Long Way To China

Before I start maybe a small historical note:

Late in 1988 – while I was in the military service in Germany – I had read in a newspaper that it had become possible to book a passsage on the Trans-Siberian Railway as an individual traveller. I knew that I would have some time to waste after my tour of duty ended, and so I decided to go to Beijing via Moscow on a train.

And so I ended up travelling through the USSR in early 1989 – Gorbachev was still the Communist leader of the Soviet Union and those were the final days of the Cold War.

All of that is now ancient history.

This is more-or-less a direct translation from my diary that I kept during this trip, with a few explanatory notes thrown in later.

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Thursday, 20th of April 1989

It’s ten minutes to three on a dark, overcast afternoon as the train stops in Moscow. As I step out of the train I realize that I’m cutting my life-line to the west – there’s no fast and easy way out of here.

I’d spent the last two days travelling from Munich via Berlin and Warsaw to Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Empire. The train ride had felt like a trip back in time, with Berlin solidly in the 1980s, Warsaw still showing damage from the 1940s and the fields of Belarus and the Ukraine full of horse-drawn carriages from the late 1800s.

I say goodbye to my travel companion since Berlin – Ella, a Russian translator for English who is on her way back home. It’s time to take out the mimeographed sheet with instructions I had received back in Munich and to find my contact in Moscow.

The train station smells of disinfectant and looks very clean. Grey and clean. I look for the Intourist bureau, and find it soon enough near the end of the platform where I had arrived. It’s a big, grey room inside the hall of the station and it’s empty apart from a cluttered desk with a young man behind it.

I tell him in English that I’d been sent to him by my travel agent in Munich and I show him the pack of receipts and papers that I got with my train ticket to Moscow.

The man takes his time while checking my name in a long list. Without looking up he pushes the pack of papers in my direction and grabs the telephone. Harsh Russian words bring back where I am. He talks for a while and I can’t help but imagine that he’s talking to the KGB: ‘Yes, we’ve caught the spy now. Where shall we bring him, comrade?’…

Another man enters the office and gestures me to follow. We walk across the train station and leave through a side door. The man opens the trunk of a black car and helps to heave my backpack inside. He starts to laugh and says something in Russian. He seems to ask what on earth is so heavy in the pack. It’s the first time I see somebody laughing in the Soviet Union.

He ushers me into the back seat and starts the engine. It’s a bit surprising that my first impression of Moscow is the bourgeois view from a chauffeured limousine.

When I booked the ticket for the Transsib, Intourist required that I had to book a night in a hotel in Moscow, the minimum being US$80 for a single room in the Hotel Belgrade. That’s where we are going now, along huge streets with four or six lanes, filled with trucks, buses and taxis. There seem to be only very few private cars.

The Hotel Belgrade is a semi-clean, dusty place. My room is small, just big enough for the bed and a chair. The steam heater is making quiet ticking noises and the thick windows dimensioned for Russian winters block all outside noise. Since the room is on the 12th floor, there is at least a good view of Moscow.

I’m hungry from the train ride so I skip a first trip into town. I take the elevator down to the dining room ‘for individual travelers’ just to find out that the man at the door doesn’t have me on his list. He sends me up to the dining room ‘for group travelers’. There I get told that from now on I’m part of a tour group – the ‘group of individual travelers’…

The food is fairly good, just those strange sausages without any taste are a bit of a mystery to us. Us – that’s fourteen travelers from six countries. We all came to Moscow as individual travelers and it seems that Intourist decided that we are a lot easier to handle as a newly-formed tour group with an actual guide.

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Friday, 21st of April

The breakfast at nine o’clock is basic, to say the least. Valentin, our guide, announces a bus tour through the city and a guided tour of the Kremlin at no extra cost. It certainly helps us to accustom ourselves to the fact that we’re now a tour group.

The bus tour is brief, basically only a trip around the perimeter of the inner city of Moscow. We get a rundown of some of the ministries of the Soviet government and then we stop in front of one of the entrances to the Kremlin.

We walk through a big gate and enter the heart of the Soviet Empire. Strangely enough, we are facing some office blocks that one just doesn’t expect in here. But there are also well-preserved old buildings and a beautiful old church with intricate orthodox Christian artwork lining the walls.

Valentin does a good job explaining the various sights we are allowed to see inside of the Kremlin Walls and he shows obvious pride in the fact that he is guiding us through the seat of government of the Soviet Union.

The place is big enough for days of exploration, but here the tour group is kept under tight surveilance by the Intourist guide and after half an hour, we are again in our bus heading back to the hotel.

Overall the visit to the Kremlin was a mind-bending experience. Only months before I had been a conscript in the German Air Force and had spent my days in an underground air surveillance installation keeping a sharp eye on flight patterns of Warsaw Pact forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And now I was strolling through the very heart of the Soviet Union, only a few hundred meters from Gorbachev’s office. It was utterly bizarre.

There’s another Intourist tour in the afternoon, but somehow Valentin just can’t explain what’s so special about our destination outside of Moscow.

Together with another Thomas and Andreas from Germany and Marie from Canada, we decide to do Moscow our way. We organize a map and start hiking along the big Prospekts, wide streets with six or eight lanes cutting through the city.

We visit a supermarket on Kalinin Prospekt, not too far away of the Red Square. It’s empty. Not that there are no people, no – there’s a good crowd walking among the shelves… the empty shelves. We can’t figure out what hundreds of people buy in an empty food store, but maybe they are waiting for the next truckload of meat from somewhere. It explains our meager breakfast – and the grey sausages from last evening…

The Red Square is breathtaking. It’s not as big as I thought – don’t know how someone can land a Cessna in here. But the buildings that surround the square are gorgeous. The intimidating Kremlin Wall on one side – I still can’t believe we had just been in there – the classic Gum Department Store on the other. The wonderful Basilius cathedral at one end of the square with its colorful – and freshly renovated – towers.

On the way back we take Moscow’s Metro. This is fun. The subway stations are beautiful, some of them look like huge ball rooms or underground cathedrals. We miss our stop, but since we have some time left and it is a circle route, we just stay on for another round.

Our second – and last – dinner in the Hotel Belgrade. This time the food is better and there’s folk dancing and loud music after dinner. But most of us start dreaming while we listen to the music, another couple of hours and we are on our way…

Valentin calls for his group. We all jump up and almost run for the door. It’s now 10.30pm and our bus is waiting. We all get our backpacks from our rooms, jamming into the elevator until the warning light starts buzzing nervously.

The bus takes us to the Jaroslawskij train station where we have to wait for another half hour, the train is not ready. It’s almost midnight, but there are thousands of people at the station. Some seem to travel with all their possesions, while others seem to have nothing left but their patched clothes.

