Joined September 2017
  • Day40

    Beijing

    September 25, 2019 in China ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    After one last overnight train trip, one final epic journey through Chinese customs and immigration and a five hour wait in the customs hall while they changed the bogies on the train, we made it!

    We have now traveled from Helsinki to Beijing by seven trains, including six nights spent rattling and swaying along trying to sleep and trying to avoid using the toilet.

    October 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China, and there seemed to be more portaloos than bicycles on the pavement in preparation for the forthcoming celebrations.

    The Forbidden City was closed in preparation for the ceremony, but we did the walk around Tiananmen Square in 32 degree heat, watching people lining up in the shadows cast by the flagpoles, the only shade available.

    We also visited the Temple of Heaven, complete with lanterns installed in the trees and a giant video screen behind the Temple of Prayers for Good Harvests.

    That was all we had time for in Beijing, although Don and Kim have two more days to explore the Great Wall and look around a bit more.

    It has been a fascinating trip, replete with reminders of how little we really know about the rest of the world no matter how smart we think we are. For example:

    They had built a whole new MRT line in Singapore that we had never heard of.

    Sometimes countries change the design of their currency. We brought British five pound notes, and a whole lot of Chinese yuan from home, carefully saved from previous trips and now no longer legal tender.

    First class on a Chinese train is not nearly the equal of first class on a Russian one, but did come with a (male) carriage attendant who snorted, hacked and spat constantly into the rubbish bins. Unlike our Russian experience it also didn’t come with drinking water or cups, which did lead to some improvisation and some urgent shopping excursions on remote Mongolian railway stations.

    Just because a short, chubby, middle aged Chinese woman in tight jeans and a cowboy hat says a “steak” restaurant is any good doesn’t mean it is. Especially when she has a loud, grating voice and dismisses our questions with “Listen to me!”, and keeps turning the pages of the menus while we are trying to look at them. Actually, this wasn’t a mistake - we knew it would be no good but her performance was so bewilderingly funny we were unable to get up and leave.

    This has been a marvellous trip, full of new sights and experiences (almost all good ones) and shared with great, funny, caring friends. We are rather lucky.
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  • Day37

    Ulaanbaatar

    September 22, 2019 in Mongolia ⋅ 🌙 6 °C

    Our latest adventure started with a view from the train window of beautiful Lake Baikal, soon after which the train stopped in the middle of nowhere for two hours.

    This meant there was no time to shop at any intermediate stops, so we had a dinner of instant noodles and a few pistachios.

    In the middle of the night we crossed the border, an exercise which kept us awake for about three hours as two sets of customs people successively searched the entire train. The Mongolian guy even ripped the carpet from the floor.

    When we awoke we were in a new landscape altogether, with rolling grassy hills, roaming livestock and the occasional small settlement. Soon enough, though this gave way to Ulaanbaatar, a place not even its mother could call beautiful.

    Ulaanbaatar is a city of superlatives. Coldest capital city. Most polluted. Most congested. Craziest, most un-rule-obeying drivers.

    We stayed in the high-rise Khuvsgul Lake Hotel, very nice although lacking some of the finer details, for example in the Brickwoods’ case a door that could be locked. The room key was required to operate the elevators, but it only worked intermittently , so we had many a tedious and unwanted ride down to reception to get them to send us up to our floor using a master key.

    Chinggis Khaan Square, nearby to our hotel, is a vast public square surrounded by very attractive buildings, the centrepiece of which is the imposing Parliament House, with statues of Chinggis himself (looking a bit too obese to do much looting and pillaging, it must be said) flanked by a son and a grandson. The square is possibly also the only tidy, well-paved area in the entire city.

    We got out of town for a day and visited the edge of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, about sixty kilometres out of town.

    On the way we dropped into the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex, with its 40 metre high stainless steel likeness of the great man astride his noble steed. We rode the elevator up through the bowels of the horse to its head for some great views of the surrounding countryside then took in some displays and a video of the construction of the monument. The video, all patriotic music and bad English subtitles, left one particular question unanswered - why?

    Turtle Rock (or, when viewed from a different angle, Lindt Chocolate Bunny Rock) was our destination in the National Park, and the scenery in the area was nothing short of magnificent.

