Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Moscow: time for a new history lesson

            Moscow skyline, Kremlin tower in foreground, a Stalin's sister in distance 
This morning, whilst enjoying a dark, strong Russian coffee in a cafe on one of the busiest roads in Moscow, I read a BBC feature about a Russian prisoner, held in a village near the arctic circle (having been recently moved from an even worse prison in Siberia). He was an oligarch who opposed Putin in the Duma, and was currently serving 18 years for embezzlement. Depending on your viewpoint, the reader would take two things from this story: either that corruption and embezzlement is still rife in the Kremlin, or that the current Russian administration locks up its dissenters (a story which is a little too familiar). The latter is backed up by the well publicised imprisonment of Pussy Riot, and a promising leader of the opposition party, both of whom are still awaiting trail. Had I read this three weeks ago, at home, I would have shared these views. But sitting in the Russian sun, as the millions of inhabitants of Moscow fly by on their way to work, in the shadow of one of Stalin's sisters (huge skyscrapers which are testament to the might of this frightening era), it is hard to simply dismiss Russia as corrupt and brutal. That was not our experience at all. Russia was summed up for me by our pint sized Moscow tour guide (Moscow Free Tours, outstanding, so good in fact, that I bet she made far more from tips than if she'd charged). She stood taller than her 5 feet, in front of the Kremlin and announced that she was born in 1988 and was proud to have been born in Communist Russia, but was also proud to live in, what she called, a Putinocracy. We all looked nervously over our shoulders, surely the secret police who are still based in the old KGB building heard that? She can't say that in Red Square can she? She saw our faces and laughed. 'We call it a Putinocracy' she explained, 'because we can. We are free to say what we like now.' She told us a story: an American diplomat said to a Russian in the 1980s, 'We have so much more freedom than you, I can go to my head of state's building and say: 'I hate Reagan and how he runs his country.' The Russian laughed, 'Don't pity us, we have the same liberties. I too can go to my head if state's building and say: 'I hate Reagan and how he runs his country.' Then she laughed again, and every one of us on the tour realised we'd greatly misunderstood Russia. 

                                                   The Kremlin

The complicated, revolutionary and brutal history of 20th century Russia is well documented. When I was at school I learnt that Stalin was an awful dictator, of whom everyone was frightened. I learnt of his tyranny, which history teachers were especially keen to compare to that of a certain Nazi contemporary. I learnt of the wall he built, metaphorically and physically, between the USSR and Western Europe. I thought that Stalin would be a dirty word in Russia. During our first day in Moscow, I came across Stalin in three times: the endless jokes our tour guide told about his tyranny (the brown circle line on the metro was actually a coffee cup ring he left on the plans and the architects were too scared to ask him about it); his tomb and statue in Red Square; and his look alike posing for photographs outside the Kremlin. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about this.

Moscow was shaped by the USSR. Stalin designed and implemented the city's extensive underground metro system, and every station is like a little shrine to communism. We saw hammer and sickle mosaics, surrounded by victorious scenes of the Red Army, and classical bronze statues showing key players in communist Russia: workers, mothers, soldiers, athletes etc. Stalin's sisters dominate every view in the city. They are like silent giants, who move positions when you blink, spies, always watching. There are seven of them, but I swear I saw about thirty. Russia is not ashamed of its communist history, any more than its current leader. 

                                             Typical Metro station mosaic 
In 1989, the wall came down, and a period of great instability followed, which did not really end until Putin came in in 1999. This, our guide tells us, 'is why we are grateful. you keep your democracy, we like it this way.' And in this way, Russia still feels like nation new to tourism. Despite claiming the largest collection of billionaires in the world, Moscow has disgraceful public toilets, and English is not prevalent. The underground metro is still entirely in the Cyrillic alphabet, making choosing a line, a direction and a stop, a proper game of (Russian) roulette. We got lost several times, and were almost bowled over by people keen to help. We found that if we asked anyone loudly enough (I know, I know, shouting English is so uncouth), someone in the vicinity would understand and come racing over to help. Far from the grumpy or scary stereotypes I had expected (which doesn't say much about me) we found Russians to be full of kindness. Everyday people tried to help us, communicating through mime if necessary. 

Local Russian food is quite unbelievably gross, bread stuffed with potato and mushrooms is probably as close to tasting vomit as you will ever come. And the fact many 'traditional' Russian restaurants are very cheap buffet style canteens show that this cuisine is another throwback from the soviet era. It's hard to develop a national dish when half your people are starving. 

