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Day 3 – Stornoway to the Isle of Harris

9 Aug

After a restful night in calm conditions, I loosely packed up the wet tent after a hot shower and headed into Stornoway.  Amazing how many coffee shops there aren’t. And those that did exist, weren’t open.  Eventually settled on “Ad’s”, on the basis that it was the only business open (at 9am!)  A wonderful hot chocolate and bacon rolls followed though.

After that, it was off the to the grounds of Lews Castle and the Woodlands Centre (which have very nice toilets) for a pre-booked Segway tour.  I joined a family from North Wales with two teenage sons (15 & 17) who had just finished cycling the Hebridean Way. Parents were the support car!  Finlay, our instructor, showed us the basics of how to get on and off a Segway in the relative safety of a gravel car park.  I was wondering why some of them had knee and elbow pads on.  We all had helmets. I’d not been offered anything else.

Once we were all experts at doing slow circles, we set off along the paths of the Lews estate, where the last lesson was how to fall off whilst going uphill.  Not me, the mother.  To much, controlled, hilarity of the other members of her family.  Once we had also mastered the descent, Finlay led us off at speed along a wide track.  My speed limiter kicked in at about 20-30mph!

At a very scenic spot, he stopped to explain why there was a dilapidated cottage there.  Rhododendrons were recently outlawed and removed, and for years people had been walking past this spot, not realising that the remains of a gamekeeper’s cottage was hidden beneath these huge bushes.  The gamekeeper was in charge of making sure there was no illegal fishing of salmon on the river.

On narrower tracks now, following the river upstream, we avoided friendly dogs and bemused tourists in equal measure.  Next stop was to a manicured garden, created recently to much consternation from the Stornoway residents (who are not exactly open to change!)  There also featured a water fountain fed from a spring (not the river) with a distinct metal taste.  Not to be repeated.

As we headed back to Lews Castle, we avoided Gallow Hill – the highest point in Stornoway – and the site of all recent hangings.

After safely returning the X2 Segway, I headed to Lews Castle – which is in the middle of being restored, but has a very modern museum tacked on the back, with some very interesting and well thought out exhibits.  As well as island life, the machair, gaelic, fishing etc… there was also a section featuring 6 of the Lewis Chessmen, found on a beach in Uig, sometime before 1831.  Most of the 93 pieces that have been found are in the British Museum (London) or the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh), so it is a great privilege for the new museum to have them on loan.  They are hoping to be able to keep them (or swap them for others).

“… where the weather has so dominated daily life.  Not because of any extremes of termperature but because of its changability.”

Peter May, 2013

Stopping only for a panini in the Castle café, I then headed south, leaving the Isle of Lewis behind to head to the Isle of Harris.  I was most disappointed to discover that the separation between these two “Isles” was a very small stream.  No one has yet been able to explain the distinction to me!  The change of scenery was dramatic and also instant.  The moors of Lewis gave way to the rugged hills of Harris.  A steep climb, with perilous edges at times, was the highlight of this road.

Arriving in Tarbert at the Isle of Harris Distillery, I found the Historic Scotland “coo van” again.  Although the tours were fully booked (I knew this in advance), they did offer a free sample nip, both with and without the added sugar-sea kelp water.  Definitely with!  TO allow the effects to wear off, I walked around Tarbert, taking in the highlights – the ferry terminal, hotel, tourist information office and brightly painted Tarbert Stores.  Also on show was the Harris Tweed shop.  My idea of hell.  Couldn’t even afford a tea cosy, although they did have a very nice line of tweed waistcoats.

I turned off the “main” road toward Grosebay – a tiny place reachable only by the narrowest and windiest of roads.  It is part of the “Golden Road” around this part of South Harris.  The reason for the detour was to visit another Harris Tweed shop “Isle of Harris Knitwear Co” – this one was somewhat less touristy.  In the garage, come shop, a large lady described how she could tell the difference between the weavers, and that although the tweed was woven in the homes in Harris, the garments were actually made elsewhere.  Meanwhile in the house, the ground floor was taken over with rails of jackets and waistcoats for the discerning millionaire.  Available in both standard and lightweight, in case you read this far!  The Harris “Orb” stamp showing the sign of quality.

Back on the road, I headed to Luskentyre beach.  Just as well Google Maps work offline, or I would have been completely lost – despite there only being two roads!  All the signs are in a foreign language, and here they don’t even both to translate them!

The beach stretches for miles, and the car park isn’t where Google thinks it is – a good 2.5 miles further on in fact.  It was hoaching!  The beautiful white sand beach however, had plenty space for everyone, including campers, dogs and walkers (and the odd tourist with a camera!).  The wildlife was plentiful – many starfish, a small (traditionally clear) jelly fish, and another deep red jellyfish covered in seaweed that would have fed a family of 4 for a week!  The marking made it look like it had swallowed a turtle.

The blue green water was too appealing, and only cold if you strayed too far from the shore.

After dusting off the sand, I follow the crowds (OK two other cars) back along the single track road and then on to Horgabost Campsite.  This was the most disorganise sprawl I’ve ever seen.  A “lucky” few had pitched up overlooking the beach, whilst others had settled for more sheltered sites near the road.  I compromised on distance to carry anything, and ended up near the sand, the car and the toilet block.  The borrowed Vango Force 10 was quickly pitched and pegs buried, to the surprise of everyone else who had brought the kitchen sink and had their huge tents swaying violently in the wind.

