Posted in Photography

Lightning over Phuket

I have always loved thunder and lightning, and ever since I took up photography, I have wanted to shoot a lightning storm. That, of course, is problematic. Lightning strikes when and where it chooses, and so you can hardly plan this sort of thing. Moreover, when it does strike, it is gone in a split second.

So how do you take a good photograph of lightning?

After doing a little research, I decided to try various forms of long exposure – somewhere between 10 seconds and 30 seconds. I suspected that 30 seconds might be a bit too long, bringing in too much light, but it was worth a try. As with shooting the stars, I attempted to focus on infinity by finding out from the PhotoPills app where that would be on my lens.

Last night, a long lightning storm off the east coast of Phuket gave me my opportunity. I headed up to the roof of my apartment building and set up my tripod.

(Note: Do not do this. It’s not smart to be on the top of a building in a lightning storm.)

I first tried my GoPro because it’s so much faster to set up, and it can take photos continuously. I tried 20- and 30-second exposures, and managed to capture a few lightning strikes. However, only one really came out well:

(The second pic, which is simply a zoomed-in version of the first, looks like the universe is splitting open. Watch out for Thanos or the Terminator, folks.)

Next, I set up my DSLR and got serious. The lightning storm had continued for more than half an hour and showed no signs of moving on, so I played around with the settings on my camera and tried a number of angles. Unfortunately, the height of the wall around the edge of my roof made it impossible (or at least very difficult) to get a shot of the city, but I was mostly just interested in getting the lightning.

The results were pretty mixed. On the camera, the photos actually looked fantastic, but when I got them on my computer I could see that the wind had jiggled the camera around a little and blurred the images. I’d be annoyed except this is really my first attempt at shooting lightning, and I’m pretty proud of at least one of these. (The one in landscape style.)

The lightning storm moved closer and so I headed indoors. Shortly after, the skies exploded and we were hit hard by a good old tropical rainstorm.

If anyone reading this has any advice on shooting lightning (or other night photography tips), please do share in the comments.

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Posted in Photography

Sunset from Promthep Cape

Promthep Cape is the southernmost point of Phuket Island, and it is said to provide some of the best sunsets in the region. To be honest, I’ve see hundreds of sunsets in my life, and when people say “this is the best” or “that is the best”, I roll my eyes. A sunset is a sunset. They are beautiful and magical but they are all pretty similar. It’s more a matter of how the clouds form than the actual landscape. And when the landscape is the sea… well, it shouldn’t matter as long as you are on the western coast of somewhere.

Anyway, I digress. I was talking about the famous Promthep Cape, at the south of Phuket. It’s a nice little bit of land, though grossly overcrowded at sunset. Annoyingly, it’s overcrowded with Chinese… so that means you have to tolerate screaming and shouting and all kinds of ghastly behaviours peculiar to these people. Still, if you can put up with them (think: headphones), then you will be rewarded with some pleasant views and a nice cool sea breeze.

I managed to squeeze among the tourist hordes and get a few shots of the scenery and sun, although for the most part I struggled to get anything I really felt proud of. As I said above, as sunset is a sunset. This shot from my back door recently was better than what I saw at Promthep Cape, and I didn’t have to put up with screaming Chinese to get it. I just stuck my head out the door.

Phuket Sunset
Why do I imagine a fleet of chinooks coming over the trees and The Doors playing…? 

Anyway, I managed to get a few decent photos, and then climbed down a dusty trail to the actual cape, where it was quieter than the vantage point up near the road. I stuck around til after dark and shot a few more photos before the flies drove me away.

And, finally, a panorama taken just after sunset, in the peace and quiet as the tourists departed…

Promthep Cape panorama

Posted in Photography

Playing Around With Night Photography

I’ve been interested in night photography for a long time, and I have posted a few photos on this website. However, it is a difficult thing to master… and in fact, difficult even to be able to do the basics.

Here is a selfie I took under the stars a few years ago:

My selfie with the stars

It’s definitely among the best night photos I have taken. I used a GoPro to shoot this because GoPros are simple and actually surprisingly good for night photography. You can see a light by my life hand – that’s my phone as I remotely triggered the shot.

Using a DSLR allows for far more versatility but it is of course far harder. When you throw in the fact that Nikon’s app (for setting up and triggered photos) is useless, you can begin to imagine how long it takes.

When you are shooting photos at night, you need long exposures, and sometimes many of them. Making a mistake can cost you a great deal of time. And mistakes are easily made when you can’t see a damn thing. For a start, how do you focus in the dark? It took me until last night to figure that out.

Last night I went up on the roof of my building with both my GoPro and DSLR, and took a number of photos. I started with a 3 hour series of long exposures to capture star trails, – something I had never done before. The results weren’t great, but I suppose they were probably better than I expected. I simply plonked my camera down on a mini-tripod, set the timer, and went back indoors for a few hours.

