Friday, December 15, 2006

So What's Been Happening Then ...

Glad you have asked, because I have been busy checking out some new sights and scenery and then there was the whole moving to a completely new city thing and starting from scratch and looking for work. But all is righting itself once more and things are going rosy with some very good news on the job front.

But I thought I would mention a couple of highlights from the months gone past. I got to indulge some of my new found pleasure (and pain) in trekking. Firstly there was the almost forgotten 5 day trek that I undertook with the old girl in Northern Thailand. Poor old mum. She suffered a bit worse for wear in the end. It is not like I dragged her along but in the end the trekking through water and mud stuffed her feet and toes around. It took a little while to recover.

Apart from the physical aspects, Northern Thailand I discovered is incredibly like Papua New Guinea; very green and jungly and with similar villages nestled in the mountains. Of course it was not all the same; the water buffalo, the rice paddies and the buddhist monks mediating in caves made it interesting and different.

Along the track

Once back home I didn't take long to get back out amongst it and do some more trekking. This time it was the Six Foot Track from Katoomba in the Blue Mountains to the Jenolan Caves. A three day walk it proved to be a good way to get back to being in Australia with wildlife spotting a major feature.


And from there we went off to the amazing and, thankfully, hardly visited natural spectacular of the Kanangra Walls. It was a time to get up close to the unhindered drops and get some of those "guy on perilous cliff-top" photos.

On Top Of The Walls 2

So since then like I said, the job front is looking good. In a few days time I start work for a company I have been a fan of for a long time. Lonely Planet. Unfortunately not writing guidebooks, but instead in their more mundane IT department. I am really looking forward to it though.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Travel By Numbers

Fell completely off the Blogosphere for a while there. Is it really more than two months since I last updated this. And all that has taken place between now and then. A lot really. First there was the finishing off of some travels through Malaysia and Thailand, doing it with my mother, returning home to Oz, travelling through my native state (ie New South Wales and not running around in the nuddie), showing it to my gal, who has also escaped the jungles, and now finally moving south of the border for a new destination and view in Melbourne town.

But before I recap on any stories, I thought I would do a bit of a tally as to how much actual travel I have done this year. At a rough count the actual hours that I have spent sitting on any form of transport has totaled up to be 370 hours, or over 15 days. Over two weeks of this year spent on a bus, train, ferry or plane, and that doesn't include the transport to get to that mode of transport or the waiting that always happens before it leaves.

Then as a total I have lugged my luggage onto 97 of these trips by sea, air or land. 35 buses, 32 trains, 21 planes and 6 ferries. Enough I reckon for one year.

More news soon.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Weird And Wonderful Romania

Weird and wonderful Romania. It certainly was. I think I saved the strangest part of this little trip around Eastern Europe for the end. Filling it with strange sights and positively strange people. For me when I think back on the days I spent there, it will not so much be about the majestic mountain views, or the stunningly gorgeous countryside I got to hike through in the north of the country. No it will be remembered by the people; the wacky locals and the eclectic travellers.

There were the locals to start with. The absurdly overly happy girl who runs the hostel in Suceava just over the border from Ukraine. Everything was ultra nice with her and it became a little bit disconcerting in the way she continually used that one adjective. "That's nice", "very nice" all with the same happiness. Her English was perfect, so I wished she would use more of the vocabulary she had. But she was great and helped me decide some of plans for travelling through her country, and she was a great cook as well, and I happily paid the extra cost for her to cook up some fine feeds.

But the older guy on the 8 hour train trip from Suceava south to Braşov was stranger in other ways. No word of English out of this guy so the phrase book came in handy once again. So we spent quite a few hours working out that I was from Australia, yes, I was travelling around on my own, yes, and that I should come and stay at his house, yes, and I should meet his daughter who was single. At which point a photo was produced from a pocket with a girl posing with her arms behind her head and hair a flowing. What do you say to that? But weirder than trying to get rid of his daughter to a foreigner, was when he got it into his head to take me to the toilet. Now this was very strange and I couldn't understand his persistence on why I should follow him to the toilet. I told him I was old enough now to know how these things work. But he kept grabbing my hand and trying to drag me there, without accepting my polite refusal that I did not need to go. In the end to stop his persistence I warily followed him and discovered that all he wanted to do was guard the door and stand outside because the door did not lock. Strange nonetheless. Weird Romanians.

Then I bettered it with the random punter I met in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu. The hostel was full and this guy on the street saw my backpack and said he had a cheap bed. Sure I will check it out I said, but when I did, instead of running when I saw the place was a dump, for some reason I didn't and I ended up having one the strangest nights in my life. This guy a chain smoking alcoholic who was perhaps the vaguest (and I mean genuinely vague, not the way in which I act sometimes) guy out. He took me out to have a few beers that night, even though he was already well and truly drunk already, and got it into his head that I needed a Romanian girl. "You travel so long, you need company". It became embarrassing as he went up to random women to ask them on the street, or in the bars, despite my continued pleas that I was fine. Waking up in the morning, after a fitful sleep on a converted chair-bed thing, the first thing he says to me, "you want women, yes?". I escaped quickly on the first bus to Bucharest.

Interspersed with the weird locals, I got to do some cool bits of travel, that you would not be able to do in most other parts of Europe, simply because technology has yet or is unwilling to catch up in this corner of the continent. I decided that I would try and do a hike across a hilly area from the end of a branch train line to one of the famed Painted Monasteries of Moldavia in the north, called Sucevita. To be honest I had no idea these monasteries existed before I crossed the border, but at this stage of my journey I was all church, cathedral, monastery and mosqued out and was more interested in getting into some fresh air.

The fresh air hike ended up being an adventure. To get to the point, I got lost and instead of following what was supposed to be a trail through the hills, I was bush bashing along a scant path. Once upon a time a track had existed there, some sort of track at least, but now it was overgrown and I was barely able to be follow it. I did have my GPS and knew the direction I had to travel and so just kept on going, hoping I did not come across the brown bears or packs of wild dogs I was told existed in this part of the world. Eventually after a few hours of bashing I came out onto a logging track and following that for over an hour I came across some locals out with their saws collecting timber for the winter. After an ask of "Sucevita?" together with a point down the track, I received a nod of confermation so I continued on my way assuming at least I would get to the monastery before dark.

One of the locals, after filling up his horse and cart with with timber, came trotting up behind me and using hand gestures asked me if I wanted a lift on the back. Never one to decline such an opportunity for a hay ride, or in this case a log ride, jumped on the back and clip-clopped for the next few kilometres through the beautiful valley filled with farm land and their farmers raking hay or picking potatoes. Sitting up on top I remembered that good things usually come out of these adventures, and in the end I got to see the painted monastery with its amazing biblical frescoes daubed on the outside and felt that it was all the more worth it for the trip there to see it.

Beautiful countryside

After the strange father with toilet fetish on the train, I spent about a week in various parts of Transylvania. Here I got back to being a tourist and followed the Dracula route to Bran Castle and his birth place of Sighişoara. Of course the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, never sucked blood or was immortal, but that doesn't stop the countless T-shirt and other tat sellers from trying to cash in on this. Bran was particularly bad, and apparently the real Vlad the Impaler never actually set foot there. It didn't seem to matter for the tourists who had to have a look at row after row of the same stores all selling the same crap.

Bran castle

In Bucharest after the week just mainly relaxing and chilling out in Transylvania and the escape from the weird guy in Sibiu, I got to see why a lot of people don't like the city and call it a shit hole. I wouldn't go that far, it certainly has no real attractiveness or central geographical area of beauty of say a Paris or Budapest, but it is certainly not a shit hole on the scale of say some Asian or African cities. Just thinking back about the dead dog carcass in Dili or the rubbish collecting in the river of Jayapura and the capital of Romania is perfectly beautiful. It does after all have the massive monstrous second largest building in the world. I am not sure if this makes it any better but it makes it intriguing nonetheless. Though I think the two nights I spent there I think were enough.

Monster building

And along the way between these sights and adventures, there were the other travellers I mentioned. They were were the most eclectic bunch of the trip. The female Russian backpackers hitchhiking through the country were certainly entertaining at the hostel in Sighişoara. They were certainly the first Russian Backpackers I have ever met, but considering they need a visa for virtually everywhere, this could be understandable. Then there was the cool Spanish girl that loved Gypsy music so much that she was on a trip to hang out with what seemed to be all the Gypsies in the east, so far she had camped out with them in Bosnia and Serbia and is now hooking up with the many in Romania. Also I can't forget the few Americans I met, the one who had spent 5 years in Japan teaching English, and the annoying Texan who wouldn't leave me alone in Bucharest.

But the best was the Belgium hippy I got to share a compartment with on the 20 hour train trip from Bucharest to Istanbul. He had spent the last 6 years in India and was on his was back there after a brief stopover in Europe to see his family. His tales of hitchhiking around Asia and busking to make money make my nomad tales pale into comparison. Being chased by the police in China for being in a restricted zone, cycling across Tibet and busking through Japan make a couple of years in Papua New Guinea childs play. He was a good laugh, and I wished him well, once we eventually arrived in Istanbul, in his quest to hitchhike through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, back to India. He wasn't phased by it, he had already done the same trip numerous times.

