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Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

As well as the spectacular beauty of the places mentioned in my post The former Yugoslavia Part 1:  The Glorious… I also visited a plethora of tragic sights/sites while returning to the places Lazar once lived and while researching my novel. Here is my list of those I found most affecting. Knin and Sarajevo make it onto both lists, for reasons given below. Again, photos follow the list.

Knin, Croatia

The air of emptiness in some of the villages around Knin is really haunting. While driving through northwestern Bosnia towards Knin, we passed village after village with only a couple of houses still inhabited. The rest were burnt and looted ruins abandoned during the war. I was also stunned by how quickly nature has reclaimed those abandoned houses. Many are smothered in ivy, the gardens overtaken by stinging nettles… I couldn’t help but think it must be difficult for those who’ve stayed or returned to forget the conflict when confronted with such sights every day.

Please see also my new page Lazar’s Story: an Update, 2014 for some news about Lazar’s family house outside Knin.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Although Sarajevo is today a beautiful city whose inhabitants manage to exude an air of stylish nonchalance despite their economic woes, there are reminders of the war everywhere. Bullet and shell-pocked buildings still abound. Tour companies advertise drives down Sniper Alley and trips to the Tunnel of Hope museum. ‘Genocide tourism’, Lazar dubbed it. Is such tourism a good thing or a bad? Probably a bit of both, I guess.

Mostar, Bosnia

I’m glad the Stari Most (Old Bridge) has been rebuilt, but what a tragedy it was blown to bits in the first place! Once the new stones take on a bit of a patina, it should be less obvious that the bridge is not as ancient as its surroundings.

Srebrenica, Bosnia

Even discounting the Potočari Genocide Memorial with its 8372 white gravestones poking from the soil, there’s an air of desolation about Srebrenica. Would I feel that way if I hadn’t read so much about what happened there? I don’t know. Of late, another issue facing the residents of Srebrenica is that the recent floods have washed out many of the uncleared minefields, strewing mines in places previously thought safe. I saw several billboards around the town warning people to beware of shifting mines.

Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo

Lazar’s family lived for a year here in a kindergarten/refugee centre after fleeing Knin. Today Mitrovica is a divided city. The Serbs in the northern part are separated from the newly independent southern half of Kosovo by a bridge blocked to traffic at both ends by armoured vehicles and patrolled by international KFOR troops, Italian carabinieri and assorted other foreign peacekeepers. I saw more Serbian flags on the drive into Mitrovica than I did in all of Serbia: many Serbs and the Serbian government refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence because it’s seen as the heartland of ancient Serbia.

Nis, Serbia

Niš and much of the southern part of Serbia is noticeably poorer than the north. There’s a saying that the further south you go, the sadder things get. It rhymes in Serbian: što južnije to tužnije. Niš is also home to two pretty harrowing sites. The first is the Crveni Krst (Red Cross) Concentration Camp, one of Europe’s best-preserved Nazi concentration camps, right down to the graffiti prisoners scratched into the walls. Also in Niš is the Tower of Skulls, erected by the Ottoman Turks following a Serbian rebellion in which a Serb duke blew up the Turkish powder stores, killing 10 000 Turks, 4000 Serbs and himself. The Turks then beheaded and scalped 952 Serbs and plastered their skulls all over the outside of the tower as a warning to any other locals who might have been harbouring rebellious thoughts. Now housed in a chapel, the Tower was originally situated in open air. Apparently the whistling of the wind through the skulls’ empty eye sockets and lipless mouths was terrible to hear. Today there are only 58 skulls left, but that doesn’t make the Tower any less horrifying.

 

 

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

Having just returned to Australia from a 4000-km family reunion/research trip through 5 of the 7 countries that once upon a time belonged to the former Yugoslavia, I thought I’d list a couple of each country’s highlights. So here they are, in the order that we visited them. A few of my photographs appear afterwards.

