Bevis's Travels Bevis's travel blog…

18May/150

United Arab Emirates and Oman 2015

CLICK ON PICTURES TO ENLARGE

United Arab Emirates and Oman  2015

The Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) actually consists of seven states or Emirates that were formerly, along with other parts of the Middle East, under British rule.  After the British pulled out in 1971 they combined to form one country but still retained the internal divisions under control of the old ruling families, each headed by a Sheikh.  They are strict Muslim societies with no democracy as it is understood in the West.

The two largest Emirates, well-known to most British people, are Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the  others being Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al Qalwain. Abu Dhabi is actually the capital of the UAE and by far the wealthiest Emirate, because it has most of the oil.  It is largely thanks to the generosity of the ruling Sheikh of Abu Dhabi in sharing his wealth at the time when the UAE was formed that the whole country has remained stable and prospered.

My plan was to fly with Emirates Air Line from Gatwick to Dubai International Airport, hire a car, drive across to the east coast, down to Muscat in Oman and back through the desert.   This would mean driving about a thousand miles in eight days, so I would be fairly busy.

For a change I was looking forward to the flight because it was on an A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, with over 500 seats as operated by Emirates.  It was an overnight flight, arriving in Dubai at about 7.00am, by which time I had had no significant amount of sleep for about 19 hours.  Dubai Airport is one of the largest and busiest in the world, and getting from the plane to the terminal exit involves a long walk, a long train ride, and a long wait for the baggage to come through.  Eventually I got to the car rental office and picked up my Toyota Yaris, possibly not the most prestigious car in which to tour one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.

The earliest time I could check-in at the Ramada Beach Hotel Ajman, about 18 miles from the airport, was 2.00pm so I decided to take a small diversion to visit the Sharjah Classic Car Museum and spend the rest of the time on the beach until my room was available. Within a short time of leaving the airport I realized that this was a country of BIG roads, BIG roadworks, fast and furious driving, and a high rate of development in all respects. At home I had downloaded excellent offline maps of the UAE and Oman into my phone and tablet computer, both of which have GPS, so at least I could always find out where I was, but I would always be fighting against the very complex local traffic systems.

On the way to the museum I had a foretaste of what was to come when I was diverted by massive roadworks and finished up on what was clearly quite an old and run down industrial estate doing mostly metal fabrication.  Most of the people around (mainly men) appeared to be from the Indian sub-continent, and that applies to all aspects of the labour market in the UAE, especially where tourism is concerned.  Less than 20% of the population of the UAE are actual Emirati (Emirates citizens), and over 90% of the employees of private companies are ex-pats.

Ajman

Ajman Beach

Ajman Beach

After the museum I drove through Sharjah to the coast and turned northwards into Ajman, until I came to the hotel.  It had quite good reviews, but some people commented on the lengthy check-in procedure, which did seem complicated.  My room was not ready, so I was given a ticket for the private beach across the road with “Waiting for Room” written on it.  At the entrance to the beach the man would not let me in because there was no room number on the ticket.   He rang the hotel reception, who told him they now had a room number for me, but he would still not let me in until I went back to the reception and got the number written on the ticket.  After completing the check-in procedure, which took some time, I went back to the beach and found the man locked in combat with about six young ladies who were attempting to get through the gate.  This was the first of many “jobsworths” I was to encounter in the course of my trip, and eventually I gave up and walked along to the public beach next door.  This stretch of coast faces west onto the Arabian Gulf.

By early evening the lack of sleep was taking over and I retired for about 14 hours to catch up, being disturbed only by the periodic call to prayer from the loudspeakers on the mosque next to the hotel. They were indeed very loud, but for a visiting foreigner from a non-Islamic country it is an essential experience.

Ajman street

Ajman street

Although I had the maps in the electronic gadgets I wanted a paper map of the UAE to get an overview of the route I was taking around the country.  I had tried unsuccessfully to get one in England, so before setting off for the east coast the next morning I had a look round the shopping streets near the hotel.  The area is fairly European in character, but has the preponderance of barbers and tailors found everywhere in that part of the world.  Eventually I found a big LuLu hypermarket with the map I wanted tucked away in the middle of it.  Ajman, incidentally, has no public transport at all apart from taxis, in common with many other parts of the UAE.

 

To the East coast

From the hotel I had to drive eastwards through a large conurbation and had gone some way before I realized that I needed to get petrol before venturing into more remote areas.  I could not remember seeing a filling station anywhere, so I managed to find somewhere to pull off the rat-race multi-lane urban highway to consult the map in my tablet.  It showed only one petrol station within several miles, and that was awkward to get to, but there was really no choice.  I started to take a short cut and found that many of the side streets had a rough dirt surface, and just at that moment a strong wind came out of nowhere and caused a small sandstorm.

Sharjah side road

Sharjah side road

When I finally came to the filling station it had two pump islands with attended service and long queues, so it seemed that this really was the only source of petrol in the area.  The service was painfully slow and for some people complicated, with the process of filling the van in front of me involving several pieces of paper and signatures.  For a country with the world’s third largest reserves of oil it was proving surprisingly difficult to get some into my tank, but at least it was cheap at approximately £0.32 per litre, less than one third of the price in Britain.

After a fast and boring drive on the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Road I reached the oasis town of Al Dhaid, where I risked a burger and chips in a café run by three shady looking characters and felt sure I would regret it later.  Al Dhaid is clearly a centre for desert-based leisure activities with a number of shops renting or selling off-road motor cycles and quads.

Al Dhaid

Al Dhaid

From Al Dhaid eastwards the scenery was more interesting, with camels in roadside pens and little goats wandering about in the desert scrub.  Shortly before the town of Masafi was the Friday Market (actually open every day), a long string of shops selling carpets, household goods, fruit and vegetables and the usual souvenirs for tourists.  The economics of this are a mystery to me.  As in other countries, like Morocco, the people selling the carpets expect tourists to buy them, but I cannot imagine how you would get a twenty foot square carpet from Masafi to a house on the south coast of England. It is also hard to understand what happens to the fruit and vegetables.  There were several large stalls piled up with them and from the relatively light traffic I could not see how there were anything like enough customers to buy more than a small proportion of the stock. The carpets and souvenirs could be dusted down for sale the next day, but surely most of the food would finish up being thrown away.

Soon after Masafi the road ran between slag heaps and I wondered what sort of mining operation had given rise to them.

Hajah mountains

Hajah mountains

As I drove on they got larger and larger, and it turned out that this was the start of the Hajar mountains, which in that area look like huge piles of earth, the most unattractive mountains I have ever seen.  The road went straight on to the coastal town of Fujairah, but I turned north towards Dibba and drove alongside the mountains for about 25 miles.  At Dibba the road runs through to a stretch of coast on the Gulf of Oman, with good sandy beaches and smart hotels.  According to the guide books this is a good area for a beach holiday away from the crowds.

A large part of the peninsular north of Dibba actually belongs to Oman, and there is also a little bit of Oman like a land-locked island in the mountains between Dibba and Fujairah.

Fujairah

Fujairah

My plan was to stay the night in Fujairah, about forty miles south of Dibba.  The road runs past coastal resorts with occasional sea views for most of the way until it comes to the hectic Fujairah port, which is the world’s third largest oil refuelling port after Rotterdam and Singapore.  Fujairah is definitely a town here to come, with a massive area of development at the western end of the main street, including an international airport and several tower block hotels.  It is like a little bit of the USA on the east coast of the UAE and after booking in at the recently-built IBIS I went for a walk to soak up the lack of Arabian culture.  A few weeks before my visit, incidentally, two British men were arrested for plane spotting at Fujairah airport and were still being held on suspicion of spying.

Oman border to Muscat

My aim the next day was to drive down the coast road to Muscat, the capital city of Oman, a distance of about 180 miles from Fujairah.  The UAE/Oman border post is about 12 miles south of Fujairah, and I was deluded enough to think that as the two countries are friendly the border crossing would be quick and easy.  When I collected the car in Dubai I had to pay £60 extra insurance for use in Oman, and I was told that if “anything happened”, a phrase that I have heard before on my travels, it was my responsibility to get the car back into the UAE.  I asked how I could do that, and they said there was an emergency number.  I could not imagine whom it would be connected to, but if you worry about such things you would not do anything.

At the frontier post I pulled alongside the kiosk and a man standing nearby indicated that I should move the car to one side and take my passport into the officer in the kiosk.  The officer took my passport and stared intently at the front cover for some time, before flicking through it and examining the contents in great detail.  He was obviously looking for my UAE entry stamp, which I pointed out to him, but he was not satisfied with that.  While this was going on he kept interrupting the process by dealing lorry drivers as soon as they arrived, and I thought I was going to be there all day.  He did not speak any English, but eventually another officer arrived who said something I did not understand, and a lorry driver behind me said “He wants 50 dirhams” (about £10).  Apparently it was tax and as soon as I paid it I was sent on my way, thinking I was in Oman.

But no.   About 300 yards along the road was another kiosk containing an officer who looked at my passport and sent me over to a building at the side, in which two men in uniform were sitting behind windows.  The first one looked at my passport and sent me to the second one. He looked at the insurance documents for the car and asked for the registration document. I  could not see anything like a registration document in the envelope with the car papers, so I said “I don’t think I’ve got it”. He replied “You’ve got to have it”.  I went out to the car and to my amazement found it in the form of a laminated card in the glove box.  When I gave it to the man in the office he said “Card, please”.  I said “That’s it”, and a lorry driver behind me said “No, he wants a bank card”.  When I gave him my Barclaycard he charged 5 reals to it (about £10) and I asked what it was for.  He replied “Tax”. So I had paid £10 exit tax to the UAE and £10 entry tax to Oman.

It wasn’t all over yet.  The next kiosk contained a lady who asked for the small piece of paper.  I said I hadn’t got a small piece of paper, but she said I must have, and after a frantic search among the papers on the passenger’s seat I found it.  She stamped it, and 100 yards further along the road a man in uniform stopped me and took it from me.  At last I really was in Oman, and drove away wondering what would happen to the Austrian couple who couldn’t find their insurance documents in the No Man’s Land between the two countries.

Road to Muscat

Road to Muscat

From here the road was a wide, well surfaced dual carriageway with a two-way service road on either side the whole way to Muscat.  The eastern side, nearest to the ocean, was lined with businesses of one sort or another, ranging from rows of workshops to small farms, with some residential areas   We are talking here of a distance of over 150 miles.  Every few miles there was a junction with a roundabout and road humps, forcing the traffic down to walking pace momentarily, before resuming its manic speed.   Around the coastal town of Liwa, with its international container terminal, the lorry traffic was heavy, and I thought the general standard of driving was worse than in the UAE.  Speed cameras were fairly frequent, but ignored, and I think there is a belief that most of them are not working.

Muscat area

Barka Fort

Barka Fort

My guidebook suggested that a town called As Seeb, a few miles before Muscat, was a great place to experience everyday Omani life, and I decided to spend the night there.  On the way I went through a town called Barka, which had a wonderful fort like a children’s sandcastle.  The guidebook and the map in my tablet both listed a hotel called Dream Resort near the beach as a reasonably-priced place to stay.  It had a strange sort of slightly upmarket holiday camp atmosphere, with massive opaque glass doors between the bedroom and the en-suite facilities, and other supposedly stylish features.  A letter of welcome on the table was signed Raj Shetty – Chairman and Managing Worker.

The town centre was within walking distance, and by the time I got there it was dusk, but it was still a hive of activity, with all the shops still open and very brightly lit.  The tailors, mostly from Pakistan or Bangladesh I think, were beavering away at their sewing machines and the barbers all seemed to be fully occupied.  There were lots of shops selling electrical, electronic and household goods as well as a wide choice of restaurants, and the whole place was booming.  The guide book was right.

As Seeb

As Seeb

After a long walk round and a really good meal in a restaurant with a menu that showed pictures of the food it was about 9pm and the tailors were still tailoring and the barbers still barbering with no sign of slackening off.

The next day I was intending to look around the Muscat area and then drive about 75 miles inland to a desert town called Nizwa.  From As Seeb I followed the coastline as closely as possible to a resort called Mutrah which faced on to a bay and harbour for container ships.  The place was a madhouse, with people fighting for parking spaces in the centre, but I found somewhere to stop to take a few photographs.  From here it was just a short distance to Old Muscat, which I expected would be full of tourists and impossible to park in.  In fact, there were few people there and it was easy to park with no charge, but I found it rather disappointing.   Apart from the Royal Palace, which is quite impressive, and two forts high up on the sides of the harbour, there is not a lot to see.  Like almost everywhere else, the place was full of barriers to do with roadworks.

Old Muscat

Old Muscat

Muhtrah port

Muhtrah port

The road from Old Muscat led round to Ruwi, which is the commercial hub and business district of the capital city.  The main street is a wide thoroughfare lined with banks and other modern office buildings comparable with anything to be found in Europe, leading to a square with a clock tower.   Nearby is a small bus station, but I did not see any buses, and public transport appeared to be minimal, as is usual in that part of the world.

Considering that it was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday the main highway through the Muscat area was amazingly busy, and looking at the map it is hard to see where all the traffic was coming from.   To get on to the road to Nizwa I had to go most of the way back to

Ruwi banks

Ruwi banks

AsSeeb and then turn off inland skirting the mountains.  This was still more or less a motorway, with long winding bends and hills, the inside lane being full of lorries travelling at about 40 mph and the outside lane packed with cars nose to tail at 75 to 80 mph.

This was absolutely not what I had expected Oman to be like.  I thought it would be a calm, quiet place, with a slow pace of life.  Apparently it was like that until about 1970, when the present Sultan came to power, and he has transformed it into an advanced industrial nation with signs of the emergence of a democracy.

 

Nizwa

Way into hotel

Way into hotel

The rat race gradually subsided as the traffic disappeared into settlements along the way, and by the time I reached the outskirts of Nizwa it became fairly civilized.  As I entered the town I turned off looking for a hotel called the Majan that I had noted down.  At that moment there was a clap of thunder and the heavens opened, producing within seconds the sort of flash flood that is common in the area.  To make matters worse I had taken a wrong turning and entered a village called Farq (or Firq), which is a maze of incredibly narrow winding lanes, at that time all completely covered with water so that it was not possible to see the edges of the road.  However, I could see that it was a wonderfully picturesque place, full of palm trees and ancient buildings, including many abandoned sandstone houses that had been left to erode away.  After blundering about for a while I got back to the main road and discovered the Majan Hotel in the middle of a long stretch of roadworks, but it could only be reached by following an awkward diversion.

It was actually on a sort of layby that had been part of the main road, and was now the other side of a large and possibly deep pool of water.  I left the car and walked along to the hotel, climbing over various obstructions to avoid the water.  As I approached the door the manager came out and appeared to be keen to do business, which I suspect was not terribly good under the circumstances.  We had a quick negotiation about the price and I asked him how to get to the car park.  He said “I will show you” and walked back to the water with me and said “Through there and behind the little house”.  The “little house” was a concrete building like a domestic garage standing in a different pool of water.  I was rather doubtful about it, but at that moment a car similar to mine drove through and the water came just up to the bottom of the doors, so I decided to risk it.

Crumbling buildings

Crumbling buildings

Road in Farq

Road in Farq

Once sorted I went for a walk through Farq, which was immediately behind the hotel.  By now it was dusk, and I had to take care to memorize the route even though I had a map in my phone, because it really was like a maze of tiny lanes and junctions.  The buildings were a mixture of ancient and modern, with a fort and several mosques.  The sandstone buildings were fascinating,  because once they reach a certain state of deterioration due to erosion it is impossible to repair them and they are simply abandoned.  There was also a tiny general store, a tailor making women’s clothing, and what appeared to be a communal washroom.

After about half a mile I turned back, and it started to pour with rain.  The air was warm but the rain was not, and I was resigned to getting soaked when a very stylish Toyota 4 x 4 pulled up alongside me, and the driver, a young Arab man in white robes, asked in very good English if he could take me somewhere.  I said I was on the way to the Majan Hotel, and he said he would take me there. As I thanked him and got into the car he said “It is my duty”. When we got to the water I said I would walk from there, but he insisted on taking me right to the door of the hotel.

The desert and Al Ain

The plan for the next day was to drive to a town called Al Ain just inside the Emirate of Abu Dhabi .  Al Ain is actually joined to another town in Oman called Al Buraymi, and the area has a long history of border disputes up until quite recently.  Before leaving Farq I checked with the hotel manager that it was possible to get through the border at Al Ain, because otherwise it would have meant returning to As Seeb and driving up the coast, a round trip of about 400 miles.  There are more direct routes across the mountains, but my understanding was that they might not be passable without a 4 x 4, especially if the weather turned nasty.

Desert

Desert

The route through the desert from Nizwa to Al Ain is about 150 miles, and my maps showed about 60 miles of it as a twisty single carriageway road leading to a town called Ibri, at about the half way stage.    All the books say you should take a supply of water before venturing into the desert, so I followed that advice by taking a litre bottle of mineral water.  A large part of the way to Ibri was road works with heavy traffic where the single carriageway was being upgraded to motorway standard and in the event of a breakdown you would be more likely to die by being hit in the back by a fast-moving vehicle than from thirst or starvation.

From Ibri to the border the scene was entirely different, with a recently-built almost straight dual carriageway and little traffic.  To discourage speeding there were cameras facing both ways every kilometer although I doubt whether many were working.   So far the desert had been mainly scrub with a mountain backdrop, but it gradually changed to proper Sahara-style dunes closer to the border.

Proper dunes

Proper dunes

The actual border crossing was in the desert some distance before Al Ain, and when I went through the exit post on the Oman side there appeared to be no one there so I drove on to the first UAE checkpoint.  The lady there said I should have got an exit stamp from Oman, and sent me back, but before I could turn round I had to go right through the UAE security check and customs.  When I eventually returned with the Oman stamp the same lady sent me into a building labelled Arrivals Lounge.  The scene there was horrific.  There was a desk with two people processing passports and vehicle documents and rows of chairs with at least forty people waiting.  I was told to sit at the end of a row and my turn would come, which, judging by the rate of progress, would be in about three days time.  However, a man suddenly appeared holding about forty passports, and most of the people went back to their coach with him, so I was actually through in about half an hour.  Of course, I was subjected to all the security and customs checks again.

Al Ain

Al Ain

Al Ain was a pleasant surprise.  I was expecting a dusty desert town like Al Dhaid, but it proved to be a smart place with the character of a European spa, and even the traffic was calmer and more orderly than I had seen elsewhere on this trip.  The town has an abundance of hotels, all quite expensive by my standards, and I eventually settled for the Almassa, some distance from the centre.

View from Jebel Hafit

View from Jebel Hafit

The next morning I visited a place mentioned in all the guide books, namely Jebel Hafit, a mountain that rises up to height of 1350m (approx. 4400ft) from the plain on the outskirts of Al Ain.  A long, winding, well-made road leads to a massive car park at the top, with various view points on the way.   The views are spectacular, especially over The Empty Quarter, a vast area of desert stretching away into Saudi Arabia.  Close to the edge near the top is the circular Mercure Grand Hotel, the sort of place where James Bond would finish up hanging from the roof by his finger tips.

Abu Dhabi

Truck road

Truck road

It was time to move on in the direction of the west coast, towards Abu Dhabi.  It appeared that there were two parallel roads, one being the main motorway E22, and the other, maybe less busy, the E30.  The latter was easy to find and almost empty, although it was signposted Truck Road.  It was like that for about 50 miles and I was congratulating myself on finding such a good route, when it went down to single carriageway and for some mysterious reason filled up with slow-moving trucks in both directions.  After dicing with death for a while I cut through to the motorway until it reached the coast road near Abu Dhabi and then turned south to the Emirates National Auto Museum.

Giant pick-up

Giant pick-up

This museum is easy to find because it is housed in an enormous metal pyramid in the desert, visible from some distance away.  The centerpiece is a gigantic 1990s Dodge pick-up, so large that several normal pick-ups were parked underneath it, and hanging from the ceiling above is a portrait of the sheikh who founded and owns the museum.  The exhibits are many and varied from all over the world, with an emphasis on off-road vehicles suitable for use in the desert.

Back to Abu Dhabi city, a journey which consisted of a construction site for almost the entire 25 miles, followed by a search for a reasonably-priced hotel.  Such a thing does not exist in Abu Dhabi, and I finished up at the uninspiring and still quite expensive Airport Premier Inn.

Grand Mosque

Grand Mosque

The first port of call the next day was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which one of the very few in the UAE open to non-Muslims.  Normally it is open for a while early every morning, but it was just my luck that it is closed on Fridays, the day I was there.  It is a truly vast and magnificent building, only just finished.

Next was the Emirates Palace Hotel, another recent construction, with over 400 rooms and 114 domes.  At the gatehouse I told the man in the smart uniform that I heard that it was possible to go in and look round.  He said “Yes, Sir, but not with shorts.  If you go away and come back with trousers you will be most welcome.”  I turned round, found a building site (not very difficult) where I could change into trousers in the car, and went back.  The man sent me through to the visitors’ car park without hesitation.  When I entered the main hall of the hotel I immediately saw several men in shorts, and I think double standards applied, i.e. Toyota Yaris plus shorts – No,  Bugatti Veyron plus shorts – Yes.

The hotel was vast and the décor opulent with, among the marble and gold, 1002 Swarovski chandeliers.  Personally I would have gone for something a bit more flamboyant, but I was attracted by the world’s first Gold Vending Machine.  It is very easy to use.  You just decide whether you want 18- or 24-carat, select the brand (refining company), and pay with your credit card.  The gold bar then drops out like a can of Coke, albeit somewhat smaller.

From the Emirates Palace the road runs along the ocean front with the main part of the city on the right hand side, and at the end I turned off into the shopping and business area. It was Friday, which is more or less equivalent to Sunday in Europe, so parking at the road- side was free and easy to find.  Most of the shops and restaurants were open and after lunch I spent a couple of hours looking around the city.

Abu Dhabi 5th street

Abu Dhabi 5th street

Abu Dhabi city is actually on an island surrounded by other islands off the west coast of the UAE, and the motorway to the north crosses Yas Island, which is the site of the Formula One circuit.   Close by is a new mall with 350 shops, intended to rival those in Dubai, although it is nothing like as big, but I did glimpse IKEA, Debenhams and M&S.

Dubai, the mall and the World’s Tallest Building

On the last day of the trip I had arranged to visit the Burj Kalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, at 11am, so I booked the cheapest hotel I could find within reasonable driving distance, this being the easyHotel in Jebel Ali port, south of Dubai city.  It is actually just outside the vast free port area, but I thought it was inside and finished up blagging my way through the customs post, but in the end it did not really matter.  This was my first experience of an easyHotel and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, subtle about it, with a big orange sign on the door of every room along the corridors stating easyHotel.  This was about as far from the Emirates Palace as you could get and there were definitely no gold vending machines.

Burj Kalifa

Burj Kalifa

Access to the Burj Kalifa is inside the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall by total area, with over 1200 shops, and as it was less than an hour’s drive from the hotel I had time to look round before going to the tower.  The three car parks have a combined capacity of over 14,000 spaces, and if you forget to note where you left your car you can put the registration number into a machine and the car park cameras will scan all the number plates and tell you where it is. Just about every large retailer in the world has a branch in the mall, and I saw British, American, and German ones that are not normally found outside their home countries.   Fortnum and Mason have a big free-standing store in the area overlooking the lake next to the main complex.

The Burj Kalifa towers over everything around it in this city of skyscrapers.  It is not just the tallest man-made structure in the world, at 828m (over half a mile) it is by far the tallest, its nearest rival being the Shanghai Tower at 632m.  The Burj Kalifa has 163 floors, and poor people such as myself can go to the Observation Deck on the 124th.  Successful criminals and other wealthy people can pay a lot extra to go to the 148th.

Skyscrapers from Burj Kalifa

Skyscrapers from Burj Kalifa

After a small amount of queueing and a surprisingly unexciting lift journey the doors opened on to the Observation Deck, which has a circular walkway with windows facing in all directions.  I have a poor head for heights and am not usually comfortable in high towers, but this one felt totally stable, just like being on the ground.  It goes without saying that the view was fantastic, with a long stretch of coastline, including the Palm Jumeirah and other artificial islands.  The sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel could be clearly seen in the distance, but in some respects the most impressive sight was looking down on to the tops of the 40- and 50-storey buildings far below.

From the Dubai Mall I drove across to the coast and northwards to the Jumeirah Mosque, which is another of the few open to non-Muslims.  Unfortunately I missed out again, because it is only open before 10.00am.

My flight home the next day was very early, so I took the car back in the evening and stayed at the Dubai Airport Premier Inn, with its purple décor contrasting nicely in my mind with the orange of the easyHotel.  The car had travelled over 1100 miles in my hands, which I think was rather more than the rental company had expected, and the man who came out to check it went over it with a fine tooth comb.  In the end we were scrutinizing tiny specks of dirt on the windscreen, but he ultimately had to sign the form stating that everything was in order.

A few notes

It was rather amusing to discover that my website (yes, the one you are reading) is banned in the UAE on grounds of “unsuitable content”.  The most likely reason is that it contains an account of a visit to Israel.  Until recently anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport would not be admitted to the UAE.  The Israelis got round the problem by putting the stamp on a separate piece of paper that had to be kept with the passport while the holder was in their country.

After eight days and 1100 miles I had still not seen any oil wells.  Most of them are deep in the desert in Abu Dhabi or offshore.

As mentioned earlier, most of the people I met were not Emerati or Omani nationals, and by the end of the trip I felt more as if I had been to India than Arabia.  Almost everyone spoke good English.

British influence is quite significant.  The UK style 3-pin mains socket is almost universal, rather than the technically inferior 2-pin Schuko type that has been foisted on most of Europe by the Germans.

Supercars are surprisingly thin on the ground, and you would see more in a day in the West End of London than I saw on this trip.  Apart from lorries most vehicles come from the Far East, with Mercedes, BMW, and Audi having a smaller market share than they have in Britain.

The cost of accommodation and food were on a par with Western Europe, but fuel and car rental were very cheap.

The rate of development is mind-boggling, and it is difficult to say where it is leading. I have a feeling that the end result will be more like Hell than Utopia, but I suppose it depends on how much you like shopping.

 

29Jan/150

Bulgaria 2014-15

CLICK ON PICTURES TO ENLARGE

 

BULGARIA. 2014 - 15

It was to be an unusually long Christmas break, and I thought it would be a pity to waste it by not going somewhere interesting for at least a few days.  Istanbul came to mind, but on further investigation it was going to be expensive and difficult to get convenient flights at short notice.  Another place on my list was Bulgaria, which was much cheaper, with flights at sensible times from Gatwick.  I had visions of flying to Sofia and driving across to the resorts on the east coast or down to Thessaloniki in Greece, although I was fully aware that Bulgarian winters are hard and these visions might be almost as unrealistic as those of the people who run the European Union.

The first time I heard of Sofia was in the 1960s, on the platform of a railway station somewhere just the other side of the channel.  It was a business trip to Austria, and I had one leg in plaster following a skiing accident.  My luggage was being taken by a porter to a train alongside which was a man shouting 'Sofia, Sofia', and I thought he was calling to his wife.  In the nick of time I realised that it was the name of a place that I did not want to go to, although I had no idea where it actually was.

Back to 2014, and from the weather reports in the British press it appeared that Sofia was a few degrees colder all round than the south coast of England, which is not surprising considering that the city is at an elevation of 500m above sea level and immediately adjacent to a mountain that is used for skiing.

To avoid the horrors of dealing with taxi drivers at 9.00pm in a foreign city I had arranged to pick up a rental car on arrival and just drive to

Mount Vitosha view

Mount Vitosha view

an airport hotel.  This proved to be a very good decision, because there was snow everywhere following a moderate fall the previous day. The recently built IBIS hotel was within the airport complex, easy to find and quite cheap.  My second floor room had an expansive view to the south, overlooking Mount Vitosha, with its ski resort.

The plan was to spend the next day (Sunday) looking round the city, which has many splendid buildings, and the following day drive via a country route to Plovdiv, the second city.

Sofia

On the Sunday morning the temperature, at -7 degrees, was lower than it had been in any of the press reports.  After the mild winter in the south of England it seemed terribly cold to me, but I set off bravely to drive into the city. The main roads had been cleared fairly well, but the side roads and pavements were covered with snow and ice. As required by law, my excellent Toyota Corolla was fitted with winter tyres, and these gave a better grip than I expected.

Sofia is a compact city, and after finding a parking space not too far from the centre I set off to follow the Lonely Planet Walking Tour, which takes in all the main sights in a distance of about 1.5 miles. The LP guide warns of the bad state of the pavements in Sofia, but did not mention the snow and ice, which were quite lethal.  In many places everyone resorted to walking on the road.

Russian monument

Russian monument

I was actually doing the tour in reverse, starting at the Russian Army Monument, which is a typical display of

Nevsky Memorial Church

Nevsky Memorial Church

brutalist Soviet style sculpture in a park. Not far from there is the piece de resistance of the city sights , namely the Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church, which according to experts is a fine example of neo-Byzantine architecture. By this time its biggest attraction for me was that it was comparatively warm inside. Most of the interior was actually one large open space, although it did not actually seem as large as I had expected.

In the square adjacent to the church was an antique market with a considerable quantity of Warsaw Pact militaria, including uniforms, gas masks, and those wonderful ornate Soviet officers’ wide-brimmed caps.  If I could think of a suitable occasion to wear it I would get one.

Sveti Nicholas Church

Sveti Nicholas Church

Moving on eastwards the route passes the much smaller Sveti Nicholas Russian Church, with its glittering gold decoration, followed by a string of fine buildings including the National Art Gallery, Archaeological Museum and Presidency. Some of the big names of international business were now in evidence, including, needless to say, McDonalds.

The route passes the Banya Bashi Mosque before finishing at the imposing Sveta Nedelya Cathedral. This is also a typical capital city retail environment out to relieve foreign visitors of their Dollars, Pounds or Euros, with little sign that it is in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

One place I wanted to visit was the Polytechnic Museum which meant a considerable walk through an unsalubrious area of side streets where not much effort had been put into clearing the snow and ice from the pavements.  To my total amazement half way along one of these streets I slipped on the ice and fell quite heavily.  This was a great surprise, because falling is something that I do not do nowadays, and in my experience when people of my age have a fall like that it is often the beginning of the end.

When I picked myself up it was exactly the same as the feeling I used to get thirty years ago after bad falls or collisions in motorcycle beach racing.  I was pretty sure that I had not broken anything, but there was obviously severe bruising and every movement was quite painful.

Anyway, I limped along to the Polytechnic Museum, which at first sight appeared to be closed, with a heavy iron gate across the entrance.  When I pushed on the gate it opened and a man in uniform emerged from a gatehouse in the forecourt. I asked him if the museum was open, which led to some confusion because Bulgarians nod their heads when they mean 'no' and shake them when they mean 'yes'.

It appeared that even though the reception area the other side of the forecourt was in total darkness and the doors were locked, the museum was actually open.  The man unlocked the doors and went upstairs, reappearing shortly afterwards with a lady who put the lights on and opened up the cash desk.  Another lady then appeared and the place was in full swing.  The idea of these two ladies locked in a dark building until some visitors turned up was very odd, and might well be the inspiration for a horror film.  It seems, however, that this is not unusual in Bulgaria, because on the section on Plovdiv in the LP guide it says “If a museum looks closed during what should be opening hours, bang loudly on the front door”.  The Polythechnic Museum is only a small establishment like a very tiny version of the Science Museum in London, but obviously with an emphasis on Bulgarian contributions to technology and there were a few interesting things.

By now I was a considerable distance from the car, but with admirable fortitude I struggled back to it and entered into battle with the inexplicably complicated traffic systems of Sofia.  Although walking was quite difficult I did not notice the effects of the fall at all when driving.

During the night a few inches more snow fell, and at breakfast time it was still happening, with the wind howling round the building.  I had planned to drive to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second city, about 90 miles away, but these were not conditions for going any distance, so I decided to make it a day for looking round the shopping malls not far away.  At least it would be warm and would not put too much strain on my leg, which was still very painful.

