Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

Two Pretty-Good Days

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Sunday dawned (02/08), we tried to find a church and, when we did find one, although Russian speaking, we were turned away. I suppose we didn’t meet the customary dress code and also didn’t speak enough of the language to talk our way into the service. We strolled the city, walked through a few marketplaces where Matt looked for a t-shirt with odd sayings on it, and explored the Western part of the new old city which we hadn’t seen there. It was on a road in that section that we found CafeMax, a real Internet Cafe with free wifi for its customers! The chai was a bit more expensive, but we sat down and hunkered down for the long haul, we had a lot to do having not had internet for any length of time since Riga, a week before.

We updated the blog, got closer to caught up passing the computer between Matt and I, and got caught up with correspondences. Then, at 1500 Matt went to meet up with James and I finished up another post. We spent the rest of the day swapping stories with James. From being present at the recent riots in China which made international news, to driving a motor scooter across India, James had plenty to tell. We talked late into the evening over cups of chai and made our way back North to toward the train station. James was staying in the station hotel and so we were headed in the same direction. We stopped for some shish-kabaps served straight from the grill at the side of the road and hit the hay a bit after 2300 that evening, after being informed that we needed to checkout by 11 the next morning. No problem.

Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed South again, hunted for some cheap electronics and, finding none, hung out in the nice park on the other side of the river where we watched both a wedding and construction project try to take place simultaneously right next to each other. We cooked up some food and headed north, spending the rest of the rather drizzly and overcast day in a nice little restaurant with 80KT chai called Samovar. That evening, we stopped by CafeMax again for an hour or two and then headed back to the train station.

It was late by the time we got back, after midnight, and we were expecting to be able to rent the room for 12 hours, as had been the custom, the lady at the desk, however, had apparently not been having a very nice day and had decided to surprise us by imposing a rule of 0900 checkout, regardless of check-in time, on repeat customers who had been planning on giving them a glowing review. We had no idea why and tried to explain our position, asking if she could give us a discount then, asking if we had somehow offended them or accidentally broken something in our room. Nothing, just a stolid insistence that there was nothing she could do. We finally got to our room after 0100 and an unpleasant discussion.

The next day (04/08) we awoke unhappily and were out of our room by 0900 as requested… It was drizzling outside and looked as though it might rain at any moment. We didn’t really want to be out there and had already seen most of what Astana had to offer, so we hung out in the train-station’s waiting room and enjoyed free wifi which we had not noticed before. The only problem came when Matt tried to plug in the computer and found that the station administration ladies were adamantly against anyone using their electricity. It seemed like it would be another situation like the night before where, for no reason at all, paying customers would be denied what they wished, for no good reason. That’s when I decided to stop being pushed around, grabbed my train ticket—dated for later that day—and approached the lady who had just unceremoniously and with no regard for our pleading questions, yanked our power cord out of an otherwise unused plug.

I approached with a bit of trepidation and politely explained my position. She had no idea what I was saying, but was apparently impressed by my politeness and took me to a phone where she got her friend who spoke English to translate for us. I was informed that the plugs in the waiting area were for “technical use only” but that Irena, the lady, would find a place for me to work. She did! A nice couch in a little, out-of-the-way waiting room apparently reserved for polite people with tickets. Matt and I switched off using the internet for a while and, when I wasn’t working online trying to trouble-shoot a website issue that had developed, I had a nice discussion with Alexey, a man who explained his job by informing me that he answered the radio and kicked drunks out of the station.

We talked for a few hours about politics, international relations, work, money, our families, and life in Kazakhstan. He knew no English, but with my phrasebook and my limited Russian we had a good conversation. That evening, Matt and I went and hung out in a little cafe in the train station and watched a volleyball match between Spain and Russia before boarding our train for the longish drive to Omsk.

Finding Astana

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we stepped off the train onto the platform at the Astana, Kazakhstan Train station on that chilly Thursday (30/07) we quickly realized two things. First, we had almost no idea how to speak Russian and I had only a very rudimentary ability to read Russian and, second, we had no guide book to help us find anything in Astana. We left the train station, loaded to the hilt like pack-mules, walked in a highly confused circle around the square not recognizing a word on the signs, and returned the the station feeling as though we had failed our first foray into the sleepless city.

