A Travellerspoint blog

September 2016

Life, uh, Finds a Way... in the Serengeti


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

My first week in Africa has been absolutely outstanding – I truly cannot begin to describe just how awesome this trip has been so far (7 days down, 34 to go!). Since this is my first update in over a week, I’ll try and break down the events of each day.

Monday, 19 September

I spent the entire day at the hotel in Nairobi, relaxing before the overland tour started the following day. I had given thought to exploring some of the city on my own, but I decided against it. I stayed in my room and watched Netflix, binge-watching a television series called Versailles, which centered around Louis XIV of France and the building of the palace. I watched five of the ten episodes and really enjoyed it. I also spoke with my family via Skype, which was quite nice.

Tuesday, 20 September

Today was an early day as I met with the tour group for our departure. My tour dossier stated that the group would meet at 08:00, but I went down to the reception area shortly after 07:00; to my surprise, the time had changed and I was a few minutes late. Thankfully most people weren’t aware of the change and I wasn’t the only one.

I met our tour leader, Nyka, and our driver, TK, at the reception area. I then headed out to the truck to load up my luggage. Depsite all of my stressing over the size of my travel backpack, it fit easily into the locker, allowing me to also store my camera bag as well. After storing my bags, the entire group met for a quick briefing by Nyka. He quickly introduced himself and then we hit the road; we had a drive of around 360km to Arusha in Tanzania.

The tour group is a good collection of people from around the world, mostly young (around my age), though there are a few older people in the group. The group is split between those of us camping throughout the trip and the few people who are in actual accommodations/hotels.

The drive went well, though the road was anything but smooth. I sat next to Maite (from Chile), right behind Max (Austria) and Hana (Czech Republic). We chatted quite a bit on the drive, getting to know one another. The border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania was rather chaotic. We all got off the truck and walked around a fence to the Kenyan passport control, where we were all quickly processed through. We then walked over to the Tanzanian passport control, where they checked our yellow fever vaccine cards before stamping our passports. Those people who didn’t have visas for Tanzania were able to buy then at the border, which took a little bit of extra time, but it was easy.

We made a quick stop on the side of the road for lunch, where Nyka and TK prepared some things with witch to make sandwiches. The wind was blowing and it was rather dusty, so we prepared the food in the truck. The break was quick and the food was good.

We arrived in Arusha between 17:00 and 18:00. The campsite for the night had joint accommodations for those not camping. Several tents were already setup by a group that had just gone through a few days before us (we were swapping trucks with the group and so we used their tents). TK did a quick demonstration on how to put up the tents, which was far easier than I had anticipated. Max, Larry and I were the solo male travelers and decided to take turns sharing a tent; the first night I got the solo tent. We were camping out in the yard of the hotel.

Dinner was in the dining hall and prepared by Nyka and TK, but before that we all gathered to have some drinks at the bar. We had a local beer called Kilimanjaro, which was refreshing after the long travel day. The drinks also gave us all time to chat and bond more.

Camping out on my own wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. I slept quite well and enjoyed the experience; I didn’t hear any noises in the night.

Wednesday, 21 September

Today we set off on our 4-day safari tour to the Serengeti; this portion of the tour was handled by a third party provider, so we left the truck and the guides behind. The group was split into three smaller safari trucks; the group in my truck was Max, Larry, Rafa, Joana, Hana, and Maite. Our driver was named Ernest and he proved to be a really amusing guy. The entire group was amazing – I truly lucked out.

The drive to the Serengeti was a long one and we had to drive through the Ngorongoro Crater park. The roads progressively worsened: from paved roads to dirt roads to very bumpy rocky dirty roads. We drove through a small town that had several small shops along the side of the road – including one called “Hillary Clinton Shop”.

We stopped for lunch in a large field shortly after entering the Ngorogoro Crater park. Ernest handed out our boxed lunches (fried chicken, a biscuit, mango juice, “Glucose Cookies”, a banana, and a small piece of chocolate); he then warned us to be careful of the birds in the area. We headed out to an area of the field that contained several tree logs for us to sit on.

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… We should have listened to Ernest! The birds were insane and aggressive. Maite had just unwrapped her chicken when a bird dove down and snatched it right out of her hands – literally! She was holding it and BAM, it was gone! Several birds began to circle the group, driving down to try and snatch our food. Several other people had their food grabbed before we all headed back to the truck to finish eating.

After we finished eating we saw a new tour group heading into the field to eat their lunch; they setup an elaborate picnic table and their meal. We all piled out of the truck to watch the birds attack them as well; Dennis even got out his huge camera and tripod to film it. We were all laughing hysterically as we watched for the attack to come. After several minutes a bird finally attacked and grabbed some food.

We drove on for a little while longer before reaching the Serengeti park. At this point Ernest opened the roof of the truck so we could stand up to see any wildlife that we passed on the way to the campsite.

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The first animals that we saw were three lionesses sitting in a field. They sat there as we drove around and we were able to snap several pictures of them. After that we saw a warthog as well.

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The next animal was a treat: a lion eating a gazelle! He was laying down on the top of a hill, chowing down on the head of the gazelle. We drove to within 20 feet of him and could even hear him chewing on the carcass. Around the hill was a hyena, eagerly waiting for his turn to nibble at the carcass. A second lion on the hill went down to chase the hyena away.

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En route to the campsite we passed by a giraffe and an elephant, which was right next to the road. Right next to the campground were tons of zebras.

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The campsite was quite large and there were a few other people staying there as well. There was a large cement building that served as the dining hall; right next to that was a similar building that was the kitchen; further away were the toilet and showers. These three buildings surrounded the grassy camping area, though there was a lot of open space between everything. The tents were arranged in two rows. During the Serengeti safari I shared a tent with Larry; these tents we didn’t need to put up or take down ourselves.

Dinner was at 19:30, which consisted of a soup and then a main course (which I forget now). Ernest gave the group a briefing, warning us to not wander around alone at night as the animals were able to wander around the site at any time.

After dinner several of us needed to trek out to the bathroom, but it was pitch black outside now. We put on our headlamps and headed out. Right near the bathroom were several water buffaloes; being very aggressive animals, we needed to have them scared off so we could go to the bathroom. I headed back to the tent to get some sleep, but much of the group remained in the dining hall to have drinks and hang out. Later that night they saw several lions around the site and even a hyena running toward them near the bathroom! They had to take shelter in the women’s bathroom and the guides had to scare the animals away.

Thursday, 22 September

After breakfast we set out for a full day of game driving in the Serengeti.

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We got back into the same trucks; again I was very happy with the group I had in my truck. Throughout the day, Rafa and Joana would burst into song snippets, often taking a cue from something that someone said (for example, if someone didn’t understand what another person said, they would sing “What do you mean?” by Justin Bieber). They provided the musical “radio” entertainment throughout the four days we spent on the safari truck, which was the source of a lot of laughs.

We saw several gazelles, zebras and water buffalo as we left the campground; they proved to be the most common animals that we would see throughout the game parks. We then spotted an elephant out in a field along with some beautiful birds.

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Right before lunch we spotted several other trucks parked around a tree and we drove over to see what was there; it turned out to be a leopard! It was sleeping on a branch in the tree and we were able to drive right up to the tree (within 15 feet of the leopard!). As we sat there watching him, he sat up and looked around… and then took a piss while just sitting on the branch. He then climbed down from the tree and went to sleep on the ground.

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After stopping for lunch, where we ate the same boxed lunch from the day before (we’d have the same boxed lunch every day during the excursion), we drove around and didn’t see any animals. All I could think of was Jurassic Park: “There will eventually be dinosaurs on this, uh, dinosaur tour?”

“There will eventually be animals on this, uh, animal tour?”

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We spotted a lioness sitting under a tree in the shade, along with a group of hippos in a large pond. We were also quite lucky to spot a cheetah, though it was VERY far away; we had to use binoculars or camera zooms to see the animal.

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Our next discovery was a lion and lioness in a field… and we saw them fuck a couple of times. According to Ernest, lions mate every 15 to 30 minutes over the course of several days. These lions were around 25 or 30 feet from the truck and we saw them fuck twice.

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We drove around a rock formation that rose abruptly out of the flat Serengeti plains; nestled among the rocks was a large group of hyenas. I was reminded of The Lion King and the den of hyenas from the movie. Throughout the time in Tanzania I saw the name “Simba” scattered all over the place; I was curious if the locals used the word (which means lion) much before the movie came out or if the movie drove the usage of the word.

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The final sighting of the day proved to be the highlight: a cheetah and her cubs. The four cubs were sitting still in a small clearing to the right of the truck and the mother was walking through the field on the left side. In the distance we saw some gazelles and it became quite clear that she was stalking one of them. As we sat there watching, she circled around down-wind of the gazelles. Several minutes passed before she suddenly darted out and chased down the gazelle on the end of the line. The gazelle tried to run, but the cheetah jumped and took it down; the kill itself was blocked by some tree branches, but we saw the dust cloud that it generated. After the kill the mother sat up and looked around; after several minutes the four cubs ran across the road and over to the mother, where the carcass was. We got to see the cubs eating, though it was too far away to take decent pictures.

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During the driving time we found ourselves joking around with Ernest quite a bit. Max kept asking about rhinos, which became on our many running jokes during out time. Ernest laughed and always said that we’d see them tomorrow. Then Rafa and Joana asked Ernest if he had ever see a unicorn, specifically the Portuguese unicorn. Rafa explained that it was a horse, with a horn and wings, but it couldn’t fly very far because it was so big; a male was white and a female was pink. Ernest wasn’t familiar with the word unicorn, so he stopped to Google search it on his phone; he found only cartoons and didn’t believe us, but Rafa found a cartoon of Portuguese soccer star Christian Ronaldo riding a unicorn!! The unicorn was the second of our running jokes.

Max (and the rest of us) repeatedly asked after the rhino though. After every animal sighting we’d ask about the rhino. Lions fucking. “What about the rhino?” Cheetah killing. “Where’s the rhino?” He’d bring it up at the most inappropriate moments and it was constant, which made all of us either laugh or join in the demands for a rhino. Ernest laughed about it all too, wondering why we wanted to see a rhino so badly. We asked about the rhino so many times that we decided to name our truck “RhinoMax” and our motto was “Shit Happens”… thus “RhinoMax: Shit Happens!”

Finally, Ernest kept flirting with Maite throughout the game drives. She sat in the passenger seat next to him and thus had the most opportunity to chat with him. Those of us in the back of the truck noticed it every time he would say something and we would laugh, turn around to “chat amongst ourselves” so as to give them privacy, etc.

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We arrived back in camp around 17:30 and spent a few hours relaxing before dinner. I took a quick shower, which was rather cold, but refreshing. Rafa, Max and I gathered in the dining all early to play some card games. Max taught us a game he learned in South America called Carbo, which is all about remembering the various cards in play. It took me a few rounds to truly catch on to how the game was played, but once I did, I really loved it.

After dinner we had to scare off several water buffalo that were wandering around the tents, along with some lions laying outside of the campsite. In the middle of the night we were woken up by a loud commotion, which turned out to be hyenas viciously attacking the garbage bins nearby. The bins were tied up on a tree about 40 feet from out tents and the hyenas kept knocking into them in order to get to the trash inside. I also heard some large animal, mostly likely a water buffalo, walking in between our tents. During this commotion I heard several people talking and the zippers of other tents either opening or closing, which shocked me. It was both exciting and scary at the same time.

Friday, 23 September

We left our campground for the last time this morning, heading out for a half day of game driving around the Serengeti. We saw animals all over the place in the morning: zebra, elephants, warthogs (which we routinely called Pumba – we wanted to see a Timon riding a Pumba, but that never happened), even another lion. We stopped by a small watering hole and saw a small crocodile as well. Despite our requests, a rhino did not appear.

