Saturday, March 20, 2010

Yesterday, I drove from Europe to North America *

I didn't think it was possible either - something about a large ocean in between, but then I behind the wheel of a car and well, just did it! All you've got to do is come to Iceland - the place sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, squarely on top of the continental divide:

In fact, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of about 2cm a year, which is gradually creating all these crevasses in the center of Iceland

All of this geological activity makes Iceland a fascinating place to see - it's a very young landmass (geologically speaking), and there are geysers, volcanoes, fjords, mountain peaks, glaciers, hot springs, vikings... Ok, the vikings haven't quite been around for the 65 million years that Iceland's been here. The place is the world leader in geothermal power though... which is a good thing as there aren't any other natural resources up here.

The Strokkur geyser gets ready to send up a plume of vapor. Next to it sits the geyser called just 'Geysir' - kind of like Xerox, it's the original geyser...

Snow-capped mountains ringing the fjord leading to the pretty little spec of a town, Seyðisfjörður (yes, there are some funny-looking characters in the Icelandic language)

They often say Iceland and Greenland are mis-named: Greenland is all covered in ice, while Iceland is quite green. That's not entirely true (as the previous picture might suggest), but there are giant fields of these green rocks in Iceland

As for my adventures in Iceland, I was a little sad to arrive here as it was to be the last stop on my current trip. Getting over myself, I went to wander around Reykjavik. That's the capital, with a population of about 200,000 (which is 2/3 of the entire country's population... Not particularly crowded here), and I've never been to a capital quite like it - the place has this easy and relaxed feel of a small town, punctuated by little stores and boutiques all over downtown selling things to tourists. A tall church steeple rises up in the center of town.

The Hallgrímskirkja church, the largest in Iceland. A statue (donated by the US) of Leif Ericson, who beat Columbus to America by about 500 years, sits out front

Reykjavik has apparently been growing fairly rapidly over the past 15-20 years, and considering the abundance of space in the country, this has led more to urban sprawl, than to skyscrapers - I don't think there's a building taller than 10 stories in this town...

After being in Iceland by myself for a day, I was joined the following day by Lynn - a friend from back in Seattle, who's currently working in Geneva. I still haven't managed to make it over to Switzerland, but she was excited to visit Iceland

Exploring Iceland

The Reykjavik airport is about an hour outside of town, and in between lies the Blue Lagoon, an over-sized hot spring and spa center. Try it some time for that unmatched baby bottom skin effect. Naturally, we decided it would be a perfect place to meet. And it was.

With both of us now here, we set off to explore Iceland in earnest (as in outside of Reykjavik), starting with the Golden Circle tour the following morning. You do make a loop on the tour taking in a number of attractions, including a geo-thermal plant, a volcanic crater, some geysers, a waterfall, and the national park sitting on top of the continental divide. Trivia time: where is Europe's largest National Park located? Iceland!

The Gulfoss, or Golden Falls. A big waterfall, with water coming down with significant force

This is not Europe's biggest national park, but in addition to the continental divide, it also contains the site of Iceland's first parliament - established in the 10th century!

The weather in Iceland in March, by the way, isn't exactly welcoming - it's cold, it's rainy, it's windy. At higher elevations it snowed a good bit. So, we were pretty lucky to get a nice dry day for the trip, with some occasional glimpses of sunshine even... On the way back we took a more circuitous (and picturesque) route through the mountains, which would have apparently been inaccessible due to snow just a week earlier. On a further bright side, we were far enough from December that there was plenty of daylight each day.

Upon getting back to Reykjavik, we decided that the most expedient way to see the country (all of the country) would be to rent a car and do a three day tour circumnavigating the island, so after finding a place that would rent us a car for half the price of what the agency that the hostel recommended, we were all set to go.

The Chevy was no mini, mind you, but crossing Iceland is also agreeably easier than driving across Eurasia!

