Monday, 9 July 2012

Heading into the Sierra Nevada

Today, after a mad rush getting organised, we leave San Francisco for Yosemite and the John Muir Trail.

San Fran shopping spree
The logistics have been complex- we arrived here a week ago with beach clothes, and have had to get equipped with new versions of all the trekking gear we already have back at home! Everything from walking boots to clothing to a camping stove and maps. It's been one massive shopping spree.
Then we've had to stock up on all the dry food we think we'll need for the next month, as there will be hardly any opportunities to resupply. This food has been divided into the appropriate days, and posted ahead in cardboard boxes to three different points on the trek- two rural post offices and one hiker friendly resort.
This means only having to carry about 4 days food at a time for the first sections, then 12 days for the last and most challenging part of the route- we're hoping this will allow us to warm up before our bags get really heavy!
Finally, there's been all the inappropriate stuff we've bought with us from Asia to deal with. Snorkels and all manner of other things we won't need for the next month or so, have been boxed up and posted to Karl's uncle near LA. Another box is heading back to the UK, and we are left with 'just' the gear we need for a month in the american wilderness.

Organising food packs
So that's why we've not had loads of time for sightseeing! We're now ready to leave the city for the next challenge -getting a wilderness permit to allow us to enter Yosemite National Park and start the trek. The american national park system means that all overnight hikers must have permits to limit the numbers in the wilderness and hopefully keep it as pristine as we would like to find it. The advice is to reserve your permit 6 months ahead... luckily for us, 40% of permits are kept back for more spontaneous people who can turn up on the day and try their luck. So we'll be queueing outside the ranger's office for the next couple of mornings in the hope of getting into the park.

Here are a few more details of the John Muir Trail which we'll be doing. It takes between 21 and 28 days, and at no point does it touch a road. Considered one of the world's greatest treks, it runs for 233 miles through the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California, from Yosemite Valley in the north to the summit of Mount Whitney in the south. That's the highest point in the USA south of Alaska, at 4418 metres. The route travels through the wilderness, which becomes more pronounced after leaving the final resupply point and last trace of civilisation after about 9 days walking. From then on, crossing high mountain country and passes, we hope to have our first true wilderness experience.

It's the longest walk either of us have ever done in one go, and we'll be carrying a lot of gear, unlike in Nepal. We've decided it's going to be challenging enough to warrant taking the opportunity to raise a little money for a good cause! Our charity of choice is Animals Asia,  inspired by both the bears in the Sierra mountains, and our recent travels in Asia. There's more info on why we want to help this charity on my just giving page you've enjoyed our blog (or just read it!), we'd really appreciate it if you visit the site and make a donation.

Our computer is one of the many things being posted away today, so I must go. I'll leave this post with some words from John Muir himself:

'Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.'


NOTE: The text on the Just Giving page doesn't appear to be working at the time of writing this. So I'm just going to copy the text in here. You should still be able to donate through the just giving page:

  • We'll be walking the John Muir Trail for over 200 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. We're lucky enough to be able to share this environment with wild black bears, who roam free in this beautiful wilderness.
    While we pack our bear-proof canisters and plan our route, it made me think about the bears who are not so lucky- those in cages being milked for their bile in Asia. It seems apt to try to raise a little for their cause, while we scan the horizon (or maybe even closer!) in hope of glimpsing their wild relatives.
    There's another reason we'd like to support the work of Animals Asia. As animal lovers, travelling in Asia has been hard at times. I've felt pretty helpless as a vet, unable to do anything for the animals we've seen suffering. Here, if you put your hand out to a dog, it cowers waiting to be beaten. In parts of Indonesia we were having to avoid eating dog. Of course people's priorities are different in third world countries, but when you see half a dog for sale in a food market (where, according to the lonely planet, they are dragged out of their cages and bludgeoned to death), it makes you want to do something. They trust us whatever we do and they deserve help where we can give it. 
    For now, the best way for us to help is by fundraising, and Animals Asia is doing fantastic work with both bringing an end to bear farming and improving dog and cat welfare in countries where not many other people are looking out for them.
    The JMT is the longest walk we've ever done in one go, and we'll be carrying all our gear and camping every night. It will take around 25 days to walk through high mountain country from Yosemite, through Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, culminating on the summit of Mount Whitney . This is the highest point in the USA outside Alaska at 4418 metres. It's definitely going to be a challenge! I know I'm always forgetting to sponsor people for things- but we're going to be walking for almost a whole month so you have lots of time to donate a pound or two! Or, better still, do it now and spur us on our way...
    Thanks for reading, 
    Harriet and Karl

