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Callos - An Andalusian Cow

The Gorge
The Andalusian city of Ronda is the home of bullfighting and also famous for the amazing gorge splitting the town. That's where we went to a typical Spanish tavern for some tapas for lunch. On the menu there stood something called callos. I wondered what that might be.  
- Oh, you wouldn't want that, said my sister-in-law who had lived in Spain for years. It's stew-like stuff, quite heavy, rustic food. The Spanish folks often eat it during the wintertime. They chop in practically everything from cow: tripe, udders, everything. Get it? Choose something else.
- Una tapa de callos, por favor, I instantaneously said to the barman.

The earthenware bowl of callos I got in front of me was relievingly small. At least I wouldn't have to spend hours trying to finish a huge portion of this notorious stew. I stirred the stuff with my spoon and indeed, callos consisted of very obscure shaped objects. At least one of them was some kind of a tube, a bump of a kind with a hole in the top. I didn't want to speculate in my mind if it was a nipple or something else. Most objects wiggled in suspicious way when I lifted them in the air with my spoon, to a great annoyance of my company. But the scariest one was was the huge round thing found in the middle of the bowl. Since it was covered in the sauce I couldn't quite tell what it was, but it appeared to be partially hard. Please don't be gristle, don't be gristle I prayed when I shoved it in my mouth.

An Andalusian Cow
The frightening round object turned out to be a generous slice of local delicious chorizo sausage. The sauce was equally good so I dared start spooning in the rest of the callos. The onions, chickpeas, tomatoes, garlic and a variety herbs gave the stew very heavy, stocky taste. I bet they had thrown in some marrowy bones too while cooking. And as for the scary wiggly objects, fortunately they were quite easy to consume, as long as you didn't think where in cow they were originating from. No surprising crunches from between your teeth, no gristle, no probelm.

The most important thing, the taste was after all pre-panicking no less than excellent! The small bowl I had was, with some salad, bread and olives, quite enough to satisfy a small hunger. I'm positive if Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel had had callos during their brainstorming sessions when planning their infamous film An Andalusian Dog, they would have named the film Une Vache Andalouse instead.


Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum

What could be more bad-ass a museum than an Arnold Schwarzenegger museum? That's easy: a Chuck Norris museum. There even is said to have been one in Wilson, Oklahoma in the early nineties. But as everyone knows, Chuck Norris is his own museum, so let's take a look instead in the brand new Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum, which was opened last July in his birth home in the village of Thal, nearby the city of Graz, Austria.

The museum was easy to find by car. We were staying some 40 km away, and the signs pointing to the museum started quite early when approaching Thal. Arnold's 200 year old childhood house is situated next to idyllic castle ruins dating back to the 13th century. The museum is open on four days only per week, and this sunny Wednesday morning we seem to be the first visitors of the week as we pull to the small empty parking space in the front of the house. A white paper note is hanging from the front door knob. For a few dreadful moments I fear that the museum is closed, but the note tells merrily that they're open.

Some of the museum rooms are left like they were in Arnold's childhood. The kitchen table has an old newspaper on it. Original pans and kitchenware are hanging on the walls. By writing this I curse myself for not having taken enough photos there. Otherwise I would have included a picture of the Schwarzenegger family pit toilet. Damn! There is also Arnie's original childhood bed, his first weights and bench press. Please, don't touch, said a note.  One room is a copy of Schwarzenegger's governor's office. A video greeting of the governor of California himself is running in loop on the window sill. It was cool to hear Arnie for once speaking German language with Styrian accent. Griaß euch mitanond! A life-sized statue of present-day Arnold stands in the room, giving the visitors a thumbs-up. 

Soon after us a group of three men in their thirties come into the museum. We help each other for some photos with the Terminator. Oh yeah, there are two life-size models from the Terminator movies, a damaged T-800 with most of Arnold still on it, and a whole T-800 endoskeleton. Additionally, also the original Harley Davidson motorcycle from Terminator 2 is displayed. Video screens loop Arnie's movie trailers and one can play a Terminator game with an Xbox console.

We actually barely evade seeing the man himself. He has been here less than two weeks earlier to open the museum. Lots of fans were there clad Terminator-style in their leather jackets. A giant bronze statue of bodybuilder Arnie was unveiled in the garden. Before we leave, I just have to buy Arnold's own red wine, Hasta la vista, produced by relatively famous Burgenlander wine estate, Willi Opitz. We have tested the wine already - it was a bit like its paragon: the structure was broad, straightforward, and the body was meaty, even weighty. The general impression was a bit simple. At least the wine wasn't named I'll be back - not very good name for any food or drink.

When walking towards the car with our liquid loot we hear a sudden burst of laughter from behind the garden hedge. The three visitors have found the bronze statue. I bet poses became photographed.

More photos and some video footage in this small video clip:


Dangerous New Zealand

When going through old photos from New Zealand I noticed that I've been to quite dangerous places. One photo I unfortunately did not take was of a sign near Kerosene Creek warning about brain-eating amoebas.

