UB, Part Two, my Mongolian Adventure 🇲🇳

My 2nd full day in the Mongolian capital was the start of my 2 week tour with the travel company Gadventures. I had met a few of my fellow travellers the previous night and had decided to join a women from California at an early morning Yoga class she had located at the nearby Shangri-La Hotel. It was such a unique experience taking a class that was entirely in Mongolian, of course I only knew the most basic of phrases, so myself and companion had to keep one eye on our instructor the whole time, but I think we made for an interesting spectacle for the regulars.

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Feeling all zen, wearing our new Mongolian School of Yoga t-shirts, we arrived back to our hotel in time for breakfast. Although day 1 was free for us to explore, the majority of us who had arrived the previous day, had wandered around the main sights and museums in the centre of the city, so our tour guide, the inimitable Uggy arranged a bus and driver and took us to some of the slightly less accessible sights around the capital.

First up was the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, no longer a working palace, it’s now a large museum complex, full of temples, art, and a whole array of Bogd Khan’s possessions from the time he was the ruler of Mongolia. It was a great introduction to the history of the country, learning about the religious art, temple etiquette and how many temples and monasteries got destroyed during the countries Communist years, this one survived due to the fact it had become a museum. Also, I have limited photos from the museum complex as many temples charge extra to take photos and I hadn’t quite worked out the exchange rate at this early stage in my trip and what seemed like an expensive extra, was probably only a couple of pounds now I look back on it.

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Next, we were driven to the Gandan Monastery, otherwise known by its Sunday name of the Temple of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara at Gandantegchinlen Monastery, phew! This monastery also managed to avoid being destroyed during Communist rule, and now has 150 monks in residence, making it one of the most important monasteries in the country. There is a lot to explore here, beautiful courtyard grounds, some stunning temples, the Dalai Lama has even stayed here, but the main attraction is Migjid Janraisig Süm, housed inside the largest building in the complex, its a stunning copper and gold statue, with its hollow interior stuffed with medicinal herbs, pretty incredible!

Our next stop wasn’t something I had read about before, located in the southern part of the capital, was Zaisan Hill. Once you have climbed the 100 steps to the top, you are greeted with a memorial remembering both the Mongolians and Russians who were killed during WW2, as well as a curved painting featuring scenes of the friendship between the two countries.  The painting was fascinating, its Soviet style a complete contrast from the previous art we had seen at the temples and monasteries and gave a real reminder of its communist history.

The views from the hill are incredible too, you get a sense of the layout of the city, how it’s growing and changing. Down below you can spot the Tuul River, new apartment blocks and shopping malls being developed, and it may be hard to notice at first, but once you do, the size is hard to take in, but behind the modern buildings is the infamous Ger District. More than half of UB’s residents still live in the traditional dwellings, with no access to water, sewage systems or central heating, it’s one of the reasons pollution is such an issue here. During the long cold winter months, the air is thick with smoke from the many fires lit to provide both heat for cooking and warmth, so much so that planes struggle to land, and a new airport is being built a lot further out of the city away from the smoky skyline.

We then returned to our hotel, via a stop at a large bank with multiple ATM’s, so we could all stock up on currency. We had a few hours to kill, so a few of us got food and caffeine at Tom Tom’s coffee shop to fuel us up, before heading to a local cultural show for the evening. Featuring traditional dancers, contortionists and the whole reason for coming (for me at least anyway) was to hear the spine tingling, amazing throat singers!

After a good nights sleep, all our bags were packed between three 4×4’s and we met our designated drivers for the next 2 weeks. With a pit stop at a large supermarket to get last minute provisions such as coffee, chocolate and other sugary treats for the journey, we took a last glance at this wild, windy, chaotic capital city before we headed south to the Gobi, our adventure was just beginning to get started.

 

EATS – Millie’s Cafe has great food, especially their breakfast menu as well as good coffee and Cafe Bene in the State Department Store also have a varied menu with coffee and tea, for those wanting something a little less traditional, until your stomach adapts to the heavy fatty mutton dishes you may end up eating. If you fancy something local and authentic then Altai Mongolian Grill comes highly recommended. If you want vegan food, then Happy Cow has some links, but the one’s I tried to visit either had limited menu’s or were closed when I visited. For amazing views across the whole of the city, we spent our last night in Mongolia dining at the Blue Sky Lounge up on the 24th floor of the Blue Sky Hotel.

