Thursday, 23 December 2010

Days 108 - 118: End of Part 1

Anjuna, Goa

Getting to Delhi marks the end of part one of the round-the-world odyssey. I have to head back to the UK in January or February for a couple of things, not least the run up to best man duties at my friends' Pete & Karen's wedding. Plus, heading up to Nepal and Tibet in January would have been a bit dull as it would have been cold and I wouldn't have been able to do a lot of the stuff I would have liked to do. My India visa expires on the 22nd January so I have to be out of here by then. So I've taken the executive decision to stop the official overlanding as of Delhi and restart from that point as and when I can get my ass back out here.

Delhi was hectic. The trip down on the bus was slow, taking 10 hours when it should have been 5. What seemed to delay us heavily was the sheer number of weddings going on. November and December is really the season for it over here. When the bus did finally arrive in Delhi at 11.30pm the driver refused to go to the interstate bus terminal, which is fairly central. That meant that I was stranded somewhere in the Delhi suburbs with no obvious means of onward transportation. That was until it turned out that one of the people who'd been on the bus was a rickshaw driver whose rickshaw just happened to be parked across the road. This was either a startling piece of good luck, or they saw me coming. I'm not quite sure which. Either way I managed to make it to a rather nice hotel and crashed out there for a couple of days.

Delhi was the place where I hit the wall in travelling terms. Everyone said it would happen eventually, although I didn't really believe them. I just ran out of energy and basically spent a week doing very little. It's not the greatest of places to develop that kind of fatigue either as it's pretty draining. Paharganj, where all the travellers stay, is particularly hard work. Everyone, seemingly, is solely interested in parting you from your money and they will find elaborate ways to do so. In particular they focus on the railway station where people don't know what they're doing. One Aussie woman I met was practically in tears because the touts around the station had been so aggressive in stopping her getting to the ticket office there and steering her towards one of their overpriced ticket agencies. One tout even had a uniform and ID card. There were numerous other examples and it happened so often that I just ended up ignoring everyone who spoke to me and barely breaking stride. It seemed to be the only way but it did mean that I was more rude to more people in Delhi than I've probably ever been in my life until now. For instance, where previously I'd have indulged in some banter about the stuff people wanted to sell me or whether the rickshaw driver would take me to some shop where he'd get some commission in Delhi I just said "no". It's a bit sad that I've been put on the defensive so much here. It's just possible that some people just want to chat, as had been the case in Iran and Pakistan, but they received the same treatment.

Anyway, it's not all negative. After crashing in Delhi I made it down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was spectacular but very busy. I also went to see the Agra Fort, which is very well preserved and much more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi (but not a patch on Lahore). I stayed in a nice place called The Nirvana Hostel. Dorm rooms and communal areas for the first time for ages. Then it was back to Delhi, for a few more days, including visiting the museum (which is v good indeed) and meeting up with Jyotin, an ex-colleague of mine who's back in Delhi for the hols.

I'm now down in Goa for Xmas and New Year, currently sharing a villa with Rick and Tugca and expecting to see a few other travellers who I've met over the last few months. Time for a bit of well-deserved R&R. See you again in a few months!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Day 91 - 107: More chapati?

It's been a while since I posted so quite a bit to catch up on. Shimla was a bit dull. It was the summer capital of the Raj and is basically an English market town in the middle of India. Complete with amateur dramatics society and YMCA (where we stayed and no, it's not that much fun to stay there). The main thing that marks it out as obviously Indian is a massive statue of Hannuman the monkey god (yes, he of "born from an egg on a mountain-top" fame). Alexandre and I hiked up to the top of the hill, aware of various warnings that the monkeys up there were particularly violent. They sell sticks to hit them with! It all seemed fine until getting right up to the temple when one of the simian so-and-sos jumped on my back to steal my sunnies. Monkey on my back, indeed. Shimla not that exciting altogether and the Bird Sanctuary rates as the worst tourist attraction I've seen on my trip. Even worse than the meteorite crater at Dogubayazit. The bird collection consisted of chickens, geese and ducks and little else besides. More of a European farmyard sanctuary.

