Hoi An Side Trip

Jen jumped at the opportunity to return to her favourite Vietnamese city to play tour guide with her parents and the girls for a culture, foodie, markets, shopping, and tailor-made clothing extravaganza!  Dom and Guy had already been to Hoi An before, so they decided to remain in Mui Ne to continue teaching/learning kitesurfing.  

Of course they couldn't pass up the chance to try out all of the best Vietnamese dishes in the region, with Neville's Great Taste of Hoi An Foodie tour (for Jen's 3rd time)! :)


Friends and Family in Mui Ne

This season we were really fortunate to be joined by several friends and family from Calgary, at our favourite kitesurfing retreat in Mui Ne, Vietnam.  

Despite this year's very unusual season of windless days and down pouring rain, we still had a blast introducing them to all of our favourite restaurants, activities, massage/spa treatments, and, of course, all of our Mui Ne friends.

Kiting Lessons
Paddle Boarding
Motorbiking
Cooking School
Eating
Chilling
Jenga for buckets ;)
Checking out a movie to escape the rain...

Bath At Last

A few people had recommended visiting Bath when we were previously here, but we never seemed to find the time.. until now!!  

We finally booked our train tickets and did a day trip out to city of the Roman Baths.  Since it was quite chilly, we were a bit disappointed that you can’t actually swim in the Roman Hot Spring Baths.  Fortunately, they did a really good job with the audio tour so that made it a very interesting place to visit!.  Near the end of the tour you have the opportunity to taste the bath water, which many people apparently describe as a repulsive taste.. to us, it just had a slight sulphur smell and the taste was quite similar to the well water you get in some places in Canada! :) 
All in all, it was worth the trip :)

Kiev

After Chernobyl, we returned to Kiev for a big feast of Ukrainian specialties at Taras Bulba (http://www.en.tarasbulba.kiev.ua/) including borsch, pirozhok pastries, and a variety of vareniki dumplings (filled with anything from vegetables, to cheeses, to fruits!).  We even tried some “expensive” vodka (the most expensive bottle at the restaurant, but not expensive by N. American standards).. and it actually tasted really good (far better than the nail-polish-remover stuff that we’d been accustomed to)!


Our friends left the next morning but we we opted to stay an extra day to visit Kiev. Despite it being quite cold outside (it was snowing!!), we spent several hours walking the city to see various shops, parks, monuments, squares, and churches. 

Chernobyl

At 1:23am on April 26, 1986, during some safety tests, reactor #4 of the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl went into meltdown.  The surrounding area was covered in a cloud of nuclear dust, and high concentrations of dust downwind from the reactor caused all of the nearby forest vegetation to turn bright red (http://luz.it/features/red-forest).  

Residents living in the surrounding area were not immediately told about the accident.  Around 36 hours later, everyone living within the 10km exclusion zone (later expanded to 30km) were evacuated.  They were told the evacuation would be for 3 days, but it ended up being permanent.  Within days, Pripyat, the nearby bustling town of nearly 50,000 residents, became a ghost town.  

25 years later, the radiation had settled and the exclusion zone was opened to the public as a tourist attraction.  Despite residual radiation hotspots that still remain today, hundreds of elderly have returned to (and refuse to leave) their homes inside the exclusion zone.  Thousands of workers continue to work in the area, decommissioning reactors 1 to 3 to a conserved state - a project that is estimated to take until 2028.  

We were invited to meet up with our friends Yannis and Fabian who were planning a graffiti project in the area (a story for another post).  We spent 2 days and 1 night in and around Pripyat, the nearest modern city that supported most of the personnel and families operating the Chernobyl power plant.  

This website shows some great images of what the city looked like before the disaster: http://io9.gizmodo.com/photos-of-everyday-life-in-pripyat-before-the-chernobyl-1618107860 .  
Once our guide brought us to the various sites, we were free to wander and explore the abandoned facilities.  The silence of the empty streets and stepping into the tattered remains of the buildings leave you feeling bewildered and eerie as your imagination runs wild.  The modern concrete world has been incredibly swallowed up by the ravaging forces of time and nature.  

Amusement park

Hospital

In the hospital, Alex pointed out the headband of one of the disaster firefighters.  When you put the geiger counter near it, the alarm starts beeping like crazy!

Schools and Sports Facilities

Jupiter Factory

The views of the city really show how much nature has overtaken the city!

We had sorta guessed/assumed that the Chernobyl disaster would have resulted in a total wasteland where nothing could survive.  We were very surprised to see so much vegetation thriving and overtaking the area.  We were even more surprised to hear that our friends saw a fox hanging around the Pripyat Amusement Park.  Our guide told us that there are actually quite a variety of wild animals that continue to live inside the exclusion zone.
During our visit, we saw several wild dogs and also found this adorable tiny kitten meowing non-stop.  Alex ran back to the van to grab some sausage to feed to the kitten and it finally stopped crying.. poor thing must have been absolutely starving!!

