Author: Mark

Cambodia: The Killing Fields

Cambodia: The Killing Fields

Warning: The post contains some gruesome pictures/details of the Khmer Rogue regime. On January 4th, I continued my exploration of Phnom Penh. I left my hostel around 9 am and got in one of the tuk-tuks waiting outside. My destination was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. But […]

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise

One of the most popular times to see Angkor Wat is for the sunrise. Because the temple faces west, it’s in a perfect silhouette for sunrise. But get there at sunrise and you’ll be disappointed with the amount of people. So like many other photography opportunities, […]

Chiang Mai Zoo – with videos!

Chiang Mai Zoo – with videos!

I love zoos. If the animals are treated decently, they’re always a fun way to spend the day.

Most countries outside of the United States tend to have looser rules when it comes to interacting with animals so when I travel, I always try to seek out a zoo or aquarium – like I did in Kyoto.

The Chiang Mai Zoo is fairly big and is located on the side of a steep hill. This translates to a lot of walking, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing considering how cheap good food is in Thailand.

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As soon as I entered, I went straight for the hippo exhibit, since I read you can get close and feed them.

Well, they weren’t kidding.

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There’s no way this would ever happen in the United States. Someone would probably let their kid get too close and then complain the wall should have been higher.

I quickly saw the food stand. You could get a bundle or grass or basket of vegetables for the steep price of 10 baht. That’s 30 cents!! I think I spent more money on feeding the animals than I did admission to the park.

First was the grass.

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Funny enough, they eat just like in the table game “Hungry Hungry Hippos”.

Seeing them up close was actually pretty terrifying. They are massive animals. And while they don’t move very fast, their jaws look pretty intimidating. I read that hippos kill more people than any other mammal in Africa. Based off their teeth, I believe it.

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Worth seeing this picture large in a new window!

I’m not even leaning over that much – I could have grabbed one of their tongues if I wanted to!

While I was there, an employee brought over 4 large baskets full of mushrooms and dumped them in the enclosure. I’ve never heard something go ‘om nom nom’ as much as hearing a hippo eat.

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One thing that blew me away about the hippo exhibit is that there wasn’t anyone supervising it. Sure you had the guy come out with food, but he quickly disappeared. The fact that you could get so close and no one was watching was a completely different zoo experience for me.

Next was the elephants. I stumbled on this accidentally on my way to the main elephant exhibit, but it was actually better than the main one. At this one you could give them food for the nominal fee of 20 baht (60 cents). Incredible.

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I ended up buying so many baskets that the guy manning the hut started giving me extra!

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I made my way through the other exhibits, including the pandas and monkeys, neither of which was particularly impressive. The penguin exhibit was pretty disappointing as well.

But I discovered the giraffe exhibit and again I was rewarded with token baskets of food to buy.

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Like the other animals, you could get extremely close to them. I went with the usual – give them food out of your hand – but then moved on to something different.

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I walked around the rest of the zoo, but nothing could compare to feeding elephants, hippos, and giraffes – at a really cheap price too. After removing the giraffe slobber off my head, I headed for the exit.

Most people end up skipping the zoo in Chiang Mai, but I’d highly recommend it. Where else can you feed a hippo?!?

Tiger Kingdom

Tiger Kingdom

It’s been an extremely busy and exhausting past couple days in Siem Reap visiting Angkor Wat. Waking up at 3:45 am then touring all day long. In the trade-off between staying in and making a new post vs. going out and traveling, traveling wins. I’ll […]

Muay Thai Boxing

Muay Thai Boxing

On top of it’s wildlife, Thailand is also popular for their native martial art: muay thai. Muay thai is similar to kickboxing with the boxer able to use their fists, elbows, knees, and shins to attack their opponent. It consists of 5, 3 minute rounds. In […]

Criminal Massage

Criminal Massage

I read about this place in my guidebook and being up for anything, I decided to give it a shot.

At 8 am Christmas morning, I showed up to the women’s correctional center in Chiang Mai. This center offers great massages by female inmates looking to turn their lives around after their release. Those working here are due to be released within six months.

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Besides the identifying signs, it looked very similar to other spas in the area – there was no gate and no barbed wire. 

Inside the wooden fence there was a nice courtyard with a cart of goods made by the inmates. There was also a sign with prices. 1 US dollar ~ 30 Thai baht

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Very reasonable prices. I decided on the 1 hour Thai massage.

After you check in, they give you sandals to wear inside. Like the slippers I wore in China and Japan, they were a bit small.

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Next you change into a dapper outfit. Thai massages don’t normally come with oil, which makes them more enjoyable in my experience. Not a fan of that sticky feeling afterwards.

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Next, she washed my feet in some hot water with sliced limes.

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We then moved to a massage bed. For the next hour, she used her palm, elbows, and entire body weight to work my legs and back. Thai massages are notorious for being painful which was proven when she asked me multiple times, “You okay?”.

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60 minutes later I felt slightly bruised, but refreshed. At $5.46, it cost the same as a tip for a massage in the United States. And although it wasn’t the best massage I’ve ever had, I know I’ll have plenty more chances on my 19 day trip to find a better one.

Baan Chang Elephant Park

Baan Chang Elephant Park

As soon as I booked my trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted to ride an elephant. Thinking that I won’t go back to Thailand anytime soon, I reserved a spot on two different day tours. NOTE: Due to time constraints, this post doesn’t contain […]

Off to Chiang Mai

Off to Chiang Mai

I woke up after six short hours of sleep to catch my flight to Chiang Mai. I checked out and grabbed the hotel shuttle to Bangkok airport. I arrived at the airport at 7:30 am for a 10:00 am flight and I’m glad I did […]

Travel Day(s)

Travel Day(s)

I’ve said in the past that the worst part about traveling is actually traveling, and that hasn’t been more true than today. While my flights went smoothly, I went a long time without sleeping in a bed.

I woke up early on Sunday and after leaving my car in long term parking, I checked my bag and passed through security – all before 5:15 am.

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The first flight left Tampa, FL at 7:00 am for Minneapolis, MN. It was 33 degrees outside when we arrived and it looked miserable on the runway: lots of rain and not much snow. I sympathized with those who had Minneapolis as their final destination, but I still had 21 hours of flight time remaining.

After grabbing a quick panini (which included slided apples, brie, melted cheese, and ham), I made my way to the gate while noticing that I was the only on in the airport with shorts and a t-shirt on.

My first two flights were uneventful but long. While flying to Tokyo, I tried to determine the best way to attack the jet lag. I decided to stay awake with the exception of a couple short naps.

I arrived in Tokyo at 3:05 pm local time or 1:05 am Eastern time, both Monday the 22nd. I grabbed a quick dinner then boarded my 8 hour flight for Bangkok. I was surprised to see it took this long from Toyko but I guess this is due to the headwind and flying almost to the equator.

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Finally at 11:15 pm local time I made it to Bangkok. Luckily, I upgraded my seat to economy plus and I was able to be 2nd in line at immigration. After a couple stamps I made it – I finally arrived in Thailand.

I picked up my checked bag (which made it through without any trouble) and looked for my hotel’s shuttle, but ended up giving ups and got a taxi instead.

My hotel was nearby so by 12:15 am I was ready to jump into bed. It was an exhausting 34 hours of traveling, but I’m really looking forward to what I have planned.

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On crowds and expectations

On crowds and expectations

Traveling comes with a certain level of expectations. You plan for months for your trip – looking at pictures, reading reviews online, and talking to people who have traveled the same path. But even for the experienced traveler, these lofty expectations can come with disappointment. Think […]

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

If there’s one photography mecca in southern Utah, it’s in Canyonlands National Park. Photographers come from all over the world to photograph this national park and it’s famous scenery. And if there’s one site to see in this photographer’s playground, it’s Mesa Arch. Despite it not […]

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Antelope Canyon is a series of slot canyons in northern Arizona outside the town of Page. Located on Navajo Indian land, the only way to visit is on a guided tour. On my whirlwind tour of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, Antelope Canyon was a must-photograph location.

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There are a few different companies to use for the tours, but I decided to take the ‘photography tour’ with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, as recommended on Trip Advisor. The cost was $86 for a 2.5 hour tour with 2 hours in the canyon. You meet at a small parking lot on the east side of Page, huddled under the shade to escape the intense desert sun.

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I arrived in plenty of time and after paying in cash (credit card were 5% extra), I grabbed a seat in their open windowed Suburban.

It’s hard to find the words to describe this car and the condition it was in. There was sand everywhere. The seats were gray vinyl, cracked from the intense Arizona sun. Seat belts were optional as the driver sped through the thick sandy path to the canyon.

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Once we parked we quickly got out of the car and started heading to the entrance. Our guide mentioned that having a clear day and the sun high in the sky was needed to see the popular light beams.

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In most places, the canyon looked like this: a narrow, windy path with high walls. It’s formation occurred over thousands of years due to the erosion of sandstone primarily due to flash floods. These floods however can be deadly and 11 tourists died in 1997 after a heavy rain storm.

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Due to the amount of people in the canyon, it was difficult at times to get a picture without anyone else in it. You either had to be patient or wait until the other groups walked past. The guides tried to fix this by holding their group up around the corner until it was clear to walk through so that definitely helped.

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If you’re looking to take a photograph and not a snapshot, a tripod was absolutely necessary. On the bottom of the canyon floor there isn’t much light – to get a properly exposed picture at f/10, you needed a shutter speed of 2 seconds; not really feasible to handhold a camera that long. Also due to the high dynamic range of the scene (basically the difference between the brightest area and the darkest area), some people bracket their photos and then combine them later. In order to do that, the camera has to be absolutely still – another reason to use a tripod.

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Being on a photography tour, we were treated a little bit differently. As we walked through the canyon, our guide made sure to point out good locations for pictures. Other groups (without the concentration on photography) walked past us and their guides were literally holding their cameras and taking the picture for them. Much more efficient but you lost the fun behind taking the picture yourself.

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Light beams

After walking through the canyon, we waited for the other groups to clear out and then headed to about four different locations to see the light beams. The beams are most prominent in summer when the sun is high in the sky and even then, they only appear for about 30 minutes. These pictures were taken between 11:45 am and 12:15 pm.

In order to make them visible, our guide grabbed a small scoop shovel and picked sand off the ground then threw it in the air. He’d then quickly get out of the way and the camera shutters would fly.

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Because of the guide throwing sand, the whole light beams seemed fabricated and inauthentic. When you see pictures online you’d like to think that scene happened naturally, but that’s definitely not the case. However it wasn’t too much to spoil the experience in my opinion.

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It ended up being a whirlwind of a 90 minute tour. The canyon is fairly short, only about 1/8th of a mile, but there are tons of opportunities to take pictures. There’s one bad thing about a tour like this: it’s hard to take an original picture that hasn’t already been captured 1000 times. That’s one area of my photography I need to improve – being more creative.

But overall I’m happy with the pictures I got. I ended up renting a 16-35 f/2.8 lens for this trip and I’m glad I did. Some pictures would have been impossible without a wide angle lens and a full frame camera. If I were to do it again, I would probably take two tours – one during midday for the light beams and another in the afternoon when it wasn’t too crowded. The crowds were a bit much at times (not that I can complain, I was part of the problem) but as something on my photographic bucket list, I had to knock it out.

Date visited: 6 Sep 2012

Initial planning for Thailand and Cambodia

Initial planning for Thailand and Cambodia

Between my birthday and Thanksgiving, my trip will be here before I know it. I booked my initial flight to Bangkok on October 3rd and since then I’ve managed to do some good planning.  I know which cities I’m going to and for how long and […]

Just booked my next trip…

Just booked my next trip…

With the amount of planning that only a (legally) single guy can do, I booked a flight to my next destination. On December 21st, I’ll be flying to Southeast Asia and spending 20 days touring Thailand and Cambodia. I’ll drive to Tampa on December 20th and then […]

So it’s back to the drawing board

So it’s back to the drawing board

I returned from Japan on June 30th and I’ve settled in pretty nicely. In the past few weeks I’ve had more American food than I care to admit and things at work are getting back to normal. Looking back on my time in Japan, it was definitely a good experience for me and I’m glad I did it. I got to see some incredible places that I likely will never go back to. Not everything went perfectly, but that was expected.

During the week I’ve been staying pretty busy as well. I’m joining a gym this week and soccer/volleyball will take up a good amount of my time.

Earlier today I took a trip to Atlanta to see my nephew’s baptism (which was adorable), but that was the last thing I had on my calendar for a while. Going back home for Thanksgiving/Christmas is a given, but until then nothing is planned. I’m thinking a trip to Panama or Costa Rica could work over Labor Day, but I’ll need to plan it quickly. I’ve got to do something with my vacation time…

For something completely different, I’ve also been playing with the idea of getting a puppy. It’s about the complete opposite of traveling, but I’ve been looking forward to a dog for a while now. I’m going to start fostering again from the Greenville Humane Society and if I find a dog that I really like I’ll probably keep it.

Either way this blog will stay active, but will probably expand a bit from strictly traveling posts. I’ll be posting less frequently as well, but if something adventurous happens I’ll definitely share!

Foster #4: Candace

Foster #4: Candace

Well that didn’t last long. Last Tuesday I got an email from the Greenville Humane Society about dogs to foster, and I was able to pick one up during my lunch break. This is Candace. She’s a 2.5 month black lab mix and is incredibly sweet! The first […]

Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined

Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined

This past Saturday before my parents arrived I did some more shopping in Tokyo. I stopped by my favorite burger restaurant for lunch and then picked up some dress shirts. I haven’t purchased a lot in Japan but my suitcase was fairly full when I came over – hopefully everything […]

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

One of the top sites to see in Hiroshima is the Peace Memorial Museum. As an American, it was a very interesting experience.

First, the logistics. It’s open most days from 8:30 am until 6:00 pm, which is somewhat surprising since most places in Japan don’t open until at least 10 am. There are audio guides for rental at ¥300, but I passed since I read earlier that most explanations were in English as well. What surprised me though is the extremely cheap admission: ¥50 or 50 cents! I don’t think I’ve ever been in a museum that was this cheap that wasn’t free. I suppose they don’t want to turn anyone away for paying too much.

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The museum is separated into two buildings and the first room you enter describes the events leading up until the bombing. There are displays along the perimeter describing Hiroshima’s history, from the early 1600s leading up until World War II. The room being dimly lit seemed to add to the somber mood.

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From my education growing up, the descriptions didn’t seem to be skewed towards Japan or anti-American. The reasons given for why the United States dropped the bomb was to cause a quick end to the war. With a topic that could very easily be subtly described in one country’s favor, the Hiroshima Peace Museum was pretty neutral and didn’t place excessive blame on the United States.

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There were also some artifacts in small display cases, including a watch that stopped right when the bomb detonated. Pretty incredible to look at.

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Another display showed the difference of Hiroshima before and after the explosion. Virtually all the buildings within one mile were destroyed. The only ones that survived were heavily reinforced concrete buildings, mainly to guard against earthquake shocks.

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The target for dropping the bomb was a T-shaped bridge at the connection of two rivers – used because it was very easy to identify from high altitudes. The actual bomb exploded 800 feet to the south-east due to crosswinds.

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The museum is located 1/3 of a mile south of the bridge so I got the chance to walk across it a few times while in Hiroshima.

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This before-and-after highlights the A-Bomb dome, the remains of which are still standing almost 70 years later. Prior to 1945 it was used primarily for art and educational exhibitions.

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Another prominent feature of the museum is the letters from the mayor of Hiroshima. For every nuclear test that is carried out in the world, the mayor sends a letter of protest and displays a copy in the museum. Each time a protest letter is sent, the mayor hopes it will be the last.

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Center-left: copies of the letters

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Continuing on to the second building shows more artifacts from the atomic bombing.

These were really powerful because you could touch them
These were really powerful since you could touch them
The radiation caused a 'reverse shadow'. Places that were covered during the explosion appear darker than exposed areas. On the steps is the outline of a man who was sitting.
The radiation caused a ‘reverse shadow‘. Places that were covered during the explosion appear darker than exposed areas. The outline of a man sitting down was recorded on these steps.

Finally, there were paper cranes folded from Sadako Sasaki – a Japanese girl who was diagnosed with Leukemia due to the bombing and set out to fold 1000 paper cranes for good luck. She died at the age of 12.

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A museum volunteer saw me reading her story and approached me with some origami paper. With basic English, he taught me how to fold a paper crane. It remains one of my best travel experiences from Japan. I still have the crane and it will go into my box of prized possessions.

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The museum was very well done. It’s strongly conveys a message of peace and eliminating nuclear weapons rather than placing blame. It was a little strange at first, but I didn’t feel unwelcome at all for being an American. The museum and surrounding memorial park is the main reason people visit Hiroshima and for good reason – it was incredible.

Okunoshima – the bunny island

Okunoshima – the bunny island

While in Hiroshima, I did a couple side trips. My first stop was to Ōkunoshima, an island about an hour west of Hiroshima. From the outside, there isn’t anything remarkable about Ōkunoshima. But after spending a few minutes on the island, you can see why it’s so […]

27 days left

27 days left

Time has passed quickly since my trip over Golden Week. From a personal level, it’s been a fun past month. My parents are visiting me in Japan this upcoming Sunday (June 8th) and will be spending two weeks in Japan. I’ll get to spend the weekend […]

Day trip to Nara

Day trip to Nara

On my last full day in Kyoto, I decided to head south and take a day trip to Nara, a small city famous for it’s temples. But I wasn’t really there for the temples. In fact, I didn’t really see them at all.

Instead, I went to see Nara’s other attraction: deer. Throughout the city there are over a 1200 wild deer that roam around and seem to eat anything they can. For the last thousand years, the deer have been considered sacred and up until 1637 killing one was punishable by death. The deer have been declared national treasures and are treated extremely well by the locals and visitors.

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If you want to feed the deer the best place to visit is Nara Park. You can buy a package of 10 crackers from various stands for 150 yen. I paid with a 10000 yen note and the woman warned me to put away the change in paper bills quickly because the deer will eat them.

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There were also lots of school children in the park on what looked like a field trip. I love their matching outfits and color-coded hats used to keep track of them.

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There was also an older group who talked to me as part of an English assignment. They were shy at first, but then asked me a few questions like where I was from and what’s my favorite Japanese food. When I would answer, they’d write it down in their notebooks.

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Okay, back to the deer. 90% of the time they are calm. You can go up and pet them or rub their fuzzy antlers. But they sure love those crackers and will mildly harass you to get some. I had six deer literally chasing me at one point.

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I spent a good hour feeding the deer and watching them chase people. Adorable little things.

On more than one occasion I talked to the deer, telling them to stop biting my clothes – as if they could understand. Even if they could, it would be Japanese, not English.

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Trying to get to the crackers in my pocket

I started to get creative and made the deer work for their crackers. It took some time to teach them, but they finally caught on.

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The deer in Nara are smart. Bowing is a sign of respect in Japan and over time some of the deer have learned this. They will come up to you and bow their heads in order to get a cracker.

