August 3

Is the Czech Republic a civilised country?

It is 2.10am as I type this sitting outside Prague Central Station as Boff and I wait for our train to Berlin. The reason we are sitting outside the station is that our train doesn’t leave until 4.29am and we had no idea that the station closes until 3.15am. There are no benches outside and apparently the park nearby is full of dodgy types (I consider a comparison to Belmore Park next to Central in Sydney). Does this make the Czech Republic a civilised or uncivilised country?

Smoking allowed in restaurants = uncivilised

Intact castle with thriving tourist trade = civilised

Taxi drivers and cafe waiters tricking up the bill on (maybe) unsuspecting tourists = uncivilised

Beer is cheaper than cola = civilised

Beer is cheaper than tea = uncivilised

Public toilets that cost 5-10kr (25-50c) to use but have automatic gates?

Bureaucrats who won’t let you into an exhibition she says will take one hour to see 45 mins prior to closing time?

Having a working funicular?

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August 2

May contain salt

30th July 2012 (Wieliczka & Krakow, Poland)
The conversation went something like this:
Boff: “I want to go to Krakow.”
Me: “Why? What’s in Krakow?”
Boff: “Well, it’s a day trip to Auschwitz and there’s also a salt mine.”
Me: “!!!”

Who knew there were such things as salt mines?! Who mines salt, anyway? Not the Poles any more. They got rich centuries ago with the discovery of rock salt but stopped when it became unprofitable in 1996. Amazingly, they used horses to do some of the work down there (once down, the poor things never saw the surface again) and the last horse must have led a strange existence until its death in 2002, not working for six years but not retired in a meadow either.

Anyway, the salt mine is located in Wieliczka, about a 20-30 minute bus ride out of Krakow. It’s a fairly sophisticated tourist affair, with 2-hour tours leaving every hour for something like six different languages. Boff and I caught the 10am English tour and took the 340 steps down the mine. I thought they should have had a fireman’s pole arrangement, myself.

The tour is part fascinating history, part being herded around. Because of the number of tours, each guide needs to time his/her group to perfection so there’s no hanging around the bits you find interesting. There are, however, many interesting morsels of information, such as the horse thing. Also, except for the first century of operation, miners were all paid rather than slaves/prisoners. And all the sculptures in the mine were done by miners, not artists.

Apart from the operational parts of the mine, there are some incredible rooms. One was a salt lake chamber where the guide played us some Chopin. There are also (inexplicably) two chapels, a small one a few metres long and the photo of the day, the cavernous version replete with a nativity scene, sculptures of Jesus on the cross, the Virgin Mary, former Pope John Paul II (who apparently used to visit frequently as a student but never made it back there after he was made Pope). The photo is of a salt rock carving of The Last Supper, a couple of salt rock chandeliers and a horde of tourists.

At the end of the tour you need to line up to catch a lift back to the surface. Our English tour guide left us in the hands of a more militant shepherdess who stridently yelled “There is holy mass, so please be quiet!” as we filed past an empty chapel.

When we returned to Krakow, Boff left for Auschwitz and I decided to go to Oskar Schindler’s factory. Unfortunately I decided to go via a currency exchange bureau (which was located next to a sex shop and manned by a guy who looked like he was about 15) and the markets to stuff my face full of berries. By the time I caught the tram down there the factory museum had closed to admissions, which happens 90 minutes before they shut for the day. Bummer.

Ended up at a place called Demmers Teehaus and had three pots of tea: one was pu-erh with cherry rum and the other two were green tea with pink grapefruit and pink peppercorn. I bought the second one, the pu-erh was too smoky for me. My friend Skippy says I have an uncanny ability to find teahouses wherever I go (I’ve found ones in inner city Brisbane, for example, that she hasn’t even heard of and she lives there).

Tried to see the mummified monks again but the church was completely closed so failed at that, then wandered around one of the minor squares and hung around the very Melbourne looking Bunker of Art. That too was closed.

Had a hearty meal at Babci Maliny, which had decor that was a cross between an elegant hotel lobby and your grandma’s place. The food was good and the service even better—I even managed to try honey vodka. Two thumbs up.

Caught the train to Prague, which Boff joined at Auschwitz. Our carriage contained a Nigerian student who is doing his Masters in Petroleum Engineering in Norway and a guy from Manchester who has worked at Nando’s for so long he has long service leave. He’s using it to travel around Europe with his mate (who snored the entire way to Prague).

P.S: Those of you who have heard of salt mines may well ask how I thought we obtained salt. I was always of the opinion that we evaporated it from briny water.