Immediately back in the safety of the car I headed to Northton and Croft 36 – home of the much publicised and researched takeaway to the tent service.  Arriving at 6:15 to the hut outside, I discovered that you actually need to prebook the day before.  The notice in the shed to enquire in the house, so I did, and was met with a barking dog and apologetic owner.  However, all was not lost, as 5 minutes further down the road was Leverburgh.  I say 5 minutes, but like all of these villages, it goes on for miles and miles, with a single house here and there.  Even the shop, post office, hall and school are not together.  The ferry terminal was even further.  But next to it was a very posh restaurant – “The Anchorage”, with prices to match.  The served be a wonderful bowl of carrot and ginger soup, some fish pakora and a white chocolate pannacota.  Nice.

After finding that CalMac had free wifi at the port, I returned to the campsite to find the less enlightened campers slaving over stoves and raw chicken.  I amused myself whilst reading until the light rain started.  Retiring to the calm of the tent, I heard the screams of the children passing by and the howling of the wind.

It reminds me why I don’t like public campsites.  Firstly, because of the public, and secondly because they are campsites.

Today’s sound track was brought to you by Isles FM (where possible), BBC Radio 2, and CD 6.


Day 12 – Mons, Monks & Monkeys

23 Mar

For some reason, my mind thought that 5:30am was a good time to wake up … two days in a row, does not make a pattern.  As the real start was due at 8:00am, this meant plenty of time for breakfast!  The made to order waffles and honey were fantastic, and went nicely with the bacon and toast.  I couldn’t get more un-Burmese than that!


The view from OK Kyaung

We headed first to the temple of Ok Kyaung, which afforded spectacular views of a large number of other stupas and temples, after climbing only a short flight of stairs.  George’s “cousin” from yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but plenty of others had filled her spot.  I started a photo taking competition (starring me and some bricks) in which Karen, Albery and Ethna all took part.  Results will be announced later.

A short hop to the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, which stood in front, saw us do the now traditional clockwise tour of the outside.  This one had a large golden dome, shrouded in bamboo scaffolding, and lots of smaller golden stupas sitting on strikingly red bricks.  Instead of having the traditional 4 Buddhas, this one had space for 5 – in preparation for the coming of the next Buddha – due in about 2,600 years time. (Every 5000 years – the last Buddha was born in 600BC).  Now that’s future planning!  Also around here were a camera crew and a French presenter practicing her English speech.  That doesn’t sound like a great combination.  And it wasn’t.  Inside, next to yet another Buddha shrine, was a glass object bejewelled with rubies and sapphires, which would normally shine at the very top of a pagoda.

We moved on to the local village of West Pwazaw and met with the former village chief who was obviously a wealthy farmer.  He employed 8 people and seemed to enjoy not having to do much himself!  They farmed sour plums and we witnessed how they crushed and separated the kernels which are then sold to the Chinese for £6/kilo for unknown reasons – they really don’t know what they do with them!  They also grow peanuts, sesame, beans, pumpkin, corn and cotton.  There was a demonstration of how to spin the cotton into yarn, and of course an opportunity to purchase the final product.  Despite the rest of the village owning enough cows to keep Tesco in beef burgers for months, this family only owned two cows – because they also owned a tractor!  With 5 children, 2 sons were still at home, two daughters are nurses (one still in the village) and the fifth was obviously not important (or I didn’t listen).   Lacquerware production was also on show.  It’s made from bamboo, horsehair and the sap of the lacquer tree.  I wondered why all the horses had short hair.  Funnily enough, it’s “lucky” to buy two, rather than one.

After being offered some rather tasteless tea (or maybe it was just my cold), we walked around the village – highlights included a man painting a wall without moving the bricks in his way, or indeed, finishing building the wall; a pen full of goats who wanted to like my hand – little do they know what I have in store for their friends on Saturday; a woman with the largest cigar on the planet; and a man who made bamboo cages that confuddle George – apparently they were rubbish bins.  We saw bamboo being split, some friendly cows and a cactus hedge.

Leaving the village behind, we attempted to document any remaining stupas that we’d not yet seen.  This started with the tallest (Thatbyinnyu Temple) and then Nanpaya Temple – with a very hot tiled floor outside, I was back to doing the Burmese Waltz across the ground in bare feet.  They should at least have a bucket of water on standby, if not a full first aid team. Inside were four columns with intricate Hindu inspired carvings and a missing Buddha on the raised middle platform.  This is different from most temples, in that they normally have four Buddhas facing every direction.

Outside the temple were some ogres and haspa (sp?) “curvings” (sic), as well as a good assortment of children trying to flog some postcards.  “Very nice, but I don’t need any” was a standard John2 response.  They’ve got to try refining their technique, as the bargaining reached $1million at one point.

In the next door temple, we had four large Buddhas, who looked like they had forgotten the dimensions of the building they were in.  As a result of their size, they look down on the visitors, apparently in reference to the sorrow of the king and queen that had them built.  Saving on the traders here, they had a large gold pot where you could just throw your money away.  Unfortunately, I was suckered in on the way out – another sand painting bought!

Back at the hotel, I had a chance to freshen up and eat (chicken and cheeseburger and fries) before heading off to Mount Popa with Tom and John.  We ducked the Explore version for a local taxi (saving $17 each!).  The journey took an hour, but it completed all possible methods of transport during this trip.  And it had working air con!


Not the real Mount Popa

On arrival at Mount Popa we faced a 777 step covered climb – 1/3 in shoes, and 2/3 in bare feet.  The steps were full of local tourists and macaques (monkeys).  Fortunately the tourists had been toilet trained.  The macaques had not.  The monkeys were scavengers and would happily grab any food from your hand.   They also didn’t respect the Buddhas.  A team of cleaners managed to mostly keep the tiled steps clean and a group were feeding the monkeys at the bottom to try and encourage them to stay there, rather than pester tourists all the way up.  This didn’t work.  There were two sections of steep metal steps which had obviously been frequented by the monkeys more than the cleaners.  Razor wire was used to try to keep the monkeys away from key areas, but they didn’t seem bothered with it at all, using it to climb up and through.

