I’ve visited Belarus previously. I was there in 2015 as part of my European Capital City Guinness Challenge. I’ve just re-read my notes from that trip. It was a great adventure and I enjoyed it. A country rarely visited by tourists. It was good to go back ‘virtually’ and cover some aspects I’d missed on my 2015 trip.
Food and Drink
We looked up what they eat in Belarus and had a go ourselves. Here’s our attempt at a traditional Belarusian dish – draniki (potato pancakes) with a pork stew washed down with a bit of vodka.
I’ve been listening to jazz trumpeter Eddie Rosner. His story is told in a documentary Jazzman from the Gulag. I eventually found it as part of a Zoom call on YouTube. He escaped occupied Warsaw and settled in Białystok, which was then part of Belorussia. Rosner was already well known, and he formed a Big Band, which soon became the State Jazz Orchestra of the Belorussian Republic of the USSR, and which toured the Soviet Union. Rosner was promoted to running the Soviet State Jazz Orchestra, before falling into disfavour in the 1940s, and spending eight years in a Gulag.
I read Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. I think that’s the most depressing and gruelling book I’ve ever read. It is a series of monologues derived from interviews with Chernobyl survivors. The story is very similar to that dramatised in the TV series Chernobyl but has a very different impact on the reader/viewer. In the drama you get lost in the cinematography, the science, the characters. In the book it is straightforward grim – the illness, sickness, poverty and political regime. It also left me both thinking and confused. The scientific academic viewpoint seems mainly to be that deaths and illness (acute and chronic) were relatively few, in strange agreement with the Eastern Belarusian/Russian/Ukrainian ‘official’ view and in contrast to the picture painted in documentaries and literature.
I also read The Ticket Collector from Belarus by Mike Anderson and Neil Hanson and tells the story of Britain’s Only War Crimes Trial. This was a very readable book and evoked different emotions such as ‘Why am I enjoying reading this book when it is about a truly abominable event – the Holocaust’?
I watched In The Fog, a Belarusian film about events in German-occupied Belarus in WWII. A good film and not what I was expecting at all. I agree with a reviewer who described it as a melancholic masterpiece.
I managed to rediscover my clock-making mojo which had been missing for quite a few months and shape a clock in the shape of Belarus. This was helped by the local timber merchants who went to the trouble of finding me a nice 2m bit of timber when I explained I wanted it for craft purposes.
Then came even more of a pleasant surprise. Via a friend, the clock managed to get to Belarusian Dzmitry who lives in Wales.
No need for me to imagine a journey on a Belarusian railway as I’ve previously visited the country and enjoyed a bit of train travel. I travelled from Minsk to Brest by train and met some lovely Belarusian people on the train. In Brest I went to a railway museum. A few days later I travelled from Brest into Poland on the Moscow to Nice train. Not many pictures of trains though as taking pictures isn’t exactly encouraged in Belarusian stations. I did get some of the sleeper train after I disembarked in Poland.
Belarus is a pretty flat country and must have one of the lowest high points for a country of its size anywhere in the world. The high point is Dzershinsk, west of Minsk and is 345m high. It’s apparently named after the founder of the KGB. The challenge is more getting there than climbing it. On the Peakbagger website someone has jokingly posted a picture of someone summiting using an ice axe. I enjoyed reading the account of Denise and Richard McLellan from 2019. They made it a bit more of a challenge and managed to get a 9 hour day, 16 mile walk, 2 bus trips and metro ride out of this very straight forward summit- all for less than £2. They reported that Minsk is highly recommended.
I purchased a set of five stamps depicting paintings by Belarusian artists.
I went back in time and recalled Belarusian gymnast Olga Korbut who became the star of the 1972 Munich Games. She was the first gymnast to perform a back flip on the uneven bars which became known as the Korbut Flip. Wikipedia says she now lives in Arizona and works with private gymnastics pupils and does motivational speaking. She sold her medals and in 1999 and has spoken out about alleged sexual assault and rape she suffered at the hands of her coach.
When I visited Belarus back in 2015 I was lucky enough to find eight geocaches including Sidetracked – Minsk. I like to try and solve a Mystery cache as part of my Armchair Travel Challenge. Most Mystery caches in Belarus are understandably in the Cyrillic alphabet but I did find Send More Money GC6MQ50 and managed to solve it.
I looked at Belarusian-born Zhores Alferov who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000 for the development of the semiconductor heterojunction for optoelectronics. The development of semiconductor heterojunctions revolutionized semiconductor design, and had a range of immediate commercial applications including LEDs, lasers, barcode readers and CDs. Alferov moved to Russia and became involved in politics serving in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, as a member of the Communist Party from 1995.
Lots in the news about the war in Ukraine but my eye was caught by news of another Belarusian Nobel Prize winner, Ales Bialiatski who won the Peace Prize in 2022. This month the pro-democracy activist was sentenced in Minsk to ten years in prison.
We’ve spent ages here I must admit. I lost a bit of enthusiasm for the project for various reasons but what better place to get stuck for four months. We lay under the palm trees drinking pina coladas made from the local rum and eating bananas.
Try as we might too find some breadfruit, typical of St Vincent, we failed. The best I could come up with was a mango and two pears – all of which are sitting in the fruit bowl refusing to ripen. They weren’t meant to be pears, I was trying to get guava and got confused.
No luck either in finding typical St Vincent cuisine in a restaurant. We did go for a meal in Irie Shack, Caribbean restaurant, in Woodville Road – nice atmosphere and spicy vegetarian food.
A couple of tequila sunrises in Irie Shack (see above)
By far the best part of this trip to SCG for me was finding a book of short stories by Cecil Browne. They were beautifully written, gentle but gave me a real feel is the place.
A book at completely the other extreme was by Princess Margaret’s lady in waiting about their time on Mustique. A quick scan and it was soon on its way back to the library. Not my sort of thing.
I watched the swashbuckling ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’ which was filmed in St Vincent. You get limited shots of the island itself as most scenes are onboard ships.
A little bit of reggae and a little bit of calypso and that was about it.
I looked at the cricket career of Winston Davis from St Vincent who as well as playing cricket for the West Indies in the 1980s also played for Glamorgan and then Northants. After finishing playing cricket he suffered a bad fall from a tree in St Vincent which left him a tetraplegic. He now lives in Worcestershire. From what I’ve read he maintains a positive outlook on life and is inspirational to others.
St Vincent is a good shape for a clock but adding the other islands would be tricky. I haven’t made one as yet but if ever I get an opportunity to meet someone from there I’ll head straight for my workbench.
Meeting someone from St Vincent and the Grenadines.
No luck so far meeting anyone from SVG but you never know – someone may turn up.
There are no railways in St Vincent but for some reason a lot of their stamps seem to have locomotives on them.
If I can’t investigate railways in St Vincent I thought the next best thing was to buy some stamps with trains on. Some are even British trains.
There’s one puzzle geocache in SVG, Dark View Falls Mystery Cache, GC85Y44
and luckily I managed to solve it. Don’t think I solved it the proper way, more by deduction than anything. Reading about the cache and the blogs of some of the people who have visited the area gave me a flavour of the place.
At 1,234 m (4,049 ft), La Soufrière is the highest peak on Saint Vincent but its also an active volcano that has seen appreciable activity in the last few years necessitating evacuation of some inhabitants. No I didn’t go up it – only in my imagination, and it left me with hot feet and a headache.
I admit it. I wasn’t looking where I was going and I almost bumped into Nye Bevan. It suddenly struck me I didn’t know nearly enough about this man leaning forwards on his pedestal and seemingly telling me to walk to the left hand side. I wasn’t the first to misconstrue the meaning of his posture. I later discovered that for years Michael Sheen referred to him as the ‘Don’t go to Pizza Hut man’.
I knew very little about Nye other than he was Welsh and the man credited with launching the NHS. Time to find out a bit more. My search took me up to his hometown of Tredegar and beyond, but more of Nye Bevan another time.
Staring up at Nye wearing his suite, another question occurred to me. Who was the sculptor and did they make anything else? I found the answer to that question quite fascinating and here’s what I found:
The man who made Nye Bevan was Robert Thomas. First let’s look at what else he made and then I’ll come back to look at the man himself.
Nye Bevan has been here in Queen Street since 1987. He was unveiled by politician Michael Foot, the ex-leader of the Labour Party. Michael Foot had strong links to Bevan in that he lived in Bevan’s hometown of Tredegar when he was MP for the area. Also present at the unveiling in November 1987 was Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the Labour Party. I haven’t been able to find a picture of the unveiling, only a tiny bit in a paper quoting Kinnock who had been asked about Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Miner’s union leader. Kinnock said in response to a question ‘I thought we were here to talk about Nye Bevan, a real socialist’.
