elmarschraml.com

Occasionally updated personal site and blog

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Round the world in 40 days: conclusion

Copenhagen

Copenhagen was just a quick stopover on the way home – arrived in the morning, spent the day in the city, and left on a late flight to Munich. Had to change planes anyway, and rather than wait around the airport, decided to expand the stop in Copenhagen by a few hours, and use the opportunity to visit yet another country (had never been to Denmark before).

So I did not actually plan anything for Copenhagen, or know anyting about it beforehand. At first glance, it seemed very similar to other nordic cities – I could easily have thought to be in Bremen or Stockholm.

New country, capital city – that means going to the national museum.

Impressively, and appropriately, viking-looking artifacts.

Stockholm seemed nice, but not very spectacular – alright, I was probably way, way overloaded with exotic locations at that point, and also tired and not a little homesick. But I’m glad I did the stopover, it’s a very nice place to wander around for an afternoon.

Decided to take it easy, and finish the day, and the whole trip, with a nice meal on the terrace of a restaurant on the waterfront.

Bye, Copenhagen, bye, round-the-world trip – after 40 days, 4 continents, 11 countries, it’s time to go home.

Iceland: Hiking Mount Esja

Exploring Reykjavik: check. See the most famous sights: check. So for the last full day in iceland, I wanted to get out into nature, and do a day hike. It would probably be worth it to rent a car if I had more time, since lots of tempting hikes are further out in the countryside. But luckily there is a mountain close enough to Reykjavik to be reachable by a local bus: Mount Esja, a popular destination for a day trip.

The so-called “mount esja hiking center” turned out to be just a bus stop next to a parking lot in the wilderness.

A lovely start to the hike, across meadows and flowers.

The trail is getting a little less marked here, but still visible.

Came across this lovely creek, with no obvious way to cross, so waded through.

This is where I regretted that proper hiking boots did not fit in my luggage, given that my sneakers are now outfitted with a mud-based liquid cooling system.

I must have gotten off the regular path somewhere, since it’s supposed to be a really popular hike, but I did not see anybody any more, and the path became less and less marked, just barely visible as a trail through the moonscape.

But was rewareded with some nice views across the bay.

I did not go up THAT far, but the clouds are hanging low, and it’s getting cool, so decided to turn around. Even after looking at the signs on the bottom, still have no idea which path I took, or if it even was a real path, but I enjoyed the hike and the views.

Back down the hill, across the fields and creeks, and towards the bottom I met the regular parth that I must have missed on the way up.

A good finish to my visit to iceland – one of the places where I wished I would have stayed longer. I definitely plan to come back, rent a car and spend some time deeper in the wild countryside.

But for now, time to pack my bags for the early morning flight to Copenhagen, and almost home, tomorrow.

Iceland – Golden Circle

The “golden circle” is not really a circle, but the name or a popular tour of three of the most famous and beautiful sights of Iceland, all within easy daytripping range from Reykjavik.

First stop: Geysir. Yup, like a periodically exploding hot spring, the concept of which was named after this particular place in iceland, which contains a lot of them.

Warning signs are rare in iceland – it is mostly assumed that you are able to take care of yourself, and know what you are doing if you go into nature. But in geysir they do point out quite visibly that the water running off the hot springs is indeed very hot, helpfully followed by the (quite considerable) distance to the nearest hospital.

The particular geyser in geysir that is named geysir has not erupted in decades, but luckily another one named “Strokur” reliably erupts every 10 minutes or so.

The tour took a long break for lunch here – luckily I had brought sandwiches, so I could instead take a little hike up the hill behind the geothermal area, and enjoy some wonderful views of the area.

Second stop is Thingvellir – the site of the original viking parliament, and today a national park with beautiful scenery.

It’s also a place where the European and American tectonic plate meet, resulting in an impressive rift and canyon in the middle.

Some of the moss growing on the lava comes in quite bright and strange colors.

The whole area is really beautiful – I would have loved to stay a bit longer and wander round the area, but unfortunately the tour included it mostly as a quick sightseeing stop.

If you’re wondering why the sky looks so different in pictures of the same day – that is just the nature of the weather in iceland. There is no such thing as a completely dry day, but also no such thing as a completely rainy day. It changes very rapidly, and I found myself changing from warm sweater and rain jacket to just a T-shirt several time per day (given that it’s summer, the temperatures go up to a balmy 15 degrees or so).