                                  First rule of travelling, NEVER photograph your tea...

....unless its in a restaurant that calls guests 'comrades' without irony

If St Petersburg was built by Peter the Great, for Tsars and Empresses, Moscow is a city entirely shaped and built by the communists. And after the USSR dissolved, when Leningrad hurriedly changed its name back to St Petersburg, Moscow continued as it was, as it always would be. Ordinary people, doing ordinary things, joking about the big guys who make the decisions. 

I felt sad reading the article which was so quick to dismiss Russia as corrupt. Much of my history was taught to me at a time when there were no lines of communication between the USSR and the West, and consequently I probably had a rather biased view. But now we have no excuse. Russia is not perfect by any means, but she is worth more than stories which just cover Pussy Riot and imply a underlying culture of fear. The Russian Museum of Contemporary History and its army of old ladies who invigilate the galleries (mostly with their eyes closed and snoring) tell a very unbiased view of Russia in the 20th century, and is far more interesting than the state and pomp of the more famous state museums, with their collection of imperial wealth. Nevertheless, it is the juxtaposition of these, and the honesty of showing both sides of Russian history which makes Moscow so unique and balanced. Moscow has not purged or edited its history. The Red Square is the epitome of this: its landmarks include the most famous of all traditional Russian cathedrals, St Basil's; the Kremlin with its treasures, its cathedrals, and its hard concrete communist palace; and in the centre of Red Square, in front of Stalin's tomb, the huge mausoleum which houses Lenin's waxy yellow body. The 'red' of red square doesn't represent the brilliant red stones the Tsars chose to build their Kremlin, nor the Red Army who marched on it for almost a century. Red means beautiful. Perfect. 
Perhaps it is time to take a lesson from Moscow and her guides and museums, and start sharing a new, more balanced history of Russia. 

                                             St Basil's Cathedral

                                                       The Red Square

Sunday, 30 June 2013

St Petersburg: Beneath the facade

Next to our hostel in St Petersburg was a sunshine yellow, neoclassical building, which looked like a palace (not at all uncommon in St P). It had impossibly white windows sills and ornate decorations. We were walking past this building on our second day when, to our surprise, a breeze lifted the whole facade of the building, revealing a battered brown house, with peeling paint and smashed windows. The building was under construction, and whilst the work was being carried out, a false front had been put up so that the street still looked pretty. In the tedious way that writers do, I saw this as a metaphor for St Petersburg. On the surface, the city it stunning. Almost like a film set of 18th century Amsterdam or Venice, all neoclassical architecture and winding canals. But to accept this facade of St Petersburg is to do it a great disservice.

                                                             Peter the Great

    It was Peter the Great, who took the city from the Swedes in the early 1700s, and moved Russia's capital from Moscow to the newly named Sankt Pieter Burch. The ground which surrounded the Neva River was swampy and waterlogged, and, save for its location, the region was highly undesirable. In a frightening precursor to Stalin's determined industrialisation of the 1930s, Peter bullied, enslaved and coerced armies of peasants (it is still known as the city built on bones) to build a great city to rival its European counterparts. It was Peter who shunned traditional Russian architecture for the neoclassical style that is prevalent throughout St Petersburg. It is to the credit of the St Petersburg craftsmen, or the terror that Peter spread (he practiced dentistry on people who offended him) that the city was built within so few years, and it is said that the floods of migrants who moved here from all over Europe had to bring a stone to help lay the foundations. The incredible underground Metro train system is still one of the deepest in the world, because of the swampy ground. 

Peter was determined to defend his new capital, and one of his first buildings was the Peter and Paul fortress. It was never needed; the attacks did not come for overb200 years, and were from Germany, not Sweden. The fortress quickly became a prison, and in case anyone was undecided about the type of ruler Peter was, he imprisoned, tortured and executed his only son there. The fortress still stands, a sort of Russian Alcatraz. The prison in the north west corner echoes with the stories of repression: anti Tsarist prisoners were held up until 1917, when they were freed and the cells filled with former government officials and other anti revolutionary prisoners. From outside the fortress walls, the stunning buildings of the Winter Palace and Admiralty are close enough to touch, just a short swim across the Neva River, but they face into Palace Square and it feels as though regal St Petersburg has turned it's back on those it considers to be dissenters. 

