Revisits

Apparently, I don’t enjoy returning to destinations that I’ve visited previously.

I guess it’s like eating that second ice-cream. While the first may have been the classic, culinary experience of a lifetime, that second yearned for repeat performance never quite lives up to expectations.

2014-07-13 16.19.36I first visited London nearly 20 years ago and while I’ve used both Heathrow and Gatwick as bouncing off points at various times since, I’ve had no real desire to return and play ‘Which Line Is That?’ on the Tube since my first heady tourist days back in 1998… so when my young friends Megan and George decided to follow in royal footsteps and celebrate their own nuptials in London then I packed my bags and my daughter and we accepted their kind invitation to party hard and check out London in their summer.

I hoped to revisit Her Maj so I practiced my courtesy, packed my best gloves and got my wave on. I looked forward to once again watching the guards change places down at the front gate or at the very least, I hoped to catch a glimpse of Harry and possibly the family jewels. And to top all this, I couldn’t wait to sit atop a red double-decker under clouds with silver linings and play ‘Icon Spotting’ with Prue.                                                              2014-07-13 16.16.00

Yes, we would cross their bridge; climb that tower; drop in at the palace gate; see how big Ben really is; find that ever concealed circus at Piccadilly; check the time at 0 longitude and get pics with the royals in wax.

But we didn’t!

London Eye

London Eye

When it came time to play tourist in between imminent nuptial bonding, I just couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to revisit sites I’d seen before and instead we hit the South Bank of the River Thames and fast tracked a trip on the London Eye while I conveniently forgot that I loathe and detest heights. I am constantly surprised at the change that overcomes me when I travel and I begin to believe I’m someone else and therefore do things I wouldn’t dream of doing at home!

After all the excitement of being 135 metres above the Thames, we wandered down to St James park and found a squirrel before heading back to enjoy the little green park I’d spied across from our hotel. We watched locals in the pub up the road loudly give instructions to the World Cup refs and we ambled up to Portabello Road Markets on a lazy Saturday morning to hunt down a bargain. One day we even worshipped at the altar of modern art in its very own contemporary cathedral – the Tate Modern. Oh what a delight, thank you London!

I love London and I love that it does pomp under any circumstance and traditions better than most, like… white Christmases,

St James Park

St James Park

strawberries with tennis, towers, bridges, waxed people and even muddy rivers…  but I don’t love their summers. It doesn’t feel hot enough and it comes and goes on a whim. For the first three days of this visit, it just felt like a Sydney winter.

I will remember all this when I return next year tho, when I visit one of my nearest and dearest who is now planning on living here for a couple of years. I don’t really blame her because it really has been fun!

I’ve decided revisits just need a different approach. Thank you London!

Countdown

What things do you look forward to when you’re heading off on a trip?

I’m about to escape from an Aussie winter and wing my way to where the cockles of my heart shall be ignited by a young friend’s gorgeous summer wedding in London. The plan after that is to just play castaway for a while and laze in the sun on some idyllic Greek Islands before touring with a friend to discover the ancient and aromatic delights of Turkey.

So what am I excited about?

What things kindle my sense of anticipation??

What burning desires flare up my will for a travel thrill???

Here’s my COUNTDOWN… of  5 things.

countdown- of things

    5. The Little Thing

♫♪ I want to get away ♫♪♫ I want to fly away ♫♪  

Just the idea of leaving every little thing behind and not having to care about mundane chores or everyday living is my most basic joy in taking a holiday or travelling away. Once I’ve devoured any English mad cows, Greek salads or Turkish delights then I won’t care about what happens to the plate… yes, it’s the little things… I am really just looking forward to not washing up!

4    4. The Hidden Thing

♫♪♫ Food glorious food, we’re anxious to try it ♫ Three banquets a day, my favourite diet ♫♪♫

There is nothing better than chancing upon a busy restaurant full of locals enjoying a meal, buzzing with life and taking it all for granted. That’s when I walk right on past those golden arches, head for a back alley and get lost looking for a little hole in the wall eatery and the opportunity to savour a native delicacy or spend a long afternoon imbibing on the local interpretation of a good red.