And so yes I am back in Istanbul once again. I have come full circle the long way through Eastern Europe and my time in this continent is nearly over. Tomorrow I fly out to South East Asia with a stopover in Vienna. Some more brief travel around Malaysia or Thailand will follow, and then we shall see where life goes. For the next part at least I will have company, I am meeting up with my mum. One parent was not enough on this trip, now I get to hang out with the other.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Toasting, Wife-Hunting, Smugglers ..

.. and a submarine base.

Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine, it seems like a distant memory now. Everything has reverted back to a script I can read without having to decipher and I am in a country that is geared more towards tourists. But what can I say, I loved Ukraine exactly because it wasn't the most easy place to get around; the challenge was there and it has been conquered. It is always a good feeling.

I had a great time as well. Even though I complained last time that the "East" is disappearing, it can still be found there. Some things die hard, and others which were repressed, come back to the surface. Soviet monuments and Lenin statues are still seen and not torn down as they have been in the other Warsaw pact countries. And Orthodox churches are plentiful in number and users, and they take it seriously too.

So way back when (actually it was only a bit over a week ago) I was in Kiev (or Kyiv to use the correct Ukrainian translation, Kiev is the Russian spelling). Kiev was very busy and modern, but ultra cool. I tried to do some touristy things, but I stuggled with the search to find Chicken Kiev, so instead I had to settle for some museums and an old ancient Monastery, with some mumified monks in caves.

My personal favourite though was the still functioning Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Now this is where Soviet pride stills comes into its own. Huge and grandiose with a giant titanium woman perched on top with sword and shield in either hand. The displays were all in Russian but it was so visual with personal artifacts that reading it was not really necessary. What I gathered though from it all was the Nazis were nasty and the Soviets good.

Even more interesting I thought was the nearby, Museum of "In Foreign Wars". Here we had homage to wars in Mongolia, Vietnam, Korea, Angola and Afghanistan. What I thought funny though was that Soviets mostly started all those wars. Not sure if that fact was fully explained or not. Outside you could climb over some military hardware if you felt so inclined, lots of Soviet tanks and even a Hind gunship (that one from Rambo 3) which kids were climbing into and getting their photo taken.

Look mum a gunship

One of the best bits for me personally about Kiev was the Metro system. Just like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, this is how Metros should work. Pay 50 kopecks (or Crow Pecks, about 20 Aus cents) and you can travel anywhere on the system. The trains come every two minutes and off you go. The Kiev system was cool, because it is actually the deepest in the world, a title I thought before was bestowed upon St Petes. But no, one station in Kiev is actually 120m below the surface. Now what I am trying to say is that you should see the escalators for these stations. You ride these monsters for 5 minutes and they would have to be 150 metres long. I would not want to fall down one.

Escalator monster

And so anyway, after my Metro fetish I caught the train south to the Crimea. That funny shaped peninsular into the Black Sea, mainly famous in the English world for a war a 150 years ago, but for the Russians it is holiday central. I decided to try and avoid the bulk of the Russian invasion to the beaches and go for the history instead. So I went to the little town of Balaklava, just south of Sevastopol. It was here in the Crimean war that the British famously launched the Battle of Balaclava and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Of course you can't find anything relating to it now and there are certainly no monuments and locals would never have even heard of it.

But luckily there is something to do there that the locals know about. The former secret submarine base of the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Now this was cool. I got to go on a one on one tour with an English speaking guide (I think I was the only non Ukrainian/Russian for that week) through the underground complex and see where the submarines would come in through a tunnel from the sea and be serviced inside. Then past the massive 20 tonne blast doors (they built this thing to withstand a nuclear strike of 5 times Hiroshima) and then into the really secret area where they assembled the nuclear warheads which were loaded onto the subs. This had all been operational up until 10 years ago, and now the government has grandiose ideas of turning it into a big museum complex. Luckily I still got to see it in a "raw" state.

Trolley for nukes

And so a train to Odessa. Ah the trains, what can I say, but I think the CIS countries have the best system in the world. The soviets had one thing worked out and that was railway transport. Thankfully Ukraine has inherited that legacy. They may be a tad slow, but you get to board at night and in the morning you are in a new city hundreds of kilometres away. And as a traveller you get the added benefit of getting to meet the locals. This can also be a bit of a curse if like on my leg to Odessa, newly met compartment occupier Vlad decides to get the vodka bottle and then makes me and the other newly met pair of Sergei and Natasha toast until we finish the first bottle and then almost a second procured from somewhere.

It creeps up on you drinking vodka neat. You think you are fine for a long time and then suddenly you realise important motor skills have gone. Unfortunately as well the train pulled into Odessa at 5:30am and this meant the lights were on an hour before. My head was shot and seedy would have been a good term, but Vlad and Sergei in true Ukrainian spirit decided they needed to finally finish the second bottle and toasted away before the sun came up. I politely declined their offer to join in.

Finally Odessa. A nice town with some great accommodation. Not a hell of a lot of sights, apart from really the Potemkin Steps (famous for the climatic scene with baby pram in the cinematic masterpiece, the Battleship Potemkin), but I was not really bothered it was good to chill out for a few days. Which is what I did, at a backpacker hostel in the centre of the city run funnily enough by a guy from Queensland. A true blue oka bloke, with no connection to Ukraine until about 6 months ago. Now he is loving it and looks like he will be in the for the long haul. You see I also discovered another type of traveller to the Ukraine, the Wife Hunter. Quite amusing seeing guys from England, the US and Australia come all that way to meet women they have "met" through Internet wife finding sites.

After Odessa I did two night trains in a row. In hindsight it was a bit much, but hey it was actually costing half as much to catch a night train and go 600 km, than to stay in a hostel bed. I still can't believe it was so cheap, US$10. Try that anywhere else in the world for the same standard. Brilliant.

Red star engine

Anyway I went back to the very west of the country which I had originally bypassed and saw Lviv. A full day striding around this beautiful old town. It used to part of Poland, so they have inherited the same legacy as Krakow. And then a night train south to the border with Romania. From here I negotiated some way to get across the border. I was ready to move on, even though there were a couple of other places that I would have liked to seen in that area, I needed to keep moving because time was running out.

What transport I found, instead of a planned bus, was a private car filling up with four other passengers to head to the big town over the border. It was fairly cheap (even though some cheap-arse Polish backpackers were not willing to pay the US$10 and were preparing to hitchhike instead. Those Poles want value for money. Some which were in the Crimea at the same time as me were not even prepared to pay 6 Euro a night in a hostel!). So I headed to the border with two Babushkas, another guy and the driver.

Over the Ukrainian border was easy, although again they studied my passport forever. Then to the Romanian side. This was harder, especially for the poor bloke sitting next to me in the back. Customs pulled his bags out and found he had decided to try his luck at a bit of cigarette smuggling. Two Minute noodle packets with noodles removed and two packs of cigarettes inside. A loaf of bread with its innards removed and more cigarettes stashed. Same with a bottle of water and boxes of "chocolates". The customs guys were having fun and one who could speak English came over with the loaf of bread and joked, "do you want to see Ukrainian bread". Ah good times. The guy obviously did not complete his journey into Romania, so we left without him.

And so here I am, another new country and already I am having some unique experiences in only the one day that I have been here. But that is for later.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Go east young man

(I know that) There are many ways
(To live there) In the sun or shade
(Together) We will find a place
(To settle) Where there's so much space

(Without rush) And the pace back west
(The hustling) Rustling just to feed
(I know I'm) Ready to leave too
(So that's what) We are gonna do

(What we're gonna do is
Go East) Life is peaceful there
(Go East) There in the open air
(Go East) Where the skies are blue
(Go East) This is what we're gonna do

(Life is peaceful there)
Go East (In the open air)
Go East (Baby, you and me)
Go East (This is our destiny)

Greetings from the east. Or once what was, I am now not so sure. I don't think the east actually exist. Not what we used to think of anyway. After trying to get back to the "east", I have discovered another new "west". In fact this whole trip has been seeing the new west. The people look the same. Dress the same. Clutch mobile phones the same. The only difference I can hear and see is that the language is alien to my ears (like it has been for the last 2 and a half months) and everything is written in Cryillic.

Horse and column

So I am in Kiev, capital of Ukraine and scene of the Orange revolution two years ago. No dioxide poisoning for me though and I am still well and truly alive and kicking and still discovering. But it can be a burden this travel gig. The only saviour is that when you get sick of it, you can pack it up and head to the next destination, unlike other experiences I have had in the last couple of years in other locations.

I made it after my first marathon train trip of the journey, an 18 hour overnight train from Warsaw; the night train to Kiev (great title for a film). But all went smoothly, even the border crossing, although the border guard with humongous Soviet style hat stared long and hard at my passport for 15 minutes at 3 in the morning. He studied my entry visa and then every other visa and stamp, twice. He certainly couldn't speak English and I am sure if he could he would have asked me all sorts of questions. "What is your purpose in Ukraine?", "What is your mothers maiden name?", "How many pets do you have?", "Why is the sky blue?". Fairly sure he was a bit stupid, guess it goes with the job.

So I came from Poland. Great country, pity I didn't spend more time there. Though this trip can always count for the teaser value. Briefly check it out and then if I like come on back, ala what I would like to do with Slovenia and Bosnia.

