Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Five Firsts on my Fifty Week

Three Chimneys, Skye

What a fantastic time I had. I was amazed that I managed five first. A couple were expected but not five.

Fifty First Timer No. 22
Stay and eat that the Three Chimney’s on Skye

This has been on my wish list for year. The Three Chimneys is reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the world. I didn’t realise they also had accommodation, so imagine my surprise when I discovered my birthday treat was two nights dinner, bed and breakfast at this exclusive establishment.

The drive up through Glen Coe and The Great Glen was dramatic with sun and sheet rain. We arrived at the House Over-by at 5.30 with just enough time to gaze in wonder at the view, experience the luxury of the room and dress for 7.30pm dinner.

That first glass of chilled champagne fair went doon a treat.

My starter was succulent scallops this was followed by the freshest oysters I have ever slurped, they were juicy and ripe and perfect. My main course included a first (see below) - Lamb with heart, sweetbread and kidney. Yummy.

We were too full for pudding because every course seemed to be preceded by an appetiser - pan fried mackeral on goosberry puree was about five mouthfuls too small - we settled for coffee, some dinky little cakes and a dram to finish off. I could see beads of relief wave off Colin’s brow when we were informed the 25 year old Talisker was finished, I had to settle for a 10 year old.

Fifty First Timer No. 23
Eat Sweetbread

I am conscious that a number of these first include eating weird food, but I am a foodie, I have to try everything at least once.

When I was younger and lived in Fife I bought all my meat from a travelling butcher’s van – Bert The Butcher. He came every Wednesday and Saturday and I always bought the same thing, mince, bacon, beef, square sausage for Sunday Breakfast. Ladies would flock to the van. ‘ony sweet breads the day Bert?’ they would ask. I was always curious as to what the elusive and desirable sweet breads were

I later found to my horror that it was testicle. And I still did until I checked before posting this blog.

I thought I had no desire to try this but couldn’t resist when it was offered with the lamb dish. It was delicious fried but not as nice as the heart, which I think I have tried before.

How naive was I? I now find out that sweet bread is a gland near the heart.

There you go, another urban (or Fife) myth bites the dust.

Fifty First Timer No. 24
See a Minke Whale

After a luxurious nights sleep we ate our fill at the House Over-by breakfast table. Homemade muffins, breads, pancakes, oatcakes Scones and applesauce, marmalade, jam. There was also smoked salmon, fish pate, cheese, fruit and a smoked salmon omelette on offer. We had to at least attempt to walk some of this off.

The Three Chimneys is located in the south west portion of Skye, an area we had never explored before. We drove round tiny single track roads to Neist Point where a well laid out path took us to a light house which can be rented as holiday accommodation. Loads of sea bird activity just off the shore alerted us. Some children were screaming with delight and jumping up and down. We rushed down to see what was happening.

I stared at the sea for about ten minutes watching the gulls dive bomb the waves and was rewarded with the sight of a small black fin and then the sweep of a black curled back arching out of the sea and sinking below the depth before I could take the camera out of its case. There was no doubt with that shape and size I had just encountered my first Minke Whale, out for a spot of fishing. We hung around for ages hoping for another glimpse but we only saw a few black fins. I felt privileged.

Sunset over Taransay from Horgabost camp site

Fifty First Timer No. 25
Visit Lewis and Harris

We left Uig in Skye on a CalMac ferry bound for Tarbert, Harris on Monday afternoon. We left the unusual sunshine on Skye for a murky Harris, where the clouds skiffed the roads. The missel soaked us during the ten minutes it took us to pitch our tent and carry our gear from the car to the pitch which was high on machair on a beach side site at Horgabost.
The campsite proved to be idylic so we stayed all week. White sand, bird watching, and the creaking gate call of the corncrake merged with the sound of crashing waves to lull you to sleep.

The next morning proved no better weather wise so we plumped to explore Lewis.
After reading Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil I expected a grim town, but Stornoway turned out to be a pretty little fishing town with fine brick buildings, an excellent art centre featuring local artists and crafts and a few good cafes. There were loads of pubs though and this is maybe where the tarred reputation of Stornoway stems from.

While we could still see the road from the mist we headed south to the Callanish Standing Stones.
These are described as the most spectacular megalithic standing stones in Scotland. They are impressive standing tall and fast against the western storms. There is something very touching about the fact that people gathered together and took such care 4000 years ago to erect these stones. I wonder then if they realised the fuss folks would make all these years later.

It was a good day to see the stones, not too many people milling around spoiling photo shots and quite dramatic backdrops.

