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.

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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.

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2017 – A Year in Travel

It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.

Vera at Mount Fuji

It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.

A statue of Rubens in front of cathedral

After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!

After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.

In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.Meilixueshan peak

What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.

Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.

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Travelling Europe for Cheap

My readers know that I spent part of this summer travelling around Europe, and people who’ve read this blog for a long time probably know that I like to stretch out my journeys by travelling on the cheap.

I teach in China and between my employers and the government, it’s hard to know when I’ll have my visa ready to leave the country, making it difficult for me to plan my travels in advance. This year, I didn’t know when I’d leave China or where I’d go until a day before I actually left! All that makes it pretty damn difficult to travel cheaply or even get excited about the journey ahead.

When I finally did leave China, I headed back home to Scotland for a few weeks with my family. I had a great time there getting reacquainted with the area where I grew up, taking walks around the coast and shooting some photos of the local wildlife.

As much as I’d have liked to stick around, I also felt the insatiable urge to get out and travel some more, but where to go…? I really wanted to get back to Africa but it just wasn’t feasible on my budget or timeframe, so I put that trip on hold for a while.

After a lot of searching for ideas, I settled on a trip around Europe. Ever since I graduated from university a decade ago, I’ve been travelling Asia and the United States, and so I don’t really know Europe as well as I should. I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam and another from Budapest to Hefei (which is near where I live in China). It took me a while to pad out the details between those flights but it ended up looking like this:

europe map

 

After a short flight into Amsterdam, I spent a few days taking in the art galleries before heading to Belgium and the city of Antwerp. Next, I embarked upon an unpleasant journey across Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where I explored the capital of Bratislava. Finally, I took another bus ride to Budapest, where I spent some four days wandering around one of the world’s most interesting cities.

Thanks to hostels and Flixbus, the journey wasn’t as expensive as it could have been. After I left Budapest, I returned to China for a two-day stay and then hit the road (or rather, the air) again for a fortnight in Thailand. Stories and photos from that journey will be posted very soon.

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Four Days Exploring Budapest

After a brief visit to Bratislava, I once again hopped on a Flixbus and headed southeast to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Budapest is a large city in Central/Eastern Europe divided by the Danube River. Actually, it was once two cities – Buda on the western side of the river, and Pest on the eastern side. They retain a somewhat different character but are now merged into one large and tourist-friendly metropolitan area that is repeatedly voted one of the most worthwhile destinations in Europe and even the world by various travel publications.

Walking Tour of Budapest

Whenever I visit a new city, I like to walk around. It’s not that I’m entirely opposed to taking any form of transportation, but rather that in cities with a walkable centre, you really get to know the place better. During my first day in Budapest, however, rather than walking around the city itself, I joined a walking tour on the advice of a Facebook friend who had visited a few years earlier.

The tour group met up in Vörösmarty Square, where we were divided into groups. We then visited a few locations around Pest before crossing into Buda. In Pest we saw the waterfront and St. Stephen’s Basilica, and in Buda we walked around the Castle District. The guide was mildly informative and amusing, but I was not overwhelmed by the tour. To be honest, the other tour groups appeared to have better guides, judging by their reactions and the excitement displayed by the guides.

At the end of the tour, which finished near at the Royal Palace, I set off to explore Buda by myself, and had a much better time slowly wandering about and taking in the sights. On the tour there had been no time to take photos and mostly we just listened to not-so-interesting stories about the city’s history.

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Buda

For me, Buda was the most scenic and interesting part of the city. After the tour ended, I walked around on my own and snapped some shots of the stunning old buildings and statues. Although I didn’t bother going inside, Buda Castle was exceptionally beautiful from the outside, and from the areas around it one can take in stunning views of Budapest and the surrounding regions. The cobblestone streets lead along Castle Theatre and the Old Town Hall to Matthias Church, which is 700 years old, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which was built in 1905. Again, the views are staggering, particularly of the bridges and parliament building.