And in Poland I had one of the highlights of my trip so far, if you can call it a highlight, it was certainly a sombering experience. I took a trip out to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Oh the horrors that man can produce. It is there and it is real. A place you cannot forget in a hurry. I have stood in the exact spot where hundreds and thousands were selected to go off to the "showers".

Electric fence

But Poland had so much more. Krakow certainly deserves its spot as one of the must see cities of Europe. It has a vibe to go along with its beauty which is hard to miss. What other place do they have actual buglers on employment from the city council to play a bugle every hour of the day from the top of the tall bell tower in the main town square.

Warsaw alas does not have Krakow's beauty. Mostly because of course the Germans blew everything up in 1944. But it is still a cool place to go. You just have to search around for the cool spots. But they exist and I and a few other backpackers in town had a great time going to places like the Ice Bar (yes one of those bars where everything is made of ice) and the Absurd Smell bar, a very wacky place. Ranks up there with the Gothic dance night I experienced in Belgrade.

I said before that I had met up with the old man in Vienna. We had a great 9 days together, to catch up, and for him to foot most of bills (cheers again dad. oh and email me to let me know you made it to London OK!). We (or I should say, after 5 days, I) escaped Vienna eventually, even though the rivercat boat we had planned on taking down the Danube to Bratislava was cancelled. Had to settle for the regular train instead.

Bratislava it was sad to say got the raw end of our deal. And after seeing it from the train station we kept on going into the centre of Slovakia. I had heard that the place was a tad boring anyway and the only thing going for it was the cheap beer. We instead wanted to test out the famed Tatra mountains to see if they were everything they were cracked up to be. And the answer, well yes and no. Nice views and pretty alpine terrain, but they are tad small and way too crowded and not that difficult and doesn't have that I am in the middle nowhere feel. After all, there were old nuns walking along the tracks, I kid you not.

So after a couple of days there we decided to skip off to the nearby Slovensky Raj National Park, or Slovakian Paradise. Now this was different and I am glad we took the effort to get out to smallsville Slovakia for it. We hike along numerous trails over numerous terrain. Up hills, down valleys and along gorges where you had to walk on steel steps drilled into the cliff walls above the burbling water below. It was cool, no grand vista, but it is not everyday you test out your weight on shaking looking steel gangway things, 5 or so metres above freezing water.

Stepping along a gorge

And so from there it was a back track and a massive long day travelling, including the slowest train I have ever caught, to get to Krakow and 3 nights there before saying goodbye to dad and heading off to Warsaw and now Kiev. What's next you might well ask. Haven't you seen enough, could be another question. Well more of Ukraine and almost are the respective answers. I have a few more days in the Ukrainian capital, testing out my non existant language skills (oh why can't they invent a language chip to insert into our heads?), before I plan to make my way south to the Crimea and back to the Black Sea, where hopefully the weather will be better (for the last couple of weeks it has been shite! It is still supposed to be summer here and the weather is worse than in Sydney right now, where it is winter). From there, well we shall see, but perhaps hopefully I can at last find some "east".

Apologies to the Pet Shop Boys.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Visas and Vistas

So much for heading through Eastern Europe. I've practically been back in the west for the last couple of weeks. Not so much geographically, but certainly economically. Budapest had huge shopping malls. Zagreb was like any other Western Europe city. Slovenia was covered by freeways and now I am in expensive Vienna. Nuff said.

I am keen to head back east but before I did this I had to stitch up a bit of bureaucratic red tape crap and rendezvous with someone. Now that this is done I can get back out there. But firstly to the last couple of not so adventurous weeks, although I did try to make it more so at one point.

I stayed in Budapest for a fair while. Luckily I did it on the cheap - as cheap as you can get for accommodation at least - free, staying at another travellers place. And it was a great way to get a good insight into Hungarian way of life and culture and see how the locals live in the burbs. (Thanks again for the bed mate).

Most of the time there was spent getting my Ukrainian visa. Which I can now happily say I have procured, even though in the end they stuffed up the dates on it and I had to get them to do an ad-hoc change. Are all consular officials stupid? Yes I think from later experience. But I also got to wonder around the city and enjoy it. It is a very pretty city and like my host mentioned is probably the only city I can think of besides Paris or London that truly makes use of river frontage to maximum advantage. And certainly the only city along the Danube to do so.

After Budapest, I headed to a little Hungarian city on the border with Croatia called Pécs (pronounced paich). I stayed two nights mainly because I wanted to see another part of Hungary and also because I couldn't move out of there quickly enough. Actually it was a nice place, but it did reconfirm that not many Hungarians outside of Budapest can speak English. You guys are lagging behind the rest of europe! A night in Croatia's capital Zagreb was next, which was probably enough, before heading off to Slovenia and lovely Ljubljana.

Nice roofline

Ahh Ljubljana, what can I say. Probably the one city that I have been to so far that I could say I would like to live in. Such a cute little town and with such a cool sounding name. Like the country it belongs to, you could almost pick it up and give it a cuddle it is that cute. The city is small and compact and easy to get around. Everyone is friendly and genuinely happy to have a chat to you and are not jaded by hoards of tourists .. well as of yet anyway. And thankfully just about everyone speaks English, which is a change from basically everywhere else I have been so far.

And then there is the Slovenian countryside. To talk it up like a Lonely Planet travel guide (but legitimately so), the place is green and lush, with vivid blue rivers, craggy mountain snowcapped peaks, birds singing happily away, chocolate growing on trees and flowing streams of beer ... well almost. You get the picture. But if you don't, take a look at some of mine that I took in the Julian Alps uploaded on Flickr.

It was up in the Julian Alps that I took a prolonged trip with a cool guy called Jessie from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a white dude, but came complete with cool Jamaican soundings accent .. man. We took a little bus trip up there from Ljubljana to breath some mountain air and do some crazy adventure sport that seems to be de rigour for that neck of the woods. Kayaking was tackled first with some success. It is harder than it looks doing this down a river with rapids, but I managed to do alright with only the one feat of capsizing into the freezing Soča river (pronounced So-cha). Thank heavens for the wetsuit.

Soča blue

Afterwards we burned some more money by trying out canyoning. I am hooked. Now this gets the blood pumping and adrenalin flowing. Four of us (us and two dudes from Poland) and a guide suited up in special Batman like suits - with helmets, harnesses and some nappy like thing to protect the suit around our arse as we slide down waterfall chutes - then climbed up a valley side to come back down a canyon.

The canyon entailed numerous high jumps off into pools of water, the previously mentioned slides and some completely crazy abseiling down massive waterfalls - 50 metres high! If you can't imagine 50 metres and I still can't even after doing it, think how high a 10 metre high diving platform is at the Olympics, times it by 5. This was really mad and I was the first to do it. Half way down after being dumped on but mega-litres of water I was starting to wonder if there was enough rope to get to the bottom and why I didn't check that adventure sport tick box on my travel insurance form .. don't tell mum. But it was safe. It was not so much as abseiling by myself, but being lowered down gradually by the guide. Getting to the bottom was a real buzz and I just wish I could have taken my camera in to get a picture. Of course it wouldn't have truly captured it, but still.

Jessie and me then tried to make our way back to Ljubljana that afternoon. Unfortunately it was a weekend and public transport was almost non existent in this part of the world on weekends. So we decided to try as the locals do and hitchhike back. Limited success in this. We managed to get about 20km down the road in 3 hours of trying. In hindsight our big "LJ please" sign could have been our downfall. No one was going that far from the mountain resorts on a Saturday afternoon. They were all spending their weekends out of the city. After another night in the mountains at a local camp site we eventually got down off the mountains with the combination of two buses and a train to get back to LJ.

Hitch or bus

And so I am now in Vienna. I have hung out here for the last few days finally getting the Romanian visa, which I can happily say I now have stuck in my passport, although I had to carefully peel out the botched one they also did, saying 39 days instead of 30 and then stamping a big void stamp on it. Page real estate is now limited in the passport with only a few blank pages left, so I was not going to have two whole pages taken up by stupid Romanian consular officials. I need that page space for future borders.

But the best bit about being in Vienna is seeing my old man. He flew in yesterday and we are spending the next week and a bit together. First up is to head off to Slovakia and to hike in the apparently amazing High Tatras mountains, and after that .. hmm maybe some more east, Poland sounds good. I'm sure it shall be grand.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Balkan Bridging

I was going to call this tale, Bosnia, Bed Bugs and Belgrade .. because .. well that basically sums up my last week. But instead here is a tale about recent war torn places moving ahead in leaps and bounds and an escape from the dreadful crowded coast into relative tourist free areas. A brilliant week in my books.

First destination out of the Adriatic tourist mecca was the fabulous city of Mostar. Location of the famous stari most (old bridge), and site of the front line of the war between the Croats and Serbs. Considering the war finished over 10 years ago, I was still amazed at the number of ruined and damaged buildings littering the city. Taking a walk around the area bordering along the former front line, the bullet holes still pock marking almost all the architecture is a shock. Signs in Bosnian and English pronouncing you not to enter the damaged buildings is common.

