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Off to see the Wrestling

Lithuania & Belarus - Vilnius & Minsk

semi-overcast 27 °C
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After 8 months without any foreign trips, it was finally time for this year's to begin. The first being a trip to Lithuania and Belarus.

We began with an early start to get to Luton Airport for our flight just before 8. Annoyingly however as we waited to board our flight, our aircraft was given to the delayed Warsaw passengers and instead we had to wait two hours for a new aircraft to be flown over to us. This wasn't helped by the fact every morning I'd had terrible stomach pains from a virus I still wasn't over.

Two failed boardings later we eventually made it onto the aircraft. As with my previous flight to Vilnius, I was once again delayed and ended up having to change plans for the day.

Vilnius Town Hall

Vilnius Town Hall

We no longer had all afternoon to explore Vilnius, and instead only a few hours for a quick wander. It also meant that we didn't get chance to visit the KGB museum as this would be closed on our only other opportunity this weekend. A real pity.

Gates of Dawn

Gates of Dawn

The following day - our only full one on this short weekend trip - we made our way to Belarus to watch the wrestling!
I had wanted to visit Belarus for some time, with it being a blank on my map. However normally visas are required (unless flying in and out of Minsk Airport, which has no cheap flights). Meanwhile there are tonnes of convenient cheap flights to Vilnius, just across the border.

Back in 2014 Belarus had temporarily removed their visa requirements for the World Ice Hockey Championships. But as this was right at the time I got my new job I therefore didn't know whether I'd have the time or money to go, and so had missed the opportunity.

This time things were different. Belarus were hosting the European Games, and by purchasing a ticket for £4.60, the whole visa process was unnecessary. We were free and could have a cheap and easy holiday. Looking at the dates we could go and the events that were on so that it would look convincing, the best option was to visit Belarus on Sunday 30th, when the finals of the Wrestling were on for just two hours during the middle of the day. Did I know anything or care about wrestling? No. But it could be fun anyway!

After going through passport control we boarded our train with our breakfast in tow, ready for our two and a half hour train ride to Minsk. After around 45 minutes we reached the border, and Belorussian military-looking border officials boarded inspecting everyone's passports. We gave them our European Games tickets which they inspected, and accepted and not long after we were back on our way through the Belorussian countryside.

Eventually after a slightly rough train ride (which didn't help my stomach) we made it to sunny Minsk. We had several hours to explore the city before the Wrestling began - which we decided we should watch just in case we were checked on the way home.

After changing €40 into Belorussian Roubles, we headed into the city - beginning at the Gates of Minsk opposite the station, two Stalinist towers marking the entrance to the centre of Minsk.

Gates of Minsk

Gates of Minsk

[We then headed over towards Independence Square, home of the parliament and the city's iconic Roman Catholic church, where there were lots of flags and banners for both the European Games and the upcoming 30th anniversary of Belorussian independence.

Independence Square

Independence Square


Victory Square

Victory Square

After then taking the metro across the city towards Victory Square, dedicated to Minsk's time through the Second World War, we then headed down Independence Avenue towards the Palace of the Republic.

Having seen much of the city's Stalinist architecture, we were now headed into the old part of the city, which had more of a feel of Poland and Lithuania.

The Orthodox Cathedral

The Orthodox Cathedral

Stopping off for souvenirs by the town hall, we then walked past the city's Orthodox Cathedral, towards the Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Opera Theatre

Opera Theatre


Trinity District

Trinity District

Beside the beautifully meandering river, with it's parkland banks is the oldest part of the city, the Trinity District, with small old winding streets and houses that have mostly been converted into shops and restaurants. On the opposite side of the river is the Sports Palace where we were headed to for the Wrestling, as well as an open air fan zone with local entertainment, food, souvenirs and photoshoots with the Fox mascot - Lesik.

Local Entertainment

Local Entertainment

By now we were on track and the event was starting in just half an hour, so we entered the Arena and found our seats watching the build up before the event itself started. I had no idea what was going on, but nevertheless the chance to enjoy an international event, and mix up the long day in the city was actually pretty enjoyable.

Inside the Wrestling

Inside the Wrestling

Thomas Bach awarding the medalists

Thomas Bach awarding the medalists

After the event ended, we walked past Thomas Bach, head of the Olympics, who was attneding the event also, and headed out of the city towards Victory Park, where there is a more modern and grand monument to the city following it's awarding as "Hero City" following it's occupation during the Second World War.

