Three Rough Blokes on the Amazon January – February 2015

Three rough blokes were having a beer one day and Roger was saying how he’d like to do the other half of the Amazon from Manaus to the coast. The other two didn’t take much persuading so in January 2015 we met in Manaus, Cam flying in from a week in Guatemala, AJ arriving after a few days in Panama and Roger after the shot show in Vegas and a few days in Panama.

Check out the full story below.

Amazon 2015

Screen Capture by Snagit

Breaking out of New Zealand – August 2021

Saturday, 28 August

Around 2:30pm I arrived at the Auckland International airport. Normally I’m not that excited to be leaving New Zealand, but with the current state of affairs in the country and the poor job the government has done getting us vaccinated with only around 20% of the population double vaccinated and a recent break out of the Delta virus variant, I was actually quite excited to be leaving the country.

Not surprisingly  there were very few people about in the terminal as there are very few planes coming and going from New Zealand, particularly as everybody arriving has to isolate for at least 14 days, due to the lack of vaccinated population. Secondly it’s really hard to get a space in quarantine to return to New Zealand, so consequently many airlines have dramatically reduced the number of flights and out of the country. When checking in I was given a $35 voucher to spend at a bar, the only one open in the departure terminal as under level four lockdown rules all the lounges are closed at the airport. With only a few people around it was a quick trip through immigration and airport security. I wandered through the closed shops  to the bar and presented my voucher to find out they did not sell alcohol, so I settled for a cup of coffee and a stale sandwich for the exorbitant cost of $27.

Not to worry though I was soon be seated on the Emirates flight and airborne, with a glass of wine in hand and a lovely meal as we headed to what I thought was supposed to be Dubai, but turned out was a stop in KL in Malaysia to refuel and pick up a few passengers. One young lady boarded in KL in a full protective suit, mask, goggles and all; there was no way that the virus was gonna get her.

Landing in Dubai, the airport was reasonably busy, all the shops were open and people were wearing masks but going out about their business as normal. The lounge was open where I enjoyed a good breakfast before boarding the flight to Lisbon.  It was supprising to see the number of large aircraft surrounding the terminal. It looks like the rest of the world is getting on with life while NZ sits self-isolating in the bottom corner of the world.

As we left Dubai I was sitting on the south-side or starboard side of the plane as we flew over the Palm Island, and  from there over the Sahara desert.

As I looked out past the triple seven engine, which was part of what was thrusting us forward at around 700 miles an hour I wondered if we were ever going to make these electric and how many batteries would have to fly to get that thrust. As we flew west across the desert every now and again large green circles of vegetation appeared. It’s almost like add water and you can grow anything, anywhere – then suddenly it goes back to miles and miles of sand, sand, rocky mountains and sand. We flew across the gulf of Aqaba, then across Northern Egypt and the Suez Canal and out into the Mediterranean, well above the coast of Libya and the other northern Africa states, then across Spain and Portugal.

Landing at Lisbon airport, apart from people wearing masks there was no sign of people social distancing or other things that people do to stay safe from the pandemic. It was almost like there wasn’t one – only the masks gave it away. Boarding the flight to Marseille the crew chief constantly checked people with cloth masks to make sure they were a compliant mask – well I presume that’s what he was doing I couldn’t really understand what he was saying.

30 August 2021

Arriving in Marseille there was no immigration or customs as we had cleared these in Lisbon. Sylvia was there to meet me for our little-under-an-hour drive to the place we will be living, near a little town called Caissargues, just south of Nimes. The house, which is rather large, is about 300 years old, made from stacked stones from the surrounding paddocks. As far is I can establish the stones were sort of laid with a concrete type substance. Later the walls were plastered to give it that solid stone look. The external walls are about 600mm thick and there are some internal columns that are some 500 mm². There’s an old stone step in the kitchen that’s been nearly worn flat over the years. Exposed in some places are some old logs that are obviously holding things up and that have been  riddled with borer over the years. The house is among a small group of buildings that are surrounded by fields and fields of vineyards, this being a large grape growing area. About 96% of the wine that comes from here is made into red; I’m told it’s not exactly up-market. Three friendly white horses also hang out in a bare paddock behind the house.

Saturday 4 September 2021

The first week here has flown by, getting various things organised, joining a gym, signing up for French lessons (poor teacher) etc. and the first weekend had arrived so we decided to head to a little town called Uzes, which Sylvia had discovered a few weeks before. The drive out there takes one through some quite nice country and across some very dry looking rivers.

The town has been around from the early BC days. Situated at the headwaters of the Alzon river in the first century the Romans built an aqueduct to take water to the city of Nimes, some 50 km away. Over the centuries the town has been run by various bishops and on occasions been fortified. It is now famous for its farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings. Fortunately we were there early enough to avoid the crowds and enjoyed some breakfast and having a wander around the town including the old castle, which I’m not sure how how long has been there but apparently is still occupied by some sort of royalty from time to time. It is also nice to see, as with many of these old European towns, how they just made the buildings fit the spaces available.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

We took a drive across to Arles, a city on the Rhone river. The waters of this river start in Switzerland and by the time it gets to this part of France it’s quite a large river and  used to transport cargo from Port Saint Louis du Rhone to the various towns and cities along its banks. There are also many canals for irrigation that run off the river, providing much-needed water to the large agricultural area in this part of France. As we drove down the river towards the mouth most of the paddocks are quite small and look like they use flooding-type irrigation to grow their crops. As we reached the river mouth there are large salt flats that have been there for over 100 years harvesting salt for tables around the world.

This area is also renowned for its birdlife with hundreds of pink flamingos wading the shallow waters, among the many other birds that hang out in this area. Past the salt flats there is a long beach that runs along the coast, popular with hundreds of people picnicking. I reckon tents or umbrellas are essential to keep out of the hot sun.

As we were heading back through the little town of Salin De Griraud,  with it almost barrack-style buildings, we spotted a side road; the map indicated it led to a ferry crossing,

We headed  down the road and soon the  car ferry turned up and we were whisked across the river (a new experience for Sylvia) to Port Saint Louis du Rhone. The town by the river is quite picturesque with a harbour area full of yachts and other pleasure craft, and a number of cafes and restaurants, which by this time of day were all closed. Just to the east of the town is a large container port and industrial area. As we headed north again along the west bank of the river required on trade by a lineup of wind turbines, obviously producing some of the local electricity. The land was pretty somewhere on the west of the river with most of it divided up into small paddocks and we even manage to spot some of the famous-in-this-area wild white horses that run the plains.

Wednesday 8 September 2020

Over the past couple of weeks we have heard machinery moving around the area from around 5am each morning; they knock off at around noon. This is part of the grape harvest. On the corner just west of us there are a number of large yellow bins set up. Little Renault tractors tow hydraulic trailers back to there and tip the grapes into the bins. To date I had mainly seen the harvesters in the distance apart from one by the bins under repair one day. Today I was lucky as they were harvesting the vines near the house so I took a wander down and had a closer look. The tall blue machines straddle the vines and move along quite quickly. There are plastic fingers at the front of the machine which rotate upwards and somehow the grapes are stripped from the stalks leaving the stalks  and the leaves on the vine. From the amount of air blowing out of the machine I have a feeling the grapes are blown into the bins on top of the machine. Every few rows they stop and tip their load into the trailers which transport them back to the yellow bins.

By 1pm that day the harvest was over and the bins were gone.


Pictures from the South Island NZ – November 2020

The sun sets at Glentanner Station, near Mt Cook

Reflections on Lake Pukaki

Once arid land with irrigation now runs thousands of cows just south of Twizel

Ahuriri River running from the Lewis Pass past Omarama

The Clay Cliffs, created out of layers of silt and gravel deposited by glaciers some 20 million years ago

Ahuriri River

Lupins used to be prolific in the area, especially along the roadside, but recently have been sprayed and are now mainly found in the riverbeds.

The Avimore power station on the Waitaki River. Completed in 1968, it provides 30% of the nations power.

Waitaki dam power house. Finished in 1934 it was the first hydro dam in NZ

Waitaki Substation distributes the 105MW of power produced here.

St Albans church,  just down river from Kurow

Lush Pastures created with irrigation from the Waitaki river

Drawings in the limestone caves near Duntroom

Arriving in Oamaru at the end of a weekend festival.

Steve’s friends, Michael and Lee-Ann, run the craftworks brewery in the old town part of Oamaru. This hand-made beer has to be aged in barrels for at least 6 months before drinking.

A local friend of ours, Jodi, came to help us sample the beer.

Around the corner we dined at the Criterion hotel, where the locals were still dressed in their period costumes.

Monday morning around 9am – the town is very quiet on this dull day, the streets dominated by the marvellous Oamaru stone buildings.

At the local cafe we ran in to Pam from New Plymouth, who is nearing the end of her bike ride from the top to the bottom of NZ

The old Teschemakers Girl’s  School near Kakanui, just south of Oamaru

Kakanui Beach

This church at Maheno was built by Colonel Nicholes in the mid 1930s to honour the soldiers who served in the first world war. This place is also where I started school a few years ago!

The Maheno War Memorial, next to the church.

Kuriheka Station Memorial with the large woodshed in the background.

The house we lived in when my father worked here as a shepherd and where my mother cooked for the shearers and musterers

This station is famous for all its Oamaru stone buildings. In the foreground are the stables, with the large homestead In the trees behind. It had its own hydro-station and sawmill when we lived there in the 50’s. It was once open to the public but alas no longer.

Moeraki Boulders, which appear from the banks above the beach eventually getting ground away by the sea and turning into sand.

We enjoyed a great meal of Blue Cod and chips at Moeraki’s Fishwife cafe, recommended to us by Peter and Julie, who we had popped in to see at Kakanui.

Views from the Fishwife Cafe

Arriving in the Catlins

Suart beach

A very pregnant sealion waddled up the sand at Suart beach, heading for the scrub go give birth to her pups.

The Catlins coast with it rugged cliffs and sandy beaches

The Purakaunui Falls, easy to access through beautiful bush, are one of the most photographed falls in NZ

Maclennan. River valley

Thirty odd years ago a man parked his house bus here at Patatowai and spent his days making gadgets and developing an amusement park.

Tautuka Bay – we drove the length this magnificent beach.

Large Eucalyptus forests have been planted throughout Southland and are mainly harvested for wood chip.

Curio Bay when the tide is out shows off fossilised logs which were laid down here in the ash of a large volcanic eruption 170 million years ago while NZ was still part of Gondwana. Since then NZ went under the sea and rose up again. Hectors Dolphins can also be seen in the next bay called Porpoise Bay .

Waipapa Point Lighthouse is another interesting stop. This is a copper skinned building with the gap between the skins partially filled with rocks to stop it blowing away. Built in 1884 ,with a keeper’s cottage nearby, it still operates electronically  with the keep having being retired years ago.

Tiwai Point, a large aluminium smelter which consumes over 10% of the country’s power. Located on a peninsular just north east of Bluff and built in 1974 on the promise of cheap power from the Manapouri dam it is still hanging in there, with constant threats from the owners to close it.

Bluff Port

Looking north from the hill above Bluff. Just southwest of here, a short boat ride away is Stewart Island, a place I have yet to visit.

Invercargill is NZ’s most southern city with a must-see, privately owned transport museum. Bill Richardson collected cars and trucks most of his life and when he died in 2004 he had amassed 170 vehicles, His family continued the collecting and there are now some 300 cars, trucks, tractors and more in the museum.

Further down Tay Street there is a large motorbike collection, recently purchased by the Richardson family to prevent it leaving NZ

In the local hardware store you will also find the “World’s Fastest Indian”

This is the Indian motorbike that Burt Munro made history in by reaching 105.67 MPH across the Bonneville salt flats in 1967.

The picturesque little town of Riverton.

Sheep farming is the main income stream in this part of NZ.

Otahu School that operated from 1913 to 1956

This weir controls the water level of both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau, which link up here, supplying water to the Manapouri underground power station that supplies the power to Tiwai point.

Dawn breaks at Lake Te Anau

Heading north for Milford Sound on highway 94

Eglinton river flats

The Mirror lakes hosting NZ’s smallest duck the scaup

The Hollyford valley

With a high rainfall, large rocks are used to protect the roads around here; every year there are road closures from slips, washouts and avalanches.

