Keeping warm in Kunming

I like trains a lot, but it's hard to feel affection for the K79 from Shanghai to Kunming. There's not enough space to see much of the train anyway. Each carriage in hard sleeper class is a dormitory of around 48 tightly packed bunks. The middle and top bunks aren't tall enough to sit up in, so you spend a lot of time lying down or holding your breath in the narrow smoky corridors while you untangle your bones.

If you want a couple of moments alone, or a change of scenery, of course each carriage has a little bathroom. As is typical in this part of the world, this has a squat toilet, but it's embedded in a floor so disgusting that you want to immediately burn your shoes. Also, it's literally a hole in the floor. You can see the tracks going by beneath you.

Back in the compartments, loudspeakers keep you "entertained" with psychotically cheerful Chinese pop, folk and opera for sixteen hours a day. Sellers of food push trolleys along the corridors shouting out what they have. Babies, unhappy with the change in routine, take it in turns to freak out and wail. After 38 hours of this, you have to remind yourself that you're too mature to do the same.

Having a place to occasionally sit means making friends with the people in the bottom bunks. The bottom-bunkers near me didn't speak any English, but everyone speaks Small Child and they'd taken the precaution of bringing a three year old girl. We bonded over clapping games, small child antics  and crisps. (They were crisps that Small Child had dropped on the floor, but sometimes you have to risk germs in the name of international relations.) It was actually a pretty nice way to pass the time.

I still wasn't sorry to get to Kunming.

First impressions of Kunming: it's not a loud, smoky, packed train. I love it here!

Ok, second impressions of Kunming: we're in the countryside now. The population is a mere 1.1 million. People are friendlier, traffic is calmer, prices are sane. Taxi drivers don't try to scam you (as much). Restaurants sell Chinese food. There's no KFC on every corner. Also, it's getting cold. You can feel Autumn in the air for the first time here. Three layers weren't really enough today; I'll need to buy a coat.

Once I'd checked in and had an _epic_ shower, I went to see the Bamboo Temple, on a hill outside the town. It's a regular serene Buddhist temple, but what makes it spectacular is its collection of Arhat statues. These are 500 statues of noble blokes, all with different faces and expressions, some wise, some playful, some completely nuts. They're supposed to "perfectly represent human existence". Some of the states of human existence apparently include:

- "Hurray! A frog jumped on my arm!"
- "This single macadamia nut causes such sorrow in my heart."
- "Have you seen anything as fabulous as my legwarmers?"
- "WAAAAAAAGH, a dragon!!!"
- "My ear is itchy."
- "My earnestness is conveyed by my beard"
- "Is this REALLY a DOG???"

Even the ridiculous ones are so expressive and lifelike that it's a bit creepy to turn your back on them. It near killed me to obey the no photography sign.

Finding my way back from the Bamboo Temple was a two hour/three bus comedy of errors, but the hostel has put on a Clapton album and the common room is warm and contains big bowls of soup.

So, that's Kunming so far. It's awfully nice and you should visit soon. Please bring my winter coat when you do.

Leaving Shanghai

Happy National Day! Today is the start of one of the two Golden Weeks where the entire country closes up shop and gets out of town. There'll be fireworks in all of the big cities tonight. None for me though: I'll be on a train until the 3rd. Hotels and trains book out quickly at this time of year -- I'm leaving Shanghai two days later than planned because everything was gone -- but the hostel in Kunming has beds left, so I probably won't have to sleep in the forest. (It wouldn't be so bad: the bears are off visiting relatives in Chengdu.)

Shanghai's motto is Better City, Better Life. At the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall they set out their goals for making a Better City. It's good stuff: tons of green space, reclaiming polluted land, energy efficiency, public transportation, preserving historical buildings, making the place beautiful. They claim that they've already achieved a room-sized patch of green space per resident, and that they'd like to make it a house-sized amount instead. This seems ambitious to me, but it's true that it's a very green city. There are lovely big parks and public squares everywhere, and very many tiny ones too, squeezed in anywhere there's room. More often than not, the streets are tree-lined. You can usually find somewhere pleasant to sit. Good job, Shanghai Urban Planners.

