A brief stop in Osaka

只今! After two years, we’re back in Osaka! Just a two day trip from Shanghai and we’re in the Aqua Metropolis again – the Anti-Capital, the town where dodgy areas are other cities shopping areas, all in all a wild place.

This sounds familiar, the boys are back in town. And coming back to Osaka or to Japan in general feels a bit like coming home by now. Hearing all those sounds (beeping, jingles and announcements EVERYWHERE!), seeing the familiar sights and drinking Calpis. It’s like we’ve never been away.

Of course we stayed in our tatami mat hotel room (unfortunately still without the great breakfast from our first visit), just to add a bit more to the familiarity. But we just crashed in Osaka this time for we wanted to travel the north of Japan. Of course we explored the neighborhood anyway (as in geocaching), visited the “shrines” of Billiken – the god of things as the should be – and went for some food. We met up with Maija and Kim to go to a local Teppanyaki restaurant (鉄板焼き, where they cook and serve food on a big hot iron plate) we could recommend. Also we showed them the Glico man, which is a must-see in Osaka (or so they say) and got Kakigōri (かき氷, shaved ice with syrup toppings) for dessert. That completed our adventures with Maija and Kim, but we might meet again in Tokyo for the fireworks.

Actually those were our activities in Osaka. On the next day we were out for some bunnies!

The Special Ferry SU ZHOU HAO

Our most favorite to get to Japan is by ferry, the SU ZHOU HAO, from Shanghai to Osaka. Flying is okay I guess (well, maybe not these days), but taking the ferry is really something different. You can relax, while the ship does all the work. It’s a bit like the train rides we did on this trip so far, but on the ship you have so much more space to walk around and explore. You can go outside whenever you want, they have a nice Japanese bath on board and the food… well, food is available.

The last time we were on the ferry, we soon had a group of 8-10 people who hung around most of the time. That was really a great time. But that was when the Expo was, so a lot of people were on the ship to start with. This time there weren’t as many. There was this Otaku couple from England, who weren’t going to Japan for the first time either (just the first time on the ferry), a South Korean guy from Seoul, who had been traveling the world for several months now (a lot by bicycle) and was writing a book about it, as well as 3-5 other people we didn’t see often enough to enable some kind of exchange. All others were Chinese and making conversation is quite hard. I only managed once with a Chinese business man in the Japanese bath, but that was quite difficult, even when we used all four languages we knew together.

And then there were our cabin companions, Maija and Kim. A Swedish-Finnish couple who took a few months off to travel around. They were great fun to be with. During the day we’d just hang out, reading, talking, taking photos. And in the evening we’d play games. Shanghai, Shitty Pants and Goat Testicles. Also we… hmm, what do you mean? Oh, the games. Okay, maybe a little explanation is needed. Let’s start with the most simple one, Shanghai. It’s basically Uno with two regular 52 card decks (including Jokers), just some slight differences, for example that you could Shanghai (politely ask the person who’s turn it was) the open card when it wasn’t your turn. Shitty pants (as I’ve researched by now, the Finnish name is Paskahousu, which makes it basically a correctly translated title) is a card game where the players always need to raise the cards lying on the table. And then there were the Goat Testicles. Okay, we made that title up, because we didn’t know the name of the game. But the game was a genuine Mongolian game, which you play with ankle bones. The player throws the bones on the table, where they can land in one of four positions, named sheep, goat, horse and camel. Then you have to flip one bone onto another one of the same kind without hitting another bone. You do this until you miss or hit a different bone and after that the next player continues. The winner is the one who collects most of them. You can also tell the fortune with those bones (since Mongolia has no access to the ocean, we weren’t sure if it is good or bad luck to roll them on the sea, so we settled for special luck). As I learned by now over the Internet, those bones come in sets of four in a leather pouch and are called Shagai. If we’d only learned that while still in Mongolia. Those would’ve been a great souvenir and gift.

Out companions traveled a lot more through Mongolia, so we could learn a bit more about the country and culture from them (like drinking games). In return, we were able to give them some starters and tips for Japan.

One more thing about the food. On the ship are some vending machines (going to Japan after all) with drinks and food, as well as two restaurants, a regular and a special restaurant. We weren’t allowed to eat at the special restaurant (just to join the Karaoke later) and the regular one served set meals which were just okay (like a cafeteria). But in front of the restaurant was a display with other meals, which we didn’t seem to get in the restaurant. On the last evening I had the crazy idea to just ask for one of those. That was so crazy that it actually worked. (They should really post a note about this. Or if they have, add one in English.) Looks like you don’t have to be special to get some different meal.