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Later on we stopped to see some vultures that were sitting in a tree. Nearby we happened to see some baboons walking along the side of the road, including some with their small babies hanging onto the adults. Was there a rhino? Nope. Shit happens.

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We stumbled across a large herd of water buffalo standing on either side of the road, so we stopped to take some photos of them. As we were watching, the herd to the left side began to rapidly run to the right side of the street; the entire group stampeded across, clearly frightened by something hidden in the grass (though we couldn’t determine what it was).

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Our next find was a family of lions: two lions, several lionesses, and two small cubs. They were lounging under a tree sleeping. The two cubs were curious and walking around among the adults; at one point they were playing with the tail of one of the lionesses. One of the lionesses was sprawled on her back in the sun, just like a house cat would. Alas, no rhino though.

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Nearby was a large watering hole that had quite a few hippos laying around in them. We also spotted a small family of elephants walking around and even managed to get near a warthog on the side of the road (they are quite skittish and would always run away when we got near).

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Ernest took us over to see a group of three lions: one lion and two lionesses, who were taking turns mating with the male. We got to see them mate twice during our stop; after each round the lion looked exhausted. The mating itself lasted for less than 30 seconds, during which the lions would snarl and growl at one another. Lions fucking is cool, but where the hell is the rhino??

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This was our last stop in the Serengeti, though we spotted several animals on the way out of the park, including a female ostrich… but no rhino.

During the day Rafa and Joana taught Ernest the Spanish phrase “Mi amor” so he could refer to Maite by that, feeding into his flirting with her. However, he had never heard of it; we explained that it meant something similar to friend. He got the idea that it was a name that could be applied to anyone, so we said that today Joana was “mi amor” and we all called her that. Ernest didn’t believe a word we were saying and wanted to Google the phrase to understand it, so Rafa spelled it out for him: “U-N-I (space) C-O-R-N”… We were laughing hysterically at this point, saying that we would die in hell for this, but it was just too much fun. Ernest too laughed when he saw what came up on his phone.

Our final stop for the day was at a Maasai village. The Maasai people are the nomadic people of this area that still hold to their old traditions. They build temporary housing out of grass, branches, with roofing made from cow dung and urine to make it waterproof. We were greeted by the son of the chief, who spoke English quite well. Many of the villagers performed a small dance and song for us, before welcoming us to the village.

We had to negotiate the price for entry as this was not included with the tour. Some of the group members didn’t want to visit the village and remained in the car, however the Maasai charged entrance by truck rather than by the person. We got a small discount and managed to negotiate that each of the women get a small gift of jewelry.

We were draped in Maasai robes (blue for the women, red for the men) and then participated in a dance. The women did a small dance together and then the men. The men simply stood around and jumped straight up into the air while holding different objects (I was holding a long stick). After this we were shown around the village and the inside of the traditional huts. The women are responsible for building the homes while the men handle the hunting and defense of the town. Each of us was paired up with a villager and shown around on our own; my guide was the chief’s son.

After seeing the huts, we were shown the jewelry and trinkets that they had for sale. The village is laid out in a large circle, with the huts making the outer ring; the inner ring consisted of the stalls with jewelry. They were pressuring us to buy something, though I found nothing I wanted to buy (which I think annoyed the chief’s son). Strangely, every time I walked up to another group member to chat, the chief’s son would come up and usher me on to the next stall.

The last stop in the Maasai village was the schoolhouse, where the kids welcomed us with a short song. The kids are taught in the village through primary school and then attend a public school many miles away, which they have to walk to each day.

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Our camp for the night was on the ride of the Ngorongoro Crater – quite high up. The temperature there was much cooler than what it had been in the Serengeti: the Serengeti was quite warm, though it was a dry heat; the Crater was a refreshing cold. This campsite was packed with other people, row after row of tents. There was one large dining hall for all of us to share, but each group in the camp had their own section. Max, Larry, Rafa and I all gathered there and played Carbo until dinner was served.

During the night the temperature kept dropping, though not severely. Everyone was bundled up in long pants and jackets, while I was sitting there in shorts and a t-shirt. It was cool, but not freezing cold for me. Towards the end of the evening I finally got cold enough to put my jacket on.

When we left to head back to the tent I was shocked by the number of stars in the sky. It was just as breathtaking as what I saw in Greenland. We could very clearly see the cloudy band of the Milky Way streaking across the sky, which was awe inspiring. Dennis, who has the most powerful camera in the group, had his tripod setup and was taking some truly amazing photos of the night sky.

Saturday, 24 September

Today was the final game drive of the excursion. The 4-day/3-night excursion was optional, though everyone on the tour went on it (who would go all the way to Tanzania and not visit the Serengeti?!).

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We had a very early start to the day, leaving the camp at 06:30 so we could descend into the Ngorongoro Crater for the game drive. The road down into the Crater was amazing: it was a slightly cloudy morning and we could see the clouds start to rise over the rim of the crater. The Crater itself was huge and we were able to drive around a good portion of it during the day. I had expected the Crater to be rather lush with many green plants spanning the entire area; however, only a small portion was actually green, with the remainder being grasslands (granted, it is currently just starting spring here in Tanzania and the rainy season is still months away, so the green plants may appear then).

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Our route took us through the lush green area on one side of the Crater, which had a stream running through it. In this area we were able to spot some elephants and monkeys. At one point we thought we had finally spotted a rhino off in the distance, but to our dismay it turned out to be a buffalo. This only fueled us to continue asking… where are all the rhinos??

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Soon after we left that area we entered the grasslands and discovered a lioness with a fresh buffalo carcass. She was just starting to eat, but there wasn’t any blood or gore to be seen. From what we could tell, she had only eaten the tail.

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We continued to drive into the Crater and saw one of the more amazing parts from the entire game drive: a male lion hunting a zebra. There was a large herd of zebras ahead of us that began to hurriedly run around, stampeding across the street. At the tail end of the group was a lion chasing after a zebra. Somehow the zebra managed to escape, leaving the lion standing, exhausted, on the other side of the road.

Lion photos courtesy of Petra Pinotage - a big thank you to her for sharing them!

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Driving through the park we saw tons of other animals on our way to the hippo pool, which was full of hippos. They were all clustered together in the watering hole, though this group was far more active and restless than the group we had previously seen. Several got in and out of the water, including a mother with her small baby. Was there a rhino though? Hell no.

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All around us during the day we were amazed by the beauty of the scenery, especially the clouds rolling over the rim of the Crater; in many areas the clouds looked like they were pouring over the rim or like a giant wave about the break. After seeing a male ostrich, we came upon a group of vultures and hyenas fighting over the scraps of a hippo carcass. The hyena was clearly the dominant predator there and fending off many of the vultures. Can you guess what wasn’t around there? Yep, no rhino in sight.

We stopped for lunch along a large lake in the river, which was beautiful. There was a large tree right on the bank of the lake and there was a buffalo skull at the base of the tree. We posed for several pictures with the skull – and yes, I did hold it – and yes, I did wash my hands after handling it. After eating, the RhinoMax group took some group pictures with our truck and Ernest in front of the lake.

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We then took several group photos with the truck as well, which was quite nice.

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After lunch it was time to leave the Crater and head back to Arusha and the same campsite that we had stayed at the first night of the tour. The road back out of the Crater provided some amazing views back down to where we had been. It was a good ending to the amazing 4-day excursion.

“But Ernest, what about the rino??”

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Posted by Glichez 06:33 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Relaxing in Scotland with Friends and Video Games


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The past week in Edinburgh was truly amazing and quite relaxing – just what I needed at this point in the trip.

I had to get up early on the morning of 12 September in order to catch my flight; I left the hotel just before 03:00 and walked to the bus station which was about a block away. The night bus was the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Warsaw airport in the middle of the night, but I was nervous waiting around on the street at that time. Several people walked by, including some who were visibly intoxicated, but thankfully no one approached me.

The bus picked me up slightly after 03:15 and I was surprised to find it quite crowded. We made it to the airport within 20 minutes, far faster than I had anticipated and I had to wait around for a little bit before I could check in. After going through security I grabbed a bite to eat and watched some of “The Dark Knight Rises” on Netflix.

My flights were quick; I had a short layover in Brussels and I arrived in Edinburgh around 11:00. The landing in Edinburgh was very rough; there was a lot of turbulence and we seemed to just slam into the ground when we landed.

I met up with my friend Kevin just outside the airport terminal and we drove off to his house, which was less than 10 minutes away. Kevin and I were roommates in Seattle in 2008 to 2009; he had come over to the States for school and we spent a year living together in a house with two other roommates (Jay – the Supreme Chancellor Douche – and Oscar). It was probably the best year I spent in Seattle. I visited Edinburgh back in March and had such an amazing time that I decided to add in a week there during my world tour.

Kevin lives with his family, who were all so amazing and welcoming! His sister Michelle cooked us lunch and dinner almost every day, which was an unexpected and much appreciated treat. Everything she made was delicious; it was great having some home cooked meals after eating out all the time over the past month or so.

Our first order of business was to get some beer and snacks; we stopped off at Tesco, the local grocery store, and stocked up on a variety of beers and Pepsi and then grabbed some Krispy Kreme doughnuts before heading back home. The only real plan for the week was relaxation and playing World of Warcraft (WoW). The newest expansion, Legion, was released about two weeks before I arrived, so Kevin and I planned to play that all week.

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Kevin had a man cave on the upper floor, complete with a TV and his computer desk; there was a smaller desk which I was able to use to play WoW using an old laptop that Kevin had. Sitting there and gaming together was just like old times in Seattle. We would hang out at our house and play WoW for hours, drinking beer or rum and coke; often taking breaks to play Rock Band together. It was during the time that we were roommates that I was introduced to WoW and I became hooked. Later, after we’d both moved out of the house, we’d spend time holed up in his bedroom at his new place and play WoW for hours, often with South Park or Family Guy playing in the background (or playing the soundtrack to Sweeney Todd, which we’d goofily sing along with).

*Start Nerd Alert* This blog post is going to be pretty nerdy as I write about playing Warcraft for a week.

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We played WoW all day, every day, taking breaks just to grab something to eat. Kevin started playing a paladin healer and I decided to focus on my paladin tank – a combination that would let us queue up and instantly get into a dungeon (a DPS player could wait for 15+ minutes); we grouped up and set off to explore the new expansion. We were both blown away by how the story and game play pulled us in; it was really engrossing and engaging.

The only picture I have of Kevin and me, he's playing WoW on his computer behind me:

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We made it through the intense starting quests and then went solo to get our special class weapons. This expansion focuses heavily on giving each class and spec their own unique weapon which you power up. We finally got to the point where we could go questing in the new zones; up first was Stormheim. The primary story line was rather good, though neither of us read any of the quest text so we missed large pieces of the story.

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The second day Kevin switched characters and started playing the new demon hunter class, which became his primary toon for the remainder of our time gaming together. We quested together for a short while, but eventually went off on our own, though we’d often run several dungeons together. A nice feature of Legion is that all content scales to your character’s individual level, so you can play with other characters regardless of your mutual levels.

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Eventually my paladin reached level 110, the new max-level in the game. At that point I started to chip away at the enormous about of end-game content that the game offered. My primary focus was on completing the storylines and quests in each of the questing zones. By this point I’d made it through Stormheim, Azsuna, and Val’Sharah, so I only had Highmountain left. I managed to complete the Highmountain quests about an hour before we went out for dinner last night (my final night in Edinburgh).

Azsuna

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Val’Sharah

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Highmountain

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Reichwolf, level 110 paladin

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*End Nerd Alert*

On Wednesday the 14th we met up with my friends Pip and Stephen for drinks and dinner in the city center. We met up at the Thistle Street Bar around 18:00 (Kevin’s sister Michelle was nice enough to drive us into town). After having a couple of beers we headed out for dinner around 19:30. We each had a starter and a main course; my starter was a pork ear salad and my main was pork knuckle. We all shared a bottle of the house white wine, which was nice; Kevin, Stephen and I each had a beer as well.

