Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy LSX

While flitting around London, I recently found myself passing by Occupy LSX, the protest camp which has controversially straddled St Paul’s Cathedral for the last month or so. From what I had gauged from the news this was a group of activists pushing a mish-mash of causes without any particularly clear message or aim. Drawing the sympathy of some, labelled an inconvenience by most. Why not check it out?

I arrived just as the weekly “open assembly” began. Before the steps of Wren’s cathedral, a spokesperson explained how this forum would work, though of course that anyone who disagreed with the system or concept of the forum should pop their thoughts in a pigeon hole in the info tent for the collective to consider. People were free to address the forum as they wished, but should queue to do so. As each topic was discussed the reasonable sized crowd were encouraged to show the collective sentiment via hand signals. Fluttering upwards hands gesticulates support for the motion, crossed hands signals disagreement.

The topics I stayed around long enough to hear were indeed wide ranging. From the standard “bankers are bad, power to the people” stuff, through specific criticism of US environmental policy to anti-war messages. I had sympathy with some of the issues raised and very little with others. Part of the problem was that different messages were so diverse, co-mingled and yet at times fundamentally divergent that they left me with no clear idea of what the collective thought or wanted apart from perhaps the very vague theme that the world is on the wrong tack. Maybe that is enough.

While the lack of clarity of aim or message starves this movement of any likely tangible success (e.g. a change in government policy on a specific topic) they do serve as a useful reminder that the status quo should not be taken for granted, whether it be for better or worse. There is definitely something in the under-swell of dissatisfaction which is showing itself in similar protests springing up in cities all round the world. People feel disaffected and unrepresented by the current system. But as I listened I could not help but think that, whereas it is better to speak up against a perceived wrong than keep quiet, if you do not put forward workable alternatives people stop listening.
Unfortunately there seemed precious little in the way of viable suggestions (a number of people held up Marxist signs, but the mass social experiment of the last century does not leave that with much mileage). Many simply seemed to say capitalism is wrong. Globalisation is wrong. We should change this. Start again…etc. etc.

Yes, there are big problems with these phenomena, but to preach against them in such absolute terms while listening to your iPod seems a little misguided (I am told that the collective of the camp paid tribute to the recently late Steve Jobs – slightly odd since he was a capitalist pin-up).
Pondering what I had heard, I took a walk around the camp and found it upbeat and just about functional. It smelled a bit and the multi-recycling bins were full, but at least they were there along with a shop, tea and first aid tents. It is a real pity that this movement has so interrupted the working of St Pauls (and I do find a little odd that this was the chosen spot with all the more obviously capitalist establishments parked all round the place), but I have to admit a mini tent city at the floor of this vast stone building is quite a spectacle.

On my way out I took one more look around the crowd which dispelled any lingering question I still had over whether this was the sapling of a mass movement to really change things. More than anything it resembled a diehard of summer festival goers who refused to retreat with the oncoming winter. Amongst them I am sure there are a few die hard revolutionaries with the determination to make things happen, but most seem to be hanging about for an interesting ride. Nice to feel special for a while. And do you know what, provided they do not get in anyone else’s way (or block health and safety required exits), good luck to them.

Debate strengthens a good system and lays bare the need for change in a bad one. There are strong questions to be asked of the current order of things, but I am just not sure this collective is asking the right questions in the most effective manner.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

O παράδεισός μου


A passing glimpse of my favourite place. Rising from the acquamarine waters of the Aegean is a small windswept rock that is my home from home. At the heart of the Cyclades and scattered with the quaint white-washed dwellings for which the archipeligo is famed. Climate, culture and hospitality. 
But where am I?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Into the Hills of Evia

Evia is the second biggest island in Greece, though strangely off the tourist map. A mountainous, long strip of land that rises out of the Aegean and straddles the mainland to the East of Athens. I have been coming here for nearly a decade, staying in the quiet green peninsular of Spiada, where Christina’s family have a summer home. Last week I dragged myself from a state of comatose relaxation to check out inland.
The north-western coastal road starts from the small town of Limni, skirting along the steep mountains and cliffs that adjoin the land to the sea. Views across the channel to the mainland are something else. Flat shimmering waters eventually giving way to rows of hills which genlty fade into the haze.

Every so often you come across a village or small town clinging to low-lying fertile ground. At one such village, Rovies, we turned in land and climbed up the winding roads into the forest which covers much of the top of Evia. Mature pine trees and, above 800m, fir. Typically Greek objects pop up along the side of the road. Plastic sacks collecting sap from manmade wounds in the trunks of pine trees – an essential ingredient of retsina. Small bee boxes colour coded to the owner – apparently these are moved around with the seasons to follow the blossoms, each type changing the flavour of the honey.
Sadly, on dodgy bends you invariably find small shrines to car crash victims. these come in various shapes and sizes, with the design of a miniature church on a post being amongst the most common. The Greeks are a passionate people who are known to bend a rule or two. Too much machismo driving and not enough road signs lead to the Greeks having one of the worst road safety records in the developed world. Humbling sights amongst all the beauty.