Pest

I spent most of the rest of my trip in Pest, where I stayed at Avenue Hostel on the Octagon. The hostel’s location is perfect for seeing the city, but the rooms are swelteringly hot even at night, and it’s far too loud to sleep. Unfortunately, I had booked four nights in advance and had no choice but to stay there until I left Budapest.

In the daytime I escaped the hostel and wandered Pest’s intriguing little streets, periodically dodging the heat of the day by getting beers at the many cafes and bars that litter the city, and visiting a few of its more than 200 museums. In Budapest, the beers are pleasantly hoppy and cheap compared with those in Antwerp and Amsterdam, which I very much enjoyed.

I explored City Park, where there’s a hidden statue of Ronald Reagan, and where interesting birds live among the trees. Then I walked around the central touristy area to Liberty Square, where there’s yet another statue of Reagan. I wondered what the hell reason this country had to be so fond of an awful American president, but later I visited the Museum of Terror and found out about Hungary’s brutal suffering under the control of communist forces. (The museum, sadly, was very underwhelming and overcrowded.) I guessed that they probably had developed an enthusiasm for Reagan due to his leadership against the Soviets in the 1980s. Later, a friend explained that it might have been due to pressure from the nearby American Embassy in a spat with the Russian Embassy.

Finally, near the statue of Reagan walking (the more famous of the two statues) is the Hungarian parliament building. This building is based upon the Houses of Parliament in London, but it slightly larger. In fact, it’s the third largest parliament building in the world, and used to be the largest. Walking around it, one is awestruck by the ornate neo-Gothic designs.

Gellért Hill

On my last day in Budapest, I crossed back into Buda and climbed up Gellért Hill just before sunset. From the top (and many locations along the way), one is afforded stunning views of the city below. I snapped a couple of shots and then grabbed a few beers as I waited for the sunset. Golden Hour turned the whole city a range of magical colours before the sun finally dropped below the horizon. Despite bringing along several cameras and my tripod, the best photo I took all night (and possibly the whole of my European trip) was shot using the panorama feature on my iPhone!

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As it got dark, I continued trying to capture the city as it lit up and shadows turned into darkness. However, I’m no good with night photography.

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I also tried my hand at making a gif of the nightscape:

budapest-nightscape

Leaving Budapest

The next day I checked out from my hostel and wandered around one last time, before heading to the airport. Foolishly, I left far too early. It seems Budapest had recently upgraded its airport transportation and the long journey turned into a very easy (and cheap) hop on an airport express bus. I ended up getting to the airport a full five hours before my flight. Annoyingly, there is nothing to do at the airport and very little space. There were only a dozen chairs and so people stood around or sat on the floor.

This all would have been a minor annoyance had my flight at Istanbul not been delayed for many, many hours… and then the subsequent flight at Guangzhou. I ended up getting back home nearly a day late, having not slept for two full days. Back in China, I had only enough time to wash my clothes and take my girlfriend to the airport as we set out for a trip together to Thailand… Although I was obviously excited for the journey, I was less than enthusiastic about getting on yet another airplane.

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Walking Around Bratislava

Bratislava is perhaps the most beautiful city I have ever had the pleasure to visit, yet in terms of things to see, there’s actually not that much. It’s a small place – at least the historic centre is – and a day is pretty much enough time to get around everything a tourist would want to see. There are probably a number of guided tours you can do (certainly there are some free walking tours) but everything is in such a condensed area that it’s actually incredibly easy to find it all yourself. The only thing you miss is hearing the stories behind the sights.

A Day Exploring Bratislava’s Old Town

I set out on my first full morning from my hostel by walking over one of the bridges that crosses the Danube River so that I could shoot some photos of the castle and city skyline. On the other side, I found a pleasant little park full of odd statues, and a number of good locations on the bank of the river to take photos. Really, Bratislava Castle stands so clearly above everything else in town that it’s quite easy to see, so this was hardly a challenge. I returned the next day when the skies were clear blue, but actually the dark clouds ended up looking better over the castle.

