For the second night of our Doi Inthanon trek, we're staying at the Karen "hill-tribe" village in the area. I say "hill-tribe" with inverted commas, and for good reason: this is actually well-known as a "fake" village — unlike the real hill-tribe villages further north in Thailand, it's quite literally just kept here for the purposes of tourism — and this is fairly obvious when you visit the place. They get tourists staying here almost every night (especially during peak season), and they're neither awkward nor intimidated around us. We saw the hill-tribe school, where the local kids are taught to read and write; we were shown the villagers' humble houses; and we observed the various animals that roam freely around the town. Our accommodation for the night — like last night's — is a simply affair of bamboo huts, which are once again rather uncomfortable, but which are something rough and different.
Our first chance to all get to know each other, during the Doi Inthanon trek, presented itself today at lunch. There are 15 of us in all, and Europe definitely dominates: two Swedes, two Dutch, two Germans (two guys), four Danish (two couples), two English, two Canadians, and myself. We enjoyed a quick lunch in "*Cluck*'s village" — *Cluck* claims to live in the village's largest house — and we explored the houses and farmyards a bit. When someone asked *Cluck* if he had a baby in his stomach (due to his constantly baring the formidable chubby spot and patting it), he said: "yes, baby ladyboy" :P. From the village, we spent most of the afternoon hiking, until we reached our gorgeous camp by the falls.
This morning I paired up with my mate Thierry, and together we embarked upon a chilly but pleasant exploration of downtown Salzburg. Our ultimate aim was to reach the hilltop Hohensalzburg fortress; but we had no hurry, so we managed to take in a fair few of Salzburg's attractions along the way. Salzburg is a gorgeous town, perfectly preserved over more than 500 years, and ridiculously compact and convenient to wander around in. The weather was freezing (quite literally — town signboards read -2°C) — but at least it was reasonably sunny. And anyway: it was my first-ever exposure to a frost- and snow-covered cityscape, and I for one was revelling in its beauty.
Katharina is one of the many European travellers that I met, whilst backpacking down in South America. I must admit: until I met her again this evening, I'd kinda forgotten who she was, or where I'd met her. But seeing her again sparked the recollection that she's a fluent Spanish-speaking German girl, who volunteered for several months in Peru; and that I met her while chillaxing on the beach in sunny Máncora, in northern Peru. Katharina lives here in Dresden (where she's currently wrapping up her master's thesis in geography), and it was primarily to catch up with her that I came here.
Christian is the last of (no less than) four people (or groups of people) with whom I've had a reunion in the past four days; of whom three were people that I met in South America. I met Christian while doing the Santa Cruz-Llanganuco hike in Peru, back in April. He lives in Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) with his wife Nancy, and his two daughers Marine and Florine. I had a great time this evening, enjoying dinner with Christian and his family, and catching up on old times.
For today's main activity, my friends Stef and Annick took myself (and little Karlijn) on a drive out of their home town of Turnhout, and over to the big city of Antwerp. Antwerp is only 50km's away from Turnhout, so it was a quick drive of less than an hour to get there. Antwerp is the heart of Flemish Belgium, and I soaked in as much of it as I could, as Stef dragged me around in the dreary December weather to see the sights and sounds. Annick and Karlijn, however, had better things to do than get soaking wet while wandering the streets: they stayed warm and dry in Antwerp's central mall, where they embarked on that greatest of all female pastimes: window shopping.
After last night's relaxing, beer-filled introduction to Belgium, this morning Stef continued the intro, with a tour of his humble town of Turnhout. Actually, Stef grew up in an even smaller town several km's away (almost touching the Dutch border) — but he's basically living in Turnhout now. It's a typical little Flemish town: filled with the things you'd expect from a town anywhere in Europe, such as shops, bars, and plenty of history. As well as seeing the more important landmarks, I also got to sample a bit of the local cuisine, and to hear a little about the town's developments over the years. Plus, of course, we had a bit more beer.
Before buggering off out of the place, this morning I took a little stroll around the charming city of Freiburg — the first place I've ever visited in Germany — and explored its historic centre. My buddy Killes had already shown me a fair bit of the town last night: but it was too dark and rainy last night to see anything properly; so today, I re-discovered it again in better conditions. I stuck mainly to the area of the cathedral and the daily morning market (home to plenty of different foods), as well as the central shopping area. Sadly, all I had was about an hour to complete the tour, before I needed to leave: a bit rushed, but better than nothing.
There's only one thing you really must see when you visit Pisa. I'll give you three guesses what it is. If you answered "the cemetery", or "the art gallery", then you're a knob, and you've obviously spent most of your existence living in a cave in Chad. And you've got one more try. So do yourself a favour, and don't make me pull out my electric cattle prod in frustration at you: tell me that you gotta see the tower! Since I had the entire day at my leisure today, here in the beautiful city of Pisa, I naturally spent at least some of it admiring the lovely and architecturally precarious landmark itself.
When I began my ride today, the destination that I had in mind was the famous town of Taormina. Not a terribly ambitious destination — by 11am I was in Giardini Naxos, and Taormina is at the top of a big hill that overlooks Giardini — but then again, I was feeling pretty relaxed today; and I haven't got much further to ride anyway, until I once again reach Messina. So from Giardini, I slogged up the winding mountain road that takes you up to Taormina; and once I'd conquered this steep but not-overly-long road, I went to see what all the fuss is about, and why Taormina is considered one of the top tourist hotspots in Sicily. Well, Taormina is a gorgeous town: squashed into a tiny hilltop plateau, it's all narrow cobbled streets and fresh mountain air; the architecture is gorgeous, and can be seen in the many churches, palaces and terraced houses in town; and the views of the beaches and bays of Giardini on one side, and of Mazzarò on the other side, are quite breathtaking. However, the place is riddled with tourists — you can't even sneeze without being offered a souvenir handkerchief — and it's also ridiculously expensive. This dangerous combination made Taormina decidedly unappealing to me, particularly as a place to spend the night.