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Japan isn’t a big country really, at least if you compare it with other destinations as China, India, USA or even my home country, Argentina. Despite that I think Japan has the most extensive transportation system I have ever seen, including trains, subways, metro, tram, busses, monorail, cable cars… and they are all linked to each other, even sometimes they merge so the railway becomes a subway. It’s hard to make a generalization about how to use the system in all the country so I will focus on the place that I know and traveled more: Kansai

Kansai is the name of the region I live in and basically compresses the cities of Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Kobe, and everything in between. What are their boundaries is hard sometimes to describe. Normally the limits for the cities are in the hills or mountains. For Example, The Nara Prefecture and the Osaka prefecture are divided by the Ikoma mountain range, but you could hardly notice that.

The JR (Japan Railways corp.) operates the Government transportation system, including the High speed Shinkansen (bullet trains), Highway busses (meaning Inter-city) and some subway lines, but normally subway lines are operated by the city or prefectural governments. The thing is that in Japan there are also several Private Railway Lines, often huge corporations that own Trains, Subways, busses, Hotels, Shopping malls, and even clubs. This Companies normally link their services to the Government JR and between them as well, which bring for the visitor a complete chaos when trying to ride outside the JR lines.

Back in Kansai there are 5 private railway  lines: Hankyu, Hanshin, Kintetsu, Keihan, Nankai and the public JR. This lines combine between them, the JR and the subway in an integrated transportation system, conforming a huge commuter network. This lines sometimes serve the same destinations. You can get from Osaka To Kyoto by Kintetsu, JR (Shinkansen and normal train), Hankyu, Nankai… and they all have different terminals. Sometimes the terminals are connected like in the case of the JR terminal in Kyoto that is connected to the Kintetsu one in a massive building that’s both a Train Terminal, a shopping mall, a Hotel and a transportation hub, linking with local and intercity busses, subway lines and between train companies.

Lets see some important points on Japan transport:

Fares
Fares are measured by distance, and each company has its own fare chart, resulting in cheaper and expensive lines. Basic fare for up to 3 stations is 150 Yens, and fares between 2 cities between 900 and 1700 Yens. Conveniently for foreigners there is a  machine called “fare adjustment machine” located right before the exit in which you insert your ticket and the machine calculates the fare from the station you boarded until the station you are adjusting for exit. So what I do is just get the cheapest ticket and worry only how to get to my destination, and I will pay the full fare before exit.

Transfer
Transfer between lines and subways is available at connection points. Some times transfer stations have gates with ticket machines inside the platform, so you have to purchase another ticket or adjust the fare like mentioned previously. You can also purchase a transfer ticket at your boarding point, so It’s possible to be in a JR terminal a connecting ticket for Kintetsu. All machines have English explanation but not always is understandable.

Types of train
Trains in Japan have many different names depending on the stations in which they stop. A local train stops on every station along the way, then there are express, semi express, sub-semi express, and rapid trains. This applies for the Shinkansen also . The system is created for bringing far away commuters back and forth from the main city, so all the express trains will skip the stations in the middle of the trains trajectory, making stops inside the city (in the main terminals) and at the end of the way. DSCN9787Many private companies also offers Rapid Express or super express Direct rains that costs more money, they are direct because there is no need to transfer trains to get to the final destination. Sometimes they are convenient sometimes they are not, since the transfer is very well calculated and you need only to get down from one train and wait one minute until the next one arrives, other times one trains waits for the other so passengers can transfer.

Schedule:
Trains run from 5 AM to around midnight (last departure) and are extremely well organized and punctual, so if you check you clock and the itinerary and you think the train is late, adjust your clock. The trains and transfers are linked, so the last train in one side doesn’t leave until the last train arrives to that station. This last train system in quite inconvenient and if you miss the train you will be left on the street, but you can check other posts on this blog or in www.worldnomad.com.ar for info on what to do if you miss the last train.