The old town was a pure delight. Partially full of tourist yes, but nothing like crazy Dubrovnik. It is sliced through by the strangely freezing river and crossed by the bridge (it was a shame about the river because when it is heatwave conditions of over 40 degrees in the shade, a dip would have been good, but not with the 11 degree water). The bridge was destroyed during the war in 1993 to much world outrage, but it is great to see it rebuilt now and the local pastime of jumping off is still taking being done. Though it is a tad touristy to see a hat being passed around to the package tour Americans and Germans, and then seeing the jumper surveying the takings. But seeing him jump from 25 metres up, into freezing water is still very impressive. I am glad the packagers paid for the three times I saw it.

Stari Most

Mostar is also the scene of my first assent up a mosque's minaret and certainly one of my highlights. I had previously thought this activity was strictly off limits to foreigners in Muslim regions, but not so in welcoming Bosnia. I climbed up and up the spiral stairs of one of the many little mosques around the town and popped out with fantastic views over it all. I could have stayed for a long time with a picnic, but eventually I had to head down before I would have got blasted by the loudspeakers call to pray.

An early morning train trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo, scene of winter olympics and wars, was next up. This town I loved. And if it wasn't for the filthy accommodation - which yes was cheap, but also came with a host of bed bugs that seemed to like my lovely blood - it would rank as one of my favourite destination.

Compact and easy to get around. A brilliant nightlife and cafe scene. And a beautiful location surrounded by hills, that was also its bane during the war when it was surrounded by the Serbs who sieged it for almost 4 years - a longer siege than Stalingrad and the longest siege in modern warfare. It is hard to believe that there were Serbian snipers hiding in the hills picking off everyone from old grandmothers to children on a day to day basis. I saw some footage shot during the war after I had been there for a few days and images of burning cars and people running to dodge the sniper's rifle on the same street I had just walked down is hard to get your head around.

Old Town

The bed bugs almost drove me out of town and in reality I should have just moved to better accommodation, but I was having such a good time meeting other backpackers for once, I stuck around and partied with them for a while before shipping out. Reaching Belgrade by an overnight bus with a few of the other travellers heading the same way was another typical travel experience. I hate overnight buses, especially when there is a border crossing at 3 in the morning along the way. But I shall say no more on that.

Belgrade was a serious pleasant surprise. The city at the confluence of two major rivers, the Sava and the mighty Danube, is not the most attractive but still beautiful in its own way, with proper boulevards and very beautiful people to fill them (if anyone can tell me why Eastern Europe has more beautiful girls than else where, please do). The place is sort of low on attractions, but it is high on the fun. And the accommodation helped here. I found a nice little hostel in the centre of the city and hung out there for 4 nights - the longest stop off so far on the trip (I guess I am now starting to slow down a bit after rushing through some other parts).

It is a genuinely big modern city and it doesn't at all look like one that was being bombed by NATO only 7 years ago. Although you can still see the smashed up and destroyed Military headquarters building without having to walk far - guess they want to remind themselves what NATO did. Also it was interesting seeing the Military Museum and seeing the recent addition of the Kosovo war relics. A room filled with computers, cluster bomb bits, an American soldiers uniform, various guns and a chunk of the F117 stealth fighter they managed to shoot down, amongst others. The big Hummer outside is also a sure sign of the finger they are flicking to the west. Quite a few American tourist come though and don't get hassled. The past is the past here.

My Humvee was captured

And so I am currently in another B, Budapest, and I am slowing seeing the sights but more importantly I am using it as a way point destination to sort out a few upcoming travel adventures, namely getting a Ukrainian visa and planning a trip to the Caucasus region later (a Russian visa was considered, but it is nigh impossible to do while here). A trip to Romania is on the cards - I really should see Transylvania while I am in the neighbourhood - but those Romanians really don't like us and we have to jump through some serious hoops to get a visa (I guess we screw them in return). But it should be worth it I think.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Tourist Shy Traveller

(warning: traveller's moan ahead)

Wanted, tourist shy traveller to see tourist meccas in the height of peak season tourism. It is a tough gig, and I mean it. After being blessed with a fraction of tourists seeing cool Albania, I have stepped into wadding pool with the rest of crowd and am going shoulder to shoulder, barging my way through. It definitely puts a dampener on it, especially when the sights are obviously worth it, it is a pity that tour guide umbrella keeps getting in the way of the view.

But back to the beginning. I made my way back to the popular coast after a three nights in Tirana. In the end that was probably enough for the Albanian capital. The traffic especially started to grate. It was some of the worst .. actually probably the worse .. traffic I have seen (and I have seen a few cities). They were not shy to use their horn and unfortunately the hostel .. although a very cool place to hang out and meet other travellers .. was right on a busy intersection, sans traffic lights. The horns blared at all hours.

So I hit the road again and headed north to the town of Shkodra. I was going to spend at least a few hours there to have a good look, but as soon as I got off the bus I was bombarded with offers to take me across the border and to the Montenegrin coast. Another traveller had been waiting for another passenger to fill the private car for a couple of hours, so I said why not, and headed straight out of town in the old Mercedes for the short journey west to the seaside beach town of Ulcinj (the towns I have discovered are now getting harder to pronounce).

I have done enough beach side towns in my past to know that they are much the same. And I can have my fill back home at far better beaches, with surf and a quarter of as many people, so I went straight to the bus station and found out when the next bus was off to the next cool old medieval town without a nearby beach. This just happened to be Kotor, which sat grandly at the end of an actual fjord (the southern most one in Europe .. hard to believe, I know, but it is true) and has a picture perfect little walled town with old labyrinthine laneways winding through it. My idea of a cool place .. what else could you want .. but wait there's more. There was also the fantastic ancient fortress built high above the town up the step sided cliff walls of the fjord. Just what I felt like doing, climbing up a mountain to a fortress and get rewarding views.

Prime viewing spot

Luckily with the brilliance of no preplanning and just turning up in town at the end of a long travel day, all the way from Tirana (three buses and one car) I wandered through the old town's lanes and discovered a homestay with a free room. The lovely Montenegrin woman, running the place, chatted with me in a mixture of english, french, italian and serbian, while she gave me a turkish coffee, after I unloaded my pack in the room, and we sat out on the steps in the warm evening and watched the world pass on the little laneway outside the front door. These are the sort of unexpected delights that make travelling worth it. Instead of just two nights, I had to settle for three there.

There were certainly more tourists than Albania in Kotor but it was no plague proportions. So it was hard to leave my little homestay, but I had a date to make. An old mate was going to be in Dubrovnik, Croatia, so I wanted to catch up with her and possibly do some travel together.

I bused my way up over the border and hugged the coast to the famous old town. And it was here that I certainly discovered the tourist mecca I had been dreading all along. I knew it was going to be popular but I didn't realise just how popular. I met up with Jen and we stayed for a couple of nights in a relatively expensive place quite a way out of town. Prices were a jump up from everything I had come across so far (well expect probably Greece), and this transferred across everything, eating, seeing and sleeping. It was enough to put me off doing much there at all, and so I didn't really. I wandered the old town, saw the sights, bumped shoulders, swam from rocks, but then had to escape.

Rock jumping

We jumped on a ferry and tried our luck for the island of Korčula, to see if this would be less touristy .. umm no. It was easy to see on the boat itself, it was full up with backpackers, flashpackers and packagers from all corners. I just wasn't used to it on my trip so far.

Crowded deck space

Korčula was nice, another little old walled town .. somehow I think the coast is somehow just old walled towns .. but the hoards drove us out of town quickly. We were both tourist shy, and we headed to the other end of the island to see if we could escape them. Luckily there were less and it was a nice little spot to spend a night, before catching another ferry to part company with Jen at Spilt (thanks Jen for the company, by the way).

And this is where I currently am, moaning about tourists at an internet cafe in Spilt. But I am about to spilt Spilt and head off out on the next part of my shuffle into, hopefully, less visited, but in my eyes must see places. First up is the historic town of Mostar in Bosnia, scene of bridge destruction and symbolic rebuilding. Then Sarajevo, which from all I have heard should be a pretty special place.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Slipping Through Shqipërisë

Ah Albania, what a cool country .. well not weather wise at least .. bloody hot .. anyway, so I slipped into the country last week and have been making my way around what the locals call Shqipërisë. And it has been a genuinally pleasant surprise.

So far the week has been filled with wandering through UNESCO listed condensed hill top towns full of cobbled streets and brooding castles; being at English like (but with better weather) sea side towns, complete with pebbly beaches, promenades, cafes and the strollers walking past to fill it all; seeing an amazing village inside in a castle, perched on high overlooking valleys below; and the best bit all doing it all with no bloody tourists .. and didn't I need that after the package tourist heaven .. or my hell .. of Corfu. Here you can count the other travellers on your fingers, back then it was by the number on the back to the tour bus.

No tourists doesn't mean it is bad, just undiscovered. The rest of the world is sadly missing out. But who cares, let them follow their umbrella waving tour guide, I don't mind. This place is opening up and throwing off its recent decades of neglect and having a mini boom. It has one of the fastest growing economies of Europe at the moment, but that is really just because it started from not much to begin with. Far removed from the visions being instilled in my mind before I came; of genuine poverty, beggars in cardboard houses, thieves lurking behind every tree, knives in hand, this place is one of warmest I have discovered for a long time. Sorry to say, much more hospitable than the gloomy, grumpy Greeks, and they were the ones instilling my previous visions .. "watch yourself there" or "stay safe and alert" .. ahh how wrong. Why is it that countries so closely linked geographically, but dissociated culturally, always have that fear and mistrust .. England and France, Greece and Turkey, Australia and Indonesia ?? I don't know.

