The Magic and Wonder of Prague’s Charles Bridge

The ancient splendour and beauty of Prague, a city beyond compare, left an impression on my imagination that will never fade

–       Richard Wagner

Walking the Castle District or the Old Town of Prague is like walking through the streets of a fairy tale. Colourful facades, a stunning mix of architectural styles it is easy to see why the city is the Central European Hollywood. Every turn leads down a picturesque alley way or beautiful square that could easily be the scene from a movie. In fact over the years Prague has starred in Mission Impossible, XXX, Amadeus, Ghost Protocol and Casino Royale but to name a few.

Somehow every visitor to Prague is drawn to one spot in particular, as if by a force of gravity, and that spot is the majestic Charles Bridge.

Charles Bridge as seen from the River

Charles Bridge as seen from the River

Now like any good fairy tale or folk story the Charles Bridge is shrouded in myth and legend, much like the thick mists that can envelope the bridge itself during winter. This fact and fiction is easily blurred when talking about Prague’s tourist showstopper.

Charles Bridge has two faces, the hustle, bustle and energy of the day and the magical and mysterious by night. During the day the bridge is packed. Tourists and locals alike jostle for position for that perfect photo of the Castle, or peruse the myriad of artists plying their wares. You will find hand made jewellery; caricature artists and some amazing painters and photographers lined either side eager to help you spend money. Not only that but it is not uncommon to find jazz bands, Dixie bands and soloists all eagerly entertaining passers by hoping for a generous coin or two thrown into their hat.

Artistic creations  galore adorne the bridge by day

Artistic creations galore adorne the bridge by day

At night however the bridge really comes alive. Towering over the bridge the illuminated Castle looks more like a giant painting or film set than the seat of the Czech Government. The towers and statues illuminated at night throw an eerie light over the bridge and you can feel the myths and legends enveloping you from all sides. While the Charles Bridge is great fun during the day to get a real sense of the true magic of the bridge you must visit it at night.

Prague Castle at night from Charles Bridge

Prague Castle at night from Charles Bridge

Now as we said what is fact and what is fiction can be hard to separate in Prague but as the saying goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ here are a couple of our favourites and the most famous ones.

First is the construction date, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was not only devoutly religious but also believed heavily in numerology. So to construct the bridge he consulted his numerologists to find the perfect date to lay the foundation stone. That date? The year 1357, 9th day of the 7th month at 5:31 am in the morning, or a pyramid of odd numbers

9

7   7

5         5

3                 3

1                       1

Fact or Fiction? Actually fact!

Second legend states that as the bridge was being built a number of the arches would continually collapse when one day there was a huge crash of thunder and strike of lightening and the devil (who thanks to the Simpsons will forever look like Ned Flanders for me) appeared and offered to help. The Devil promised to help the young architect complete the bridge on the provision the first soul to cross it was the Devil’s reward. One the day of completion the architect thought he could out smart the Devil and bought a rooster down to the bridge. Little did he know however that while he was mustering up the rooster the Devil had gone to the architect’s home and told his wife that she was desperately needed at the bridge. When the architect arrived at Charles Bridge he saw his wife rushing across the bridge and realised the Devil had won their game of wits!

Fact or Fiction? I think we better say fiction on this one, but the Devil does appear a lot in Central European and Germanic mythology so you never know!

Third legend believes that Charles IV insisted that every village in his Kingdom supply him with a horse cart full of eggs so the egg whites could be used in the mortar to hold the bridge together.

Fact or Fiction? Fact! Egg whites were also used in the construction of St Vitus Cathedral as well. As the story goes one village supplied the Emperor with a cart of boiled eggs. Now if the architect had of released the rooster over the bridge it begs the question, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Poor old Jan of Nepomuk, Patron Saint of Bridges

Poor old Jan of Nepomuk, Patron Saint of Bridges

The final legend relating to Charles Bridge is based around the most famous statue on the bridge, that of Jan of Nepomuk. He was the court priest to Wenceslas IV the son of Charles. Wenceslas was a quite a horrible man, he would often walk around the markets of Prague in disguise and if a merchant sold him under weight good he would have the merchant nailed to his scales, and he allegedly had a chef roasted alive one evening for ruining his dinner!

Now Wenceslas confronted Jan and demanded to know what the Queen had told him during her confession. Jan refused and as punishment the King had Jan’s tongue cut out, he was tied up in a sack and was thrown off the Charles Bridge into the heaving Vltava River below! Jan’s body then floated in the same spot for several days and when it sank a ring or crown of five stars circled the water where his body disappeared. Amazingly Jan of Nepomuk is now the Patron Saint of Bridges!

 

Relief one, rub for good luck

Relief one, rub for good luck

 

Relief two, rub to return to Prague

Relief two, rub to return to Prague

The Charles Bridge’s most famous statue is of Jan and below it are two reliefs. The one on the left shows a solider patting a dog and represents loyalty and the relief on the right shows Jan being thrown into the river. Rubbing the relief of the solider is supposed to bring you good luck and rubbing the relief of Jan being thrown from the bridge means you will return to Prague. A little further down the bridge is a small iron framework with a depiction of Jan floating below the bridge. This is the exact point where he was thrown to his death; it is also good luck to rub this one.