Prior to departure, a side note about food: much like everything in Iceland, the food is really expensive - you can expect to pay about double what you'd pay back in the States (apparently it used to be triple before their economy had crashed...), however, the food is really, really good! The local cuisine specializes in lamb and seafood, including both very fresh fish, and crustaceans, like lobster, crab, etc. Unfortunately, seafood also includes whale meat... In the cities (Ok, there's only two of those - Reykjavik, and Akureyri up North, which, with a population of less than 20,000 people, is a city by default only), there's also a pretty good selection of international foods - Thai, Indian, Mexican, etc. There's no Starbucks, however, and McDonald's has apparently ceased operations a couple of years ago when the shipping costs became prohibitive. There are some American chains that are still persevering up here though, including Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Subway, and the one I was really excited about - Quizno's! So, after grabbing lunch at Quizno's, we headed out towards Europe (Reykjavik is on the Western side of the island, so it's on the North American plate). The first day, we were still seeing a few tourists, and an occasional tour bus, as we passed a landscape filled with mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and one big lagoon filled with icebergs breaking off from a retreating glacier, and a seal happily swimming around them all.

The Snæfellsjökull glacier - blue ice hiding behind the rocks

Mountains peaking through the fog behind the glacier

Bright yellow grass, contrasted with starkly black dunes

Lynn getting ready to document it all

We finished the day in the town of Höfn, which is a regional center, but has a population that is yet to reach 2,000. It's tiny. Late Sunday night, we found exactly one restaurant that was open... but the food was very good, as usual - lobster is a specialty in this part of Iceland.

The following day, we had a fairly long drive along the fjords on Iceland's eastern seaboard up to Akureyri. By now, this was definitely no man's land - the road was still pretty good (not as good as before though), but we could easily go 30 minutes without passing another car. We also kept stopping to take in the awe-inspiring scenery all around us:

A large rock sits perched on the waterfront along the Eastern shores. Lynn kept talking bravely about at least touching the water with a bare foot... never happened. I remained equally unwilling to experiment with the frigid waters!

The fjords carving up the landscape further up North, as the day starts to actually turn sunny!

We got to the town Seyðisfjörður for lunch, which the guide book described as the can't miss Bohemian town in Eastern Iceland. Well, on a nice clear winter day, it's got an amazing location nestled between the fjord and the mountains, but it's fairly empty and un-Bohemian until the summer tourists arrive

Setting sun lighting up the sky as we approach Akureyri towards the evening.

Akureyri, being so far North, is a perfect spot to see the Aurora Borealis, so that was very much our plan. There was exactly one other group renting a room at the guesthouse where we were staying - to my immense surprise, they turned out to be Russian, so we chatted for a bit. They were apparently from Russia's Northern port town of Murmansk, in Iceland on business to purchase a fishing vessel for their company... They also explained that if I wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, I really needed to come to Murmansk, in the dead of cold Russian winter. Well, or at least Alaska. We headed out of town right there in Akureyri, Iceland instead, found a relatively quiet spot a little ways north of town that seemed sufficiently well shielded from the city's lights, and sat there for an hour staring at the night sky... Unfortunately, the night sky was all that we saw. It wasn't a particularly clear night, and the Northern Lights are a natural, unpredictable occurrence and all that... still a little disappointed, guess I'll have to go Murmansk after all! Well, maybe start with Alaska...

The final day was highlighted by more brilliant fjords along the Northern coast, a 6+ km tunnel under a fjord on the outskirts of Reykjaik, and generally unwelcoming weather - rain in the planes and lots of snow in the passes.

Lynn did duly encourage me to drive relatively slowly though

By now, we were between the two major Icelandic cities of Akureyri and Reykjavik, which meant there were more people around and the facilities in the towns along the way weren't all closed until the summer, so we stopped for lunch at a little town on one of the fjords, and I found my meal of lobster bisque soup and scallops with caviar well worth the money. Like I said, the food was quite good in this country - this was probably my favorite meal.

The final day in Reykjavik gave me just enough time to return the rental car and drop by the National Museum. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to get to the airport one last time and complete the final leg of the trip - Reykjavik to Seattle direct aboard Icelandair... Time to start planning the next adventure, I suppose!

* It's true, I didn't actually do the cross-continental drive yesterday - I've now been back in Seattle for a couple of days and that drive was now almost a week ago, but "Five days ago, I drove from Europe to North America" just didn't have the same ring to it, and this post took a while to put together...

