I mostly use this blog for travel and photography, but I’m sure that my followers know I also do a spot of literary work. Over at www.beatdom.com, you’ll find me musing the Beat Generation. Beatdom is a literary journal that mostly publishes essays about the Beats (and related artists) but also runs the occasional poem or short story.
Last month, Beatdom turned ten years old. We celebrated by publishing our eighteenth issue. I can hardly believe that it’s been a full decade… for a small literary journal, that’s a hell of an achievement.
In 2010, I think, we grew from just publishing the literary journal into being a publishing company that puts out books about the Beats. At the beginning of May, we released Beat Transnationalism by John Tytell, and we have another two books set for release this year. (I’m also working on a book about Allen Ginsberg, which I expect to finish in 2018.)
Today is Dragon Boat Festival here in China. It’s an old holiday in celebration of a poet called Quyuan, who allegedly killed himself after seeing his country fall apart. In fact, many people today believe that he was either gay or sleeping with the emperor’s daughter, so perhaps it’s not the patriotic tale that the government tries to present. Or maybe people just like gossip. In any case, it’s revered by most Chinese not as a day to celebrate the past or eat zongzi, but as a few days’ holiday from work.
Unfortunately, in China, the government enjoys the old bait-and-switch of giving you a holiday but then requiring you to work it off later. That means a Monday off work requires you to do a Saturday at work and so on. It’s a cruel ruse. Nevertheless, I finagled Saturday afternoon off work and headed from Huainan down to Hefei for the long weekend. It started, alas, at the dentist, but by Saturday night I was taking in live music and drinking nice whiskey.
On the Sunday I rode the new Hefei subway line out to Binhu, near Chaohu. It is amazing how fast this city has grown. I first came to Hefei in 2010 and it seems to have more than tripled in size. It is, in fact, virtually unrecognizable. The whole area of Binhu was fields when I first arrive, and now it is practically a city center to itself. There are vast shopping malls, theme parks, exorbitant hotels, and every self-respecting franchise has a couple of locations here now.
With a group of friends, I drove around the western end of Chaohu (the suffix -hu means “lake” in Chinese, so this is Chao Lake) to a small village where my friend was participating in an art show. The route was scenic enough, but it was here that I ran my first and only marathon back in 2015, and I felt exhausted just sitting in the back of a car.
At the small village, we soon found the old cluster of buildings that would house a small art show. Inside, modern art clashed strangely with the old walls and doors, and sat out unnaturally against the blue skies and green gardens. Yet somehow it was really very pretty. The art was all rather obvious, but nonetheless interesting. It all seemed to revolve around themes of environmentalism, which was pleasant to see. Someone had framed the door to a bathroom with a sign that said, essentially, “All life is art.” It reminded me of being a student and hearing that sort of thing come from my artsy friends. It sounded marginally less stupid back then.
I was approached by a team of reporters from Anhui TV, who asked to interview me, and then followed me around the grounds of the building as I perused the art work. In the end, I never did get their contact detail and I don’t watch TV so I probably won’t get to see myself wandering awkwardly, pretending not to notice all the people following me.
My favourite exhibit was a bizarre one comprised of two Irishmen playing traditional music with a Chinese piper, while another Chinese man tattooed the piper’s back. Everyone crammed into this tiny room and jostled for the best position to film the spectacle. However, if you looked carefully you would see some odd Chinese characters on the back wall which, when read backwards, make fun of the people in the room. It basically says “People are so stupid these days that they will crowd around and stare at anything.”
After the art show, we all spent the night in Binhu. It’s seemed like an entirely different city from the rest of Hefei. It’s all so new and, with the right light, it was actually quite pretty. Travelling in China on holidays is a nightmare, but it’s nice to know that without going too far, you can still get away from it all and see something new.
Way back in 2008, not long after I first arrived in Asia, I took a trip to the Philippines. At that time I was working for a crooked hagwon in Daegu, South Korea, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a break and so when a group of very new friends I met in a bar suggested all travelling to the Philippines together, I jumped at the opportunity.
Soon we were in Moalboal, a beautiful little village which is popular for scuba diving. I was too exhausted from work to bother with the diving, and so instead I sat on my balcony and watched the fish and sharks in the water below, sometimes tearing myself away from a bottle of rum long enough to join them.