California dreamin'?

Street car in San Francisco

It started almost as soon as we landed in the USA. We were sitting on our backpacks at a bus stop, waiting for a bus to Los Angeles, when a scary looking guy wandered by, lifted a bottle of spirits in a brown bag from his pocket and downed it. Some other dodgy characters passed by, staring at us. We held onto our bags and began to feel a little on edge- this was not what we had expected. Two bus journeys later, in downtown LA, things got worse. Just a couple of blocks walk from Broadway, full of theatres, restaurants and people, the atmosphere was completely different. We were suddenly very aware that we were carrying all our belongings on our backs, and feeling pretty vulnerable. The only open place in sight was a food hall advertising 'hot food coupons accepted here'. There were no cars on the roads, no taxis to hail. People were hanging out on street corners, they were yelling at each other, they were drinking, and they were staring at us. Karl's facebook status that day describes the scene: 'Just accidentally walked onto the set of Pulp Fiction. Hobos with their life's belongings in shopping trolleys, toothless crack-head hookers on street corners, coupon food halls with drunks outside and the whole area smells of p1ss. We ran away!'

I feel like I'm fairly well travelled and worldly-wise- but I don't remember anywhere that I've felt so uncomfortable walking along a street. Giving up on getting to the bus station on foot, we turned on our heels, made it back to the main drag and found a trendy little cafe to hide in. It was a different world in there- cool music, free wifi, massive waffles, trendy arty types and students chilling out. Our first taste of the two very different sides of American society. When the waitress asked me, with a smile, how I was doing I felt like crying, and we ate our massive sandwiches with a generous portion of relief! We had learnt our lesson, and hailed a taxi for the short journey to the bus station. Travelling America by public transport may be harder than we anticipated.

4th July fireworks
San Francisco has been better, but still a shock. We were totally unprepared for the problems you see here. There are homeless people on every street corner, a large proportion with physical or mental disabilities. The smell of marijuana is only beaten by the stink of urine, and beggars are pretty confident in asking for a dollar. It's hard to feel generous when they're sitting outside a liquor store with one hand out, the other holding a can in a brown paper bag. One guy's placard read 'Why lie, I want beer'! I felt that, as a vet in Worksop, I'd experienced a fair cross section of society, but it just doesn't compare to what you see here. I certainly won't be looking at the job ads! Some of it is just tragic, like the lady I saw circling a tree. It has certainly made me appreciate the situation in the UK, where we may complain about the benefits system, but we don't have starving, disturbed people in desperate need on every street corner. People here seem to have learnt to ignore it, but we just can't get over the poverty in this leading first world nation. Maybe we have a jilted view- some quick research on google suggests that San Francisco and Los Angeles are the capitals of homelessness and drug addiction in the USA.

In a classic American diner
Despite all this there is still a lot to like about San Francisco. The architecture is great- carved stone facades on the early skyscrapers, others faced with glass, and modern villas lining the steep streets along which old-fashioned street cars run. We're staying in a really nice hostel, and have spent most of our time here running around between outdoor stores and the post office getting organised for our trek. Little sightseeing has been done, but we enjoyed the 4th July fireworks by the waterfront and like the bohemian atmosphere in the bars and shops. The Golden Gate Bridge, rising out of the fog the city is infamous for, really is very cool, and we could even watch dolphins frolicking in the water below us. The scenery that surrounds the city all adds to the appeal and makes us want to explore the Californian coastline. It's surprisingly cold here, with wind whistling down the canyons formed by tower blocks, and a fog often hanging over the whole place, so we're glad to have exchanged our Asia backpacking gear for some more appropriate clothing. We've benefited from the generous clothing sizes, which mean that both of us have been able to buy children's size down jackets at half the adult price- thank god for fat american kids! The huge portion sizes mean we can get by on two meals a day (one of which is the free hostel breakfast!), and even the ice creams seem to be large enough to feed a family. We're enjoying it while it lasts and before our dry food trekking rations start in a few days!


