geishas through odd comments in stories and history books, so I am surprised to learn of their prevalence in modern times. They are entertainers, in the sense of a medieval court: they sing, dance, recite poetry, play music and engage in elegant conversation. Their training is harsh: years of practice starting from a very young age, that gives them a unique skill set but means they have no social life. Deciding to become a Geisha today is like deciding to become a nun in the west: it requires great devotion, patience and a unique outlook.P1110492.JPG

The Geisha district if full of traditional Japanese houses and temples. All is quiet here now; all the rooms have their blinds down. Yuri explains that we are unlikely to see a real Geisha, as they do not walk the streets much. However, there are lots of women dressed to look like them, in kimonos with the painted white faces and the distinctive hair styles. These are largely Chinese tourists who get it all done as a package and then go have their photos taken in traditional settings. They rather annoy the Japanese and confuse western tourists. Yuri keeps an eye out for a real Geisha, but we don’t see one.

‘If you want to know if they are Japanese or Chinese, ask me,’ he smiles, ‘I have experience telling the difference’. P1110488.JPGWe do see a real Sumo wrestler though. Both are increasingly rare in modern Japan: they are elements of their historic culture that just cling on in the modern world. As Kyoto is the old capital, it is also the bastion of such traditions.


We arrive at the Kenninji temple and Yuri has to go back to the basics on Japanese culture again. Japanese video games, TV and food has become very popular in western Europe, but it is surprising how little we, certainly I, know. P1110499.JPGShinto and Buddhism are the two main religions of Japan. They are officially separate, but most people followed both for the last several hundred years. There are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, with the latter being animistic: believing in the spirituality of all things. There is a saying that the Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist, as birth and coming of age rituals are often performed in shrines, while funerals and remembrance happen in temples. The role of religion in modern Japan is unclear, as the people have always been quiet about their faith, but the temples and shrines are well looked after and always beautiful places to visit. Kenninji is a large temple in that well known Japanese style: roof tiles like scrolls, that turn up at the corners, beams of wood for structure between white walls. It is similar in many ways to Korea, but distinctive in its ostentatious humility. On the edge of the temple grounds is a small shrine to arguably the most important aspect of Japanese culture: Tea.P1110502.JPG

The cherry blossom is not in bloom in December but the parks remain serene. At the nearby Yasaka shrine, Yuri rounds off the tour and we all thank him profusely. P1110520.JPGThen out of instinct at this point, I turn around to the two people I have been idly chatting with and suggest we go and look at other nearby temples we have not yet covered. They are Sophia, an Australian, and Siang, a Singaporean teacher.

We start by finding some food in a small rice and noodle place. Many restaurants in Kyoto are decorated to look very traditional, and we gather around a very small table with our small bowls, feeling like we are in a period drama. I break the spell of antiquity by ordering a curry rice; this is not a traditional dish. The curry is not at all spicy, putting Japanese food immediately at odds with Korean, and in fact tastes not unlike British curry sauce. I imagine its origin is more European than Chinese or Indian.

Kiyomizu-dera temple is a masterpiece, a photo-a-moment location and my favourite so far in Kyoto. Sophia has been before, so she goes hunting in the markets nearby for presents, while Siang and I look around. P1110533.JPGIt never ceases to amaze me how the Japanese have such large wooden buildings that feel so solid and last so long. They are so tidy and regular that I think they must be made of brick or concrete, then I get close and can see the grain on the beams. The main hall is built on a sloping hill, so it is kept level by a substantial trestle made of huge tree trunks that are interlocked rather than glued or nailed together.P1110559.JPG

We are interrupted by a group of school children, who want to practice their English. Their teacher is not there, so Siang goes into teacher mode and helps them along. They are reading out sentences from little workbooks they are carrying and I have to resist the temptation to lean over and read the questions they are trying to ask. However, they are able to pronounce the English words well enough and I give some simple replies that they can write down. I feel a little patronising, but I think I have pitched it at the right level. What I notice is that, of the group, it is the girls who have the confidence and are asking the questions. The boys meanwhile are shyer. Siang notices too and encourages them to speak up. I discover she is fluent in Japanese and Mandarin, amongst other languages. The students give me a paper crane as thanks, a traditional small gift, and bounce off with their books filled in. Further around the temple, there is a tower in the woods. The range of colour in the trees is remarkable with everything from a deep green to bright red.P1110553.JPG

Reuniting with Sophia, we go through a market selling sweet delicacies. Unfortunately, they have to be eaten within a week, so there is no way to take some home for Christmas. In the end, we just go through and take as many free samples from each till I am feeling quite sick.

