Sofia

We did a city trip to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Things we learned:

  • Stamp your bus tickets. We took a but into town from the airport and didn't (know to) stamp our tickets. A stop later a bus conductor came in and charged us an 80 lev fine for not stamping them. Some websites describe this as a scam, but it technically isn't. Those are the rules of the country and the transport service which you should abide by. Counterpoint to that is that the driver knew we had just bought the tickets from him so were not reusing them on multiple trips, and the conductor knew we came straight from the airport and clearly didn't speak the language or knew anything about the country. If it were any other country the people would be reasonable enough to just let us stamp the tickets and let us off, but nope. Our first impression of Bulgaria was that people want to fine you.
  • Don't take pictures in museums. Your standard ticket does not include taking pictures. No one will tell you this until after you've taken a picture so that they can charge you extra money and you have no way to back out since you've already taken a photo.
  • Not personally experienced by us, but after the two experiences above we researched some more potential fines/scams, and apparently taxi scams are quite common too. I'm not surprised. The taxis looked extremely dodgy. Pickpockets are reported to be quite common too, although we had no issue with that.
  • Our hotel, one of the better ones on booking.com, somehow was unable to regulate room temperature to be below 28 degrees C, even though it was 10 degrees outside. Complaining about it didn't help.
  • Not many tourists on the streets. Or people. 
  • Graffiti everywhere. Broken potholes everywhere.
  • Hot spring steam coming up from the ground!
  • Beautiful mountains in the background.
  • The food was pretty good. Amazing desserts. Excellent fish. Lots of pork.

What a 'fine' country.

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged ,

Kata Tjuta

img_1713ps

 

img_1756ps

Uluru was beautiful, but Kata Tjuta truly amazed me.

Posted in Photography , Travel | Tagged ,

Indonesia

Here's some photos of my recent Indonesia trip. We didn't spend a lot of time in Jakarta but it was enough to make an impression. Indonesia's got a long way to go, but somehow it's... exciting. In a good way :)

Posted in Photography , Travel | Tagged

Vivid

1918255_10100468539237635_8462021291021912349_n

We were swimming through a massive current, really feeling it tugging at our regulators, heading towards a solitary rock sticking out from the ocean floor. I didn't really get why we were heading there until we arrived. Grabbing onto the rock carefully to give myself a moment of rest after swimming against the current, I finally looked up and saw this. A group of Eagle Rays gliding gracefully on the current that was giving us so much trouble. What an amazing sight. We stayed there for a while, taking photos and admiring the view, but soon had to go up since our air was running out. It's a moment I won't soon forget. A very powerful memory.

 

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged ,

Dartmoor

20150523174109PSMAN

I've been to Dartmoor quite a few times since I came to the UK. Because of that it feels like the 'standard' or 'annual' destination for me in this country. This spring was the second time we went there to wild camp, and it was definitely a memorable experience.

This time our trip would take us to Fur Tor, apparently one of the most remote places in Dartmoor, far, far away from civilization. Or, about 15 miles, as it would turn out. We never did get that far, though. Because as beautiful as Dartmoor is, once you're in the no-mans-land, it does get incredibly monotonous. And why bother walking 10 miles more if the scenery's not going to change?

Well, that was part of the reason we didn't make it to Fur Tor. The other part is that we simply ran out of time. Given that we needed to set up the tent and prepare for dinner before dark we decided to change direction about half of the way in. Progress was slow on our way to Fur Tor because the land was very boggy. Not enough to pose a danger, but enough to get your feet wet after a misstep, and certainly enough to make you want to pay attention to every single step you take. Not a relaxed walk for sure.

20150523131726PS

While the walk would have been tolerable, setting up the tent on bog land certainly wouldn't, and neither would it be good if we could not find a stream to camp nearby (although not a disaster since we had brought plenty of water. Sadly the stream that we were supposed to cross on the way to Fur Tor turned out to be not there, and with the OS map reporting nothing but bog land on the path ahead we decided to change direction. I say 'path', but there really isn't any. You can walk wherever you like, in any direction. No paths. No humans. No nothing. We went East instead in search of another stream and less bog.

Luckily we found a usable stream and some bits of land that were not boggy. Unfortunately none of the bits were entirely flat, so we ended up having to set up our tent on a slope. Setting up the tent only took a few minutes and we had a lovely evening meal and watched the sun set. During the night I left a bit of tent flap open so I could look at the stars. It was an amazing sight.

I kept waking up during the night and sliding down my sleeping mat, which was rather slippery on the angle the tent was set up on, but it could not be helped. I remember waking up a few times in the morning, seeing some light of dawn seep through the tent flap, but the sun never quite seemed to come out, so I went back to sleep again. Until finally I got up and stuck my head out, and realized that we would not be seeing the sun at all that day.

