The Ruin Pubs of Budapest

Vintage projectors tickety-tick, shooting grainy sepia across the bustling courtyard whilst the subtle hint of tech-house tunes float in and out with the Summer breeze. It’s still early and we find a corner next to another old projector playing communist-era cat-and-mouse cartoons and as day gives way to dusk, slowly but surely, Szimpla Kert begins to pack out.

The ruin pubs are Budapest’s over-the-top version of the grungy bar and Szimpla Kert is supposedly the original. Spread across two levels and multiple theme rooms, every square inch of wall is covered with all sorts of knick-knackery, from dirty old circuit boards that appear to have been wired up by meth-addicted computer nerds to old film cameras interspersed amongst functioning shisha pipes.

So as the sun sets, late evening light melting into dusk, the bar pack out and the quiet lounge techno gives way to deeper beats and the vibe shifts from smooth to vibrant.

Like Gibson’s Neuromancer one of the rooms are adorned with crazy cyberpunk CRT installations.

You half-expect to see Case sitting there with his ono-sendai, quietly hacking the matrix. Honestly, if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you are a borderline luddite.

But with not a lot of time to hang about, the decision is made to pull the pin and check out some other places, just as the bar starts pumping.

About ten minutes up the road Instant is a sprawling complex spread across three levels. A rabbit’s warren of rooms, music and people. Arriving just in time for the switch over from quiet bar to pumping dance club, the music gets turned up to 11 as people flood in from the street.

As the night progresses it becomes painfully clear that just one night in this beautiful, eclectic city isn’t quite going to be enough, but will have to suffice until I can one day stop by again and explore the streets of this great town. Budapest, you know sure know how to show a guy a good time.

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A Day in Tokyo

Due to the storm chasing our trip to Tokyo has been whittled down to just one day (and two nights). We’ve caught the last plane out of Sapporo in an attempt to maximize snow-action, but as a result when we get to Narita at 10:15pm the trains and busses have stopped running and it’s an AU$300+ cab ride into town! The main luggage storage places have also closed (10pm) but fortunately for us the JAL storage service still runs past 11:30pm and we manage to pare-down to just backpacks, which will allow us to remain very mobile in Tokyo.

(Travel Tip: You HAVE to get to Narita before the last train into Tokyo or you’re completely fucked)

We end up splitting a cab with an angry German man, who is also in the same situation, to Tokyo station and catch the last train to Shibuya. It’s 2am and we’re completely winging it through Tokyo and have no accommodation.

Fortunately we have Criss around (seasoned Japan veteran) who’s advised us that there’s always somewhere to stay in Tokyo so long as you don’t have much in the way of luggage and you know where to look. Teresa hits the Aprecio internet café where you can rent a cubicle and get access to communal showers for about AU$20 for 12 hours and I decide to check out the love hotels, which range from AU$90 to AU$120, which provides hotel-standard digs for a far cheaper price. I ended up in Hotel Tiffard in Shinjuku one night, which has a 1920’s Gatsby Theme, highly recommended.

(Travel Tip: Aprecio is a chain of internet cafes that you can stay at overnight or just to have a nap. We found one in Shibuya and one in Shinjuku. You’ll need to present a passport to get a little ID card but once you have that you can use it to check into any Aprecio )

The next day it’s raining but that doesn’t deter us from our day of Tokyo adventures. We’re up fairly early and head to the Starbucks at Shibuya Crossing to do some people watching. It’s pretty early on a Saturday morning so it’s not really busy at all.

From there it’s a short walk up to the Meiji shrine where you can wander the gardens and check out the main shrine. I am going through the purification ritual so as not to catch fire as I approach the main site.

You can buy these little prayer things and hang a prayer on the prayer wall. Japan’s entry for Miss Universe was here just a moment ago…

Once we’ve wandered the gardens, Harajuku is right next door, which is always great for random fashion shopping and more people watching. Unfortunately it’s too cold and wet for the Harajuku girls and no one is really dressed up, even though it’s a Saturday.

Then it’s off to Akihabara for huge gadget, sex and anime shops. Quintessential Tokyo!

By now the rain is seriously hammering so we find refuge in a little Izakaya before heading into Shinjuku to see the robot bar show.

The show is a ridiculous over-saturation of noise, lights, lasers and there are two 16×4 panel video walls running along both sides of the venue. Such an over-the-top assault on the senses is a fitting activity for our last night in Tokyo.

It’s a long flight home tomorrow after all. Big thanks to Teresa for being a really good travel buddy and taking all the randomness in her stride. 10/10 would travel with again!

