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Day 5 – Polonnaruwa and Elephant Safari

22 Mar

Pancakes and syrup started off a day exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which reached its height of glory in the 12th century, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The city still maintains many of its spectacular buildings and monuments, with arguably the most impressive being the Quadrangle. This sacred precinct originally housed the tooth relic. It contains a superbly decorated circular shrine which is one of the most ornate buildings in the country.

We start off looking at some bricks that rose to three stories.  The other 4 storeys that were part of this building were made of wood. Together, this was the King’s Palace – Parakramabahu the Great (1153 -1186) to be exact.  We witnessed workers carefully removing the concrete that had been applied in the 1980’s to help preserve it and to help obtain UNESCO recognition.  Thankfully there were also some small remaining pieces of decoration.  And a toilet.

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We avoided joining a saffron clothed monk lecturing white clad school children, but did wonder how 100+ pairs of similarly sized black shoes were going to be identifiable after entering the shrines.  Female teachers or chaperones are obviously a must as well.  Not quite sure who invited Beyonce.

The prince’s pond, outwith the walls, also proved some photogenic shots of the aforementioned.

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Doing our best to avoid the tat sellers, we visited the quadrangle – with all sorts of buildings.  Mostly temples though, so it was hardly worth dressing this morning.

“The Temple of the Tooth”, previously contained this ancient relic, which was the symbol of power for the Sri Lankan kings.  The ”Circular Relic House” contained another good moonstone example, and also provided some shade.  We also saw a 7 tier pagoda, of Thai design, and a large stone “book”.  Too many others to mention!

Tried to get a selfie with a monkey, but it wasn’t playing ball!  Another monkey stole a pen from a school child, but our guide Sunil came to the rescue.

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With some chilled refreshments inside, I managed one more dagoba, this one containing several “image houses” around the main stupa.  One of these contained a collection of very young pups.  Cute overload.

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We drove on briefly, past the ancient commercial hub and walked to the Galvihara – four colossal figures hewn out of solid granite.  The reclining buddha is 14 meters long.  A standing buddha had its arms crossed in a “sympathy” pose.  The other two were sitting meditating buddhas, one surrounded by paintings, or what’s left of them.

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When stopping for lunch, a large group of monks passed by, each carrying a shelter and walking on the side of the road on conveniently placed banana leaves.  The locals had arranged this, when they realised that the Thai monks were undertaking a long route march.  I’m sure a bus would have been quicker.

Managed to skip the rice and curry buffet lunch in favour of a chicken sandwich.

Kaudulla National Park was next on the itinerary – in search of elephants.  Several national parks were potential sightings, but as we loaded up 4 to each jeep and drove off, it became clear that this was the one.  We start off tamely with a grey heron, a sea eagle and an abandoned wasp byke.

Arriving into an open plain by a lake, 4 elephants were immediately in front of us, totally unphased by our presence.  Suddenly, our jeep sped off with the rest, and in front of us was an amazing spectacle of 40-50 elephants heading our way.  Young and old, male and female – all searching for the best grass to eat, and water to drink.  They played in the water, looked after their young – some barely a week old – and shook the dirt off the grass they uprooted before using their trunks to stuff it in their mouth.

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In the distance a huge, lone male with the biggest tusks appeared and headed towards the group.  Egrets scattered everywhere.  Our own jeep herd constantly repositioned itself to keep ahead of the main elephant herd, providing the best photo opportunities.  Elephants were meters from the jeeps, and some had to reverse quickly if they came too close.  The photographers who had loaded up with telephoto lenses, quickly tried to change to wide angle lenses!

As the huge male, crossed some water, it shot a huge plume into the air.  Reaching the main herd, it tickled a female’s back leg with its trunk, resulting in a bigger piddle than expected.

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We repositioned again, to witness three elephants swimming and also some painted storks and lapwings.  Eventually it got to the stage where there were no more pictures possible, and we simply managed to enjoy being so close to such large creatures.

Driving back to the bus, we avoided many bridge building projects on narrow roads.  An ice cream van was a welcome sight as we dejeeped, and it got a brisk business.  King coconut juice was the other option.

Our overnight stay was in Dambulla, that we had passed through the previous day.  Basic hotel, but fully functional.  It boasted several restaurants nearby and we choose a pizza place with fantastic lime juice.  Too much pizza though!  There was still time to relax with a cocktail – Arrack, passion fruit juice, lime juice and soda.  So good you had to try it twice!

