A Travellerspoint blog

Two Kiwis among the Vikings

On being Danish

After nearly 3 months on the road, Martin and I have come to Denmark. For four Kiwis, the Silk Road is completed and I had intended that the blog should be so also. But recently I decided another chapter was in order. After all, there may be a link between the Silk Road and the ancient Scandinavians, who between about 800 and 1100 AD, as Vikings, went charging around Europe, not only warring and pillaging, but also trading and settling down to domestic life. We all know they invaded the British Isles and got as far as Greenland and North America, but they also went east into Central Europe and Russia via the major rivers. So perhaps the trade routes of the Silk Road met those of the Vikings.
But it wasn’t this rather tenuous link that made me think of another blog chapter. It was the singing of patriotic Danish songs. First we were invited to a street party in Nibe, a small town west of Aalborg, where one of Martin’s cousins lives. As I listened to the 40 or so people in the small marquee after dinner singing a mix of songs both in praise of the virtues of their homeland and those that told home-spun yarns about fabled local identities, I found inspiration for another blog.
Their songs extolled the gentle sunshine on their fair land, the glistening fjords, the corn waving in the breeze, the wonderful summers (it can be very cold here even in summer!) and the people of their nation. “I love you, Danmark,” was the unashamed theme. Street parties in mid-summer seem to be quite common in Denmark and while they are not uncommon in NZ, I can hardly imagine us at home singing community songs about the forest and the birds and the rivers, and telling forth our love for our land. In fact most NZers would look slightly embarrassed at the idea.
A week later we attended another function with some other cousins that included dinner (the Danes know how to eat lovely food), a mid-summer bonfire and singing patriotic songs around the fire. On both occasions words were provided and the tunes were simple and easy to sing. Again the virtues of the land were celebrated. An expression of a gentle patriotism that is so commendable. Another manifestation is the common flying of the lovely red and white flag, seen in towns and villages and private homes, many of which have their own flag pole.
“With the rule of law, so the land is built”. So reads the Nibe town motto over the old Radhus, now the local museum, perhaps a summary of much of the character of the nation. Denmark is a land of consensus with a highly developed social welfare structure, held together by high wages and a strong work ethic. From the south where it divides from Germany to the North Sea, it is in June and July a green and pleasant land, gently rolling with prosperous towns and industries, innumerable little villages and a cropping agriculture of wheat, barley and maize. Forty years ago when I first came here the rural scene was made up of many small farms, each with their homesteads and white barns placed in a quadrangle around a central courtyard. Today the economy has dictated the amalgamation of many of these into very large farming units. Farm houses are often bought up by city dwellers and barns lie idle, some beginning to fall down.
Several things encapsulate the culture. The summer houses (baches), for example, along the coasts. In 2007 we rented one on the east coast of Jutland and this time we stayed a few days in Lokken on the North Coast in a summer house belonging to one of Martin’s cousins. Small homes lie tucked into the rolling vegetation-covered sand dunes, few rising their roofs above others to declare their superiority. No grandiose structures such as one finds dominating the natural landscape and beach in Mt Maunganui. All are low to the ground, and in tune with nature, some even covered with grass roofs.