The Homer tunnel with its traffic lights to control the one way traffic. its a big job just clearing the avalanches above here in winter.

Mitre Peak at Milford Sound

A large carpark able to cater for 28 large tour buses hosts only one half bus. Now is the time for all Kiwis to get down here and look at this stunning part of the world.

There are 15 tour boats based here. Just now only 3 or 4 are operating a reduced schedule. Many of the aircraft are either tied up on the ground or have been moved elsewhere for storage.

Bowen Falls, the water supply for the generator, is fed from the top of this spectacular waterfall. There is now cellphone coverage in this part of the world.

Trees grow in these cliffs by intertwining their routs to hang on, every now and again one near the top lets go taking all those below with it. They take about 150 years to grow again.

These cliffs plunge vertically straight down into the water, in some places to 500m below the water level.

The fjord is some 12 miles (19k) long and up 2 miles (3k) wide. It is actually a fjord as it was created by a glacier a few million years ago. It was the NZ Navy who mistakingly called it a sound early last century.

Fur seals are a common sight here.

These Fiordland Crested Penguins (an endangered species) return here from the Antarctic each year to breed.

As we leave here we have a good understanding as to why Rudyard Kipling named this place the Eighth Wonder of the world.

As it is the only road in we had to head back to Te Anau before following highway 94 through the stunning farmland of Lowther, Athol, Garston and Kingston to Queenstown.

The entrance to the town of Cromwell, known for its fruit and cherry growing.

Lake Dustan the last of NZ’s hydro dam lakes, settled in a valley between the Pisa range and the Dunstan range, is now a grape growing area.

The Lewis Pass on Highway 8 reveals some more spectacular hills

The mighty Rakaia River on the east side of the Southern Alps.

Large trees grace the old town of Hamner.

The Waiau River running from the Lewis Pass

Marau Springs Hotel on the west side of Lewis Pass

The hops farms of Motueka

Harwoods Hole, 176 meters deep, runs into an underground river, which one can walk out after abseiling down into the hole.

Atop an interesting rock formation near the hole is a great view out to Takaka.

Arriving back at the car from the hole we discovered a group of Kea (a native parrot) ripping apart an inner tube some one had as a bike tie on the back of their car. They are quite cheeky and have been known to tear the rubber from around car windscreens.

The area around Takaka revealed some stunning beaches as well as Steve’s corner.

The Takaka hill road exposed some great views back towards Kaiteriteri.

Sandy Bay Just north of Kaiteriteri.


Split Apple Rock

Havelock, at the head of Pelorus Sound

Pelorus Sound

The port town of Picton where the ferry departs for the North Island

A spitfire, one of the many planes displayed at the aviation museum near the Blenheim Airport. This is well worth a visit.






































A Great Bunch of Folk and the Inaugural High Country Helihike

1 November 2020

It’s been a while since we have been anywhere to write about, having being locked up in NZ since March.

Sylvia headed off to Singapore in early October to spend some time with her team there. I have taken the opportunity to head down and visit our good friends, Ross and Helen, at Glentanner Station, near Mount Cook in the Mackenzie Country in the South Island. Having being born not far from here it is a special place and I believe has the best scenery in the world.

Glentanner Station has been, for many years, running, in conjunction with The Helicopter Line, scenic flights, heliskiing and flying hunters into the hills to sustain the farm and preserve this beautiful place. It also operates a campground with cabins, and tent and caravan sites.

Today is the first of, what I am sure will be many, Heli-walks. Ross has invited me along for the ride as there was a spare seat on the Helo.

We meet the boat people, as they call themselves after taking a trip up the Murray River in Australia a couple of years ago. All from Timaru, they had read about this venture in the local newspaper.

Surrounded by mountains on the edge of the river flats, with blue skies  and clouds around Aoraki Mt Cook, the setting for this little adventure is stunning.

After a safety briefing from Diago, the load master, the first group climbs aboard and the helo lifts off. After watching them land on the hill and a 15-minute wait, the helo is back and we climb aboard, heading east out over the braided Tasman River, which feeds the ground-powdered water from the glaciers into lake Pukaki, giving it its beautiful turquoise blue colour. We head over Mt Cook station towards the Jolly River Valley before turning south and over-looking the vast Tekapo Military Training area with Lake Tekapo in the distance, Heading back west past the top of the lake we circle around and land in the tussock where the first group meets us.

The helo departs and Ross gathers us together and tells us a little about the the land we are standing on. At 1000m above sea level we are on a moraine wall created by a glacier that was here around 14 thousand years ago. Just below us is one of many tarns that exist up here, which is fed by a spring and drains off down into the Glentanner stream below. He also explained that at this altitude english grasses don’t grow and that this area and to the west is not running sheep although hares and thar (a Himalayan mountain goat) do feed around here. When the fence was built up here in the early 1960s they strapped the posts in bundles onto a piper cub and flew them up dropping them into the tarns.

As we strolled south along the track Ross told us a little about the farm and the privilege his family feels being the guardians of  the beautiful land and the efforts they go to to keep it free of wilding pines. His father came here in 1957 as a farm manager and when the lake level was raised in 1974 and some 7000 acres was lost from the farm the opportunity came up to buy the station, which they did. Ross’s father realised pretty quickly that it was going to be very had to survive on just farming and saw an opportunity to develop a tourist business which they have built over the past 45 years.

We crossed a little stream, where Ross said he had sat with a Japanese man and drank whisky added to the pure mountain water. A number of the boat people emptied their water bottles and filled then with this sacred liquid.

Ross explained that the many predator traps we saw along the way are part of an effort to make some 300,000 hectares predator free. This includes some 14 high country stations and crown land and is all being privately funded by some very generous benefactors.

The walk is easy, following a farm track along the mostly flat moraine wall with stunning views of Mount Cook and the surrounding mountains to the north, and with sweeping views to the east across the tussock  plains and to the south over the stunning blue lake Pukaki.

The group, mainly from a farming background, is really keen to hear from Ross how they farm the 6000 Merino sheep. The Station originally some 45,000 acres of pastoral lease land running back into the mountains to the west, recently went through the tenure review process where the high country went back to the crown and the lowland became freehold to Ross and his family, who now has his two sons Mark and George running the farms.

The track starts to head down hill as we look over the farm buildings and the camp ground and tourist hub. There is also a small airport with a runway long enough to land small jets. This was built in the 80s by an airline that no longer exists and is now part of Glentanner.

After enjoying great views of the steep hills up and on the south side of the twin streams we reached a couple of huts built by the government in the 1960’s. We stopped and had a cup of tea and some very nice cake baked by Helen. Ross explained how the huts had been built to research the grasses and flora in the area. There is another hut up at about 1500m that was also used for this purpose –  we caught a glimpse of the roof as we walked by. Over the years I have stayed in both these huts while hunting thar in the surrounding hills.

The next leg was all gently down hill back to the tourist centre. As we crossed over a sty Ross pointed out a large rock where he is going to resurrect a plaque to George Thompson, who was the second owner of the station and disappeared when crossing the lake in a whaling boat in 1885. The plaque was originally erected by the lake and removed before the lake was raised for the first time in 1950. It disappeared for many years and was recently returned to the station. Ross has had it restored.

Arriving back at the tourist centre after a comfortable four hour stroll the captain of the boat people thanked Ross for his excellent guidance along the way. It had indeed been an excellent afternoon out taking in some interesting history while enjoying some of the worlds best scenery.



Berlin: Track Cycling World Champs February 2020

Monday 24 February 2020

Boarding the Lufthansa flight at Tokyo Haneda Airport I was surprised to see the the number of empty seats. Two thirds of business class was empty and over half of economy class. Obviously the coronavirus is having a big effect.

At Frankfurt they only had 2 customs officers on with a queue winding its way back through the terminal well over a 100 meters. I was lucky to arrive as the queue was starting to form but still only just made the flight to Berlin.

The trip from Tegel Airport took nearly an hour in the heavy evening traffic. After checking into the Upstalsboom Hotel and dumping my kit I headed over to the Vienna House Abels Hotel, a large hotel and conference centre across the road from the velodrome and a large swimming complex, where most of the track cyclists participating in the World champs are staying. Kirstie and I enjoyed dinner together and had a great catch up. Kirstie had been in town since Friday and explained hew easy the tram system was to use. “Dad you just get the tram across the road west to the next intersection then get off and get on the tram on the line heading south. Following the instructions and having only glanced at the google map she showed me I got on the south facing tram and the bloody thing instead of going straight ahead turned east and took me back to where I started. So I payed for an Uber instead.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Kirstie had said I should be able to watch them train at 1000 so I took a stroll to the Velodrome. Luckily Kirstie had warned me they were underground. Basically a big flat paddock with one rectangular and one round concrete structure at ground level, which housed the velodrome and a swimming complex underneath. I headed to the first set of lifts, which brought me out by the swimming complex that seams to have several pools in it. To the north on the underground road was the entrance to the Velodrome, which was all closed up.

I went down to the next level where a door was open so I wandered in. A short distance down the corridor I was confronted by a number of security people who called the English speaker over as I tried to explain why I was there. He made it very clear there was no way I was going in. He probably sleeps with a copy of Mein Kampf under his pillow. Making a careful withdrawal I headed back up to the ground. Then thinking I have to give this another try I headed back down to the public entry. This time a door was unlocked with security people everywhere. I tried to explain again why I wanted in so they got a part English-speaking lady who then took me to a good English speaking lady called Sarah from Finland, who is studying in Berlin and working as a volunteer at the champs. She told the security people that she would accompany and sit with me as I watched. Problem solved. As we walked into the stadium she asked me who my daughter was. When I told her she lit up with “Kirstie is a friend of mine. I have stayed at your house in NZ.” Sarah, a former track cyclist, who rode for both Mexico and Finland, trained at the Velodrome in Cambridge NZ for a while.

After watching the training I headed by tram to the NZ embassy to get some documents witnessed. A very helpful lady called Frances sorted it all out, asking me what had brought me to Berlin. I explained about the cycling and while she was sorting the docs the Ambassador, Rupert, popped in for a yarn, saying the team manager had invited him to come out to say hi to the team but he was a bit tied up as our Minister of Justice was in town.

I wondered around town, through the Brandenburg Gates and past them to the Bunker, which was closed.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

I headed over to the the Allied Museum, which is in the what was the American area. This covers mainly information about the blockade of Berlin from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949. The blockade was brought about by the Soviets to force France, Britain and the US out of West Berlin. Bearing in mind Berlin was some 170kms inside Soviet East German territory.

In March 1948 the Allied powers decided to unite the different occupation zones of Germany into a single economic unit. In protest, the Soviet representative withdrew from the Allied Control Council. This coincided with the introduction of a new Deutsche Mark in West Berlin (as throughout West Germany), which the Soviets regarded as a violation of agreements with the Allies. The Soviet occupation forces in Eastern Germany began a blockade of all rail, road, and canal. Only the air corridors remained open.

Over 230 thousand flights flew millions of tons of supplies into West Berlin keeping the city going until the embargo was lifted. The museum contains lots of information on the airlift as well as information on the life of the Americans from the war up until reunification. There is a section of the tunnel the allies build under the wall in the 60’s, from which they tapped into the Soviet communication system. Only problem was that Philby, one of the Cambridge five was still in M16 hence the Soviets knew all about it.

The original Checkpoint Charlie is also located there along with one of the planes used in the air lift.

Light damp snow fell as I walked back to the station. I headed to the Velodrome at 1pm for the start of the racing. The NZ team pursuit team put up the fourth fastest time with Kirstie leading them out. I managed to get some good pictures of the racers in spite of having being told by the security staff my camera was too big and I had to hand it in at the nearby counter, which I forgot to do.

After the first session was over I joined some of the other parents in the hotel restaurant for a meal and a few drinks.

In the evening I went anI watched some more racing taking a few more pictures of the kiwis as Kirstie had said they don’t have a photographer and in spite of the many professional photographers at these events they never seem to get access to the pictures.

Thursday 27 February 2020

I was staying in what was East Berlin. 65% of Berlin had been destroyed during WWII so much of the city is relatively new built by the soviets with ,wide streets and many of the buildings made to a similar style. The public transport system here is fantastic with trams linking to the several different rail systems around the city.

I spent a good part of the day strolling the streets and looking around. Just like in many cities old factories are being turned into residential apartment buildings.

