Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Belfast & Giant's Causeway

With the trip rearranged for a week later due to the UK being unable to cope with a little bit of snow, we eventually made it to Belfast this weekend gone.  A plan was hatched a few months ago over drinks with workmates that we should go on a weekend break before Bhupesh's visa expired & he had to go back to India.  It may be the middle of winter, but I'm hardly going to let such a trifling matter get in the way of a trip somewhere new.

With all of last year's trips under my belt, somehow it fell to me to organise everything - perhaps I was the only one motivated enough to do anything on the planning side.  It was great to have friends along for a trip for a change, but organising it all and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves (I'm pretty sure most don't share my love of history) while still trying to make sure I get to do the things I want to was something I was not used to.  When the accommodation rebooking fell apart on the morning of our departure, I was not enjoying being sole organiser; but plenty of emails, phone calls and not small expense sorted that out eventually.  In the end, I'm sure no one had a bad weekend, I got to see most of what I wanted and managed to get sufficient time to myself (three's a crowd & all that).

Apart from the last minute hiccup, airbnb worked out well again - where else can you rent a three bedroom house for forty quid a night?  The neighbourhood in South Belfast was pretty grim, but as always I found plenty of interest - and taxis were cheap & prompt.
All that was left standing of the terrace across from the front door - I suspect because this house (the blue bit) had some sort of memorial to a fallen soldier.

It didn't get much better across the next street - demolition and breeze-block windowed houses.  Classy.

An old library on the walk to catch the day-trip coach.
The recommended activity for the day was a trip up the coast to see the Giant's Causeway, so that what I managed to convince all was a good idea.  The day dawned bright & cool, but the clouds soon rolled in.  Our driver/guide for day was recovering from illness & seemed determined to drag us all down with him as he had the air-con continually chilling us for the first few hours - I've never seen so many people on a modern coach still wearing winter coats, beanies & gloves (it was quite a contrast to the infamous roach-coach).

We wound our way up the coast road with an informative commentary that never seemed to stop - I'm unsure just how many times I heard the phrase "there's another little piece of useless information for you", it's a pity I've forgotten most of it, as it was truly useless.  Not to worry - the scenery was pretty and there still a dusting of snow around.  Our first proper stop was at the rope bridge of Carrick-a-Rede, which was a bit of a walk from the parking lot.  Graciela by now had developed a sore throat & was not keen on an exposed walk, so I headed off by myself into the bracing wind along the top of the cliffs.  There's been a bridge over to the little island for over three hundred years, mostly for fisherman to get across to collect large salmon catches - but that has dwindled now & it is mostly tourists trip-trapping over the plummet to the sea below.

All I could think of was the Bridge of Death and the Gorge of Eternal Peril (Oh, whacko) and making sure I got the five questions, three questions, correct.  Convincing myself that my favourite colour is indeed still green and reassured by the bridge-keeper from the National Trust not looking a bit like the Old Man from Scene 24, I made it across safely.  There wasn't too much to see on the island itself, but the view along the cliffs was nice & I could easily look over to the Mull of Kintyre (where I was with Mum & Dad but four and a half years ago).  The weather closed in again & started liquid-sunshining (raining) on me as I walked briskly back - it was a really pleasant hour out of the coach along beautiful coast.

Just down the road was the UNESCO World Heritage site of Giant's Causeway, which I was keen to see as on the trip with Mum & Dad mentioned above we went to Staffa (not far away, but over off the coast of Scotland) and saw similar basalt columns.  It managed to stop raining for the walk down to the sea & we had a good hour or so mucking around on the large, wet, slippery regular paving stones - the tessellation results from the cooling of the basalt after a volcanic eruption.

Did I mention it was a little windy?

Some of the steps suddenly dropped off a few metres - probably good not to get blown over there.

Other people to take photos of me - hoorah!