The cemeteries also exemplify the Danish character. Each plot is neat and tidy with small plants and flowers growing around the low-key headstone, often giving little more than the name and relevant dates. Some say ‘Tak for alt’, thank you for everything, After some years, if the family does not wish to keep paying the up-keep, the headstone is removed, perhaps to the back of the church yard and the plot is reused. Many cemeteries in towns and villages surround the traditional white stone church with its tower at the front door end where in former times a man left his weapons before he went in to worship. Many of these churches were built between 1100 – 1200 AD, in a time when devotion to the Christian faith must have been quite high.
Travelling through China and Central Asia has caused me to rethink the role of religion in the culture of a people. I read an interesting book while travelling, about the demise of the Eastern church up to the modern day and the role of the state in its protection which somewhat challenged our modern understanding of the separation of church and state. Christianity certainly plays an important role in the culture of Denmark, with the state church called the folkekirke, the people’s church. Most families attend church to have their babies christened and most young people about the age of 14 go through the process of confirmation including a big party celebration afterwards.
Being a member of the Lutheran church is part of being Danish. However between birth, confirmation and death, the church may play very little part in the life of its people and for the devout folkekirke priest, like our young family member, the task of engendering real commitment is problematic. With the increasing tension between east and west, the Moslem and the former Christian world, countries like Denmark may be forced to consider their position more seriously.
On a less serious note, good food seems to be enjoyed among the Danes. Kartofler (potatoes) used to be the basis of any traditional meal and still there is nothing better than delicious small newly dug Danish potatoes. With roast pork they are often served cooked in a brown buttery sauce that may not be good for the waist line but makes for a tasty addition to the meal. Sunday breakfast is often fresh rolls brought straight from the local bakerei which also sells absolutely scrumptious weinerbrod, impossible to deny to oneself and not to be confused with the sugary objects sold as ‘Danish pastries’ in NZ shops. The genuine articles are fresh and light and buttery and crisp and moist with filling all at the same time. Danish rye bread is also great too, delicious for adding sild (herrings) or liverposteg (pate).
One of Martin’s elderly aunties who had a great garden even in her old age, used to say that Danish strawberries are the best in the world. I don’t think she had travelled much at all out of her native country but she was probably right. They are plentiful in June and seem so tasty, perhaps responding to the summer sun after the long cold winter. One of Martin’s cousins took us to a fish smoke house in north Shaelland where a variety of smoked fish was purchased for our lunch - even the wonderful smell made the visit worth-while, but the eating was a gourmet’s delight.
One hopes the next generation will value their traditional fresh fodder. On board the ferry from Lavrik in Norway to Hirtsalls in Denmark, I observed many a Scandanavian by-passing the lovely roast pork or meat balls and veges in favour of a plate piled high with hamburger and chips. Is every nation despising their wonderful traditional food in favour of international edibles of an inferior nature? Several years ago staying in a Mediterranean hotel largely for Turkish tourists we saw the guests make the same choices away from their salads and lamb and in favour of chips, piles of chips. Obesity used to be hardly seen in that country but now beckons its young people. As a visitor to foreign lands, one hopes to enjoy or least sample the local distinctive food, rather than partake of a bland diet that can be purchased anywhere and everywhere. (PS I do enjoy chips at times!)
I think this is my eighth visit over 38 years to Denmark with my Danish born husband, Martin, and I can safely say that I have a real affection for this little land.

