Tag Archives: flag

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 6 – In Kalaw : Walking, Animals, and 20 Ways to Die

17 Mar

Breakfast started the day as normal, but without a buffet selection.  We had waiter service for a change!  Papaya and watermelon to start, followed by pancake and honey, toast and jam and a choice of eggs.  As usual, I avoided the eggs.  And the watermelon.  And the coffee.

We set off on the bus for a planned 4 hour trek in the hills.  We passed many army trucks.  Perhaps they were keeping an eye on us?


We started the walk with an assistant guide who led us along a dirt track, constantly filled with motorbikes – most with at least 2 people on – and only one of them wearing a helmet (mostly the man!)  The fields were neatly laid out and farmers were tending their crops together with the help of some oxen (or horned cattle).

George explained that over 70 different types of bamboo are available – it’s strong and fast growing, making it ideal for all sorts of things e.g. houses, mats, fences etc…

Even out here, the golden stupas and monasteries were still evident. George introduced us to many of the plants and trees growing along the way, including teak – a much used hardwood that takes 50 years to grow, and a tree from which castor oil can be made.  A government project to plant lots of these and use them to produce electricity failed miserably.  Also worth noting was a blue plant locally called the “dog pee” plant.  No further explanation necessary.


We next came across a lady planting ginger into furrows.  The ginger was the size that we would generally buy it, but we were assured that it should grow up to 10 times larger in roughly 7-8 months.  The fields next door were overflowing with cabbages, as far as the eye could see.  An amazing sight!  We were led through narrow raised paths through the fields and up past more ginger planters.  The youngest kids sit in the shade whilst the parents work.


Roadside petrol station

Walking on, we stopped occasionally at shady spots.  Passing jackfruit, orange and pear trees, as well as a rudimentary petrol station selling whisky bottles full of petrol, we arrived at a hill top village  called Lu Pyi after 2 hours of walking.

The locals were very friendly, with lots of shouts of “Hello” or “Mingalaba” from the kids.  The local monastery was preparing for the initiation ceremony for novice monks.  These were 8 or 9 year old children from the village who would spend 7-10 days being initiated into the Buddhist faith, and then return to their homes.  It’s only a short novitiate, but all (male) children take part at some point.  Decorations were being hung and ceremonial plastic seat carriages were prepared for carrying them to the monastery.  The children dress up as princes, and the ceremony lasts two days.  On the second day, their hair is shaved.  The parents are involved, and their pride is immense, apparently.

We were shown into a local house, where young women were making Shan tea (of various strengths), and we were invited to drink, together with some home cooked crisps.  Excellent!  George had also brought some biscuits for us, as well as medicines (such as paracetamol) for the village which he gave to the monks.  Ethna and I had the opportunity to try on the local traditional Palaung costumes.  Not sure they had any in my size though.

Leaving the house, we found a bike mounted ice cream seller, and challenged my stomach with a green thing on a stick.  Much coolness!

Continuing the walk, downhill, we passed piles of rubbish – they don’t really have a solution to this anywhere in the country.  More cheerily, we saw a huge stupa being built. It was still at the bare brick stage, with a bit of scaffolding around.  A pack of dogs stood guard and the growls made us quickly move on.

Passing further crops of bananas, onions and watercress, we arrived at the main road, and our lunch venue.  As it was included in the tour, we didn’t get a choice – but what arrived was avocado, watercress, chicken soup, rice, fried tofu and various other unidentified vegetables.  It was actually very nice, but my meat senses were somewhat underwhelmed.  The watercress in particular was excellent.

A short drive back to the hotel and we had free time to explore Kalaw further.  Whilst some who had explored the previous day visited further out to a bamboo buddha, I stayed with a visit to the market, climbed the hill to the monastery for a view over the town and walked out to see the tudor style train station.

The small market was quite quiet, but after several attempts at asking, I managed to purchase a Myanmar flag, and to the surprise of the seller, got her picture as well.  Ethna had broken her sunglasses, so I also helped her find a shop that sold RayBans for 3000 kyats (£1.80) or Lacoste for 18,000 kyats (£10.70).  She went for the more expensive option!

The monastery had a shaded walkway up the hill, and a view over Kalaw.  On the way back down, I encountered some red ants eating their way through a larger beastie.  Also on show was a teenager with a flying drone, rather randomly he appear to be sleeping with it on his face.