The site where Jan was thrown to his watery grave

The site where Jan was thrown to his watery grave

Fact or Fiction? Well a little bit of both. Jan was thrown to his death off Charles Bridge but it is believed because the Kind didn’t agree with the new Archbishop Jan was going to appoint. Lets be honest, the confession story is far more exciting.

There are many more myths and legends about the bridge but also about Prague itself. The foundation of the city, the Astronomical Clock in the Old town are all steeped in scurrilous rumours, magical stories some with a hint of truth but many passed down from generation to generation from medieval times.

The famous Astronomical Clock, also surrounded by myth and legend

The famous Astronomical Clock, also surrounded by myth and legend

One thing is for sure, like Richard Wagner said the legends of Prague and experiencing Charles Bridge in all its glory is something you will never forget.

Do you have a favourite myth or legend of Prague? If so leave a comment or link below.

Melbourne: Seeing your home town differently

Having lived and worked in Europe for the past 11 years, married to Natalie and armed with my UK Residence Permit I guess I would now be considered to be an ex-pat.

While I am lucky enough to live in one of the Worlds most amazing cities, London, a part of me will always call Melbourne home.It is only when you live away from, and then return, do you truly appreciate your home town.

Working in Europe I always wondered if Parisians strolled down the Champs Élysées and gave the Arc d’Triompe a second thought, or as the Romans wizz past the Colosseum on their Vespas they realised what an amazing piece of history their city had, even if Londoners appreciated having the greatest public transport system in the world, the Tube? (I can tell you the Londoners don’t!).

So over the last few years I have had the opportunity to experience Melbourne in a different light, I have had the chance to be a tourist in my home town.

Melbourne's Flinders Street Station

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station

Put simply, I love Melbourne, it really is the best city in Australia. OK, city rivalries aside, Melbourne doesn’t have the ‘Big Ticket’ wow factors like Sydney does, such as the Bridge, Opera House and Bondi, and probably needs a little more exploration but once you do it is an incredible city.

One thing Melbourne is famous for is its cafe scene and it’s love affair with coffee. We can thank the Italian immigrants after WWII for really kick-starting this. One of the best places to experience Melbourne’s cafe culture is in Degraves Street. A small little pedestrian alleyway running between Flinders and Collins streets, it is filled with outdoor cafés and has an amazing energy and ultra cool vibe.

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

The Yarra River is the heart and soul of Melbourne and a stroll from Flinders Street Station down to the Casino and docklands area is also a must. Great restaurants, quirky bars and modern art awaits you, but it also gives you a great feel for Melbourne’s redevelopment over the last 20 years.

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Now if you are more adventurous you can head out to various suburbs for a different taste of Melbourne. Carlton is the ‘Italian’ district and Lygon Street plays home to some of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Or perhaps down to St Kilda for some city beach chill time. Every inner suburb has a different feel and is famous for something different, and only after exploring a few of them do you truly understand what Melbourne is all about.

Of course Melbourne is also famous for its love of sport and if you are lucky enough to visit during a major event you quickly learn Melbourne loves sport almost as much as coffee!! We finish our visit coinciding with the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix – one of the jewels in the city’s sporting crown. Much like Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams, in Melbourne, if you host it, they will come! In fact half of Melbourne will still turn up to watch a sport they know nothing about.

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Great shopping and great museums also contribute to the Melbourne experience. Every time I visit now I see something different and I have a greater appreciation for my home town. It makes me want to get out and explore London more, a promise Natalie and I have made repeatedly on this trip.

Now while I love Melbourne I am the first to admit it is not perfect, but no city is. Apart from the trams, in particular the Circle Line Tram which does a loop around the city and is free, yes free, ask any Melbournian and they will tell you the  public transport system is not great, (Londoners take note). Australia, not just Melbourne in particular is very expensive for tourists but these are small considerations. It is no wonder that Melbourne is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Melbourne's famous old trams

Melbourne’s famous old trams

If you have never been a tourist in your home town get out there and explore, visit the famous sites, eat at the famous cafés and restaurants, go and see that show or museum you have always said you would, who knows, you might just discover you live (or have lived) in a pretty incredible city and you never knew it!

– Dean

Chapter 11: Melbourne, The In-laws and the Great Outdoors

Touchdown!

We made it, Melbourne, our furthest away point and the whole reason for our overland adventure was now a reality. Landing in Melbourne felt like a world away from what we had experienced through Myanmar, India, Nepal, Tibet and so on.

The sign at Melbourne Airport

The sign at Melbourne Airport

Despite our excitement about arriving back in Australia there was also a twinge of sadness. Australia was our penultimate destination, our target to reach by any means possible and here we were. So our excitement was tempered by the fact that in a few short weeks we will be back to normal life, well as normal as it gets for us! However this was not going to stop us having an awesome couple of weeks.