At the top, it was a bit confusing, as there was a collection of shrines, no open space, lots of plaques and lots of people.  We worked our way around, admiring the views from all sides and were asked to star in a few photos by a monk.  We then persuaded a monk to take part in the photos as well.  Fair’s fair.  Anyone can sponsor anything for any reason – a few restaurants had plaques – from Beijing and San Francisco!

As a side note, we didn’t actually climb Mount Popa, but the rocky outcrop, half its height, officially called Popa Taung Kalat.  But known to the casual tourist as Mount Popa.


Monks slapping monkeys

Descending and using all the available wet wipes to clean the monkey pee and monkey poo off our feet, we rejoined the taxi driver for the trip back to the hotel in Bagan.  My Pringles and Haribo were cracked open and eagerly finished off by traveller Tom.  I may have helped a bit.  The road back had some roadworks, the men making the tar and the women carrying it to the road for it to be applied by hand by more men.  Time consuming work!  In the middle of nowhere, we also ran the gauntlet of some people, mostly young, begging along the road.  They did this by trying to run in front of the cars to get them to slow down.  We sped up.

After dressing for dinner (well everyone else did – I put clean socks on), we met in the hotel foyer and the group flag photo was done.  Hotel staff are better photo takers than I am!  Disappointed to find that I’d been sold a dirty flag though!  George seemed to have a problem knowing which way up it went!

For our final group meal, we headed to the Star Beam restaurant, and after the meal Graham led the group thanks with a speech he’d spent all afternoon preparing for.  George replied.  “Yes. Yes.”  I hadn’t appreciated this was his catchphrase until this moment.

DSCN2678 (2)

Cassandra then led us on an ice cream hunt ending, very easily, with a peach and guava variety.  Delice. An early night as we all have planes to catch tomorrow – some of the group are heading to the beach extension option, and the rest of us have a couple of days in Yangon before our flight home.

Still plenty to come from me …

Day 5 – Journey to Kalaw

16 Mar

Hotel staff waving us off

Soooo.  Today was a bit of a late start, for me.  Unfortunately, not for everyone else.  My alarm had not been set for the correct time, so at 7:00am when it went off, I was already 15 minutes late for catching the morning train to Kalaw.  Thankfully, they hadn’t left yet, and the breakfast table was on the way to the bus.  Four pieces of cake were quickly snatched for eating later.

On board the bus, we transferred to the nearest train station – Shwe Nyaung.  Only one platform, only one train, so no mistakes were possible.  There were two classes of ticket – “upper class” which had large cushioned seats and a footrest, if airline style, but also some fours – facing each other.  All with plenty of leg room.  They weren’t in the newest of conditions, but certainly much better than the “ordinary class” in the next carriage.  This had hard blue moulded plastic bench seats with high backs which looked remarkably uncomfortable.

Getting on the train meant we had to evict a grandfather, daughter and her two children from our seats.  Thankfully, they had seats across the aisle.  The lack of windows (just holes) proved ideal for photography, and the keen photographers spaced out along the carriage for optimal coverage.  The Explore! brochure had promised fantastic scenery, but we only saw dusty fields, turning ocassionally to red soil in the slightly more productive areas.

We did pass a cattle market that had lines of cattle heading there.  Also a buddhist cemetery and a small bridge called ” Ba Wa Sam Sa Ra”, which sounded like a song to me!


We stopped briefly at a few stations to allow for the loading or unloading of produce from the goods wagons, for sale elsewhere.  At one stop, we were allowed off whilst some traders got on.  Young boys were busy running the messages for those that didn’t want to move from their seat.  On the platform, a woman was hand mixing vegetables, noodles, sauces and the occasional piece of meat to form some fast food options.  Other women, decorated with the thanaka face cream (helps cure acne apparently) were selling garlic, ginger, fruit, sweets, watermelon, crisps and cheroots.

We arrived at the busy platform in Aung Ban to be confronted with lots of children trying to flog more vegetables, some as young as 4.  Detraining, we moved through the crowd, mostly selling green leavy veg and out of the station to our bus which had taken our main luggage by road.  Despite being advised of likely delays, the train was almost exactly on time – 2.5 hours.  It’s slow speed of travel had provided the ideal cool way of viewing a good chunk of the country.  I reckon it travelled so slowly so that it wouldn’t come off the rails – it had a problem of majorly rocking from side to side.

Twenty minutes later and we had driven through Kalaw, our base for the next two nights to the Shwe Oo Min Cave Pagoda.  Outside there were lots of golden and coloured glass encrusted stupas – we’re now assuming that everywhere we go there will be stupas!  After removing our shoes and socks (and receiving another wet wipe), we entered the cave – quite high, but it was hard to spot the rocks as the place was entirely covered in buddha statues that had all been recently donated by individuals or families.  Barefoot, the tiled floor was nice and cool, but they insisted on having matting on top of the tiles which was surely only designed to make your feet bleed.  Must be some kind of tourist torture matting.  The cave was not huge, but had several branches and one was a very narrow corridor, which I managed to squeeze through.  Not American sized though.  The cave was well lit, but the electrical wires were not exactly hidden.  Fascinating site.  The main buddha statue was at the front of the cave and was 200 years old, but all the other statues were added in this century.  Further on there was another small cave with more statues.  It’s likely that this complex will grow and grow.  Outside, Cassandra (from Cambuslang) pointed out that one of the statues had been sponsored by the “Crazy English Club”.


