16
Apr
12

In Peru

The money-shot of Peru

Was it a moment of madness, when I decided to spend two weeks in Peru for hiking and jungle exploration? A little bit perhaps. But more so it’s just a natural progression from city sightseeing. When the best sights have already been seen, one needs a different kind of holiday.

Peru has come across as a good destination for those who seek more thrills. The Inca trail is famous for its beauty and physical demand. Other than that, Peru offers the sort of variety in landscape/scenery that deserves a long holiday. All these together brought me to Peru.

The story starts at Paris though. My plane ticket was so reasonable priced that there was a 16 hours stopover at Paris, and there was no better way to make use of the time than to visit the famous landmarks. It was a revisit after some 12 years but my comeback was greeted by familiar faces, that of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Even the trains and the smell under the bridge have remained the same as that from years gone by.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

A night trip of Paris had not allowed much time for exploration, but Paris’s just a starter. In fact, one that i didn’t even ordered. The main course is of course Peru.

Flying into Lima, the capital of Peru, my expectation has been kept low. I had 2 half days in Lima and was told beforehand that it’s not best place in the world, which proves to be very true.

After struggling through the taxi bargaining and half guessing the Spanish, I got to Plaza de Armes, the central square of Lima, and immediately ran into their Easter week procession in front of the cathedral. It was an interesting sight, with a bunch of church clerics carrying a few obviously very heavy wooden statues slowly around the square, on the orchestral music of horns and cymbals.

Easter procession at Plaza de Armas, Lima

That was the high point for my visit to Lima though. Outside of the main square, things are dirty, crowded and generally uninspiring. The style is unmistakably Spanish, but the high pollution traffic and the desert nearby have left a layer of dirt over the buildings and roads.

Plaza de Armas, Lima, at night

At night, I was at the water circuit near the stadium, which despite being highly rated on travel forums, is only so-so. The clientele are mostly locals and at least there us quite some buzz and energy to the place.

Silhouettes at the water circuit

The next day I went to Mirafloras which is a rich people district but lacks any sort of character. Nothing’s worth mentioning other than the fact that I did get round to see the pacific ocean.

Instead of paying for the expensive flight tickets, I took the 21 hours bus ride from Lima to Cuzco. The bus is the most luxurious that I have seen with wide and almost fully lean-back seats, but with the raining season not quite passed away yet, the 21 hours journey turned into 22.5 hours, plus the non-stop nature of the bus meant that there wasn’t much opportunities to stretch my legs, it’s not a very comfortable journey overall.

Inside the Cruz del Sur coach

Getting to Cuzco was a nice change though. Cuzco, being the most popular tourist destination in Peru, definitely has a reason for claiming that first place.

Cuzco centre is overrun with tourists, there is no escaping from that. But it has a peaceful colonial atmosphere to it. Houses and building have a uniform red bricks exterior and red tiled roofs. The gardens are well-tended to and the city just ensnared visitors to stay for longer.

Cuzco, city centre

Saying that, I didn’t have much time in Cuzco at all and had to get to sleep early in preparation for the early start to the 5 days hike the next day. A gentle walk around the city was nice enough though was extra care has to be taken in order not to over exert myself with the 3000m altitude.

The next morning was the start of the Salkantay trek which started early at 4.30am. After 3 hours of bumpy bus ride, we got to our starting point at Malletta. Our trekking group was big with 18 people but has an interesting mix of people. There were 5 english, 4 germans, 2 Finnish, 2 Deutsch, 2 Canadians, 1 French and 1 Brazilian. And they were my hiking buddies for the next 5 days.

The start of the Salkantay trek

The first day of hike was mostly about getting used to hiking again. It has been more than 4 years since I have last done any hiking. There are also a few other perks associated with hiking in Peru at this time of the year, namely, altitude, mosquitos and lots of mud.

One thing which won’t be forgettable is the volume of coca leaves (main ingredient for cocaine) that everyone consumes to fight the effect of altitude. They are in our drinks in every meal and are eaten almost like a snack. It causes a slight numbness in the mouth, but whether it actually tackles altitude sickness I doubt if it has ever been clinically proven. I have got my proper Diamox tablets anyway just in case I fell ill.

As for mosquitos, they are our enemies. They spread diseases and causes so much itchiness. At this very moment I am typing, my hand and arms are still covered with the swells from mosquito bites over the past week and I can’t stop scratching. Let’s hope they won’t leave scars. Insect repellents do help, but only before they get all washed away by the sweat…

The first day of the hike was also the first time I discovered the real disgusting nature of mud, and also the utter deficiency of my walking shoes. The guide unhelpfully decided to take a shortcut which was really muddy, the kind of mud which is made of fine soil, sucky and slightly oozes water. At one point I took my feet out of the mud but my shoe was left drenched in the mud. That’s when I started hating mud with a passion. And my shoe was forever discoloured by the dried soil.

As I was saying, the first day of the hike is for getting used to hiking again. The terrain was mostly flat and the path was mostly wide and topped with gravel. The 6.5 hours of hiking we did was a nice warm up for the second day.

Campsite on first night

The second day was the most demanding of all days. We were warned by the guide the night before at our campsite that it would be 4 hours of constant uphill and then 5 hours of knee breaking downhill. Someone in the group then recalled a girl who did the trek cried on the second day for being too tough. All for the built up to the dramatic second day.

A few of us were down with cold and flu so took the option of horsing the upwards part of the 2nd day. But the rest soldiered on.

The scenery is stunning with the snow capped Salkantay peak being omni-present at more than 6000m. We weren’t trying to get to the top (lucky me) but instead took the mountain pass right by the peak at 4600m. The vegetation thins out towards the top of the pass and turned into more of a rocky barren landscape, with a odd few lagoons formed from glacier water.

Mountain pass of Salkantay

We were told that there might be condors but disappointingly I didn’t spot any. Too bad I have read so much about them in books but have never seen them in real life.

Anywho, it was a lung busting hike and  jealousy prevailed as the horse riders stroll past in style without the sweating and panting. Fortunately there were mules carrying our backpacks for us or else probably most of us will be all exhausted before half way.

Getting to the top of the pass is followed by the obligatory picture with the 4600m “we are here” sign, and a round of high fives with the others.

Sign at 4600m, the highest point of the trek

Incan rituals had it that people would carry a piece of rock from below the mountain to the top of the pass, a ritual which has been keenly taken up by hikers and that explains the eerie piles of stones at the pass. The reason for bringing the stones was explained by our nice friendly guide Hoace, but I just wasn’t paying attention. The scenery distracted me!

Top of the Salkantay pass

The downwards hike was rather uneventful. A lot of the time I tried to stay away from the main pack of the group and this time I did it particularly on purpose, because the feeling of having the whole world to yourself is just not something we can easily get in the hustle and bustle of the cities.

As we go downhill, the narrow pass opened up into a wide valley and the mist and drizzle came in. I raced down the valley and jumped from stone to stone, pebble to pebble, taking the occasional cinematic photo back towards the way we came.

Down the valley on second day

The path for the trek are mostly fairly obvious. The Salkantay is not as popular as the Inca Trail, which apparently brings in 500 trekkers daily. My own estimation for the Salkantay is around 40, including all the guides and horsemen and cooks. But everyone on the trek follows mostly the same route, so it wasn’t easy to get completely lost.

One thing that was easy though was twisting one’s ankle. It is not like walking up or down the stairs in a building, where each step is essentially the same. Each step can involve a different change in height, a variation of terrain and have a different levelness. Smooth rocks in the rain are the most dangerous and there have been more than once when I slipped on one of those. Hiking generally is a slow sports, but on slipping thinking fast on where to take the foot can avoid the disastrous ankle injuries.