Not a bad night.  Bit warm though.

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Day 4 – Rock Carved Buddha, Dambulla Caves, Polonnaruwa

21 Mar

Following toast, jam & cakes, we drove for 90 minutes, passing women harvesting rice crops.  We stopped briefly for a few of the group to give a small child a packet of sweets.  I dropped off the forwarding address for the dentist bill.

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First real stop of the day was to the Avukana Ancient Rock Temple – a 12m high Buddha that had been carved from the surrounding rock / cliff.  A new modern roof protects the 5th Century sculpture in its jungle setting.  Not quite sure why.  It is the latest in a long line of roofs.  Although we found it interesting, the monkey frog in the pond was also an appeal, not unfortunately listed in the guide books.  Yes, a frog that looks like a monkey.  It really does.  The statue had a huge wasp nest hanging from its right elbow, giving it a somewhat more striking presence.

Moving on, we also had time to find the cotton that comes from the fruit of the capoc tree, eating some small sweet bananas and some typical Sri Lankan “Hawaiian” biscuits (coconut flavour, of course).  We had a short walk along the side of a large reservoir – stopping for monkeys and plants that react to your touch by closing up, and then reopening.

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We reached the cave temples at the small town of Dambulla and faced some gruelling steps in the heat of the day.  The white clad school kids were all looking fresh as we handed over our shoes to a wild haired man and then trudged to the jobsworth entry attendant.

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We squeezed into the first of five caves to find a reclining buddha.  The second cave contained 57 statues in various poses.  One of these included a cobra hooded Buddha, which was supposed to have protected him when meditating in heavy rain.  These are ~2100 years old.  The third cave had 56 statues, including one of the last king of Sri Lanka.  He stood a respectful pace behind the buddha statues, but looked scary.  Atmospheric lighting and heavily painted rock ceilings made these caves unmissable.  Cave 4 contained an annoying high pitched ant deterrent, so we didn’t linger long time in the smaller caves 4 and 5.

Making friends with more monkeys on the way down, we then headed for a village tour.  Jumping on tuk-tuks, we headed off into the jungle.  Well, most people did, but there weren’t enough tuk-tuks,  so I settled on taking pictures of bullocks, with their owners initials carved into them, until one turned up.  The driver asked if I wanted to take the wheel, and I changed into the front seat.  As I drive an automatic, lurching was the best this could be described.  A clutch was foreign to me, especially on handlebars.  The accelerator seemed to go the incorrect way too.  But I managed a few bits of straight road before handing back to the driver.  Never did get the lesson on where the brakes were.

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Joining the rest of the group at the village hut, we were shown a coconut preparation demonstration.  Taking the outer layer off, cutting it open with a machete (drinking the juice), and extracting the shredded coconut from the inside with a special hand tool.  The two women also demonstrated the grinding of chillies using a large stone.  This was then combined with ground onions and lemon juice to make a coconut sambol.  This was added to the other lunch ingredients – rice and curry! – which we then had to eat off a banana leaf using only our hands.  Much harder than you might imagine.  The secret is to get the correct combination of sauce and rice, to form it into balls and throw it at your mouth.  Water buffalo curd and honey rounded off the meal – thankfully in plastic bowls with a spoon!

What followed was a masterclass in processing food.  Any members of the group who tried to copy, just ended up looking foolish!  Firstly it was pounding the raw rice to separate the shell from the rice.  This was then wafted in the wind (winnowed) to separate the two.  Red millet was ground.  This was slightly easier.  Lastly, we had a demonstration of leaf / frond weaving.  These were used as roofing on the huts.

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After this, we headed to the small lake, where what can only be described as tables lashed to 2 canoes were awaiting us.  One poor local man tried desperately to point us in the correct direction as we slowly burnt to a crisp on the water, with no escape possible.  I was at the front, which meant that the non swimmer was furthest from the supposedly available life jackets.

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Deboating, we then headed for the bullock carts awaiting us.  Tuk tuks and motorbikes were able to overtake, but cars had a huge problem on the narrow roads.  We arrived back and emptied the fridge of the nearby shop of all his cold drinks – which resulted in my drinking Mountain Dew Neon, a high sugar, high caffeine product!

