Travelogue Mauritius 7: Epilogue

Posted by cl@rks on Saturday Jun 22, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Epilogue
21-22 June 2013

We’d already made the executive decision not to bother with any of the tour options on the South of the Island (Curepipe and the volcano, Chamarel and the 7 coloured sands, the tea tour, the zoo etc), so all that remained to do on our last full day was nothing.

We slipped into the comfortable routine of our decadently multi-course breakfast and again watched in fascination as the chef at the hot buffet effortlessly flipped out our 2 perfect omelettes. He uses small cast iron frying pans each on its own gas ring. You choose your fillings from a row of dishes – cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, chillies, ham etc – and he scoops as you choose, finishing off with expertly cracking the egg/s one-handed into the bowl, giving it a quick whisk and pouring it into the pan just as the other omelette is ready for a flip (which he does with a flick of the wrist like it’s a pancake). A few seconds later and omelette 1 is ready to go and he’s wash-rinse-repeating the whole process. Quick as lightning and every omelette perfect. When asked his secret he says it comes with 25 years of doing it – and he can’t remember when last he dropped one!

Breakfast behind us, we headed down to the water for a bit of kayaking. It was really hard work because the wind was up, so the water was choppy. We’d started paddling North up the Mont Choisy public beach, but were being pulled out to sea by the current so turned to head back. Easier said than done! Although I was maintaining a steady movement, there were times when I was just staying on the spot! A lot of work for no progress, I can tell you! Amazingly though, once you pass the point where the piers on either side protect the hotel’s little lagoon, it’s another story entirely. From paddling on the spot, it almost felt like I shot forward! Hallelujah! It really was quite a work out – so lucky I had a week’s worth of sugary breakfasts to fuel the machine!

The beach crew told us that it was 10 minutes to waterski time, which made for great timing – and gave me just long enough to spend some quality time with the jewellery peddlar on the beach. Mauritius is known for pearls of course, but also haematite (a silvery black shiny stone) and sandstone (brown glittery stones from Chamarel), which are often coupled with amethyst and turquoise from Rodriguez and Madagascar. They’re also big on shamballa bracelets, made with shiny stones made from the volcano’s lava. I got a black Shamballa bracelet and a haematite necklace with black pearls… And ended up getting a matching haematite bead bracelet thanks to the skiing being delayed because the speedboat battery was dead!

There was nobody else in the queue to ski so the crew agreed that I could go for one long circuit (they’d insisted I could only have 2 short turns the first time since there were others wanting to go). The water was quite choppy from the wind, but it was still a good ride and I enjoyed it immensely.

Taxing stuff done with, the loungers called. And we succumbed to a few blissful hours of rest and relaxation.

But there’s only so long we can keep still – and this was further tested by “Music Day”, which was a seemingly endless poolside karaoke caterwauling – so early afternoon we headed off for an amble that ended up taking us the full length of the public beach, around the point, through Club Med and the (very fancy) Le Cannoniers (with its gorgeous water features and old lighthouse historical monument (which they’re using as Bob Marlin’s Kids’ Club (very cute), through Pointe Aux Cannoniers and all the way to Grand Baie. We punctuated the trek with a few Phoenix breaks when a waterside spot grabbed as and, predictably, ended up at The Beach House. No point fighting something that works.

Cabous was in attendance, looking quite (beach chic) scruffy and doing the rounds being friendly and welcoming to the patrons, who again seemed to mostly be South Africans.

We were a bit peckish by this point so ordered nachos to share. Best ever!! (Self-confessed) Dorito’s, brilliant bolognaise, salad, cheese and cheese sauce with a healthy dollop of guacamole to top it off. Perfect accompaniment to yet another perfect sunset.

Nowhere near ambitious enough to walk back (and under the gun to get back for happy hour at The Pirate) we caught the bus – with a bus stop directly outside the Beach House with the exact right bus pulling up to it at the exact right moment, how could we not?!

The Pirate was quite a bit busier than it had been on any of our previous visits. A combination of people we recognised having their parting shot, new faces having their welcome rounds and us. The waiter seemed to recognise us – although he was very poker-faced about it – and brought us chicken fritters as bar snacks instead of the usual peanuts. Very welcomed alongside a few Blue Marlins.

Dinner was again in the smaller dining room and the theme for the evening’s meal was clearly seafood. We were served crab soup and the buffet was all fruits de mer, fish pie, fresh fried fish and whatnot. Pudding was a bit disappointing for me since it was a kind of eclair thing with butterscotch sauce… But a big dollop of coffee mousse on top to ruin it all.

Nonetheless, our resort had been great and the food largely excellent; our positioning for daytrips and excursions perfect. If we had it all to do again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. On the whole, it hadn’t been as expensive as I was anticipating. Sure, resort prices are ridiculous, but with options across the road and up and down the street, this could be largely mitigated (for us, seemingly not so easy for the more remote resorts we’d seen dropping off our cruisemates). It definitely also helped to have half board, so main meals were taken care of but allowing the freedom to explore without the fear of missing out on all the lunches and teas that make up the value.

Worry of any sort messes with the island lifestyle and we can’t be having any of that!

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Travelogue Mauritius 6: Trou Aux Biches

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Trou Aux Biches
20 June 2013

With plan in mind to catch the (free) glass-bottom boat from the pier at the hotel at 9.30, we were braced for breakfast at 8.45. Deviating from the usual combination, I went “death by chocolate” and upped my usual pain chocolat with a pancake with cinnamon sugar, syrup and chocolate sauce matched with a cup of hot chocolate… Before embarking on my usual yoghurt, omelette, ham/cheese/bacon baguette story.

Sugar-rushing and ready to rumble, we were pier-side with time to spare – and alongside a German couple as our only boatmates. We alighted and settled either side of the glass-bottoms, with a very clear view of the seabed since the water is very clear and very shallow. There wasn’t much to see though; it was all sand and rocks (and water of course).

The driver took us out a bit and pointed behind us to the shore. Fascinatingly, we could see rain coming toward us in a clearly defined curtain, moving from over the forest behind the public beach, toward us from the North. Before we knew it fascination turned to horror and we were getting pelted (well, engulfed by light drizzle that was at an angle to cut straight below our tarpaulin roof) and getting drenched! Luckily, the rain moved very quickly over us – and of course it’s warm so not so bad… and our objective was after all to jump in the sea so, by definition, to get wet anyway.

But not yet apparently.

Somehow, the skipper’s attention had been diverted by a passing dive boat that had cut out so we ended up performing a towboat function to shore. Maybe not so bad as we towed them to the beach at Trou Aux Biches, which looked gorgeous and to be a perfect afternoon excursion.

Finally, we were back out to sea and ready to start snorkelling… Only to find we were one set short for our little group. Christian and I were to be sharing a set, so I took the mask and snorkel first and we jumped off the boat. The water was fab and warm but the current quite strong, pulling to the North. No a concern though because we had no particular course, so just bobbed around checking out the thousands of small brightly coloured fish swimming beneath us.

Then disaster struck. I passed the mask to Christian and the elastic snapped as he was putting it on. And it fell out his hands. And sank. The water wasn’t very deep, with us being able to stand on tippy-toes on some of the bigger rocky outcrops on the sandbed. We tried this to get a better look at where the mask had fallen, but only succeeded in getting some toes shredded from the unsteady footing. The German chap swam over to help, but was a little too leisurely so by the time he reached us, we weren’t even sure whether we’d moved position because of the current and even less sure what it might have done with the mask! We swam around for a bit looking out on the off chance we’d spot it, but with neither of us having a mask and only one snorkel between us, there was slim chance of anything productive coming of it.

We got back to shore a little disheartened, but it didn’t last long and we were soon cheery again on our trusty poolside loungers. After a couple of hours of reading and relaxing, we were ready to head off to see what Trou Aux Biches had to offer.

The walk down the main beach road was very pleasant, with decent pavements lined with cheery bright bougainvillea and of course the intermittent beach views. The wasn’t very much to see or do at Trou Aux Biches though (just a few souvenir shops) so we decided to walk a bit further in the hope of finding a lunch spot on the beach. No such luck. We walked all the way to Pointe Aux Pimentes (about halfway to Port Louis if the map we were using is to scale!) and didn’t find anywhere suitable… So we turned around and walked home.

No loss though, it was a very pleasant walk. And we did eventually get lunch – across the road from our hotel at The Pirate! Nothing fancy, just shared a pizza (they put chicken on their Regina as standard. Genius!) and a few Blue Marlins, but it was great.

By then it was 4pm, so we moved back to the hotel and spent a few hours playing games at a table at the end of the lunch deck with the waves lapping beneath us, watching the sunset. Simple pleasures.

We played until dark, then returned to the room to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was yet another masterpiece, with a Chinese theme for the usual 4 courses. Chicken noodle soup to start, with a plated assortment of bitesize Chinese treats to follow; then a stirfry buffet (chicken, beef and pork all equally delicious!) and a rice pudding to close.

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Travelogue Mauritius 5: Mont Choisy & Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 20, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy & Grand Baie
19 June 2013

Our concerted efforts to already charter the North, West and East coasts combined with our growing ambivalence toward the central and Southern “attractions”, moved us to decide that an agenda of nothingness at our own resort was to be the order of the day.

We managed to be at breakfast by 9 and made a leisurely lion’s feast of the fares for the better part of an hour, with little else on the itinerary bar a wander down to the watersports to see what might take our fancy.

That turned out to be an easier decision than anticipated since some schmuck had broken the (only) skis the day before, we’d missed the morning snorkeling trip and Christian’s injury precluded the pedelo, so kayaking it was to be. Nice enough, enjoying the sea and sun – and clever to start against the current to make for an easy return journey.

The tough stuff done, we made for a dip in the pool (not to be Captain Obvious, but the sea is very salty) and some downtime on the loungers; books in hands, anticipating the most challenging part of the rest of the day to be coping with the Sade (album, seemingly on repeat)… Then the rain came. Nothing to write home about – just a gentle drizzle, from patchy clouds and without affecting the temperature – so we moved to the covered patio to see if it was worth waiting out.

The entertainment staff at this resort are very exuberant, taking any opportunity to chat, try and rope you into some activity or another or generally ensure you’re having (their idea of) a good time. The head animator caught us and soon was plying us with riddles and challenging us to solve visual riddles with little pieces of stick he carries around in his pocket. Fortunately, the seemingly arb points he kept awarding us soon amounted to a cocktail reward, but we decided to leave on a high and go to Grand Baie for lunch.

Of course, once we were showered, dressed and on the bus, the sun came out and belted down all afternoon!

Nonetheless, it made for a very pleasant afternoon at the Beach House, where we wetted with ice-cold Phoenix draughts and whetted with a delicious creamy marlin in white wine pasta and a chicken and prawn curry and rice. We’d hoped to catch up with our new friends from Cape Town, but the poor wi-fi signal our side and their poor mobile network connection their side was making comms by any of the usual methods a challenge. Sadly, when we managed to chat later, it seems our forays in Grand Baie had overlapped so we could easily have hooked up!

We caught the bus back to Mont Choisy, but jumped off halfway to enjoy a sunset walk along the beach. Amazingly, not only are the roads and beaches spotless, but we passed a team of ladies raking the needles and cones from the thicket that runs between the road and the sand. Job creation or not, their contribution certainly makes this island life idyllic!

Sundowners and backgammon saw us through to dinner – yet another meal… And 4 courses of it to boot! Chicken soup and feta salad served to start, buffet main where we had pesto spaghetti with spicy lamb meatballs (and tried the fish parcels wrapped in cabbage), then a multi-layered chocolate and vanilla cake with custard to end.

Amazed at how doing so little can make one so tired, we mastered a chill evening with a few episodes of our newest find, Seed.

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Travelogue Mauritius 4: Ile Aux Cerfs

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Jun 19, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Ile Aux Cerfs
18 June 2013

Having settled into island life quite quickly but thoroughly, a 7am wake-up seemed like a tall order… Although a necessary evil for our full day catamaran cruise and waterfall tour on the East coast. Tightly securing caution from the wind, we set 2 alarms and requested a wake-up call from reception to ensure that we were up and out in time for our collection, and a hearty breakfast beforehand.

I’d plotted and planned the breakfast element, reckoning that there was no need to rush the carbo-loading since we’d been briefed that the tour starts with a cross-country drive from our position in the North-West to our departure point dead East, pausing to pick up other passengers en route. My logic allowed a decadently leisured lingering on the yoghurts, pastries and juices based on the premise of the other type of carbo-loading – loading the proteins into a handy carb take-away. Baguettes are perfect for that! It was a cinch packing a 1-egg omelette, a handful of ham, a chunk of cheese and a healthy smattering of bacon into a forearm of French roll and twisting a serviette nappy-style around the bottom to keep everything together.

With that, we were off with our new taxi-mates – 5 sullen Indian oldies from Durban at the back (1 with an annoying wheezy throat-clearing cough and splutter thing, which grew tired very quickly) and their 6th riding up front with the driver, telling stories of SA corruption and how unsafe and sad everything is (not the stories we should be taking overseas with us).

Fortunately, the next couple we picked up was a lot more up tempo and there was soon a better vibe all round. They are from Cape Town… And we were hardly surprised when the next pick-up was a couple from Jo’burg! We did mix things up a bit when the last passengers turned out to be a couple from Maputo, on holiday celebrating his 45th birthday.

We were dropped off at the docks and handed over our shoes (which was mandatory, and a little unsettling) at the jetty and alighted the speedboat taking us out to the catamaran. We were joined there by the other half of the tour group – a herd of animatedly excited Chinese people and a young British couple.

After a brief induction to their catamaran, how things work about and the running order for the day, we settled ourselves on the big nets at the front – (coincidentally?) alongside all the other Southern Africans. We were the first to order drinks – Stags, the only local beer we’d yet to try – which seemed to set the trend and soon there were clinking bottles cheering good health and happy birthdays on our side of the boat, while the Chinese girls busied themselves taking photos (of themselves and us) and making their first (of what proved to be many) outfit changes.

The weather had started off good, but unfortunately it got a bit cloudy and windy, neither of which are ideal conditions for our exposed position. Things improved somewhat when we sailed into the sheltered lagoon where we were anchoring to take the speedboat transfer to what had just been referred to as “The Waterfall” up to this point and which we assumed would be quite some spectacle. Well, you know what they say about assumption.

The waterfall turned out to be little more than 10 metres (maybe, tops) at a dead-end junction not wide enough to allow 2 speedboats simultaneously. The driver of the speedboat ahead of us was delighting his passengers with daredevil back and forthing, wetting the people at the front as he darted toward the waterfall, close enough for them to be showered with spray, then backing up quickly again. Our driver wasn’t quite as much a prankster, though he did get close enough for us to get a light spritz (which enthused the Chinese no end, happy-snapping pics of us since the South Africans all happened to be at the nose of the boat).

All in all, it was a bit of an oversold but underwhelming element of the tour… Although it was a laugh (probably because of the Stags and the – likely uncoincidental – good humour of our group).

Next on the agenda was the BBQ lunch on-board the catamaran, which again proved to be a bit disappointing. I suppose it’s tough to bulk cater for people, using only the limited galley space and a small braai grill on the back of the boat… And even worse to grill for South Africans when it’s such a big part of our lifestyle that our standards are so high. Needless to say, very average rice, coleslaw and pasta salad and hopelessly overdone and sat-too-long chicken and fish weren’t the lavish on-deck feast the pictures on the sales materials had presented. At least we hadn’t upgraded to the lobster lunch (served in the same sorry state) as the Mozambicans had done in light of their birthday celebrations.

After lunch we were speedboated to our afternoon on the island, Ile Aux Cerfs. It was lovely. With the lagoon and beaches sheltered from the wind, we were able to properly enjoy the golden sands and azure waters. It’s not very far from the mainland (opposite Le Tousserok) and has an 18 hole golf course in the middle that the fancy resorts on East coast can access by speedboat. On the beach itself there is a bar and restaurant, ice-cream hut, plenty of loungers and enthusiastic waitrons milling around to cater to your fancy, but we opted to rather take a turn around the art and craft market and then chill with the Cape Town couple, swapping stories, sharing tour tips and generally having a marvellous time frittering the day away.

All too soon it was time to get back on the speedboat to get to the catamaran for the return journey (to the coast to catch the taxi transfer back across the island). The journey back seemed quicker than the ambling sail in the morning – perhaps sailing with the tide, perhaps the company and the merriment from the Stags – slowed only by our occasional wander into a sandbank, which we seemed to just wait out until the tide drifted us over it. Very island-style.

