|The Templeton Building on Glasgow Green - it certainly caught my eye!|
|The first of many happy evenings spent at WEST|
Finished my studies in chemistry & chemical engineering, now working as a (hopefully soon) globetrotting field service engineer for a water treatment company. Travel to pass the long, wet, Scottish summers. And also make cheeky trips to "the Continent" (i.e. Europe) when I can. Fly long haul infrequently enough to enjoy it. Like to explore science and engineering related attractions while on the road - a trip down a mine is my favourite. Always love to travel on a whim too...
|The Templeton Building on Glasgow Green - it certainly caught my eye!|
|The first of many happy evenings spent at WEST|
I flew halfway around the world and was greeted by this...
Right now the 3-day celebration that is the pinnacle of the Mongolian tourist season is in full swing. It is a festival of merriment and machismo. A celebration of what it means to be a man. Athleticism and physical prowess is revered. And men get hot and sweaty. Dressed in naught but tiny vests and woollen underwear. Pink woollen underwear (usually).
It can only be the spectacle that is Naadam (in Ulaanbaatar it is celebrated 11-13 of August every year). Inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2010, Naadam is an old Mongolian tradition that has seen revival along with the rise of Mongolian nationalism, at the start of the last century, and now celebrates Mongolian independence in 1921. Naadam is the festival of the “three manly sports” – archery, (long distance) horse riding and of course Mongolian wrestling.
Chinggis Khaan (Ghengis Khan) -
There are differences to each of the sports to what you would be familiar with. Archery is not aiming at a bull’s-eye, but shooting an arrow in a parabolic path into what is essentially a tiny cylindrical target on the ground (similar in size to a hole on a golf course). Men and women compete separately, at difference target distances. While the competitor’s task seems impossible to me, they have been using a bow from a very early age. The bow are incredibly strong – speaking to a Swiss-Armenian archer on the flight out, he was saying his young son’s bow from Mongolia is equivalent to the strength of an adult’s Olympic bow, and so has to buy archery equipment on his trips to Mongolia. It’s a serious sport – so serious that even the president and prime minister compete (it’s true – I was literally spitting distance away from them at the time!).
Horse riding is not like what you would see at Ascot or the other races of that sort. It is like the marathon of horse races; long distance, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. The riders are children (again, a skill that many Mongolians learn from an early age – as young as 2 years old!), as the aim of the race is to test the skill of the horse, not the rider. After the races (there are races for different ages of horse) the winners are celebrated by a song declaring their equine brilliance. And the loser in the youngest age group is honoured with what I guess is the the Mongolian equivalent of a limerick.
Finally, there is the wrestling. 3 days of wrestling. It’s a hard sport to break into – the previous year’s champion chooses his opponent (usually the weediest boy there), followed by the second winner etc. It results in an initial stage of David & Goliath bouts running simultaneously before the opponents become more evenly matched. This makes it very difficult to break into the sport of Mongolian wrestling. After each individual fight the winner does the traditional victory eagle dance – a somehow graceful movement after the tussling a few moments before. The winners are also awarded rank titles according to what stage of the competition they get to – there is a whole lot of tradition and ceremony attached to the whole event.
Sadly I never saw the action up close...
I experienced Naadam in Ulaanbaatar at the National Sports Stadium (smaller Naadam celebrations can be seen outside UB a few days before). Like with the Olympics, the opening ceremony is actually the bit most people watch – a huge, choreographed re-enactment of a traditional story, along with a parade featuring Mongolia’s musical all stars (one of whom was on my return flight – no idea what his name is though!) as well as various members of the armed forces. Finally there is the singing of the national anthem – musically pretty good, not too pedestrian at all, melodious, lyrically inspirational (and with hints of propaganda in the style of the Communist era). Conveniently song sheets were distributed – all in the Cyrillic alphabet (which I fortunately knew after a failed attempt to teach myself Russian) – and I think I gave it a fair bash at singing along.
