Moscow Choices.

 

 

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Moscow is a multi trip city, its big, steeped in history, and lots going on, but there are some places that warrant a definite visit.

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The Tretyakov Gallery, which is housed in a fascinating building, is a State gallery that houses some 130000 Russian paintings. It dates back to the 19th century although the main building that houses it is early 20th century. The history of Russian painting is there and it is a gallery designed in a way that you can walk and look without other people imposing.

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Red Square is well known to all, as is the façade of the Kremlin in Red Square, but a visit inside the Kremlin is a discovery of a varied and fascinating world of architecture and churches and gardens. It is a structure that conjures dark and forbidding images in our minds but those are wrong images. The forbidding façade of the Kremlin doesn’t do justice to what is inside.

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Outside the kremlin can be found the Tomb if the Unknown Soldier. Many cities have such memorials but what is unique about this one is sadly the numbers of soldiers it commemorates who died in Second World War nearly 10000000. That is a number hard to get ones head round and far more than any other nation that fought in the war, it’s the equivalent of roughly the entire population of greater London.

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That sad statistic takes me on to the final place in this piece the Museum of The Great Patriotic War. Being interested in history I have seen war museums in various countries but this one is the most inspiring I think. The museum is set in Victory Park and the museum itself is 14000 sq. metres of exhibition which extraordinary fascinating exhibits and it is very a very moving, experience especially when you come onto another terrible statistic, that over twenty million civilians and soldiers died. It teaches you to understand just how much that terrible period is part of the life around you and inside its people.

 

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Moscow is a big place in a huge country, but these ideas will give some sense of it today and historically.

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The Crimean Peninsula

 

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There are times when you are on the coast of the Crimean peninsula, or Crimea, when you get the feeling that you are in the South of France, in Provence, before it became famous and developed and expensive There is that familiar mix of a rocky coast the scents of pine tress, the warm waters and beaches, good wine good food and sun! But it’s a lot cheaper that is certain!

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A good place to stay is in the city of Simferopol, the main city of Crimea, which, whilst not being exactly in the centre is very well placed to get around and see the south coast and the mountains. There are hotels but a good plan is to rent an apartment and a driver and get around the peninsula. A driver and a car are not expensive and really convenient.There is an interesting park dedicated to metal workers with statues they have created, and when you get thirsty try the local Kvas, a drink made from fermented bread.

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Crimea is famous for its wines and they are really good. There are many beaches and small ports. Balaklava is a good place to go hire a boat spend the day at sea going around the coast, swim off the boat, catch fish, find a beach, make a fire, cook the fish, drink the wine and have a great day. Or sit at night on the beach with a group and watch the shooting stars and the sky lanterns that people send up

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The history of the Crimea is a vivid and warlike, one, which makes for a lot of sites for historians or those interested. The Crimean war, the naval bases of Sevastopol and Balaclava and the history of the second world war. Then the famous Swallows Nest on the South Coast. Of course also Yalta, a beautiful town in addition to its historic significance, and see the palaces dating back to the days of the Tsars.

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The scenery of the Crimea is not just beaches but mountains too and a great outing is to take the 3.5km cable car up Ai-Petri, which, whilst not being the highest mountain has amazing Vistas down the South East coast and at the top there are great hikes, and exploring.

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Its hard to get to Crimea these days since the Russian takeover but if you want a Riviera experience without the crowds and cost, a great place to go filled with welcoming and interesting people.

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Kiev Ukraine

 

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Despite the turbulent political history of recent years Kiev is a great city to visit. It’s a real walkers city, old streets alongside wide boulevards, old houses and modern blocks, park, gardens, historical sites and a great buzz that reflects a really lively city. It’s not a flat city so the hills, which contain some of the nicest parts of the city, have vistas and intriguing places.

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The Dnieper River or Dnipro runs through Kiev, more than 2000 kms long and flowing through 3 countries before it empties into the Black Sea. It is a focal part of the city with many bridges and islands in the centre of the stream some of which have beaches used in summer months just to have fun. You can take boats along the river walk along it look down in it from parks and gardens and see its relevance in life.

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The centre of the city at the Maidan, sits in a sort of bowl with hills around it and narrow roads going up from it and this is an historic area with Cathedrals starts of old building squares built in a European style. The city blends its history and daily life seamlessly making it easy to immerse yourself in the city and its ambience.The city is filled with colours, this is not a city of gray and glass, it has real vibrant colours.

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Kiev is an artist’s city, museums, galleries a castle, open air displays by painters ,theatres, libraries, photo exhibitions all abound, and its easy to get to without the trials of having to find transport. Ukrainians enjoy enjoying themselves and that feeling permeates the city. Its fun. There are parks, botanical gardens high on the hills surrounding the city, even a fascinating and historical cemetery if you enjoy that sort of thing, and up on the hill above the city stands the Mother Motherland statue or Brezhnev’s daughter depending on your point of view of history. Made of more than 3000 tons of metal it’s an amazing sight looking down on the city.