Passes
All companies provide different passes for discounted travel. As a tourist the most famous is the JR pass, covering all public transportation, including long distance Shinkansen train and inner city trains as well. This JR pass excludes subways and privately operated lines.
But the private companies also offer passes, normally:
Day Passes: For a day for 3 days and also for week. For commuters there are monthly passes calculated on amount of trips not by day (you don’t get a 30 day pass, you get 40 trips to go to your job on weekdays)
Destination passes: To go to a certain location and back in the day, this kind of ticket may include busses, cable cars, subway and all necessary things to spend a day in certain place. Popular for mountains, important temples and Onsen
Seasons: Season passes are available throughout the year, sometimes for vacations, or Sakura sightseeing, etc
Student Discount: Reduced price tickets for students
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Orientation
Its really hard not to get lost in train stations, specially those big hubs where 2 or 3 train lines and subway connect, such as Namba and Umeda in Osaka or the JR terminal in Kyoto, but to avoid that you have to look at the details: the signs are different in the JR and the Kintetsu terminals and the floor is a different color. Also the gates are slightly different. To add trouble JR is the only one that have announces and trains signs entirely in English for the whole length of its journey.I used to live in the Nara Kintetsu line and there where no announces in English at all, and at some times stations names and maps are not in English as well.

Basically and to finish this post I I would recommend to travelers to get a JP pass to avoid this mess and move only in JR lines. But for the person staying a longer time in Japan this is impossible. As a foreigner with basic Japanese abilities is really hard to get on the information you need,   I received a lot of help from my Japanese friends, and to be honest there is no other way around it. Information in English is scarce and the websites of the private lines sometimes they include only basic information such as schedule and company data. You friends, acquaintances, co workers or classmates might  help you out if you need to travel. 

Mingacevir, Ganja, Shaki and Zaqatala

Getting out of Baku is quite easy indeed. head to the last floor of the terminal DSCN4233station located outside the city and you’ll see the  minibuses and regular buses stationed in their platforms. The terminal is quite large and poorly organized, all busses though clearly indicate where they are going with a sign in the front window, next to the driver.

Mingacevir is a relatively small city between the Caucasus and Ganja City. it’s main distinctive feature is a closely guarded hydroelectric plant and it’s consequent reservoir in whose shores Azeri’s lined up some Chai houses and café’s, between them the Athesga café with nice views of the water.
The city center is quite photogenic and  looks more like a movie stage than an actual city center. There’s nothing in particular to do in mingacevir, but it’s a nice local experience. Azerbaiajan culture at its more natural with the guys sitting in the chai houses sipping tea and playing board games the market an

Ganja City is the second biggest city in Azerbaijan, hosts an airport for domestic and international air travel (closed though at time of visiting). The city center a big statue of the country’s leader Heydar Allyev surrounded by the public buildings and a very big park. There’s a mosque and some nice streets to stroll by gently. Police are not sympathetic about people taking pictures at public buildings and won’t understand another meaning for their city’s name. I got in trouble for trying to get a picture of a Ganja Police station sign, to the point of getting arrested and interviewed.

DSCN4359Shaki is a small mountain town, with many things to do near and arround and located in the Caucasus mountain range within a dense forest. The streets have witnessed the steps of the marching caravans and different empires, and still many buidings reflect those stories. The Caravansier hotel located above the city center and the Khans palace are a reason to visit in itself.
The city center is also very interesting and there are several working mosques worth the visit.

Zaqatala is an even smaller town, near the border with georgia. There is a small castle that’s been recicled into an army garrison and a beautifull city center.

DSCN4245Transport: All cities have a central bus station, you can take the state sponsored busses that depart from within the stations or share cabs. (None of them is safer than the other, driving in this country is insanely dangerous).

Sleeping: Mingacevir has two hotels, there is also a new complex with  a five star hotel, a restaurant and a pool.
Ganja as the second city in the country has several hotels of different category. it’s worth to call ahead and let them now of your arrival.
Shaki has several options since is a very popular destinations, although the experience of sleeping in a  300 year old hotel is worth the modest price. be advised it looks as a 4 star hotel but most rooms would get a 2 star rate.