Nothing unusual in the Kiwi land.(Rotorua)
Unstable ground sounds somehow exciting. (Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland)
Devil's Bath. His toothbrush was just around the corner. (Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland)

I love signs where objects fall down. This one was in Mordor.
(Tongariro National Park, Mt. Ruapehu area)

Click larger and be warned of risks of New Zealander herbs.
Escpecially if you're lactating or pregnant. (Christchurch)

Our car wasn't fully equipped so I drove extra carefully.
(Near Kawarau Bridge)
In dangerous New Zealand you could potentially be
dangerous too. For example if you're wearing black
jeans. Click larger. (Dunedin)


Bones and Brimstone in Rome

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.
Rome provides numerous excellent spots for a tad more morbid touristic destinations. The famous Roman catacombs are an obvious target for at least every other tourist, and many city center churches provide access to their crypts, underground vaults and tombs. And one doesn't run out of churches in Rome very quickly. However, the Eternal City has two even more cadaverous places to visit for those after somewhat more macabre rambling.

Bony Grim Reaper lurking on the ceiling.
Let us start from the end: Death. In addition to inspiring the name for a type of coffee, the order of Capuchin friars has also had a peculiar way to burying their dead brothers. They dug them up and used their bones to decorate the crypt of the church of Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione. The ossuary ornaments and bone piles consist of skeletons of about 4000 friars. The grotesque adornments consist of individual bones arranged in most imaginative way for example as skull-pelvic butterflies, shoulder-blade lanterns and all kinds of decorative patterns within the stretchy boundaries of human imagination. The skeleton Grim Reaper with a scythe and scales made of bones was probably my favourite.I have to agree with Marquis de Sade: The Capuchin Crypt is really worth a visit.

A photocopy of a burn mark made on the apron of
Sister M. Herendorps by the hand of the deceased
Sister Mary Care Schoelers, a victim of the plague
of 1637. (Original apron is kept in Germany.)
After death comes afterlife. So it's convenient to continue to the next level: the Purgatory. In roaring catholic Italy it's a common thing to believe that some dead souls have to suffer a temporary rather than eternal punishment in order to purify themselves from all the sins before entering the Heaven. Or something. Fine. But what in fact is this Purgatory? Is it merely a 'condition of existence' like the previous Pope put it, or an actually physical, undoubtedly a fiery place where you actually go after dying to fry your sins away? In Rome you will have an excellent opportunity to review the evidence of the latter yourself: The wonderfully named Little Purgatory Museum (Piccolo Museo Del Purgatorio) in the church of the Sacred Heart sports numerous exhibits that have been burned by people reaching out from the flames of Purgatory.

The tunic of Mother Isabella, burnt by Father Panzini
in 1731. The story says the burn mark is on the sleeve.
No shit. Among about ten purgatorial items enclosed in a single huge glass case (so that they are very difficult to photograph) you have for example a small prayer book with burnt fingerprints, a night-cap with burnt fingerprints, and piece of table surface with a charred cross and a hand-shaped mark. Dead people have reached from the depths of the purifying holy fire and scorched stuff.

Why? Usually the point for a dead person suffering in eternal flames is to appear to someone familiar and ask him or her to pray on to shorten the time in purgatory. I don't know how it worked out for the souls that burned these objects. Nor do I know how modern insurance companies would react to claims for indemnity for purgatory-burned property. But the exhibition is definitely worth seeing.

Edit: Check also the video filmed in the Capuchin crypt!



And here I thought that my native language, Finnish, has long compound nouns. Until I spotted a banner advertising a youth competition of the county fire service at Illmitz volunteer fire brigade, Burgenland, Austria.


First Proposers

Rule of thumb: Whenever you arrive to a country or some new place when travelling, the first person proposing something usually tries to cheat or trick you some way or another. In its mildest and most common form the person is overcharging you from his/her service.

Example 1. (Beijing, December 2004)

Made it to the Forbidden City after all.
A 12 hour stopover at Beijing! What a nice chance to go check downtown. Even the day visas could be neatly arranged from the certain counter in the airport. (The embassy in Finland had told that it wouldn't be possible and that we would have to buy visas from them. Wrong! Luckily we didn't believe them.)

Hop into a taxi and off towards the Tiananmen Square. It takes couple of kilometers of driving before the jet lagged and tired travellers notice that the meter is not turned on. In fact, there is no meter at all, just a gaping hole in the dashboard. We start negotiating - the driver asks about quadruple price of what I know should be a 'real price'. At the square we still fight over the price. The driver yells angrily. We manage to drop the price to the half of driver's original amount, still being about double the normal amount. When I pay, the driver is grinning at me. I could read the expression on his face: Sorry pal, this is how it goes.

Example 2. (Irkustk, July 2010)

Next stop: Irkutsk.
Our train pulls into station at 6 am. The hotel is booked and paid in advance, but me and my father still need to get in there. The distance is only couple of kilometres, but I don't really feel like wandering in a Russian city in the morning darkness with all our luggage after four straight days in a train. Especially with my old man. Oh, but we don't have to! A friendly chap in the passenger hall walks to us, offering a 'taxi' ride to the hotel for 300 rubles. Oh well, that's under 10 euros, and people's taxi is almost an institution in Russia. Outside the railway station there is a row of official cabs as well, but we already made the deal. Our driver takes us safely to the hotel and even lifts our bags out of the car. Spasibo & do svidaniya.

