Japan: Hitchin’ A Ride

The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa

I’ve been in Japan for two weeks now, and good heavens it has been wonderful. See, in India and Nepal there was a lot of soul searching and loneliness, there were a lot of challenging sights and situations, and there was a considerable amount of homesickness and general lamenting. That’s not to say India and Nepal weren’t fantastic, exhilarating experiences; they absolutely were, but alongside the majestic highs there was an equal number of explosive lows – especially in India. But Japan? Boy oh boy, Japan is golden. Continue reading

Japan: Cartoon Tits and Headbanging Deer

The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa

Right, so I’m in Japan. It wasn’t meant to be a part of my trip; I was supposed to fly from India to Australia and live there for a year. But life is weird, and instead of a flight to Melbourne I whizzed over to Kathmandu, wandered around in the Himalayas for a bit, and now for some reason I find myself here, in the Land of the Rising Sun. And it’s fucking wicked.

After a 5 hour delayed layover in Kuala Lumpur (GORGEOUS airport), I flew into Osaka on the 26th of May, and my god. As soon as you land you know where you are; cartoon characters guide you through the airport. A giant Mario beamed at me as I passed through immigration. I hopped on a train into the city, and the fact that for once I didn’t feel overwhelmed and bewildered told me that I was growing accustomed to this nomadic whatevery that has been my life since the beginning of March.

I took a few different trains, amazed at their efficiency and their cleanliness. I’m definitely not in Berlin anymore. I found my hostel easy enough, Hostel Ebisutei, and arrived there stinky and knackered. It was a world away from the standard ramshackle hostels you experience on your usual South East Asia trips; this place looked more like Alt J’s private recording studio than a place for cheap-arse travellers to crash. The owner is Daich, a flat cap-clad Osaka local who is extremely generous when it comes to plumb sake.

On my first night I made a few friends and we hit up a cool Japanese bar or two, and I found myself trashed before I knew it. I ended my first day in the city sitting in the hostel living room at 4am, drunkenly waxing lyrical about my frustrations with spiritualism and religion to two American girls who were on exchange in the city studying architecture and helping design a new tea house. Honestly, I talk some shit when I’m drunk. I woke up the next day and cringed at my pissed-up philosophising. But hey ho.

The next day reality set in, and I wandered the city alone to find Osaka Castle. If you know me or have suffered through any of these weird diaries over the past three years or so, you’ll know that I am an emotionally volatile weirdo and my heart can soar or crash without warning. And so, as I wandered the streets of the alien city, I felt my spirits sink. It was just so different to anywhere I’d been in the past three months. It was just so clean and quiet and spacious that it felt fake, unreal; there were no cows in the road, and no masonry was crumbling around me, and there were no blasting horns, and the air wasn’t thick with fumes, and I felt uneasy; I suppose you could call it reverse culture shock.

Whenever I feel uncomfortable, my heart takes a nose dive – and always in the same direction. I miss home, I miss family, I miss friends… I miss a girl. I was wandering through a charming temple garden when this feeling of longing gripped my heart so hard that my legs almost buckled. What the hell was I doing on the far side of the world from everything and everyone I love, people I’d not spent proper time with in years? In a moment, all my wanderlust drained out of me, and I felt stupid and lost. I sat on some stone steps and watched people walk their dogs around the park, kids playing on swings, and could think of nothing to do but put my headphones in and listen to a song that summarises the feeling entirely: Despair in the Departure Lounge, by the Arctic Monkeys. Maybe it’s a bit corny, but it sums the feeling up better than I ever could. Here:

He’s pining for her, in a people carrier
There might be buildings and pretty things to see like that, but architecture won’t do
Although it might say a lot about the city or town
I don’t care what they’ve got, keep on turning ’em down
It don’t say the funny things she does
Don’t even try and cheer him up because… it just won’t happen

He’s got the feeling again, this time on the aeroplane
There might be tellies in the back of the seats in front, but Rodney and Del won’t do
Although it might take your mind off the aches and the pains
Laugh when he falls through the bar but you’re feeling the same
‘Cause she isn’t there to hold your hand
And she won’t be waiting for you when you land

And it feels like she’s just nowhere near
You could well be out on your ear
This thought comes closely followed by the fear
And the thought of it makes you feel a bit… ill

Yesterday, I saw a girl who looked like someone you might knock about with
And almost shouted
And then reality kicked in within us, it seems as we become the winners
You lose a bit of summat… and half wonder if you won it at all

As the last few chords rang out I felt my melancholy dissipate. Sometimes all you need is to feel like someone understands. That’s what music is to me, man. It’s being understood. There was nobody around to tell me to keep my chin up and that everything would be okay, so I told myself to keep my chin up, and I told myself that everything would be okay. I stood up, took a deep breath, and carried on to the castle.