And mud. I knew they would feature again. This time round, there was a never-ending stretch of mud which covered the full breadth of the path, and it was the worst kind of mud I can imagine. One step into it, all of my shoes, socks and trousers could be wet, yucky and disgusting for the rest of the trek. Being aware of the consequences, I played ninja and walked among the bushes on either side of the path, jumping from side to side using exposed rocks and tree branches often when the bushes became impassable or just ended in a cliff. But little did I know that so many of the plants have thorns. My palms and fingers are still bearing the cuts and scars from the occasion. In the evening I was told that most of the people in the group behind me took a detour which avoided that stretch of mud altogether. I told them they were missing out on the fun.

Second day campsite, with shower

The campsite of the second day surprisingly came with a shower, and we all queued up to use it. The water was freezing cold as it comes from the glacier but it was at least refreshing after 2 days of sweat and soil. My teeth was clattering for half an hour but tea and dinner came soon, where we had our now beloved coca tea and salty popcorns.

Food at the start of the trek wasn’t great. The rice is always under-cooked and hard, and the portion size too small to fill up anyone who has done a full day of exercise. The amount of meat provided isn’t the most generous either and there was a running joke around for people who always try to get a second serving. But complaints shouldn’t be too harsh since the cooks had to carry all the cooking equipments and the food along the same trek that we did. Despite what some might think, under the warm weather, the hot soup at the start of all lunches and dinners satisfyingly rehydrates and calms us down.

The food gradually got better, especially as we moved away from the wild and into towns from the third day on. The lunch on the third day was actually in a little shop and two additions to the staple of our diet were pasta and squash. The squash was a welcoming relief as we were hiking down to lower altitude at around 2000m, which means hotter and more humid climate around us.

Santa Teresa Hot Spring

We also had our afternoon of relaxation at the Santa Teresa hot spring. In normal times, I am not a big fan of hot springs. Having been to those in mainland china and seeing how artificial and over-the-top some have became, I was even planning not to visit the hot spring at all. But on this occasion, it would have been a mistake if I hadn’t gone. The 3 days of hiking meant that my muscles were tense and skin dry and itchy. Jumping into and then soaking in the 35 degrees pool was the ultimate alleviation of all the stress and tiredness. Whoever thought of combining the hiking and the hot spring deserves an award for the clever trip planning. It gets rather hot after half an hour in the water, but then there was the cold pool as well!

The third day’s night was also a bonfire night where people just sat around, got some Cusquena (local beer) and Pisco Sour (local cocktail), chatted and listened to the random selection of mostly western music.

I was told that some people stayed up until 2am. Not for me though as we had to start relatively early again at 7am on the fourth day. My feet and knees were starting to feel the effect of my abuse of them but it’s not quite the time to stop yet. Besides slipping and then dipping my right foot fully in the stream the first thing, the hike in the morning wasn’t the best of all the days, since we were passing next to the construction work for the new hydroelectric dam and there were trucks and cars passing through every 5 minutes or so. The sunshine was also punishing and led to people scouring for hats and suncream. I am looking at my skin right now and it just dawned on me that it might be the day that turned my skin colour dark brown.

4th day of trek at upper jungle

The afternoon was a nice little stroll along an in-use rail track to our overnight stay location Aguas Calientes. This was probably the most tourist-oriented town one would ever find. The whole existence of the town is predicated on the Machu Picchu nearby and the fact that many tourist like to stay the night before ascending early the next morning to catch the sunrise at the ancient Inca site. Besides all the tourists and hence the street touts, it is actually a nice atmospheric small town. A fast flowing river cuts right through the town and the sound of the galloping water can be heard throughout. Buildings and houses are mostly quiescent as long as one looks away from the touristy restaurants and market stalls.

Aguas Calientes

Prices in the town are exuberantly high, as would be expected in a tourist town. Fortunately dinner was included as part of our trek and for the first time in 4 days, we were eating in a proper restuarant. I wouldn’t say the meal was particularly good though as my chicken dinner was mostly potato and rice but had very little chicken.

Early morning the next day, at 4.30am, we started our trek from Aguas Calientes to Michu Picchu. This might not actually be generally recognised, but I think this is actually the hardly part of the trek. The torchlights guided us through one hour of knee-breaking steps climbing, before we even had time to eat breakfast. Coupled with the tiredness from previous days, my knees were destroyed by the time I got to the top.

Machu Picchu is the destination of our trek and reaching it signals our accomplishment of the 5 days hike. It is not the largest of the remaining Inca sites but it must be the most photogenic one. Our guide mentioned that it used to be a village for the elites among the Incans though it baffles everyone as to why they built it in such an inaccessible location. Nevertheless, the result of this is its own mountainscape among the mist and clouds and a feeling of being on top of the world.

Machu Picchu, with the morning mist

After 2 hours of mindless wandering in the little maze of stone houses and temples, and ignoring the pain in my knees, I climbed another 300m of steps to the top of Wayna Picchu. This is not the easiest of climb especially in the rainy season and steps often have to be accompanied with ropes and handle bars. And the view looking back to the Machu Picchu site is just so-so since it looks rather small from the distance away. Still, the entrance tickets to Wayna Picchu is one of the more sought after tickets and only 400 are available per day. Maybe I could have just sold mine to spare the searing pain in my left knee after coming back down…

Rest under the hut at Machu Picchu

After a farewell drinks with my hiking buddies, the trip back to Cuzco consisted of a combination of comfortable train and bus journeys, but were generally uneventful. A hot shower and a nice sleep prepared me for the next day.

Comfy train back to Cuzco via Ollantaytambo

At this point, I should be talking about my trip into the Amazon. But no, because my flight to Puerto Maldonado the next morning got cancelled. I arrived at the airport plenty of time before the departure time, and waited patiently. But every hour the airline StarPeru would announce that the flight would be delayed by another hour. First the airplane arrived at the airport late. Then there was a problem with the oxygen pressure and they had to fly in spare parts from Lima. Then they were having difficulty fixing the oxygen pressure. Only when it was after 5pm that they decided it was too late and cancelled the flight altogether. This was the only flight that day from StarPeru into Puerto Maldonado, and since my plan was to fly back out 2 days later, it would be a waste of time and money to take the flight the next day. So then I had to sort out the refunds and alteration to the return ticket. It wasn’t until after 6pm that I managed to sort out all of this, and such was the wonderful way of wasting one day of my trip plus the opportunity cost of going into the Amazon!

To make up for all this, the next day I went river rafting. I have never done this before and all the others (except the guide) on the same raft were inexperienced as well. But it was definitely one of the most fun I have had. The adrenaline from the constant fear of falling out of the raft and the stimuli from the cold water splashing from the waves onto the raft, plus the interaction we get between us, the raft and the rapidly changing river, are a millions times better than any rollercoasters or other theme park rides.

River rafting; photo taken by the operator, not me

Rafting apparently isn’t regulated in Peru and I would not be surprised if something like what I did would be completely banned in countries like the UK, as there are definitely places along the river where I wouldn’t call 100% safe. But no matter, it was plenty of fun and I am still alive. We managed to flip our raft on hitting a big rapid within the first 15 minutes, and I was stuck underneath the raft not being able to breath for a brief moment. The Israeli guy sitting in front of me, after climbing out of the water, kept saying he thought he was going to die. Perhaps that is also why there were so many times he didn’t listen to the instructions from the guide since then. Maybe he should have listened if he really didn’t want to die! The river was apparently only up to class III+ though and that is supposed to be an easy rating. Well, that means there is plenty of room for higher difficulties next time.

A nice big chicken dinner at Los Toldos ended my last day at Cuzco and the next morning I headed to the airport to start my marathon journey back home. After 1 flight delay of 2.5 hours and another flight which failed its first landing attempt, I got back home at 11.30pm, still plenty of time for sleep before work the next morning.