Wandering to the far end of town to the train station, a train had just arrived, and I enjoy the atmosphere of the various passengers asking the stations seller for food, sending her rushing up and down the platform dishing out polystyrene containers.  The passengers ate as much as they wanted, and then dropped the containers so that the dogs could finish off the rest.  Meanwhile the diesel engine appeared to have been turned off, and despite the attention of 3 policemen, a railway engineer, a man with a flag, 3 others and a monk, the engine had not been restarted after 40 minutes.  The tudor aspect of the building was underwhelming, although there were separate toilets for tourists and a very nice poster about how to behave in Myanmar – including not sitting on pillows!

Walking back to the hotel, I spied several groups of boys / young men playing keepie uppie with a rattan ball.  One was playing a guitar (not at the same time!)  Generally there was a café culture apparent, and not just the tourists.  Luckily I found the Poe Poe bakery was right next to our hotel, and did a mean line in doughnuts and cakes.


That night, 10 of us headed back to the Everest Nepali restaurant, and I ordered exactly the same mutton curry (goat) but it somehow tasted different.  I think there was less garlic in the chapatti. Still one of the best restaurants on the trip so far though.  Finished it off with a banana and chocolate chapatti and a hot ginger, lime & honey drink.

Not satisfied, we headed to the smallest bar in the world – the “Hi Bar”.  Nelson, another patron, introduced himself in pretty good English, and commented that even though I was Scottish, my English wisnae bad either.  He worked at an elephant sanctuary to the south of Kalaw ($100 for a half day visit).  It was not the kind of place to ride elephants, or see them kicking footballs or drawing, but you were able to feed and wash them and see them in a more natural environment.  We were heading in the opposite direction, unfortunately.

The bar didn’t do beer, so rum sour was the order of the day.  The place could probably hold 20 people max, and by the time we left, there were 8 of us, 2 locals and the barman.  I think we might have caught something from the glasses!

Chamabasse (Your Good Health) …

Day 12 – Kaunas, Lithuania

5 Oct

Klaipeda hotel had a complicated lift system

Today started off easily.  Negotiated the lift to the lobby, and walked out of the hotel to get to breakfast.  This however proved just how cold it had become.  8°C today with a bitingly cold wind.  Met Tauno at breakfast and planted the seed that Steve was quite tired today (could have picked anyone).  So when we met for the bus, we had a day without any commentary.  I have to admit that I actually missed it.

Instead, Andreas drove us to Kaunas, the second biggest city of Lithuania, and former capital, in almost complete silence.  I got the backwards facing seat which made the whole thing feel a bit like a train journey.

Arriving in Kaunas, we drove straight to a hilltop viewpoint, overlooking the confluence of two rivers around which the city is based.  Their love of basketball was immediately apparent, as the symbol of a basketball was emblazoned on the river wall, next to “Lithuania”.  Apparently a lot of famous basketball players come from this town.  I’ll let you look them up yourself.

An early check in at the hotel allowed us to drop our bags.  The hotel is only for the one night.  I got the best room so far.  Steve got 5 rooms – a complete suite.  He’s already lost his own stuff in the rooms.  I’m having the same problem – too many surface to cope with.  Certainly a higher standard than we are used to with Explore. But, this hotel is only for the one night.

Tauno then led us through a brief city tour, taking in the ruins of Kaunas castle, St. George’s cathedral and seminary, the town hall (now the city museum), some wax smelters, St. Francis Cathedral (from the outside only), Perkunas House (an example of 15th century gothic brick architecture to the god of thunder), Ss. Peter & Paul’s cathedral, Freedom Avenue … and the shortest route back to the hotel.


York Cathedral in Scotland?

Notably, outside the Ss. Peter & Paul Basilica was a sign stating that York Cathedral was in Scotland.  I know that Scottish Independence is something that Yorkshire was interested in, but this may be news to them.

Each of the churches was unique – all had some ongoing restoration work to either the inside, the outside or both.  Plain exteriors hid incredible detailed decoration inside – the result of the restoration will be outstanding.

