Exploring Almaty – Fountains and Fall

Today was an absolutely gorgeous Fall Sunday here in Almaty.  Clear and very warm in the low 80’s, it was too nice of a day to spend it indoors.  I thought I would show you some of the beautiful parks and fountains that the city has to offer.

The first stop of the day was one of my new favorite places, Moronne Rosso.  I was told that it’s a cafe chain from Israel.  It has a great menu, relaxing vibe, and excellent location.  I could have spent half the day here relaxing and watching the scenery.

Is there a more perfect way to spend a lovely Sunday morning?

After being put in the right frame of mind, I ventured up to Republic Square.  As the name suggests, this wide avenue and square are remnants of the Soviet days, where I’m sure many a parade were held.  The national government also occupied the main buildings here until the capital moved to Astana.  The square is now dedicated to post-independent Kazakhstan with the centerpiece being the Independence Monument, an obelisk topped with a statue of the Golden Man, the symbol of the country.

The Golden Man was discovered in an Iron Age burial mound in southern Kazakhstan in 1969.  It is believed he was a tribal leader or prince from the Scythian culture.  He was buried in an outfit of red leather covered in over 4,000 pieces of gold, resembling a suit of armor.  His unusually tall headdress also conveniently stored the arrows from his bow.

The Golden Man Independence Monument

Close-up of the Golden Man riding a snow leopard

A view of Republic Square from the base of Independence Monument

View of the Independence Monument from across Republic Square

Replica of the Golden Man from a display at the Central Museum showing the intricate gold work of his outfit

Moving south across the square and up the hill, there are two beautiful fountains in the park that sits across the street.

Republic Square Park. Looking south, you can see the mountains as well as a new skyscraper being constructed in the Central Business District.

One last shot of Republic Square Park and another of its fountains

Heading back into Central Almaty, taking one of the many pedestrian ways and enjoying the Fall colors

Gardens at the Central Museum

One of my favorite fountains in the city, however, is on a rather quiet and unassuming street.  The fountain represents the Kazakh zodiac, which is a variation of the ancient Chinese zodiac, and I found the sculptures to be quite intriguing.  It was designed and constructed in the late 1970’s by Vladimir Tverdokhlebov, an architect whose proposal won a fountain design competition sponsored by the city of Almaty.  What I failed to capture in the shots below, is the beautiful mosaic tiles on the floor of the fountain that further illustrates each of the symbolic animals.

The Kazakh Zodiac fountain

Close-up of one of the sculptures

The Kazakh Zodiac Fountain

Adjacent to this zodiac fountain is the recently refurbished Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences building, with it’s own rather dimunitive fountain on the western side.

Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences building

Continuing on my walk, I stumbled upon a really interesting and humble bench that was sitting quietly outside of a flower kiosk.  Something about the sides reminded me of a Roman chariot.

Your chariot awaits?

Fountains in a park near the State Opera and Ballet House

The Abai Kazakh State Academic Opera & Ballet Theatre. The fountain out front is particularly striking at night as it dances with a multitude of colors.

The Kazakh Opera and Ballet Theatre is very well-known in the region.  During World War II, the entire Russian Opera and Ballet troupe moved to Almaty for safety and security.  After the war, many members stayed behind and nurtured the next generation of performers here in Kazakhstan.  I hope to be able to catch a performance before I leave.

A few blocks away is the Zhambyl Kazakh State Philharmonic Theatre.  They also have a well respected ensemble and frequent performances this time of year.  As the Soviet culture had a high regard for the fine arts, it’s one vestige they left behind that continues to shine in this region.

The Zhambyl Kazakh State Philharmonia

Well, another weekend, another update.  Hope you enjoyed more scenes of the city. There’s still tons more to see so I’ll do my best to continue to capture what makes Almaty a special place.  See you soon…

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Charyn Canyon

This weekend I took part in an organized trip to Charyn Canyon.  With the weather starting to cool, this is most likely one of the last outdoor hiking excursions I’ll be doing during my remaining time here.  The canyon is located to the far southeast of Almaty, about 200 km away.

The canyon was formed by the very fast flowing Charyn River and is about 80 km in length.  The deepest part of the canyon goes down about 900 feet.  It is often referred to in the guide books as a miniature Grand Canyon.  While it does look somewhat similar from the top, it doesn’t have the jaw-dropping effect that the Grand Canyon tends to create.  Regardless, it was a really nice hike and the weather was perfect.