It turns out there are two other sculptures by Robert Thomas in Queen Street and one just a few yards off Queen Street, at the top end of Churchill Way. They are sculptures I am familiar with having walked up and down Queen Street many times but it wasn’t till now that I learnt they were by the same man. I took a wander up the road to remind myself of them.
The first one I came across, was Mother and Son. It’s outside Greggs if that helps. It is described as ‘A woman in a summer dress, standing with her head turned to the left, her right hand at her back holding a string bag, and a young boy hugging her left leg, all mounted on a shallow plinth, set on a square-plan base’.
When I researched Robert ‘Bob’ Thomas I learnt this was his first significant work and dates back to a design of his from 1963. He won a commission in a national competition, the Sir Otto Beit prize, to make a sculpture to go in Coalville town centre in Leicestershire. A newspaper of the time makes interesting reading from a historical point of view. It states that ‘Coalville has become and will continue to be something of a boom town. A new power station is being built there and the mine has been contracted to supply fuel for it. With the new prosperity arriving in the town a new shopping centre was constructed and a motif was sought to decorate it’. Thomas’s sculpture was that motif. Strange to think that the coal powered power station and mine have been and gone but it turns out the sculpture is still there but looks now to have been moved to outside their library.
For a long time I thought that the sculpture in Cardiff was the one from Coalville, but no, it must be a copy. Although they look the same they seem to have different names with the one in Cardiff called ‘Mother and Son’ and the one in Leicestershire called ‘Mother and Child’. It makes me wonder where all these moulds are stored? I even wondered whether they were exactly the same, whether the Coalville sculpture has the string bag containing the child’s doll, behind her. Then I found an old photo of the Coalville sculpture and see it does.
Next on my visit was ‘Family’ at the top of Churchill Way. It depicts a mother, father and two children happily occupying a simple bench. Again, it is a copy the original one that dates from 1985 and is in Ealing Broadway Shopping Mall and called “Teulu Family Group”. I like this sculpture though feel it somehow misses a trick. It there were a gap on the bench for someone to sit it would become a good sit-by-me photo opportunity for people. Then again, that’s probably not the point here.
Back on Queen Street and opposite the entrance to Windsor Place is ‘Miner’. A larger than life depiction of a strong and proud South Wales miner carrying his lamp. Created 1993 this one is said to ‘celebrate the city’s heritage as one of the world’s most important coal exporting ports and its links to the coal industry. A tribute to the South Wales coal mine workers, that made Cardiff so rich’. I wonder whether it is also meant to make you think about the degree of exploitation that took place and to contrast the wealth of Cardiff in comparison to the mining towns in the valleys.
I later learnt that these three sculptures, the ‘Miner’, the ‘Family’ and ‘Mother and Son’ were commissioned by Cardiff Council as part of the 2005 anniversary celebration to celebrate Cardiff’s Centenary as a City and its half century as capital of Wales.
There was one other Robert Thomas sculpture in Cardiff that I was reminded of. It’s simply called ‘Girl’ and is in the Gorsedd Gardens opposite the Museum. ‘A young girl sits on a shallowly-stepped plinth, her chin on her left knee, her hands clasping her ankles. The figure is mounted on a rectangular pedestal, itself on a larger base’. It makes a nice contrast to the four large historic statues that also occupy the area.
I asked a friend, much more knowledgeable than me, what his interpretation of these works is. He came back with:
He has used bronze/metal – normally associated with nobility/heroes to depict the working class (and family- including women, highly unusual). Their poses support this – their deportment is heroic. They are on the floor (most of them) so they are ‘grounded’ in with US and live among us – we become, hence, ‘heroes’. They resemble some of the idealist faces/bodies as deployed by the USSR and China of the 50s and 60s in their realism. There is much movement in his work, which is naturalistic, anatomically correct and is pared down (but gives enough detail) without superfluous elements which would distract from his message.
Note the contract between Thomas’s sculptures and the new Betty Campbell sculpture in Central Square that is packed full of detail.
Robert Thomas lived in England after going to in his early career. On his return to Wales it is said he found a society that was de-industrialising, and a confused and disgruntled community in the process of forgetting its history. He set out to identify his heroes, to celebrate them in his work and to find places for that work in public spaces.
As the public became familiar with his sculptures, a new interest in history and Welsh artistic identity was becoming apparent. His bronzes and full-length studies were icons of a Wales arriving at a fuller sense of itself and he captured the physical and spiritual essence of his subjects with naturalism and realism, always streamlined into a classical, heroic formalism. They are stunning representations of Welsh life.
Thomas was recognised as one of Britain’s most successful figure sculptors. He was also admired as one of the artists who had helped to inject a new confidence into the Wales of the 1980s and 1990s.
I later learnt that there was another piece by Robert Thomas. It was a bust of Lady Diana and in St David’s Hall. Try as I might I just couldn’t find an image of this anywhere so made another trip into town to take a look. I feared I may be there for days as I knew St David’s Hall is on six floors and has a labyrinth of corridors. In the end I didn’t have to try too hard. Diana is right there in the foyer next to the escalator.
It was commissioned by Cardiff City Council and Bob Thomas travelled to Kensington Palace for sittings reporting that he found her a charming person with natural warmth, naturally friendly and not aloof. It was completed in 1987 and presented to the city of Cardiff by members of the House of Lords on 21 July 1989.
It was towards the end of my research that I came upon a YouTube video of the Robert Thomas Cardiff sculptures. Included in the video is an information board on the sculpture trail. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed the board. In fact there are two, both the same, one by the ‘Miner’ and one by ‘Mother and Son’. The board mentions the sculptures I had already visited plus a 1983 bust of Gwyn Thomas in the New Theatre. Time for another trip.
The Gwyn Thomas bust is also easy to find. It’s there in the foyer of the New Theatre surrounded by spider plants. Very 1980s. It was unveiled by Sir Anthony Hopkins. I didn’t know anything about Gwyn Thomas but he seems quite a character. He is described as a writer, dramatist, Punch columnist, radio broadcaster and raconteur. I enjoyed watching this YouTube video about him.
I also realised that I’d seen a couple of Robert Thomas sculptures elsewhere recently when I was on my train travels. These were in front of the Treforest campus of the University of South Wales.
So where else may you be lucky enough to see a sculpture by Robert Thomas? I think my favourite is not in Cardiff but in Swansea Marina and is Captain Cat. It has the inscription: “The sleepers are rung out of sleep with his loud get-out-of-bed bell” from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It was unveiled in 1990. The sculpture depicts the old blind sea captain who dreams of his deceased shipmates and lost lover Rosie Probert. He is one of the most important characters in Under Milk Wood, as he often acts as a narrator. He observes and comments on the goings-on in the village from his window whilst looking out towards ‘the clippered seas he sailed long ago when his eyes were blue and bright.’
And for those of you who have ventured further west you may have been lucky enough to catch sight of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the former Great Western Railway terminus in Neyland, Pembrokshire. It was Thomas’s last work and unveiled shortly after his death by the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately it was stolen a year later by metal thieves but has now been replaced with an replica copy. Swansea-based artist Ceri Thomas, the son of the sculptor, was among those at the unveiling of the replacement sculpture.
Keep your eyes peeled when you are travelling around. You may be lucky enough to see some of his other works including Miner and his Family in Tonypandy or Hebe in Birmingham.
And what of the man himself; sculptor Robert John Roydon Thomas? He was born in Cwmparc in the Rhondda Valley in 1926 to Thomas Thomas, a miner, originally from Ystrad and Miriam Thomas née Wattley, originally from Treorchy. Robert left Pentre Grammar School in 1944 and did war service as a mining electrician before entering Cardiff College of Art in 1947. After that he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. He then got a job as a lecturer at Ealing Technical College in West London (1953–71) whilst at the same time seeking to further his career as a sculptor.
In 1952 he married textile designer Mary Elizabeth Gardiner from Barry. She had also attended Cardiff College of Art and went to the Royal College of Art. They had three children together including Ceri Thomas who himself became an artist and has a base in Swansea. The Thomas family returned to Wales to live in Barry in the early 1970s where Bob continued his work as a sculptor. He died in May 1999. Six years later his widow Mary was instrumental in helping bring to fruition the major project to place a set of Robert’s bronze sculptures in the centre of Cardiff.
What was he like as a person? One newspaper article described him as ebullient, cheerful and full of energy.
The other interesting angle of Robert Thomas’s life that I picked up on was that he was part of the ‘Rhondda School’ of artists. This wasn’t a group of artists that follow or establish any particular style as art ‘schools’ tend to but rather a group of students from Cardiff College of Art that used to travel down the Rhondda Valley each day on the steam train too get to their classes at Cardiff College of Art. They used to spread their work out on the table in their train compartment and discuss the merits.
