Posts Tagged With: train

Rice Paper and Russian Jeeps

Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
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The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter —  relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
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“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”

People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy.  Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook  and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
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Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
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His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
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That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
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We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
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Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
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This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
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You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in.  Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.
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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Faster Than a… Oh, You Know

It is possible to get from Hakone to Kanazawa (our next destination) by shinkansen (bullet train) but this requires backtracking to Tokyo. So our travel itinerary for today was to travel by bullet train from Hakone to Nagano, then by conventional rail to Kanazawa. The numbers are revealing: we covered the 175 miles from Hakone to Nagano in an hour and ten minutes by shinkansen, but the remaining 145 miles took three hours. In other words, the bullet train is fast. Very fast.

We arrived at the Hakone rail station at a little before 10 AM, leaving us with enough time to hang around on the platform for a few minutes and watch the bullet trains pass through. Not two minutes after we arrived on the platform, someone looking down the length of the track said, “Look, here comes one.” “Oh good,” I thought, turning on my camera, “I’ll be able to get a pic-

FWOOOOOOOOOOSH

-ture.” HOLY MOTHER OF ZORK, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

“That”, of course, was a shinkansen, a blue-and-white blur passing our platform about 8 feet away from us. It was gone by the time I got my lens cap off, and I stood there frozen like an idiot. Then I took another few seconds to pick up my jaw off the floor; that thing passing next to the platform was the transportation equivalent of a bomb going off, absolutely stunning. Fortunately there were some other tracks farther away from us so over the next several minutes it was possible to get some shots at a distance from which it was physically possible for me to push the shutter button in time.

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“Race ya!”

The shinkansen has a cruising speed of 300 km/hr (186 mph), though the one that took me by surprise was probably not even going that fast since it was passing through a station. There are 16 cars whose total length including the engine is just about a quarter mile (404 m, to be exact). At its cruising speed, therefore, the train covers its own length in 4.8 seconds. It can carry roughly 1000 people.

The ride is quiet and very smooth, far smoother in fact than a conventional train, and with none of the traditional side-to-side rocking that one normally associates with train travel. That smoothness is not just a passenger convenience, but rather a physical requirement: at those speeds, a bump equals a catastrophic derailment.

After transferring to a run-of-the-mill express train (which, the name notwithstanding, made 13 stops en route) we reached our destination at about 3 PM. Kanazawa is the historical epicenter of the samurai culture, and so like Kyoto is known for its Shinto shrines. It’s a modern city overall, with a population of about half a million, and like many other Japanese cities with long histories takes some pains to integrate the old and the new.

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By the time we settled in to the hotel there was not a lot of time to explore, but on the way to dinner, just down the road, Mariko led us to the Oyama Jinja shrine, a relatively recent (mid-19th century) shrine distinguished by having stained glass and, oddly, sporting the first lightning rod ever installed in Japan. You can see both in this picture. (The stained glass is behind the upper balcony, below the cupola.)

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Behind the shrine is a small, classical Japanese garden, complete with stone lanterns and burbling brook filled with koi. We spent about a half hour wandering among these scenes:

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It was a gratifyingly serene way to end a day of train travel, and the topper was our first non-Japanese dinner since joining up with the tour group a week ago. Mariko led us to an underground promenade lined with appealing-looking eating places of various descriptions, and we dined at an Italian restaurant. The relatively small portion size and artistic presentation on the plate were definite Japanese accents to what was otherwise a very typical (to Americans) and quite good Italian meal. No doubt we will revert to native cuisine tomorrow.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cinque Terre is Not a Fake Mexican Holiday

It is, however, an exceptionally scenic part of the Italian coast in the province of Liguria. In fact, it is so scenic that this post is almost pointless without some photos, which I absolutely positively promise I will post later in a separate entry when we return from Internet Limbo.