                     Peter and Paul Fortress

    So, we have palaces, statues, a hero or tyrant depending on your view, a prison, a fortress, and some stunning neoclassical architecture. You see, not all it seems. Now let me throw in the events of 1941-1944. The Nazis surprised the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, when they attacked, and marched towards our great northern city, renamed Leningrad in 1924, with remarkable speed. Hitler had issued a direct order to 'wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth'. It is said that he decreed that no person should survive, and he was so confident that he had already issued invitations to a victory party at the infamous Astoria hotel in the shadow of the city's St Isaac Cathedral. He did not bargain on Leningrad's determination to hold out. For 872 days its inhabitants were besieged and a million people died of starvation and disease (this is considerably more than the combined total UK and USA casualties from the whole of the Second World War.) It took 20 years for the city's population to recover to pre war numbers. 

    St Petersburg is a mass of contradictions, built to look European, but hidden away from 'western influences' during the Cold War years, making it one of the most adventurous and rewarding travelling adventures I have had since Asia. Many locals were born when the city had a different name, and belonged to a different country, so English is not spoken everywhere, and even getting a sandwich is satisfyingly challenging. One particularly memorable time four staff and two customers helped us to order a Big Mac. 

     Talking of contradictions, how about the weather, a sweltering 34 degrees Celsius whilst we were there, whilst the cruel winters can see temperatures drop to below -20. And then there's the daylight hours, we were there during the White Nights, when the sun never sets, but in winter it can feel like it never rises. 

    And so we return to our pretty street, with the derelict buildings hidden by painted fabric fronts, keeping up appearances. This stunning city, evocative of Europe of the past, hides another dark secret. It's pollution levels are out of this world, life expectancy is embarrassingly low (63 for men), and, just as local son Tchaikovsky found over 100 years ago, drink the water at your peril. Whilst today's traveller might not die of cholera as Tchaikovsky did, a very uncomfortable few days will follow!

            Views from St Isaac's Cathedral

Monday, 24 June 2013

Riga: a hidden gem with free wifi and sauerkraut

Riga will be capital of Culture in 2014, and was once the major hub of one of the most affluent countries in Europe; but I'm ashamed to say that my knowledge of it did not extend much beyond its recent history in the Eurovision Song Contest (winning in 2002), and I accept that most people don't have my interest of tacky European talent shows to fall back on for their geographical appreciation of the Baltic states, so here's my beginner's guide to Riga.

1) It's not expensive!

Nowhere is cheap anymore, but Riga definitely gets closer to the old backpacking on a shoestring myth than its Western neighbours. For a start, you can get a budget flight here. We flew with Wizz Air, who were more than adequate, aside from the irritating habit all budget airlines have developed of encouraging applause for a safe landing. I have always found this concerning, perhaps because I sense an inevitable extra charge: 'check here for a qualified pilot, £30 each way'.

Flight aside, a taxi from the airport was only 9 Lat, our accommodation (a private room for the Photographer, the Driver and I) was also only 9 Lat each. A Lat is worth around £1.21, and is one of the most valuable currencies in the world.

But best of all, for budget backpackers, is the restaurant Lido, a combination of service station meets medieval banquet. For 5 Lat each we sampled sauerkraut (delicious), unidentifiable kebabs (nice once you got passed the roulette style mystery), potatoe straws (grim), mayonnaise marinated chicken (weird), and delicious local beers.

2) It's beautiful

Old town Riga is medieval and quaint in a way that is only possible in small, unspoilt European cities. Parts of it are over 600 years old, but most of it was lovingly restored and rebuilt after successive invasions and occupations destroyed the original buildings. As a consequence there is an amazing mismatch of stunning modern 'old style' architecture, which draws the eye, and, hidden down side streets, wonky, leaning, crumbling buildings which are actually far more interesting.

3) They know how to throw a party

We were in Riga for Ligo, the midsummer party. Every year Riga holds a huge festival on the river edge of music, garland making, beer drinking, and general festivities. The locals unashamedly wear traditional folk dress, and everyone celebrates the longest night of the year and is just happy to be Latvian. As cynical Brits we couldn't help muse what state the streets would be in the following morning after 24 hours of drinking. The answer: as clean and well kept as before. Turns out Latvians can party cleanly!

4) Their turbulent history deserves hearing

In the 1930s, Latvia was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe, and was finally independent from Russia. Like its Baltic allies, it was occupied three times in the 40s, and spent many years behind the iron curtain. Now-a-days less than half the population would identify as Latvians, and 43% of Rigans are Russian, compared to 41% Latvian.

