Monthly Archives: September 2015

17Sep/15
Iceland

Cold place, warm heart. A city break in Reykjavik, Iceland

Written by Kitty Busz

What better way to escape the miserable beginnings of winter in the United Kingdom than disappearing to somewhere uhm, even colder. Although we questioned our sanity as we reflected back on the ridiculously mad middle of the night drive to Luton airport (which ISN’T in London) and emerged outside of the freezing cold tiny airport, Reykjavik is honestly one of the best city breaks I have ever done. This magical island had always attracted my wanderlusting mind, the thought of the crisp, clean air in the land of ice and fire, it’s Europe but so different. I love it.

So, the top experiences in Iceland for those headed there on a city break:

Explore the city of Reykjavik. TExplore the city of Reykjavikhis will be the base of most trips in Iceland, most of the exciting things to do are located within an hour of city making it perfectly located. Don’t be fooled by the distinct grey which dominates the drive in, the city is filled with beautiful architecture, cute cafes, lively bars and wooden houses sandwiched together. This sleepy, gingerbreadesque capital is also packed with history and culture with the most breathtaking building being the Hallgrimskirkja Church. Designed to resemble the lava flows of the landscape and at seventy three meters, it is a stunning skyline feature.

Blue LagoonBlue Lagoon. It’s the most popular thing to do in Iceland for a reason. The geothermal pool is located perfectly between Reykjavik and the airport, making it an ideal first or last stop off. Or both. This wonder is located in a lava field and is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, the water is full of goodness, being rich in minerals such as silica and sulphur. The water temperature is around forty centigrade and although it may be busy, there’s plenty of lagoon to go around. Mud deposits are dotted around and people slap it onto themselves with abandon whilst sipping on cocktails and floating around.

Geyser Geothermal AreaGeyser Geothermal Area. This place is insane on so many levels. One – it’s hilarious. You’re stood there, chatting to people and suddenly a geyser shoots water up forty meters taking everyone by surprise. Two – geographically it is so unique and stunning. The area is surrounded by other geothermal features for example mud pool and algal deposits. It’s worth visiting the area either really early morning or late evening otherwise you are likely to be joined by about a million other people in your photo of the Strokkur geyser that everybody just has to get. Also climb up the surrounding hills for the best views of the whole geothermal area.

Thingvellir National ParkThingvellir National Park. This National Park lies in a rift valley which marks the crest of the Mid Atlantic range, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart. When driving there you go past the largest natural lake in Iceland which adds to the whole wilderness of the area which I was fascinated with. A few hours to explore this area gives the opportunity for some beautiful walks and the chance to discover the buildings hidden away in behind the hills.

kitty5Northern Lights. This is a bit of a bittersweet one because we didn’t actually get to see them in their full glory, however it is a perfect excuse to return! The camaraderie of everybody waiting was catching, it wasn’t just all cameras on tripods, there was dancing, beer and discussions, the haziness and tiredness definitely made the disappointment more easy to handle.

15Sep/15

Naked Guy, Becoming Honorary Canadians and the Eurovision Tryouts

After a massive first day in Stockholm I wake up for the second day eating cloth and listening to drums. Only today I wake up a little later than normal, the old carcasse that I’m kicking around in, loudly protesting at the recent abuse.

I`ve got this faint recollection of a blow to the head from last night, but after a decent examination under a hot shower I can find no mark, no scar, no bruise and write it off as a dream or maybe just the remnant of something that didn’t do me any harm, but that the alcohol fairies failed to erase properly.

Today is a slow day, a metro into Gamla Stan in the afternoon is about all I can manage. It’s a beautiful part of the city and if you try and shut out the hordes of tourists and the shopfronts selling all manner of modern items, it is possible to transport yourself, the narrow streets and lanes, the coblestones and old buildings back a few centuries to when they were built. I can almost see the wife of Sven, the local butcher, leaning out her window to throw out washing water, or the horse and oxen led carts trundling noisily up the hill.

