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.

Advertisements
Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

DSW_1085
Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

Backwaters north of Varkala
The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in update

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.

Posted in travel

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.

IMG_4546

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!

IMG_4550

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.

DSCN9314

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.

Posted in travel

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.

Posted in travel

Two Days in Antwerp

After a short, pleasant ride on the Flixbus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, I hopped off in the main square by the train station, and made my way towards Kabas – my new hostel. As I walked through the city, it felt as though I’d travelled more than two hours. Here, things were completely different. For a start, everyone was Jewish! All the men wore long black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and even the little boys had huge curls of hair at the sides of their faces.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Antwerp. It was a city I knew little about, except for a small amount of time spent on Wikitravel. My first instinct was to walk about and simply take in the new city, but hopefully to look at some museums or art galleries. I’d also heard that it had the highest concentration of bars and pubs anywhere on the planet… But first, to check in at my new hostel.

Kabas Hostel

I found Kabas by using my maps.me app, which guided me along the two kilometer journey from the train station. Kabas is a relatively new hostel, and it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood. In fact, the hostel itself used to be just a normal house, but with a few minor renovations it became a place for backpackers to stop off in Antwerp.

Inside, there are a few different rooms on three floors, with a garden out back that’s full of chickens. A friendly young man checked me in and showed me to the third floor, where I got a bed under a skylight. The house is very simple, but comfortable. The floors are wooden and creeky, with narrow hallways, which all gives it character, and there’s a pretty good free breakfast each morning. There are towels, decent showers, lockers in the room, and wifi. The wifi, unfortunately, is atrocious, but the rest of it is pretty good.

Exploring Antwerp on Foot

I rested up the first night as, after walking some 50km in Amsterdam, my feet were blistered and I thought it best to give them a break. The next morning, however, I set out to explore the whole of the city by foot, armed with my GPS and a tourist map I got at reception. After less than thirty minutes wandering through the old residential area of town to the south of the city center, the skies erupted into an almighty downpour, and I was forced to take cover in a bus shelter for the next hour. The weather forecast had said there was no chance of rain, but the hostel owner warned me, “In Belgium, it can rain at any time with no warning.” Not unlike Scotland, I thought.

When the rain let up a little, I set out in my raincoat to explore further, walking up the bank of the River Scheldt to Het Steen (a small and very old castle), and further to a harbor, at which point I turned back towards town and began meandering aimlessly along the winding, narrow streets. There seemed little point in consulting a map of any kind now; Antwerp’s streets are notoriously disorienting. Unless you can see one of the big church or cathedral spires, you are not able to navigate.

The old town of Antwerp is really quite beautiful, even under dark skies and a fine rain. The old cobbled streets and tall, narrow buildings have a unique charm, and every so often there are really incredible old brick buildings of various sorts. The most imposing, of course, are the churches and cathedrals. The city has just grown around them, so you stumbled upon them and they seem sort of out of place, despite having been there so long. There are also hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes with little tables and chairs out on the streets. It all feels very… European. I’m tempted, actually, to say that it feels “French” because that’s what one thinks of when sitting at a café in the sun (yes, it eventually came out), sipping a beer and listening to an old man on an accordion. But this is Flemish Belgium. They very definitely don’t speak French here, nor do they want to speak anything but Dutch. Asking for anything in English gets a derisive snort. Which again seems rather French to me…

One of the highlights of my aimless rambling was stumbling upon yet another red light district. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s famous streets with girls behind windows with red light pouring out into the evening sky. However, lesser known is that Antwerp also has a small zone where prostitution is tolerated… and evidently it’s open all hours. When I walked through it was ten o’clock in the morning and things were very different from Amsterdam’s red light district on a busy summer’s evening. In Amsterdam, beautiful young women tapped gently to get the attention of men passing by; in Antwerp, gigantic fat old women pounded on the glass and pointed at big red signs saying, “ANAL 50% DISCOUNT.” I suppose there’s no call for subtlety in the cut-throat world of mid-morning discount prostitution.

After yet more walking around and admiring the old buildings and exploring some beautiful parks, I settled at table outside a café on the edge of a bustling little square and nursed a few beers as the world passed by. Belgium is one of the world’s beer capitals and even the cheapest thing on the menu – a De Koninck – made for an excellent afternoon beverage… or two. The menus can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to realize that you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. These people have been making beer for millennia and they’re pretty much perfected it.

I staggered home in the early evening not from drunkenness but from pain in my feet. I’d racked up about twenty kilometers in my wanderings, and my feet were suffering badly.

