Friday, 25 October 2013

The Lands of Dragons and a yurt
The jolly jock got it right again. Friday October 25th was forecast to be wet and with the dawn I woke and watched the rain falling like stair rods as they say so the walk, which was to be local, was cancelled.
 Some years ago my sister was working in an international school with vague Canadian connections, in Macau and suggested I might like to visit. I booked a flight with civilised Air France and jetted off from Newcastle to Charles de Gaulle airport and after a few hours wait boarded a very large Boeing for the long flight to Hong Kong. Air France are to be recommended, they actually offered economy class passengers a limited choice of dinner, had a good choice of films on the mini TV and best of all had the map that tells you where you are and how cold it is if the door was to suddenly open.
Arriving in Hong Kong I was met, surprisingly for our family, and given a choice, I opted for the bus from the airport so I could see what the old colony was like. It was a proper bus, double decker and driven on the proper side of the road too.
Put up in the Salisbury Hotel I soon fell asleep, not being very good at snoozing on planes. The hotel looked out on the classic view of Hong Kong they show you on news bulletins:
                                   It was a grey but warm day in Hong Kong.
    Fed and recovered, next day we caught the ferry to Macau. I liked Macau, still a little colonial downtown with many a handsome Portuguese style building, lots of casinos and blocks of flats.
                                                                   Close quarter living, Macau.

                                            Nice old street, specialising in nougat.
                                             If anybody knows how to enlarge pictures  
                                              on blogs let me know. I only seem to be able
                                           to enlarge the first.
Next day we went to the the airport and boarded a plane to Bangkok, capital of Thailand. We had a  central hotel, very comfortable ,   spoiled by a couple of middle aged English men who were obviously on a sex tour. Having said that our hotel was close to the notorious "Cowboy Street" and I just had to have a look.
                                                     Cowboy Street, Bangkok
                              (Don't bother, just found out how to do it)
             As I walked down the street an attractive young lady (or lady boy for all I knew) called out "Come in sir, you'll have a wonderful time!"
A stern schoolmarm voice behind replied; "He's with me!"  Foiled again.

Naturally we did the tourist sites of the city, the Royal Palace in the hope of seeing Deborah Kerr or Yul Brynner, several monasteries and a street market that sold fun things like snakes. Chinatown was a bit spooky, people selling second or third hand stuff on the pavement, car parts made locally, Chinese medicine and food, cooked on handcarts there and then Health and Safety would have a field day.
                            Inside the palace grounds, Bangkok.

 One day we took a boat trip to Ayuthaya which was the site of  a Buddhist monastery and an elephant training ground. 
                           Reclining Buddha at Ayuthaya. Pleasant life being a Buddha, lazing around, just thinking.

On offer in the hotel was a day trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai by coach so we booked it. The coach did not turn up for us. Full of apologies the company provided a car, air conditioned of course, with a driver,  and we made it to the bridge just in time to join the coach party for a light lunch in an open hut similar to the ones the prisoners would have had as they worked on the railway. And I am certain we fed better than they did. Close by was a military cemetery, row after row of headstones, each engraved with the name of a soldier who had died working nearby.
                                          The Bridge on the River Kwai, nothing like the structure blown
                                     up by Alec Guinness in the famous film. Towards the end
                                   of WWII it was badly damaged by an American bomber. A nearby
                                    museum housed all kinds of strange objects, some not at all related
                                     to the bridge.
  Back in Macau I was offered a choice; amuse myself alone in Macau or join a school trip to Shenzen in mainland China as a member of staff. Well, having seen a lot of western Europe with parties of children another school trip sounded fun and off we went. The children were all about twelve, mainly Chinese but with a couple of Australians and Canadians thrown in for good measure.

On the bus journey, which wasn't too long as Shenzen is not far4 from Hong Kong we stopped at a fort. Our guide, who stuck to his lines explained it was attacked by the awful imperialists in the Opium Wars, a shameful episode. I can't help but think that there are millions of Chinese and the small British fleet had supply and communication lines for thousands of miles.
  About thirty years ago Shenzen was little more than a fishing village but today it is an industrial  town with several million inhabitants turning out goods for export. We stayed in the Crown Plaza, quite possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed in, that's communism for you.
One of the trips arranged for the children was to the "Minsk". This is a Soviet aircraft carrier bought by the Chinese and made into a sort of theme park. Undoubtedly the biggest ship I have ever been on it had a few jets and helicopters on the deck which was probably measured in football pitches. Below decks (Nautical term) some of the hangars had been converted into games rooms with video machines. But what a difference, all the planes that got shot down in the games were American!
                                        On the flight deck of the   СCCP  MИНCK                                          (Doesn't have the same ring as HMS)

Another day we visited the local gardens where it was possible to visit several of the world's cities in an afternoon. Scale models of Paris, New York, London, Moscow and a scaled down version of the famous Chinese Terracotta Army. In the evening we went to  an open air show that presented a history of China in amazing dances. Never seen anything like it, truly wonderful, even the digs at those awful imperialists and their running dogs.

