Tag Archives: photos

The Old Man and the Kite

Kites are cool. Flipping and flying and floating in the wind, it’s pretty hard to not like a kite. Most people are happy with the simple and cheap kites that you can find anywhere, but some people want something more. Like a random old man I saw at the park one day. Somewhere in his life he decided that building kites was going to be his hobby and he took it up with a passion. This one kite of his was made out of recycled materials and looked like a ‘fracking Gyrados’ in the words of one of my friends.

 

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Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas)

I adore Lithuania. It’s my favorite country I’ve ever visited. There’s something in the air that’s intoxicating. I felt like I was high the entire time I was there. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but somehow I felt like Lithuania was the OLD country. If fairies and gnomes and elves existed they would live in Lithuania. The only way I could describe it to myself was that it felt like what I imagined the North to be like in A Song of Ice and Fire. I made comparisons to Lord of the Rings earlier; I’m kind of a nerd.

One of the most interesting things in Lithuania and by extension the rest of the world is Raganu Kalnas, or Hill of Witches. It’s a sculpture garden out in Juodkrante on the Curonion Spit (more on that later). A winding patch takes you up a small forested hill where you’re free to explore dozens of carved wooden images involving characters from Lithuanian folk lore.

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Malbork Castle

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Malbork Castle is one of the preeminent attractions in Poland. It was built by the Teutonic Order to be the seat of their power in the region. It is enormous, the largest castle in the world. After years of warfare and sieges the Teutonic Order finally gave Malbork over to the Polish kings who used it as their residence for a time. During the partitions of Poland, the castle changed hands multiple times and it wasn’t until after WWII the area was returned to Poland. Of course like much of Europe Malbork was a pile of smoking rubble after the war. The pictures you can see of the restoration are amazing. My first reaction when I saw the damage in the photos was, ‘Why didn’t they just bulldoze the whole thing and chalk it up as a loss?’ But if I guess they did that half of Europe would be a parking lot today.

Malbork is located about an hour south of Gdansk by train and very easy to visit as you’ll see.

I was in Poland and my friend lives in Warsaw. My original plan was to stay with her a few nights but she had just accepted a job offer in Bucharest and was busy packing and getting ready to move. She told me that it would be easier if I didn’t stay with her because moving sucks. She didn’t want to be frustrated or angry with me being in the way. So I decided to visit Malbork. I was traveling onwards after my CELTA course in Wroclaw but I had three nights in between the end of my course and my flight from Warsaw. So I did the only rational thing I could and turned Malbork into a two night trek.

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I left Warsaw after having dinner with my friend on a train heading to Gdansk at 11:00 PM. It was an over night train that would get into Gdansk at 7:00 AM. I pulled into the station and went over to the automated ticket machine to get my ride to Malbork. There was a train leaving in twenty minutes, but I passed on that. I wanted to get to Malbork at around 10:00 AM when it actually opened. It was too cold to be standing and waiting. The tickets from Gdansk to Malbork are quite cheap and the ride isn’t bad. It takes a little under an hour so if you’re already visiting the lovely city of Gdansk, Malbork is an easy day trip by train.

Getting closer to the station I caught my first glimpse of the castle. It was pretty awe inspiring. We pulled into Malbork and the first thing I noticed was an awful smell in the air. I looked around and noticed that quite close to the train station is a large factory belching out fumes. Luckily I had seen the castle from the train so I knew the general direction to head in from the station. It’s about a kilometer and a half, maybe two kilometer walk to the castle. I’m pretty sure I saw a bus that ran the route but I felt like seeing if the town of Malbork had anything else interesting to offer. It doesn’t.

To enter castle you need to purchase a ticket. If I’m being honest it was kind of expensive. More than I would like to pay normally, but I bit the bullet. It was definitely worth the money though. You can get in cheaper if you arrive later in the day, but since the tour takes about three hours you might miss much of it. Make sure to bring your passport with you. Normally I leave my passport somewhere safe when I make day trips, but this time I just had a gut feeling I should have it on me. I’m glad I did. If you have your passport they’ll let you borrow an audioguide for a self tour. The audioguide is in five or six different languages that you can choose from when you receive it. Physically it’s a small iPod touch in a case with some headphones and a custom app made for it. That’s why you need your passport, they don’t want their nice gadgets walking off. Not getting the audioguide isn’t much of an option because you won’t find a whole lot of signs explaining the different rooms in the castle.