Some author, Scott Adams maybe, once wrote about telling convincing lies to gullible people and seeing how far the story would travel. His example was "You know, they don't really eat Chinese food in China". In Shanghai, it's true! Sure, you can easily find noodles and dumplings and rice, but if you walk down a random street and eat at the first restaurant you pass, you'll be having Italian or Korean or Thai or hamburgers. It reminds me of my first evening in Kochi when Jonathan said "We're going to have what a Japanese family would traditionally eat on a Sunday evening. Indian food."

So Shanghai is beautiful, and its authorities put effort into making it a good place to live and it has good food and a cosmopolitan attitude and interesting people doing interesting things. The public transport is decent and the public spaces are filled with art. It's a fine city. I could not live here.

This is why: Shanghai is LOUD. It's really really loud. It is so freaking loud. Even the less busy streets are a cacophony of honking horns and screeching brakes and people bellowing over the sound of the traffic. The car's horn doesn't indicate that there's a problem here; it's just letting everyone else know where you are on the road. "HONNNNNNNK. I have a car!" "Parp! Parp! My scooter will overtake your car now!" "BEEEEEP! I'm riding my motorbike on the pavement!" "HONK! Still have a car!"

It's constant and it's piercing. Walking anywhere here gives me a headache and makes me crabby. I get irrationally furious about it all. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? I shout, not helping with the noise pollution (or the residents' opinions of the mental health of foreigners). If I was in charge, etc.

An Australian who had moved here told me that you do get used to it but that it takes a year or more.

So, Better City, Better Life, and it's a very good city indeed. But you'll want to bring earplugs.

In Shanghai

Picasa is completely blocked from here, so I've moved to Smugmug. If you're interested in pictures of Qingdao, has pictures of Qingdao.

Shanghai (or at least tourist-Shanghai) is phenomenal. Elegant buildings, elegant streets and oh-so-elegant passers-by. Skyscrapers wrapped in clouds shining out in blue and silver lights. You stand on the Bund and look across the river at Pudong, lit up at night like a classier Times Square, and it's like Coruscant or something. You know in a scifi movie where the more advanced life forms live in a glorious white city of spires and walkways and flying cars? That's what it's like. (The superintelligent aliens probably wouldn't block Picasa.)

I took the Maglev yesterday. One minute it's an unassuming brownish plasticy looking train with a wedge nose -- not at all like a bullet train -- and then suddenly it's leaning deeply into a turn at 431kmph and... yeah. Not too shabby. It runs for just eight minutes out to the airport, so you barely have time to appreciate it, but it's at least as cool as I'd expected and that was a high bar. I love that it makes "seriously I'm working quite hard here" noises when it gets fast. It's somehow less impressive when trains glide silently.

China is twelve hours ahead of New York. It's the same o clock. All of China uses Beijing time, which is a bit mental. Crossing the border to Kazakhstan you have to subtract two hours.

I'll be in/near Shanghai for another two days, and then I'm off to Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province. Kunming really isn't on the way to where I'm going, but I was in the mood for a long train journey and Yunnan is 38 hours away. No part of China is as highly/frequently recommended as the Yunnan province, except maybe Shanghai.

All good until I looked at timetables and realised it'll take at least three, maybe four, days to get back out of there and up to Urumqi, near the Kazakh border. Whoops. Well, my kindle is well stocked at least :-) We'll see whether I'm still in the mood for long train journeys once I get there.

Visiting Qingdao's main tourist attractions

(Well, not any more. In reality I'm failing to find words for how beautiful Shanghai is at night, but here's what I wrote yesterday before my hostel's flaky wireless fell over.)