The next day, I used StarstaX to piece it all together. Unfortunately, despite it having been a really clear night, a few clouds moved in for about half an hour in the middle of my shot, and sort of ruined it. Oh well, try again another day. Here’s what I got:

You can see in one photo I have just made do with the clouds obscuring much of the sky, while in the other I pieced together what I could minus the cloudy photos.

My roof proved actually quite interesting (it’s a new house for me, so that was a surprise) and so I grabbed my DSLR (a Nikon D5600) and tried a few shots:

After a good few failed shots, I figured out how to focus on infinity, and managed to get a decent picture of the sky and the (telephone?) aerial. For the second picture, I lined up the shot and then walked around flashing my phone light on the ground. The slimy green goo on the concrete (after it had just rained) looked pretty damn cool.

Post production was a bit tough, as it always is (for me, at least) with night shots. I fired up Lightroom and tweaked a few settings, but it was hard to get the stars to pop while also reducing the nearby light pollution. I think these two pics came out ok.

Finally, I got a selfie with my GoPro. I took one with my DSLR but it didn’t work too well because the mosquitos were biting me and so I moved ever so slightly, blurring the picture.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR5458.

Actually, I took another, but for this one I went a bit overboard editing it on my iPhone… I look like I am about to be abducted by aliens.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR5457.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on Brexit

I have never written about Brexit before because 1) I hate even thinking about it, and 2) I’m not a legal expert, and even they seem to struggle to fully comprehend it. But here goes…

Like most reasonable people, I am not just opposed to Brexit, but utterly aghast that it is happening. Yet, on some level, I do understand the events and sentiments that led us here. I get why people felt that it might be a good thing: Britain has been in decline for a long time, the EU does have some obvious problems, and immigration (you don’t have to be a racist to agree) comes with some pretty notable problems. Many people were frustrated at the state of our country and they wanted action taken. Like with the election of Donald Trump over the pond, enough people were angry and confused to make something really awful happen.

While those are fair and reasonable issues to complain about, I’m still appalled that they led us down such an unthinkable path. Brexit is nothing short of a national embarrassment, so hideous an event that it seems indeed to be the final chapter in that improbable epic, The History of Great Britain. Brexit simply should never have put to referendum, and in the next few paragraphs I shall explain why.

Firstly, even the dastardly Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher believed it was a bad idea to put such a topic to a public vote. I never thought I’d utter these vile words, but… I agree with Thatcher. *shudders* Yes, that’s right; the Iron Lady was spot on in this one instance. She rightly pointed out that the public may be asked for their vote on comparatively simple issues like the death penalty. This involves a simple moral question: Is it right or wrong to take someone’s life as punishment for their having taken another. However, to ask the public whether the UK should or shouldn’t leave the EU is absurd, as the question is simply too complex.

To put it another way, leaving the EU was never the simple question that Leave proponents put forth, but they were very clever in making it seem that way. They took a wide range of issues and put them under one convenient slogan, and then targeted people who were unhappy with any of these issues. Brexiting is something so wildly vast and complicated that even legal experts struggle to comprehend it, and yet the average man and woman were being asked to weigh in. It is beyond belief that this vote went ahead.

Which leads nicely into my next point. This may sound mean, or even politically incorrect, but go to your local Poundland or Wetherspoons and pick a few people at random. Ask them some questions about EU policies and see what they have to say. Go on; I’ll wait.

The average British citizen nowadays barely has the intellectual capacity to vote for a candidate on <insert trendy reality TV show>, never mind figure out the complexities of a legal separation of two political entities. Yes, they are entitled to their opinion, but no their opinion doesn’t fucking matter.

Does that sound harsh? Well, that’s a shame. Life is tough, but pandering to idiots is a waste of time. If these morons hadn’t voted for Brexit in such vast numbers, most of them would’ve forgotten it by now and would be more concerned about the latest Instagram post by <insert trendy “influencer”>.

Now let’s put aside the fact that asking millions of mentally incompetent people to vote on something that should never have been voted on is a bad idea, and look at what they voted for. To do this, let’s consider the following scenario:

You wish to purchase a banana, so you go to the local fruit market. You have a choice between two bananas. One is a bit bruised and blackened, but the vendor at this stall tells you it is still good inside. The other is perfectly yellow, and that vendor tells you this is the best banana in the world, and that the slightly bruised one is poisonous. Which do you choose? You take the bright yellow banana because it looks so good. Of course, when you go to peel it, you find out that the vendor has taken a shit and painted it yellow. You have been fooled, and now you are holding a yellow turd.

This is essentially what happened with Brexit. Immediately after the vote, admissions were made that the promises given to Leave voters were utterly false – not just small lies, but outright fabricated nonsense. Voters had been played like the idiots they in fact are. Many of them, regrettably, still believe the lies and cradle that little yellow poo, hoping it somehow proves to be a banana, while others realize that they were swindled, and wish for the chance to return to the fruit market.

