Many happy returns – a European birthday for a change

Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday.  There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.birthday bean

In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.

In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express.  The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition.  Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country.  And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.

asia map

This year looked a little different.  For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for.  No question.  And now for the trivial, but practical.  My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia.  Possible yes.  Realistic, less so and sensible –  almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.

The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there.  I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK.  It all looked good and feasible.  So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options.  Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking.  First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable.  Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step.  Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online.  Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights.  The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened.  A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted.  My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work.  By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.

The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.

My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear.  Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.  Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea.  In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.

orient express

 

orient express 2

 

steam train 1

Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it.  I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.

There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later.  These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking!  I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!

Luxembourg city 1

I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia.  Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing.  Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!

visit luxembourg berdorf

I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.

And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!

lux 2

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Christmas Day escapade on Yangon’s circular train

We moved to Yangon in June 2009, but I realised as Christmas approached and we had made no plans, that this would actually be my first Christmas in the city.  In 2009, I was in Bangkok between chemo sessions.  In 2010 I headed out of town to the beach at Ngwe Saung and had a very different Christmas indeed to the previous one.  And last year I trundled off on an adventure to Rakhine State and the ancient city of Mrauk U with its mysterious temples.

This year a series of challenges, mainly health ones, meant that we were hesitant to book anything and almost by default, decided to stay home.  Christmas is an interesting blend of the tropical with random appearance of a plastic row of snowflakes, Santa on a sleigh  balanced precariously on a bougainvillea hedge and Christmas trees and ornaments for sale in the local supermarket.   Christmas carollers singing in the streets, from gate to gate add to the fascinating mix of the tropical tinsel atmosphere.  So there are options for a Christmassy Christmas here, and a number of hotels have events and opportunities.  However, I knew that this was not quite what we were looking for.  Inspiration came in the form of an idea to catch the circular train which runs around Yangon!  Now that would be an easy and interesting escapade for a Christmas morning!

Apparently, the Yangon Circular Railway is the local commuter rail network that serves the Yangon metropolitan area. Operated by Myanmar Railways, the 45.9-kilometre (28.5 mi) 39-station loop system connects satellite towns and suburban areas to the city. The railway has about 200 coaches, runs 20 times and sells 100,000 to 150,000 tickets daily.The loop, which takes about three hours to complete, is a way to see a cross section of life in Yangon.

Yangon Circular Train PCR 1

And it certainly keeps its promise.  As a foreigner, you buy your ticket at the little office at Platform 6/7, producing your passport and 1$ per person. to enable to transaction.  The ticket for the whole journey is a set 1$US which is phenomenal value for a journey of just under three hours, which transports you around Yangon’s peri-urban and rural edges, in the midst of the city’s life.

circular train ticket for 2

Leaving Yangon Central Station, the train was very quiet and there were not many passengers in our carriage.  The train slowly travelled through a number of local stations, stopping for a few moments at each.  Or actually, the train did not stop.  Rather it kind of rocked – a little bit forward, then a little backwards.  Then the conductor would stick his green flag out of the window and the train continued its motion forwards.

There was quite a clear etiquette in the carriage.  People mainly sat cross legged on the seats, their shoes neatly on the floor underneath them.

shoes off on the train

hanging out on the circular train

As the train skirts around Yangon city, it travels through rural and urban settings, and it is entirely usual to hang out of the doors to get a breeze and to see what is going on.

passing a tea shop

We passed teashops, as we travelled through daily life across the city, spotting trishaw drivers sleepily awaiting custom near the stations.

life through the train windows, rickshaw and sleepy drivers

The train slowly filled, as it continued its journey.  This woman had just given her ticket to the conductor – she stored it in her hair, tucked under her clasp!

tickets in her hair

We even trundled past what appears to the car graveyard for all the old cars which were withdrawn, children playing with the surreal backdrop of car wrecks.

children playing with the scrap yard of old cars in the background

Then we pulled into a station with a very different feel.  There was a distinct buzz, and even before the train had stopped we saw bundles of goods – mainly vegetables, passed through the windows.  The traders had been at the early market, picked up their provisions and would now transport them to the local markets to trade.  An incredible amount of goods found their way into the carriage in a matter of minutes, as an incredible orchestration of cooperation and precision engineering saw the transfer from the platform into the carriage before the trained moved out of the station.