Antwerp’s Museums

During my only full day in Antwerp, I mostly walked about and drank in the scenery (and the beers, of course). However, the next day my bus out of Antwerp didn’t leave until nine in the evening, and so I essentially had another full day to explore. The thought of walking much more made my poor feet ache, so I planned a day of museums and beers.

First off, I hefted my giant rucksack to the train station and stored it in a locker under the main stairs for €4.5, which seemed an exorbitant fee, yet one I was more than happy to pay give the choice between that and dragging a 15kg bag around for the next nine hours. Then I set out for the Rubenshuis – a house that once belonged to the great artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I’d anticipated paying an entrance fee of some kind, but apparently on the final Wednesday of each month, entrance is free!

The Rubenshuis was designed by Rubens himself, and today is set up as a museum of sorts. There aren’t actually that many of Rubens’ own paintings there, but rather a collection of paintings he owned by other artists. There was an abundance of information in English and the house itself was fantastically preserved, making for a wonderful excursion. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden for a while as people came and went, and admired the beautiful old building that hardly seemed it was in the middle of a big city.

Next, I found what was billed in certain travel guides as a “Brueghel Museum,” but which was actually another old house filled with art – this time the collection once owned by Mayer van den Bergh. There were several Brueghels there, which I suppose is why it was listed as a Brueghel museum, even though it clearly wasn’t. Still, it was another interesting old building with different styles of paintings hanging on its walls. Yet again it was free, although this time I was glad I didn’t have to pay as I left pretty quickly. There wasn’t much information in English and the paintings weren’t particularly interesting.

IMG_4442

Flixbus to Bratislava

After my museum visits, my feet were once again in agony and I sought out a pub near the Cathedral of Our Lady, where I sampled the local beers and listened to an old man play on an accordion. After all the walking and museums, this was the highlight of my Antwerp trip. Sitting there and watching people stop by to sing with the accordionist, under the imposing figure of that giant spire, was exactly what I wanted from my Belgian trip, even if I hadn’t known it until then.

DSCN9032

(Here’s a video, shot on my iPhone:)

Eventually, it was time to go. I hobbled across the city to the train station to retrieve my bag, and then waited for the Flixbus.

Then I waited some more.

And some more.

And longer.

The Flixbus showed up 35 minutes late, which wouldn’t be a big deal at all if there were any way to let its customers know. However, at a random bus stop, you have no idea whether the bus will show or not, or – what’s worse – that perhaps you are in the wrong place and the bus already arrived somewhere else.

Eventually, I got on board and tried to make myself comfortable. It was, however, to be a difficult journey. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where my final destination was Bratislava. It was cheap, yes, but not the pleasant trip I’d hoped for. The wifi didn’t work, the seat was uncomfortable, and the bus only stopped for passengers to rest three times. I would highly recommend Flixbus for short trips of up to five hours, but for a twenty-two hour journey it’s a really, really bad choice.

Oh well… travel is nothing if not an adventure, and I did get to watch the green fields and even the stunning slopes of the Alps go by as we made our slow way towards the next destination, Bratislava.

Posted in travel

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.

IMG_4370
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.)

DSCN8949
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.

IMG_4380
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.

IMG_4374
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.

DSCN8951

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.

Posted in travel

Winter Travel Plans

I’m quite lucky in that my job (university lecturer) affords me a great deal of free time to travel. Every year I get between 3-4 months free to go out and explore this big world. In the past year I’ve been to 12 countries:

  • China
  • Scotland
  • Mozambique
  • South Africa
  • Swaziland
  • Zimbabwe
  • Botswana
  • Thailand
  • Laos
  • Cambodia
  • Malaysia
  • Indonesia

That’s not bad for one calendar year!

In January, I will fly from Shanghai to Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. I’ve wanted to visit Sri Lanka for a long time, but always put it off because I thought I would best combine it with a visit to India. However, this winter I don’t have as much time as usual, and flights during my free time are a bit more expensive. Searching Skyscanner, I saw that the cheapest flights from Shanghai on my desired dates went to Colombo.

“I’ve never been to Sri Lanka before,” I thought. And that was reason enough to go.

Alas, I have been too busy even to plan this trip. I have very little idea where in Sri Lanka I will go and what I will do, except for a few things I saw at the top of most travelers’ lists:

  • Yala National Park
  • Whale watching
  • Scuba diving
  • Hikkaduwa Beach
  • World’s End

…and apart from that I’m quite ignorant. I’ll need to squeeze in some research between classes and exams and essay marking and work on Beatdom

If you have any suggestions, please do leave them in the comment section below. I’d appreciate any advice. Otherwise I’ll just fly into Colombo, find a hostel, and see what happens from there.