Anyway enough social commentary, as to what I have been up. Firstly I caught a fast hydrofoil from Corfu town into Saranda. It only took half an hour .. or with the time change I gained half an hour .. but they were two different worlds. Like I said I went from tour bus congestion into, sea side town.

Mr Immigration man met the boat as it docked, and with a smile we all .. the 6 of us .. headed with him to the passport stamp office. After the formalities of getting entry into the country I was out on the town proper and heading off to find accommodation. Down the town promenade I headed. Past little black head scarves clad women selling tomatos and bananas from Panama. Past Internet gaming dens. Past Caesars Palace casinos. And past all the cafes and bars already busy in the morning hour.

The first hotel I had a look in was a nice one right overlooking the water. The room would rate with any nice hotel around the world. I was hesitant to ask the price, but then she said €20. Wow, cheaper than my hostel on Corfu. I took it.

I spent two nights in Saranda. I liked the town. It did have a construction zone feel about it as buildings half completed were everywhere, some being worked on others sitting idle. The second night was the world cup final night. I selected an open air cafe with a large TV down by the beach. Just before the game a bunch of older town locals joined my table as chair real estate in the place became scarce, in fact the place was chock-a-block. They had no English between them, but all the same it was amusing to just watch and listen to whole event. Italy were the local favourites it seemed but a few were genuinely supporting France .. well to the extent that chairs were knocked over and arms flying about in disgust or delight. It was a grand old night in the end and I heard the Italian supporters long into it, still happy with the result.

Seaside Albania

World Heritage town of Gjirokastra came next. I caught a bus from Saranda up over some mountains and down the valley, seeing for the first time the infamous bunkers, read below. I stayed here in an ancient house overlooking the valley below and got to wander around the ancient medieval streets. The town was great and the castle brilliant .. in fact it was a tad scary .. wandered in from the bright sun and into a musty smelly dark great hall, lined with artillery canons in alcoves along either side of the passage .. the sound of my shoes echoing down past them. It is hard to imagine, but it was eerie at the time, and the sound of bats helped.

Rooftop grey

The most amusing thing so far for all of the Albania, is seeing the bunkers everywhere. A legacy from the lunatic ideas of former communist party and paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha. He somehow had this idea that because his country was now isolated in the world, not unlike North Korea today, he could defend the country from both external attack and internal revolution by building one-man little bunkers, not much bigger than a car, and placing them in all corners of the country. And they are still hanging around in the weirdest places. To start with I was searching everywhere to see some, and then once I realised how small they were it was like spotting grey hairs, you see them everywhere .. up on the hillsides .. dotted like mushrooms in a row along valley floors .. very bizarre.

I went on from there to Berat. If Gjirokastra was the first "museum town", Berat is the second. And it was well worth it. Another castle, or this time a citadel, perched up on the hill top overlooking the town and valley below. I have seen a few castles around Europe, but this one ranks up there with the best. The best thing was it is actually a small town complete with used whitewashed red tiled houses and small little lane ways between them all. Then there were the ancient churches scattered around the "town". Some of these were really ancient, Byzantine times. I gained a little Albanian friend who took me on a tour around the place. He couldn't speak more than 2 words of English, but it was cool to have him point at things and make hand gestures. I gave him a few coins at the end and told him to go and learn English and then wait for the tourists to come in the future.

Saint Tirade church

And so now I am in the smallish capital of Tirana. I have spent a few days here wandering around the hot streets. This place is, like I said, taking off. Flash cars whizz by. Trendy looking girls dolled up totter past on their high heels. And bars and cafes are full and popular. There is even a bush park to make an Australian feel homesick .. a hot day and gum trees surrounded me with that familiar scent .. and this is after I just walked past a bar swamped with Fosters umbrellas.

Albania Australiana

So I will probably spend a couple of other nights here before continuing up north into Europe's newest state, Montenegro, formally part of Serbia. Not sure how long there before a bit of Croatia will follow and who knows after that. It is all good .. apart from the tour buses .. I am keen to avoid them.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mountain Top, Sea Hop

New Travellers Tips Discovered:

* Better shoes are needed before attempting to climb over high mountains. Mud and snow soak through easily. Boots for next time.

* Wet muddy shoes take a long time to dry .. and they stink.

* Bulgarians will not stop trying to speak Bulgarian, even after you have clearly tried to explain you cannot even say thank you correctly. Blah-goh-dah-reeya!

* Always check how much a taxi in Sofia will cost. When they say "I have meter", check their rates.

* Doing a runner on a scary looking Bulgarian taxi driver should not be undertaken, even after most expensive ride in history.

* Travelling without a guidebook is hard work. It makes "easy" countries more adventurous.

* Bus stops are great sources for local maps.

* Big book shops should be visited to have that quick squint at that English guidebook. Handy for knowing where to catch the next bus out of town.

And so it is another country, another day. Off and around and across. I am making tracks after stalling in Bulgaria for over a week. And a great week it was.

I ended it by having a bit of a hike. And it turned out to be a mini adventure, and I am all into those. I partnered up with Luke, the crazy Aussie, cycling from Thailand to London, and we caught an early bus out of Sofia, Bulgaria's capital. We were on our way to the Rila Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the Balkans.

To get there though we needed, to catch two buses and then hope for another one going up to the start of the national park. The first two were easily achieved, in fact almost too easy, we were on and off without any waiting around. The third though just so happen to stitch us up. No buses up to the mountains on a Sunday. Bloody weekends, they can screw around with your travel plans.

Not too fazed we decided, to walk and grab a lift with a kind stranger. I kept remembering the last time I did this .. in East Timor .. and ended up having to walk 20k's in the hot sun. Luckily this time, it was overcast and after the fourth car we got a lift from a couple of guys and a young girl. We squeezed in the back with her and we had fun looking at her Bulgarian gossip mag, complete with pictures of Nicole Kidman getting married. I hope she was impressed when I told her she comes from the same place as me.

We started the hike. We were on the north side of the mountains and we were crossing them to get to the famous Rila Monastery. It was only an overnight walk, but we were planning to stretch it out over a few days to see some of this countryside. No tent was needed, as their were plenty of huts, but Luke bought his along anyway.

To the first hut took about 3 hours straight up. By the time we were getting close the weather closed in and we were in the middle of thick fog. More than 15 metres in front of us was total whiteout. So it was a surreal experience, to hear voices first, then see a light up on high above us, and then to see the outline of a gigantic building loom out in front of us. This was not a hut, it was a palace. Inside we went. A hotel it turned out to be. Complete with restaurant, bar and lounge area. The weather was really shite outside, so we decided to have some soup, as you do, up in the mountains, and wait out for it to clear.

Monster hut

It did clear up and so we headed off to the older hut listed on the maps nearby. Somewhere hopefully with a bit more atmosphere and not as soulless. It turned out to be a laugh with an old woman caretaker, looking after the place, and some young Bulgarian kids sleeping in the dorm room. It was cheap too and the old woman even dried out my wet shoes in her oven. They must have stunk up her little room in the process though.

We filled in the evening by the cooking ritual, and then a few games of chess. One of the other Bulgarian guys sussed out our playing standard and challenged me to a game later. I was completely trounced. He had a skillful defence with his knights. I will have to remember it.

Next day the weather was still closed in, so the beautiful views we came all the way to see were nonexistent. Instead of poking around for an extra night, we decided to high tail it all the way across the tops to the Monastery. In the process we walked through snow and over 2600m mountains. My shoes were almost had it but after 6 hours we reached the Monastery. Just as the last bus back to Sofia was leaving. Nice timing, but we were keen to see something of this place, so we passed on the bus and hoped something would work out.

On top

End of the track

Turns out a nice little French man with a rented car and on business was heading back half way to Sofia. We politely asked if we could get a ride and he was more than happy to help. We kept him entertained with stories to pay our way. After dropping us off it was a bus and a tram back to the hostel, Luckily the days are long here, still light at around 9, so getting in late is no big deal.

I had a couple of options from Sofia. The first was my original plan was to go through Macedonia, but this required getting a visa in advance and I was only planning to go for a few days. The second option was through Serbia and then Kosovo, but this meant I had to do a lot of back tracking from where I wanted to see. The third option was taken, through Northern Greece.

I discovered a bus leaving at a reasonable hour and I jumped in the first cab to the bus station. Of course this is where I got hit up by the exorbitant rate. Bastard. I should have realised when I saw the TV attached to the dash that this guy was a shark.

Across the border into Greece to Thessaloniki, to get a tad lost. No guidebook makes it all the more interesting. Managed to find a cheap .. very cheap hotel .. to rest up. Next day and I was out on another bus heading west. For someone who loves train travel so much, all I have caught so far on this trip are buses.

The bus deposited me at the port town of Igoumenitas, and before I knew it I was off on a ferry to Corfu. Another party place. Beaches and bars again. And it is not really my scene. But I want to get the sense of this culture before plunging back into the place I was really trying to get to all along. Albania. Soon I will be on a ferry heading over there. Should be an adventure, at least I have a guidebook for there though.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Nod For No

Greetings from central Bulgaria. Land of nods for no and shakes for yes. Of monasteries and beach. Where all the girls get dolled up and the guys just watch them walk by. And where Cryillic script is de-facto. It is almost like a little Russia, but with hot weather. And I am absolutely loving it.