    We wandered around the rock a bit, then made our way up a steep hill to the Aryaval Buddhist Temple, passing 142 placards with Buddhist bon mots printed on them and then walking up 108 stairs to the temple itself.

    The views of the national park were incredible. Clumps of green and autumn-yellow trees, rolling brown-green grassy hills and dark grey rocky outcrops stretched away into the distance with the dirt access road snaking through it all.

    We also visited a nomadic ger camp and tried the famous, and actually rather retch-inducing, fermented mare’s milk. If the taste wasn’t bad enough we had already seen it sitting outside in a calfskin container amongst the flies. Other than that though it was an interesting experience and the family very welcoming. The nomad’s life has certainly changed, with a solar panel attached to a satellite dish in the compound.

    Our drive back to Ulaanbaatar was a shocker, with two hours required just to make the last seven kilometres.

    It would be very unfair to describe Ulaanbaatar’s shortcomings without adding that the people were friendly, the eating and drinking very good and the sense of action high.

    It would be unfair also not to mention the at times violent history of the nation as it found its voice and independence over the course of the twentieth century. We looked at some of this at the Mongolian National Museum and left with a real feeling for the spirit and determination of the people. Besides, the taxi driver didn’t even rip us off on the trip to the railway station.
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  • Day31

    Irkutsk and Olkhon Island

    September 16, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 8 °C

    We left the warmth of our cocoon-like train 100 and emerged into a cold, rainy Irkutsk night. Temporarily discombobulated, we ended up paying about ten times the going rate for a taxi to the hotel. The driver then stayed straight faced enough to ask for a tip as well!

    The following day we explored Irkutsk, which has been called the “Paris of the East”. That’s a bit harsh on the original Paris, to be honest, but the riverside is very nice, with parks, churches and memorials.

    We spent some time looking around the Eternal Flame, a World War 2 memorial. School children stand guard over the flame (hopefully not in winter, but who knows?), diligently goose stepping their way to and from their posts with eager parents and teachers looking on.

    We walked through the old part of town, full of timber houses in various states of painting and repair, and made our way down to the city centre, with numerous Paris-esque buildings and a smattering of other items of interest.

    Then our walk took us back to the waterfront, where we took a snapshot of the statue of Tsar Alexander III, the man responsible for starting the whole Trans Siberian Railway thing in the first place.

    The following day, after spending 28 days either in the middle of a city or on a train or plane, we took a tour to Olkhon Island, largest in Lake Baikal and about 5 hours drive north.

    What a change. The drive, through yet more of Russia’s endless supply of trees, was good in itself, our guide friendly and informative.

    Apparently the usual lunch stop cafe was closed, so we drove on to the next one. When it came into view it turned out to be - an Irish Pub. Mind you it was Irish in beer and decoration only, with nary a beef and Guinness pie in sight. We had dumplings for lunch.

    Khuzhir is the largest settlement on the island, about two thousand people and a slightly lesser number of dogs, with wide, dusty potholed streets on which there are apparently few restrictions on which side to drive.

    The scenery was second to none. We visited Shamanka Rock, late on a bitterly cold afternoon, taking in the vibe of this sacred site in a howling gale and surrounded by fifty other jabbering, selfie-taking tourists.

    The following day we drove to the northern tip of the island in a UAZ minivan, a sturdy, grey vehicle like a high stumpy bread van originally developed for the Soviet Army. It needed to be sturdy, too, as the roads which criss crossed the open hills weren’t the best. It seemed that whenever a track got a bit rough the enterprising drivers would just forge a new one next to it, meaning there were often four or more alternative tracks, all joining up again in fifty metres or so. The driver belted along, bouncing his load of tourists all about the cabin, and decided at the very last second which of the alternative tracks to take.

    At the northern tip of the island we joined a host of other little grey vans and took in the highlights of the area - spectacular cliff views and the foulest, smelliest toilets in Russia - while our driver cooked delicious omul (it’s a local fish) soup for lunch.

