Monday, September 20, 2010

A little statistical overview and some acknowledgements

Here is a little summary of the trip. Nothing is exactly accurate, especially since the distances are between cities and the routes were probably longer.

I traveled for 160 days. This does not include a nine day break to get my tummy checked up in Singapore.

I covered approximately 25,900km by rail, bus or ferry. I used air travel for an additional 4360km.

I visited seventeen countries and stayed in thirty-four cities.

Although I had to eat instant noodles and sandwiches sometimes, my best meals were at
Da Dong Peking Duck Restaurant, Beijing
Cafe Pushkin, Moscow
Austria Restaurant, Berlin
Pod Aniolami Restaurant, Krakow
Le Crabe Restaurant, Riga

There were other good restaurants, but one way or another those five were the most memorable. And for non Singaporeans reading this blog, food is the most important past time to Singaporeans.

As a lot of people may know, I am a coffee addict. The best espresso is still in Italy. It is hard to really pick the best but at a pinch I would say that it was in a stand up espresso bar near the Duomo in Milan.

There was more physical activity then I was expecting on this trip. I climbed a 2500m mountain next to Lake Hogsvol in Mongolia and I cycled 45km in a day in Kolka in Latvia.

I must thank the hospitality of the people who were my hosts on this trip,

The Rin family in Shanghai,
Mario in Milan
Marian in Bern and Grindlewald
and Piritta in Helsinki

A special thanks to Olga and Michele on whose boat I rented a room for two weeks in Arles.

I also had nice friends showing me the secrets of their cities,
Ai Ling in Penang
Qin Pei in Beijing
Irina in Moscow
Gianluca in Rome
and Dimitra in Berlin

And a special thanks to my guide and driver in Mongolia, Odnoo and Nagi.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Journey's end - a little early, a little short

Visiting Estonia was the last major objective of my overland trip. All that was left for me was to return to London without taking an airplane. I could have taken a ferry to Stockholm, and then a train to Copenhagen and then to the Danish port of Ejsberg and a ferry to Harwich. However, as I had made Finnish friends in Tuscany, I decided to go to Helsinki and then go onto to Stockholm. This part of the journey was more a technical necessity for me.

However, in life things happen. I was attending an outdoor party when my father called me and asked me to return earlier than my planned date of the 22 September. When I asked him why? He answered that he had suffered a minor stroke. As my brother is in London and my sister was visiting from Oxford, I amended my plans to get to London as quickly as possible overland on the 17 September. However, after talking to my brother, it was clear that I was needed even earlier because my brother still has work commitments and my sister has a family and vineyard to look after in Oxford. I took a flight from Stockholm and arrived in London on the 15 September. After five and a half months, my journey ended.

Well, technically I took flights when I had my tummy upset, I had a short connecting flight in Mongolia to get me to my trans Siberian train on time and I flew from Stockholm to London. To be pedantic, I did not do an overland trip from Singapore to London. But I did have the trip of my lifetime. I visited Luang Prabang, Mongolia, Poland and the Baltic States for the first time. I saw the fireworks of the National days of Vietnam and Switzerland. I experienced the wet and wild celebrations of the Thai and Laotian New year. I attended the World Expo in Shanghai and the photographic festival in Arles. I attended a one day workshop with my hero Paolo Roversi and did a one week workshop with another hero Arno Minkkinen. My project was voted project of the week by the instructors. There were times in Laos and Singapore, with my sensitive stomach that I wanted to throw in the towel, but then I would missed so many things. I think the nourishment from this trip will last me a lifetime.

In an early post on this blog I gave the reasons why I am able to undertake this epic journey. Epic for me anyway. One of the reasons is that my parents were still healthy. The choice of the 1 April was arbitrary. But if I had started a month later I would have had to give up a the Baltic states. If I had decided to play it safe after the food poisoning and postpone the trip to 2011, it would not have happened. The opportunity would be past. This is something I would regret in my life.

A friend gave me a hand made card with the words Carpe Diem as a good luck charm for the trip. Those words are as apt as they can be. I had a window of opportunity and I took it. And the overview of life that I have got from this journey, as well as the illness of my father is that life is for the living. One can be completely reckless and squander away money, dying in poverty. But one can also be a Scrooge, hording wealth for the sake of wealth, and not appreciating the range of experiences life can offer. I realise that I simply have to use the resources available to me to lead the fullest life I can. And to some people, they will not comprehend what I am doing or how I am doing it. Well, every person is an individual and I do not know how other people manage to live their lives, in the frozen Mongolia winter, or racing up the slopes of Swiss mountains, or be continuously creative like some of my photographic idols. All I know is that 'other' people can offer their point of view of how I should live my life. But I have to make my own path, and I have to be brave enough to be myself. The only thing to fear is fear itself.

The journey has ended, another journey has begun. This time it is with my father, it is a journey of recovery. A journey so that he can continue to live life to the full.

For my life, and the support to be me, I thank my parents. I know they worried for my safety but trusted that I would come back safe. I thank my parents for the blessings they have bestowed on me. Now is my turn to step up to the plate.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Estonia Experience

My first stop in Estonia was the resort town of Parnu. It was very telling that the hotel I was staying in looked empty, like I was the only guest. On the first evening I visited the beach and there was a brilliant sunset but the second day was cold and rainy. I mentioned this to the receptionist and she said that it was now Autumn. I tried to see as much as I could on this journey, and by doing so I had run out of summer. I still enjoyed my visit to Estonia is general, but I had literally lost the light.

Sareema is the largest island belonging to Estonia and it had one town called Kuressaare. This was another visit to the wilderness, but the sights of Kuressaare are separated by relatively large distances. Even though I had just recently managed to cycle 45km, I would have had to jump to 100km a day at least if I wanted to use the bicycle. So, I rented a car. I went down to the southern most point of the island to see a lighthouse. I also tried to visit some Soviet installations, but they looked a lot like holes in the ground. They were soviet batteries. I also visited cliffs, a fishing village and desolate coastlines on the north of the island. I could have been more adventurous on this island, but I did not have the time and I had a little cold. The remnants of which are making my throat itchy as I write this.

Tallinn's old town is rather larger than that of Vilnius or Riga. In fact, it has two parts. The higher part, where the present parliament is held, was traditionally occupied by the nobles. The lower where most of the tourist trade happens, belonged to the merchants. And the merchants, who were not only protecting themselves from invaders, also built a wall against the nobility in the old town whom they were very suspicious of.

Perhaps I was tired after five months of travel, perhaps the grey and wetness of autumn had got to me, or perhaps my feeling that my room in Tallinn was 'dirty' put me on edge, but my overall impression of Estonia was ok. I wish I could say more, but really I cannot.

So, one of my major aims of exploring the Baltic states came through with the end of my visit to Tallinn. All the capital cities and their old town are worth visiting. But I must say that Riga, with its audacious art nouveau buildings, makes it the most outstanding of the three Baltic capitals. For a more adventurous holiday, the national park around Cape Kolka in Latvia is also my favorite. It is worth visiting all three Baltic states, but if you only have time for one, Latvia would be my recommendation.