Time to say goodbye, Taipei… I’ll miss you!

It’s 10 pm.  I should be sleeping because I have to catch a taxi for the airport at 4 am.  In a moment of complete insanity, I booked a flight departing at 7.40 am.  And now, I am severely regretting the stupidity of this decision as 4 am looms.  The other flight to Sydney was at 11.55 pm but it would have meant booking the hotel for another night and only using it for half a day, so I decided to save the money.

Anyway, it’s my last day in Taipei and feeling a tad sad that I have to leave.  I wasn’t sold on Taipei at first.  It seemed like just a mini dirty Tokyo, but over the days I discovered many more layers to the city and really came to like it.  It’s a bit Japanese and a bit Chinese but still has very much it’s own unique special flavour.  The people are without a doubt some of the nicest I’ve ever encountered on my travels.  And there’s a real unpretentious, easy-breezy vibe to the place.  It is what it is and the people aren’t wannabes like those other people up the Han Peninsula.

On my second last night, I decided to ignore all the nay sayers on Trip Advisor and went to visit Raohe night market.  Night markets are a huge part of Taiwanese life.  They have unbelievable selection of foods.  I wish I ate meat… I could have gone to town on offal: pig’s fallopian tubes, tripe and chicken feet!

I had my Lucy Jordan moment… Not quite Paris in a sports car and not quite 37 either… But I got a ride to the night market through the streets of Taipei on the back of a scooter..

And today, on my last day… It finally stopped raining!!  The temperature maxed out at 29 degrees so I hot footed it down to Taipei 101 to check out the city view.  It’s funny… The Taiwanese appear to be really theoretical with their dress.  It was 29 degrees but because it’s still winter, they were all out in their hooded down puffer jackets.  Meanwhile, I was in shorts and a T-shirt.

Taipei 101 is a very nice building and definitely looks much better in real life than in pictures.  It was at one time the tallest building in the world but already in 2019, it has dropped to 10th place.  And next year when Jeddah Tower opens, it will drop another place.

Some random stupid Mainlander staging a one man protest against the Fallun Gong protest that was going on outside the building…

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The lift whisks you up to the observation deck on level 89 in a matter of seconds.  Level 89 is a windowed observation deck.  But then you go up 2 flights of stairs and you have the open observation deck.  When I got to level 89 and looked out the window, my first reaction was, “Why the f*** did they use smoked glass for the windows?” … But then a short while later, I went up to the non-windowed observation deck and noticed that the view looked exactly the same.  Of course the glass wasn’t smoky.  It was crystal clear.  It was just the blanket of smog hovering over the city.

Level 89…

Level 91…

Time for bed now… 4 am is certainly not going to be pretty.  And to add insult to injury, there is track work on my line when I get back to Sydney!!

And so my lovelies… That’s it ‘till the next trip!  I wish you all a wonderful 2019 filled with amazing adventures!

New Year in Taipei

It’s day 14 out of a 15 day trip to Taipei, and for 12 of those 14 days it has rained…  Not just a one hour monsoon shower in the afternoon, but it has pretty much rained for the entire day every day.  As such, I haven’t been on as many day excursions as I had anticipated… Well, the rain is part of the problem at least.  The other part of the problem is that the drinks here are really cheap and really strong and I have been indulging a little bit more than I should.  So, I haven’t been springing out of bed at 5 am like a Sealy Posturepedic model like I usually do.  My day excursions have been mainly limited to various restaurants and bars, with the odd museum thrown in for good measure.  But hey… It’s an urban vacation in an East Asian city in winter.

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I finally got to go to one of the restaurants that I’ve been wanting to try for a long time: The Modern Toilet Restaurant in Ximen. It’s a completely toilet themed restaurant.  The interior is set up like a bathroom with exposed plumbing and everyone sits on a toilet to eat their meal.  The food is served in toilet bowls and bed pans and the drinks are served in small urinals.  The menu features such treats as “Poop stuffed pancakes”, “Diarrhoea Cocoa” and “Taiwanese Urine Beer”.  It’s a restaurant that you go to purely for the gimmick of it, and as such, there were no locals there, only tourists.  Having said that though, the food wasn’t too bad.  I had a vegetarian hot pot served with rice and tea served in a small urinal.  The service is a bit slow… The problem is that the restaurant is on two levels and the wait staff have to lug these huge toilet bowls up and down the stairs… It’s not like you can stack a few plates on your arms and do it quickly.  They can only do one toilet at a time.

