The Best of My 2018

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2018 raced in, trailed by snow and storms and chaos, and just a manic as its arrival, it’s almost gone. With a few weeks left in the year, I’d like to look back on the events of the past 12 months, for me a year of change, growth and creativity.

I put on my first photo exhibition (and hopefully not my last), I started a photography course in NCAD that is proving to be challenging and so rewarding. I did some travelling, in Ireland and outside, but more than that, I made strides towards a more creative life.

Below is just a short roundup of everything I’ve done or been involved in this year. May 2019 bring even more adventures!

Photography Challenges

Projects and Exhibitions, oh my

This year has been momentous for me with my photography; in July I exhibited some images for the first time. In print, on a wall, for everyone to see. I had been awarded some funding to develop my idea and put the finished product, 11 monochrome portraits of College staff, on the walls in Trinity College Dublin. I’d never before exhibited anything, and very rarely printed any of my images, even for family and friends. It was a steep learning curve, executed in a very short amount of time and exhibited in even less time. I was sad to see it being taken down, but I really hope this is the first of many and the start of my photography career.

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And some more good news, four of my images have been selected to go on display in my workplace. The images have been beautifully printed and framed and will be on show for others to enjoy.

As I mentioned above, I’ve started a year-long part time photography course in the National College of Art & Design (NCAD). It has been a collection of firsts: a portfolio, presenting & explaining my work, working in different photography genres. I’ve completed the first project, a documentary photography project, and am in the middle of a difficult second one, environmental portraiture. I have one more after that, and then a paper to submit. It’s been a few years since I was in a classroom (as a student), but the challenge of thinking critically about my work, looking at new ways to photograph and pushing myself out of my comfort zone has meant I have already learned so much. I’ll be back with a review of the course in April, and some new images to share.

Rise & Repeal

Landslide Relief

On 25th May, Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment. The relief emitted from Irishwomen was felt around the world. As other countries worked to roll back women’s reproductive rights, Ireland took a step forward. For a country that had only closed the last Magdalene laundry in 1996, this was a massive development.

I had taken part in the previous years’ March for Choice, and on those cold September Saturdays it didn’t seem like anything would ever change. We would be marching forever. When the date for the referendum was announced, everybody braced for the clash of bitter words and accusations. Roadsides were wallpapered with graphic posters of foetuses and doctors urging a no vote. It seemed as if the anti-choice side had taken over our visual landscape. Election posters are an eyesore at the best of times, but these were particularly heinous.

Leaflets of (mis)information were pushed through letterboxes and shoved into reticent hands on busy streets. The battle for our bodies was frantic. In the end, or perhaps it is the beginning, compassion prevailed. A resolute 66.4% of the electorate said Yes, removing the misogynistic and cruel amendment. The result was unequivocal.

As a woman who has lived in the shadow of the amendment all of her adult life, the relief is something I still find difficult to articulate. I worried about a silent majority of No voters. I wasn’t wholly convinced we as a nation had made any progress in regards to women’s lives. I was steeling myself to fight on another year, another march. I know it would have taken a while to recover from the disappointment if the result had been different. I wholeheartedly believe the repeal of the 8th amendment is one of the greatest triumphs of 2018, for Irish women and men.

 

*Update: we still have a long way to go. Legislation to provide abortion care in Ireland has just recently been passed, coming on the same day we celebrated 100 years since (some) women got the vote in 1918.

To the West

The Great Western Greenway, Inishbofin and Achill

As has become a tradition, I headed west this year, away from the frenetic rush of the city once more. I hit the Great Western Greenway in May, my second time on this converted railway line and carried on to Achill in search of calm. This was one of the most difficult cycles I’ve undertaken. The Achill landscape is tough to conquer, and on a bike, perhaps the island had the upper hand. I met some friendly, helpful people who took pity on my transport choice and drove me around the island. The dramatic landscape, swept by strong Atlantic winds, laid out before me at every turn looked like it was painted by the masters.

The island of Inishbofin in June did not disappoint. It is one of my favourite places in the world, and the lack of a good internet connection is its biggest attraction. The currachs and stone ruins, lobster pots dotting the coastline, calls of the elusive corncrake and nonchalant sheep make this place a quintessential west of Ireland spot to lose yourself, even for a long weekend. I wrote, I walked, I clambered over gates and walls. But mostly, I was swathed in silence. With all of our technological advances and hyperconnectivity, finding stillness is always an achievement.

Dingle

Cycling the Peninsula

On the very edge of Europe, jutting out into the Atlantic lies the pretty town of Dingle. All along this rugged peninsula of spectacular seascapes and majestic mountains rolling into the sea, I was met with hospitality, warmth and good humour during my visit in July. It was my first time in Dingle and on the Slea Head Way, and I’m still going through the many images I took during the 3 days, but I long to travel back, to see the Blasket Islands for a start. Like much of the Wild Atlantic Way, and the west coast of the country, it is very much a paradox: wild and calm. It’s a chance to slow down and connect with nature, which at times can be ferocious.