The third and final stop of the day: Gulfoss, or golden fall, one of the largest and most impressive waterfalls.

I’ll just let the pretty pictures speak for themselves – there are paths to view it from different sides and heights, but no matter where the force of nature is impressive.

Iceland: Arrival & Reykjavik

This is pretty much the first impresson when arrving in Iceland:

It’s pretty much a moonscape, with endless, empty lava fields, with nothing growing but moss in all shades of (sometimes pretty psychedlic-looking) greens.

Luckily, it gets better: the landscapes stay heavy on lava fields and moss, and low on houses and people, but get much, much prettier – the long drive from the international airport into Reykjavik features some of the least pretty views iceland has to offer.

Also on the way from the airport: the so-called blue lagoon, a somewhat-not-really natural pool of hot water created by the runoff of a hydrothermal power plant, that appears a milky turquoise blue due to the silica in the water.

And then the people had the genius idea of creating a real pool within the rocks, and making a public pool and spa out of it. The water is pretty hot (even had to take a break for a bit, and ironically got my only sunburn of the trip in the cool iceland weather by falling asleep on the rocks), the surroundings are beautiful, the entrance includes a free facemask and a drink in the bar set right into the pool – what else could you ask for after a long flight?

It’s very touristy, and a little overpriced for what is bascially one large hot pool, but a perfect stopover on the way from the airport.

Hotels in Reyjkavik can be pricey, so I found a nice Airbnb right downtown in a typical old wooden house. Turned out to be a real gem, complete with a cozy living room, good coffee, lots of bookshelves, and even house cats. All you need to add is a piano, and I’d never leave.

Time to explore Reyjkavik. Starting with a free walking city tour offered by a history grad student – those are pretty much alway a good choice in a new city. That brightly painted wooden house is pretty typical for the older neighbourhoods in Reyjkavik.

The seat of the president of iceland. Pretty unpretentious, and with no visible guards or security – apparently it’s not uncommon for tourists to wander in, and ask the president for directions.

The monolith-shaped tower in the background is Hallgrimm’s cathedral, which dominates the “skyline”.

A bit weird, but quite pretty in an Empire state building / Art deco sort of way. I like it.

The interior is quite bare, though, and the view from the tower is not really worth it – Reykjavik is not that large, and has not much in the way of landmarks, it looks more like a smallish town with outlying suburbs from above.

The “harpa” concert hall at the harbour is one of the most modern, and futuristic-looking, buildings in town.

Its facade gives a nice view of downtown from inside.

Yup, icelanders do hunt whales, and they don’t apologize for it. And quite next to it are boats offering whalewatching tours – wonder how those two get along…

A, or rather the, famous hot dog stand at the harbour, where apparently all kinds of celebrities and visiting dignitaries have visited before. Well, the hot dogs are tasty, and cheap – unlike regular restaurants, where a completely normal meal in a completely normal, non-fancy restaurant might run 40 or 60 euros. I’m not sure if it’s the exchange rate, or the fact that most things are imported, or that iceland is a welfare state with high taxes and corresponding high wages – but pretty much everything is about 50% more expensive than expected. Guess I’ll be eating a lot of hot dogs.

No idea what the sign says, but it sounded cool. The icelandic language is quite unique, apparently hard to learn even for people who speak Danish or Norwegian, from which it split centuries ago, and due to the geographic isolation iceland is quite close to the original old Norse.

Speaking of language: While you can pick your last name relatively freely, e.g. whether you’ll be named after your father or mother’s first name, as an icelander you have to pick a first name among a relatively small list of approved, properly icelandic first names.

The picture above is from a govenment building (I think), that had an alphabetic list of such icelandic names on its facade. And guess what? Elmar is a good icelandic name! Since my name is unusual enough in German that it never, ever comes up when you have e.g. cups or souvenirs printed with you name, I was happy to find my name included on the list here.

Another rule of thumb: When in a new country, and in its capital city, go visit the National Museum. Reyjkavik’s is small, and quite good.

An exhibition about scandinavian architects and designers. I enjoyed the sparse, unpretentious looks. Remindes me a lot of Ikea furniture – so it looks like Ikea ripped off was inspired by democratized the styles of some quite famous designers.