With our free time, the fab 5 headed further out of the old town to find a coffee shop in the new town.  The server wouldn’t sell me a bacon pizza as she didn’t have any bacon, but was happy to give me two slices of a bacon pizza.  I still don’t quite understand the issue.  Anyway, a coffee, doughnut and pizza came to an astonishing €3.00.  Eating local is definitely better on the wallet.


We passed a commemoration to Romas Kalanta who set himself on fire in Kaunas on 14th May 1972, aged 19, protesting against the Soviet regime.  No one seems to be really sure what he hoped to achieve.

Leaving the rest, I headed to the church of St. Michael the Archangel, which was surrounded by works laying paving on an industrial scale.  Eventually found the open side door (after walking around twice) and was rewarded with yet another surprising interior.  I’m not sure if it was the two sets of disco lights in the sanctuary or the artistically arranged Lithuanian flag hanging from the huge domed roof.  It used to be a Russian Orthodox cathedral, you know.

I then headed to one of two funicular railways, avoiding the 231 steps to the top of the hill.  Empty carriage and prompt timetable, and all for only €0.50.  Immediately in front of me at the top was a white concrete Church of Christ’s Resurrection.  Started in 1932 and finished in 2004, it was unlike any church I’ve ever seen.  Completely white inside and out, with long slender windows, it was like a huge warehouse or aircraft hangar space inside.  It’s 63m high.  (Presumably to the outside tower, which sticks up a bit beyond the roof.)  The main reason for visiting was the roof top observation terrace.  With the choice of paying to use the stairs or the lift, I raced to the top in the most inappropriate brand of elevator – Schindler’s Lift!


Schindler’s Lift

The observation deck provided the promised fantastic views of the city, although the high winds meant that it wasn’t overly pleasant to stay there for too long.  Certainly a tent had been erected on the roof and was now on its side – it wasn’t planning to stay there too long either.  On the roof of the church, was another church.  Weird.

Back down the funicular, for another €0.50, I then headed to the Devil’s museum which unexpectedly had free entry today.  This houses a huge collection of thousands of wooden devil statues.  It keeps growing as people who visit can also donate.  The signature piece is one of Hitler and Stalin dancing over the bones of Lithuania.


Hitler & Stalin fighting over the bones of Lithuania

Several exhibits explained the folklore around the devil, including such classics as “The Devil and Vodka” –

“Lucifer made alcohol from the she-goat’s urine.  God gave people a permission to drink only two goblets of alcohol, one to honour God and the second one to hail themselves, the third one thus being dedicated to the devil.  When a man drinks the third goblet his throat starts burning.  That is why vodka (degtine) in Lithuanian is called the thing that burns (degti).”


How to get rid of the devil –

“… by mentioning saints, with a rosary or a cross.  He is afraid of the rowan, the bird cherry, the chestnut, flax, holy water, baptism clothes, a sack with bread, an inverted seam and the number one.”

“The Devil and a Woman”

“A young woman was sleeping in the barn.  The devil invited her for a dance.  The girl started telling about the sufferings of flax – how it is sown, how it lies in the ground, how it germinates and grows, then how it is pulled, thrashed, combed, woven and so on.  She talked and talked until the rooster crowed and the devil ran away.”

That woman needs to get out more.

And lastly for the devil museum stories … on Shrove Tuesday, there is a fight between “Mr Bacon” and “Mr Hemp”.  Mr Hemp always wins.


Street Grafitti

On the way back to the hotel, the light rain had become a bit heavier, and I stopped off for some souvenir shopping.


The hotel facilities were then enjoyed – felt I had to, as it was such a nice place, before meeting up with the rest of the group (minus Welsh Clive) to visit a very posh restaurant where the delicious food was served at very reasonable prices in a brick medieval style cellar.

We have an extra 15 minutes tomorrow – not leaving until 9:15am.  Whatever will I do with the extra time?

Day 7 – Into Latvia – The Journey to Riga

30 Sep


The day started early, with loud bangs at 2am.  Sounded like joy riders, but could have been some shootings at the rodeo.  Nothing in the news, so assuming the former.

Joining the bus bang on time, 30 year old Tauno gave us his morning diatribe on subjects ranging from recycling (the Latvians cross the border to Estonia to claim €0.10 back on glass bottles) to cross border alcohol sales (mostly in the Latvian direction), hemp growing and currencies in all three states prior to the Euro.  Well, Estonia mostly.  He has had three currencies in his lifetime, including the Russian Ruble and the Estonian Kroon.  He did spot a rainbow though, so it wasn’t so bad.