Between the deer and monkeys, I probably spent $40 buying food for them. But there’s no way something like this would exist in the United States, so it was money well spent.

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Gio-ji and Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji temples

Gio-ji and Adashino-Nenbutsu-ji temples

The end of my trip was pretty busy and I didn’t get a chance to make new posts. I’m back in Fussa now and will post updates this week. On another rainy afternoon in Kyoto, I went to visit a couple temples. Rather than walk from the train station […]

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

This Shinto shrine sits at the base of a mountain and is dedicated to Inari – the god/spirit of rice. It’s relatively large and without an admission gate, it’s free and open 24/7. Like the bamboo forest, I decided to come here on two separate days. The […]

Kyoto Aquarium

Kyoto Aquarium

With a rainy day, I decided to visit the Kyoto Aquarium. It didn’t have very good reviews, but I found it to be a good option outside of the temples and shrines.

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First stop was the frog and small fish exhibit. Neat, but nothing too exciting.

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This was their largest tank with a fisheye view and it displayed eagle rays, green sea turtles, and hundreds of fish.

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But the main attraction here was the penguins. Native to South Africa, they are used to the warmer temperatures in this open-air exhibit.

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One great thing about the layout is how close you get. At the far end in the picture above, the glass only came up to about shoulder height. But there was a ledge you could stand on and it would come to chest level.

I could have easily reached down and touched this one
I could have easily reached down and touched this one

I loved how the penguins would just belly flop into the water.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 4.12.57 PMAnd the sound a penguin makes when walking is very distinct. Flip. Flop. Flip.

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Obviously the rain didn’t seem to phase them

Suddenly employees started ushering people to the outside of the walkway. I had no idea what was going on but everyone looked excited. After ten minutes of anticipation, they let two penguins loose outside of the exhibit.

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They let them walk about 100 feet before returning them to the others.

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Here’s a video of it (might not show up through email). I have a strong feeling that – like feeding the monkeys by hand – this wouldn’t happen in the United States. It’s a shame though because everyone was fascinated by seeing them up close.

I like to imagine the penguins see this as an opportunity to plan their escape. Each day two different ones will go out on these scouting missions and then report back to the group.

“Blue team one, reporting in”

After the penguin exhibit, I walked through the rest of the aquarium. It was pretty small and if you aren’t interested in penguins, it would take less than 90 minutes to see all of it.

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Not sure what kind of jellyfish these were, but they were fascinating.
Not sure what kind of jellyfish these were, but they were fascinating. It was like watching a campfire.

At ~$20, it was more expensive than most Kyoto attractions but I thought it was worth it. If  you don’t like penguins though, best to skip it and find something else.

Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

On the western side of Kyoto is the Arashiyama district – famous for its many temples and hilly scenery. One of it’s most famous sites is a bamboo forest. Like many popular attractions, it all depends on when you visit. My first visit was on a sunny […]

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Sunday morning I took short trips to Fushimi Inari Shrine and the bamboo forest in Arashiyama. I mainly went to scout for taking pictures later in the week so I’ll make separate posts for them later. The rest of the day was dedicated to visiting Iwatayama Monkey […]

Kyoto Tower and the Golden Pavilion

Kyoto Tower and the Golden Pavilion

Saturday started my golden week holiday. I left my apartment early at 6:30 am then transferred in Tokyo for the Shinkansen and finally arrived in Kyoto at 11:15 am. The train ticket cost $135.

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Over half of what I packed was camera gear. Oops.
Over half of what I packed was camera gear. Oops.

First stop was lunch. I got sushi and went with two rolls which had lettuce in them and a dressing – it was almost like a caesar salad rolled up with seaweed.

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After eating lunch, my first stop was Kyoto Tower. It was built in 1964 and has been criticized for adding a modern component to such a historic city. On the positive side, it’s not a shrine or temple. 🙂

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The observation deck is 330 feet tall and sits on top of a 9-story building which has a few department stores and a camera shop on the ground floor. There’s also your obligatory American stores with a Starbucks and Baskin-Robbins.

After paying the 770 yen admission, I took the elevator to the top for a view of the city. It was nice on a clear day but due to it’s dated interior and somewhat high cost it’s certainly not a must-do in Kyoto.

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Free binoculars all the way around provided a nice touch
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View towards Kyoto’s surrounding hills.

Next, I headed to Kikaku-ji – the Golden Pavilion. This building’s design dates back to 1397 but was rebuilt after being set on fire by a crazed monk who later killed himself. It serves as a Zen Buddhist temple. One unique thing about this temple is the top two floors have a gold-leaf coating.

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Unfortunately, I went at the worst time: in the afternoon when it was crowded and facing the sun. Sorry, no postcard-worthy pictures here. Most travel pictures look great because you crop out the crowds. This is what it looked like a few steps back:

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And from the shore line on the right:

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I ended up staying around an hour or so, but it became too much. My parents are coming to visit me in Japan in June (which I’m really excited about!!) and I’ve already warned them about the crowds here. If I was going again, I’d get there at 9 am when they open.

The rest of the day was spent checking into my hostel and uploading pictures. There’s a guy in my room who’s from Vancouver so I had to give him a hard time about the Canucks. The rooms are probably the smallest I’ve ever stayed in but it was cheap so that’s expected. Sunday will be a busy day for me – I’m going to try and cover a lot while the weather is still good.

Packing and the diminishing returns of traveling

Packing and the diminishing returns of traveling

On Saturday, I start a 10 day trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Different from most trips I take, I’ll only be spending the night in two different locations – 6 nights in Kyoto (probably too many) and 3 nights in Hiroshima. But beyond a few […]

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Jigokudani Monkey Park

In the nineteen countries I’ve been to this was one of my best travel experiences. My main reason for going to Nagano for the weekend was to visit the wild monkey park in Yamanouchi. Japanese macaques, more commonly called snow monkeys, are drawn to this mountain area […]

Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

On the 24th, I finally made my trip to tour Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, the highlight of my trip to Ukraine.
Background:
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 and was the worst nuclear disaster at its time, responsible for approximately 4,000 cancer related deaths according to the Chernobyl Forum, and international organization studying the effects of the incident. The Soviet government waited two days after the accident to notify the general population (using in a 20 second announcement on a TV news program). While the Soviet government initially tried to cover it up, it was brought to international attention when Sweden, 650 miles away, detected increased radiation levels. Only then did the Soviet government acknowledge a problem with the rest of the world.
The nearby town of Pripyat was not immediately evacuated and the people who finally left were told the evacuation would only last three days. As a result, the town of Pripyat is just as it was in 1986 – with almost everything left behind.  Meals were left half eaten in dining rooms and kids toys were left behind on the ground.
For more reading, see the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster
My experience:

We met in front of a hotel at 9:00am near the center of Kiev. From there, we got into a Mercedes van with a Russian speaking driver. He couldn’t speak any English and watched the show Prison Break on a TV mounted to his dashboard while he drove. We eventually got to the border of the exclusion zone, and we all got out of the car and had to show our passports. There was a warning sign and a map outside the gates showing the different levels of radiation.

The radiation warning at the entrance
The radiation warning at the entrance

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Our van we toured around in

After we passed through the first gate, we entered the town of Chernobyl. Some people still live here, either working for the nuclear power plant or just wanted to move back after the accident. We entered a building where we met our guide, Yuri, decked out in military fatigues.

Building where we met our guide
Building where we met our guide
Long sleeves and pants were required once we started getting closer to the nuclear plant

He briefly explained the history of Chernobyl and the 17 mile exclusion zone. After he finished his introduction, he asked me to read the waiver (because I was one of the only native English speakers), stating that we were going in at our own risk, and would not seek any legal action for any medical problems related to our visit. I took a picture of the form. Everyone printed and signed our names on the back, and then we took off in the van.

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Our first stop was at the site of an old stadium. Other than the seating near the trees, it just looks like a big field. Now it is the holding site of some tanks left over from 1986. Yuri reminded us that, yes, those radiation signs are real. The Geiger counter started beeping slowly and got to a constant beep as we got close to the tanks.

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Next we saw the abandoned ships (seems to be the general theme here). They were used to bring building materials for the Sarcophagus.

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We then made our way to the memorial for the firefighters. The fire was extinguished nearly 4 hours after the explosion, at 5:00am. The firefighters received fatal doses of radiation while extinguishing the fire. A firefighter later reported that he tasted metal in his mouth before dying of acute radiation sickness.

Memorial for the firefighters who died responding to the fire
Memorial for the firefighters who died responding to the fire

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We passed another checkpoint, and then saw the cooling towers for the power plant. At this point, Yuri insisted on everyone wearing long sleeves due to the radiation. I brought a light jacket and luckily it wasn’t too hot. Interestingly, he also mentioned that he thinks its healthier working in Chernobyl than Kiev because the air quality and pollution are so bad in Kiev. According to Alik, this isn’t too far from the truth.

We hardly saw anyone else was on the roads. We saw a few people who lived there, and we would pass a car every 10 minutes or so, but we were the only tour group.

Right next to the power plant was a canal (used to feed a lake for cooling) that had a bunch of fish in it, including a couple massive catfish. Yuri mentioned that their size wasn’t due to the radiation, but rather a lack of predators.

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We got right next to the 4th reactor, and the Geiger counter was going crazy. A guy in our group placed his hand on the ground to balance himself while taking a picture and got a pretty stern warning. If you get test for too much radiation, you get a nice chemical shower before leaving. It is estimated that it will be 20,000 years before the land here will be fully safe.

We then passed by the famous Pripyat sign marking the entrance to the abandoned city. Seeing Pripyat was by far the most interesting part of the tour.

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When we entered Pripyat, we passed an old hotel and the communism ministry.

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The sports and recreation center:

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Mural in the sports and recreation center.

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The library on the second floor had communist-era books like, “Protecting our Fatherland”.

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The indoor soccer and basketball court:

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You could still see the imprints of the soccer balls on the wall.

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Bumper car track. The town was getting ready for a May Day celebration on May 1st, less than a week away at the time the accident occurred. The Ferris Wheel has become an important landmark in the city.

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The second sports center, with the swimming pool that was seen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Video of gameplay: http://youtu.be/jAZa1x6Wl9E?t=27m23s

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We got to explore by ourselves the inside of a school.

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Looks like the communist kids learned quadratic functions too.

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It looks like finding the area of a circle cut by chords:

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It was pretty erie seeing children’s books opened, practicing their hand writing.

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And finally, a gas mask sitting on a child’s desk:

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After the school, we left Pripyat and went back to Chernobyl to get some lunch/dinner around 4:30pm. It was typical Ukrainian food, nothing too exciting. Also, in typical Ukrainian fashion, there was plenty of dill on our plate. I swear, with the exception of McDonald’s, there has been dill in every dish I’ve had here. Don’t think I’m going to have that again for awhile. We then left Chernobyl and went through radiation testing at the edge of the exclusion zone. We walked through a machine, and then a security officer on the other side waved us through. They didn’t test our bags though (or look through them). I didn’t take anything, but it would have been cool to snag a communist book from Pripyat.

We then took the hour and thirty minute drive back to Kiev. We didn’t get to see that many of the housing complexes, but it was a good tour overall. I could have spent days there taking pictures, and maybe if I ever return, I’ll do a private tour instead. I got back to the apartment around 8:00pm and did my best to wash any radiation off of me.

 

Horseshoe Bend, Page, Arizona

Horseshoe Bend, Page, Arizona

After seeing pictures of this online, I knew I had to photograph it if given the chance. And once I booked my trip to southern Utah, this became a must-do. It’s located 8 miles south of Page, Arizona and is in the northern-most part of […]

Basics of the Japanese language

Basics of the Japanese language

Let me preface this by saying I have barely scratched the surface on learning Japanese and while I can’t guarantee that everything below is 100% correct, it is to the best of my knowledge. A year ago I knew nothing about the Japanese language. I couldn’t […]

Canon service center in Ginza

Canon service center in Ginza

I noticed my camera sensor had some dust on it so I went into Tokyo to get my camera cleaned on Saturday. I have a 10 day trip coming up on the 26th, so I figured now would be a good time.

I visited Canon’s flagship store in Ginza, Tokyo’s high fashion district. Real estate in this area is incredibly expensive and in 1990 at the height of Japan’s economic boom this area had the highest real estate prices in the world.

The main street through Ginza closes to traffic after noon on Saturdays
The main street through Ginza closes to traffic after noon on Saturdays

I dropped my camera off at the adjacent service center and they said it would cost about $10 for the cleaning and be ready the same day. It’s the kind of service that Japan is known for.

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To kill some time, I walked into the display room. They have every Canon lens currently produced for people to try out. Boring if you’re not into photography, but if you are, it’s amazing.

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In photography, the lens matters much more than the camera body. You can put a bad lens on an excellent body and you will get poor results. But if you put a nice lens on a entry-level body, the shots can turn out really well.

As such, the price point for lenses can get pretty high. The most expensive lens they had was an EF 800mm f5.6L which had a list price of $17,500 (shown below). People who use this lens will photograph wildlife, sports, and landscapes from a distance. To some degree it looks like a RPG and using it near airports is probably a bad idea.

To try out a lens, you simply point at which one you want and an employee will attach it to a camera body for you. The camera bodies they had ranged from the entry level 550D to the Canon 1Dx which costs $6,799 for the body alone. The shutter speed can reach 14 frames per second which starts sounding like a baseball card in the spokes of a bicycle.

There are well lit displays to practice photographing  – like a bouquet of flowers or a bowl of marbles for the macros lenses. And with tens of thousands of dollars in camera gear in strangers hands, they must be very trusting or have a nice insurance policy. I stuck around for awhile (very carefully) playing with the expensive toys.

My camera was done a couple hours later and it looked just like new. All ready for my trip this weekend. The weather doesn’t look great, but hopefully it clears up. Keeping my fingers crossed.

What’s next after Japan?

What’s next after Japan?

I’m not even back to Greenville yet and I’m already starting to think about my possible next trip. These are the places I have in mind. I currently get two weeks of vacation through work. We have the option of rolling over a week into next […]

Hitachi Seaside Park

Hitachi Seaside Park

This park has been made famous outside of Japan mainly due to internet articles like the poorly-worded 22 Unbelievable Places that are Hard to Believe Really Exist and 21 Breathtaking Places You Won’t Believe Exist (clearly the second author didn’t agree with the first list). […]

North Carolina Waterfalls

North Carolina Waterfalls

One of my favorite ways to spend an overcast day is by photographing waterfalls in North Carolina. Here’s some of my better shots.

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Pearson’s Falls. 07 JUL 2013
Cove Creek Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Cove Creek Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Hooker Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Hooker Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Looking Glass Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Looking Glass Falls. 30 SEP 2012
Grocery stores in Japan

Grocery stores in Japan

Exploring a Japanese grocery store can be an interesting experience. They take some getting used to but in reality they’re not all that different from ones in the United States. Layout and hours The layout is what I’m used to: produce, milk, and fish/meat on […]

Hanami and Mt. Takao

Hanami and Mt. Takao

In the last week of cherry blossoms in Tokyo, my coworkers invited me to a hanami gathering. A very kind gesture on their part. So after work on Friday, we met at the local Seiyu (Japanese Wal-mart) and picked up some beer, snacks, and bento – the […]

Upcoming travel in April

Upcoming travel in April

I plan on doing a ton of traveling during the month of April. Luckily for me, the weather looks good – at least for this weekend.

Capture

In addition to my plan for Golden Week starting on April 26th, this is what I have planned:

April 12th: Mt. Takao

Mt. Takao is a mountain located about an hour west from my apartment which provides a good view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. If I’m lucky, the cherry blossoms will be in bloom.

View of Mt. Fuji near the summit of Mt. Takao. Source: Wikipedia
View of Mt. Fuji near the summit of Mt. Takao. Source: Wikipedia

Due to it’s proximity to Tokyo it can be very crowded on the weekends. I’ll be waking up around 5:30 am and try to beat the crowds.

April 13th: Hitachi Seaside Park

This park looks amazing.

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Source: World For Travel
Source: wonders-world
Source: Wonders world

It’s located about an hour north of Tokyo so it will take me 2.5 hours and $50 in trains to get there. Multiply that by two and you have a long and expensive day. Looks to be worth it though.

April 19th: Kawaguchiko and Mt. Fuji

I plan on returning to the Mt. Fuji area the weekend before Golden Week to try and photograph the cherry blossoms. The weather and timing will have to be right, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Depending on the blossom forecast, I may switch this day with the Hitachi Seaside Park.

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Source: Laura Paige

Expect a lot of posts in the near future!

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms are a huge deal in Japan. There’s hundreds of thousands of cherry trees throughout the country and when they bloom, it’s a very special time of the year. Like the ones located in Washington DC, most of the trees are the non-fruit producing […]

Bathrooms, masks, and germ prevention in Japan

Bathrooms, masks, and germ prevention in Japan

One of the things that surprised me about Japan how they prevent germs. Let’s start with public bathrooms. I’d say the 90% of public bathrooms (most common at train stations) don’t have paper towels, hot water, OR soap. I’ll go through these one at a […]

Trash cans in Japan

Trash cans in Japan

I’m living in the largest city in the world and surprisingly trash is not an issue. The streets are very clean and if there’s an empty bottle on a train, someone probably left it by accident.

However, the amount of public trash cans is staggeringly low. In fact, Tokyo has removed virtually all public trash cans since 1995. The reason why is fascinating: terrorism.

On March 20th 1995, members of a religious cult carried out five coordinated attacks by releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. The attack occurred during rush hour and the liquid sarin was contained in plastic bags which were punctured using the sharpened point of an umbrella. The liquid quickly became a gas and caused havoc during the busiest time of the day. Thirteen people died and over 6,000 others were injured.

The public demanded answers from their government so Tokyo, and much of Japan, decided to remove trash cans for security purposes – even though the bags were left on trains instead of placed in trash cans.

Today, trash cans are still identified with Japan’s most serious terrorism attack of 20 years ago. If you do find a trash can in a Tokyo station, it likely looks like this:

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Whether banning trash cans has made a difference has yet to be seen. Similar to the United State’s knee jerk reaction after 9/11, many think removing trash cans provides a false sense of security. Awareness has probably helped more than anything as people are more conscious of their surroundings.

In the meantime, everyone carries their trash with them. It’s not as bad as you would think, but can surprise a lot of visitors. My garbage at my apartment is a different story, but that deserves its own post – more on that later.

Rant on deodorant and central air/heating in Japan

Rant on deodorant and central air/heating in Japan

So I learned the hard way that Japan does not have western-style deodorant readily available. This is not something I anticipated when I moved here and isn’t something you really think about.  It should be like finding toothpaste or face wash, right? Turns out that’s […]

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market

This past Saturday I decided to go to Tsukiji Fish Market. The most popular thing to do is see the tuna auction, but that didn’t happen for me and I doubt I will see it. For one, even though it starts at 5:15 am, you […]

Trip to Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko

Trip to Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko

After checking the weather forecast, I decided to spend Saturday night near Mt. Fuji and return on Sunday. One night in a hostel costs 2700 yen, whereas a one-way train ticket costs 3000 yen, so I might as well spend a night there and make the most of it. Plus the weather looked promising. An overview of the Kawaguichiko area is below; I didn’t go to all of these places, but wanted to point them out. Mt. Fuji is located towards the south.