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Sean Connery, born in Edinburgh, Shcotland shpeaks funny. I went to Edinburgh, and it turns out that everyone up there shpeaks funny. But they are harder to understand than our favorite Bond hero...

An obligatory shot of Sean Connery, courtesy of wikipedia, looking funny.

But eventually, I moved on past the funny talk, helped in part by the fact that I was up here to visit Katy and Conor (stars of such previous adventures as South America and Antarctica about a year ago), and they have not so far picked up the Shcottish accent (and likely never will, as they are apparently moving to London soon):

They look reasonably serious and responsible after almost a full year wandering about South America - there's hope for me yet!

And then, of course, there's Edinburgh, Scottish capital, itself - it's a beautiful old city (much like everyone back in London had told me), and an immediate contrast to London, being almost intimately cozy, easy to get around, and filled with ancient buildings wherever you look - London, by contrast, is a bit schizophrenic with its constant mixture of old and new. There's also no Underground in Edinburgh... What there is in Edinburgh is a medieval architect's paradise:

Ok, maybe not actually medieval, but the buildings are either a few centuries old, or built to look like they are

The St. Giles Cathedral, in gathering dusk here, is from the Middle Ages - oldest parts of the building date back to the 12th century

My favorite site in the city though was the Sir Walter Scott Memorial - a towering and imposing Gothic structure in the middle of town

That's just me though (apparently) - certainly the most famous site in Edinburgh is the Edinburgh Castle, sitting resolutely above the city

Sunset over the Castle and the city

Snow-covered mountains encircle the city - also earning bonus points for the place!

This is the newly re-established Scottish Parliament (returning after a 300 year hiatus). It's clearly housed in a rather modern building - I don't know what to make of it, but I don't think it fits in with the surroundings!

Roaming around Edinburgh, I, at one point, ventured into the tourist information center. They had post cards, and here, I learned that a few miles North of Edinburgh lay another site to behold - the Forth Bridge. Completed in 1890, it is apparently often referred to as "the one internationally recognized Scottish landmark." Naturally, I had to go see, it's even lit up at night, so I recruited Katy and Conor to take a drive out there, see the bridge, and have a drink at a bar where Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island (the book) fame, apparently used to hang out some 130 years ago.

The bridge at night. I was intrigued

Intrigued enough in fact that I made my way back to South Queensferry the next afternoon to see the bridge during the day

To see and to photograph, of course

It is still an actively used railroad bridge - the train, presumably, does not hail from 1890.

And that, sadly, finished my two days in Scotland, so I hopped on an overnight bus to head back to London. The bus reminded me of bus journeys in Bolivia a bit (which is never a good thing!), but only a bit. To be fair, I had wanted to take the train, however...
bus ticket: £14.50
train ticket, advance purchase: £47.50
train ticket, same day, after the rail network website refused to accept my American credit card: £107.
Well, that made the decision in favor of the Megabus pretty easy, and no amount of Bolivia memories was going to make me regret that choice! And a few hours around London later, it was off to one last stop before coming back to Seattle: Iceland!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Did you know...

that it's a lot easier to find your way around a city in China and Taiwan (and certainly in obsessively user-friendly Japan) than it is in England? It's certainly true! England suffers from a few problems (not including the current frigid temperatures) - first of all, none of the streets are ever straight; they wind, they twist, the loop and circle - they are beautiful, scenic, picturesque, and ... difficult to keep a bearing on! And then, there's the street signs - places like chaotic Buenos Aires have very clear street signs (Shanghai's are the best actually - they are not just in English, but they also give you compass points - N/S, E/W, so you know which way to go). Here in England? Well, they do have some street signs. They are never lit up or anything, and are never in a consistent spot. And they seem to really be just reserved for the tiny small streets - the big ones have been here for seven hundred years - everyone knows where this one goes! Oh, tourists... Raaiiight...

So, British streets annoy me a little. No matter, I took a few scenic detours around the towns, and managed to find my friends here in England, and take in a few sights. No thanks to the tourist information offices either - I've seen a few so far, but none that were open as of yet. Union-mandated smoking break, I can only assume... At least the people are happy to help, and speak something that passes for English.