While I grew up in Melbourne, it is no longer ‘home’ ever since my folks sold up and retired down to Torquay. Put simply if there is a better place in the state of Victoria to live it hasn’t been found yet. At the beginning of The Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most stunning coastal drives, a short drive to the world famous Bells Beach, Torquay was the perfect spot for us to chill and relax for a few days after our epic adventure. Walks along the beach, a glass of red on the balcony looking for kangaroos, does life get any better?

Torquay front beach

Torquay front beach

Of course our visit to Oz wouldn’t be us if we didn’t try and cram as much into a brief visit as possible. This included catching up with awesome friends Matt, Kirsty and my favourite kids in the world and spending a few days in Melbourne itself.

I love Melbourne, it is such a vibrant and cool city. Natalie and I have developed a routine in Melbourne which revolves around shopping, particularly the outlet stores near the Crown Casino and Docklands area, walks along the river and normally a drink in Federation Square. We may do the same thing everytime we visit but it is the sense of familiarity we love.

This time however we had one important thing to do, and that was to pick up Natalie’s parents from the airport. They were flying out for our wedding party and it was a surreal experience.

Natalie’s parents help us out an awful lot, particularly with airport drop offs and pick ups and not to forget her Mum’s mercy dash to Paris airport with my newly issued residence permit so I could return to the UK after our honeymoon!

So patiently we waited, welcome sign in hand hardly believing this moment had come. If you have never experienced it, it’s quite a strange feeling picking up your parents or friends from home in another country.

Waiting for Natalie's parents to arrive

Waiting for Natalie’s parents to arrive

After a late night arrival the following morning we hit up one of Melbourne’s famous lane ways for breakfast before I returned to Torquay and Natalie spent the next day and a half exploring Melbourne with her folks.  They rode the free Circle Tram, had dinner on the Colonial Tram Car as well as going up the 88 floors to the Eureka Sky Deck viewing platform and they seemed to really enjoy catching up and re-living old haunts!

The Cole family’s arrival in Torquay was a chance for everyone to catch up, consume a little too much wine, and explore the surf coast region as we prepared for our Wedding Party.

It’s been great having both families together again and also wonderful that Natalie’s parents can see where I grew up and where we spend our time down here in Australia. Week one in Oz has been great and with dawn breaking on Wedding Party day we couldn’t wait to catch up with all our friends and family.

Australia, it’s good to be home!

– Dean

Chapter Nine: Treasures of Myanmar – The Road to Mandalay

One country that is on all the ‘Top Destinations of 2014’ lists and a country that is literally buzzing within traveller circles is Myanmar. Having only reopened to tourism about four years ago and with tourist numbers soaring, now is the time to visit. With that in mind, and wanting to visit Myanmar before tourism gets too commercial, it was one destination that had really excited us in the planning phase of this trip.

A few important things to note, firstly credit cards are not accepted almost anywhere in Myanmar, (with a very few exceptions) international ATM cards are only accepted by cash machines in a few places outside the capital of Yangon, (thankfully this is on the increase though), and entrances for historical and cultural sites must be paid in either local currency or US Dollars, and US Dollars must be pristine, almost as if they had just been printed. This certainly means you must have a good grip on your finances and adds another important dimension to trip planning throughout the country.

As Natalie had mentioned in her Hot Air Ballooning Blog, our first destination was the so called Jewel in the Tourism crown on Myanmar, Bagan. The Bagan Archaeological Zone consists of over 2,200 red brick stupas and temples scattered over the country side. Clive our balloon pilot had told us that originally there was an estimated 6,000 but over the centuries many had been destroyed, looted or damaged from earthquakes and invaders. Covering an area of 42 square kilometres for most of your explorations you can be excused for thinking you were the only people there. Most visitors head to Ananda, Sulamani, Shwesandaw and Dhammayangyi. However we liked the smaller complexes of temples. Bunched together these small red brick pagoda made you feel like Indiana Jones searching for buried treasure or uncovering a new site  for the first time. In fact the whole Bagan region felt like it belonged in some Hollywood adventure movie.

Some of Bagan's Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Some of Bagan’s Pagoda soaring over the landscape

Unlike the rest of Asia, the rickshaw has not really taken off in Myanmar, meaning the easiest way to explore Bagan was by something called an E-bike. Not quite a push bike and not quite a scooter, these bikes had pedals (which you only used if the bike ran out of juice) and ran on a small battery reaching an estimated top speed of about 15 kmh. Though not designed for it they are great for off roading and all throughout Bagan you could hear the hum of the electric bike followed by the rattle and shake of said bike being taken some-place it was not meant to go.

Natalie modelling our 'off road' E-bike

Natalie modelling our ‘off road’ E-bike

Each day in Bagan culminated in finding an elevated vantage point for sunset. The best time to view the temples is early morning and the two hours before sunset. As the sun dips in the sky the temples and pagoda light up a fiery red colour, a striking contrast to the green surrounding them and the brilliant blue skies. Everyone in Bagan has the same idea though, which means there is little hope to find a secluded temple top to watch the sun go down, but regardless watching the sun drop behind the hills silhouetting the many temples is one of Myanmar’s must do experiences.

