Ah Colombia. The country I caught the travel bug from. When I was about 10 years old, my Father and I would go for 3-4 week long trips to Bogota during the summer. A child, armed with the knowledge that such a different culture exists, in such a different part of the world, will become immediately and immensely more curious about what else the world has to offer. Now, at 28, having been so deeply affected by a country that I never really called home, I was finally able to go back and visit, thanks of course, to the amazing hospitality of the Jordan-Cetina family. From the little knowledge I had when I was 10 years old in 1999, it seems that the country has come a long, long way. A modern, internationally in-tune youth, a promising Democracy, a well established economy, and, not to mention the all too efficient public transportation system, El TransMilenio, Colombia has effectively transformed itself into a 21st century nation.
Of note, Bogota is situated at an altitude of 2640 m (8660 ft). Some travelers may experience some soroche, or altitude sickness as I did my first night back in town. Symptoms could include headache, upset stomach, dehydration, loss of appetite, slight depression, insomnia, difficulty breathing, and/or nose bleeds. To combat this, hydrate heavily, don’t train or workout for the first 3-4 days, carb up, and realize that symptoms will probably dissipate soon.
If you know absolutely noting about China and her history, you’ve probably at least heard of Beijing. If you haven’t, no worries, I’ve got you covered.
Beijing, meaning quite literally, northern capital, was given that name in the 15th century to distinguish it from Nanjing (南京), Southern Capital. With a population of 19 million, it comes in 8th place for Most Populated Cities, just behind Osaka, Japan and ahead of New York, New York. Popular attractions include The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City.
“The air is so terrible in Beijing.” When I told people I was headed to Beijing to visit a family friend, this was their response 75% of the time. And 10% of the time it was “Oh nice, The Great Wall.” Not to forget the 5% of the time where it was simply “Ha, Communism.” As I boarded the plane headed East, I really had no idea what to expect from China. As an American, and more importantly, an American in the military, I was raised to fear China, to distrust anything Chinese, and to view anything they touched as inferior. I can honestly say that in the “Chinese Visa Acquisition Process” I definitely held these views. The number of times I was told simply “not today” or “this isn’t good enough” when just last week, the SAME LADY at the Chinese Embassy had said “this is all you will need next week,” was very trying on my open mind. When asked to surrender my passport for a week so they could “process it” I naturally assumed that it was now being shipped off to some black market or a tracking device was being added so they could “watch me.” I had heard of stories of cameras hidden in hotel rooms in China, and of people just disappearing after their visit.
As the plane took off I remember thinking “Welp, no turning back” as I mentally increased my personal vigilance and security posture. All around me there was nothing but a strange Asian dialect my ears had not yet been accustomed to after a year in Japan. After 4 very quick hours, the plane landed and we debarked, grabbing our luggage and heading to customs.
My first official interaction with China went smooth enough. “Passport!” The stern looking Chinese customs official barked as I fumbled through my bags. “How long are you here!” He ever so gently screamed. “Just 5 days,” I replied, trying to speak gently enough to calm the situation that seemed to be getting out of hand. There was the awkward pause that I always seem to find myself in at international airports where, they’ve already scanned my passport, but continue searching. Leaning against the counter, bags at my feet in disarray, and fearing that they will somehow find out, that one time, when I was 11, I once thought of grabbing an extra packet of BBQ sauce from Chic-Fil-A even though they said the limit was 2, and throw me in jail. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time and he gently ushered me through, “Ok, go!” Maybe it was just when he spoke English, but I really hope, for the sake of his family, that his Chinese Bedside Manner was better than his English…
As I successfully walked through customs, I approached a line that scanned everyone’s bags. I waited, patiently, as the line proceeded. There were two airport officials, both Chinese of course, and about, 40 or 50 passengers that had already made it through customs. They were there, working the line through, and randomly inspecting passports. “China doesn’t play around,” I thought. The longer I waited in line, the more I started to notice. “Hmm…they are only asking a particular demographic for their passports…” I thought. There were three African men a few people in front of me, and almost systematically, when they got to the scanner “Passports!…” “Maybe they’re asking more people and I’m just not realizing it…” I continued to optimistically tell myself. I kept watching. A family of Argentinians went through, speaking their Argentinian Spanish loud and proud as they are known to do (much love) and no passport check. A Chinese man went through. No check. A Japanese couple just ahead of me went through. No. Check. Finally it was my turn. I almost bet myself $50 that they would check mine, due to, you know, security reasons. I should have taken myself up on that. “Passport!” The “extremely friendly” Chinese security woman barked. I smiled, looked behind searching for some support in how ridiculous this was, handed her my passport, and she shoved it back like she had been on this shift for too long now.