Cardiff College of Art has had many homes over the years but at that time it was in the Friary Building, what previously used to be St John’s School. I think there used to be an older part of St John’s School nearer Queen Street which was demolished but this was in the taller brick building behind. It later became part of UWIST.
I learnt about the Rhondda School from an interesting article by Phil Carradice which states that ‘The legend about these six men states that they would spread their drawings and paintings across the seats of the railway carriage – thereby discouraging anyone else from entering the compartment – and discuss painting and art for the full length of the journey. For two hours, as the old steam train rattled down the valley, these eager and dedicated men would discuss art with all of the bravado and enthusiasm that go with youth, talent and emerging skill.
The men in question were Ernest Zobole, Charles Burton, Glyn Morgan, Nigel Flower, David Mainwaring and Robert Thomas. They came from different locations in the Rhondda and so boarded the train at different times and at different stations but their aim was the same – to discuss art and artists’.
I set out to find out something about each of the artists in the Rhondda School. This is what Wikipedia and similar sites have told me about the artists:
His art output depicted the Rhondda Valley, Welsh life and landscape. His career spanned half a century and remains one of Wales’ most important artists.
Ernest Zobole was born in April 1927 in the industrial Ystrad Rhondda to parents who had emigrated from southern Italy in around 1910.
He was educated at Porth Grammar School and spent five years training at Cardiff College of Art, after serving with the British army in Palestine and Egypt. He married his childhood sweetheart, Christina Baker, after completing his military service.
Zobole taught at Llangefni in Anglesey from 1953 for four years, but found the area desolate and featureless and soon returned home to the Rhondda. In 1957 he taught at a Church in Wales school in Aberdare for two years and then moved closer to home by taking up a post at the County Secondary School in Treorchy.
From 1963 Zobole was based at Newport College of Art, where he would remain until his retirement. In 1965 he won a bursary from the Welsh Arts Council and in 1974 was commissioned for a painting for the foyer of the Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Zobole took early retirement from teaching in 1984, after which he was able to concentrate solely on his painting. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the University of Wales Swansea in 1996.
His wife Chris died in 1997 and Zobole died two years later at Llwynypia, Rhondda Cynon Taff in November 1999. He was awarded a posthumous doctorate by the University of Glamorgan in 2001.
Charles Burton was born in Treherbert in 1929, and grew up in the Rhondda Fawr between the wars. By his early twenties his work was being bought by public institutions and important private collectors, and in 1954 aged only 25, Charles won the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod. At Cardiff College of Art in the late 1940s he was at the heart of the Rhondda Group, alongside his friends Ernie Zobole and Glyn Morgan. After post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, he became a teacher. He was Head of Painting at Liverpool College of Art and then, from 1970 to his retirement, Head of Art and Design at the Polytechnic of Wales.
He has always been a very private painter. Like many of the artists we value most, he paints not for an audience, but for himself. He has embraced many subjects: landscapes, still lives, interiors and figures; but his works are unified in a painterly balance of pictorial space and in the love that they express. They need a kind of reverie to be absorbed. So quietly perfect are they that they may be lost to those who hurry for an instant impact, but look long and hard and they will never lose their value.
Glyn Morgan (1926 – 2015)
Educated at Pontypridd Grammar School then at Cardiff School of Art (1942-1944) under Ceri Richards (1903-1971) and he belonged to the so-called Rhondda Group and, during these early years. Morgan painted fine studies of the industrial landscape around where he had been born, at the junction of the Taff and Rhondda valleys. In the summer of 1944 he spent a study weekend at the East Anglian School of Painting at Benton End, Hadleigh, Suffolk and then studied at the Camberwell School of Art (1947-1948) after which he returned to Benton End. After his training at art school and a period in Paris, Glyn followed his mentor & teacher, Cedric Morris at the East Anglia School of Painting & Drawing, where he settled with a studio, and lived most of his life in Suffolk.
David Mainwaring (1933–1993)
Painter, draughtsman and teacher, born in Treherbert, Glamorgan, one of the Rhondda Group, whose wife Barbara was an artist. He gained his National Diploma in Design at Cardiff College of Art, 1953; his Art Teacher’s Diploma there, 1954; and a Diploma in Art Education, University of Wales, 1967. Mainwaring completed a dissertation on the organisation of colour in children’s drawings. He taught art at Bodrinallt Secondary School, Rhondda, 1956–7; at Neath Grammar School for Girls, 1958–66; then was senior lecturer in the postgraduate art education department at South Glamorgan Institute, 1967–84. In 1987 vision in one eye, which had gradually worsened, suddenly failed and Mainwaring had to have two major eye operations and laser treatment to save his sight, leaving him with impaired vision.
Painter, designer and teacher, born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Flower attended Cardiff College of Art, 91947–53), then held a number of teaching posts, returning to Cardiff College, 1964, to study graphics and photography. He then joined Rhondda Borough Council, in Wales, as a graphic designer and photographer. Showed Royal National Eisteddfod, SWG and WAC, which holds his work.
I suppose after all that I’d better get busy looking at Nye Bevan.
Now here’s a different country. I knew next to nothing about Tajikistan when it got ‘picked out of the hat’ as our next place to visit on our virtual tour of the world. I could perhaps have pointed vaguely to central Asia and told you Tajikistan was somewhere around there but other than that I knew absolutely nothing, not even how to spell it.
It’s been fascinating to spend some time there ‘virtually’, learning a little bit about the people, the history and the culture. We’ve failed however to meet anyone from Tajikistan, at least as yet. I remain forever hopeful.
When a new country is chosen for us to visit it leads to not just excitement but also an evening searching the internet for anything to do with the country in question, in particular to see if there is anything local here in Cardiff associated with that country. In the case of Tajikistan it did lead to one good hit. It turns out there was, until very recently, a Tajikistan expert here at Cardiff University. Unfortunately we missed Dr Flora Roberts by a matter of weeks as she recently took up a new appointment at a university in Netherlands. She was however enormously helpful in providing pointers to us for our ‘virtual’ tour of Tajikistan in the form suggestions for reading, film and even a recipe. We wish Flora all the very best in her new role.
No direct flights so the next best option seemed to be via Munich and onwards with an eight hour flight with Somon Air, a private Tajiki airline. We fly into the capital city Dushanbe which means Monday in the local language. It used to be called Stlinabad until 1961.
Tajikistan borders four countries, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It almost borders Pakistan too but not quite. The Tajiki people are Sunni Muslim of Persian heritage and the country has been called the Iran of the East.
Not all Tajiki people live in Tajikistan. In fact more live in Afghanistan and other countries but you know what its like when trying to create countries, you invariably leave out some people in the wrong country.
I don’t think I have ever met Tajiki person. I tried contacting a local Sunni mosque here in Cardiff but no luck there. Many Tajiki people do travel to look for work but mainly to Russia.
Clock – bit of wood
I never did get as far as completing a clock of Tajikistan. I will it ever there is an opportunity to meet a Tajiki but until then I think I will leave it as a ‘bit of wood’. It’s a fascinating shape. It reminded me of a couple of pieces of bunting with an odd bit sticking out of the top.
The most popular dish in Tajikistan appears to be Plov, a one-pot rice dish. We gave it a go and were impressed. Having a whole bulb of garlic in the centre of the baked dish was certainly different.
Green tea is the national drink, drunk not from cups but from small bowls. We had some as we bade farewell to our fascinating stay in this country.
It’s Friday and the traditional day for playing one of the national sports in Tajikistan i.e. Buz Kashi. It’s like polo but instead of using a ball they try and get a decapitated goat’s caucus into the opponents goal 🥴 . I think I’ll give that a miss.
Instead I’ll be going to see the Tajiki U20 footballers as they face Lebanon in the Asia Cup qualifiers. The game kicks off in a few hours in the Pamir Stadium in the capital Dushanbe. I hope there’s a queue for me to join. I’ve just got time for a plate of Plov (the national rice dish) and a cup of green tea before kickoff.
I know what you Brits are like – you’re more interested in the what the weather is like. So for your information it is 30 degrees, a few clouds and light winds.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Tajikistan won the 2022 King’s Cup in Thailand. They beat Malaysia. It was 0-0 at full time but Tajikistan won 3-0 on penalties.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, you probably already knew and like me were following the game on a dodgy YouTube channel. Some of the tackles were right vicious.
How many teams took part in this great tournament? Well, just 4 actually. It’s an annual invitation event held in Thailand.
An what was the crowd at the final? A whopping 488. The third place play off attracted over 12,000 but Thailand were playing in that game. The defending champions Curaçao did not participate.