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A really good way to spend some time is to visit the Pirogovo museum not far outside Kiev where old and ancient buildings have ben preserved as an exhibit that gives you a real insight into how Ukrainians lived through earlier generations. The buildings are set in a park so in summer filled with wild flowers and streams and grasses so it’s a fascinating place to meditate too.

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Ukrainians are really hospitable friendly people, so don’t be put off by the troubles of the world it’s a great city to visit.

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The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

 

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A 5-hour drive north from Phnom Penh brings you to Siem Reap, the home of the temples of Angkor, the most famous and best known being Angkor Wat. Built near the Great Lake with its supply of water fish and fertile soil these temples and buildings date as far back as the 6th century reflecting the mix of Hinduism brought by the Indians and Buddhism in an extraordinary array of temples which are even now emerging from the jungle that overwhelmed them.

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The Angkor Temples have become a major global tourist attraction with the sleepy provincial ton of Siem Reap now housing an array of large and luxurious hotels that accommodate the vast numbers who come to see this fascination every year. But for those less disposed to western hotels in Asia you can still find great accommodation more in tune with the area close to the site. Entry costs $20 for a one-day pass brought from a huge modern ticket office near the site.

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The sheer scale of the buildings and their sophistication given the period when they were built is hard to express. Built of stone, intricate, tall, beautifully designed. They are filled with passages, rooms, staircases and views over the surrounding lush green countryside. Built over a long period period of time these buildings are testament to a sophisticated society. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire from 11th century. At its zenith it was the largest pre industrial city in the world and incorporated the Hindu religion until the 12th century when Buddhism took its place. The development of the magnificent buildings was achieved over 300 years from the 9th to 12th centuries.

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Some of the temples are simply piles of stones, other remarkably preserved and restoration happens all the time. Surrounded as you are by the lush vegetation of the area it seems and almost secret place each temple seeming to emerge from the jungle as you reach it.

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To get the true sense of time and scale you see that some of the temples have blended with nature and formed the foundations for trees that have grown into and onto the buildings, sometimes appearing to be some enormous triffid that has consumed a building. That vision gives you a sense of both the power of the natural world and the ability of man made structures to survive the revages of time. The area has survived nature, war destruction the Khmer Rouge and endless attempts to loot the place, but survives in all its grandeur and splendour.

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The site is hidden from Siem Reap and the contrasts between that town of modern Cambodia and the wonders of Angkor tell lots about the march of history. Anyone in Cambodia has to go. There are many extensive books about the history of the area and the site but I think good to read after you have felt the atmosphere of this extraordinary place.

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The Killing Fields of Cambodia.

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A visit to the killing fields of Cambodia at the memorial park at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh is an eerie experience. You don’t really know what to expect drawn as you are to a place where some of the 1.3 million people executed by Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge regime were found. When you add together those who died of starvation and exhaustion some 2m people, a quarter of the population died in that terror.

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As you approach the entrance to the park, after a tuk tuk ride from Phnom Penh through suburbs and villages, the sombre attitude and downcast eyes of those leaving strike you. The ticket price is $6 to include an audio guide, which takes you through the park, its history and the experiences of those who both survived and worked there. People were brought here from the infamous S21 prison, a former school, and a visit to that before Choeung Ek is a sobering enough experience.

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People were brought there from S21 prison having endured torture and horror simply to die and they were executed brutally and immediately at night. Every effort was made by the guards to make this exercise and cheap and as quickly as possible. You are struck by the simplicity of the place, there is nothing that immediately draws the eye there other than the Buddhist memorial set in the middle of the park which houses the remains of many of those 70000 people who were murdered in this place. The sense of quiet respect and reverence is palpable and embraces you as you wander through hearing the story. The site speaks for itself, these were indeed fields, and the graves, which have been excavated, leave hollow areas in the ground with still visible fragments of clothing and bone which appear most years when the rains come and the topsoil is washed away. In other places such items might just be litter, but here they have a very different significance.The undulations of the ground mark spots where mass graves have been excavated and left as simply as that. That simplicity throughout the site, is a very powerful exposition of what happened there, since it ignites your imagination in trying to visualise the horror.

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Outside, the area and village continues its modern day life, and the site is fringed with fields that are worked by the very people who at that time might have been brought here to die.

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The Cupola at the centre of the area, a Buddhist shrine to the memory of those who died, houses some of their remains, carefully excavated and recording the age gender and size of the person. It is simple and gives a strong sense of the sheer scale of the slaughter. The design is tall thin and simple, encased in glass with the skulls and bones visible to all who pass by or enter.

