Friday, 23 September 2016
On my way home now, flying over wispy clouds and the steppe.
Kazakhstan and Almaty are interesting places, though I can't claim to have seen much else of Kazakhstan than Almaty but there you go. The legacy of the Soviet times are clearly still there. There are still plenty of big square buildings and grandiose projects to show off whatever it was that the Soviet Union wanted to show off back in the day. That has carried on today and although the buildings are slightly less blocky and slightly more steel and glass (so western looking, for good or for bad) they still seem to like a grandiose project, even if those projects are now shopping malls rather than Square of the Martyrs type affairs. Interestingly people seem to consider the old Soviet apartment blocks as a better bet in an earthquake than ones built since the fall of communism, apparently dodgy building practices and graft are widespread and safety the least of concerns for the construction companies in these cost cutting days of capitalism.
What you tend to see now is a brand new showroom for Armani or Bentley, all gleaming glass, neon and chrome, on the ground floor and then above the old block of flats rises, leering at the new toys below whilst slowing shabbifying and falling apart (that's the opposite of the creeping gentrifying you get in London...). It makes for an interesting city and one wonders how long it will be before the older blocks start to be torn down - it will be a shame when that happens as right now, as far as I could see, the flats are where normal folk live, so the centre of Almaty feels like a place people live in rather than a sterile city centre, if old places are knocked down I can see new money moving in quick smart.
In some respects Almaty is already buzzing, there are lots of new restaurants that are full of people on a Wednesday night (and a fair few that aren't) and I can see it being a good night out at the weekend. They have clearly known prosperity in the years since 1989 but just now, with the devaluation of the Tenge recently times are a little tougher. There is obviously money around but the real money doesn't seem to be spreading out as much as it could or maybe should have done. I can see a time in the not too distant future when people start to ask "hey, you know all the billions Kazakhstan has made from oil and gas in the last 2 decades, where has all that money gone, exactly...?'. Into the hands of a privileged few is not the answer they are going to want to hear. Out in the countryside it is even worse, by all accounts, with large swathes of the population living essentially a subsistence existence, not something to be proud of considering the situation in the cities and the Benz driving oligarchs.
But the Kazak's of Almaty do seem to be proud of their city. They are also friendly and helpful, I read some articles before coming about being careful walking around at night but I did and never felt threatened or worried. During the day I was wandering about with my camera and again no hassle at any time. Almaty is also a very green city, there are trees everywhere you go, along the side of pretty much every road and boulevard, which makes for lovely shade on sunny days but I think it might look pretty bleak in deep midwinter, though the residents are probably more worried about the 20 below freezing than they are about naked trees in February. A lot of the trees are oaks and while I walked around you did have to watch out for the falling of acorns, which are surprisingly hard. As I walked home on Wednesday night I passed a garage under a small copse of oaks and the noise on the corrugated roof was like a light gun battery in WWII.
Interesting to hear a little about the geopolitics of the area while I was here. Kazakh is a language related to Turkish, which you can begin to hear when spoken, though the alphabets are different I think. There are a number of other countries in the region that also have a language related to Turkish, whilst other countries have Persian/Farsi languages (Turkmenistan, I think I was told, counterintuitively). Thinking about the geography it puts a huge, Turkish speaking swathe of people running from Turkey itself right to the border of China. Kazakhstan therefore, has had to walk a pretty tight tightrope of keeping Putin and Russia onside whilst trying to rediscover itself as Kazakhstan. With a large Russian speaking minority a wrong move could see Putin doing to the Kazakhs what he has done in the Ukraine e.g. liberating the oppressed Russians from the tyranny of the new majority in their country. So Kazakh culture and language has had to be kept very low key as a government policy (if it is policy at all) though it is something that younger Kazakhs are becoming more interested in. A powder keg springs to mind...