We decided the thing to do was turn to the all-powerful Internets. There was a little internet shoppe in the train station near the waiting area and, after grabbing some Kazakh Tenge (€1≈400KT) from the cash exchange shoppe around the corner, Matt and I split an hour of internet time. During that time, I discovered that all of the hotels listed online had prices in the €30 a night category for a twin room. I did discover, however, that there was a resting-room hotel in the train station which had much more reasonable prices: in the €5 per person a night range (2000KT). I also discovered that there was no easy way to get out the National Park which was a hundred or two kilometers away without using a travel agency and, again, the prices listed online were astronomical.

Matt and I were a bit dejected. We had wanted to come to Kazakhstan so that we could see the beautiful scenery! Look at Astana from Google Maps and you’ll see just to the South-West of the city, a series of spectacular blue lakes… but… they seemed completely inaccessible. We were carrying hiking equipment and it didn’t look like we’d be able to use it. Man, things were not turning out as we had hoped. We bought an Astana map from a little kiosk in the train station, dug out our Russian phrasebook and sat down in the train station waiting area to decide on our course of action. Before we decided, however, I went to the Train Station information office, asked the location of the tourist office in phrasebook-Russian, was assisted to a booth outside by a kind lady who spoke no English, and was rather rudely informed at that place, that they could not offer me any information on hotels, guesthouses, or other accommodations.

We decided to spend the night in the cheapest place we knew, the Train-Station Hotel—despite the fact that the price didn’t include showers—, drop our bags there and wander around the city looking for a better place to stay. We also had another mission. Upon finally being allowed to enter Kazakhstan, we had read on the back of our entry/departure form we filled out that we had to register within 5 days of our arrival in Kazakhstan. We were convinced that it was too late to register that night, and we had no idea where to go to register. We were in a pickle.

That evening we spent a few hours wandering the city, familiarising ourselves with it. The city lies in the middle of a flat plain and consists of three informal divisions on a north-south axis. The first is the old, crummy city on the North side of the train-tracks. This area has existed for decades, since Astana had a different name and was the capital of nothing. It is filled with low-rent, three-to-four story apartment buildings, shacks, sheds, and markets. According to everyone we talked to, it was filled with seedy individuals, the “Russian Mafia,” and unsavory people of various sorts.

The second division of the city is between the train station and the river to the South. This consists of a lot of older, Soviet-era cement-block buildings. Several universities, a museum, a few dingy parks, and a number of palote apartment buildings. In this area, older restaurants, cafes, and a few “Beesnes Tsentrs” or shopping centers mingled with police headquarters, a military university, and a place called “Congress” which is apparently where the circus performs when it’s in town. I liked this area, because it was rather what I was expecting from Astana, and because there were several odd statues, like a naked boy standing on the back of a lion-sized wolf.

The third part of the city is South of the river and past a large park/amusement park area. It consists of gleaming new buildings, a “diplomatic quarter” slated to be completed by 2030 and house all the diplomats in the capital city, and dozens of buildings of stunning un-Soviet architecture. This entire region had been built up since 1991 when Astana became the capital of a free Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Architecture was the main feature of this picturesque part of town. The famous tower of Astana, now a national icon sits at the middle and is surrounded by buildings which spiral, curve, and angle skyward proclaiming the worth of this oil and land-rich nation and perhaps reflecting a bit of its space-faring past (the spaceport from which most of Russia’s cosmonauts and Soyuz vessels launched is inside of Kazakhstan and the nation makes some money renting the spaceport out to both commercial groups and nations).

We realised that the main adventure of this part of our trip would simply be learning how to survive and do the things we needed to do like register our visas, find a cheap place to stay, and see the city.

Norway and Early Mornings

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

We left Sunday evening (05/24) just around midnight and headed north along the coast. The sunlight glimmered in the sky until almost 0030 and by 0230 it was starting to get light. By the time we stopped at about 0330, it was almost full light. We slept at a nice little rest stop alongside the road and woke up the next morning sorted through all our stuff getting Dan S’s things packed and all the stuff the rest of us were sending back to our families and friends via his mail service.