View of the canyon from the parking area at the trailhead

Hiking down the canyon

No shortage of interesting rock formations

You can see a man at the top of the canyon for perspective

Continuing down into the canyon

One of many precarious looking formations

Makes you wonder how long ago this formation toppled to the ground...

Lots of interesting sedimentary layers

More interesting outcrops and formations

After a while, we reached the bottom of the canyon and stopped for lunch along the river in an area known as the Valley of Castles.  This pic below gives you an idea of why it has this name.

Valley of the Castles

View from our lunch spot

Our picnic shed

The very fast moving Charyn River. Our guide reported that it's too dangerous to raft, with many Class V+ rapids.

Charyn River

Charyn River

After a relaxing lunch, we packed up and headed back out of the canyon.  On our way out, we stopped to talk to two Kazakhs with a golden eagle who were doing a demonstration about eagle hunting.  Our tour guide stopped to pose for a picture.

Our tour guide posing with a golden eagle

The timing of our visit was perfect.  As we hiked back out, we kept passing scores of people heading down towards the Valley of Castles from which we had just come. We joked that someone had opened the floodgates.  Turns out, when we got back up to the top of the canyon to our parking area, there were NINE tour buses parked there. No wonder we passed so many people!

On our way back, we stopped at a small eagle hunting museum.  While interesting, it looked as if it had seen better days.  The eagles and hunting dogs looked very malnourished.  When this question was posed to the director, she explained that both the eagles and dogs were fed less just prior to hunting season (starting in two weeks) so their hunger and lighter weight would make them faster.  I’m not sure how ethical it seemed, but it was certainly not my place to question their long-held traditions or practices.

Eagle Hunting Museum

Copies of area petroglyphs decorated the compound walls

Golden Eagle. Their feathers look a bit disheveled because they are molting this time of year.

Traditional Kazakh hunting dog

Spoils of the hunt

Part of a photo gallery of various official functions where eagle hunters participated

Another official function

After finishing our museum visit, we loaded up and headed back into Alamaty.  We did stop at a village market to take a break and check out some local produce, but nothing was really picture worthy there.  Till the next update…

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Exploring Almaty – Street Festivals

The weather here is starting to cool off a bit, as Fall is definitely in the air.  Though cooler, it’s still a great time to walk about and explore the city.  Looking back through my posts, I’ve realized that besides Panfilov Park and the Green Bazaar, I haven’t really given you many scenes of the city, so here goes…

A few blocks north of Panfilov Park is a pedestrian mall situated along Zhibek Zholy Avenue.  Lots of shopping and restaurants as you might expect but recently, the city has also featured an outdoor arts exhibition called, “Artbatfest.”  The current installation revolves around the theme of “trash art.”  All of the sculptures are made from discarded materials, highlighting an environmental message.

Artbatfest information booth

I say giant slinky but maybe it's supposed to be some sort of mobius model

Water lily

Made from car parts (and baby dolls!), I like to call this one the Mr. Potato Head Transformer

Some sort of health prevention message?

One of my favorites! The dung beetle. That little guy sure did collect a lot of used tires.

For some reason, most people just kept walking past this one as if no one wanted to admit he was there.

A modern take on the Iron Age era stone sculptures found in the area. Interestingly, it's titled, "Adam & Eve."

The big festival of the weekend, however, was AppleFest ’10.  Given that the apple originated in the region and also serves as symbol of the city, it’s no surprise that this is a pretty large event.  It took place in the Old Square (also known as Astana Square).  Live music acts and demonstrations took place all day long with a huge fireworks display Sunday night at the closing.  Vendors selling every imaginable food item that could contain an apple were omnipresent.  Much like a country fair, they also had a judging contest for the best apples from every variety.

AppleFest '10

Not sure if this is one of the various edible sculptures of apples or if it has some other purpose.

The building behind the stage is the former House of Government, where the Parliament met prior to moving to the new capital in Astana in 1997

I was too late and missed out on this edible sculpture

...and this one.

Old Square Park

Old Square Park. Every major park in the city is teeming with roses it seems!