THE MONASTERY

Winding our way up the steep valleys we eventually reached the monastery of Osios David. Touristy in summer, but now very peaceful. Turning your back on far reaching views into the forest, you enter through a grand gate into a courtyard surrounded by cloisters covered into carefully managed climbing plants. At the centre of the courtyard is the original sixteenth century Orthodox church. Build in the Byzantine style, every inch of the inside is decoratively covered in mosaics and paintings. Combine all the colour and glitter with incense and incessant chanting of bearded priests and the Greek Orthodox church does a pretty good job of creating that mystical aura which cab be key to capturing worshipper’s imaginations.
On we rolled past and through steeper, higher valleys. With the car windows open the pungent aroma of the landscape wafted into the car. There are many components to the smell. One I think is a hint of oregano, from the wild crops which inhabit the hillsides, but the overwhelming one is freshly heated pine needle. Rather like those little tree shaped smelly things that hang off the mirror in people’s cars, but genuinely refreshing and pleasant.

KOKINOMILIA

After an hour or so, the land flattened out and the forest sporadically opened up for small fields. Along the edges of one such field we were greeted by more quintessential Greek objects – herds of goats jangling their way around. Hmmm, very tasty.
The sharp valleys then re-emerged and we followed the precipitous road up the side of a large hill to the village of Kokinomilia –literally “red apple trees”. Getting out of the car and going for a wander, it felt like we had entered another place or time. Far from the smog of Athens or the gentle chatter of the refined seaside resort, here we could be in any small Balkan village from times past. Craggy houses clinging to the hillside and each other. Small scale agriculture in the gardens with cleverly contorted pieces of rubbish for scarecrows. The small church, friendly wandering mutt and little old lady inviting us in for coffee. Brimming over with charm.
We lunched at the taverna of the village, owned by Yannis and Kiki. A generous place, serving large portions of bean soup and lokaniko – village sausage. Best of all was the local rose wine. Not only was it light and crisp, but brewed out back. Only that day they were crushing the year’s crop of grapes and they invited us to take a look.

I particularly liked Yannis’ answer to how many people lived in the village – “67, give or take”.

BACK TO THE SEA 

A little bit tipsy, we headed down the mountainside and back down the valleys towards the tip of the island. Here countryside makes way for the odd larger town and, shock horror, roads with markings. The views were none the less still stunning as we sped along the coast road back to Spiada. Citrus and fig tree giving way to olive and then sea.

Along winding cliff roads, I fear I failed to take in much of the beauty as drowsiness set in. Fortunately siesta awaited. Then perhaps some beach with the baby... 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Flashback 02: Into North Vietnam

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 – Part 4

I am currently in Vietnam. Yup, Nam baby! It was rather a mammoth journey from Lijiang and the Snow Mountain Rock Festival, but we have made it to the small old French hill station of Sapa for some serious R&R. A place of calm, fresh air and serious views.
From Lijiang we took a series of buses South to Dali, pass the famed lake and then across to Kunming. It was bucketing down most of the way, which bought some added entertainment. Our journey in a mini-bus was rudely interrupted by a huge slam and a small skid. A landslide slurry of rocks and mud had cascaded down the hillside and ripped a sizable chunk out of the side of the vehicle. Nice.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Kunming a nice city. China seems to have a knack of producing monstrously polluted and ugly cities, but Kunming had a welcoming feel about it. Unfortunately I caught a nasty bug there and, after a night of high fever and mild delusion (I was convinced Felix was the devil incarnate guzzling the last of the orangeade), we decided to push on and jumped on a rickety bus to the Sino-Vietnamese border. A mistake. Throughout the entirety of the 14 hour bumpy bus ride I had a fever and a severe migraine. I could barely even bring myself to look out the window. Eyes forced shut by the pain, occasionally interrupted by some rude official demanding our papers.

Still feeling ropey, what I did not need was an eventful border crossing. Sods law. At the Chinese border control the officials let the others through, took my passport, looked at me, scrutinised my passport, looked at me some more and then walked off with my documents to a room behind. No word. I waited, with a touch of anxiety. What had I done? Who had I discussed the tortures of the one child policy with? How many times had I suggested that China was not really communist and autocracy was not necessarily the best form of government? Eventually, after many minutes, the guy came back, scrutinised me a bit more and let me through.

Across the ironically named "Friendship Bridge" between these historic enemies and the Vietnamese guards were hardly more pleasant. Yes, they gave us each a copy of this tacky tourist brochure, but then ensued to point AK47's at us for not reading them with due attention. I have some sympathy for the guys. The transition from alert border guards to tourist reps is not an easy one.