Brewery tours can be pretty boring and the city's main museum is very boring indeed. "We've been making beer since 1905.", they say, and then they tell you in excruciating detail how they did it then and how they do it now. (Spoiler: it's the same way everyone else makes beer.) There are many rooms describing the history of the Tsingtao company and its Corporate Strategies. "In nineteenmumble we moved from the Larger Then Stronger strategy to the Stronger Then Larger strategy.", they explain, clearly. "Here's a picture of the Board at that time. Later we had some Strategic Alliances with other companies. Recently we have adopted the Recycling Economy strategy because the environment is very important. Here's a diorama of a man in a hat looking thoughtfully at some barley." I barely got out alive.

No, ok, I stayed for half an hour watching the packing production line at the end with real fascination. It's _almost_ worth going to the factory to see at how cleverly they move bottles around and into boxes. Other than that the best I can say is that it's less pretentious than the Guinness Storehouse. But most things are.

In the afternoon I saw the rather nice Tianhou Temple, devoted to a Goddess of the Sea. She's got incense burning on every flat surface and she's accompanied by threatening guardians, a friendly metal dragon who was shiny from being petted and a shrine to the God of Wealth that collected a continual stream of coins. It's a clever setup: the shrine has a small hole that you can throw coins through if you have good aim, so people keep trying.

After that, I climbed up the hill to see the Christian church, built by the Germans in 1908. It had fewer fierce statues and no dragons at all, but the clock tower was lovely.

Last thing for the day was to walk down Huangdao Road, a nighttime food market warm with orange lights and filled with all sorts of aromatic, sizzling (and sometimes wriggling) things to eat. There are hens pecking around underfoot, tanks of assorted shellfish waving claws or fronds or feelers, slabs of dangerous-looking meat on hooks, and sinister quivering objects that you're not really sure what they are. I bought three types of pancakes (all excellent) and a bowl of very spicy potatoes and beans and peanuts, then brought them back to the hostel to fill my belly. A contented evening.

Typing with my thumbs in Qingdao

For the comfort and safety of its citizens, China blocks Blogger (which is where this blog is hosted) and parts of Picasa (which is where I keep my pictures). It looks like they may have missed the mobile interface to Blogger though, so I'm writing this on my phone and we'll see if it goes through.

While I typed the last paragraph, I've collected three mosquito bites on my hands. They really don't want people to blog here :-P

Mosquitoes aside, I'm enjoying  Qingdao well enough. It's not a madly exciting place, but it works well if all you want to do is pass through immigration, book an onward ticket and eat some noodles. The ferry here was excellent too.

This town was built by Germans. It's funny to see European-style buildings everywhere and restaurants with German names. It's also why this town started producing one of China's most famous exports: Tsingtao beer.

I've got one more day here before I move on to Shanghai. Shanghai! I'm already geeking out about the maglev.

Off to China

She's got a ticket to ride... well, to sail. Assuming ferry, immigration, customs and finding the hostel all go well, I'll be back online from China around this time tomorrow.

I'm getting prepared for a less law-abiding society by deploying the horrible traveller money belt. I hate these things, but I hate pickpockets even more. I've also caved and bought the lonely planet book ($40!!! And it weighs a ton. You'd definitely know you had it in your backpack.) so I'll be able to point at place names in Chinese.

Byebye, South Korea. Your old men spat on the streets more than I was comfortable with and you tried to kill me that one time, but I liked you a lot otherwise! Thanks for all the food <3

Recovering from Jirisan in Seoul

One more post while I have wifi (and it got pretty long, sorry) to share pictures of what I spent the last three days doing. Jirisan was a big deal for me because it was my first proper solo hike, as well as the longest and most difficult trail I've done so far and my first time hiking at night. (In case this sounds insane, I'll add that I chose very busy, popular trails and went at the weekend). It was also the first time I turned up in a village looking for a homestay, which I was a bit nervous about, but which turned out to be fine.

I did my research, reading about various trails online, spending half a day scouring Busan for a trail map (and another evening translating it into English) and learning the basics of reading Korean characters so I could verify my path by reading trail and village names on signs. I had my trusty compass, raincoat, water purification equipment, spare socks, plenty of food and a few bars of chocolate. It was on.