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April 21

It’s Beijing but not as I dreamt it

All the HP delegates had dinner at the LAN Club, which is a very swish
place not too far from the hotel (they still hired two buses for us
all, though). The pic shown here isn't mine, it's stolen from the NY
Times but I took an almost identical picture that I can't seem to get
off my camera because it's on the camera memory, not the SD card. It
had very Melbourne decor, as you can see, sort of like a cross between
Cookie and Order of Melbourne. Fortunately it wasn't a long night so
here I am and it's has only just gone 10pm.

Okay, the saga yesterday. Forget for a moment that I went to bed at
about 1.30am and woke up at 5.45am. I made it to the airport via train
okay, then had to spend about 10 minutes trying to figure out how I'd
fit my roller bag into my yellow sack when I went to Japan before
realising that I'd tried to put it in the wrong way. I checked in, and
only then discovered that the front part of the sole of my shoe had
come loose so it was flapping when I walked. I went around the
terminal looking for sticky tape and the guy at the Lonely Planet
store suggested getting medical tape at the chemist.

It was a brilliant idea, brilliant until I unfurled the tape and then
discovered that it didn't just rip like I thought it would. So I
hobbled around trying to find someone with a pair of scissors because
of course I'd already checked in all my sharp implements. Eventually I
found a jewellery store that let me use the teeth of their sticky tape
dispenser to saw off the bandage tape. It was quite embarrassing.

Flight to Shanghai was okay. I got a middle aisle seat and the seat
next to me was empty, but I noticed the seats didn't have footrests
and only reclined about 5 degrees. I read the May issue of Empire
magazine for the most part, then slept for a couple of hours before I
started flicking through the video channels. I should mention that in
the inflight guide, the only English movies they said were showing
were 'Harry Potter 6' and 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' but then
I found a weird French film, which I then discovered was '17 Again'
dubbed in French (I did find the English version and watch the last
third) and also the Renee Zellweger/ Harry Connick Jr flick 'New in
Town' (had to look up the title because I remember adamantly not
wanting to see it after I'd seen the trailer).

The transit in Shanghai was v short after checking through customs and
immigration. I was practically dying of thirst, though, so I bought a
bottle of flavoured tea (I know tea's a diuretic, but I didn't know
what anything else was). They had these sterilised water stations all
around the terminal, but I couldn't figure out how to use them. They
had a paper cup dispenser with words in Chinese and English: "Paper
cup to be used only for cold water" but I couldn't find the cold water
button. It just said 'warm', 'warm' and 'hot' with a digital reading
that said 99, which I took to be 99 degrees.

So we all got on the plane. I became very interested in a caucasian
businessman who looked very out of place among non-businesspeople and
Asians (there were non-Asian non-businesspeople and Asian
businesspeople but he was the only one who was both). Turns out he was
German, or at least read a German magazine with fluency, and he didn't
know much Mandarin because he spoke in English to the flight
attendants.

Long story short, the plane was delayed by 2 hours when we were
already all buckled up ready to go. I slept for the most part (v
uncomfortably) except to cram as much water down my throat as
possible. I also thought the people who were supposed to meet me at
the airport might leave me to my own devices and I'd have to catch a
taxi on my own (I HATE midnight taxi runs in foreign countries where I
can't speak the language). Fortunately that wasn't the case: instead I
was bundled into a black Mercedes and taken via some long expressway
to god-knows-where, which ended up being the JW Marriott.

They gave me the wrong floor access with my room key (I'm in 1816 –
level 18, room 16 – and they gave me access to level 16 instead) and
can I tell you it is so damn difficult to explain something like that
when all you've read is the Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook and are
really, really, really, really frickin' tired. Eventually I made it
with the help of an English-speaking concierge who reconfigured my
room key and took me up. I went through all the emotions associated
with getting free internet and then discovering I couldn't Tweet nor
blog and then I had a shower and went to sleep.

Today was a pretty good day. Too, too early a start, though. Had a
meagre brekky because I thought I was late but then ended up hanging
around for almost 30 mins before the keynote speaker. We then divided
into groups. I met David Flynn (SMH freelancer) and Jacqui (HP rep
from Melbourne) and we were put in a group with Malaysia, Singapore,
Indonesia and India. The Indian journos were quite annoying because
they were asking a lot of questions that seemed irrelevant but then I
thought about it and realised that their SME market (emerging) is
completely different from ours (mature) so some of the concepts, such
as paying extra for convenience, or for cash flow purposes, were
foreign to them.

Overall a well-run day. I particularly enjoyed the Enviro session, not
just because I'm a greenie but because I asked some hard questions and
am quite satisfied that HP is the leading printer company in the green
space.

Anyway, gotta go file some stories now – and not just the HP ones,
unfortunately.

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