Zat Byat Byat

After using the wet wipe on our dirty feet, we headed for lunch at the “7 sisters” restaurant.  They are the grandaughters of an Irishman and serve some of the best food in town.  A particular speciality of the place was “Zat Byat Byat”, described as minced meat with tomato, basil and Shan parsley.  I tried the beef version, forgetting that George had said that a portion could easily do two.  As it turned out, it could easily serve 3!  I attempted as much as possible with coconut rice, but although delicious had to admit defeat with the quantity.  Still not bad for £6, including two drinks though!

We drove back through Kalaw to our hotel, and was assigned room 101.  What are they hinting at?  Smaller rooms, but very comfy, even if my room has a large picture window on the hotel’s garden, at ground level.  Thankfully for everyone, a blind was provided.  WiFi highly unstable.  The shower is behind the door, without any protection for the rest of the bathroom (not that there is a bath).


The beds were decorated with rose petals and proved too much of a draw to escape their calling. 4 hours later, I awoke from my afternoon siesta in time for our evening meal.  A free afternoon well spent.

As we met for an evening meal, it transpired that 3 people had already succumed to dodgy stomachs – John, Graham and Claire were all at various stages of recovery.  George had predicted that 4 would suffer, so the other John is now most worried.  He’s gradually adding to his list of potential ways to die in Myanmar!

8 of us headed to “Everest Nepali” – to sample some Nepali cuisine.  It looked a lot like the stuff we’d been eating so far, but with the additional of a chapati.  I went for the mutton curry – which is made with goat meat, and upgraded to a garlic and cheese chapati.  It was served with communal side dishes – including a spectacular pickled mango dish (not chutney).  All washed down with a chocolate pancake. This is without doubt the best meal of the trip so far.  So many flavours, expertly blended together.


Over the meal, I asked George about the politics of the country.  In a hushed voice he replied that there was no real problem speaking about it, but kept on looking over his shoulder to check.  I believe that he was being overly cautious, but he did recount that journalists had been thrown in jail for trying to investigate too deeply into some of the issues.  I did establish that the trouble in the north of Shan state (clashes between ethnic minorities and the army) was mostly caused by the usual reasons – desire for autonomy and control of resources – in this case, gems (emeralds and sapphires) – one of the main exports of Myanmar.  George on the other hand was interested in the Northern Ireland situation, and talk turned to the censorship and bias in the media, in both countries.  The Burmese are very aware of this, as are more and more of the UK population.

The locals are very tolerant of their new government, in that they appreciate the changes already made, and look forward to more.  But there is realism that everything cannot be changed overnight.  The constitution in particular will take more than 20 years to change, as there is an inbuilt majority in favour of the army.  Overall, a very varied and wide ranging insight to the political life in Myanmar.

Walking back to the hotel was the first time that I contemplated adding a jumper.  Didn’t need one, but we are trekking tomorrow with the hill tribes and are at a higher altitude than previously.  Apparently it can go down to 0°C here.  I don’t believe that.

Setting the alarm for “early” tomorrow …

Day 4 – Inle Lake : Shopping, Cottaging, Wine & Pressure

15 Mar

So, another day, another breakfast – this time 3 quick pancakes with honey and some cake to rush away with.  Still stuffed from the previous day.


We were back in the boats today, so a short walk to the jetty found our favourite boatmen ready and waiting.  Boat number 3 was off down the canal and into the lake without delay.  This time, we were heading towards the east side of the lake, and slightly further south.  Immediately, we came across two photogenic fisherman who were keen to show us their balancing and oar skills as well as the fish they had caught … in return for some money.  They lost interest when we didn’t.

The sun was beating down steadily on my left side as it had done all the previous day, and the legs were beginning to turn red – on one side, and staying religiously white on the other.  This isn’t helped when returning later in the day, as the sun is still on the left side when heading north.


The first stop of the day was at a market which only happens every 5 days.  Everyone was there, and empty boats piled up in the water as far as you could see.  Some boats were trying to sell things to you before you even managed to touch land.  However, we successfully deboated onto a strip of land barely wide enough for two tables displaying the wares and two people to pass between.

This started off as tourist tat, but on reaching the mainland, developed into a local’s market, with everything being sold – live or dead, cured or raw, chopping or in the process.  In particular, the fish were still flapping in bowls, or lying on the ground next to the family of the fisherman that caught them.  The chickens had beaks and giblets in separate containers, or just lying everywhere.  Cleavers were being used in places that can’t be mentioned.  It was a gruesome sight – for vegetarians.  Or a delight for meat eaters!  Most of the market was far more normal – locally grown vegetables from the floating gardens were on sale, as was palm oil for cooking, betel leaves and lime for chewing (gives you a high, and red teeth for weeks!)  Other things that could be identified include soya bean, chillies, turmeric, tomatoes, garlic and onions, lightbulbs, torches, scissors, clothing, dried fish, colourful bags, eggs, herbs, flowers, spring onions, ginger, carrots, beans, potatoes, tea and music CDs.  You get the idea.

As well as all that, there was a barber – responsible for all the footballer style haircuts  and hair dye being sported by everyone under 20.  There were also many places where food was being cooked fresh – on wood fueled stoves and eaten.  Debenhams cafe has nothing on this for atmosphere.  Also spotted was a young boy reading a comic book.  So basically, life as we know it, but without the western style setting.  Who really needs it?


I did splash out when I encountered by bow seller from yesterday.  He’d manage to find a smaller one that looked like it might fit in my bag.  Turns out it was really used for firing small stones, but don’t spoil my pleasure.  It’ll hang nicely on a wall (without needing much dusting!)

Passing through yet more stilt villages – with some houses under construction – we arrived at Ngwe Zin Yaw – a traditional cheroot making workshop and the first of the cottage industries we would visit today.  Cheroots, in case you don’t know, are small cigar like objects.  They make them from large green Sebastian leaves and tobacco flavoured with different things such as banana, star anise, mint, honey, betel nut & pineapple.  All of the reformed smokers in the group reverted to day 0 and had a go with the free samples.  The workers were making up to 1000 a day, each and in full view of boatloads of tourists.