We set off north again a few hours later and made it to Norway soon, passing the border with no problem and then began looking for the nearest train station so that we could get the schedule worked out for Dan’s train trip to Frankfurt connecting through Copenhagen. Pulling off the highway, Matt talked to the first group of people we saw. About 7 or 8 older men sitting around a round table enjoying a lunch and it just so happened that one of the men lived right near the train station and was leaving just then, so he offered to lead us there. We followed him into Halden and and found the station. Chalk up another friendly European.

After we worked out the details, we happened to notice a pretty neat castle/fort nearby called Fredriksten and went and explored it for free. It was huge, and pretty neat. Apparently the castle had been there for centuries protecting the town and port of Halden. We had lunch outside the fort and then kept pressing north. Just before we entered Oslo, we found a large sign with lots of writing on it that described a toll to be paid, but there were no toll booths! Apparently, after about 10 minutes of trying to figure out the sign we decided that there were 3 ways to pay: You could have a special transmitter with your billing information (which we didn’t have) or you could go to a special place and pay (which we didn’t want to do) or you could wait and they would mail the bill to you. So, we went for the last one. I expect to receive a bill from Oslo, but to tell you the truth I’m not sure what to do with it.

Anyway, we drove into the city without much traffic our trouble and parked near a gigantic stone wall. We had no idea what it was but after walking for several kilometers we eventually came to a small gate and walked inside. Apparently it was the fort built to protect the harbor of Oslo and is now a museum and park. After exploring it for a bit we went into the city center itself passing the harbor (well-protected by the fort) on the way along with significant amounts of electric car parking–complete with electric cars parked.

Oslo did not impress us much with its architecture or its sculptures–we decided that there must have been a period in Oslo’s history where no one wore clothes and that was when all the statues had been made–but it did impress us with its weather. Everyone was outside sunbathing and it was the warmest day we had experienced on our trip, despite being the farthest north we had been on our trip so far. Dan, David, and Matt went and saw the city cathedral and the palace which were nice, but we’ve become a bit jaded by palaces and cathedrals. Really kind of a disappointing thing, but in in Europe it seems that every city has a cathedral and every other city has a palace so it’s hard to not feel like you’ve seen them all once you’ve seen the first 100.

I saw the city hall which was nice and wandered the streets a bit enjoying the nice weather and checking out the cool Nordic sweaters, the cheapest of which cost the equivalent of $300. A short time later we met back at the car and, after snacking on some apples, headed back south. We got into Gothenburg–where we had enjoyed the internet and a wharf the day before–that evening and Dan and I went to purchase his train tickets.

The information center closed 5 minutes early and we were there 3 minutes before the time it was supposed to close, so we were sorely disappointed and on our own to try to buy his ticket from a little Swedish kiosk. We did succeed, however, the entire time being offered advice by Johan, a Swedish welder who had apparently enjoyed a few powerful beverages earlier in the evening. He offered us advice on everything from where to stay–”You can stay in my garage! It’s free!”–where we should be visiting–”You gotta stay down south, man. It’s ******* **** up here. You gotta go to Amsterdam. That place is ******* awesome”–and how we should be entertaining ourselves–Ladies and Drink. We turned him down on all of his information, but he didn’t really pose a threat and was quite a nice fellow. He smiled and waved rather tipsily as Dan and I (tickets in hand) left the station entreating him to be careful on his way home.

Meanwhile, Matt had gone to check out the local U21 football game where the locals beat the opponents soundly. After the game, the crowds flowed raucously out of the stadium carrying Matt with them in their joy. Dan, David, and I waited for Matt and eventually he arrived having enjoyed the experience greatly.

We went out of town that evening and slept in a forest near the airport; Dan and I in the car and David and Matt in the tent. The next morning at about 0430 Dan and I left for the train station and I successfully dropped him off about an hour later. He cut quite the striking figure in his lumberjack jacket, shaggy head, and with a large Viking sword slung across his back in a duct-tape scabbard. I returned to the campsite and a few hours later was woken to some delicious Scott’s porridge Matt and David had prepared.

