Bugs of Russian Summer

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A long-horned beetle (maybe Agpanthia villosoviridescens) crawls around on flower buds near the shore of Lake Baikal.

It’s winter here in present-day Boston, and working my way through these Russian summer photos is a unique form of torture for someone who’s never fully adjusted to winter being a season. It looks so warm and sunny and bright in the photos, and it’s so gray and cold outside. Augh. While I was busy longing for the eternal summers in our photos, I thought I’d put together a post of all the various Russian bugs we saw. I did one for Stolby Nature Preserve already, so this will be everything else. Now you can long for summer right along with me, or if you don’t like bugs, be grateful that summer is still a ways away.

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A salticid waves hello from its perch on my finger, Ulan-Ude.
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A large black ant rests while foraging, Ulan-Ude.
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A grasshopper hides under the embellishments of an ornately-carved door at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A salticid perches atop a wooden beam at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude.
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A ladybug (perhaps Cocinella magnifica) on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Two scarce large blues (Phengaris teleius) mate on a legume flower near Lake Baikal.
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Two long-horned beetles mate on a bed of flowers near Lake Baikal.
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A bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus) climbing on flower buds along the shores of Baikal.
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A brilliantly-colored crustacean shell, cast away by its owner on the shores of Lake Baikal.
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Half of a beetle shell, maybe from Cetonia magnifica, from along the shores of Baikal.
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A salticid found a park in Ulan-Ude.
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A Scallop Shell Moth (Rheumaptera undulata) rests on a window in St. Petersburg.
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A checkered blue butterfly (Scolitantides orion) rests on a granite step in Ulan-Ude.
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A horsefly perches on a wooden post at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
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A water snail slides over the reeds of a local pond in the countryside just beyond of Moscow.

Stolby Nature Reserve: Animals!

One of the coolest things about Stolby was the abundant wildlife; there were so many different insects, birds, mammals found along the trails. Here’s what we found on our hikes in July:

Wolves

The purple trail takes you pretty far into the reserve, so it’s not surprising that’s where we saw wolves, a six-pack to be exact (no, really, not kidding and yes, pun intended). There’s no picture here because a) I wasn’t fast enough and b) I took me a few seconds to realize the dog-like creatures in front of us were wolves. We simply rounded a bend in the trail and suddenly there appeared to be five german shepards 20 feet in front of us. My first thought was “who left their dogs out hereeeooh MY GOD THESE AREN’T DOGS.” because as I scanned left, I noticed a massive black animal at the front of their pack. They paused, sniffed the air, and then they loped off into the bushes. Stoytcho apparently spent the three seconds ouf our encounter desperately searching for a nearby stick, so yay, survival skills.

Chipmunks

There are tons of Siberian chipmunks (Eutamias sibiricus) along the paved trail into the park because people feed them. I can’t comment on the ecological stability of this, but can say that the Russians know how to feed their animals. Everyone brings sunflower or other seeds for them, and any attempts to give them bread are met with strange looks. So at least the chipmunks won’t get diabetes. If you bring your own packet of seeds, you can get the chipmunks to eat out of your hand.

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Squirrels

Strangely, squirrels are much rarer than the chipmunks. We encountered this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) along the paved trail into the park. It was pretty skiddish, though it feasted on the same sunflower seed bounty that its chipmunk cousins loved.

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Birds

We’re not well versed in birds, though we did recognize when we stumbled too close to a hawk or eagle nest and the thing just wouldn’t shut up. If you visit Stolby, though, the most common bird you’ll see is the great tit (Parus major). It’s a pretty yellow and gray bird that also partakes in the bounty of seeds visitors bring. If it’s early summer, you might also see a fun show of adolescent birds demanding to be fed by their parents, despite the fact that they can already fly.

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Snakes

We saw a snake! Tally one to our sightings of snakes on the trip so far (this number is around a woeful 3 or 4). This one was crossing the paved path on the way into the park. My tentative guess on the species would be Elaphe dione, the Steppe ratsnake, according to a nature guide of animals in Transbaikalia.

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Biting Bugs

It’s summer and the biting bugs are definitely abundant. Besides mosquitoes, two things to watch out for are horseflies and ticks. The horseflies have bites that hurt like hell, while the ticks here can transmit some kind of encephelitis. Yay.

We found two ticks in four days of hikes, so they’re pretty common. The first was on Stoytcho’s clothing while hiking the (blue?) loop trail to all of the climbing rocks. The second was on me. We climbed part of Manskaya Stenka on the purple trail and on the way back down, while clinging to tree roots I felt a tickle on my belly. I freed one hand and pulled my shirt up to find a tick crawling its way across my stomach. Fighting the frantic urge to flail, I kept one hand on the tree root and used the other to flick it off and FAR away.