We were all relieved to get our shoes back – most in the firm belief that we’d seen the last of them – and it was a very different ride back in the van, mostly because the Indian oldies had predictably gotten there first and placed themselves 2-by-2 in the row seats, so we were split up and inserted among them, which livened the whole bus somewhat with group chatter, meaningful glances and giggling. I was positioned next to Cough and Splutter, but that wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits (nor raise theirs).

We waved goodbye to our friends from the day, having enjoyed their company immensely – and having made promises to meet up for lunch in Grand Baie later in the week. Having seen more of the island, we realised how fortunate we were to have chosen to be based in Mont Choisy – an easy bus ride to Grand Baie and Port Louis and on a road with several entertainment options, whereas these resort ‘estates’ are far more remote, no doubt having anything and everything you might need contained inside… At extortionate hotel prices. We also have a small resort with probably 60 or so rooms horse-shoed around the central area, whereas the resorts that we’d seen on the East coast all seemed much bigger with several hundred rooms. I’m sure that there are upsides associated with that kind of scale, but I prefer our homely spot, with more than we need and being able to come and go and feed our whimsy as the mood takes us.

We were very pleased to reach our hotel and get a shower and fresh clothes on, in time to make our way to dinner, which had been moved to the smaller restaurant upstairs to better accommodate the smaller winter (can’t believe this is their winter!) complement of guests. Another magnificent meal, with spicy fish soup followed by a mini pizza, with a buffet for mains. We had a few smaller portions of everything with guinea fowl, roast beef and lasagne from the main buffet and a delicious tagliatelle bolognaise from the pasta mini-buffet.

Another day successfully done and dusted in Mauritius!

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Travelogue Mauritius 3: Port Louis

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Port Louis
17 June 2013

We’re settling in nicely with the breakfast routine and got a slightly earlier start having not had the travel lag to wear off. Meats, cheeses, yoghurts to start; omelette, sausages, bacon and beans for main… And a cheese, ham and bacon baguette for the road.

Feeling confident about the public transport system, we set off for the bus stop across the road in the direction of Port Louis. Even with 2 false starts (buses headed to other parts of the island), we still only had a 10 minute wait, tops. The 16km bus ride shouldn’t have taken as long as it did (about 45 minutes), but these buses stop ridiculously often with some bus stops as little as 50 metres apart – although it doesn’t cause the chaos it would cause at home, even though most roads are single carriageway, because there is much less traffic and congestion. Probably because there are convenient and affordable buses so people don’t need cars.

We took the bus to the end of the line – the Port Louis Bus Terminus and consulted the map we’d acquired at the hotel to determine that we were across the highway from the waterfront and on the same road as the market. Looking up to the hill on the left we could see the Citadel, so were optimistic that it’s be easy enough for us to get to the (only) 3 things we wanted to do in this city.

We started with the market, which is a few blocks of stalls and shops, fortunately closed off for cars since the pedestrian traffic is manic enough! We soon discovered that everyone sells a combination of the same things – knock-off clothing, souvenirs, spices, pashminas and pearls. It made shopping easy though and a few simple price comparisons and some haggling and we had the few items we wanted. Thankfully, there were very few hecklers, so largely is was a painless experience (although this could just be relative to the last few places I’ve been, which can be a shopper’s heaven or a nightmare, depending on one’s patience levels).

The city is laid out in a neat grid, although it doesn’t feel like it with the veering on and off pavements to avoid stalls, shoppers and general people-traffic. The only trouble we had finding our way to the Citadel was the fact that none of the street names are marked – and for a big grey building on a hill it is surprisingly tricky to spot as you get closer, thanks to the narrow streets and multi-storey (but no means skyrise) buildings. Nonetheless, we managed to find it and, a short steep hike later, we were standing in the battlements and enjoying what must be the best view of the city.

The Citadel was built by the British and named Fort Adelaide after the King’s wife. It was thought to be built to protect the 1,000 odd British settlers that were here when they changed the slavery laws and emancipated the French’s slaves. It was thought that this would lead to strife, which didn’t seem to happen and, like Durban, they just imported cheap Indian labourers to work the sugarcane fields instead.

Being a relatively young city, there isn’t much else of historical importance to see, besides the Black Penny Museum… Which we went past, but didn’t bother going into, on our walk along the esplanade at the Waterfront. We did almost go into the Keg & Marlin on the promenade, but decided against it thinking that since we’d managed to avoid KFC, Steers and Debonairs, we might as well maintain the day as authentically Mauritian.

The Waterfront doesn’t hold much of interest, just a few glossy buildings with label-brand shops and the to-be-expected handful of restaurants and cafes. It is clean and pleasant though and the waters relatively clean and clear for a working harbour.

Having completed the full circle of the town, we headed back to the bus terminus and – with some difficulty since it was obviously school-leaving time for the day and there was a mess of scholars everywhere – found our bus stop. Luckily, there was a bus to Trou Aux Biches (the next stop down from ours) about to depart. Not so luckily, we had to stand… Which proved to be quite a challenge as the bus jerked and jiggled down the narrow roads. I’m sure that the school kids behind us were having a good giggle at our jellying, but at least those on either side of us had the good manners to just stare.

We got back well in time to enjoy a refreshing swim and admire the sunset from the comfortable vantage point of a poolside lounger, then retire to our balcony for some Vonta and backgammon until dinner.

Dinner was a plated soup (consomme) and starter (divine chicken and mushroom vol au vent type pie thing), then buffet main course (we opted for rare steaks, egg and veg chow mein and crispy skinny chips). There was a pancake buffet for dessert, but we just didn’t have any room!

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Travelogue Mauritius 2: Grand Baie

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 18, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Grand Baie
16 June 2013

We set off from the hotel at about 2pm for our excursion to spend the afternoon in Grand Baie. We’d had advice from the chaps from Durban the night before that the island was easily navigated by buses, which were easy enough to catch since our hotel was positioned on the main beach road between Port Louis (the capital) and Grand Baie (the tourist haven, teeming with entertainment options and nightlife). This opinion had been verified by another fellow (coincidentally also from Durban) we’d met at our morning skiing session. So, on leaving the hotel, we politely declined the taximan at the door, offering a ride to Grand Baie for 500 Rupees. A few minutes wait at the bus stop 50m down the road and we alighted for a bargain 22 Rupees each.

The buses are a bit shabby, but not dirty, so the savings were a welcome tip – especially since Grand Baie was only a 4.5km ride away.

Being a Sunday afternoon, most of town was closed, including most of the highbrow label stores in Sunset Boulevard, which is a mall made up of quaint little cottages each housing a small store. This didn’t matter to us as it wasn’t what we were after anyway and we were quite happy to wander up and down the waterfront and beachroad, stopping to look here and there, but mainly just getting our bearings.

Some time later, we took a break in a lively spot called The Beach House – bright and white-washed, overlooking the sea – with an ice cold Phoenix draught in hand. It was only as we were leaving that we spotted all the posters and plaques in the entrance and realised that it’s Cabous Van Der Westhuizen’s bar. Perhaps this was why the tables on either side of us were all South Africans. Or perhaps not; this island is full of Saffer tourists (like us)!

Needing to fuel the rest of our sight-seeing, we did an on-the-run take-away from a bright green foodtruck on the beachfront that had a mouthwatering chicken donner displayed. It was served with all the usual schwarma trimmings and sauces… But on a baguette of course! It was a great sandwich!

We’d done some tour price comparisons as we went and stopped in at our operator of choice to confirm a cruise on the East island and waterfalls for Tuesday. 100 Rupees cheaper than the lowest price we’d had – and a third of Ziad’s price!

Pleased with our purchases, we celebrated at Cokoloko, taking advantage of their 4-7 happy hour “1 litre Big Daddy beers for 160 Rupees”, with the box of popcorn they served alongside, which for me was a win compared to the endless flow of nuts served everywhere else.

Not wanting to miss out on our already-favourite happy hour at the Pirate, we got to the bus stop for 5.30 and were soon on a jam-packed bus headed back to Mont Choisy. While it’s easy enough to catch a bus to our area because of where we’re positioned between Grand Baie and Port Louis, we learned that some buses are better than others route-wise and we had taken one that veered inland a bit where we were coastside. No mind though, the conductor was kind enough to point out the best disembarkation point for us and we had no more than a few hundred metres walk to get back to our hotel.

…at quarter past six, with plenty of time to relax at the Pirate, sip a Phoenix, recap our day and discuss plans for the week ahead before we were due at dinner, which only stats at 19h30. We were in no rush, so even made time to induct our balcony with a few games of backgammon, sipping on Vonta (Fanta and vodka).

Dinner was a completely different format, being a 4-course set menu rather than all the previous buffets. I was a bit worried about this, being the fussy eater I am, but it turned out all good with a creamy soup starter; shrimp and pineapple cocktail; mixed grill and berry cheesecake.

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Travelogue Mauritius 1: Mont Choisy

Posted by cl@rks on Monday Jun 17, 2013 Under Travelogue

Mauritius – Mont Choisy
15 June 2013

How very early 5am is in winter! Especially when you’ve been out on the red wine the night before… And you’re so excited for your holiday that you wake up at 3.30, afraid you’ll oversleep (and end up getting up at 4.30, half an hour before the alarm goes off!) Fortunately, Mother was uncharacteristically on-time so we were bags packed (in her new car) and en route to the airport (in fully econo mode) with time to spare.

… Which we wisely spent at Wimpy, carbo-loading for the journey ahead.

Good thing too because, while our short 4 hour hop of a flight was just about back-to-back feeding, we’d never have lasted through the first 2 rounds of snacks to have our first main meal “lunch” at 11. A really respectable ravioli though, well done BA!

We landed at the Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, which is in Plaine Magnien at the very south of the island while our accommodation was at the very north. This isn’t as daunting as it seems, as we soon found out with an easy 40 minute (private car) commute. Like in Sri Lanka, we found ourselves on the only highway on the island, fortunate that it ran exactly from where we departed to where we wanted to go. Hardly surprising though, since Mauritius is only 65km from north to south and 45km east to west, so nowhere is really far from anywhere else!

Our driver initially took us to the wrong resort, but was soon sanctified when it was apparent that it was an easy mistake to make with Mont Choisy comprising several resorts, hotels, motels and villas… Most with Mont Choisy in the name! Second attempt fruitful, we discovered Hotel Mont Choisy Coral Azur to be our home for the week. We hadn’t even taken our bags out the car when the driver pulled up because the resort seemed fancier than we expected but, to our surprise and delight, this was it… sparkling pool, loungers, palm trees, blue skies and even bluer sea!

We checked in and the porter escorted us to our room, 218, a lovely upstairs suite with private balcony overlooking the gardens and the Indian Ocean beyond. The room is mostly an obscenely large bed (made up of 2 three-quarters side-by-side), reassuringly made with just a mountain of pillows, a sheet and a purely decorative runner – in contrast to the down duvets and electric blankets at home.

We’d checked in at about 5pm and in the quick once-over of our room and discovery of our balcony we realised we were in the midst of our first Mauritian sunset, so decided to do a quick up-and-down our road while it was still light.

A short adventure revealed a road generously dotted with holiday accommodation, restaurants and shops. We spotted signage for a supermarket (which we wanted to visit to buy stocks for our minibar since the hotel prices were predictably extortionate), but couldn’t seem to find the shop. Arrows pointing in both directions but the centre point seemed to be an Indian restaurant on one side (bannered as Indian, but also serving Chinese and pizza!) and a clothing shop on the other. We were flummoxed, so decided to consider our next moves over a beer at Le Bay des Pirates – a decorated-to-death bar, restaurant and dancefloor with thatch overhangs, banana trees, barrel bar tables and a wooden boat centrepiece. It was 6.05 on Saturday and they offered a Happy Hour from 6-7 on weekends, so it seemed like kismet!

We tried the local Phoenix, which is quite strong tasting and bitter, and then the Blue Marlin, which is equally strong but sweeter. And then tried each again to secure our first impressions.

The only other patrons were an entertaining couple – Terry and Antony from Durban – who’d been to Mauritius before and had lots of sage advice for us, and who were generally well-travelled so we shared anecdotes about the highs and lows of various places. They also solved the mystery of the missing supermarket for us, explaining that you have to go through the clothing store to get to it. Thinking they meant “past” rather than “through”, we nipped back to the clothing store. True as nuts, you have to go through the clothing store, through the ensuing souvenir store and only then get to the supermarket! Three stores armadillo’ed all using the same entrance! We stocked up on water, Fanta and a couple of cans of variant of Phoenix – lighter and with lemon – that would serve as poolside wetties for the following day.

Having not eaten in a few hours, grumbling tums encouraged us to return to Coral Azur for our dinner (since we’d booked half board so our breakfast and dinners were included). We were met with a sumptuous buffet with everything you can think of and piled plates high with an odd mix of a bit of everything – pasta, roasted chicken, curry, sausage stew…

Full and tuckered (even though it had only been a 4 hour flight, commuting had taken the entire day), we turned in early and watched a few episodes of series on the laptop (real 2013 travellers) before turning in.

A gloriously long night’s sleep later, we made no rush to up and out to breakfast, served until 10. When we did, we discovered it was a beautiful clear-skied, sunny day – perfect for a leisurely breakfast on poolside deck. We plotted our day over cold meats, cheeses, yoghurts and full fry-up, deciding to try the watersports first, lounge at the pool until our meeting with our tour operator at 1.45 and then catch a bus to Grand Baie for the afternoon.

Taking a walk to the beach, we presented ourselves at the hut that serves as hub for the hotel’s watersports. The staff all speak good English and are friendly and very helpful. A pleasant surprise that the hotel includes the usual non-motorised activities (kayaks, windsurfs, lazer boat, pedelo etc) as well as a range of motorised (water-skiing, inflatables, glass-bottom boat snorkelling etc) all for free!

We started with the water-skiing. Despite a decade or more since the last time I skied, I had no trouble getting up and thoroughly enjoyed my laps on the smooth-as-glass open waters. Christian wasn’t so lucky and aggravated an existing rugby groin injury, likely ending his skiing possibilities for the holiday. Nonetheless, we were able to grab kayaks and took a trip up and down either side of the coast – even able to catch a rather spirited local church service on the seafront on the public beach a few properties down.

While we weren’t out for long, kayaking takes a different kind of fit and, lacking upper body strength as I do, I was grateful to have a lovely sit by the pool for an hour to relax after the morning’s activities.

Our tour operator, Ziad, met us at 1.45 to run through the “what to do” options on the island. The guys at the resort’s beach hut had told us about some of the tours that operate from the hotel and we were horrified when Ziad’s prices averaged three times what we’d been told! This made us more resolute to get another opinion in Grand Baie before committing to anyone. We politely let Ziad finish and headed out the hotel for our outing to Grand Baie.

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Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 24, 2013 Under Travelogue

FES
23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! :D

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Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Apr 23, 2013 Under Travelogue

VOLUBILIS – MEKNES
22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! ;)

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Travelogue China 5: Xi’An

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Sep 3, 2014 Under Travelogue

XI’AN
30 August 2014

Not being ones for early-to-bed, it was too tough to stick to our self-imposed 9pm bedtime and we were still pretty chuffed to make it by 10(ish).

There was something very unnatural about a 3.30 wake-up call, but we forced ourselves to get up and out and met our driver at 4am as planned for the cross-city taxi to the airport. We got to the airport in plenty of time (in fact, it wasn’t even open yet), which had us first in the queue with plenty of time to argue with the airline about our (very) overweight luggage.

We were disappointed to arrive to pelting rain in Xi’An (literally translated as “peace of the West”). While one half was trying to silver-line the “it could have been like this all holiday”, there was a definite “why today of all days?!” half bringing us down. Fortunately, our (private) tour guide, Bryan, and his sidekick, driver Charlie Wong, shared a very sunny disposition so we were soon optimistic that the day wouldn’t be a complete wash.

Another small town… of 10 million people… Xi’An has been a town of historical significance for being the birthplace and centre for many Emperors’ rule, most notably in the short but important Qin (pronounced “Chin”) Dynasty who ruled Chou (as China was then known) from 220 – 206 BC. The Qins first unified China – hence it was renamed after them – and formalised the Chinese script and currency.

Xi’An remained capital through the “Golden Age” of the Tang Dynasty some 1300 years ago, with a – very substantial, for then – population of 2 million people. The city was renown for arts and culture and sent envoys around the world to bring back artefacts from other countries, including a giraffe from Africa which had been thought to be a mythical creature!