The first day and a half were brilliant. I easily found a homestay and a gigantic hot meal. I clambered on ropes across a river and successfully translated Korean words on signs. I felt pretty clever, I have to tell you :-) It got steep, and sometimes the trail was hard to find, but it was all under control. And then it started to get misty and the mist turned to rain. I began to find that slogging up the horrible bits wasn't nearly as much fun without my hiking friends there to share the pain. The rain meant there was no reward: every view was like standing inside a cloud. Without someone else to say "Wow, we're seriously supposed to go up _that_?", it was hard to get enthusiastic about the climbs. Near the end of the day I just wanted to be out of the rain so I didn't stop to eat when I got hungry. (Tip: this is stupid.)

The penultimate peak, Jungbong, was a great celebration. I had it to myself for a few minutes and I stood in the white mist, arms in the air, declaring the third highest peak in South Korea to be mine. From there, it was a hard but triumphant 45 minutes up to Jirisan's 1915m peak, Cheonwangbong. And it was _rubbish_. The top was crowded with a group of noisy people, all very comfortable with the height, leaning back off the ridge to take photographs, trusting their hiking boots and poles. They bustled and shoved and barged into each other at the edge of this sheer mountain top and I, without mountaineering in my blood and with low blood sugar, was suddenly really scared that they'd knock me off the edge. I inched back down to flatter ground and sat and ate chocolate until I  was un-scared again. Lesson learned.

After that, the hour scrambling downhill to the shelter in rain, cold and no visibility was horrible and being the only person at the shelter without a stove or a circle of friends was miserable too. In New York I'd have been fine with mooching a mug of hot water for tea off a stranger, but I didn't have the energy to conquer the language barrier. It was all a bit sad and lonely on Sunday evening, so I wrapped up in my blanket in my corner of the cosy (and heated!) shelter and went asleep. Sleep is usually a good remedy for things.

Since I'd never really hiked at night before, and since the day before had ended so badly, I wasn't sure I wanted to take out my headlamp and join the group climbing back up to the same peak at 5am. I was awake anyway though so I ate a huge breakfast and decided to tag along and bow out if it got at all scary. This turned out to be a great call: I ended up in the middle of the pack, which meant help and encouragement for the rough bits,  hearing other people wheezing around me, and feeling like I was part of things. Before I knew it, it was brilliant again.

We got up there just after dawn to shouts of welcome from two guys who'd arrived just before us. One of them saw that there was a non-Korean and shouted "Welcome to Jiri Mountain!". I felt personally welcomed :-) They gathered the ten or so of us into a circle and shared a bottle of soju. The first glass, with much bowing, laughter, thanks, applause and great ceremony, was given to the mountain itself, then they filled a glass for everyone else.

In great spirits (and warmed by great spirits), we set off in various directions down the mountain. I was going to the same place as two young guys, Han and Jon, and we trudged downhill at a solid pace for the next six hours, declaring "Very easy!" after every horrible slope and  chanting "bus bus bus bus bus bus" to try to convince the bus terminal to move up the mountain to meet us. (It didn't work). Han spoke a bit of English and Jon didn't and we had good conversations anyway.

Overall, it was a good experience and a learning experience and, if my knees ever recover, I would like to hike in Korean mountains again. I'm in bits today though. I couldn't get out of bed the first couple of times I tried and I stayed in Busan for an extra half day until I was sure I could manage the subway stairs. Every time I stand up or sit down it's with an oof of pain. All of that downhill is rough on the joints.

Finally, I should mention that when Tiarnan was heading off to hike the Appalachian Trail and I was looking at visiting random dictatorships, I joked that he'd probably get kidnapped by militants and I'd get eaten by bears. The very first sign I saw on Jirisan? "Asian bear. Carnivorous" with a lot more text in Korean. So that was reassuring. (I'm pleased to report that Tiarnan got  home safe and unkidnapped from the forest and that I have not yet been eaten by a bear.)

In a Vietnamese soup shop in Seoul

At home I try to eat sustainably. When travelling I just try to eat. "Huh, I wonder what I just ordered... kitten noodle soup? Well, that's a shame. Pass the soy sauce."