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Possibly the most poignant moment is to stand in the shade of a big tree out of the hot sun, just a big leafy tree in a park, and realise that this is the infamous killing tree against which babies and small children were smashed to death before being thrown into the mass graves. That really makes you think, and you too leave with downcast eyes. We are part of that same human race that did this.

The Travel Bore

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I learned a long time ago that when returning from a journey, heart and mind filled with reflections on the things I have seen, people met, the places explored, the scents, emotions, secrets and sensations experienced, its really not good to talk about it too much.

Camera loaded with amazing photos, tales of people met, places seen and dangers overcome fill you, as you sit comfortable in the knowledge that you have something very special to offer now that you are home again and with friends. There is a fine point between simply saying that the travel was great and being a travel bore. Even sitting with another traveller it can become a competition trading the most beautiful, the most ugly, the highest, longest and most dangerous, oh and of course the oldest. Comparing notes on outlandish activities you would not do at home, and the sensuality of travelling is not wise, its easy to become a travel bore.

How much people really want to know you have to gauge. How many times people say would love to see your photos, but still they are unseen by all but you, except for one with a fabulous beach which is all they seem to want to see. You wonder why, you are slightly hurt. You have the wonders of the world to lay at your audience’s feet, but somehow they dont really want to know. “They are envious” you whisper to yourself, “they don’t care, they don’t understand”, but in truth they know that if you start you will never stop, and they will have nothing to say because for them such things are abstract compared to the appalling weather we have been having lately. You can hope that one day they will come to you and say “tell me all about Timbuctu” and then you can expound, but in truth they just want to know where you were and whether you enjoyed it. You are safe returned, that is enough. To hear the rest would be unsettling. So here is an ode to the travel bore!

The Traveled Man

SOMETIMES I wish the railroads all were torn out,

The ships all sunk among the coral strands.

I am so very weary, yea, so worn out,

With tales of those who visit foreign lands.

When asked to dine, to meet these traveled people,

My soup seems brewed from cemetery bones.

The fish grows cold on some cathedral steeple,

I miss two courses while I stare at thrones.

I’m forced to leave my salad quite untasted,

Some musty, moldy temple to explore.

The ices, fruit and coffee all are wasted

While into realms of ancient art I soar.

I’d rather take my chance of life and reason,

If in a den of roaring lions hurled

Than for a single year, ay, for one season,

To dwell with folks who’d traveled round the world.

So patronizing are they, so oppressive,

With pity for the ones who stay at home,

So mighty is their knowledge, so aggressive,

I ofttimes wish they had not ceased to roam.

They loathe the new, they quite detest the present;

They revel in a pre-Columbian morn;

Just dare to say America is pleasant,

And die beneath the glances of their scorn.

They are increasing at a rate alarming,

Go where I will, the traveled man is there.

And now I think that rustic wholly charming

Who has not strayed beyond his meadows fair.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1896

 

The Politics In Travelling

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All the panic, noise and general hysteria about the Brexit vote got me to thinking about travelling and the extent to which politics affects our view of a place we come to or a place we leave. Do we consciously think about politics when choosing a destination, what effect does it have when we are there, do we change our opinion about a place because of the prevailing political wind? I have visited perfect democracies, rabid dictatorships, autocratic empires, tribal fiefdoms, and how have I dealt with the politics that I have found, has it affected me at all, should it?

 

Do the images of a place that we receive from considered journalism reflect what we find, is journalism too much of a microscopic examination of a place? Are we too detached when we visit somewhere and do we turn a blind eye to what is around us in pursuit of the experiences we seek from travelling? Do we have an obligation to tailor our travel plans to our sense of decency or fairness, or are we free to do what we want, go where we want and in doing so give some quiet unintentional support to things we don’t really approve of? Is there some moral obligation on us, does our presence exacerbate what is wrong or alleviate it?

 

I have seen, following this vote, how people across different countries who before felt at ease together now call names and are angry. There is this strange sense of rejection on the one hand and liberation on the other, similar to the end of human relationships, that has suddenly come forth in an outpouring of bitterness on the one hand and exhilaration on the other.

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There are a lot of questions here and I don’t really know the answer. I suppose to an extent we compromise. When it suits us we are simply observers of where we are and don’t judge, or alternatively we feel detached and say well this is bad but its nothing to do with me. Perhaps we say this is bad and something must be done but what do we do about it? Certainly whatever we think we don’t usually intervene, we accept what we find and move on. We store the experience in memory and it may affect our own approach to life but that is in our own minds and our own place.

 

When we travel to a place do we simply feel as outsiders come to visit or does traveling, by it’s a nature, engender a sense that we are really not from one corner of the world but we are citizens of the whole world? Wherever we stop we feel part of the landscape, and accept what is around us. In doing that we can feel part of the other person’s world, and perhaps we can act, or, we can cop out and just look and move on.

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Does travelling have any effect in any way? Maybe. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel prevents bigotry, but, by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” I hope so.The