Archive | July, 2012
July 15, 2012

POTD: Prague Main Railway Station

If I had to name one thing that I missed the most about Europe, it would have to be the rail network. Yes, we have passenger rail service in the United States, but Amtrak can’t even compare to Germany’s Deutsche Bahn or the United Kingdom’s National Rail. For instance, the top speed on Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela train on the Washington, DC to New York City route is 135mph, compared to the Eurostar which races along at 186mph.

The Eurostar was my preferred method of travel when visiting Paris or Brussels due to the speed (less than two hours to either city), location (no schlepping out to the airport) and price (£59 roundtrip). Within the UK, I’ve used National Rail to visit cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester, both quick, comfortable journeys. (For those who are looking for a more relaxing, scenic journey, steam rail tours are available in northern England, Wales, Scotland, and northern Germany).

The above photo is of Praha hlavní nádraží (Prague main railway station). As part of our December 2009 Central Europe trip we took the train from Berlin to Prague (and after spending a few days there attempting to find the best Czech beer, onward to Vienna). Although the Art Nouveau inspired exterior and interior of the train station could use a bit of renovation, I loved the traditional steel and glass canopy that stretched over the tracks.

An interesting aside – from 1918 – 1938 and 1945 – 1953, the station was named after US President Woodrow Wilson (Wilsonovo nádraží) in honor of his contribution to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War I.

July 15, 2012

Exploring San Juan Island

Last weekend we made an impromptu trip to the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located between Washington state and Vancouver Island, Canada. There aren’t any bridges connecting the mainland to the San Juan Islands, so the only way you can get there is via ferry or airplane.

We opted for the ferry, and when we arrived at the loading terminal were met with this considerably long line:

Thankfully the ships are enormous and can hold a very large amount of cars, so we got on the earlier ferry and didn’t have to wait an additional two hours. Pricewise, the ferry is a pretty good deal. It was under $80 for roundtrip transportation of the car and an additional passenger.

The ferry ride itself is the worth the trip to the San Juans. Leave your car while the ferry is underway and head to the topside for some amazing views.


Mt. Baker


Approaching Friday Harbor

We chose to stay on San Juan Island. No particular reason why, it was just the first one that came to mind. After an approximately hour long ferry ride, we arrived in Friday Harbor. Friday Harbor is the largest city in the San Juan Islands, and the commercial hub of the archipelago, yet it still remains a quaint island town with a little over 2000 residents.

All of the hotels in Friday Harbor were booked solid (and those that weren’t were going for $250 per night) so we opted to camp instead. A quick Google search directed us to Lakedale Resort, which had available campsites for $45 per night. Quite extortionate for a campsite when compared to state and national campgrounds, but there aren’t many options on San Juan Island.

On Saturday morning were up early to start a full day exploration of the island (after a camp breakfast of bacon and eggs, of course). Our first stop was the English camp, which was built by the British in 1859 after the killing of a pig. Yes, a pig. The “Pig War” was an interesting piece of history that I had been completely unaware of until this visit. For more on the Pig War and subsequent showdown between British and American forces, check out this Wikipedia article.


Garden at the British camp

Driving south of the British camp…


Olympic mountain range off in the distance

And further south to the American camp. This is Cattle Point:


Cattle Point Lighthouse


Out here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t have very sandy beaches, so you have to entertain yourself by building stuff with driftwood, which we have plenty of.

We also went on a whale watching cruise, but we didn’t actually see any whales, which kinda sucked. Thankfully we can go back in the future and take the cruise again for free. But we did see some more of the islands:

And this random Chinese junk boat:

And Mount Baker:

After the unsuccessful whale watching cruise we drove back to camp and sat around the fire drinking beer and eating hot dogs and smores.

The next morning we got up early and headed back to the mainland via ferry.

This was a nice, relaxing weekend and great escape from the city. We definitely plan on returning to the San Juans.

The rest of the photos are here.