After two weeks in Sri Lanka, I will fly back to Shanghai, spend one day there, and then head over to Osaka, Japan. I’ll do one week in Japan, but again I have very few plans. I have tickets for the Guns n Roses concert at Saitama, Tokyo, and a few friends to meet with. I’d also like to see Mt Fuji, even though I know it’s not the best time of year to do so.

At the end of January I will fly out from Nagoya.

If you have any advice for must-see attractions between Osaka and Tokyo, post them below in the comment section.

Posted in travel

How to Travel Southern Africa on a Budget

If you’ve ever looked into travelling around Southern Africa, you’ve probably found it’s a bit expensive. Everyone wants to go on safari, but who can afford to pay $1,000 per day? There are, however, ways to see this part of the world on a budget, and without sacrificing too much in the way of comfort, adventure, or experience.

DSCN4810

 

Pick your locations carefully

Botswana is a notoriously expensive place. It’s hard to complain about it, because they do a great job of using tourist money to protect their wildlife. However, it’s one of the hardest countries to see on a shoestring. Zimbabwe is also pretty pricey, especially around the Victoria Falls area, which gets a lot of tourists.

Right now almost all of South Africa is cheap to visit because the economy is doing so poorly. Changing foreign currency will buy you huge amounts of rand. It’s cheap to sleep, to eat, or to rent a car. Even Kruger National Park – one of the greatest tourist destinations on earth – is cheap to visit.

If you’re planning a long visit, you might want to spend more time in South Africa and Swaziland, and less time in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Hostel all the way

Even in the more expensive parts of Southern Africa, hostels are affordable. Moreover, Africa has some of the greatest hostels in the world. Whereas in other places they’re often rundown and dingy, throughout most of Southern Africa you’ll find absolutely brilliant hostels. In South Africa in particular they rank really highly – with many of them featuring swimming pools!

Remember to check online before to see prices and ratings. Despite all the great hostels, there are obviously a number of ones to avoid. In places like Cape Town you’re really spoiled for choice. Because of the competition, every hostel goes out of its way to impress its guests. Out in the sticks, however, you might need to look a little harder, and prices might be higher.

Go off-season

The same rules apply as elsewhere in the world – peak season in the most expensive time to visit. In Southern Africa, summer (that’s winter in the northern hemisphere, so think January-February) is considered a bit of an off-season. At this time, hostels are quiet and the national parks are empty of visitors. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, this really isn’t the time to go, but if you’re looking for peace, quiet, and budget travel, it’s perfect.

At this time of year, most backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia, which is going through its peak season in Jan-Feb. Southern Africa, on the other hand, is largely ignored at this time. I got great deals on safaris, accommodation, and transport because there was simply no one else around. What’s more, even flights to and around the area are cheaper than at other times.

Use public transport

In South Africa, renting a car is very cheap, but elsewhere it’s neither cheap nor particularly safe. There are long-distance luxury buses that will cart you around the area, or grossly overpriced trains, but these don’t go everywhere and they miss out on the important experiences.

Through Southern Africa the mode of transport most people use is the combi bus – that’s a small minivan that is crammed full of people. You can go anywhere if you ask in advance, and it’s dirt cheap. I travelled all over the place in these vans and met the friendliest people on the way. I seldom paid more than a dollar or two for long rides, and even though sometimes it was crammed and slow, I always enjoyed the journey.

Personally, I hitch-hiked a lot around South Africa and Botswana, although I’m reluctant to recommend it to others. I never felt in danger but of course it is always a risk. In certain places, however, hitch-hiking is quite common and a great way to get where buses won’t go.

Eat local

For my first money in Southern Africa I never spent more than $3 per day on food because wherever I went there was a small kitchen to prepare. I’d just find the local supermarket and buy the basics. If I came upon a restaurant I’d eat the local food, whatever that was. It was always cheap and it’s great to try new things.

When I first arrived in Zimbabwe I ended up in a steakhouse in Bulawayo. It was a western restaurant – the first I’d eaten at in a month – and they had the most amazing steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life. My bill, though, was $25. Now in the West that’s not a bad total, but when you’re used to paying $3 per day for all your food combined, $25 for a steak and a beer suddenly seems a bit steep. Still, one has to spoil oneself sometimes.