To walk it off, we head towards the railway station, where nearby is Nishihongan-ji Temple. This is much more of an urban temple, in the heart of the city and there are few trees around. It is a much simpler rectangular shape but it is huge. The day is getting on by this point, so we rush in to see it before it closes.P1110595.JPG

Inside it is a large room, with wooden beams holding the structure up and all around the outside those thin Japanese walls with a tile pattern that lets a little light in. Hanging from the ceiling are large lights that illuminate the statue of gold at the heart of the temple. P1110607.JPGBefore we can truly take this in, we see the huge door behind us shut, cutting out the light. Then we see the other doors closing, made of thick wood. So, we walk briskly towards the far end, with more and more doors shutting as we get near them. I genuinely break into a run and we reach the last door, dashing out before it shuts. It is a strangely filmic moment.

Now it is sushi time. Sushi in the UK is expensive and food in Japan is expensive, but Sushi in Japan is not necessarily expensive. We are shocked by just how cheap it is and I pile up the plates, trying everything, and still walk away with a small bill.P1110610.JPG

We make plans for tomorrow and Siang heads off back to her hotel. Sophia and I return to the bar that I was at yesterday. There is no big party there tonight, but there are enough people to get chatting with. There are a couple of Mexicans, a few more Australians, a British guy and a few Americans. It doesn’t take too many drinks before Karaoke is suggested and before I know it there are a dozen of us stumbling down the street to the nearest Karaoke centre. These places are not small. In Japan it is such a sensation that one Karaoke centre will have dozens of individual rooms which you hire out by the hour. Sophia and I are by far the most sober at this point and we have to battle to convince the guys behind the counter to let us have a room. Behind us our new-found friends are fighting, arguing and smoking in-doors. But we get a room and I figure out how to use a karaoke machine that is entirely in Japanese. It has a good selection of English language songs and there is an unlimited supply of cheap beer and plumb wine. This can only go well.

With our international group, everyone reverts to type: the Mexicans lead on Spanish language songs, the Australians start singing ‘Land Down Under’ and I introduce a bit of class with Pink Floyd. There is also an unfortunate amount of badly sung Justin Bieber. I would be enjoying it a lot, the plumb wine is good, but there is no rule against smoking inside and a couple of the Americans are chain smoking in a sealed room. I actually have to leave twice, to stroll up and down the corridor and breath again. Back in the room, we start getting messages which I deduce means that our time is up: we end, at 3am, on ‘The Eye of the Tiger’.


Day 123, Thursday 8th December: Kyoto


For some reason we agreed to meet at 8am. With less than four hours sleep, I shove some food in my face and stumble out of the hostel in the direction of the rendezvous. Siang arrives slightly after I did, well rested and with the plan sorted for going to Arashiyama. Sophia arrives a little later, not quite so well rested. I had gone back to my hostel at 3am, her hostel had a curfew and so had been locked out. So, she had spent the night in a 24-hour convenience store. The delay had been her chance to get back to into the hostel and at least have a shower.

So, with the three of us reunited and, on average, only slightly sleep deprived, we head off to the west of Kyoto. It is not one of the largest cities of Japan, but it is large enough to be worth taking the metro. The ticketing system is easy too, if you have someone handy who speaks Japanese. Coming onto the platform, I am struck by something about these trains: for all their cleanliness, efficiency and organisation, they are very old. The stations have early-digital displays, the seats in the trains look like something from the days of British Rail in the UK and the electric technology is distinctly retro. P1110612.JPGThis might just be Japanese styling choices, but I get the impression that Japan was at the cutting edge around 25 years ago and have stagnated since then. They are still one of the most developed nations in the world, but in terms of the latest industrial technology they are falling behind (their consumer stuff is top notch though). I hear that a lot of businesses still use fax rather than email, for example.

Given that, the trains are immensely comfortable and smooth and we drift across the city effortlessly. At Arashiyama, we emerge from the station to find ourselves on the edge of a forest, with a large river running past and small rural houses. P1110622.JPGWith the clear, cold skies and the rushing stream, I am struck by another thought: this looks a lot like Switzerland. The evergreen trees, the mountains in the background, the lively but windswept look to things and the love of small electric railways, is all reminiscent of that wealthy and developed country in central Europe.

We walk over the large river on a wooden trestle bridge and to the bamboo grove. This is what Arashiyama is known for: lean shoots of bamboo that are the height of large buildings. P1110635.JPGIn the grove, the light is substantially cut off by the thickness of the bamboo. Hidden within these forests are lots of small shrines, like Junei-in, which is only a few square meters. P1110642.JPGWe draw our fortune cards, all of which are favourable for some reason, then venture further into the forest. On the other side we reach Tenryuji, a temple with a large garden around it. I notice that the Japanese do not use grass in their gardens, but moss instead, which clings to the rocks and uneven surfaces. While European gardens are generally flat, with a few flower beds, Japanese gardens are rolling, like waves, up banks and down hills, with immaculate paths running through them. P1110663.JPGHidden in this garden are small shelters, for silent contemplation, as well as very dedicated gardeners, who hide out of the way but keep the place looking beautiful. They are majestic, chaotic and yet serene places. The temple is another masterpiece of a wooden structure, with a sloping roof that makes up more of the height of the building than the walls. These temples have a way of feeling one with nature, part of the landscape rather than an imposition upon it. But then again, so much of nature in this country is crafted and cultivated that there is very little that is not man made left.P1110664.JPG


