With Fuji behind us it was time for Jelmini, Eric and I to venture further west into China. We landed down in Beijing and experienced a bit of culture shock skipping from Tokyo’s orderly, clean streets to Beijing’s noise and air pollution.

One of the first things you do when visiting Beijing is develop a daily habit of checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the same way you’d check the weather anywhere else. The US Embassy hosts a webpage showing current conditions and also has a handy table explaining the potential health risks of each AQI level – from 0-50 (no health risks), all the way up to 301-500. During most of our visit the AQI hovered in the “unhealthy” range, but it’s not uncommon for the city to issue air quality alerts telling people to stay inside and limit physical activity.

[ptcPhoto filename=”pollution.jpg” title=”Smog” caption=”Smog over the Forbidden City in Beijing.” position=”center”]

As an aside, problems associated with air pollution aren’t limited to Beijing. A couple of weeks ago city officials in the northern city of Harbin had to shut down schools and cancel flights due to a giant smog cloud that limited visibility and posed significant health risks. A large amount of Chinese pollution comes from the manufacture of products bound for the United States and other western countries whose population rely on inexpensive imports – something I’ll try to remember when we go home and furnish a new apartment.

Anyways, getting back to our visit.

Our first stop was the Forbidden City, an imperial palace built in the fifteenth century and occupied by the last emperor of China. There is a definite police presence in the Forbidden City, including many plain-clothes officers. We saw a small skirmish that resulted in people being forcibly removed.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FCSkirmish.jpg” title=”Papers” caption=”Not sure what happened, but it caused quite a ruckus.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”OutsideFC.jpg” title=”Forbidden City” caption=”The entrance to the Forbidden City.” position=”center”]

The walled city is just HUGE and it’s home to many artifacts including pottery dating back thousands of years. If you want to see the whole collection, though, you’ll have to visit Taiwan too. Most of the treasures stored in the Forbidden City were moved there for “safe keeping” during the Chinese Civil War and remain at the National Palace Museum in Taipei to this day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FC2.jpg” title=”City” caption=”The City is China’s most popular single site tourist attraction.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FC3.jpg” title=”City” caption=”It was home to dynastic clans for 500 years.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FC4.jpg” title=”More City” caption=”The gray skies made for some bleak photos.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FCLion.jpg” title=”Lion” caption=”This guardian lion represents the emperor’s supremacy over the world.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FCElephant.jpg” title=”Elephant” caption=”Bowing to the emperor in an anatomically impossible fashion.” position=”center”]

Just across from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 protests which ended with the declaration of martial law and the deaths of an untold number of civilians. Just recently a new tragedy took place there when a vehicle careened through barricades and caught fire (another event where Chinese officials were quick to impede foreign reporters). All was calm on the day we were there, with children playing and tour groups visiting Mao’s mausoleum.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TS1.jpg” title=”Belly” caption=”In hot weather Chinese men show their bellies. It reminds me of the ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ song.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TSClose.jpg” title=”Model” caption=”‘I’m a model, you know what I mean? And I do my little turn on the catwalk…'” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TSChild.jpg” title=”Child” caption=”Playing in the Square” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TS2.jpg” title=”Square” caption=”In the event of an assembly the Square could hold a million people.” position=”center”]

After the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, no visit to Beijing would be complete without a Peking Duck dinner. Da Dong is a popular upscale restaurant where you’ll see chefs roasting the ducks in wood-fired ovens.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckRoast.jpg” title=”Roasting” caption=”They’re VERY good at what they do.” position=”center”]

Once it’s been roasted to perfection, the duck will be carved up tableside and served with various trimmings including garlic, hoisin sauce, cantaloupe, cucumber, Chinese pickles, and a stack of paper-thin pancakes for wrapping everything up into wonderful little parcels. They also give you sugar so you can dip the skin into it and make a sort of duck skin candy. It’s delicious, but I think the duck is better all on its own.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckTrimmings.jpg” title=”Accompaniments” caption=”Everything you need for ducky delight.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Duck.jpg” title=”Da Dong Duck” caption=”We should have ordered two.” position=”center”]

After a short tutorial on how to make the wraps they left us to devour everything on the table.

[ptcPhoto filename=”DuckTutorial.jpg” title=”Tutorial” caption=”Learning the proper procedure.” position=”center”]

This might have been our most expensive meal in all of China, but the crispy skin and unctuous dark duck meat were worth a splurge. SO good.

