Tag Archives: flag

Day 7 – Chisinau, Moldova

21 Sep

The breakfast buffet – apparently a “Swedish buffet” consisted of … nothing much. No porridge or orange juice, so had to settle for toast only.  And some dry biscuits.  The only saving grace was that the morning walking tour didn’t start until 9am.

So Chisinau is actually pronounced “Kish-i-now”.  And I managed to get it wrong every time!  Our local guide, Veronica, managed to whisk us past the UN delegation, the parliament building (with a very fetching hedge in the shape of the word “Moldova”).  She related that the building and the president’s high-rise office building and living area had been set on fire in the 1990s – no one quite knew who did it – the protestors, or the government – but each blame the other.  As a result the president now works in the agriculture office, presumably sleeping with the potatoes.

We walked down the main street, named after Stefan the Great, a local hero that features on everything.  The opera house was advertising tickets at €7-€10 (one month only) as the (rather good) opera company spends most of it’s time touring the world to make up the difference.

After several before and after pictures (not quite sure what happened in between) – we arrived at the best park in Chisinau.  After tripping over the broken stone steps, staring at the concrete flowers and wondering where all the grass had gone, it did improve slightly at the announcement of free wifi and charging points behind the park benches.

Numerous busts lined the park, with the most noteworthy being to Mihai Eminescu (1850 – 1889).  The artist had managed to include himself in profile from the back, and was therefore taken out and shot because of it.  I jest.  They probably just fed him breakfast from the Hotel Dacia instead.

The Russian poet Pushkin was exiled here, and his bust was also prominent in the park.  However, the biggest statue was to Stefan the Great (1457 – 1504).  It took pride of place at the main entrance and anyone getting married leaves flowers at his feet.  In Soviet times, they moved the statue back a few feet and put a fence around it, to try to persuade the population to take their photos at the statue of Lenin, a short distance away (no longer there). It didn’t work.

Next stop was the cathedral park, featuring the cathedral, a separate bell tower and the Triumphal Arch aka the Holy Gates.  We visited inside the cathedral on the International Day of Peace, where a service was in progress.  Young children were downing shot glasses, presumably of vodka, which the adults were feeding them together with sweets at the back of the church.  The headscarved wearing worshippers were joined by the mostly silent tourist snappers.  Heading out, we passed some local girls in national costume escorting some generals and other security folk into the service.   The Triumphal Arch sported a large flag in the place of the original bell donated by Tsar Nicholas.  They only built this as the bell tower wasn’t big enough for his donation.  The plaques on the wall were written in two languages – Russian and “Moldovan” – an invented language consisting of the actual Romanian language that they use, but written in Cyrillic script.  31st August 1989 was the date they changed back to the Latin alphabet, and it’s celebrated with a whole street named after it.  Must be confusing for the postal service.

After some more then and now photos, we arrived at the main post office, with the zero-marker emblazoned on the pavement outside.  This was the point that all distances are measured from – which in turn was originally the means of working out the postal costs.  We walked swiftly past the pensioner on the pavement – not sure if it was a mafia or a block paving issue.  The souvenir shop was pointed out, but the street sellers had everything we needed – flags and fridge magnets!

We walked for what seemed like miles until we reached the Military Museum.  The first hall was filled with flags, murals, the family tree of Stefan the Great and a couple of old swords which filled me with dread.  However, it was worth persevering as the history of Moldovan conflicts was laid out in several more.  Including some distressing scenes and videos of genocide and individual hangings during the Soviet era. Moldovan borders as they currently stand, are not the same as the Principality of Moldova, which is currently mostly in Romania.  The current Moldova contains a lot of the former Basarabian territory.  It seems to be an artificially created country that should really be part of Romania and has been tossed around in every century from one empire to the other.  The Ottomans (Turks), the Russians and the Germans have all played their part here most recently.  The Soviets are particularly to blame for the mass deportations by train to Siberia of those that they didn’t like, and their families.  11,000 children were sent to Siberia (as part of families).

One part of the museum had a glass floor panel which showed the exciting view of a horse hoof on the floor below.  It was also a reproduction of a Soviet interrogation cell.  Bypassing a collection of Lenin’s 56 volumes of teachings (almost as big as this blog), we reached the fresh air and a collection of recent military equipment i.e. tanks, rocket launchers and  machine guns.