Callanish Standing Stones

Fifty First Timer No. 26
Have a drink in an inflatable pub

I am pleased to say the weather improved. So much so we were forced to go for a drink in a pub. The main hotel in Tarbert is being renovated; the bar is out of commission for months, what could they do? They took a bouncy castle approach and erected an inflatable bar. It would have been perfect had it not been made out of plastic and had real window instead of painted on ones. Inside the bar on this hot day was like being inside the inside of a wellie. Everyone preferred to sit outside in the 24°heat.

Inflatable Pub, Tarbert

Back to auld claes and porridge

View from Skoon Art Cafe, Harris - The best plum and oatmeal muffins ever.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The Half Century has arrived

Today is my fiftieth birthday. I am not sure how I should feel; I know I am happy it is my birthday because I love celebrations of any kind. I don’t feel fifty; I don’t know how that is supposed to feel. If I was honest I am worried that I won’t be able to do all the things in life I want to do, but I know I am going to have a hell of a good time trying.

Big Buddha

Fifty First Timer No. 21
Climb a Hong Kong munro

I know I am becoming a bit predictable with all these munros and hills, but it has to be done.

Hong Kong region has vast ranges of forests and hill trails. On our initial approach to the airport on Lantau Island I was astounded by the superb ridges that reached out over the territory. The fact that I could see trails on the crest of one outstanding ridge urged me to explore the area I later learned was the New Territories.

We were staying on Lantau Island the first week of our visit, so it made sense to start with the Lantau trail and its highest point, Lantau Peak (934m)
To say I climbed a munro is a bit of a cheat because we caught a bus from Mui Wo to a high point at Ngong Ping, a popular tourist destination because of the giant Buddha statue and the Po Lin monastery situated in the same spot as the start point of the Lantau Peak. Funny, but it didn’t take long for us to loose the crowds and find we had the path to ourselves.

Although this is a well marked trail, the path was steep with a couple of sections where I felt a tad exposed. It was also raining which made the rock slick.

Climbing a hill in Scotland is hard enough work but the added tropical heat meant that the leg up we were given by the bus ride did little to ease the pain of the ascent. The summit was reached in good time for lunch, but the flies and mosquitoes on top had the same idea, so we beat a hasty retreat along the Lantau Trail to find ourselves spewed out of the forest onto a busy highway ripped up by major road works. The workies were helpful in guiding us through the traffic cones to the nearest bus stop and like all our transport in Hong Kong, it wasn’t long before a bus stopped to accept our Octopus card swipe and we were soon home in Mui Wo drinking beer.

If we had left this trip to the end of our holiday we would have failed because a week after our climb Ngong Ping and its neighbouring villages were cut of by a major landslide which left the area without electricity and fresh water for days.

In the last week of our holiday we climbed Tai Mo Shan (957m), Hong Kong’s tallest mountain.

If I look shattered it is because I am.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Money makes me mad

If only we could blow Grand Lisboa Casino into the South China Sea

Fifty First Timer No.20
Gamble in a casino

One ambition I have held for years has been to visit a casino and place a bet. Where better to achieve this ambition than in that world famous gambling paradise Macau. This former Portuguese trading port is an hour’s ferry trip from Hong Kong and was high on my lists of ‘must visits’.

We caught the ferry from the exotically named China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon. This Sunday morning the streets of Kowloon were almost deserted, but for a few stragglers all heading in the same direction as we were. The terminal lives up to its name; it is possible to travel from there to over fifteen different destinations in mainland China. The Macau ferry has frequent sailings but the cheap seats on the next ferry that Sunday morning were taken, so we couldn’t leave for another hour. Starbucks is quite a good place for breakfast though!

Macau was hot, hotter than Hong Kong and because the ferry disembarks a good half hour walk from the main thoroughfare, our tempers were beginning to fray by the time we reached town. This wasn’t helped by the walk through Fisherman’s Warf, a tourist amusement park, the epicentre of which boasts a fake mountain which looks more Utah than Pearl River.

The walk took us past vast concrete and glass creations; the hotels and casino of this Chinese Special Administrative Region. Our guide book led us on a walking tour mobbed with tourists, so we ditched the tour and wandered the quite side streets. I marvelled at the incense burning in almost every doorway, if shrines could not be bought a drain pipe would suffice as a suitable alter. Throughout my journeys in this area I was struck by the arrogance of past colonialism and their suppression of individuals’ rites to worship as they please. I am glad that Bhudda is still strong in the Macauan’s hearts and is pushing forth among the cathedrals and churches and casinos of those other religions.

The heat was intensive and a beer was soon required, but not forthcoming. Even back among the Starbucks, McDonald's and Haagen Dazs, we found no Carlsberg. Then I spotted a young man in an upstairs window that over looked the square supping a beer. There!

We found the door way to café E.S. KIMO round the corner in a crowded market street. Beers taste so much better when you have been deprived. We also ate a Korean Egg sandwich (an omelette on white bread) and a fresh fruit salad which we were appalled to notice was drizzled with Heinz Salad Cream but it tasted rather good.