After dinner we went to a small bar nearby; it used to be called the Jekyll and Hyde, which apparently had some strange bathrooms. It was just a regular pub this time though; we had a couple of beers here and then moved onto a different bar, where I had some strange cocktail that I didn’t much care for.

It was amazing getting to hang out with Pip and Stephen again. I met them in Iran in 2015; we met up during my March visit as well. They were getting ready to take a trip to Uzbekistan, which sounded absolutely fantastic! I’m rather jealous of their trip, but I’ll make it there some day (ideally I’d like to take a tour of the 5 Stans at some point… too many places to visit, too little time and money!).

We all caught a cab to head home; surprisingly Pip and Stephen live relatively close to Kevin! Once we were home, Kevin and I played some more WoW and I had another beer. At one point I abruptly declared that I was drunk, asked for a bottled water and then went to bed. I was so drunk that I just passed out in bed in my regular clothes and still wearing my glasses!

As a thank you to Kevin for letting me stay with him and to his sister Michelle for all of the meals she made for us, I took us out for sushi on Saturday the 17th (my last night in town). We made reservations at an excellent restaurant in the city center and ordered several different rolls which we all shared. The food was quite tasty! It was nice getting to go out and chat with Michelle for a while too.

After dinner Kevin and I headed over to a nearby pub named the Hanging Bat Bar, where we waited for my friend Alan to arrive. Alan, who is in the British army, just got back from Cyprus (he was supposed to be back earlier in the week, but his return flight via the RAF was continuously delayed). Thankfully he made it back to the UK before I left town; he is currently stationed a few hours south of Edinburgh and made the drive up Saturday afternoon. He brought his girlfriend, Kim, with him and she was really nice! It was great fun getting to hang out with everyone.

I met Alan on another one of my trips, this one back in October 2011 when I visited North Korea (the DPRK). He was traveling with his buddy Tom (who is also in the army; he came to North Carolina earlier this year and we managed to meet up at the Flying Saucer for some drinks). Alan, Tom and I all had tailor-made “Kim Jong Il” suits made up at our hotel in Pyongyang, which we then wore to the “mysterious” 5th floor on the hotel to take pictures with the propaganda posters.

After returning to Beijing from North Korea, the three of us spent a few more days hanging out; by a happy coincidence their hostel was about a 5 minute walk from my hotel. The time we spent in Beijing was the best time I had during my travels in China.

The last time that I saw Alan was in September 2012, when he and his friend Rob came to the States for a visit. The closest they made it to Raleigh was Washington DC, so I drove up to see them there.

We had several rounds of drinks and spent hours just hanging out and chatting. We reminisced over our travels in the DPRK, which never gets old talking about. We also talked politics quite a bit; Alan is one of the few people I know who truly takes the time to educate himself and stay on top of current events around the world, something that is woefully missing from so many people in the United States.

After a few hours Kevin grabbed a cab to head home and I decided to stay out with Alan and Kim for a little while longer. The three of us decided to head to a different bar, ending up at an Irish pub named Footlights. We had two rounds of drinks there before the bar started to close up (bars in Edinburgh all close at 01:00). During our time at Footlights we discussed a lot of LGBT politics and issues; Alan has always been supportive of me being gay, always interested in if I’m seeing someone, etc.

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We took a tuc tuc ride over to a cab hire station, which gave us flashbacks to our time in Beijing where we took a similar ride (though that one was more terrifying than fun). The queue at the taxi stand was quite long, so we had to wait. A woman in line ahead of us fell over at one point and we were able to see right up her short skirt – and she was not wearing any underwear; we got a full view of her ass and vagina. Disgusting! Two guys in line got into a fist fight at the same time.

Alan decided to get us an Uber car instead, despite Uber costing significantly more money than a regular cab. We cross the street to wait for the driver to show up; while we were waiting the cops showed up to sort through the fight and everything. Our driver showed up a few minutes later. Alan and Kim wanted to continue drinking and tried to go to a club (which is open later than the pubs), but the queue was far too long. Instead they were dropped off at a casino where they could have a few drinks. I hopped out of the car to say to goodbye to them. I truly wish that we’d had more time to hang out; they were staying overnight in Edinburgh and it would have been great to spend more time together. However, I had to get back so I could get some sleep before catching my flight the next morning. I was really sad at having to say goodbye to Alan, just as I was when I had to say goodbye in Beijing and DC.

I’ve known Alan for five years, during which we’ve spent less than a collective two weeks hanging out; despite this I consider him a very good and close friend. I always wish that I had more time to hang out with him. Hopefully he’ll be able to come visit Chicago once I move there. I’ll definitely be visiting the UK again soon to see all of my friends there.

I got back to Kevin’s house around 02:00; luckily he was still awake and playing WoW. We talked for a few minutes before I went in to bed. We had to be up and leave for the airport by 06:30 as my flight was at 08:30.

Saying goodbye to Kevin at the airport was difficult as well. I’d had such an amazing time getting to hang out with him again; it was just like old times. Nevertheless, I had to say goodbye and head off to Africa.

I had a short layover in Amsterdam and am currently on my flight to Nairobi as I write this. The flight to Nairobi is around 7.5 hours. I paid extra money to have a window seat, which was worth it; the row only has two seats, rather than three, since I’m near the very back of the plane and the hull starts to narrow here; I’ve got a large open space to my left where I can stretch out. Sadly, the in-flight entertainment is not working at my seat. The TV works, but the remote at my seat doesn’t work, so I can’t watch any movies to help pass the time on the flight. The man sitting next to me is having the same issue with his remote.

I’m both nervous and excited for my safari tour through Africa. I’m nervous that I have over packed and that my luggage is too large for the safari truck that the tour group will be taking; the trip dossier stressed luggage size repeatedly, stating that any oversized luggage could get left behind. I have my travel backpack full of clothes and it’s no bigger than a large duffel bag, which I’m sure will be fine, but this is a new type of travel for me, so I’m just unsure of what to expect.

I’m sure that the trip through Africa will be amazing though. It will be nice and weird being cut off from the world for such a long time. The trip is 41 days long, during which we’ll be camping most of the time, without Internet or even cell phone service. Wish me luck!!

Posted by Glichez 04:16 Archived in Scotland Comments (0)

Lublin and Majdanek Concentration Camp


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Today was my final day here in Poland before heading to Scotland for a week of relaxation (and drunken debauchery with good friends!). My plans for today revolved around taking the train to the city of Lublin, in the eastern region of Poland (I was surprised to see how far east the city truly is). The train departed shortly before 08:00 and arrived around half-past 10.

Upon arrival at the Lublin train station I set off towards the main attraction in the city: the former concentration camp of Majdanek. The camp was about an hour-long walk from the station; my path led me through a somewhat shady looking residential area that was run down, even passing by a shanty area near a stream. I made my way to a main street and soon arrived at the camp.

Majdanek is a very impressive memorial/museum and I was quite surprised by the number of tourists at the site; this area was rather out of the way and not a major tourist destination. Many of the tourists were carrying large Israeli flags; I couldn't tell if they were actually from Israel or Jews showing their solidarity with Israel. The entire complex was free of charge, which was quite nice. The first sight was a massive monument at the location of the former gates to the camp: a gigantic stone sculpture that was quite impressive.

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I followed the exhibit path down from the gate monument, down to the location of the old camp buildings. The first building turned out to be the gas chamber and shower facility. The building used to be separated into two different ones: the showers and then the gas chamber. Majdanek never concealed the gas chamber as a shower, so the shower room was an actual shower. The gas chamber itself was smaller than I had expected, but I could only imagine how it would appear packed with people about to be murdered. The Nazis initially used carbon-monoxide to kill the victims, before switching to the Zyklon-B gas. Interestingly, the camp guards initially used Zyklon-B to disinfect the inmates' clothing. One room housed a massive amount of old Zyklon-B gas canisters.

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Outside of the gas chamber was the selection field, a smallish area where the new arrivals would be sorted out: those who would live would go to the showers for disinfecting; those unfit for work would go to the gas chamber. Moving up the row of buildings, some had interesting exhibits about different aspects of the Nazi occupation: life in the ghetto, liquidation of the ghettos, the Lublin occupation, etc. One building had a huge collection of shoes from the victims killed during the ghetto liquidation.

One of the most interesting (and disturbing) buildings housed a memorial to the unnamed victims of the camp. Inside was a large art installation of balls made of barbed wire; some were suspended from the ceiling with one light inside each ball, while others simply laid on the gravel flooring. Playing over speakers were voices speaking Polish. It was haunting. The room was quite dark and I did my best to capture the memorial.

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I continued to walk down the rows of buildings; one the left side sat the double fence of barbed wire and the now empty fields where the old inmate blocks used to stand. One field had several recreations of the block housing and it was shocking. All of the buildings, including those with exhibits, all resembled small barns: no windows, dark, and very stuffy inside them.

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I finally reached the other end of the camp (a walk that took about 30-40 minutes) and saw the crematorium, the location of which was quite surprising. The gas chamber and the crematorium were on complete opposite sides of the camp from one another; the bodies from the gas chamber would thus have to be openly transported to the crematorium. The other camps that I had visited combined both functions into one building complex. The crematorium was one of the largest that I've seen, with a large collection of ovens. Adjacent to the oven room were the rooms where inmates would thoroughly search the bodies for any valuables.

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Outside the crematorium was one of the most amazing and powerful memorials that I've seen at a concentration camp: a massive mausoleum for the victims of the camp. It was a large circular structure with a domed roof; there was a small open section on the terrace where visitors could look inside... which was filled with soil that was mixed with the ashes of the camp's victims. The ashes had been buried by the Nazis; when the mausoleum was erected, the soil was turned up and preserved.

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I walked toward the old town area of town, which was just over an hour's walk away. The heat was quite intense and I stopped in a local grocery store to buy a bottled water and a Popsicle, which gave me some much needed energy. When I reached the old town area, I walked around and admired many of the old European buildings. There was some sort of festival going on, with food stalls lining the main pedestrian street. I walked over to the Lublin Castle, which was formerly used as a prison.

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I stopped at an Irish-style pub for lunch, where I had some traditional Polish dumplings. The meal was... disappointing, sadly. I'd seen this dish advertised in several restaurants all over Poland and finally decided to give them a try. This version was quite bland and tasteless; adding salt and pepper didn't really help either.

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After lunch I started making my way over to a square that had a Holocaust memorial, but found the area under construction and thus I could not access the square. I turned back toward the train station, hoping to make the earlier train back to Warsaw (my original ticket was for 18:00, but the earlier train left at 16:00). I arrived back at the train station and just missed the earlier train. Thankfully there was a small cafe in the station where I enjoyed a mango smoothie and spent the next couple of hours relaxing. The train arrived in the station quite early, allowing me to board the train about 40 minutes early so I could rest and relax.

The train back to Warsaw was quite unpleasant. There was a mother with two young kids sitting in the same car as me; one of the kids was quite well behaved, but the little girl was absolutely awful. She was around three and never shut up during the entire 2.5 hour journey; I'd truly hoped she would fall asleep. She would jump around on her seat, stand on the table between seats, and would scream/screech at the top of her lungs repeatedly - all with the mother doing nothing to stop her. The mother didn't try to quiet her, talk to her about using an "inside voice" or anything; she just sat there. Bitch. The girl would also start throwing a tantrum for no discernible reason; she'd sit in a seat and start screaming and toddler crying (just to get attention); again the mother did nothing. Everyone in the car was quite put out with them.

One of the perks of working remotely is that it makes these long train trips (or flights or layovers) seem like nothing; the time speeds by, thankfully.

Posted by Glichez 12:11 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Warsaw


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I caught the train to Warsaw early this morning, leaving Krakow at 08:20. The train was different than the one I had taken to Krakow and, despite following the same direct route, it took slightly longer to reach Warsaw. I spent the time on the train getting some work done, which helped to pass the time. Upon arrival in Warsaw I made my way to the hotel; I arrived too early for check in, but I was able to store my luggage.

