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14 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Mother Nature treats us to two performances

Northern Lights in Iceland

We’ve had only two really clear nights since we arrived in Iceland last week.

When the weather report looked good for the first of those two nights, we booked to go on a three-hour Northern Lights tour. Our first stop was at the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, east of Reykjavik.

We trudged through the snow and onto a viewing platform, but there was no activity in the sky. In fact, the garden around a farmhouse down to the left was well-lit so we didn’t really have the darkness that would make the Northern Lights stand out.

After 15 minutes or so, the guide suggested we reboard the bus and move on to a more likely spot. It was a wise decision, because the next site delivered a nice show of lights that lasted about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, I was having a brain meltdown and fumbling with my camera settings. I could enjoy watching the lights, but couldn’t get a single pic.

Northern Lights in Iceland

Not long after we reboarded the bus, I figured out what I had been doing wrong, but it was too late.

I decided the only answer was to book another tour on another clear night.

In the meantime, we booked a 14-hour bus tour along the south coast of Iceland to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. It was a super cloudy day but that didn’t keep us from enjoying the scenery along the way as well as the lagoon (more about that trip soon).

Iceland waterfall

A waterfall at night

But the big bonuses came on the way home. We’d passed a large waterfall earlier in the day, and the guide promised that we’d stop briefly on the way back because the cascade was illuminated at night.

I hadn’t brought my tripod this night, so I couldn’t get a great, steady shot of the waterfall, but one pic turned out nice enough.

As we reboarded the bus, the skies started to clear and the guide urged us to keep our eyes focused towards the north. Luckily Poor John and I were on that side of the bus on the way home!

Northern Lights in Iceland

When we were about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, Mother Nature began her show. 

I think the guide was as excited as all the passengers. He got the driver to pull over at a safe spot and we all piled out to watch the show.

What a joy, what a bonus! A tripod would have helped me to get sharper pics, but I was thrilled to get any and even more thrilled to see the lights—and without having to book yet another tour.

We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights last year in Alaska and now again in Iceland. Woo-hoo! I’ve heard that people are seeing the Southern Lights in Tasmania, so we may have to try that next year.

Northern Lights in Iceland

13 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Winter comes to Iceland

Snowing in Iceland

On the way to the bakery about 8:30am

Icelandic bakery

A good enough reason to go out in the snow

There’s so much more to share with you about China, Mongolia and Russia, but I feel compelled to jump ahead and show you a sneak peek at Iceland.

We’ve been here for just under a week—staying with Mary Pat and Siggi—and they have ever-so-kindly arranged for us to experience our first proper snowstorm of this wintry trip. (There was a little snow in Russia, but nothing remarkable.)

The flurries began Thursday night in Reykjavik, and by Friday morning there was a thick blanket of snow. It was amazing to view the world from their third-floor window, but even better to join Siggi on a run to the bakery.

snow-covered car

Siggi’s car after 10 minutes out of the garage

His car had been parked in the garage overnight so didn’t have a single snowflake on it when we set out, but 10 minutes later it had its own coating of big, fat flakes.

It has continued to snow off and on since then. In fact, tonight the wind is howling and the snow is falling horizontally. I’m glad our sightseeing is done for the day. 

So what’s the weather like where you are?

Snow in Reykjavik

An hour after going to the bakery

Winter in Iceland

Looking southwest from Mary Pat’s and Siggi’s flat

Winter in Iceland

A view to the west as the sun comes up

6 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Enjoying the views from a Mongolian temple

Mongolian landscape

The sweeping view from Aryapala meditation temple

Aryapala meditation temple

Inside the temple

Many of you have commented on how flat and barren the Mongolian landscape is, so I thought I’d share a different view.

On the way to our homestay, we drove along Turtle Rock Road to visit the beautiful and peaceful Aryapala meditation temple, in the Terelj National Park northeast of Ulaanbaatar. This temple is perched on a mountainside at the end of a picturesque valley, which is probably even more scenic in spring and summer.

The Buddhist temple is open to anyone who wants to mediate while being free from outside distractions. The long path up to the actual temple is bordered by 100s of signs with topics for mediation that give food for thought. You’ll probably agree that many of the sayings seem especially relevant these days. Click to enlarge images.

There are also signs and monuments relating to other aspects of Buddhism, such as ‘The Elder White’ or ‘White Grandpa’. In Mongolia, he is the protector deity of the nature that oversees Mother Earth.

There is also the Great Prayer Wheel of Kangyur. This prayer wheel is filled with a complete Kangyur (printed in Tibetan), the 108 volumes of works spoken by the Buddha himself.