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

One of our favourite temples in Bagan

Sunset over the temples

Sunset over the temples

We also made the half day journey out to visit Mount Popa. An extinct volcano with a monastery complex on top, Mt Popa was a great way to break up visiting all the temples around Bagan. There is a catch though, and that is the 777 steps you must walk up barefoot to the summit. Throughout Myanmar, whenever you visit a religious site it is shoes off, regardless of how hot, sandy dusty, muddy or covered in bird droppings that site is, tradition states you must remove your shoes. Needless to say our ‘Western Feet’ have at times protested and are looking forward to reaching Australia for some much needed love and attention!

From Bagan it was then off to Mandalay, one of Myanmar’s many former capital cities. Unlike Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Road to Mandalay’, we chose to take a boat. Public transport in Myanmar is not really set up for tourism but set up to cater for the locals. Most intercity transportation is either in rather uncomfortable pickup trucks where as many people as possible are rammed in tightly together or overnight coaches that depart and arrive at particularly inconvenient times, as one local said, ‘Myanmar people would never miss a day of work to travel intercity, they prefer to do it at night, oh, and the buses don’t overheat as much!’.

So the boat seemed to be our logical choice. An 11 hour journey, we were excited to see some of the rural life along the river. We were met by a stunning sunrise just after the boat departed but that was about as good as it got. Before we knew it the weather closed in and the majority of the day we were subjected to a huge down pour. As we approached Mandalay in the late afternoon it felt like the rain was getting worse, or perhaps it was because we knew we would soon be getting off. We trudged off the boat into the back of a pickup truck for the short drive to our chosen guesthouse, soaking wet we arrived, and despite the horrible weather we were surprisingly happy as it was the first real full day of rain we had experienced in months.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and certainly had a big city feel after the relative quietness of Bagan. Almost dead flat it was easy to explore on push bike and were introduced to some of the country’s different road rules. Firstly they drive right hand drive cars on the right hand side of the road, not easy when you are overtaking, and secondly, Mandalay had hardly any traffic lights. Four way intersections were a free for all, you approach, look around and if you think you can go, you go, to be honest, even if you don’t think you can, you go! We visited a number of famous monasteries and temples, including the most famous, the Mahamuni Paya complex. Here males dab gold leaf onto a huge statue of Buddha giving it a lumpy look. Various religious sites or inner most sanctums are off limits to females, so Natalie dispatched me with numerous cameras and phones to snap the photos we have. We also visited the ‘Gold Pounders’ of Mandalay. These muscle bound locals smack small leather books filled with sheets of gold for up to six hours to produce wafer thin gold leaf for people to apply on various Buddha images and religious icons throughout the country. Certainly a hard way to make a living. Never have we seen so much gold everywhere as we have in Myanmar!

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

Monks applying gold leaf to the image of Buddha in Mandalay

The Gold Pounders in action

The Gold Pounders in action

Our second day was spent visiting the various sites around outer Mandalay, including a famous monastery in the Amarapura district. Here the 1000 monks inhabiting the monastery all line up at 11:00 to receive their rice and fruit. The main walkway is chock full of tourists on either side and as the monks silently march in single file down to the dining hall all you can hear is the beeping and clicking of cameras. In fact many tourists were angrily barking at each other and muscling each other to get the best vantage point! While interesting Natalie and I could not help but feel sorry for the monks, it was almost like being in a Buddhist zoo, with the monks being put on show or paraded for the tourists to take their photos. While I enjoyed the experience of seeing the inner workings of a Monastery, next time I think I would avoid it.

We also visited the neighbourhood of Sagaing a lovely green hilly area dotted with numerous golden Stupa and the small ancient village of Inwa. We finished the day off with sunset over the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world and one of the symbols of Myanmar.

Natalie in the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

Natalie in the botanic gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

To break up our time in Mandalay we also spent a day out in the colonial village of Pyin Oo Lwin. Set up by the British as an escape from Mandalay’s stifling heat, it is now famous for arguably the best manicured botanic gardens in South East Asia. The gardens were beautiful, but the highlights were firstly seeing a huge motorcade of chanting monks and nuns driving down the main street ahead of a truck relocating a huge image of Buddha. People were singing, clapping and waving flags as the image trundled past. Secondly, the journey back to Mandalay was a real highlight. We jumped into a share taxi and headed out to an enormous military base. We drove past barracks and parade grounds, saw soldiers marching and doing martial arts and had a real feeling of should we be here? We arrived out to a small monastery attached to the base where an elderly monk came out and apologised for running late, did we mind waiting for him? Of course not.

After about half an hour he came out with two novice monks, both only about five or six years old. While the senior monk jumped in the front seat the two boys sat in the back with us. They were loads of fun, one we were told was very naughty, but they were as fascinated with us as we with them. This was particularly the case when the cameras came out, taking selfies on the iPhone they loved the fact they could see themselves. At one point as the taxi was flying down the hill the boys were making car noises and Natalie threw in the sound of screeching tyres and brakes and the boys thought this was hilarious.  Arriving back to Mandalay we said goodbye to our new friends and considered ourselves so lucky to have shared the taxi with them. This was a much more real experience than the touristy ‘zoo’ we had experienced the day before, sometimes when you travel you just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our taxi buddies posing for a selfie

Our final day in Mandalay was filled with a boat ride to the village of Mingun to see their various pagoda, including the ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda, and a final run around Mandalay to visit a few last sites we wanted to see.