It was another hot day in Poland and I would be out in the heat all day today as I explored the city. As I set off into the city, my first brief stop was outside the Palace of Culture and Science, which was quite near the train station. It resembled similar buildings that I had seen in other former Soviet cities: the 1950s Stalin Soviet style. The entire complex was rather large, with a square and fountains in the front.

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I was quite a ways from the old town area (I had chosen a hotel close to the train station to make my departure to the airport easier on Monday). The walk through the city was nice; I was surprised by how large and modern Warsaw felt. The city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, so the city had been steadily rebuilt ever since. Among the modern buildings are the random older-style buildings. My progression through the cities of Poland resembled my progression through the Baltic States:

Tallinn - Gdank
Very old European, Gothic cities with a lot of charm

Riga - Krakow
A blending of old Europe and modern Europe

Vilnius - Warsaw
Large modern cities with a small taste of old Europe, which is lost in the bustle of the modern side

oh, and then there's...
Kaunas - Kaliningrad
Garbage

I walked through the city and found my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, located in a massive square at the end of a very nice park. The tomb is a small structure with an eternal flame and two guards on either side; the structure has a roof, so the guards are not exposed to the sun and heat. Listed on the pillars around the tomb are the names of battles where Polish soldiers served. Several military personnel were setting up some rope barriers in the square, which seemed odd. I found out later that some sort of military parade was going on, though I've no idea why.

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I spent a few minutes walking around the park, which had a large fountain and some beautiful flowers - very vibrant! Scattered around the park were benches that would play classical music when a button was pressed; the composer Chopin once lived in this part of Warsaw.

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Nearby was the presidential palace, which was quite impressive. It was larger than I had expected. Across the street was some sort of protest movement; they had several large signs spread out on the ground and hung up. Directly in front of the palace was a large cross on the ground made out of jars with candles.

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By this point I was needing a break, so I stopped for lunch at a local cafe. The cafe served traditional Polish food and I went with Polish sausage with sauerkraut. It was incredibly delicious, as was the beer that I enjoyed with the meal. Sitting next to me was an older couple who sat silent during their entire meal, not speaking once; the woman ordered a beer and 7up, which she then mixed together! Yuck!

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After lunch I reached the traditional old town, where I saw the Warsaw Castle and some of the old city walls. The square in front of the castle was nice and full of tourists. In one area, a woman was singing and some people were dancing the tango (badly) as she sang. Right next to that I saw a man running around in a thong and fishnet stockings; he was stopping to take pictures with female tourists. It would have been amusing had he been attractive!

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I continued to explore the old town, stopping briefly in the main market square, which is simply a collection of old buildings and full of sidewalk cafes. I stopped to grab an ice cream before venturing further on. I found another section of the city walls and was able to walk around them for a bit.

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I left the old town area and made my way to the former Jewish ghetto. In random areas I would find memorials with pieces of the old ghetto wall. Along the ground was a marker embedded into the sidewalk marking out where the wall had once stood. I took a short detour into a park that I stumbled upon nearby, finding a rather nice building that turned out to be the Krasiński Palace. This was the most interesting and beautiful building that I saw in Warsaw, with a lovely garden attached to it.

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As I started to leave, I noticed a sign on the street indicating that the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising was nearby, so I decided to follow the signs and find it. The memorial was much further than it appeared, but it did allow me to discover the military parade. I only saw the very end of it, but there was a large group of military members on horses making their way down the street (which was consequently full of horse shit!). I finally managed to find the memorial, but discovered that I'd gone to the wrong memorial! I've no idea how it happened and the memorial I found was dedicated to the heroes of Warsaw; it was... ok, but not worth the detour and significant backtracking.

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I had one last sight to see on my list: Umschlagplatz, which was a holding area where the Nazis kept the Jews before deporting them to the concentration camps. (It turns out that I passed by the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising on my way there, but didn't even realize it). However, I did stumble along a different memorial during the very long walk to Umschlagplatz: the Museum of Independence at the former Pawiak Prison. The prison was a former Tsarist prison and was used by the Gestapo during the 1940s, imprisoning and killing thousands of people. The prison was destroyed during Nazi reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising; only a small section of the main gate and walls remain.

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When I reached Umschlagplatz I realized that it was worth the long walk. The memorial was in the shape of a walled-in courtyard with signs along one side of the memorial. It was toned-down and somber, but very effective. When I reached the memorial there was a group of younger tourists laying around the memorial, goofing off and not showing any respect for what the memorial commemorates; they were all in their late-teens and should have known better. When the group was leaving, one girl refused to get up from lay down on the memorial; I couldn't tell what language they were speaking, but I could tell that she was indicating that she just couldn't go on; she was offered food and water, but she refused; it was clear she was being a drama queen. Thankfully she eventually left and I could finally take some good pictures.

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Posted by Glichez 12:21 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Delving into a Salt Mine, and Schindler's Factory


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This was my last day here in Krakow and I had another full day of touring planned.

I booked a half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is about 30 minutes outside of Krakow. The driver picked me up at 09:00 and, after one last pickup of additional tourists, we headed out to the mine. The driver, who resembled Christoph Waltz, made some very inappropriate comments during the short drive, including some anti-gay comments: "Here in Poland we don't like the modern family. Two men and a dog. We don't like such experiments." He was talking to a couple sitting at the front of the car and went on to explain how important religion is to the Polish people and how family is man and woman. I know that Poland (and most of Eastern Europe) is very conservative on many social issues, but I didn't expect for our tour driver to be spouting out this crap. Thankfully he was just the driver and we went off with a different guide at the mine.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was a salt mine began work in the 13th century, but it ceased operation in the late 20th century. The mine has gradually been opened to tourists over the past 200 years. We were given personal audio devices so we could easily hear our guide as we explored the mine. The beginning of the tour had us walking down 54 levels of stairs (7 stairs per level, total of 378 stairs). The mine's temperature is a constant 14-16 degrees Celsius year-round, which was quite nice since today was going to be another hot one.

Throughout the mine were several statues and monuments to show what life was like for the miners working in the mine. There were also statues of mythical figures, including several gnomes/dwarfs. Salt deposits covered the walls and we were able to taste the salt; it wasn't too strong. However, there was some running water in the mine (naturally running through the mine); we tasted this water and it was much stronger - far saltier than sea water too!

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There were several chapels scattered throughout the mine as well, including a gigantic chapel that is still in use; it regularly hosts weddings. In the large chapel there were several religious carvings in the rocks, including one of the last supper. At the end of the chapel was a statue carved from pure salt, which was rather spectacular. The room also had three large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

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We continued to walk deeper into the mine and came across a large salt lake; the water has such a high salt content that a human would simply float on the water. One of the final rooms that we saw was the largest of the excavated rooms. It was supported by massive wooden structures and had a massive 8m tall chandelier hanging from the ceiling!

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We made our way back to the surface via elevator. We saw barely 1% of the entire mine complex during out tour; the entire mine extends for over 287km (178mi)! We met up with our driver and made our way back to Krakow. To avoid hearing any more off-color remarks, I put in my headphones during the drive (I listened to recordings of The Howard Stern Show).

Upon arriving back in Krakow I headed out to visit the old Jewish ghetto area of town. There were not many parts of the old ghetto that remained (or that we obviously part of the ghetto in the 1940s). There was a small square near one of the entrances to the ghetto with a nice memorial: a series of large - and empty - chairs appeared throughout the square. Down the street from the square was a small section of the original ghetto wall. Seeing the wall was rather moving; I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live inside the ghetto, walled up like that. I was initially surprised to see that the wall had some design included with the top of the wall; I had imagined it would be a plain wall with barbed wire or something (similar to how simple and crude the Berlin Wall was). I later found out that the top of the ghetto wall was meant to resemble a tombstone, which thus gave the wall an even darker symbolism.

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My final stop for the day was the museum at the Oscar Schindler factory (yes, that Schindler from the movie Schindler's List). The factory isn't located in the best part of town; it is still a manufacturing section of town, but there were numerous tourists around. The factory was actually smaller than I had expected. Inside I bought a ticket to tour the museum, which is explored on your own.

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The museum is one of the best museums that I have ever visited! It thoroughly details the occupation of Poland during the Second World War. Included with the numerous artifacts and pictures were dozens of explanations of the events that transpired. One of the most interesting areas covered what everyday life was like under the Nazi occupation. Most of the time we just hear about the awful treatment of the Jews (which was undeniably horrendous), but life for the average Polish citizen was not pleasant as well. The section explained the changes in shopping, going to restaurants, even using public transit changed for everyone.

The first areas, covering the initial attack and occupation in the fall of 1939, included numerous Nazi and Third Reich artifacts: several flags, books, portraits of Hitler, guns, signs, etc. One room even played the music that the Nazis would blast over the public loudspeakers during the occupation (I recognized one piece as a military march - it was used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during the book burning scene in Berlin). Even the floor in this area was covered with swastikas - literally!

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Throughout the museum were personal stories recounted by survivors and victims of the Nazis, along with their pictures all over the wall. The section concerning the treatment of the Jews was especially moving; the area was quite dark; pictures were everywhere, along with personal accounts of the events in the Krakow ghetto.

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There was surprisingly only one small area of the museum dedicated to Oscar Schindler; I don't feel it truly represented what the man did - it definitely didn't adqeuately explain what his "list" did to save the Jewish lives. Perhaps the museum relies too heavily upon the film to convey that. There was one sign about his "lists" - plural, not singular. I couldn't quite decipher what it all meant, but there were multiple lists and it was clear that events didn't transpire exactly as the film showed; this made me wish the section was larger so I could learn more. There was a replica of his working desk, across from which was a very nice memorial listing out all of the people that he saved.

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There were some very interesting pieces in the museum, including Nazi propaganda posters and examples of Christmas presents from the war years - even an Adolf Hitler marionette!

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At the end of the museum was a room filled with statements from survivors and victims in various languages. The final room had photographs of many of the people that Schindler was able to save.

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I was really surprised by how spectacular the museum was; everything was in both Polish and English, making it easy for me to understand everything that was displayed. The level of detail that went into creating the museum and detailing out all of the events from the war was amazing. I could easily have spent an entire day at the museum; I had to rush through the last half since it was getting late (and I'd spent so much time reading everything during the first half!).

I made may way back to the old town for a quick dinner and one last stroll through the main square. Oh, and there was a guy playing the piano on the street... wearing a horse head mask.

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When I got back to my hotel I received a rather unpleasant email concerning my safari tour of Africa: the tour price had increased $200 due to a new tax imposed by Tanzania. The government imposed an 18% VAT on safari tours and provided only a 1-week notice before it was implemented. Since the excursion into the Serengeti is in Tanzania, this caused the price to jump. Hardly good news one week prior to leaving on the tour.

Though this bad news was offset when I received my electronic ballot for the November election! I'll be able to print it out next week while I'm in Scotland and get it sent in before I leave for Africa! Huzzah!

... and now there are loud and obnoxious Italians in the courtyard outside yelling and screaming at one another...

Posted by Glichez 10:48 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Auschwitz Visit


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Today was the first of several days that focuses on the Holocaust, a history that is sadly unavoidable when visiting Poland.

I was picked up from my hotel around 07:30 and we started the hour-long drive out to Auschwitz. En route we watched a DVD about the Soviet liberation of the camp in late January 1945; the film interviewed the cameraman who was with the Soviets and was the first to film the camp and the survivors. It included several scenes that he filmed, many of which I had never seen before; it was not easy to watch, especially when they showed the dead bodies (and the Soviet doctors performing autopsies; this was used as evidence against the Nazis after the war).

