Saturday, October 08, 2005

They think its all over... it is now...

If there's still an audience out there for our musings even when we're not globetrotting, drop on by Bansey.com.

Until then... adieu, ciao, goodbye, etc...

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

And now, the end is near...

Great news for fans of meaningless facts and figures as the final stats have been collated.

Visit the Stats Main Page for the overview and the following pages for the specifics.

- Cycling average and top speeds in "Banz Vs The Cheetah"
- Hill climbing fun in "Sherpa Vic's Altitude Sickness"
- Previous poll results in "The Burning Question"
- If you have advice on how to calculate the energy we expended cycling look here and contact us
- See how my physiology changed (until I got sick of doing it) in Boro Bear's Changes page
- How many books we read and what we thought of them in the Book stats page

Monday, August 08, 2005

Hyper Super Mega Gallery update

The settled computing environment here has meant we've been able to upload all the pictures that we had stored offline on the portable harddisk. I have been working night and day to get these done but I reckon it's worth it.

We've got...

- the olde worlde town of Pingyao
- Buddhist caves and the birthplace of kung fu at Luoyang
- Terracotta Warriors at Xi'an
- Our slpendid four-day cruise up the Yangtze river
- Large Chinese mammals, Pandas and the odd Ailuropoda melanoleuca at Chengdu
- New and improved Tibet: The Road To Everest shots
- Tweaked Tibet Part II galleries with fewer Everest shots

EXTRA! EXTRA! Now with expanded India galleries.

- Our return to the "cricket playing, drive on the left" world is celebrated in the Kathmandu gallery
- India 1 is from Delhi to Fatehpur Sikri
- Fatehpur Sikri to Udaipur is seen in India 2
- Our road trip is completed in the Udaipur to Delhi India 3 gallery

Get 'em while they're hot.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Straggling Galleries

The second Thailand gallery, from Phuket
and the Malaysia one are now ready to be viewed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Penultimate

When we headed out from Stockton Town Hall all those months ago we really didn't envision what our homecoming would be like.

We are soon going to find out. We are now in Singapore and tonight is our last night abroad as we catch our flight back to Brisbane tomorrow night at 21:20.

Its only a 7 hour flight which will hopefully pass in a blur of great first release movies, delicious food and quiet rest. Generally our flights pass with a straight-to-video film (why is it that the films are always fantastic on the flights going the opposite direction than we are??), inedible food and screaming children kicking the back of our chair. I think we're due one of the former.

Singapore is an island that has a lot of rules. Fined if you don't flush a public toilet, no chewing gum and no urinating in the lift (do you really need to spell that rule out?). As a result it is a very safe destination, but one can't help feeling that they've regulated all the fun out. As a government minister mentioned when trying to dissuade visitors that Singapore was "boring" - "we need to think seriously about the issue of having fun". I think he's missed the point really....

Do we sound jaded? Well, we certainly feel it. We've had a great time, but we've definitely got the back-to-school vibe. The trip back to reality is complete as I may even have a phone interview on Friday afternoon. Oh well, it could be double Maths....

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

See our India Galleries

Take a whistle-stop tour of Rajasthan at our India 1 and India 2 galleries.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Assam Enchanted Evening

The Cameron Highlands is the tea caddy of Malaysia so we were naturally drawn there. The bus ride is just over 6 hours with the last couple along winding hairpin roads that take you up a couple of thousand metres above sea level and down about 10 degrees centigrade. The temperature change was especially welcome until I realised I had left my jumper with the 2 bags of non-essential items back at the hostel in Kuala Lumpur. Silly me.

We mostly spent our time soaking up the atmosphere but on Thursday we went on a full day trip which took us to the best spots in the area. We started at the (proper) Boh plantation and had an informative lecture on all thing tea related. The tea bushes cling to the side of the rolling hills and make the landscape look like it's wall to wall carpeted in lush green. From here we had a walk through the mossy forest, a magical place dripping with soft green mosses and lichens; a place where you could easily imagine bumping into a goblin or, terrifyingly, a Lord of the Rings fan. It was here we learned some Malaysian bushcraft, notably how to use the native plants to kill, cure, make things smell nice, make things taste nice and make things look nice. The springy path underfoot was a delight and well worth the 1-3 million years it took to produce - thanks trees! (I was going to say I never met a tree I didn't like but then remembered the time I had to dig up a rose bush.)

After our exertions we were in need of a cuppa so we went to a place that produces 4 million cups of tea a day. That seems like a lot until you remeber that our mate Spencer can easily account for 800,000 of them in an afternoon. We saw grinders grinding the green leaves, belts rolling the ground up bits to the heaters, mechanical sieves sorting and grading, and trolleys, well, just standing around but they were still fairly exciting. In the grand scheme of things. Tea things that is. After feigning interest in the finer points of the process we were allowed to get a cup of the good stuff in the cafeteria and, to give Boh its dues, it was right up there with the Tetleys and PG Tipses of this world.

The afternoon was spent visiting an aborigne village, strolling to and bathing in a waterfall and then having a blow dart demonstration. After the chief showed his undoubted ability to hit a flip-flop from 10 paces we were given a go. I hit the side of the house with my first effort and then took out a bit of Malaysia about a meter from the end of the pipe with my second. Woodlouse for tea for me then. Vic was much better and would have been dining royally that evening, even if it meant that the chief had to hop to the shops for the Vienetta. We then had a short drive home past more tea plantations, orchid farms and veggie patches.

When we returned we saw everyone clustered around the TV watching the terrible news from London. Our thoughts with all those who are there.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Escape from Phuket

We didn't enjoy Phuket quite as much as Samui but that was more us than the island. We had a nice excursion to James Bond island although were disappointed with the size of it. Movie wizardry seems to have pumped up a 30 metre high, 5 metre across rock into a super villain's hideaway. Scaramanga probably bought it sight unseen on the strength of an estate agent's blurb...

"Spacious and secluded Thai island with room for conservatory, high-powered laser, etc. Ideal holiday home or hideaway for international hitman.""

We had hoped to catch the train down from Surat Thani in Thailand there was only one train at 1:30 in the morning. We decided to make it easy on ourselves and get the bus. Three minibuses and ten and a half hours later we were across the border in Butterworth, Malaysia. We knew there were buses every hour so were a bit disappointed to see them coming and going and leaving us behind. We finally snapped when the 4 people who'd arrived after us were placed and we were left behind for the 11:45pm bus. Words were exchanged, temperatures rose; we decided to take our business to the rival firm next door and write off the ticket we had bought. It was then we realised that we were in the grips of the Butterworth Bus Mafia and that the rival company was, in fact, run by the same people. We graciously accepted a place on the 11:45 bus.

And then, at 5am, a mere 20 hours after setting off, we arrived in Kuala Lumpur to take our place on the hostel floor (they were booked solid).

