Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Welcome to the Pomaks villages: driving through northern Greece's lesser-known border towns

Away from the islands, beaches and queues for ATMs, Muslim villages with their own distinct language are scattered among the Rhodopi Mountains. Here's a quick spin around the Pomaks villages of northern Greece.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Women and Mount Athos: adrift by Greece’s all-male monks’ republic

At Ouranoupolis dock, people are streaming ashore. Red-faced backpackers, black-clad monks, wheezing retirees. All of them are male, because this is Mount Athos.

Male pilgrims coming ashore in Ouranoupolis after spending time on all-male Mount Athos. Pilgrimages typically last for three days. Image © Anita Isalska

It seems incredible that a woman-free stronghold exists within the European Union. But on the Athos peninsula  the third tendril of Halkidiki in Northern Greece  a border near Ouranoupolis divides the all-male monastic communities of Mount Athos from the rest of Greece. Access is by boat only, and checks are strict. Visitors are allowed in limited numbers and by applying for a permit that involves ID checks.

Wives, girlfriends, sisters are waiting by the shore to welcome the boat. They have spent the last three days sunning and shopping in Ouranoupolis. The tourist industry here is impressive: shops overflow with monk-made produce from soaps to religious icons. A slew of jewellery shops have sprung up, perhaps to keep the womenfolk entertained while men contemplate the universe from Athos.

The women crane their necks as they see family members and friends come into view. Some of the Athos visitors are pilgrims, others travellers (Germans, Russians, a few Brits) lured by Athos’ solitude and magnificent religious architecture.

A few are relieved to be back in secular Athos. “Back to civilisation,” I hear one mutter. Though the experience won't have been without its jollities. Monks make wine and tsipouro (brandy) on Athos and share it generously with visiting pilgrims.

Olive oils, unguents and dainty little soaps, handcrafted by the religious communities on all-male Athos. Image © Anita Isalska

The monks also produce olive oil and honey, and there's a thriving market for both. Souvenir shops in Ouranoupolis proudly label their olive oil soaps and honeyed body lotions as monk-produced. It's curious that the market is so female-focused; monks who spend eight hours of their day praying in a female-free environment then spend another eight hours pressing oils destined to be rubbed into women's behinds.

To secure a permit to visit Athos, piety isn’t as much of a prerequisite as a penis. This is something wounding to many Orthodox women in Greece, frustrated at being disbarred from this holy place. Personally, I can conceive of reasons to create a single-sex space or lodging. But Athos is a sizeable landmass and transgressing isn't excused by an awkward apology and retreat.

The prevailing view of local women I speak to is acceptance. “It is like this for one thousand years,” explains one.

The argument for something’s worth because of tradition vexes. But for many, loudly objecting to the ban would be considered disrespectful to the spiritual focus of the monks. And why would a woman want to go where she isn’t wanted?

A woman photographs Mount Athos from 500m away, the legal distance a cruise ship can approach Greece's all-male religious communities. Image © Anita Isalska

No pilgrim I ask about his experience volunteers the topic of the gender ban. There's no, "Hey, isn't it weird you couldn't join us because of what you have downstairs!" When I mention it, they nod beatifically. The younger ones grimace sympathetically, as if nothing can be done.

It’s difficult to swallow the idea that women are excluded from, even barriers to, the pursuit of higher spiritual purpose. Some justifications sugarcoat the ban, saying that the Virgin Mary is so beloved of Athos’ monks that they couldn’t abide any other women on its shores.

Dressing the ban as maternal reverence smarts in the same way as so many other softly-softly sexisms around the world. Women are too delicate for parlour-room conversation. Too cherished to choose their own partners. Just as valued, though paid less.

Is the motivation to engineer a distraction-free dynamic for the monks on Athos? If so, it veers into ugly recesses of the imagination: the ban extends to female animals (except birds and insects). It's an all-out vagina embargo, positing femininity as a polluting entity when it comes to purifying the soul.

“What would happen,” I ask a local woman, “if I kept driving to the Athos border?” She smiles and crosses her wrists, to indicate handcuffs.

“What if I rented a boat and just crossed the water myself? There are boats for hire all over Ouranoupolis.”

Simonos Petras monastery, one of dozens of remarkable religious constructions on Greece's Mount Athos. Image © Anita Isalska
“You can try it,” she smiles. “A woman tried it years ago, dressed up as man, and in the face as well”  she pulls an imaginary beard from her chin  “but they caught her. They say her head was not ok...you know...” She taps her temple.

