Mongolian Adventure – Part 1 – UB life.

Top of my bucket list for 30 years, maybe before I even really knew what a bucket list was, was Mongolia. Why? Well, I remember seeing a travel programme in my teens, I think it was a Michael Palin one, and the desert, the gers, the camels, the smiling singing faces, I never forgot it. As I grew up and my interest in travel increased, I always connected with any documentary or book on this far away country of just over 3 million people, landlocked inside China and Russia.

For many years it was just a dream, too far away and too remote to see in a week, it would take planning and a longer than usual break from work, not to mention the expense. With limited public transport and vast swathes of desert and countryside to navigate, it’s a brave (or stupid person) who would try and navigate the roads and tracks without a local guide or expert driver. But in 2019 all the stars had aligned, I had booked myself on a tour, got my flight booked via Beijing, and with the visa in my passport, I was off on one of my greatest adventures to date.

I arrived a bit overwhelmed, I was finally here! Plus, the time difference and the fact that my luggage was still in Beijing didn’t help. So after finally getting advice and translation from a man in the American peace corps, I was reassured that if I returned the next morning, my bag should have arrived on the first flight in from China. There was nothing else to do, but get to my hotel in the centre of the capital, and go and explore.

It was early evening once I was ready, so I made it to enormous Sükhbaatar Square, in the heart of the capital, decorated with large statues erected in honour of many notable Mongolians, with the most famous and largest statue of all being the founder of the country, Genghis Khan. With benches all around, I just sat and took it all in, not quite believing I had made it, it was then I realised I had to get some money and sprung up to find an ATM. Although the Mongolian currency the Tögrög, isn’t a closed currency, most banks around the world don’t stock it, so it’s highly unlike you will be able to get your hands on some prior to your arrival. The capital is full of banks and ATM’s, both on the street and inside shops, it took me 3 goes, but I finally found one that recognised my UK card and dispensed some cash, there are also lots of currency exchanges too, so you could just bring your own money from home, if you don’t want to rely solely on your bank card. Feeling tired but with money in my pocket, I bought the most vegetable based snack I could find, well it was green coloured, and slowly meandered the streets, mentally making notes of places to visit the following day, before returning to my hotel and collapsing into a deep jet-lagged sleep.

The next morning, I pretty much jumped in a taxi and headed straight back to the airport to collect my newly landed rucksack, and then only getting slightly ripped off by a taxi man, returned back to the city centre. With a couple of hours before my hotel check out, I had enough time to change my clothes and head out to find some breakfast as I suddenly realised how hungry I was. I needed something hearty and vegan if possible and a quick internet search took me to Millies Espresso for black coffee and some stodgy carbs, perfect to keep me going for the rest of the day. Then I returned to collect my bags and dropped them off at the hotel that was to be the start of my Gadventures tour that evening.

The official start of the guided tour was the following morning, but we were to have a meet & greet that evening, so I pretty much had the full day to hit the main sights of the capital and do a few museums that I knew weren’t covered in the itinerary.  Ulaanbaatar is a fast growing city, with old and new merging as more people move away from the nomadic ger dwelling life, for city living instead. You have the Sükhbaatar Square with its proud statues of its past, but with new skyscrapers towering down above it, you can visit temples and a monastery, alongside shopping malls and hipster coffee shops, as well as watch a performance of traditional throat singing, or experience the laid back sounds of the UB Jazz club. It can be quite chaotic, noisy, overwhelming and frustrating, and sometimes all at the same time, but that in itself it’s part of its charm.

I already had the itinerary of where day 1 of my tour was visiting in the capital, so I decided to visit the main places not featured, as well as just some general wanderings to get a feel of the city, before we escaped out to the countryside. I stumbled upon some cool street art that I had to get a selfie with, to remind myself that it wasn’t a dream, but I had absolutely made it after all these years.

I then found myself across the street from the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia, instantly recognised due to the pink neoclassical building and white pillars, as well as another UlaanBaatar sign to get a photo with of course.

From here, it was only a short walk to the Choijin Lama Temple, its no longer a working temple, so you are free to explore the whole grounds inside and out, which includes 5 temples, statues, a stupa and traditional thangka paintings, it was a lovely tranquil place, to take a little respite from the busy city centre.