So it was off to Rishikesh where the Beatles came to hang out with the Maharishi Yogi. Lots of Asrams and lots of yoga. I signed up for a week-long yoga and meditation retreat at the Phool Chatti Ashram. I had a few days to kill before that. Met up with Mike, Tanja and Ipi again and we all spent a few days wandering around Rishikesh, getting our ears cleaned by an ear cleaner, going white-water rafting (no-one fell in) and various other things.

So then it was off to the retreat. It's a beautiful place, on the banks of the ganges and about 5km out of Rishikesh so quiet. Cold too, but hey it's December on the edge of the himalayas. The days consisted of a 5.30am start, 3 hours of yoga a day, some more meditation (although I'm v glad I did the Tushita course before as it meant I knew what I was doing in the meditation as most didn't), chanting, nose cleaning (pouring water up one nostril and out the other!) and some nice walks in the country-side. Excellent grub - served up by the kitchen staff who just keep coming round offering stuff until you say no: "more vegetable?", "more chapati?" etc. There were two highlights. Firstly dunking ourselves in the Ganges three times (yes, very cold) after chanting "Om Ganga Mai" a few times and making a flower offering. Secondly the fire ceremony where we did more chanting (the same mantra 108 times, one for each god) and burnt wood. All in all quite a good week.

Then I headed back into Rishikesh with Rick, Tucga, Amira and Cora. Went whitewater rafting again, but this time a much longer course. This time I did fall in, mid-rapids. Wicked fun. Other than that basically doing not much in Rishikesh. We all went to the sunset ceremony at the Shiva temple by the Ganges. I could describe it, but I'll stick some photos up when I next get the chance.

I had planned to head down to Delhi yesterday. But, after tempting fate by telling my Ma on the phone that I'd managed to avoid getting sick at all on the trip since Moldova, I found myself laid up in my 'hotel' in Rishikesh for 24 hours. Nothing serious and I'm off to Delhi today. I'll put some photos on this post when I have a bit more time.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Contact info in India

I finally succumbed and picked up an Indian SIM card to keep in touch with people over here. The number is +91 812 629 0724. Off to do some yoga now. Will do a proper blog post in about a week.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Days 80 - 90: Shhhh

McLeod-Ganj, India
Getting into India proved an awful lot easier than getting into Pakistan. I cadged a lift with Mike, Tanja and Ipi in the 33 year old Mercedes van that they'd driven all the way from Austria. Crossed over the border at Wagah-Attari but managed to miss the border closing ceremony due to combination of pain-in-the-ass border officials and enjoying our first beers for a month. 15,000 people go to watch it on the Indian side alone and it felt like being at a football match with crowds streaming towards the border. The beers tasted good though. Well, the Tigers were good but the Hayward's 5000 which we picked up later was vile. Sounds like engine oil, tastes like engine oil, and about 9% to boot.

From the border we headed off to look for somewhere to park the van up for the night. Ended up on the side of a farmer's field. Beautiful place. The local farmers were very interested in who we were, and we paid them an extended visit in the morning, although not quite as extended as they wanted and they were very disappointed when we finally took off. I think they'd invited all the neighbours to come and meet their new guests. I did get to drive their tractor before we went though.

From there we headed up country towards Dharamsala, stopping off en route in Nurpur for the night. Nice temple, lots of monkeys, quite a few annoying kids and an early morning wake up call from a guy from the Indian Archaeological Survey to encourage us to move on.

We were parked right next to the fortress/temple complex. It was also at this point that I remembered my 'when I get to India' cigar that Karima had bought me, which I'd been carrying since home. So I sparked that bad boy up to celebrate.

From Nurpur it was a short hop to Dharamsala/McLeod-Ganj so we stopped off at some hot springs. Hiked a few kms as the bridge was still being built. Acquired some dogs that did their best to spook all the farm animals along the way. Local farmers were not impressed and I'm not sure our attempts to tell them that the dogs weren't ours were completely understood. Also met a bunch of Tibetan bikers from McLeod whose cafe we went along to when we got into town.

McLeod-Ganj is an old hill station which is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. A very traveller-heavy place and it was weird seeing lots of tourists for the first time in ages. The scenery is spectacular. The town rambles up the side of a steep hill with mountains in the background and loads of pine forests.

While in McLeod I thought I'd get down and spiritual by signing up to a course on Buddhism. 6 days of silence, abstinence and meditation at the Tushita Meditation Centre, at the top of the hill above McLeod.

