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.