Of course, the politicians who are in power helped sell those shiny yellow jobbies, and they tell us: “Pipe down; the people have spoken. To start handing out real bananas now would be undemocratic.”

Ah, democracy. We hold it up to be the absolute paragon of reason in this tempestuous modern world of ours. But is it really so great? Look around and ask yourself how the fuck we are stuck with Brexit and Trump and a host of other idiotic populist yellow turds. In the era of social media, something has begun to stink, and it isn’t just those shitty bananas.

Democracy was never the perfect form of government, but it was less terrible than others. Asking the same people who watch Geordie Shore to puzzle through the intricacies of international law is a bit like asking a brain-damaged rabbit to build its own new hutch by following instructions that have been fed through an Enigma machine. That we assign everyone an equal vote in the future of our country, despite the fact that the most popular newspapers are The Sun and The Daily Mail, is proof that we need a new system.

But I digress… sort of.

The Brexit referendum ended up 52-48 in favor of leaving the EU, and to me it is quite frankly stupid to have such a small difference allow for a change of such tremendous impact. Surely for something of the enormity of leaving the EU – effectively stranding the UK alone and thrusting us into a world of uncertainty – we should have required the support of 75% of the population at minimum. Right? Is it just me that thinks a slim majority should be able to decide to damn our country? Surely altering the status quo in any significant way should require near total agreement. This isn’t like transitioning from one incompetent government to another – it’s more like asking voters to decide whether or not to implement a Purge day.

I say “our country”, but of course this issue is more complicated even than that. I am Scottish, not British, and yet my country – Scotland – is being forcibly removed from the EU due to the political idiocy and right-wing fervor of our mentally inferior cousins to the south. We are part of a union with the countries with whom we share an island, and the will of the biggest has dragged along the others. Then there’s the Ireland issue and the promises made regarding the open border…

There are so many complexities to this. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and as is probably abundantly clear by now, I am no legal expert. But it seems undeniable: There never should have been a Brexit referendum, and there should be no Brexit. Surely no right-minded person could argue that the future looks good for Britain. We were given an out by Europe in December when it was decided that we could unilaterally revoke Article 50, and as we draw closer to a no-deal Brexit, it is time we ready ourselves for a few years of being teased by the France and Germans and do the right thing. Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster so far, and the real effects haven’t yet been felt. No good can possibly come from it.* The embarrassment of this situation can be forgotten if we put it aside and go back to figuring things out sensibly, but if we leave Europe and cast ourselves adrift, our decline as a nation will hasten and in this rapidly change world, we will flounder and sink.

 

 

* I suspect that a significant amount of the incomprehensible wishful thinking that comes from the pro-Brexiters even now stems from the old notion of Britain as powerhouse of the world. Alas, those days have come and gone. We may once have ruled the seas and a full quarter of the landmass of this planet, but we are now just a cold, rainy collection of islands whose importance comes largely from history. As part of a bigger whole, we can thrive, but alone we will fail.

Posted in essay

Thoughts on China

In December, 2018, I quit my job and left China. I had been living and working in the Middle Kingdom on-and-off for more than eight years, and I was deeply unhappy. Of course, it hadn’t been all bad for all that time, but as the years went by, certain things bugged me more and more.

In China, it is socially acceptable to push and shove other people, to scream at the top of your lungs in a crowded place, to watch movies on the train at full volume with no headphones on, to spit on the ground just about anywhere, to point and stare and shout at people who look different, to urinate or defecate in public, to torture animals, to throw trash anywhere without a thought to the consequences, to drive like a maniac and blare your horn in residential areas in the middle of the night or light fireworks outside someone’s window at 5am… In short, it sometimes feels like no one in China ever even considers the feelings of people around them.

Chinese kid pooping at airport
Public pooping?! It’s fine in China.

When I first arrived in China, this was all exciting and fascinating. It is sort of liberating to live in a place where anything goes, and where almost everything people do and think and say is the polar opposite of what I – as a western person – was accustomed to. In this totalitarian regime, there were of course a million and one laws, but essentially the only real rule was: “Whatever you can get away with is right; whatever you get caught doing is wrong.” It was like the Wild West, except it was about as Far East as you could get.

I left China in 2013 to move to Cambodia and I missed it. Until then China had still been exciting, not to mention a veritable gold mine. Working there, I could make a small fortune doing stupidly easy jobs. Sometimes I taught at private schools, where really very little teaching was ever done because in the Chinese education system all you need to do is memorize long lists of data and learn how to praise the government. No one ever learns to think. I sometimes did “white monkey jobs” like officiating weddings, pretending to be a famous Russian pianist, or act in ridiculous TV commercials. It was fun, it was weird, and it made me some good money.

