A quick trip round northern England – part 1

Twisted spire

Twisted spire

I’m a little over halfway round a quick nip round to visit friends and thought it’d be nice to add an update to the blog.

In brief, I’ve travelled from Glasgow down to Bradford; hopped back over the M62 to Oldham for a night; returned to Bradford then driven down to Chesterfield and up to Doncaster; finally back to Bradford for another evening.

I drove routes I’d not normally take due to the GPS in my phone. It just uses Google Maps to show me where I am and does some bizarre route planning. Often the route from A to B is not the same as the route from B to A! As a result I’ve ended up going along a couple of awesome country roads I’d never have considered and seen some simply beautiful scenery.

After spending so long abroad, it’s easy to forget exactly how stunning the British countryside can be. It is nice to be reminded once in a while, even if it’s by a wayward route-finding algorithm.

Shouts out to the following:

  • Steph B for exposing me to the Balti Mossala restaurant in Lees. Incredibly good food and great staff
  • Chris & Lydia for just being awesome parents to two (and almost three! I expect a text message saying she’s arrived soon!) of the loveliest little girls one could ever hope to meet. Thank you for the wifi use and the blow-up mattress
  • Vee for being Vee and despite being knackered, staying up till silly o’clock catching up and nattering about old times
  • Mel for thew wander around the Media Museum in Bradford and the chance to meet her gorgeous new(ish!) daughter, Sienna
  • Tracey for the comfy couch and the chance to see Up at the cinema
  • Janice for being kind enough to give me a walking tour around and potted history of Chesterfield. Tourists – check this place out. The church spire is an incredible site and it’s a lovely old town. Thank you also for lunch and the use of your camera!
  • Bernie for being her usual hospitable huggy self and providing me with dinner. I swear she’s the one person I know who’s nicer to animals than I am
Chesterfield's oldest pub

Chesterfield's oldest pub

The attached photos are of Chesterfield and were taken on Monday. I was camera-less bar the one in my phone so I have to repeat my thanks to Janice for letting me use hers to take some decent quality snaps.

Right now I’m in a McD‘s in Bradford, about to head up to sunderland *spit* to see Steph C. Given I’ve not seen her for what must be five or six years I’m sure I can put up with the geographical horror of it all!

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Rest of Reykjavik

Inside the Hallgrímskirkja

Inside the Hallgrímskirkja

There wasn’t a whole lot left of the capital for me to see, so I had a bit of a lie in (I needed it!) and met Elfa to see the last few things. We walked up to the church which this time was open. It’s very plain inside compared to just about any other church I’ve ever been in. Apparently this is typically Icelandic and I like it. Too many churches are filled with ornaments and decor that must have cost a fortune. It all screams “our religion is richer than yours!” whcih somehow doesn’t seem appropriate.

In contrast, the interior of the Hallgrímskirkja looks like the workers have just finished plastering it. There are rows of seats, an altar at one end and an organ at the other. They’re about the only things that lend colour to it. The ceiling’s magnificent, though – it reminds me of a similar design in one of the churches I visited in Liége.

As you face the main door of the church from outside, look left and you’ll see the house of a famous artist, Einar Jónsson (now deceased). Elfa wanted to show me that, but it’s closed in January and February. The sculpture garden attached to it, however, is open all year round. Access is through a gate on the next street down towards the town.

Now I’m not one for art. Never have been. I read comics and think the pictures in there are good, for crying out loud. I’ve been to Paris and couldn’t be bothered going to see the Louvre. In fairness, one or two of the enormous paintings in the art gallery in Nancy did catch my eye, mainly for the detail.

But the sculptures in this garden… wow. There’s something about them I like and I think – again – it’s attention to detail and the thought that’s gone into them. Whereas a lot of the sculptures I saw in places like Rome are detail-heavy on one side, these ones were definitely designed to be walked around. In fact, some seem to almost change as you circle them.

The cold, wet weather really suited them as well. All the sculptures are made from metal (I believe they’re bronze casts of plaster originals) and the little crags on them hold rainwater very well. I’m sure they’d look very different in warm sunshine.

Back down in town, we headed for the coastline and saw the modern “Viking ship” that was erected recently. It’s a metal framework and apparently a bit of a love/hate thing with the locals. Elfa is one of those who’s not impressed! I think it looks good – again, the misty weather suit it and I don’t think it would look anywhere near as good on a sunny day.

I should have noted the titles...

I should have noted the titles...

