Sunday, September 20, 2009

Great North Run 2009

I ran the Great North Run this morning. There were 54,000 of us and one category for everyone - the half marathon. It was a point-to-point race - starting in Newcastle and finishing in South Shields, at the coast facing the North Sea. I've never ran in such a crowded environment before until today. Well, London Marathon was another one but that's twice the distance of this. The energy from the crowd itself was an encouragement!

I was lucky to win the ballot to run two big races this year. After winning a place for the London Marathon, I have also won a place to run the Great North Run. I first came to know about this run from Uncle Sonny who encouraged me to sign up for the ballot. After reading what it was, I discovered why it was so famous. It is the world's biggest half marathon and probably one of the few (or the only) half marathons that go by lottery. Because it is a well-known run, the goodie bag and medal that came with it, were also good. There were many sponsors for the race.

The crowd

Runners at Tyne Bridge and the Red Arrows
(photo by MailOnline)

At 6am when I arrived, the temperature was 6 deg C. The race started at 10.40am and by the time, the temperature went up a few notch, 8ish. Still it was too cold for me. It was certainly much colder than London!
Baggage buses

I kept to a pace of 7.5 mins/mile for the first 10 miles. The undulation of the course was too much for me. I was exhausted by the 11th mile and slowed to a pace of slightly more than 8 mins/mile. This took a beating on my goal to smash my previous personal best. I ditched the plan as soon as I realised I've screwed up at the 11th mile. So I did a relax pace all the way to the finish.

My time was 1hr 40mins 53secs.

The Great North Run is "Great" for a reason. In my years of running, I've never come across a race so well supported by celebrities, the Royal Air Force and us, the runners, despite it being far away from London! Come on, we are talking about the Red Arrows performing for a running event!! The last time I saw the Red Arrows was during the Trooping the Colour for the Queen.

Red Arrows

Celebrities who were there include Gordon Ramsay and wife, Sting and more than 30 soap stars from Britain's Emmerdale and Coronation Street.

The cost and time of travel were too much for me. I came back feeling like I just returned from war. I have a feeling my body is going to give up on me soon! Two days, 10.5 hours of travel, a 2-hour run, and a 2-hour sightseeing of the city. For non-runners, these numbers do not stack up at all to make a trip there!

I stank of dried sweat because I returned straight after the race and a walkabout in the city without shower. The huge crowd meant the organisers couldn't provide shower facilities for everyone. My feet are bruised and my body is feeling heaty possibly from a lack of sleep from the bus travel and dehydration. Don't get me wrong, it was a great race and something very different from the ones I've done before. In fact, I would recommend runners to do this race if they have the chance. But for now I am not sure if I'll do it again. Like always, I say the same thing for every marathon or "unattractive race" (like those requiring me to travel long distance), yet I find myself doing them again and again when my thoughts are clearer.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


Krakow Glowny - central train station

Moving on from Western Europe, I've always wanted to venture Eastern Europe. Krakow jumped out as the most attractive of all shortlisted candidates like Prague, Budapest and Vilnius because top of my list of things to do before the end of 2009 was to visit Auschwitz - where the Nazi Germans slaughtered 1.5million Jews. Poland thus appeared to be the best destination for the bank holiday.

Before I came to the UK, Poland to me was where Pope John Paul II was from. That was all I knew about the country. But Poland to the UK, is what Indonesia is to Malaysians - a vital source of cheap but skilled construction workers.
Drivers in Poland are required by law to switch on their lights when driving

My understanding of Krakow fell much shorter than that until I was there. The city was much better than I expected. For a city half the size of Singapore, it has four UNESCO-listed sites three of which we went to- Old Town, Auschwitz's mass extermination camp and Wieliczka's Salt Mine.
Wavel Castle

Bernardine Church

Krakow Cathedral

Old Town

Galleria Krakowska

Salt mine in Wieliczka. All of these were made from salt

Descend to salt mine

Krakow to me, still shows it was once a communist country. The ageing infrastructures and transportation system that now provide the impetus to development are the only scars that left behind to what was once a stranglehold of communism. There are as many old and dilapidated buildings on the streets as there are friendly people everywhere we went to.

One of the train stations en route to Auschwitz

No one will believe me more than I believe myself when I say Polish people are the most forgiving people in the world, next to Christ. After all that the Germans have done to the Polish during WW2, they are still allowed to roam in and out of the country freely without being stoned to death on the streets. Yes, and it's easy to recognise a German if you ask a Polish.