Actually very interesting. While I might not really buy into any form of religion in a big way, I certainly found the meditation to be a worthwhile thing and I may well carry on doing it. While meditating you have to avoid two elements: dullness (i.e. thinking about nothing) and agitation (i.e. thinking about lots of random things). I'm simplifying massively here. I was almost totally devoid of dullness. Insert your own joke here please.

After 6 days all of us on the course were ready for a bit of fun so all met up at a bar back in McLeod for drinking, singing and (most importantly) TALKING!!! A great bunch of folks and a good night, so a lot of us did the same thing again the following night.

Today I'm off to Shimla Hill Station on the overnight bus. After almost 10 days in McLeod it feels a bit weird to be back on the road again.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Days 72 - 79: Up close and personal with the Baluchistan Levies

Lahore, Pakistan

So now to bring you up to date...

After crossing the border into Pakistan at Taftan I was immediately whisked off to the Baluchistan Levies station. They told me there were no buses that day and I would need to spend the night at the station. Quite a fun 24 hours actually. It's a bit like the wild west in Taftan and staying at the station was a cross between Assault on Precinct 13 and Rio Bravo (movie buffs will be able to tell me why that's unsurprising). They fed and watered me and all in all it was a good time. Although I couldn't actually leave the station. One slightly unnerving moment was when I was chatting to some people inside the station. I asked if they were police and they said no and made a gesture of putting their wrists together. So they were all prisoners. Altogether there were 83 prisoners in the station, and it wasn't a big one. Fortunately all of them were there for passport and visa violations in Iran, from whence they'd just been evicted. After 24 hours I was ready to move on, but sadly when I went off (armed bodyguard in tow) to catch the bus it turned out that there was a strike. So no buses that day.

I'd resigned myself to another (and possibly another and another) night at the Taftan Hilton when Ali and Daniyal turned up. They'd been driving overland from the UK to Pakistan, initially in 2 cars and now in 1 car following a crash in Turkey. So I squeezed myself into the back of their 3-series BMW, very grateful to be getting out of Taftan, and off we went. As a bit of background info the road between Taftan and Quetta is VERY DANGEROUS and shouldn't be driven in the night or without armed escort. Initially we had a guy with a gun in the car but about half way to Quetta they decided we didn't need it any more. A little further on, thanks largely to terrible roads and lorries constantly using main beams, we had a crash. No-one hurt, but the radiator was knackered. We managed to limp on to some vestige of civilisation in the form of a cluster of houses, where several people tried to fix it, all to no avail. Since that hadn't worked, we decided to wait it out, hiding in a hut by the side of the road in the middle of the night. Kidnappings and tribal violence are quite common along that road so we decided it was best to keep our heads down. After a couple of hours the police turned up. We'd been checking in at police checkpoints all the way along the route and when we didn't arrive at the next one they eventually sent out a search party.

The police turned up a little more en masse this time and they towed us to a second levies station where we spent the rest of the night. Again, all a bit wild-west.

In the morning we got a tow to the nearest big town where we sat and waited for Ali's friends to come out from Quetta to pick us up. At that point we stuck the car on the back of a cattle lorry and sent it off towards Quetta and we piled into the Toyota pick-up (in hindsight a much more sensible vehicle for these roads!).

Pic below is of our various rescuers...

After the fun and games on the road, Quetta was a relative haven of calm, so I kicked back for a couple of days and then got the Jaffer 'Express' to Lahore, a 30 hour train journey in standard class (no first class available), which was made easier by all the friendly folks on the train, including Waqas, below...

In Lahore I've spent about 4 days at the Regale Internet Inn, a relative haven of peace and calm in a crazy town. Visited all the sights: the old town, the fort, Jehangir's tomb etc.

Spent a fun day with Javed, who I recommend as a guide if you come to Lahore (, +92 300 4350 693, photo below, Javed's on the left). Also I've enjoyed a lot of local music at various venues including a great band playing on the roof here at the Regale.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Days 58 - 71: Beneath the veil

Lahore, Pakistan

Since it's been nearly a month since I last posted, this is going to be a rather brief whip through Iran. So having been joined by Ian in Shiraz we proceeded on a whistle-stop tour of the big 3 in Iran: Shiraz (for Persepolis), Esfahan and Yazd.

