Exploring an abandoned building.

IMG_1924
Bulgaria has a bit of a reputation for abandoned buildings – it makes sense when so much was built by different regimes and left to rot when the next one took over, or built during a precocious boom and abandoned for the bust, or just left to the elements due to a declining population.

IMG_1882

Our up close encountered was in Stara Zagora – it’s where my mom is from and also the city I’ve spent the most time in and know the best. One of my favorite sites in the city is The Ayazmo – a large hill on the north end of town that’s mostly for recreation and exercise, a retreat to nature. At the top of this park used to be a little shop and a picnic area – it’s probably still there, but we didn’t get all the way there. Instead, we spent our time exploring this old decaying building near-ish to the top. It was apparently a restaurant, and a very fancy one. It wasn’t particularly well run from what our hotel friends told us, and after it went under the owners just.. left it.

IMG_1718 This was our first clue that something interesting might be up here – what’s behind this fence? IMG_2071
Clearly an entrance for the local teenagers.. and us!
IMG_1719 All we knew so far was one, this place was clearly abandoned, and two, it was very round from the outside. IMG_1721
Peeking into the main structure now..
IMG_1724 We were thinking an old hotel? IMG_1742
Just wandering around.
IMG_1743 Piles of bricks? Was this place ever even finished? IMG_1754
IMG_1727 Very creepy dark holes. IMG_1730
This is an area lower than the rest of the building, a round room.
IMG_1734 Looking into one of the holes. IMG_1736
Even deeper.
IMG_1739 Ceiling decay. Probably wasn’t super safe. IMG_1740
IMG_1750 It reads “Ne” – ‘no’. IMG_1757
A bathroom?
IMG_1763 More no’s. We’re heading up the stairs now to the second floor. IMG_1767
The upstairs. Lovely patch of mold growing right in the middle.
IMG_1773 Lots of curves in this building. IMG_1785
I’m not entirely sure those round holes in the walls are natural decay.
IMG_1788 IMG_1790
Plenty of sunlight for mold and plants.
IMG_1806 This was part of a dumbwaiter. IMG_1811
A patio outside.
IMG_1839 IMG_1848
This whole place felt like a video game level.
IMG_1865 Up the ladder she went. IMG_1860
To no reward. Not much of interest on the roof.
IMG_1916 And now we go to the basement.
IMG_1930 One of those holes from upstairs. IMG_1933
And the other one too.
IMG_1944 IMG_1946
Bathrooms? Or storage rooms maybe?
IMG_1948 The hallway was very dark and very creepy. IMG_1967
Finally, fresh air.
IMG_1970 And lots of beautiful nature. IMG_1979
IMG_1991 Really cool curved architecture. IMG_2005
We were definitely not the first visitors here.
IMG_2011 Peeking into the bathroom from outside. IMG_2020
Round where we entered.
IMG_2026 And the front entrance. IMG_2054
The water’s still running even.
IMG_2040
And a last shot of the building materials.

We never did figure out if this was once completed and now decayed, or never even finished in the first place. The materials lying around and the exposed rebar made it seem like it was never even in business. The hotel staff told us it was just a bad business? Either way it was fun to explore. It’s also a local hangout spot for kids to drink and smoke from the trash we found. At night this place would be downright scary and dangerous to explore, so that’s probably someone’s idea of a good time too.

As a disclaimer – we felt ok poking around in this abandoned building, if you get a chance to explore a similar one trust your gut and stay safe.

Buryat Dance Festival “Ekhor Night”

IMG_8602 Want to experience Ekhor Night and learn to dance Yohor for yourself? The 2018 festival will be July 14-15 at the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum.

Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route. IMG_7842

The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.

IMG_7848 IMG_8294

A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.

IMG_7895 As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets. IMG_7850

IMG_7954 IMG_8157

After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.

IMG_8372 IMG_8446 The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. IMG_8482 Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. IMG_8565 IMG_8523 We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle. IMG_8613

Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.

Onsen and Ryokan

IMG_7351

As one of our last stops in Japan we decided to spend a little more than usual and try out a traditional bathhouse-inn experience. We found a good deal online and with our JR pass made our way to the city of Nagano, then by local metro to the even smaller town of Yudanaka and finally, after a confusing nighttime walk around the town center, to the Ryokan Hotel Tsubakino.