The wind may have got up a bit more.
It was a quiet & quicker drive back to Belfast - it's always surprisingly tiring work sitting on & getting in & out of a coach all day.  We stocked up on breakfast supplies (potato bread is a thing of Irish genius - I bought extra to bring some back home) before warming up & heading out for a night on the town.  Belfast was extremely busy for a mid-winter Saturday, it took us quite some time to find a table to eat at in the Cathedral Quarter.  After which I was reminded how tedious I usually find nightclubs - on the upside, the pint of Guinness was better than the one from the night before.  Oh yeah, by now Graciela had all but completely lost her voice so while that was amusing on a superficial level it did somewhat kill the joviality of the night.

Sunday morning was a bit lazier, but I managed to get everyone out the door before noon - so I counted that as a win for not wasting too much of the day!  We pottered around City Hall (no Union flag flying, odd that) as nothing much opens in Northern Ireland before one o'clock on a Sunday.  The others were intent on shopping, I was more interested in eating - so I went & found a nice lunch by myself before we all headed out to the recent (last year) TitanicBelfast museum.

It's a striking building.

And there's a feature wall of steel slab, which of course made me happy.
The museum is very well done & worth the entry fee.  There's a good split between how Titanic was built (shipbuilding is a large part of Belfast's very proud industrial heritage), what the ship itself was like and, of course (the bit that was in the back of one's mind throughout the rest of the exhibit), the disastrous sinking and loss of life.  There was also plenty about Southampton, another proud maritime city, so I really must go and check out some of the local museums when I've got spare time at home.

Not sure how I've managed to write so much about a relatively quiet weekend (I definitely did a lot less walking & saw less than if I'd been by myself), but it was a good one & I'm glad it all worked out in the end.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Devon Weekend - Sidmouth Ride

With the Combe Raiders (Taunton based) travelling down to the Devon coast, it was an easy opportunity to head west and meet for a Saturday mountain-bike ride. Preferring not to drive two hours each way for a half-day ride, I made a weekend of it by finding a B&B a little further around the coast (south of Exeter).

One of the advantages (perhaps the only one) of starting work an hour earlier than strictly required is that it is easy to get Friday afternoons off. However, the unfortunate thing about travelling west to Devon & Cornwall is that there are no motorways. So I set off in plenty of time to tackle the A-roads; in the end the traffic was good and the trip only took the expected two and a half hours.

The find was another winner as I received a warm welcome in Starcross and was fed exceptionally well the whole weekend. With hosts that like to travel and cycle-tour (particularly in the States) there was plenty to talk about - Jim is planning an A-Z cycle tour of the States starting in Seattle and heading to Florida making sure he visits particular small towns in alphabetical order (X was a bit of a problem to find). The lovable dog and no-eyed cat (it still jumped up on to the back of the sofa etc.) also deserve mention.

It seemed to rain all Friday night, which didn't bode well for the planned ride. As it turned out there were seven of us riding from John's parents' place in Sidmouth. With a group that size I decided I would be able singlespeed and not get left too far behind. We had a great ride, with temperatures in the mid-high single digits and a lot of water everywhere. It rained a fair bit on us, we got spectacularly sleeted on at one exposed stage and there were three reasonable-length mechanical stops (one of which was mine). But that was all part of the fun as there were some good climbs that were a challenge for all - especially me & 32:16 - and had everyone, gears or not, walking.

The flip-side of challenging climbs is proper descents - & with everything being very slippery, they certainly kept us on our toes. There were a few spills, but none too serious. The sun almost came out too at one stage - but that was about a mile away.  John (leading the ride, & riding yet another bike - I can't keep up - this one a fully rigid 29er SS) was keen to head up one last hill to make a Figure-8 and add a few more miles to the paltry fifteen; that was vetoed in favour of cleaning up & heading down to the seaside for fish and chips.  That was a good decision - it was very tasty and much needed by all.

Devon countryside

Almost sun

Mechanical #2 - broken chain

The only real stream crossing & yet another shiny blue bike for John

I was pretty worn out, so Sunday was very leisurely with a big sleep-in, another (unexpected) full English and a relaxed drive back home via the coast in gorgeous sunshine (we got the days wrong for the ride). I stopped in and saw (Mum's) cousin Pamela in Poole - the first time since I got my arm out of sling last year. I chose a good day as a roast was just coming out of the oven as I arrived - awesome - and great to catch up too (since I missed all the family news at Christmas just gone).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Egyptian Museum & Khan el Khalili

I don't think I slept quite as well on the train overnight as the previous journey, but it was a much calmer drive back from Giza Station to our last hotel - Friday morning is the start of the weekend in Egypt so the traffic was quieter.  Although, we were told that there are many more road accidents in the weekend's reduced traffic as Egyptians aren't used to driving at speed - so they do the same crazy things going five or ten times faster than normal & wreck.