I linger and eavesdrop as men from the ferry describe their experiences. Amazing. Awe-inspiring. Incredible. Spiritual. The superlatives are flowing in several languages. Many more are silent, pondering. Smiles on the faces of the women, as they listen to these life-changing stories, are tight-lipped.

Before arriving here, I wondered whether sex segregation from the holy mountain would bleed into secular Athos. Would awkward coexistence of women and men be tangible in the town? Apparently not: I don’t detect even the faintest hint of rudeness in Ouranoupolis. In fact, the men here are perhaps the most courteous I’ve spoken to and interacted with in all my travels around Northern Greece. Smiles and greetings are freely bestowed; even the younger monks smile and dip their heads when I pass them in the streets and in my guesthouse.

Women travellers in Ouranoupolis will receive a deferentially warm welcome. Because Athos’ ban on women is a quiet, calm misogyny, sanctioned by the law of an ancient community. It’s a misogyny that nods and smiles, while keeping women at arm’s length.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Five unromantic things about the Trans-Siberian Railway in winter

Riding a huge train from Beijing to Moscow has been a travel dream for years. And I always wanted to do it in winter, rattling past frozen Lake Baikal and hundreds of miles of snow-kissed taiga. That said, there are a few thoroughly unromantic aspects to this most imagination-firing of voyages. So let's get them out of the way so we can get back to the fun parts: roaring trains, giant Lenin heads and endless forests...

Thar she blows... our mighty steed during a stopover at Zabaiklalsk station.
Image by Anita Isalska

The Siberia cough

When you step off your train carriage, or out of your toasty-warm hostel, into the chill Siberian air, the first breath is so cold your lungs spasm. I've noticed locals doing it too, so I can't blame my feeble airways.

Frozen nostrils

A prickling sensation inside your nose is the first clue that the mercury has dropped lower than -20C. As tiny ice crystals form and thaw inside your schnozz, you'll find yourself dabbing your hooter an awful lot. Frosted mucus somewhat erodes the 'enigmatic traveller' look.

Samovar scald

If you're smart, you brought a keepcup to refill with piping hot water at the communal samovar on board the Trans-Sib trains. If you're not smart – or the train jolts you off balance – you splash boiling water on your hands when you operate it.

Trans-Sib stare-off

A second-class ticket seats you and your travel buddy right opposite a couple of other passengers in a compartment. When you've learned Russian from a phrasebook, conversation dries up pretty darn quickly. That's what, 15 more hours of eyebrow wars and uncomprehending looks?

Fish waft

On the border of Lake Baikal, ladies hop aboard with plastic bags full of smoked fish. “What a marvellously local – and fresh – treat!” you think, as you watch fellow passengers buying up the pungent omul. Less wonderful when you can still smell it six hours later.  

Monday, 16 February 2015

Brace yourself for the big freeze: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in China

Every year, photo galleries of illuminated ice sculptures in China are emblazoned across news websites. Harbin's International Ice and Snow Festival inspires travellers around the world to marvel and think: “Next year, I'm going there.”

Flashy doorways and inexplicable ice lions at Harbin's Zhaolin Park.
Image by Anita Isalska
Well, this year I did. And I had as surreal – and nose-numbing – experience as I'd hoped. But there are two major things that I learned:

#1 – For an international festival, Harbin's ice-travaganza can be mystifying to foreign visitors.
#2 – There are so many interesting things about Harbin that it would easily fill a visit outside festival season. And you'd spend a lot less cash.

Pose with a tiny deer in front of this enormous snow girl - on Sun Island in Harbin.
Image by Anita Isalska
Let's start with the bamboozling aspects of the festival itself. There are a few different major ice sculpture exhibitions around the city. They're ticketed separately, information about them in languages other than Mandarin is extremely scant, and transport there can be fiendish unless you're a demon at fighting other people for taxis, or enjoy very long walks across frozen rivers.

Hotels are keen to bundle non-Chinese speakers onto overpriced tourist taxis to the venues. Being intent on paying a local fare involved a lot of misses when it came to negotiating with taxi drivers, who know they have a captive market and try to charge flat rates of Y1000 to festival venues; on the meter it should be more like Y300 by distance. The cable car over the Songhua River takes you part-way to Sun Island and to the main venue for Ice and Snow World, but it's pricey (Y500 one-way) and only gets you so far. And walking over the Songhua isn't tough by distance, but wind whipping over the ice makes for a thoroughly face-freezing amble – nay, penguin-like stagger – across the river. As if the ice-streaked pavements weren't tough enough to walk on without slipping.

