Monday, April 16, 2018

Manchester And Liverpool

I really didn't make enough time for either of these cities, Manchester and Liverpool, but I wanted to try to visit both of them, so I arranged for two nights in each, rather than just stay in one for four nights. It was enough time to see a bunch of stuff in both cities, though. But my friend Dave also messaged me and told me he had a friend in Leeds and there was no way I could make that, even though I'd like to, and it's not far away from Manchester. But my plans are pretty much set for the rest of the time I'm in the UK. I have to make plans ahead of time, because otherwise train and bus tickets go up, hostels become more scarce and possibly more expensive, and I don't subject myself to the stress of last-minute hectic scurrying. Sometimes I've been able to meet with people that friends have suggested, sometimes not.

It's funny, because I don't have a lot of constraints on my travel, seemingly (except for money), but constraints seem to appear anyway. Speaking of money, the UK is eating my lunch. I've already doesn't more that my monthly travel budget, and it's only the middle of the month. The combination of the weak dollar and the strong pound is just pummeling me. I'll be OK, just have to dip into reserves more than I'd like, and I'll probably have to eventually sit somewhere cheap to live for a while. I did have a few extraordinary, one-time expenses that added to that total, and some of it is for plans ahead that are pre-paid. But I need to keep expenses down for a while.

Manchester is really a party town in the central district. There are a ton of clubs, and a bunch of young partiers wandering in the streets. The hostel I stayed at was probably the most partying hostel I've stayed at yet. There were eight guys traveling together who all stayed in my room; they were all from London, and all got in very late and baked. I don't really club much any more. I especially don't want to go in the places that have watchdogs at the entrances. That just gives me the creeps.

I appreciated staying in the central district after the hostel in Cardiff that was weirdly located (I wouldn't say it was badly located, just weirdly located). I like to just step outside and find stuff, though there is something to be said for a hostel that is away from it all too, especially if it's near a beautiful natural area. But Manchester is a busy city, and it was good to be near the centre.

I packed in a lot of viewing in Manchester in the short time I was there, then I took of on a train for Liverpool. Liverpool is pretty much centered around The Beatles. Beatles stuff is everywhere. I didn't take in any of the myriad of Beatles tours...I used to be a huge Beatle freak in high school, but now I've about had my fill, though they made nice tunes. Though, I did meet a guy in the vast connected to my hostel who said he lives a few houses down from where Brian Epstein lived. That was Beatles enough for me.

The first day I was there, I took a beautiful stroll along the River Mersey, and wandered around Albert Dock, then meandered through other parts of the city.  Today, on the second day, I didn't feel so great. I didn't feel sick, just drained. I've been walking more than most humans probably should every day, it's pretty unreal the territory I've covered on foot. And I always start out thinking I won't walk that much today, but then I get caught up in seeing stuff and more stuff, and before I know it, I've just walked 30,000 steps. And that's the way it should be. When you're having a good time, and not even noticing the effort you're making, that is the goal.

Today I would go out and walk, and just feel labo(u)red and lethargic, and it seemed like an effort just to get back to the hostel from a short distance. So I came back and slept most of the day, and drank a lot of water.  Probably all of the walking I've been doing is catching up with me.  Or maybe I'm getting yellow-ish fever from the live yellow fever vaccine I had last week (doubtful, but it was a risk...though I probably would have gotten it before now). If it's not enjoyable, there's no point. I remember meeting a Filipino traveler, I think his name was Daniel, and I think it was in Beijing. He told me that his philosophy was that when you travel, you don't have to do anything. Right on. You do what you want to do. You don't push it just because you're there. Maybe that book you'll read, or the person you meet because you didn't go anywhere, will change your life. You don't have to see stuff just because stuff is there; stuff is everywhere.

Here in Liverpool I'm basically by myself in the hostel room. The people at the desk said it was packed full the night before, but now it's fairly quiet and sedate. The first night, some guy bounded in at about 3 in the morning, and left early. He didn't even have shoes. I just greeted him when he got here, and wished him a good day when he left. I suspect he was just a local guy who partied too hard to make it home, and he has a friend working at the hostel. No worries. Maybe someone will come in late tonight, but I doubt it, because my bed is the only one that has blankets on it. But being alone has given me an opportunity to spread out and re-pack my stuff, and to do my laundry in the sink and hang it all over the room to dry. I had some perishable food left over from the last hostel; they had a fridge and a kitchen to use, but this one doesn't. They were kind enough to let me put my veggie burgers and other stuff in the bar fridge, and I prepared meals over the sink in the room's adjoining bathroom out of uncooked veggie burgers and other stuff.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Castles In Swansea And Bridgend, And Losing My Bag

I had been thinking about taking a day trip somewhere from Cardiff. I had missed the organized bus tours. There don't seem to be many from Cardiff, and the ones I looked into were already full.  The only ones I was interested in were the tour to castles and Roman ruins, and the tour to the beautiful beaches on the Gower Peninsula. Since the tours were all fully booked, if I was going to do any kind of journey, I'd have to do it on my own, either by public bus or train.

I met a woman named Eva at the hostel. She was in Cardiff for a TV shot at the BBC studio. She worked on the support crew, but in the course of the shooting,  she had gotten cast as an extra, as a patient. She showed me a picture of herself as a patient on the show. Cool. Anyway, we ended up taking at the bar; I told her I was thinking about gong to Swansea the next day, and she suggested I visit Bridgend.

The next day, I set off on my day trip.  Eva texted me as said she had talked to someone from the area, and they knew of a bus, but I told her I had just bought a train ticket online. So I went to the train station, and took the train from Cardiff to Swansea in Wales, and spent the day wandering around the centre of Swansea. Swansea is renowned as the home of Dylan Thomas, and of Pete Ham of Badfinger.

Then I decided to take a bus to The Mumbles to wander around there, and also to check out Oystermouth Castle. So I found out that I could take the 2B bus from the center of town to The Mumbles. I rode the bus, checked out the beautiful beaches and hills, and wandered through the castle. After I had left the castle and I was heading down the hill, I noticed that a bag I had full of snacks was missing. I thought I might have left it in a room in the castle where they showed a short video about the castle and its history. So I headed back to the castle and looked around that room, but no luck.

It wasn't the biggest deal to be missing the bag. It was only a few items of food, and the bag itself was not very expensive. But it was a really cool bag to have for travel. It was just a durable woven plastic sack with two drawstrings on either side, and the drawstring cords were connected to eyelets at the bottom of the bag, so they could be used as straps to be worn as a backpack or a frontpack. The whole bag folded down to take up almost no room at all, and I could keep it in my pocket or fanny pack.

So I must have left it on the 2B bus. And I did remember taking it off my back so I could sit on the bus without squishing my food. There was another 2B bus coming in just a few minutes, so maybe it would be the same bus, and by some miracle, maybe it would be on that bus. But I got on the bus, and it was a different bus driver, who had no idea about anything regarding my missing little bag.

But then an elderly couple on the bus were waving at me, trying to get my attention. They said that they had been on the previous bus, and a lady tried to wave me down as I was getting off the bus to let me know that I had left my bag behind, but I didn't see her, and she had turned it in to the bus driver. They said my bag would be at the station's lost and found!

They took me to take the bus to the station with them and they would show me where the lost and found office was. So I walked with them, they showed me where to go, and I went to an office that said to ring the bell for service. I rang the bell several times, but got no answer. I waited outside the office for a bit, and kept ringing occasionally. Finally a voice came over the intercom briefly, saying that they were dealing with an emergency, and I'd have to call back later. I said I was right outside the office waiting, and was leaving Swansea soon. They said to try again in ten minutes.