The nearest mall was simply called The Mall, with about 160 shops and restaurants.  All very smart and quite upmarket, although it was not in an area easily accessible to foreign visitors unless they had a car.  The car park was a mess, with piles of snow around, which didn't matter too much because not many people had turned out anyway.  The only thing I was looking for was a supply of English books, in case I was holed up in the hotel for days on end, but there were no bookshops at all.  Plenty of jeans, but I had enough of those.

In the much smaller Sky City Mall, not far away, I found two bookshops with an excellent range of English books at the same prices as at home.  Two people whose books seem to be published in the local language everywhere in the world were very much in evidence, namely Jamie Oliver and Bear Grylls.  Jamie Oliver was also on television when I got back to the hotel.  I had no idea that he could speak such good Bulgarian, or that he was a ventriloquist, because he was speaking some of the time without moving his lips.  The hotel television offered a limited selection of programmes to suit visitors of different nationalities, the only English one being CNN, which had an American lady with a squeaky voice speculating for hours on end about the fate of a missing airliner in the Far East.

As mentioned above, the road system in Sofia is incredibly complex, perhaps more so than anywhere else I have been.  Just finding the way in and out of the shopping malls alongside the main through route was daunting, with a multiplicity of slip roads and tunnels all very close together with few signs.

Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic character set, more or less the same as Russian. On my trip to Russia in 2010 I discovered that if you know the sounds associated with the characters it becomes quite easy to read a lot of words, and it is essential to do that if you are travelling around, especially away from main cities.  Before going to Bulgaria I brushed up on my Cyrillic, but not nearly enough, and could only translate by picking off one letter at a time, which is not much good when you drive past a road sign at 60mph.

Yes, it is icy.

Yes, it is icy.

The opportunity to test this knowledge arose the next day, which was dry and bright, with a bracing -13 degrees when I went out to the car.  This was the day for the drive to Plovdiv. The main roads appeared to have been cleared quite well, but most others were completely untreated and still covered with hard packed snow or ice.  The main route between Sofia and Plovdiv is a motorway which would undoubtedly be clear, but originally I was intending to use the old road (no. 8) because it runs through villages and towns which would be more interesting. In trying to find the turn off for route 8 I got on to a network of untreated roads with nowhere to stop safely to check my location and very soon came across a big truck in the ditch, with its cab resting against a tree.

Eventually I found route 8, which turned out to be a solid sheet of hard-packed snow, shining in the sun  It gave me an insight into the winter rural scene in Bulgaria as it passed through some quite pleasant villages, but it demanded a fair amount of concentration and after about ten miles I decided to go back on to the motorway.  This road runs through a wide, flat, valley with snow-capped mountains some distance away on either side, and roughly midway between Sofia

Shiny route 8

Shiny route 8

and Plovdiv the snow at the roadside disappeared, as the elevation was much lower than in the Sofia area.

At one point I stopped at a near deserted road house for a cup of coffee, and this confirmed my experience of Bulgarian coffee.  If you ask for a cup of coffee you will get about half the quantity that you get in an Espresso in France, ie. about a thimble full.  Often the person serving asks whether you want a large one, which is equivalent

Peasant transport

Peasant transport

to a normal Espresso.  The purpose of this offering is not clear, because it is far too little to quench thirst, and it is difficult to see how it can take long enough to drink to have any social value.

Displayed in front of the building was an ancient vehicle of a type that I had seen in less developed countries many times before, but never close up.  It was the standard transport used by peasants in days gone by, consisting of the front end of a motorcycle attached to a primitive armchair with a single cylinder engine alongside it and a box at the back for carrying goods.  For most people who made a living working small plots of land this would be their only means of getting around and taking goods to market.

 

Plovdiv 

Bulgaria’s second city is different from the capital in many ways.  The immediate impression was that it is less advanced, i.e. it is closer to the Soviet era.  Sofia has obviously benefitted from a great deal of foreign investment and influence, whereas Plovdiv still has the atmosphere of an old-style East European city.  The road system consists mainly of cobbled or roughly-surfaced streets with a few wide main routes. Because of the uncertainty with the weather I had not booked a hotel, but had two three suitable ones in mind, and had marked them on my map.  In trying to find the first one I got into a terrible mess at a road junction with traffic lights, finishing up at an angle in the middle with people hooting at me from all directions.  It turned out that I had marked the hotel in the wrong place on the map, and when I eventually got there it had a different name from the one I was looking for!

Central Square

Central Square

Still, the Park Hotel was extremely good value, and my room had a view over the city, with a go-kart track and

Central Square view

Central Square view

entertainment centre in the foreground.  Unlike the IBIS in Sofia, there were several restaurants in the vicinity.  After getting sorted I set off to walk into the city centre through about half a mile of streets lined with drab buildings before reaching Central Square, which was dominated by a massive Soviet-style government building incorporating the post office and telephone exchange.  In front of it was a large excavation exposing the ruins of the Roman Forum, but the area still had all the characteristics of an east European city, with rubbish in and out of bins, shabby lock-up shops and kiosks, to say nothing of the graffiti.  The backdrop, however, was quite pleasant with two areas of high ground nearby, one called Sahat Tepe (Clock Hill ) with a quaint stone tower topped by a radio mast.

Leading north from Central Square is the pedestrianized main shopping street, not exactly chic, as it was described in one guide, but quite smart and with some well-known names.  The top end covers the ancient Roman stadium, just a small part of which is visible, and nearby is the Dzumaya Mosque, which is said to be one of the most magnificent Muslim religious buildings on the Balkan peninsular.

Dzumaya Mosque

Dzumaya Mosque

I was intending to walk through to the Old Town, but the cough and cold that I had been suffering from for several days finally caught up with me and after a small meal I made my way back to the hotel.  On the way I came across a wonderful eyesore, just the sort of thing that the tourist authorities in foreign cities complain about visitors taking photographs of, rather than nice things like flowers in a park.  It consisted of a dilapidated and derelict lock-up shop in the middle of a mess of hoardings, rubbish and graffiti.  Nearby was a car park with four non-running relics of the Cold War motoring era, namely a Trabant, Wartburg, Moskvitch and early Lada.  Such vehicles are seldom seen on the road nowadays, and this was obviously someone’s personal collection.

Originally I was going to drive back to Sofia the next day, but the weather forecast seemed positive that there would be no snow in the next few days, so after breakfast I asked the people in the hotel reception if I could stay another night.  Unfortunately the Park Hotel did not have any vacancies, but they arranged for me to stay at the Imperial, a much larger, recently-built hotel about ten minutes’ drive away.

I left the car there and set off to walk to the Old Town, but the temperature was still a few degrees below zero, and after about half an hour of

Eyesore

Eyesore

constant coughing I was just not well enough to continue.  Most of the rest of the day was spent in my room with books and the TV, which luckily had a normal range of programmes rather than the special hotel fare in the IBIS.  This was certainly not the way I had hoped to spend my limited time in Bulgaria.

The next morning I left early and drove through to the Old Town, with its cobbled streets and quaint buildings.  It actually covers quite a small area, but I can understand why it is so highly rated as a tourist attraction.  The main river in Plovdiv is the Maritsa, which varies greatly in width as it runs along the valley between the mountains, and is quite wide as it passes through the city centre area, providing excellent views from the some of the bridges.

About 25 miles west of Plovdiv on route 8 towards Sofia is the town of Pazardzik which I thought might be worth seeing as an example of a smaller town.   Route 8 out of Plovdiv was flat, straight and boring.  For some

Boring route 8

Boring route 8

inexplicable reason about 5 miles from Pazardzik it was closed completely, with a long diversion over minor roads.  As I approached Pazardzik a vast Soviet-style housing complex came into view, with the usual grim blocks

Pazardzik

Pazardzik

of flats, more grim even than the rest of the town.  However, the centre does have some reasonably pleasant pedestrianized streets and a few attractive buildings, as well as the river Maritsa.  Apparently the local economy is fairly sound, with hydro-electric plants, copper-mining, a big pharmaceutical factory and textile manufacture.

As previously mentioned, Mount Vitosha, with its ski resort, rises up from the valley on the south side of Sofia, and before going into the city I decided to take a look at the mountain.  Along the valley between the mountain and the city a modern high-speed by-pass road is lined with an astonishing amount of industrial and commercial development, including , IKEA, Decathlon and yet another shopping mall.  Finding a way out of it to the mountain was not easy, but eventually I managed to get up to a place called Simeonovo, where the gondala to the ski slopes crossed the road.

Simeonovo Gondala

Simeonovo Gondala

The whole character of the area here was completely different from the rat race of the by-pass a few minutes away, with the atmosphere of approaching a ski resort, although it was not possible to drive to the top station of the gondola.  In any case, it was getting late and I still had to fight my way across Sofia to the airport hotel.

With all the ice and snow still around the car looked as if it had been on a 2000 mile rally, and it was a great puzzle when I took it in to the rental company the next morning to understand how it had somehow cleaned itself.  Presumably it must have rained in the night, but the man from Auto-Jet Car Rental was delighted.

Due to the weather and my state of health I had seen and done far less in Bulgaria than I had hoped, although I was aware that it was a risk going in the middle of the winter, and I could have been stuck in the hotel all the time.  The country obviously has a lot going for it, with friendly people, good scenery and reasonable prices.  From what I had seen the gap between Sofia and the rest of the country economically is quite wide, and I still could not understand how there could be so many upmarket shopping malls in the capital.

 

4Nov/14Off

The Great Lakes – USA and Canada 2014

 

CLICK ON PICTURES TO ENLARGE

The Great Lakes – USA and Canada  2014

Map of routeThere are five great lakes, Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.  Lake Michigan is entirely within the USA, the others have shorelines shared with Canada. The only one I had seen close up was Lake Ontario, during a brief visit to Toronto years ago, but I had flown over the area a number of times on the way to other parts of the USA.  The striking thing was always the length of time it took for a plane travelling at nearly 600mph to cross any of the lakes, and the enormous extent of the shorelines, which looked more like those of oceans than lakes.

The plan was to fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive northwards more or less alongside Lake Michigan up to Lake Superior and then eastwards into Canada, skirting the north side of Lake Huron.  The preferred route would then be to take a ferry from Manitoulin Island across Lake Huron to Tobermory and drive down to Detroit, which I particularly wanted to see as it is about as close to a post-apocalyptic city as it is possible to get.  From there I would drive past Lake Erie and across to Chicago.  Needless to say there was an ulterior motive in this, as the area has traditionally been the home of the US motor industry and there were several car museums along the way that I wanted to visit

Durango

Durango

On arrival at Chicago I was given the usual hard sell at the car rental desk and finished up with a far larger car than I had ordered, although for only a small extra charge by European standards.  It was an almost new Dodge Durango 4x4 loaded with all the latest electronics including a keyless locking system which threw me into confusion when I tried to lock the car at the motel.  After spending a while with the handbook I managed to master that particular aspect of the vehicle operation, but with 74 pages of the book devoted to electronics I eventually concluded that the only people who would be able to exploit the features to their fullest extent would not  be old enough to drive the car.

Chicago

This was my first visit to Chicago, and I decided to dedicate a day to looking round the city.  Before leaving home I booked a 3-hour Segway tour for the afternoon, something I had wanted to do for a long time.  For readers who are still stuck in the 20th century I should explain that a Segway is a very high tech means of transportation consisting of an electrically powered platform on which the rider stands between two side wheels, the seemingly impossible balancing act being achieved by gyroscopes and computers.

The motel was near the airport, about 16 miles from the city centre.  Parking in the centre costs an arm and a leg, and as I would need both for the Segway I decided after some research to leave the car at a park & ride place at Rosemont, two miles from the motel, and go in on the ‘L’ or ‘El’ rapid transit system.  The name is derived from the original elevated  rectangular section of the network in the city centre, built in the late 1800s and called the Loop, a designation that is now applied to the general central area.  The Blue Line is the main public transport from the airport to the city, and I was quite surprised to find that it was almost empty on the Saturday morning. There were never more than about six people in the carriage, and most of the time only three, one of whom spent the whole journey slumped across his seat in a drink- or drugs-induced stupor.

In 2013 Chicago had more murders than any other American city, thereby earning the title of Murder Capital of the USA, although in terms of murder rate (number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants) it comes some way down the list.  The winner on that score is Detroit, which I was to have the pleasure of visiting later in the trip.  As I sat in the train and looked at some of the other passengers I did not feel entirely comfortable, but the vast majority of murders are drugs and or gang related, and the risk to tourists is not great.  The train travelled above ground for much of the time, and the suburbs were actually less densely built up than the older parts of London, with three- or four-storey wooden buildings amongst trees in many places.

The El

The El

On reaching the Loop I got off at a station called Clark and emerged into a typical American big city street, excepting that the ‘L’ ran high up along the middle of it on a massive and hideously ugly steel framework which was obviously much easier and cheaper to build than going underground.  As the system was extended much of it was put underground anyway.

It was mid-morning on a Saturday, a time when a European city would have been a hive of activity, but as I walked beneath the towering skyscrapers (and trains) there were few people or vehicles around.  I worked my way eastwards to Millennium Park and the enormous open lakeside area which fortunately has been protected from development by legal covenants put in place early in the 20th century.  The area is divided up into gardens, fountains, concert pavilions and numerous examples of public art, the only significant permanent building on it being the Art Institute of Chicago.

Alongside the park area is South Michigan Avenue, lined on the western side with imposing high buildings which make an impressive sight when viewed from the park.  At one point it is possible to look along East Adams Street to the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), the tallest building in the city, and once the tallest in the USA.  A sign in this street indicates that it is the start of the famous Route 66 which runs 2200 miles to Los Angeles, or at any rate, it once did, and quite a bit of it still exists.

Route 66 & Sears Tower

Route 66 & Sears Tower

Lake Michigan is 22,300 square miles in area (England is 50,300) so the lake shore is like a coast line and to some extent it generates its own micro-climate, with substantial waves under the right conditions, although during my visit it was dead calm.  Chicago is known as the Windy City but there was no sign of it while I was there.

The Segway Tour

About 20 people turned up at 2.00pm at the meeting place just off South Michigan Avenue, and we were divided into three groups.  Apart from me all the participants were American, and seemed to be quite normal, sensible people, with equal numbers of men and women aged between about 20 and 50 (again apart from me).  We were given bicycle helmets, shown a safety video and then pushed our Segways across the road to the park for a short practice session before being let loose amongst the unsuspecting public.  Our lady guide had restricted the machines to 6mph which seemed quite enough as we wound our way precariously through the pedestrians and vehicles at a busy road crossing and although by now the public must have been suspecting I thought they were amazingly tolerant of our near misses.  On the face of it riding a Segway is a quite unnatural activity, and I was surprised how quickly everyone seemed to get the hang of it.

Tyler on Segway

Tyler on Segway

Obviously you expect to fall over forwards or backwards when you get on it and there is a slight knack to getting started, but as long as you keep your weight over the centre of the platform it is not difficult.  To go forwards you lean forwards slightly and to slow down, stop or reverse you lean backwards slightly. Turning is achieved by moving the ‘handlebars’ sideways in the direction you want go, but they cannot be turned.

We seemed to going quite well when there was a loud crash and a lady member of the group was sprawled face down on the ground after hitting some ridges in the paving, but she was fairly unfazed and that was the only incident.  The youngest member of the group, a lad named Tyler, was by this time performing as if he had been born on a Segway. There is always somebody like that.

Once we got further into the park, away from the people, our guide raised the speed of the machines to a heady 10mph, which actually made them easier to control.  In the next couple of hours we covered quite a lot of ground in the lakefront area, including the Soldier Field (war memorial and stadium), Planetarium, Millennium Fountain and various other sights, with explanations by our guide.  She also pointed out the most expensive hotel suite in Chicago, overlooking the lake, at $10,000 per night, which made me feel that my room in the Travelodge Elk Grove Village was quite good value at $65.

Agora

Agora

The tour ended at an example of public art that might have been designed for examination by people on Segways.  Called ‘Agora’ and created by a Polish sculptor, it consists of 106 pairs of 9ft tall cast iron headless torsos, standing rusting in a group alongside Michigan Avenue.  Manoeuvring through the narrow spaces between the huge feet and legs of these weird structures provided an ideal opportunity for us to test our newly acquired skills. The designers of the Segway hoped that it would become a widely used means of transport, and although that aim was not achieved I felt that it was remarkable how easy we all found it to use after such a short time.

Another walk through the city streets and I was back on the Blue Line train to Rosemont, still as sparsely occupied and with the same congenial atmosphere as on the inward journey.

Moving on

075The next morning I set off northwards roughly parallel to the shore of Lake Michigan, but diverting inland to the town of Volo to visit Volo Cars.  This is a massive classic car dealership which also operates as a museum, with five large halls set in parkland, many vehicles also being displayed in the open if the weather is good.   Most exhibits are for sale, but some are permanently on show as one-off former show business props or connected with famous people like James Dean and Marylyn Monroe.   The cars were almost all in beautiful condition and the business is clearly very well run by dedicated people.

Next was a cross-country drive to Milwaukee, back on the lake.  The countryside in this part of the world is actually quite like parts of Sussex in England, with gentle rolling hills, well-wooded, and large areas of arable farming.  Although I am far from an expert in such matters, I got the impression that the farms here were considerably more prosperous than those I had seen in the southern USA a couple of years earlier.

Heavy Metal Doors

Heavy Metal Doors

In a report in 2014 Milwaukee was deemed to be the second most miserable city in the States. Within a few minutes of my arrival I was certainly miserable, because vast areas of the road system were dug up due to a massive public works project of some sort, with poorly signposted diversions.  It is likely that a high proportion of visitors to the city would, like me, be aiming for the Harley Davidson factory and museum, and

Heavy Metal Museum

Heavy Metal Museum

that proved to be surprisingly hard to find, even with the satnav and GPS phone.  Entry to the museum was via enormously high, heavy doors, which set the theme for the rest of the establishment, namely, heavy metal.  The interior was lavishly fitted out with stainless steel everywhere creating the impression of solidity and robustness that characterizes the company’s products.  Dozens of bikes were on display, and spread over the walls were engines and fuel tanks covering every model ever produced.  One particularly striking exhibit was the bike that was washed up on the shores of Canada after spending 18 months crossing the Pacific Ocean following the Japanese tsunami in 2009.

It was time to take Interstate 43 north to my night stop at the Lakeview Motel in Two Rivers, near Manitowoc, a lakeside town that I had never heard of.  Between Manitowoc and Two Rivers was a large derelict covered shopping mall, including J.C.Penney, that finally closed in 2011 after over 40 years. According to the people in the motel it was a victim of the recession, along with other businesses in the area.  The Lakeview was a somewhat run down traditional motel with rooms overlooking the lake, or at least they would have been had there not been a thick mist when I arrived. A depressing end to the day.

To Lake Superior

114The next stage would take me to the northernmost point of the tour, on the shores of Lake Superior, a distance of about 200 miles.  As I set off from Two Rivers it was raining hard and still depressing, although now possible to see Lake Michigan.  A good breakfast at a remotely situated roadside place remarkably like an English pub (it didn’t claim to be) cheered me up a bit, and I pressed on through Green Bay to Doc’s Classic Car and Cycle Museum in a place called Bonduel.  This was a very good small museum attached to a Harley Davidson dealership with a stock of “about 100 machines” according to the man in charge, which was surprising considering that it was in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose people will travel a long way to buy a Harley.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan

The satnav managed to take me on a cross-country route to Marinette, on the shore of Green Bay, which is anoffshoot of Lake Michigan, and I then followed Highway 35 alongside the water up to Escanaba and Rapid River.  This should have been a fast drive but wasn’t, due to multiple roadworks and somewhere along the line I lost an hour due to the change from Central Time to Eastern Time.  My map actually described this area as The Upper Penisular of Michigan, because it has a long border with Wisconsin, but is joined to the main part of Michigan only by a bridge.     

Lake Superior

Lake Superior

From Rapid River the road ran through the Hiawatha National Forest to Munising, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, where I quickly booked in at a motel and went for a wander round the town.  Small American towns are often worth a look and Munising was no exception, although there was nothing particularly attractive about it apart from a waterside area with a good view over Lake Superior.  At 49,300 square miles this lake is the largest fresh water lake in the world by area (about the size of England) and the third largest by volume.

Munising

Munising

The motel owner had given me a map marked with restaurants, and one caught my eye, namely the Bookshop Café, in the form of a large, deep shop with walls lined with secondhand books.  On one side was the food service area and the center (when in Rome) was occupied by a variety of country style wooden chairs and tables, including a rocking chair.  At one end of the room were two people playing the violin and as I sat on the rocking chair waiting for my meal I thought what a pity it is that the Americans export their McDonalds and Starbucks all over the world, but nobody knows about the really good places like the Bookshop Café.  A few people were looking at the books, and there were little tables with notices stating “After browsing please leave the books here and the staff will replace them on the shelves”.  While I was there two or three teenagers came in on their own and looked at a few books before disappearing again, and surely anybody who can get teenagers into a bookshop deserves a medal.   Before leaving I had a look round and bought a book published in 1948 called “Sportsmanlike Driving” with illustrations of driving techniques, many of which would be frowned upon today.

To Canada

Wet bridge to Canada

Wet bridge to Canada

Breakfast at Hardees, then a quick look at Munising Falls and the lake view at Sandy Point before the rain started.  And when it came, it came.  My point of entry to Canada was to be a town about 130 miles away called Sault St.Marie, partly in Michigan but mainly in Ontario, and as I battled my way towards the frontier through the rain and roadworks in the seemingly endless forest I began to wonder whether my plan to one day drive thousands of miles through Russia to Japan was such a good idea after all.  Eventually I came to the short stretch of Interstate 75 leading to the bridge over St.Mary’s River and the Canadian customs post where the lady officer said she supposed I would like a stamp in my passport.  It seems that it is optional nowadays, but I said I would and she sent me into a nearby building where a number of people in uniform were sitting doing nothing while I waited about 15 minutes for my stamp.

According to my guide book life in Sault St.Marie (apparently usually just referred to as “Soo”) is great, although it didn’t seem to me to have much going for it, but most places don’t when they are dripping with water.  The road leading eastwards from here runs alongside  the St.Joseph Channel and North Channel which are connected to Lake Huron.  It rejoices in the ambitious name of The Trans-Canada Highway, something I would never have guessed had I not read it somewhere as it is mainly an ordinary single carriageway road with slow going and yet more roadworks.

Trans-Canada Highway

Trans-Canada Highway

At Blind River I found the Old Mill Motel on the main road, with grounds leading down to the lakeside.  It was only as I sat in the restaurant opposite that I realised that as well as the very busy road there was also a railway line running right across the entrance to the motel, literally 50 yards from my room.  The trains were enormous, mostly with two diesel locomotives and a vast number of freight wagons, travelling at about 20mph like American trains.  Apart from one train that came right through my room at 3am it was surprisingly quiet in the night.

It is possible to take a long overland route from Blind River to Detroit via Toronto, but my preferred course of action was to drive eastwards on the Trans-Canada Highway for some distance, and then turn south on to Manitoulin Island.   From South Baymouth on the southern tip of the island a car ferry runs to Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsular between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.  The route would then follow the eastern shoreline of Lake Huron for about 200 miles, most of the way to Detroit.

Lake Huron from ferry

Lake Huron from ferry

Everything I had read about the ferry said that it needed to be booked in advance, but I decided to get up early and risk going without a reservation.  At 6.30am I emerged from my room to find that a big truck with some sort of track maintenance equipment was standing on the railway line across the motel entrance.  Extra axles with train wheels were lowered on to the track at the front and rear of the truck as I watched, and the whole thing was raised up, lifting the road wheels off the ground.  It then trundled off along the railway line.

To the turn off for Manitoulin Island was about 90 miles along the Trans-Canada Highway, still with lots of roadworks and trucks.  The latter are like American ones but even bigger, with more axles, and many have equally large trailers attached.  Eventually I reached Route 6 and the bridge over to the island.

If anyone ever asks you if you know anything they don’t know, you can tell them that Manitoulin Island is the largest fresh water island in the world.  I am not sure how it would be measured because it consists to a great extent of lakes and inlets, but is scenically beautiful, with winding, hilly roads, certainly the best that I had seen so far on this trip.

Lake Huron

There was no problem in getting a ticket for the ferry at South Baymouth and as there were fewer sailings than I thought I finished up with a four hour wait.  South Baymouth is part of a township with a total population of 406, and after looking round the museum, old schoolhouse and coffee shop I still had three hours to spare.

Chi-Cheemaun

Chi-Cheemaun

The long wait was accounted for by the fact that there is only one vessel serving the route, a handsome white ship with the strange name of Chi-Cheemaun, which means ‘big canoe’ in a local indigenous language.  It is about the same size as an Isle of Wight car ferry, but the thing I noticed about it immediately was the lack of rust, as it operates only in fresh water.  The 25-mile crossing took two hours, and there was a decent restaurant on board serving proper English-style fish and chips, which are widely available in Canada but not in the USA.

Lake Huron has an area of 23,000 square miles, and is the second largest of the five Great Lakes.

The road leading south from Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsular was as boring as my guide book said it would be, and I decided to stay for the night in Southampton, the first town I came to.  It was very different from its English namesake, being somewhat smaller with a population of just over 3000 as opposed to 253,000.  At first sight the most notable feature of the town is an extremely large Canadian flag on a high pole near the beach at the end of the main street.  Close by is the mouth of the Saugeen River.

Southampton beach

Southampton beach

In a recent survey to find the country where British ex-pats were happiest Canada came out on top and as I went around I asked myself whether I would like to live there.  If you are planning to emigrate to a country you obviously have to consider factors such as taxation, healthcare, job prospects, property prices, schooling etc. that are irrelevant to tourists. It is easy to imagine living in places with dramatic scenery like the Rockies or Yukon Territory, but you would be far more likely to end up somewhere such as Southampton, Ontario.  It is a very pleasant town, with a main street lined with shops and restaurants, and as I walked around a few people spoke to me, but I just could not envisage living there.  A few miles south is a larger place called Port Elgin with shopping malls and industry, but apart from the area near the lake there seemed to be little of interest.

After I left my motel the next morning I was driving for many miles on a flat road with a view of wind turbines and power cables.  Looking at the map there appeared to be a vast network of straight roads with this sort of landscape stretching all the way to Toronto.

About 60 miles south of Southampton I came to a sign stating GODERICH – THE PRETTIEST TOWN IN CANADA, which intrigued me sufficiently to cause me to take a look. The story goes that a relative of Queen Victoria once stayed there, and upon hearing about the town the monarch said “It sounds like the prettiest town in Canada”.  More recently this description was quoted by the present Queen and taken up with some enthusiasm by the authorities in Goderich.

Goderich

Goderich

In the centre of the town is a large octagonal roundabout called, rather oddly, “The Square”, with a modern white courthouse in the middle of it.  For many years the Square and streets radiating from it were lined with large trees, but these were decimated by a typhoon in 2011 which caused a great of damage to the area.   I would stop short of saying that it is pretty, but, like Southampton, it came across as a pleasant place where people spoke to me as I walked about.

The road followed the lakeside from Goderich all the way to the US border at Port Huron in Michigan.  As at Sault St. Marie, the customs post was at the far end of a bridge, in this case with long lines of queueing traffic.  About 12 booths were open, but some cars were searched and it still took about 30 minutes to get through.

Sarnia and Port Huron are at the southernmost point of Lake Huron, and from here the St.Clair River runs due south to Lake St. Clair, which is only about 25 miles across, far too small to be included as a Great Lake.  As previously mentioned, Detroit does not have a lot going for it nowadays and I decided to stay the night in a small town called Roseville near the lake, where I found a Red Roof Inn surrounded by shops and restaurants.213

Before going into Detroit the next day I went to look at the lake and then drove across the city on the elevated Interstate 94, from which it was possible to glimpse some of the derelict buildings  for which the city is now famous.  I had set the day aside for the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, reputed to be one of the biggest and best car museums in the world.  The museum and factory complex is generally referred to as “The Henry Ford”, and covers a vast area.  Set up by the Ford Foundation, the museum is by no means dedicated just to Ford products, but covers all forms of transport and other aspects of 20th and 21st century life around the world.  The only thing that detracted from my enjoyment was the beetroot and peanut butter sandwich that I just about managed to consume in the café.

As I was about to leave I saw a notice advertising tours of the production line at the nearby  Ford Rouge factory, where the F150 truck (pick-up) is made.  The F150 is one of Ford’s best-selling and most profitable products, and the factory is a modern state of the art unit built as part of the company’s recovery programme following the near collapse of the American motor industry a few years ago.  The driving force behind it was Bill Ford, the current boss, and it is on the site of Henry Ford’s original factory.  The tour started with a bus ride of several miles, during which Bill Ford appeared on a screen, giving a brief talk about the company and the factory.  On arrival we were ushered into a movie theatre and shown a film about the history of the firm, followed by a weird and noisy symbolic representation of the production of a truck, which I thought was a waste of time.  We were then taken to the start of a gangway  that ran above the production line for most of its length, and told we could just wander along, taking as long as we liked.  Along the way were people and screens providing information about what was going on below.

Ford could certainly not be accused of lack of diversity in its work force, with people old and young, male and female, black and white on the line.  Maybe it was because it was Friday afternoon, but I did not get the impression that the workers were under very much pressure.  The F150 is a complicated vehicle, with a vast number of options in its specification, and it seems miraculous how all the parts arrive in the right places at the right time.

The tour finished high on an open terrace from which the whole of the Ford empire could be viewed.   At one time virtually every part of the car was produced by the firm on the site, which stretches as far as the eye can see, but nowadays manufacture of many items is carried out by other companies on a sub-contract basis within the original works complex.

Detroit

Roosevelt Hotel ruin

Roosevelt Hotel ruin

My motel was in a reasonably pleasant area midway between The Henry Ford and central Detroit, and after getting sorted I went along Michigan Avenue to get something to eat.   Rather to my surprise I realised that it was a Muslim district, with many of the shop signs in Arabic.  In a nearby snack bar I got into conversation with some well-travelled Americans, one of whom worked for the city council, and he warned me to be careful in the city centre, especially at night.  From what I had read about it, I had no intention of going there at night.

Not long after leaving the motel the next morning I started to come to derelict buildings, including the enormous and once prestigious Roosevelt Hotel.  It was Saturday, and as I had found in Chicago, the streets were almost deserted, with little traffic or pedestrians apart from a few down and outs.  Near the centre it turned into a reasonably smart business district, with wide streets and skyscrapers but still little activity, although two cars had somehow managed to collide, which seemed on a par with a mid-air collision between two aircraft.

I turned northwards and within a very short distance found myself once again amongst derelict buildings with open spaces where235 demolition had already been carried out.  To see  it for yourself find the junction of Park Avenue and Sproat Street on the Google map of Detroit, and then select Street View.  This will enable you to drive around the area with no fear of being mugged or anything, although as there was practically no one in sight I got out of the car and wandered about taking photographs.

It seems that as the motor and music industries declined the inner suburbs of the city completely died, leaving around 40,000 derelict buildings, a situation that is incomprehensible to most Europeans.  It is possible to go on privately organised tours of some of the more important buildings, often involving illegal entry and some degree of danger.

After this rather depressing scenario I did not need much encouragement to push on southwards towards Lake Erie and Ohio.

Lake Erie

Lake Erie

Lake Erie

The fourth largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie has a surface area of almost 10,000 square miles.  On its shores are large residential and industrial areas including Toledo, Cleveland (Ohio), Erie and Buffalo, giving rise to significant environmental concerns, especially over-fishing and pollution.  At the eastern end it is connected to Lake Ontario via Niagara Falls.

Interstate 75 between Detroit and Toledo runs close to the western end of the lake, and the main town on the route is Monroe, where I turned off and drove through a smart residential area to the shore.   The view across the water was serene and beautiful, with no hint of the problems mentioned above.

Back on the Interstate the road entered Ohio and traversed Toledo at rooftop level on the way to my next port of call, a car museum near a little town called Bowling Green with a really attractive main street.  Snook’s Dream Cars turned out to be a well preserved former service station out in the countryside, the forecourt being graced with a superb 1950s Chevrolet convertible.  A notice on the entrance stated ‘Open Monday to Friday and Weekends if you are Lucky’  It was Saturday, so I opened the door and shouted “Am I lucky?”   A voice from somewhere said “Come through”, so I went through and discovered Mr.Snook, son of the late founder of the business, cleaning a car.  We had a long talk and I then wandered round looking at his father’s excellent collection of cars and automobilia,  including those in two big buildings at the back that are not normally open to the public.  For a change I was lucky.