The castle was perfectly lovely, and upon following the sounds of screaming violence that filled one corner of the complex I was delighted to find a large ornate hall in which young Japanese men and women were beating each other with very large bamboo swords. It was a competition, as far as I understood, and the sport is Kendo; a samurai-esque combat sport but with less limb-severing than in the good old days. I stood in the hall for some time, grinning from ear to ear watching shrieking young men thwack each other silly with bits of wood.

I drifted back to the hostel after, and didn’t do very much with the rest of my evening. I was invited for beers by a burly, hairy American named Yan, but I politely declined because he seemed ever so slightly mad and also he dropped the beefiest farts incessantly in the dorm, which made me furious in a very English ‘tut-increasingly-loudly’ way. I wandered the streets alone for an hour, ate a guilty McDonalds because I wanted something familiar, and went to sleep in my quaint little Japanese bed cubicle coffin thing.

The next morning, everything began to change. I showered, dressed (I don’t know why I bothered to write that because everybody showers and dresses every day and I’m just wasting words (this is also wasting words (so is this (CHRIST)))) and in the common area met a 22 year old Russian girl named Anastasiia. She has a shaved head and a calligraphic tattoo on her cheek that reads ‘art’ that I first misread as ‘arse’. Alongside Daich, I now had two proper friends in Japan, and I felt happy. At times it feels like somebody is smiling down on me. At my lowest moments, something always comes along.

I checked out of Daich’s place and moved a kilometre away to somewhere I’d booked the previous night, Backstage Osaka, because I’d read that it was a decent place to meet other travellers. That turned out to be a fallacy, because it’s the low season and the hostel was almost dead, however I did befriend two cool dudes who worked there named Ryan (England) and Daniel (Spain). They taught me about the culture, where to eat for cheap, and which booze to drink if I wanted to avoid setting my wallet aflame.

I spent a few evenings in a row with Anastasiia and a Taiwanese guy called Luke down by the river in Dotonbori, which is Osaka’s neon-soaked answer to Times Square – another strange epicentre of ultra-capitalism that has somehow fooled us all into believing that enough flashing adverts all side by side can transcend soulless consumerism and become art. But whatever – I’ll drop my faux-intellectual pretensions and admit that it is very pretty down there, and a lovely place to spend a few hours drinking wine and watching the lights dance off the calm waters.

Anastasiia – hereafter ‘Ana’, because I can’t be arsed typing her full name – busks to fund her travels. She found no luck on the streets and bridges of Osaka, and so in defeat we got drunk by the river’s edge and passed the guitar around. A Korean couple joined us, as well as a few local drunks, and we played and sang until the early hours of the morning, then stumbled away home to sleep.

On another night we climbed up to the rooftop of an apartment building to watch the city lights, then down on street level we browsed the myriad sex shops and laughed at the jaw-dropping range of fetish DVDs on offer. I find that Japan, like pretty much every country I’ve visited ever, is rife with contradictions. The people here are kind, generous and respectful to a fault. It’s considered rude to eat in the street, talking on trains earns you a pack of rueful stares, and crossing the road before the sign allows you is blasphemy – and yet gigantic anime tits bulge out at you from every available surface. Chewing your food in public is uncouth, yet throbbing cartoon breasts is a-ok? I do not yet understand.

I got my last rabies jab in Osaka, too. It was the 28th of May and 7 days since the bite, and in order to not die I needed to find a doctor and get needled and whatnot. Ryan from Backstage hostel gave me directions to one hospital that had patched him up previously, and I made my way there at 3pm. I translated a few phrases in Japanese (badly) on my phone before setting off – stuff like ‘I got chewed by a dog. I was on Nepal. I may have some rabies.’ The only English-speaking member of staff actually laughed at me when I showed her my note and – at this point can I just say that literally everyone has laughed when I told them I got mauled by a dog, even my mum. Why? Why god? Why does nobody take my potential death seriously, in any way, shape or form?