So I tried again in ten minutes, several times, and got no response. I decided to try the information counter, and the lady there said that all she could do was call them; I told her I couldn't do that because all I had was a US number. So she tried a few times, and didn't get an answer either. I walked around the town a bit, and came back, and tried a few times more, and somebody answered the phone. I inquired about my little bag, and they checked on it. They came back and said that it wasn't at the station, but it was still on the bus, which would be arriving at the station in an hour.

So it looked like all I had to do was wander around Swansea a bit more, and maybe I'd be reunited with my bag. Oh, well, there are certainly worse fates than having to sightsee some more while waiting. I checked out some more sights, and then returned to the bus bay and waited for the bus. Finally, the 2B bus arrived. This was the moment of truth. 2B, or not 2B? (sorry, I just had to throw that in). I boarded the bus, and there was a different driver, so my hopes were dashed. But then she asked me if I was the one looking for the bag, and I responded gleefully,  "Yes!" Then she handed it to me. Yay! Reunited with my little bag of snacks, and a story to tell about it to boot.

I took the train back to Cardiff, but thought to ask one of the station officers if it was OK to stop in between. She said, "Yes, wander, explore!" I looked it up online and after you validate your ticket, you have three hours to complete your journey, but after the three hours, they'll still let you complete your journey; you just have to do it through a person rather than an automated ticket reader. So I stopped at Bridgend, about halfway back to Cardiff, on the way, and wandered for a couple of hours.  There was a castle there, Newcastle, which was closed for the day, but at least I managed to get a picture. Then I headed back to Cardiff.

I spent the night at the hostel, went for my last walk to explore Cardiff, and now I'm on a train heading to Manchester, England, to seek my next adventure. I'll miss Wales, though. For some reason, I find it oddly soothing and comforting to see these weirdly foreign words all over the place, and to hear people speaking a vastly alien Celtic gutteral language where almost nothing is understandable, but every once in a while a vaguely familiar word slips through. If I were to stay in Wales for a while, I would surely study this fascinating language. Goodbye, Cymru.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Vaccinations In Cardiff And Other Sundry Items

I was wandering around in the centre of Cardiff, Wales, when I saw a sign at a outdoor goods store (A place sort of like REI in the US, it was called Cotswolds Outdoor) for a travel clinic. So I went in to check it out since I probably need some travel inoculations.

I inquired into the Japanese encephalitis vaccination, but they didn't have it as there is currently a scarcity. But when they have it, it is £75 a shot, and it is a two-shot course. That is a tremendous savings over what it costs in the US. In the States, it is about $400 a shot, but you might be able to find it for as low as $350.  Last time I traveled around the world, I just went without most of the vaccines I should have gotten, primarily because of their expense. But this time I will try to find places in Europe where I can get vaccinated, because it is much cheaper.

I wasn't able to get the Japanese encephalitis vaccine, but I did get inoculated for tick-borne encephalitis, which is a three-course shot (though two courses will give you most of the protection), and a yellow fever vaccine, which is only one shot. And I got a yellow fever vaccine certificate. In the States, the yellow fever vaccine is at a shortage, and the pharmacist who gave me the shot told me that they are giving shots that are one-fifth the potency in the US because of the scarcity. Here, I got the full vaccine, which confers lifelong immunity.  Not bad for just wandering by.

The pharmacist at the travel clinic gave me the names of a couple of other places, Boots and Superdrug, where there were travel clinics that might have the Japanese encephalitis vaccine. But I checked those places out, and they did not seem very user-friendly. Superdrug was just a locked door that said you had to make appointments online, and Boots only had eye and dental clinics, as far as I could tell.

So I'll eventually have to find places to get the rest of these shots. They are not terribly cheap, but are still a fraction of the price they would be in the US. I bet they are cheaper in some places in Eastern Europe.

After getting vaccinated, I came back outside, and it was cold and rainy again. I just didn't have the appetite at the time for walking around in cold rain (though I've done that a lot lately), so I ducked into a mall for a while. I'm not proud of that. But you can walk around without getting rained on, and they have places to hang out, drink coffee, and get wi-fi. So I sat in a coffee shop for a while, and, lo and behold, when I entered, the sky was completely blue with not a cloud in sight! But I came out and walked around for a few and then suddenly realized it was completely overcast again, and I hadn't even noticed that happening.

Most of the day I just spent aimlessly ambling, without even looking at a map. Then I saw the walls of Castle Cardiff and decided to check it out. So I wandered around in there for a while.

I headed back to the hostel before the sun went down. I had bought a falafel wrap, and I brought it with me and saved it for later. The hostel is kind of out of the way. It's not terribly far from the center of town, maybe about a half hour's walk, but it's location is just kinda weird. It's right near a major intersection that is difficult for passengers to cross. As a matter of fact, there is only one way to cross to get to the hostel, and I had to beg a local to show me were it was after several unsuccessful attempts that led to dead ends or shunted me down long corridors going the wrong way (but, to be fair, if I had walked another 100 yards or so, I probably would have found the crossing on my own). So there is only one way out of the hostel, as it is fenced in and/or surrounded by impassable traffic. One of the cross streets it is on has no pedestrian traffic on it, so you can't go in two directions at all. Once you get out the one way you can go, you can go in two directions when you get to the street: toward town or away from town. And away from town is pretty uninteresting for as long as I've taken the time to walk it, with the exception that there is a Lidl grocery store just a few minutes away in that direction. But most of the stuff is the other way. This means you can't just take a short walk to go anywhere (except for the Lidl); you really have to commit to going to town or through town.

Ugh, pictures are loading slowly again on FB. Have to sleep soon and still don't have a lot of pics loaded from the day yet.

Monday, April 9, 2018

From Bath To Cardiff, With Lots Of Stops On The Way

I woke up the day after checking out the Roman Baths, and took a bus to Stonehenge and Avebury Henge, stopping at some little villages on the way. Both of the henges were really interesting. The people who built the sites had to bring in the stones from long distances, and this was in the times before the wheel was invented. Very little is known about both sites because there were no records kept. At the Avebury Henge, the village of Avebury popped up at some point right in the middle of the stones. And the villagers tore down and chopped up some of the stones, and used them for building materials in the town. In some cases, stone markers have been placed where there are missing stones.

One interesting stone at Avebury is the barber surgeon stone. Apparently, one stone fell down and crushed a guy, whose bones were later found when archaeologists lifted up the stone to place it in its original position. He had barber surgeon tools on him, so the stone was called the barber surgeon stone.  They kept his bones in a museum that was bombed in World War II, and the bones were obliterated.

The bus stopped to look at some other artifacts, such as Silbury Hill, a huge man-made object from prehistoric times, and some of the White Horses, which were carved on the sides of hills. Then the bus went to the villages of Lacock and Castle Combe. Lacock is a village that is mostly owned by Britain's National Trust so it will stay unspoiled and will be immune to gentrification. Many of the residents are tenants of the National Trust, which leaves the rent fairly low. Castle Combe is a traditional Cotswolds village, with spectacular scenery and ancient buildings. It is also where the original Dr. Doolittle movie was filmed in the 60s.

The next day, I took a day trip to Bristol. Bristol is supposed to be a prime city for the English to choose as a vacation spot, but it didn't much do it for me. Maybe after spectacular Bath with its beautiful baths and prominent Roman ruins, a nice English city just wasn't enough for me at that point. But there were some nice sights in Bristol, especially the view from the top of the Cabot Tower, which was built to commemorate John Cabot's exploratory voyage to Canada in the fifteenth century. But getting up to the top of the tower was a chore. It was packed with people, and you could barely squeeze by the people coming down for party of the narrow spiral staircase, and the rest of the staircase (past the first viewing level) only allowed one person to pass in one direction, so if one person was going up and one was going down, someone would have to back up, and if there were others following, they would have to back up too. It was a crowded mess in a tight, difficult space, and I definitely wouldn't recommend it for anyone who is claustrophobic.

