Sunday, February 28, 2010

Feb. 28 Siem Reap Day 2

Today I hired a licensed guide, which was a good idea. At first I had a bit of a difficult time understanding his pronunciation, but after I got used to it, he was full of helpful information, including information that helped me with what I saw yesterday. We started early, 5:00 a.m., and drove out to Angkor Wat. It was already quite warm and humid; I was glad for the AC provided by the open Tuk Tuk. At the parking lot I bought an indifferent baguette and an even more indifferent cup of coffee, and we walked out to an open courtyard with a good view of the towers that are still standing. There were crickets, fish jumping in the pond, and the incessant chatter of over a thousand tourists. After a while I thought I heard chanting, and I saw a place off to the side that still had a good view and was about 50 yards from the hubbub. There, the chanting blended nicely with the fish jumping, crickets, occasional frog; eventually the monks started making music with drums and bells, the cicadas started full blast, and I realize that, after all, yakking tourists are also part of the phenomenal world. It was a lovely morning, although not a great sunrise.

I discovered another great snack food today, from a vendor next to one of the temples - a small banana wrapped in sticky rice, then in a banana leaf and grilled over charcoal. Yummy! The tree-ripened mangos are also wonderful - and the Khmer version of curry is excellent.

It is quite warm all day. Yesterday I foolishly left my passport in my shirt pocket and it got soaked with sweat - warped from the sweat. I put a heavy religious statue on top of it and got it mostly flattened.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feb. 27 Siem Reap

Feb. 27 Siem Reap temple ruins

Full plane from Japan, 747 which means half the population of Chicago had to unload and get through customs - I finally made it to my hotel at 1:15, got up at about 4:50 to get to the airport. I think if I do this again I'll allow a full day and two nights for layover on late arrivals. Flight to Siem Reap very nice; I had a window seat and could see the rice paddies right next to the airport, other features along the way. This is the dry season so rivers are ribbons of bright green in a landscape of browns and yellows. Immigration in Cambodia is interesting - new depths in bureaucracy. You hand your passport and forms to one person who passes them down a line of people, about a dozen in all; each person does something or another with it.
To my dismay the guide I had arranged did not show up, so I ended up touring today by Tuk Tuk (see below). I have arranged for a guide for tomorrow, though; just too much to get on your own. In spite of short hours of sleep and a quick change in plans, I really enjoyed this day. I like Cambodia, in spite of its well-known shortcomings, mainly poverty, and I like all the Cambodians I've met, except maybe the immigration bureaucrats. There is a certain chaos to life here that is actually pretty interesting, and the heat is not as bad as I feared.
Transportation: There are cars, of course, but by far the main modes of transportation are motor bikes and regular bicycles, mostly beat-up 1 and 3 speeds (fortunately the ground is very flat). The motor-bike has been used in a variety of inventive ways; it's sort of the personal computer of motor vehicles. First is the Tuk Tuk, a motorbike with a 4 seat open carriage attached. A very civilized way to travel - no need for AC; there is an awning to provide shade, and if the Tuk Tuk is moving over 5 mph there is plenty of cooling breeze, even at 2 in the afternoon. Second is the "family car" - I have seen many families, as many as five, riding a single small motorbike; Mom on the seat behind Dad, an older child and sometimes two small children squeezed between them, and Mom clutching an infant in her arms. I have also seen Motorbikes propelling a kind of cart down the street, both towing and half-attached to the side of the cart.
Traffic: I'm not sure I've seen a stop sign. Nobody goes very fast, nobody stops if they can avoid it; at intersections traffic somehow crosses, beeping all the while. Nobody seems impatient or excitable. I have seen my Tuk Tuk passing a motorbike that was passing a bicycle while a small van passed the Tuk Tuk, all with oncoming vehicles doing much the same.
And - the bill for a whole day of sight-seeing by Tuk Tuk? $18 US.
A lot of people have commented on the ubiquitous hustlers, wanting to sell you water, a guidebook, post cards, beer, whatever. I don't find them all that annoying - a firm "no thank you" will probably have to be repeated 3 or 4 times, but then they leave you alone. Each parking lot is also filled with kids hustling. Some are obnoxious but most are cute. I had 4 or 5 swarming all over me while waiting for my driver, Snake, at one stop. The oldest, probably 16, spoke good enough English to flirt and tease - asked where I'm from, then said "I'm from America. President Obama is my dad," then giggle and switched to some other outrageous nonsense. At first she was seriously getting me to come to "her place" for beer or water, but when I made it apparent I wasn't going to she turned it into a game.
The temples themselves are magnificent; I will try to get pictures posted soon as I can sort through them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Feb. 24: Food Fusion