Food's interesting because it's such a huge part of our lives and it's so easy to get wrong. For example, lots of Japanese and especially Korean food comes in a bunch of little bowls. Sometimes it's for mixing together, sometimes it isn't. You just have to know. Similarly, you just have to know whether you're supposed to eat with your hands or a fork, whether something is a condiment or an integral part of the dish, whether there's a big chunk of wasabi, chili or raw garlic sitting right there that you probably don't want to eat in one bite. And then, is it ok to slurp from the bowl? Can you double-dip? Can you ask for it without meat? With chips?

There's a good chance that you're doing something culturally weird, like ordering porridge for dinner or soup for breakfast. Or something disgusting, like tearing bread with your left hand in a country where the left hand is unclean. At any moment you're probably being rude, ridiculous or gross and people might not tell you. So it goes.

Lots of types of Japanese restaurant bring you food and a hot plate or stewpot and leave you to it. Wait, come back! I don't have basic life skills here. How do you do okonomiyaki again?

People tend to not get offended if you eat food wrong (probably apart from the poo-hand situation), because you're just an idiot foreigner who doesn't know how to behave. If you're polite and friendly, you can get away with it being part of your idiot foreigner charm and people are lovely about sitting down and showing you how to debone a fish or whatever. You really can cause offense through ignorance in other ways though. Tipping, for example. Tipping is the worst. Over here you don't do it at all (hurray!) but on the first day of my very first ever trip, I had a room go quiet when a restaurant owner held out the (very small) change and I picked up the coins from his palm. It was a keep the change sort of place, and you're supposed to know that. Try not tipping for drinks in the US and see how quickly you get served next time. Tipping is hard. They should hand out informational leaflets at airports.

The big thing you can do wrong here is put your feet in the wrong place. Shoes off at the door, slippers in the house, bathroom shoes in the bathroom. No slippers on tatami floors. Undoubtedly other rules that I don't know and have broken fifty times. At the hostel today I hovered outside until the guy came out to see why I wasn't coming in. "Should I take off my shoes?" "No, of course not! Shoes are ok here." Huh. It's all part of the mystery of travel, I guess.

Enjoying Busan

I spent a day at Busan's important temple last time I was here, and I'be had plenty of seasides recently, so Busan's main attractions haven't been too attractive. Instead I've just walked around in the unreasonably hot sun and looked at things. I like this place a lot.

Busan has a lot of the rough and ready feeling that you often get with port towns, but it's also the second largest city in South Korea. Four million people live here. "Dynamic Busan", all the municipal posters say, and that's exactly how it is: this city is going places and is taking the direct route there. Go with it or you'll be barged into, backed over, or knocked flat by a commuter or a shopper or a motorbike speeding along on the pavement. Everything's moving.

It's vibrant. Shops, signs, ads, buildings, street art, ipod-wielding students... anything that can be vivid is. In the evenings love hotels shine out in neon stars and flowers. Sculpture parks and shopping streets display more public art than I've seen anywhere before, very modern, often interactive: a metal man on a bench posing for a photo with you, a woman with arms outstretched for a hug, reed-like structures that sway in the wind, seagulls and flowers near the beach, a cheerful hippo for no obvious reason, lots of lights and fun and things to touch. It's happy,  unselfconscious art.

There are cafes everywhere. If you thought East Asia was all about tea, ten minutes in Busan would prove otherwise. This is a coffee city. Pop music and jazz pours out of thousands of cafes and bars. There's Americana everywhere too: shirts with college sports teams, distressed leather with wild west slogans, hamburger chains with American-themed names, tons of American references everywhere you look.

I found myself in a department store that was indistinguishable from any department store in the US. Same brands, same prices. I considered picking up some hiking gear but could only find the same high end shops you'd find in any Western city, stuff that's well outside my backpacker budget. Busan's cheaper than Japan, particularly in street markets and the like, but there's still plenty of money sloshing around.

I'm heading up to Jirisan Mountain tomorrow for a few days hiking. I initially thought the peaks were only a little more strenuous than the hills we climb in upstate New York, but then I remembered that New York measures in feet. Ah. It does explain the hundred year old Korean women who regularly sprint past us on hikes in NY though. This place gives you plenty of practice.