After a day of decompressing back in London, the first stop was Bristol, the home of the intrepid adventurists, as in the people who organize the Mongol Rally and the Rickshaw Run. I did manage to find their office (which wasn't honestly interesting enough to merit any photography...), then headed off to see a bit of the rest of the old town. And to their credit, the English towns (with their winding streets and all) are very pretty - surrounded by rolling green plains of the countryside, and with Gothic steeples of churches and cathedrals poking up all over the place:

The massive center building of the University of Bristol

The Bristol Cathedral in the evening

Bristol seems fairly proud of its Suspension Bridge. Definitely a prime location. Probably an engineering marvel of some sorts too

The following morning, it was time to head back to London, but instead of taking the direct train line there, I figured I'd make a small detour through Salisbury

Salisbury sits in the middle of the afore-mentioned tranquil English countryside

And in the middle of all this countryside sit the 5,000 year old stones that make up mysterious Stonehenge. We still haven't quite figured out why it's here, but it's a cool site to see. Met a tourist from Japan there - we both complained about how cold it is in England!

Back to London, and on to the Tower Bridge

They say it's the most famous bridge in the world - I say San Francisco's Golden Gate could give it a run for its money, but certainly top two!

Just outside of London is Canterbury, home of the Canterbury Cathedral, the home base of the Anglican Church.

The rest of the time here in London has been all about catching up with friends, since most people you meet traveling are apparently Brits. (I can't blame them - it's freezing here!). Lucy patiently explained to me that the Canterbury Cathedral isn't as nice as the cathedral in her home town of Lincolnshire. I felt she may have been exaggerating a bit, and proceeded to explain that I tried to convert the Canterbury arch-bishop to Buddhism...

Re-visiting the Mongol Rally adventures, I visited with Dom and Laurel, whom we had met in Mongolia, while they were driving around the world in a much-too-sensible Toyota Hilux, and Zoran, who made the mini functional enough to, at least, get her on the way towards Mongolia. He was pleased to hear my updates on the poor car's whereabouts.

Dom and Laurel are about (literally within the week) to have an addition to their family. The Hilux is now for sale...

Zoran, the master, is still his rather stern, yet happy self!

And one final takeaway about life in Britain is that the whole country is ... well, apparently in therapy. Or just neurotic, as Jamie puts it. Everything apologizes to me. And no, that's not a typo, I did mean everything, not everyone. When the Underground train gets stuck, a soothing lady comes on saying she's sorry, and we're waiting for a red signal. You are not sorry at all, you are just a recording that's pre-programmed to come on after three minutes to try and make me feel better! At that, by the way, you have failed! On the elevator, in my hostel in Bristol (a nice, if rather sterile and soul-less place):

- doors closing
- car traveling up
- floor three

<by my fourth time riding the lift>: You do realize, recording lady, I will have to strangle you if we ever meet!?

- doors opening

There was also this sign at Stonehenge, which made me burst out laughing (and take a picture), but somebody must have taken all this quite seriously at some point when the sign was conceived:

Well, I suppose, it could be a problem if the shoes you were wearing had nails in place of heels... with the sharp end of the nail pointing down!

Before, we get all smug and over-confident, I'm pretty sure the US is heading down the same over-therapized path, we are just not quite as far along as our Old World ancestors!

By the way, one more thing about London - the underground, the tube, whatever you want to call it. Easily my least favorite of any public transit systems around the world. Not only is there no semblance of trains running on a schedule of any sort, but the trains are constantly stuck in the tunnels, and seemingly half the system is closed for repairs every weekend. Fortunately, half the stations appear to be redundant, so you can still get places (slowly), it's just a bit more crowded.

The standard explanation is always, well, it's the oldest and largest system in the world - it's very difficult to maintain. Pity us! So, I decided to look up some numbers - wikipedia to the rescue:

It is the certainly the oldest system in the world:
#1. London, 1863
I couldn't find a comprehensive list for this (you are dropping the ball here, wikipedia!), but a few relevant ones that I did come across:
#2. Istanbul, 1871, even though that wasn't really a metro line, and bears no resemblance to today's lines
#3. Budapest, 1896 (#'s 2 and 3 were a bit of a surprise for me as well)
#4. Paris, 1900
#5. New York, 1904
Tokyo: 1927
Moscow: 1935