Hong Kong travels

This city wears a lot of hats

My big international trip of the year was to Hong Kong at Easter. This was the first time I’d been to this dazzling fusion of cultures and contrasts. Ornate temples sat amidst high rise buildings; cityscapes mixed with lush green parklands. The ultra modern existed beside important historical relics. The rush was exhilarating; the mass of people out on the streets every evening was a gift to people watching. It is a city that promises a mixture of different cultures of food and always delivers. My favourite place to eat was on the street, tasty and fast with a queue winding round the corner (so you knew it had to be good). If the signs weren’t in English, you could just as easily point to curried fish balls, egg waffles or fried squid tentacles on offer.

You would never be bored in a city like this, and if you needed a break from the feverish pace, there are expansive green spaces on your doorstep. There is ample space to practice tai chi in the morning, looking out over the harbour, or take a trek up to the Big Buddha and Po Lin monastery on Lantau Island.

With plenty to see and do for all the family in Hong Kong, and now with direct flights from Dublin, there’s no reason not to make this city bursting with energy a part of your plans in 2019.

 

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Island Conversation

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Inishbofin

I’m inspired by Inishbofin’s windy paths, wild flowers and a sea washed shells discarded upon the sand.

I’ve returned to Inishbofin for some much needed quiet and time out from the chaos of the city. The island is still calm, the air filled with the shouts of children playing ball and little birds chirping to each other, coded messages of affection. A romantic pair find space on a twisted branch to serenade each other. Just as quickly as they perch, they are off again to spread their love.

My first stop was Dumhach beach, a green coast awarded beach, to search for the empty shells of crabs and lobsters. These seem littered across the white sands. Discarded arms that once suggested power were wedged between rocks or tangled among the bleached sea weed.

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The sky was filled with greying clouds but the sea was calm. Seagulls raced across the water and a group of sheep strolled across the sand far up the beach. A light rain fell but the beach was offering up delights like brightly coloured shells, strings of seaweed and sadly the occasional piece of plastic. Even on milder mornings, as mist stretched into the early afternoon, this is my favourite part of the island.

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The following day, with my book was now finished, the rain had stopped and I could leave the hostel. The sun had started to break through the clouds and spread a little sunshine. I used the island’s tourist map to find the start of the West Quarter (purple) loop walk. This 8km walk takes you out along the western side of the island, a quieter, less inhabited part. Passing through bog lands and out passed the Stags I saw a seal sunning itself on an outlying lump of rock. Like the pace of the rest of the island, it unhurriedly basked in the mid morning sun.

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Looking out from Dún Mór cliffs, neighbouring island of Inishark was starting to peak out from under a blanket of mist. The remains of abandoned houses pointed up out of the haze, reminding me that Ireland’s islands were once regarded as home to many people. Pink ribbed sheep sat watching the walkers and cyclists following the path, their offspring a little more startled by chattering and metal spinning. I scrambled down to Trá Gheal beach, a white sandy beach with the music of the sea playing on its shore. The path is more pronounced in this last section of the loop. Just one or two more scrambles over metal foot bridges brought me back into Fawnmore. Here was a good opportunity to refuel for the next walk out to Cromwell’s Barracks ruins at the harbour. If the delicacies of the Inishwallah double decker bus don’t tempt you, the crab meat open sandwich at Doonmore Hotel certainly will. A much deserved cup of coffee later and I was ready to take off again. Sadly there were no dolphins romping in the harbour this time, delighting adults and children alike the previous day.

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The walk out to the Barracks ruins is not an easy one, and more like a climb than an easy walk. High tide was at 5pm so I have plenty of time to get out there and enjoy the views of the mainland and the island. To get out to the ruins, you need to follow the beach around, but with no clear path and the beach disappearing in parts, it requires climbing up and around hills, trying to avoid the marshy ground, and not frightening the sheep too much. An overturned boat is anchored in one of the inlets, creeping seaweed giving it a new husk.

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The ruins finally come into view as two territorial seagulls squawk and fly low over my head. It must be nesting season. At the barracks, windows in the stonework contain pink coastal flowers, quickly becoming my favourite flora. The surrounding area is quiet but for the ferry docking with more holiday makers. I sit and look out on the Galway coast, Cleggan not too far away. It’s my last day on the island and a little sad.

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Being out here on Inishbofin I am reminded of the power the West of Ireland landscape can have to move men (and women) to create, to try to capture its savage beauty. Back on Dumhach beach the sand sparkles; the sea is still, reflecting the warmth of the sun in greens and blues. A carpet of seashells guides swimmers to the edge. On a nearby farm a cockerel calls out, confused about the time of day perhaps. Birds sing to each other nearby and the elusive corncrake sends out its mating call. Nature couldn’t be more beautiful at this moment. I sit and soak it all in for a while, unwilling to let this visit end. A few more tents have popped up among the dunes. I leave the next morning under a dense shroud of mist.