Eating eggs in a hostel kitchen in Busan

Apologies to the people on gplus because I've already talked about this at length there, but here's a post about my itinerary.

The spreadsheet I used to plan this trip is complex and detailed, with multiple routes, notes, reminders of visa validity and colour-coded alternatives and contingency plans.  One thing it didn't cover though is what would happen if I didn't get a Russian visa because, honestly, it just didn't seem very likely. I'd pick it up in Tokyo or, absolute worst case, I'd make a visa run to Hong Kong which never says no.

So, anyway, I don't have a Russian visa. The embassy in Tokyo said no and apparently the Russian embassy in Hong Kong has just implemented a policy of no visas for non-residents. The Russians are adopting this policy across all of their Asian embassies. You can only get a visa in your resident country. "It is the rule!", the embassy guy in Tokyo said, so happy he almost smiled. "Is it possible to make an exception?" "It is the rule!" "Come on, it's a new rule and New York is very far away." "It is the rule!" "Do you have any other suggestions?" "It is.." "I get it." (With this sort of inflexibility I don't know how anyone ever gets bribed.)

I was initially despondent. I'm actually pretty ok at this logistical stuff -- give me a train timetable and a map of the world and I'm in my element --  but standing outside the embassy in Tokyo's stifling heat thinking of tickets to be cancelled, new visas to be chased and countries I could get to that might have more relaxed Russian embassy rules, I felt suddenly exhausted, out of my depth. "WHAT WILL I DO!?". A cafe right beside me, perhaps used to dejected rejects from the Russian embassy, had a huge sign. "Coffee First", it said. Good advice. A latte, a pint of water and some air conditioning later, I decided that Russia could get along fine without me. By the end of the second latte, I was excited again about whatever lay ahead. Adaptable like water, my travel brain is, so long as it has easy access to warm milk, espresso and a sit down. :-)

Not going to Russia unfortunately also means no Mongolia, since the most sensible path is to take the crazy night bus directly from China to Kazakhstan. A further complication: my China visa gives me thirty days from whenever I enter the country, but the Kazakh visa has a fixed date: I can't come in until October 16th. This means I have to be sure not to activate my Chinese visa until a few days after September 16th to make sure I don't find myself in a visaless nomansland and get fined and deported.

All this is leading up to saying that yesterday I took the ferry to South Korea to kill a week before moving on to China. A week of spectacular food and hiking wasn't in the original plan, but I think I can get used to it.

Visiting friends in Kochi City

We had a moon viewing party last night at Kochi castle. Yesterday was the day of the year when you view the moon, so we did. Jonathan explained that occasions like this (cherry blossom viewing is more famous example) provide an opportunity for a regulated and rather formal society like Japan to let its hair down. We went to a convenience store to get supplies and I asked J to explain what everything was and when it was appropriate to eat it: this is dried octopus; it`s a snack people have while watching movies; this is a rice ball; it`s good for travelling; this is like porridge; it`s a comfort food for when you`re sick. We bought a little bottle of sake (traditional for moon-viewing) and two bags of crisps (uh, not quite so traditional), ramen flavour and pizza potato flavour.

The top of the castle grounds was deserted, but a canopy had been raised: other moon viewers must have been there earlier. We sipped our sake and ate our crisps and watched the very yellow moon. A cicada attacked us. It`s been four years since Jonathan and I hung out last, also at Kochi City. We talked about old times and new times and getting older and how everyone we knew was doing and how metallic and unsettling cicadas can be and how sitting under the moon sharing sake would be a crime in Ireland and how different societies can be: when there`s effectively no violent crime, alcohol isn`t at all a cause for concern; Jonathan said that nobody would think anything of it if you picked up your kid from daycare while drinking a beer. It`s a whole other world.