Sunday, 18 September 2016
Sitting on the train on the way to Narita and must admit to feeling slightly apprehensive about this whole affair. Not really sure what to expect from extended waits at Moscow airport (boredom most likely, I know), not sure what to expect from Kazakhstan, possibly as I don't really have a frame of reference for the country, never having been to central Asia, and also not sure about the gig I have been given. They haven't really been very clear about what they want - help with earthquake preparedness, but I think I could probably do most of that by email. And they want me to talk in a assembly to the secondary school, not something I have done, ever. So for them to spend what must be not an inconsiderable sum to fly me out there and put me up for several nights in a swanky (looking) hotel makes me a little nervous.
I guess what I mean is, I hope I don't come across as a fraud and a waste of their money. Not often I have self doubt, but the lack of clear expectations has got me a-wondering...
Right, enough of the introspective self-deception, never was much good at it. New experiences here we come!
Saturday, 17 September 2016
Why, I hear you cry, are you off to central Asia at this time of year? Well, an international school is in need of some earthquake preparation advice and our Principal, who met their Principal at some conference earlier this year, demurred when asked if he could go but then, inspiration sleeting through the ionosphere, suddenly quipped 'but you want to meet our Health & Safety guy...'
And as I am that guy I will be heading for Narita tomorrow for a midday flight to Almaty via Moscow. The bad thing... things, about the flight are that I get a 4 1/2 hour stopover on the way and a 12 hour one on the way back, I arrive in Almaty at 4.40am on Monday morning and the fight back on Thursday kicks off at 5.10am but doesn't get to Narita until about 10.30am Friday. And they booked the flights so late that I didn't have enough time to get a visa for Russia so I can't get out of the airport and have a mooch to Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral, which is a bit of a bugger (but I will try the 'oh go on, please, just a short, temporary transit type visa, I'll be good I promise...' at the airport to see if it works).
But still, it's an all expenses paid gig and I get to go to a place that I would not normally have any expectation of visiting, so that's pretty cool. Will take photos and record thoughts here...
Saturday, 13 August 2016
Wednesday, 10 August 2016
A quiet day again for the weekend, so plenty of reading and lazing about. In the evening we went for dinner at L'Auberge des Isles in Montreuil-Bellay, lovely restaurant by the Thouet river and under the walls of the chateau. Probably the best meal of the holiday, though Marcus' duck was a bit sinewy. Plenty of red wine and good cheer on offer.
Monday 1st August
Off to Nantes. Nantes has undergone a massive regeneration after the closure of the docks and shipbuilding industries, according to the Guardian they have done this through art and music but what we went to see was Les Machines de I'Ile, the centerpiece of which is an enormous mechanical walking elephant. It truly is a sight to see. We arrived just as the first ride on the beast was starting and watching it walk out of it's warehouse with 60-odd people on was something to behold.
We arrived early and apart from almost knocking a family over on a pedestrian crossing the journey was uneventful. Into the queue after elephant's departure (with almost knocked-over family just behind us; #awkward) and only a short wait to get tickets to the gallery and a ride on the elephant at 12.30 - this was a result as friends who had been there the Thursday before had to wait until 6.30 for their ride (and strangely took them 45 minutes longer to drive there even though they were 10km closer...)
Anyway looked round the gallery at all these weird and wonderful creations they have made, including a spider, caterpillar and ant that you can ride in or on. With each demo some members of the audience got to join in and with the flying Heron Marcus got to sit in one of the baskets - "but I don't know what they're saying to me!" he said to mum. "Doesn't matter" she said as she shoved him forward... He did look a tad nervous as the contraption moved, but he survived and said he enjoyed it.
Then it was our ride in the elephant - if you ever get the chance to go I would highly recommend it, especially if you have small children (or even big, grown up children), it's awesome.
Later we had lunch in a big, outdoor canteen. They only did one meal, salad, chicken and frites, but for 10 euros with half-a-carafe of wine or a beer thrown in you couldn't really complain (unless you're a vegetarian, but then the French seem to have a good attitude to that, essentially it's a shrug and 'fine, monsieur, please go and find somewhere else to eat, if you can...')
