Monday, 29 December 2014

The Roof Of Australia

Lake Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains.
Canberra was a good stop, and there was more that I could've done there to be honest. Although I wouldn't want to live there, it is a pleasant city. Moving on from my half-day stop in the Capital, I still had another 2 hours driving to my next destination - the ski town of Jindabyne.

The rolling hills and mountains of The Snowy Mountains.
Ya Flamin' Galah!
The Australian Alps.
Down in the Snowy Mountains, the area on the New South Wale's border with Victoria, is a beautiful area, filled with rolling hills, farms and of the course the mountains. Although not the huge and impressive mountain ranges you get in other parts of the world, like France and Nepal for example, Australia' mountains are something special (and are still called the Australian Apls!). Worn down by millennia, they have a soft, warm feel to them, compared to the harsh and jagged look of the bigger peaks. Covered in eucalypt, they always have a blue-green hue to them, and just mean home to me. This range is also home to the mountain pine-plum, a small scrub that is thought to be the world's oldest living plant.

Entrance to the National Park.
Lake Jindabyne.
Exploration of the area began in the mid 19th century, and the area was mainly used as grazing land in the summer. There was also a gold rush in the area, brining in thousands of people, many of whom stayed on after, and formed communities all around the area. The Snowies were also made famous by Banjo Patterson and his poem "The Man From Snowy River." He is the same man that wrote "Waltzing Matilda." Jindabyne was founded by these cattle graziers, and become quite a bustling town, until in the 1960s it was blown up by the army, and relocated to higher ground due to the damming of the Snowy River during the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Over 100,000 people worked on the the building of dams and pipes that was needed to meet the State's water demand. It took 25 years to complete (1949 - 1974) and cost today's equivalent of $6b. Most of these workers were immigrants, coming from over 30 countries to help boost Australia's post-war economy - sadly 121 people died in the construction of this huge water collection and electricity generating project, but it was these people that made Australia such a multicultural and interesting places.

Jindabyne is a ski town, and has many resorts nearby - Perisher and Thredbo to name a few. Thredbo is probably the biggest and businest towns, with the longest ski runs in Australia, and boasts just over 4000 beds for winter accommodation. Being summer, and not yet school holidays, this place was dead. I sorted out breakfast, visited the National Parks and Wildlife information centre, checked out a map and weather conditions, then back in the car to get to the first hike of the holiday. The weather was fine, not a cloud in sight, but the wind was up around 70kph. Today's route would be a 20km return trip, with the summit of the highest mountain in Australia about two thirds of the way in. It wasn't going to be hard, as my starting point was at 1835m and I only had to get to 2280. There would be a path all the way, so it was more the distance and the wind I was worried about.

Mt Kosciuszko on the left.
It started off well - going straight down from Charlotte Pass - but of course you must come up again, so the hard slog was on within 30 minutes. There were only 3 other guys along this part of the track, and as the day went on, I only came across just over a dozen people on the whole 20km loop. On the way to the top, there is the Blue Lake and 3 other lakes, which were nearly at the top, so a good stopping point for a rest and a nice view. No one else was there, so it was just me - it gave me a nice break, and a wonderful view. The lake was formed by glaciers cutting through the granite rock, and the water comes mainly from snowmelt, so the water is cold and blue, and is frozen four months of the year. Although I had forgotten my lunch, it was a welcome stop, spent only with about a thousand of my new 6 legged winged friends.

The Blue Lake at 1890m.

The Snowy River.
Me at the top of Kosciuszko.
Reaching the top of Australia's highest peak wasn't that difficult in reality, but the winds played a part in wearing me out. The weather report predicted 50 - 70kph winds, but I'm sure it was more like 100kph! At certain parts of the hike, a had to walk at a 45 degree angle to stop from falling off the path and right over the edge. Some parts were so windy that I could barely move forward into the wind. Although there weren't many people up there, I was able to get a guy to take my picture up here as evidence - I have hiked mountains myself before (Ben Nevis in Scotland being one), and you need a picture at the summit. When I climbed Ben Nevis the first time in 2005, my camera was stolen 1 week later, and I lost the photo - forcing me to climb the bastard again in 2010 (and a wee drop of whiskey to celebrate at the top went down a treat!). A selfie will just not do either! Once at the top, it was too windy to wit around and enjoy the view, so I headed back down to the path and headed home.