Ignoring the “passport selection process,” and trying to remain optimistic about the People’s Republic, I marched on through the airport, finally being picked up by the family friend around midnight. We drove through the night, passing utterly insane drivers, enormous skyscrapers, and people on the side of the road, offering to wash the insane amount of dirt off of your car that every single car on the road had.
The next morning I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous view of the city. The sun was just rising, and this panoramic view made for the perfect addition to my morning cup of local tea. Without skipping a beat, we left for The Great Wall. Everything about Beijing seemed normal enough. The people were there. The buildings were there. Sure it was a little dirty, but what major city isn’t?
This is right about when Beijing’s charm started to hit me. The locals, for the most part, had no idea what I was saying, and I, of course, returned the favor. But communication is always more than words, and I could tell that these people weren’t the cold barbarians I had been made to believe. Our driver, a Chinese man whose name I will NEVER be able to pronounce, kept making sure that we were at our highest levels of comfort. Every time we almost got in an accident, which happened more than a handful times, he looked back and gave a thumbs up with questioning eyebrows. The men and women at the produce and meat stands gave free samples, and said something in Chinese which I translated via body language and intonation as, “These are great, you are great, you deserve these.” And when we declined to buy, “Have a marvelous day!” I’m guessing of course.
Finally arriving to The Great Wall, we purchased our tickets, took the cable car up and saw, with our own eyes, one of the great wonders of the world. I was pretty taken aback. My friend had probably been here numerous times and was probably tired of bringing every visitor here, but you can’t go to Beijing and not see it at least once. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of graffiti on the wall, along with stolen breaks and general decay.
After The Wall, our hosts took us to a local grocery store. There was a VERY STRANGE smell that permeated throughout the store. If you took a plastic water jug, heated it, and added raw chicken to it, you could possibly mimic the smell. If that isn’t enough to make you uncomfortable, there was, so, much, raw, meat, just hanging out.
If you’re a savvy reader, or are irritated by mistakes, as I am, even though I make them myself, you probably noticed the percentages in the beginning did not add up to 100%. If you didn’t catch that, no worries. The remaining 5% of people, when made aware of my trip to Beijing, commented “They have amazing food there.” These wise 5%, were absolutely correct.
After getting back to the house, resting up, showering, and heading back out, we made it to a authentic Chinese restaurant. American me expected to see, Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao Chicken, or any other popular Chinese food item. I was, blown away. Our host ordered this fried duck for us. I have no idea what part of the duck it was, but, the way this meat literally melted in your mouth, as the sugar coating broke apart and gave you a caramel sensation followed by succulent protein made me completely fall in love with China. There was this spicy chicken dish, seasoned with all kinds of herbs and spices. I not only ate my serving, but I had the audacity to ask my host “How hungry are you reaaaallllly?……” It was that good. If you ever get the chance to travel in Asia, go to China, find yourself in Beijing, and try real Chinese food. You will be blown away, or discover that you really don’t have any taste buds.
The next day we were arranged to meet with a Chinese tour guide that would take us around the famous Square, and forbidden city. She was a nice enough women, late 20’s with great English and a great depth of knowledge about China. She pointed out almost every building and gave its history. Right around now, I looked around and noticed the air looked quite odd. I thought it was just the way the sun was rising, but the “filter” didn’t leave once the sun had completely risen. “This is the smog we are famous for,” our tour guide explained. I honestly cant remember if she said that the fog was worse in the winter because everyone was using their heaters and increasing energy consumption…or better in the winter because the air was less humid and thin (if you know please inform me, I’m pretty irritated with myself that I can’t remember).