In fact, we've ended up traveling with a group of Germans who've stepped foot into Auschwitz to find out what their country has done in the past. I don't know if it was meant to vindicate themselves from being stoned to death but they did proclaim from the very beginning that they were members of an anti-fascist movement - Nazi fighters they call themselves. Okay, to be fair, they were a nice and fun group of lads who helped us locate a brilliant place to eat before they left.
Walking tour with German friends

I determine if a country is developed or developing by using the McDonald's as a yardstick. Adapting from the Big Mac index, I have created my own indicator. If McDonald's is a luxury in a country, it has to be a developing country. McD's is a luxury in Krakow, so Krakow is a developing country and rightly so. McD's are not as cheap as the milk bars.
Krakow Cathedral

Milk bars are not places where you buy milk and get drunk. I never thought you could anyway. It's just figurative. Milk bars are where the poor, homeless and students go to have their free/cheap meals. Tourists like us are also allowed to go to the milk bars and we are charged the same as the students. In fact, these were the recommended places for tourists who want to try Polish food in a typical Polish environment. You could for example, have a hearty meal with dessert for only £1.50(RM8)! Of course, do not expect high standards - think canteen food.
Pierogi and pork cutlet from the milk bar

When it comes to food, Poland becomes Porkland. There are plenty of opportunities to eat pork which means it would be difficult for Muslims to come here. However, there are always halal kebab stalls around. So it is not a problem afterall. For pork lovers, you must come to Krakow as pork is served in all shapes, form or style - cutlet, in soup, dumpling filling, roasted, stewed, sausages, bacon, etc. By the end of our trip, I felt so pork-ey I had to abstain from meat for a week!

But despite it serving the best meat in the world after fish, Krakow is rubbish with coffee. As a coffee addict, I was absolutely disappointed with the artificial stuff from the instant mix that I was served with. The taste was next to drinking a cup of diluted watercolour - only that this was hotter. Coffee must have been banned in Poland during the communist days as it was a foreign commodity I supposed, or I was at all the wrong places at the wrong time? I suspect the latter. Oh well, since I was only paying 1/5 of the price I pay in London, I should not complain.
Krakow's public transportation

Two years ago, I boasted that if I can travel in Japan without knowing how to read the kanjis, I can travel anywhere in Europe easily because I could make up the words in their respective languages. Not so for Poland. When we had our first Polish meal, we realised we were handicapped by the language. None of us had an idea what was in the menu and Polish couldn't understand English either. To make matters worse, Polish words are not pronounced as they are the English way. To avoid embarrassment and to survive, we ended up pointing a series of names with prices that are not too cheap (because we don't want to end up eating paper towels, toothpicks or plastic fork and spoons since we didn't know if those were charged too) and prices that are not too expensive as we may be ordering the entire roasted hog! So somewhere in between was the best solution.

We were quite good or you may consider it as lucky. We ended up randomly pointing to two main meals and a dessert! We remembered what we ate and made up those words in the menu. For once, there's taste to language! Our understanding of those words later helped in how we ordered our meals for the rest of the trip.

Food was an antidote to depression after Auschwitz. Our German friends were familiar with Krakow and so we tagged along to see new places and tried new food. So we also tried food introduced to us by people who were familiar with Poland.

Anti-fascist Germans introduced us to the Zapiekanki, like pizza served on baguette

On the itinerary was a trip to the former Jewish ghetto in Podgorze (pod-gor-jay). The ghetto was created for Jewish people to resettle into during WW2. It was horrible. The ghetto was demarcated clearly by a boundary wall and residents were made to wear the Jewish star everywhere they went to even within the walls of the ghetto. They have no business out of those walls. They were like housed in a borstal and treated like animals if you ask me! It was a crime if a Jew did not identify him/herself as a Jew to a non-Jew during meetups. For example, if they were walking into a job interview, they must first say along these lines: "Sir, I am legally obliged to tell you that I am a Jew", before they can proceed. This was absolutely derogatory. Things went from bad to worse day by day. In the end they were rounded up from the ghetto and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be exterminated. In the heyday before the war, there were more than 60,000 Jews. Today I was told there are only 200 of them. Most of them were murdered by the Nazi Germans.
Remains of the Jewish Ghetto wall in Podgorze

Kazimierz on the other hand is a Jewish district where Jews built their lives around. This the place where Jewish synagogues, cemeteries and restaurants are located. It's like a Chinatown of the Jewish community - Jewishtown? It was my first time having a Jewish meal too - the cholent. It was also the first time we were sure we wouldn't be served pork since stepping into Poland.

Fiona's perspective of this trip can be found here.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


I just returned from Krakow, Poland. This was one trip that I have planned and looked forward to since three months ago. I will blog about Krakow later on.

My main intention of visiting Krakow was to see Auschwitz, the former Nazi German's main concentration camp during WW2.

Friends in Facebook would have read my status messages about how depressed I was after reading about and seeing Auschwitz.

Fiona and I took a train to Oswiecim (pronounced as Osh-vyen-cheem), the town of Auschwitz. Auschwitz sounded like the Polish town but spelled like a German name because of the Germanisation that took place during WW2.

The 70km ride, almost like from KL to Seremban, took us 2 hours to reach. That was how slow the train was. The train service was a stopping service, which means the train pulls over at every stop along the route. As the train was approaching a major station, my goosebumps raised for no apparent reason.

I told Fiona, "I have a feeling we've arrived into Auschwitz".

She said, "How do you know?"

I explained about the goosebumps.

As a Chinese, I grew up listening to old folks that sudden goosebumps could be a sign of the presence of spirits. As the train slowed to a halt, a signboard emerged from the right - "Oswiecim". I was right. We have arrived.

