FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 5, 2018

The end of the tour saw the slow drift of the group in the direction of the airport, though with a late night flight with Emirates I had plenty of time to kill. I mused on various options, but in the end settled on a relatively relaxed wander around Fort District to mop up the sights I missed on my first couple of days in the country followed by an afternoon of rail photography.

One of the most striking contrasts of my wanders came from a visit to the modern lighthouse overlooking the Indian Ocean. The lighthouse was unveiled on 2nd February 1951 to commemorate the commencement of work on the Colombo Port Development Scheme of 1950, a massive modernisation programme that saw the creation of multiple berths, transit sheds and warehouses. It was a significant milestone in the economic development of the country in the first few years of independence.

Monument to mark the Colombo Port Development of 1950

Today, that same stretch of land is the site of another massive project – Colombo International Finance City. As the name suggests this is not just any property development, it is quite literally the construction of an entirely new city on the doorstep of old Colombo, bankrolled as part of the Chinese government’s One Belt One Road initiative. It’s not the only major development in play – a game of global stakes is afoot with India and Japan investing in the development of Sri Lanka’s ports following the recent handover of Hambantota port to the Chinese on a 99 year lease.

A glance at the panels all along Chaithya Road show the incredibly ambitious plans which are intended to rival Dubai and Singapore. Tall buildings in the city already dwarf the colonial remnants, but this will change the city beyond recognition. The plans envisage the construction of a complete financial district, a marina, hotels, restaurants, apartment blocks, retail units, banks, embassies, museums, galleries and convention facilities.

At the moment the focus is on the $1.4 billion reclamation of the 269 hectares of land that will be needed for this project. The work continues 24 hours a day with completion is anticipated in June 2019. It was no surprise to learn that such a substantial project has proved controversial and the degree of dependence on Chinese finance has been heavily debated in the Sri Lankan parliament and beyond.

Hoardings promote the ambitious vision for the future of Colombo

In the afternoon I found myself staring at another new development project, this time the shell of the troubled Grand Hyatt Colombo which the papers have suggested has run out of funding. I didn’t spend much time pondering the controversies associated with this and instead focused on the railway line that runs in its shadow, through Koluptiya, alongside Marine Drive and on its way towards Mount Lavinia.

It turned out to be a splendid spot to watch passing trains, but only if you could ignore the almost constant invitations for a Tuk-Tuk tour of the city, offers of massages or horror stories about the number of suicides that had taken place here. The view of the fishermen trying their luck in the Indian Ocean made an interesting foreground to the line, though these were only ever going to be record shots as the skies had already clouded over.

Class S10 railcar 879 heading away from Koluptiya

Over an hour or two, I managed to photograph a couple of railcars (S8 and S10) and one loco hauled service (M4) before I had to head back to pick up my ride to the airport. In typical fashion when I actually wanted a Tuk Tuk ride there were none to be found, but it was an interesting enough walk up through Galle Face Green and back to my hotel in Fort District.

One of my last impressions of the country was the most surprising – an encounter with the friendliest immigration officer I have ever chanced upon who chatted amiably about the highlights of my trip. Sometimes it is the little moments like this that really stay with you. On making my way airside I was pleased to discover that my flight was on time whereas the same flight 24 hours earlier had left some 20 hours late. Time to swap 36 degree heat for the deep freeze of London…

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Steam to Colombo Fort

Posted in Colombo, Kadugannawa, Kandy, Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 4, 2018

The last day of the tour saw us travel seventy-six miles from Kandy to Colombo Fort on a busy public holiday. Across the country celebrations were taking place to mark the 70th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, something we had seen for ourselves in the morning as marching bands started to make their way into the city centre. It wasn’t entirely clear if any extra trains would be running but most of the services we saw looked as packed as ever.

On arrival at Kandy station at we found our two steam locomotives sat outside the shed and not attached to the stock. AS all the trains seemed to be running late it was no surprise to hear that our departure had been pushed back an hour to 2.30pm. At least it gave us another opportunity to photograph the beautiful signal gantry at Kandy. Inevitably the best light fell on the service trains, but it was a marked improvement on the murky conditions that had greeted us some days earlier.

Steam under the gantries of Kandy

A walk down the track to a position just beyond the gantry gave us a great vantage point to admire the variety of locomotive classes in action today, including an S12 diesel multiple unit, two classes of diesel electric locomotives (M5C and M6), two classes of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W2A and W3) and a class Y Hunslet shunter. Most of us were looking pretty clean and refreshed after a morning chilling or taking in the city but many a white shirt proved a good litmus test for the speed at which dirt gets sprayed around on these trips!

After taking a photograph of a false departure we boarded our train and set off at 2.45pm. The plan was as simple as it could be – we would run as fast as the pathing would let us be, apart from a scheduled photostop at the Lion’s Mouth. In reality the complexities of our train’s appearance on the network were amply demonstrated by the many stops needed to allow the service trains to overtake us. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of a couple of these to squeeze in extra runpasts at Kadugannawa (4.15pm) and Rambukkana (5.32pm) on the way to Colombo Fort (8.05pm).

Most of all, the run in to Colombo Fort gave us a chance to soak up the atmosphere and absorb the detail of the stations, signals and even the wonderful weigh bridges along the route. Our speed was pretty limited for a long stretch, dictated by the speed restriction signs enforcing a limit of 25km/h due to weak rails and sleepers, but once we got clear of this section we were able to pick up speed and got up to 65 km/h where we had an uninterrupted run.

One of the many warning signs along the first part of our route

In the cab for today’s run there was one driver and three firemen (one past fireman and two trainees) so they could keep at it all the time. Although inexperienced (with only two previous trips behind them) they seemed to be doing a good job, improvising where they needed to and giving us a superb run into Colombo Fort. It was pretty splendid to be riding west into the setting sun, towards the Indian Ocean, with cinders flying past the windows and locals crowded at the lineside. The air thick with smoke as we thundered towards Colombo.

At Polgahawela we could see photographers in tuk-tuks chasing the train, which seemed a rather uneven battle, whilst at another stretch workers packed into an open truck cheered and waved as we passed. Somewhere else a family of three perched precariously on a motorbike waved as they rode in parallel.

More often than not it looked as though ordinary folk had heard about the train whistling in the distance and come to the lineside to see it pass. It certainly seemed to add something to the celebratory vibe of the day. In all these snapshots of lives intersecting with our train, as seen from the carriage windows, we were reminded of the final line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem about the views from a railway carriage ‘Each a glimpse and gone forever!’

A quickly arranged run past between service trains at Kadugannawa

Even when the colourful skies gave way to darkness there were still many marvelous sights to enjoy on the approach to Colombo, from the fishermen in the wetlands using lamps to illuminate their spots to the sight of the Lotus Tower specially illuminated for national day. However, it was just enough to sit in the dark carriage illuminated only by the streaks of light from passing trains and stations, along with the constant spark show.

It has been a very enjoyable tour in good company, even if one of our number did voice the opinion that it would make a great psycho-pathology field trip! The weather might have been less than kind at times, but it did at least clear the skies, giving us bursts of brilliant blue rather than the haze that apparently dogged the previous tour here. Bernd thought that we should also thank the Chinese engineers – for it was their railcar breaking down that gave us such brilliant photo opportunities when we had to push back rather than forward a few days ago!

A considerable degree of effort has gone in to making this tour possible, from the way that the railway staff across the network have found ways to make things work for us (often at short notice) to the supreme efforts of the crew handling the locomotives with limited experience and equipment. Most of all though, it is Bernd’s years of effort and incredible organisational skills that have delivered the most astonishing photographic opportunities to us. I for one am very appreciative of everything that has contributed to making this such a wonderful trip and look forward to my next FarRail adventure!

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Beyond the boundary

Posted in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Talawakele by folkestonejack on February 3, 2018

Our re-arranged morning saw us take a bus to Talawakele at 6am, ready to take advantage of the glorious morning sun. The first few shots around the station were enough evidence of how good the decision to change the plan had been but better was to come.

A morning glint at Talawakele

A short walk across the railway bridge, over the waters of the Kotmale Oya, gave us a wonderful view that just kept improving the further away you walked. Up close you had a shot of the town with a pretty splendid distance signal but as you walked back the mountains came into view along with some lovely reflections in the water. A couple of double-headed runpasts over the bridge had everyone smiling and Bernd joked that we could go back to the hotel now, the best shots of the day in the bag…

On our return to Talawakele we boarded our train and headed off in the direction of Hatton (8:53), once again passing through the tea fields and small communities on each side of the line. An extended stay at one spot a little further on, not too far from the small halt at Derryclare, saw us descend upon a community cricket match. Play had just finished but we were able to persuade some of the team to return to the field to give us some impressive foreground for a couple of runpasts. If you got the shot right, as some did, you could have got the batsman striking a six just as the train passed. Needless to say my photographic efforts don’t capture this!

Colonial imports: cricket and steam

After continuing under the midday sun we found ourselves at a spot just beyond Kotagala where we tried a shot that required a little climb. It didn’t really work out for me but paid back the effort some had made with wet feet, muddy clothes and some leaches! We spent a while shunting up and down the line around Kotagala, getting out of the way of service trains that needed to overtake or cross us, only leaving for good in mid afternoon (14:16). The increasing cloud cover, with only small breaks for the sun, certainly backed up the re-arrangement of our activities for the day. If we had stuck to the original schedule we would have missed all the best conditions for photography.

A few more shots from the hillsides (14:35-14:45) were followed by a fast run to Hatton (arriving 15:05). The choice of continuing on by bus or by train seemed a fairly simple one – the bus would take two hours to reach Kandy whereas the train would take four and a half hours (our two steam locomotives would need to take water first, around 30 minutes per loco, and wouldn’t get a clear run). The faster drive by bus had its downsides – our driver had an interesting line in overtaking on blind left hand bends (think it was better in the fog when we couldn’t see how bad the driving was!).

Token exchange at Kotagala

We finally reached Kandy just after 6pm and were soon enjoying what I can only describe as the blandest meal of my life – a bowl of lukewarm tomato soup followed up a rather tasteless carbonara pasta dish with pomegranate seeds – served up by some of the most hopeless waiters I have encountered! A bit like theatre performances that are so bad that they become unmissable, this was one meal that could only be appreciated for its comedic value. Thankfully, no-one seemed to have agreed to their requests for credit card pin numbers to be disclosed…

My day finally came to an end with a session of night photography at Kandy which involved working around the late night trains and empties moving in/out of the station. It was a lively experience but I think we were all happy that we could return to our beds for a good nights sleep before too long.

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Quick thinking

Posted in Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 2, 2018

An early start saw us arrive at Diya Talawa at 7 o’clock, just beating our train by ten minutes. Our loco, class B2b no. 213, looked splendid in the early morning light but before we could start our day in earnest we needed to let a service train overtake us. The intended plan unraveled rather quickly when the service train developed a problem, blocking the line.

Some splendid quick thinking saw the plan turned on its head. Instead of climbing uphill towards the summit we would head in the opposite direction and give them time to sort out the faulty diesel multiple unit.

Some early morning sun on the return to Diya Talawa

After rolling back a short distance we started our climb back to Diya Talawa, attempting three wonderfully atmospheric shots as the sun made short work of the morning mist. I lined up a lovely shot of a local family, sitting on a rock to watch proceedings, but the patience of my foreground was shorter than mine and they disappeared before our train returned. Some you win, some you lose!

The frustration of missed opportunities dogged us through the morning. After passing back through Diya Talawa (8:40) we walked along the track to a grand curve. It was one of those spots that would reward a little effort to get the most panoramic vista.

I followed a few others along a path up the hillside, on stepping stones over a little stream and then made the scramble up the rocks to gain some height. The view was splendid but three attempts to match the passage of the train with the breaks in the cloud (9:00-10:00) failed miserably. The best we got was the diesel running in isolation in sun – not the shot that many had hoped for. Still, at least I wasn’t one of the poor souls who tried an alternative route through boggy ground… soggy feet for a shot in shade must have seemed like a poor exchange!

Diesel in the sun at Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (10:13) we found the platforms packed with school children. At first we assumed that they were waiting for the service train scheduled to overtake us here but they were still on the platform when it departed. It dawned on us that they had come to see the steam loco – clearly a relatively rare event.

The loco needed to take on water here but it looked as though the water crane could no longer be turned. The solution was ingenious – the crew procured a piece of guttering that some locals took off a house under construction. The makeshift watering facilities did the job and were on our way just over an hour later (11.22).

Improvised watering facilities at Haputale

The afternoon took us from the sun of Haputale to the mists of Pattipola, with the usual back and forth between stations to get out of the way of service trains crossing or overtaking us. There were plenty of memorable moments along the way – a school sports day taking place next to the track at Idalgashinna, a shot that required standing on a stack of sleepers covered in ants and a photospot above a tunnel mouth abandoned after the discovery of a large nest of bees.