Show in Shenzen
And to finish off the trip we went to see "The Great Horse Battle" where about fifty mounted men charged around an arena re-enacting the life and times of Genghis Khan. Not sure who won this battle but I suspect it wasn't Genghis, or Temujin to his friends.
                  We won! Note the yurt in the background. Mrs Whitehead would have approved.
 Me and my little Chinese friends in a restaurant in Shenzen . Couldn't use the chopsticks too well.
Back home in Macau there was one other trip to make. An old student friend invited us to visit him and his family in Foshan. Speaking 23 words of Chinese sister Kathleen booked our bus tickets.  Some hour into the journey she decided we were on the wrong bus and we finished up god knows where. Wherever it was they eventually found somebody who could speak English and we set off for Foshan where we were met by "Ivan" who took us to his parents flat. A pleasant flat in a modern block, the living room had all the electronic gadgets you would need, the bedrooms were well furnished, the cooker was modern and the toilet was a hole in the floor in a cubicle off the kitchen , flushed by filling a pan and pouring the water down the hole! Ivan apologised, I laughed.
His dad had been a lecturer in English literature at the local college but had lost his job for a while  when the Chinese decided a lot of people needed re-educating and students were only too keen to rush round with little red books.
But he highlight of the few days spent in Foshan was in the hairdressers in the block across from Ivan's. I accompanied sister and Mrs. Ivan to the shop and was whisked into a backroom, laid out face down on a fairly high couch and given first a head and scalp massage. Unable to speak Chinese and unable to understand instructions led to a lot of giggling but I finished up with an upper body massage that was really revitalising. Offering to pay for all three of us I was told the score; it worked out about 12p each! Must have known I was from Yorkshire, and no tip as that is a bit of an insult, like not leaving a small amount of food on your plate.
                                             Me with Ivan's parents. It was my birthday
                                           and they presented me with a lovely cake .

                                            Chinese garden in Foshan.
On our return to Macau we were held up for some time as there was a problem with the visa. Eventually we were allowed through but only after the authorities went to get the border officer who had let us through a few days previously!

Next day I caught the double decker bus to the airport and flew home. Crossing the Himalayas the plane met turbulence and the aircraft jumped around. The pilot ordered everyone in their seat, the emergency lights came on as well as the lights pointing to the exits. I had always wanted to go to the Himalayas but not like this. As soon as we were over the mountains the turbulence ended and the rest of the flight was super smooth. We flew over Siberia, Moscow Prague and down to Paris. After a wait I caught the shuttle back to Newcastle, and the next day I went back to work.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

 КУРы  В  КИЕВЕ ............................ 

  Because most gadgies had things to do for family or were suffering from colds there was no walk on Friday October 18th. To fill my time in on a wet Saturday evening I have decided to drag up the great Kiev adventure.

Irina Guy, Ukrainian, lovely lady and the best Russian teacher ever (although she did think I was the second naughtiest boy in the class, aged 60 too) decided to organise a trip to Kiev and Yalta for her friends and pupils. So one August day a few years ago, Irina, her  husband David, Dennis and his son Martin, sister Kate, daughter Kate, Georgie, Liz, John, Lesley and myself left that hell on earth called Heathrow and a few hours later found ourselves in Kiev, capital of Ukraine.

We booked in to  the Hotel Russia, Soviet style but comfortable, good rooms, good food, good beer and for some reason a number of heavily made up young women hanging around the lifts. Perhaps they were WAGS, as the football ground was next door.
Historians reckon that Kiev dates back to the end of the fifth century but it was at the end of the tenth century that the city became the political, economic and spiritual centre of Kievan Rus. Today it is a beautiful city filled with Orthodox churches, fine buildings and some bitter history.
  A guide took us round the city, stopping at the University and the Cathedral of St. Michael where she came out with,
"You have probably been wondering what happened to the preserved remains of St. Barbara." A thought that has always been uppermost in my mind! And there she was, inside her coffin in the most ornate cathedral. Founded in 1108 the cathedral was blown up in 1936 no doubt in an anti religious purge. It was rebuilt  at the end of the twentieth century, St. Barbara was restored to her rightful place. When we went in there was a service in progress, many worshippers kissed the glass plate through which we had a glimpse of the sainted lady's mummified head. Not the sort of thing for northern protestants.

                                                St. Michael's Cathedral.

                                                        The golden dome, St. Michaels.
  Another day some of us  found our way by bus to an outdoor museum of Ukrainian Life. Rather like the Beamish Museum of the North, but set in an earlier period it came complete with village, farms and a church. Sadly it was closing day for many of the buildings but we were free to wander round the huge site.

                                                              Cottage interiors
                                                  Village windmills, the Ukraine was the breadbasket
                                                              of Russia
                                                            It's a pigsty
                                                       A gin gan

                                                          The village church.
                                             And some of the old villagers.
Back in the city we had a wander, just to take in the sights of the city. Although there has been considerable rebuilding since the collapse of the Soviet Union there are still several monuments to the glories of communism


                                                    Symbol of unity between Ukraine and Russia

The workers.

And the monument to Ukrainian Independence.

The Golden Gate of Kiev.  Eleventh century, currently being restored.