Driving on, we arrived at “The Lake” hotel, Polonnaruwa.  This is a 7th century man-made lake.  The hotel greeted us with a fresh juice drink and a towel to clean ourselves.  Showering was more important than catching the last rays of sun over the lake from the viewing platform around the swimming pool.

The evening meal option was only really in the hotel.  A buffet was available – containing the standard rice and curry, but also much more.  This didn’t suit some of the group who were after the previously promised a la carte menu.

After a tense stand off, french fries appeared.

Other interesting notes from today – only 85% of Sri Lankan homes have access to electricity.  Hoping for 100% by 2025-30.

Also, “How many pecks can a woodpecker peck, if a woodpecker could peck wood?”  20 per second apparently.  That’s a possible 11,000 a day.

Bloody annoying though.

Day 3 – Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Buddhas & Steps

20 Mar

The morning walk to breakfast included meeting a host of local wildlife including a humongous bee, a palm squirrel, and a couple of owls.  Thankfully, none of these were on the breakfast menu, and I settled for toast and jam again.

Our resident bus cleaner offered us frangipane as we boarded our bus and Sunil, the guide, tried to entertain us with some terrible dad jokes.  I laughed.

First stop of the day was to a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.  It was originally founded in 500BC and is showing a few tell-tale signs of needing repair.  Well preserved ruins is the perfect oxymoron here.  We passed the incense and candle lighting outside the gates, as the place had previous burnt to the ground.

Inside, after shedding our shoes, and navigating the sand and roughly hewn cobbles, we found out about the 2200 year old bo-tree (where the original buddha became enlightened), buddhist auras, the lotus leaf which looks like a cobra and how long it takes for your feet to burn on any surface.

The offerings in the temple included various flowers, cakes and coins wrapped in cloth and tied to the railings.  A white band was available for a small fee, presumably to help the buyer achieve enlightenment.

As usual, I felt that the tourists with the cameras were somehow interfering too much in the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.   However, without the entrance fees, I doubt that they could afford the props that held the sacred bo tree up.

Reunited with our shoes, briefly, we headed to Lowamahapaya, which consisted of 1600 or so stone pillars which the monks were asked to count.  Presumably a purpose similar to asking Scouts to separate hundreds and thousands into unique colours.

Lots of dogs, some with very large appendices, lay in our path as we headed to several more temples, each with their own burning sand and stone floors.  Shoes on, shoes off.  Briefly, these included the Brazen Palace, once a nine storey residence for monks; the 4th century Smadhi Buddha masterpiece and the Ruwanmel Maha Saya Dagoba – a 90 metre-high dome-shaped shrine towering over the surrounding countryside.

Women chanting, flower laying blokes and painters and plasterers were hard at work up very tall pioneered ladders with lime in buckets.  The monks seemed to be of the clipboard carrying types.  Even the bricks awaiting use were piled into dagoba shapes.  (A dagoba is a Sri Lankan term for a temple, pagoda or stupa.)

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Lankaraya Stupa, Abhayagiri Stupa, a moonstone (look it up), snake charmer, monkey on a bicycle wearing shorts, discussions on mythical animals consisting of 7 real animals on a guardstone, monks dressed in saffron robes, reclining buddhas (are they dead or just sleeping – check the toes are aligned or not!) and twin ponds with more monkeys. After all that, we found a cool spot that sold iced drinks and emptied it of ginger beer.  Jetavana Stupa was then too much for most, as taking your hat off in the middle of the day was getting a bit dangerous, but I managed a quick clockwise circuit.  More monkeys ignored the do not climb signs and scampered up the front of it.

Lunch was a pleasant surprise – The Grand Heritance – which provided the standard all you can eat buffet option, fantastic lime sodas or a la carte sandwich and french fries options.

We travelled 8 miles to Mihintale, which was the site of a momentous meeting between the monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa, introducing Buddhism to the country.  We saw the Alms hall, which had a phallic shaped trough where the monks would fill up with donated rice.  Then it was on to climb the “Great Stairway” – allegedy 1840 steps, but only 250 were used to get to a plateau with three options.  After removing shoes, we firstly climbed a very hot rock face with only a few feet places cut into the slipped polished rock surface.  Several up and downs took most of us to excellent views over the surrounding countryside.  Getting down again was even more of an adventure!