To see some more images from my trip, have a look at the album on Flickr here.

To Achill Once Again

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I made it to Dooega, but not before getting lost.

This is my second trip on the Great Western Greenway. The first time was last September (you can read about that trip here) when it rained and rained and rained. I got as far as Achill Sound, the start of the island, and gave up. This time I stayed in Dooega, 7km from Achill Sound and a good excuse to explore Ireland’s largest island.

But first I had to get to Achill, navigating the Greenway from Westport to Achill over 42km.  I left Westport in sunshine at 11am and trudged into Achill Sound at 4pm cursing the wind. But my journey wasn’t over. I’d passed fields of lush green fading to patches of brown, speckled with the white fleeces of black faced white sheep, lambs calling out to their strolling mothers. The braver ones took up their seat by the side of the path, not intimidated by these slices of metal whizzing by. Others barely glanced from clumps of luscious grass; they must have seen a thousand passengers glide by since the way opened in 2011.

I cannot say enough about the landscape on this trail. You ride by rust coloured mountains freckled by emerging rocks draped in drifting fog. It is like something from a painting. Fields interrupted by streams spilling out onto ditches like mini waterfalls. Little birds sing in the hedgerows, zig zagging across the path, uninterested in the struggles of an overzealous cyclists. Stone walls crumble, the bay beckons, rolling hills announce their dominance. White cottages sit snug against a hill, as sheep trot along the roadside grazing wherever it can, their sides sprayed orange. With spring came lambs, and the path is filled with the sounds of baaing babies calling out to their protective mothers.

I got lost on my way to Dooega, or Dumha Éige in Irish. I ended up in An Doirín on the other side of the island, passed a graveyard and some more sheep, in the forceful wind. Uphill, downhill, around windy bends I went, promising that the next time I’d do this would be in a warm car. Google maps didn’t work; there was barely a signal on that side of the island. I staggered up steep cliffs to glance down in awe at the Atlantic, holding tough against stoic rocks.

I did finally reach my hotel, two hours later and spent the evening watching the sea from the comfort of my room. White washed stone houses dot the coastline. My view is interrupted by more wandering sheep. The wind keeps blowing, the sea doesn’t rest. In the distance the cliffs are shrouded in fog; their secrets guarded from beady eyes. The outlines of islands are drawn on the horizon. The sky is starting to change colour. Night beckons us all.

Cycling is not the way to get around Achill, even though there are cycle trails and parking rails. I was lucky enough to be offered a lift to Keem bay by the kind people at the hotel. My legs still ached from the long trek the day before so I jumped at the chance to sit into a car. Keem bay is a blue flag beach on the far side of the island. Achill has 5 blue flag beaches. You first go through Keel village, which is full of holiday homes and caravans. It is a much more tourist-driven area that Dooega. Then it’s a steady climb to Keel beach. The way is peppered with black faced sheep and their offspring who pay no heed to passing traffic and wander in packs across the roads. The road is so steep with a sheer drop to the sea I wondered how the sheep managed to keep their footing.

The beach itself is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs. Fog lingered on the mountains on either side of the cove. Even though it was a blustery day children found the resolve to venture into sea with bogey boards. The cold water would wake the dead. Gazing out from the beach you can see the outline of two small islands peeking out from behind low lying clouds as the silvery water glistened in the morning sun.

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From Keem I went back through Keel passing gravity defying kite surfers on Keel loch and back down through Cashel and out onto the Atlantic Drive, passing Grace O’Malley’s Kildownet Castle, Cloughmore and stopping at the Wild Atlantic Way discovery point  Cuan na hAilséime, revealing breathtaking sea cliffs on this ragged coastline, torn straight from the land. The wind still blew but at times it felt like it was blowing all the cobwebs away, whipping up a frenzy as you observe the wild Atlantic. In the frenzy there was peace. In the howling wind there was calm.

One of the easier cycle loops to do on the island is cycle loop 3. At 12km it’s the shortest and most manageable on such a hilly island. There are a lot of steep climbs and sharp descents but it’s also extremely windy, which is great if you’re going in the ‘right’ direction, but really tough if you’re cycling against it. From Dooega I cycled through Bunnacurry leaving the coastline to travel into the centre of the island towards Dugort. Following this loop you’ll be deposited out at Golden Strand, one of Dugort’s beautiful (blue flag) beaches. A dark cloud hung over Slievemore mountain but the beach had indeed golden sands and clear blue water. It was quiet but for the roaring sea. Golden Strand, or Trá Dhumha Goirt in Irish, is a discovery point on the Wild Atlantic Way. A short walk from Golden Strand is its neighbour Silver Strand, another blue flag beach and just as blustery as Golden Strand. The island has yet to wake up so the beach was particularly peaceful. Before heading back to Keel on the loop I stopped at the deserted village at Slievemore to see these mysterious ruins of almost 100 stone dwellings. Sheep were grazing in the foundations of a row of houses that stretch from the old cemetery to the mountain. This site was busy with hikers starting their ascent up the 671m mountain. It’s free to visit the village and hike the mountain and well worth doing if you have the energy.