IMG_7271

Before visiting Japan I’d had vague awareness of their bath culture, but only in the yes-they-have-nice-baths sense. It turns out to be so much more, and much more prevalent in society than I thought.

IMG_7274

An onsen is a public bath. The entrance fee is a few dollars and you can stay for as long as you like. There’s one in nearly every town, usually one in every neighborhood. People go there to relax after work and on the weekends, even during the summer. In fact, they’re so prevalent one of the hotels we stayed at – a traveller’s hotel that was really intended for driving – had one available to guests.

IMG_7284

The idea of an onsen is that you shower off very thoroughly, sitting on a small stool and using a bucket to wash off. You then clean the stool and bucket and join the other patrons in the main attraction, a large hot pool. Often it will be an actual hotspring, or even be located outside. There you soak for as long as you like, then leave.

IMG_7328

A ryokan is the onsen experience taken to a higher level of hospitality. The rooms are warm and comfortable, tatami mats lining the floor. Slippers are provided for indoor wear, along with a yukata – a traditional robe garment.

IMG_7277

At our ryokan there was an option for a private bath on a balcony. Use of the public bath is included with the room, but we went for the fancier option.

IMG_7296

No regrets. It was a chilly night up in the mountains so we soaked and cooled alternately. In the picture you can see one of the tubs, the water spout feeding it, and the washing stool provided in the corner. Our camera is really not up to taking good pictures in the super-low light of the bath.

IMG_7282

But it does turn out some good shots.

IMG_7329

There’s also a traditional breakfast included with the stay. Seating was at floor level, with the table set into a space in the ground. They offered a traditional Japanese style menu and a more familiar Continental.

IMG_7331

Both were excellent, though for a traveller expecting a standard breakfast the Continental is a better bet.

IMG_7342

We’re lucky we got both types, because the almond jelly at the end was delicious.

IMG_7349

A quick view of the table just as we were leaving – you can see how the seating is arranged.

We left thoroughly satisfied and very refreshed. It was a far cry from our standard of hostel and street food travel, and we wouldn’t want it very often, but once in a while it’s fantastic.

IMG_7362

Finally it was time to go. Back on the local metro we went, in a train that looked to be from an older generation which was super cool. From there, back to the JR hub, and back on the road.

Summer fun at Miyajima Island

IMG_5616

A few hours by train out from Hiroshima is the city of Miyajimaguchi, which Natalie tells me means Entrance to Miyajima. It’s mostly true. The only reason most people visit this city is to get to the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s real name is actually Itsukushima but for some reason everyone calls it Miyajima.

IMG_5601 Miyajima has five things going for it, and that’s not even counting the ferry ride. Ferry rides are awesome. IMG_5612

First and foremost, the biggest attraction on (really off) the island is the absolutely massive Torii gate literally right off the coast. It’s base is submerged in water at high tide so it looks like the date is floating on the ocean. At low tide you can flock to it, along with all the other tourists. You can get a really great shot of it from the ferry, but try to do the boat at high tide, the shot is much more impressive.

IMG_5869

As soon as you land on the island, almost first thing outside of the boat terminal, are deer. Entirely unafraid, food seeking deer. They’re pretty cute and only a little annoying, but they will eat anything and they have no problem asking for it very directly. If you give them an inch they will try to bite a mile, so watch your fingers. Ignoring them and moving your food out of their way is the best thing to do if you don’t want your snack eaten. You can pet them, they’re pretty harmless.

IMG_5685

After the gate and the deer comes the tchachki gauntlet. A long, covered marketplace holds shop after shop of souvenirs – delightful bells, rice paddles, chopsticks and Torii gate paraphernalia. There you will find the largest rice paddle I have ever seen.

IMG_5572

The other biggest draw for this section is the Momiji Manju – maple leaf shaped egg dough treats with sweet filling, usually red bean, custard, or chocolate. They’re made in these fantastic machines that you can see operating all day long.

IMG_5892

We tasted a whole bunch of them and left with the impression that the chocolate ones are usually the best. It’s entirely worth it to buy an individual one at a particular shop before going for the box. Some are sweeter, others dryer, some have more filling, others have tastier dough. There’s maybe a dozen vendors to try so leave some room for dessert.