Next up, it was time to hit the National Museum of Mongolia pretty much a must see, even if you aren’t a fan of national museums, I would absolutely recommend this place as a history 101 of the country. You really get a sense of the incredible story of the country and the journey of its people so far & its got a good gift shop too, with inexpensive local crafts and postcards complete with stamps.

Starting to feel a little hungry, I ventured down Peace Avenue to Ulaanbaatar Department Store one of the largest shopping malls in the city, which along with loads of shops, has a number of cafe’s and restaurants inside, so I sat down to rest my feet, hydrate and grabbed a late lunch.

One of the more unusual sites you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Mongolia, is a statue of Liverpool’s finest, The Beatles. It’s only a short walk from the department store to a little square where people used to gather when the country was communist, to listen to music and discuss politics. For someone who has both lived and worked in Liverpool, it was a must see.

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The remainder of the afternoon, I window shopped, explored a few gardens & squares with interesting statues and people watched over coffee, fighting my jet-lag before my evening meeting with my fellow travellers officially started. That evening, not all our group had arrived, heavy winds had delayed some of the flights in from China, so a bunch of us went for dinner and a beer in the hotel, before all getting a decent sleep, excited for the adventure ahead. UB Part Two to follow . . .

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New Brighton – street art, coffee & a pirate ship

My friend had read about a new art gallery that had opened over in New Brighton, as well as a cool street art walk spread all around the Victoria Quarter, so one Saturday morning we headed through the tunnel and over to the ‘other side of the Mersey’.

There is a ton of free parking all around the area, and we easily found a space just off Victoria Parade, right in the heart of the action. There are guided art walks run by the Oakland Gallery, situated in the centre of the Victoria Quarter and they are currently running twice a month, check their instagram for more details. But we decided to do a self guided tour, so we could wander and window shop at our usual leisurely place.

The street art and the Oakland Gallery are part of the regeneration project of the area, and with both local and world wide street artists involved, this is just the beginning, more art and exhibits are being planned, it all sounded pretty exciting.

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The actual gallery didn’t open till 12.00, but outside the front door they had some maps of the street art to take for free, so we grabbed one and headed off on our own self guided tour.

Some of my favourites were a couple by Dotmaster an artist from the other Brighton.

Fanakapan, a London based graffiti artist has done an incredible 3D helium balloon, that really has to be seen in real life to be appreciated, the shadows, the reflections, the creases, the shine, a photograph really doesn’t do it justice, it’s just insane!

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As well as this, ‘Unsung Heroes’ a tribute to the local lifeguards by the Australian artist Smug One, we both just loved this one, and what a piece of art to have in your neighbourhood.

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We probably took just over an hour to explore all the art, and with still a little time to kill before the gallery opened at 12, we headed a couple of streets down to the beach for a sandy stroll and to find a place for lunch later.

There is a 3/4 mile stretch of beach at this part of the Wirral peninsula, along with the Perch Rock lighthouse, the Grade II listed Perch Rock Fort, and the entertainment centre Marine Point, which comes complete with cinema, shops, a theatre and restaurants. If you feel like you want to do more than just dip your toes in the water, then there are a whole bunch of various water-sports on offer, such as canoeing, jet skiing, snorkelling and a water park, complete with an inflatable assault course. So basically, what I am saying is, you could probably spend a full day here even without the art trail.

As we were just filling time till the gallery opened, I tip toed out into the water, then whilst shaking the sand from my sandals, we explored the fort (from the outside, as its currently closed, a Covid thing I think). My friend spotted a van floating in the water, I thought she was joking at first, but no, there it was, after a chat with locals, it appears somebody couldn’t be bothered to walk the extra 10 steps from the street parking to the beach and parked up on the sand. Unfortunately, they didn’t realise it was almost time for high tide, and by the time they were heading back, the van was already floating away.

After spending time staring at and gossiping with the locals about the sinking van, it was pretty much 12PM and time to head back to Victoria Road and to the Oakland Gallery. Opened only last year (2020) its a real highlight of the regeneration of the neighbourhood and will no doubt bring in a whole different set of visitors to the area, to those maybe heading to the beach or the water-park. The gallery is championing both local and international artists and whilst we visited, the main artist in residence was London based Insa who’s collection called Body Work, included prints, paintings, a rug, a surfboard, motorcycle and the star of the show, a 1968 Lincoln Continental MK3 car.

The gallery itself is really welcoming and although I enjoy art, and galleries, I often feel out of my depth and a novice really. But the staff were really helpful and friendly, talking us through some of the designs and intentions behind the work, and really made an effort to make it feel inclusive.