After a slow saunter drenching myself into the equivalent of a historical or fantasy novel, my energy is sapped and it’s back to the hostel for a snooze. Soon its time for dinner, and I venture on out to find the main communal area seething with humanity again. I chat to Guillame, Emily and Julie before meeting 4 Canadians, Kristen, Lauren (suffering a terrible head cold), Mike and Matt. They are intending to head into central Stockholm to check out the Absolute Vodka Ice Bar – you know the thing – a bar made of ice where they wrap you up in coats, charge you outrageous amounts to spend 45 mins sitting around in the cold, and offer one or two drinks by the sponsoring distiller in glasses made of frozen water for libation. Sydney has one, Auckland too, and I am a little surprised that Canada hasn´t got one, after all it´s not the middle of the the Saudi Desert where ice is seen as a little bit of a novelty.

The conversation inevitability turns to the events of last night when the Irish boys were a little loud and crazy. Everyone is having a laugh, when a Canadian girl at the next table tells us of her somewhat bizarre experience this morning. Apparently around 6ish she got up to go to the loo. Her room (and 2 others) open onto a small vestibule before that opens onto the main corridor. As she opened the door it hit something and looking outside she saw a naked guy just lying in the vestibule. She quickly shut the door in horror, woke her friend to help work out what to do, then after gathering enough courage to peer around the open door a few minutes later, she foundthe vestibule empty – naked man was gone. Everyone has a good old cack at the expense of the Irish who checked out this morning.

Well, everyone except one person, who is suddenly having to force a somewhat stifled laugh (just as well there are enough people around to piss themselves properly). As this chick describes her story, neurons trigger in my brain, synapses fire and I vaguely and rather hazily seem to remember waking up after a blow to the head somewhere on a floor last night, realising I wasn’t in my bed and managing to get up and struggle back to my bunk. Could I possibly have been naked guy?? When the story is retold with the added detail of the door opening straight onto naked guy’s head I get that dreaded “aw shit” sinking feeling and sheepishly try and avoid the topic as it buzzes around the room, happily to leave guilt laying at the feet of the Irish. Seriously wtf had happened? The brain connections were hazy at best, no complete knowledge came back, but there was that inate certainty that it was me. Damn. Blast. Oops. Thank Og for the Irish.

Conversations eventually turn to other topics, much to my relief, and eventually Emily, Julie and I decide to join the 4 Canadians on the trip to the ice bar. Ralphie and Headley are introduced, the girls immediately take them into their care and the 9 of us depart.

For those that don’t know the Stockholm metro, let me tell you that, like most metros, the various lines run at different depths below the ground. So far I´ve only experienced the shallow stops and lines. So when we get off at our stop and Kristen starts a sprint up the elevator to be first to the top, male pride is challenged and I take of in pursuit on the next escalator across. It’s neck and neck, step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step (fuck is this ever going to end), until Kristen, who has a slight fear of escalator starts and finishes, baulks at the tape and I make a last ditch surge to win by no more than a nose. We both spend 5 mins catching our breath, feeling the burn and looking at each other with a wtf look in our eyes, until the others arrive at the top. We’ve jsut sprinted up one of Stockholm´s longest escalators (at least 50-60 metres top to bottom at about a 50 degree angle)! If I´d known that, I would have lost my entry form to the race, I can assure you of that.

Anyway, we arrive at the Ice bar in a few minutes and wait for our turn. Not knocking the experience, but it´s a little crap. Sydney is bigger, better, you get 2 drinks not just one, and Sydney´s bar doesn’t have a 2 inch gap where the ice ceiling doesn’t meet the ice wall. Still it´s fun – we take a mass of photos as does every other tourist. At least none of us were refused service for being too pissed or wanted to get out of the bar before time was up cos we were too cold, like others I know. Feeling sufficiently shorn of our naive tourist dollars, we depart on our bar crawl home, which will be a little more intrepid as we don’t know any of them.

At the first bar (just across the road), our interest makes the staff unlock a side/back door that no-one else uses (we must look really intelligent), but once inside we think it looks massively overpriced and we exit almost immediately, only pausing to take photos of us sitting on some crazy art deco ball piece of art/modern seating arrangement.

We are supposed to meet Guillame at another bar a few metro stops away, so its back to the depths we go. Unfortunatley we don’t find the intended pub, find out by sms they want a 100Kr (15 AUD) cover charge anyway, so plans to meet are shelved and we go looking for a drink elsewhere. We stumble across this bar which seems to have some sort of live music/cabaret act going on – it’s free entry, so with everyone needing the bathroom, we are straight in.