Three young girls fresh from a swim in the lake had to battle through our group as we waited to board our boats.  Rather them than me.  It looked minging!

We moved on to Inn Paw Khone, the home of the weaving industries on the lake.  Two boats made it to the correct workshop, but ours took a slight detour on the way.  Our boatman soon found the error of his ways, although it is quite difficult to do a three point turn in a longtail boat in a narrow waterway.

On our arrival at Mya Setkyar Inlay, we were shown how they make thread from the stalks of the lotus plant, and spun it ready to be used.  They also tie-dye the yarn precisely (the men do this demanding work), so that the ladies that weave don’t have to think when they operate the hand loom.  Several were working on the various stages when we visited, and the shuttles of the looms were clacking away merrily.  They also work with silk and cotton. They produce lotus products – US$150 for a small scarf; a silk and lotus mix – US$55 for the same thing; or just silk – much cheaper!  The Dalai Lama’s yellow scarf is a lotus one made in this workshop.  I didn’t ask if he’d paid for it.


The same place had a restaurant, which we headed for, over a steep wooden bridge over some water.  We dodged the pork crackling, crackling away in the sun and found a scenic, shaded area with large open windows (gaps).  The table were offered long tofu (yellow bean) crackers with a sweet chilli dip – we had to ask for more – delicous!  Main course for me was chicken kabba – a nicely sweetened sauce.

Moving on in the boats for another short journey, we reached a boat making workshop.  One was in the process of being made, and was likely to see for about US$2,500 – US$3,000.  An investment for a lifetime, as they are likely to last about 70 years.  Also being made there was a smaller craft for families and fishermen for ~US$700.  The workforce seemed to be made up of 3 12 year olds, at least one of whom was “visiting for the summer”.

No power tools were being used (or available), and the effort of screwing, planing and sanding was impressive.  They reckon they can build a boat with 5 men in 10 days.  Jim, Alan, Rod, Ann it looks like we could have a project!

Sitting in the front of the boat for the first time on the return journey was both a blessing and a curse.  Great photos were available, if only I could stay awake and avoid my OCD regarding the planks on the boat floor.  Why did they not make them symmetric?  Why?

An hour later, we arrived back at the hotel, in time for a freshen up before some headed out again in a couple of tuk tuks to the local winery.  The driver drove us past three monasteries, his house (where his kids and wife waved!), a sugar cane crop and genuine, non watery countryside.  He did struggle up the winery’s hill in second gear.  I’d not eaten that much!  But after much engine noise, it did make it to the top.  We took our seats, perused the wine list, ordered a white and a red (and some snacks) before the sun set behind the hazy mountains.  If only it did that everyday, life could be perfect.


Back in the tuk tuks, we rushed back to the hotel, only for me to head straight back out again to the local spa – to sample a traditional Myanmar massage.  It started with clove tea, then a ginger foot wash and then the massage – clothed in their traditional outfit (me, not her). Described as “deep” pressure, it was very similar to Thai massage, with perhaps a slightly higher degree of inflicted pain.  It was genuinely relaxingly, although she did concentrate around my legs a lot.  Toes were cracked without inflicting any damage on the poor woman (unlike some previous experiences).  And only £12.50 for 90 minutes!  Absolutely no happy endings!

Last stop of the day was the foreigners pub.  Quieter tonight.  The rest of them had mostly gathered on the terrace and had consumed a lot of alcohol.  I ordered a hawaiian pizza and added a dash of chilli oil to each slice – great way of doing it – just make sure you have mild chilli oil!


John was keen for a game of pool, so he and I teamed up against Karen and Graham.  John turned out to be a semi-professional pool player.  Thankfully the 3 litres of lager evened things up a bit.  And yes, John, I know you are reading this.  This is to help you remember what happened.    Graham tried his hand at pool coach, but all the pressure was on John to win.  And win we did.

Some other folks fancied a game, including Amanda from Brazil, who hadn’t ever held a pool cue in her life.  She was therefore at about the same competancy as me.  We lost, due to the other player.

At chucking out time, the bill was eventually settled, and the group walked back to the hotel, past a pack of sleeping dogs.

No pressure tomorrow, except for the early start …

Day 6 – Tartu, Estonia

29 Sep

Our last day in Estonia started as normal – Tauno, just making it on time after a last minute breakfast.  I’m glad it’s not just me!  Thankfully, the local guide for our morning city tour was a bit more refreshed.  Merike led us on a slow walk through the compact area of the old town of Tartu, the university city.


The Leaning House

One of the first stops was to the Leaning House.  The front door is straight, but the windows are not!  One side was built on the remains of the city walls, whilst the other, in common with a lot of other buildings, was built on wooden piles which eventually sank, giving the house a noticable lean.  It’s now an art museum.

We also visited the town hall square, where they were busy setting up for the 5th Tartu marathon at the weekend.  The finish line was in sight!  There was a statue of kissing students outside the town hall, which has become a popular destination to do just that.  There didn’t appear to be a queue though.  Also here was a temporary installation of a self supporting running tap.  As the drizzle was also still light, this didn’t have too bad an effect on the bladder of any of the group.


The frontage of the main university building, and an artwork depicting it.

They have a piece of art spelling out “100,000”, that was put in place when the population reached this number.  It has since dropped and risen, but is currently a couple thousand short.  At least 20% of the population are students and the town atmosphere is regulated by the ebb and flow of the students in and out of classes.  Classes stop at quarter to the hour, and restart at quarter past, presumably 90 minute classes.  Inbetween there is a rush of students into the streets of the university campus.  Saying that, the city centre pretty much is the university, although a lot of the faculties now have dedicated modern buildings on the edges of town.

