Whitlocks Round the World - Travel Diary for August 03

Click here to read the latest newsThe diary of our trip round the world. You can view other diary entries by clicking the highlighted months at the bottom of the page or by clicking on one of the countries visited so far. Click our logo (on the left) to see the most recent news entries. We are adding new entries from Internet Cafés as we travel, so updates may be irregular. Please check back often to see how we are getting along.

Countries visited so far: UK Latvia Lithuania Poland Slovak Republic Hungary Romania Bulgaria Greece Egypt Tanzania Malawi Mozambique South Africa Swaziland South Africa (again) Argentina Bolivia Peru Ecuador Vietnam China Mongolia Russia England


15th-20th August Latvia
Riga
The Gauja canoe experience, Sigulda - Click to enlargeWe arrived safely in Riga on Friday evening at 10.10pm local time. As we waited for my rucksack to appear on the baggage collection conveyer belt it became apparent that our first major hiccup had happened almost immediately. My bag failed to arrive. After over an hour waiting in the queue at the lost and found desk, and filling in paperwork, I was none the wiser as to where it was. Not a good start!

We spent the night on some couches in the airport. The children slept surprisingly well, and we got a fairly decent rest as well. The cafe owner who owned the couches woke us at 4.30, and we stepped out to experience whatever Riga had to offer.

Our first day began cold and wet, and with no changes of clothes for me or Esther (lost in my rucksack), this made Riga seem rather daunting. We splashed out on a rather too luxurious breakfast for our budget, and felt a little better. While we ate, the rain stopped and things seemed a bit brighter, and by the time we left the restaurant, Riga was waking up and losing the grey drabness of rainy 6.00am. We found somewhere cheap to stay and set about exploring the city.

Riga is a large and cosmopolitan city. You could say it is a bizarre mix of very striking monuments, intriguing ancient buildings and turrets which Esther thought were fairytale castles, punctuated with poorly maintained and tumbledown or boarded up relics of post-USSR industrial decline. Apart from that first breakfast we have had no trouble eating and sleeping cheaply here, and the children have enjoyed playing in and around Rigas beatiful parks and fountains.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, my bag was finally delivered to our room, and we were free to proceed with our plan to head for Sigulda.

Sigulda was absolutely gorgeous. The weather was kind to us which was lucky, as this was real camping! We hired a tent "for four people" from Jannis, the campsite owner, which meant that the four of us could just about lie down in it side by side. We packed our days full of activity though and, as a result, all slept well when we did squeeze in! We went castle hunting and found that there were four castles dotted around the small town, in gorgeous countryside settings. We visited two, one by cable car across the Gauja river valley, and walked through beautiful and (Nick commented) very well-maintained woodland to visit Gutmans cave, where the spring which rises there is reputed to be a giver of wisdom. We all drank deeply, unsure about whether or not this was wise!

All still alive the following morning, we spent some time at the camp site. I did some washing, Tom did some 'travel school' and Nick learned to plait and made a highly effective washing line! We arrange to go canoeing in the afternoon, assured that the 24km route suggested would not be too hard! Unfortunately the weather turned a bit cloudy, but still we enjoyed the experience, and also the amazing peace and quiet (whenever the kids stopped arguing/singing/giggling) of the Gauja valley.

Last night it rained, and we packed up in the rain this morning and returned to Riga on the train. Tonight we are taking the overnight train to Vilnius, and then on to Poland. We have thoroughly enjoyed Latvia and found the people very helpful. We are a little sad to be leaving, but look forward to continuing our adventure. Watch this space!



21st August 2003 Lithuania
Vilnius
The Frank Zappa bust we found thanks to Charlie! - Click to enlargeWe travelled to Vilnius on the overnight train, leaving Riga at 10.25pm and arriving in Vilnius at 5.20am. It was vey exciting! We had booked 'sitting' class tickets, as they were much cheaper than 'sleeping', and we decided that the kids could sleep leaing on us and we'd just doze. However the train was nowhere near full and we just bagged an empty compartment when we got on. As it turned out, they had sold 'sitting' tickets for the seats under the bunks and, as the bunks weren't being used it seemed daft not to! The kids were excited, but went off by about 11.30 on the top bunks. We met Charlie and Mickey, two people who live in America, although Mickey is Italian, who were travelling together having just finished running a kids' summer camp in Estonia. They were really nice and we had fun sharing a couple of beers with them before going to sleep ourselves. We woke the children at 5.00 to get ready for the off, and alighted, bleary-eyed, at 20 past in Vilnius.

