10. Pictures added

August 22nd, 2010

Just a quick note to say I've eventually got my arse into gear and added some photos of the trip so far. Please click HERE for the albums.


Stockholm, Sweden

11. Woncka’d in Bulgaria, the waiting game and the anti-British tour of Gallipoli......

August 26th, 2010

I'd been looking forward to revisiting Bulgaria as the food there was good, fresh, cheap and in large quantities so as soon as he train crossed the border into Bulgaria, over an amazingly long bridge over the Danube, I jumped off the train and into the town of Ruse for my favourite Bulgarian shopska salad. I don't know why I like it so much but I guess it may be a little to do with how you spell it in Bulgarian Cyrillic......... WOnCKA. Always makes me smile! After filling up I was ready for the next little 5 hour train journey to Varna on the Black sea coast. Just as the train started to pull in I started to feel dodgy, then as I reached the hostel and was just about to pay I had to quickly make my excuses and leg it to the toilet. I'd been well and truly woncka'd! I guess the food was not as good as I remembered. Although not bad food poisoning, it was enough to keep me in for the good part of each day as the heat made it worse and I'm still suffering the effects two weeks on.

Varna, Bulgaria

So, I can't say much about Varna other than looking at the other Black Sea resorts along the coast such as Burgas it is probably the best as the others are over developed, Varna still has some "old town" appeal, although that's used in a relative sense as nothing really looks that old. Varna does have a McD's though which is fantastic when you have food poisoning! I used to be the typical anal backpacker who would go, "you went to McDonald's, why? I only eat local food, why come all this way and have that...." But then I grew up.. or to be more accurate I got really bad food poisoning. When you are recovering from food poisoning the last thing you want is to risk potentially dodgy food so McD's, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut etc. are pretty much guaranteed to be safe. You need safe stodge! Actually bumped into another backpacker from the hostel in McD's and the first thing he said was, "can you believe I haven't been in one of these for 4 years", errrrrr, No!..... He'll learn!

Varna, Bulgaria

I escaped Bulgaria running away from my favourite salad and ran towards my favourite fast food... the Kebab. Entering Istanbul it all looked very familiar, in fact a few years ago, and about 2 days before a birthday, I decided I wanted to celebrate it with a proper Kebab so I jumped on a plane and spent a week here trying to find one. To be honest I didn’t, they don’t add all the salad here or the chilli or Garlic sauce, in fact they are quite bland so maybe it’s lucky I arrived during Ramadan. But my main reason to be here was to pick up a few Visa’s for the next stages of my trip. This has been a nightmare as everything is still up in the air and after nearly two weeks I have nothing. I’ve promised some other backpackers to put this info in a separate blog so they can see how to get the visa’s so won’t go into detail here but it can be complicated, stressful, irritating and demoralising as you have to judge the time it will take to get each visa, guess where and when you’ll enter each country and how long you need in each. Sometimes you then need to find someone to invite you to the country or even book hotels you will never use and for China buy a flight ticket you will also never use but they need this as “evidence” that you will leave.

Istanbul, Turkey

So as my passport was in the Kazakhstan Embassy for the week (the guidebooks all say three days! I’m getting the distinct impression they make stuff up!) I decided to head 250 miles down the Bosporus to Canakkale (pronounced Chanakalay) as I could use this as a base to visit Gallipoli and Troy before heading back north. I’d always wanted to visit Gallipoli as it’s one of those sites like the Somme in France which highlights the futility of war, but not only that I wanted to understand why this place was so important to Aussies and Kiwis. In fact, unlike the Somme where less and less people seem to visit each year, Gallipoli is becoming more and more important as a site of pilgrimage almost as a rite of passage for every Aussie and Kiwi.

Gallipoli, Turkey

As the sites are spread out I decided to book a tour but was quite disappointed that the tour did not include any of the British, Indian or French memorials particularly as the greatest loss of life during the campaign were the British at just under 22,000 men. But I guess it sort of made sense as out of about 40 or so people on the tour there were 5 Brits, 3 Kiwis and the Rest Australian. Actually there was one American but I think he got on the wrong bus! I suppose if you win the battle and you are from that country it would be hard to give an unbiased description of what happened but I had hoped that Murat our guide would not try to stir national hatred or make inappropriate comments about people who gave their lives for something they had no choice in.