Aside from the opening ceremony, seeing a few rounds of wrestling, wandering over to the archery range, wandering around the festival grounds (mobbed by Americans touroids decked out in traditional Mongolian clothing they must have been shafted paying for), trying some khuushuur (greasy, fried mutton dumplings – perfect festival food), perhaps taking a taxi out to the horse race and then coming back for “Ode to a Horse”, there isn’t really all that much else to do, aside from watching endless rounds of wrestling at a distance (if you want to see it up close, maybe go to one of the wrestling rings that can be found in most big towns, or start an ad-hoc game after a few vodkas). There’s a lot of sitting around between brief moments of excitement (like many major sporting event such as the Olympics or big motor races). There are also fireworks in Suukhbataar square – the first night of Ulaanbaatar’s celebrations if I remember correctly.
Aspiring (and failing) to be a
proud Mongolian horseman
Naadam is an interesting introduction to Mongolian culture, although it will be hard to gain a good understanding without a Mongolian to explain it to you – it certainly won’t feel as authentic. Aside from Naadam itself, UB is pretty cosmopolitan. There are a few interesting museums (like the Natural History Museum which has some really interesting dinosaur fossils, and also the National Museum of Mongolian history for further introduction to Mongolian culture), but once you’ve seen them, UB has nothing more to offer than international bars and an equally international crowd of people (even more so since Mongolia’s recent mining boom).
My advice: get out of UB ASAP and experience the real, untamed Mongolia like the manly Mongolian I can only aspire to be.
Although in recent years I’ve largely travelled alone, my first steps into the big wide world of foreign adventures (with my parent’s safely on the other side of the world) were within a group environment. Traveling as a group can be fun, there is always someone to talk to, and there can be a lot of variety, meaning that usually there is never a dull moment. Travelling as a group can also be a little stressful, with added logistics, politics and the formation of cliques, especially among larger groups. Here are some ideas to help keep the chaos to a minimum:
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth
It is a fact that having a lot of people in one place, with limited space and facilities can be very stressful. It’s nice to be inclusive when planning a trip, but there is a point when it is wise to limit numbers – accommodation and transportation are usually the deciding factors. Think about what you are trying to accomplish – 2 weeks doing practical volunteer work lends itself to different numbers than inter-railing around Europe (e.g. 4 people building a school in Kenya? 20 people cramming onto a Deutsche Bahn ICE and expecting to sit in the same carriage, let alone near each other? Think again!). Have a reasonable idea of how many people on the trip is practical, and comfortable, and stick with that number.
Hong Kong & China 2008 - My team had a really good sense of humour and kept positive even when our accommodation in Guangzhou fell through and we had no idea where we would be staying.
Two’s Company. Three’s a Crowd
Trust me. In certain situations this works (e.g. you are all family, have hung out as the Three Musketeers for years, you’ve somehow managed to make a ménage-a-trois work, etc.) but generally it’s something to avoid. Typically there are either two situations: someone gets left out, or the “third wheel” begins to piss one or both other people off. While prime numbers are good for making majority decisions, it probably sucks to be the one ending up on their own (refer to Walter, Gary & Mary’s trip to LA in “The Muppets” for a case study).
Sharing is Caring
I recently stayed in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro and was driven crazy by Dutch travellers (particularly f the female variety) each taking 30 minutes in the bathroom – twice a day! If it’s important respecting fellow traveller’s need for facilities and space when you don’t know them, it is even more important to respect those you are actually travelling with. Limited number of electrical outlets? Even more limited number of socket converters? That means the person spending hours on their laptop (You fly half way around the world to use a laptop? ) can kick that habit and let other people charge their phones and cameras, and use electricity for more important things than checking non-essential emails and playing solitaire for hours on end.
If there are introverts in your group, allow them time and space to unwind alone. If someone has a case of Dehli Belly, maybe consider that you taking hours in the bathroom might actually be making their plight worse. If someone is jetlagged, give them time to sleep it off. Offer to help out with chores like cleaning when you leave and washing up rather than letting the same person do it all the time. And never, ever, EVER walk across someone’s futon with your dirty feet (Because I DESPISE sleeping in a gritty bed!).