You’ll get the chance to tour the knights quarters, mess halls, privies, chapels, an armory, even a really nice museum dedicated to amber. There are some beautiful pieces of jewelry and decoration that can take your breath away. All in all, the castle feels like something right out of Dungeons and Dragons.

After I finished my tour I headed back to Gdansk. I was leaving Gdansk on another over night train to Warsaw leaving at 11:30 PM so I had plenty of time to waste. I spent some time wandering the streets, I was quite surprised there was no Christmas market. Gdansk is a beautiful city so I was happy to spend time. I got some dinner and then headed back to the train station to wait. I had my Kindle with me so it wasn’t too bad. Also the train station has free wifi so I pulled out my iPhone and chatted with people on Facebook. I don’t like waiting but it wasn’t too terrible.

We boarded the train and my plan was to go straight to sleep. Unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen. Two other travelers in my car kept talking to each other with the lights on. Whenever there was a break in the conversation I would doze off for about twenty minutes then a conductor would come through asking to see our tickets. This would kick off their conversation for another hour easily. They weren’t going all the way to Warsaw and when they got off I was alone in the car. I immediately hopped up and turned the lights off, a sign to anyone else coming into the car that it was going to be quite. A few other travelers boarded and they didn’t make any noise, everyone just tried to get comfortable in their seats for the ride.

I arrived in Warsaw around 5:30 and felt like a zombie. In the last 48 hours I had spent seven hours on a bus from Wroclaw to Warsaw, 16 hours on trains from Warsaw to Gdansk and back, and two hours on trains from Gdansk to Malbork. And that didn’t include any of the time I spent walking around in Malbork exploring the place.

As a whole the experience wasn’t the most pleasant.  The obscene amount of travelling in such a short time really took a mental toll on me.  But it was worth it to see Malkbork.  The castle was awesome, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.  But from now on I’m going to try and avoid multiple nights of overnight travel.

Khatchkars

I wanted to put up some more photos of khatchkars in my last post, but WordPress doesn’t allow someone to post pictures then a slide show with a whole new set of pictures in the same post.  So you get to enjoy them here instead.

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Retro Travel

When my parents were young, before settling down and having my brother and I, they were a pair of the globetrotting vagabonds roaming the throughout the world world during the 1970s. They served in the Domincan Republic as Peace Corps Volunteers (I’m second generation PCV!) and after finishing traveled through South America.

My dad was a bit of a photographer I guess and took thousands of pictures through their travels.  For years when I was young my parents would tell me about how great Macchu Pichu was and how I need to visit.  I haven’t gotten the chance to go yet, but I am digitizing their slides.  Many of them were a bit deteriorated or just bad pictures, my dad was prolific instead of particularly proficient, but the law of averages say when you take so many shots you are bound to get some gems.  I’m still working on the slides so there might be another post similar to this if I come across some other amazing shots.  So here are a handful of what I think are the best photos, I really like the colors.

Wielizcka Salt Mine, Krakow

Normally I’m not one for the very touristy attractions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pretentious and think that ‘I’m a traveler not a tourist,’ or feel there is something inherently wrong with popular attractions. Do you know why visitors are attracted to certain places? Because they’re worth seeing, that’s why. No I’m not big on tourist attractions because they most often cost money and I am notoriously cheap. So I never planned on visiting the Wielizcka Salt Mine. But all my Polish friends said Wielizcka is one of the best attractions in the country and I would be missing out if I skipped it. So I went.

Constructed in the 13th century the mine continued to produce salt up until the mid 2000s. For seven hundred years it was a prime source of employment for Poles in the Krakow area. In the days before refrigeration salt was one of the best ways to preserve food. This made Wielizcka vital to generations of Polish kings and leaders as a source of wealth.