Achill is a beautiful island with scenery everyone should experience. The silence of the island is soothing. There are no house alarms ringing, traffic or dogs barking. This is real quiet. My ears were filled with the sounds of the sea, the wind filling every nook and cranny, a chorus of birds calling to each other. I’m not convinced it’s a cycle destination, as its landscape doesn’t lend itself to easy pedalling. But it’s well worth seeing in a car. Keel has plenty of options for accommodation, places to eat and drink, if you are thinking of venturing further than Achill Sound. Just do it in a car.

You can find more images from my trip here and useful information on the greenway here.

Easter in Hong Kong

Five days in Asia’s world city

It was to be a short visit to Hong Kong wedged into my Easter break. I dashed there and back and will definitely have to go back next year to see the rest. Going via Amsterdam, the 11 hour leg was packed, a sign of things to come in this awesome metropolis.

Seventeen hours after leaving Dublin I scrambled off the A21 bus onto Kowloon’s hectic streets sleepy eyed and in awe of what lay before me. All around I saw greying skyscrapers, endless lines of traffic and waves of pedestrians. It was a wonderful chaos in sweltering heat.

The smells and sounds were striking and brought me back to my first adventure in Asia in 2003. Shops and their contents spilled out into the streets. Homeware on Shanghai Street, goldfish on Tung Choi Street. The Ladies Market offered all the necessary tourist gifts, from designer fakes to fridge magnets and even dung-shaped chargers.

On my first jet lagged day I spent two hours walking around the flower market and Yuen Po street bird market and then followed a trail all the way down to Tin Hau temple. Stepping into the main hall an incense-infused fragrance wrapped itself around me, a comfort in the humidity. Then it was down to Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) to see the Avenue of the Stars (closed for construction unfortunately) and the highly unusual light show. A tip: get an Octopus card while you’re in HK. It’s a travel card for public transport and you can use it in the convenience stores.

 

The HK skyline from TST is very impressive and the nightly light show definitely draws a crowd. Laser beams of green are shot out from the skyscrapers across the harbour on Hong Kong Island and music is blasted out to ‘enhance’ the activity. It’s free and quite unusual, but try to see it if you have the time.

Day Two  – A Good Friday  

My first day in Hong Kong was tiring and overwhelming, and the jet lag didn’t help. But I was determined to see as much as possible in the short time I had there. What I hadn’t realised was that Hong Kong’s inhabitants also recognise Easter, and Kowloon’s streets were heaving each evening as street performers, singers and protestors crammed into narrow shopping streets. Easter blessings were beamed from the side of buildings and across the subway. From Good Friday to Easter Monday every inch of valuable space was occupied so I had to summon great reserves of patience just walking down crowded streets. Another tip: don’t visit HK at Easter. It’s too humid and crowded.

I was up at 8am to get the subway (called the MTR and the best way to get around) to Tung Chung on Lantau Island where I caught the Ngong Ping 360 cable car to Tian Tan, better known as the Big Buddha. It was a clear day and the 30 minute journey revealed striking views of the bay. There are standard cable car carriages or glass-bottomed carriages for the brave. I opted for the standard carriage. You can queue to get your tickets for the cable car or book online, but if you are going to queue, go early. You are left out at Ngong Ping village, a tourist trap. Skip it and follow the crowds to the statue.

The Big Buddha is a must see in HK for all visitors. It’s the biggest of its kind in the world. It’s 268 steps to reach the 23m bronze Buddha and pay your respects. As with everything in HK, it was crowded and therefore, well ordered. You climbed up one side and down the other. The monastery next door, Po Lin, is a sprawling campus with richly decorated halls recently built. It is regarded as more of a tourist spot than a place of spirituality. However, in keeping with Buddhist customs, at the picnic area you are asked to consume only vegetarian food. It is noteworthy that Disneyland is also on Lantau Island.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to Tai O fishing village, a short bus ride from Ngong Ping village. You can use your Octopus card on the bus. The village too was crowded as it was a weekend. Houses and narrow walkways on stilts, delicious street food (try the fish dumplings and for desert the mango glutinous rice balls) and honking cyclists make this a very beautiful traditional village. There is also a ferry from here back to Kowloon if you want to avoid the bus and subway.