Any contraption that slides does the job. Fun times on the frozen Songhua River.
Image by Anita Isalska
As for the festival itself, it's pricey – tickets range from Y1500 to Y3000 – but the light wallet is forgotten as soon as you crane your neck at the icy turrets, fairytale palaces and gargantuan snow sculptures. Seeing at least one exhibition by day, and one by night, is essential: the illuminations are as spellbinding as the photos suggest, and the magical atmosphere seems to imbue the attendees with a real sense of mischief – ice slides, toboggans and miniature ponies are the in-festival modes of transport.

But on to the non-festival highlights. Compared to Beijing, Harbin is so laidback it's on a futon sipping green tea. Much less bustle, cafes crafted to please the idle-at-heart, and utterly devoid of the intensity of cut-throat Beijing. Russian flavours and architecture give an interesting lift to the city. Magnificent St Sophia Cathedral jostles alongside neon signs for tea houses, synagogues snooze serenely along major roads, and the pedestrianised streets are crammed with great eateries and shops.

Crick your neck at these splendid domes... St Sophia Church in Harbin.
Image by Anita Isalska
The city's Russian heritage, being an enclave for Siberians in the 19th century, is so strong that Chinese tourists seem to treat the city as a foreign holiday. People were piling into Russian-themed restaurants and chortling over their borscht, and clutching armfuls of matryoshkas bought in souvenir shops. The marvellous muddle of cultures made this a hard place to leave. If the pavements weren't caked in perilous ice, I'd have had a literal spring in my step.

For more on Harbin, check out my Lonely Planet article, 10 fascinating facts aboutHarbin, China's ice festival city.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Skiing in Nanshan, China: come for the culture, not for the snow

I admit it, there's an element of tick-box tourism at play here. As part of my stint in Beijing, the first stop on my Trans-Siberian trip, I was cajoled into a day out at Nanshan Ski Village. My travel partner-in-crime Normal Matt is a huge snowhead, and couldn't resist testing the pistes in China. What could go wrong?

As green Beijing first-timers, we were pretty pleased to find the right bus towards Nanshan and rope a local taxi driver (read: dude with a car and nothing better to do) into taking us on to the ski village. We even doodled ski boots and skis in a notebook, labelling them with our heights and shoe sizes, to ease the gear hire (Chinese language skill level: laughable).

Suspiciously snowy pistes surrounded by arid hills. And the blue and pink passes,
key to keeping track of your hired gear. Images by Anita Isalska
The kit wasn't a great start – Normal Matt's skis had a big chunk scarred out of them, and both of us ended up with very short skis for our heights. The boots were – to put it politely – thoroughly well loved, with a distinctive vintage vibe. But a poor craftsman always blames his tools, right? Undeterred winter sports enthusiasts that we are, we shuffled towards the lifts – ignoring the greater-than-usual friction under our skis, and the first twinges of forming blisters.

The ski area isn't huge, but it's served by a handful of lifts, has mostly beginner pistes and a couple of highly steep advanced ones. The real delight of Nanshan for a foreign visitor is the local flavour to the ski area: huffs of fragrant steam from dumpling stalls by the piste, temple-like roofs atop the ski lift stations... It's all very refreshing if you're used to ski culture in Europe or North America.

Scenery-wise, it would be unfair to compare it to the Alps. China is cold, but very dry. Artificial snow powers a large proportion of the snow at Nanshan, meaning the pistes are well covered; but from the lifts you're surrounded by fields of bracken and arid brown hills misted in smog.

“It's a bit like the French Alps,” offered Normal Matt as we soared on a rickety ski lift.

“Are those chickens?” I countered. The farmyard below the lift was dotted with clucking, scratching birds. Not to mention the odd stray dog prowling the rubbish bins near the piste-side cafes.

Normal Matt sips a well-deserved latte; and some views around Nanshan.
Images by Anita Isalska
None of this stopped the skiers at Nanshan from having a hell of a good time. Perhaps too good a time. Often on the piste I feel like I'm surrounded by expert skiers, whooshing past me gracefully. Not a problem at Nanshan. The goal for most of the day-trippers seemed to be skidding haphazardly down the slope at breakneck speed, rather than finessing their ski technique. There were a lot of falls, skiers tumbling into other skiers, hurtling down the slopes and falling flat on their faces. The terrain may not have been challenging, but avoiding other skiers certainly was.

The same ramshackle approach applied to boarding ski lifts. Five or six people would pile in front of a four-seater, only to be barked at by the lift attendant before two of them panickedly dived out of the way.

It was hard to gain much speed in our seldom-waxed skis, but we spent a couple of enjoyable hours dodging the more suicidal skiers and sipped a pretty good piste-side latte. A late-afternoon light was penetrating the smog, which could only mean one thing: the approach of rush hour.

