The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Japan: Samurai Castles

Matsumoto-jo

Inuyama-jo

I’ve been visiting Samurai castles in Japan.

A fair number survive, in some form or other, but authenticity varies wildly.  Some keeps, such as Osaka-jo, are imaginative rebuilds, with concrete cores and even elevators.  But there are a handful of authentic survivors and I focused on the five that are ranked as “National Treasures”, at Matsumoto, Hikone, Himeji, Inuyama and Matsue.  Even these have seen extensive renovations.

These mostly follow fairly similar patterns, with complex moat systems and walls protecting the route to the inner keep.  Inuyama-jo is a striking exception, using a natural hill and river instead of moats.

There are many repeated design tricks, such as double gates at right angles, with a weak outer gate allowing entry to a small courtyard and then a very strong inner gate making sure you stayed there, as convenient target practice for the defenders.

Hikone-jo

Himeji-jo

Ethiopia’s Dallol region combines a salt flat with volcanic hot springs, to wildly colorful effect. Hot rocks far below are forcing up hot salty water, laden with minerals.  The bubbling hot springs then form brightly colored salt formations and salty lakes.

The active areas are continually changing, with new features appearing and old ones drying up and fading.  The currently active hot spring area is full of lots of little bubblers, 1-3 inches, burbling up colors.  The water is hot, but not boiling – most of the bubbles are trapped gas, not steam.  There is yellow from sulfur, green from potash, red from iron, white from pure salt.

The colors are much more intense than anything I remember from Yellowstone.  They look ridiculously over-saturated!  I suspect this is because I’m seeing colored salt, whereas at Yellowstone you see colored limestone.  When there is rain (which happens every few years) all the formation and colors are washed away.

It looked extremely cool!

And you thought your job was tough…

The Danakil depression in Eastern Ethiopia is one of the lowest and hottest points in all of Africa. It’s at -127 meters and is dry, HOT, and salty. For centuries, the locals have mined the hot salt flats and exported blocks of salt to the farmers in the cool, green, Ethiopian highlands.

They still do it as they always have, entirely by hand. The salt blocks are cut out with wedges and axes and then finished with hand chisels. They are loaded onto camel caravans and shipped off to the farmers.

The miners work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 10 months a year. Did I mention it was hot?

The camels can survive the ten day round trip without water, but they need fodder. So they wisely bring giant bales of hay down from the highlands and stage half of it along the way, to eat on the return journey.

The 5kg salt blocks sell for 5 Birr (20 cents) in Danikil and 25 Birr ($1) in the highlands. There was an attempt to use trucks to move the salt, but the local leaders in the Danikil blocked it, as they think their community makes more money servicing the camel caravans.

Seeing the miners at work and the camel caravans was extremely striking. This felt like an unexpected glimpse into a very different world.

Camels coming down from the highlands, carrying hay.

Erte Ale: A Lava River

 

I trekked up Ethiopia’s Erte Ale volcano to admire its fine lava.  Formerly there was a lava lake at the summit, but this was disrupted in the January 2017 eruption and the lake drained away. However, it has been replaced by a fresh flow of lava being forced up from below. This lava flows across the crater and then plunges down into a subterranean passage, most likely heading down to the new lower crater.

The lava definitely isn’t “oozing” – it is flowing rapidly like water, with maybe 5 – 10 meters/second flow, with stripes of grey mixing with bright red on the surface and with turbulent eddying, splashing and sloshing at the exit. You get to see the flow through a wide fissure near the floor of the crater, perhaps 50 to 100 meters below. There is a good clear view and it is quite remarkably good fun to sit and watch.


A lot of the fun comes from seeing the turbulent flow, so here are a couple of very short video clips of the lava river in action

 

It was really fun to sit and watch!

I visited on a private tour with Magma Flow Tours who did a really great job of looking after me and guiding me around both Erte Ale and the Danakil. I strongly recommend them!

Greetings from Myanmar, land of giant golden stupas.

I came in overland from Thailand through Mawlamyine, where there is an ancient stupa visited by Kipling and referenced in his poem Mandalay:  “By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea …”

Neither the temple nor Mawlamyine/Moulmein seem to have changed much since then.

Here in Yangon (Rangoon), I visited the giant Shwedagon Paya complex, which has a 326 ft tall central golden stupa. It sits atop a hill, looking like a great golden mountain from afar, aglow in the early morning sun. It is truly a wonder to behold! Stupendous!

According to the temple authorities, backed up by photos, the very topmost tip of the Shwedagon Paya stupa has various golden ornaments and gems, topped by a 76 carat diamond. If I put a gem like that so high up, I’d be very nervous of magpies…

Tomorrow I’m off on the road to Mandalay and then to Bagan, for many more stupas!

A Bridge on the River Kwai

A quick “Hi” from a Bridge on the River Kwai. Yes, there really is such a place and it is a (mostly) authentic relic of the Death Railway.

The book/movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was satirical fiction and the wooden bridge they showed never actually existed. But a steel bridge was built in roughly the right area as part of the Death Railway and after the success of the movie the ever-helpful Thai authorities applied their creative geography skills to stretch the definition of the River Kwai a little to cover it.  The central section was destroyed by allied bombing but repaired after the war, otherwise it’s the original forced labor bridge.

 

For a small fee I was able to ride a train across the bridge and along a section of the Death Railway.  It was a scenic but slightly spooky trip.