I was in Taipei for New Year’s Eve and went out to partake in the celebrations.  I have always maintained that going out partying on new year’s eve is just for amateurs and bogans.  It’s their one big night of the year.  The cool people stay at home on New Year’s Eve… But somehow, this year I managed to get caught up in the hype of it all.  New Year’s Eve parties always have such a build-up, but ultimately are a huge letdown.  This year was no exception.

The big ticket attraction for new year’s eve in Taipei is to gather around Taipei 101 and watch the fireworks.  Since it was raining quite heavily though, I opted to go to a night club and watch the fireworks on a screen there, rather than stand outside in the rain getting wet.  The word on the street was that this club “Cercle” would be fun… I contacted them via Facebook messenger and got a good vibe.  600 TWD for all you can drink all night and a screen showing the fireworks… Woohoo!!  This night would go off I thought.  You could reserve a table but I figured that wasn’t necessary.

It was a small club, about the size of two large classrooms.  As far as nightclubs go, it looked pretty cool and was set up very nicely with lockers, tables and lounges.  They had digital lava light type projections on the wall and the DJ was playing house remixes of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s songs.  Some of the songs and mixes were pretty cool, but you know, on New Year’s Eve in 2019, can we really not do any better than Sade’s “Smooth Operator” or The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby”?  Nice for nostalgia, but come on…

We rocked up at the club at about 10.30 pm.  I realize it’s very early to go to a night club at that time, but since the point of it was to do the countdown and watch the fireworks, I figured it would be ok.  When we arrived, there were only four other people there.  Thank God for the staff, because at least they boosted numbers and the club didn’t look quite so empty.  Up until the time we left at 12.30, maybe another 20 or 30 people arrived.   There were about 20 or so tables there and about 15 of them had reserved signs, but most of them remained empty for the whole time we were there.  No-one danced at all… All the Taiwanese people sat at their tables playing games and complaining that the music was too loud.  At about 11.10 pm, they stopped the lava light show and started to project a stop-watch on the wall in order to do the countdown.  It was a bit foolish to start the countdown already from 50 minutes I thought, because it just emphasized how boring the night was.    We all just stood there watching the clock for 50 minutes: tick, tock, tick, tock.

So anyway, the clock is ticking away… It gets to 11.52 pm and suddenly the clock freaks out an starts showing the wrong time.  It showed that it was 12.52 am rather than 11.52 pm.  Next thing, a skinny Taiwanese guy, one of the staff, flurries onto the stage, has a panic attack and screams, what I assumed to be the Chinese for, “Faaaaaark!!!  Has anybody got a watch?” He grabs a watch from a customer and starts doing the countdown.  At midnight he screeches, “Happy new year”, throws a bit of confetti in the air and then the other staff promptly race in with brooms.  Woohoo!!!

After that, we went to sit down at one of the unreserved tables… Not that it would have mattered if we had sat at a reserved table because there was barely anyone in the club and what’s more, the reserved tables were mostly empty … About 15 minutes later, the aforementioned skinny guy sashays up to our table and says, “This table is reserved”.  I didn’t need to sit down anyway, so we got up but I proceeded to point out to him in a less than diplomatic tone, that most of the reserved tales were still empty anyway.  10 minutes later, skinny guy comes back and says, “Oh sorry, it’s not reserved after all.  You can sit there”.  I’m trying hard not to react to people or situations these days… Clearly I need to try harder, because suddenly, my mood plummeted faster than a fat kid on a see-saw… I put my face into his face and pointed out to him in a less-than-kind tone of voice, that this was the worst club in not only Taiwan, but the whole entire world.  He apologized.  We left.

By this stage, I had drunk quite a bit, so we headed to the Ximen pedestrian area to eat some street food.  Ximen was buzzing … I ate lots of stinky tofu… It’s amazing what you’ll eat when you’re drunk.  Clearly however, the food vendors didn’t have licences because the police kept driving through with sirens chasing the vendors away.  The vendors merely parked in another spot and the customers followed.  After three plates of stinky tofu, and being quite wet, we called it a night and I went home.