Despite a poor start Malaysia is winning us over. KL is friendly enough and tomorrow we head off to the Cameron Highlands which is, excitingly, tea country.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

More galleries

Carved caves and hanging temples in Datong
Our Himalayan adventures in Tibet

Thanks Malaysian internet facilities!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Land of Smiles

Well our overnight stay in Koh Samui was lengthened to err... umm.. two weeks!? Part of this was due to our fantastic spot at Moon Bungalows where we had a lovely beach 100 metres away. Part was due to our overload of shopping and our heavy bags. Part of it is just travel tiredness and the fact that we like to have some sense of permanency to a place. It was a wrench to leave especially having made some good friends in Claire and Mark (hi guys!).

But we did and we've now made our way to Phuket via the most backpacker-crowded ferry I've ever seen. As Martin said, it would be a big loss to the backpacking fraternity if the boat went down. We hadn't thought about our dates and were leaving on the same ferry as all the full moon party attendees. Listening to their conversations about the party, we didn't feel that we'd missed that much (eg. "I was so stoned Dude!"). We needed our witys about us to attend a quiz at an expat bar on Samui the next night... and lost by one point. Questions that are haunting us now include where the first winter olympics were held, the number of times Borg won Wimbledon before losing to McEnroe and the European country which has a white flag with a red cross on it.

Mark had been to Phuket before making it to Koh Samui and had recommended a nice hotel at bargain prices. We're now in unknown luxury land of air-conditioning, mini-bar, satellite TV and DVD players (though it doesn't seem to like some of our dodgy Chinese bought ones). We're here for about 5 days before we head to our penultimate country of the trip, Malaysia. I hear its national dish is satay - so I'm getting excited already.

In the meantime we're off for a big bowl of Tom Yum Gaeng (Banz's minus the prawns of course!).

Saturday, June 18, 2005

And finally...

Good news gallery fans! We have finally, after a fair amount of slaving away, prepared a couple of new galleries for your perusal.

Beijing
The Great Wall

Enjoy!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Seven Nights in Bangkok

After waving a sad farewell to Lisa in Delhi, we wasted no time in jumping on a flight to Bangkok. We definitely enjoyed India and will be back, but I think its a small dose country for us. Much respect to the six monthers out there.

The change upon hitting Thailand was sudden and welcome. Simple things like walking down the street and not having any hassle were commonplace.

As we've been to Bangkok a couple of times before we were quite content to primarily catch up on emails, shop, catch up with our friends Anthony and Tu, oh and did I mention shop! Our first morning after arrival was spent in Chatachak weekend market. I love Chatachak as there's a huge amount of stuff there, quite a bit of variety and because a lot of Thais shopt there is not the silly prices that you get at the more touristy markets like Patpong. My alarming (to Banz) shoe fetish has continued here and we are now at shoe critical mass of 11 pairs of shoes. I've never been a shoe person, but the cheap prices and styles (mainly sandals) available in India and Thailand have sent me on a buying frenzy. I did point out that the amount of paid for 11 pairs is equivalent to about 25 english pounds. I don't think he's convinced though...

We also found time to go to the cinema. Hooray for Thai subtitles! In two days we went three times and have managed to see

Sin City - we absolutely loved this film and are excited by the prospects of sequels in the next couple of years. If anyone has found a definition of what all the colours mean send it on to us. Viewing pleasure was increased by being the only two people in a "luxury" cinema with sofas and blankets (Thai air-conditioning is of the arctic standard).

Mr and Mrs Smith - great no brainer that we really enjoyed. Brad Pitt in suits - Jennifer Anniston are you nuts? Angelina Jolie kicked butt and can't really imagine Nicole Kidman (originally destined for the role) doing it as well.

Star Wars III - and then we went and spoiled it all by watching Revenge of the Sith. What a waste of time this film was. Anakin Skywalker is the one but somehow is the stupidest person ever. Definitely has sullied the memory of the original trio with this one. Worst moment - Anakin's first moments as a suited and booted Darth Vader and is informed of Padme's death. Darth lurches forward Frankenstein's monster style and lets out a James Earl Jones induced "Noooooooooooo" whilst holding his hands in the air.

We put our horrific Revenge of the Sith moment behind us and had dinner with our friends' Anthony and Tu at a fabulous Italian place near their house. I've been craving pasta since being in India (craved curry whilst in Italy - no pleasing some people) so this was a great treat. It was also great to catch up with them and share some experiences of India together. They've had extensive business dealings there to which I hope their patience is one day rewarded.

Darth Vader was not the only one to be suited and booted during our Bangkok stay. On our first trip to Bangkok five years ago we (Banz, Spence and HiG) had some made to measure suits done. These suits looked great on the boys and Banz decided to get another made for job searching purposes. We journeyed back to our friends at Arena Fashions for a fitting and were warmly welcomed back. One pinstriped number later and Banz is looking dressed to kill. Well at least dressed to obtain a highly paid IT position (fingers crossed!).

We have now ventured south and are chilling out on Koh Samui for a while before continuing onto other islands and then further south through Malaysia and finally onto Singapore. The trip is coming to a definite end as we have booked our flight out of Singapore for July 20th. Our feelings are both of sadness and excitement.

We'll see how that changes as the final date approaches.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Things We've Learnt About India

1. You can have too much curry

2. Indian Salesmen are the most tenacious in the world. We mostly managed to shake them off.

3. Completely unrelated to No.2. We are now carrying a third bag full of shopping.

4. Cricketers are the real stars of India... well that and a couple of ubiquitous Bollywood Stars who to our untrained eyes just look smug. Download our favourite, the Oye Bubbly Video for Pepsi here (make sure you download the Music Video, not the TV Commercial). Sachin, Dravid et al appear at about the three minute mark. If anyone speaks Hindi we'd love a translation.

5. Praising the Indian top 6 increases your chances of getting money off in a shop.

6. Telling them that VVS Laxman broke Australian hearts in the series before the last one and you're even more likely to get a discount. Swings and roundabouts....

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Cows, Crows & Crowds

Well, we are back in Delhi after our two week tour of Rajasthan for a last couple of days shopping before heading to Thailand on Saturday.

Our driver, Mr Goswami, dealt with all the problems the Indian roads could throw at him which comprised just about every permutation of 2, 3 and 4 wheels (taxis, crazy taxis, cars, carts, bikes, trikes, tractors and trucks) the combined with 2, 3 and 4 legs (men, women, kids (human), kids (goat), pigs, camels, cows, dogs and the occasional ox. In fact we soon learned that chicken and chipmunks are found on many Indian roads and not just in a monastery KFC.

The upside of the tarmac melting temperatures is that we have had a lot of forts, temples and palaces more or less to ourselves and this has been the best thing for us. The Sun Temple at Ranakpur, near Udaipur, is beautiful and airy, constructed as it is of white marble and dozens of columns but the two lesser temples were as memorable for being deserted and peaceful.