Overall Peru was an interesting destination. The trip was definitely more fulfilling than some others that I have had recently. There were disappointments, mostly not being able to get into the Amazon. But halfway through my trip I was already saying to myself that everything has been going too smoothly and with my tightly packed schedule, something was bound to go wrong. And so it did. This trip was not planned to be a sightseeing holiday and it ended up as I wanted. Interestingly most of the other travellers I met in Peru were treating Peru the same way. The typical traveller portrait is a 20-odd adult with a huge backpack plus outdoor hiking trousers and hiking boots. Peru is just that sort of a destination, one for people seeking for the active holiday of their lifetime.

And not to forget my inappropriate hiking shoes

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08
Nov
11

Short Trip to Gran Canaria

Gran Canaria is a mixed bag. Sunshine and beach all year round do look promising on paper, and to an extent these have delivered, but it is hard to love it when the island has already fine-tuned itself for tourists, and more specifically the above 60 market.

Heading from the airport in the east down to Playa del Inges initially brought back memories of Malta, with its open expanses and island charm. But on entering Playa del Inges, the list of similarities to Malta couldn’t have ended more quickly.

This beach-side resort town is signified by its huge blocks of hotels and rows of holiday bungalows, as would be expected. What was unexpected is that there is a distinct lack of liveliness from the place. True, the midday sun was rather more torching than I would like, but this is western europe and the sunshine should be what Western Europeans thrive under. The hotels and houses look a bit dated, intentionally or not, and the few palm trees appear as if they were artificially planted.

Actually walking onto the beach, the undulating landscape of sand dunes as far as the eye can see is impressive. I did little preparation before going on the trip so had no solid expectations. The dunes did come up in Trip Advisor as one of the top sights, but the scale of it is still astounding, especially considering we are on a small island. I read somewhere that the sand is blown from the Sahara, which is just across the sea. This argument is not very convincing, and the sand perhaps has just built up due to long periods of dry off-shore wind every year.

However, no arguing there is an abundance of retiring-age holiday makers: All of them lining the beach, many of whom didn’t even have the decency to cover up at all, does not form the most pleasant-looking image. The beach, despite having one of the most golden and fine sand I have seen, could do with a bit more youthfulness, and the promenade by the beach can easily feature in a 90’s movie.

Walking along the beach just beyond the water is very popular with tourists and there is a constant stream of people in their swimwear (or no swimwear) taking the walk from Playa del Inges to Maspalomas. I did the same walk like the others. While I got myself used to the various level of other people’s disclothedness, there is nothing  that can reduce the eye-popping effect of hundreds of completely naked men in various poses and pairs around a particularly gay section of beach. There are those that confidently stand to the waves of the sea with hands on hips, those that are wading in and out of the water, and those crowding the canteen getting refreshments. I hope the canteen employee is already a converted…

The night was spent in Las Palmas, the capital and largest city in Gran Canaries. The city is up on the Northern side of the island, and besides being immediately cooler, it feels like somewhere people actually live in. Apparently 70% of the working population in Gran Canaries is employed within the tourism industry, but probably Las Palmas is where the other 30% is located as there is at least an air of seriousness to the place.

The city itself feels a bit scattered and disjointed without a strong focal point like Milan (Duomo) or Paris (Eiffel Tower). And not to mention that Las Palmas is nowhere near as attractive as either of these two tourist magnets. The old town’s highlight the Santa Ana Cathedral is tame and dull and the cobble streets couldn’t rescue the rather lifeless surroundings. One side of the city is a port boasting a mixture of yachts, fishing boats and container cargos. The other side is a beach which is rather overshadowed by the one down at Maspalomas.

It requires no further explanation as to why I did not stay long in Las Palmas and took the bus up into the hills to a place called Teror. That was not my original plan, which was to go up to Artenara, the highest town in Gran Canaries. But for unknown reasons, even though the bus timetable says there would be hourly buses going to Artenara, there just weren’t any buses at all. But Teror didn’t end up being that bad a substitute anyway. The route up to the hill-side town is narrow and winding, often with sharp falls on one side. The scenery is the complete opposite to that in Playa del Inges, if there is such a thing as complete opposite in nature. Weather was much cooler and the hills are lined with trees. The sky has a splatter of clouds and the humidity in the air is much higher. Altogether these make a pleasant change from the almost desert-like climate in the south.

My guide book describes Teror as a photo-genic pretty little town. It has got it spot-on, but failed to mention that little is the most important word here and there is literally only one location and only one angle at that location which is worthy of taking photos. This is down along the main street looking towards the facade of a small catedral, with many of the houses lining the main street having wooden balconies. I took the picture and was on my way again.

Next stop was Puerto de Mogan. And this place was a gem. It’s down in the holiday resort region of the south and it has not been spared from the mass tourism. But it managed to strike a harmony between quiescency and development. The sea-side village is at a mostly secluded inlet (right word?) so we are shielded away from the ugly blocks of concrete holiday resorts at the neighbouring beaches. The holiday resort at Mogan has been wonderfully built such that it sank in to become part of the village. With the parked yachts and the crescent beach, it forms such a nice scenery over which I’d love to sit back and have a few coffees.

Puerto de Mogan served as a nice end to my short trip and at least rescued a slightly disappointing destination. But I just need to mention that my flight to return to the UK via Thomas Cook costed me £15 all inclusive, giving me a total return ticket price of £70. With that kind of bargain I can’t and shouldn’t really complain that much!

20
Apr
11

Music

Thanks youtube for bringing music to the mass. On demand music and music video have never been more convenient and cheap (free in fact). It makes me wonder what the business model is behind putting all the music onto youtube. For the English music, mostly they are automatically recognised by youtube’s video filter and so whatever advert revenue arises from views on those videos, a portion will go to the company who owns the rights to that music. So at least that sounds alright. But for eastern music, they are generally uploaded by the general public and are not recognised by youtube as copyrighted items, yet the existence of these uploads seem to be totally ignored by the record labels. Given that it is not an income stream at all for the record labels, I can only presume that the music are not taken down for the purpose of marketing, but why they do not themselves upload these music (instead of letting the public do it) is beyond my understanding. It is not difficult to set up a channel on youtube or upload videos!

If it is not because of youtube, I would have missed out on so much music out there. Not saying that I like them, but without youtube, probably I wouldn’t have listened to Stairway to Heaven, or Smells like Teen Spirit. There are many people like me out there who discover new music now and again with youtube. The radio is just so “last-century”. Katie Melua, my latest mega-discovery, has got such a heavenly voice that I just want to listen to nonstop. But this highlights another fallacy of youtube. I can just download the video from youtube and then I have the song to myself for nonstop play on my personal player. The advert income for the record labels, other than those arising from the crazy Justin Bieber fans, are more than likely below what is needed to sustain music production.

At the moment, the availability of free music on youtube might not have caused much harm to the sale of music, but looking forward into the future, I can’t see how the story can be rosy for the music industry. The prevalence of youtube extends only to the younger generation, and many people are still limited by their internet bandwidth for repeated video plays. But these will change with time, plus youtube is in fact reinforcing the idea that music is free for all. Piracy has been a problem for a while, but we all know its illegitimacy. But youtube is telling you and me that why buy music when you can have it legally for free, in an all-you-can-eat buffet style too?

Music is an essential part of our lives, so at least we can be sure that it is not going to die out due to lack of funds. There is always a demand so there will always be people willing to financially support its production. But the method of generating revenue might turn to more of a donation basis, where people can choose to pay or not, and how much to pay. It is already happening to an extent, for example, by me choosing to listen on youtube for free or purchasing through itunes, but I see this becoming a more formalised and widely accepted business model in the future. Afterall, we don’t need profit hungry corporations. It would suffice as long as there are creative musicians who are able to provide us with good music.

