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.