Listening to the Beatles' "In My Life" sung in French in an "Italian" restaurant in Japan. The salad bar includes curried vegetables, a variation of pork and beans, pickled carrots. The "pasta" course is pizza or a calzone; the "meat" dish is pasta with a tiny sliver of meat on it.

Feb. 23, Tokyo

Today Anne had to work so I took the express bus into Tokyo alone. As an orientation to the city I took a half-day tour that took me to the top of a moderately high building next to Tokyo Bay, a boat ride on the river, a walk through Asakusa shopping district, a visit to a Buddhist temple, and a visit to the grounds outside the Imperial Palace. The visit to the top of the building was a bit of a bust - visibility was maybe 5 miles - but it did provide a sense of the city's layout. The boatride was a complete bust, since they put us on a closed top boat, and we couldn't see much; however, my seatmate was a very charming young woman from Singapore so at least I enjoyed a nice conversation. The shopping district (Tourist District, Anne says) was interesting: I would have sworn I was walking down Grant Avenue through San Francisco's Chinatown. Same junky merchandise for sale, same greasy junk food (except no steam buns), same teenagers making eyes at each other. The temple was more interesting, although (for good reason) tourists are only allowed into the foyer. The temple was built 1000 years ago by the first emperor, Jimmu, apparently as part of a campaign of introducing Chinese bureaucracy as a way of building and strengthening his empire, and included the first Tokugawa shogun as a patron. The main temple was totally covered by construction tarps, since it is under restoration; I only have pictures of the gates and the pagoda. The Imperial palace is also a bit of a bust - all you can see is the outer wall and guard towers; a picture of one is in the photo album. We were near Tokyo Station so I left the tour there and walked back to the station. With construction all around the station, I had to walk all over the station to get to the bus station. Tokyo station is a multi-story warren - fun if you're not in a hurry, a nightmare if you're in any hurry at all.
Anne took me to a conveyor belt sushi house for dinner; unremarkable sushi but an interesting experience. Two exceptions: One dish was squid on rice over a shiso leaf, with a bit of wasabi under the leave; the shiso and wasabi set of the squid in a great way. And I discovered for myself another combination, fresh pineapple with a thin bit of pickled ginger. After dinner, while we enjoyed our tea and roll cake, Alisa established Piglet in his foster family over in the corner.

Feb. 22. Nikko temple complex.