Back in Kowloon later that day, I ventured back out into chaotic streets for the Temple Street night market. It’s on my list of things to see, but I definitely wasn’t expecting fortune tellers and karaoke tents complete with strobe lights and middle aged singers belting out the hits, Cantonese songs you probably won’t be able to sing along to. Stay a while and watch the spectacle take shape; you won’t be disappointed. Temple Street market also has stalls and reasonably priced food but it’s the music that will keep you there.

Day Three – The Peak

I was up early again the following day, still battling jet lag, to grab breakfast in ‘Toast Box’ and then head for the Peak and Central district. If you’re a fan of Singapore coffee, Toast Box is a chain to sample.

The city is almost peaceful at 8am. Rubbish is collected and street hawkers start to set up their stalls for the day’s trade.

I reached Central, on the red MTR line, and was immediately struck by the difference. In comparison to Mong Kok, this is a more modern, business-like area, with shiny office towers, spotless streets, wide streets and plazas. It’s also clear it has a lively ex-pat community and hosts many of the embassies.

Victoria Peak is the highest point on HK island and usually on must see lists. To visit, you can take the 125-year old Peak Tram. By the time I reached the tram stop for this gravity-defying ride, an orderly but long queue had formed. You can use your Octopus card to pay in skipping the queue for tickets but joining the queue to board the tram (a frenzied free for all so stay alert!). The journey itself is short, about 5 minutes, and almost vertical in places. You are left off at a multilevel platform and after guessing your way outside, you can find sweeping views of the city below. The air seems a bit fresher and the humidity a little easier to cope with from the Peak.

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I chose to walk back down to Central and Soho but it is poisisble to board the funicular for the short journey back down. As it was still early in the morning I opted for the 3.5km dappled morning trail back down to meet the Mid Level escalators where I was overtaken by committed runners and their canine companions. This seems like a popular place with residents trekking up or ambling down the path. The Mid Level escalators are the longest in the world; they only go in one direction, and if you’re heading to Man Mo temple (it’s probably on your list too), these covered escalators don’t go in that direction.

Man Mo temple is the busiest temple in HK. It’s famous for its spiralled incense hanging in the main hall. The air is thick with incense burning and the murmur of prayers offered to the gods of literature and war respectively. The devoted weave through the ripples of tourists and photographers to light coils of earth coloured incense suspended from the ceiling. What’s really special about this temple is its location. It’s surrounded by modern, gleaming skyscrapers. The smoke from all the incense rises to mingle with the noise and commercialism of Central. Red and gold are the dominant colours and a bell and drum stand at the entrance to be struck to attract the attention of the gods when prayers are offered. This is HK’s oldest temple and its busiest so go early if you’d like some time to see it in peace.

Later that day, I visited Chi Lin nunnery and Nan Lian garden. The nunnery had already closed but I wandered around the immaculately kept gardens as the evening cooled. Traditional wooden structures abounded, along with queues of people taking pictures of each other in front of the Golden Pagoda, and the bizarre collection of rocks and bondi trees. Only 6 subway stops from Mong Kok it is a calmer, quieter part of Kowloon. I sat in the garden for a while, as the evening sun sprinkled a dusting of gold, a peaceful end to another day in ‘Asia’s world city’.

Day Four – Breakfast of dim sum and then a ferry

A delicious breakfast is the best way to start any day, and in TST/Jordan I tucked into vegetable and fish dim sum, red bean sesame rice balls and egg tartlets with plenty of green tea. I was set up for the day. From Jordan I made my way to Kowloon Park to enjoy this sculptured park before the throngs of Sunday wanderers descended. Kowloon Park is worth a visit and has everything, including an aviary and a bird pond. So naturally I headed for the pink flamingos. From the park I headed for the pier to catch the Star ferry to Central and a tram (also known as a ding ding after the noise it makes) to Wan Chai to stroll through the streets of this old part of HK for a while.

The path I took can be found in the Lonely Planet guide, starting at Pak Tai temple and ending at Star Street neighboorhood. Pak Tai temple is a peaceful temple surrounded by a ring of greenery and highrise apartments. It hangs many incense coils in the main hall and adjacent rooms and had very few visitors that morning. Smoke wafted up through the ceiling and one or two worshippers waved their incense sticks and murmured prayers. Outside, the city kept up it cacophony. I could have stayed here all day.

From the temple I walked by the Blue and Yellow houses and down onto Queen’s Road East. The one site I had really looked forward to visiting was the Ghost House, but sadly Ship Street was blocked off and the house inaccessible. The Ghost House was used by the Japanese military after taking over the city to house the comfort women.

Wan Chai is one of the oldest areas in Hong Kong island but it doesn’t retain many old buildings and signs of its history. In fact there is little ‘old’ about it or the rest of HK. Everything is new and contemporary.