3    3. The Familiar Thing

♫♪♪♫♪ Exit light. Enter night. Take my hand. Off to never never land… ♫♪♫ ♫

Even before Metallica took me by the hand, my dreams had always been about visiting faraway lands. I looked forward to overdosing all my senses on the exotic, bizarre and exceptional; all of which were a complete contrast to where I lived at home. Travelling does give me an appreciation for the strange and different but it also teaches me gratefulness for the familiar. So now I’m a fully-fledged travel junkie and while I’m addicted to the dream… I equally crave my return home! “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchet

2    2. The People Thing

♫♪ People. People who need people ♫♪♫ Are the luckiest people in the world ♫♪

I have a fondness for people watching. I enjoy meeting new people. I love ‘walking in their shoes’. I really appreciate having my eyes opened wider to how others think and I relish any opportunity to discover our similarities and to understand our differences. It’s the contact with people that starts a process of education. “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

1     1. The Challenge Thing

♫♪ It’s my life. It’s now or never ♫♪ I ain’t gonna live forever ♫♪

This first world lifestyle has made me very comfortable and to truly appreciate how really fortunate I am at having won life’s lotto then I feel I need to be challenged; to push my contented boundaries; to extend my complacent self. Yes folks, I feel I am now ready to once again take on the greatest travel challenge of them all…

… surviving 23 hours of mind numbing, boring, brainless inflight entertainment!

          ♫♪  ‘Cause it’s my life! ♫♪ 

From Russia With Love

The Best Bits
Coats and boots street fashion

Coats and boots street fashion

CLASSIC CLOTHES – in particular…coats, hats and boots! European women wear their intimidation with classic styling while Russian women just nonchalantly wrap themselves in it before putting their best boot forward and strutting their confidence.  Note to self: I must buy some intimidation and confidence!

St Basil's

St Basil’s

FABULOUS FOOD Portion sizes are half the size of our traditionally upsized, over salted, extra added sugar, huge heart attacks on a plate. They also don’t offer up for consumption any super polished, genetically altered experiments with a required preservative list that allows left overs to glow in the dark or on the shelf for the next fifty years; instead they seem to be opting for taste in every small mouthful. Imagine!

AMAZING ARCHITECTURE It doesn’t matter if it’s a city cathedral, local church, historical house or the backyard fence… somehow they all encourage or include clever design, individuality and colourful embellishment.

Snow

Snow

SNOW It is just everywhere, powdery and sparklingly beautiful!

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

MOSCOW METRO It’s like you never have to step outside your own chandeliered palace to get to work. Costing less than one dollar to go anywhere at any time, this train system truly services the public in the best possible way.

Hmm, now there’s a tax payer, fact finding jaunt for an Aussie pollie… please go and see what is possible!

Beluga Caviar

Beluga Caviar

CHAMPAGNE & CAVIAR First impressions: pretty good… but I’m not sure I have tasted enough of either to critique with credibility. I believe I must keep sampling more until I can comment with true understanding.

HISTORY A diverse range of characters have interwoven throughout the fabric of Russian time to create a rich, historical tapestry. Dynasties of tsars, tsarinas, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses have ruled divinely and often with excess. Bolsheviks encouraged change through revolution and Soviet leaders marched on a Cold War world stage. The times have been a changing for a while now and I’m watching fascinated now to see if this new era’s leaders have learned from the past or whether they’ll just revert to it. Sometimes moving forward can be the most difficult.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage

ART Is the Hermitage the best museum in the world? In my opinion, I think the  19th/20th century French painting collection is probably the best of its kind that I have ever seen anywhere… but I am no expert.

Me & Matisse

Me & Matisse

Yes, there is a room full of Rubens and another of Rembrandt. Leonardo and Michaelangelo get a pretty good look in too. But do they really come alive for me? Hmmm, maybe I just need ‘A Night in the Museum’…please!

PEOPLE What a proud, fascinating people! Yes, it is hard to tell when a Russian is happy but once the vodka is opened it gets easier. Most of them speak far better English than I speak Russian, although my ability with charades and speaking s.l.o.w.l.y  i.n  E.n.g.l.i.s.h  is coming along just fine, thanks. They are independent, interesting… and have some of the best dressed dogs that I’ve ever seen.

Best dressed dog

Best dressed dog

   Wonderfully generous and welcoming….

                          I can’t wait to come back one day!

Q&A: Siberian Sojourn

Seven Questions Only                    

Listvyanka is a fairly typical village

Listvyanka is a fairly typical village

What did you expect to see?

Gulags, frozen peasants and snow! Ok, so I needed an update since watching Dr Zhivago but isn’t that why we travel?

Snow icing everywhere

Snow icing everywhere

What did you find?

Not a gulag or peasant, frozen or otherwise, in sight! It’s a wonderfully modern, diverse, interesting and quite prosperous Russian oblast (state/province) that destroyed every ignorant, preconceived stereotype I may have held.

 

Was there snow?