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Secondly, we climbed another 200 or so steps to another dagoba – painted white with a red stripe of material around it.  This is being shown, as it is a donation to the monks – to be cut up and used as robes.  I met a jolly North Korean monk in one of the shrines here.  The third climb of 100 steps was to a buddha statue with the best views of the other two.

Descending and returning to the hotel, we had time to freshen up before heading out to a group meal that consisted of rice and curry.  However, instead of the standard 4 bowls, this time we had lots to chose from!  Fish, chicken, coconut sambol, herbs, banana leaf (the best!), chillied lotus, radish curry, leafy salad, lime chutney, poppadums, and lots more!

A great end to a great day!

Day 2 – Fish Market, Toddy Tappers & Safari

19 Mar

Started the day with breakfast, unsurprisingly.  Toast & Jam.  Result.

The group all assembled on time, and our bags were marked, so that they would magically appear in our next hotels room.  The bus driver, Genie, whisked us off for a whistle stop tour of Negombo, including the temple and fish market from the previous day.  This time however, the fish market had much more activity.  Fish were being landed, sorted, gutted, salted and then dried on the sand.  The crows, dogs and egrets were all too well aware that the fish were too salty for their taste.  I gained a lot of information from a local fisherman who asked for a donation for his time.  Unfortunately, I still wasn’t quite used to the currency and ended up tipping him a small fortune for 10 minutes of his time.  However, I can now tell you the difference between ( and mostly identify) cuttle fish from coral fish, bamboo shark from …. sardines.  The 2004 tsunami wiped away a lot of the infrastructure and affected the livelihood of these fisherman.  My guide lives and sleeps in the fish market – a concrete structure that smells of fish and is covered in bird poo.  Wild mangy dogs are his companions.

Back on the bus, we moved on, finding out about the local culture from our guide.  Although 70% of the population are Buddhist, most people are happy to have “god insurance” with 2 religions under their belt.  The Tamil Tigers, previously of the insurgent / terrorist type, now have no problems.  It was clear that everyone was welcome, and they meant it!

Our next stop was to a “toddy tapper”.  We skipped past the “Japanese Elephant” aka JCB to witness the highly skilled climbers perched high up in coconut trees, expertly trimming the coconut branches on a daily basis to extract the natural “toddy” juice that would normally form in the coconut.  A sample was provided – it tasted slightly burnt, but was otherwise pleasant.  It is normally then distilled into Arrack.  One tree produces 2-3 glasses of toddy per day.  Vandals can cut through the high ropes connecting the trees so that workers fall.  Doesn’t sound very sporting.  99% of the workers are male.  No monkeys are used for this highly paid job.

We drove on, past a house displaying white flags, which are a sign of a death in the family.  Sunil also handed out some sweet bananas and raided a field to show a fully grown rice plant.

A brief toilet stop at a hindu temple (Murugan) proved interesting, as they had security guards insisting on the females of the group covering their legs and shoulders.  Despite the fact they weren’t actually planning on entering the temple.  The Intrepid tour company bus also started a parking war with our bus.  Our driver sources some jammy doughnuts, but the smell of poo when I followed where he came from was enough to put me off exploring any further.

Ayubowan – A wish for a long and healthy life – was just one of the many Sinhala words that we didn’t remember.  However, the Portugese have a lasting legacy here in the shape of “wine shops”, which no longer sell wine, but do sell other alcohol products.  Other Sri Lankan claims to fame, including having the first female prime minister of the world.  Exciting mounted when Sunil announced an elephant crossing the road.  Unfortunately, he was only showing the road warning sign.

Lunch at a roadside stop consisted of rice and curry in buffet format.  Chips and sandwiches were also available, but not for me on this occasion.  Ginger beer was the only cold drink available and so was ordered by everyone!

Moving on, the road turned single track as one family had decided to dry their rice on the tarmac.  Chillies and chocolate were also out for drying in the safety of their own land.  At a local school, a collection of motorbikes and tuk tuks were waiting to collect the children.  Our guide informed us that EVEN woman can ride motorbikes now.