Back at the heart of Kyoto is Nijo Castle: the second home of the Shogun when he was visiting the Emperor. P1110699.JPGThis castle holds a very important place in Japanese history: it was where the Shogunate was created and where it was dissolved. The shoguns were the military leaders who effectively took control of Japan in the late 1500s, reducing the Emperor to a puppet. They were highly nationalist, cutting off access to the outside world and ruling with strict laws and an iron fist. However, their obsession with the military did them no good in the long run: they failed to control Korea and their obstante conservatism mean that they fell behind the rest of the world in military technology. The shogunate fell in the civil war which ended in 1867, restoring the Emperor and leading to the rapid Japanese industrial revolution.

(In case you’re wondering, the army took back effective control during the 1920’s to 40’s, leading Japan into and through the second world war, there is some debate as to whether the civilian administration even knew what was going on.)

So, the shogun is a controversial figure in Japanese history: a protector of traditional values, but also a dictator and an oppressor. Nijo castle is the epitome of this rule. P1110702.JPGThe outside walls are imposing and formidable: a large moat, stone-based walls and white towers. All in beautiful ceremonial Japanese style. Inside however, it is very modest. The buildings are smaller than most of the temples in Kyoto, but with the most delicate and elaborate designs on them. Inside, the rooms are beautiful, modest places. The art on the walls is simple and yet powerful, with themes of trees and nature.P1110704.JPG Diplomacy took place in these small, quiet, modestly decorated rooms. It symbolises the dignity, serenity and honour of these great men. The castle too has a large garden, with small ponds and paths through the trees. There is something fascinatingly incongruous about these powerful, murderous dictators, walking slowly and speaking softly in these calm environments. It somehow makes it more terrifying, to wrap up their tyranny in honour and high culture.P1110713.JPG


I must now say goodbye to Sophia and Siang. We all have different destinations tomorrow. It is now the end of a long day, and we have no plans for Karaoke tonight. We look for a tea room, but all the proper ones are far too expensive, so we end up at a coffee shop. We have been a good team for two days now, and they have been some of the most cultured travelling companions I have had.

Pages of a travel diary: Week 17, leaving the summer in Vietnam for the winter of Korea

Pages of a travel diary: Week 17, leaving the summer in Vietnam for the winter of Korea

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from 2016. This week I was travelling from Halong Bay in Vietnam to Seoul in South Korea.

Day 113, Monday 28th November: Halong Bay

As I leave Hanoi at 8am on a mini-bus, I get a beautiful view of the city. The dense clutter of buildings goes right up to the water’s edge, of the Red River, and then there is only forest on the far side. So, as we drive over the bridge, I see the city stop and the countryside begin, separated by a crisp line of water. It is a natural line in the sand: the city stops here.


I have for the first time on this trip, put myself fully in the hands of a tour company. Halong Bay is famous throughout the world and is absolutely necessary to visit. However, doing it solo is near impossible, unless you can afford your own boat. So I am on a three-day tour, all but alcohol inclusive, to see and experience the sights. They had offered a number of tours, the main ones being the Cocktail Cruise and the Adventure Tour. As I see the boats on the quayside, I am immensely glad I chose the latter. The other boat is clearly designed for a booze cruise: it is packed full of people, already drinking at 10am and most of the passengers on my minibus join them.

There are nine of us on the adventure tour and we are shown to a smaller vessel. It has three decks, is relatively tall and it is totally empty. Our group get on and rush to pick our spots on the deck chairs on the roof. It turns out there are far more chairs than people, so there was no need.


As we will be spending the next two or three days together, we do our introductions. I am the only British person, there is a Portuguese couple and six Dutch. They didn’t come together, they are actually from three separate groups. I find out there is a Dutch Facebook page on travelling that recommends this tour company. We have rooms on this boat and I am sharing one with Diemer and we get chatting with Geke and Vivian, who are travelling together. From what they tell me, I gather Dutch backpackers are keen on trekking, rafting, zip-lining and all those outdoorsy aspects of travelling. Certainly, these guys are here for the experience and not the cheap alcohol.

For the moment, the boat is travelling over fairly open water: there are lots of other boats around, but the scenery in the far distance. So we lie in the 25’C heat on the deck chairs and enjoy the last of the sun. For me, these are the last days of the summer for certain, as I leave Vietnam at the end of this excursion and go somewhere far colder.

In the warm, quiet time, I think about stories and writing. I have always wondered about the Vikings who discovered America and try and think up an opening to such a story.