With the mandatory carols still playing in the hotel lobby, we once again got an early check-in & settled into our rooms.  All the hotels we stayed in during the tour were of a high standard, but this one was another step-up - with a pool the like of which I have not seen in a hotel before.

Late morning it was back on the road again for the short drive into the centre of Cairo, for the first time, to head to the Egyptian Museum.  Once again we had to leave our cameras in the bus or check them in - so all I have is a few sneaky phone photos.  The Egyptians don't appear to be overly proud of their flag as it was almost a week in before I found one to snap a picture of - this is on the front of the museum.  The building looks rather European - designed by an Italian apparently.

Being right on Tahrir Square, it wasn't too far away from all the revolutionary activities two years ago.  This is no more obvious than by looking next door at the burnt out shell of a building of a Ministry of the former regime.

To no-one's surprise, inside the building is packed with just a small part of the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities.  Construction of an astoundingly large new museum has begun just down the road from where we were staying in Giza.  The footprint and piles of sand point to this being a massive undertaking - Lafarge will be pleased to have that concrete contract.  Only nine-hundred-odd days to go until completion - or so the big sign outside told us every time we drove past.

Far & away the highlight of the museum was seeing that recovered from Tutankhamun's tomb - which I'd been in the morning before.  Considering the size of the tomb, it's staggering that so many things fitted in there.  It took Carter twice as long to empty & catalogue the tomb as it did for him to find it (five versus ten years).  The golden shrines (outer coffins) are there and they get progressively smaller from very large boxes (at least two metres tall & even longer) a smaller box - still big enough to hold a sarcophagus.  I think Russian Dolls have much greater value as a childhood amusement than having one's own set of Egyptian coffins to play with.

Now that I'm at the point of describing the room that held the most valuable and spectacular of Tutankhamun's possessions for afterlife, I'm running out of superlatives.  So much gold, so many jewels.  The most famous, and most spectacular, piece is of course the Gold Mask - eleven kilograms of gold and so intricately detailed; it really was worthy of a lot of staring and inspection.

It was good fun wandering around the rest of the museum as it really is quite old and has the old, dusty museum feel to it that makes one feel like the clock has been wound back or you've been dumped into a film.

Through the building traffic we set off for a bit of a shopping afternoon.  First off a perfume factory, where I wasn't in any way tempted to spend the last of my Egyptian pounds.  Our journey took us past the huge Citadel (originally built by Saladin to keep out marauding crusaders) and the quarries where the stone for the pyramids was excavated.  Our destination was Khan el Khalili, a market in the Islamic part of the city dating from the late fourteenth century.  With plenty of warnings of how persuasive the shopkeepers are and knowing not to be lured away from the main streets, we set forth with our undercover bodyguard/Tourist Police Officer.  It was great fun looking in (from the narrow alleyways) all these shops as the salesman tried everything approaching physical contact to entice you to buy their particular piece of Chinese-made tat.  Unfortunately there wasn't enough exotic foodstuffs to hold my interest for long, so I just wandered feeling generally bemused at the banter of the shopkeepers until I found the meeting point.  The rice-pudding at the cafe where we met was worth the effort - it was scrumptious.
Thought I'd throw in some minarets.
We had our final dinner together as a group that night & said a lot of goodbyes.  Six of our group departed for a few more days beside the Red Sea in Dahab, while the remaining four of us slept through their early morning departure.  With postcards hurriedly sent and the last little while spent by the pool, it was off to the airport.