If you have ever seen the Eurovision song contest, think of the performers at this band as tryouts! 2 blonde Swedish girls in full makeup and costume, ditto 2 Swedish guys in open necked shirts and coiffed hair, singing Europop songs with cabaret/jazz ballet/high school musical type choreography!. Not that the voices are bad, in fact they are quite good, though we suspect some lyp synching. Its more the stage show. Swagman of the 80s eat your heart out! Strolling through the patrons, cosying up to them with love songs, singing in spotlight to each other, (in fact the performance of the 2 guys in that regard make some of our girls suspect they are gay) – but the crowd are eating it up. R&H get a small spot on stage with the girls singing to them before we have had far too many laughs and it’s time to move on before we all turn 16 again. I suspect if we were allowed to we would vote for Sweden in the next Eurovisiuon simply on the strength of this performance.

A stroll back through Gamla Stan, missing the only pub I actually know (Wirstroms) before finding a little place with reasonably priced beer (9 AUD per pint/stubbie) in which we end up staying for a few as we all swap travel stories. Leaving around 1ish we pop up a high crosswalk near Slussen for a bird´s eye view before starting the 20 min stumble home (I’m not getting this last metro thing right yet!)

On the way I confess that I think I am naked guy which brings much hilarity and congratulations (!?). Having percolated at the back of my brain for a while without result I can only come up with the following:

  • I actually remember going to bed and getting into my sleeping bag liner about 4.30 am

  • Sometime later I deduce thzat I must have woken up needing to go to the toilet/thinking about having a shower

  • Leaving my dorm I must have turned right instead of left and opened the door to the vestibule, instead of to the bathrooms/showers

  • Finding myself hopelessly disorientated and with the reasoning skills of a small ant, I decide to lay down and rest

  • Why I was naked I´m not sure (cos I normally sleep in jocks when in dorms)

The story still needs verification. Upon return to the hostel, Kirsten finds that the Canadian chick with the story is still awake and goes to get more details to see if we can confirm my fears. I follow and confess that it might have been me. Canadian chick looks at me , says nooo, surely not, then asks the definitive question – what colour were your jocks ? (apparently they were lying on the floor next to me). With my answer of yellow comes immediate confirmation in a look of shock, laughter, followed by an embarrassed apology which is more than graciously accepted along with the aside that she saw nothing anyway as she was too shocked and quickly shut the door in retreat. We get more detail re where I was lying, where my head was etc, much to the amusement of everyone as news of conformation spreads.

To be honest, to this day I still don’t really know what happened, though the version above is the most likely. Why I was naked I don’t know – I did wake up with a strange towel in my bed which Canadian chick denied seeing or throwing over me, so maybe I was going to the shower?! Why I had my jocks next to me in the vestibule I´ll never know, I can see no reason for taking them off after wearing them that far but processing power was undoubtedly diminished at that stage. Still, as far as travel stories go I now have a doozy in my possession.

Oh well that´s life on the road and you have to take the good with the bad. Somehow Stockholm is turning into party central for me. And despite some of you back home shaking your heads in complete disgust, this story has bought me a few beers since. Oh, and for their part in tonight’s events the 4 Canadians kindly make R&H honorary Canadians, presenting them with little maple leaf pins that they proudly wear to this day. Just as well naked guy wasn’t inaugurated – where would the pin have gone???

More on Stockholm later…

15Sep/15

How to survive a party hostel in South America

Writen by Kitty Busz

So if you’re planning a trip to South America you’ll probably find yourself winding up at one of the famous party cities over the continent. La Paz, Rio de Janeiro, Cusco, Bogota….. the list continues. And even if partying until the sun comes up isn’t really your thing, I would definitely recommend checking one out during your time there. You will never look at partying in the same way again and probably every night you have out will seem substandard for the next few years.

In order to survive this experience make sure you;

1) Don’t try and fight the fact that you will be partying until the early hours. Don’t feel bad or guilty, just throw yourself into it because even if you do try and sleep you won’t be able to.

2) Don’t start partying too early. We all have a shelf life.

3) Respect the no drugs signs which are plastered all over the walls, do whatever you want to but just don’t get caught. It will ruin your life. (I don’t speak from personal experience)

4) Make sure all of your stuff is locked away. These type of hostels are a breeding ground for petty theft which if it’s your passport will be less than ideal. All of these hostels offer lockers and whether they’re free or paid take the offer up.