But whatever. I got sent to another hospital across the city which shut at 5pm, which made it a bit of a hectic jaunt over there because for all I knew if I didn’t get the injection that day I’d turn rabid and explode in a couple of weeks’ time. I made it to the place okay though and was left sitting in a waiting room watching sumo wrestling for a little while, then swiftly shanked, pumped full of life-saving juices, charged a hundred bastard quid and sent on my way.

I visited Nara one day too, which is an hour’s train ride from Osaka. There is a fuck ton of deer there, and you can buy biscuits to feed them. They all bow to you when requesting a biscuit, which is odd. I am unsure as to how the many thousands of deer that inhabit Nara park all learned to bow, but bow they do, and people bow back to them. I mooched off on my own to get away from the throng of school trip kids, and had a quiet word with one of the deer that I found lounging in the shade. I sat next to it and it nodded at me, and I shook my head and told it not to worry about pleasantries. I gave it a few biscuits but was forced to flee when fifteen other deer noticed and trotted over all bowing frantically.

I saw a very big Buddha statue in Nara, inside the world’s largest wooden structure, which is very impressive and nice and good and – look, I’ve always been shit at describing architecture. Just google it if you’re that curious. Otherwise, just imagine a wooden Japanese temple except really fucking big. I sat outside the place for ten minutes or so watching the school trips flow around the grounds, and reflected on how no matter where you are in the world, teenagers are really quite hideous and gangly. I am glad puberty is behind me.

Japan has been wonderful so far, and I can’t wait to dash to and fro across its beautiful, mad landscape.

Nepal: Annapurna Base Camp Trek – Day 1

Alright. I went trekking. Let’s get into it.

The day before our adventure began, my new little gang of Colombian Samy, Aussie Alex, Israeli Jonathon and Swedish Pontus spent a long, lazy afternoon smoking hash and drinking beer in the lakeside sunshine that drenches Pokhara, hippy paradise. I smoked a bit too much and drank way too much, and ended the day hurling my guts up into a hostel sink, clogging it, and having to scoop out handfuls of vomit to clean the drain. It was not glamorous.

It was supposed to be me, Colombian Samy and Aussie Alex, but at 6am three alarms went off and only two bodies heaved themselves upright. Samy decided to stay behind because there was a rave he wanted to go to in a couple of days somewhere in the jungle. Alex and I ate breakfast and set off; Alex full of cold, me sleep deprived and sickly from loudly vomiting for hours the previous evening.

We got a taxi to the mountains; we planned to start the trek to Annapurna Base Camp from a town called New Bridge – Alex had done her homework far more than I, who had no gear and even less of an idea. I realised in the taxi that I’d even forgotten to buy sodding trousers. I’m that half-wit that you see in sub-zero temperatures in a pair of board shorts, apparently. I had some hiking boots Jonathon gave me for a tenner, a rented coat with a hood, and a single hiking pole. Beyond that, my backpack contained shampoo, toothbrush, one pair of boxers and maybe a spare t shirt or something. My wallet had 7000 rupees inside – about 45 quid. Suffice to say, I was ill prepared.

As our taxi wound out of Pokhara the clouds parted and above the encircling green hills we saw snowy peaks for the first time, miles and miles away, yet enormous enough that they still towered over us. For the first time since planning the trip, I felt nervous.

We arrived in Nayapul, and had a short row with the taxi driver because we agreed he would take us to New Bridge, a stop further along the trek, but the driver kept insisting that was where he had taken us – though the map said differently (it turns out that Nayapul literally means ‘new bridge’, so we were both kind of right). We hopped in a jeep that took us a couple of kilometres along the trek to a hamlet called Siwai, and our journey began proper.

We were in good spirits at the start, amazed to be so isolated in nature. My boots were snug and my body felt strong, and hiking through little Tibetan-style villages was a joy. I remarked to Alex that I’d always hoped somewhere like this truly existed, but never really believed it. But no, it’s all true: scattered mountain villages, stone huts with wooden doorframes, mules tethered in the yard and roosters wandering freely, high up the slopes of the Himalayan valleys.

