Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Magyarország/Hungary





"Úristen!", exclaims Tintin, the globetrotting Belgian adventurer and journalist. "Good God!" in a rare, Hungarian language edition of Hergé's, "The Crab With the Golden Claws". (For some reason, the official English-language translation uses the unlikely anodyne phrase, "What the ...", instead of the literal, more spontaneous and evocative expression I prefer.)

Why start an article on my travels to Hungary with a panel from a volume of "The Adventures of Tintin"? This is all a roundabout way to introduce a bit of clarification as to the title of my post. Tintin may be just as perplexed as are others, as to why the country of Hungary is called by Hungarians themselves, "Magyarország" - literally the Land of the Magyars - and not something like, Hungary? "Hungary" perhaps brings to mind the distant and maligned, warring Mongolian tribal people, The Huns. These horrifying, some have even written, "child-devouring", invading mounted hordes may not understandably rest well with contemporary Hungarian sensibilities.  Falsely equating the Hungarian people with the Huns has a long-standing history. Current scholarly understanding of the origins of these enigmatic people however indicates that the two have different beginnings. The predecessors of contemporary Hungarian People - The Magyars, while indeed also an ancient tribal people, hail  from the steppes of the Ural Mountains in present-day Russia. What we don't know is if the early Hungarian tribal alliances galloped on their horses from the western or eastern slopes of the Urals. Were the original Hungarian clans therefore European or Asian people? I like to imagine that these wild, adventurous nomads intermingled and hence my ancestors are in fact Eurasians.

And so, I am back in wondrous Magyarország.

In Budapest, I went for a swim amidst the sweltering 42 degree heat. As with many things in Hungary, this dip in the pool was far from ordinary. When I think of "swimming pool", this ornate, grand, cathedral-like ceiling isn't what customarily comes to mind. But here it is, the splendid dome at the entrance of the Széchenyi Baths. Its mix of twenty-one - yes, that's right, 21 - indoor and outdoor thermal pools would make Neptune himself smile with glee!


Victor Vasarely's eye-popping op art pieces are beautifully displayed in the recently renovated, Vasarely Museum in the area of Budapest known as Óbuda.



The Parliament Building on the banks of the Danube is perhaps the most famous of Budapest's many picturesque scenes. Because of its immense popularity, the iconic architectural masterwork can be difficult to visit without an advance purchased entry ticket. I was one of the many who was only able to enjoy the dramatic building from the lovely nearby embankment. 


I did not however have any problem checking out the replica in the pretty town of Kesthely, a three hour train ride away at the western end of Lake Balaton. Thing is - this rendition of the Parliament is made of four and a half million snail shells! It took 14 years to complete this fascinatingly odd and obsessive project. The actual building took 17.





My graffiti-covered hotel was a short two blocks away from the elegant Andrássy Út, the very grand UNESCO World Heritage site honored, stately Budapest boulevard. This in fact is part of the very charm of Budapest. Beautifully restored turn of the century architectural gems are often juxtaposed with neglected and bullet-hole ridden derelict buildings - a testament to the long and oppressive Soviet occupation. As many of these aging structures have 'For Sale' signs affixed to them, it is only a short time before new boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants will again emerge from the rubble.



Europe's 2019 summer heatwave was oppressive. Hungary did not escape the smoldering effects of the global climate crisis. Everyone seemed to understand that our collective behaviour was responsible for the unprecedented, dangerous temperatures. While dizzyingly hot, this photo was not taken in Portugal. I stumbled across this pleasing coral pink stucco home with the olive green shutters in Pomáz, a small sleepy town thirty minutes out of Budapest on the HÉV suburban train.

When it comes to train travel in Hungary, unquestionably the most charming way to go is with the "Gyermekvasút" - The Children's Railway. It is a delightful, thoroughly enjoyable way to experience the forested hills of Budapest, on the Buda side of the Danube. The journey is an 11.7018 kilometer ride - the longest children's railway in the world. Precisely measured and  certified by Guinness World Records! Even getting to and fro the train station is big fun.  A short walk from the Budapest Metro, you can take a 15 minute ride on the cogwheel railway built in 1874 to where you board the Children's Railway. On the way back, I recommend getting off at "János Hegy" (John Mountain - the highest elevation of your excursion at 527m). From there it's a scenic ride back down to the City by chairlift.