We arrived at the Auschwitz I camp and I was surprised how much the surrounding town had built up around the camp. During the Nazi era, nothing was allowed within 40km of the camp complex. This was to help keep the activities of the camp secret. When the camp was being built, the Nazis relocated the Polish population and cleared away the buildings they left behind. The Auschwitz I camp, though, utilized the buildings that were already on the site.

I was surprised by how small the Auschwitz I camp was. This was the first camp of the larger complex (Auschwitz II - Birkenau would grow to be about 20 times larger than Auschwitz I). Our group met with our camp tour guide and we were given individual headphones and receivers so we could hear her speaking as we walked around together.

We made our entry into the camp through the main gate with the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign ("Work sets you free"). Walking past the barbed wire fencing and entering the camp proper was somewhat eerie, knowing that thousands of people had made this same walk and had never left the camp alive.

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We made our way through several of the camp blocks, which had been converted into museums. There were several pictures and artifacts from the camp on display, as well as a map of the European camp complex that fed Auschwitz. There was an interesting glass container on display - our guide explained that it contained the ashes of some of the camp victims. There was a display case with a small metal container and dozens of small pellets next to it - Zyklon-B gas pellets and the container that it was transported in. Next to this was a larger case full of empty Zyklon-B containers from the camp.

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There was one room where pictures were forbidden: on display was a fraction of the human hair that was found when the camp was liberated. There was one display with the hair and an example of the cloth fabric that was made using the hair. The primary exhibit was a large room full of human hair; the mound was immense. After this we were shown a room with several suitcases and dozens of shoes that were taken from the new arrivals at the camp. The final room showcasing the looting the Nazis carried out contained hundreds of pots, pans, and other kitchen tools.

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The next block building was the so-called "Death Block" where several prisoners would be kept before being sentenced to execution. The walls were lined with the ID photos that the camp guards used to take of the new arrivals (this process would be replaced by tattooing the inmates' numbers on their arms). The photos had their birth date, occupation, date of arrival at the camp, and date of death. So many of the people died within only a few months (a year max) after arriving at the camp. Seeing all of their pictures put a more personal touch to the horrors of the camp. One photo really struck me: it was of a woman who was grinning in her photo; it was the only one I saw that showed any emotion (the rest were dead-pan stares). It made me wonder what made her grin in the photo: defiance against the Nazi cruelty? Ignorance as to what was in store for her?

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The basement of the Death Block was the only other area where photos were forbidden. We were able to see the cell where a Franciscan monk was placed to starve to death; he volunteered to take the place of a fellow camp inmate who was sentenced to starvation. The monk survived for an unbelievably long time and the Nazis eventually had him killed. The other inmate survived the camps.

We were also able to see some of the standing cells: small, windowless rooms of 3m by 3m where the guards would force four or five people to stand in overnight. To enter the cell, the inmates had to crawl through a small door along the floor. The inmates would often die of suffocation; if an inmate survived the night, they would be sent to work the next day and be brought back to the cell the next night; this cycle would continue until they died.

In a courtyard next to the Death Block was the execution wall (today it is a reconstruction). This black wall was where the executions would take place. The block building next to this one had it's windows blocked out from the outside so the inmates couldn't see what was happening (though they could of course hear the gunshots). Up to 200 people could be executed here each day.

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Next we saw the roll call square and the small guard tower for the guard responsible for the roll call. It was here that the inmates were counted every morning and evening. If there were missing people or any inmates committed any infractions, they could be forced to stand in this square for hours; the longest time spent standing was 19 hours.

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There was one somewhat good sight that we got to see, if there's anything good to see at such a place: the gallows where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, was hanged after his trial. He left the camp in 1943 and went into hiding after the war; thankfully he was soon captured and brought back to Poland for trial and execution. He was brought to Auschwitz for his execution; a fitting place for him to meet his fate.

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We made our way through the camp to our final stop: the gas chamber and the crematorium. This facility wasn't destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated the camp, so we were able to see everything. The gas chamber in this camp wasn't disguised as a shower, that was saved for Birkenau and other death camps. We saw the holes in the ceiling where the gas pellets would be dropped into the chamber. A door opened directly into the crematorium where the bodies would be burned. I found myself wondering how many bodies each of the ovens could hold at a time: the gas chamber could kill a massive number of people in 20-30 minutes, but the ovens seems quite small to handle that kind of volume. It's scary to think of such a methodical murder and disposal of human beings.

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We made our way out of the Auschwitz I camp and then drove over to the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp complex.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the camp that everyone thinks of when they speak of "Auschwitz" - the train track leading into the camp; the deciding area where the guards would point to the left or right (the gas chamber or the camp); row after row of barracks.

We entered the camp along the train tracks running through the main gate. The tracks ran into the middle of the camp: on one side was the original camp area (later turned into the women's camp), on the other side was the enlarged camp area (expanded into seven different small camps for different prisoner groups). Along the train tracks was one cattle car - an original car that was used to transport the prisoners to the camp. The car was amazingly small; to think of 60+ people crammed into such a place for days at a time is unthinkable.

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The larger camp area is largely in ruins now; the block buildings had been built of wood and were burned down by the Nazis when they evacuated. The only things that remain are the foundations and the chimneys. In the women's camp are several brick buildings that had survived; the bricks used for these blocks came from the former Polish homes that were demolished to build the camp.

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We walked along the train tacks, down the path "to the left" that thousands of prisoners had made over 70 years ago. At the end of the path were the ruins of two more crematoriums; the Nazis blew up the buildings prior to evacuating the camp in 1945. Much of the complex is still visible and the ruins have been left untouched. We could see the long room where the prisoners would undress; the would turn into a side room where they would be gassed; the bodies would be brought up on a lift to the ovens that were above ground.

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Between the two ruins is a beautiful memorial to the victims. The various sculptures are designed to represent the burial markers for each of the areas where the victims came from. At one end of the memorial was a sculpture that was supposed to represent the oven chimney. Along the memorial were signs, all stating the same thing in different languages (one sign for each language spoken by the various victims).

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We walked into the women's camp, walking among the rows of blocks. On the way we passed by a small memorial and a pool of water. The water was pooled in an area where the ashes of victims were buried; now the ashes are in the water.

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Inside the women's camp we were able to enter one of the blocks - the one for children. Most of the children who came to the camp were immediately sent to the gas chamber, but those who weren't stayed in this special block for them. We were able to see the crude bunk beds where they would be crowded into. One inmate was allowed to paint some happy pictures in the block for the children and the paintings are still on display.

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This concluded our visit to the Auschwitz camp complex. It was a sad, depressing and very moving couple of hours. I'd visited the Dachau camp outside of Munich in 2001 and this brought back many memories of my time visiting that camp.

We arrived back to Krakow shortly after 14:00 and I spent the afternoon walking around the old town area. I stopped at a Georgian restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered a meat dish with some rice; as a starter they brought me some traditional Georigan bread and sauces (spicy, mayo-based, and garlic).

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After lunch I did some more exploring and saw some more street performers around the main square. One group was dressed in traditional Polish clothes, playing some pretty music and a woman was signing with them. I stopped to listen to them for several minutes.

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I finally stopped by Starbucks to relax with a coffee and read. I treated myself to a pumpkin-spice frapuccino! I spent some time reading before finally heading back to my hotel for the night. On the way back I found a large sculpture of a head in the main square; I'd walked by this area yesterday and didn't see it (not sure if I was just oblivious or if it was moved there today).

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I did venture to the shopping mall near the train station during the afternoon as well. My beard trimmer finally died early the morning and I needed to find a replacement. The razor itself still works, but the charger broke. I plugged it in to charge before I showered, planning to let it charge during the day. After the shower, right before I left for the tour, I noticed a strange smell and saw that the charger light wasn't actually on, despite being plugged in. The smell was coming from the plug and when I pulled it out, it was very hot. I'm not sure what happened, but I decided not to try plugging it in again. Thankfully I found a new razor for less than $10 USD!

Posted by Glichez 11:18 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

Krakow Exploration


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Today I had to leave my hotel around 05:15 so I could make the 45 minute walk to the train station. I left before the buffet breakfast started, but the hotel staff packed me a nice bagged breakfast to take with me! It had two meat and cheese sandwiches, some fruit, yogurt, orange juice and a candy bar; I was really impressed and grateful!

I took a different route to reach the train station that what I walked yesterday on my way in; this time I went through the old town area, which was quite nice in the pre-dawn light. There were only a few people milling about, including the city's cleaning service (they power wash the streets and sidewalks at night to keep them looking nice). I passed a red-light house and saw one of the girls leaving, which was... interesting. There was also a pub still open and a couple people drinking beer.

I reached the train station in plenty of time, so I ate half of the breakfast and did some reading before heading out to catch the train. My ticket was in Polish, but I was able to decipher my seat number (045) and found the car with my seat; it was at a small table, so I got out my laptop and spent the journey working and listening to music.

We made a stop in Warsaw, where many people got on the train. A family came to my seats and said they had booked them; we compared tickets and found that my ticket was for car 5 and I was in car 2! The woman was quite nice about it and helped me find my way. I moved my stuff down to car 5 and found my seat... and there was someone sitting in it! I had to wake her up, but she was very nice and moved. The rest of the journey went quickly. The man sitting next to me was from Krakow, but has been living outside of Chicago for over 20 years!

Upon arrival in Krakow I made the short walk down to my hotel, a nice place located in a private courtyard just minutes from the old town area. After dropping off my luggage, I went out to do some sightseeing in the city.

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My first stop was the Warsaw Castle, which was only about ten minutes away. It was a very impressive complex, with fortifications, a cathedral and a palace all within the castle walls. Apparently the Austrians made some major changes to the buildings and destroyed much of the old castle when they occupied this area of Poland in the 1800s. The restoration work is amazing. The central courtyard was quite nice, with three levels of balconies running around it.

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I bought a ticket to get into the castle, but found the ticket process to be somewhat convoluted. There are several sections and exhibits in the castle, and each one has its own separate ticket that is priced differently; they had no all encompassing ticket for the castle. I bought a ticket for the state rooms; the crown treasury and armory; and the dragon's den. I wanted to see the royal private apartments, but apparently the tours were only in Polish and German and the cashier wouldn't sell me a ticket (I'd have been happy to see them, even if I couldn't understand the tour). No photos were permitted in the areas that I visited though.

My first stop was at the state rooms. These were a series of very nice public rooms that were used in the palace for formal receptions, visitors, and other such functions. The first few rooms were rather plain, with some tapestries hung up; the rooms grew increasingly more impressive as the tour continued. The throne room was especially nice, as was the grand ballroom (which doubled as a meeting room for the state senate).

I next visited the crown treasury and armory, which was as impressive as it sounds. There were not many jewels - certainly no crown jewels - but there was a very large collection of royal artifacts and belongings: gold and silver cups, decorations, holy icons, etc. Most of them were from the 1600s and 1700s (the period before Poland was partitioned by Russian, Austria and Prussia). The armory was the true highlight of the entire castle though. The collection of weapons, dating back to the 1500s was incredible! Massive two-handed swords, pikes, pole-arms, smaller (and more ornate) swords, maces, cannons... the armory had it all! Some of the cannons were intricately designed and looked rather stunning.

Finally I descended into the dragon's den... To reach this area underneath the castle, I had to walk down a very long spiral staircase; I found myself getting dizzy as I walked down the stairs! At the bottom I found myself inside a small cave that was built into the stone hill the castle was built atop. It was quite cool in the cave and a tiny bit spooky; it was fun to imagine that a dragon could have lived there!

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The dragon's den exited at the base of the castle, right next to the Vistula River. I started to walk into the old town area and was quite taken with the city. It had the same old European charm of Gdansk, mixed with the feeling of a large city; it was an interesting combination. Everywhere I looked I saw old-style buildings; horse-drawn carriages were everywhere as well. I passed several churches on my way to the main square.