23
Dec
10

In Israel

Intro

Something is worth more when everyone is fighting for it. This is definitely true for this piece of land which resides within the so-called fertile crescent. To be fair, Israel hasn’t even been particularly fertile for some time, with sweep of deserts and dead water. But geography has dictated that it is the middle of Asia, Europe and Africa. While civilizations from each continent expand and decline, Israel changes hand as frequently as the hand of the centennial clock ticks.

Nevertheless, that could be that. Israel could have been nothing but a desolated war-zone. That is, if it’s not because of the religious significance that has been attached to it.  Judaism originated in the area, while Islam and Christianity were brought in as Israel was taken over by civilizations observing those religions. Each religion established their own holy sites in Israel, and in particular Jerusalem, an act which brought in pilgrims and wealth, which in turn only further reinforced the desire of every party to take control of this piece of land.

Israel has had a long and colourful history and yet its story is showing no sign of slowing down. More recent events involves the struggle of land and authority in the Palestine region and the Gaza Strip. In this rather peaceful age, rockets flying daily across the Gaza border seems to grab international attention every other day. But I suppose, after so many years, people in here should already be used to being in the spotlight.

My Itinerary

I started in Ben-Gurion Airport on the night of 13 December 2010. Headed to Jerusalem for 3 nights. While there, visited Old City mainly, including Dome of the Rock, the 4 quarters (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Armenian), Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Citadel. Outside the Old City, also went to the City of David, Mt Zion, the Garden Tomb and the German Colony.

Within the 3 days in Jerusalem, I spent half a day in Bethleham, visiting the Church of Nativity and their Souq.

After Jerusalem, the next destination was the dead sea. I went to Ein Gedi Spa for dead sea floating, Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and stayed overnight in the HI hostel. Next morning is up the Massada and then down to Eilat.

2 nights were spent in Eilat. In the end I didn’t go to Petra or Egypt, but instead went snorkeling in the Red Sea and hiked up Mt Zefahot.

Then it was a long bus trip up to Tel Aviv, broken up by a hike in Maktesh Ramon.

No time was spent in Tel Aviv but instead went further up to Haifa and Akko the next day. Visited the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa and the old city in Akko. Also in Haifa took the only subway system in Israel.

Finally back to Tel Aviv for the last day and just chilled out on the Mediterranean beach after seeing Old Jaffa in the morning.

Flight back to London from Ben-Gurion Airport, after 8 days and 8 nights in Israel.

Reflection

First of all, despite what it appears on the news and what your friends and family tell you, Israel and the Palestinian Regions can be a safe place for travelling. The constant news reports on the political instability and the conflicts in the Gaza strip created a false impression that the whole of Israel is unsafe, but from the perspective of travellers, as long as troublesome areas such as Gaza is avoided, Israel is a safe place. When I was in Jerusalem and even the West bank, I definitely felt safer than when I was in a lot of the Western European Cities. One thing for sure, you won’t find as many drunks on the streets of Israel. People are generally very nice and helpful, and also most of them speak English to a certain extent.

What stands out in Israel is its culture and to a lesser extent its variety of landscapes and natural beauty. Man-made architecture scores highly in neighbouring Turkey and Egypt but is very lackluster in Israel, so do not arrive with an expectation to see great buildings or ancient temples, etc. Actually, it is best to arrive with just an open mind and let the surroundings sink in. Culture is often something that can’t be captured on camera but can only be slowly absorbed and understood through observation.

Saying that about man-made architecture, there is still one structure which is certainly worth a venture into. That is that underground water tunnel in the City of David next to the Old City in Jerusalem. It is an unlit 500m passageway built around 800BC for channeling water from a spring into the city. Water still runs through it so visitors have to wade through it in their own torch light in about 20 minutes. I was the only person in the very narrow tunnel for the whole time and all I could hear was the water splashing noise from my feet and its echo. The eerie atmosphere was almost scary and I had to remind myself not to think of horror stories, but this often had an opposite effect.

Wandering in the Old City of Jerusalem, through its busy and narrow alleyways and thousand of shops, is fun and interesting. There were bells from the churches ringing while call to prayers were announced through the towers of the synagogues. When nearing the Jewish Quarter, there is suddenly a high concentration of people in long black overcoats and black hats with a round rim. Passing through Via Dolorosa, you see various plaques on the walls, each highlight something that Jesus has done on his way cruxification. I overheard from the tourist guides that one is for marking Jesus comforting a crying old woman. Christians definitely don’t even let go of the tiniest detail!

In Jerusalem and Bethleham, you unavoidably will catch glimpses of acts of faith from the various religions present. At the Western Wall, which is open 24 hours a day, Jews frantically bow to the wall, humming phrases from the Koran. In the Church of Nativity, Christian pilgrims queue to crawl into this hole in the wall and kiss the spot on the ground which is supposed to mark where Jesus was born. Suddenly, the Muslims seem to be the sanest of all three religions.

Getting away from all these religions and histories, the dead sea is an unmissable and unforgettable experience. From the painful walk down the beach over the salt crystals, to the moment my whole body started to float upwards as soon as I lifted up my feet, and then to bathing in the tremendous view of the rocky mountains on the Israeli and Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, all these add up to an experience I won’t find anywhere else in the world. But for the dead sea mud which seem to be raved about for its skin treatment value, I don’t see its benefit. In fact, the only thing it did was to make my skin drier and more uncomfortable.

The less than 10km of Red Sea coastline within Israeli border is fully utilised as port facilities if it has not already been filled with beach umbrellas and sunbeds. This is possibly the place with the highest concentration of outdoor activities in Israel. There are scuba divers, snorkellers, kitesurfers, windsurfers, sunbathers and don’t forget the hikers. Even in the middle of winter, the temperature still rises above 20C during the day, and the water is just about warm enough with a wetsuit. So although the quality of the coral reef and tropical fishes are slightly questionable, you do feel the energy and buzz around the place. And undeniably, the free sunbeds by the kitesurfers is one of the best place for procrastination in winter, when the sunshine is good and the wind steady, with colourful kites decorating the skyline and surfers swooshing past.

People who have flew into Hong Kong before 1998 will fondly remember the Kai Tak Airport, especially for its close proximity with the city and residential areas. The airport in Eilat takes this even further and the airport runway is like a knife stabbed into the heart of Eilat. The end of the runway is just across the street from the city’s main shopping mall and an aircraft can literally be only 20m above my head if I am on my way from the hostel to the seaside.

The biggest disappointment of the trip are the 2 biggest cities in Israel, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. In the words of a fellow traveller, “If you come from the UK, then Tel-Aviv is just another city.” To me, Tel-Aviv looks like those European Cities 15 years ago, and can only be forgiven for being in the Middle-East. Haifa was probably the first city where I wanted to get away from. Other than the Baha’i Gardens, the whole place seemed dirty, messy and crowded. Perhaps it’s due the the winter season, and all the locals might have gone to Eilat for holiday, there is a distinct lack of vibe and character in both Tel-Aviv and Haifa.

Everywhere I go in Israel, and on all the public buses and train, there are young people dressed in their army uniforms, serving their compulsory army service. Soldiers carrying rifles are commonly seen and security guards sit outside every shopping centre and banks. It seems to me Israel has done more than just to keep their citizens safe, and has gone further to show off their military presence. They want to portray themselves as a powerful nation, just like the Americans. Funnily enough, all the Israelis I have spoken to use an American accent. I have also met numerous tour groups from the US taking school kids to visit Israel. Perhaps the feeling is mutual?

Photos

Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem

Jews facing the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Christian kissing the rock which represents the one where Jesus lied on after cruxification, in the Church of Holy Sepulchre

Old City near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem

Church of Nativity, Bethleham

A bunch of American school kids frolicking in the dead sea

Just had to add this one as it's classic!