My far away thoughts are bought back to earth by ‘T’, the guide in charge of this part of the tour. He is a local and is dressed in a thick puffy coat against the cold. Several of the people around me are in beachwear: the contrast is comical, if not remarkable. First of all is lunch, while T tells us all about the trip. This is down in the cabin on the second deck. It is a large enough space to fit about twice our number, there is a bar and a TV. I like this boat enough to want to stay here longer already. The food is included in the price, so I clean up what the others don’t want and nearly feel full. The Dutch majority agree to speak in English for the benefit of the three of us who are not fluent, but find it hard to keep to that, when it is so easy for them to switch back to their native language.


When we emerge back onto the top deck, we are in Halong Bay. The scenery is instantly recognisable and dramatic. And completely impossible to capture on camera. We are surrounded by mountains, islands coming out of the water and channels and beaches everywhere. It is a rabbit warren of water in a mountainous land. Everywhere too, are boats, floating villages and little towns on the edge of the land. The view is as much about breadth and the 360’ panorama as it is about the look of the land: so pictures come out looking flat and dull. To be there though, is to be immersed in this beautiful oddity of geology and the human life that has grown up in it.


Snugly anchored in a little bay, a raft of two-person kayaks are bought up to our boat and we pair up and jump in. As there are an odd number of us, I am with T and he obviously has to be at the front of the group, I decide, which means I have an excuse to paddle really fast. I overtake the other kayaks and lead the way, with direction instructions, around the bay and towards the first cave. Due to the layers of rock in Halong bay, there are numerous caves among the mountains. The first is wide, but only just high enough to get through: like a gaping mouth.


It even has stalagmites that look like teeth. It takes several minutes to get through and we emerge into another huge bay, this side in the sunlight. Now there are hills close by in all directions, all covered in green plants and trees. I power across the bay to our destination on the far side, leaving the others behind; but only so I can stop and take photos of the landscape and the others as they catch up.


The second cave is much smaller and there is a traffic jam as we pass another group coming the other way. On the other side though, is an area of water only a few dozen meters in diameter. It is relative rockpool compared to the sea we have come from. We paddle around in a circle, trying to spot things moving in the trees.


On our return journey to the boat, we stop by one cliff face for several minutes to admire the skills of the monkeys. They swing from branches and vines across the vertical rock faces, above huge drops into the water. They are hard to spot, but when they go for a swing, it is an impressive show of balance, arm strength and speed.

Back on our boat, we use the last of the daytime to dive off the top deck into the water. It is a long, terrifying, fall and I don’t want to try it more than once. I have a moment of worry, as I hit the water from a great height: I can’t remember if I can swim properly. It has been years since I have had to swim in deep water. Always there has been a bottom to put my feet on, or I’ve had some kind of life jacket on. Here, the only refuge is the boat and that is not easy to get to once we have swum away.

However, I need not worry. It turns out, I’m fine. When required I manage to keep myself afloat and move around, although not as fast as the others. When we’re all in the water, we dive and swim around the boat, although it is getting pretty cold by now.

We then shower (in hot water!) and eat. As night falls, we play party games in the cabin that suit a large group, including the mind-bending ‘21’, which is made all the harder as we have a few drinks. After a while though, we go back outside.


It is nearly pitch-black outside as the only light sources are a few small boats in the distance. The sky looks brilliant and the air is still warm. I don’t have to plan anything, I don’t have to organise my time or find things to do. It is really nice to be able to relax properly.

Day 116, Thursday 1st December: Seoul

I pass out before the plane even starts moving. Skipping all the safety briefing and everything. It is only when the immigration forms appear that I am wrenched from my sleep. Due to the two-hour time difference, it is hardly a sleep at all and we are landing in the early morning. I immediately notice the cold as we disembark in Seoul, Incheon Airport. It’s cold even inside, so I find a toilet and change into cold weather clothing. I still only have sandals and shoes are, I fear, expensive in this country. I therefore resign myself to socks in sandals: the universal sign of a fashion disaster. However, I’m not going to buy new shoes now.

So, I emerge through customs in long-sleeved shirt and trousers, socks in sandals and my ankle length coat made in Vietnam, with my tattered bag still over my shoulder. I must be quite a sight. Despite the new coat, I feel very careworn compared to everything and everyone here. Airports are usually quite clinical, but Soul’s airport is immaculate and I see signs to a Mag-lev.


I’m not going on it, but I take a photo anyway because it is the epitome of high tech.


I take a high-speed train to the city centre and then take the Subway out to Anguk. Everything is clean, efficient and very 21st century. This is the first country I have visited on this trip which is undoubtedly more technologically advanced than my own and I can feel it everywhere I go. Given that I haven’t been in my home country for a while too, the shock is even greater. I buy a bottle of water in a store, taking the bottle off the shelf and handing the money over to the shop keeper. He beckons to me and I can’t work out why, it takes several attempts until I realise he needs to scan the bottle into the till. That, I guess, is a hallmark of civilisation.