We walked for miles and found New Bridge – our intended start point. We grabbed lunch, amiable in the afternoon sunshine, and gawped at the humid green mountains surrounding us, with the caramel river sloshing far below. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t look too much like the Himalayas I was expecting; our journey so far had been much more vibrant and luscious. And so, in good spirits and making excellent time, we set off for Chhomrong, our destination for the evening. We were happy. And then everything went very fucking Chhom-wrong.

The village is some 2100 metres above sea level. We were already at a height of around 1500 at New Bridge – so we would have to ascend 600 metres, which is quite a lot. However, what we didn’t realise is that Chhomfuckingrong was situated on a different hill to us, which meant we had to first descend several hundred metres, and then bloody claw our way back up again. We’d smashed several kilometres in no time at all, and then we found ourselves at the foot of the longest, most crooked, steepest, most perilous staircase I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Stairway to heaven is a cool song but a useless phrase. Heaven wouldn’t have a fucking staircase leading up to it; it’d have an escalator or possibly a gilded lift, like the one Donald Trump has, although the elevator to the pearly gates wouldn’t smell like stale cigars and old man fart, which the ones in Trump Tower definitely do. What I’m getting at is this: the stairs went into the fucking clouds. This was going to be crap, but there was nothing else for it. I bought us a couple of horrible energy drinks in the last village, and with a joint groan we started up the mountain.

In case you think I’m just lazy and bullshitting, let it be known that the steps number somewhere in the thousands. THOUSANDS. Do you know what a hundred steps looks like? A hundred steps gets you maybe from the bottom to the top of a football stadium. Now imagine fucking THOUSANDS, you bastards. THOUSANDS. Do you know how many steps there are in the sodding Empire State Building? 1860. THOUSANDS.

[I am swearing a lot today aren’t I? Goodness me. I’m ever so sorry, old sport.]

Alex was having a hell of a job getting up the stairs. I was too, quietly hating life, but I had mentally prepared for the challenge and I’m fairly used to being in extreme discomfort due to a lifetime of gargantuan misjudgements and monstrous decisions. Alex, however, was ill before the trek, and still had a cough and cold, and her lungs were given her a rough time. I kept stopping at the top of each flight to wait for her as she wheezed and heaved herself up. The only help I could offer was the occasional joke or reassuring sentiment, but it did no good. We simply had to grind on.

Other countries really are not like the UK. Health and safety in the Himalayas just isn’t a thing. You don’t get a handrail on the death stairs; there is no safety net. You have a cruel incline before you, and a nightmarish empty expanse immediately behind you, cold stone slabs dropping away eagerly into the mist thousands of feet below. The river at this point is no longer visible; you have climbed too high. If you fall, there is nothing, and you will have a long time to ponder your mistake on the way down. And still the peak of the mountain eludes you.

If the first 10km of our journey took us three hours, the last 2km took about the same. I read the map to Alex when she asked how much further we had to go: 750 metres distance. 500 metres height. We passed a rabble of white mountain goats on the way up, balanced impossibly on grass verges and tree roots, yelling at each other and staring at us with their alien pupils. I was still chipper – at least outwardly – lying incessantly to Alex that the next flight was surely the last.

After setting off from Siwai at 10am, we made it to Chhomrong around 5 in the evening. We were barely speaking at that point; everything I said to Alex was met with aggressive silence. We got a couple of beds in the first mountainside lodge we passed, and found the dorm room to be Spartan and cold. I bought a victory beer and we sat to eat rice in the small communal area, surrounded by other, equally flush-faced trekkers, most of whom were far older.

As I sipped my beer and enjoyed the post-exercise endorphins, Alex looked at me with watery eyes. She told me she had made a mistake, bitten off more than she could chew, and she was going home the next morning. I had a heart attack of course, terrified of trekking the mountains alone, but gave her a hug and a smile, and slowly tried to calm her. I told her she’d done amazingly well, and I promised the next day would be easier, that the worst was done, and that we wouldn’t have to struggle as much as we had that day again on the trail. I believed it myself too at the time – I’d checked the elevation of the other hamlets we’d be stopping in and found them to be far gentler.