After parting company with the rest of Toshio's family, Anne, Alisa, and I went on to Nikko, and a rather posh hotel, Kanaya. By the time we had checked in and freshened up it was late afternoon, too late to do much in the way of sightseeing (and it was already getting pretty cold). We decided to rest a while, then set out for dinner. Anne had in mind a restaurant that served monastery food, but it was closed, so we made a reservation for another, supposedly similar restaurant in the temple complex, Meijiya-kan. After a rather roundabout walk to the restaurant (the schematic map we were shown was not at all accurate), we were seated in a very elegant Japanese dining room, a huge room with only six tables. The multi-course meals we were served was not at all what I would think of as monastic food: Very elegant both in its preparation and in its service. Dinner lasted two hours (Alisa was remarkably patient for a young child.) Several dishes were built around skimmed tofu - and I reluctantly have to admit that some of them were very tasty: a little seasoning works miracles. As at the hot springs restaurant, several dishes were built around different mountain vegetables, none of which I had ever seen before: most of the dishes served were quite new to me, but they were all delicious except for one, some kind of bud that was breaded and fried, that was extremely bitter. I made the mistake of eating most of it; it took several bites of the blandest dish on my plate to clear away the bitterness. Consistent with traditional monastic practice, the waitresses spoke very little, only when necessary. Alisa got pretty squirrelly after a while, but she was mostly pretty tolerant. Fortunately, LaJean sent a stuffed piglet as a present. Piglet subsequently made clear its orphan status, and need for Mothering, which Alisa was delighted to provide. Alisa and the Piglet took very good care of each other through a long ordeal while Anne and Dave talked and ate, ate and talked.
The temple complex is huge, covering the entire top of a sacred mountain (hill, really - there are much higher snow-covered mountains on two sides of the city). We saw about half of it, and I took far too many photographs - the best of them are on the photo album page. The mountain is the site of a temple built around 700AD by one of the monks who brought Buddhism from China; that temple is now gone, but his influence continues. The temples we saw were built by and for the first few shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty in the early 1700s. The most ornate one was built for for Tokugawa Ieayasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Anne tells me they are largely in a Chinese style, with some influences of Japanese architecutral forms; they combine religious symbols from Buddhism and Shinto, with many elements from Hinduism woven in; gold leaf is everywhere. Anne thinks there are also some faint echoes from European architecture as well, and the parallels with the French baroque are unmistakeable. For example, the Buddha is often depicted with multiple arms, figures based on elephants, etc. The effect is rather overwhelming (and very hard to photograph). Between temple visits, we also toured a temple garden, which includes a lovely little teahouse overlooking a small lake. The 3-4 inch layer of snow all over added a lot to the beauty of the place, and created an air of serenity. We thought Monday morning might not be too jammed with people but we were wrong - several very large tour groups of older people, and several of high schoolers.
The temples themselves are really over the top with ornate detail, brilliant paint, gold leaf everywhere. Most of the rooflines are turned up at the corners, Chinese style. Almost at the top of the hill is a Shinto Temple, behind it and a little higher is a Buddhist shrine, signifying the higher spirituality associated with Buddhism. Just in front of the shrine, facing the Shinto shrine is a group of three statues. On the right is a stork (youth), standing on a turtle (old age), signifying long life. In the middle shishi lion-dog (wisdom, protection against evil spirits), and on the left an urn; Anne thinks intended to hold lotus blossoms, symbol of englightenment associated with the Buddha.
It would be nice to come back with more time and visit the other temples and shrines in the area, but Alisa appeared to be near the end of her patience, and I suspected if I attempted to see anything more I would lose all of it into a big mush. So we had lunch in a nice little noodle shop, then shifted gears and took a walk down by the river to a park area filled with Ojiso-san,s (the stone statues depicted in the photo album), gods of travel, who protect travelers. Each has been kindly provided with a red cap and cape for protection against the winter weather. We were running a bit late, so I carried Alisa on my shoulders there and back. We took a taxi back into town, and had time for tea and cheesecake before boarding the train for Tokyo.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Feb. 21. Yunishikawa Hot Springs