20150525180159

The mist was so intense and so humid that the tent was full of moisture droplets, and just walking outside for a few minutes would cause lots of tiny droplets to appear on your clothes on the side that the wind was coming from. We ended up having to pack everything up while it was still wet, and went on our way back to civilization, via a different route than the one we came in on. Although visibility was utterly poor we had plenty of maps, compasses and GPS devices to guide our return. The way back took us past a military practice area where a bunch of old rifle shells were littered on the ground. At least the soil was less boggy than the route of the day before, and we managed to make good progress on the way back. Our plans to have an elaborate lunch under a beautiful blue sky were put on hold though, because it did not clear up at all in Dartmoor that day.

There's something intensely satisfying about not seeing any other people for a whole day, and also from not having to follow any paths, because there weren't any. It's probably the closest to true, age-old nature that I've ever been. It's a really good experience, and I will do it again.

20150524111346

Posted in Travel , UK | Tagged

Traveling memories

It's odd how the act of traveling can make you remember things so much more vividly. Just sitting in the plane to Japan I remembered vividly my last cycling trip, and the many before it. My memories seem to more strongly associated with places than with people. Maybe that's because the people end up migrating elsewhere? Or maybe it's because people change more rapidly over time than places do? With places I focus on similarities compared to the past, whereas with people I can't help but notice their differences.

Next year it will have been 10 years since I first went to Japan and changed my life forever. It's when I made the most severe mental change in my whole life so far. There have been many small, incremental improvements to 'the concept of me' over time, but Japan was definitely a version 2.0. Hopefully there weren't too many regressions.. I need a testing framework for my personality..

I'm currently sitting in the domestic terminal of Narita, waiting for a flight to Naha. It's been a long time since I've been there, yet it feels like going back to somewhere familiar and safe. It's not quite like feeling at home, yet close to it. It's more like a feeling of unguardedness and a ridiculously high (over)confidence that nothing bad can happen, or at least that I'm prepared for all bad things that might happen. Just like every other time I went to Japan in the last 7 years, that feeling starts right after I board the plane at Heathrow or Amsterdam. It's not an end-goal kind of feeling -the feeling alone is not enough to satisfy the mind- but it provides a foundation from which to start doing more extreme things. The only other place I've ever been to that felt the same was the Seychelles.

No goal for this blogpost, except perhaps to collect a few loose thoughts before the year ends. I'm still learning how to act my age; my mental age seems to age less fast than my physical age. But I feel that I'm catching up. And the more I catch up, the more clear my future life decisions become. 2014 was a fantastic year. 2015 will be even better. There are still countless achievements in life left to be unlocked.

Posted in Thoughts , Travel

The moment after which nothing can go wrong

There's many choices you have to make when you're traveling; many things that could go wrong because of your decision or choice. But there is one exact moment after which nothing you do, arrange or decide affects your travel, and that's after you've passed through the security check at the airport. That's when nothing can go wrong any more. I just passed through 10 minutes ago.

The decision that worried me the most was how to get to the airport. One option would be to cycle to the airport and bag the bike on the spot. If all goes well, that's by far the easiest and cheapest option. But also the most risky. You could have a puncture on the way, you might not know if your bike will fit in the bag, or how to bag up all your panniers. Also, since you're packing your stuff in the unsafe area of the airport you risk getting robbed. The actual risk of this depends on which airport you're flying from, of course.

The alternative is to pack everything at home, which means you now have to choose if you're going to use public transport or a taxi to get to the airport. Public transport was really not an option for me, as it would involve two transfers, and the London underground is way too tiny to comfortable transport a bagged bicycle plus a massive bag full of luggage. And, as it turns out, today there was a tube strike, so it wouldn't have worked anyway. The last argument against public transport for my particular case was that I would have to walk 10+ minutes to the station. That's just something you can't do if you're carrying a bagged bicycle and 20kg of luggage.

So, a taxi it is then. These are crazy expensive! At least in London they are. I found various offers online varying between 45 and 75GBP to get to Heathrow from where I live. You'll have to pick whichever one seems reasonably value-for-money (I couldn't possibly use the word 'cheap') and also trustworthy. As for the latter criteria, none of the taxi companies seem to qualify, so a little chancing and faithing is involved there. If you choose this option, your immediate next worry will be if the taxi will actually show up in time and if you can arrange an alternative in time should that happen. Once your driver does show up your final taxi worries will be the traffic and if the driver will try to scam you at the end. In my case the driver turned out to be a nice guy who arrived much too early, which was good since the tube strike caused massive traffic and it took a good half hour longer to get to the airport.