The cloud had closed right in as we reached Pattipola (17:02) and left us scratching our heads for a moment as we tried to work out which direction we needed to walk through the mist to find our buses. Overall, I think we have been quite lucky again. Although we didn’t have much luck getting our train in sun it could have been an awful lot worse. At one point it hammered down when the train set back but our photo spot didn’t see a drop of water!

In the clouds on the line between Haputale and Idalgashinna

Once we reached our hotel there was a discussion about alternatives to the planned schedule and near unanimous approval for the scrapping of night shots in favour of an early start to take advantage of the best conditions of the day (according to the forecasts). Let’s hope this pays off…

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The Demodara loop and other delights

Posted in Bandarawela, Demodara, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 1, 2018

I’m not sure where the threatened storms are but I’m glad they are keeping away. In fact, conditions were quite the opposite. On our arrival at Demodara this morning, around 8am, we were even treated to a spell of blue skies and sun. I wouldn’t exactly say that I made the best use of them at our first photospot but the opportunity was there…

Class B2b no. 213 departs from Demodara Station as a track ganger looks on

Demodara is one of the more interesting spots on the route. At first glance it looks like a pretty country station but step over to the other side of the forecourt and you see that a 414 foot long tunnel runs underneath the station (approximately 100 feet below). This was our first glimpse of the spiral that allows the line to manage the dramatic change in elevation.

A train climbing from Badulla will cross the valley over the Badulu Oya river by means of a 210 foot long iron girder bridge and then enter the 414 foot long Tunnel no. 42, passing underneath Demodara Station. On emerging from the tunnel the train completes a 360 degree loop around the hill before arriving at the station. It’s a terrific engineering feat for its time that laid the way to the official opening of the final section of the Uva Railway on 5th February 1924.

In practical terms the loop takes sufficient time that you can photograph a train crossing the valley and still have time to photograph it arriving at the station. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this. On top of that the well tended station, opened in 1921, is very photogenic in its own right. I’m sure its appearance has changed little in its 96 year history although I noted little signs of the ingenuity that keeps this railway going on a tight budget with a lamp shade cleverly fashioned from a bottle.

Once again the use of the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet provided a marvelous demonstration of the continued application of the system for single line working (originally invented in 1878 and long since vanished in most other places).

Tea-pickers in the hillside plantation at Demodara

We spent a good while at Demodara, taking a variety of shots around the bridge and station for almost two hours (8.45-10.30), before heading up the hillside to a spot among the tea plants of the Demodara Tea Estate for a couple of scenic runpasts (11:00-11:15). Bernd had arranged the hire of three tea-pickers to work in just the right spot for our photography, providing a really neat touch. None of us had quite anticipated their Adidas branded uniforms though – a long way from the traditional outfits you usually associate with tea pickers!

After leaving Demodara behind we headed uphill towards Ella (11:45), passing over the famous nine-arch bridge. Once a service train had overtaken us (a diesel hauled mixed train with freight cars, regular passenger carriages and an observation coach) we set back for the bridge (12:12). We had already seen how popular a tourist spot this was on our way through with around a hundred people at the Ella end of the bridge taking photographs and plenty more hiking along the lineside (signs at the platform ends at Ella and at either end of the bridge prohibit walking along the track but are largely ignored).

Class B2b no. 213 crosses Nine Arch Bridge

The 400 foot long and 100 foot tall bridge, the largest viaduct on the railway in Sri Lanka, was constructed at Gotuwala in 1917 to link the two mountains on the line between Bandarawela and Badulla. It’s another impressive example of British engineering, not least because of the hard to reach worksite and limitations of the equipment available. In his superb book Essays on Ceylon Railways (184-1964) Hemasiri Fernando points out that the construction materials had to be transported by pack bulls for the entire period of construction!

After two runpasts over the bridge (12.30-12.45) we continued on towards Bandarawela, passing through Ella (13.03) and Heel-Oya (13.20) en route. Another runpast on the approach to Bandarawela (14.05) was followed by a lengthy stop at the station whilst we waited for a train to cross. This was no problem – the station was fascinating and deserved a good explore.

Arrival at Bandarawela

Along with the by now familiar historic equipment and the lovingly maintained gardens that we have seen at most stations we found that Bandarawela’s platform included an aquarium; a framed faded picture of a Baureihe 103; some helpful posters showing a complete class-by-class history of Sri Lanka’s railway locomotives and units; and one of the most beautiful wooden departure boards we have seen so far. Opposite the platform we could also see a <a href="http://“>G2 class Bo-Bo diesel-electric shunter (no. 535) – one of eight in its class (North British Locomotive Co., 1950). Just when we thought we had seen it all a member of the station staff came out of his office ringing a large brass bell to announce the imminent arrival of the next train!

After the service train (a S12 unit) had passed through we continued on our way towards Hapitale. The clouds seemed ever darker as we progressed whilst the distant rumble of thunder threatened. Nevertheless, the conditions gave us the opportunity for some moody shots and certainly hadn’t deterred local onlookers – it was lovely seeing a family of young railfans watching in awe atop a stack of wooden sleepers here and at a tunnel just after Diya Talawa two kids could be seen running back and forth at the top of the tunnel mouth enjoying the spectacle (especially being clouded in steam!).

A moody shot on the line between Bandarawela and Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (16:57) we called it a day and boarded the buses for the drive back to our hotel. It was good timing as the mist was closing in fast. The forecast from the meteorological office for tomorrow sounds pretty dire with the promise of heavy rain (75mm) accompanied by thunderstorms in mid afternoon. Yikes!

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Timewarp

Posted in Bandarawela, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

The reward at the end of a long drive from Pattipola was a stay at the Bandarawela Hotel, an incredible colonial survivor built in 1893 which has been spared significant alteration in the years that followed. Stepping inside the hotel it felt as though the clock had been wound back a century.

My room at the Bandarawela Hotel

It was not hard to imagine the hotel’s past life as a tea planters club as I wandered the balconies, relaxed in the lounge and enjoyed a drink in the bar. The experience extended to the rooms with interior decoration straight out of the 1930s (along with the light switches, plumbing and just about everything else). A bolted door in the bathroom was apparently once used by the staff to bring hot water to guests for their evening baths!

Climbing into the clouds

Posted in Great Western, Nanu-Oya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

It would have been easy enough to believe that workmen had been hammering nails into the roof all night but I knew full well that it had been the rain. The BBC forecast is one of unmitigated doom for the next seven days – heavy rain, thunderstorms and the works. It was all too credible from what we could see on the ground and the reports in the local press about localised flooding in the Nuwara Eliya area (where we are currently staying). Some of the areas flooded have been experiencing a drought for the past few months, so our timing has been impeccable!

Station sign at Nanu-Oya

An early start ensured that we reached Nanu-Oya nice and early (7.30) and our train departed just a quarter of an hour later, rolling back to the station at Great Western. The name sounds as though it should have a railway connotation, though it actually comes from the nearby mountain. The conditions were also surprisingly good with blue skies and a little sun for our photographic efforts (a failed runpast, runpast and false departure) though things were slowed a little by the need for some impromptu repairs.

The usual pattern of setting off, rolling back and then departing for real continued today to allow us to work around the packed service trains into hill country. In that sense we only really left Great Western just after 10am. Thankfully, our train was not quite so much of a squeeze today with additional seating added to the crew compartment in the form of a station bench from Nanu-Oya (I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw the bench being lifted off the station, across the tracks and into the train!).

Extra seating for the train…. a station bench!

Our run up the line gave us the opportunity to take some photographs from the hillside, standing among the tea plants and looking out over the plantations. One of the spots, in the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate), offered a stunning view of our train crossing a girder bridge over a waterfall with tea plantations on both sides. It was only a pity that I followed the water drainage channel on the way down rather than the much easier path and staircase! After we were done we headed back to Nanu-Oya, arriving at 1pm.

It’s not hard to see why many think the line is among the world’s most scenic with its views of the mountains, tea plantations and waterfalls. Most of the trains we passed in hill country were packed to standing with tourists rather than locals and tickets for seats in the reserved carriages disappear quickly during the peak holiday season. Our journey up the line might have been considerably slower but gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery without those hassles and set foot in some of the equally lovely stations a little off the main tourist trail.

Class B2b no. 213 (1922) crosses a bridge over the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate)

The station at Nanu-Oya is wonderfully atmospheric and well maintained, perhaps no wonder given its proximity to one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions. It is a historic treasure trove with many features that can probably be traced back to its opening in 1885 such as the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system. Later additions include the turntable which dates to 1957 (a manufacturer’s plate shows that it was made by the Carlisle engineering firm of Cowans Sheldon and Co).

The entrance to the station has a marvelous wooden board listing the next trains due into the station, each with a little clock to indicate the time, and around the stations you can see signs that feel as though they come from a different age stating ‘partaking of meals brought from outside prohibited within‘ and ‘liquor served to railway passengers only’.

An invite to take a look in the signal box was most welcome and gave a wonderful illustration of how well the traditional signalling has been maintained across the network on a relatively restrained budget. I wouldn’t have thought the place out of keeping with a historic signal box on a preserved railway but here it was part of a functioning and busy main line! I was happy to give the team a little thank you for their time but I have a feeling it might be the most lucrative signal box on any network…

The view from the signal box at Nanu-Oya…

.. and how that appears in the track plan

Our afternoon gave us another opportunity to take a shot among the tea plantations before heading straight on to Ambewela, discovering in the process just how low the cloudbase is today. We had a moment or two to explore whilst we waited for a service train to overtake us, but since everything was shrouded in cloud didn’t want to stray too far. It seemed appropriate that one of the street leading up to the station was called World’s End Road! We set off again just after 4pm, reaching Pattipola, the highest station in Sri Lanka, a quarter of an hour later.

The cloud was even denser at Pattipola but that didn’t deter hordes of local children from turning up to see our steam locomotive – clearly not a frequent occurrence. Meanwhile, Bernd, our tour leader was seen disappearing into the fog armed with an umbrella trying to find a photo spot!

Despite the foggy conditions we still managed a shot of a token exchange, two runpasts at a semaphore signal beyond the station and another two runpasts at a tight spot in the forest beyond that. As the day came to an end the rain returned. On another day it might been the last straw, but given the severity of the forecasts I thought we’d all had a pretty lucky escape.

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Rain, leeches and a loco failure

Posted in Nawalapitiya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 30, 2018

The sound of shunting might not be everyone’s idea of a great wake up call, but for me it was hard to fault the terrific sights and sounds of the railway station at in Nawalapitiya available from the balcony of the Jayabima Grand. Admittedly, I might have liked a room with glass in the window frames but I guess you can’t always get the luxuries in life!

The view from the platform at Nawalapitiya

It was raining steadily as we waited for our bus pick-up for the short run to the station and the mist seemed to be clinging with some determination to the hill tops. Everything suggested that we might be in for a difficult day of photography from the outset and a little dog seemed to capture that gloomy prospect perfectly when he cocked his leg to spray a microphone positioned by one of our number. If we managed to come away from the day with something decent it would be a very pleasant surprise.

I was perhaps more pessimistic than I should have been. There were some surprising moments of morning sunlight among the rain but it proved impossible to time our runpasts to take advantage of them (as usual, our movements were dictated by the timetable of service trains). Just occasionally the conditions worked in our favour, such as a shot with our steam locomotive passing underneath a pedestrian bridge filled with umbrella carrying commuters, but more often than not it was hard work for little reward.

Umbrellas at Nawalapitiya

It took a little while to get going – when we arrived at the station we discovered that our two locos were coupled together, facing each other, so a little re-marshalling was required. The plan today was to run with the class B2b no. 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) up to Nanu-Oya.

Our station photography complete, we squeezed into a single carriage and set off from Nawalapitiya (8.40) heading deeper into the rain. Progress up the line was slow but steady, taking us to Inguruoya (8.55), Galboda (9.10), Watawala (10.05) and then on to Rozelle (10.57). The timings are more than a little deceptive as we sometimes arrived at a station, crossed with a local train, rolled back to a photo position, photographed the runpast, then returned to the station. A little distance can take quite a while!

In the worst of the rain we were mad enough to try a photo position on a hilltop overlooking a sweeping curve in the track. Normally we have to time the runpasts to catch the sun but here we had to time them for the moments where the mist thinned out sufficiently to reveal the landscape! A later shot that morning saw us standing utterly saturated in the forest, desperately trying to protect our cameras as thunder cracked around us and the rain poured. It was depressing that the forecast suggested we had two more days of this ahead.

The classy logo of Ceylon Government Railways (CGR)

After a welcome hour of respite at Hatton (13.20-14:30) we continued up the line. The next stop, Kotagoda, would prove to be as far as we we could go – our loco had a problem. Things seemed to have gone awry at the last stop, though the exact scenario proved hard to pin down. The facts were simple – there was now no water in the boiler and the fire was out.

Plan B was to lighten the load and run using our second locomotive – the class B1d no. 340 (“Fredrick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944) – back towards Hatton. After re-marshaling the train we left Kotagoda at 16.40 and managed to squeeze in three decent photo stops before the light disappeared. Our train finally pulled in to Hatton at 6pm.