July 8, 2012

North Korea: Departing Pyongyang

On the morning of our fifth day in Pyongyang, we were back on the bus headed to the Pyongyang Airport to catch our return flight to Beijing. Of course, we were running late. The majority of our group was typically on time but there were always a few laggards, so we arrived at Sunan International Airport shortly before 8:30am for a 9:00am flight.

Despite the fact that there were only three flights that day, check-in was a bit chaotic; we hurriedly filled out the customs forms and waited for the guards to return our cell phones, which had been kept under lock and key at the airport since we had arrived in Pyongyang. We also waited for our guides to return our passports, which we were required to surrender to them when we arrived in North Korea.

After finally checking-in and receiving our boarding passes, we headed straight to the security check, which meant we had zero time to enjoy the airport’s only restaurant or make last minute purchases of books by the Dear Leader and Great Leader (basically the only souvenirs for sale) at the small gift shop. As to be expected, there was a long line at security and 9am was quickly approaching. Surely our plane wouldn’t leave without our group and leave us stranded in Pyongyang for a few more days?




The Kims are, of course, inescapable.

The security check actually went by rather quickly, as the North Koreans don’t make you take your shoes off or put all of your liquids in a little baggie like the TSA does. I guess if you are a member of the “Axis of Evil” you don’t really have to worry about all that stuff.

After the security check came passport control. Typically, if you enter a country on a visa, this is when you would receive an exit stamp, but we were on a group visa that was in the possession of our tour leader, so there was no visa in our passport to stamp, and thus no coveted DPRK passport stamp. Some of our group members politely asked, or begged the officers to stamp their passport, but their pleas were met by a head shake. So, I exited North Korea with absolutely no official record of having visited the country, just 1,500 photos and a copy of “The Eternal Sun of Mankind”.


Our ride back to Beijing


Air Koryo fleet


Heading to the runway


The in-flight meal – the infamous Air Koryo burger. Yes, it tastes as awful as it looks.

The flight back was uneventful, although quite uncomfortable. The seating was incredibly cramped and the cabin temperature seemed to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I dozed off intermittently, glad to be back in possession of my iPhone so that I could listen to music that had nothing to do with the Great Leader.


Goodbye, North Korea!

The rest of the photos are here.

July 8, 2012

Travel Wishlist: Scotland


(courtesy Lonely Planet)

I’m actually pretty embarrassed to admit this, but despite living in London for a year, I never managed to make it to Scotland. I didn’t actually travel much around the United Kingdom that year, instead opting to explore the European continent (France, Italy, Czech Republic, the Balkans, etc). I did visit Cambridge and Cardiff on daytrips, and the usual tourist spots of Stonehenge, Windsor, and Bath, but that was about the extent of my UK travel. When I spent a week in London in January 2010, I seriously contemplated making a quick trip up to Edinburgh and spent a few hours researching railway timetables (it is about a 4.5 hour journey from London) and finding Edinburgh hotels. Ultimately, though, laziness prevailed and I opted to instead spend my time wandering around London with friends.

Someday, though, I will visit Scotland. I figure I would need about two weeks to see everything on my “to-do” list, including Edinburgh, Skye, and the Highlands. BBC Travel recently published an excellent article detailing a two-week road trip itinerary that takes you from Edinburgh to the Orkney Islands. I’m especially intrigued by the Scottish Highlands, often considered the most beautiful part of Scotland due to its multitude of lochs, castles, mountains, and coastal scenery. I’ve heard Inverness is a fun city to visit as well, especially if you are visiting during the Highland Games. The BBC itinerary is packed with a lot of different activities, including hiking, sea kayaking, castle visits, ferry rides, wildlife cruises, and whiskey tastings. Admittedly, I’m not a huge whiskey fan, but maybe a trip to Scotland could convince me otherwise.

July 4, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VII

Taken September 2009 while driving through Pyongyang in a bus (hence the poor photo quality)


I believe this is the entrance to a factory


I thought the style of these trams looked very familiar. They are Czech made, and likely the same style as the ones I rode in Prague several years ago.