    We also enjoyed our rustic accommodation, a yard full of small cabins and a communal dining hall in which meals were taken. Many mysteries remained but we did work out a few things about the food - “cutlet” actually means “rissole”, and all the varieties of cold meat taste exactly the same.

    By the following evening we were back in Irkutsk, still savouring our recent island experience and packing for the train to Mongolia.
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  • Day27

    Yekaterinburg plus

    September 12, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☁️ 6 °C

    This post comes from train number 100, Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, travel time 53 hours, local time at destination three hours ahead of departure.

    We hopped on this train in Yekaterinburg, after a couple of days looking around. Yekaterinburg is a bit dour and dusty; the cars and in particular the 1960’s (or prior) buses, trolley buses and trams haven’t seen any soap and water for many a year.

    It is, however attractive around Istorichesky Skyver, the parkland around the expansive City Pond, and we enjoyed walking around, following a red line painted on the pavement joining the attractions.

    The handsome Church Upon the Blood marks the spot where the last of the Russian Royal Family - the Romanovs - were rather cruelly done in by the Bolsheviks, and the city was, of course, the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin.

    We rode up 52 floors to the viewing platform of the Vysotsky Tower, and enjoyed the views to all ends of the city from there, but in truth it was really just a big city without a lot to see.

    We checked out of the pleasant Marins Park Hotel, with their free laundry service, and wandered over to the station to catch our next train. Due to some flaw in the system the Brickwoods actually checked out with still-damp laundry, which they proceeded to hang all around their compartment Chinese laundry style.

    It was our third overnight train, so we were familiar with having people speak in Russian to us and send us on our way without knowing what on earth they were talking about or asking us to do.

    We had smuggled some wine and beer on board, but naturally this was gone pretty quick smart, so from then we had cause to use the dining car, and that was quite interesting.

    Not interesting for the food, perhaps, which would best be described as nourishing and rather bland (the sort you should have when sharing two toilets between 36 people, in fact) but eating out is all about the experience, after all.

    We walked in for lunch, and a waitress with a set of metal front teeth to rival Jaws from the James Bond films plonked down a couple of wrinkled old menus and stood with her pen poised.

    There was English on the menu, but it didn’t help really, as almost everything we pointed to she shook her head and said “Nyet”. For dinner we ordered three pork somethings and one chicken, and got two of each.

    We ordered a bottle of wine, which arrived sans glasses, and every time we ventured up to tell someone they shooed us away. Then when you picked up your glass to have a drink the carriage would get up such a shimmy shake that you nearly lost all of it anyway.

    At dinner time the dining car was a bit rowdy. It’s a requirement that you eat, so two funny young guys opposite were having a meal of potato crisps, washed down with endless beers to which they were adding some kind of mystery hooch. They were actually very friendly, if completely pissed, and we had a long and unintelligible conversation with them. They took one look at Don then used (probably) their only English word - Santa!

    In fact, a few other people used the expression Santa when we left the train. Despite being completely innocuous and keeping entirely to ourselves (as indeed did most of our fellow passengers) we (or at least Don) had apparently made an impression. We were even given gifts by some of them.

    At the next table were two older guys, already red eyed and staggering, settling down to lose a few more days with a freshly opened bottle of vodka.

    Kim and Sharon asked to have their photo taken with the provodnista, who had been exceptionally friendly the whole way and insisted on putting her whole uniform on for the photo.

    The scenery was amazing, particularly if you are partial to trees. Trees when you have lunch, trees when it gets dark, trees when you wake up. Trees when you wake up the following day. Winter comes early and hard so the leaves were already turning quite beautiful shades of yellow with the odd patch of red.

    We slept pretty well, and our accommodation was quite adequate, but we are still looking forward to our next stop in Irkutsk, where we will no doubt be swaying for a day or so until we regain our land legs.
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  • Day22

    Kazan

    September 7, 2019 in Russia ⋅ 🌙 11 °C

    Our first overnight train was an easy one - Moscow to Kazan, leaving at 11 PM and arriving just under 12 hours later. It was comfortable and we enjoyed the included breakfast - a hard, dark bun of some kind that even after tasting we weren’t sure if it was chocolate or dark bread, some juice and an entire family-sized block of dark chocolate each.

