Friday, September 28, 2007

Kraków, Warszawa and Vilnius

It's starting to feel more like the "Eastern Europe" that we were expecting. The Old Town of Kraków was similar to the centre of most European cities - full of picturesque buildings and quaint market squares. However, the bus ride to Warsaw (Warszawa) showed us another side of Poland - brick buildings with crumbling facades and Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks. The recent addition of Poland to the EU has definitely increased tourism, and beautified the tourist destinations, but much of the country's infrastructure is only slowly recovering from decades of neglect under communist rule.

We have learned quite a lot about the history of Eastern Europe as well - most of which was not covered in high school history class... We visited the Warsaw Uprising museum, which described an unsuccessful rebellion against the Germans in 1944. The Poles hoped for support from the Allies, but had to surrender after two months of fighting and hundreds of thousands of deaths. A few months later, the Soviets showed up, and the Poles again helped fight against the Germans. However, Stalin was keen on keeping Poland under his rule, so he arrested and deported the Polish war heroes, to keep them from leading a movement for independence.

In Vilnius (Lithuania), we visited the KGB museum, which mostly covered Lithuania's fight for independence from the USSR after WWII. They fought for nearly ten years, always hoping for support from the West, but never receiving it. The museum was housed in the old KGB prison, and the basement was unchanged, complete with water torture and execution chambers. We also visited a Holocaust exhibit and Jewish cemetery (there were large Jewish groups in Poland and Lithuania pre-WWII).

To avoid focusing only on the depressing side of Eastern Europe, yesterday we went to Trakai Castle - on an island in a lake near Vilnius. Today, we continue on to Riga, to meet up with our Latvian friend Ieva.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


After fourteen hours on the bus, we've arrived in Kraków, Poland. On our first day here, we took a day trip to Wieliczka - a 900 year-old salt mine. Somehow, it used to make economic sense to dig out large blocks of salt-rich rock from up to 350m below ground, pulverize the rock, run water through it to absorb the salt and finally boil off the water. All that just to get salt.

Since the miners would spend most of their days deep in the mine, they decorated the carved-out chambers with salt sculptures and chapels. The most entertaining part of our tour was the guide, who looked very similar to Borat, kept saying "This is very nice, yes" and told some very sarcastic stories with a straight face and hysterical Polish accent.

Today, our day trip was very different - to Auschwitz-Birkenau - the biggest concentration camp from WWII where over a million people were murdered. It's hard to describe what it was like to be there. We'd both read and seen movies about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, but seeing it for ourselves was beyond our imagination.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually two different camps. We started the guided tour at the older camp where were shown the around the different prisoner barracks, as well as some exhibits of objects that the Nazis had stolen from the prisoners. The most horrifying thing was to see the shear volume of the piles of shoes, glasses, prosthetic limbs/canes and human hair.

The Birkenau camp was built later, just for extermination. We were blown away by the enormity of this camp. From the main gate, it stretches away as far as the eye can see. This camp had four gas chambers/crematoria and several hundred barracks for prisoners to live in. It is hard to imagine the incredible suffering - at selection, over 75% of new arrivals were sent straight to the gas chambers, while those who were fit to work were stripped and shaved, showered in cold or scalding water, left for hours to dry, then given uniforms and housed in small bunks in unheated barracks. They were given very little food and were worked to death. It was just unbelievable cruelty.

It was a tough day. Tomorrow, we'll take it easy, just walking around Kraków.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Prague and Český Krumlov

So...Our first blog entry...Where to start? We left Copenhagen on Sunday (September 16th) at 11pm by bus after a crazy week of defending our thesis projects, packing, and generally just moving out of our place in Denmark.

First stop: Prague. We spent a couple of nights at an incredibly hospitable hostel (run by some Czech ladies who kind of act like pseudo moms) just outside of the city. We ended up doing a guided Prague city tour and mostly just walked around the city and hung out at our hostel attempting to recover from the last crazy week in Denmark. The guided city tour was average, taking us through some of the classic sites (overun by tourists) as well as off the back-beatened trail, in horrible rainy weather.

On Wednesday morning (yesterday), the weather improved and we headed off to Český Krumlov - a highly recommended backpacker's haven. Our hostel is full of fun and friendly travelers and we had a great night of beer, Settlers of Catan and dinner at a locals pub.

Today, we've visited the castle, and generally been awed by the medieval feel of the town. It's so relaxing and beautiful and there are plentiful bike trails and rafting possibilities. We're sad to leave so soon, but early tomorrow, we'll be headed to Poland - in a mad dash to Latvia by next Friday.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A 5-month trip to Asia

With about five months before we really have to join the "real world" and get jobs, we have decided to see Asia - in particular Russia, China, Nepal and India. We also decided to travel exclusively by land (bus or train).
So, on Sunday, we're setting out for the Czech Republic, through Poland to Latvia and eventually Russia. In mid-October, we'll spend a week aboard the Trans-Manchurian railway from Moscow to Beijing. We'll then tour China for about six weeks, finding our way to Tibet and across the Himalayas to Nepal by December. Around Christmas, we'll head to India, with no defined plans until our flight to Toronto on 15 February (just in time for Carl's wedding).
We'll try to keep this site updated with our adventures, and maybe even some photos.

Get a haircut and get a real job

Two bits of news:
  1. Marieke has cut off her dreads! Thanks to all of our friends and family, who donated money to the Canadian Cancer Society to suppot this 'event.' She raised 700$. We even made a little video to commemorate the occasion.
  2. Anthony has a job! He will be a 'Junior Wind Consultant' at Ecofys in Utrecht. So, we are moving to Holland. Marieke is excited too, as her Oma lives nearby, and she has already had a promising interview with an environmental consultancy firm. However, we won't be heading to Holland just yet, as Ecofys have agreed to let Anthony start next March, so we can travel 'a bit' first.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Some final thoughts about Denmark

Last Monday, we defended our thesis projects and officially stopped being students. As our time in Denmark draws to a close, we thought that we would write one last blog (ignoring that we haven't written one in 9 months).

We're a bit short on time, so we're just going to reference an email that's been forwarded around recently:


  • You know the meaning of life has something to do with the word "hyggelig".
  • You don't think it strange that no one ever comes by to visit without being invited and you never show up at any one's place unannounced either.
  • You find yourself lighting candles when you have guests - even if it is brightly sunny outside and 20 degrees.
  • You go to the supermarket and buy three good beers and 10 not too good ones.
  • You can tell the difference between a Grøn Tuborg and a Carlsberg beer
  • You honestly believe that the distance between Copenhagen and Aalborg is long.
  • The first thing you do on entering a bank/post office/pharmacy etc. is to look for the queue number machine.
  • You accept that you will have to queue to take a queue number.
  • When a stranger on the street smiles at you, you assume that: a) he is drunk; b) he is insane; c) he is a foreigner or d) he is all of the above.
  • The word "yes" is an intake of breath.
  • You can't remember when to say "please" and "excuse me".
  • You start to believe that if it weren't for Denmark's efforts, the world would probably collapse pretty soon.
  • You can open a beer bottle with almost anything.