We managed to sneak past the town of Otepää, the place where the Estonian flag was first invented, without any comment.  I had managed to find a reasonably price flag on a stick – otherwise they were asking for €45 for a flag in the supermarket.  Ridiculous.  Regretting not buying the large €15 flags on offer in Tallinn now.  Always buy something when you first see it!  It may not be repeated.

We reached the border town of Valga – divided evenly down the middle by the British so that the Estonians got everything worth mentioning, and the Latvians got a bus station.  On the Latvian side it’s called Valka.  I had asked Tauno to stop to post postcards on the Estonian side. He managed to pass at least three obvious post boxes (they are bright orange) before he found one within sight of the border.  I skipped out quickly.


We crossed the border into Latvia at speed, with no fanfare at all (found it easily just behind the supermarket, marked by a couple of posts).  The sun came out immediately.

Estonians and Latvians make fun of each other – apparently Latvians have 6 toes – perhaps because they like fishing?

As we travelled through more woodland and small villages, topics turned to Lativan politics, abortion, gay rights and civil partnerships – which haven’t got much weight behind them yet.  Tauno’s views seem a little conservative, although if it doesn’t affect him, he doesn’t care.  Also discussed peat mining, which seems quite popular in all of the Baltic states, and the environment impact of this.  And it’s not even lunchtime yet!  Some people tried to sleep.  Unfortunately we didn’t all succeed.


I also broke open the sauerkraut crisps.  Like dried cabbage flavour with extra cabbage.  Perfectly passable.  Especially in the town of Valmeira, where we stopped for a toilet break.  There seemed to be a rush to the men’s WC for some reason. Also home to a BMX track, mini golf and a bungee catapult.

Cēsis, was a prolonged stop – we first saw the city’s two black swans in the town fountain.  They seemed more interested in us, than we were in them! Next stop, self guided, was a tour of the Castle Complex.  Ominously we were given a candle lantern and told to climb the western tower.  Safety is not top of the Latvian tourist board’s agenda.  Neither are signs in English.  The need for the candle was immediately obvious – with narrow stone stairs had no lights, the pitiful candle was very atmospheric, but yet totally unilluminating.  Feeling our way through the castle maze, we somehow made it to the Masters Chamber. The top of the tower was a round pile of dirt with plenty windows from which to admire the view.  Managed to find a much wider wooden staircase down, and ended up in the medieval kitchen garden, with the lady attending to her very modern looking sandwich.


The southern tower was a climb down, rather than up – and a metal ladder descended into an abyss.  As it turned out, into the base of the tower.  All in pitch black.  The candle had gone out by then, so I resorted to the phone torch.  Future visitors should carefully weigh the excitement of descending into the blackness with the view from the bottom.  On the way out a light switch was found to be in the off position.  I spotted Becky and Lynsey trying on armour and a young man was encouraging them to get on a wooden horse, without success.  I also donned the armour plating, helmet and gloves and was given a banner to pose with on the “horse”.  Also randomly found a statue of Lenin lying in a box.  The tour of the “new castle” museum was disappointing in comparison – mostly because the exhibits were not in English, partly due to the slippy floors and the natty blue overshoes I had to wear.  But mostly because I think I’ve had enough of museums on this trip.

Skipping out past the gift shop, I found St Johns’s Church, which also had a tower to climb.  Following the electric wire, and using it alternatively as a hand rail and a trip hazard, I made my way to the 6th floor, containing two bells, 12 doors/windows and 3 Russians/Latvians.  The doors contained lethal fingertrapping catches, and the wire mesh beyond was an ideal camera spoiler.  However, the views of the castle were good.  The church itself was colourful, with stained glass, but also a restoration fund.  The lobby contained marrows, as all good churches do.

As Cēsis is the birthplace of the Latvian Flag – in 1916 – I tracked one down in the castle gift shop.  It’s huge, but a third the price of the Estonian flags – please take note Estonia!  The flag itself is red-white-red – said to derive from an ancient chief who was killed in battle and lain on a white sheet, his blood spilling on each side.


Chicken or pork?