I found it a great short story about evil spirits and mysticism and a father telling his son it was all make believe and not to be worried. I was amazed it even introduced phosphor luminescence. Very readable considering its age and that it is a translation.
Meddling: An OAP in Tajikistan by Stuart Burchell was an intriguing non-fiction book but not one I would necessarily recommend as a good read. It’s the recollections of a voluntary worker in an agricultural NGO. It gave me a reasonably good insight into the country, its people and culture. Much of the book however is about the internal politics of the myriad of organisations involved in assisting the agricultural economy of Tajikistan. The frustrations of such work becomes very evident and not a field I would have enjoyed working in.
Sovietstan by Erika Fatland is new and travel writing at its best. I just read the one section on Tajikistan and look forward to borrowing the book again from the library to read about the other Stans when they come out of the hat.
Safe to say that Tajiki films aren’t that easy to find but we did find a copy of Angel of the Right. It was pretty compelling and gave a good insight into rural life in Tajikistan. A criminal returns to his village to look after his ailing mother and try to redeem himself but isn’t me with open arms by everyone he meets. It’s said to be based on the fable that everyone had an angel on each shoulder, a good angel and a bad angel.
Ismoil Somoni Peak is a big one standing at 7,495m (24,590 ft) and the highest point in the former Soviet Union. Like the capital its had a number of name changes originally called Stalin Peak and the Communism Peak. The first ascent is believed to have been in 1933. It’s not a day trip that’s for sure. Not being a mountaineer myself I find it hard to rate technically.
There are just 31 geocaches in Tajikistan and only three of them are puzzle caches. I had a go at Ring Ring (GC9P4AH). Not too tricky to solve I doubt I will ever get to finding the actual geocache but at least I know where it is now!
A note of optimism greets people researching railways in Tajikistan, a mountainous country where the construction of railways faces engineering challenges as well as the usual economic. Two separate railway networks exist that are not connected to each other. On my virtual visits to countries I’m usually met with railways that used to be open but are no longer or plans for railways sometime in the distant future if funding ever arrives. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to hear that trains between Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe and Tashkent have recently returned.
Lots of modern female musicians to listen to here it seems, Madina Aknazarova being one.
A nice insight into life in the country of Tajikistan is available in various vlogs including this one.
It surprised me how many stamps from Tajikistan were for sale. I bought a bundle featuring mainly animals of the country with a few historical ones thrown in too.
We’ve been back in Africa again for the fourth time on this trip around the world. This time Tunisia got picked out of the hat. It was another chance to eat couscous and to explore the history and culture of North Africa. Another trend of our trip so far appears to be that whenever we arrive in a country there is something significant happening politically. This time it was a referendum with President Kais Saied securing a win and more power in the process. It will be interesting to see how things play out.
Our ‘imagication’ in Tunisia got off to a great start. My early research led me to a Facebook page where there were a couple of recommendations for where to buy Tunisian type food locally so off I went shopping. I thanked them on the Facebook page for their suggestions and they promptly posted a recipe, so we quickly had our first Tunisian dish – Ojja made from locally made merguez.
Although I read that there is beer and wine produced in Tunisia I failed to find any on sale here even via the internet. Instead I read that the most popular drink is mint tea. I even found a recipe – not that one is needed of course for making tea, but if I hadn’t have found it I wouldn’t have discovered one of the things to add is roasted pine nuts. We did our best to recreated the picture in the recipe.
An interesting shaped country to make a clock of; curves and even a straight line. Then the question of where to put the clock movement; top, middle or bottom. I decided on the middle in the end.
We had a very nice meal at Deli Fuego on City Road and had a warm welcome from Mohamed and his friendly staff. Mohamed comes from Tunisia so it was an ideal opportunity to gift him the clock in the shape of Tunisia.
We watched Dear Son (2018). This is a simple yet captivating film of a Tunisian family whose son leaves to join ISIS in Syria. It is told more from the point of view of the father, desperate for his son to come home to Tunisia.
I was particularly taken by Anouar Brahem, a Tunisian oud player and composer. He is widely acclaimed as an innovator in his field. He combines Arab classical music, folk music and jazz.
Books in English by a Tunisian author seem rare so I was lucky to find ‘The Italian’ by Shukri Mabkhout. It was easy to read, engaging and provided a decent background to Tunisia in the 1980s. It was however hard to warm to any of the flawed characters.
I also read ‘The Tremor of Forgery’ by Patricia Higsmith. I very much enjoyed this read by the American author who also wrote ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’. The Tremor of Forgery is set in Tunisia in the 1960s and about an American to goes to Tunisia to write a screenplay, is befriended by another American and a Dane. It doesn’t go fast but builds the suspense.
I didn’t have to look very far for a Tunisian sporting hero. A few weeks before Tunisia got picked out of the hat I had watched Ons Jabeur loose to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the Wimbledon final, dashing Arab hopes that she would become the first from the region to win a grand slam singles title. Jabeur, whose exuberance on the court and personality off it have earned her the sobriquet “Minister of Happiness”. Her success has also led to her being pictured on a Tunisian stamp. She has just reached the US Open Semi-Finals. An exciting time to be in Tunisia!
In the centre of Tunisia lies Djebel Chambi, the tallest mountain at 1,544 meters and an extension of the Atlas Mountains. Technically it is not a difficult climb. Indeed, some say it is even a drive-up, at least 1,300 meters. There is a metal crescent, the symbol of Islam on the false summit and a mast on the actual summit. Not an easy ascent these days as it is in a military active area.
There are only 3 mystery geocaches in Tunisia and I chose to tackle solving La palme solitaire (GC47B47). An easy solve with the aid of Excel. It is on Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia which I had missed off my clock!
Yes, there are railways in Tunisia, both between cities in the north of the country and a metro system in Tunis. The video I enjoyed most was however of the historic Red Lizard Train. It is a restored royal train that runs through arid gorges in the centre of Tunisia. I don’t think it’s running at present however so watching the video and using your imagination is probably the best you can do for now.
The charity which caught my eye this month was I Can Be. It is a British charity that bring primary school aged children into the world of work, introducing them to inspiring professionals and helping them to discover the breadth of opportunity around them. In 2019 they ran a project in Tunis, Tunisia.
My purchase of some Tunisian stamps haven’t yet arrived but I remain hopeful. Hard to tell what’s in the pictures precisely but I can see a few camels which is hardly surprising.
Not too much imagination needed on this trip as we have been lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Norway as part of my European Capital City Guinness challenge. Admittedly we only saw a small part of the country, Oslo, Bergen and Flam, so it was good to go there on an ‘imagication’ and explore some aspects we missed.
A little bit of Norway in Cardiff
We visited to the Norwegian church in Cardiff Bay. It is restored Lutheran church built in 1868 to accommodate the worshiping and social needs of the large number of Norwegian sailors calling into Cardiff docks at the time. It has had a varied history, even being moved at one stage within the bay area. It has now been tastefully restored and opened as an arts centre and café.
Very much enjoyed watching the Norwegian series ‘Occupied’. Made back in 2015 but hauntingly poignant with what’s happening in Ukraine. In ‘Occupied’ the Russians occupy Norway in order to help guarantee oil production with is under threat because of Norway’s green members of parliament. Well worth a watch.
A lighter read for me this month. I read the first of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books called ‘The Bat’. I found it a good read. I expected for some reason for it to be set in Norway but it was set in Sydney, Australia. But there were some cultural references to Norwegian life scattered through it.
I suppose I should also read some Roald Dahl was a Cardiff-born novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, and wartime fighter pilot of Norwegian descent.
I thought I was going to struggle to find any Norwegian sport to follow with it being summer and them being famous for their winter sports but I was wrong. The Norwegian women’s football team was in the Euros and in the same group as England but got soundly beaten 8-0 by the English. There are some decent Norwegian cyclists in the Tour de France too which fared well in the very early stages but seem to tail off somewhat and I never spotted them again. But then there was someone new to cheer on. The golfer Viktor Hovland finished the third day of the Open in the lead with Rory McIlroy but both failed to clinch it on the fourth and final day with Viktor finishing joint 4th.
I also thought it would be a good opportunity to research and write about someone I’ve been meaning to for ages, the Cardiff-born boxer Jack Petersen. His paternal-grandfather was Albert Petersen, a ship’s carpenter, originally from Stavanger, Norway. The output of that research is published in the form of a blog post – Jack Petersen – Boxing Clever.
Lunch one day came from Norway via Wally’s Deli here in Cardiff. Started with the Jarlsburg, a mild cheese originating from about 100km SW of Oslo. We followed it with some brown Norwegian Gjetost, regarded as one of the country’s most iconic foodstuffs – a sweet cheese with a consistency not unlike something from a DIY job. Both good.
