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Tuesday
Aug092005

Auschwitz

The wrong bus that Luke and I hopped on ended up in Oscwiecim, which was quite fortunate as it was a place that we both had down as an essential for a trip to Europe. Better known by its German name, Auschwitz. Auschwitz is made up of three camps, of which we saw the main two, Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Seeing the massive military camp, semi-destroyed by the departing Nazis, was extremely intense. We wandered through the gates inscribed with the lie "Work brings freedom", and around the camp, looking at the corridors of electrified barbed wire through which the prisoners had to walk from their slave dorms to their work place. The group toilet with a long concrete slap with 100 bowls in it, each prisoner only given 2 minutes twice per day at a set time, no privacy and no water. For those who went to the toilet at any other time than that allowed - the punishment prison, a prison within a prison, a hellhole within a hellhole. There was the suffocation room where 35 prisoners were shoved inside and the door was sealed until they all asphyxiated. The standing room, where four prisoners were forced to stand in a 1m x 1m cubicle all night without sleeping, only to work again the next day (four days of this killed any prisoner). The starvation chambers.

Auschwitz was mostly a concentration camp, where the prisoners were worked to death. But it was also an eradication camp for a few years, until the high-throughput Birkenau camp was completed. Cattle trains of prisoners (first Polish political prisoners, then Jews, Roma, anti-social elements, Communists, etc) would turn up at the camp, where the Death Doctors decided which went to the concentration camp, and which to the eradication camp. The elderly, children and sick were mostly sent to the eradication camp, except for those to be experimented on (such as all twins). At the eradication camp the prisoners were stripped, shaved and gassed, before being cremated in industry-style furnaces. In both the eradication and concentration camps, over 1.5 million people were murdered, 90% of whom were Jews.

The most intense experience for me was the Canada warehouses (so called because in Nazi Germany Canada was an icon of wealth), where all the goods stolen from the prisoners were stored before being redistributed to Germans. The piles of baby clothes. A two tonne pile of women's hair, shaved from them before gassing (it was turned into textiles by German industry). I felt physically ill at this point.

 

For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity
where the Nazis murdered
about one and a half

million
men, women, and children
mainly jews
from various countries
of Europe
 
Auschwitz-Birkenau
1940-1945

Monday
Aug082005

Poland

The sleep train wasn't. Packed into a little cabin. Uncomfortable chairs. Can't sleep. 10 hours on the train. 2am, police come in to check passports. Get bored halfway through and don't look at mine. Will I be able to leave Poland without it? Off train at 5am. Need to go to toilet. It costs 2 zlotny. Takes half an hour to exchange enough money to go to toilet. Raining outside. Tired. Wet. Follow Lonely Planet instructions to catch bus to Wieliczk. Instructions rendered invalid by new construction site. Lost. Tired. Wet. Finally catch bus to 'Weiliczk'. Wrong bus. Saw 19 nuns.

Monday
Aug082005

This little mother has claws...

Oh so tired!

The night before last I had so little sleep due to the time difference and my fear of sleeping on the top bunk (I always worry I will fall off). Still, I was awake enough to go out and see Maticka Praha (Little Mother Prague). Luke and I wondered through this most gorgeous city, and fully understand Franz Kafka's phrase, "This little mother has claws". We are both in love with the beauty of this city.

First off we organise our sleeper train to Poland, then we walk to Charles Bridge (built in 1357) and cross to the Hrad, Prague Castle. It is the largest castle complex in the world, and climbing up the stairs to it we can see the commanding view it has over the whole of Prague. Gazing out of the city we see that it isn't only the charming city centre that has gorgeous old building, the entire city is paradise. We wander into the castle and see the Golden Lane, a series of tiny rooms carved out into the castle wall where tradesmen lived. We saw number 22 where Kafka lived from 1916-1917 in his sister's room. It is the cutest and tiniest little thing (and for me cute and tiny are always synergistic), and I find it delightful that I can think to myself that Kafta literally lived 'in a hole in the wall'.

