A 43-day adventure by Tom
  • Day1

    Serendipity

    July 27, 2018 in Australia ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    I have always used travel as a means to regroup and reassess my next steps in life. One such trip in 2014 directly led to me formulating an ambitious and, frankly, ridiculous five year plan to get an overseas posting, and here I am in 2018, having just discovered that I’m being posted to Tokyo, heading off on another adventure.

    It’s funny - I have never been less prepared for a trip, but also never more relaxed. On top of this the months since I booked my flights have been a massive life altering blur, both personally and professionally. I have never believed in fate, but I can’t shake the feeling that it all just feels like it’s meant to be at a macro and micro level. I can’t wait to see where the next 6 weeks, 6 months and 3 years takes me. The improbable series of events and coincidences that have come together to make it all come together in the way it has is spooky, right down to the fact that if I’d booked my flights to leave any earlier I’d likely have missed the opportunity to be selected for a posting and any later would have required cancellations or significant changes to avoid conflicting with my predeployment.

    One thing is clear. The last 10 years of travel has given me so much and I would be a very different person without it. It has not just provided me with memories and experiences, but, in breaking routine, it has provided me with the space, freedom, confidence and perspective to make the impossible possible.
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  • Day2

    Dohadration

    July 28, 2018 in Qatar ⋅ ☀️ 37 °C

    A promotion through Qatar airways of two nights in a 5 star hotel for $50 was too good to pass up, which is how I found myself in Doha during the middle of summer, with a case of heat stroke and struggling to remember that old saying.. something about offers that sound suspiciously good??

    I love the heat, but Doha in July is something else. It’s difficult to convey how hot it is, and the temperatures I read online didn’t do it justice. The thermal mass built up in the buildings and sidewalks makes you feel like you are being grilled and roasted at the same time. When I ventured out at 10am on my first morning I came across a thermometer next to a doorway that read 48 degrees. AT 10AM!!

    Taking the hint, I took a taxi to the museum of Islamic art figuring the imposing and very geometrically attractive building down on the waterfront would be gloriously air conditioned, which it was. Almost as an added bonus it was also full of the types of impressive artefacts one would expect from one of the richest societies in the world hell bent on making themselves THE cultural hub for the region. Not sure if that goal is within reach, but they have got to do something. In 50 years they have gone from a sleepy backwater fishing port to being one of the richest countries in the world on a per capita basis. However, the oil, or the worlds thirst for it, isn’t going to last forever and, while they are trying, it’s hard to see what, if anything, will keep the money flowing.

    What a ride it’s been for the resident population though. The Qatari’s make up only 13% of the population, but they are hard to miss. Ostentatious, brash, arrogant and supremely confident, you almost feel their presence before you see them. Still wearing the traditional starched pure white garb they walk around like they.. well.. own the place, which technically they do seeing no foreigners are allowed to own freehold property. When one walks into a shop, everyone stands aside to let them to the front of the queue, it’s like the entire nonqatari population are their servants. I have rarely seen such a stratified population, there is no middle class. You can see it in the food where there are either insanely expensive cafes and restaurants, where the prices make my eyes water, or ridiculously cheap street food and local places.

    The food has been the saving grace for my time in Doha. Drawing hundreds of thousands of migrant workers (slaves) from across Asia and Africa has led to a delicious melting pot of some of the best cheap and amazing food options I have ever seen.

    Not that the rest of my time has been all bad. My opulent hotel provided a comfortable way of getting over jet lag and had 3 different pools, which were well utilised. Always a sucker for a good market, Souq Waqif gave me plenty of options for when I could face the oppressive temperatures. Entirely renovated (read rebuilt) a few years ago, the Souq thankfully retains an old school air and remains fully operational and buzzing. What sets this market apart from the others I have been too through the Middle East is the working camel, horse and, most impressively, falconry sections. Falconry is big business in Qatar, with individual falcons selling for up to $1.5 million. With such huge figures on the table, it’s little wonder that the market should have such a thriving service section, hand-making hoods and all the other accessories required to bring down whatever crazy and hardy animal that can survive out in this god forsaken climate long enough to be hunted down by a million dollars worth of talons and feathers.

    On the whole though, I wouldn’t recommend anyone visit Qatar in July. Almost makes me miss Canberra winter..

    Almost.
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    Hannah Krijnen

    Doha looks oddly empty - is that cause everyone is staying out of the heat?

    7/30/18Reply
    Tom Krijnen

    Deserted would be the word. They only come emerge after dark (well other than the poor construction workers).