I was hoping for more from the Norske Cafe at the Norwegian Church and Arts centre in Cardiff Bay but our choice was pretty limited when we visited. I had Norwegian tomato sauce with our toastie followed by a Norwegian kit-kat.
I was pleased to find some Norwegian beer available locally at The Bottle Shop. I had can of Loudspeaker beer from the Lervig Brewery in Stavanger, Norway. Marketed as a session beer. Includes oats. Pretty tasty. From the same brewery I also had a can of Modern Antique. A stronger 7% IPA brew.
My friend recommended that I should listen to some of the saxophone music of Trygve Seim and described him as having the best beard in jazz. Norway does indeed have some good jazz music. I played this album a few times: The Nordic Notes.
There are limits you know as to how much I will spend on this silly project. I wasn’t prepared to fork out over £100 to go and see ‘A-ha’ play at Cardiff Castle but I did pop down town and eavesdrop on a few numbers from outside the castle walls. I then came home and listened to them on Spotify. I don’t know what I was doing in the 80s but it wasn’t listening to ‘A-ha’!
Unfortunately, Norway was another shape which didn’t appear too conducive to making a clock of. Too many fjords. . I may not have included each and every fjord but it does look like Norway I hope. Instead I used the scroll saw to make a Norway shape and then practiced some framing skills.
The highest point in Norway, and indeed in Northern Europe, is Galdhøpiggen at 2,469-metre (8,100 ft). Two things surprised me when I started looking at it. Firstly is it in southern Norway. For some reason I expected the high peaks to be in the north. The second thing is that it is strangely accessible. Hundreds of people climb it on a fine summers day. I’m not saying it’s an easy stroll and from one popular direction there is a glacier to cross. Some reports say there’s hut at the top selling refreshments – bet those aren’t cheap. I happen to know a couple of people who have climbed and here are links to their reports: Rob Woodall and Martin Richardson.
I chose to give a small donation to the Norwegian Church Arts Centre here in Cardiff. Yes, I was left disappointed by the lack of Norwegian food when we visited a few times but I support the principle of the importance of preserving this landmark here in Cardiff Bay and of bringing art of various forms to this location. And thinking further back it preserves the memories of Norwegian seafarers that contributed so much to the establishment of Cardiff as a port.
For less than the price of a cappuccino in a coffee shop I bought some 1984 Norwegian stamps. Whoever would have thought that the centenary of the Norwegian bee-keeping and poultry breeding societies would happen to fall in the same year. 1984 was also the centenary of the parliament. Looking pretty in pink is playwright Ludvig Holberg. EUROPA stamps underlines cooperation in the postal areas and versions were issued in many countries including UK. The last two commemorate children’s writer Thorbjørn Egner. How come the flower pot doesn’t fall off the tram roof?
The first country to appear in this ‘adventure’ where I’ve actually previously been on a train. We visited in 2010 and travelled from Oslo to Bergen by train. The six hour six hour journey is recognised as being one of the most scenic in the world. The smooth electric train pulled us up to 4000 feet above sea level – higher than Ben Nevis. The scenery does indeed get spectacular. We look out on lakes, tumbling rivers and wild scenery. There are collective gasps from the train passengers when at the highest point we pass glaciers. We also took a series of trains from Bergen to Flåm including the famous Myrdal to Flåm train. Famous because of its steepness and sheer feat of engineering. The line was only completed in 1940. Construction of the railway started in 1923 and was completed in 1940. It is said to be one of the greatest engineering feats in Norway. The 20-km long railway line is one of the steepest standard gauge lines in the world, with 80% of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5%.
There were plots of Puzzle Caches in Norway for me to have a go at solving from my armchair. I chose one called Arktisk-Kultursenter all about the northern town of Hammerfest, home of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society. It is said to be the most northerly town in the world. It provided an interesting insight into the region.
Meeting someone from Norway
I’ve been in contact with a Norwegian living in Cardiff via a mutual friend. With a bit of luck we’ll be able to meet up in person after the summer.
And so its time for us to bid farewell to the beautiful country of Norway. We leave with the sound of Norwegian jazz in our heads and memories of looking at some lovely images from our virtual tour. There are some here on the Hand Luggage Only website.
Everything was going well for a while on our ‘imagication’. We landed in Manila having flown from London via Doha. Going through security we got pulled over, seemingly because we only had backpacks and no suitcases. When they commented that there were no shoes in my wife’s luggage, I flippantly said ‘Who do you think she is, Imelda Marcos?’ That was the wrong thing to say. We were quickly ushered into a small room and told to wait. A couple of hours later a gentleman arrived and introduces himself as Bongbong Marcos, son of Imelda. I make another flippant remark. How was I to know? He name really was Bongbong and not only that but he has just become President of the Philippines. Talk about putting my foot in it. Anyway, we chatted about his time in England where he was educated and parted friends (I think).
I stuck lucky and arrived in the Philippines just when the SEA Games (South East Asian Games) was on – it’s not being held here but in Hanoi, Vietnam but the media is full of it, especially as Philippines came out on top last time.
I enjoyed watching a whole range of sports I’m not used to including Sepak Takraw. It looks like volleyball but players use their feet! The Philippines ended up coming fifth in the medal table out of eleven nations. Electronic games were a category in these games, sanctioned by the Olympic Committee. The Philippines won gold in the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang tournament would you believe. And here to prove it is an eight hour long video of the match against Indonesia.
Not! San Miguel is the most popular beer by far in the Philippines. There’s a San Miguel brewery there that brews a range of beers including 8% Red Horse. Optimistically, I ordered some from a Filipino shop in Leeds only to find the cans says brewed in Hong Kong! It was a surprisingly nice drink. Lightly carbonated. No metallic taste, so probably within its ‘Best Before Date’. That’s a relief – there’s another 3 cans to drink.
I had better luck with a passion fruit drink I ordered at the same time – made in Manila. Strangely though it is mainly pineapple.
The highlight of the month was definitely going up to Mountain Ash and eating at the Kalan Café and Noodle Bar. I discovered it by just doing a bit of internet searching and reading some reviews saying it was the best authentic Filipino food noodle people had found in South Wales. We weren’t disappointed. We asked Grace for a recommendation and had the Pancit Pinoy. It was excellent. Not only was the food good but we were impressed by the happy and welcoming atmosphere in the café.
We had a few other taste of the Philippines during the month. I made some Pinoy Chicken Curry. This was nicely different from the traditional curries we make. It included potato and fish sauce but not the traditional Indian spices.
We also ventured into Cardiff and had lunch at Jollibee. This is a Filipino fast food chain. I had the chicken rice bowl which was certainly tasty, spicy and sweet and Margaret had the same in a wrap. It left our lips tingling.
I attempted to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco mainly on the basis of this positive review, but I’m afraid I didn’t get on with it. It’s one of those novels that jumps around one heck of a lot between the story of the narrator, the person he is writing about (an author) and the author’s writings plus it jumped around in time periods too. I never quite knew where I was and it changed every page. I have to admit I gave up half way through not just because it was confusing me but because I wasn’t getting much out of it in way of an insight into the Philippines etc.
I got on much better with Awaiting Trespass by Linda Ty Casper. I centres around the death of a member of a well-to-do Philippine family during the Marcos regime. Linda Ty Casper is a Filipino author who lives in USA and this novel of hers is apparently banned in the Philippines. Lucky I didn’t have it in my luggage when we went there.
I struggled finding a film I wanted to watch. Although there are a lot of Filipino films available on Netflix they just weren’t my cup of tea. Most were seemingly aimed at the teenage market and sort of rom-coms I guess you would describe them. I ended up watching Lola Igna, a comedy where the main character is to receive an award for being the world’s oldest grandmother at 118 years old. If nothing else I enjoyed it for watching the veteran actress Angie Ferro.
Highest Peak – Mount Apo
Mount Apo, active volcano, south central Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines and down the bottom of the country. The peak is 20 miles (32 km) west of Davao City and rises to 9,692 feet (2,954 metres). It may be an active volcano but it hasn’t erupted in living memory but does spew out sulphurous gasses. At least if you break wind you have something to blame it on. It’s one of those peaks you need a permit to climb as it was getting too popular. These days only about 50 people per day are allowed to summit. It takes a couple of days and there is mention of an 870 bolder face which to me is another word for a rock face so well beyond my capabilities. I enjoyed reading some accounts of the trek from a couple of successful baggers: The Lone Rider and Eric Gilbertson.
There’s just two active puzzle caches for me to have a go at solving in the Philippines, both in the Manila area. I successfully solved one of them, ‘status quo ante’ Mystery Cache GC5W0PA. When I say I solved it I mean I got the answer by googling the code but don’t understand much more than that.