COFFEE AND CAKE – I loved Tom & Toms its a Korean coffee chain, that has expanded throughout Asia, and it was a good place to chill, connect to the free wife and have some delicious coffee and pastries. For great ice cream (no none-dairy options though) head to Cafe Ti-amo. I also found local grocery stores had a good selection of snack food, like warm dumplings and small cakes as well as decent coffee and most seemed to have ATM’s as well.

TOP TIP – You can walk to most of the main sites in UB, Taxi’s are plentiful, but you will more than likely get ripped off unfortunately, I found most places easy to walk too though. Keep your bag fastened and with you at all times, it can be a busy chaotic city, and as a tourist, you will probably stick out and become an unlikely target of an opportunistic thief, I almost had my bag snatched and a fellow traveller did have some money taken. They are the minority of course, and I loved the city despite it’s challenges.

ALWAYS BE POLITE –  ‘Bayarlalaa’ Thank you, ‘Sain uu’ Hello, ‘Bayartai’ Good Bye

Sunderland Point – tides, slavery and a muddy causeway.

Feeling tired, but still wanting a little adventure, I asked mum and her Borrow My Doggy Sam if they would like to visit an area of my home county Lancashire that I hadn’t really explored. Turns out they had both been before, Sam when he was a puppy & mum over 30 years ago, so they were both keen to re-visit. The area I fancied was along the coast, south of Morecambe, south west of Lancaster, starting at Sunderland Point, then driving up to Heysham.

Sunderland Point is a small hamlet overlooking the River Lune, and can be accessed by one single track road from the neighbouring village of Overton. But you can’t just turn up any time, when it’s high tide the road becomes flooded, so this little Lancashire peninsula becomes cut off from the mainland twice a day. We set off early, taking junction 34 off the M6 and using the A68 Bay Gateway which neither of us had used before, as its only been open since 2016, before turning off towards Overton. It must have been around 10.30am when we arrived, and although the single track road was clear, it was still muddy in patches and made for a fun drive over.

 

As soon as you get to the other side, there is a small parking area, with a helpful HIGH WATER LINE sign as well as a lifebuoy, in case I guess you are too late back and the tide has come in, good to know! A little higher up on the ground above the water line, are some public toilets, a map and a little history of this fascinating patch of Lancashire.

There are approximately 35 houses here, with just 3 main streets, and other than some farmland, there are no schools or businesses here, so whether you need to drive to the mainland for work, school or your groceries, its all entirely dependant on the tides, it wouldn’t do for me, but I can understand the appeal.

But other than the excitement of driving along the single track causeway and the beautiful windswept views on arrival,  there’s a lot more here to make it worth your while.

First of all there is a footpath to take you around the tip of the peninsula, it’s about 3 miles, so short enough that you can take your time, drink in those views and still get back  to your car with plenty of time before the tide returns. We took a right turn between the houses and headed west, following the sign post for Sambo’s Grave.

We walked down the footpath, between some farm land across to the other side, once you get there, take the well maintained path to your left, leading you to the grave site.

This is were the slave history comes in, this seemingly unspoilt, quiet, remote part of Lancashire, was actually an important and busy port that formed part of the Slavery Triangle and was used to import cotton, sugar as well as enslaved Africans. This was in the early 1700’s and the area thrived until the Port of Lancaster opened up, becoming the 4th biggest port in the country.  (For a more comprehensive timeline, the Open Learn website has a great article to read). But back to Sambo, he was a young African boy, taken from Africa to the West Indies as a slave, then travelled with his master in 1736 over to Sunderland Point, where he became ill and died on arrival. I was pleased to see such an important but often hidden part of our UK history remembered here, with the grave being well take care of by the local residents.

Next to the grave is a stone chamber, which I initially thought had something to do with Sambo, but its actually an art installation by Chris Drury and features a camera obscura to observe the skyline of Morecambe Bay. Or if you are a small dog, it features a little ledge to climb on and you observe the view that way instead.

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We then continued our walk along the shoreline around the tip of the peninsula, its a bit tricky in parts, as you negotiate large rocks, some still slippy from the recent high tide, as well as large pieces of driftwood and other things that usually spend half their day under the water. There is a tonne of wildlife too, I’m not too familiar on my birds, but mum was better informed and pointed out some curlews and a heron.

The path understandably becomes hard to follow in places, as it is often submerged, but you can walk right around the edge, before you find yourself coming back towards the houses again. We came across a few other walkers, and we all checked in with each other, ‘yes, you can walk all the way around’ as well as ‘yes, you should have plenty of time to get back to your car before the tide comes in’. That didn’t stop me checking the time every few minutes as well as keeping an eye on the direction of the water, mum and Sam seemed less bothered than me though, but then they had both been here before.