An actual dead horse on Dead Horse Gap trail.
Free ride down!
I'm watching you!
Slighly sore and sunburnt, the second day I headed out on a smaller, but easier walk, a round trip of about 12kms. Starting from the (ghost) town of Thredbo this time, I walked all along the river, past a golf course, before heading up Dead Horse Gap. There were 2 ways of doing this hike - catch the chairlift up and walk all the way downhill. I chose the other way of course - hike all uphill and get the lift down... much more fun! Offering great views of the surrounding mountains, the walk up wasn't too difficult, and with nobody else on the track, it was quiet and really quite pleasant. While walking up the hill, I came across a real dead horse just off the track - which one came first, the horse or the name? Reaching the top, you get a wonderful view of Thredbo and the Snowy Mountains. Taking the ski lift down was a godsend - it's like when you have walked all day, and finally reach your car or hotel - it's a hallelujah moment!

View from the top.
Although there is so much walking to be done in the area, hiking and camping by yourself isn't a great idea. 1 slip or fall, and you could be injured or killed miles and miles from any help. I spent a little time walking around Jindabyne and the towns around the area. I stayed in Jindabyne backpackers, and it wasn't your normal hostel experience - I basically had the whole place to myself! But all good things must come to an end, and Christmas Day was looming, so home-bound it was. 'The Snowies' will be there waiting for me to come back and spend a week or more hiking and camping it.

One of the locals saying hi.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Capital Town

It has been a while since the last post, as it has been a while since much has happened in the way of trips. In the time leading up to Christmas, I thought it would be a great chance to get out of the city, and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet away from the Rat Race that is Sydney. Don't get me wrong - I love this city! It is, however, a complete and utter jungle sometimes. And it seems to be getting worse.

This trip, some mountains were in order. The Blue Mountains, just over an hour from the city, weren't far enough away, and probably filled with tourists. It has been hot here already, so no need to head North. So, South it was, and off to The Snowy Mountains. Of course, in mid-Summer, they aren't snowy, but that's just how they're called - could be worse, could be 'The GREAT Snowy Mountains,' as we in Australia love to name everything (The GREAT Barrier Reef, The GREAT Dividing Range, The GREAT Australian Bite... I could go on...). My first stop on the 6 hour drive would be Canberra.

The forecourt of Parliament House.
The flagpole on Parliament House.
Old and New Parliaments.
Now, before you ask why, let me just say that I am kind of with you on that one - it's the kind of place that you were either born in, or have just escaped - there is no other excuse really. It is, however, a good stopping point before the mountains - also a great chance for some sunny photos of the Capital. It's twinned with Nara in Japan, and I can't make a real connection - Canberra has no shops or pubs, and is full of politicians, and Nara on the other hand has a multitude of craft stores and sushi shops and is full of biscuit worshipping deer. Canberra is however clean, warm in the summer, minimal traffic, full of wildlife and smells as fresh as the countryside. The (brief) history behind the city is this - in the 19th Century is was just farmland belonging to New South Wales. But before the beginning of the 20th, there was talk of Federation and which city would become the Capital of Australia - Sydney or Melbourne. Australia became a Federation of States in 1901, and a new spot was decided on in 1908 for the construction of the city. An international competition was held for Australia's only fully designed city (including a man-made lake), and was won by Walter Burley Griffith (who the lake was named after) in 1911, and construction started in 1913.

The monkey enclosure at Parliament House.
Parliament House.
The bridge over Lake Burley Griffith.
The two main attractions (there aren't many...) in Canberra are Parliment House and the War Memorial. Canberra's first Parliament building was opened in 1927 (Melbourne housing the 'Polies' until it was built), and was replaced in 1988 by the new Parliament House. The new building is quite an impressive sight, perched up on it's hill with it's big lawn and flag pole. Although you can't see it, it is shaped like two boomerangs. Inside, there is the House of Representitives, where all the 'suits' sit around and crack jokes at each other, dozer off in the back benches, and basically make up new ways of taxing people. The other chamber is the Senate, where they argue for days and weeks on end, deciding whether to say 'Ya' or 'Nay' for the new laws the other Polies have come up with. You can come in the see them in action too... when I say action, it is like watching a school playground with the big kids picking on the little ones, stealing lunch money and calling each other names. It's also much like the monkey enclosure at any zoo.