When I returned in late 2014, I moved to a city that was the laughing stock of the most backwards province in the country. It was a place where several mayors had gone to prison for corruption, where one of the biggest theme parks in Asia lay empty because it had never actually been opened, where a whole second city had been built to the south of the first one, but stayed empty because the buildings all collapsed before anyone could move in. It was a city where despite annual floods, the government never bothers to install drains, where a big sign at the entrance to the city said “NO PUBLIC DEFECATION!” but no one paid any attention because that is their proud heritage, and where homemade tractors plied the streets, spewing vast clouds of black dirt into the sky. It is famous for massive car pile ups, mine collapses, organized crime, and some of the worst air pollution on earth.

No pooping sign in China
“No public pooping,” say the government. “But it’s our god-given right!” say the people.

At first, I loved it. It was even more fucked up than the rest of China, which is in itself the most fucked up country on earth. I explored the city and its surrounding countryside (although Chinese countryside is more densely populated than British cities, so don’t go imagining any rolling green fields) extensively during those first months. People stared and pointed and shouted, “LAOWAI!!!” (meaning, “foreigner”) as loudly as they could because that’s just what Chinese people do when they see a foreigner.

I loved it.

My job was also wonderful. I had total freedom to design a curriculum for my one hundred eager students on a pleasant university campus at the edge of the city. My apartment was small but comfortable and my salary kept going up every few months because I was getting such great feedback from anyone who came to watch my class. I found a little gym nearby and got healthy, eventually training up to run a marathon in the next big city to the south, Hefei. In my holidays, which were substantial, I spent months exploring the globe from Africa to India and even North Korea. It was bliss, in most respects.

As time went by, my feelings towards China soured. What was once charmingly bizarre soon became irritating; what used to make me laugh now brought me half to tears. I grew sick of the poisonous air, the poisonous water, and the poisonous people. Going to the supermarket meant having my whole life picked over by each and every person in the building. I could not go anywhere without being pointed at, stared at, and rudely talked about, and when once that had just been an odd quirk of the locals, now it boiled my blood. My daily walk to school became a test of my tolerance for abuse, as I heard again and again the old refrain, “LAOWAI!!!” Without exaggerating, it was unlikely that I would go a few seconds without hearing someone loudly expectorate or some idiot beep his car horn for no reason. I grew to resent the ignorance and cruelty of the people around me. Every day I would see something sickening or enraging: an old lady balancing a baby on the front of her ebike as she rode through traffic on the wrong side of the road; dog carcasses hanging in the streets; human excrement everywhere; old ladies handling raw meat in the supermarkets and then chucking it back…

Laowai

And then there was the government.

The Chinese government is among the most insidious of all organizations. I’m sure to any educated, non-Chinese readers, it is hardly worth even mentioning the obvious atrocities: the genocide and cultural destruction of Tibet and Xinjiang, the innumerable human rights violations, the total suppression of free speech, the Tiananmen Square massacre, organ harvesting, and so on. Yet in China the government is revered by almost everyone and their power is utterly unchecked. Their propaganda and censorship are so astonishingly effective that a billion and a half braindead zombies just wait to be told what to think, and will not tolerate any criticism of their dear leader, Xi Jinping.

I loathed being unable to say certain obvious and undeniable truths, to be able to use the internet freely, to have books sent to me from abroad. I hated being monitored on cameras all day, and having my communications watched by Big Brother. It was unimaginably oppressive. But then, if you are an intelligent person who is not Chinese, there is hardly any point in saying this. This is known to all the world except for the blissfully ignorant citizens of the PRC.

Needless to say, all of that ground me down and the country which I once loved and in which I felt at home soon became a prison. I was desperate to leave, and so, in December, 2018, I did.

*

On my various excursions outside of China in the past few years, I have had to witness the tragic Chinafication (or is that Sinofication?) of the world. Back in 2008, when I first visited China, the various powerful nations of the world could openly criticize China’s government for its human rights abuses, but now China is the second wealthiest country on the earth and no one is willing to say a damn thing, lest they feel China’s wrath. Once upon a time, the strong could stand up to China’s bullying of its neighbors or complain about its monstrous actions at home, but now Europe is falling apart, Britain is sliding into mediocrity, and the American President can pretty much be bought off with a few business concessions to his family.

China’s influence has spread, despite having no culture of its own anymore. While the likes of Japan and South Korea have their own domestic cultural creations to send out into the world, China has nothing. Under absolute censorship, where only government propaganda is allowed, there can be no culture. Yet China doesn’t need its version of K-pop or manga, or for that matter its own Hollywood or Bollywood. China has a rich, unscrupulous government with a billion and a half zombies to do its bidding. It has been rapidly eating up the globe, and no one can do a damn thing about it.

Across Africa and Asia, China has freely given away money and then seized land and even ports as compensation for debts unpaid. It sends hordes of its own brainwashed people into these places to Chinafy the local area. The Chinese build vast hotels and casinos – not with local workers, of course – through coercion of local officials, and wipe out local businesses by driving up prices. In Sihanoukville, Cambodia, the Chinese have taken over, pushing out all other foreign business people first, and then making the locals homeless. They bring absolutely nothing to a country except destruction and poverty. Soon half the world will be modeled on China’s ugly, grey urban landscape, where nature has been vanquished and every street and building looks identical.

