CHRISTMAS in Uruguay marks the start of the high season. Perhaps this sounds like a giddy little pun on the fact that marijuana is now legal here, but that would not be in the proper spirit. Arriving in Montevideo just as this landmark legislation is being rubber-stamped by the Senate, I quickly learn that foreigners tend to get much more excited about it than most Uruguayans, who kindly request that we please be cool.
IF you’re going to Lake Baikal, you’re going to Olkhon Island. And if you’re going to Olkhon, you’ll be staying at Nikita’s Homestead. This is the babushka-doll logic of a Trans-Siberian itinerary, especially as the railway passes through Siberia itself. In theory, you are wandering one of the world’s great wide-open spaces. In practice, you are following the same route as every other foreigner aboard the trains here, and probably making all the same stops.
THERE is a fat, goateed man in a leather jacket standing far too close to a Magellanic penguin. He is giggling nervously – the man, not the penguin – and slowly extending a finger towards the animal’s soft white belly. Surely, I am thinking, he is not actually going to poke this poor bird, which has just swum thousands of miles from the Antarctic to join its colony here at Punta Tombo, a thin, chilly strand of Patagonian desert on the coastal edge of Argentina.
VIEWED FROM outer space, the traffic in Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t look particularly bad. In 2002, the European Space Agency launched a new satellite – Envisat- to monitor air pollution levels across the planet. Envisat sees the spectral traces of man-made gases, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as they rise in vertical tropospheric columns from power plants, shipping lanes, centres of heavy industry and major urban road networks. Compared to places such as northeast China in those terms, Scottish cities form an almost negligible part of a global picture.
A GIANT red robot soldier stands over 20 feet tall in the long, wild grass of a roof garden, atop a pastel-coloured building surrounded by trees and hedges. It’s a strange sight, even for Tokyo, but also dimly familiar, like something you once daydreamed or doodled in primary school.
WE only came for the pandas. Thirty-six straight hours on a train from Shanghai, across the interior of China, almost to the border of Tibet, on “hard sleeper” beds in smoky and crowded compartments. But there is no question of the trip being worth it, because there are pandas at the end of it. Hundreds of them. Or at least 108 of them, according to the last count at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre in Sichuan Province, including 12 new cubs that were born there over this past summer.
CATCH a bullet train out of Tokyo at night, and watch the megacity warp into a single continuous strip of bright and indecipherable signage. The carriage seems to float above the rails and a polite hush reigns within, as the view blurs into Yokohama, then Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka; the world outside the window a boundless field of energy. The circuit finally breaks at some point north of Kyoto, where the countryside suddenly begins, and all that electric light gives way to occasional fires in the distance. Inside one of those fires is an evil wooden fish, burned in effigy every year by rowdy Japanese villagers.
LAST Sunday in the French Alps, more than 5000 people gathered to watch a succession of professionals and capable amateurs attempt to ski down a mountain and across a lake, from one shore to the other. None of them made it, or even came close. Some were at least able to remain upright, even elegant, cutting a smooth, continuous line through the vertical of the slope and then horizontally across the water, before slowing to a stop and sinking well short of dry land. They looked like captains going down with their ships, and the crowd saluted them as such.
ONE morning last January, the fishermen of Taiji were surprised to find a large, living whale in their communal net. It seemed to have swum out of the past. For thousands of years, many and varied marine mammals have steered close to the Kumano coast on their long undersea circuits between breeding and feeding grounds. Where Japanese whaling began with a passive acceptance of beached creatures as gifts from the gods, it first became an active, organised hunt here in Taiji circa 1606, which was then known as “kujira to tomo ni ikiru machi”, or “the town that lives with the whales”. The town is now dying, along with its only industry.
TO arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Saturday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by rail from Kyoto, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master-killers, whose name and reputation have long since spread across the world through martial arts movies, comic books, and video games. Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga-Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence.