Wednesday, November 13: We’re going to Budapest by train tonight so there’s lots of time to kill hanging out in restaurants and coffee shops trying to stay warm. Krakow’s main square is pretty at night.
Friday, November 15: Utterly exhausted we deem our number one priority to be soaking in a thermal bath. Budapest has many of them but we chose the largest Hungarian style baths for our soaking – Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
Saturday, November 16: The Budapest Zoo is incredible. I’m obviously a huge fan of good zoos, but wow! In the Budapest Zoo there are a few enclosures where you are right in with the animals. There are Zoo volunteers wearing fluro vests, but there is nothing separating you from the sloths, lemurs, bats, and vultures, we were in enclosures with all of them.
Tuesday, November 5: Our free tour of Prague, full of laughs and wacky sound effects from our enthusiastic guide ends, and after finally finding a place to eat that is both warm and not smokey we leave just in time to finally catch the astronomical clock doing its dance. The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn is another of Prague’s gothic beauties.
Friday, November 8: We rolled into Krakow at 6.30am after spending the night not sleeping much on a train. Exhausted, we drop our bags at the hotel and because it’s so early have to head out again for breakfast and then straight on to a walking tour. The castle on the hill features some pretty interesting combinations of architecture styles.
Sunday, November 10: Benefits of traveling on shoulder season include free entry to castle exhibitions. Drawbacks are that this is when locals and weekend visitors come to the city and the lines are too long to make visiting possible.
Monday, November 11: It is Poland’s National Independence Day, which we mark by watching some parading and speeches we don’t understand while waiting for our tour to start. Today we’re visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was…worse than I expected. The size of Birkenau, I can still not comprehend.
The day before Kate and I left Tokyo for Kyoto I got quite sick. I suspect it was the sushi I ate in Akihabara, but who knows, maybe I just touched a stair railing and then touched my mouth.
We dragged my sorry ass to the train station and caught a Shinkansen to Kyoto. Kate was able to treat herself to a bento box lunch and a beer. I lined up four drinks across the tray table: water, plain unsweetened iced tea, grapefruit juice, and pocari sweat (which thankfully doesn’t taste as gross as it sounds).
We arrived at Kyoto station and eventually found Fiona and Pia, the friends who would be hosting us in Sonobe for the week. Sonobe is about 40 minutes from Kyoto station so we had a look around the shops and stopped at an Irish pub for something to eat. I know, I know, I come to Japan and eat at an Irish pub? Well you try not eating for a few days while in a foreign country after having dysentry and traveling by train and then try telling me that you’re not just going to stop off at the first place with familiar food and an English menu.
Anyway, the nadir of the trip was reached and it all got better from here.
What I saw of Sonobe was a small town with trees reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro. Despite the small size it had luxuries like taxis and street corner vending machines (and a train!) that my small hometown back in NZ could only dream of.
It was great to experience real Japanese apartment life; where your futon is rolled up daily and the floors are covered in tatami. The internal walls are thin and everything feels a little too small for a western body. Balconies are used to dry clothes and air bedding. The luxury of sitting at the kotatsu (a low heated table with blankets!) on a winters night.
On the day I left Sonobe Pia called one of her Japanese speaking friends to ask if she could please call the taxi company and order one for me. Life isn’t easy when you don’t speak the language, but you find ways to get through. As we bundled my suitcase into the boot of the car it started to snow. Ain’t that some poetic shit.
What a beautiful part of the country!
It’s unusual flying into Queenstown for the first time. Growing up I constantly saw images of our epic landscapes; snow capped mountains with streams running between them and not a person in sight. Exposure to these images increased in the years following New Zealand’s transformation into Middle Earth. But now, making the sharp right turn toward Queenstown’s airport, those images are very real and present.
So real I heard that pilots flying into Queenstown have to be good enough to ignore warnings coming from the safety systems telling them they’re going to crash into a mountain. (Nervous collar pull.)
I always expected that these sorts of landscapes could only be accessed with a lot of money, a helicopter ride, or a two day trek in the snow. Not the mere act of standing on solid ground with Lake Wakatipu on one side and Queenstown’s low profile city centre on the other side.
A large number of Queenstown’s population is transient, travelers there for a few months, a few weeks, a few days. It’s easy to become a local, just stay put for a couple of years. I wonder if everyone is so nice because they know they’ll be gone soon…or you’ll be gone soon.
We ate some incredible food in our four days. The coffee wasn’t half bad either.
If you can afford it then Amisfield Winery is well worth the visit. We loved Kappa for more affordable Japanese food. I was impressed with the coffee I tried at Vudu in Queenstown, Espresso Love & Cafe Mondo in Arrowtown, and Kai Whakapai in Wanaka.
All of the rumours about Fergburger (and Fergbaker) are true: huge cheap delicious burgers and fast friendly service. And if you’re a sweet tooth like me go try some of the many fudge varieties at one of the Remarkable Sweet Shops.
In the end it all comes back to the view. Wander around the gardens at the lake (try not to get hit by frisbees on the frolf course), take a trip up the Skyline gondola, and if you’re as lucky as I am get your friends to take you over the Crown Range and eventually on to Cromwell for a classic Southland Cheese Roll next to Lake Dunstan.
Amisfield Winery: We tasted some wines at their cellar door and then sat in the sun to share a charcuterie board with wild rabbit rillette & apricots, dried venison sausage, chicken liver mousse with pistachio crust, pickled vegetables, and sourdough; huge slices of pork belly with barley and blood orange; and a spiced kumara tart with caramel walnuts and vanilla ice cream for dessert. I loved the noble sauvignon blanc so much I had to bring a bottle home with me.
We got out just in time to cross the road and catch the bus into Arrowtown.
Our first night in town was a bit cold, but still fine enough to eat our burgers down by the lake. For the most part though we were totally over prepared, the sun shone and we found ourselves having to strip off coats and thermal layers.
13 days, 13 nights, three cities, and a bout of dysentery.
Tokyo is big. BIG big.
I was expecting a big, highly populated city but it really took me by surprise. I’ve been to other big places, Hanoi, Bangkok, but Japan being what it is I kinda mistranslated “excellent public transport” to “fast and easy to get anywhere.”
You can go lots of places, it’s true, and the trains will arrive on time, they’ll be heated and clean, and they’ll have announcements in English; but there’s a lot of distance to cover and train changes to coordinate.
The size was hard for me to adjust to and it meant I didn’t enjoy my time in Tokyo as much as I’d hoped. We stayed at a cute, very clean place called Nui Hostel in Kuramae. Unfortunately the excellent cheap digs came with a price we didn’t factor in – an extra subway ride just to get to the main train line. I definitely recommend first time visitors, and those not good at navigating, stay on the JR Yamanote loop line.
Spending so much time on trains was a really good way of observing Japanese culture though. Everyone learns to get comfortable so close to strangers and you’ll find many people napping with briefcases on their laps. The trains were where I saw the most interesting clothes and accessories, and where I sat next to a guy casually reading anime porn. They were where we learned how to pronounce Tokyo and Kyoto place names correctly.
As a Gaijin in a foreign country not knowing any of the language I found it pretty hard to find good Japanese food (completely my own fault). Going to restaurants we’d researched were missions in their own right which we didn’t have the time or energy for; we’d often end up eating at the (excellent) convenience stores, or an American themed family restaurant. It was a real treat when we got to meet our Wellington friend Mika for dinner, she read a whole menu to us and acted as translator.
Despite our terrible language skills we found everyone to be very accommodating and eager to use any English they knew. Most people were really friendly and welcoming, with the occasional scowl from an elderly person, and a pointed finger from a child wondering what’s up with the two pale girls and how did that one end up with pink hair?
We spent six nights in Tokyo before catching the shinkansen to Kyoto, which is much closer to my pace of living.
I took A LOT of photos. Rather than trying to use the awful WordPress galleries I’ll post a few of my favourites and leave you with links to explore more of them on Flickr. Enjoy. (See all of my Tokyo photos here.)
We (I) got a bit lost getting here, but a nice man saw us staring at our map and walked with us a few blocks to point us in the right direction. Well worth the visit because it’s free! If you’re not familiar with the area try to get off the subway at Tocho-mae Station on the Oedo Subway Line. (See more sights of Tokyo)
Inokashira park was a beautiful surprise on our walk to The Ghibli Museum. Full of autumn leaves, dogs wearing coats, little black ducks, fountains, …and swan boats. I’m sure there’s some kind of terrifying swan boat king horror movie in the making here. (See all photos of Inokashira Park and the Ghibli Museum)
The Ghibli Museum was more than we could have hoped for. We squealed and exclaimed about all the small details. I hadn’t been a Studio Ghibli fan for long, animation really isn’t my jam, but the museum really solidified my love.
There are no photos allowed inside which meant no one standing in the way taking selfies. I got to take it all in without my camera glued to my face. (See all photos of Inokashira Park and the Ghibli Museum)
We got a litte lost trying to find this place (you have to go through a holistic health store on one side) but it was well worth it. Just vegetarian whole foods made delicious.
This was my first visit to a Disney park, and wow. Wow. DisneySea is next door to Tokyo’s Disneyland. It’s designed for an older crowd, which definitely appealed to me as I kinda really don’t enjoy children.
DisneySea has seven ports with different rides and landscapes, and it’s just so cool. Everything looks amazing so even when you’re not on the rides there’s lots to discover. The day we went wasn’t too crowded but there was still quite a long wait for the rides. We managed to go on everything we wanted to and we stayed for the christmas shows…which really weren’t as cool as I was expecting. I read “floating christmas trees” and somehow equated that with trees floating in the air rather than in the big lagoon.
The best rides are always the most terrifying ones, so if you get to DisneySea then make sure you ride the Tower of Terror. (See all photos of DisneySea)
The aforementioned cute digs, Nui Hostel. Everyone working there was super nice, and the place was decorated beautifully. The hostel lobby doubles as a cafe/bar, tree trunks hold up huge wooden bar tops, and exposed concrete walls are decorated with dried flowers and planter boxes. (See all photos of Nui Hostel)
Kate and I love cats so we obviously had to check out a cat cafe in Tokyo. Kate had heard about Neko Jalala in Akihabara so we went there one night to have a play. Unfortunately all the cats were tired and grumpy by the time we got there. Grumpy cats unite! (See all photos of Neko Jalala cat cafe)
At Meiji Shrine we were treated to a procession of beautifully clothed people. We’re still not sure what they were doing but I’ve deduced that it was probably a wedding party entering the shrine to be married.
Elsewhere in the grounds a few children in colourful traditional clothes ran about being cute. (See all photos of Meiji Shrine)
I’m planning some trips in 2013 (if you couldn’t already tell from my 13 in ’13 list). They’ll be both close to home and on the other side of the world, and I’m pretty excited.
Even though I was born in Christchurch I haven’t been in the South Island since I was a couple of months old (bar a few hours spent in Christchurch Airport). The one time I attempted to travel to Christchurch it was so foggy that the plane flew to Christchurch, circled the city a few times and flew back to Wellington. So this year I’m going for sure.
We want to see Arrowtown when it’s all sparkly for the autumn festival, pretty with autumn leaves, maybe find a good deal on a bed and breakfast. Brendan has been writing a script based in Arrowtown gold mining times on and off for a couple of years so it will be really great to see the area for himself.
The truly big trip will be in October and November. Six weeks, six countries, six cities. Prague, Berlin, Reykjavik, Budapest, Krakow, and Vienna. I’ve wanted to go to Germany for about 10 years, German is my favourite language (though I don’t speak it). Iceland, though a relative newcomer to my list of favourite places I’ve never been, should be incredible. The Northern Lights! Potentially some kinds of snow dwelling animals! Though my narwhal and polar bear viewing mission may have to wait a few years till Brend and I both have the desire to spend $12000 on an 8 day arctic safari cruise.
After a four to five hour bus ride from Hue we arrive in Hoi An, though, not before our bus driver gets lost and pretends nothing is wrong by driving through narrow unsealed back streets till he finds a real road again.
As team leader I was in charge of finding a place to sleep so pulled out the Lonely Planet and asked for directions to the street that had the most hotel dots on it.
We find room at Hoa Binh Hotel with wifi, and a pool for 120000vnd each per night (currently $7nzd). Our first meal is at a place around the corner offering a free beer with your meal and just 3000vnd for extra beers (around 20cents nzd). I wish I could remember the name because I still think about the banh xeo (rice flour pancake), I have never had better.
Hoi An was our favourite place in Vietnam, the food is incredible. It’s definitely touristy, but that means there’s a heap of pretty things to look at. Most of all it’s know as the place in Vietnam to get clothes tailored.
We put aside about 4 nights for Hoi An, allowing time to find a tailor, pick clothes, and allow for refits. After much internet research and warnings of shitty tailors we found one that sounded good – B’Lan Silk at 23 Tran Phu St. The plan was to check out and compare a couple of the recommended places and barter for the best price. There are 600 “tailors” in Hoi An, most of them following the typical way of stealing your neighbour’s good reputation and trading on that. B’Lan came highly recommended though so we went there first and stuck with them.