 

Finally, be flexible, open-minded, and always travelling intelligently. Make sure that you’re insured, do your research ahead of time, don’t be afraid to try new things. This is one of the greatest places on earth and right now you can see it on a shoestring if you really want.

Posted in Photography, travel

Zimbabwe pt 2 – Lions and Crocs

After seeing Victoria Falls, there were various activities on offer in the surrounding area. Everything was pretty expensive, unfortunately, but I was keen to see some more wildlife and try some new things.

Everywhere I went, people kept trying to sell me tours, but as I was enjoying my stay at Shoestring Backpackers, I decided to book through their in-house travel agent. They set me up with a canoe trip on the Zambezi River and a Lion Walk – which is, as the name suggests, a walk with lions.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Lion Walk. Its premise was pretty simple, yet utterly unbelievable – walking with lions. It cost $150, and I didn’t know whether my money was going towards looking after lions or exploiting them. In any case, out of curiosity, and with the assurances of the travel agent (whatever that’s worth) I went along one afternoon to find out.

Fortunately for me, as with other parts of my trip around Africa, there weren’t many people on my tour. There were only three of us, in fact. We arrived at a little hut in a National Park and were given a run-down of rules. These included not touching the animals’ heads, not standing in front of them, and not wearing anything that dangles. There were actually a lot of rules and I struggled to remember, but assumed that rather than have a tourist eaten by their lions, the guides would remind me from time-to-time.

Alarmingly soon, we were on our way into the lions’ den. There were no fences – the guide informed us that there was a stream that more or less marked the lions’ territory. There was a man with a gun ahead of us, whom we were told was there to shoot any buffalo or other (non-endangered) big game which might wander into our surrounding area. After only a few minutes we came upon two lions.

It should probably go without saying that walking through a forest and meeting a lion is breath-taking, even when you expect it. They were babies, at only 22 months old, but nonetheless massive and majestic animals. They lay sleepily in the shade, on cool grass. We were told their names (one of them was called Belezulu and I don’t remember the other) and that they were siblings.

Soon the lions were on their feet and we walked them around a well-trodden path. The three tourists took our turns walking beside the lions as they wandered hither and thither, pouncing on dragonflies and chasing guinea fowl. The guide gave strict and constant instructions of where to stand and what to do in order to not get eaten.

It was a wonderful and surreal experience. At the end we were again given information about the cause and allowed to ask questions. It seems the lions are taken in as babies and raised by rangers. They are exposed to humans until 24 months, after which time they have absolutely no contact with people. They are, however, monitored for about three years, before going truly into the wild.

Next up was a canoe trip on the Zambezi River, run through a company called Wild Horizons. This began early morning with a game drive through Zambezi National Park. We spotted plenty bird life and some big game, but nothing spectacular. I didn’t mind because I’d had some great safari tours so far on the trip, and was looking forward to the canoeing.

When we arrived at the river there was a crocodile immediately in our path. It was just a little one, but it was right beside where we intended to launch the canoes. Our guide informed us that the crocodiles weren’t a big problem. He said crocodiles aren’t particularly dangerous when canoeing and that we really needed to worry about hippos, which are bad tempered and could flip or destroy a canoe with ease.

After being given a lot of guidance in how to react during the rather likely event of a hippo attack, we set out onto the river and it was surprising how slow the current moved. We very gently let the current carry us along. I was in one canoe with the guide while the two other tourists were in another canoe behind us.

From the canoe we saw numerous impressive birds and dozens of hippos. We stayed clear of the hippos as much as possible, but now and then they’d just appear from nowhere.

After two hours were went through a small rapids and emerged almost on top of three large hippos. My guide, who was steering from behind, banked hard right and we paddled for an alternate route, away from the giant animals. Soon we slowed right down and let the current take us once again.

After a few seconds, however, my guide, who had been unflappably calm throughout the whole trip, flipped out when there was a sudden bump underneath us, and he started shouting: “A big croc! A big croc! Go! Go! Go!” I thought it was some sort of joke and paddled towards the shore; however, when we got there and turned to look back, there was indeed a massive crocodile where we had just come from. The old English couple behind us paddled unwittingly past the croc to the bank and got out.

I stood and watched the crocodile, listening to the guide as he calmed down. He’d hit the crocodile accidentally with his paddle and it had come up under our boat and hit us. It was hardly a “croc attack” but it was a nice exciting story to take away from another otherwise relaxing and pleasant trip down one of the world’s great rivers.

The next morning, having spent altogether far too much money, I hitched a ride to the border with Botswana – the start of a long, long hitch-hiking journey throughout Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west.