Thankful to be through, we hitched a ride in the back of a 1960's Soviet and jeep took the windy, precipitous yet stunning road to Sapa.
Now awakening from days of feeling awful, the extra intrigue of a new country leaves me in as excited state about my travels as I have been. It is so beautiful and the local hill tribe people are so nice (despite the offering of opium). In particular, the children are great fun, falling all over the place and finding us foreigners very amusing. We have been on gentle walks, perused the markets and even bought a pillow cushion.

The most striking thing about the place is that it is in the shadow of Fansipan, Vietnam's highest mountain, and the view is really quite spectacular (see photo above).

We are moving on in about an hour to Hanoi via a 12 odd hour sleeper train journey. I do not know if it is my long running desire to visit Vietnam, the friendliness of the people I have met so far or maybe that we have escaped the all controlling Beijing, but I am so much more excited about this country. I really am buzzing about seeing Hanoi and heading down this long, thin land.

HANOI AND HALONG BAY 

My first hour or so in Hanoi will, I am sure, stay with me as long as any of my memories of this part of the world. Jumping off the most uncomfortable train ride of my life – steaming hot and squeezed on a top bunk, prevented from sleeping by a lethally sharp fan blade rocking and propelling not 4 inches from my head – we arrived just before the crack of dawn in a dazed, dreamlike state. We wandered away from the hustle and bustle of the train station and through the abandoned streets. As the first light permeated the smog, we walked along the tree-lined boulevards in search of somewhere to stay. It was like no place I have ever visited. A strange hybrid of a pretty French town and a polluted Asian megacity. Eventually, we found ourselves at the central lake. There, by the water were old ladies and gentlemen carrying out their daily ritual of Tai Chi. As the city awoke and noise, smells and sights bubbled up from slumber, these people represented such calm tranquillity. We threw down the backpacks, sat on them and watched. Surreal and beautiful.
After a couple of days enjoying the sights of the city, Felix, Rachel (a friendly wicker witch we met in China) and I headed off to Halong Bay. This involved a four hour journey out east from Hanoi, before jumping on an over night boat cruise around the world heritage listed sticky outy limestone islands which break out into the South China sea from the mainland. A stunning place. The same geological phenomenon as we saw a few weeks back in Yangshuo (China), though instead of scenic paddies below, there are emerald green waters.
We toured around some caves (adorned with plastic penguin bins), swam and played drinking cards with some guys who crawled over from another boat. The highlights were though undoubtedly just sitting watching the islands roll by and, at night, diving off the high top of the boat in a tropical rainstorm into waters frothing with bright phosperesence. Then again there was also lying on the deck watching wide-eyed as the sky was lit up by fork lightening vividly extenuating the shape of the islets. A crazy, fun time. The only mild downer was an un-engaging, pissed off crew.

The way back was uneventful except for a stop off at a shop selling snake wine. Barely tempting. The locals put live snakes in alcoholic liquid, allow them to drown, let the liquid fester, and then serve it everywhere. Nasty stuff, though it is apparently an aphrodisiac.
We are now back in Hanoi waiting around for our Cambodian visa. Good times. Just enjoying the buzz, fusion and confusion of Hanoi. I really like this city with its millions of motor bikes, baguettes for breakfast and noodles for lunch. When the visa is in hand we are heading off to the centre of the country, Hue and the DMZ. You know I am almost getting used to these double digit hour uncomfortable journeys.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Flashback 02: Rocking Lijiang

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 3
I am in Lijiang, Yunnan province, China. A very old (in parts) town over 3000m above sea level. It is so beautiful here. Winding cobbled streets lined with picturesque houses with delicately tiled roofs. Exactly how I would have pictured a historical Chinese town. I've really enjoyed just strolling around, taking it all in, but of course found a bit of time for dress up. Our time has been enhanced by the company of Rachel, a New Zealand wicker witch (i.e. white "good" witch) we met dancing on the roof of our hostel in a torrential lightning storm and a slightly odd, but very friendly lolloping German called Thilo, who wears decidedly tight shorts for such high altitudes (or indeed anywhere) and has an evil sense of humour. We did a great cycle ride out to some outlying villages. Yunnan has so many distinct ethnic groups with differing traditions and dress. How long they can exist before the all engrossing monster of Han culture devours them is hard to guess, but their odds seem pretty short. To add to our recent excitement, on the way here a chunk of our minibus was ripped out by a landslide as we rolled along in the pouring rain from Kunming. Rubbish weather changed our plans. No longer are we to trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge, now we are planning something markedly different... Near Lijiang on a mountain side (the highest one round here is over 5,500m high - in other words, shit high) China's first major rock festival just happens to be about to commence. Pure chance and we've rolled sixes. What has been dubbed as the "Chinese Woodstock" starts tomorrow and Felix and I are itching to go. Who needs Reading? A FEW DAYS LATER... The Snow Mountain Rock Festival rocked... eventually. The full works in terms of sound, lights and set up, though the crowd was much smaller than expected due to the weather. A distinctly odd turn out. Try and picture it, somewhere half way up a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas, hundreds of people shielding under umbrellas in two piece suits wearing plastic bags on their smart shoes to guard against the sodden ground. Around the perimeter, ticker tape was guarded by a load of soldiers in full gear. Were they there to keep others out, or us in? To be honest, it was a bit crap at the start, polluted by Cantonese pop (to be avoided at nearly all costs), but the tide soon turned....
In the interests of livening things up a bit, I was one of the founders of the first mosh pit in Chinese rock festival history (or so the people around us later informed us). We were left with little choice as a seriously cool punk band thrashed out their three cord creations. We then got slashed on beer and bacardi breezers on account of them being free. Why? We are Western. A strange not all too pleasant feeling, but you can't be fussy with only a few yuan in the pocket.