The days since new year’s eve have just been spent eating more food!  I have branched out and tried some other vegetarian places.  Thankfully, there are a lot of nice vegetarian restaurants in Taipei. New Year’s Day, I had fake beef and real broccoli, fried noodles and dumplings at Xin Hong in Ximen.

And… on the day after, on January the 2nd, I tried a vegan burger at Ooh Cha Cha.

In between eating and drinking, I did manage to make it to the National Palace Museum.  It has an extremely impressive collection of Chinese Imperial artifacts and artworks collected by China’s emperors.  When the civil war broke out between the communists and the nationalists, Chiang Kai Shek decided to move the collection to Taiwan.  They only managed to get about 22% of the collection before the communists stopped them, but they did manage at least to get the best pieces.  And so, the National Palace Museum is one of the most impressive of its kind in the world.  As with any large museum, my approach is just to get a quick overview of the whole place and then just focus on one area.  I focused on the pottery, which was truly stunning.  The funniest thing though in the museum was watching all the (who I presumed to be) Mainlanders, hell-bent on cataloging the entire collection, not looking at anything, just going click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move-click-move….

And some leek filled pancakes to finish off the day…

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It’s all about the moments…

I have a little confession to make… I’m not really getting the high pitched buzz out of Taipei that I thought I would.  I keep walking around and comparing everything here to everywhere else I have traveled and feeling generally very underwhelmed.  It’s kind of odd because when the students complain to me that Sydney isn’t good because, for example, you can’t just stay in your room and buy and pay for everything through WeChat… you actually have to leave your room, or that curries here aren’t good because they’re not spicy enough.  I’m always telling them, “It’s not bad, it’s just different and that’s OK”.   Travel is about experiencing life and seeing how people live in other parts of the world.  I really need to remind myself of this.  I’ve been feeling just a tad let down. *hashtag first world problem* … Taipei is not an obvious city like Tokyo or Bangkok, but that’s OK!  The magic lies in the moments.  And the great thing is that you can get on a train or bus for 30 minutes and be in the country side soaking in a hot spring.

So far, I’ve made two trips to the Beitou Hot Springs.  Beitou is the closest and most convenient to Taipei City.  It’s only about 20 or 30 minutes on the MRT red line.  It was also the first hot spring area to be developed in Taiwan. The first hot spring spa there was actually opened by a German, but it was the Japanese that really developed the area and the whole “onsen” culture.  They needed somewhere to relax and unwind after a hard day of raping and pillaging the land.  You can certainly feel the Japanese influence in the area.

On the first trip to Beitou, I went to Kawayu onsen.  It’s located a bit further up the mountain so I took the MRT to Xin Beitou and then cabbed it from the station.  It calls itself by the Japanese pronunciation of the characters for “River Spring”  (Kawa + Yu) but of course all the cab drivers only know it by the Chinese pronunciation.  Fortunately the kanji for “river” is pretty easy and I could half remember the kanji for “spring”, so I drew them in the air with my finger.  The cab driver eventually worked out my air kanji and whisked me off to Kawayu.

It was raining that day, as it has been pretty much every other day, so it was difficult to take many pictures and you can’t take any pictures inside anyway…  The few snaps that I have don’t really do it justice.

The onsen was great and felt very Japanese, although it was a little more “rustic” than you would find in Japan.  There were no cabs to take me back so I bussed it to Shipai MRT station.

For the second trip to Beitou, I couldn’t be f***ed drawing air kanji and dealing with cab drivers again so I just went to Beitou Hot Spring Resort, two minutes’ walk from the station.  The resort itself was of a much higher standard, but of course you didn’t get the mountain view.

The other bonus of going to this resort was that “Thermal Valley”, a river of steaming spring water, was just up the road.

