Sunday, April 28, 2013

Narvik to Abisko - along the Arctic Circle Train

The Arctic Circle Train, serving between Kiruna (Sweden) and Narvik (Norway), is one of the world's northernmost train routes. Running along the 68th parallel north, the train journey takes approximately 3 hours.

Along the way, there are a few notable stops - Abisko National Park, Björkliden ski resort and hiking in the Riksgränsen mountain ranges. In winter, the ski resort is very popular, as is Abisko, where many tourists flock here for the Northern Lights. In summer, trekking and hiking is the favourite activity. I took the train from Narvik to Abisko, stopping at Abikso Turiststation within the National Park. And along the route, I was glued to the train window!

The winter scenery is truly spectacular, and I would imagine the summer equivalent to be no less wonderful.  The border crossing between Norway and Sweden were but a mere announcement, and the train and seats are really comfortable. Tickets can be bought online directly at Swedish rail SJ's website ( and if booked early enough, it can be as low as US$9! There are also rail passes available. So next time if you have the opportunity, check out this train journey!

Here's sharing a few photos along the way! (Showing why I was glued to the window)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ruined City of Ani

One of the attractions of Eastern Turkey, for those who venture there, is Ani, a ruined city-site that sits on a dramatic landscape of steppes, ravines and valleys. But be it the landscape or the ruins, the whole area exudes a sense of eerie sadness that makes you wonder about its past, and is really what I would exemplify as a 'ghost city'!

Cathedral of Ani bathed in golden sunlight
Ani was actually an Armenian city, and its current status on Turkish soil, on the border to Armenia, had been disputed and challenged between the two countries. During its peak in its eventful history, Ani had been the capital of the Armenian empire, but tragically, on its route of decline, it had seen through a long list of empires. While previously known as the 'City of 1001 Churches' or 'City of 40 Gates', what is left behind are faded facades and crumbling stones.

Archaeological excavations was started in 1892 under the Russians, and thankfully, some artifacts were preserved even after going through its turbulent history. Today, some news and reports indicate that some excavations and restorations are underway by the Turkish government, though when I visited, there were little indications :| ... The area is still within the Turkish military zone, and Armenia is just across from the river at the site, but I did not see any particular restrictions when I was there.

Crumbling structures

Most visitors to Ani start off in the city of Kars. In 2011, there is supposedly a public dolmus (shared vans) from Kars to the village just outside Ani twice a day. Otherwise, the best bet is to hire a taxi for the day. The site is well worth exploring and I would recommend spending at least half a day there. I spent the whole day there, till the closing time, and there wasn't any dolmus going back to Kars in the evening! Luckily, I managed to hitch a ride back from a group of Georgian tourists. Do bring along snacks/food and water, as when you enter the site, there isn't any tourist facilities except at the gate.

In the past, there were supposedly restrictions on photography, but apparently, it had been removed. For ruins, the image of the Church of the Redeemer would be particularly impactful, as half of its structure had collapsed. Check out also the Cathedral of Ani. The frescoes within some buildings are also quite beautiful. And if you stay till closing time, the late afternoon light on the ruins are also wonderful!

One of the highlights of Eastern Turkey!

Faded and damaged frescoes inside one of the cathedrals
Church of the Redeemer

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Odaiba, Tokyo

One of the less visited district in Tokyo (esp for first-timers) is Odaiba (お台場), a shopping and entertainment area which Tokyo has plenty of. But since April 2012, there is an additional reason to drop by there.

Odaiba is actually on a man-made island on Tokyo Bay. Created by huge landfills joining several small islands into one big one, it now has a futuristic and glitzy outlook so typical of Tokyo. Boasting of several huge shopping malls and entertainment complexes, it is a popular hangout for the locals. There are also state-of-the-art modern buildings like the Fuji TV tower and Tokyo Big Sight, the latter being Japan's largest exhibition and convention center.

Connected to the rest of Tokyo by the Rainbow Bridge, reaching the island by public transport is easy with the Yurikamome train line. You could also drive across the bridge or even walk across, as there is a pedestrian walkway but the views along the way are great on the train line, since its an elevated line. One of the primary reasons for visiting Odaiba is the beautiful view of the lighted Rainbow Bridge at night.

On 19 April 2012, another entertainment and dining complex opened in Odaiba - DiverCity Tokyo Plaza. Its star attraction is the Gundam Front Tokyo, a shop/museum/attraction dedicated to the anime. And right in front of the building, is a huge "life-size" Gundam model And one that moves!!!

Three times a day, there is some light and sound "show" where the Gundam statue "comes to life". Before you get overly excited, the only part that moves is the head. While Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries, a real Gundam I'm sure would make huge international news. Nevertheless, for Gundam fans, seeing the 18metre statue would certainly make your day, and make your trip to Odaiba worthwhile! And in the shop in the building, there is a huge display of all kind of Gundam models as well.

Check it out if you have spare time in Tokyo!