drawing into the vegetable market station

loading produce onto the train through the windows

The carriage was instantly transformed into a hive of activity, bustle and purpose.  The traders immediately set about the work they had to do on the train.  The woman sitting next to me had a sack of small aubergines and she spent the whole journey, sorting them into bundles of six and tying them with an elastic band.  By the time she reached her station, they were all sorted and packed back into the sack, ready to be sold at the local market.  Another woman spent the whole journey working her way through a sack of leafy greens, bundling them into the required weight and throwing the waste out of the door.

traders travelling, selling and preparing

transformed  arriage

Another layer of local economy worked alongside this, as traders worked their way through the carriages selling a variety of wares and snacks, and even ice cream.

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In fact the ice cream seller nearly missed the train as he hopped on board as the train was moving out of one of the stations.

ice cream seller just manages to hop on the train as it moves off

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The journey around Yangon took just under three hours, but I was not bored or ready to return to Yangon Central Station.  By the time we did roll back to where we had started, the carriage was again quiet and the few remaining passengers relaxed in the last minutes of the journey.

quietly reading as the train draws back into Yangon central Station

It was a really special way to spend Christmas day, and another memorable escapade to add to my bag.

PS – This is just a small selection of the many photos I took – a larger selection is being uploaded onto the sister photography blog here.

British Summer Time

I have arrived safely in the UK and find that jet lag, i phones and cold rain abound!

I can’t believe the difference from this time last year when I arrived following the triathlon of treatment.  From my gymnastics display in Dubai airport through to being unable to lift my luggage off the conveyor belt I knew that I would struggle with independent travel last year.  Sure enough, hubby J ferried and portered for me throughout the visit and I leaned very heavily on his support.

This year is unrecognisably different.  Although I am struggling with jet lag (I had forgotten it gets light at 4 am here in the summer) and rather tired, I have already been gadding around the country and London.  I even carted my luggage on the underground all the way to Kings Cross Station on my own!  Thank heavens they have installed lifts, albeit a very complicated system which should surely entitle anyone successfully surfacing where they intended to an Amazing Race like prize.  While I am tired, I feel strong and have re-found my confidence after it was stripped from me last year.

So now I am on the train to Scotland, grumping about the fact that there is no tea, or any hot drink on the catering trolley, and that a charge has been introduced for the onboard wi-fi.  Still this was balanced by a surprise check in facility for luggage.  “Yes, please – do take my suitcase and save me the trouble of humphing it onto the train, struggling to find it a little home and then worrying about it throughout the journey:.  Most convenient.

When I alight I will surely find out that I should have put socks on.  I have on ongoing issue with socks and always forget to wear them and often forget even to pack them.  Socks are not something which I have much use for in Yangon.  Well, in the days since I got a proper prosthesis 😉

In a couple of days I will head to a remote and restful Island off the west coast of Scotland for some special time with my father.  My overall break in the UK is shorter this year so I am whirlwinding around the country to try and see my family.

It is probably a good thing that the daylight hours start so early and last late into the night so that I can cram as much as possible into the time.

Slow Train to Chiang Mai – Part 1 of the Adventure

The decision to travel to Chiang Mai by overnight train was an obvious one, truly representing adventure.

I have always loved train travel.  The longer the journey the better, and the more exciting.

When I was 15, I went on a school trip to Italy and we travelled there by train.  That is quite a journey from Scotland and was a real adventure.  Along with my school pals, we stayed up most of the night as we travelled through Switzerland, in awe at the lights we thought were stars, and then realised were houses high up in the mountains.

The following year, I visited my pen friend in France and again travelled there by train, but this time alone.  I am quite astounded at the confidence I had then, and can now well understand my mother’s anxiety at my insistence that I would be sensible and careful.  Indeed, she gave me money to catch a taxi across Paris between the train stations.  It was only many years later that I confessed to catching a bus and saving the extra for spending money!  I loved the journey, catching the overnight train from Stirling to London, the old boat train to Paris (oh those were the days) and then on to Brittany.