Saturday morning we took a series of trains to a hot springs resort in the mountains west of Tokyo, guests of Toshio's parents, Junichiro and Kuniko along with his brother Eiichi, sister Reiko, and their families. We began with a series of local commuter trains that took us around Tokyo to the express train, where we met up with the rest of the family for a rolling picnic of Bento boxes. Lunch was wonderful, a collection of dishes from the local cuisine, virtually none of which I had ever seen before. It was all delicious, except for the pickled red radish, which is rather strong for my taste. We stayed at a famous resort hotel with at least six separate public baths plus a smaller private bath that could be reserved for family use. A picture of our host, Toshio's father Yunichiro, standing in front of the hotel entrance, is in the photo album, followed by pictures of the ice sculpture across the creek from the hotel lobby. When we got there, after settling into the room, we walked over to a nearby shrine, and a village dating back several hundred hears to the time when the remnants of the Heike clan, after losing a war, retreated there to hide out and avoid the fate of their relatives. A picture of the shrine is in the photo album.
Toshio and his brother supervised the children, who only wanted to play in the snow, while Anne and I toured the historical village. Then we walked back to the hotel for a soak in the mineral water. All the other men had already gone, so I went alone. I was shown how to dress in the kimono, then walked the entire length of the hotel to the entry to the outdoor bath. I had received some instructions, but I had to figure out the details of the procedures by watching the other men. We showered sitting down, squatting actually on short wood benches, using a hand held shower nozzle, large wash cloth, and a small wooden tub of water to soap and wash ourselves thoroughly. I first tried the bath right next to the shower room, but it was almost entirely closed in and filled with steam, so I walked down the stairs to the completely open bath beside the stream, across from the ice sculpture. The air was cold, probably about 30 F, and the stairs are open air, just screened by a wall, so you walk fast. I carried my towel down with me to dry off before coming back up the stairs, which probably violated some custom, since none of the other men did. They just carried the wet wash towel, which some used to cover their private parts while getting in and out of the bath, and many fold up and perch on top of their heads in the bath, to keep them out of the water. Soaking in the hot springs water is great, especially the outdoors bath. The cool air on head and shoulders makes it easier to stay in the bath for a nice long soak - then if you sit up out of the water for a few minutes to cool off, it feels good again. I enjoyed looking at the ice sculpture and listening to the water in the creek, and the occasional jumping fish.
After the soak, I toweled off, hustled up the stairs to the changing room, put on my kimono and walked back to the room (we were in a newer annex, so half the walkway is, again, outdoors, merely screened by a wall. Not a place to dawdle on a cold winter day.) We all met in the lobby, then walked across a rope suspension bridge to a restaurant, where we had the most amazing dinner, again all local cuisine using almost entirely locally-grown food. There were charcoal fires in a sand pit down the center, one for each group of 4-6 guests, with food (beef strips, fish, a paddle covered with rice balls, all on spits angled over the fire, and a mashed fish concoction on a wooden paddle. Next to us there were low tables with several other dishes, too many to remember. We turned the spits to cook the food, took them up whenever we thought they were done - I unfortunately left my fish paste a bit long, so it got dried out. It didn't scorch, and the crispy crust was great, but I could tell that 2 minutes less over the fire would have been better. The rice balls over the fire were really interesting - usually I find the rice paste ball pretty bland and uninteresting, but these had formed a semi-carmelized crust that was delicious. I couldn't help comparing them to roasted marshmallows, which is an insult to the rice balls but you get the idea.
After eating for a couple of hours, we realized the time and hurried back to the hotel to take a taxi up the street to an area with over 1000 little foot-high snowmen, each with a candle in a hollowed-out area in its belly. A couple of pictures (blurry, sorry!) are in the photo album. It was quite beautiful, the crowd was just the right size to add to the fun of it.
Next morning, as I usually do, I awoke early. After lying in bed for a half hour wide awake, I got up, took my laptop in to the lobby, hoping in vain for a cup of coffee, and did a little e-mail and organizing of some of my photos. Then I went back to the room, found everyone still asleep, so as quietly as I could changed into my kimono and went back to the outdoor bath. It was very lovely in the morning - air probably about 10 F, but a songbird still managed to twitter away across the creek. At that hour, there were only a couple of other old men inn the bath, but later a younger man came in. I soaked for about a half hour, got out and toweled off. I had left my wet wash towel on the rocks next to the bath - it was frozen solid. We had a buffet breakfast, also including many dishes I had never had before - I especially liked the brown rice with beans and black sesame seeds. We spent a little time packing up, met in the lobby, then Toshio, Anne, Alisa, and I walked over to a little ski / sledding slope where a nice man lent Alisa one of the plastic sleds he'd brought for his own kids and she got in a couple of very good runs. A picture of Alisa sliding is on the photo album. Then we walked back over to the festival area, where in addition to the little hollow snowmen there were also a collection of a sort of igloo, where we had a bbq picnic (photos in the album). I was a bit skeptical of picnicking in that small closed-in space but it was a lot of fun, and the food was, as usual, great. I enjoyed very much sharing it with Toshio, Anne, Toshio's sister Reiko and her husband, Hayato. Pictures are on the photo album.
Lunch finished, it was time to begin the journey back, beginning with a bus down the long, winding, narrow mountain road to the train station. It was very crowded, so Alisa sat on my lap, where she promptly fell asleep. At the train station we had a half hour wait, so we soaked our feet in an outdoor hotspring foot bath, a very civilized arrangement, I think! We got on the express, but Anne and I left the party a few stops down the line to journey to our next stop, so we said our goodbyes on the train and began the transition to the next adventure.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mt. Tsukuba