Then we went to the carousel, which was good but not as good as the elephant. After that we went to find a geocache as parental does that sort of thing and wanted to release travel bugs for Marcus and Charlie, and then to the castle for a mooch around. The castle was good in the sense that you could go into the courtyard and also walk the battlements and ramparts for free, you only had to pay if you wanted to look at the exhibitions.
Not much today either, though we did walk to the next town over, Louzy, to buy baguettes. This may not sound much but Louzy does not have a boulangerie, only a baguette vending machine. Yes, baguettes from a vending machine and, interestingly, they were probably the best baguettes we ate. Also did you know that France limits the price of baguettes, so they can't cost more that 0.85 euros? Every day's a school day.
First and last UNO of the holiday on Tuesday too. I'm not saying someone's reaction was a little over the top, but... And the Guru displayed a hitherto unknown level of subterfuge and vindictiveness - this was noted and filed away to return to at a later date...
Better in the backgammon, me up 57-55...
Wednesday we went to Futuroscope, a big amusement park near Poitiers. We were expecting a sort of sciencey place but in the end it was a more conventional place. Lots of the 4D rides, so moving chairs and water and air sprayed in your face - some of these were good, others less so. Also a few of the big IMAX cinema shows, and underwater one of which made the Guru feel seasick. Highlights for me were an excellent big screen BBC nature documentary shot in super high-def, it was so clear you were almost there with the mouse as it evaded the rattlesnakes and tarantulas, that and the dancing robots, where some bright spark had attached roller coaster chairs to those industrial robot arms that make cars, so flinging you around all over the place, they were cool.
Again too much food, we only really needed a snack for lunch but ended up in a place with huge plates of pasta, so feeling stuffed was not good preparation for an all you can eat buffet in the evening. Still, it was all nice food.
On the way home, near the gite, Julian's satnav again showed its cross country ambitions by taking us down increasingly local farm tracks until we ended up in a blocked off one way cart track in the middle of nowhere. A hairy reverse into a field over a narrow, rickety and by no means safe wooden "bridge" ensued, helpfully guided by yours truly - we made it, but only just, that's the problem with satnavs.
Rainy day so games and drinking all day. Final of the backgammon and the old timer takes it by 10 points in the end. Can't remember the final score but he was a worthy winner.
Saumur chateau in the morning, this was again a very interesting place, more a fortress than a fancy chateau that you think of in the Loire. Lovely views over the river from the battlements, lots of history there including visits from plenty of kings, indeed it was built by Henry Plantagenet (Count of Anjou and Henry II of England).
Lunch at a nice bistro in Saumur (with excellent;y suspicious sausages) and then it was time for goodbyes as we headed back to Paris on the train. Sad to leave and say au revoir to the parentals and brother + family. As always a long holiday was too short.
Trip back to Paris was uneventful, especially as we knew we were on the right train this time, and the IBIS hotel Montparnasse was much the same as we left it 2 weeks previously (the electronic key cards still didn't work). The Guru wanted to go for galettes in the evening and luckily the most famous galette shop in Paris (for Japanese people) was just around the corner, unfortunately it was closed for its annual August vacation, as were a lot of others, so we mooched down to the big crossing behind the station, near the famous and overly expensive Montparnasse 1900 bistro, we admired from afar and then went round the corner to a smaller, less salubrious and less expensive place.
Bus to the aiport, shopping and flight home. All regulation, no dramas.
Bloody hell Japan is hot and humid, can I go back to France, please...?
Sunday, 31 July 2016
Arrived at Saumur, met by parental and taken to the new homestead, gite very nice, tres rustic in a one horse town that's lost its horse. Hail and well met with family and friends, much wine and beer consumed.
Race day in Puy de Notre Dame. Local town organises an annual race around the town for vintage cars and bikes. All amateur and mostly local, hay bales for protection and good fun all round. In the centre of the track, in a winery, big tents set up, one for food and one for drink. 2 euros for a half pint of beer, after watching the first couple of races (crazy, some real nutcases out there, including a side car woman passenger doing yoga to keep the bike on the road) the gentleman retire to the bar and don't appreciably move for the rest of the day.