The lack of crime is initially unbelievable, then wondrous. Jonathan`s wife, Hisa, had been bewildered in Dublin airport when he picked up all of their belongings -- laptop, wallets, camera -- and took them with him to the counter when they went for more coffee. Why not leave them there? Wait, why would someone take them? It must be horrible for Japanese people on first trips abroad. Compared to here, almost everywhere is violent, crime-riddled and, well, kind of savage. Rude as well. Nobody here is rude. Every interaction is friendly, enthusiastic and full-on engaged. Another data point: Japanese doesn`t have swear words, or at least none that anybody ever uses.

Aw, every society has advantages and disadvantages, but I`m really enjoying this right now. In one way it`ll be a relief to move on -- it is EXPENSIVE here and my newfound cake-for-breakfast habit isn`t helping my bank account -- but I kind of wish I could wander around Japan for a long time more. The lack of chaos, the lack of crime, the helpfulness of every single person... it`s like a massage for the brain. It`s very relaxing. But having my cares soothed away in Japan won`t get me closer to the Atlantic (though I am moving slowly, slowly westwards), so on I go. Busan tomorrow.

In Ito City on the Izu Peninsula

Man, I'm a comic genius. I must be because I'm not even trying to be funny but people have been laughing at me since I got to the Izu Peninsula. A nice family today nearly fell over laughing, then gave me directions, then laughed some more. It's weird, but not unpleasant, to be spreading this much joy just by existing.

Once the initial hilarity wears off, the most common question goes like this: there's a pause, intense  concentration and then words, slow and careful: "where are you from?". "Irelando", I say. The teenagers today on Mount Omuro weren't sure about that. (Actually probably nobody is, but the kids were willing to admit it). "U2", I said. Much discussion in Japanese. One drew the letter and number on his palm with his finger. Nodding and more discussion, then "U2 bando?" "Yes!" "... Enya?" "Yes, very good!" "Radiohead?" "No, that's England."

"We are Japanese", the Enya fan said, and I pretended to fall over in astonishment. (If they're going to find me funny anyway I may as well get the occasional joke in). Laughter all round and then it was time to take the chairlift back down the mountain.

This evening I sat on the third beach of this trip and put my feet in the Pacific. It's my first time seeing it from this side and it does seem to be calm and gentle and, well, pacific on the beach at Ito City. There's a tsunami warning on the lamppost outside. It's hard to imagine.

The hotel here, K's House, is part of a hostel chain, but one that wins awards for being exceptional at what they do. This hostel is a hundred year old registered wooden building with tatami rooms and sliding doors and both shared and private onsen baths. My room (a dorm of four futons, but I've had it to myself) is so peaceful that I dropped all plans for yesterday evening and just sat by the window listening to the frogs. This region is well worth a visit but, even if it wasn't, I'd recommend visiting this hotel.

On the Tokyo-Atami train

The Japanese Rail Pass doesn't cover the super-fast Nozomi service, but this Kodama local train is fast enough to keep me happy. The Shinkansen bullet train is a beautiful creature. We're zooming along. High speed trains are the best.

Tokyo is a great place to start a journey like this because it's a safe, modern city and it's easy enough to find your way around, but you're definitely not at home any more. Though, that said, Tokyo's actually a lot like a politer New York if New York had more public toilets and fewer tiny dogs: it's a centre of culture and business and retail with buckets of history, flagship stores, lost tourists from everywhere, busy but generally helpful locals,  walkable and bikeable streets, excellent public transport (once you figure it out) and all sorts of crazy neighborhoods and subcultures... well, ok, Tokyo wins hands down on that last one. Did you know that there's a subculture of people who dress like broken dolls? I swear. It's a new one on me. Anyway, in some ways a big city is a big city and Tokyo is like any of what I think of as the Great Cities, except you sometimes (often) have no clue whatsoever what's going on. And of course you don't know how to read.