Valentin calls again for us, inducing much excitement within his group. This is it – we are walking up to the platform where we see, feel and smell our train.

The Trans-Siberian Railway!

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Saturday, 22nd of April

It’s 1.20am as we leave Moscow’s Jaroslawskij Station. All in our group have been assigned their quarters, sorted out by nationalities. I’m sharing a four-bed cabin with Thomas, Andreas and Maja, a girl from Hamburg. I have one of the lower beds.

We try to open the window, but it’s locked – it’s still winter time in Siberia and Valentin tells us that our window is ‘officially locked’. It’s also unofficially dirty, but we avoid pointing that out to our guide…

3.30am. We sit on the lower beds, talking. We’re too excited to sleep and as we can hear through the thin wooden walls, our Dutch neighbours are also awake.

Much later, somebody is knocking at the door. It’s 8.30am and our faithful guide reminds us that our breakfast time is 9 o’clock sharp. Andreas slept in one of the upper beds, as he finds out the hard way. We, the two Thomases in the lower beds have it a bit easier, but only a little bit after the very short night.

On the way to the restaurant car we get our first glimpse of the countryside. There are small villages connected by dirt tracks and there’s still a good amount of snow everywhere. The thawing snow and the heavy trucks convert the dirt roads into muddy creeks, almost unnavigable for even the heaviest trucks.

The food is not too good and the two waiters seem to be trained prison personnel. They basically throw the plates with the food at us and just barely manage to hit the table instead.

Grey seems to be the favourite color in Soviet cuisine. We have two kinds of stale bread, light grey and dark grey, grey sausages again, and even the yolk of the egg is greyish yellow. And the overall taste can only be described as… grey.

As we leave the restaurant car, we realize that the train personal had all the Soviet passengers cleaned out of the restaurant for us. As we walk out, embarrassed that we had kept everybody else from eating, they push in to get their share of the grey breakfast.

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Sunday, 23rd of April

What was only a suspicion yesterday becomes a fact today. There are no showers on the train for second class passengers. Valentin apologizes in four different languages, but there’s not really a lot he can do about it once the train is rolling. Our showers are in a different carriage that had been left behind in Moscow for repairs.

Instead we build a small apparatus out of a plastic mineral water bottle and string in one of the toilets of our carriage. Not great, but better than nothing. The conductor in our carriage is a bit concerned at the beginning, but then helps us out with the string for our self-made shower. There is a drain in the floor under the sink, so we won’t be flooding the whole car with our apparatus.

There is a conductor in every single one of the carriages on the train. They assign cabins and beds to new passengers, clean the corridor from time to time, and are responsible for the Samovar, the water boiler in each carriage that supplies us with endless amounts of hot water for tea and instant coffee.

But their most important task is to check that all the passengers are back on the train after the frequent stops. We all use those stops to take walks on the platform or run over to the station to buy snacks. We’ve also started an ongoing international snowball match. It’s still freezing cold here in Siberia.

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Monday, 24th of April

1am. We’re going through Novosibirsk. We are all still awake since we are experiencing 23 hour-days at the moment. Through our continuing movement eastward we’re loosing one hour per day.

Novosibirsk seems to be one big industrial site. Coal dust is penetrating our cabin through the cracks around the window. There is a sulphuric smell in the air. Metallic smokestacks reach into a neon-yellow sky, lit up by the lights from very large factory buildings lining the rail line.

And then as sudden as it began, we leave Novosibirsk behind and we are again surrounded by the pitch black Siberian night.

In the morning Valentin knocks on the doors of the compartments, tells us that breakfast is in 30 minutes and also what the local time is. The shortened days are very disorienting and our appetite is meager.

After lunch we cross the Jenissei. It’s a huge, muddy river, maybe a hundred meters wide, that is running north to the Polar Sea. We are crossing the river on an ancient iron bridge that clangs heavily under the wheels of the train.

Shortly afterwards we are back in the Taiga, an endless forest of birch and pine trees, interrupted by meadows of tall, rough grass growing on permafrost.

Valentin pinned a map of the world to the corridor wall on the first day of our trip. He’s charting our course every couple of hours with a thick red marker and there’s now a neat red line across half of the Soviet Union. After three days of continuous travel we’ve done almost half of the complete distance between Moscow and Beijing.

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Tuesday, 25th of April

The food in the restaurant is getting worse. It seems that they stocked up in Moscow and they don’t get anything fresh on the road. One could drive nails into wood with the bread from today’s breakfast.

All morning we travel through the sheer never-ending Taiga. Birch forests that withstand any attempt to describe their vastness. An ocean of birch trees. The Taiga has engulfed us and the swampy permafrost is doing it’s very best to never let us leave again.

It’s on this fourth day of continuous movement that it finally starts to really sink in how incredibly big Siberia is.

We arrive in Irkutsk in the afternoon. Valentin is leaving us here. He goes back to Moscow to guide the next group around. Before he leaves, he gives our papers to one of the Swedish travellers as the new “head” of our group.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at Lake Baikal. The train takes a long, slow curve around the southern end of the lake. One reason for the slow progress is that the train track looks severely damaged by the harsh conditions during the winter. The carriages swing wildly to the left and right and the wheels shriek metallically as they grind against the uneven rails.

The lake is more than 600 kilometers long and still covered with ice which is criss-crossed by the tracks of heavy trucks and cars that have been traveling on the ice all winter. My guide book says that early in this century the Russians even built rail tracks across the ice in winter time. The lake stretches to the northern horizon, disappearing in a faint haze under the blue sky. It looks like a frozen ocean from here.

The ice gleams bright red in the evening sun as we reach the eastern shoreline. Our train turns due east again and the lake disappears behind us.

In these few short hours Lake Baikal had impressed us with its natural beauty. It feels very much like a place I would like to come back to some time in the future.

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Wednesday, 26th of April

The landscape has changed during the night. The hills are arid, brown and dusty. There are gun nests and bomb shelters dug into the bare hills, the remnants of the fighting between China and the Soviet Union.

The train seems to have slowed down and there is very little to break the monotony of hill after dusty hill.

In the afternoon we arrive in Zabaikalsk, the town on the Soviet side of the border. We have to get off the train, because the wheels of the carriages have to be changed from the Soviet wide gauge to the standard gauge used by the Chinese.

One carriage after another is lifted up by a big metal frame that straddles the two overlapping sets of rails, the old wheel assemblies are rolled out and the new assemblies rolled in. It takes more than two hours for the whole train.

After changing our Rubles back to US Dollars in the little train station, we have some time for a stroll around town. There’s a playground next to the train station with a huge, rusty tank on a concrete foundation.