Snook's Dream Cars

Snook's Dream Cars

A cross-country drive on ordinary roads then took me to the town of Auburn in Indiana.  Classic car enthusiasts will recognise Auburn as the name of a famous car of the 1920s and 30s, and town is actually a petrolhead’s paradise, with three museums.   After booking in at the Super 8 motel I made my way to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, which is in the former factory where the cars were actually made.   These were big high performance luxury cars, and the museum is of a size and standard commensurate with the quality of the products.

This left two other museums in Auburn for me to visit the next day, as well as the Studebaker Museum at South Bend, but my plans were disrupted when I got in the car the next morning and found a picture on the instrument display showing a tyre plan with one tyre at half pressure.  The National Automotive and Truck Museum was not far away, and I thought there would be someone there who might give some advice about where I could get the tyre sorted out, especially as it was Sunday.

Auburn-C-D Museum

Auburn-C-D Museum

They were very friendly people and inflated the tyre to its proper pressure, but discovered a screw embedded in it close to the side wall.  They let me call Alamo Car Rental on their phone, and Alamo said I should take the car to Firestone at Fort Wayne, about 20 miles away.  When I got there Firestone said the tyre was not safe to drive on, and as they didn’t have a replacement they put the restricted-use spare on, which was only good for 50 miles at 50mph.  They arranged for me to go to Michel Tires Plus at Columbia City, 15 miles away. Michel’s had a tyre, but Alamo refused to pay for it, because Michel’s were not their accredited agent!  By now this had been going on for six hours, and I had to get the matter resolved, because I needed to be at Chicago airport by midday Monday, and that was 150 miles away.  In the end I paid for a new tyre, about $200, and hoped I could eventually get the money back from Alamo.   At least I was on the road again, and pushed on to Michigan City, which is actually in Indiana, and is a great deal less imposing than the name suggests.

When I took the car into Alamo the next morning I was expecting an argument about the tyre, and was astonished when, after a short wait, the manager presented me with the full cost of it in cash.  I had always thought car rental companies didn’t know what cash was!  Alamo sometimes come in for criticism, but in this instance they were quite fair.

The trip was rounded off with a spectacular thunderstorm at Chicago that later made the BBC News in England, and the plane was inching forward on the ground for 4 hours 30 minutes before finally taking off.

The scenery on this trip was not as spectacular as the title might suggest, mainly because the route I took around the lakes did not rise to any great elevation, but it gave me an insight into a part of the States I had not seen before, and two of its most iconic cities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31May/14Off

Taiwan and Beijing 2014

CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

Taiwan and Beijing 2014

For many years my company in England has sold excellent electronic products made in Taiwan, and a few years ago we became sole agents for them.   After my 2013 visit to South Korea and Beijing, which I greatly enjoyed, I felt that I had unfinished business in the Beijing area, in the form of two car museums that I particularly wanted to see, and decided to combine a trip to Taiwan with another 72-hour visa-free stay in Beijing.

 Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, actually exists in a state of political limbo.  Some time ago the much-respected British travel journalist and TV presenter Simon Reeve included Taiwan in a list of “Countries That do not Exist”.  By that he meant countries that are not recognised as independent states by most other nations, especially the more prominent ones.  In the case of Taiwan this applies to Britain, most other European countries, the USA and Russia.

 In the 1950s the Chinese Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, left the Communist controlled Chinese mainland for the island of Formosa to set up a capitalist economy which developed into the modern Taiwan.  The country has thrived as an advanced industrial nation, supplying good quality products at competitive prices to the rest of the world, and the political status quo is currently widely accepted, even by mainland China.

 Following my previous experience I decided to fly with Air China and have the visa-free stay in Beijing on the return journey. After travelling for more hours than I care to think about I arrived at the Novotel at Taipei airport at 2am on the last shuttle bus of the night.

 At 11am the next morning I collected my rental car from the High Speed Rail Station a few miles away.  The choice of rental companies in Taiwan is limited, especially if you are over 70, and I had had protracted negotiations in advance over my International Driving Permit, In most countries where there is a requirement for an IDP nobody actually takes much notice of it, but in Taiwan it appears that the rental company has to send a copy in advance to the local government motor vehicle office for approval. 

 In the rental office we were communicating partly via a laptop with Google Translate, and in a country where most signs would be in Chinese, with few people speaking English, I knew that some form of electronic navigational aid would be essential.  The people in front of me at the rental desk were given a small TomTom-like satnav, so I asked for one. The man said “No good, all Chinese”.  Not long before leaving home I had acquired a Nokia smartphone with GPS and had downloaded maps of Taiwan and Beijing into it. According to the instructions it would then work without needing a fantastically expensive data connection.     Young  people find these things easy to set up, expect them to work and are surprised if they don’t.  In my age group you find it hard to set them up, don’t expect them work, and are amazed if they do.  I could only hope.

 For the first day I had set a modest target of driving about 30 miles to a place called Fantasy World, a theme park which was supposed to have Taiwan’s only classic car museum, and then to my hotel in a town called Jhubei, Chupei, or Zhubei.  Road directions signs and street names are almost always in Chinese and English, but the variation in English spelling does not make things any easier.

 It was a fast run in my Mitsubishi Lancer down the freeway to a place called Chutung (or Jhudong), where I expected to find Fantasy World.  A short time after entering the town I picked up a Chinese/English brown tourist sign to ‘Fantasy World of Successful Group’.  These signs continued for miles through the town and on to twisty roads out into the countryside before I eventually lost them.  For about half an hour I searched around before trying to ask some men at a car workshop, but although they were very keen to help we were defeated by the language barrier.  I suddenly had the brilliant idea of going back and photographing the last sign and showing it to them.  They practically jumped with joy at realising what I was looking for, but then explained that it was closed five years ago.  So it was ultimately the ‘Fantasy World of Unsuccessful Group’.

 My hotel was close to the centre of Jhubei, but was not likely to be signposted, so I decided to try the GPS in the phone.  To my astonishment it worked!  The map could be expanded to show the names of even the smallest streets, and this meant that within seconds I could find out where I was anywhere in Taiwan providing that the satellites were available.  It did not take long to find the hotel but without the phone it would have been a nightmare and there is no doubt that I would have had to change my plans substantially.

Scooter park After getting sorted I went for a walk round the town.  The most striking thing was the astonishing number of motor scooters, which were parked all along the roadsides, on the pavements, as much as there were any, and on the special strip of road reserved for scooters.  This meant that it was impossible to walk along the streets without mixing with the traffic, but that seemed to be the accepted situation.  Near the hotel was a large dedicated scooter park with a little scooter-sized barrier at the entrance, and on the way to the hotel I had caused some confusion by attempting to drive through a tunnel under the railway that was actually for scooters only.

 Jhubei is only about 6 miles from the west coast, which is on the Formosa Strait, and the next morning I decided to have a look at it before driving south to cross over the mountains. The nearest point to Jhubei is the large fishing port of Hsinchu.  AtHsinchu port the harbour entrance is a promontory described on my map as a ‘Wind Activity Park’, and when I arrived on the Sunday morning it was being well-used by families with kites.  Alongside was it a massive indoor and outdoor food market with a mind-boggling range of sea food including many things that I did not recognise, but I am no expert.

 From Hsinchu I drove a few miles along the coast on a fast road before turning inland through Chunan and Toufen to the mountains.  This was a complicated urban route and without my GPS phone I could not have done it.  After reservoirpassing a scenic reservoir I joined route 3 which was to take me a good part of the way to my night stop in Puli (or Pulli). Shortly before a town called Sanwan was a tourist attraction which turned out to be a Buddhist monastery with limited public access.  There were lots of people just looking, some praying, and as I wandered around a few of the monks nodded and smiled benevolently but did not attempt to break through the language barrier.

 For about the next 50 miles the road was scenic but busy, running alongside the mountains before eventually losing most of the traffic and starting to climb in the direction of Pulli. According to the Lonely Planet guide Pulli was a resort town with expensive hotels, and I expected to find somewhere like Harrogate or Cheltenham.  By the time I got there it was dusk, and the main street was a scene of frantic activity, ablaze with neon signs and all the characteristics of a Chinese town.  Driving through such a street is an all consuming experience, demanding a high level of concentration to deal with chaotic events on the road against a background of multiple distractions.  Nothing like Harrogate at all. 

Once through the main street I managed to find somewhere to park and take stock of the situation.  The jet lag was still coming into play, and I did not feel like wandering about searching for a hotel.  I looked around and saw a sign saying HOTEL high up on a building not far away.  Without too much trouble I managed to find it, and it turned out to be quite a classy looking place called the Yoou Shan Grand Hotel.  When I entered the vast and impressive reception area I realised that in every way, including price, it was outside my normal range.  I also realised that, scruffily attired as I was (and always am), I was outside the normal range of its clientele.

As I booked in I put on a brave face and the staff did likewise.  My room was, as expected, near perfect, the only striking thing being theRemote and instructions high-tech Japanese lavatory, the first I have seen outside Japan.  It was a more recent development of the ones I saw there, having a remote control unit that could be detached from the wall and used anywhere in the room.  This meant that it was possible, amongst many other things, to lift the seat cover, the seat, and flush the bowl without getting out of bed.  Very useful.  Comprehensive instructions in Chinese were on the wall alongside the toilet, with graphic pictures showing the multitude of available functions, and next to them a telephone.  This was presumably to summon help if the lavatory went out of control while you were sitting on it.

To offset the vast cost of the accommodation I went out for a cheap meal, and as I walked across the reception area someone ran in front of me to open the door.  From this point on the staff fawned over me to such an extent that I decided that they thought either that I was a hotel inspector for a Western travel company or that I was a prospective purchaser of the establishment.

 The next morning I was the only guest in the enormous restaurant and as I approached the breakfast buffet a young lady followed to help me work the coffee machine, which was about 70 yards away.  Just as I had eaten as much as I wanted a waiter came over and said the chef had prepared something special for me.  This turned out to be a ‘Western’ breakfast. ‘Western’ breakfasts in the Far East seem to be prepared by people who have never been to the West, but have read about it, and this one was no exception.  However, to avoid causing offence I did my best to do justice to it and expressed my appreciation.         

 The plan for the day was to drive across to the east coast via one of the few routes over the mountains.  Looking at the map this entailed Fog!a drive of 90 miles of continuous mountain road, rising to a height of 3,275m (10,600 ft) at Wuling in the middle.  After a place called Wushe, about 15 miles from Puli, I ran into fog (actually low cloud, I suppose), and that went on for about two hours.  The road was never straight for more than 150 yards, and varied in width constantly from 40 ft down to single track, with a sheer drop on my side, though usually protected by a substantial barrier.  In many places the posted speed limit was 15 or 18mph, but that was too fast for the conditions. The traffic coming the other way was not heavy, but it consisted mostly of lorries and buses, and for stressful driving I can say that it was equalled only by driving into Moscow, which was a very different experience.  After an hour it was becoming dangerously hypnotic, and I stopped for a while to rest.  A thing that annoyed me was that I knew I must be missing fantastic scenery.

 Once over the summit at Wuling, which is the highest made-up road in East Asia, visibility improved and the scenery appeared, in the form of tree-covered mountains in all directions.  This altitude in the European Alps would be far above the tree line, exposing bleak, bareView at last or snow-covered rock, but personally I prefer the lush, green vegetation of Taiwan.

 The road was now in Taroko National Park, famed for its beauty, and the drive for the next 50 miles was a motoring enthusiast’s dream, with seemingly endless hairpin bends, tunnels and rock arches. It.finally entered Taroko Gorge, known as one of ‘The Seven Wonders in Asia’.  Unfortunately I did not have time to explore the many walking and cycling trails, for which a week would not be adequate, let alone a day.Taroko GorgFrom Puli it had taken all day to drive the 90 miles to the east coast on the Pacific Ocean, but despite the fog I think it was the best day’s driving I have ever had.  The road actually comes to the coast at a small place called Hsincheng, but I decided to drive about another 12 miles south to Hualien, a larger town where it would be easier to find accommodation.  In the event it proved to be easy to find a decent hotel at less than half the cost of the one in Puli.  By the time I had a walk around and a cheap unadventurous meal in a convenience store I was too tired to do anything but go to bed.

 Before driving north the next morning I went into Hualien, and by chance discovered a marvellous street market.  The amazing thing about it was the incredible number of elderly people, men and women, turning up on motor scooters.  Some of them must have been 90, and if they were having difficulty in balancing they didn’t give up, but just had an extra pair of wheels fitted atStreet market the back, alongside the normal rear wheel.  One or two had dogs standing on the footboard, and it was clear that for these people their scooters had been an integral part of their lives for many years.

 From Hualien I drove northwards along the coast to the strangely Anglo-Saxon sounding Chisingtan Beach.  It was hard to believe that the last time I had seen the Pacific was in Valporaiso in Chile, which I subsequently discovered was 11,500 miles straight across the ocean, further than the shortest distance between England and Australia. 

 For about the next 60 miles the road, as Highway 9, followed the edge of the mountain range, a spectacular route wending its way along the cliff face with steep climbs and tunnels through the rock.  Looking across the sea to the right I was reminded of the much acclaimed Route 9Pacific Coast Highway in California, about 7000 miles away with only water in between.  I have driven the best parts of the PCH several times, but never been as impressed as I expected to be, and to my mind it cannot hold a candle to Taiwan Highway 9.  The only problem with Highway 9 is slow-moving trucks, although their drivers are as helpful as they can be in creating overtaking opportunities.  It is said that the coast road running about 150 milesPCH 7000 miles south from Hualien is even more scenic than the stretch I drove.

 Some distance after a town called Suao I turned inland, between rice fields, to Lotung (or Lodong or Luodong) where I found a hotel for the night.  Most Taiwanese towns have a night market, and the people in the hotel told me how to find the one in Lotung, but I was actually a bit disappointed with it.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was just a day market held at night!

 During my visit to the Great Wall of China near Beijing the previous year a group of young office workers from Taipei had invited me to join them in sharing a minibus, an arrangement that worked very well for me.  We kept in touch and agreed to meet again on my planned visit to Taipei in 2014.  They suggested that I call into their office on the afternoon following my stay in Lotung, Rice fieldswhich meant driving across the mountains on an old mountain pass or taking the shorter, faster, freeway including a 12.9km tunnel.  Most sensible people would have taken the latter route, so I chose the former. It wasLotung yet another brilliant drive with a town called Pinglin half way.  Pinglin has the character of an American western town, and at one time must have been quite isolated, but now has a freeway junction close to it.

 The following morning I had an appointment with my business associates in Chungyang Road, Taipei, so before leaving home I had booked a hotel about 200 yards from their offices in the same road.  This meant driving about eight miles across the city, which would have been a very daunting prospect without my GPS phone, but in the event proved to be fairly easy.  Taipei was a far cleaner and Lotung streetpleasanter place than I expected, the traffic in the middle of the afternoon being quite civilised.  With the car safely tucked away in the hotel’s underground car park I set off via the metro for my friends’ office near the city centre. 

 For years I had imagined that Taipei was like a vast slum, full of two- or three-storey crowded sweatshops inNight market narrow alleys, with people slaving away in poor conditions.  I did not see anything like that, and my friends turned out to be working on the sixth floor of a large modern air-conditioned office block that would have been at home in Canary Wharf in London.  They actually work for a sports marketing company that organises baseball and basketball events mainly in association with American teams, hence the fact that they all speak good English.

 When I left them the rush hour was just getting under way and the scooters were out in force.   At the traffic lights they ride to a dedicated scooter space at the front of the queue, forming a dense block, and when the lights change the description ‘Traffic Lights Grand Prix’ is a gross understatement. The use of scooters on this scale in a developed country is probably Scooter grand prixunique to Taiwan, but it must greatly reduce the pressure on public transport.  At 7.00pm in the subway on the way to back to my hotel I was able to get a seat immediately, which would not have been possible at that time in most capital cities.

 Before going to the subway I wandered round the central area, which is dominated by Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building from 2004 until 2010, and still boasts of having the fastest lift, at 1010m per minute (approx. 37mph) going up. The top was in the clouds. Another spectacular building with classical Chinese architecture isSun Yan-Sen Memorial Hall the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall,  containing a large seated figure of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of modern China. Unfortunately I did not get time to see the downtown area of the city.

 At 10.00am the next morning I drove along Chungyang Road to my business associates who were also in an impressive modern building, far better than the one I work in in England.  Following a discussion I was shown their state-of- the-art factory and then taken out to lunch at a nearby restaurant.   In the afternoon a lady named Annie took me by taxi to Taipei 101 where we experienced the breathtaking lift and view from the 89th floor.  The building actually has 101 floors, hence the name. but the highest part open to the public is a small outside area on the 90th floor with a limited view but unlimited wind. 

 My flight to Beijing was the next day, so I had booked a hotel in a small town called Taoyuan not far from the airport.  At least, I thought it Taoyuan Templewas a small town, but all Taiwanese towns are larger than you expect and Taoyuan was no exception.  It seemed to be quite an old town,Taoyuan street and the hotel was in a central area of narrow one-way streets around an ancient temple, making it quite hard to find even with the magic phone.  The area was very lively in the evening, with a vast range of shops and eating places, including a couple of big department stores.

 At the Car Plus rental office in the HSR station the next morning everything went smoothly when I took the car in.  Renting cars in foreign countries is fraught with potential problems at the best of times, and when communication is almost impossible you are dependent upon the honesty of the people you are dealing with. In Taiwan I had not met anyone whose integrity I doubted, and I had no reservations about the Car Plus staff.

 The A330-300 to Beijing was full, and as far as I could see I was the only Westerner on the flight.  At one point a stewardess came down the aisle carrying a single blank entry card for China and gave it to me.  At Beijing airport there was no problem in arranging the 72-hour visa-free stay or with getting the Airport Express to Dongzhimen subway station.  I had booked a hotel for three nights near the station, to minimize the need to hump my bags around the city.  The JI Hotel was about 400 yards from the station and easier to find than I expected, but had no English-speaking people at the reception desk.  Somehow we muddled through without Google translate.

 The plan for the next day was to visit a privately owned classic car museum in a town called Huairou, about 20 miles north of BeijingDongzhimen and it would also be an opportunity to look round a Chinese town other than the enormous capital city. On my previous visit I went through Huairou on the way to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, but did not have time to get to the museum, although at least I remembered how to get to the town.

 The usual way for tourists is to take the so-called fast bus from the Dongzhimen Transport Hub, just around the corner from my hotel.  The bus was easy to find, with a bright neon sign on the front showing 916 followed by a Chinese character meaning FAST (I had read about this on the internet).  The queue was also easy to find, being about 100 yards long, but it seemed that the buses were running on demand rather than to a time-table, and as one  drove off another one appeared, so the wait was only about 15 minutes.  The fare for the 20-mile journey was 12 yuan (£1.20).

 Most of the way to Huairou is motorway, and I knew from my previous experience of this route that it would probably be slow going on a Saturday morning.  One cause of the hold-up was the toll station with about 12 booths a few miles north of Beijing, but it seemed that there had been an incident of some sort as well, and the bus crawled at a snail’s pace for a long time.  For a country in which a relatively small proportion of people own cars the volume of traffic was amazing, but as with everything else in China, a small proportion of the population is still a very large number of people. The sun was blazing through the window next me and although there was supposed to be air-conditioning it did not seem to be working very well, to the point where I was seriously worried about getting heat stroke or something.  Most of the other passengers were younger and didn’t appear to be very bothered, but I was relieved when the bus finally got moving properly.

 The terminus was Huairou Bus Station, and as expected I was hassled by taxi and minibus drivers wanting to take me the Great Wall.  They could not imagine that a Westerner would want to do anything else, and were perplexed when I walked across the road to the toilets and then went off in search of a cup of coffee.

I found a small café and went in and asked for coffee.  Apart from a couple of times in the American South (where you have to ask for ‘car-fee’) I think this is only time I have not been understood, and here I was very not understood.  The people looked at me as if I had just dropped in from another planet, possibly the first Westerner they had seen close up.  I repeated ‘Coffee’ a  few times, and the lady in charge then suddenly produced two small sachets of Nescafe.  I said “Yes!, Yes!”, and they all started to laugh.  She held up a small glass, and I said “Yes”, so in a short time she returned with it containing a strong solution of Nescafe in hot water.  Apparently this was very, very, funny, and all the time I sat drinking it (it was pretty horrible) they were chuckling away looking in my direction.  When I asked to pay they refused to accept anything, seemingly because the entertainment value far exceeded the cost of a sachet of Nescafe and some hot water.  This was entirely lost on me, but I left feeling that I had made a small contribution to East-West relations.

A short distance along the road I found a taxi waiting for a fare, and showed the driver the address of the car museum in Chinese which I had printed off their website. He knew immediately where it was and took me there by the most direct route, which I had memorised from a map.  The museum was in a warehouse-type building, and contained a collection of mostly Chinese and Russian vehicles collected by Red Flag carsMr.Luo Wen You since the 1980s.  There were some very strange cars about which I would have liked more information, but no one spoke English and all the notices were in Chinese.  Towards the end of my visit a man of uncertain age appeared, and a lady who spoke a little bit of English introduced him to me as Mr.Luo Wen You.  He spoke no English, but insisted on taking me back into the collection and photographing me (using my camera) alongside some of the prize exhibits.  A large group of people in their late teens were visiting the museum and one or two who spoke good English were then summoned to act as interpreters. 

 My intention had been to ask the museum people to phone for a taxi to take me back to the bus station, but before I had a chance it was explained that it was not convenient to get a taxi so Mr. Luo Wen You would take me to a bus stop in his car.  After being photographed with me in the entrance to the building he took me in his well worn Skoda to a bus stop at the side of a dusty main road in the somewhere in the suburbs.

 A few other people were waiting for the bus, and I somehow realised that this was the route of the 916FAST to Beijing.  That was a problem, because before going back to Beijing I wanted to go to the toilet, have something to eat, and have a look round Huairou.  Also, I was thinking of going back on the train, just for the experience. 

 By pointing to Huairou bus station, labelled in Chinese on my map, I was eventually able to persuade everyone that that was where I wanted to go, although they could not understand why a foreigner could possibly want to do anything other than get back to Beijing as soon as possible.  A bus came that was not the 916FAST and everyone told me to get on it, so I did, assuming that it was going to the busStreet in Huairou station.  However, a couple of miles along the road it stopped at a bus stop where another bus was standing.  All the people round me shouted “GET OFF, GET OFF” and pointed to the other bus.  Not understanding what was happening I got off, and then realised that the other bus was the 916FAST to Beijing!  It pulled away before I had time to get on it anyway, so I was back to the roadside and the whole thing started all over again.  A different lot of people were at this bus stop and I was just trying to convince them that I wanted to go the bus station when a taxi driver standing nearby offered to take me there for 50 yuan (£5).  I jumped at the chance, and within a couple of minutes we stopped at the bus station.  When I gave the driver a 50 yuan note he gave me 35 yuan back, so the fare was actually 15 yuan, a misunderstanding due to the subtle difference between 15 and 50 when spoken with a Chinese accent.

 A quick visit to the toilet and then a walk into the town to find something to eat.  By now I was desperately hungry and seized upon the first opportunity to get some food, which was in a burger restaurant.  Needless to say, no one spoke English, but there were pictures of meals all over the walls, and I pointed to one consisting of a burger, chips and ‘soda’.  This seemed very straightforward to me, but it wasn’t to the staff, who responded with various questions in Chinese.  I just pointed again, said “That, please”, and indicated which drink I wanted from the cabinet before sitting down.  Eventually an enormous burger and great quantity of chips appeared, and I realised that they had answered one of their questions by deciding that I wanted to “go large”.

 By now it was apparent that Huairou was a ‘new town’ similar in character to Stevenage or Crawley, and was about as interesting.  It was nothing like the more traditional Chinese towns that I had seen in Taiwan, and as time was running out anyway I made my way to the Side street in Huairourailway station.  This was deserted apart from the man in the ticket office, who clearly resented being disturbed in the middle of the afternoon, especially by a foreigner.  When I asked for a ticket to Beijing he wanted to see my passport.  No one had asked for that on the bus, so presumably people plotting to overthrow the Chinese government only travel by train.

 He told me the fare, which was slightly more expensive than the bus, and mentioned that the next train was not for two hours.  On hearing that I had to drop the idea, because there were buses every 10 minutes or so, and I needed to be back at my hotel to meet my Chinese friend Herbert at 7.00pm.    

 Herbert was my guide for the electric scooter tour on my previous visit to Beijing and we had kept in touch by email.  At one time he worked in HR for a hotel group and then became a full-time tour guide. He has his own website and I was very impressed with the professional manner in which he does things, acting almost like a one-man travel agent.  We went for a meal to a “roasted duck restaurant” near my hotel and it was interesting to talk to him about life in Beijing amongst other things.

 Originally I had hoped to rent an electric scooter the next day to go to yet another car museum in the south east of the city near the fourth ring road, but it was at least 10 miles each way, and bearing in mind that I would probably get lost the rental firm said there was a risk that the battery would not last out the whole journey.  It would obviously be a big problem to be stranded somewhere in the suburbs, so that was another good idea that I had to drop.

Beijing Auto Museum The only sensible alternative was the subway, which meant 18 stops with several changes but it is very cheapFourth Ring Road and quite easy to use, although I had to stand a lot of the time.  The Beijing Auto Museum is government owned, with an impressive building only a few years old.  It was vaguely inspired by the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, with several floors, and the whole idea of a communist government investing so lavishly in a monument to the motor car does seem rather odd, but it has a strong educational content with lots of entertainment for families rather than car enthusiasts.  Judging by the number of people there it is very successful.

 Afterwards I made my way back to Tiananmen Square by underground, and was surprised  to find on the approach to the square a security checkpoint in which my back pack was x-rayed.  This was apparently because it was close to the 25th anniversary of the incident in which a large number of students were shot during an anti-government demonstration.  From the world’s Tiananmen Squarelargest public square I followed a lot of other people over a bridge and through an opening in the Gate of Heavenly Peace, leading towards the Forbidden City.  It was too late to go into the Forbidden City, so I cut across to the main shopping area which was still thronging with people including many foreign tourists. 

 Within a short time I was accosted by a charming young lady who spoke excellent English, and she asked me where I was from.  I said “England”, and she replied  “I am a student, I am learning English. Can I walk along with you and chat for a while?”  Fortunately, I am a man of the world and have read all the right books, so I knew what this was about, and it is not what you think.  It is a common scam in that area.  They walk with you for a while, then suggest that you go into a place for a cup of tea.  You are taken into a traditional Chinese tea house and involved in an elaborate, long drawn out tea-making ceremony.  When you come to leave at the end they present you with a bill for £250.  If you refuse to pay a heavyweight man appears and says that is the charge for the tea-making ceremony, so pay up or else!  I declined to get involved, and as I walked away she said, in a very hurt voice, ”Oh, why not?”.

 Before getting the subway back to Dongzhimen I wanted to have a look at some hutongs, the lanes that made up most of Beijing in the oldDuan Gate days.  Large areas of them have been replaced by modern development, but a fair number are left in some places, and I came to some not far north of the shopping centre.  Basically they are narrow streets lined with mostly single-storey buildings in which people live and in many cases also work.  I set off along one lane with the intention of walking through to the next main street, which looked quite a long way, but after about 300 yards I realised that this was a much more run down area than the ones I had seen on my previous visit. It could only be described as a slum, with people living in very poor conditions, and although no one took any notice of me I decided that it might not be wise to proceed any further.  In the USA or South America I would have been mugged before getting that far, but in Beijing it is generally considered to be safe to wander about. 

 The all-pervading light mist from pollution was present, as on my previous visit, and although it had no adverse affect on me a considerable number of people were wearing face masks in the street.  This still strikes me as rather funny, with people walking about looking like Dick Turpin, and I look forward to the day when this practice is adopted in British cities, throwing the obsession with CCTV cameras into confusion.

 At the airport the next morning everything was going smoothly until I came to the immigration desk in the departure area (I suppose it should be emigration, but they call it immigration), which was manned by a police officer.  He looked at my passport, asked me to wait a minute and went away.  When he came back he asked where I had stayed in Beijing, and when I told him the name of the hotel he said there was a problem because the hotel should have told the police that I was staying there, and they had not done so.  He took me through the barrier, sat me on a chair and asked for details of the hotel.  Unfortunately I had put all my hotel paperwork in my checked bag, which had disappeared to the mysterious place that bags go to on their way to the plane. He went away for some time, holding my passport, and eventually came back with two police women.

 One of them said “Please come with us. We want ask you some questions”.  Up to this point I thought it was slightly amusing, but now I was beginning to feel rather uncomfortable about it. I could see “British Tourist Held for Questioning in Beijing” in the Daily Telegraph, with a Foreign Office spokesman saying they were trying to secure my release.   The ladies took me to a desk and asked again about the hotel, including my room number.  I wrote down everything I could remember about the name and address, but they did not recognise it.  I think the problem was that the name in English was probably different from that in Chinese. Anyway, after a few minutes they asked me to sign an A4 form covered in Chinese characters, which they said was to confirm that I had been questioned, and let me go.  In the unlikely event that I go to Beijing again I shall probably find that I am in the Chinese army or have volunteered to collect bamboo shoots for the pandas in Chengdu.

 Notwithstanding that slight setback, this had been a very good trip.  Taiwan was everything I hoped for, with friendly people, interesting towns and beautiful scenery.  In fact, a country that I felt I could live in, which cannot be said for many of the places I have visited.  The Beijing area is extremely interesting, and I would like to go further afield in China, but the Chinese will not allow foreigners over 70 to drive there, and I have already had enough of the rigours of public transport.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

27Feb/14Off

Iceland 2013

CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

Iceland 2013

As the plane approached Reykjavik I was expecting a magnificent view of mountains, glaciers, smouldering volcanoes and waterfalls, all the things I had read about.  Instead of that, once we broke through the heavy cloud cover all that was visible was a flat, barren, treeless landscape with an assortment of buildings that looked like a large military airfield.  Not surprising, because that is what it was, built by the British when we invaded neutral Iceland during World War II, to prevent the Germans from doing the same thing.  I don’t remember being told about that in school.

In the arrivals area a man from Sixt Car Rental was waiting for me, and took me to their depot, where I was introduced to my car, a blue Chevrolet Spark.  The Spark is not detectably related to any American car of that make, but a tiny, substantially blinged-up descendent of the Korean-built Daewoo Matiz.

Reykjavik International Airport is not actually near Reykjavik, but in Keflavik, a much smaller town about 30 miles away, right on the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsular in the extreme south west of the island.  The dual carriageway from the airport to Reykjavik has been described as the best road in Iceland in terms of a transport link, and that is probably true, but it runs for miles through the above-mentioned featureless landscape before entering the city.

Iceland is four-fifths of the area of England, with a population only slightly greater than that of Coventry (330,000), and two-thirds of those live in the south-western corner of the country, so it could hardly be described as densely populated.

Reykjavik

Reyjavik comes across as a thriving city, with an excellent road network running through extensive suburbs including a fair amount of industry.  My hotel was easy to get to, about a mile from the centre, just off a main thoroughfare called Borgetan lined with large modern commercial buildings.

The temperature was about 6 degrees, and it started to rain as I walked to the centre under the heavy grey sky.  This was just how I had imagined Iceland would be.  The daylight hours near the autumn equinox were similar to those at home, which gave me about three hours to look round before dark.   It was approaching the end of the holiday season, with some attractions and services already closed, but there were still plenty of tourists around.

HallgrimskirkjaFor a capital city Reykjavik has relatively few imposing buildings or ‘sights’.  By far the most striking building is the Hallgrimskirkja, anParliament House immense concrete church with dramatic architecture, built between 1940 and 1974.  It towers over its surroundings and is featured on every postcard and picture of the city.  Another notable building is the Alþing or parliament house, built of basalt in the 19th century with a modern glass and concrete extension.  The whole complex is no larger than most English town halls.  The main street starts quite downmarket, lined with shops of increasing quality as you go westwards, finishing in a pleasant little tree-lined square, but none of it is terribly impressive.  Tucked away amongst the more modern buildings are some with the traditional wooden construction covered with corrugated iron sheet, as seems to be the norm in all cold places.