The Seante Chamber.
Poppies on the wall.
Old Parliament House.

The War Memorial is a great place to visit. Not for making a lot of noise, and maybe the kids won't like it, but it is chock-full of history and memories for the Nation - A must see if you come to Canberra. The building itself is not much, a symmetrical, solid stone structure with a small courtyard in the middle, and a dome at the far end. This is how it should be though - it is not here to attract a million tourists and be gawked at or in selfies, but to be peaceful, respectful and of course a true memorial to the soldiers, nurses and all the men and women who died serving our country. In the middle of a still pond in the courtyard the eternal flame burns, and on either side of the courtyard are roles of names of the people who served, as well as listing all of the theatres of war Australia has fought in since Gallipoli. The roles show the names only, not rank or other awards, as "all men are equal in death." Under the dome, by the light of stained-glass windows, is the grave of the 'Unknown Soldier.' Brought over from France, the name and rank of the soldier is a mystery, but he dies fighting in The Great War, and "He is all of them and He is one of Us." It also houses one of my favourite paintings of all time - "Menin Gate At Midnight" by Australia painter Will Longstaff. This work of art is a whopping 170 x 137cms, and depicts many ghostly figures walking through the  walking through the Menin Gate in Belgium. When the memorial closes each day, there is a ceremony where anyone can attend, and "The Last Post" is played - a truly emotional tune that always brings a tear to my eyes.

"All men are equal in death." No ranks or medals, just the names of those who served.
Although it was only half a day in Canberra, it was productive. Although I wouldn't want to live here, I can appreciate it for what it is - quiet, suburban, clean, safe and a nice little place for a weekend getaway. Broad yet quiet avenues run through the small city, with only squat office buildings compared to Canberra's bigger siblings Sydney and Melbourne, it is unpretentious and quiet peaceful. and without the problems of larger cities. Maybe it is a good place to live... nice place, shame about the politicians.

The National Museum of Australia.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Japan Trip - Part 5: Nara

Red Torii at Inari Shrine
It was a little sad leaving Kyoto, as it was a great little city. I had hardly scratched the surface with temples and all the little secrets the city held. For example, I didn't get a chance to see the Imperial Palace, nor did I visit Gion, the Geisha area. Unfortunately, this is how it was - I had no accommodation in Kyoto for the weekend, so had to move on. On the up-side, I was off to Nara - everything I'd heard about this place was good, and since it wasn't on my original itinerary, it was a bonus.
Chillin' in Nara.
A rare shot with no people.
The Kitsune statue guarding the temple.
On the train to Nara, I decided to see one more temple sight in Kyoto before I left. Just outside the city, and easily found by following the hordes of tourists, was the Inari Shrine. This place is famous for its red gates or arches, called Red Torii, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of them leading up to the top of the mountain. The Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine to the god Inari. Inari Okami is the Japanese Kami, or spirit, of foxes, as well as fertility, rice, sake, agriculture, industry and of general prosperity and worldly success. That's one busy deity! The first thing you notice about this place are the huge red gates everywhere, and then what I thought were dog statues (which I now know are foxes!). Then, the hordes of tourists! You will have seen this place, as anyone who is in Japan and considers themselves a photographer comes here. People walk through the red arches, trying to get it with nobody else in the frame... but do they work together? Of course not. I got a few people together, asked them to wait before walking though (so that I could take a picture...), and then said that if they wait too, they can get the postcard shot. It worked - and they seemed genuinely surprised that it worked! I trudged all the way up the hill, aiming to get all the way to the top - hoping for some grand shrine, something that only the truly fit and steadfast see. I was slightly disappointed when, upon reaching the top after a hard 2 hour slog, there was a sign that said 'top of the mountain,' and that was it - no view, no shrine, just flies and more bloody red gates!