Next, I crossed the New Bridge under a large UFO observation deck and restaurant, and then explored the Old Town. This historic area is comprised of beautiful old buildings with intricate facades, scenic squares filled with fountains and statues, and quaint little alleys. In the streets, dozens of cafes have been set up selling beer, ice cream, and coffee.

I moved on to the castle, which sits on a hill to the west of the Old Town. The climb up was fairly easy, and from the top one is presented with impressive views of the surrounding area, including some of Austria, which is just across the Danube. I wasn’t sure whether or not to go into the castle, as I was more interested in photos of and from it, but as entrance was only €8 I decided to take a look. I spent a few hours looking at the historical artifacts and paintings, which were somewhat interesting. Altogether, the castle is more impressive from the outside.

After walking around the gardens, I headed back down into town for a late lunch of sheep’s cheese, radish, and some sort of a Slovak “biscuit.” It was delicious and came with a big mug of cold beer. Thankfully, in Slovakia beer is both pleasant and cheap. Whereas in Amsterdam I could expect to pay about €5 for a decent beer, in Slovakia the average is just €2.

The next day, when waiting for my early afternoon bus to Budapest, I took another walk across the river and around the Old Town, as well as exploring a small park in the east of the city. My time in Bratislava had been short, but even after just one full day I was already covering the same ground. Although stunning, it is a town that only really requires a day to see in full, and could probably be done as a day trip from nearby Vienna.

Patio Hostel

While visiting Bratislava, I stayed at Patio Hostel, which is just to the east of the Old Town. The location is pretty convenient. It’s a few minutes from the bars and cafes in the Old Town, and about twenty minutes’ walk from the Most SNP bus stop, where you can catch the Flixbus. The hostel is really big and has a bar and other facilities, but it’s unfortunately a bit of a party hostel and gets really noisy at night. Unusually for a hostel, they have completely free laundry facilities, which was fantastic for me because, after more than a week of endless walking, my clothes were starting to stink. However, the staff were mostly not helpful and the wifi was poor. The bar was cheap but lacking in any atmosphere.

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A Weekend in Amsterdam

I recently spent two days exploring Amsterdam on foot, clocking up nearly fifty kilometers as I wandered the ancient cobbled streets that line the canals which make up this odd and beautiful city. Staying at the ClinkNOORD Hostel, I circumambulated much of the city (a good test for my new Brasher hiking boots, purchased just before leaving Scotland) taking in the atmosphere, architecture, and artwork – or as much as I could fit in.

 

Amsterdam on Foot

Although Amsterdam is a massive city, most of what you want to see as a tourist is, technically speaking, in walking distance. Granted, most people probably wouldn’t want to walk twenty kilometers in a day, but you still don’t have to do as much as that to get around if you plan carefully. The narrow streets can be disorienting, though, and it’s easy to tread more ground than anticipated.

When I first arrived, I went out for a walk just as darkness was beginning to fall. Amsterdam is, of course, famous for its nightlife. I walked around rather aimlessly, not having a map at this point, and found in equal measure quiet streets, sophisticated restaurants and cafes, lively bars full of drunk Brits, and, of course, the city’s famed (or infamous) red light district.

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A crowded red light district.

In Amsterdam, prostitution is perfectly legal, and here you will find women in their underwear standing behind windows, attempting to get the attention of the men who pass by. This is all staggeringly out in the open. Evidently, the red light district is not some seedy out-of-the-way location that creepy guys look for, but rather it’s right in the heart of the city, among the bars and restaurants and tourist sights. Sometimes it’s just one single window in the middle of an otherwise “normal” street.

In addition, Amsterdam is also known for its legal marijuana, dispensed at “coffeeshops” (I don’t imagine they sell much coffee) around the city. However, although the tourist books say it’s only to be smoked in these designated areas, in fact people smoke pot everywhere. On every street, the pungent odor drifts in the breeze, and the police walk around without any interest in it.