So yeah, watch out for ticks.

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Other (more fun) bugs

There are a plethora of bugs in Stolby that don’t bite and can be downright lovely. You’ll encounter a lot of beetles on your hikes, with the largest and most common being black-colored scarabs that shimmer iridescent blue in the sunlight:

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Then there are a variety of ants, including the near-universal golden carpenter ant and ‘farmer’ ants that tend to their flocks of aphids:

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I had no idea what these insects were–they’re probably some kind of nymph and not the mature adult–but they would cluster together on railings along the trail. When disturbed, they would shiver and scatter in unison:

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Here’s a cute little ladybug sporting reverse colors:

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And lastly, snaaaaails!

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Stolby Nature Resere: Plants

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Siberia in summer contradicts every imagined image conjured up by the word. Devoid of ice and snow, the summer Siberian landscape clothes herself in emerald hues dotted with flecks of whites, reds, purples, and pinks from flowers and berries. Here are some of the beautiful summer plants we encountered on our hikes in Stolby:

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A cluster of Campanula flower.
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An unknown flower; though the flower cluster reminds me of a clover, the leaves are totally different. The flowers are long and thin, so they’re not slipperwort. They’re also not the correct shape to be foxglove or monkshood.
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A cluster of monkshood/Wolf’s Bane (Aconitum) flowers.
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Another unknown flower, although from the shape it could be a wild orchid.
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Two small Campanula or Adenophora flowers, after a rain.
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A lone dew-dipped cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) hangs from its stem.
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The autumn colors of this plant pop against the background of green summer foliage.
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Small, ever dainty forget-me-nots (Myosotis imitata).
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A bee pollinates elderberry flowers (Sambucus sp.)
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A small, bell-shaped flower, perhaps another Campanula.
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A rather stunning flower, though unknown. Maybe a type of carnation or Dianthus sp.?
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A blueberry (Vaccinium)peeks out from the bush.
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Flowers of Bupleurum longiradiatum, small perennial shrub whose cousin Bupleurum longifolium is popularly known as an ornamental.
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A yellow jewelweed/touch-me-not/balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere) flower.
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These dewspun leaves illustrate how jewelweed got its name.
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A small flower, possibly Geum aleppicum (Yellow Avens).
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A wild thistle (Synurus deltoides) with flowers in bloom.
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The unopened puffballs of wild thistle flowers (Synurus deltoides).

Stolby Nature Reserve: Fungi

Stolby Nature Reserve in the summer plays host to hundreds, if not thousands of fungi species. Here are some of the gorgeous specimins we saw during our camping and hiking in mid-July. Identified *tentatively* wherever possible.

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Saprophytic white mushrooms with reddish-brown spores growing  on a tree stump.
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A pair of tiny Russula sp. caps. Russula is notorious for being a genus vaguely-defined species.
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An Amanita sp. I would venture, based on the prominent volva and cap shape.
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A scaly/hairy golden mushroom that reminds me of plums and custard (Tricholomopsis rutilans), but without the purple coloring.
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The underside of some saprophytic mushrooms, probably a Pleurotus sp. (oyster mushroom).
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The top side of the same saprophytic mushroom cluster.
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Lycoperdon sp., though it does not appear to have the same properties of most puffballs (a central hole that emits a puff). Perhaps Lycoperdon saccatum?
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A cluster of Coprinellus sp. growing on a log. I’d guess Coprinellus disseminatus.
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A close up of the same Coprinellus cluster.
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A polypore fungi, maybe a young Fomitopsis sp., with guttation droplets on its surface.
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A small cap mushroom with a tiny cricketlike fly on the stem.
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An Artomyces sp. found on a log. The North American species is Artomyces pyxidatus, which looks highly similar to this, so this could either introduced sor a highly-similar native.
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A gilled mushroom hiding along the trail. You can see the lack of pigment on the right that results from shading by the leaf above it.
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The underside of the same mushroom, showing continuous gills down onto the stem.
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Crowded space – a plant shoot and fairy cap grow side-by-side.
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Another small fairy cap growing among moss.
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A bolete or slippery jack (from the porous underside). We found them this way, so it looks like someone else was doing a bit of mushroom ID.
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Another Coprinellus sp., maybe Coprinellus micaceus.
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Small gilled mushrooms growing from a log.
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Another mushroom, this time with gills that end abruptly on the stem (adnate gills).
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A cute little mushroom cluster illuminated by the sunset.

I’d lichen more…

Okay, so technically not just fungi, but lichens do consist of at least one fungal species! Here are two bonus shots of the local lichen for you.

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A free piece of lichen, perhaps fallen from a nearby tree. I can’t tell if this is multiple different lichens, or one that takes a variety of shapes.
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A whole wall of lichen for you!