    7/30/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    I guess a desert city in summer would look deserted (or something ...). That and the mad dogs and Englishmen cliche come to mind.

    7/30/18Reply
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  • Day3

    Dohadration

    July 29, 2018 in Qatar ⋅ 🌙 34 °C
    Hannah Krijnen

    How’s the new camera working out? The images look great x

    7/30/18Reply
    Tom Krijnen

    Thanks! Yeah I’m super happy with it, thanks for pushing me into it! x

    7/30/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    And now they emerge as the sun goes down!

    7/30/18Reply
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  • Day5

    Berlin

    July 31, 2018 in Germany ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    Flying into Berlin was a blessed relief in more ways than one. It was great to finally be starting my trip proper, but even with the current European heatwave the maximum temperatures were no higher than the minimums in Doha. Although as per normal, Europe appears completely unprepared and shocked at the unsurprising return of another hot and humid weather. Having only ever travelled in Europe in summer, this always provides an endless source of amusement. Every year Europeans express shock and indignation seemingly forgetting that this is a yearly occurrence, while the buildings and transport do their best to replicate a sauna.

    I only ended up flying into Berlin due to it being cheaper than further east, but serendipitously it provided the perfect kicking off point for another trip into the east. Metaphorically and physically it is the encapsulation of the border between east and west, which, while a manifestation of the best part of a centuries worth of geopolitical craziness and human misery, provides a character like few other places in the world.

    There was a poster in my hostel that read ‘Berlin is the bitch you marry’, which is one of the better descriptions I have read. 10 years ago when I was last here it took me a while to ‘get it’. It’s like the anti-German city - sprawling, grungy, gritty, perplexing and disordered, it takes some getting your head around. Getting around is also unnecessarily confusing, Berlin’s streets follow no logic to speak of and it’s public transport system, while efficient and excellent, is disconnected and confused hodgepodge of post reunification attempts to integrate a variety of disparate rail, tram and metro lines, each one having multiple different gauges and running over and on top of each other. However, once you start getting your bearings the charms are hard to ignore.

    With 23 boroughs, each unique, you could spend months in Berlin without scratching the surface. I stayed in Prenzlauer Berg, once the epicentre of working class East Berlin and bohemian resistance and, since reunification, becoming one of the most hipster parts of town. It was also a good base to strike out into the broader city, either on foot or via bus, s-Bahn, u-Bahn or tram, all of which were widely utilised over the course of my stay.

    My first morning was devoted to the Cold War, tracking down vestiges of the wall, including the excellent east side gallery, where one of the largest section of remaining wall has been turned into an outdoor gallery of some of the best street artists in the world. The DDR museum, which had opened since my last visit and was a fantastic and remarkably balanced representation of life in the DDR. Having now travelled through so many ex-soviet states, I have a much better understanding of the greyness (in multiple senses of the phrase) and uniqueness of each state’s experience under communism. It’s easy to miss, but each state’s story was it’s own, with there own strengths and weaknesses, and having a slightly different take and approach to achieving the ultimate socialist ideal. All ultimately doomed due to the inherent weaknesses in the centralised socialist economic and social model.

    East Germany’s story was no different, in many ways it was incredibly socially progressive, even by modern standards, with equal women rights enshrined in its constitution and extensive maternity leave and child care and over represented in professional fields, all of which was lost as soon as the wall came down. Even today, women from the previous DDR have a far lower income gap compared to men, have higher employment rates and have higher rates in senior managerial positions (including one Angela Merkel), just one of the many fascinating learnings from reunification, one of the biggest social experiments in history. Unfortunately it was also a total police state, civil liberties were severely constrained and while wages were good, there was little to buy, encapsulated by the up to 16 year wait for the epitome of socialist consumerism, the Trabant.

    Shifting gears, the afternoon was spent being, once again, amazed and reassured at the German’s unique willingness to confront the crimes of their fathers. The Jewish memorial outside the Reigstag being a case in point. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world you can find a memorial to a countries national shame, taking up some of its most expensive real estate, and where the locals will take pains to verbally and loudly rebuke insensitive foreigners who climb on the concrete blocks to get the perfect instagram photo. Close by, at the site of Hitler’s bunker I watched as a far right sympathiser laid a bunch of flowers at the modest plaque, only to be publicly dressed down and the flowers to be immediately picked up and thrown in the closest bin. The Topography of Terrors is another new museum built on the site of the Gestapo headquarters, which was as excellent as it was depressing, and full of school groups as the society passes down to another generation the lessons learnt.