IMG_5644

You’ve taken a picture of/with the giant gate, fed the deer, and stuffed yourself on Momiji. Next up at Miyajima, climbing Mt. Misen! It’s the highest mountain on the island and it has a fantastic trail. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, and even with the tourist map it’s a bit of a puzzle.

IMG_5773

Here’s a link to the starting point on the map. To one side is a temple, to the other the trail.

IMG_5706

We wound up getting lost and finding a large shrine near the trailhead where we tried the local healing tea, enjoyed the sound of a hundred or so bell chimes, and listened to a very loud monk prayer chant.

IMG_5717

Just below the shrine were statues of childlike monks with beanies and scarves. We found out they are taken care of by parents who have lost a child, an outlet of grief and parental affection.

IMG_5697

To the side of the temple is the actual trail. It’s wonderfully maintained and wanders through some amazing hillside nature. It goes up and up and up, a climb of at least two hours or so.

IMG_5737

There’s a waterfall along the way, and at the very top is an observational platform and building.

IMG_5802

On your way up you might encounter this riff on the classic rock cairn.

IMG_5810

The views are great and in the building is a small souvenir store supporting the maintenance of the trail where a lovely old man will give you a stamp for climbing to the top!

PANO_20170618_132111

On the way back down you can pass by the cable car landing – the other favorite way to get to the top of the mountain and, after passing through more forest and picnic grounds, arrive back at the town market for a well deserved treat.

IMG_5851

At this point you can enjoy the relaxing seaside and try to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Staying on the island can be a pretty expensive ordeal and the ferries do fill up during peak hours, so try to be early.

IMG_5877

We had a great, sunny day running and hiking around the island. It was even a Sunday, right in the middle of summer, so it was as close to busy as it gets. There were plenty of people enjoying the island with us but it never felt crowded. So go, enjoy the standard island-town setting with a few unique Japanese twists, it’s well worth your time.

IMG_5766

And let us know if you find any sandwiches!

Da Lat Flower Park

IMG_5455

The “city of a thousand flowers” has botanical displays and delights all over, but its biggest garden is the Da Lat Flower Park. Situated on the eastern corner of the city’s lake, it’s a display of hundreds of flower varieties in a theme-park atmosphere. Almost no one was around on the rainy day we visited, but we had fun exploring the mostly-kept grounds and marveling at the copyright-infringing Disney statues and other baffling lawn displays. I’d say it’s worth going for these alone.

IMG_20170428_150035

IMG_20170428_145850

IMG_5440

IMG_5442

IMG_5462

IMG_5475

IMG_5479

IMG_5498

IMG_5513

IMG_5520

IMG_20170428_154503

IMG_20170428_161517

IMG_5595

IMG_5602

Hang Nga Crazy House

IMG_20170426_113352457_HDR
A view of the guesthouse portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House. Yes, you can stay there, although it’s not the cheapest accommodation in Da Lat.

You know how some cities have an iconic ‘thing’, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else? Something like the Hollywood Sign of Los Angeles, the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, or the Opera House in Sydney. That’s what Hang Nga Crazy House is to Da Lat. An ever-growing, organic architectural feat, the twenty-seven year old structure is the child of Dang Viet Nga, an architect who found inspiration in the natural beauty surrounding the city. It opens its doors on weekdays, allowing visitors to explore the structure’s winding paths, snaking staircases, and baffling rooms. And it’s a one-of-a-kind place, in part because almost anywhere else in the world it would have accrued hundreds of building code violations. Watch your head while you take in the magic.

This was my favorite place in Vietnam because of its architectural whimsy, but also because it’s still under construction. Hang Nga Crazy House has already swallowed up two nearby lots that went on sale, and Dang Viet Nga shows no signs of stopping. As we wandered through the labyrinth of passages, we stumbled into sites under construction and some laying fallow, waiting for the artist’s hand. Several artists work on the house at any given time, and they’re excited to show you their art.