A short walk away is a Thai restaurant (Krua Thai) which we settled on for lunch. Staffed by Thais, the menu is varied, prices reasonable and service fast. Oh, and the food was good! We chatted for a while and then meandered through the streets to a little café which Elfa hadn’t been in for years. Apparently hanging around in cafés is something the younger generation do. A lot. It’s just what you do. Which I suppose beats standing around on street corners.

We talked for quite a while in there, killing time until Elfa had to go to work, and I found out a fair bit more about Iceland’s culture. With the population being so small, everyone is related to everyone else fairly closely – usually no more than 9 people link any person to any other.

Large families were common until fairly recently. Elfa’s father was one of nine if I recall correctly. Thing is, Iceland – until recently and now no more – was never really a rich country. Work was hard to come by and families are expensive to raise. As such, children were often “farmed off” to couples with no children – kind of like an adoption scheme. The children were effectively raised by the couple they lived with, in exchange for which they helped with whatever that couple needed – farmwork, looking after them if they were elderly and so forth.

Elfa’s father was one of these children and the couple he ended up with offered to take him on full-time and raise him, put him through school and so forth. It’s just something we’d not have in the UK. Too many lawyers getting involved and so forth. Oh, and the fact that generally the kind of people we have who have nine children don’t care what happens to them as long as the child support cheque comes in.

It really does give the image of a close-knit community and explains why so many people know so many people. That and the 300,000 population, half of which live in and around Reykjavik.

Half past four arrived and Elfa needed to get ready for work, so we strolled out and into the slightly more pleasant evening. She toddled off and I walked out of town a little way to find Gulla’s house. She was to be my host for the evening as she is slightly closer to the bus station than Roberto and Tamara.

After some walking up and down trying to spot house numbers in the dark, I made my way into her cosy little flat. While I checked my email and made friends with the cat, Gulla Took a quick trip to the American embassy to join a small protest against the situation in Gaza. Well, there’s no Israeli embassy in Reykjavik!

Modern sculpture of a Viking boat

Modern sculpture of a Viking boat

I got talking to her son, Gunnar, who’s thinking about selling up and moving to Denmark. His flat is costing him more than it did when he bought it due to how Icelandic mortages work. Essentially, you pay off your monthly amount and then the bank adds on another sum based on inflation. This, currently, is a larger amount then he (and a lot of other people) are paying off. Not good. So economically, it’s cheaper to walk off and let the bank take your home, claim bankruptcy and start again. Obviously not good for banks who are now being saddled with properties they can’t sell.

A little later I made a brief trip over to R&T’s to pick up all my stuff – they’d been out at the gym when I parted company with Elfa – and had another great chat with them. Fantastic hosts!

The evening was relaxed as Gulla and I sat on our respective laptops, talking to people abroad while taking the occasional break to chat to each other. I munched my way through all the snack food I’d picked up that I didn’t want to carry from country to country.

My original intention had been to grab a couple of hours’ sleep before my coach at 4:40am. Instead I sat up online. Whoops. But that bit really falls into tomorrow’s post.

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Around Kota Kinabalu

After spending a day doing pretty much naff all yesterday, I decided to do a little walking. My targets were the Sabah Museum and the nearby mosque. They’re near enough each other, but a bit of a hike from the hostel. On the way I passed the clock tower, which also used to act as a lighthouse until the town grew massively early in the last century.

The museum’s not bad, covering all aspects of Sabah lifestyle, history and natural life. It’s the first museum I’ve been to in Malaysia that charges an entry fee, though. MR15 (around £2.50 – locals pay MR2) isn’t a lot for the size of the place, but if you’re feeling really tight you could see a lot of it for nothing. Just don’t go into the entrance of the main building. There are several sections and the only place my ticket was checked was right opposite where I paid for it.

I’m getting Oz Syndrome with the museums – each one seems to have a lot of similar material to the last one. The main museum building is impressive and houses stuffed animals, pottery, a fake cave (the area around here has some large natural ones) and a history area. There are also tribal costumes and the like. All well and good, but I’ve seen far too much of it elsewhere.

The science and art gallery wing is OK, the bulk being taken up by a history of the railway and yet another Shell-sponsored “this is how we drill for oil” exhibit. In fairness, this is probably the most impressive one I’ve seen, but all the information (and in fact, some of the material) is a direct copy of that in other museums.

By far the coolest area is outside, where you can find plants labelled with what they are and what medicines they’re used in; a “history” of plant life; and a selection of traditionally-built structures detailing how many of the indigenous population still live out in the jungle areas. It reminded me of a similar area outside of the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi though none of the buildings here are as large as the ones there.