    It is so normal, that it’s hard to realise how abnormal it is. It’s impossible to imagine Britain remodelling Trafalgar Square as a memorial to colonialisation, the US to replace the Washington Monument with a memorial to slavery or Australia to repurpose the War Memorial to a memorial to indigenous genocide. Those ideas are almost laughable, but Germany has done just that and more, and for doing so they have my deep abiding respect.

    I didn’t spend a lot of time at museums and monuments though, instead focussing on exploring the fabric of the city. From the Turkish and flea markets, laneways filled with hidden bolt holes and street art, grand boulevards and spending an entire afternoon in the Tiergarten, joining the locals in the shade of oak trees and the beer gardens making the most of the perfect weather. The long warm evenings were spent drinking beer in state park, packed with locals having picnics and catching up, or the garden of my hostel, packed with travellers from around the world, before heading out to explore the multitude of local bars.

    What I lacked in sleep, I made up for in memories and experiences.
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    Angela Marshall

    What a fabulous view of the Brandenburg Gate!

    8/2/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    And this is the old Reichstag? Can you go into it or is it still a ruin?

    8/2/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    Is this a detail of the Reichstag?

    8/2/18Reply
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  • Day6

    Berlin

    August 1, 2018 in Germany ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C
    Angela Marshall

    I thought these were green bricks but maybe they are glazed tiles?

    8/2/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    What an amazingly lush courtyard - do you think these plants are sheltered indoors in winter and brought out each summer? Love the wall art.

    8/2/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    Impressive.

    8/2/18Reply
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  • Day8

    Riga

    August 3, 2018 in Latvia ⋅ ⛅ 28 °C

    What I have grown to like about Eastern Europe is that it constantly confounds expectations. You picture horse drawn carts, industrial wastelands and brutalist Communist concrete architecture, and while there’s always plenty of that, what you also find is modernity, incredible nature and cosmopolitan and beautiful towns and cities. What I have grown to love about Eastern Europe is that, while you can get all the above in Western Europe, it’s still an unknown quantity and always comes with a side of the crazy and the unexpected. Latvia incapsulated this. When I told people in Berlin where I was going next, the response was the predictable mix of incredulity and confusion and to be honest, largely due to my lack of planning, I didn’t have a response, but I was confident that it would be worth it.

    Worth it it was! I was only in the country for four days, but what a packed four days it was. From the moment I dropped my bags at the hostel I barely stopped for breath. I immediately hit the streets, exploring the compact and spectacular old town, before finding a bar advertising craft beer and finding out two things. Craft beer has taken off in Latvia, which provides you with access to some of the best beers I have ever drunk for $4 a pint and if the bar man takes a liking to you, he will let you play with the pistol behind the bar. Deciding that that was probably as good a sign as any to leave I headed back to the hostel where I met a group of people who validated my previously held believe that Eastern Europe is also full of the best travellers in the world. Generally more mature and fewer groups than in Western Europe and fewer wankers in search of enlightenment than in Asia, they are what made last years trip so unforgettable and it was good to see that the stereotype lives on. Most exciting personally though was that one of those people was the owner of Bucket Boys, one of my favourite bottle shops in Australia, who has promised me a weekend to remember in Sydney once I’m back in Australia. Being so far north, its still isn’t getting dark until around 10:30-11pm, so we spent a long evening hanging out in Riga’s ridiculously cool outdoor bars listening to live music and, once night fell, moved indoors, finishing at 4am singing karaoke in a subterranean bar (I figure I need all the practice I can get before Japan).

    Feeling very worse for wear the next morning, but determined to get out and explore the city more, I used the excuse of the Riga free walking tour as motivation to get out of bed. Luckily the local taking us around was hilarious as well as very knowledgeable and open about his own city and country. At 35, he was the same age as me, but our lives couldn’t have had a more different trajectory. Having grown up in the USSR, he remembers when the collapse happened and at 9 was with his father manning the civilian barricades in 1991 when the Communists, with the backing of the Soviet army, attempted to take back control, pointing out the bullet holes still visible at the very spot. In the 25 years since, he has witnessed the bursts of optimism and waves of pessimism that have permeated the ex-Soviet states. A country that has only been independent for less than 50 years of the last 500, it is no surprise that his biggest fear remains the resurgent Russia. Already, the country has had to cede a small slither of land on their eastern border to Russia in the last few years and the situation in Ukraine is causing a lot of local angst despite the country being a member of NATO, but then Trumps comments regarding Macedonia recently would give anyone pause as to whether the West’s promises are worth the paper they are written on.