Daniel Z

The Lowlands

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Between the two fields, we awoke Wednesday morning (19/5) had some Harvest Morn bars and packed up our stuff. David had slept outside the night before so his sleeping bag was a bit damp, but it was a bright morning and we soon had everything dried out. So, we started north toward Brussels.

The Belgian countryside is quite nice, but rather unremarkable. Rolling hills and fields, lots of agriculture, and small farming towns. Politically, the country is a bit divided, but not violently so. The conflict centers around Belgium’s relationship with their neighbors. With French and Walloon (a French dialect) spoken in the south and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) in the north, there is sometimes a pull by the French-speaking areas to tighten their relationship with France. A few years ago, a francophilic member of government accidentally sang the French national anthem instead of the Belgian national anthem in front of the press and caused an uproar.

Belgium is also the seat of government for the EU which has its quite impressive and modern headquarters in Brussels. We parked in Brussels near the center of town and visited the main market square, surrounded by beautiful, tall buildings, and visited Manneken Pis, a small, eternally urinating statue. We then sauntered through town past the national library, the palace and the surrounding park and arrived at EU headquarters. The headquarters complex is a feat of modern engineering. Not as ostentatious as, say, the Scottish Parliament building, but impressive nonetheless. In the first courtyard, the four surrounding buildings are connected by a raised, circular walkway. In that courtyard is the main entrance and also an information center. We explored the outside of the building then headed back to the center of town where we had seen a waffle shop.

Belgian waffles are an experience unlike any other. The mass-produced Eggo contrivances pale to cardboard in comparison with real, hand-made Belgian waffles drizzled with chocolate or strawberry or piled high with whipped-cream or fruit. One by one we went up to the little window and ordered our treats. Mine with chocolate; Matt’s with kiwi, strawberry, and banana slices; David’s with strawberries; and Dan had two: one powdered sugar and one chocolate. After his first, Dan exclaimed “I will never look at waffles the same” and promptly bought another.

Dan and I had recently read an “historical” article in our favorite satirical newspaper (The Onion) about how Belgians had halted World War II German advances by serving the attacking forces waffles until they could attack no more. We were certainly fully satiated by these delicious morsels, partly because our appetites have shrunk from not feeding ourselves as often or as much as we had at home, but also because Belgian waffles are rightfully famous.

Anyway, after our confection break we piled back into our mud-covered, semi-stunning Passat and headed toward Amsterdam by way of Antwerpen. We didn’t have a lot of time so we just stopped to send and receive some emails and Matt and I each ordered a half-pint of famous Belgian beer each. Matt did not enjoy the taste of his, but did appreciate the experience. I, however, had ordered one brewed by the Belgian Trappist Monks of Grimbergen since 1128 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

At that point David got an email inviting us to join the youth group at in Bad Pyrmont for hamburgers “American Style”. That event, however, was to take place on Thursday evening at 17:00 and we hadn’t planned on being in Bad Pyrmont until Wednesday so, we had to book it. We left that afternoon and got into Amsterdam early that evening.

Amsterdam is a city with the feel of a small town. We pulled in the day before a national holiday (although we didn’t know it at the time) and the streets at 22:30 were full of families on bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand along the canals, and groups of friends relaxing at outdoor cafés. There were a few street performers out, and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. We saw the Anne Frank house, the national museum, the Hotel America, and generally took in the feel of the town. We left late that night and went north along the Noord-Holland peninsula toward Friesland. We camped that evening at a parking spot just off the road.

The next day we spent the day driving through northern and eastern Netherlands seeing the dikes, windmills (most of which were modern wind generators, but there were a few old-style mixed in). We stopped at a small town called Oldeberkoop (founded in 1105), visited the local church (built in 1125), saw a county fair, and watched some handball games at a sports camp. Then, we were on our way again. We passed into Germany an hour or so later driving straight to Münster.

Münster is the city where, during the Anabaptist reformation, several Anabaptists set up a small kingdom, took biblical names and proclaimed themselves prophets. They then proceeded to rule with impunity from biblical laws killing people who rejected their claims and, when the city was besieged, led the men in a brutal fight. This led to a shortage of men and polygamy broke out. All in all a bad situation, and really not very good for Anabaptists or Christian witness. In the end, when the besieging army finally broke through, the bodies of the three leaders were hung in cages from the tower of the town church and the cages remain to this day. A rather gruesome history, but a nice city.