We faced a terrible traffic jam, which extended the usual 23 minute trip to the Terracotta Warriors to almost 2 hours. A little disheartened, we suggested lunch before the Warriors tour as we’d eaten little all morning (since 3.30am and it was now after 12!) thanks to our 5* hotel packing us a very poor takeaway breakfast consisting of 4 crusty pastries, 1 coffee and an apple – to share! It was a good call, not just to avoid rushing the warriors, but also because serendipitously the hardest rain poured down while we were in our cosy local eatery slurping up a noodle soup and wolfing down a “Xi’An burger” (pulled pork in toasted pita) and portion of pork dumplings.

Spirits a little restored, we entered the Terracotta Warriors complex.

Nothing like we expected, the Warriors are being excavated in large domed warehouses with neat permanent-structure entrance halls explaining what you’re going to be seeing and where it all fits in the (real-life) Dynasty saga.

The Warriors were discovered in 1974, quite by accident by a farmer who was looking for a spot to dig a well and stumbled on some artefacty stuff, which he reported to the government. They gave him 5 Yuan (R8,75) for his efforts and, since all the land in China belongs to the government (the people only have lease on the properties they build on the land not the land itself), their excavation began. The farmer has made himself somewhat of a local celeb though, availing himself a few mornings a week to man a table in the foyer and sign coffee table books. Our morning happened to be one such and we caught a glimpse of this modern day hero in the flesh (but didn’t buy a book since they were all in Chinese).

Emperor Qin’s are located 1,5km from Emperor QinShihuang’s mausoleum, symbolising the main defending force that guarded the capital before the Emperor died (bearing in mind he started building it when he was 25 and died at 39). Their tomb was in place to protect the Emperor’s tomb and be in place for him when he returned to the after-life.

Walking into the first pit, you can’t help but catch your breath. It’s everything you heard it would be and so much more than the pictures prepare you for! 236 metres long and 62 metres wide, it’s estimated to contain 6,000 warriors and horses. Even with only about a third currently excavated, its visual overload. Rows and rows of soldiers facing forward; each one hand crafted with a unique outfit and face, not a single one moulded or duplicated. Unbelievably sophisticated sculpture on such a large scale for now, let alone 2 millennia ago!

Closer inspection reveals the exquisite detail. Hair styles, headwear, shoes and other detail indicate rank (remember this is an army, after all). Each soldier has fingernails and even palmprints! Most of the soldiers’ expressions are sombre or sad, likely reflecting the feelings of the artists who were forced to create them (all Chinese men were subject to one month a year conscription to perform such projects for the Emperor); the bellies of the higher ranked officers are slightly bloated to reflect their pre-battle “liquid courage” indulgence.

The soldiers were made, hollow around a clay coil, off-site and transferred to their positions down the ramps found in each corner of the pit, dug to about 5 metres below ground level. They were placed – interspersed with a few warhorses and chariots (which were made of wood, but can be seen in the fossilised remains) – in rows of 4, each soldier on their own tile stand, on a road made of bricks that are still in tact (2,200 years later!) and bear the imprint signature of their producer! The corridors are divided by clay walls that supported the huge wooden pole rafters covered with mats, earth fill and tilled earth that sealed the Warriors’ tomb and completely concealed them from above.

Sadly: enemies at the time looted the pits for their bronze weapons; the pits collapsed and crushed lots of the soldiers; over time the local people had been using the ground above for burial plots and tombs; and the initial excavation had revealed painted soldiers, but exposure to the light and air made the paint peel within a fortnight… so much of the history is lost to us forever.

… but…

The archeologists have done an incredible job of puzzle-piecing the remnants together (and maintaining the integrity of the pieces in their repair jobs) so it’s still a very worthwhile excursion AND they have stopped unearthing more soldiers until they get a handle on how to preserve the paint, so there’s something to look forward to in the future when they get that right.

Pit 2 is just as interesting – if not just much less spoken-about. Located 20 metres from Pit 1, Pit 2 is in an L shape, 124 x 98 metres, covering 6,000 square metres. The contents are a mixture of the military forces – archers, war chariots, cavalrymen and infantrymen – who appear independently, but could presumably assemble to constitute a complete battle formation when required, as was the distinct style of the Qin military strategy.

While the soldiers were slightly larger than life (to appear stronger and more powerful), the other objects are only proportions of real-life since they believed at that time that the Emperor would come back half size in the next life. So, Pit 2 was a collection of half-size horses and carriages. Or maybe, my sceptical nature says, the half-size superstition suited the frugal Emperor as he made the soldiers from cheap terracotta, but the carriages and horse accessories were all bronze, silver, gold, alloys…

Pit 3 is a 520 square metre U shape 29 metres long by 25 metres wide. From its contents, it’s surmised that this was the army’s Command Centre. Sadly, it was badly destroyed in history, so reveals only 68 pottery figures, 1 chariot and 34 bronze weapons. Swords had chrome plating with a thickness of 10 to 15 micron to act as a protective cover, which is interesting seeing as the Germans and Americans only “invented” chrome plating in 1937 and 1950!

The last thing to visit is the Emperors Mausoleum, with its 81 satellite pits with all sorts of treasures and resources. Offsite (but only 10 minutes away) the Mausoleum Museum is a bit lacklustre after the Warrior pits (which is probably why it only costs 90 Yuan and the Warriors cost 150).

The view in the pits is from above, through glass floors, which is kinda cool, but the lighting is very low (ostensibly to preserve the artefacts) so you can’t see as well as you can in the Warrior pits. There are lots of very well laid-out glass case exhibits, but the artefacts are quite unexciting (crockery, decor, tools, stamps etc) as compared.

It’s estimated that the population of China back then, 2200 years ago, was about 30 million people. 1 million were soldiers and of the rest, about 700,000 people’s national duty conscription was dedicated to this project… which is estimated to have cost as much as one third of the country’s GDP. He had a fully manned and functional palace above the ground – even after his death, with servants continuing their duties and serving food to his empty seat at the royal table “feeding his soul” – and an impressive ready-for-action battalion below the ground. The Emperor does seem (from today’s pragmatic perspective) to have been a bit cooked, allocating all that time and resources to setting everything up for his next life. But thank goodness he did – it’s a spectacular worthy of its arguable title as “8th Wonder of the World”.

It’s a pity that the rain and the traffic jam cost us seeing the other sights of Xi’An from our original tour plan. I don’t think it counts that we saw lovely pictures of the bell and drum towers, city walls, Big Goose Pagoda, Muslim Quarters etc from a delightfully detailed pictorial article in the inflight magazine on our way back to Beijing! Almost a good enough reason to go back and spend another day with our friendly tour guide, Bryan Bai, and his affable driver, Charlie Wong.

See more on Bryan Bai (historytourguide@gmail.com): http://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Attraction_Review-g298557-d4508098-Reviews-Xi_an_Private_One_day_Tour_Guide_Bryanbai-Xi_an_Shaanxi.html

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Travelogue China 4: Shanghai

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Sep 3, 2014 Under Travelogue

SHANGHAI
28-29 August 2014

With a name translating to “high sea” for its coastal positioning, Shanghai is a city of 26 million people (bigger than Beijing) concentrated on 80,000 square km (the size of Suzhou) so very crowded. Driving into the city from our 3 hour commute from Hangzhou, we could see right away that Shanghai is very different to the other cities we’d seen.

Having a long and mottled history all of its own, Shanghai had been one of the 4 dragons of China (alongside Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore) for economic and trade reasons during wartime, where neutrality was important for continued prosperity. This sustained external interaction has left Shanghai with a dialect all of its own, Shangainese, influenced by Japanese and English, but most of the local people speak Shanghainese and Mandarin (like the rest of China).

Predictably, first order of business on arrival was lunch, which we enjoyed at a stunning traditional restaurant on The Bund (waterfront of sorts), with very tasty food that was very flavourful with seasoning.

Having little perspective, we didn’t realise how well located our restaurant was until after lunch when we had free time to explore and take pictures. Directly above the restaurant was the People’s Heroes column, which was also the perfect vantage point to view across the bay at the skyline that included the distinctive dusky pink Pearl of the Orient Tower and, to me at least, looked like a much bigger version of Hong Kong.

The cool thing was that the next item on the agenda was to head over to that side of the river and go up one of the skyscraper towers to see the exact reverse panorama! The buildings are so so tall that many of then disappear into the clouds! We took the 45 second elevator ride to the 88th floor and could see for miles through the ceiling to floor glass walls. A nice touch was a voucher for a commemorative item – a pearl that was shelled right in front of us. Mine and Mother’s were almost identical (and completely different to our tourmates’!), so I gave mine to her to make a matched set of earrings.

We then had an hour or 2 to wander around the Shanghai Museum, which had some awesome exhibits on jewellery, traditional dress, currency and seals… but, disappointingly, the calligraphy exhibits were closed for renovation and I think these might have been the highlight.

Having not eaten for a whole four hours, we were rushed off to dinner (at 5.30!), in advance of our river cruise from Qin Huang Dao Road Wharf. We were well in time and waiting patiently with our tickets in hand when the gates were opened to let us right to the boat. Bizarrely, there was a mad rush and seemingly disproportionate jostling to squeeze through the turnstile. I had an old biddy with her elbows in my back (my very lower back as she couldn’t have been taller than my armpit), who sprinted off (relatively speaking) after she cleared the ticket check. All only became clear once we were on the boat – the oldies were rushing for a window seat in the cabin! If only they’d said – we had no interest in being inside with the spectacular views and photo opps on the upper deck.

Mr Lee told us that Shanghai is like a lady,who dresses up and puts on all her make up at night to look her absolute best. Well, it must take a lot of electricity to power the commitment to neon that makes this lady pretty! But the effect is well worth it – the taller than tall buildings and distinctive landmarks make for a stunning backdrop for our photobook!

It was well after 9pm when we checked into our hotel, the Four Points Sheraton, which was just as palatial and lovely as we’d been experiencing on the rest of the tour.

… and had the best breakfast buffet by far.

… to fuel us for the lightest itinerary (for some) so far, just shopping.

Fortunately, it was a later start as I’d gone to the bar across the road (the Blue Frog) with some of our tourmates and we’d nattered away until 1 in the morning (not hard to do since we’d only gotten out after 10). And very fortunate that Mother and I are dab hands at shopping (practice does make perfect after all!) so could operate on instinct while in (mental) energy-saving mode.

This shopping expedition was to AP Plaza. Although indoors like the Beijing markets, this one was all on one level. Mr Lee led us into the market to a central hub, where he set us free with a meeting place and time. Rows of shops tentacled from the hub and the centre was as huge as to be expected and followed a similar inventory pattern as the others (handbags, watches, luggage, souvenirs etc), which made it very confusing to retain direction as everything looked the same.

Miraculously we not only fulfilled our list – and stuck only to our list! – but we also managed to find our way back to the central hub… where we found several of our tourmates already waiting. We’d all managed to get this far, but nobody knew how to get from here to the bus! We moved together, set off splinter scout group, left people as markers… everything! But 10 minutes later we were no closer to the exit! Of course, it was as soon as we called Mr Lee to come and retrieve us that we stumbled across the right path.

The next (shopping) experience was more conventional. A downtown CBD, with wide pedestrian paths flanked by tall buildings housing every brand name store imaginable, this was less of the experience that we were looking for on our Chinese adventure, so we skipped the stores completely and (unintentionally) walked the length to get to the station where the slowly snaking trolley bus (decorated as a train, even with a soft “choo choo” periodically) to just soak in the vibe and do some people watching. We were fascinated by a series of really long queues, moving painfully slowly. On closer inspection, these queues were for shop windows selling ‘moon cakes’. Those must be something really special to warrant the wait, which must’ve been well over an hour for the people at the back.

The rest of the afternoon was at leisure, so we attempted to use the hotel business centre to do online check-in for the next day’s flights (unsuccessfully) and buy excess luggage allowance (successfully)… and then faced the daunting task of packing, strategically so that our (substantial) luggage fitted into the total and per-bag weight and size limits.

All packed and ready, we nipped across the road into the mega shopping complex to look for something light for dinner. We popped our heads in at a few places, but ended up with the most unlikely of choices – take away moon cakes from the supermarket. Wow! What a great choice! So so good, with a pork centre similar to a sausage roll in a crispy flaky pastry casing. No wonder all those people were queuing like their lives depended on it!

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Travelogue China 3: Hangzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

HANGZHOU
27 August 2014

With the tour itinerary getting lighter, we were able to sleep in a bit and still have plenty of time for our breakfast buffet (including ice-cream!) before the 9.30 departure for the day’s activities.

We settled in our tour bus for the 3 hours of travel from Suzhou to Hangzhou (pronounced “hung-joe”), which passed easily now that the busload was interacting as one group abuzz with exchanges about home and the tour (from the Jenkins kids, if nobody else).

The first stop was lunch at a tea farm. Although it felt like we were perpetually en route to a meal (quite routine 8, 12.30 and 6) and the format of each meal was the same (8-10 courses on a lazy susan), the dishes themselves and the variety of locations kept the mealtimes interesting enough.

We opted not to take the presentation at the tea farm since we’d already had a tea ceremony in Suzhou and figured that since it’s all supposedly strictly traditional, you seen one, you seen ‘em all. That might have been a bit dismissive as the locals are so passionate about their tea that they eat, drink and cook with it.

This meant we were on course for West Lake, the big drawcard for the area. Our route took us through the magical bamboo forest where the iconic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed.

The time at West Lake was free time to walk around and admire the scenery. It’s a series of loched manmade lakes, with beautiful thick trees on the banks, large clusters of wild Lotus flowers on the water and a path all the way around so that you can amble along. There were lots of benches and decks to sit and admire the view, mostly under the shade of gorgeous overhanging willow trees. Pretty bridges made for other scenic vantage points and lovely backdrops for photos.

As with everywhere else there were so many people – some even with dogs, of which we’d seen precious few on our trip, and always little chocolate brown miniature poodles. And as with everywhere else, lots of requests to have pictures taken with us.

We would be returning to West Lake for the evening’s entertainment, so there was no objection to moving on to get our hotel. The Courtyard Marriott. Wow. What a grand hotel! Breathtaking lobby, beautiful rooms, astounding facilities. Yet another pleasant surprise on our “bargain package”!

Dinner was at the Lily Hotel and quite different to previous. Same format of course, but much tastier. Hard to tell if this was the restaurant – which did seem much nicer than some of the previous, which had typically understated decor – or the palate of the region.

Then back to West Lake for the show, Impression West Lake which was conceived and directed by Zhang Yimou who is famed for doing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Using the lake, surroundings and an underwater steel stage as props the show is an hour of hundreds of performers and clever usage of lights and sound to create a dazzling epic masterpiece that tells the stories of the classical myths and legends of West Lake. The invisible stage makes it seems as if the dancers are gliding on the water and the mammoth cast is paled by the magnitude of their stage!

We had the best seats in the house (not to be confused with the paraplegic toilets, which we’d taken to seeking out as they were always “proper” toilets) – front row seats on the water’s edge – and couldn’t help but be moved by the triumphant soundtrack… even if we couldn’t quite get a handle on the story.

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Travelogue China 2: Suzhou

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Sep 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

SUZHOU
26-27 August 2014

Monday morning started even earlier than the previous few, reason being that we had to catch the bullet train from Beijing to Suzhou and, as Mr Lee impressed upon us several times, the train waits for nobody!

So there we were, bleary-eyed but well fed, on the bus at 06h50 to cross town from our hotel’s position in the north-east to the station in the south west. As dumb luck would have it, the traffic was on our side and we got to the station with an hour to kill. Rather an hour too soon than an hour too late though.

Mr Lee had prepared us for the getting on and off the train which, in well-oiled-machine Chinese style, was a mere 2 minute window. That’s just 2 minutes at each station for passengers to alight and board! And the train never runs late and never waits for anyone! Miraculously, we Sloth Africans managed to pull it together and get the lot of us and our ever-increasing flock of luggage on board with time to spare.

The train is very comfortable with 15 or so rows of seats in each carriage, 3 to the left and 2 to the right of the aisle. There is a little dedicated luggage space in the front of each carriage and deceptively accommodating shelving overhead, which was more than ample for our carriage’s needs (thankfully our co-passengers were travelling light!). The seats reclined far enough to allow for easy napping and, mercifully, both the toilets that served our carriage had seats and toilet paper. The entire train was pristinely clean and a cleaner still did regular rounds, offering use of her bin bag to clear our garbage and swishing about sweeping as the train hurtled along smoothly and silently at over 300 kilometers per hour.