The centerpiece of the park was once a statue of Lenin but is now a monument and tribute to two female Kazakh heroes of World War II.  Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulova were posthumously awarded the highest military honors of the Soviet Union for their courage and bravery.  In fact, they are the only central Asian women that were given such honors.  Unfortunately, I don’t know the specific deeds for which they were cited for.

Aliya (left) and Manshuk (right) heading into battle! Infants behind and above them are releasing doves of peace.

Well, that’s it for this week’s post.  Let me end here at Old Square Park by riding off into the sunset on my carriage below!  Next week is another trip out of town.  This time, we are doing a day trip to Charyn Canyon.  Till then…

Carriage rides like these were a common site in most of the big city parks.

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Altyn Emel National Park – Day 2

Well, sorry it took longer than I had hoped to post the rest of my trip.  Why does actual work have to interfere with my leisure time!?  At any rate, it’s a cool and rainy fall Sunday here in Almaty so it was a good excuse to stay in and finish blogging about this trip.

As I mentioned last time, after the singing dune adventure, we loaded up and headed to one of the park lodges to settle in for the night.  Our stay included a lovely dinner where we had the chance to sit back, reflect on the day, and get to know each other a bit better.  The lodge was a small and modest place as well as an actual working farm.  I can attest to this as the roosters and cows provided an early morning soundtrack!  We ended up hitting the road early after a quick breakfast, so the farm animals really did us a favor by rousing us all so early.

Arrival at the lodge

The open range (steppe) surrounding the lodge had a real old American West feel about it

The only other guests at the lodge that night!

After checking out and loading up that morning, we headed further east toward the Aktau Hills.  The name literally means “chalk” but most people refer to them as the “White Mountains.”  Composed primarily of limestone, they definitely have a bleached appearance from a distance, and provide a real contrast to the other colors of the steppe.

The Aktau Hills (White Mountains)

We skirted along the White Mountains and headed to our destination for the day, the Katutau Hills, or Red Mountains.  Along the way, we got lucky and spotted two kulan, or wild horses not far from the road.  They belong to the horse family but are much shorter and smaller than the domesticated horse.  They were brought to the park in the 1970’s from western Kazakhstan in an attempt to help repopulate the species.  While they are small in size, they are very quick and can run at speeds up to 70 km/hour but can sustain speeds of at least 50 km/hour!  The shot below is the only one I could get from the back of the minibus as we were bounding across the steppe.

A quick and blurry shot of a pair of kulan taken through the back window of the minibus

Heading toward the Red Mountains (Katutau Hills)

After a bit of further driving, we arrived at our jumping off point for our day hike.  We planned to hike for a few hours, have a picnic lunch, and then start the long drive back to Almaty.  The weather was perfect for a hike as it was sunny and clear but not too hot.  While the sun was a little too high in the sky for good photography, I did my best to capture the beauty of the place.  We hiked along a dry riverbed that snaked its way through the hills.

Our starting point for the hike

Hiking along the riverbed through the hills

Stark yet beautiful variations of shapes and colors

You can see the various layers of sedimentation in the large hill in the background

One feels so small when surrounded by the towering hills

The hills seemed to be quietly standing guard as we passed below

One interesting feature of this area is the abundance of quartz.  It was everywhere, just lying around like common rocks.  I tried to capture the glimmer that the sun gave all of it but my point-and-shoot camera isn’t quite sophisticated enough to do so.  Here are my meager attempts, however.  If you expand the shot of the hills below, you can see what I mean.  If you happened to view the hills at just the right position relative to the sun, everything shimmered like diamonds.  It was magical and spectacular!

Hard to see from this shot but you can get somewhat of an idea of how abundant quartz was in the area

The hillsides shimmering in the sun as if from a fairy tale

Heading back out of the hills towards our start point

Amazing layers and color variation

After the hike, we had a late picnic lunch before loading up to head back into Almaty.  It was about a five hour drive.  Along the way back, we stopped and took a short break at a roadside market and restaurant.  Here we had the opportunity to sample some traditional Kazakh flat bread and samsas, baked pastries filled with various meats, garlic, and herbs.  It was very similar in concept to an Indian samosa but baked instead of fried.  The interesting thing about the breads and pastries is how they are baked.  Below is a traditional Kazakh oven where you can see the samsas baking along the sides of the oven.  When you place an order, the baker takes a special scoop and plucks your samsas right off the oven wall.  How they keep from falling into the middle of the oven is beyond me.  What I can say with some degree of certainty, though, is how tasty the samsas were!