Somewhere on the standing-room-only two-hour bus ride back, I felt twinges of regret for our excursion to Nanshan. But if you're a snowhead who finds yourself in Beijing, I suspect you'll be curious enough to try it too.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

How Beijing beat me

Beijing, you win.

I knew I wasn't choosing an easy city. I began in Beijing for a Trans-Siberian trip all the way to Moscow (and beyond) by rail. I figured starting with the biggest culture shock (I'm a newbie to travel in China) made the most sense. And crawling back overland towards home – currently London – felt intuitive. And like it might be something to shoot for when the long train journeys began to drag.

Beijing in winter. Dress appropriately. Image by Anita Isalska
But Beijing packs a punch for a first timer. It's fabulously rich in things to do, with countless places to eat and labyrinthine alleys to explore. Its must-see sights alone would take a solid few days, nevermind ambitions for Great Wall day trips and idling in the hutong.

Beijing is a city that eats time. Despite a zippy – and fantastically easy to navigate – subway system, getting around always seemed to take longer than expected. It's the little things, like long winding line transfers in subway stations, baggage scans every time you enter a station, and things being just a little further on the map than you anticipated...

Little-known fact, cartoon characters in Beijing mock jetlagged travellers.
Image by Anita Isalska

 Then there's the queuing. A meek and mild Brit like me doesn't stand a chance in a culture where the sharpest elbows get to the front of the line. The same applied to crossing roads. By the end of my stay, my technique involved ploughing forward in spite of the honking cars, murmuring “oh shiiiiii—t”.

That square. Not pictured - queues and security checkpoints to access said square.
Image by Anita Isalska
The city is exhausting and energising at the same time. My eyes were on stalks in Tiananmen Square, brain thoroughly boggled by Mao's Mausoleum, and the Summer Palace was a feast of wacky boats and even wackier homemade sledges skidding across the frozen ponds. But jetlag and the Chinese capital are a feisty pair, so somewhere in between temple-ogling and taxi negotiations, simmering hotpots and the umpteenth stone lion, my eyelids were starting to droop.

Lantern-strewn roads to surprise and delight. And be stared at in.
Image by Anita Isalska

I could fill another whole week, fortnight, month with what I didn't manage to see this time around in Beijing. It'll take me a while to drum up the energy for round #2 but Beijing, I'll be back...

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Five signs you don't know when to quit the piste

I'm writing from Obergurgl, a village so lovely I feel like I'm inside a snowglobe. Tiny Obergurgl only has a few hundred inhabitants but as the highest parish in Austria (topping in at 1930m) winter sports fans flock here. The high altitude brings dramatic weather, with snow storms that can bring total whiteout or blow a snowboard straight off the cable car.

With the phenomenal snow quality here, it can be hard to admit to yourself when it's time to stow the skis and sit out the storm. Don't be the only idiot on the piste when Mother Nature is trying to blast you off a cliff face. Here are five signs your snow addiction is getting the better of you.

1. The ski boot rack is full

Shh, they're sleeping. Full boot rack means you're either an early riser or do-or-die snowhead.
Image © Anita Isalska

The lifts opened half an hour ago and yours is the only pair of boots missing from the rack. There's your first clue you're the only nutbag to head out in heavy wind and thick snow. But hey, the ski lifts are running, how bad can it be?

2. The ski lifts are empty

An empty ski lift. Functioning only because the lift operator is snowed in to his cabin (maybe).
Image © Anita Isalska

The mysterious lack of skis dangling from chair lifts means down in the village, all the sensible folk are watching whipped cream slowly dissolve into their mugs of hot chocolate. More fool them: you have an empty piste to enjoy, and the screaming wind adds a certain intensity when you're skiing those moguls.

3. That usually bustling mountain-top cafe is empty

Who needs friends when you have a piste map? Image © Anita Isalska

The cafe owner nearly spits out his schnapps when you stagger through the door, clad in a thick frosting of snow. No fighting for a table today, though you might have to persuade someone to get the chip fryer going.

4. You can't tell where sky ends and snow begins

Stopping for a selfie in a whiteout: great way to lose your camera.
Image © Anita Isalska

In a whiteout, difficulty seeing contours in the snow is the least of your problems. Cloud and snow meet, those craggy mountain vistas are blanked from view, and piste markers even 10 feet away are hard to spot. It really might be time to seek out that hot chocolate.

5. You're eating a lot of snow

I'm totally fine yeah, I actually meant to fall like this. Image © Anita Isalska
No visibility, swirling snowstorm and now a face full of powder. It might be early, but it's time to call it quits and take your tales of survival to the apres-ski hut. Hey, there's always tomorrow.