5) Stay in the city for a while. It will take you three times the amount of time to achieve anything productive during your stay.

6) Don’t bother setting an alarm. There is just no point.

7) Try and get out in the city during the day. These cities are often awesome and shouldn’t completely be abandoned for the sake of partying the night away.

8) Saving a few quid and staying in a twenty bed dorm compared might simply not be worth it when there’s the option of a six bed dorm. Less stuff strewn on the floor, less likely to be kept awake even later thanks to eloping drunk people, less likely to have stuff stolen. Its just better.

Kitty is a 22 year old Journalism graduate whose passions are writing and travel. She loves all kinds of adventures from the 5* city breaks in Europe to the more off the wall train journeys through the Middle East.

14Sep/15

It’s a British thing…

Written by Kitty Busz

So, we’re a little bit pampered in the UK when it comes to getting what we want, when we want food wise. And we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes in order to get it, Ethiopian, Thai, Indian… the most strenuous activity you will have to partake in is putting your bottle of beer down and dragging yourself to the front door to grab your latest food choice and indulge yourself. But it’s not quite that simple when we’re travelling and every so often the inevitable cravings turn into a sort of group mental torture event where we fantasise over the best imaginable, unattainable food porn.

So the top ten things I miss?

  1. Roast dinner. Because nothing quite defines a lazy hungover Sunday like the smell of a cooked roast with all the trimmings wafting through the house.

  2. Indian takeout. No one quite does Indian food like the British, I’m pretty sure the curry is now one of our national dishes.

  3. Marmite. You either love it or hate it and those of us who love it deeply miss it.

  4. Crumpets. Which actually taste really good with the above on.

  5. Chocolate. Although Galaxy and Cadbury are more readily available over the world these days, often the relatively high price dictates the frequency of the binges.

  6. Real bacon. There is nothing like a bacon sandwich with proper bacon. The bacon probably isn’t even from the UK but the way we put the sandwiches together are just the best.

  7. Walkers crisps. (Not chips) Lays just don’t quite do the same job.

  8. A good sausage. Like a proper thick one from the butchers.

  9. Rekorderlig. Now I don’t even like cider and this stuff is basically glorified squash but a bottle of it with a load of ice is one of the best accompaniments for an evening.

  10. Greggs. Even if you don’t like them surely you’ll miss the sheer ubiquity of them at home.

Kitty is a 22 year old Journalism graduate whose passions are writing and travel. She loves all kinds of adventures from the 5* city breaks in Europe to the more off the wall train journeys through the Middle East.

10Sep/15

Trans-Siberian Part 1, Border Crossings, Fermented milk, Russian Ninja Military Women, and finally Irkutsk (the home of the dart)

Ever seen a good looking Russian Miltary Woman clamber unaided up the walls of a train carriage to check for secret stuff in airvents and light fixtures?

Ever had a Mongolian Border Guard tell you that Jeff (the Welsh guy on Couplings) is in fact you when he looks at your ipod, and cant be dissuaded?

Ever seen a crazy Polish guy with a red cap go bezerk and start kicking chairs at the Mongolian Border town of Erlian?

Well the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Irkutsk provided all that and more.

After a fairly dodgy wake up call at 5.45 am (it wasn’t in English, but that’s all I can tell you) allowed me to be ready for my transfer just on 6.30 am, I ventured downstairs only to find that my guide was there but the driver had unfortunately forgotten to show up. Cabs at the Hotel weren’t going to give up the long trip to the airport they were all hoping for, just to ferry me cross town to the railway station (sound familiar?), so off we chugg down the street to hail a cab on the corner. First 2 refuse before one finally relents and agrees to the trip. My guide tells me its not only the shortness of the trip but the fact that the cabs are inspected at the station for “cleanliness” – if we ran such a system back home there would barely be a cab left on the roads!

Get on the train and find that I have my 2 berth sleeper all to myself! Slump up against the window and start to watch the scenery go by. Meet a couple of young Germans Alex and Hannah just next door but otherwise its a pretty quiet trip until we get to the China – Mongolian border at Erlian. Now it may seem from the scarcity of the above that this arrives quickly – in fact, its about a 14 1/2 hour trip with only a few 10 min stops and little to do but read, check out the dining car (where we first encounter the Mad Polish Guy “MPG”), eat, watch some episodes of Couplings on the ipod and doze. I won’t bore you with descriptions of scenery – but some of it is absolutely beautiful. And some of it is just trees and grass.