In a shopping mall-like food court: The most high-tech public toilet I’ve seen, complete with wireless credit card payments. Credit card payments are extremely common, and accepted everywhere – probably easier to find a place that does not take cash, than one that does not accept credit cards. German shopkeepers, please take note.

Not an art museum, just a statue of Thor inside a souvenir shop.

Dinner was at “icelandic street food”, a real find in downtown Reyjkavik. Simple, but hearty and yummy traditional stews and soups, priced incredibly fairly by icelandic standards, served by the very friendly owner, who will be happy to give you a “refill” of not only the food you ordered, but also anything else on the menu, as long as you have space in your stomach. Highly recommended.

I’ll finish the day with a view across the ocean, with a weird viking boat art sculpture looking across the bay.

Orlando: Universal: Harry Potter

There is one, and exactly one, reason to go to Orlando: to visit theme parks. The city itself is a forgettable conglomerate of suburbs and amenities for themepark visitors.

Good thing I came to visit a theme park – no, not Disney world. I have been to Disneyland in Paris, and am not such a big disney fan that I’d need more. I came to visit the Universal theme parks, and more specifically the new “wizarding world of harry potter”.

Enough reason to make Orlando one of ten stops around the world? Look, I needed to stop somewhere on the east coast of the USA, and have traveled there extensively before, so it’s as good a stop as any. Besides, a harry potter themepark is one of those things that you would not take a whole long trip just for it alone, but you also cannot see anywhere else, so perfect to put it on the around-the-world itinerary.

I loved the fact that, true to form and according to the theme, there are no huge signs, and nothing overtly magical, pointing you to the harry potter themed area. You walk by a replica of King’s cross station, and you would almost pass by if you did not notice all the people streaming into it.

You pass through at platform 9 3/4 (google a video, if you want a spoiler), and find yourself in an extremly well done rendition of diagon alley. That dragon is sitting on top of Gringotts bank, and yes, it does breathe fire.

Which is also the major ride in the hogsmeade portion of the harry potter area. It’s very well done, even if it relies a bit too much on 3D effects and video, rather than a real ride (which one could say for a lot of other rides in the Universal park, too – but hey, it IS themed for a movie studio).

Everything is exactly as seen in the movies, so you really feel like you are inside a movie set. As for me, I have not even watched all the movies, preferring the books, but it’s a very good imagination of what is described in the books.

The girl in the picture is holding and waving her wand – there are lots of spots in the whole are (some clearly marked, some a bit hidden, some “secret”) where you can wave your wand and make “magic” happen (usually a puppet moving, a light going on etc). For which you have to of course buy a wand (in a convicing rendition of Ollivanders wand shop, where else), and of course that piece of plastic is fantastically overpriced, and activating the magic feature costs extra. But if I had come here as a kid, I would have absolutely loved it.

The theming is very thourough and comprehensive, down to the toilet signs.

Unlike at disney world, all the shops are real, working shops – you can really get ice cream at Florian Fortescue’s , buy prank gifts at geh Weasley’s joke shop, and get butterbeer at the leaky cauldron.

Which is, of course, in hogsmeade, the other part of the harry potter area. It is really worth it to get the entrance ticket for both parks (Universal runs two separate partks next to each other – diagon alley is in Universal studios, hogsmeade in Universal islands of adventure), so you can take the hogwarts express in between the two.

It’s not just a prop, but a real train that actually moves you between the two parks – although the “windows” of your carriage are actually screens showing the simulated ride between London and Hogwarts. Very nicely done.

I think Hogsmeade is the older part – it seems just a little less lovingly crafted, with fewer details and less to discover, than diagon alley, but still very nicely done.

And has Hogwarts castle, of course. Which is the major ride of the hogsmeade area (there are some smaller or barely re-themed rides in the harry potter area, but the main draw is the athmosphere, not the rides).

Again, a cool ride, but maybe relying too much on videos. And how much cooler would it have been if you could actually walk through hogwars castle yourself?

Of course, the Universal parks have plenty of areas and rides besides harry potter.

And some of those are rather cool – like the Hulk rollercoaster, one of the more intense coasters I’ve ridden.

All in all, a nice stopover, and well worth it if you’re in the area and love harry potter.

Next up: leaving America to go back to Europe, well, first Iceland.