We wandered over further to the imposing cathedral, with it's marvellous gothic architecture. It rose up and dominated the castle, just as the castle dominated the city. It was raining, so we got to see the water running off through the mouths of the gargoyles (an interesting titbit I learnt in Oxford is that statues on buildings are grotesques, they are only gargoyles if they have a water spout through their mouth). We lined up and went inside to marvel. We climbed the highest tower, with 287 steps in the narrowest of stairwells, with two way traffic through a stairwell that I struggled with by myself. We were stuck behind a nun who kept on pausing, but on reaching the top the view was worth the effort.

Coming down from the castle we visit St Nicholas' Church. It was built in the beautiful extravagant Baroque style, with gilded statues and painted frescos on the ceiling. It took our breathe away, and we can both understand how people used to be converted in an age when peasants lived in thatch huts. Who but a greater power could build such a building? On the other hand how they used to collect alms after a sermon still confuses me, with the profusion of gold.

Early afternoon now, and we wander through the New Town (it was founded in 1347, so 'new' can be deceptive) then the Old Town again. We have a beer in several out of the way bars, then another few in the Town Square. We decide to see the astronomical clock strike on the hour, but it takes three hours before we pull ourselves away from the beer. A small skeleton rings a bell on the hour, in an anti-climatic event unless you consider that the machinery was designed and built six hundred years ago.

Time to leave the little mother, we hop on our train to Krakow at 10pm, slightly drunk and having deep and meaningful conversation.

Sunday
Aug072005

Old style Spanish porn...  

It is 5am. Or possibly 10am, my body is a little bit confused right now.

I woke in Seoul yesterday at 6am. A relaxing morning spent mostly in getting to the airport. A very long flight, the highlight of which was at the start when the flight attendant announced "if there is anything we can do to make your flight more uncomfortable please alert the flight staff". I laughed and the other passengers (all Korean) looked at me. We flew over the Gobi desert, the Mongolian steppe and the central Siberian plataeu. It was very flat and very very large. Also, we had more turbulence than I have ever had on a flight before.

I finished 1812 by Adam Zamoyski. It was an excellent read following on War and Peace, I felt like I knew all the historical characters, and kept on expecting Prince Andrew to be mentioned. Two things I have learnt from Napoleon marching into Russia and having over a million soldiers killed: how to cook Spartans' Gruel (First melt some snow of which you need a large quantity in order to produce a little water, then mix in flour; then, in the absence of fat, put in some axle grease, and, in the absence of salt, some powder. Serve hot and eat when you are very hungry) and what to do when you get frostbite (rub it with snow until you can feel excruciating pain. Don't warm it with fire). Nobody listens to the Poles. Turns out that the Bordineo battle in 1812 had the highest amounts of causalties in a single day of any battle until the Somme in 1916.

Landed in Prague, caught train, bus and tram in order to get to Sir Toby's. Found Luke, whom I haven't seen since December. Very tired at this point - only 7pm in Prague, but that was 1am by Seoul time. I told Luke that I needed sleep or a beer.

 

We choose beer, caught a tram into Stare Mesto (Old Town) and looked around this gorgeous gorgeous city. Unlike many European cities such as Berlin and Warsaw, Prague was taken so quickly by both sides in WWII that it suffered almost no damage, giving the town centre real history in every building. Unbelievably gorgeous old stone buildings everywhere you look. Luke said it was a "Goth's orgasm". The Town Square was amazing with the Gothic steeples of Tyn Church (built in 1365) and an Astronomical clock built in 1410 which has a parade of apostles and a skeleton ringing the bell on the whole. There were lots of tourists, but it was nice with beautiful weather and a festive atmosphere. Unbelievably gorgeous.

Steins of Czech larger were 30 Crowns each (about a dollar) so Luke and I had about five each, and also a pizza. At 11pm, being my 24th hour awake, we stumbled across the Prague Sex Machine Museum. What is the Sex Machines Museum? It is an exposition of mechanical erotic appliances, the purpose of which is to bring pleasure and allow extraordinary and unusual positions during intercourse. On an area of three floors there are more than 200 objects and mechanical appliances on view, a gallery of art with erotic themes, a cinema with old erotic films, erotic clothing and many other things pertaining to human sexuality.