We have seen a number of forts in the last fortnight but none better than Meherangarh in Joghpur. The entrance fee was a bit more than usual but this included an excellent audio guide which was not only informative but meant the usual chancers offering to show you round, pointing out the bleeding obvious, were nowhere to be seen. Money well spent. The initial climb takes you past fortified, spiked gates, many studded with cannonball holes, and into the inner buildings. The courtyards were scorching but inside was cool thanks to the use of light-coloured marble and many carved screens which let breezes in while keeping out prying eyes. The views of the plain below were also stunning and we spent three hours exploring and refuelling on tea and cakes.

Fans of Globe Trekker may have seen the visit to the Rat Temple. We certainly had and were a bit nervous at the thought of hundreds of rats crawling over our feet. In the end the rats were suffering from the heat as much as we were and contented themselves for the most part in sleeping huddled in corners or drinking from the bin lid of milk. The odd one did scurry across our path causing our eyes to widen momentarily but I don't think the locals noticed. They might have heard our shreiks though.

And that was just about it for our road trip. The two weeks flew past in a whirl of temples, palaces, forts, fairly nice hotels and not enough swimming pools.

Thailand next. That's where we'll get the pictures uploaded.....I can feel it in my bones.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Mad dogs, Englishmen and a couple of Aussie girls...

Our first week of touring Northern India has been a pretty eventful one. Since Agra we took our show to Jaipur after our proposed tiger safari in Ranthambore was cancelled for stocktaking. The glamour of it. Jaipur is a pretty city and we spent some hot lunchtimes braving the 42c heat to see the Pink Palace and the Amber Fort, which is majestically situated on the hills outside town overlooking the river. After a false start (it was almost like watching me try to get a horse started) we took the slightly touristy but enjoyable elephant ride up to the top. Inside the fort was three parts scorched sandstone to one part menacing monkey, a combination that we found to our liking.

Our extra night in Jaipur gave us the chance to browse the bazaars, soak up the local culture and visit Pizza Hut. Well, there is a limit to how much curry you can eat.

Pushkar, a highly religious town where alcohol and meat are banned, followed next. The heat here was offset slightly by the fact our hotel had a swimming pool and we spent the next day and a half engaged in light sightseeing, getting harrassed by the locals (No, we really, really, REALLY don't want to buy two marionettes) and attempting to grow gills.

Now we are in the pretty city of Udaipur, home to many lakes, palaces and temples. Admittedly the lakes have dried up but the temples and palaces are stil around. Today's attempt to melt in the noonday sun took us to the fantastic Monsoon Palace, high on the hills above town and utterly deserted apart from the monkeys, a chipmunk which had moved in to one of the upstairs rooms and a bat in the basement. Our solitary creepings added much to the atmosphere of the place and made it one of the highlights of India so far.

(Note to those awaiting new galleries - a seemingly promising spot has turned out to be a bust so we may have to wait until Thailand. And I though India was meant to be the home of whizz-bang technology. After all, that's where all the helpdesks are...)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rupee Madness
After 11 days of altitude sickness, 6 of which involved long days bouncing about in the jeep, we were ready to spread out and unwind for a few days and Kathmandu proved to be the perfect place.

Our hotel's chef proved a master of French toast and these daily feasts set us up for lazy days of shopping and minor sightseeing. The shops of Thamel overflow with beautiful handmade photo albums and paper products, t-shirts custom embroidered by sewingmachine wizards, sarongs and wraps of all colours and materials as well as the usual chess sets and North Fake jackets. The prices were reasonable and our haggling skills well-honed so we feel like we got a couple of bargains. The Nepalese people have a great attitude and if you want it, they can make it, and it was this - and the great food - which made our stay in Kathmandu a great one.

We flew to Delhi on the 14th after the most exhaustive security checks ever encountered. My backpack has been x-rayed so many times that I'm scared to dump it down heavily in case it gets angry, turns green and fills me in. Delhi was a bit of a culture shock but not the overwhelming one we expected. The people speak English, drive (primarily) on the left, like cricket and love curry. It's like South Harrow really except, with temperatures in the 40c area, a bit warmer.

Our friend Lisa arrived on Sunday to find us in UEFA cup spot (Boro) and relegation (WBA for our mate Spence) fever. Incredibly 5 results went the right way thanks to Mark Schwarzer and my home-made West Brom shirt (which has bailed them out twice now).

We are now in Jaipur on the third day of our 16-day tour of Rajahstan, and will be here until Sunday. On Tuesday we saw the Taj Mahal which, despite its familiarity, is amazing. The power of the bulding lies in its ability to inspire from a distance with its elegant dome and towers as well as close up as you marvel at the almost endless ornamentation. Semi-precious stones, inlaid flush to the surface of the marble cover every surface, forming flowers, patterns and writing. Yesterday's highlight was Fathepur-Sikri, the former capital abandoned for lack of water. Grand courtyards and red sandstone buildings stand empty next to puzzlingly green lawns.

(Our search for an internet cafe with the means to upload pictures is sadly ongoing.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

High Anxiety

Our flight to Lhasa was fine. The scenery outside of the plane was fantastic (Martin is working as we speak to get these photos up) though the food inside gave us a slight cause for concern if it was a sign of things to come (salty porridge....?).

The flight was on-time and when we landed we started to wonder if all this talk of Altitude Sickness is just lies. Headaches, dizzyness, out-of-breath, yeah right. We were fine and we're only in the airport (kind of like that time we beat jet lag and woke up in a hotel room in Gympie at 9 o'clock at night - try finding food at that time of night in Gympie!).

It was another two hours before we were able to feel its first effects. The airport at Lhasa is over 90 kms outside of town and so felt fine for the two hour coach journey into town. We arrived at our Hotel and proceeded to walk up two flights of stairs to the reception. After the first flight we started to breath heavily and by the second we were panting like we'd just done the Ventoux. After checking into our room we discovered we needed to have a good lie down (involving a four hour nap) after which we had the strangest feeling in the world - the dizzyness of being tipsy combined with a hangover size headache. Hmm, hardly seems fair to have them both at the same time.

Its probably a good time now to say we were pretty disappointed with Tibet. Perhaps our perceptions were too unrealistic. We knew it wasn't going to be the Shangri-la of "Lost Horizon" fame and we knew that the Chinese had altered it forever, but we just couldn't get a good feeling for it. Maybe it was the harrassing monks shouting "Money, money!" at any white-faced tourists they see or being persistently overcharged by shopkeepers. Alternatively it could be the sinister Non-Government operators (NGOs) who seem to each have a token Tibetan with them in each of the restaurants we went to. Tibet's case also wasn't helped by the profusion of 17 year olds on their gap year whose Mummy has given them a round-the-world ticket which gives them a stop in 20 different countries for five days. I hope somebody back home will tell them how stupid they look in their collection of "ethnic" hats. I didn't have the heart.

As it stands we were happy to leave Lhasa and head towards the border on a Jeep trek that would take in some of the sights as well as Mt Everest Base Camp. We were lucky to be paired with Ana and Juan Carlos (from Spain and Argentina) for the trip. Apart from an opportunity to practice my ever-diminishing spanish, Ana and Juan Carlos were great companions and always up for a laugh. Lucky this as we keep running into them here in Kathmandu!