So we get to our first border crossing – from China to Mongolia.

The last Chinese town is Erlian and after some brief inspections of papers we get off to wait for the 2-3 hrs that they take to change the bogies on the trains (the rail gauge in Monglia and Russia is slightly wider than that used in China!). We head off in search of a beer and after 20 or so mins discover the bar upstairs at the station – where 9 foreigners finally congregate:

  • Beth (Canada) and Gareth (UK) – both have been teaching english in southern China and speak a little Mandarin – which will prove indispensible
  • Daan and Christophe (Belgium) – returning home from holidays
  • Echo (A Mongolian Chelsea fan who speaks English, French, German, Mongolian and Chinese)
  • Houtang (UK) – another Chelsea fan who has been teaching english in South or North Korea
  • Matt (German) – retrning home after holidays
  • Alex and Hannah
  • And Me

Gareth starts to negotiate the price of a round of beers. Originally quoted 5 Yuan, once he orders 9 of them she wants to charge him 10 Yuan (the contadiction inherent in a bulk “increase” isn’t one we can clearly communicate) so he tells the bar lady to put them back. Well this reduces her motivation to be either pleasant, communicative or in anyway helpful to any of us. Finally she and Gareth negotiate and agree on 8 Yuan. (Given 2 yuan is approx 25c, 8 Yuan to the USD, this is hardly necessary but there is the principle I suppose).

Anyway we laugh, introuce ourselves and chat about where we come from, football (Chelsea v Arsenal – can you imagine) etc. Houtang tells a horror story of 2 Canadian guys he knew being sentenced to 5 years in a Sth Korean jail over1/2 pound of Marijuana. 28 other plain “users” were expelled, but the 2 Canadians and one other guy are considered “dealers’ and get jailed!!!

Another round of beers is required so off I go up to the bar (having Yuan left over whilst others have only USD, Mongolian Tarog, Roubles, Euros etc). Some of you will have seen this coming but the price is now back up to 10 – I cant be bothered arguing so pay the extra 18 Yuan – 2.50 USD. Back at the table I’m castigated with eeryone telling me that once I’ve been on the road that 2.50 will become important, and Gareth is about to intervene when MPG (Mad Polish Guy) erupts.

Sitting off at a table on his own, talking to himself in his ubiquitous shorts, white tank top and red cap, he jumps to his feet, starts yelling at a group of 4-5 non-chinese sitting near him and kicks a few chairs over. This goes on for a few mins before he abruptly stoms off and disappears. No military police, no intervention, everyone is just a little shocked.

We find out later that the perople on the table near him were Polish and were discussing their home politics in their native tongue. MPG overheard, and not approving of their political views decided that a small demonstration of his discontent was appropriate!!

Anyway that derailed our beer-pricing forum, so we get back to a few more ales until finally the train arrives with its widened bogies to take us into Mongolia. A sight to be seen was the Chinese station personnel in full uniform standing at the edge of the platform at full salute as we left with the National anthem playing in the background!!! Priceless.

Another stop inside the Mongolian border at Zamyn-Uud where we can’t get off the train!. Paperwork was easy – they focus more on the Chinese and Mongolians, and since its now late its off to bed.

Wake up and we’re only a few hours from Ulaan Baatar having slept 8-10 of the 13 hr journey there from the border. Mongolian townships pop up out of nowhere complete with gers and satellite dishes (they are everywhere!!!!!!) only to disappear just as quickly leaving a very isolated landscape. UB comes and go – its more sprawlier than I thought and more modern – the prominent Nissan delearship a personal fave, with only a quick stop for the required photos and purchases from stalls on the platforms.

About 3 hours later we stop in the middle of nowhere and wait – not sure why or what for (?) but during the 20 misn or so we open the windows and take a few happy snaps of a group of local Mongolians sitting out of the sun. They wave, smile,and finally trot over with a big cup of what we think was Aigar – fermented mare’s milk. We all take a taste – I wouldn’t have it as my first choice of beverage but its not anywhere near as bad as it sounds.

its back to the never ending traintrip – beers and vodka in various carriages/berths until we get within a couple of hours of Russia – at which point we decide being trashed at a Russian border crossing prob isnt a great idea and put the bottles away.