However, bars, cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs are not in short supply, and apparently every Saturday evening there is an almighty pub crawl called the Runtur, which takes over the whole city centre.

Mention of the Alþing brings me to matter of the Icelandic language, which uses the same character set as English, but with a few additional ones.  The most used extra characters are þ and đ, both pronounced ‘th’ but slightly differently.  Almost everyone I met in Iceland spoke good colloquial English with little accent, and sometimes I got the impression that they speak it amongst themselves.  Lots of signs and notices are in English, sometimes only in English. Place names can be difficult, because many of them are very similar and hard to remember, like those in Wales.

The Golden Circle

Pingvellir National ParkThis is the real tourist trail.  Within a region about 40 miles east of Reykjavik is the Þingvellir National Park,Fissure incorporating the largest lake in Iceland, and some of the best known sights in the country.  This area lies on the boundary of the North American and European tectonic  plates, which are slowly moving away from each other, causing spectacular fissures in the landscape where the rocks have literally been torn apart.

A drive round the north end of the lake leads to the hot springs area, with water at 80 to 100 degrees C. emerging from steaming pools of mud next to the road.  Adjacent to these is Geysir, the original geyser that gave its name to others all over the world.  Unfortunately Geysir, which spouted to a height of 80 metres, became blocked years ago by stones thrown into it by tourists, and although it has recovered to some extent following an earthquake the main attraction now is the nearby Strokkur.  Strokkur erupts spectacularly every few minutes, sending water up to 35m into the air.  When I arrived I joined a group of people standing on one side and watched it spout for a couple times.  It seemed Strokkurto me that the view would be better on the opposite side and I moved round to there, but realised when the geyser performed why the other people had not done the same.  The water had actually cooled considerably by the time it came down to drench me.

This was the first but far from the last time my camera nearly got soaked, and one thing you definitely need in Iceland is a waterproof camera.  On many occasions I saw people with expensive and complicated cameras (mine is not) standing in precariously wet conditions.

After the geysers the next stop on the tour circuit was Gullfoss, a magnificent waterfall, wide rather than high, like a miniature version of Niagara Falls but on two levels.  Public access is free and well organised, although it does mean quite a bit of scrambling about to get the    best views.

The road Rt. 35 northwards from Gullfoss is one of the few leading into the interior, and the only one apart from the Ring Road that goesGullfoss right through to the north of the country without fording any rivers.  In the summer it is used by toughened-up buses and by some locals with ordinary cars, but rented cars are not permitted to use it unless they have four wheel drive.  Apart from Rt.35 virtually all roads leading into the interior from Rt.1 have the prefix F, which means that they do not have a sealed surface and can only legally be used by 4x4s.  Had I realised how restricting this would be I would have rented a 4x4, but I was led to believe by Lonely Planet that an ordinary car would be suitable for most purposes, which is not the case.

From Gullfoss I cut across to Rt.30 leading southwards and even that involved a few miles of loose surface before coming back to tarmac and eventually Rt.1.  For much of the way the most prominent feature of the landscape was Heckla, perhaps Iceland’s best known volcano until Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010.   That last eruption was not expected at all, and 186in the normal order of things it should have been Hekla, which had established a pattern of erupting about every 10 years, the last time in 2000.  Viewed from Rt.1 Heckla appears as an almost perfect snow-capped cone, reminiscent of the iconic view of Mount Fuji in Japan, although Fuji is far higher.  To my disappointment Hekla was not smoking, and was  covered in snow at the top, although apparently the crater floor is still hot.  It is possible to climb it, but that can be risky because it takes about four hours to get to the summit, and when it erupts it only gives about two hours warning.

Further to the east just off Rt.1 a few miles from a small town called Selfoss was my second night’s accommodation, an isolated farm guesthouse. The Guesthouse Lambastedir had 11 rooms in an almost new building separate from the farmhouse, and was basic but scrupulously clean.  Amongst the guests were an American couple from Colorado who had been there for three weeks and were immensely enthusiastic about it, although they seemed to sit looking out the window at the flat and relatively featureless landscape most of the time.

On the advice of the friendly owner of Lambastadir I went into Selfoss for a meal at the Kaktus restaurant. As far as I know cactus is not on the menu, and I had fish and chips.  The town is described by LP as witlessly ugly, which I thought was a bit over the top, although it is rather like an industrial estate apart from the area around the river.

Back at the Lambastadir I asked the Americans whether they had seen the northern lights, which is something I hoped to do, and theyLambastedir said they had looked every night but the weather had been overcast most of the time that they had been there.  At 9.00pm I went outside and it was a wonderfully clear sky with an exceptionally strong full moon, but no sign of the aurora borealis.  At 11.00pm I checked again, but still nothing.

However, this heralded a change in the weather which was to last throughout my stay in Iceland and the next morning was cold but bright.  The first port of call was the Urridafoss waterfall, a smaller version of Gullfoss, where I was able to enjoy the view entirely on my own.

By now I realised that foss  meant waterfall, and the next stop just off Rt.1 was Seljalandsfoss, in which the water tumbled over the edge of a high cliff in a comparatively narrow stream.  A rough path led down to the base of the fall and round behind it, Seljalandsfossrising again, even rougher, on the other side.  Predictably, the stretch immediately behind the fall was rather wet, but I had to risk a photograph through the curtain of water.

A few miles farther along Rt.1 the road passes close to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which is now, like most Icelandic volcanoes, covered with an ice cap.  Right at the foot of the mountain is a farm which was devastated by the eruption but has since recovered to have good harvests and is benefitting from the increased tourism.EyjafJallajokull  Like me, the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull probably defeats your imagination, but in every tourist shop in Iceland tee shirts can be bought emblazoned with a phonetic explanation in English – AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul.  During the eruption the efforts of British television newsreaders to pronounce it were a source of great amusement in Iceland.

Following Rt.1, a flat, smooth-surfaced road with the mountains on my left and the coast not far away to the right brought me to Skógar and yet another waterfall, Skókarfoss.  This was like a larger, much wider version of Seljalandsfoss, but it was not possible to get behind it or even very close to it without getting wet.  A long winding flight of steps led up the mountainside to the top but after the first couple of  hundred I decided that it was not worth the effort.

SkogarfossIn the village of Skógar is the wonderful Folk Museum which covers all aspects of Icelandic life.  It is an unbelievable collection of old buildings and artefacts gathered over more than 70 years by one man, who is nowTurf-roofed house at least 90 years old.  As I looked around he came up to me and introduced himself, speaking good English, and gave me a short personal tour of some of the exhibits.

Amongst the buildings outside is a row of turf-roofed cottages from the 19th century, with the tiny rooms furnished in the original style.  In a separate complex nearby is the Transportation Museum, in which vehicles and communication systems used in Iceland throughout the 20th century are displayed.  This includes examples of cross-country and military vehicles dating back to the 1920s, including a rare Cirtroen Kegresse half-track truck, one of the few vehicles that would have been capable of travelling across the interior in the winter.

This spurred me on to try going off the beaten track again, towards the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, an ice cap covering the volcano Katla, which is also due to erupt before too long.  The road (Rt.222) was ok for a while, but then became increasingly rough until it reached a yellow sign stating IMPASSABLE .  By now stones were banging against the underside of the car and the sign clearly meant what it said.  Foiled again.

Vik churchMy night stop was to be in Vik, a tiny coastal town acclaimed for its beauty.  The road climbed for a while before Vik and then dropped down into the town, with a pretty little church perched on a hill above it.  The setting was undeniably beautiful, but the town itself was not, consisting of streets in a grid pattern lined with buildings in which function took priority over form in most cases.  There were two or three functional hotels and a functional filling station cum restaurant on the main road.  This afforded a good photo opportunity of my tiny car parkedWhich was mine? alongside one of the enormous special 4x4 vehicles that are used for journeys into the interior, and confirmed that I did not stand much chance of driving far off the main road.

The hotels were ridiculously expensive for what they were, but adjoining the Hotel Lundi was the Guesthouse Puffin, recommended by LP despite being described, correctly, as having very thin bedroom walls.  They also mentioned a ‘possibly haunted lounge’.  Probably haunted by people who had dropped down dead on learning the prices of the hotels in Vik.

Once sorted in my tiny room I drove down to the beach which was covered with coarse black sand typical of volcanic areas.  This was said to be good place to see the puffins that live on the adjacent cliffs, but they were out at the time of my visit, so I climbed up to the church which afforded a good view over the town and sea.

Back to Reykjavik and the WestCoast

One problem with Iceland is that once you leave the south western corner you are confined to places not far from the ring road unless you have a vehicle suitable for going into the interior. The ring road is 832 miles long, which I could hardly complete in the time that I had left (1½ days), so the next day there was no alternative to retracing my steps in the direction of Reykjavik.

Myrdalsjokull glacierLooking at the map I realised that there was another road, no.221, leading towards the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and while it eventually became too rough I was able to get close enough for a decent photograph.  It was then a straight drive back to the outskirts of Reykjavik and up to Akranes, a small town on a peninsular about 30 miles north of the capital.

Between Reykjavik and  Akranes is Hvalfjörđur, a fjord under which a four mile long toll tunnel has been built to save a detour of about 40 miles.  The fjord did not seem to have a very high scenic value, so I took the tunnel.

Akranes was actually a fairly plain town, with a short promenade and beach, most of the waterfront being taken up by a massive and ugly fish processing factory.  This was offset to small extent by some quite attractive traditional house in various Akranescolours and a nice wooden church, but on the whole Arkanes was not a place where one would really want to spend a lot of time.  I decided to go back to the hotel in Borgetan and have another look at Reyjavik, where, in the evening, there was an absolutely magnificent sunset which everybody was talking about the next morning.

Hafnarfjörđur,  Keflavik and home

Just off the road from Reykjavik to Keflavik is a fishing port called Hafnarfjörđur.  In a café somewhere I had read an article about whaling in an English-language newspaper published by an American living in Iceland.  Whaling was stopped in the country in 1989, but resumed a few years ago to protests from around the world, including from within Iceland itself.  The article I read was anti-whaling, and showed a picture of a partially dismembered whale carcase on the quayside in Hafnarfjörđur.

HafnarfojdurSo far I had seen a fair number of towns and villages in Iceland, none of them very attractive, but Hafnarfjörđur was definitely an exception.  The main part of the town is on one side of the harbour, with a promenade, and a short drive round to the north side leads to a large open area with traditional white cottages and other old buildings dotted about on it.

On the far side of the harbour is the very large commercial fish landing and processing complex, with a network of roads running through it.  I drove around but there was no sign of whaling activity, and I have no doubt that it is kept well out of the sight of the prying eyes of Greenpeace and suchlike.  Hafnarfjörđur is also a base for whale watching tours, so they make money out of taking people to enjoy watching the whales and also out of killing them, though presumably not at the same time.

Before taking the car back I had a look at Keflavik, but if I had failed to do so I would not have missed much.

On the plane going home I sat next to a young British couple who had travelled out on the same flight as I did.  They were obviously quite well off and travelled a lot, but it was interesting to compare how they had spent their time in Iceland.  They had been on a whale watching tour, but were not sure whether they had seen any,  They went on a ‘northern lights’ tour (might have seen the aurora), and did a quad bike excursion which he thoroughly enjoyed and she hated.  Otherwise it was all great hotel and fine dining.

 

Icelandic oddities

Names

A bit about the strange system of Icelandic names.  After marriage a woman does not take her husband’s name, she continues to use her own.  Male offspring have a surname made up of the father’s first name with ‘son’ added to it, and female offspring have a surname consisting of the father’s first name with ‘dottir’ (daughter) added to it.  Putting this in English terms, if John Smith marries Mary Jones they continue to be John Smith and Mary Jones.  If they have a son named Brian, his name will not be Brian Smith, but Brian Johnson (Brian son of John).  If they have a daughter named Emily she will be Emily Johndaughter (Emily daughter of John). Thus all four members of the family have completely different names.  Further offspring will have the surnames Johnson or Johndaughter, according to gender.  People are generally referred to and listed in the telephone directory by their first names.

This arrangement would appear to be a nightmare for genealogists, but genealogy is actual a popular subject in Iceland, and there is a well established system for dealing with it.

Little People

Many Icelanders seriously believe in the existence of elves, gnomes or other little people, and make provision for them in their everyday lives.  It is quite common to see little wooden houses in gardens to provide accommodation for them.  In early 2014 it was reported that the planned route of a new main road had been changed because it was believed that such people were living on the original one.  Still, we do it in England for newts.

 

 

2Dec/13Off

South Korea and Beijing 2013

CLICK ON PICTURES TO ENLARGE

South Korea and Beijing 2013

The only country I had visited in the Far East was Japan, in 2007, and I felt that it was time for another trip to that part of the world.  Despite recent adjustments in the exchange rate Japan was still likely to be very expensive, and one of the most attractive alternatives was South Korea.  I knew a few people who had been there on business but no one who had been for pleasure, and it did not feature high in the list of popular holiday destinations.

The most favourable route on cost and convenience was from Gatwick via Beijing with Air China, and this was further supported when I discovered that I could get a 72-hour visa-free stopover in Beijing at no extra flight cost.  This visa-free arrangement had been recently introduced and even some travel agents did not know about it.  It made best sense to make the stopover on the return flight, otherwise I would be jet-lagged for much of the time in Beijing.

The outward flight went smoothly, and I arrived at Seoul Incheon Airport at about mid-day of the day after I left England.  As I knew I would be fairly exhausted I had booked a hotel near the airport, and was picked-up by a minibus driven by Smokie Shin, the hotel manager.  He was not actually christened Smokie, but acquired the name as a result of his liking for a pop group of that name when he was a student.  By the time we reached the hotel, a distance of about two miles, I had decided that everything in Korea was made between them by four companies, namely Samsung, LG, Hyundai/Kia, and Daewoo.

After a few hours sleep I ventured out of the hotel, which was in a modern business area with shops, restaurants and a supermarket close by.  The hotel did not have a restaurant and to tide me over until I decided where to eat I tried to get a cup of coffee from a machine in the supermarket.  Everything was in Korean, and while I was puzzling over which buttons to press a voice behind me said “Can you help me?”  I thought it was highly unlikely, and turned round to see a man with a little girl.  He repeated “Can you help me?” and then said “No, no, I mean can I help you?”  He showed me how to get the coffee, and this was the first of many offers of help that I was to receive, but also a typical example of the level of communication that I was to experience in Korea.

Eventually I found a cheap restaurant with pictures outside of rice dishes that looked tolerably appetising.  No one spoke English but I got what I wanted by pointing at the pictures and the waiter had the sense to offer me a spoon and fork as well as the dreaded chopsticks.

The next morning all the restaurants were closed, and I finished up getting something from the MinMart and having breakfast in my room.  By now I had been reminded of another custom that seems to be standard in the Far East, that of removing one’s shoes on entering most rooms and many restaurants to preserve the polished wooden floors.  This was a bit of a problem for me, because some of my socks have holes in them, so I had to sort through them to find some intact pairs.

Seoul

At 8.00am I got the free hotel shuttle to the airport and from there a bus into Seoul, which is about 20 miles away.  It was Sunday and the journey did not take long, but when we arrived at the City Hall it turned out that it was the day of the Seoul equivalent of the London Marathon, and the place was a complete madhouse.  Many of the runners were finishing already, and although some of them looked as if they could run a full marathon others looked as if they would be hard put to to manage 500 yards, and I could only assume that there were classes for various different distances.

Deoksugung Palace GateClose to City Hall is Deoksugung Palace, one of five in the city. It consists of a number of ancient and beautiful buildings, apparently all empty, with two more recent neoclassical ones that are used.  As I left a ceremony was taking place in front of the main gate with people in traditional costume.

This central area of Seoul is very much a business district and could have been anywhere in the developed world.  It was only later that I realised that Seoul is actually the third largest metropolitan area in the world, with almost three times the population of Greater London, and larger than Beijing, Mumbai and Mexico City.  From here I walked down to Myeong Dong, a popular shopping district which was thronging with people, and then along a road called Toegyero to Chungmuro and the motorcycle shops, some of which were closed because it was Sunday.  A length of the street before the motorcycle shops was lined with pet shops, with dogs and cats in the windows in a manner that is seldom seen in Britain today, and which I found unpleasant, although there was no real sign of maltreatment.

The much-condemned Korean custom of eating dogs has almost died out, and many Koreans are strongly opposed to it.  It still happens on a small scale, the meat coming from dogs that are bred for the purpose.

The streets in the area behind the motorcycle shops were shabby and lined with workshops and small businesses, most of which were closed.  There was a slight third world atmosphere about the place and I resolved to come back later in the week when there would be more going on.

From Chungmuro I went by subway to Namdaemun Market, one of the two big markets in Seoul.  As someone with a mortal fear of public transport in foreign countries I actually found the subway quite easy to use, especially considering its vast size and complexity. It is the world’s most extensive subway by length, with 607 stations (the London Underground has 270) and very modern trains and systems.

The market proved to be disappointing, with little to interest me, so after another walk around the city centre I got the subway to Hongik University.  It was not the university that I was aiming for, but an art gallery called TrickEye and its associated Ice Museum. TrickEye was supposed to be an exhibition of Tromp d’Oeil, which have always fascinated me, but in the event the pictures turned out to be rather poorly executed, contrived as a means of family entertainment rather than any sort of art.  The Ice Museum had ice sculptures ranging from a full-sized car to the interior of a house, with bathroom including toilet.  Too cold to stay there for long.

The Express train back to the airport stopped at Hongik University, and on the platform were two cheerful young students of about 19 who started chatting to me.  They said they were from Taiwan and assured me that the next train went to the airport, although I thought the indicator said it only went half way.  We all got on, and in due course it turned out that I was right. When we boarded the next train, which was the correct one, they sat with me and started talking again.  They informed me that they were ear, nose and throat specialists who had been attending a conference in Seoul. A good example of how difficult it is for westerners to judge the age of oriental people.

On the road

The next morning I checked out of the hotel and collected my car from Avis at the airport terminal.  I had ordered a Ford Focus-sized car, but the one that was put in front of me at the roadside was a silver Hyundai Sonata, like a big Mercedes.  After a brief car condition check the man from Avis fixed the large and expensive satnav to the windscreen and explained how to use it.  It was programmed in English and was immensely complicated, like all modern gadgets.  With some difficulty we put into it the name of the town I was going to, Chuncheon, and I launched out into the mad Seoul traffic.

From the rather basic map that I had it seemed to me that the most direct way to Chuncheon was via the motorway (Expressway) skirting Seoul on the northern side, but after a while I realised that the satnav was taking me round to the south of the city.  By the time I had gone through three toll booths with my wallet being emptied at a great rate I was convinced that I was going the wrong way, and turned off into a town called Gunpo.  The intention was to buy a proper map and find out where I was, but Gunpo was not a good place for doing that.  From a quick check on the shops and a supermarket in the main street I concluded that maps were unobtainable and no one spoke English.  Back in the car I tried to get a solution from the satnav but only succeeded in messing it up completely.

In desperation I drove on for a while and found some signs with road numbers, but they did not tie up with anything on my small-scale map so I pulled into a service station to see if I could find someone who could reset the satnav.  Luckily there was a man there who spoke little English but did understand the satnav, and he managed to put Chuncheon into it again.  Full of hope, I set off following the instructions from the American lady whose voice came out of the 8 inch screen on the dashboard.  Unfortunately she did not confine her advice to giving directions, but churned out a constant string of mostly irrelevant comments.  These included “Speed bumps”, “School zone”, “In 700m the speed limit is 80kph”, “Parking infringement penalty area”, and my favourite “Approaching traffic volume monitoring area”.  If there was nothing else she would say “Drive carefully”.  This extra information could no doubt have been switched off, but I could not see how.

She took me back to the Expressway and after a long time, distance, and more tolls I was ordered to turn off on to route 46 towards Chuncheon.  This was an ordinary main road running through open countryside but lined with buildings for mile after mile.  By now I needed something to eat, and stopped at a place with several roadside food stalls which had big pots bubbling away full of strange unidentifiable substances. However, tucked behind some trees was a traditional coffee house with a complex of ancient buildings.  Someone directed me into one of them, which involved the shoe taking off procedure, and when I saw the set up and menu I realised that this coffee and cake was not going to come cheap.

Despite that the place was quite busy, but the most worrying thing was the low tables, which are all right for the locals who have been brought up with them, but a nightmare for elderly westerners.  The table tops are about 18in above the floor, so you have to kneel, sit cross-legged or stretch your legs out straight.  A cushion is provided on the floor, but the real problem is that there is no back rest, and however you sit it becomes agony after a few minutes.  Luckily I was placed at a table at the side of the room, where I could wedge myself against the wall with my legs straight out.  As expected, the coffee and cheesecake were good, but the price undoubtedly included a substantial component for the ambiance.

Some distance before Chuncheon the road became route 45, still built up and slow going, with a lot of traffic lights.  The approach to the town was scruffy and the first hotel I came across, called Hotel Petite, had screens across the car park entrance, usually an indication that it catered for clients who wished to be discrete about their presence.  The next two were similar and rather run down, and another sign pointed to Hotel Zipper, which did not sound over-promising, though I am sure it would have been to some people.  The satnav took me to the City Hall, where I thought there might be some tourist information, but it was closed for the day, and dusk was rapidly drawing in.  Nearby was one the many small manned police stations that are commonly found on street corners in that part of the world..

I went in and told the two officers that I was looking for a hotel in Chuncheon, Their English was practically non-existent and after about five minutes of getting nowhere one of them picked up the phone and held a short conversation with someone in Korean. He then passed the phone to me, and on the other end was a lady who spoke quite good English.  She said they told her I wanted a hotel in Chungchang, which was a very long way away.  This was a disappointment to me, because I thought I pronounced Chuncheon really well, but apparently that was not the case.  Anyway, she explained to the officers what I wanted and they told her they would take me to a hotel nearby.  A few minutes later I followed them to the excellent Sejong Hotel with their blue lights flashing, though no siren.

Once sorted I walked down into the town and was amazed at the size of the shopping centre and adjoining market.  It was all quite smart and tidy, and it seems that I had approached the town from an unfavourable direction.

The east coast

One of the few attractions in the Chuncheon area is the Soyang Dam, which I managed to find the next morning with the all-Korean map that I had picked up in the hotel.  The associated reservoir made by any standards a beautiful scene, enhanced by the backdrop of tree-covered hills in autumn colours.  At last I had broken away from the fast and furious traffic of the Seoul area on to relatively quiet rural roads passing through good countryside, though still with ribbon building at times.  Around a place called Inje the road went through tunnel after tunnel, some of them one or two miles long, before a long, fast stretch to Sokcho, a coastal resort.  As I approached the coast there was noticeable military activity in the form of low-flying jets.

Although it is known to us as the Sea of Japan, the Koreans call the ocean here the East Sea, as they are unwilling to acknowledge any claim that the Japanese might have to it. Sokcho seemed to be a pleasant small town, with a wide sandy beach and typical out-of-season seaside resort atmosphere.  From there I drove down the coast, stopping to look at a couple of other places on the way to Jeongdongjin, where I planned to stay for the night,  A few miles before Jeongdongjin is a length of coast known as Unification Park, which was the site of an attempted landing by a North Korean submarine in 1996.  The shore line here is protected with fences and watchtowers manned by soldiers, with the actual submarine set up on dry land as a visitor attraction.  On the same site is a former American warship that served in the Korean War and later the South Korean navy before being hauled out on to the same said dry land and opened to the public.  I resolved to look at these the following day.

Jeongdongjin

A really extraordinary place, a contender for the title of Tackiest Seaside Resort in the World.  On entering the town from the north the scene is dominated by what appears to be a full-sized cruise liner precariously balanced high on a cliff top, as if deposited there by a giant tsunami.  In fact, it has never been any closer to the water than it is now, and was purpose built on site as a hotel and conference centre called the Sun Cruise Resort.  On a promontory below at beach level is another odd construction in the form of a schooner, which is apparently a restaurant, and most of the hotels in the town are characterized by wedding cake architecture straight out of a Disney production.

My guide book suggested that it might be possible to stay at the Sun Cruise Resort, but it did not cater for individual travellers, and I had to try my luck with the other weird places. It took me a while to find one that was open, and when I booked in I was given a bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor.

It appeared that the number of restaurants in Jeongdongjin exceeded the number of visitors currently in the town, and most of them had tanks in front of the windows containing large plump fish from which one was presumably expected to select one’s dinner.  Like most meat or fish-eating Britons I am a coward and prefer to be less involved in the demise of the creatures that I eat, so I sought and found a place where the food was more discretely prepared, albeit not so fresh.

The next morning I drove up to Unification Park and was the first visitor of the day to the submarine and warship, which was ideal because submarines cannot accommodate many people at one time.  The story of the submarine is pretty grim.  It arrived with 26 North Korean spies, three of whom carried out a surveillance mission on a nearby airbase. When they returned to the vessel it got caught on the rocks and had to be abandoned.  To protect classified information eleven non-military crew members were killed by the others, who then attempted to reach North Korea overland.  Thirteen were killed by South Korean forces, one was captured and one was unaccounted for. In the words of the South Koreans on the information board  “The incident was a great shock to us and incurred our wrath”.

Before entering the submarine I took a hard hat from the rack at the entrance, a wise decision because within moments I had hit my head.  The vessel had a definite World War II air about it, and it was hard to believe that it had been in service as recently as 1996.  The crew’s quarters were below and not accessible, but how 26 people could exist in there I could not imagine.  The moral of all this is that if you want to join a navy don’t go for the North Korean one.  By comparison the battleship was the height of luxury, although I don’t suppose the people who served on it thought so.

Mountains, tunnels and everything Korean

Time to aim in the direction of Seoul, which I wanted to reach in the afternoon of the next day.  Taking the coast road northwards I turned off on to route 6, through the Odaesan National Park, another region of beautiful tree-covered mountains, highest of which is 1563m (approx. 5000ft.).  More tunnels and then a minor road to a run down small town called Anheung, where I braved a scruffy restaurant (there weren’t any smart ones) for lunch.  It was as cheap as it looked, but I did not suffer any after effects.  On to Wonju and then the Expressway to Yongin, my night stop.  The Yongin Motel, shown on the satnav, proved to be inaccessible, but then I saw Motel Cinema, which looked quite decent.  There was no sign of a cinema, but maybe the motel was built on the site of one.

Apart from the name of the hotel absolutely everything I could see in Yongin was in Korean and I seemed to be the only westerner in town.  At the reception I picked up a free map which had no English on it, and it took me some time to work out which way up to hold it. I went into a burger bar for a snack, and as I was sorting out my money the young lady behind the counter reached forward, touched the hairs on the back of my hand and giggled. I said “Do you think that’s funny?”, and she just giggled again.  Oriental men do not have hairy hands, so I suppose if I am hard up I can always go to Yongin and earn a living in a circus freak show.

The reason for staying in Yongin was that I wanted to visit the Samsung Transportation Museum the next day.  Samsung is a vast corporation and the Samsung Foundation has invested money in cultural ventures including the acclaimed Leeum Samsung Art Museum in Seoul.  The Transportation Museum is in a spectacular modern building adjacent to a vast theme park called Everland, also connected with Samsung, and when I arrived the place was full of school children, quite literally hundreds of them.  Nevertheless I managed to have a good look round and would rate the museum as no more than average for the quality of its exhibits.

Because I was going on an organised tour the following day I had booked two nights at the Namsan Hill Hotel in the middle of Seoul, and it proved to be very difficult to find, defeating my satnav. In the end a kind man in a car led me there using his satnav, and even he found it difficult.  It was not too far from Chungmuro with the motorcycle shops, which I wanted to see during working hours.  The streets behind the main road were a hive of activity, mainly motorcycle workshops or printers, all with their wares spilling out into the road.  Piles of paper were stacked up everywhere (presumably the weather forecast was good) and the printers were standing by their machines waiting for orders. The businesses were serviced by a constant stream of vehicles, mostly motorcycle-based three-wheeled pick-ups, things like tuk-tuks, or tiny vans.  There were many small motorcycles with big steel frames on the back, loaded with goods towering above the rider.

The De-militarized Zone

For a long period up to the end of World War II Korea was occupied by the Japanese.  In 1945 the victorious powers agreed to divide the country into Russian-occupied Communist North and American-occupied capitalist South.  The division was around the 38th parallel, with Pyongyang as capital of the North and Seoul capital of the South.  In 1950 war broke out between the two sides (each blaming the other for starting it) with support eventually coming from many other nations on both sides of the political divide. In 1953 an armistice was signed by various parties including the UN, but not South Korea, so technically the two Koreas are still at war today.  At the end of it all the whole country lay in ruins, but South Korea has recovered to become one of the world’s ten strongest economies.  North Korea, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most unstable states, and certainly the most unstable to have nuclear capability, with warheads permanently lined up in the direction of Seoul.

The border between the two countries is a 4km wide de-militarized zone (DMZ) still under UN control, and in the middle of it is the Joint Security Area (JSA) in which meetings between representatives of the North and South are periodically held.  Citizens of certain countries, including the USA and most of Europe are permitted to visit the JSA on organised tours under strict UN supervision.

Before leaving home I booked via the internet a tour with a company called DMZ Tours  for the day before I left Korea.  The instructions mentioned a dress code to avoid offending the North Koreans, basically ‘smart casual’ – jeans ok but no sleeveless shirts, shorts, flip-flops or other scanty attire. At 9.00am I was picked up from my hotel by a young man of about 20 named Choi, who took me on a hair-raising drive through the alleys and streets of Seoul to the Lotte Hotel, which was their headquarters.  At least it made up for not going on the roller-coasters at Everland.

The coach took about an hour from Seoul to the Camp Bonifas American army base at the entrance to the DMZ. Most of the passengers were European or American, and our guide was a lady of Korean origin with American citizenship, as South Koreans are not allowed in the JSA.  She spoke English extremely fast and was sometimes difficult to understand as she outlined what we should and should not do in the JSA.  Several times she told us that we would be well looked after “If something goes wrong”, but did not specify what that might be.  I pointed out that all the soldiers around the bus were wearing hard hats and asked why we were not being given them.  She laughed and said “The soldiers will take care of you if anything goes wrong”.   Also mentioned was that we might not be allowed into the JSA because six South Koreans who had been taken prisoner in the north were being handed over during the day.

On entering the DMZ our passports were checked by a Korean soldier who stayed on the coach, and we were driven to a building and shown a film of the appalling life that people lead in North Korea.  A lady defector from the North, a former naval officer, then answered questions about the conditions there.  Back on the bus, depressed and full of hatred for the enemy, we were taken to a view point where we could see some distance into enemy territory, including a mock housing estate that was built to create the impression that everything was going well on the other side of the border.

On to the restaurant for lunch, which I struggled through with chopsticks, although all the people around me seemed to use them with great skill.  We were then put on an army bus with a soldier driving, our passports were checked again and before reaching the JSA building  we had to sign a United Nations Command disclaimer, the first sentence of which read

“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”. 

Another paragraph read “Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing, abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command”.

We were now at the bit most of us had come for, and to my relief we were allowed in and taken to a room where the joint North/South meetings are held.

In the room was a table with the exact border between North and South running through the centre of it, so that the parties involved are on their own territories.  Two South Korean/UN soldiers were in the room, but, to my disappointment, no North Koreans (sometimes there are).  However, the really important thing was that we were allowed to walk round the table into North Korea, thereby acquiring what the Rough Guide described as “some serious travel kudos”.  Surprisingly, photographs were permitted at this point.

We were then ordered to stand neatly in two lines outside the building, facing the North Korean headquarters about 200 yards away.  More photographs, and the lone enemy soldier on the steps of the building opposite raised his binoculars and looked at us.

Back to the bus and back to earth, in the form of the gift shop, with everything from postcards to T-shirts to chocolates.   As we drove away from Camp Bonifas we could see on the north side of the border the world’s largest flag on the world’s tallest flag pole, a product of an ongoing one-upmanship contest between the two sides.  Our guide said the flag weighs 600lb and is too heavy to blow in the wind.  She also said we were on The Most Dangerous Road in the World, although I doubted whether it was more dangerous than the streets of Seoul with Choi driving on them.

Crash!

