Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hard Up Down Under

Travel feature for The Skinny

My bags are packed, I’m ready to leave. Australia, I’m done. You’re turning me into a Scottish stereotype. Friends warned me that 23 days here – 10 in Melbourne and Sydney, and 13 backpacking on the east coast above – would be woefully insufficient. It was plenty. Backpacking isn’t really possible here at the moment. Let me clarify – it’s entirely possible to trudge about with an overstuffed backpack on, sleep in fusty dorms of twelve and live off a relentless diet of pasta with tomato sauce every night. But it’s futile. You may be living like a tramp, but you’ll be spending like a king.

“The economy’s too bloody strong,” was the frustrated explanation of Roger, a hostel owner who was taking me and only me to his empty accommodation one night. Well, it was low season, and other hostels were busier, but it’s true to observe that Australia has never been more expensive for a visitor than it is now. A pound used to buy two-and-a-half Australian dollars, now only one-and-a-half. So a low-range hostel dorm bed, $30, used to be a reasonable £12, but is now £20. That’s only the start. If you like to travel with a guidebook, bring one with you and guard it like a second passport: they’re $40 to $75 here. A sandwich, wee bottle of coke and pack of crisps will cost $15 (£10). It’s the same for a pack of cigarettes, and if you can find a pint for less than five quid, you’ve chanced upon happy hour. Prepare to go hungry, sober, or insolvent.

It’s fine if you work here. Many of the travellers I’ve met here have been working, too. The minimum wage is $15 (£10), but bar staff can expect at least $20, and one former barman told me he earned $57 per hour on Easter Sunday. That’s forty bloody quid!

The main attractions on Australia’s east coast are, I should say, free. Beaches are free. Swimming is free. Surfing is free (if you have a board). I saw a lot of beaches. I lay under the sun. The sun is free. Queensland is “The Sunshine State” (disclaimer: sunshine may also be received or distributed in other states). Also free and occasionally available: rain. One tourist brochure gave me inspiration for how to enjoy Queensland’s beaches: “Build an old-fashioned sand castle, creating priceless memories to share with loved ones”. So I’ll build a castle with turrets and a moat, I thought, and take pictures and post them to Facebook or something? But I didn’t want to shell out for a bucket and spade. I wavered, and chose lunch instead.

I spent money to see other beaches. I paid over $300 – that’s the going rate – for two days and a night on Fraser Island (coastline, above), the world’s biggest sand island. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – like the Grand Canyon and Angkor and Stonehenge and central Edinburgh – which means the UN guarantees it’s cool. I won’t disagree with the UN. The main highway on Fraser Island is 75 Mile Highway; it’s also called 75 Mile Beach. It runs the entire length of the island. Depending on the Pacific tide, 75 Mile Beach is up to 100m deep (or “wide”, if you’re driving along it) with another 100m of chaotic, shark-infested surf, and a 20-50m wide mirror in-between, constantly shrinking and being refreshed by the sea, reflecting the sky and clouds above. I called it 75 Mile Mirror. Contrary to bible advice, some wise men have built hotels upon the sand; they’re perfectly stable. Three buffet meals were included in the deal, so my new friends and I stocked up on nutrients, eager to improve our calories-to-dollars ratios. At night, groaning, we trundled back to 75 Mile Beach. Twenty miles away from the nearest settlement, the sky was as clear as I’d ever seen. While on the lookout for wild dingoes, we stood on the highway and watched shooting stars slice the Southern Cross. Stars are free. Meteors are free.

75 Mile Beach is not the best beach on Fraser Island, certainly. For a start, it’s a highway: all the tourist traffic uses it to get anywhere. One destination requiring most of its length is the Champagne Pools, a gathering of smooth rocks which form four or five perfect little swimming pools of frothy sea water, not champagne. While most tourists were distracted by the pools, repeatedly topped-up by the gracious sea, there were two idyllic golden sand beaches just metres away, uninhabited even while tour buses were parked nearby. Inland, a hundred metres high and through miles of rainforest, is Lake McKenzie (below), a freshwater lake of deep blue with immaculately white sand verges. Such a beautiful spot could never be a secret, so there were dozens of other people around, even in low season. But it’s easy to walk a little and find space. We were there for about an hour.