From Wan Chai and Central station I took the Star Ferry back to TST to watch the wealthy shop for even wealthier goods. Anxious shoppers clutching the latest Vuitton bag formed tidy queues outside luxury brand shops. This part of HK is a good reminder of the affluence of Hong Kong.             

After a dinner of Vietnamese food and a little rest, I headed down Tung Choi Street to see the Goldfish market. Vendors up and down this street sell fish of all sizes in plastic bags. Other pets are on offer here too, with kittens garnering a lot of attention from passersby. Tung Choi street is a very lively street in the evenings, with slow moving crowds beckoned by food stalls with neon signs to light the way. Mini buses fill the road and people make themselves comfortable on cement blocks to enjoy their snacks.

Day Five – The Postcard Hunt

My final day. The heat didn’t let up. But I slept peacefully for the first time since I arrived. The room itself was half empty now as the New Yorker and the Malay had left. I abandoned a plan to visit Lamma Island and instead walked and walked and walked.

I finally visited Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple at Wong Tai Sin MTR which had been on my itinerary from the start. After a leisurely breakfast of Nanyang coffee I meandered over to the temple to be met with hordes of self stick welding tourists. The guides and security guards were busy shepherding visitors through the temple and shouting at anyone who wandered out of the well defined path. At the temple entrance, the feet of the lions on guard are rubbed for good luck. They are rubbed so much the colour is slowly being removed from the toes and are as smooth as they are colourless.

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This is, as other temples are, an important place of worship for devotees, and yet equally present are selfie-seekers equipped with the latest phone and filters. This beautifully maintained Taoist temple is not to be missed on any trip to HK, but maybe avoid it on a bank holiday.

One subway stop away is Chi Lin nunnery. Having visited the gardens a few evenings before I thought it would be a good opportunity to see inside. The serene music was playing in the gardens and inside the nunnery the rhythmic chanting was being played from loud speakers in the main complex. This is an immaculately kept site, the wooden structures gleam. It is best seen at sunset as the golden light bounces off the dark wood. I sat in the garden for a while, resting from the morning heat, taking in the darting birds, calming music and mumbling of tourists in the distance. The garden has a lovely way of filtering out the noise of traffic all around.

Reinvigorated I went back to Central to try to photograph the junk boats. Piers 9 and 10 are for public viewing and so less crowded than the rest of the harbour. On the pier I came upon a temporary monument to the HK comfort women. A series of bronze seated women were placed against the railing and information in both Cantonese and English told passersby about their demands. Nobody stopped.

The previous day I had picked up a copy of The Best of Hong Kong from the tourist office and found a great self-guided walking tour of the old town centre, starting at Possession Street and taking in Man Mo temple, Cat Street and Pak Isz Lane park. This is a truly hipster part of HK, and queues from outside tiny hole in the way cafés, galleries and boutiques. This also seems like a much more foreigner-centric area.

Then it was back to the pier for one last look at the red-sailed junk boats and to people watch. I don’t know how many photos I’ve taken for strangers, or how many images I’ve accidentally walked into but the smartphone is king here. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

For more images of Hong Kong from a far better camera, have a look at the album from my trip here.

In Twelve Months

End of Year Roundup

With 2017 coming to a close, I’ve put together a few of my favourite photos from some of the trips I’ve taken in the last 12 months. I hope you like them and perhaps they will inspire you to take a trip or two in 2018. I’ll be spending Christmas planning where to go next year (hint: Vietnam and more of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way).

New Year Hiking

There is nothing better than shaking off the Christmas cobwebs with a hike up the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Co. Wicklow or a brisk stroll through the Wicklow mountains. I love being outdoors. Work ensures I don’t get out very often, but when I did earlier this year, I was met with beautiful views, just a stone’s throw from the hurried pace of the city.

Five Days in Scotland

On a dark and windy Monday in February, I set out with a group of photographer friends on the long drive up to Larne for the ferry to Scotland. The next five days we spent jumping in and out of the car avoiding the rain whilst trying to get those perfect landscape and wildlife shots. We covered hundreds of miles and took hundreds of photos. The region of Scotland we were in, Galloway and Dumfries, has beautiful scenery, lots of historic places and wildlife. I’m already planning my next photography trip to Scotland.

Sunset on Isla Craig

Bath

March came in like a lion and I headed to Bath in the UK. The largest city in Somerset, it’s famous for, and named after, the Roman-built baths and is a world heritage site. I love this city, with its history, architecture and endless cobblestone paths. It has a beauty that is not easily matched.

(Roman) Baths in Bath

Inishbofin

This is my favourite trip of the year. The island of the white cow was one of the first of Ireland’s islands I visited in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I was met with patchwork fields rushing down to meet the sea, stone walls disappearing over lush hills and nonchalant sheep grazing in nearby fields as city folk raced by. Walking the narrow roads I was regularly reminded of nature’s imposing presence as little birds darted back and forth between hedgerows and a caravan of cows took a Sunday morning stroll. The island’s tranquility enveloped me.