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

The stunning white pagoda in Mingun

Myanmar is known as the ‘Golden Land’ and it is easy to see why. With stunning gold gilded pagoda dotting the landscape and some of the friendliest people anywhere in the world it truly is a special place and we were so glad we visited now before that mass influx of tourism and tourism money changes the cities but also the people. Our first half of our journey had been incredible and we had a feeling the second half was going to be just as amazing.

– Dean

 

Chapter Six: The Mighty Himalayas, Nepal and the Soap Opera of Nepali Buses

As we descended down the Friendship Highway, our journey into Nepal was about to begin.  We said our goodbyes to Tashi and Dorje, before crossing over the Friendship Bridge and completing the almost too easy process of buying our Nepal visa and being stamped in.  We were here – a major tick for us both as Nepal is a country we had both wanted to visit for a while.

First waterfalls in Nepal

First waterfalls in Nepal

We set off and a few hours later ended up in Bhaktapur – an old medieval city that these days almost sits on the outskirts of Kathmandu.  It is widely accepted as the best preserved example of a medieval city in Nepal and we could see why.  We checked into our hotel and had an amazing view over one of the City’s main town squares.  All of a sudden we were not alone – tourists swarmed over the sights by day, as many came on day trips from the Capital.  Come nightfall, it was much quieter.  We were up early and had a good look around.  Dean’s camera was on overdrive as he snapped everything and anything.  The architecture was totally different to all we had seen already and with the Himalayas in the background it was perfect.

One of the many temples in Bhaktapur

One of the many temples in Bhaktapur

We left our rooftop room behind and made the short journey to Kathmandu – our base for the next five days.  Firstly we had visa matters to deal with.  We headed out by crazy taxi ride to the Myanmar embassy and lodged our application.  We were then without our passports for three days.  A strange feeling really as even though they were in safe hands (and the embassy was so amazingly helpful) our passports were our lifeline to the whole trip and home.  We then set about heading out to see many of the sights.  Durbar Square was our first stop.  We happened to be there for the first time late afternoon, and we went into see the Living Goddess – a small girl who is selected to live and serve her Country until approximately puberty.  She appeared for all of about 10 seconds to look down and see all these tourists staring up at her.  Whilst there are many trappings that come with this role, as she nervously fiddled with her Red Cardigan, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.

As photographing the Goddess is banned, a picture of a picture will have to do!!

As photographing the Goddess is banned, a picture of a picture will have to do!!

We then went out to both Boudhanath Temple and Swayambhunath Temple (the Monkey Temple).  Both were very grand Buddhist temples, quite different from each other, but what they had in common was the numerous prayer flags blowing in the breeze, offerings by pilgrims and the now familiar Nepali ‘eyes’ looking at us from the stupa.  In particular we loved Boudhanath.  As we were there around full moon, there were huge celebrations going on and monks everywhere.  One young monk kept waving and smiling at me.  I asked if I could take his picture and he loved it.  He then hunted us down to wave goodbye on the way out!  As the formalities ended, we followed the kora around in circles a couple more times, marveling in the beauty of the sight.  It really was so impressive and was a photographers dream.

My new friend

My new friend

Boudhanath Temple

Boudhanath Temple

Swayambhunath Temple

Swayambhunath Temple

I have already written about ‘birthdays on the Road’ but this blog would not be complete without mentioning it again!  Whilst some trekking does take place over the winter months, many of the popular tracks are closed or offer unpredictable weather conditions and so we made the decision not to do any serious trekking, but instead to focus on travelling around.  The Himalayas are such a highlight of Nepal; we couldn’t not get as close to them and Everest as possible.  This involved a Mountain flight conveniently timed for my Birthday.  I was treated like Royalty the whole way through, from the cabin steward pointing out mountains to me, to being up in the cockpit as we got as close as possible to Everest (not to mention cake on the way back).  I loved every minute of it.  Such a thrill.  The mountains just looked like meringue peaks and really were such a sight.

Birthday cake by Everest

Birthday cake by Everest

Mt Everest.  This doesn't do it justice as pictures don't capture how blue the sky was!

Mt Everest. This doesn’t do it justice as pictures don’t capture how blue the sky was!

Throughout this trip we have been eating a lot of momos or dumpings.  We prefer them steamed so they are soft packages of goodness!  We decided to spend a morning learning how to make them.  Initially we went to the markets to buy the ingredients, and then we set to.  Not as easy as it looked but the end result was pretty tasty!

Master chefs!

Master chefs!