    We chose Kazan because as the capital of Tatarstan it has a lot of Islamic influence and we thought if we were going to look at a whole lot more churches on the trip we might as well look at some mosques as well.

    We went to the Kazan Kremlin, built on top of the highest point around and with high walls all around its 1.8 kilometre perimeter. It contained an interesting mix of museums (not that we visited any of them), the magnificent Kul Sharif Mosque and the Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

    Next to the cathedral was the Soyembika Tower - 58 metres tall and looking rather Pisa-ish with a pronounced lean.

    One museum we did visit was the quirky Soviet Lifestyle Museum. Its small collection contained patriotic toys and clothing and some appliances as well as a lot of pop memorabilia. There was a constant stream of fascinating pop clips playing - wooden performers, wooden audience looking scared to stop smiling and Eurovision circa 1960’s music.

    The lively and exciting Bauman Street runs from the Kremlin down to the scenic Kaban Lake and is full of bars and restaurants, buskers and other street performers. Think lots of people dressed up as horses and the like in a style best called early Hanna Barbera.

    We took a taxi out to the Temple of All Religions, an architectural mashup incorporating elements from all the major religions of the world - including, inside the building, retail. Conceived by a local artist of some repute, its construction is ongoing and it is an appropriate addition to a place where Moslems and Orthodox Christians live quite happily side by side.

    We caught bus number 45 for our return to the city, which was a pity as we should have caught bus number 2. Bus 45 began well, heading directly back to town but turned off and set out for the outer suburbs before we knew what was going on.

    Luckily, with the help of an old lady out to do her shopping, the young, friendly conductor (one lady even paid him her fare in apples) figured out enough of our gibberish to show us a stop near a metro station that would take us back to the city. To think that we may well have been the first Australians ever to catch the 45 bus!

    We finished off our very enjoyable two days with a walk around the Volga River foreshore, enjoying the views of the attractive Palace of Agriculture, before boarding the rather spartan train 378 for Yekaterinburg.
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  • Day19

    Moscow

    September 4, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Four days in Moscow and its surrounds has been barely enough to scrape the surface of this big and very definitely foreign city. But it was enough to see some fascinating sights and have a great time.

    The weather was fine and warm when we started our first full day with a trip out to VDNKh Park, an expansive playground for the citizens of Moscow to remind them of the wonders of the motherland. It was the last day before school went back and there were cadets - literally thousands of cadets - at some sort of function, with accompanying parents, siblings, teachers etc.

    The beautiful fountains, gardens and a pavilion dedicated to each of the former republics (including, superfluously, Finland) were quite nice, especially filled with Muscovite families enjoying a Sunday out. The cosmonaut pavilion, with some 1960’s space memorabilia outside (we didn’t go in) was interesting. It’s ironic really that the Americans now depend on Russian rockets to send a lot of their stuff up there!

    We looked in at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, made famous as the place where Pussy Riot were arrested, then visited a few of the quite beautiful Moscow Metro stations. The metro was an adventure in itself, but fortunately easy enough to work out.

    We then spent two days out of town, in Suzdal and Vladimir, two towns on Moscow’s “Golden Ring” and about 180 km away. Churches, monasteries, convents, more churches, a kremlin and in Suzdal’s case a picturesque river winding its way around all the above made for a great couple of days.

    Vladimir’s Cathedral of the Assumption, a riot of gold and portraits from top to bottom and the place where many of the Tsars were crowned, was fabulous, even with the usual sour attendants, souvenir sellers and beggars.

    Back in Moscow, we finished off our few days with a visit to The Kremlin and the Armoury Museum.

    Full of all sorts of things from wedding dresses to carriages to suits of armour, it was the gold and silver ornaments that were mind-boggling. From tea sets to jewel-encrusted gold bibles there were all sorts of things that a powerful ruler would expect to receive as a gift. The workmanship was astounding, the value of the collection incalculable.

    Then, having taken our snaps of St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square, we took our leave of Moscow, the end of another stage of our trip.

    Tonight we hit the train to Kazan, as we begin to make our way across the country.
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  • Day15

    St Petersburg

    August 31, 2019 in Russia ⋅ ☁️ 19 °C

    We are prepared for a more Russian Russsia as we get further into the country, but as an introduction St Petersburg has been brilliant, easy to get around, polite and friendly people and a host of the most amazing treasures and buildings we have ever seen.