Below are our most amazing pictures of Hang Nga Crazy House. It stole my heart with its unapologetic quirkiness and unwavering commitment to the organic form. I’ll have to go back one day to get it. ❤

IMG_5169
The guesthouse, hidden amongst trees and bougainvillea.
IMG_5251
Narrow stairs with low railings snake around the structure like vines, leading you between different buildings.
IMG_4769
Two women pose for a selfie atop a stairwell.
IMG_5186
A maze of stairs leading between the different levels.
IMG_4789
Touirsts duck under another stairwell while climbing, as another tourist eyes the short railing warily. This place is definitely not childproofed or adultproofed.
IMG_4933
People wander the labyrinthe paths, which wind through gardens and over buildlings.
IMG_4714
The front garden, complete with concrete mushrooms and a koi pond.
IMG_4915
A live soursop tree grows among the buildings. The entire Hang Nga Crazy House is a mix of living plants and concrete structures shaped like living plants.
IMG_4820
A tourist finds his way into the under-construction region; you can see the normal apartments across the street in the background.
IMG_5342
The back portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House lies fallow, waiting for artists to continue work on its extension. The project has grown from its original size, and looks poised to grow more.
IMG_4865
Artists discuss a mural in an under-construction part of the house. I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman in the hat is Dang Viet Nga (the project mastermind), but chickened out out on asking her.
IMG_4869
Stoytcho stands in an under-construction ocean-themed part of the house, where coral and anemonae await paint in the background.
IMG_20170427_101031996
I talk with artist Hoàng Đức Thành about his work on the house. They’ve been working for months on this part, using reference material to create undersea-inspired sculptures from concrete and plaster and painting murals on the room’s walls.
IMG_5313
Hoàng Đức Thành’s workspace and reference material.
PANO_20170427_084729
A Google Photosphere produced from one of the balconies, making the house no more or less strange than it already is.

Want more architectural wonderland? You can find it here, because I don’t know how to embed Flickr Galleries into WordPress yet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146223950@N02/albums/72157687692351401

First stop : Bundaberg!

IMG_9685

Getting a car is de-facto required to explore Australia, especially at your own pace. The country is huge and the infrastructure between cities doesn’t suit stopping in the middle to see what awesome lurks there. We took advantage of a “relocation rental” where a rental car company rents you, the savvy traveller, a car for very, very cheap. In exchange, you drive it from one city to another, ideally your starting and ending cities. We found one from Brisbane to Sydney and went with it.

IMG_20170224_120716
Look at all that wonderful sleeping space!
IMG_20170224_120650
And all the junk that has to go in it…

“It” turned out to be a monster of an outback vehicle, equipped with a reserve fuel tank, fridge, and full camping kit for four people. The pros were : lots of room, decent mileage, lots of traction. The cons were : huge driving hazard, way too much gear taking up all of that wonderful space, high cost of all the diesel we used. On the road we went, using Australia’s convoluted freeway toll system, but our destination was worth it. Bundaberg. Land of.. not much, as it turns out, except for the sweet, memories of childhood laden syrup known as Bundaberg Ginger Beer. What follows may read as an advertisement for them, it’s not. I just really, really like their sodas. They’re great.

IMG_9673

Visiting the “Barrel” as their center is known was a huge draw for me, and we even went out of our way north, away from Sydney, to see it. Was it a giant barrel of a building? Yes. Was it full of delicious soda? Yes. Did the very friendly staff offer samples of all their wonderful varieties most of which I had never heard of? Yes!

IMG_9671
Ingredients lovingly laid out on the bar for you to sniff.

They also had a short tour for a small fee, but we opted not to go. The samples and machinery on display were more than enough for us. Natalie really like the grapefruit, and I was a great fan of the lime and bitters. We both actually like the seasonal special winter brew the best,  tasting of cardamum and cinnamon and all those other good winter spices, but that one wasn’t on tap. Though you don’t have to buy anything for the tasting, you might want to grab a bottle closer anyway – they’re great for traveling since they can close just about any glass bottle.

IMG_9667
Yes, you do get to try each and every one of them.

Fear not fellow Bundaberg lovers, their lineup is coming more and more to the States, which is their fastest growing market. Hurrah! Except for the cola they make specifically for a reseller who only operates in Australia/NZ. Too bad really, it’s quite tasty.

IMG_9690