It was time to move on again and we took our first of the Nepali buses.  This time we were heading out to Chitwan National Park down south.  With 125 tigers we were hopeful to see one, although if the truth be known they are so hard to spot our guide had only seen them six times last year and waking tours are so popular in the park that our changes were slim.   The lodge itself was a little haven by the water, and no sooner had we arrived but we heard calls of ‘Rhino, Rhino’.  Our first sighting only thirty minutes after arriving!  We spent the next couple of days trekking on foot, elephant and in a jeep.  We saw several rhino, species of bird, monkey, crocodiles, deer and wild boar but the elusive tiger evaded us.  There was a small part of me that was quite pleased about this as I didn’t fancy meeting him when I was eye-high to him!  Now I should add here that I did something on this trip that I’m not proud of, was against my principles and still doesn’t sit well.  Back in 2005 having volunteered at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand and seen the damage riding elephants can do to these magnificent creatures I vowed never to ride one again.  In Chitwan elephant safaris are the norm and it just what you do, so reluctantly I went along with it as ultimately the revenue from riding them goes towards their food, but no sooner had we got on Sara our amazing lady, I felt bad.  By then it was too late.  There has been lots of work to improve the conditions for the great creatures in the park, but it still felt wrong and I wanted to get off as quickly as I could.  When we had the choice to do it again later in the afternoon we declined and took the jeep instead.  It was noisy and totally unsuitable for wildlife spotting (although ironically we saw much more despite breaking down twice!) it wasn’t harming anyone.  Lesson learnt, never forget your principles.

Rhino!

Rhino!

Sara

Sara

Our next journey took us down to stunning Pokhara.  The backdrop here is the Annapurna range, and we could not have been blessed with better weather.  The ‘Fishtail Mountain’ was in clear view the whole time we were there.  It is a holy mountain, and as such cannot be climbed.  I had read about two museums that I fancied.  Neither of us are museum people, but going out to these two proved an excellent decision.  The first was the Mountain Museum.  Whilst the exhibits themselves were very good, the jewel in the crown was the view over the Annapurna range.  Stunning and not a cloud in the sky.  The next was the Gurkha museum.  Every year thousands and thousands of Nepalese queue up for the grueling selection process to join the Gurkhas.  Perhaps the most interesting exhibits were the profiles of those Gurkhas who had been awarded the Victoria Cross and the various photographer displays tracing the history of the regiments.

The Annapurna range from the Mountain Museum

The Annapurna range from the Mountain Museum

Pokhara is set along Phewa Lake – the second largest lake in Nepal and makes for an amazing backdrop.  We took a rowing boat out (with mixed success!) and a journey over to the World Peace Pagoda, but one of the key things to do in Pokhara is to ‘fly’ near the mountains as well as landing over and alongside the Lake.  How could we turn down this opportunity to Paraglide?  Dean will tell you more about it separately, but needless to say it was great fun.  You could feel yourself flying like a bird with the hawks soaring nearby and the views were amazing.

As our journey through Nepal drew closer to the end, we took our penultimate bus journey.  We wanted to get form Pokhara to Lumbini, via Bhairawa.  The first leg of this journey should have taken five hours. We selected a journey over a scenic mountain pass and made an early start at 6.30am.  Now at this point I’d like to introduce the characters in this soap opera.  Firstly there was the driver.  He liked to go incognito, wore a hoodie all day and either had a VERY heavy right foot (thank goodness for breaks) or was on a go slow.  He systematically made half the bus sick.  Then there was Mr. Suave.  Mr. Suave only broke a smile once during the day.  It was his job to collect money… oh and above all look cool.  Finally there was bag boy.  He was up and down on the roof like a yoyo storing luggage, as well as hanging out the door trying to muster up more passengers.  He gave the shouts to the driver – one bang on the door to go and two bangs for him to screech to a halt for new passengers….  Now with our knees under our chin and a metal bar between our legs we set off on the five hour journey … or so we thought.  This was supposed to be a long haul bus… instead we stopped (at bag boy’s request) every ten minutes to collect / drop off more passengers.  At times our driver was racing round corners quicker than the best GP driver.  All this resulted in was making several of the passengers’ ill… thankfully I was not one of them.  Eventually we rolled into Bhairawa at 3pm….  Simple maths will tell you that this five hour journey had taken eight and a half hours.  Worst still we weren’t even at our end destination!  We had to catch another journey to Lumbini!  We made it and it was worth the long haul.  The sight where Buddha was born was a little underwhelming, but well worth going to.  The temple complex there (where different nations have their own Buddhist monasteries) was fascinating as each was a reflection on the host country.  We especially like the Myanmar one.  After going to so many Buddhist temples it felt important to go to this sight.

The driver

The driver

Mr Suave

Mr Suave

Bag / stop and go boy - the man who really earn't his money

Bag / stop and go boy – the man who really earn’t his money

A packed ride!

A packed ride!

So our journey through Nepal came to an end.  The mountain scenery here was stunning and whilst we haven’t had the chance to trek this time, we vowed to come back and trek on another occasion.  We have unfinished business at Everest Base Camp so see you sooner rather than later Nepal!