Picked up later a bit wobbly for dinner at the gite, arrived home to find Marcus with a bite from something that has swollen to a big blister, not good. BBQ skewers and wine form dinner, cracking day.
Marcus's finger more swollen so decide to head for doctors. Arrive and ask at the pharmacy as doesn't appear to be a doctor about. As Marcus raises his hand to show the pharmacist he catches his finger on the counter and busts the blister! He yelps, the pharmacist screams and everyone jumps backwards. As all are watching the dripping blister the bit of skin that was covering it and was subsequently sticking to the counter drops to the floor with a small squelch. Ushered out very quickly to a nondescript door which is the dr's surgery. Nice people waiting look worriedly at his finger let us go in first. Eccentric French dr reassures Marcus and parents with a 'hmm, yes, French bugs are very bad'. Various checks and says it's not too bad, writes prescription and charges us 23€, probably straight in his back pocket. 24€ in the pharmacy and we're done.
Back to the homestead then a visit to the supermarket which is always interesting. After head into Thouars for a mooch about, lovely couple of very old churches and a chateau that's now a music school, very picturesque.
More eating and drinking in the evening and as new game called Mölkky that involves throwing bits of wood, good fun, can see it being a good drinking game.
Visit to the chateau at Montreuil-Bellay. Lunch first, intended restaurant closed so we have to hunt around, find the Hotel Splendide, not quite up to the name but nearly there. Chateau most interesting, like one of the previous owners as he had a drinking club called the Sacavins, sound like jolly good fun. Also find nice restaurant to take the folks to later as a thank you to them.
Think I am going to die due to over consumption of paté, rilette and fromage...
Off to meet friends of the folks, Harry & Joan. Meet at a restaurant for lunch, most convivial but food not great apparently. Back to theirs for the afternoon more drinks and silly games. Pa and I lose at snooker but I beat him at table tennis and darts (!).
Reason for waiting around is that we're off to a Japanese garden for a night time viewing. Sure the garden is very nice but too dark to tell and their idea of lighting not too illuminating. The experience is meant to be enhanced by traditional Japanese folk tales at various points around the garden but as all in French with no English audio guide it all gets a bit lost. Nice try but lot of work for a midnight finish.
Quiet day. Visited some picturesque towns around the area for a mooch, again some lovely old churches and an abbey. Lunch at the Café des Arts, very nice with a huge beer collection. Food better than previous day, and excellent mixed grill and more cheese.
Harry & Joan over for a BBQ in the evening, more wine and Mölkky.
Puy du Fou park. Enormous theme park quite close. Essentially 7 or 8 big shows, like The Vikings and The Coliseum, really well done, fighting, chariot races, explosions and action. Cast of thousands set in a beautiful park. Weather very drizzly but better than being too hot. Highlight was the bird show, hundreds of birds of prey dancing around the sky and skimming just over your head, awesome.
Dinner at the park with odd French 'entertainment' involving drinking wine from shoes. Afterwards went to the Ciniscene spectacular show about the history of the area, amazing, photos I took won't do it justice but huge show spanning the last 1000 years. Home at 2am.
Quiet day but went to Thouars festival in the evening, from being completely dead when we visited on Monday now full of people, more beer at the Café des Arts, stronger stuff this time, all very enjoyable in a community having fun. Not a good night in the family backgammon tournament, lose a game to 16 and 13-34 down overall...
Monday, 25 July 2016
So our last day in Paris so we thought we'd go high.
We all slept pretty well for the first time, until around 6am, so that precluded an early start but then we've had enough of those. Breakfast from the station again but from a different stand, though same brand, and her the helpful lady serving told me I could have my coffee white if I liked, been drinking black coffee for breakfast so far, which has not been pleasant. Also Marcus happy as he got his grille pommes today and lack of comment must mean it was OK.