Balkan Highlights

Sarajevo, Bosnia

We stayed in Baščaršija, the old part of the city. Imagine lots of tiny, cobbled alleys filled with brass and silversmith stores and courtyard restaurants where tourists and locals sip Turkish coffee and puff away on hookahs. And poking up above the minarets and steeples, the gorgeous fir-clad peaks that enfold Sarajevo. Magical.

Knin, Croatia

Knin itself is a pretty uninspiring place these days, but I loved wandering around Kninska Tvrđava, the enormous fortress that looms above the town. Parts of the fortress date from the 9th century; in the 11thcentury, it housed the King of Croatia. During the wars of the 1990’s, the Serb paramilitary captain Dragan Vasiljković and his Kninjas took up residence here, and war crimes allegations against Vasiljković hold that he tortured prisoners within the fortress walls. It’s a massive complex, replete with ancient latrines, dungeons and awesome views.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Boasting city walls that are perhaps the most impressive I’ve ever seen, the old city of Dubrovnik is a spectacular conglomeration of orange-tiled roofs, steep alleys and cobbled courtyards. It’s also packed with tourists. I heard more Aussie accents here than I’m used to in Sydney. Dubrovnik boasts some great museums; I particularly enjoyed the Ethnographic Museum, which features articles used in the production of various local staples like homemade wine, bread, olive oil and so forth. To escape the crowds, we stayed in a private villa in the far quieter but equally spectacular coastal town of Mali Zaton, 10 minutes outside Dubrovnik.

Kotor, Montengro

Set in the deepest, longest fjord in southern Europe, Kotor is a small town sandwiched between the cerulean waters of the Bay of Kotor and the ‘foothills’ of Mt Lovćen, the black mountain from which Montenegro gains its name. The mountains aren’t really black. But they are incredibly craggy limestone behemoths coated with cypresses, magnolias and patchy grass, through which goats and goat herders wind their way. Kotor features a walled Old City just as picturesque as Dubrovnik’s, although far more intimate in scale. The hike up the ancient walls to the ruined fortress above the city offers sublime views of the bay and city walls.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

So beautiful it doesn’t quite seem real, Sveti Stefan is a tiny island housing a former fishing village/former and present day resort, connected to the shore by a narrow walkway.

Montenegro’s roads

Definitely one of the highlights, given the endless twists and tunnels and the insanely reckless local drivers (many of whom, judging from the number of roadside crosses, pay the ultimate price for their recklessness). We drove from Cetinje, the 18th century capital of Montenegro, to Kotor via Lovćen National Park, along a road that has 28 hairpin bends in a row as it corkscrews down the mountainside. Each bend is numbered, so you can count how many more twists your bewildered stomach has to endure! Driving from Ostrog Monastery to Visegrad in Bosnia, we wound our way through more than 50 often dripping and unlit tunnels. That road snakes through the Tara Canyon, which is just 200 metres shallower than the Grand Canyon in the US!

Tara National Park, Serbia

Gorgeous alpine scenery and wonderful hiking country. One of the many benefits of having a husband for a local guide was that we enjoyed a private farm stay here, and partook of plenty of our host Obrad’s homemade rakija. The traditional steep-roofed wooden houses of this region are really picturesque.

Studenica Monastery, Serbia

Built in 1190 by Stefan Nemanja, father of the first Serbian king, Stefan Nemajić and of Sveti Sava, the saint who was the first archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox church, the two churches within the Monastery complex house some incredible frescoes. There’s a portrayal of a pregnant Virgin Mary reclining, smiling, while another lady holds her hand. There are also paintings of her bathing the infant Jesus and another of a man and a woman kissing. Scandalous! We stayed in the monastery’s guest accommodation — simple but adequate meals included in the price — and we were lucky enough to bump into a very enthusiastic local guide who shared with us his love of the monastery’s uniquely ‘human’ frescoes.