In 5 hours we covered the 1,400km journey south, to the relaxing part of the tour.

Already the pace had slowed as once we checked into our hotel, the Pan Pacific, we had free time right until dinner. What a relief – the pace had been quite hectic in Beijing!

Our hotel was again top class; quite different to Traders which was a big modern block, Pan Pacific was a beautiful sprawling mega-villa laced around ponds and gardens. An absolute maze on the inside, with our drop-off (and future meeting point) on the 1st floor, our room on the 2nd floor and the lobby seemingly nonsensically on the 3rd floor.

With 2 hours to kill until dinner we popped out the meeting point entrance to see who our neighbours were. No joy from across the road – a greengrocer and dodgy (closed) pub called BlackJack – so we tried heading right.

A bizarre assortment of very functional shops; the only one of any interest was Holiland bakery. Lured in by the pretty cakes and secured by the soft-serve machine, we endured the cacophony of shoppers and store attendants as well as the painstakingly slow-moving queue – thanks to the cashier also being the packer and the store policy requiring each item to be individually packed in little baggies that stuck to each other and resisted opening – for one reason. Fresh sugar cones.

There was an attendant dedicated to the soft-serve machine, armed with a waffle-maker that she was using to make fresh sugar cones. She had a pre-made batter, thin and runny like a pancake batter, that she was spooning onto the heated waffle iron and spreading thinly. A few seconds of cooking and she’d wrap the toasty flat result tightly around a conical wooden mould. Voila! Fresh sugar cone! It felt the time had stood still… she did it soooo slowly… but it was worth it. The product was a still-warm cone that tasted a bit like Boudoir biscuit, with silky soft ice-cream poured inside and twisted to a peak on top. Yum!

We ambled back to hotel and had a lovely sit before having to meet for dinner.

Quite used to the format now, the only adjustment was to being a smaller group now that splinter groups had gone elsewhere. Being just 13 people (which we were assured was not a bad thing in China as their unlucky number is 4 because it had some connotation with death, which is pretty unlucky) we now fitted around a single table and in the small private dining room at our restaurant which, like all the others, shall remain nameless as the signage was all in Chinese only.

Another lovely meal – getting the hang of chopsticks, getting adept at dishing off a constantly swivelling lazy suzie, getting used to one glass of Coke / beer per meal, getting accustomed to no salt / pepper / serviettes, getting to know the company. Having a feast and having a laugh. All good.

TUESDAY
We finally got to have the first bit of a lie-in this holiday, only having to wake up at 8 in order to make our 9.30 meeting time.

The plan for the day was a city tour of Suzhou (pronounced “sue-joe”), which is known as the Chinese Venice because it has over 1,400 canals. It is considered to be a smaller city, with a mere 15 million population so had Mr Lee more relaxed, saying that “it nosso busy so don’t have to walk like sticky rice.”

The bus took us to the famous Lingering Gardens. One of 4 most famous gardens in China, it was built in 1593 and belonged to a series of owners since then, accumulating cultivated gardens, quaint buildings and scenic pathways between interesting relics.

There are exhibits of classic calligraphy and paintings of the national flowers – plum (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), lotus (Winter), Chinese rose (Spring) – which can be seen in the gardens. As we walked into the garden, we were greeted by the lotus flowers in bloom on the pond. They are much bigger than expected with great big round leaves. Stark contrast to the controlled miniatures in abundance in the bonsai garden.

Wandering around gardens is not normally our sort of thing, so we did a once-round and buffered the extra time by going to the shop stalls across the road and buying some real bargain souvenirs.

Next up was the embroidery factory. This was no ordinary embroidery! The Masters (and there are only 4 of them) are able to do double-sided embroidery, meaning they can embroider the picture on the top (and I’m talking better-than-photo quality stuff) AND simultaneously create a (different) embroidery on the reverse side! Really amazing stuff!

We got to watch a Master at work. This old lady is 75 years old and has been working at the same factory every day for more than half a century and she only embroiders fish. All day, every day for 57 years and just fish. They are spectacular! She does the most realistic vibrant fish using the finest of stitching (splitting a single thread into 1/24 so you can barely see it), an expert deft hand and a mirror on her lap to monitor the back picture. Unbelievable. Comes at a pretty price too – since it can take years to finish a detailed piece, it can fetch Y500,000 (ZAR 875,000) or more.

From there we went on the Grand Canal tour. This canal runs all the way from Beijing and through Suzhou, with a total length of 1,800km (9x Suez and 20x Panama Canal). Construction was started in 221BC, intending the canal be for military use and merchant trading (silk and tea). It is the second longest, only behind the Yangzhou River; but it’s far from the deepest being mostly only 2 metres deep in Suzhou, nor the fastest since boats may only go at 20kmph.

The canal tour took us through the oldest parts of Suzhou, where the houses back onto the canal and there are steps from their back doors right into the water. Mr Lee got the boat to stop so that we could jump off and nip down an alleyway into the “high street” to see the hustle-bustle of the narrow, noisy, smelly market.

Mr Lee also pointed out Shantang street (“mountain water” street) as a good place to come in the evening for dinner (for once not included in the package). The area had previously been the city’s red light district, but now all that remained of its dodgy history was the red Chinese lanterns, which are now emblazoned with street names in lieu of conventional signage.

The deal was sealed. We returned to the hotel intent on having a rest and then heading back to Shantang for the evening. We got a little sidetracked though since the maids wanted to clean our room shortly after we arrived back (they seem to clean perpetually, not concerned about what time they do what rooms), so we went for a walk in the opposite direction as the previous night.

The walk (or possibly a debilitating luckless visit to a shoe store) sapped mom’s last energy, so she bowed out of the plan and I went ahead and shared a cab to Shantang with our groupmate as planned.

As always, the city looked very different by night and the journey into town seemed much quicker by cab. The cab fare was cheap too, at Y15 (ZAR 26), which like many other coutries makes it viable to outsource transport, not like at home where the cab fare is more than the night out!

We were deposited at the gate to Shantang, since being ancient and very much pre-car it’s a pedestrian-only precinct. It was so pretty with a big glowing arch entrance and a view down the lively street with all the shops open and marked with red Chinese lanterns.

We’d been given a recommended restaurant by Mr Lee, which our hotel concierge had written in Chinese on a hotel business card to help us to find it. It became a sort of treasure hunt looking for “tent-stroke-kappie-square” which is how we remembered what the first (of four!) characters of the restaurant’s name looked like. We wandered down the first of the side roads – a narrower version of the entrance road, now parallel to the canal – and found the restaurant! It was really busy and the hostess managed to communicate that there was a half hour wait. No mind, lots to see and do, so we said we’d come back.

We took a wander down the canal and over a bridge to circle back on the other side. We encountered a lively looking pub, so decided to stop in for a beer to pass the time waiting for the restaurant. We ordered Tsingtaos and listened to the locals warble on the karaoke. Perusing the menu, it looked really good so we decided to go back to our restaurant and check their menu before deciding where to eat.

The original restaurant was ready for us when we returned, but a brief flip through the menu showed that, while the food looked good, it was much the same as the lunches and dinners we’d been having, so we decided to go back to the pub to have a beer and a snack and repeat the process to make a bit of a pub crawl out of dinner.

It was a good call and we enjoyed delicious chicken pops and wokfried pepper beef at the pub. Then the challenge began. We walked around and about, up one street and down the other and couldn’t find another pub! Try as we might, there simply wasn’t another option.

We were not so desperate as to try a karaoke house, easily located by the wailing and caterwalling coming from them. Strange format, the karaoke houses have small roadlevel reception areas and the hostesses escort you to your own private lounge, dark and kitted with comfy couches around the walls, all facing a large screen and all with easy access to microphones. Even assuming they have some sort of soundproofing, the participants are so enthusiastically loud and proud that the result is cacophonic!

We did get to see the whole of the downtown area though and did stop to enjoy street food at some of the many vendors. The highlight was the mini lobsters although, admittedly, I did think they were cockroaches at first glance!

The streets were a hive of activity – and all very very clean. We wandered around, looking at shops and street vendors, buying the odd beer at the local 711 equivalent, and ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, ending on a 23,000 step day!

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Travelogue China 1: Beijing

Posted by cl@rks on Friday Aug 22, 2014 Under Travelogue

TRAVELOGUE CHINA 1: BEIJING
21-24 August 2014

We were greeted, as planned, at the airport by our driver from Merry Travel, which was a relief since the last thing we needed after 2 long flights with a 4-hour transit in Dubai in between was to cause an international incident at PEK being lost and tired-grumpy. Risk averted, we met our first tour mates – a lovely Kiwi couple – and climbed into our very comfortable people-carrier, for the commute to who knows where.

First impression of China? It’s hot. Very hot. And humid. Very very humid!

Traffic was (initially) not as bad as expected – it’s much worse at home! The drive is prettier though, with willow-like trees lining the wide highways, and not a spot of litter anywhere in sight.

Although the driver said that our hotel is very close to the airport, apparently it’s all relative since the city is 16,800 square km with 24 million people.

This – if we’d done our homework – should have come as no surprise. The enormity hasn’t sprung out of nowhere; Beijing had its first walled city from 11th to 7th century BC, has been a prominent city for millenia and been the capital of China for almost 8 centuries. It was first on a site called Peking Man, and has only been called Beijing since 1919. The name Peking is Cantonese; Beijing is Mandarin.

We did experience patches of traffic (nothing unmanageable, especially since it was rush hour) and it was marginally more of a liability to us getting to the hotel than the driver’s commitment to driving at 60; likely a legal requirement seeing as we weren’t being overtaken. Eventually we pulled up at the Traders East Side hotel and checked in quickly and easily. The hotel was *very* nice, far exceding our expectations!

Our 7th floor room was spacious with impeccable decor, twin beds with billowy soft white linen and a large new and lovely ensuite bathroom. The enormous bay window overlook the hotel gardens framed by a public walkway along a riverbank with the cityscape beyond.

The room didn’t hold our attention for long though and we were soon off to find out what our little slice of Beijing had to offer.

We got a city map from the concierge, which was daunting and confirmed that the enormity we’d felt from the car was a reality – what we’d seen was a tiny fraction of this city!

We decided to ditch the map and follow the concierge’s advice to walk through the gardens and onto the walkway (which we’d seen from our room) where we’d find activity around the corner.

We did. And kept ourselves entertained with blissfully light-concentration activities like wandering around supermarkets and eating delicious fried egg salad sandwiches rolled and wrapped in bacon (clearly not traditional Chinese fare, but we figured we’d get enough of that on the tour itself).

Friday morning started early, with a 6.30 wake-up call. Not so bad when there’s a hotel breakfast up for grabs. And this one was complicated! All things to all people, there was a buffet corner for every taste; an omelette station, a stir fry station, a waffle and pancake station; a salad valley, with smoked chicken and duck; a cereal bar with unfathomable yoghurt flavours. So much choice! But beef sausages and turkey bacon, so not necessarily winning.

We met our tour group in the foyer at 8am: mainly Saffas, with 2 Kiwi couples and an Aussie bloke (who turned out to actually be a Frenchman living in Manley). Our tour guide, Mr Lee, took charge and turned out to be a helluva nice guy, who speaks a spot of Zulu from a stint working for the Ackerman family of Pick n Pay fame. He shared his (fascinating) lifestory of being raised by his grandfather who died 2 months ago at 101 years old, having spent a life practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine, which he’d passed down to his many sons and couldn’t undestand why this grandson insisted on as flaky a career-choice as being a tour guide… which must be quite demoralising since our Mr Lee had to study 4 years in university for the pleasure of qualifying to guide our tour! I suspect there must be much of this generation, like our Mr Lee, born after the population curbing policy so being only child brings more pressure to succeed the elders.

First stop was Tian’anmen Square; the largest square in the world at 44,000 square metres (880×500), which can host a million people at a time! We started at the Front City Gate (one of nine city gates) and admired the traditional Oriental pagoda with mosaic roof tiles that looks onto the Square.

We passed Chairman Mao’s Mauseleum, but were advised that the queues are too long to be practical for our tour – 2 hour queue for a 20 second viewing where you can’t even stop or take pictures! But there are enough pictures of the Chairman nonetheless, austere portraits though they may be (not a peace sign in sight in any of them!), eg at Tian’anmen Gate, the building famed for being where Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic and which is most familiar from always being the backdrop on TV reports when there are happenings on the Square.

We took a few snaps of the Monument of Heroes (erected 1958) with the National History and National Revolution Museums in the background, and moved on.

… into the Forbidden City (or Gugong, as it’s known in Chinese), built from 1406-1421 for the Imperial Chinese power of 2 dynasties over 500 years of tumultuous history, spans over 72 hectares surrounded by large walls and a wide moat. It housed the royal family only (the Emperor, his family and his concubines) and is gigantic – mostly out of necessity to house the huge families the Emperors had, which came with the territory of having anywhere from 35 to 1000 wives (depending on physical and economic capacity), all the children that came with that gaggle (the first son becomes the succeeding Emperor and his mother the current Empress) and housing many generations together at one time, eg the most well-known, the Ming Dynasty.

The dwelling is a legitimate city because it has all the self-containment and utilities of a city (in a labyrinth of courts, halls, gardens, rooms and allies) and, with 9,728 rooms, it would take 28 years to stay in each of them. Unlike European palaces, Gugong links art and architecture in subtle forms based on philosophy, harmony and circles of power and influence. The layout of the entire complex and all of its buildings is strictly in accordance with the principles of feng shui – dictating which way things face, what should be next to and apart from what and with such things as lion and lionness statues as gatekeepers – with other more practical infrastructural strategies like the 15 layer city square floor to prevent attacks from enemies tunneling through from below. Equal parts superstition and caution; clearly the yin and yang way.

With only royalty, Generals, bureaucrats, concubines and eunichs allowed inside – ruling all known civilisation – the goings-on in Gugong were a fascinating mystery to the common people. Now the City is a national heritage site marked for the public, but only to enjoy the gardens and admire the buildings, not for concerts or private events etc.

We couldn’t help but admire all the jade which, since it ostensibly wards off evil spirits, was used jade to make anything and everything. It is traditional to wear a jade bangle on left arm (because it’s close to the heart) and many women still wear them, apparently often sentimentally handed down from older generations.

Crystal symbolises loyalty and faithfulness; ironic since the Emperors placed huge crystals in their wives’ camps… while they were off philandering with their concubines!

All the walking had us very ready for our (optional) Hutong tour; optional because it wasn’t strictly mandatory… but hardly a choice after Mr Lee’s charming hard sell and bargain bundle package offer.

Hutong is a Mongolian word describing the narrow street and alleys (in some places only wide enough to walk one-wide) – or neighborhoods thereof – formed by rows of traditional courtyard residences. The name comes from the times of Kubla Khan (Ghenghis’s grandfather), who introduced the necessity of waterwells in the town. These waterwells were called Hutong in Mongolian language so these collections of houses adopted the name.

These hutong housed the lower end of society in the very status-driven dynastic period, but today represent the true heart of Beijing. The areas are very intimate because most families live in the same place for 200 or 300 years. Even though the old houses are being renovated and renewed, the powers that be are trying to pull down the hutongs to replace them with practical and space economical apartments – to the detriment of the residents since, while they own the houses they live in, all land belongs to the government so they can do what they want. The government thus pays for the house, but this is only enough money for the resident to move very far out of the inner city. It’s working too – what was about 2300 hutongs in Beijing now counts only about 220 left.

Our visit to the Hutong included a rickshaw ride through the narrow alleys and a lunch in a local home. Being our first official foray into local cuisine, we had no idea what to expect.

Our group was seated at 3 round tables: 2 in what looked like the main bedroom (the usual fittings – and family members – were, quite insubtly, stashed behind a sheer curtain in the room) and our table in the living room entrance into the small house. Each seating was set with a small saucer and set of chopsticks as placekeepers and each table had a large lazy susan in the middle.

Soon after arrival, our host placed a large bowl of rice, a plate of mini drumsticks and a plate with green cyclindrical stalky veg with chicken strips. While tasty, we were morbidly fascinated by the small lunch and tiny portions allowed by the saucer-sized servings.

Then the plate of beef with onions and peppers arrived. And the boiled spicy cabbage. And the celery with chicken. And the carrots and cabbage stalks. It was a multi-course feast!