Wielizcka is a pretty easy day trip out of Krakow if you’re not stupid. Unfortunately that seems to exclude me. I was CouchSurfing in Krakow with a wonderful local student who helped me find the bus I needed to take from the city to Wielizcka. I jotted her instructions down and hit the road. The first leg of my journey was easy. I got on a bus heading out of town in the direction I was going. However I must have missed a stop because I rode the bus to the very end of the line and I did not see any mine. That was the first problem. After that the entire day was an adventure.

I trekked a bit back down the road we came in on to try and catch my bearings. Maybe the stop was close. I wasn’t able to find any help in the way of signs and being a stupid guy I didn’t want to ask for directions either. Eventually I found my way to a hotel where I swallowed my pride and asked for some help. The lovely lady working at the front desk spoke English and told me that I was close, only a mile and a half away from the mines. Well that wasn’t too far, so I started walking in the direction she pointed me to. In a bit I realized that she thought I had a car because her directions would have taken my on to a highway. I felt like I was being clever though following the highway on a little side path that ran parallel.

Eventually the path hit a split and I guessed I should take the route that took me through a small town. I didn’t have any idea what I was looking for and assumed that Wielizcka was located near a town. So I start walking through town and then realize I’m in the wrong town and I also had no idea how to get back to where I was. I might be not the brightest guy, but I did bring a compass so I could get a general idea of where I was going. South and west were where I came from so I started to follow roads that could take me there. There was a nice little Saturday market I found in the town, but no signs pointing me towards the mine.

After approximately two hours or so of meandering through the town I end up heading down a hill and guess what I found? The hotel I stopped in before! At least I knew where I was, that was a good thing. I continued my trek but this time paid more attention to the highway and noticed that there were a couple of signs pointing to the turnoffs drivers would need to take to get to Wielizcka.

I cutting this story short here because it’s not very interesting and I’m tired of writing about it. The basic version is that I got lost again trying to follow the signs and some wrong intuition. I hooved around some more and eventually I found myself orientated in the the right direction and got a bus heading out that way. All in all what should have been a twenty minute bus ride from Krakow took close to four hours. When traveling though I’m not one to complain. The weather was nice, it was good exercise, and it showed me a part of Poland I doubt most tourists see. The journey is half the fun right?

But it was worth it. Oh it was so worth it. Even though Wielizcka was probably the most expensive single thing (there’s no way to visit without an organized tour) I did in my entire trip and one of the largest pains, the reward more than made up for it. There’s a reason it was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. Hundreds of years of carvings and artwork by the salt miners has been preserved for your pleasure. With a guided group you get a chance to tour parts of the mine and marvel at statues carved from salt. Images of Polish historical figures are everywhere. The tour lasts a few hours and outside of the statues there’s an underground lake, giant chapel, light show, and journey back to the surface in a tightly packed elevator. Since it’s a mine it’s quite dark even with all the lights. It’s not dangerous or worrisome, but hard to get decent photos. So sorry about that.

Since I’m a bit of a nerd I immediately compared Wielizcka to Moria from Lord of the Rings. Not the Moria the fellowship went through full of orcs trying to kill them and a giant, fire whip wielding Balrog reasonably asking for a toll across the only bridge over a bottomless chasm. No, Wielizcka is what I imaged Moria to be like during the good years full of lights and history and carvings. Tolkienesque. Is that a real word?

While visit Krakow do yourself a favor and make a day trip out the mine. There are dozens of tour operators who can arrange it for you. Or you can purchase tickets online here. I simply arrived and bought a ticket from the counter, but that may not be a good idea during the high season.

Kibuye and Lake Kivu, Rwanda

Kibuye, Rwanda might be the prettiest town in the whole country. Built into a series of hills surrounding lake Kivu, it is extraordinarily beautiful. It is a bit of a resort town for more well off tourists, but there is a guest house on the other side of town, take the road down the right as you leave the bus station and reach the fork. Walk down until there is a shopping center to your right, across the road there is a guest house for an affordable guest house. I’ve forgotten the name, but here it is on Google Maps. And then you can go here for food. It’s a small buffet style restaurant where you can get lunch for about a dollar. It’s a local place so it’s all Rwandan food, lots of rice, potatoes, and matoke.

Kibuye doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, just lovely hiking through the mountains and swimming in lake Kivu. There’s also a small genocide memorial in front of the church. So instead of wasting more time, here are a few pictures.

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