The day had one final kicker for me as I discovered that the wet weather had created the perfect conditions for us to discover the dubious delights of leeches. I’m sure that the local population are quite used to them, but to this squeamish westerner it was an unwanted experience! One had managed to attach itself to me and bitten through my sock. The results were painless but not pretty. The leech check now became a regular part of the post-photo stop routine…

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Through the Lion’s Mouth

Posted in Kadugannawa, Kandy, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The complications of arranging photo stops on the main line were highlighted by our arrival at one of the most memorable locations – the Lion’s Mouth, a distinctive rock that overhangs the line at the Kadugannawa end of the Moragalla Tunnel.

The Lion’s Mouth is a spot that has fascinated photographers since the completion of the tunnel in 1866 and looks remarkably unchanged from a photograph in the British Library from the 1870s. Our timings allowed just one attempt at the shot (12.10) before we had to clear the line for an express, arriving at Kadugannawa ten minutes later. Once the express had passed through we were able to roll back down to the Lion’s Mouth for a second attempt.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 at the the Lion’s Mouth

Once this was all complete we were able to return to Kadugannawa and take a look round the National Railway Museum during a lull in the action. It’s a compact museum based around a goods shed with some locomotives and rolling stock displayed on the adjacent sidings (admission 500 rupees) with slightly forbidding no photography signs attached to just about everything.

The museum collection includes the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the country – an E1 class tank locomotive (no. 93) built by Dubs & Co in 1898. It seems astonishing to think that this was still in industrial use, in the mills, as late as the 1980s. Other exhibits on outdoor display include some interesting looking railcars, an early railway carriage (no. 4173), a class S3 diesel-hydraulic multiple unit (no. 613), a class M1 diesel-electric loco (no. 560) built by Brush in 1955, a diesel electric 0-4-0 shunter (no. 500) built by Armstrong Whitworth in 1934 and a N2 narrow gauge diesel (no. 732).

As we wandered the consist of our train was re-arranged to give us a brake van at the end of the wagons when the diesel and other carriages are taken off during runpasts. Our onward journey resumed in mid-afternoon (14:50), taking us through Pilimathalawa (15:00), where we were all astonished to see a maroon Routemaster in public service, then on to Peradeniya Junction (15:10).

Steaming through Peradeniya Junction

The triangular junction station at Peradeniya has three signal cabins to co-ordinate movements and you can see why they would be needed. Historically, this has always been one of the busiest spots on the Sri Lankan railway network and it certainly demonstrated that during our stay.

There are some lovely photographic opportunities here, including a beautifully positioned Buddha at the end of the station platform and a semaphore signal gantry. Unfortunately, the number of trains through the station made it difficult to make the most of this – when we arrived we had three trains cross so by the time we were able to attempt our shot with the gantry the sun had slipped behind the clouds and looked quite unlikely to return! I suspect the crew will have been relieved that the light had disappeared as their shift started at 11.30pm last night…

Our departure from the junction (16:39) left us with the very short run in to Kandy’s rather gorgeous art deco station (16:51). The day had a little more to give with a couple of false departures in rather dark and moody conditions, but after that we headed off to dinner and our hotels in Nawalapitiya.

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Runpast at Rambukkana

Posted in Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The leisurely start we enjoyed yesterday was long forgotten as we rose in the early morning to prepare for a 4.30am departure from Colombo on our two tour buses. In truth most of us had enjoyed little sleep on account of an all night disco somewhere in the neighbourhood and the hotel maintenance team’s unfathomable conclusion that 12.30am was a good time to start some drilling.

It might well have been an early start for us but the traffic on the road suggested that it was a part of the daily routine for many commuters trying to avoid the traffic hell of rush hour in Colombo. The service buses on their way in to the city centre already looked full to standing. In the meantime we had a cardboard-boxed breakfast from the hotel to enjoy – what delights might be in store? The groans from around the bus suggested that I might not like the answer. I was somehow still surprised to see that the hotel had outdone themselves by serving up cold chips and a pot of mayonnaise!

A run past the water tower at Rambukkana

If our early start had left us bleary eyed then we ought to have spared a thought for the crews who left the shed with our empty coaching stock at 1.30am so that we could make an early start from Rambukkana, where the main line towards Badulla really begins its climb. I’d like to say that we were brimming with confidence for the day ahead, but after seeing the loco struggle on a first run past the signalbox (at 7.40am) we wondered how on earth it would cope with the gradients ahead…

A short walk up the line brought us to the next photo spot with a lovely view of palm trees and traditional telegraph poles, but we were not the first to reach the location. A friendly cow had been tethered in farmland adjacent to the line and the rope allowed it just enough scope to reach the perfect spot for the shot. You couldn’t turn your back without suddenly discovering that you were the next source of his/her curiosity! It was no fan of steam and didn’t stick around for the run past.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 passes the signals outside Kadigamuwa Station

After another burst of photography we headed up the line at 9.25, reaching the next stop at Kadigamuwa fifteen minutes later. Our train had to wait here for service trains to cross but there was time enough first for a couple of runpasts at a signal just beyond the station. The conditions were beautiful – blue skies, sun and lovely semapahore signals. Once the line was clear we continued on to Ihala Kotte.

Once again a service train needed to overtake us, so we walked back on ourselves to the exit from tunnel 5a and waited for it to pass before attempting a run past. Attempt is the operative word here – as the loco emerged from the tunnel the carriages decoupled and ended up standing stationery immediately in front of us! This didn’t matter too much to the stills photographers but was less enthusiastically received by those among us recording video. After a more successful repeat we returned to Ihala Kotte and crossed with a mixed freight headed towards Colombo (11.35) before continuing on our way (11.38).

The morning really brought home the organisational challenge of arranging opportunities for photography here. The runpasts have to be deftly interwoven with the schedule and this gets an awful lot more complicated when train delays are factored in. I’m sure that we are make life incredibly difficult for everyone on the line today so I’m incredibly appreciative for what we have been able to do. In many places they wouldn’t even consider attempting this!

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Colombo Fort to Dematagoda

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

A short run in the afternoon with our class B1d steam locomotive (no. 340) took us from Colombo Fort to a spot just beyond Maradana with a few runpasts along the way. It was a good opportunity to get our rusty photographic skills back into gear and reacquaint ourselves with the art of clambering in an out of carriages at the unlikeliest of spots. I think our guards, more accustomed to the sedate pace of the luxurious Viceroy Special train, could already see that we were a little bit mad…

Our destination for the afternoon – Dematagoda

A walk along the trackside to Dematagoda brought us first to the former coaling stage, now home to a number of rusting steam locomotives, then on to the workshops and running shed. There were plenty of steam survivors here, though perhaps the most special were the narrow gauge class V1 Sentinel steam railcars sitting outside Shop 26, albeit looking rather sad in their overgrown and derelict state.

Other delights to be found at Dematagoda included class C1a Garratt no. 346 (Beyer Peacock, 1946) at the coaling stage; class B1e no. 352 (R. Stephenson, 1948) now almost completely hidden by lineside vegetation between the coaling stage and running shed; a line of J2a and J2b narrow gauge locomotives (1912-1913) alongside the running shed; and a 5’ 6” gauge Colombo Port Commission Locomotive (an 0-4-0ST built by Hunslet in 1899) inside Shop 26.

Dumped class A3a locomotive no. 277 (Hunslet, 1929) at Dematagoa Coaling Stage

Aside from the relics from the steam age it was interesting to see just how busy the approach to Colombo Fort was and the wide variety of motive power around. In just a few hours we had seen diesel multiple units from three classes (S8, S11 and S12), diesel electric locomotives from 6 classes (M2, M4, M6, M7, M9 and M10), one class of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W3) and a pair of class Y Hunslet shunters.

The Sri Lankan railway fleet come from a variety of manufacturers so there was plenty of differences in styling and few looked like anything you might see on British shores (the exception, the class M9 diesel, was a dead-ringer for a British class 67 which makes sense you discover that both were manufactured by Alstom). Most classes are relatively small in number so you have a good chance of seeing a good mix on a trip to Sri Lanka.

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Stepping through time

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

Our introduction to Sri Lanka’s railway marvels began with a tour of Ratamalana Railway Workshops, a railway complex that was considered to be state of the art when it was constructed in 1935. At its peak the 77 acre site was served by a workforce of 4,000 skilled and unskilled workmen performing scheduled repairs on the entire rolling stock of the railway every few years. It’s still an impressive sight today and loaded with character.

Around the sprawling site we found various narrow and broad gauge survivors from the steam age, including: a gorgeous looking C1a class Garratt no. 347 (1946, Beyer Peacock); D2 class no. 21 (1914, R. Stephenson) as a stationary boiler; J1 class no. 220 (1925, Hunslet); L1b class no. 203 (1920, Hunslet). In one of the workshops we found B1a class 4-6-0 locomotive 251 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (1928, Beyer Peacock) in bits. I don’t think any of us really believed the suggestion that it will be re-assembled and running in a couple of weeks!

In many ways it felt as though we were stepping through time with so many features and signs that quite possibly pre-date Sri Lankan independence in 1948. It was interesting to see Gledhill-Brook Time Recorders in the offices too. However, it wasn’t all frozen in time – along the way we saw the 2 stroke diesel, 4 stroke diesel and diesel hydraulic workshops plus plenty of quirky decorative additions from mermaids to fishermen.

It was a pleasure to take a look around this impressive site, albeit without its usual hum of activity. The workshops were eerily quiet with just a handful of workers on hand as we wandered through. However, there were plenty of signs of the ghost workforce with clothes strung up on lines everywhere you looked.

It gave me a little sense of how the big workshops of the steam age in the UK might once have looked. It’s certainly easier to get a feel for that here than when you are wandering around the shopping mall that was once Swindon works!

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Steam in Sri Lanka

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

The age of real steam may be almost over, but authentic looking recreations of the everyday sights for past generations are still possible in many places around the world where the infrastructure has yet to be completely modernized. Sri Lanka offers just such an opportunity with a wonderful variety of semaphore signals, traditional gantries and beautifully maintained stations. This will be the setting for our steam hauled mixed freights and passenger trains before much of this gets swept away.

Over a ten day stretch I will be participating in the madness of a FarRail photo charter that will take us deep into hill country and probably test the sanity of most. Our motive power will come from two locomotives, B2b 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) and B1d 340 (“Frederick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944).

Our locomotives, B2b 213 and B1d 340, outside the running shed at Kandy

The path to picture perfection is rarely smooth. You can pretty much guarantee that the exercise of trying to fit 32 photographers onto small rocky pinnacles and the like will not be achieved without a little heated debate and the occasional anguished cry. We won’t have a therapist or psychiatrist on our tour, so the best medicine is usually a bottle of beer at the end of the day…

The up side to this is that you can learn more about the art of photography and picture composition than on any course, picking up tips and advice from the many talented and published photographers on the trip. Sometimes it is a revelation to see the different angles each person has taken on the same shot. With all the help on offer, you would have to be trying very hard to come away with nothing.

The participants in the tour bring their own skill sets, but particularly meteorology (if we wait thirty minutes will that tiny opening in the clouds allow the sun to illuminate the train for the few seconds needed for a shot?), horticulture (how many blades of grass need to be removed to allow a clear shot of the tracks?), rock climbing (what shot couldn’t be improved after a ten minute impression of a mountain goat?), furniture arranger (wouldn’t that station bench be better positioned as a second row for a photo-line?) and animal tamer (how do I persuade that tethered cow stay to show me his most photogenic side as the train approaches?). Aside from this, it also helps to have plenty of patience and a ready supply of stories for the occasional hour when nothing is happening.

A grab shot of the group, perched opposite the Lion’s mouth (Moragalla Railway Tunnel)

One of the aspects that I like most about these tours is the freedom to experiment photographically, which is not always the case with photo-charters. There is no need to stand in a prescribed photo-line, so long as you are out of everyone else’s shot. Sometimes doing something different pays off, sometimes not. It’s nice to have the option.

I’m not expecting to walk away from the tour with the kind of master shot that my fellow photographers will produce, but if I can get a small set of images that do justice to the lovely setting then I will be more than happy.

Colonial Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

Colombo is not generally regarded as one of the highlights of the tourist circuit in Sri Lanka. More often than not it is left as an awkward last stop on the way to the airport at the end of a vacation. It is undoubtedly true that the city is no match for the ancient sights to be found across the island but it still has a fine legacy of colonial buildings and cultural sights that it would be a shame to miss.

The National Museum, Colombo

The reviews of the National Museum seemed decidedly mixed but after a bit of deliberation I paid up the 1000 rupee entrance fee and headed inside. I was glad that I did – there are some terrific exhibits to enjoy if you don’t mind the relatively conventional presentation. The air conditioning was also most welcome on a hot and humid day!