I emerge from the Subway onto the streets of Soul for the first time and it is really cold. I hear it is 5’C, but all I can feel is freezing. It reminds me of the Alps in ski season, that’s how cold it feels. I stride, as fast as is polite, to my hostel and check in to warm up. I fall asleep.

When I wake up, an hour later, I am really hungry. I stumble out of the hostel and look for a place with food. But I don’t know anything about South Korean food. There are English signs, but I don’t know what is good, what is well priced and I don’t really want a fancy restaurant. I can’t decide, probably because I am so hungry, but I can’t focus either. Here I am, walking down an immaculate Korean street, dithering, unable to choose, but desperate to have something and totally useless. I am cold because it is cold, but also from not eating or sleeping properly. Eventually, I made a stand: the next place I walk past that sells food, I will go into. Ignore the social awkwardness, ignore the pricing, ignore the lack of knowledge, just eat.

I am lucky that the next place is just right. I pick using the pictures on the menu for something cheap which looks filling. I know I am being uncultured, but that doesn’t matter right now. The food is beef, noodles and lots of spices. It is hot and plentiful. I finally warm up.

Suddenly I can take in where I am.


This is Seoul, South Korea, one of the technological hubs of the world and one of its largest cities. Skyscrapers are everywhere, the autumnal leaves are cleared with elegant efficiency and the streets are perfectly organised. Nonetheless, there are indicators of a mad culture, with signs in every possible colour, shops selling products I never knew anyone needed and music that baffles the world. However, at ground level, it is a well ordered and effective society and totally unlike anything I have ever been to before.


I start to tick off tourists sites, beginning with the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Everything historical in Seoul is a replica: the city was annihilated in the Korean war in the 50’s, so this is a rebuild of a 14th century palace.


It is everything I wanted it to be. When you go this far east, what you want is a tall wooden building with layers of roofs that curl up at the corners and are covered in strange, pictorial characters. This is not China, they are positive about that but you can see that it is a cultural relation. I can see the similarities between Korea and Vietnam, both smaller countries that survived against the might of the Chinese empires, and shared so much history. They have a common cultural heritage and yet are so very different.

When you leave home to see different countries, to reach cultures so very different from your own, you sometimes have a picture in your head of what they might look like: mine look like this.

At the front of the Gyeongbokgung palace there is some photography going on, it looks like a wedding and the couple are dressed beautifully in what I presume is traditional clothes. They look fantastic.


On my way out of the palace, I have one extra culture shock. There is an exhibition of what the homes of their grandparents looked like. Wooden houses, simple brick structures with single floors and wooden tramcars. They look positively delightful compared to many of the urban homes I saw back in South East Asia. They are in a museum here.


The N Tower looms over the centre of Seoul and I find my way there by just walking towards the tallest thing. It is so much cooler here that I can go as fast as I like without breaking a sweat. In fact, I need to get some gloves to stop my hands from freezing. I go down vast boulevards, filled with traffic and on each side are glass skyscrapers. It is another world: the buildings in Bangkok that I thought were large have nothing on this, it even puts the City of London to shame.


As I take the cable-car up to the base of the N Tower, the sun is setting and the lights of the city come alive. From this promontory at the base of the tower, I can see in every direction and it is all city. Even at this height, every horizon is covered up to the distant mountains.


But the temperature is dropping further, so I get down into the streets again and go to the station where I am meeting my old friend.

We have not met since that day back in Croatia, which feels like a lifetime ago, but I am looking forward to seeing Soy.

As I look around the crowded subway station, I am slightly worried. I have not spent much time with Koreans, so I might find it hard to tell them apart. And then, at the top of the stairs, I see her and I have no doubt it is Soy. She is the only person wearing a hat, other than ones to keep warm, and amongst the fashion-conscious Koreans, she is a beacon of individuality. What’s more, she has a plan to teach me all about Korean culture.


We start with Kyoja’s Kalguksu as my first proper dish.


I am taught how to use Korean chopsticks (they are flat and metal) and the importance of kimchi. She shows me around the late night shopping district, where people come from China to buy the expensive, high end clothing. I am made to sample street food and finally, we go to a bar near the American military base, where we play darts. All the while, we catch up on the last three months: she had been teaching, I have been travelling and she is very jealous.

I already love this remarkable city. In many ways it is the epitome of a modern urbanised society: from the efficient public transport, to a social media dependant population. It feels so science fiction to me, but it is so real. The cold is a shock, but this place, this food, these people and the tidy madness of the Koreans are all invigorating. My travels have been kick-started again, with a bang.

Day 119, Sunday 4th December: DMZ

Rather optimistically, the minibus that picks me up this morning has a sign in the front window ‘Ethiopian Ambassador attending Water Management Conference’; the date on it is today. From the minibus I join a coach of people heading to the DMZ: the De-Militarised Zone: the border between North and South Korea. The guide to this excursion is ‘SP’ a former salesman for LG who now does cultural and historical tours. He rapidly takes us through Korean history, having several goes at the Japanese and bringing us up to the story of the Korean War.