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

Flowers of Lake Baikal

Mid summer is not a great season for flowering plants in general but we still plenty along the trail. We bought a book on flowers in southern Siberia, including the Baikal Region. Unfortunately, that book is not with me right now, but I will update this post with names once I get it. IMG_20170708_180501IMG_20170708_150605 IMG_20170708_140419IMG_20170708_122943 IMG_20170708_113250IMG_20170708_113147 IMG_20170708_111155

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These shots didn’t come out quite as good, but I’m leaving them here for future identification.

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Hiking Baikal, Day 2

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Our second day of hiking Baikal’s eastern shore begins with moonset, followed by sunrise. We decamp and hike north to Turka, a shoreside town where we get breakfast and ask about a bus to Ust-Barguzin so we can get hike Svatoy Nos. We’re directed to a bus stop outside the town’s grocery store and wait for a bus that never arrives, so we decide to walk on to Goryachinsk, through pine and birch forest, sunny fields, and stony shoreline. Around midday we set up the tent in the shade of a tree and nap to the sound of lapping water on the rocks. It feels strange to see so much water but smell no salt, feel no ocean spray, hear no cries of gulls.

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It’s already late afternoon when we finally reach Goryachinsk and discover that we won’t be going to Ust-Barguzin—we had to catch that bus back in Ulan-Ude. All the buses that stop here in Goryachinsk go elsewhere, mostly back to Ulan-Ude. Someone suggests that we could try waving a bus down or hitchhiking up there, but we’re tired. We’ll just have to try for Svatoy Nos the next time. And for now, at least we have the hot spring of Goryachinsk to soothe our aching feet after 33 km of hiking in two days. The water is so hot that it burns our feet, so we make small pools at the edge of the hot stream to trap the water. It’s the perfect temperature after a few minutes of cooling.

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As the sun sets, we return to the shore of Baikal to continue northward to find a place to pitch the tent. Stoytcho feels tired and achy, the first symptoms I had of my flu the previous week, so we’ll return to Ulan-Ude on the bus tomorrow. We find a small copse of trees a couple kilometers north of Goryachinsk to pitch the tent and watch the sun set, illuminating the undersides of clouds with pinks and reds as it sinks beneath the horizon. We watch the chilling wind blow across the lake as we shelter in our sleeping bags and tent, huddled between the trees.

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Bugs of Japan

It’s summer here in Japan, and that means bugs! Really big, really cool bugs! So to celebrate, here are some of our best bug pictures:

Jumping spiders:

Shinjuku Garden in Tokyo:

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May actually be a lynx spider, not a jumping spider. Hard to tell from this angle.
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This one may also be a lynx spider.

Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto:

Possibly Phintella abnormalis?

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Probably Plexippus paykulli, now found all over the world.

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Unknown salticid.

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Beach in Uraga, near Tokyo:

This one’s an ant mimic (Myrmarachne), possibly Myrmarachne japonica.

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Everything else:

Caterpillars mimicking things!

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Caterpillar that mimics bird poop, probably a giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
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Spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus), whose back end mimics a snake.
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A cute little moth.
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A skipper butterfly (Hesperiidae)
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A  land snail (Euhadra amaliae) crawls along a wall
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A small praying mantis.
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Carpenter ants (Camponotus japonicus) carry the remains of a worm.
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The husk of a cicada.

Crowds and Quiet in Tokyo

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The weekend crowds in Harajuku, Tokyo

Aside from the cleanliness and the bright colors, being crowded is near the top in adjectives to describe Tokyo on a weekend. It’s a low-key kind of crowded, at least where we visited – there’s no hustle like the markets we visited in South America, and it’s not the near-paralyzing shoved-together roiling mass that we experienced on a Saturday night in Taipei’s nightmarkets. It’s a casual, bubbling with energy, happy kind of crowded – there are more people here than you can possibly imagine, but nobody is being shoved into anyone else and there’s no point in time where the stream of people has to stop moving. IMG_20170611_154347
We’d spent some time during the weekends visiting the Harajuku, Shibuya, and Shinjuku districts, mostly for me to see what all the buzz was about. All three are trendy neighborhoods surrounding massively active rail stations. Each one is a bit different, but the common thread is that young people gather on weekends to shop and eat, with a focus on Harajuku. Shibuya station’s surrounds are a bit more downtown, with financial hubs and the famous Shibuya crossing right around the corner. Harajuku is fashion friendly and full of modern cafes and eateries. Here is where, generally, cosplayers and people wearing fantastical clothing might hang out, but we didn’t see too much out of the ordinary. The shapes, patterns, and colors permitted in decoration and dress in Tokyo are already far outside the norm in any western country I’ve been to. This becomes especially true on the weekends when people don’t have to wear suits for their job.