The old maternity hospital on top of Toome hill is now a social sciences building.  The rest of the Toome hill area includes an observatory and a half ruined, half rebuilt cathedral.  The rebuilt part is now a museum.  Toome hill is modelled on an English park, and the useful bridge within is named the Angel’s Bridge by mistake.  It sounds very much like English bridge in Estonian, which is what it was supposed to be called.  A wish can come true if you hold your breath as you cross. Not far away is the Devil’s Bridge – serving no useful purpose at all.  Choirs have been known to compete from the two bridges, spending hours singing at each other, and anyone else gathered in the very pleasant woodland in between.


Sacrifical Stone, Kissing Hill and an unnamed bridge – also useful at granting wishes if you can hold your breath when crossing.

There is also a sacrificial stone, where pagan rituals (bloodless) were carried out.  Recently, students took to burning their lecture notes before exams – shame if they had resits!  Also a bit difficult most recently as they all use laptops!  There is also the supposedly romantic “Kissing Hill”, where newlyweds are supposed to go, and queues form in the summer.  This is actually on top of a man-made “ruin” – constructed relatively recently because all “English” parks have ruins in them.  Apparently.

We also got a brief introduction to Struve – the night rector of the university – who was the only professor that could be found at night, and was therefore responsible for dishing out the punishments to students who had fallen foul of the rules.  Basically how many night to be sent to jail for.  Jail in this case was a warm bed, with food provided.  Insulting a woman carried a penalty of 4 nights, whilst annoying the caretaker was usually 5 nights! He was also in charge of the observatory, and invented the Tartu Meridian.  In between he had time to father 18 children (with 2 wives).


The whole town is dotted with statues commemorating other famous people as well as art installations, including a 21 year old poet who died of pnuemonia after walking constantly between Riga and Tartu.  Told you exercise wasn’t good for you.  Another notable figure was Karl Ernst von Baer, the father of embryology, who’s statue’s head is reverently cleaned with champagne every year by students.  Used to be beer, but the students are better off these days.

We also passed the Supreme Court of Estonia – located in Tartu next to the law faculy of the university so that it can’t be interfered with by the politicians in Tallinn.  Good reasoning!


Spotted Dog biscuits

We finished the morning tour with Tauno trying to fob off the remaining elk in jelly from yesterday and the Vana Tallinn liqueur.  One was more popular than the other.  He also added to his popularity with some spotted dog biscuits.  Actually quite nice.

Karen, Ruth and I then headed off to the St. John’s church, made of brick with terracota heads in various states of disrepair.  We quickly moved on to the Tartu Toy Museum and spent a couple of hours reminiscing over Teletubbies, Dolls Houses, plastic soldiers, train sets, and characters from Estonian children’s TV programmes.  We also had the chance to act out our own puppet show – with glove puppets, marionettes, shadow puppets or rod puppets.  The two teachers headed back with loads of ideas.

Just managed to fit in a coffee and cake in the Werner Cafe (#1 on TripAdvisor!), although I could have spent all day here – the colourful cakes were calling out to me.  Also managed a Tuuletort – apparently cheese and salami – over three layers!

Next stop was to the Gunpowder Cellar – holding the Guiness World Record for the highest pub – as in the ceiling – it’s 10.2m, and located under the Toome Hill.  We popped in to study the menu (mostly pork!) and were informed that there was a rodeo being held there at 9pm. We’re imagining bucking bronco.  Probably not then.  Student town.

Crossing the river, and through the park (full of mushrooms), we ended up at the Song Festival museum.  Only €2, and I don’t think they’d had many English speaking visitors, as they had to ask how to switch the audio guide to English.  ALL the wall displays were in Estonian, so the audio guide was essesntial.  I managed 13 and 14 whilst relieving myself on the second floor.  The history of the song festivals was interesting in itself, but the ones that led to the “Singing Revolution” kicked off in 1988 and these eventually led to Estonian independance from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Back over the stone bridge, and we managed a couple more statues – “Father and Son”, and the pig outside the Meat Market – it’s a handy reference to the cuts of meat available inside.  Also attempted the supermarket, and managed to purchase some sauerkraut crisps as well as bear, wild boar and beaver meat in tins.  We’ll see how that tastes at home.  The bear was very expensive compared to the others. i.e. the beaver was cheap.


Bear, Wild Boar and Beaver meat available – Bear was 5 times the price of the Boar.

Regretted not buying an Estonian flag in Tallinn, as the prices (and sizes) have tripled here.  Ah well.  Traditions can change!

Almost the whole group met for dinner and we headed back to the Werner Restaurant (upstairs this time), for some really nice food – including sea buckthorn lemonade and a mango chai latte.  Didn’t have a clue what either of those were, but both were very nice!

The promised rain for the day never materialised past a light drizzle – the umbrella has still not been broken out.

Long may it continue!


Day 5 – Travel to Tartu, Estonia

28 Sep


Porridge, toast and yoghurt – all these things were still left over at 8:40am.  Today was about travelling back from the island, and heading to the main university town of Estonia – Tartu.  We all mostly made the 9am departure and the 2 hours to the ferry terminal passed in a record 60 minutes.  Apparently Google Maps isn’t as good as Tauno thought it was.

Tauno was very perceptive after he’d given us a few more stories, and although I was encouraging him, he reckoned that quiet time was more appreciated.

As we approached the ferry terminal at Kuivastu, on Muhu, Tauno pointed out the various accidents that had occurred on the ferry in the past, such as lorries catching fire and the 1950s communist film about a ferry disaster that had a happy ending.  Reassuring.  Jonas, the Cyprus registered, former UK ferry with a bad record of being in service was our chosen vehicle of the day.