If you’ve not done another museum in the area, this is definitely a good one. However, it’s a little repetitive if it’s your umpteenth in Borneo.

A few minutes’ walk away is the Sabah State Mosque, so I took a squint. The tower is pretty enough, but the inside is typically functional and plain. I did find one prayer room and I’m not sure if I was meant to go in (though nobody and no signs said I couldn’t) so I had a squint inside. Nice enough with the inside of the dome to see, and a huge glittery chandelier. All very nice.

By this time – mid-afternoon – I was a bit peckish so started the walk back to the hostel. On the way I passed one of the three cinemas in the area and saw they had a performance of Death Race on shortly. I picked up a ticket for MR8 (Saturdays are the expensive day…) and had time to wolf a very small KFC beforehand.

Not a bad film, entertaining enough, but Malaysia cuts its films for violence and dubs out bad language. This is very frustrating when watching a film, the primary reason for which is to enjoy some carnage. The cuts are very clumsily done as well. And don’t even get me started on the people who had their mobiles on for the whole film. They never answered them – just stared at the screens and let them ring out for a minute at a time whenever someone called. Back home they’d have been ringing their supplier for a new one and trying to explain how the last one had become lodged up their back passage in the first place.

I think it’s about time to consider heading for Semporna. I might catch the early bus tomorrow, and start my Rescue Diver course the day after. I’m still looking into Dive Master courses but there are so many inclusions, exclusions, accommodation deals, park fees and so in depending on where you look it’s hard to figure out where is cheapest!

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Around BSB

Last night I found a 24 hour café with free wi-fi. Needless to say, I staggered away at a silly time (1:30) after the first half of the Sunderland v Liverpool game. As alcohol sales are illegal here, I had a nice pot of lemon tea while I surfed and shouted at the telly.

I didn’t sleep in this morning, though. My roomies were quiet, but I tend to wake at 8:00-ish anyway, so got up and ran a few errands. A nearby supermarket provided a nice healthy fruit breakfast for a little over a pound and I picked up some blank CDs to ship backups of my photos home. The nice man in the shop threw in some keyrings as a present when I told him I was in Brunei on holiday!

After eating, I walked to the bus station where I bumped into John and Mel, the Aus/NZ couple. Again. I swear they’re following me around. We all waited for the number 39 bus to the museum together. When it arrived, minor chaos ensued.

Bizarrely, Bruneian people wait patiently for things like buses. And when they arrive, they all dive at the door at once. A rather burly man forced his way in front of us, blocking us with his arm. But I’ll let him off as he pushed people back so two older men could get on first. He then nodded at us three tourists to board after them. There’s obviously some system we’re not aware of. The other rule seems to be that every passenger must be seated as nobody else was allowed on board once the seats were filled.

A dollar got us to the museum – remember to shout or bang on the ceiling to announce that you want off as there are no bells on these buses. As with most everything in Brunei, the museum’s free to get in and it’s pretty good. There are sections on natural history, Islamic art, oil & gas, ASEAN, culture, Brunei’s history and the recovery of a wreck found a few years ago. All the displays are informative, though the English can be slightly ropey. For instance, “i.e.” instead of “e.g.” when giving a platypus as an example of a monotreme. I mean, *tut*. There are two monotremes (OK, so five of you class each of the four echidna species as separate), so it’s definitely “for example” not “that is”. Alright, that was a very anal example of the “bad” English – most of the signs are perfectly fine.

We spent maybe ninety minutes checking out the exhibits… and the really smelly loo which isn’t anywhere near the standard of the rest of the building. Apparently there’s another museum nearby, but we were somewhat museum’d out and opted to walk up the road to the bus stop.

Before we could get there, a car horn beeped and a local pulled over. “BSB? Hop in!”. Mind, when your fuel is 17.5p per litre, you can afford to give people a lift. Reportedly, this kind of behaviour is very common in Brunei. People just want to help out and they do like to meet tourists. Despite their best efforts, they don’t seem to get too many (although we also bumped into the French couple who arrived at the bus station as we were waiting for the 39!). I guess most people come to Borneo for diving in the well-known areas such as Sipadan.

Our chauffeur turned out to be a security guard, an especially easy job in Brunei as there’s virtually no crime. As he put it, he locks the door then goes to sleep for the night. And he doesn’t pay tax on his income as there is none in Brunei. No income tax, no sales tax, no… whatever insane taxes we’re dreaming up at home now.