DSCN8477Tiahuanaco, Bolivia

By far the best ancient alien place that I have ever visited, even the guide has proposing that ancient astronauts build this city. Located in what is believed, where the shores of lake Titicaca, this civilization precedes all Native Indians in the area, including the Incas and the Mayas. The most surprising item in this ancient place is the underground temple, which is said to house a carved relief of all the kinds of people living in the world. One of them is clearly an alien face.

 

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Pyramids in Egypt

The question was opened since their discovery, how did the ancient Egyptians managed to cut and transport this massive stone blocks? how did they calculate so good the positions of the 3 pyramids reflecting the Orion belt, aligned with the earths true north and with several openings in the great pyramid aligning with the stars above? Although archeologists have discussed how the pyramids were built, still is unknown how they acquired the  technology and the knowledge to make such accurate renditions when building

 

DSCN8794Nazca Lines in Peru

The Nazca lines were discovered my mistake almost in the 60’s, when an airliner pilot saw intricate drawings in the desert floor, depicting what is clearly not meant to see from ground level, so the question is stated, who else was flying when this lines were draw in the ground? Of course ancient alien theorists have no doubt that it was for spacecraft’s to land. Amazingly all around this lines there are strangely shaped “landing fields", one has even the top of a mountain cut away.

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Angkor Wat Cambodia
home of the ancient and most extensive religious structure legend in Cambodia has it that it’s architect received technology and knowledge from “the people ”. Pria pisnakar a wizard son of a human man and a woman that came from the sky and teach them how to cut and transport stone for the construction of the whole complex.

Arriving to Baku, Central bus station

The Bus station is located in the outskirts of the city, on the other side of a small hill. Busses and minibuses depart on the second floor and will leave you somewhere around the ground floor entrance. Local city busses stop on the main gate and those going to the city, through a bridge, will also stop on the other side of the road, before getting on the bridge. Same local busses stop again on the side of the bridge, connected to the 2nd floor of the bus station. Rides costs 20 quepik and you pay when you get off the bus.

DSCN4602When I arrived I had no clue of which bus went to the old city, so after taking the bus (no 18) I saw a metro station and took the metro. The metro stop for the old city is Icheri Sheher, pronounced something like Igari shahar. To get on the subway the best choice is to approach someone charging their plastic cards (something like a metro card, or the London Oyster card) and hand them the 20 quepik for the ride. They will let you in the system, you can exit without problems and there is no need to have a receipt.

The metro system is quite confusing, specially when transferring trains. To head to the old city You will need to go to 28th of may station, then change trains for the red line in direction to Icheri Sheher, which is also the last station on that line. The trick is that the green line and the red line share the same station and platform, there is a light signal at the end of the platform that indicates to where the next train is going. Don’t get on the trains in a hurry (like IDSCN4600 did) cause you will end up having to return!

The Old city is quite charming, I was waiting to se something like in Jerusalem, but I was surprised that there everything looked new, kind of fake. It didn’t took off the charm though. Places to sleep inside the city walls are not so abundant. A room costs an average of 50 manat, but there is no indication in the price for the quality you will receive. Ask to see for the room before deciding. For budget travellers the 1000 camels hostels was closed at the time of writing.

What to see, Things to do.

Baku is quite a contrast from the rest of Azerbaijan, with it’s imposing towers it reflects the wealthy of the nation. The Old city has it’s own attractions, like the Maiden Tower and the Palace with it’s ruins. Karavansarai are a great place for a relaxing chai, and the turkish eateries make great snacks to take away like lajmachun. The Caspian sea promenade is a great place to walk around, specially at sunset, many chai houses and restaurants offer great views.

With and all I think a day or two are enough for Baku, The “new” city has a couple of buildings of importance and the local market might be worth a visit. From the surrounding places I decided to visit the Athesga Fire temple in Suraxani. Now, there are several ways to visit the temple, for me none of them worth the time for what you are about to see. You will have to travel from wherever you are staying to the train station and make a 40 minute trip, or the other option is to take 2 different busses. The time you will be in Suraxani is not really worth the time you will be travelling.
What I did, the day that I was leaving Baku to the airport, I left an hour before and the cab stopped  at the temple. From the temple to the airport is a 10 minute ride.