Victory Park

Victory Park

The parkland beside the river was a pleasant place to spend time cooling down from the heat of the summer sunshine, and we walked further north towards the Palace of Independence, Expo Centre and Flag Square.

Palace of Independence

Palace of Independence

After a lot of walking we decided to take the bus back into the city. However despite my best efforts we still could not work out how to buy a ticket! Apparently we could buy one from the driver, but as he was in the front compartment we didn't pass him to buy one. After then abandoning the first bus ride we hovered around thinking whether to walk (but ruled out as being too far and too hot), or ride illegally (it was only 4 stops). Maybe we could just hop on and off the next few stops so we wouldn't be arrested! I mean we had the money anyway - maybe could we play at being stupid foreigners?

And then we saw it, a different bus passed by, and someone reached into the hatch and bought tickets from the driver! So there we were, let's take the next bus and ride properly. However when we got on it was packed and we couldn't reach the driver. Debating whether to get off at the next stop and board a quieter bus or push our way through, we arrived at the next stop when a local woman boarded and pushed her way through. We followed her and then managed to buy our own tickets! What a stressful experience!

Not long later we arrived back in the city centre. After buying some souvenirs we then headed back towards the station to grab some snacks and have dinner. After a long hot day of sightseeing we were ready to go home. Changing our money back and getting €35 returned, we waited for the train to turn up and board back to Lithuania. Three hours later we were finally back from our busy, but interesting day trip to Belarus.

It was a surprising experience, I had few visions of this generally forgotten part of Europe, and had expected it to be a tragic dump, but actually it was very beautiful, clean and green, and I would really recommend it to anyone who can be bothered to go through the process of getting a visa!

Posted by kmmk17 03:58 Archived in Belarus Tagged park airport river sport city old plane border sickness lithuaniabelarus Comments (2)

On The Runway

Berlin - Oranienburg & Berlin

semi-overcast 27 °C
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Our final full day in Berlin began with another visit outside the city to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg. Annoyingly on weekends the bus between the station in Oranienburg and the camp runs only every two hours, and so we ended up walking for twenty minutes rather than waiting 25 for the bus to turn up. But the walk went by quite quickly and before we knew it we had turned up at the camp.

Entry to the camp

Entry to the camp

The camp is located on the edge of the town, surrounded by nice family homes - in what appears completely out of place. The camp was free to enter and had remains and reconstructed sites - execution trenches, huts and gas chambers as well as a memorial.

Inside Sachsenhausen

Inside Sachsenhausen

After a walk around the eery site, we headed back to the station and back into the city. We spent the afternoon with a visit to Berlin Zoo, taking a look around at the range of animals, before eating and chilling back at the hotel.

At the Zoo

At the Zoo

Our flight home the following day was in the late afternoon, and so after enjoying breakfast and packing, we left the hotel with baggage in tow and headed via a few sights en route to the airport.

Our first was the former airport of Tempelhof, where it is now possible to walk amongst the former runway.

Not this runway

Not this runway

Hoping locals wouldn't tell us that the airport is actually closed (as we were clearly tourists on our way to the airport), we made our way out and stopped off at Treptower Park, for a view of the Soviet War Memorial, reminiscent of those in CIS countries - such as Mother Motherland in Kyiv and The Motherland Calls in Volgograd

Treptower Park

Treptower Park

And that was it for our trip, a long weekend in Berlin was over already, with us back at Schönefeld Airport ready for our flight home.
The city is always fun to visit, much to see and do and never quite enough time to see it all without being super busy!

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 11:44 Archived in Germany Tagged animals park airport memorial zoo city berlin war macabre Comments (0)

The Palaces of Potsdam

Berlin - Potsdam

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After a busy day in the centre of Berlin, today we were going outside the city to Potsdam, home of the Prussian Kings, and capital of the German province of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin. Unlike the rest of the trip, which was mostly to places I had seen on previous trips to Berlin, the journey to Potsdam was a new experience for me.

Glienicke Bridge

Glienicke Bridge

We began by heading down to the Glienicke Bridge on the border of Berlin and Brandenburg. This bridge was closed during the Cold War, and used for the transfer of spies. Now reopened, we were able to walk into the former East Germany.

Potsdam High Street

Potsdam High Street

We then got on a tram and arrived in the centre of Potsdam, walking down the main shopping street, stopping for ice cream, before making our way into the Sanssouci Park, where the palaces of the city are located.