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We arrived at Wilpattu National Park and transferred into 6 seater Toyota Landcruisers – open to the elements, but with a roof for shade.  We set off on the lookout for the “Big Three” – elephant, leopard and black sloth bear.  The 2 hour trip, turned into a 4 hour marathon, that was enthralling and yet disappointing at the same time.  I witnessed many different types of deer, monkeys, kingfishers, lizards, crocodiles, water buffalo, egrets, storks, cormorants, peacocks, turtles, dragonflies, jungle fowl, hornbills, bee-eaters, and various other unidentified birds.  As for the leopard, we did see tracks, but not the beast itself.  The black sloth bear was only to be found as a picture on the spare wheel cover.  A single male elephant was however spotted munching away behind some trees.  So distant that we weren’t sure if it was actually an elephant or not.  It definitely had a trunk, but could easily have been a Paul Daniels magic trick.

Returning to our own bus, we drove on to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital, for the night.  A hotel group meal followed with a very tasty Nasi Goreng being most welcome.  Most excellent hotel.

Day 1 – Arriving in Sri Lanka

18 Mar

Arriving in Sri Lanka via Dubai was uneventful, but proved once again that travelling with Emirates is a definite bonus.  Dubai had an Irish band who seemed to be celebrating an Irish 6 Nations win until the early hours.  Missing a flight due to the queue in McDonalds is probably not covered by travel insurance.  Thankfully, I didn’t.  Just.

At 8:30am, after 20 hours travelling, I was met by the Explore rep and bundled into a taxi with air conditioning that didn’t seem to mitigate the outside temperatures.  We drove for about 20 minutes to the nearby hotel in Negombo – a beach resort with a terrible beach that you weren’t able to swim in safely – if you could swim!  I mean, it was covered in sand, and had water and stuff…

The hotel was unable to provide a room, but I met a couple of others from the group, and the three of us took a tuk tuk (for 2) into town.  We wandered around the almost empty fish market, the prison, the site of an old fort and many fishermen either mending their nets or relaxing in their boats – all in the bright midday sun, whilst our sun tan lotion languished in our bags at the hotel.

Seeking shelter, we headed for the Lagoon view restaurant, only to be met with a gloomy room where we persuaded the owner to turn the fans on.  The coldest drink was quickly downed (through a straw, as the glasses weren’t to be trusted) and we exited towards a tuk tuk.  The driver was happy to take us to St. Mary’s church (roof fund required) and to a very colourful hindu temple (for Tamils), where a wedding was taking place.

Back at the hotel, after finding time to check-in, I wandered along the beach, found an ice cream seller, and witnessed crows keeping cool and eating coconuts as well as the locals bathing.  Avoiding the large sail boat owners wanting to take you for ride, was easy, although constantly required.

Walking through town, I saw some modern art, including children screaming at fences.  Hmmm. The group briefing introduced most of the group (17 – 1 to arrive later) and the guide – Sunil (Sunny).  His English is good, but his sentence construction left us all in doubt as to what he was actually saying.  Here’s hoping we all get there.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.

For the evening meal, a few of us went to a local restaurant (whilst the rest stayed in the hotel).  I had rice & curry.  This was actually, several dishes – chicken curry, dahl, pineapple, coconut sambol and a sweet chilli sauce.  Delicious.  All washed down with some local hooch – Arrack.  Very whisky like, and therefore firewater.  Not to be repeated.

A great introduction to Sri Lanka. First impressions – very friendly people, if a little on the hot side!

Day 9 – Chernivtsi & Drive to Carpathian Mountains

23 Sep

Breakfast in Kamianets-Podilskyi mostly consisted of choux pastry and cream.  My kind of breakfast!  The walk to the bus was dry, unlike the run in the opposite direction the day before.  We drove off and shortly there were cries of “stop the bus”.   Thinking of some major disaster, the driver stopped after approximately 2 miles.  This was very handy, as we had just wanted some photos of the gorge that we crossed as we left town.  We walked back to obtain the required impressive photos.

The bus today included free wiffy, which kept me up to date with the latest news and smell reducing techniques.  We passed over the Dneister river which, lower down, marks the border between Moldova and Ukraine.

Our first stop of the day was to the Khotyn Fortress.  A local guide, Irina, give us a stilting monolgue in front of a golden colour statue before leading us into the fortress complex through a tat sellers paradise.  We stood on the hill, where we were not supposed to stand, for grand views over the inner fortress walls and newer church.  Walking downhill, I found some “sheep” had followed me to another photo opportunity before we entered the fortress across a wooden bridge over the dry, but very high, moat.