Traditional Kazakh bread oven full of samsa goodness!

Well, with our bellies full of samsas, we returned to Almaty tired but happy.  The two day trip was pretty short given the huge amount of territory we covered during that time.  It was a great experience, though, and I look forward to the next venture out of town to see some other equally amazing natural beauty.  Till then…

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Altyn Emel National Park – Day 1

Because of the long Labor Day weekend, there was the opportunity to take part in a two day trip to Altyn Emel National Park, located about 150km northeast of Almaty. The name of the park means “Golden Saddle” and was named by Genghis Khan when he and his army came through the area around the year 1219.  He gave it this name due to the hues of yellow from the dry grass of this vast plain.

The national park is one of the largest in Kazakhstan and encompasses about 1800 square miles.  It is bordered by the Dzhungar Alatau mountains along the northern rim and by the Ile River and Lake Kapchagai in the south.  You can see the natural borders in the satellite image above as well as get a sense of how vast the park is.   Because of all the area to cover, we really just hit the major attractions as our guide explained you could spend up to 4 or 5 days here if you really wanted to see everything.

This was my first real excursion outside of the greater Almaty area, and it was a great opportunity to see some of the countryside.  There were few large towns on our route, most were small villages.  The trip up was not lacking for interesting stops, though.  Lots of local produce stands along the road to the park.  We bought several items here for meals during our trip.

It's a great time of the year to be in the region. This produce stand was bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables. I have to say their watermelons were some of the best I've had. Amazing how local produce can be so fresh, eh?

We also ran across this father and son duo looking like they just stepped out of a time warp.  When our guide stopped and asked why they were wearing traditional Kazakh dress (think heavy wool robes on a very hot day), the father replied, “to make you happy and smile!”  Well, he was smiling but his son didn’t seem so thrilled about it.

Father and son all dressed up and no place to go?

We eventually made our way to the park entrance.  For such a large park, the formal entrance is rather modest.  The interesting thing about this national park is that you must obtain a permit prior to your visit.  The permit price is not cheap, at around $40 a day per person.  This includes a park ranger as a guide riding in your car (!) as you are not allowed to roam through the park unescorted.  It was explained that this was to help prevent poaching, as there are only 8 rangers for the whole park!

Altyn Emel National Park entrance

Waiting for the park ranger at the entrance as we prepare to set off on our adventure (in our familiar chariot!)

Riding through the park and looking out at the expansive landscape of dry brush and grass reminded me somewhat of the American Southwest.  You could seemingly see forever into the vast open space.  Our first stop after many, many kilometers was the Besshatyr kurgans.  There are 31 of these Iron Age burial mounds in the area belonging to the Scythian culture.  You can see them from a distance but don’t realize how big they are until you are standing beside them.  Archeologists believe the size of the mound was related to the status of the person buried inside.  The largest one is over 40ft high and 300 feet wide.  We climbed to the top to get a better view of some of the other surrounding mounds.  Once on top, you can see the huge crater in the center, which is the result of age and tomb raiders from long ago.  Archeologists have found several skeletons of some unlucky tomb raiders dating from different time periods over the past millennia.

At the base of the largest mound. You can see from the sign that a wooden frame chamber was built in the center of the mound. Tomb raiders who weren't sure of the construction often caused a collapse and became trapped inside.

View from the top of the tallest mound looking north towards a smaller mound. You can see the collapsed crater, giving an almost volcano-like appearance

View from the top looking back down at the educational sign and minibus

View from the top of the largest mound looking south towards Lake Kapchagai

Looking east towards the vast expanse. You really get a sense of the space from this vantage point. It's easy to imagine why this area was chosen for the mounds.

After this, we continued onward and stopped at one of the ranger stations for a pre-arranged lunch break.  The ranger station was situated next to a natural spring and lagoon and provided a cool and relaxing respite from the hours in the mini-bus.  The rangers and their families actually live at the stations and were very hospitable.

Lunch at the Ranger Station. Note the spring-fed tree towering over us.

