Tag Archives: steps

Day 3 – Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Buddhas & Steps

20 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

A great end to a great day!


Day 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.

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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 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 12 – Rudkhan Castle & the Caspian Sea

18 May

A rather hot night in an enclosed box of a guesthouse resulted in a rather broken sleep and the constant need to drink water during the night.

Managed a quick shower before breakfast and felt much better for it.  Fried eggs, coffee, tea and fresh decent bread with honey was a good start.  Carolyn had leftover kebab in her room. The locals in the tea house were a fine assortment of the best builders money shouldn’t buy. Certainly seeing them later pushing their wheelbarrows at a snail’s pace didn’t make me think they’d finish before the next earthquake or mud slide. Or hell freezing over.


We stopped at the roadside as some tea pickers were hard at work.  By that I mean lounging in the shade under a tree. The farmers were hard at work on the questions and the photos.

Thankfully, we stopped off at Fouman again on the way through for cinnamon buns and the baker was most insistent that we saw the whole process. Three generations working together in a small bakery. I have his business card.  Hope they do international deliveries.

We arrived shortly after at Rudkhan Castle which had 1000 steps to reach it. Actually 972 by my count but you get the idea.  The ascent was mostly through a cool woodland, although the effort in the humid atmosphere brought out the sweat in us all. This was the western most castle of the Assassins and by far the most impressive now.  2000 people lived in or around it, and the steps up were lined by almost as many stalls selling much needed refreshments.  The man at the very top was thankfully sellng ice lollies in tubs.  Most appreciated. The signs on the way up do not say “only 5 minutes to go” in Farsi (Persian).


As we entered the ruined castle the heavens opened and a thunderstorm engulfed us.  Everyone huddled into the nearest nook or crannie that they could find.  I ended up sharing with a young Iranian lady who wanted to share her apple with me.

In the gaps between the rain and the lightning, we scampered higher on the now slippery steps, made for giants.

The weather passed. The dampness now thankfully hid the sweat. A low mist hung in the air causing the photographers to be upset that they couldn’t see the castle again.  This soon passed as well and sunshine prevailed.

Reaching all corners of the castle proved quite difficult, but we all managed an underground water cistern and the highest point with some stunning views.  I noticed smoke in one of the buildings and discovered a caretaker living there, with a blazing fire going and a bed and mat laid out. He apparently lives there for 3 months of the year.

The route back proved more difficult with smooth concrete and polished pebbles not quite dry from the rain. George joined the fallers club, but it was a close shave for many others.

Passed some ungrateful kids getting a ride on their dad’s back uphill and still complaining about it.  Same problems everywhere!

The most interesting people observation was the number of dress shirts that were still being worn – most now dripping with sweat. Some had rolled up their trouser legs a little, but absolutely no one was wearing shorts. I for one would like to instigate the Iranian campaign to at least allow foreigners to wear shorts.  Woman were also a little more lax with their headscarves at times. Especially the younger generation.

As usual, many of the locals or Iranian tourists wanted to speak, when they or we weren’t out of breath. Some had more English than others, but all persevered!

Once we had all assembled at the bottom, and attempted to dry off, we headed to one of the many restaurants there for some more osh – noodle soup.  It was a tableless affair which meant that we had to put our aching muscles into positions that Europeans aren’t designed for.

Back on the road and I finally manage to persuade the bus to stop at a post box for the only 4 postcards that I had managed to source. Sorry folks, family first.

Several speed bumps on the main road meant that we weren’t able to catch up with much needed sleep on the way to our hotel. Regular stops at the roadside traffic police also didn’t help. The rainclouds appear to be hovering over our hotel.  Passing the time by trying to take photos of the lightning wasn’t productive either.

5:40pm Caspian Sea sighted!

We checked into the 4 star Sefid Kenar Grand Hotel in Bandar Anzali which trip advisor had described as “tired”. By the standards of recent days it was positive luxury, although I couldn’t find any air conditioning in the room. Opened the enclosed balcony door and windows instead.  Great view of the beach, just 20m away.

Before dinner, I had a small walk along the beach to stretch the aching muscles.  For our last dinner in Iran we all went for the sturgeon kebab, which thankfully came with chips. Max, in his wisdom, also ordered rice. The others enjoyed the last non alcoholic beer they will likely ever have.

Dessert in the foyer, consisted of saffron, orange and banana ice cream. Great! Especially the saffron.

Chatted about future holidays and thoughts on Iran before heading to bed.  Wish there was air con.

Repacked the bags to move down to two in preparation for the border crossings tomorrow.  Could take up to two hours to cover both sections.

Excellent, if tiring, day.