Next up: A Great Wall!

Kyoto: The Gion Festival and Other Highlights

Of all the cities we’ve visited so far, Kyoto probably ranks in my top five owing to its oodles of history, culture, cuisine, and its regular juxtapositions of antiquated and modern, formal and familiar. The city somehow feels small and inviting even if it’s quite large. There’s something new to explore around every corner, and a week here would be the bare minimum to get through the major sights.

We stayed near Kyoto Station, a good home base and an ideal place for shopping and restaurants. The station’s food courts are full of displays that are so realistic they border on disconcerting.

For example, can you tell which of these photos shows the real meal, and which one is fake?

[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay1.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”One of these was delicious…” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FoodDisplay2.jpg” title=”Food Display” caption=”…and one of them was plastic.” position=”center”]

Outside the station is Kyoto Tower, the city’s highest building and a modern anomaly among the many ancient temples and shrines of Kyoto.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KyotoTower.jpg” title=”Kyoto Tower” caption=”Kyoto Tower at night” position=”center”]

If you watch Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows as much as we do, you may have noticed that he sometimes “happens” to be in town for a major festival or holiday – as though the producers and writers didn’t plan it that way (you aren’t fooling anyone with that, Tony!). But we really did just happen to be in Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, an annual festival that emerged in the ninth century as a purification ritual to appease the gods and persuade them to stop meting out fires, floods and earthquakes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionMatsuri.jpg” title=”GionMatsuri” caption=”Crowds at Gion Matsuri” position=”center”]

Today celebrations last for the entire month of July and include art performances, the opening of traditional Japanese homes to the public, food, crafts, and parades with huge, elaborate floats.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Geisha.jpg” title=”Geisha” caption=”Geisha performing at the festival” position=”center”]

If you get the chance, it’s a great time to experience some of the city’s cultural ambiance – even if being there during that time means that the streets are crowded and prices are somewhat inflated. Everyone dresses up, and the whole city comes alive with celebration.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SummerKimonos.jpg” title=”Yukata” caption=”Dressed up in yukata, summer kimonos” position=”center”]

Even arcade-goers dress for the occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GionArcade.jpg” title=”Gion Arcade” caption=”Don’t let the formal dress fool you, they’re still packing.” position=”center”]

The rest of Kyoto’s sights are so splendid that, well, I’ll just show you photos instead of boring you with too many details.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest1.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Strolling through the Bamboo Forest” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForest2.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest” caption=”Did you know that bamboo is the tallest grass in the world?” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”BambooForestShrine.jpg” title=”Bamboo Forest Shrine” caption=”Prayers at a nearby shrine” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari1.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine near Kyoto ” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FushimiInari2.jpg” title=”FushimiInari” caption=”The first tori gates were built here in the 8th century.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion1.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”The Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) Zen temple” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SilverPavilion2.jpg” title=”SilverPavilion” caption=”Plans to cover it in silver foil fell through, but the name stuck.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GoldenPavilion.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), also a Zen temple.” position=”center”]

Oh, yeah – don’t forget about Nara, Japan’s ancient capital. It’s an easy day trip from Kyoto, but we’d recommend staying for a few days to see everything in this great little town.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Todaiji1.jpg” title=”Todai-ji” caption=”Todai-ji Buddhist Temple – the world’s largest wooden structure up until 1998.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraBuddha.jpg” title=”GoldenPavilion” caption=”It’s home to Japan’s biggest Buddha.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraDeer.jpg” title=”Nara Deer” caption=”Nara’s wild deer aren’t afraid to head-butt you for biscuits.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraLanterns.jpg” title=”Nara Lanterns” caption=”Lanterns at a Nara shrine.” position=”center”]

Thus concludes our visit to Kyoto and Nara. Not to be missed if you visit Japan!

Snapshot Sunday: Spinning Prayer Wheels in Litang

[ptcPhoto filename=”LitangSS.jpg” title=”Litang Prayer” caption=”A Tibetan Senior in Litang, Sichuan Province – China” position=”center”]

Now part of Sichuan China, Litang was once a major town in the ancient Tibetan province of Kham. The Tibetan population here is devoutly Buddhist, and it’s common to see women spinning prayer wheels during their daily walks.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Stories of Kindness: Finding Garrett Popcorn in Japan

Sometimes the prospect of world travel can be so overwhelming. What if we can’t understand what anyone is saying, commit some heinous cultural faux paus, or people are mean to us because we’re tourists? Landing down in a new place can certainly be daunting, but there have been so many examples of kindness that we’ve decided to start sharing our experiences in a new series. You guessed it: Stories of Kindness.

