New York Boys Trip

I realised that I had not updated this blog for a very long time and wanted to get back in the flow of recording my travels.  Perhaps doing a law diploma in the evenings became a slight distraction but I’m coming to the end of that now and want to start writing for pleasure again.

I recently went on a trip to New York with a group of my buddies. It was more an escape from reality trip for some of them but all the same it was  good way to catch up and see how everyone was doing.

Rob booked the hotel and somehow chose one right adjacent to Times Square. This was both good and bad for us. Good because it meant it was easy to get around the city and we were all in the middle of things, but bad because we were in the middle of things and that meant it was crazy busy all around.

Our favourite place was Jimmy’s corner, a cheap, sleazy, run down dive bar right across from our hotel. It just screamed old school NY. A relic from a different age really but still and amazing one all the same. Jimmy the owner was an ex boxer and you guessed it, that was the theme of the bar too. All the greats had been in for a pint at some point.  You also meet some proper characters in NY too. New Yorkers are not afraid to spark up a chat.  Particularly if your friend spilt his entire pint onto your crotch and they are creased over in laughter.

 

More to follow

Kuala Lumpur is wonderful

I arrived in KL at night and it was ever so exciting.  i think I was immensely happy to be leaving the desert wasteland of Qatar and was delighted to be in a clean and pleasant land. 

One of my most pleasant memories was Breakfast at the JW Marriott. It was sublime!  I enjoyed it so much.  Tasting exotic Malaysian foods for breakfast with lovely fresh fruits.  It put the food in Doha to shame and it was all down to being in this tropical land. 

We left the hotel and started to wander around the area.  There is a famous fountain just outside the JW at the entrance to the Pavilion Mall which is lovely at night and I think is meant to be bowls! Nice. 

So wandering around in KL is hot and humid.  I enjoyed it and we walked down to the KL Tower which is the tall white spike with a viewing platform.  It has a very fine via of the Petronas tower and when i went, there was no queue.  There is also a strange amusement arcade at the base which reminded me of something you would find at the beach in a run down British seaside town.  It is worth it however as there is a guided tour of the city park.  The park is a piece of protected rainforest which has been left over from when the city had grown around it.  They talk of the history of Malaysia and the rainforest and also tell about the various plants that they have there.  Its a very interesting and enjoyable tour and you will forget you are in the middle of large city when on it.  But beware!  The bugs are quite annoying and will bite!!  

We kept wandering around and ended up at the KL Petronas Towers and looked around the Mall.  I picked up some Scuba get for the trip to the Perentian Islands. 

The Pavilion Mall has a couple of bars in it which were quite lively at night.  I htink they are more touristic but it felt good to be there. I went to a german theme pub and watched some of the World Cup 2010 one of the evening I was there.  Another night we went to the hawker stalls in Jalan Alor and had a nice piece of authentic malaysian fish. Very tasty.  There are lots and lots of restaurants along this street and you can sit out in the street to soak up the atmosphere. Great way to unwind at the end of the day.  

Malaysia Memories

I’ve been to Malaysia twice.  The first time was in 2009 and the second in 2011 because I just loved it so much!  In 2009, I was living in Doha and had a leave cycle which allowed me to go on fantastic holidays every 4 months.  Also, just escaping Doha was an essential part of keep me sane! 

I flew into Kuala Lumpur on Qatar Airways and caught the KLIA Express http://www.kliaekspres.com/ into the centre of town.  It’s a very fast and slick way to get into the centre. The newer station of Kuala Lumpur Sentral has ample taxis to take you to your destination.  Most of the drivers will use the meter as it is illegal not to.  It was such a change and relief as I cant stand the dishonesty.  I seem to recal it was about 15-20 Ringets to most places and it’s certainly the easiest way to get around.  

I must admit, i wasn’t really on a budget on this trip, and we stayed at the Kuala Lumpur JW Marriott hotel.  We were lucky enough to get upgraded to a Suite which was one of the nicest places I have had the pleasure to stay!  The hotel is right in the centre of town.  I don’t think you could get a better location other than maybe at the Petronas Towers.  It is right across from the Pavillion Mall which is a very nice and exclusive shopping centre and is fairly pleasant to walk around to see middle class Malaysians going about their business.  