Persepolis was impressive but they've made a few weird decisions with how they look after the sight and I wasn't quite as wowed with it as I thought I would be. We also headed over to Pasargardae which wasn't much to write home about at all. Mind you, all these sites are 2500 years old so you can't expect too much.

Esfahan was spectacular, particularly the Imam Square.

A very religious town with lots of impressive mosques. Also a lively bazaar in which we splurged on various things. I took the opportunity of having Ian around to pick up a carpet (a Qashqai bread kilim from Mr Ackbar, below, to be precise) and some camel-bone carvings which I sent home with him.

Chatted to a lot of people here including one young mullah and lots of english teachers (although I suspect some of them might not have been english teachers at all, one for instance, under questioning couldn't name a single english novel). Nice bridge in Esfahan too. Also in Esfahan we went to see Zerhaneh ("house of strength") which had been billed a an Iranian martial art. In reality it consisted mostly of lots of men doing splits press-ups and then twirling huge wooden clubs around. You have to see the pictures. Also met my second air force colonel.

For Yazd I had two aims: ride on a camel and eat camel. I achieved both objectives. Also went on a trip out into the desert to visit Meybod (an old castle), Chak Chak (the holiest Zoroastrian site perched on the side of a mountain - really picturesque - piccie of the inside of the temple below) and Kharanaq (a run down old town).

Ian and I also assumed to roles of retail consultants for the evening as we were dragged off by the owners of the local "mall" (think Somerfield in the 1970s) to advise them on how to attract more customers. Not exactly either of our fields but hey, it was different.

After bidding Ian a fond farewell I headed down to Kerman with Dallas and Mary who I'd met in Yazd. The next day we headed into the Kaluts with Mahmoud our guide in his old BMW. The Kaluts are an amazing place. Check out pics on the internet. I'll post if I can. A sandy desert with huge rock mesas. We were visited by some wild foxes during the night. Photo of us hunting foxes is below...

I decided to sleep out in wilds under the stars, despite the foxes. A very cool experience. I was undisturbed by the foxes but at one point I heard a rustling and shone my torch in the direction, to see lots of little lights shining back (like eyes reflected in the dark). Turned out to be a crisp bag. My home for the night is in the photo below...

After Kerman I headed on alone to Bam, where they're rebuilding the old adobe citadel which was previously spectacular but was pretty much destroyed in the earthquake of 2003. Rebuilding is coming along. No other tourists there, although the Iranian Minister of Transport was, bizarrely. Tourism has dried up, according to Mr Ackbar who runs the guesthouse, by the security fears. A japanese guy was kidnapped in 2007. To be fair, they might have a point and Mr A was very careful to ensure that he knew where I was at all times and gave me a lift to a lot of places himself.

From Bam I headed to the border. Police escort in Bam but nothing after that. I'd been told that the cops would be all over me as soon as I got to Zahedan, the next town, but there were none around. So I jumped in a cab and headed for the border. At one checkpoint the police were quite surprised that I had no escort but hey. Made it to the border in the early afternoon and crossed without any problems. Then Pakistan...but that story will have to wait for another day.

I've skipped over quite a bit here: some massively flirty Iranian ladies on the bus (I may be developing a headscarf fetish), Mustapha the wizened bellboy at the hotel in Esfahan, dozens of interesting people who stopped to chat, lots of old buildings, some really cool restaurants and a bunch of other stuff. Should have tried to keep this more up to date as I went but there just wasn't time.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Day something to day something else: Waaaah!

So the good news is that I'm still alive and in one piece after a rather turbulent journey across the Iran/Pakistan borderlands. I'm going to blog properly once I have access to fast internet and there isn't a scheduled power cut. In Lahore right now with exciting tales to tell of Iran and particularly the journey over to Pakistan which included numerous armed police escorts, 2 nights in different 'police stations', a late night car crash in the most dangerous place in Pakistan (no harm done to anyone) and getting up close and personal with the Baluchistan Militia Levies. TTFN.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Radio Silence

Apologies to anyone who has tried phoning or texting me over the last 2 weeks. Apparently my phone can't receive anything out here in Iran. Similarly no access to Facebook or Twitter. I can get email though (usual address) when I happen to get time to get to an internet cafe which is only the once so far. I'll blog my fascinating experiences in Iran once I get access to a proper PC. All going well though. The next post could be a biggie.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Days 48-57: Into Iran