Next door is Rockport Records sitting above its connected diner and bar, its a great little find, full of records and posters, I had to remind myself that I no longer own a record player and resisted the temptation to buy anything, but did see a poster of the Nirvana tour I had tickets too, back in 1994.

Finally, with our stomachs rumbling, we headed back towards the beach, down Victoria Parade, to the Driftwood Cafe where they had delicious coffee and a vegan sandwich option. We sat outside, for some great people watching, saw some lifeguards possibly heading to the pier to start the rescue mission for the white van and made our plans to return to New Brighton for further adventures, its most certainly a place with a bright future, and I’ve been recommending it to friends ever since.

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The Microstate of Liechtenstein

When I took a month off to travel, pre-pandemic (ah those were the days) I made it my mission to visit Liechtenstein as it was my final European microstate that I had to visit.

It was a destination that had flummoxed me a few times, as I had been to or near to towns in Austria or Germany that appeared to be on a train line close by, but in actuality it wasn’t as simple as I had initially thought, and I never quite made it.

But, in 2019 I gave myself 2 weeks to travel across Europe, visiting a few new places, ending up at a music festival in Spain, so I had the luxury of time to plan a trip specifically to visit Europe’s 4th smallest country & I am so glad I made the effort.

I took probably the easiest route in, which involved a train from Zurich with gorgeous views of the lakes and mountains, (definitely get a window seat if you can). Taking just over an hour, you get off at the Swiss border town of Sargans, minutes from the border. There is only 1 train line in Liechtenstein, but it doesn’t pass through the capital, it crosses further north, starting in Buchs, Switzerland over to Feldkirch in Austria.

The 12 E bus was perfect for me, you get it outside Sargans station, and takes about 15 minutes to get to Vaduz the capital, costing about £2 if memory serves.

Once I arrived in the capital, it was a short 10 minute walk from the bus stop to the one and only Youth Hostel in the country, taking in the stunning mountain views all around.

 

Once refreshed, I set back up the road to explore the capital, feeling a little tired from my journey I took it easy for the rest of the day, exploring the shops, cafes and trying the local beer. I would leave the popular castle for day 2 & made an obligatory stop at the tourist information centre to get a local map. It was nice not to have much of an itinerary, but wandering, taking photos, window shopping (its an expensive country!) & constantly gawking at the incredible surrounding scenery.

Being on a budget, and only a few days into my 2 week journey, dinner was bought at the local supermarket and cooked at the hostel. But this tiny country sitting between Austria and Switzerland is surrounded by breathtaking mountainous views, which I could luckily enjoy from my hostel window, so I most definitely could not complain.

That evening, I picked up a walking trail close to the hostel and headed South towards the Swiss border. I found myself at the famous Rhine River, which acts as a border between the two countries and I had a lovely walk as the sun started to set. I crossed over bridges between the two countries, with a line marking the spot of the border half way across the river. Of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of photos of me standing in both countries at the same time.

I had pretty much a full second day in the capital, as I was catching the night train to Slovenia at around 9PM that evening. Once I had checked out of the hostel, I stored my rucksack in the lockers located in the centre of the town. I can’t quite remember exactly where the lockers were, but they were on the east side of the main road right in the heart of Vaduz.

My first stop was up to see Vaduz castle, I headed there first, as its location on a hilltop, is 120 metres above Vaduz, so thought it best to avoid hiking up in the midday sun. A fortress initially in the 12th century, it gradually expanded to become a proper residence, with the royal family moving there in the 1700’s. Although it did become abandoned many years later, the royal family renovated it and moved back in and still live there today, meaning that you can’t actually visit inside. Don’t let that put you off making the trip though, the hike up is lovely, with some incredible views all around.

If you have had your fill of window shopping and cafes the Kunst Museum is an airy, interesting, artistic space. Built across two levels, the museum houses both modern & contemporary art from worldwide artists, a cafe and of course the all important gift shop. If an entire art gallery is too much to handle, you can still get your fill of cool, unusual sculptures dotted around the city centre, like the Colombian Reclining Women.

Next up was the Neo Gothic Vaduz Cathedral or Cathedral of St Florin. Quite a simple, peaceful place, I had it almost to myself, I must have timed it just right. It had some lovely stained glass inside, and made for a cool, quiet rest stop.

