As soon as I got through customs in Manila airport I jumped on a bus full of Filipinos, not totally sure where I was going.
The traffic was constant push and shove, horns and shouting. Street vendors and dilapidated shopfronts that wouldn’t look out of place in Latin America. Even more so as I spied crucifixes and bible quotes dotting the buildings and some of the cars and other vehicles. We crawled, cramped.
By the time the bus got to its terminus I needed to start heading back to the airport to meet Annette to fly to somewhere more rural. I felt glad to get out of the chaos.
We got a flight to Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan and stayed a night in a hotel made to look like a multi-storey jungle hut.
We arrived in darkness so we had no idea we’d get such a magnificent view of a tropical bay from the roof restaurant of our hotel for breakfast. Nor did we need to set our alarm clock as the hundreds of cockerels in the vicinity provided that service for us. Dawn chorus.
Cock-fighting is pretty much the national sport here. Every time I see a TV, that’s what it’s showing.
The next morning we went on a boat tour into a river that goes through a giant cave. There was no lighting in the cave so we were given a torch wired up to a car battery and commanded by the tour guide to point it in different directions as we went along.
It was suitably eery but the tour guide dampened the effect by constantly talking over the silence.
On our way back we saw a bright pencil-thin green thing drop out of the tree and dart into the trees. Highly venomous I’m sure.
Got back to the hotel and into a minibus for 6 hours up north to El Nido along a variety in quality of road surfaces, ranging from “quite bumpy” to “oh my god I’m going to die”. Stopped off half way for a quick pork and pigs blood curry.
The next day I woke early to pick up a rental car to drive to this place called “Wadi Shab” (google images) which I had in my mind as the ultimate goal for me in Oman. Wadi means something similar to valley. The idea of swimming in caves is what sold me. I don’t have any good pictures of it because I let my camera behind. Soz.
The prospect of driving in Oman terrified me a little bit, taxi journeys were always swerving honking and swearing affairs, but it turns out it’s just the taxi drivers. For the most part it’s really safe, and everyone’s a pretty good driver. I was running out of time, so I ended up having to go well over the speed limit, slowing down only for the speed cameras. So I guess I was more dangerous than most.
When I got to Wadi Shab, it was paradise. A sort of sandy gorge, sprinkled with palm trees and other foliage. Eventually I got to the river part, there were loads of indian guys swimming in its clear water. The water was actually pleasantly cool, not ice cold like a mountain spring. I could have stayed all day in the water.
I carried on walking up the gorge, and at the end there’s a bit where you have to swim to get to the end. At the end is the entrance of a cave that you can swim inside – you have to duck a bit underwater to get in there. Inside the cave was a small waterfall with a rope that lets you climb up it a bit. Had to run back really quickly in order to catch my flight but I could have stayed there much longer.
Had to fill the rental car up before handing it back, as the tank was empty. Cost £6. £6!!!! Land of black gold.
Early morning flight to Muscat. Weird you have to pay for a visa when you get there. That set the tone. You have to haggle with a taxi driver every time you want to go somewhere (the buses are terrible and there’s no other option). Money, money, money.
First off, I went to the Grand Mosque, as that seems to be the number one attraction. It was very impressive. Oman is a very religious country.
I went to a part of town called Muttrah to see an old market. Finally I got to see a bit of real life. The market wasn’t too exciting, but the streets surrounding it were pretty nice. Nearby I could see a small castle on top of a hill. I didn’t know anything about it, so I kept walking towards it. As I got close to it, I decided to explore a particularly charing derelict house, with one side wall cut away, only to find a hideous scene of hypodermic syringes and burnt foil etc on the stairs. Back to the castle.
I climbed the stairs that led to the castle. Just as I was almost at the top, I turned round to get a great view of the bay, and just then, the prayers started from the minarets of each of the different mosques in earshot, maybe 20, all oblivious of eachother, all in different keys, cacophonous, but somehow they went nicely together.
Back to the castle. After almost giving up because it appeared to be locked, I discovered that one of the entrances was actually only bolted from the outside, as if they were trying to keep something trapped in there.
I went in apprehensively, and found that it was being squatted in, but no-one was home. Didn’t look like they’d kept the place very tidy, probably because they were also junkies. Didn’t stick around for long, didn’t fancy meeting the occupants.
5 minutes later, I was at the bottom of the hill, and a massive convoy of about 50 cars which all looked like they’d just been freshly spray-painted, drove past. Turns out it was the president of Iran. Police and army were patrolling the road. Lucky they hadn’t seen me in the castle, it would have made a great sniper hideout.
Walked a few miles to “Old Muscat”, the posh part of town with the Sultan’s palace and the government buildings. The buildings were impressive and minimal, colonial looking, with ornamental cannons and superfluous ornate lamp-posts everywhere. The palace itself was colossal, complete with anti-aircraft guns on the terrace.
It was all very well-kept and clean. But completely empty. Not a soul was there, except on my way out when I saw 2 scrawny looking boys playing cricket on a perfectly manicured lawn, using a milk-crate as a makeshift wicket. That’s like a few kids playing football outside number 10.
I walked another 10km or so, not able to face haggling with another taxi driver, to get some dinner, having to walk through a massive building site where I had to walk along a very long narrow plank of wood over ditch. Crossing streets is a little bit of a gauntlet. There are no pedestrian crossings, and most of the roads you want to cross are big and full of fast cars. You just have to wait for a human shaped slot and go for it. Sometimes that takes a few minutes.