Clock – or not a clock
So far on this imaginary journey around the globe the countries have been of a shape conducive to making a clock. Not so with the Philippines. It is made up of some 700 islands. Someone suggested I make a negative but when I tried to work that one out my head hurt, mainly because my scroll saw isn’t easy when it comes to threading a blade through a pre-drilled hole and reattaching it. Instead I was left with the idea of cutting out the shapes of the main islands which was relatively straightforward. Then came the challenge of trying to mount them on something and more so, trying to put them all in the correct position. I ended up cutting out more than I ended up mounting as they were so small. I think the end result still looks like the Philippines. You decide.
Well that didn’t take long. The morning after the Philippines got picked out as our next country to visit I popped down the newsagents for a paper and discovered that she came from the Philippines. I’ve been practicing my Tagalog language ever since: Magandang umaga – good morning.
In fact it got even better as when we went to the Kalan Café and Noodle Bar in Mountain Ash we were greeted by Grace who came from the island of Negros in the Philippines. Luckily that was one of the islands I had included in my picture!
A bit of a different type of charity this month. I picked Kalayaan, a small London based charity which works to provide practical advice and support to, as well as campaign with and for, the rights of migrant domestic workers in the UK. Why did I choose them? Things don’t always go right when you go abroad to work and it’s nice to think that on those occasions people have got someone like Kalayaan to turn to for advice and support.
There doesn’t appear to be a lot of railway in the Philippines, some but not a lot. Around Manila there is some modernisation that has taken place. There’s quite a lot of videos on YouTube and the one that stays in my mind the most is a BBC film of the trolley taxis. These are people who use trolleys on railway tracks to take commuters and others in and out of Manila in what could be described as extreme commuting. It’s dangerous to say the least as the tracks are shared with trains and accidents occur. Here’s the video I’m talking about:
There were plenty of Philippines stamps available for sale on eBay. I chose a selection where one had a train on it. It’s taken me a while to realise there was a volcano in the background. Mount Mayon volcano erupted in 2018 causing the evacuation of 74,000 people.
I must admit I’ve struggled to find music to my taste from the Philippines. The US colonial influence comes through a lot. There’s a lot of sugary-sweet ballads. I went back and found some more traditional music and even some jazz but again nothing that stayed with me. I thought I had found something when I came across the folk singer Freddie Aguilar who it is said has influences from Cat Stevens and James Taylor. I was quite enjoying it till I read his Wikipedia page and personal life. The 60 odd year old recently changed his religion too enable him to marry a 16 year old. I stopped listening after that.
Another interesting country to visit that I knew next to nothing about before this month. An interesting history, lots of languages, but above all it looks a great place with attractive coastlines. And the noodles in Mountain Ash were great!
There’s nothing like visiting a continent I’ve never been before, even at my age. This month we are visiting Colombia, names after Christopher Columbus – even though he never went there. We flew direct to Bogota, capital of Colombia, with Avianca from Heathrow. It’s a ten hour flight but before we knew it we were touching down. Bogota is the fourth highest capital city in the world at an altitude of 8612 ft. above sea level. It is the third-largest city in South America after São Paulo in Brazil and Lima in Peru. One of the unique features of Bogota is that it is located in a valley between the Guadalupe and Montserrat mountains. We stayed in the La Candelaria historic neighbourhood with its many museums. Yes of course it rained sometimes – it’s May. On one day a cable car was taken up to the top of Mount Monserrate. Here’s some videos from people who actually went there: Jumping Places and Divert Living.
It’s becoming a common theme of this challenge that as far as railways are concerned the story seems to be ‘we used to have a railway and hope to have one in the future once the investment is approved but we haven’t got any just at the moment’. There even seems to be a suggestion of a railway being built from one Colombian coast to the other to compete with the Panama Canal. I can’t quite envisage how that is going to work as loading and unloading a freight train would seem pretty labour intensive but I guess it all depends on the charges levied for using the canal.
I searched around and found a lovely heritage railway operating between Bogota and Zipaquirá, some 25km north of the capital. Turistren has amongst their fleet five resorted stream trains, originally built in Philadelphia, and decked out in marvellous colours. I’m not sure it is running just at present but with the help of some YouTube videos we enjoyed our ‘virtual trip’ along the route.
One thing I like to do when ‘virtually’ visiting a country is to solve a geocache puzzle. The choice in Colombia was rather limited – there is only one such puzzle cache GS#62 – Ciudad Perdida. To solve the puzzle and get the coordinates for the geocache requires answering a series of questions on Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) that was discovered in 1972 by a group of treasure looters. To find the cache itself involves going on a four day guided walk. I successfully solved the cache and in the process learnt about the geography and indigenous people. Now to find the cache.
I’ve had it relatively easy up till now. There’s been no need for the ice axe and crampons. Colombia was different. The highest peak is Pico Cristobal Colon and it is seldom climbed. It is a twin peak with nearby Pico Simón Bolívar. Here is Petter Bjørstad’s account of the only documented climb of Colombia’s highest peak, Pico Cristobal Colon at 5,730 metres (18,800 ft) in recent times led by John Biggar in 2015. It is an enthralling account in terms of mountaineering, organisational logistics, the local Kogi people. The pictures are well worth opening though it’s a bit frustrating trying to re-find your spot in the blog. The account somewhat glosses over the energy-sapping nature of the ascent so best to read it after you’ve exhausted yourself climbing your local hillock.
I purchased a set of three 1990 stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Francisco de Paula Santander. He was President of the Republic several times throughout his lifetime and his heritage a mix of Spanish and native blood. I quite liked the following description of him: He was known to be a quiet and taciturn man that enjoyed spending time by himself more than in the company of others.
Casting my eye around the internet my eye was caught by the work being done by Friends of Colombia for Social Aid. They are busy donating medical, educational and other vital equipment to hospitals and medical institutions that treat children and improve their quality of life and of their families in Colombia. They seem to be pretty active as a charity here in the UK.
A nation keen on football and producing more than its fair share of top cyclists. I chose to keep an eye on Colombian winger Luis Diaz who since January has been with Liverpool as they challenge Man City for the Premiership title. His first game for Liverpool was against Cardiff. He has since gone on to score four times to date and show some impressive moves including the move that left fans drooling when he controlled a high pass with his leg bent behind him. Let’s see how he does in the FA Cup Final against Chelsea.
I knew as soon as Colombia got picked out by the random number generator which author I was going to read. Nobel prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez had come recommended to me by a number of people and I’d never read any of his work. I chose to read his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera. It is set in a fictitious Colombian port city in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It’s one of those books that’s joy to read for the quality of writing maybe more than the actual story.
Cocaine seems to be a major these in Colombian media. We watched the film Maria Full of Grace in Spanish with subtitles about a young girl from rural Colombia who finds herself drawn into the international drug trafficking scene. There is nothing complicated about the film. It’s a simple straightforward story but compelling at the same time.
We also watched half a dozen episodes of the series Narcos, the American drama set and filmed in Colombia about the drug Pablo Escobar. It was interesting but just seemed to be more of the same after a while.
Another interesting shape to make a clock of. It took a while this one. I’d been given a piece of hardwood from a local joinery business. As it was hardwood and quite a bit thicker than the wood I normally use for making clocks it took a while to cut and finish. I also had to source some new clock movements which took a while but it all came right in the end. It was a pleasure to be able to gift the clock to Gloria and her son at the Wings of Glory Restaurant.
Food and Drink
We went for a meal at the Wings of Glory restaurant in Riverside, Cardiff. The owner Gloria is from Cali, Colombia. We had a selection of Colombian food made by Gloria and served up by her son. The dishes were quite meat orientated but with fried plantain and arepas (cornmeal cakes).
We had a failed attempt to find some Colombian food in an international supermarket here in Cardiff. I picked them up on the internet as advertising Colombian food but it had been discontinued I’m afraid. Never mind, it was an interesting exploration.
Finding a Colombian drink wasn’t difficult – the country is a major coffee producer. We found a local seller of Colombian coffee and enjoyed drinking it over our ‘virtual’ month there.
Meeting someone from Colombia
See Food & Drink above!
My first chance to take in some jazz on this virtual world tour. There was nothing specific but quite a few Colombian jazz playlists were listened to on Spotify, though I’m hesitant to recommend any in case they are not authentic Colombian! To get a bit more Latin music I listed Narcos playlists. A good month for music!
It seems like I won’t be returning from Colombia this weekend as originally planned. It all started to go wrong in the taxi to the airport. Even after spending a month here my Spanish is very poor. That together with my poor hearing has seemingly led to some communication problems. The taxi driver kept going on about money and mules and got very agitated. In the end I had to pretend I already had a mule and didn’t want another one. This didn’t satisfy him and he drove me out of town, threw me out of the taxi and said if I wanted my bag back which had my passport in it I was to meet him back at the airport today.