Sunbeds on the beaches of Eilat

Scuba diving, Windsurfing and Kitesurfing, Eilat

Taken on my way to the beach, just to show how close is the airport

Maktesh Ramon - it isn't possible to fully capture the scale of the crater

Baha'i Gardens in Haifa

Old Akko - touristy but not just tourist-oriented

Azrieli Tower, Tel-Aviv

31
May
10

“So you went to Turkey?”

Ferry crossing of the Bosphorous

(Whoever’s reading this, don’t kill me :P)

After a few trips in the deep end of winter and inches of snow, here comes one where short sleeves are the norm and sandals are more common than shoes. The weather in Turkey in May is pleasant with an overabundance of sunshine and not over-the-top temperature all of which lure people to the seaside and the beach.

Hagia Sophia in all its glory from the front

But before I succumbed to that temptation, I spent two and a half days in Istanbul, for a proper admiration of the Mosques and old town. My guidebook opens its chapter on Turkey saying that it’s no longer the one thousand and one night fantasy, and it’s hard to agree more when the bus journey from the airport passed through some built-up areas which looked like exact copies of the New Territories of Hong Kong, where high-rises dominate with the odd parks and shopping malls.

Entering European Istanbul by ferry across the Bosphorous at least have a tinge of dreamfulness. On the ferry, locals sit side-by-side along the bench outside the cabin, enjoying the sea breeze and the hazy view of Sultanahmet, where the minarets of grandest mosques of all puncture the skyline.  These are the dreaming spires of Turkey, and their history is just as long and rich.

My first stop off the ferry is the Hagia Sophia, a mosque which is instantly recognizable by fans of “Civilization”, and in fact that has been where I first learnt of this wonder of the world. From the outside it appears to be in a state of disrepair but given that it has been standing on the site for 1500 years, it’s only fair to give it some slack. The volume of space inside under its multiple huge domes is awe-inspiring, and with the lack of any pillars obstructing the space, it almost felt as if one was standing in an open public square on a shady day.

Blue Mosque at night before prayer time

The consensus is that the Blue Mosque physically opposite to Hagia Sophia is visually more pleasing on the outside. This is easily confirmed by just looking at the number of people taking photos in front of each mosque. But the inside of the Blue Mosque is nothing compared to Hagia Sofia. This is confirmed by the difference in entrance fee charged, TL50 against no charge at all.

In fact, after being to a few other mosques (Ottoman ones), I come to the conclusion that, as a casual visitor, most of the mosques are just a shell. Interior decorations are minimal and are generally no more than tiles and low-hanging lights, which are in stark contrast to some of the exuberant Catholic churches and cathedrals in Europe. That being said, as I wandered across Turkey, I noticed the existence of several museums dedicated solely to tiles, which, if nothing else, highlights the significance of tiles in Turkey’s history, and put my earlier conclusion on slightly shaky grounds. Still, I generally find no love with these ceramics little things, no matter how sophisticated their colours and patterns.

So my suggestion regarding mosques is that if they don’t charge an entrance fee but requires visitors to take their shoes off, then there is not much to be gained from entering more than one such mosque. Just save the trouble of taking your shoes off, and leave the worshipers in peace.

Tourists filled the Grand Bazaar

Another famous tourist spots in Istanbul is the grand bazaars. Coach-full of tourists get offloaded nearby and feeds the thousands of small shops in the bazaar, many of which seem to live off the pockets of tourists alone. Although I have been too lazy/shy to take part, haggling is the name of the game here, and shoppers are seen to be sitting over cups of çay (Turkish tea) while bargaining with the shopkeepers. But the sad truth is that modernization has taken a big toll on the atmosphere of the bazaar. The architecture still remains unchanged, but the glass shopfront windows and halogen spotlights do kill one’s imagination of the past.

Probably due to the way the bazaar was built and then expanded over the centuries, unlike the modern purpose-built shopping malls where all signs point to the entrance, it took me an hour just to find a way into the bazaar, and in the end I only did it by chance. The area around the bazaar are occupied by shops/markets selling all sorts of daily stuff and they hide the bazaar amazingly well despite its size. All the entrances to the bazaar seemed to lead off from unnoticeable side roads and are nothing but small inconspicuous archways.  If I had to spend any longer looking I probably will have started doubting myself and then become convinced that the surrounding markets are already the bazaar.

The next item on the tourist list is the Hamams, and for that I went to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. As my guidebook puts it, it’s one of the “big two” hamams in Istanbul for its history and decoration as it was built in Ottoman times by a famous Architect called Sinan. Even the self-service option is rather pricey, and since I was throwing myself into the deep end without any idea of what Turkish baths involve, I wouldn’t say I have taken full advantage of what’s on offer.

The underground reservior with a mysterious yet relaxing ambiance (Bascilica Cistern)

The correct procedure is to leave one’s clothes in the lockable room, then head to the steam room for washing and sauna-ing, and then finally going back to the cooling room for relaxation and chill out. Being as ignorant as I was, realization of the necessity of soaps did not come until other people around me started rubbing themselves with bars of soaps and a Chinese tourist caught my attention by putting large bottles of shampoo and shower gel right next to me. The bottles did look out of place in the steam room, with its elegant hot marble slab encircled by finely carved washing basins under the starry dome, all in a misty and dreamy ambiance.

Just for the record, there are quite a few other places which I have visited as well while I was in Istanbul, but I won’t clutter the post with these less exciting ventures, a trap which I have fallen into too many times with my previous posts. (Just to list out these places: Chora Church, Topkepı Palace, Basilica Cistern, Spice Bazaar and Taksim Square) One thing which I would mention is the Bosphorous Cruise, which is basically a touristy ferry ride along the strip of sea which divides Europe and Asia. I didn’t expect to see huge differences on the 2 sides of the sea, as both are Istanbul after all, but the view from hill-top castle ruin at the end of the cruise near the mouth of Bosphorous was gorgeous.

Mouth of Bosphorous looking back towards Istanbul

Everywhere that the trains of Turkey are mentioned, there is the connotation of it being inefficient and downright useless (of course with the exception of Seat61). But with it being cheaper and more comfortable than buses and I, as a tourist, not really looking for time-efficiency, it appears to be as a perfect way to travel. So when I heard that there is a ferry and train combination that will take me from Istanbul down to Selçuk, nothing could stop me from allocating a day just to enjoy the ride. Unfortunately for me the naysayers prevailed and the train I needed was canceled the day before leaving me with no option but the unexciting and uninteresting long bus ride.

The next two stops I made are Selçuk and Pamukkale, both of which are very touristy destinations due to a major nearby sight. Marginally within walking distance from Selçuk is the Ephesus, a comparatively well-preserved remains of a once glorious Roman city. There was the great theatre  which apparently holds 25,000 people, and also the Library of Celsus that, like the St Paul’s facade of Macau, has an impressive front yet nothing behind stood the test of time. But besides these, the highlight of the sight is the hordes of tourists walking down the ancient city’s main street. The best observation point is in the shades of the library although be prepared to be overrun by people at all times especially if going counter-flow from the north entrance to the south.

Library of Celsus at Ephesus, with the proud tourists posing for their photos

As a town, Selçuk doesn’t have much else to offer so I moved on quickly to the next long bus journey to Pamukkale. Again there used to be trains running from Selçuk to Denizli, the city right next to Pamukkale, but because of engineering work, the line is temporarily closed. That explains the eerie feeling of the Train station by the town center which are recently renovated but very much deserted.

Pamukkale is a village and it sounded wrong to me that 1 million tourists visit the travertine and Hierapolis on the hillside by the village every year. But then I understood as I saw coach-full of tourists came and went through the side entrances of the Hierapolis, avoiding entering the village altogether. That made it possible for the front entrance of the Hierapolis to be one of the most fascinating way of entering an ancient ruin. After paying for the ticket, I had to take off my shoes, walk up a hill completely covered with white calcium deposits, through ponds and streams of water running down the hill. The walk can be sometimes painful to delicate feets, but throughout the short walk the beautiful view of the shiny white hillside reflecting the sunlight like snow and green transparent pools is more than sufficient to distract from any pain.