Also found time to get down with the kids in the fast food shop for a burger and fries – thankfully the same in any language.  Burger was not beef.  It may have been chicken, but if Latvia is anything like Estonia, it was probably pork!

Back on the bus, I asked about Latvian independence.  The 1990s saw Latvians upset that the Russians wanted to build a subway under Riga – leading to thousands of Russian workers flooding in.  Similar to the Estonians being upset at the proposal to do phosphate mining (and leading to the Estonian Singing Revolution).  The Latvian People’s Front (not making this up!) grew into an independence movement.  During the second world war, the Nazis and the Soviets formed a secret pact on how to divide Europe.  Fifty years later, the Baltic Way / Baltic Chain consisted of people holding hands for 600km from Tallinn to Vilnius on 23rd August 1989. Latvia eventually gained independence in 1991, along with the other Baltic states.


Dried Rhubarb and Quince

Tauno didn’t disappoint – and more “degustations” were distributed – this time dried quince and then dried rhubarb.  Both really nice.  We managed to not be dropped off as we passed the alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre.


Arriving at the Turaida Estate with its stone castle (with a tower 38.25m high), we were admitted as part of the tour – the first time we hadn’t had to pay ourselves.  We walked up to Church Hill, which had a commemorative stone to the legend of the Rose of Turaida – a young lady of 19, caught in a love triangle who, rather than having her herself violated by the man she didn’t love, told of a special scarf that was supposed to protect her from anything.  Her other man took his sword and tried to cut the scarf whilst she was still wearing it and killed her.  Nae luck!

Turaida also had a church on church hill and a gardener’s house, both with exhibits inside.  Further on there was a hill of dainas, containing statues based on 4 line folk songs, of which there are thousands.  We moved on to the mostly ruined castle and had the chance to climb yet another tower.

This one had spectacular views of the surrounding valley, and the autumn foliage set it off fantastically.  The museum exhibitions in the castle were watched over by the beady eyes of green smock wearing women with a tendency to look bored.  Thankfully there was archery.  Supposedly for the kids.  5 shots for €2.  I hit the target at least on all counts.  He gave me a 6th arrow as I was heading for gold, and got there with it – just.  On the line counts.

We stopped in the Gauja National Park and had a brief walk to Gutman’s cave, where the Rose of Turaida was killed.  It’s the biggest cave in the Baltics and covered in engravings carved into the soft sandstone.  The earliest remaining is from 1667.  The names are of landowners, noblemen and estate managers.  Some early 20th century names have erased the old ones, but the cave is now protected, to hopefully stop any more from disappearing.  The cave also has spring water running through.  I tried a sample.  If there are no more blogs you’ll know why.

We moved a short distant to another car park.  Sigulda Castle thankfully didn’t have a tower, but was guarded by some artistic stone and metal “knights”.  The new version of the castle was the local council HQ, the old castle was a bit further away.  Tauno distracted us with some more “degustations” … this time from Latvia – semolina flavoured with cranberries, some nut shaped things that didn’t contain nuts and Riga Black Balsam, another spirit – this one flavoured with blackcurrant, but tasting like cough medicine.  Not one for taking home.

Sigulda itself had a bobsleigh track!  Touristy and sporty town.  National sport of Latvia is ice hockey, but they are not very good at it.

With most people quite tired, we arrived at our hotel in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and were offered a group meal at a fancy restaurant, 30 minutes walk from our hotel in the old town.  Only 4 turned up and we arrived at the restaurant after narrowly avoiding the large drunk staggering slowly towards me at traffic lights.  The restaurant itself was very busy and only men seemed to frequent it.  The Swedes at a neighbouring table occasionally burst into song, standing up as they did, and causing quite a commotion.  Am I sounding too English there?  The meal itself however was very nice, if a touch on the expensive side.


Nice but slow.

We staggered back to the hotel, tired and confused at being in such a large city, but anticipating the tour the following day.

Day 2 – Around Tallinn, Estonia

25 Sep

The time difference kicked in badly today (only 2 hours I know), but I still made it to breakfast with plenty time to try the cereal, sausage, ubiquitous chicken sausage, square scrambled eggs, toast and jam.  Also tried a bit of the “typical” Estonian porridge.  Don’t want to start a salt v sugar debate here, but some white stuff was added, and it was good.  Memories of “buckwheat” have been beaten.