(Travel Tip: Shinjuku’s love hotels appear to be better and cheaper than in Shibuya, stay overnight here if you don’t have luggage and don’t need to go in-and-out of the room)

Hokkaido Storm Chasing; Niseko, Rusutsu & Furano

With a whoosh of compressed air, the doors of the Whiteliner bus open and we step out into a crisp, bright day at Niseko’s Welcome Centre and it feels like home. It’s a rare bluebird day with clear views of Yotei and the ski runs beckon. Tess and I have a pretty loose plan whilst snow chasing in Hokkaido. We’ve got a little over a week to do some riding and normally I’d just hang about Niseko, but Tess is motivated to explore and I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of Hokkaido, so we’ve chopped our time up to about three days in Niseko, two days in Rusutsu and a day or two at Sapporo Tiene, or that is the rough plan at least.

Wasting no time, we grab a 5-hour pass and head over to Hano to check in with Justin, who is supervisor back at Buller and hasn’t seen Teresa for years. Fortunately for us, he’s also the supervisor at Hanazono and we’re able to catch up with him and Andrea throughout the trip. Because it’s Chinese New Year and busy he’s asked us for a favour and put us on call in return for lift tickets and we’re more than happy to oblige. I would have loved to teach a day in another country but it didn’t up eventuating, such is the efficiency of Hano snowboard school.

Over the first few days in Niseko there was quite a bit of snow and we just purchased Hirafu / Hanozono tickets (as opposed to all mountain) in order to save some money. Teresa’s constant whooping at every powder turn could turn a smile on the most hardened of faces.

We also head out the Hanozono gates after making sure our gear was up and running with the new beacon checkers.  A lap takes about 90 minutes to two hours depending on pace and where you’re going, we dropped in a little too early and had to hike up a road then we went a little too deep and had to hike through a meadow to the main cat track so we took the full two hours, but after much cursing and catching our breath I think we both agreed that it was worth it.

(Travel Tip: If you’re in Niseko for an extended period of time and do mostly back-country, there is a type of lift pass where you buy a bunch of hours and only get charged per hour or part thereof when you use the lift. So if you use the lifts once in the morning to get out the gates and don’t come back for three hours, you only get charged an hour’s use)

From Niseko we travel about an hour by bus to Rusutsu and it’s a somewhat steeper resort (read: less cat tracks and flat gullies for me to get stuck in, although I still manage to have to hike out of parts of it). Famed for having the best tree-skiing in the region, Rusutsu is also much quieter than Niseko and a lot less people ski off piste, so even though it hadn’t snowed in couple of day we were still finding good fresh snow the whole two days we were there, you just have get off the beaten track and push through the trees, just try not to hit one.

(Travel tip: While the snow is good there isn’t much else to do in Rusutsu and it’s probably better to just based yourself out of Niseko and do the Rusutsu day trip bus for Y$7000 including ticket; departs 8:30am, returns 4:30pm)

After a couple of days with no snow the mountain is starting to get tracked out and on top of that the forward forecast is for a shit-ton of rain throughout the region. At this point we decide to torpedo the original plan and extend our stay in Hokkaido and sacrifice Tokyo / Kyoto days.

The forecast after the rain is for a lot of snow in Furano, which is a five hour trip by bus from Niseko via Chitose and the next day we’re on the bus. When we get to rainy Furano the forecast is for snow at nearby Asahidake. We try to rent a car but unfortunately Japan needs an international driver’s license, which I have conveniently left at home. It turns out to be a blessing in disguise as the freezing level rises through the day and the snow becomes rain.

So we head back to our hostel and again we make new friends, Jodie and Steve. Together we see out the rain with beers and random food hunting, and by the evening the snow starts up again, keep the faith!

It’s snowed all through the night and into the next day but it’s an extreme pow-on-crust environment and we only do a couple of runs before calling it. It’s better after another day and some snow  and by day three it’s still snowing and everyone has their stoke back on.

Furano snow is even lighter than Niseko snow, so even though there’s been a bit less snow it’s face-shot central!

Of course the snow is going bonkers back at Niseko and word reaches us that it’s the biggest snowfall day of the year so far and we’re back by early evening to see out the last couple of days riding the pow. First tracks gets us properly deep stuff and some of the trip’s best turns, even occasional white room conditions. Due to the shitty rain earlier the back country gates at both Hanozono and Annapuri are closed for the couple of days that we’re there (there’s even been an avalanche in Gate 11 but it’s open), but there’s plenty in-resort and it’s a great way to end the last couple of days riding.

Unfortunately that’s it for our stay in Hokkaido, next up…one day in Tokyo!