Tehran, Iran

Have found a PC with something approaching broadband, although nowhere near fast enough to post piccies. Can't get access to a bunch of websites from here including facebook and twitter so no social networking for me. Mind you, there's not a lot of time for that anyway.
I got up to Dogubeyazit OK and then headed straight for Kars the next day on an airport transfer bus that was going to Kars airport. But critically NOT Kars itself so they dropped me at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, populated solely by a couple of wild dogs, with the promise that there'd probably be a bus along some time heading towards town.

Fortunately they were right. Kars is a really interesting town. A bit of a melting pot as it's been Russian, Turkish, Armenian and a few other things in its time.

The main thing to see is Ani, the old Armenian capital. And I mean v old. It's abandoned and has been for hundreds of years. Just a few big old buildings standing. It's right on the border with Armenia so security is a bit tight. To the point that there are a few places on the site that you can't go to and quite a few people with guns. Admittedly mostly friendly people with guns but people with guns nevertheless. And with very bad gun etiquette, waving them around etc. Anyway, Ani was a spectacular site. I went up there with Giel, a Dutch guy I met at the hotel, and an Iranian fella called Amir. After about a week of only being able to exchange pleasantries with people and have very stilted conversations it was nice to have a few people to chat properly with. I'll post some pics of Ani when I can, but I'm sure you can google it to see. Later on I was chatting with a Turkish guy and he said something along the lines of "well, it used to be in Armenia but their country was too big for them so now it's in Turkey" which was an interesting perspective, particularly as their country probably wouldn't have been "too big" for them if their population had been boosted by the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who "disappeared" in the Syrian desert in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. Little bit of politics there.

Also managed a couple of nights out in Kars. My last chance before Iran. The second of these involved a skinful of beer, an unsuccessful search for "somewhere a bit livelier" (this is a quite strict part of the country and hardly anywhere serves booze) and a drunken chat with a bunch of lads in the kebab house about football while on the way home. Just like home!

After a fairly uneventful trip back to Dogubeyazit (other than some really persistent begging from some kids in Igdir) I spent a day touring the sights there in the company of Ferhat, a local kid who befriended me and knew a friendly taxi driver who could drive us around. Visited a meteorite crater (which probably isn't), the resting place of Noah's Ark (if you believe that kind of thing), a traditional Kurdish village (in the rain) and the Ishak Pasa Palace (which was wonderful, perched on the side of a mountain).

Then over the border into Iran. Border crossing went fine. Everyone very courteous and friendly. Tried to change a lot of Euros at the border as it's supposedly the best rate in Iran, but they only had 10,000 lira notes (about 50p) so I could only really change 100 Euros or I'd have been weighed down with notes. Had planned to get a bus from the next town to Tabriz but I managed to strike a deal with a taxi driver to take me all the way through. In hindsight I maybe should have stuck with the bus plan as we had a blow out coming down a rather steep hill and had to borrow a spare tyre from a passing motorist to get us to a garage. Then we ran out of gas and we had to push the car to the gas station. The bus may have been easier. Tabriz was a bit of a nothing kind of place and I only stopped there because it was convenient. Then on to Qazvin. Again, a few travel hiccoughs as I travelled with a really cheap bus company. Didn't actually go into Qazvin, but dropped me on the motorway about 5km outside. No shared taxis anywhere to be seen but fortunately I got chatting to a retired airforce colonel who agreed to drop me and another guy a little further along the motorway where it'd be easier to get a taxi. A great guy.
Qazvin was great. The main reason for going was to visit the Alamut Valley and the excitingly named Castles of the Assassins. As a bit of a history lesson: Hasan-e Sabbah was leader of the Ismaili sect who built the castles...ah, read about it yourself online. I don't have that much time. There's not much of the castles left but the views of the valley were spectacular. A truly magical place. I'll post pictures when I can. All the more fun because my guide Ebi was an awesome guy. Really funny and a great driver who clearly enjoyed himself belting around the mountain roads. He was a great guy to chat with as he had an interesting perspective on Iran today. One of the highlights has been chatting with the people in the hotel (there's a small group of locals who seem to congregate in the lobby of most hotels).