From Münster we went northwest toward Bad Pyrmont and, after being thrown off our route by construction twice, we eventually made it into town and, using a stray wifi signal eventually worked out where David’s friends lived and made it there at about 17:45, just 45 minutes late.

Daniel Z

Versailles to Belgium

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Versailles to Belgium
Tuesday morning (18/5) dawned clear and dry and we awoke in our little campsite between the field and the golf course outside of Pontoise, France. After a breakfast of delicious (if slightly browned) Scott’s porridge with honey, we packed up and hopped in the car. “To Versailles!” we cried and promptly got stuck in some mud. A few minutes later we were on our way, but our jet black Passat was not quite as stunning as it had been, nor as black.

Versailles Palace, just outside the town of Versailles (which is a suburb of Paris these days but used to be outside of the city). The palace was originally built during the reign of Louis XIV, who was called the “Sun King” and king during the apex of French continental power. Apparently, however, he was a rather warlike fellow who preferred fighting to friendship and ended up almost bankrupting the kingdom through constant warfare. His residence at Versailles was built around his father’s (Louis XIII) garden chateau, which he expanded greatly in the highly ornate classical style that was popular during his reign.

The most obvious example of the highly ornate style is the pair of gigantic, gold-painted gates which stand at the entrance to the inner courtyard of the palace. The palace sits facing a gigantic parade grounds (now filled with cars and busses full of German, Spanish, and British tourists and middle school students). Behind the palace are the expansive gardens, at least a square mile in size, which contain smaller houses for many of the kings courtiers, mistresses, and family members.

We parked in the parade grounds (which cost several euros and hour to park in) and ate a delicious lunch of baguette, salami-like sausage tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese sandwiches. Then we headed into the palace after purchasing our tickets (they cost around €13, quite expensive, and didn’t even include admission to the gardens although Matt managed to walk around them without paying admission) we went into the palace. I personally found the palace gaudy, but nonetheless impressive. The apartments of the royal family were filled with family portraits and artwork. Almost every inch of the walls were covered with tapestries, paintings, carvings or other ornamentation. Most impressive to me was the hall of mirrors, at one point a state reception hall with tall windows along one side and tall mirrors along the other. The effect produced fills the room with light.

Versailles was worth the visit—despite the price–for the history alone. It was occupied by several generations of French royalty including the infamous Louis XVI and his equally as infamous wife, Marie Antoinette. It was easy to see while walking the halls of their home why they were perceived as being out of touch with the common people. It’s hard to notice the plight of the commoners when your busy posing for a 10-foot-high portrait or choosing the newest gold-plated silverware for your collection. Today the palace is used by the democratic government of France as the reception hall for events of state, particularly when hosting important international events.

By the end of several hours and after seeing hundreds of portraits and thousands of square feet of decorated walls we were about ready to go. Dan and Matt—Matt because he was exploring the gardens, and Dan because he’s a history major—took a bit longer so David and I waited in the car writing blog posts and catching up in our journals (oddly enough when I opened my computer we had an internet connection right there in the middle of the Versailles parade grounds). After waiting a bit and just before the start of another hour of parking David and I took off to circle the block and save a few euros, and just as we were coming back around for our first pass we saw a bewildered looking Dan and Matt standing where we had been parked, so we picked them up and headed northeast. They forgave us for the annoyance of not knowing where the car was when we explained that we had saved them several euros.

We skirted Paris and headed north in the direction of Lille (where I once spent a few hours waiting for a train) and Belgium. We stopped only twice, once to fill up on water and use the toilet and, just before we were on our way, we were surprised when we spotted a small abyssinian guinea pig peeking it’s nose out of the bushes next to the parking lot! The other time we stopped was to get a picture with the sign welcoming us to Belgium. It was pretty difficult to find a place to camp in Belgium, it’s a nation with some beautiful countryside, but it’s also pretty heavily populated countryside. We did eventually, rather late in the evening, find a place to set up camp in the fallow land between two fields. As we drove off the farm track to camp, several rabbits scampered across the field, startling me a bit. Dan, Matt and I slept in the car and David slept on a tarp outside and, after a meal of some stew with canned ham, we nodded off.