That otherworldly feeling is hampered towards the top of the hill where more tourists filter down from the Hierapolis above  and some of them digustingly treat the travertine as if it is their playing pools in a leisure centre. Some of the calcium deposits are gone due to the daily wear from human traffic over the years. But by turning a blind eye to the deficiencies, I got to the top where the ancient city of Hierapolis begins. The ancient city runs along the same line as the Ephesus but on a less grand scale and is less well preserved. The authorities appears not to have made up its mind as to how to take care of this place as its stance seems to wobble between a summer playground and a serious preservation site. Did I mention that there is a man-made swimming pool and restaurant bang in the middle of the site?

Shining white travertines with tourists cooling their feet in the streams

After Pamukkale, I travelled down south to the Mediterranean coast, whose clear blue water has left its impression on me when I visited Malta. Bodrum was my destination and being a seaside resort town through and through, it was a huge change from Selçuk and Pamukkale, in terms of both scenery and people. Bodrum has a Greece air to it with its white-washed houses, traditional and modern yachts parking by its bays, and a sunny hot climate. The Castle of St Peter occupies the most strategically advantageous location on a headland and offered some brilliant all round views of the 2 bays of Bodrum. Even though it doubles up as an underwater archeological museum, that is not its strongest point.

At night Bodrum turns into a clubbers’ paradise with streets lit up with bars and 2 particularly spectacular clubs. The first one, Halikarnas, named after the one “7 wonders of the world” that was in Bodrum, is an eye-catching Roman-themed club. The second one is a 1000+ capacity catamaran which sails out at mid-night and comes back at dawn. But for me, the disco beat echoing throughout the night along the seaside is nothing more than noise so I retired early to my backstreet hotel.

Eastern bay of Bodrum and white washed houses

On my second to last day, I took a ferry to the Greek Island of Kos for a day trip, which was, as an afterthought, a bit of a mistake. Due to the inefficiency of the border control at Turkey’s port, the ferry was one hour late, and then with the four and a half hours that I had on the Island, it is impossible to do it full justice. Kos Town itself appears as a second class twin of Bodrum, with the full package of castle, bays and yachts all scaled down, and the price of everything scaled up. The buses to the west side of the Island was less than frequent meaning that I had to abandon my initial plan to head to the 14 imaginatively named beaches in the south-west (Banana Beach, Magic Beach, etc).

Giving up lunch completely, I bought myself some time to visit the pebbly beach of Therma Loutra. The beach is backed by a cliff and secluded from the outside world, so there is some peace and quiet especially when compared to the beach nearer to Kos Town. The name of the beach stems from the fact that there is a hot spring right on the beach, whose water cumulates in a pond before overflowing into the sea. It’s a curious sensation alternating between the sea and the spring due to the temperature difference, and some people just spend their afternoon floating in the bubbling spring water.

Therma Loutra on Island of Kos

That evening back in Bodrum, only when the sun was setting did I realise that the skin colour of my arm has darkened by a few times over, and that there were sunburns on my arm and neck. The cool sea breeze can be very deceiving when combined with the hot sunshine, as the hot feeling is literally blown away yet the UV light which causes skin darkening and sunburn remains. However, I was not going to be deterred by all this and headed out to the beaches in the Bodrum Peninsula the next day.

While I was still in Istanbul I have been warned by the other travelers that this is the English corner of Turkey, but nothing can prepare me for the cultural shock in Gümbet, a long stretch of coarse-sanded beach a few short kilometers from Bodrum. The restaurants and bars that line the beach all advertise their live FA cup on TV and that they will be showing Britain’s Got Talent in the evening. Cheers and shouts are easily heard from the beach from herds of football supporters who are clearly British from their look and accents. To put it simply, the place is overtaken by the British. Lying on one of the free sunbeds under the shade of the umbrellas, I started wondering if this was a modern way of colonization.

With the heavy devaluation of the pound in the last two years, Turkey is not as cheap a place as it used to be. To save money for other things, the staple of my diet was kebabs, and chicken kebabs in particular, since they are cheapest of all. Ayran was a good companion as it is often sold with kebabs as a kind of package meal at a cheerful price. Chargrilled corn hobs was also a frequent stomach filler as it was sold everywhere in Istanbul and marginally redeemed an unhealthy kebab diet. Still, with the amount of exercise that is done, I found it hard to go below 10 lira a day for the food and drink just to refill the emptiness in the stomach and the dehydration of the body. To maker matter worse, the Turkish Tourism Authority also has a habit of setting sky-high prices for state-run attractions and gives no breathing space for students either.

Turkey’s rapid economic development in recent years has definitely left its mark. From the tourist’s perspective, the positive effects are that communication is easier with more Turkish people speaking some English, and tourism is more organized making the whole experience of traveling within Turkey less stressful and much more tourist-friendly. The downside that comes with all development is that for a country like Turkey which steeps in centuries of history, no matter how good the preservation effort is, there are things which development will eventually take away: The pace of life will quicken, the tourism orientation will be further signified and the unstoppable harmonisation with the rest of the world will carry on.

Istanbul was named as the European City of Culture for 2010 and I think it’s more worthy of the honour than most of its predecessors. However, probably coinciding with Turkey’s push to join the Eurozone, western Turkey is no longer the place to go to if what one is looking for is Escapism. The exotic atmosphere is mostly gone, but I suppose what is remaining will continue to draw in millions of tourists in the future. For one, the climate is undeniably lovely.

Turkey's flag

24
Jan
10

How to enjoy Poland without Vodka

In the hope of solving this question once and for all, I set out from London Stansted to Krakow with some cheap Ryanair flight tickets, and that’s when the story started.

Arriving in central Krakow at 10 in the morning, I was welcomed by the rare winter sun shining on a carpet of snow. Having just come from the UK which has suffered from its heaviest snowfall for decades, the change in environment was not as drastic as it could have been, but the sun is always welcomed, and wherever it reaches, everything became bright, white and shiny.

Krakow's city wall

So I turned on my snap-happy mode and as I walked from the train station towards the centre of the old town, my camera became my rapid fire gun which kept shooting on every possible vantage point. Fuelled by the belief that good things (i.e. the sunshine) don’t last, I rushed from point A to B to C down to however many for which I have lost count, until I reached the Wawel Castle.

The Wawel Castle sits on top of a small hill and unlike the typical British Castles, the walls are much shorter than the buildings within and because  of the heterogeneity between the buildings, sometimes the castle looks as if it is a city within a wall rather than a single castle complex. But nonetheless, there are some nice architectures on show including the Catheral whose exterior, on some perspective, is like piecing together segments from 5 different churches.

Wawel Castle's Cathedral

Museums are a bargain in Krakow and I had the first taste of it by gaining free entrance to the Royal Chambers right next to the Catheral since I happened to have came on a Sunday. This “free entrance day” policy is adopted at other museums too but even without such fantastic offers, the student price equates to less than 2.5 pounds, which put museums in most of Europe to shame. (Not England though, coz London’s major museums are free of charge. Who can beat that?)

Churches and Cathedrals are mostly free of charge too and have very long opening hours often from 6am to 9pm. It sounds almost ideal for the tourists, but the faithful Poles hold masses in the churches multiple times each day and it is easy to be refused entrance in the middle of their masses.

For this reason, I was stopped at the door of the cathedral with a strong-accented guard telling me to return after half twelve. The Royal Chambers which I have just mentioned were not spectacular but there was one room where the ceiling is divided into squares and within each square there is a different human face staring down at the amused visitors.