Writing on the Red Torri.
Hello Dear!
I seem to be going from busiest to most quiet - the craziness and humanity of Tokyo, to the large, impersonal buildings of Osaka, to Kyoto, a small city filled with temples, and finally on to Nara. I had no idea what to expect from Nara, apart from my bed for the next 3 days. Although quite small, it is busy enough, and feels clean and fresh. My hostel was a 5 minute walk from the train station, and I was given directions from the always very helpful staff at the railway station. I was also given a small, Origami deer by the lady - the deer being the symbol of Nara, as the place is full of them. I settled into my hotel, then headed out straight away to see those deer.

I don't believe you - you have more, I know it!
Beware of the deer.
Praying at the temple.
Just beyond the shops and houses of Nara there are many parks, temples and even more deer. Known for it's temples, these are one of the main attractions, but the deer seem to be the bigger hit really - they have been declared 'National Treasures' even. You can buy 'deer biscuits' for Y150 ($1.50), and as soon as the transaction is done, the 'starving' little creatures are lining up for their num nums. There is a sign that warns you of the dangers of the animals, which made me laugh at first (as they seem so cute and friendly), but heed this message - butting, biting and kicking are just some of the tactics employed by the little treasures to get their cookies. In saying this, the little deers are not dangerous, it's more that the tourists are just a source of food. Picnics are raided, streets and fences are no barriers, nor are shops - a deer's gotta eat!

Go on, tell us another joke!
That baby looks edible...
The hostel I stayed at was great, but unfortunately there was a snorer. I had forgotten that was a downside of backpackers - beer, late nights, and then crashing on your back = snoring. I will excuse people from a quite little snort after a few too many drinks and a ciggy or two, but a real snorer is enough to kill someone. I nearly did. The first night, I just put some music on (didn't work), tried to ignore it (while getting very angry), and had a strong coffee for breakfast. Day 2, and the same guy was at it! I tried throwing scrunched up bits of paper at him, whispering  to him to turn over... nothing worked. I was fed up of him sleeping well, and me looking like a zombie after a big night out with no brains to feed on, so I started kicking his bed and whisper/yelling at him. He woke up with a fright, looked at me for a bit (probably thinking he was still alseep) and stop snoring... for 5 seconds. He didn't turn over or apologise. Kicking, waking, kicking and eventually I was able to sleep... there should be a law that if there is a snorer in a common sleeping area, anyone should be allowed to suffocate them with their own pillow for the sake of everyone else's benefit. He checked out sometime in the morning before I woke up.

Toda-ji Temple which houses the world's largest bronze buddha.
Back to Nara. Nara is also home to the Toda-Ji, The Great Eastern Temple, which in turn is home to the Daibatsu - the largest bronze statue in the world of the Buddha Vairocana. Construction of the building started in 745 AD, and was finished in 751 - the construction nearly bankrupted Japan as it used up most of it's bronze on this monumental Buddha. The building has been burnt down and rebuilt twice - the current structure dates from 1709 and is immense at 57m long and 50m wide,  is actually 30% smaller than the previous one - the building was the largest wooden structure up until 1998. An interesting fact - the is a hole in a wooden beam in the temple, which is the size of the Buddha's nostril, and it is said if you can fit though it, you will get good luck. There was a huge line up (mostly kids), so I felt a little silly to line up... just have to run with my bad luck. The temple is in a huge park complex, with many other temples, most free to walk in and have a look. People still visit them for religious purposes, and not just for tourism.

Origami deer from Nara.
My time in Japan had nearly come to an end, so I enjoyed the rest of my time in this relaxing city, walking the streets and just trying to soak all the atmosphere I could. By complete accident, I found a small second hand store selling Kimonos. They were labelled as Y500 ($5), so I asked the little old lady inside, who was all dressed up in a kimono herself, 'Honto (Truly)?' and she said yes, so I bought one - so cool, my own Kimono for five bucks! Not much else to do in Nara really - it is basically parks and temples. It was perfect for my last days though, and I felt truly relaxed and felt satified with my time here, and ready to go home at the same time. A trip well done, but Japan is so big (bigger than you would think! It just looks skinny), and there is so much that I didn't see. Mt Fuji, Hiroshima and Nagoya to name a few places. Next time Japan - I know there will be.