Sanssouci Palace

Sanssouci Palace

We began by walking firstly towards the impressive Sanssouci Palace, overlooking the park above terraces and a water fountain, before continuing along the central path towards the New Palace

Orangery Palace

Orangery Palace

This park was huge, but also cool and shady, and whilst walking through every few minutes the view of another palace came into view.

New Palace

New Palace

After reaching the New Palace we headed north to the bus stop to make our way back to Berlin. Annoyingly there were construction works on the train line, and so we had to get a replacement bus from Potsdam to Wannsee, which was a bit of a nightmare to find, but eventually we were on our way back to the city.

With it being mid-afternoon, we decided to make our way back to the hotel via the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympics. We had originally planned to go inside, but as our feet were aching, and only guided tours permitted (due to the imminent hosting of the European Athletics Championships) we decided to head back to the hotel instead after viewing from outside.

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

By now we were very tired, but with another full day yet to come we spent the rest of the evening chilling in the hotel and claiming another free drink from the bar!

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 04:25 Archived in Germany Tagged park palace bridge city berlin border royal olympic Comments (0)

Sectarian Saturday

Ireland - Derry & Belfast

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After the first day of exploring the northern coast, today we spent the morning looking around Derry itself before making our way to Belfast.

After a well earned sleep, we had breakfast in our B&B before we headed into the city. Parking up beside the River Foyle, we then began our walk around the city, heading first up the hill towards the City Walls. As we made our way, we entered the only unionist area on this side of the river - the Fountain estate. This was unlike anywhere I'd ever seen. Not only Union Jacks flying, but the kerbs were painted in Red, White and Blue, and there were several political murals.

Fountain Estate

Fountain Estate


Derry Walls

Derry Walls

Walking just a bit further up, we walked through a gate and headed onto the walls themselves. These are some of the only intact city walls never to have been breached in the world. As we walked around the walls clockwise, we soon saw the fence separating the Fountain estate from the rest of the city. Not too much later we had a great view over the Bogside area - the main nationalist area of the city.

Bogside

Bogside


Free Derry

Free Derry

We then took a walk down into Bogside, past an Irish cross, before arriving at the Free Derry sign, a remnant of the three year autonomous area formed in the early 1970s. We took a walk around the area, past the many murals commemorating the Troubles, including those of Bloody Sunday, as well as more recent signs about interned community members and anti-Brexit/pro-unification messages.

Bogside

Bogside


Peace Flame

Peace Flame

We then headed back up the hill to the walled city, buying some souvenirs, before heading towards the peace flame and the Peace Bridge over the Foyle. Having now seen all the sights in the small city, we stopped by the local shopping centre before heading back to our car to head back to Belfast.

Peace Bridge

Peace Bridge

We dropped the car back off at the airport, before getting on a bus bound for Belfast, which after around half an hour arrived in the centre of the city. After grabbing our two day transport tickets, we got on a bus bound for the west of the city, where we would see the Peace Lines.

Peace Lines

Peace Lines

These lines are some of the worst examples of the sectarian violence in the city during the Troubles - a big metal fence separating the unionist and nationalist communities. We headed to Bombay Street, on the nationalist side, where the fence sits just metres from the back of houses, which have glass barricades over to prevent any damage from any objects thrown over the fence. This grim reality however almost seemed lost on a generally happy atmosphere walking through the area.

We then headed back and took the bus to the Titanic Museum - a museum celebrating the brilliant engineering achievements of the city that resulted in a ship it built sinking on it's maiden voyage! Nevertheless it was a very good museum, even if it was a bit overpriced, with lots of information and examples of what the ship was like.

Titanic Museum

Titanic Museum

By now it was already getting late, so we headed to a pub for dinner, before finally making it to our hotel on the outskirts of the city.

The following morning we headed back to the city, seeing a steam train pull through the local train station before we made our way to Stormont - the parliament buildings of the Northern Ireland assembly. This grand building sits imposingly on a hill over a grand park on the outskirts of the city, with an avenue leading from the road.

Stormont

Stormont

We waked up part of the road before heading back to the city, and took a wander around before our onward travel, stopping off at some of the shops, the docklands around the River Lagan, and taking a look inside the City Hall.

City Hall

City Hall

Inside City Hall

Inside City Hall

We then headed to the bus station for our onward travel over the border to Dublin.

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 09:02 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged park city ireland old border Comments (0)

Terminating in Tokyo

Cherry Blossom Adventures - Tokyo & Mount Fuji

all seasons in one day 18 °C
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Leaving our very excitable host in Kyoto, we made our way over to the station to catch the bullet train I had reserved the day before, bound for Tokyo. The Japanese capital would in fact be the last of our bases on this trip, staying here for the final four nights of this East Asian adventure.