In the evening I headed back to the track to watch the the next round of the team pursuit. As there are five in the team and only four race Kirstie did not get to race this one. They raced the US team, who had come first in the eliminations, but their race did not go to plan so they missed out on a medal race. Last year they were placed third.

After the racing I headed into the city centre to a bar. I was enjoying a glass of wine and editing some photos on my phone when my battery went flat. Now back home this would not be a problem just ask one of the bar staff to borrow a charger. But not here, no one has such a thing for an i-Phone. It was pissing down with rain and all the info on the hotel was in my phone. Being a bit dyslexic I could not even pronounce the hotel, let alone spell it. I probably could have found my way there eventually but was going to get soaked in the process. I wandered into a couple of shops but still no i-Phone charger. Then I headed into Dussmann’s book store where a friendly sales guy took a charger off the shelf and took me to a power point. Problem solved.

Friday 28 February 2020

A couple of train rides took me to the old Tempelhof Airport. This site has a history going back to the Knights of the Temple, who occupied it around 800AD. After that it was mainly a military type area until the 1920’s when it first became used for aviation with the Hindenburg airships being launched from there with hundreds of thousands of spectators turning up, as they did when Orvil Wright did his 1.5 hour first passenger flight.

In 1933 Hitler decided he wanted to build a major airport there. In 1935 architect Ernest Sagebeil was given the design task. The 300,000 square meter building was built the following year. With dozens of stairways at the back it was designed to accommodate 100,000 people on the roof for the important people to sit while millions paraded on the grounds below. The whole thing  was built in a year (at the time the largest building in the world) but never quite finished as the money ran out and the 100,000 people never got to sit on the roof. It did however work as an airport, the first to have its own baggage handling and freight area. Planes could pull in under the large apron and park beside the steps to the terminal. As the Germans were the Aryan race they didn’t need lifts, but they did put a couple of special ones in for Hitler.

I found an English-speaking tour was on at 1.30 and joined in. As luck would have it we struck probably the best tour guide ever. She knew everything about the place, was easy to understand and very accomodating. We first headed out onto the apron where she pointed out the hangar that had been used recently to accomodate refugees along with several hundred containers that were also part of their accommodation. The large radar station could apparently “see” several hundred miles into the Soviet east during the cold war. The Soviets captured the airport at the end of the war and during the battle many of the building were damaged by fire. During the war the airfield had been bombed by the allies to an unusable state but the buildings had only been only hit twice.

This was the main airport used to fly in relief during the embargo. When it started they could unload a plane in 30 minutes; by the end it was 3 minutes. We headed inside to the arrival and departure hall, which is rather grand with its tall ceiling and large columns making those entering feel small. Then it was up to the dining room, which looked out over the airfield and catered for 2,500 people. In its day this airport was catering for 5 million passengers a year. In the long term it was designed to take 80 million, however planes got bigger and would no longer fit under the aprons so eventually it was closed.  It is now a historical place and  various parts are rented out. We moved into the grand entrance hall behind the arrivals hall with more large columns, marble floors with underfloor heating (which is throughout most of the building and still works) then we went up a level to another large hall. In this part the limestone cladding had been stripped off to repair other parts of the building. Yes, the building from the outside and in looks like it was built of stone, but like in Rome it’s concrete with stone cladding.

At one stage we went into one of 300 bunkers, which were designed in case of air-raids, which they thought based on WWI experience would only last 30 minutes. Kids’ drawings were on the wall to keep people amused as filtered air was piped in the room. In WWII a partition and buckets were added as the raids often went all night.

Back up lots more stairs we went to a sports room where the US used to bring in locals for basketball competitions. interestingly the CIA blue-room was right next door to this.

Finally we headed down more stairs into the basement where the been film archive bunkers were situated. One of these had caught fire and none of the archives were ever recovered. Parts of the building are still used as a police headquarters. Many movies have been made here including the Hunger Games.

At the front of the complex is the head if the large eagle that once stood atop the entrance. There is also a statue to celebrate the embargo relief flights. I have only scratched the surface of what is here. If you are ever in Berlin this place is well worth a look.

With this radar the US could see some 400 kms into Soviet airspace .

The container village that up until recently housed refugees is being removed.






Saturday 28 February 2020.

Racing started at 11am so I headed to the track to watch and take more photos. Later in the session the women’s Individual Pursuit took place with Kirstie and two of her team mates taking part. This is not a race they train for as it is not an Olympic event. Last year Kirstie came fourth in this event; this year she did not do so well, not getting past the eliminations and placing 12th. Her two team mates did a little better but did not make it into the next round. Kirstie has written a really good piece about the race and her experience on facebook.

This year after qualifying well, we ended up 6th in the TP after making some execution errors. In the IP I knew I had to…

Posted by Kirstie James on Wednesday, 4 March 2020

In the evening i went back to watch  more racing and particularly the Women’s Madison final, a 30 km race which is raced in pairs with riders slinging each other forward as they change out and come back into the race. At one stage a rider rode between the two as they were holding hands for the changeover causing a dramatic crash. One would think “how did that happen -why didn’t she brake or slow down?” These bikes have no brakes and do not free-wheel so it is very difficult to slow down, let alone stop.

After the racing Kirstie and her team mates, along with a few others whose races had finished racing for the week met in the top floor bar for a few drinks.

Sunday 1 March 2020

I headed to the Brandenburg Gate to join a walking tour of central Berlin. Our guide, John, an Irishman with a good sense of humour and plenty of knowledge, took us for a stroll around the centre of Berlin, giving us a rundown of Berlin during and after the war and into the Soviet era.

We started by the Brandenburg Gate, adjacent to the US embassy, near the famous Hotel Adlon, where Micheal Jackson did his famous ‘hold the baby out over the balcony’ trick. The hotel looks old but was only built this century  and is apparently 13k euros a night for the penthouse.

Interestingly when the Russians finally captured the centre of Berlin they concentrated on the Reichstag building, almost completely destroying it, not realising that Hitler had never used it. A photo if the Russian soldiers holding a flag up on the building caused Stalin some grief as one of the soldiers was wearing two watches.

The whole area around the centre of Berlin apart from the gate was pretty much flattened. There was not a tree left standing as the people had cut every one down for firewood. The Russians buried 2,000 soldiers not far from the gate in an area that became West Berlin so each day during the Soviet era a ceremonial guard was marched into the west to to stand guard on the memorial that also had supposedly the first two Russian tanks to enter Berlin and the first two artillery guns to engage the city.

Next stop was the star representing the famous spot where President Regan gave his ‘take down the wall’ speech. The actual spot was in the middle of the road but the plaque is on the footpath. Next was the 25 million euro Holocaust memorial consisting of 2,200 concrete rectangular cubes which people have all sorts of different interpretations of.

Then we came to the spot where Hilter had his bunker and headquarters. The above ground building was 400m long and built of stone. The soviets demolished it stone by stone and sent the stone to Russia to build war monuments and memorials.  Apartments now cover the area. The famous Hitler bunker was pretty much unknown to the public and completely destroyed and buried until the internet came along – then people started turning up at people’s apartments and asking if Hitler lived there so a sign is now in place indicating where the bunker was.  John told us the story of how Hitler got married to Eva Braun one day then she bit on a cyanide pill and he shot himself. Their bodies were wrapped in a rug, brought to the surface, doused in diesel and set on fire. The Soviets managed to track down Hitler’s dentist and get hold of his x-rays to properly identify the body.

Bunker was under the tree                                

The bodies were placed roughly where the parking sign is.

Around the corner we came to the only Nazi building left standing in the city, formerly the air ministry it now houses the finance department. With some two thousand rooms and seven kilometres of corridors it is impressive.

Around the corner from here is a section of the wall still standing. Now what a lot of people don’t know about the wall is it was originally put up as a fence overnight. Prior to that people could cross from the east to the west and get money and housing as an incentive to stay. Stalin got a bit miffed that all these people wanted to leave the Soviet ruled area so on the night of the 12-13 August the Soviet soldiers laid down 30 miles of barbed wire through the centre of Berlin. Easterners were not allowed to cross to the west and the number of check points for Westerners to cross to the east was reduced. Even now Russia is harder to get out of, than it is to get into. On the 15 August they began replacing the barbed wire with concrete to protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of the decadent capitalist culture of the west.

You will see in the photo below the pipe on top of the wall to make it hard to get a grip when trying to climb over. The pipes were given to the east by the west to help them improve their infrastructure.

Just down street there were a bunch of cars that looked like Ladas but were in fact the famous Trabant, manufactured from 1957 to 1990 in east Berlin. With a composite body, an east-west engine, no speedo, indicators or fuel gauge, and made to order. they were apparently quite popular.

You can now hire them and go on a Trabant convoy drive around Berlin. According to John you normally end up getting towed for part of the journey.

Marlyn, originally from Quebec and now living in Germany, was the only other person on the tour on their own so we had a good chat along the way.

The famous Checkpoint Charlie, was the third checkpoint: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie – not the name of some US soldier as apparently a lot of US visitors think. This is not the original building.

After a coffee at the Charlie cafe I headed back to the track and sat with Kirstie and some of her team mates to watch some more racing. One of which was the mens final 50 km Madison, in which the two Kiwi competitors won the silver medal.

All too soon it was time to head to the airport for the long journey back to NZ.

Japan: Niigata, Mt Fuji and the Imperial Palace, Feb 2020

February 2020

The year has had a busy start as I joined Sylvia for a few days in London mid-January, after which we flew to Las Vegas where our good friends, Dave and Chrissie, got married at the Gracelands Chapel. Yes, they even dug up Elvis for the occasion.

This was followed by a week at the shot show. Sylvia headed to Disneyland, joining her sister, Deb, for a few days of fun. Since then Sylvia has been Singapore, France, NZ, Singapore, while I have been back in NZ, and now here we are in Japan for a week. I flew to Singapore on Friday from NZ for the weekend.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

We strolled to the Shinagawa Station this morning, catching a local train from there to Tokyo Station where we jumped on the bullet train to Niigata. Even the way the trains join together here is neat and tidy, not to mention the red coats that line up on the platform to clean the train, and then bow before the passengers are allowed on.

Heading northwest Tokyo seems to go on forever with its mix of housing and tall buildings all jumbled together. The train line is elevated so one gets a good view across the city.

I had an aisle seat in first class. Sylvia and her were team down the back somewhere. I spotted an empty window seat and took it until the conductor came along and gave me a lesson in sign language that I need to get back to my own seat. I obeyed. Soon after my phone rang, which I answered, only to have the conductor reappear and usher me out of the carriage into the corridor between carriages, the only place one can use a phone.

Having got a grip on train etiquette, I stood in the corridor watching the cities roll by. Gradually the odd bit of countryside appeared briefly between cities. Eventually we headed into a very long tunnel and after 22km we broke out into snow country and the city of Yuzawa.

As we pulled out of the station sprinklers sprayed, I presume, warm water onto the track, I presume, to melt the snow and ice. We were soon underground again. Emerging again we headed through some farmland and more towns before arriving at Niigata.

The Royal Canin team headed off by van to visit stores. I headed north on foot for a few blocks, hunting out a famous Sake Brewery. During the stroll I came across a couple of roadwork sites. I am always intrigued how they keep these sites so clean and tidy here in Japan. I think the secret lies in the witches-type brooms they use and the constant cleaning of the site as they work.

Arriving at the brewery I found the English tour was at 2pm so I took a stroll down to the convention centre near the coast. Not far from the brewery is, I presume, a temple with nice grounds and statues.

The building next door has an observation deck (it’s free) on the 31st floor with great views over the city and the Sea of Japan. The mountains to the east were clagged in but the local views over the ferry terminal and industrial buildings give one a great appreciation of just how tidy things are in Japan.

I strolled back to the brewery and joined the 2pm tour. The lady took us through how Sake is made. Starting with polished rice, which is ground down. The better the quality of the Sake the more it is ground, hence taking more rice to make the better brew. It’s fermented in steel tanks. It used to be done in wooden vessels and now here they have gone back to that for the top end stuff.

After fermentation it is pumped as a slurry to a press which removes the liquid. The waste, which is like a block of plastic, is used in the manufacture of skin creams and lotions, the making of miso soup, and some for animal feed.