After arriving at all the tourist traps, she started getting pretty political. Really all I care to say about that, but I was worried a passing guard would hear her rhetoric and throw us all in jail. I was happy when she switched from politics and current events to history. Did you know the Emperor of China had a whole city of concubines for him and him alone? I hadn’t. I looked at my girlfriend and made the facial expression for “That would be pretty cool huh?” She wasn’t as amused by this fact, and even less so by my stupidity.
I was really pleasantly surprised by Beijing and China as a whole. They weren’t these savage monsters that knew nothing but how to be rude and untrustworthy. I’m sure they have that, hell, name a country that doesn’t. And although their customer service may not be as crisp as Japan’s, there certainly is something to be said about Chinese hospitality. Of course, I got strange looks in certain places. This really old guy just came up to my face and looked at me. I looked at my tour guide searching for an explanation, and she just shrugged. But people, for the most part, were just as friendly as I had been experiencing back “home” in Japan. Hell, the customer service of these “rude and backwards people” definitely beat some of the restaurants I frequented back in the States.
Right after this “old guy incident,” my tour guide gasped as she looked at her phone. “Trump just won…” she let out in despair. I chuckled as I realized I found out about who my next President was from a Chinese woman in Beijing.
“Take the first train out in the morning to Asahikawa, then from there its an easy trip to the mountain. There is not a lot to do in Asahikawa so I recommend staying in the station,” – Life-Saving Patagonia Woman (Mina-san).
I checked out of my AirBnb at around 7AM. I figured that would give me enough time to eat breakfast, walk to the station, and still make first train. I seriously do not know what I was thinking, perhaps I was still tired from the endless night with no A/C. I COMPLETELY missed the first train. By the time I got to the station, not only had I missed the first train, I had missed the first 8 trains! Again, I’m not sure why I failed to realize the first train left at 6AM. Even more confusing, I felt a rush of shame, as if I had let Mina-san down. I purchased my tickets and was on the next train North.
It was about a two hour trip and I got in to Asahikawa right after noon. Not knowing anything about how to complete my trek to the mountain, I smartly went to the information center. “Hello….English?” I foreigner-ingly asked. “Yes, how may I help you,” the quiet, middle aged woman behind the counter replied. “I’m trying to go to Asahidake.” A concerned look snapped across her face and she let out a sigh of regret. “Did they close the mountain?” I thought to myself. “The bus leaves in ten minutes,” she said with a regretful face. “Ok, ill buy the tickets, I’ll take it!” Unable to connect with my level of haste she calmly replied, “I’m sorry Sir, but the bus is full and you have to have a reservation with hotel before you go. There are only three buses and I believeeee the last one is fullll.”
The next thirty minutes were spent locating hotels near the mountain that were not already booked and within a reasonable price range. (If you’re not like me and would like to search and book your hotel BEFORE you start your trip here is a list of good places to stay near the base of the mountain). Finally, we found one. I had my reservation, my bus tickets, and my maps. I was ready to go. Only problem was, since there were only three buses every day, I had two hours to kill. So…I googled “Top things to do in Asahikawa” and was somehow shocked by the results. No.1-Zoo. Ok, fair enough, that’s reasonable. No.2 Asahikawa Train Station. Whoah. The train station I was standing in, was ranked as the number two thing to do in the city…..I remember thinking to myself “These are going to be a long two hours.”
I put my phone away and decided I might as well see if some things somehow just missed the list. I’ll let you decide for yourself with the pictures below.
Needless to say, I was more than happy when 3:30PM rolled around and I was able to get on the bus.
1094 km (680 miles) north of Tokyo lies Japan’s northernmost city Wakkanai, a town known for its geography and its seafood. If you’ve studied Japanese at all, you probably know that Wakkanai is pretty much the same as the shortened version of wakaranai (I don’t know). The name itself actually comes from the Ainu Yam-wakka-nay, which supposedly means “cold-water river.” I can’t attest to the temperature of the rivers here, but I can say that in September, when the rest of Japan was sweating profusely, I was regretfully shivering in my very thin jacket.