We arrive at ‘Tunnel 3’, one of the attempts by North Korea to dig under the DMZ and to get an invasion route to Seoul. These were dug in the decades following the war and are of very poor construction. The South Koreans love them though, as SP explains, because they are free tourist attractions they didn’t have to pay for, but since the North deny their existence, they don’t have to share the revenues.


Before we can look around, we are subjected to a 10 minute documentary about the war, which features a very patriotic American accent and ends with the slogan ‘FREEDOM IS NOT FREE’.

‘And that’, SP calls out before we say anything, ‘Is South Korean propaganda.’

We are finally allowed to go down into the tunnel. At first, we are in the modern, South Korean access tunnel. It is a ramp and theoretically wheelchair accessible. However, this is kind of pointless, because we then reach the original tunnel. North Korea does not have an inclusiveness policy, from what I can tell. The tunnel is about wide enough to fit two people and the ceiling is barely tall enough for the average modern human: i.e. it is too short for me. There are bars and supports put up to stop it collapsing and I routinely bang my head on them. The walls are of roughly cut stone: it looks more like a prison escape tunnel than a government sanctioned enterprise.

At the far end they have sealed it off so you cannot go any further into North Korea. It is a bit disappointing to come all this way, just to have to go back, but I guess they wouldn’t want anyone defecting(!) There is a sign declaring that you cannot take photos of the end of the tunnel in big letters. There is a CCTV camera pointed at it, to catch people who try. They even took our phones off us. So, I stand behind the CCTV, take out my compact camera and take a photo, just because I can.


Suddenly I realise I am ‘sticking it to the man’ for no reason at all, while underneath North Korea. Maybe not the best place.

Nearby is an observatory. This is a building on the tallest hill on the South Korean side that looks over the DMZ. Normally, it offers unparalleled views over North Korea, but today it offers a beautiful panorama of fog. I can see some way into the distance, but not to the other side. The DMZ is a beautiful place: untouched land full of flora and fauna. That’s what you get if you leave a place alone for 50 years. A lone road goes across: there is nothing on it.


From the other side we can hear the sound of North Korean propaganda music: triumphalist choral chanting of the most insufferably dictatorial style. In the mornings, I am told, South Korea play K-Pop music back at them, just for the fun of it. I can’t imagine any other governments in the world approving that kind of policy, it is what makes the South Koreans unique.

The hatred between North and South is not unchanging. Between 1997 and 2008 there was what is known as the ‘Sunshine Period’ when people got optimistic that things were changing. They even built a railway line and a joint industrial complex to bring the two halves closer together. Unfortunately, the railway line only ever carried industrial goods and the factory closed earlier this year: they stand as memorials to failed attempts at reconciliation. We visit Dorasan station, the last station on the Seoul-Pyongyang railway that never opened. There are ticket offices and even platforms for trains going where they haven’t been since the Korean War.


I buy a ticket and go down onto that platform which remains empty: waiting for a hope to be fulfilled. There are even maps, showing a potential railway line, from Seoul all the way to London. I’d love to travel on that train one day.

Perhaps the saddest thing here is a comparison between Korea and Germany. There is the story of German reunification and the exact time the country was divided in two. Next to it is the same data for Korea, but rather than a fixed sign, it is a clock counting up. There is still hope here that one day they will be one country again, many Koreans really believe it will happen, but no one knows when it might be.


To truly understand the history I have been looking at today, I go to the war memorial as soon as we get back from the DMZ tour. This is a huge site, with commemorations to the fighters who died in the Korean war. The story is retold there but there are also the names, every name, of those who died fighting for South Korea. P1110465.JPGMost of them are Korean, most of the rest are American, but then there are the British, the Turkish, the Thais, the Greeks, the Ethiopians, the Colombians and so on. This was a real international effort. It too, is a war that is technically not over, as there is only an armistice, not a peace treaty. I hope, like most Koreans, that it will end soon. They are a country always prepared for war, even as they go about their daily lives. In just these few days, I have come to love their joy for life.

Pages of a travel diary: Week 16, Cultural Crossroads of Vietnam

Pages of a travel diary: Week 16, Cultural Crossroads of Vietnam

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from 2016. This week I was travelling from Hoi An to Hue in central Vietnam.