After couple of days our voyage continues, and we need to get to the railway station again. The hotel receptionist books us a taxi for 4.30 am. This cab has even a proper taxi sign on the roof. The driver takes us quickly to the station but doesn't take our bags out of the car. My father reckons the fee will have an added nighttime service charge. We end up paying 150 rubles.

Example 3. (Russian-Mongolian border, July 2010)

Right after crossing the border a multitude of money exchangers swarms into the train. You can't get Mongolian tögröks (or tugriks) outside Mongolia, so the first opportunity to get that money is NOW! Well, let's take it easy, we don't need that much cash right now in the beginning, how about 1000 rubles, some thirty euros. Our carriage's exchanger presents a rate of 1:20. Up to twenty tögröks for a single ruble - hey but that is a lot! The fellow explains that they don't accept rubles any more in Mongolian exchange booths, so if we don't go back to Russia any more, we better change now. Hmm, sounds like a sales pitch, but hell, take another thousand rubles and gimme TWENTY GRAND more!
Almost invaluable one tögrök note. (0,0006 EUR)

The ruble rate at Ulan Bator's money exchange offices turns later out to be 1:43. The exchange creep in the train visits our cabin at least twice again before leaving the vehicle - just to make sure if we still want to exchange more rubles. When he walks away the aisle, I hear him muttering to himself: 'money money money money...'


Bird's Snot Drink

In a Vietnamese supermarket it's not unusual to find canned soft drinks made of bird's nest, which consists of bird saliva. Great, a bird's snot drink! They even tend to have many brands available, many of which contain also something called white fungus as a second main ingredient. Both of these key elements in this canned drink are quite common in Asian cuisine, and not very surpisingly because of their medicinal and health benefits on digestion and libido. So of course I had to buy a can. It's a health drink after all!

Something to everyone's taste
To be honest, the can sat in my fridge for about two years before I got around to actually drink it. Guess it was too easy to forget that I had a chilled can of bird's drool somewhere behind the pickled cucumbers and Morello cherry jam. I discovered it recently and noticed that the best before date was still far in the future. What the hell, this is a must-taste.

The first impression when pouring the beverage in a glass was like eww is this gone bad after all. The liquid was much thicker than water, like clear motor oil ...except for the clumps. Along the liquid there fell several little whiteish flaky lumps. Most of them were white and same sized, but there were bigger and more yellow ones here and there. Oddly enough, the clumps didn't sink to the bottom. Instead the viscosity of the bird mucus drink held them floating in the middle of the drink evenly spread within the glass in a most bizarre way. I guess the globs were pieces of that white fungus mentioned in the can.

Notice that yellow bastard near bottom.
My major mistake was that I wasn't thirsty at all when I decided finally to drink the bird's nest beverage. Somehow, when experimenting with exotic and weird food and drinks, it helps a lot if you're hungry or thirsty in the beginning. The bird's nest drink was mainly... sweet. But in a subtle way, like the general taste of the whole  beverage. It wasn't strong in any sense, and the clumps were small and soft enough so you could drink without noticing the solid particles. I even tried to chew on a piece of white fungus, but if I managed to get it between my teeth, I really didn't notice it.

But like I said, I wasn't thirsty, and chugging down the weird thick and clumpy liquid started to freak me out. Suddenly I didn't feel like having that bigger yellow slime gobbet in my mouth after all. Had I been thirsty, I would have only be happy to drink glass of that ice cold semi sweet beverage. Now the experience turned from a pleasant start to slightly ghastly end.


My First Abseil

Like I described in the previous post, abseiling (rappelling in the US English) beginners start rehearsing the activity in somewhat easy conditions. A slanting wall, maybe about six metres high. We we ended our Camino del Rey walk, we abseiled down 27 metres, straight down. The techinque was quickly learnt, our good guide Steve from Barbary Rock Adventures took only couple of minutes to teach me and my brother who both were first-time-abseilers how to do it. It wasn't rocket science, and we both met the solid ground without any problems, but we both had unnecessarily tensed many muscles that don't need to be tensed during abseiling. Many muscles we probably even didn't know we had.

Here's a video of our descent. First part is point-of-view footage from my helmet camera, the second one is my brother coming down, shot with a regular pocket camera (hence the shaking). Since we first-timers took our time, I increased the film speed to avoid total boredom, especially since the POV camera shows mostly limestone wall. In the very end Steve the guide abseils down, shown by the helmet camera's normal speed footage.


El Camino del Rey - Between a Rock and a High Place

El Camino del Rey from below
El Caminito del Rey i.e. The King's Little Pathway is a well known place for climbers and adrenaline junkies, and it's not unusual to stumble upon stories about it in internet forums either. Myself, I had managed to avoid knowing of its existence until early this year when I had decided to go for another holiday on Costa del Sol. Since that Spanish coastal area is not necessarily on my top-places-to-go list - I merely go there because of family and friends (and the food) - I tried to find something different to do. And indeed something different I found.

Initial insanity
Camino del Rey was built about one hundred years ago in a narrow gorge at El Chorro for hydroelectric power plant workers who needed access to control the water channels and to transport materials. During the decades, the walkway has slowly fallen into deterioration: the railing is missing for the most of the path, some sections have totally collapsed, other parts are waiting to fall down in the near future. The path is about one metre wide, and it's attached to vertical gorge wall mostly 100 metres high above the river flowing at the bottom.