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Starting at the bottom left and going counter-clockwise is Aokigahara (known as the suicide forest – saving for another trip), the hostel where I stayed (K’s House), a theme park near Mt. Fuji (skipped), Chureito Pagoda, Kachi Kachi Ropeway (cable car), and finally a look over the lake towards Mt. Fuji.

In order to arrive early, I woke up at 5:45 am Saturday morning and walked to Higashi-Fussa station (Higashi = east) to leave on the 6:51 am train.  The main train station near Mt. Fuji is Kawaguchiko station and it takes about 1.5 hours from my apartment. I grabbed a bento box at Hachioji station and enjoyed my cheap breakfast (370 yen) while looking at Mt. Fuji approaching out the window.

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After a couple transfers, I arrived at Kawaguchiko station at 9:00 am. First thing I did was grab a two-day pass on the retro buses that circle the lake.

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I didn’t have a lot in mind when planning this trip, but I knew I wanted to see the Kachi Kachi ropeway, so I went there first. I got there at 9:45 am and while it was still early, there were plenty of people around. The cable car ride was short, but it provided great views of the town, Lake Kawaguchiko, and Mt. Fuji.

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Wanting to get away from the crowds, I followed a short trail to an overlook.

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My minimal train running shoes do not well with mud and snow. 
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While admiring the view, I saw some monkeys which was a pretty neat. Much more ‘wild’ than the ones I saw near Nagano.

You’ve probably noticed the seemingly cute raccoon and bunny characters. They are based on a surprisingly violent Japanese fairy tale, simplified below:

A man and woman live together and own a vegetable patch. A raccoon starts stealing their vegetables, so the man catches it. The raccoon apologizes and cries for help but when the woman sets it free, it kills her.

The man was very angry and a rabbit offered to get revenge for the old man. The rabbit convinced the raccoon to carry some hay in exchange for a rice ball. When the raccoon carried the hay, the rabbit set the hay on fire, burning the raccoon.

The the rabbit appeared in a disguise and asked the raccoon if he wanted to go fishing. The rabbit built his boat out of wood, but convinced the raccoon to build his out of mud since he was heavier.

Out on the water, the raccoon’s boat begins to sink and cries out for help. But the rabbit began to hack at the boat with it’s paddle, and the raccoon eventually drowns. The man and rabbit live the rest of their days in peace.

All around the cable car area there were plenty of scenes from the story:

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After the ropeway, I took the bus partway around the lake. I caught it in plenty of time, but it was packed full and standing room only. I walked trying to find somewhere to eat, but ended up going back to the station to get pick up my luggage and grabbed lunch there.

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Hoto noodles are a famous local dish

Tired of waiting on the bus, I checked into my hostel and then rented a bike.

Accomodations for the night. Due to visiting in the off season, there was only one other person in the six bed room.
Accommodations for the night. Due to visiting in the off-season, there was only one other person in the six bed room.

Within minutes I remembered how much I enjoyed renting bikes when I traveled around Europe. You cover much more distance than walking and you can take in the sights and local scenes better than on a bus or train. You also can get away from the crowds pretty quickly.

I started by crossing the bridge over Lake Kawaguchiko and then a found a small park used mostly by fisherman. As I turned the corner I saw a girl standing overlooking Mt. Fuji which looked to make a good picture.

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I went up and showed it to her, and she asked if I could send it to her so I got her email address and sent her a copy later.

I stuck around the lake until after sunset then went back to the hostel to charge my cell phone.

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For dinner I took up the hostel’s recommendation and visited a local restaurant.

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The menu had some interesting options including bear and roasted frog.

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I decided to go with the sliced horse meat with onions and boar hoto noodle dish. I’m not someone who can describe culinary dishes with extreme detail, but I will say that I wouldn’t order the horse again. Still on the search for the elusive whale and dolphin meat though.

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On Sunday I decided to sleep in. I normally would wake up early for a sunrise shot, but the weather was supposed to be cloudless, which doesn’t make for very interesting sunrises. On top this, the sunrise is at 5:45 am and having woken up early the day before, I wasn’t ready to do it again.

Instead, I left my hostel at 9:00 am. I took some pictures around the lake, but the magical lighting that occurs at sunrise was already 3 hours gone. Instead I found a roadside stand and got grilled corn and beef (brushed with a teriyaki-type sauce) for breakfast, but at 900 yen it wasn’t a cheap breakfast.

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Around 11am, I decided to bike to Chureito Pagoda. It was about 3 miles away and took about 20 minutes thanks to being mostly downhill.

At the base, there is a large torii marking the entrance before you climb the 400 steps to the top. There’s no fee to enter and it’s open 24 hours a day.

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Riding back was a bit more challenging, but it wasn’t so bad that I wouldn’t do it again. There’s also a train station near Chureito Pagoda for those who don’t want to walk, drive, or take the train.

I got back to Kawaguchiko and decided to check out an Herb Museum. While the garden wasn’t in bloom, there was still a nice area in the greenhouse. I got some lavender ice cream and relaxed for a while.

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Looking at the weather and not wanting to get back late, I decided to skip the sunset and take a 4:00 pm train back to Higashi-Fussa.

I was lucky this weekend that the weather was so clear (I actually got a sunburn on my neck). A lot of people that come to Mt. Fuji can’t see it from a distance because it’s often covered by clouds. The best views are early in the morning, just after sunrise. Unfortunately, that means around 5:30 am. I didn’t catch a sunrise this time, but I definitely want to catch one when I get back. I’ve heard it’s the best time to see Mt. Fuji’s reflection in the lake.

Looking back, I didn’t get my money’s worth from the bus pass. Next time I’ll just rent a bicycle instead rather than waiting for a bus that only comes twice an hour. I’d much rather spend more money to save time.

I’m planning on returning to Mt. Fuji in a few weeks to see the cherry blossoms. They bloom a little bit later than in Tokyo so hopefully I can take another weekend trip to see them. I’m already starting to think about how to best catch the sunrise when I get back.

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate

Coming to Japan there were many things that I was prepared for ahead of time: the relatively low-carb diet, riding a bike to work, and even the compactness of my 230 sq. ft. apartment. But something I underestimated was the difficulty in talking to people. […]

Update on Japan

Update on Japan

I wanted to post an update on my trip to Japan. It’s been about two months since I moved to Japan and I have about three more months to go, so almost half way there. As expected, it’s been an interesting experience. One thing I […]

Land of the poorly-timed sun

Land of the poorly-timed sun

I’m convinced there is something wrong with Japan’s timezone.

Right now in early March, the sun sets at 5:30 pm. Not too bad, it’s winter right? Tokyo has roughly the same latitude as Raleigh, North Carolina so you would expect them to get the same amount of daylight. Which is true; both cities receive about 11.5 hours of daylight on March 1st.

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Fast forward a few months and not much has changed, other than longer days.

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But look at the hours of useable daylight, especially in late June.

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On the longest day of the year, the sun rises in Tokyo at an absurd 4:26 am and sets at 7:00 pm. Those hours in the morning serve no purpose as everyone still goes to work around 8:00 am and the trains don’t even run yet. Most stores (regardless of the time of year) don’t open until 10:00 am, including supermarkets.

Japan also does not use Daylight Saving Time. I’ve read that it’s common for people in Japan to work long hours during the week and relax on the weekend, whereas in the US most people leave work by 6 pm and have time in the evening for other activities, whether it be sports, church, or family time. Perhaps if Japan (specifically the eastern part) had more hours of usable daylight, there would be more time to recover during the week.

With how many signs are illuminated at night all over Japan, that extra energy could be saved by moving to Daylight Saving Time. I find it odd that a country that is so fanatic on conservation and energy efficiency hasn’t done this.

Cover photo by Ed Brambley via Flickr.

Related: Why is Japan kept in the dark? – japantimes.co.jp on 17 OCT 2006

Golden Week traveling

Golden Week traveling

If you’re not familiar, Golden Week is a week in late April and early May that has many close holidays in Japan. Most companies give their employees the week off. At JTEKT, we get from Apr 26th to May 5th off. Since I booked my […]

Snow skiing in Nagano

Snow skiing in Nagano

We met at work Saturday morning at 6:30 am to carpool for the ski trip. The only problem was that I didn’t have a way to get there so I had to bike. I left my apartment at 6:00 am and got there 20 minutes […]

The Tokyo skyline

The Tokyo skyline

Well it took me about a month, but I finally managed to get a good picture of the Tokyo skyline.

My first few attempts weren’t that great. I first tried the observation deck at the Bunkyo Civic Center. It’s free to take the elevator to the 25th floor and it has some nice panoramic views.

Picture from Guilhem Vellu via Flickr.
Picture from Guilhem Vellu via Flickr

I was able to get a good view of Shinjuku and Mt. Fuji, but to me the picture isn’t the best and the contrast is pretty flat. Granted Mt. Fuji is about 80 miles away and this was a pretty clear day, but I still wasn’t thrilled with it.

Shinjuku from the Bunkyo Civic Center with Mt. Fuji in the background

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Zoomed out view from the observatory

But last weekend I took a short trip to Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in southern Tokyo. The 20 mile train ride to Tokyo costs ¥800 one-way and takes about an hour.

Picture by ksenia_romanova via Flickr
Mori tower shown on the right. Picture by ksenia_romanova via Flickr

The trip to the 52nd floor with the observation deck costs ¥1500, but for an extra ¥500 you can go to the City View deck on the roof and walk around the helipad.

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The photographer in the background will take your picture and then ask you to buy a print later.
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But she also didn’t have a problem taking a picture with my camera, as long as I took one with her camera first. Nice of them to do that.

I went back downstairs in time to catch the sunset and got some pictures I’m happy with. If you’re interested in seeing them larger, visit my Flickr site here http://www.flickr.com/photos/mszelistowski/ or click on the image to see it full size.

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I’m really happy with the last picture. I didn’t have my tripod with me so I had to place my camera on the ground next to the glass window. I used my bunched-up jacket as a make-shift tripod so I could get it framed properly and make the horizon level. The exposure was 20 seconds as evident by the light trails in the bottom right.

I definitely think I’ll print a large copy when I get back to Greenville. I’ve got a few other pictures in mind that I want to take before I leave and I’ll make more posts when that happens.

Lack of traveling

Lack of traveling

The business trip to Osaka went well. I wasn’t able to see much besides the manufacturing facility and my hotel, but that was expected on such a short trip. Hopefully next time I’ll get to spend longer and see the cities of Osaka or Nara. […]

Snowpocalypse 2014

Snowpocalypse 2014

Over the weekend Tokyo got 10 inches of snow, with Fussa City collecting closer to a foot of snow! I’ve experienced snow like this when I lived in Rhode Island, but 12 inches in 24 hours didn’t happen very often. It was an unusually high […]

Sushi Santa

Sushi Santa

Near the Yokota Air Force base there is a sushi restaurant called Sushi Santa. From my apartment, it takes me 3 minutes on my bike.

Inside is a sushi bar that can seat at most 15 people. It has a family atmosphere, where the chef and his (presumably) wife know almost everyone who walks in.

They have an english menu which is a photo album with different kinds of sushi shown. Each roll has a white, red, or black sticker on it, indicating its price: white is ¥150, red is ¥280, and black is ¥410.

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You can order each roll individually throughout your meal or everything at once. The chef will make the rolls and then reach over the counter and place them on your board. I think most people order them as they go.

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Regular tuna (front left), Chutoro - fatty tuna (front right), and Ohtoro - very fatty tuna (back). Prices are ¥150, ¥280, and ¥410, respectively.
Regular tuna (front left), Chutoro – fatty tuna (front right), and Ohtoro – very fatty tuna (back). Prices are ¥150, ¥280, and ¥410, respectively.

To pay, the chef counts the colored chopsticks in your container. As usual in Japan, tax is included and no tipping. I ended up paying 1440 yen for my dinner.

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It’s a great concept and being so close while the chef makes the rolls was entertaining. I’m sure I’ll be coming back here plenty of times in the next 5 months.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

My first stop on my trip this past weekend was to Matsumoto Castle. Getting there was a bit of a challenge. I left my apartment at 6:30 am, went into Tokyo and then took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano. I then grabbed a local […]

Upcoming weekend trip: Nagano and Matsumoto

Upcoming weekend trip: Nagano and Matsumoto

I booked my lodging and this weekend I’ll be taking a trip to Nagano Prefecture. I’ll be leaving from my apartment (near Hachioji on the map) to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano where I’ll be spending two nights. On my way back, I’ll […]

Helping teach English in Nakano

Helping teach English in Nakano

Yesterday was an interesting day. I bit the bullet and bought some cooking supplies and made my first meal since I arrived in Japan two weeks ago. My extremely small kitchen was finally put to use.

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Five eggs
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The whole milk here is 3.6% compared to ~3.25% back in the US.

At noon, I went to meet a coworker in Nakano, about an hour away by train. He was giving a test preparation course for TOEIC, Test of English for International Communication – used to determine the everyday English skills of non-native speakers working in a professional environment. He asked me to help read some of the sections and answer student’s questions.

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Notice the pocket translators on the desks

Although I couldn’t understand most of the Japanese instruction, it was pretty interesting. I was asked ‘What’s the difference between “Why don’t we go to the store?” and “Let’s go to the store.”‘ Things that just come automatically must be pretty difficult for a non-native speaker. The questions on the practice test varied in difficultly. Some were pretty straightforward and even funny, but probably not intentionally:

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Others were a bit more difficult. There were spoken dialogues between multiple people that were played through speakers. The dialogue wasn’t typed out in the test booklet and was played only once. Then there were three printed questions for each dialogue. Those were a bit tougher and even if your English is excellent, if you weren’t paying attention you would get it wrong.

I took the test with the rest of the class at the end. We didn’t check our scores immediately, but I’m fairly certain I got them all right. The 100 questions for the listening portion took about an hour.

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Afterwards, I played some pool in the lounge area with the students. It was a nice Brunswick table but I don’t think it got used much. Luckily the rules of 9-ball are pretty universal.

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I went back to my apartment in time for dinner at the most American restaurant I’ve been able to find in Fussa so far: Zuccotto.

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I ordered two cheeseburgers with avocados. The waitress had to go get someone who spoke better English to make sure I wanted two of them (second time this has happened to me). I finally remembered to bring my camera along, so I managed to get a meal picture. I’ll probably do this more often as it turns out much better than just using my phone.

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I should be getting a Japanese iPhone this week which should help with getting around and translating. Other than the gym, I don’t have any major plans this week, but I might take a trip next weekend.  More to come on that later.

How to ride Local trains in Japan

How to ride Local trains in Japan

When you arrive at a train station, you’ll see the ticket center. It will often have a large map overhead that has all the train stops in Japanese Kanji. The red arrow indicates where you are and the numbers indicate how much it will cost to […]

A gym membership then Krispy Kreme

A gym membership then Krispy Kreme

Saturday I decided to find a different gym and do some shopping. I did more research online earlier in the week and found out the Gold’s Gyms in Japan have squat racks. The closest one to me was located in Hachioji, 30 minutes away by train. Looking up […]

More company meals and almost a gym membership

More company meals and almost a gym membership

This past week has been mostly meals with coworkers. I haven’t gotten a lot a time to myself so far, but plan to go into Tokyo this weekend.

On Wednesday, the 15th, we ate at Dohton Bori, a cook-it-yourself restaurant. The food is served to you raw and comes with pancake-like batter which you cook in the skillet at your table. Instead of chairs, you sit on padded cushions and leave your shoes at the front entrance, taking the wooden key with you.

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Instructions

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It tasted a lot better than it looks

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After dinner, I tried to join a gym. I knew exactly what I wanted: a gym with a squat rack that’s open late and within 45 minutes by train.

Earlier I did research online and found out squat racks aren’t very common in Japan. Understandably, since Japan isn’t known for their weightlifting. Instead, gyms are filled with cardio equipment and resistance machines. There are some CrossFit gyms, but those are small and located 45 minutes away – not going to work on a regular basis.

I first tried to join a gym called Megalos. It’s a chain of gyms – or sports clubs as they’re called in Japan – that have a lot of amenities: a lap pool, sauna, indoor golf driving range, nice locker rooms, and of course a gym.

The closest one to me was located in Tachikawa, a medium-sized city by Japan standards, which seems larger due to the high-rise buildings and tons of people.  It was about 17 minutes away by train, not including the 10 minute walk to the station.

I arrived at Megalos, but found out I could only get a gym membership with a bank account, which I didn’t have. I tried to offer paying six months ahead of time with cash, but the receptionist shook her head no. To get a bank account, I needed a phone number and free time to visit a bank on the weekday, which I didn’t have. Discouraged, I went home.

On Thursday, we went to another cook-it-yourself type restaurant. This one had an open fire grill at each table and you ordered as much food as you wanted for a set price. They were pretty strict about time limits as they even had a sign in English.

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Beef tongue – nothing too special but worth trying once

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My last organized meal with coworkers was on Friday night when we went to a sushi restaurant. Like the past two nights, we had to take off our shoes and put them in lockers at the entrance. The sushi was really good, as was the generous amount of mixed drinks and sake. We started off with some small plates, then ordered large portions of sushi.

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Squid with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce
Fried chicken cartilage. It was soft like fried chicken, but also crunchy at the same time. It made an audible pop when you bit into it. Again, not my favorite dish so far
Fried chicken cartilage. It was soft like fried chicken, but also crunchy at the same time. It made an audible pop when you bit into it. Again, not my favorite dish so far
Fish liver - would prefer not to eat again
Fish liver – would prefer not to eat again

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Our main sushi dish – it was excellent.

Finally, a pro-tip for those of you who stuck around until the end. If you’re ever find yourself eating sushi in Japan and want to score bonus points with the natives, learn how to properly put soy sauce on your sushi roll.

Do not dip your sushi roll into the small container of soy sauce, regardless of how little soy sauce you soak up.

This is what you don't want to do.
This is what you don’t want to do.

Instead, pick up the pickled ginger (Japanese: gari) and use it to lightly coat the rolls.

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After multiple drinks, it was time to bike home. I’m very thankful I was able to visit these different restaurants within my first week of arriving. The people I work with have been very welcoming and while the language difference causes some problems, it’s always fun pulling out our smart phones and using Google Translate to understand each other.