This is probably starting to sound a lot like colonialism, right? The Chinese are like the Spanish in the fifteen and sixteen centuries, and the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth. It’s reminiscent, too, of US globalization in the twentieth century, where McDonalds and blue jeans were foisted upon every nation of the world, eroding many of the charming distinctions that existed between different cultures. Except this is much, much worse. The Chinese have more power and more people. They have fewer morals are intent on annihilating the environment wherever they go, decimating wildlife, ruining coral reefs, and ensuring that nothing natural remains. They have done a spectacular job of making China into one vast grey nightmare over the past few decades, and now they have their eyes on the world.

China’s neighbours must be quaking in their boots as the CCP look around and lay claim to every bit of land and sea within a thousand miles (or more) of their own rightful shores. They took Tibet and Xinjiang, and they will bully their way into ownership of every last speck of land in the South China Sea. They’ve eroded Hong Kong’s independence, and it won’t be long before missiles fly over the Straits and tanks land on the shores of Taiwan. And who will stop them? Who will stand up for Taiwan?

There is no one.

The world is changing, and not for the better. As Spengler foretold, the West is falling, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, it will be replaced in a position of power by a truly evil entity. There will be not checks or balances, no national discussion, not even the semblance of democratic process… The forces of good in this world will be powerless, and the worst actors in each corner of the globe will be emboldened by China’s rise. We may even see the West fall not just in terms of power, but into Chinese-style systems of oppression, as they attempt to return to the top of the pile.

We have entered the Chinese Century, and it looks bleak.

Posted in update

New Book: World Citizen

It’s been more than 5 years since Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ was published. I quickly began looking around for ideas for my next book, and decided to write about Allen Ginsberg, the poet who wrote “Howl” and “Kaddish” and “America”. After a few false starts, I eventually realized that I could write about his extensive travels. Amazingly, Ginsberg travelled to 66 countries, sometimes spending several years on the road. This was before Google Translate, Tripadvisor, and GPS apps…

Initially, I was interested in how and why he travelled, but as my research led me further into Allen’s world, I realized that travel really shaped who he was. In this new book, called World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, I explore how travel shaped his poetry, politics, and personality. The book is broken into 4 sections, each covering a distinct phase of Allen’s travelling life: his first forays into the wider world, his early major journeys, the India trip that changed him forever, and his last journeys.

You can now buy World Citizen on Amazon, or go ask your local bookshop if you prefer.

You can read some related articles I have written about Ginsberg’s travels during my research for the book:

Posted in Photography

Walking from Anstruther to Crail

This past weekend, I walked from Anstruther to Crail, on the southern coast of Fife. From the Tay Bridge to the Forth Bridge(s), it is actually possible to walk the whole of Fife’s pleasant coastline thanks to the Fife Coastal Path – a well-signed and well-maintained route along the beaches and cliffs. Of course, you’d need to be incredibly fit to do it in one day… and I expected it would probably take you just about 24 hours, but you can easily park in or near any of the little towns and villages, and do it section by section. In the past, I have walked from Elie to St. Monans, as well as countless other stretches closer to home.

Here are some photos of the landscape and wildlife one finds between Anstruther and Crail:

Posted in Photography

Walking and Birding in Fife

After my month-long travels around Europe, I returned to Scotland 10 days ago. In that time, I have been out walking and shooting photos in the area near my parents’ home in Fife.

Culross

Shortly after returning from Italy, I joined my family on a long walk around Culross (pronounced “koo-riss”), on the north side of the Forth. We set off on a lovely hike along the river, then up through the fields, past a “plague grave” and a war cemetery, to Culross Abbey, before ending the day with dinner at the Red Lion Pub in the middle of Culross.

As you can see, we were lucky to have mostly blue skies. It was a pleasant day, and very nice area of Fife that I hadn’t previously explored.

Loch Leven

I always think of Loch Leven as part of Fife, but in fact it is not. It’s over in Perth and Kinross, although still very close to Fife.

Last week I went with my parents to the RSPB at Loch Leven. That’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the area of land they look after on the south of the loch. Here, you’ll find a number of hiking trails (and even one that is wheelchair-friendly) set back into the hills. There is an astonishing variety of birds, and even some red squirrels. Most of these can actually be seen best right near the cafe and shop at the entrance, where the RSPB has set up a little garden with bird-feeders.

After visiting, I realized it may be time to invest in a better long-lens. And maybe a book about the different kinds of birds. I am pretty much clueless.

St. Andrews’ West Sands

Being so close to St. Andrews, I often find myself walking around the town or the nearby beaches. St. Andrews draws a lot of tourists each year, and it’s not hard to see why – it really is a beautiful place with a lot of history. (And that’s ignoring the golf.)

