Travel

Ryokō

This is the tale of late planes, mild panic and punctuality. 

This particular adventure started, as per our usual MO, with a cheeky G&T whilst waiting for the bus from the hotel we were using for parking, not so far from Heathrow. We were due to fly from London to Beijing​, where we would pick up a connection 1 hour later (pay attention to this number, it will be important soon) to Tokyo, where we would start our tour of Japan before flying back to Beijing for a few days and then flying back home again.
We arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time and minced about for a while until our flight was ready to board. Unfortunately there was a delay of 30 minutes, which would cut into our already tight transfer window in Beijing. We crossed our fingers that the pilot would get a tailwind and make up some time. 

We flew with Air China and despite the many horror story reviews that I’d read, it was OK. Sure, the plane was old, a bit frayed around the edges and a lot of stuff didn’t work but the service was fine. The wind blew favourably for us and we made up our delay. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, Beijing were having runway issues and we did a couple of loops as we waited to get a landing slot. I was starting to get twitchy about catching our onward flight so I asked one of the flight attendants if we could get disembarked quickly to give us a chance. He looked at my boarding pass for the flight to Tokyo and told me, quite bluntly, that we wouldn’t make it.

Bugger.

So in an effort to help, he moved Mrs A and I up to business class for the last 1/2 hour of the flight. I spent my time fannying about with the electric reclining seats, Mrs A spent her time worrying. Eventually wheels hit tarmac and we began what felt like the longest taxi across the vast expanse of Beijing’s runways. Time continued to tick and tock.

The doors opened and we set off at a dead run to try and beat the odds of making our connection. Through several sets of very officious security, one confiscated bottle of duty free gin and numerous colourful uses of language later we hit our check in desk, sweating, out of breath, and far from the relaxed travellers we aim to be. 

The cheerful man behind the desk told us the flight was delayed by at least an hour.

After getting our shit together again, we boarded the final leg to Haneda, arriving uneventfully in the early hours. A bit more fannying around in airports and in the early hours we finally arrived in our Tokyo hotel and crashed.

We only had a day in Tokyo so we crammed in as much as we could. We saw temples, Royal palaces, a local Samurai reenactment society practicing in a car park, shopping districts and a very serene shrine on the rooftop terrace of a department store before evening fell.

And then, for me, Tokyo came​ alive. The already impressive cityscape of the Ginza district (location of the rooftop shrine) just stepped up several notches as the sun went down. Neon was everywhere, taxis lit up and the famous Tokyo car scene started to make an appearance, with automotive exotica tooling around the streets.

We hit the metro and headed out to the Tokyo Tower (pretty much a carbon copy of the Eiffel Tower) and were rewarded with the most stunning nighttime views I have ever scene over a city. High-rise blocks and towers as far as the eye could see. It felt like stepping on to the set of a movie.

The following day we headed out of the city to see Fuji-san. We stopped off at lake Aashi and took the Hakone Ropeway to get the best view of Fuji. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and had incredible views of the mountain, clouds just clipping the snow-capped summit. After a detour to stand on Fuji for a few minutes we headed off to an overnight stop at a Japanese country club. We had a traditional meal and I had a traditional Japanese bath (Mrs A wasn’t for getting nekkid in the company of strangers, I have no such qualms). The hotel was traditionally (and hilariously) ’70s in decor.

Next morning we headed to Kyoto. A totally different feeling to Tokyo, much more serene and low-rise. We saw a ferocious amount of temples, palaces and gardens. I’m not usually arsed in the slightest about a garden (the National Trust doesn’t get bothered by my presence very often) but the attention to detail of Japanese gardens really was breathtaking. Highlights included the ‘nightingale floors’ of the Samurai’s palace and, from a comedy point of view, the elderly British lady’s complaint that the Ryoan-ji rock garden was a lot smaller than expected until another (better informed) traveller pointed out that she was looking at a model and the real garden was outside.

But the absolute highlight of Kyoto for me was the Silver Pavilion, with its Zen sand structures and beautiful layout, followed by a walk along The Philosopher’s Path (the route that the original owner of the silver pavilion used to take to get to the university). It ran alongside a stream, the last of the cherry blossom was on the trees and we had the path almost to ourselves apart from the occasional local, a few tourists, and a young Japanese couple (she in geisha outfit, he in traditional dress too). It was aces.

After a good night’s sleep in a very nice hotel we headed for the airport, next stop Beijing.

NDC

Saphar episode 3 – Agra to Jaipur to Delhi

Another day, another early start.