I returned to Bath that night, and spent the next morning relaxing at the Thermae Bath Spa, which has access to the waters from the Bath hot spring, and since the Roman Baths site is contaminated, this is a good spot to experience the hot mineral waters. There is a ground level hot pool, and then on a middle floor, there are several steam and sauna rooms of different flavors. There is also a mentholated ice chamber to take in between hot rooms (which somehow is also filled with steam even though it is cold; it feels like cold's weird). And there is a "relaxation chamber" where you can lie on heated stone chairs shaped to your body, sort of like a chaise lounge. And then, on the roof there is an open hot pool. It was great because it was cold and drizzling, though the pool was very warm, so you could cool of in the cold drizzle. They also had whirlpools, agitated water, and pressurized waterfalls that would massage your back. It was incredibly relaxing and I didn't want to leave, but I had to catch a bus to Cardiff, Wales, so leave I did.

I checked out of the hostel and boarded the bus to Cardiff. It was cold and rainy,  and fir a while was fairly uneventful, until the bus broke down in Newport, Wales. When the bus driver tried to start the bus up after dropping some people off, it sounded like it just died.  He made several attempts, and people started whispering nervously, but he didn't really tell us anything for a while. We were stopped for about a half hour. Then the driver came back and counted all the passengers, and got on the phone telling someone he had to get all these people to their destinations.  So we knew something was up by then; we should have been in Cardiff by then. But shortly after that, another bus came and took those of us who were going to Cardiff. I don't know what happened to the rest of the people, but hopefully they got bailed out shortly thereafter.

I arrived in Cardiff and it was pouring rain. We didn't get dropped off at a station, but just at a bus stop on the street, so I didn't really have a shelter to put the rain fly on my backpack, and decided just to head to the hostel trying to cover my pack with my umbrella, holding it farther back so the pack would be under it. It was about a half hour walk to the hostel, and it rained the while time. I was afraid my stuff would get wet, but it didn't turn out too bad. I was already late, and didn't expect the walk in the rain to the hostel. And I was starving as I hadn't eaten all day. Luckily, the hostel had a decent kitchen, so I got a falafel wrap, which tided me over. By that time, I didn't feel like exploring Cardiff, so I washed some clothes in the sink, hung them to dry, and just relaxed in the room. I think I lost a piece of thermal underwear when I washed it in London and somehow didn't retrieve it after it dried; oh, well, I have all the other clothes I washed. Tomorrow I'll guess I'll check out the city of Cardiff.

I have been walking a huge amount lately. It's the 8th of April today, and since the first, I have walked over 200,000 steps, according to my Samsung Health phone app. And, I entered some challenge thingie through the app to walk 200,000 steps in a month...well, I've already walked that far this month. But I'm not quite that far in the challenge, because I didn't join until the 3rd of April. But I'm at about 180,000 since the 3rd, and should go over 200,000 soon. Yesterday, a walked a little over 35,000 steps, which was the most I have yet done in one day on this journey, but today, I barely cracked 11,000. There are almost a million people participating in this challenge, and I've gone from placing in the high six figures to around 9000th place, but I've dropped back down to about 12000th today because I didn't walk as much. The leaders in the thing are all probably seriously cheating, because I dont think anyone can walk that much, but I don't much care, I'm mostly just doing it for the exercise.

Friday, April 6, 2018

From London To Bath

On my way out of London, I took the Tube for the last time. Since I had lost my all-you can-ride Oyster card and now had one that was pay-as-you-go, I asked the stationmaster if I had enough money on the card to complete my journey to Victoria Station, and I did, with 20 pence to spare.

If I hadn't taken a coach from Gatwick Airport, I might not know that Victoria Coach Station was in a different place from Victoria Station. Not too far, but about a ten minute walk. I got on the first train, which was fairly empty. Then I had to change trains, and followed the signs to the next train on the Tube I had to catch. There was a train pulling up, and it was so packed I couldn't get on. The next train came, and it was equally packed, but I pushed my way on. Some guy who came on right after me bitched me out for having a backpack on the crowded train. Serenity now. I thought it best not to engage with him. Then I heard them announcing all the sane stops as the train I had just gotten off of. Oh crap, I was on the wrong train. Serenity now. How did I do that? I ended up at Borough Station, which I had left from, and started over. Luckily I never had to pass through a pay station until my final destination, because I only had barely enough money on my card to make the trip.

I went back to the station where I had originally changed trains, and found that I had followed the signs correctly, but you have to go THROUGH the stop for the Northern line to get to stop for the Victoria line, which is unusual. Groan. This time I did it right. I was delayed by about a half hour due to my little mishap, but luckily I had left plenty early. I guess it pays to always be paranoid about getting there on time, and factoring in time for some unexpected contingency.

I walked from Victoria Station to Victoria Coach Station, and took the coach from London to Bath. There was some sort of road construction delay that ended up delaying our arrival in Bath by about an hour, but we got there a little after two in the afternoon. I checked into the hostel, got settled with my stuff, and set off to explore the town.

Bath is a beautiful little town with rolling hills and marvelous views in just about any direction you turn. I walked around for a while through the centre of the town, and then decided to wander the periphery some. I wandered along the River Avon, which is sometimes referred to as the Bristol Avon to distinguish it from all the other Rivers Avon in Great Britain. Apparently there are several of them, because Avon means river in Old Welsh, so River Avon literally means River River.

Then I came back into the center of town and checked out the Roman Baths, which are fed by natural hot springs. You can't bathe in the springs there any more, partially because of the lead piping the Romans used that contaminated the water, but also because there is bacterial contamination (some girl died of meningitis from bathing there in the 70s and they closed it down afterward). But there is a nearby place with an outlet to the hot spring that is available for use now that I might check out while I'm here.

The Roman Baths site was first a worship site for the Celts to the goddess Sulis, and then the present site, which was unearthed by archeologists, was built by the Romans in the first century AD, with various embellishments added later.

I feel asleep really early, about 6 pm, and slept until about midnight. Probably all the walking I've been doing and the jetlag are catching up with me, also I've been sleeping maybe about four hours a night. Now I'm laying in bed awake really hungry, but the hostel kitchen is closed, and all my food is in there. Oh well. I'll probably fall back asleep for a few hours in a bit.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Walking, Peeing, And Serious Difficulty Posting Pics In London

I've been doing a lot of walking in the last few days. On the first day of my trip, I didn't walk a lot, but that can be attributed somewhat to jetlag.  But since then, I've walked over 25,000 steps a day. In the last three days, I've walked over 30,000 steps each day, and have surpassed my step count each day. And I'm definitely feeling it. I most certainly can't keep up this pace.

My feet are pretty much shredded. There's not much l can do about it except tough it out. I guess I could buy some moleskin and wrap my toes in it to make it a little better, but a few calluses later, it'll all work out, I'm pretty sure.

I've already altered my clothing somewhat to compensate for it. I am now wearing compression underwear which helps with the chafing on my thighs. And I'm pulling the layers of clothing to cover my waist, so my fanny pack strap doesn't rub against my skin if my pants droop a little while I'm walking.

But it's still not easy. My left leg is not that great after a series of bad things that happened to it in the last few years. My gait is definitely slower than it used to be, and not as natural. It used to be that I was one of the fastest walkers in a crowd, and now almost everyone passes me.