Hua Shan Mountain

DSCN7588I was sitting in the hotel’s lobby, looking at the computer for things to do when a young waitress came up to me and started some small talk in English, we started talking about things to do around Xi’an besides it’s world famous Terracotta Soldiers when she recommended a visit to a mountain not far away. According to her it was a very local spot whit relatively not so many foreign tourist going around.

The Idea seemed nice and I ask her to write for me in Chinese how to get there, and back. I realized not after long that I have been in China that written notes in Mandarin can help you a lot in case you get lost. I took bus number one from a bus station near the main train station, it was kind of hectic and the note helped my a lot. Once I paid my ticket I had before me a long bus ride which I though i t was going to be so boring, until a young Chinese sited down next to me. He wanted to talk a little bit in English. At first I was kind of skeptical, being aware of any scam or trick he may want to pull out, but that never happened.

We where chatting happily when the bussed stopped at our destination. Before us was a huge paved road, some 15 meters wide dotted with shops selling different offerings to make at the temple. It turned out that Hua shan was one of the 5 sacred mountains in Taoism where many hermit monks used to live and peregrination place for many influential Chinese emperors. In addition, it had also several dangerous paths and awesome views.

The ambient was very holy, and as I approached the main gate noticed that the entrance to the mountain was through a temple. Offerings where being give to the mountain’s spirit as I passed through eager to see more. Once through the temple you must follow an ancient stone paved path, which subdivides according to where in the mountain you are heading. Since I wasn’t going to be there for a long time I decided to head up to the lowest peak at 1200 meters above sea level.

The path suddenly turned into a steep stairway, and many sections where just vertically up through a series of stones carved in the mountain, where you are aided by a chain in each side to grab as you go up and down. Halfway up I saw a Taoist temple and several caves, carved in the stones which served as houses for the hermits in their long stay. It also stuck me that it didn’t seem to be cold, but the water was already frozen, as it was a huge waterfall up in the mountain.

After a long stairway almost vertical I arrived crawling to the first peak, the north one at 1614 meters high. I rested there and had  a pre prepared lunch with DSCN7570water. Suddenly I look up and see huge passageway that travels along a cliff on both of it’s side’s. It was heading to the temple in the east peak and it looked amazing, just out of a martial arts movie.  I headed straight there, going across this man made super structure carved in the mountain itself.

Once up I reached my last destination, knowing that still I had more to visit but no time really. This was a place where visitors would hang carved locks, with their prayers and wishes for health and prosperity for their loved ones. I took my final rest and headed down. on the way I befriended some local guys who were returning to Xian on another bus, not the same that I took. I decided to go along, and they turned out to be great company. After we arrived to the city they invited me and another foreign girl for dinner at a restaurant. After dinner we parted each way, and I left with a feeling of realization for the nice day I just had.

A Kibbutz Experience

Living in a Kibbutz in Israel is the real experience in socialism and communal life. Created along the state of Israel back in 1948, Kibbutz had a double function of Defense and Colonization and many of them where created in groups as to have a greater presence in a certain area. Kibbutz where based on the principles of socialism and communism that many Jews help developed in the beginning of the century and later immigrated to Israel, as the lack of private property and having the peoples voice is the rule.

All services necessary for living there where provided by the kibbutz, from laundry and food to education and memorials for the deceased. Money was raised selling different products made in their factories, some kibbutz specialized in making furniture, construction materials or plastic products and sold them to other kibbutz. The money was used to buy from other kibbutz and to pay sometimes for outside workers. Besides that inside the kibbutz money was not used, All services where free, food was served in a common dinning room, there where day care takers for babies, and school for education of the kids. Houses were provided by the kibbutz and all public services were included in them. In return, people living there (a kibbutznik), had to work for the kibbutz in all the services area available (in the fields, building houses, cooking or caring for farm animals as chicken or cows) and received no salary for their work. People living in a kibbutz would have to ultimately renounce to owning those things that the Kibbutz provides, in many cases everything you own, from your house to your clothes.

