Tourism

Six on a Shoestring

The shoestring traveler. The term might imply a person who is easy going, willing to make sacrifices and happy to accept sub standard service. To a degree, that can be true.  But there are many types of shoestring traveler and the 21st century shoestring traveler is a demanding  sod. This is a world of Groupons, reduced incomes and increased competitiveness. Shoestring traveling is no longer entirely for hapless hippies trying to make do on what they have, but also for savvy bargain hunters trying to get the maximum for their tourist buck.

I, and Mrs P, are that latter sort of shoestring traveler. And proud of it too! I don’t need luxurious hotels. I have long maintained that the nicer the hotel, the more time you spend in it and the less time you spend looking at what you really came to see. I don’t need taxis or tour buses. I want to experience the places we visit at street level. I don’t need Michelin star restaurants. The best eating experiences are usually the ones the locals go to.

What I want is a cheap flight, a clean and comfy bed and for my senses to be stimulated, titillated and satisfied. I’d much rather have a couple of four or five day breaks away rather than one fancy long weekend. Time is precious, and I’m not just looking for how little I can spend, but how much I can do in a limited time. We’ve hit seven destinations in just over a year, although I’ve wrapped them into a list of six. We did Bratislava and Vienna in a single trip as they are so close together. Here’s how I rate them from from top to bottom.

1. Budapest

I cannot even begin to tell you how easily Budapest wins this little competition. It scores top marks in every department. Flights are as cheap as they come from Stansted. Our hotel was an absolute bargain at about £16 a night. Food is reasonably priced, if not always cheap cheap. Having said that, there are eat-all-you-can buffets which include alcoholic drinks in the deal. Get there early and you’ll not need dinner, nor breakfast the next morning. Budapest is becoming more popular, but the crowds still, foolishly, head to Prague. That makes getting into places of interest easy with few queues.

Best bits: Everything. Absolutely everything. Walks along the river Danube, the Opera House, the House of Terror, the thermal baths, the trams and metro, the cuisine is up there with any other international cuisine you can name, the architecture, the history. Worst bits: I genuinely cannot think of a single thing.

2. Bratislava/Vienna

Vienna is an expensive city, both to fly to and to stay in. The budget conscious traveler goes the smart way. Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world, and Bratislava is as cheap to get to and stay in as Vienna is expensive. It’s an interesting city in its own right, worthy of giving a day or two of your time. It’s clean, friendly and easy to get around. It’s also quite small, so you will quickly run out of things to see and do. So jump on a train and an hour later you are in one of the grandest, boldest, most beautiful and historic cities on the planet. The architecture is a wonder to behold. The museums hold treasure troves of the worlds finest art and artifacts.

Best bits: The Christmas Markets are great for some seasonal shopping. Mulled wine and beer. Those fabulous museums. Worst bits: It can be bitterly cold in winter. Those fabulous museums are fabulously expensive. There are so many of them and they each seem to want 15 euros or more. They are, however, all worth every cent. Vienna is also very busy.

3. Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful city, Poland’s shining cultural diamond. It’s almost as cheap as Budapest, both in getting there, staying there and eating. We had a sizable studio for less than you’d expect to pay for a dorm bed in most cities.There’s no shortage of history, and tragedy. Auschwitz is an obligatory bus journey away.  Schindler’s factory is within the city borders and the city is almost a Holocaust museum unto itself. But it’s more than that. Much more. It’s a beautiful and ancient place. Walking around the city is a easy and there’s a hidden gem of a church/museum/house round every corner. It’s certainly one of the most interesting cities we have visited.

Best bits: the Milk bars offer filling food for next to nothing. The Holocaust is everywhere in Krakow, if that is what you’re looking for. The people were the friendliest of all the places we went. Worst bits: Nada. I have nothing bad to say about the place.

4. Amsterdam

A city of tulips, windmills, canals, coffee shops and prostitution. So goes the stereotype. Actually Amsterdam offers a lot besides. Despite its position at the heart of Europe, it’s a calm oasis compared to London or Paris, but busy enough to have that big city atmosphere. Small enough to walk around, but with an excellent tram network if you want to rest your feet. Getting to Amsterdam is very inexpensive – perhaps it’s the cheapest of Western Europe’s capital cities to fly to. Eating out is not cheap however, but the food is good. To be fair, there’s little to separate Krakow, Bratislava, Vienna and Amsterdam in this list. I could have put them in any order.