But is it the largest? No, not by any measure:
By Length of Rail:
#1. New York: 1056km
#2. Berlin: 483km
#3. London: 415km
#4. Moscow: 340km
#5. Tokyo: 281km
#6. Paris: 211km

By number of stops:
#1. New York: 468
#2. Paris: 368
#3. Berlin: 354
#4. London: 275
#5. Tokyo: 274

By number of passengers (annually):
#1. Tokyo: 3.174 Billion
#2. Moscow: 2.392 Billion (a decline of almost a billion from 1997?)
#3. Seoul: 2.047 Billion
#4. New York; 1.624 Billion
#5. Mexico City: 1.467 Billion
#6. Beijing: 1.457 Billion
#7. Paris: 1.388 Billion
#8. Hong Kong: 1.323 Billion
#9. Shanghai: 1.3 Billion
#10 (finally). London: 1.197

(passenger figures from, statistics from 2007-2009)

So, London is the oldest, but is neither the largest, nor the most heavily used. Nor is it open 24 hours a day, like New York's. And while it is the oldest, you can't exactly call New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Moscow brand new either. It may very well be the most expensive, and it has to be the least efficient, with long wait times, constant interruptions, and frequent line closures. By my count, I've used subway/light rail systems in about 40 cities around the world. London's probably better than Manila... well, during Manila's rush hour anyway! But, it's got some nice decorations in places:

A clock at the Waterloo Station. Not Moscow Metro nice decorations, mind you, but pretty good

Ok, ok, I'm picking on England a little bit (but it is kind of fun, considering she is a little neurotic), but overall, I'm having a very good time seeing friends here in the UK. The weather has even been un-London-like sunny (still freezing cold though), making for some nice photos. The Underground does still annoy me though. A few pictures from the afore-mentioned sunny days to serve as an addendum:

The Houses of Parliament over the river Thames

Big Ben sitting above Parliament, and the new addition, the London Eye (that's the big ferris wheel) behind it. I took a ride on the Eye - interesting, but I got better pictures from ground level

Dusk falls over the river...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A breath of fresh air

That's, in part, literal, of course - fresh air is hard to come by in Chinese cities. Tibet was nice enough, but Shanghai? Xi'an? Ugh... Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, on the other hand, is actually pleasant. It's still a big city, so it's not actually clean, but there's a lot of parks, a river, with a nice promenade, winds its way through the city, and the air is downright pleasant.

But it goes beyond literal - I was certainly growing tired of China, and I actually found Taiwan really enjoyable. It starts with the people - I'm sure I'm missing all sorts of social nuances and generalizing horribly, but the Chinese people just don't ever seem happy. It's ironic, of course, given their recent respective histories and current world economic standings, but I found the Burmese and the Tibetans to be unfailingly happier than the average Chinese citizen. And just in case you might think it's some sort of an ethnic characteristic, it isn't - the Taiwanese are pretty much the same Han Chinese, ethnically, as the people on the mainland, but, when you meet them, they are far happier, friendlier, willing to help (or wait!). Definitive memory of the people in China: a lady slips and falls to the ground as she's trying to get on a bus in Xi'an. Nobody even attempts to come and help. The woman directly behind her stares in obvious exasperation, then steps around and proceeds to get on the bus. The Taipei metro, on the other hand, has signs encouraging people to give up their seats to those less able, and people actually do it! Willingly and happily... And then, of course, there's the two respective governments... I don't think I have much new insight to add to the differences between them, just suffice to say that both sides are paying lip-service to theoretical unification (Taiwan isn't actually recognized as an independent nation still by most countries, including the US), but after just 50 years apart, the two nations lead such starkly different lifestyles that, to me anyway, any thought of reunification seems far fetched, at best. Well, it's not all that different than re-integrating Hong Kong and Macau into China, I suppose, so we can see how that goes over the next 50 years. I predict, not well. One thing to add about the differences in government and people is the capitalism - in China it is simply characterized by basic, unrestrained human greed - everyone's goal, including the government's, appears to be to extract every last penny from you that they can, rip you off if they can get away with it, institutionalize the ripoff if possible. Which is exactly the atmosphere that seems to contribute to the pervading anger, by the way... In my five days in Taiwan, I got to visit the Taroko Gorge, an incredibly popular (and beautiful) national park, and the Wulai hot-spring, just outside of Taipei, also quite popular. Total spent on admissions: 0. The same happening in China: inconceivable! That being said, Taiwan is certainly more expensive than China, but it feels a lot more worthwhile. (The unrestrained greed, by the way, is quite emblematic of most of these newly free market countries - China, Russia, Vietnam, so it may, admittedly, have a lot more to do with basic human nature than the Chinese government). There's plenty of foreigners in both places, of course - usually there to either teach English or study Chinese, and they tend to fit into the patterns too. The foreigners in Taiwan remained happy, while the longer you stay in China, the more it seems to turn you angry! And speaking of English, it's always an adventure out here - Chinese clearly doesn't translate well, but while it's just amusingly terrible in China (and the people seem too proud/stubborn to ask for help), it's usually relatively decent in Taipei, especially at any official/government places. I wonder if it's just a product of better education, perhaps due to more exposure to foreigners?, or simply a willingness to ask for help... The Taiwanese certainly seem to travel around the world a lot more, which has got to help...