From Qazvin on to Tehran. I wasn't sure I could be bothered to visit Tehran as it's big and dirty but it's actually been quite fun. I had to pass through on the way to Shiraz anyway so I thought I'd stay the night. Visited the bazaar (which is huge) and a few other places but really there's not that much to see. It's more about soaking up the atmosphere. Had a good wander through the streets last night. It's really v safe. The other fun thing is dodging the traffic. There's not real traffic light system, no pedestrian crossings and a lot of cars moving very fast and erratically on wide roads. As a pedestrian you have to cross that. A bit like playing dodgeball really. You just have to look confident and step out. It's kinda lucky no-one drinks here or there'd be a lot of squashed drunk people.

Everyone is very friendly and welcoming, as expected. There's the occasional "Down with USA" slogan painted on the walls (but then the US did topple their democratically elected president in the 50s and supported the Shah who wasn't exactly a whiter-than-white character) and the Colonel did say that his sister (who was in the car) had said that she heard my country was "evil" which I argued with a bit. But on a personal level people couldn't be friendlier. Culturally it's very odd. While it does seem quite conservative, other than the headscarfs and the occasional chador you could be almost anywhere. Women don't seem "oppressed". Admittedly you don't see women out alone socialising and they're not really approachable as a lone man (which sounds a bit creepy, but you know what I mean). It could be that my visit has so far focused on some of the more liberal places. Also I get the impression that the last 5-10 years has seen a relaxation in some of the social restrictions. For instance, I'd been led to believe that it was a real no-no for men to sit next to women on public transport. Other than related people obviously. On the trip from Qazvin to Tehran, for instance, they shuffled people around so that wouldn't happen. But then when I ended up needing the last seat on the bus and it was next to a young unaccompanied woman no-one seemed bothered at all. Also, no evidence of there being separate sections in restaurants as there was in Saudi, for instance. Everyone's in together.

Off to Shiraz this evening. 14 hour night bus. Bleurgh.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Days 40-47: Can we talk about Frank Lampard instead?

Van, Turkey

Blogging time again as I missed the 9am dolmuş from Van to Dogubeyazıt. Turns out the dolmuş stop I wanted isn't where the Lonely Planet, the guy in the bus office or the two people on the street who I asked said it was. Found it eventually at 9.10. The dolmuş left at 9. Grrr. Next one is 12. So I thought I'd take the opportunity to get online for a couple of hours as there was fortunately an internet cafe near the right stop. [If anyone's reading this looking for tips on getting from Van to Dogubeyazıt, the Dolmuş goes from a car park north of Beş Yol at 7.30, 9.00, 12.00 and 14.00.]

Got to Konya as planned and took a look around the old Mevlana monastery. Beautıful place. Well, the Mevlana Museum (which used to be the dervish HQ) is. I was going to post some pictures but it seems this crapheap of a PC is going to crash everytime I try to retrieve them from my camera. So you'll just have to use your imagination. Or google it, which seems to be a good alternative to imagination, memory or indeed thinking in general these days. Konya not the most fascinating of towns other than the museum so I skidaddled the next day and headed for the coast for a bit of R+R before making the big push east for Iran. Also shaved my beard off. Facial hair is clearly not my thing.

Antalya was pretty rubbish in all honesty. Just a big touristy hole. So I went on to Olympos to stay in one of the tree houses for 3 days at a place called Bayram's. Lovely place for kicking back, reading a book, having a few beers with the folks there and swimming in the sea (not in that order).
Didn't do much apart from visit the Chimaera flames (natural burning gas thing that's been going since time immemorial). There's some link with the Olympic torch but I couldn't quite get my head around what it was. The pic below probably doesn't do it justice. There were quite a few of these...