Beyond the salt and into the ice

IMG_9989 IMG_9990 IMG_9985 IMG_9978 IMG_9972 IMG_9969After the Inca island we headed off across the salt flats to a particularly white area on it.  Here we were able to take the essential perspective baffling photos. It was good fun especially for me as a keen photographer.  Lots of jumping and lots of people picking each other up!  A nice picnic lunch on the flats was followed by a visit to a strange salt museum.  I didn’t care for this place much.  It stank of sewage and was filled with bizarre objects. Very kitsch to see but it was a monument to all that can be bad about tourism.

Next stop was the fascinating train graveyard.  A railway was built by the British in the 1800’s for the purpose of mining in Uyuni.  It is still in operation, however, many of the trains are sadly not.  These relics to a bygone age of steam are left standing in a flat deserted landscaped, slowly rusting away.  I climbed on top of one of the trains.  They really are interesting especially for me who works in the rail industry.  I loved it.  Well worth stopping for.

After this, we had to endure the journey back to San Pedro.  It was unbelievably cold.  Driving in the dark in Bolivia s something you should try to avoid as it is very uncomfortable and cold. We stopped at some hotel in the middle of no where.  The sky was beautiful and many stars were visible thanks to the lack of light pollution.  However the temperatures were down to -20C again.  We had to get up a 4am to continue the journey.  The only plus point was the sighting of the sun.  The way we had come a few days earlier was about 2 feet deep in snow where before there was none.  We were lucky to get through.

I was immensely glad to be back in the warmth of San Pedro.  We returned to our hostal Tuyasto for a shower which had been kindly offered by the landlady on our departure.  I hadn’t showered for 4 days.  It was bliss.

No rest for the wicked though. We boarded one of the luxury buses back to Callama which was an excellent way to travel.  Reclining comfortable seats similar to business class in some airlines.  If buses were like this in the UK I would always use them!!

Callama was a town that is apparently a rough mining town.  I thought it had character if not some grit about it.  I sort of wished I’d had a bit more time to look around it but not so.  I did also find the other end of the railway which we left in Uyuni!

A flight back to Santiago and back to La Chimba to sleep.

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The Salt Flats of Uyuni

I had such a great nights sleep at the salt lake.  Perhaps it was the food, or the lower altitude, or the fact I was in a room away from our snoring travelling companion…  But either way I awoke energised and ready to see what the salt flats of Uyuni had to offer!  Our guide and driver had instructed me to get up in the dark to join him in watching the sunrise.  We climbed the steep hill at the rear of the salt hotel through the scrub and tumble weed and the tall cactus that grew on the hillside.  I felt as though I was in a some kind of Western film. We reached the viewing point and when I turned round I was confronted with the stunning sight of the white salt flats against a slowly rising sun.  The orange glow could be seen beyond the sillouette of the mountains that surrounded the salt flat which were more and 200km in the distance.

Louis, our guide, lit a small fire using the dry scrub bushes that were around us.  I was mildly concerned that this might spark some sort of larger wild fire however he seemed relaxed.  The fire didn’t spread.  We stood in silence and enjoyed the rising sun.  A truly magical experience.

With that done, we had some breakfast and embarked out into the salt flat.  I imagined that the salt would be soft but in fact it was baked hard and was as hard as granite.  We drove further into the salt lake where Louis told us of tales where people had become disorientated in the salt flats and died.  They had underestimated the scale of the place.  I later learned that they are one half the size of WALES.  Imagine that.  Massive.

We drove in the direction of the Inca island.  It was a beautiful island in the sea of salt. The way its Brown dirt and cactus rose from the white expanse that surrounded us gave it a magical other world quality which I’m sure the Inca’s cherished.  Infact it was a holy religious site for them.  And of course me being me, had completely forgotten the significance of the day.  It was the mid-winter solstice and there was a special religious ceremony at the the peak of the island.  I don’t know if this is a daily occurence, or an annual one, but it felt like a special festival.  People were singing and chanting and seemed to be very happy.  I stood awkwardly on the outside of their group observing. A Bolivian man came and shook my hand and welcomed me to the group.  He offered me a clear drink and said I had to toast ‘Madre tierra’ and him.  So I gave some of the drink to the earth by pouring it on the ground and then taking a long swig on it.  It was strong!  No idea what was in it but I can only assume it was home brew judging by the fact it was in a used plastic lemonade bottle.  Of course, since I did it, the others not wanting to be upstaged also started offering me their spirits. I must have had three or four shots by 9:30am!!  I was beginning to feel somewhat unsteady.