With an average low of of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) in September, and -6C (19F) in the winter, I’m surprised anyone actually lives here, year-round. But they do, supposedly. According to Wikipedia, 37,011 cold resistant people inhabit this city year round. If you had asked me, 24 hours after I arrived, how many people I thought lived here, I would guess a mere 2000.
The two days I spent exploring the city, I saw but a handful of people. Not an exaggeration at all. The most populated places I saw included the train station and the hotel. The streets were empty, the shops deserted. It was rather creepy. Eerily creepy. As if everyone had left town for some event, and I was one of the few people, uninformed and left behind.
I wanted to “explore the city” so I went out in search of food. My first stop landed me in a VERY local seafood restaurant. My Japanese is not by any means amazing now, but back then it was absolutely abysmal. All I could mutter was, “Tabette mo ii desu ka? Can I eat?” The owner of the shop, looking at me as if I was an alien or lost (both of which I could have easily been according to this short, older Japanese woman that seemed to have never left town) started spouting off in Japanese. Naturally, I knew nothing of what she was saying. I was not ignorant enough to assume she spoke English, as could be possible in Tokyo, so I curled my lips inward, embraced the tension in the room as everyone (note 3 people) looked at me, nodded my head and said “Hai…”
Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. I continued on, in search of food, or English, or civilization as I cursed myself for not bringing a thicker jacket. After touring what seemed like the entire city and feeling a profound but unfamiliar loneliness that I had never experienced before, I decided I would just go back to the hotel and perhaps wait until morning to eat. “Maybe all the restaurants close early….everyday…” I thought.
I walked back at a much faster pace, attempting to quiet the relentless feeling of being isolated. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was experiencing. I’m not big on supernatural phenomenon, but the void created by lack of human interaction, even just seeing people on the street at a reasonable time, was replaced with something sinister. I began pushing away thoughts that something(s) was(were) watching me as I walked through the city. I wasn’t necessarily afraid, just creeped out. “Seriously, where is everyone?”
I finally arrived back at my hotel, and regained my humanity once I saw the receptionist. I’ve never been so excited to see a stranger before, and part of me just wanted to stay and “absorb” more human interaction. Starving, I asked “Tabemono wa… (Food?)” expecting him to either say sorry or something I would never understand. Instead, he pointed to his right and said “Hai.” How had I missed this? There was a restaurant…..In the hotel….and I just walked around a post-apocalyptic city for hours in search of food. I did away with my thoughts of calling myself an idiot and proceeded to the restaurant.
I walked in not expecting much, and I’m glad I did. The restaurant was about the size of my hotel room, maybe a little larger, with no windows and dim lighting. There were no paintings, no television screens, nothing but silence. Of course, there was no one there except the waiter, and I assumed, the chef. The options on the menu were seafood, seafood, and more seafood with absolutely no pictures. Overwhelmed, irritated, and starving I pointed to the middle option, and the waiter nodded and was off. Five minutes later, my life saving food had arrived. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, but it was definitely enough. Now that I had gotten food, I decided it was time to go to sleep, since there was, literally, nothing else to do in this city at 9PM.
Upon waking, I decided to explore more before I departed via ferry to an island just off the coast of Wakkanai. Interestingly enough, there is a strong Russian presence in Hokkaido due to its proximity to Russia, naturally. As such, some of the signs are in Japanese, English, and Russian. I don’t remember seeing too many Russians as I didn’t see too many people, but they had to be there, somewhere, perhaps watching….
Wakkani, a cool little city to see, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend visiting alone, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting in the winter.
Sapporo itself seemed like a pretty neat town. Unfortunately, I was only there for less than 24 hours, so there was only so much I could see. Here’s what I got to.
The Sapporo Beer Factory is worth a visit. I will say, if you don’t speak any Japanese, prepare to be considerably underwhelmed. Its mostly old Sapporo Beer pictures and old Japan maps. If you’re madly in love with Sapporo beer, or even if you just had it from time to time while you ate Sushi in the U.S., give it a visit.