Feb. 20

I had an easy flight over; plane less than half full, exit row to myself. Plane arrive early but my niece Anne was late - she got lost on the way to the airport, and on the way home I found out why. The road system is very confusing, main highways often indistinguishable from back roads, signs often unclear (we took a tour through a shopping center due to a right turn arrow that was over a block ahead of the actual turn. Apparently Japan spent most of its infrastructure money on mass transit, which would be fine except there is no train from Tsukuba to the airport. We stopped for a bit of sushi on the way home, got there about 9:30; little Alisa was gratifyingly excited to see me, but I was running on empty, so I said hi, goodnight to Toshio and Alisa and went to bed. Slept soundly until 1, then fitfully until I got up at 5:30; time zone change not much of a problem.

Yesterday we took a hike up Mt. Tsukuba. The weather was trying to turn sunny but the fog kept getting in the way. It snowed several inches Thursday morning, all was melted off down here by the time I got here, but halfway up the hill we started encountering slush over packed snow - very treacherous conditions. The trail itself is steep, mostly stairs made of stones, small logs, and concrete imitation logs. It wasn't bad going uphill, but we were very unenthusiastic about coming down it. Fortunately, there is a cable car tram up the mountain, so we didn't have to. It was a pretty day, aside from the fog in the valley that interfered with the view; very pretty little shrine at the top - I'll upload a handful of photos to the photo album. Along the ridge trail we came to a little rock shaped like a frog or toad; apparently if you chuck a stone at its mouth and the stone stays put it's good luck. It was a nice hike, I think finished up the time adjustment task for me pretty well.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I am used to long walks, so the 20 day trek doesn’t seem very formidable – having a porter to carry everything except what I need during the day (water, rain gear, a couple of granola bars) will make it seem almost luxurious. But the trek will take me over Thorong La, a pass just shy of 18000 feet, a full mile higher than I have ever been, so a bit of extra advance conditioning seems like a good idea. My usual workout, 3-5 days a week, is a combination of situps, pushups, stretches, and 35 minutes of climbing the basement stairs carrying 75 pounds of sand strapped on a beat up old pack frame. That would probably be enough cardio-vascular fitness preparation, but I saw an article about research on physical fitness in a recent issue of New Scientist (Jan. 6 2010) that included a section on oxygen consumption capacity (VO-Max), and some interesting additions to my routine, so I decided to give it a try. The exercises are written for running, but it was easy to adapt them for a stationary bike. The basic pattern: maximum effort for 3, 4, or 5 minutes, and work out average speed. After a rest period equal to the length of the initial run, cover the same distance at 80, 85, 90, or 95% of the initial average speed, rest 45-90 seconds and repeat several times. Be sure pulse rate drops to 120 or less during each rest period – lengthen the rest period if necessary. According to the author, if you do this 2 or 3 times a week for a month it will increase VO-Max. I've done it for over 3 weeks now and can't detect a difference, but I feel good after finishing it so I will probably keep it as part of my routine.