The clear highlight was the last performer of the weekend, Cui Jan, the godfather of Chinese rock, who has been banned on numerous occasions and even played at Tiananmen square preceding the massacre. He was awesome. Being the last foreigner left, the cool Chinese crowd through me up in the air and gave the bumps. I just about survived though I fear I crushed one or two quite small people. A fitting farewell to this bizzare but entertaining event was bid by the Chinese army - who ever said military conscription doesn't go to good use... Anyhow, a great experience, but onwards and upwards, we are off to Indochina tomorrow. I just hope the nasty stomach bugs that has afflicted me and left Felix doubled up over a particularly minging rat infested hole in the ground for hours on end alleviates. God bless the Dongba guesthouse and all its black bean soup.

Vietnam awaits....

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Flashback 02: Yangshuo

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 2
I am still in little Yangshuo, a place to melt the senses. My lasting memory from this small corner of China will be perched on the top of a huge limestone stack called "Moon Hill", sweat pouring from the climb and catching breath, staring out over a panorama of countless more green-clad limestone hills with only a few rivers, small villages, padi fields and a soft mist filling up the gaps. The sweltering, fantastical scene is embellished by the reflections of the hills in the water of the padi fields. Water, reflects earth, reflects sky. A confounding symmetry of beauty.

This place ranks with any natural wonder I have ever seen or perhaps ever will see. I honestly am thinking about coming back here if I take a year out and teaching for months. A place to share with those you love.
Yesterday, with a simply excruciating hangover (made far worse by the bumpy road to the jetty), we were able to slowly sink in the scenery as we floated down the Li river on a bamboo boat. Serious relaxation. The bird life was fantastic. Cranes and other water birds abound. In the evening we took a little boat out to watch the fishermen catch dozens of fish with cormorants. An ingenious activity where in return for the birds diving in, catching fish after fish and bringing them back to the boat, the fishermen give them back one in seven or so. The catch, so to speak, is that the birds have rings around their necks to stop them eating the first six and are on lines to stop them escaping.

POTHOLING CHINA STYLE

By far and away the most adventurous part of our stay involved a cave and a lesson in Chinese health and safety standards, or rather the severe lack thereof. As is the way with a landscape of limestone, beneath our feet, water has scoured out a contortious network of caves and a mini-industry has sprung up showing tourists these wonders. After a bit of searching around and negotiation we went with a guy who had his own private cave, hidden away amongst the hills. When I say hidden I am not exaggerating. We hitched a ride on a mobile tractor type device to the proper countryside some way from Yangshuo. We then jumped off and criss-crossed a series of mosquito infected padi-fields while the guide looked round to check no one was following. Protecting his assets. After some time and a lot of bites we arrived at a pond at the base of a limestone stack. In said pond was a water buffalo munching away. Nice scene and all, but on asking where the cave was, our guide just pointed to the pond. Oh dear.
We spotting a small narrow opening in the hill at the far side of the pond. Asked him if he was serious. He was. We shrugged our shoulders and slipped into the sludge of the water and waded over to the opening passed the bemused looking cow. Torches on, we were urged on through the opening and, feet on tiptoes, scurried along holding our heads as high as we could to stay above water. The air gap narrowed to a matter of inches, but we persevered just about keeping our faces above the murky water stretching our chins to the ceiling. As the sunlight dimmed and then disappeared, the ceiling thankfully rose, the water shallowed and we found ourselves in a limestone cavern. As you would imagine, stalactites and mites abounded. We spent the next hour or so climbing up, over and through passages which ranged from large halls of stone, to small gaps we could barely fit through. When our dim torches punctured the pitch black, they showed an undulating and twisting scenery coloured dirty beige. Time for a slightly homoerotic mud fight and then, perhaps a kilometer down the passage we made it to the waterfall. Some 15 meters high and wide, cascading from above us down to a pool below.. Quite a sight deep below the ground. What to do? Wide open eyes, deep breath and dive from high above into the cool gushing pool. Bashed by the torrent and awesome relief. Quite an experience.
Apart from a few bumps and bruises, the only thing that concerned me at the time was our torches periodically stopping working. Not a great idea to have to be knocking your tacky Chinese torches over and again to light your way deep below the earth. It was only after we re-emerged and went for a beer that it dawned on me that this was wet season, the caves were prone to flooding and what we did may have been rather stupid. Awesome fun though.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

The most comical part of our stay was an interlude in an otherwise serene day cycling though the fabled countryside. As seems to be his way, conveniently in the middle of nowhere Felix's stomach gave way. That sharp pain of travellers guts gone wrong built and built until toilet time was obligatory with immediate effect. By chance we had just passed the small dwellings of a farmer and his family. Faced between that and a padi field complete with bity things aplenty, I walked and Felix waddled up to the house.