I found the whole experience fantastic. It may have been the spirit but I felt a real bond between myself and these people.  They were so authentic and honest.  Just giving thanks for the earth and their beautiful country where they live.  At that moment I understood the lack of development and the non-existent roads.  It was what they wanted. No western mining corporation they told me.  They genuinely believed in protecting the environment and would do so at all cost.  It was an emotional moment.

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Onwards in Bolivia

I genuinely felt close to death here.  5000m high hostel.

I genuinely felt close to death here. 5000m high hostel.

The second day in Bolivia began with an incredible sunrise.  I awoke from my extremely poor nights sleep with a pounding headache.  We had a breakfast and set out to the Laguna Colorado for one last photo opportunity. I decided to take up the offer of an altitude sickness tablet from an Australian travelling companion and it only made me want to vomit really badly.  I don’t recommend them!

5000m sunrise

5000m sunrise

We drove out of the national park and onwards onto the Bolivian plains.  Vast expanses of desert high up in the mountain with very little vegetation and only the odd Vicuna darting around the landscape.  Our driver who was a former park ranger had extensive knowledge of the wildlife and revealled that he had written a book about the Laguna Colorado and was involved in a campaign to help it achieve UNESCO world heritage site (or something!!) status.  He was an adventurer who spoke very little English but I swear I could understand his Spanish… maybe it was the altitude.

Anyway, we toured a series of lakes and drove onwards through rugged terrain which battered the vehicle we were in.  It also took it’s toll on my sickly body and I couldn’t wait for us to drop down to a lower altitude.  We passed several laguna’s with flamingos but the oddest one was had a strange hotel situated at it.  I’m sure this building was illegal and it’s only trade seemed to be allowing passing travellers to uses their disgusting outhouses.  They landscape was littered with signs saying “No pissing in the lake” or whatever that is in Spanish.  Perhaps it was a noble quest to minimies sewage pollution, but being the cynic that I am, I thought it was profiteering.

We drove down the mountain stopping to look at various sights including a large rock which was freestanding due to wind erosion.  And also saw an active volcano albeit from some distance away (a first for me).  Eventually we reached a salt flat which had the main railway running through it.  Built by the British, it was still in operation and I think it would have been fascinating to catch a train on it.  Apparently it runs from Uyuni to Calama in Chile.

 

Big Rock in the desert

Big Rock in the desert

Nobody around

Nobody around

Two French gymnasts touring South America.  They had lost their camera

Two French gymnasts touring South America. They had lost their camera

Trust Toyota.  I realised that this was the only thing between us and hypothermia.

Trusty Toyota. I realised that this was the only thing between us and hypothermia.

They were praying for a train.  It was windy too.

They were praying for a train. It was windy too.

Little shop

Little shop

Following this interesting pause, and because I was feeling more chipper due to only being at say 3000m above sea level, we made a stop in a small village. It was the kind of place I imagined I would see in South America.  With only 2 streets and a cross road, it had a couple of shops.  Our driver drove around a few to find them shut.  I realised that they might well be taking turns at getting trade from tourist, as only one was open.  I also treated myself to a sausage and fries, which although I wasn’t ill from, felt like it was a really bad idea as soon as I had ordered it…

We finished the day at the edge of the Uyuni Salt flat at a salt hotel.  The place was constructed entirely from blocks of salt from the lake.  Infact, the floor was also all salt and it felt very homely.  Almost like having a white, salty beach under your feet.

Dinner here was the best we had had all trip in Bolivia.  That being lent to the fact that there was a fire, beers and the food was not luke warm pasta.  It was Flamingo!  Wow how tasty was that?!  No, that was the joke our driver played on us.  It was chicken, but he really had me going all day.  Again I think i was seriously suffering from the altitude sickness.

Shortly before dinner, I witnessed perhaps one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.  Fantastic.  I slept very soundly that night satisfied with my adventure so far.

 

Salt hotel with the salt floor.  So cute

Salt hotel with the salt floor. So cute

Look how cute the salt dining tables and chairs are!