One of the more depressing monuments in the city is that to the thousands of Soviet citizens killed in Babi Yar* in 1941. It was built in 1976 but the monument to the Jews slaughtered in  the ravine was only built in 1991. There is also a museum dedicated to the accident at Chernobyl nuclear facility which is not that far away. It is possible to take a tour close to the concrete enclosed plant but we opted not to go. Overlooking the river Dnieper is a 102 metre high statue of The Motherland, commemorating the Great Patriotic War of 1941 -45.

To complete our short stay in the city we visited  the Lavra (Monastery) of Kiev Percherskya.  It has several ornate churches but more interesting are the caves, they contain the preserved bodies of some of the monks who lived in the monastery years ago. By candle light we walked through the underground system. Unfortunately I was behind a very large lady who insisted on stopping at each coffin, crossing herself and offering a brief prayer. The passage was too narrow for overtaking!

On a lighter note we  visited the Bessarabian market on Kreshchatik, the main street of the city. Stalls laden with food!
                                                       Puts the Grainger Market to shame.
                                       We drank Kvass, a very mildly alcoholic drink sold in summer
                                       on the streets, made from bread and very refreshing.
                                                 And how we ate.
                                                 Decoration on the metro system. Guess who?

The Dnieper.

And then we caught the train to Yalta.

                                          The interior of Kiev Station. Better than King's Cross!
The overnight journey took about fourteen hours. We travelled in the Russian style compartments; bunk beds for four people, put your jim jams on if you must and bring your own food, although the conductor in our carriage had an almost endless supply of bottled beer which he was only to happy to sell. In our compartment we were in the charge of sister Kate who had decided that cheese would not be suitable for eating as it was so hot and maybe the cheese would go off. Fortunately John and Liz were next door and they had cheese which they happily shared, secretly.

                                                      Kate tries the upper bunk.
I was not impressed with Yalta, like Blackpool with sub-tropical heat. No tower, but unlike Blackpool it has  a range of mountains as a backdrop. And it is in the Crimea, very popular with Russian holidaymakers and near t6he site of the Charge of the Light Brigade in which they wore cardigans and balaclavas. But I did enjoy our stay there; based on the Hotel Bristol where the rooms were comfortable, the food was a mixture of west and east and the TV showed BBC World, but only in the daytime.
Great centre for trips though. Naturally we visited the Livadiya Palace, site of the 1945 conference between Churchill, Rooseveldt and Stalin. I think the palace started life as a summer palace for the Romanovs, after all if you are stuck in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg you need a summer break somewhere and the Alexandra  and Catherine Palaces are such a bore.
Quit a small palace by Romanov standards but interesting as the site of the carve up of Europe.
                                                     The leaders at Yalta

                                  Watched over by the Romanovs, now interred in the
                                      Peter Paul Cathedral in St.Petersburg - possibly.
Churchill did not stay in the palace but commuted daily from the Alupka Palace west of Yalta. Sadly many of the photographs I took have been mysteriously wiped from my computer and are living as pixels somewhere in the cloud no doubt, so this picture of the Alupka is not mine.
                                                      The Alupka Palace, Crimea. Looks a bit Tudor.
Another day of culture found us in Anton Chekov's house in Yalta, sadly interior photographs are among the missing. Anton, according to the lady who gave us a tour, was very fond of roses, planting many, and in her words the one in the picture below may well have known Chekov himself.

                                                              Chekov's Rose

                                              Coming in from The Cherry Orchard for
                                                       tea with Uncle Vanya.
                                              Lesley shows little respect for the great man.
Daughter Kate.
Sister Kate and me

                                                       The Swallow Restaurant

                                                            That man gets everywhere.

                                            Eating again,or getting ready to. Georgie is
                                           timing the service. It was usually good, as was the food.
                        The food in Yalta was fine. The only problem was that if it was on the menu that was exactly what you got. One evening David asked for a steak, without the onions, but it arrived with its garnish "because it is on the menu".
One day Kate asked for a cheese sandwich which was refused because it was not on the menu. We enquired if they had bread and cheese and yes they had but were adamant a sandwich was out of the question because it was not.....................

The Botanical gardens were beautiful, apart from the disgusting toilets and the odd snake but the photos are lost.
After a few days we returned by train to Kiev, this time being permitted cheese which was of course helped down with bottles of beer. Back in Kiev we had the best part of the day in the city before flying home. Some of us decided to pay a visit to the Mikail Bulgakov Museum. The house of the writer of The Master and Margarita turned out, sadly, to be closed because there was no electricity. Come back this afternoon, Too late, going home.
                                               Close to the Bulgakov Museum. There was a great street market too where I bought a red T shirt printed with the Soviet Anthem, and a box of Christmas decorations.
And that was that, we flew home to London and on to Newcastle after a great ten days.

* Read "Babi Yar" by Anatoli Kutzenov and never complain again

I once had the cheek to send a blog (Le Gadgie Grande) to the Travel pages of The Sunday Times. The editor wrote me a nice letter  saying it was very interesting but that her readers were really interested in the stories of well known people. That's the trouble with newspapers, even the heavies, they must have their quota of celebrity tittle tattle. And don't get me started on the columnists.