5) There is free wifi EVERYWHERE!

I have written this blog in crazy places the world over, one memorable moment involved standing on a toilet in an Italian campsite, holding the laptop above my head to get wifi signal. I have no such problems in Latvia, there is free wifi everywhere! Restaurants, public squares, long distance trains. That is one very good reason to fall in love with a country!

Riga is beautiful, and brimming full of character, charm, and unassuming food, drinks and views, so get there, quick, before everyone else finds out!

Monday, 1 October 2012

And the Travel Sic Award for Best City In The World Goes To.....Chicago

Chicago skyline

Everything about Chicago is amazing. Everything. I sound like someone blinded by love, and rendered inarticulate, but don't worry, I am going to go on for hours about why this city is so fab.

Chicago has the third biggest art collection in the US, the second biggest airport, and the eighth tallest building in the world. It used to be the biggest port (impressive for an inland city), have the biggest post office, and make the most TV shows and films. Are you getting the picture? It isn't really the best or biggest at anything anymore. But this is why I love Chicago. It doesn't care. It just wants to be the best it can be, and it definitely is. It is the most inward looking city I have ever visited, a city more concerned with its residents and visitors than how the rest of the world perceives it.

So what's so nice about it? Well, you can't really talk about Chicago without mentioning the skyline. What a scene: a total melting pot of architectural styles from the last hundred years. Chicago was almost decimated by a fire in 1871 and used this opportunity to rebuild the city, and like a Phoenix out of the flames, Chicago soared up and up. This vast city invented skyscrapers, but not to the detriment of the residents or the beauty of the city. Since skyscrapers were first built, city laws have used these vast buildings to its benefit: for example, private buildings are not allowed to build on the waterfront unless they also build a public waterfront walkway for pedestals, and as a result Chicago has miles of gorgeous waterfront paths. We took a river cruise which explained the background of Chicago's architecture, our guide was a volunteer who spoke breathlessly for 90 minutes with great knowledge and enthusiasm. She is just one of several volunteer guides we encountered during our stay, it seems Chicagoans love their city so much they will help visitors to appreciate it for free. I find that refreshing and encouraging.

Back on the ground, the streets of Chicago can be a little dark, in the shade of these monstrous buildings. I read a great description about dark shadowy streets, punctuated by the machine gun roar of the L train, and this is fairly accurate (although it does pain me to write anything even slightly negative about this amazing transport system). To help brighten these streets up, Chicago has commissioned huge, unique artwork from artists such as Picasso. This is taken to the extreme in Millennium Park, one of several public parks. The artworks here include a huge glass brick skyscraper fountain, with the faces of local people projected on it, and of course, Cloud Gate. Cloud Gate is a giant bean, weighing over 100 tonnes, made of silver, which vibrantly reflects both the skyline, and the people looking at it. It puts you in Chicago, which funnily enough is exactly what Chicago is all about. It is a human city, the most human city I've ever been to. It is about human endeavour (it's motto is 'I Will') and human achievements (look upfor evidence of these) and human beauty (the art is something even I can appreciate) and just living (seen in my beloved L train, the easiest transport invented!). The bean is something everyone can love and appreciate, and for everyone it reflects different things, exactly like Chicago. It is literally the best art I have ever seen.
Cloud Gate

So why else is Chicago amazing? The culture here is second to none. Vibrant blues clubs still rock every night of the week (we spent a glorious night watching Mary 'if you like me buy a CD, if you don't, hell, buy one an'way' Jane and her blues band), there is a wonderful art gallery, and too many museums to mention. It also has one of the oldest and coolest cinemas, out in the suburbs. All the films are about four months old, you enter down a tattered red carpet, there are no adverts, and the leather chairs recline. Now you wouldn't find that in New York!
Buddy Guy's Legends Club

Of all the museums in Chicago, we especially enjoyed the Field Museum, home to Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaur ever found (and found by a woman, called Sue!). We learnt loads at this museum thanks to our excellent tour guide, who, in her real job, was an advertising exec, (anyone know that you date a T-Rex the same way you date a tree? Count the rings on its ribs!). And best of all McDonalds had helped to pay for Sue to be in Chicago, so there was a McDonalds at the museum!!

Of course, what really makes a city is its food. Chicago invented the pizza pie. Yes, this is a pie made of pizza. Yum! We took on a woman vs food style challenge and bravely ordered a small Chicago pizza pie to share. We epically failed, not even managing a quarter of it. I carried the rest of it home, and had to to stop for a breather, a pizza pie would make a pretty decent weapon if thrown or dropped.