When you reach the temple (after a long uphill trudge and a very rickety bridge), it’s not immediately obvious that the outline of the complex is supposed to resemble an elephant. The main building is the head, the 116 steps of staircase are the trunk and the walkways at the sides represent the ears.

Aryapala meditation temple

Poor John on the rickety bridge to the temple

Path to Aryapala meditation temple

Path to the temple

Great Prayer Wheel of Kangyur

Great Prayer Wheel of Kangyur. The painting to the left is of ‘The Elder White’

There’s also a cave there with a statue and footprints of the Buddha inside. Whenever I see that, I am reminded of my mother’s comment years ago in Burma. She had flat feet and when she saw the Buddha’s footprints she said, No wonder he sat down all the time. He had flat feet.

The inside of the temple is stunningly beautiful and colourfully decorated. I was especially grateful that we were allowed to take pictures—something not always permitted. There’s a mantra—Om Mani Padme Hum—that is supposed to be repeated 108 times at the temple, and our guide, Nasaa, did exactly that.

While we were there Poor John walked all the way around the temple, but the rest of us decided it was too wet and icy. No need to break an arm.

But we wouldn’t have missed the view for anything. Fortunately we were there on a reasonably clear day and could see far into the distance.

We also enjoyed sharing the space with a group of school children. The young boy standing at the very back of the pic was wearing a set of Dracula teeth and having great fun growling as everyone.

I liked the Little Miss we saw by the exit. I think she’d had a great time.

P.S. Do you have a favourite from the topics for meditation?

Aryapala view

5 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Changing of the guard—the Kremlin in Moscow

Changing of the Guard, Kremlin, Russia

I think the guy on the right took our tickets to the Armoury later in the afternoon

One of the first things we did in Moscow was to book a free walking tour of the city. Now let’s get this straight. It doesn’t mean we walk all over the city and it doesn’t mean they are completely free (don’t forget to tip). These tours are designed to give you a feel for what the city has to offer, and to help you get your bearings.

We’ve done walking tours all over the globe—geez, I need to write about more of them—and Moscow’s was one of the best, even if it was freezing cold and raining most of the time.

Our guide, Elena, was first class. Her English was amazing. She also has a great sense of humour and an excellent timing for how the tour should go. (St Petersburg could learn a few things from her, but more about that in another post).

One of the highlights was seeing the changing of the guards at the Kremlin. This happens every hour, on the hour, between 8am and 8pm.

Elena told us that the guards are chosen by very specific criteria. They should be from outside Moscow (a nearby wife and kids can create distractions). Plus they should be of a similar height, weight and appearance.

The guards live at the Kremlin and do other duties, but this is the most important. Elena said the guard cubicles are heated. There’s are heat pads at the back and on the floor. I bet they aren’t very much comfort in the dead of winter when temperatures can drop as low as -30°C (or -22°F).

We watched two sessions of the changing of the guards and I have to agree that they all looked similar. That said, I’m quite sure the young man who took our tickets when we visited the Armoury later that day was the same guy who was on the right at the second changing of the guards. The rosy cheeks gave him away.

We had a short chat and I asked if he was on guard in the morning, but that was too much English for him. Sorry he didn’t understand because I’d like to think I can see beyond the view that They all look the same.

Changing of the Guard, Kremlin, Moscow

4 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Fashion and passion cross all cultures

wedding pic, Shanghai

Step a little closer, honey, I don’t bite

Wedding pic Shanghai

An arty wedding pose

No one asked me for directions in China or Mongolia. It’s no wonder. I don’t look Chinese or Mongolian. But every second street in Russia, someone stops to ask me something. I don’t know what their words are, but it’s obvious they think I’m a babushka (grandmother but minus the headscarf) with local knowledge.

Perhaps it’s the sensible shoes, the woollen trousers or the knitted ear warmer. The grey hair might be an indication, but mostly it’s hidden by the ear warmer and parka hood.

Okay, so I look frumpy. I look like an ancient Russian. Like a babushka, only taller. Most women here don’t look like me.

Frankly, nothing really prepared me for the fashion and passion I have seen on our travels across the vast landscapes that are China, Mongolia and Russia.

These people have nailed fashion—maybe not the Chinese so much, but the Mongolian and Russian women are dolled up in the most incredible outfits. They look like they stepped out of Vogue magazine—I look like I fell out of a duffel bag.