We departed on my birthday (4:00am start - that's why I'm starting to look old!) and over the next few days passed through several of Tibet's towns, monasteries and forts. All these were only a pre-cursor for the big one - Everest. All through the last couple of days our guidebooks had promised glimpses of Everest. It wasn't until Day 4 as we went over our highest pass that we saw it. I'm not going to bother with words as the four of us in the jeep certainly didn't. Instead we jumped out of the jeep and were giddy as children (not just the altitude this time) and ran about photographing Everest and us in various combinations. After half an hour here we jumped back in the jeep and headed towards Everest Base Camp where we would spend the night.

Everest Base Camp was an interesting place for an evening, but I can't imagine spending five weeks there as some of the mountaineers we met had. All that time for acclimitisation must drive them potty. One climber we met, Humphrey Murphy is hoping to go up in a few days time if the weather is right. We've got our fingers crossed for him and will be keeping an eye on Explorer's Web for his progress.

After Everest, we thought the last day would be a disappointment. Thankfully it wasn't. As we lost 4,000 metres of altitude and headed to Nepal the road hugged the river and we had some amazing scenery. The friendliest border crossing ever, a cheap and tasty dhal bat lunch and a five hour bus ride later and we were in Kathmandu. Obviously there are bigger issues in Nepal with the Maoist rebels in the countryside (our bus went through about 6 roadblocks), but Kathmandu is fine and a friendly and welcoming place.

We definitely feel we're back into our world now - driving on the left, cricket in the streets and fantastic food. Namaste.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Fly Me to Tibet

We've now had a couple of days in Chengdu and have enjoyed relaxing at a very cool hostel we found called Mix & Backpackers. We had actually met Mix (the proprietor of this fine establishment) in Beijing as he was travelling around China seeking cooperation and referrals from other hostels.

Mix has setup a great hostel and we're disappointed to not be able to spend longer here. Tomorrow we're flying to Lhasa. Despite a 5am start we're excited and can't wait to experience Tibet.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Cruising the Yangze

We last left you in Datong and the aforementioned Great Firewall of China is still playing havoc with our attempts to update the website or upload photos. Frustrating as memory cards are starting to move as slow as me on a fully loaded bike going uphill.

From Datong we stopped off in the town of Pingyao. When we got off the train we were slightly concerned to see the usual tower blocks that mark Chinese towns abounding around the station. After ditching the persistent trishaw drivers, we wandered for a bit and finally found the walls that enclose the old city. We entered through a gap and found the charming old town that we had been expecting. The instructions for our chosen hotel were vague so we followed our mother's advice and asked a policeman (who was playing pool at the time). He attempted no english niceties and bundled us (Banz, myself and another traveller, Nick) into his van. Two minutes later we were deposited at the front of our hotel and before we knew it he had left.

We had a pleasant day in Pingyao, just rambling about, checking out the old town. Allegedly ghosts from the Ming Dynasty still wander the streets after dark as the streets are still the same as they were in the ghosts' heyday. We didn't see any, but were content to be the usual point of interest for passing schoolchildren and pensioners.

We chatted with Nick over dinner but were put off exchanging emails by his turning his nose up at our books while recommending the Robbie Williams biography.

Next stop was Luoyang. We had booked a hard sleeper (basically a dorm on wheels) to take us there and were a bit distressed to find we arrived at 2:10 in the morning. Nevertheless we sleepily piled into a taxi and made some new friends by waking receptionists in the budget hotels we had selected. All were full or not as budget as we expected. The driver moved on regardless and despite continually pointing at "luxury hotel" in our phrasebook we managed to steer him in the right direction and were comfortably ensconced in our room by 3 am. Only problem was we were too tired to sleep and so didn't nod off until after 4. Imagine our joy when the same taxi driver knocked on our door at ten o'clock to take us on an overpriced tour of the local sights. Our response really wouldn't be allowed out by the Chinese authorities.

The principal sites of Luoyang were the Longman Caves and the park where Peonies grow. The Longman Caves were fantastic despite the persistent use of megaphones by Chinese tour guides. It didn't seem to matter how small the groups were, the megaphone was always necessary. So much for the serenity.

The Peony Park (for the life of me I can't remember the correct name) is the reason half of China flocks to Luoyang in the Springtime. A handful of reasonably pretty flowers was hardly compensation for finding our hotel was full and we couldn't extend our stay for one night. As a result, Banz had to spend a good couple of hours making contacts with doormen from Five Star Hotels as they organised a night for us in a reasonably priced Three Star. Our thanks to the good people at the Triumphal Arches are eternal.

The extra day was required as we had a one hour bus journey to Shaolin Si - the birthplace of Kung Fu. We were pretty disappointed with the temple grounds as it was more elderly Chinese tourists than kickass Chinese monks. Saying that, the Garden of the Thousand Pagodas was pretty interesting and the return journey was enlivened by the showing of Jet Li's first movie called Shaolin Temple (shot in and around Shaolin Si). Of course, the bus conductor turned it off with 20 minutes of the film and forty minutes of the journey to go so he could talk in Chinese about another temple we were passing.

From Luoyang it was a short six hour train ride to Xi'an. Xi'an seems to want to be the Chinese Las Vegas with its flashing neon lights. We were just happy to see Pizza Hut and welcomed some comfort food from "home". The other reason to visit Xi'an was to see the Terracotta Warriors which were as impressive as expected.

We had a panic as we coordinated our train and boat journeys. With a lot of phoning, emailing and a dash to the station we were set to travel to Yichang and catch the President No. 4 boat to Chongqing. There are several options for journeying up the Yangze, but we had decided to treat ourselves and go for the 4 star option. It was a decision that paid off as we had air-conditioned en-suite accommodation with fantastic meals whilst on-board. At our first dinner we were alarmed to discover that all the other guests were in tour groups and we were to sit at a table by ourselves. Another cause for concern was the table next to our's which had an average age of 75. The third concern was when all the tour groups were in turn introduced and then finally, we were told there was a group of Australians on board. When nobody else had put there hand up we realised they meant us and reluctantly rose our hands.

Not being used to the Tour Group way of things, we were raised from our beds the next morning at 6:40 by piped Chinese muzak and made our way as instructed to the dining room. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we would be dining with 2 Chinese couples as well as a couple from Singapore for the rest of the trip. It was also over breakfast that people started to sidle up to us and say, "So you're the Australians". I think this was partly due to the friendliness of the people involved (hello Peter, Richard, Hilary and Julian!) but also due to our novelty factor as independant travellers. "You mean you're travelling alone!?", was the often heard remark when we said we weren't with a group.

The next few days passed in a whirl of amazing scenery (especially the Three Gorges), great food (battered coconut), the opportunity to learn mahjong as well as flying a kite off the back of the boat (and almost through some powerlines).