Yesterday, I went to visit Shen Keng “Old Street” which is a rural township in southern New Taipei City and is famous for its tofu dishes because apparently the best tofu is made here and the restaurants here use a distinctive cooking method.  There’s A LOT of tofu!  Pretty much everything is tofu… All different kinds like regular tofu, stinky tofu, dessert tofu, fried stinky tofu, BBQ stinky tofu, tofu cheese, tofu cake, sweet tofu drink, dried tofu, and tofu ice cream. As well as the tofu, they have a lot of sweet snacks and candies. I wasn’t too hungry so I only tried the tofu in spicy soup and deep fried stinky tofu.  Apparently people like stinky tofu.  Personally, I don’t get it.  It smells like rotting garbage… It’s like “Let’s take a perfectly good food and make it smell and taste bad just for the hell of it.”  I had to soak the deep fried stinky stuff in the spicy soup in order to mask the smell and taste.  And when you walk past a stinky tofu restaurant, it’s like walking through an open sewer.

I had a “temple” day.  I walked around the city and checked out a few of the Buddhist temples:  Longshan, Dalongdong Baoan, Confucius and Tian Hou.  As is the case with cathedrals in Europe, unless you are a worshiper of that religion or have a particular interest in the history of the structure, they all tend to blur into one after a while, especially Buddhist temples which are mostly built on a standard design.  The beauty of these temples lies in the small details: the colours, the flowers, the incense, and the intricacies of the design.  The structures themselves are all relatively modern as the original structures were destroyed one way or another.

I discovered this too on my temple walk: Toffee cherry tomatoes on a stick which were surprisingly good!

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I witnessed this mother/child bonding moment on the MRT the other day:

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Recently at work, there has been a lot of discussion about the issue of smartphone usage, in particular internet and smartphone addiction.  While this may have been an isolated incident and probably not the norm, it does make you wonder about the future generation.

And on that note..

I’m off to have dinner in Taipei’s Modern Toilet restaurant.   It’s completely toilet themed… Right up my alley… You can get such delights as “Modern toilet turd sub sandwich”, “Poop stuffed pancakes” and “Urine beer”.  Yummy, yummy… can’t wait!

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Flying to Taipei and first impressions

I really wanted to get away for the Christmas and New Year break.  Work had been getting me down and so I felt like I needed a bit of pick-me-up treat.  Not being a huge fan of beaches, I opted for a two week Asian urban adventure.  Taipei seemed like a good idea… It’s not too far away and I like travelling in ugly cities.  People are generally nicer in ugly cities, with the exception of Seoul of course.  It’s like they feel that they have to try harder to compensate.  But now, sitting in my room on the third day of rain, I’m thinking maybe I could have gritted my teeth and put up with a bit of sand and sun.

I booked a ticket to Taipei on China Airlines.  The main reason for this decision was that it’s the only airline offering non-stop flights between Sydney and Taipei… And of course, the price was very competitive!  If you Google “Airlines + most fatalities + last 30 years” China Airlines comes in at the number 1 spot, beating out Korean Airlines at number 2 by about 200 people.  Mind you, for “most fatalities of all time”, Aeroflot is the hands down winner there! China Airlines was founded by an ex-air force pilot and throughout the 90s, they mainly recruited ex-ROC Air Force pilots.  It took them about 8 crashes and 700 odd fatalities, to work out that this practice wasn’t working for them.  For about the last 15 years though, they’ve been cleaning up their act. They recruit university graduates and put them through a pilot training program and have also overhauled their maintenance programme.

Anyway, today’s China Airlines is not too shabby… Now, on the Sydney – Taipei route, they fly brand new Airbus A350s. The A350 is like the Dreamliner… It has higher ceilings, bigger windows, variable mood lighting and a higher cabin pressure so you don’t feel so disgusting when you arrive.  The economy baggage allowance is 30 kg, which is perfect for “just-in-case” travelers like me.  I packed 25 kgs for two weeks, including jeans that I never wear.  That’s the heaviest outbound luggage I’ve ever had and for the shortest trip. For the interior, they’re going for a kind of zen bamboo forest thing and have done the walls in a sort of wood grain finish and an angular pattern on the carpet.  I’m not a big fan of Chinese aesthetic. For me personally, I don’t get “bamboo forest”.  I just all feels a bit chintzy.  Anyway, at the end of the day, economy is economy and we were all crammed in like cattle on a live export to Asia.

