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.

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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.

Posted in Photography, travel

Exploring Athens

After Napoli, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I headed to Bari on Italy’s eastern coast. Before you open up Google Maps, perhaps I can explain: it’s at the top of the heel.

Bari isn’t much of anything, but it’s a nice enough little place. There’s a pleasant old town that’s good to walk around and a reasonably attractive seafront promenade. It is clean and orderly compared to other Italian cities, and mostly free from scammers and beggars. There aren’t many tourists because there isn’t much to do, but that’s ok. It’s charming in its way, and I suppose you could say it does have one weird attraction: the bones of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

In Bari, I dithered further about where to go next. Should head on down through the toe of the boot to Sicily, the rustic and volcanic island, or go north through northern Italy? But there was a third option – to jump aboard a ferry headed for Greece, across the Ionian Sea.

I was keen to stay in Italy a little longer because the country had really impressed me, but as it turned out I’d painted myself into a corner with the travel options in Bari, and getting a bus or train anywhere else was surprisingly hard. So I turned to the sea and booked myself a ferry for Patras. One bright, sunny morning, I headed to the port at the eastern tip of the town and boarded a big ship called the Nissos Rodos. It sounded oh-so-Greek.

The journey across the sea took some sixteen hours, but the departure was delayed by three or four hours for reasons I never did understand. The ship could’ve held a few thousand people, but there were only eleven passengers on board, and by the time we arrived in Greece we had been whittled down to just three. Whether we stopped somewhere in the night and some folks disembarked, or they went mad and jumped overboard, I have no idea.

img_3802

I was surprised to see, as the mists parted and the sun rose, the mountains of Greece covered in snow. I always thought of Greece – at least the coastal regions – as a very hot place, yet there was snow all over, and nearly down to sea level. The wind off the Mediterranean was also nearly freezing, and as I moved towards a destination I had always associated with excessive heat, I was wrapped up in winter clothing.

Patras seemed a nice enough town, but I couldn’t find any cheap accommodation, and so boarded a bus immediately for Athens. The ticket was 20 euros, which surprised me, but I would later find out that travelling in Greece is actually fairly expensive. Certainly, it was pricier than in Italy.

A few hours later, I arrived in Athens and made the long walk with my luggage from the KTEL bus station to my hostel, just south of the Acropolis. I was stunned by the beauty of Athens from the moment I arrived in the old town. The Acropolis stands majestically above the city, gleaming white in the bright Mediterranean sun. Although I had enjoyed Italy, the streets were often filthy and dangerous, but here it was clean and safe. The nearer I got to the Acropolis, the nicer everything looked.

I soon checked in and then headed out to climb Filoppapou Hill, a small slope that rises just higher than the Acropolis. I was able to sit and look out at the whole of Athens, spread out over a vast area 360 degrees around me. The sun went down, casting lovely light across the city and the nearby mountains.

*

The next day, with a friend from the hostel, I set out to explore the Acropolis and other archaeological sites in the area. We first took in the Acropolis, slowing winding our way up the slopes past the theatre of Dionysus to the Parthenon and Erechtheum. We both had our cameras and spent several hours shooting the ruins. I regretted having not paid more attention to Greek history in the past, but it was nonetheless impressive and fascinating to see all these ancient buildings and monuments. There were quite a few tourists milling about, but it was not grossly overcrowded as in Rome.

Afterwards, we headed down the hill, north to the nearby Agora Park, where there are more ruins. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting photos there, including some of the local cats. In Athens, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time feeding the local cats, which have become fat and friendly as a result.

The following day, I met up with a Greek friend, Michael Limnios, and he showed me some more obscure places, particularly pertaining to countercultural figures. We saw places visited by the likes of Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg, and looked at bookstores which sold translations of Burroughs’ novels. Of particular interest was an anarchist section of town – somewhere very definitely off the tourist trail.