The star exhibits are the crown and throne of the last King of Kandy, which were returned to Sri Lanka by the Royal Family in the 1930s. However, there are plenty of smaller exhibits that reward close attention. Personal highlights included the 28 water colours painted by Andrew Nicholls in the 1840s, a rare pictorial record of Sri Lanka at this time; some oil lamps ingeniously crafted in the shape of birds and some striking 16th century fish hook coins that I have never seen the like of before.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee statue (1897)

It is also worth looking around the back gate to the museum for the rather marvelous statue of Queen Victoria, commissioned for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It gained something of a reputation for bringing bad luck, prompting its relocation from a position outside the presidential palace to this rather quiet spot just across the road from Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park).

Viharamahadevi Park offers a few interesting sights of its own, including a large gilded Buddha facing the Town Hall (1927) but my eyes were immediately drawn to the rusting remains of a 2ft 6in gauge railway running through the park. It looks as though it must have been out of use for years but no clues to its history are offered in situ which is a pity. Quite apart from this, there were some rather amusingly worded signs that I couldn’t resist snapping…

What disasters await in Viharamahadevi Park?

Other sights that I enjoyed included the colourful kitsch exterior decoration of the Sri Subramananian Kovil, the striking red and white facade of the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Seema Malaka temple on Lake Beira, the Clocktower in Colombo Fort and the Luytens designed Cenotaph War Memorial. There is easily enough to fill a day of wandering.

A wander alongside the seashore at Galle Face Green ended the day perfectly. It’s quite something to see this space come alive with families, street vendors and kite flyers as the sun sets.

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Doing the Colombo Crawl

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 26, 2018

It was a pleasure to step out onto the tarmac at Colombo this afternoon after 15+ hours spent in the air plus an interval aimlessly wandering the airport malls of Dubai.

I have arrived in Sri Lanka for a ten day stay to see and photograph a re-creation of some authentic looking steam-hauled passenger trains on the scenic broad gauge railway line into the mountains. Needless to say, I am happy to swap the 6 degree chill of London for the 30 degree heat of Colombo!

Welcome to Sri Lanka

The guidebooks to Sri Lanka mentioned that traffic was as nightmare in Colombo, but as we breezed along the expressway from the airport it was hard to imagine that there was any issue at all. It was only when the expressway merged into the regular route that I realised just how agonising the slow crawl of Colombo’s rush hour traffic could be, only inching forward with each change of the lights. Even the slowest prediction offered by the guidebooks proved to be far quicker than we managed! I dread to think how much slower the bus that avoids the expressway would have been…

The traffic situation makes a rail connection highly desirable but the efforts to offer this in the past have been relatively short-lived. The future offers more hope, with plans for the re-development of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) that include the operation of an airport express rail service to Maradana. The existing line runs alongside the airport road and it looks as though the proposal is to build a station pretty much where it ends today with a connection to the airport by elevated passenger walkway. You can see some visuals for the station in a promotional video and there is a model on display in airside departures.

I am not entirely sure how the airport re-development plans I have seen tie into the announcement of a $2 billion investment in a maglev line between Colombo and Katunayake in June 2017, but it looks like one way or another the airport will be served by rail in the future.

A view of the Altair, Lotus Tower and other skyscrapers under construction (as seen from the Cinnamon Red Colombo)

My taxi ended up reaching my hotel in the last few moments of sunset. There was just about time enough to head up to the rooftop bar for a view of the Colombo skyline which has seen incredible change in the past couple of years. The two most striking additions are the Lotus Tower (350m) and the Altair (240m) which are scheduled for completion in 2018. On top of this there are many other skyscrapers, entertainment complexes and an entirely new port city under construction!

I’ve never been anywhere with so much work underway at the same time and can only imagine how bewildering it must be for the local population to see their city changing beyond recognition in such a short space of time. I hope the character of the city doesn’t get lost in the process.

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Lighting up London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 18, 2018

The winter gloom has been banished for four nights by the bright illuminations of Lumiere London, a festival of over 50 artworks clustered in six locations across London. I took the opportunity of a pre-theatre wander around Westminster and the West End to check out some of the delightful sights.

Westminster Abbey illuminated for Lumiere London 2018

The highlight for me had to be Patrice Warrener’s The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) at Westminster Abbey which has brought two gates of the abbey to life with a colourful overlay of light. The effect is quite astonishing. Other favourites include the glowing stairway to heaven atop St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Flamingo Flyway in Chinatown and the nightlife of Leicester Square Gardens.

The second edition of Lumiere London runs from 18th to 21st January 2018 with the illuminations available to view from 5.30pm to 10.30pm each night. Maps and guides are available to download from the Visit London website to help plan your visit. If you are looking for a good night at the theatre to accompany your wanders why not check out the superbly improvised and addictive shows at Mischief Movie Night. I can’t stop going back for more!

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Stars in London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 13, 2018

A little weekend outing to the Tate Modern provided one of the odder sights of the year to date – Tom Cruise running over the roof of Blackfriars Station!

Tom Cruise sprints across the roof of Blackfriars Station

It was a little puzzling at first – a glance from the rooftop viewpoint revealed dozens of orange clad crew on top of Blackfriars station and the buildings that surround the northern end of the railway bridge. The appearance of a low-flying helicopter with a giant camera, following a running man across the rooftop, helped put us in the picture and twitter confirmed the rest.

Our visit to Tate Modern gave us an opportunity to see Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55 on a grey winter’s day. It’s a fascinating exhibition that covers the remarkable wave of art and graphic design that accompanied the new regime, from highly decorated agitprop train wagons to colourful posters bringing the revolutionary message to the farthest reaches of the state.

The exhibits ranged from Aleksandr Deineka’s optimistic studies (which formed the basis for the giant mural at USSR pavilion at the 1937 ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques’ in Paris) to the chilling evidence of the doctoring of photographs and paintings to airbrush discredited individuals from history. I found it all fascinating. I haven’t seen Soviet revolutionary posters in arabic script before and found the explanation of how posters were altered for the eastern republics especially interesting.

It’s well worth catching the exhibition whilst it’s at the Tate Modern (8th November 2017-18th February 2018) and the connected exhibition of works by Ilya and Emilia Kakakov (18th October 2017-28th January 2018) which offers some interesting perspectives on the Soviet past, beginning with Ilya’s clandestine artworks from the 1960s.

Farewell to 2017

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on December 31, 2017

Over the past few decades I have watched as the relatively well served high street in my local area, South Norwood, has gradually been losing the shops that once made it a great independent shopping centre – a story that I’m sure has been echoed across the country. It feels like 2017 was a turning point, seeing the arrival of some exciting new businesses as well as the departure of another long-standing store.

Emertons closed after 115 years

There are few historic survivors left in South Norwood so the closure of Emertons, The Ironmonger after 115 years was sad to hear. It was a brilliant store in its time which would always have just what you needed for home repairs, backed up by a really knowledgeable team. It’s going to be strange seeing Station Road without the familiar green storefront (although it has to be said that this was a latter day creation, the signage was bright orange when I was growing up and only met its end with the storm of 1987!).

It follows the closures of other long-standing high street businesses in the past decade, including Kennedy’s (1877-2007) which made the best sausage rolls anywhere in London and terrific Christmas puddings to a long-standing recipe with ale and suet. Other businesses that have disappeared from South Norwood High Street have included Boots, Co-op, Dewhursts (Butchers), Woolworths, Lawrences (Bakers) and Lorimers (Stationers and toy shop). When my parents arrived in the area there was also a branch of Mac Fisheries on the High Street.

The Clocktower (1907)

In many ways the trigger for the steady decline of the high street was the arrival of the first large supermarket in the form of Safeways many years ago (subsequently replaced in sequence by Morrisons, Somerfield, Co-op and now Aldi!). Up to the arrival of Safeways there were at least three butchers, three greengrocers and a couple of bakeries in the high street. In some ways it is surprising how long it took for shopping habits to change and the true impact to be felt on the high street.

It’s not just shops that have been disappearing. Not so long ago there were three banks in South Norwood High Street and at least two Building Societies. The last remaining of these will leave the high street when NatWest closes its doors on 22nd May 2018. I’m sure the nuisance value of this for me must be outweighed by the inconvenience of trekking further afield for local business owners.

Aside from this, I miss the re-assuring sight of Norwood Junction Models (1963-2013), just off the high street at the top of Portland Road, even though I had long since stopped spending my pocket money there by the time it closed.

The artwork ‘The Long Way Home’ in Norwood Junction subway (1912) shows Emertons in happier times.

More change is on the way with a proposal to re-locate South Norwood Library to a spot on Station Road next to Aldi in 2019. Much as I love the old library building, a place I spent many happy hours as I was growing up, the idea of creating a library within sight of Norwood Junction Station, next door to Aldi, seems a great way of binding the library even closer to the community. It’s certainly better than the talk of closing the library altogether a few years back with nothing in its place.

There has been some talk about the unwanted gentrification of South Norwood which rather overlooks the ups and downs of the past 100 years. I prefer to think that the arrival of some of the new businesses to the area as a much needed and welcome revival. Long may it continue!

Reflections from Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 12, 2017

After our relatively short stay in Myanmar it was time to head home on a routing via Bangkok and Abu Dhabi that involved three changes of plane – starting with a short flight on Bangkok Airways into Bangkok. The contrast between the relatively deserted Mandalay International Airport and the perpetually busy Suvarnabhumi Airport was quite something! A couple of hours in the lounge gave me plenty of time to relax and reflect on our trip.

Our Bangkok Airways Airbus A320 arrives at Mandalay International Airport

I was pleased to have been able to get to see Bagan and Mingun on this visit, the places I most wanted to check out after getting my first taste of Myanmar in January. I haven’t exhausted the long list of places that look interesting (including big sights such as Inle Lake, Mrauk U and Pindaya Caves) but I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve seen on my two trips to the country.

On this trip I saw a different side to life in Myanmar than on my first trip, which was mostly off the tourist trail. Visiting the most touristy places in the country, such as Bagan and Mingun, I saw just how much the local economy has become heavily dependent on this trade. That applies to everyone from the ox cart drivers on the shore to the small stallholders selling cold drinks on the street.

Once again I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome wherever we went and the many kind folk that we met along the way, including helpful taxi drivers, generous monks and cheeky street sellers. I hope that charm is not lost as the tourist industry develops here as it makes a refreshing change from other places that I have been.

Arriving at Bangkok

For us the adventure was almost over. Thankfully, our trip home was pretty uneventful and we reached London a little earlier than expected. The only minor blip came when we discovered that we should have visited a transfer counter at Bangkok so that the ground staff could confirm the transfer of our baggage to the second of the three flights (even though our baggage had been checked all the way through to London at Mandalay). In the end they held us at the gate whilst they checked this.

Although we live in London it still took us a good three hours to make the trek from the door of the plane to our front door, but not long afterwards we were back out and heading round to join the family for a traditional Sunday roast!

Sagaing, Amarapura and the U Bein Bridge

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

The afternoon took us to Sagaing Hill, a spiritual site that is home to thousands of pagodas and monasteries. It was also the royal capital for all of three years in the mid-eighteenth century!

The ridge is a spectacular sight from the moment that you cross the Irrawaddy River and first catch sight of the gilded domes and Buddhas among the greenery. It’s no less spectacular once you reach the top of the hill and look down. In addition to the major monasteries here there are lots of smaller shrines that our guide told us were constructed in thanks for the shelter provided by the hill during the war.

The view from the terraces of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

On our tour we took in the sights of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya (including the terrific view from the terraces over the Irrawaddy); the U Min Thonze temple, a curved cave temple built into the rockface housing 45 Buddhas; the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy; and the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda. All are splendid in different ways.

I thought the recent history of the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was fascinating. The startlingly white pagoda is quite striking for its relatively unusual styling, which is mire common in Sri Lanka. However, it used to look rather different.

The original Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was constructed in 1444 by King Narapati but what we see today is a recent creation – the 15th century pagoda was encased in a steel frame and the new pagoda was built over the top. This is not uncommon in Myanmar – indeed, one of the effects of the 2016 earthquake in Bagan was to reveal a beautiful 11th century stupa hidden within a much later brick structure.

After leaving Sagaing behind we headed on to the Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura, which is remarkable in a different way. Upon entering the monastery your eyes are immediately drawn to a gigantic seated Buddha paired with an equally large reclining Buddha, but step inside the main pagoda and you find yourself in an amazing space decorated with over 2000 Buddhas. Quite astonishing!

Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura

We ended the day at Amarapura’s most famous sight and one of the most heavily photographed sights in the entire country – the U Bein Bridge. At just over 1km in length this teak bridge is the longest of its type in the world, sitting a good few metres proud of the Irrawaddy when I visited but often right up to the level of the walkway during the wet season.

The U Bein bridge was built using the teak columns left behind when the royal palace was shifted from Amarapura to Mandalay in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a pretty impressive sight but recent studies have shown significant levels of decay among the pillars and a three year long restoration programme is set to begin in 2018. It looked as though some surveying of the bridge was taking place during our visit, though it was hard to tell if this was for ad-hoc repairs or preparations for the major renovations.