Back on the train the customs officers are very relaxed. There is no real inspection, just a casual walk-through. The Swedish holder-of-our-papers is relieved of his duties and we are again individual travelers.

It’s getting dark as we pass the border. On the Chinese side the border looks more active, more militaristic and there are soldiers standing along the rail tracks up to the station of Manzhouli, the town on the Chinese side of the border.

Suddenly everything changes. The station is brightly lit, there’s loud music out of the station’s PA system. The platform is filled with people, most of them trying to sell their goods to the travellers.

And what goods they have! There are all kinds of fruits, soft drinks and snacks that were unseen in the Soviet Union. The merchants use a melodic sing-song to entice customers. Within the last few kilometers we went from one world to another.

We all go into the station to change money and the noise and lively, colorful confusion around us is like a fever dream after the sensory deprivation of the last few days.

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Thursday, 27th of April

It’s still very early in the morning as I take my first peek of China in daylight. There are farmers out in the fields, bikers on a dirt road that follows the rail track. Small villages with dark ponds and thatched roofs. Rickety, old trucks wait at the rail crossings.

There are a lot more people about as in Siberia, even out here in the countryside one can sense the huge numbers that dominate China.

Before lunch I see my first real steam train. I’ve seen museum pieces before, even under steam, but this is the real thing. It’s a very long coal train that is pulled by two big steam engines in tandem.

Around noon we have a brief stop in Harbin, a large provincial capital. It’s a huge city, much bigger than anything we’d seen up to now. The rail yard around the main station is spread out over dozens of tracks and there are giant steam engines moving about everywhere.

Marie asks on the way to the restaurant car if I’ve noticed that the Russian train personnel is suddenly smiling. I hadn’t, but it’s true. Since we’ve entered China they are suddenly outgoing, friendly, even cheerful.

We’ve also got a new restaurant car, in place of the Soviet one is now a Chinese restaurant. The food is not only fresh, but also very well made and quite tasty. The restaurant is also full of Russians and Chinese, nobody here would dream of closing it down so that the western tourists can eat alone…

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Friday, 28th of April

6.45am. The train stops in Beijing Station with less than a quarter of an hour delay on more than 9000 kilometers, not bad at all.

The large open square in front of the station is a delirious experience for us. Since we are all backpackers, we’re all heading for the same, cheap hotel. But it’s not so easy to find the bus stop or even to read the signs with the destinations of the busses.

There are people everywhere. The busses we see are crowded beyond belief. Cyclists move through the mass of people waiting for the busses, using their bells constantly, shouting at the people to get out of the way.

Finally we find a bus that seems to go in the right direction and fourteen tired, sweating foreigners with huge backpacks push into the already crowded bus. We’re on our way…

Memories: The Peak That Flew From Afar

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s. Here is an excerpt from my travel diary of a trip to Hangzhou in eastern China in 1993.

The bus stops abruptly and the doors open with a metallic snap. All the passengers try to leave the bus at once, pushing and shoving to get out and into the pouring rain. I’m being dragged along, my only effort is to stay on my feet.

There’s a small ticket office next to the entrance, the price for foreigners is a moderate one yuan.

After entering the temple grounds I face a long row of booths that sell everything from multicolored plastic toys to intricate Jade carvings, from freshly made noodles to Coca Cola. One booth has Sony Walkmans and Kodak Film, the next one offers one-minute shoe repair.

The lane is crowded with Chinese tourists clad in their colorful raincoats, all of them cheerful despite the heavy downpour that went into high gear a minute ago.

All along the lane narrow paths lead off into the forest to the left, across a small creek and then up and along the steep hill. To the right the entrance to the Lingyin Temple itself comes up. I walk into the heavily scented temple and out of the rain.

The first temple hall is filled with two sorts of people, one being the worshippers who burn huge amounts of incense, insert small banknotes into a transparent plastic box and then kneel down in front of the Buddha for prayer. They are usually either very old or in their teens or early twenties.

The other kind of visitors are the children of the Cultural Revolution, either in age or in spirit, who basically enjoy a day off, wherever that is. They are easy to recognize in the crowd by their manners, talking loud, taking pictures where it is forbidden, oddly resembling the package tour groups seen in European Cathedrals.

The second temple hall is huge, with a 60 feet high sitting statue of Siddharta Gautama, made out of camphorwood, as my guide book tells me. The hall is spacious, with large, red columns supporting the wooden roof more than 90 feet above. I wonder if the smoothly lacquered columns are made out of single trees – it looks impossible to move tree trunks of such size.

I stroll through the hall, walking around the statue and the wide wall behind it. There is only a narrow gap between the wall behind the statue and the sides of the temple hall. After passing through the gap, I turn around and for a few seconds just can’t comprehend what I see there.

The backside of the screen is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture of hundreds of figures. There are musicians on an outcrop far up near the roof, playing all different kinds of instruments, in a niche I see meditating monks, next to them a sculpted waterfall comes out of the wall. To the far left there is a caravan of animals, some elephants, camels, horses, that seemingly is edging along a precipitous mountain pass.

Down near the foot of the wall the waterfall floods the landscape, there is a small hut with a man rescuing a child on his shoulders, next to them is a boat in rough sea with the fishermen praying. Behind them a ghost breaks the surface, with his two-pointed harpoon not unlike Neptune.

Up front on a huge wave there are Buddhist monks… surfing! They stand on the backs of dolphins and ride the wave. There is also a huge whale that feels almost life sized, about 15 feet long.

I stand there spellbound for more than half an hour, discovering new details, new groups of figures up at the wall.

Finally I leave the wall, forcing my eyes back down to take in the real world.

I walk back out to the lane with its ear-shattering music and the shouting crowds of one-day tourists in a shopping craze. The rain has traded place with a light drizzle, steam rises out of the heavily wooded hill across the small creek.

I cross the creek on a narrow bridge made out of a single rock that got slippery from the rain. Small paths with stone steps crisscross the lower part of the hill, passing hundreds of sculptures that got chiselled out of the rock almost a thousand years ago.

The hill is named the ‘Peak That Flew From Afar’, because there is – or was – supposedly a very similiar hill in India. Chinese tourists crawl all over the lower paths to get their picture taken in front of the sculptures or a specific piece of calligraphy overgrown with the moss of a millenium.

I head up through the forest. Big, cold drops fall from the trees, some of them managing to hit my neck and then working their way down my back.

The sounds of the drops take over, slowly blotting out the din of the lane below. The forest is misty, a composition of grey and green that could be right out of a chinese painting.

I reach the rounded top of the hill, a small stony clearing. The high trees and the fog make it impossible to see the West Lake or Hangzhou. I sit down on a convenient boulder, enjoying the silence all around me.