A few more words followed, but most of the group were more interested in the cats that required petting by their human slaves.  The offer of water from the fortress well, through a dirty plastic pipe was not taken up by anyone.  The warning that walking on very high fortress walls that didn’t have any safety features may result in a repeat of a recent “incident”, was unfortunately absorbed by most of the group.

Left to our own explorations we found some rotting wooden stairs and a newly restored, but equally worrying balcony.  The signs to the dungeons banning dogs were once again clearly too high and only in Dalmation.  We found some castle storming equipment (trebuchets, catapults and battering rams) and the Ards & North Down Intranet (Andi) mascot became photogenic for the first time.  Ever.

We left Seamus studying the “Throne” torture device, whilst we went to examine our own thrones.  The first was skirted due to it’s overwhelming stench, but the second was further away, and therefore hopefully cleaner.  Stepping over the tiramisu on the way in, the long drop was at least well ventilated, and I managed to add my territorial markings before searching in vain for any kind of handwash facility.

Skirting the apple sellers & tat stalls, who also offered flask dispensed beverages of unknown origin, the dogs were again demanding of attention.  Left hand only.  Got to keep something clean!  Back on the bus, we made a short stop at an OKKO petrol station to disinfect and restock the munchies.  Google Translate app proved useful if not essential for some items.

We drove on through village after village, some selling large intricately decorated metal gates, before arriving in Chernivtsi for a buffet lunch.  Joining the queue with the local school – kids who all appeared to eat vegetables without parental supervision – I selected the borsch, chicken kiev, chips and anything else cold that they wished to get rid of.  Not the best meal of the trip.  I treated myself to a turd shaped chocolate desert on the way out.

Another local then guided us around the town, past some very interesting buildings that survived the various armies of the 20th Century.  One artwork consisted of roses being used to sweep the streets, because the town was known to be very clean.  The central square currently only contains a cross, as they are waiting for the next army to invade and erect a new one.  I’m sure there is a opportunity in this country to profit from the de-Communisation policy that they have instigated in recent years.

The Art Museum, Town Hall, Theatre with walk of fame, Jewish House, Cinema (former Synagogue) and some 1960s Soviet architecture featured initially, before we also took in the red “brick” covered former court house.  Back on the bus with our new guide, we drove the short distance to the University area, only to be surrounded by every bride and wedding party in Ukraine.

The place was very picturesque, with a French courtyard (meaning they put chuckies down, rather than going to the hassle of grass).  The current red brick buildings, dating from 1882, were complemented with a patterned roof using white, black, blue and green tiles.  We tried to get in as many wedding photos as possible on the way inside – we had a strict timetable to stick to, to avoid the many other groups.  Originally built as a seminary, it has expanded to include a lot more subjects, with the former bishops’ hotel now in use for teaching.  The impressive mix of all sorts of architectural styles from Gothic to Byzantine, Moorish and Hanseatic (I looked that up, I don’t know what it means either).

The former marble has been replaced with painted marble during restoration, but the effect remains awesome.  We were led into the main chamber, where the dias is used for awarding degrees, and then into the university court – where all the professors would gather with the principal at desks arranged to make them feel inclusive and able to discuss the important issues of the day.  The mirrors in the room were of the highest quality of the time – with up to 5 layers being used, and therefore resulting in 5 separate reflections being available.

Inside the University church, a marriage was taking place, and our whole group with cameras easily doubled the attendance.  There were squeaky floorboards and echoing marble to contend with as we dashed from the icons and paintings to the wedding ceremony and candles.  Upset that we weren’t invited to the reception after giving them a wedding they won’t forget, we left them to the party.  The stretch limo outside would have easily accommodated us all.  We escaped back onto the bus with “Lady in Red” running around our heads.  Last stop of the tour of Chernivtsi was to the Turkish Well, Turkish Bridge  & Turkish Road.  Not a great place to build these things, as they get frequent floods, which put them under water.  That’s global warming for you.

After a brief visit to a petrol station (for a safety fart) – disappointed that the shop was still only half finished – we ended up at the town of Kolomuya to visit the famed Pysanka Museum which featured painted Ukranian Easter eggs.  These very fragile things are traditionally painted during the Easter season – the insides are hollow and can be put together on strings to form intricate pictures and displays.  The various processes were explained, but there was no option to try yourself.  Probably a skill that is beyond me.  Disappointingly, there was no gift shop – probably too fragile to sell.  Wooden ones were also on show, as well as jewelled, carved, painted and enamelled versions, both from Ukraine and other countries around the world with weird egg fixations.  The best part of this visit was taking a picture of a puddle outside (which nicely reflected the giant egg that the museum was housed in).