We should have expected such good fortune seeing as the house was feng shui: A north house (facing south). This was traditionally so that the south house, which is coldest, is for the servants; the east side for boys and west for girls in accordance with yin yang (girls are yang). There are no bathrooms or showers in the house, requiring use of (particularly disturbing) ablution blocks (with all squat toilets and no cubicles or doors). No wonder that younger people prefer apartments!
The oldies from the Hutong take their pet birds in cages to the park for tai chi in the morning; back to the park in arvie for mah jong, cards or Chinese chess. It’s a full life really (but must be bloody cold in Beijing’s gruelling winters).

The Temple of Heaven is not a religious temple, but where Emperors went twice annually for rituals of prayer and sacrifice to ensure good harvest for the people and thus retain his mandate from heaven to be ruler of China. It was also constructed between 1406 and 1420, with architectural layout to represent spatially the relationship between Earth and Heaven, with the Emperors in between. The complex spans 274 hectares (a square mile) of park, which is 4x the size of the Forbidden City and 7x Tian’Anmen Square! It contains a palace for preparation and halls and altars for the sacrifice.

It also contains the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – a main symbol of Beijing, often on cover of tourist books. It is one of three buildings built in the Mingdang style – entirely of wood with no nails – but is the only existing example of this ancient architectural style. Built in 1420, the original hall was rectangular and used to worship heaven and earth. It was later rebuilt in 1545 into a round building topped by triple eaved roof with glazed tiles symbolising heaven, earth and the mortal world. It was again reconstructed in 1751 to become the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, supported by 4 immense pillars representing the four Seasons and the twelve months of the year.

After 1939, the complex was converted into a public park, with several portraits and exhibits to show the traditions and rutuals.

It was in this courtyard that Mr Lee began our Tai Chi instruction. He explained that your Chi is your air and blood and showed us how to do a selection of the core movements, slowly and purposefully. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that my Dachshund has been doing it for years!

Cultural matters in order, it was time for a spot of commerce. We were taken to a silk factory where we were taken in “Chinglish” (what the locals call what we Westerners call “Engrish”) through the metamorphosis of moth-eggs-caterpillar-moth and what this means for silk production. With 1,300 metres of silk thread coming from a single cocoon, the biology lesson seemed a bit disrespectfully abridged!

We were also treated to a hands-on demo of how the silk thread is transformed into pillows and quilts and all the goodies that cover them. Really indulgent stuff! So soft and smooth and, well, silky.

Closing the day was a live theatre show of Kung Fu Panda, threading an unlikely story of 2 of the world’s most lovable panda bears and their journey to find the masters of Kung Fu, with some pretty impressive displays of fighting styles and traditional weapon (batons, nunchucks etc) control. The Kung Fu performers were all from the martial arts school which spawned legends like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and a neon screen introduced each set of performers as they took the stage, including details of their qualifications and accolades.

Not usually our scene, but quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Last order of business at the end of a very long first day was a(nother) multi-course / lazy susan / tiny saucer / chopsticks feast, with the now seemingly customary bottle of Coke and 2 quarts of beer for the table to share. Pot of tea to start and finish, but not a whiff of dessert in sight. No wonder the Chinese are so skinny!

SATURDAY
Due to what would seem to be poor planning on the part of the tour organisers, the Great Wall excursion was planned for a Saturday… which we were told meant a particularly early start in order to cope with the weekend traffic of people leaving the city to visit their homes / family / friends in the countryside. You’d think they’d have factored that in and started the tour earlier in the week! No mind, we had an excellent sleep in our very comfy accommodation, a lush breakfast (with every Eastern and Western option imaginable) and Mr Lee rocking the mic in the bus and entertaining us with endless stories and facts.

Serendipitously, the “best jade factory in Beijing” was directly en route to our Great Wall excursion so we were able to stop off and have a gander… which we’d already learnt meant a tutorial, a tour and a per person salesperson shadow, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of interest. Again, we were told this was a government factory, which “guarantees the best quality at the best prices”. Delivered with enthusiasm, to a skeptical audience.

Getting to the Great Wall gathered a busload of excitement. One doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of the Wall’s history and function to know that something that can be seen from out of space is stellar up close and personal!

There are obviously many places from which you can access the Wall, but ours was everything i expected: entrance through a grand stone gate, up the stairs to the walkway atop the wall, and wall as far as the eye can see in either direction.

Being in a valley, we had to ascend the Wall. We opted for the right hand side as it seemed like an easier route. If it was easier, it certainly still wasn’t easy! The searing 30-something heat with the hectic humidity and the steep and uneven stone steps made for quite a mission indeed. So so worth it though. What a view! What an experience!

What was also nice was having bonded with our group from the first day and catching familiar faces along the route, sharing hints and tips on things to see and best photo opp spots. Lots of requests for photos with Chinese people, who were unashamedly fascinated with us Westerners and seemed to prioritise us over the historical masterpiece on which we were all standing!

We rationalised this as being because with 1,4 billion relatively homogenous-looking Chinese people, concentrated as 24 million in Beijing alone, and with almost all of the many tour busses even being Chinese people, perhaps the 21 of us were a bit fish out of water. We’d also been asked a few times where we’re from and the blank result of our responding “Johannesburg… South Africa… Africa?” indicates that either the language barrier is bigger than imagined, or possibly China is very much a land of Chinese focus.

Brick walls aside, it’s really quite something to think that we’ve done something so momentous! Such a pity that so much of the Wall has been destroyed or removed (for people building using the materials to build their homes), but hopefully enough of the remains will be preserved for future generations to appreciate.

We’d built up a healthy appetite, so were very ready for… another lazy susan feast. The monotony of the repetitive meal format was staved (for most people anyway; one of the Kiwis had already resorted to making sandwiches at breakfast to eat for lunch on the bus!) by 3 things: the variation of the dishes served, the disbelief that all of these meals are included in our bargain package and the venues where the meals were served. This lunch was in an enamel outlet.

Cloisonne enamelware originated in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty and was typically called “Blue of Jingtai” as blue was the dominant colour used. The enamelware was only used for royal families and was a symbol of authority and status.

The enamel-inlayed jewellery and ornaments were very pretty and, of course this was a government factory, which guarantees the best quality at the best prices…

Back to the tour, we visited the Olympic Green, laid out along a straight promenade (called the Olympic Axis), creating a natural path along which to discover the features and buildings on the parkland. We walked as far as the National Stadium (nicknamed the Bird’s Nest for its distinctive design) and the Beijing Aquatics Centre (a.k.a the Water Cube because of its facade constructed out of thousands of ultrathin plastic pillows, creating a distinct look resembling bubbles).

After a day of much walking, the last stop was quite welcome. We were treated to a relaxing footbath and reflexology (lecture and) session at the Chinese Traditional Medicine centre, where the ancient art is instructed and practiced.

The massage (executed by a student) was pleasant if not a bit pedestrian, but the real highlight turned out to be a “free” consultation with a TCM Doctor. There was lots of diagnosis of high blood pressure and cholesterol, with indecipherable prescriptions written in Chinese, and all the medicines – conveniently for the doctor – coincidentally coming at a 700 Yuan (ZAR 1050) pricetag for a 30 day course… but, naturally, a course is more effective if followed for at least 90 days.

Mom was prescribed 3 different meds, promising to cure everything from swollen legs (thanks to the heat and the Great Wall walk, no doubt) to sleep issues (that would be the just-before-bed coffee) to weightloss (no prizes for guessing this one). I was given a clean bill of health (probably because the doctor spotted my pedometer). Needless to say, we walked out with nothing.

Next event was the acrobats show. Wow! What those people can do with hoops (varying heights, tumbling and backflipping through), umbrellas (whizzing and balancing on toes), bicycles (sit, stand, headstand, grandstand, human pyramid) and the simple human body (crazy contortionist who could lie on her chest on the ground and have her legs run full circles around her head)! Sheesh – what a show!

There was much excitement for the last event of the day – Peking duck dinner!

Mr Lee shuttled us off to a very authentic-looking place (ie there was no English anywhere), and we were soon seated and sipping on a tasty chicken broth. Several courses later, the star of the evening arrived – a golden brown crispy duck that had been spatchcocked and neatly sliced into many delicate slices. The hostess came to the table and demonstrated how to prepare little pancake parcels of duck with sprouts and cucumber and a brown condiment sauce of sorts.
The evening closed with… dessert! Watermelon. What an anti-climax! Although, it could have been worse – in winter the dessert is cucumber!

SUNDAY

The highlight of the tour (for me anyway) was the first agenda item on Sunday morning, the outing to Beijing Zoo to visit the panda bears!

It had rained overnight, so the sky was clear and (uncharacteristically) blue. You don’t realise how subliminally the perpetually smoggy greyness dampens spirits… until it lifts, taking the atmosphere on the bus with it!

Mr Lee gave us a precis on panda bears and their habits, preparing us for the zoo visit. Slothly creatures, they are very antisocial and spend on average 14 hours a day hunting bamboo (not a very energetic exercise since it’s everywhere) and eating it… and the rest sleeping. They have no interest in company nor altering their routine. Apparently there can be some sparring of potential suitors at mating time, but even that seems to be a largely could-take-it-or-leave it affair.

Even though the panda bears are found in the wild in Sichuan – suited because of its rainy climate which provides an abundance of bamboo – the Beijing Zoo is world famous for its collection of panda bears and efforts in preservation. The animals are a species of national pride for the Chinese and, while they are happy to ship off pandas to (qualifying) zoos around the world, it is on the understanding that they are on loan, still belong to China and can be recalled at any time.

The main panda enclosure has 5 adult bears and we were very lucky that all of them happened to be awake at the same time, so we saw all of them! No mean feat since, clearly, they don’t fret about early rising and we’d caught their “morning rush” (all were sitting or lying flat on their back and slowly shoveling bamboo into their mouth) before naptime and a busy afternoon of doing more nothing.

Big beautiful creatures and a wonderment to see them in real-life!

The panda experience overshadowed the ensuing pearl factory visit somewhat. Following the same routine as the other manufacturer tours, we started with an introductory talk, from a very charming hostess called Michelle. I commented to her afterwards on the serendipitous appropriateness of her name and it turned out to be less than coincidence as she’d chosen her English name (lending from a model on a poster on the wall of the store) when she got her job there.

Michelle told us all we needed to know about the 4 colours pearls come in (white, lavender, gold and black) and where what can be found (seawater vs freshwater). It was a very interactive show-and-tell, including the most useful bit – telling real from fakes by rubbing them together and assessing the white residue.
We bought a few obligatory real sale bargains… but nothing compared to our tourmate, Rosemarie, who was a bit of a pearl fiend – already draped in 2 enormous pearl necklaces clasping a large pearl pendant with a pearl brooch the size of my palm to match, 3 or 4 pearl bracelets and 2 large pearl rings. She, of course, had gone big and bought for herself and her giftlist.

Pooped already, it was good to have a chilled traditional Tea Ceremony next. With over 4,000 years of tea drinking, the Chinese have finessed this to a fine art and our hostess did a great job of explaining everything to us.

Tea-making is an exact science that requires not only the right pot (since all tea is made from leaves, not bags) but also the right temperature water, so as to maximise the expressing of the tea from the leaves. To measure the water temperature they use an ingenious little ceramic model called a Pee Boy because the water comes out as a jet – as if the boy is peeing – if it is the right temperature; if not, it doesn’t come out at all.

She expertly scooped, boiled, swirled and poured us a few flavours to try, starting with Jasmine tea which is known as a morning or work tea. The leaves have so much flavour that you can use them up to 4 times over 24 hours.

Next was Oolong tea, which is also known as dragon tea, since it is said to hold the power of the dragon. This tea is served in little cups with a black dragon on the outside. As the hot twa is poured into the cups, the dragon turns red. Oolong is supposed to be slurped, allowing the air taken in with the sip to unlock the flavour of the tea. Oolong is said to be good for circulation, metabolism and iron. But probably not good for your popularity, if slurping away in the open plan at the office.

We also tried Puer tea, which is the national tea in China, as well as the fruit tea which can be served hot or cold.

All tea is supposed to aid digestion, so it is served before and after meals. The tea awaiting us at the table when we got to lunch was nowhere near as fancy as the tea house’s offering though.

The group all knew each other quite well by now, so there was much excited exchanging of stories from the morning’s experiences – and strategies for the afternoon’s excursion… shopping in Silk Alley.

China had an indelible reputation for big brand shopping, which constitutes a combination of products liberated from the factories (originals swiped by workers), factory rejects, copies (fakes) and downright rip-offs. The secret is being able to tell the difference between them!

Mr Lee has lost credibility on guaranteeing us the “best deals” from our inkling suspicion that perhaps the dealers might be chosen per kickback! He is an excellent showman though and spun a good yarn about getting us on the inside of the (very) limited access “red button” backroom in the top shops in Silk Alley to buy electronics, jewellery, leatherware, accessories, luggage, you name it!

Our experience in the red button room was short-lived, thanks to my salesperson getting unwarrantedly hysterical and pushing my buttons (red and otherwise) within a minute of our arrival. Being as spoilt for choice as the 7 floors of shops (peddling the same merch) allowed, my capacity for the banshee was exactly zero, and we were soon on our own mission and haggling and bargaining up a storm! … and managed to secure an excellent deal on the genuine leather (Chinese brand) luggage set we’d spotted in our hotel shop and been hankering after.

The bargaining for the luggage had been a long and tedious process, leaving little time for other shopping in Silk Alley, which worked out in our favour as the next stop was also a shopping excursion at another multi-storey factory outlet mall. The second mall was cheaper than Silk Alley presumably because it was a more informal so avoided the fixed costs associated with the formal shop set-up.

We had a whale of a time in the factory outlet! Surprisingly, Mother bought very little, but I more than made up for that and, never being ones to give up, we passed on the return journey to the hotel, opting instead to stay and shop. We made plans with some of our friends to meet at 5, then again at 6 when we still had a full floor to go,and ended up leaving closer to 7, having exhausted the will to shop and committed to the idea of foraging for dinner.

In an effort to keep it simple, we broke convention and had a not-very-traditional McDonald’s, but it was made ever more complicated by a ridiculous out of stock of bacon, lettuce and chicken situation. Double cheeseburger meals were fine though and gave our slimmed-down little group of 5 a chance to roundtable on the day’s achievements and the evening’s plan.

We decided to walk back along the main road we’d come along on in the bus to try and find the famous gigantic TV screen. Relying on memory, we thought it to be only a few blocks away. When we were a few more than a few blocks away, we realised we must be on the wrong track. We managed to flag down a cab (not mean feat on the very wide roads with fast-moving traffic), but the car would only take 4 people, so we sent Mother with Rosemarie and Johan, leaving Nelson and I to see the rest of the city on foot with a good walk back to the hotel.

It took a good hour or so, and pushed it to an 18,000+ step day, more even than the Great Wall day which was only 16,000! Slept like a baby after all that!

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Travelogue Poland 3: Warsaw

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 12, 2014 Under General, Travelogue

WARSAW 
11-12 June 2014

We’d done the right thing booking the first flight out from Katowice to Warsaw because, while it was a mission to get up early after the NIN concert festivities, it meant that – even with commute and transfers – we had a full day in the nation’s capital.

We caught a taxi from the airport for about R200 that dropped us almost at our lodgings, unable to drop us at our door as we’d booked to stay right on the Old Town Main Square (Stare Miasto Rynek), which was pedestrian-only for a few blocks around it. 

Our apartment was a bit like the one we had in Zagreb; quaint, perfectly appointed, huge wooden bay windows, translucent curtains… but minus the unexpected old lady live-in landlord (and hopefully minus the church bells at dawn!). The building must’ve been super old, with its entrance a mere tunnel off the Square, the wide and winding staircase (we were on the 4th floor; no lift!) in the original bare wood, the front door thick, heavy and solid with the original brass key (and a collection of deadbolts that the door had obviously collected over the various periods of strife it’d lived through).

We were an hour early, so literally bumped into the caretaker and his wife (as they were coming up the stairs and me careening down the stairs to tell Christian the bad news, that there was nobody to let us in). They were more than happy to let us deposit our bags as long as we got out of their hair to make up the flat. Not that we needed any encouragement on that front; we were out the door in a flash!

As luck would have it, there was a Tourist Information office right beneath our apartment, so we grabbed a free map… and were almost immediately able to tick off number 10 (The Old Town Square), 11 (The Warsaw Mermaid Statue), 12 (The Historical Museum of Warsaw) and 13 (The Museum of Literature) of the Top 30 Things To See in Warsaw!