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The main market square was one of my favorite areas of the old town. There was a large and impressive church in one corner, a large building in the center (this building was the old "cloth market" that was used when the square was a working street market), and at the opposite corner was another church. The square was massive; it was used as a market for years before the Second World War and this tradition was maintained, even through the communist times. Now the square was lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, and stores. In one corner of the square was a small memorial: it was an old water pump with a sign to remember a protester who committed self-immolation in the 1980s.

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Several street artists were performing around the square: signing or playing the guitar. One performer caught my eye though: he was simply blowing bubbles, over and over again. He had a home-made tool that he was using to blow the bubbles: two long sticks tied together with a series of strings and loops. He would dip the strings into the bubble solution and then wave it through the air. This would create dozens and dozens of bubbles in mere seconds. Little kids were flocking over to that area, running after the bubbles. I decided to give him the few coins that I had in my pocked (maybe the equivalent of $1 USD).

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I had one last loop to make on my sightseeing journey for today. I headed further north to a nice park just outside of the old city walls. This area had fewer tourists, which I rather liked. As I was walking through the park I came across an old fortification. Across the street from the fort I spotted a large monument with several statues around it. I ventured over to get a closer look and was really intrigued by the statues, especially one of a knight lying dead at the bottom.

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By this time I was quite hungry and I walked back to a restaurant that I had noticed near the castle. It looked to be a Polish-German restaurant; they were serving German beer in liter mugs, so how bad could it be?! I walked in and sat down... and then waited for several minutes for someone to come by; later on I realized that this was one of the few European restaurants where the hostess seats the guests - you don't seat yourself! I ordered a liter of Pilsner Urquell and the schnitzel for dinner. When the food arrived I was blown away by how massive the portion was - it could easily feed two people! The couple sitting next to me were equally shocked and we joked about the size of it. I managed to eat about 3/4 of it before I had to stop.

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Now I'm relaxing at the hotel, hoping to get some sleep tonight before heading out early for a guided tour tomorrow.

Posted by Glichez 11:45 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Gdansk, Venturing into Poland


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Today was the first of several early mornings that I'll have over the next week. I was up and out of the hotel by 05:30 so I could reach the bus station in time to catch my ride to Gdansk, Poland. The bus station had no signs in English, but I was able to match up the Russian name on the signs with my tickets to find my way. None of the departures signs inside the station listed my departure, which made me nervous. Thankfully, about 10 minutes before we were to leave, the small shuttle pulled up. The shuttle was quite small (and not comfortable to ride in); there were about 10 of us making the 3.5 hour journey to Poland.

The first half of the journey went smoothly and we reached the Russian border control around 08:00. We all had to exit the bus, collect our luggage and go through the customs controls. The bag scans went quite fast, but during the passport control I again was held up. Similar to when I entered Kaliningrad, the guard made several calls after seeing my USA passport; I was asked to wait several minutes before she was cleared to let me pass. By this point all of the other passengers had made it through with no issues.

The Polish border proved easier for me, though more involved for everyone else. I was whisked on through, my passport was stamped and the guard didn't speak a word to me. The other passengers were carefully questioned and each one had their thumb prints scanned. The last person in the group was held up and thoroughly questioned and examined. I'm not sure how her issues were resolved; we were brought back out to the bus while she was waiting. One of the Polish guards was very attractive: a little shorter than me, brunette, muscular (his sleeves were rolled up, tight on his impressive biceps), killer smile. Had it not been at the border control, I would have pulled a "creeper" and snapped a photo!

The remainder of the trip seemed to drag on, probably because the shuttle van was unpleasant to ride in. I was quite pleased when we arrived and I was able to make my way to my hotel. The hotel is located in a complex with the Academy of Music, which is rather nice. It was about a 45 minute walk from the bus station, but near enough to the old town.

Gdansk is everything that I wish that Kaliningrad had been (and what it should have been). Both cities share similar histories (former German cities, turned over to "communist" rule after the Second World War). Right away I was struck by the old European feel to the city. I walked along a small canal, through an old city gate and into a large pedestrian street.

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Cafes and shops lined the street, with beautiful buildings surrounding everything. In the middle of the street was a large building with a tall tower; at the base of which was a really pretty fountain. I had to wait for some very obnoxious older women to finish taking a few dozen selfies before I was able to take any pictures of the fountain.

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I decided to climb the tower; the stairs proved to be quite a workout! There was a small museum about the city in the building as well, but my focus was on the tower. By the time I reached the top I was sweating and out of breath, but the views were well worth the effort. The city stretched out before me and it was amazing. Quite close by was the main cathedral of the city; the top of the tower provided the best views of the cathedral.

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After descending the tower, I went to the cathedral. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed during the war, but it had been painstakingly restored. The interior is rather plain, but this is offset by the amazing exterior of the building.

Nearby the cathedral was a small fountain with four statues of lions, right outside an ornate building that somehow survived the war. There were pictures showing the rubble of the city, but with the building still standing with little observable damage to it. Walking through the city I was able to see some more older buildings and city gates. One of the more interesting buildings was the old docks with an old crane for unloading the boats.

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I decided to take a boat through the canals and up to the area known as Westerplatte, far to the north of the old town. There was a ferry system that transports people between the two locations. The pickup area was quite crowded with other boat tour services; somehow I got confused and I bought a ticket for a tourist boat and not the ferry. My boat still went by the Westerplatte area, so I wasn't too upset about the mixup. The boat sailed through the modern docks, which was quite interesting to see, especially the boats in dry dock being worked on. The trip culminated in seeing the monument at the Westerplatte, before turning around and heading back to old town.

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After the 90-minute boat trip I spent some more time walking around the old town, admiring the charming architecture. Signage all over the place was in Polish, English and (to my delight) German. I always love to see German anywhere I go and this made me happy for some reason. I encountered many, many young people playing instruments (for money) on the street. Rather than just playing the guitar, as so many people do, these kids were playing orchestral music on violins, cellos, etc. There were several small groups playing; my favorite was a quartet playing classical music in one of the city gates. They were incredibly talented and it was a treat to listen to them play.

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I stopped off at a local restaurant for dinner, sitting in the outdoor patio, but away from the pedestrian area (learning from Vilnius). The restaurant specialized in a Polish type of baked potato and offered dozens of varieties. I went with the "three samples" option, which was recommended for first timers; the dish had three types of toppings on the gigantic baked potato: veggies, meat (bacon) and Tzatziki. Each section was amazing, but my favorite was the Tzatziki. I devoured every bite of the food, along with two Polish beers.

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Back to the hotel for an early evening; I've got to be up by 05:00 again to catch my train to Krakow!

Posted by Glichez 09:26 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Too much Kaliningrad, not enough Königsberg


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I wish this city was more Königsberg and less Kaliningrad...

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I cannot say that Kaliningrad has been a highlight of the trip, but I cannot say that I regret my visit here. It has been an interesting city to visit, though a rather depressing one. Let me provide a brief history of Königsberg...

This city was formerly known as Königsberg, one of the central cities in Prussia; once Prussia became a kingdom in its own right and the capital was established in Berlin, the Hohenzollern kings still journeyed to Königsberg for their coronations in the cathedral here. The city was part of Prussia (and then Germany after 1870) for over two centuries... and then the Second World War happened.

Königsberg, like most German cities, was bombed repeatedly and the Red Army captured it in April 1945. Much of the city was in ruins and, once the war was over, Russia annexed Königsberg and the surrounding territory; Poland was thrust westward into lands that were formerly Prussian (in case you didn't know, present-day Poland comprises areas that were, indeed, historically Polish... and then lands that were historically Prussian; this was done at Stalin's behest so he could expand the border of the USSR further west... and the West did nothing to stop him).

With Königsberg now formally part of Russia, the city's name was changed to Kaliningrad, after some Soviet guy name Kalinin. The German population was forcibly removed by the Soviets and moved to Germany; the area was then repopulated by Russians and other Soviet subjects. The rebuilding of the city was done in the ghastly 1950s Soviet style (cement block housing).

With all that said, I journeyed to Kaliningrad in the hopes of seeing the old Königsberg side of the city. To my dismay, very little of that old city is left, the rest having being intentionally stamped out by the Soviets.

I headed out for a long 4-hour walk around the city, maps in hand and camera at the ready. The first stop of the day was just a short walk along the river from my hotel: the Königsberg Cathedral, which had been lovingly restored starting in 1992. The exterior of the building is very charming and in the classic German style that one associates with old Germany. I quite liked seeing and admiring the cathedral.

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When I arrived I waited at the ticket counter for quite a few minutes as the cashier kept talking (ad nauseam) with the two ladies in front of me. Eventually I was able to purchase a ticket for the museum on the upper floors. The museum encompassed three floors, the first area recounting the history of Königsberg/Kaliningrad, and then the remainder of the museum covering the Immanuel Kant, German philosopher who is buried at the cathedral. One of the final rooms had a strange display of foreign currency; all of the signage was in Russian (some was also in German, which helped as I could read some of that). There was currently from countries all around the world, both paper money and coins; they had an example of every type of modern coin from the US; I particularly enjoyed seeing the Iranian currency. Around the upper floors were some very nice stained glass windows and a lovely library.

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Making my way down to the main level, I bought a ticket to enter the church itself. The inside was quite nice, though only the organ was ornately decorated; the rest of the church was quite plain. The organ was exquisite though: gold trimmed, paintings and sculptures all around, topped by the Hohenzollern black eagle. They regularly perform organ concerts at the cathedral and I wish that I had been able to attend one. I spent some time walking around the interior of the church before finally heading out to explore the rest of the city.

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The cathedral was positioned on a small island, surrounded by a lovely park. I walked through the park and then headed north into the city itself. I was saddened by the obvious poverty that filled the city: endless Soviet-style brick housing structures, all looking quite run down; the sidewalks were in disarray; the buses were all ancient and looked ready to break down. Overall the city looked unkempt and uncared for. Granted, the city is probably (hopefully) spending money on other more important matters, but one could imagine what the city could look like had it either remained German or the German style been embraced. I found myself really hating what the Soviets had done to this city; it took them no time at all to wipe out centuries of history and culture. Walking around the streets proved to be quite a challenge as crosswalks were not placed in all intersections (I had to make a long back-track to find a crosswalk at one point, just to cross one street).

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I found several monuments and statues as I walked around the city, all of them having something to do with the Second World War (I could tell this only because they all had the dates "1941-1945" on them). There was a very impressive statue of some soldiers that I quite liked. One square had a nice fountain and was across from the opera, which was one of the few gorgeous buildings in the city.

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I made my way to the Victory Square, which is a large public area with a pillar commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. I was surprised that I did not see a statue of Lenin anywhere (apparently the statue of his was moved sometime after the collapse of the USSR). One side of the square had the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and on the other side sat the town hall.

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One thing atop the town hall building caught my eye as I was walking about: the rainbow flag was flying! I stood there and stared at it for several minutes, unable to comprehend how or why this was happening in Russia, a country that suppresses, ostracizes and discriminates against gay people. Three flags were flying on top of the building: the Russian flag, the Kaliningrad flag, and then the rainbow flag. In the upper left corner of the rainbow flag there was a small symbol that looked like a castle; I'm not sure what it means though. I've tried several Google searches to discover what the meaning behind the rainbow flag in Kaliningrad is, but I've not been able to find anything; it could be censored on my Internet searches though. I've noticed that many things related to the LGBT community are censored online, such as on Netflix. Netflix changes its offerings, depending on which country you are logging in from; here in Russia they do not offer any LGBT films - the category doesn't even exist and doing a search returns nothing (a search for "gay" returned one thing: Scream 2... no idea why).

**Correction** After uploading my photos, I can now clearly see that the flag is not the rainbow flag, but rather the flag of Kaliningrad Oblast (state). The flag has a large red band, a smaller yellow band, and a large blue band; seen from afar and with the sun shining into my eyes, I can easily see how I could confuse this flag for the pride flag.