    In fact, St Petersburg is perfect for a relaxing four or five night stay, which is rather a pity, as we only had three nights. However, we did our best and had some fun and experiences doing it.

    We caught the metro to our hotel, and in the process went as far underground as we have ever been. The escalators were so long they could have done with seats, and the actual train trip was but a small part of the experience.

    We joined about a thousand other tourists for an intimate wander through the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, quite incredibly decorated from top to bottom with mosaics, all shades of blue and very beautiful.

    Then we immersed ourselves in the squeaks, rattles and confusion of the suburban train system and made our way 25 kilometres south to Pushkin, and the Catherine Palace, a monument to wealth and extravagance if ever there was one. It contains the Amber Room (beautiful - no photos allowed but plenty on the internet) which is completely lined with Baltic Amber and seems to glow red/orange/brown from every crevice.

    The story of the near-destruction of the palace during the siege of Leningrad, and its subsequent restoration, was well told through photos and quite moving.

    We caught a hydrofoil - a very impressive-looking vessel, like Sputnik with tail fins - out to the Peterhof, another shack in the country for the use of royalty and to infuriate the peasants a bit more.

    The gardens and the world’s most extensive set of fountains are what it is justifiably famous for, and we snapped away for a long time at the Great Cascade, all gold and spray leading from the palace down to the sea.

    Finally, late in the day and after the crowds had abated (you wouldn’t have thought so) we visited The Hermitage, with its huge collection of art in a stunning set of buildings on the riverfront.

    Some of the art was donated, some purchased and a lot acquired by the simple expedient of nationalising all the art in the country and taking it.

    It was a fascinating few hours (where a few days would be needed to take it all in, assuming you had the knowledge, patience and stamina).

    We have eaten a variety of (all non- Russian) meals at night, all around Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street, which absolutely buzzes in the evenings, with bands playing on street corners and a glimpse of light reflecting on a canal every few blocks. It really is a beautiful city.

    We are now on a Sapsan train en route to Moscow, where our holiday continues.
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  • Day11

    Helsinki - Via Manchester

    August 27, 2019 in Finland ⋅ ☁️ 21 °C

    We caught the train from a warm and sunny Liverpool morning to a rather stifling Manchester afternoon, where we took a walk around.

    We went to Manchester Town Hall, a massive neo-gothic pile that will probably be worth a look through when it reopens in 2024. 2024 - that’s a big renno!

    Then came the John Rylands Library, another philanthropic gesture from an extremely rich mill owner’s wife.

    Actually, the library is a magnificent building, complete with a beautiful and incredibly atmospheric public reading room. Now part of the University of Manchester, it is still a free public reference library.

    A short flight a day later brought us to Helsinki, where we met up with Don and Kim and installed ourselves in an apartment for two nights.

    After a look around Senate Square, with the Cathedral dominant from high above and beautiful civic buildings all around, we then marvelled at the markets, all full of brightly coloured fresh produce and Finnish-looking souvenirs.

    We caught the ferry out to the Suomenlinna Island Fortress and wandered extensively around, enjoying the views and appreciating the fortifications and guns and stuff. It was built in 1748 by the Swedes and completely failed as a line of defence against the Russians, who the ran the place until 1918. Only then did Finland gain its independence.

    Then we did a tram trip out through the ‘burbs, stopping at Temppeliaukion, the Rock Church, hewn out of the bedrock and a very interesting and beautiful building. The copper and glass ceiling was quite incredible.

    Tomorrow morning we have shopping to do, as in the afternoon we enter Russia -the world of the Cyrillic alphabet - and won’t be able to read a single thing.

    Next post (hopefully) will be St Petersburg.
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  • Day8

    Liverpool

    August 24, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    We caught the train from Edinburgh to Liverpool and installed ourselves near its very historic waterfront for three nights.

    From there we visited a few different places, each in some way related to the history of the city and the disproportionate contribution it has made to the modern world.