(Travel Tip: bussing across Hokkaido between Niseko and Furano is probably a waste of time and it’s better to choose one place or the other. Definitely don’t do it two or three times in a week either)

A day in Sapporo

So I know I’ve just gotten back from South America but the road waits for no one and this time it’s off to the land of the Rising Sun and, as usual, I’ll be heading to Niseko in search of some of that legendary J-Pow. This time however, I’m going to rendezvous with my old friend Teresa and we’re going to adventure together and see what sort of trouble we can get into.

First up we have a day in Sapporo and we’re not short on things to do! It’s Ice Festival time and Odori Park is littered with huge snow and ice sculptures for us to check out. As its also Chinese New Year the advice is to go early because the place gets really, really crowded as the day progresses and in the evening you can barely walk.

The other thing we’ve uncovered is the food, with the highlight being Barbecue Hokkaido Snow Crab on a freakin’ stick!

From there it’s lunch at Ramen Alley (more on that a bit later) and then a train and walk to the Sapporo Beer Museum. Set in the old Brewery the beer museum is a good way to kill a couple of hours whilst learning a little about one of the region’s most famous exports.

No beer museum tour would be complete without the sampler; original recipe, Sappro Classic and Sapporo Black. To be honest I couldn’t really taste the difference between the Black and Classic beers, but the original recipe is pretty flavourful.

Back at the ranch (or Hostel in this case) the new members of our bedroom entourage are super fun and friendly and we get along pretty well, so we decide to team up and head back into Sapporo to the aforementioned Ramen Alley.

Nestled in a tiny alleyway that runs parallel to the main shopping strip, just a few minutes meander from Odori Park train station, Ramen alley is packed with little Ramen shops that hold no more than ten or fifteen people. They all seem pretty good but we decide to go to one which has a bit of queue, assuming the people in front of us are in on a bit of secret local knowledge and the food doesn’t disappoint.

Just outside the street is dedicated to ice sculptures and we wander into one of the multi-storey entertainment areas looking for a photo booth and we end up bowling …and that kicks of this year’s trip to Japan! From here it’s off to Niseko in search of the epic snow-pow!

(Travel Tip: DO NOT make friends with lonely looking Japanese man no matter how harmless he initially looks. Instead ask yourself why someone would be going to a gaming arcade by himself late at night)

Patagonia, Torres Del Paine & Grey Glacier

It’s the middle of Summer but you could be forgiven for thinking it midwinter as chilly Antarctic winds wick away at the warmth under thermal layers. Punta Arenas is the Southern-most city in the world; a scant 500kms from Artigas Base, Antarctica. From here it’s four hours over land to the outskirts of Patagonia’s Torres Del Paine national park, last stop for this whirlwind tour of South America’s West Coast.

Having already exceeded my yearly quota of nights in tents (all four of them), the alternative is to check into a lodge close to the action. Tierra Patagonia is an eco-hotel parked on the edge of Lago Sarmiento, technically the largest lake in the national park (the actual biggest lake in the region is only partly encompassed by the border of the national park…semantics).

Semi-submerged into the environment, the hotel is detailed and built primarily from the local lenga tree.

Whilst each room has breathtaking views of the Paine Massif, mine has the bath located next to the window, a design feature unique to a handful of rooms.

Unlike the hiking trails, the surrounding area is quiet; you can trek around the lake and probably not run into another person all day.

Included in the price of admission are as many activities as you care to fit into your day, ranging from easy driving and walking tours to full day hikes and everything in between.

Having mostly recovered from the four-day Inca Trail hike and also feeling a little overly pampered in our luxe new home, the fambam decides the hardest full day hike to the base of the Torres is penance enough for our indulgent ways.

But first we check into the half-day “Hunters” tour, a two-hour hike around an area where Puma hunt the local Guanaco which ends at a small cave where a handful of old primitive paintings can be found.

One of the region’s main highlights is the Torres Del Paine, three towers located in the heart of the Paine Massif, a small mountain range that is separate from the Andes.

The hike is a seven-hour, 18km round trip that forms part of the four-day “W” trail if you’re doing the hiking and camping thing. It starts on the dry tundra, going up the side of a hill before descending into lush forests and rivers.

From there an ascent transitions into highlands before finishing in a rocky traverse to the base of the Torres Del Paine (The Blue Towers) and the glacial lake that sits at the foot of the towers. The trip up is worth it though, and lunch by the towering obelisks is a memorable experience.