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I grabbed a quick bite to eat for lunch and then continued on my self-guided tour of the city. My next stop was the old city walls right next to a very pretty lake. Most of the city walls were either destroyed during the war or demolished after, but there are sections that still remain. This particular section is one of the largest and best preserved: it had some of the walls, a tower fortification, and one of the old city gates.

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I turned south and started to head back in the general direction of my hotel. I took a leisurely stroll through another nearby park that had a stream running through it. At the start of the park was a nice water feature and fountain, but the water was filled with garbage that it detracted from the beauty of it. Along one side of the stream was a series of abandoned buildings which looked rather interesting sitting right next to the tree-lined park.

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I managed to find my way to a bunker museum, which was hidden away in a residential area (again, the Soviet-style block housing). The bunker was built by the Nazis near the end of the war as the Soviets were advancing on the city. Now the bunker serves as a museum, which I decide to go visit. I was surprised that the bunker wasn’t deeper underground. The bunker consisted of one long hallway and several small rooms on either side. Most of the rooms were quite small; many had dioramas depicting the city at various points during the siege in April 1945. A few rooms were made up to resemble how they looked when the Germans were living in them; the mannequins looked rather ridiculous. There was some signage in English outside some of the rooms, but the majority of everything was in Russian, so I just got to look around. The entire visit took me about 15 minutes.

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Finally, I made a brief stop outside of the Palace of Culture, a rather nice building that seems quite out of place in Kaliningrad. I'd intended to walk around another area of town, but as I got closer, I noticed that it appeared far more rundown and questionable in terms of safety, so I opted to skip that portion of my walking tour; the only things I missed were two smaller gates from the old city wall.

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I went out for a coffee at a small cafe near my hotel. I discovered that the area where my hotel is located is known as the "Fishermen's village" and is the only area with German-style buildings. They are two blocks of buildings, lined up long the river and right next to the cathedral. The waitress at the cafe spoke passable English, which was nice; she was very attentive and helpful. I had a cappuccino and, at her suggestion, a slice of chocolate and cherry cake. The cake was quite good, with cherry syrup drizzled over it. I sat enjoying my treat and read for a short bit before the sun set. As I was paying my bill, the waitress asked me where I was from; she was surprised to hear that I am from the States.

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I walked across the street to the local supermarket to grab some food for dinner. I went shopping there last night as well for dinner, grabbing a fresh sandwich from the deli. The sandwich was so good that I grabbed another one tonight for dinner, though now I'm not terrible hungry, so I plan to save it for lunch tomorrow.

Last night I was delighted to find that the store sold my favorite German beer: Löwenbräu!! This was the first beer I had at my first Oktoberfest in Munich in 2009. I sat alone in the Löwenbräu, but was soon joined by some Germans who I drank with throughout the afternoon. It was also at the Löwenbräu that I met the group of Italians the following night. I bought two large bottles of Löwenbräu and brought them back to my hotel; one I drank last night and the other I am enjoying as I write this blog update.

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Overall I think my time in Kaliningrad was pleasant, though I wish the city had more of the old Königsberg feel to it.

Posted by Glichez 11:43 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Heading back to Russia


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Today centered around traveling from Vilnius to Kaliningrad. I had booked a seat on a bus that left Vilnius at 10:00, so I was able to have a leisurely morning. It was raining throughout the morning, but it let up during the time I walked from my hotel to the bus station. There were quite a few people on the bus to Kaliningrad, which surprised me; I hadn't expected there to be that many people interested in making the journey.

When boarding the bus, the driver was surprised to see an American; he just stared at the cover of my passport for a few moments, before finally verifying my ID and ticket. The drive through Lithuania was smooth an uneventful; it was raining the entire drive today. We drove through some beautiful countryside. There was one TV in the bus and the driver put on some Russian movies, which I was unable to follow.

The border crossing proved to be the most interesting part of the day. Leaving Lithuania was a breeze, but entering Russia took some time. The guards searched every part of the bus, opening every compartment possible to search from contraband. When I presented my passport to the border guard, she seemed confused or concerned over something; she spoke no English, so I've no clue what was going on. She called two different people and I only understood three words: American, Moscow, and Belarus. Clearly the fact that I entered Russia through Moscow and then left greater Russia through Belarus was causing more confusion (similar to what I experienced when leaving Belarus). Since Russia and Belarus have no border controls between them, I only have the entry stamp from Russia and the exit stamp from Belarus. She eventually stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

We drove for another three hours before finally arriving in Kaliningrad; the bus trip took nearly seven hours! On the drive into the city I was saddened to see how Soviet-esque the city looked. Kaliningrad has historically been a Prussian and German city; Russian annexed the area after World War Two. I expected to see some charming German buildings, but instead I was treated to an endless sea of Soviet block-style housing with only one or two German buildings tucked away. Not only did the Soviets expel all of the German citizens after the war, but they clearly tried to erase the German heritage.

My first task upon arriving at the bus station was to buy my bus ticket to Gdansk for Tuesday. This was the one bus ticket that I wasn't able to buy in advance when I was planning the trip. None of the tellers spoke English, but luckily I had some screenshots on my phone from the bus website showing where I wanted to go and when (in Russian).

The walk from the bus station to the hotel took around 25 minutes. The hotel is right across the river from the German cathedral and is the nicest hotel I've stayed at. The room is huge, similar to an executive suite!

Posted by Glichez 08:25 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Kaunas, Užupis and Threats Over Dinner


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Today was a jam-packed final day in Lithuania and the Baltics. Thankfully I was able to sleep in and get some much needed rest after the relentless pacing of the past few days.

I caught the train to the nearby city of Kaunas at 10:30, getting a first class ticket for the hour-long journey. The first class car was quite nice and quiet on the trip, allowing me to spend some time reading my history of the Crimean War and to just enjoy the ride. The weather today was cloudy and slightly rainy; it would drizzle the entire time I was in Kaunas.

After arriving in Kaunas I set off on a solo city tour that I had planned out; it took my by the major sights in the city and allowed me to cover a good section of the city. The train station was a 30-minute walk from the city center; I took a different route into and out of the city center, allowing me to see different areas. I was immediately struck by the blatant lack of money that the city (and Lithuania as a whole) suffers from; it is the the poorest of the three Baltic States. Vilnius had some evidence of the lack of money, but it was on clear display in Kaunas, the old capital of the country. Streets and sidewalks were in disarray, with many being nothing more than dirt paths.

My path into the city center took me along the riverfront, which was rather pleasant; to get there I walked through a run down neighborhood with several abandoned buildings. Even the people walking the streets exhibited a level of poverty I've not seen since South America. Granted, the people here still have more money and a high standard of living than many of those I saw in South America, especially in Puerto Iguazu and Asuncion. I saw one man, clearly quite drunk, stumble over himself and down a small flight of stairs, falling against the glass windows of a local burger joint. He stood up, was stumbling about and barely managed to get himself through the door of the restaurant, where he promptly fell against the counter. He is quite lucky that he didn't fall through the glass widows!

Walking along the river I finally reached the Aleksotas bridge, which spanned the Neman river. It had some old brick structures supporting the bridge, which was quite nice. The university was located right next to the bridge; one of the buildings housed Napoleon during his Russian campaign in 1812, but I was unable to identify which building he stayed in. To reach the university from the bridge I had to walk through a rather sketchy tunnel, filled with graffiti and which reeked of urine - thankfully there was no one else in the tunnel!

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I did find a small monument - quite possibly my favorite monument that I've seen on this trip (or ever). It was about three feet tall, made of nice stone and stated that "In this place, on 11 May 2014, nothing in particular happened." This was right near the university buildings, in the corner of a small square that was lined with trees. I found it amusing that they clearly spent a good deal of money making a nice monument... to nothing. This type of joke has been made before, but the sheer cost of this one, especially here in Lithuania, made it even more special and amusing.

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My route took me into the city center itself, where I visited the town hall square. There were several wedding parties in the square taking photos, along with an interesting party of people that I initially thought was there for a funeral; I later saw that they were all dressed in 1920s-style costumes, but for what reason I could not tell.

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My next stop was the Kaunas castle - or the ruins of the castle. All that remains is one tower and a crumbling wall. It was actually rather interesting to see. Behind the castle was a church and a large building that looked almost palatial.

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My last stop took me along a very nice pedestrian street through the heart of the city. This area had quite a bit of charm to it, with small stores and restaurants all along the street; running down the middle of the street was a double row of trees. I stumbled across a very nice statue along the way commemorating an old ruler who helped to defend the old commonwealth. At the end of the street was a very nice cathedral.

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I made my way back to the train station in a hurry so I could catch the next train back to Vilnius. All told, I spent about 2.5 hours in Kaunas, which was enough time to see the highlights of the city. I am glad that I visited the city, but I do not think that I would go back; there is not much there to do as a tourist. I bought a second class ticket back to Vilnius, which wasn't as nice as the journey to Kaunas (of course). There was a group of 20-somethings sitting near me having an impromptu birthday celebration: they had pizza, followed by a small cake and something to drink.

After arriving back in Vilnius, I decided to head to Užupis once more. I stopped along the bridge into Užupis to admire the artwork that lined the river bank, hanging on the bridge walls. Artwork like that is scattered throughout Užupis and gives it the Bohemian charm. I walked back to the street where the Užupis Constitution hangs on the wall so I could get some better pictures (this time without all of the tourists being reflected in the metal signs).

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I walked through the main (small) square in Užupis, where there is a water tap that the Republic serves beer from on their "Independence Day" (which happens to be 1 April... coincidence??). The rest of the year the tap will provide water to anyone, but on April Fool's Day it will provide free beer to anyone who comes by. The tourist information center of Užupis will stamp your passport and I spent a few minutes trying to find it, but I arrived just after they had closed! I walked along the riverfront, admiring more of the art, including an energy pillar: the artists who created it stated that if you put your palm on it that you'll absorb the energy of others who have touched it. On the way out of Užupis was the small Tibetan square that has Tibetan prayer flags hanging all around it in support of a free Tibet.

By this point I was getting quite hungry and decided to return to the same restaurant from last night for dinner. I ordered the zeppelins again, but this time I ordered the "Master's style" version; there wasn't much difference, but they had a different filling (tonight's still had ground meat, but also some cheese or curd mixed in). The meal was quite delicious, just like it was last night.

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Sadly the end of the meal was marred by a strange encounter with a seemingly drunk or high man who came up to my table begging for money. I was sitting on the outside terrace of the restaurant, right on the street. He came up and was asking for money in broken English and he was leaning quite far over my table and seat, to the point that I had to scoot my chair away in order to sit upright. I initially just ignored him, hoping that he would walk away; this didn't happen and he continued to beg and then even demand that I give him money. I finally said no and that I had no money, but he didn't accept his and kept demanding money. Finally he leaned in closer and said "If I see you again later, I fight you. You understand? I fight you so I go to jail. I want to go to jail." I was so shocked by this that I just ignored him, but he kept repeating himself. He began to stumble away, but came back to repeat his threats to fight me. Thankfully he left after that, but kept looking back at me; he met up with someone as he was walking away, though I couldn't tell if it was a friend or someone he was begging from.

During this entire exchange, which lasted several minutes, the wait staff noticed him leaning over me, as did the patrons sitting right next to me, but no one stepped in to help! Needless to say, I left no tip whatsoever (yes, I know tipping isn't the same in Europe, but I sometimes tip 1 or 2 EUR; I didn't leave one cent as a tip this time). It would have been nice for someone to say something to the man in Lithuanian to get him to leave, but no one said anything. As he was making his threats, he was clearly fondling something in his coat pocket, which I was worried would me a knife or something; I was worried that he'd try to fight me right there, punching me or something as I sat at the table.

This may sound rather silly reading after the fact, but in the moment it was quite scary as I had no idea what the man was going to do, especially since he was clearly inhibited in some way (I initially thought he was drunk, but I couldn't smell alcohol on his breath). He was stumbling along and couldn't walk a straight line, so he was clearly inhibited in some way.