Back in the seventies in Japan they had sake vending machines around cities, one of which still survives but not in working order.

After the tour we headed back into the shop area and paid 1000 locals to taste all the different brews on sale. I got chatting to three young men from Austria, one of whom is studying international law in Japan, the other two visiting him. By the time we had tasted some 20 different brews we couldn’t really tell the difference.

Just after 5 I rejoined Sylvia and the team at Izakaya Restaurant where we enjoyed a rather delicious meal of mainly raw fish plus puffer fish (fugu) and steak, which we cooked ourselves on a small heated stone. All too soon we were back on the train speeding back to Tokyo.

Wednesday 19 February 2020 

A taxi across town to Shinjuku, the meeting place for the bus tour south to the Mt Fuji area. Mt Fuji is closed at this time of year. We headed south, soon catching our first glance of the 3300m+ volcano.

We are lucky with the weather as the previous 3 or 4 times I have been to Tokyo the mountain has always been clagged in. Leaving the city we head into hilly countryside which is a little bleak at this time of year with most of the trees having lost their leaves. Each large valley we pass through seems to host a city.

Arriving at Lake Fujikawaguchiko we park up at a viewing spot by the lake. We have clear views of Fuji across the lake. This is quite a tourist spot with special viewing cabins facing the mountain set in the nearby hills.

Next stop is the Alakula Sengen, a pagoda situated some 400 steps up a hillside facing toward Mt Fuji, which had sadly disappeared behind the clouds.

Back on the bus we then headed to Oshino Hakkai, a small tourist village which has a spring that the waters from the mountain gush from. The 8 m deep pool harbours some brightly coloured fish. Lots of stalls sell sticky rice balls and other delicacies. Chestnuts are cooked in a pressure cooker.

Apparently, or so they claim, there are no rivers on Fuji and all the snow melt and rain seeps down through the lava popping up in springs around the area. The water has special properties allowing people to live longer. There are lots of sculpted trees here. The Japanese can even make a pine tree look good.

Next stop, which I missed when I booked the trip, was the Gotemba Premium Outlets. Yes a bloody shopping centre! You could just see the top of Fuji poking through the clouds. I found a restaurant and enjoyed a pizza and a glass of wine. Disappointingly this was the longest stop and from the number of buses in the car park there is obviously some dodgy deal being done between the tour companies and the shopping centre.

Thursday 20 February 2020

A stroll through the stunning hotel grounds took me down to the Shingawa Station.

Apparently the land where the four Prince hotels are located once belonged to the emperor’s family but was sold to pay off some of his tax debt after World War II. Every time we stay here i am impressed by the beauty, tranquility and peacefulness of the grounds.

A few stops up the line took me to Tokyo station and a short walk to the magnificent grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crossing a bridge over the first moat one enters a large area covered in sculpted pine trees.

I headed across the grounds and up a small hill to a bridge over yet another moat, with its high stone walls on the inner side, to where google maps said the entrance was. This entrance, guarded by a couple of soldiers, was closed so I headed back down, following the moat around to the west and through a large gate heading north. The grounds on each side of the moat are well kept with every tree and bush trimmed and shaped.

Near the end of the moat I asked a policeman where the public entrance was. He pointed it out on my map about 2kms back to the east where I had sort of come from. Strolling back across the grounds I eventually came to the public entrance where a very helpful chap gave me an entry form and said come back in an hour for the tour. I found a local cafe and enjoyed some lunch while waiting.

At 1.20 i arrived back at the gate to be led into a large room where several hundred people were gathered waiting for the tour of the palace grounds. We were split into groups by language. The guides all have a squawk box attached to their waist and a microphone to their face. Most of the palace has been rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1945. The emperor recently abdicated and handed over to his son. Apparently the legacy of this leadership goes back over 2000 years.

There are lots of buildings in the grounds, which cover over one million square meters of central Tokyo. First stop is the Fujimi-yagura building constructed in 1659 on top of a 15 m high rampart. With all four sides identical and no visible doors it was a little hard to capture. The overhanging bits had holes in them from which rocks could be dropped through on anyone silly enough to try to climb up the wall.

Next was the Imperial Household Agency. Constructed in 1935 the third floor was used as the palace after WWII until the current palace was constructed.

We passed Hasukae-bora moat where in summer lotus flowers blossom.

At the top of a small hill is the Chowaden Hall, which is a large reception area and part of the palace. Completed in 1968 it is adjacent to a large courtyard, with a 100-plus car garage underneath it, that is used for the emperor to address the people on his birthday. A copper statue at the east end represents a pine tree with its evergreen strength.

The people in the green jackets in the photo above come from all over Japan to attend to the royal gardens behind the palace wall. They pay their own costs for their 3-day stay and on the last day get to meet the emperor.

We headed to the  gate and from across the  bridge looked back towards the building on the hill that was brought from Kyoto (the former capital) some years ago.

The emperor’s residence was pointed out, situated behind another wall next to the Palace.

After a few more stops and explanations from the guide as we wandered down the hill and she explained how the emperor and his wife go out to the fields and help in the gardens and with the cultivation of silk worms.

The tour over we handed back our badges as we left the grounds. As I headed back to Tokyo station I looked back to see another white house on the edge of the moat, its purpose of which I am not sure.

Friday 21 February 2020 : Okinawa

After a relaxing catch up on a bit of work during the morning at the hotel we headed to the airport. Interestingly the ANA lounge has only packets of rice snacks in the way of food but a good supply of whisky and beer. We arrived at Naha airport in Okinawa about 5pm and headed on the bus to the rental car pick up only to be informed that we couldn’t get a car as we didn’t have an international drivers licence. Must say I haven’t been asked for one of those for 20 years. We got the bus back to the terminal, then a cab to the Hilton Doubletree at Chatan, about 30kms and an hour’s drive up the coast. Here we struck the most helpful staff we have ever experienced.  We found we could apply online for an international drivers licence, the staff offered to print it off for us. Car booked for the next day we headed to a bar for a quick drink.

Saturday 22 February 2020 : Okinawa

Prior to breakfast we checked at the desk and the staff said they would get the rental car brought to us. A few minutes later they were back with the bad news. The printed copy of our downloaded online licence was no good. This is Japan and everything must be done properly. No rental car, we organised a driver for the day. Our first destination was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at the end of a peninsular about 30kms up the coast. That 30 kms took well over an hour and a half. Nothing moves in a hurry around here. On the way we passed the large Kadena US Airforce base and a large marine base. There are still some 25,000 US servicemen based in Okinawa on land that was confiscated after WWII.

Sylvia had particularly wanted to visit the aquarium as it has whale sharks on display. We weren’t disappointed as after heading down a few passageways with lots of different marine life we came to a large auditorium facing a huge fish tank containing a large variety of fish including stingrays, manta rays and tuna to mention a few. Cruising around amongst them were two massive whale sharks. We watched them for some time then headed into a tunnel to watch from below. It was then that the feeding started. Krill, or some similar food, was tossed into the water above. One of the sharks floated almost vertically sucking large amounts of water into its mouth like a giant vacuum cleaner, filtering the food out as it forced the water out its gills. It was really interesting to watch.

Apologies for the poor quality photos. I haven’t quite worked out how to get good pictures through fish tank glass.

Outside, the grounds were well set up with a large shark at the entrance and many bushes shaped as varieties of marine life.

We had planned to head up to the top of the island but as the trip had been so slow we headed southwest to the Okinawa Gojuryu Kenshi-kai Museum. The coast is pretty rugged in most places with the odd sandy beach outside large resorts. Along the way we began to realise that most of the buildings on the island are solid concrete, some looking like bunkers or fortresses. This is perhaps not surprising bearing in mind that the island was pretty much leveled by the huge naval bombardment that took place between April and May in 1945. 2.7 million explosive devices were used by the US 500,000 strong force prior to and during the invasion. 1.1 Million of these never exploded and had to be taken care of after the war. Over 200,000 people died during the invasion, most of those civilians. The Japanese put up such heavy resistance here to delay the inevitable attack on the mainland. It may be a good thing that the two atomic bombs brought the war to a close as the invasion of the Japanese would have taken many more lives and caused much more destruction.

An hour or so later we arrived at the Karate Museum. The driver looked at it and said “closed,” He wanted to drive on but I asked to get out and have a look. A phone call and Dr Tetsuhiro Hokama, a 10th degree black belt and master of the Gojuryu style, came to the door and welcomed us in. He pointed out that he has people from 40 countries come and train with him and he often visits many countries to give seminars and coaching to people. At 75 years old and having dedicated most of his life to learning and teaching karate he was very hospitable and keen for us to see his museum upstairs on the second floor. He lives on the third floor and has done for the past 30 years. The museum is a collection of memorabilia he has gathered over the years with lots of old newspaper and magazine articles about him and other karate masters from Okinawa and other parts of the world. Karate was developed in Okinawa over hundreds of year, evolving from kung-fu and other martial arts arriving from China. It was not until the 1920’s that some Okinawan masters took karate to Japan. Although Japan had jujutsu, from which judo was developed in the mid 1800’s, karate as such was new to Japan.  We had a good chat to Dr Hokama, who also has a Phd in calligraphy. He was keen to answer any questions and in the short time we spent with him it was obvious he was very dedicated to both karate and calligraphy.

Next we headed further southwest to Peace Park. Situated on the coast this is a large memorial to those that died during the war and houses hundreds of plaques containing all the names of those that lost their lives during those bloody times. The museum outlines the atrocities committed, often by Japanese soldiers, on the civilian population, many of whom committed suicide at the end of the battle as they had been told by the soldiers what bad things the US soldiers would do to them if they were captured.

We had planned a fourth stop but the day was over so we headed back to the hotel and took a stroll around the local “American Village” as its known. Most of the people on the streets were US service people heading in and out of the many bars, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a drink at a local cigar bar and a stroll through the streets.

Sunday 23 February 2020

We again arranged a driver to take us to the Japanese Naval Tunnels and then on to the airport. After another short trip that seemed to take forever, we arrived at the old naval tunnels. Situated on top of a small hill with good views over the city some 450m of tunnels were dug by hand by the local civilian population with picks, shovels, crowbars and other hand instruments. They worked tirelessly 24 hours a day until the job was done.

At the top of the hill there is a monument and a small museum, which then leads into the tunnels. This is where Rear admiral Ota made his last stand. During his final hours he sent a last telegram to Tokyo praising the people of Okinawa for the fight they had put up and the concern he had for their future. He then committed suicide in the tunnels. It took several days for the US forces to clear the tunnels as the Japanese fought to the end and when they ran out of ammunition used spikes to fight with. The tunnels are well preserved and well lit with lots of little caverns that housed such things as generators, medical facilities and more. One such cavern still has the shrapnel marks from a grenade explosion. The exit from the tunnels bring one out near the car-park with a good view to the south of the city.

As we had driven around the city we had seen statues of lions on many buildings. It turns out that the lion is the symbol of Okinawa.

We took our flight back to Tokyo, from where Sylvia was heading back to Singapore and I was staying the night, fortunately at the airport hotel. I said goodbye to Sylvia at the International terminal and got on the airport bus to go to the hotel at terminal 2. Not far into the journey I got a call from Sylvia to say she had my passport and I hers. By that stage she was through security and had to convince the guy to let her go back. I did the full circuit on the bus and we swapped passports and all was okay!

A better Life For Cats and Dogs. Busan Korea Nov 2019

Tuesday 26 November 2019

A bus picked us up from the Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul and drove us the 6kms to the Suseo station. There are two high speed train operators in Korea, which I had discovered on a previous visit when I turned up at the wrong station. This time its all organised by the staff at Royal Canin, eliminating any Roger mistakes.

I have been invited along on a field visit by Stan and his Korean Royal Canin team. This is a big chance to see just what Sylvia does in her life as the Asia Pacific boss. Bang on time the train begins its journey south. Out come laptops as the entourage of 12 put their heads to work for the 2 plus hours to Busan. I spark up the speed app on my phone to see how fast we are going but as with most apps of this type they only work a few times then want money! It’s really hot in the train and looking around over half the passengers are asleep.