    The Beatles Experience proved to be a very interesting, if sanitised, telling of the Fab Four story, especially the early years in Liverpool itself. It was quite a feeling standing in an exact replica of the Cavern Club circa 1962. Too bad about 80% of the population wasn’t even born then.

    Liverpool the port proved to be a very pleasant place to wander around. The waterfront area was originally home to the trade in cotton and slaves then emigration and of course later the flow of materiel into Britain during World War Two. It was saved from redevelopment in the eighties and is realistically and faithfully preserved.

    We ate a couple of times on the Royal Albert Dock, steeped in history, and generally wandered the shoreline from Pier Head. The architecture was spectacular, befitting a pre-eminent port city and one with a UNESCO listing.

    Liverpool Cathedral was spectacular too, in a dark, square, brutal way. The UK’s largest, it was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, whose eclectic body of work also includes the red telephone box.

    Finally, unable to resist the siren sound of Gerry and The Pacemakers any longer, we took a cruise on the Mersey Ferry and spent some time on the Wirral Peninsula opposite the city.

    Mersey Ferries, in a bizarre and maybe vengeful effort to diversify, bought a salvaged U-Boat - U534 - and sliced it up for display at their Woodhead Terminal. It was interesting peering into the rusted hulk and reading the history of the boat.

    Then we caught a train a few stops down to Bebington and visited Port Sunlight, a village built by William Lever to house the workers at his soap factory.

    By all accounts a humane and enlightened man - as well as a master soap marketer - he provided his employees with houses with separate bedrooms, plumbed-in baths and a toilet each, all otherwise rarities for working class people. Of course, he was also pretty much guaranteed his workers would turn up to work on time (and sober) as loss of their job also meant loss of their house.

    The Port Sunlight Museum was a small but informative hour or so, the preserved cottage next door very interesting and our walk through the local streets of a beautifully laid out and pleasant village was excellent.

    We did find the poor side of Liverpool wasn’t far from the surface, too. There were people sleeping rough all through the shopping precinct, and once away from the river it wasn’t quite so clean. There were quite a few beggars. Despite that, though, we thoroughly enjoyed this extremely interesting, attractive and historic city.
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  • Day4

    Edinburgh

    August 20, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌙 12 °C

    After what seemed like a lifetime of planning and last-minute organising of visas and ticket couriers we finally made our way to Edinburgh via Singapore and London.

    We caught the train up from London Kings Cross, detouring around the security-controlled queue of Harry Potter fans (“Potterphiles”? “Potteristas”? “Potties”?) waiting for their photo op at platform nine and three-quarters. What an absolute phenomenon those books are.

    The train was a good way to relax for the day after the long flight, although it was packed, with people sitting and standing in the vestibules.

    Even though we knew it was on, we hadn’t reckoned on the effect of the Fringe Festival, from the crowded train to the packed streets to the pop-up bars in Princes Street - it was an exciting place to be.

    Other than the street atmosphere we managed to see a few of the more traditional Edinburgh attractions.

    We caught the bus out to Leith and walked through the Royal Yacht Britannia, all spit, polish and tradition. The ship was quite tastefully done out in a manner suitable for the impressing of lesser dignitaries.

    Back in town and at the bottom of the Royal Mile we toured the palace of Holyroodhouse, all dark and hung with tapestries and harking back to an age where the lesser dignitaries were more easily impressed. It would have been a cold and depressing place to live, that’s for sure.

    That night brought us to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, sitting up in the chilly grandstand with the magnificent backdrop of the castle in front of us.

    The show was great, a mix of tradition with modern elements. The images projected onto the castle walls were clever. The New Zealand military band that dropped their instruments mid-set and did a haka was out of left field.

    We climbed Calton Hill the following morning for some more views of the very hilly city, then in the afternoon caught the train out to South Queensferry and took a cruise on the Firth of Forth, under the bridges and out to Inchcolm Island.

    It was probably a very nice place, with its atmospheric ruined abbey and numerous fortifications, but in the cold, blustery wind and sporadic rain the returning boat, with its welcoming warmth (and on board bar) was what we really wanted.

    Today we move on to Liverpool, which will hopefully be just as much fun as Edinburgh has been.
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