Daniel Z

London: Accomplishments

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

I’ve been in London before for a few days with Rosedale Bible College’s Celtic Christianity & CS Lewis tour back in 2006. That was a rather quick trip to London, however, so I was glad to return. Cities aren’t my favorite places to hang out, but London isn’t bad as cities go. It has a river (the Thames), lots of history, and generally friendly people.

Two friendly people, Erlis and Gesine Miller are related to David and live in Walthamstowe, a residential area of the city, and they invited us to stay at their house. David had met them a few times, but hadn’t seem them in quite a while. We got an email from them the day before we were supposed to arrive giving us directions and the location of a hidden key and inviting us to make ourselves at home. So, we did.

After enjoying the Millers’ hospitality that evening, we got to bed a bit late after having a great conversation with both of them. They have each had so many experiences from working in the Middle East to camping in an Italian vineyard. They kept us entertained with amazing stories and interesting conversation through our entire stay.

The next day after a full, delicious breakfast with yogurt, muesli, toast, and all the fixings we took the tube downtown to get our applications for Kazakh visas sorted out—we’re planning on visiting Kazakhstan around the beginning of August. Since the consulate doesn’t accept visas on Wednesday so we just filled out all our paperwork and got everything in order. Then we went down to the river and ate lunch at Whitehall park just off the river. What happened then was the highlight of my London experience. We were walking past Westminster Palace (home of the Houses of Parlaiment) where we noticed people walking off the street into the palace. I have always had an interest in parliamentary procedure (a nerdy confession: once in a while while at home I watch The Ohio Channel by Ohio Public broadcasting which broadcasts sessions of Ohio’s congress). Anyway, all that to say that I was thrilled to discover that anyone—even foreigners—can observe parliament while it is in session. Which it was!

Dan and David weren’t thrilled about the idea but Matt was interested in getting some pictures from the inside of the palace, so we decided to see what we could see. Past the expected security check, the palace was exceedingly impressive. The welcome hall was the former hall of St. Steven’s Chapel (although pretty much everything was lost back in 1834 in a fire, still pretty old) and was surrounded by the newer parliamentary buildings.

Matt and I visited the house of Commons—decorated in green—where the elected ministers of parliament (MPs) were discussing the rather dry topic of possibly implementing price limit (defined quarterly or bi-yearly) on crude oil imports. After a bit of discussion, the matter was decided by division. The ministers file into two rooms at either corner of the hall where they are counted for the votes, one room being Nay and the other Aye. The oil proposal was rejected as was the next proposal: that gasoline tax rates be set lower for rural areas of the country.

Matt went off to explore the rest of the city, but I went on to the House of Lords—decorated all in red and with a huge golden throne and dais at one end where the queen sits when she attends (rarely). The Lords (some landed, some not) were discussing the possibility of financing an airport on the island of St. Helena, a remote island off the coast of Africa, where it takes 4 days on a boat to access the mainland. Unfortunately, I had to leave before the issue was decided so that I could get back and help make supper (delicious hamburgers). We spent the evening talking to Erlis and Gesine again about our experiences that day and their work.

Thursday I woke up around 7:15 and headed downtown to the Kazakh consulate to put in the applications for David, Matt, and my visas. I spent the morning waiting in line then, after succeeding in my task, headed to the river to meet up with the other guys for lunch (sandwiches) in Whitehall park again. After the sandwiches, Matt and I headed to the Apple store he had found earlier so that I could see about getting my computer fixed (I had been having some trouble with the MagSafe powerport, quite annoying). That took most of the afternoon, but they took it and told me they would fix it for free! Hooray!

I walked about town a bit after that then headed back to the Millers’ house where we enjoyed having a house and getting our clothes washed and things in order. That evening was another delectable meal with the Millers and we stayed up late into the evening talking. The next day, breakfast was again delicious and, fully satiated, we all set out together to walk the Golden Triangle (after picking up our Kazakh visas (Approved!) and visiting Hyde park, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Albert Memorial). Buckingham palace, the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square, and Westminster Abby were quite impressive and well worth seeing, but better described in pictures.