Tauno was also very good at fact checking.  Asked how deep the water was, he was straight on the internet and less than 30 seconds later came back with an average depth of 5m and 24m at the deepest point.  In the winter, the sea freezes over and an ice road can be used instead of the ferry.  The locals like this a lot as they don’t have to pay for the ferry.  The rules for driving are also a bit different – speed limits are set to avoid causing reverberations and seatbelts are banned, in case you need to quickly get out of a sinking car.  The gap between cars also needs to be a lot bigger.

On board the ferry, Tauno gathered us around a table and presented a spread he’d bought from the local supermarket.  We ended up with rye bread, with a rabbit’s favourite secret ingredient – the orange flecks gave the secret away – spread with large chunks of butters and some small sprats on top.  Actually not as digusting as it sounds.  Not too salty either.  Several of us had seconds, or thirds.  When the shot glasses came out, I was expected Schnapps.  Unfortunately, he produced a bottle of Estonia Kafir – this thin yoghurt drink had all sorts of cereal added and had a mostly pleasant taste.  “Cheers” in Estonian sounds a like a cross between “turbosex” and “tervysex”.  Tauno’s classic line was “people remember the end, but forget the beginning”.  Yup.

He also distributed some curd bars – mine was apparently flavoured with cloudberry and lemon.  Tasted a bit like toffee to me.  The jellied elk will be saved for another point.

Just as we finished, the ferry docked successfully at Virtsu and we headed back to the bus.  Hopefully the sprats will stay inside on the next part of the journey.


Narrow gauge railway rolling stock (not in use)

Narrow gauge railways are a feature that are constantly being pointed out.  Or rather, the remains of them, as they seem to have been dismantled in the 1960s.  Cycleways and paths have replaced them, and there is now a large network of both.

We stopped for a couple of hours in Parnu, where the weather eventually turned wet.  We started with the beach – windy enough for the kite surfers and wind surfers to be very happy.  We debussed and saw the location of the declaration of Estonian independence.  It was proclaimed from a theatre balcony on 23rd February 1918.  The theatre is no longer, but a model of the theatre, and a copy of the declaration of independence is in the town square, opposite.

We then visited the outside of the Red Tower, which is white, before accompanying Tauno to the best pizza restaurant in Parnu.  My brain and my belly had a fight.  The belly won.  Very nice thin and crispy chicken, bacon and pineapple.  Steve and I then walked to the Tallinn Gates, and another moat, which joined one of the two rivers in Parnu, that also meets the Baltic Sea.

Back on the bus, we had some background information from Tauno.  The Estonian Parliament (101 members) has never managed to elect the president as it needs 2/3 majority.  When this happens, the group is expanded to 400 by including other local government representatives as well.  This weekend even this group didn’t manage to elect the president either.  So it’s back to parliament to decide.  They are thinking of changing the system to become directly elected, but as the position has no real power, it’s hardly worth it. “A bit of a circus”.  Obviously not been to Holyrood!

Tauno also gave us some background on the political parties.  The conservatives are unelectable, although they are currently part of the governing coalition.  The Social Democrats are considered the purest of poor.  They never have scandals and apparently no policies either.  I’ll leave you to draw any comparisons.  I have to admit that at this point I lost a bit of interest, but he did go on to describe the many other politic parties, including one that was “too far right to be polite”.

Free public transport is available in Tallinn for residents.  Apparently this came as a surprise to the public transport operators. They had a referendum about it. It may not have been organised to distract the voters from some other scandals or unpopular changes.  Or it may have.

Firewood and potatoes were also once distributed for free to those who needed it, complete with a picture of the mayor.  Mayors and potatoes?  Cynical electioneering?

We were saved from more political chat by arriving in Viljandi, a small town (p. 17,000) with a ruined castle on a hill and a church (unsurprisingly closed). There were three levels of fortifications, each with a dry moat and a narrow bridge to cross to the next level.  Tauno found some more treats in his bag, including the jellied elk and some Vana Tallinn – a very nice Estonian spirit.  We walked back to the bus across a suspension bridge, worryingly dated three times.  We also saw one of the outdoor singing auditorium that are in every town.  The “Singing Revolution” is what eventually led to the Soviets leaving in 1991.

Moving on, we had the opportunity to examine a shale rock, from which they extract oil.  And had a discussion on the relative tallest points in Latvia and Estonia.  With Estonia at 317m, Latvia was only 4m less.  Hopefully they won’t start a war over this.  Although we did hear that the Latvians carry small handfuls of dirt to the top, every time they visit.

Stopped briefly to climb an observation tower on the side of the second biggest lake – Võrtsjarve, from which the river Emajõgi flows to Tartu and onwards to Lake Peipus on the Russian / Estonian border. Due to a large river joining up shortly afterwards, there is a section that sometimes flows backwards. Mostly we witnessed kite surfers throwing themselves into the air, mostly on the water, sometimes on the ground.

An Estonian language lesson followed.  I remember nothing except ice – yah.  I’ll leave you to do a Youtube search for “12 months in Estonian”.  There are no genders and no future tense – hence Estonian is referred to as “no sex and no future”.

We arrived in Tartu, the university town, and the change was immediate. Far more modern – with 3 skyscraper shopping centres right next to our hotel.  After a quick check in, the fab 5 headed off to the city centre, through some light drizzle.  Past the bus station, and to the river edge, the sight of neon was quite different.  A tremendous cacophony of birds could be heard in the city centre wooded area.  The city centre was almost deserted, and we headed straight to Yok Leng’s choice of restaurant, Café Truffe, which proved a good deal.  Although I limited myself to one course, I did manage to sneak in a champagne truffle, and another kvass (rye bread drink), which went by the name of Kali on the menu.  All for €12.  I like university towns.