Goodbye and thank you Japan.
The main street of Nara.
Banging out Japanese sweets.
My stopover for my flight was in Shanghai. I hate airports flying at the best of times, but this was a particularly bad flight. I have nothing against Chinese people, I love the food and have been to China myself and really enjoyed my time there, but there is something about the Chinese and queues. I was waiting to be called to the gate, cleaners were sweeping the floor (and spitting at the same time), people were yelling into their mobiles and generally being noisy and annoying. It was finally boarding time, and we were called to the desk, and all of a sudden everyone went made - pushing and shoving and so much noise! It felt like the Titanic was going down and there was only 1 lifeboat. Just like the guy in the movie who shot people at the lifeboat (I didn't have a gun though, as they even take away cigarette lighters at airports now), I raised my teacher's voice and told them to relax and stop pushing - babies in prams were being pushed even. They pushed to get on the bus which would take us to the plane, and pushed again to get off and on the steps to the plane. The Chinese love to push, and find it good sport to get to your numbered seat before anyone else... After Japan, and the absolute embodiment of politeness, this was a bit of a slap in the face. I felt there was no better time to come home!

Airports - we all hate them, but they lead to dreams coming true.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Japan Trip - Part 4: Kyoto

Fancy temple roof.
Kyoto Tower.
A crane on a roof.
So unfortunately Osaka got a bit of a bad rap from me in the last post. I'm sorry to people that live here, or to people who think it is a cool city, but I just felt that it was 'just another city' after the lively and happening city of Tokyo. Osaka is full of huge buildings, all with shopping centres, filled with wealthy teenagers buying from Western brand clothing stores, and sucking down Starbucks coffees. I felt that Osaka was trying to be something else, something western. Tokyo on the other hand is a weird mix of traditional and neo-Japanese, as well as Western fashion, music and food, and quite unique. I only stayed a day and a night in Osaka, before catching the local train and moving on to Kyoto.

2 businessmen enjoying an ice cream after visiting a temple.
A cool cafe in Kyoto.
Chef at your table.
Kyoto was the Imperial Capital of Japan for more than a thousand years until 1868, when the Japanese Government and the Emperor moved to Tokyo. It's nickname is 'The City of Ten Thousand Shrines,' and although I didn't count them, I think the name is pretty well deserving! Home to 1.5 million people, Kyoto feels a lot smaller than it actually is - walking around the city you don't get the feel of a large city - Glasgow, for example, is only 600,000 people and feels much busier. There are small streets just off the main roads, and you feel like you are in rural Japan - traditional houses, people of bicycles everywhere, and it is quite peaceful! A recent law here in Kyoto was enacted and it restricts the building height to 15m and 31m (or 10 storeys) in the centre, as well as a total ban on rooftop advertising - and you see the difference! This city was a wonderful feeling about it - no huge shopping centres, busy crossings, but parks, small craft shops, and an open fresh feeling - you can actually see the mountains from the city too! No noisy adverts or huge screens on buildings here, but there was an earthquake early warning system on the street - although a good thing, it made me a little nervous!

Okonomiyaki and beer!
A man and his cat.
Crossing the road in style!
First night out in the city called for a local specialty - Okonomiyaki - Japanese Omelette. I say 'local' but to be honest it is made all over the country, but everyone does it differently, and I was told it is the best in Osaka,and since I blew that popsicle stand, this was the next best thing! I sat down in the restaurant, and 3 other foreigners were there. Great, I thought, this is the place for tourists, and not the real deal. Oh yeah of little faith! The chef cooked the meal right there in front of you, tepanyaki-style (even a 'warm' hotplate that you eat off!), and he was making several things at once, all with a smile! Beers came, meals were diced and flipped on the hot plate, and when it was served it was a masterpiece! It took a good 10 - 15 minutes to make my omolette, but a lot of love went into it - including the sauce that was applied using what look like a big fat paint brush (I'm sure it wasn't...), and then sprinkled with shredded tuna so fine that half of it blew off before I got my chopstick near it! It looked small, but it was so tasty (even more so when mayanaise was slopped all over it), and very, very filling! There are a few choices you have have (the actual translation of it is: OKONOMI = what you want, and YAKI = cooked) and I think I had a beef one, but you as the name suggests you are spoilt for choice!

