A Glimmer of Hope in Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row…

– John McCrae

This year marks the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War, the war to end all wars.

Sadly the Great War was not the conclusion of hostilities but rather the beginning of one of, if not the bloodiest centuries in World History.

The next four years will see major battles remembered, historical debates reignite, blame and finger-pointing intensify, because for many countries WWI was a defining point in their history.

Gallipoli, the Somme and Flanders are all spoken with a deep-seated respect and reverence as thousands laid down their lives, often in appalling conditions fighting a war that no one could comprehend but felt compelled to participate in.

The battles in Flanders were some of the worst, soldiers fighting in waist deep mud and freezing conditions during the winters of 1915-1917.

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

The Iper Cloth Hall, home to the Flanders Fields Museum

However during this dark time, a ray of light, a glimmer of hope sprang from the small town of Poperinge. The village is situated about 12 km from the town of Ypres, today know as Iper and during the war as ‘Wipers’ by the Commonwealth forces.

The front facade of Talbot House

The front facade of Talbot House

This glimmer of hope was called Talbot House. Talbot house was founded as a ‘every mans’ club by army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton. It was set up without discrimination of rank as a respite from the horrors of war. Men could shower and sleep in a clean bed often for the first time in months. Even if only for a short time, Talbot house was designed to allow men to forget the war and atrocities associated it, like Tubby Clayton said, it was “An Oasis in a World gone mad”.

 

Talbot House from the rear gardens

Talbot House from the rear gardens

Now days Talbot House is not only a museum but also a guest house with nine rooms in the original building and three rooms in the garden block. Staying at Talbot House truly gives you a very unique experience and a historical link to your Battlefields visit. The staff are very friendly and incredibly knowledgable and more than happy to sit down with you and help you plan your visit to the surrounding sites. Their hints, tips and advice all designed to ensure you get the most from your visit of the region, and it certainly helps getting some insider knowledge of out of the way places, monuments and cemeteries.

Talbot House is a great base to explore the region. From Poperinge you can easily visit the Tyne Cot Cemetary, largest in the region, or the Canadian Memorial commemorating the first use of mustard gas. Not far from Poperinge are some intact German trenches where Adolf Hitler served and was almost captured by Canadian troops and numerous other cemeteries and monuments.

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

One of the many Commonwealth War Graves around Poperinge

Most convenient of all is the proximity to Iper which houses the stunning In Flanders Fields Museum and the famous Menin Gate. No visit to the region is complete without attending the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. At around 8:00pm every evening the Last Post has been played uninterrupted, (except during the Second World War) since 1928 and is an absolute must if in the area.

The Menin Gate in Iper with 54,896 missing soldiers names engraved on it

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

Vancouver Corner Memorial to the first ever mustard gas attack

The next four years will be a sombre time for reflection and remembrance for the thousands of lives lost many of which perished in the mud of Flanders Fields. However while it is important to remember the tragedy that was the Great War, we should also remember men like Neville Talbot and Tubby Clayton and celebrate what they did to help alleviate the suffering of those weary soldiers. By basing yourself in Talbot House you are honouring their efforts, in a special way you are remembering those who fought and most importantly, you are keeping this amazing piece of history alive.

– Dean

“In all my experience I have never known a place so vital to morale as Talbot House”

– General Sir Herbert Plumer, 1928

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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.

The Butler did it… Or did he? 

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson

Well Ralph was not wrong! When locals and tourists alike discuss the London West End theatre scene, there is one performance that towers above all. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

Murder at The Mousetrap

Murder at The Mousetrap

Now this is not because of its incredible sets or the stunning choreography of an Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece, but for the plays sheer longevity.

This year The Mousetrap celebrates 62 years of performing in London.  This makes it the longest running play, not only in the West End but the entire World!

So with this in mind and as we continue to discover our amazing home town we decided it was time to pay our respects to this London institution.

Within minutes of the theatre darkening and the cast of characters being introduced, you could feel the tension and mystery build as if a thick cloud had descended over you. As with any Agatha Christie story The Mousetrap cast consists of an assortment of misfits and shady types, all with a hint of murder in their eye.

A worthy commemoration in the heart of the London theatre district

A worthy commemoration in the heart of the London theatre district

The first half builds up to its intriguing peak, and like any good soap opera or drama series you are left hanging as the curtains fall and the theatre ice cream sellers tempt you with their treats for you to ponder over.  As you see the ‘to be continued’ sign, you hear  your mind start whispering different conspiracy theories.

Unlike the good natured musicals that normally appear in the west end, intermission at The Mousetrap is totally different. Groups huddle together discussing in hushed tones who the likely murderer is and the case for and against each of the characters. As if accomplices to the murder itself, there are uneasy looks around the theatre, suspicious stares and the occasional “it has to xxx” wafting over the audience. The intermission almost adds to the rising intensity with the dark cloud of murder hanging over Monk Manor (the setting).  With ice creams finished, everyone quietly and watchfully takes their seat to see whodunit.

