29 June 2012

Scottish pandas, castles and spitting on the ground…

Spontaneous decision made to visit Edinburgh done in one day. Site seeing in Edinburgh done in two days. Turns out going to Edinburgh meant missing out on the Jubilee festivities back in London...ah well I saw all the footage on TV!

The train to Edinburgh was a breeze. Didn’t reserve seats but was lucky to find two free seats close together. The weird thing about the reserved seats was no one came to sit in them, leaving lots of space. Once it was safe that no one meant for the seats were coming we claimed a table section. The rest of the journey was relaxing watching the English countryside fly past…until the sun set and then all you could see was your own reflection.

5 hours later and hello bloody cold Scotland!

The mission we accepted was to see the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Day one began with a bright and early start to travel by bus to make the panda appointment. Booked tickets and viewing time online was a smart idea. Arriving at the zoo, minutes before opening time, we found it was already packed with a queue my eyes could not see the end of. Not knowing where to go, staff arrived and wanted to start an internet booking line...right where we were standing. Brilliant. Next stop pandas!

Pandas are lazy sods that sleep 17 hours of the day away. We were lucky to see action from the two pandas, for at least some of the viewing time. The female Tian Tian was wandering all over the enclosure and then that was that. She found her favourite spot on a platform and rested with her back to the crowd. The male Yang Guang paraded himself in front of the glass then made his way to his favourite back scratching tree…hence the brown markings in his coat. Upside down and having a good old scratch was hilarious to see. Who knew seeing pandas could be entertaining!

After leaving the pandas I wanted to see the big cats, my favourite being the tiger. Except their tiger was a sneak and just had to sleep (or hide) in the one part of the enclosure you could not see him! Leaning right against the window and looking awkwardly up to the right I saw a paw. With that let down I was off to see the rest of the big cats. I was awestruck. I’ve never seen leopards or jaguars before and when I saw the first leopard I became an excitable child. The cats were snacking on breakfast left in great spots close to the window for the crowd gathered to take amazing shots.

We said goodbye to the zoo, not before purchasing ah um panda soft toy with a tartan scarf…get it…Scottish panda!

The next agenda item for the day was a free walking tour of Edinburgh, thanks to a friend who lived there. The modern parliament buildings are architecturally interesting, if you like that kind of thing. The streets are full of Scottish merchandise shopping opportunities. Finding the best fudge shop was a bonus.

The best attractions seen:

Holyroodhouse Palace – The royal family’s Scottish residence. Didn’t actually go inside but took photos from the best spot, through a gate by the toilets! I will have to go back and see inside the grounds, it looked stunning.

The Royal Mile. The High Street of Old Town. A succession of streets leading up to Edinburgh castle. Now the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival society - The Hub. By the West Door of St Giles' is the Heart of Midlothian, a heart-shaped pattern built into the road. The heart marks the site of the Old Tollbooth, formerly the centre of administration, taxation and justice in the Burgh. From the point of its demolition, locals used to spit on the site of the prison. Locals’ still spit on the heart but the legend has been "cleaned up" by tourist guides who claim the spitting is for good luck.

Grassmarkets. Historic market in Edinburgh. It was also a setting for public executions. There is no longer any grass, instead a concord of pavement and cafe areas. The "shadow" of a gibbet was added in dark paving on the former gallows site.

Edinburgh Castle. Looks are deceiving. It is impressive to look at from below but nothing much to see inside. There were a couple of renovated rooms where Mary Queen of Scots was born and the King’s rooms, three  royal crown jewels, nothing in comparison to the crown jewels at The Tower of London and war memorial museums. If that doesn’t interest you, keep your £14.

20 June 2012

Hotel lock down, great pyramids and Nile cruises

The country I’ve always wanted to see first was Egypt. Why? I can't pinpoint the exact moment of realisation but when I saw The Mummy (not the best action movie, but it did produce a sequel and spin off movies) I became obsessed with Egypt. I was obsessed with the ancient history. I was obsessed with the locations. I was obsessed with the gods and everything in between. Egypt sparked my imagination and wonder. I just wanted to go there.

With that bar set I was ready. Except the bar was set too high.

Leaving Turkey behind to arrive in Cairo and find ourselves on hotel lock down. Not the best start. Planned protests aka riots in Tahrir Square, on the other side of the river, were scheduled and not the most welcoming. Traffic was a nightmare too. Hilarious with taxi's even trying to turn around to get out of the traffic managed to drive down the street backwards! Leaving Cairo was a rush, cutting it a little too close in checking in for our flight. The small ventures taken in Cairo were to do laundry and get food. One jewel of the Nile found was KFC… typical for Kiwis to find. This KFC run by deaf locals as part of an organisation to help the deaf be independent workers. One server even pulled a prank on us by giving an empty popcorn chicken box; of course it took us awhile to click what he was signalling!