We loaded our kit back into the cases and hit the road again, this time east towards Jaipur. We stopped off at Fatehpur Sikri on the way, a town built to be the capital at incredible expense and then abandoned a few years later for reasons pretty much unknown. It was an incredible place, made all the better by the approach – the huge gateway arch soaring over us as we ascended the steps was very intimidating and once inside the walls it was all the things we’d come to expect – serene, beautiful and incredibly detailed. We spent a couple of hours happily wandering about getting told more tales by our guide in his idiosyncratic style.

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Saphar

The latest trip for Mrs A and I has been India. I’m there now actually, hurtling along a Rajasthani motorway in the monsoon. It’s really not for the faint of heart as in addition to the torrential downpours there are cows, dogs, tuk-tuks, cyclists and disinterested pedestrians to contend with, all of whom seem to view the basic principles of dual carriageways as advisory at best.

Did I mention this was a motorway?

Anyway, we’re on our way back to Delhi to catch our flight tomorrow to Dubai, but India has been glorious. We’ve been here for 6 days and as well as visiting Delhi, we’ve been to Agra and Jaipur too. It’s been far too interesting for one post only, so there’ll be a few. You have been warned.
NDC

North

The Lake District smiles on me. I love North Wales and the mountain ranges of Snowdonia, but almost without exception when I’m there the Goretex will be on my back before I’ve trudged out of the car park.

The lakes are different. I know they’re officially one of the wettest places in the UK but in recent times the sun has always shone on me, so I feel like the place actually doesn’t mind me being there, like it isn’t giving me a great big cumulonimbus-shaped “sod off” every time I haul my pack onto my back.

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Safar

Over the last few months Mrs A and I have been travelling quite a bit – our most recent trips have tended to be Eastern European, quite cold and a bit more culturally familiar* than we’d expected/I’d hoped, so in order to address these things we thought we’d head to Marrakesh for a couple of days and stay in a riad in the Medina. Unfortunately the weather was unusually cold (Nourredine, the host at the riad told us it had actually snowed the week before), but if I’m honest that bothered me not one jot as Marrakesh delivered in spades on every other front.

The drive from the airport lasted around 15 minutes but probably took 5 years off my life. I’m not a nervous passenger by any stretch of the imagination, I was 17 at the time that 17 year olds got ready access to ‘hot hatches’, so I’ve had my share of lairy rides in cars. I’ve even covered several hundred mi!es on the roads in Sri Lanka without breaking too much of a sweat.

This was different.

Once inside the city walls our taxi (a minivan) was joined by other taxis, cars, donkeys, mopeds, cyclists, buses, petrol pumps on trolleys and pedestrians, all making their way at the same time in myriad directions through streets wide enough to accommodate any two of the above items at the same time. I know that both of the cars I was a passenger in during our stay had steering wheels on the right hand side, but I couldn’t say for certain which side of the road people were supposed to drive on, such was the chaos. At one point I saw a chap in the road on one of the busiest interchanges selling bread from a cart as traffic hurtled past in all directions.

So after the chaos of the drive in and the chaos of walking through the Derbs we arrived at the riad, Dar Nour El Houda. To say it was an oasis of calm in the mayhem is no understatement. we met Noureddine and Asia for the first time and, drinking mint tea on the roof terrace, we were treated to the best in hospitality I have ever experienced. Noureddine explained the finer points of making your way through the Medina, some particularly useful phrases (specifically Salam Alaikum and, almost as importantly, La shukraan) and then insisted on guiding us for the first time to the main square, Jemaa Al Fna for the first time. He provided us with maps and advice and humour throughout our stay and Asia (the cook) supplied fantastic breakfasts and was always hugely cheerful. absolutely nothing was too much trouble. If you are ever thinking of going to Marrakesh I can’t recommend this place highly enough (click here for a link to their website)

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The Medina was a maze and the main square was every bit as bonkers as you would expect. A UNESCO heritage site, there were guys with monkeys in sunglasses and snake charmers and people selling teeth in both false and real varieties. The noise was a total assault on the ears with the sounds of snake charmers pipes competing with the shouts of hawkers, music for dancers and occasional cars, mopeds and horses. As the sun went down the chaos was cranked up a notch with the addition of dancers in business suits, dancers in traditional belly dancer outfits complete with veils that clearly weren’t ladies, free for all boxing rings and ‘dentists’ – identified by a cleaner than usual sheet on the ground, a pair of pliers and a slightly alarming glint in their eye.

We ate that evening at one of the stalls on the edge of the square, all of which have a number. Ours had a particularly catchy strapline that tempted us in:

“Eat at 25 – still alive.”