One day last week I visited the harbour and walked along to the castle:

St. Andrews Harbour

Later, I set out along the West Sands, a frequent place for walking in my family. We went from the town to the very end of the beach, at the Eden Estuary, and then doubled back. We stopped for lunch at the cafe above the Golf Museum and watched a man from Rentokil using his hawks and eagles to scare off the seagulls, which apparently attack people near the golf course.

 

Posted in Photography, travel

Back to Italy

After my slow yet brief trip through the Balkans and Slovenia, I returned to Italy. By an odd coincidence, exactly four weeks to the day – nay, to the hour – after arriving at Treviso airport near Venice, my bus from Ljubljana to Verona stopped off in the car park outside the airport.

It was just a brief stop, though, to pick up more passengers, and soon we were arriving in Verona, famed home of Romeo and Juliet. I checked in to my hostel and then set off to explore the city. For two days I wandered around this pleasant little town, shooting photos of the old buildings.

Verona has a castle and even an arena very similar in style to the Coliseum in Rome (though mercifully not swarmed by tourists and scammers). The biggest tourist trap in town is Juliet’s balcony which, of course, was built in the 1930s simply to attract tourists. I gave that one a miss.

Next up was a trip to Milan. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I envisioned Milan as a fairly modern city. Indeed, it is a vast, sprawling metropolis with the biggest and most modern buildings I’d seen in Italy. However, there were plenty of interesting old buildings, too, including the Galleria and Duomo. The castle was also quite impressive.

Back at my hostel one night, I made a sudden decision. Though I had intended to continue on via bus and train to Spain, I was feeling exhausted. It had been more than one month of continual travel through seven countries, and I had no energy left. When I looked at my option and saw the time and money and effort required to reach Madrid, I felt it wasn’t worth it. I looked on Skyscanner and saw that there were cheap flights from Milan to Edinburgh the next day, and made the sudden choice to buy one.

As I write this, I am back in Scotland, and my big European trip for 2019 has come to an end. It’s time to get back to work and figure out my plans for the future.

Posted in Photography, travel

Racing Slowly Through the Balkans

If you want to see the perfect hostel, take a trip to northern Greece, and visit Little Big House in the city of Thessaloniki. This quaint business on a narrow and very steep street in the city’s old town is exactly what every hostel should be like – warm, friendly, comfortable, and any number of other pleasant adjectives.

I arrived there after a long train journey up the coast from Athens, and after walking for several miles across the city and climbing a rather large hill—made all the more difficult by its cobblestone streets—I was met by three smiling women, who greeted me like an old friend and offered me a beer.

From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, Little Big House was perfect. From vast breakfasts to the delicious smell of chocolate that wafted from the kitchen all afternoon, it was a treat just to be there. Which was fortunate, as the weather in Thessaloniki more or less precluded my leaving the building. After several weeks’ good weather on my travels, my days in the second city of Greece were marked by rain and even a little snow. I tried to get out and explore, but it wasn’t much fun and there wasn’t much to see. I got the sense it was a lovely place, and on my initial walk from the train station the colourful buildings really did look lovely in the sunlight… but for several days it was grey and cold and miserable.

Ships moored off Thesoloniki

Speaking of grey and cold and miserable, I began to look north to a number of countries noted for their grey, cold, and miserable weather and architecture and way of life: the Balkan states. I had only the vaguest of itineraries, but every road seemed to lead north through a number of countries about which I knew little – Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and so on.

*

I gave up on Greece and hopped a bus north, over the border, into Bulgaria. As I left, the sun finally peaked out from behind a thick veil of clouds, teasing me. It was too late to turn back, though. I was heading onwards into grey, snowy Bulgaria. The landscape was pleasant but remarkably brown – brown, snowy fields leading to brown forests and brown hills which, for a few minutes at least, glimmered gold in the dying light of the sun, which then set over the mountains to the west.

By evening we were in Sofia, the capital. Snow lay thick on the ground here, and getting from the bus station to the hostel was a tricky business. I had brought a small carry-on roller suitcase instead of my usual backpack for this trip, and it was beyond useless on the snowy streets, so I had to lug it over my shoulder and hope I didn’t slip and fall. When I arrived at the hostel, I immediately headed back out in search of a much-needed beer. I found J.J. Murphy’s – an Irish pub on a little backstreet not too far from the hostel, and enjoyed a good pint of Kilkenny.

The following day I took the free walking tour about town. Free walking tours are a common occurrence around Europe these days, and every city of even moderate size seems to have one. Last year, I took one in Budapest, and learned about disputes over parliamentary buildings and the man who invented the Rubik’s cube. They are typically operated by drama students who have a well-rehearsed routine of self-deprecating jokes and long script memorized about each element of the city’s history. They are invariably entertaining and informative, yet somehow the same-iness of them makes me weary, as every tour differs little from the others. In any case, for two and a half hours I followed a man called Stanislav around Sofia, learning more about the city than I’d learned about any of the other cities I’d visited on this trip. He had a penchant for swearing which only grew with his familiarity with our group, and by the end, just about every second word was “fucking”: “This is the fucking parliament building where the shits get fucking nothing done.”