I’ve been here for four days now, and my impression of Taipei is that it’s a pretty nice place.  Visually, it’s no show-stopper… It certainly ticks the ugly box, that’s for sure… Kind of a dirty mini-Tokyo… But… It proves my  theory of “ugly city, nice people”.  People here seem very polite, kind and friendly and the language barrier doesn’t seem to cause too much awkwardness.  Overall, the city has a relaxed, unpretentious vibe to it.  It was part of the Empire of Japan for 50 years so culturally it feels like a Chinese/Japanese hybrid.  The Japanese influence can be felt most noticeably in their manners, and of course the Japanese style hot springs and Japanese food chains.  Announcements on trains are made in Mandarin, English and Japanese.

Perhaps in part due to the Japanese influence, I’ve been having flashbacks and have been reliving my time in Japan… Going into supermarkets and restaurants and not being able to read the labels and not knowing what’s in the food, and having to rely on people to always translate everything.  And then there’s the whole “gaijin” scene (whatever the Taiwanese equivalent of “gaijin” is) … Going into bars and witnessing the “zero to hero” phenomenon or the foreigners who are trapped in a bubble one way or another… And then there’s the whole who’s into rice versus potatoes versus sticky rice.  While I still do use the terminology myself, it’s always with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  I’m so glad I can just observe it now and walk away.

On the other hand, one positive flashback is the relaxed attitude towards alcohol and drinking in Asian countries… Being able to buy alcohol in the convenience store and just walk down the street drinking… Here, not only do you have the choice of the usual stuff, but you can buy shots!  It’s one of those bucket list items to walk down a city street doing shots you bought in a convenience store.  I started with Pussycat, moved on to Buttery Nipple and ended on Porn Star!

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The food here is INCREDIBLE!!!  Perhaps in part due to there being a lot of elderly Buddhists living here, there are quite a number of amazing vegetarian restaurants.  So far, I’ve checked out “Three to Vegetarian”, “Minder Vegetarian” and “Rice Revolution”.  I thought the name Rice Revolution was pretty cool.  It sounds like an Asian protest rally… But the other two names?  Not sure what the idea there was.  The first two restaurants are buffet restaurants.  They each have about thirty or forty dishes.  You help yourself and then they weigh it at check-out.  Although Rice Revolution sounded cool, it was quite small and they had a very limited menu.  However, outside of designated vegetarian restaurants, it’s pretty much a porkfest everywhere else.

Other than eating and walking down streets drinking, I’ve done the usual kind of tourist stuff and checked out the main sights.  I even did a Bikram Yoga class.  If you’ve ever wondered how you Bikram Yoga could be more challenging and unpleasant… Try doing it in Chinese!  That takes it to a whole new level!

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Here are some random scenes around Taipei…

Taipei 101 viewed from Elephant Mountain…

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Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall…

One final thought…

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Scenes from Jerusalem

Jerusalem has a vibe and an atmosphere than cannot be put into words… So, I’m not going to try.  Here are some very random and very spontaneous snaps from my walks around this incredible city.

Scenes from around the Damascus Gate in the Old City:

The souvenir and gift shop that is the Via Dolorosa:

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City:

Scenes from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City:

Leaving the Old City …

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Jaffa Road and the Mahane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre:

Being Latvian, we always get a bit excited when Latvia pops up somewhere, or gets a mention… Umm, maybe not this time…

The Mount of Olives:

…And the view from the top:

 

That’s Ramallah, baby!

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ramallah.  Another day, another Arab city… Not that there’s anything wrong with Arab cities.

So, I went to Ramallah, the de facto capital, political, economic, and cultural heart of Palestine; religiously relaxed, bars with beer flowing freely and… the epicentre of Palestinian feminist activity.  Of course you wouldn’t know all of this popping in quickly for the day as I did.  Arriving in downtown, the first impression of Ramallah is that it’s a dirty, congested dump with wall-to-wall hijabs and no scent of any alcohol anywhere. Quick disclaimer:  Obviously there are huge extenuating circumstances.  Ramallah is a city that you need to spend either a couple of hours or a couple of months in.  It’s the kind of place where you need spend time and really get under the skin of the city and you would be rewarded.  Otherwise, it’s not a pretty place so just do your business and get out.