Here are some photos from that trip. (Keep in mind I was a terrible photographer back then and using a terrible little point-and-shoot camera).
This year, I have some time off in the summer and I would like to get back to the Philippines. One of the reasons is that it costs less than $200 for me to fly almost anywhere there from China.
As I’ve not seen much more than Cebu (and even then I mostly sat on my balcony with a bottle of rum for a week), I would like to explore further.
My main concern is time. I will be travelling with my girlfriend and she only has 10 days off work. We can get to almost any of these places pretty quickly, but travelling around would be very limited. Instead, we need to find a place that would be good for a little over a week’s stay, and which would require very minimal travelling from the nearest airport.
Please type your suggestions below. Any advice is very much appreciated.
Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.
This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.
Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.
It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:
Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.
I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.
My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.
Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.
We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…
We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.
We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.
It’s been a month now since I got back from Japan, and as I was there with my girlfriend I didn’t really make notes or keep a journal, so my mind is a little foggy as to the exact ins and outs of the trip. Also, I’m stupidly busy with work, so this shall be a short entry…
After the Guns ‘n’ Roses/ Babymetal concert in Saitama, Vera and I headed to Shinjuku and then took a bus out to Yamanakako. It was surprisingly difficult to find the bus station, but thankfully – as is always the case in Japan – a friendly passer by helped us out. Then, friendly staff at the station ensured we caught a bus within a few minutes of arriving. Japanese people are the best.
At Yamanakako we checked into the lovely Yamanouchi Guest House, where we were greeted by a friendly little old lady who spoke not one word of English, but kindly showed us around her home. Then we explored the nearby lake, where I shot some photos as the sun set over Mount Fuji.
The next day, we decided to climb Mount Fuji, and headed for Fujikawaguchiko. We were flabbergasted by the price of the local bus. In China, $0.20 can get you pretty far. In Japan, a short hop is $20! We booked a ticket on the hiking bus up to the highest station still open in the winter, and enjoyed the slow ride up the mountain.
Sadly, we found that the highest stop had no hiking trails, and so there was nothing we could do except stand around for an hour and a half in the freezing cold, surrounded by hundreds of rude and noisy Chinese tourists. Soon the clouds pulled in and the views were obscured. Mount Fuji, it seems, is better enjoyed from a distance.
We returned to Fujikawaguchiko and climbed a nearby hill, where there were mercifully no Chinese people, and a few birds to watch diving in the dying light. Mount Fuji was cloaked in cloud, and I realized how lucky we had been the previous day to have seen it in its full glory.
The next morning we set off south for Hakone, a scenic area of mountains and lakes and valleys, connected by a fantastic network of buses, boats, trams, trains, and cable cars. Thankfully, this was all covered under the price of a two-day visitor card, otherwise we would have been broke in a few hours. We checked into a little hostel in Gora, and set out to explore the surrounding area.
The following day, we took in Hakone Gora Park and then took the ropeway to Lake Ashi, from where we could see Mount Fuji once again. It was a beautiful ride there, and a ridiculous ride on a giant pirate ship across the lake to Hakone Machiko. Alas, in Japan everything closes really early and we were soon stuck out in the middle of nowhere, awaiting a bus back to Gora that seemed it would never arrive.
The following day we visited the incredible Open Air Museum, with countless sculptures installed across a vast tract of land in a picturesque valley. We intended only to spend an hour or two, but in fact we lost almost a day explore the artwork, the highlight of which was the Picasso exhibition.
In the evening, as always, we enjoyed the onsen and a few local beers (still not impressed) and sakes (very impressed). It was our last day in Japan.
The trip back to Tokyo was a long one, but eventually we found ourselves in South Korea for a fourteen hour layover, and then Hefei, before an airport express bus took us home to Huainan. The trip had been short but enjoyable, and unbelievably expensive. Coming back to China is like going back a hundred or more years, and for my poor girlfriend, who had made her first trip out of China, it was a shock to return and see China through fresh eyes – the unnecessary chaos and filth at every turn. Oh well. It is an odd land for sure, but it – for now – our land, and it’s strange good to be back here.