Before going to China we spent time getting to know
each other through various activities such as playing
sports on a surprisingly sunny Scottish beach
Before you go try to get to know everyone a bit better, especially the people you don’t know so well, whether be going for a drink together, having a pizza and movie night, fundraise as a team (if you are doing some kind of voluntary work) etc. It breaks the ice for sure, and might give you an idea of other people’s personalities, needs and quirks before you go.
By this I don’t mean culture shock from being in a different country, but culture shock from being among people from different backgrounds can arise too. In Swaziland I was the second youngest person on the team (the youngest was there with their parents, and the oldest was a 79 year old woman there with her daughter!) while in China I was the second oldest person there not leading the team (and most others were still in high school). Different generations (particularly older generations) can have very different outlooks, which can be frustrating, especially if they don’t give you an easy time for being young (or credit for having more experience than them).
Then there can be problems caused by different social, educational and religious backgrounds – the list goes on. Basically anything in the country that can give you culture shock, you can probably also find in your travel group (if it is a very mixed group, or you are the odd one out). The best thing is to realise you have as much to learn from your fellow travellers as you can learn from the foreign culture. Be open, be flexible, talk and share what you are thinking and feeling.
Imagine the amount of time it takes for one person to take a good group photograph. Now multiply that by a factor of the number of cameras in the group. Add a few extra minutes in for good measure. Now multiply that by the amount of things you’ll want to photograph while away. The answer? A lot of wasted time.
For that reason, limit the number of people taking photos at any time. To keep happysnapping to a minimum, assign a few people to be responsible for photos each day. Take 20% of the total number of cameras with you. If someone has a good camera and is really into photography, let them take most of the photos (but also give them the opportunity to be in some of them as well). Also as a guide, the person photographing EVERYTHING (usually repeatedly) is probably not the best photographer – a good photographer has an eye for a good shot, and so will only take photographs when they have a good shot. This means you get a smaller number of consistently very good photos that you can use, rather than endless bad photographs not even worthy of Facebook.
Remember the Outsiders
Be aware of people not interacting much with the rest of the group or seem a little withdrawn. Check they are ok, and give them plenty of (varied) opportunities to join in. Do things that can involve the whole group. Include them in conversations and invite them to give their opinion. Even ask them what they would like to do. They might just want some alone time, but they might also want to be involved but are struggling to interact with the rest of the group, perhaps due to strong personalities, unfamiliarity with people, in-jokes or activities, or simply being shy.
Don’t invite a known clique to be part of your group – it should be all or nothing, simple as that. Likewise inviting a loved-up, young couple to be part of a group of singles can also be a bad idea (as if claiming the double bed, spending all their time together and not interacting with everyone else was bad enough, don’t even think about the consequences of a lover’s quarrel, let alone a break-up!). Let couples go on couples’ holidays and strong cliques go on holidays by themselves. If a clique forms while away, don’t panic too much (unless you are all out there for months) – people do have their preferences of whom they get on well with. As long as you get them mixing with other people and it doesn’t become a problem, you should be fine, at least until the end of the trip.
Be gracious, overlook imperfections, laugh things off, don’t make a big deal about insignificant things… etc. Take a deep breath, count to ten and relax. As we say in the UK “Keep Calm & Carry On”.
Sometimes taking a moment doesn’t work and tempers can still flare up. Deal with conflict as soon as possible, long before it flares up. Talk. Try to see it from the other person’s side. Take some time out if need be. And ALWAYS be the first to say sorry. Forgive and forget – it’s not worth your trip being ruined.
Malta 2010 - A bike trip with some guys I knew
Ultimately choose wisely who you take with you. The person with the fiery temper or the serial drunkard causing all sorts of problems? Probably not a good idea. The really disorganised one or the girl who always brings too many clothes? Think again too. Or at least be aware of their behaviour before you go, and don’t be surprised if they let it all hang out when free from the confines of home. And remember, even if you don’t pick wisely, it isn’t forever and do your best to enjoy it while it lasts.