The only thing I could think of doing to persuade him that I already had a mule was to buy one. Luckily enough there was a farm close to where I had been thrown out and after a bit of haggling I was the proud owner of Pedro, a Colombian mule. It took a long time for me and Pedro the mule to get back into town, stopping lots of time on the way to give him a rest.
The taxi driver was at the airport as arranged to meet us but again didn’t seem at all happy. He got so agitated that in no time we were surrounded by armed police and he was led away. I don’t know why he looked so unhappy as they were promising him a one way ticket to USA. Meanwhile, the police didn’t seem to believe my story. They got me my bag and promised to take good care of Pedro but insist I stay here another three or four days. They won’t lever me alone. They even accompany me to the toilet. It’s all very strange.
So the random number generator we use to chose the next country to visit has eventually allowed us out of Africa. We went to Bulgaria. I was last there some 18 years ago when it was the first country to be picked out of the hat at the start of my Guinness European Capital City challenge after visiting Dublin. That seems a long time ago now. I remember being very excited about embarking on the challenge combined with the excitement/nervousness of travelling alone to a destination I knew little about. It also had the challenge of coping with the Cyrillic alphabet.
I must say that I don’t think I’ve got properly under the skin of Bulgaria in this ‘virtual’ visit meaning I’ve not attempted any whimsical imaginary trips so please forgive me. Maybe there were too many other distractions in the month we spent there or maybe I got a bit disillusioned about my failure to meet a Bulgarian. I think I’d better reign back my ambitions a bit next month.
Meeting someone from Bulgaria
It’s took a while but I did eventually manage to meet a Bulgarian. Sneja, from Plovdiv, Bulgaria runs the Pekarna stall at farmer’s markets. We met up with her at Insole Court and purchased various items made with hand-made filo pastry, a recipe taught to her by her grandmother and a Bulgarian loaf of sweet bread. It was a pleasure to gift her a clock I had made in the shape of Bulgaria.
We had just the one meal at home this month, a Bulgarian moussaka – which is a bit like the Greek version but made with potatoes instead of the aubergines. And very tasty it was too.
We found Bulgarian Deer Point wine available and got hold of a couple of different bottles and very palatable it was too.
Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov. That was sure an interesting read. A labyrinth of stories. Provoked a lot of self-reflection in me. Not difficult to read but in many ways dense and not to be rushed. I lost the thread at times and read it more as a series of short stories. Well-written and well-translated.
On the lighter side I also read ‘A Brit of Bulgaria’ by Richard Clasby. Written in diary format, a good intro to life of an ex-pat in Bulgaria, but one who works as an odd job builder, does lots of charity work and grapples bureaucracy with plenty of wildlife thrown in. Strangely enough it was this book that gave me perhaps my greatest insight into modern-day Bulgaria.
Zift (2008) – A man is freed on parole after spending time in prison on wrongful conviction of murder. Jailed shortly before the Bulgarian communist coup of 1944, he now finds himself in a new and alien world – the totalitarian Sofia of the 1960s and onwards to the modern day. Filmed in black and white, full of somewhat bizarre characters and events but enjoyable.
Love.net (2011) – a film about that follows the parallel stories of a number of characters who are trying to change their lives via the Internet or are simply having fun online. Not a great film but not awful. Improves as it goes on and the stories develop. Too much unnecessary titillation in my opinion (I must be getting old!). Didn’t get too much insight into modern Bulgaria except that the apartments looked very smart and modern.
I tried a number of Bulgarian playlists on Spotify but I kept coming back to a CD I purchased in Sofia when I was in there in 2004. Looking back at my notes from that trip it was a band of five male singers, three of whom were blind, with an accordion performing in the street. Lots of good harmonies. I wonder if they are still performing?
I managed to obtain a nice bit of off-cut hardwood from a local carpentry business from which to make a clock in the shape of Bulgaria. Another interestingly shaped country, perfect for a clock!
Casting my mouse around to see if there was a Bulgarian charity I would like to support I came across the work of Friends of Bulgaria which focuses on the wellbeing of children growing up without parents or family in institutional care. What particularly caught my eye was an upcoming triathlon they are competing in and raising funds for Ukrainian refugees in Varna.
Bulgaria is the first country on our virtual tour we’ve visited that has an extensive railway network. I contacted my friend Ian who is aiming to travel by rail in every European country. He’s almost made it. And yes, he has been to Bulgaria and was kind enough to share with me his blog of his 11-day trip there. I was tired just reading it! Ian is a great planer and record keeper as well as someone who finds interesting things to do and see even in destinations described as dull and boring in guide books. I can tell you that on his trip there in 2011 he travelled 1154 miles by train at an average speed of just 30mph. He’s also good at finding restaurants, another reason I like travelling with him!
Used Bulgarian stamps are very inexpensive and you end up with quite and eclectic mix. Art and theatre seem to be one theme they concentrate on as well as sporting achievements.
When I went to Sofia in 2004 geocaching was still in its infancy. There were a few geocaches in Bulgaria but not in Sofia itself. I had an idea of creating a virtual geocache whilst I was there and did all the homework but when I returned home, put it all together and submitted it for review, it was rejected on the basis that I was not a resident of Bulgaria and could not maintain it, even though it was a virtual cache and did not have a physical geocache at the end of it. Bulgaria remains one of the few European countries where I have not found a cache.
As part of this challenge I want to solve a mystery cache in each country I visit virtually. Things have changed a lot and there are now loads of caches there including many mystery caches. I tried to solve one based on the tile game 2048 and must have attempted it more than ten times but failed every time. Instead I solved one called For Bravery and based on the date of the Serbian-Bulgarian War. Not only was it interesting but it reacquainted me with using Excel spreadsheets.
The highest peak in Bulgaria is Musala which stands at 2,925 metres (9,596 ft). A peak that is reasonably accessible in summer months, in particular on days the gondola is running which takes you part way up. It is snow-covered for many months over autumn-winter-spring making ascents much less common. Rob Woodall gives a good account of his ascent, when he was unfortunate enough to turn up on a July day when the gondola was not running.
Again I failed to find a game Bulgaria were competing in where I could cheer them along. After a bit of research I came across the high-jumper Stefka Kostadinova. Her world record of 2.09 metres has stood since 1987. That’s a long time! She was the 1996 Olympic champion, a twice World champion, and a five-times World Indoor champion.
A lot seems to have changed since I was last in Bulgaria in 2004. Perhaps the biggest change is that Bulgaria is now in the European Union and the UK isn’t. One day it would be nice to go back there in person.
If you enjoyed reading this you may like to read about other countries we have visited as part of our Armchair travel Challenge.
The random number generator we use to select the next country for us to visit appears to like Africa. It chose Rwanda this time. Some early homework revealed Rwanda is a country which has some tasty food with lots of bananas included. We thought we’d even aim to source some banana beer. Rwanda looks green and lush and is called the ‘Land of a 1000 hills’. It didn’t enter the Winter Olympics nor did they qualify for the finals African Cup of Nations football competition currently underway so I chose to concentrate on their cycling competition. My other initial impression was that it’s an excellent shaped county to make a clock of! It looks a bit of a no-nonsense country so I’d better watch my step. Please remember therefore that the following tales are all in my imagination.
Travel in Rwanda
Well that was a surprise. Rwanda is not what I was expecting at all. Perhaps that’s why I got so many things wrong and ended up, how can I put this, in trouble.
I should have guessed that my preconceived ideas of Rwanda being a desperately poor and underdeveloped country was wrong when I went to see Arsenal play and their shirts were emblazoned with ‘Visit Rwanda’ slogans.
Like many of you no doubt, the last I had heard of Rwanda was the 1994 genocide when close to a million people were killed in the space of 100 days. A lots been going on since then with reconciliation being at the heart of it. I’m not going to paint a scene of a bed of roses and with an administration in power that could be described as authoritarian, I’m going to watch my step.
I flew from Heathrow on with the swanky RwandAir straight into the capital Kigali. Rwanda is a small, landlocked country, about half the size of Wales, mid way down the eastern side of Africa. I had an image of dry, arid, dusty capital but no its not. Kigali is almost as green as Wales and nothing like I imagined. It is modern, swanky hotels, new cars, lots of scooters and very welcoming. Something I wasn’t prepared for.
I’ve learnt to travel over the years without drawing attention to myself. I dress down and carry what I need for the day in a plastic carrier bag. That way I aim to look just like I am out doing a bit of grocery shopping. This time however that policy got me into trouble. None of my mates told me plastic bags are banned in Rwanda! The policeman was very kind. He let me off with just a warning provided that I attended one of the monthly clean-up days that Kigali has.