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The train station at Harajuku

Shinjuku lies to the north of both the other districts and presents two different neighborhoods on either side of the station. To the west is something akin to Manhattan – tall buildings, lots of shops on the ground floor, famous labels and marks taking up much of the real estate. To the east is a much calmer feeling, low-building occupied neighborhood with plenty of its own shopping but without the big-city feel. It’s incredible how quickly Tokyo can transition in character, usually just in a matter of streets, while still maintaining a very distinctive feel.

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The wall of sake barrel offerings at Meiji Jungi Shrine.

Once the crowds have gotten to be too much, each neighborhood presents a calm place to retreat – sort of. Harajuku and Shibuya have the Meiji Jingu shrine and surrounding park, while Shinjuku has Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Meiji Jingu is one of the most famous shines in Tokyo and is regularly packed with worshippers and visitors on the weekends, especially when the weather is nice.

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The gate and walkway during rain.

We found it really nice to go wandering down the impressively wide and long main entrance path during the rain – there are much fewer people and the atmosphere is charming, calm, and reflective as opposed to excited. On a sunny weekend it’s beautiful to visit, but while it is away from the city noise of the nearby neighborhoods, the sheer number of visitors can be overwhelming.

 

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One of the many colorful blooms at the National Garden

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a much better place to go and relax. It’s a huge park, fastidiously maintained, with a pond and river, beautiful trees, and vibrant flower displays all over. We mostly walked around and took pictures, sat on the grass, and enjoyed a late summer afternoon with everyone else. For the low cost of a train ride and 200 Yen, a day of quiet meandering walks and nature saturation await.

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Relaxing on the large lawns in the park.

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One of the many winding paths, alternating shade and sun.
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It’s not quite a painting, but it’s close.
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Traditional buildings dot the park.
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Taking pictures is a group activity near some of the park’s more interesting sights.
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A span of branches reaching into the sky.
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The view found when lying down.

Taipei Natural Parks

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A translucent white mushroom grows from a mossy branch, surrounded by small black earth tongues (Geoglossaceae).

One unexpected part of Taiwan has been its natural beauty, for beyond Taipei lie vast parks that make up around ten percent of the island’s landmass. From thick jungles to sweeping shorelines, Taiwan’s natural beauty is both unexpected and unexpectedly easy to reach, thanks to the extensive public transit system. Though we did not stray far beyond Taipei, we managed to visit two different parks in our time there. Here’s our experience at each:

Yehliu Geopark

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People crowd the paved walkways in Yehliu Geopark.

People. So many people. This park is easy to get to by bus from Taipei and gets incredibly packed, so show up early or on a day most people have work. There isn’t much hiking to do around here, but the guided walk out to the peninsula takes you past fantastical stone formations in the shape of candles, mushrooms, and human heads. The top of the hill has a lovely view of the park and the surrounding sea, but take care in the path you choose: some paths down lead to barricaded areas, and the less trod are incredibly slippery and overgrown.

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“The Octopus” stone formation, besides some “candle” stone formations. All of the formations are formed naturally by erosion, without the touch of human hands.
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A life ring at the park. This area is prone to rogue waves during monsoon season.
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People wandering among the rock formations.
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DON’T BE THIS GUY: human touch speeds the eroding process and does damage.
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Smalls succulent plants grow in a dirt-filled hole on one of the rock formations.
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Waves breaky on the rocky shoreline at the end of the peninsula.
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A poorly-kept, slippery path to nowhere.
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A dew-dropped ladybug.
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People stand on a bridge over rock formations in the park.

Mt. Qixing

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The slippery, stair-filled path up to the peak of Mt. Qixing.

Also accessible by bus from Taipei, this is where you go for a real hike. Mt. Qixing Park has dozens of trails that would take days to hike, and the tropical weather of Taiwan nurtures thick forests full of insects, lizards, and small rodents. Most hiking trails here are stone and involve an insane amount of stairs, so bring walking sticks and watch your step in the slippery rain. The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring Bath is open to the public and is a great place to soak after a hike, but has limited hours (see below) and is closed on the last Monday of each month. The foot bath in front of it is always open, though, so you can always soak your feet alongside a dozen other weary hikers.

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A mysterious round structure hides in the foliage.
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A tree lizard, possibly from the genus Japalura.
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A dew-jeweled caterpillar (probably of Lemyra) makes its away across the edge of a bench.
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A stream flows between an ocean of grasses and shrubs.
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A small, decorated land snail (I’m guessing Aegista mackensii) inches by.
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The Lengshuikeng Hot Spring working hours. Guess what day we were here! (It was the last Monday of the month. Sad times).
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We soak our feet with other hikers.
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A waterfall at the end of our hike.
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An ant-mimic jumping spider (Salticidae, probably a female of Myrmarachne sp.).