The following morning, I set out for a much longer walk and attempted to see Amsterdam by daylight. It certainly did have a different character with the red lights turned off, although people still walked happily about the streets smoking joints and the coffeeshops appeared to be among the first businesses open. In the soft morning light, the canals looked much more beautiful, and I was able to appreciate the ornate old buildings that lined the cobbled streets. People flew about on bicycles, making walking sometimes treacherous. A few times it would rain suddenly for five minutes and then just stop, making the cobbled streets slippery.

Over the next two days I continued my more or less aimless walking, zig-zagging back and forth between the little streets, stopping in bookstores and museums, exploring parks and admiring statues, and people-watching from outside a few beers when I got tired and stopped for beers. A particular highlight was Vondelpark, a huge sprawling area of greenery where people engaged in a vast array of sports and a few fascinating birds flew around the trees.

Rijksmuseum

My main objective in visiting Amsterdam was to take in some art. Back in China, I’d been working on a book about the travels of Allen Ginsberg, and during his trips through Europe he obsessively visited museums and art galleries, taking in the great works of art. Naturally, he visited Amsterdam and saw works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Reading his vivid descriptions and seeing how inspirational these works were on him as a person and an artist, I felt eager to do some museum-hopping.

I’d read online about a few passes one can buy before visiting Amsterdam to get discounts and possibly skip queues, but when I actually looked into it, it didn’t seem worthwhile. The two museums I really wanted to visit were €17 each and a pass was about €60-80. I didn’t think I’d realistically have time to see enough to make it worthwhile. (I had wanted to see the Banksy/Dali exhibit at the Moco gallery, but the queue was too long.)

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Rijksmuseum.

So on the Saturday (my first full day), I bought a ticket for the Rijksmuseum and ventured inside to explore. The museum is housed in a beautiful building in the “museum quarter” of Amsterdam, and is very well presented, although somewhat complex in its layout. It is divided into countless rooms covering different artists or movements over the history of Dutch art. The centerpiece, of sorts, is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” This giant painting by arguably the country’s greatest artist even has its own special hall, allowing for adequate views of the immense masterpiece.

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Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”

The volume of art in the Rijksmuseum is overwhelming and after nearly five hours I left, exhausted. I hadn’t seen everything – or if I had, I hadn’t given it all the time it deserved – but I felt satisfied that I had engaged with a thousand years of Dutch history through its staggering artwork.

Van Gogh Museum

The next day I returned to the museum quarter to visit the Van Gogh Museum. At the Rijksmuseum I had seen at least one Van Gogh, but there was a whole museum next door devoted perhaps the world’s most famous painter.

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Ok, actually this was in the Rijksmuseum…

Much smaller than the Rijksmuseum, it only took me two hours to walk around the Van Gogh Museum and appreciate what there was to see. It was amazing to visit the original works of which I’d seen so many prints during my life, and to learn about his tragic life. However, I was far more taken with the paintings I saw during the previous day.

Perhaps the problem was here that the museum was also just too crowded. While a huge queue awaiting staggered entrance times kept it under control, it was just too hard to appreciate the art with so many people standing around. The Rijksmuseum had been big enough to accommodate its visitors, but the Van Gogh Museum got claustrophobic quickly, and after I’d seen everything, I didn’t feel like going back to take a second look.

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ClinkNOORD Hostel

During my short visit in Amsterdam, I stayed at the ClinkNOORD Hostel. On the surface, its location appears quite unfortunate, as one has to take a ferry from Amsterdam Centraal to get there. However, the ferry runs 24/7 and is completely free, so it was not a problem. Besides, being away from the chaos of the town center is no bad thing.

I’ve been staying in hostels for many years, but this was the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s set in a giant laboratory once owned by the Shell company, but turned over and renovated into a surprisingly classy hostel experience with what seems like a million rooms.