Much like Amsterdam uses the guise of “Coffeeshop” to hide its intentions of selling drugs, Oman uses it to conceal the fact that they’re selling kebabs.
Someone told me about a shopping mall with a ski slope in it, so I headed there. It was deserted, full of (empty) luxury designer shops. The islamic morning prayer came out on the PA while I was there, which kind of sanctified the mall. An ode to consumerism. Found a shopping trolley parked outside the gucci shop (pictured).
There was also virgin megastore there. Maybe people actually buy CDs there, rather than downloading. It’s not impossible to access pirate bay there. Ahh, the actual ski slope looked pretty cool. You could do Zorbing there too (that sport where you climb into a big plastic transparent sphere and roll down a hill in it.) There was a conveyor belt to take you back up to the top of the hill in your zorb. It reminded me of the bit in Indiana Jones when he steals the idol and is chased by big stone balls (which look like they’re made of polystyrene).
On the metro, the stops are announced in prerecorded Arabic, then in English. When the English voice reads out the stop name, it makes no effort to use the actual pronunciation, it’s just read phonetically off the page.
Went to the world famous aquarium and was disappointed. The sharks were cool, though. Dubai is just lots of brand new tall buildings. We visited the oldest part of town – the souk (market), and by old, that means 1970′s. Coming to the Arabian peninsula, I really wanted to get a bit of local culture, but I wasn’t going to find it in Dubai, so I jumped on a plane to Muscat, the capital of Oman.
Woke up in the ghetto, got on a train to Koya-san, birthplace of a certain school of esoteric Buddhism that’s very popular in Japan. Since it’s up a mountain (Koya-san means Mount Koya), it was a bit cooler, which made it a very inviting respite from the humidity of the Japanese summer.
The place is mostly a Buddhist graveyard, but has some beautiful old temples where the old intricate wooden exteriors were on the point of falling apart. In general a very peaceful place. 2 odd things of note – a Panasonic sponsored grave, with, presumably, past presidents of the company, and also a grave with a massive space rocket on top of it.
Actually, another thing that was weird. There was a sort of mini museum, with a basement that takes you into complete darkness, and promises you, with the aid of a written sign, some sort of unforgettable experience. You have to guide yourself with along a wall in the dark. I was totally prepared for something to jump out at me or something, but it was just a buddha shrine down there. Quite spooky but slightly underwhelming.
I had previously booked a room at a Shoku-in, which means a temple with lodgings attached. Didn’t really know what to expect, except I hoped it would be good because it was quite expensive.
I walked through the gate and into the courtyard of the temple, and there was a monk sitting on the stairs. He came up to me and pointed to a scribbled “Bereza” on a piece of paper in his hand, so I nodded.
After I had swapped my stinky hiking boots for some size 6 red slippers he led me, hobbling, down some paper screen lined corridors, interspersed with the occasional ornamental garden courtyard, until we got to room no. 5.
It was an amazing room, japanese style reed matting floors, empty except for a hardwood table in the middle. I had my own private garden too completw with pond and waterfall.
Dinner arrived after 6pm after I’d had a soak in the baths. Again it was inredible. 15 or so dishes, tempura, oden, weird jelly stuff (konyakku I think), noodles, pickles, tofu etc – all vegetarian buddhist style food, delicious.
Next day, I set off to check out “Spa World” – this colossal labrinth/spa theme-park of hot baths from around the world. The queues were very long because it was sunday, so I decided to have a wander around the city instead. There seemed to be a lot of Americans in Osaka, which I found offputting, sory of ruined the buzz of being in Japan. Headed back to the ghetto for a more authentic taste of Osaka. Got some soba at a stand-up restaurant and then called it a day.
Woke up early to catch a train. On the way I discovered *garlic* flavoured cheese strings. My life is complete.
Bought a cheapo railpass that only lets you go on local trains (it’s called the Seishun Juhatchi Kippu). I took the train to Himeji which took hours on the local trains from Hiroshima… Himeji is famous for its castle. Apparently it’s the best castle in Japan. But it was being renovated so they built a big box around it to facilitate the the works.
So you can’t get an actual view of it. You can go in the box and see the outside of the building up close, but you can’t go inside. the view from the top of the box was amazing though. It felt like I was looking out of a medieval sky-scraper (or whatever 1600′s is)
Much more exciting was the princess’ house, still within the castle’s moat. It was the interior that was incredible. You have to go in barefoot, and the floor is made from ancient polished cedar. It was very serene and the smell of the wood almost made it feel like you were in a forest. I was considering hiding in a cupboard until it was closed and I could stay the night but my senses returned to me just in time.
Got on the train to Osaka where I’d booked a super cheap hotel in a particularly grimy but central part of town.
I got out of the metro to the sound of live jazz coming out of a street-side Oden restaurant with loads of people standing outside it watching the band, including a few hobos which I think Osaka should be famous for (the hobos, I mean). That’s how you know your in Osaka. There’s a lot of hobos (and loud Japanese people.)
Found dinner at a makeshift ramen restaurant outside a pachinko parlour. Post apocalyptic shanty town. Made friends with some troublemakers who were causing a racket on the table next to me.
My hotel room looked like it hadn’t been decorated (or even cleaned,) since the 60′s. Years of tobacco smoke stained the walls, and a sound that I couldn’t distinguish between faulty air-con and the scurry of rats. The room was the same size as a double bed but slightly longer. It was also japanese style – so sleeping on a futon on the floor – kind of added to the crack den ambience of the place.