At the end, I went off on my own to explore further. I headed east to a large park and wandered about in the snow, hoping for something to photograph, eventually stumbling upon a fluffy squirrel. Sofia hadn’t exactly been photogenic, even if the tour was educational, but it was interesting enough. After that, I wandered through town to the Elephant Bookstore and bought yet another of Paul Theroux’s travel journals. Over the past year, he has become my favourite living writer. I took his book to the Fox Bookstore Café and sat sipping a large German beer for an hour, while reading about his journey through Australia.

The following day, alongside an Irish couple, I hired a car and driver to visit Rila Monastery, a few hours south of the capital. It was pissing down all the way to the foot of the mountain, whereupon the rain changed to snow. The temperature plunged as we got higher, and when we were nearly at the top the road was beyond treacherous. The car was, at times, just sliding sideways on the ice and slush. I was glad that there were big crash barriers alongside the narrow mountain road. When we finally stopped, the driver said that normally he’d wait three hours for us, but in this weather we’d be lucky to make it down the mountain alive after even an hour and a half.

When we got out at Rila, I was delighted. It was absolutely breathtaking and, what’s more, there was no one there except for us. I had read online that Rila was a tourist magnet and would be packed, but evidently no one else was stupid enough to brave the snowstorm. I trudged about in the snow for an hour, shooting what I thought were beautiful photos of the lovely old hermitage, but when I got home I realized that getting a good picture in such conditions is more challenging than I had imagined. Hardly any of my photos were useable. They were just blurry messes ruined by flurries of snow about the lens.

Bulgaria is a huge country with so many things to see, but, like Greece, I left after visiting only a few of the more obvious attractions. I felt a strange force pulling me onwards, perhaps towards the end of my journey. Or maybe it was just the fatigue that sets in after several weeks on the road, living out of a suitcase and sharing big dorm rooms with lots of people, moving from city to city and covering thousands mile each week… In any case, I was ready to leave cold, grey Bulgaria and head on… but to where?

*

My research on where to go next left me baffled. Contradictory information about trains and buses to other countries left me uncertain of where I should go. However, a sudden impulse caused me to choose Belgrade. One cold morning, I got up and walked to the train station, and boarded a tiny little train that was supposedly going over the border to Serbia.

This was going to be an exhausting journey. The relatively short hop from Sofia to Belgrade was set to take an astounding 14 hours. How could this be?

At the border, the train was stopped for an hour as immigration and customs from both countries boarded and inspected the train. A Bulgarian man asked me, “Do you have anything to declare?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“No drugs or guns or anything?”

“No.”

He winked. “Ok, I take your word for it.”

As he left the train, he asked, “Hey, where are you from?”

“The UK.”

“I see,” he said. “Have a good day, my friend… and GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!”

Beyond the Bulgarian border, the train not only moved slowly but stopped off at seemingly every farm house and wooden shack between the border and the capital. At each of these rudimentary stations, an old man or fat little women, wearing a bright red hat and a sad blue suit, stood beside a bored dog and waved a little stick to tell the train it was time to rumble on. A handful of people got on or off, but the train never filled, even though it was just two small carriages stuck together. This was not what I expected of the only train heading for the capital.

Serbian train station

From the window, I could see that Serbia was similar to Bulgaria, except even more Soviet-looking. In Bulgaria, there were little dilapidated houses spewing coal smoke into the sky, old boxy Russian cars, and even the occasional formerly red star, now turned brown. In Serbia, the houses were all sad, Soviet-era buildings, simple and functional, yet possessing the purely communist sense of soul-sucking conformity. The snowy fields were eerily beautiful, and I even saw a big orange fox playing in the snow, but the country seemed sad and lethargic.

We stopped for an hour in Nis, a small city in the middle of the country. I got off the train in a fit of restlessness and wandered off into the city. I had no Serbian currency on me, but managed to find someone who would trade me dina for euros, and then traded my dina for a sandwich and a bottle of wine, which I brought back to the train. We were soon off again, racing slowly towards the capital city.

Belgrade is not conventionally attractive.  It is no Paris or Venice, that’s for sure. It is certainly not the sort of city one would see on a postcard and declare, “My god, I must add that to my bucket list!” You would not snap a photo of it and stick it on the front of a travel magazine, expecting floods of tourists to descend upon the city. Belgrade is more like a Soviet version of Dundee… and not the good parts of Dundee, but the parts you steer clear of after dark, or few several hours prior to a big football game. It is littered with pawn shops, betting shops, and the sort of shitty bakeries that just need a Greggs sign above the door. The buildings alongside the main roads are blackened, presumably by pollution, and everything has the functional-but-not-remotely-pretty look you often find behind the former Iron Curtain. The people walking the street have a special look in their eye – or maybe it’s better to say that they’re missing something, rather than possessing something. As you find in Cambodia and other countries that suffered war or genocide in their recent history, there is a blankness behind the eyes, and a certain step in their stride that belies the knowledge of true human misery, and that holds back memories of horrors the likes of which most of us thankfully will never know.