Day 106, Monday 21st November: Hoi An

Vietnam doesn’t have a railway network as much as one massive railway line. The country is so long and thin it doesn’t need anything else. It is insanely long actually. For a European frame of reference, Vietnam is the distance from Denmark to the North African coast, nearly twice the length of the UK. The overnight train takes 12 hours to travel less than half the country and gives me time to catch up on my writing. I buy a breakfast baguette through the window from a platform vendor and then have lunch formally served to me in a plastic container by staff. I am sharing the compartment with 5 other people, but by lunchtime this is down to two. They are two elderly Vietnamese ladies who speak no English, but insist on making me eat more food. With smiles and gestures, they offer their food and I decline, so they become more direct and just shove it from their plastic containers into mine. I politely thank them, which only makes it worse. In the end I have over two lunches for the price of one. This encounter means I am not hungry for quite a while.P1100808.JPG

I arrive at Da Nang at 1pm and wander out looking for the bus stop. It is a busy, industrial, messy street and not all that appealing. Worst of all, I can’t find a bus stop. I wander in the direction of what I believe is a bus station, slightly concerned that I have underprepared for this stretch. Then, a battered old bus slows down next to me and the drive shouts at me ‘Hoi An!’. I smile and nod, (hopefully) the universal symbol for yes, and hop on. The bus is hardly stationary for a second. The driver then gets back on his phone: he is not just calling people, he is also texting.

I get to Hoi An alive.


Hoi An is one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam. Its historic centre recalls a time when Vietnam was a trading centre between China and Japan in the East, India in the West and a safe haven for vessels coming all the way from Europe. There are significant Japanese, Dutch and Chinese influences.P1100810.JPG

It is rather appropriate then, when I discover I have a Japanese roommate. She is a photography student from Tokyo, called Risa. (Or Lisa, because apparently that’s the same sound). Her English is good, certainly better than my non-existent Japanese, and we engage in our national pastimes of being polite but awkward around people we don’t know. She is off to take photos at the seaside, but I have to see the old town.

P1100812.JPGThe small buildings have a magic to them, they are almost Mediterranean in their old stone style, but are decked out with Chinese lanterns and Japanese wooden roofs and decor. Everywhere there are plants, flower boxes and trees, bringing a rich harmony of colours. All this is set against a riverfront, where small boats sell goods straight off the water. The only word for it is idyllic. Cars are banned from the centre, so bicycles are the only thing to worry about and the cycle rickshaws for those tourists who are really lazy. P1100814.JPGThe town is famous for its tailors, but there are also museums, beautiful temples and restaurants everywhere. They even have some tech shops and I get myself a local sim card for the first time, allowing me to use mobile internet. This feels like cheating, but I want to try it out.

Stopping back briefly at the hostel, I meet another of my roommates: Charm, also from the UK. We go to the night market in search of food. She is vegan, which I can only imagine makes finding food a bit difficult, especially in countries where they don’t even accept vegetarianism unless you tell them you are allergic to meat. It’s great to meet someone from the UK after so long; someone I don’t have to explain Brexit to. Charm is cynical but friendly and has a totally different point of view on travelling. As a small woman, she has had to work that bit harder to get taken seriously in some parts of the world. As it happens, Charm works as an excellent double act to our fourth roommate: Denise who is kind, thoughtful and no less bonkers. She is also from the UK. And so, we have a team, the four of us are going to be in Hoi An for the next couple of days, and we start by trading travelling stories. Although, somewhere in the confusion, we start calling Risa, Kim. No one knows how it starts.P1100836.JPG

Late that evening, long after dark, and when we are getting ready for bed, Risa and I realise we have run out of bottled water. Wearing our pyjamas by this point, we venture out to the reception and find that it is closed. However, I really need to have fresh water to get through the humid nights of Vietnam, so I head out the hostel and Risa follows me. We walk, with bare feet, down the darkened road, in search of a shop to sell us some. None of the local shops are open and it is not until the end of the street, some 5 minutes walk, that we see a little light on. The shop keeper looks at us quizzically; a tall British man and a Japanese woman asking for bottle water in their pjs at midnight. But they say nothing and we get our water. We can only laugh about it once out of earshot and running back to the hostel.



Day 111, Saturday 26th November: Hue

I decide this morning to attempt something ambitious. That always helps me feel better. While the centre of Hue is interesting, the greatest sites are several miles out of the city: a string of tombs in the hillsides. I don’t have all that much time, but I decide to try and see some of them. It is raining hard and people around me are looking at their motorbikes and deciding, sensibly, not to go out on them today. I go and rent a bicycle again. It can get me around slightly less fast but is much less likely to kill me. I figures this is about the right balance.P1100986.JPG

Once out of the city centre, the roads are small lanes with just enough room for cars to pass, but no curb or white lines: like British country lanes. The scenery is equally, if not more, green. P1100996.JPGTropical forest grows up all around and the road weaves in between small hills. Then, there are moments of grandeur. Coming around a hillside, the landscape opens up beneath me: jungle covered valleys stretching off into the distance. It is still raining hard but that only adds to the atmosphere. The only signs of humanity are a distant road and a few electricity pylons. Everything else is hidden by the dense forest. I understand why people love travelling through Vietnam on motorbikes: if the views are as great as this and the roads as pleasant as this, it must be a wonderful drive.