Posted by Silkspin 11:53 Comments (3)

Winding up the Silk Thread

A wonderful journey

Where does the Silk Road begin and end? Most authorities are agreed that modern Xian in China is at the eastern edge. So where does it go to at the western end? Former Constantinople was definitely a major destination and in Marco Polo’s time, Venice was his journey’s end after spending 24 years on the Silk Road. Some authorities say that traded goods went as far west as Spain and the Atlantic sea board, and in the north, to the Volga River and beyond. Krakow was one of Europe’s leading cultural centres during the last days of the Silk Road in the 14th century and no doubt benefited from the trade.
Where has our Silk Road arrived at in the west? Maurice and Anne and ourselves, together with our trusty vehicles, Bilbo and Heehaw, spent 11 ½ weeks together, 10 ½ of them on the road from Shenzhen, China to Krakow, Poland. After 16,000 kilometres on the Silk Road we have gone our separate ways as planned, the O’Reillys to Nurburg, Germany to drive in the 24 hour race later in June, and us to Martin’s family in Denmark. So for us we can say that our Silk Road trip has been completed in Krakow, though both couples will spend more time in Europe.
Has it been worth the extensive planning, the effort, the cost, the occasional discomfort, long days in the vehicles, pit toilets and all? Overwhelmingly, yes. Every bit has been a great experience. The journey can easily be divided into three sections: China, Central Asia and Europe.
China, for Martin and I, was all new territory. We are left with the strong impression of China marching economically and with its infrastructure towards the future, towards modernity and towards Central Asia and Europe. The old China, at least in the cities, will soon be gone. We hope in their rush for wealth and prosperity, there are those who will call for care of the environment, for clean air, unpolluted waterways and rubbish free surroundings. We also hope that they are able to move peacefully to a more open society, especially for their minority groups. In Uzbekistan we were told: if you are an optimist, you will learn English; if you are a pessimist you will learn Chinese. Certainly China is a huge neighbour knocking at the eastern door of Central Asia.
Climbing the rice terraces of Longsheng, biking on the city walls of Xian, shopping at the road side fruit stalls that are in every town, visiting the Mao shrine near Lanzhou, travelling through the oasis cities edging the Taklimakan desert, receiving hospitality in a home near Turpan, walking through the Kashgar livestock market – these are just some of our enduring experiences.
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan formed our Silk Road in Central Asia. These countries have shared a similar history and suffering under the rule of the Soviet Union and are struggling to emerge from that heritage with continuing dictatorships of various hues. In spite of the curbs on freedom, the people were friendly and delightfully open in their interest in our journey.
We will long remember the beautiful architecture of Samarkand with its wonderful blue tiles and stunning domes and the restored old inner city of Bukhara where we enjoyed good plov. The roads were very poor compared with those of Europe, with many pot holes and rough surfaces and ‘cucumber’ police (named because of their green uniforms) seemed to be on every city corner. The difficulties in purchasing diesel that presented some interesting moments and the big wad of money needed in Uzbekistan will both be in our reminiscences. To see first hand the tragedy of the Aral Sea was worth the hours of bumpy travel across the desert.
When we crossed the Ural River north of the Caspian Sea we were officially in Europe, but it wasn’t until we drove into Poland that we entered the European Union and felt we were really in Europe. The toilet paper was no longer grey cardboard, the roads radically improved, ubiquitous traffic police were replaced by radar cameras, streets and villages were tidy and ordered, and accommodation and food increased in price – though not as expensive as in Denmark and Germany. The border crossings into Poland and again into Denmark were conspicuous by their absence of long queues and mayhem, after the hours at passport controls in Central Asia. It is a mark of communism and dictatorships that the citizenry must be controlled, well beyond the controls necessary for law and order. These countries provide a warning to those of us who value the democratic way of life to beware of subtle encroaching unnecessary limits on freedom. A visit to Auschwitz makes one realise that even the most educated of nations can be ensnared into the most heinous of crimes against its own citizens and neighbouring nations.
Fortunately there is much in Europe to enjoy and value. Poland is a most Christian of nations, with churches full on Sundays and a genuine devotion to the cross of Christ. The green, ordered and tidy landscape of our journey was a pleasure to travel through. Krakow and other smaller centres have beautiful old centres and that make tourism a joy.
We will spend the next couple of weeks visiting family in Denmark and then our son Jonathan and his wife Taryn will join us around Norway and Sweden before we return to New Zealand in mid-July. And what of Bilbo, our aging but strong and robust Nissan? For the moment he will stay in Denmark, while we consider his future. If there is anyone out there who would like to make a return trip through Central Asia and China, please let us know and we can negotiate a sale. You will need at least 18 months preparation time for visas and planning, so give it some thought and be in touch. You could also contact Rally Tours, New Zealand, a commercial travel group who organise trips on the Silk Road by car. www.rallytours.co.nz
Blogging is addictive! We have enjoyed your company and we hope you have enjoyed ours. Blessings, Jeanette and Martin Knudsen.

Posted by Silkspin 02:20 Comments (3)