A few other things that our guide Alex told us: 
 - Around 106,000 people were evacuated from approx. 20 villages.
 - Chernobyl was supposed to become the biggest power plant in Europe with something like12(?) reactors.
 - A huge new containment dome/sarcophagus has been built to encase reactor #4.  It takes several days to move the dome over the reactor and it was scheduled to begin just a couple weeks after our visit, so we were lucky to be able to see reactor 4 before it becomes covered forever:

This still-operational market inside the exclusion zone is where we bought all of our food for the day (bread, sausage, cheese, cookies, and drinks).  The best part is that the cashier still uses an abacus to calculate your total!

Everyone who exits the exclusion zone must pass through the radiation detectors to ensure you’re not contaminated. No one actually monitored the area to verify that we were clean, so we guess that the machines are mainly there for our own peace of mind.  Fortunately, Yannis told us that the first time he went through, the machine actually beeped and the light turned red until he cleaned the rocks/moss from the bottom of his shoe.. it was a relief to know that the machines actually work!  

What a cool trip!  Many many huge thanks to Fabian and Yannis for inviting to be part of this incredible and unique opportunity!  It was a such a fascinating experience!!

Copenhagen

One of the cool perks of living in London: we found some cheap flights to Copenhagen, so we decided to check it out for a weekend!  It was the first time either of us had been to a Scandinavian country and we really enjoyed its mix of old and new architecture, large green spaces, cute canals, and dedicated bike lanes meandering throughout the city.  We could easily walk everywhere and the city felt so clean and peaceful everywhere we wandered.

Here are some interesting facts that we learned about Copenhagen while in the metro: 
 - 1.2 million people live in Copenhagen. 
 - The Danish royal family is the oldest in the world.  Oh! We didn't even know they had a royal family!
 - 55% of people cycle to work.  This was easily believable after witnessing the crazy number of bikes and cyclist in the streets. Even more amazing was noticing that they rarely bother locking the bikes to a rack/pole/fence - they simply lock the back wheel.. in fact, many of the bikes weren't locked in any way at all!
  - It has the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.  Interesting fact, but Strøget street turned out to be our least favourite area to wander.

Views from the Rundetaarn

Naps in parks.. is this becoming a habit..? We must be getting old!! :)

We also went to a part of the city called Freetown Christiania, which is apparently a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood. It’s a totally different hippy-like world where the buildings are graffitied, several areas smells like the Paris metro (ie. pee), and marihuana is apparently tolerated... or if it’s not, the guy with the big bag of weed next to us, didn't get the memo. 

Can't forget to mention a few memorable food experiences!
Kanelstaenger from Holms Bager, a bakery near the Christiania metro station.

Smørrebrød and Tapas from the Torvehallerne market.

A delicious Moroccon Flatbread sandwich from the Marrakech stall at http://copenhagenstreetfood.dk/en/.

Cycling Stonehenge

Unless you rent a car or book a pricey tour, there isn't really an easy way to get to Stonehenge.  We recently splurged on a pair of folding bikes, so we elected for the choose-your-own-adventure option - we booked a train ticket to a small town called Salisbury and biked to Stonehenge from there.

When we arrived, we discovered that it's actually quite pricey to get into the visitor area surrounding Stonehenge (£18.20 ($30 CAD) per person).  Even if you pay the entrance fee, the stones themselves are fenced off by a rope, so the closest point is still about 10m away. 

Lucky for us, when we arrived at the entrance, a nice older gentleman approached us and asked if we had tickets.  We said no, so he proceeded to tell us that we can head back to the the visitor's centre to pay £18.20 each and then come back to get into the designated visitor area, or we can continue walking just a few meters further, enter the gate along the farmer's fence, and see the stones from there.. for free.  Seemed like a no-brainer for us, so we graciously thanked him!  He gave us a friendly smile while pointing out the farmer's fence and forewarning us, "just watch out for the sheep droppings, they can be slippery!".  

So, if you don't mind seeing Stonehenge from 20-30m away instead of 10-20m, you can do so for free!  

Bringing our bikes allowed us to also explore the surrounding area, including Stonehenge Cursus and Woodhenge.

We ended up biking around 48 km, mainly along quiet country roads, so we saw some really beautiful countryside.  We stopped to visit the towns of Amesbury and Salisbury along the way and finished off our first folding-bike adventure at a nice traditional pub where we tried fish & chips with mushy peas, a traditional meat pie, and cider.