After four days of luxury we have now journeyed onto Chengdu where we hope to organise our onward travel to Tibet.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Great Firewall of China

Well, we're having issues with keeping the site up-to-date as we would like here in China. The big issue is the aptly named Great Firewall of China. Our website is unable to be seen. They also block the BBC website so at least we're in good company....

We are now currently in Datong. Its a smallish town by Chinese standards of only six million people. It has to be said that we're one of the prime attractions in town though. We had heard and read stories of the Chinese propensity for staring at caucasians. We thought thought that the stories were overblown. We also thought that this would be the case in small provincial towns that don't have two of the main attractions of China nearby that attract a string of international visitors. We were wrong.

Sitting in a restaurant by the window on Saturday night we were constantly the subject of double and then triple takes and then staring - not just from people walking by, but from people on bikes and scooters (we were actually quite alarmed for their safety). One little boy (about 6) walked past with his table tennis bat in one hand and his Dad in the other, pointed and stared and then came in to say hello and test his english. Incredibly sweet as he then became very shy and would look down on the floor when we talked to him. Banz was most disappointed that he forgot to drop into the conversation one of our easily remembered Mandarin words - ping pong.

Previously on Saturday we had been to visit the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Temple. The Yungang Caves were amazing. Buddhas of various sizes (the biggest about three stories) were housed in about 50 caves. As well as the Buddhas the caves themselves were intricately painted and carved. According to our guidebooks, the earliest caves were created by sculptors and painters from as far away as present day Afghanistan and India.

From here we braved our Chinese driver (mobile phone constantly in one hand whilst overtaking on bends in the road on a mountain) and headed the Hanging Temple. I was a bit disappointed with these as a lot of the work was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and looks a bit Disney-fied and quaint. Banz went for a closer investigation whilst I practised my Mandarin much to the amusement of the stallholders trying to get me to buy verdigree turtles.

In a couple of hours we'll jump on our train and head to Taiyuan. We're mainly using this as a staging post en route to Pingyao which is a well preserved town which dates mainly from the Ming Dynasty where we'll arrive tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mutton overdose

We managed to tear ourselves away from English language TV for an overnight trip to Terelj national park, an hour's drive from Ulaan Baatar. We had decided on a short trip so that the three of us could spend a night in a ger with a Mongolian family before Hig's departure to Beijing. Our decision proved to be a good one. We were welcomed warmly into the ger (the traditional Mongolian dwelling which is a semi-solid tent with felt lined walls and a log burning stove for warmth and cooking) and must have observed entiquette sufficiently as we were served tradition milk tea and nibbles. The milk tea was a bit of a shock to the system given the added ingredients of salt, flour and mutton fat but we put as brave a face on it as possible.

While lunch was prepared we went for a walk in the woods and marvelled at the beauty of the surrounding tree-lined mountains and rocky slopes. We mucked around in the snow, saw a woodpecker and returned for a lunch of mutton while the horses were prepared. Hig had never ridden a horse before and I'm strictly a novice but Victoria is a bit more competent. Our linguistic skills meant that we couldn't explain this to our hosts so Vic and Hig were led on the tranquil horses while I was left to roam free. Actually, I was left to stroll 50 metres behind the others despite my attempts to coax a trot from my nag with a series of friendly words and the liberal application of heels to ribs (mine to his although we both knew these roles could be reversed at any time). Hig was thrilled to be aboard but Victoria wasn't getting much from being walked through the snow.

After my horse had stalled in a nibble filled area I was handed a twig of encouragement which got the nag to speed up a little and got me ut in front to explore. Our explorations led us, as if by magic, to a very unexpected venue, namely a model dinosaur park. Our first inkling something was in store was the sight of a T-Rex staring us out from behind a fence. We had the chance to pay the gun-toting guard 500 togrog (25p) to view the models. Up close they were a bit scabby but it was enjoyable posing with the huge reptiles for comedy photos. Vic used the opportunity to show off her horse skills because afterwards she was allowd off the leash. Hig confirmed his amateur status in the remount. Earlier he had under applied the leaping power so decided not to make the same mistake twice. He managed this by catapulting himself righ tover the other side. He stayed on the leash.

We returned to the ger after 2 fun hours to find our evening mutton all but ready to go. After eating we had a happy evening throwing logs on the fire and playing cards. Vic turned in early and Hig and I stayed up talking. We'd been advised not to open the door to any Mongolian speakers but at 11:30 we heard tyres creaking through the snow, boots crunching on the ice, knuckles rapping on the door and Mongolian unintelligibles issued from without. We looked at each other and noiselessly made a variety of 'keep quiet' signs. Despite the fact our talking must have been overheard from miles away and the light was on and the fire was lit, they went away. The steps receded, the voices died down and then suddenly they were back, and in increased numbers. This time we thought we recognised our hostess and, although she was speaking Mongolian, we let her in. There was a simple explanation for this late-night visit: they had come for the guns and ammunition. There was, however, no explanation for what they needed them for but we were sure it was something innocent. The look on Victoria's face as I woke her to explain that Mongolians were here and they needed the gun hidden in her bed was a picture...

The following day Hig and I explored the hills, tried to invent a new extreme sport called "ice belly sledging" and succeeded in inventing a new crap sport called "snow belly flopping".

***************************************************

Our 10 day trip into the Gobi interior taught us a couple of things: Mongolia is an incredibly beautiful and varied country, you don't need roads to get from A to B and you can have too much mutton.

Our trip from UB started when Sumuya, our driver, and Ayunga, our interpretor/cook/guide, turned up at the hostel in the the khaki jeep and marvelled at the amount of water we were taking. Once again we were taking our fluid responsibilities seriously when faced with a desert, unaware that we'd be visiting a shop every couple of days.

Our driving started inauspiciously with a snow bogging but after this Sumuya didn't put a foot, or wheel, wrong be it on snow, ice, sand, dust or mud. Often these five elements were combined in a sort of thick soup which passes for roads outside the capital.

Our first day's drive was more like a safari than anything with us excitedly spotting camels, sheep, goats, cattle, gazelle, vultures and eagles. The Gobi is incredibly flat so it's possible to spot a camel on the horizon or a horse 5 kilometres away.

The highlights of our trip were...

1) The Flaming Cliffs, a series of towering red rockfaces which are straight out of Indiana Jones. We found strange objects embedded in the stony walls which could have been dinosaur eggs. Or round rocks.

2) Bumping over rocks for 4 hours to see a waterfall. Which was frozen.

3) Climbing an extinct volcano and exploring the Great White Lake.

4) Horse riding (Vic) and horse clinging to (me) with a Mongolian family. My unruly mount had to be lassoed, snorting and pawing the ground, before I could climb up. I tentatively tried to control him but things didn't pan out.

And now we are in Beijing, trying to find a decent web cafe where we can view the Big Trip website, but enjoying everything else.

More to follow...!
More galleries!

Galleries for...

Russia - Lake Baikal (1 & 2)
Russia - Ulan Ude
Mongolia - Terelj National Park
Mongolia - 10 day Gobi and Central Mongolia Trip (1,2 & 3)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Mega Update for the Galleries

Today had its ups and downs. We said goodbye to Hig (downer) but were able to do a mega update and clear all the photos off the digital camera (upper).