Because we’re only here for a scant few days, I’ve decided to spend a day ferrying over to the Grey Glacier ice shelf, because I haven’t seen a glacial ice-shelf up close before. The trip over there provides plenty of views of the Western side of the Paine Massif and Cuerno range along with a view into the French Valley, which would have been the other day-hike I would have liked to do if there was time.

The transfer to Lake Grey winds its way up and down through the park and takes about half a day. Then it’s a 30-minute hike to the ferry and another hour to the ice shelf.

Grey Glaicer has been receding at an average of 10-meters per season due to climate change, and there are a number of icebergs calved out into Lake Grey (fun fact: the process in which a glacier drops icebergs into its body of water is known as calving).

Grey Glacier has three ice shelves, each with unique size and formation.

The colour of the ice is extremely blue and draws comments from seasoned glacier hunters on board our catamaran.

Four nights fly by and we’re all left wishing we could spend more time in this incredible part of the world, there are so many more adventures that can be had here and I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of the place. Patagonia, I will definitely be back one day!

The Inca Trail

My sister is doing her incredulous face, you know the one with the raised eyebrow and kinda pursed lips? Maybe it’s because I’ve just told her that I’m not really into hiking, and I’ve told her that about a day into our four-day hike to Machu Pichu, the Inka city of the Condor. I mean, we could have just taken the train after all, that would have taken like three hours.

The hike takes us up through the Andes, down into valleys and up through number of passes, peaking at the 4215m elevation of the ominously named Dead Woman’s Pass. Then it’s mostly down to our destination of Machu Pichu, the Inkan city of the Condor.

Just prior to this we’ve had to spend a few days acclimatizing to the altitude in Cusco (3800m), as the air is strainingly thin. Fortunately the extent of altitude sickness for me is a shortness of breath that ranges from annoying to mildly disconcerting, along with feeling pretty tired during the first 36 hours. I’m not entirely sure how much the fabled coca-tea and coca-sweets actually helped with the acclimatization, but they definitely didn’t hurt.

Actually it’s not that I dislike hiking, it’s more that hiking doesn’t really create the chemical cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine in the brain that my favourite pursuits tend to do, things like snow sports, motor sports or even my newly acquired mountain biking past time.

One of the great parts of this hike is getting to a bunch of Inkan ruins and learning the history of the people, which from what I understand is constantly changing as archaeologists continue to discover new facts about the civilization. The guides are really passionate about their Inca heritage and without going into any great detail, Machu Pichu was presumably the final rally point for the Inka as the Spanish pushed their way through Peru, but instead of hanging about their sacred city it’s thought that they pushed north into the Amazon, into their last great city, which still remains undiscovered.

What I have discovered though is that hiking actually has the opposite effect of my favourite types of sports, where once you reach a certain level of proficiency, it’s all about very narrow pin-sharp focus. Instead, hiking slows the mind down and almost untangles all those jumbled up thoughts floating around in your head. As the kilometres stack up and you wind my way through mountain pass after mountain pass, it’s like you relearn that ability to just let your mind wander, following random thoughts and tangents, turning menial little things over and over in your head.

For someone so plugged in all the time, it’s not just good to be able to take the time to do the reverse, it’s probably necessary for personal longevity. I never really know what to expect when I start a hike, as my friends will attest the whole camping, not showering thing is something that I tend to be quite vocally against, but I guess these things that challenge you are also the things that give you new perspectives and also the things that you end up remembering fondly. It’s been fun Peru, but now it’s time to get up and push on to the new adventure. Like my new Brazilian friend Charlie liked to say; “keep walking (Johnny Walker)”.

The Galapogos – La Luna

I’ve always thought that part of the magic of travel has to do with the chase; people in places and places in time, a perfect storm.

The last night in far flung Isabella and with all the touring done it’s time to try find something off the beaten track, a glimpse of the surface of the soul of this place. Locals and a handful of tourists chat and laugh in a tiny, secluded beach bar. Sparsely populated to start with, it packs out soon enough and shots of the local sugar cane solution flows freely, music and the soft caress of rolling waves charm in equal measure.

All the while the rain comes down gently, bringing cool respite to the heat, sway and grind of the tiny dancefloor. Hips. Lips. Salt.

It’s these moments in time, a perfect storm of unexpected people in unexpected places, when for fleeting moments time stops and the threads of the world momentarily come together in an ephemeral knot.

The waves wash over the darkness whilst the little bar’s lights play shadow puppets in the sand. Then all too soon the black-grey of dawn brings bags and luggage and check-outs and transfers. the hustle starts anew and the adventure starts again, until the next perfect storm forms on the horizon. But you don’t mind, because the memory of that time nudges you on, promises whispered on the salt-spray of trade winds.

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