Bog cotton (b&w)

Saltee Islands

This was my second trip to the Saltee Islands. I had visited in 2016 on a photo trip to photograph the wildlife that inhabits the island. The Saltees lie 5km from Kylemore Quay in Co. Wexford in the south east of Ireland. It is home to puffins, gannets, guillemots, razorbills and other birds (220 types have been recorded thus far).

Pairs

Kiev

Summer approached and I counted down the days to my trip to Kiev and the tour of Chernobyl in July. It was with a mixture of excitement and nervousness that I boarded the plane to Kiev for what turned out to be a poignant tour and an impressive capital city.

Kiev church

Inis Oírr

The smallest of the Aran Islands, Inis Oírr (or Inisheer) was the destination for another of my island escapes in 2017. I’d visited Inis Mór a few times and wasn’t disappointed by what I found on Inisheer. It’s an Irish speaking island, where the language is alive and well. It also has some spectacular views of the Cliffs of Moher and miles of dry stone walls that look like they would crumble with the lightest of touches.

Inisheer

The Great Western Greenway

I cycled and cycled and cycled. The rain battered my flimsy rain gear but the bike was sturdy. I’ll have to do this cycle journey again and spend time in Achill afterwards as I wasn’t lucky with the weather to continue on into the island. Also on my list for 2018 is the greenway cycle in Waterford, in sunnier weather.

Clare Island

Autumn was quietly approaching and the leaves were starting to turn. Our large group of enthusiastic photographers ventured west to see what charms Clare Island held and we weren’t disappointed.

Clare Island

Cycling the Wild Atlantic Way

This was my epic five day cycle from Galway city to Westport along the Wild Atlantic Way. It was tough and highly rewarding. I battled the weather (seems to be a theme of 2017) but got to see some of the most stunning scenery in the West, in particular the Sky Road in Clifden where this photo was taken.

The Sky Road

Wild Lights at Dublin Zoo

A great way to end the year’s adventures was a trip to the Zoo. Dublin Zoo has a trail of light inspired by wildlife in the front part of the zoo that is dazzling. It includes Chinese-influenced lanterns, crafts and food and offers an array of animal lights to eager visitors. Well worth a look despite the crowds and cold.

 

 

The Great Western Greenway

Or, what to do in the West in 2018

Great Western Greenway map

Map taken from TheGreenway.ie

I stumbled upon the Great Western Greenway on a google search for Wild Atlantic Way cycling routes. Its 43.5km seemed like a kinder way to see the West than pedalling for 2500km along remote paths, swept up in the frenzied winds that battered the Irish coast.

The Greenway is the longest off-road cycle and walking trail in Ireland. It was once a railway line which opened in 1894 and linked Westport to Achill (Co. Mayo). It was never successful, operating in an underpopulated region and eventually closed in 1937. The new trail opened in 2010 and has brought almost 200,000 visitors, both young and old, to travel the idyllic countryside passing the spectacular Nephin Beg mountain range, Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick.

The Greenway is 43.5km of well-kept road, starting from the picturesque town of Westport and travelling west to the island of Achill, Ireland’s only island connected to the mainland by bridge. It was designed for both walkers and cyclists, and bike rental shops in Westport offer children’s, adult and electric bikes at affordable prices. You don’t have to do the entire route. You can start in Newport, the next town after Westport on the trail and 12.5km away, or even Mulranny, 18km from Newport. Mulranny to your final destination of Achill Sound is a mere 13km away. It’s a relatively easy cycle, mostly flat but interrupted by main roads. Cyclists share the path with walkers, and on the cloudy September Saturday I went, I didn’t meet a single walker. The trickiest bit for me was finding the way out of Westport to join the trail but the rest of the way is clearly marked. After hopping on my rental bikes (€25 with Westport Bikes 4 Hire for the day and the shuttle back to Westport the next day) I speculated my way onto the path and I was off. To my surprise, there are some portaloos dotted along the way, mostly between Westport and Newport. They were precariously tied down but seemed relatively solid against the strong winds that blew around me.

My first stop was Newport for breakfast and a much needed coffee. The path between Westport and Newport doesn’t offer the most beautiful scenery, with the path following the main road for the most part. In Newport it was good to hear that the trail has had a positive impact on the town, bringing in tourists throughout the summer and encouraging a regeneration of the area. I headed out of Newport as the rain began to fall. Newport to Mulranny took me through rugged landscape, edging around sheep camped in the middle of the path, and cows grazing unperturbed by the cyclists whizzing by. Arriving in Mulranny to more heavy rain, I found a noisy, bustling pub to rest in while watching my bike get a thorough soaking.