Russia approaches in darkness and the out of Mongolia section of the border crossing is straightforward – despite the Couplings/Jeff lookalike diversion.

The Russian side however….. well let me take you through the highlights:

A Russian Colonel in full miltary garb including cap, rod and briefcase arrives at your door. Crisply asks for papers and instantly is dismayed that I haven’t filled in both the LH and RH sides of the entry form – aparently both the IN and Out sections are required now! I grab my pen but he simply puts the papers and my passport in his briefcase and barks for me to get out of the carriage.

He summons his ninja – a petite, athletic (and good looking) Russian woman in her 20s in military fatigues who promply searches the cabin. And I mean searches. She climbs walls unaided like that Chinese acrobat in Ocean’s 11 and 12, unscrews light fittings, opens air vents, pushes up the ceiling panels and shines her torch around before smartly dropping down and gives the all clear to her boss.

Without mention to me he takes 4 steps to the next carriage and starts the same process leaving me in the passageway. Taking pity on me, the ninjette glances over at me and nods that I can go back in my cabin. I hear but don’t see a heated exchange in German with the two 50ish male occupants of the next carriage. My limited German gets the idea that there is soemthing wrong with dates or visas and there is some consternation. Alex and Hannah later tell me that one of the guys has 2 passports and somehow screwed up the dates on them. So when he presented his passport to the Russians he “accidentally left” some Euros in in!!!! The Colonel immediately put the money back on the table and then a stronger discussion followed which included barking of Russian and German. They did the same search before moving on – no-one was sure what the position was on the passports but the Colonel had them all in his possession.

Now 2-3 hour pass – all we see is the Russian militay periodically walking up and down our carriage on the way to search the rest of the train. They distribute Customs declaration forms for us to fill in. And here’s where I make a mistake (Sis forgive me!).

Given the atmosphere etc I decare some sleeping pills and valium that I have prescriptions for as they are in my daypack (and the form ask for any medicines being taken in!). I line them up on my table with scripts etc and wait for the customs guy. An hour later he appears and as soon as he sees the check mark against medecine promptly taps my carriage door loudly with his rod and summons another guy. He comes in looks at the pills & scripts, I haltingly explain one set are for sleeping (mime sleeping) and the other is because I”m nervous when I fly (mime plane ad nervous – the latter not the hardest thing to do at this point). He makes a joke to his comrade outside,clearly at my expense about the nervous thing (after all he is a good strong Russian soldier) before taking just the valium prescription with him and departing without a word. He leaves all the pills and the sleeping tab script behind?!

I wait nervously. One hour passes. Another. Its now somewhere around 3 in the moning, I’m stuffed but don’t really want to go to sleep in case they come back and have to wake me up to explain whatever he was checking with the Valium script. Finally Colonel #1 appears (it’s about 8 hrs into the crossing process) and simply hands back my passport and papers (now with the RHS filled out by some Russian flunky!) . The carriage attendants tell me we are now done and can go to sleep which I do – wondering where my Valium prescription went but not wanting to really ask. Wake up the next day – no prescription, I didnt get my customs declaration form back, but I’m still on the train and in Russia!!

Over brunch we all tell our tales – some declared absolutely nothing & had their declarations stamped and handed back in 2 mins, some declared nothing and didn’t get their form back, some declared stuff and had no problems – it was all completely random and arbitrary. Still I’m assured it’s not an issue – I’ll just fill out another form when I leave (this time I think I’ll not declare the Valium!)

Finally around 3 pm we arrive in the home of the dart aka Irkutsk. It’s been nearly 3 days on the train so I’m glad I’m getting off – all the others are on a direct non-stop trip to Moscow!!Goodbyes are said with lots of toasts and hugs and I leave the train to find my transfer to thehomestay. The others have another 3 1/2 days to go to get to Moscow!!!

More on the Home of the dart and Moscow tribulations later – but I’m now only about a week behind real time! Just checked ad the Cats got up by a record margin so I only need the Storm to get up tomorrow for the double! Shouldn’t be a problem beating those soft Manly silvertails!