Car accident while riding my bike

Car accident while riding my bike

Well it was bound to happen eventually. On my way home from work yesterday, I was biking along the main road in the area. It’s two lanes wide on each side with a raised median, but there’s a generous sidewalk where the bicycles ride. I […]

First few days of work

First few days of work

The first few days of work have been interesting. About 5 people in my office speak English (including me) so it’s been fun trying to learn as much Japanese as possible. Google translate has become my new best friend. I had to draw a picture […]

More exploring and another company meal

More exploring and another company meal

Similar to yesterday morning, I woke up well before the sunrise. I don’t normally sleep in, but now I can’t sleep in past 6:00 am.
I had free time this morning so after doing my pull-ups in the park, I set out to explore Fussa on my bike. I first stopped by Marufuji, a local grocery store to get some snacks.
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This time I went towards the air force base. Even in Fussa city – away from the air force base – it’s not uncommon to see Americans. I’m getting to the point where I don’t think twice about it. I probably don’t stick out as much as I would near the office.
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I headed south-east on Base Road (as it’s called) until I found a bagel shop I read about prior to arriving in Japan.
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I ordered a whole wheat bagel with blueberry cream cheese and a strawberry crepe. I connected to the free wi-fi and caught up on American news while enjoying my non-Japanese breakfast.
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The restaurant also let’s you pay in US dollars due to the large American influence.
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There’s a number of other western style restaurants and shops along this road that I’ll have to check out later. On a side note, I’ve noticed not many places (including grocery stores) open before 9 am.
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I stopped by a pharmacy store very similar to CVS and picked up what is definitely shaving cream and most likely face wash. I still need to get contact solution, but I might wait until I run low on the one I packed first.
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At 3:00 pm, I went to my manager’s house for a meal with two other coworkers. He picked me up in his car. Every time I enter a car here I try to do it on the right side which in Japan is the driver’s side. The person driving just kind of stops and stares at me for a while until I realize I’m trying to get into the driver’s seat. Typical American. On top of this, I have a bad habit of looking the wrong way when about to cross a road, but it’s something I’m getting better at.
The meal was great. His wife prepared a ton of food for us including everything from dumplings, fresh fruit, cheese, shrimp/crawfish, and pizza. I played with their dog, a cocker spaniel, who sadly doesn’t know any English but does recognize the gesture for paw. The meal lasted for 4 hours. Sorry, but no pictures.
When I returned home, I fell asleep early again as usual. Tomorrow is my first day of work and (Takahiko) Sato-san is meeting me in front of my apartment at 8:00 am to bike to work together so I don’t get lost.
Shopping, working out, and raw horse meat

Shopping, working out, and raw horse meat

I didn’t have to work today (Saturday) which was a welcome surprise, so I set out to explore Fussa city on my bike. I rode down near the train station and parked my bike in front of Mister Donuts. Not knowing if I had to […]

Welcome dinner, a bicycle, and 7-Eleven for two meals

Welcome dinner, a bicycle, and 7-Eleven for two meals

Despite just arriving, I didn’t have any problems falling asleep on Friday night. I stayed up until 12:30 pm on my computer and woke up around 6:30 am. For breakfast, I went to 7-Eleven as I don’t have any pots or pans yet. Not entirely […]

Moving in to apartment and first meal in Japan

Moving in to apartment and first meal in Japan

After meeting Saki, we quickly bought train tickets. The airport is on the far east side of Tokyo and we had to pass through Shinjuku (red dot) in order to get to Fussa Station, where my apartment is located. I was going to stay in a hotel for my first night, but Saki checked into my apartment earlier and I could move in when I arrived.

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The ticket cost the ¥4700, or about  $47. I didn’t bring any yen with me, but luckily my Charles Schwab debit card worked without a problem. I couldn’t use my American Express corporate card because the self service kiosk required a PIN and the airport currency exchange was going to charge me $75 to exchange $600 into yen, so I passed. I grabbed my luggage, tickets and boarded the train with Saki.

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Not my picture, but it looked like this with the window curtains raised

The train was about half full and extremely quiet. A woman passed by with a cart of food and drinks and although I didn’t get anything, the prices looked pretty cheap: $3 for a whiskey and coke.

On the way there, Saki gave me laminated sheets of the neighborhood where I’ll be living, pointing out restaurants and grocery stores. He set up his phone to broadcast a wifi signal so I was able to connect with my iPad. We talked sports for a bit and I showed him highlight videos of the NHL including a line brawl and goals. Hockey obviously isn’t big in Japan, but I saw there is an Asia Hockey League and they have a few games in Tokyo I might try to watch.

I also got a cell phone paid for by the company. I’m not sure if it has internet access or not, but I’d like to get one that does. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an iPhone, but I could use it as a wifi hotspot and connect to it using my personal iPhone. With Skype downloaded, I could call back home pretty cheaply.

We changed trains in Tachikawa to more of a subway type car. This train was also extremely quiet and not very crowded since it was 9:30pm on a Thursday. Not only was the physical train quiet, but no one said anything. No one was talking on their phones and you could hear someone opening a bag of chips 40 feet away at the other end of the car.

We arrived in Fussa Station around 10 pm, 2 hours after leaving the airport. I did a good amount of research before arriving, including the Google Street View of Fussa Station, and it looked like I thought it would. I turned a corner and knew where things were before seeing them, including the Mister Donut and McDonald’s.

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We stopped at a curry restaurant and I ate my first meal in Japan: beef curry with a chicken cutlet and a caesar salad. I counted 7 Americans in a restaurant that seats about 20. Looks like a good amount of people from the military get off base.

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We took a taxi to a 7-Eleven and I withdrew $500 dollars, or ¥50000 from the ATM. 7-Eleven is one of the few places in Japan that has 24/7 ATMs; most ATMs only work during business hours. The Charles Schwab online checking account I have doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees and also refunds any ATM fees, domestic or international. For a six months assignment abroad, this makes a big difference. If you’re planning on taking a long trip, I’d definitely look into it.

We walk about a minute to my apartment door with my bags. We pass through a gate with a four digit code and go into my apartment. It looks exactly like I thought it would. This is normal housing for one person. I’ll make another post later with pictures of my unit.

I thank Saki and get settled in. The first thing I did was unpack my laptop and tried out the internet. I plugged in the ethernet cord and typed in the LeoPalace user name and password and connected without a problem. I then unpacked my wireless router I brought from the US and plugged it into the wall. No problem there either. That’s a big deal to me. I don’t watch much TV, but it would be extremely difficult to not have wifi for six months.

Everything is going well until I try to take a shower. I don’t have a towel, but figure it’s not a big deal. I turn on the shower and find the blue faucet works, but the red one doesn’t: no hot water. Not only that, but the cold water is ice cold. After traveling since Wednesday morning at 4 am and being in four different airports, a nice hot shower on Thursday night would have been nice. Looks like that will wait until Friday. I settle into bed, turn on my heater, and start typing on my computer.

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Controlled by remote control, makes it easier to restart it after three hours

All is well until my heater turns off. The heater has some kind of timer on it. I do some research online and find that the LeoPalace heaters turn off automatically after three hours. Discouraged, I turn it on high and try to get some sleep.

Travel day (updated, but boring)

Travel day (updated, but boring)

Too long, didn’t read: Long travel day, United 747 is not recommended, arrived in Japan My flights got changed again, the sixth time in 36 hours. The flight out of Greenville was cancelled again so the remainder of my flights were cancelled. It was assumed […]

Flights cancelled – leaving tomorrow?

Flights cancelled – leaving tomorrow?

I was originally going to fly out Tuesday at 7:00 am. That didn’t happen.  Due to the weather, United has allowed passengers to change their flights without incurring fees. Good thing because in the past 24 hours, I’ve had 5 different flights to Tokyo that have […]

Last minute preparation

Last minute preparation

I finally moved everything into my 10′ x 10′ storage unit on Saturday with some much needed help. Besides moving sofas down two flights of stairs, it went pretty well. One of the good things about a one bedroom apartment is it’s hard to accumulate a lot of stuff, so the packing and moving went quickly. 

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Also in preparation for Japan, I’ve been enjoying my favorite meals here in the United States. In the past week I’ve eaten 4 Five Guys burgers, nachos, wings, waffles, Chick-fil-A, and doughnuts. I should be set for eating rice for the next five months.

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Pro tip: The key to success at Five Guys is to order 2 (double) Cheeseburgers, no fries, and no drink. 1680 calories and 94 g of protein for $13.60

On the other hand, one of the first things I need to do when I get to Japan is find a gym, preferably with a squat rack. I’ve done some research and it looks like there might be one 20 minutes away by train. There’s a few CrossFit gyms over there, but they all seem to be >45 minutes away, so if I try those, it would likely only be on the weekends.

I received my passport back with my Japanese visa last week, so I should be all set. My only concern now is the weather. Hopefully tomorrow goes smoothly, but I’m anticipating some delayed flights due to the coldest weather in 20 years hitting the midwest. My flights got changed this morning, but I’m still flying out tomorrow morning out of Greenville. I’m flying to Newark, then to Chicago, and then finally to Tokyo, using United Airlines. Hopefully it’s not too bad:

United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Ryan said about 200 mainline and 1,300 United Express flights were canceled so far this morning, but that those numbers would change throughout the day. The airline is based in Chicago.

“Thankfully, at least here in Chicago the snow has stopped falling,” she said. “But we are experiencing record low temperatures. That still has an impact on our operations.”

She said the airline canceled flights proactively to prevent customers from traveling to the airport in freezing temperatures and give them enough time to reschedule flights online.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2014/01/06/flights-cancellations-delays-winter-storm/4337773/

Keeping my fingers crossed…

Photographing the Tampa Skyline

Photographing the Tampa Skyline

While home for Christmas, I wanted to photograph the skyline of Tampa. Being on the water, I knew it would make for some nice reflections. After doing some research, I decided to shoot from the Platt St. bridge which looks north towards downtown. Looking it […]

Airline tickets, Japanese visa, and moving

Airline tickets, Japanese visa, and moving

Things have been picking up quickly. First off, I’ve started to build a custom Google Map with the location of my apartment, work, and other notable landmarks to get myself oriented. Between that and the bird’s eye view in Bing Maps, I have a pretty […]

My apartment in Japan

My apartment in Japan

In picking where I wanted to live, I decided to stay near Fussa which is on the western side of Tokyo and close to work. It is also home to a United States Air Base, Yokota Air Base, so there’s a good amount of Americans in the area.

After looking at some options with the apartment company Leopalace, I decided on the apartment complex below. The pictures were taken from their website.

It’s around 200 square feet.

Bed
Bed
Dining room table and desk
Dining room table and desk
Kitchen
Kitchen – look at that counter space!
Floorplan
Floorplan – Japanese toilets are often in a separate room from the shower/tub

Needless to say, it’s going to be different. It won’t be furnished so I’ll be finding a pillow and a mattress as soon as I arrive. It also won’t have an oven, clothes drier, or counter space.  But I just view it as staying in a dorm room for six months – shouldn’t be too bad.

Getting to work

I won’t have a car in Japan so my options for getting to work are the train or biking.

By train:

From my apartment (at the bottom of the map) to Fussa train station is a 10 minute walk. I’ll take the train northwest for two stops which takes ~5 minutes. From Ozaku station, it’s a 21 minute walk to where I’ll be working (the red marker). Total time ~36 min

By train

By bike: 

I think I’ll have access to a bike over there, so if I follow the main street (249), I could probably get there in about 15 minutes. I’ll probably bike to work fairly often. Hopefully it doesn’t rain very often.

By bike

It looks like the road 249 is fairly wide with dedicated bike lanes based on Google Street View, so it shouldn’t take me more than 15 minutes.

Street view of Japan
Notice the 7-Eleven on the right – Japan has about 3.5x the population of similar-sized California, but also has twice as many 7-Elevens as the whole United States.

I’m looking forward to my trip and I keep saying, if anything, it’s going to be something completely different.

33 days until I fly out.

Moving to Japan

Moving to Japan

In early January, I’ll be moving to Tokyo, Japan for six months for work (I consider anything longer than 3 months moving rather than traveling). I work for a Japanese bearing company and my main assignment will be understanding how bearings are designed, manufactured, and […]

Flying back to Greenville

Flying back to Greenville

As planned, I woke up at 3:30am. I took a quick shower and packed my things up. Luckily there were no problems with transportation, as the taxi I reserved was waiting for me outside. We arrived at Ljubljana airport around 4:30am and I didn’t have […]

Lake Bohinj

Lake Bohinj

The paragliding company takes us back to Bled and I decide to give Lake Bohinj another try. It takes about 40 minutes to get there. I grab a large lunch at a grocery store and sit by the water and watch a sailboat regatta. The water is unbelievably clear – you can see the shadows of the fish swimming in it.

Lunch – those crackers were really good, similar to Nature Valley’s Oat’s and Honey bars

I get in the car and drive to the other end of the lake. At about twice the size of Lake Bled, it’s 2.7 miles long. With the weather still relatively clear, I decide to take a cable car to the top of Mt. Vogel. It had some incredible views of the lake and Slovenia’s mountains. The peak hidden by the clouds but above the sign is Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain and the name of it’s national park.

I grab a hot chocolate at the top and take in the view before heading back down.

Running out of time in the day, I drive back towards Bled. Since I moved out of my hostel earlier this morning, I drive to where I’m staying tonight: Jazz Hostel. He shows me my room and I write my last postcards. After cleaning out the rental car, I fill up at a gas station then drop it off in the parking lot of a hotel, giving the keys to the front desk as instructed since the Europcar office was closed. I drove about 780 km, or ~500 miles in the four days I had it.

Ended up sending about 13 postcards during the 15 days I traveled!
Ended up sending about 13 postcards during the 15 days I traveled!

I walk back towards my hostel, making a detour to get pizza for dinner. I’ve had more pizza on this trip in two weeks than I’ve had in the 6 months before I left.

I gather my things and pack. I lie down in bed around 7:30pm, and after browsing the internet for a bit, I fall asleep. With waking up tomorrow at 3:30am, I need all the sleep I could get.

Paragliding in Slovenia

Paragliding in Slovenia

At 10:30am, it was time for me to head towards Triglav Adventures for paragliding. One good thing about paragliding as opposed to skydiving is that the flight lasts 20-30 minutes. On the downside though, you can’t hire someone else to jump to take pictures or […]

Morning in Bled, Slovenia

Morning in Bled, Slovenia

Again on Saturday morning I woke up with the intention of photographing the sunrise. I parked in such a way that it would be impossible for someone to block me in – lesson learned there. I’m changing hostels today because I’m waking up at 3:30am […]

Bled: Vintgar Gorge and Kozjak Waterfall

Bled: Vintgar Gorge and Kozjak Waterfall

I woke up early this morning to hike to an overlook for sunrise shots. I didn’t wake up quite early enough, but I still leave my room around 7:00am. But I’m quickly disappointed when I see that the hostel’s van has blocked my rental car in.

I call the phone number and after the second call, someone sleepily picks up. I tell them that I’m blocked in and that I need to get out. He says he’s 45 minutes away. Not wanting to waste any more time, I just walk from my hostel. While I just wanted to get some pictures, I could have been trying to drive to the airport for an early flight and that could have caused me to miss it. Not a huge fan of this hostel or the people running it.

I think I’ve decided that next time I travel like this, I’m just going to spring the money for hotel rooms. While it would easily double the cost of my lodging, it would be worth it to not put up with stuff like this. And I’m not the partying type like most people in hostels; I just stay there because it’s cheap. I’m more interested in waking up early to get pictures than staying out late to drink.

After walking I get to the parking lot of the trailhead 45 minutes later. I quickly discover that hiking with photography gear isn’t much fun and there’s a big difference between 45 minutes on a flat trail, and 45 minutes climbing stairs and tree roots.

I get to an overlook at the halfway point and decide the weather isn’t worth it to continue to the top. I take a few pictures then head back down. I do manage to get another picture of the island a bit later, but hopefully I can come back another day for a better one.

The weather was like this ever since I arrived in Bled

With a couple of hours to kill before meeting for paragliding at 12:30pm, I pick up my car (now that the van moved) and head to Vintgar Gorge. This natural gorge is a mile long and only 10 minutes outside of Bled by car.  Similar to Plitvice National Park in Croatia, there’s wooden boardwalks taking you over the river and waterfalls. It offers some pretty views and the overcast skies worked in my favor for the pictures.

I head back to my hostel and grab some lunch then park my car downtown closer to Triglav Adventures. I walk in 30 minutes early and the guy working the front desk tells me that the weather isn’t good for paragliding. It’s not hot enough and the sun isn’t out, so rather than riding the thermals, we’d just go for a 5 minute flight – not really worth it. He says to come back tomorrow at 9am.

Chicken kebab – €9 including 0.5l of Coke

Disappointed, but not wanting to waste any time, I head out in search of a waterfall named Kozjak. I only have directions from the name of a town so I type it into my GPS and it says 90 minutes away. Not having anything else to do, I set off.

The GPS takes me an hour through windy roads in the Slovenian mountains. Every 10 minutes or so, the woman giving directions in the GPS keep saying “Recalculating…”, but there clearly wasn’t anywhere to turn. After some time, I get to an opening and the roads get straighter and the speed limit increases to 80 km/hr.

I didn’t realize it until I get there, but this town is actually quite close to where I was Thursday after crossing Vršič Pass and heading into the valley, except this time I drove through another valley to get there. With a little bit more planning I would have realized this earlier, but the drive did pass some good views; there are worst places to waste time.

I park in a small gravel lot and walk the 20 minutes to the waterfall. Luckily this hike was short and flat. As I get closer, I follow the boardwalks that are attached to the sides of the rock hanging 15 feet above the river. It wasn’t too terribly high, but there weren’t any handrails so I took my time. The shoes I brought were my Merrell trail running shoes which strangely enough don’t offer any traction at all.

Rounding the corner, I see the waterfalls and the emerald pool below it. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the waterfall is almost 50 ft tall and if the weather was better, I’m sure people would be swimming in the large pool below it.

Satisfied with the pictures I took, I head back to my car and decide to follow the Vršič Pass back to Bled. The skies clear up a bit so I stop for some more pictures. This time I’m stopped by sheep walking in the road.

What a cool place to play soccer!
I went for a bounce on this for a bit
I returned to Bled and got some pictures of the lake before I returned to my hostel.
I started gathering my things as I have to check out tomorrow morning – I’m spending my last night in a private room of a different hostel because I have to wake up at 3:30am on Sunday for my flight.
Surprised with good weather in Slovenia – at least for a couple hours

Surprised with good weather in Slovenia – at least for a couple hours

Note: This will likely be my last blog post until I get back to Greenville. It takes too long to upload pictures and I’ve got to wake up at 4:15am on Sunday so I’ll need to catch up on sleep. I’ll update this blog with […]

Bled, Slovenia – Caves and castles

Bled, Slovenia – Caves and castles

In planning my trip months ago, (not an exaggeration – I booked my hostels in mid-May), I reserved a rental car, mainly to do a self-guided tour of the Julian Alps. Seeing as how the next two days are going to be overcast and raining […]

Travel day – Arriving in Slovenia

Travel day – Arriving in Slovenia

I woke at 5:45am – plenty of time to get ready, shower, and pack up my things. I checked out of my hotel and got to the bus stop at 6:20am. The bus came pretty close to on time, and after paying to check my large backpack again, I got a row to myself in the back.

The bus arrived in Zagreb around 9:30am. Instead of trying to figure out public transportation to the train station, I just paid the $10 for a taxi, something I have a bad habit of doing. Sometimes its just worth the money to not deal with the hassle of carrying your bags any more than you have to. The taxi cost about $10 and I bought my ticket for the 12:30pm train to Bled.

