Friday, September 27, 2013

Seikan Tunnel

Train journeys are a integral part of many travels, and often, they provide a beautiful view of the country. And some provide an interesting experience when they tunnel through mountains and over the seas. And even under the sea!!

For those traveling in Japan to Hokkaido using the excellent Japan Rail, the train does travel under the sea! For the segment between the main island of Honshu (in Aomori prefecture) and Hokkaido, the train travels through a tunnel built under the sea. Known as the Seikan Tunnel, it is the longest and deepest operational undersea rail tunnel in the world!

Currently, the shinkansen does not travel through the tunnel. At Shin-Aomori, you have to take another train (Hakucho/Super Hakucho) to Hakodate (or vice-versa). In this train, you have an option to take up a guided tour to the underground tunnel. There is actually an underground station in the Seikan Tunnel too, but it can only be visited through the guided tour. The train ticket is covered under the national JR pass but the tour has to be paid of course. However, the tour is in Japanese only (when I visited).

The exhibits and pictures etc during the tour in the tunnel has English captions, so it is still an educational trip. Part of the tour would also bring you to a museum, and there, the diagrams and figures could help you gain more understanding. Eg. from the diagram, you can see that while the overall Seikan Tunnel is longer, the Channel Tunnel between UK and France has a longer portion under the sea!

Funicular line bringing tourists to the underground station

For those who love rail journeys, rail trivias etc, check out the Seikan Tunnel!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Semana Santa alfombras, Ayacucho

One of the biggest religious festival in Peru is Semana Santa, and one of the most famous and biggest celebrations occur in Ayacucho.

During the Holy Week, the whole town of Ayacucho is abuzzed with activities and decked in colour. One of the predominant sights you will see is teams preparing their alfombras or Semana Santa carpets. These carpets cover pretty much most of the Plaza de Armas or central square, as well as many side cobbled streets and alleys. Made from sand, coloured sawdust, flowers etc, they are art masterpieces in every sense of the word. Intricate designs, outstanding colours, precise craftsmanship, I am truly impressed by these carpets. It is said that the design takes months to come up with, and is unique every year. But sadly, they don't last beyond 24 hours....


As part of the celebrations and ceremonies during the week, there will be daily processions where participants show their devotion and/or perform religious rites. These alfombras are actually constructed on the processional route/path. So these artful carpets get trampled on, shuffled through (especially those carrying big floats!), and essentially gets wiped out after each procession. And even if they are not, they would be, to make way for the next alfombra to be constructed. Depending on the size and complexity, some can take 12 hours or more, so I guess it would be some sort of a race to get it completed before the next coming procession.

There will be alot of other celebrations and ceremonies in Ayacucho, and as mentioned, Ayacucho hosts one of the biggest. So accommodations and transport should be booked in advance. We were there in the early part of the week and did not see many foreign tourists. However, come Good Friday to Easter Sunday, the entire town is packed with locals and foreign tourists alike. The tourist offices and visitor centres are supposed to have more information regarding the activities happening, but it seems that most are in Spanish only. Nevertheless, you can always find something happening somewhere!

While I am not a Catholic (nor any religion for the matter), I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and festivities in my 1 week in Ayacucho. Especially the beautiful, colourful Semana Santa alfombras.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Islas Ballestas, Paracas Peru

Situated off the southern Peruvian coast on the Paracas Peninsula, the Ballestas islands, together with the Paracas National Reserve, is really a wonderful excursion for wildlife enthusiasts.

I visited only the Ballestas islands though, and somewhere along the way, someone had nicknamed it 'the poor man's Galapagos'. While I am not in the position to comment on that nickname, I am somewhat impressed by the amount of wildlife seen on the short trip around the islands. And that's the crux of the matter about visiting the Islas Ballestas. The only way to visit the islands are via 2-hour boat trips from the various tour agencies in town. Perhaps it may be due to some policies controlling the amount of exposure tourism has on the ecosystem. The boat trips are purely sea trips; there are absolutely no landings at all. Of course, given enough resources (money), I'm sure there may be alternatives...

Thus one will tour around the rocky islands on a boat together with 20-30 other tourists. You'll be largely confined to your seat area, so needless to say, photography on the moving boat is somewhat challenging as well. And narration is in Spanish. However, you do get to see seals, sea lions, penguins, pelicans and large number of birds. In fact, it is the sheer number of birds seen at a single place that astounded me. And all these in about 30-40 minutes of actual time around the islands.

On the way to the islands, you get to see the El Candelabro, a large-scale geoglyph etched on the hill overlooking the Bay of Paracas. A little like the Nazca lines, this is also somewhat of a mystery as to its origins and purpose.

I regretted not visiting Paracas National Reserve. It would have made the trip more complete I think. Nevertheless, Paracas is a worthwhile stop just 4 hours from Lima. And you could probably stop by Pisco, and have your pisco sour fix!