Wawel Castle's State Rooms from below the Wawel Hill

There are also several other museums within the Wawel Castle but none of them managed to interest me, so I walked down the castle hill to the back of the castle where there is the Bronze Wawel Dragon which spits fire in summer. The Dragon is from Krakow’s legend whose details is the same as any other fairy tale and the rather cute dolls of the green dragon are sold in souvenir shops across the city.

The cloud and snow have returned as I left Wawel Castle though my spirit’s still high and I went southeast to the Kazimierz district named after Poland’s greatest king. The buildings lining the streets were typical European 19th century (?) town blocks and a lot of them look rundown from the outside and are in sharp contrast to the shininess of those in the old town. Also looked out of place are several dominating churches in the district which boasts flamboyant sizes and interior decorations.

The Jewish Synanogues are scattered around the district and, comparing with the churches, much more in tune with the surroundings and sometimes blends in so much that they’re hard to find. It is perhaps understandable that the Synanogues are not as rich as the Catholic Churches given the dwindling number of Jews living in Krakow after the Second World War and hence a lack of donations, but they have firmly set their foot in Krakow with two probably unmovable cemetries in the area which houses Jewish tombs from the past centuries.

Jewish cemetry

Walking back into the old town, many of the churches are again too alluring for me to just give them a miss, especially when they are free of charge. Even though there is a wide range of styles among the churches, I had to admit that after six or seven of them, I start to have an overloaded feeling and couldn’t anymore distinguish new ones from those already seen. The most memorable one is the St Mary’s Church in the main market square, with its heavy interior decoration, blue starry ceiling and the unsymmetrical twin towers.

(St Mary’s Church is also called Church of the Assumption of the Virgin, and Basilica of the Assumption of our Lady. I have got three guide books and each of them has a different name for the church. So seriously confusing…)

St Mary's Church

Wieliczka salt mine was a 45min-1hr bus ride away from central Krakow, and after some fidgeting in front of the no-English ticketing machine on the bus, I was on my way. Its last tour starts at 5pm and since the mine is underground and climate-controlled (at 14 degree celsius), it is a brilliant way to make use of the cold darkness hours. As would be expected, the exterior of the salt mine betrays nothing of what would lie ahead once inside the salt mine, and inside, the myriad of tunnels and human excavated chambers will impress the least impressible people.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

You see two things in the mine: People will go to extreme lengths for money, and people will go to extreme lengths for religion. The chambers were excavated over the centuries because there are large pockets rich of salt. One or two are so big that bungee-jumps have been attempted. Once the salt has been taken up to the ground, some remaining spaces are converted into chapels with the miner’s carving statues of their saints  from rock salt.

One of these chapels is particularly note-worthy because of its spaciousness (probably enough to fit in a basketball court, with 2 huge chandliers hanging from the ceiling) and decorations (The Last Supper carved from rock salt, for instance). The tour guide also kept reminding us that these chapels were created by the dedicated miner’s unpaid for their work. The entrance to the salt mine was definitely money well-spent, plus we were free to lick the salt from the walls/floors of the mine, just to be sure we were indeed in a salt mine.

Back to the city centre past 8pm, I was pleased that most of the shops are still open, and couldn’t help resenting why the UK government still has to impose all these restrictive trading hours laws. I had a proper walk around the Rynek Główny (main market square) but then realised there wasn’t that much to see without getting drawn into details. The should-be-impressive Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the middle of the square was, due to renovation work, half masked on the outside and almost completely closed on the inside. It makes sense that they carry out renovation work in winter when tourists numbers are lowest, but from my point of view, it’s always a let-down.

Cloth Hall in main market square (photo taken during the day)

The next morning I headed to Auschwitz to see the Nazi Concentration Camps. The museum and the site are free to visit but the 3 hours guided tour is a bargain at 24 złóty (5.5 pounds) so I took that instead. The weather was for once perfect with a bone-chilling temperature, constant light snow and fog in the air, all of which goes in line with the intense sorrow that the site is supposed to bring. Most of the prisoners brought to the camp actually died in the camp due to hard labour and little subsistence so the “Work sets you free” metal banner at the entrance of the camp was a classic not to be missed.

Auschwitz I Entrance

Auschwitz II, which is the largest of the several concentration camps in the area, is quite a spectacle, with endless rows of wooden lodges each sleeping hundreds of prisoners back in the days and the gas chambers which were used to kill off hundred of thousands prisoners who were not fit for labour work. It wasn’t hard to imagine malnourished Jews wearing 4 layers of clothes less than I did being escorted around by the Nazis to do back breaking work.

Rows of prisoner lodges in Auschwitz II

Darkness has fallen by the time I got back from Auschwitz, so I looked around for cheap sit-down dinner. Polish people have a habit of eating plenty for lunch and then rather little for dinner, and so some of the cheaper restaurants closes by 5 in the afternoon. At this ambiguous 5 o’clock, I bravely waded into a restaurant and ordered some random main dish from the polish menu. It turned out to be a nice chicken and mushroom pieces on potato pancake with fries. But I was obviously out of place as the people around me were having cakes with their coffee. Nevermind.

The next day involved even more travelling as I took the 3 hours bus to Częstochowa (How do you ever pronounce this word?) hoping to see the Christian prilgrims crowding the Jasna Góra Monastery. The 2km walk along the long straight road leading up to the hill where the Monastery resides set up one’s mood for spiritual redemption, but as I walked up the hill, I seemed to be one of the few people making the journey. The explanation presented itself when I entered the church in the monastery complex and realised that 3 quarters of the nave was sealed off for renovation.

Monastery of Jasna Gora

Fortunately, the main attraction of the monastery, the painting “Black Madonna”, was still open to worshippers and tourists at the side chapel. Believe it or not, the Virgin Mary in the painting is said to have saved Poland from invasion at various occasions. I found a seat at the side and just  people-watched. Pilgrims would kneel as they come in, then sit and stare at the painting before kneeling again and leave. More devoted ones would walk on their knees pass the back of the painting. There was in fact a queueing line specifically for doing that, but as people trickled into the chapel instead of rushed in, the number of people queueing was no more than zero.

The journey back to Krakow was not as pleasant as I have wished since the bus and train timetables are in Polish only and the staff at the ticket counter and tourist office don’t/refused to speak English. Only after waiting in a cold pitchblack waiting room at the bus station for 1.5 hour, I realised the bus that I was waiting for would not come and had to wait for another hour for the last train back to Krakow. The only consoler was that the train was spacious and marginally comfy.

I got up early on my last day in Krakow and took the tram to Nowa Huta, which is a suburb of Krakow built by the Russian Socialists after the World War II. Despite being described as ugly and unlovely in the guide books, this place has a uniformity in architectural style that is not shared by the old town, and its use of grey colouring scheme ironically goes very well with the grey sky and snow.

Next on my schedule was the University of Jagiellonian, who, previously called Krakow Academy, is the oldest University in Poland with six and a half centuries of history. I managed to join a private tour of their oldest building (since no one else bothered to join the guided tour) which is, if you can stand the constant boasting by the tour guide of the university’s past alumni, an overly informative one with some nice rooms/halls along the way.

University of Jagiellonian, Collegium Novum

After running up to the Wawel Castle for a last glimpse of the Cathedral (remember that I was turned away last time), I got back into the old town for my last lunch and found this self-service restaurant called Polakowski. The existence of these self-service restaurants is one thing that I like about Poland. The portion size of the dishes are scarily large at Polakowski yet the price was absolutely reasonable: 4 pounds is enough to completely fill me up. Deka Smak, another self-service restaurant even does a pay-per-weight pricing so I pay for how heavy my food weighes, which works out very cheap, and they offer a wide selection of food too which are placed right in front of you so language is not a problem.