Nowadays this are very different. for various reasons kibbutzim started failing and some services as food in the dinning room where maid paid, or cancelled. Some kibbutz left the program and people work outside and pay rent for their houses, and a few are being privatized, houses being sold and services suspended.  Many kibbutz now hire outside workers and accept international volunteers to work in some positions, and there is where thing turn interesting.

DSCN0210Participating in this programs is relatively easy and all procedures can be handled both locally in your city and by the internet with the Kibbutz Program Center (KPC) 

I’d been in many kibbutzim and lived in two, for 7 months in Mishmar Haemek, located in the Meggido junction, and in Ein Gev for almost 2 years, located in the shores of the Sea of galilea or Yam Kineret. Both experiences where superb, but experience in each kibbutz is very personal.

The kibbutz offers a satisfying way of life but with hardly any news in day to day life. Work or study is 6 days a week from Sunday to Friday. The weekend runs along the Shabbat, from Friday evening to Saturday Evening and if you don’t have a car is hard to move around. Works hours depends on the specific job, and may vary from place to place but it’s generally 8 hours, starting as early as 06:30 Am.
Ideally after work you have the day for yourself to go hiking in the nature, study or read a book, hang out with friends and during the summer going to the pool or the beach. Nights in the kibbutz are extremely relaxed, some places have a pub, open twice a week minimum but mostly is about hanging out with friends, having a drink and chilling out.

Inside the kibbutz you can expect the life as in a small town, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, although some people which you haven’t been properly introduced may never say even hi to you. Israelis tend to be very friendly and open so normally there is some interaction between the locals and the volunteers.

After all an experience to be remembered for life.

The Golan Heights

This high planes of the Golan plateau are located at an average 1000 meters high between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Captured by Israel in the 1967 war most of it’s territory is under Israeli law. Places of interest exist there dating from the Paleolithic era, and raging through ages of the bible, Babylonians, the Romans, Greeks (Byzantine), Syrian and now Israel.

Driving up and down the Golan Heights it’s a wonderful experience, the winding, Cliffside roads with an outstanding view of the Sea of Galilee laying down 200 meters under the sea level, the hills and the valleys of the Jordan river. Along the road abandoned trenches, bunkers, tanks and ruins of villages and mosques reminds of the violent recent past, including various sites plagued with landmines. But the beauty of the place is still worth the visit, excellent trip for nature lovers, families, sightseeing, adventure and archeology.

This are some of the things worth to do:

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  • Israel Road hiking trail, beginning in kibbutz Dan, the trail zigzags around the northern part of the Golan, taking you into nature reserves, waterfalls and amazing views of the green pastures.
  • Mt. Hermon, located at 2810 meters above sea level is the highest point in the area, the entrance to the mountain features activities for winter and summer.
  • Mass’ade, a little Druze town serving cheap and tasty local foods.
  • Nimrod Fortress, a crusaders castle overlooking the Golan
  • Tel Dan Nature Reserve, visit one of the most charming places in Israel, hiking trails go around rivers, waterfalls and a lot of nature
  • Qatzrin, the ancient city and the musseum are an interesting and educative site. Houses are recreated in the ancient city to show how people lived in biblical times.
  • Gamla, both a nature reserve and an archeological site it also host a family of vultures.
  • Rujum al Hiri, Israel’s own Stonehenge is located 12 km walk from the Junction on the Golan trail.
  • Hamat Gader, Roman Baths ruins and hot pools of water, with a crocodile farm. Makes I the ideal place to relax after the walks.
  • Hippos (Susita) ancient roman and byzantine city located atop of a hilltop, overlooking the Kinneret.
  • Jordan River Park, walk in the jordan river water trails, ideal for camping with the family.
  • Golan Winery, the biggest winery in the golan producing great wines.
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