Belgrade’s Skadarlija district, Serbia

I spent my last night in Belgrade’s Skadarlija district being serenaded by Roma musicians in a restaurant called Tri Šešira which opened in 1864. Skadarlija is Belgrade’s cobbled, flower-bedecked Bohemian quarter, home to many writers and poets in the past. Today it’s filled with galleries, cafes and restaurants, many of which feature live Roma music as you dine. Perfect!

So those are the highlights of my trip. Please also see my post The Former Yugoslavia Part 2: …and the Tragic for my list of some of the most heart-wrenching places I visited in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

Sunday, July 13th, 2014 | Author:

 

On our way to the Balkans this summer, we stopped off for a week in our former home of Wuyishan in China. It was wonderful to catch up with some of our old friends and to visit our children’s former kindergarten and teachers. I also found myself stunned (I’m not sure why; I should be used to it after 2 ½ years living in China!) by the number of new developments in Wuyishan and San Gu since we were last there. There’s even a polar bear theme park in the making in San Gu — in the subtropics of Fujian Province!

On the downside, it was a little disheartening to see how much Mandarin the girls have forgotten. By the time we left China at the end of 2012, Ekatarina at six years old was speaking like a native. Yet even though they’re both attending Mandarin class for 3 hours every Sunday here in Australia and doing plenty of homework, they scarcely seemed to remember any when we arrived back in Wuyishan. Clearly it’s as easy for children to lose a second language as it is to gain it!

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | Author:

 

My parents, my sister and her husband and kids are currently holidaying here. Last weekend we all visited some of the earth houses, or tulous, of one of southeastern China’s minority groups, the Hakka people. The trip put me way out of my comfort zone: we hired a van and a Chinese driver for 3 days, and so my family was forced to rely on my awful Mandarin to communicate with our driver. I’m still in awe of Mr Jiang’s patience in deciphering my mangled instructions. In a language where using the wrong tone can mean the difference between saying ‘four’ and saying ‘death’, I made mistakes I’m even now shuddering to recall.

Anyway, the tulous are enormous, incredibly impressive structures with outer walls made from a mixture of mud, bamboo strips, glutinous rice and straw. They’re usually circular or square, and feature a single entrance and an interior courtyard equipped with wells — perfect for enduring a long siege! Originally, an entire clan lived inside each tulou. Nowadays many of them are in ruins. Others have been converted into hotels; still others house tea shops, souvenir stalls and little eateries. 

With more than 400 rooms, Chengqi Lou, the ‘king’ of the tulous, is the most awe-inspiring. But my personal favourite is Yuchang Lou, which is kind of like the tulou version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa — all its vertical supports lean in different directions. It looks like it’s been frozen in mid-collapse.

On the last day of our trip, we met a local man in the restaurant of the hotel where we were staying. When he discovered that we teach English at Xiamen University of Technology, he very proudly told us that his daughter was studying there. Then he pulled out his phone, called her and ordered her to speak English to us (I could just imagine his daughter saying ‘Oh Dad, no, please!’). So I started chatting with her and it turned out she’s one of my students! Small world, huh? Once we discovered that, her father invited us to have a couple of drinks with him, Chinese-style. That involves cries of “Ganbei, ganbei!” (‘Cheers’ or literally, ‘empty glass!’), followed by gulping a whole glass of baijiu, followed by holding out your dry glass to show everyone you’ve polished it all off. It was all a lot of fun and, for my family, a great introduction to Chinese hospitality.

Wednesday, January 04th, 2012 | Author:

 

We had a wonderful Christmas Day. About 30 students and teachers, foreign and Chinese, gathered in our house to open presents and drink rice wine and eat a roast Lazar cooked in our tiny portable oven. Boxing Day we headed to Shanghai. Now, after 16 months away, we’re back in Australia. It was all a little confusing for Aria at first. She keeps asking when we’re going home. But what she means by ‘home’ varies between our old house here in Sydney and our apartment in Wuyishan. She’s spent almost half her life in China but still remembers the house she lived in for the first two years of her life.

Australia looks to me impossibly clean. So nice not to see piles of rubbish everywhere. But I’m missing our friends in China and especially Chinese food.

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