The trip to Ramallah, like the other West Bank cities, starts at the bus station at the Damascus Gate; Bus 218 or 219.  Again, as with going anywhere in the West Bank, it requires going through military checkpoints.  For Ramallah, you go through checkpoint Qalandia, just on the border of the two cities.  While the other checkpoints obviously, are not great, they didn’t seem too bad.  Qalandia, on the other hand, is a bleak and depressing place with a very cold war-like feel to it.  Although the distance between the two city centres is only 16 kms, with all the traffic and checkpoints, it ends up taking a very long time.

Once you pass through the checkpoint, you’re on Ramallah Road, a long road that snakes all the way to the centre.  Think Parramatta Road in peak hour, but in Ramallah it’s peak hour all the time.  Then eventually you arrive at the centre of Ramallah, which is just a traffic roundabout with six rubbish-strewn roads feeding into it!  And yes… It’s as bad as it sounds!

Just in case you’re not sure which is the main street of Ramallah…

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Some random street scenes…

My reason for visiting Ramallah was to visit the Yasser Arafat Museum.  Unlike my impression of downtown, the museum didn’t disappoint.  It was amazing!  The museum is on three floors and gives and incredibly comprehensive account of Yasser’s life, the Fatah movement and the whole Arab-Israeli conflict.  In other part of the museum, are the rooms where he spent the last years of his life while under siege.  Next to the museum is his tomb, made of Jerusalem stone.

Once I was finished at the museum, I wasn’t keen to stick around, so it was back on the 218 bound for the Damascus Gate.

Going back to Jerusalem required going through Qalandia again. On the way in, the military don’t check anything but on the way back, it’s a very thorough check.  I don’t understand how the system works.  At the checkpoint on the way back Jerusalem from Bethlehem, the Palestinians had to get off bus whereas the tourists could stay on.  To my surprise, the opposite was the case at Qalandia.  I was beginning to feel like a special little butterfly everywhere I went, but this time the two soldiers got on the bus, checked all the Palestinians and told me to get off and walk through the metal detector to the other side.  And the bus didn’t even wait for me!!  The guy who checked me at the gate was a vile Nazi pig.  The metal detector was going off but I was just waiting for him to wish me well and wave me through.  This one was gesturing and calling out to me… Of course I couldn’t hear him through all the bullet-proof glass, plus I’m a bit slow on the uptake… He wanted me to take off my belt, my shoes etc… Meanwhile, I’m just jumping backwards and forwards through the metal detector, still waiting for the smile and “Have a nice day”.  Finally I removed my shoes and belt and emptied my pockets, and got through the metal detector without it buzzing.  He studied my visa for about ten minutes.  I think he was new on the job. Then I waited for another bus and made my way back to Jerusalem.  It was bad enough going through it one time, but for many people, this is their daily life.

Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs

Today, I went to visit Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and several generations of his family are thought to have lived and are now buried.  Hebron is a divided city, under both Palestinian and Israeli control.  It’s divided into areas H1 and H2.  Area H1 is entirely Palestinian, contains 80 % of the population and is under Palestinian control.  Area H2 is contains the Jews and the remainder of the Arabs and is under full Israeli control.  The border between the two sectors runs right down the middle of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  It’s a weird situation and unique in the West Bank in that the Jewish settlers have settled right smack dab in the centre of the old town, quite literally on top of the Palestinians.  In other parts of the West Bank, they build settlements next to and around the Palestinian towns but not actually in them.  The people moving to other settlements in the West Bank are motivated mainly by economics.  It’s cheap.  You can get a big comfortable house for a fraction of the cost of Jerusalem and it’s an easy commute.  The Jewish settlers in Hebron on the other hand, are a different breed. They are hardcore Zionists.  As a result there is a lot of tension between them and the Palestinians. The settlers are under protection of the Israeli Defence Forces with apparently four soldiers to every settler.

To get to Hebron, you have the choice of taking an Arab bus or an Israeli bus.  I opted for the Israeli bus simply because it’s easier.  There’s free Wi-Fi at the bus station, the bus is direct, you don’t need to deal with checkpoints; you get waved through… And… the bus is bullet proof!  When I got to the bus station though, the bullet proof bus wasn’t coming for another hour, so I thought I could save time by taking a different bus which stopped at Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement just on the edge of Hebron and then taking another bus from there.  I don’t know what I was thinking… It was like getting off the train at somewhere like Woy Woy and expecting it to be a major transport hub.  Imagine the smallest, quietest ‘burb you can think of, divide it by ten and populate it with grumpy Jewish people… Well, then you’ve got Kiryat Arba! The only busses passing through there were the same bullet proof ones coming from Jerusalem, so I still had to wait the hour.