I didn’t love all Egypt had to offer. I hated the pushy sellers; it put me off wanting to buy anything. Those people ruined the experience of seeing the temples and pyramids. I understand their desperation to sell but I do not appreciate the rudeness and in your face intimidation.

Never bothering to research the crisis or trip expectations was a mistake. Do your research, I read my copy of the Top 10 Cairo & The Nile on the bus to Luxor and learned why the trip leader mentioned certain facts. Things to avoid:   losing your temper (happened at the Pyramids), believing all your told (fake guides selling a better tour, I heard him out then got the hell away!), and being gullible. You will get bargains sometimes and sometimes you’ll pay way too much. Hey it’s ok the conversion rate still leaves you with a good deal!

You can enjoy Egypt remembering these lessons.

And never forget that Egypt is a third world country. The riches of the ancient world are exactly that ancient. My travel grievances can be forgotten. I will go back. I’ll just be better prepared.

Egypt unwrapped:

E is for evil camels. I suppose not all camels are evil, they’re not even native with Egypt! The afternoon spent on felucca boats was relaxing. I even braved the waters and went for a dip in the Nile…it was cold and full of weeds! The highlight was touching Sahara Desert sand. The camel ride to the village was the lowlight. I led a group of camels with the guide at the reins. The guide went off, first mistake. The camel saw food, second mistake. Down it went to eat and down I went with it. Off the side and the guide jumped in front to catch me. I was fine, the guide then did his job and led and I swore I would never go on a camel again!

G is for Gypies. Our nickname for Egyptians invented by one of the boys and it took like wildfire and spread. Not Gypsies. The common phrase used when approached by Gypies is “No thank you”.

Y is for You should still go. Two hundred million visitors used to enter Egypt a year, now they’ll be lucky to see 200,000. Don’t let the unrest in Cairo stop you. Go on a cruise down the Nile. See the east coast beaches.
P is for Papyrus. The budget blown when we stopped to visit one of the many essences and essential oil shops. Expensive in Egyptian pound but for 70 Sterling I walked away with 100mls of the beautiful essence of the Papyrus flower, only sold in Egypt, and two other scents. Top designer perfumes contain the essences exported from Egypt; you can create your own cheap replica! The poor boys waited a longtime for us girls. They played with a rugby ball outside. Another store visited was the papyrus art store. Again I blew my budget but you couldn’t leave Egypt without your name in Hieroglyphics.

T is for Temples, Temples and yes more Temples. Top Temples:
Edfu: The temple of Horus, my favourite God, dating back to 237BC when Egypt was ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great. This structure is the most intact of all Egypt’s temples and the most underrated.

Philae: The temple devoted to Isis. The most picturesque and you see the Pharaoh’s propaganda all over the walls. The Graeco-Roman era site is on a Nile Island. After building the Aswan Dam the temple began to flood part of each year. The temple relocated to Agilika Island once the High Dam was built that flooded Philae Island.

Abu Simbel: The High Dam formed Lake Nasser. This largest water reservoir in the world then threatened the temples and UNESCO stepped in cutting the mountain in sections to rebuild the pieces 210m behind and 65m above the original site. You never would have known! The four 20m high colossi show the likeness of Ramses II, an amazing entrance into the Sun temple. The temple of Hathor built to the right honours Ramses II's wife Nefertari, not to be confused with Nefertiti.

Karnak: A vast site consisting of many temples. One open to the public and the best is the temple of Amun. Full of pylons, obelisks, courts, colonnades, chambers, a sacred lake and a wishing well. An avenue of ram head sphinxes’ used to connect the entrance with a canal from the Nile. Visiting on hot days, any shade found will be taken by wild dogs.
Hatshepsut: The only woman to reign Egypt as Pharaoh. Statues depicting Hatshepsut show her feminine face with a beard. Stories of her birth are carved in the walls telling she was the son of Amun, then becoming a man not a woman. The series of terraces and temples set upon a mountainous backdrop is stunning. The temple of Anubis, my second favourite God, still has colour on the walls.

Luxor: They say is unmissable. The last temple scheduled when you’ve seen two temples and Valley of the Kings already, it is miss-able. Photos snapped from the bus, so not entirely unseen.