We knocked and the family were in. Hurray for Felix! Or it would have been had we spoken the correct Chinese dialect (or perhaps any dialect) to explain our need. "Toilet" and "WC" got us nowhere, so in his desperation Felix resorted to more and more explicit hand signals until, finally and with a little shock, the family understood. While Felix sauntered into their out house making strange noises the family and I burst out laughing. Who needs a common language to share a joke!

NIGHTS TO JUST ABOUT REMEMBER AND OFF TO YUNNAN

Once the sun sets our time here has largely focused around seriously cheap local beer at what works out as less than 30p a pint (for god-sake our room only costs us about 80p per night each!), and loads of cool people. Our favourite bar is the "Green Lotus" where we have befriended most of the people who work here and in particular one of the local guys we knew as "Kevin" (those working around the touristy industry have largely supplemented their proper names with English ones given by various travellers who have passed through), and the earliest we have made it home on any night here is 3am. I mean they're open till we drop or, at least in one instance, until we hitch a home on a wobbling motorbike at first light.
Tonight is our big last night here. We will soon get to leave our mark on this part of China on the walls of the Green Lotus. Not sure what I will write, but will think of something.

Tomorrow we embark in sequence on a one hour minibus journey back to Guilin, a six plus hour bus journey to Nanning, and then a daunting seventeen plus plus hour hard-sleeper (even more uncomfortable than it sounds) train journey to Kunming in Yunnan province. That is well over 1000 km in just over 24 hours. Should all though be worth it as Kunming is our staging post for the more interesting part of Yunnan. We plan to head to Lijiang and the mountainous north-west of Yunnan. The foothills of the Himalayas and reportedly the only place in China that can match the beauty of where I am now. Can not wait!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Flashback 02: Hong Kong and first steps into the Mainland

Hong Kong to Bangkok summer 2002 - Part 1

Hong Kong is exhilarating and everything I expected. A mad urban sprawl of mass sky-scrapers on every inch of space and of all possible safety standards (mostly rotting, but just as many new ones being built). There is also an amazing array of culture and living standards, with huge wealth, depravity, seadyness (oh word is there a lot of that), refined class, authentic Chinese culture etc.
The sight of Hong Kong island skyline was simply breathtaking last night (just beating the Arabian sunset over the gulf on our stop over in Dubai), and we're going over to the island tomorrow. I am currently in and around Kowloon. We've just spent 4 hours walking around all the hectic and dirty backstreets catching the atmosphere. They really are insane. You can buy anything you could possibly imagine and a whole lot more. In fact the area just round from where I am staying has more shops and stalls per square inch than anywhere on the planet!
We are staying in the 'Garden hostel', a scruffy but friendly and dirt cheap place in a dodgy, dirty rabbit warren of a tall building in the backpacker district. I like it quite a lot actually. The only problem has been Felix's severe stomach problems (you can see that 15 times a day look on his face!) though some pills I bought from a Chinese pharmacy may do the trick.
Soon we are off to the mainland armed with 2 words in Chinese and an inability to use chop-sticks. An adventure indeed. Oh and we've decided to do an additional 2000 plus km train journey through Yunnan province and Kunming so to see some amazing scenery and approach Hanoi from the wilder north-east mountain/hill province.

GUANGZHOU AND INTO GUANXI

Where am I today? I am in Yangshou in Guanxi province in south-western China. Up to this point our journey has been quite fun, incredibly interesting and more than a bit arduous. The rest of our time in Hong Kong was cool, we saw the island itself with all the rich scrapers, and had a night out (nothing too amazing, but cool that we left the bar at our own leisure at 6:15 am). We then got a bus to the city of Guangzhou in Guandong province. Now this was a culture shock! During the 5 hour journey from Hong Kong there was not a single time when we could not see an ugly, cheap housing block. They are huge and ran in line for mile after mile after mile. I kid you not! The concept of a billion people becomes slightly more fathomable.