One of the pleasures of a visit to the U Bein Bridge was a sunset viewing by boat which turned out to be too tempting a photographic prospect to resist. The boats makes a simple loop from the landing point on the western shore, sailing under the bridge twice and then back to their starting point. The spectacle was gorgeous and helped distract us from the mid-journey repairs performed by our boatman and the layer of water that had formed inside our boat!

Sunset at Amarapura

The other more modest delight was a wonderfully improvised bicycle enhancements that I came across on the bridge. I suspect it is not the most comfortable of rides!

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Inwa – remains of a royal city

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Our final day in Mandalay gave us the opportunity to take a look at three former royal capitals – Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing – on a wonderful tour organised by LM Travel. The first stop of the day was Inwa (Ava) which had been the capital between 1365 and 1842 with some interruptions. Situated at the meeting point of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge rivers you can see why this easily defended location appealed for over 300 years.

Reflections of the Shwezigon Pagoda at Inwa

It was natural disaster that brought about the end – an earthquake in the early hours of March 23rd 1839 which was said to have destroyed every brick building in the city and left not a single pagoda standing. It was of sufficient force to be felt across the entire country as reports from Rangoon and Bhamo testified.

One eyewitness to the quake, Mr Spears, described the sight of the riverbanks rent apart by its force, leaving chasms between 5 to 20 feet and clear signs of soil liquefaction. Strong after-shocks were felt frequently in the following days and even when these subsided there was still at least one a day six months on. The continuing impact of earthquakes on Inwa were enough to persuade King Tharrawaddy of the need to move the capital to Amarapura.

Approaching the landing stage at Inwa

A shortish drive from Mandalay brought us to a spot on the banks of the Myitnge river where we could board the small ferry to Inwa (or Ava as the British referred to it). The ferry was a marvelous diesel powered contraption with propellers on a pole that could be lowered or raised from the water. For a former royal capital the wooden landing stage was very modest indeed.

On our arrival we switched to a horse cart, the primary mode of transport here, and set off on the traditional circuit of sights. Not the most comfortable of experiences for passengers, or horse I suspect, especially where road detours forced a run down and up a steep dip or when we had to travel along heavily rutted tracks through farmland. However, it’s balanced by the knowledge that a traditional method of transport hasn’t yet vanished here…

Horse cart is the primary mode of transport at Inwa

The traditional circuit covers four sights – the Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery from the final years of Inwa’s time as a royal capital; the brick stupas, monastery buildings and exposed Buddhas of Yedanasini Pagoda; the ‘leaning’ Nan Myin Tower; and the stucco marvel that is the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung. There are other sights in Inwa that you probably won’t get to see on the most rigid of horse cart tours, including the Shwedigon Pagoda and Nogatataphu Pagoda, though I was delighted by a quick photo stop to to capture the former.

One small regret about my visit to Inwa is that the well-worn circuit of four key sights around the city omits some rather unusual and fascinating structures (the Wingaba Monastery, Myint Mo Taung Pagoda, Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda and the Kyaung Lain Monastery) that I only read about after my visit. These are only just a little beyond the Bagaya Monastery, though not covered in any of the guide books I traveled out with. It’s a good reminder to do my homework before traveling, even when taking a guided tour!

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung

The highlight of the circuit was undoubtedly the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung, a stunning brick and stucco monastery that stuns even in its crumbling state. The building was commissioned in 1818 by Queen Me Nu, wife of King Bagyidaw, and was intended to replicate the styling of the teak monasteries that had gone before. It’s well worth stepping below the main platform to see just astonishingly thick the foundation pillars are – these must have helped it weather the great earthquake of 1839 with less damage than might otherwise have been the case.

Inwa is such an agricultural backwater today that it is quite mind-boggling to think that this was once a royal capital – probably testament to the level of destruction wrought by the earthquake. The buildings that survive are rather magnificent and well worth seeing.

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Marvels of Mingun

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

One of the sights I most wanted to see on our trip was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a massive unfinished pagoda commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790 but abandoned on his death in 1819. The pagoda was intended as an unmissable statement by the empire building king, which would have been visible for over 100km in its final state. However, his desire to finish it was said to have diminished after the circulation of a prophecy claiming that the dynasty would die out upon its completion! It would have been the largest pagoda in the world.

The Mingun Pahtodawgyi

Our taxi driver walked us to the small tourist ferry office and left us to wait inside for an english speaking official to turn up. The tickets cost 5,000 kyat per person and oddly required one of our passport numbers, but not both! Once the process was complete we were given a handwritten paper chit and left to wait outside with about 20 other passengers for someone to show us our boat. While we waited, we watched as coach after coach arrived and disgorged their tourists to their respective boats. Mingun was not going going to be quiet today!

Mayan Chan Jetty is a quite extraordinary place at this time of morning with a vast number of boats tied up alongside each other. I couldn’t see anything resembling a proper landing stage – most boats were boarded from the beach and then pushed off using poles to get clear The crews seemed well practiced in this and only once did we see a poor crewman fall in (he quickly swam back to be hauled aboard by his colleagues).

Boats tied up at Mayan Chan Jetty

Soon enough it was time to board our boat (Sam 3) which involved walking up a single plank of wood with two people holding up a pole to act as a hand rail! The upper deck of the ship was equipped with bamboo loungers shaded by a large awning which was a superbly relaxing way to while away the hour long journey, accompanied by a light breeze. Along the way it was interesting to see the small villages and traffic along the river (no sign of the endangered irrawaddy dolphins though). Ahead of us you could see a long trail of tourist boats all heading to Mingun.

On our arrival an ox-taxi pulled up alongside, one of around 15-20 still operating in Mingun. It’s a sight that might not last much longer as business is not great – the ox drivers have seen the local passenger market switch to Tuk-Tuks, leaving them dependent on picking up tourists from the boats. It’s not unheard of for the drivers to wait all day without getting any trade.

Ox taxi in Mingun

The base of the monumental Mingun Pahtodawgyi is astonishing, even in its unfinished state, and the cracks caused by the earthquakes of 1839 and 2012 just add to its already dramatic appearance. The earthquake of 2012 made it too dangerous to climb to the top of the monument (the steps up are blocked off by a metal gate) but it is still impressive to take the walk around the base.

The Pondaw Pagoda near the start of the tourist circuit shows how the Mingun Pagoda would have looked if it had been completed. Even with this help it s still a little hard to get your head around just how tall it would have been – at 490 feet it would have been taller than all but a handful of the highest skyscrapers in London.

How the Mingun Pagoda would have looked had it been completed

As impressive as the Mingun Pahtodawgyi is, Mingun has much more to offer and we continued wandering along the hot and dusty streets to see the great bell of Mingun (a whopping 90 tonnes) that was commissioned by the king in 1808 for his monumental pagoda. The two other pagodas here, the Settawya Pagoda (1811) and Hsinbyume Pagoda (1816), are delightful too and quite different to anything we had seen elsewhere. The only disappointment is the small temple set into the base of the Mingun Pahtodawgyi which looks puny in comparison.

On our walk back to make our return ferry, scheduled for 12.30pm, we stopped off at the remains of the two massive lion-like creatures (leogryphs) that once guarded the landing stage and main entrance to Mingun. Today, only the haunches remain (the heads having ended up in the river after the earthquake of 1839) but their massive size (95 feet) shows that nothing here was in any way average!

All that remains of one of the colossal stone chinthes at Mingun

After completing the circuit we headed back to the ferry, nervously braving the single plank without the benefit of a handrail and then relaxing on the lower deck. The return journey only took 45 minutes and our taxi driver turned up shortly after our arrival in Mandalay.

I thoroughly enjoyed my half day trip to Mingun. If the Mingun Pagoda had been completed it would undoubtedly have been one of the greatest wonders of the world and perhaps this place would have become a major tourist destination much sooner. As it is, I’m glad that Mingun retains its village charm.

Practicalities

Every morning a walk-up ferry operated by the Tourists Transportation Association leaves Mayan Chan Jetty, at the end of 26th street, in Mandalay at 9am for the one hour long journey upriver to Mingun. Tickets cost 5000 kyat per person and you need to have a Passport (although there were two of us they only seemed to want one Passport number – it looked as though the details were entered in a register of some sort). A paper ticket was issued, handwritten with the details of our return ferry time (now 12.30pm rather than 1pm).

Our boat had left a little late, around 9.15am and arrived at Mingun at 10.15am which gave us just over 2 hours to complete the tourist circuit. If I were to visit again, I would seriously consider a private boat as our time in Mingun didn’t really feel enough to take a good look at everything properly. It might also be nice to have an early boat to avoid the busiest crowds for photographic purposes, though we only felt slightly frustrated by crowds at the Mingun Bell.

The Mingun tourist circuit

A board near the point where our boat tied up helpfully shows the circuit to see all the sights and you can buy the Sagaing-Mingun archaeological site tickets from a stall nearby (most folk seemed to have walked in the other direction, so it didn’t seem the most foolproof of arrangements!). On the day we visited the ticket was only checked at the stone leogryphs.

As we worked our way to the farthest point on the circuit, the Hsinbyume Pagoda, we found that the minutes had been ticking down rather more quickly than we would have liked, but it’s worth making sure you have time to do this place justice. It’s a rather unusual pagoda, painted entirely white, which represents the spiritual centre of the Buddhist universe, Mount Meru.

Over the years the sights of Mingun have received varying degrees of restoration. Hsinbyume Pagoda was first restored as early as 1874 by King Mindon, following the damage caused by the earthquake of 1839, and the cone received attention as recently as 2013. There are some restoration works scheduled this year, but we didn’t see any evidence of this on our visit.

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Four days in Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Mandalay is often omitted from itineraries cramming the sights of Myanmar into a week or two. It’s no wonder when you have such marvels as Bagan, Inle Lake, the Golden Rock, Bago and Yangon to cover, let alone some of the more remote sights such as Mrauk U. However, there is plenty to see in Mandalay and the surrounding area.

The remains of the former royal capitals of Amarapura and Inwa, plus the unfinished pagoda of Mingun, make for terrific outings that more than match the spectacular sights to be found in other parts of the country. First, though there are the sights of Mandalay City itself…

Kuthodaw Pagoda

I’ll start by saying that I found a visit to the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset to be one of the least satisfying sights of our stay, though I am well aware that for many it is the absolute highlight of a stay. I made the long walk up the hillside within a few hours of arriving on our long-haul journey, so perhaps that played a part. On the other hand, I really enjoyed our visits to the religious sights around the hill such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda (often described as the world’s biggest book on account of its 729 engraved marvel slabs covering the Buddhist scriptures, each one neatly housed in its own stupa) and the equally photogenic Sandamuni Pagoda just down the road.

Another highlight among the sites located around Mandalay Hill is the Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Monastery), a teak building that was originally part of the palace complex at Amarapura before being moved with the imperial capital to Mandalay as the royal apartments of King Mindon (in which he died in 1878). The re-location of this intricately carved building on the grounds of ‘bad luck’ in 1883 turned out to be anything but as it is one of the few buildings from the palace to have survived the bombing from both sides in World War 2.

Exquisite detail at the Shwenandaw Kyaung

I hadn’t particularly expected to make a visit to Mandalay Palace, a 1990s reconstruction of the 19th century palace complex, but ended up there after our plans went a little awry.

The original palace was constructed in 1858, followed by the completion of city walls and moat in 1859. In its time it was a magnificent sight, with a combination of intricately carved gilded teak and glass mosaic that was said to be unique. The last monarch to sit in the throne here, King Thibaw, was sent into exile by the British in November 1885 following his defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Under British rule the palace became Fort Dufferin and was adapted to fit this purpose, with features including a garrison church, government buildings, the Upper Burma Club and military barracks.

The first efforts at restoration started in 1901 when the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, saw the dilapidated state of the palace on an official visit and decreed that it should be preserved for future generations. Lord Curzon oversaw the removal of the buildings added under British rule, arranged for the restoration of the palace buildings and the re-building of seven missing pavilions on the walls. Sadly, all these efforts were undone by the incendiary bombs dropped by Japanese forces on the night of April 3rd 1942. The resulting firestorm destroyed most of the palace and what little survived took another battering during the allied liberation of the city. It’s a wonder that any buildings survived.

The poorly reconstructed Mandalay Palace

Today, the vast 1,000 acre complex is a military zone and off-limits to foreigners (including army garrison, prison, sports grounds and even a golf course) with the exception of the reconstructed palace complex at its centre. A handful of interesting survivors can also be seen on the fringes, just off the road from the eastern gate, including the original Clock Tower and Relic Tower.

The restoration generated a wave of condemnation as it was mostly built using forced labour – every family in the city was compelled to provide free labour for at least three days a month during the project (one 50 year old shop-owner described being forced to work in 35 degree heat to dredge the 6 mile long, 11 foot deep moat around the palace).

It’s not the best reconstruction that you will ever see, with concrete and corrugated iron roofing in place of teak, but it does give a vague sense of what this would have been like – especially if you climb to the top of the watchtower. There is some hope that this might change, as King Thibaw’s descendants would like to restore Mandalay Palace to its former glory.