I tested today how many paces I comfortably walk in ten minutes, and if I just walk, and don't stop for anything, at my normal pace I walk a little over 1000 paces in ten minutes. So I should be able to walk about 10000 paces in a little over an hour and a half, right? But it doesn't seem to work that way. I'm always doing stuff that breaks up the walking. And that is a good thing. I don't want to JUST walk, I want to check out cool stuff, take pictures of things that interest me, and stop to enjoy my surroundings when I feel like it. So it ends up being a lot slower.

And urinating becomes an issue when walking. Well, actually, it's an issue when it comes to travel generally. Sometimes, you gotta go, and it's not that easy to find a place to go. I found that in London, at least, you can search for "public toilets" on Google Maps, and you'll be able to find one in the vicinity, if you're in a central area. But yesterday, I searched for two in a row, and walked quite a ways to get to them, Abd they were birth out of order. I was at the point where I was dancing in the street, and about to go in my pants. But finally, I saw one of London's open markets, Old Spitalfield Market, and I found a public toilet there. And it wasn't even a pay toilet! (most of them are) Blessed relief.

I've been getting really crappy signal in London, so I'm getting behind in posting pics on Facebook. Today I posted two sets of pictures, and four hours later, they still hadn't posted. Five hours later, one set had posted, but the other hadn't. What the hell? I got better signal in Laos. T-Mobile is my carrier in the US, and they give me free data in most countries in the world, but only guarantee 2g speeds. Well, I'm definitely getting the low end on that in the last couple of days. The wi-fi at the hostel is not much better. Hostel wi-fi is usually bad because a lot of people are using it, and the hostel is usually too cheap to pony up for enough bandwidth for everybody, so everybody squeaks by and gets kicked off a lot.

Today, I started my day by taking the Tube to a park I picked out on the map, Hampstead Heath. It looked like a good place to walk around outdoors, and away from the typical touristy areas, a little farther out from the center of London.  It was a beautiful stroll; the weather was sunny for the first day since I've been in London, though it was somewhat chilly. But it wasn't as cold and windy as it had been the last few days, and I didn't have to pull out my umbrella frequently. An added bonus was that there was an English manor turned into a museum, the Kenwood House, bordering the park. It had been turned into a museum featuring paintings by English and Dutch masters, and, best of all, the admission was free! If I hadn't just picked out a random place to go, I never would have found this hidden gem.

I moseyed back into town, intending to walk as far back toward the hostel as I could. I walked pretty much all day, stopping to check out places I encountered along the way. I hiked to the top of the hill at Primrose Hill Park, admiring the beautiful view of the city from there. Then I walked to Regent's Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens, wandering through the neighborhoods and districts surrounding them. Then I started getting weary, and when the walking stops being fun and interesting, it's time to cone up with a plan to wrap it up.  But I was still quite a distance from the hostel. So I went to the nearest Tube station to get back to the hostel to rest, and when I started to go into the station, I found, to my chagrin, that I had lost my Oyster card, which had a week of unlimited rides stored on it! And I know exactly what happened; this happened to me before. I put my phone in the pocket with the card and I'm sure that one of the times I pulled my phone out, I pulled the card out without noticing and dropped it. Dang it, keep the phone in a separate pocket! Anyway, the stationmaster helped me buy a new Oyster card, and it only set me back about ten pounds. I had bought a week-long card even though I was going to be in London less than that because it ended up being cheaper (um, but not if I lose it).

So I got back to the hostel and rested for a bit, then a couple of hours later, went on a short jaunt around the neighborhood to eat. I was just a couple of hundred steps away from surpassing yesterday's step total, so I just walked back and forth down the block a bit, and came back to the hostel with the intention of staying put.

London Calling

I left Austin on the 31st of March. I flew on one of the first direct flights that Norwegian Airlines had from Austin to London Gatwick, and somehow ended up with a whole row to myself. Well, actually, initially there was a woman in the window seat of my row, and I was in the aisle seat, but she moved to the row just in front so she could have her own row. And, yay! I had my own row, and was able to move to the window seat. Plus, when it came time to sleep, I moved up the armrests and lay across the row. It wasn't the greatest sleep, it was sort of like sleeping in the back seat of a car, but was definitely preferable to trying to sleep sitting upright.

The airplane had window dimmers instead of shades, so you could choose your level of dimming, or make it completely opaque. It was like the glasses that automatically change to sunglasses.

I arrived at Gatwick Airport, which is pretty far away from London. It took me most of the day to get to the hostel. I took a bus into town, and then got an Oyster card to use the Tube for a week, and took a couple of Tube trains to get there. We landed around 9:30 am, but with immigration, customs, and travel, I got to the hostel just before check-in time at 2 pm.

I thought the jetlag would be bad, but it wasn't too bad. I took a short nap, and then explored the town. The last time I was in London was in the 80s, and I had really bad jetlag then, sleeping for a couple of days. London has definitely changed since then. Last time I was here, the cops prided themselves in not carrying guns, and they wore these antiquated looking waistcoats and tall hats. Now they look like paramilitary forces, and usually walk around in pairs with submachine guns.  Back in the 80s, there were tons of people on soap boxes at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. The biggest group of speakers were Palestinians telling people how bad they were being screwed around. The second biggest contingent were complete lunatics, the type of people who would wear aluminum (sorry, aluminium) foil to protect from time rays or something like that. And that there were assorted speakers for other causes or issues. This time, nothing. Not a single speaker, not a single soapbox set up. Also, when I was here in the 80s, Piccadilly Circus was nasty and smelly, covered with trash and pigeon shit, and had lots of punks sleeping there. This time, it was very clean, though much more crowded.

I've been all over the city, and this is my last full day here.  I have seen lots of things, but feel like I've barely scratched the surface of London. It's so big and vibrant.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

On The Road Again, Again

I'm getting ready to leave on my next extended journey. I'm not sure what to call it...maybe World Journey 2.0? It's not the second extended journey I've taken, but it is the second one in which I am planning to completely go around the world, and take more than a year. But who knows what will happen. On the last one, I had planned to travel for about a year, but I was a year and several months in with no end planned. However, the journey got cut short because my father died, and I wanted to make it back for his memorial, even though it was difficult to return from the other side of the Earth. But, you gotta do what you gotta do, so come back I did. I returned from Belfast, Northern Ireland, flying to Newburgh, New York, where I spent the night, and then the next day, I took a flight from Newburgh to Detroit, Michigan. I bought a used car in Detroit (mostly because there were no good public transportation alternatives to rural areas in Michigan), and worked my way down from my father's memorial in Midland, Michigan to Austin over a few months. I stayed in a wonderful hostel in Detroit, the Hostel Detroit, on both my way up to Midland and on the way back.

Detroit is a great town that is coming back with a vengeance from complete calamity, and it has to be one of the coolest places I have visited in the world. The re-growth of the city is phenomenal, and though there are vast empty spaces where dilapidated structures have been bulldozed, they have been filled with stuff like urban farms, improptu performance spaces, and the likes. I went to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn with a retired French automotive worker who was really into it. There was a plethora of fantastic food around Detroit, especially Arabic food, since there are a bunch of Arabic people who live in the area. Also, there was some really good Polish food. I took the People Mover, which is a monorail that doesn't really go much of anywhere, but it's an interesting novelty that circles the downtown.