Yours truly on a little potter

After some fatal accidents the Andalucian Government has prevented extemporaneous hikers to enter the path by breaking the initial part of the walkway. It is still possible to use alternative routes to reach it, even without any gear. However, the safest way for people with very little, if any, climbing skills or experience (like me) is to join a guided tour with a professional climber guide who can provide the necessary gear and training. My brother tagged along for the hike, and we chose a Gibraltar-based outdoor, trekking and climbing activities providing company Barbary Rock Adventures. It turned out to be a perfect choice for us. We got the gear, instructions on site, and an excellent guide Steve, who is one of the greatest guides I've ever had anywhere. A rock hard professional, who kept us safe, informed and very well entertained.

Our trek began with climbing an alternative route to the camino. That very first part alone was probably the freakiest trip I've ever done. We were clinging to a vertical limestone wall, moving sideways, having only narrow iron bars to step on. Then there was a section of almost straight upwards climbing on rock sediments that used to be sea bottom some hundreds of millions of years ago. Eventually we reached the underside of the pathway. Already from below it was obvious why camino is in such a state of disrepair: The mortar between the bricks is crumbling. The iron beams are almost corroded through. In many places the beams have been bound to iron rails with shabby copper wire. One hundred years ago.

The purpose of the pathway
Once on the pathway there are no railings on most of the places, and we were looking at the river from about 100 meters above. Curiously, after the insane initial climbing part, standing and walking on the camino itself didn't cause any kind of vertigo. It was completely ok to reach over the edge and look down. Of course, crossing the broken parts of the path (there were several) caused some extra tempo in the pulse, but with the guide's instructions it all went relatively easily. The views on the camino are spectacular and they vary from the tiniest details like small crustacean fossils on the rockface to epic wide mountains, canyons and valleys. After couple of kilometres and some more balancing on the emptiness we reached the other end of the catwalk where there was a manual wheel operated lock on the nowadays crumbled water channel. Time for a packed lunch and some beverages. Walking Camino del Rey in 35 °C scorchio is sweaty stuff.

One of the victims of Camino del Rey
As if this all wasn't enough, we also went back the same way. Same broken sections, but now with the confidence of old and experienced camino-walkers. Almost. Our good guide Steve had also saved some tricks to show and he provided us with some extra information to keep our knowledge bases updated. Let's just say we now know much more for example about the peculiar correlation between excretive habits and gender. The final touch of the trip was to abseil down from the very beginning of Camino del Rey. Everyone else but me & my bro had abseiled before. Oo, we have virgins here! snickered Steve. Usually when you start rehearsing abseiling, you do it from about six metre height, on somewhat slanting wall. Our first time was from 27 metres, on a sheer diagonal wall. It all went fine, although Steve mentioned the video material seeming oddly slow motion...

I wore a cheap head camera recording throughout the whole trip, having now hours of footage from our trek on Camino del Rey. I quickly composed the following video of the highlights of the walk.

After the hike we stopped at the El Chorro train station bar for a little rest. I swear beer has never tasted as good as the pint of San Miguel did then.

The Andalusian and Spanish Government have recently been making decisions and directing money to renovation of Camino del Rey in the near future. Those who want to experience it in its current decayed and dangerous, definitely fascinating state, better hurry.

Next entry: The Abseil

Edit: Check also the photo gallery!


Roundabout from Hell

British people must love roundabouts. I think it becomes clear for an outsider at the latest when you do some driving yourself in the UK. Sometimes it seems that the number of roundabouts in some smaller villages is greater than their population. (Although, the word is that half of world's roundabouts are located in France. However, I've driven only a bit in France, so Britain remains The Kingdom of Roundabouts for me, ok?) British roundabouts are typically your regular circular junctions with an island in the centre, but in many places there are also these mini roundabouts, a mere circle and arrows painted on the road. And then there's The Magic Roundabout.

The first time I was introduced to the Magic Roundabout in Swindon, England was probably in an email from a friend or work mate. It was one of those circular emails that often come with abbreviations like OMG or WTF. And sure, the first glance to a combination of big central island roundabout surrounded by five(!) mini roundabouts looks like something invented by a Marquis de Sade of Traffic Planning during a severe turn of delirium tremens.

The image never left my brains. Many years afterwards me and my wife got a wedding invitation to a certain Loughborough photographer. We booked flights to London and rented a car there. But we didn't take the straightest route to Loughborough, oh no. I still remembered this Britain's gift to the world traffic, so of course we had to take a considerable detour to Swindon. How did we make it? Watch the video:


South-East Asia in Yer Face!

More or less the exact spot where I bought the book.
Lying on the beach on the island of Koh Chang in Thailand in the very end of 2004. A man in his fourties walks in on me to sell his book. He briefly tells he's been backpacking in Asia for years, and that he has written down some stories about his travels and offers his book for few US dollars, euros or some Thai bahts. Can't remember the price any more, but it was very reasonable. He hands me a copy and politely retreats few metres away giving me a possibility to browse through the book before I decide if I want to buy it.