Old world charm

Old world charm

Yes! Yes! And more yes! But my idea of snow was so limited. I don’t believe I could ever have imagined how much snow there was or indeed, how beautiful it would look to my dusty Australian eyes. Rooftops on gingerbread houses were iced with thick, heavy layers of freshly fallen snow; larch trees on hillsides stood firm and dusted in white powder that glistened like sugar in the late afternoon sunlight; fallen, wooden paling fences sank deep into the snowline all the time outlining quilted downy fields that reflected the myriad pinks splashed down abstractly by the setting sun. Falling asleep to this fairytale scenery we travelled from Asia on the train for four nights before awakening, 5200kms to the west in Europe, to the same snow covered story. It is an immense and beautiful part of our planet!

How did you fill your days?

We wandered around the village where individuality and old world charm oozed together from the wooden fenced backyards, public corner wells and winding streets.

Dog sledding through the forest

Dog sledding through the forest

Crossing a snow encrusted bridge we spied an old Russian Orthadox church at the end of a lane and entered wondering what kind of faith we might find. Dedication to service was worn on the sleeve of the young nun who greeted us at the door; a timeless story of sacrifice and love was revealed in the murals that elaborately adorned every corner of the 170 year old timber structure that had survived a religiously oppressive political time; multiple candles burned for loved ones while icons were sold in a corner of this ritualistic space. We moved on.

Outside we found a dog sled company and paid the tourist price for a local experience. I can’t complain. It was great fun!

Which was the best part?

Without a doubt… walking on the frozen Lake Baikal.

Aussie tourists dancing on Lake Baikal

Aussie tourists dancing on Lake Baikal

This  is the deepest (1637m) lake and holds approx. 20% of the world’s freshwater supplies. Snow covered turquoise ice blocks piled up across the surface hint at what lies beyond.

Bubbles and cracks caught in layers below

Bubbles and cracks caught in layers below

The lake is covered by a 50cm layer of clear ice that magnifies the dark depths below. Because the water below is so clear we could just make out the rocks up to 10 metres below on the bottom of our bay. It was fascinating to see whispy veils of cracks in the ice and various size bubbles trapped below while Aussie tourists kicked ice footballs or danced the cancan and etched abstract markings onto the glassy surface.

How was the food?

Fish at the markets

Fish at the markets

We were welcomed with warm piroshky (fish or meat pasties) and our fingers frozen numb from the unforgiving winds outside slowly thawed as they wrapped around bowls of steaming solyanka (meat soup). Our taste buds reveled in the delights of Russian champagne and local caviar on toast before we dined heartily on smoked fish and potatoes before celebrating late into the night like real Russians with vodka shots, beer and the occasional Georgian red. It is easy to party hard when you feel so satisfied and warmly welcomed.

What did you learn?

I realize that past generations here at various times have suffered harsh realities and oppressions that I will never fully comprehend and also atrocities that I choose not to contemplate… but I also realize this is what has made the contemporary people who they are today. They are not dwelling in the past but are learning from it. The modern Siberian is aware of their many indigenous peoples and rightfully proud of their heritage. They have big hearts and are a modern, vibrant part of Russia today. While my contemporaries here grew up under extremely different circumstances and restrictions to myself, our children are growing in similar worlds now that are connected, blended and full of opportunity. I wonder only about who will squander their opportunity.

Lake Baikal snow covered turquoise ice

Lake Baikal snow covered turquoise ice

What would I like to say to Siberians?

Spa-see-ba = Thank you!

Das ve danya = Goodbye!

Selfie on the dog sled with driver

Selfie on the dog sled with driver

Nas da rovia = Good health!

Genghis Khan and other Fun Facts

Top travel tips for Mongolia…

Genghis Khan – pronounced and written Chinghis Khan but born ‘Temujin’; founder and Great Khan of the Mongel Empire;

Genghis Khan - never allowed pics so while all conquering, uniting good bloke..  probably wasn't big on the facebook of his time.

Genghis Khan – never allowed pics so while all conquering, uniting good bloke.. probably wasn’t big on the facebook of his time.

born about 1162 and died August 1227; was buried in a secret place and 600 horseman rode all over that place to erase the exact spot… then all 600 were killed. Now that’s public servant dedication!

Temperature – any temperature below minus ten (-10C) is irrelevant because nose drips have already formed icicles from the tip of the beacon illuminating from the centre of your face and Rudolph and Santa have conscripted you for work on Christmas eve.

Mongolian ger at sunset

Mongolian ger at sunset

 

Elves – I have never seen one but I hear they enter a ger throughout the night at 11pm, 2am and 5am to stoke the fire and add coal to create that ‘on the streets of Dubai temperature’ we all hanker for during March in Mongolia. It’s always a lovely contrast to the -35C outside. I would like to take an elf home.

Food – Vegetarians need not apply. Mutton is good. Mutton soup is good. Mutton dumplings are good. Muttonballs with anything are good. Mutton barbecues are great. Potato is the vegetable and potato cutlets are a highlight. Yes, mashed potato, crumbed and cooked like mutton.

