Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hellfire Pass

Since we have been in Asia we have been intending to travel to the Burma Death Railway. However, getting to Kanchanaburi from Vientiane requires some travelling time and it has never quite fitted our schedules. But I had time owing from extra work over year-end and we were able to plan a mid-week trip, avoiding weekend day-trippers.

The night before we took the train we went for a walk around the neighbourhood.  We came across 2 young boys who wanted to try out their English. They did the usual where are you from spiel. Then they asked Andrew. "How old are you?" To which he replied "how old do you think I am?" They looked at each other, conferred briefly in Thai and replied...."67". Andrew looked a bit surprised because um...he is 67...

We traveled both legs of the journey on the local train.  3rd class, windows down and wind in our hair.  While we said to people we were going to Kanchanburi, we actually didn't venture into the town itself, staying 20 minutes outside of town.

And we didn't really want to see the reconstructed bridge "over the river Kwai" Instead our destination was another 1.5 hours further north.  All the way to the end of the line, Nam Tok.

There, we eventually found the driver we had organised, and then we promptly told him we wanted to stop and have some lunch. There had been a multitude of ladies selling fruit, popcorn and meals prepared in banana leaf, but we had not felt hungry until we actually got off the train.  He took that in his stride, and soon we were sitting at the end of a long table at a place that catered for large tour groups.  The food was very good.

Then we jumped in the back of the Songtheaw and sped off toward the museum, about 15 minutes out of town.  Coming from Laos, constant fast speeds and good roads are a bit of a novelty.

The museum was opened in 1998 and was very well done. Back in the 80s a former POW returned to the area and found it totally covered with jungle regrowth.  He petitioned the Australian government and eventually it developed into the museum memorial that stands today.  There is a 2.5km walk along the path of the railway.  Most people appeared to be there as part of tour groups and as such they all walked only a short distance to the memorial and returned to their bus.  We, in the full heat of the day, walked the entire length of the available trail.  There is more, but it is currently inaccessible. While it follow as rail trail, there was plenty of up and down and my phone said we had climbed 20 flights of stairs.   The Australian Veterans Assn have a very good audio-guide, which has former prisoners talking about their experiences.  We walked for less than an hour, carrying water, wearing good shoes while hearing about prisoners working 18 hours a day, with 2 meals of boiled rice, disease, torture...and we had a lovely cool towelette & chilled water waiting for us in our pickup truck.  And we felt rather drained by the effort, poor us.

With the museum visit complete, it was off to our accommodation.  We had booked a room at the Oriental Kwai which had singularly good reviews. Having stayed there, we concur 100%. The location was tranquil, the villas spotless, the staff well trained and the food excellent.  We wished we had booked more time at the resort, with only 10 villas it was relaxed and unbelievably quiet.

Sitting by the river having lunch in the restaurant and Andrew asked me if i could hear the music, which I couldn't.  He continued to look slightly distracted for further 5 minutes until he moved his leg off his phone and I too could hear the Seekers singing at loud volume.  Of course in usual Andrew fashion, he is not quite sure how he managed to become a one-man disco.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Yerevan Nov 2017

Our final capital city in the Caucusus was Yerevan, Armenia.  It also had it’s own unique feel, not the same as the other two cities we had been in.  While the countryside had shown signs of economic challenge, the central city had been heavily renovated.  Apparently there are 11 million Armenians, but only 3 million actually live in Armenia, described as a modern diaspora.  There are large populations in both Russia and the USA and it is common for funds to be sent back to the country.  These remittances make up 17% of the country’s GDP.

Having travelled all day we looked forward to an early dinner at a nearby tavern.  Quite good food and plenty of lamb on the menu.  

We had a brief walk around streets before returning to our hotel.  Andrew purchased a couple of cans of beer which turned out to be a major disappointment as they were 0% alcohol.  Never mind 😊.  But the lady in the shop was most excited to learn we were from NZ, we obviously were a change from Russian tourists. 

One of the images we had seen before arriving in the city was the snow covered Mt Ararat appearing on the horizon.  I thought it must have photoshopped for adverting impact.  But no, the mountain looks to be just outside the city limits.  In fact it is about 80km away, and is in Turkey, not Armenia.  There are no active border posts between Armenia and Turkey, due in a large part to a long standing tensions over genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government.  This is denied by the Turks but is generally accepted to have happened, but no one acknowledges it.

When we were in the city the autumn mornings were not clear and our views of the mountain were not great.  We headed to the park at the top of the Cascades complex.  Very conveniently we could ride the escalators up, while looking at various pieces of sculpture.  The views were good, if limited by visibility.

One small museum that turned out to be a real highlight of the city was the MartirosSarian House Museum.  Established in his former house, there was an extensive collection befitting an artist who had painted for over 70 years.  And as such the change in his style over his lifetime was as interesting as the many paintings.  His studio had been maintained as an exhibit in the museum.  All the components of daily life and the art gave an interesting complete ‘picture’ of the life and works of an artist.

Across the road we indulged before and after the visit in two of our favourite vices coffee and wine and cheese.  Coffee sitting in the sun was a good way to watch the world go by.  

And for lunch we visited In Vino, a wine bar recommended for their wine selection and tastings.  So we enjoyed a plate of local cheese and took tasting recommendations from the lovely staff.  Andrew insisted on taking one of their business cards, because he was going to mention them in his blog.  He didn’t say his blog would be read by a handful of people, mainly located in distant New Zealand.  He hasn’t done something so pretentious since 2009 when he said the same to a small bistro in Paris. I note the website for that bistro is no longer active, probably due in part to Andrew's lack of internet reach?

We walked out to the renovated GUM market.  There were lots of well presented vegetable, stacked like pieces of art, but not a lot of people buying.  And we walked to the St Gregory Cathedral.  Along the way there were plenty of glimpses of Soviet style apartment buildings.

In the three countries the police had very different presences.  In Azerbaijan, it felt like every 10th passing car was a police car.  It felt very safe, but we didn’t see them doing much.  In Georgia they drove around a lot, and used their sirens constantly, and had bright beams on the top of the car.  In Yerevan there were plenty of police and they were actively chasing cars and pulling up drivers.  It was an interesting and obvious contrast between the 3 cities.

Another highlight destination was the natural history museum.  Once we worked out which direction we were REQUIRED to walk in, we saw a stunning collection.  From the oldest shoe in the world – 5,500 years old, through to iron work, roman artefacts, pots.  It was extensive and really enjoyable.  There was also a very good area on the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, it was exceptionally moving.  

Parking was rather inexpensive - an annual pass for the city centre 12,000 AMD about USD 24,

Our final meal was another highlight.  The restaurant Vinograd had constant 5 star reviews on Tripadvisor.  It was well worth the 15 minute walk from our hotel.  We were early and the only ones there, but we were treated beautifully, the wine was delicious, the food generous and tasty.  Andrew concluded his trip with a a 15 year old cognac.  It could not have been better!

The rebuilt city buildings were of pink floss stone.

We stayed at the IBIS Yerevan, which was an ideal location for us to walk everywhere.

Around the city there were plenty of drinking fountains.  We watched an older lady, who knew the trick to getting a good stream of water.  Hold you hand over one of the neighbouring spouts, and your spout will get stronger and easier to drink - local tip :-)