The next morning I had to take the car back and get my flight to Beijing.  Despite the problems I had had with the satnav I decided to entrust it with task of guiding me to the airport from the centre of the third largest city in the world, a distance of about 30 miles.       It seemed all right to start with, but after about an hour of wide streets, narrow streets, underpasses and U-turns I realised that I just wasn’t getting there, and simply turned north on a busy main street on the assumption that it would take me to the east-west expressway.

Eventually it did, and after a while I came to the inevitable toll-booth.  Just as I pulled up to the window to pay there was a jolt and loud crash from behind.  For a moment I couldn’t believe it, and I don’t think the driver of the other car could either.  We both got out and looked at one another and the cars.  As far as I could see my car was not damaged, but there was some damage to his, another Hyundai.   He indicated that we should go across to a parking area on the right hand side, which meant crossing about five lanes of traffic, but somehow we did it.  He had very little English, but I got the feeling that he was a nice bloke and seemed to be admitting that it was his fault.  He gave me his business card which said in English on one side that he was a research engineer with a big company.  My phone would not work, but I asked him to ring the car rental company, which he did, and handed me the phone so that I could speak to them. I told them I would bring the car in but might be late.  The other man also spoke to them.

When I got to the airport the man from Avis looked at the car, took the other man’s business card and said it was ok.  The amazing thing was that when I got home a few days later there was an email from the other driver saying how sorry he was.  It was the first accident he had ever had, and he was concerned about whether I had suffered any injury.  He told me not to worry about the damage to my car because it was covered by his insurance.  A refreshing change from the dog-eat-dog attitude that has become the norm in England.

Beijing

As mentioned previously, I was planning to stay in Beijing on the recently introduced 72-hour visa free basis, but I was not sure about the actual procedure.  My flight times would give me 71 hours there, and in the event it was very easy. Immigration was quick and my passport was stamped in English and Chinese with the permitted period of stay written in.  Travel was allowed not just within the city of Beijing, but the whole province, which includes several sections of the Great Wall.

Although I spent a considerable amount of time studying the area before the trip I still had very little idea what it would be like.   Most of the planning was done with the Lonely Planet guide and associated map.  It was difficult to decide which part of the city to stay in, but I eventually settled on Nanluoguxiang, one of the remaining hutongs or old alleys that has been preserved and made into a popular tourist area.  On Booking.com I found a Super 8 hotel in Nanluoguxiang at £27 per night, which seemed improbably cheap.  Super 8 is at the bottom of the Wyndham Hotels range and the second cheapest motel chain in the USA, but I have stayed in them many times there.  Super 8 is actually a franchise and it seemed that this hotel had only just joined the brand.  There were no reviews and apparently it did not take western credit cards, but I was so intrigued that I decided to go for it and booked three nights in advance.

The Airport Express and subway were also amazingly cheap and easy to use.  At all points of entry to the subway system bags were X-rayed.  One thing that I could not understand was that the stations seemed to be almost empty most of the time, yet the trains were absolutely packed.  It was a considerable problem getting on with my wheelie case and fortunate that I only had to go for four stops with one change.

The hotel was about 800 yards from Nanluoguxiang subway, and the lane itself was massively crowded at about 5pm on Saturday,  making it very hard work to get through with my luggage.  Ancient buildings on both sides had been converted into cafés, fast food outlets, gift shops, a self-service bank and backpacker accommodation.

Chinese addresses are more logical than those in Korea, and the hotel was more or less where I expected it to be, though nowhere near where it was shown on the map on the Booking.com website or that of the hotel itself.  On the internet I had read stories of taxi drivers who had been completely unable to find small hotels in Beijing, and before leaving home I spent a considerable amount of time with Google maps and other information to make sure where the hotel was located.

When I entered the reception there were three people behind the counter, a lady and two men who looked like gangsters.  None of them spoke any English at all, but we managed a small amount of communication via a laptop and Google Translate.  They searched through my passport looking for a visa, and eventually found the stamp showing the dates I was permitted to stay in Beijing, and after a brief discussion decided that it was sufficient.  The room was basic but quite large and clean.  Good value for £27 per night, which I paid in cash because, as expected, they did not take western credit cards.

By the time I went out for a look around and to get something to eat it was dark but the whole area was a hive of activity and I felt completely safe even in the narrow hutongs behind the main streets.

The Great Wall

The plan was to spend my first complete day in Beijing on a trip to the Great Wall, and the second day on an electric scooter tour of the city in the morning followed by a further exploration on foot.

Several sections of the Great Wall are within one or two hours travelling time from Beijing, the most popular ones being at Bädálǐng and Mùtiányú.  The latter is said to be better and less crowded than Badaling, and I had an ulterior motive in Mutianyu, because  en route I was hoping to visit a classic car museum at a town called Huairou.

 The most usual way of getting to Mutianyu is by taking a bus from Dongzhimen Transport Hub in Beijing to Huairou and then a minibus to the Great Wall, but I was aware from various reports that any attempt to reach the wall by public transport was fraught with problems from hustlers and con men who try to relieve tourists of large sums of money on the way.

 Dongzhimen Subway station was four stops from Nanluoguxiang, and the Transport Hub was nearby.  The 916 fast bus was easy to find, with a small queue which I joined.  As soon as I got on the bus I discovered that it was necessary to have exact money to put into a machine for the fare, which I did not have, so I had to fight my way off to sort out some change.  A man with a blue jacket who appeared to be from the bus company shouted at me.  While I was sorting through my bag for the money two girls came up to me saying that they were from Taiwan and asked if I would share a minibus with them at Huairou.  I said I would because I knew it would be a problem on my own.  Before I could find the money the man with the blue jacket grabbed me by the arm, bundled me back onto the bus, and sorted out change for the fare once I was sitting down.

 It then became apparent that the two girls were actually part of a group of five girls and two boys who worked for a sports marketing company in Taiwan, on a sort of company weekend away.  They said the man with blue jacket was a minibus driver who wanted to take them from Huairou to the Wall, but they did not know whether he could be trusted. My instinct was definitely that he couldn’t, but as they could speak the language I just decided to see what would happen when we got to Huairou.

 According to what I had read there were several bus stops in Huairou where minibuses were waiting to take people to the Wall, and sure enough at one such place Blue Jacket indicated that we should get off, which we did.  My Taiwanese friends argued with him for a whileTiny bus and then said they had agreed a price, including me, which seemed ok.  Blue Jacket tried to separate me from them but I insisted that I was with them.  The minibus turned out to absolutely tiny, based on a little Chinese van like a Suzuki Carry or Bedford Rascal.  I sat in the front next to Blue Jacket and the other seven were all crammed into the back, which they seemed to enjoy.  The poor little van, with an engine of 1.0 or 1.2 litres, really struggled but eventually we reached Mitianyu.  Blue Jacket forced his way ruthlessly through the traffic, shouting all the time at everyone and everything until we reached the access point for the Wall, which was high on the hill above.

 You can either walk up a long steep path to the Wall, or go up on a chair lift.  My friends decided that we would go on the chair lift and a couple of them went off to get tickets.  Blue Jacket was clearly not pleased about that, because they were cutting out the middle man, and he made another attempt to get me on my own but failed to do so, as I made it clear that I was staying with the others.  It was difficult to understand what was going on, but I gathered that we were supposed to be at the bottom of the chair lift by 4.00pm for Blue Jacket to take us back to Mitianyu.

 The chair lift was as scary as chair lifts always are.  I sat with Ariel, the leader of the Taiwan group, and talked intensively to avoid showing how terrified I was.  At the top the view from the Wall was superb, but somewhat limited by the grey haze that is said to be caused by pollution from Beijing, about 30 miles away.

 The Wall stretched away into the distance, following the contours of the hills to a point several hundred feet higher than our position.  It was an awe-inspiring sight and I found it impossible to imagine how such a substantial structure could be built over a distance of more than 500 miles.  Started in around 200BC it was built, rebuilt and reinforced over two millennia with two or three million people working on it.  Most of the existing sections were built during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) and those in the Beijing area, including this one, were restored quite recently.

 It was not clear how far the others intended to walk, but I knew I couldn’t walk as far as we could see.  The path was mostly quite wide, 15 to 20 feet, with walls either side and battlements, but it was not easy walking, with uneven stone setts and long flights of steps up and down most of the way.  The steps were of irregular height and tread width, becoming steeper and narrower every few hundred yards near the watch towers.

 It was agreed that if I could not keep up the others would go on and I would just wait for them to come back.  In the event they stopped every couple of minutes to take photographs, mostly of each other, and we did not really walk very far before sitting down to eat the food that we had bought from stalls near the chair lift.  I took some photos of the group and of the iconic views through the battlements or lookouts in the watchtowers, which were like the classical pictures of Chinese landscapes with foliage in the foreground.  The weather was perfect.

 I suppose we walked about two-thirds of the way to the highest point that we had been able to see from the chairlift, and that was much more than I had expected to be able to do.  On the way back some of my friends had to stop for a rest and asked me if I had been in the military!

 When we got to the top station of the chair lift I realised that there was an alternative way down in the form of one-person sledges on a stainless steel slide like a bob-sleigh run, and then found that we had tickets for it.  As we waited in the queue we could see that the black plastic sledges had a lever at the front that was pushed forward to go faster and pulled back to brake.

 As my turn approached I noticed that a lady two places in front of me was all ready to go when the man in charge said something to her and after a few words she got off the sledge looking absolutely furious.  A voice behind meSledge said “If they ask your age don’t tell them you are over 70, because no one over 70 is allowed to use the slide.”  They didn’t ask my age (I don’t think they could speak English) but I have to say that it was a very long way down and by the time we got to the bottom the muscles in my lower back were at breaking point.

 At the time and place agreed with Blue Jacket a Transit minibus came along driven by a much pleasanter young man and took us all the way to Beijing rather than just Mitianyu, so the transport was actually quite a good deal in the end.  To avoid the traffic on the motorway he took us on country roads most of the way and it was interesting to see that the built-up area of Beijing was smaller than I would have expected, much smaller than Seoul.  In the suburbs were vast blocks of flats similar to those in Russia and Eastern Europe.  It had been a good day, although the car museum will have to wait for a future visit if I live long enough.

 More Beijing

In the course of my research into the trip I discovered on the internet a company running half or whole day electric scooter tours of the city.  The business was run by a Canadian named Nathan Siy and I booked a half day tour for the morning of my second full day in the city.

 By now I was aware that the silent electric scooters are very widely used in Beijing, having almost been mowed down by them several times when I was walking through the hutongs.  They are classed as bicycles, unregistered, and as far as I could see can be ridden by anybody, although they are considerably more powerful than the electric bicycles sold in Britain.  Normal motorcycles are subjected to restrictions in the city and are seldom seen within the fourth ring road,

 The appointed meeting place was at Exit A of Ciqikou subway station and I got there a few minutes early.  Some people were standing around but it was not possible to tell who was waiting for the tour and as I was the only westerner it was unrealistic to ask anybody.  In due course a tall young Chinese chap turned up on an electric scooter, introduced himself as Herbert and said there would be just the two of us.  So it was to be a personal guided tour.

 Herbert went off to get another scooter and came back with one that fell over as soon as he put it on its stand, something that, by the lookHerbert of it, had happened a good few times before.  It was time for the short training session, so Herbert showed me the operating instructions for the bike in English on his smart phone and sent me off to ride around the posts on the paved area adjacent to the station.

 Currently I have three motorcycles, ranging from a 6bhp monkey bike to a 98bhp Honda Hornet, so I was not expecting to have much difficulty with the electric scooter, although I don’t think I had ever ridden any sort of scooter before.  The only slightly odd feature of it was that if the twist grip “throttle” was kept in one position for more than three seconds it would maintain that power level until either of the brakes was applied, a bit like a cruise control.  Anyway, Herbert appeared to be satisfied with my riding ability, so we set off into the traffic.

 Most of the main streets in central Beijing are very wide with marked lanes at the side for bicycles and other low-powered vehicles.  There is often a degree of physical separation in the form of lightweight marker posts.  We started on one such road and shortly turned offHutong into an area of hutongs in which people were living and working in the old buildings, as they always have done.   It was all a bit of a mess, but that is what tourists want to see, rather than the sanitized new developments that the authorities seem to think they ought to see.  The people living in such areas are undoubtedly poor compared with many of those working in the huge office blocks a stone’s throw away, but it was hard to tell whether there was real poverty.

 Eventually we emerged from the hutongs into a modern pedestrianized shopping area and rode for some distance across the paving.  As Herbert parked the bikes he chatted to two policemen, so I assumed that we were not guilty of any traffic violations.  We walked through to Qianmen Dajie, a wide pedestrianized street lined with Qianmen Dajiemodern buildings in the style of old Peking. I asked Herbert whether he preferred them to the original ones, and he said he did.

 From here we worked our way northwards, stopping frequently for Herbert to explain the sights as we came to them.  His English was quite good and he was certainly passionate about Beijing, which he referred to proudly as “my city“. His knowledge of the history of the area seemed to be excellent and he was always able to answer my questions.  After each stop he would shout “Let’s go”, jump on his scooter and press on quite hard to the next attraction.  A lot of concentration was needed at times when we crossed big junctions with heavy traffic in all directions, but I did not find it really difficult.

 We stopped to look at the entrance to the Forbidden City, but could not go in because it was closed on Mondays.  Next on the agenda Lakewere the beautiful Houhai Lakes, followed by the ancient Bell and Drum Towers which were used to mark the time of day.  It was then a fast ride back to Ciqikou via Tiananmen Square, taking in some more hutongs, which I really enjoyed.  We rode along one side of Tiananmen Square (said to be the world’s largest public square) but were notDrum Tower with scooters allowed to stop and eventually arrived at Ciqikou at 2.00pm, 4½ hours after we left.

 To my mind this was a good way to see the city in a short time, although it would not be suitable for anyone who was not used to riding bicycles or motorcycles in heavy traffic.

 After saying goodbye to Herbert and getting something to eat I set off on foot to Tiananmen Square via some of the hutongs that we had ridden through.  On one side of the square is the Great Hall of the People, where a conference of some sort had just finished and the red carpets were being rolled up and taken away.  In the square itself is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall which had enormous illuminated signs placed right across the front of it, presumable intended to inspire the populace in some way.

070 For some time I had been looking for a new backpack, and I noticed that Herbert had a very smart one with Swiss army style badges on it.  Just off Tiananmen Square was a shop selling luggage, so I wandered in for a look round, and sure enough there was a backpack just like Herbert’s.  When I examined it the shopkeeper quoted a price which I thought was too high, but as soon as I turned away the price started to tumble and came down to the equivalent of about £20, which is probably less than half of what it would have been in England.  It appeared to be a genuine Wenger one, which would no doubt be made in China anyway, so I bought it.  We put my existing backpack inside it, complete with contents, and I continued on my way.  This is to be the first stage of my new Young Tour Guide image, even though I am not a tour guide.

 On the north side of Tiananmen Square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace with a huge portrait of Mao.  It was amusing to see that each of theSoldier and kick-boxer three immaculate soldiers guarding the area in front of the building had a casually-dressed kick-boxer type in front of him, to keep the crowd at bay.

 An area of paving was taped off in a rather odd way with a lot of people looking at it, and it was only two days Tiananmen Squarelater, when I was back at home, that I read about an incident that happened very close to the time when Herbert and I had ridden down the other side of the square.  A car had been driven into the crowd and five people were killed, apparently as an act of terrorism.  Unlike the reaction in England, where the area would have been closed off for weeks or months, the authorities had made a point of returning it to almost complete normality with two or three hours.

 By the time I reached Nanluoguxiang it was dark and I had walked about five miles through the lanes, streets and squares of Beijing.  The next morning it was back to the airport and back home, but I had enjoyed my stay in the city so much that I resolved to return for another look next year.

 Thoughts about Korea and Beijing

In both countries, as in Japan, you are never far from a free public toilet. In the 800 yard length of Nanluoguxiang there were three, and even I managed to get through without stopping at all of them.  One town that I did not get to in Korea was Suwon, where the mayor dedicated his life to improving the public facilities and finished up living in a house shaped like a lavatory and turned the whole place into a toilet-based theme park.

 In Korea I did not see a single book shop or magazine kiosk apart from two small ones at Seoul airport, and I came to the conclusion that the people don’t read anything unless it is on a screen.  Beijing was different, with lots of magazines and some book shops around.

 Before going I had been told that both destinations were expensive, but I did not find that to be the case.  If you stay in the best hotels and eat in the best restaurants it will be expensive anywhere, but overall I thought prices in Korea were about 25% lower than at home.  Beijing is more expensive than Korea, but some things, like public transport, are ridiculously cheap, as was the Super 8 hotel.

 People were generally friendly and helpful, and although some people had said Koreans were hard-natured I did not think so.  They are very westernized and perhaps less entrenched in their culture than people in some other countries.  The only person on the whole trip that I did not like was Blue Jacket, and I think the feeling there was mutual.

 Not being able to speak or understand the language does not bother me at all, and I always muddle through somehow, but in places like Chuncheon, Yongin and Anheung very few people spoke English and the ones who thought they did were often hard to understand.  Sometimes I got the impression that people were desperately keen to help when they found themselves faced with a foreigner and felt embarrassed that they were unable to do so.

16Jun/13Off

Israel and Palestine 2013

 Israel and Palestine 2013

Hardly a day goes by without Israel being in the news, and with its complex political and social issues, as well as its history, I thought it would be an interesting country to visit. There is a perception in Britain that it is a dangerous place, and parts of it are, but if you read up well in advance and keep an eye on developments while you are there the risk is low.

The Foreign Office advises strongly against visiting the Gaza Strip, some areas close to Lebanon, and parts of the West Bank unless you are accompanied by someone with local knowledge.  For basic planning I used a large scale National Geographic map and a recent Lonely Planet Guide (LP), which was unusual in having sections on ‘What to do in a rocket attack’, ‘Minefields’ and ‘Gas Masks’. The internet also provided a lot of information, some of which proved to be of dubious accuracy.

There were stories about people having big problems in immigration, being held up for hours, strip searched and having their computers shot to pieces.  To some extent this was supported by LP and as a result I did not take my netbook.  In the event the immigration officer asked me if I had relatives or knew anyone in Israel, and when I answered “No” to both questions she just said “Welcome to Israel” and waved me through. Israelis I spoke to in the country dismissed the stories as anti-Israel propaganda. Anyway, I made sure I had clean underpants, just in case.

The plan was to stay one night in Tel Aviv, hire a car and work my way round the country for eight days, going to as many interesting places as possible.  At the beginning of May the temperature in Tel Aviv was supposed to be in the range 15 to 25°C, which would be quite pleasant after the long cold winter in England.  In the event, when the plane landed at 7.30pm it was 38°C (100°F), the normal figure for July and August. 

Another shock came when the taxi pulled up outside the hotel I had booked on the internet. The address was 42 Allenby Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Tel Aviv, and as we stopped the taxi driver pointed at a boarded up building and said “That is number 42”.  Sure enough, amongst the graffiti was a faded plate with 42 on it.  For a moment I thought I had fallen for the scam of booking and paying for accommodation that did not exist, but then we saw a sign a few feet away with ‘Sun City Hotel – Entrance round the corner’.  After booking in I went along the road to get something to eat (it was 9pm) and decided that it must be quite a safe area, because there were scantily-dressed young ladies on the nearby roundabout enjoying the warm evening.

Burning up in Tel Aviv

The next morning I went out for breakfast and a stroll through a street market before checking out of the hotel. At 10am it was already 36°, with the sun blazing down, and after a short time on the beach I began to feel unwell.  The heat was just more than I could take after months of cold weather, and I retreated to a nearby McDonalds for coffee and an ice cream. 

Once cooled down I felt better, but the car would not be available for collection until 3pm and I realised that I could not just wander about in the sun.  From the map I saw that there was a large shopping mall not too far away, and decided to take refuge there.  It was certainly not the way I would have chosen to spend my time in Tel Aviv, but it was a question of survival.  At the entrance to the mall was an airport-style security check with a metal detector and a man searching bags.  This is routine procedure at shopping malls, railway and bus stations, post offices and most public buildings.

At 2.30pm I arrived at the car hire office in a state of near-exhaustion after walking through the streets with my heavy wheelie case.  The car was ready, a white Nissan Micra, which seemed appropriate for touring the Holy Land, as my local vicar has one.   His is probably not air-conditioned, but fortunately mine was, and within a short time I was travelling comfortably northwards to my night stop at a tiny coastal resort called Mikhmoret.

Israeli drivers are reputed to be unpredictable and aggressive, but the people who think that have not driven in Albania, Poland or Russia, and I did not find the driving to be too bad.

Mikhmoret turned out to be a village in the sand dunes, and I drove around for miles on sandy tracks before eventually finding my accommodation, which was imaginatively called ‘The Resort’.  It was a complex of two-apartment chalets and tents, and the whole atmosphere was very relaxed, with the staff sitting on an open verandah.  The man in charge, a South African back-packer type named Mike, showed me to my en-suite room in a chalet and explained that I would be sharing the kitchen with the occupant of the other room. I could not complain about that, because I was not expecting to have a kitchen at all.  Mike said I could eat at the Banana Beach Café or get some food from the supermarket not far away.  The café was not very inspiring, so I chose the supermarket, and when I got back to the chalet the occupant of the other room was preparing her meal.  She was a fairly mature Dutch lady who had once been married to an Israeli and came back to the country every year to work as a volunteer on an agricultural kibbutz.  She had found out that Mike and his South African assistant were also volunteers working for the trust that owned ‘The Resort’.

Voluntary work has always been a big thing on kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz), and apparently still is, but to me it didn’t quite seem to fit in with the present day dynamic economy of Israel.

We sat outside to eat, and afterwards Clara made some green tea, consisting of tea bags in glasses of lukewarm water with no milk (or sugar in my case).  This confirmed my longstanding view that the Dutch have no idea how to make tea. I have Dutch friends, or at least did have until the subject of tea was raised.

Haifa, Nazareth, Sea of Galilee.

Haifa is only about a 40 minute drive from Mikhmoret and the road enters the town with beaches on the left and modern buildings with the names of high tech companies on the right.  Adjacent to the beach were massive free car parks, and as the weather was within the realms of sanity at last I went for a long walk.  It was Tuesday, but a very large number of people seemed to have found the time to go to the beach.

Back to the car and into the town.  The road started to climb.  And climb, and climb, and climb, until I suddenly realised that I was climbing Mount Carmel.  Near the top I managed to park and look at the view over the harbour and Mediterranean coast to the north.  Finding the road out to Nazareth was not easy, but eventually someone told me to keep going downhill until I came to ‘the big road’.  My 2012 map showed a squiggly main road to Nazareth, but such is the rate of development in Israel that most of it had been replaced by new super-highways, and it took only a short time to cover the 30 miles.

When I first examined the map it seemed very strange to see what looked like quite ordinary places bearing names such as Nazareth, Jerusalem,  Bethlehem and Jerico.  Direction signs and place names are usually in Hebrew, Arabic and English, but street names, if they exist, are often only in the local language. Hebrew and Arabic are entirely different but equally impossible to read for anyone with no basic knowledge of the characters.  The situation is further confused by the fact that there are often different ways of spelling place names in Roman letters, for example Bethlehem can be Bayt Lahm, and Ashkelon can be Ashqelon.

Most towns are predominantly Jewish or Arab, and it is immediately possible to tell which from the shop signs and other notices.  Nazareth is Israel’s largest Arab city and was said to have terrible traffic jams, which certainly turned out to be the case. As soon as I reached the first traffic queue I turned off into a side road and parked, opposite to a big district police station high up on a hill above the city.  The LP guide had a tiny map of Nazareth and I set off to find the Old City.  The weather had turned hot again and as I walked down the hill I wondered about getting back.  A policeman sitting in front of a bar directed me down a steep narrow path which eventually led into a main street, but I could still not see the way to the Old City.  I asked another man who insisted in going into a shop and getting me a bottle of water and refused payment for it, before leading me along the road to within sight of my target.

There is no doubt that Jesus and his family did live in Nazareth, but little remains of the fabric of the city of that period.  Most of the present day buildings date from the Ottoman-era or later, but the locations of biblical places and events are known to a fair degree of accuracy, and can be explored by following the Jesus Trail and the Gospel Trail.   

The Old City is an absolute labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleyways, lined with stalls and shops selling everything from food to souvenirs to electronic goods, in short, the things you find in markets everywhere.  Many shops were closed, as I suppose it was not a peak time for tourists.  There were passages leading off in all directions, and within a short time I had completely lost my bearings, which the LP says happens to everyone, and should be enjoyed.  One stall looked as if it might have maps, and the man gave me a free tourist map of the city, and tried to explain the way to the big police station where I had left the car. He said “If you can’t find it, come back to me and I will take you there in my car”.  Very kind, but unfortunately after another five minutes of twists and turns I realised that I had no hope of finding him or the police station.     

My boyhood reading included stories of people wandering in labyrinths until they died of starvation or being bitten by a poisonous spider.  As I staggered on through passage after passage I was beginning to give up all hope, when I suddenly emerged into a narrow side street to find a police car standing in front of me.   The two officers spoke some English and I explained that I could not find the way back to my car, which was parked by a district police station high on a hill.  It was not their police station, but they knew where I meant and started to tell me how to get there.  After a while I said “I don’t think I can walk that far”.  They said “All right, we will take you there!”

On the way one of them asked “Are you Jewish?”, to which I replied “No”.  “Are you a Christian?”  “Yes”. Afterwards I wondered what would have happened if I had said I was Jewish.  Then they asked where I was going, and I said “Tiberias”.  One of them said “It will be hotter in Tiberias”.  Just what I wanted to hear.

It was.  Tiberias is on the Sea of Galilee and at the roadside high above the town was a sign indicating normal sea level, which is about 200m (650ft) above the Galilee shore. The temperature was 42°C (107.4°F) at about 3pm.  The hotels were well signposted, and I quickly found one, booked in for two nights and set off to walk to the sea front, which was about one kilometre downhill.  By half way I had had enough, and went back to the hotel, intending to try again in the evening, when it might be cooler.

A strange thought occurred to me.  Everyone in Britain knows that you cannot make good tea on the top of a mountain, because the water boils at too low a temperature due to the reduced air pressure.  Conversely, therefore, it should be possible to make exceptionally good tea in Tiberias.  It would have to be made by a British person, because the locals probably use lukewarm water anyway, like Clara.

With this thought in mind I set off for the town again at 7pm, but gave up again half way and went into a very Jewish restaurant where I managed to eat half of the vast quantity of food put in front of me.

Lebanon, the Golan Heights and Syria

One of the aims of my trip was to visit a car museum at a place called Tel Hai Industrial Park near the Lebanese border, in the extreme north of the country.  The Foreign Office warns against going to some areas close to the Lebanese border, because they are disputed territory.  As I drove north on highway 90 I expected that the traffic would gradually fall off and there would be less general activity, but that was not the case.  Very close to the border is a town called Kiryat Shmona, which seems to be quite a thriving place despite having been the target of rockets from Lebanon from time to time.  The neighbouring part of Lebanon is run by Hezbollah, an anti-Israel Muslim group, and the unguided rockets take only 30 – 40 seconds to cross the border.  At the very end of the road is a village called Metula, which is actually quite old, but has a lot of new building in progress right up to the border. It is possible to drive up to the border fence, and nearby is a half-buried tank, a memento of a battle in the area.  Lebanon looked quite peaceful, without a rocket in sight.

Tel Hai, once a kibbutz I believe, is a very modern industrial estate with massive buildings carrying the names of high tech companies, but the man in the gatehouse informed me that the car museum had been moved to another site a long way away about five years ago.

From here I took the road straight across the Golan Heights towards the border with Syria. Within a short time there were wire fences both sides of the road with notices in the usual three languages stating DANGER, MINES.  Despite this, hiking in the Golan Heights is a very popular activity, and is said to be quite safe as long as you stay on the marked tracks.  The Golan Heights were more mountainous than I expected, and the scenery was very good.

A few miles before the Syrian border I turned north towards Mount Hermon and Israel’s only ski resort.  From a distance traces of snow were still visible near the summit, which is actually in Syria.  On the way I came to a busy little town called Majdal Shams, which is the commercial and cultural centre of the Golan Druze community.  The Druze are a minority Arabic language group who practice a version of Islam, and are mainly resident in Lebanon and Syria.

The ski resort is a few miles north of Majdal Shams, and in May is definitely out of season, with just a few people there servicing machinery, although it is a hiking base in the summer. As I walked back to the car after a wander round I noticed that one of the rear tyres appeared to have low pressure, and found a small tyre shop in the main street of Majdal Shams on the way through. No one in the business spoke English, but a man who did was fetched from somewhere nearby and the tyre problem was quickly resolved, with a refusal to accept payment.   I must be one of the few British people who can boast of having been to a Druze tyre shop.

From Majdal Shams the road runs south roughly parallel to the Syrian border, and I knew that at one point it was very close.  A layby with a snack bar suddenly appeared at the roadside and when I stopped for coffee I realised that this was a viewpoint for Syria.  The border fence could be seen running through the valley below, with watchtowers and a cluster of white buildings.  A coach pulled into the layby and disgorged its passengers, who sat in front of their guide as she explained the features of the view in a language that I could not understand.  Another coach came, full of Americans, who started asking their guide questions, some of which I think he did not want to hear.

Further along the layby was a pillar with buttons marked HE and EN.  Pressing the EN button produced a commentary from a lady with an American voice, describing the view and extolling the performance of the Israeli forces in capturing the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and defending them in 1973.  The white buildings are the permanent base of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof), and alongside them through my binoculars I could see the ruins of the Syrian town of Quneitra, totally destroyed in 1973 and deliberately not rebuilt by Syria.  As I stood on the layby two Israeli military convoys went past, as well as a few UN vehicles.  

It seemed slightly surprising, but the viewpoint is actually on an extinct volcano, one of two in the area, and just along the road a local kibbutz has produced an educational display in a disused quarry showing the structure and working of the volcanos. 

On the way back to Tiberias I drove round the eastern and southern sides of Gallilee before stopping in the town to have a proper look at it, as I had failed to do the previous day.  LP described it as tacky, but I have been to worse places.  One item of interest was the Water Level Indicator on the promenade with a digital display built into a frame shaped like the lake.  A great deal of importance is attached to the water level, because the lake provides a quarter of Israel’s water supply, and if the level is too low the quality is compromised, and if it is too high there is a danger of flooding.

The next morning I set off for Jerusalem, and the most direct route was via highways 90 and 1, which run partly through the West Bank.  My car was not insured for general use in the West Bank, but there is an exception for these two roads, because they are under control of the Israeli military police.

Some distance south of Galilee highway 90 runs past Beit She’an, which has the dubious distinction of holding the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the whole of Asia, at 53.9°C (129°F).  Luckily I hit it on a cool day – it was only about 38°C.  The road enters the West Bank a few miles past Beit She’an with a military checkpoint and runs for a long way quite close to the Jordan river, with the hills of Jordan clearly visible the other side.

Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jerico

Shortly before turning westwards towards Jerusalem the road passes within three miles of Jerico, which I particularly wanted to visit, but I had been told not to take any ‘small roads’, so that would have to wait until later. 

My hotel was in the centre of the modern part of Jerusalem, the other side of the Old City, and I was expecting to have a nightmare drive, especially as I did not have a decent map.  On highway 1 at the entrance to Jerusalem was a toll-booth style military checkpoint but after that I seemed to have an easy run and found a free parking space near the central bus station, where I hoped to get a good map to enable me to find the hotel.

Within a short time of entering the bus station I was caught by a taxi driver, who insisted that he had the map I needed, and to cut a long and miserable story short, I finished up paying the equivalent of £6 for a tatty old map to get rid of him.  However, the map did enable me to get to the hotel without too much trouble.

The modern Jerusalem Gardens Hotel had free undercover parking and a panoramic view from the balcony of my 11th floor room.  The Old City was about two miles away, with a direct tram service from close to the hotel.  Like all the non-locals, I had difficulty in getting a ticket from the machine, until a young American and his Canadian girlfriend came to my aid. My ten shekel coin would not work, so he bought a ticket with his money and refused to accept payment.  He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts and a mini-kippa, a tiny skull cap about three inches in diameter favoured by many young Jewish men, and by the time we had gone six stops I knew his whole life story.  His parents had moved to Israel some time ago and he had been studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem but was now engaged in religious studies elsewhere.  He was a real all-American boy from Boston and it somehow seemed difficult to imagine where he would fit into the serious religious community in Israel, but I am far from an expert on such matters.     