We were surprised that about 30-40% of the bike commuters that we see daily in London, are riding Brompton folding bikes.  The bikes are built in the UK and really well designed, but they are relatively quite expensive.  We suppose they do make a lot of sense for people living in these huge megalopolises where property value is outrageously high - apparently you can actually find studio flats here, as small as 9 sq.m., for sale at a mere... £295,000 (approx. $530,000 CAD)!!  

So far, we've found the Bromptons really fun to ride and they make it easy to zip around and explore.. plus they fold up so small that we can even keep them under our desks when we commute to work!

Edinburgh

For Jen's birthday, we took a 3-day weekend to celebrate in the land of scotch whiskey and haggis.  It was actually suppose to be a "surprise" birthday, but our credit card statement blew the surprise - Jen could clearly see “Edinburgh” on one of the line items, a couple of weeks early.  Fortunately, it was no big deal since Jen doesn't really like surprises anyhow!  

We arrived by train and our first stop was the “Scotch Whiskey Experience” in the centre of Edinburgh.  We learned about ow scotch whiskey is made and how the flavours differ between the various regions.  The tour allowed us to taste scotches from each of the 5 regions.  Jen discovered her (new) favourite whiskey (Glen Scotia) which, of course, is one of the harder scotches to find since it's from the smallest region, Campbeltown. We also discovered that scotch goes really well with chocolate!  It's our new favourite "treat" :)

The next day we climbed up to a popular viewpoint called Arthur’s seat.  We hoped it was actually where King Arthur ruled from, but no.. turns out it's not :P.  The hike is, however, quite beautiful with its 360 degree view of Edinburgh Castle, the city, and surrounding area.

We were really impressed at how well Edinburgh maintains its historical look. We spent a lot of time wandering the old town since it's such a beautiful city to see.

We also experienced some local foods including delicious roasted-pig sandwiches at "Oink" and some local game-meat pies that warned that they may contain "shot" (ie. bullet) residue.

A 40th wouldn't be a real birthday without a nice dinner out!  A coworker recommended “The witchery by the castle” - a super nice restaurant with an amazing atmosphere and really good food.  Happy Birthday Jen!  :)


Afternoon Tea in Stratford-Upon-Avon and Oxford

We decided to spend a few weekends exploring small towns around London.  Our first trips were to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the small town where Shakespeare was born, and Oxford.  We wandered the cute towns to see the sights and strolled the river paths that pass through the towns.

Our colleague from work recommend trying the typical British "afternoon tea" in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so we chose a cute 1940s-themed tea house, appropriately named The Fourteas (www.thefourteas.co.uk), to experienced our very first British afternoon tea! 

It wasn't anything particularly fancy - white-bread sandwiches with the crust cut off, a few bite-sized deserts, their special blend of 4 teas with milk and sugar, and scones with fresh strawberry jam and clotted cream.  It didn't look like much food at first, but it was surprisingly filling!  Our favourite part was definitely the scones with jam and clotted cream, since we hadn't had before.  The clotted cream tastes something like a cross between unsalted-butter and whipped cream.

Since we enjoyed the afternoon tea experience in Stratford-Upon-Avon, we decided to try "cream tea" in Oxford.  "Cream tea" sounds to us like it's just tea with cream in it!  Turns out that "cream tea" here actually refers to a "lighter" version of "afternoon tea" - just tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream.  We also learned that cream tea is a hot debate topic - what's the "proper" way to eat a cream tea? jam first? or cream first?  

Fortunately the Brits have done extensive research to scientifically prove the optimal way to construct your cream tea:  Revealed-the-scientific-formula-for-the-perfect-cream-tea.   Yay for "science" funding!  :)


We also found a cool shop in Oxford called Demi-John where they brew various homemade liqueurs!  We poison-tested a few and settled on the Morello Cherry Liquor and the Ginger Wine to take home :)  Yum!!

When in England, do as the English do... Pimm's o-clock on the train ride home!

Rollerblading London

We finally returned to London to work for 3.5 months.  This time we decided to bring our rollerblades with us because Jen discovered a free rollerblading event that occurs every Friday and Sunday (year-round) through different parts of London. 

The event is really cool - it'a run by volunteers who select different routes each week and ride ahead, blocking off the roads to ensure the group stays together and is safe from traffic.  They even strap big speakers to their backs so we can all roll along with synchronized dance music blasting away in the background.

Our first week was during the Olympics so they went from Hyde Park all the way to the Olympic Stadium - around 25 km total.  On that route, we saw most of the big attractions in London including Regent Street, Big Ben, the London Eye, and the Tower of London. 

For our second week we did a smaller loop North of Hyde Park (13 km) and saw a less touristy side of London. 

The London Friday Night Skate (http://www.lfns.co.uk) is free, really well organized, and accessible to anyone who is able to skate, turn, and stop.  It's great fun and we highly recommend it!