Train ticket counter in Zagreb. Be sure to notice international tickets are only available in counters 10 and 11.
First hand written train ticket I’ve ever gotten. Cost from Zagreb to Bled: 173 kuna or $30.33
Outside waiting area
I spent my time waiting for the train by doing some sketching on a park bench. It was cold – glad I brought this jacket. No pants though – that could be a mistake in Slovenia where its in the 40s at night. 
It wasn’t anything special, but at least the proportions were correct. Next I need to concentrate on doing it in pen and using different hatching techniques. 
The train was right on time and I grabbed a compartment with two guys from New Zealand and Germany. The ride went pretty smoothly, but was interrupted by the border control and ticket agents at least 5 times. At least I got some more stamps in my passport. I spent the ride falling in and out of sleep, then sticking my head out the window once we get to Slovenia.
I arrived in Bled at 4:00pm to overcast skies and on the verge of rain. It’s forecasted to be like this for the next couple days and then clear up for Friday and Saturday. Oh well, I’ll have to make the best of it.
Once again I used a taxi instead of figuring out the buses. Slovenia is on the Euro and its a little bit more affluent than Croatia and Bosnia, so things cost more here. A 3 mile, 15 minute taxi ride costs me €15, or $20, where as in Bosnia, it was less than $5.
Bled train station
The taxi drops me off at the wrong hostel and he leaves before I figure it out. I know I was close though, but I have a hard time finding it. I finally (stubbornly) ask for directions and then check in to a 4 bed room. No picture of the hostel yet, but I’ll take some before I leave.
I decided to walk near the lake to get my orientation. I walk past this building and after looking at the apparel in the front windows, I immediately know what it is.
A hockey rink!
They had a practice session for some young kids so I watch for a bit and take some videos. It was pretty neat hearing the coaches giving instructions in Slovene. Ice hockey isn’t huge in Slovenia, but there is one famous player: Anže Kopitar. He plays for the Los Angeles Kings and won the Stanley Cup with them in 2012. Either way, it was an interesting and unique thing to see.
I then go into a casino to exchange my kunas for euros, one of the only places you can do this after 5pm. Despite the attractive top-heavy waitress, it was mostly empty and extremely quiet. I guess it picks up during the summer tourist season, which I just missed. I continue walking and climbing the steps to Bled Castle, but most of the sites were closed so I decided to go back another day. 
Bled Castle on the top left
Bled has some neat looking trash cans! 🙂

I grabbed an early dinner at a Chili (singular, no ‘s’), a mexican restaurant. Despite my expectations, it was actually pretty good!

I then stop by an ice cream place and get two scoops: strawberry and lime.

€2.20 – again in Bosnia this would have cost less than half of  that!

I finally get back to my hostel and drop my clothes off in a bag for laundry (€10). They say it will be ready in the morning, but no idea if that means 8am or 11am. I read through the guidebook trying to figure out what to do tomorrow due to the weather and then fall asleep with thunder in the distance and strobes of lightning bouncing off the wall.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

In order to beat the crowds I witnessed yesterday afternoon, I got an early breakfast at the hotel and set out for the trails again, this time concentrating on the Upper Lakes. And here are the ‘real’ pictures: A little before noon, the crowds started […]

Financial update

Financial update

Of what I’ve had budgeted for this trip, I have $2743.47 that I haven’t spent yet. I then counted the money I have on me: In wallet: 1310 kuna,  ~$230 $200 €100, ~$130 Hidden inside large backpack: $100 So that means I really have about […]

Travel playlist

Travel playlist

I’ve been keeping a list of all the songs I recognize while traveling in Europe, some were heard from street performers, others in the airport or a hostel. When I get back, I’ll create a playlist later and it will be like a soundtrack from my trip.
List will be updated as I hear more songs.
– Just the way you are – Bruno Mars
– Someone like you – Adele
– That’s what makes you beautiful – One Direction
– Get Lucky – Daft Punk (like 100x!)
– Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
– It had to be you – Frank Sinatra
– Don’t know why I didn’t call – Norah Jones
– More than words – Extreme
– Learn to love again – Pink
– 22 – Taylor Swift
– Easy like Sunday Morning – Lionel Richie
– Sitting on the dock of the bay – Otis Redding
– Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
– One – U2
– Knocking on heaven’s door – Bob Dylan
– Ain’t no sunshine – Bill Withers
– No woman no cry – Bob Marley
– Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke (hate this one)
– Apologize – OneRepublic
– 21 Guns – Green Day
– Some nights – Fun
– Wild – Jessie J
– Ain’t no other man – Christina Aguilera
Day 1: Plitvice Lakes National Park

Day 1: Plitvice Lakes National Park

I woke up this morning 30 minutes before my alarm at 6:15am. I felt back to normal and hungry. I quickly took a shower, shaved for the first time on my trip, and put in my contacts for the first time in days. Already feeling […]

Shared my bed for the first time on my trip

Shared my bed for the first time on my trip

Well this was unexpected. I came back from dinner and lied down in my bed. I heard some scratching, but I just assumed it was just loud sheets. 2 minutes later, my sheets are moving. I get up and chase this guy around my room […]

Split to Plitvice Lakes National Park

Split to Plitvice Lakes National Park

This morning I woke up feeling better, but still not back to normal. I got out of bed around 8:00am after lying down yesterday around 4:00pm.  If nothing else, I feel more rested. I was planning on going to a Crossfit gym this morning, but that wasn’t going to happen. I decide to leave my things in my room and walk back to the bus station to get my ticket for later that day. Somehow the walk seems really short with out my two backpacks.
How I spent my time in Split
How I spent my time in Split

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The most I saw in Split were crowded sidewalks and the bus station
The most I saw in Split were crowded sidewalks and the bus station

I bought a ticket for the 12:05pm bus to Plitvice, which costs 162 kuna, or $28. On my way back, I picked up the first food I’d eaten in 24 hours.

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The Powerade was warm and I only ate one slice of the pizza, but it was good to finally eat something. I was also running low on toothpaste so I bought another travel size and some shaving cream.

The rest of the morning I spent typing up blog posts. Between the 13 hour tour and getting sick, I haven’t had much time to type them out, so sorry about that! I make a new post for each day, but as you can tell, some of them don’t come for a couple days later.

I checked out of my room and left for the bus station at 11:15 am. I got on the bus and had a seat to myself for most of the trip. This bus had shaded windows and I didn’t have anyone sitting next to me, so it was a good ride, but still lasted 5 hours.

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The bus arrived at a small bus stop at 6:15 pm. I got my bag from the storage area below the bus then followed the signs to my hotel. After checking in and leaving my passport at the front desk, I went to my room, a mere 20 feet away.

Unassuming bus stop. Don't get on the wrong side of the road, or you'll be going the wrong way
Unassuming bus stop. Don’t get on the wrong side of the road, or you’ll be going the wrong way
Exterior of my hotel
Exterior of my hotel
My room, complete with a balcony and an open window (important later)
My room, complete with a balcony and an open window (important later)

I dropped off my large backpack, took my camera backpack, and headed out towards the lakes. I followed the main roads and passed a lot of people.

Something tells me I'm going the wrong way

Sure enough, I was. While the park doesn’t actually close, the ticket office closes at 5 pm, 1.5 hours before I got there. Oh well, I’m spending 3 nights here and Rick Steves recommends just a half a day, so I should be fine. I can always get there when the ticket office opens at 7 am tomorrow morning. I hope the weather gets a bit less sunny though, will make for better pictures of the waterfalls.

I headed back towards my hotel and passed another hotel inside the park, Hotel Plitvice. While I wasn’t terribly hungry, I figured I should go ahead and order something, my hotel doesn’t have a restaurant. When I was seated, I was the only one there at 6:30pm.

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60 kuna or $10.40 for the four cheese pasta and beef soup

I barely ate any of the pasta, but finished all the soup. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll feel back to normal.

Not my favorite day so far

Not my favorite day so far

If I could have gone home this morning, without having to pay for a ridiculously expensive plane ticket, I probably would have. I stopped counting how many times I threw up last night after 10 and probably spent more time in the bathroom than in […]

Last full day in Mostar

Last full day in Mostar

Today (Thursday) I slept in until 8:00 am or so, then got some hot breakfast made downstairs by Majda. It was similar to french toast and with jelly. Very good. After eating, I took some time to catch up on my blog posts. Because the […]

First full day in Mostar – tour with Batas

First full day in Mostar – tour with Batas

I decided to take a tour of the local area with Batas, the brother of the woman who runs the hostel. I originally was going to rent a car and do many of these things by myself, but decided this would be a better choice. Here are the highlights with links and pictures; I didn’t get too take many pictures, so where possible I included the source.

Our first stop outside of Mostar was the town of Medjugorje, a popular Catholic pilgrimage site due to apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Six local children saw the Virgin Mary about thirty years ago and it has been a religious site ever since, but its not recognized by the Vatican. Our guide tells us nothing was here 30 years ago until the children saw the apparitions.

Next we stopped at Kravice Falls to go swimming. There were 9 other 20-somethings on the tour, 5 Australians, 2 Americans, 1 Briton, and 1 Turk – it was a lot of fun climbing and jumping in the waterfalls with them.

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From there, we went to Počitelj, a historic town southeast of Mostar. Bata gave us a history lesson as we watched the sun set behind the hills.

Afterwards, we were welcomed into a older woman’s house (one of 12 remaining families who still live here). She prepared some fruit and Bosnian coffee. I ate my first fresh fig which was really good!

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Finally we went to Blagaj Tekija, a site of historic, architectural, and natural significance. This Muslim monastery sits at the cave of a natural spring and is overlooked by an enormous cliff.

This video does a good job showing the scale of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=X2eA1s-1oQE#t=50

The tour lasted 13 hours and cost $30 – incredible. If you stay with Majda’s Hostel in Mostar, I’d definitely recommend it.

After seeing some of the sights outside of Mostar on my tour, I realized I could definitely spend a good week here taking pictures. As I don’t have that kind of time, (must be nice to be Australian!) I’ll have to skip it for now. Tomorrow I plan on catching up on some posts and wandering through the city. Maybe some more pictures of the bridge, but it will likely just be a resting day.

War-torn Mostar, Bosnia

War-torn Mostar, Bosnia

I arrived in Mostar around noon. We came into the city, and I was less than impressed at first. It looked rundown and I didn’t see many other foreigners – quite the change from Dubrovnik. Upon arriving at the bus station, I said goodbye to […]

Traveling to Bosnia

Traveling to Bosnia

I woke up at 6am to someone else’s alarm clock. I was worried that I would wake everyone up while gathering my things in the morning, but everyone else was already awake. I left my hostel and dropped the keys on the front desk. This […]

Exploring an abandoned Yugoslavian hotel: Hotel Belvedere

Exploring an abandoned Yugoslavian hotel: Hotel Belvedere

I walked back to my hostel and took a quick shower. I lied in bed a bit, but then decided I was wasting the good light at sunset so I walked back to the edge of the Old Town. On my kayak tour I heard about an abandoned Yugoslavian Hotel about a mile away. I found a taxi and asked him to take me to Hotel Belvedere.

On the way, he saw my tripod and asked if I was shooting a concert there. I lied and told him yes. I guess bands will sometimes set up there, but tonight it was empty – so I hoped. This hotel used to be an upscale resort, but it was abandoned after the war in the 1990s. The owners can’t agree on paying the repair costs, so it sits waiting to be fixed up.

He dropped me off at the top and I found some outdoor stairs heading down. I followed them until I saw a door into the hotel that was missing. I cautiously walked through.

I continued exploring and saw a balcony which I could see Dubrovnik from:

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I found some rooms which overlooked the water, which were probably expensive prior to the war. Now they were deserted.

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Continuing further into the abandoned hotel, things got creepier. More graffiti and a lot of shadows. The sun set probably 30 minutes earlier and it was getting dark fast. Taking a deep breath, I continued on.
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I’d been using a small flashlight and a long shutter speed to get the right exposure. My flashlight was the size of my thumb and although it was bright, it wasn’t meant for this.

I continued on. I stupidly turned off my flashlight and I then realized how dark it actually was. My fear was that I would turn a corner and see someone at the end of a hallway staring at me. It’s the kind of thing nightmares are made from.

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If I was with someone else, I would have felt better, but this was a really stupid idea going by myself. I didn’t even tell anyone where I was going.

Seeing someone else wasn’t out of the question – I’m sure there are some local Croatians who do morally-questionable activities here. And it would be easy for them to rob me.

With all these scenarios running through my mind and the last light fading from the sky, I decided to leave. Your mind starts playing tricks on you and as the shadows move you start to hear things. I was out.

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The entrance I went through

I went back up the same stairs I came down. At the top, there was a guy wearing a security uniform. He didn’t seem to know I was there, and was surprised when I walked up. My guess is he was there to prevent people like me from exploring, but since I was leaving, he didn’t seem to mind.

I said to him, ‘How far to Dubrovnik?’ Not understanding English, he pointed and said something in Croatian. I said thank you, pretending like I knew what he said. After putting my gear up, I said ‘Can you call a taxi?’ – he kind of smiled and said some more things in Croatian. I said thank you again and started walking where he pointed earlier.

Walking back, I realized what a terrible idea that was. There were five stories of circular stairs without any railing, not to mention the danger of finding people already there. That could have turned out awful.

Either way, it was fun. It kind of reminded me of touring Chernobyl. Seeing a place frozen in time and abandoned makes you wonder how it used to look while being used. I’m sure my mother will be disappointed to learn that I did this, but at least I made it out okay!

I grabbed a strong mojito, mai tai, and finally a long island ice tea in the Old Town to celebrate making it back. After finishing my drinks, I walked back to the hostel. Time to pack – off to Bosnia tomorrow!

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Last day in Dubrovnik

Last day in Dubrovnik

Despite trying to talk myself out of it, I woke myself up at 5:15 am to take pictures while the sun was rising, after going to sleep around midnight. It was neat seeing the city wake up and barely another tourist is site. The Stradun […]

Panoramic views and sea kayaking

Panoramic views and sea kayaking

I slept until 9:30am and took the time to fully recover from the flight. I stopped by a small bakery store and got some pastries for breakfast. No idea what they were or what was in them, but they were good. Pastry breakfast – 28 […]

Dubrovnik is gorgeous, but confusing!

Dubrovnik is gorgeous, but confusing!

After arriving in the Old Town of Dubrovnik, I first tried to find my hostel. Not as easy as I hoped.
I should have printed out a map or directions, but I just got lazy and didn’t. Dubrovnik reminds me of Venice: a lot of stairs, narrow side streets, and very easy to get lost. I ended up asking two different people for directions, one of which didn’t speak English. But I went up to a waitress and said, “I have no idea where I am” with a half-smile and showed her my guidebook map. She was very helpful and pointed me in the right direction and I found my hostel soon after.
My hostel is pretty nice even though it’s a bit of an uphill climb (read: stairs. again) to get there. There’s no AC, but you really don’t need it. I read that it’s really hot and crowded in Dubrovnik during summer, but my experience has been pretty pleasant so far. Warm and not too many people.I’m sharing the 3rd floor (did I mention the stairs??) with 5 others, one is from California, the other from Australia, two from Toronto and I haven’t met the sixth yet. It’s nice talking to them because you can get tips on places you’re about to go next, since it’s likely they just went there.
4 bed hostel room - my spot in the back
4 bed hostel room – my spot in the back

Our room has lockers that you can put your bag in, but most people just leave them out (likely with their passports inside). The backpacking community is pretty trusting, but I still lock mine.

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View outside of the hostel window – gorgeous!

After showering and feeling much better, I explored Dubrovnik. I climbed the stairs to Fort Lovrijenac which has some great view of the Old Town. It was built in the 11th century, and cost about 30 kuna ($5) to get in. So far Dubrovnik isn’t as expensive as I thought.

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From Fort Lovrijenac overlooking the Old Town

After the fort, I sat down and sketched a bit. I brought a small moleskin notebook and decided sketching some of the places I see would be a fun thing to do. No pictures for that yet until I get better…I did grab some pizza which was my first real meal in a while.

Salami/pepperoni pizza - about 70 kuna or ~$12 with tip
Salami/pepperoni pizza – about 70 kuna or ~$12 with tip

I followed the pizza with a visit to a grocery store. I went to buy some fruit, but didn’t realize you had to weigh it and print out a barcode before you get to the register. So after waiting in line, I went back and weighed the kiwi and banana. The girl was really nice about it – I’m sure a lot of Americans make that mistake.

No idea this was there
No idea this was there
Kiwi, banana, and candy bar: 7 kuna or $1.25. Cheap!
Kiwi, banana, and candy bar: 7 kuna or $1.25. Cheap!

Funny enough, I made this same mistake in Lucerne, Switzerland three years ago – you think I’d learn!I ended up walking around the city walls and then getting some more pictures. I originally planned to do that tomorrow, but I had some extra time and wanted to get some pictures with the sun setting.

Town of Dubrovnik
Town of Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik's most popular bar: Cafe Buza
Dubrovnik’s most popular bar: Cafe Buza

Finally, I got some ice cream (hazelnut and banana) then got some pictures of the harbor once the sun set.

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Dubrovnik harbor after sunset

I’m so tired writing this that I close my eyes while typing and then fall asleep for 10 minutes before I wake back up. I’m going to catch up on some sleep – hopefully should have another post and more pictures tomorrow.

Cheers!

Busy travel day

Busy travel day

The flight to Munich was predictable and went by pretty quickly. It was my first time flying with Lufthansa and I’d probably fly with them again. They handed out warm towels in economy class before meals and even though I turned down dinner, it didn’t […]

Ready to take off

Ready to take off

Despite all my worrying, everything has gone smoothly so far. Instead of using the drawstring workout bag, I put my carry on items in an fabric bag I had lying around. I got some bubble wrap and wrapped my camera, lens, and laptop and then […]

The worst part about traveling is traveling

The worst part about traveling is traveling

Lesson one: Double check the carry-on requirements before you buy and pack luggage

I found out the day before I leave that my carry on bag won’t fit with Lufthansa. According to their website, the dimensional limits for bags are 22 x 16 x 9 inches, which is barely more than a purse.

My original plan was to travel from city to city with my camera backpack (bottom) inside of my large backpack (top left). For the flight, I was going to carry on my camera backpack and check my (mostly empty) large backpack.

But as it turns out, my camera backpack is too big. I’m using an F-stop Loka and it’s dimensions are 27.9 x 30.5 x 58.4 inches – probably not going to pass.

The last thing I would do is check my camera gear. Including my laptop, I’m taking several thousand dollars worth of electronics and trusting them to baggage handlers is asking for them to be stolen. I can’t bring another smaller backpack because it won’t fit.

Instead, I’m going to take the electronics outside of my camera bag and carry them in a small drawstring workout bag, then put my camera backpack inside of the large backpack and check them as one item. I’ll add some other things in there to cushion it, but I’m going to have to guard it with my life. Starting out my trip with that bag being lost or stolen would not make me happy. I might even tie it to myself – I’m sure I have some extra rope lying around.