But perhaps the biggest reason why Chicago is the 2013 Travel Sic Best City in the World, is the toilets. Well, one toilet in particular. Like many sky scrapers, the Hancock Building has an observation deck you can pay to go up. It also has a free cocktail bar. 'Ha' we thought, 'we're not mugs, we'll go up to the cocktail deck and spend our entry fee on a drink!' But after an extensive queue to get in, we were sorry to see that a) we were nowhere near a window, b) the rest of the Western Hemisphere had had the same idea, and c) it had taken so long to get up there that the sky had gone dark, and the cocktail bar faces the lake, so we could see nothing. Dejected I headed for a free wee (when you're a traveller you take them wherever you can get them!) and was hit by the most impressive view I have ever seen. The whole skyline of Chicago spread before me in shimmering light. I was so awestruck walked straight into a toilet door. Who needs sky decks when you can take a wee with his view? And that, Chicago, is why you are the best city in the world!
Best loo with a view 2012



Sunday, 30 September 2012

Hippies to Hollywood (with some more giants): speeding down the Californian Coast

There are some myths about the Californian coast, which I"m going to do my best to expel in this blog (Please note, more seasoned travellers and more humorous writers than I have probably already debunked these myths, but it was all a surprise to the Photgrapher and I, so I thought I'd share them.)

1) San Francisco is the best city in the world

The Photographer and I spent some considerable time debating this question. We've been to NYC, Sydney, Cape Town, Edinburgh, Rome, Melbourne, London, Paris, and of course the ever fantastic Manchester, and we decided on night two in SF that we rated all these above SF. We were promised quaint beauty at Fisherman's Wharf, but found a tackier version of Blackpool; the throbbing energy we expected in the area around Union Square carried an undertone of sinister danger in all the hooded characters lurking in the alleyways; and don't get me started on the city's answer to Central Park. The Golden Gate park is a) misleadingly far away from its namesake, and b) crap. South Park in Macclesfield is better (a park should have two or more of the following: swings, mini golf, a tennis court, a lake and a rickety obstacle course, Macc has all of these, GGP has one!). This said, the twin attractions of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge cannot be exaggerated. We cycled over Golden Gate Bridge, as terrifying an experience as I have ever had on a bike, trying to negotiate the dual obstacles of the wind and daft pedestrians was quite exhilarating!

On day three we decided to bin our two guidebooks and look out our emails of countless recommendations from friends who had visited or lived here. And the same names kept coming up: Mission, North Beach, Castro. Off we set, and we found it, that thing which makes puts SF in contention for the highly rated Travel Sic Best City award. These areas are the city's beating heart: culture, music, food, history, books, art and above all, the people who moved here over the last hundred years and made this amazing place the melting pot that it is. Stand at the famous City Lights book store (which is, by the way, officially the Tavel Sic Best Bookshop in the World), and you feel like you're at some kind of metaphorical SF crossroads: China town to your left, North Beach and Little Italy behind you, the financial district in front of you, and the long, seedy road back to Fisherman's Wharf and tourist central to your right. And all these different elements of the City come together every Friday at the AT&T stadium to watch the Giants. I won't bore you with the ins and outs of baseball (mostly because even after reading about it and spending hours watching it, they are still a mystery to me) but what I will say is the culture of the baseball stadium is lovely. On our way in we were told that if this was our first time we could qualify for a certificate! Imagine, not been shouted at for being a game tourist, a glory hunter or a member of the prawn sandwich brigade, imagine actually having your ignorance celebrated. But perhaps my most favourite thing of all is the 7th Inning Stretch, where, after six innings of not a whole lot of action, everyone is encouraged to spontaneously stand and stretch to some music. And everyone does! Ever seen 22,000 people stretch simultaneously? It's hilarious!!

Travel Sic best bookshop in the world! Home of the 'Beat' movement

AT&T stadium. A boat sits in the harbour waiting to film balls which get hit into the water! 
(Like I said, not much action in baseball!)

2) Monterey: playground of the rich, with beautiful views and a great aquarium for the plebs

Well, the middle one may be true, but the Monterey peninsular is also shrouded in fog the majority of the year, so not many people get a chance to find that out! What I will say is that the peninsular in fog, is in itself, a quite remarkable site. It seems even more rugged and wild, and if I was writing a guidebook I'd put 'See the 17 mile drive in fog' as a top tip, just so that everyone who is lucky enough to do it in sun feels like they are missing out!