Founded in the 13th century as a prince’s headquarters and a fortified settlement, the Old Town is an exceptional place. Almost entirely destroyed during World War lI, it was restored so faithfully to the original that UNESCO still listed it as a World Heritage Site. The Square is a constant hub of activity, with cafés and restaurants on the fringe spilling out umbrella’ed decks and beer gardens, artists exhibiting sculptures and paintings, children playing in the fountain, and buskers creating a continuous melodious soundtrack making every moment a memory. 

In the centre of the Square is the Warsaw Mermaid Statue, paying homage as the mermaid is Warsaw’s symbol and on its coat of arms. Legend has it that a mermaid swimming in from sea stopped to rest near the Old Town and liked it so much that she stayed. The local fishermen thought she was interfering with their hauls so intended to catch her, but fell in love with her instead when they heard her sing. Along came a baddy rich merchant and actually did capture her, so when a young fisherman mobilised his mates to free her, she took arms with sword and shield and vowed to protect the city and its people. 

Our walking tour next took us one block down to an even bigger square, Plac Zamkowy, in front of the Royal Castle. This had been the headquarters of kings and authorities since the 16th century, was the place where the Constitution – the first in Europe and second in the world – was adopted, and is now a museum. It was almost completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt using the parts that survived. 

Again the Square was there to be enjoyed and people were darting in and out of purposefully-placed sprinklers to soothe the seating heat. There was a lively atmosphere and the resonance of people enjoying themselves – in the restaurants as well as just hanging out, walking or cycling. Not entirely sure why so many people were free on a Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a different discussion entirely. 

We walked past the Waza Column – erected in 1644 by King Wladyslav in honour of his father who’d moved the capital to Warsaw from Krakow – and down the road. While there weren’t any places of interest according to the tourist map, the road and its buildings are still surreal and breathtaking. Double lane wide pavements on either side of a double lane road, everything immaculately paved and cobbled, dotted with neat street lamps and flower boxes. Grandiose buildings on either side hosting all sorts of things, arbitrary and otherwise. And ice-cream shops. Lots and lots of ice-cream shops. 

Every second person has a varigated chocolate and vanilla softserve cone, with the ice-cream spiralled gravity-defyingly taller than the depth of the cone below it. Ice-cream is a big business in Warsaw, it seems. Apparently it’s all year round too; obviously in the blazing summers, but also in winter where people bundle up so much that they get hot in all their thermals and buy ice-cream to regulate their body heat!

By now it was lunchtime and so stumbling across a Molly Malone’s was all the serendipity we needed to get a grazing happening. We still went local though, sharing a wicked but delicious chleb (lard with bacon bits served with slices of sourdough and rye to smear it on), a bigos (sour stew made from cabbage, sausage and mushrooms) and a plate of pierogi (mushroom and cabbage). Polish food is really tasty – and of course agrees with me since their main food groups being sausage, potato, cabbage and mushroom!

Lunch gave us quite a bit to work off! Luckily all the sites are walking distance, in a convenient loop and – like Krakow and Katowice – Warsaw is completely flat, making walking a pleasure.

We tackled the inland sights first, heading for the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier where, fortuitously, we caught some sort of military parade with loads of soldiers dressed in different types of uniforms were marching with all the usual pomp and regalia. 

On the road again, we headed through the Barbican and curtain walls into the New Town, which is not so new now having been around since the 14th century. Until the 18th century it was a completely separate town, with its own town admin, city hall and church. Its Rynek (Square) doesn’t hold a candle to Old Town though, being a fraction of the size and – besides living up to the by now quite passé breathtaking beauty of the buildings in general – quite unremarkable, with its only piece of interest being a cast iron well adorned with a virgin and a unicorn.

We’d long-since gotten church fatigue, which is a pity because, of course, all of them are magnificent. They stand out even among the rest of the picture-perfect city… but there are just too many to make any stand out as of consequence. We did however pop our heads into the St Francis Seraphic Church as it is famed for its original 17th century baroque interior escaping the fires ensuing from the War’s bombings. And we were walking past. And it was open. And it was free. And there was no queue. 

That was the farthest point on our plan, so we changed direction toward the Vistula on a road that junctioned at a panoramic viewing deck. Sadly, Warsaw has opted to put a double lane freeway along the bank of the river, so it’s not as pretty or serene as Krakow’s. They do however have a Multimedia Fountain Park on the riverside, with literally hundreds of fountain nozzles ejecting water in sequence for a constant show, which apparently is accompanied with lights and music on Friday and Saturday nights. The fountains are all housed in pools the size of Durban’s paddling ponds, but swimming is not allowed, just dipping of feet, made comfortable by a thick flat lip around the pools for people to sit on.

We of course were on a mission, so no time to dillydally in the fountains! We had a few last things to see before sundowners at the oldest pub in Warsaw (not that there was any danger of the sun going down for hours yet, just that our body clocks are preprogrammed on SA time and you can’t mess with that!)

The most notable stop was a turn through Kanonia, a small triangular square behind the cathedral where the canons (priests) had been housed in the 17th century. Besides being charming in its crude rickety cobbledness, it also houses a large gunmetal bell, which was never hung. Apparently, going round it 3 times brings luck so, never one to turn back on a superstition (as Granny said, just in case), that’s what we did.

We also saw the narrowest house in Warsaw, which is only one window wide. This shrewd builder avoided taxes as back in the day land tax was based on the width of your facade, just like in Hanoi). Still, more scientific than our dear City of Joburg who seem to do property valuation using ouija boards and bingo balls!!

Sights done and dusted – and probably a good 10km of tread clocked – we crossed the river to the oldest pub, Pod Barnlka, for a Guinness. We thanked our lucky stars that we booked the apartment we did as we’d very nearly booked one on this Square (almost expressly for its reference to the oldest pub!). While still ok and still an easy walk into the Old Town – everything is after all walking distance from everything – it didn’t hold a candle to where we were based, right in the thick of things! 

Having seen everywhere on our walking tour, we’d pinpointed New Town for our dinner so wound our way slowly back there, taking time to stop at some of the sights that had been busy earlier when there had been lots of tour groups (refreshingly seemingly mostly young Poles) out. The most notable was the Little Insurgent Monument – a statue of a little boy wearing a helmet way too big for him and carrying a big machine gun, commemorative of the contribution made by the heroic children who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Scary that times were so awful that small children were actively fighting wars.

The day had provided lots of good fodder for dinnertime conversation at our chosen destination, Podwale Piwo Kompania, which we’d chosen for the setting, the atmosphere and – most importantly – gabolki on the menu… which turned out to be so delicious that we contemplated ordering a second round!

But we didn’t, and rather went for a second round of sundowners outside the Palace. Very confusing with the sun only setting so late and throwing everything out of sequence! 

When we were finally en route back home we considered stopping for a finale at the beer garden outside our apartment, but were lured into the Shamrock underground (literally) pub. With a normal (but small) entrance on rhe road level you enter onto a landing and then veer down some steps, snaking to the tunnels below, where the pub itself is housed. They reckon some of the cellars date back to the 13th century and are naturally the best preserved because they’re underground so they avoided all the chaos of the wars and whatnot. 

The tunnel we were in was semi-circular and only just high enough at it’s highest point for Christian to stand upright with a smidge to spare. Couches were built into the low part on the one side and a well-stocked bar ran the length of the other. Not a window in sight! Moving to the end of the bar we saw a few steps down, which opened into a full blown (big!) undeground tavern, with the only natural air or light coming from a small delivery chute at the far end. What a wonderfully weird and wicked place to conclude our trip!

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Travelogue Poland 2: Katowice

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Jun 12, 2014 Under General, Travelogue

KATOWICE
09-11 June 2014

The train from Krakow was supposed to be 2 hours (for the 70 km journey), but took almost 3 thanks to some indeterminable delays en route. It was hot as Hades on the train which, although spotlessly clean, looked like it had survived a bygone minimalist era with its maroon springy cushioned benches and spartan finishes.

The station is far grander though, with double volume ceilings, shiny floors and lots of shops, restaurants and cafés. Apparently this is a relatively new thing, with this sparkly new building only replacing its drab communist predecessor in late 2012.

Exiting the Station (at what we were later to discover was the worst possible exit) we found ourselves on a main road, with no clues as to where we were or where we needed to go. We ended up circumnavigating the block and ending up at the other end of the Station… and conceded and jumped in a taxi, showing him our hotel booking form for direction. 

We’d – cleverly, we thought – based ourselves at the hotel closest to the stadium hosting the concert we’d come all this way for, but started to have doubts about this wisdom as the timer ticked over in the taxi as we inched through the evening’s 5 o’clock traffic. Twenty minutes later we were checking in at the Olympic Spodek and not too concerned about anything, having laid eyes on the magnificent oddity that is the Spodek Arena. 

Built between 1964 and 1971 and weighing in at some 246 thousand square metres of circular arena with space for 11000 people, the building was nicknamed the “Latajacy Spodek” for its striking resemblance to a flying saucer. Our hotel was nestled in just behind the arena, and was very comfortable as a single storey of identical rooms laid out around a long central lounge area with several poof leather couches, a bizarre indoor putt putt course and a handful of gym machines, with the whole lot in the searing spotlight of a skylight that ran the length of the room.

The hotel provided us with a tourist map and Katowice guide, which we took to the only shaded couch to study, fearing we were to hell and gone from everywhere and everything would be a mission. Au contraire! Our location was not as dire as it had seemed. As can happen, the taxi had had to go the long way round, where we as pedestrians had the option to walk across the Square in front of the arena and through the spaghetti of tunnels that ran under the big traffic circle (of cars and train tracks) that separated our side from the main town.

It wasn’t much of a walk for us and we were at the station no more than 10 or 15 minutes later. Amazing how different – and much easier – the town looked when we had a map… and no luggage.

The Pocket Guide tourist map we’d been given was really self-deprecating on poor Katowice, apologising for its newness, its stem primarily functional in the industrial age. Not to say it didn’t have a long history before that – the area having been chronicled as inhabited by Silesians in 1299, changing hands a few times, and settling with the Prussians under the name Karolina in 1942 – just that, while it had suffered mercifully little comparatively during WII, it had been shamelessly and primitively exploited of natural resources following the war and all the ensuing Communist complications. Now, with many clunky bronze statues dotted around the city to commemorate their crawl toward a market economy, Katowice is only now starting to embrace the possibility of a bright future.

This is all gone into at great length in the guide as a prequel to stating that there is little to see and do in this city. 

While it does lack the textbook palace / Old Town / ruins / bohemian district, as long as you’re keen to eat/drink/shop in wide café-lined pedestrian streets then Katowice is not so bad! And  we’re always keen to do all 3 or any combo thereof, so had a lovely wander through a mall and around the town and then set about tracking down Bar Pod Siodemka (Bar 7), which had been recommended for its local fare.

While we were disappointed that they were out of golabki (meat parcels wrapped in cabbage and baked in tomato sauce), this gave opportunity to try other exciting things and, despite the temperature still being over 30 degrees in the evening, we had soup to start – zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes) and garlic broth with soaked croutons. For main course we shared 2 quite different things: placki (potato pancakes, served thick like flapjacks but crunchy on the outside like hashbrowns) stuffed with chicken and wild mushrooms, and a Silesian speciality called rolada slaska (rolled beef filled with onion, bacon and pickles, sort of like a beef olive) served with kluski slaska (pillowy potato flour doughballs – essentially a Pierogi without filling – like big gnocchi). All washed down with the local Tyskie beer (although our other favourite, Zywiec, is also from Katowice). Delicious! 

Having been solidly on the go for days and with the reason for the whole trip – the Nine Inch Nails concert – that night,  Tuesday was scheduled as a “go easy” day. We slept in, had a lingering and leisurely feast of a breakfast (watching the band busses and trucks buzzing around, preparing for the show), wandered into town, ambled through the mall,  grabbed some lunch, and retired to the hotel in mid afternoon to relax and prepare ourselves. But the excitement got too much and at about 4 we headed out to see what was happening at the Arena. There was already quite a crowd gathered on the steps at the entrance, but not enough to hold our attention, so we went into town for a sundowner.  

Much better idea! A good proportion of people were wearing NIN (or comparative bands’) merchandise and there was a lot of excited energy in the pubs and restaurants. It was all like one big pre-party!

Arriving at the Arena first order of business was, of course, the merchandise stand. Their prices were, as always, heinous. But one must do what one must do and I’m super stoked to have my most expensive to shirt yet!!

We stocked up with a tray of Tyskie only to find out on entry to the grandstands that no drinks – alcoholic or otherwise – was allowed in the stands (unlike home, where that is the point of decanting into plastic cups). Worked out to our benefit though as we were allowed to stand at the back of the landing and finish them and this turned out to be the best vantage point – and an excellent private dancefloor! So we sloooowly sipped our drinks to make our exile last well into the performance. And by time we were caught for having finished, the show was so far in and we were so immersed that there was no quieting us! We simply got more beers and moved to the next landing!!

The show was brilliant; truly worth travelling for and a quite lifeline landmark for me, as a lifelong fan! The venue was excellent; full of energy, but not too crowded. The set list was great – a good mix of crowdpleasers and unanticipateds with the usual emotional rollercoaster of cutting between the manic and the depressive tracks. And we’ve been in presence of (and probably quite close to, seeing as his tour bus was right outside our hotel window) our heroes – truly a legendary musical genius of our time.

We went into town afterwards to grab a much-spoken-of post-concert kebab, which was lifesaving… and it turns out shrewd as well, since the band was still packing up and weren’t allowed in until the talent had left the building. No mind though. After all that excitement, who could sleep?!?

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Travelogue Poland 1: Krakow

Posted by cl@rks on Tuesday Jun 10, 2014 Under General, Travelogue

KRAKOW
06-09 June 2014

I was lucky enough to be surprised with a trip to Poland for my birthday, ostensibly to go and see Nine Inch Nails, a lifelong favourite band. While a week surely seems long enough to go to a concert, once we started researching all there is to see and do, I was worried we’d be short on time. Our first eager-beaver landlord must’ve thought so too as he called me on Thursday at 2.30, enquiring my whereabouts and was surprised when I said “Johannesburg” as he was at the airport waiting for us – a full day early!

That must really thrown him off as he then forgot to fetch Alex and Robbie, who were flying in to join us for the weekend in Krakow and who he’d committed to collect at midnight. Tables were turned when he got their call, waking him up! He gave them details on a taxi company and they ended up getting a taxi cheaper than the committed transfer. 

We were very excited to hear the news that our apartment – and indeed all of Krakow – seemed at first impression to be a win.

We got this news update sms from our friends while we were connecting in Dubai, having flown Emirates as usual. We still had 2 flights ahead of us, to get to Warsaw and then on to Krakow, but the journey was easy enough and soon it was 3.30 and we’d landed and were manning the only carousel in the modest Krakow Airport Arrivals terminal, eager to get our bags and start our Polska adventure. 

We’d anticipated a relatively long transfer into town, having been told that traffic would be “very bad” at that time of the afternoon, but 20 minutes along a windy single lane road flanked thickly with trees on either side and we were in the Jewish Quarter, mounting a pavement (as seems conventional) on Bozego Ciala Street outside our residence, offloading our bags (mercifully light at a record 11kg and some change each) and gazelling up the four flights of stairs (no lift!) to the welcoming arms of our friends… and an induction Polish Vodka shot! 

There’s always much excitement when we reunite and this time was no different. Animated chatter and feverish catching-up on our marvellous balcony, over snacks and chilled beers and punctuated with Vodka shots with orange wedge chasers.

Lix and RoRo had, despite their late arrival, done a remarkable reconnaissance job the night before – and it was soon clear that the good people of Krakow had done more than their fair share to make sure that this was so. The city is as alive at night as during the day and our apartment had a 24-hour bottle store and an “open until the last person leaves” pub downstairs with numerous other entertainment options along the road, round the corner and on the rooftops.

We’d decided to start the evening with the Plac Nowy (square), literally around the corner from us… but we didn’t even get that far, being lured in by a gorgeous little beer garden on Meiselsa Street that connected us there. It seemed like the perfect place for a sundowner – and the perfect time, despite being about 8pm already, since the sun was still up and it was still bright as day! We had a lovely time at a cosy table nestled under a big old tree with low hanging branches creating a lush green ceiling.

By stark contrast, the next place we visited – one of many on the Square – was a dark tavern,  relying on candlelight even in the daytime to provide the murky glow. Still charming though, in its own way. 