But first I had to get out of Turkey. This thankfully was achieved without too much hassle, although there was the incident of the attempted scam, but that is a story for another time; to add to other scams attempts I have run in to. So I left Istanbul from the main massive bus station, or the Otogar. The place must be the mecca for bus stations worldwide. Buses travel to all corners of Europe and the Middle East and they would probably go further if they could (London on a bus from Istanbul is possible, about 3 days worth .. no thanks). Myself, I just wanted to head west, cross over the border and up the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.

I had no idea what to expect from this new country. I had plenty of Eastern European stereotypes floating around in my head; horse drawn carts rumbling down the main streets; gap filled smiles; orphanages needing help; nuclear reactor incidents. So I was in for a shock from Bulgaria. And Varna was the place to slap me in the face.

Varna was party central. A walk down to the beach was a sensory overload. Getting to the beach first, I had to pass all the beautiful people meandering around and along the pedestrian malls. Then past all the bars and all the clothes shops with all the latest fashion, and through the throngs with mobile phones clasped to ears. It all seemed so affluent and western, where was the communist soviet bloc influence?

Once I was at the seaside it was shoulder to shoulder through the masses and past the clubs. Dance tracks blasted out and even more beautiful people streamed in and around. The joints were packed and I was aghast. I needed a drink so I picked the first one that seemed open enough and was also happening to play a world cup game. Sitting at the bar I just wanted a beer. But it just so happened that I was at the cocktail bar that was in the Guinness book of records for the most commercially available cocktails. I counted them on the menu. Over a hundred, and they were cheap .. Eastern European alcohol prices. Every cocktail was AU$4 or less.

Cocktail overload

The beach the next day was another eye opener. The beautiful with less clothes and no inhibitions. I am still staggered at how dressed up Bulgarians get, and I have been here for a week. Although now that I have been out and away from the coast at least I have seen some normality .. horse drawn carts in town centres.

Beach bum & mum

I have also seen some amazing geography and precarious towns utilising it. Veliko Tarnovo was one .. medieval hilltop fortress, cobblestone streets .. you get the picture. It will be one of the next big destinations for package tours worldwide. Expect to see it gracing brochure covers in years to come. It was good to beat the hoards, because it was a brilliant spot to stop and relax for a few days. Mainly thanks to the accommodation. A chilled hostel run by local guys with time to spare to have a few beers and chats with the small clientele. I hope the rest of the east will be like this.

Same deal with my current local, Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. Here it is more of the same. This country is just breaking into the backpacker market and it is a great time to be here. I am meeting tons of other solo travellers and it is always good to trade stories and hometown anecdotes. The best so far has been meeting Luke, an Aussie from Sydney, who has ridden his bike from Thailand to Bulgaria for the last year and a half; he has a few stories to tell, and this is why I love travelling so much.

On the sightseeing side of things there has also been the getaways from the towns and into the countryside. It has been very hot, but a daytrip today to a fortress was a highlight. As well as the five hour return hike a few days ago to a monastery. This was complete with wizened old white bearded monk with hunchback looking after the orthodox church with beautiful ancient frescos covered in soot. I am not regretting heading this way to travel.

Monastery this way

But tomorrow I am off to the capital, Sofia, for the first time. Another hostel awaits and some more travellers are there to meet; some on their way to Istanbul, others into Serbia. But for me I will be staying for a few days before leaving the heavy pack behind to go lightweight and south for some hiking. Hopefully I will be meeting up with Luke as he is keen to ditch the bike. Besides, I want to shake and nod my head in reverse order at more of his stories over a campfire in the Rila Mountains.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Out There In Istanbul

Istanbul was Constantinople,
Now its Istanbul not Constantinople,
Been a long time gone from Constantinople,
Now a Turkish delight on a moonlit night.

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul.

Even old New York,
Was once New Amsterdam,
Why they changed it I can't say,
People just liked it better that way.

So take me back to Constantinople,
No you can't go back to Constantinople,
Been a long time gone from Constantinople,
Why did Constantinople get the works?
Thats nobodys business but the Turks.

Istanbul, Istanbul!

Istanbul or Constantinople or Byzantium. Whatever you call it, in my books it is certainly one of the great cities on earth. More ancient wonders per square kilometre than .. well anywhere besides Rome I guess. And what could be a better place on my first port of call on this latest leg in my year of bumming out and travel, than Istanbul, not Constantinople.

So jet lagged and bleary eyed I arrived the other day in the Europe meets Asia city. Over 24 hours in travel, minimal sleep, and a feeding frenzy .. all that airline food .. 7 meals and then other snacks .. I just couldn't say no. I vowed to stay awake though until a normal sleeping hour, even if I was checked into my hostel before midday.

Getting to the hostel was typically my style. No way was a (relative) expensive taxi going to be used when there were light rails and trams to be caught. So I crammed in with the rest of the Istanbullus on their morning rush and headed into the old city, Sultanahmet. Once there I was back into backpacker mode and was shrugging off the touts and spruikers on the way to a hostel, like an old pro.

Once done with the pack in the room it was time to explore. It has been 4 years since I was last here and I wanted to make sure that the old city was still the same as I left it. From initial inspection I can say that it is. Not many changes on the street level, still dotted with 1500 year old ancient wonders and relative newer 500 year old mosques.

Street scene

Highlights so far from my ramble wanderings would have to be just soaking up the crammed narrow cobbled streets lined with shops selling everything from spices and spades to nuts and ninja stars. Then there are the hawkers peddling whatever small items they can flog off. My personal favourite has to be the guy selling Viagra individually.

Spice anyone?

Seeing the sights has been also on the agenda. The magnificent Aya Sofia was first on the list and I am still impressed by this masterpiece of ancient architecture. 1500 years old and still going strong. In terms of world cathedrals, can any really come close? A few shoeless pokes into various active mosques has also been achieved. And there are plenty of them. It would take a long time for anyone to get around all the mosques that this city has to offer. And to be honest after a while they all look the same. Those Sultans loved that dome style.

Blue Mosque

Also checked out the Archaeological museum for the first time. Mightily impressed. The "famous" Alexander Sarcophagus was well worth the entry price alone. Two and a half thousand years old and it just looks like it was made yesterday. Intricately detailed. I was also impressed by the way the museum translated just about every inscription on all their ancient artifacts. Something that most other museums I have been to don't bother with. The best bit was the translations of the clay Hattite tablets. There were ordinary letters, IOU notes and then the write up on what to do if you are impotent. Go and catch a pigeon and crush the whole thing up, sprinkle it with salt, add the saliva of a bull which is erect at the time of collection, do the same with sheep saliva and then eat and wash it down with beer. Hah. I love it. And this was written 3300 years ago.

Anyway I am here for a few days more. To do, more sightseeing (tons to see), socialising with the fellow backpackers and watching the world cup at a normal hour. (I managed to miss Australia vs Brazil due to being on a plane at that time, doh, at least Aust v Croatia should be a cracker). So after Istanbul, not Constantinople it is off to the west. Bulgaria awaits. See ya there.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


A week back in my own place has gone quickly. Catching up with family and friends; playing with my new niece; eats, sleeps and squawks; all in a happy way. Then there has been the going out and socialising; beers, laksa and live music; Lazy Susan and some other Clash clone at the Hopetown Hotel; $10 for a great gig; I will be back.

One of the best bits of the week and the reason I came back when I did, was for a mates 30th birthday winery trip around the Hunter. I've been on a few of these, but I am no expert. After the first wine they tend to all taste the same. It is fun to pretend and quaff though. But it also amusing how serious others can get into this pastime. Tannins, nose, colour, blah blah. Something that tastes good and not too pricey please.

But the week has gone quickly and is now almost up. Time to pick up the little stamped filled book, hitch the pack over the shoulder and head to another airport and catch another plane. (So far this year I have caught 14 different planes). In a way I am sad to be heading off again. I always seem to get a little trepidation anytime I leave my family and friends and this time is no different. Especially since there is no one to meet me and no one besides myself to keep me company along this path. Once I am there and out I am sure I will be grand. Just have to get over the long journey and jet lag first.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

PNG: The Return

A couple of surprisingly better than expected weeks have just past in Papua New Guinea. A place the locals like to call the Land of the Unexpected. But for me, it was mainly all expected. For instance I wasn't surprised by the DIY home vet procedure, or being stuck in the dusty wild west town of Kainantu, or the fact that my old base of Lae and Unitech is exactly as I remembered it. But I was pleasantly surprised when I found more than an expected amount of money in my old bank account. Always good.

Instead of a boring travel log of I went here and did this and then that. This time I might break the trip up into a summary of the highlights and lowlight. So here you go.

* Seeing my old buddy Wendy again for the first time in a year and a half. And getting to play with her HD video camera while she was playing documentary filmmaker.

* Hanging out with the old volunteer gang again and staying with a few (thanks guys). Luckily most of the gang that I remember are still there, sprinkled with a few new faces.

* Hosting another Tropfest film festival. Third year in a row. Crowds were down on previous years, but it was just as good if not better than before.

* Helping to remove a hook from the throat of Nick's dog. It always amazes me the drugs you can buy over the counter in PNG. In this case a couple of syringes full of anaesthetic and date rape drugs. Scary.