I paid to visit another beach too, for about an hour. Among the Whitsunday Islands, a thousand bus minutes up the coast, is Whitehaven Beach (below), famous for having 99% silica sand. Every travel agent in town referred to it as one of the top five or ten or three beaches in the world. CNN voted it the No.1 eco-friendly beach in the world. OK, let’s disagree with CNN. Every day, dozens of ferries make four-hour round trips shuttling tourists to this beach, bypassing many other lovely-looking and empty beaches on the way. In what way is that eco-friendly? Being a practiced skinflint by now, I bought the cheapest ticket to the island I could find. I paid sixty quid ($89) for a choppy two-hour ferry ride, on which a young boy was thrown against a bannister and lost a tooth, and lots of people vomited, to spend one hour on this beach. It was indeed a very beautiful beach, impossibly fine white sand and gently turquoise waters. I was just dozing, when a boat landed not twenty feet in front of me. “Right guys, everybody off, here it is, the number one beach in the world! I’ve got footies and frisbees, who wants one?" But Whitehaven cannot be the number one, ten or fifty beach in the world, because it is publicised as such. It is immodest. The best beaches don’t gloat about themselves. The best beaches keep mum. And the best beaches don’t eject you back onto a ferry after a quid-a-minute stay. Whitehaven isn’t even the best beach in Queensland – I may, or may not, have already referred to that already; not telling.

Millions of beaches, beaches for free. What else is there to the east coast of Australia? The Great Barrier Reef – which also has the UN’s stamp of approval – is a huge attraction for scuba divers. I can’t dive, so I can’t comment. It’s probably amazing. You can snorkel too, and kayak with dolphins, and skydive. You can eat steak pies or fish and chips or pasta. You can watch the royal wedding in a pub among Union flag-waving oi-boys and tiara’d daddy’s princesses from the home counties. You can watch a bloke with a guitar setting up and predict, correctly, that he’ll kick off with Wonderwall. I am aware which Queen’s land this is and so on; but it’s still a little disappointing to be 10,000 miles from home and have days which could have been had in Margate. Sydney’s exciting. Melbourne’s really cool. I hear the west coast is wonderful.

Best of all? New Zealand is only a thousand miles away.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Trainhopping In Japan

Travel feature for The Skinny

I could wait tables on this train, I thought. I could serve drinks, heavy drinks in tall glasses, on a tray held on one hand, using only one leg, while drunk, I thought. It’s so smooth! Sitting on a British train is like hatching a nest of pneumatic drills, I thought, compared to the flat-bottomed glide of this gleaming white shinkansen. How can I ever go back? And it’s going so fast, according to the blur of scenery in the window. I stood up, holding my water bottle in my left hand, and scouted. No-one was looking: one suit was transfixed by his laptop, a suit in front was concentrating hard on his bento lunchbox, and the suit at the back was asleep. I lifted my left leg off the ground, crouched, and hopped across a river, three kayaks and a houseboat, without spilling a drop. Take that Jonathan Edwards – you, actually, very nice man – take that jump and stick it!

I exaggerate a little: British trains are okay; what really feels like you're hatching a nest of pneumatic drills is when you're sitting on the bog when a massive earthquake strikes 450 miles away. First thought: am I ill? I can’t sit still, my head is spinning; how much did I drink last night? Then: maybe this is what a faraway earthquake feels like. It wasn't my gut or my head, it was exactly what a faraway earthquake feels like.

Although the calamities in the north-eastern part of Honshu have knocked it off any tourist’s schedule for the foreseeable future, most of Japan is continuing with life as normal. The Japanese are legendarily stoic and hard-working – Hiroshima’s tram system was up-and-running just three days after the city was wiped flat by the A-bomb – they’ll bounce back as quickly as is humanly possible. Japan itself is a beautiful country with a singular culture, more resistant to globalisation than most, and so endlessly fascinating to Western eyes. Ordinarily, this is where I'd say, "There's never a bad time to visit Japan", but the Foreign Office might disagree, so check online for the latest advice.

If you want to get the most out of a trip to Japan, you have to get a Japan Rail Pass. It’s a piece of folded card you show to barrier staff to get on any JR train – including most bullet trains and all local trains – whenever you want. So you can wake up anywhere in Japan and go anywhere in Japan that day, on a whim if you prefer, for the duration of your pass. Presently, the pass unfortunately features on its cover a cartoon representation of a tsunami, towering over Mount Fuji – two images iconic of Japan; one with a painful new association.