    Following the tour I headed to the Museum of the Popular Front of Latvia, which charts the story of the fight for independence from the Soviet Union. Again confirming that each of the Soviet states journey to independence was unique, it was fascinating to find out that the sparks of independence in Latvia were lit by the environmental movement campaigning against the construction of a hydro electric dam and the shocking environmental destruction left behind by Soviet industrial policies in the mid 1980s. Maybe this isn’t as surprising when you consider that still today Latvia is covered in over 40% forest and the country has always had a strong relationship with the countryside, but it’s still not the usual story of economic conditions and democratic aspirations.

    As per tradition I next headed to the Central Markets, which may well be in my top 10 markets of all time. These are the largest covered markets in Europe, which makes sense when you discover they are located in the last remaining zeppelin hangers in existence. Now included on the UNESCO world heritage list, along with Riga old town, it’s located right on the edge of the old town, the markets are imposing and rather elegant, with each individual hanger being devoted to produce, dairy, fish or meat. Each hanger also has stalls selling beer, of course, and local specialities, which while predictably stodgy, were excellent and perfect for my hangover. A couple of plates of potato pancakes and perogis later I was feeling a new man.
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    Angela Marshall

    Presumably this is Riga’s old town? Charming crooked streets (probably a good anti-tank measure and a challenge for small arms fire as well).

    8/5/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    I really like the meadow planting.

    8/5/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    1334 makes this a very old church! And what’s with the German writing on the plaque thingies?

    8/5/18Reply
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  • Day9

    Sigulda

    August 4, 2018 in Latvia ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Another great night enjoying the long summer evening was followed by an early morning start as I headed out of town to Sigulda for some mountain air. Sigulda is a small town overlooking the picturesque Gautama river in a national park, a heavily forested valley dotted with medieval castles, amazing views and the only bobsled track in the world open to the public, which was the clincher for the early morning effort. The train out to Sigulda went through endless forest, until I was finally deposited in Sigulda where I immediately hired a mountain bike and set off to explore the valley knowing that the bobsled track wasn’t open until after midday. Taking tracks through the forest I made my way down the valley sides until I reached the river and then followed the river upstream until I came across Gutmanis Cave, the largest cave in the Baltic’s and also the oldest tourist attraction in Latvia, evidenced by the huge number of carved inscriptions at its mouth, some dating back to the 17th century. To this day, local legend has it that the waters running out of the cave have healing properties, which explained the huge number of locals filling up water bottles while I was there.

    Ascending the opposite side of the valley, I stopped a a few view points highlighting my final destination, Turaida Castle. Turaida Castle is one of four in the immediate vascinity, but the best preserved and dominates a bluff looking out over the valley. It is also part of the larger Museum Reserve, which included a number of museums and beautiful grounds with various view points. Back on the bike it was time to head back down hill, where I got into a bit of bother following a path, which turned into a series of steep stairs, but I eventually found my way back to town, via a couple of castle ruins and lunch while waiting for the cable car, which I was hoping would allow me to avoid the climb back up the other side of the valley. That hope proved to be dashed as my bike was refused entry and so it was one last hard slog back to town where I immediately headed to the aforementioned bobsled track.

    Being summer there obviously wasn’t any ice, but you can still be taken down in a training sleigh (with wheels). Winter would have also had the added benefit of being able to ride in surplus sleds from the Sarajevo Olympics bobsled track, an abandoned track I had explored four years previously. Sigulda’s bobsled track was built in 1986 and was the only bobsled track in the Soviet Union. It is 1420 metres long, has 6 curves and has a maximum speed of 130km/h. I had heard about it the day before, and while I was sceptical that it was going to be more sedate than it sounded, I couldn’t not live out my Cool Runnings fantasy’s. It definitely wasn’t sedate! The only added safety feature was a loose lap sash and the fact you didn’t have top run and jump into the moving sleigh, but otherwise it’s just 3 tourists and a professional upfront steering. The briefing consisted of a simple command to ‘keep your neck and back strong’ and off we went. Approximately a minute later I was exhilarated, having been thrown about like a rag doll and feeling the sleigh sliding about while we were going round curves on the horizontal. It was awesome!
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    Angela Marshall

    What a lovely lily pond ...