Guangzhou itself was quite possibly the shit-hole of humanity. About 6 million people living on top of each other in these horrible apartment blocks scrambling for space as far as the eye can see. This is one of the most developed cities in China and my word does it show that they have a long way to go in terms of both economic wealth and living standards. Below each of these buildings were scores and scores of dirty streets lined by squalid markets. We went to one of the most famous and active, where I swore they were selling and eating anything that flies, runs, jumps, crawls or slithers. Scorpions, snakes (I got a shock from walking past literally hundreds of them in a single bucket - some having escaped and crawling over the floor - would not surprise me if they were poisonous as safety standards, along with animal rights, do not seem high priority here). It was all fascinating though and we stayed in a more than reasonable hostel in the ex-colonial part.
Quite a contrast from there to here. It was a 10 hour sleeper bus (though I did not sleep much) to Guilin. "Sleeper" bus was a bit of a misnomer considering the excruciatingly squeaky and loud Cantonese pop which pumped out the stereo to poison the air. Then an hour or so south by minibus to Yangshou. Without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. This is the crawler covered stack hills and beautiful waterways illustrated in so much Chinese artwork and from first glimpses I reckon it might just live up to its reputation...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Winter in Prague

The capital of Bohemia and the Czech Republic. A city I have wanted to visit since a cousin went there on a school trip in the mid nineties and got drunk for a pound. The very reason which drew me there as a teenager, kept me away through my twenties as the hoards of uncouth and roudy British piss-heads swooped down on the city. The worst side of Brits abroad and an embarrassment. Time has though ticked on and the draws of its glorious architecture and the recommendation of Czechs I have met all over the world led me to visit this February.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

In the dark we jumped off the bus and wandered through the snow carpeted streets in the rough direction of our lodging. A feeling of great excitement, a real buzz as we criss-crossed the small winding, picturesque alleyways of one of the worlds most beautiful cities. The streets were nearly empty. Down one passageway the only person we encountered was a beggar, prostrate in front of us in quite an alarming fashion. Kneeling on the cold compacted snow, head face down just above the pavement, reaching out front, hands cupped. I have seen people beg in many ways, but this made quite an impact in the cutting cold and snow. Around another corner and we had arrived. The old town square at the heart of Stare Mesto. Straight out of gothic novel. It took my breath away. A wide open space of icy cobbles is flanked by magnificent buildings. The imposing 14th century Tynn church, grand multi-story town houses and the old town hall to name a few. On the latter hangs the medieval astronomical clock. A wondrous thing of multiple moving parts enlightening the people with the phase of the moon, stars, seasons, no less than the struggle between good and evil (enshrined by figures of perceived vice and virtue) and, yes, the time.
Quite a sight, and by little chance, we had a hotel room directly opposite. Much of the next four days were spent lounging on our window sill watching the enchanting machinations.
LOKAL AND HOCKEY

On one evening, crossing the old square past the statue of Jan Hus (a fascinating man who sowed the seeds of the reformation and was consequently burned alive by the church – love thy neighbour and all that), we meandered through the streets until we found ourselves at Lokal. A modern twist on a traditional Bohemian beerhall, Czech specialities are served in a long semi-circular white-washed vault of a room. Dumplings and goulash are washed down with the most flavoursome, refreshing, fulfilling beer that has ever flowed down my throat. This is not an exaggeration. Pilsner was invented in Bohemia and the locally brewed stuff in Lokal edged out the best I have tasted from Belgium or Germany, although there are many good contenders…

We had the fortune of meeting a lovely local couple, Marian and Katerina, who shared many insights into modern Prague with us. The city seems to be in a time of flux, in between the growth and rejuvenation post-communism, through somewhat of a blip and searching for where it wants to go next. I suspect many parts of Eastern Europe are in a similar place.
One of their best recommendations was a trip to the ice hockey, a local favourite past time and, after a few more beers and a wobbly walk home, we woke up the next day and made it happen. Sparta Prague were playing a team I had never heard of that night and, turning up in one of the uglier and less touristy areas of the city, managed to get hold of two tickets.
The ice hockey was of a good standard (obviously immeasurably superior to the Guildford Flames who I used to watch back in the nineties), but two memories stick out. Firstly the die-hard, nutty Sparta fans at one end. Despite Sparta losing, they shook the stands with their jumping and chanting. I would have loved to be amongst them to feel the intensity, but am perhaps lucky that I was not as I idiotically confused the two teams at the face off and cheered the opposition's early goal. Not clever. Secondly, the cheerleaders. OK, not the cheerleaders precisely, though they were relatively entertaining, but the ice cleaning lasses. Drawing only slightly on modern perceptions of Spartan heritage, the ladies who brushed the ice were clad in tiny, extraordinarily short white see-through togas which billowed all over the place. The half time show involved them repeatedly bending over to place pucks for fans to hit at goal and I guarantee the audience was not concentrating on those fans. Probably would not pass the politically correct smell test back home, but everyone seemed to have fun.