That evening, I hiked up Lycabettus Hill to see a final Athenian sunset, but it was too cloudy, and so I wandered back to my hostel, ready to move on to the next place. Having ruled out the islands for being slightly out of my budget, I elected for a long train ride north to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Posted in Photography, travel

Naples – the Greatest City on Earth

Everyone says not to visit Naples. Even my Italian friends told me, “Don’t go there.” It is a city riddled by crime, apparently, where anyone foolish enough to walk the streets will be robbed by passing gangs. Yet something drew me there. It was the part of Italy I most wanted to visit, and after exploring Venice, Florence, and Rome, I headed south on a bus towards this apparently infamous city on the coast.

Arriving in Naples, I wasn’t immediately impressed, but bus stations usually aren’t the most charming places. I walked quickly towards my hostel, keeping my head down and trying to act as though I were a local in spite of my bags. I soon arrived at the Hostel of the Sun, and my opinion of Naples began to rise. The place was charming, and the staff incredibly friendly. A man called Luca spent 25 minutes explaining everything there was to do in Naples and the surrounding areas, passionately telling me where to eat and how to get to the best viewpoints.

That first night, I ventured out and tried my first genuinely Neapolitan pizza… it was magnificent, and cheap, too. Walking to the restaurant and back, I didn’t feel the streets were any more dangerous than any city back home in Scotland. After a night’s sleep, I headed out the next day to explore the city. Along with a friend from the hostel, I walked nearly 20km around Naples, taking in the sights and sounds. We were both utterly overwhelmed. There were a few obvious attractions, like the castles and panoramic views, but what really got us were the narrow, winding backstreets filled with colorful people. Laundry hung from windows and tiny old Italian cars and Vespas whizzed by, screeching on cobblestones. Marketplaces appeared in random corners of the city, where people sold vast wheels of cheese and all sorts of fish, even moray eels, which I did not know could be eaten.

The next day, we hopped a series of buses and trains for Amalfi, a tiny town south of Naples. The Amalfi Coast is famous, and for good reason. The road was much like Route 101 down the Californian coastline, and in particular quite like Big Sur. Except, unlike the US, the roads were tiny, and it was genuinely frightening when two buses had to scrape by each other, hundreds of feet up above the ocean. We were glued to the window, incredulous at the scenery.

Amalfi itself had little to see. It is more a village than a town, and there wasn’t much there except a handful of restaurants. We instead sat by the sea for a few hours, and then walked some of the dangerous twisting clifftop roads, before heading back to Naples on yet another series of buses and trains. We got back in time for dinner – which, in Italy, means we got back by 11pm. Dinner comprised of an incredible pizza, a bowl of mussels and other assorted seafood, and a bottle of white wine than cost just THREE EUROS. Seriously. Three Euros for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Naples is the greatest.

For our final day in Naples, we talked the city streets again, with no real destination in mind. By the third day (which was in fact my eleventh day in Italy) we were exhausted from walking so much, and again found a rock by the sea to sit on for a few hours. We stopped in a few places for gelato and paninis, and then said goodbye. She was off to Bologna, up north, and I to Bari, in the east.

*

Naples (or Napoli, as it is really called) is my favourite place in Italy by a long stretch. It is a stunning city filled with genuinely nice people – helpful, friendly, warm, interesting folk with odd habits and a curious passion for life. The food here is beyond description, and quite cheap compared to elsewhere. Though some parts seemed rather sketchy after dark, it certainly appeared no more dangerous than most cities, and a lot safer than Rome… as long as you can avoid being hit by a tiny speeding car on a blind backstreet alley.

Yes, Napoli is the very best of cities, in my humble opinion – not just in Italy, but in the world. Travelling here has been a pleasure.

Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

I hadn’t heard much about Venice that was very kind, at least not recently. Years ago, the famed city on the water was world-renowned for its beauty and sophistication. Nowadays, it is swarmed with tourists, plagued by criminals, and the once-glorious canals stink to high hell.

Or so they said.

*

My flight to Venice was painless enough, particularly when you consider that the airline was six-time winner of the dubious “Worst Airline Award”, Ryanair. I loathe Ryanair, but when you get see a flight to a city you’ve never been before for just £10 (ok, £40 including bags), it’s hard to say no. I’ve sat on Indian buses for whole days at a time, so I figured I could just about cope with two and a half hours on a plane.