There are some fascinating and grim stories to be told about the history of Mandalay Palace, including the large-scale massacres of the royal family ordered to protect King Thibaw’s position and the mystery of the disappearance of the most precious of the royal family’s jewels. It could make for a compelling tourist centrepiece with full restoration and the right presentation, but not as it stands today.

Mandalay Palace: A walled city within the city

Another sight to have undergone reconstruction is the Atumashi Kyaung, the largest religious building constructed by King Mindon (1808-1878) in Mandalay. The monastery built over a period of 18 years, from the laying of the foundation stones on 22nd May 1859 to its completion on 29th November 1877, but under British rule was converted into military barracks and burned down in 1890.

The reconstructed monastery re-opened in 1996 and is a bit of an oddity, housing a tiny Buddha where once a huge Buddha with a precious royal diamond once stood (another jewel to have mysteriously disappeared under British rule). Thankfully, the original stairways, archways and balustrade with their beautiful stucco carvings have survived and these more than made up for the poorly reconstructed structure built on top.

Stucco carving at Atumashi Monastery

Other sights we visited in Mandalay included the Kyauktawgyi Temple, the Mahamuni Temple (the most important Buddhist sight in the city) and Shwe In Bin Kyaung (a lovely teak monastery from the 1890s). However, the most interesting sights are those nearby at Inwa, Amarapura and Mingun of which more in the next couple of posts…

Practicalities

Our trip to Myanmar started and finished at Mandalay International Airport, giving us more time in the city than I might otherwise have planned – approximately four days – and left us all too familiar with the hour long drive between airport and city centre. In our time in the city we stayed in two hotels, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel and the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel. Taxis were easily obtained and absolutely essential to get between most places (getting around on foot was quite a bit trickier than I imagined).

The first of our two hotels was the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel which was superbly located for all the sights around Mandalay Hill but a long way from anything else. The hotel is a few minutes walk from the entrance to Mandalay Hill and within 15 minutes walk of the various religious sights that surround the base of the hill (Shwenandaw Monastery, Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandamuni Pagoda and Kyauktawgyi Temple). Mandalay Palace is roughly 25 minutes away on foot.

Our second hotel, the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel, was a wonderful oasis of calm amidst the bustling streets of downtown Mandalay at the end of our trip. It’s a smart, stylish place just a short walk from the central railway station (the top floor restaurant looks down on the station). Service was very efficient and incredibly helpful. The only downside to our stay was that some taxi drivers were incredibly confused by the similarity in names to The Hotel 78, Mandalay, and got very angry when we explained that this wasn’t the hotel we wanted!

A five day Mandalay Combination ticket (10,000 kyat) is required to visit Atumashi Kyaung, Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung and Kuthodaw Pagoda. We picked ours up at the Shwenandaw Kyaung. It was checked everywhere except for the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Mandalay Palace doesn’t tend to feature highly in recommendations and hardly encourages visits with its awkward arrangements for access. Firstly, only one of the four entrances is open to visitors – the eastern gate, roughly half way between downtown Mandalay and Mandalay Hill. Next, you have to surrender your passport at the military guardhouse immediately in front of the gate (they give you a numbered ticket to wear around your neck and then write this number on a sticker that they attach to your passport). Finally, you have a 15-20 minute walk from the gate to the palace complex with signs along the way warning against entering the restricted military zones on either side.

The Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery is rather underrated but that worked in my favour. It clearly isn’t ever overflowing with tourists but I was one of only two visitors on the afternoon that I visited. One of the monastery guardians kindly took it upon himself to lead me round, pointing out sights that I might easily have missed such as the workshops where restoration work was taking place. There is no charge for admission. To keep things simple I arranged for a taxi to take me to the monastery, wait a short while, then take me back to my hotel.

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Wanders in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

The simple pleasure of a wander across the plains of Bagan, taking one dirt track after another as your eye gets drawn to interesting temples, pagodas and stupas is that it doesn’t stop. There is always another temple or pagoda just that little bit further ahead of you. How can you resist walking a little more, then more again!? It all makes for wonderfully relaxing walks with no-end of delights for the photographer – enough to slow me right down from my usual hurtle through life!

No shortage of pagodas in Bagan…

I tried not to be too ambitious with my walks, for example starting with an early morning taxi to Taung Guni for a walk after sunrise one morning, taking in Dhammayangyi Temple on a leisurely wander back to the Bagan Thande hotel in time for a late breakfast. On another occasion I took a taxi to Sulamani Temple and began my wanders from there, enjoying the sight of a flock of goats being herded down the dirt road, before finding a good spot for sunset.

The sights of Bagan took quite a hit when an earthquake of 6.8-magnitude struck on 24th August 2016. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture reckon that the earthquake affected a total of 449 temples out of 3,252 across the plain. Restoration started with the 36 pagodas at highest risk of collapse, followed by the 53 temples which need urgent repairs.

Pagoda undergoing restoration in Bagan

In most places the sight of a major attraction under scaffolding would be a disappointment, but here the use of traditional techniques makes the sight of pagodas under repair a fascinating spectacle in its own right. Only a few are covered by unsightly tarpaulins or incongruous modern caps – such as Sulamani Temple and Thatbyinnyu Temple.

Now that the rubble has been cleared away it is easy to forget the destructive power of the last quake as you wander. In many cases the damage is not immediately apparent, though the complete closure of temples such as Myauk Guni hints at the lingering danger from unstable brickwork and the like. The earthquake may yet have done some good with the opportunity to restore these pagodas and temples more accurately than in the past, led by experts from UNESCO.

Traditional bamboo scaffolding

Our four nights in Bagan seemed a sensible length of stay and we just about managed to avoid becoming templed out, though I will admit that my enthusiasm for stepping in and out of temples was slipping on my last afternoon of wandering. I don’t know how the balloon pilots cope with months here with very little other than temples to see!

Almost by chance I stumbled across the perfect spot to end the trip – a raised viewing platform ten minutes walk away from Sulamani Temple which offered a lovely view of the setting sun on a horizon filled with temples. I think it may be the site referred to in newspaper reports as Oh Htein Kone though the lack of signage makes it a little hard to be certain (the entrance includes a noticeboard describing the ‘pottery hill’ of Otein Taung).

After enjoying a gloriously red sunset I made my way off the plain in the fading light, returning to my hotel for a last meal under the acacia trees before packing in readiness for our return to Mandalay on an early morning flight.

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Ballooning across the Bagan plains

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

The idea of flying in a balloon terrified and thrilled me in equal measure but ultimately the opportunity to see such an incredible archaeological spectacle from the air overcame my doubts. I booked a place, months and months ahead of the trip, hoping that I wouldn’t regret my decision!

On the morning of the flight I headed down to my hotel reception ready for a 5.20am pick up and was soon on my way to the launch site in one of the beautiful vintage teak buses that Balloons over Bagan have restored. After reaching the launch site, near to the Bagan Golf Club, we were able to relax a little with some coffee as we watched the small weather balloons being sent up to assess the wind direction.

Preparing for flight

Flights start in early October each year and the number of balloons gradually builds up over the month. Last year they managed to get balloons up on 24 days in October but the weather this year has been terrible and they have only been able to fly on 5 days. Flights are usually booked up long before the start of the season so it’s pretty tough if flights are cancelled as there’s little chance of re-booking for another day. Thankfully, the wind was blowing perfectly for the optimal flight path and the skies were clear.

One of the things that impressed me most about Balloons over Bagan was their utter professionalism and strong focus on safety, overcoming my initial doubts about ever stepping into a balloon basket! Before the inflating of the balloons began we were taken through our safety briefing by our pilot, a balloonist with decades of experience and in his sixth season at Bagan. The thorough briefing gave us all the essentials, including the landing position that we would need to adopt.

It had never occurred to me just how skilled a balloon pilot has to be in a setting like this. To start with pilots have to be qualified with a British commercial balloon licence and on top of being capable of piloting their balloons they have to be able to fly in a large group, cope with the company’s rigorous procedures, handle communications with other balloons/air traffic control and look after their passengers (everything from pointing out the sights to taking pictures of the group with a go-pro strapped to the balloon). Our pilot made all this multi-tasking look effortless but its not surprising to hear that some very good balloonists haven’t been able to handle all of that.

Thinganyone Temple (1244)

The very experienced local crews set about inflating the balloons and beckoned us over when it was our time to clamber aboard using the footholds in the basket. There was no graceful way to do this but I got myself in somehow. In no time at all our balloon started rising – ever so gently – giving us a great viewpoint over the field of balloons, all at different stages of readiness. I was really surprised that my fear of heights never kicked in at any point during our one hour long flight. I loved every second of it.

I don’t know how much the route has altered in recent years due to government restrictions. Although we didn’t fly over the centre of the monument zone we certainly had a terrific view over the pagodas on the Bagan plains and flew directly over some smaller temples at a height of around 400m. All the while our pilot explained the basics of balloon flight and kept up an impressive commentary, pointing out sights that we might easily have missed from blue winged rollers to brickworks. The balloon turned all the time, giving us all opportunities to photograph the sights we were passing.

Our flight took us from the launch site near the Bagan Nyaung U Golf Club on a route over Thinganyone Temple, Sinbyushin Monastic Complex, Pyathetgyi, West Pwazaw village, Thitsarwadi and Thuntekan village before landing in a field just beyond the new hotel zone. The preferred option of a landing spot on the sand banks will become available in a few weeks when the waters of the Irrawaddy River drop.

Dhammayazika Pagoda (1196)

As we came in to land we were asked to put our cameras away and adopt the landing position (seated, head back against the basket and holding the two hand grips tight). One hard bump and a smaller follow-up got us safely onto the ground. Our pilot kept the balloon inflated to help the ground crews find us at our improvised landing spot.

Once we were able to clamber out the crews set up some tables for a terrific breakfast that included fried eggs with cubes of bacon served up in a small pan, a selection of cold meats and cheese, fresh croissants, bread with a passion fruit marmalade, some really terrific tamarind juice and champagne. Quite a way to celebrate a quite amazing morning in the air! The food was all produced by Sharky’s restaurant.

One of the side-benefits of overshooting our target field was that we were not swamped by sellers. One talented local artist, Ruby, found us and presented his beautiful sand paintings of the balloons and temples. The last thing I was planning when I set out in the morning was to buy a painting but in the euphoria of our return to earth I bought one as a memento of a special day.

Balloons over the Bagan plains

All that was left now was for us to board the bus ready for the drive back to our hotels. Along the way we heard a little bit more about the investment that Balloons over Bagan makes in the local community, such as the provision of electricity for Tha Htay Gun village. I reached my hotel at 8.30 and found it hard to believe that there was still a full day ahead of us ready for sightseeing!

Practicalities

Around 20 or so balloons take off each morning, weather permitting, operated by three balloon companies: Balloons over Bagan, Golden Eagle Ballooning and Oriental Ballooning.

I kept an eye on the Balloons over Bagan website and booked my flight when I saw availability for the dates of our stay starting to drop, approximately 8 months ahead of our trip. A couple I spoke to on the morning of our flight said that they had struggled to get seats 6 months ahead and had to go on a stand-by list.

My flight was booked in one of the smaller 8 person balloons flown by Balloons over Bagan, the company that first brought balloons here and the largest of the operations today.

One of the beautiful vintage buses operated by Balloons over Bagan

A smaller balloon is reckoned to be a better option for photographers, but if that hadn’t been a consideration I could have gone for one of the standard 16-person balloons offered by Balloons over Bagan at $340 per person. Not cheap at $450 but if you are going to do something like this, once in a lifetime, I figured you might as well do it properly. I didn’t regret my choice!

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Seven highlights of the Bagan Archaeological Zone

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

It is quite impossible to see all of the 2000+ temples in Bagan on a single visit, which means making some hard decisions about what you are going to make a beeline for. Even if you come up with a reasonable plan it is likely that you will still end up leaving out temples that would be major tourist attractions in their own right if they were located anywhere else.

A shady spot at Ananda Temple

I didn’t have a well defined plan, but it roughly worked out as half a day on the temples in/around Nyaung U, a day for the temples of Old Bagan, a day wandering the plain and a half day for the temples in/around Myinkaba Village. I would have liked to get out to Dhammayazika but that was a little too remote and didn’t easily fit with the general drift.

On a three day trip 20 temples seemed a reasonable target and we came pretty close. It was enough to feel satisfied that you have experienced a little of the place without becoming thoroughly templed out. I saw a good deal more on my wanders but I wouldn’t dare pin a number onto that. I started to count them one morning but after spotting 50 temples in the space of twenty minutes walking I decided that this was going to become a pretty irritating game to play…

Any list of temples in Bagan is going to be pretty subjective, but these are seven highlights and some of the quirkier sights that we saw along the way.

1. Ananda Temple

The sheer beauty of the Ananda Temple has drawn many comparisons with Westminster Abbey, which was constructed in the same year (1090). The temple was built by King Kyanzittha, ruler of the Pagan Empire from 1084 to 1112, in remembrance of Ananda, a disciple of Buddha. It’s a stunning sight, inside and out, which deserves plenty of time and attention to fully appreciate its exquisite detail.