Just a little ice cream!

Trying out our new trekking gear, Golden Gate bridge

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A taste of Japan

We love Japan! I'm not even sure I can explain why. I didn't have any huge expectations really- I thought it would be interesting, but busy and crowded and, erm, full of Japanese tourists!

Water trickling in a zen garden, Kyoto
Our first day, wandering along the 'Path of Philosophy' in Kyoto, was one of my favourite days of the whole trip. In the very first temple we visited I was struck by a sense of calm. It was so quiet and peaceful, padding around barefoot on the wooden walkways that divide up gardens of gravel, moss and dwarf conifers. We sat on tatami mats drinking cups of green tea, with the sound of water trickling over bamboo, the smell of incense and cedar wood, and the view of maple leaves overlapping in a criss-cross starry pattern above us. The gardens were stunning- everything picture perfect, not a leaf out of place, the gravel immaculately raked, the trees pruned and the moss trimmed. I wouldn't have expected to like them so much (not exactly being a neat freak myself!) but there was something very affecting about it all. A zen like state remained with me all day, happily ambling from one beautiful temple and garden to another.

Sushi in Kyoto
All over the city everything was equally tidy and perfect. Not a piece of litter in sight, not a horn to be heard- it was just the tonic after two months in Indonesia! We loved the little family run cafes and noodle bars, where you order from a vending machine after looking at plastic immitations of the meals on offer in the window. One of our best food experiences was in a sushi restaurant where you could watch the chefs at work. Every time the door opened as a new customer came in they would all warmly cry out 'welcome' in unison, and when you left to more cries of 'thanks you and goodbye' one of the chefs would accompany you outside, bowing all the time.

Electric city in Tokyo
From Kyoto we sped to Tokyo by the bullet train- expensive, but something that we felt had to be done while in Japan. It was on time of course (trains run almost the length of the country between the cities about every 6 minutes!) and just as smooth as expected. We stared out of the window as countryside and towns passed in a blur. Like everything in Japan it was very quiet, and businessmen dozed beside us for the 140 minutes it took to cover 400 kilometres.

Tokyo itself has so many aspects to it that it's hard to get to grips with in just a few days. It's massive, more like a group of cities all merged together, but with plenty of green spaces as well. We tried to get a taste of some of the sub-cultures at work, from anime obsessed 'geek chic' teenagers in the electric city, to 'cosplay' (costume play) groups who meet up at weekends to dress as manga characters, to the gucci shopping 'ladies who lunch'. There's a bit of everything here, and it's all fascinating. The bright neon lights of Shinjuku were just how I imagined from 'Lost in Translation', with karaoke booths and huge TV screens everywhere. Just around the corner was an area of really cool little beer bars where a young after-work crowd spilled out onto the streets in the summer evening.

Neon lights of  Shinjuku in Tokyo
We visited the largest fish market in the world, marvelling at the size of the tuna on offer, rode an elevator up a glass shaft to the 47th floor of a skyscraper for a bird's eye view over the city (the only adrenaline rush I've ever got from riding a lift!), and visited a tranquil oasis right in the middle of the CBD. It's fun, safe, clean and easy- there's an awful lot the Japanese have got right. We kept thinking 'oh that's clever, why don't we do it that way at home?'! A one week visit might actually change the way I live my life! Just an inspiring destination, and one that has instantly moved onto our 'one to return to' list!


Japanese maple leaves