And now, something completely different.
Behind me are impoverished Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia - from now, your special reporter is sailing around far more interesting places that are not only financially far more prosperous but have lots of history, architecture and culture to explore. Yes, it is really sad that previously mentioned places are in such a bad shape and I am not judging countries by the number of their shopping malls, but enough is enough, I don't get the kick out of someones poverty and found it all not exotic but disturbing.
The first place I saw on this itinerary was Taiwan, which has a very complex background because it apparently belongs to China but its famous political leader Chiang Kai-shek managed to keep it completely separate from the mainland. This has been all completely new to me so I did some research and apparently there was a genuine war going on between two opposite branches: this guy in Taiwan and Mao Zedong in mainland, with Japanese invasion along the way (don't ask, too complicated, how anybody survived is a wonder). In any case, Taipei was a huge city with almost 3 million citizens and magnificent skyline (famous 101-floor tower Taipei 101 appearing like some SF miracle above it all). That particular day it was actually very rainy and I almost wished that I stayed in the bed instead of walking outside in all that out pour + everywhere we went it was very crowded but hey, when will I see Taipei again, I might have as well use this chance. First place I saw was famed The National Palace Museum which has huge collection of art that Chiang Kai-shek took with him from Forbidden City - lots and lots of stunning bronze pieces dating to really awesome times (The Bell of Zhou, The Mao Gong Ding, both 9 century B.C) + some incredible Jade figurines and really beautiful ancient Chinese porcelain on display. However, the place was incredibly crowded - the digital counter at the entrance showed 2 600 visitors and that was just 10 a.m. - so lots of my fellow visitors were alarmed and uncomfortable with all that chaos around us. We sighed with relief as we left the building. Next thing I saw was The National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine which was quite impressive but we are westerners and have no idea who were the martyr's in the first place and the walk in the pouring rain already made everybody miserable. The tour guide later apologised for the weather and someone teased him "you are terrible man".
Even the rain couldn't diminish the awesomeness of National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which was a huge temple gracing spectacular park, built in the honour of you-know-who. It is fairly new but it looks and feels like something from another times, I must say that this was the first time I have encountered such a structure that appears absolutely impressive and its not from some ancient ruler but from 1970s. Inside there is a very large exhibition about Chiang Kai-shek and his life, it might appear as extravagant to some foreign visitors but I grew up with Yugoslavia treating Tito with the same kind of idol-worshipping so the whole cult of personality business is not so alien to me, I kind of understand it and get what the man meant to local people.
In all honesty, Naha was actually nothing special but I was so overwhelmed (and overjoyed) with the idea that I arrived in Japan that it didn't matter one bit: instead of going to check out its main attraction (Shuri Castle, left it for another time) I decided to simply walk to the town and explore it the way I like the best, on foot. Along the way I stopped to admire simple little temple (Kume-Shiseibyo) dedicated to philosopher Confucius, it was absolutely perfect spot in the middle of residential area and every inch of the place was carefully arranged, including the far away corner behind it - Japanese have this beautiful aesthetic sense where tiniest place could be lovingly beautified with several stones and plants. Here I must mention perfectly polite Japanese people who shuffled in the crowded streets with utmost elegance and politeness, you never hear one single car honking and little children always nodded respectfully when they saw me. I even treated myself with a lunch in Japanese restaurant and to my horror found out that instead of withdrawing $ 50 I have actually withdrew $ 500 (in Japanese currency) which left me in the shock for the rest of the day, but eventually I just had to accept these things happen when you are tourist. Knowing that Japanese love western music, I have also checked local music shop and found myself utterly confused amongst shelves full of artists unknown to me. Even in Greece I recognised at least one or two names but here it was all Martian to me.
Another Japanese island, this time Fukuoka - this is where I went to see lovely Kushida Shrine which was genuinely beautiful spot, like something out of a dream. Again, polite people everywhere and Cherry trees blossoming all over the place. I even bought little oracle that told me (very appropriately) "Keep in mind to control your temper and things will turn out the way you wish" which I found very amusing since I do have short fuse. If anything, the group of visitors who swaggered around with me appeared like true Barbarians, talking loudly and being absolutely obnoxious, while locals kept their respectful reserve and didn't even complain when we snapped the photos of a private wedding. I even visited local museum (Hakata Machiya Folk Museum) with its delightful collection of figurines dressed in traditional clothing. At the end we went to see Fukuoka tower which is the tallest seaside tower in Japan - the building is basically steel & glass construction and elevator brings you up to 123 meters from where one can see stunning panoramic views of the whole city and the coast. It is designed to withstand magnitude 7 earthquakes, which is very important in these places as earthquakes are quite frequent.