Best bits: The Van Gogh museum is one of the best art oriented museums I have visited. Renting a bike. The Heineken Tour. Worst bits: The centre around Dam Square is untidy and full of Brits. The shoestring traveler will probably be priced out of staying in the centre. That’s a plus point. Nuff said.

5. Marrakech

Marrakech is everything you want from a short break from the UK. It’s exotic, cheap as chips, the sun warms the skin even in winter and it is utterly different from home. It’s in Africa, but it’s still little more than three hours flying time. You’re enveloped by an intoxicating blend of smells, sounds and sights the moment you land. It’s a city made for exploring by virtue of the labyrinth of alley ways and streets that guarantee you’ll be lost within minutes, no matter how many maps you have with you. The call to prayer is hypnotizing.  The language similarly so. Plan on shopping and wander the souks with no regard as to how you’ll get out.

Best bits: the plethora of Arabic/Islamic design, the charming hotels and guest houses, the Jardin Marjorelle and the souks. The views of the Atlas mountains. Worst bits: the pollution is chronic, the food was disappointing (although there were a couple of exceptions), the pestering sales antics of vendors and the unwelcome attention single women receive.

6. Paris

As easy as it was to put Budapest at the top of my list, it’s even easier to sit Paris at the bottom of it. Paris is everything the cost and time constrained traveler doesn’t want. It does have a certain beauty, but the horrendous time wasting queues you must suffer to see anything, the crowds in general and the high prices for anything mean Paris is the one city I would recommend you giving a miss. Despite it’s reputation that suggests otherwise. Add to my list of complaints the fact that much of city smells like an unkempt urinal and most shops and places of interest consider that they are doing you a favour rather than viewing you as a customer. The food? If you want to spend top dollar, I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. Eating on a small budget is not possible. And even when spending a reasonable amount of money – well, when I did that I got chips with my boeuf bourginon. Need I say more. Ironically, though, if I had to choose one of the cities on my list to live in, perhaps I would rate only Budapest higher.

Best bits: The Pere Lachaise cemetary, the Catacombs, the parks. Worst bits: Every museum queue, the prices, the food, the same-ish architecture that is Paris.

So that’s my list. I’d like to make it longer. We have a few more destinations we’d like to visit. Berlin, Pisa/Florence, Munich, Dubrovnik and Malta feature high on that list. Moscow would too, if the visa requirements weren’t so onerous and the cost so high. If any one has other suggestions for bargain hunting, VFM orientated, tight fisted shoestring travelers, do let me know!

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Life

Living With Lenin

Same people. Same place. Same century. But an eight year difference. It seems my skin has weathered a bit since 2004. And I have a little more to spare around my middle – although the string bag pulling on my jumper probably doesn’t help. I guess this is the phenomenon known as ‘ageing’. And it appears that I am not, very sadly, immune. Mr Lenin is taking the years in his stride just fine, however. Mrs P wants us to go back to Budapest. We’ve pencilled in 2020. So maybe I’ll have a third photo to add to this pair in another eight years time. If the size of the image below is a little small, by the by, then clicking on it will take you the original on Flickr, with all sorts of size options available.

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Tourism

Memories of Budapest

About a month ago I mentioned that all I have to show for my 2004 trip to Budapest were ten rather lousy photos. I suggested I might manage a few more than that on this years trip to the Hungarian capital. Well, the photo processing and uploading process is finally complete, and the final tally of shots kept (from a total of 1300 plus photos taken) stands at very nearly five hundred. There are, however, a couple of reasons for such a high number of keepers. Firstly, I didn’t delete very many of my photos of Mrs P or myself – there’s a single album of those containing more than 140 shots. Secondly, we were gone for seven nights. Longer than the average ‘city break’.