[SPOILERALERTIWASFUCKINGWRONG]

I told Alex to sleep on it, and went up alone onto the terrace to sit and look at the mountains. I sat in a plastic garden chair with my bare feet propped up on a railing, and sighed contentedly as I drank my beer. Perhaps the worst truly was over, and from here on out it would be okay. And then, as if the mountains had read my mind, the low-hanging clouds that had all day obscured their peaks dissipated, mists drifting away on the wind.

Unveiled before me were the furious black cliffs of Annapurna, the deadliest mountain on the planet. To the east was the fang-like monstrosity that is Machhapuchhre, a sheer screaming spear into the clouds that has never been summited. They were at least 10 kilometres in the distance as the crow flies, but still their soaring spires loomed higher than the evening moon.

For every 100 safe returns, there are 34 deaths on the slopes of Annapurna. If you are going to try to summit, you have a one in three chance of dying. One in three. Your odds of survival are better playing Russian Roulette. Fortunately I wasn’t going to be attempting the peak, only base camp – but even then, there are 4 or 5 deaths a year just on the base camp trail. Earlier in the day, we passed a missing person poster for a woman who had disappeared on the mountain in February. I read the paper with my mouth agape.

The ferocity of those misty black cliffs is burned into my retinas forever. The sheer physicality, the weight, the mute, solemn threat of violence – in fact no, not a threat. A promise. The mountain allows no room for debate, no more than an ant can beg a wanton child not to stamp their foot. It is absolute, inhospitable, impossible; it will kill you. I’ve never felt so utterly, utterly powerless as I did looking up at those snow-swept peaks. The thought that there are humans out there who gaze upon such a horrifying sight and see a challenge chills me to the bone. There are some places on this earth that humans were never, ever supposed to set foot, and Annapurna is one of them. And, next morning, that’s exactly where we were headed.

India: Reunion at the Dalai Lama’s Place

After 7 weeks, Dave and I were reunited in Dharamsala. I woke up in the big double bed I’d shared with Ricky in our horrid bottle and ash strewn apartment, showered and left to find my buddy. I got a tuk tuk up the mountain to Dharamkot, and asked a few local people for directions to a cafe we’d agreed to meet at. I walked down the mountain path all lined with pines, crisp air filling my lungs and snow-capped peaks peering at me from beyond the green valley. Continue reading

India: Pellet Guns and a Glimpse of Tiger

The next stage of the road trip was a little less intense, thank heavens. Only 500km to cover this time, and with lovely company. Poppy and Michael were great, but something about the combination of myself, Ricky, Tali and John really kicked out sparks. Together they reminded me of some of my favourite people from Berlin. Tali was from Paris and wore floaty dresses that made it seem as if her feet didn’t touch the ground, and she would sing along to old French songs she put on the radio. John was from Vancouver and the same height as me and took nothing seriously. He spoke perfect French with Tali, and to my absolute delight we shared the same surreal anecdotal humour. Continue reading

India: Rapids, Ravines, and a Rant About Religion

Ricky, Poppy, Michael and I woke up from our hard earned naps at 4 in the afternoon. I was first up and went out onto the apartment balcony to gaze at the brand new landscape. It was green and pretty and a world away from Varanasi, but I’ve got to admit that I was a little disappointed in Rishikesh. But, if you’re willing to whip out the scalpel and hand mirror and perform a little key hole surgery into your soul, I reckon even crushing disappointment can teach you something. So here’s why I thought Rishikesh was wank. Continue reading

India: Life, One Second, No Life

I arrived in Bangalore/Bengaluru in the morning and passed a couple of nights there, but nothing of note happened except a nice picnic in the park, a rowdy bottomless cocktail drinking session, and a ‘ladies night’ which I was invited out on by three boozy Americans but ducked out of because I was shattered and day-drunk. It’s a nice enough city; not too hot, clean, expansive and brimming with shops, bars and restaurants, but I was jaded from the past few days and was perfectly happy to take it easy. Continue reading

India: Monkey Bastard

Next day in Hampi was just as wonderful as the previous, but because I’ve once more fallen behind on these diaries I’ll run through it quickly. Or at least, try to, because we all know I can go on a bit once I get excited about something. And by ‘we all’ I mean everyone who reads this, which is like, me, and my mum, and the occasional old man from rural Tibet who is searching for a recipe for goulash or something and through several misspelled Googlings winds up lost forever in the digital foothills of World Hangover. Continue reading