Arriving at the main station in Busan a bus branded “VIP Royal Canin” picks us up for a short journey to a traditional restaurant where we enjoyed a great lunch of don katsu (pork cutlets) along with some other very tasty dishes including kimchee. After lunch we headed over to Our worst Veterinary clinic. This place is impressive with play areas for the pets to come if they are feeling stressed out, full medical and post op areas for both pets and owners. It was the first vet clinic in Korea to be awarded cat friendly status. The team look around as i tag along in the background taking the odd photo and trying not to get in the way. The retail area is well-stocked with Royal Canin products. A very dominant, “don’t touch me” cat commands the counter.

Back on the bus, a short journey across town takes us to a dog and cat selling business. We are greeted by a number of cute, free-ranging dogs that seemed to have the run of the place. Sylvia is presented a nice bunch of flowers prior to the tour of the premises with lots of rooms and an array of dogs and cats I had never seen before.  This business sells about 200 puppies and kittens per month and rehomes another 70 or so rescued animals. One fluffy cat is undergoing a blow dry and grooming on a table in a room full of sleeping dogs. The staff here, as in the last place, are very friendly and pleased to welcome the team from Royal Canin.

Across town a little further and we entered another Animal Medical centre. Now if you have a broken dog or cat this has to be the place to bring it. This time we are welcomed by a dominant dog behind the counter just checking us out with a loud bark to make sure we were not a threat to any of the animal patients. This place is really well equiped with an operating theatre that looked like something from the latest ER show, a large cat scanner (yes it does dogs to) and in the room next to that a new MRI machine. Apparently it is quite unusual for an animal medical centre to have such state of the art equipment, especially in a small city like this. With a recovery and post op area this place takes good care of any sick or broken pets.


The visiting over for the day we headed to the Paradise hotel. Surrounded by armed police, with bag scanners in the foyer and several military ships anchored offshore one could have been led to believe they take these Sylvia visits quite seriously. Fortunately that is not the case – it just happens that there is an ASEAN conference on in town.

After checking in we were back on the bus and down to the local marina, where we embarked onto a 45′ launch for a tour of the harbour. Because of the ASEAN conference we were a bit restricted as to where we could go. The skipper took us under the double deck motorway on high piles with a suspension bridge spanning the main ship entrance to the middle of the harbour. There we enjoyed a chat and a few refreshments as the sun went down and the city lit up with is vast array of night lights.  The crew man strapped a bunch of fireworks together, stood on the bow and fired them off before we headed back to shore.

Next stop was a Korean BBQ restaurant (some of my favourite food). Here we gathered around a couple of low tables, sitting on the floor. The waiter brought out a tray with many dishes on it including salad, kimchee and various pickles. I thought we must be sharing this until one was placed in front of each of us. Next arrived four buckets of burning charcoal which were placed in the holes in the table. Raw beef ribs arrived and were cooked on the top of the charcoal holder. After we had gorged on beef there were noodles and then a Korean style soup. We had a great time chatting and laughing while Sylvia, Dan and I quizzed the locals on how they could possibly eat so much, especially as they are all so slim. They then went on to say that after this they were going out for fried chicken and beer. After dinner we all strolled back to the hotel. Sylvia and i headed up to our room while the local team headed off for the aforementioned fried chicken and beer!!

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Back on the bus we headed northeast to Deokseon to visit the local RC distributer. They occupy a medium-sized warehouse and have a number of small trucks to distribute the cat and dog products to the shops, vets and breeders in the Busan area. Here too they had a cute dog that had the run of the place in its RC logo clothing.

Jonathon, Elyse, Chris, Kyle

Heading back towards the city we stopped at A pet shop where the team examined this well-presented and well-stocked pet shop. It was here I had an interesting conversation with Dan (Regional Sales and Marketing) and Sylvia about marketing of products. I asked the question “is there a large english-speaking population in this part of Korea?” as many of the products had english writing on the front of the packaging. Here in Korea the regulations state that a local manufacturer must label the front of the product in Korean. Dan explained that here even though most people don’t read english they believe that if it has english writing on the packaging then it is of a higher quality so some Korean manufactures are flouting the rules and labelling mostly in english with the instructions etc in Korean on the back or side of the packets.  Dan then went on to explain how now in western markets people are looking for packaging with asian writing on them as they think it’s more natural especially with what is brown packaging with the recycle sign on it. Sylvia then went on to point out “just because it has the recycle mark on it doesn’t mean everyone can recycle the packaging as some so called recyclable material needs special plant to process it, which most places don’t have. This is a major challenge that many manufacturers, including Royal Canin are working to address.

RC has a policy of making sure they get it right not only regarding the precise nutrition for the pets but also to ensure that they meet all the rules and regulations in each market.

Kiho (Vet pillar head) and Jihee (Korean CFO) check out the big dog  .

Rock, the local sales guy

Alfred, the  regional legal brain, and Stan, the Korean GM check out the product

DH (Distributor Manager), Dan (Regional Sales and Marketing Director), Sylvia, and Joyce (Specialty Pet Pillar Manager)

Next stop was the Headong Yonggung Temple, where despite the fried chicken and beer last night the woman all raced to the local stalls to grab some of the local delicacies as we made our way past the stalls and the statues of the Zodiac to the temple, which is situated on the hill above the sea, making for a pretty stunning location. Interestingly here there is a place where you can buy a little statue which has a wish on it and place it on the rocks. Joy pointed out that most of the wishes were for a good education.

We visited a lovely Italian restaurant our final stop before heading back to the train station. Here the bus driver deserves a mention; not only had she guided the bus through the many narrow streets with great skill but at the restaurant we headed down a narrow lane for several hundred meters the wrong way and she was not even slightly fazed as she backed the bus all the way back, casually glancing from mirror to mirror.

A big thanks to Stan and the Korean team for inviting me along for what was a very enjoyable experience.







“He who ran away” – my conversation with a North Korean Defector: Nov 2019

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Having arrived late yesterday from Singapore and caught up with Matt, from Australia, in the bar briefly we had had an early night. Sylvia and her Asia Pacific Leadership team were all here for a meeting.

Sylvia and the team headed into their meeting this morning while I did a few hours work before going for a stroll around the hill in front of the Hyatt hotel. It had rained here on Sunday and washed the smog out of the sky leaving clear blue skies and a crisp day. The air is dry so the 2 degrees C feels a lot warmer. It is autumn here and the trees are losing their leaves with the forest on the hill showing off the bright fall colours. Not far from the hotel i got onto a track leading around the east side of the hill. Along the track at intervals are small covered and uncovered gyms with weight and exercise machines.

The track eventually leads up the centre of the ridge to the Seoul Tower. Purchasing a ticket i headed up to the observation deck along the way to the lift going through what looks like a large disco room with lots of changing light patterns. The day is still clear with minimal haze. A sign tells me there is a revolving restaurant above the observation deck. A chat with the person on the desk and its back in the lift and up to the restaurant. This is indeed a great place to observe the sights of the city from and gives one a good idea how they have managed to cram over 25 million people into the greater Seoul area. Interestingly the towering apartment blocks run out through the many valleys of the surrounding hills. As the restaurant did its complete revolution I enjoyed some really great food. Running down the ridge back towards the hotel is the Hanyangdoseong, the Seoul City Wall. this is the longest serving wall in history. It served as a defensive wall for the city from 1396 to 1910, 514 years; apparently no other wall has ever done that. I am sure that it has been rebuilt a few times over the years as what we see now looks recently restored.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

At around 8am Scott, from the DMZ tour company, picked me up at the hotel. Originally i had booked a trip to the JSA (Joint Services Area) having tried twice before to go there. Last time it was closed as the leaders were having a peace chat, this time its closed as the north has an outbreak of swine flu. Hence we are on an alternative tour. The first stop is an intersection just behind the Blue House (Presidential House) where on the 21st January 1968 31 North Korean commandos came wandering down the street aiming to attack the blue house and kill the then president. They were challenged and a gunfight broke out. A senior policeman was killed and the commandos withdrew up the road and into the hills with, by now, soldiers in pursuit.

We headed up the road a few kms and stopped at a look out where Scott pointed out a ridge in the distance where 9 of the commandos were killed. He also pointed out an old anti-aircraft gun on a local military base justified by the fact that the north only has old planes!

A little further up the road we again dismounted and headed up a track on a ridge that the commandos had used. We walked a few hundred meters and at a rock face Scott tells me this is where another 3 were killed and you can see the 50 odd bullet marks in the rock. in my opinion the holes have been somewhat enhanced and the holes marked with red and white paint.

After the attack bunkers were built along the ridge just in case they came back. Out of the 31 twenty nine were killed, one captured and one made it back to the north, later becoming a general and later again executed.

Next we headed north to the border, driving alongside the Hangang River with, as we got closer to the border, its barbed wire fence and pill boxes – no longer manned but covered by numerous cameras and heat sensing devices. This road runs all the way to Pyongyang; there is just a bit of a problem getting across the border. We headed off the motorway and up to the Unification Tower, up on a hill where the Hangang River meets the Imjin River, which flows from the north. The border here runs down the middle of the now Han river as it heads out to sea. With this still clear day the views from the tower are impressive. Through the binoculars provided free of charge one can see the peasants of the north working in the fields. There is a cluster of buildings with a large hall in the middle complete with monument to the great leader. The tower we are in has several levels with a museum on the ground floor, which hosts, among other things, a piano with barbed wire for strings. The views from the top floor and the terraces are impressive.

Next we headed to the Imjingak Peace Park and Freedom Bridge. I had been here a couple of years ago but things have changed a bit. It now also hosts a large kid’s amusement park and a gondola is being built to take people across the river towards the DMZ. The DMZ is two kms on each side of the border but added to that on the south side is the CCA, Civilian Controlled area, where access is restricted. The old railway bridge with the old bullet riddled train pulled out of the DMZ has been enhanced and the bullet holes in the old bridge piers marked with red paint. Just to the east is the new railway, which one day they hope will run all the way to Paris. It did operate a few years ago when the south was helping run factories in the north.

After lunch and a look around we headed back to the city and the War Memorial Museum, which I had visited before. There, after a brief look around, we met Seo Jea-Pyoung in a cafe. He now heads the association of North Korean Defectors. The next 90 minutes flew by as he told his story and Scott interpreted.

Graduating university as a geologist and, having only had to complete 3 of the 10 years required military service due to an injury, he was employed in the R&D department at the Hamheung city university. In NK there is only one radio station and all radios will only tune into that station. One day Seo purchased, on the black market, a radio that would tune into the SK stations. His plan was just to listen to the news once!! He could not believe what he was hearing and how nice the people on the radio in the south sounded so the once became twice and so on. One night he had fallen asleep on the couch with the radio beside him but fortunately not turned on. A common practice is for the police to routinely raid houses in the early hours of the morning. So, caught he was, but told the police how he had found the radio and it didn’t work. The police took the radio and over the next few days he had to report to the police station and was told that if he told the truth he wouldn’t be sent to the punishment camp. He then found out that the man he bought the radio off had been caught and ratted on him.

He bribed a soldier to get a travel pass to Namyang on the Chinese border. There a broker organised, for 20 USD, a 7-day pass to China. Arriving in a village in China he was shocked to see that the dog was being fed white rice, bearing in mind at that time in the year 2000 NK was still suffering from a drought and famine that had started in 1994 and he had never seen white rice. He ended up in Yanja city where he had an aunt. He talked about watching TV all day as he had to hide and couldn’t believe they had 52 channels. Street lamps and neon signs were something else he had never seen as the only place in his NK city to have power was the local statue to Kim Il Song. He couldn’t believe that at dinner one night the people he was staying with started bagging the Chinese leadership. He then became defensive when they started bagging Kim Il Son.

After 3 months he was moved to Mishan, a small country town where he worked in a local coke making factory, receiving one tenth of the wages of the locals as part of the deal for hiding him. With the workers he joined the local church where there was a SK priest who, after 9 months, organised him and 5 others a passage out of the country. They headed back to Yanja city and caught a train from there to a place called Allen near the Mongolian border. From there it was just a day’s walk across the Gobi desert into Mongolia. Unfortunately their navigation skills weren’t too good and it was some three days later when a Mongolian police patrol discovered them, saving their lives. After being checked over they were taken to Ulan Bator and the SK embassy there, and on the 24 July 2001 his first aeroplane ride took him to Seoul.