Vegas: Zion national park

For the last full day in Vegas, another trip to a national park. This time, Zion, a famous national park that is actually across several state lines from Las Vegas, in the southwestern corner of Utah, but doable as a (very long) day trip.

The drive there takes about 3 to 4 hours, but the drive there is already worth it for the scenery, winding through empty desert and wild mountains. It looks like straight out of an old Western movie, with an abandoned mine on one side, rusted railway cars on the other side, and any time now you expect the cavalry to be charging across the hills.

Unlike red rock, Zion is located next to a small town, so there are some shops and restaurants, and a cutesy visitor center built in faux-western style.

The whole national park is huge, but the most interesting area is again along one main road going from the town of Springdale through and to the end of the main canyon valley, along which you are driven by electric shuttle buses, stopping at a dozen lookout points or trailheads.

The whole area is pretty – less stark and extreme than red rock was, since there’s plenty of vegetation in the canyon due to the river running through it. So less spectacular, or at least less different for me, but nevertheless stunningly beautiful.

Just like in red rock, there are plenty of opportunities to go off the main path on little walks or hikes, or scramble across some rocks, to some interesting scenery, or just a pretty view.

At the end of the canyon, the most famous hike in the area starts – “the narrows”. Which means actually wading through the river, so I passed on that for today.

Although the refreshing water was very welcome. As you can see in my face, the temperatures again climbed to a nice and balmy 99 fahrenheit (though the narrow canyon provided more shady spots than in red rock).

Proof of the temperature

On the way back out of the canyon, decided to walk instead of taking the shuttle. Nature is best experienced when going slow.

Me and my faithful steed rented Toyota driving back to Vegas into the sunset.

Vegas: Red rock canyon

After the madness of Vegas, time for something different. I had planned for six days in Vegas – two or three days each for sightseeing, and for getting over jetlag, both literally after crossing the pacific, and culturally after having been to half a dozen decidedly non-Western world countries. Plus one day for being an idiot who forgot that crossing the international date line over the pacific meant coming into Vegas a day earlier.

But six days in Vegas is too much of a circus. Luckily it turns out there are several good options for getting out into nature from there. Not the grand canyon – you could theoretically make it as a day trip, but that would mean either going only to the western edge, or spending more time on the trip than there.

red rock canyon

For the first trip, I decided to take it easy and go to red rock canyon, which is not even a proper national park, but a “national conservation area”, and not that famous, but the info online sounded promising, I love desert environments, and it’s an easy 40 minute drive from Vegas.

Yup, desert, as promised, like straight from a Western movie. Desolate, stark, and eerily beautiful.

The US and Germany have a completely different approach to national parks. In Germany, an area being a national park means it’s protected from any damaging human influence, and should be left alone. And if you can hike in it without desturbing the animals, you are allowed to do so, in some areas, and we might even have a map for you. In the US, a national park is a national park because it’s beautiful and unique, and sure it should be protected, but mainly so people can see and enjoy it.

Also, the range of tourists is much wider in the US, from “hardcore hiker spending two weeks without human contact” to “overweight city slicker never moving further than 100 yards from his car”.

Which is too say, American national parks are great at being easy and user-friendly for visitors. Red Rock specifically has one big, one-way ring road leading through it, with a small parking lot every few miles, wherever there is a scenic view or a convenient starting point for a few hikes.

I did not have the time to go on any major hike, and I wanted to see as much as possible in a day, so I only did a few small hikes, more like walking a bit away from the road to a nice spot. But even those small walks were really beautiful, and as soon as the main road comes out of sight, the crowds thin out, and it feels like you’re alone in the desert.

I don’t know what it is about an empty desert landscape – maybe it’s because it’s so different from everything I am used to in daily life. But I could just stand in a spot like this and drink in the view for hours.

Speaking of drinking, it was good to have brought along a ton of water – Nevada in June is as hot as it sounds, with temperatures reaching almost 40 degrees, out in the open under the hot sun. I was glad to get back into the car to enjoy a bit of A/C on the way between the different viewpoints. (In fact, this is the only time on the whole trip I got sick, catching quite a cold from the rapid temperature changes. But try telling yourself not to crank up the air conditioning when you’ve just come back from an hour of hiking in the desert).

I really loved red rock canyon, one of the highlights not just of the US, but of the whole trip.