Ranger house

The park rangers, our driver, and tour guide

Next on the itinerary were the Singing Sand Dunes.  These dunes sit between two opposing mountain ridges and the winds blow back and forth between them creating the dunes. Scientists have determined that the dunes have only shifted 2 meters in the past 150 years!  The two dunes stretch over 2 kilometers and reach a height of over 360 feet.  The “singing” results from the wind passing over the sides of the dune and causing a low resonance vibration.  While some parts of the sand were too wet from recent rains to make much noise, we did hear a few short bursts of howling as we slid down the sides after hiking to the top.

The larger of the two dunes. If you click on the picture to see the full size version, you'll notice the people at the top and how far away they are!

Speaking of hiking to the top, it didn’t seem too bad from the bottom looking up. Never having climbed a dune before, I was unprepared for the amount of work it takes to trudge through sand up a steep incline!  While I could deal with the hike, what I wasn’t prepared for was how narrow the ridge of the dune was as we ascended higher and higher.  I have to admit I had a brief moment where I froze about 3/4 of the way up after looking down on either side of me.  It took more than a few words of encouragement to coax me all the way to the top.  It was quite the adrenaline rush, especially walking back down the steep sides.  As much as I enjoyed it, I was very glad to be back on the ground at the end!

Starting the trek up to the peak

Onwards and upwards...

This is why it got a little nerve wracking for me!

View from the top! Very high!

After that very exhilarating experience, we headed to one of the park’s lodges to settle in for the evening.  We lingered over a lovely dinner and talked about the day’s experiences.  Since I have so many pictures, I’m saving the second day of the trip for a separate post since this one is getting a bit long.  I’ll try to complete it sometime this week, I promise!

Day 2 coming up shortly…

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Medeu and Kok-Tobe

One of the program managers in the office talked her daughter’s friend into serving as a driver and interpreter for a group of us wanting a short excursion out of the city this weekend.  He turned out to be a lot of fun to hang out with.  Originally from western Kazakhstan, his English was a bit limited as he had only begun studying it 3 months ago.  This made the day all the more interesting and fun, however, as we had to sometimes find creative ways to communicate seemingly common phrases.

We started the day by heading south into the mountains to Medeu.  Constructed in 1972, it remains the world’s largest outdoor ice skating rink.  During the Soviet era, it was the major training ground for their winter Olympians.  Many speed skating world records were set here.

Medeu

The entire facility is currently undergoing major renovation for the upcoming Asian Winter Games in January.  As a result, we had to avoid lots of construction equipment and trucks on our way up to and around the area.  It’s a very impressive arena.  I’m told that in the summer, the arena normally plays host to major outdoor concerts as well as turning into a roller rink pumping out techno music.  Not so this summer, though, given the renovation activities.

Close-up of the back side of the Jumbotron

We took the road further up the mountain in order to gain a bird’s eye view of Medeu.  The road continues all the way to the region’s famous ski resort, Chimbulak.  Currently they are installing a cable car system that will eventually allow you to ride all the way up from Almaty in the valley below.  A pretty impressive feat, considering the city sits almost 20 km from the resort!

View of Medeu from above. Note the construction equipment and trucks in the arena for scale.

If you squint, you can see a bit of the city through the haze in the valley below

Looking further up the mountain, you can see the cable car line heading to Chimbulak

I would definitely like to come back to this area at some later point.  There looked to be some great hiking.  We also saw a lot of off-road trails and people tooling around in ATVs.  We didn’t continue on to Chimbulak, though, but instead headed back down the mountain a bit to stop at Kok-Tobe.

View of Kok-Tobe park and TV tower from downtown Almaty

The name Kok-Tobe means ‘Green Mountain’ and dates back to the Silk Road days of the Middle Ages.  It’s now a city park and provides an amazing view of Almaty, day or night.  There’s a cable car that comes up from the city below.  The park itself has amusement rides, a small zoo, an outdoor concert venue, and some shops and restaurants.

Apple fountain at the park entrance. The apple is the primary symbol of the city.

Free summer concert series every weekend

The most surprising guests at the zoo were two camels!  You could ride this one for $8.00 but I decided to pass on this opportunity.

Impressive camel. Did not appear to be too friendly!

Another camel. Hard to appreciate their size until you see them up close.