The group, including the 3 others – Clive from Neith, Wales and Lynsey and Becky (UK, somewhere), joined us for a morning tour of Tallinn.  Tauno led us up some stairs to several viewing balconies in the Old Town.  Tallinn’s old town is split into the Upper and Lower areas.  The Upper Town consists of the parliament building, the Russian Orthodox cathedral and several others buildings which are in private ownership and therefore at varying levels of maintenance.  We were offered some cinnamon coated almonds – very nice!


A view of the lower town, from the upper town

The sun was almost out, and I was squinting without sunglasses – mental note to remember tomorrow.

We visited Tall Herman’s tower – whomsoever flies their flag here, rules Estonia.  Apparently old people phone the police, if the flag isn’t raised daily, to ask if they’ve been invaded again.  The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is interesting, as Estonia is officially not religious, and especially not Russian.  The fact that it sits opposite the parliament building is a twist of history.  We went in and witnessed an Orthodox service in progress. Fantastically colourful sight.  Very musical, with no instruments.  Apparently they last a while, so we didn’t hang around.  Surprisingly, there was a gift shop.


We also saw the only road into the upper town – the only one that “cars or tanks” can drive up.  An indication of its past.  One huge boulder remains of those used to stop the Soviets from driving their tanks up.


Moving through the city walls and into the lower town, we passed many churches (they are Lutheran here, but Baptists and others were also represented).  Some churches are now museums.  The city walls originally consisted of 40 towers, a lot of which still stand.  The various remaining sections of the walls now host a selection of restaurants and bars, offering great views.  Some people also built houses attached to the wall – cheaper, as they had one less wall to build!

Many stories have been passed down the ages, including how the Danish flag was invented here – it fell to earth and the Danes caught it before the Estonians could.  There are also many ghost stories to be told – and faceless monk statues feature heavily.


Moving through large groups of other tourists we hit the painted marzipan shop, with a woman hard at work.  The selection was wide and varied, and nothing like previous attempts from my work colleagues.  I may have sampled a few.  The paint doesn’t change the flavour.  Very nice, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a lot of Estonian almond trees so far.  Also on dispay was an 80 year old marzipan doll – apparently still(!) edible.

Other highlights included the Great Guild Hall, Catherine’s Passage, the oldest Pharmacy in the world (before Colombus discovered America!), the house of the Brotherhood of Black Heads (sounds as racist as it probably was), the former KBG HQ, where they spied on Finland, Fat Margaret’s tower (named after the Queen of Denmark) and a former phone box that is now the smallest Russian Orthodox church, ever.

Tauno managed to keep my interest for most of it, but some of the group were flagging after 3.5 hours.  We went our separate ways and Yok Leng, Steve, Ruth and I headed to KUMU – the contemporary art museum, a tram ride away.  At the tram stop, we listened to music in the local park and watched a man entertaining children (and us) with huge soap bubbles.

The tram was modern and every 10 minutes.  We walked through the Kadriorg park to the KUMU Art Museum.  First on the priority list was lunch.  My general approach has always been to try something I don’t recognise, and this time I came up trumps with a Sea Buckthorn smoothie – very nice.  Also washed down with lamb dumplings and a cheesecake.  The diet is well out of the window.

Following that, we start at the top of the museum and worked our way down.  The top floor was mostly of the white space type.  I felt like asking if that beam in the corner was art, or left over from a ballet class.  I didn’t.  The other floors were more typical, if somewhat baffling.  I think I just don’t get art.  I’ll leave you to judge for yourself …

Catching a slightly older tram back to town, we lost Yok Leng, but 3 of us continued to the Museum of the Occupation (1940 – 1991).  Smaller than I had expected, it had some good information about the Katyn massacre.  Basically, the Soviets killed lots of the Polish army during the second world war, and blamed Germany.  They only admitted it in 1991.  Some harrowing stories of executions.

Estonia became independent in 1918, and has been occupied twice since then.  For most of it.

Leaving the others I headed off to the Kiek in de Kok tower.  Literally translated as “peep in the kitchen”, it allowed medieval people to spy on the kitchens of their neighbours and their enemies.  Climbed all the stairs to discover it had a roof on it.  There were large windows on the top floor cafe, but not the best views.  So, it was off to St. Olav’s Church to climb the highest steeple in Estonia.  Detoured past the town hall square which was hosting a celebration of ethnic minorities, complete with stalls selling handicrafts and a huge stage with one old woman singing.  I portray that badly.