Ryanair actually doesn’t fly into Venice… In fact, Venice doesn’t exactly have an airport; the neighbouring cities, which are not built on water, have them instead. As such, I flew into Treviso, and from there took a bus (which was far nicer than the plane) to Mestre. Mestre is another neighbouring city – the one directly across the water from Venice, and joined by a bridge and a number of boats. I had found a well-reviewed hostel for much cheaper than you’d get on the island, and so that would serve as my base.

In the morning, I hopped a train to Venice. The train cost a euro and took about five or ten minutes. When I stepped off, I was still not expecting much. But when I got out of the station and saw the Grand Canal for the first time, I was nearly overwhelmed. It was a shimmering turquoise, busy with little boats, and surrounded by regal old buildings.

As I ventured over one of the bridges and into the labyrinthine passageways of the city, I found the streets to be quiet, largely devoid of tourists. I was able to meander at my own pace along the sides of smaller canals, and over quaint little bridges. Where were the hordes of screaming tourists, pushing and shoving? This was far more charming than I expected. Most of all, I loved the old buildings. So many “ancient” towns and cities are completely restored so that very little of the past actually remains. Venice is a real, functioning city and some buildings have just fallen to bits. That actually adds to the charm. (Though maybe not if you live there.)

Eventually, I came to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which was much busier than elsewhere, but still not as bad as I expected. I took more photos and moved on, finding a bench near the sea to sit and rest for a while.

Colourful houses on a canal
One more image: Some very cool looking buildings near the Venice Arsenal.

Wandering back through the city to the train station took most of the rest of my day, and when I returned to my hostel in Mestre, I had clocked up 16km. That’ll help shift some of that Christmas weight!

My brief visit to Venice has been a real unexpected pleasure. Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Florence, a little south of here and towards the opposite side of the country.

Posted in Photography

Best Photos of 2018

Last year, in late December, I made a list of my favourite photos I had taken over the year. It was an enjoyable experience to look back, and I encountered many photos I’d actually forgotten about. In this age of social media, it’s easy to put a good photo online and then just never think about it again, but it’s nice to look back and relive old memories.

My year started off in India, where I spent several months travelling. I had a new camera (Nikon D5600) and I used it to capture all sorts of photos, with mixed results. Of the thousands that I took, some really stood out. Here are a few, with some explanation:

Colourful houses at Mamallapuram

This colourful street is in Mallallapuram, on the east coast of India. I shot this simple photo and someone later told me it was like a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie.

Indian gang

It was difficult to choose this photo because there were so many I took in one afternoon at a small park. For some reason, people kept lining up to ask me to take their photo. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later a boy told me about a rumour that there was a Scottish photojournalist taking pictures for a newspaper.

Gandhi Statue

I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in Puducherry, but I liked the way this shot turned out. The statue is of Mahatma Gandhi.

Pilgrims at Indian Temple

This is possibly my favourite photo of the year. In fact, I used it on the cover of a book I wrote about India. It’s called Crossing India the Hard Way.

Old Man at Brihadishwara Temple

One of my favourite places in India was Thanjavur, where I visited the incredible Brihadisvara temple. I arrived just before sundown, but was struggling with my new camera and all the photos I shot that evening were blurry. I went back the following morning and got lots of great photos, including this one of an old man. There are loads more here.

Indian ladies praying

This photo of women praying was also shot at Thanjavur.

Wild Boar crossing path

During my time in the middle of India, I saw many incredible sights at the hill stations and national parks, including a lot of wildlife. However, upon reflection, none of the photos were particularly outstanding. I did, though, quite like this picture of two wild boar crossing a path in the early morning light.

Fishermen in front of giant cargo ship

When I arrived on the western coast of India, at Kochi, or Fort Cochin, I visited the beach. I was shocked to see this massive tanker travelling past the beach, almost within throwing distance. I have no idea how it could come so close without getting grounded.

Close-up of black kite

My final stop in India was Varkala, where I stayed for about a week. There were hundreds of huge birds constantly flying around the clifftops, and I spent countless hours trying to shoot photos of them. This was one of my favourites. My camera has poor zoom lens, so you can imagine how close this bird flew.