Cashmere walking

Cashmere walking

Wine – a corkscrew is essential for fine dining and to accompany mutton masterchef moments.

Goats – cashmere walks before you wear it.

Fashion – The ‘Terrorist Look’ is in!

The 'terrorist' fashion statement.

The ‘terrorist’ fashion statement.

Clothing – getting dressed for that middle of the night toilet dash is a simple affair. Here are the layers I recommend:

  1. Wool knickers
  2. Thermal long johns – bright, colourful patterns optional
  3. Socks – 2 pair of woolen or possum at the least
  4. Jeans – optional
  5. Snow/walking boots
  6. Merino singlet
  7. Polypropylene long sleeved top
  8. Fleecy jumper
  9. Lip balm on
  10. Scarf – wrapped around head and across face at least twice
  11. Beanie – on top of scarf

    Princess Fiona and her Khan.

    Princess Fiona and her Khan.

  12. Long arm woolen mittens
  13. All weather duck down jacket/parker – collar turned up and zipped to your nose      
  14. Hood over beanie
  15. Sunglasses –  to keep cold off eyeballs. Yes they fog up but it is warmer!
  16. Antiseptic hand wash – in pocket to be used after because water in pipes are frozen.
  17. Now… run!!

What a wonderful experience to have visited this ancient land.  I feel like Princess Fiona has  definitely soared! 

My golden eagle ride.

My golden eagle ride.

View from the meditation centre in the clouds.

View from the meditation centre in the clouds

 

Lost In Translation

Nobody really knows what Bill Murray’s character whispers to Scarlet…

At the end of the movie it is left up to the viewer to determine whether it is a beginning or an end, and I have always felt that the story up to that point was only a prequel to the real story.

This is how Beijing feels to me today. It is only a beginning; an introduction to my Trans Siberian adventure; an invitation to return.

Calligraphy at dawn

Calligraphy at dawn

But what rich and rewarding stories unfolded in this super city.

Beijing parks bustle from dawn and the city awakens. Elderly folk silently practice tai chi, artists inscribe wet marks of calligraphy onto slate pavements while tiny children are indulged by doting grandparents.

Our tourist group gathered in Tiananmen Square where the symbolism of past events are truly overwhelming when put into context by the size of this famous landmark. Chairman Mao’s portrait is proudly displayed at the western end and I feel watched over with all the other passers by. This is the low season for westerners but it is still busier than most places I’ve known back home.

Inside the Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City

We are herded in lines into the Forbidden City where once again I’m saturated with a sense of history that I find difficult to fathom. The cobblestones courtyards are surrounded by red painted, veranda edged buildings topped with brightly, glazed roof tiles. Tourists huddle at cordoned off doorways of temples to grab a peek inside at a past life and I am reminded of the manipulations of court life and the excesses of the guilded cage that many of the concubines lived in far from their families and watched over by the ultimate public servant.. the eunuch.

Outside, we cross a moat and head back into the bustling modern life that is Beijing. We stop for dumplings in a back street before getting our caffeine fix at Starbucks. Later that night we visit the guide’s friend Alice for dinner in her tea house in a nearby hutong. Of course we can’t resist looking back to our own ancient 70’s heritage and name it ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. After dinner we are introduced to a diverse range and very distinctive flavours of tea.

We walked from Gate 18 to 6 on this section of the Great Wall

We walked from Gate 18 to 6 on this section of the Great Wall

The following day we visited The Great Wall at Mutianyu. What can I say? It is a brilliantly engineered, original idea of a 10000 kms long barrier to keep out the marauding Mongels. I understand the pain suffered building it and that can never be negated but I must admit that this architectural masterpiece is now my number one, número uno, favourite, most amazing, man made wonder of the world. I have never seen anything quite so spectacular in all my life! Pictures and words just can’t do it justice. You must go and see it.. and take the time to walk as many gates as possible.

What a wonderful country! What a delightful city!

Beijing has a population of 22 million and yet the streets are spotless and I found all the people I interacted with to be interested, intelligent, warm and inviting. Their English is far better than my Chinese will ever be and while there were some very funny, literal translations

Walking home after dinner in a nearby hutong.

Walking home after dinner in a nearby hutong.

on products, there was definitely nothing lost in translation of the smiles that greeted us.

I feel I’ve only just scratched the surface of this amazing place and I look forward to coming back one day in springtime or autumn to see the colours of nature as a backdrop to the swirling, kaleidoscope of bright colours that are the people of this fascinating country.

The next day we boarded the train early and our journey continued toward our next adventure… Mongolia!