Friday, July 29, 2011

A long day trip, eventually

As I was waiting at the pick-up point (due at 7.20am) I had a premonition that somehow, I would not be going on a tour. The minutes ticked past. Then the tens of minutes. I decided after 25 minutes that I should go back to the hotel and enquire. Shortly after I got there, the tour company phoned the hotel to say there was a problem with the mini-bus.

"Take a seat. They will call back maybe in 30 minutes".

A new departure time was announced (8.45am) and I was indeed collected then. The vehicle had been exchanged for another, but no real explanation was given. So, I was going after all. However, it meant I would be at the Dead Sea at the hottest time of the day. It was also pretty hot trekking around Masada, although the views from the top were spectacular. In fact, the walkway had been closed because of extreme heat, so the only option for getting up and down was the cable car. Masada, of course, was the site of a siege that was made into a movie. It's also a place of great pride for the Jewish people. I was treated to a fly-past by four Israeli airforce fighter jets.

Later, at Kalia beach, I had my second float in the Dead Sea. The first was in the mid 1990s, from the Jordanian side. The greasy feeling on my skin was the same, but this time there were good showers. In Jordan, all those years ago, there was one shower with a trickle of water. I plastered myself with mud, as did everyone else, and I undoubtedly look younger because of it.

On the plane from London to Tel Aviv I was sitting next to an Israeli guy called Itamar, who told me the most important thing when you go in the Dead Sea is ... don't fart, because it will sting like hell. Farting in the Dead Sea wasn't something I had been planning to do, but I made sure not to.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Photo Post : Masada, Dead Sea & Jericho

Muddy people, Kalia Beach, Dead Sea

Sun loungers and showers

Garden near the Tree of Zaccharus, Jericho

Goat herd, near Mount of Temptation, Jericho

Limo, in Jericho

Cable car to Masada

View from Masada

Part of the fortress, Masada

Too hot to walk

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Photo Post : Bethlehem

Inside the Church of the Nativity

Manger Square

The security checkpoint, from the Bethlehem side

One of the caves used by shepherds, who watched their flocks by night

The actual spot where Jesus is said to have been born

West Bank

I went on an organised half day tour yesterday, which took me into the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. It was a Bethlehem trip, visiting Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity and other biblical sites.

Although the mini-bus had to pass through an Israeli checkpoint there was not the slightest hassle, and only a very short delay each way. No passport checks, no getting out of the bus or being questioned. I had read about being herded through a high security area and being subjected to interrogation. There was nothing like that. Perhaps it is different for independent travellers. The organised tour quite possibly smoothed things over.

Of course, I saw the security wall the Israelis have built to keep suicide bombers out. It works, but I am well aware that its route is highly controversial - along with the other effects it has on peoples' daily lives. There are lots of political slogans and murals on the Palestinian side. Things are cheaper in Bethlehem than in Jerusalem - at least, water and snacks are.

There was a German guy and his Swiss girlfriend among the group. They began the morning by arguing, and throughout the trip he kept asking her to repeat herself.. Wie Bitte ? By the end of it, they seemed to have made up. Neither had dressed appropriately for visiting holy sites. He had to be told to take his hat off, and both of them had to borrow shawls to cover their shoulders and drape around their legs so they weren't exposed.

Having been to the supposed birthplace of Jesus, I am still no more religious than before. If that couldn't convert me, nothing could. Later in the day, back in Jerusalem, I took a walk to the Garden of Gethsemani. On the way back I sat on the steps by Damascus Gate again, where an enthusiastic Moslem gentleman tried to get me to embrace Islam.

I have now been in and out of all seven of the Old City gates. There are actually eight, but one of them is not "available" for use. I have also taken a bus to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. It tought me a few new things that plugged gaps in my historical knowledge. Tomorrow is my last full day in Israel. I've got another day-trip booked. It will take me back through the West Bank, to Jericho, the Dead Sea and Masada.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Photo Post : religion

Dome of the Rock, up close

Al-Aqsa mosque

Some of the devout

Early morning at the Western (Wailing) wall

Soldier guards at the Temple Mount

Students near the Wailing wall

Entering via Jaffa Gate

Pre-breakfast sightseeing

I had set my alarm for 7am, but as it happens I woke up at 6am. Slightly puzzled... shouldn't there have been a loud call to prayer at 4.30 or 5am ? If there was, I slept though it. The early start meant I was probably the first Westerner to enter the Western (Wailing) Wall precinct and then go on though the non-Moslem entrance to the Haram ash-Sharif (or Temple Mount) area. The two great holy buildings there are the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It's unfortunate, although understandable, that neither allow tourists inside.