I separated from my colonial buds when we got back, though I’ll likely catch them on the early bus to the ferry tomorrow morning. I chose to go local for lunch and picked out Jollibee, a Bruneian (I think) fast food place. Well, I’ve never seen one outside of Brunei so I guess it’s local food. The chicken pita wrap I had was passable, though a little small. On a whim, I popped into an amusement arcade for half an hour as well. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but will someone please tell me when combat games started to require four or six buttons as well as the joystick? Crime Fighter and Yie Ar Kung Fu were always fine with just the three.

And once again I show my age.

Postcards have been written and will be posted shortly. Tonight’s plan is to chill out then head back to the same café to watch us getting embarassed by ManUre. Just because I’m on the opposite side of the world is no excuse to miss watching us taking a drubbing.

So my brief visit to Brunei comes to an end. It’s been cool, but the one thing that needs improved here is the public transport. It’s often easy to get somewhere, but as the buses all stop at 6pm getting back again can be a problem. Alternatively, give free cars to tourists! BSB itself is a nice enough city, but it’s quite small and everything apart from a handful of a handful of attractions are too far out to walk to.

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A walk around Kuching

Kuching’s not a big place. The main city centre area can be circled in maybe half an hour or forty minutes on foot if you don’t stop to look at things. It’s also worth checking when things are open or accessible as these times vary. In particular, the mosques will have times when they’re in use so unless you’re Muslim you can’t enter.

Before I begin, though, a brief history of Kuching. First bit of trivia is that “Kuching” is Malay for “cat” which explains some of the decor and statues. And the fact that there’s a cat museum a few kilometres from the north side of the river. And the statues. And the drain covers. The city was given the name by an English man – Charles Brooke – who’s uncle settled here in the early19th century after deciding he didn’t want to head home after being injured and sent packing while in Burma by the East India Company. So he decided to travel a bit, thanks to being fairly well off anyway, and also getting a decent pension.

Sir James Brooke landed in Sarawak (as Kuching used to be called – a name it shared with the region of Borneo in which it is situated) and helped the local viceroy quell an uprising. As a reward, the sultan of Brunei declared him raja of Sarawak. This was in 1842. Pretty cool, really.

For three generations, the Brookes ruled the area. From James to Charles (who renamed Kuching in 1872) to Charles Vyner Brooke. And then the Japanese arrived as part of their WWII plans at which point Charles V decided to take a hasty holiday in Sydney. The Japanese surrendered in 1945, but… and here I have heard two different versions of the story. In one, Charles V “decided” to cecede his rule of Sarawak to the British Crown. In the other, he was told in no uncertain terms by the royalty that he (or any of the Brooke’s family) wasn’t allowed anywhere near Sarawak any more, and was given £150,000 as a golden handshake.

Either way, on July 1 1946 Britain had another colony in its grasp. And then Anthony Brooke – next in line for the raja “hat” – jumped in and threw his weight behind an already-growing movemement which wanted to oust the British. Because bizarrely, despite what I gather was a harsh rule by the second Brooke, the Malaysians rather liked the way things were before the war.

Five years later, Anthony Brooke announced that the protests and fighting should end and withdrew his support. In 1957, Britain herself withdrew and Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known) was made an independant nation. In 1963, after a lot of grumbling and political dummy-throwing, the Borneo area was included into Malaya and the Federation of Malaysia was formally recognised. Indonesia and the Philippines weren’t so happy, and Indonesia conducted border raids for some years to try and disrupt the new state. The Philippines just stuck to random acts of piracy which still (rarely) occur today in the far outlying islands.

Nowadays, Sarawak is a hugely diverse region. The population are a mix of people from Chinese, Malay, Indian and probably still some western backgrounds. Kuching is prime example, being like a very small Singapore. The same mix of nationalities with the same architectural styles and the same lack of animosity between them all.

The city has an Anglican cathedral, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese temples. The food is similarly diverse and although there are areas which are more one culture than another, there’s a tremendous mish-mash even if you just walk in one long street. It does make for a very interesting visual experience.

It had rained a lot overnight and it was still torrential in early morning. By around 10:00 it had settled to a steady stream with could be contended with using one of the umbrellas kept handy in the hostel foyer – I loaned my folding umbrella to the two girls as they were heading to one of the parks and would need something smaller.