– Natalie

The Sweeney Todd of Kathmandu

Sweeney Todd of Kathmandu I love not shaving. I associate being clean shaven with work so when we travel I tend to ‘forget’ the razor. Sadly in recent times the beard has developed a rather nasty grey streak, to which I like to blame on Natalie and she likes to blame on Trafalgar! The beard was also a major fascination for many locals through China and Tibet. People would stop and stare or point at it and smile. For some reasons many Chinese assumed I was from Spain because of the beard and I was constantly greeted with “Hola Amigo!”. The highlight came when we visited the Summer Palace in Lhasa Tibet, where one little boy was in awe of the mighty testosterone fuelled shaggy beard. We let him touch it and he screwed up his face and ran off!

Do I like it....

Do I like it….

... I'm not sure!

… I’m not sure!

I don’t know exactly when I mentioned it, whether it was after a few vodkas on the Trans Siberian or when I was suffering from a chilli induced brain meltdown somewhere in China but I had promised Natalie I would shave it off for her birthday, and she never let me forget that promise!

Fast forward to Kathmandu and as we walked down one of the Thamel district streets we saw numerous hole in the wall barber shops. As we approached the third or fourth one Natalie suggested that if I was going to shave, now could be the opportunity, and we decided if anything else it would be an experience. This is where we met the Kathmandu Sweeney Todd.

Should have heeded the warning signs

Should have heeded the warning signs

Wearing a blue balaclava ( this should have set off warning signs immediately) he left his client sitting in a chair with a half finished “do” as we discussed, haggled and agreed fora haircut and shave for the equivalent of about three British pounds. Lets be honest I don’t exactly have the fullest head of hair and anything more than that would have been a little excessive. We waited for him to finish with his current client with both of them telling us, “one minute, one I minute” and then I was subjected to one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable and probably most unhygienic experiences of my life. I had already put my body on the line for The Smart Way Round with the ear cleaning incident but this was a whole new level.

Let’s set the scene, the barbershop, if we can call it that, was little more than about two meters wide, the walls were covered in a mixture of mildew, mould, dirt and car exhaust fumes, in fact it reminded me of the setting of the horror movie “Hostel”! Sweeney Todd then grabbed a pair of clippers that still had hair from his last victim on them and proceeded to do a fairly decent job of shaving my head. My biggest concern was the smell of his hands, let’s just say I’m not really sure when he may have last washed them, I think you get the picture!

The head shave was followed by a shave of the beard, a rather traumatic experience for me and one probably met with some joy by Natalie. So after about ten minutes that felt like a lifetime I thought my ordeal was over, but then he started massaging my head! Headlocks, twists, earlobe pulls some random clicking thing started to make me more and more uncomfortable, he then started on my neck and shoulders.

This was followed by twisting my arms in a manor where I thought I was being arrested and my shoulder was about to pop out its socket before Sweeney then yanked and cracked every finger, even the one I broke just over a year ago that has never healed properly!

This was supposed to be a haircut....

This was supposed to be a haircut….

Before Natalie knew what was going on she was also subject to a massage by Sweeney’s mad assistant. Natalie had hurt her neck somehow in Tibet and all I could think was I hope she was ok. As it turned out the impromptu massage actually fixed her neck!

Thankfully the ordeal came to an end and all of a sudden Sweeney Todd could no longer speak English, all he could do was give a sinister evil laugh ( I may be exaggerating here) and write down that we now owed him three times the agreed amount! Sweeney and the mad assistant just looked at us and laughed pointing to the figure. We said no, threw them slightly more than we agreed upon and left feeling slightly violated a little dirty, but sporting a fresh daper new look and a fixed neck for Natalie. We made a B-line for the hotel and once safely in our room Natalie (my normal hairdresser) grabbed some scissors and took care of all the bits Sweeney Todd missed.

Me, Sweeney Todd and the mad assistant

Me, Sweeney Todd and the mad assistant

Finishing off 'the do'

Finishing off ‘the do’

While it does feel great to be cleaned up a bit I do miss the beard, but as we are still only half way to Australia it should be back in all it’s grey flowing form by the 1st of March. If I learnt anything from this experience it is next time, Natalie can put her body on the line for TheSmart Way Round!

– (the new look) Dean

Eating Our Way Around China

Trying the various foods of the countries you visit is one of the real highlights of travel. Certain dishes are synonymous with some countries, such as steak in Argentina, curries in India, (which I can’t wait for), and pasta in Italy. So it was with great excitement, and a little trepidation that we arrived into Beijing.

One thing that Asia has that Russia And Mongolia were lacking was street food. Having both backpacked around South East Asia before we were hoping that China would be the same. For the budget minded traveller or those on a prolonged adventure like us, street food is your best friend.

As we do, once we arrived in Beijing we hit the ground running. On our first night we headed up to the Drum and Bell towers to hunt down a small little bar nestled between the two, have a drink to celebrate arriving at our most Easterly point overland and stare upon the beautifully illuminated towers to toast our success. Well that was the plan.

Sadly for whatever reason the towers were not lit up, but undeterred we stumbled upon a small hole in the wall bar to have a drink. It was about the size of a broom cupboard but at about a pound per beer how could we say no. Luckily the night wasn’t a total loss because not far away was our main aim for the night, a street called “Ghost Street”.