I met up with some crazy soldiers with Canadian military intelligence staying at the hostel, and they led an expedition of people from the hostel to break into an enormous abandoned insane asylum just outside Detroit. I was really impressed with the briefing that one of the soldiers gave us before we entered the complex. It covered most eventualities that we might encounter in the abandoned structures, and was very comprehensive and informative. He had just come back from Aleppo, where he had been part of a team that had secured neighborhoods house by house, and the stories he had to tell about that were amazing. I told him I was thinking about going to Aleppo, and he cut me off contemptuously, and said, “Dude, don't go to Aleppo.” I told him that made me want to go even more, and he told me that I'd probably be fine if I went, but huge numbers of people would be risking their life to keep me safe. Food for thought, but who knows, I still might go.

On the way south, I stopped in Indianapolis for a couple of days, since I had never been there, and it was a convenient place to stop. Indianapolis didn't really impress me as being a spectacular tourist destination, but it was a decent place to hang out and chill for a bit. The hostel I stayed at there, the Indy Hostel, was a cool place to stay and had some really nice folks working there and staying there.

My friend Dave was kind enough to let me stay with him in Fulton, Missouri for a little over a month on the way back to Austin. We played and recorded some music, and it gave me a little respite from my travels. Also, I got to travel all around the state and to some areas in some neighboring states. While I was in Fulton, I got to see the total eclipse, as Fulton was in the path of totality. There was a big gathering place in the middle of town where a whole bunch of people hung out to watch the eclipse, and right as it went into totality, somebody played “Dark Side Of The Moon”. My phone camera was way too lame to get good pics of the eclipse, but Dave and his mom (who also visited for a while) got some great pics.

After my stay in Missouri, I headed back to Austin, and got back in September of 2017. While I was back, I took care of some details that needed attention at some point. Since I had the car, I was able to drive rideshare for several months once I got to Austin to make some money to get back on the road, often working long hours, sometimes up to 20 hours a day. Also I was able to get some medical attention for some issues; I could have maybe done some of that stuff abroad, but the language barrier in some countries and the brevity of some of my stays prevented me from investigating all my options.

So here I am, getting ready to leave again in a couple of days. I went through the same packing process that I did last time I traveled around the world. I had a huge pile of stuff, and I had to cull it down to what would fit in my backpack. Then I had to cull the backpack a few times also, because it was packed to the brim, and I needed more space so the zippers would close. Now the zippers are closing, and it's still more full than I would like, but I feel like I have cut to the bone. But you need a good amount of stuff if you travel long-term. I still may cull some more, though. If I don't, I'll probably end up getting another backpack to wear on the front, which I REALLY don't want to do. Because I'll need more room for stuff like food and medical supplies that I acquire on the way (you really need a lot of food unless you just eat out all the time, but even if you mostly eat out, you still need some for when you get stranded in the middle of nowhere). I'm not bringing food at the outset, except for a few snack bars. It's a big pain when you cross borders and you have to declare whatever food each country requires you to declare, and then you have to be searched and possibly surrender some items. I prefer to keep that to a minimum. This time, I am bringing an REI 85 liter Grand Tour backpack and leaving my Osprey Farpoint 70 behind. The Grand Tour supposedly has 15 more liters of capacity, but I'm skeptical; it doesn't seem bigger. Both of them have attached removable day packs, but the Osprey's day pack zips in, whereby the Grand Tour's day pack drops into a pouch and straps in. This seems more versatile, as I can maybe drop other stuff into the pouch if the day pack is separate.

Though I've been home, I'm still living the traveling lifestyle, and still basically living out of a backpack. I've let extended family stay at my place, and there is really no room for me in the house, so I've been living in a tent in the backyard for the last six months. I've been fairly comfortable doing that, but there have been some minor challenges due to weather issues. I tried to go through some of my boxed up stuff to get some items I might need, but was only partially successful, because my boxes were not marked and arranged as well as I could have done, and there was too much to go through.  Plus, every time I move the boxes, they degrade, and so after one go-through, I decided not to do it again, because I'll have a bunch of collapsed boxes in storage.  Oh, well, live and learn.  Note to self: next time put all the stuff I might need at the top of the pile of boxes and mark it all better.

I'll be starting in London, UK, and then a few weeks later, I'll be flying from Edinburgh, Scotland to Porto, Portugal, and right now I don't have more planned out than that. But this time I would like to hit Africa and South America, and go to a bunch of places I didn't visit on my last trip, and maybe visit some repeat destinations. You might think it's all fun and games, but it's not always great, sometimes it's a real slog.

My first day in London is going to be relatively horrible.  I'll be leaving Austin in late afternoon, and flying all night in an uncomfortable airplane seat trying to sleep, which I hate. I don't have a reserved seat (because it costs extra) and may be in the middle seat or whatever the airline chooses. I'll arrive at Gatwick Airport at seven in the morning, probably not having slept all night and feeling highly uncomfortable, and will have to go through whatever immigration and customs decide to subject me to in that state.  But I won't be able to check in to my hostel until about two in the afternoon. Groan. Maybe I'll be able to sleep at the airport for a bit, maybe not. Then I'll spend the next two days recovering from jetlag.

Traveling long-term is a much different animal than going on a vacation. Though, I have to say, the highs definitely outweigh the lows. But I constantly have to plan out my next few days or weeks, and then when I get a little weary, I will stay somewhere for a while if I can. Sometimes I can't really stop anywhere too long for a variety of reasons, and I'll have to wait quite a while before I can find a place to chill. Sometimes my trip is shaped by bureaucratic requirements that are beyond my control. Sometimes it changes because facts on the ground change, or because I have some whim to see something I hadn't planned to see. All in all, I'm hoping for a really rewarding experience over the next year or two or three (or maybe longer?). But there is a small chance that some persistent issues back home will force me to return earlier than expected. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Down And Out In Astrakhan

I arrived on the train in Astrakhan, Russia, fairly late at night. The hostel had emailed me and asked me when I was going to get there. I looked at my ticket and it said I was arriving at around 9:30 pm Moscow time, so I figured it would be about a half hour walk from the train station, and I told them 10 pm. But, actually, it was a little blip of time zone that was an hour later than Moscow; I had just assumed it was the same time zone, since all the other cities I had been at close to the same longitude had been in Moscow time. Let the lesson be here, always check. All train tickets are issued in Moscow time, regardless of local time zone, so you always have to translate. I guess I just got lazy about it.

I realized just as we were coming into the station that I was going to arrive about an hour later than I had told the hostel. No sweat, I figured, they are probably used to people who give estimates that are off a bit because shit happens. When I got off the train, I checked Google Maps for the way to get to the hostel. The first five blocks we're no big deal, just walking on well-lit commercial streets. But then I had to turn into this dark, overgrown mudpit with a lot of abandoned houses that looked really sketchy late at night (and even in the daytime it looked sketchy, as I found out when I went back to the station), and it was so dark that I couldn't even see where I was stepping, and there were a lot of deep ruts. Plus, parts of it looked like I was just walking through someone's back yard. I'm not all that crazy about getting into a strange city late at night anyway. I prefer to walk to where I'm staying, or if it's a really long way, I'll try to get public transportation. I've only gone by taxi a couple of times. So I had ignored all the taxis that tried to hawk me at the train station, in favor of hoofing it. Also, I never know whether taxis in a foreign place are crooked or dangerous, which they sometimes can be.

So after I came out of the dodgy looking stretch (it wasn't all that long, maybe a half a kilometer or so, but I had to take it really slowly because I couldn't see a thing), I came out, and saw there was a large police vehicle parked right near the road there, maybe to catch people who have just gotten off the train coming into town. There were five cops standing there, and they were busy with some other traveler, going through his stuff, and asking him a bunch of questions. Nothing to see here. Just pretend you don't see it and keep going. So I just averted my eyes and kept moving, and I had just about thought I had passed the engulfment zone, when I heard a shout in Russian behind me. I just ignored it at first, but then I heard more shouts that we're more insistent. I turned around and a Russian policeman was hurriedly approaching me. He motioned for me to go back to the car where the others were waiting. He seemed a little pissed that I had ignored his commands and that he had to come after me.