And yes, “special” became our running gag on this trip.

So after our special voyage on the special ship with all the special stuff and our special companions, we arrive in special Osaka for the special immigration and special customs.

Shanghai revisited

We arrived in Shanghai early with the sleeper train (not much to say about that) and took a taxi to our hotel. Even though we’ve been to Shanghai before and actually liked our hotel, we chose another one this time, since the reviews from our original hotel weren’t as good anymore. Our new choice was closer to the Bund and closer to the ferry terminal, both within short walking range. But unlike our last hotel, they don’t offer coffee (and the coffee there was really, really good… now even too far away to just go there and grab a cup).

Basically during the one and a half days we explored the Bund and Pudong. The Bund is the waterfront area of the Huangpu River with a lot of historical buildings, from where you can see the famous skyline, while Pudong is the part of Shanghai where the skyscrapers from said skyline actually are (well, Pudong is much bigger than that, a major part of the city, but let’s keep it simple).

We didn’t visit any of the historical buildings at the Bund (except for a bank, but just for the ATM) or a skyscrapter in Pudong, but rather walked around the areas (while looking for geocaches of course). But it was interesting nonetheless. Just like the first time when we were in Shanghai, the sky was cloudy and the view over the river hazy, so again no good pictures of the skyline. And once the weather looked bad enough to rain, we headed back to the hotel and called it a day early.

We were also looking for a way to get from the Bund to Pudong by walking, but there wasn’t any way, even the tourist information office couldn’t help us. I thought I remembered something about a sightseeing tunnel or something, but is seemed like my memory was mistaken. As we learned later, there was indeed such a tunnel, it’s just that you cannot walk to the other side, but are taken there by a car or train or whatsoever. They didn’t suggest that at the tourist information office. But then again, they didn’t even have a map for my collection.

Shanghai was just a brief stop again. Our actual reason to be here was the ferry, for another important part of the journey:
The voyage to Japan.

Beijing revisited

Ah, Beijing. Hot, humid, dirty air that makes you wanna take a shower every hour. We actually didn’t miss that, less the grey buildings and trist scenery. But it was nice to be back at the City Walls Hostel. Hidden in the Hutongs it is really a refreshing sight, having a colorful atmosphere, nice mood and good coffee. At least good compared to the other stuff we had most of the time so far.

Since it was already late afternoon, we relaxed a bit and got ready for dinner. We met up with Helena and Carla and took a stroll around Qianhai lake. An area where people meet with several restaurants and bars. We walked around the lake, chatting, until we settled for a restarant the looked quite good. There we ordered different kinds of dishes, which all came at different times, so it was really a challenge to wait till everyone got their food. Especially Helena’s dish took forever and we were joking that they had to get the pineapples in to from Okinawa.

After dinner we went around the lake once more to search for good place for a few drinks. The bars seem to employ people who’s only purpose it is to point the by-passers to the fact they have a roof-garden. During our walk we encountered a group of people that seemed to enjoy some street musician. After getting closer, it occurred to us, that this wasn’t the ordinary street musician, but actually a small group of dancers, that animated people to join them. That was quite interesting, for they appeared to do standard dances to modern Chinese music.

Another thing they seemed to like around the lake are all things that make colorful light. Blinking shoes, headbands, toys and even kites were making the whole area a bit more colorful.

During our drinks we planned to explore the city together with the girls on the next day, but alas, one of them got sick, so when we said good night it was the last we saw the of them.

Not being bound by a common plan, we settled for some simple walks through the parks near our hostel, while searching for some geocaches. But we quit relatively early and headed back to the hotel. There we had some late lunch, coffee, arranged for a cab to fetch us and waited for the evening.

As someone mentioned along the way, we really seem to love trains. Well, actually we don’t care much, as long as it gets us to our destinations, but taking a train is often the best compromise of speed and price. So, to get from Beijing to Shanghai, we took a sleeper train. There are actually faster ways to get there, like a five hour bullet train. But then again, since we need to “waste” a few hours anyway, taking a sleeper, which is much cheaper and even saves us the accommodation for one night, seemed like quite a good option.

Trans-Siberian: From Ulaanbaatar to Beijng

The last leg of our Transsib voyage was from Mongolia to the final destination, Beijing. We shared our compartment with Helena and Carla, two Swiss girls (yes, the Swiss again, they seem to do nothing but Transsib traveling) who just finished school and were taking a long vacation before going to university. Both didn’t seem sure about what to study, but also didn’t dare to view their trip as some part of self-discovery. Also on our wagon was a group of German tourists we met in the camp in the Steppe. On the next wagon, there were the Scandinavian we met on the rail from Moscow to Irkutsk. And somewhere else on the train we met Rahel and Andrea again, while also briefly running into other people we’ve seen somewhere on this trip so far. I guess once you are on the Transsib, you start to develop some kind of extended family there with all the people you meet here and there.