Sitting in the reserved part of the train, we had a bit more room around us for bags which made the trip more comfortable, even if it was only for a few hours. The one thing I didn't get to do last time I was in Tokyo, was see Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, the humid summer air meant seeing it from the city was too difficult. This time we had more opportunities, and our first would be on our way to Tokyo - through the city of Fuji.

Seeing the mountain is always difficult, as the weather conditions need to be just right. Having researched when we would be able to gain a view, as we headed through the last hill before the city, we got up and headed towards the window at the door (all of the seats on this side were already booked when I requested our seats the night before). However our luck was not in, and the unseasonably warm humid air blocked the view, with us just managing to catch a glimpse of the snow peak through the haze. Never mind, there would be more opportunities!

Fuji through the haze

Fuji through the haze

Not long after, we arrived in the heart of Tokyo city. With our Japanese rail passes still valid for a few more days, and a good network of local rail in the city, it wasn't even necessary for us to use the metro initially. We got on a local train and headed to our hotel - the same one I had stayed in 4.5 years earlier. After dropping off our bags, we headed back into the city, deciding to visit the central sights, beginning with the Pokemon shop inside the station.

Pokemon Store

Pokemon Store

After taking a look inside the shop, we headed outside the station and made our way around the corner to the Imperial Gardens. It was yet another beautiful hot and sunny day in Japan, and we enjoyed a walk around this idyll in the middle of metropolis.

Imperial East Gardens

Imperial East Gardens

After a lot of travelling already, and ample time in the city, we headed to get some food before making our way back to our hotel for a break. Once it got dark we then headed back out and made our way to the Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa. By day this a bustling shopping street and active shrine, but by night it's a more peaceful and lit up attraction.

Senso-ji by night

Senso-ji by night

After enjoying views of the beautiful complex, we headed back for our first night's sleep in the city.

Lanterns at Senso-ji

Lanterns at Senso-ji

The following morning the weather had changed completely - after a week and a half of warm summer weather, it was now down 10˚C, feeling much more like early April.

Having not been able to see Mount Fuji very well on the train to Tokyo, we planned to visit the Fuji Five Lakes area for a better view. With our Japan Rail passes ending the following day - giving us free travel on most of the trains to this area, we were trying to make the most of it, as well as using the weather forecasts in order get the best views of the mountain. Annoyingly as the weather had changed, clouds were coming in making the opportunity to view Mt Fuji even more limited.

It now looked very iffy we would get to see the mountain at all, but tomorrow looked more promising and so we gambled and spent today in the city. After having a lie in, we headed out to view some of the sights outside the centre centre - starting with the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead (including war criminals from WWII) are commemorated.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine


Takeshita Street

Takeshita Street

We then headed over to the Harajuku area, heading straight out of the station and down Takeshita Street, a popular shopping street full of novelty and small gifts. After buying a few keyrings and doing a loop of the area, we then headed into Yoyogi park and towards the Imperial Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Rice Barrels in Yoyogi Park

Rice Barrels in Yoyogi Park

Heading back out of the park we then walked south towards Shibuya, and the bustling crossing in the heart of the area. We stopped at the Starbucks that looks over the crossing and sat watching the huge amount of people crossing in all directions every minute.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing


Tokyo Tower overlooking Zojo-ji Shrine

Tokyo Tower overlooking Zojo-ji Shrine

Our last sight for the day was the Tokyo Tower, from the Zojo-ii Shrine, where upon arrival we found a service was being carried out.

Service inside Zojo-ji

Service inside Zojo-ji

After watching part of the service, we then headed to Tokyo Bay, for views over the port area.

Tokyo Bay

Tokyo Bay

We then headed back to our hotel for a rest before we headed out for dinner. Originally we had planned to go for Ramen, and with us wanting to head to Shinjuku we found a few places to visit. However as suspected, even early there were long long queues, and with it being quite chilly, we decided to scrap that and eat at Burger King. We can always have Ramen at home!

Kabukicho

Kabukicho

After eating, we took a tour around the Kabukicho area, which is famous for it's LED lights and billboards, before heading back to the hotel for some well earned sleep.

The following morning we got up early and headed to Shinjuku station for our trip outside the city, to the Fuji Five Lakes area. The weather still looked iffy, but there was a better chance of seeing the mountain earlier. Using our Japan Rail passes for the last day, we spent an hour or so on the train heading outside the city before changing at Otsuki to a private line, that would take us the final journey to Fujiyoshida. As we headed up the valley it became clear that we would see Mount Fuji, as the huge mountain dominated the backdrop.