* Going out on Nick's boat to a deserted island close to Madang. Snorkelling over coral and finding Nemo. Always great to do, especially now that I am back in cold Australia. burr.

* Getting stuck overnight in Kainantu. A definite lowlight. Jumped on a mid-day bus from Madang to Kainantu in the hope that I would make a connection to Goroka. Instead the bus took forever and ended up getting to the final stop too late. Darkness descended and here I was stuck in the middle of dusty Kainantu being watched by the locals. Huddled under the only street light for about half an hour hoping another bus going all the way would come. Various shady people hanging around checking out my bags. And then thank Christ for the Salvos. Didn't know they existed there but sure enough I was shown there door and put up for the night for only K15. The lovely woman even cooked me a meal. Those guys are great. Next day I was off and out of town to Goroka without problem.

* Going up Mt Gahvasuka National Park near Goroka. A first time event and a recommended one. Got a friendly lift by a provincial government car up to the top over an extremely rough road. Then wandered around and up to some lookouts to get fabulous views over the entire Asaro valley. Unfortunately most of the buildings were burnt down a couple of years ago in a petty and typical PNG land wrangle. But the place is well going to. Apart from the Mt Wilhelm government reserve this is the only other one in the country I have been to.

Unfortunately I didn't get to go anywhere really new on this trip. No new provinces added or major hikes completed. Next time perhaps. Not sure when that will be for PNG though. It is a costly place to get to when AVI isn't paying. But before I contemplate going back there, first up I am off to new places again in a few days. Eastern Europe and Turkey this time beckon. Say tuned.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Battles, Bali & Borders

I have good timing. Just last week Monday I was flying out of East Timor's capital Dili. The next day it seems there are running gun battles through the city. If I had of stayed any longer I could have become an impromptu war correspondent.

But as it turned out I only discovered the news a few days later in Bali that there was any trouble at all in the city. And even then when I was being told about it, it was like "um, no way, that is not true, surely not". There was absolutely no sign when I was there that any trouble was brewing. Life seemed normal. Pity it is so true. East Timor was just getting on its feet.

Check your weapon
Check your weapon at Dili airport

Anyway we ended up spending 3 days in Bali. A bizarre place. It was my first time there, and I will go back. But away from the beach, bars and bogans. When we flew in it was straight out to the tourist village of Ubud, only about 25km away from Kuta but a long drive all the same. The streets and roads are narrow and clogged with motorbikes, taxis, buses, cars and the odd cart being pushed along. Everyone tries to get where they're going as quickly as possible. A major change from Dili, where the taxis are lucky to get past 40km/hr.

Ubud was fantastic and the accommodation sooo cheap (around Au$8 for a double room and en-suite). But it seems some other tourists had got there before we had. The streets were lined with home stays, bungalows, resorts, shops and services, catering for masses of tourists. Luckily it seems most of them are not going anymore, so we could pick and choose, unluckily it also meant that anywhere you walked some tout was calling out to you to see if you wanted "taxi, transport, yes?" (coupled with a two-handed steering wheel mime).

We escaped into the surrounding countryside one afternoon for a hot walk around and through the paddy fields. Along the way we caught a glimpse of some of the real Bali life, while watching people work in the fields and women taking offerings to Hindu temples. One of the main things I noticed in Bali was how seriously Hinduism is practiced. Maybe I am a tad naive but I had never realised it before. Temples, shrines and offerings dot the streets. You have to be careful not to kick any of the little banana leaf, rice and incense offerings that are put out every morning in front of the shops and homes.

Kuta was another story. We had one afternoon and evening to fill in there before our flight out east late at night and the place was not really my cup of tea. It is filled with surfie and bogan types, a lifestyle I just don't subscribe to. The beach was an eyeopener, locals offering everything from massages to pineapples to the sun baking few. The scene that typified the clash of cultures the most was a bronzed girl flashing her norks to the world on a banana lounge while having a pineapple cut up in front of her by a local woman covered head to toe with clothing and a hat.

Beach & bogans
Kuta beach

It was good to move on from Kuta, but also a bit sad that I couldn't have seen more of the island and escaped to littler known places. We flew off to Jayapura, West Papua at 2:30am and got in there early in the morning. I had heard that it was now possible to go straight to the border and get your visa exit stamp there instead of the previous saga of having to go to immigration in Jayapura town itself. This it seems was the case last month. Those Indonesians like to change their bloody minds.

Over an hour in a taxi and quite a few hundred thousands of Rupiah and we were dropped off, just a short stroll from Papua New Guinea. When we discovered that the policy had now changed and stamping was now taking place back in Jayapura. We weren't going to budge. This would mean quite a considerable outlay in cash and also would take most of the afternoon. We wanted to get into PNG and organise some tickets to get further into the country. So it was a Mexican standoff. Neither side giving way. Our passports were pored over. Every previous country stamp I have been to looked at and the visas as well. We stayed for over an hour like this. Eventually with the border guards telling us to wait for the bigman to yay or nay if we could exit without getting the stamp.

In the end they became pretty friendly, offering us food to eat and bizarrely chatting away to us in Pidgin. They talked amongst themselves and we sat down and waited. Eventually they pulled out some homebrew or something a rather and drank that. There were no other people crossing the border apart from the locals and some dodgy looking Malaysian guy.

The big man came and our moment arrived. He chatted away back to base on the two-way radio and we waited anxiously. I was certain that we would have to go back. Surprisingly he passed our passports back and said we could go. Victory for us and jubilation. We set off very happy with our packs on our backs and greeted the PNG immigration officers like they were old friends. No problems getting into PNG and we were out trying to get to Vanimo. This turned out to be a bit of a small drama in itself and some creative thinking allowed us to slyly slip a hire car guy a small amount of money to get dropped off in town instead of the ludicrous amount they originally told us it would cost .. K180 (Au$70).

So I am currently back in PNG. I just can't escape this place it seems. I have been catching up with friends with more catching up yet to do. And things .. well things it seems are exactly the same as when I left it. This I like. I know how things work.

Town park
Vanimo town park

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Timor Leste Life - Part 2

.. and we're back.

So I was saying, we were on a bus to Baucau, the second city, or more like town, of East Timor. The bus was a brightly painted and colourful variety with some great reclining seats. Comfort. Luckily I didn't have to stand in the door like a guy near me did. The whole way the door was open and a few guys were hanging out it. Even after we had off loaded a couple of people they still insisted on standing. The trip was for 3 hours.

We were dropped off in the new town of the city and we wanted to get to the old town, so we hailed a passing Microlet (minivan). There was no grabbing at bags anymore and everyone was happy to help point us in the right direction. In fact even when they were bag grabbing back in Dili they were doing it with smiles. I was just too shitty to notice.

Baucau it seems has seen better days. Like most of the country it was ransacked in 99 by the Indonesians. They were a bit pissed off at the time at being told they were not wanted by the East Timorese, so they went on a rampage and destroyed three quarters of the buildings and a fair chunk of the infrastructure as well. Oh and then there was the mass slaughter they carried out on the locals as well. So the scars are well and truly evident. In Baucau this was seen in the old Portuguese Mercado or main market. The thing is slowly crumbling while kids climb on the roof for fun.

Baucau Mercado
Baucau Mercado

Two nights in the town were enough, possibly even too long, before we had dried up on things to see, so we braved another bus experience to keep going east. We had been told about a magical fishing village called Com, with beautiful beaches at the farthest the road goes, so we were determined to get there. Maybe a little too determined to get there in the end.

The bus we were on went to another town, Los Palos. Com was on a turn off about 20km before Los Palos. We asked others on the bus if we could get off at the turnoff and catch a microlet to Com. They all said yes. So we jumped off at Lautem, the point where the road splits. At a small market nearby we asked the same question regarding the microlet and got a laugh. It seems they only run early in the morning if at all. So we decided to just walk up the road to Com and hail a passing car, after all the village was only 20km away and we had all afternoon to get there. We could always walk the whole way.

Which is what we did. There was absolutely no cars for the entire 20km passing in our direction. We hiked in the middle of the road and only saw a couple of motorbikes for 5 hours. It wasn't all bad we did get to walk past small villages, and smile and say "boatardi" (afternoon) numerous times to greet everyone we saw. And this was returned with a "boatardi" and a big smile back. We also passed, wallowing buffaloes, countless goats, long stretches of beaches and a small green snake according to R. Then there were the pied piper moments when about 20 kids followed us as they headed off to collect water from a water tank. I am sure we were the most interesting thing, with our packs and sweaty look, they had seen all year.

Com was worth it. A guesthouse on the beach, with an attendant who almost became too overbearing and we recovered from our large hike over two nights. Swims at the beach and a few cold beers at the nearby "resort" (a village style one at least) to make us feel relaxed. The food was also some of best I have eaten, especially in E Timor, fantastic fish and nasi goreng. We also determined that we could get a microlet out of town, so we organised it. It just happened to run at 6 in the morning.

So we were off again after the recovery and headed to Los Palos in the hope we could bus from there straight back to Dili. This proved impossible as we just happened to pick the countries Independence Day. Major events were in the works. We were stuck in Los Palos. Wandering through town and looking at some of the average guesthouses, and we stumbled upon a couple of Australians. Volunteers no less. Saviours. We quickly established that volunteer secret code, special handshake and all that, and we were taken under their wings. We were also invited to witness an independence day flag raising ceremony.