The train station looked like a deserted place, in the middle of nowhere. We stepped into a quiet station. One could never have imagined how this was once a town marked by one of the darkest histories in mankind and the world- the Holocaust.

This was the place where more than 1 million people were killed by Nazi German soldiers. Some accounted 3 million people but the atrocity was so great that the numbers became irrelevant. This wasn't the same as saying the whole of KL's population wiped out once or thrice, but half of Singapore's population being transported to KL to be exterminated. This is difficult to fathom, but that was exactly how it happened in Auschwitz where 90% of those murdered were Jews brought in from all over Europe. Two-thirds of a race wiped out in a blink. Now you know why I was so depressed even though I am not a Jew.

I was drawn to the Holocaust subject not because I felt sympathetic to the victims or that I abhorred the Nazis. Don't get me wrong, I still am, but I was more interested in how the Nazis carried out the systematic killing against one particular race with such precision and detail that resulted in millions of deaths before they were intercepted. For example, the Nazis have a sophisticated system of prisoners' record and way of identifying Jews by their facial dimensions as well as sorting out the myriad class of prisoners in the camp, a system of retribution for each type of offense even though all would result in death, a process of salvaging prisoners' uniforms and sterilising them before they were recycled for other prisoners after the death of previous owners, a comprehensive infrastructures system to run the concentration camps, a system to handle prisoners' possessions and distributing them and a system supposedly to be efficient but also dotted by the mischief of staff in the form of bribery - as told in the movie Schindler's List.

Stockpile of shoes from prisoners

There were three main camps -Auschwitz I, II, and III. I and II were the most talked about.

Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, served as the administrative center for the whole complex, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people. The entrance to Auschwitz I was—and still is—marked with the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "work makes (one) free". The camp's prisoners who left the camp during the day for construction or farm labor were made to march through the gate to the sounds of an orchestra.
Main entrance at Auschwitz I
(Arbeit Macht Frei - work makes you free)

Auschwitz I looked like a boarding school campus. Reminded me of Kyoto University campus

Fiona and I had a discussion about this camp. Taking away the atrocities that went on in the camp, Auschwitz I did look to us, like a proper boarding school campus. But it was through revelations of what went on in the camp that made the whole difference. The execution yard was between Blocks 10 and 11.
Wall of Death between Block 10 and 11 where prisoners were brought to be shot to death

Windows in Block 10 were closed to prevent prisoners from knowing what's happening

Crematorium I - 3 bodies are burnt at any one chamber

Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau was the largest and built as the "Final solution of the Jewish Question". It was an extermination camp where at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Gypsies were killed.

Auschwitz II - Birkenau

700 prisoners squeezed into this barrack!

One cell sleeps three - one column sleeps nine!

People were mostly transported there by train. That explains the train track in the middle of the camp. Incoming Jews were divided into those deemed able to work, who were then admitted to the camp, and those who weren't, who were immediately gassed. 60% of those who arrived - old men and women, children and the disabled, those deemed unfit to work - were sent straight to the gas chambers. The victims were told they were being brought to shower but instead gassed. They used Zyklon B, or hydrogen cyanide. I was told 1.5kg of Zyklon B could exterminate 2000 people at one time!

Then - new prisoners are shaved and cleansed before given prisoner uniform

The more I read and see Auschwitz, the more questions I asked. How can one human have so much hatred against another human? How can technologies, which were created by humans, be allowed to end the lives of humans as well? How can anyone consider spending so much time and money to wipe out a race that was defenceless?
Trench hand-dug by prisoners

High-voltage fence surrounding Auschwitz II

Accounts from the witnesses who survived the camp were particularly heart-wrenching. Some of them left me feeling disturbed and thinking that life was once so cheap. The following extracts are those that left a deep impression on me:

An account from an SS officer: The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head. I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains flew through the air. Two in the head is too much, they almost tear it off. Almost all of them fell to the ground without a sound. Only two of them it didn't work. They screamed and whimpered for a very long time."

"An officer gave the order: Men to the left! Women to the right!..eight words spoken indifferently, without emotion; eight short simple words, yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother"

One of the survivors was asked if she can ever forget what she went through, she replied, "It is as if you stand by a lake and throw a stone into the lake, you see a large ripple at the beginning. It gets smaller and smaller and then the water is calm again. But the stone is still at the bottom of the lake."
Photo collage of Jewish victims

"For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing" by Edmund Burke

I was asked by some colleagues why I would consider spending the bank holiday in misery? My reply was simple. Auschwitz is a lesson and a reminder to us all regardless of race, creed or colour. It is a lesson about respect and tolerance. It is a grim reminder that even a nation that once produced the greatest poets, writers, scholars in the world, a nation that is now in the forefront of technology could be and was once fooled by one crazy person. This in itself reminds us only one thing: "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

Latest note:
I would highly recommend the following movies and documentary about Auschwitz and the Holocaust:
Documentary: Auschwitz: The Nazis & the 'Final Solution' (BBC, 2005) ...personal favourite
Movie: Life is Beautiful (1997)
Movie: Schindler's List (1993)