The layout and the general appearance of the book is rather shabby. The pages are obviously Xeroxed in some local Asian copying service shop and stapled together with simple plastic binding. The book or, despite its over 120 pages, merely a booklet, has also plastic covers to make it a bit more book-like rather than just a sheaf of notes. On the cover there is the name of the book, South East Asia in Yer Face and the author, Adrian Robson. Illustrations on the cover look like a mixture of cheesy clip-art pictures. The table of contents reveals stories like Bangkok Girls or Komodo or Bust and by riffling through the pages one very soon notices a generous ration of curse words, occasional poor grammar and typos within the text. The man, Adrian himself, points out that the first story, Bukit Lawang,  is about a flash flood occurence in North Sumatra he barely survived and which actually prompted him to write the whole book. That alone is quite intriguing, especially since we're just couple of days away from the Boxing Day tsunami which hit also Thailand heavily. (By that time we didn't yet realise how bad the disaster actually was, and Koh Chang was untouched by the tidal waves.)

- Well, what the hell, I start, intending to buy the book when I notice weird, almost angry expression on Mr. Robson's face.
- What? he asks looking like daggers drawn.
- I said: What the hell, I'll buy this. How much was it again? I reply, and the author markedly calms down and starts smiling again. We close the deal. Small amount of bahts and a book change owners. Mr. Robson thanks, waves goodbye and continues his stroll on the beach to find the next buyer for a copy of his book.

I later realise that I probably had failed using the expression 'what the hell' as in 'sure, why not'. Adrian most likely first thought I meant something like 'what the hell is this crap'. A good example of how easily you can become misinterpreted by speaking a foreign language with only slightly inadequate intonation. And we're not even talking about tonal languages here.

Well, I didn't read the book right away. Instead it travelled with me back to Finland, where it was buried and forgotten in the bookshelf for several years. I recently discovered it again and finally read it. I was first afraid the stories might be mostly about drinking beer and banging prostitutes, but to my delight the stories were more or less pure rock'n'roll - not forgetting the sex and drugs. In the introduction Adrian Robson tells that apart the flash flood, all incidents described are everyday occurrences that can happen to anyone in South-East Asia, the trick being to be in the wrong place at the right time.
Somewhere in the book Robson mentions he has no previous experience whatsoever on writing, and to be honest, that becomes quite obvious when reading the book. However, after reading all of the stories, and the separate 'Author's Opinions' section at the end, where Robson compares eight different South-East Asian countries, I must say that I'm very happy to own this quite unique piece of travel literature. Actually, many of the happenings in the book are similar to things I'd like to write in this very blog. Adrian Robson writes in a fun and excited way, and with fucking many swear words. This amateur book manages to do what any professional travel book should: It definitely made me want to go traveling again. To Indonesia!


Bungy Jump in Queenstown

Kawarau Bridge
Bungy jumping was always one of those once in a lifetime things I had wanted to do for years, but never really got around to actually do it. Whether the queue at the event was too long, or, probably more often, I just didn't feel like paying eighty Euros for jumping off a platform at the top of a ghastly crane next to a home city square. But once I went to New Zealand, the very home of modern bungy jumping, there was absolutely no way I would not have a go.

We went near Queenstown, to Kawarau Bridge, which crosses a river with the same name. Although there are many other, way higher bungy sites in and around Queenstown, the 43 metre jump from above the Kawarau River seemed the most appropriate - after all, this is the world's first commercial bungy jumping site. Here it all began.

Some people might recognise the river from Lord of the Rings films. The gorge nearby the bungy bridge represented River Anduin, where the Fellowship of the Ring paddled past Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings. The place was made to look much bigger and wider during the post production and the statues themselves were, of course, computer generated images.

The bungy jumping site itself was very well organised operation. There is a big dome built on the rock by the 100-year-old  bridge where you can buy your jump. You can watch ongoing jumps inside on big screens or go outside on a platform with a perfect view to the bridge and the jumpers. There is a tour called The Secrets of Bungy you can take, and a café to rest your feet. For jumpers, everything goes really smoothly. Enter the desk, fill in a form, decide if you also want to buy a DVD or photos of your leap, pay for your jump, have yourself weighed and go to the bridge to wait for your turn. It all happens so easily and effortlessly that before you know, you're falling down.

Kawarau Bridge Bungy Centre also offers various types of bungy jumps. You can decide between an ordinary 'dry' jump and dips of various types in the river. I definitely wanted to do a head splash.


Beijing Birds - Great Food and Really Nice Girls

Summer 2010. I walked with my father on a crowded pedestrian street in eventide Beijing. This was an area in the very center of the city with lots of malls and huge department stores filled with western products like Adidas, Armani, Guess, Gucci and Nike. Lots of modern tiled walls, new paving under our feet, broad and wide passages with bright generous illumination. Not a single hutong anywhere. I guess this area was constructed or fully renovated for the Olympics, because I don't remember seeing all this back in 2004 when I last walked the same quarters. Except maybe for the wide distribution of Asian looking people in the crowd, a place looking like this can be found in any mediocre-sized city anywhere in the world. Booooring.