And lastly, I kept a few of the scraps, that would normally be discarded. I wanted to play with some Lightroom Presets that I’d downloaded. Adobe Lightroom is one powerful piece of software, and Presets (rather than the filters that you apply in most editing software) can produce some very funky finishes. The photo below is one. The rest are to be found in a set of Flickr – click here.

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I’ve written a couple of prior posts about our stay in Budapest. This is my last, and perhaps only worth reading if you have a trip there planned. Although, if you haven’t got Budapest on your travel radar, then adjust your settings. Move it to, or at least close to, the top of your list. It’s a glorious city in so many ways. The architecture, history and transport system I have already touched on. But there’s more to it than that. The food is fantastic. Really, really good. Better than we had in Paris, for less expenditure. If you like Goulash, that will help. If you don’t there’s plenty else on offer.

Menza is a modern restaurant, with a lovely outside seating area, vibrant interior and great service. It looks like it’ll be expensive when you approach it – it has a quality vibe. Their food tastes like it should be expensive. And yet, whilst not cheap, you’ll leave feeling you had a right bargain. Cafe New York is a more elegant, plush and upmarket restaurant altogether. It looks like it will be very pricey. And it is. But a cup of coffee and a bread basket for breakfast is perfectly doable, even for shoestring travelers like myself. And given that you get to sit in one of the most gorgeous buildings you’ll ever see, the price becomes even easier to swallow – see my photos of this cafe here. If the price is too steep, head back to Andrassy Avenue, not far from Menza, and pop into the Alexandra Bookshop. Up the escalator is a coffee house that comes a close second best to Cafe New York.

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The Central Market hall is a great place to wander around in the afternoon to buy supplies of salami, paprika, caviar and (if you’re not fussed about the method of production) foie grois. Photos of the market are here. But do leave time on at least one afternoon to have lunch at one of the three branches of Trofea Grill. The food is excellent, the service too. And at little more than £10 for an eat and drink as much as you want buffet, it’s a serious steal. The ‘drink’ includes, champagne, beer, wine or soft drinks. All included in the price. Seriously. If your stays clocks into 5pm (or if you arrive in the evening) the price goes up, but it’s still a darned good deal. Incidentally, prior to my trip to Budapest, I had been singing the praises of the Mongolian Grill, which I visited in 2003 and which does a similar deal. We tried to go this time as well, but fell foul of their new opening times – for winter, one would presume. They’ve  abandoned the lunch time opening. Anyway, I’ve sampled both, and Trofea would now be my automatic default choice.

Once you’ve stuffed yourself to the point you can’t move, you’ll need some seated entertainment for the evening. There’s two obvious choices for the tourist. The Hungarian Folklore which performs in various theatres, and the Opera House. We did both. The Folklore performance cost us about £10 each, to watch what started as a pleasant and humorous display of traditional garb and song. Then ended with umpteen repetitions of the same moves, many of which appear to have been stolen from Michael Jackson.  On the other hand, you can grab tickets to see the latest rendition of one of Hungary’s most famous operas, Hunyadi Laszlo, in the glorious Opera House, for about £3.5 each. The was a digital board to read what was being said (in English) so following the story was no problem. If you have time only to see with the folklore display, or an opera, it really is a no brainer. The latter. Click here for photos.

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We have come to the end. I have said all I have to say about Budapest without becoming overly repetitive. It’s a glorious city. One of Europe’s finest. In fact, I’d place it in my top three when including value as a metric. It’s exciting, vibrant, historic, attractive…heck, throw in any positive adjective you want. The place really is a treasure. I’ll finish by disclosing just a couple more sets I have uploaded to Flickr. Take a walk with my along the Streets of Budapest and then for a leisurely stroll along the River Danube. If you missed any of my earlier Budapest posts, then the entire collection of albums can be found here.

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Tourism

Budapest for the Soul

Budapest is full of architectural delights, and needless to say the religiously orientated structures that heavily dot the city don’t disappoint. There’s a genuinely diverse collection of churches, basilicas and synagogues with a generous smattering of Islamic houses of worship. The latter shouldn’t be surprising, given the lengthy period of occupation by the Ottomans. There’s the Basilica of St Stephen, named after perhaps the most famous and important Hungarian of them all. To say he has a big hand in the founding of Hungary is an understatement. Although his hand doesn’t look so big. You can check it out. It’s on display inside the basilica, and looks every bit it’s thousand years of age.