So, off to the Basilica de Sacre Coeur as it is a high point, literally and figuratively, in Paris. Got the bus which was meant to take us within a stone's throw but on the way about 4 stops suddenly disappeared. Perplexed we (or rather I) decided we should get off and try and find our way there. I quickly discovered that a Lonely Planet pull out map is not a particularly good substitute for an A-to-Z and I was soon a little bit worried, especially as the Guru had a 'don't make me walk too much today' look in her eye.
Luckily we spied a staircase and knowing the church is up thought might be onto something. I also accosted a startled looking old lady, along of it was the way, she smirked at me and said 'yes, up, going all the way!' which I took a good sign. So up we climbed, a lot of steps and through some very nice residential bits of Paris until we eventually came to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, which looked gorgeous in the morning sunshine. Then we bought tickets and climbed up to the dome for a view of over Paris, this was absolutely spectacular, a little hazy but as it was a sunny day the views went on for miles. There church is only about 100 years old so inside the decoration is a little more Art Deco that the places of worship we have visited so far so that was interesting. Then down the steps and lunch at the bottom of the hill with a beautiful view of the Basilica.
Next it was the Arc de Triomphe , across town on the metro this time, not too busy at the big arch so didn't have to wait, up the steps again (over 500 with both visits!) And this time glorious views along the grand boulevards and the Eiffel tower. After that it was a stroll along the Champs Elysée watching the preparation for the finish of the Tour de France on Sunday and then back to Montparnasse to catch the train to the countryside.
Slight problems with finding the right train/platform/tickets but we got there eventually and meet up with the folks in sunny Saumur.
Saturday, 23 July 2016
Up early but not quite as early as Thursday, which was a good sign. Breakfast again from the stall in the station, this time they got the order wrong, one more pain au chocolat, one too few grille pommes but there you go, eaten in the hotel room this time rather than with the crazies in the station.
Bus up to Palais Royale and picked up our pre-bought tickets to Museé de Louvre, all very smooth, I must admit. We went into the museum through the famous glass pyramid entrance and I must admit it was impressive. Not so impressive was fast queue for people with tickets as pretty much everyone had already bought tickets so it was just another big queue. Still, the unwashed queue did build steadily and was bigger by kick off time.
It's hard to love the Louvre as it is so big and so busy. We did a greatest hits tour as we weren't sure how long we could keep going for, things like the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace are beautiful to look at but difficult to appreciate due to the crowds. The worst is, of course, the Mona Lisa, you don't so much look at it as survive the experience of getting close to it - is just so busy with people taking photos with the their phones and iPads, and selfies with selfie sticks!, that you can't stop and consider the actual painting at all. Shame, but there you go.
Highlights for me were the Raft of Medusa, the Coronation of Napoleon, the statuary of Versailles, Puget in particular and some of the items from Mesopotamia like the Hammurabi. All beautiful and sometimes times they were in nice and quiet rooms too. The last highlight was a cup of coffee that only cost 2 euros, who said museums are expensive...?
We kept at it until about 1pm but with energy levels flagging again we headed back to the hotel for a rest. Recharged we headed to Invalides and the tomb of Napoleon. Have been here before but it is undoubtedly an impressive place. Entry there also got us into the Museé de l'Armeé, which had very interesting exhibitions on arms, armour and there world wars. Shame that we had got there quite late - no gentle music and a quiet request to finish what you're looking at before you leave, just 2 large blokes shouting at you to, slightly more politely, get there fuck out right now. Charming, especially as the guidebook says it closes at 7 not 6.
Anyway after that it was off dinner at Chartier, this is an old Paris institution that my father went to when he lived in Paris in the sixties and he then took us to years later on a family holiday. My brother took his family there a few years back and now I've taken mine. Hopefully Marcus and Charlie will take their families to eat there one day...
The food was OK, the service as I remember and the atmosphere outstanding, as it should be, and great value too. Then it back to bed, managed to start awake until after 10 tonight, getting better...