Once here he spent 3 months in a refugee centre learning the skills required to adapt to his new life. He was then given the equivalent of 25,000 USD, rented an apartment long term for 13k then spent another 10k getting his wife and son out of NK, this time by boat -much more expensive but safer. I asked the question as to why NK hadn’t put his family in prison or executed them. Apparently that is not done. There are some 33,000 defectors in Seoul and none of the families have been hurt.

He went on to explain in detail how he goes about sending money to his brother in NK. That bit I am not going to share because I don’t want to endanger his brother. Nowadays there are some ten thousand cell phones in NK along the Chinese border so communication is possible.

During the famine of the nineties many people died as the government couldn’t provide food as they had done in the past so out of that rose a black market, which nowadays has evolved into a capitalist market. Soe went on to explain that there are now a large group of wealthy people in NK who control the economy.  Kim Jong Un controls the people. interestingly Seo went on to say that the standard of living in NK has risen to where China was in the late 80s. He said you spot the wealthy people nowadays as they are the ones that have solar panels on their roof. He has offered to get his brother out of NK but he is quite happy to stay there.

We then went on to have a long discussion on the nuclear  weapons issue. Seo kept saying that Kim can’t give them up. Although I couldn’t fully establish his reasoning my interpretation is that Kim really needs the sanctions to help control the people. If the sanctions come off all the modern stuff will come flooding into the country allowing the people to see that maybe they haven’t quite been told the truth over the past 70 years and along will come a revolution.

Another interesting thing Seo explained was that during his childhood his parents knew the truth but never uttered a word to him or his siblings that was in contradiction with what they were being taught.

I must say I really enjoyed the encounter with Seo and also a big thanks to Scott who did a great job interpreting, especially as it was his last day as a guide.



The last two Stans: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – October 2019

Saturday 19 October 2019: Sylvia

I was sad this morning to leave Kazakhstan and the stunning Ritz Carlton hotel. I feel there is so much more to explore in this vast land with its steppes, mountains and friendly people. We enjoyed one last delicious breakfast, savouring the food, the views and the impeccable service, before heading to the airport for our one-hour-thirty flight to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Flying initially over Kazakhstan it was obvious once we crossed the border into Tajikistan. The majestic, towering, snow-capped mountains that cover roughly 93% of this country stretched on as far as I could see. I was glued to the window but unfortunately it was so filthy it was impossible to take photographs.

We landed smoothly and were met by our guide, Alfred. After a quick check in at the Hyatt Regency we headed out to explore this city of roughly 2 million inhabitants, one-fifth of the total population of the country. Tajikistan until 1924 was two separate regions. In 1924 it became an autonomous region of Uzbekistan, then in 1927 became a separate state under the USSR. It has strong connections with Afghanistan and Iran, sharing the same base language. After independence in 1991 there was a period of civil war with the government ultimately winning over the religious extremists who wanted to make this a Muslim country. Despite having a massive majority Muslim population (about 90%) it remains a secular country. Still we saw many more women in traditional dresses with head scarves than we did in Kazakhstan.

Our first stop was the museum of antiquities, showcasing many different exhibits that have been unearthed in the country, dating back to about the 5th century BC. One of the most well-known exhibits is the 14m long sleeping Buddha, the largest Buddha in Central Asia.

We next visited Rudaki Park, which was known as Lenin Park under the Soviets. Rudaki was a famous poet, who lived from 858-951 AD, and whose statue now features prominently in the park, where once Lenin’s stood. The park is huge, with beautiful gardens and some rather interesting light features as well as many fountains that seem to be ubiquitous in these countries. To one side of the park is the Presidential Palace. At one end is a memorial to the first Tajik king, Sonoma from the 10th century. There is also a very tall monument called the ‘Signs of Tajikistan’ and featuring representations of cotton, wheat, the sun, knowledge and mountains. The last major feature is a giant flagpole, currently the tallest in Central Asia.

There are many interesting buildings in the city, which is a mix of Soviet architecture and more modern buildings, many painted in bright, warm colours. The Tajik flag, red, white and green, features frequently as do massive photographs of the president on many buildings. Given the number of photographs, in different locations and poses, on display he must spend a lot of his time posing for the camera.

Our last stop was the central market. Like the markets in the other countries we have visited this was a hive of activity, even fairly late on a Saturday afternoon. They are all same, same but different with their piles of fruit, nuts, dried fruits etc. This one stands out for the massive building it is housed in and for the unique way the spices are displayed.

Sunday 20 October 2019: Roger

Alfred picked us up at 10am and we headed north through the town, passing brightly coloured buildings, which were mainly universities and other institutions. Still in the city we struck a large cement works. Large amounts of earthworks were taking place along the river banks to try and stem the effects of spring flooding.

As we departed the city boundaries heading up highway P501, which is a road squeezed into a narrow valley beside the river, narrow bridges often with locked gates led to the houses on the other side. Up the valley only about 20km was a large structure being built which turned out to be the summer palace for the president, who incidentally has been the president pretty much since independence. What intrigues me about this part of the world is the money that the presidents of this, and the last three Stans we’ve visited, seem to spend on big grandiose type structures.

As we pushed further north up the valley the hills became mountains with really impressive rock faces, rising at this point over 2000m. We then started periodically going through avalanche tunnels designed to protect the road from rock and snow avalanches as the land on each side of the valley became steeper and more aggressive looking. We reached a point where the guide pointed out the old road that headed northeast that used to go over a pass some 3,200m high and was often closed for 3 months of the year. At this point we struck a large flock of sheep being guided along the roadside by shepherds, horsemen and dogs. Incidentally here, with the threat of wolves and bears, man is the sheep’s best friend, despite the fact that more sheep get eaten by man than ever by wolves and bears.

We pushed north up the new road that climbed steeply up the right hand side of a valley through more avalanche shelters, numbering 20 in total, with a new one under construction near the top of the hill. We entered a 6km tunnel built by the Iranians in 2004. This tunnel with virtually no lighting rose from 2,600m where we entered to 2,750 where we exited.

All along the journey we had ben passing big, orange Shacman trucks. These we discovered are government trucks that transport coal from the open-cast mine we were approaching to Dushanbe to supply fuel for both heating and power generation. There was also a large stockpile of coal at the bottom of the pass as the trucks can’t access the tunnel and the pass in the middle of winter. We lost count of how many of these trucks we passed. As we headed out of the tunnel and down the hill to about 2,000m there were lots of trucks (not just orange ones) parked waiting to load coal from the mine high above the road. The non-orange trucks were from villages and small towns and owned by private operators taking coal to sell to get the villages through the winter.

Further down the hill we passed what look like a little village with lots of shacks and stone buildings. Still above the 2,000m mark this is where the local farmers bring their stock to graze during the summer months before returning them to the valley for the winter.

As we headed further down the hill we passed a ruby mine with large holes in the hillside, with tailings running down the hill looking a bit like rabbit burrows. As we hit the bottom of the pass we met up with the other end of the old road, which in its day was 30km longer. A little further down the valley was a large, old ruby processing plant from the Soviet days – we couldn’t actually establish if it was still operating.

Further down the valley, high on the hill was another open-cast mine, and water gushed out of the hill apparently from a pipeline that was supposed to feed a hydro power plant that was never completed.

Eventually we reached the turn-off to Lake Iskanderkul and stopped for lunch at a cafe, where we were served some very high fat food including a dumpling soup and supposedly lamb chops that I think actually came from old sheep, coated with a thick layer of fat, something the locals look on as a delicacy.

I took a stroll down the track to the toilet – there is definitely no porcelain in this part of the world, just a hole in the concrete covering what I assume was a long drop but is now probably short!

At the intersection there was also, what had been, a huge truck maintenance plant back in the Soviet era and is now a derelict complex with its old boilers lying on the river bank. We crossed a steel suspension bridge heading onto what once was probably a sealed road but has deteriorated significantly over the years.

People smiled as we waved to them. We were really surprised by the intensity of housing and the size of the houses up this valley. Alfred explained to us that a lot of people from this area, and throughout Tajikistan, who have qualified as builders etc, head off to Russia to work and then return with a fair bit of cash in hand and the experience to build these big houses that often house 2-3 generations of families.


As we pushed further up the valley there were lots of stone shacks, often with hay stacked on top, used to house stock overnight and during the winter. The autumn colours were, in places, quite spectacular with a variety of deciduous trees clumped together in little oasis-type settlements. The mountains rising on each side were quite impressive with large patches of red earth interspersed with patches of grey clay that had been eroded over the years by the weather.

Maintenance on the road is obviously kept to a minimum as the higher we went the worse it got. In places concrete slabs had been put in to stop rock slides blocking the road, or in other places to stop the road tumbling into the valley. At one point a broken down car sat with a red rag tied onto the door and rocks placed around it as simulated marker cones.

We came over the hill and were looking down on Lake Iskanderkul, an impressive view. We wound our way down the switchback road, across a little bridge and up a rough shingle road where Alfred told Sylvia “free massage included” as she was being thrown from side to side in the back of the Rav 4. We stopped at a gravel carpark looking over both Lake Iskanderkul and the smaller Snake Lake nearby. Sylvia and I opted to walk back down the hill to the main lake and as we were walking along the road a large group of people approached us laughing and waving as we took photos. Some of the group had limited English and we made out that they were from somewhere in Tajikistan and were keen to have their photo  taken with me. A large flag flew on a hill above the lake and near it was a rock painted in the colours of Tajikistan.

All too soon it was time for us to head back on our return journey. With the lake at 2,200m and the turn off at just over 1,000m we started our trip back down the rough, mainly gravel road. As we wound our way down the hill we spotted some workers maintaining one of the new pylons heading up the valley. It was through a discussion about the pylons we discovered that somewhere, we are not too sure how far from the lake, is a large, Chinese-owned gold mine, which these new-looking pylons feed.

Travelling back down and along the valley and up to the portal of the tunnel, we entered with a large truck in front of us. Even with the weak lights of the Rav 4 on it was pretty black inside. It appears the tunnel has no ventilation system but relies on the 150m elevation over the 6km to create enough airflow to get rid of the fumes from the large trucks and cars passing through it. The driver flashed his lights and we passed the large truck in front of us and then another and then another, our lungs filling with the fumes as they rushed towards the portal. As we exited the tunnel and stopped for some fresh air at the south end Alfred explained that it is only recently they have put lights in it. These lights are tiny and provide very little illumination but prior to them going in it used to be known as the tunnel of death.

As we headed back down the side of the valley I asked Alfred if any trucks have brake failures and end up going over the side. He said yes, one or two a year. It’s a long way to the bottom.

Arriving back in Dushanbe we headed to what was once a famous tea house and apparently people came from all over the country to try their lagman (noodle soup), edible but not something that I would travel very far to eat.

Alfred dropped us at the airport where we waited for quite a long time to enter the check in area while numerous ‘stand-around men’ and the odd ‘stand-around woman’ with badges of authority walked around not really knowing what they were doing but very willing to exert their authority. We eventually boarded the plane, which is probably one of the most chaotic boardings I’ve ever seen with people randomly swapping seats to the point that Sylvia said “some people should just not be allowed to fly”.

Landing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan we had a pleasant surprise. As we descended the stairs to the tarmac a man was waiting with our names on a sign and whisked us away to a VIP lounge where we were processed through immigration, our bags collected, and then we were transferred to our hotel.

Monday 21 October 2019: Sylvia

There is something different about this city and I cannot figure it out. Even at 1am in the morning when we were driving to the hotel from the airport there was a lot of traffic on the road and people out on the streets. Bishkek has a population of about 1.2 million, a significant chunk of the country’s 6 million inhabitants. It does not seem small in size and with the traffic it can take quite a long time to get anywhere but it seems remarkably busy. Apparently you can see the mountains from the city on a good day but today they were shrouded in cloud.

We headed out with Alberic, our guide at about 10:30. Kyrgyzstan, much more than the other countries we have visited this trip, seems to embrace its Soviet roots and has maintained many old Soviet era buildings, and even a statue of Lenin. Apparently under Tsarist Russia many Kyrgyz were killed and so they have more respect for the Soviets, who gave them more freedom. It is also apparent that Kyrgyzstan is less wealthy than many of its neighbours, not having the oil or gas reserves that the other countries enjoy. Apparently unemployment runs between 30 and 40% with many Kyrgyz heading to Russia to find work.

Our first stop was at a recently completed mosque, built by the Turkish government and currently the largest mosque in Central Asia, until the one currently being built in Tajikistan is completed anyway.