For your viewing pleasure the following galleries are now available -

Latvia and Estonia
St Petersburg
Pushkin
Russian Dacha
Moscow
Trans-Siberian Railway
Irkutsk

As always use the forward and back buttons down the bottom of each gallery to navigate. Watch this space as the Lake Baikal and first Mongolian galleries are imminent.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

A short note on cold weather

As expected, we have experienced some cold weather since arriving in Eastern Europe and Eurasia in February and March but I think the biggest shock has been discovering that Darlington station isn't actually the coldest place on earth. Our top three moments of chilliness on the Big Trip have been...

this would never happen in Brisbane3) The shock of snow in Bulgaria after months of following the sun through France, Italy, Greece, Egypt & Jordan, and the pleasant temperatures in Istanbul. We learned here the truth about 'no bad weather, only inappropriate clothes'.

2) Leaving the dacha with the thermometer touching -21c. There was no wind so we were surprised to find our covered up bits stayed quite warm. At this temperature our eyes watered and the tears froze on our eyelashes. Frost formed on the beards of those who had them and the hats of all. Hands could operate cameras outside of the gloves for about 30 seconds before becoming painful and a bit useless.

1) Our second day at Lake Baikal saw temperatures at a manageable -18c but strong winds which dragged it down to -30c or more. My tear ducts iced up and I was shivering uncontrollably despite wearing a woolly hat, scarf, Buff over my lower face, sunglasses, thinsulate glove liners, sheepskin gloves, thermal top, long sleeve t-shirt, fleece, thick coat, thermal trousers, trousers, two pairs of socks and hiking shoes. The camera had to be kept inside my gloves for it to even work and my hands were numb and throbbed with pain in the time it took me to change the battery.
Mongol Empires

-20 degrees - still not as cold as Darlington StationWe last left you as we were heading for Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. I wish I could think of the words to describe this place. All I can say is that it is probably one of the most beautiful and magical places that I've seen in my life.

We spent 4 days and 3 nights there on a tour with Jack Sheremetoff from Baikaler tours. Our nights were spent in a homestay on the island of Olkhon (the largest island on the lake) eating the best food we ate in our entire time in Russia. During the days Jack would take us for walks on the lake as well as a memorable day driving across the ice to see some ice caves and sacred sites (the area is understandably very important to the indigenous Buryiat people) and lunching on the local salmon (omul) which was absolutely delicious. We've got literally hundreds of photos and as soon as we can get a fast internet connection we'll have them up for you to see - though I'm not sure they'll do it justice.

Since then we've had a day trip to Ulan Ude. We arrived at 6:30am, napped for a couple of hours, went off to the Datsan (Buddhist Monastery), returned to Ulan Ude and saw the world's biggest Lenin head (really!) before testing our Russian for the last time at the hotel restaurant and retiring relatively early.

The next morning we were again on the train, this time departing at 6:30am and travelling to the Russia-Mongolia border. The train stopped at the border and after about an hour of waiting (and being reassured by a Danish girl who had talked to the providnitsa that the train would be there for 4 hours), Banz and I went in search of some food at a local market as the restaurant carriage on the train had closed. Whilst at the market buying very random items to spend the last of our roubles (noodles, strange kind of marshmallows and the largest bag of biscuits you've ever seen), we began to be alarmed by the fact that we could here train whistles. As we quickly paid for our goods (which had been added up on an abacus) and returned to the station, we saw to our dismay an empty platform where our train once had stood. We immediately panicked and started running up the tracks (me having to pick my way through the ice as I still slip over at the slightest patch). The train was there being shunted about and locomotives and carriages being added and subtracted. We met a worker halfway there and started shouting "ULAN BATOR!! ULAN BATOR!!" at him and he calmly told us to wait there and the train would be coming back to this very spot. The train was true to his words and as it pulled up, we ran and found our carriage, Banz opened the door (without waiting for the stairs to be lowered) and threw his three packets of chicken noodles and then himself on. I waited for the provodnitsa to lower the stairs and then hauled myself and biscuits on. We then found Hig who had been doing his own panicking (his was more for the fact that he would've had to carry our backpacks as well as his own if we didn't make the train). After we sat down, made ourselves a cup of tea and tried to relax we began getting visits from the other foreigners on board who had been alerted by Hig to our absence. We had become carriage celebrities!

The train then finished shunting and returned to the exact same spot on the platform where we had left it for our sojourn to the market. And stayed there for five hours. Yes, five hours - the majority of which we spent playing cards and incorrectly filling out Russian customs declarations.

We then travelled through no man's land to the Mongolian border and filled out four forms (2 customs, 1 entry and 1 health clearance) before actually continuing the journey to Ulan Bator where we are now. Ulan Bator seems quite relaxed and we've been excited by simple things like English in a menu, BBC World Service being on FM and clear instead of SW and crackly and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) having a channel on our TV in our room. Makes a nice change from attempting to follow Beverly Hills 90210 in Russian.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A delightful weekend in the country

Much has happened since our last blog starting with our trip to a Russian dacha near Staritsa, a small town between St Petersberg and Moscow. This excursion promised snowy horseriding and simple living but delivered something much different...

We had arranged to be picked up at Tver station when our train arrived at 4:30am but half an hour's standing around in -18c temperatures gave us an indication something had gone awry. A few quick phone calls later (10 roubles of change doesn't go as far as you may think) and we knew that Pasha's car had failed to start and we had to make our own way there. A taxi driver was soon woken up and a price arranged. What our cabbie lacked in local knowledge he made up for in persistance. After multiple wrong turns and tracks that petered into nothing we arrived at the rendez-vous point and were met by Pasha and his horse drawn sleigh.

Pasha could be described as a somewaht cynical, world-weary man of few words. We soon came to think of him as a miserable sod. His place was very basic and featured a couple of heated rooms (the second warmed after we confounded his expectations by being able to light the wood burning stove (those Nibthwaite bonfires taught me much)), an outside loo 30 metres from the house (temperatures were routinely -20), a shower which looked like a deathtrap and a kitchen which would have shamed the Clampett family. Brave faces were applied but we all felt that our original estimate of 4 days here would be more than enough.

Hig and I were lucky enough to accompany Pasha into town after the car was tractor tow-started. Our host didn't open up much and exchanges like...

Hig: Your English is very good, where did you learn it?
Pasha: So is yours, where did you learn it?

...didn't really offer much encouragement. Our trip to town was primarily aimed at stocking up on food supplies for our time there (four days immediately cut to three on viewing the house, subsequntly cut to two after an afternoon with Pasha.) Letting him know we were going a couple of days early had a detrimental effect on suppliles, something we only found out about back at the 20-kilometres-from-town homestead when it turned out Pasha had 'run out of Roubles'. We had two days of eating pasta and tomato sauce and fried bread and tomato mush to look forward to. (Recipes for tomato mush available on request.) The live chicken in the basket was eyed up more than once. (Hig had seen a way to hypnotise a chicken on Tv but couldn't remember what it was. As a result we missed the chance to see a hen eating an onion thinking it was an apple.)