Krakow and Kazimierz, Poland

Remembering Nazi Atrocities

There is an article in our Krakow tourist publicity booklet entitled ‘The Female Schindler’, about Irena Sendler who rescued many Jewish children from the Krakow Ghetto under Nazi German occupation. I laughed out loud when I read the final paragraph: ‘last year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, though the prize went to the unspeakable Al Gore’ - their choice of words, not mine. Some may think such thoughts, but here in Krakow, they say it.
Krakow is a wonderful city, full of interesting places to visit, cobbled streets to wander along, cafes to linger in, churches to admire, the castle hill of Wawel to climb and concerts to enjoy. Pope John Paul II is honoured and loved throughout the city. Polish by birth, and the bishop of Krakow from 1963 to 1978, he was the first non-Italian pope for over 400 years.
But over and above all this is the spectre of the history of the Jewish people in World War II, including the Jewish quarter, the ghetto created by the Nazis, the factory of Oskar Schindler, and the sites of the death camps outside Krakow. We stayed 3 nights in Kazimierz, the district of Krakow where Jewish people lived for 500 years until 1940, when the Nazis removed them to a ghetto area across the river, and subsequently to the death camps.
Before 1940, 60,000 Jews lived in Krakow, and today it is only a handful. However, the quarter has come alive again after the communist years with a number of restored Jewish synagogues open to the public, Jewish restaurants, hotels and shops, a great place to stay. With the O’Reillys we took a golf cart tour of Krakow which included Kazimierz, the ghetto area and Schindler’s factory. The latter was only re-opened as a museum last year and tells in excellent fashion the story of Krakow during the war under Nazi occupation and the plight of the Jews. Very moving and thought provoking.
The following day we walked part of the tour trail, visiting some of the synagogues. Streets are called Estery, Jakuba, Izaaka and Jozefa (the latter actually after a Habsburg emperor). Some of the synagogues date back to the 16th century with fragments of original wall scriptures still visible. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, they have been lovingly restored and one or two still operate as working synagogues.
One can hardly go to Krakow and not include Auschwitz, 60 kilometres away, on the itinerary. But why spend a whole day subjecting yourself to the dreadful litany of man’s inhumanity to man? Remembering the truth of what took place, remembering and honouring the dead, remembering the brave who lost their lives speaking out or giving help to others.
Walking through the barracks, seeing the piles of human hair and the heaps of children’s footwear, viewing the pitiful sanitary conditions, standing near the remaining gas chambers and incinerators – it is a harrowing experience. In the last days before the Soviet army arrived, camp officials blew up most of the gas chambers, hoping the world would not discover their crimes.
The ironic words over the entrance read in German: Work makes you free. The truth is that those consigned to hard labour would last about three months before dying of disease, starvation and exhaustion. Large photographs of inmates around the camp add to the pathos – especially those depicting little children, robbed of the opportunity of life. We saw the bunker where Father Maximillian Kolbe and others were starved to death; the Polish priest had offered his life to save another inmate, who incidentally lived into his old age.
As we listened to the guide, our tour group became very sombre, each one insulated in his or her own world, struggling to come to terms with what we saw, the faces of the young particularly showing the impact of the experience. Our guide has been taking tours for 15 years – what motivates such commitment, we wondered. Did she have family who had died in the holocaust?
From Auschwitz we went to nearby Birkenau, much larger, where the majority of Jews were murdered. Together they form the largest of the Nazi death camp operations, with about 1 million Jews murdered there, plus about 100,000 Poles, Gypsies, Soviet soldiers and others. It was impressive that nothing was haphazard about the way things were done – it was so meticulously organised and planned.
Auschwitz is a major tourist venue with hundreds of people coming daily, by the bus load and individually like ourselves. One hopes that the memory of the place lingers long in their minds. At Birkenau there are 21 plaques in the 21 languages of those who died there, which read: For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945.

Posted by Silkspin 23:24 Comments (1)