Not much more to say except you should go there, and to post some more pretty pictures.

Vegas Casinos

Alright, time to hit the town for some sightseeing. Which in Vegas means looking at Hotels. Yup, it’s a town you stay at in order to look at the places other people stay at. Which makes more sense than it sounds like, because those Hotel/Casinos are really something.

I have a soft spot for weird buildings, that make no sense, but just exist because someone thought it would be cool if that existed. Does not matter if it’s a fairytale castle, a truly unique church, or an architect’s city planning fantasy. And all of the big Vegas hotels fit that bill very nicely.

vegas luxor

An egyptian pyramid temple? Here you go.

luxor inside

Although the inside of the famous black pyramid of the Luxor looks more like a 70s concrete building. Oh really, things in Vegas being fake, you don’t say? It’s a theme we’ll come back to.

volcano

A carribean treasure island, complete with exploding volcano? Here you go.

cesars palace interior

Roman palace? Sure.

Don’t recall romans being big on playing hockey, but some local patriotis is a must in the US. (Yes, Las Vegas, a city situated in the middle of the desert, has an ice hockey team.)

Speaking of Cesar’s palace: the only spiral escalator I know.

cesars atlantis

The fall of Atlantis show, inside the shopping mall of Cesar’s palace. Because I guess “Atlantis” equals “old stuff” equals “Rome”… Quintessential Vegas – lots of sound and fury, fire and explosions, in a very well done, but also incredibly fake and corny way.

In contrast, some New York skyscrapers, complete with a rollercoater around it (which, according to the online reviews, is not very well maintained, so I did not spend the 25 dollars for a ride on it).

Traffic here is unusually light – the strip, along which all the big casinos are situated, is usually choked with car traffic, and somehow Vegas has managed not to have any useful public transport (except for a bus along the strip that is infrequent enough to be annoying, and a monorail that requires you to walk through a casino to get to almost every stop, which usually means getting lost in the maze for 10 minutes), so I was really happy to have picked a hotel in the middle of the strip, so most attractions were within walking distance.

I spent way more time than I thought watching the fountains at the Bellagio – they have lots of different shows throughout the evening.

Fake Paris is surprisingly convincing, with the inside looking like a themepark version of an imaginary ideal of romantic Paris, including fake plastic cobblestoned floors.

Of course, the slot machines do not quite fit the Paris theme.

Speaking of slot machines: yes, they truly are everywhere. And very disappointing.

There are a million different themes of slot machines, ranging from asian (as above) to themes of TV shows like the simpsons, or rodeo machines where you sit on a vibrating bull, to various sports themes…and they are all exactly the same in how they play. They all feature a million different modes and games, but as far as I could be bothered to figure out, every single game comes down to “push a button, and you will win or lose money at random”.

Further disappointments about the one-armed bandits: They aren’t even one-armed bandits – no levers to pull any more, just buttons to push, or even just a touch screen. And they do not spill out coins if you win – you just see a number on screen increase, and to collect your winnings you have to push a button to print a receipt, which a cashier will then convert into cash.

They also look the same everywhere – despite the huge efforts in giving each Casino a unique look and theme, most of the interior is inevitably filled with huge amounts of slot machines.

Most of which are empty and ignored, and some are occupied by people who seem hooked and spend their whole day there. Me, I quickly lost 10 bucks, was bored, and checked “lose money gambling in Vegas” off my list.

If you are so inclined, you do not have to stop gambling when ordering a drink in the bar, since the bar is made up of slot machines.

Of course, there’s also classic casino games like blackjack and roulette – but the dealers for those seemed incredibly bored, since nobody bothers to play them. By far the liveliest part of the Casinos are the sports betting bars, where you can be blasted with games and news from all the sports channels at once.

So gamling is definitely not my thing. Some of the sights are really nice, though. Like a replica of Venice, with real water, real fake gondolieri offering rides, a sky that is painted always blue, and of course the whole thing is basically a high-end shopping mall.

Or the new style of casinos, like the Wynn, which does not have a real theme, but focuses on looking as luxurious as possible, where “luxurious” is defined as a mix between a european rennaissance palace, disneyland, and a shopping mall.

Peoplewatching in Vegas is definitely a thing. You see everything from people dressed to the nines for a night out on the town, to bachelor parties of all kinds, to prototypical American tourists, often all on the same street corner.