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), as the name suggests, is an agglomeration of five villages spread out along a narrow section of coast, built up over about a thousand years by farmers who terraced the rocky hillside. Each village presents a dramatic and beautiful mien, especially viewed from the sea: split-level streets filled with ancient Ligurian Gothic churches and tiers of orange, yellow, and red houses clinging to the cliff walls. There are basically three kinds of streets: very level ones that follow the coastline; very steep ones that run up and the hillsides; and very zig-zaggy ones that traverse the cliffs like a ski run. All are paved in stone of one kind or another. There are many, many hiking trails, largely of the level and zig-zaggy varieties, offering spectacular views. One such trail — recently cut off by a rock slide — was about 15 miles long and connected all five towns. There are also many shorter, more level  but no less rewarding hikes for wimps like us, and we followed a few of them to assorted outlooks.

The five villages, running like a string of ochre pearls from southeast to northwest along the coast, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. (I have no idea why I am telling you those particular details other than making me feel very well-traveled as I type them.) All are right down at the water and are easily accessible by short train rides between them, with the exception of Corniglia, which is perched atop a 300 ft rock above its own train station. In other words, if you take the train to Corniglia, your first activity is to climb 400 stone steps up the hillside. We did not visit Corniglia.

What we did do was buy a 10-euro day pass in La Spezia that gave us unlimited access to the local train that connects all five towns as well as the buses within the towns. (The duration of the train rides to the first town — Riomaggiore — and between the towns is little more than about 5 minutes each. ) Knowing that the some of the best vantage points are from the sea, our plan was to take the train from La Spezia to the second town, Manarola, where the ferry port is, then for an additional 9 euros take the boat along the coast to the last town in line (Monterossa) and finally come back stop-by-stop via train. Which is more or less what we actually did, and which I recommend as your itinerary should you make it here.

I used the term “ferry port” to describe our boarding point in Manarola, but the term is a major exaggeration. The  “port” is a level section of rock at the bottom of a flight of stone stairs, separating you from the sea by a 5 ft long chain connecting two waist-level posts. The ferry motors up to you, the crew members push out a wheeled narrow aluminum gang plank onto the rock and disconnect the chain, and you and 300 other people march aboard. Or more accurately “stumble” aboard; as the boat bobs in the sea, the gang plank rises and falls with it. If that all sounds a little precarious, it is: if the sea is even slightly rough, the ferry does not run.

The ferry stops for a few minutes at each town along the way, and the entire run from one end to the other takes only about a half hour. But it does indeed offer wonderful views of the sheer rocky coast and the towns along the way. 

We walked around Monterossa for a while, stopping for lunch, nosing around a few churches, and eating gelato as Biblically mandated. The gelato was particularly welcome because the day had turned hot and sunny and it seemed the right thing to do as we walked parallel to the modestly-populated but inviting sandy beach. We were not too ambitious, Jim and Elaine now having officially caught Alice’s cold (which I also  caught but am now over).  But we managed to see quite a bit.

Here is an epidemiological aside. I have heard that the average person catches something like 3 colds a year, thus  on average one every 17 weeks. By the time we are home, this trip will have been 3 1/2 weeks long, so with two couples we are talking about 14 person-weeks (4 x 3.5) of travel. Since 14 is close to 17 it becomes highly probable that one of the travelers will catch a cold, which in such continuous close quarters makes it pretty much inevitable that the other three will catch it from the first, which is exactly what happened. All of which is a quantitative way of asserting that we were pretty much doomed from the start, virologically speaking.

Our plan was to catch a 3:30 train out of Monterossa and visit one of the other towns, but we mistakenly boarded an express train, which we hadn’t even known existed and whose conductor roundly berated us since our day passes were not valid. It took us straight back to our starting point in La Spezia.  The trains run quite regularly and so we could at that point simply have boarded a local train and gone back to one of the towns. But everyone was tired, so we took our train schedule confusion as a sign from heaven that we should simply call it a day and relax back at the villa.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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