Putting all my electronics in that bag means I won’t have room for much else. I haven’t packed yet, but I probably won’t bring extra clothes and pack them all in my checked bags. I hope it makes it.

On a positive note though, I came home from work and found a gift package that my girlfriend Julie made for me. It was a very thoughtful thing for her to do. 🙂

Finally figured out how to get from city to city

Finally figured out how to get from city to city

Figuring out how to get from city to city isn’t too straightforward in the Balkans. Most of the places I’m going don’t have train stations, so it’s recommended to travel by car. Seeing as that isn’t very cost efficient for one traveler, (especially since you’d […]

Less than a week left

Less than a week left

I fly out in 6 days at 5:10pm out of Charlotte with a direct flight to Munich! I’ve got some last minute planning to do in the next week, but I think I’ve got a pretty good foundation: I’ve actually been sending private messages to […]

A new adventure awaits

A new adventure awaits

My last trip in 2010 ended well, but I forgot to make a final blog entry. I got back to Paris fine, spent the evening seeing the sights, and then caught my flight back in the morning. I had a great time exploring Europe by myself with the exception of my camera breaking.

Over the past three years, I’ve done a good amount of traveling. I flew to Shanghai, China in 2011 and spent 4 weeks there for work. Also while living in the northeast, I visited Montreal, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York City, and Boston.

I ended up taking a job in South Carolina in August 2011. So far in Greenville, I’ve visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and took a trip out west to Southern Utah and Las Vegas.

Which leads me to this blog post. On August 30th, I’m taking my next trip to Europe. I’m flying into Dubrovnik at the south tip of Croatia, heading north, and then eventually flying out of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Dubrovnik, Croatia:

Mostar, Bosnia:
Plitvice National Park, Croatia:
Bled, Slovenia:
I’m really looking forward to this trip and will be cramming a lot into two weeks. Sadly I only get two weeks of vacation for work otherwise it would be longer. I’m traveling over Labor Day so I can save one day of vacation for Thanksgiving/Christmas. I’ll be updating this blog for this next trip and will probably keep it active if I end up visiting Japan next year. More to follow.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

My first stop in a loop around southern Utah. No detailed entries, just pictures.

Back to Paris to fly out

Back to Paris to fly out

So here’s a real quick recap of the past couple days: My train to Cinque Terre from Sorrento took most of the day and I didn’t get to Vernazza until 4:00 pm.  I checked into my room, and then spent the rest of the night […]

Day 69: Sorrento/Pompeii

Day 69: Sorrento/Pompeii

I left my hostel around 8:30am and took the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii.  I got there around 9:00am, about 30 minutes after they opened, and had to wait in a line about 50 people long. I decided not to get a guided tour because they provided pretty detailed maps along with a booklet guide, which had a page for every important site, along with a number which matched up to a number on the map.
I walked through the entrance and quickly realized I made a good decision to spend a whole day instead of just the afternoon. I never realized how big Pompeii is; the city had a population of 20,000 and you could easily spend eight hours walking around and seeing everything listed in the booklet.  Because the city was covered in ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24th 79 AD, the city remained largely undiscovered until the 16th century.  Because of this, it’s one of the best preserved Roman cities with many important sites still intact.
The people of Pompeii had no idea what was happening when Mt. Vesuvius started erupting – as far as they were concerned, it was just another mountain.  There is no Latin word for volcano.  People didn’t know whether to leave or stay, decisions that would ultimately decide the fate of their lives.  Many people who stayed were killed by collapsing buildings; the Roman buildings were built to withstand rain water, not hundreds of pounds of volcanic rock.  Those who fled were also killed also by the falling rocks, as well as the poisonous gas.  It was the worst natural disaster in Roman history.
I saw the main sites (the forum, the basilica, the great theatre, the public baths, and the amphitheater where gladiators would fight) and many of the minor ones.  Most of the sites were open, with a few exceptions due to renovation.  I also saw the Garden of the Fugitives, which displayed casts of the victims.    In the 1860s, Giuseppe Fiorelli introduced the plaster cast method in which liquid plaster was poured into the cavity left in the bed of ashes by the gradual decomposition of the victim’s body.  As the plaster solidifies, it reproduces what the body’s shape was at the time of death.
I ate lunch at the on-site cafeteria, and visited more sites in the afternoon.  The weather turned out to be nice, with sunny skies and a nice breeze sweeping through the ruins.  After visiting a small museum, I took the train back to my hostel at St. Angello.  While walking to my hostel, I tried viewing some of the pictures I took at Pompeii but my camera wouldn’t turn on.  The red busy light that shows when the camera is writing to the card stayed on and wouldn’t go off unless I took out the battery.  I played with it for awhile back at the hostel, but I could only get the autofocus and flash to work; the LCD screen wouldn’t work and it also wouldn’t take any pictures.  After 2.5 months of traveling, I’m pretty sure my camera is dead.  I’ve had it since January ’09, and because it will cost about $250 to repair it, I’ll probably buy a new one instead.
When I buy a new camera, I’ll probably buy an updated version of mine instead of buying the same one, probably the Canon 550D.  I thought about buying it in Italy, but I only have a week left and it would be much more expensive than buying it in the US ($1000 compared to $800).  Also, the manual would be in Italian and the charger would have a European plug on it, not to mention the warranty likely wouldn’t carry over. It looks like I’ll be spending the last week of my trip without taking any pictures.
Luckily, the pictures I already took turned out to be fine, but I’m still left with a broken camera.  I messed with my camera for a couple more hours and tried to update the firmware, but I gave up and fell asleep around midnight.  Tomorrow I am taking a train to Cinque Terre and spending three nights there before taking a night train to Paris.
Day 68: Florence/Sorrento

Day 68: Florence/Sorrento

Today I finally left Florence.  I checked out of my hotel around 10:00am and then walked to the train station to catch my 11:10am train.  I got to the station in plenty of time, but the train didn’t leave until 11:30am due to a twenty […]

Day 67: Florence

Day 67: Florence

I woke up early again this morning, around 7:00am, this time to see the Uffizi Gallery.  The Uffizi Gallery holds some of the most influential paintings of the Italian Renaissance.  When I walked in, I bought an official guide book that had detailed pictures and […]

Day 66: Florence

Day 66: Florence

I woke up early this morning, around 7:00am, to go to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David. I was happy I took my guidebook’s advice and made a reservation because when I arrived at the Accademia fifteen minutes before my 8:15am reservation, there was a line of people (who didn’t make reservations) about seventy-five people deep. It probably wouldn’t have taken too long to go through the line, but it was pretty nice to be the first one in the museum before the tour groups arrived.
At 2.5 times life size, David was pretty impressive. It was amazing the level of detail that went into the muscles and veins in the hand. I also saw some of his unfinished statues, Prisoners, St. Matthew, and a Pietà – the museum map/brochure said that Leonardo believed that the sculptor was a tool of God, responsible only for chipping away at the stone until the intended sculpture emerged.
After spending about 45 minutes in the small museum, I went back to my hotel to catch up on sleep (not used to waking up at 7:00am). In the afternoon, I went to the newly renovated Galileo Museum. It had exhibits on his work, including astronomy, mechanics, and optics. The most interesting artifacts were some of his telescopes and his thumb and middle finger from his right hand displayed in a case. And like every other museum I’ve been to in Florence, photography wasn’t allowed.
I got dinner at the same family style buffet I ate at earlier in the week, and then went to my hotel room. I haven’t taken many pictures in Florence, maybe thirty over three days. Part of this is due to no photography allowed in the museums, but mostly because Florence is very much a city. Hot temperatures along with crowded streets don’t make for very good photographs.
Tomorrow I am going to the Uffizi Gallery, and then planning the rest of my trip. I haven’t made train reservations to Naples/Sorrento yet, so I plan on doing that tomorrow.
Day 65: Florence

Day 65: Florence

Today ended up being a much better day than yesterday.  I slept in until 11:30am and then went downstairs to sort out the internet and shower curtain issues. I was greeted by a different receptionist, this time a guy who did speak English.  I explained […]

Day 64: Venice/Florence

Day 64: Venice/Florence

I woke up this morning pretty early, around 8:00am, to pack up my things and get ready for my train to Venice. I typed up some blog posts in the morning, went to the train station for lunch, and then boarded my train to Florence […]

Day 63: Venice

Day 63: Venice

Today was much better than the previous day, as far as temperature goes. I left my hotel room around noon and spent the rest of the day walking on the island. Venice isn’t too big, so other than my first day when I took a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square, I’ve been walking everywhere I go.

I didn’t do a whole lot, other than take pictures and eat gelato. I think I’ve had ten scoops of gelato since I’ve been here – I’m going to try and average three a day while I’m in Italy.

People in Venice get lost enough without having to follow misleading signs:

I did end up getting dinner near the waterfront. I started off with mozzarella and tomatoes, then had lasagna and grilled chicken. I was a nice setting overlooking the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, even if the food was pretty expensive.

Tomorrow I head to Florence and besides a few museums, I’m not sure what I’ll do. I haven’t even looked at my guidebook yet, so I guess I’ll figure out what to do on my two hour train ride tomorrow.

Day 62: Venice

Day 62: Venice

I slept in this morning until 10:30am and had a great night’s sleep thanks to my air conditioned hotel room. I decided to spend the first half of the day in my hotel room because it was too hot to stay outside all day. I […]

Day 61: Interlaken/Venice

Day 61: Interlaken/Venice

I checked out of my hostel at 6:30am, in order to catch my 7:28am train to Venice. Problem was, the woman at the front desk gave me my key deposit back in Swiss francs instead of Euros, even after I was assured I could get […]

Day 61: Interlaken

Day 61: Interlaken

Today was my last full day in Interlaken.  Even though I woke up early, around 8:00am, I felt well rested.  I got a much better night’s sleep than the previous night.  It was raining in the morning, so I took the time to write my blog post and upload some pictures.  Around 10:00am, I left my hostel and went to the main train station to make reservations for my train tomorrow to Venice.  My rail pass covers the actual ticket, but I have to make reservations since part of my trip is on a high speed train.  The trip will last about six hours, starting at 7:30am, with two transfers. 
After booking my trains, I decided to visit the St. Beatus caves, so I walked to the west train station to catch the bus.  After a twenty minute ride, the bus stopped along the side of a mountain road, at the base of the caves.
Leading up to the cave entrance was a series of waterfalls and bridges. 
The caves themselves were good (you couldn’t take pictures inside) but the tour was pretty underwhelming.  The caves were made famous by St. Beatus who killed a dragon there, and helped spread Christianity over Switzerland.  Most of the tour was in German though, and the parts that were in English were hard to understand due to our guide’s accent.  And at sixteen dollars, it was pretty expensive too.
After the caves, I got some dinner and then went back to the hostel.  After doing one more load of laundry, I packed my stuff and hoped to get a good night’s sleep before my 6.5 hour train ride tomorrow.
Day 60: Interlaken

Day 60: Interlaken

On Monday, the 12th, I got to sleep late because the Australian boy kept talking to me in the lobby while I was typing up blog posts.  I was planning on doing a bike ride on Tuesday, the 13th, but decided to wait until Wednesday […]

Day 58: Lucerne/Interlaken

Day 58: Lucerne/Interlaken

Sunday was my last full day in Lucerne and I can’t really say I did much of anything. I spent most of the day taking pictures and just walking around. I can just walk around for most of the day and be completely happy – […]

Day 56: Lucerne

Day 56: Lucerne

Yesterday I woke up and decided to go swimming down by the lake. I knew it was going to hot outside so I walked down the street to buy breakfast and sunscreen at the local supermarket. I bought some fruit, a towel, and some sunscreen, which was pretty expensive at $21. It’s not like I was going to lie out in the sun without it though.
I walk to the lake and notice what looks like a large two story dock, which turns out to be a local swimming spot. I paid the 5 CHF (~5 USD) entrance fee and got access to this two story dock with chairs and umbrellas on the top floor, along with swimming in the lake. You can’t see it very well in this picture, but its behind the boat.  You can see the roped-off swimming area to the right.
They also had what was like two indoor pools, which was basically just an opening in the dock to swim in the lake.
I ended spending most of the day there, switching between swimming and lying out in the sun.  At one point, I fell asleep while lying on my stomach, which didn’t turn out very well because I didn’t put any sunscreen on my back.  Good thing I paid $20 for it…
 I got some dinner at a Kebab place (typical) and then took a couple of pictures at dusk. 
I wish I had a cable release for my camera, because the shutter can only stay open for 30 seconds, and when its really dark outside, the camera won’t get enough light, even at 30 seconds and the widest aperture of f/3.5.  I’ve been keeping my eye out for a cable release, but haven’t found one yet.
Today, Saturday the 10th, I was planning to going to Mt. Pilatus, a large mountain where you take a cable car and a gondola to the top, but I realized that the trip would cost about $65.  I know I’m over in Europe, and I shouldn’t worry about all the little expenses in exchange for a good time, but these little side trips can add up fast.  Plus, I feel like I got my share of mountains in Innsbruck.
Instead I decided to go back to the swimming area.  I spent about half the day there before realizing that sitting out in the sun wouldn’t help my sunburn at all, no matter how much sunscreen I put on.  I wandered around and grabbed something to eat at a McDonald’s, mainly because it was cheap. Or so I thought – a large fry and medium coke ended up costing $8.00. Switzerland definitely isn’t a cheap country – I think my medium frappachino at Starbucks cost about $7.00.  Plus, you have to use their currency instead of the Euro.
I went back to the hostel for awhile and caught up on some emails and blog postings.  Luckily the wi-fi in the hostel works again, so I’m happy.  I’ve been uploading pictures to Picasa online albums, and I think I’ve uploaded around 30 GBs to far.  
I am running out of space on my laptop though.  For those who don’t know, you can shoot pictures in Raw or JPEG, which is a compressed version, whereas Raw is straight from the camera.  Hence, a Raw file takes up much more space, about 3x as much.  On my trip, I’ve been taking almost all my pictures in Raw+JPEG, so I have two copies of each picture: one for editing (raw) and one for posting online (JPEG).  
Even though I’ve only uploaded 30 GBs (all of JPEGS), I have about 110 GBs worth of pictures on my computer, mostly from Raw files.  I still have about 10 GBs free, but I need to start moving them to my portable hard drive, to create space for new ones.
After doing some work, I went to the supermarket and got some lunch, consisting of Swiss cheese and chocolates.  OM NOM NOM.

The chocolate was really good (I might buy some more and ship it home), but I quickly realized that I left my Swiss Army knife in my hotel in Innsbruck.  Instead, I had to use a knife from the kitchen downstairs.  I might be another knife, I’m not sure.  It’s the first thing I’ve lost since I started my trip, but I guess there’s no better place to buy a new Swiss Army knife.

I walked around the lake some more before grabbing pizza for dinner and watching the first half of the Germany-Uruguay match.  Not sure what I’ll do tomorrow – probably taking more pictures and just relaxing.  It’s nice to not always have something planned.

Getting to Lucerne

Getting to Lucerne

The wi-fi in my hostel doesn’t work, so this might be only blog post until I can find reliable (and free) wi-fi somewhere else. So this morning started off well. I set my alarm for 6:00am, so I would have plenty of time to shower […]

Mountains of Innsbruck

Mountains of Innsbruck

This morning started like yesterday by waking up early and getting a big breakfast. The weather today was supposed to be the best I’ve had since I arrived, so I decided to take a cable car and spend the day on the mountain. I walked […]

Bored in Innsbruck

Bored in Innsbruck

I woke up around 7:00 am, as planned, and went downstairs to get some breakfast which had the best selection I’ve had on the trip so far. They had fresh fruit including kiwis, pears, and bananas, and about eight different types of juices. There was also plenty of meat and cheese, along with four different types of granola and yogurt. The hot chocolate was good too. They had little personal pitchers which you filled up with hot milk, and small dishes that had chocolate in them, to make your own once you got back to your seat.
After breakfast, I did some laundry down the street which took about an hour. You pay by the weight mass of your load of laundry; they have 7, 13, 18, and 25 kg machines. Not quite sure where they get the weight from though. You would think they would do it by volume, but apparently not. The good thing about packing light is that you only have to do one load of laundry; 3 Euros for washing and 3 Euros for drying isn’t too terrible, but definitely more than back home.
After finishing my laundry, I went back to the hotel, took a shower, and then went out to explore the city. I stopped by the Cathedral of St. James and took some pictures inside. I went to the front row, set up my tripod, and got some nice pictures near the front of the church.
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I got asked to put my tripod away when I took it out at St. Peter’s Church in Vienna, but no one at St. James said anything to me.

I left the cathedral about 45 minutes later, and after I saw it was raining outside, I went back to my hotel room. Innsbruck is a city that is known for its landscape rather than museums, so when it’s overcast and raining, there’s not a lot to do. The rain finally let up around dinner time, so I got some pizza for dinner and then took pictures of the river and mountains near sunset before going to bed. It’s nice not being on a strict schedule since the weather doesn’t always cooperate.
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Munich to Innsbruck

Munich to Innsbruck

I woke up this morning around 8:00 am, showered (the light worked this time) and packed my things. I rented a locker for my luggage in the hostel after I checked out, and then went to the train station at 9:00 am to take back […]

Day 51: Munich

Day 51: Munich

I woke up this morning around 8:00am again, and went to take a shower, but the light in our bathroom wasn’t working. The hostel I’m staying at (Euro Youth Hostel) is definitely not the best I’ve been in; the push buttons on the shower last, […]

Celebrating in Munich

Celebrating in Munich

I woke up yesterday around 8:00am and went to the top of St. Peter’s to catch a panoramic view of the city – climbing the 306 steps was worth it. I then went back to Mike’s Bike Tours to rent a bike. I rode around the Englischer Garten for awhile and then got lunch at a beer garden. The Englischer Garten is one of the largest urban parks in the world, and at 1.4 square miles, it’s bigger than Central Park.

There are a few man-made rivers going throughout the park with water being fed from the Swiss Alps, so the water is pretty cold (68 °F) and pretty clear too. I was planning on watching the Germany-Argentina game in the beer garden there, but it was already packed at noon, so instead I dropped my bike off and went to watch it at a bar next to my hostel. On my way back, I walked into a couple stores to buy a bathing suit to go swimming tomorrow, but they were too crowded; just about everyone was out in the streets. I left and just planned on coming back tomorrow (Sunday, July 4th).

After watching Germany win, I went out to rent a bike again, this time from the train station.The problem with the first bike was that I had to return it by 7:30pm, as they don’t allow overnight rentals. I planned on taking a good amount of pictures at night, so this clearly wasn’t going to work.

After renting the second bike, I started riding around the city and it was quite evident who won the soccer game. People stopped their cars in the middle of the road and blasted their car horns and vuvuzelas.I walked down one of the main avenues in Munich, the Ludwigstrasse, and it was absolutely packed.People were swimming in fountains and waving German flags.

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You can definitely tell this country cares about soccer a little bit more than the United States.I saw one kid get arrested and another one get his foot bandaged up after stepping on a broken bottle, but for the most part, it was pretty civil.