Looking south from Kok-Tobe back towards the mountains. Again, squinting through the haze, you can make out the snow-capped peaks of the Zailysky Alatau range.

The massive TV tower on Kok-Tobe serves as another symbol of the city.

Looking north, a great view of Almaty and the cable car line.

View of the central business district. The wide avenue in the center of the shot is Al Farabi, one of the main arteries of the city.

We ended our stay at Kok-Tobe with a nice lunch at their patio restaurant.  I would definitely like to come back for a late dinner and see the city at night from this vantage point.

Our lovely lunch spot

Spectacular view of the city!

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Panfilov Park and the Green Bazaar

I’ve been recuperating from a cold this week so I haven’t been out much.  Feeling better, I ventured out today to explore one area of the city.  Panfilov Park is but one of Almaty’s many parks and green spaces and is located in the oldest part of town, the Central District.  The park is dedicated to General Panfilov, a local hero that gave his life to defend Moscow from the Germans during World War II.  The southern entrance to the park is marked with his statue.

South entrance to Panfilov Park with statue of General Panfilov

I have been very surprised to find Almaty to be such a green city.  There are trees everywhere, and the old, central part of the city is laid out in a grid pattern.  To the south are the mountains and the roads head uphill towards them.  It’s very easy to navigate if you remember that south is uphill and north is downhill.  Speaking of downhill, Almaty has a rather interesting irrigation and storm drain system dating back to the 19th century.  A system of ducts, called ‘aryks,’ run along the roads and carry water from the mountains all through the city to provide an ample water supply for all of these trees.  It also serves as a fairly efficient storm drain system during heavy rains.  The one below runs east-west so doesn’t always flow as do the north-south lines.

You can see the 'aryk' running between the sidewalk and street

Further into the park on the eastern side is the huge war memorial, whose centerpiece is a several story high sculpture in the shape of the former USSR dedicated to soldiers from Panfilov’s division.  There are also two additional sculptures flanking this colossus dedicated to soldiers from the first and second world wars.  Opposite this is the Officer’s Palace, now the Museum of Military History.  The architecture to me seemed stereotypical Soviet era.

Profile of Panfilov war memorial

May be difficult to see but the outline of the sculpture mimics the border of the old USSR

Up close and personal! It's hard to appreciate the scope and size of this from a photograph.

World War I memorial

World War II memorial

The very Soviet-era Museum of Military History

Adjacent to the Museum of Military History is an old original building from the early 1900’s.  It originally served as home of the Officer’s League but now houses the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan.  I found the contrast between this old building and the Military History Museum in the background very amusing.

The Museum of Folk Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan

Moving over to the other side of Panfilov Park is the beautiful Cathedral of Holy Ascension.  Besides its obvious beauty, it also has the notoriety of being one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.  It was designed by architect Andrei Zenkov in 1907 and survived the earthquake of 1910.  Along with the Central Mosque further north, it is one of the major landmarks of the city.

Approaching the cathedral from the east side looking at the rear of the building

The southern side of the cathedral

The south side of the cathedral in full

The front entrance of the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in all its glory

Heading north from the cathedral and the park, you come to the famous Green Bazaar.  This is one of the last traditional markets in the city but is very well established.  It gives you a glimpse of Central Asia and the old Silk Road if you squint enough.  Who knows how long it will remain as there are several ultra modern 24 hour supermarkets muscling their way into the city.  I was warned that taking pictures is frowned upon but I did manage to sneak up into the balcony of one of the main halls and snap these two for you:

The Green Bazaar - A feast for the senses!

More Green Bazaar!

The mosaic of colors you see in the stalls are a seemingly infinite variety of local dried fruits and nuts, which the region is famous for.  As you walk through, every vendor tries to entice you over with samples in hopes of a purchase.  Too bad for my nut allergy!  While these shots primarily show the produce section, there’s a whole other section devoted to fresh meats…and I do mean fresh!  Butchers cleaving away and selling select parts.  No pretty styrofoam and plastic-wrapped parts here.  There is no refrigeration in the market anyway, so what you buy you most likely end up preparing for dinner that evening.

Well, that’s all for now.  It was too hot out (about 98F) to spend much more time walking about.  Still trying to fully recuperate from my cold as well but I needed a break to prevent cabin fever.  Hopefully another update next weekend!

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