The Tower of St. Olav’s was reasonably priced at only €2 for all 258 steps.  Unfortunately, they didn’t include passing places on the narrow polished stones stairs. I’d say “spiral”, but I don’t want to start that off …

The top was 4 planks wide and sandwiched between the actual copper roof and a barrier with lots of holes.  Arrows directed people in one direction, but no signs controlled the speed.  Or overtaking. Fantastic views though, and the sun lit up the upper town.  The first time I was truly able to appreciate the height difference. (Estonia is very flat – the highest point is 317m above sea level).  No building in Tallinn is allowed to be higher than the steeple of St. Olav’s.

Back at the hotel, Ruth, Karen, Steve and I met for dinner.  Elk was hopefully in, but the restaurant was fully booked.  Vegetarian had to be an option.  We ended up as the only people in Scheeli.  Very nice food, with a lot of good extras – bread and even the goat’s cheese.  Pear cider (Estonian obviously), washed down my duck.

One before bed in the hotel bar was Vana Tallinn Cream – a Baileys equivalent, but Estonian obviously.

I have a feeling I’ve only just touched the surface of Estonia.  Tomorrow will be a long drive and ferry to Estonia’s biggest island.  Time for some sleep.  Your comments are welcomed.


Day 1 – An introduction to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

7 May

Arriving early in the morning, meant that breakfast lasting until 11am was a great idea. I made it for 10:40am after a few hours sleep that were only interrupted by housekeeping trying to make up the room. Barely used it deary.

The restaurant wasn’t exactly crowded. In fact I was the only one in the ornate,  heavily decorated hexagonal room. Eggs, bread, mini pizzas (which would have been OK at 7am) and some meat in the the shape of small balls. Decent enough.  Wide selection of yogurts, cereal and cold meats and cheese.  Peach or pomegranate juice.

Read up on Ashgabat from the only travel guide I could find. Studied the map intently. Couldn’t quite open eyes fully yet though. Braved the outside. Surprisingly OK temperature,  but it was early. Warnings of 40 degrees later.

Surrendered my passport to the authorities for some box ticking.

Chatted with Carolyn who didn’t seem to have had much sleep.  In a past life she looked after children and farmers. The other two couples on the trip are apparently farmers, so they may need to watch out.

Max showed us to the local corner shop and we had a browse. Lots of sweets on offer despite a warning in the tour guide that there wouldn’t be.

Also browsed the local hotel shop which was offering camel hair scarves (70%) for £15. No problem finding fridge magnets either.

Agreed to meet later to have a walk into town and food together. But before that I managed to indulge in a siesta.

The hotel is right next to the circus – not a big top, but a huge round building.  Wandered around the outside in my shorts with white legs proudly on display.  Got a few stares from the few locals that were out. It’s like a ghost town. Does anyone actually live here?

Joined Max and Carolyn and walked slowly into town trying to stick to the shady spots where possible. It wasn’t always possible and I think the temperature was touching 38°C by this point. I am developing a pinkish glow.

We arrived in a park with fountains and statues of men in strange hats.  The live women also wear strange head gear.  Lots of junior jehovahs witnesses walking home from school.  It may be a Muslim country but figure hugging green dresses seem to be de rigour for all the young woman.  As Max delightfully pointed out, the only other people wearing shorts were 13 year old girls.

In the centre, the streets were earily quiet. Four lane highways have the odd car only.  Preppie would have been so easy. (You need to be a certain age to understand that one.)

We headed to the Russian Market where I asked Max if it would be OK to take photos.  No sooner had he said yes, and I did, than a rather stern looking man supervised the deletion of the aforementioned photo from my camera. Oh well, the photo count may be less than normal.

On leaving the market I asked one of the 4 souvenir stalls if they had a flag.  Two minutes later he was back with a flag at the agreed price. He did refuse a photo with him though. Change was in fridge magnets.  An unexpected currency.

We walked a bit more, being careful to avoid showing cameras to any uniformed person. In particular, photos of the multi golden domes of the presidential palace were strictly out of bounds.  I did chance my arm by asking a policeman if I could take a photo of an as yet unidentified monument in the middle of the road with horses on the top.  He said yes! Wow.