The worlds fifth largest synagogue, and largest in Europe, lies within the centre of Budapest as well. It is imposing, and very Moorish. But also a bit pricey to go inside. Too pricey for my wallet. The Matthias Church on Castle Hill however, is a bargain. We just joined the queue and walked in for free. It was only later, upon exiting, that we realised you’re meant to buy a £3 ticket. But if the two ticket inspectors on the door aren’t going to actually bother to check tickets, then the uniformed will stroll in, gratis. It’s worth the £3 though, although it’s perhaps the exterior which is most impressive. The tiled roof is a marvel. Click here for photos of the Basilica, here for the synagogue and here for the Matthias Church.

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If the churches haven’t soothed your soul, head on for a bath. Budapest is know as the City of Spas for good reason. Sulphuric H2O burbles up to the surface from drilled wells, filling ornate thermal baths that mostly line the river Danube. The waters are as hot as 42 degrees, which is perhaps a little too warm for my liking. I settled for 38 degrees as being my perfect temperature. We tried a total of four baths during our trip. First was the famous and opulent Gellert Hotel, followed by the slightly more out of the way Lukacs baths. The latter was more popular with locals and was considerably more functional.

This was followed up with a trip to the Szechenyi complex, which was undoubtedly the most glorious from an architectural point of view. It’s also most people’s favourites, but not ours. The pools are outside, and whilst still warm, could have been a bit warmer. But it was also far too crowded by party people. Last on the itinary was the Turkisk Rudas baths. Currently undergoing renovation, they look from the outside like a building site. The interior is another story – fabulous. The Rudas baths have another massive advantage over the others in that it’s easy to use. The Gellert and Lukacs are a nightmare. Where do you enter? Where should you change? Where are the pools? You can spend as long working that out as you will in the baths. The staff in the Gellert were spectacularly unhelpful. You’ll seriously need a relaxing soak just to wash out the stress of getting in the water.I didn’t take any interior photos of any of the baths, preferring not to risk my camera. But there are some exterior shots of the Gellert Hotel here.

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Tourism

The C Word

The ‘c’ word in the English language is the worst word you can utter. I suspect it may also be the worst word you can utter in Budapest. But it’s a different ‘c’ word. Communism ruled the political and economical roost for more than four decades. In 1956 it ruled the roost in the streets too, when Soviet tanks reduced glorious avenues and streets to rubble during the famous uprising. Thousands were killed, injured or imprisoned during the rather brutal repression of those who thought differently. Thereafter, Hungary was allowed a higher degree of freedom than most of the Soviet Union’s satellite states, and became known as the happy campers of the Warsaw Pact. But then, they had already been cowed. And I suspect the majority of the citizens of Buda and Pest’s neighbourhoods were happier still to see the back of communism.

The scars of occupation and repression run deep and are still very visible. There are plenty of holes in grand old buildings where Russian bullets and munitions found (or missed) their targets. There is also the House of Terror, one of the cities finest museums, and a must-visit. It was home to the secret services of both the Hungarian versions of the Gestapo and the KGB.  You can see the portraits of the victims of 1956 on the outside of the building. Inside you are greeted by a brutal looking tank. And then the expected memoribilia, stories and photos of the horrors of World War Two and the Cold War era.

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The final stage of the tour rather sticks with you.  You enter an elevator, which crawls very slowly into the basement. It’s slow so that you can watch a video on a large flat screen. A grandfatherly figure recounts his role in the basement of the building, where undesirables were kept, tortured and executed. He describe the execution process in great detail. There was no last meal. No last rites. No last letters – they were torn up and binned. There was no drop either. The condemned was made to stand on a step, the noose placed around his neck, and the step kicked away. One man would pull on the rope and another wrench his head to the side. If the wretch at the end of the noose was lucky, his neck would break and he’d be quickly off to whatever is beyond. If he’s lucky. The film comes to an end, the elevator opens, and you are in the basement. The miserable cells line the corridor. And at the end is a small room, with a wooden post, a step and the rope. It is an eerie experience.