After a further hour or more of driving into the Carpathian Mountains, we arrived at Yaremche and our wonderful 3 star hotel.  We trundled our cases in through the fire exit and down the length of the hotel to reception.  After some confusion over where breakfast was going to take place, we were advised it would be in this hotel, and not the rather magnificent 5 star one next door.

Thankfully only real food option available, in the pouring rain, was the 5-star hotel.  It offered a buffet or a bar.  The bar was most welcoming with 2 white gloved waiters able to deliver Georgian dumplings – Khinkali – within the hour.  The way to eat these is apparently to pick them up, take a bite, suck the juices out and keep eating.  This results in two things – a meatless lump of dumpling in your juice covered fingers and secondly, the laughter of your photo taking fellow dining companions.

We returned to our 3 star hotel with the waiters wishing us back tomorrow.  Here’s hoping that the breakfast will be as good …

Day 8 – Back to Ukraine

22 Sep

Starting with the answers to yesterday’s cliff-hangers … the t-shirt was perfectly dry, but unfortunately still with a marked red wine stain.  Think scissors will be the only solution.  Mike turned up safe and well, 20 minutes after we had worried about him.  He slipped into Kateryna’s room to replace my note with another saying that he was back safe.  As she hadn’t read the first note, it must have appeared very strange indeed.  Water bottles were filled successfully.

Breakfast was pretty standard for a 2-star hotel, although the sign for bacon was unfortunately wrong – my fellow travellers had stolen it all.  I survived on dry toast (with jam), apricot juice and a few stolen biscuits for lunch.

As we loaded our bags onto the big yellow bus, the rain was on, resulting in an outbreak of fleece jackets and raincoats from the soft southerners.  My shorts (not the groinal drip variety from last night) and t-shirt were still perfectly acceptable.

Our first stop of the day, heading north to the Ukrainian border, as unsurprisingly at a petrol station.  It featured a large selection of cakes, iced doughnuts and coffee.  I tried, very unsuccessfully, to buy the entire selection with my remaining Moldovan Leu.  I couldn’t carry any more than four and am hoping that there will be several more such stops before lunch.  An hour and a half later, my prayers were answered, and the same brand of cakes were available again, with a wider selection.

At this point, I noticed a distinct lack of animals at the petrol station, a felt a slight pang of sadness at the thought of the missing manky dogs.  They did have a Prius there though, so I contented myself by taking a photo of that instead.

The bus driver was trying to get the heating to work on the bus – a result of the perception of the tour leader that is was cold.  She was huddled at the front with her third Explore! Fleece on, trying to start a fire with my leftover doughnut wrappers.  We also noticed an additional young woman on the bus who appeared to have got herself onboard by pretending that handing out rubbish bags was an important job.  Probably dating back to Soviet times, where everyone had to have a job, no matter how boring it was.  Passing through the town of Balti, I had the overwhelming urge to consume a curry.  A muffin had to suffice.

Some of the group became involved in editing the blog, in-between tearing themselves away from Chesney Hawke’s second album on their spare iPod.

We reached Briceni near the Ukrainian border and debussed to change the last of our Moldovan currency into Ukrainian Gringots (or something like that).  The currency exchange sign pointed to a door.  The door led to a chemist.  The chemist pointed to the door.  A lady exited from the staff toilet and raised the shutter we had just walked past.  It rained.  A lot.  My waterproof shoes were not on my feet.  First fail of the holiday!

We drove on the border, then had to do a U-turn as the border was closed.  We picked a different route and I was pleased to see that both sides of border boarded the bus at the same time to collect our passports, and they were returned with both stamps entered. In the 90 minutes that this took, I challenged the back of the bus to name 100 famous Scots.  Even accepting some highly dubious answers, they only managed 94 by the time we moved across the border, with Carol Smillie hitting the ton shortly afterwards.

With the rain still falling heavily, we arrived at Kamianets-Podilskyi – one of only 3 “island” villages in Europe.  We ran for our bags and then the hotel before being assigned our rather spacious suites.  A lobby, bidet in the bathroom, and humungous double bed with 2 seater suite and chair, desk, coffee table and plenty space to throw a medium sized party.