The place was immaculately clean, with a decent bar, 24/7 reception, super-fast WiFi all over the place, and several USB chargers in the dorms in case you forgot your adaptor. How handy is that? It can get a bit noisy at night, of course, being a big and lively hostel, but they have free ear plugs at reception.

Flixbus

On Monday morning, when it came time to leave Amsterdam, I headed for Amsterdam Sloterdijk, from where I took a Flixbus to my next destination, Antwerpt, in Belgium.

Flixbus is a relatively new transportation company offering cheap bus rides around Europe. I’d stumbled upon them by chance online last week while planning out my trip and was seriously impressed by the prices. My journey from Amsterdam was just €8, and a trip I’ll take in a few days to Bratislava – a 20+ hour bus ride – only cost me €50. What a deal!

I was not sure what to expect, but when I got to the bus depot – thoroughly soaked after a long walk in the rain – I found a line of very new green buses with friendly drivers, comfortable seats, USB chargers, reasonable WiFi, and air conditioning. Travelling Europe just got a lot more affordable.

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Where to Travel in Late July?

I have an unusual problem: I don’t know where to go on holiday this summer. Maybe it’s not so unusual, but specifically what I’m struggling with is having too many choices.

I’ve blogged about this before, although in those posts I was leaning towards the Philippines and Nepal. However, circumstances have changed. Right now I’m in Scotland and I intend to stay here another week. At the beginning of August I need to be in China and then, around the 6th, I will take my girlfriend somewhere – probably Thailand – before returning to work in China in September.

That means I have 2-3 weeks to spend somewhere and, quite frankly, that somewhere could be anywhere. It’s not the worst problem to have. I’m very aware of how privileged that makes me. Yet it’s actually driving me a little crazy.

Every day I check www.skyscanner.net and instead of putting in a destination, I put in my point of departure and type “everywhere.” Then I sort by price and places I’ve not been. As I’ve only visited 30 countries so far, surely there’s plenty left to see, right?

Well. It’s not quite so simple.

Firstly, I wanted to go to East Africa. I’ve always wanted to see Kenya and Tanzania, and maybe Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Last year I caught the safari bug after trips in Southern Africa. However, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed I could do the region justice in 2-3 weeks. Moreover, flights that had originally seemed quite cheap started to rise in price and made it a bit less appealing.

On the other side of the continent is Morocco, which I’ve always wanted to see. (I did write a book about William S. Burroughs after all.) I’d love to check out Tangier, Casablanca, and Marrakech. But then getting from Morocco back to China would be a bit expensive. The same goes for other countries in Western Africa.

Then I was looking at Nepal. I’ve always wanted to go there and it’s on the way back to China, so actually seemed a reasonable option. But it’s monsoon season there at the moment, and Chitwan National Park, which seemed like a cool place to visit, is going to be off-limits. Then there’s Everest and getting to Base Camp and back takes at least a fortnight’s trek. The more I looked at it, the less Nepal seemed like something to do in the summer.

After that I thought about Europe, but where? I’d like to take trains and buses between the capitals and maybe work my way over to Istanbul and the divide between Europe and Asia. Or, if that was unrealistic in terms of time, then maybe fly from the U.K. to somewhere in Eastern Europe and work my way down to Istanbul. It’s a bit expensive, but with night trains and hostels, it’s not out of the question. But Europe doesn’t really excite me… I’m more taken with Africa and Asia.

As I searched for more options, I found there are cheap flights now between Edinburgh and a few locations in New England. But America is pricey, too, and I’ve already seen enough of it for now. Besides, although I love America, I’m not really in the mood for it, especially now that Trump is so-called president and the N.S.A. persists in making life miserable for visitors.

So… where to go?

I realize this is not a bad problem to have, but it’s one that’s really bugging me. For the time being I’m happy to enjoy being at home, but when it comes time to move on, I do want to do one of the following:

  • Explore a new country
  • Have an adventure
  • Relax on a beach
  • See some amazing animals

Suggestions welcome below.