Next stop was Victory Square, commemorating the victory in WWII. Approximately 130,000 Kyrgyz lost their lives during the war, a significant impact in a country with less than 3 million at the time, but only a small portion of the 28 million USSR citizens killed.

We also stopped at a circus building, another vestige of the Soviet era, still operating shows during the weekends.

Heading towards the centre of the city we wandered past, and sometimes into, numerous Soviet era buildings including the Museum of Modern Art, the Opera House, the library and many others. There is also a large open park area, showcasing the autumn colours in its tree-lined pathways. This particular park is full of large sculptures

We headed past the parliament building and the Lenin statue to the main square, with its mandatory large flagpole and guards standing sentry. It is refreshing here that there seems to be much more freedom. Alberic is decidedly more forthcoming about the country and government than our previous guides and there doesn’t seem to be any issue with us taking photos of anything. This country is on to its fourth president since independence. There was an uprising in 2010 and about 100 people were killed. Since then the country has mandated a single term presidency only of six years to ensure democratic freedoms. This has been memorialised in a striking monument.

We then headed about 40km out of town to the Ala Atcha National Park. We had planned to have a picnic lunch and go for a walk in the park but as we arrived it started snowing quite heavily. Roger, as usual, was well-dressed for the weather. Luckily the local hotel allowed us to eat our picnic lunch, which had been prepared by Alberic’s wife, in their dining room and we were able to enjoy watching the snow settle outside while we ate. A few quick photos outside and we headed back down the hill.

Alberic had arranged a small local folk band to play for us – one of the members is apparently a very famous singer. They were incredibly skilful, playing a number of traditional instruments and we were mesmerised for the 20 minutes or so they performed. One piece that they played with small metal things they put in their mouths was particularly impressive.

Bishkek is a bit of a mix – we see many more people in European dress than in Dushanbe but fewer than in Almaty. I was particularly taken with the Kyrgyz style hats, which represent the mountains that cover 94% of this country and seem quite striking. Several of the older men wear them all the time here but they are worn by all the men for special occasions.

Tuesday 22 October 2019: Roger

Alberic picked us up at 9:30 and we headed off to have a look at the Philarmonic House, outside of which there was a statue of Manas, a hero of Kyrgyzstan, slaying a dragon. Because we were early it was closed so we could not go inside. Across the road was a University with a lot of Indian and Pakistani students. There were also a lot of other Soviet era buildings in the area.

Next stop was the Osh Bazaar. This is a kind of indoor-outdoor market. Although you wander into these places thinking ‘just another market’ they are all a little bit different with their own subtleties. We stopped in a little shop, stocked totally with locally made goods and purchased some small gifts to fit in our carry-on luggage, the first bit of shopping we’ve done since leaving Singapore nearly four weeks ago. Alberic led us through a maze of indoor and outdoor passageways till we ended up in the bulk food area. It always intrigues me in these places the amount of stock they carry – surely some of it must go off. Alberic explained that when people here have a wedding they invite 500 plus people so buy heaps of dried fruit and nuts. But I am sure there are enough sunflower seeds in this particular market to feed many, many weddings of 500 people. We wandered through some other parts with meat and bread and brooms on trolleys, finding all the people very friendly.

The next stop was the Museum of Modern Art. This Soviet style building, with its parquet floors, turned out to be even larger than it looked. We wandered from hall to hall looking at a large variety of paintings, all of which seemed to be dull in colours. There were also many sculptures of different types placed throughout the galleries. One painting that stood out was of a shepherd, his dog and a flock of sheep. Peeping out from under the lapel of his coat was a medal. Apparently during the Soviet era people used to get medals for doing their job well, be they farmer, cook or carpenter. Back in those days everybody effectively worked for the government and they were all provided an apartment. When independence came and the first civil war was over people got to keep their houses.

All of a sudden our holiday was over and we were heading along the wide highway to the airport for our flight to Istanbul and then on to Singapore.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Almaty, Kazakhstan – October 2019

Tuesday 15 October 2019: Sylvia

We had a very leisurely start this morning. There is not that much to see in Tashkent after the wonders of the older cities we have been to in recent days but it has provided a good opportunity to rest before we head off to Kazakhstan and beyond. Our first stop was a monument to the 1986 earthquake that ravaged the city. Although only 5.1 on the Richter scale it demolished 80% of the buildings, killing somewhere between 15 and 200 people and leaving some 300,000 homeless. There was a concerted effort from the USSR to rebuild and this is commemorated in the memorial.

Next we headed to Khast Imam Square and the Kazmati Imam complex. This area, set inside lovely gardens features a mosque, Madrassah and Islamic Institute but is most famous for the small museum featuring one of the world’s oldest copies of the Koran. Most of the buildings here are all relatively new and, whilst impressive with their turquoise domes, they do not hold the charm of some of the older buildings we saw in Bukhara and Samarkand. Roger even managed to take a sneaky peak of the Koran, despite the watchful guards.

We next headed to the Chorsu Bazaar, where we spent a considerable amount to time wandering and observing the clamour of daily life, the huge, domes meat market was particularly impressive with stall after stall of sheep, beef and goats meat in various cuts and forms. We were also taken with the large hall containing stand after stand of small wrapped chocolates and large unwrapped cookies, piled high.

We took the metro back towards the hotel. Like the underground in Moscow this was created during the Soviet era and each station is decorated with different mosaics, marble etc. After a relaxing lunch we wandered through the Amir Timur memorial gardens, passing another statue and several impressive buildings as we made our way back to the hotel.

A massage and a few drinks in the lovely hotel bar rounded out a fairly gentle day.

Wednesday 16 October 2019: Roger

After a good breakfast at the Hyatt Regency we took a stroll down some nearby streets. This city is big on ostentatious buildings, wide streets, lots of parks and has some pretty amazing water features. Great attention is paid to keeping the grounds free of rubbish and leaves. At one point all the local clean up workers were gathered with their trucks while the women swept the streets with their handmade brooms. Some of you may have noticed the trees in a lot of pictures that we’ve put on this blog are painted white up to about a metre high. In the past when I’ve seen this I always thought it was to make them look good but in fact it is line painted on to stop the pests climbing up and damaging the trees.

Ar noon we were picked up and transferred to the airport for our flight to Almaty. Astana airlines had the best and most simplified safety video I have seen on any airline for many years. Airborne we headed north and were soon over the Tian Shan mountains, which seemed to go on forever. We then headed east continuing along the mountain ranges over Kyrgyzstan, and then crossing the border into Kazakhstan and descending, through the smog into Almaty, beneath the snow capped mountains, which around here rise to about 5,000m.

The immigration process into Kazakhstan was easy and the border guards were very friendly. We were met by our guide, Zhadra, and our driver, Ernest, and driven through the town to the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Along the way we received a briefing from Zhadra on the area, which was also invaded by the Mongolians, who were thrown out by the Russians who have been in this part of the world since the mid 17th century. With a population of about 18 million, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by area. Almaty has a population of about 1 million, who still burn coal on their fires for heating creating a constant smog here. They also boast a 10,000 sqm ice skating rink. Based on our drive through the town presents as a reasonably affluent city.

Thursday 17 October 2019: Sylvia

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with an outstanding view of the mountains and the city from the 30th floor restaurant of the Ritz Carlton where we are staying. The service here is incredible, all the staff have good English and are chatty and obliging.

At 10:30 we headed off to our first stop, the cable car at Koktobe Hill. We wanted to beat the smog and from the top we enjoyed more wonderful views to the mountains and over the city, even while we could see the smog starting to roll in.  At the top of the cable car is an odd collection of monuments, side-show stalls, some animals, a few restaurants and plenty of viewing platforms. It felt a bit like the sort of place that might have been popular back in the 70’s.

Our next stop was Panfilov Park, names after one of the generals in the army during WWII. This large, beautiful park houses monuments to WWII and the Afghanistan war as well as a beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox Church, the Ascension Cathedral, originally built in 1906 and recently restored. Like many of the other cities we have visited on this trip Almaty lies in an active seismic zone and has suffered a number of major earthquakes. After a large earthquake in 1887 destroyed most of the city Zinkof, a Russian architect, determined that wooden buildings were safest and set about designing and building many, including the Ascension Cathedral, that still exist today. He was proven right when another large (9+ on the Richter scale) earthquake hit in 1911 and none of the buildings were damaged.

Being autumn here in Almaty the colours are incredible and we enjoyed strolling through the park and admiring the vegetation. We came across a gentleman playing the accordion. After responding to his question “where are you from” he proceeded to play Pokarekareana for us.

Next we headed to the local market to again watch the daily goings on. This was similar to what we had seen in Chorsu  Bazaar in Tashkent although smaller and less chaotic. There are apparently 130 different ethnicities in Kazakhstan so quite a melting pot in terms of different people.

We enjoyed a traditional Kazakh lunch, much more flavourful than the Uzbek food we have been eating, at Natan restaurant, with its vibrant interior decorations.

Then we headed out of the city and up into the mountains, passing numerous resorts and hotels along the way. Not only has Almaty been impacted in the past by earthquakes but also by mudslides flowing down from the mountains. Now there are large dams and walls along some of the rivers to stop this occurring again. We headed to Big Almaty Lake, which, at up to 40m deep, is one of the main water reservoirs for the city. A series of pipes manage water flow back to the city, some also powering turbines to generate electricity.

The lake itself is stunning, a deep milky blue colour and nestled into the mountains making for some picturesque photographs. There were several others around, all looking for the ideal instagram shot, striking multiple poses and taking shot after shot. We found it all quite amusing and very different to our ‘one shot and move on’ approach.

We headed back down the mountain, stopping near the base to attend a very entertaining raptor show. Pedro, our articulate and amusing host kept up a steady patter as he demonstrated a number of different raptors, from a tiny owl through to the majestic Golden Eagle that, once trained,  is capable of hunting a wolf. He had several of the birds fly low right over our heads. It was a highly enjoyable forty minutes.

Zhadra had mentioned during the day that Kazakh wines are much better than Uzbek so we decided to try some out and headed to Arba Winery for a tasting. Four whites and four reds each, all passable and some extremely drinkable. My preference was a very nice Gewurtztraminer, while Roger’s favourite was a Pinot Sape, which is a blend of Pinot Noir and Saporavi grapes.  It was a fun way to finish the day.

Friday 18 October 2019: Roger

Assel, the maître-d at the hotel restaurant, greeted us with a smile and a welcome as we arrived early for breakfast – early being 0800. Downstairs, or should I say 30 floors below by lift, Zhadra and Ernest were ready and waiting. We headed off through the thick traffic. All the cars on the road are modern and in good nick; this place looks like it is thriving. According to the net it is the 70th richest country in the world. We stopped at a set of lights and a quite well dressed woman was walking down between the cars, hand out as if asking for money, I asked Zhardra if there was a shortage of work here, “There is plenty of work just some gypsy types don’t want to work and beg for money”. Just like NZ i thought but we don’t have any gypsies.

We stopped at the local supermarket to get some snacks for lunch – a really well presented and stocked place it was too.

We headed north past the edge of town then turned east on AH5, a 2 lane each way, very smooth concrete highway, Ernest pushed the banana Merc along at a comfortable 150kph – the road was pretty quiet. We passed a large plant with a huge plume of steam heading into the sky. I asked Zhadra if it was a gas power plant and was informed it was to heat Almaty, 50kms away. I doubted the answer and Wikipedia  informed us that in fact it was a gas power station.

Second language guides are not always good with questions off topic. We cruised east on the AH5 for about a 100k. The land is flat and all farmed, crops, sheep, cattle and an unusual number of horses, many of pony size, I presume for the horse meat market.

Interestingly mobs of cattle grazing in large paddocks were normally accompanied by a mounted horseman, often with a dog, who just seemed to sit and watch them graze. Just after a large abandoned flour mill from the Soviet days we turned right and headed southeast on a two lane road, which in places was a bit rough. A couple more turns and 3-hours into the journey we reached the Castle Valley Road, having climbed to 1300 meters over what seemed like flat land through this extensive valley.