Koryo Hotel on the left


Propaganda vehicle (notice the speakers on the top)


Student group


Top of the Ryugyong Hotel


The only gas station I saw in North Korea


A Nissan Paladin aka Nissan Xterra. The only reason I really took this photo was because I own an Xterra.


Another Xterra


A very crowded tram


The Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung. After Kim Jong-il’s death they added a statue of him as well.

And that is the end of the Pyongyang street photos. All of them can be found here.

July 3, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VI

More photos from Pyongyang in September 2009.


Traffic Girl (because who needs stoplights?)


City beautification project


City park with playground


Metro station


More propaganda


Apartment buildings and propaganda


Taedongmun (Taedong Gate). This is the eastern gate of the inner castle of the walled city of Pyongyang and one of the National Treasures of North Korea. The gate was originally built in the sixth century however the present construction dates from 1635 (the original was burnt to the ground during in the late 16th century).


Surprise, more propaganda


The elusive male traffic control officer


Pyongyang high rises

July 2, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part V

More random photos taken while driving through Pyongyang, North Korea in September 2009.


More propaganda. It is literally everywhere.


Mangyongdae Children’s Palace


Ryugyong Hotel under construction.


Decorations for the September 9th “Independence Day” holiday


Tram


Portrait of Kim Il-Sung on a building


Approaching Kim Il-Sung’s Mausoleum (Kumsusan Memorial Palace)


Another view of Kumsusan Memorial Palace

July 1, 2012

North Korea: The Tomb of King Kongmin (Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb)

Note: I’m trying to play catch up here; there was a moment in 2010 when I stopped really blogging about my travels. I was laid off from my job with Big Oil in December 2009, and as the months progressed I felt guilty actually taking the time to blog when that time could have been spent more productively, i.e., writing cover letters or taking paid writing jobs (and let’s face it, after writing all day, the last thing you want to do is write in the evening). As a result, this blog fell by the wayside and I failed to finish blogging about my travels to North Korea and China in 2009, and barely mentioned my trips to Central Europe and the UK in December 2009/January 2010 and Costa Rica in February 2010. Then came a multitude of temp jobs, the move across country from DC to Seattle, a full time job in the travel industry, etc, and before I knew it almost three years had passed since I had completed these trips. So this is my attempt to finish writing about these places in time for a tour of Southeast Asia in December.

After touring Kaesong, we departed for Pyongyang, stopping enroute at the Tomb of King Kongmin which is located just outside Kaesong. I found this drive to be particularly interesting because we passed a lot of small farming villages along the way, all with the requisite propaganda paintings of the Dear Leader and Great Leader. Strangely, we weren’t allowed to take any photos during our drive to the tomb, which was unusual because our guides had not previously imposed any photo restrictions (aside from the DMZ, of course).

I was actually a bit surprised we even visited the Tomb of King Kongmin, as it was one of the few sights on our itinerary that wasn’t strictly “North Korean”. By that I mean there was no propaganda or lectures extolling the heroic feats of Kim Il-Sung, so visiting the tomb felt a bit out of place. It just seemed like a typical historical sight that you could visit in any number of “normal” countries. Our guide didn’t talk at length about it and actually seemed pretty indifferent about it.

Also known as the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb, these 14th-century mausoleums contains the remains of Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty, and his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk. Construction of the tomb was completed in 1372, six years after Queen Noguk’s death in 1365. Kongmin was interred here two years later after being killed by one of his court eunuchs. Apparently Kongmin had gone insane, threatening to kill several members of the court and subjecting them to depraved sexual acts, so the court members decided to kill him first (of course, they would later be executed for the crime). The whole incident was quite tawdry and would likely make an excellent script for a Hollywood film.


Steps leading up to the tomb area


One of the tombs


The “spirit road” lined with statues of military officers and Confucian officials.



Statues of sheep and tigers surround the tomb. The tigers represent fierceness and the sheep represent gentleness.


Surrounding area

All photos of the tome are here.