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.