Hopefully, I will not fall victim to Jerusalem Syndrome. Apparently, this is a well documented mental illness that affects about 50 visitors to Jerusalem each year. They become excessively religious and either believe themselves to be of religious significance or start spouting prophesies -- only to recover later and feel ashamed of the whole episode. I have read about this, and witnessed one man who looked suspiciously like he thought he might be Jesus !

My early morning tourist duties were followed by breakfast at Holy Bagels (not Wholly Bagels as you'll find in Wellington), then a stroll through the Armenian quarter and visits to three more of the Old City gates (Zion, New and Jaffa). I've also had a hair cut and a face scraping -- that's what my cut-throat razor shave felt like, although there was no blood !

In the afternoon, I left the Old City and walked up Jaffa Street (where there are trams) to Ben Yehuda Street (which is part-pedestrianised mall). I returned via another pedestrian mall where high-end shopping is done, and somehow ended up buying two pairs of jeans and three t-shirts !

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Photo Post : Jerusalem Old City

Dome of the Rock, as seen from the roof of the Hashimi Hotel

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Soldiers and police on guard in the Old City

My lunch spot, on the corner of Via Dolorosa


I'm in the Old City, writing from an internet cafe (since the WiFi connection in my hotel is slow, albeit with a "very good" strength signal). The Sherut (mini-bus taxi) ride from Tel Aviv cost a mere 23 Shekels and got me here within an hour. There was a bit of a hold up because of a road accident along the highway, although thankfully no-one appeared to be seriously hurt.

My hotel has the most fabulous view over the city, and its famous Dome of the Rock. I'll go there tomorrow morning, probably, before it gets too hot. Oh, although Jerusalem is about as hot as Tel Aviv, the humidity is far lower... making it all the more bearable. Already this afternoon I have explored a little and been through two of the seven accessible Old City gates (Damascus and Herod's). I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchure this evening.

Finally, I ate the hummus and falafel I'd been looking forward to. I sat outide a cafe on the corner of Via Dolorosa, eating and watching the crowds go by. This is a very crowded quarter (the Moslem quarter), and it feels very familiar, having been in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan a good few years ago now.

My air-con works very well. Rather a contrast to the Tel Aviv hotel's air-con. I worked out that I was not suffering from power cuts the other day. In fact, there is a motion detector in the room. If no human motion is detected, the power switches off. That meant that I would wake up from time to time during the night and wave my arm or leg about. Unfortunately, the air-con unit had no remote, so I also had to get up and flick a switch on the wall to get it going again each time. Hmm.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A couple more photos

A cool Gaudi-esque building in Tel Aviv

Rotem on the waterfront in Jaffa

Jaffa, and Fox "News"

I have a friend in Israel by the name of Rotem, who has spent time living in New Zealand and would like to be there now, but is back in Israel working and hoping to save up. Yesterday afternoon he drove in to Tel Aviv and we met up, doing a lot of walking and a little bit of driving too. We went to Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, seeing the old fortifications and the port area.

It's Saturday morning now, a day of rest for the religious. One of the hotel lifts is shut off as part of that, because you are not supposed to work. Also not working is the electricity. There was a power cut about half an hour ago. Quite possibly a deliberate one. Anyhow, my computer has enough battery power for me to post this update.

Before the power went off, I was watching a bit of Fox "News" on the TV. If I had not looked at news websites online, and relied solely on Fox for my news, I would have no idea about the terrible gun and bomb attacks that have just happened in Norway. At the time of writing, 80 dead in the youth camp shootings and 7 at the government buildings complex in Oslo. Fox "News" is not covering this. It is obsessed with the possibility of a US debt default, which is of course an important story - but not the only thing that's happening in the world.

Some pictures of Jaffa below...

A mural in the port area

Jaffa clock tower

Hanging tree

Friday, July 22, 2011

Photo Post : Tel Aviv

Tel Avivians taking it easy

The view from my eleventh (top) floor hotel room

One of the beaches

Spices on sale in the Carmel Market

Country 69 - Israel

I went to breakfast relatively early, because I wanted to get out and about exploring Tel Aviv before the heat of the day set in. Apart from the usual fruit, cereal and breads there was a local breakfast staple - the name of which I can't find in my guide book right now, but I do remember reading about it. A sort of mince and vegetable fried dish with an egg cracked into it and hard poached. Very nice. I also picked up what looked like a carton of yoghurt. Not a word of English on the packaging. It turned out to be custard.