As we approached civilisation and our car again, I slowed down, wanting to take in the windswept views for one last time, as I wasn’t sure if or when I would ever return, the landscape was truly stunning and peaceful, the complete opposite I presume from when it was a busy slave port 300 years earlier.

We grabbed some wild blackberries to eat and curious about house prices, I took note of a house for sale (it was £235.000). Then I wandered out, as close to the water as possible without getting too muddy, to take a few last photos before I drove us back across the causeway and quite literally back to dry land.

Next stop . . .  Heysham . . .

 

Philadelphia- City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection 🇺🇸

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I’m just back from a trip to Philadelphia, but as it was over 10 years since my last visit to this historic, vibrant East coast city, I was excited to return and explore more parts of the city I never managed too last time. I was there attending a workshop, but made sure I put aside time to visit some sights aswell.

Arrivals. You can fly direct from London, Manchester or Dublin, which takes around 8hrs. If you go via Dublin you get to experience Pre Clearance before you board the plane, which as I mentioned in my previous post is a revelation! I didn’t fly direct to Philadelphia this time, I went from Manchester (via Dublin) to Newark in New Jersey. There are lots of options to get yourself straight to downtown Philadelphia from other East Coast destinations, so don’t be put off if flights are super expensive direct to Philly as they were for me. If you fly straight into Philadelphia and are not hiring a car (if you plan to stay solely in and around the city you wont need one) then get the inexpensive, handy SEPTA, straight from the airport to downtown, the most central stations  to get off at will be 30th, Suburban or Jefferson.

If flying in from Newark your best two options are; get the Air Train to Newark Airport Train Station, then either board the Amtrak straight to 30th Street Philadelphia which is direct but can be expensive, or get the NJ Transit train to Trenton, then change to the SEPTA straight to downtown Philadelphia. If you fly into New York, you can get the train or Bus from Penn Station, while Washington DC also has direct buses (taking around 4 hours) and trains from its gorgeous Union Station direct to downtown Philadelphia.

Getting Around. A lot of sights are easy to walk too, especially if you group a few of them in the same neighbourhood together during your visit, the SEPTA (buses, trolleys and subway) runs all over the city and is super easy to use, while taxi’s, Uber and Lyft are also available everywhere.

History Bit. The city was founded by an English entrepreneur and Quaker called William Penn in the late 1800’s after he was gifted some land from King Charles II. Prior to this, the area of land that eventually became the capital of Pennsylvania was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenape. There is so much history here in this city, whether you want to learn more about slavery, the declaration of independence or even its religious past, it is all richly reflected here in a lot of the popular sights visited today.

What to see. Independence National Park and of course the star of the park, probably the most famous broken bell in the world, is the Liberty Bell. There is a lot to see in this area, all the sights are located close to 5th and Independence Mall which is a SEPTA stop handily enough. There is the huge Independence Visitor’s Centre which is the perfect place to start your historic day trip, open from 8.30 daily and free, there is a shop, cafe, theatre as well as exhibitions which illustrate and inform all visitors on the importance this city has had on the rest of the country. Across the street is the Liberty Bell centre, which is also free and open from 9am, its first come first served, so time your visit well to avoid the queues. If its busy and you can’t face waiting for a B’elfie (Bell Selfie?) then walk towards the Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell centre and take a look back and to your right, you can see the Bell through the glass wall. Visiting the Independence Hall is also free, but you need to book onto one of the tours in advance, there are also free gardens and outdoor exhibits all around this area making it a must do whether you have a passing or keen interest in the history of the USA.

One block north of the Independence visitor centre is the National Constitution Centre this is open daily, costing just under $15 per adult for a ticket. This includes access to the Signers Hall, lots of museum exhibits, an interactive We The People show and a theatre production which runs every 30 minutes depicting the history of the signing of the constitution, fascinating stuff!

This area is part of the oldest neighbourhood of Philadelphia, so just wander around and you will constantly find places of interest and historical significance, the oldest street is here Elfreth’s Alley in fact it is known as the oldest residential street in the US. Christ Church Burial Grounds is located close by, where you can take a fascinating leafy green walk through the churchyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried amongst other figures important to US history. This church ground is situated on Arch St and Independence Mall, and if you continue East down Arch, close by is the Betsy Ross House which is where the first US flag was made by Betsy herself, see there is history around every corner.