Over the next few days we were blown away by Marrakesh. It’s a city with so many facets in such a compact area and is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. You truly can be surrounded by absolute chaos and be transported to absolute calm and serenity within a dozen steps. We initially wandered through the souks and Medina, but soon learnt that meandering is not an option. Even a moment’s hesitation at any one of the myriad forks in an alley will mean you spend the next 5 minutes trying to shake off a “helpful” local, wanting to take you somewhere that you have no intention of going. It’s quite fun the first couple of times but gets a little wearing after that. Walking with purpose, even if you have no idea where you are, is the best option. Haggling with the stallholders was not for the faint hearted but incredibly fun.

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As well as the mayhem of the Medina we went to see the Bahia Palace, the Badii palace, Le Jardin Majorelle and even got out to the Atlas mountains for a short wander up to a waterfall across the ricketiest bridges this side of an Indiana Jones movie (and Harrison Ford had the benefit of only having to cross them with the use of green-screen effects…). But by far the star of the show was the Ben Youssef Madrasa. It was breathtaking and peaceful and awe inspiring. Set right in the middle of the maze of alleys, you could have been swept straight past in the flow of people, animals and mopeds, such was the modesty of the entance. Once through the doors a calm descended and it was impossible not to be knocked out by the sheer beauty in detail of the place. We wandered for hours and took around a million photos. It was beautiful.

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The food was generally ace, mostly tagines or couscous which suited me plenty fine thank you. I did manage to get myself a culinary adventure in the shape of a chicken pastis at one restaurant. Think half chicken pie/half apple strudel and you’ll be about right. I also had a cup of something I thought was tea from a wandering vendor in the gardens behind a mosque. It wasn’t tea. If it’s bad, don’t tell me.

And all too soon it was time to come home again.

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So would I recommend Marrakesh to you? Absolutely a million times yes, as long as you are you comfortable with using the phrase La, Shukraan/Non, merci/No, thank you without breaking your stride/looking up from your mint tea around a dozen times an hour and aren’t looking for a lazing in the sun kind of a break. It is a city that changes character within metres, going from calm to chaos, from terrible smell to beautifully perfumed, from perfectly modern to a century ago within a few paces. We loved it and will be back for sure.

NDC

* – Wow, that was quite a pretentious wanker type of phrase, wasn’t it?

Into The Blue Again

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This is my current view.

Yes, Mrs A and I are off again on one of our jaunts. This time there are no winter coats, no thermal underwear and no hiking boots*. This time the destination is not Europe.

This time we are heading to Morocco. My first time in Africa (although Mrs A had been to Tunisia in a previous life) and I am looking forward to the chaos of Marrakesh, and seeing the Atlas mountains.

But for now, I shall content myself with the bright-yellow-plastic-and-emergency-procedures view, listen to a spot more Ezra Furman (recommended), hope that the hen party occupying the row in front of us don’t get much more rowdy (they’re currently discussing the most effective method for descaling washing machines) and wait for touchdown.

NDC

* – there are hiking sandals. See Atlas mountains. I apologise to both fashion and dignity.

Ich aß eine Berliner*

This last adventure was a belter. A couple of firsts were ticked off – the first time in Berlin for either Mrs A or I (I’d travelled pretty extensively one Germany when on the payroll of The Man, but never this far east) and also our first time using AirBnB.

Let me tell you, I can thoroughly recommend both of these things.

Triggered by the recent tale of the student who found it cheaper to travel home from sheffield to Essex via Berlin on planes than to buy a train ticket direct, we ferreted out a couple of cheap flights (£20 each thankyou very much) and then set about finding accommodation. We came up with this:

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Mrs A wondered where the line was between minimalist modernist chic and crack den. I think the artwork pushes it over the line.

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It was on the 14th floor of the highest residential block in the city. Located in Mitte, it was reserved for the party faithful in the days of the DDR and had spectacular views

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We headed out to the Brandenburg Gate to pick up a walking tour of the city’s cultural and historical high points, which was led by an ex history teacher from London. It sometimes felt like we were tagging along with an A level history class, but he knew his stuff and we learnt a lot of interesting stuff outside of the obvious nazi/communist backdrop to the city. The Jewish memorial was moving, the site of Hitler’s bunker bizarre and the remains of the Berlin wall very resonant. We even got to see the balcony that Michael Jackson dangled his baby from. My favourite part was standing in the Gendarmenmarkt, whilst our tour guide explained the background to the square and its architects’ philosophy of equality and openness that made the effects of the nazi regime even more astonishing. We finished our tour in Bebelplatz, where the book burnings took place.