I realize that, for the first time in weeks, I am alone.

Between Two Storms

In early June of 1989 I had made my way through China to Guangzhou in southern China near the mouth of the Pearl River and only a day’s worth of travel from Hong Kong. The weather was humid and hot and it rained daily, a first glimpse of the tropical summer heat that descends on southern China every year.

I was thinking of this as the end of my trip through China – I had already spent way more time in the country than I had ever imagined and it was time to move on to either Japan or the US if I ever wanted to make it around the globe. China had been much more interesting and complex and much, much larger than anticipated, but it was time to move on.

My original plan at this point was to exit from here to Hong Kong via boat or train, but I had the luxury of a wide-open backpacking schedule and over the last two months I had met many other travelers in China, some of whom were now again staying in the same hostel. We were all exchanging travel plans and home addresses and on the spur of the moment I teamed up with another German backpacker, Hiltrud, who had been planning to go Hainan island.

It was very easy for Hiltrud to convince me to come along. Hainan is a large Chinese island in the South China Sea, not much smaller than Taiwan and along its western shore generally less than two hundred kilometers from the Vietnamese coast. It sounded like a tropical paradise, untouched by tourism, with empty beaches – a perfect break from the urban, gritty reality of China’s cities.

So I found myself on June 4th very early in the morning on a rickety – and very overcrowded – boat that would take us over the next 30 hours down the Pearl River and across the sea to Haikou, the main city at the northern tip of Hainan.

It was a grey day with low clouds and frequent rain and the ship was jostled around by heavy seas once we left the river delta. I don’t remember much about this day other than spending much time in my bunk reading and sleeping, just hoping for a few nice days on the island.

Haikou was a bit of a disappointment, a rough industrial harbor town that offered little for tourists at the time and only gave a very vague glimpse of how beautiful this island could be. There were construction sites everywhere and the streets were dusty and crowded with trucks. We immediately decided to move on to southern Hainan by overnight bus and spent most of our short stay in Haikou eating and snoozing under a tree in a small park.

We were on a bus by four o’clock in the afternoon on June the 5th, never having read a newspaper or listened to a short wave radio during the day. That was a crucial point, as we should discover shortly.

The bus ride lasted late into the night, a dreamlike never-ending dodge through dark villages along country roads populated by buses and trucks that mostly were driving without their headlights, only vaguely illuminated by the moon. We had two hair-raising encounters, one with an oncoming bus that was overtaking a truck while we were ourselves overtaking a slow-moving tractor, and at one point we encountered a huge pile of gravel in the middle of the road that our bus driver only saw at the very last second in the dim moonlight.

On the bus were several other backpackers – one Swiss, one Yugoslavian, a young Japanese couple, another German girl, and since we were all using the “Blue Book” – in 1989 there really was no other guide book for backpackers in China other than the Lonely Planet – we were all planning to stay at the same hotel on Dadonghai beach near Sanya, only a few kilometers from the southern tip of Hainan. The “How to get there” section rather hilariously instructed us to “look for a large tree growing in the middle of the main road and tell the driver to stop.”

The bus arrived late in the evening – yes, there really was a large tree – and we all trudged to the hotel, checked in and went to bed exhausted. It had been 72 hours since any of us had any contact with the rest of the world.

The guest house we were staying at was a very basic outfit, with several small bamboo bungalows clustered in a palm-tree shaded garden along a low-slung one-story concrete building that had a row of rooms with bunk beds, adjoined by the small lobby and a dining room with a very basic menu mostly consisting of fried rice with egg.

The hotel was directly next to the beach and one could hear the surf rumbling against the steep sandy dunes from the bungalows. A short walk along a dirt path brought you back to the main street of Dadonghai where several small buildings made of corrugated sheet metal and bare concrete had become small cafes and convenience stores to cater to the few tourists who made it down here.

Many of these businesses were obviously very new and had been started on shoestring budgets by local families. There had only been a trickle of foreigners – all backpackers – at Dadonghai beach and so only a few of the cafes had the Rosetta Stone of international dining: A bilingual Chinese/English menu handwritten by a kind traveler that contained all the usual staples for a backpacking hangout, from banana pancakes and french toast to fried rice with eggs and various vegetables. There was almost no English spoken anywhere in town, but most of us had picked up some rudimentary Chinese in the past months and the menus allowed for smooth transactions in the cafes.

The number of backpackers in China at the time was still very small and one effect of everybody using the same guide book with limited accommodation options was that one met the same people over and over wherever one went. In this small beach hotel literally at the very southern end of China I ran into two Germans I had already met twice before who had actually biked across most of the country, and who also knew Hiltrud from somewhere else in China.

The first day on the beach went by very quickly, with a leisurely breakfast of banana pancakes at one of the small street-side cafe followed by a long nap on the beautiful and empty beach and a quick dip in the South China Sea. The water was warm and the surf was easy for swimming. This was exactly what I had been hoping for. Paradise!

Coming back to the hotel, I decided to see what was going on in the world. I happened to have a small short wave radio on this trip and I had made a habit out of checking the news on VOA or the BBC every now and then. And so in late afternoon of June 6th 1989 I had gone back to the little bamboo bungalow I was sharing with Jaques, the Swiss backpacker, and tuned into the BBC for some entertainment.

As my little radio picked up the BBC they seemed to be in the middle of a some rather exciting news development.

“…and as there are more reports appearing about mass executions and arrests in many Chinese cities, the UK embassy is calling on all British citizens to leave the country immediately.. ”

“…we have reports from Xi’an, Chengdu and Wuhan of violent street protests…”

“…other embassies have also called on their citizens to evacuate…”

I had looked up in horror at Jaques, who gave me a similar wide-eyed stare. We had just spent three days traveling to a very remote spot in a country that had in the meantime descended into the throes of a civil war.

We walked out into the garden and quickly found some of the other travelers to discuss the developments on the mainland. It was news to all of them and it didn’t take long to come up with a very short list of options.

One, we could try and take the bus back north and attempt to get a boat from Haikou back to mainland China or Hong Kong, but Haikou was the main city on the island and if there was any trouble on Hainan it would be most likely there.

Or, option two, we could check when the next boat went from Sanya directly to Hong Kong. This was by far easier and would actually get us out of the country immediately. An easy choice. Somebody had a schedule for the boats and the next boat would be in a few days, so it looked like a good idea to organize tickets now.

By the next morning all travelers that currently were staying in the hotel had heard the news and we packed into two little three-wheeled taxis and sped down the road towards downtown Sanya and the local CITS office.