Tomorrow we get to see Tartu in all its glory.  I hope.

Will there be bear in the supermarket?  Will Tony attempt a mud spa? Just how many questions will we get Tauno to Google tomorrow?

Day 3 – The Road to the Isles

26 Sep

Morning became slightly easier, and the bag was packed ready for a day of driving.  But first I managed to catch up with Becky and Lynsey (sp?), from Cheltenham and London over breakfast.  Avoided the chicken sausage, but topped up on toast and porridge.  Becky was busy gathering lunch from the salad table.  I’ll pass.

Our minibus was a comfortable 16 seater affair, which meant I got the back row all to myself.  5 seats should just about do me.

Guntas was our driver and Tauno was our audio guide as we drove off through the foggy streets pointing out barely visible buildings that had all of us riveted to our seats.  The highlights included the car showroom where he first swore at the age of 3, the city rubbish dump, and a local swimming pool.  We did pass through a leafy suburb donated by a 19th Century German nobleman on the condition that trees were continually replanted.  All only slightly better than the former sock factory that he had pointed out the day before.  Discussed mushrooms at some length – Yok Leng had visited a mushroom exhibition yesterday – which prompted the discussion on which types of mushrooms you can eat – Tauno settled the argument – you can eat all types, but some only once!

Two hours of ultra flat country later, we reach the ferry port of Virtsu and had a chance to use the facilities, just before a bunch of day tripping Latvian teenagers arrived on a very large bus.  They found a corner of the port to smoke behind the bins, and were generally very loud.  Wait, am I getting old?

Debated eating on the ferry and regretted the decision not to later.  There was a refreshing breeze – the southerners were all wrapped up in their woollen hats and gloves.  I was happy in t-shirt. Thirty minutes on the ferry took us to the island of Muhu.


We were met with symbolic colourful gates and drove through the pine forests on good roads to the town in the centre (Liiva) – and the first of the medieval churches.  This one was St. Catherine’s Church of Muhu.  As the tourist season was over, it was closed, but we walked around the rather neglected gravestones and Soviet war memorial.  Worth mentioning at this point that the Second World War split Estonians – some backed the Soviets, others the Germans.  Both powers were invading and they really wanted neither in control, but people generally had to pick a side.  Only because the Germans lost are there Soviet commemorations.  Those that fought for the Germans are sadly forgotten.

We drove on to the small farming and fishing village of Koguva, home to only about 20 people, but a major tourist attraction because of its setting and preservation of the old ways of doing things.  Dry stone dykes seperated the properties.  They had their own harbour, where some of the families were fishing.  The same families have lived there since 1532.  They respect their boats, and when they need to dispose of them, they turn them upside down on their stone walls and wait for nature to take its course.  Anything else would disrespect the boat.  We wandered around, tasting juniper berries, getting lost and thinking that out of season tourism is not a great idea (even the museum here was closed!)  We were also introduced to Juhan Smuul – you know, the famous Estonian writer.

Moving on, we crossed a man-made causeway to the next and larger island of Saaremaa.  This island is almost 10% of Estonia, but with only 31,000 inhabitants.


Crossing the causeway to Saaremaa

Our first stop here was to Karja Church – very similar in appearance from the outside to the one we had visited earlier.  Additionally, this one had a keyhole that we could look through.  (Remember, it’s not tourist season, so the church was locked!)

Five more minutes and we made it to Angla, the home of 5 traditional windmills.  They were sited on a “bump”.  There are no hills, and barely any bumps in Estonia, so this was not a direction you could navigate by.  First things, first though – it was now 2:30pm and I hadn’t eaten for at least 5 minutes.  The menu was short.  I went for the one I couldn’t pronounce – Seljanka, which turned out to be a tomato and meat based soup, served with rye bread.  The local lemonade was made with unspecified fruits from the forest.  Tasted lovely though.  The beer (that others had) was potent stuff at 7.6%!  For the price of €3.50, we got closer to the windmills and were able to walk inside.  The differences in styles were apparent – the newer Dutch style were sturdier and only the cone and sails on top turned, whereas with the older Estonian style, the whole windmill pivoted on a pole.

Our last stop of the day was to the Kaali Meteorite field.  Sometime in the distant past (3000 – 7000 years ago, depending on who you listen to), a huge meteor created a hill in Estonia.  Only 22 meters in height, it’s still the highest thing I’ve seen so far!  Underwhelming was one word.  Puddle would be another.  In context however, the impact this would have had on the local community is equivalent to the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  Grudgingly, slightly impressive.  Didn’t go looking for the smaller impact craters though.  Did find a strawberry white chocolate magnum in the shop!


We arrived at our hotel in Kuressaare, the island capital – home to 12,000 of the 31,000 people on the island.  The hotel co-owner, Jaan, will be our guide tomorrow and was very welcoming.  It’s more of a guest house than a hotel.  My room, with two single beds, overlooked the local stadium where a game of football was taking place.  Across the road was a “tennis hall”.  Not taking the hint.

After a quick freshen up, Steve, Becky and Lynsey walked into town passing the very impressive Bishop’s Castle with a huge moat.  We met up with Clive on the way.

Steve, Clive and myself found an outdoor seating area to eat, and the limping waitress showed her disapproval at the fact we made her walk a) into the cold and b) farthest from her warm spot behind the bar.  Food was good though – natural schnitzel for me.

Due to Clive’s limited walking ability, we took a taxi back to the hotel for a well deserved rest.  More walking tomorrow.  My phone’s health app thinks I’ve been abducted.