There’s another monument to communism in Budapest. It’s a very capitalist monument to communism, proof of the triumph of one ideology over the other. Memento Park. Whereas many former communist countries in eastern and central Europe took hammers to their sickly Soviet statues, the powers that be in Budapest simply packed theirs up, moved them to the suburbs and put them on display for all to see. For a small fee, of course. Tourists and locals alike can wander amongst the wannabe heroes of communism. Pose with Lenin. And mock him too. It’s allowed, these days, to poke fun at the Ultimate Comrade. And his motley crew. There’s plenty of goodies in the gift shop too. Postcards, fake Soviet papers, CD’s featuring the finest of Stalin’s bands. There’s a small building to tell the story of communism in Hungary, finishing with a series of 15 minute films. They are originals, from the secret services training programme, teaching new recruits on how to be good agents.

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The Budapest tour of communism isn’t exhausted yet, of course. Forty plus years of control leaves it’s mark. There are the concrete housing blocks. These featured in most propaganda style photos that were used by western governments to show what a dreary place a communist state is. The skies were always grey. The people always miserable. And if a uniform or two, preferably with jack boots, could be fitted in, all the better. The concrete blocks did, and still do, exist of course. I’m sure there were blue skies though. I’m sure some people had good days. And we had our own share of drab concrete housing blocks in Britain too. They didn’t tell the whole story then, and you’ll not notice them on your trip to Budapest beyond the drive from the airport in the burbs to your hotel.

There’s also the metro system. Budapest boasts the world’s third oldest underground railways line, after London and Liverpool in the UK. Line one was in use before the turn of the 20th century. It’s fabulous architectural masterpiece. It looks like a one hundred year old system, in all the right ways. The other two lines? They are pure 1970’s communism. I loved them too. Gloriously communistic. Look – this is public transport. You’d expect the reds to have some successes, here and there. If wasn’t going to be that most visible icon of socialism, public transport, then what else would it be? Budapest is a dream to get around thanks to the metro system, the fabulous tram network and even the very Soviet looking trolley buses. Cheap too. We paid little more than ten British pounds for a seven day travel card that allowed us to use all these systems.

Photos? Of course. The House of Terror wouldn’t allow photography inside, but I do have some shots of the incredibly foreboding exterior – click here. I confess – I did go a little bit renegade and used my phone to snap some discreet shots inside. Including one of that noose – click here. I shot plenty of photos in Memento Park – click here. And there’s some of me and Mrs P in the park in our own set – click here. Lastly, I brought back quite a few shots of the different transit systems – click here. I got a bit creative in the processing of some of those images. Anyway, this post, like communism in Hungary, is done. I hope you enjoyed my walk around the capitals dark side.

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Photography

Ten Thousand

Yesterday’s post was the first in a couple of weeks. It’s been an awfully long time since I went that long without publishing anything. To be honest, it would probably be healthy to have breaks now and again from the blogosphere. But anyway, as was rather given away in yesterday’s blog entry, there was a valid reason for my absence. A week in Budapest, Hungary. Eight days and seven nights to be exact. That account for half my period of absence. The other half? Working through the 1,300 plus photos I took with the Fuji X-S1 I bought. And just working. You know…the day job.

Budapest is a truly fantastic city. You get a true two fer one, seeing as Buda and Pest were originally individual cities, brought together into a more singular entity only in comparatively recent times. I went there is 2004 and didn’t hesitate given the prospect of returning. It’s a city of spas, with plenty of thermal baths to choose from. It’s a city of fabulous architecture. It’s a city of ancient history, recent trauma and culture galore. Those who have been to Mexico will notice the place to feel oddly familiar. As I understand it, the Americas were populated with Mongolian expansion. And the Mongols got as far west as Budapest. Who knows, maybe there’s something there…

Of those 1,300 odd photos I took, just over 500 made the final cut. Which is an unusually high number. I shoot liberally and repetitively and I’d normally delete about 70 to 80 per cent of the shots from any trip. To be fair, 142 of those photos were of myself or Mrs P, many of which would have been trashed in normal circumstances. She often grumbles at my deletion policy, so on this occasion I put every single one of them in a folder and uploaded the lot. No processing, nada. Click here to see them on Flickr. She’ll be happy, and that’s all that matters.  Another 50 odd of the photos are ones I’d normally have deleted, but have saved in a ‘Memories’ album. We have incredibly fond memories of Budapest, and they are worth saving.

