God’s kitchen

It’s true what they say; Vietnam really is a Garden of Eden for gastronauts. After the repetitive cuisine of the DPRK (cold and spicy was the recurring theme; still, better than what the country’s residents are provided with) it’s been an absolute delight to sample such culinary excellence. A recommendation for anyone travelling here: the Green Tangerine restaurant in the Old Quarter of Hanoi has to be seen (and the food tasted) to be believed.

So, to overall impressions of this city. It has all the makings of a Samuel Beckett play in three acts, verging from the sublime to the ridiculous via the tragic. Sublime, the cuisine; ridiculous, the traffic, and tragic, seeing a war veteran who had lost both his legs being given a piggy-back ride through the French Quarter by a young woman.

The streets of Hanoi are pretty lethal, owing to the amount of traffic and the absence of traffic jams. 90% of the vehicles are motorbikes, and they stop for nothing, be it man, woman or car. It makes walking around the city utterly exhausting, as switching off for one second could spell disaster. At the end of each day my nerves have been frazzled into ash just because of the concentration required to get from A to B. It’s a stark contrast from Pyongyang’s half-deserted roads.

But now it’s time for me to return home. I feel far more than last year that I’ve become acquainted with the true grit and graft required for the bona fide travelling experience; I’ve had to rely on my wits a lot more this time round and while it’s meant that this trip did not have the fairytale quality that last year’s did, I think I’m better equipped for future expeditions.

And so, time to re-join the rat race…and once again, I can’t help but feel that I’ll be running with a different number on my jersey.

Red pill

Back out of North Korea. It feels like I’ve been unplugged from the Matrix. Unfortunately I can’t elaborate much
on my time there, as most topics are too sensitive to post online. But the people there are wonderful, and that
gives you hope. Hanoi next….

Dr Jekyll and Mr Beijing

Beijing remains much the same, although my interaction with it has differed vastly from last year. I think one’s greatest enemy in this city is naivety. Once you know that hardly anyone speaks a word of English, least of all the taxi drivers, and that half the people are out to make a quick buck out of sheltered tourists, then it’s possible to get by and actually enjoy yourself here. You just need to treat the place like it’s a spoilt child, and not take any crap. Armed with that attitude, you should be fine.

Despite niggling health problems (jetlag still taking its toll, vicious mosquito bites), I’ve been able to get out and see a different side to this city, albeit one that only reinforces my initial suspicions about the place that were formed while I was here last year. Walking around the hutongs near the Bell and Drum Tower, I witnessed a society mired in grime and poverty. Whilst I don’t condone the actions of the Chinese government with respect to these neighbourhoods (mowing them down in anticipation of the Olympics), it becomes clear why they are a source of such anxiety to the powers that be. They do not in any way give an impression of a thriving, successful city, which is an image that the government is so determined to portray. Thus, the callous moves being made in order to clean the place up are simply an act of desperation, borne out of a desire to impress.

The problem is that no matter how much spit and polish the government applies, they will never bring the populace of the city up to perceived acceptable standards, because there is an intrinsic lack of etiquette which will never be eradicated. For all the flashing lights and shiny facades, any impression of civilisation evaporates when you watch someone cycle up to a pair of bins, look inside them, rummage around a bit and then continue on their way. As I was paying for an item in a supermarket today, the (female) cashier snorted and then spat onto the floor next to her, just before giving me my change. Yet every newspaper I open (state-sponsored as they are in this country) is awash with success stories about how Beijing is bang on course for the Olympics.

Is it really?

Onto more trivial matters. I found my way to the Pyongyang Art Studio, tucked away in the Chaoyang District (the area of Beijing I’m staying in), and came across a Korean phrasebook which was published in Pyongyang in 1989. True to form, the first word it teaches you to say is ‘comrade’. Delightful.

Chaoyang is actually an excellent area of Beijing to stay in. Aside from the aforementioned army of expats, there is a myriad of kooky restaurants and bars, which provide everything from Belgian beer to fish ‘n’ chips. I’ve also found the people easier to handle than last year, and in contrast to the looks of mistrust and downright distaste I received in Tokyo, the majority of people here seem to regard me with a mixture of confusion and stupefaction. Puzzlement I can handle, antipathy is harder to take.

So to the long awaited departure to North Korea (or DPRK, as we’ve been instructed to call it – that’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) – tomorrow morning, we fly out to Pyongyang. That means very little contact with the outside world, so until September 16th…

Body shock

I’m reaching the end of a physically punishing stay in Tokyo.

The first thing has been the jetlag – I’ve never experienced it to this extent before, and I’ve been stunned by just how much it messes you up. I’ve found myself wandering around my room at odd hours of the night, not really sure of what’s going on, feeling listless and disorientated. It’s a massive shock to the system, which I’m only just getting over.