Last year, my best friend told me that Guns ‘n’ Roses were playing in Tokyo and it took me about two seconds to decide that I would be an idiot not to go with him. We’ve both been G’n’R fans since we were teenagers, and now that we both live in Eastern China, it was only a short hop over the Korean peninsula to get there.
In the end, my friend travelled with a few other mutual friends from China, and I went on an extended stay with my girlfriend, Vera, for whom this was her first time outside China. She’s also a diehard G’n’R fan. We planned to do four days in Tokyo, and then four days around Mount Fuji and Hakone, with the Guns ‘n’ Roses concert right in the middle.
From Huainan to Tokyo
We set off early one morning and took the convenient airport express bus from Huainan to Hefei’s Xinqiao Airport, then two short flights via Incheon Airport in South Korea, to Tokyo, where we arrived in the evening. I had booked the Best Westin in Nishi-Kasai, and we arrived to find what it surely the smallest hotel room I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it came with a bathtub (which a normal sized person could just about sit down in) and the usual fancy toilet seats that really set Japan apart from the world.
In the morning, we set out to explore the middle of Tokyo. In Kuala Lumpur, I had purchased a Lonely Planet guidebook (I never normally buy guidebooks) and we headed for the Chiyoda area. Vera was immediately overwhelmed by Japan – it is so clean and civilized; people don’t spit everywhere; the drivers on the road don’t actively seek to run you over… It was all so different from China.
We explored the area around the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station, admired Hibiya Park, had lunch from a food truck in Nihombashi, and then took in the impressive exhibitions at the National Museum of Modern Art. In fact, although we hadn’t intended to do so, we spent most of the day looking around the art gallery, and by the time we were finished it had gotten dark and suddenly rather cold. During the day, although it was the middle of winter, it had actually been very warm – but as the sun went down, the wind rose, and it was soon freezing cold.
We met my old friend James at Yurakucho Station and then had dinner at a nearby restaurant where we had some incredible food and sake. I hadn’t seen James in eight years, so we had a lot of catching up to do. After dinner, we walked south to Shimbashi and explored a few of the bars there, before saying goodnight. Unfortunately, Vera and I missed the last train home and had to take a taxi. It was only a short hop, but the price was jaw-dropping. Lesson learned, I thought.
Harajuku and Roppongi
The next morning, having miraculously dodged a hangover, we set off for Harajuku. Here, we saw the amusingly named Takeshita-dori, where young people from all over Japan come to buy and show off their outrageous clothes. It is the centre of youth fashion in the country, and suitably impressive. All around Harajuku, however, the crush of people is overwhelming as tourists and shoppers alike descend upon this hip neighborhood.
After lunch, we met up with our Guns ‘n’ Roses-loving friends from China and explored Meiji Shrine, then walked fifteen minutes south to Shibuya, where one can see the busiest intersection on earth. It is pure madness when the lights go green and a seemingly impossible number of pedestrians cross the street. Amazingly, such is the level of politeness in Japan that nobody seems to bump into each other. In Korea and China two people would struggle to share a wide sidewalk without crashing into each other, but in Japan they somehow manage to be more polite and organized at every turn. There was also the Hachiko statue – how could you not take the time to pay tribute to Japan’s favourite dog?
As evening approached, we sought out a bar called Goodbeer Faucets, which has 40 kinds of draft beer. Sadly, the beers were not that impressive. Perhaps the Japanese craft beers are too subtle for my tastes. I prefer a very bitter or hoppy beer, but the Japanese ones I tried were constantly underwhelming and bland. Fortunately, we found a nearby restaurant and scoffed down some sushi and raw horsemeat. Yes, that’s right… raw horse. It was absolutely delicious.
What followed, if I recall correctly, was a drunken series of subway rides to Roppongi, during which we lost various members of our group, but ultimately succeeded in making it to the Brewdog Pub, where we tried everything that was on sale. At a minimum of $10 per beer, it was likely an expensive night. Thankfully, I can’t recall what the bill looked like. The last beer we tried was called “Tokyo” and cost $50 for a bottle… But how could two Scotsmen in Japan not try it?