An eye-opener was the 1920 Spanish porn film (silent black and white) commissioned by the King. It was surprisingly hardcore and graphic, and contains the oldest filmed threesome and lesbian sex. They had peculiar ideas of beauty in 1920s Spain. Painful to look at was the collection of genital piercing and the range of patented machines, including clitoral clips, multiple dildo performance machines, and a machine for the enhancement of breast size by the injection of "body-compatible fluids" through the nipple into the milk duct. There was an old Golden Shower throne, and hand-cranked vibrators (looked a bit like egg beaters). My favourite may have been the dildo with a mouse face on the end, which would have made a great gift. Finally even sex machines and beer couldn't keep me awake, so I had to go back to Sir Toby's (well... one more beer there).

Friday
Aug052005

Alone in Korea...

A World Heritage site in the morning, how to spend the afternoon? I don't think I'd be the only one to assume it'd have to be another World Heritage site.

This one was Changdeokgung, built from 1405-1412 by the Joeson kings. It is an enormous palace complex, with multiple buildings and squares, pathways and gardens, all enclosed by a long wall. Very traditional North-East Asian style buildings with the classical oriental roof. I had to go on a tour to enter (there must be no tourists in Korea, only three English-speaking tours a day and only a handful of people turned up).

Right at the start is Korea's oldest stone bridge (built in 1411), then we wandered through the King's throne hall and bedroom. There were also stone counters where the Nobles lined up, numbered so they could line up according to rank, with military on one side and civic on the other side.

Most of the buildings are not as old as the complex, as they have burnt down multiple times. Outside the King's bedroom there were four old brass pots full of water, for just this reason. Not to put out fires, but rather to act as mirrors. Turns out that fire ghosts are very ugly, such that if they fly over the mirror and see their own reflection they die from horror, hence no fires. Also of interest in the King's bedroom is that unlike every other building it has no roof ridge (hmm... not sure what to call it? On a ship it would be a keel), because the roof ridge represents the dragon/god, and the King is a dragon/god, and two dragons is one to many. Also, the King's bedroom had no furniture, because it gave something for Japanese ninjas to hind behind when trying to kill the King. This happened a lot anyway.

I also walked through a doorway carved from a single stone block. It used to be reserved for the King alone, and inscribed above it was "never grow old" to grant the Kings eternal youth. However the average Joeson King (there were twenty four) had a life expectancy of 46 (mostly assassination), so I guess you could interpret the message in several ways. I should watch out in 21 years time for Japanese ninjas.

Also of interest was a replica of a Noble's house. The King was so out of touch with people that to find out how the Nobles lived he had a Noble's palace built on the grounds for him to play dress-up in.

My favourite part was the Biwon (secret garden). One of the Kings (like a good Confucian) decided to have a study glade built, with a library and a reading pagoda overhanging a scenic lotus pond (with an island with Chinese Juniper trees in the middle). It still amazes me that Confucism, a religion which forces Nobles to spend their entire life studying as part of their civic duty to those that owe them allegiance, managed to stay the State religion in many countries for hundreds of years (500 years in Korea). I guess it goes to show that social duty is a strong force once invoked, because the benefits are obvious. One of the Kings spent his reign inventing a written language for Korean. He boasted (and many modern linguists agree) that you can learn the alphabet in a day, since each letter (there are only 11 I think) is written in the shape the tongue forms when saying the sound it represents.

Afterwards I wandered around Iseong. I sat down for dinner in Dimibang, which Lonely Planet described vegetarian. They called it a 'Herbal Restaurant', which considering the extensive seafood and beef menu, I think is more accurate than vegetarian. I had to point again, but I ended up with a huge plate of tofu, pickled cucumber, radish and chilli-covered raw onion. They kept on filling up dishes I finished. The place was gorgeous, with beautiful furniture and a traditional Korea atmosphere. They had a TV on with a hippo documentary and then Kim Possible. An amazing day in a new culture, seeing history come to life, and I was all alone. I drank my beer by myself, wrote a postcard, and wandered off.