I turned up ready to do my penance but it seemed everybody else in the country had done something wrong. The place was packed with litter pickers. No wonder the city is so clean.
I also got into trouble when I walked into a bar and asked for the local banana beer. It was brown and cloudy – a bit like a Bass in the 1970s. I complained saying it looked like it had been made from bananas that had been wrapped in banana leaves and buried underground for three days before being retrieved and fermented. It turned out that’s exactly how banana beer is made.
(A video that helped give me an insight into the country: Oscar and Dan)
We had a bit of a problem catching a train initially in Rwanda as there aren’t any. But we weren’t going to let that deter us. Rwanda has become known a place where it is easy to do business. It’s like a Singapore of Africa. There’s been lots of tentative plans to build a railway in the past but nothing had materialised – not till now. It seemed like plans are all well and good but if you keep falling out with your neighbours then things aren’t easy. Having said that if the UK and France can build the Channel Tunnel and even get it to meet in the right place in the middle then anything is possible.
Our plan was to build a north-south and an east west railway line to the borders with DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. That would show a sense of willing and if the neighbours wanted to join up the line they could. Even if they didn’t we thought it would be a great tourist attraction.
One slight problem though. Rwanda is also known as the Land of 1000 Hills and hills aren’t always conducive to building railways. Not to worry, if we can build railways in Wales then Rwanda should be a doddle. We just kept to the valleys and went around any hills. The idea of the prototype trains seen on past Rwanda stamps however had to be shelved. With those long noses they just couldn’t get around the sharp bends we had put in.
They say everything you read about Rwanda is about gorillas and genocide. From my experience it’s true. The books I’ve read and films we’ve watched all focus or mention them, oh, and banana beer – its everywhere. These next couple of days would be no exception. We were heading up to Rwanda’s highest point, the volcano Karisimbi and at 4507 meters, 14,787 feet, and it’s a bit of a beast. It lies in north west Rwanda right on the DRC border, and in the Volcano National Park, famous for its mountain gorillas. We were told that if the gorillas don’t get you the kidnappers will, hence the need for guides and a military escort.
Most people we met were in the area to start their gorilla treks. We were lucky because on the first day a couple of gorillas popped out to see us on the forest trail. I think they wanted to see me in my green wellies. Well, it is the rainy season and pretty muddy, and that’s me saying that from Wales.
We camped just below the summit and the solders lit fires and were kind enough to share their food with us – potatoes and bananas. We were up before dawn the next day, quickly climbing above the tree-line and on the summit by mid-morning luckily escaping any altitude sickness which some suffer from climbing this peak. The other thing I wasn’t expecting was the snow at the top! There’s no road up here but there is a communications mast, built by hand apparently – they must like communicating. In no time at all it was time to head back to Kigali.
We have had our first experience of cooking plantain – looks like a banana but is starchy rather than sweet. Igisafuliya means “pot” in Kinyarwanda, one of the official languages of Rwanda, and so named because it is all made in one pot. It consists of chicken (not a lot), onions, leeks, pepper, tomatoes, celery (or in our case celeriac), plantain and spinach. The addition of rice and garlic bread was not in the original recipe.
Every Rwandan book read and film I watched seemed to have a reference in it to banana beer. I managed to find an online purveyor of Rwandan beer/wine and thought I would be daring and order some. It was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience since as soon as I placed the order I received an e-mail back saying that my luxury handbag was on its way from a delivery company in America. Exactly the same thing happened to a friend who writes an excellent beer blog Big Alex’s World Beer Blog and picked up on my discovery of a source of Rwandan beer and ordered some. Fortunately our beer arrived safely and not our luxury handbags. I found the 11% banana beer pretty refreshing. It may look like the homebrew I made in college days but tasted like a fizzy punch.
We also managed to find some Rwandan coffee. One of the books I read described the challenges of developing a coffee industry and the need to get the freshly picked coffee beans to the washing plant within four hours. The lack of transport made this difficult hence initiatives started up to provide loans for people to purchase bikes to transport the beans.
We managed to find three films to watch about Rwanda:
‘Shooting Dogs’ with John Hurt and Hugh Dancy. A film about the 1994 genocide from the point of view of a priest and an English teacher who share their school with UN peacekeepers. A harrowing watch which leaves you asking ‘what would I have done?’
‘Hotel Rwanda’ . Another film about the awful 1994 genocide. It portrays hotelier Paul Rusesabagina and his efforts to shelter over 1000 people in the besieged Hôtel des Mille Collines during the genocide. Since leaving Rwanda in 1996, Paul Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of the Rwandan regime and is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence.
‘Gorillas in the Mist’ starring Sigourney Weaver as the American naturalist Dian Fossey who goes to Rwanda to study the mountain gorillas. She is appalled by the poaching of the gorillas for their skins, hands, and heads. She is eventually murdered by person/people unknown. Her efforts are said to have helped save the gorillas from extinction and made the administration in Rwanda realise the tourist potential of the mountain gorillas. Part of the income generated from gorilla treks now contributes towards their preservation. The film seems pretty dated now but still a moving watch.
There was no shortage of literature for me to read. I ended up reading four books in all, two fiction and two non-fiction books, a bit of a record for me as I’m normally a slow reader.
‘Our Lady of the Nile’ by Scholastique Mukasonga. It may seem strange but out of the films and books on Rwanda this is the best I’ve encountered for giving me a real insight into the country, customs, food, countryside and its people. It is told from the point of view of the pupils at the Our Lady of the Nile boarding school and has translated very well from its original French.
‘The Flower Plantation’ by Nora Anne Brown – beautiful writing. I hadn’t realised how it dovetailed into the ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ story till part way through
‘Do Not Disturb’ – Michela Wrong. A weighty tome. A piece of investigative journalism looking at Rwanda over the years. Puts the genocide in context. Not a book to take with you on holiday to Rwanda.
I extended my ‘virtual’ stay in Rwanda to follow the Tour du Rwanda and read ‘Land of Second Chances’ by Tim Lewis. I don’t pretend to know a lot about cycling but now know more than I did before and much more about life in Rwanda. A good read, well written and more than just about cycling.
Gorillas seem to be synonymous with tourism in Rwanda so what better stamp for me to get as part of my ‘virtual’ holiday than one with a gorilla pictured. They look fine creatures.
I tackled solving the only Puzzle Cache currently in Rwanda. It was called Never Again and gave me an opportunity to learn more about the genocide and to spend time reflecting on past atrocities in the country. Here’s wishing Rwanda a bright future moving forward.
I was happy when I discovered Rwanda Restored, a local charity based here in Cardiff that is supporting education in Rwanda. Rwanda Restored seeks the advancement of education of young people in Rwanda by building or improving schools, relieving financial hardship by providing money for food, housing, education, clothes and social support for widows and orphans across Rwanda. It was certainly interesting learning more about the valuable work they have been doing in Rwanda over the years, building a school and financially supporting pupils who attend.
I’m continuing to try and make a clock in the shape of each country I visit. Rwanda is another nice shape for a clock. I failed in my attempt to meet anyone in Rwanda in Cardiff so rather than have the clock sit on my bookcase I gifted it to Rwanda Restored and they kindly took it out to their school in Kigali where it now of the wall. Many thanks.
I stayed on a bit longer in Rwanda than I originally intended to in order to catch some of the Tour du Rwanda cycling race. I didn’t find a live stream of the race but the highlights on the official YouTube channel were good to watch. As well as the cycling it was interesting to see countryside and people. Stage 6 was won by Ukrainian Budiak Anatoli, a valiant effort considering the terrible things happening in his home country.
Rwanda – Music
Rwanda is quite a musical and dance nation as far as I could tell. Like the Rwanda nation itself it has modernised quickly and there is a lot of hip-hop music around. Searching Spotify and I came up with quite a few playlists that appealed to me from gospel to traditional music with a strong bass and harmonies.
The modernisation of Rwanda had completely passed me by so it’s been an excellent month learning about Rwanda old and new. I haven’t met a Rwandan as yet but did get the opportunity to meet up with some people who had visited the country and it was great to listen to their experience. Farewell my friends.
Meeting someone from Rwanda
When we had our ‘virtual’ month in Rwanda earlier in 2022 I never managed to arrange meeting anyone in Cardiff from Rwanda.
In August 2022 presented an opportunity to put that right. We had the pleasure of seeing and meeting Ingoma Nshya – the ground-breaking Woman drummers of Rwanda.
I learnt that for centuries in Rwanda, drumming was an activity reserved exclusively for men. Women were not permitted to touch the drums or even approach the drummers.
They played at the Clifton Street Festival and gave it their all. Well done.