The news was not good. The boat had only one scheduled run a week, the next one being a few days out, but the CITS staff made it clear to us that the next boat may be delayed due to an incoming Typhoon that was plowing through the sea around Manila right now and could veer north into the South China Sea over the next few days. We all bought tickets on the next trip out and went back to our hotel.

Things were tense. Most of that afternoon was spent huddled around the short wave radio, listening with growing horror to the reports of tanks on Tiananmen Square, executions, pitched street battles between students and soldiers in various cities across the country. There was indeed one report mentioning trouble in Haikou. It was quiet and peaceful here on the beach, but we couldn’t stop thinking about what was happening on the mainland. And what could we do? We’d have to wait for the next boat, no matter what.

The one piece of news of that day that we had completely forgotten about by nighttime was the Typhoon out there somewhere…

The next morning brought more bad news from the rest of China. All embassies were actively evacuating foreigners all across the country with announcements on short wave stations to gather at the airports of larger cities like Xi’an and Chengdu for specially chartered flights to Hong Kong. Nothing we would be able to take advantage of.

Otherwise life on the beach was as close to paradise as could be imagined. The food at the little road side restaurants was extremely cheap and tasty and the beach was a stretch of several kilometers of white sand with barely another person in sight. The water was warm and the surf was calm. It was strange to sit on the beach with the news in mind, but there was literally nothing else to do.

Most of the next day – the 9th of June – I spent in the lobby of the hotel as I had been ramping up efforts to call my parents back in Germany. Phone connections out of Sanya were probably bad on a good day, but with the political upheaval in China it seemed to be near impossible to get a stable line out of the country. It took hours for the hotel staff to get the connection for me, only to have it descend into white noise and crackling chaos within seconds.

In the evening of that day our hotel staff came over and told us to get out of the beautiful and airy bamboo bungalows and to move into the concrete building, since the storm was coming. What storm? We had completely forgotten about the Typhoon and at this time the sky was clear and at sunset the horizon exploded in shades of purple. There was not even a slight breeze to cool the air. We ignored the warning and went back to listening to the news.

The next morning was humid and overcast, but there was very little wind and it looked like if it would clear up it could be another beautiful day. A false promise, as the sky rapidly became darker during breakfast and the air suddenly smelled of ozone. Now there was gusty wind shaking the palm trees, and after a few minutes of rapidly deteriorating weather we all gathered our backpacks and dragged them over to the concrete dormitory.

By nine o’clock in the morning the sky turned black and the wind went from gusty to howling storm strength. It was astonishing how fast the weather had turned and it became apparent that the Typhoon was about to get close to the island. Much closer than anybody, including the locals, had anticipated.

By ten o’clock it was nearly as dark outside as it would have been at night and the power went out as the storm gathered strength. The Typhoon delivered a direct hit to Hainan island and the chaos and civil war on the mainland was forgotten as we all stared in shock out from the dining room of the hotel as in the garden the palm trees were uprooted and literally took flight.

There were no lights anywhere in the small beach community and it was pitch black outside with shrieking wind and horizontal rain. Unidentified chunks of buildings and landscaping flew past, occasionally banging into the thankfully very sturdy building we had fled to. The South China Sea – so very welcoming and glassy only the day before – was a thundering, furious presence only a sand dune away from the hotel and the sound of the waves had turned into the roar of a never-ending freight train that literally shook the building.

The eye of the Typhoon passed during that day, but the extreme wind conditions lasted all afternoon and into the evening and the sky grew only a little bit brighter before night set in, leaving us in complete and utter darkness. The staff of the hotel made several attempts to get the hotel’s generator to work, but every time the power cut out again after a few minutes, leaving us to rely on candles and flashlights.

Just before the power had gone out somebody had been playing a Tracy Chapman bootleg cassette on the stereo in the dining room. Whenever the emergency generator came on, the tape slowly spun up for a few minutes, with Tracy Chapman’s sad voice echoing off the bare concrete walls of the hotel dining room – “Talking ’bout a revolution…” – only to be replaced again by darkness and the howling of the storm outside.

The next morning the winds had died down and patchy clouds dotted the blue sky, the air was pleasantly cool. But the tropical paradise around us had been transformed into a disaster zone with uprooted trees, partially destroyed buildings and still no power or telephone. Two of the bamboo huts in the garden of the hotel were severely damaged and two were completely gone – they literally must have taken flight. For the rest of our time at Dadonghai we’d be staying in the bare little rooms in the concrete building.

We had bottled drinks in the hotel restaurant and whatever crackers and cookies we had in our backpacks. The stores and restaurants along the street where closed or in heavy cleanup mode and since there was no power there was nothing they could prepare for us anyway.

Typhoon Dot over Hainan Island, June 10th, 1989 (courtesy NOAA & Wikimedia)

At the time there was no way to get any information about the impact of the Typhoon, but nowadays it is easy to check online: Six people died in the area around Sanya that day and more than 1500 houses were destroyed by Typhoon ”Dot” in southern Hainan. The center of the massive storm had passed exactly over Dadonghai beach. We, the few backpackers directly in the path of a major tropical storm that day, had been very lucky.

That evening the power came back and by the next morning we were able to again go out to the Main Street for some food at the restaurants, although with a very limited menu for a little while.

This left us healthy, fed, and stuck in a country that had just undergone a major political upheaval with violent fights in many major cities. We had not seen any direct evidence of the dramatic events in the rest of China until two days after the Typhoon, when while we were sitting at the usual street-side cafe for breakfast, a row of police vehicles drove past with an open flatbed truck in their midst. On the back of the truck stood several young men with their arms tied behind their backs and a number of soldiers with their rifles in hand.

I was looking after the truck with a puzzled expression on my face which was quickly removed when I turned back to Peter, the Yugoslavian backpacker – 20 years older than me and having seen many of the trouble spots of the world – and all he did was to draw an index finger across his throat with a sad smile on his face.

At this point all of us would have much rather been somewhere else, but we had not even received word yet when there would be another boat leaving Hainan island at all. We all held tickets for the next boat out, but for now we had to while away long, quiet days in a beach resort, which sounds easy enough, but since the Typhoon the food options had been limited and we had all run out of reading material and patience a long time ago. My little short wave radio was literally our only connection to the outside world and it went daily from hand to hand for a few hours of listening time.

One special memory of these slow days is of going swimming late at night. The weather had become humid and heavy in the days after the storm and it became increasingly harder to fall asleep at night. The concrete building had no air conditioning and the windows were tiny – the airy bamboo huts were missed dearly. So some of us had started to go swimming late at night in the dark.