Moving on as a group, we were abandoned by our tour guide at the entrance to the (mostly) covered market.  It felt like an episode of Father Ted, as we navigated the lingerie section, and then moved on to the potatoes.  The rest of the group had to help me out with identifying the vegetables.  Apparently, they were the greens things.  One seller was keen to let me taste one that confused the rest of them.  Horseradish.  Shouldn’t have.  Ruth however, managed to be given the largest carrot in the world.  She put it gratefully in her handbag and moved on.

Safely finding the other side of the market, we then accidentally passed the chocolate and sweet shop.  Two benefits here – the other being that it was nicely air conditioned.  The only venue in this entire country where the air con actually works.

After some flag and fridge magnet buying, we ended up, purely accidentally, at the bakery extension of the art museum.  The choice of seating was either “sanity” or “insanity”.  We chose the former, which was well positioned to order both savoury and sweet.  In quantity.

Staggering out, we perused the entrance to the National Museum of History, before interrupting the cash desk wifie from her break, trying to take a photo of the “no guns” sign and being shouted at “No Photo, NO PHOTO!”  We retreated to the safety of the railing – as she stood guard on the steps – and took a photo of her!

The fab 3, plus Dave and Seamus, took in the sights of the slightly busier central park that was now filled with loud children, beggars and the unemployed.  Also a man charging his powerchair with the free electricity.  We made use of the free WiFi to find photos of the place Seamus volunteers with in Argentina.  The fountain was now flowing and as the wind picked up, it caused small rainbows.  We settled on a park bench to avoid the Segway riders zooming around.  But the call of the ice cream was too strong, and we tried to satisfy our need at the recommended booth – only to be met with the shutters coming down.  Having to settle for the pre-packaged version instead, we headed back to the hotel, only to find another franchisee of the ice cream chain that was indeed open.  Two ice creams in 10 minutes set me up nicely for the evening activities.

Following a quick shower in the hotel, 16 of us met for a trip to Orheiul Vechi.  One didn’t like cheese.  We were driven north in our new, huge orange/yellow bus to the impressive Orheiul Valley, unlike any other scenery I’ve seen before.  A large horseshoe shaped limestone ridge hosted golden domed churches with caves below.  We stopped at a viewpoint over the village of Trebujeni where we would be eating later.  Driving on, we arrived at the car park to the tourist section, and walked 900m, slightly uphill, to a small, but impressive monastery cut into the rock.  11 individual sleeping cells had been hand carved by the monks – and the one remaining monk still uses these occasionally today, when he is in need of being particularly apologetic to God. It’s a pity that the monks all appear to have been 4 foot tall.  Shells were everywhere in the rock, showing that he water level used to be far higher than present.  Whilst Seamus crashed into the exit door, the roof being too low even for him, the rest of us managed to find a small ledge of rock with spectacular panoramic views and no safety rail.  Retreating to the rock cut church, the monk interrupted his meditation long enough to appear at the cash desk for souvenirs.  These Orthodox folk must have been taking lessons from us Catholics.

Leaving the icons, gold and smell of incense behind, we climbed to the top to find a celtic style stone cross and another panorama.  Ignoring the tour guide, we headed along the ridge to a church on top of the rock.  I think they have 24 hour services in all Orthodox churches, as there has not been one yet that is not in full flow.  Unfortunately, he’d forgotten to invite anyone else in.

Descending through the nearby blue painted village, the locals were welcoming and I enjoyed a little jig with a fellow fat man.  Some wonderful gates and piles of wood ready for burning added to the dust laden, Lada driving, cow whipping, water welling, sidecar riding experience.