Kinkaku-ji - The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion.
The Zen gardens.
Walking around the temples in the shade.
After a not-so restful sleep (I forgot how noisy backpackers are... and someone was snoring for most of the night!), I headed out on a hired bike (Y800/day) with a Dutch guy I met at the hostel. The plan was to cycle as much as possible, and take in the temples around the city. With so many temples and shrines to choose from, the typical ones had to be done. It was also Friday, and with no accommodation in Kyoto for the weekend (apart from sleeping on a temple lawn somewhere), I only had 1 more day in the city, so the well-trodden path it was. The first temple on the list was Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion, and boy was it gold! The building dates back to 1397 (not a typo!), but the original building was rebuilt in 1955 following an arson accident in 1950 by a monk. The monk tried to commit suicide after the incident, but was caught and thrown in prison, and released 7 years later because of mental illnesses. The building that stands today is supposed to be as it was, but some people say that it is more 'golden' that it used to be... all the better I say! While snapping away, and enjoying the serenity of the temple, the gardens and the lake, we were approached by a group of Japanese school kids, who, reading off their notebooks in perfect unison, asked us to complete a survey, and then "let's take a photo" at the end - how could I say no!

A real Geisha!!
Reach for the sky!
After visiting a few more temples, including one that had a 30m long stone Zen garden, we headed off for the bamboo forest, the Arashiyama. Free to get in and walk around, you follow paths through huge bamboo that really do reach for the sky. The sun is mostly blocked out, and the way through is filled with soft light, and the quiet swishing of the bamboo. This is one of the most famous sites in Kyoto, and so the crowds were here, and also packing the town that had become a tourist trap - selling ice creams and various tourist junk. We happened across a wedding, and more than a dozen girls walking around in hired Geisha outfits - and even 1 real Geisha, who saw me and my camera and run off, her 'bodyguard' telling me "no, no!" and leading her away. They really are scared of tourists! The forest was a pleasant break from the 30c heat, and was quiet and relaxing, but not much to see. With the sun going down, and plenty of cycling to do before getting home, we headed off, stopping off at a few more places on the way.

After a hard day's work, you deserve a 'sweat' drink!
Yummy Ramen! And beer of course!
After a hard day of cycling and slight sunburn, I thought I deserved a hot bath - or a Japanese Onsen! Although not the outdoor traditional ones you see in the Lonely Planet and on travel programs on the TV (and there weren't any monkeys either!), it was still an experience! Getting naked in front of a room full of blokes is not the most comfortable thing to do as a Westerner - it's just not natural to see Grandpa waddling around in his birthday suit! First thing you need to do is get buck naked (the towel I was giving wouldn't wrap around my wrist let alone my waist!), then put your things in a locker room (where you can also smoke completely naked too), then go into the second room and sit on a tiny plastic stool and soap up and scrub yourself. I couldn't help laughing out loud - you had a mirror in front of you, and the whole thing seems so strange and so undignified at the same time you just have to laugh and love it! In the baths I got, including one with purple water, and every single one of them was far too hot for my soft skin! Although it wasn't really busy, I wanted a tub for myself, so picked one with nobody else in there - and soon found out why. At first, I thought the water was far too hot (again!), and my feet went a little numb - much like a monkey bath (you know, when you put your big toe in and screech EH EH EH!!), but as I got half-way in, I knew there was something wrong with this tub! It was electrified!! All of my muscles tensed up completely, and I nearly dropped in like an electrified rock... luckily I managed to pull myself out - either no one saw me to help me from drowning, or it was just too funny to see a Gaijin (foreigner) nearly do himself in while completely naked... The sauna was also too hot, so I just decided to call it quits. I did try the 'special' pool again (just in case I liked it this time...), holding on tighter this time, and still was not impressed. Overall, a strange but relaxing experience!

Be at peace!
I had one more day in Kyoto, and I have to say that 3 days in this cool little city is far too short. With so much to do, so much to see, I had to make sacrifices, that and I couldn't find any accommodation in the whole city for the weekend, even the expensive Ryokans were fully booked! I had a good sleep, after the bath and dinner (and a snore-free room!), so I grabbed my backpack and jumped on the train to the Inari Shrine.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...