I got back to where the vehicle was, and two of the cops were busy with the other guy, but one cop started interrogating me in Russian. I just meekly said, "Ni ponimayu", which means, "I don't understand". The cop then asked me, "English?", and I nodded. He asked me, "Passport?", and I nodded again, but made no move to produce it. He then motioned me to open my big backpack. I had a lock on it, so I had to undo it, and it was so dark I could hardly see the combination dial. But I got it undone, and he went through every single thing in every pocket, leaving it all in disarray. Then he asked to go through my little backpack, which I carry on the front, and then my fanny pack. He was very thorough, and went through everything, leaving my meticulously packed stuff just scattered all around in the dark. They seemed frustrated that I couldn't answer any of their questions, and just gave up on trying to question me. Then they just waved me off and told me I could go. I had to shove everything back in to my backpacks haphazardly and get them closed, which wasn't an easy task, since they were overstuffed anyway even with everything neatly packed. The funny thing was, they never did check my documentation. I headed down the road, a little shaken by the experience, and since this confrontation had taken about a half hour, I was now an hour and a half later than I had told the hostel I would be.

Finally I found the hostel, and it was well-marked on the outside, which sometimes is not the case when it comes to Russian hostels. I followed the signs up one flight of steps, and the door was locked. So I tried what I thought was a doorbell, but I don't think it worked. Nobody was answering the door at all. I tried knocking several times, and nobody answered. Great, it looked like I was going to have to sleep in the hallway. So I set up my little backpack as a pillow, and lay down on the floor outside the door for a while. Well, that verily sucked, so I got up and tried knocking on the door one more time. Finally a woman answered the door. She was just a tenant, but she spoke really good English, and she said the owner was not there. She asked if I had told them I was coming, and I said yes, but I was a little late. She had the owner's phone number, so she called him, and he approved letting me in, so she did. Well, I had to figure out where the room was, and just pick a bed for myself, and then figure out where everything else was, like the bathroom and the kitchen. Usually someone will show you all that stuff. But I was glad at least that I had gotten in and had a bed for the night. There was one other guy asleep in the big room filled with bunks, and she and her boyfriend were in a private room to themselves.

The TV in the common room was on, and right as I got settled in, the show "Big Love" was starting, dubbed in Russian. I watched it for a while, but couldn't really understand it, so I blew it off and just started channel-surfing. The TV was hooked up to some strange glorified internet-dongle-slash-cable-box with a ton of channels from all over on it. I watched a French channel for a while, but then finally turned in, as it was getting late.

The next day, I woke up, and a hostel manager was waiting for me to collect my money and give me a key. That was all I saw of management there, except for the owner dropping by briefly later that night, which was great because he was able to fix the wi-fi, which hadn't worked at all up until that point.

I walked around the city, and toured the Astrakhan Kremlin. Astrakhan is in southern Russia, close to the Kazakhstan border, right next to the European part of Kazakhstan (it sounds strange to talk about European Kazakhstan, but about 10% of it is in Europe). I wanted to visit the Volga River Delta, but I found out you need a special border permit to do that, which is a bureaucratic mess and will take days at the least, maybe even weeks. So I didn't have the time, as I was only in Astrakhan for two more days.

When I returned from checking out the city of Astrakhan, it was just me and the other guy in my room.  He checked out the next day, leaving me the next night as the only person in the whole hostel, which was kind of weird. I went out for a second day of city exploration, mostly walking along the Volga River, but also checking out other parts of the city I hadn't seen yet. When I got back that evening, it was to the freaky ghost hostel, where I was the only restless spirit there.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hot Times At The Hot Springs In Tyumen

I arrived in Tyumen on the Trans-Siberian train very early in the morning. I got my stuff together on the train, loaded up my backpacks and proceeded to walk about two kilometers to the hostel​ where I was staying. When I got there, the room was pretty full and all they had available was an upper bunk. It had been a while since I had been assigned an upper bunk. In the last few hostels I had stayed in, they been empty enough that only lower bunks had been available, or I had just gotten the lower bunk by the luck of the draw. It was no big deal though, of course, I prefer lower bunks. But you gotta build some bunk karma, so every once in a while you get an upper bunk to take one for the team. Funny, when I was a kid, I always liked the upper bunk better.

As soon as I checked in, I wanted to look around the city. The city looked more modern than most of the other Siberian cities I had been in, and had a much more European vibe, even though I was still in Asia. So I walked around the town and just checked things out.  In the early evening, I ended up stumbling across a pre-Victory Day parade, so I made a video of part of it. After I had finished my wanderings through the city for the day, I got back to the hostel, and there were a bunch of friendly, talkative Russians who were curious about this American guy who didn't seem to fit their stereotypes at all. We had an amazingly broad range of conversation, considering that I know very little Russian, and each of them only knew a few words of English. But I really hit it off with my bunkmate, the guy in the lower bunk. I wish I could remember his name. I also wish that I had gotten some contact with him on social media; I realized a few days later when I was leaving the city that I hadn't. I find that a lot of Russians are not on Facebook, but Instagram is really big here. I started using Instagram just recently; I joined a few years ago but never used it and never took the time to figure it out much after the first couple of times that I had tried to do stuff with it. But I hadn't taken​ enough time to figure it out, so I didn't get far with it. Later in the night, a Russian guy who spoke English really well showed up with his girlfriend, and he kind of acted as an interpreter, which made the conversations easier. But he only stayed that one night. I asked him how he learned English, and he said it was almost all from movies and TV, and that he hardly ever had opportunities to speak English with anyone. He said he appreciated the chance to practice, though he spoke really well.

Over the next couple of days, my bunkmate and I had some remarkable conversations considering our linguistic differences. We discussed things like JFK's assassination, our respective countries' involvement in Syria, the situation in Chechnya, and so on. He was very surprised to find out that there were homeless people in the US, and that they could be found on street corners in cities holding signs asking for money. He asked me how much people made in the US; I told him I thought most people probably made between about two and three thousand a month, and he was surprised that it wasn't more. But I told him that many people made a lot less, and maybe had to cobble together several part-time jobs, and that jobs might not pay as much or have as many benefits as they used to; he made a wry face and said it was the same in Russia. He said he thought we were a rich country, and I told him we are, but the rich people have all the money. He laughed, and said, "Just like Russia!"

While in Tyumen, I wanted to visit one of the many hot springs in the area. I found that there were many hot springs within a fairly short distance, so I looked into trying to get to one of them. I found that some of them were attached to expensive resorts, and most of them were some distance out of town, and I couldn't find any information on transportation to get to most of them. Finally, I found one hot spring, Yar Hot Springs, that was right on the edge of the city, and there was a city bus that went there that only cost twenty-five rubles. What a deal!

I started walking towards the bus stop, and stopped to look at some plants popping up in a garden. The Russian spring is just starting, so green stuff is starting to come up. I was trying to figure out if some leafy stuff that I had seen elsewhere was a weed or some kind of cultivated plant, when I saw a gentleman with a sour-looking face approaching me. He stopped in front of me and unleashed a barrage of hostile-sounding Russian at me, ending in a question that it sounded like he wanted an answer to. I did not pick up on anything he said, since my Russian is still fairly terrible (though I'm studying every day hoping to get to at least a moderately communicative level), so I answered him with, "Izvinitye, ni ponimayu", which means, "Sorry, I don't understand". Well, I understood his response. He asked me, "What don't you understand?" OK, this is definitely hostile. I thought about answering him in English, and then saying, "Did you understand?", but I thought better of it and just gave him a half-smile and a wave, and scurried on my way.