I've been here before so I thought I'd probably take it easy and not run around too frantically this time, but boy was I mistaken. It's been three days of wall to wall activity: eating super-fresh sushi just off the boat at the biggest fish market in the world (wasted on me; I can't tell the difference), looking at delicate paintings at the Imperial Palace, petting the dog statue and being impressed at the elaborate style of every single person shopping at at Shibuya, watching the red evening sun from the Municipal Government Office Observatory, gawping at the crazy geek/fandom kids at Akihabara, causing the Wrong Coffee Incident of 2011 (you can't imagine the flurry of bowing, apologies, thank yous and running in circles, and that was just me), and stopping myself from buying the entire contents of Loft and the Studio Ghibli merchandise shop. My bag's less than 20lb and needs to stay that way.

There was also a bizarre incident involving a theme park, but that's a longer story that'll have to wait until later.

It's been busy, is what I'm saying, and it's also been too hot for this kind of headless-chicken activity. It'll be good to get to the Izu Peninsula and spend a couple of days hiking and sitting quietly and maybe even drinking some tea.

Pictures later when I'm more online.

On the other side of the Pacific

We only had half a day in Santa Monica but it was a good half day. Watching the sun set with your beloved is a classic for a reason.

The next morning we had a sad time at the airport, then Joel went to Seattle and I went to Tokyo. I realise this isn't news but, dudes, the Pacific is _really big_. It takes eleven hours to fly straight across it and, once you get there, you're in a timezone that's sixteen hours ahead of where you were. It's hard to be certain about what day it is.

It's 5am on whatever day it is and I've been wide awake for two hours. Travelling by land is gentler on the internal clock.

In downtown LA

LA's City Hall and LA Times buildings are pretty cool, but mostly we were entranced by the spectacular awfulness of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. It takes some self confidence to put up a building that ugly, especially right opposite your dignified city hall. Nice work, someone!

There weren't a lot of internet particles for the last few days. Here are a few cameraphone pictures from the train. I have to work out a strategy for getting pictures from my real camera to the internet.

On the Southwest Chief somewhere in California

I'd expected a lot from this train journey and it's more than delivered. I might be the only person on the train relishing the delays (one medical emergency, one car broken down on the tracks, two commuter trains that needed to overtake) and wishing the US was a day wider. It's lovely.

The best things so far: the stunning Hudson Valley. Crossing the mighty Mississippi. Realising how beautiful agriculture can be. A lightning storm as we crossed flat bits of Colorado.Northern New Mexico's red velvet cake soil. Sunrise over the Mojave desert. Being rocked to sleep to the thunk of the tracks. The cheeriness and goodwill of the staff, particularly the conductor from Chicago to Kansas City who gave us a commentary on all of the cities we passed. "And now it's marvellous Mendota, the Las Vegas of Illinois! Is Mendota your final destination? You can get out here if you enjoy Mendota's attractions, such as eating Del Monte tinned fruit! Well, that was Mendota. I miss it already".

Our roomette is teeny tiny, just big enough for a fold-down upper bunk, two comfy chairs that slide together to make the lower bunk, and two adults who _really_ like each other. It's close. There are a bunch of little bathrooms and a shower down the hall as well as an ice cold water dispenser that dispenses tepid water and a boiling water dispenser that actually contains tolerable coffee.

The upper bunk has no outside view so we've been living on the lower one, reading, playing Carcassonne, doing NYT crosswords, taking frequent naps (Joel), eating all of the fig rolls (Tanya) and looking out the window for hours at the country going by.

It's super relaxing. I would do this again in a heartbeat.

At Coney Island on Day Zero

Hello Atlantic ocean! I hope to see you again in three months.
After weeks of green card preparation and fighting with the Russian embassy it's pleasant to just sit on the beach and watch the waves.

Outside the USCIS building in Garden City

It's a beautiful day and the drive here was unexpectedly smooth: we're two hours early. We're going to head in  and see if they'd like to interview us anyway. It's green card day! Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Getting ready for the last week in Brooklyn

Today's acquisitions: an exchange order for a Japanese rail pass and a small wodge of Mongolian money. One of these things has a distinct smell of goats.

Getting my passport (with or without visa) back from the Russians on Friday. Green card interview on Monday, unless Hurricane Irene blows the immigration centre away. Two days left at work. Eight days until I get on the train to LA. It's getting kind of close now.