The bus drove us to Casa Verde in nearby Trebujeni, where we received a traditional Moldovan welcome by a group of young girls with bread, salt, wine and a TV camera crew. The family meal consisted of plates of vegetables, stuffed with sheep cheese – including one that was nicknamed the “Mother-In-Law” because of its bite.  This was followed by chicken, noodle and vegetable soup.  The chicken being served separately for the benefit of the vegetarian amongst us.  Actually, this was (genuinely) to make it look like there were more courses than there actually were.  Still plenty, thanks.  Following this, the polenta was cut with a thread and served with beef and scrambled egg.  By this point the homemade Moldovan wine had been flowing for a while and by the time the young girls returned with a dancing demonstration started, the foot tapping was going apace.  After the fourth song with the same dance moves, we’d just about got it – left foot tap, right foot tap, repeat.  Don’t forget to fold your arms.  As we thought of escaping, the girls asked us up to dance, and a Gay Gordon type arms-length dance ensued.  Unfortunately, this then developed into a circle dance where you had to choose the person least likely to take offence, as you took them into the middle of the circle, knelt and pecked them on both cheeks.  Richard was the last to have this pleasure and managed to escape the same fate as Gary Glitter only because the music stopped.

Retaking our seats, some Northern Irish jocularity resulted in a slight red wine spillage on my most precious F&F top.  Suggestions of how to deal with this included rubbing bread, parsley or horse manure onto the affected area.  The latter was not tried, and the bread resulted in more of a grating motion. Luckily the groinal drip was not tackled in public. Returning to the hotel, some proper soap and hot water was applied.

Back at the hotel, the cheese hater was not in sight and a slightly worried group slipped a note under the tour leader’s door (she was out partying with the local guide).

So tomorrow morning will provide answers to the burning questions of the day …

  1. Will the stain be gone AND the t-shirt dry?
  2. Will we ever find Mike?
  3. Will we manage to fill our water bottles in the hotel reception without being shouted at?
  4. Will we manage to spend our remaining thousands of Moldovan Leu
  5. Will the bus have an appropriate air filter, and decent ambient temperature?

Tune in tomorrow for the answers …


Day 6 – Basarabia (Ukraine), Transnistria & Moldova

20 Sep

Today the group began to show some signs of the long journey.  Breakfast was hurried and brief for me, to avoid any possibility of unwanted repercussions.  Thankfully, we were to continue our tour of Eastern European gas stations throughout the day.  Each of them normally containing a manky dog, cute cat and occasional puppy.

We left Odessa behind and headed south to the point that the Black Sea meets the Dneister River – this is a long split of land with a small gap in the middle for navigation, and we waited in line with the rest of the traffic, marvelling at the salt water meeting the fresh water in the Dneister estuary / basin.

By the middle of the morning, we had arrive in the South Basarabian area containing the Belgorod-Dneister fortress aka Akkerman Fortress. Our very enthusiastic young guide, showed the various parts of the fortress at speed – including the civil yard,  garrison yard, citadel, maiden tower and harem tower.  We then had time to dander into the Commandants Tower – where a sign told dogs it was a no pooping area.  A bit high up for them to read, me thinks.  We also managed the dungeon tower, with a lack of appropriate lighting, and then I paid double to visit the arsenal, which contained stock a hangman’s noose and a guillotine. Two of the three of these were tried.  I drew the line at the guillotine. After a quick scamper along some of the 2.5km of walls, which involved climbing the fence they’d only put at one end, we rejoined the group, whilst avoiding the celtic souvenirs.  Not having had the time to sample the archery, unfortunately.

Back on the bus we moved onwards toward Moldova, and stopped at a petrol station for the toilets.  I approached an oddly positioned (empty) dog kennel which was next to some emergency axe equipment.  Although the kennel was empty, the largest Carpathian hound, bounded from its hiding place in the shade behind and, whilst I was considering whether to cry or run, ran out of chain a few feet from me. Thankfully one of the group had some spare ginger biscuits (another story entirely) and we discovered that this puppy was very partial to a ginger nut.  Seamus on the other hand was being persuaded not to buy anti-freeze instead of water.

We joined the queue to leave Ukraine and then crossed into no-mans land and queued again to get into Moldova.  The whole process took 75 minutes, including allowing us to change money at the border post.

Travelling on, we met our Moldovan guide at a small restaurant for a (very) late lunch where the options presented were only the ones that could be made in the next 5 minutes i.e. mostly soup.  We still took over an hour to depart here, and were then given a bit of background on the various historical regions of Romania, Moldova and Transnistria.  Our guide passed around Transnistrian money – both notes and plastic “coins” – 1, 3, 5 and 10 rubles, each a different plastic coloured shape – possibly very practical, but highly childish.  It’s just as well that this money is accepted nowhere else.