I arrived at the bus stop, and waited for the bus. I was looking at the bus maps, and they didn't reveal much information. Many countries I've been to put their bus maps on straight lines with the names of the stops, and that's the way they did it here. But I sure wish they would draw actual maps. I wouldn't know where the listed stops were even if this was in English.

It turned out the bus I had to take was one of the big van type buses packed with seats, with a partition separating the driver. On most Russian city buses that I've taken, there is a conductor circulating among the passengers who takes your money and issues you a ticket at some point after you board (they use this same model in Vietnam). But there was no conductor in this bus. Usually I try to see what the other passengers are doing for payment, but I guess I didn't notice anything about that when I got on the bus. So at the next stop, I just passed twenty-five rubles to the driver through the window in the partition, and that seemed like the correct method. Every country does buses differently. Who do you pay and how? Some places have a driver and a conductor, others just a driver. Some places make you buy a ticket beforehand. On some buses, you pay at the beginning, and on some, at the end.

I missed my stop, even though I was monitoring Google Maps for where I had to get off. But Google Maps was doing a thing it does sometimes where it takes a minute to catch up, and suddenly the dot shifted to a place past my stop. Oh, well, I figured I would just get off at the next stop and walk a little farther, no big deal. The next stop was right outside the sign marking the city limits, and I got off there. On the way walking back into town, I passed a stolovaya, which is a cafeteria-style canteen with cheap food. I like to eat at these places because they are very cheap and popular with locals. Though all of the main courses are usually meat-based, (why did auto correct just change meat-based to near-impossible? I just changed it back) there are a lot of tasty side dishes that I cobble together a meal with. I had buckwheat groats with a cabbage-filled salad, tea, and a tasty onion piroshki. A piroshki is a bread roll filled with some filling, usually cabbage (kapusta) or potato (kartoshka), but occasionally with mushroom (gryb) or onion (luk). They are all over the place in little restaurants and street stands.

After eating, I moved onward toward the hot springs. Yar Hot Springs only charged 250 rubles to enter, but they also had little cabins there for rent that you could pay modestly more for. So, if you're thinking about staying in Tyumen, that's an option that would let you use the hot springs whenever you want during your stay. It looked like the price was about twice as much as the hostel where I'm staying, but still a deal for a single room, though the rooms looked tiny, and I have no idea what amenities the cabins have.

There was a changing room with a shower, but no place to lock up belongings, so I just hung a plastic bag I had brought a change of clothes in along with my wallet and phone on a hook near the hot spring pool, and kept my eye on it. It seemed like people were mostly just leaving their stuff laying around, so it seemed pretty safe. But you never know, there could be opportunity snatchers anywhere.

After I was there a few minutes, a bunch of Russian police in uniform came in, made some announcement that I didn't understand through a bullhorn, and then wandered around the grounds. They didn't mess with anyone, though. It seemed like there were a bunch of police hangers-on, people who were buddies with the police and hanging out with them, or maybe even police in plain clothes. I just try to keep out of trouble and nobody messed with me. The lifeguards seemed pseudo-police-y too. They would occasionally say something through a bullhorn, or release a siren-sounding alert with a stern instruction to someone, stuff like stay off the ropes or telling kids not to run...typical lifeguard commands.

The water was a brownish color and very minerally...I tasted small amounts on my lips, and it seemed like there were a lot of salts and minerals in it. I hung out in the pool for quite a while, and discovered there was a little walled-off section that was even hotter. It was very relaxing, but I realized I'd have to get out of the pool into the cold, windy weather, so I readied myself for that. I got out of the pool, got dressed, and then stopped in the little cafe that they had on the premises.

I just stopped in the cafe to sit for a bit and drink a soda. A few people came in and out while I was there, and there was a really drunk couple who were drinking a lot of booze while I was there. I saw them go through a bottle of vodka, then they ordered another bottle, and invited me over to drink Schnapps with them. I said, "nyet, spasiba," several times, as I'm not really drinking these days, but they were very insistent, and came over to my table to sit with me. I told them, "nyet alcohol", which was about all I could manage to communicate about why I wasn't joining them. They said, OK, then ordered beers. Apparently many Russians don't think of beer as alcohol. Last year, when I was traveling in Eastern Siberia, a guy in a hostel told me that we Americans probably think of Russians as heavy drinkers, but he had a neighbor who didn't drink at all. But in the course of the conversation, he later indicated that his neighbor drank beer.

So they poured me a beer, and I kept begging off, and finally pushed it away. I tried to be gracious about it. Anyway, the wife ended up drinking the beer. They told me their names were Sasha and Olga. After a while, the guy was so drunk I though he was going to puke on me a couple of times, and his wife was hanging all over me and pushing her legs against mine; I couldn't tell if it was flirty or she was just so drunk that it was for support, but I suspected the latter. He started ranting about Obama and giving him the finger.

This drunken, aggressive vibe was getting a little weird for me, so I started contemplating an exit strategy. They kept trying to get me to go with them in their car to their house, but I didn't want to be driven by people that drunk, and I didn't want to go from the edge of town to who knows where, and who knows how I'd get back. Finally Olga went out to smoke, and Sasha went to the bathroom, so I darted out the door to go catch my bus back into the city. But they ended up leaving right after me, and caught up with me, and kept saying stuff about money; maybe they wanted me to give them money, but I just wanted to move on. A guard at the gate asked me if everything was "normalna" (OK), and I smiled and answered, "Normalna". But I used the break in continuity to break away and walk faster, and they didn't catch up.

I walked to the bus stop and caught the bus back into town; that evening was pretty uneventful, but I had more conversations with my bunkmate. By that time, the room has emptied out, and I probably could have changed to a bottom bunk, but I just stayed in my bunk out of inertia.

The next day was Victory Day, May 9. I was planning to go out and check out the activities, but I procrastinated, paying bills and stuff, and ordering train tickets and hostel reservations online, and didn't get out until two in the afternoon. But by that time, it was mostly over. I guess it's more of a morning thing. I walked around the city, but only encountered groups of people in uniforms and wearing ribbons milling around after the celebrations. Oh well. But at least there were fireworks in the evening that several of us watched from the hostel balcony.

The next day, I had to take off on the train. I packed my stuff, said, "Da svidaniya, udachny", to my bunkmate, and left for the train station to take off for Kazan in Tatarstan. I looked at my electronic train tickets, which I had been able to use without printing before, but they didn't have a train number, car number or seat number on then, so I figured I had better get them printed at the train station. So I went to a window, and they printed tickets with all the required info on them.

Finally on this trip, I would leave Siberia, and cross over into European Russia. When I got on the train and got in my compartment, I found that I was the only one in the compartment, and there were even very few in the whole car; maybe only two other compartments were occupied. The pravadnitsa stopped by to offer me tea or coffee; I opted for a coffee. About a half hour later, I closed the door to my compartment for some solitude. After a few minutes, to my surprise, some woman barged in to my closed compartment to try to sell me some shawls. All I could think was, "what the fuck are you doing in my compartment." I kept just saying, "nyet" and didn't let on that I didn't speak much Russian and didn't understand anything she was saying in her obnoxious hard sell. What are you doing, lady, casing my compartment? Finally, I said, "Nyet, nyet, nyet!" very aggressively and waved her out, and she left. That was the first time anybody has ever just pushed their way into a closed compartment I was in and it kind of annoyed me.