Their coats, hats, dresses, casual wear—it’s all impressive.

men's shoes in Russia

Men’s shoes in the Gum Department Store in Moscow

And the boots! Every woman in these two countries seem to wear knee-high boots of the most extraordinary designs. I haven’t been able to photograph much footwear on the move, but they are mostly leather and have been embellished with fur, sequins, laces, buckles, buttons, glitter, bows, flowers and more.

Some are flat and some have six-inch heels. Some come half way up the thigh. Beefier women with plump calves (like me) have ankle-high boots with just as much flair.

I haven’t paid quite as much attention to the menswear, but the shop windows are full of equally fashionable gear for the guys.

And the passion. I’m guessing relationships have to be kept a little more ‘quiet’ than in the western world, which may explain the passionate kisses and hugs we’ve been seeing. I missed capturing a lot of the passion, like the fellow who swept his woman into a backbend embrace ala Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The wedding pictures have tickled me too. The pics here are from The Bund in Shanghai. If it’s anything like Vietnam, before the wedding, the couples hire outfits and get photos taken at different fashionable locations. I especially like the pic of the woman who seems to be saying ‘step a little closer, honey, I don’t bite’.

We saw a few weddings in the Baltic States earlier this year and I’ll post about them one of these days. I need more hours in a day and possibility a better wardrobe. 🙂

Couple Beijing

Couple in Beijing park

1 November 2017 / leggypeggy

Mongolia from our train window

Bactrian camels in the Gobi desert

Bactrian camels in the Gobi desert

Timber house Mongolia

One of the first houses we saw after crossing the border

Gobi desert, Mongolia

Timber power poles are attached to concrete bases. To protect from snow or animals?

Looking back at my photos, I’m surprised by the diversity of Mongolian photos I took from the train. Our complete train journey will be just over 8000 kilometres (from Beijing in China to St Petersburg in Russia) and about 1000 of that was in Mongolia. 

The landscape changes from the moment we moved from China into Mongolia—the earth is the same (still in the Gobi desert), but the housing and animals are different. The Mongols have girs (yurts) and many sturdy timber and brick buildings with colourful exteriors.

Mongolia (population 3 million) has more livestock than people, and we saw Bactrian camels, sheep, goats, cattle, horses and yaks.

We’ve been told that people (and their herds) often spend theirs summer in the countryside and then move their gir into town for winter. Sometimes a gir sits next to a house. I’m not sure about toilet facilities in town.

Nasaa, the guide for our Mongolian excursions, said she and her husband are building a new two-storey house. The process will take a couple of years and plumbing will be one of the last things to go in. When we travelled across Mongolia (west to east) in 2014, we stopped in a town with a bathhouse.

Industry is scattered across the parts of Mongolia we travelled through, and I was surprised to see the amount of coal around.

Anyway, here are glimpses of life as seen from our train window. I’ve added captions where necessary. Plus I have plenty of other pics from our sightseeing excursions in Mongolia.

Girs in Mongolia

Girs in the countryside

Girs in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia

Girs on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Livestock Mongolia

Mongolia has more livestock than people. Herds have horses, sheep, goats, yaks, cattle and camels

31 October 2017 / leggypeggy

Fancy, schmancy boats on Olkhon Island

Fishing port at Olkhon Island

Fishing port at Olkhon Island

Boat at Olkhon Island

Waiting for a paint job

Jungle boat at Olkhon Island

My last post was full of grey and dreary landscapes in China, so I thought I needed to brighten things up with a look at the creative canvasses on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal in Russia.

We spent a glorious two nights/three days on the remote island, enjoying the sights, hospitality and food.

He-Who-Walks-Everywhere (aka Poor John) suggested we stroll down to the fishing port and what a wonderful find. Not only are there floating and ancient boats galore, but there is artwork everywhere too.

I have no idea whether all the paintings have been done by the same artist or set of artists, but the creators have had a wonderful time bringing colour, vibrancy, whimsy and dignity to a collection of old, rusty boats stranded on the sand.

The last time I saw boats marooned like this was in Uzbekistan beside the dried up Aral Sea. It was a tremendously sad and moving experience that I wrote about here. At least this sight brought some joy and smiles.

Lake Baikal, which I’ll write more about later, is the largest and deepest fresh water lake in the world. We had a day-long tour of the island and some of it’s important sights.

By the way, do you have a favourite painting? I think I’ll go for the jungle and the girl with the dog on the boat. Also very partial to the skeleton fish in the last image. The colours work so well with the rusted out boat, and the blue sky is the perfect backdrop.

P.S. Once again there aren’t many captions, but you’ll notice that one painting (of a man–fish) is on the side of a building rather than on a boat. Also, you can click on the smaller images to see a larger version.

dogsSkeleton fish, Olkhon Island