The biggest and most vulgar casino in Macau is Grand Lisboa Casino. This gold monstrosity rises up like an Imperial standard at the edge of cowering colonial streets and hails the start of the casino studded highway back to the ferry terminal.

Before we could enter the casino we were subjected to a bag search and a pass through an airport security screen. We were then thrown into a hall crammed with tables of baccarat and poker and roulette. The back of the hall beckoned, with flaunting bauble and bells, the fruit machines sang.

Shiny escalators floated us to higher floors where the stakes rose with the altitude. I could see on the seventh floor a high stakes area, cordoned off, admittance by invitation only. Most of the gamblers were middle age, Chinese men, although a high proportion were haggles of young women. Smoke and expensive perfume choked the air and made me gag or maybe that was caused by my disgust at the indiscriminate waste.

I gaped as one man threw a thick bundle of Yuan onto the table and then shrug as it was scraped into the sealed cache of the croupier. Why had I felt so guilty in China, languishing in my expensive hotel in Guangzhou? At least I was giving something back in terms of tourist revenue. This debauchery was indecent.

I had lost my taste for gambling but I was there, so with my grubby twenty Hong Kong dollar note in hand, I perched at a fruit machine and did what I had to do; loose it in three presses of a button.

I would now like to visit a Glasgow casino for comparison, but I can be certain I will never be in danger of becoming an addict; I am too canny for that.

Just Read
Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile

I have only recently discovered Chinua Achebe and am now a fan. A couple of months ago I read the excellent Arrows of God a novel based around the nineteen twenties. Home and Exile is a non fiction essay originating from a series of the lectures given at Harvard University. I bought the book thinking it was an autobiography. It isn’t, although there are a number of pleasing autobiographical anecdotes.

I was delighted to find that Home and Exile examines African literature and argues that African literature should only be written by Africans. He cites the African writing of the past, written by Europeans, as distorting the perception of the continent and portraying the African as primitive, heathen and stupid.

It was quite a shock to read his comments because I am currently writing a novel with an African character and although I do not presume to describe her homeland or her upbringing, Achebe’s comments have made me rethink my approach.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Here, there and everywhere

Liz on the summit of Sgor na h-Ulaidh

Poor wee soul

This is going to be a short post because I have a chest infection and am splattering my screen with pea green mucus every few minutes. It’s enough to make even me sick.

The McPartlin Munroists

On Saturday I struggled up Sgor na h-Ulaidh (scoor na hooly) a rocky munro in Glen Coe. I wouldn’t normally leave my bed when ill but it was my sister’s munro compleation. The weather was perfect; high cloud, slight breeze in the valley, just a few drops of rain. A well deserved cheese burger was gobbled down in the legendary and hoatching Clachaig Inn followed by a stagger of about a mile to stay over night in a caravan my brother John had booked. The caravan, next to the Glencoe Bunkhouse, had great views towards the hills we had just climbed. It is a shame I kept everyone awake all night with my coughing. Well done Liz!

That makes three McPartlin Munrosits.

Fifty First Timer No.19
Fast Train to China

On the first full day in Hong Kong we booked a trip into China, it takes about a week for the visas to come through so we left the following Wednesday. Mr Lee picked us up at the hotel and deposited us at the railway station with grave instruction on what to do on arrival in China; hang onto your bag, do not get separated, do not declare anything, look out for the guide, if she is not there phone this number.

Our destination was Guangzhou and our guide, Eve, was waiting at the station along with her driver Mr Jang. Together they made our stay an enjoyable, entertaining and informative one. We were templed out, three day later, when Eve dropped us back at the station.

The highlight for me was getting up at seven the first morning to wander the river side streets and find them filled to the banks with people exercising. Tai Chi groups graced every inch of park, make do badminton nets were strung from handy trees, there was even a group of old men swimming in the mighty Pearl River. To say I was impressed would be an injustice, I was inspired. The Chinese, as a race, are temperate, hard working, and thin. What must they think of the arrogant blobs and lager louts who stagger and swagger in the West (and in some parts of Hong Kong)?

This is one of the markets Eve took us to see.

And Talking of Blonde Birds and Bikes

In my last post I mentioned Lucy’s John O ‘Groats to Lands End attempt. Well she has done it. Well done Lucy!

I am now off to bed with a hot toddy, antibiotics, Lemsip and Strepsils - I'll be better tomorrow.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Hong Kong V Scotland

Carbisdale Castle

I had planned to update this blog with stories from Hong Kong, but it is proving difficult because life back home has been as hectic and exciting as the holiday. However I still have to report all my Firsts, so I will start with another Hong Kong First and slot in some of the Scottish ones.