We hung around with Charlie and Mickey for the morning, and had a wander around Vilnius. The most important thing to see, it seemed from Nick and Charlie's enthusiasm, was the Frank Zappa bust; a rather bizarre addition to Vilnius' array of stylish buildings and dramatic statues of other influential or significant historical personages!

Charlie and Mickey had to leave at lunch time, to catch their train on to Poland, to Esther's dismay. She had really taken to Mickey. I think all of us appreciated having someone different to chat to for a while. Cheers guys!

Vilnius is a great city. It felt more western than Riga, but the streets and buildings were colourful and spotlessly clean. There is an ornate church or monument everywhere you look. We visited the castle, to be found, logically enough, on Castle Hill. It is a mix of ruined remains and renovations in red brick, and consists of a tower on top of a hill around which the city has grown, and a few other wall and bits of buildings. It is a dramatic setting with a great view from the top. We were all impressed by the small museum inside, containing 14th and 17 Century impressions of the city in miniature, and armour and weaponry found on the site.

By this time the kids were very tired, and rather a fraught afternoon was spent finding accommodation, but we ended up staying in a very nice and friendly hostel.



25th August 2003 Poland
Bialystok
Celebrating Tom's birthday - Click to enlargeOn Friday 22nd Aug. we took the train from Vilnius to Bialystok; a long, nine-hour journey, arriving in Bialystok at 8.00pm.

This time we had booked ahead at a hotel, this being a far more practical arrangement if possible than trying to find accommodation after arriving in town. We stayed 3 nights there. The hotel facitities at 'Trzy Sosny' were not as good as in Vilnius, but the staff have been very helpful, although communication in Polish and sign language was difficult at times!

It was Tom's birthday on the 23rd, so we took a bus to the city centre, the objective of the day being to find something he would like to do. He was going on about internet cafes and, luckily, we found this one quickly. He had a whole hour with a computer to himself to play online games; a great treat! We had lunch in McDonalds (Tom's choice, of course), and then spent hours, literally, trying to find a tourist info office, to enquire about activities for children in Bialystok. We eventually concluded that the office didn't exist and resortd to asking people in the street if they spoke any English! At nearly four o'clock a helpful woman in a cafe told us of a hotel which had a swimming pool which was open to the paying public. The pool was glorious, with slides, warm water, a spa, and a sauna and steam room. It was just what we all needed. We ended the day back in the hotel garden playing cards, and Tom decided that this was the 'Best Birthday Ever'!!



27th August Poland
Bialowieza - Primeval Forest
Stump in the conservation area. - Click to enlargeBy Nick We all woke early at the new youth hostel. Breakfast was a good hearty meal as the kitchen facilities there were excellent. I left Lindsay and the kids to finish their breky as I had a 10 o'clock appointment with a tour guide of the strict conservation reserve which was only 500 metres behind the village and would only cost a mere 22zl (about 4 pounds). The guide’s name was Eric and from the start he seemed a passionate naturalist, picking up snails and beetles that were in our path. We went up to the museum and bought entry tickets to the reserve for 5zl (about a pound) and continued our walk to the primeval forest. As we trekked along an open cobbled track, Eric explained just how beautiful the meadows that stretched out before us were in the summer months with a spectacular wild flower display, but it was not disappointing to me as the amount of wildlife activity was something I was not used to in the UK anyway (They were potato and hay fields and they were organic). Eric knew his stuff and was very helpful with my questions on the conservation practices and history as we walked through the little segment of the 625 square km Polish part of the forest. As we walked along a well trodden path the smell of decomposing organic matter and dampness filled my nostrils. The canopy was closed and in some cases 100ft high, I could hear the creaking of trees as they rubbed together in the wind with the most unusual sound (especially for a forester from the UK) dead wood thumping on the forest floor quite regularly. Bracket fungus, mosses and monolithic dead pines were scattered in every direction and the largest Hornbeam specimens I have ever seen. Eric explained that we were standing in the oldest ancient natural forest in Europe. Ever since the retreat of the last ice age (8000-10000 years ago) this forest has stood without any or little human activity. This for me was truly the most amazing experience. To be able to walk amongst these huge standing icons of generations of climax wild woodland felt really special. You can talk about "wild wood" of the past and try to convey what it could have looked like, but I can say I have seen it in all its natural beauty. Today I travelled back in time and I loved it!



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