A SNAPSHOT

I won't go into to detail of just how impressive the highlights of Prague are, but can not resist sharing a snapshot from four glorious days exploring. Overlooked by the largest castle in the world with its giant cathedral and numerous palaces, the city slopes down via imposing medieval streets and parkland to the wide river Vltava. This body of water is crossed by the half kilometre long Charles Bridge, started in the fourteenth century and flanked by grand statues. Walking out the other end you are thrown into the cobbled touristy streets of Stare Mesto, the old town, and then into numerous intertwined districts from the garish and ugly soviet architecture of parts of Nove Mesto, to the fascinating history of the old Jewish quarter. It is images of the latter which will stay with me the longest with its centuries old synagogues and squeezed, imperceptibly slowly tumbling gravestones of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Alas, the once thriving community has nearly completely disappeared as a result of centuries of prejudice.
I found Prague and its people charming. A fascinating city of historical and contemporary culture. And you know what, avoiding a street or two you can avoid the drunk British idiots who have done so much to sour relations and, by being nothing more than civil and respectful, can convince a local or two that we are not all so base.

And one more thing from Prague...

Captured from the poshist street in the Czezh capital - the most unashamedly effective advertising I have seen in ages.


Bill Hicks would be proud!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Route II: Deutschland

What started last year as a saunter from Brussels to Paris evolved into Part I of a wider ambition. Gibraltar to Stockholm on 2 wheels with nothing but pedal-power. Part II was to be across northern Germany some 400 plus kilometres from Dortmund to Hamburg. These things seem like a good idea at the time...
Sleep deprived and hungover (you think we would learn), Dave and I found ourselves in the relatively unattractive city of Dortmund with our bikes in as many parts as we could break off to squeeze them in the extra small flight boxes. Eventually, we managed to put them back together almost correctly. Being an amateur is so much fun.Jan then turned up with much enthusiasm and his mountain bike. It is great how things like this work out. To think I met him on the first corner of the inaugural cycle last year (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2010/10/tour-de-wallonia.html) and here we are again on a new route. Uwe, another random connection from travels in Fiji and NZ (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2009/11/rock-and-ice.html), followed shortly after with his tight, tight flurescant lycra and via a night out we were rearing to go.

Off through Dortmund, we left the city centre behind with its one very impressive building (the central church) and wheeled our way through some plush neighbourhoods and then out into the countryside. Very flat and green, we followed the small cycle paths which criss-cross every other mile of this country, out to a large canal. Heading North-West through Nord-Rhein Wesphalia (the federal province), what struck me is the scale of industry. Unlike the UK, where what industry there is centres around the urban centres, here views across the countryside are broken up by factory towers, power stations and wind turbines.Our mileage was significantly curtailed by serial punctures on Uwe's tyres, a result of some off road on a road bike. Uwe's despair when it happened for the third time was comic. Well worth it in fact and it meant we settled in for the night somewhat short of our intended destination. A good thing too as Oelde contained one of the best breweries in the region - Pott's. In the interests of cultural understanding we tried all the specialities to hand.

Having only touched 90km the day before we set off early putting some fast kms under our belt. Racing in peloton down the straight semi-major roads rev'ed up the endorphins (especially when Uwe leads the way, cutting the air with his perhaps overly aerodynamic outfit). Through small towns broken up by familiar countryside we left behind the flatlands and raced down a large hill into Bielefeld. A place famous for Dr Oetke, but we only stopped in for the long overdue first wurst (sausage) of the tour. Conscious of time we pushed on to the small pretty town of Herford, where the temptation of another crisp, light, yet flavourful local beer detained us for a while in the sunshine. Ordering our beverages I remembered that this was the day of the Royal Wedding back home and, catching a glimpse on the tele in the bar, I remembered why I had run away for the weekend. Spoil sport perhaps, but given the chance I prefer not to be induced to wretch by the sight of peasants orgasming over the nuptials of inbred hangovers from history. Enough of that.
Herford was complete with copper spired church, brau-haus and cobbled central square. It is these small towns which make Germany so endearing. Unlike the cities which were largely bombed to buggery, these quaint places retain much of the charm of old Germany and we had the privilege of pedalling through many of them on this trip.

From here we met the river Weser and raced through the steep hills of the Porta Westfalica. From the crown of one of those hills a giant statue of Kaiser Wilhelm looks down on what was the most spectacular scenery of our journey. The river snaked swiftly through a lush green valley basked in the spring sunshine and then on through impressive architecture and riverside bars of Minden. After a short pit-stop in which I was surprised to discover and just about converse with members of the local Greek community (families who fled after the Greek civil war) over some gyros, we decided to push on for a final 15 km to the pocket sized picturesque town of Petershagen. In spite of an acutely painful tendon in my left knee (quite possible triggered by the embarrassment of being overtaken by a German roller-blading machine while pushing 32 kmph), this final push was well worth it.

Following one of the countless signs that litter German byways with varying degrees of helpful information (an affectionately OCD people), we spent the night in the local jail. Yup for only 20 odd euro you can spend a night behind bars in an old Nazi jail. To be more accurate, a jail bolted onto the back of the hundreds of year old grand court house and used throughout most of the 20th century to incarcerate deviating locals. And, as the landlady informed me with an odd grin, for only a couple of euros extra you can wear uniform!!