That's not to say we didn't enjoy ourselves. The scenery was breathtaking, Pasha's neighbour Kolya was a character and feeding logs into the fire never grew dull. The three of us also had a good laugh at the situation in a 'gallows humour' kind of way. The night before we left Vic tried to get Pasha to arrange a taxi which he was at first reluctant to do. He simply gave Vic the phone and a few cab numbers and let her get on with - pretty typical of the man. Eventually after a wall of Russian was clearly between us and a lift out he stepped in and arranged the pick up, not 100 metres from his house but over a kilometer away over the frozen Volga. The next day we set off with full packs in -21c temperatures like Scott, Oates and, er, Smith of the Antarctic and tramped through the snowy wastes. Despite ice forming on our eyelashes and stubbly chins we weren't that cold and the walk in the dawn light rates as one of the high spots of the trip.

From there, to Moscow and an amazing few days wandering around seeing Red Square, St Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin, Lenin's Mausoleum (closed), the massive GUM shopping centre and the even bigger Hotel Russya. We had a fun afternoon looking round a market and bought some souvenirs but turned our nose up at the stamp album of a shady bloke and his mate despite the rather fetching Hitler collection he needed to shift to buy vodka.

We caught the train from Moscow at 9:35 on Tuesday night and got into Irkutsk at 12:40 early on Saturday morning, a barely credible 75 hours and 5,100 kilometers later. Life aboard the train was surprisingly good. Things were helped by having our compartment of four to ourselves for all but the first five hours and we whiled away the hours watching endless pine trees and silver birches drift by, counting the kilometer markers, drinking tea and coffee from the supply of boiling water in the carriage samovar and playing cards. Despite the time passing fairly painlessly we were all happy to get off today, slightly train-lagged as we have crossed 5 time zones and in desperate need of a shower.

From Irkutsk we plan to visit the worlds deepest freshwater lake at Baikal after which we'll astound one and all with some Siberia stats and facts. Bet you can't wait...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Last Train to Tver

I see stars... The walking tour of St Petersberg was on Sunday and from 10:30 to 3:30 we wandered the streets of the former capital and saw the sights. From the Nevisky Prospect (Main Street), across canals and bridges to the Hermitage we saw historic spots like the place where water was drawn during the seige of Leningrad, the place where people gather to Walrus* and the Peter and Paul Fortress. We also saw the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood which is a mass of onion-shaped domes in bright Teris like coloured mosaics.

We learned the origin of the Russian 'drinky-drinky' sign which is to flick your neck with your index finger. Apparently the weather vane of the Peter and Paul Church was damaged in a storm and was needed to be fixed quickly for the visit of some dignitary or other. It was going to take too long to get the scaffolding sorted but luckily a passing Siberian peasant stepped in. He shinned up the 120+ metre spire using a length of rope and skills honed on the massive trees of his home region and, tools in hand, worked away for a day and a half to fix it. When he got down the Tsar was so impressed he gave him the coat off his back, 5,000 Rubles and got him a tattoo of the double headed eagle on his neck. All barmen were then ordered to give the man bearing this tattoo all the free drinks he wanted, which actually turned out to be quite a lot. And the legend lives on...

Today's sightseeing trip was to Tsarkoye Selo (AKA Tsar's Village) which is the former out of town retreat of the Tsars. It's about 15km out of town and was built by Catherine The Great who was of the opinion that, when it comes to buildings, more is more. The palace is a mass of blue facade and gold statues and is the sort of place you'd need a scooter to get around. The snowy grounds contain various smaller palaces, a pyramid where Catherine buried her pet dogs and The Chessman Column which was built to commemmorate a naval battle over the Turks. The temperature was between -5 and -10 with a couple of degrees of windchill so we kept moving where possible and kept the gloves even when operating the camera.

Tonight at 11pm we head off to the countryside between here and Moscow to a little place called Staritsa for a few days horse riding and making snowmen, possibly out of ourselves.

*Walrussing is the noble pastime of cutting a hole in the ice, diving in and having a quick swim. We would have had a go but none of us had our trunks on. Maybe next time...

Friday, February 18, 2005

White Nights in St Pete

Well for those of you keeping track Boro managed a 0-0 draw with Bolton. The game wasn't as dull as the scoreline suggests and it gave us an excuse to stay at the Dickens pub for extra deep-fried Latvian garlic bread.

Football could hold us no longer in Riga (even though the Dickens was showing Boro's game last night - 2-2 with AK Graz for those taking notes - played at the Arnold Schwarzanegger Stadium, seriously - check here...). Our appointment with HiG was duly approaching so we hopped a bus for six hours to our last EU outpost of Estonia. HiG arrived on time to the tiny Tallinn airport. We welcomed him and a supply of Marks and Spencer Teacakes and headed back into the city. The bus journey took only about 10 minutes as the airport is only about 3kms from the edge of the city. After dumping off our gear we all headed out into the evening to find some food and drink. After quite a bit of fruitless searching (a lot of places in Tallinn shut at 10pm, so had their doors locked for 9:30) we managed to refuel at a Tex-Mex eatery.

Next morning found Banz with a bad headache and achey joints. After ensuring that it was a bit of a cold and not a hangover, HiG and I left him to recuperate whilst we explored the Old Town. The area itself is quite compact and so after a couple of hours wandering about and checking out a couple of churches we had seen most of the Old Town sites. We then went in search of the Central Bus Station for our tickets for St Petersburg for the next day. We checked before boarding the tram that it was heading to the bus station - though of course we didn't specify which one and ended up at a suburban, rather than inter-city station. After jumping on the tram back the other way (and giving the locals some amusement at our pitiful attempts to validate our tickets) we were on our way. 10 minutes later and we had our tickets and were ready to leave the next morning at 11:00.

The bus journey to St Petersburg was rather uneventful. So uneventful that the bus pretty much didn't even stop for longer than one five minute period to stretch our legs between Tallinn and the border, and then again when we had to go through Russian customs.

Russian customs was surprisingly quick and efficient. Where's the whole queueing experience we've been expecting? One amusing "highlight" was the fact that Banz and HiG had to have their bags x-rayed whilst when I mimed to the operator putting my bag through, he just waved me through the beeping metal detector.

Upon arrival, we were able to distinguish where the Metro was (in cyrillic, Metpo) and after being pointed in the right direction by a local arrived at our stop and soon after our hostel for the next five nights.

All three of us were starving by this stage and found a local eatery with buffet style meals. We broke their system though when we had our hot meats and cold salads on one plate and then realised that the hot veg options were next door. The food isn't kept hot and so has to be microwaved once you have all your food on the plate. Queue our three plates having side orders of salad scraped onto secondary plates before being microwaved and returned complete with a stern Russian look.