The second set is faster paced and even more tense than the first, with you sitting on the edge of your seat until the murder is revealed. Whodunit? Well we can’t say (and if we could, we wouldn’t as we want you to go and find out for yourself!).  At the conclusion of the performance the audience is sworn to secrecy to ensure the mystery of The Mousetrap lives on, but I can tell you it wasn’t the Butler!

Sure there are better shows out there, larger sets, bigger names and famous songs but there is something mesmerising about The Mousetrap. Others have tried, but no one had succeeded.   In Agatha Christies’s case she ‘built the better mousetrap’ and 62 years and over 25,000 performances proves that!

– Dean

The Mousetrap performs Monday to Saturday at 19:30 in Martins Theatre and afternoon performances on Tuesday (15:00) and Saturday (16:00).  Click here for more details. 

 

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 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

 

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

Chapter Five – Breathtaking Tibet.

Tibet.  A region of the World that sparks so much passion, support, angst, anger, controversy… I could go on.  The history here is so recent, and most people are aware that currently it is not a Country in its own right – rather a region controversially under Chinese rule.  Before I start, I should add that this is probably the most difficult of all the blogs we have written.  Not because of our experiences (in fact it is one of our favourite regions to date) but more that we didn’t want to say or write the wrong thing as the situation in the whole area is so delicate.  We did the ‘paper, rock, scissors’ as to who would write it – and you got me!

There really are two trains of thought about visiting Tibet.  Some people firmly think that you shouldn’t go, for fear of supporting the Chinese regime, thus boycotting for Political reasons.  Others think you should go to support the local people and learn more about their culture, which is incredibly different to that of the Chinese.  We chose the latter – choosing to support the locals and make our own mind up.  Even this decision of ours was met with some negative re-tweets of some of our Twitter posts – proving how emotive this region is.  There is so much to say about the political situation, but that’s not what this blog is about.  Slowly (actually very quickly) Chinese development is encroaching on the traditional Tibetan ways, and for us it was a privilege to visit and see things as they are now.  Leaving the politics aside, this is a land of big skies, beautiful landscapes and incredibly incredibly warm hearted people.  So this is our account of a beautiful part of the World.

You will already have read Dean’s tales of travelling to Tibet by high altitude train.  It had been nail-biting waiting to get our permits.  Currently Chines rules state that you must travel through the region ‘in a group’, ‘with a guide’ and ‘with a permit’.  We might have been a group of two, but that still counted!  So as we got off the train, we were met by our guide Tashi.  Tashi was, quite simply, one of the best local guides we have ever had.  He greeted us with welcome scarves and pressies and settled us in.  We knew instantly it was going to be a good ten days.

We spent the first four days acclimatising in Lhasa.  At well over 3000m its high and an assault on all your senses!  Whilst the air was thin we were rewarded with amazing BIG blue skies.  There was plenty to do in Lhasa so it really was no hardship to be there.  On day one we headed out to the Jokhang Temple.  This is the key central site in Lhasa, and the site of great pilgrimage for Tibet’s largely Buddhist population.  As it was winter time we were assured it was a great time to see the Pilgrims as they had travelled far and wide to be there (something that they don’t do as much in summer as they are busy with their farms).  Together, day and night, they walk several ‘Kora’ (circuits) around various sites and religious buildings in the city.  The Kora around Jokhang Temple was just over 1km long and fascinating.  As soon as you walked up to it you couldn’t help but join in, and before you knew it, you had walked several circumnavigations of the site with the locals!!!  Tashi took us into the temple.  On the way in he explained what all the people were doing outside.  Quite simply it appeared like they were repeatedly throwing themselves on the ground.  This practice of ‘prostrating’ is a form of prayer, and is done repeatedly and really showed their dedication to their religion.   Later on we would even see pilgrims prostrating alongside the road, all the way from a-b on journeys that would take up to a year.  That really is dedication!  Most of the people we saw outside would do this all day.  Like all the Temples we saw, Jokhang was quite fascinating inside as well as our and was very powerful, with the many images of Buddha.  What struck me, and was almost moving, was to see the locals queuing for hours on end to make their offerings of money, barley, and most importantly yak butter milk (poured into big candle like vats that burnt away silently).  Although Tashi said in Buddhism you are not supposed to have favorites, mine was clearly the Compassionate Buddha.  An image that I started recognising everywhere!

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The next day took us out to the World famous Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama.  Many hope and pray he will one day return, but for now he lives in India.  The Palace visit was the first time we had really exerted ourselves.  It involved climbing 13 floors up over uneven steps but we were rewarded with fabulous views.  This doesn’t sound much but at over 3000m it makes you feel very unfit!!  The many rooms in the Palace were well worth the effort and it was just such a wonderful building.  Like with the Jokhang Palace the day before, perhaps the best bit of the experience was getting out and in with the locals and seeming them on their pilgrim trail making their offerings.  There were so few tourists there, it felt like a real privilege to be part of their experience.