Stretching the Silk Thread in Ukraine

Cultured Kiev and Lovely Lviv

Now in the third section of our Silk Road journey, the European segment, we have been nearly two weeks in Russia and Ukraine, both part of the old USSR till 1991. We have travelled westward from Astrakhan to Volgograd, to Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, and then slightly north to Kiev and Lviv.
The landscape all the way has been fairly similar – beautiful green rolling steppe, partly wooded and leafy with the fresh bright emerald of spring. Fields, some of them very large as far as the eye can see, are planted in wheat, rye, potatoes, canola and various other crops. Other fields are still brown, ploughed up and waiting for the planting of more crops. Small plots of vegetables surround villages of shuttered cottages with grey asbestos roofs. The occasional onion shaped dome or tall steeple rises above the urban horizon, indicating an Orthodox church.
The beauty of the country side contrasts sharply with the ugliness of some of the man-made landscape. Until Kiev, ugly yellow water pipes have followed us above ground, over hills and valleys. In fact, they have been with us since we entered Central Asia, a mark of the former Soviet regime. Towns usually contain many large austere blocks of apartments, very dilapidated and in need of a makeover, on the outside, at least. Many towns in the east have towering heaps of slag and rubble, indicating the presence of coal mining or similar activities, and also industrial plant derelicts, closed and no longer in operation. In some cases these cover large acreages of land, now unsightly and unproductive. For all that, Ukraine is a most pleasant and attractive country, with the sun shining every day. (In fact we have hardly had a day’s rain since south China!)
Ukraine is one of those countries you know virtually nothing about until you actually visit it. One of the stories among travellers is the random and frequent nature of police stops and ‘charges’, as in Central Asia and Russia. Our experience all the way has not been too bad, but there is always the little fear that you may be stopped and accused of something trumped up, as Maurice was in Russia. Several days ago between Kiev and Lviv, Martin, driving the lead car, was stopped twice. But it was not capriciously or randomly done (though we suspect those driving big black cars are not flagged down). He exceeded the speed limit both times, recorded on radar, and both times he was let off the fine, though the second time it was by the skin of his teeth, I think.
The second time, Martin got a Ukraine road code and worked out something of their system. There are often no speed limit signs giving actual figures, like 90, but there are town or village signs. We realized that if the town/village sign is in blue, the speed is 90 and if it is in white, then the limit is 60. Now the village may be only 500 metres long and the road may be lined with barriers except for the bit where the police car sits, but you still have to obey the speed limit. So we have learnt a few things about Ukraine road signage. Martin takes it in his stride; I am the one who gets up tight!
Kiev and Lviv are most interesting cities for the visitor. They have a very European, cultured feel about them, which did surprise us – not quite sure what we expected, as we have been quite ignorant till recently about this country. Kiev, the capital, has a wonderful main street, vul Khreshchatyk, which becomes a pedestrian-only thoroughfare on Sundays. We wandered up and down in the crowds, laptops over shoulders, viewing the entertainment in the late afternoon and had dinner in a restaurant with free internet – chosen specifically for that purpose, as our hotels recently had not supplied connections. When you are away, messages to and from home become treasured communications.
Kiev has a wealth of churches with wonderful domes and steeples that managed to survive the Stalin years and World War 2. There is an area called the Caves Monasteries or Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, full of churches and museums and monks’ bodies wrapped in shrouds in narrow dark underground corridors. After being in Moslem environments for so long, interesting as they are, it is good to be in Christian surroundings, though they are very different from our non-conformist practice. It is the same Lord who is worshipped in spite of all the trimmings. In the centre of the old town stands St Sophia Cathedral built in the 10th and 11th century in a similar style to Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which we have visited several times. It’s a world that is so old and makes us feel that NZ is comparatively so young.
Lviv is the loveliest of Ukraine cities, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its well preserved mediaeval centre. Until 1939 it was part of Poland and then became incorporated in the USSR till independence in 1991. The history of Ukraine is one of division among the surrounding powers of Russia, Poland, and Austria/ Hungary; even Turkey tried to take over at one stage. Independence today is still a new experience after former nationhood centuries ago. Sorry for the very potted history!
Our touring of the old city of Lviv was aided by the services of a university professor who offered himself as a guide ($25US for 2 ½ hours) soon after we stepped out of our taxi. He had excellent English and a great knowledge of his city and its history, so it was money well spent. He took us around the Middle Ages city - into churches, back alleys, hidden-away cafes, the former Armenian district, the old Jewish quarter, till most of the Jews disappeared under the Nazis. Like most guides, he gave us more information than we could retain, but it was most interesting and worthwhile. In the afternoon we retraced our steps to several of the cafes he had pointed out and whiled away the hot afternoon with coffee and drinks.
Such is the life of a tourist! (Actually, it’s often quite hard work.) Thank you to those who have sent birthday greetings to us both.
Don’t forget the other version of our trip – www.wheelspin.travellerspoint.com

Posted by Silkspin 12:44 Comments (1)