Monterey, misty but wonderful

We found out another cool thing about Monterey: it loves its jazz! Every year it holds the world's longest running jazz festival, where world famous jazz legends perform, along with new local talent. As a result of this regional enthusiasm some pretty special school bands have grown up in the area, and every year the jazz festival pays for professionals to go round the schools, pick the most promising musical kids and train them up all summer, to perform at the festival. This has led to a real respect within the local community for jazz and the institution of the festival.

And the jazz festival itself... imagine a music festival with less overcrowding, flushing loos, no drunken people and recycling, sound like a more pleasant experience? Well it is! This music festival actually hires someone to stand by the nine different bins and explain which one you should use. A festival with a conscience. And the music is mind blowing (although towards the end of the headline set The Photographer leaned in and asked me whether they had finished tuning up yet). Monterey impressed us so much we didn't even have chance to make it to the infamous aquarium, we'll have to go back!

3) Big Sur is the best drive in the world

As far as I can tell there are only three types of Big Sur fans: hippies, elephant seals and guide book writers. Enough said.

Big Sur loved by hippies and seals alike

4) Hollywood is glamorous

'One thing I will say is don't touch the ground in Hollywood' our tour guide said as we stepped off the bus. I can understand why. In comparison with the incredibly rich districts of Bel Air, Beverley Hills, Malibu, and Loz Felis, Hollywood is manky. Everything looks faded, tatty, knackered. Even the palm trees which line the side of the road are worryingly malnourished, And there is a weird fascination with human failure. We had pointed out to us the places of Mel Gibson and George Michael's arrests; River Phoenix and John Belushi's deaths; Kelly Osbourne's drug indiscretions, and even, gleefully, that the historic Kodak theatre, home of the Oscars, had been renamed the Dolby theatre because Kodak had gone into administration. Yay, now I feel really good about the world.

LA: lovely smog!
And LA itself is a weird place. The best way I can demonstrate this is to say that no one normal lives there. You know, no one with a normal job, or children they take to school, or normal hobbies. Everyone is for show. In Malibu fifty odd surfers gather every day, but not to surf. The Malibu sea is too calm. They just put on wetsuits and sit in the sea. Weird. We even saw a homeless man who, instead of a dog, had two bright parrots. Only in LA.

But what if I told you that 7 miles south of Malibu is a spot, so scenic that Baywatch was filmed there, so historic that one of the oldest Californian piers is still there, but so old school that its Downtown Main Street only has independent shops and restaurants? It's true. This place is Santa Monica, slightly set apart from the craziness of LA, and a really nice, and comparably normal place.

So, coastal California, full of well known preconceptions, which I have just inarticulately debunked. But also full of hidden treasures: the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra who give free performances; bubble gum ally in San Luis Opisbo; the crazy and amazing Museum of Slot Machines at Fisherman's Wharf; everything in quaint Santa Barbara; and Clint Eastwood's bass playing son - a veteran of the jazz festival. Now that is celebrity. Oh, and one other thing, they make all their bread with egg in California. Weird!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ghosts and Giants but no Bears: California's Sierra Nevada National Parks

 In a rare poetic moment the Photographer described Yosemite National Park as the leftover scene of a giant's battle: 'Look, where they threw Half Dome.' It does feel a bit like that, it has an enormous quality which is almost too big to grasp, both because it is so old and because it is so huge.

The awe inspiring qualities of California's National Parks are well documented, and that is why they are so damn busy! Here are my tips to enjoying the parks without the crowds:

1) Choose a campsite which has recently suffered from a major health scare and bad press on an international scale.

We stayed at Camp Curry, which is very concerned with your well being when it comes to bears. Thus you have to lock all your smelly possessions, including empty water bottles and razors (who knew, bears shaved!) in a bear box outside your tent. The bear box has tiny holes, just small enough for a mouse to get in and do a poo. Mice poo carries hantavirus, perhaps a disease some of you may have come across recently on the news. A disease which killed four travellers who stayed at Camp Curry a month ago. We didn't see a single bear in Yosemite, and in Canada, where there are definitely bears (I know, I saw them), the boot of the car was perfectly adequate for smelly goods. Whilst at Camp Curry we overheard two girls (also from Yorkshire, that's how we could understand them) say that all the food from their bear box had been eaten by mice, and ask if it was ok to use their toiletries. Oh yes, they were told, which is contrary to all health advice. One has to wonder if perhaps Camp Curry are worrying about the wrong furry animals.