I ended off my evening at (what we called) The Robert Smith Pub, so named for the psychedelic portrait of said hero on the wall in the main bar. By now the vodkas had done their mileage and the gals headed back to the flat, while the boys went to forage for food. Some time later they arrived with toasties, but I was out for the count already, so the only evidence of the mission in the morning was the 2 empty plates  (delivery vehicle of the clearly unplanned take away!) and a single lonely cherry tomato that had made its escape from the plate on the stairs at the front door (which remained there for much of our stay).

Saturday saw a slow start thanks to Friday’s antics – much to my chagrin, waking starving from having missed dinner the previous night. Christian and I eventually pulled ourselves together enough to take to the streets to gather supplies for a “simple” bacon buttie brekkie. Easier said than done.

No problem finding a shop (as with everything else, conveniently just around the corner), but once at the shop everything was complicated (on an already self-complicated day!) We managed to find the bread (flat oval loaves, not square ones like ones like have at home), cheese (marked “Salami”), butter (which turned out to be garlic butter), ketchup (which ended up being pimento flavoured) and orange juice relatively easily,  but couldn’t find bacon at all (!!!) 

Weirdly, there is no pre-packaged meat at all, with all meat offerings behind the (single) butchery/deli counter. An enormous amount of choice considering the space – mostly sausages and cold meats, but also all the essentials from a red meat and chicken point of view. We couldn’t see anything that looked like bacon and got got a blank stare when we asked for it. Christian asked the butcher lady if she spoke English; she nodded and said “f*@#” and the other 2 deli ladies roared with laughter. Clearly on our own, we ended up with white Kielbasa (the only ones that looked like they could be cooked, the rest looked like Russians or Franks) and Krakowska Kielbasa (which looked like ham).

Worked out OK in the end, with a delicious ham and cheese sandwich and a sausage sandwich each to show for our labours.

Good humour restored, we were newly motivated to take on the sights of Krakow. There was a tourist map on our coffee table that confirmed what I had ascertained from the accommodation search – the 2 big areas of interest are the Stare Miasto (the Old Town) and the Jewish Quarter (where we were staying) with one or two other things off to the sides.

We started with a walk through the Jewish Quarter, taking in all the many old and beautiful churches and temples. Krakow is a remarkable place being an ancient city relatively unharmed during World War II, so having much of its centuries-old history and landmarks perfectly preserved – and accessible to anyone and everyone. This can surely also only be possible with the support of a respectful and responsible people, which is evident but the noticeable pristine maintenance of the city, with no litter anywhere! 

We walked down to the Wisla River and enjoyed a stroll along the wide promenade, alongside a good number of Krakowians out taking a walk / cycle or sunning themselves on the grassy banks. It was a perfect day – not too hot, with textbook blue skies – and we’d walked all the way around the peninsula to the base of Wawel Castle, so we stopped to have a cold drink on one of the many bankside barges with rooftop cafés. 

Refreshed, we walked around the inside of the castle complex with its famous Royal residence and cathedral and enjoyed the spectacular views over the Dragon’s Den. This deposited us at the bottom of the Planty (park) that runs in a light bulb shape around the entire boundary of the Old Town. The Planty is divine – a thick, lush green avenue with lots of benches and places to sit and enjoy and wide smooth walkways to easily traverse the town as an experience rather than a chore.

Our destination was the middle of town – Rynek Glowny,  the Main Market Square – and we were there in less than 10 minutes. Alex and Robbie went up St Mary’s Basilica while we went on the hunt for a tour operator (for an Auschwitz tour for the following day) and some Pierogi (stuffed dumplings, already a day overdue). We had no trouble with either mission and 15 minutes later were reunited and in the Number 7 bar beer garden,  with beers and Pierogi (one portion filled with meat and another with cheese) on order.

I left the gang and went off to shop for souvenirs at the legendary Cloth Hall at the centre of Market Square and soon returned with arms laden with bags of goodies. Poland is mercifully cheap even travelling on the Rand!!

We’d spent the whole day skirting around the idea of having a hangover curry, with only the faintest hint of conscience at needing to have a traditional Polish meal instead. Now, having ticked the Pierogi box, we felt vindicated and succumbed to going to Roti Roti (their menu was also on our coffee table and had planted the idea in the morning). Our karma must’ve been good as we stumbled on a Carrefour en route and managed to secure their only 3 packets of bacon! Streaky, thin-cut and only 150g per pack, but still… it was bacon!

The curry was good, the setting fun (we had their single wooden table on the pavement, with a hand-painted map of India on it), the ordering complicated (our waitress’s English was only marginally better than our Polish! And the restaurant was out of Masala, which limited options somewhat) and the company superlative, so a great time was had by all.

We wound our way back home, with the obligatory stop-in at The Robert Smith Pub,  but didn’t make a big night of it seeing as we had our Auschwitz tour early in the morning. 

And bacon butties! 

The flat oval loaf bread turned out to be really good – soft on the inside with a nice chewy crust – and garlic butter and pimento ketchup fortunately all complimented each other, as well as the thin cut streaky bacon (which we gluttonous devoured all 3 packs of for breakfast!)

Exemplary tourists, we were outside and waiting when our driver arrived to fetch us at 9 on the nose. The same cannot be said for the other 4 passengers in our party,  who kept us waiting for 15 mins outside the Hilton while they smoked! We took an instant dislike to them and didn’t engage with them at all on the hour-long journey to Auschwitz. 

What an amazing excursion. I’m not much of a history buff, but you can’t help but have a mental image of what the place will be like. Having seen countless black and white images in textbooks and on TV of Jews and other prisoners being trundled along train platforms, stripped, counted, marked and worked to emaciation; having learned and regurgitated stats on the number of people that were delivered to these camps and the very different numbers on how many left; having heard the stories of what the Germans soldiers did to and how the German doctors experimented on these people…. none prepares you for actually being there. 

The planning, design and development are truly a testament to Germany efficiency. The camp is so much bigger than I would have thought. And super structured, symmetrical and organised. Everything accounted for and everything in its place. The buildings all still standing and in perfect condition – a credit to the Polish government for declaring the site a museum in 1947, when they could just as easily have torn it down. There is a sign at the entrance that says something to the effect of forgetting about what happened opening the door to it being able to happen again. What’s really scary is that this compound was built to last this long! Had history turned out differently, who would be there now? Would Hitler have continued the genocide, taking it further afield (he was already bringing in train loads from Norway and Greece, over a thousand miles away!) or finding new blights to remove from his world??

The Auschwitz tour is, hardly surprisingly, very well laid out and executed and you see and learn a lot in the 2 hours, being led in and out of buildings, each with different stories and artefacts. Some astounding exhibits that have to be seen to be believed like the goods removed from prisoners, including the 90,000 shoes, 40m X 6m room of suitcases, mountains of spectacles,  (wooden) toothbrushes, dolls… and the room of 7 tons of human hair that the Germans were cutting off the women before they were executed and selling to make hair cloth!

Other absurdities like the court and jail in the compound. It’s farcical to have run these token hearings when nobody was given a chance to defend themselves and everyone was found guilty and condemned to gallows or firing squad. The inhabitants of the jail were sentenced to death by starvation and the lucky ones either asphyxiated from the poor ventilation or froze to death on the stone floors in winter.

Truly atrocious. And so scary that it was all so organised and out in the open – not like the Killing Fields we saw in Cambodia that at least had the decency to be secretive and hidden!

Worse than Auschwitz I though was Auschwitz ll – Birkenau. Somehow at school it was the poor cousin to Auschwitz,  where in real life it is quite the opposite. It’s enormous and was an outright deathcamp, complete with gas chambers and incinerators, on mammoth scale.  

The purpose-built tracks saw trains pulled into the central platform whereupon a doctor decided by inspection who was well enough to work and who not. Being one of the 70% on the “not” list could make your stay at Birkenau less than 3 hours! You arrived, were separated from your stuff, herded into the queue, told you were going to be disinfected, stripped, gassed and incinerated. Making the other queue (a man healthy enough to work) gave you an average life expectancy of 3 to 6 months, doing hard labour on about 600 calories a day (a fraction of what you need to survive) so that you worked/starved yourself to death, if the cold / disease / rats didn’t get you first.

The Polish climate is not ideal for the prisoners either – very hot and humid summers and bitterly cold winters. By a cruel twist of fate the winter of 1942 was one of the coldest ever, with temperatures dropping to -40s!  It was a very warm day yesterday – but by no means the worst summer has to offer – and we each had a litre of water over the 3 hours of the tour. The prisoners were given none. They resorted to drinking from muddy puddles after the rain and melting snow. 

The cruelty and the indignity that those poor prisoners were subjected to. It’s shameful that people can do that to other people (and it took a *lot* of people to run that machine, with over 7,000 SS soldiers based at Auschwitz alone). The wording on the door at the entrance was right;  we can’t change what happened, but we can prevent it from happening again. And experiencing it firsthand really brings the history to life. It’s a pity more young people don’t have access to travel to see these things or I’m sure – maybe overoptimistically – that the world would be a better place. 

What was a better place was Market Square, and that’s where we got our driver to drop us off after the tour. We’d located the 2 Irish pubs in town and thought those to be the perfect mission to follow such a serious day. 

The first one, Mbassy, was just off the main market square, in Stolarska Street.  It was nice enough – the Guinness fresh and cold, the decor predictable,  the atmosphere average – but didn’t hold our attention for very long.  Alex and I had done a quick reccie in the adjacent little square (Maly Rynek), where there was a stage and some stalls erected in what seemed like a mini summer Sunday festival.  

We found an incredible food stall, retrieved the boys and relocated to the bench  tables on the Square for a tapas of sorts of glazed mini pork roast, giant mushrooms, pierogi and Kielbasa. YUM!

We then continued to the second Irish pub (creatively named The Irish Pub) where we were lucky enough to catch SA vs UK darts on the telly which was as good and reason as any to settle in.  Quite by accident we spotted the Florian Gate at the end of the road, which warranted a visit for the sake of completeness,  being the last actual landmark place of interest on the tourist map.

This left us at the most northerly point of town, so we walked along the Planty to enter the town from the West to find a pub recommended in the guide, called BaniaLuka,  known for its festive crowds drawn by the 1 Euro drinks and 2 Euro meals. We were having a much easier time with the map since Anglocising all the road names. For example, BaniaLuka was much easier to find on Ski Pants Street than on Szczepanska Street! 

The place was a bit of an oversell, although granted the guide did push it’s second main virtue (after bargain booze) as it being open 24 hours, so more the fool us for arriving sober in the harsh light of day.

We decided instead that the right mission was to hunt down a gabolki (meats and rice in cabbage parcel baked in a tomato sauce) closer to home in the Jewish Quarter, so off we set across the Stare Miasto, through the beautiful shopping streets and along the now-familiar Stradomska Street to our ‘burb… halted only in our mission by the quest for a loo.

We found a tiny bar, which had an online jukebox, so we had to stay and do a Furtado dance (to show Lix and RoRo what all the fuss is about). We asked the barman for the best gabolki restaurants nearby and when he recommended Kuchnia Domowa (“Dorothy Kitchen”, a good omen indeed) a couple of hundred metres down the road, we were sold!

And a good choice it was too! We shared meat and cheese pierogi and had the much-anticipated gabolki… and it was delicious! 

But obviously must have been very light as it didn’t take much more merrymaking  before we were queued up at the zapiekanki stalls in the middle of our local square.  Zapiekanki is a toasted baguette with melted cheese poured over it, then covered with mushrooms and ketchup and other toppings of choice. We kept it simple and just added pepperoni. What a perfect midnight snack!

On our last morning,  the only thing left undone was a visit to Schindler( of List fame)’s factory, so we got up and out and trekked across the bridge to Podgorze to find it. It’s not as well sign posted as you’d expect, so we had some challenges,  but we found it in the end. It’s been turned into a museum, but we were too short on time the help give it much attention. 

We instead caught a cab back to our spot to have a decent breakfast before going our separate ways.  Despite really really really wanting a Full English, I had the Polish breakfast, which turned out to be really good (and not too experimental) as a pair of fried eggs, toast, ham, cheese and cottage cheese with chives and cucumber diced in it (sort of like tsatziki).

We’d timed everything perfectly and had 10 minutes to spare to go up and get Lix and RoRo’s bags to meet the driver at 12. Christian and I jumped in the car too and got dropped off at the train station to see what time we should leave for Katowice. Fortunately, there was a 13h48 train which allowed a generous amount of time for us to get back and gather our things, drop off the keys and get back. We were delighted to find as well that the tickets – for both of us – came to 26 Zloty, which is only about R70! 

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Travelogue Hong Kong 4: Hong Kong Island & Kowloon

Posted by cl@rks on Wednesday Apr 2, 2014 Under Travelogue

HONG KONG ISLAND & KOWLOON
27-31 March 2014

Having pre-booked our ferry transfer to Hong Kong – for a very civilised 10h30 – our evac from Macau was quick and painless.

The breakfast buffet was quite different to the previous day, sadly missing the things we favoured (quiche, aloo curry, baked beans with sausage medallions) but still with enough basics (bacon, chicken sausage, eggs etc) and some new additions (french toast) to sate.

Fascinating to watch the bizarre combo of things such a diverse cross-section of people choose at these buffets. Not at all uncommon to see a single plate with a small portions of scrambled eggs, bacon, noodles, cooked veg, dimsum and fresh fruit… all eaten with chopsticks! Toast doesn’t seem to feature – likely because it can’t serve as the delivery vehicle it does when you’re using a knife and fork.

Chopsticks must be a nurture art of practice, as we discovered when the little Chinese boy (no more than 4 or 5) alone at the table next to us dropped something through his chopsticks onto his plate, setting off a domino effect that resulted in his glass of milk landing on his chair next to him and rolling onto the floor. He froze and his eyes went so big they were almost round! We quickly rounded up all the serviettes on our table and helped him dab most of it up, so by the time his mom got back from the buffet a minute later, there was little evidence of the carnage from the recent milk tsunami. Obviously the little chap wasn’t one to keep secrets though and soon mom was smiling, head-bowing and rapid-fire Chinesing obvious gratitude to us.

The ferry ride was quick and comfortable – and again, completely full – and an hour later we were deposited at the Hong Kong Island Central Pier.

First order of business was to collect our apartment key from our host’s tea shop, which a Google Maps search had indicated was two rights and a left from the station. Sounded easy enough… until we realised, as we had in Taipei, the station has several exits in different directions and starting the instructions with “head East” wasn’t largely helpful when your luggage is all shoes and no compass! So we jumped in a taxi, which took us exactly 1 block parallel to the station, but was worth the R45 to save the anguish of wandering aimlessly on the busy streets with our considerable luggage in tow.

The girls in the teashop revealed that our host was currently travelling in Shanghai, but were able to give us the apartment key, directions and instructions to leave the keys with the 24 hour doorman when we were due to leave on Monday morning (a relief to not have an extra chore to drop off keys as we were headed to the airport at 5am).

The directions were easy enough and we were soon at our apartment in Hollywood Street (famed for antiques shop and opposite the famous Man Ho Temple, which made us giggle), with the only challenge being the 120 or so steep steps up Ladder Street to get there. Although it could’ve been way worse, seeing as Ladder Street continued to ascended as far as the eye could see!

Our apartment was tiny – no bigger than my bedroom at home – but well apportioned, newly renovated and with TWO balconies (a long one running the length of the flat overlooking the street and a smaller square one running the width of the flat, off the side nestled into the building above the entrance hall), which has to be a coup in Hong Kong. The bedroom is no more than an alcove built around the double bed; the bathroom a glass sliding door off the entrance passage with a shower, loo and basin. The kitchen area is a double cupboard with undercounter fridge, 2 plate stove on one side and small sink on the other. A convection oven the size of a small microwave sits on a rolling trolley island. Just enough to be able to do anything you need to do, not enough to really want to do anything. Presumably the locals have as big an eating out culture as the Taiwanese.

We put our bags down and hit the town, first port of call being to find the Gieves & Hawkes store in the International Finance Centre (commonly known as IFC) mall to collect Christian’s suits. Luck was on our side and our rough plan to head towards the water and take it from there serendipitously led us directly to the mall, and the store was at the top of the first escalator as we entered. More fortunately, the suits were perfect and looked great on! We asked the attendant to hang onto them so we could do a bit of sightseeing unencumbered and pick them up en route home.

We were in no particular hurry so, since we found ourselves at the central terminus, decided to take a bus up to The Peak, a shopping mall with viewing deck. As the bus wound up the mountain, the cars got flashier and the entrances more impressive. Clearly, the better the view, the higher the price tag!