The transformation was complete. A night of beers and roaming around the town in stripy attire ensued before knocking out on a prison bunk blocking out thoughts of the previous occupants. All a bit odd. But fun.
TAG DREI


After the 130 km the day before, the saddle was a little sore, but we set off early to follow the winding Weser for most of the day. Face into the wind, we pressed on through a flat fertile land cut through by the river and skirted by wind turbines. Occasionally cutting inland through twee villages and past large triangular farm houses, we found the river again, climbed up and crossed at a damn allowing gorgeous elevated vistas.

We stopped in the bustling market town of Nienburg for the usual refuelling of copious amounts of carbs. Wurst, pastries, chocolate and more wurst. It was hot, so we guzzled more fluid and put on a sprint north along the river. Just as the legs were tiring, at least in my case, we sighted the town of Verden.

Banking the Weser with its church steeples, medieval town houses and breweries, it was a must stop. A few requisite local brews in a biergarten seemed to rejuvenate the limbs, or at least make us tipsy enough not to notice the aches, and we cycled on for another 30 km to the town of Rotenberg, arriving just before sundown.

After a couple of days passing from one idyllic town to the next we had no reason to expect anything else from Rotenberg. The clue was in the name. We wasted an evening trying to have fun in this soulless, dull, nothing of a town. Being the last day of April, it was a night famous for party in Germany, but the best we could find was an over 40's do and the worst bar I have visited in memory. Awkward unhappy looking locals, pop music and, God forbid in Germany, bad beer. Never go to Rotenberg.

Our final push the night before had left us only 80 km to Hamburg. Excellent. All we needed to do was relaxedly ride along well sign posted country roads and end up in Germany's second largest city nice and early for a celebratory knees up. That simple...

Rolling out of the town, we were flanked by dozens of already drunk youths sinking bottles of beer. An impressive feat by 10 in the morning. A local May Day tradition apparently. Germans take their drinking seriously.

We found ourselves on a very efficient, fast, straight road heading directly to Hamburg. All we had to do was keep on going. In fact, it seemed so straight forward that we decided to cut north along some slightly smaller roads to add some sights to our journey. An eventful few hours commenced...

The road we took shrank to a small country highway, then a single lane road, a gravel track, a couple of tyre tracks through a dense wood, before finally and undeniably ending. Clearly we had made a wrong turn. So what to do? Retrace our steps and find the right road like sensible people, or, what the fuck, push on trying out the theory that if we head in one direction we have to hit some other type of track eventually. Being the idiots that we are, of course we took the latter course of action.After a brief salute to the Phantom (search the blog if for some peculiar reason you want to understand more...), we pushed our bikes through bumpy fields of marsh grass, into another patch of woodland and then with a sludge into the soggy brown goo found ourselves in a swamp. A veritable, sodden, bug infested swamp. Not the optimum terrain for racing bikes! Swatting at swarms of mozzies, we picked up our bikes and soldiered on, as the idea that we were being a bit stupid filtered past the testosterone. Wet, bitten and lost we decided to make a 90 degree turn, hoping to find our originally intended path rather than conquering the rest of the swamp. Back through a forest, over fallen trees and through brush, we eventually found an abandoned shelter and followed the overgrown adjoining path to..... yup, where we started. Not a high score on the navigational skills and a lesson learned. Just not sure if the lesson was “turn back when you are going head first into a stupid situation” or “push the situation further because you are bound to find some fun”.

The inevitable Uwe flat tyre only slightly slowed us as we now did our best to make up time. In fact, we only stopped once for the undoubted draw of more sausage and a couple of local beers at a quaint village May Day celebration complete with poles, flags, uniforms and odd dancing. Much like home then.

Up, up, up a hill we pedalled for 10 kms or so until, eventually and thankfully, we reached the peak and, crouched down, used every inch of kinetic energy to surge at over 50 kpmh down the slope. Exhilarating. Awesome. A bit further and then, with a certain amount of glee, we sighted the scores of harbour cranes which introduce Hamburg.
Ugly, but impressive in scale, we cycled through the giant docklands, over spanning bridges and past piping industry. We were nearly there. An extra sprightliness invigorated the legs, grins broke across the face, my wheel caught in a tram track, I hurdled head over the handle bars, Dave swerved and ate tarmac. Nice.

440 km complete, a couple to go and we crash. Luckily for me a tuck-and-roll out of the fall left me with only a few scrapes, but Dave took a bit of a beating. A big bugger of a bruise, only a modicum of whining and some interesting shaped handle bars.What to do? What else, jump back on the bike and find the beers. Through a tunnel under the mighty Elbe and we had arrived. St Pauli, Hamburg.

Smiles, high funfs, beer, jaegar and a rather interesting night in the Reeperbahn. Been a pleasure to adorn the lycra with the boys. Can't wait for next year... just have to choose the route...