A genuine, Beijing Duck serving Chinese restaurant
Well, at least the restaurant we just visited seemed to be something genuinely Chinese. At the time we were the only western-looking customers in the very busy establishment. The noise was overwhelming and the air was thick with exotic aromas and cigarette smoke. Huge carps were swimming in poky aquariums waiting to become someone's dinner. Menu had fortunately more pictures of food than text, and Beijing Duck was easy to spot. And damn if it wasn't delicious! I was a bit afraid beforehand that having Beijing Duck (in Beijing) for dinner would only be a common faceless thing to tick off my ToDo-list, but I'll definitely have to have it once or twice more sometimes.

Back to the mind-numbing generic shopping mall infested pedestrian street. Two young Chinese women spot us in the distance and set their walking direction on a collision course. Our evasive maneuver is intercepted by the shopwindow on the tiled mall wall. The ladies are beautiful and nicely dressed. The more talkative one is wearing a flowery yellow dress and the taciturn girl has blue jeans and red piqué shirt. They start with the usual small talk phrases and very quickly deduce we're father and son. They tell us that they study English in the university and they would very much like to practise their English skills with someone. We're not very excited about the idea, but the girls just keep pushing it:

- We're not naughty girls. You want tea? Let's go have a cup of tea!
- No, no thank you, we really don't have time. 
- Let's walk then. Hey, they sell water there, you want some water? Let's go have some water, we're really nice girls.

And similar insisting, very persistently ad nauseam, or for at least ten minutes. Even though some travel guides indeed claim that Chinese people sometimes want to speak English with tourists for speaking's sake, this particular situation reeks like a dirty scam from kilometres away. But what kind of a scam? Or are these young ladies prostitutes, 'tea' being just a euphemism? Do they think a father and son would like to go tag team on them? When we politely refuse their invitation enough (Yes, you seem really nice girls, but...) their niceness grows into new spheres:

- Fuck you then! Fuck you! Fuck you!

Even the silent one stresses:

- Shit!

I still regret that I was too flabbergasted by the sudden change of their attitude that I didn't just laugh in their pretty faces. The ladies disappear, still cursing us. Later on I find internet stories or variations of Pekingese so called tea room or art gallery scams. They usually end up the victim having to pay an insanely multisized (hundreds of $ or €) bill for his or her tea or such. These particular really nice girls practically shot themselves in the foot, though. First off by losing their face by yelling and cursing in a public street, and secondly by ending up in stories like this travel blog. The more people are aware of the possible scam patterns, the better. But did I mention the Beijing Duck was marvellous?


Google Maps Street View

Google Maps Street View is wonderful! Recently I was writing this story about a drunken man in New Orleans. I wanted to find the exact place for my blog map, but I didn't remeber even the name of the bar in question, and I had only a faint idea of the whereabouts of the hostel we stayed at that time.

So first I Googled 'hostels new orleans'. Hmmm... that Marquette House sounds remotely familiar. Let's see where it is. Carondelet Street? Equally familiar sounding. So let's take a look with Street View. Hey, that's it! There's even the spot we parked our car!

But how am I going to find the bar we were? Ok, I vaguely remember the short route we walked to the site. It's fairly easy to navigate in Street View by taking small steps at the time. It must have been on St. Charles Avenue, because the street cars run here... no, this must be the wrong direction, how about the other way... Igor's? That looks familiar... and they have laundromats, that's it! That's the place!

It was almost like walking there again ...well, not at all, but you get the idea. I also found some photos taken inside the bar, so that was definitely the same place we walked in almost ten years ago. It's one thing to cast your mind back to some far-off trip you've made ten(s of) years ago but being able to 'walk' the very same streets on your screen certainly adds to the memory.


Elephant Penis in a German Ship

Maybe about 25 years ago I was traveling with a youth orchestra (I played the sax) by bus from Finland to Holland or Belgium, to some brass band festival. We made a stop in Lübeck for just a few hours and we youngsters got some time of our own to spend in the Old Town.

Photo © Stefan Nagel
One of the older guys in the orchestra knew about a museum ship parked next to the Altstadt in the Trave River and the bizarre sea voyage exhibition in it. He particularly stressed that they have a giant elephant's penis there. An elephant's member? That is a must-see! So of course we boys bolted to the ship to see this remarkable wonder of the nature. The Museumship MS Mississippi was docked there indeed, and the sign at her entrance promised an exhibition from overseas, miracles and mysteries of this world.

We entered this dark and dusty, moldy and musty exhibition in awe. It was like a childhood dream come true, like a live illustration for old Tarzan books or Tintin comics. We were surrounded by literally thousands of curiosities: skeletons, masks, stuffed animals, primitive weapons, insect collections, shrunken heads, relics, idols of gods, skulls, animal horns, models, sacred items of different religions, old diving gear, figureheads, miniature ships, board games, constrictor snakes, chests, art, statuettes, seashells, anything you could imagine and beyond.