At the end of the road a gate barred our way. Zhadra went over to a building and a bloke in military uniform drew the gate aside and we drove the few hundred meters to the car park. Some steps took us down into the Charon Canyon, or as Zhadra had described it, miniature Grand Canyon. I don’t think she really realises just how big the Grand Canyon is. Now, for the first time since we entered Central Asia some 14 days ago, it had rained last night and the skies were overcast and not the bright blue we had become accustomed to. We wandered down past these small but unique cliffs as Zhandra pointed out how with a bit of imagination, or in my case a huge amount, the various shapes of the rocks balanced on rocks were everything from a dinosaur to a Russian Lada car. We strolled the 3km to the rather picturesque Charon River where there is a little camp set up. We relaxed enjoying the scenery and some snacks.

Sylvia had spotted some people walking up around one of the large rock features and suggested we night go back that way. Zhadra was quick to point out it was way too dangerous, we would have to go the way we came. The camp was at about 900 meters so it was a gentle climb back to the car park at 1300m. Not far up the track one of the local taxi vehicles came past and Zhadra jumped aboard leaving us to enjoy the stroll. By now the sky had cleared showing up the colours in the rocks much better.

Along the way there were a couple standing atop a cliff in formal wear with a drone circling around above them. Was this a proposal or was it the end and he was about to toss her from the cliff?

With winter approaching we spotted lots of small rodents, often carrying large pieces of vegetation back to their burrows in preparation.

We drove down to the observation point from where we looked north to the mountains of the Chinese border and then it was time to journey back to the city. As we headed west to our south there were two rows of high voltage pylons. I wondered if they were exoprting power to China. I asked the question but was told they were for the small villages up north, which didn’t make sense. A check on the net and Kazakhstan exports not only power but also gas and minerals to China. It had been great to have a day out and look at a little bit of this vast country.


Silk Road: Samarkand, Uzbekistan – October 2019

We would like to dedicate this section of the blog to those that live and have lived by the Ode below. thank you for your service to our country.
The Golden Road to Samarkand [1913])
“The Master of the Caravan said:
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You – dirty bearded, blocking the way?
The Pilgrim answered:
We are the Pilgrims, Master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand”

Saturday 12 October 2019: Roger

We departed Bukhara at around nine. Heading east the city went on for a long time. We crossed a large rail freight area and went through industrial areas. There is construction of new buildings going on everywhere.

In about 40 minutes we hit the desert – a little different that the last one as there was more growth and it only went on for 50 or so kilometres. Then we would hit an oasis type area where water was present with fields full of cotton, corn and other crops, then back to desert again for a short time etc.  We stopped for a brew at one point not too far into the journey and across the road was a massive oil refinery.

Continuing on we passed through several large towns including Koson Qarshi. Interestingly, since the formation of Uzbekistan, the country has developed its own cotton mills producing fabric. Prior to that only the raw cotton was exported. We passed flour mills and lots of other industry as the population concentration became denser as we went further east. Kids headed home from Saturday morning schooling in their nice uniforms. As we had seen often before there were towns with rows of houses all the same.

There are lots of police check points along the way but as yet we have not been stopped. Produce stalls on the roadsides are common and there are large hot houses and covered horticultural areas, many recently or still under construction.

During the Soviet rule there was no vehicle production in Uzbekistan, now over 200,000 vehicles are produced a year with a large GM plant and some others employing over 7000 people. Exports go to Russia and other CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) countries. Cars here are expensive with the average Chev SUV costing around $30,000 USD while the average income Is only about 7500 USD. Cars are mainly white because of the dust. You can however still buy a trusty Lada from around 10k.

We arrived at Shahrisabz just after noon, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant, after which we headed to the Ak-Saray Palace (White Palace), originally constructed by Tamerlane or Timur in 1380. Timur was once the most powerful man in Islam, driving the Mongolians out of the area. He lead military campaigns across western, southern and central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and was said to have been responsible for the deaths of around 17 Million people, roughly 5% of the worlds population at the time. He referred to himself as the ‘Sword of Islam’. Today he is recognised here as a hero. His palace and the large grounds and mosques are in the process of being restored.

We walked the two plus kms to the end of the grounds and back, checking out the mostly rebuilt rather than restored buildings. Some have had wallpaper made to replicate what would have been interior tiled walls and domes.  Along the side of the grounds are apartments, shops and restaurants. I stopped to photograph a wedding party taking place and a bunch of young men raced out asking me to join in. I politely declined knowing that my dance moves were never going to be as slick as theirs.

That over we headed north into the foothills of the Pamir mountain range. Climbing from 600m to the top of the pass at 1400m. We stopped at a lookout to enjoy the view back down the valley. Even in the hills there are blocks of state type houses.

Arriving at the top of the pass we were greeted by a massive outdoor produce market selling an amazing selection of herbs, seeds, nuts and cheeses. I did try a ball of goat cheese which tasted more like acid than cheese. We had arrived in the Samarkand Province.

Heading down into the valley there was a prominence of purple-roofed, new buildings, which continued into the city, either a passion or there is a real good deal around here on purple paint. The other fun thing here is to see how people get the best out of their vehicles, loading them up to the max. You will note on the truck under the deck are a number of red gas bottles. Many of the diesel trucks run on both diesel and compressed natural gas.


Sunday October 13, 2019: Sylvia

We headed off at about 10 this morning to explore Samarkand. Our first stop, after driving past another huge statue of Tamerlane, was the Gur Emir Mausoleum, his tomb. He was supposed to have been buried in Shakrisabz, where we visited yesterday, but winter storms when he died prevented him being taken there so he was buried here, in the city he made his capital. The tomb he had initially prepared for his favourite grandson, Jahan Gir, who died during battle and is also buried here, as is another of his grandsons, Ulugh Beg.

We next headed to the magnificent Registan, or main square. This was once the centre of the trade world and is bordered on three sides by huge Madrassahs. It is awe inspiring to look at and I wanted to sit and drink it all in as photos cannot do it justice.

The Ulugh Beg Madrassah is on the left and was the first we explored. Today it is full of little shops with the keepers plying their wares and trying to drape me in scarves as I walked past. In truth the people here are very gentle and nowhere near as pushy as I have experienced in other parts of the world. We were able to go inside and see the little rooms where 3-4 students would live and study (upstairs for living and downstairs for studying). Madrassahs are not like universities today – there were no lectures or group teaching but students were expected to do their studying and contemplation on their own. On the second storey more little rooms and more little stalls offered great views over the ornately decorated courtyard interior.

The second Madrassah we entered (at the rear when entering the square) is the Tilla Kari Mardassah, this one only single-storeyed  but still beautifully decorated. It has a beautiful turquoise dome, which is decorated with gold and cobalt on the interior. There were a number of old black and white photographs inside showing the state of the ruins over the years before they were restored to their current state.

The third and final Madrassah is the Tilla Kari Madrassah, which has mosaics of tigers on its facade, unique in the Muslim world as generally it is forbidden to have pictures of living beings displayed. This is the only Madrassah we have been in that does not have trees in the inner courtyard so it was easier to get some photos of the interior.

I left the Registan reluctantly and we wandered down towards the Bibi Khanym mosque, which was built in the early 1400’s for Tamerlane’s favourite wife. Along the way we passed a statue of the first President of Uzbekistan and numerous wedding parties. Apparently Bibi Khanym was a great diplomat and would often stand in for Tamerlane while he as off conquering the world. Although the exterior of her mosque has been renovated like all the other buildings we have visited, it was refreshing to visit inside and find it still in semi-ruined state. We also visited the surprisingly simple tomb of Bibi Kahnym just across the street from her Mosque.


At this point we decided to give Nazira the rest of the day off, and after stopping for lunch we headed off to explore the Siyob bazaar, which has been operating for some 600 years. It is a bustling place full of people selling a wide array of dried fruits, nuts, spices, cheeses etc. It was fun to watch the locals haggling while being encouraged to try all the different things on offer.

We then wandered past the impressive tomb of the first president of Uzbekistan to the fascinating and slightly macabre Shahr-i-Zindar monuments, rows of incredibly decorated tombs build in the 15th century.

We headed through the remarkable clean back streets of the old town to the Hammam. Roger was keen to repeat his experience from Bukhara. Unfortunately it was closed so we were out of luck. We opted to walk back to the hotel getting a better sense of this city and it’s eclectic architecture on foot.

Monday 14 October 2019: Roger

After a cold shower and a typical breakfast we departed the Dilimar “Premium Luxury” Hotel – quite new with its composite look-alike marble and lots of bling they just haven’t got it quite right.

Our first stop was the Samarkand Paper Factory on the banks of the Siab river. This place with its teapot waterwheels was very nice. First they took us through the very old way of making paper. This art was copied from China around the 8th century. Small branches are cut and stored for several months then soaked in water for a few days. The soft inner later of the wood is then stripped from the bark by a lady with a sharp knife. This is then boiled for several hours before being pulverised in a vessel by a large water driven piston. The mashed pulp is then mixed with water and scooped up with a kind of flat sieve. From there it was stacked in layers separated by cotton sheets. Weighted with a large rock the stack of sheets are then separated and laid on a board to dry. A final polish with a smooth rock and one was ready to write home. Many products such as dolls, masks and clothing are also made from this paper and sold to tourists.

Through the garden a bit we found another waterwheel, this one driving a mill, which was being used to extract oil from grains.

Next stop was the observatory museum dedicated to Ulugh Beg. This guy built a kind of sextant in a large building in the late 1300’s. With a hole in one place he could mark where the light from the sun, moon and some stars struck the rail-like device inside. From this one of the things he worked out was the length of the year, accurate to within 25 seconds of what we know today. Only forty years after building the observatory he upset some of the religious zealots and lost his head. His device was rediscovered in the 60s and partially restored and a museum has now been built in his honour.

Not far down the road is where The prophet Daniel is laid to rest in a tomb 16-meters long. There is a bit of a story behind this bloke. Apparently when Timur was expanding his empire he came across a city called Sousa, in Iran, which in spit of being seiged for several months with water and food supplies cut off refused to capitulate. Timur was informed that it was because Daniel was buried there that the city would never run out of food or water. He then cut a deal with Sousa, they gave him the hand of Daniel and he left them alone. The hand was brought back to Samarkand and entombed on this spot in such a large tomb as apparently it grows a little every year. Holy water now still flows from a spring at the bottom of the hill.

We headed to a restaurant for a long relaxed lunch after which Sylvia headed back to the Registan while I sampled a nice drop Of local beer at a bar across the road.

Last stop for the day was the House museum of D. L. Filatov, a large winery. Founded by Filatov, a smooth looking Russian, in the 1880’s it still survives today. I was somewhat sceptical as having sampled some of the local wine over the last few days has been a less that pleasant experience.

After a tour of a display room showing the history and the many medals won in the region, we were lead into the large tasting room with its grand table. Ten glasses were lined up on a nice wooden tray, each with a small quantity of mainly wine except the last 3 being cognacs.

Probably the best was to describe this experience is that I didn’t consume one full sample of any on offer. The cognac was like nothing have ever tasted. Maybe we just have different ways of appreciating taste but I would not recommend coming to this part of the world on a wine tour. The polite young Japanese man and his girlfriend across the table did consume the lot and he took notes.

Tasting over Sylvia and I were lead down the garden path to the cellar. This part was impressive with several rows of 6000 litre barrels, which originally came from Russia in the 1920s.Down the back of the cellar room we came to a small door that lead to a dirty tasting room. The story goes that when Filatov fled to Europe in 1918, when the Russians occupied the area, he bricked up his cellar and tasting room with the intention of coming back one day. He never returned. In the 60’s a guy turned up at the vineyard and told the staff of the, by then Russian administered, winery that his father had told him how he had built a cellar in the back of the winery. The bricks were removed, and in the cellar on the table was a book detailing every one of the 3600-plus bottles of wine stored there. We sat in the dingy space surrounded by mould clad wine bottles and sampled some more wine, this time the first, a 1997 Torquay, was drinkable. The 91 and 68 not so good. In spite of that it was an interesting and enjoyable experience with our friendly host keen to impart through Nazira as much information as we wanted. Interestingly during Gorbachev’s reign as Russian leader in the late 80s he banned all the production of wine, vodka and other spirit+based drinks, hence all the grapes were pulled out. It is since independence that the industry has started again.

It was then time to head to the station and catch the fast train for the approximately  300km, 2-hour journey to Tashkent, a surprisingly smooth and comfortable trip.