Friday
Aug052005

Hwaseong

I woke up very early this morning to go to Suwon. Piece of cake - take line 3 to line 1 (make sure it is line 1 that continues south not west) then transfer to bus 13 to the Suwon fortress. Who needs language to use a subway? I am very good at subways now, they are so easy and truly the sign of civilisation. They don't have turnstyles at their stations, relying on the honour system for people to pay. Very nice, I guess that is what happens when you have a society infused with Confucian principles. At one point I became worried when a guy hopped on and start to announce. It looked important. He held up a sign. People looked at him. Then he started to sell hair ties. It was all okay.

Suwon was great. Meant to be a little town, but it was huge, it had all of those domino-style highrises that you see in South East Asian hubs.

I caught a taxi to the fortress. You would have thought that "free interpretation" (written in English) on a taxi would imply English speaking, but sadly no. Maybe it meant Japanese? There are a few (only a few) Japanese tourists here, but almost no western tourists. Luckily I had a picture of the fortress in my book that I could point at. Surely Suwon doesn't have so many attractions that a World Heritage site isn't the obvious place to take someone?

Very odd, a World Heritage site with no souvenirs or postcards, no tourists, just some locals sitting quietly or doing exercises. Very novel. Very nice. The taxi driver dropped me off at the best bit (not the bit Lonely Planet mentioned). Beautiful wooded hills with ramparts and forts lining them, rising up to the summit of Mt Paldal. The rampart is 5.7km long. Hwaseong Fortress was built between 1794 and 1796 under the reign of King Jeongjo (in honour of his father killed by being locked up in a rice basket - such is life). 80% of the fortress is intact, and much was been restored, making it a very impressive structure. The city continues through the fortress, but along the walls you can pretend it doesn't. It looks quite like Tallinn, except with pagoda-style roofs on the fortifications. There are four Jeokdae (gateguard platforms), two observation towers, two Dongjangde (command posts), five firearms bastions, five sentry towers, five secret gates (what fortress is complete without secret gates? They were cool), two floodgates (the south was destroyed though), a beacon tower, two nodae (multiple-arrow launcher platforms and a 170m bastion. Only seven of the fortifications were destroyed. Walking up and down hills for several hours in 35 degree weather made me sweat litres  but I got to see cuckoos (ugly little heads but beautiful blue feathers) and this wonderful fortress. I also saw an odd squirrel. The only let down was the South Gate (that Lonely Planet recommends), designated National Treasure #402, as are most historical National Treasures that are now the centre of round-a-bouts. Much preferred National Treasure #403. What are those beautiful Japanese trees that make up the woods?

Thursday
Aug042005

South Korea

My holiday officially starts, a flight to Seoul. Yet again there was no vegetarian food on the plane, but this was made up for by the stickers "don't wake", "wake for food" and "wake for duty free" that I could stick on myself. I read Kris's two Russian books, and started on the history of 1812. Read Seoul Lonely Planet again. Became shocked when the whole plane put their arms in the air, then worked out that they were simply all doing the recommended exercises. Synchronised.

Hubris makes me attempt to use public transport to go from airport to hotel in a new country. The bus trip to the city worked out okay, but the map was useless to find the actual hotel! To be fair the map couldn't have been helpful anyway, due to the lack of names for the relevant streets. I wandered up and down for an hour, with my heavy backpack, sweating in the evening heat of Seoul, when I decided to do the only logical thing - pick the most European Restaurant to eat in, and ask them for directions. "Tom's Pizza", sounds like they would speak English, yes? They didn't. I had to point. Turns out that they understood English though, because when I left they took out a map and showed me to walk up the street and turn into the third narrow alley (then into a sub alley). Either I was going to find the Seoul Guesthouse or I was being lured into losing a kidney to the Korean blackmarket.

The guesthouse is gorgeous. It is a Joeson-era Hanok house, with a series of small rooms built around a central courtyard. I get to sleep on a yo on an ondol floor. The ondol floor is the traditional Korean form of heating, being a clay floor with a wood oven underneath to keep it warm (during winter that is). This is the reason why Koreans never wear shoes into the house - being the only warm spot, everything is done on the floor. To have a shower I opened up some ricepaper walls and closed off others to turn the bathroom into an ensuite. I like it, you turn walls into doors at will.

Monday
Jan032005

South Island, New Zealand

Friday
Dec242004

The Three Sisters

Saturday
Dec182004

Margaret River