That said, Camp Curry is very efficient and well oiled machine. Fatal diseases aside, our tent was lovely; the food requirements of over 500 accommodations are more than adequately met by the pizzeria, coffee shop, grill and buffet; and the showers were always clean. You also can't put a price on the location of Curry, it's in the heart of the valley, in the shadow of Half Dome. Every evening as we were walking to tea we saw the Dome change from white to pink as the sun set, and every morning, on the way to the shower, we caught the curtain of dusk lifting slowly across the valley as the sun rose and coated everything in orange light. It was like watching a picture being coloured in.

Half Dome in half light

2) Don't be afraid of early mornings and hard work

Amongst the best sites in Yosemite are its waterfalls. Arriving after a dry summer meant most of these were dry, and those which still had some power, were busy. We got up very early (no real chore when you have that view waiting) and walked up to Vernal Falls, it's steep, but we were at the top by 9.30, in time to watch the sun bathe the valley below in glorious light. And we were the only people there. From Vernal it is possible to climb higher to another waterfall, (Nevada) giving even more impressive views. We were there by 11, beating the crowds, and almost beating the California sun.

And the early start and steep hike was worth it: the waterfalls were far more impressive than the more famous Bridal falls - which allegedly doesn't dry up. From my vantage point, at the bottom of this fall two days later, I saw a bit of spray come over the top and could almost feel the waterfall's embarrassed blushes beating off the dry red rocks at the bottom: the spray didn't even make it half way down! However, after our experiences with rain earlier in the trip, the Photographer and I weren't complaining about the lack of water in Yosemite!

Views worth a hike

We also visited Glacier point, for amazing valley views of Half Done, and any flowing waterfalls. We fled after four coach parties arrived and climbed nearby Sentinel Hill, this steep mile climb gives 360 degree views of the whole of Yosemite, and again, leaves the thong wearing, hd video camera toting masses behind.

3) Visit other parks

Yosemite is not the only park, Kings Canyon and Sequoia Parks (one fee for both) are outstandingly beautiful and considerably less crowded. Grant Grove, in King's Canyon is one of the most stunningly located campsites that we have ever encountered. The rustic (Lonely Planet describes them as decrepit!) log cabins are surrounded by huge sequoia trees, which stretch heavenwards, only stopping to let the stars in. Being within arms length of a family of mule deers on the way to the shower block the next day was also a real highlight. My advice: stay long enough to see General Grant tree, the third largest tree in the world, by this point, if you are anything like the Photographer, even Bambi himself will not be enough to make the coin operated showers worth it!

4) Leave Yosemite

Outside Yosemite, at the end of the Tioga Pass, is a an area called the Mono Basin, which calls itself the gateway to Yosemite. We wondered if Yosemite should consider calling itself the gateway to Mono! Mono Lake is worth at least a look, it has unusually high sodium levels which result in the growth of huge salt pillars called tufas. Combine these eerie columns with a clinging smell of sulphur (eggy farts) and swarms of black flies and you have a rather biblical picture. The lake itself is deadly still. If this isn't ghostly enough, head up the road to Bodie, an old gold town. Bodie was a thriving (if somewhat dangerous) town at the end of the 1800s, but as the gold dried up and two big fires destroyed many buildings the community started to dissipate and by the 1930s, everyone had upped and left, literally, leaving unwashed crockery, unmade beds, newspapers, cars, fire engines and school books. The baking California sun radiated off the rickety wooden buildings, and you could close your eyes and almost hear the cries of a bustling town: poker games at the Old Hotel, children in the school yard, the fire bell ringing and the clink of the machinery at the mine. Bodie is a fantastic way of spending an afternoon, and if you think there is nothing better than the view of a Half Dome  and El Capitan from tunnel view the first time you enter Yosemite, try rediscovering that view four days later when you renter the park after a day in a ghost town. Then the crowds don't seem like a curse, they are a glorious reminder of the noise of real people!

Friday, 14 September 2012

'John Wayne slept here'

48 hours after arriving in the US, we sat down for a tasty tea of moo shi (a random fusion of Chinese and CaliMexican: stir fry in burrito, wrong on so many levels, but surprisingly tasty!) and reflected on an action packed 2 days which included a piano off, flash floods and a brush with stardom.