As mentioned earlier, my car was not insured for use in the West Bank (Palestine), which meant that I could not go to Bethlehem or Jerico in it.  Getting there by public transport is not easy unless you have a lot of time and most guide books suggest going by taxi, which would be very expensive.  The young American had advised me against getting involved with Jerusalem taxi drivers, backing up my own experience, and I decided that it would be cheaper and more convenient to hire a car for a day from an Arab company for use in the West Bank.  A company recommended in the guide books was Green Peace (nothing to do with Greenpeace) in East Jerusalem, just north of the Old City, and I thought I would call in to their office while I was in the area.   The tram stopped on the edge of East Jerusalem and I asked some people in a travel agency for the way to the Green Peace office.  They rang Green Peace, who said they would have a car available for me at 8am the next morning.

The temperature here was tolerable and I set off to explore the old city, starting at Damascus Gate.  In many respects it was similar to the old city in Nazareth, but larger and with much more activity.  It had the same maze of lanes and alleys, but the main ones were longer and straighter, mostly with names so that I could locate them on my map.  There are many churches, synagogues and other notable buildings but it is difficult to see them from ground level because they are so densely packed in with little space between them.  I particularly wanted to see the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but it was getting late in the day so I decided to come back when I had more time.

In central Jerusalem soldiers, male and female, were everywhere, many of them carrying automatic rifles.  At one point, near the bus station, there were so many that I was practically swept along by them and thought for a moment that I had been conscripted into the Israeli Defence Force.

The next morning (Friday) I got up at 6.30am and caught a tram to East Jerusalem, arriving at Green Peace just after 8.00.  As promised a car was ready, a silver Kia Rio with Israeli yellow number plates as opposed to the green number plates (actually white at the front and green at the back) for cars registered in the West Bank.  The whole issue of driving in the West Bank is very confusing, because if you are in the wrong place with the wrong car at the wrong time you can find yourself being stoned by angry locals.  When I told the Green Peace man what I was proposing to do he said “You can go anywhere in this car”.  It had a big label on each side with Jerusalem Car Rental and a picture of a white dove, but whether that carried any weight I do not know.  It just made me feel like somebody from the UN. 

So I set off for Bethlehem.   It is a very short distance, about 6 miles, and well-signposted, but I got confused about the entrance through the Separation Wall, and when I turned round I was accosted by a taxi driver who wanted to be my guide.  After shaking him off I joined the queue for the check point.  The Separation Wall, which has been built along much of the boundary of the West Bank, is enormous and hideous.  It is about 8 metres high (26ft) and brought back memories of the Berlin Wall, but rather than preventing people from going through it is intended to prevent them from bringing weapons into Israel. 

After a brief check I emerged into Bethlehem, to find a man standing in the road in front of me.  He said “I am a guide. You are not in Israel now, you are in Palestine. It is different here. You need a guide.”  I insisted that I did not need a guide and drove away. Unfortunately the street in front was no entry, so I had to make a loop through side roads and came back on to the original street about a hundred yards further along, where my friendly guide was standing in front of me again. I drove past him and found myself facing one of the most uninviting streetscapes I have ever seen anywhere.  Welcome to Bethlehem.  My first reaction was to turn round and go straight back, but I persevered and the scene improved to the point where it was only grim.

Closer to the city centre it was better and I quickly found a place to park near a police station within about fifty yards of Manger Square, which presented a much more appealing image.  The square is in between the Church of the Nativity and the entrance to the Old City, and is lined with cafés and shops.

It was still early in the day and the queue for the Church of the Nativity was short, so I joined it and went through the security check and the Door of Humility, an arch so low that even I had to crouch down to get through.  Once a much higher opening, it was reduced by the Crusaders to prevent attackers from riding in on horseback.  A service was in progress and I found myself at the back of a large crowd, ushered into an area on one side of the nave.  The area in which the service was being held was extremely beautiful.       

As far as I could tell it was going to be a very long time before there was an opportunity to venture any further into the church, and I was not religious enough to wait, so I crawled back through the door and went across the square into the Old City.  

Bethlehem Old City is smaller and more open than those in Nazareth and Jerusalem, with wider cobbled or paved streets used by vehicles, although there are alleyways branching off. On the way back to the car I passed the police station, where some tourists were photographing a policeman standing in the doorway with a rifle.  This was what I regard as a proper rifle, not the stubby automatic weapons that the army and police seemed to have everywhere else.  Normally it is unwise to photograph police or army personnel, but I asked if I could take a photograph and he said I could.              

The route back to the checkpoint was more presentable than the way in, but approached from this direction the Separation Wall was even more forbidding.  Shortly before the gate was a section of the wall covered with graffiti, some of it by well-known people, including Banksy, expressing support for the Palestinian cause.  There were only two or three vehicles in front of me at the checkpoint, but it took several minutes to get through.  I was asked if there was anything in the boot of the car, to which I said I didn’t think so (I hadn’t looked), but was then just waved through. 

On to Jerico via Jerusalem.   Jerico is about 25 miles from Jerusalem, via highway 1, and shortly after entering the West Bank I turned off the main road, through another checkpoint and up the hill to get some fuel at a filling station on the outskirts of Ma’ale Adumim, the largest of the notorious settler towns.  Many countries, but not Israel, consider that these towns on captured territory are illegal under international law, but more houses are being built in the West Bank all the time.  They are often occupied by ultra-orthodox Jews and the whole subject is extremely contentious.       

Because of time pressure I went straight back to Highway 1 and on to Jerico, which is very much a desert town.  My map showed all the roads into Jerico as unpaved tracks, and I am sure some still are, but the route signposted was a well surfaced but dusty single carriageway road.  After a short distance was a check point with a big sign at the side of the road in English stating that this was the point of entry to Palestine Area A, and it was illegal and dangerous for Israeli citizens to proceed any further.  I was waved through without stopping.

Another complicated political issue.  The West Bank is divided up into three areas, A, B and C, defining the amount of civil and military power Israelis and Palestinians have in each.  These are not single large areas, but types of area.  Area A is under full Palestine Authority civil and military control, and covers most cities in the West Bank, including Bethlehem and Jerico.   Area B is under Palestinian civil control but Israeli military control, and Area C (including highways 1 and 90 in the West Bank) is under full Israeli control.  As it said on the sign, Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter any part of Area A, but with a British passport I could.  Strange, but true. 

At the boundary of Jerico was a Palestinian military check point, and behind it another big notice stating that the development taking place on the area of land ahead was a gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.  It was a vast site, partly built up, including a new chain hotel.   

At first I seemed to have the only car with Israeli yellow numbers, which made me slightly uncomfortable, but then I did see a few others.  It was easy to park and when I went for a walk around no one took any notice of me, and I was not hassled in any way.  It struck me as quite a pleasant town, with mainly mid-twentieth century buildings rather than the ancient ones that might be expected.  Maybe it was slightly less prosperous than Israeli Arab towns like Nazareth, but I did not see any great signs of poverty. 

Joshua and his trumpet did a good job, as there was no trace of the old city walls, but in any case they would have fallen down by now due to the incessant horn-blowing by local drivers.

Back in Jerusalem I handed the car to Green Peace unscathed and walked down to the Old City.  It was impossible to get in against the vast tide of people coming out of Damascus Gate, so I went round to New Gate and right through to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) in the far corner of the City.  At one time, when the City was in Arab hands, the Wall was alongside a narrow alley behind a line of houses, but when the Israelis gained control they demolished the houses and created a large open space in front of it.  Access to this area is via a security check where my backpack was X-rayed.   

Until quite recently only men were allowed to go up to the Wall, but part of it, probably about one third, is now reserved for women.  There is great resentment about this on the part of some ultra-orthodox Jews, and a few days after my visit hard liners started throwing things at the women worshippers, leading to a clash with the police.  There are other examples of segregation, such as the bookshop on one side of the square which has separate entrances for men and women.  Adjacent to the men’s area of the wall is a door into a building where large numbers of men, many in orthodox dress, were engaged in prayer, study or earnest discussion.  Male tourists are allowed in, but are expected to be modestly attired and have some form of head covering.   A baseball cap is quite acceptable for non-Jews, but a benevolent-looking man who appeared to be in charge was raising his eyebrows at some people who did not quite meet the expected standards.

It did not mean a great deal to me, but I was aware that to some of the people present touching the Western Wall was the greatest moment of their lives.

The Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount were clearly visible from the walkway above the Western Wall plaza, but unfortunately there is no access to them on Fridays, which happened to be the day I was there.

Next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is one of the many buildings hidden within the streets of the Old City and only properly visible from above.  It was actually quite difficult to find the entrance, but once inside and through the security check it was obvious that a great many people had found the way in. The church is believed to be the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead.   Inside it are several chapels and the Holy Sepulchre itself, which was at the centre of a large mass of people queuing to get a glimpse of Jesus’s tomb.  As might be expected there were many clerics around, but the scene was not enhanced by the considerable number of police officers and soldiers with guns.  In the street outside were people selling nicely made wooden crosses about five feet high, and they were finding plenty of customers.

As mentioned above, it was Friday, and approaching the start of the Jewish Sabbeth, or Shabbat, which officially runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  Almost everything in the Jewish parts of Jerusalem shuts down completely , starting from about 4pm, and I was lucky to get the last tram but one back to the city centre.  The alternative would have been a dreaded taxi, if I could find one, or walking two miles along Jaffa Road, which connects the old and new cities.

By the time the tram reached the city centre the bus station mall and most other shops were closed.  People were rushing to get home, many of them quite excited, and the atmosphere was rather like 6pm on a working Christmas Eve in England, but here it happens every Friday.  A man in Orthodox dress pushing a pram with a baby in it turned to me as he passed and said “Are you Jewish?”  I replied “No”, and he said “Well, Happy Shabbat anyway!”.

Happy Shabbat?  For me it looked more like Hungry Shabbat, because all the restaurants were closed, and I was not sure whether the hotel would be doing meals.  There were still a couple of small shops open selling comfort foods, and I bought a survival pack of biscuits, crisps and nuts, etc., just in case.  In fact, the hotel restaurant was in operation so I finished up with a really good meal and a lot of stuff to put in the car.     

The view from my balcony on Saturday was unbelievable. In place of the frantic activity on Friday morning there was almost nothing moving.  No trams, few cars, few people, no buses running but dozens lined up in neat rows in the car parks below.  It was time for me to check out and set off for the Dead Sea, the Negev Desert, and Eilat on the Red Sea.

The Dead Sea, the Red Sea and Eilat

The way out of Jerusalem was the way I had come in, which I had memorized carefully, and with the minimal traffic on Shabbat I expected it to be easy.  But as I found on my travels many times before, nothing is easy.  The route from the city centre ran along a main road called Bar Ilan Street, which was easy to find, but closed with barriers on Shabbat because it was an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood.  There is strong feeling about people driving through such areas on Shabbat, so I had to find an alternative route that would take me well clear of the closed road, which took some time.

Eventually I passed through the checkpoint on to Highway 1, the route I had taken the previous day to Jerico.  This time I turned south on to highway 90, through another checkpoint and within a short time the Dead Sea appeared on the left with the hills of Jordan on the opposite bank a few miles away.  After about twenty miles the West Bank finished (yet another checkpoint) and the Dead Sea resort of Ein Gedi came into view.  Ein Gedi has a public beach with free parking, a lifeguard station, toilets and few other facilities.  At the entrance was a big notice telling people what they should and should not do on the sea shore. 

Amongst the things you should not do are jump into the water, swim, swallow the water, get it on your face or in your eyes.  The procedure for entering the water is to do so by gently lowering yourself backwards into it, until you are floating on your back, as many people were doing.  If you do swallow the water or get it in your eyes you have to seek immediate medical attention from the lifeguard station.  I put my hand in the water and tasted it, and it was incredibly saline.  It actually has a mineral content of about 33%, mainly salt, but also magnesium, iodine and bromine.  Within a short time my lips began to sting and I had to wash them with fresh water that I had in the car.   

Some people were covering themselves with black mud, which is supposed to be good for the skin.  I would have thought that this would intensify the effect of the sun’s radiation, leading to burning, but in fact the sun’s strength is reduced due to the dense atmosphere. The Dead Sea shore is the lowest point on earth, at about 425m (1380ft) below normal sea level, so the tea there should be fantastic if properly made.  According to the digital indicator on the lifeguard station the temperature was 40°C (104°F).

Just off the main road few miles south of Ein Gedi is a string of expensive spa hotels right on the beach, designed to enable people to get the maximum health benefit from the water.  More beaches and hotels are to be found on the separate, smaller part of the Dead Sea to the south, and at the very end is the Dead Sea Works, a massive, rusting industrial complex built in1930 to extract minerals, particularly potash, salt and magnesium.

From this point to Eilat and the Red Sea was a straight, boring drive of about 100 miles along the edge of the Negev desert, with the hills of Jordan still clearly in sight on the left. All the books said petrol stations were few and far between in the desert, but on highway 90 they were every 30 – 40 miles.

At 3.00pm I arrived in Eilat and quickly found a hotel, the Aviv B + B.   Eilat is a popular holiday destination for Europeans, and most visitors arrive by air.  The airport is unusual in that the runway extends right into the middle of the town and the main entrance is directly off the pavement near a roundabout in the town centre.  By standing on a grass bank on the roundabout it is possible to get a pilot’s view of the runway.

It was still Shabbat and I was still hungry.  The restaurants in the town were closed, but I thought perhaps there would be some places open on the beach, and there were.  The temperature was in the upper 30s, but I was beginning to get used to it, and after the meal I managed to walk the whole length of the promenade by the Red Sea.  The sea is not actually red, but is noted for its clear water and the luxuriant plant life on the sea bed.  Glass-bottomed boat trips are a big attraction, and the area is popular with scuba divers.  

The main item on the BBC World Service the next morning was that Israel had bombed Damascus in a fairly big way.   I went down to the reception and asked the way to the breakfast room, only to be told “There isn’t one. We only do breakfast in the winter”.  So although the sign with Aviv B + B could be read from almost all over the town it was really just the Aviv B.  They recommended a nearby bakery for breakfast, where I paid a small fortune for coffee and a bagel.  Some idea of the usual clientele of Eilat can be obtained from the fact that round the corner from the Aviv B was a place called the Fawlty Towers Hostel, with pictures of Basil, Sybil, Polly and Manuel on the sign. 

Unless you go through into Jordan or Egypt the choice of roads from Eilat is limited to two, as the town is, in effect,  on a land-locked peninsular.  This meant either retracing my route for some distance or driving along the Egyptian border, a road that was closed at the time of publication of my LP guide (July 2012) due to terrorist incursions leading to the deaths of a number of civilians.  The English lady who owned the Aviv B said the road was open again, but it squiggled about in the mountains and was “even more boring than the other one”.

The Egyptian Border, Negev Desert, and Be’er Sheva

The Egyptian border road, Route 12, was far more scenic and interesting than the “other one”, and I realised that the lady’s measure of boring was related to the number of places where food and drink were available (none the way I was going).  The only other vehicles on the road were taxis going the other way, although I don’t know where they were coming from, because it was a long way from anywhere. 

After a few miles the road came to the border fence with Egypt and a proper Israeli army checkpoint, with camouflage and a big gun on the road pointing towards Egypt.  There seemed to be two young men and two young women soldiers, and when I held up my passport one of the men asked me where I was from.   I said “England” and he replied “Have a good day”.     

The border fence was new and quite impressive, consisting of a double wire fence with a gap in between, and was slightly reminiscent of the pictures of the Great Wall of China as it stretched away into the distance, following the contours of the land.   

Eventually another check point came into view, near the point where Highway 12 branched away from the border, to leave Highway 10 continuing about 120 miles to the coast and Gaza Strip.  The soldier in charge just waved me through with a broad grin, and I had a feeling that he knew I was coming.  If you broke down on that road I don’t think there would be any need to fetch Green Flag, the Israeli Defence Force would coming looking for you.

At the junction with Highway 40, the route used by normal people travelling north from Eilat, is a proper oasis, with a small shop and restaurant surrounded by trees.  In the middle the actual spring had been made into a small water feature.   About a dozen cars were parked there, most if not all, travelling on Highway 40.

My night stop was to be Be’er Sheva (Beersheba), a drive of about another 100 miles across the desert, which was very barren but with some good mountain backdrops and occasional signs warning of camels on the road, although I did not see any.  Army exercises were taking place here and there on both sides of the road.

Shortly before a small town called Mitspe Ramon the scenery became quite spectacular as the road crossed a vast crater called Makhtesh Ramon, which the LP likens to the Grand Canyon, although I would say that is a bit of an exaggeration.  It is nevertheless an extraordinary landscape, with multi-coloured rock formations, and could be on another planet.  The crater is 8km wide and 40km long, Mitspe Ramon being perched high on a cliff above it with a lookout built out over a sheer drop to enable visitors to make the most of the view.

At the roadside on the approach to Be’er Sheva were a number of Bedouin encampments in which people appeared to be living in appalling conditions, in what looked like makeshift tents, huts and old vehicles.  Some Israelis told me that what can be seen from main road is just a drop in the ocean compared with the amount that is out of sight.  Some Bedouin still live the nomadic lifestyle in tents, moving around in the desert and others have become fully urbanised. 

Not far from Be’er Sheva is a Bedouin city called Rabat with a population of 40,000 and a reputation for being crippled by poverty and crime.  LP said a visit was not to be recommended.

According to LP accommodation in Be’er Sheva was limited to a choice between an expensive hotel and rooms in a college residential building used mainly by students and visiting professors.  As well as being cheaper I thought the college would be more interesting. It proved to be very Jewish, with absolutely everything in Hebrew, although most of the staff spoke English.  The accommodation was basic, but far better than the hall of residence I lived in as a student in London in the late1950s, and the room was more comfortable for reading or studying than any hotel room I have experienced.

Be’er Sheva is quite a pleasant town, actually very old, but without much ancient fabric as far as I could see.  The so-called Old City does not have a lot of character and is supplemented by a fair-sized modern shopping mall, but one thing I wanted to see was the Bedouin Market, which I thought might provide an insight into their lifestyle and culture.

At breakfast the next morning I was told off for sitting in the wrong place in the vast and almost empty restaurant, and the lady in charge treated the ‘guests’ as if they were 19-year-old students who were clearly up to no good and needed to be put in their place.  I quite enjoyed the experience.

The Bedouin Market was a great disappointment.  After stretching my walking ability to its limit it turned out that the people and the things they were selling were just like those in my local market at home.  Most of the stall holders were shouting in the usual manner, but a couple had small loudspeakers playing a recorded message listing the items on offer.  So much for tradition.

Ashkelon and Ashdod

From Be’er Sheva I was aiming for the Mediterranean coast for the last night before returning home.  On the coast just north of the Gaza Strip are two towns called Ashkelon and Ashdod, both of which escaped a mention in the LP guide, although Ashdod is the fifth largest city in Israel.   Looking at the map I somehow got the impression that they were run down places, but in Be’er Sheva I asked a lady who by chance came from that area and she said they were both nice towns.

The road from Be’er Sheva to Ashkelon runs within a mile of the Gaza Strip and about five miles from Gaza City itself.  The Foreign Office warns against getting too close to the Gaza Strip because of rocket attacks, but it was not until I got home that I discovered that in 2012 over 2000 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, resulting in some deaths.  Due to negotiations with Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, the number so far in 2013 was greatly reduced.  Ashkelon and Ashdod were both well within range of the rockets.

At the point nearest to Gaza it appeared that a new educational establishment had been built, and on the bright, clear day that I was there it was hard to believe that there were hostile forces so close.  Approaching Ashkelon from the south I came to a massive industrial estate, with enormous trucks running around loaded with materials rather than the ladies-underpants-from-China sort of industry that we have in England nowadays.

Ashkelon itself was a hive of activity with new building going on everywhere, reminding me of a typical fast-growing Florida coastal town.  If the people firing the rockets think they are going to intimidate the Israelis they are very much mistaken. 

Ashkelon might have a beach and a marina, but as far as I could see the only hotel was the expensive Holiday Inn, so I pushed on to neighbouring Ashdod, a considerably bigger town.  At the far end of the long promenade was a large new and very smart hotel, with a couple of older ones nearby.  The Hotel Orly had the character of a late 19th century French establish-ment and was the kind of place I was looking for.        

After getting sorted I went into the town, which appeared to be quite European as I strolled along a wide boulevard lined with shops and restaurants, but, as in Ashkelon, virtually everything seemed to be in Hebrew   At a junction I turned down a side turning, went into a shop at the back of a small precinct, and was surprised to find the shopkeeper talking to a customer in Russian.  I did not think much about it then, but a few minutes later as I was sitting in front of a snack bar enjoying a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice I looked around and realised. This was Russia!  It was all there, the austere blocks of flats, concrete buildings with the aerials on top, and shabby little precincts.  You could have picked the whole lot up and dumped it down in the suburbs of Moscow and no one there would have noticed.  In general, however, the lady in Be’er Sheva was right, Ashkelon and Ashdod are nice seaside towns, but they are not likely to be in the European package holiday brochures while there is still the occasional rocket attack.

Although I had seen a lot during my visit to Israel, there was still much that I had not seen, especially in the West Bank.  It is generally considered inadvisable to go to towns such as Nablus, Jenin, and Hebron, where there is serious poverty and massive refugee camps unless you are accompanied by someone who knows the ropes and has local contacts.  I only saw a little bit of the separation wall, in Bethlehem, and afterwards I felt that I could have been more adventurous while I had the Green Peace car. 

Israel is a country of enormous contrasts.  It is impossible not to be impressed by the rate of development in terms of building and infrastructure, at a level far beyond the imagination of the British government, and many people must be working very hard to make it happen.

At the same time, the country is on a semi-war footing, with a huge military presence and in some areas machine guns are a common sight.  The political and religious differences inside and outside the borders are immense, with, as far as I could see, no resolution in sight.   

 

 

 

 

9Dec/12Off

Chile & Argentina 2012

 

Chile and Argentina 2012

For years I had wanted to go to South America, but was deterred by the supposed danger in travelling around independently as I do. Several countries, including Colombia, Paraguay and Brazil are still a bit dicey, but in recent times the situation has improved and a number of countries are now considered to be reasonably safe. Peru is quite attractive, but half the people I know have been there on guided tours, so I looked for somewhere less popular

After some research on the internet I discovered that it was possible to hire in car in Santiago, Chile and drive over the highest part of the Andes to Mendoza in Argentina, which seemed quite a sensible thing to do. Chile is generally safe, and despite comparatively recent history Argentina was said to be ok for British people as long as discussion about the Falklands is avoided.

On a recent trip to Germany I had picked up a 3-year old edition of Ivanowski’s Guide to Chile, in German, for €2. It is unlikely that many British people have travelled around Chile or anywhere else using an Ivanowski guide, and it was nothing like as good as a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, but it did have a large road map at the back. Subsequently I lashed out on a new Rough Guide (RG) which provided most of the information for my trip.

To be any good a map of Chile has to be large, because at 2700 miles from north to south it is the longest country in the world, although at its widest point it is only about 150 miles across. To put it in perspective, if you were to cut Chile out of a globe atlas and place the top end on Norway, the bottom would be on Nigeria. The capital, Santiago, is about half way down and is at the same latitude as Johannesburg in South Africa and Perth in Australia. As a consequence of the strange shape of South America the longitude of Santiago is east of that of Boston, although it is only about 70 miles from the Pacific ocean.

Despite its shape, Chile has clear cut natural boundaries, with a vast desert to the north, frozen wastes to the south, the Pacific ocean on the west and the Andes mountains on the east. This makes it impossible to generalise about the weather, but in the Santiago area I expected it to be warm in November.

There are no direct flights from England to Santiago and really it was a choice between going via Madrid, with a short flight and a very long one, or the USA with two fairly long flights. Because of the complications of immigration in the USA I decided on the Spanish route, although I was a bit concerned about the collapsing economy there. The flights were operated by Iberia in conjunction with British Airways and LAN Chile.

In the event everything went quite smoothly, although being crammed into a seat on an A340-600 for 14 hours was no great pleasure, especially as the space and in-flight services were little better than with Ryanair. Owing to a problem which my doctor describes as “common in men of your age” I had an aisle seat at the back near the toilet and had to get up at least 6 times.

Santiago

At Santiago Airport there was an excellent shared minibus system for taking people to their accommodation in the city, and it cost about £7 for 12 miles, although the traffic jams in the city centre were dreadful, practically the worst I have seen anywhere. By the time I got to my hotel I been travelling for about 30 hours.

On the way through the city we used the main thoroughfare, which has the name Avenida Libertador Bernado O’Higgins. Mr O’Higgins, who was presumably of Irish extraction, figures very prominently in Chilean history as the liberator of the country in the 18th century. Many British names crop up in a similar way, examples being Walker, MacIver, Mackenna, and Cox.  (Click on picture to enlarge).  Av O’Higgins is very long and parts of it were lined with shabby buildings exactly as I expected South America to be. Some of the buildings had big pictures of girls all over them. It was not clear what they were but I think they might be art galleries of some sort and I resolved to go back and have a proper look at the area before leaving Chile.

As usual I had booked a cheap hotel on the internet and the room was very small but clean and the people were nice. After getting sorted and resting for an hour or so I walked to Plaza des Armes, a small park which is the centre of life in the city. The hotel was in Providencia, a reasonably smart neighbourhood, and I felt quite comfortable about walking through the streets with my backpack. On the way I called in at the car rental office, as there had been some last minute problems with the documentation for taking the car to Argentina. Over the previous few weeks I had had considerable email correspondence with a chap named Raphael, and it seemed strange to be meeting him face to face, but he said everything was ok.

The next morning I collected the car, a Nissen March (known in many countries as the Micra), and was pleased to find that it was in good condition apart from a few minor scratches. Raphael was out and the car was handed over by a pleasant Brazilian chap who said his English was not very good, and when I asked for directions to Los Andes he said “take Hooter Sink Nortay”. He repeated this several times, and it was like Basil Fawlty trying to make Manuel understand something in English, but the other way round, although this man was rather less aggressive than Basil. “Hooter Sink Nortay” was going round and round in my head, when I suddenly exclaimed “Ah! Route Five North!”. My recent attempts to learn Spanish have actually been a dismal failure but the signs to Ruta 5 Norte were easy to find and I was soon on the way to Los Andes. Once clear of Santiago there was little traffic and the road ran for a long way across an arid desert-like plain with rows of small trees as far as the eye could see. After a while I came to a toll booth, the first of many that I was to encounter in Chile. The road then climbed into the mountains via a tunnel for which another payment was demanded.

Los Andes

Eventually I arrived in Los Andes, a small town, and managed to scrounge a free map from the ‘tourist office’, a cabin at the side of the road. From the internet at home I had obtained a list of four hotels and set off in search of them with the map. The first street I tried to drive down had a man at the end in a yellow jacket taking to someone in a car, and thinking he wanted some money I squeezed past and entered the street. It was very narrow with cars both sides and I had to squiggle about to get through. After about 100 yards it was apparent that the road was blocked by a market. With great embarrassment, touching mirrors on both sides and following shouted instructions from the population of Los Andes, including the man in the yellow jacket, I reversed the unfamiliar car through the obstacle course back to the main road. The man in the yellow jacket required payment for his assistance, and I put the incident down to the SHHMS (Should Have Had More Sense) factor, which rears its ugly head somewhere on every trip.

As in many towns in Chile, the streets of Los Andes are laid out in a grid and most are one-way, which is no problem once you get used to it.

Eventually I found a decent, cheap hotel with a secure car park, which is said to be vital anywhere in South America. There certainly seems to be an obsession with security, with the iron railings and big locked gates that you see in pictures of that part of the world, but whether the crime rate is really so dreadful I don’t know. The locals warn you about walking through the streets with anything of value and the guide books tell you to keep the car doors locked and windows closed when driving around, but on the face of it it didn’t seem to me to be any worse than Portsmouth (England) and nothing like as bad as many cities in the USA.

Over the mountains

The next morning I was woken by a loud siren that I thought might be warning of an earthquake but turned out to be the way of rousing the part-time fire brigade. After breakfast I set off for Argentina, over the Andes, passing the highest mountains in the world outside the Himalayas. The road rises to an elevation of about 3500m. (11,500ft), much higher than any European pass, via a series of over 20 hairpin bends before entering a toll tunnel which cuts off the top of the original pass. The actual border between Chile and Argentina is marked by a sign inside the tunnel and a short distance after the tunnel there was a kiosk in the middle of the road with a man who shouted something in Spanish and gave me three forms. These were an immigration form for me, a form all in Spanish for the car, and a little piece of blue paper with a stamp on it. He said something about another place in “treize kilometre”, but I didn’t know whether this was 3 km or 13km. It turned out to be the main customs post, at 13km, and this was a real old style frontier checkpoint, with several lines of kiosks inside a building. There were 5 kiosks in each line, some Chilean and some Argentine, and no one spoke English.

When I collected the car the rental people emphasised that it was vitally important to follow the correct procedure in the customs. As the temporary importer of the vehicle into Argentina it was my responsibility to ensure that the correct papers were stamped and I must be with the car on its return to Chile, otherwise I would be liable for duty in excess of its value. If it got smashed up in Argentina I had to come through the frontier with the wreckage on a breakdown truck. They omitted to say what would happen if I got smashed up.

In the customs shed my passport, the wad of papers I had for the car and the ones that I had been given by the man a few miles back were all taken and stamped, stamped, and stamped again. A young chap appeared who spoke a little bit of English and asked me for ” the paper with the blue light”, by which I assumed that he meant the little bit of blue paper, which had fallen down between the seats. This seemed to be the most important of the lot, and by the time I finally escaped it was completely covered with stamps.

A few miles further on I was stopped yet again by a man standing in the middle of the road who took the little piece of blue paper, folded it, and put it in a slot in the top of a box. It is impossible to understand the purpose of this arrangement, but I drove away feeling that I might somehow have voted for the next President of Argentina.

Argentina

The mountains on the Chilean side were plain and not very attractive, but on the Argentine side they were altogether more colourful. Although the road on the descent from the pass was comparatively straight the scenery was superb with little traffic. There were several places of interest that I resolved to look at on the way back, and I pushed on to a small town called Uspalatta, where I stopped for a look round. It was immediately obvious that Argentina was less prosperous than Chile, the place having a general run down appearance with many tatty old cars driving about. Only the few main streets were tarmacked, the rest being compacted soil.

On to Mendoza, which is the second largest city in Argentina. If you are a wine lover you will definitely have heard of it, but it was unknown to me until I planned this trip. It is quite large, population over 110,000, but I quickly found a reasonable hotel within walking distance of the centre, booked for two nights and went to explore.

Mendoza is a totally planned city, after being completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1861. It was rebuilt with wide tree-lined streets, but those I walked through into town were quite shabby with a lot of closed business premises. The pavements were in very poor condition, with large holes and open drainage channels everywhere, and you have to keep an eye on the ground at every step you take. The streets appear to be designed to cope with vast quantities of water, and I can only assume that when it rains it must do so in a big way.

The centre is smarter, with shopping streets based around a beautiful large park with four smaller parks nearby, and in contrast to the suburbs there was plenty going on. The main streets were very European in character, with lots of old French and Italian cars, plus a few British ones from the 1960s through to the 80s. Mr.O’Higgins was apparently also in action here, his name having been given to a park. Like Santiago, Mendoza has a good road system, but again, without local knowledge you can easily get into a mess, as I did when drove down to a big modern shopping mall in the evening.

Within my lifetime Britain has fought in or against many countries around the world, Argentina being one of the more recent ones. In the period leading up to this trip there were rumblings about the Falklands (or Malvinas if you are on the other side) again and I was not sure how I would be received. In the event I did not sense any hostility from anyone, and the only reference to the subject I came across was a properly made notice at the roadside shortly before the border tunnel that appeared to say MALVINAS FOR ARGENTINA. On one of the main streets in Mendoza there was an old-style British red telephone kiosk with a working phone in it and intact windows, which suggests that in this area, at least, there cannot be any ill feeling.