I biked around for the rest of the night, taking pictures of buildings and people swimming in fountains.

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Tomorrow, I think I’m going to wake up early, buy a bathing suit, and then go swimming in the Isar River, the main river in Munich and then one that feeds all the smaller rivers at the Englischer Garten.

Vienna and train to Munich

Vienna and train to Munich

Yesterday I slept in and then walked around the city. I went back to Stephensdom and they still didn’t have any guided tours, so I had to get an audio guide instead. It was alright, I guess. When you spend over two months in Europe, […]

Vienna

Vienna

My overnight train to Vienna went pretty well, and I did manage to get some sleep. We arrived in Vienna about an hour late at 7:30 am, and then I caught the metro to my hostel. I dropped my stuff off and then went into […]

Day 44: Krakow

Day 44: Krakow

On Saturday, the 26th, I had to wake up around 5:00am to catch a taxi to the airport and check in before my plane left at 8:00am. The plane landed in Vienna around 9:00am (there is a one hour time zone difference, it was actually a two hour flight). My connecting flight back to Krakow didn’t leave until 1:30pm, so I had plenty of time to relax in the airport. I grabbed some Starbucks and wrote my Chernobyl blog update. Luckily, the Vienna airport has free wi-fi and it’s the fastest I’ve seen in Europe. I was able to upload all my Chernobyl pictures and some remaining ones from Kiev (about 6 GB total) while I was waiting. My connecting flight to Krakow left on time and was only a 45min flight.

Once I got back to Krakow, I grabbed the free shuttle to the train station and then took the train back to the city center (about 20 minutes). I then checked into my hostel and then went off to do some laundry. While I was waiting, I went to a photo store and bought a new lens: a 50mm f1.8. It has a fixed focal length (meaning you can’t zoom at all) but it has a wide aperture so I can take pictures in low light. It only cost around $100, but it is supposed to be one of the best budget lenses you can buy. For dinner, I went to a nice restaurant near the train station and watched the US lose to Ghana. It would have been nice to win, but even if the US would have won the whole thing, no one (including me) would care much two weeks later.

Yesterday I went back to Auschwitz and took some (I think) better pictures. I started off in Birkenau around noon and then went to Auschwitz I around 3pm. Of the 300 I took, I think a few of them turned out well that I might print out. I got back to Krakow around 7:00pm, walked through the city center, grabbed a kebab, and then went back to my hostel.

Today, I woke up and didn’t have any plans. I spent most of the day planning for the rest of my trip. I am starting to get into the heavy tourist season, so it’s harder to find places to stay on short notice. I tried booking a hostel for Innsbruck on the 5th of July, but had to get a hotel because all the decent hostels were full.

I went and did one more load of laundry (that I forgot to do last time) and while I waited, I called my parents and sister back home to see how things are going. My parents just got back from a cruise to Alaska and I think they had a good time. For the rest of the time, I planned out the rest of my trip. My schedule is below:

Switzerland and Italy are going to be expensive, but I’ve cut out Rome so maybe that will help. I also decided to cut out Nice and spend some more time in Switzerland. Lucerne was my favorite place in Europe on my last trip and I should be able to take some good photographs of Lucerne and Interlaken at night with the reflections over the lake. I’ll plan where I’m staying in Florence, Naples, Cinque Terre, and Paris once I get to Vienna.

I grabbed dinner at an authentic Polish restaurant with perogies, mainly to spend the last of my Polish money. I’ll probably add pictures of what I ate once I get to Vienna. Tonight, I’m taking an overnight train to Vienna which leaves around 10:00pm. Hopefully I’ll get a good night’s sleep.

Day 39: Kiev

Day 39: Kiev

On the 22nd, I took a tour of the city with Sergei and Tim. I took a crowded, hot bus into town with Sergei in the morning and then took the metro into the city center. Kiev is divided by a river, with the suburbs […]

Day 37: Krakow/Kiev

Day 37: Krakow/Kiev

Because the weather was constantly raining in Krakow, I didn’t bother to take any pictures. Hopefully the weather will be a bit better in Kiev. The past couple days I’ve been wandering around Krakow hanging out with people in the hostel. I took a bike […]

Day 33: Arriving in Krakow

Day 33: Arriving in Krakow

I woke up on the train around 5:45am and slept surprisingly well. If we would have had the full six people in the cabin, it would have been much worse. Our train was about 30 minutes late so we didn’t arrive in Krakow until 7:15am but I didn’t have any plans for the day so it didn’t matter.

My company on the overnight train
My company on the overnight train
I left the train station after pulling out 400 Zloty from the ATM, and started walking south. I could have grabbed a tram to the hostel but I didn’t think it was that far of a walk.

Turns out I was wrong – it was about a 45 minute walk, which doesn’t sound that bad, but when you’re carrying 50 lbs on your back, it can get pretty tiring. Not only was the walk itself far, but I also got lost along the way. What I did was email myself a screen shot a map of Krakow, showing the train station and the location of the hostel. The problem is that on an iPhone, you can only zoom into images so far, and because the picture was so big, I couldn’t make out the names of streets.

I finally found my hostel and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting. It is rated pretty highly but it just looked like someone changed their flat into a hostel by adding some beds. It wasn’t necessarily bad (they do have free wi-fi in the rooms) – just not what I was expecting.

I was able to check in around 8:30am and grabbed some breakfast in the small lobby/bar. I talked with the guy who checked me in for awhile and then went upstairs to shower and figure out what I was going to do.

I checked the weather and today (the 17th) was supposed to be the only day with good weather while I was here. So instead of taking a walking tour like I had planned, I decided to go to Auschwitz.

Now there are two main ways to get to Auschwitz: either by train or bus. The bus is about half the cost, but takes two hours instead of one to get there. I knew that a train was leaving at 10:30am so I just left for the train station without bothering to send myself a map.

Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland

Auschwitz and Birkenau, Poland

I got to the train station and bought a round-trip ticket for around 30 Zlotsy and hopped on the first car I saw. The train goes from Krakow to the small town of Oświęcim. (Auschwitz gets its name because it is the German translation for […]

Day 32: Prague/Krakow

Day 32: Prague/Krakow

Early this morning, I woke up around 4:30am to some of my roommates coming back from a pub crawl. After about 10 minutes, I leaned over and was about to ask them to turn off the light when I realized it was actually the sun […]

Day 31: Prague

Day 31: Prague

EDIT: Uploading pictures from 6/16 and 6/17 tonight. Will update the blog tomorrow morning with two new posts and pictures (including Auschwitz).

Today I woke up around 8:00am and went to the lobby downstairs to plan for Krakow and Kiev. My hostel in Krakow costs 9 USD per night and I’ll be staying there four nights before I got to Kiev on the 21st.

Around 9:45am, I took the metro into town and grabbed some breakfast before meeting the tour group at 11:00am. The tour goes to Kutna Hora, a small silver mining town about an hour away by train, with the highlight being the Sedlec Ossuary, a chapel made from human skeletons.

We had a little bit of time to spare before our train left from Prague (about 10 minutes) so I quickly went to the international ticket office and booked my train from Prague to Krakow. For an overnight train (leaving at 9:30pm and arriving at 6:30am) it cost about 40 Euros or about 50 USD – not too terrible. The ticket agent took a little bit longer than I expected but we made it to our train on time with about two minutes to spare.

We got to Kutna Hora around 1:00pm and explored the town for the next couple hours. The bone chapel was amazing – it was filled with skeletons from 40,000 bodies and there was a chandelier made from every bone in the human body.


After going through the rest of the tow, we grabbed lunch at a small restaurant and then took the hour long train back to Prague. Overall, the tour was very good and it would have been a lot harder to see everything by myself.

For dinner, I went to a local Czech restaurant and ordered steak tartare, turkey stuffed with mozzarella, a baked potato, ice cream with hot raspberries, and hot chocolate – all for about 20 USD. The food in Prague is pretty cheap and I expect Krakow to be pretty similar. Tomorrow, I am spending most of the day in Prague before taking the night train to Krakow. I don’t have much planned, so I might just walk around the Jewish Quarter and figure out what I’m going to do in Krakow.

Day 30: Prague

Day 30: Prague

Sorry for the lack of updates to the blog. It gets tough trying to plan where you’re going to go next, what you’re going to do (and actually doing it), and trying to keep a blog all at the same time. If I don’t add […]

Train from Berlin to Prague

Train from Berlin to Prague

After going to bed at 2:00 am, I briefly woke up at 4:45 am to notice that is was completely bright outside. With the latitude of Madrid relatively equal to that of New York, Berlin is a bit further north and gets a lot of […]

Museums and World War II History

Museums and World War II History

Yesterday, I went to the top of the TV tower and the Pergamon museum. The TV tower was built by East Berlin to showcase their superiority to the West, but due to people leaving to West Berlin by the thousands per day, there wasn’t enough engineers left behind to properly design it. Instead, the DDR leaders had to import Swedish engineering to finish it. The tower was meant to show the atheistic attitude, at a time when the DDR leaders were having crosses removed from the church domes and spires. Instead, when the sun shined on their tower – a huge cross is reflected in the mirror ball.

I then went to the Pergamon museum, which was much smaller than I anticipated – you can do a guided audio tour and hit all the highlights in 30 minutes. The museum specializes in Classical Antiques, and its main attraction is the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate. The Pergamon Altar was taken from a 2nd century BC Greek temple showing the gods fighting giants on the sculpted frieze and the Ishtar Gate was a massive gate created by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC to fortify their city. Both were impressive, but there wasn’t much more to see.

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After the museum, I went to an indoor shopping mall near Alexanderplatz. While I didn’t buy anything, I did find a Starbucks that had fast and free Wi-Fi. The login page says there is a two-hour time limit, but you can just log back in and get another two hours. After realizing this, I went back to my hostel, grabbed my computer, and headed back. I spent most of the afternoon catching up on email and uploading pictures to http://picasaweb.google.com/mszelis. I’m still not caught up on pictures, but I got a majority of them uploaded at original size.

That evening, I rode around on my bike and took some more pictures at night. Despite being a pain to carry around, the tripod has been well worth the money and lets me take pictures that would otherwise be impossible.

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Today (the 11th) I woke up around 8:00am and took the S-Bahn to Wannsee to see the House of the Wannsee Conference – the lakeside villa where the Nazis determined the final solution for the Jews.
Entrance to the lakeside villa
Entrance to the lakeside villa
After seeing the movie Conspiracy which details the meeting, I found it to be a bit smaller than I imagined – especially the front driveway. I went through the movie and then through my pictures, trying to match them up with different scenes.. All the fireplaces, columns, windows, etc. were the same – pretty neat.
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It looks like an ordinary house, but in this room they determined the Final Solution for the Jews.
It looks like an ordinary house, but in this room they determined the Final Solution for the Jews.
The outside was under construction but the inside had a nice museum describing the history of anti-Semitism and meeting itself. The meeting was held in the dining room, which now contains copies of the minutes that were taken at the meeting and descriptions of the attendees.
I grabbed the S-Bahn back to Berlin and after sleeping for a couple hours, went to the East Side Gallery. The gallery isn’t very centrally located and it took a good amount of time to bike there. It was pretty impressive though, stretching along the canal for almost a mile.
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I biked back to the city center and got some good pictures as the sun was setting. It’s funny – when I’m traveling by myself I have to ask other people to take pictures of me and 90% of the time, it doesn’t turn out the way I want. Whenever I give my camera to someone using a point and shoot camera, they don’t know how to use it or look through the view finder. But whenever possible, I try to find someone who also has a DSLR camera, since they typically know what they are doing.

Near the TV tower, I found a married couple with the wife carrying a higher-end Canon DSLR around her neck. She was a semi-professional photographer and got some good pictures of me next to the tower. I then left and took pictures near the Berliner Dom (cathedral). I asked two different people to take my picture (neither of which turned out how I wanted) before I just pulled out my tripod and set it on a self timer. After a couple tries, I got a few that looked good.

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I then went to the Reichstag and instead of getting in line right away, I got dinner and came back around 9:00 pm (last entry at 10:00pm, close at midnight). Turns out to be a mistake since a school group came right before me, making the line too long to get in before 10:00pm. I thought about going back tomorrow morning when they open at 8:00 am, but it would cost me nearly 4 hours of travel time – looks like I’ll be doing that on my next trip to Berlin.

Last thing I did was go to the German Resistance Memorial. While the museum was closed when I got there around 10:00pm, the courtyard was still open. It was in this courtyard that Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were shot (as popularized by the 2009 Tom Cruise film Valkyrie).

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I finally went back to the hostel and briefly started planning for Prague tomorrow. I ended up changing my hostel booking from Prague Square Hostel to Czech Inn after reading some negative reviews. I lost the ~$10 booking fee but I think the new one will be much better. I’ll be spending four nights in Prague, (6/12 to 6/15) and then going to Krakow, Poland.

Overall, I really enjoyed Berlin. It is very different from the other European cities I’ve been to – most of its most famous history has occurred in the 20th century. Due to the devastation of World War II, most of the buildings are less than 80 years old and the city is still recovering from being divided just over 20 years ago. The city also has a large debt and is constantly doing construction but hopefully in another 20 years Berlin will be prosperous again.

Checkpoint Charlie, Nazi buildings, and the Holocaust Memorial

Checkpoint Charlie, Nazi buildings, and the Holocaust Memorial

I woke up around this morning around 11:30am – I have no idea why I was so tired. I went back to Checkpoint Charlie and got some better pictures, then went to the Topography of Terror museum which is located on the former site of […]

Day 24: Berlin

Day 24: Berlin

Well waking up this morning was fun. I found some things I had unknowingly misplaced the night before and went out to do some laundry around 8:00am. Not sure why but if I drink, I never sleep in very late the next day. Around 11:00am […]

Day 23: Cologne and Berlin

Day 23: Cologne and Berlin

I woke up early around 6:00am, got some breakfast at the train station, and then got on a 7:48am train from Cologne to Berlin. The train trip was pretty uneventful and long – about 4.5 hours. Even though it says nonstop, it probably stopped eight different times on the way to Berlin (nonstop just meaning that you don’t have any transfers). I did get some work done though – I went through Rick Steve’s book, “Best of Europe 2010” and planned what I was going to do, on which days, once I got to Berlin.

I plan on seeing most of the main sites but even with 4.5 days, it’s a lot to fit in. I think I’m going to the Wannsee Conference center in southern Berlin on Thursday which should be pretty interesting. For those who don’t know, the Wannsee Conference was a meeting held at a lakeside villa with the high-ranking Nazi officials. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the ‘solution’ to the Jewish problem. They talked about who is considered a Jew, e.g. if a Jew marries a German, are the children Jewish or German, as well as the methods for ethnic cleansing. There’s a movie, Conspiracy, about the conference that is really well done if anyone is interested.

In addition to seeing most of the main sites (by myself and on a four hour bike tour) I plan on seeing the German Resistance Memorial (the execution location of Colonel von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, popularized in the movie Valkyrie with Tom Cruise) and see Hotel Adlon, the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby over the railing.

Once I got to Berlin, I took the S-Bahn (above ground) and U-Bahn (underground) trains to my hostel and checked in around 2pm. This hostel is by far the best one yet; if you’re going to Berlin and going to a hostel, you should stay here. They have free wi-fi (a big plus for me), organized tours, and any kind of rental you can imagine (iPod, laptop, segway, bike, SmartCar, roller blades, etc.). They have a pretty neat interactive TV with their own ‘wiki’ page of Berlin with description and maps. The reception is also open 24 hrs with no lockout or curfew.

After I checked in, I took my camera, rented a bike, and then went into the city. The hostel is located on the north end of the city, a little bit far to walk but well within biking distance. I spent the next 3-4 hours just wandering around. About 45 minutes into it, I ran into the Jewish Holocaust memorial. It’s a pretty strange memorial because it’s made from about 2000 rectangular, hollow, concrete slabs which don’t symbolize anything. They’re lined into rows and columns, ranging in size from a few feet high to over 20 feet. I suppose it is up to the individual person to decide the significance or meaning of the slabs of concrete. I pulled out my guidebook, read a little bit more about the memorial, and found out that the sight of Hitler’s bunker was pretty close so I went off to find that.

The site of the bunker is located about 200 yards south of the Jewish Memorial and other than a small sign, there is nothing else marking it. It’s currently a parking lot for an apartment complex (which must get pretty annoying for the people who live there). But no tour buses come by it and unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t know it was there. The Germans were reluctant to even put a sign up because they were worried it would attract neo-Nazis.

After exploring the city for a couple hours, I went back to the hostel and watched some live updates of Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC 2010). They’re rolling out a new iPhone 4 in a couple weeks which looks pretty good. Probably won’t get one – at least not anytime soon.

At 8:00pm, the bar below the hostel offers a free keg of beer, which goes pretty fast. I met some Brits, Sam and Tom I believe. We stayed there for about an hour and I got a 3 minute explanation of Cricket (still not sure I get all of it, I’ll have to look it up later). There was a pub crawl that left at 8:00pm, so we went and caught up with them. The Brits could absolutely drink me under the table, not to mention they probably had 40 more pounds to work with. They kept handing me drinks so I eventually called it an early night and caught a taxi back to the hostel. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the night; I had a good time but probably not drinking again for awhile (at least not like that).

Cologne

Cologne

I slept in this morning, waking up around 10:30am and grabbed a chocolate croissant and cheese covered pretzel at the train station. I got to the NS-Documentation Centre of the City of Cologne around 11:15am, fifteen minutes after it opened. Most of the museum was […]

Day 21: Cologne

Day 21: Cologne

First thing I did this morning was go to the Dom Cathedral. It was mostly empty when I got there at 8:30am so I walked around for about 45 minutes and took some pictures. I noticed they had a guided tour at 10:30am so I […]

Day 20: Belgium and Cologne

Day 20: Belgium and Cologne

Yesterday, I went to the military base which is where my G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella go shopping. I bought two books, “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Best of Europe: 2010” by Rick Steves. I actually have the book by Rick Steves at home, but didn’t bring it because I didn’t think I would need it since I already had two other guide books. The guidebooks I bought “Let’s Go Europe 2010” and “Rough Guide Europe 2010” were both good, but they just provide a list of things to do, with a few recommendations. His book is more in depth, providing detailed city maps with self-guided tours and more explanation into the history and culture. After the military base, I took a train back to Brussels. It was overcast when I went earlier in the week and the sun made everything look better. I couldn’t get tickets to the soccer match but the fan were out in full force. There were a bunch of Mexicans in the Grand Plaza who were singing Mexican songs and chants for about 2 hours. Ha, Michael Scott: “Is there a word besides Mexican that you like to be called, maybe something less offensive?” They were all wearing jerseys and had Mexican flags that they would wave every once in awhile. I spent time just wondering around, taking pictures, and eating waffles and beer. I caught the 6:45pm train back to Jurbise, had my last dinner with G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella, and then went to sleep.