We flew into Vegas first and stayed at Bill's Gamblin Hall and Saloon, on the strip, for no other reason than it was cheap and came recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet. It's huge 'retro' (read knackered!) rooms were more than adequate. After sleeping off our jetlag whilst the city that never sleeps partied four stories below us, we were up early to fly to the Grand Canyon. Our tour (with Maverick Tours) was by helicopter. Needless today, the Photographer was beside herself with glee, whilst I was terrified and had to self medicate with several different sickness remedies. I needn't have worried, helicopter flying really does feel like real broomstick flying. None of this tearing jerkily down a runway and hoping for the best business, just a slight dip forward as we rose into the air, and then floated over the desert towards the canyon, taking in Hoover Damn, and following the Colorado River until it magically changed red to indicate that we had reached our destination. It was 10am, at one of the most natural beauties in the world, and I spotted at least 12 other helicopters, at times our landing spot was busier than Manchester airport, does Arizona need to think about limiting tours to this area?

The Colorado River snakes through the desert

We were chased back to the airstrip by imposing clouds, and when we landed we could feel the temperature had dropped, but this was the desert right? I know NYC, Croatia, Slovenia, Cornwall and Sydney are all destinations that have succumbed to apocalyptic weather during our holidays, but surely we'd be ok in Las Vegas, a city that sees over 300 days of sun a year? As we explored the strip, large drops started to fall, and in the time that it took to duck into The Venetian and establish that the indoor Vegas gondoliers are a poor substitute for the real thing, the strip began to flood. We held out as long as we could, and then ran across a footbridge, to find that the escalator had shorted in the rain (serves them right for having outdoor escalatorsm surelattracts just lazy!) and the sidewalk had flooded. It took 2 hours to make the three block return to Bill's, and involved wading through water in the sidewalk and road that was over knee deep.

Flooding on the strip

After drying off we took an umbrella and headed south down the strip to New York, New York, which, unlike the gondoliers, is brilliant! Every effort has been made to Vegas-ify all the wonderful things about the Big Apple: huge replica landmarks and a mini broadway, and the Times Square Bar, which boasts the famous 'Dueling Pianos' - 6 solid hours of two pianists enthusiastically playing any requests from the audience. The most impressive whilst we were where was 'money' by Pink Floyd.

Oh, and we also gambled. What is the point in that? It took the Photographer and I 35 minutes to figure out how to use a slot machine and 35 seconds to loose all our night's allotted spends (about 3 dollars!)

The next we left poor flooded Vegas behind and headed to Death Valley, safe in the knowledge that this was one of the hottest and most unforgiving areas in the world, and we would probably not be in any danger of flooding. Death Valley is so hot (well over 40*C whilst we were there) because it is very low (Badwater flats are the lowest point in the US) and is surrounded by mountains, so the hot air rises but never escapes. With all this heat and arid land, the valley can be a very unforgiving landscape, but it is saved by it's incredible array of colours. In one tremendous drive (called Artists Drive, do it, Death Valley is much better viewed for then air conditioned safety of a car) we saw mountains turn vibrant reds and oranges, murky browns, brilliant white, and even a sort of sapphire blue. We also escaped from the heat into a little museum which explains the history of the valley, including its importance as an area which could mine the mineral Borax. Mule teams of 20 horses used to pull the Borax to the nearest railway line. Given that by the end of the day we were driving from the restaurant at one of end of a building to the toilets at another to escape the heat on the 30 second walk, I have full sympathy with the horses. Apparently the horses used to carry bells, and if they encountered difficulties the rescue team took away their bells, this is where they phrase 'I'll be there with bells on' comes from, it means I'll manage by myself. And that folks, is a fact!

Jumping on Badwater, the lowest point in the US

The stunning scenery of Death Valley behind us we drove into Lone Pine, a small settlement near Mount Whitney which has a claim to fame. In the1920s film makers realised that the surrounding mountains were the perfect backdrop for western films,and quite an industry grew in this area. We stayed at Dow Villa Hotel, which was built in 1922 and seems to have accommodated quite a few stars: a hand written sign declared that John Wayne had slept here. The hotel was great, and the nearby restaurant 'the Merry-go-Round', with it's Chinese-Cali fusion is outstanding. The wood clad buildings of Lone Pine, and the panoramic mountains look like something straight from the 1920s, the sort of scene that I'd assume has been photoshopped, or just doesn't exist anymore. I came to California to see the surf, sea and Sequoias, I had no idea hidden gems like this existed.

Lone Pine - hidden gem