On the Sunday when I drove from Los Andes to Mendoza there was little traffic on the road, but for the first 20 miles when I left on the Tuesday morning to go back over the mountains I was dicing with death trying to get past an endless string of slow trucks. Fortunately most of them turned off into an industrial area leaving a fairly clear road to the border. A few miles before the border is a famous place called Puerte del Inca (Bridge of the Incas), which is a natural stone bridge over a river with a high concentration of minerals, so that objects left in it for a long time become “petrified”, acquiring a hard bright yellow coating of rock-like material. Many such items are offered for sale along with the usual tourist tat.

Also at Puerto del Inca are the remains of the former narrow gauge railway from Los Andes to Mendoza, originally built with the help of British engineers. It was abandoned in 1989, and bits and pieces of it can be seen alongside the road on both sides of the border. This is the main land route between Chile and Argentina, and In 2009 it was decided that a new railway would be built, but bearing in mind the surprisingly low amount of traffic on the road it is hard to see how the vast cost could be justified.

It was vital for me to get the car papers stamped before leaving Argentina, but it was not clear how to do that, because the customs post that I had been through before was only for traffic going the other way, and there was nowhere else before the tunnel. Eventually I found a young priest in the customs queue for Argentina who spoke quite good English, and he explained that there were Argentine officers in the customs on the Chile side of the tunnel.

About the only similarity between the two customs posts was that no one spoke English on the Chilean side either, and I was led from window to window, queue to queue, desperately trying to hang on to all my pieces of paper. Every time I thought it was all over another obstacle would appear. Next time I will bring my own rubber stamp, because I think it is a bit like Russia - as long as you have enough pieces of paper with stamps it doesn’t matter what is on them.

Eventually I managed to escape and after a couple of hundred yards turned off the road into Portillo, described by the RG as an upmarket ski resort. For me this would be the Ski Resort from Hell, consisting of what appeared to be a brightly coloured pre-fabricated accommodation block and some big blue sheds. The skiing is undoubtedly good, because of the altitude, but limited in scope compared with European resorts and completely lacking in Alpine character.

The first two days in Chile had been pleasantly warm, but when I got back to Los Andes it was scorching hot, I would estimate about 90deg. I had reserved a room in the same hotel as before, and the lady owner seemed quite pleased to see me.

To the Pacific coast

Originally I planned to drive across country to the coast, but the route was not very inspiring so I decided to go back via Santiago and call into the car rental office to make sure that the papers were in order and give them time to sort things out if they were not. This would have been a good idea if I had a decent map of Santiago, but within a short time of entering the city I was hopelessly lost. By now I realised that the city was very much larger than I thought. With a remarkable piece of luck I found two men polishing second hand cars in front of a place called Royal Cars, and they both spoke good English. They set me on the right track, but it took 10 minutes driving at 60 mph on an urban motorway to bring me close to the car rental place, which gives some idea of the size of the city.

Everything was ok with the papers so I set off for the coast, aiming for a resort called Viña del Mar, near Valparaiso. On the way I departed from the motorway a couple of times to go into the mountains. At the first attempt I ended up on a concrete road that was only wide enough for one vehicle, with a strip of bumpy sand 2 or 3 inches lower on each side so every time something came the other way (and there was a lot of traffic) I had 2 wheels on the concrete and 2 wheels on the sand, at one stage doing about 30mph with a bus a few feet behind. There are a tremendous number of little buses everywhere, mostly Mercedes-based and quite old. They seem to be very tough and can take this sort of treatment in their stride, which my car could not.

There was also a marvellous stretch of mountain road with lots of hairpin bends, sheer drops and trucks coming the other way. This road was not too badly surfaced, but once you deviate from the main highway it is common to find stretches of dirt, sand or gravel..

The first thing I noticed on entering Viña del Mar was the number of stray dogs running around, almost like Romania. The town was a bit of a disappointment, with terrible traffic and seemingly no hotels of the sort I was looking for, so I decided to try Reñaca, a couple of miles further north. According to the RG, Reñaca is a lively upmarket resort, but overpriced. The guide was wrong on the first two counts but right on the third. The place was like Bognor Regis on a bad day in the winter, with the sea front all messed up by road works, but I got a very expensive room overlooking the ocean, or as much of it as was visible through the mass of electrical cables and junction boxes.in front of the window.

I had seen the Pacific a few times before (in California) but never stayed close to it, and I was amazed at how noisy it was. For years I have lived in a beach house on the English Channel and am used to the sound of a rough sea, but the breaking waves of the Pacific seemed to be a whole order of magnitude louder, even though there was no wind. Just as I arrived some surfers were packing up for the day, and although the breakers were very wide they did not look exceptionally high.

Valparaiso

Next on the list was Valparaiso, or Valpo as it is known to blasé world travellers such as myself. After the fiasco with the hotel in Reñaca I went on the internet and lined up three cheap hotels in Valpo with secure parking, using the maps in the local phone book, but did not make a reservation because the internet connection was public.

Valpo is an extraordinary place, with the centre more or less at sea level and the rest of the town rising up steeply behind it. It has a big container port, and the guide books warn about the danger of walking at night or alone in the port area. The hillside above the town is covered with densely-packed brightly coloured houses, mostly built on stilts to compensate for the steep slope. Many are in poor condition and give the appearance of a shanty town when seen from a distance. Some parts of Valpo on the higher ground are laid out in a grid, but the roads leading up from the main town take a tortuous route with hairpin bends through narrow streets.

The previous evening I had studied the telephone directory maps very thoroughly and had a good idea of the way to the three hotels I was looking at, which were quite close together near the top of the hill above the harbour. At the quaintly named Plaza Wheelwright (presumably another British pioneer) I turned off left onto the steep climb, followed by several taxis, which started sounding their horns after a while because I was not going fast enough. Not fast enough for them, that is, I was going quite fast enough for me. As the road went uphill the character of the neighbourhood went the other way, becoming the sort of area where I would not really want to stop or get out of the car.

The first hotel was in a street called Levarte, and although it was slightly better than some of what I had come through it did not exactly come across as salubrious. Driving slowly along the street I realised that there was one building that was much smarter than the others, a single storey Spanish style house with a forecourt behind the obligatory iron railings and gates. This was the Hospedaje Familiar El Mirador Bed & Breakfast, and turned out to be absolutely brilliant. It was run by a lady and her daughter, and was like a comfortable Spanish family house with self-catering apartments behind it. The price was exactly half that of the awful place in Reñaca.

Parking in the centre of Valpo is practically impossible, so I decided to walk into the town. The ladies told me take nothing of value with me, including my passport, which they said I should put in the room safe. This was a tiny steel box bolted to the wall, and had an electronic system for setting up the combination number, which I knew from past experience was difficult enough if the instructions were in English, and here they were only in Spanish. In any case it never seems very sensible to me to leave valuables in a place where everyone would expect to find them, and safes like that are only as good as the wall they are fixed to, which in this case would probably not amount to much.

In the end I hid my passport in the locked car in the locked car park and put one credit card under the insole of one of my shoes, as well as some other security measures. The ladies gave me a bunch of six keys, with instructions not to lose them, so that I could get to and from my room, and also a map marked with all the local sights.

It was a walk of about a half mile down the hill to the port area, including a long, graffiti –covered flight of steps between derelict graffiti-covered buildings. There is graffiti everywhere, some of it quite artistic I suppose, but who is to say what is artistic nowadays? There was hardly anybody around and it was not an environment to inspire a feeling of security, but I tried to look as if I belonged there and knew where I was going. It would probably have been more convincing if I had been holding a can of aerosol paint.

The port area and centre of Valpo really were South America as I had hoped to find it, with narrow streets, rough old buses and trolley buses, and buildings ranging from smart to dilapidated, mostly the latter. Some of the more imposing buildings and monuments were connected to the city’s naval heritage, and there were a fair number of seamen around.

The central area is long and narrow, just a few blocks wide, with several plazas and small parks. At intervals there are long flights of steps leading up the hill and ancient cable operated lifts with wooden cabins holding about 12 people in each direction. The RG recommended trying these to experience the view from the top, and said that “despite their rickety frames and alarming noises they’ve so far proved safe and reliable”. I tried one called the Ascensor Concepción, built in 1883, and was pleased to find that the “so far” held out. The view from the top was worth it, but I had to walk down to avoid a half hour queue.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped for a rest in Plaza Echaurren, city’s oldest square, described in the RG as “very picturesque save for the wine-swilling characters who permanently occupy its benches”. Despite not swilling any wine I felt quite at home there. A friend often says I go around dressed like an extra from ‘On The Waterfront’, which is probably not a bad thing in such places. Nearby was another funicular lift, Ascensor Artilleria, which took me up the steepest bit of the climb back to my hotel and avoided an unsavoury part of the route.

At about 9pm I ventured out of the hotel and walked down Levarte to some small shops. These were like the back street shops I remember in England from my childhood, the small, dark front rooms of houses, although there was one bright one, which seemed to be a lottery-based betting shop. Back at the hotel, a veranda near my apartment afforded a magnificent view across the city, with all its coloured lights.

The coast.

The next morning I set off to explore the Pacific coast travelling south round a headland high above the ocean, and immediately ran into heavy mist, causing the car to fog up in a big way. The day before I noticed that the houses high on the hill were in low cloud, and from road signs warning of fog it appeared that this was a frequent occurrence.

The first place on my itinerary was to be a coastal village called Quintay which could only be reached by driving inland for some distance and taking a mountain road. It was quite a scenic drive and eventually I came to what appeared to be the main street of Quintay, consisting of a short length of dual carriageway with a dirt surface between two lines of bungalows. At this point I suddenly realised that I was low on fuel, with 2 bars showing out of 10 on the gauge, and I had no idea how far how I could get on that. There was a small shop half way along the street, so I went in, looked at the lady behind the counter and said “Gasolina?”. I knew it was called that because it said so on a Dymo-Tape sticker on the dashboard to prevent misfuelling. She took me outside, pointed diagonally across the street and said something about ‘five litres’. There was no sign of any petrol pumps where she had indicated, so I drove back to the tarmac road and turned downhill towards the ocean. Half way down there was a man loading something into a white pick-up, and when I asked him about gasolina he indicated that I should follow him. We stopped in front of a bungalow in exactly the place that the shopkeeper had said, and he shouted something, whereupon a lady appeared from behind the building. At this point I noticed a rough piece of wood on the fence with “LINA” scrawled on it, so this was the filling station.

The lady produced a five-litre clear plastic container full of a pale yellow liquid, and a funnel with a long tube attached. The whole set-up was spotlessly clean. She put the fuel in the car and charged me the equivalent of £8, the highest price I have ever paid for five litres of petrol, but it was a captive market and my fault for not watching the petrol gauge. The normal price for petrol in Chile is about £1.15 per litre, so the lady was, as they say, onto a ‘nice little earner’.

Back to the coast road, and this led to a bay with a pretty little fishing port, but, like Reñaca, it was still out of season and everything was closed. Pushing on south, the road ran through a series of coastal resorts, with names like Algarrabo, El Quisco, El Tabo. Some had nice beaches and I stopped here and there for a walk around.

Looking at the map, the most sensible place to spend the night appeared to be San Antonio, but I changed my mind when I got there. It was a rough port town, and the first impression was it was not a good place to stop at all, let alone for the night. There seemed to be only one hotel, combined with a casino, and after failing to find another hotel on a drive right round the town on the back roads I decided to move on to somewhere else.

The next town, about five miles away, separated from San Antonio by a long bridge over the Rio Maipo estuary had the grand name of Rocas de Santo Domingo, and was as grand as its name. It was unbelievably different from San Antonio, like an upmarket private estate with big detached houses. There was a sign to a hotel that turned out to be as smart as the rest of the place, with a separate restaurant/reception building and the accommodation in chalets amongst the trees. In the car park there was one car which obviously belonged to someone who could not afford to be a paying guest, and I quickly discovered that I was also in that category. Anyway, the place was deserted and it would be like staying in a chapel of rest.

Back to Santiago

The next day I had to be in Santiago, so there was little choice of route from Santo Domingo, and the only likely place for a hotel was a town called Melipilla, about 50 miles away. On entering Melipilla it was San Antonio all over again, the sort of area where everybody looked like extras from ‘On The Waterfront’, even though it was not a port. I pulled on the forecourt of a service station and stopped in front of the office. As I got out of the car a man came out of the office and shouted at me. He was the toughest, hardest looking character I have ever seen, let alone met. He was a bit taller than me but about twice as wide, with a big ugly face, swarthy complexion and a scar on his chin where a knife had been jabbed into it. This man was hard, real hard, fifty per cent harder than the two Mitchell brothers put together, but instead of killing me he pointed out that I had left my headlights on.

I looked at him and said optimistically, “Hotel?”. He put his hand on my shoulder, guided me to the edge of the forecourt and explained very carefully three times in Spanish that there was a hotel on the left hand side of the third road on the left. He then walked back to the car with me, shook my hand and went into the office. At least I know where to find a bodyguard if ever I want one.

The hotel was excellent, obviously catering mainly for business people because I cannot imagine many tourists visiting Melipilla. With some trepidation I decided to go out and have a look at the area and find something to eat. The main road really was seedy, with a lot of scruffy car repair workshops, some closing for the evening, and a fair number of dubious- looking characters just hanging about. In this situation you always want to take photographs but it is unwise unless you have a concealed camera.

The first eating place I came to looked like a proper restaurant, but in fact only did “sandwiches”, like a vast number of places in Chile. The sandwiches consisted of large round bread rolls with an exciting choice of fillings - ham or cheese. I chose the former, with a fizzy drink. Unsurprisingly this was not really enough, and rather than continue the hazardous walk towards the centre of Melipilla in the hope of finding a better restaurant I got some stuff from a small supermarket and took it back to the hotel. This will be a good example to put in the “Travellers’ Guide to Fine Living”, when I get round to writing it.

It was about 50 miles to Santiago, and the next morning I wanted to take the car back to the rental office, check in at my hotel, and spend the rest of the day looking round the city. Needless to say, I got lost yet again on the autopista in the suburbs, adding at least 20 miles to the journey and paying one toll twice, but I saw quite a lot of the outskirts in the process.

The car rental people were extremely fair, actually reducing the charge because I had returned the car 22 hours early. Overall, I had found both Chile and Argentina to be very “straight” countries in this sort of way, with no one trying to make a quick buck at every opportunity.

To give me more time in the central area I took the crowded underground train from near my hotel to Avenida Bernado O’Higgins, holding my backpack in front of me, and it didn’t seem any different from the underground in any other capital city.

Santiago hasn’t actually got a lot of “sights”, but I photographed a few streets, buildings and monuments. There were certain areas in the main streets with signs saying that photography was not allowed, although I could not see why. In this day and age, when so many people have camera phones, it is ridiculous anyway. There were police around in cars, on foot, as well as on motorcycles and scooters, but not to the point where it felt anything like a police state, which it certainly was from 1973 to 1988.

A strange thing that I noticed in all Chilean towns was the extraordinary number of dispensing pharmacies, with staff smartly kitted out in white uniforms. The general health of the population appears to be quite good, and it is difficult to understand how all these businesses can be viable. Second to pharmacies were hardware shops. Macdonalds and Burger King were also there in strength.

There was far less German influence than I expected, with few recent BMWs or Mercedes on the roads, but a lot of VW products from Brazil. Most new cars and small trucks are from the Pacific rim, and increasingly, China.

Despite the rough bits, overall I liked Chile and Argentina. The people were generally pleasant and honest, and then was none of the in-your-face hassle found in some other countries, but the language was a bigger problem than I expected. When I was waiting at the airport for my flight home I was interviewed by a lady from the Government Tourist Office, and she said although English is the second language it is not very well taught and few pupils leaving school can actually speak it. It is hard for us to complain about this, because how many British children come out of school able to speak a foreign language?

Another matter she asked me about was the cost, both of getting to Chile and when I was there. In both cases I said it was high, and she said Chile is the most expensive country in South America.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is the matter of safety and security on the streets. As mentioned above, the locals everywhere seem to think the country is crime-ridden and take what might seem to many West Europeans to be extreme precautions. The area around my hotel gave the impression of being quite safe, but no one was allowed into the hotel without being scrutinised. There was a parking regime in the nearby streets with marked spaces and signs stating the charges. During the day a man with a yellow jacket sat at a junction within sight of the spaces to collect the money and act as security. As soon as he went home the cars disappeared and very few were left on the street at night. The Chinese vehicle dealership in the next road cleared the open forecourt at closing time and put everything into a secure compound at the back.

On a completely different tack, there were lots of birds around but not many insects anywhere. Even in the 90 degree heat of Los Andes and the damp of Valparaiso all I saw were a few flies In 800 miles I only had to clean the car windscreen once. The books warned about a disease-bearing mosquito, so I took plenty of DEET insect repellent, but did not need it.

Chile and Argentina are vast countries, and in the nine days that I was there I saw just a tiny, but significant, part of them. Other parts are undoubtedly very different, with wild landscapes and extremes of climate, but a wider exploration would be demanding in both time and cost.

 

 

 

 

28Oct/12Off

Berlin 1967 and 2012

BERLIN 1967 and 2012

In 1967-68 I spent two years in Germany, living in Düsseldorf and travelling all over the country on business. During this period I went to Berlin four times, once for a long weekend by car and otherwise by air for day visits to customers.

This was the height of the Cold War. Germany was still divided into East and West zones, the East being controlled by Russia, and the West still occupied by British, American and French troops, although there was complete freedom of movement in the West and it was essentially self-governing.

Berlin was not part of East or West Germany, it was a sovereign city, divided into four sectors directly administered by the four above-mentioned powers. It was totally surrounded by East German territory, over 100 miles from the West German border, and connected to the west by a small number of road and rail routes. From time to time the Russians would close these routes for a few hours, just to show that they could, in the face of strong protests from the Allies.

At Easter 1967 I drove to Berlin on the autobahn through East Germany from Helmstedt (Checkpoint A) to Dreilinden (Checkpoint B) . There were strict rules about not stopping, not leaving the main route, and taking too much or too little time for the journey. If you took too long you would be questioned about what you had been doing, and if you got there too soon you would be fined for speeding! Despite this, West Germans were known to hold brief meetings with East German relatives on the laybys along the route.

There was a tension in the atmosphere in Berlin that it is impossible to describe, brought about by the feeling of insecurity. Until1961 there was free movement between the sectors of the city, but so many people were leaving the east to live in the west that the Russians put up a physical barrier between their sector and the rest of the city. At first it was just a wire fence, but it was very quickly changed to a wall which itself was substantially reinforced as time went on. In 1967 foreigners and West Germans could visit East Berlin, but West Berliners could not.

Because of the uncertainty there was little investment in the city, and many young people moved to West Germany. As an incentive to try to combat the aging population young German males could avoid conscription by going to live in Berlin.

Many West Berliners did not bother to have a car, because there was nowhere that they could go in it without driving right across to West Germany. In 1967 it was possible to park at the roadside almost anywhere in the city centre without paying.

My secretary knew a West German girl who had a boyfriend in East Berlin and went through the border quite frequently to visit him, so it was arranged that she would take me into the Russian sector for a day while I was in the city. The normal way for foreigners to go through the wall on foot or in vehicles was at Checkpoint C, better known as the famous Checkpoint Charlie, a control point between the American and Russian sectors in Friedrichstrasse, near the city centre. However, because we went on the underground we crossed over in Friedrichstrasse Station, which entailed pushing our passports into a slot followed by a nerve-racking wait while they were processed by someone who would decide whether or not we could go through and continue the train journey.

It is now greatly to my regret that I did not take any photographs in East Berlin, but I think perhaps I was worried about getting arrested for spying or something, because I took photographs only on the western side of the Wall. My main memories are of two-stroke cars and vans producing clouds of blue smoke, state-owned restaurants called Mitropa, with dreadful coffee, and a general atmosphere of austerity. At the time mini-skirts were the height of fashion in the west, and I commented on the fact East German girls all still had long skirts, to which my companion replied “They can’t get the material”. It was difficult to think of an answer to that.

Forward to 2012. Sunday.

From Schönefeld Airport I travelled partly by S-bahn (a sort of underground railway that runs above ground) and partly by proper underground, to the city centre, and came up right at Checkpoint Charlie. The cheap hotel that I had booked was called “Hotel Lebensquelle am Checkpoint Charlie”, although it was quite some distance from the checkpoint, and I quickly realised that any business within 500 yards of the checkpoint describes itself as “at Checkpoint Charlie”. The former checkpoint is a massive tourist attraction, with buses and coaches disgorging tourists who rush over to the sentry post in the middle of the road to be photographed alongside the American soldiers on duty. It is highly unlikely that the men in uniform are actually American or soldiers, and the sentry post is definitely not genuine, the original having been taken away to a museum years ago.

Facing the “Americans” is a picture of a stern-looking young Russian border guard and a sign stating YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR, which may be original. This is all part of the huge industry that has built up around the Berlin Wall and other ramifications of the Cold War.

Most of the Wall has gone, but the line of it is marked for much of its length with a double row of cobbles set into the ground, and this led to within a few yards of my hotel. Before booking I had read the reviews and it seemed to be all right, although there were some slightly odd remarks like “The staff did not smile, but that was not because they were unpleasant, it was because they were Russian”.

Before the war the city centre was in the area around Alexanderplatz, which finished up in the Russian sector. After the division West Berlin developed its own centre around the Kurfürstendamm, a main thoroughfare well to the west of the Wall.

It was Sunday afternoon and after checking in with the unsmiling staff at the Lebensquelle I went to look at the old city centre as it was not too far to walk. It is 23 years since the Wall came down and a lot has happened since then, with many new buildings going up and old ones being restored, but there are still signs of the utilitarian style that characterised Eastern Europe under Communist rule. Alexanderplatz and the surrounding area was bustling with life and, unbelievably, THE SHOPS WERE OPEN ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON! IN GERMANY!

However, in other ways Germany is still Germany, and close to Alexanderplatz was one of the enormous building sites to be found elsewhere in Berlin and all German cities, in this case for the construction of a new underground line close to the surface. In the 45 years that I have been going to Düsseldorf I can never remember a time when the city has not been massively disrupted by one civil engineering project or another. If you say anything to the locals they say “Ah, yes, but it will be lovely when it is finished”. The problem is that it never is finished, because as soon as they complete that project they start another and even if you cannot imagine anything else that needs to be done they will think something up.

Most of the well-known German retail outlets had branches in Alexanderplatz, but I was rather amused to see that Primark are opening there shortly. That will shake things up a bit, because at the bottom end the clothing sector is less competitive than in Britain.

Close to Alexanderplatz is the imposing TV tower, built in the 1970s, and until recently the tallest structure in the EU. It has just been surpassed by The Shard in London.

Also not far away is the Nicholaiviertel, (Nicholai quarter), an ‘old town’ area. Despite the difficult conditions in the years after the war the Germans set about rebuilding most of their old city centres in the original style, and when you wander about the ‘Altstadt’ areas of Nurnberg or Düsseldorf it is hard to believe that they are really only about 60 years old. Originally the East Germans did not restore most of what was left of the old buildings, in fact they demolished them and replaced them with the uninspiring architecture of the period. In the 1960s they had a change of mind and decided to build the Nicholai Quarter, a small conglomeration of old-style buildings that are not particularly convincing.

On the way back to the hotel I discovered a marvellous museum of East German motorcycles, open until 10pm, and the DDR museum, also open late. This is dedicated to life in the DDR (German Democratic Republic, the Russian dominated East German state), and covers all aspects of the period between 1945 and 1989, from politics through to domestic practicalities. There were samples of the branded goods of the time, mostly state-produced, and a mock-up of a typical dwelling, with period furniture and fittings. Many people were laughing at this, but actually I thought quite a lot of it bore a resemblance to my own house.

The route took me for a short distance along Unter den Linden, the wide avenue lined with fine buildings intended to rival the Champs d’Elysee in Paris. The East Germans did restore those buildings to the original style, but they have a strange sterile look about them, although some big names are moving in and the intention is clearly to make it the most prestigious thoroughfare in the city again. It is not helped by much of its length being a building site for the new underground, and this work has been going on for years.

Monday

The next day I had booked a visit to the glass dome on the Reichstag building at 10.00am. On the way I came across the recently constructed Holocaust Memorial, consisting of 2711 dark coloured rectangular marble blocks of different sizes placed in rows over a large area at the roadside. It was designed by a Jewish American architect, and seems a strange format for a memorial, but as I gazed down into the dark gaps between the stones on a bright sunny morning I felt that it was very effective.

After a quick look at the Brandenburg Gate I arrived at the Reichstag building, which is now once again the seat of the German parliament, and quickly joined a group for admission to the glass dome. The building had a dome until the 1960s, when it was removed during a period of rebuilding, and a new dome was designed at the end of the last century by Lord Foster. It is far from just a glass dome, but a high-tech engineering construction to control the environment inside the building. There is a 230m long spiral ramp leading to a platform near the top, from which there are spectacular views in all directions over the city. A more perfect day for this visit could not be imagined, with a totally cloudless sky. The top of the dome is open to the elements with a large hole through which hot air goes out in the summer and rain and snow beat in during the winter, but there is some cunning arrangement whereby the water is channelled away before it gets through to the parliamentary chamber below.

From this point on I revisited the sites I had photographed in 1967, and the photos from that time are on the left of the text below, and those from 2012 are on the right. Click on them to enlarge.

Not far from the Reichstag is the Russian War Memorial, which had changed very little over the 45 years, and the same could be said of the Siegesäule (Victory Column), one of those wonderfully Germanic monuments dating from the 19th century. Unfortunately I had changed quite a lot over the 45 years, and after the walking I had already done I could not climb the steps right to the top, so had to be content with a photograph from a lower level than on my last visit.

It was interesting to see that it still seems to be possible to park all day free of charge on the road near the Siegesäule, which is only about one mile from the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. There are plenty of spaces as well.

Next on the agenda was a proper look at the Brandenburg Gate, taking in the River Spree on the way. Unlike many European capitals Berlin does not have a grand river like the Thames, Seine or Danube, but has to make do with the Spree, which is about as imposing as its name.

The Wall stood just yards in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which was marooned on the ‘wrong’ side when I took my 1967 photograph. The most surprising thing is how low the Wall was then, and it was not until some years later that it was increased to its standard height of 3.6m (almost 12ft) and reinforced in other ways. The gate itself is little changed from my previous visit.

Having seen the old city centre around Alexanderplatz I decided to revisit what had been the heart of West Berlin in Charlottenburg. This proved to be more difficult than I expected due to the underground work, and I wasted a great deal of time trying to understand the public transport system in its temporary form.

Ultimately I arrived at the Kurfürstendamm and went in search of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church), which is one of Berlin’s best known monuments. The tower was preserved in its ruined condition after the war, in the same spirit as the old Coventry Cathedral, and I had photographed it 1967. After a while I was sure I had found the place from which I took the photograph, but to my astonishment the church was nowhere to be seen. How could this be? Eventually I discovered it inside what appeared to be an aluminium and glass skyscraper office block, where it is being restored to its immediate post-war ruined state.

The church is on one side of a large square, and opposite to it was a building also undergoing renovation, covered by an immense hoarding about 100 yards long with huge pictures of David Beckham in his underwear. The church must be only too pleased to be hiding inside its ‘office block’. The building behind the hoarding will be a branch of H&M, and all the well-known retail names plus many international purveyors of goods to the moneyed classes have outlets in this part of town. Whereas Alexanderplatz has all the style of a typical British new town shopping centre, parts of the Kurfürstendamm are more Tunbridge Wells. Even so, it is likely that some of the upmarket businesses will drift away to Unter den Linden eventually.

The only shops in which I actually spent any time were the vast Saturn multi-media store, where I wandered about wishing I was 17 so that I could understand what I was looking at, and a bookshop. It was interesting to see how many books there were on the subject of Germany’s economic situation, including some which dared to raise the question of Germany leaving the EU, which would have been unthinkable at one time. Books about personal development also seem to be quite popular, and one had the title that I would translate as “I Don’t Know What I Ought to Want”, which leaves one wondering how the author ever managed to get round to writing a book at all.

Another struggle with the public transport and a meal at Nordsee, a fish restaurant where other poor people go to eat, and I was back at the Lebensquelle.

Despite the supposedly excellent public transport, one thing I had noticed about Berlin was the vast number of bicycles and motorcycles everywhere. During the working day the pavements in the city centre were lined with 2-wheeled machines parked usually on a strip adjacent to the kerb, and there is a far greater tolerance of motorcycle parking than in Britain. Bicycles can be hired all over the place, and as I wanted to venture some way into the suburbs the next day this seemed to be a sensible way to travel.

Tuesday

The hotel had a few bicycles for hire, but with one exception these had enormous frames, presumably for Dutch guests, and the odd one had its seat set far too high for me. I attempted to resolve this problem, but without knowing the Russian for “Can you lower the saddle, please” it was clear that I was not going to get anywhere.

In the end I obtained a bike from a place near Checkpoint Charlie, and it was a dreadful American style cruiser, with massive wide handlebars and a back-pedal brake, which is extremely awkward in traffic.

Generally Berlin is well set up for cycling, being mainly flat and many streets having a red strip on the pavement for cyclists. There are often separate traffic lights for cyclists at junctions, with slightly different timing from the main ones. The Germans ride their bicycles with the same grim determination as they do everything else, and I felt more under threat from other cyclists than from the general traffic.

My first port of call was the Classic Remise classic car centre in the western suburbs. This is one of several in Germany, and a concept that, surprisingly, does not exist in England. Under one roof it provides classic car storage (in large glass boxes on two levels), workshops, dealer sales areas, showrooms for new sports cars and motorcycles, and a restaurant. During normal working hours anyone can just wander in and look around, and it is like a constantly changing museum.

Berlin is generally flat, but I was intrigued by one of the highest hills in the city, called the Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain), because it is entirely man-made. It is one of a number of Trümmelberge (rubble mountains), built out of the rubble left by the devastating bombing towards the end of war. Between 1950 and 1972 up to 600 lorry loads of rubble were taken to this site every day, and the final total was 34,000,000 cubic yards. When I set off in search of it on my bike I was expecting to find a mound in the middle of a park in the Grunewald, but eventually found myself slogging up a long steep hill in a large area of woodland. At the top, which I did not quite reach, was a ruined radar station and far under the ground is said to be a Nazi military-technical college built by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. The allies tried unsuccessfully to blow it up and decided it would be easier to cover it with rubble. One day in the distant future I am sure archaeologists will quite literally have a field day on this site.

From here I cut across through the suburbs to Charlottenburg and pushed the bike for the whole length of the Kurfüstendamm. It had not been a stunningly exciting day, but I had ridden about 20 miles and seen a good cross section of the city.

Wednesday

One place I had to visit on my final morning in Berlin was the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, which tells the story of the Wall from start to finish, with the political background and its effect on people’s lives. It was founded in 1962 and although somewhat amateurish in its presentation it is highly regarded for its integrity. There are numerous examples of the methods people used to escape from the Russian sector, ranging from vehicles with concealed compartments to balloons, hang-gliders, and even a submarine. It is all a bit cramped and claustrophobic, but perhaps that is not a bad thing, and there were certainly a large number of young people making notes on their Ipads.

From there I walked westwards, aiming for the German Technical Museum, which is in a remaining part of the Anhalter Bahnhof (Anhalter Station), and on the way came across the longest standing length of the Wall in Central Berlin, along one side of Niederkirchner-strasse. The Wall here is the standard height of 3.60m with the curvature at the top to make it hard to climb, although it has a lot of holes.

Before the war Anhalter Bahnhof was one of the busiest stations in Berlin, with connections all over eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain made it largely redundant, and it was finally closed in 1952. Sadly, it was also one of the main stations from which Jews were transported to the concentration camps in the east, and there is a plaque commemorating that on the entrance portal, which has been preserved in isolation. From the portal down to the Technical Museum is quite a long walk, with traces of the old platforms, rails and embankments visible here and there along the way.

One thing Berlin does need is a new airport, and it will get one in 2013. When I booked my easyJet flight from Gatwick in April 2012 my ticket was made out to Berlin Brandenburg. Just a couple of clicks on the internet revealed that Berlin Brandenburg was a very long way behind schedule and would not open until June 2013, leaving me wondering how much compensation I would get for being kept waiting for 14 months at Gatwick. Needless to say, revised tickets appeared within a short time, made out to Berlin Schönefeld.