So that was my Christmas week in Egypt - absolutely fantastic, a fair dose of third-world craziness, a mind-boggling amount of history and, nicely, much drier & warmer than the UK in December.  If anyone has the inclination to head over that way, I recommend it - we had no safety issues and the country could really do with more tourists to get back to where they used to be.  I'm glad I took my first tour, as I'm sure having to deal with transport in Cairo would not be too much fun independently.  I can also whole-heartedly recommend on the go tours and, in particular our guide Hesham, as well organised, professional and very knowledgeable.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Luxor and Valley of the Kings

By dawn, the landscape had changed dramatically to sugar plantations - one of the main industries in these parts.
Off the sleeper train a little later than scheduled at around eight o'clock it was a much more pleasant and quicker drive through downtown Luxor to our hotel. Most of the hotels are on the east bank of the Nile, as was ours, and we were able to check in early. That provided much needed shower & napping facilities.  The rest of the day was free-time that was spent by the pool, looking out over the Nile, reading and walking around parts of Luxor.  With tourism so lean, the vendors were their usual pushy selves but easy enough to get past - so long as you didn't utter so much as a syllable to them.

It wasn't much of a walk to get to open fields and donkeys from the hustle of the main hotel district.
The optional trip that night, that everyone went on, was to view Luxor Temple all lit up.  We spent a good hour wandering around and the yellow light really did well for the temple and its sandstone - it was quite a sight.  As always, the history behind the columns, statues, colossus, multiple sphinxes (there were so many, they formed an avenue - in the past stretching all the way to Karnak), carvings and other artwork was transfixing.

Four of the group opted for the super-early wake-up call to go ballooning over the Valley of the Kings.  The rest of us only had to get up at six to breakfast and then cross over the Nile again to drive through the sugar plantations (with their own narrow gauge railway spreading throughout) to meet the ballooners.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly visiting Valley of the Kings.  A barren valley on the west bank of the Nile (burial sites were in the west as that was where sun god Ra went to sleep each day), I could easily see why dig season is only winter - the summer heat and lack of shade must be something horrendous with all that rock around.  The kings started having their tombs hidden in this valley after the pyramids were obviously too easy a target for grave robbers.  So far, sixty-three tombs have been found and three of the ones I went in stretched well into & under the hillside - staggering to think of the effort that went in with only hammer & chisel (the same goes for almost all of the sites we saw).  Out of the elements, a lot of the funerary and mythology works are well preserved and easily hold one's attention as the tunnels stretch steeply further and further down to the tomb.  Unfortunately, no photos in here.

Back to the logic of probably never coming back, I paid the extra to see Tutankhanum's tomb - only discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter.  As the king died so young (in his late teens), his tomb is very small compared to many of the others - but plenty of possessions to take with him to the afterlife still managed to fit in there.  The sarcophagus and mummified remains are still there, but most of the rest is in the Egyptian Museum.

The many colonnades of Queen Hatshepsut's temple got more and more impressive as we walked closer to it (it's not far from the Valley of the Kings) - still plenty of statues to see there too.

Back in Luxor, the last temple of the day (east bank) was Karnak - which is a huge complex, where you enter under the watchful eyes of these rather curious ram-headed sphinxes.

The most impressive part of the complex, I thought, was the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re of over five thousand square metres with one hundred and thirty-four massive sandstone pillars - mostly elaborately carved.  Most are ten metres tall, while some are twenty-one metres tall with a diameter of over three metres.  The underside of the caps of the pillars still have some of the original colour on them, so that was interesting to see and try to extrapolate and think what the whole complex would have looked like when it was recently completed.

The huge single-piece obelisks are also worth beholding.

It was back on the sleeper train for the night back to Cairo and a far more hectic pace - although arriving on Friday, it would be the weekend and a little quieter.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


With the overnight flight and the immediately-after day trip to Alexandria to recover from, most of Christmas Eve was spent doing so with a lot of sleeping, eating and reading.  The evening trip to the Pyramids was another add-on, but with the logic of "I'm not likely to be here again in a hurry" it was a bit of a no-brainer to hand over a few more Egyptian pounds.