The temple is the second largest in Bagan with a shimmering spire that rises 52 metres that draws the eye whenever you catch a glimpse of it (complete with niches containing statues of Buddha). However, the gilding is a relatively recent alteration – added in 1990 to commemorate its 900th anniversary. At ground level there are plenty more detailed artworks to admire, including a remarkable sequence of green-glazed terracotta tiles telling Jataka stories and stone chinthes guarding each corner. Stepping inside opens up a new degree of wonderment.

Ananda Temple (1090)

Upon entering the temple you find yourself walking towards one of four giant Buddhas that tower over everyone, two originals and two replacements added after a fire in the 17th century. The floor plan resembles a Greek cross with four entrances. From any of these you can follow the inner or outer corridors which are lined with over a thousand niches. Most, but not all, of these contain images of Buddha. The effect is extraordinary.

A stone chinthe at Ananda Temple

The Ananda Temple suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of 1975 which was then compounded by a ‘catastrophic’ restoration programme that saw its beautiful murals limewashed. In some ways it was a less damaging restoration than has been seen at other sites where liberal use of concrete and over enthusiastic re-construction to inauthentic designs appalled historians.

Thankfully, a six year programme of structural conservation and chemical preservation work by the Archaeological Survey of India (funded by the Indian Government at a cost of $3.2m) is reversing much of this damage. A quick glance at photographs taken before and after the chemical treatment started shows the difference this care and attention has already made to the external appearance, with all works expected to be complete by 2018.


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2. Mahabodhi Temple

The unusual design of the Mahabodhi Temple catches your eye from the first moment that you glimpse its pyramidal tower from the upper terrace of the Shwegugyi Temple and it is no less impressive seen close-up. The sight of hundreds of niches filled with small statues of a seated Buddha is quite unlike anything else in Bagan. The very modest prayer hall can’t live up to the exterior but there are some interesting brick ruins to one side of the temple.

Mahabodhi Temple

The temple here is a rather inexact copy of one of the most significant sites for pilgrims, the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar State, India, where Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The original temple in India dates to the 6th century whilst the copy was constructed by King Nantaungmya (also known as Htilominlo) in the 13th century. King Nantaungmya also built the Htilominlo Temple, one of the great temples of Bagan.

3. Thandawgya

The Thandawgya image (dating to 1284) is a real surprise, tucked in a modest looking temple under a couple of trees between Shwegugyi and Thatbyinnyu. Indeed, it is sufficiently low key that I didn’t see anyone step inside in the entire time that we were in the neighbourhood which is a pity. If I’m honest, I was drawn to the small brick walled compound by the two stone lions guarding the site rather than any thought of what might lay inside!

Thandawgya image

Stepping into the small brick temple you find yourself face to face with a six metre tall Buddha built with green sandstone blocks. It’s striking appearance is not how it would originally have been seen – it’s just that the plaster has long since worn away (an undated picture in my copy of the Pictorial Guide to Bagan shows a black and white photograph of the statue in the ruins of the small temple, effectively in the open). The Buddha was constructed by King Narathihapate, the last king of the Pagan empire, before he fled to Lower Burma in the wake of the Mongol invasion.

4. Dhammayangyi Temple

The Dhammayangyi Temple is a brute of a building, the largest on the plains of Bagan with six terraces. It follows the same plan as the Ananda Temple but here the inner ambulatory has been filled with rubble and bricked up, possibly to improve the stability of the structure.

Dhammayangyi Temple

I don’t think anyone could claim that this place is pretty, even if the masonry is said to be superb, but there is something rather fascinating about the gloomy interior and it’s not hard to see why so many believe that it is haunted. As we stepped inside the vast outer corridor we didn’t have long to wait before we could hear bats squeaking above us, occasionally swooping down for a flight along the length of the passage.

The story of its construction sounds pretty chilling. King Narathu is said to have hoped that it would help atone for the murder of his bride, brother and father. However, Narathu had a rather strange way of going about this act of contrition – chopping off the hands of any masons who failed to meet his high standards (it was curtains for any mason who spaced the bricks far enough apart to allow a needle to pass between them). In the end Narathu was to meet his end two years after taking the throne, supposedly killed by assassins sent by his bride’s family.

5. Shwegugyi Temple

Shwegugyi Temple was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140, little knowing that in 1163 it would be the spot that his
inpatient son (Narathu) would smother him to death to speed up his accession to the throne. It’s a rather lovely temple with ornate wooden doors and a large Buddha.

Shwegugyi Temple

This is also one of the only temples in Old Bagan where the upper terrace is still open, reached via a small staircase, affording a terrific view of the ancient library and temples that surround it.

6. Thatbyinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple was built in 1144 by King Alangsithu and is the tallest temple (61m) in Bagan. However, my reason for including this temple on my list of favourites is the very handsome guardian at the entrance!

Guardian of Thatbyinnyu Temple

The temple was one of the worst affected by the earthquake in August 2016 and is in a group of 36 religious buildings prioritised for repair. Restoration of the temple is expected to begin in 2018 following funding of US$1 million from the Chinese government.

7. Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U feels much more like the temples I had seen in Yangon earlier in the year with a gilded stupa (encasing an earlier pagoda) surrounded by small shrines (from the convention to a revolving good luck cone). The earliest part of the temple was constructed by King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan Empire, around the mid 11th century and the work was finished by his son, King Kyansittha, in 1102.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Other stops on our three day trip included Bulethi, Bupaya Pagoda, Gawdawpalin Temple, Gubyaukgyi Temple, Htilominlo, Kyanzittha Umin, Manuha Temple, Mingalazedi Pagoda, Nagayon Temple, Nathlaung Kyaung, Pahtothamya Temple, Pitakat Tait, Schwesandaw Pagoda and Sulamani Temple. Even then, I’m probably missing a few.

The pleasure of a trip to Bagan is all the small stupas, pagodas and temples that you come across along the way to the big sights. Even the occasional wrong turn gave us some splendid sights that we wpouldn’t otherwise have seen, such as a cluster of five stupas in a field near the lacquerware museum or a rather unusually named pagoda I hoped we wouldn’t need help from…

Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda

I don’t know what Bagan is like at the peak of high season but it never felt crowded at any spot we went, with the exception of my first attempt at a Bagan sunrise at Bulethi and the Shwezigon Pagoda. The visitor numbers may be rising but they still have quite a way to go before they match some of the world’s top tourist destinations.

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Three days in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

On the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy river, spread across a 40 square mile site in the plains of Bagan, the astonishing remains of over 2,500 temples can be found. It is hard to comprehend that this dusty and largely rural spot was once the cosmopolitan capital of an empire or that at its peak, around the 11-13th centuries, you would have found around 14,000 stupas, temples and monasteries here.

A forest of temples

The reputation of Bagan as a city of learning attracted scholars from across Asia and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Marco Polo considered it to be ‘a very great and noble city’, marveling at gold and silver towers that shone most brilliantly when lit up by the sun. Not so long after Marco Polo’s visit the city was abandoned, around 1287, in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the Pagan empire. Over time the city was reduced to a modest village among the ruins, surviving until the demands of the tourist industry prompted the re-location of the population to New Bagan.

The infrastructure might not immediately suggest it but twenty first century Bagan is once again thriving with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of transport options to support a steady influx of tourists. More change is undoubtedly coming, with new international flight connections mooted to link Bagan to Siem Reap and work on a long-stalled new hotel zone underway again. Bagan was the most tourist-friendly place I have seen in Myanmar by a long chalk.

At the moment it is still relatively easy to get lost among the temples and find yourself alone but that will change if the visitors continue to grow at their incredible rates. In 2010 Myanmar was visited by just under 800,000 tourists but by 2015 that had grown to nearly 5 million. It’s not hard to see the appeal – my breath was taken away by my first sight of the forest of temples. I wondered why I had ever worried that the reality might prove a disappointment!

Myauk Guni Temple

Our three day stay in Bagan began with a mid-evening flight into Nyaung-U, arriving around 9pm. It wasn’t meant to start that way, but the flight we booked with Mann Yadanarpon was re-timed by three hours just one week before our trip. I think it is pretty safe to say that it was the last flight of the day as they switched off the lights and locked the doors behind us as we stepped out to the taxi rank!

We spent one night in Nyaung U (at the Hotel Zfreeti) and then transferred to Old Bagan for three nights (at the Bagan Thande Hotel). The location of the Bagan Thande proved hard to beat with the river on one side and the temples of Old Bagan just a few minutes walk away. In the evenings it was a delight to sit for a meal under the acacia trees of the Bagan Thande as the light faded, occasionally catching sight of an owl or two (let’s not dwell on the bugs that occasionally dropped onto the table or into our food!).

The location of our hotel made it easy to head out to the sights of Old Bagan on foot but for the sights further afield I eventually settled on cheap one way taxi rides. I would find a good starting point, such as Nagayon Temple, then slowly make my way back towards the hotel visiting pagodas along the way. I know that I could have opted for an e-bike but I preferred to take things at a slower pace and absolutely loved the freedom to wander unencumbered.

Typically, I would sit out the hottest hours in our air conditioned hotel room or take a dip in the pool. The break also really helped avoid temple overload!

Practical information

I spent quite a while researching the options before we made our trip and really appreciated the wealth of information shared by other visitors. I thought I would share our experiences in case it helps anyone else ruminating over the same questions that bogged us down for a while!

Stupas in Bagan

1. Which domestic airline? I thought it would be simple to book a domestic flight but it turned out that tickets aren’t usually sold as far in advance as international flights and even when they were theoretically available many of the websites didn’t work. I had intended to book with an airline with a good safety record and the largest fleet size (admittedly none of the airlines seemed to have huge fleets) but in the end the choice came down to the first airline flying the right route that I could actually book!

We flew to/from Bagan with Mann Yadanarpon, a small airline that began operations three years ago and which currently operates with a fleet of two ATR 72-600 aircraft. The whole operation seemed to be very efficient but far from the automated process we are most familiar with, starting with the wheeling away of our baggage from the check-in counters at Mandalay with handwritten tags attached! Everyone we encountered from the airline seemed friendly and helpful, which is not always a given.

Mann Yadanarpon ATR 72-600 at Mandalay

At check-in domestic passengers are given stickers showing their destination – a terrific visual cue that allows staff to easily spot passengers queuing for the wrong flight or not getting off at the right airport (some flights make a number of hops before reaching their final destination).

Ultimately, I was happy with my choice or airline. The landings were a tad bumpy but we didn’t see anything that gave us particular cause for concern.

2. How reliable are flight times? The flight time between Mandalay and Nyaung-U is just half an hour, if it is a direct flight, so you are barely up before you are on your way back down. Our direct flights were roughly 15-20 minutes late departing in each direction.

I had booked my flights direct with the airline rather than through an agent. This worked out fine, but I would caution that our flights were re-timed in both directions and we only got notification of one set of changes. Our return flight was moved forward by half an hour without us knowing which could have been a tad problematic. Thankfully I’m super cautious. Although we were at the airport way too early for the expected departure time it turned out to be spot-on for our re-timed flight!

The view from Taung Guni

3. What cafes/shops are available at Nyaung U airport? The terminal building at Nyaung U is fairly basic but includes a cafe and a few gift shops. An enterprising stall holder at the entrance was selling postage stamps for a modest mark up. A counter here sells the obligatory Bagan Archaeological Zone passes (25,000 kyat per person for five days) and we were steered there as soon as we arrived. I was relieved to see that there was a small queue of taxis on the night we arrived.

Some things you take for granted elsewhere, like departure boards, were not in evidence here. Everything at the airport seems to follow a manual process – even entry to the airside waiting hall for our return flight involved finding our names on a list and crossing them off. This thoroughness is quite re-assuring too – in each direction handwritten baggage tags stapled to our ticket were checked against those attached to the cases.

4. Can you walk around Bagan? Getting around Bagan proved simple enough, on foot and by car. I arranged taxis through my hotel without difficulty and none of the drivers seemed phased to be asked to drop tourists off in the middle of nowhere before the sun had risen! I took a copy of the downloadable map from Design Printing Services with me for a rough approximation of where to find the temples on my list and some satellite images to help fill in the detail. It’s never too hard to navigate when you have giant temples on the horizon…

I have to say that most people I encountered in Bagan were riding around on eBikes, in larger coach parties or taking taxis. However, I liked the slower pace of a nice long walk and it definitely is possible. I wouldn’t have liked to be walking around for long in fading light though – the traffic coming off the plain is pretty relentless in the immediate aftermath of sunset. They even have traffic police directing the steady queue of bikes, cars and coaches off the dirt tracks back onto the main road.

5. Where’s best to stay? I was torn between the options of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Each had its appeal but ultimately the ease of walking to/from Old Bagan and onto the plain swung the decision in favour of Old Bagan. There are a few good restaurant options within easy reach of Old Bagan but many more at Nyaung U.