Schönefeld falls very far below the standard expected for an airport of one of Europe’s leading capital cities. On the way to and from the city centre the S-bahn travelled right alongside the old Tempelhof Airport, which was the mainstay of West Berlin during the Cold War years and continued to be used until 2008. It is now a city park, and on the bright Sunday afternoon when I arrived the former runways and grass areas were being put to good use by families enjoying themselves. The terminal buildings were visible on the far side of the airfield, and I had forgotten how big they were. The main building is almost a mile long, curving round a corner of the field, and at the time of its construction just before the war it was one of the largest buildings in the world. It was part of Hitler’s grand plan for Germania, a super city to be the capital of the Third Reich in its ultimate form. Viewed from above the terminal complex was supposed to look like an eagle in flight, although I would not have guessed that if I had not read it. No decision has been made about its future use.

It is difficult to understand why, but Berlin is different from other large German cities, somehow less hectic and more parochial. Perhaps it is because it went for so long after the war with an uncertain future and limited investment until recently, but I felt that it would not be a bad place to live.

 

 

 

3Jul/12Off

Alaska 2012

 

Alaska 2012

Alaska. The Arctic Circle, North Pole, The Yukon and other cold places

It is probably a sign of advancing age, but shortly after booking my flight to Alaska I could not actually remember why I had decided to go there. I think it went back to the days of my early youth, when new books were hard to come by and my reading matter consisted of pre-war offerings with titles like the Big Adventure Book for Boys, with stirring stories of Real Men fighting against the elements and one another in the Yukon and Klondike in search of gold. They were far away places in those days and I could never have imagined that one day I might see them.

Alaska is not very easy to get to. There are no direct flights from England and some of the flights are very indirect, via places like Frankfurt or Los Angeles. The shortest time is over 15 hours and many are well over 20. The flight I eventually booked, with Delta via Minneapolis, took 21 hours from Heathrow to Anchorage, and at 6523 miles is one of the shortest by distance. It seems very uneconomical considering that the distance as the crow flies is only 4481 miles, but nobody actually goes that way, not even the crows.

The plan was to fly to Anchorage, hire a car, drive up to the Arctic Circle on the infamous Dalton Highway and then cut across to Dawson City in Canada, where I hoped I might be able to pan enough gold to pay for the trip before returning to Anchorage. That was the original plan, anyway, but the more I read about Alaska the more ambitious it seemed to be, and I realised that once I got there I would have to take things as they came.  (Click twice on the map to enlarge, once on the other pictures).

For a start Alaskan roads are, quite literally, thin on the ground. Alaska is the largest state in the USA, twice as big as Texas and over six times as large as the UK, but has a total population much smaller than Birmingham. The great majority of people live in the south eastern part of the state and outside that region there are few roads at all. Of those most are what the Americans call ‘unpaved’, which means that they are surfaced with gravel or dirt in the summer and ice or snow in the winter. In addition there are the pure ‘ice roads’ over frozen rivers or lakes, usable only in prolonged cold periods. The main routes all have names, such as Parks Highway or Dalton Highway, mostly in honour of people who played a part in the development of the State..

Before making any definite arrangements for flights and accommodation I thought I should check to ensure that I could rent a suitable vehicle, and immediately ran into a stumbling block. It is standard practice in the USA (and most other places) for car rental firms to prohibit their vehicles from being driven on unpaved roads. The first two or three companies I contacted on the internet confirmed that that was their policy, and I would not be able to go on the Dalton Highway or most of the other routes I wanted to use. In one case I said I had read that the Dalton Highway was now paved at least as far as the Artic Circle, and they replied “Well, it might be, but you still can’t take our cars on it, it’s too dangerous”.

After a long search on line I eventually found a firm called GoNorth that rented out 4x4 vehicles, including what they called trucks, that you were allowed to use on all roads. Accommodation was another problem, because in the areas where I wanted to go it seemed that ‘lodgings’ were few and far between and mostly very expensive. Amongst GoNorth’s rental packages was a truck with camping gear, and that seemed to provide the combination of reasonable cost and flexibility that I was looking for.

So I booked a ¾ ton 4x4 truck with all the essential equipment for happy camping, including tent, sleeping bag, stove, crockery and cutlery, etc. It was a long time since I had done any tent camping, 39 years to be precise, and I was not greatly looking forward to putting up the tent for the first time in front of other people, especially in a place where I could not do it under cover of darkness..

Immigration at Minneapolis was very quick, but this was followed by a 6 hour wait for the flight to Anchorage, so I decided to get the light rail transit to the Mall of America, about 2 miles away. Claimed to be the largest mall in the USA, it has 570 shops around a large amusement park, so it was about as far from the wilds of Alaska as it is possible to get, but it was better than sitting around at the airport. One of the attractions was a rather strange exhibition called ‘Diana – A Celebration’, about the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. On the way the train passed a mind-bogglingly large military cemetery with lines of crosses as far as the eye could see.

The truck was arranged for collection from GoNorth in Anchorage at 10.30 the next morning so I had booked a room in America’s Best Value Inn nearby, and arrived at 1.45am fairly shattered after being up for 29 hours, but I have known worse.,

On arrival at GoNorth’s premises I noticed a huge silver Dodge Ram truck in front of the door, and thought "I would like that". After sorting the paperwork the lady in the office said "We are giving you Ben, the truck in front of the door". Paradise! Ben was 20 feet long and had a 4.7 litre V8 engine. It was referred to by its manufacturer and its owners as a truck, so I really was a truck driver in Alaska. The load bed was about 10 feet long and had a glass-fibre top with windows, so I could sleep in it, which was ideal. All the specified items of camping gear were there including an axe and a large spade. I could imagine a use for the latter but I did not know what I was supposed to do with the axe. Perhaps they were expecting me to build a log cabin. There were also two sleeping bags.because the lady did not realise that I would be on my own. She offered to take one out, but I said I would keep it in case I met someone, as people always do in films.

She also suggested that I stock up with food at a Safeway supermarket about 4 miles away in the direction I was going, but as soon as I stopped in the car park I could smell burning brake linings, and found that one of the front brakes was very hot. The only thing to do was to take Ben back, and I was worried that I might lose him and get something not so good, but as soon as I got to GoNorth the mechanic checked the brakes and said the pads had been replaced the previous day and were just bedding in. That would not be my method of bedding them in, but in the event there was no problem.

Back to Safeway, and I was astonished at the high prices of both the food and non-food items. American prices are generally reasonable, but many of the items were twice the price they would be in Lidl or Tesco, although there are substantial discounts for loyalty card holders. After a time I came to the conclusion that this was the Alaska effect, a consequence of the high cost of getting things there and the reduced economy of scale.

Anchorage to Willow

For the first 40 miles going north from Anchorage, to Wasilla, the road was like a typical American freeway, a dual carriageway with a fair amount of traffic. After Wasilla it became mostly single carriageway with overtaking lanes for short distances and there was much less traffic.

For the first night I found a campground at Willow Creek on the Parks Highway about 70 miles from Anchorage and set about organising my living arrangements. The truck was divided into 3 sections, the front seats, the rear seats, and the load bed, which was separated from the seating area by a double bulkhead. This meant that the only access to the living area was through the tailgate, which was split into upper and lower halves. The lower half was part of the vehicle construction, not counterbalanced and so heavy that I could hardly lift it. It was also high when open, and GoNorth had given me some portable steps to make it easier to climb up. For normal access to the interior with the flimsy top tailgate open this was no problem, but when I retired for the night there was a difficulty, because I could not close the bottom tailgate once I was inside. The only way round this was to close the tailgate from the outside and then climb in through the slot above, Dukes of Hazzard style, although I did it with rather less panache than the occupants of General Lee. But there was still a problem, because I was then at the wrong angle to pull the top gate down against its strong pneumatic struts. This vehicle was definitely not for wimps, but I solved it by tying a piece of string (in the camping kit) to the top of the gate which enabled me to pull at a better angle.

Over a period of 2 months before going to Alaska I had been monitoring the local temperatures as reported in the Daily Telegraph, and they were generally 5 to 10 deg C. lower than in the south of England, so I was expecting to have a relatively cold holiday. In fact, as I prepared for the first night in the truck it was quite warm. Because I did not need electric hook-up I had a pitch close to the river away from the big camper vans with all their paraphernalia, and it was very pleasant until I woke up at 2am to find that it was cold and raining. The cold was dealt with by using the second sleeping bag as a cover, but some water was getting into the back end of the load area, and I decided that I was going to need a strict regime to prevent it from spreading to where I was sleeping. Memories flooded in of those student camping holidays when everything just got wetter and wetter.

In the morning the rain had stopped and it was warm outside, so I set up the stove, got breakfast, showered and quickly forgot about my concerns in the night.

Willow to Fairbanks

From Willow to Fairbanks was about 300 miles, which I expected to cover in a day. The road runs 30 miles from Mt.McKinley, the highest mountain on the whole North American continent at over 20,000ft, although the road itself does not reach any very great height. For a long way there are roadside viewpoints every few miles, and lots of other parking areas, some with toilets but otherwise few buildings of any kind.

In rural America everywhere you go you come across people living in tumbledown properties surrounded by everything they have ever owned or collected. Cars, trucks, tractors, buses, farm machinery, and in Alaska old snowmobiles and bits of pipeline or mining equipment. This is a lifestyle that I can empathise with. Many items are used as plant pots or decorated in other ways, and there are often dogs, cats, turkeys, geese, goats or other animals wandering about in the middle of the junk. It may or may not be for sale, but the owners are usually happy for people to take photos.

The first such place I came to in Alaska was at Trapper Creek, a place called Wal-Mikes (from WalMart), which claimed to be world famous, although I had never heard of it. It was a shop and post office, and did seem to have a wide selection of everyday essentials as well as the things nobody was likely to buy.

The Alaska Railroad runs alongside the Parks Highway for most of its length and at one point I saw a very glamorous train with 2 bright yellow diesel locomotives pulling a string of very smart double-deck carriages. This was the Alaska Express, a tourist train that runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and like most American trains it seemed to trundle along at about 30mph, which my father would have said is a nice speed for seeing the countryside. The Railroad is the only public railway in the state, and has just one route, with a couple of short branch lines, running from Whittier in the south to Fairbanks. Most of it seems to be single track.

About midday I stopped for coffee and a cake at a small place called Healey, and after that the landscape suddenly changed, with snow at the roadside and a general Arctic appearance. Approaching Fairbanks the road seemed to climb for miles, and I imagined that it would be much colder than in Anchorage, but in fact it was about 70deg F. Fairbanks is the second largest city in the state, after Anchorage, but neither is the capital, that honour going to Juneau, a small town in the far south east. You might find that information useful one day in a pub quiz. Some people in a kayak centre directed me to an excellent campground with a restaurant and shops nearby where I could top up on my provisions.

The campgrounds are used by a very diverse range of people, from backpackers who walk in with a tent to people in £100,000 motor homes towing a car behind them. Some sites are basic, but most have at least toilets and showers, and I found that the other campers were invariably well-behaved and quiet at night, which cannot be said for the occupants of a lot of American motels.

Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle – The Dalton Highway

At 2am I woke up briefly and it was still very light outside. At 7am I woke up again and looked around inside the truck. It was in such a mess that I thought for a moment that I was at home, so my new regime was not working very well. My target for the day was to reach the Arctic Circle, a distance of about 190 miles from Fairbanks. The only road in Alaska that crosses the Arctic Circle is the Dalton Highway, which was built in the 1970s to provide access to the Prudhoe Bay oilfield on the Arctic ocean and was made famous by Ice Road Truckers. Sometimes called the ‘Haul Road’, it was built by the oilfield operators (Conoco/Philips/BP) and for many years it was restricted to use by vehicles serving the oilfield and pipeline, but was eventually opened up to the public..

At Fox, a few miles north of Fairbamks, I got my first view of the Alaska Oil Pipieline, which runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the port at Valdez in the south. The pipeline is very close to the road at Fox, and there is a public information point with details of its construction and maintenance. It has a bore of 48in and is heavy insulated so the oil retains its natural heat to prevent it from freezing in the winter. The pipe is about 10ft above ground on stilts for almost its entire length.

It was very hard to get reliable information about the condition of the roads I was planning to use. Some reports said they were paved all the way, others suggested that they were not. My map of Alaska showed the whole route from Fox to Prudhoe Bay (485 miles) as a ‘loose surface highway’.

Also at Fox was the Hilltop Truckstop with a sign stating that there were no more services for a very long way, so I decided to fill up with ‘gas’ at $4.459 per US gallon, which equates to £3.69 per Imp. gallon or £0.81 per litre, which Americans think is a dreadful price.

From Fox the first 74 miles is the Elliott Highway, which is a reasonably smooth tarmac road . There is nothing on the way apart from a general store surrounded by junk, masquerading as The Arctic Circle Trading Centre, and a place called Livengood which has a sign saying ‘No Services’.

The Dalton Highway starts shortly after Livengood as a narrower tarmac road with a sign stating ‘The James W.Dalton Highway’, followed by a sign with 50MPH SPEED LIMIT FOR THE NEXT 416 MILES. For a few miles there was a thin covering of loose gravel on the road which I found slightly disconcerting, but it then changed to a compacted soil surface which continued on and off for a large proportion of the 120 miles to the Arctic Circle. There were two quite messy stretches of road works, one 9 miles long, with a lot of mud, before the Yukon River crossing where I stopped for a meal at the roadhouse.

So far I had seen very little traffic, just a couple of pick-ups and one or two trucks. In the summer there are supposed to be 160 trucks a day on the Dalton Highway, but it seemed to me that there were fewer, perhaps because it was Sunday.

The roadhouse was exactly what might be expected, a single-storey shack-like building, and there were only a two or three customers in the restaurant. The lady in charge was very friendly and wanted to know where I was from and where I was going. A man then joined in and asked me if I had a CB radio, and I told him I didn’t, although GoNorth had them but had not suggested that I ought to take one. He said “Well, you will probably be ok as far as the Arctic Circle, but if you go past there without a CB you will get KILLED!

CB radios are used to communicate with truck drivers on the approach to blind bends or brows, using the mile markers at the roadside as a reference. The trucks are very large, travel fast, and basically do not expect to have to give way to anything they cannot see or do not know about.

After the roadhouse there was about a half mile of thick yellow mud, 3 or 4 inches deep, all over the road and the surface was of variable quality for the next 60 miles to the Arctic Circle, but mostly unpaved in one way or another. One problem is that in many places the traffic causes the dirt to build up into a ridge along the edge of the road, making it even narrower, and they have a special machine that travels along scooping up the soil from the ridge and spreading it across the road in an even layer about 4 feet wide. The Dalton Highway would not be a good place to take your new car for its first outing. There were no significant bends, but some sharp brows with limited vision, especially on a stretch of road called the Rollercoaster.

At one point the landscape changed quite suddenly from forest with deciduous trees to Arctic tundra, with quite short pine trees. About 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle a rather extraordinary thing happened. I suddenly developed an urgent need for a restroom (as the Americans would say) and was wondering what to do, when a viewpoint appeared at the side of the road with a large parking area and two small toilet blocks. Next time Arun District Council are planning to close public lavatories in Littlehampton and Bognor Regis because of lack of demand I must remind them of this.

At the Arctic Circle there is a monument in a car park set back from the road, and when I arrived the only person there was a man from the US Bureau of Land Management, who offered to take a photograph of me alongside Ben in front of the monument. He said there was an undeveloped campground there with no facilities, but I decided that it was too early to stay for the night.

Just to make absolutely sure that I had been to the Arctic, in case they had put the monument in the wrong place, I drove four miles further north and did not get killed, contrary to the expectation of the man in the café. There was no point in going up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean, because it was another 300 miles, and the oil companies have taken steps to prevent anyone from getting through to the coast. It was time to turn round and go south again and by the time I got back to the Yukon River roadhouse I was ready to stop. I thought they had a campground, but they did not, and in any case the mosquitoes were intolerable (more about that later), so I drove on and decided to find somewhere just off the road to stay for the night.

This proved to be quite difficult, because the only side roads are for access to the pipeline service points, and have barriers across them, but eventually I found a place and set up the stove next to the truck to get a meal. I suddenly realised that it might not be a very good idea, because I was a few feet from dense woodland, and there are known to be bears along the Elliott and Dalton Highways, so I packed everything away and got something to eat in the truck. .

Before going I had read up on the subject, was aware that there are brown bears (grizzlies) and black bears, the former being larger and more aggressive. Generally they don’t go looking for people but are attracted by the food we eat and will attack if they are hungry or feel threatened. If you are approached by a grizzly, advice is to keep calm and still or play dead until the bear turns away. If you are attacked by a black bear, the recommended course of action is to fight back!

Despite occasional trucks passing by in the night I slept well and woke up to a magnificent view from inside the truck. I was standing outside using the door mirror for shaving when a pick-up stopped behind me and a cheerful young man with a beard and pony tail, on his way to the pipeline, said “I’ve just seen a bear at 9 mile” (this refers to the mile markers at the side of the road). At that moment I did not know exactly where I was, but shortly after starting off I discovered that I was at 8 mile, so my fears the previous evening were not unfounded.

Dalton Highway to Tok

With the bear probably on its way I decided not to hang around, but to get a proper breakfast somewhere. After 80 miles and over two hours driving I found myself back at the Hilltop Truckstop, and ordered the “Traincrash” breakfast, which consisted of diced ham, diced potato, diced vegetables and diced just about everything all piled up in a heap, which presumably someone thought looked like the aftermath of a train crash. For $3 I also got a shower.

For my next night stop I was aiming for a place called Tok, on the Alaska Highway, from where I could branch off to Canada and Dawson City, on the Klondike River. After by-passing Fairbanks I stopped at small city called North Pole to get fuel and stock up with food. North Pole was given its name by local traders in the hope of attracting a toy manufacturer, but it is used by unscrupulous tourists like myself who have no hesitation in leading people to think that they have been to the North Pole. .

From North Pole to Delta Junction was an easy, pleasant drive on the Richardson Highway, passing through forests with a mountain backdrop. Shortly before Delta Junction I stopped at Rika’s Roadhouse, now a museum, where the lady guide sitting in front of the entrance looked at Ben and said “That’s the dirtiest truck I have ever seen”. Apart from the overall layer of yellow dirt, there were lumps of earth caked all around the wheel arches, and I had been thinking that I ought to clean it up before going to Canada. I don’t know about the Canadians, but the Americans can be funny about people bringing soil into the country, even on their shoes, and I didn’t want to have problems at the border.

From Delta Junction the road is the Alaska Highway, dead straight for the first 35 miles, including an 8-span bridge over the Gerstle River, which was completely dry, exposing a vast expanse of gravel and rocks. Some miles farther on the road crossed the Johnson River, which was equally wide, but strangely full of ice floes. It was difficult to understand how this could be possible, because the air was really warm, but I can only suppose that the floes were maintained by the very cold water coming from the snow-covered mountains a few miles away.

At Tok I quickly booked in at the Tundra RV Park, next door to which was a filling station advertising “FREE WASH WITH FILL-UP”. I filled up with gas, went into the office, pointed to Ben, and said to the lady at the desk “It says free wash, how far does that extend?” She looked out of the window and said “ As far as you like. You have to do it yourself!” It was a Jet Wash (they supply the water and high pressure hose, you point it at the vehicle), and twenty minutes later Ben looked reasonably smart, which is more than could be said for me. Fortunately there was a launderette at the campground.

Tok to Dawson City - Canada

The next morning I turned off the Alaska Highway at Tetlin Junction onto the Taylor Highway, towards the Canadian border. The road was well surfaced to start with and climbed to about 5000ft, passing on the way through vast areas of land on both sides blackened by forest fires. Unimaginably large tracts of land were affected, as far as the eye could see. These fires, caused mainly by lightning, are regarded as part of the natural ecological process and are often not fought unless there is danger to human life or habitation. However, they are becoming more frequent and there is concern about the effect on global warming amongst other things.

For about an hour after leaving Tetlin Junction there was no traffic on the road at all, and I was somewhat surprised therefore to encounter a 1960s Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud going the other way. This was just about the last car I would expect anyone to own in a remote corner of Alaska, and a few minutes later I was still puzzling about it when a 1970s Ford Mustang came flying round a bend. That was followed by an open 1920s Bentley with two people in it, and British numbers! At this point I realised that it was one of the many long distance classic car rallies, organised mainly by British companies. These are for rich people, who pay large amounts of money to have their cars shipped around the world and then follow a planned route, often over quite challenging terrain. They generally stay in good hotels, enjoy fine dining and have full engineering and medical support. There were about 30 cars in this group, mostly British registered, and as I was to find out, they had come over some rough roads, but I still thought I was having more of an adventure.

On the approach to a town called Chicken (more about Chicken later) the road surface began to deteriorate, and quickly changed to dirt, with a steep climb, hairpin bends and sheer drops on one or both sides. This continued for about 40 miles, almost to the Canadian border. My only previous experience of Canada was about three days in the Toronto area, and it rained solidly from when I entered the country to when I left. True to form, this time when I got about 100 yards from the border post it started to rain. The young officer at the frontier asked me what I was doing, where I was going, where I got the truck from, and then waved me through after checking Ben’s papers. On the Canadian side of the border the road was called the Top of the World Highway, and although it is neither the highest road in the world nor the northernmost, it sometimes felt like it. The rain stopped, the views were magnificent and the surface was better, though there were still stretches of gravel..

There is a time difference of one hour in Canada, and distances change to kilometres. After 106 km the road descended to the bank of the Klondike River, where there is a free ferry across to Dawson City. The ferry is very small and can carry only one truck or bus or a few cars.

With some help from the Tourist Information Centre I found the Gold Rush RV Park right in the city centre and went for a look round. Dawson City is a real time warp, with a mish-mash selection of buildings mostly dating from the 19th century, and I noticed that they were still using traditional materials like the corrugated iron sheeting for roofs and walls in some cases, There were some marvellous original features like the single storey building in the main street with LOWES MORTUARY in hand-painted lettering on the front. It still appeared to be a mortuary, though they probably don’t get as many victims of shoot-outs nowadays.

Back at the campground it was time to start recharging my batteries, or rather those of my camera, camcorder and netbook. I was not equipped with the cables to use the campground hook-ups, and had originally thought I might have to stay in a hotel at some point to get power, but shortly before leaving home I bought a 75W 12v dc to 240v ac inverter that plugged into a vehicle cigarette lighter socket. This meant that I could get the equivalent of a British mains supply from Ben, and use the normal leads for my gadgets, though only one at a time. It worked very well, but some care is needed with 240V inside a vehicle.

The next morning I stocked up with provisions at the very traditional grocery store on the river front, and drove down to look at Dredge no. 4, a restored dredge from the days when gold panning changed to an industrial scale. On the way back I also stopped at Claim no.33, where members of the public can pan for gold, but I got the feeling that it would take too long to earn enough to pay for my holiday. During my stay in Dawson City it rained on and off but was quite warm. However, I got the impression that life is still hard there through the long winters.

Dawson City to Tok

There are only two roads leading to anywhere from Dawson City, one being the one I came in on and the other leading to Whitehorse a long way down south, where it joins up with the Alaska Highway from the USA. The only way for me to go was to retrace my steps to Tok. At the border I was held up for some time behind a bus and was then quizzed much more thoroughly than when I had entered the USA at Minneapolis, although there was no fingerprinting.

A few miles before Chicken I got behind a huge tanker truck and followed it all the way along the dirt road with the hairpin bends and sheer drops. It was travelling as fast as I wanted to go, and even if it was empty its performance was pretty impressive. American vehicles are not generally noted for good handling, but I can only conclude that the size and weight of the trucks gives them a degree of stability on rough roads that smaller vehicles do not enjoy.

There was a sign pointing to Downtown Chicken, but the place seemed to consist of three separate groups of buildings, and it was not clear which one was Downtown. There was the usual collection of old cars, trucks, pumps, tractors and other decaying junk, the ‘streets’ being delineated by bits of cast iron mining machinery. It was an original gold mining town, intended to be called Ptarmigan, which is a local bird, but due to disagreements over the spelling they decided to call it Chicken. The resident population is said to be 35 in the summer and no one at all in the winter, because the road is closed from mid-October to mid-March. The name is worked to death, and there is a big store selling every possible form of chicken-related merchandise, although I came away without a single T-shirt, mug or key ring to prove that I had been there.

At Tok I went back to the Tundra RV Park, and picked up a leaflet in the office about Mukluk Land. This was apparently a junk-based theme park nearby and decided that I just had time to get there before it closed. The RV Park was 1315 Alaska Highway, and Mukluk was 1317, so I thought it was next door, but it turned out that the numbers refer to miles along the Alaska Highway, which rather puts things into perspective. Anyway, when I got there I was welcomed by a lady who only charged me $2 instead of $5 because I was so late. She told me that she and her husband had come there as teachers in 1985, lived for 9 months in a tent (still there) and then built a log cabin. He started collecting junk and eventually had so much that they opened it as a theme park.

It was unbelievable. Some things in groups, some just scattered around. Cars, trucks, tractors, engines (aircraft, boat, stationary), a collection of wooden ‘outhouses’, ‘Heater heaven’ for old heaters of all sorts, and at least 40 snowmobiles, Everything out in the open and decaying. There were lots of children’s play areas and, of course, a gift shop. When I left the lady told me I was the sort of person who made it all worthwhile, kissed me on the cheek and gave me a bag with some leaflets and a couple of sweets. This could only be America.

Tok to Glenallen

When I was shaving the next morning I noticed that my left eyelid was swollen from a mosquito bite. Since arriving in Alaska I had been bitten quite lot, but the bites were not very painful and went down after a couple of days, just leaving a little scab, I had been using insect repellent with 50% DEET, but it did not seem to work very well and was messy to use. If you are in one place you can use nets or coils which burn to produce vapour, but these are not very practical when you are going around.

From Tok I took the Tok Cut-off Highway to Glenallen, which was a much easier drive than I expected and I arrived quite early in the afternoon, which gave me time to sort out and write my cards. At his point I realised that I could have done more than I originally planned, but I had already used the 1000 free miles with the truck, and it was now costing about 26p per mile plus fuel. The campground did not have many people but a vast number of mosquitoes and the tent-camper pitches had metal containers to store food so that the bears could not get it.

On the way in I saw a van with THAI FOOD on it at the road junction about 300 yards away. In the evening I walked along the wide verge to it, and while I was waiting for my food I saw a hand-written notice on the van: BEAR IN AREA. USE CAUTION. I realised that I had just walked past dense woodland, and as I hurried back with my hot pork and fried rice I decided that if the bear appeared I would throw the food at it and run. But what if it didn’t like Thai food?

In the night I woke at about 2am and found that the mosquitoes had struck, My right eye was half closed and by 7am it was completely closed. The area around it was all puffed up and I looked like the One-eyed Monster from the Planet Zruk. However, the swelling was soft and not painful, so I thought it might go down quickly, which it did, and by mid-day I could see well enough to drive. The one place you can’t put insect repellent is close to your eyes, and I supposed the mosquitoes have discovered that.

Glenallen to Wasilla

This was the Glenn Highway, another easy drive on good surfaces, with beautiful snow-covered mountains and a glacier quite close to the road at one point. At mid afternoon I stopped for coffee and a cake at a café surrounded by old tractors, farm machinery, and of course, general junk. There were some enormous black turkeys with tail feathers like a peacock, and one of them followed me as I walked around. The coffee was ok, but I think the cake was as old as the tractors. The lady said she would warm it up, as it would be nicer, but it was like eating a piece of charcoal.

At Wasilla, on the Parks Highway, I found the Big Bear Campground, which was relatively free of mosquitoes and totally free of big bears.

Wasilla to Hatcher Pass and back

On the way to Fairbanks I had intended to visit the Alaska Museum of Transportation in Wasilla, but somehow missed it, so I took the opportunity now that I was back there. There were trains, planes, boats, cars, engines and lots of other machinery, most of it outdoors. In that part of the world the idea of potentially valuable exhibits being left out in the weather to deteriorate seems to be accepted as the norm.

One odd item amongst the aircraft was what I identified as a V1 Flying Bomb from WW2. Many V1s exceeded their intended range, but it can be said with certainty that none reached Alaska, and I thought it might be a film prop or something. It turned out that it was actually an American-made copy of the V1 called the JB-2 Loon, for use against Japan, but was never put into service. 1300 were made, some by the Ford Motor Company.

So far Ben had run perfectly, but just down the road from the museum a light came on on the instrument panel. From the handbook I discovered that it was the “engine malfunction” light, the meaning of which was uncertain. After checking the oil and peering at the black boxes under the bonnet I went into Willow library to see if there was a pay phone, and a kind man lent me his mobile to ring GoNorth. They said it was probably just to do with emissions, and I should carry on, as I only had one more day anyway.

From Willow there is a road across the mountains to Palmer called Hatcher Pass which sounded interesting. After driving for several miles along a twisty gravel road alongside a white water river I came to a partial barrier across the road and a sign stating ROAD CLOSED. Other signs said

                  TRAVEL BEYOND THIS POINT NOT RECOMMENDED

                  Expect extreme cold/heavy snow

                                                       Carry Cold Weather Survival Gear

                                                       Tell someone where you are going

I saw this as a challenge to my spirit of adventure, and decided to carry on anyway. The outdoor lifestyle is very big in Alaska and over the next few miles I was to see it in action. Every few hundred yards there were big motorhomes parked amongst the trees, with family members enjoying themselves playing with boats, ATVs and other toys. None of them looked as if they were on the brink of hypothermia..

The road climbed for a long way, until it levelled out above the tree line and there was snow around, but no more people. It stretched away into the distance, and I decided to wait for a while to see if any vehicles came from the other way. Nothing did, so I had a rare attack of common sense and decided to turn back.

After a few minutes I met a 4X4 coming the other way, and asked the lady driver whether she thought I could get through to Palmer. She said “Where are you from”. I said “England” and she replied “I’m from Wales!”, She thought we could get through, but another lady came down the hill on an ATV and confirmed that the road was still blocked by snow and would remain so until July. So it was back to the shopping malls of Wasilla and Big Bear. On the way I went into a huge sports shop, sports in this case meaning huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ with an astonishing range of equipment, including guns of all sorts, something you would never find in a shop like that in England. Many things were expensive compared to elsewhere in the USA.

The next day was to be spent looking around Anchorage and preparing Ben for return to his owners. It was a condition of the rental that the truck must be taken back in the same condition as it was when it was collected, with a penalty of up to $85 for cleaning if the owners were not satisfied.

In the morning I drove down to Anchorage, booked in at the Golden Nugget campground and put Ben through the high-tech car wash opposite. Next stop was downtown Anchorage, which turned out to be quite European in character, with few high rise buildings. As usual I was in need of a public toilet, and the people in the tourist office sent me to a government building opposite, where I was put through a full airport-style security check before being allowed to use the lavatories. I saw quite a lot of Anchorage, and it came across as a pleasant place with none of the run down areas that characterise so many American cities.

Back at the campground I spent several hours finalising Ben’s clean-up, inside and out, with furniture polish, window cleaner and a large amount of paper towel. It is one thing for GoNorth to prepare the vehicle with their workshop facilities, but quite another to get the same standard when you are out and about.

When I took Ben in the next morning all was well, and the only extra charge was for the 800 miles that I had done above the 1000 included in the rental. At the airport I had several hours wait for my flight and took the opportunity to visit the Aviation Museum in the airport complex. Light aviation has always been a big part of life in Alaska, and many people seem to use planes on an everyday basis like cars. You see small planes parked around all over the place, and every little town has its airstrip or lake grandly described as an ‘airport’. Float planes are very common, and the floats are replaced with skids in the winter. In the museum it was interesting to see that there were ‘friendship flights’ from Anchorage to towns in north-eastern Russia some years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The journey home was pretty grim. I left Anchorage at 9pm on a Monday and arrived at Heathrow at mid-day on Wednesday, which might lead you to think I was travelling in a balloon, but actually I got 8 hours sleep on the Tuesday in a hotel in Minneapolis.

Filed under: Alaska 2012 Comments Off