Six of us went along and I got my first taste of Cairo traffic - more on that later. The result was that we missed the first, English, sound & light show that night and after a short tea stop we went to the Italian version of the show - luckily we had the English version on small radios.  This was the closest I had been yet to the Pyramids & Sphinx and the various lighting made them a spectacular sight - not that they aren't usually, but there's something different about it being dark all around.  The audio of the show went some way to describe the story behind these huge structures and some of their features which was good, but not nearly as wonderful as sitting marvelling at the age and immensity of the achievement.  Decent photos were difficult with a phone and a point & shoot - mostly because by the time one realised that the particular lights and colours were good for a shot, they had changed.

It wasn't too early a start to Christmas Day - especially compared to those no doubt sharing houses with excitable early-rising children.  Meeting after breakfast, it was our first time together as the whole tour group.  With this being my first multi-day tour, I prefer to travel independently but wasn't really keen on that for Egypt in its current situation (hindsight supports that decision), I was well pleased to see that there were only ten of us on the tour - a nice small group.  Hesham, our guide for the week, took us through some of the points about being tourists in Egypt and what would be happening on the tour before we loaded on the bus (one of the many small ones we would use for the week).  Riding along with and shadowing us for the day was our guest from the Ministry of Tourism - an unobtrusive guard keeping a sub-machine gun well hidden beneath his jacket.

With the traffic markedly better than the previous night it wasn't long before we were in the parking lot and feeling pleased with our fortune at travelling to Egypt at this particular time.  With all the upheaval in the last two years, tourism is well down in the country (Cairo hotels are only running at six percent occupancy!) and the industry is hurting.  But this was our gain as there were very few people, comparatively, at all the sights we went to; no where was this more noticeable than at the Pyramids which were going on for deserted.  The downside of this is that the vendors selling tat (souvenirs) really have to work hard to make a sale - some found this a little overwhelming, but dark glasses with eyes front, hands in pockets, not uttering a word or giving an opening worked well for me.

I digress, I was thrilled to see the only remaining wonder of the ancient world (they really don't look like they are going anywhere in a hurry) and get up to close to the many large limestone blocks that had been hauled and positioned four and a half millennia ago.  We had plenty of time to wander around and take photos and avoid the vendors in the sunshine.  Although a lot warmer and drier than the UK, it wasn't ever too hot - as you can see by the icebreaker sleeves in the photos below.

Beside the Great Pyramid/Pyramid of Cheops, mandatory wearing of Christmas presents. Thanks Adele - & yes, that is a sheep driving a Massey Ferguson tractor.

Looking towards the second pyramid, Pyramid of Khafre, which still has some of the smooth outer layer at the peak.
Most of us went down a very steep staircase and then up another to get to the centre of the Pyramid of Khafre.  Despite the mildness outside, all that limestone really holds the heat - it was really hot in there.

Panoramic photostop

Much time spent holding, pushing, lifting pyramids.  Guide Hesham & Radley; unfortunately none of the efforts on my camera really worked out.

Camel riding - that was a bit of fun for three quid.  All the handlers/herders/whatever were good fun & took plenty of photos.

A brief visit to the Sphinx and funerary temple beside it.

We headed south to see some pyramids earlier in the evolutionary chain, this one a step pyramid and another bent pyramid.
Back at the hotel in Giza after a most excellent day looking at many pyramids, big and small, there was enough time for a shower each before heading to the Giza train station for the overnight sleeper train five hundred odd kilometres south to Luxor.  I was initially due to go on the, separate, seater train overnight but decided a bit of extra money was worth it for something resembling sleep and extra security.  It was just as well we left in plenty of time for the station as the twenty kilometre (12 mile) trip took us close to an hour and a half in what has to be some of the worst traffic everywhere.  Strangely, fuel is heavily subsidised bringing the cost down to about twelve US cents per litre (!) - this just adds to the traffic woes as an over-abundance of vehicles compete for position on worn out, unmarked and unsigned roads.  This chaos does lead to some great sights though - best of the trip being the passenger standing on the front bumper/fender of a large lorry/truck cleaning the windscreen as the vehicle drove on; absolutely nuts.  After an hour or so the traffic thinned, about the time we drove past the massive crack running down the length of part of the elevated highway.

We all managed to make it to our cabins and settled in for some food and a bit of sleep. 
Train food is not all that different to plane food.

The only part of the train that made me feel like I might be in an Agatha Christie novel