The ocean was calm, the water as warm as in a bathtub. The air was incredibly clear and I have fond memories of floating in the warm, dark ocean on my back, looking up at the Milky Way arcing across the night sky. Looking down, every movement caused microorganisms in the water to fluoresce, creating long swaths of glowing water behind us, mirroring the Milky Way above.

It would take four more days before we finally got word from the hotel staff that the next day there would indeed be a boat from Hong Kong, to return on the same day. We all started packing in a rather festive mood.

The next day in the morning we commandeered a fleet of the three-wheeled taxis to take us with our luggage down to the harbor in Sanya. The customs procedure to leave the country was very brief and mostly punctuated by the extreme surprise of the local officials who clearly had not been expecting to process any exiting foreigners that morning.

We all had a similar mental image of the small rickety boats that had taken us to Haikou, which might explain our astonishment at the size of the ship that had come to bring us to Hong Kong. Apparently the Hong Kong – Sanya tourism trade was expected to undergo a rapid expansion in the near future, as this relatively sleek ship had a capacity of over four hundred passengers. There were ten of us on the gangway that day.

We would arrive in Hong Kong a full fourteen days after the Tian An Men massacre, to the general astonishment of the other backpackers in the hostel in Kowloon where we all ended up staying.

We had been caught between two storms, and survived both unscathed. We were the lucky ones.

 

Memories: Long Distance Buses

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

Long-distance buses were probably my least favorite mode of transportation in China. It is safe to assume that if you saw me on a bus in the middle of nowhere, I was officially desperate to get from point A to point B.

China is large – improbably large – and even with a relatively dense network of trains there are many places that are only reachable by long-distance bus. The services tend to be in private hands and vary from sleek hourly coaches with all amenities to little irregular operated minivans that are at least 100.000 kilometers beyond the last recommended maintenance cycle.

A small bus service was often the very first private business for enterprising families and I frequently encountered buses where the family literally lived on the bus. Dad drove the bus, mom sold the tickets and stowed luggage on the roof, grandma managed the money and the kids did their homework on rickety little seats next to the driver’s seat.

Some of the buses operate through the night on long hauls across provinces and these typically have beds instead of seats. Sleeping on the narrow cots while the bus bounces across unlit, winding country roads with heavy truck traffic was an impossibility and led me several times to question my vacation choices.

On the positive side, bus travel allowed me to see parts of the country that would have been impossible to visit otherwise, and the remote scenery along the way was often breathtaking and unanticipated.

Many of the memories of my bus trips are a haze of sleep deprived disorientation. Fragments that stand out…

…waking up on a sleeper bus somewhere in southern Guangxi  province. 2am, 3am, nobody knows. What woke me from my slumber was the sudden lurch of the bus towards my side. We were leaning heavily with my view out the window just water. A river. Very close. The driver was taking us down along the shore of a river to avoid a construction site and the bus was in serious danger of tipping over into the muddy stream. It took several tense minutes to get the bus back out of the soft dirt and onto what counted as a road in this area…

…running down a hot, humid country road on central Hainan island, late at night in near total darkness with only the moon as illumination as there were no lights. Many drivers on China’s roads try to conserve energy – or light bulbs, who knows – by turning the lights off whenever possible. I was sitting up front and couldn’t sleep, which means I got the full effect of what happened next. We overtook a slow tractor coming over a hill and a small movement on the road ahead prompted the driver to turn on the lights, only to be greeted by the exact same mirrored scenario ahead of us – a bus overtaking a truck coming straight at us with their lights suddenly on. The few of us awake to witness this had barely time to let out a gasp as the two busses swerved back into their respective lanes, with only a few centimeters to spare…

…somewhere near Nanjing, on a local country bus route with many, many stops. The bus was slowly filling up with farmers and their – living – wares for the local market. There were several crates with pigs on the roof, leading to a rain of panic-induced manure down the windows. More crates with chickens and ducks filled the corridor of the bus to the point where passengers had to climb over the seat backs to leave the bus, and my seat neighbor had a huge tank with fish on his lap that nearly didn’t even fit. With every major pothole along the way some of the water splashed over the side of the fish tank and onto my backpack and pant legs. The trip took about six hours, but it felt like the longest bus ride of my life…

…in a bus driving across rural Henan, not far from the Yellow River. There had been major floods in the area and reports of receding waters had been premature. All around the bus as far as the eye could see there was only muddy water with the odd tree or farm house sticking out. Heavy dark clouds were hiding the sun, promising more rain, grey sky over grey water. The road was a slightly elevated dam that at best was barely above the water and often was actually completely flooded. The driver took it slow as the tires only kept tenuous contact with the flooded tarmac. It was easy to imagine that I was on a boat as we floated across the flooded, desolate landscape like in a feverish dream. We passed a sunken truck that had gone off the road over night, the two drivers sitting on their cabin roof. A village on a slight hump appeared as a small island, with locals standing in front of their houses, listlessly gazing at the watery landscape…

Talking About A Revolution

On my first backpacking trip to China I witnessed what can only be called a revolution – although an unsuccessful one – and it is certainly among the moments of my life that will forever stay with me.

I had only very little information about the situation in China before I went on my trip in spring of 1989, this being before the Internet, and the newspaper articles about demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were very light on details and it is in hindsight very obvious that the old China Hands in the press agencies were not paying too much attention to the unrest among the students at the time.

I was also preoccupied with the first part of the trip. Taking a train to Moscow and planning to take another one across the full width of the Soviet Union tends to focus one’s mind.

Once I arrived in China, the situation in Beijing had reached a stalemate and many of the students had left Beijing – as it later turned out temporarily – and during my time there I don’t remember seeing any indication of major trouble on the horizon.

This would change dramatically several weeks later in Shanghai. By the time I had made my way there the situation in Beijing had taken on a much more aggressive tone and thousands of students and others had again taken up station in Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations had found a new, fresh voice that resonated much more with the general population and for a few weeks around that time it looked like the basic demands of the students – an end to corruption and a more open government – would possibly even be considered by the old guard in the Chinese government.

There was a hopeful upswell of emotion sweeping through the country and during my first days in Shanghai, there were daily ever-growing marches of thousands and then tens of thousands of demonstrators. And these were not just students, but also workers from factories and hospitals, all marching together in support of the students in Tiananmen Square.

I very much remember a photo feature in the China Daily -  the  government-controlled English-language newspaper – with photos of soldiers and volunteers handing out drinking water and food to the students in Tiananmen Square. Clearly this was completely off-message, but there was no way to judge how deep the support for the students in the government actually was.

Then things went very strange very fast. On May 20th the hardliners in the Chinese government won the internal struggle and they decided that they could somehow suppress all of this churned up emotion the old fashioned way and declared martial law in Beijing. I was not there at the time, but from the reports from on the scene it sounds like this just validated the position of the demonstrators and essentially made the camp on Tiananmen Square a permanent fixture.