My selfie with the stars

Also at Varkala, I shot this photo (an “advanced selfie”, I suppose) of me and the nightsky. As you can probably tell from the shape of the trees, it was shot on a GoPro.

Colorful bee-eater

This is one of my absolute favourite photos of the year – perhaps joint first. It is now the background pic on my computer screen. Shot in Sri Lanka, this was just one of many incredible animals I was privileged to have seen this year. I also saw a leopard, but the resulting pictures weren’t particularly good.

Lizard in tea field

I saw this cool lizard in a tea field near .

Monk in Kandy

I liked this picture because the colour of monk’s robe stands out. It perhaps could have been edited better, though.

Rainy street leading to the mountainsThis was one of many photos I took at Zhaji, in southeastern Anhui province, China.

Boats at sunset

This shot of long-tail boats on a beach near Krabi, Thailand, was shot on my iPhone.

Me looking out over Ao Nang

Another “advanced selfie” taken after a long hike in Thailand.

Tree in sunlight

I think this photo of tree bark was taken in Thailand.

Beautiful carving

I used to live in Cambodia long ago, and this summer I returned. I was saddened to find the country overrun by Chinese people, but there was still plenty of beauty left comparatively undisturbed.

My favourite picture

This photo of ruins at Angkor Wat is now the background to my iPhone. It is another of my favourites of 2018.

Bangkok sunset

After visiting Cambodia, I returned to Bangkok and shot this photo of sunset over the city from my hotel. It may look heavily edited, but it in fact isn’t. The light was simply sublime.

A handsome beach dog

The island of Koh Phangan made for an enjoyable holiday, but I didn’t actually do much photography whilst there. I did, however, see this rather majestic-looking dog.

Vera swimming in waterfall

In nearby Koh Samui, I shot this photo of my (now ex-) girlfriend. We found this isolated waterfall and spent a few pleasant hours swimming in the cool jungle waters.

Me look at the view

Oh look, another selfie. 🙂 What can I say? I like hiking and am determined to overcome my fear of heights. Contrary to what it may seem, I’m still terrified and every time I shoot this sort of photo my knees turn to jelly.

DSW_2858

I spent four and a half years in Huainan, Anhui province. It was not a particularly photogenic place, but every now and then an opportunity would present itself. I took several photos of sunsets over the city or the nearby hills, including this one.

DSW_2926

At the beginning of December, I quit my job in China and returned to Scotland. This was the first photo I took, while walking in the fields around Balmullo. It was icy cold, but after months of breathing toxic air in China, I was happy to take in that fresh Scottish air. I have spent time exploring the local area, but this first photo reminds me of that feeling of being back home, and having escaped the dank, grey hellscape of eastern China.

Posted in Photography

Winter Photos from Edinburgh, Dundee, and St. Andrews

At the beginning of December, I left China and came home to Scotland. I’ve been enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery that I always took for granted living here. After many years in polluted, grey China, it really is pleasant being back home.

Since my last post, I have visited Edinburgh to see an old school friend. I didn’t take a camera, but I did shoot one nice photo on my iPhone 7:

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens
The newly painted fountain in Princes Street Gardens, with Edinburgh Castle looming in the background.

Next, I headed over the Tay to Dundee, where I spent more than four years living prior to my move to Asia. Dundee is exactly known as a beautiful city, but I have always loved it in its own weird way, and it was nice being back. Waves of memories washed over me as I walked about the West End, along Perth Road, Magdalen Green, and so on.

In addition to that, I have also been walking around the village and nearby St. Andrews. Here are a few photos I shot on the West Sands yesterday:

Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.

I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.

Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:

Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.

The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.

When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.

Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.

Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.

After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.

Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.

Posted in travel

Long Bus Rides Through Thailand

After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.

I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.

The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.

I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.

In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.

Thailand Secret Beach
My own private beach.

I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.

An hour passed.

And then another hour.

Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.

Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.

At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.

Secret beach, Thailand
Another private beach.

The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.

I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.

*

That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.

After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:

Cool hotel design, Thailand
My funky hotel.

I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.

The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.

I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.

*

The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.

Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…

I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.

Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

Old woman washing clothes
All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children