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

The third and four days were spent exploring other temples.  I won’t go into every one as you will be asleep, but needless to say we had our first experience of crossing a high mountain pass.  Here it is traditional to hang prayer flags over the road.  As we crossed underneath the red, blue, white, yellow and green flags flapped in the breeze, bringing luck and fortune to all those who had strung them and protecting those who passed beneath.  They were to become a familiar site and one we would never tire of.  In fact we even have some to bring home!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Soon it was time to leave the city.  With Sonamdorje (or Dorje for short) at the wheel, Tashi, Dean and I were in safe hands!  We headed out of the city and started our journey along the famous Friendship Highway – last stop the Nepalese border.  What a journey it was going to be.  We were greeted with one of the highlights of the trip – views over Yamdrok-tso Lake – which translates into ‘Turquoise Lake’.  The colour of it was certainly that and it was just stunning.  We first saw it as we went over the mountain pass, but we then dropped down and followed it round, even dipping a finger in at one point.  Sorry Mum – I didn’t paddle as it was freezing (and it’s sacred so no swimming allowed)!!

Yamdrak-tso Lake - stunning

Yamdrok-tso Lake – stunning

The next few days were spent visiting several temples and sites in Shigatse, Gyantse and the surrounding areas.  Each and every one was different and we didn’t once tire or get ‘templed out’.  Each had their own appeal and style and between us we have some amazing photos.  In Gyantse we visited one called the Gyantse Kumbum which is very like some temples that are found in Nepal (with the eyes) so it was a nice introduction.  After that we took a wander through the back streets of old town Gyantse, where you find the best examples of traditional Tibetan life.  Again the generosity of the people shone through as one man invited us into his home to have a look around.  It was fascinating, but we didn’t dare look round the corner where the goat heads were hung!  We then carried on walking down the street, dodging the ‘doggy bombs’ on the floor and walking past the cattle ‘parked’ outside each resident’s house.  The style of the houses was beautiful, and even though it was dirty in parts, it had such character.  On our journey we also went to Samding Monastery – a nunnery on the banks of Yamdrok-tso Lake (the Turquoise Lake).  The ladies were busy at work and I would argue it was cleaner J  Nuns and Monks are on the same level in Buddhism, they just can’t stay together.  If I had to be a Nun then I would pick there!

Now when you travel for any great length of time, there has to be ups and downs.  We have loved travelling in winter.  It has been cold, but largely we have been rewarded by being one of few tourists in the area.  However we were about to stumble across our first big disappointment and downside of travel through the region at this time of year.  We had heard that Everest Base Camp (on the Tibetan side) was closed, however the Government had granted us access on our main permit, so we were hopeful we could get there.  In Tibet, to travel you don’t just need one permit, you need many!  When we were 90km from Everest Tashi and Dorje went off to apply for the necessary main Base Camp permit which had to be done locally.  We were all geared up to go when there was a knock on the door.  Tashi telling us that sadly it was indeed all closed and there was nothing he or the company could do to get us there.  There simply weren’t the Chinese guards on the checkpoints, and as we had learnt checkpoints are everywhere and there is no way through them except with the right paperwork.  It was disappointing but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had at least seen Everest from a distance that day, which was better than nothing.  Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t work out as planned but that night it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.  It has made us vow to come back sooner rather than later to trek to Base Camp on the Nepali side (and maybe visit Tibet again!).

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

We picked ourselves up and enjoyed the rest of the journey.  Throughout the trip we had, for a large part of the time, felt like we were driving on top of the World.  There were mountain ranges (both snow-capped and incredibly dry) for most of the time, even surrounding the cities.  Tashi duly pointed them out and gave us manageable amounts of history and information.  Meanwhile Dorje gave us two of his CDs as we loved them.  Tibetan generosity at its best.  As I’ve said before (but it’s worth mentioning again!) the Tibetan skies were just so huge.  You could almost see the curvature of the Earth! We loved watching the view change out of the window and the last day was no exception.  We stopped at the top of a pass over 5000m and then slowly descended down a zig zag of switchbacks and passes.  Slowly the trees began to appear again.  We felt less and less like we were in Tibet, but were excited about our next adventure.

There is a wonderful quote by Mother Theresa, “Peace begins with a smile” and the Tibetan people sure know the meaning of this.  We were a fascination everywhere we went.  People looked at us inquisitively, and then we simply had to say ‘Tashi Dalek’ (hello) and they would break into this almighty grin.  They were so pleased to welcome us and this made the decision to come all the more worthwhile.  There is a sadness that extends over the Tibetans, but underneath they are such beautiful people and we fell so lucky to have visited now.

I have never ever had a guide that has made me feel so privileged to be able to travel.  Current Chinese Policy states that Tashi, as a Lhasa resident, has to wait until he is 60 before he can even apply for a Chinese passport and even travel within China (without passport) is severely limited with lots of clauses and restrictions.  It’s just the way it is, but he was so very well read and versed on other Countries in the World.  There we were travelling the World and our wonderful guide isn’t even able to travel freely within China, never mind venture out into the big wide World that he is so desperate to explore.  There is nothing more humbling than that.  One of those moments that makes you feel very lucky to have been born where we were.

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

Tibet – you are simply amazing.  Thank you.

–  Natalie

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border