I woke up around 8:30am this morning, packed my things, and left to take the 10:17am train from Jurbise to Brussels, and then a 12:25pm train from Brussels to Cologne, Germany. I had a great time in Belgium; I got to see some important World War I sites (that I wouldn’t be able to see without a car) and saw the main cities. It was really nice to have some family company for a couple of days.

My train from Jurbise to Brussels left on time, but was slow on the tracks and would completely stop in some cases. They made an announcement but it was in French so I had no idea what they said. No one seemed to be upset so I don’t think it was that important. I asked a woman next to me if she spoke English, which she didn’t, so she tried to explain what the problem was using hand gestures. Funny as it was, I had no idea what she was trying to explain. I got to the Brussels-Midi train station around 11:20, (15 minutes late) and then ate a packed lunch that Aunt Stella and G. Uncle Tom fixed me. Thanks!

I thought my train platform was closer than it really was and I almost missed my connecting train to Cologne; the doors closed about two minutes after I got on. I grabbed a seat on the first car I found and then started planning what I was going to do in Cologne. About ten minutes into the train ride, I noticed there was a German family spread out in the seats around me. The mother was sitting diagonally from me, two kids (a boy, age 6, and girl, age 10), and the oldest daughter was sitting by herself to the right of me (around age 14). She kept catching glances at me while I wrote in my journal or took pictures outside so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and practice my German.

I moved over to the empty seat next to her and asked if she spoke English. I couldn’t tell what she said in reply, but I found out it meant, ‘very little’. It’s funny – when I ask anyone if they speak English, they’ll always say ‘a little’ but I can guarantee their English is 100x better than my French or German.

I got out my guide book and started going through the phrases in German (Yes, No, Numbers 1-10, ‘I would like a beer’, etc.). Some of them I was pronouncing right, but I butchered a lot of them. I would say one, she would correct me, and then I would try it again. She had her iPod sitting next to her, so I asked what she was listening to and I noticed she had Michael Jackson, Casada, and even the audio book ‘Twilight’ in German. Good to know the vampire obsession has crossed the Atlantic.

I then got out some paper, and drew a # to see if she knew how to play tic-tac-toe. She did, but didn’t have the best strategy so I won most of the time. After a couple games, I took my hand out and did the hand gesture for Rock, Paper, Scissors, but she didn’t know how to play. Instead, I made a Dots board. For those who don’t know, Dots is a game where you draw a bunch of dots in an array on a piece of paper, like 5×5 or 6×6, and then take turns connecting the dots, either horizontally or vertically. Once someone makes a square, they put their first initial inside and get to go again. The person with the most boxes at the end is the winner.

But she didn’t know how to play, and didn’t speak English well enough for me to explain it to her. So I had to teach her how to play Dots without talking. After a couple minutes, she figured it out and we played a couple games. She asked me where I was from in broken English, so I drew a picture of the United States and put a star where Tampa would be in Florida. She didn’t know what Florida was, so I drew the Mickey Mouse head, and then put an arrow to Orlando which she recognized. I found out that her name was Sina (pronounced Zena, like the warrior princess) and she was from Cologne. She asked where I was going, so I underlined some places on a map of Germany in my guidebook and drew lines from one to the other.

As we were pulling up to the train station, the ~4 year old boy got out of his chair and started to talk excitedly in German. I noticed that it was because he saw the top of the Dom Cathedral, the icon of the city, meaning that he was almost home. The train finally stopped, I said goodbye to the Sina and the German family, put my stuff in my backpack, and then left the train station.

I found my hostel about 15 minutes later, due to becoming a little lost. It turns out that my hostel is right next to the train station; so close, in fact, that I can hear the announcements right now as I type this. If I wanted to, I couple probably throw a rock and hit it, its so close. I dropped my stuff off in my room (the nicest one I’ve had yet) and then started exploring Cologne. The cathedral is absolutely huge. It’s so big that I wouldn’t be able to fit it all in one picture unless I was a couple blocks away.

I also went into a chocolate museum, Schokoladen Museum. It was sponsored by Lindt Chocolate, and was MUCH better than the chocolate museum I went to in Brussels. At the tickets counter, they had a mini chocolate bar waiting for you to sample. The museum covered the history of chocolate to the manufacturing process, to the cultural significance. Inside, they had a mini-chocolate factory where they would melt the cocoa beans, stir them, place them in molds, cool them, and then package them. It turns out the little chocolate bar I had when I bought my ticket was made on site. It was a really well done museum and was well worth the 5 Euros.

After the museum, I grabbed some food. I grabbed a HUGE pretzel for 1 Euro and then two jelly filled doughnuts for another Euro. For the street stands, Germany is the cheapest I’ve come across so far. I walked through the commercial district and then on a bridge over the Rhine river. Remember when I said the French would place a lock on a bridge and then throw the key in the water to show their love for each other? Well the French have nothing on the Germans. I walked across this bridge and there were probably thousands of locks with couples’s names on it. About half way through the bridge, a couple approached me, and asked me to take some pictures of them while they attached the lock to the fence and as they threw their key in the water. I took about 20 pictures of them and they seemed happy with the results.

I walked through the city as the sun was setting and tried to take some pictures but it was too dark and I needed a tripod. I’ll probably buy one tomorrow along with a polarizing lens to make my pictures have more color.

Belgium

Belgium

On Monday we left around 9:15am and took the 100 km drive to Yeper. Yeper is a city in western Belgium that was completely destroyed during World War I and was rebuilt. G. Uncle Tom and I went inside of a WWI museum which had […]

Day 15: Reims/Mons

Day 15: Reims/Mons

I left for the train station around 8:00 this morning for my 9:15 train. I got there a little bit early and saw Josh there – he’s headed south-east near the German border and then going to Switzerland. I didn’t have much trouble finding my […]

Day 14: Reims

Day 14: Reims

I didn’t do a whole lot today. I woke up around 8:30am and got breakfast downstairs with Josh. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a loaf of French bread with strawberry jelly before. There wasn’t a whole lot to it, but it was good. After breakfast, I went back to sleep and woke up around 1:30pm. I already did most of Reims on Friday so I didn’t have a whole lot planned for today. The weather outside was also overcast and rainy so it wasn’t all that inviting anyways.

In the afternoon, I started copying my blog postings into my journal which is taking much longer than expected. I can easily type 1 page but trying to copy that down takes at least 20 minutes. I’ve been on the lookout for some books in English but haven’t found any yet – hopefully once I get to Belgium I can get some at the base. Next time, I’ll use Rick Steve’s books. As Josh showed me, they have much more content rather than just listing everything you can do.

Some thought on the language barrier and money

Some thought on the language barrier and money

Traveling in France is a bit harder than I imagined. Something as simple as ordering a large coke in a McDonald’s or trying to find directions is a bit harder without knowing the language. The hardest part is understanding signs. In the train station, everything […]

Day 13: Reims

Day 13: Reims

Before I left the hostel this morning, I bought 200 GB of online storage from Google. I’m in the process of uploading all my pictures (at their original resolution) to Picasa web albums for people to download and so I can use it as a […]

Day 12: Paris/Reims

Day 12: Paris/Reims

Turns out the national strike didn’t effect me at all; it was mostly in southern France. There were two TGV (high speed) trains leaving for Reims this morning so I woke up at 6:30am to catch the earlier one. I checked out of my hostel and then took the metro to Gare d’Est (east train station). Once I got there, I waited in line for about 10 minutes to purchase my ticket. Even though I have a Eurail pass, I still need to make reservations on some trains (especially the high speed ones). I got my Eurail pass validated with a stamp through the English speaking ticket agent, and then paid the 3 Euros for my 8:57am reservation.

The train station was pretty big, with over 25 platforms, but is pretty easy to figure out. The platform number is announced on departure TV screens about 30 minutes before the train leaves and the doors close 2 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.


The actual train ride went pretty smoothly, but had trouble finding my seat. I couldn’t read the French on my ticket so I didn’t know which car to get into.


I asked three different people who gave me directions in French, but finally found a nice French woman who took me to the right car and showed me my seat.

The trip only took 45 minutes and when the train arrived in Reims, it was raining (good thing I bought that umbrella two days prior). I walked south and found my hostel about 15 minutes later. I left my bags in the luggage room and then walked around Reims. I found the Notre Dame de Reims and luckily the tourism office was right next to it. I got a map of the city (it’s probably about the size of Greenville) and then got lunch in a covered shopping area.

After lunch, I went back to the hostel and checked in. I’m staying in a five person room (the largest one they have) but I’m the only one in it. I guess it’s still a little bit early for backpackers since most of them are probably still in school. Because it was still raining outside, I decided to go to sleep for a few hours. I woke up around 7:00pm, and left to go get some dinner. I found a Kebab shop about a block from my hostel and did my best to pronounce what I wanted in English, but ended up just pointing.


Once I finished eating, I went outside to take a picture of the store from the outside. Some of the workers saw me taking a photo, so they told me to wait and then hopped in the windows to pose for a picture. They said something else to me in French (I have no idea what), but I said thank you and walked off.

The weather for tomorrow is expected to be sunny (High of 69°F) so I’ll probably start off by going to Notre Dame de Reims and then stop by the tourism office to book a champagne tour. I leave on Sunday so anything I don’t get done tomorrow, I can do on Saturday.

Oh, and I wanted to let everyone know that I miss Reed’s company especially. I had a wonderful night’s sleep with him on the Clemson trip, but now that he’s gone, I have been sleeping restlessly every night.

Day 11: Paris (still)

Day 11: Paris (still)

I woke up this morning around 8:00am, ate breakfast at the hostel and then took the metro to the Louvre Museum. I got there around 9:05am, (they open at 9:00am) but the line was still pretty long. For some reason, the opening of the museum […]

Day 10: Paris

Day 10: Paris

Yeah, so waking up at 5:30am to catch the sunset didn’t happen. I rolled out of bed at 6:45am, ate breakfast at the hostel, and then walked around the empty city. I took some nice pictures over the reflection of the Seine River and then […]

Day 9: Paris

Day 9: Paris

I woke up this morning around 7:30am with a little bit of a sore throat (probably thanks to some people in the Clemson group being sick 🙂 ) and walked around to tried and find an internet café. It turns out that no one in Paris is awake before 9 – the streets were almost empty. It seems like everyone wakes up late and stays out late. As I said earlier, the sun sets around 9:15pm but doesn’t actually get dark until around 10:00pm.

While I was walking, I found a place to do laundry later in the week. I probably spent 5 minutes staring at the directions in French (so I would know how to do it later in the week) before I realized that there were English directions on the opposite wall. Instead of paying per load, you pay per kg and the machines are a lot smaller than back home. Hopefully I’ll find time to do laundry before I go to Reims on Thursday morning.

I ended up walking down the Champs-Élysées, where they were having a garden festival. At 10:00am, I went to the Arc de Triumph, a monument made to celebrate the French victories in war. I bought my tickets assuming they would automatically give me a student discount but they charged me the 9 Euros for adults instead of 4.50 Euros for a student. Next time, I’ll give them my cash and student ID card at the same time.
I then took the metro to Le Defense, the business district of Paris. I saw the large, modern Grande Arch (which is large enough to fit Notre Dame inside) and ate lunch at the same McDonald’s I had eaten at 4 years ago when I took a tour of Paris with my family. I stopped by a pharmacy to get something for my sore throat. I couldn’t understand what anything was, so I bought something that looked like throat lozenges. Luckily, they were. After lunch, I went to the Apple store near the Louvre and used the free wi-fi to call my parents using Skype on my phone. It turns out that the iPad hits stores in Paris on the 28th so there is a lot of ads and hype for that.

After the Apple store, I went to a wine tasting at O’Cheateau. It was hard to find, but I took a picture of the map they emailed me with my camera, and zoomed in on the picture to use as a map. They didn’t have my name marked down (even though I made reservations over a month ago) so I showed them my confirmation email on my iPhone. The wine tasting was pretty informative, covering mostly the wine regions in France, with interesting facts such as there are 150,000 chateaus in France (so good luck trying to find the same French wine at two different restaurants). I walked back from the wine tasting around 4:30pm and stopped in an H&M to buy some clothes (the prices are just as cheap as in the US) and then went back to my hostel and passed out until 8:30pm. I had dinner at another Gyro restaurant and ordered ‘pain oriental’ – a beef sandwich with lettuce and tomato – and then watched the sun set on Notre Dame. There was a fire dancer so I managed to get some good long exposure pictures. I haven’t gone out to take pictures at night yet – it’s hard to take pictures of the city of light without a tripod.

My photography is coming along well – I’ve started becoming aware of where sights are located in relation to sun and planning my trips accordingly. The Arc de Triumph faces East/West so the best pictures are early in the morning or right before sunset and the pyramid in front of the Louvre gets the best lighting right before sunset.

I have a busy day planned for tomorrow. I am planning on waking up around 5:30am to catch the sunrise at 6:00am, take a tour (with an audio guide) of Notre Dame when it opens at 7:45am and then go to the top of the tower, visit Saint Chapelle, go inside the Pantheon, revisit Pascal’s (the mathematician) tomb, and then maybe go to the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset. I am saving my visit to the Louvre and any other museums for Wednesday because that is when it is expected to rain.

Day 8: Paris Update

Day 8: Paris Update

After lunch, I crashed and went to sleep until 7:00pm. Because Paris is so far north, it has very long days and doesn’t get dark until around 9:15pm, so I had a couple more hours of daylight. I took some picture of Notre Dame in […]

Day 8: Paris

Day 8: Paris

I woke up today at 6:55am and said goodbye to everyone from Clemson. I’ve really enjoyed spending time with them and while we didn’t know each other before the trip, I think we all had a really good time and developed good friendships. As soon […]

Day 7: Rouen, Versailles, Paris

Day 7: Rouen, Versailles, Paris

Today we left the hotel around 8:45 am and took a quick tour of the historic district of Rouen. We visited the Rouen Cathedral (which had four bombs dropped on it during World War II) and a church dedicated to Joan of Arc. The Rouen Cathedral was the cathedral that Monet painted every day, from the same perspective. He would paint the cathedral at different times of the day and in different weather. After the cathedral, we were getting tired of listening to the tour guide so instead we picked up small rocks off the ground and slowly put them into people’s pockets one at a time without them noticing. Nothing is more satisfying than having someone reach their hand in the pocket and have it be full of pebbles with no clue how they got there. Bonus points if they were French.

For lunch, we had a huge pot of mussels at a seafood restaurant in Rouen’s center. After Rouen, we quickly visited Versailles by walking through the gardens and palace with a tour guide. The palace had a reflection pond that was designed to be wider at one end than the other to compensate for the perspective illusion. We also walked through the hall of mirrors, which overlooks the garden. Versailles was built with the hall of mirrors facing west so that when the sun sets, the light reflects off the reflection pond, bounces off the mirrors, and lights up the whole hallway. The hall of mirrors was also the place where England signed the Treaty of Paris, resulting in the end of the revolutionary war. It was pretty cool to walk through the hall where our nation was founded. We also got to see the fountains working. The fountains were designed in the 16th century and uses gravity to create enough pressure to make the fountain work.

After Versailles, we took the bus to Paris and dropped our things off at the hotel. We then gave Colonel Young and Dr. Touya gifts to show our appreciation for their help during the trip: a wine holder and a rugby ball. Colonel Young and Dr. Touya took us out for dinner at Café Procope, the oldest café in Paris. It was built in 1686 and has served such famous people such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire. We had a magnificent meal (I ordered chicken in a sesame sauce and crème brûlée). There was no shortage of alcohol and I think everyone had a great time, trying each other’s meals and enjoying our last night in Paris. The five bottles of wine made for an interesting ride on the metro back to the hotel (full of singing and laughing), but no matter how much someone tries to convince me, I’m never going to try cognac again.

Day 6: Normandy, Caen, and Rouen

Day 6: Normandy, Caen, and Rouen

**I finally got the chance to upload some pictures so go back through my previous posts and look at them!** Today we left the hotel at 8:45am (which had a ping pong table which we played on for three hours) and took the trip to […]

Mont Saint-Michel and St. James Cemetary

Mont Saint-Michel and St. James Cemetary

Today was probably the best day so far. We left our Mister Bed hotel around 8:30 am and made the trip north-west to Mont Saint-Michel. This island is famous for it’s monastery which was built by monks and completed in 1523. It has become one […]

Wine tour and chateaus

Wine tour and chateaus

We left the hotel around 9:30am and toured a vineyard, Plou & Fils in the Loire valley.

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We went through the cave (which keeps the wine cool) that the family dug out by hand about 500 years ago. We got to taste a lot of wine at 10:30am which made for a good bus ride to lunch.

For lunch, we went to a café in Ambois where most people got steak and frites. After lunch, we found the house where Da Vinci spent the last years of his life. We then went to Château de Chenonceau and Château de Amboise, two chateaus in the Loire Valley.

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The Château de Amboise was the most interesting – it kept The Mona Lisa during World War II and has the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. We ate inside of a cave for dinner with sausage and potatoes, salad, and 1667.

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We then went back to Tours and ordered three different types of crepes: banana, chocolate, and whip cream; banana, Nutella, and shaved coconut; and caramel mixed with milk. We then went back to Mister Bed write in our academic journals and go to sleep.

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Chartres Cathedral and Tours

Chartres Cathedral and Tours

Today we woke up at 7:00am and left Paris for Tours, stopping by the Chartres Cathedral on our way. We aimlessly walked around by ourselves in the Cathedral but then managed to get a public tour with Malcolm Miller, a famous historian on Chartres. He […]

The Louvre and other Paris Sights

The Louvre and other Paris Sights

On our way to the bus tour, my camera slipped out of my hand and fell right on the sidewalk. It’s a good thing I had a lens filter on it because it got a nice crack in it. So here I am just on […]

Notre Dame and a walking tour

Notre Dame and a walking tour

Today was a busy day. We arrived early in the morning and dropped our stuff at our hotel.

We made our way into Paris and started  by attending the 10:00am mass at Notre Dame. For mid-May, it was pretty cold so I’m glad I brought a jacket.

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Our French professor then took us on a walking tour to the Jewish Quarter by the Seine River. From there, we went to Victor Hugo’s house (the author of “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) and then visited the oldest building in Paris, built in 1407.

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We walked by the Roman baths, Sorbonne University, and then the Pantheon. The Pantheon is where Marie Curie, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Louie Braille (the dot system used by the blind), are buried.

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We also visited Montmartre in northern Paris.

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Tomorrow, we are going on a bus tour of Paris and seeing the Louvre. I’ll write more later – I haven’t slept since Friday night and need to catch up on some sleep. It’s currently 12:01am on the 17th (6pm Sunday back in Tampa).

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Travel day

Travel day

Our flights today were all on time – first from Atlanta to Montreal and then from Montreal to Paris. I sat next to a guy from Canada on the way to Montreal. He told me that it’s a federal law in Quebec to have the […]

Preparing to fly out to Paris

Preparing to fly out to Paris

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be studying abroad for 10 days in Paris/Normandy followed by a 2.5 month backpacking trip by myself. I’m planning on visiting France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Greece, Spain, and Portugal will have to be on another […]