Friday, 22 July 2016
Busy day at the coalface of a sightseeing. Woke up at 1am and all of us wake and compos mentis by 3. Various administrative tasks sorted and blog post written then headed out at 6, went first to Gare Montparnasse to buy travel cards, all very straightforward, then to the bakery to buy breakfast, very pleasant croissants in the station seating area.
To the Ile de la Cite, in front of Notre Dame at 7am, deserted so a magnificent view with no crowds. Was there as the sun come up beside the towers, a glorious scene. Didn't open for a while so we went for a wander past the Palais de Justice up to Pont Neuf. Then back to Notre Dame for opening time, absolutely stunning inside, and we got to look around whilst a service was taking place which added to the atmosphere.
Saint Chapelle didn't open for an hour so we had coffee then wandered back, found a queue but not too long. Saint Chapelle was gorgeous inside, the stained glass amazing, a small chapel but we'll worth a visit. Bought combined ticket with the Concergerie next door, haven't visited before, was the prison where revolutionary prisoners were held before trial and execution, not too many got out at the height of the terror, including Marie Antoinette. Again well worth a visit.
Went bank to Notre Dame to see if we could climb the towers but by now the place was heaving and queues enormous, no thanks, so we wandered to the Ile de St Louis to buy lunch, found a lovely bakery and had a picnic with a view down the Seine.
Fueled up we went to the Museum of Anatomy & Palaeontology, Marcus wanted to go to a science museum. Lots of bones, which was impressive, but a very old style place so just, literally, a big room full of bones. There most interactive things where the signs saying Do Not Touch. Must try harder, this is the 21st century!
Museum was very hot and we were flagging by now so back to the hotel for a rest. Refreshed we went to the Jardins du Luxembourg, which are just down the road and had a pleasant stroll amongst many happy and relaxed Parisians. Then just a short walk to the Pantheon, not sure I've been here before either but again a most impressive monument, high domed ceilings and lots of interesting people interred in the crypt, including Marie Curie so Marcus was happy (he likes a scientific angle).
Flagging again so we stopped to buy some victuals for dinner which unromantically for Paris were eaten in the hotel room before we all dropped off by 9pm. History and religion done, culture tomorrow at the Louvre.
Thursday, 21 July 2016
Right, we are back in blogging mode as for the next couple of weeks we will be the Seine Riverview and the Loire Riverview as we holiday en France.
Up at the crack on Wednesday Japan time as wanted to get to Narita before the rush hour really started, Tokyo, rush hour and suitcases not a great mix. So left the house at 6.20 for an 11 o'clock flight. Travel OK and to the airport in plenty of time. Second breakfast then onto the plane. Flying Air France for the first time, very full, no spare seats. Talking of seats, found v uncomfortable for my back, which doesn't usually happen. Partially made up for with free champagne in economy.
Good selection of films, watched Spectre (not seen, excellent), The Big Short (not seen, excellent, hate bankers even more now) and the Force Awakens (seen lots of times). Good OK, long flight. Slightly worried before takeoff as cabin crew with 'security' on badges as appeared to take a woman off the plane, but they could have been upgrading her - she didn't look very happy if they were! But plane didn't blow up over Russia so all good.
Arrived on time, quickly through immigration with the most bored looking policeman checking passports I've seen, would give an English jobsworth a run for his money in the 'couldn't give a fuck' stakes. Cup of coffee and a ham sandwich for Marcus as he missed food on the plane when sleeping - first encounter with French people, spoke a few words of French but not too many Japanese interspersed (my brain on works in two modes, English and other languages and they tend to all come out in the same sentence, terribly confusing for the recipient as I don't even realise...)
Bus to Gare Montparnasse, through Paris in the evening rush hour, crazy driver but he got there in one piece. Paris looks both beautiful and ugly. Short walk from there station to the hotel, check-in no problem and up to the room, basic but clean and tidy, will do for 3 nights.
Shower and crash out by 9pm, it's been a long day but we made it.