Ok, so I liked being in Taiwan more than I liked being in China (even admitting that China does have some amazing sites to see), but enough with the ranting, time to move on to the actual time in Taiwan, including pictures, of course:

Taipei 101 is over 500 meters tall and absolutely towers over the rest of the city. It has just been surpassed by the very recently completed Burj Dubai as the tallest building in the world.

There are some green, forested hills not far from the tower, which offer some beautiful views of the 101 and the city. Paved, lighted walkways criss-cross the mountains

So, Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is a rather modern city, with the 5 year old Taipei 101 tower, a source of local pride, clearly serving as a sign of this modernity. While the skyline of places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai is dotted with various skyscrapers, Taipei 101 pretty much has the city all to itself. The other thing you quickly notice is that the entire city is ringed with green mountains. Taiwan, is basically just a big volcano rising from the bottom of the Pacific - it, in fact, is home to the tallest peak in Eastern Asia (Eastern Asia is kinda hard to define, so let's just say, not including the Himalayas).

The people of Taiwan also happen to be the religious sort, so there's a fair number of intricately decorated temples scattered around town. The Chinese themselves, by the way, seem to be re-discovering religion these days too, with some gentle encouragement from the government...

Taipei's Longshan Temple - absolutely crowded on a weekend afternoon. Admission: free...

Candles burning at the Longshan Temple

A memorial pagoda at the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park

Confucius Temple here - most temples tend to be decorated with lots of dragon motives

More decorations at the Bao-an Temple

And after a couple of days, I decided to get out of the city, and see a bit of the countryside - public transport in Taiwan is pretty trivial and well-organized. It helps that the island is pretty small. The well organized part is more about not being China, but enough about that!

My first stop was the town of Hualien (or Who? Alien? as I came to call it) just down the East coast, where I rented a scooter (leaving my PADI card as collateral, after discovering that I had left my driver's license back in Taipei and the lady telling me that my passport and credit card were each too important to leave with her!) and went off to see the Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's premier outdoor attraction. And just in case I couldn't tell how premier it was, all the tourist buses passing me were there to reinforce the point)

The gorge, with the river carving its way through the rocks

A waterfall coming down into the gorge

Hey, remember, the people are nice and speak English - I got somebody to take a picture of me

This is the Changchun Shrine, not far from the park's entrance, commemorating the people who had died while building the road running through it and across the island. The area is regularly subjected to typhoons and land slides, so not exactly a safe work space...

And after coming back to Taipei the next day, I met up with Lin and three of her friends, and we all headed (biked, 'cause we're the stupid, adventurous sort) to the Wulai hotsprings, some 25km out of Taipei. 25km and over some mountains...

The hotsprings are quite hot, so you take a dive into the cold river, then run back to the hot pool and climb back in there to relax... Then you can try the really hot pool, boil for a moment, and dive right back into the cold river!

Well, that was as much of Taiwan as I had managed to see in my five days there. There's a bunch more sites that I would have loved to see, given more time, including a spot down South, where you can go diving with hammerhead sharks, but I only had five days, so it was time to go - hopefully another time!