 

I had read that the most scenic part of the cycle was from Mulranny to Achill. Sadly, it rained so badly on this part that all I can confirm is the way is well signposted. I cycled with a bowed head, edging ever closer to Achill and a warm, dry hotel room.

Finally, five hours after leaving Westport, the rib-like bars of the Michael Davitt Bridge came into view as I joined the main road. I scrambled off my bike, cold, wet and hungry, but vowing to do the Waterford Greenway the following month. I dropped the bike at the Achill Sound hotel, and planted myself in the hotel bar for a well-earned hot meal. It was an intense cycle, complete with wandering livestock, amazing scenery and bad weather. Like the rest of the West of Ireland, stone walls hugged rock-laden fields against a painted backdrop of clouds cascading from mountain tops. Menacing grey clouds stretched across the Mayo sky, following me the whole way. As the weather continued its treachery for the rest of that day, I didn’t get to see Achill at all. So, I’ve added the Greenway and Achill to my itinerary for 2018. But I’ll just have to go when it’s sunny (or at the very least, dry!).

#throwbackthursday Kiev July 2017

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The taxi flew into Kiev like it was trying to win first place. It was just after midnight and my flight from Paris to Borispol (about 35 km from Kiev) had arrived without pomp or ceremony. There were no direct flights from Kiev from Dublin in July so I went from Dublin to Paris and Paris to Borispol. I sleepily disembarked the place and dragged my weary soul through immigration. The military uniformed official muttered some inaudible questions and let me through. I headed out into the arrival hall guessing my way through and found the currency exchange and official taxi stand. It’s an easy and convenient system for travellers who don’t want to take the airport bus so late at night. You simply tell them where you’re going (it’s handy to have the address printed out in both languages with you) and they provide an estimate of what it will cost and a receipt for the taxi driver outside.

The city was quiet. Leaving the industrial areas on the outskirts of the city I scanned the way, eager to get a glimpse of this mysterious city. Anything I knew about Ukraine was filtered through stories of the grey and stoic Soviet years. I expected to see statues to Lenin, declarations to the Party. None such monuments exist anymore, having been removed in 2015 along with the renaming of streets and towns. I watched English and Cyrillic signs whizz by, promising a better, happier life by beaming models and shiny appliances. Consumerism is the same no matter what part of Europe you are in.

My travelling companions had already reached the apartment we had booked online. It was a spacious one-bedroom apartment (that fit three comfortably) on the first floor of a fairly nondescript building. The entrance was dark and cold as the stone that lined the stairs, chipped in parts. Entering through the first metal door, I was met with a second heavy wooden door that led into a foyer with mailboxes and an abandoned washing machine harking back to pre-1991 days and I loved it.

The purpose of my visit to Kiev was to take the tour to Chernobyl. You can read my account of there here. The remainder of my time was spent around Kiev, a city of almost 3 million. It’s Ukraine’s largest and capital city and sits on the Dnieper River. For all of us, it was a first time in Kiev, and Ukraine and we wanted to see as much as possible in our short time there. We took a walking tour organised by local students who explained the history of the city and various landmarks in the city centre. It started in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the central square of the city and the site of political rallies and events.

It was really easy to get around Kiev using the Metro, taxis or simply walking. From Maidan Nezalezhnosti we took the subway, to be met with this dizzying view (below). The Metro is clean, fast and cheap and well worth using even if you are going short distances.

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A visit to Kiev would not be complete without visiting its grand cathedrals. St Sophia’s Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and definitely worth a visit around the grounds. From there, it’s easy to walk to St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery (and the only place I saw a mention of the conflict still raging in the east of the country). After St. Michael’s, a walk away is the green onion-domed St. Andrew’s Church. You can also do some souvenir shopping around the church, where you can pick up some wonderful Ukrainian crafts. An accidental find was St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, a vivid yellow 19th century cathedral.

As we were mostly on foot, we ventured through many parks; the most beautiful was Shevchenko Park, with its elaborate benches and well manicured grass. Eyes appeared on trees like secret agents, scrutinising harried passersby.

For kids, the best place to see is Landscape Alley, a hidden gem easily missed if you are not looking out for it. Curious creatures and bizarre beasts snake around the park, inviting children to play hide and seek among their tiled figures.

Kiev is a city filled with culture and art. This can be seen in everything from sculptures made from recycled cutlery to coffee carts. Even the traffic bollards are interesting. Murals, political and not so, adorn the sides of apartment buildings and Soviet-era Ladas can be spotted hurtling here and there. It’s a modern European city with plenty to offer tourists. Just be aware, there isn’t much English spoken yet, so you may resort to pointing. Cafés and restaurants can offer English menus but if you need anything else, you might have to rely on a phrase book. The food is great (try Musafir on Saksahanskoho Street for Crimean Tatar food), and of course the beer isn’t bad. Kiev is a great city and one you should definitely put on your list to visit in 2018.