None of the hotels are particularly cheap. Our stay at the Zfreeti cost us $85 for one night whilst a room with a river view at the Bagan Thande set us back $200 a night. I would have to say that it was worth stumping up for a hotel amongst the sights of Old Bagan – it made all the sightseeing so much easier. Having said that, boats chug up and down the river at all hours and not at all quietly (a sort of super-charged tractor sound). It might not have been the quiet haven that we imagined but we did get used to it quite quickly. The river is also a good deal further away, and lower, than in the promotional shots.

In the longer term the option of staying in Old Bagan is likely to disappear if the government commits to removing the Bagan Thande and some of the other hotel resorts from the Bagan Archaeological zone following the UNESCO recommendation.

6. Do you need anti-malarials? I found so much conflicting advice about whether anti-malarials were needed in Bagan. At the time we travelled the British National Health Service fit for travel website suggested that Bagan would be low risk for most travellers (with some exceptions relating to medical conditions etc) but highlighted the recent peak in dengue cases in Myanmar. Travelling in the dry season should have significantly reduced the level of risk, but to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding such perils we covered ourselves in insect repellent and wore clothing sprayed with permethrin. Ultimately, it’a decision that only you can make so don’t take my word for it. It’s much better to seek advice from the health professionals who know their stuff rather than rely on advice from travellers!

7. What essentials do you need for Bagan? The absolute essential for a trip to Bagan is a powerful torch. The interiors of some of the pagodas are pretty gloomy and it would have been quite impossible to see any of the murals without a decent torch (with the exception of Gubyaukgyi temple, where it looked as though you might have been able to hire a rather unwieldy lamp for a wander round). I also found it immensely helpful for navigating round the temples before sunrise. As there is no street lighting in Old Bagan a torch was also a necessity for even the shortest walk beyond the hotel grounds at night – as much to alert traffic to your presence as to see your way. I took a LED torch rated at 280 lumens with a reach of 220 metres and that was just perfect.

Sunrise in Bagan

8. Can you still climb the temples? I had read that climbing the temples was to be banned this season so didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out that there were at least a handful that were open to climb and there were also some perfectly decent viewing mounds that offered quite lovely views in their own right.

My favourite temple was Taung Guni, which proved a good spot for sunrise and sunset with a viewing platform that could be reached by interior staircase (good torch required). I also tried Bulethi and its near neighbour at sunrise, with narrow terraces accessed from steep steps on the exterior, but these were a little too crowded for my liking. Officials checked the Bagan Archaeological Zone pass at both locations.

I kept an eye on the local press for developments, real time updates from Twitter and comments on Tripadvisor forums/reviews to see what was happening. It was still pretty confusing but it gave me a clearer idea of what was definitely closed and some ideas of what could be open.

9. Is it still worth taking a balloon flight over Bagan? I wasn’t sure whether the expense of a balloon flight would be worthwhile as many accounts suggested that the experience doesn’t compare to what used to be on offer. I don’t know about that, but I can say that a flight over the temples in a balloon was the undisputed highlight of the trip.

I was also really impressed by the safety standards in place at Balloons over Bagan and thought that it was as safe a balloon ride as you could hope for, accepting that there is always a degree of risk. I suffer terribly from a fear of heights but this didn’t kick in at all. It was a lovely experience from start to finish and the views are extraordinary – I’m guessing that they have been more spectacular still in the past, but I was perfectly happy with what I got to see.

One day in Abu Dhabi

Posted in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on November 2, 2017

Our travels have brought us to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, for a one day stopover. It was not a destination I had ever planned to visit but proved to be an intriguing place to spend a little time.

The schedule gave us a full day to explore the city between an early morning arrival on an Etihad Airways A380 from London and a late night onward flight on to Bangkok, with a little sleep at a conveniently located airport hotel (Premier Inn). My challenge was to string together a selection of sights that would keep my heat-averse travelling companion satisfied and my sanity intact!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

My normal instinct is to get around by public transport but after consulting the timetables I realised that our itinerary was only going to work by hopping from sight to sight by taxi. Thankfully, these are plentiful and inexpensive. The first of these took us from the airport to the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in plenty of time to join the first walk up tour of the day, before the worst of the heat.

Although you can wander around the mosque on your own, the tours organised by the mosque take you to areas off the main walking route and provide some fascinating facts about this modern marvel. Our tour guide, Aisha, helped us appreciate the astonishingly beautiful detail of the building and understand the reasoning behind aspects of the design that would otherwise have passed us by.

The mosque was completed just ten years ago but in a short space of time has become one of the most iconic images of the emirate. The first sight of the 82 domes and 4 minarets is enough to astound, yet that is nothing compared to the beauty of the interior. The first indication of this came on stepping inside the arcades with their 1096 columns, each inlaid with semi-precious stones. Beyond that, through some pretty cool sliding doors, we came to the foyer and prayer hall.

The largest chandelier to be found in a mosque

The main prayer hall is quite simply stunning from floor to ceiling with highlights being the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and largest chandelier to be found in a mosque. The carpet, which used a considerable quantity of New Zealand wool, was heavier still – it weighed in at 40 tons before it was shaved to create prayer lines. In contrast, the chandelier seems relatively light at around 12 tons and even includes a hidden internal staircase for the cleaners!

Aside from the obvious cultural highlights of the mosque I was fascinated to discover that one of the minarets contains a library. Indeed, the only library to be housed in a minaret. The collection holds some 7,000 titles and uses Library of Congress classification and AACR2. Strange to find something so familiar in such an unexpected setting.

A view of the Emirates Palace from Observation Deck 300

After leaving the mosque we found it easy enough to pick up a taxi from the parking lot (a queue of taxis were ready and waiting). Twenty minutes later we arrived at the Etihad Towers complex for Observation Deck 300, a viewing platform on the 74th floor that offers superb views of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape, startlingly blue waters and surrounding islands. Sights visible from the 360 degree gallery included the Marina Mall (2001), Emirates Palace (2005) and UAE Presidential Palace (2016). Our 85 AED tickets included a 50 AED refreshments voucher which covered a couple of mocktails.

We didn’t have to stray too much further for our lunch, heading to the Rosewater restaurant on the second floor of the complex for a luxury buffet, a bit of a splurge at AED 192 per person when the service charge, municipality fee and tourism fee were added in. However, it was well worth the price – an impressive spread, wonderful flavours and superb quality.

After lunch we took a taxi across town to Qasr Al Hosn, a stone fortress constructed in 1761 that was formerly the royal palace. The historic site is currently undergoing restoration but next door you can visit a rather wonderful exhibition which tells the story of Abu Dhabi and its people. The video captures from the older generation were fascinating, especially the tale of how to treat Scorpion bites by cutting out the affected area and squeezing out the poison. Yikes!

A section from the intimidating gates that led into the fortress

It only took us around half an hour to walk through the museum but in that time we learnt so much. I was particularly taken by a series of photographs tracing the transformation of Abu Dhabi city over the decades, revealing just how recent the towering developments have been. In the 1980s the fortress was relatively un-overlooked whereas now skyscrapers look down from all sides. The final two rooms showcase some clever audio-visuals that bring the history up to date and reveal the plans for the future.

The final stop on our air-conditioned day of sightseeing brought us to Dalma Mall, thirty two minutes away by taxi, for a game of glow in the dark mini-golf which was a fun way to round off the day before heading back to the airport by taxi (easily picked up from the front of the mall).

It was great to get a little taste of the city, so different to anywhere else that I have been. Unfortunately, we were a week too early to see Jean Nouvel’s stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi but it’s good to have something to go back for…

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A day at the château – in Buckinghamshire!

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 14, 2017

One of the most surprising sights in Britain can be found in Buckinghamshire, a short drive from Aylesbury, where Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built an exquisite turreted country home in the style of a French château between 1874 and 1883. It is one of only a handful of Rothschild family houses that survive today out of the forty that were once spread out across Europe.

Waddesdon Manor

The moment you step onto the drive it feels as though you have somehow been transported to the Loire valley and that first impression carries through into the extravagant interior, especially in the marble-clad dining room with its echoes of the grandest French palaces. Among the many extraordinary furnishings are pieces commissioned by Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Marie Antoinette for the Louvre and Versailles respectively. The mixture of 18th century decorative arts and English portraits from the same era works remarkably well – nothing feels out of place.

Marvels abound in every room and reward a slow soaking up of detail, such as the set of chairs with small carvings of birds assembling a nest or a golden cherub appearing to climb out of a set of drawers.

One highlight was a bronze elephant automaton dating to 1774 which stuns even in its static state. A video of of the automaton shows how much more astonishing it is in action. Other stunners included a musical box depicting Orpheus taming the animals (c. 1720) and a strikingly curvy-swirly silver gilt cup by Christian Van Vianen (1640) which is now paired with a contemporary painting showing a boy holding the cup. In truth, it is a house of highlights.

The house might seem like a historical anachronism to us now but in its heyday it was a showcase for cutting edge technologies, including central heating, electric lighting and one of the first lifts to be installed in an English country house. Queen Victoria was said to have been so impressed by the lights that she asked for them to be switched on and off repeatedly!

The original Otis lift (installed in 1898) is now on display in the Power House

The Rothschild family had great foresight in understanding that great collections such as this would naturally drift towards national art museums without taking special steps. James de Rothschild (1878-1957) ensured that the collection could be enjoyed in its family context by future generations by donating Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust backed by a suitably large endowment. It’s a pleasure to step inside and marvel at their legacy.

Practicalities

Our trip to Waddesdon Manor proved to be one of the most straightforward days out that we have enjoyed. An hour or so on the train from London Marylebone to Aylesbury Vale Parkway station followed by a short ride on the free shuttle bus to Waddesdon Manor.

At the time of writing the shuttle bus connects with the Chiltern Railways service that leaves London Marylebone at 9.57am so you end up reaching the property at around 11.15am. Return times vary. The bus only runs once a day in each direction, but that’s not really a problem as there’s plenty to see at Waddesdon. If you time your visit for Wednesday, Thursday or Friday you will also be able to see the rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing.

We spent around two hours inside the house but could easily have spent longer looking at the displays on the first and second floors. The rest of our time was divided between the aviary, grounds and stable block. Although the food on offer in the cafe in the stable block was perhaps a little on the pricey side there was no doubting the quality and super taste of everything we sampled. Last but not least, the fudge was sensationally good…

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Charlecote Park

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on October 8, 2017

A weekend trip to Stratford upon Avon gave us an opportunity to take a Sunday morning outing to see Charlecote Park, a National Trust property that is a mere 14 minute bus ride away from the centre of town. From the moment you enter the estate and start your walk down the drive towards the sixteenth century turreted gatehouse you get a sense of how special this place is. More of the magic gets revealed as you make way through the archway and see the main house and as you explore the deer park beyond.

Through the gatehouse

The Lucy family has lived here since at least 1189 when Sir Walter de Cherlecote inherited the estate, though the current house dates back to 1558 and what we see today is very much how the Victorian owners wanted to present it. The site looked a little familiar to me without ever having visited which turned out to be because this historic site was a source of inspiration for the set designers of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won!

The Elizabethan exterior is magnificent but the interior is a nineteenth century vision, partly drawing upon a two year grand tour by the Lucy family that sounded like the ultimate in holidays from hell! The family set off in their carriages with their retinue but got stuck in heavy snow whilst crossing the alps, resulting in the death of their young son. Incredibly, another child was born while they were on the road! You can still see the carriage they used on their grand tour in the carriage house.

The material gathered during their grand tour was much more than a collection of artifacts, even extending to the red and white marble flooring in the Great Hall which was picked up in Venice.

The view from the west

Overall, a visit to the house and grounds kept us entertained for a leisurely two and a half hours – including some lovely moments watching deer running through the west park. Hard to imagine that a young William Shakespeare spent time in the same grounds here whilst poaching!

Practicalities

We were thoroughly confused by the information available on the bus route that passes the property. The information on the National Trust website and in the journey planner suggested that we needed to take the X18 bus, but on arriving at the bus stop at Bridge Street in Stratford-upon-Avon we discovered a notice stating that the X18 is now taking a more direct route to Warwick and would no longer stop at Charlecote. Instead, passengers are asked to take the X17, which only runs Mondays to Saturdays. Not much help for our Sunday outing…

Our disappointment turned to delight when the driver of the next X18 confirmed that he was going to Charlecote. At the other end we discovered a crucial piece of missing information – a notice at the Charlecote bus stop states that on Sundays the X17 runs as the X18! Talk about a convoluted change. So, in summary, X17 Mondays to Saturdays and X18 on Sundays/Bank Holidays. The notice states that not all X17 buses will serve Charlecote so it is worth checking carefully…

The bus route passes the Charlecote estate before reaching a bus stop outside the Pheasant Hotel. The visitor centre is an easy walk round the corner from here and the entrance to the estate is just over the road.

At the time of writing adult admission costs £12 (with Gift Aid) for the house, grounds and outbuildings but is free for National Trust members. You can get a discount for the restaurant or shop when arriving by public transport.

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