Anyway, here I now sit on the train to Kazan, Tatarstan, awaiting new adventures.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Day in Novosibirsk

I woke up this morning and packed my stuff to take a bus to Tomsk. I repacked my bags and left my big backpack at the hostel because I'll be coming back in three or four days. I'm taking a smaller bag with just some essentials to Tomsk. I knew it was May Day but didn't think much of it. When I got to Red Avenue I quickly found that they were preparing for a May Day Parade. The parade hasn't started yet as of now but groups are assembling on Red Avenue.

I had to pass a certain corner I'm not too crazy about. Often in former communist countries there are barriers along streets dictating where you can go. On this particular corner there are barriers along all four corners of the street. You can cross the street if you go into the metro station underground, but the metro station leads into an underground mall. This particular underground area is fairly byzantine and twisty, and I often come out on the wrong cormer. You immediately have to go the wrong way to cross the street and then through a series of chambers that lead you past storefronts. Also, one of the corner stations is shut down for construction so you just can't come up in that corner at all.

I walked down Red Avenue and watch the various groups assembling for the parade and people getting together by the side of the road to be spectators. As I pull up to a big central square the police are not letting anybody past that point and they pulled me over for a document check and a search. This is not going to be easy now heading to the bus station because a lot of the way there is blocked and I'm going to have to walk a good deal around where I wanted to go. It's too bad that I'm going to miss the May Day Parade though because I have to get to the bus station.

I'm walking around the affected area but constantly finding that there are police blockades so I'm having to walk farther and farther out. I hope I can get back into the bus station without any problems. I left the hostel about two hours before the bus is scheduled to leave and under normal circumstances it would be a half an hour walk to the bus station but now I don't know how long it's going to take.

I walked up to the bus station and saw there was a police blockade right around it. But there was a walkway several meters away that I took and I did not have any problems. So now I'm at the bus station with about half an hour to spare getting ready to take the bus to Tomsk.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap to Saigon

I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap on an airplane, and it was a very short flight. It would have been an all-day long bus trip if I had chosen to take the bus. But the flight was fairly cheap (I think in the vicinity of $45), so flying was worth it. When I arrived in Siem Reap, I checked my emails to find info on my hostel, and discovered that if I had let them know when I was arriving in advance, they would have arranged a free ride from the airport. Oh, well. I considered calling them, but just decided to pay for a tuk-tuk from the airport to the hostel.

The hostel was pretty nice. It had a pool, a movie theater, and its own fleet of tuk-tuks that charged fixed prices so you didn't have to bargain. I always feel a little bit weird about the bargaining culture in many Asian countries. On one hand, it's interesting to bargain down to get a better price, and to some degree, it is expected. But then again, the people you are bargaining with are fairly impoverished, and you are driving their income downward by bargaining. I hope to usually find a happy medium where I pay the expected Western surcharge, but don't get taken advantage of.

I spent a couple of days just checking out the town of Siem Reap before exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. There is a Pub Street and a Party Street, both of which are popular with tourists. The street that is popular with locals is Khmer Pub Street, which I never managed to visit because it was in a faraway location, and I never really had much reason to go there.

I bought a three-day pass to the Angkor Wat temples, which lets you go to all the areas in Angkor Archaeological Park. "Angkor Wat" is used in two senses; there is the actual Angkor Wat temple, which is the narrower use of the term, and then it can mean, in the broader sense, all of the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The first temple I visited was Angkor Wat itself. I opted for the sunrise tour, which meant that the tuk-tuk I had booked left at four-thirty the next morning. It is best to visit Angkor Wat first because it opens earlier than all the other temples, mostly because of the popularity of the sunrise tour. And there are a TON of people there that early in the morning.

So I set an alarm for four-fifteen in the morning. Most of my life, I haven't used an alarm clock; I have just woken up on my own when I need to. But that costs me a slight bit in stress, so I decided to set an alarm clock. Unfortunately, the sound on my phone was turned all the way down, so the alarm didn't go off. But I woke up and decided to check the time, and it was about four-forty eight. Oh, crap, I had overslept a bit. I hoped that didn't mean that I would miss the sunrise.  So I hurriedly gathered together the stuff I would need to bring with me, and bounded downstairs about five in the morning. Now I was about a half-hour late. But, no worries, the tuk-tuk driver was waiting for me, and there turned out to be plenty of time. The first stop was the ticket office, so I could buy my three-day ticket. And, as luck would have it, there were huge lines for the one-day tickets, but no wait at all in the lines for the three-day tickets. So I was able to just get in and out almost immediately.

Angkor Wat is probably the best restored of all the temples in the vicinity. It doesn't have many huge piles of rubble on the premises like many of the other temples in the area. I toured the temple and walked around the grounds. There was a donkey on the grounds; she looked friendly and gentle, and I had just seen a woman petting her, so I walked over to pet the donkey, and it bit me on the foot. It didn't bite very hard, just hard enough to tell me to fuck off.

After the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a place to eat breakfast. Then we went to more of the temples on what is called the Little Circuit. These are a group of temples that are fairly close together. These temples include several temples in the Anchor Thom area, and the tour ends with Ta Prohm Temple, which is where many scenes in the movie "Tomb Raider" were filmed, so it is also called the "Tomb Raider" Temple now. It was probably the most spectacular temple of the day (except for maybe Angkor Wat), because of the juxtaposition of chaos, rubble, overgrown mature trees that invaded the walls, and the finely sculpted structure.

That night, I watched the movie "The Killing Fields" in the cinema at the hostel. I had never seen the movie before, but I had seen "Swimming to Cambodia", which was about the making of "The Killing Fields." For some reason, I thought Spalding Gray would have a much bigger role in the movie, but he only had a small part.

The second day, I went on the Big Circuit of temples. These temples were a little farther apart, and there was a lot more travel by tuk-tuk in between the sites. The sites were also, for the most part, a lot smaller than the temples that I visited the day before, except for the first temple, Preah Khan Temple. But the subsequent sites of the day were not very big. The next site was Neak Pean, which was just a series of small shrines surrounded by water. Most of the paths were not open to the public; I went down one path that was apparently closed but marked ambiguously (there was a sign that indicated no entry, but it was not near the path, so I took the expansive interpretation and went down the path), and was immediately told to come back by park employees. Ta Som, East Mebon, and Pre Rup were the other sites I visited on this day, and they were much smaller than the other temples.

On the third day of my three-day pass into Angkor Archaeological Park, I went to some temples that were very far apart, so most of the day consisted of travel. The first temple I saw was Banteay Srai, which is also known as the "Women's Temple." Then there was about an hour and a half tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea Temple, which was far outside Angkor Archaeological Park, and was within its own park. This was probably the temple that was restored the least, and was filled with stone rubble and invasive huge trees, and they allowed much more climbing on the rubble than the other temples. Then it was back to Angkor Archaeological Park for the temples in the Roluos Group, which are the oldest temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. The Lolei Temples were the first ones of the group that I visited, and they are the ones undergoing the most extensive renovation. They were built within two layers of walls, each area raised up from the last, and there was an amalgam of ancient and newer buildings on the site. Then I saw Preah Ko and Bakong Temples, which were close by. This was the longest day of temple viewing because of all the travel to get to these remote sites, but not the longest day of actual temple visits.

After the three days of temple visits, I just spent the rest of my time there wandering around the town of Siem Reap before flying back to Saigon. This time I got a private room rather than a hostel so I could take apart my packs and re-pack them thoroughly, and get rid of some stuff (unfortunately, I didn't get rid of enough stuff to keep my main backpack from nearly bursting at the seams, so I'll have to revisit this project soon).