This time we were on a quite modern Mongolian train. It was even more comfortable than the Russian train and came with clean sheets, air conditioning and the most modern samovar we encountered so far (which was only presented by some faucets in the wall).

When they cross the border to China, they need to change the gears, since they use a different rail gauge in China (or as a matter of fact, they use a different rail gauge in the former Soviet states, while China is using standard gauge like most railways on Earth do). This process extended our stay at the border for a few hours in addition to customs. It was quite interesting to watch, but took endless time and you couldn’t leave the train. On top of it, they had to turn of the power in the wagons and you weren’t allowed to use the bathroom. Most people on the train slept, including our companions and later even Steffen, but once the gears were changed and you were allowed to leave the train at the next station, life returned to most of them. Either to get a chance to visit the bathroom at the train station or to grab a cold beer there.

On the next morning, the scenery had changed dramatically. When we went to sleep, there was only endless dry steppe outside. Now we were driving through green hills, mountains and even tunnels, which we have never seen on this trip so far.

Quite obviously we were in China now and the next part of our journey was about to begin.

Ulaanbaatar again

After returning to Ullaanbaatar around midday and a short shower later, we headed into the city again. Regina gave us somed pointers to a Mongolian restaurant, a good cafe and a place to shop for souvenirs. We started with the later one. On the shopping list were T-shirts and of course some postcards. Afterwards we went for the restaurant, which seem to be quite modern, but served traditional dishes. The portions were quite big and that could’ve filled us for the rest of the day. But there is always room for dessert, so without delay, we headed for the cafe, which happened to be just across the street.

Helmut Sachers Kaffee, this seemed to be an obvious spot for German speaking tourists. We ordered some coffee, Sacher cake and relayed the greetings from Regina. Finally, after what seemed like ages surviving on instant caffeine sources, we had some good coffee again. Stuffed and content, we headed back to the hostel, getting some rest for the next day.

It was Wednesday and our last day in Ulaanbaatar. We walked to the southern part of the city, to visit the Zaisan memorial, which is basically a symbol of the Mongolian-Russian friendship. It even had reliefs of Lenin, Stalin and others. You just can’t escape those guys.

We went back to the hostel and arranged for a time to meet with Regina at the Sachers. Leaving most of our baggage and only carrying the essentials (not even a DSLR), we headed to the cafe. After catching up (quite fast, since we’ve seen each other the day before) and some pre-dinner dessert, the three of us – accompanied Brigitte, the owner of the cafe – headed for a hot pot restaurant. Thankfully Brigitte did the ordering, for we wouldn’t have known what to pick and how to tell the waiters what we wanted.

During dinner and later at Brigitte’s home we chatted quite a lot and heard many stories of Brigitte’s long and interesting life. And she doesn’t intend to settle down, which deserves even more respect. Her pets seemed to enjoy our presence, for there were more hands to stroke them. Especially her dog Bella seemed to have found a liking in us and was declared my new girlfriend by Brigitte. While Mongolia isn’t actually a country we need to visit again desperately, meeting the people here alone was more than worth the stop.

People usually get warned to walk through Ulaanbaatar at night, but we didn’t even see the hint of a problem.

As a side note, it was a bit more dangerous during daytime. On the first day I noticed some pickpockets at one plaza. A pair of two and a backup guy (probably to ensure their escape) a few feet behind them. But they were so obvious in their observations and following, that I assume they were in training. Another time when walking away from the main streets, I noticed a guy following us from a small busy market over a bridge. He was better at shadowing us, but at one point I turned around, shook my head and then he suddenly went conspicuously inconspicuously back. Also there was this friendly guy who approached me on the street, shaking my hand, pointing to my watch as if he wanted to know the time. Being the friendly guy I am, I showed him the time, but secured the watch with my other hand, keeping a firm grip. He insisted to see again, but we really had to go. He was cursing a bit when we walked away.

Another danger you have during the day and less during the nighttime is the traffic. Traffic rules are for pansies. Pedestrian crossing can be done any time and is actually safer during red light, for you can be sure that the cars are driving (during green light some stop, others don’t care). And a few centimeters between the pedestrian and the car are enough space to ensure the safety of the pedestrian and the auto body. This was all so familiar, since on a lower level, it was the same in Russia. But we already knew from past experiences, that the matter of road insecurity will be a tough contest with Beijing.