I walked south along Ben Yehuda Street, stopped to change some money and to buy an Israeli sim card (no drama or proof of identity requirements like in some countries), then turned onto Allenby Street. The roads are pretty quiet, and anyone who is out and about is taking it slowly. Pavement cafes are plentiful. After a while, I reached the junction where you have Sheinken Street (fashionable boutique shopping) to the left and Carmel Market to the right. I love Middle Eastern markets where you get a waft of spices, fresh herbs, or fresh meats as you wander past. Lots of t-shirts and trinkets on sale too. How refreshing not to be pestered by the stall holders !

I continued my loop so I could get onto Dizengoff Street. There's a big shopping mall there, which is handy for air-conditioning. Security guards are stationed at the entrance to every shop, checking bags and waving metal detector wands over people who want to go inside. I was asked "have you got any weapons ?" and said I didn't. That satisfied the guard at the Dizengoff Centre.

A while further on I cut across to the coast and walked back towards my hotel along the waterfront. It has been necessary to stop for gelato twice already since I arrived in Israel. Halva and pistachio is one of my favourite flavours. 1pm and it's time to surrender to the heat and humidity. I've come back to the hotel for an afternoon rest.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

waking up early

I've been waking up at 5am in England . Two days running now. Partly the time zone adjustment perhaps. Partly the fact that the sun is up at about then.

The weather forecasters are saying the temperature is "disappointing for July" at just 19 or 20 degrees. It'll be twice that in Israel next weekend !

I had an early morning start in Hong Kong on Friday. My hotel had told me my only option for getting to the airport was a taxi (at HKD $300) or their limousine at twice the price. The express train does not start running in time for a 5.30am check-in at the airport. Neither do the shuttle buses. BUT.. just across the street from the hotel is the public bus stop. Bus N21 to the airport departs from Nathan Road every 20 minutes during the night. It took a little longer than scheduled, but cost only HKD $23 !!

A sighing woman sat beside me. For the entire journey (of about one hour and ten minutes) to the airport she didn't go more than 87 seconds without letting out a sigh. I expect she was actually yawning, but it didn't sound like that - and it needn't have been so loud. I have managed to learn the skill of silent yawning, and I don't see why others can't too.

By the way, I have now built my stock of Qantas frequent flyer points back up to 113,300. My aim is to get the 280,000 required for another round-the-world ticket in business class. It's going to take a while longer, but I am a determined person. Qantas is preparing to anounce cuts to its international services (August 24th), which could present a challenge - especially if Johannesburg is dropped as a destination. Over this weekend, we will also learn what industrial action Qantas long-haul pilots intend to take, having voted strongly in favour of strikes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Next leg

9,641 kms to London... that'll take about 13 hours in a Boeing 747.

Misty Peak

I have not been up to the Peak for at least fifteen years. Today wasn't an ideal day for my return, but the view was dramatic none-the-less. The photo you see here was taken from just under a cloud and between showers.

My flight arrived at 6 o'clock in the morning. It's been a long day ! The Holiday Inn Golden Mile let me check in at 9.30am, but persuaded me to pay for a room upgrade to get that privilege. I ventured onto the Star Ferry and then took the tram to the Peak this afternoon. I also checked out the Peninsula Hotel, where I plan to take afternoon tea tomorrow !

This evening I had every intention of eating an authentic Chinese meal. That is, until I saw Marks and Spencer's food hall. The chilled cabinet had bargains that were reduced for a quick sale... so I have consumed a humus and roasted vegetable sandwich on multi-grain bread, a rhubarb yoghurt (it was always my favourite in Britain) and a granola slice. All for a bargain $8 (NZ) or £4 (UK).

Photo Post : Hong Kong transport

The plush airport express train

A cruise ship in the harbour

One of the famous Star Ferry boats

The tram up to The Peak

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Four more

July 2011 has arrived... which means I'm flying again and escaping the New Zealand winter. Just in time !

May was a record warm one, and June was heading that way too until its final few days. I've just looked at some news websites and found there is snow across parts of the South Island.

How fortunate that I'm in transit in Melbourne, heading for Hong Kong. Showers are forecast there, but the temperature is going to be about 30 degrees. A two night stopover before flying on to London on Friday.

This is a five week trip, during which I will add another four new countries to my tally. I'm at 68 and counting. The United Nations has just added another one to its total number of recognised states; South Sudan. That takes member countries to 198, and I'm aiming to get my total up to 100 countries before June 2018.

Watch this space !