We're taking it easy today and are going to have a more indepth tour tomorrow when we join a walking tour from the Hostel.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Warsaw Pact off to Lithuania and Latvia

bit cold outOur time in Lithuania and Latvia is short due to our deadline of meeting HiG in Tallinn on Tuesday (though according to a Japanese woman I met in reception at our hostel in Riga, 10 days is way too short for Japan and way too long for Riga - she's been here for 3 years teaching, so perhaps she needs a break).

Our original two days in Vilnius was extended to three due to a night spent imbibing Vana Tallinn (or Estonian Gutrot as we've since christened it). Our two other days were spent wandering about the Vilnius Old Town (vainly searching for the Frank Zappa statue) and on a day trip to Trakai to see the castle.

The trip took about 20 minutes from Vilnius by bus to arrive at the touristy village. After leaving the bus stop it wasn't at first evident which way to go, but we followed our noses and soon worked out that we were on the right trail. A bit of cross country walking through the snow and next thing we knew we were walking across the frozen lake to the castle itself. Banz later remarked that it was a great idea to build this castle on an island in the middle of the lake - for six months of the year it would be damn hard to get to.... the other six you would have to be careful that you didn't slip over as you rolled your cannons, trebuchets and other heavy armaments from Age of Empires over the ice.

Yesterday was our time for our first bus trip of The Big Trip Part II. I really don't like buses but unfortunately in the Baltics you don't have much choice. When you weigh up a fifteen hour/several change train journey against a four and a bit hour direct bus there isn't really a question. We haven't exactly been blown away by Riga (despite a fantastic curry last night - not exactly a selling point for Riga itself). I guess we're not going to be able to judge tonight when in true Aussie/English abroad style we're going to an Irish Pub to watch an injury-ravaged Boro side play Bolton. A good result might just put a nice shine on our time in Riga, a bad one may lead to an early departure for Tallinn.


Some New Gallery Updates Below
Warsaw
Gdansk and Malbork
Lithuania

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Lingua Franca

Just a quick note to say that the number of countries that Banz's french has paid off in has risen yet again. From hotel rooms in (of course) France, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary, last night we were able to add ordering a kebab in Poland. That's five and counting.
On the road again

There's never any paperAfter 7 weeks or so of lounging about in the UK (thanks to Wardy, Hig, Easto, The Brooksies, Trish and Sandra & Pino for putting us up) we are back on the road again.

Our first stop was Warsaw where we stayed with Sandra's sister Beata and her husband Jerzy in their new place outside town. It was a nice way to ease ourselves back into the travelling with a lift from the airport and more home cooked food (all delicious apart from the Stomach Soup...) than you could shake a stick at. On Wednesday Sandra's Mum and Dad showed us round a snowy Warsaw from the Palace of Culture and Science (Stalin Building) to the Royal Castle. The Stalin Bulding is a gift from the Soviet era and towers above the centre of the city. It is now a multiplex cinema among other things so it seems as if it has been afforded the proper degree of respect. The Royal Castle has been completely rebuilt since the war when it, like 90% of central Warsaw, was destroyed.

From Warsaw we headed north to Gdansk, a very pretty and historic seaside town, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in 1980. The 'Roads To Freedom' exhibition at the site of the shipyard where Solidarity started is a very moving and brilliantly informative depiction of the events which started the collapse of Communism in Poland, and wider Europe for that matter.

From Gdansk we headed to Malbork to see the famous castle. We had visited it a couple of years earlier but illness had prevented us from doing more than photographing the outside and buying a postcard. This time we were not to be denied and left our backpacks at the station and tramped the mile or so to the huge redbrick build. The interior of the castle was fantastically empty - there was only one other person there on a chilly Monday in February - so we had the place to ourselves. Heaven knows how long you'd have to queue to get your photo taken on the olde-worlde latrine in summer but we were straight in and out although, to be honest, it was hardly the weather for retiring in there with the Guardian crossword. As castle lovers we were in our element as we explored the walkways, courtyards, cloisters and stairwells until the cold finally drove us into a nearby restaurant.

Malbork was just a daytime stopover on our way back to Warsaw and then Vilnius in Lithuania. Once again the railway schedulers arranged things so the border guards come and visit at 4am and an unexpected 1 hour time difference had us scrambling off the train with coats flapping. If Poland was coolish then Lithuania is positively chilly (I am saving the big hitters of the low temperature descriptive world for Siberia) but our multiple layers of clothes are holding up well despite our Polish hosts' derision of our shoes.

We have a couple of days in Lithuania before heading off to Latvia at the end of the week. Tomorrow is a big day for the Bansey barnet as a barber has been located next to the hostel and all that remains is to learn how to say 'short back and sides' in Lithuanian.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Embassy World Champion

Since arriving back in London on Thursday we have spent a fair chunk of our time arranging visas. Victoria has concentrated on downloading, printing and filling in the forms and I have done the legwork.

On Friday it was a 6:45am start to get to China early to beat the queues. In fact, I was so early, there were no queues so, in true Tortoise & Hare fashion, I went and had a quick cup of tea. When I got back there were 30 or so people ahead of me but even so I was in and out by 9:30. I had to get same day service in order to get the passports back for a visit to the Russians on Monday.

The Russian system but the onus on standing in the street shivering while groups of 3 people were admitted at 20, 30 or 40 minute intervals. I'd been there an hour and a half before I got in but from there it only took 5 minutes to get sorted. It's hard to know why the process takes so long...

Tuesday was Russian pick-up day and I had the chance to meet someone in the queue whose planning let him down. Apparently he turned up at the airport in good time, queued for his flight to Moscow and then was told he needed a visa. Alarmed, he postponed his flight for 24 hours and high-tailed it to Kensington to stand in the cold with everyone else. It was just before 11 when I chatted to him and the last application is at 11:45. I came out after collecting our visas at around quarter to twelve and the queue was down to just one person - the guy who was meant to fly the next day. I didn't see what happened but I would like to think he got sorted and is now over there.

Today's visit was an easy one; the Nepalese embassy, once again in Kensington. There were no queues and I was in and out in 5 minutes although I have to pop back tomorrow to collect the passports.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

On the move again

Our Christmas and New Year stay with Hig is now coming to and end and this afternoon we catch the train to London where we will be reunited with Wardy and his floor. We've had a great time up in the North East with highlights being...

my feet are cold...- Christmas day with our homemade tree, prezzies and sausage and mash lunch. We did especially well this year with Hig rather unexpectedly giving us the gift of gentrification. One of his presents was a piece of land each in Scotland which entitles us to be known as Lord and Lady Bansey.

- New Year's Eve with mulled wine, firing up the shisha and chatting to the neighbours until 6am.

- My birthday bash in Darlo with Vic, Hig, Wardy and my niece Laura. The cocktails flowed to such an extent that our foot-long bill was comprised of a good nine inches of booze.

The next couple of weeks in London promises to be good with a fair bit of catching up on the cards and the bonus of having Sky Sports at Wardy's.