Secondly, the temperature. It is mindblowingly, blisteringly hot here, and humid to boot. The minute you set foot outdoors, you become sealed in a film of sweat which doesn’t leave until you retreat back inside. It makes even the gentlest of walks a task of Herculean proportions, and I now understand why everyone here queues for escalators while the stairs remain empty – climbing up them is just too strenuous in the conditions.
Yet, everywhere I look, there are businessmen in suit jackets with their ties done up to the collar. To witness this unfailing conservatism in the face of such ferocious heat is staggering. And so, another Japanese paradox bursts vividly into life: the histrionic, half-dressed Harajuku kids versus the buttoned-up, poker-faced salarymen. This is not a nation that does things by halves.

I remember thinking to myself last year that I understood even less about the Japanese than I did before I came here. And my conceptions of the place and people continue to unravel. There is such diversity on a cosmetic level, yet everyone in this city seems wired into some kind of hive mind, which no foreigner can have any hope of penetrating. Yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that no outsider stands a chance of sussing out the Japanese, because the Japanese don’t really know what to make of themselves. There seems to be some kind of identity crisis which is embedded into the national consciousness, coupled with a malaise that is pre-programmed from birth. This country is hurtling inexorably into the future, yet is still haunted by its past; specifically, the events of the Second World War. It only takes a cursory glance at a handful of Japanese films, for instance, to see that these people have not yet come to terms with what happened. I had a moment of clarity regarding this matter a while ago, as I was looking through a collection of photographs in a magazine, and came across one taken shortly after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. An eight year-old boy had the corpse of his baby brother strapped to his back, and was taking him to a mass burial site. This is what modern Japan has grown up with; these tragedies etched into a collective psyche.

I don’t think by any means that this is the sole cause of the problem. There is another element which predates the bombings, and that is the rigidity of Japan’s social structure, and the fear of failure hanging like a Sword of Damocles over everyone’s necks. Add to this a disturbingly high suicide rate, and you begin to see a stark picture of a country which is seriously struggling with itself.

Anyway, enough of my analytical meanderings. I’ve been grateful to see another side of Japan, and while my trip has not been as charmed as my last one, it’s been every bit as rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time chilling out in temples (chilling being the operative word, as they’ve provided a crucial refuge from the furnace outdoors) and observing people going about their daily lives. I’ve also seen some spectacular Engrish, perhaps best of all ‘Fresh Sand’ written on sandwich packets.

So back to Beijing tomorrow. I’m in the blue corner, and China’s capital is in the red. I’m going to give it a better run for its money than last year. I’m almost looking forward to the challenge.
And yet, all the while, Pyongyang beckons…

Brief encounter

I’m at the beginning of another short tryst with my darling Tokyo, although free from the constraints of organised tours, I feel I will get more out of my time here.

After an inauspicious start at Narita airport, which saw me being asked by the guard at customs if I was trafficking drugs (really, is it possible to ask a more fatuous question? Has he ever had someone answer in the affirmative?), I managed to find my way to my hotel, only to discover that I couldn’t check into my room for another 4 hours. Having not slept for a whole calendar day, I decided that this would be a good time to head out to Akihibara (also known as ‘Electric City’), essentially Tokyo’s geek Parthenon. Home to every manner of electric goods as well as a dazzling array of basements with ‘over 18s only’ signs dangling ominously (some might say invitingly, though not me) over them, it truly is the district of the strange. I ventured into one massive arcade, which emitted an absolutely brain-shattering clamour; kind of like someone crossing World War II with a Pokemon game, and then clubbing you over the head with it. Suitably broken, I headed back to my hotel and went to sleep.

I woke up at 1am, waited until about 5.30 and then headed out to the Tsukiji fish market, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be up to much that early on a Sunday morning. However, my luck turned when, wandering around the area nearby, I chanced upon a large Buddhist temple, where a service was in progress. I snuck in and listened to the monks chanting in unison; a soothing, poignant experience. In a city such as this one, where people seem so anaesthesised by the rampant consumerist culture, it’s refreshing to find some kind of oasis where spirituality is still important.

I’ve spent the rest of the day so far re-discovering Harajuku, which has provided a greater source of amusement than last time I was here. One shop in particular stood out, called ‘Pet Paradise’; suffice to say, if you’ve ever wanted to dress your pet up as another animal, this is the place for you. I’m not even going to attempt to psychoanalyse that one. Another store, the name of which I forget, contained a sign which assured customers that all items are ‘made in the world’. Which was a relief, because I’ve never been satisfied with anything I’ve bought that was made in outer space.

A quick note on my immediate surroundings (namely an internet cafe): punters are given individual booths with doors that lock, privacy guaranteed. I’m not sure what to make of this. Should I be worried? There’s a miniscule piece of what looks like stale salmon at the top of the keyboard…

Ah, Tokyo. Always shocking, never surprising.