As it turns out, Transnistria is not just sandwiched between the Dneister river and Ukraine – it also includes the town of Bender (pop. 90,000).  Once again, we queued to get in.  As it is officially an autonomous regions of Moldova, the Moldovan border guide didn’t bat an eyelid.  The stern Soviet era uniforms of the Transnistrian side however meant business.  We were eventually issued with a piece of paper with our names written in Cyrillic, which we had to keep, rather than having our passports stamped, as this could have caused issues when leaving Moldova.

As we crossed the bridge in Bender, the nationalistic painted colours of both the Russian and Transnistrian nations was on show.  Both flags flying prominently, and the “neutral” UNpeacekeepers – from Russia – were particularly camera shy inside their tank.

As we entered the capital Tiraspol (pop 160,000 and shrinking), it was apparent that Transnistria is sponsored by a company called Sheriff.  The first president’s son did not apportion all the state’s money to this company, but it now appears to own everything – from the supermarkets, the petrol stations, the sports stadium and nearly all the new housing.  I think they also paid for the trolley bus lines.

We walked through the main street – past the Supreme Soviet (parliament) building aka “the Mafia”, a rather large monument to those that died in the 1990-1992 struggle against Moldova for independence, an eternal flame, a tank, a skatepark, a beach, a school, two police officers stopping vehicles randomly for no reason, a donkey, the main square, a cinema, a time capsule (2064, if you want to come to the opening), an ATM that only takes local cards and the main court house.

I can now see why the border post only granted an 8 hour stay – we were out again in under 2 hours.  But not before I sought out a flag seller, and the odd fridge magnet.  We were pointed at the souvenir shops by the guide and the currency exchange.  I first found the shop, the flag and the fridge magnet, but she was unable to accept Moldovan Leu so , in the 15 minutes allotted, I had to rush across the road to change money, throw some notes at the teller, and rush back to the goth saleswoman, who looked a little upset when I asked for her photo – with the flag of course!

Exiting Transnistria proved much easier – taking only 10 minutes – and even eliciting a smile from the senior border officer who boarded our bus to check for stowaways.

In case you are unaware of the situation, it’s very similar to that in the east of Ukraine – they didn’t want to cease being Soviet in 1992 when the USSR ceased to exist, so they continued. The result is isolation, poverty, a declining population, money of no value elsewhere and no prospects for improvement.  The Moldovans want the situation resolved, as they want to join the EU and can’t until it is.  The Transnistrians fear that Moldova wants to reunite with Romania, and the Russians don’t really care, but like having an ally so close to Europe.  The people of Transnistria could have up to 5 passports – Transnistria (which gets them nowhere), Moldova, Ukraine, Romania (if their grandparents lived there between WWI and WWII) and Russia.

Overall impressions of Transnistria – not as “Soviet-era” as we might have thought – at least not in the main street.  By this, I mean it was clean, modern-ish and there were plenty young kids about.  The back streets we glimpsed on the way out was perhaps not so glamorous, and full of the dilapidated buildings and older women that I had been expecting.

As we steamed towards the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (pronounce “Shizz-now”), the lights of the oncoming cars streaming into my eyes, I felt the need for a small nap, but resisted long enough to remain refreshed as we arrived at the Hotel Dacia – a four star establishment that obviously added an extra few stars once the inspectors had left.  The rooms all had a lobby, a shower area with a large step into the rest of the bathroom, small door and no light to see by.  Mine also featured a showerhead that managed to spray everywhere except the direction it was pointed.  The air conditioning was broken (in the whole hotel) and the sauna advertised in the brochure appeared to be in my room.

Luckily we ran to the nearest restaurant, having not paid any attention to the recommendation of our guide, and ended up in a youth centred pub – anyone over 25 was a bit out of place.  However, the burgers and chips were great, the best Moldovan we’d ever had!  And all for £4 – not the £16 I had initially thought.  Having 5 currencies in my wallet, and the lateness of the hour has led to a little confusion.

A little light banter with the some of the others who had chosen to stay in the hotel restaurant followed, before I braved the room, opened the window, and hoped that the busy day tomorrow would come slowly …

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.