Village Food Stop
Bus lunch stop

Off we went. To sit in the VIP tent. Me scruffy looking. 10 day old beard growth, sandals, dirty T-shirt. It was a laugh. So was the scene performed. A stilted march past with the flag accompanied by some music that seemed ominous and Stanley Kubrik like to being with and then became almost Benny Hill-ish. It was hard not to laugh. I whipped out the big camera and looked like a foreign journalist and got some extra kudos.

Next day we back off to Dili. This time a 5 hour bus ride and another pre-dawn rise. The journey was ordinary apart from some incidents near Dili that caused some alarm. A few rocks thrown on the roof, a guy lying face-down in the road. Later this could have meant an ambush and robbery could have occurred. Not so much unlike PNG after all.

One last night in Dili and then it was off to the airport. We weren't going through the UN check through but instead to the Merpati, counter to check-in for the Bali flight. Which is where I currently am. And what a contrast to East Timor this is. But that is another tale.

p.s. It seems we left just in time. A few problems have now re-erupted over there.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Timor Leste Life - Part 1

And so the traveller moves on, through new lands and to a very new country. I have just spent the last eight days in Timor Leste, also known as East Timor .. the newest country on the planet. And it was a trip that was well .. to steal a tour company's name (and one that we also kept bumping into) .. was intrepid .. but also really great. I like the place. It has potential with a capital P. It just needs to get back on the path.

The trip was also one that had a few anxious moments. Not least before I had even stepped into the country. There was a heightened level of tension that was around in the weeks before going. Images of riots in the capital Dili, were splashed across media sources. The family was worried. I was .. to be honest .. a tad nervous. The unexpected always does that. Government travel advisories were telling people they should reconsider their travel. I reconsidered for a moment before committing myself. It can't be that bad, can it. After all I lived in a land of inherent violence for 2 years. Let's see how this compares.

Also I had an ace up my sleeve. The volunteer network. There are more AVIs in East Timor than PNG I was to find out. And luckily I was in contact with them. Things it seemed were not so bad on the ground as what some news grabs can make out. Isn't it always the case.

So I met up with my travel mate, R, in Darwin, and we got up ridiculously early to get out to the airport for our flight. Check-in, wait around, spy on the other passengers (gun runner, CIA, journalist, NGO officer?) and then out onto the tarmac for the safety demonstration by the pilot and into his little plane, bend over at right angles to get to the seat, and we were off. Nearly two hours later the twin prop thing touched down in Dili and we were walking to the terminal.

First step was to get our visa. This was a site shed. Inside a counter and a couple of officers. US$30 was handed over with the passport and a visa was issued, no photos or forms, just a big rubber stamp into a page. One of the easiest visas I have ever got. Next step was to meet up with some of the volunteers I had been contact with. A taxi into town, through dusty streets and past motorcycles and ramshackle and sometimes burnt out buildings (legacy from the Indonesian rampage back in '99) and to a beachside hotel for breakfast. Rhoslyn was the main point of contact I had and she turned out to be an organisational queen. Over breakfast she gave me a SIM card for my phone, a map, marking out places of interest, other hints, and organised a cheap room and even hailed us a taxi to get there. This travel thing couldn't have been more easier.

First impressions are always weird. For Dili, after walking around the first afternoon, they sort of go like this. A goat tied up underneath the peace park sign, a dog carcass completely mummified on the street (why hadn't it been removed?), lovely white vehicles with big UN letters on the side, taxis roaming past honking to see if you want to hire it (no I am happy walking thanks), a giant Jesus at one end on the harbour and beautiful beach side cafes catering for UN staff. And above all it was safe. You could roam around quite happily and there was no razor wire or worries. I wanted to volunteer here. Not a bad gig at all. And there was a selection of beer from all over.

Peace Goat

We spent two nights in the capital before we decided to head east on a bus. This is where the travel turned intrepid and adventurous. So far it was easy. We got up early to get a taxi on the road out of town to the bus terminal. And when we got there the fun started.

Kids swamped the taxi, all of them from different buses. Doors were flung open. The boot popped and my pack taken out. My day pack grabbed at. And this is all before we had paid the driver. The driver asked for $5, way too expensive, but I just gave him a note and jumped out. My bag had disappeared and I was pissed. The bag in R's arms was being grabbed and tugged at her by a bunch of kids. I yelled "hey, hey, hey" loudly and they all stopped. Then I shouted "where is my bag", any thought of using Tetun, the national language, was forgotten. Some of the kids knew what I meant and pointed to the nearest bus. Inside the empty thing I found my bag perched proudly up on a seat. I boarded grabbed it and we stormed up to the front of the bus queue, where there was an almost full bus, ignoring the pleas of the kids to jump on theirs. Not long later our chosen bus started and we were off to Baucau, sharing the ride with prize cock-fighting roosters.

Cock Fighter

To be continued ..

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Back Backpacking

So I was in Alice Springs not so long ago. It was a cool (and hot) little town. Time does fly though when you are backpacker. Alice seems ages ago now that I have made it to Darwin.

Back in Alice I had a few days to spare after my hike. I organised a bit of personalised sightseeing around the town by hiring a bike to visit some far flung reaches (I have discovered that you definitely use different muscles when riding a bike as to walking .. methinks i'll stick to the walking for a while). So I went back to the Old Telegraph Station. Went off to the "Cultural Precinct" to see some old planes and a couple Albert Namatjira works, among others. And cycled to the top of ANZAC hill to get a view of the lie of the land. In the end of my rounds I came to the conclusion that Alice is not such a bad old place .. but I couldn't live there. Hot and dusty and miles from nowhere. The nearest beach would have to be 1500km away.

So I caught the train out. I didn't do this because it was cheaper, or quicker, but because there is no one I know who has caught a train to Darwin, and I like the thought of I did it first. It was also really because I have never caught a long distance overnight train in Australia (except to Brisbane but we won't count that) and so I was keen to compare to the ones I have ventured on in Europe and China. And besides, I like trains, it is my favourite way to travel.

In the end, after a 24 hour journey, from the centre o the country to the very top, I came to the conclusion that we just don't do the long distance train business as well as the Europeans. The Ghan was more about the tourists than the travel. It was full up with the blue rinse brigade and there is nothing wrong with that, but it dampens my view of it. I guess I have been spoilt by riding the trans-siberian and real working train with the tourists a secondary thought. And I guess it was probably because the cheap seats was all I could afford. So instead of the comfortable four berths in the middle of Russia, I was cramped up with a stiff neck on the bloody day-nighter seats. It was worse than any long distance flight I could remember. And cold too. But luckily once the day rolled around and it was possible to go to the lounge car (and lounge around) things were not so bad.

Ghan 1

A four hour stop over at Katherine was made and we caught a shuttle into town to just wander around it. By this stage I was getting to know some of the other travellers on the train, sharing stories and the like. So as you tend to do, you band together with them and head off. We were all too skint to go and have a look at the Katherine gorge though. And in hindsight I wish I just put up the cash and gone along with the grannies instead of trying to do it independently with the collective band of backpackers. But such is life. I missed Kings Canyon as well .. so I figure it is a good reason to come back through this way one day.

In the afternoon following Katherine we rolled along through the top end and looked out the windows trying to spot crocs and instead having to make do with looking at the massive termite mounds and the grass fires burning trackside. Before evening we came into Darwin .. or at least about 18km from Darwin in some freight terminal. Seems they forgot to build the track into town. Probably because of the expense. Shame I think.

A bus into town and a check in at a hostel before it was priorities and out in the beautiful evening warmth and off to a pub to cash in some $1 meal tickets we got.

The collective band of backpackers was now well and truly formed. The plan was to make the most of our time and make tracks to see some of the local countryside. So we hired a 12 seater mini-van (which my NSW drivers licence managed to cover), went and got some grub, hired some camping equipment and loaded up and headed for Litchfield NP. Kakadu was thought of but it turns out a lot of the main attractions are still closed there following the cyclone and besides it is a fair hike to get there.

Litchfield was absolutely magical though. We gandered and then swam in waterfalls. Visited massive termite mounds and famous magnetic variety. Did some more swimming in rock pools. And took obligatory photos of standing in front of crocodile warning signs. One of the waterfalls was actually closed because of the potential threat.

Termite Mound

Rockpool 1

After the camp out and drive back, we tried to get to see the famous jumping crocs at Adelaide River Crossing, but were a tad too late. So instead we just gandered at the big beasts in captivity at a croc farm.

Since that little cheap escape (turned out it cost us just $60 per person .. instead of a two day tour that would have cost $200), I have been hanging around Darwin town. This town I like. I like the tropics, with an evening that you can wander around in shorts and shirts and build up a thirst. The locals are not pretentious and very friendly. No wanker attitudes, just a laid back mode. And it is nicely laid out with all things central. I went to the Mindel Beach market at sunset and got some more of the vibe there. And did a touristy but surprisingly fun feed the fish at a thing called Aquascene. Catfish and mullets swimming between your legs and going bananas over a few buns in the water.

All good things must come to an end. And tomorrow I am out of here to uncharted waters. Back from backpacker mode and into adventure mode. We shall see how it fairs.