Due to the mild climate and south west facing slopes, vineyards are a common sight along with the ever present mountains, so it’s no surprise that there are many companies offering wine tasting trips. That wasn’t something I had the time, money or inclination to do, but I still had a wander out of the main centre and into the countryside to explore the rows of grapes vines, and I even came across some grazing goats.

It was another supermarket late lunch, as not only are the cafes and restaurants expensive, the plant based options were limited, but I didn’t quite mind as I found a bench in the shade, and took my last views of the surrounding landscape.

Although my night train onward wasn’t till late, I fancied a look around the Swiss border town of Sargans, which is where I boarded the bus to Vaduz and would be boarding the train to Slovenia. So, feeling refreshed, I grabbed my rucksack and only had a few minutes to wait to get the bus back over the border to continue my adventure.

Would I return, actually yes I would, it’s a bit of a faff to get too, and the only way in is via expensive Austria or Switzerland, so it’s never going to be a cheap trip. But if I got the opportunity, I think I would fancy Schaan, the largest city in the country and this time I would bring my walking boots and head up some of the many walking trails. You can never get enough of those incredible mountain views and fresh alpine air.

Brutal Preston

Another August weekend of wet and windy weather and cancelled plans, so I returned to my Brutal North book, and decided to head to my home town one wild Sunday morning.

There are 3 buildings featured in the book, one to the North of the city, in Fulwood and then the other two close to each other in the city centre, so I decided to visit all 3, add a few other buildings along the way and treat myself to a solo lunch, not bad for a potentially washed out weekend.

I started out at the ‘Fulwood Bubble’, built in 1973 it’s a plastic flat roofed building with 35 white panels creating the walls of the classroom, built onto a concrete base. Unusual for sure and easily visible from the main road, so it absolutely sticks out as some otherworldly classroom. I think I would have enjoyed taking some classes inside here, maybe it would have inspired me to work harder at maths . . . maybe not.

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My second stop was to return to a place I spent many an early morning and late afternoon as a teenager, and is probably one of my favourite buildings in the world – Preston Bus Station. Build in 1968, it is often named in Brutalist Best of Lists for the UK, but I remember many people hated the long, grey concrete building and it was going to be torn down.  I always had affection though for its long curved edges, black Pirelli rubber floor & the cool retro signs inside. Luckily it was given Grade II listed building status in 2013 and so it continues to stand.

It had been a long whilst since I visited the place, even though I still drive past it every once in a while. So it was nice to fully immerse myself by driving up the spiral ramp and parking up inside, wandering through the car park, then heading down the tiled stairway and along the platforms before heading outside.  I would never have appreciated it as a school child, it was just the place where I got the bus to school & I didn’t even enjoy school, but I have always loved the bus station.

Just round the corner is Preston Guild Hall, and it is actually connected to the bus station by a ramp. Unfortunately the ramp and entrance to the hall were closed, whilst the place finds new management, so I walked around the outside and up the stairs to the front. I saw a few comedy gigs here in my early twenties and I am pretty sure my grandad went to some snooker matches here too, and even earlier than that, it had visits from The Jackson 5 and David Bowie, so it’s a shame to see its closed up like this. But it meant I had the place to myself to explore and take in the unusual angular structure and its long concrete cantilevers. Fingers crossed I hope they are able to find some future investment and bring it back to life soon, as its been here since the early 1970’s, and with a bit of care and attention it could return to its former glory.

Opposite the Guild Hall you get a completely different, but no less impressive set of buildings, Preston County Court & Sessions building and the Harris Museum. The Harris museum, which I haven’t visited in years (makes mental note to return) is a Grade 1 Neo Classical building, built in 1882 and is now home to a museum, art gallery and library. Whilst its neighbour the County Court/Session structure is Grade II listed and dates from 1904, but lets hope I never need to visit that particular building inside at all!

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After I had successfully located all 3 Brutalist buildings in my book, it was time for wander down the high street, pick up a couple of presents for friends birthdays, and then I headed over to Preston Market. Its totally changed since I used to visit in the 80’s with my Grandma to buy fish paste and kippers for Grandad, I think it still needs some work, or maybe Sunday lunch isn’t the best time to visit. There were quite a few units that were closed, but I did find Brew + Bake who were happy to modify their avocado on sourdough to make it vegan, so thank you!

 

So with a full stomach and fully caffeinated, it was time to head back to the bus station for one last look, re-live those school day memories, collect my car and head home.