Now both the government and the students were stuck.

Shanghai was empty and eerily quiet during the morning after the announcement of Martial Law in Beijing. There were police barricades across the Bund and Nanjing Lu, but I had to cross them to pick up a boat ticket and the police officers were unexpectedly friendly and relaxed.

The atmosphere was surreal. A couple of US Navy ships had just arrived in Shanghai on the very first visit to the city since before the Communist takeover in the late 1940s and improbably this was the day that US Sailors in white uniforms were casually walking through the streets of the city.

And then in the late afternoon, another march began. It was immediately obvious that this would be the biggest one yet, and there must have been a hundred thousand people marching in support of the students. It was momentous, a never-ending stream of protesters snaking its way through downtown, zigzagging around the police barricades on the major roads, surrounded by at least the same number of onlookers, their cheering a roar through all of downtown.

For much of the march that day I was literally stuck in a huge throng  of people on the sidewalk of the Garden Bridge at the north end of the Bund. The crowd was tightly packed on the sidewalk and movement was near impossible. At the north end of the Garden Bridge, near the Pujiang Hotel where I was staying, the road opened up with a cross street that was running along Suzhou Creek in front of the Pujiang Fandian and the Shanghai Mansions with the Soviet embassy directly at the corner next to the bridge.

This whole area was flooded with people and here there were also some foreigners mixed into the crowds from the two neighboring hotels. The US Navy ships had docked not far from there a few blocks south along the river and American sailors in white uniforms had walked up along the shore to get stuck here with no way forward since the bridge was impassable.

The scene was like something out of a movie. In 1989 this corner of Shanghai had still not seen any changes since colonial times and the classic buildings around the Garden Bridge – the Soviet (nee Russian) Embassy, the Pujiang Fandian (Astor House) and the Shanghai Mansions (Broadway Mansions) provided now the backdrop to a protest march by Chinese students and workers, surrounded and cheered on by locals, foreign tourists and a good number of US sailors in white uniforms. Nothing even close to this scene had been seen in Shanghai since the 1930s.

The marchers held colorful handmade banners high on wooden poles, waved flags and even brought their own ropes to carry along the sides of the march to segregate demonstrators from bystanders. The never-ending row of marchers came in segments, grouped by school or factory association. Many of the workers were immediately identifiable by their uniforms and often also by a sign or banner. The air resonated with the marchers chanting and the crowds cheering.

The local police was everywhere, but on this day – the day Martial Law had been declared in Beijing – they still seemed to have not received any orders to break up marches. I saw a group of policemen sit on the wall of the old park near the south end of the Garden Bridge, passively watching the march while eating ice cream. Others were directing traffic away from the demonstrations and there were at least two lines of police officers who blocked the marchers from continuing down along the Bund towards the building of the city administration and instead forced them into the downtown shopping district. But wherever I saw the demonstrators and the police interact it seemed to be cordial and relatively polite.

The demonstration in general was strangely festive and it seemed that nobody at the time took the situation as serious as it actually was. In retrospect it is not clear what everybody was actually thinking what would happen, but as somebody who was stuck in the crowd in Shanghai that day, all I can say is that people were drunk on a never-before experienced freedom to express their grievances and to see all around them that everybody else felt the same way. The Chinese people had finally found their voice and there was hope for a change. It was exciting and uncontrollable.

Here I’d like to quote myself from a few years back:

There were the banners, held high.

And the faces. Sweaty excitement in the faces of the young students, many of them looking like they were still in high school.

Bold, colorful characters put down with a heavy brush. White banners. Red characters, rippling in the wind.

The faces, so open, so happy with the sudden empowerment. Shouted slogans filling the air.

Crammed between other onlookers, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people on the old Garden Bridge. Marching students ahead, coal barges on the water behind. The steel girders of the bridge digging into my back.

So much applause, people clapping in the rhythm of the marchers. Arms raised, fingers pointing at banners.

The infectious excitement of the crowd. Waves of emotion passing through us like the wind through trees. Laughter, shouts, chants picked up by group after group of marchers.

Students. Workers. Teachers. So many faces.

Happy, excited faces.

Even if only for a brief moment,

Freedom.

There are many memory fragments of this day, but the situation was so chaotic that it is hard to create a clear picture of what it was like. But here is one of the last things I remember about the march on this day:

I had gone upstairs in the Pujiang Hotel to watch the march from the windows of the dormitory where I was staying and it was already late in the day. Suddenly there appeared a model of the Statue of Liberty painted completely white, maybe three meters tall, being carried across the Garden Bridge on the shoulders of the marchers. It was a glorious moment as the statue appeared near the bridge, fully visible to everybody around, unexpected, immediately recognized by everybody, the sudden focal point for thousands of people. I’ll never forget the sight of Lady Liberty majestically floating on a sea of Chinese protestors past the Soviet Embassy.

Memories: Ocean Liners

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

One of the very unexpected features of backpacking around China in the late eighties and early nineties was how frequent I would end up booking a passage on an ocean liner. Just these words alone feel already unreasonably romantic and one would expect to only hear them in historic novels.

But China had – and probably still has – a network of ocean going vessels that ply their trade along the coast of the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, all the way from the beaches of Hainan Island near the Vietnamese coast to Hong Kong and from there on to Shanghai and up to Quingdao and ports north.

These ships are several times larger than the typical Yangtze River boat, with space for several hundred or even up to a thousand passengers. Many of them were built in the 1970s and 80s and back when I saw them at the very beginning of the modern Chinese tourist industry many of them were only infrequently maintained and the ships had a general air of neglect and of being understaffed.

The services were frequent, with daily or bi-weekly boats out of all the major ports and the ships were fast and the tickets were reasonable. They offered a welcome relief from a long series of overnight trains and crowded long-distance buses and the quiet days out on sea were great to just stretch out in the sun and read a book in happy solitude.

Food on the ships was included in the ticket price and the quality of the meals was hit and miss. On some of the “international” boats to and from Hong Kong there was at least a chance of a tasty dinner and reasonable western-style breakfast, but on the local boats the food was often incredibly basic with essentially the only item on the menu being  fried rice with egg.

Accommodation was also widely varied, from dormitory-style 10-bed rooms in the lower decks with no windows all the way to nicely wood-paneled two-bed private cabins on upper decks with large port holes and private bath rooms. It was impossible to figure out before going on board what the cabins would be like and after a while I usually splurged on cabins in the highest classes since the tickets were never that expensive to begin with anyway.