When the restaurants closed at night, I had to resort to Kebab once but then how I wish the UK Kebabs are as tasty as that. They put on plenty of vegetables and mayonnaise sauce so there was no sore throat in the morning!  Starbucks and Costa Coffee have not invaded Krakow yet but there are 2 (I presume polish) coffee chains that have stores all around the city. The drinks are actually pricy even by UK standard, but the cuppuccino was better than any that I have tasted before, and is particularly heart-warming when wind and snow outside makes it feel like -10 degree.

To the topic of Vodka, I haven’t tasted a single drop of it while I was in Poland. Admittedly the wintery nights are cold and long and the hostels are very keen on organising Vodka pub crawls and vodka drinking games, but there are plenty to enjoy in Krakow to keep one’s mind off the drink. Also sleep early if necessary and get up early to make use of the daylight hours. Have a lovely coffee in the morning instead. My impression is that the Poles are nice no matter you are Vodka drinking or not. When some say that you can’t enjoy Poland without Vodka, you know it’s a lie.

26
Dec
09

Winter in Holland

Holland, or otherwise called Netherlands, is a surprisingly small place. Being UK’s neighbour just across the North Sea, I reached the Hook of Holland by ferry from East Anglia on Stenaline. Then it’s only a 1&3/4 hour train journey, via Rotterdam, to Amsterdam. And it wasn’t even a fast train.

Leaving the central station of Amsterdam, I was introduced to a large messy open area with typical bus,coach and tram stops. This unsightly space has its back to the river and is surrounded low-rise buildings mainly from 19th and 20th century. Several canals seem to wrap themselves around the station which makes this open space in a sense the centre of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam's central station

It was just after ten in the morning and the temperature was freezing cold with the sun hardly seem to be doing its job and reluctantly just about staying above the horizon. And anyway, the clouds took away most of what the sun had to give. After freezing experience in Prague and Vienna, I worn plenty of layers this time so at least my body was warm.

Without too much expectations, nor preconceptions, I wandered down some of the canals. But even with the supposedly prettiest ones, I was only underwhelmed. The buildings on the sides of the canals are mostly unassuming, and there is an obvious lack of consistency in building style on each canal. There are hardly one or two buildings that could lure my camera out of my pocket, and the views are further hampered by a densely row of parked cars on each side of the canal.

Amsterdam's Canal view

The center of Amsterdam is rather compact and some random wandering brought me to the (central) Dam Square with its supposedly beautiful town hall. But with my bad luck, the town hall was under refurbishment and the outside was covered with scaffolding.

I decided to do the museums before my ability to think is defeated by bad sleeps at hostels and the cold weather, so I headed for the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museums. Honestly I don’t even know Anne Frank’s story before going to Amsterdam and couldn’t care less for the Jews in the WWII, but the museum still managed to inform and interest me by doing a good job on story telling while I walked deeper into the house where Anne Frank hid from the Germans.

Anne Frank's House

The Van Gogh Museum houses some of his most famous works like the Sunflower and his self-portrait but unless one has always been interested in this area, visiting the museum will bring no extra love on the subject.

The late afternoon brought freshness into the air with the clouds finally backed away and the winter sun shining onto the buildings by the canal side. This gave rise to better photo opportunities and at least ridded some of the dullness inherited from mainly brown and grey surroundings.

As the sun set further, I ventured into the red light district which occupies a very central old town location. The bright neon signs light up the canal-side lanes and every twenty steps or so there are advantageously positioned windows behind which scantily-claded prostitutes could stand and sell. The place was bustling with people: there is an abundance of groups of men, tourists and also many passersby who have nothing to do with the red lights.

(Sorry no pictures have been taken for the red light district unfortunately)

At many street corners there are dimly-lit “coffehouses” where the smell of marijuana would seep out whenever someone enters or leaves. Every now and then there were drowsy-looking people passing by who obviously had an overdose. There was even a hash museum bang in the red light district though I gave it a miss as I couldn’t stand those watchful prostitutes from the windows and had no intention to stay in the area for longer than it needed.

However, there was a funny little standalone church in the red light district which is definitely worth visiting. It is funny because it is 360 degree surrounded by brothels and overlooked by those prostitute windows. How the church ever managed to remain true to God is an interesting question and imagine the poor churchgoers…

That night at the hostel there was someone who snored as if the world was ending and I could hardly sleep. Even though I was rather snoring tolerant, in the end I had to request to change my room. But other than that I was very impressed with the Hostelling International hostel, which was clean, spacious, stylish and most importantly very cheap.

StayOkay Zeeburg Hostel

The next morning I woke up to see an Amsterdam covered in snow and that induced a spree of camera actions but then after the initial reaction, realised that Amsterdam in fact doesn’t really have that much to offer so in the afternoon I went over to Haarlem, which is 15 minutes train ride away and, in retrospect, a similar looking city to Amsterdam.

The Begijnhof in snow

If you place Haarlem’s canals in Amsterdam, no one would notice. But Haarlem did have a small town’s charm which Amsterdam obviously lacks. There were these narrow, quiet, yet peaceful little lanes. There were these undisturbed footpaths by the river side overlooking the city skyline and church towers. The imposing St Bavo Church in the main square gave the city a center and has a rather unique wooden geometrical ceiling too. And the McDonald’s in the main square has one of the best views of the church.

St. Bavo Church

The next day was a much more hectic one. I first caught the bus to Aalsmeer, where a huge flower auction resides. Inside one of the largest buildings I’ve been in (2nd largest in the world according to wikipedia), there is a constant flow of trolleys filled with fresh flower and several live auction hall where auctions of these flowers take place electronically. The pleasant smell of flower fills the massive space, while a myriad of colours buzzes through market floor, and for once I became rather jealous of these flower traders.

Aalsmeer Flower Auction

Then I went on to Den Haag, which is the administrative center of Holland and is supposed to have a nice old town center. In fact, the only passable sight in the Binnenhof, where parliament takes place, and the small pond beside it.

There were no further reasons for me to stay in Den Haag so I moved on to Rotterdam. New York Times said that Rotterdam is to architecture what Paris is to fashion, and so I looked at the city with that perspective. Rotterdam does have a high proportion of outrageously looking constructions. As I strolled through the city center in the snow, I saw the famous Cube House (Yellow houses in the shape of cubes which are diagonally placed to the ground), the tallest office building in the world (100 years ago), the unsymmetrical Erasmus Bridge nicknamed the Swan and the ugly Euromast Tower.

Erasmus Bridge (the Swan)

There were good architectural representatives from various decades, but they feel disjoint and together do not provide any collective charm (i.e. synergy, but I hate this word). I suppose it’s too much of an ask for any sort of continuity and consistency between various architectural styles since each of them were at the cutting edge at their times and so would have been exploring new angles every time. And there are little constraints within Rotterdam that force them to be similar in any way. The result is a piecemeal cityscape.

The last morning I was in Rotterdam the temperature dropped below -5C but the sun kindly came out and I braved the freezing cold to Kinderdijk, a countryside location with the highest density of windmills. Winter’s probably not the best time to visit because of the convoluted transport for getting there but the upside was that when I finally got the, the snow, the sunshine, the wheat and the windmills do form a rather picturesque view.

Windmills at Kinderdijk

People also started ice-skating on the smaller canals, and small babies were pulled along by their parents in ice-sledges. Ice-skating is a national pastimes of the Dutch and were I not worried about the thickness of the ice at that time, I might have had a go…

With 15 minutes to spare, I got to Hook of Holland and jumped onto the ferry back to the UK. All in all, Holland does not offer its best in Winter. The tourist crowds are non-existent and accommodations do have bargains. But the weather is mostly dreary, museums have short opening hours (or closed altogether) and some transports don’t run. What’s worse, the amazing bulb fields of tulips can only be seen in Spring and most local flower markets don’t even have flowers to sell. Coupled with the high cost of everything and the weak Pound, this makes a rather unrewarding trip. But still, there isn’t much better to do in winter, so there you go.

North Sea at Sunset




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