Mount Fuji - finally

Mount Fuji - finally

We got off at a small local station, that was clearly a tourist draw, as signs led us all the way to the Chureito Pagoda. Making the most of the views, which could be scuppered at any moment by the ominous clouds, we headed up the steep hillside towards the top. Chris paused halfway whilst I continued, in what was one of the biggest struggles I've ever faced! Two weeks of exhaustion against the strong winds in a rush against time almost seemed impossible.

The amazing view

The amazing view

Nevertheless I made it, and the views were worth it. As Cherry Blossom had come early this year, it meant that although there was nothing left in Tokyo, this area was full! Approximately two weeks earlier than normal. It meant we got to see one of the most picture perfect views that are in many of the tourist guidebooks. Our luck clearly was in! And after taking some photos, Chris had also made it to the top and we took in some of the breathtaking views.

We then headed back down to the train station, and eventually back to the city. It was a lot of faffing about, spending about 6 hours getting there and back just for 10 minutes of views, but it was worth it.

Our last thing to do in the city, was head back to the Senso-ji shrine, this time during the day, and grab some souvenirs. After grabbing some dinner we then got some sleep before our last full day on this long trip.

Shopping at Senso-ji

Shopping at Senso-ji

Having overestimated how much time we needed, we had already seen everything in the city, with a day to spare. Therefore we decided to spend out last day at Tokyo Disneyland. It had been years since either of us had been to Disneyland, and so this was a nice experience. With the sun shining, we headed out early to the park early to try and beat some of the weekend rush.

Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland

Starting with Westernland, we headed onto Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise before the queues got so long. Whilst we waited in the queue for Thunder Mountain however, the sunshine was masked by clouds, not to be seen again. The wind was picking up, as were the length of the queues.

We continued around, heading inside the Haunted Mansion and the Snow White ride, before we headed over to Tomorrowland. Japan is generally quite warm, and so the park is not built to break the wind - despite this being on a reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay, and with long queues, it meant for a freezing experience, for which we certainly weren't dressed accordingly.

After waiting over an hour and a half for the Buzz Lightyear ride, we went inside the gift shops to warm up and wait for the parade. However just before it was due to start, there was an announcement that because of the wind this would not take place - hardly surprising, but a real shame. We headed back to the Star Tours ride, luckily most of the queue here being inside, before cutting out losses and heading back to our hotel.

After two busy weeks it had been an amazing adventure, we were thoroughly exhausted and now just had the ridiculously long journey back.

With this being the peak time to visit Japan, flights were not cheap. There were two flights each from Tokyo to Beijing and Beijing to London, but taking the combination with just 4 hours to transfer was twice as expensive as that with 7. We therefore took the cheaper option, even if this did mean we would be travelling for 24 hours.

Getting up at 3am in Japan, we headed on the first train to the airport, eventually leaving Japan at 7:20am. We flew west, heading right over Mount Fuji, getting great aerial views of the iconic mountain.

Views over Mount Fuji

Views over Mount Fuji

Eventually, after circling the city for ages, over three hours later we had arrived in Beijing. Originally it was possible that we may leave some things in the city for this return leg, and use the 5 hours to sit about, to explore the city. However having seen everything we wanted two weeks ago, as knowing how much time would be wasted to get down there, we instead decided to stay in the airport.

Airport Lounge

Airport Lounge

Transferring for over four hours meant we also got free access to an airport lounge, which although wasn't the best, did give us free food and drinks. Despite not being able to connect to most of the internet, time went by quite quickly, and before we knew it, it was time to board our final flight of the trip, the long 10 hours back to London.

Having exhausted not only the entertainment, but also ourselves - despite not being able to sleep for fear of worsening our jetlag, this was a tough journey. By the end of the flight eating was a struggle, and so was staying awake. I even napped for an hour with Chris unable to wake me back up.

Sunset over Siberia

Sunset over Siberia

Arriving back in London was a relief, but having been awake for over 24 hours, also a struggle. Waiting for ages to get our bag back evetually we made it out, to find my dad who picked us up and took us home. Eventually we made it to bed - but only after having been awake for 28 hours!

Nevertheless, even with all these struggles the trip was amazing, fascinating and totally worth it!

Tips

Posted by kmmk17 13:06 Archived in Japan Tagged park temple mountain airport palace train city shrine themepark eastasia Comments (0)

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