Ghost Street was originally home to a small evening fresh food market, and the silhouettes of the vendors against the lantern lights made them appear like ghosts. Now a days the street is a strip of flashing neon, red lanterns and dozens of restaurants specializing in hot pot cooking. We walked the entire length and the choice was endless! You could tell which restaurants were the good ones as there were huge crowds waiting outside, huddling under gas burners snacking on sunflower seeds while they waited for their table to be called.

We finally settled in for our first local food experience. One thing we had heard about China was how spicy everything was, and that they eat EVERY part of an animal and tonight proved to be the case. The menu contained what Natalie described as ‘every type of offal’, from turtle heads, chicken gizzards and feet, sharks fin and Ox intestines, it was there. You can imagine Natalie’s face with some of the options!! We ordered a tame beef dish and a “dry pot” potato dish. Both came out sizzling hot and smothered in loads and loads of chilies. Now I love spicy food but even for me this was hot! By the end of the night neither of us could feel our mouths and we made mental notes to avoid any dish with the word “spicy” in it in the future.

Following day as we explored the Forbidden City and numerous city parks we our first street vendor experiences. As you leave the Forbidden City you are instantly accosted by hawkers selling everything from tuk-tuk rides, scarves, Chairman Mao figures to all different types of food. It was these hawkers that drew our attention. On the back of a bicycle was a foam pyramid full of skewers of various fruits covered in a type of toffee. I can’t lie, I really wanted to take a photo of this guy’s bike so Natalie bought one as I snapped away a few photos. Wow! These little things became one of our favorites. Kiwi fruit, mandarin, small miniature apple like fruits and cherry tomatoes all dipped in a hard toffee. They would become our staple afternoon snack when sugar levels were low and energy levels flagging in the afternoons.

That evening it was time to splurge. Early on in the journey we had promised ourselves to blow the budget so to speak and go out and celebrate making it from London to Beijing overland, and if you are going to splurge in Beijing it means one thing…. Duck!

Peking duck is the signature dish in Beijing, and there is one restaurant that towers above the rest, the Qianmen Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, established in 1864 and the most famous restaurant of it’s type in the city. Everyone from Fidel Castro, Pele, Sir Edward Heath and George Bush Senior to this night, The Smart Way Round have dined here. The restaurant was not only enormous but also beautiful, and looked like something straight out of the movies. We ordered our half duck with pancakes and eagerly awaited our dinner.
To make the experience all the more special, the restaurant sends a chef out to your table and freshly slices the duck up for you while you watch. The waitress then showed us how to construct your pancake using chopsticks and you are good to go. We persevered but decided that the ‘rolling with your fingers’ technique that we adopt at home is more efficient! While Peking Duck in Beijing is probably very different to what you may have experienced back home we both agreed it was well worth it!

Over the next few days we continued to try various street meals. Every morning for breakfast I would grab a plastic bag of steamed pork dumplings from a vendor near our hostel. Ten dumplings for a pound, what an awesome breakfast! By the end of our time in Beijing he would see us coming and greet us with a smile and my dumplings ready to go. Natalie tried various different things over the days including a deep fried bread stick and a pancake mixed with a fried egg, something that looked almost like french toast and some leaf vegetables. Street food was definitely the way to go.

We also fell upon a fantastic little local hole in the wall restaurant we ate at regularly for dinner. Not only was the food amazingly tasty but also incredibly cheap. A large beer (630ml) was only three Yuan or 30 pence! In fact our dinners were regularly coming in at around three to four pounds a night for two people. We were also quite the attraction, with locals asking for us to pose with them for photos and on our last night the whole family thanking us and saying good bye!

Our next stop on our China adventure was the stunning little town of Pingyao. From the moment we jumped off the train we knew we were in a small town, and it really felt we were off the beaten track. As we walked around the UNESCO Heritage listed streets the restaurant signs advertised ‘Assorted Cats Ears’, ‘Dog Meat Casserole’, ‘Sliced Donkey Meat’ and the ‘Clear Cooked Bulls Penis’. With so much choice we were never going to go hungry. We did try some fantastic corn cobs from a street vendor, bought some tasty apple chips and I tried a pretty forgettable steamed bean curd wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Needless to say, many of these options are slowly turning Natalie more and more vegetarian!

An overnight train has now bought us to the town of Xian, right in the heart of Shanxi Provence. Their specialty here is a 3.8m long noodle served in a soup or broth of your choice. That’s the great thing about Asia, if you are willing to go and look for it and prepared to go local you can enjoy some of the best food you will eat and eat for a fraction of the cost. Too many travellers (and we saw a lot of it in Beijing) only eat in their hostel or hotel because they serve “Western” food, but to get a real flavor of a city or country you have to hit the streets. China has been incredible so far, and one of our next blogs will be about what we have been up to, but for now we are of in search of 3.8m noodles!

Don’t forget to check our Instagram account for photos of our adventures in China. Thanks for the feedback to let us know Instagram is posting to Twitter and Facebook. See you all on The Smart Way Round….

– Dean

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