The romantic notion of the train stayed with me and I longed to buy an Interail ticket when I left school.  These wonderful tickets were available to under 25s for travel to most European countries for a crazily small amount of money.  I dreamed of Interailing to exotic places like Prague, Vienna and Budapest and further afield to the Scandinavian countries and even former Yugoslavia as it was then. For a variety of reasons this was not to be.  Domestic responsibility and lack of money meant that I passed the magic 26 year birthday threshold without being able to get that Interail ticket, something I have always felt very sad about.

A few years later, when I was studying at university (as a mature student) I spent 3 months in Belarus.  The country had just become independent following the break up of the Former Soviet Union.  To get there, we flew to Moscow and then by train back towards Western Europe.  My goodness, the Russian railway system is incredible.  Extremely well organised, and covering unbelievably long journeys.  Our overnight into Minsk was really just a little hop when you placed it alongside the journey eastwards towards Siberia.  While I was in Minsk I travelled with my fellow students, to St Petersburg, to Kiev (now Kyiv) in the Ukraine, to Poland and even to Vilnius in Lithuania for the day!  I was captivated by the long distance train travel, and particularly dreamed of one day travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway into Mongolia and onto China.

I never stopped dreaming of long distance rail journeys.  So much so, that as I approached a certain milestone birthday over a decade ago now, a madcap idea took root in my mind. Rather than have a bit surprise party like many of my contemporaries, which I would have to drop hints about to make sure that one was planned for me, I wondered why I could not fulfil my pipedream of travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway.  The more I wondered why I could not, the more I realised that there was no good reason why not, and many good reasons why I in fact could.  I had also in my mind, a fantasy to see “those funny mountains” in China, the karst formations in the Guilin area .

The fact that one of the routes of the Trans Siberian ended in Beijing added weight to this becoming a realisable venture.  Cutting a long story short, I indeed spent my Big Birthday on this trip of a lifetime.  I boarded the train in Moscow one Tuesday afternoon and travelled further east than I had ever been.  Every kilometre I travelled took me further east and I crossed into Asia for the first time of my life.  We passed a white stone obelisk marked Europe on one side and Asia on the other.  Gradually the faces changed as we travelled eastwards, crossing time zones, as we continued through Siberia, into Mongolia and then into China.  The journey takes 7 nights, if you don’t stop off on the way.  My journey from Moscow to Beijing lasted 15 days with a couple of stops at the Lake Baikal area of Siberia and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia).  I then travelled onwards and spent the day of my birthday cycling alongside the paddy fields at the foot of “those funny mountains”.  It was a marvellous journey, a true adventure and I loved every minute of it.  It had been intended to cure me of my wanderlust, but the fact that I applied for a job in international development only a few weeks after my return is a clear indication of how successful that was.  After this taste of Asia, I arrived in Nepal a few months later on what was to be the start of over a decade living and working in the continent.

So with this history in mind, and the past year which has seen me hardly able to cross the street unaided, you can imagine how important a step this adventure to Chiang Mai has been for me. It was a symbolic giant leap forward for me, even in the very attentive care of Thai Railways and hubby J – and of course NED.

I think that Thai trains are actually perfect for this kind of adventure.  The railway system is well organised, it is straightforward to book tickets and get information and the trains are very comfortable.  However, being Thai, it has that inherent exotic essence that British Rail can never have.  Booking our ticket to Chiang Mai gave me butterflies in my stomach in a way that I had forgotten.  I am used to an anxious type of apprehension over the past months, and this was very different.

I boarded the train like a child, preparing a little bag with essentials including a book, i-pod, snacks and camera.  After a couple of hours, the train staff came through the carriage, making the seats into very comfortable beds.  They made the beds, and even hung up little curtains so that there was complete privacy for every berth.  I have to say that I have slept in much smaller hotel beds in my time and my lower bunk berth was just about the same size as the EasyHotel room I stayed in last summer!

We rolled gently northwards overnight through the Thai countryside, waking to rainforest and misty jungle a couple of hours before we pulled into Chiang Mai.  And the best thing about it?  At the end of our break in Chiang Mai I had the whole experience to look forward to all over again!

Now back in Yangon, I look back on my adventure to Chiang Mai and realise that the train travel was probably the most healing, restful and adventurous part of the whole break.  And that is why Part 1 of the Adventure is dedicated to the journey!