On my first morning in Tokyo, I handed my JR Pass receipt to Aika at Ueno station, to receive the pass itself. “Oh no!” she said, her face pained with regret. “Your train will be a Kodama, it’s the slow one.” Sadly, I would not be breaking any land speed records on my first day in her country. The sluggish Kodama is the most common shinkansen between Tokyo and Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe). It took 50 minutes to carry me 70 miles to Mishima, where I was to base myself at a friend’s for ten days; that’s 19 miles further than the Glasgow-Edinburgh train travels in the same time. The Hikari stops less, so is faster: it takes 44 minutes to cover 70 miles. But even the Hikari is an apathetic snail compared to the Nozomi (32 minutes), or the brand new Hayabusa (30 minutes), neither of which are covered by the JR pass.

But merely rattling off numbers can’t effectively convey the speed at which a shinkansen travels. Only one word bullets to mind to perfectly describe the bulleting speed of the Japanese bullet trains: “projectilish”.

Tokyo is the biggest and quite possibly best city in the world. There are 35 million people in Greater Tokyo: that’s seven times the population of Scotland; about the same population as Canada, the word’s second largest country; and almost half the number of Celtic fans who say they were in Seville. But it suffers none of the problems that too-many-people seems to cause other megacities: it’s incredibly clean, tidy and ordered, there’s no air pollution, it’s shockingly safe, and public transport is efficient and usually comfortable. It could so easily be overwhelming, but it feels less crowded than London, which has a quarter Tokyo’s people. I went to Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world, to catch an evening rush hour train to Tokyo station, expecting to see the famous pusher-oners – employees whose task it is to push as many commuters on to each train as possible – and perhaps be pushed on by a pusher-oner. Instead, I got a seat.

While Tokyo functions impeccably, its character remains eccentric. I took a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday and saw normal park activities – badminton, frisbee, picnics, couples hand-in-hand – and less expected sights: an old woman practising keepie-uppies; young girls dressed as Manga characters; groups of competitive rock’n’roll dancers, all dressed like Happy Days characters (mostly The Fonz); an old man with live fish in goldfish bowls hanging from each ear; red-favouring goths; apocalyptic preachers; karate bouts. Around every other corner in central Tokyo is a bewildering and delightful variety of bars, shops and blazing nighttime lights, using inscrutable symbols to make unknown promises. All you can do is wander, wide-eyed, and wonder; and wish to be able to sample it all. But you could live in Tokyo all your life and never sample it all.

With a rail pass in hand, you’re discouraged from trying: it’s time to move on. There are plenty of getaways outside of Tokyo, mostly in the surrounding Japanese Alps. Pelting snow greeted me at the mountainous area of Hakone, so I stripped to the nip and walked outside, into an onsen, a hot bath filled with volcanic water. Back inside the traditional B&B, known as a ryokan, I dressed in a yukata gown, drank green tea, ate a pack of delicious convenience store sushi, and slept on a tatami mat. You could say I spent that evening turning Japanese. Further north – but not within range of the tsunami – is Nikko, another wondrous mountain retreat with beautiful lakes and waterfalls, onsens and elaborate old shrines. Some people use a JR pass to cover as much ground in Japan as possible, but I wanted the pass to serve my holiday, not the other way around. I spent ten days in and around Tokyo, never further north than Nikko, before hopping on a shinkansen to Kyoto.

Kyoto is very different from Tokyo: it’s not a ridiculous size, so it’s less intense, unless you’re a serious scholar of Japanese history, in which case you’d have to spend every waking minute exploring its 2,000 (two thousand) temples and shrines. For the rest of us, we fit in what we can: a golden Buddhist temple here, a zen rock garden there, torii gates and geisha girls almost everywhere. Downtown Kyoto is as clean and modern as any Japanese city, but down its side-streets and alleys you can find flashes of old Japan, as evocative of the area’s history as the Old Town is of Edinburgh’s. Osaka, a convenient half-an-hour westward, is conveniently comparable to Glasgow: twice the size of its ancient neighbour, more commercial and industrial, and with better nightlife. This area, Kansai, also boasts the beautiful former capital of Nara, and Kobe, which you can hop between as you please with a JR pass.

In the days following the disaster, I continued trainhopping around Japan as planned. On the ground, nothing was different; it's odd to see life continuing as normal when the television shows such devastation to fellow citizens; but continue it does. Despite what some media outlets portrayed, Japan wasn't on its knees, and it isn't on its knees now. Don't write Japan off: the shinkansen must go on.