Then the mammoth 36 hour bus trip to Van. About 2000km I think. Mostly very dull and uncomfortable. I don't sleep well on buses. The monotony of the trip was broken a couple of times though. Firstly by a crazy guy stabbing one of the stewards on the bus. He was OK in the end but needed 4 stıtches. He was taken to hospital and we were all whisked off to the police station. Well, I say 'whisked'. That would imply it was quick, which it wasn't. They didn't take a statement from me as communication would have been an issue and I didn't really see what happened. Also chatted for ages with a Kurdish guy called Gezer and he was a bit of a geezer. Of course, given that he spoke no English and my Kurdish is passable at best, we communicated mostly through the medium of proper nouns, gesticulation and drawing pictures. I now have a wonderful collection of pictures of old weapons in my notebook. If I understood right he collects old weapons (swords etc). If I didn't then he was making some very specific threats to me. He also compared the Turkish govt to Hitler. Surprisingly the proper noun conversation didn't involve football in any way which it has done with most people in Kurdistan. They're big fans of Frank Lampard here for some reason. Monotony of the trip was also broken by the scenery as we got towards Van. All v mountain-y.

Van is a nice setting for a day. Mountains and lake. I scouted round the castle, which is down by lake Van and a spectacular setting. Plus I slept off the bus journey. Was also given some advice that getting the train to Iran was probably not the best idea. So I'm going to head for Dogubeyazıt as mentioned above, and cross at the road border. Mind you, given the quality of transport info I've been given in Van so far, I'm not sure I'm making the right decision.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Days 32-39: How to miss the whirling dervishes

Goreme, Turkey

This'll be a brief one and none of my pics, although I found some on the internet of where I went and I'll add some in at a later date when I have my camera with me and more time (it takes ages to upload big pics to blogger). Also my camera batteries ran out half way up Mt Nemrut and the replacements I bought in Moldova were duds. Gotta respect the recycling but I don't think they've got the idea. Also don't have much time to write, so some of you might recognise some chunks of text as I copied and pasted from emails I've sent over the last few days.

Spent a few days in Istanbul but having seen the sights recently there wasn't much I needed to do (except pick up an Orhan Pamuk book to take my Turkish literature count for the trip to two) so got out of there in a couple of days and headed for Cappadocia. Currently in Goreme, which is spectacularly beautiful. Most of the hotels are in caves, although mine's not, although the fact that it's called the Cave Valley might have lured me into the assumption. It's v nice though and even has a pool. All for 15 lira a night (about 6 quid). Spent a day here looking round the old rock-cut city, check it out on the internet, it's lush.

Also visited Derinkuyu underground city. Also had my first nargileh of the trip although for some reason we opted for Cappuccino flavour. Not my choice. Then off for 3 days to Nemrut Dagi. A mountain with statues at the top built by the extremely egotistical King Antiochus. After he died they then stuck an extra 75m of rocks on the top, just to make a tomb for him. It's only 50m now as an American "archaeologist" tried to find his tomb in the 50s using mostly dynamite. The picture below is what it's supposed to look like at sunrise. It didn't look like that when I was there.

It was a long day as we set off at 3.30am to get up to Nemrut for sunrise. Unfortunately it was pissing down so we ended up huddled in a cafe thing near the summit drinking tea while it lashed it down, which was actually quite atmospheric. It eased up after about an hour and if anything the views were even more spectacular because of the whispy clouds around the mountains. Then a bunch of us ended up in a fairly seedy bar in Sanliurfa until about 1am that night. It's a v religious town so all (or should I say "both") the bars are seedy. Good times though.

Got back to Goreme from Nemrut Dagi yesterday and hiked around for about 6 hours. Including Love Valley. Try to guess from the picture below why it's called that...

I then ended up walking along Rose Valley and took a wrong turn ending up in a different town when I thought I was getting back to Goreme. I found my way back eventually though. I really should start using maps. I also acquired a dog for a large part of the day who started following me in town and stuck with me for the first 2 hours or so. I named him Guido as I liked to think of him as my guide.

I've realised that I've planned this part of my trip quite badly as I should have done what I wanted to do in Cappadocia, then gone to Nemrut (which is much further east) and carried on from there. Oh well. I have a bit of time so the backtracking's not too bad and I've met some cool people doing it this way round. I was also really hoping to see the whirling dervishes in Konya which is west of here but it turns out that's probably on every Saturday (i.e. 6 days from now and I can't really wait around). So having left Istanbul a day early and foregone seeing them there, I'll now also miss the real deal (or as close to the real deal as there is) in Konya. Boo. Anyway, I'm still off to Konya tomorrow anyway. From there on to Erzerum and the north east (Mt Ararat etc) before making my way to Van, from whence I get the train to Iran on the 15th Oct (I think).