Arriving at the airport, almost nothing can go wrong. Almost. What if British Airways really did only allow me one check-in bag, even though the website said I could have two? (Yes, I worry a lot..) Then comes the horrible moment of weighing the luggage. If you've prepared properly you already know how heavy it is, but you might be pushing the limits a little in which case you might have to repack. In my experience airlines tend to be insanely strict about the weight limit, but will often let you take part of your luggage as an additional carry-on item. Once you've done that (and asked for the appropriate 'fragile' and 'do not stack' stickers) it's off to the oversized baggage drop-off. There's never a problem here, though if you're unlucky your baggage handler may seem like a person who enjoys inflicting pain on luggage. Don't worry about that though, since there's nothing you can do about it (except complain afterwards if they break something).

Lastly, the security checkpoint. This is when you usually remember about that water bottle, massive tube of toothpaste and giant swiss army knife that you forgot to put into your check-in bag. Oh well. Once you've cleared this minor hurdle you're done! No more decisions you make will affect the quality of your journey from now on. All you have to do is sit down, relax and enjoy the ride.


(/me practicing blogposting again! I'm a little rusty..)

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2 , Travel

Thailand

IMG_7996PS

As you may have surmised from the post a couple of days ago called 'Thailand', I went to Thailand! And it was amazing. Having lived in Japan I can't help but be reminded of that when visiting Thailand. There's lots of Japanese stores and restaurants there, and it's clear that Thai people see Japan-ness as a symbol of quality. Bangkok is quite amazing, a proper big capital. Lots of convenience stores everywhere, decent public transport, yet everything's more affordable than in London or Tokyo. Pretty damn good, I only wish it wasn't so hot..

After Bangkok our journey took us by bus and ferry to the island of Koh Tao. We had read lots of bad reviews about Lomprayah, the transport company that took us there, but it turned out to be quite alright, in so far as any night bus journey can be described as 'quite alright'. It was certainly a hell of a lot better than the night bus we took in Cuba, which repeatedly had engine malfunctions in the middle of the night.

Koh Tao is beautiful. Compared to Koh Samui it's quite small and has much more of an island-y vibe. I can't honestly say that I saw much of the island, as most of our time was spent in a beach/diving resort, which was far away from town. Like Bangkok it was insanely hot during the day, but in the evening the fresh sea breeze made it very pleasant to be outside and have a drink.

I even did scuba diving! (after some serious prodding from my girlfriend..). The first dive was a bit worrying, as I had no experience in using the breathing gear and did not feel confident at all going into the depths right from the get-go. Yet somehow I did not die and went for another dive. It took until the third and fourth dive for me to really see the fun in it, and I can see myself doing scuba again. The initial feeling of constriction/containment of the dive suit disappeared and was replaced by a great sense of freedom, being able to move freely in all 3 dimensions. A whole new world open for exploration. Pretty awesome.

Then, all too soon, it was over and we had to return to daily life. It took a ferry, a bus ride, a flight, an overnight airport stay in Bangkok, two more flights and three train rides to get home, and at the end of it all we were exhausted. The question "how much money would you pay to avoid this kind of exhaustion" always fascinates me, but I'll save that for another time.

Thailand is amazing. Everyone should visit.

Posted in Travel | Tagged

Thailand

Posted in Photography , Travel

Getting older in Wales

Disclaimer: I've only visited a very tiny area of Wales, just Brecon Beacons national park and the area directly south of there. Based on that, I believe Wales is weird. There appears to be civilization, yet without personality, just dead-end towns that are either chavtown copies of areas around London or dead-end former coal towns where somehow everyone stayed behind yet the 21st century did not quite start yet.

Nature, on the other hand, is beautiful. The landscape is brilliant and some of the roads are excellent to drive. Not all of them though. There's so much space in the UK, yet somehow all the B-roads are shitty narrow paths only fit for one car at a time, so you have to worry at every corner about making an emergency stop. Quite a stressful driving experience. Fortunately there's some wider more open roads as well. And not much traffic.

I won't blame Wales for this, but I hurt my knee again. The last time was three years ago, but I've been worried ever since that it might happen again. I'd already climbed OoYama last year, which hurt my entire body with muscle ache but not my knee in particular, so I half hoped that I would be fine. It started out as a short hike that was advertised as being 'strenuous', which we made fun of as it wasn't that difficult. It wasn't that long either, but I pushed a little too hard and am not used to climbing any more, so ended up hurting my knee in the exact same way as before. Since the hike was short it's nothing too serious, but I did notice the day after that I couldn't really walk down stairs or slopes without hurting. Hopefully it'll pass soon. It's definitely a reminder that I'm getting older and I should respect my body's limits. Ugh.

Posted in Travel , UK