The Peak Mall was nothing special in itself – perfectly lovely, with lots of restaurants and high-end shops – but boasted a rooftop terrace with gorgeous views of the far side of the island, as well as Lamma Island and Lantau (where we started our trip).

At the base of the mall was a viewing deck for the Victoria Bay side of the Island, with a winding walking path to get varied vantage points. Great spots to take pics (and selfies of course).

The Peak Tram runs from top of the walking path and had been recommended to us to try. We thought it would be a tourist activity but, based on the bussle and jostling, it appears to be a popular public transport alternative. It’s HK$28 for the tram as compared with the bus at HK$9.50, but only takes a couple of minutes – belting near vertically down the mountainside – versus the bus winding slowly and gently upward for 45 minutes.

Alighting at the end of the line, we consulted the map to see that we were at the end of the Causeway, which meant we had to walk the length of the pier to get back to IFC.

Hong Kong Island is easy to move around using a set of wide pedestrian skywalks that interlace all the malls and buildings, so you don’t need to contend with the shops and cars while getting from place to place. Since everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere, this must be a godsend!

We navigated through the skywalks and back to IFC. We stopped en route to the suit shop to grab a sundowner at Liberty Exchange, a swank bar full of banker and stock broker types (and not an Oriental face in sight). The chap next to us at the bar spotted us to be tourists immediately and introduced himself. Of course, he turned out to be a Saffa – a chef who has been on HKI for 10 years and is now, funny enough, looking to move to Taipei. He’d never been there and we’d never been here, so we shared insights on where to go and what to see.

Suits in hand, we manoeuvred back to the apartment to drop them off and head out for the evening, to check out Wan Chai, which is infamous as the playground of the 7s since it’s so close to the stadium.

The MTR metro system is particularly simple to master since it’s a single straight line that runs the length of the bay, so we were soon at our destination and being swept up in the throng.

The road is a mess of bars and clubs spilling onto the streets with touts and hostesses willing people in as they attempt to pass by. Lots of neon signage with flashing icons and logos fighting for visual attention. And lots and lots of lager louts soaking it all in and allowing themselves to be lured along a bar hop. Not surprisingly, most of the clientele was English, Irish, Aussie and Kiwi with the odd Saffa group.

We did a tour of the road – careful to avoid the notorious girlie bars with their curtained entrances (and unscrupulous billing tactics!) – concluding with dinner at the curry den at the top of the street.

Friday had been allocated to Kowloon exploring, with no rush to head out since our Saffa friend had warned that HK is a city that starts late (11ish) but ends same. It was a simple journey since it’s only a few MTR stops from Central Station on Hong Kong Island to Mong Kok on Kowloon and we were deposited right at the entrance to the Ladies Market, which seemed as good a place as any for our sightseeing to begin.

Kowloon is grimy and cluttered. Not dirty exactly – obsessively swept so there’s no litter or garbage – but just a general grey and dingy feel. The buildings are completely unmaintained , which probably adds to the overall impression, along with the general clutter that comes along with so many people in such a confined space (to the point that someone told us that, should a fire break out in Kowloon, there wouldn’t be enough space in the streets for everyone to evacuate). Despite the impression our shopping bags might present, we were underwhelmed by Kowloon and keen to get back to the Island.

By stark contrast to Kowloon, we spent the evening in SoHo, which was made infinitely easier by our Saffa friend’s revelation of the world’s longest operational escalator, which runs up the hill through SoHo (or our adventures might’ve been severely hampered if relying on us ascending the steep – and seemingly endless – stairs on Ladder Street in foot!)

SoHo was teeming with people. Every establishment had loads of patrons – all Westerners – and there were restaurants themed to every nation and menu imaginable. Bars overflowed onto the central walkway and restaurants occupied every square inch of the little terraces carved out on the side streets. Very upmarket, with most dressed to the nines; proper inner city cosmopolitan with people clearly only arriving as we were finishing up for the night.

Our weekend itinerary had been dedicated to the Hong Kong Sevens Rugby tournament, so we were bleak to wake up to dark skies and rain on Saturday morning. We hadn’t yet managed to secure tickets – but were confident, based on popular opinion, that we’d get from touts around the stadium – so reconciled ourselves to the possibility of watching Saturday’s games in a pub and going to the stadium on Sunday rather. With new optimism for our win/win plan, we headed to our local, The Cottage Gastropub, for a breakfast pizza. What a great idea putting sausage, bacon, mushrooms etc on a pizza and topping it with fried eggs!

The combination of pizza and the spirit in the bar (which was of course showing the Rugby) we used a gap in the rain to dash out and head in the direction of the Hong Kong Stadium.

As soon as we surfaced from the subway station, we were approached with tickets for sale. Not wanting to be duped into fakes, we decided we’d only consider buying tickets right outside the stadium, where their validity could be verified at the gates. And there was no shortage of opportunity – lots of scalpers… and, weirdly, a good few people with “tickets wanted” signs. Why didn’t the people looking to buy, just buy from the hordes of people trying to sell to us? Justified our paranoia!

It was really easy to find the stadium: just follow the crowds and the loud cheering. Apparently, the weather hadn’t deterred the fans nor dampened the spirits!

On arriving at the stadium we saw the fanpark across the road and decided to give that a gander before committing to tickets (by now it was about 1pm, so we’d missed the first half of the day’s play thanks to the rain). The fanpark was brilliant! We managed to get ourselves a pair of pints and a prime-sited cocktail table – under a big umbrella – right alongside the main big screen, probably because we’d arrived during the break in play for lunch.

By the time play resumed, so had the rain and we were thanking our lucky stars for the umbrella, crushed in alongside our new friends (2 Englishmen based in Hong Kong and 3 Irishmen dressed in matching tutus and candy-coloured wigs). True to form on what we’d heard about the 7s, it was lots of beer and laughs loosely set to the sporting backdrop. Spirits were high all round and the dress-up makes for superlative people-watching. What a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Sunday morning was rainy, so we hibernated with our leftover Pizza Hut duo (we’d secured en route home the night before) and TV. Really good to get in some downtime on the last morning of what had turned out to be a hectic holiday!

At noonish we up and outed to the Sevens Fanpark at Central Pier. It was quite different to the one we’d been at on Saturday, with a funfair set-up as well as the big screen and food/drink stalls. Speaking the testament of the game stalls, there were lots of stuffed animals interspersed in the crowds and regular intermittent whoops of completely non rugby-related delight. A completely different vibe to the day before, but equally fun.

We rounded off the outing with a late lunch at SuperSuper – a fitting conclusion since it’s the same chain we’d had our first local meal at in Discovery Bay.

Then it was home to pack, which was easier than it could have been since Christian had bought a new suitcase (as well as the suits, our shoes and a bunch of other things). The bright side about our postage stamp apartment is that it was easy to pack up since nothing was more than a generous arm’s reach away!

We had been very lucky all afternoon since it had been quite clear of rain, then poured down while we were packing and, since it had stopped again, we thought we’d take advantage of the good fortune and take a walk up to SoHo for a farewell bite. With nothing even vaguely traditional tugging at our conscience, we threw caution to the wind and chose a cosy little Mexican restaurant, positioning ourselves at a corner counter window seat so we could watch people (helter-skelter, as it was raining again) on the main passageway as we ate our burritos, tacos and nachos.

An eye of the storm gave us enough opportunity to get home, via 7Eleven to grab chocolate milk and TimTams, the holiday snacks of choice – and the wisest nightcap option with our super-early start for the morning.

After a restless night, worried about sleeping through the alarm, we were up at 4.45. We were also worried about not finding a cab so early so had built in a bit of fat in case we might have to walk to the station (which we’d timed to be 8 minutes sans luggage). Turned out to be unnecessary and after a 2 minute wait, we were able to flag down the first cab to pass, right outside our apartment block.

Central Station is brilliant – the ticket office opens at 5.30 with the first Airport Express train at 5.50. The cherry on the top is the bank of airline desks where you can check-in and book through luggage. Genius! Except Emirates only opens at 7, which would have been too long a wait for checking into our 8.25 flight… and a good thing we hadn’t planned on doing that since our flight had at some point, unbeknownst to us, moved forward an hour to 7.25. We were very tight for time and in the sticky situation where any possible Plan B would take longer than the Express train!

Amazing how slowly time moves when it’s 5.35 and you realise you’re short an hour. And you’re waiting for the 5.50 train.

Amazing how quickly the minutes fly by when you’re on the train and the 6.25 check-in time is approaching.

We were very fortunate that the train deposited us right at the entrance to Terminal 1, and right outside Row G, as required. After a mad dash, 3 suitcases wheeling madly, we got to a blessedly non-existent queue and were checked in with no more than a minute to spare.

A happy ending (were it not for sacrificing breakfast at the airport in the time-crunching process) indeed.

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Travelogue Hong Kong 3: Macau

Posted by cl@rks on Thursday Mar 27, 2014 Under Travelogue

MACAU
25-27 March 2014

It was a very early start for us to get to the airport for our 07h55 flight. Fortunately, our timing meant that the roads were pretty empty (but we still had no trouble flagging down a taxi on Xinyi Street even at our 05h15 departure from Honey’s flat.

When we got to the check-in desk, the attendant told us the flight was full. I readied for a fight as we’d even pre-booked specific seats online… I was surprised and delighted when it was revealed that the implication of the overbooked flight was an upgrade for us to Business Class. Winner!

It was such a blessing as we were bushed from our jam-packed  weekend and early start, so being able to make the seats into an almost horizontal bed – and being given a real pillow and duvet – made for a very comfortable snooze on our flight back to Hong Kong. 

On arrival, we had to catch a bus from the airport into Hong Kong to get the ferry to Macau at 12.15. The ferry ride is an hour and every boat while we were there seemed to book to full, with boats every 15 minutes around the clock. That’s a lot of traffic! 

Arriving in Macau, it was the old routine: draw local currency from an ATM, find the tourist desk, get a map, call a taxi. Easily done and soon we were off to our hotel, the Regency. We’d chosen this hotel specifically for its location, on the coastline at the Taipa end of the bridge that connects the island to mainland Macau. This would provide us a central location with easy access to Macau to our north, Taipa around the hotel and Coloane to the south. 

Taipa and Coloane were previously 2 separate islands, which have now been connected with an expanse of reclaimed land that has been named Cotai. Not only does this provide more land and the convenience of being able to move between the previously separated islands, but they’ve also added the Lotus bridge to Zhuhai Shi city in China for easy access to and from there as well. With the inevitable dependence of islands on mainland for supplies this no doubt is a big win for the Macanese. Also, 94% of the population is Chinese – although you’d never say such a small percentage are foreigners  since all signage is in Chinese and Portuguese as standard (and often in English and French as well on advertising messaging). After checking into our hotel and getting settled, it was already 3pm, so we decided the flight path to be a taxi to drop us at the very southern tip of Coloane, where we’d have a bite and then wind our way back up, catching a bus or taxi whenever made sense.

The drive showed us a lot of 2 things: construction and casinos! It looks like there are lots of massive developments on the go, with enormous  hording and flocks of cranes. The casinos were plentiful, stupendous and garish with outsized statues, fountains, columns etc and the promise of enough neon to make nighttime as bright as day. It was like being a Lilliputian in a very kitsch Gulliver Land.

The taxi dropped us at Cheoc Van Bay, where we expected to see a row of beachfront shops and restaurants. There was nothing of the sort. A pleasant stretch of beachfront, a public pool, a tea house and (fortunately) a terrace café overlooking the sea, where we had a great bacon and pepperoni pizza (not very traditional, but very necessary).

With a new lease on life, we took a walk around the western peninsula and into Coloane Village, which is little more than a few houses, a small town square, some stilt houses… and Lord Crow’s Bakery, where we indulged in locally-famed Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese egg tart). Catching the bus was easy as it was right outside the bakery and almost all routes went past our hotel. It was only 4 Patacas (about R6) each for the journey, a bargain at the price as it slowly wound around the side of the island we’d not yet seen, so doubled as a tour (including great views of China across the channel). The taxis aren’t expensive either, costing us less than R50 to get from the pier to the hotel and less that R40 to get from our hotel across the full length of Taipa and Coloane. The currency is completely interchangeable at 1:1 with Hong Kong Dollars (you can pay in HK$, but will only ever get change back in Patacas) and everything is marked with the $ sign, even though they mean Patacas. 

We got off the bus earlier than planned, jumping off at Sam Po Temple for a sunset walk around Taipa Village, and to scope out prospects for dinner. We’d set sights on Rua de Cunha, which the tourist brochures had all earmarked as the foodie street, but it was all bright neon, too many people and a bizarre number of the same bakery chain stores a few doors apart from each other (like 7Eleven does), all selling the same things. Having decided against eating there and noticing pubs conspicuous in their complete absence, we meandered back toward the hotel.

We found a brilliant Korean restaurant at which to have dinner and tucked into a feast of roasted pork belly, smoked and glazed duck and a deliciously rich tomato and onion beef stew. We had ordered everything together, but it was served as courses, which worked out rather well!

Wednesday was dedicated to exploring Macau. The historic centre includes the oldest western architectural heritage on Chinese soil today, interspersed among Macau’s traditional Chinese architecture and traditions. Historically, Macau has been an important gateway through which western civilisation entered China over 500 years ago, when Portuguese navigators in the mid 16th Century and developed it into an international trading port. For almost 3 centuries, until Hong Kong was colonised in 1842, Macau’s strategic location at the mouth of the Pearl River offered unique position to the South China Sea, serving as the hub of maritime trade – and bringing people of all sorts of nationalities, which have left their marks in and around the old city.

The tourist maps made the plan quite simple, with 25 “must see” points of interest winding their way on a manageable course from the south (at the other end of the bridge that run from in front of our hotel) up as far as the middle of the island then cut across to Guia Hill, which was conveniently adjacent to the ferry port so we could book our tickets back to Hong Kong and then conclude with sundowners on the Fisherman’s Wharf.

We set out at 11am and spent 3 hours exploring the 12 churches / temples / cemeteries, 4 fortresses / old city walls, 3 squares, 3 buildings of interest, a library, a theatre and a garden. While some points of interest are more points than interests, it’s a manageable walk following a logical route, so worthwhile seeing the lot. We did finally get in a gondola ride (after 2 false starts with both the Lantau and the Taipei ones closed for maintenance) – and a bargain at the price of 3 Patacas (R5) each for a return ticket. We ended up ditching the return as the walk down from the lighthouse at the top spat us out neatly at the Pier, as we’d planned.

We were able to pre-book our ferry to Hong Kong for the next day (for the princely sum of 159 Pataca (R230) each, so the wheels were in motion to move on the next day at 10.

Our traipsing had worked up quite an appetite so we headed over to the Fisherman’s Wharf, having decided that a Portuguese seafood meal would make the most sense in context (and provide a break from the fare of late). Easier said than done. We were shopping between conventional mealtimes and all the kitchens were closed! We found a Thai restaurant open though and had a lovely red curry duck and pork with morning glory and rice sticks (noodles), run on the water’s edge overlooking the wharf, bay and bridge.

We decided to see what all the fuss was about, so caught a taxi to Cotai to the Venetian, which had been recommended to us by the Aussie on Elephant Mountain in Taipei. Everything he had said paled when we experienced the real thing. New words have to be created to describe the enormousness, the stupendity, the opulescence of the casinos!  They are each and all buildings grandiose beyond belief, clustered with ridiculously mammoth adornments and ?goliath features. A complete sensory overload. Like Vegas + Times Square + Dubai. In one place. At one times. 

Then you go inside.

And everything’s multiple volumes.

With marble floors and chandeliers. 

It’s like Liberace has been reincarnated into a suburb!

And it is a suburb because all of the casinos interlink with passages and walkways, seamlessly taking your journey from game floor through food courts, through world label shops (lots and lots of watches and diamonds, must be the impulse purchase if choice for gamblers) and fancy restaurants and hotels and, um, gondola rides. Back at the Venetian. Time to go home. Not getting tangled in this web.

Dinner was a far more modest affair. We found a diner called Brilliant Gourmet close to our hotel and had a Seafood Baked Rice (al forno cheesy seafood number with rice instead of pasta) and Christian a super-legit beef curry. No ambience whatsoever in the restaurant – no music, bright lights, laminated menus and enlarged food pics on the walls – but an amazing meal, with Tsingtao to wash it down. 

Macau? Glad to have seen and done it. 

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