Look how cute the salt dining tables and chairs are!

Bolivian Flag - well worn

Bolivian Flag – well worn

Me getting warm and making new friends

Me getting warm and making new friends

Simply stunning sunset

Simply stunning sunset

 

 

 

Bolivia – the real adventure

Immigration: Bolivian Style

Immigration: Bolivian Style

Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde

Big Space

Big Space

Wow

Wow

What a Geyser!

What a Geyser!

Pretty sure that Heath and Safety would not approve

Pretty sure that Heath and Safety would not approve

Mini Geyser pumping out steam from the ground

Mini Geyser pumping out steam from the ground

Flamingoes!

Flamingoes!

red red flamingoes in the red lake

red red flamingoes in the red lake

LLamas

LLamas

3 altitude sick people

3 altitude sick people

Strom coming in

Strom coming in

Crazy storm sky

Crazy storm sky

After an early start we piled into the Chile border post to get our exit visa stamped and then made the journey up a large mountain towards Bolivia.  It felt a bit like a trip into the unknown especially when it started snowing on the way up.  We went up to 4500m and when the mini bus turned left onto a dirt track with a sign post pointing to “Bolivia” I knew it would be interesting.  A short distance from the main road in a barren wind swept saddle between two mountains there were two small stone huts.  This was the border where we entered Bolivia and transferred to the old Toyota Land Cruiser that would become our mode of transport/life support over the next few days.  After eating some sandwiches and some nescafe we set off downwards toward the “Laguna Verde”.

It is at this point that I have to admit the amount of research i did on this trip was completely inadequate.  I had no idea what I was going to see, how high we were going and how bloody cold it was going to get! This trip is not for the faint hearted and it pays to be prepared for what lies ahead.  Especially if you are going in the winter time like us.

The first stop into the national park was the Laguna Verde.  This is a scenic lake which appears green due to mineral deposits from the nearby mountains. It was all very nice…  But the next stop on the route was the hot springs.

At this point the air temperature must have been close to 0C and I was nicely wrapped up in about 4-5 layers. Faced with the prospect of getting changed, walking about 100m from the changing room which smell of piss and shit from the toilets, and plunging into a pool made me question my sanity.  I did it and rather enjoyed the pleasantly warm waters.  But the time to leave came and as you might imagine, that was the really hard part.  I being the crazy and brave Scottish guy lead the way.  Freezing!  I got changed very quickly.

The next stop that day was the geysers.  These were at over 5000m high and when we went up there the weather had really closed in on us.  Serious gale force winds and our driver was clearly scared. We had to keep the windows closed incase the car blew over!  I don’t even know if thats possible, but i’m assuming his request was from hard experience. The altitude was starting to take it’s toll on me and I was suffering a head ache and feeling dizzy.  A strange and unpleasant sensation.

We quickly jumped out of the vehicle and ran between the geysers.  It was perhaps quite dangerous but it was fascinating to see the steaming mud and the jet blasts of steam emerging from the earth.  We had to run for it when hit by a blast of sulfur gas which could have been toxic gas.  But ultimately I was very glad to get out of the gale force blizzard that was going on. I could tell that this was serious and we had to get off the mountain as soon as possible.  Our driver was visibly nervous about the weather conditions.

We arrived at Laguna Colorado.  I was suffering from the altitude and the cold as were the rest of our group.  However even through this, i was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the site. The lake has a red colour to it.  And combined with thousands of flamingoes along the shore, it makes for a fascinating experience.

We were to stay at a remote hostel in the middle of the barren landscape near to the Laguna Colorado. It lacked heating and was empty except for out group of four.  I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of a night there.  We ate diner which was cooked by the ladies that ran the hostel and seemed to live up there. Everything had to be brought with us in the car. This was a seriously remote place and it occured to met that even the firewood would have been brought up from down below as there was no vegetation at all except the odd tuft of grass.

I think i had the worst nights sleep i’ve ever had.  The temperature dropped to -15C and even though i had 3 alpaca blankets and a sleeping bag (albeit the cheapest summer sleeping bag possible) i was bitterly cold.  It was not helped by the pounding head ache caused by the altitude and the extreme snoring by one of my travelling companions.  I was a wreck in the morning.