Passing the Heroes’ Monument I walked up to the Sarawak Museum. This is split into two buildings on either side of the main road and is open from 9:00 to 4:30 (not 5:30 as in Lonely Planet – it’s changed recently and the signs have been hand-altered) all week. Entry is free, though there’s a donation pot just inside the door. I checked out the old wing and it’s OK. A lot of stuffed animals and fish in various glass cases, some interesting information on geology and a Shell-sponsored exhibit about recovering oil and gas. Fact: Shell got its name as the company was originally an export business based here. One of its major exports was polished sea shells. Only later did their founder plunge his money into the new-fangled “oil” stuff.

Upstairs are some displays on various indiginous cultures with a replica set of rooms from a longhouse and miniature longhouses from several of the “tribes”. Pretty good stuff. Overall, it could do with a spring-clean and some morr lighting but it is informative and free.

Over the road, the new wing looked like it was between exhibits. A handful of pictures and a small model boat were all I could see, and the upstairs viewing gallery was closed. The new Natural History and Arts buildings seemed to be closed, but whether this is due to them not being complete yet, I don’t know. Also, for reference, the Islamic and Chinese museums are both closed on Fridays.

As the rain eased off, I walked up to the open market and some of the shopping streets. I picked up possibly the world least healthy chicken-and-beef burger. It was Halal so I have no doubt over the quality of the meat, but the sauces were ladled on and by the time I unwrapped it somewhere out of the rain, grease was oozing from the greaseproof paper it was wrapped in. Still, it was tasty and only RM2.70 (maybe 45p) for a double-burger with everything isn’t bad. A shame there were no napkins in the bag. I washed my face and hands using rainwater pouring from a nearby roof. When in Rome… (or Kuching).

My next stopoff was the tourist office to check boat and bus times for the next couple of days. The Lonely Planet I’m working from is the “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” one and I’ve already found some things out of date in it. It’s the current edition, but published in January 2007 so that’s to be expected. I don’t mind if I get somewhere and a guest house is a pound more than I’d planned, but missing a bus because of a schedule change could be disastrous.

While there I asked about cinemas and was shown two on a map and given the local paper to dig through for the schedules. I’d wanted to see Wall-E, but despite and August 7th release date in Malaysia, it’s not making it to Borneo until the 14th. Ah well, I’ll catch it in Kota Kinabalu.

I had to skip the mosques as they don’t open for non-Muslims until 3pm on a Friday, so I wandered through one of the more Chinese areas (Carpenter Street) and hd a quick look at the beautiful Sang Ti Miao and Hong San temples. The Tua Pek Kong temple a little further over could be the oldest standing building in Kuching, although the Bishop’s residence (now within the cathedral grounds) is “officially” the oldest. The temple is mentioned in texts pre-dating the residence, but the latter has formal paperwork detailing its construction. I’m going for the temple because it’s prettier and I’m not a church-goer.

There’s a bizarrely-painted car park down the street from the Tua Pek Kong temple – each floor is a different garish pastel colour – and this houses the Star City cinema on the 9th floor. The lower ground is meant to be a food court and the upper ground a mall, but they’re both closed. Everything else is parking. I took the lift up to the cinema and thought I’d entered a film as the staff all seemed to be keeled over. The woman collecting the 20s for the toilet, the concession counter worker… Only they weren’t dead, just asleep.

I checked the times and prices (and languages). Sadly, Red Fort is only available in Chinese with no subtitles. In Bangkok it had Thai subtitles so I was hoping here they may have English. Ah well. Shaolin Girl looked entertaining as it’s by the same director as Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Chinese with English subtitles, RM8 per ticket… and I couldn’t see it as I was the only customer. They need at least two to show a film. Tempted as I was to pay for two tickets, I decided to wait till later and see if the girls at the hostel fancied it.

Despite checking every other mall in the area, I couldn’t find the other cinema. Never mind.

I managed to locate the bar which is designed like a long house, but it was shut (most bars open at 6pm) so I’ll save that one for later. I hear the food is good and cooked in a traditional manner. A block or two away is Picaddily’s, a bar run by an ex-guest of the hostel I’m staying at.

After a quick email check (OK, an hour online but it was only 50p) I got back to the hostel for some munchies and a shower. The place is deserted and it’s like staying at a friend’s only they’ve given you the key! I hope the girls didn’t get rained on too much and I’ll catch them later.

Tomorrow – orang-utan and mosques. And perhaps I’ll find out where orang-utan get their name from. I’ve seen “orang” in a lot of signs in Malay – I think it means “adult” or “senior” or maybe just “big”. Must remember not to call them “monkeys”.

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