Yet somehow Belgrade is a genuinely nice city. It may not look it, but it is. Once you get past that deprived inner-city look, you find it’s really quite charming, and the people, despite that despondent outward appearance, are genuinely very friendly. I had been told to expect the coldest people in Europe, but everywhere I turned I found nice folk – reserved and almost afraid to smile, for sure, but nonetheless helpful and friendly people.

In Belgrade I stayed at an incredibly nice hostel for two nights and for one long day I walked about the city. When I left the hostel, my charming host told me in a very serious tone, “We like to laugh in Serbia,” but I had not seen anyone laugh or smile.

*

The train from Belgrade to the border at Sid moves at little more than a walking pace. You look outside and see a small village ahead with a little church tower, and thirty minutes later it is still ahead. Little old Soviet-era cars and rickety buses pass you by on the adjacent road, and when such a road intersects the railway line, the drivers and passengers look bored, as though they have been sitting there for hours, waiting for this ridiculous little train to move on by, letting them finally speed off.

Mercifully, we soon reached the border with Croatia, after which the train gained speed, finally moving across the landscape at a respectable pace. It skirted the border with Bosnia before cutting up to the capital city of Zagreb, and from there on to the border with Slovenia, my next destination. It was dark by this point and I could see little except for patches of snow here and there. I was weary of train travel, after spending some 24 hours in just 3 days travelling through the Balkans.

Late at night, I arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, whose name is not quite as hard to pronounce as it may look from that odd cluster of consonants. I checked in at my hostel and again took a walk around the city, rather impressed despite the rain. I had no idea what to expect, but Ljubljana was quite cosmopolitan – a very modern version of, say, Budapest. A raging river runs through the middle and around a castle on a steep hill, underneath which sits an “old town” that is really rather gentrified now – in some respects a tourist town. It looks like someone took Prague and Budapest and Bratislava and smashed them all together.

The next day I woke and spent several hours editing essays for some students on my online IELTS writing course. It was pouring down outside and I didn’t fancy going out. However, by lunchtime the rain had not let up and I decided I may as well try to see some of the city, so I stuck on a raincoat and ventured out. I trekked through the city centre and up the hill to the castle, which was uninteresting, and then around the hill on which the castle sits, eventually circling most of the small city. The rain and fog and clouds made it hard to see anything or enjoy anything, but I did get a few decent photos, much to my surprise:

After my walk, I found a small pub/restaurant and went into sample the IPA they advertised outside.

“It’s only available in the summer,” the woman behind the counter told me. She seemed angry that I would be stupid enough to ask for something that was advertised on the door. “But we have mulled wine.” She gestured to two huge vats of bubbling liquid.

“Ok, gimme some mulled wine, then.”

“Red or white?”

I had never in my life heard of mulled white wine before. As far as I knew, mulled wine was red wine. Sticking to my prejudices, I elected of the traditional red wine, and drank the delicious – though far too surgary – hot beverage. About halfway through, I asked myself if I would ever get the chance to try mulled white wine again, given that Slovenia was the only country where I’d ever encountered it.

So I ordered a mug of mulled white wine. It was fine; the red was far superior.

Later that night, after much walking in the rain, I traipsed back to my hostel and the girl on the reception desk asked, “Do you want some mulled wine?”

She did not ask whether I’d prefer red or white; here, evidently, there was only white wine. She handed me a two litre jug of reasonably pleasant mulled wine, which I sipped until it was gone. By the end, I was beginning to doubt whether I had been right in my initial prejudices. Perhaps white wine was the way to go in terms of mulling – it lacked the ludicrous amounts of sugar inherent in red wine, and with a healthy dose of cloves, it lost that sour bite and became actually quite pleasant. Or maybe I was just pissed.

*

The next morning I set off on a bus for Bled, a well-known lake an hour and a half to the north of Ljubljana, right on the border with Austria. On the way, I noted just how green Slovenia was. In Bulgaria and Serbia everything had been shades of brown, but here it was bright green that broke up the snow. The mountains soared into the clouds, which obscured their snowy tops.

The bus pulled up in a small, touristy town, and we poured off. I walked quickly down to the lake and then began to circumambulate it, before finding a hidden hiking trail leading steeply up a hill. After hauling myself to the top, I was afforded several beautiful views over the lake, the town, and the surrounding areas. Sadly, cloud obscured most of the nearby mountains, but it was still an attractive vista nonetheless.

When attempting to get down the mountain, I managed to get hopelessly lost and had to descend much of the climb off-trail. This was somewhat difficult, but did allow me to see a family of deer pass by. At the bottom, I continued my trek around the lake, getting back just in time for sunset. Alas, the heavens suddenly broke and any hope of a nice sunset photo over the lake frittered away. I walked back to the bus and it took off for the capital.