Fortunately for me, I've not had a particularly difficult time traveling in a group. Perhaps I've been lucky, but getting to know each other and having a good sense of humour have definitely helped gel the group together. Certainly I've had a much easier time than my siblings when traveling (my brother in particular has some horror stories).
There's no point worrying about having a bad time. Most likely you will have a good time with a group of people, and never a dull moment for sure. But do bear in mind some of the pitfalls that can occur. By thinking ahead and identifying potential problems before they occur, you can avoid any mishaps and make sure your trip is an enjoyable one.
I don’t know if it is due to my mother coming from a mining area, visiting underground mines or caves at a young age, or my own technical work experience gained at mines in Germany and Mongolia, but I like going underground. Caverns, mines, tunnels… you name it! Some of these trips have been pretty spectacular and well worth a visit. Here are my top 5 subterranean tourist attractions:
Freiberg Visitor Mine, Saxony, Germany - Official Site
I spent the summer of 2010 working at Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg - the oldest university of mining and metallurgy in the world (the chemical elements indium and germanium were also discovered there). Silver (and later other minerals) have been mined in Freiberg for centuries, with the 850th anniversary of the “Silberstadt” being celebrated this coming weekend. The main mine, while no longer productive (though rising metal prices may make production once again favourable), has over 1000km of tunnels running under the small city, however only 20km of these are accessible as the lower levels of the mine were flooded when production ceased.
Various mine tours can be arranged – however tours in English usually need to be arranged in advance with a minimum of 8 people. Alternatively take someone with you to translate the tour – many Freiberg students will be familiar with the mine which is still used today for teaching. They can be found in most bars in the town centre singing the traditional German mining song “Das Steigerleid”. There is also a kind of bar located in the mine itself, over 100m underground, where rock concerts are sometimes performed and can also be hired out for parties and other events.
Another mining-related attraction is Terra-Mineralia, a geological museum located in Schloss Freudenstein in the town centre. The museum has interesting rock samples from all over the world, as well as Freiberg and the Erzgebirge (“Ore Mountains”), and even outer space!
Freiberg is best visited over the last weekend in June, during what is known as “Bergstadtfest” – a celebration of the town’s mining heritage, with street stalls, a funfair, fireworks, beer, beer and more beer, culminating in a miner’s parade from the Dom on the Sunday morning. Even outside of Bergstadtfest, Freiberg can still be a pleasant day out if you are staying in the vicinity of Dresden or Leipzig.
Cruachan – the Hollow Mountain, Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland - Official Site
Short and sweet, but still very interesting, Cruachan is a pumped-hydro power station. That is, during periods of surplus electricity, water is pumped to the top of the mountain (Ben Cruachan) and stored in a reservoir. When energy demand increases e.g. at breakfast time when everyone is making coffee, the water is flowed back down the mountain and used to generate electricity. The humidity and temperature in the underground tunnels is significant enough to allow tropical plants to be grown in artificial sunlight. The tour gives a deeper explanation of the process, the history of the power station, and shows the inner workings of the mountain. Cruachan is an interesting stop for anyone with an engineering background, or simply anyone who wants to know a bit more about where our electricity comes from.
The Cruachan visitor centre is pleasant rest stop on the way up to Oban, Fort William or the Western Isles, and visitors arriving by public transport or bike gain free entry (Falls of Cruachan railway station is only 200m walk). The scenery on the way is your stereotypical Scotland, and can be enjoyed whatever mode of transportation you take. Those of the outdoor persuasion can also hike up to the corrie (known to the English as a tarn) on Ben Cruachan where the storage reservoir can be found – though be prepared for the rain!