Fifty First Timer No.15
Eat Shark’s Fin Soup

I know some of you will be throwing up your hands in horror or even just throwing up at the thought of this, but when my principles started to niggle, I remembered the words of my Muslim friend when I once offered her Stornoway black pudding (made from pigs blood) for breakfast and she replied ‘Lovely, I never let religion get between me and my stomach’.

I now apologise and promise never to do it again.

I have tasted Shark’s Fin soup before but it was made from synthetic shark fin. The soup I ordered in Hong Kong was the real thing. The venue was the American Restaurant in Wanchai. The restaurant has been around for xx years. When Hong Kong was a popular R&R destination for the US troops during the Vietnam War the restaurant’s owners, hoping to attract the GIs, renamed their restaurant thinking it would sound welcoming. The name and the restaurant proved popular, so when the war ended they retained the same.

The waiter helped us to decide on the size of portions we needed and advised me that the soup was expensive, was I sure I still wanted it. ‘Yes sir’, falling into an American twang. Like most Chinese meals the food came at different times, what we would consider the second course was delivered first followed by the soup. Sharks fin soup is thick and gluttonous with fibrous strands of fin laced through. The taste is light and eggy which I found delicious, almost like eating noodles in potato soup. The meal was washed down with Tsing Tsao beers and buckets of green tea. Despite his advice, we ordered too much food which gave the waiter a good laugh at our expense.

Weekend wedding and more Firsts

Fifty First Timer No.16
Stay in a haunted castle

The weekend saw a few Firsts, most I will do again because it was such fun.

We attended a wedding party at Carbisdale Castle. The castle is perched on a hill just outside Bonar Bridge in Sutherland and is the Scottish Youth Hostel Association’s flag ship. I have passed it many times on the road to the far north and looked longingly at its towering ramparts and cosy welcoming lights twinkling through the trees, but this is my first stay there.

The castle was built in 1917 by the widow of the Duke of Sutherland. It was gifted to the Youth Hostel Association in 1945. The castle is reputed to be haunted but there was no evidence of ghosts this weekend, they were probably all quivering in a corner to avoid the noise of the ceilidh band, disco, general revelry and my musical abominations.

John and Kate, the happy couple, wanted a party and they certainly bagged their wish. The hostel can sleep over 180 visitors and we almost filled the whole place from Friday night through to a bleary eyed Sunday lunchtime.

Colin and I were attending the evening part of the wedding so we were lucky to spend Saturday in the surrounding area. We went for a wander round Dornoch, had scrummy home made Cornish pasties at the Dornoch Patisserie then walked along the four mile pristine beach to Embo trying to spot minkie whale in the Dornoch Firth. A pass remarkable supper was picked at in a pub before we tarted ourselves up for the party.

The ceilidh band played their ‘Gay Gordon’s’ ‘Dashing White Sergeants’ and ‘Strip the Willow’ for the group, the majority of who were hill walkers who skirled and whirled until the buffet was served. We then switch to the gyrating disco beats of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

When the official music stopped the party moved to one of the many lounges and this is where my other Firsts came in.

Fifty First Timer No.17
Learn to play a bodhrán

Fergus, one of the two Best Men is married to an Irish lady and came to the wedding complete with bodhrán, a traditional Irish instrument, under his arm. I begged for a lesson which he was quite happy to provide, he explained how to hold the single drumming stick and demonstrated the beat then said ‘right practice, I’ll be back in five minutes.’ Being a tenacious learner I did what I was told, but the others in the company moaned in horror, ‘you’re not really going to do that for five minute?’

The stick was as slippery as noodles in chopsticks, and kept falling from my hand. When Fergus came back he told me to relax and steer through the wrist. I did for a little while until my hand grew tired then I handed the bodhrán back to its rightful owner. I think I will add a bodhrán to my birthday list.

Fifty First Timer No.18
Play an electric guitar

Ranald, the other best man, took his electric guitar and amplifier to the wedding. I couldn’t resist a go. I strummed some chords and tried to pick out a couple of tunes, but the combination of previously drunk glasses of wine and the fact the shiny red and white guitar continued to slide over my chiffon dress and off my lap, did not make for a pleasant experience for the other hard core party goers, in the end I reluctantly handed the guitar back and looked out at the dawning day. It was time for bed.

I now apologise but can't promise never to do it again

Blonde Bird on a Bike

Someone who did not partake of too much wedding wine and was probably getting out of bed when dawn was breaking was Lucy. Lucy attended the wedding but rose early to arrive on time for her nine o’clock, Sunday morning start of her John o’Groats to Lands End Bike ride. You can follow her progress on her blog

I have also added Lucy's Blog to my top favourite blogs.