Odori Park was surprisingly pleasant, and long. The thing almost stretches an entire Kilometer! Almost. I considered walking the whole thing, and am by no means anti-nature, but you see one tree….you kind of see them all….All jokes aside, beautiful park right in the middle of the city.
As day turned to night, I began to head towards my AirBnb. I could make the story of me trying to find my AirBnB into a post of it’s own, but here’s the shortened version. Mind you, its 8 PM, I’ve been walking around the city all day, am exhausted and just want to sleep.
Me: “Moshi moshi…ano….eigo ga?….”
AirBnb Woman (That sounded like a guy on the phone): “Yes, I speak English, do you stay with us?”
Me: “Yeah, I’m just looking for the place now, the address you listed has me in front of a 7-11…”
AirBnb Woman: “Ah, ok, do you watch small park.”
Me: “Can I see small park? …..No, just a 7-11, what’s the park’s name I can put it in my phone.”
AirBnb Woman: “No name, just park. Find park.”
I walk around the 7-11 3 or 4 times.
Me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see a park, is there anything else to describe your apartment?”
AirBnb: “Sorry, I cannot understand.”
Me: “Where is apartment?”
AirBnb: “Please speak more slow.”
Me: “Apato ga doko desu ka?”
AirBnb: “Ah please wait.”
Me: (hmmm, maybe these 7-11 guys know where this address my phone is saying 7-11, really is)
(They didn’t know)
(Call from AirBnb woman 10 minutes later): “Hello, I’m park.”
Me: “You’re at the park?”
AirBnb Woman: “Yes”
Me: “Can you send me location of park?”
AirBnb Woman: “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”
Me: (frustrated) “Koen no basho wa nan desu ka?”
AirBnb: (tells me park name)
Me: “……thank you……..”
I put the park name into my phone, and start walking. Ten to fifteen minutes later, I find said park. The thing was the size a driveway and it had nothing but grass and a sign that read park in Japanese.
Me: “Ah, hi, thank you for coming, sorry I couldn’t find the place by myself.”
AirBnb MAN: “Ah no problem.”
We walk to this apartment and I had to ask…
Me: “AirBnb picture is woman, no?”
AirBnb Man: “Ah yes, my wife.”
We arrived at the apartment, I tried my best to not look or sound irritated even though the address was not the same as the one given. Oh well. There was a bed, a phone charger, and “free-wifi.” I very quickly found myself asleep.
I had been in Japan for well over a year by this point, August 25th, 2016, but I hadn’t seen ANY of Japan. Between going back and forth on U.S. Navy deployments, and visiting family back home on the East Coast, I realized I’d seen more of the Pacific Ocean than I had of Nihon (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s a BIG ocean, with not much in it besides Asian Warships, Ocean Liners, and the occasional Sea Animal). I was finally transferring from working on a ship to working in a Navy building and decided that this month in between would be an excellent opportunity to do some exploring.
The very next day, August 26th, a Saturday, I woke up with no plans at 0530, mind still contaminated with military schedule, took a shower, packed my NorthFace backpack with two outfits, wore a third, and got on a train bound for Tokyo. The only problem was, the day prior, I had purchased these Patagonia pants that were…..well, whatever is tighter than “extra slim fit.” I consider myself a pretty confident guy, but that entire walk to the station, train ride, airport walk, I was PRETTY self conscious of these pants that articulated every curve of me with great attention to detail. Keen words of wisdom, never shop for clothing after dinner and celebratory “I’m finished with deployment for the rest of my life” drinks WITHOUT trying the clothing on at some point in time.
Disregarding my lack of comfort, I trekked on towards the airport, researching airline ticket pricing the entire way, waiting to pull the trigger until I knew for sure what time I would arrive/how much time I would have to get through security. I found the cheapest ticket, I believe around $200, and it took off an hour later. I was 45 minutes away from the airport…..The next available flight was 3 hours later and $100 more expensive. Yabai. I was now on a timeline, a short, constricted one at that…and I was leaning on the “late” side. As luck would have….I missed my exit, thinking I was heading to Terminal Two and had to double back. I got off the train, ran to the other side of the station, got on the train, took it one stop and SPRINTED to the ticket counter, accounting for the tightness of my pants and being painfully reminded of the “slim” factor with every step. Sweating, I politely asked the women if she spoke English. She even more politely responded,”Yes, where is your destination Sir?” “Sapporo” I panted. And she told me that the next available flight was in three hours. “Eh?! There isn’t a flight in fifteen minutes?” She typed the magical logarithm into her computer and seemed pretty uncomfortable, getting ready to tell me it wasn’t possible. I told her I’m not checking luggage and am more than happy to sprint to the terminal. She smiled, I payed, she printed a ticket, and I was off.