Occasionally travel gives the wayfarer a special and unexpected gift. Literally, serendipity. As I disembarked from the train, I had the unexpected good fortune of meeting-up with someone who had stood next to my father and I in a fading photograph taken decades ago.  "And who is this pretty girl?" I asked the woman greeting me at the train station. She looked at the photograph, and in one of those priceless moments said, "It's me!" And so began a fascinating exploration of long forgotten, ancient and far-spreading branches of my family tree. We figured out that her great grand mother and my great grandmother were sisters. Until then I had no real idea of the meaning of the relational term,  "second cousin" - never mind meet her! 


Walking silently in the wilderness amidst the oak trees and along the gorge in the Bakonyerdö (Bakony Forest), I found myself exploring places my father once told me of.  I was now in the same enchanted woods that he as a young boy would have hiked together with my grandfather - whom I never met. As I listened to the river and continued walking, I gradually fell into a comfortable trance-like state. It was not much later that I felt a warm and gentle presence; I was mysteriously touched by  my father's spirit.




Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Vietnam

I travelled in Vietnam along the coast by ship and inland between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi with the Reunification Express Train. It is a slow, wonderful and historic 1,726 km overland journey. In addition to the lovely and varied scenery, I enjoyed very much the warmth of the people working on the train. Travelling the length of the country by rail I was happy to celebrate the indefatigable hope, courage and resilience of the Vietnamese People. The line was severely damaged by US bombing campaigns during the American War (referred to as the Vietnam War by imperialist Americans and their allies).  Following the Vietnam victory in 1975, in less than two years, over a thousand bridges and 27 tunnels were repaired. Once again the connection between North and South Vietnam was established and the free and unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proudly proclaimed.


  I arrived at Hanoi Train Station at 4:30 in the morning in the pouring rain.













Two seconds before pulling out of the station, and she made it!


Walking into the beautiful, bright yellow French colonial, Saigon Central Post Office, I was nearly certain that I had time-travelled back to when Ho Chi Minh himself might have posted a revolutionary message from this impressive building. The fact that it was a hallucinatory hot 42 degrees, likely helped create the fluid time-frame I was experiencing.



Everyone has a motorbike in Saigon. Until I figured out the steps to this urban dance, crossing the street felt terrifying and seemed impossible. I'd wait and wait for an opening in the traffic, but it never happened. All day. All night. The congestion never eased up. Traffic lights were simply ignored. A t-shirt said it succinctly: "Green Means Go. Amber Means Go. Red Means Go". Thing is, if you step off the sidewalk an amazing choreography begins. Without slowing down, the motorcyclists, like a massive school of herring, coalesce and drive around you as you make your way across the road. Whew!








Halong Bay. It is no wonder that this ethereal collection of some two thousand limestone karst islands has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Like giant Rorschach ink blots, one can easily project meanings onto the shapes. Evidently I'm not the only one who sees the kissing chickens from the boat, as this formation is in fact known locally as either Kissing Chickens, or less placidly, as Fighting Cocks. I prefer amorous fowl to angry birds - no matter how popular their video game cousins are!                                                                                                                                                               









In one Hanoi neighborhood, the train oddly travels within a metre of homes and shops. The train schedule is posted outside bars and cafés so that fans of trainspotting can gather and toast the passing train.                                                                                                                                                          


                                                                                                           

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Everest Three Passes Trek

"This trek is a definite notch up in difficulty from the other treks covered here." That is, out of all the treks included in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook, "Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya."

Having trekked extensively in the Himalayan Mountains, I thought I was quite prepared to meet the challenge. In a word, "hubris". Big time!

The scenery was unquestionably huge and mind-blowingly stunning. The local people were, as always, extraordinarily kind and hospitable. Walking in the Abode of the Gods does fulfill my quest for travel to sacred landscapes.

Hiking at above 5,000 meters elevation for weeks is breathtaking; as in acute mountain sickness breathlessness! Especially so coming from sea level, Vancouver.

















An easy walk in the low-altitude jungle to warm-up and check-out a baby rhino afterwards was a pleasant wind-up to the expedition.