Nagasaki of course is world-famous for one thing and that is tragically Atomic Bomb explosion in 1945. We all knew this, of course but the glow of the spring kind of made us forget it as we walked trough beautiful Peace Park with its Fountain of Peace and lots of sculptures donated from all over the world - US, Soviet Union, Brazil amongst many who sent art with strong anti-war messages. Even the place called "Ground zero" (Hypocenter of Atomic Bomb Explosion) had so many Cherry tree blossoming that one gets caught up in the moment and forgets the reasons why we are here. Eventually Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum made us all very somber and serious, as this was nothing to laugh about - the exhibition introduces Nagasaki the way it was before the war and later illustrates how the explosion completely destroyed majority of the city, most of them citizens who had nothing to do with the war. I controlled my emotions fairly well until the very end when a certain photo affected me so strong that I fell to pieces (more about that photo another time). I left the museum with a complete conviction that nuclear weapons are immoral, evil and should be forbidden by the whole planet before they cause our destruction. Some of my fellow visitors mumbled that exhibition is one-sided but I was not in the mood to discuss anything with them - we know who threw the bomb at Nagasaki and no amount of discussion can erase this fact.
Back to China and this time mainland - Shanghai is such a breath-taking experience that I believe that its one of the most exciting places I have encountered in many ways of my globe-trotting. First, its a home to 23 million people. Second, it has spectacular architecture. Third, one can stay here for months and still discover new things, thats how huge the city is. I walked to the city centre and walked and walked on beautiful promenade The Bund before I turned to main shopping street, mind-boggling Nanjing Road which is one the world's busiest shopping streets (I didn't care for shops but had to cross this path on my way to museum) - when the crowd started passing on the traffic lights, it felt as two armies collided. Eventually I found my way to famous Shanghai Museum right in the middle of People's Square, now this has been quite a long walk and I was actually tired when I arrived but whatthehell, here I am and I will walk some more: the museum has a collection of over 120,000 pieces of ancient art and its a marvel that any of them actually survived mid-1960s communist idea of Cultural Revolution where communists intentionally destroyed anything that had to do with the China's past (fabulous, ancient bronze pieces, for example, were melted down) - thanks to private collectors, museum eventually saved many of priceless pieces like ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, jade, coins, ancient seals and furniture. Because this was all a bit too much to take (and my feet were already hurting) I investigated just a few selected exhibitions, like ancient Chinese sculpture and the furniture (simple and elegant structures, no metal nails whatsoever, just selected wood that has to be neither too subdued, nor to showy). Later I still had to walk back and was completely exhausted but happy with what I had seen. This part of Asia is absolutely fascinating and completely different from what I have seen so far. Ah yes, because I am obviously not local and my features are striking contrast in any crowd, I was attacked by streetwalkers left and right, the girls were just throwing themselves at me, not discreetly but rather openly offering business - I guess this is what they expect of foreign visitors. Or at this age I just look as a potential client.
By some real lucky accident, my very first time in Shanghai happened to be a bit prolonged - under normal circumstances, cruise ships usually stay in port just during a morning or afternoon but here I was for three days yay, so naturally I walked and walked and explored until I dropped from exhaustion. Amongst other things, I treated myself with a red hop on/hop off sightseeing bus, like a real tourist and had a good look at various parts of the town, the best of all being the discovery of area called The City God Temple - it is situated in a oldest part of town, which is extremely picturesque and quite a difference from westernised Nanjing Road - everything here is based on real, historical Chinese architecture and its very, very fabulous. Actually I had just a vague notion where I was and just like Alice in wonderland, I simply followed some path inside, until I found myself on the most stunning market that just went on forever in a labyrinth of shops and magnificent buildings. Strangely enough, I actually didn't do any shopping at all - I simply soaked in the atmosphere, the crowd, the sounds and the smells, the fountains, the tea houses, without actually thinking about necessity of shopping. I even entered the temple of City God itself (lighted some incense in front of the building) and watched with curiosity how the locals pray, pointing incense at four different directions, most of them praying really intensely. Later when I found myself in the new part of the town, with its skyscrapers, shops, metal and glass, they left me completely cold because what I saw previously in Chenghuang Miao district was just too good for words. Unforgettable.