That afternoon I got some cables for my camera and went back to the Millers’ a bit early to make some calls back home and send some emails about our final insurance paperwork for the UK (It all worked out quite well and we were pleased to discover that if we were to pull a semi trailer behind our Passat it too would be covered by our insurance… I’m tempted to try).

The evening was spent out on the town seeing the lights of the city over the river. Westminster Palace, the Tower of London, and the Tower Bridge were well worth the time. We slept well that night and, after enjoying a hearty breakfast, fetching my computer, and devouring a great lunch, we left London on our way to Dover.

Daniel Z

Edinburgh, Jewel of the North

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Morning dawned cloudy after our unexpected nocturnal adventures (ie losing ourselves in the wonders of Edinburgh during construction season). It has been raining off and on for almost a week now and to tell the truth we’re all getting a bit tired of it. Another thing we’re getting a bit tired of is having Harvest Morn bars for breakfast each morning. Although these are delicious and highly nutritious, a full week of them begins grate on the senses. That’s why we decided to enjoy a full breakfast of free-range eggs, thick-cut toast, and real scottish bacon. It was spectacular. A breakfast which will stand out in legend for ages to come.

After fully enjoying the cooking and eating of our spectacular morning meal, we set off for a full day of exploration in the capital of the Scottish world, Edinburgh. A sprawling city built between several hills near the end of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh has become a mecca for anyone seeking the “Scottish Experience.” Lining the steeply downhill Golden Mile from the ancient and stately Edinburgh Castle to the impressive and glamorous Holyrood Palace is a plethora of shops and tourist traps. The Scottish Whiskey Experience, Thistle Do Nicely, and The Edinburgh Woolen Mill share the road with two magnificent cathedrals and dozens of 18th and 19th century buildings.

Throughout the entire city, history meshes with kitsch in an amalgam of historic beauty and garish modernity. The finest example of this dichotomy was seen near the bottom end of the Golden Mile where ancient Holyrood Palace shares an intersection with the new Scottish parliament building. Built within the past decade to house the Scottish Parliament–a body devolved from the UK Parliament in 1997–the parliament building on the outside is made of shaped steel, wood and glass in a way which calls to mind an image of a bamboo forest. In any modern city (eg Chicago, Columbus, even Belfast) it would have been quite an interesting and beautiful building, but as the seat of power for the leadership of the rugged, rocky and natural nation of Scotland and when contrasted with the ancient stone cathedrals, palaces and castles surrounding it, it ends up looking simply tacky. But enough about architecture and back to exploration.

I’m not sure exactly what David, Dan and Matt did during the afternoon, but I made my way out of town in the car with our clothes only about half of which had dried overnight and used one of the first dry days since our arrival in Scotland to hang our clothes out to finish drying. I drove about 20 minutes out of Edinburgh and pulled off the highway doing a bit of exploring until I found a driveway leading to the entryway of a field. There tied up a line from the car to a fencepost and strung our laundry up to dry. It took about 2 hours even in the bright sun and constant wind, but I managed to get some reading done–I’ve been reading Frank Herbert’s Dune after finishing Starship Titanic earlier in the trip–and took a nap. It was a very nice day and no one bothered me until just as I was taking the laundry down a fellow drove up and asked if I needed any help and when I said no he asked if I had been dumping trash there–apparently a problem in the area–I told him I had just been drying my laundry and he said “Right. No problem. Cheers!” and drove off. We’ve been quite amazed by the friendliness of pretty much every single person we’ve encountered here (except for one rather curt waitress in Galway).

After my leisurely afternoon, I rejoined the guys at our appointed meeting spot in Edinburgh (the Burger King with free WiFi). Soon we were on our way (after a dash to get back to the parking lot before our time expired and we got charged €4.50). We drove steadily northwest toward Loch Ness and the Lake District of Scotland–not to be confused with the Lake District of England–and one of my ancestral homelands.

We spent the night by a stream just a few miles outside of Inverness at the tip of Loch Ness and were not attacked by monsters of any sort.

Daniel Z