A short walk west along Arch St you pass the African American Museum, I couldn’t get to visit this time due to the workshop I was attending, but I definitely want to schedule in time to go next visit. Keep walking along this street and next up is the Chinatown Friendship Gate signally the start of Chinatown, like any Chinatown across the world there is a great colourful vibe, tonnes of shops, restaurants, cafes and a monthly Night Market. I headed away from Chinatown though this visit to Arch and 12th St and what may become my most favourite farmers market that I have ever visited, the loud, vibrant, assault on all the senses that is the Reading Terminal Market.
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Over 100 years old and open from 8am-6pm daily, you must plan a visit to explore the 80+ stalls of food, drink and crafts. Definitely give the place a once over before deciding where you sit and eat and what to buy, there are Amish stalls serving home made cheeses, butchers and fishmongers selling their fresh produce as well as places to buy kitchen supplies and flowers as well as the many restaurants. Stay for something to eat for sure, whether its a vegan corn dog at Fox and Son, a Philly Cheesesteak at Carmens or comfort food at the Dutch Eating Place you can easily spend an hour here, I even spotted peanut butter chocolate bacon for sale, but gave that a miss!

The architecture in Philadelphia is amazing, with a range of styles both old and new, from the art deco railway stations of Suburban and 30th St to the 60 storey Comcast Tower (due for completion in 2018) and its even higher neighbour One Liberty Place, it can make for a dizzying but fascinating wander. If you head West from Reading Terminal Market towards the skyscrapers of downtown, dominating the skyline is the Masonic Temple. Taking 5 years to construct and then another 15 years to finish the interior, you cannot fail to miss this beautiful elaborate granite building, taking up a whole block of its own. Tours are available but limited and cost $15.

Right opposite the Masonic Temple is the largest municiple building in the US City Hall, its another huge impressive building, that proudly stands in the heart of the city and makes a good point of reference when exploring this part of town. Although it never became the tallest building in the world as it had been hoped, it did hold the record for tallest building in Philadelphia up until the 80’s. If you have a head for heights ascend up the tower for what I can imagine are insane panoramic views of the city, tower tours finish at around 4pm though, so dont leave it late, I couldnt fit it in this time with it being a work trip, so have pencilled it in for next time.

IMG_2673 The great city hall peaking out at the end of Broad Street

The next big attraction on most peoples itineraries when visiting Philadelphia will probably be the Museum of Art and even if you arent an art lover and dont want to pay the $20 entrance fee, still head over so you can run up the famous Rocky Steps and get a photo by the statue. You can get there by bus or on the metro to 30th St station and from there its a 20 min walk along the Schuylkill River, but if you fancy walking from downtown, head down the gorgeous tree and flag lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Even if you dont visit inside the art museum, head round to the back of the building and visit the sculpture and landscaped gardens with gorgeous views along the Schuylkill River, I only found them after a tip from my Lyft driver, who I gave 5 stars too of course!

There are so many more museums that are worthy of visiting, but as I was over for a work trip, I just couldnt squeeze as much in as I would have liked.  On my hit list for next time is the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Please Touch Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History and The Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the African American Museum that I mentioned earlier.

There is so much outdoor green space in Philadelphia, lots of parks, squares and river walks, which makes for a nice contrast when you have got your fill on museums and other indoor sights. Fairmont Park is the big one, with over 9,000 acres to explore, but there is also Franklin Sq, Love Park, Washington Square and the Schuylkill River Trail to name only a few.

Food and Drink – Philadelpahia does great coffee, with some unique independent coffee shops that also side hustle as clothing shops, creative spaces and music venues. Some gems I visited during my latest stay included Rival Bros and United by Blue and next time I really want to visit Grindcore Coffee which is a vegan coffeeshop.

Speaking of vegan food, I visited Hip City Veg twice during my stay, its a 100% plant based diner that serves the most delicious meat-free food including chick’n fajitas and tempeh burgers that even the most hardened carnivore would love and the green drink below is the insanely amazing kale lemonade.

Hot Tips –

  • A single fair on the Septa costs $2.50 or a 1 day convenience pass (max 8 rides) is $9
  • On the first Friday evening of each month there is a Art Walk in the Old City District.
  • Known as one of the best beer cities in America, there are more than 60 brewing companies in the Philadelphia region alone with many local companies organising brew pub tours.

Other sights

  • Six Flags Theme Park is only around 90 mins away on the train (change at Trenton)
  • Jump on the Septa to Wissahicken and hike the Valley Park Trail and then eat and drink along Main Street afterwards in the Manayunk district. Manayunk is Native American for ‘Where we go to drink’ by the way!
  • Shop, eat and drink along South Street in the heart of the city.

Always be polite – If you buy a $10 cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market then a tip would be around $1.50.