So that leaves just 300 worthy photos. Although, let’s call it 350. I would have published some of the snaps of Mrs P and myself. These numbers are about right. But amongst all this number crunching, there’s one figure I should highlight above all others. The number ten thousand. Yes, now we get to the point of the post. During my flurry of uploading, I posted the ten thousandth photo to my Flickr account. It’s taken quite some time to get there. I joined Flickr sometime in 2005, and became a Pro member in 2006. I think ten thousand photos is an impressive milestone. The photo that became numero diez mil? This one….

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Photography

Fuji X-S1 Video Sample

The next piece of my Fuji X-S1 review is to show what sort of video the camera can shoot. It’s nice and easy to shoot video – as with most cameras these days there is a dedicated video button on the back of the device to get recording straight away. The camera also has the option to record at a couple of hundred frames a second for decent slow-mo shooting, although I have yet to put this to the test.

The result below is a little unfair on the camera. Once I had compressed the footage and uploaded it to YouTube, the output was noticeably degraded when compared to the original video files on my laptop. But still. The result is good enough, in my opinion. For what I would need to do with it. I’m sure that with a little tripod use and more time spent with the post processing, the results would be be better still. The footage is shot from around Budapest, during my recent holiday there. It was a fantastic week away, and I will have photos and a post or two to come.

A quick note on YouTube – they have finally enabled long time users like me to change from the pre-Google ownership usernames, to my proper Google user name. Important? Well, I signed up to YouTube on a whim originally, and as an anonymous viewer, not as a producer. So choosing the username ‘Chunderbuttocks’ didn’t matter much. Nowadays though….well, Chunderbuttocks isn’t really what I want to be known as. It’s been a minor annoyance to have that moniker attached to my YouTube account all these years. But no more. Adios Chunderbuttocks.

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Tourism

Budapest, Edinburgh and Beyond…

Nearly ten years ago I went to Budapest, capital of Hungary, for a short three or four day break.  I knew nothing about the place. Absolutely nothing, other than perhaps bits and pieces of its recent history as part of the Eastern Bloc. Oh, and that it was cheap as chips and a very convenient three hour flight away. What more did I need to know?

Budapest surprised me to say the least. I had no idea what a magnificent city it was. The spas, the architecture, the food, the culture, the history and so much more. There’s a kaleidoscope of influences here, from the Ottomans to the Mongols. There’s also the ladies – Budapest women are unnaturally beautiful. It’s as if Attila the Hun slew anyone with an ugly gene centuries ago, leaving only the pretty people to procreate and produce a master race of hotness. They are truly and bizarrely good looking.

There was only one disappointing aspect of my trip there. The photography. I snapped away with my Nikon Coolpix 880, but today have just  ten rather lame looking shots on Flickr to show for my efforts. That such a photogenic city be reduced to less than a dozen poor photos is a travesty. There is only one thing to do to put that right. I shall have to return to Budapest.

Mrs P and I have a number of trips we’d like to do before we return. Istanbul and Marrakesh are top of the list. We’ve also been looking at a number of stylish Edinburgh hotels too. Mrs P would very much like to visit Scotland, and of the two main cities, Edinburgh is the one I’d like to go to. It’s a shame we’ve already missed the Fringe Festival, as that’s something I would’ve liked to have seen. Although there’s a lot more to see that the festival and the best jokes are soon on the internet anyway.

But first comes Budapest, in just a couple of weeks. I have my Lonely Planet guide book and shall soon have stories and photos of thermal springs, commie statues, fabulous soviet marble interiors, Mongolian barbecues, historic houses and museums and much more. I can’t wait. Much more so than you, dear reader. But we’ll both have to. Until then, here are those ten poor snaps from my last trip.

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