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After hiking around the city for so long we were starving, so we headed off to find food. We ate in a small independent burger joint called Revolver. The decor was industrial, the food was ace, the music was gangsta and the average age dropped by around 20 years when we left.

Exhausted, we grabbed a couple of drinks from a local corner shop and headed back to the apartment to plan the next day’s hike. We pre booked to see the roof terrace of the Reichstag building and collapsed into bed.

The following day we ate a leisurely breakfast in our room before receiving an email at around 10am telling us our visit was confirmed for 10:15. The Reichstag was around a 25 minute walk away, so we bolted down what was left of our leisurely breakfast and made our way across town at a pace that Mo Farrah would have complained about. We got there at around 20 past ten and threw ourselves on the mercy of a very nice chap on the door who found our names on the list and said “OK, we can get you in now, just go through and show your passports to the officers in security”.

Passports? You mean the passports in my bag? Which is in our apartment? 20 minutes (very fast) walk away? Bugger.

He kept calm and told us quite reasonably that unfortunately we wouldn’t be allowed in without valid ID. He then pointed out the booking office over the road where we could book another slot later in the day. We beetled over and booked a slot for half an hour later.

“Can I see your passports to confirm the booking please?” Asked the lady in cheerful tones. Bugger. Again.

After going and picking up the bloody passports we finally got a slot booked for the evening.

So the rest of the day was spent covering around 15 miles on foot around Berlin. We saw more of the Jewish memorial (this part underground), the topography of terror (detailing the rise and fall of the Nazis), the museum of the German resistance (housed in the very building where Von Stauffenberg organised the plot to blow up Hitler), and the Tranenplast (the museum based on the site of the major entrance and exit from East Berlin for civilians during the cold war). We walked through the beautiful Tiergarten park past the carillon and we saw the very moving monument to the Roma & Sinti. We even tried to visit the museum based in the old Stasi building, but someone had moved it and not told us. Typical bloody Stasi.

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After all that we ate a (frankly crap) meal before heading back across the city (with passports in hand) to catch our slot at the Reichstag. To say it was worth the aggravation is an understatement. It was beautiful. Even though we couldn’t get access to the dome, as it was being maintained, the views of the city and the building itself were stunning. After that we headed back to the Brandenburg Gate to see it at night before walking back to the apartment for the final time.

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We finally collapsed into bed again before our early morning flight back to dear old blighty the following day.

Berlin is an incredible city. Fascinating, vibrant and full of so much history and interest. Our two days barely scratched the surface, so without a doubt we will be back soon.

* – yes, I did eat a Berliner. The doughnut, not a citizen. It wasn’t that nice but sometimes you have to be a tourist, right?

North & Deep South

So after the adventure of Riga, a jaunt across the town to take The Boy Wonder swimming and a single night in our own bed (oh, the joy of sleeping in a temperature of less than a kazillion degrees!), we were straight back in the car and driving North to Glasgow for a catch up with the in laws.

Time is recalling its dues on them.

Whilst we were there we stayed in a couple of hotels, one new and one old friend. The new one was a real find, called Goglasgow urban hotel. It was ferreted out by Mrs A for its location and turned out to be a refurbishment of an old hotel that was a bit down at heel. The staff were really nice, the décor was brilliant with an overall industrial/shipyard theme (really appropriate to its location) and the place had just the right kind of bonkers going on, with one of the dancing Tunnocks teacakes outfits from the commonwealth games opening ceremony on the wall in reception. If you don’t remember this quintessentially mental piece of history, here it is:

They even had teacakes on the coffee tray in the room (sadly only normal sized).

Best of all, we found out chatting to the guy on reception that the the hotel is owned by a small Scottish company and they donate a healthy percentage of their profits back into micro-local causes and charities. If you’re there I would recommend them entirely. Here’s a link to their site:

http://www.crerarhotels.com/goglasgow-urban-hotel

After a day visiting with the in laws and taking Eldest son and his girlfriend out for dinner we headed back for our last night in Glasgow at One Devonshire Gardens. We absolutely love this place for its memories and for the fact that it is such a beautiful place. If I had the money I’d just move in (and turn down the heating…..)

The following day we drove back down south, ate our tea and then headed straight back out to Stamford (possibly the only sleepier town than ours in a 50 mile radius) to see Rich Hall. It was the funniest hour and a half of standup I’ve seen in a long time and is definitely one of my favourite gigs. He was sharp and funny and had both Mrs A and I in stitches for the whole show (even the songs were funny). If you get chance to see him, go. And take his advice on online gambling.