The boys got suits for $90usd each. I got a suit jacket ($45usd), a floaty dress, sailor dress, pleated skirt dress (between $40 and $45usd each), and a jacket with a pleated skirt ($90usd) made. A total of $252 usd, half up front, half on delivery.
All the designs were picked from photos in magazine catalogues and the materials picked from the shelves and racks around us. It took a bit to convince the tailors that yes, I definitely wanted all of these items made in black, eventually I was worn down and ordered a few of the pieces in grey instead. (And I haven’t worn the grey pieces more than twice each!) My winter jacket has had the most wear by far & I still get complimented on its bright fuchsia lining.
At night we wandered around the market across the river. Taking in the sights of brightly coloured lanterns, and Brendan got suckered into buying coffee filters at tourist rates (which I later proved by buying them from the local market at less than half the price.).
Brendan’s suit was perfect first try, Darian’s needed a little adjusting on the jacket. My jackets are good, the sailor dress is 6″ shorter than I wanted, the pleated dress doesn’t fit my boobs, and the floaty dress? The floaty dress was completely different to what I wanted (as well as it being grey), I hate conflict though and couldn’t be bothered changing the whole thing.
While waiting for Darian’s suit to be altered we ate in a restaurant called Bazar across the road. Hoi An has many food specialities and I think the “Bazar Rolls” we ate here may have been one of them, they were definitely special to this restaurant. Cabbage and carrot, wrapped in pork, breaded, then fried! Suddenly the 37° weather turns into lightning and deafening thunder, so loud it frightens the wait staff. The restaurant started flooding so we escaped as soon as things calmed down.
A couple of tries later and my two remaining dresses are done. While talking with our tailor we mentioned having trouble finding good sandwiches (banh mi). She wrote down the name of a place and sent us off with my bag of clothes. We stopped to ask for directions about five times before finally finding the sandwich cart; every person we asked knew who we were looking for and laughed when we gave the name, they must get it all the time. Not surprisingly, the sandwiches were amazing.
After collecting a few lanterns and other touristy things we started for the post office but were stopped in the hotel lobby and asked if we want to use the free postal service where they pack and post things at your house! Um, yes. $91usd worth of not having to carry an extra 6.5kg on my back for six weeks.
Check out is 12, our night bus is at 7. There’s nothing for it but to cafe hop.
A French place where I find tiramisu; a restaurant called Secret Garden (warning – music) that we had visited a couple of nights prior, they make an amazing Cau lau – a dish (or noodle) served only in Hoi An; and some banh mi for the road.
It was Brendan’s one request that while visiting Mum in Ngaruawahia we see the Hamilton Gardens. I hadn’t been for years but remembered them being quite spectacular and well themed.
The weather was awful but we were only in Hams for two days so we braved the rain with my friend Kezz to take a look. The rain really packed in by the end of our visit so we left soaked and hungry. Worth it.
On Saturday I took my very first trip on the Overlander, the train that runs from Wellington to Auckland. Mum is in Hamilton so our journey wasn’t quite as far as Auckland, but still a good 10 hours.
Thankfully I’d had a bit of train practice in Asia. In Asia we bought cheap tickets and ended up with a) seats with no leg room, b) hard sleepers, which are planks of wood with thin covers and bed bugs, or c) plastic chairs. There was none of that in the Overlander. Lots of leg room, some bigger couches in a lounge at the back of the coach and clean enough toilets. Though in typical train fashion the door to the toilet was extremely awkward to get through I’m not sure that anyone much bigger than me would have been able to manage it.
Our carriage did come with the requisite “conspiracy theorists” though. Grow From Here on twitter was kind enough to explain to me how odd people are assigned on public transport: “they are allocated by the travel people – sometimes you get screaming kid instead- or paper rustling snarler”. Pleased to say I only had to deal with a guy explaining to me how an Egyptian prince and a Jewish Princess were married way back to broke a deal between feuding families (etc etc on and off for 10 hours). Cool story bro.
But thankfully no screaming children.
Waiting for 7am to check in // My favourite stretch of highway with views to Kapiti // You can see the South Island in good weather, that faint shape in the distance // Ohakune for a pie and coffee break (shit coffee good pie) // Art in Ohakune // Crossing one of the tall viaducts // The windows were annoyingly reflective // What NZ does well – farms