Hobbits and Nissans in Volgograd, Russia

Tsaritsyn and Stalingrad

Bilbo the Hobbit was about 50 when adventure befell him; Bilbo the Nissan was 15 when his travel escapades began. Perhaps 50 hobbit years and 15 car years are somewhat similar. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo recounts to his Hobbit companions words spoken to him previously by his uncle Bilbo: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to’. I am sure our Nissan could be heard muttering similar sentiments about his wheels when he was locked in a container and shipped off to Hong Kong to drive the Silk Road.
Once in China, Bilbo displayed an unusual wobble in his body once the speed got up to 80 or 100 kms per hour. On rough roads the wobble was hardly noticeable, but give him beautiful smooth tar seal on the open road in Xinjiang, northern China, and the problem became more pronounced. At times the issue seemed to fade away and be forgotten, but after the rough desert tracks of the Aral and Caspian areas, followed by good quality seal in northern Kazakhstan, Bilbo’s driver was very concerned about his wellbeing.
Help was sought in Atyrau through our contact working in the oil industry for Chevron, and we were advised to wait till Astrakhan, where the quality of service would be much better. Our full day there fell on a Sunday, when only the Nissan show room was open for business, and not the workshop. However they furnished us with the Nissan address in Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, where Martin and Maurice sought help on our arrival in the city. Bilbo was left in their tender care for the next 24 hours, during which time all eight rubber bushes were changed out, four in the trailing arms and another four somewhere else in the mysteries (to me, anyway) of Bilbo’s anatomy, probably his knee and ankle joints. So now he is a new man, or rather a new vehicle. As Gandalf said to Frodo, ‘You take after Bilbo. There is more about you than meets the eye, as I said of him long ago.’ And we echo the same sentiments about our Bilbo.
While the Nissan workshop in Volgograd worked on the car, we had a day site seeing around the interesting city. First was a visit to Mother Russia, an absolutely huge monument of a woman carrying a sword, 72 metres tall, with the sword an extra 11 metres. Added to that, she stands on the top of a hill, Mammy Mound, and thus becomes a very eye catching figure. Known as Hill 102 during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, it is now an evocative memorial to the estimated one million soldiers who died in the city in World War 2. We certainly got our exercise that day climbing the many stairs to the base of Mother Russia. Numerous school classes were visiting at the same time, the serious faces of the children viewing the eternal flame and the names of the dead indicating that it is still a centre of homage for Russia today.
The Museum for the Defence of Stalingrad unfortunately didn’t have any captions in English but we were still able to understand the catastrophic significance of the battle in the lives of its people. The city was almost completely devastated and little remains from prior to 1940; the ruins of a flour mill, belonging to the German community of the city prior to the war, stand beside the museum as a poignant symbol of the destruction.
Another museum we visited recalled the city’s third former name – Tsaritsyn. After the First World War and the collapse of Tsarist Russia, the city saw fierce fighting in the civil war between the Red and White Armies.
Our final night in Russia was spent near the Ukraine border in the small town of Doneck. It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. As our eyes took in the run down Soviet buildings and the long grass of the grounds, we wondered what we had come to. Our booked accommodation seemed to be a health establishment or camp of some sort. We were shown up bare dirty-grey concrete stairs into a lounge of 1950s decor and asked in halting English to wait while our rooms were prepared – and very Spartan they turned out to be.
However the hospitality was very warm and sincere. It seemed that dinner was included with our board and we were to eat with the director, who spoke only Russian, and his friend, who spoke some French as well as Russian. We, as you well know, speak English and a smattering of French. But what does language matter when you have good food and a bottle of vodka? The idea was to fill the little glasses, rise to your feet, click your glasses to everyone’s good health, drink the whole amount in one gulp, clench your right fist and pull it down with a loud ‘yes’. I limited myself to one little sip at a time and the others declined another fill-up after about the fourth ‘yes’. There was lots of laughter and good humour, but it was just as well we were not driving anywhere afterwards.
Later they organised for the friend’s great niece to come over and meet us. She spoke excellent English, delighted to have the opportunity to practise speaking to foreign English speakers. When the subject of crossing the border the next day came up, a man was contacted to help us fill in the forms and purchase insurance for driving in Ukraine. The next day the director’s son drove before us the 10 kilometres to the border in order to show us the way. As I said, don’t judge a book by its cover!
PS. To the great silent majority out there - hope you are enjoying the silkspin blog. Let us know if you are.

Posted by Silkspin 21:02 Comments (4)

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