Vegas feels like the most commercial place I’ve ever been to – from the way every second vehicle on the strip seems to be a mobile billboard, to the giant billboard all over the facades of the hotel towers, to the number of times you are approached by someone selling you all kinds of entertainment.

It’s also an unapologetically fake place. By which I mean not just the hotel themes, but every little detail seems to have an overpriced, dressed-up, lipstick-on-a-pig quality. Like the lady playing a fancy grand piano in the piano bar above?

If you look closer, you see that it’s just an empty shell, containing a keyboard playing pre-recorded music.

The fancy, faux luxury veneer is also quite thin. Walk just a few blocks away from the glittering strip, and you come to a quite seedy underbelly.

The tower is the “Encore”, one of the newest, shiniest and most expensive hotels. Seen from the parking lot of a strip mall next to it, where I walked by on the way to a car rental place, along a street that made me happy to leave.

Hmm, that turned unexpectedly negative…I did enjoy seeing Vegas, it’s a unique place and experience, and it does have its fun sides.

Of course, have to have a picture of the “fabulous las vegas” sign. Which is actually outside the city limits, in between the two lanes of a highway. And of course, in the age of instagram there’s a long line for everybody to take his mandatory unique picture of standing under the sign.

Vegas!

The journey from Hongkong to Las Vegas was by far the longest leg of the whole trip – can’t get around crossing the Pacific. Was almost glad for the stop in Seoul – not only shortening the intercontinental flight to a bearable 10 hours, but also because Seoul airport had the first and only playable piano of the whole trip.

korea_piano

Speaking of Korea – you would expect airplane food to always be bland – well, with Korean Air, if you go for the Korean meal, you get some rather non-bland items like seaweed soup. Not bad, actually.

korea_seaweed

The secret to beating jetlag? Take a nightflight, where you inevitably sleep little and badly – arriving in the afternoon local time, your jetlag will say that it’s early morning, and a long way away from sleep – but your sleep-deprivation will want you to sleep immediately, nicely canceling each other out.

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 17.36.17

What I did the first day in Vegas? Absolutely nothing, at least till the evening. Decided I needed some rest&relaxation, and spent most of the day at the pool. Which is free for hotel guests – but no outside food or drink allowed, and a single simple drink is between five dollars (a coke) and 8 dollars (a beer). A nice lounger with a shady canopy? 80 bucks for two for the day. EVERYTHING at the typical Vegas strip hotels is comically overpriced, at least inside the casino-hotel-tourist bubble of the strip. Beer at a bar? Easily 10-15 bucks if at a concert venue. Burger with side dishes can top 30 dollars with service and tax – and that is NOT one of the super-luxury hotels, but a normal one.

Jetlag is a bitch, and got its payback on the next day. Could not fall asleep till 1 am, woke up at 4 am, fell back asleep at 6 am, and when I woke up again it was four in the afternoon….
Activity of the day: A concert – and not just anyone, but Carlos Santana and band. A true hero of my youth. Had browsed Vegas shows, but not too enthusiastic about some random stand-up comedian, or spending 150 bucks on tickets for the cirque du soleil (ALL the high-profile shows are ridiculously expensive), and by chance found that Santana was playing in Vegas, had a show tomorrow, and was in a not too large club – awesome! Got to experience a superstar from just a few meters away.

vegas santana sign

vegas santana stage

According to Wikipedia, Carlos Santana is 70 years old – wow, that was not apparent on stage at all. He was in a good mood, rocking out with his band, playing for almost two hours, and not above imparting some mystical life philosophy (he truly is an old hippie, in a totally off his rocker, but charming kind of way).

vegas santana band

Santana are one of the rare bands that are complex enough to sound good on recordings, but have the energy for a great live performance. And most music is either all about the melodies and harmonies, or all about the rhythm – Santana combine the two like no other. A great show, a great night – definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. All the better because it was totally unexpected – I had no idea they were playing in Vegas. That’s the advantage of a whole town built on and for entertainment – it attracts all the big names in entertainment, so you could go see a different star’s show every night if you wanted.

Just a small, crappy video of one of the quieter moments – no huge stage props, no pyrotechnics, no dancers or video shows – just an old man with his guitar, and a tone like no other.