There are many vivid memories…

…in 1989 after the student uprising and a typhoon had marooned me with a few other travelers near Sanya at the southern tip of Hainan island, we were brought to Hong Kong on a huge passenger liner that had space for five or six hundred passengers. There were only about a dozen of us on the whole ship…

…on the same trip one evening while the ship was taking a long northward bound route along the Vietnamese coast, we had alternating groups of dolphins and flying fish accompany us for hours until the sun went down…

…being caught in the beginnings of a typhoon on a boat from Hong Kong to Shanghai, with towering waves slamming into the ship and rain sweeping across the decks. There were only very few of us who dared to appear for breakfast that morning…

…a dark, red sunset over the coastal hills of Fujian province, with the Yellow Sea all around us dotted with the brilliant lights of fishing boats, like glittering jewels on the gentle waves…

…arriving in Hong Kong harbor at night, with Kowloon and the island both lit up in a million neon lights…

…arriving in Shanghai in a dense fog one morning very early. The old colonial buildings along the waterfront, all dark and quiet, appearing one after another out of the fog like ghosts from a long forgotten time…

 

Where Every Bamboo Stalk Is Different

Katano near Osaka is one of those very typical small towns that surround the major cities in Japan – big enough to retain their status as an independent city, but too close to a major megalopolis to ever attract any of the spotlight.

We are here on a regular basis since we have family in town and I enjoy the charm of Katano, as it doesn’t even try very hard and just lives its own life in the shadow of a giant, full of small local businesses that have been owned by the same families for generations.

This year we spent a very pleasant afternoon in an unexpectedly beautiful and serene pocket at the edge of Katano, surrounded by low, green hills and framed on one side by the river – the Botanical Gardens of Osaka University.

Bamboo Path

It’s a working university garden, so there is semi-agricultural activity everywhere and the plants tend to be ordered by genome and type, but there is enough wild-growing vegetation across the hills of this large facility to forget its artificial background.

There are generous picknick spots with roofed seating areas and views of the surrounding landscape and the hills have a wide variety of micro-landscapes to make the plants from all over Asia feel at home here.

Springtime in Katano

We visited the gardens just at the end of the Cherry Blossom Season (caps intended as this is Japan!) and various cherry and plum trees were in full bloom in all shades from white to red, much to the delight of Luke who ran up and then tumbled down colorful slopes everywhere.

Hoshigaoka’s Secret

We found this place several years ago, unlikely enough only a few miles away from where my parents-in-law live near Osaka, and we’ve been back this year since it had left such a great impression on our first visit.

The Hoshigaoka Sewing School must have been closed many years ago but it was then reopened with seemingly little funding as a community center a while back.  Much of the grounds around the old school building have been left in a state of benevolent disrepair with only the most necessary repairs keeping the buildings intact.

The main building now houses an art gallery and several of the class rooms are again being used for regular craft classes, the corridor in front of the class rooms filled with the detritus of many past projects.

Hoshigaoka Sewing School

Behind the main building though is the secret attraction of Hoshigaoka – the Sewing Table Coffee House. It occupies a small shed next to a pottery class room in a semi-abandoned backyard, surrounded by tall grass, with some small hand-built tables and rickety little stools to sit outside.

The Cafe

Inside the cafe the atmosphere is calm and quiet, with a few tables and a counter at the window to sit, a table with art and books to look at and buy and the coffee counter where the owner of the cafe serves excellent coffee and cakes.

The Entrance

What made us come back was not just the great atmosphere and the coffee, but also the near endless photo opportunities. The buildings are filled inside and out with a wealth of objects of art and nature, with near-random piles of old, rusty tools next to stone sculptures, all overgrown with weeds and flowers. There are mossy goldfish ponds and wind chimes, artfully crafted lights next to bare light bulbs under spiderweb-encrusted ceiling beams.

Two Fans

It’s an endlessly fascinating place, a small island of tranquility in the far suburbs of busy Osaka that makes me want to come back for another visit every time I have to leave.

Beans

An End and a Beginning

Yesterday morning I got up an hour early at 5am and after some breakfast I loaded up my bike and pedaled through the still-dark Sausalito. Going south, following the waterfront and then the steep climb up Alexander Avenue to Highway 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was no ordinary morning and not my usual commute. In a few hours I expected to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour pass through the Golden Gate on the back of a Jumbo Jet. Great things were afoot and nothing could have stopped me from seeing this.

My plan led me all the way up along the southern end of the Marin Headlands with a short and very steep hike at the end to the top of Slackers Ridge, which is the first peak in the headlands that you see when you cross the bridge going north.

It promised to be a good day. Just as I arrived at the top the sun rose over the East Bay hills and the fog had never fully made it into the Bay.

Anticipation

I had a few hours before the Shuttle would arrive and while I was sitting there in the stubbly grass between low, wind-blown brush, I started thinking about what this means… “The last flight of the Shuttle era!” as it was announced in many newspapers.

Being a parent gives one a very different perspective on time. By spending all this time with a small baby and then a toddler growing up, it is possible to reach back further in your own memory of your childhood, nearly-forgotten distant shadows coming into sudden focus.

Luke is now two years old and I was two years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Too young for any memories, but I do remember standing in front of a TV with grown-ups all around talking about the moon – my guess is it was Apollo 16 or 17 when I was between four and five years old. So my relationship with Apollo – just missed it by a few years – is the same as Luke’s impression will be of the Space Shuttles.

This also means, that in a very meaningful way, the Space Shuttle is the defining feature of space exploration for my generation. Whatever comes next – manned missions to asteroids or Mars, both at least twenty years out – will be a symbol for my son’s generation. I may still be around to watch the Mars landings with Luke, but whoever steps on the red soil will be much closer to his age than mine.

So on this beautiful morning in September of 2012, Luke was still a little bit too young to hike to the top of Slackers Ridge. For him and his generation, the Space Shuttle will forever be a museum piece. Impossibly big and clumsy, with a certain unmistakeable 1970s style. Brute force pushing an airplane into space. More power than brains.

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Last Flight

For my generation this is a bittersweet moment, no doubt. We are the in-between generation, the Moon had already been done and Mars was just out of reach.

But we had to spend time in Earth orbit, working out the kinks in space travel, learning how to build complex structures in space. And look at it! The ISS is the real legacy of our generation – a real, full-featured, huge space station with a 6-person permanent crew, bristling with scientific instrumentation and robots. And in addition, robotics has advanced to astonishing levels with the recent Curiosity landing on Mars being an amazing showcase for what we can do now.

So it is time to move on. Time to say goodbye to the Shuttle. It was a good ride, and sometimes a scary and even deadly one. But we’ve learned a lot. And now the kids can figure out how to land on Mars.

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Last Flight