5 min. at max speed; 5 min. rest; 6 min. at 80%, 30 seconds rest
4 min. at max speed; 4 min. rest; 4.5 min. at 85%; 45 seconds rest
3 min. at max speed; 3 min. rest; 3.2 min. at 90%; 60 seconds rest
5 min. at max speed; 5 min. rest.; 5.25 min. at 95%; 90 seconds rest
3 min. at max speed; 3 min. rest.; 3 min. 9 sec at 95%; 60 seconds rest

You can measure your VO-Max with a walking test described here: Rockport Fitness walking test. See the New Scientist article for other details and links to other tests.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

February 4, 2010
Welcome to my travel journal, for a trip in spring 2010 that will take me to Japan, Cambodia, Thailand (very briefly), Nepal, India (briefly), Turkey, Ireland, and the UK.
Several years ago, about the time I turned 60 (long before the movie “Bucket List” came out, incidentally) I realized three things: (1) I am lucky to be in good health and good physical condition, and I can’t count on my good health lasting forever, (2) there are many things I’ve long wanted to do, and places I’ve wanted to visit for many years, that I’ve not felt I could do for one reason or another, and (3) if I can’t find someone else with the interest or flexible time to go with me, most of these adventures do not require a companion: I can do them perfectly well on my own. Some of the adventures that interest me require good health and good physical condition, which implies that I should either do them soon or decide they don’t matter. I made a list, and organized them by priority. Several National Parks in the U.S. were near the top of the list. About that time, in a bit of serendipity my sister Alice asked if I wanted to go with her to visit Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. So I did that, and also arranged with my brother to go hiking in Glacier National Park. About the same time, I talked my wife into going to Belize on spring break. Not long after, another bit of serendipity brought an unexpected invitation to participate in a workshop on metaphor analysis in England, at the universities of York and Leeds. The workshops were great, and I allowed extra time on the second one to do some trekking in northern England – the Yorkshire Moors and the Dales. This experience only whetted my appetite for more trekking.
With sabbatical coming up, I also thought about longer trips that I wanted to do. My wife was unable to take a long vacation this year, but several of the adventures that interest me have little or no appeal to her (cold and wet, high places, sleeping on the ground, walking all day, and biting insects have no part in her idea of a good time). Once I ruled out the adventures that LaJean is interested in, trekking in the Himalayas rose to the top of the list. I had already committed to spend two months in England working on a research project with Lynne Cameron, so the trek turned into a trip around the world. I got out the globe, looked at other places I have always wanted to visit that lay roughly along the path to Nepal or the path from Nepal to the British Isles, and added destinations until I realized that it was in danger of becoming too much.
Planning for the trip was itself an adventure. I began with Nepal, which is really workable only in spring or fall, and filled in the other stops from there. I considered an REI-organized trek in Nepal, but after spending some time on some of the travel blogs (Lonely Planet is especially good) I decided to give up the comfort, luxury, and low ambiguity of an organized group trek and go with an independent guide, Raj Nepal, highly recommended by former clients. I also found good recommendations on Lonely Planet for India and Cambodia. The rest of the trip then fell into place quite easily.
Packing: warm clothes for Japan, tropical clothes for Cambodia and India, dressier clothes for my workshops and lectures in Europe, rain gear and a large day pack for trekking in England – and I really did not want to lug around two huge suitcases. Raj assured me that I can buy anything I need in Kathmandu at a reasonable price, so I decided to start with what I would have to have in Japan, plus my well broken-in hiking boots and trekking poles, then add in as much additional gear as I can get into a carry-on plus one mid-sized duffel bag.