Have you ever seen a chocolate macchiato man drenched in sweat, running through the airport at full sprint in hiking boots, SKINNY hiking pants, and a backpack?
Mr. Smith-Mena?” A Japanese flight attendant at the gate asked as I tried to look calm, cool, and collected. “Yes, thank you,” I replied, handing her my boarding pass as I wiped the sweat off my forehead and forearms, a telling sign of my panicked sprint through the airport. The ever so friendly flight attendants smiled and closed the gate behind me. I boarded the plane, found my seat, and as my adrenaline faded, slipped into a reassuring sleep where I reflected on just how lucky I had been.
The flight itself was quick, less than two hours. (How long did it take for you to get to the airport Mario?) I’m glad you asked. The trip TO the airport took a whopping two and half hours, longer than the actual flight. If you’re traveling to Japan, you can except the same, as the main airport is tucked away two hours away from the city. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but EVERY time I travel, the absolute worst part of the trip, is getting from home to airport.
Alas, I woke up as we landed, and there I was, in a new city, ready to resume the adventure. After exploring the city by foot for an hour or two, I realized, I REALLY REALLY need to get rid of these pants, somehow, someway. I pull out my phone and find a Patagonia store, 3 kilometers away from my location. Perfect. The only way to get there was by walking or by taxi, so I decided to save some cash and burn some calories. About 20 minutes into my walk, I realized they closed in an hour, so…..my “explore the city pace” turned into a “seriously…..again?….” pace. I got to the store with 30 minutes to spare.
“Konban wa….ano…..eigo ga?….” I stumbled through, in my then preschool Japanese (that has since been upgraded to Kindergarten level Japanese). “Shou shou o-machi kudasai” the man replied as he looked around, then called a women to the counter. In the best English I have seriously ever heard in Japan, “How may I help you?” “Whoah,” I stupidly muttered, as I always do when caught off guard by great English. “Umm…I bought these pants yesterday, and….they’re a little tight. Would you happen to have any that could fit me?” She pulled these blue pants out and had me try them on. Still. Too. Tight. I walked out and shook my head. She laughed, “You have very thick legs.” I can count with one hand, the number of times I’ve been complimented on my legs. I had no idea if she meant it as a compliment, or just as a matter of fact, but I blushed and grinned as if someone had just proposed to me, “Really hoping you have a larger size.” They did, I tried them on, and for the first time in 8 hours, my legs could breathe. “I’ll buy two.” I picked a grey pair and we went to the counter.
I asked her if I could return the other unworn skinny pair I had in my bag. “Of course.” Then I pushed my luck and asked if I could return the pair I had been previously wearing. These pants weren’t cheap! “Sorry I don’t think so…” she replied with a frown. Just as I was saying I understood, she motioned for me to wait and went off to talk to her manager, the guy that supposedly didn’t speak English. She said something, he said something, she said something, he nodded his head, she returned smiling and told me I could in fact return my misery pants. I couldn’t have been more thankful.
She asked what I was doing in Japan, and I told her I wanted to hike something cool. “Which mountain?” It hadn’t hit me until just then that I had done ZERO research on ANY mountains in Hokkaido because I had been so focused on just getting there….and then my pants. “Haha, actually I don’t really know, do you recommend anything?” I could see the passion glowing off her skin as she told me about a mountain called Asahidake, Mt. Asahi. She showed me pictures of some cool hikes she did there over the winter and I was really impressed by how nice and adventurous this woman was. She explained how to get there, and that was that. In the morning I would wake up, and head towards Asahidake.
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