While I was waiting I approached a man on the street to enquire exactly where I should wait for the bullet proof bus. It turns out he is a Jew from the north-east of India, somewhere close to the border of Bangladesh.  I honestly didn’t know there was such a thing: North-east Indian Jews.  You learn something new every day! … Anyway, I think he took pity on me and offered to drive me to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  We get in his car and drive off.  We start he chatting… He tells me he is from north-east India and I tell him I’m from Australia.  He starts laughing and says, “My gun is from Australia” and points to the gun on the dash.  “That’s nice” I replied, smiling on the outside but quietly freaking out on the inside.  “Ha ha, no, not really” he says… “I work in security for the Parliament” … “Oh, you jokester, you!”  And then, we arrived at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  I thanked him, shook his hand and off I went to explore Hebron.

Arrival at the tomb on the Jewish side…

It was Muslim prayer time when I arrived, so the tomb was closed to tourists for about thirty minutes.  While I was waiting, I went through the checkpoint to explore the old city of Hebron.  For me, as an obvious non-Jew and non-Muslim, it wasn’t an issue passing in either direction through the checkpoint.  You could see the Palestinian guys get a really hard time when they pass back.  The Palestinian guy in front of me had to take off his shirt, shoes, belt, roll up his pants and even then they made him walk through the metal detector multiple times.  When I walked through and the alarm sounded, they just asked me, “Do you have a knife or a gun?” Of course I replied “No”  They took my word for it, waved me through and wished me a nice time in Hebron.

The old city of Hebron is very attractive and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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As you walk through the old city and you look up, you notice that the alley ways are caged in with wire and bars covered in rubbish.  Above the bars and wires live the settlers who through the rubbish and stones onto the Palestinians below.

Beyond the old town is the modern town.  It’s quite a bustling city.  It seems that the dodgier the city, the cheaper the felafel.  In Tel Aviv it’s 20 shekels, Jerusalem it’s 15, Bethlehem 5 and in Hebron it’s only 3!

Then it was time to enter the tomb from the Muslim side…

They wanted me to go in drag, as a sign of respect.  Standing in front of Rebecca’s tomb…

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Inside …

Time to go home, so it’s back on the bullet-proof bus bound for Jerusalem.

“I’m bullet proof, nothing to loose… Fire away, Fire away.  Ricochet, you take your aim… Fire away, fire away.  You shoot me down, but I won’t fall… I am titanium.”

Bethlehem, Palestine.

I went to Bethlehem today.  It’s only about nine kilometres away from Jerusalem so I opted for the bus.  It’s very simple.  You take the number 231 bus from the Arab bus station opposite the Damascus Gate and it gets you to downtown Bethlehem in about forty minutes.  Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority so it requires going through an Israeli military checkpoint.  They don’t stop the bus on the way in… I guess they don’t care who or what goes IN.   They do stop it on the way back to Jerusalem, however.  All the Palestinians have to get off the bus and are checked The tourists are allowed to stay on the bus while two young Israeli guys with machine guns come on and check passports.

My initial plan was only to visit Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity but once I got there, I walked around downtown, chatted to some locals, checked out the old city, looked at the dividing wall between Israel and the West Bank and ended up in Camp Aida, a Palestinian refugee Camp since 1948.  The locals were very nice and seemed keen to chat and share their plight.  One man was keen to point out the difference between Palestinian and Israeli taxi drivers… Although both Israeli and Palestinian taxi drivers will rip you off, at least the Palestinian ones aren’t rude like the Israelis!

I’ll let the pictures tell the story.  The only time I felt a little uneasy was when Osama, my driver, pointed out the Israeli Guard Tower overlooking the camp and the walls of the school opposite the tower with bullet holes in the walls.  Although to be honest, I don’t know which made me feel worse; that or Osama’s halitosis.