Max led us to an outdoor cafe with music blaring – karaoke style. Efficent waitresses showed us to seats underneath a mulberry tree. A cat prowled the ground. Misters doused water at regular intervals over everyone and their food.

We browsed the menu whilst the kitchen set themselves on fire.  Smoke billowed everywhere.

I ended up going for a traditional Turkmenistan meal – Kakmach, which was very nice pieces of beef with onions, soft and raw, in oil. Tasted better than it sounds. Max introduced us to some dip for the bread. As the food was served, the mulberry tree started to shed. Hundreds of tiny balls of sticky green went everywhere.  Into the salad, beer, rice and dip. As it continued, other tables asked for umbrellas to stick in the plastic tables. Our table had no hole.

As we had just about contained the damage, the rain started. The other diners rushed under cover leaving us as the only table to take the brunt of the brief storm.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Despite also suffering chip envy from one of the neighbouring tables.

Trying to catch a taxi back proved a little harder than the guide book would suggest.  Official yellow cabs drove on by with their light on. Eventually a random car stopped and took us back to the hotel.  3 people, 5 minutes – £1.20 (TM$6). That’s the official local price – no tourist surcharge.

Although Max was off to the airport in the early hours to pick up the rest of the group, I persuaded Carolyn that a Turkmen vodka to finish the night was a good idea.  A random woman at the bar suggested shots followed by apple juice. The waitress delivered these to the table not quite believing that they were for Carolyn and I.

Kharasho. Spasiba.

Day 15 – Urubama River & Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town)

8 Apr

Started this morning with a white water rafting trip down the Amazon. Well okay, the main tributary to the Amazon – the Urubama river.

Started off with squeezing one more person in the van than there was seats, which by Peruvian standards meant it was almost empty.

Arriving at the river, the boat was pumped up by hand as the seven of us donned very fetching wetsuits and buoyancy aids. Slightly more concerning was the main train line between us and the river, and the fact that the local kids seemed quite interested in getting in on the action.

Yvonne (my designated swim coach) admitted just as we were about to get in the boat that her lifesaving qualification was only for indoor swimming pools, but happily reassured me with the upside down first aid kit that she was carrying. I’m sure elastoplast is useful when drowning.

The rafting itself started off gently and progressed to three or four different set of rapids. Twice the guide and accompanying kayaker pulled us into the side so they could go off for a cup of coffee – I mean rekkie – to make sure of the safe route down the river. Slightly disconcerting! Apparently we were the first this year to make it down the river, due to the water levels being appropriate.

Anne’s (dry) shoes had missed the bus to the other end, so the guide stuck them down his life jacket and them gave them to one of his friends on the first rekkie.

This was fortunate as Anne soon took a tumble into the water on one of the more entertaining parts of the water ride.  Sitting behind her, I saw her go over the side, still holding on to the raft and her paddle. I saw her go completely under, looking shocked. Still my only thought was “thankfully that’s not me”. Eventually Paul sprung into action and grabbed an armpit. I tried to help where possible but someone had to keep the laughter going and I was Des. She apparently gave herself a black eye at the time and ended up in a heap at the bottom of the raft before recovering and continuing.

After this much excitement we finished up and were treated to a nice lunch on a table nicked from the house we stopped at.

We continued on to Ollantaytambo, a nice Inca village rebuilt by the Spaniards. Spent most of the time people and dog watching in the square, but did manage a large takeaway cake for my second lunch. The others who had not been rafting joined us here, having not had any lunch at all. Shame.

We walked down to the train station carrying our overnight bags and boarded the train where lunch number three was served. Tried the local Inca Cola, which was bubblegum flavour. Coke has no worries there. It rained.

Arriving at Machu Picchu town, we were frog marched through the obligatory handicraft market with strict instructions not to look and head straight to the hotel – Gringo Bill’s just off the main square.

Had time to settle in and wash the Urubama out of my hair before setting off on a flag hunt. Not too long later and one was purchased, much to the hilarity of the shop owner when I asked for her photo with it.

The day finished off with a group three course meal – speaking mostly to Bob again. Must remember that when given chillies to add to french onion soup, not to.

Early start tomorrow to get to Machu Picchu proper.