Photo © Stefan Nagel
The items were collected by a German adventurer and explorer Reinhold Kasten and his wife Mady during their tens of years on the Seven Seas, several times around the world. Many of the exhibits were wonderfully  labeled with little stories, of which we Finnish boys unfortunately understood very little. There was a teeth set of a savage man-eating shark with a list of stuff that was found in its stomach, including a shoe, human flesh and a pocket watch that was still ticking. There was also a stuffed giant constrictor snake which had stolen and swallowed a 2 week old baby straight from a hammock. Or a giant skull of a white elephant that was shot by maharaja after it killing two of his guards. And indeed there it was, locked in a glass showcase (obviously so that nobody could steal it), a stuffed or mummified or embalmed, well, somehow preserved, very big, no, gargantuan exhibit: the elephant phallus. *Tee hee hee*

After witnessing the Beavis & Butthead'esque culmination of the exhibition and before leaving this spectacular hanseatic attraction we discovered a chest full of Chinese paper knives lying on the ship floor near the counter. Pure kitsch! Only couple of Deutschmarks each! My knife has been decorating my home to this day.

SS Prinz Heinrich aka MS Mississippi was built in 1909.
Unfortunately the more than 100 year old MS Mississippi is not moored in the Lübeck Altstadt any more. The ship has been moved couple of times already and she's nowadays being restored to be relocated at her original berth in Leer with her original name Prinz Heinrich. The fantastic sea voyage exhibition with thousands of its wonderful items was moved in a lighthouse-museum in Warnemünde, but it was closed in November 2009. Needless to say, the magic of the exhibition was surely gone already as soon as the exhibits were moved away from the historical ship. But alas, now nobody can see the marvellously macabre sea voyage spectacle at all any more. They don't make these kind of museums these days. Never ever underestimate little boys' amusement towards animals' reproductive organs. Look, it brought me to this unique, mysterious and now sadly lost museum!

This blog entry is partially based on Stefan Nagel's article about the museum ship Mississippi. Thank you also for letting me use the photos.


Ice Swimming in Finland

 As a Finn living in Finland, it would be so very wrong if I didn't promote our national sport in this blog: the ice swimming. Nah, I'm kidding, it's really not the kind of an activity every Finn does on weekly basis in wintertime, but it's quite popular anyway. The idea is simple: Wait until the lake or sea is frozen. Make a hole in the ice or arrange it so that a spot in the lake won't freeze. Go dip yourself into the hole. Take your time to stay couple of minutes dripping wet in the freezing air before going in a warm place (typically sauna) again. You will get an extraordinary feeling of enjoyment. 

Notice the underwater pumps that keep the water
moving and preventing it to freeze.
If you have sauna available, it's good to repeat the procedure couple of times. Depending on the size of the hole you can even swim a bit. All kinds of health benefits are promised, like decreasing of stress, and better resistance, but very little of it is scientifically proven. Nevertheless, your general feeling will certainly be different for the rest of the day. Some people get more energetic, others want to just wrap themselves in a shawl, and cuddle up in a sofa corner with a glass of wine and a good book.

Myself, I found the activity about five years ago and have ever since taken care that I'll go for a swim during at least couple of times a winter. Nowadays I also try to take every foreign visitor to ice swimming if they are up to it. An English friend of mine, a photographer in Leicestershire, didn't even need my encouragement, the decision to take the chilly dip had been made already before they even left UK. Respect.


Dubrovnik Spread Eagle

Walking the upper streets of historical, stony and heavily bombed Dubrovnik Old City can lead you to unexpected sights. Unfortunately the fountain wasn't turned on.


Pivní Sýr - Cutting the Cheese the Bohemian Way

Dear Old Prague
Sitting in a Praguese garden restaurant accompanied by some local friends. I had just a minute ago boasted how I always, when visiting different countries, wanted to eat local specialities. And here I sat in an excellent, non-touristy Bohemian food serving establishment and had ordered myself a steak and potato wedges. Steak and potato wedges! A kind of a dish you can order at the shabbiest highway service station café throughout the world! It probably included steamed vegetables too. I noticed this logical incongruity between my talk and actions somewhat delayed, and I think one of our Praguese friends made a derisive remark on that as well. Fortunately later on I got a chance to redress my philistine demeanour.

Typical Praguese garden restaurant
Some time after the steak and our entourage having guzzled down several pints of spectacular Czech beer, one Praguese friend of ours placed an order for something called pivní sýr. Somebody else said that now there really is some local speciality coming up. Pivní sýr stands for 'beer cheese', and we were warned that it's a cheese with an astounding smell. Even the waitress bringing the portion inquired: who's the one wanting to stink? She laid the serving in front of the chap sitting next to me. It included a small basketful of regular looking sliced bread and a plate with some chopped onion, a generous heap of yellow mustard, some butter and a fair slice of that notorious cheese. It was some kind of unripened cheese with some paprika powder sprinkled over it. I smelled it and was actually a bit disappointed to find the aroma mostly mild. The Prague dude asked me how I thought the portion was to be consumed. I automatically assumed you'd spread some butter and mustard on a bread slice, cut some cheese upon it and finally top it with some onion to taste.