Getting the bus from the Damascus Gate:

When I arrived, I bought a felafel from this guy.  He was quick to point out that Bethlehem is better than Tel Aviv because felafel only costs five shekels as opposed to Tel Aviv’s 20 shekels.

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Some faces of Bethlehem:

Some street scenes:

A quick look at Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.  Most of the inside of the church was undergoing repairs or renovations so it was boarded up or covered with scaffolding.  The parts not undergoing renovation were covered with Russian tourists.

Then I came across Osama, the taxi driver…

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… And asked him to take me to see some of the wall that separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel.  There’s a lot of graffiti on the wall.

After that, we went to Camp Aida, one of the Palestinian refugee camps.  It’s been a refugee camp since 1948.  Now the tents have been replaced by more permanent structures, although the conditions in which the live is very poor; many families sharing one apartment and sporadic water and electricity supply.

A reminder of all the men women and children who have been killed…

Bullet holes in the wall…

Some scenes from the streets of Camp Aida…

There’s no getting away from the wall…

Osama took me to the roof of the building where he lives, so that I could see over the wall…

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From the roof, I could see over the wall to the Israeli settlements… and noted the stark contrast between those and the refugee camp.

It’s incredibly saddening to think that people live like this everyday.  They live in an outdoor prison with no luck, no hope and no future.

.. And that was my day!

Ethiopia Street, Jerusalem

I rented a room through Airbnb at Number 11 Ethiopia Street, Jerusalem.  This video gives you a little tour of the house.  For the last 20 years of his life, this was the home of Ben Yehuda, father of the modern Hebrew language.

Here are some photos of the house from the outside:

And a few shots of the Ethiopian Church at Number 10, Ethiopia Street:

Akko

Meanwhile, I made the trip to Akko despite my Tel Aviv host’s discouragement  “It’s a dirty Arab town and not really worth the time and effort to get there” he claimed. It indeed did take a while to get there and I can understand… When people tell me they are going to go by train to the Blue Mountains, I’m like, “Whatever the hell for?” But as a tourist, it’s not like you have to rush off to work or anything.. So, I threw caution to the wind, threw on a pair of shorts and off I went.

Akko is in the north of Israel on Haifa Bay, about another thirty minutes on the train past Haifa.  Along with other cities, it claims to be one of the oldest continually inhibited cities in the world; about 4000 years apparently and is the holiest city for the Bahai faith.  It was initially meant to be part of an Arab state during the UN partition plan for Palestine, but it was captured during the war and annexed along with other parts of Palestine.  It then became a development town for thousands of Jewish immigrants mainly from Morocco and then later Russians and Ukrainians from the USSR.  However, the old city of Akko still remains very Arab Muslim and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From a distance, the walled old city of Akko is quite attractive.  It sits on a peninsula surrounded by water that comes up right to the city wall.  In the centre of the old city is the very attractive Al Jazzar Mosque… and no problem entering in shorts either!  The rest of the town is a labyrinth of covered walkways, part market and part residential.  There are a lot of sweets and spices at the market and also an open fresh fish market.  I’ll pause for a minute, so you can fully imagine the aroma of fish wafting around the labyrinth in 40 degree heat…

 

To be honest, Akko was a bit shabby and it was mainly a case of take some snaps, tick it off your list and leave.  One good thing about going to places like Akko is that it makes Tel Aviv look a whole lot better when you return.  It makes it easier to appreciate what it has to offer and overlook the ill-mannered and entitled Tel Avivians and the horrible service you get in shops and restaurants.  At the better end of the spectrum, the service in Tel Aviv can be quite stern.  At the other end of the spectrum, it’s just downright rude.  I was tip shamed the other day at a club.  The barman shouted at me, “It’s usual to tip in Israel!” as I went to pick up my change from the tray.  I’ve worked in the hospitality industry so I totally get tipping and I generally DO tip … But at bar, when you’ve just paid an extortionate 65 shekels (that’s 24 Australian dollars!!) for an extremely ordinary drink and the barman doesn’t speak to you… He just scowls at you and flicks his face upwards as if to say, “What the f*** do you want?” … Can you explain to me WHY I should tip you?

And now from one extreme to the other:  From a dirty Arab town to staying in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Jerusalem… More to follow!