Guns ‘n’ Roses
When I awoke again without a hangover, I began to think Tokyo was a magical place. I could not recall getting home, nor leaving the Brewdog Pub (although we did, apparently, visit several others that night), and the taxi receipt was horrifying to behold. Oh well. I’ve been to Japan many times and it’s never been cheap.
Today was the day of the concert – the reason we’d all come to Japan. Guns ‘n’ Roses headlining, with Babymetal opening. Did I mention I also love Babymetal? I had no idea when I bought the tickets that they were playing. This was shaping up to be a hell of an experience.
Vera and I made our way to the stadium alone, as our friends were staying in another part of Tokyo. The trip to Saitama, north of Tokyo, was long and confusing, as it’s not really part of the Tokyo Metro. But we got there eventually. Things almost went catastrophically wrong, however, when we arrived at the stadium to find it completely empty and no sign of any concert that day. I ran to the nearest 7-Eleven and used their Wi-Fi to check Google Maps. It seemed there were two stadiums in Saitama. Fuck. Although it didn’t specify which on our tickets, we assumed we were at the wrong one. With no good directions for taking the subway, and no way to figure out how long it would take, we were left with no choice – another bloody taxi ride.
Twenty minutes and more than a hundred dollars later, we arrived at the correct stadium. The trip through the countryside had been very pleasant, giving us a closeup view of life in Japan away from the tourist attractions. But, of course, it was hard to enjoy given the nerves and the fact that I was mentally kicking myself for having not considered that “Saitama Stadium” might be the wrong stadium in Saitama.
Fortunately, we’d left in enough time that we still arrived before the gates opened, and soon we were looking for our seats. We found them way up in what some might call “the nosebleeds.” Granted, we could see everything from up there, but it wasn’t exactly a rock and roll experience. We sat for an hour before I heard my name drifting up from hundreds of feet below, on the stadium floor. “Daaaaaaaaaaaaavvvvvvvve!”
I looked down and saw my friends gathered in the middle of the stadium floor, in the expensive seats. Somehow they had spotted me among the tens of thousands of people in the stadium, and they were gesturing for me to go down.
We quickly ran down to the ticket check for the seats near the stage, and managed to bluff our way in. The problem with Japanese, you see, is that they are just too nice. The guard did speak English, and so I just talked quickly and gestured until he let us in. From there, we met our friends, found some nice empty seats.
Babymetal started, in true Japanese fashion, not a minute late. They were incredible. If you don’t know them, they are a fusion of Asian pop idol group and heavy metal. The three young girls who front the band pretty much dance about while an experience group of metal musicians plays blistering death and thrash music behind them. It sounds like it should be awful, but it works. It was a hell of an experience. I looked around to see the audience divided. Babymetal have thousands of diehard fans, but for many “true” Japanese metalheads, they’re just an embarrassment. Still, I noted the ones who laughed and joked still getting into it. How could you not?
In predictable fashion, Guns ‘n’ Roses came on almost 45 minutes late. No one expected them to show up on time. I don’t think many people expected them to play a particularly good show, either, but it was beyond good. It was magnificent. When Axl Rose stepped out, we were astonished by how fat he’d gotten. Would he stumble about and give a half-assed performance? We all assumed he would, but he sang better and ran about more than he ever did back in the early 90s –for almost four hours. They played all the hit songs, as well as a bit of Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, and they nailed it. I couldn’t imagine a better performance.
After the show, we spent more than an hour trying to find dinner, before settling on a shitty pizza at the only restaurant remaining open in the area. Vera and I managed to take the train back into central Tokyo, but still had to take a taxi part of the way home when the subway closed for the night. It was our last night in Tokyo. Tomorrow we would get out of the big city and see Mount Fuji.
Last month, I travelled around southern Sri Lanka. This was my route, with places I stayed marked by a blue dot and a number:
It was not a very extensive exploration of Sri Lanka, but then I only had two weeks. I aimed to take in some of the best places in the southern half of the island, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to get up north. After Sri Lanka, I returned to China for a few days and then headed off to Japan for a week. I’ll post stories and photos from Japan in the coming weeks. The blog posts from Sri Lanka are below:
My apologies to those who got an e-mail notification from WordPress about my last post (Hikkaduwa) with a confusing title. WordPress somehow managed to screw up the title formatting and mashed several words together.