    8/5/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    Wow! Is this the entrance to the much-visited cave? That’s high class graffiti!

    8/5/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    Very cool.

    8/5/18Reply
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  • Day10

    Jurmala

    August 5, 2018 in Latvia ⋅ 🌧 25 °C

    Following the exhilarating of the previous day, it was time for some relaxation so I joined the rest of Riga (it was a Sunday) on a train heading to Jurmala for some beach time. Jurmala is a 33km stretch of white sand beach, backed by pine forest and a string of towns characterised by the art nouveau wooden mansions, full of gingerbread accents and decorative features. The beach was packed, but with so many kilometres to play with there was room for all and the water was warm, so a good day was had by all.Read more

    Angela Marshall

    This looks like a river rather than a beach?

    8/6/18Reply
    Tom Krijnen

    A river behind the beach.

    8/6/18Reply
    Angela Marshall

    Wow ... so either the waterlilies survive some salt or the tides can’t push saltwater up the river.

    8/6/18Reply
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  • Day11

    Kaunas

    August 6, 2018 in Lithuania ⋅ 🌬 23 °C

    Kaunas is known as Lithuania’s city of museums,which made my choice to spend a Monday there somewhat ironic, luckily it is also another surprisingly charming and beautiful Eastern European city. Compact and easily walkable, it has a nicely preserved old town, a number of green parks and, due to it having been the first capital of the Republic of Lithuania from 1919-39 a number of very impressive administrative buildings and cathedrals. What drew me here was reading that it had just recently been announced as the European capital of culture 2022, which from past experience is always a good sign that somewhere is worth a visit.

    My hunch wasn’t wrong, despite the huge amount of renovations going on to spruce the city up and make it look the part, the place proved to be very cool and relaxing after the craziness of Riga. It also helped that the hostel was very chill, which allowed me some early nights and some planning time for the next legs of my trip.

    Monday was spent exploring its nooks and crannies, wandering the old town, crossing the river to take the furnicular to a view point looking over the city from the opposite bank and exploring the parks, one of which contained an old soviet theme park. The theme park is still somewhat functioning, with a surreal mix of rusted, broken down or dilapidated rides and more recent, but by no means more impressive, add ons. My favourite had to be repurposed electric wheelchairs, which had been converted into bumper cars with kids careening around the paths barely being able to reach the handlebars.

    I had a choice on Tuesday to either stay in the City and hit up the museums or to head out of town to the Ninth Fort. I took the second option, which I’m very glad I did. The Ninth Fort is located an hours bus trip away and is one of a circle of forts that were built prior to WW1 by the Russians at the cost of $500 million in todays dollars and, which collectively made up the Kaunas Fortress. Seeing as it subsequently took the Germans a total of 11 days to take the city, the money may have been better spent elsewhere. However, what it is most famous for is being the site of a succession of brutal prisons and concentration camps, first by the Lithuanian Republic, then the Soviets and finally the Nazi’s who used it as an extermination camp, mainly for political prisoners, but also Jews and Russian POW’s. This was not a concentration camp, the only reason for people being taken there was to be killed. In total over 50,000 people were murdered in less than 3 years by being shot, stabbed or beaten, unlike other camps where gas chambers were built to ‘sanitise’ the operation. A single breakout of 62 prisoners in 1944, before the final liquidation, where the only survivors and witnesses to the horrors inflicted within. Once the Soviets were back it was once again used as a prison camp and staging post for the deportation of ethnic Lithuanians to Siberia. Today, it forms the basis for a spectacular, beautiful and very moving museum and is towered over by a fantastic 40m high brutalist communist sculpture erected in 1984, which is an appropriately awe inspiring and amazing sight.

    Right next to the sculpture is a large green field, which is where 50,000 people are still buried and is marked by a simple memorial and a number of simple plaques from European cities where some of the murdered originally came from. One of my favourite rooms in the museum though was one devoted to those who harboured and protected enemies of the Nazi regime. Hundreds of portraits and a sentence describing their heroics, it was incredible moving and, surrounded by so much misery and horror, a fantastic and uplifting reminder of the personal courage and fortitude displayed by so many in the face of such overwhelming fear and brutality.
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    Hannah Krijnen

    Is that a London black cab?

    8/7/18Reply
    Tom Krijnen

    As far as I can tell

    8/7/18Reply
    Hannah Krijnen

    Seems out of place - or does it attract UK bucks parties? Did you know we’ve now got black cabs in Sydney?

    8/7/18Reply
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