Our first story comes to you from Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities and one that can set your head a-spinnin’ with its many wards and some thirteen million people. We had just finished visiting Yoyogi Park and were on our way to our last dinner before setting out for Fuji the next day.

That’s when Eric spotted it: A Garrett Popcorn shop. We didn’t even know they had one in Tokyo! Those of you from Chicago (or who have ever tried this popcorn) will appreciate what a big deal this is. For loyal Garrett Popcorn enthusiasts, there is no better snack in the world.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FromADistance.jpg” title=”From a distance” caption=”He spotted it from this distance – can you?” position=”center”]

But it seemed we weren’t the only people in Tokyo who had caught Garrett Fever. The line to get in snaked all the way down the block, and the wait time was more than an hour.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretLine.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The line to get in” position=”center”]

Feeling too hungry to wait for so long, we decided to go for dinner first and try again later. Indeed, when we returned the queue was much more manageable. But then they were closing, and the not-so-friendly Garrett representative told us that we wouldn’t make it in time. I tried to reason with him. I tried to explain that Eric is from Chicago and we’ve been away for a long time so this is a big deal, but he seemed completely immune to my beseeching.

Unwilling to give up so easily, we approached a young man at the front of the line (whose English happened to be very good) and asked him if he’d pick up a bag of cheesy popcorn for us too. He agreed, on the condition that we watch his car. Watch his car, we asked? Seems he was illegally parked across the street so that he could wait in an hour-long line for popcorn. Yes, it really is that good.

No problem, we said. If you’re getting towed we’ll let you know right away. The stars aligned, the police stayed away, and fifteen minutes later he emerged with not one – BUT TWO – bags of popcorn for us. The second one, you see, was his treat. Welcome to Tokyo, he says.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Garret.jpg” title=”Garrett” caption=”Success!” position=”center”]

Throughout our time in Japan we found that people there are consistently generous and welcoming. This particular act of kindness meant that we’d be able to enjoy Garrett Cheesy Popcorn on top of Mount Fuji. It made Eric’s day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GarretSummit.jpg” title=”Summit” caption=”Popcorn at the summit” position=”center”]

World travel is always full of eye-opening encounters, some good and some bad. But it’s experiences like this that motivate us to keep exploring and to pay it forward whenever we can. You never know – even the smallest act of kindness can make a difference.

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fuji-san. The iconic active volcano we’ve all seen in photographs and movies looming over nearby Tokyo. It’s an irresistible setting to escape the megalopolis, and a considerable goal for those aspiring to reach its summit. Rising to 3,776 meters (12,380 feet), Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has been a sacred site in Shintoism since at least the 7th century.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiClouds.jpg” title=”Fuji Clouds” caption=”Up in the clouds” position=”center”]

Climbing Mount Fuji was one of two activities around which we organized the beginning of our trip, along with the ill-fated Elephant Festival in India. Our friend Jelmini joined us in Tokyo and climbed it too – although he’s much faster and seems to have sprinted to the top!

[ptcPhoto filename=”Fuji5th.jpg” title=”5th Station” caption=”All together at the 5th Station” position=”center”]

With over 200,000 people scaling Mount Fuji every year, this is an extremely popular activity with locals and tourists alike. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly and a number of preparations should be made to have the best experience. Here are some things we learned.

1. Plan Ahead!

Due to its terrain and high altitude climbing Mount Fuji is only possible during the summer months of July and August. Unfortunately, most of Japan is quite hot in the summer so there’s a trade-off between being able to hike the volcano or being comfortable when exploring the Japanese cities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiView.jpg” title=”Fuji View” caption=”There wasn’t much of a view when we set out.” position=”center”]

Traditionally hikers aim to summit Fuji just before sunrise in order to witness the spectacular view – some have said it’s the most beautiful in all of Japan. Since the hike takes anywhere from 5-7 hours, this requires either getting a late start and hiking through the night or booking a guesthouse halfway up the mountain. While guesthouses are plentiful, they fill up early in the season. When Sam and I called to book a bed about a month in advance, we were told that all beds were reserved in every guesthouse for the entire season! Our only option was to hike through the night and try to make it to the top by sunrise.