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Days 27-31: Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you

So from Chisinau it was a short hop to Bucharest and then a 6 hour wait for the train through to Bulgaria. Veliko Tarnovo to be precise. A beautiful town in which to break up my train journey to İstanbul. The Tsavarets Fortress is spectacular. Spent 3 nights there in the end. Lots to do.

We were lucky enough to be in Veliko Tarnovo on Bulgarian Independence Day. Turns out that (as the former capital, or one of them) VT was the focus of the action. The president and PM (and lots of soldiers) were in town and there was a big show on the night and a bit of a party atmosphere in town.

Oh, and I got a pic of a hummimgbird (below).

Here are a bunch of photos from the highlight: some sort of Communist era monument and conference centre that is near VT. Buzludzha it's called. Very bond-esque. Or a level from Doom. A very eerie and bizarre place. No-one else there apart from me, Nick and Scott. Judging by the amount of horse crap everywhere, normally there are probably a lot of horses too. It's completely abandoned and while you're probably not supposed to go in, it's not hard. It's just bizarre that no-one's done anything with it. One of my high points of E Europe to be sure.

OK, I would have added more but the internet connection is v slow in İstanbul. Plus the keyboard layout is confusing so taking a while to type anything. Will be here for a couple of days then off to Cappadocia. Goreme first and then on to Konya, famous for its association with whirling dervishes, the poet Rumi and Sufi mystic Shams of Tabriz.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Days 21-26: Bender?

Chisinau, Moldova

I've been here 2 full days and have pretty much exhausted what's to do here in Chisinau (Kishinev if you're a Ruskie). First up was a supposed trip back to a bygone era before the fall of communism, when no-one had even heard The Scorpions' Wind of Change, in the breakaway enclave of Transdniestr. The other to Orehiul Vechi monastery.

It turns out that getting into Transdniestr isn't the Orwellian nightmare that had been portrayed. I picked up the minibus/maxi-taxi from the central bus station in Chisinau for about GBP1.5 . Amusingly the town en-route to Tiraspol is called Bender. So I was asked numerous times "Tiraspol, Bender?". To which I obviously replied "yes I'm going to Tiraspol, and please don't call me a bender, we're not at school now".

After about an hour we got to the border. Some people got off, some didn't. Not clear why, but I guessed it was depending on whether you were Moldovan or Transdniestran. So I guessed, and was sort of told by a fellow passenger, that I should get off. Handed my passport to a Russian soldier who disappeared with it and several other peoples'. About 10 mins later the bus driver came back with mine and directed me to a booth where most the other passengers had already headed. Filled in a form. At the counter it took about 5 mins for the guy to type my details into a PC. More due to slow typing than any rigorous vetting of my application. I was told I had to be out within 10 hours and was handed my passport back with half the form. No charge either apparently, even though there was a tariff clearly marked on the window. Certainly no demands for bribes or anything like that. Then I had to run round the corner and jump back on the bus as I was the last one through the whole process. Not really my fault as I was the last to get my passport back but I still looked like the idiot foreigner.

I have to say that it wasn't at all the last outpost of communism in Europe that I'd been promised. In fact it didn't look a lot different from Moldova except for a couple of hammer & sickles and the odd statue of Lenin.

In reality it's not much of a communist state at all. It's an oligopoly run by a couple of gangsters who indulge in all sorts of stuff including arms dealing and are supported by the Russian army, who were very obvious, particularly at the border. As a result, on the street it was no more or less friendly than anywhere else in E Europe. It didn't feel oppressive. I never felt likely to be arrested and I had no compunctions about taking photos. Comparisons to Pyongyang? None at all, except that there are busy trolley buses in both, but then there are busy trolley buses everywhere east of Vienna.

Today a couple of us took a trip to Orheiul Vechi, Moldova's number 1 tourist attraction. In the case of today it was the top attraction for hot 19-year-old Moldovan girls. No idea why. Anyway, I digress. It's a monastery, part of which is carved into the hillside. Very beautiful indeed, with so much that we'd have liked to explore. And the same goes for the monastery (ba-boom tish).

And, since it's such a pain in the arse adding photos on blogger, feel free to connect with me on facebook to see all the other photos, including some of Chapita, the Moldova Hostel's cute dog.