The first tomb, of Emperor Khải Định, is actually a relatively modern construction. It was built less than a century ago out of modern materials, like concrete, and is described as a blend of French and traditional Vietnamese styles. I am therefore surprised that it looks really nice. These tombs are not mere small burial chambers, but almost palace-like in their scale and this one is built on several layers. I climb the first set of stairs to see that there are two more sets of stairs, with buildings at every stage on the way up. It looks very solemn against the backdrop of a grey sky and I try and get some gloomy photos. However, this is when some tourists, complete with ponchos and multi-coloured umbrellas, appear off a coach and block my view.

P1100997.JPGClimbing the stairs to the inner tomb feels like a journey, which is what I imagine the designer intended. At the top is the main structure, which is made of modern materials, on close inspection, but looks appropriately traditional. The fine pattern workings are exquisite.  Inside is a dazzling shrine, with a statue of Khải Định at its heart. The walls are covered in multi-coloured terracotta and the reflective surfaces help the minimal light to bring the room to life. I am struck by the fact that this tomb looks considerably nicer than the Forbidden city where the Emperors actually lived. Veneration of the dead is understandable, but should they be treated better than the living?P1110003.JPG


To get to Tomb two, I have to cycle along a main road, alongside lorries and fast-moving cars. It is only for a few hundred metres, but it is enough to terrify me on my little single speed bicycle. I get off the main road as fast as I can. Looking at the map, I think I have a long journey still ahead of me to get around the hill to where the Tomb entrance is. However, while I stand with my bike by the side of the road, a woman from a little café comes up and tells me there is a shortcut I can take on foot. It is an excellent enterprise she has got going. You can leave your bike there safely, and walk a small distance, on the condition that you’ll buy something when you come back. There is one small problem. The path that goes from the café to the tomb is in a gully between hills and, obviously, is waterlogged. I walk up the bank alongside and merely use the path as a general guide to get to the entrance.

This is the Tomb of the Emperor Minh Mạng and if I thought the last place was like a palace, this place blows me away. On the map I saw that it was in a large walled off area and now I understand the scale of it. Built almost 200 years ago, Minh Mang was (arguably) the last Emperor to successfully stand up to the European Empires. His Tomb reflects this Vietnamese pride. From the entrance, I can see a vast lake and the mausoleum sits at its centre. P1110010.JPGAll around is an elegant garden. To get to the mausoleum, I pass through several outer buildings and and through gateways, leading to the centre of the lake. All around are trees, gardens and memorials. The rain goes from hard to torrential. I have to be undercover to take photos to give my camera any chance of survival. However, this means the place is almost empty. I feel alone in this mighty shrine to a dead emperor. It is moving and calming.P1110019.JPG


I have to get back to the centre of Hue now. The bike finds out what real speed is, as I cycle like my life depends on it back through the hills. By the time I arrive at my hostel, I am soaked through, but happy. The reason for the rush, is that I have to meet someone. Once I have checked my bike back in, I walk over to a café, where I meet Evan and Megan.

It seems so surreal. I met these guys two months ago in the desert of North-East India. Now we meet again in rainy central Vietnam, with just two of the original four left. As we are travelling Vietnam in opposite directions, we are able to swap tips and I tell them where I got my coat made. While there is catching up to do, there is also resting, so we have hot drinks and we each do some reading in silence. It is also remarkable, that after two months we feel like old friends.

But we have to celebrate, so we got to the famous DMZ bar in the lively centre of Hue. The place is full of backpackers and we quickly get to know the Australian barman. I have a glass of wine, to give the appearance of sophistication (although, it is pointed out, I am wearing a crumpled short-sleeve shirt and shorts, so I have a long way to go to achieve that) while Evan and Megan get a bucket of spirits each. Megan has straight whiskey. The people around us are very impressed. Megan is the only woman in the bar, but this is not uncommon and after travelling for so long, in countries where women are not usually seen drinking with men, we have all stopped worrying about it. There is pool, pizza and the sharing of stories. The Australian has a visiting friend and they have their tales of living in Vietnam, moving around running bars.

Then, suddenly, the tone of the room changes. A young woman, with long blond hair and a most photogenic smile, walks in silently. Suddenly there are a dozen guys not looking at this her. She orders a coffee. It is 7pm and dark outside. The bar guys know her; she is a British model, working here in Vietnam.

Our table suddenly decides that it wants to be closer to her table and shifts casually across the floor. Rather than making things awkward, as is my usual tactic, I introduce myself. Her name is Jen. Much to my surprise, she happily joins in our little group and we get chatting. She is from Yorkshire, in the North of England, so we instantly find things to disagree on, but when faced with Americans and Australians, we form a united front. Particularly when discussing the culture of tactical chundering. She is a much more experienced traveller than Evan, Megan or I, as she has lived and worked all over the world, so is really interesting to listen to.

Sadly, the evening is too good to last and I have to rush off and get a train. I don’t have time to say goodbye to Evan and Megan properly, and all I remember to do is send them a text, asking if they can get Jen to add me as a friend on Facebook. Then my phone battery dies.