We met again shortly in the lobby and another local guide who led us into the light drizzle to the Arc de Triumph.  Briefly put, if you stick your hand on the cross, your every wish will come true, like the President did, before he became president.  All true.  Honest.  We also visited the outside of Ss. Peter & Paul Cathedral – one of the churches directly controlled by the Pope.  A statue of John Paul II was in the grounds, but he never managed to make a visit himself.  When the Ottomans conquered the area, they built two minarets.  One remains, with a gold coloured statue on top that features Christianity trampling on Islam.  In response, the Soviets built an Orthodox church that casts a shadow on this statue, in a strange game of one-upmanship.  Also featuring in the grounds was a non-canonical statue of Jesus – weeping for the Polish graves that were disturbed.

Out guide led us on to the town hall.  We stood on the temporary stage to hide from the rain and listened to a lot of information about the building – almost nothing of which I absorbed.  Next to it was the Armenian Well – or a building built on top of it.  The water was bad, the people that built it corrupt.  Nothing changes.  Also stood in the main area was a statue to the “tourist” – hands on hips admiring the town.  It’s a sign of how important tourism is to this area.

Having not had lunch, by the time we passed the pizza place, the group was flagging.  But the fortress was still to come.  Avoiding the river running down the street, due to lack of appropriate drainage, our guide ploughed on and led us across a dry bridge (with water on each side?) to the Castle.  We found the nearest roofed structure (East Tower) and spent a long time in it, listening again to a lot of information about the use of cannon and bastions and how the Dutch were rubbish.

It’s worth pointing out that the town is set in a natural river horseshoe, with the castle positioned at the narrow opening.  The town has steep river banks, meaning the only way to conquer the town was through the castle.  The castle changed hands three times, but (allegedly) only by the passing of money, rather than being conquered.  After saying this, our guide then mentioned how the Turks had blasted their way in, but had to stop at dusk, due to medieval fighting customs.  They then let the inhabitants leave peacefully the following day.

Out into the pouring rain again, and we headed for the dry castle prison, which (in)famously hosted Ustym Karmaliuk, a Ukranian folk hero, compared to Robin Hood.  Except that he actually kept most of the loot he stole.  His name literally translates as “pickpocket”.

Our guide was keen on earning his money, but the group were mostly concerned with staying dry.  As a result, we were shown the bastions and then retreated into a dark internal corridor between some of the remaining towers.  We descended steep wooden stairs with the aid of mobile phone torches and listened to further delicate details on the sewage system of 300 years ago.

Leaving the castle behind, we walked back into town, across the bridge and avoiding where possible the river running over it.  With only three restaurants to choose from, we avoided the warning about the slow service and headed for the former police station.  The first problem was that that there was no English menu, and no one who spoke English.  Google Translate to the rescue.  Especially the feature where you can live translate anything you can point the camera at.  Mostly.  Whilst three settled on the “twisted mushrooms and cheese” (which turned out to be a meat roll stuff with cheese and mushrooms), I went for the house speciality, consisting of a meat (pork?) escalope, with pineapple and cheese on top.  Not huge, but enough to fill the spot – especially with the additional French fries. The venue itself was full of all sorts of old objects and the centre was dominated by a large wrought iron candelabra, suspended by heavy chains. The waitress was curious how we managed to translate, so I introduced her to Google.  We managed to persuade her to pose for a photo with “the boys”.

We walked past the other part of the group still waiting on their food in the second restaurant, and headed to the third – more of a bar with snacks.  Downstairs I finally found the local liqueur – “nastoyanka”, which is made from honey and herbs.  It comes in many flavours, and we tried 4 – cedar, horseradish, raspberry and original – with a squeeze of lemon to follow, all in 50ml shots.  The two young bartenders were very helpful and patient with us, searching for pictures of the above on their phones.  We felt it only right to continue our business with them, by ordering cheesecake.  Unfortunately, what arrived was not cheesecake – it was flat, hot full of raisins and smothered in honey and chocolate.  It was nice, but not cheesecake.

Walking back to the hotel with the rain now off. We paused once again at the statue to the tourist for some very sensible photos. If only there had been a local kebab shop, the walk would have been complete.  Whilst the carp in the small tank in the hotel got a goodnight kiss from one of our group, we made sure she made it to her party room.

The question is, will anyone remember this the same way as me tomorrow …