2. Pick Your Route Carefully

There are four hiking routes to the summit of Mount Fuji – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – so you need to select the one that makes the most sense for you. Each trail is divided into a number of segments with stations marking the end of each section. Stations can be anything from a single hut with restroom facilities to small villages of guesthouses complete with restaurants and warming huts. Most stations offer a service where they will brand your walking stick with a unique stamp for around $2. Collecting a stamp at every station is a fun way to turn your walking stick into a great souvenir (and walking sticks are absolutely necessary for this hike).

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiBrand.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Branding at the 7th Station” position=”center”]

The Yoshida Trail is by far the most popular since it’s easily accessible from Tokyo and offers well equipped stations along the trail. The obvious disadvantage is that the trail can be quite crowded. The second-most popular route, and the one that we chose, is the Subashiri Trail. You can get to the 5th station (where most people begin) from Tokyo by taking two buses, but it takes some time. Most of the stations along the ascent have everything you need, and there are far fewer hikers than the Yoshida Trail. The two trails meet up at the 9th station, so you have to climb the last bit in a single-file line.

3. Come Prepared

Sam and I were woefully underprepared for our hike up Mount Fuji. We should have taken warmer clothing, and our P.O.S. headlamps gave very little light and completely died an hour into the hike. We hiked the remainder of the trail using only starlight and trail markers to guide our way. Luckily the trail is well marked with a white rope skirting the trail. Nevertheless, it was not the safest experience and Sam had difficulty even seeing the ground below her feet. This made our progress much slower than it otherwise would have been.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FurtherThanItSeems.jpg” title=”Subashiri” caption=”Further than it seems” position=”center”]

There are a few places where the trail markers disappear altogether, so at those points we had to use our intuition to decide which direction to go. This is harder than it sounds when the fog rolls in at exactly the wrong time.

Don’t be fooled by the extremely hot temperatures in Tokyo in August. The elevation and total exposure to the elements means you need to be prepared for very cold temperatures and the possibility of rain or snow as you hike the volcano.

4. Consider the Proverb

There’s an old proverb about Mount Fuji: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool”. The reason for this proverb is simple – this is a tough hike! With nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a 26% grade, it’s more challenging than most hikes back home in Colorado.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGrade.jpg” title=”Steep” caption=”Yeah, that’s steep.” position=”center”]

Being a volcano with the varied terrain of black ash and blacker ash, and considering the fact that we were climbing in almost complete darkness, there’s not a lot to see as you climb. We tried to pass the time playing “I spy..”, although everything was either black or white so the game didn’t entertain us for long.

5. You Can’t Control the Weather

Despite some brushes with exhaustion, nausea, and frozen fingers caused by the gain in altitude, we made it to the summit with time to spare. Unfortunately, by the time sunrise rolled in there was little to see from the peak other than a white abyss.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiSunrise.jpg” title=”Sunrise” caption=”Sunrise?” position=”center”]

We made the best of things by enjoying a nice bottle of sake we had brought with us to celebrate the occasion. Jelmini and I also took a stroll and peered into the crater.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiCrater.jpg” title=”Crater” caption=”But once again – not much to see!” position=”center”]

I even had the chance to enjoy some Garretts Popcorn at the peak that we had procured in Tokyo the night before.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGarretts.jpg” title=”Garrett’s Popcorn” caption=”The best popcorn in the world.” position=”center”]

6. What Goes Up Must Come Down

After more than 24 hours without sleep and an overnight hike in the dark, we were more than a little tired when we started our descent. The first hour is pretty easy and sliding down the volcanic ash on the Subashiri Trail is fun at first. But then the fun stops. Truly, this was one of the most difficult physical things I have ever done. Going up was tough and tiring, but going down was an excruciating never-ending slog.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree1.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”More Fuji landscape” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiScree2.jpg” title=”Brand” caption=”Sliding down through the scree” position=”center”]

By the end, we all sort of felt like this:

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiAftermath.jpg” title=”Aftermath” caption=”Time for some shut-eye.” position=”center”]

Even with all the frustrations, climbing Mount Fuji was one of the more rewarding accomplishments of the trip to date.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FujiGate.jpg” title=”Fuji gate” caption=”Tori gate at the top” position=”center”]

But unless they install a zip line down, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again any time soon!