St Michael’s Cave, Gibraltar - Official Gibraltar Government Website (Tourism)
I visited this one several times during my childhood. The British overseas territory, Gibraltar largely consists of a large formation of Jurassic limestone known as the Rock of Gibraltar (or simply the Rock), containing over 150 caves. St Michael’s cave is the largest and most visited of these, being one of Gibraltar’s leading tourist attractions. Entry also includes entry to the Siege Tunnels and the Moorish Castle. Taking the Lower St. Michael's Cave tour is strongly recommended by the locals, but must be booked 3 days in advance minimum and children under 10 are not allowed (For more info, see the link above, under the option "Tours").
The cave can be reached by road, cable car or on foot – taking the cable car up and walking back down is particularly pleasant and allows you to get up close to the Barbary apes that inhabit the Rock. It is thought that the apes first reached the Rock from Morocco through the network of caves long ago. Another legend is that the ancient Greeks thought the cave to be the gateway to the underworld of Hades.
Gibraltar packs a lot into a small area, but if you do want to venture further afield you can hop over the border to Spain or take the ferry to Morocco which is visible from atop the Rock.
Eisriesenwelt, Upper Austria, Austria - Official Site
This one is pretty spectacular. Located 1641m above sea level in the Austrian Alps 40km south of Salzburg, Eisriesenwelt is the largest ice cave in the world with the network stretching over 42km. To access the cave you drive to the visitor centre, take a 20 minute walk to the cable car station, and after a vertigo-inducing trip in the cable car (the faint of heart can take a 90 minute trek by foot), take another 20 minute walk to the mouth of the cave. The pressure differential due to the temperatures inside and outside the cave causes a blast of ice cold wind that can reach up to 100km/h when the cave doors are opened – when this happens you can easily see why the cave was once thought to be (another) gateway to hell. Once inside the cave the air is still again, and you are guided up and down 700 steps with your path lit by old-fashioned lamps, and the impressive ice formations illuminated by magnesium tapers.
The panoramic views of the Alps on the trek up to the ice cave are equally as stunning.
One thing I will emphasise: this is an ICE cave. As the name suggests it is filled with ICE – come prepared for spending up to an hour in temperatures of below freezing point. That means come prepared with sensible shoes such as boots or trainers, thick socks, trousers, long sleeves, thick jumpers, hat, gloves, scarf… no matter how warm it is outside. On my tour around the cave a poor newlywed couple from the Middle East enjoying their honeymoon underestimated how cold it would be and didn’t even bring pullovers. The husband begged the tour guide to hurry through the cave - before we had even been inside two minutes! They hadn’t expected to be so cold for so long, not having any experience of sub-zero temperatures, and coming from a place where you only ever saw ice in your drink. Even me, in true Scottish style, prepared for all weathers and able to wrap up warm, found my toes getting a little cold towards the end (canvas pumps are a bad idea!).
Eisriesenwelt is a good day trip from Salzburg, with many tour companies organising bus trips. Salzburg itself is very cultural, being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with several palaces and historic churches, as well as being the famed birthplace of Mozart (there is always a busker to be found playing his music). There’s also the whole “Sound of Music” experience to found too. Finally if your hunger for all things subterranean hasn’t been sated, there is also a salt mine and museum in the nearby town of Hallein, which features among other things underground slides!
Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland - UNESCO Site
This one is a subterranean MUST SEE!
Licking salt from the walls is perfectly
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mine contains over 3km of tunnel accessible to the public – but this is only a very small percentage of the tunnel network. Also contained within the mine are several chapels, fine sculptures and even chandeliers – all of which are formed out of salt. Also present is are salt lakes and many massive chambers carved out of the rock salt – one so high as to have been the location of both the world’s first underground bungee jump and underground hot air balloon flight. Tours are available in several languages and very reasonably priced, and the mine is easily reached by bus from Krakow city centre, meaning there is no excuse to miss out on this. In one word: SPECTACULAR!
Krakow itself has all the charms of any historic European city, and with an excellent night life to boot (a trip down the salt mine will also help clear up a moderate hangover, should you overdo it). Did I also mention that Krakow is cheap? – I went out for 5 days with the same amount of money I spent in Oslo in a weekend (around £100), and still came back with plenty to spare. I recommend visiting in December when there is a good Christmas market to be found in the main square.