Our final bill. Each 'fence stake'
stands for a pint of beer.
- Not quite, said my friend, and using a fork, started vigorously to mash the cheese, mustard, butter and onion into baby poo looking pulp.
- And here's the beautiful part. The man poured a splash of beer from his pint on the mixture, and went on beating it with his fork. Something in the collision of the cheese pulp and beer caused undoubtedly vigorous chemical reactions, because a pungent, no, downright satanic stink started to creep about our table.
- You sick bastards, I managed to say, despite the stupefying stench. May I taste it? May I, please! I broke up a piece of bread, put a dab of the beer cheese mush on it and had a taste. The gutsy taste resembled distantly the aroma of gastric acid. You know, the shudderingly bitter mouth-filling flavour on your palate when you already have vomited your stomach empty, but you can't stop retching. I immediately ordered myself my own portion of pivní sýr.

After yet another guy in our group having ordered one more portion of pivní sýr, the barmaid announced that it would be the last piece of beer cheese in the house tonight. So apparently even the Czechs don't eat it that much or often since we consumed the restaurant's whole stock by eating three portions. Later at the night, after way too many pints, in another restaurant, we continued our hedonistic and gastronomic wallowing with what was maybe the world's best cheese garlic soup, but that's another story.


Been There, Done What?

A place to accomplish the 2W1P in China.
A popular travellers' dilemma is: How do you count the countries you've been to? At the first glance it would seem the simplest question - just count 'em, man! But when you start to look into the matter you'll very soon notice different people have a very different number and kind of trip prerequisites one has to meet before the visit counts. Typically for many people airport stopovers don't count. Some of them might allow them as a visit, if you walk outside the airport building. Some say you have to spend at least one night or use money there, others even argue that if you don't remember e.g. your childhood trip any more, it can't possibly count. And then there's the infamous 2W1P rule which refers to the minimum number of toilet visits during the trip. I'll let you figure out the abbreviation yourselves.

It's a controversial issue, a mixture of snobbery and competitive nature of some traveling people, like someone has well put it. Some people undoubtedly are 'box-tickers', who choose their destinations so that they can visit as many countries as possible with the least amount of trouble, while others say you have to actually live there before you're 'allowed' to say you've been there. All-inclusive resorts look, smell and taste about the same all around the world - you can visit one without actually seeing at all the country you're supposed to be in, yet people tick the country off their list when they've stayed in one. Talking about senses, a Lonely Planet author Jane Ormond has put it in a very lovely way in an article that prompted me to write this entry:
I’ve decided I can say I’ve been somewhere when I can recall it in all five senses – when I can hear the subway, smell the bus fumes, picture the rain-drenched pigeons in doorways, taste the bagels and remember the feel of the dive bar’s resident labrador’s ears.
According to the discussion on the matter, you can also break it down to levels of being: At the lowest level you just set your foot on the turf. At the mid-level you see at least something, like you might on a business trip. At the highest level you plan your trip carefully, stay longer, experience must-see's and carry out your plans.

In my opinion, of course it is always the better the more you get actually to spend time in a place, preferably see more than one or two places at the time, talk to natives, eat local food and so on. But as soon as you start setting conditions to what counts as a visit, you're in trouble. For example, 2W1P is easily accomplished during a relatively short airport stopover. Leaving the airport? You mean if I step outside the building and walk around that tree over there it counts as visit? I find it intellectually untenable to create imaginary rules where you have to jump through a set of hypothetical hoops in order to say you've been somewhere, when the most straightforward and undisputed interpretation is binary: Were you there or were you not?

The person in this airport photo is in Vietnam.
That means that the airport stopovers count. Driving a car in Germany and crossing over the corner of France without stopping counts. Former countries count (East Germany + West Germany + Germany = 3). Train trip through Switzerland without setting your foot on the station platform during the stops counts. Walking around the three-state-boundary mark where Sweden, Finland and Norway meet counts as three. Laying for a week on the same spot by the compound patio pool chugging down Gin & Tonics at a characterless all-inclusive hotel some- or anywhere counts. Just entering a country counts. How else could it be? You're not anywhere else at the moment, you're there!

Sure, box-ticking and all the competition among some travellers might turn the discussion about the issue foul-tasting. If you want to compete, there's always the option to create lists with your preferred set of preconditions: countries where you've stayed overnight, countries where you've driven a motor vehicle, countries where you've got laid, countries where you've hopped naked on one leg a bouquet of daffodils shoved up your derrière while howling at the moon... But it's not an issue of competition. It's just a list of countries where you have been to, and for that the binary approach is still the simplest and most intelligible way to deal with the question.


LOTR: The Orc Mound

In New Zealand we found this little book on Lord of the Rings filming locations. Of course we had to find some use for it. As we visited the both islands on our trip, we drove past quite many of the locations described in the book, and also stopped to visit some of them.

In addition being 'just cool' to visit real places where they had filmed Lord of the Rings movies, the guidebook also provived really amazing New Zealand nature sights, some of which we certainly wouldn't have visited without the book. The other great thing was getting to witness some genuine movie magic; how some really simple locations had been used really creatively to create an illusion of Middle Earth.

One of the places we went was the so called Orc Mound from the second film Two Towers. 'Surprisingly' the place where the Rohan riders had piled and burned some dead orcs didn't look exactly the same, but the spot was easily recognizable. The place was merely but a small hill next to a thick forest wall (which didn't at all look like Fangorn inside) on private meadow, quite close to the sand road nearby.

There was couple other places used in the filming nearby too. More photo vs. screenshot comparisons to come...