I spent some time nursing my beer before paying and leaving to head back to my hotel. Sadly the man had taken the same route that I now needed to take to reach my hotel. I put on my hoodie to hopefully hide myself should I run into him again (my hoodie was off when he confronted me, so I thought the change might be enough to throw him off). I also had my umbrella in hand to use in some sort of defense. The entire walk back I was looking around and glancing over my shoulder to see if he was around. Thankfully the 20 minutes walk back was uneventful.

I stopped in a local coffee shop two block from my hotel to have a mocha and spend some time reading. I ordered the large mocha, expecting to get a "European large" (which is really quite small by American standards). I was wrong. The mocha was huge, but quite delicious. The barista even spelled out "Coffee Time!" in chocolate syrup on top of the mocha! It was a nice way to spend some time relaxing after the stress that ended my otherwise pleasant dinner.

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I just watched a brief fireworks show from my hotel window that must be part of the Vilnius celebrations this weekend, though the location of the fireworks show wasn't anywhere near where the street fair celebrations were going on. It was a quick show, lasting maybe three minutes, but it was still fun to watch!

One thing I must say about the people living in the Baltics, especially Latvia and Lithuania, is that the people here love to dance. Anytime there is music playing, be it live performances or music over a PA system, the young people will start to dance. Walking through the shopping mall of Riga and through the street fair of Vilnius, random young people would burst into dance when they heard music. They danced with such reckless abandon, displaying sheer joy and reveling in their freedom to express themselves. My thoughts each time I would see this focused on the fact that they would not have been able to do this 25 years ago, under the Soviet regime. Clearly the youth in the Baltic States cherish their relatively new freedoms and enjoy expressing that through dance. It was just a joyous expression of self, something that I have never seen back in the States. We dance there, yes, but never with this overwhelming sense of embracing our freedom. I think that Americans take our freedoms for granted nowadays, but the people in the Baltic States still revel in what they gained 25 years ago.

Estonia and Latvia both celebrated 25 years of independence from the USSR a few weeks ago, while Lithuania celebrated 26 years recently.

Posted by Glichez 09:43 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

Rounding out the Baltic States in Vilnius


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This morning I was up early so I could catch my bus to Vilnius at 07:00; I wasn't able to have breakfast at the hotel before I left either. The bus ride lasted just under four hours and went rather smoothly. I ran into Albert and his girlfriend (both from the bus tour from Tallinn to Riga); they were on the same bus to Vilnius as me! Thankfully the bus had personal TVs for each seat and a small library of movies to watch; I spent the ride watching "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and then "Deadpool" which finished right as we were arriving. I made my way to my hotel, which is another very nice place; my room is on the top floor.

I headed towards the city center to catch the free walking tour at noon. I stopped in at a local supermarket to grab a quick snack before the tour - and ran into Albert again! There was a rather pretty church right nearby that I decided to quickly visit as well. The interior was rather plain, except for the altar at the very front; this was incredibly ornate and was quite beautiful.

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The tour met up at the town hall, which was a Greek-style building. The group was split into two smaller groups of around 20 people each (Albert and his girlfriend were in the other group from mine – as were the two annoying Americans from my day tour in Tallinn!).

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Our guide for the afternoon was a younger guy who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his city; he provided us with a brief history of Lithuania and then the walking tour began. Our first (brief) stop was at a plaque on the wall of the town hall, commemorating when George W Bush spoke in Vilnius.

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We walked through the city and visited one of the two former Jewish ghettos from the 1940s. There isn’t much that would give away the area’s terrible past. We stepped into one of the many courtyards and saw a small statue of a naked woman riding a bear, which is supposed to represent the country’s paganism in the past.

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We then headed off to the Independent Republic of Užupis, which lies along the river running through the city. The Republic was created in 1998 and is rather tongue-in-cheek, though it does have its own parliament, president and army (of 11 people). Užupis has their own signs welcoming visitors, laying out the few rules of the Republic:
1. You must smile
2. No driving faster than 20kph
3. You must like art

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As we crossed the bridge and entered Užupis, we saw a statue of a mermaid along the wall. There is a city-wide program that allows some of the statues to “call” your cell phone and tell you their story by scanning a QC code. Our guide played the mermaid’s “call” and it sounded rather like a phone sex call!

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Užupis is rather bohemian and very artsy, with statues scattered around it and courtyards full or artistic things. Along one wall were metal signs listing out the Constitution of Užupis in various languages.

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The Constitution reads thus:
1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
6. Everyone has the right to love.
7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee (sic).
14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
20. No one has the right to violence.
21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
23. Everyone has the right to understand.
24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
27. Everyone shall remember their name.
28. Everyone may share what they possess.
29. No one can share what they do not possess.
30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
31. Everyone may be independent.
32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
33. Everyone has the right to cry.
34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
39. Do not defeat
40. Do not fight back
41. Do not surrender

We made our way back into the old town area of Vilnius, stopping by an old Gothic-style church. There were several wedding parties taking pictures outside of the church. There are actually two churches right next to one another in the same courtyard.

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Our next stop took us to the presidential palace, situated right next to the university of Lithuania. Our guide told us many amusing stories about their current president: a woman who speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to offend someone.

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Our final stop was at the cathedral, situated in the heart of the city center. The building was used as an art gallery during the Soviet era, but has since been restored and is back to being a church. It sits on one side of a large square, which is lined by a small park on the other side. Behind the cathedral sits the reconstructed palace of the grand dukes. It is a pretty building without a great deal of embellishment.

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Behind the square was a small hill with the Gediminas' Tower, which is the ruins of the former upper castle. I followed the stone patch up to the tower, but I didn’t go inside (the 4 EUR admission would get me to the top of the tower, but the views from the top of the hill were spectacular enough).

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I didn’t spend much time at the top of the hill as a storm began to roll in; I headed back to my hotel so I could grab my umbrella and drop of my camera. On the way it began to rain, but thankfully I missed the worst of the storm. I waited a few minutes for the storm to let up and then I headed back to the city center area for dinner.

I had found a restaurant that focused solely on traditional Lithuanian food; it had very good reviews and their prices were quite cheap. I went with the most traditional dish: zeppelins (cepelinai). These are dumplings made of potato shavings and stuffed with ground meat; they are named after the Zeppelin airships due to their shape. Mine was served with a sour cream sauce and I devoured it all. The food was spectacular – I may return tomorrow to try another type of zeppelin. With dinner I had a rather good local Lithuanian beer.

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For dessert I again went with the most traditional Lithuanian food: some chocolate and almond sweets, served with chocolate drizzle on top. I had an almond coffee with it; the taste was quite different from a regular coffee, but it went well with the dessert. The best part: the entire meal cost only 10 EUR!

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As I was leaving, I decided to walk around the cathedral square for a few minutes. To my delight I discovered that there was a street fair going on to one side of the square. Our guide had mentioned that the city would be have some celebrations throughout the weekend; this must have been part of that. There were numerous stalls selling various knick-knacks and food vendors selling delicious smelling food (what it was I couldn’t tell). At various places along the street were a few stages with bands performing. I even stumbled across a band just playing on the street (and interesting band made up of three trombone players and a saxophone player!). It was really fun to get to wander around and experience this part of Vilnius. Until tonight the charm of the city had eluded me, but I now felt a better connection and understanding of the city.

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One the way back to my hotel I came across a trip of women doing flamenco dancing on the sidewalk!

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Posted by Glichez 10:35 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

Rundale Palace


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The plan for today centered around visiting Rundale Palace, which was about an hour away from Riga.

I had found the local buses to take to get out to Rundale, as all of the guided tours were far too expensive (averaging around $120 USD, not including admission to the palace itself!). I arrived at the Riga bus station far too early; I thought that it would be quite busy early in the morning, so left the hotel with plenty of time to spare; turns out that I was wrong and the bus station wasn't busy at all. I spent the time wandering around the local market, which is across the street (this is the same market that I'd visited yesterday on the free walking tour).

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The bus ride out to Rundale was rather uneventful. I had to change buses in the town of Bauska and I had about an hour wait time between buses in that city. Bauska is a fairly small town and I spent the hour walking around. I saw the small Russian Orthodox church and the Bauska castle.

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The bus ride to Rundale Palace lasts only about 15 minutes, though when the bus dropped us off, it wasn't exactly clear where to go to reach the palace. We were on a small road, surrounded by farmland. There was a small cafe nearby and I decided to walk around to see if I could find the palace. Thankfully there was a path behind the cafe and I saw some other tourists walking along it, so I followed them to the palace itself.

The exterior of the palace was quite impressive, almost like a smaller version of Versailles. There were very few people there when I arrived and I was able to admire the main courtyard, which was quite grand. Rundale Palace was built for the Dukes of Courland in the mid-1700s.

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Access to the interior of the palace was through the front doors, though there wasn't any signage to point the way; I just walked up the stairs and let myself in. I paid for the "long tour" of the palace rooms, as well as the small fee for taking photos inside the palace. The palace rooms were really well renovated, having been completed during the past 10 to 20 years. Everything was meticulously recreated; each room was breathtaking, especially the ballroom with the gold-trimmed walls and ceiling. I could go on and on describing the interior of the palace, but I will let the numerous photos do the work for me.

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After exploring the interior of the palace, I headed out to the exquisite gardens. Thankfully the gardens were rather deserted when I got there, so I was able to explore in solitude and take some amazing pictures without people being crowded in them. The gardens had some absolutely beautiful rose bushes and other flowers scattered all around. The entire garden was incredibly tranquil and peaceful; I spent nearly an hour just wandering about.

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I caught the bus back to Bauska around 14:30, which allowed me to catch the bus back to Riga at 15:00. It was quite difficult to stay awake during the ride back to town; I must have dozed off a few times, but I got a burst of energy once I was back in Riga. I made a brief stop back at my hotel before heading out to grab a bite to eat for dinner.

I decided to visit the Folkklubs Ala, which the tour guide Arthurs had recommended yesterday. It was a traditional Latvian restaurant that has nothing but local Latvian beers. Once you reach the restaurant, you have to descend into the basement of the building in the old town to reach the actual seating area. The walls are all lined with the old stones; the tables and chairs are all large and made of wood; there are two bar areas and a small stage for live bands. You could also order 3L pitchers of beer, which was served in an old stone pitcher!

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I decided to sit at one of the bars and had the bartender pick one of his favorite local beers; he gave me a Valmiermuizas unfiltered light beer, which was quite good. I ordered dinner there as well, deciding to have the Latvian meatballs with sauerkraut; Philip ate the same dish yesterday and mentioned that it was very good, so I decided to try it myself. The food was outstanding - quite possible the best meal that I have had on the trip thus far. The food came with potato wedges as well.

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I devoured my meal and ordered another beer as well, this time having an Aldaris (another bartender recommentation). This beer was like an IPA, which was more hoppy than the first beer, but still quite good.

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I decided to have dessert as well, but I was undecided on which one to order. I asked one of the bartenders, who suggested the beer fritters, so I went with those. They were fried fritters with small slices of apples and an amazing whipped cream. I was in heaven as I ate them, but with each bite I became more and more full... but I had to finish them all! By this point I was onto my third beer, another bartender suggestion; this one was a Bauskas - a beer from the town of Bauska!

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Finally, I decided to leave the bar and head back to my hotel. A band was starting to play and I wanted to stay for a little while longer, but my phone battery was running quite low. So I came back to my hotel to spend a few minutes charging my phone (and writing this blog entry). I was able to Skype with my nephew, sister, and mother... and most importantly, with the amazing Orange Kitty. Now my phone is somewhat charged up and I think it is time to head back out to the bar for one or two more drinks.

Why am I doing this when I have a bus to catch at 07:00? It's my last night in Riga and I want to make the most of it!

Posted by Glichez 09:56 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

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