So where did Murat start..... Well it turns out that it was all Winston Churchill’s fault. Before the outbreak of war Britain had been paid by Turkey to produce two war ships, however on the outbreak of war Churchill (who was in charge of the admiralty) decided not to give these to the Turks. This is sort of true, but then he went on to say that this made the Turkey form an alliance with the Germans against the British to obtain two ships they wanted. What he failed to note was that it was well know to the Allies that the Turkish Navy was trained by the Germans and there was already a close “working relationship”. That was never given as a reason the ships were not handed over. Also more importantly, the admiralty in the UK did not make national decisions, the government does so even if Churchill wanted it, it was not his final decision. He then rather inappropriately said “but we eventually got those two British ships back, they now lie on the bottom of the Bosporus” and giggled. What he didn’t know was that one other Brits was here to see the monument to their grandfather who died on one of the ships still in the Bosporus.

Gallipoli, Turkey

When it came to the decisions of generals to send people in to battle he always said “the British Generals sent the ANZAC to their deaths”. He even said this when on the odd occasions the generals were actually Australian, has he not seen the film “Gallipoli”! He made it all sound like the British Generals deliberately sent Australians and New Zealanders to their deaths while the British Soldiers sat and drank tea. He actually did say the latter which again is quite offensive when you look at the figures (21,200 British, 8,700 Aussie, 2,700 Kiwi, 1,300 Indian Army deaths). As you walk around the cemeteries you will see Kiwi, Aussies, Brits and India’s lying together in the same plots, they fought and died as “pals” together. All of them, Kiwi, Aussies, Indian’s and French were used as pawns by their generals no matter where they were born and I hope people on the trip did not think their nationalities were targeted as Murat suggested. The trip was really becoming uncomfortable as I was made to feel it was all my fault and that’s not nice... especially when you’ve paid for it!

Murat then went on to talk about Turkey’s much venerated Ataturk, the general who took command of the Gallipoli campaign and afterwards became the father of the modern Turkey. I can’t say anything bad about this guy, mainly because you can be put in prison for doing so in Turkey! but also because after the war he did drag Turkey into the modern world and did quite a good job of it, but what I found offensive again was Murat’s interpretation of history. The most famous part of the campaign to the Turks is when he told 160 soldiers he caught running away from the ANZAC, because they had no bullets left, to turn around. To paraphrase his famous speech he said “Men I am not asking you to go forward and fight for your country; I am asking you all to die for it”. So it appears alright for Ataturk to send people forward knowing full well they were going to die but when it was a “British” general then that’s terrible. The sad thing is that he could not even see the irony, through the atmosphere the Turks have created about venerated leaders and their history, so thick is the dust of ages that they can't see through it.

Gallipoli, Turkey

Oooh, that was a good whinge! I like a good moan but he was an arse. But when Aussies tell me they hate Churchill I now know why. Many believe he was actually in charge of the Army at Gallipoli which he never was! But why is the place so important to Aussies and Kiwi’s?????? I figured it out I think. Gallipoli was really the first time the two counties acted as distinct countries with their own national identities. Gallipoli helped define what it was to be Australian and what it was to be a New Zealander, before they had never been on the world stage other than as part of Empire. That’s why although many more ANZAC died in France during the First World War, Gallipoli was the first and those who died there are respected for the sacrifice they gave for their countries. Gallipoli is now the focal point for the birth of nations. I think that’s it anyway, but it is kind of nice that more and more people are getting to know more about the First World War though Gallipoli.

Gallipoli, Turkey

Anyway, I did my usual thing when visiting old commonwealth grave sites. At the site of the first ANZAC landing I spent ages walking around trying to find someone who died at the same age I currently am. The really sad thing is that with each year it’s becoming harder and harder to find people which just shows how young these guys were. I then placed the poppy I wore on Armistice Day on their grave. I know it’s a weird thing, but more than likely the family of the guy doesn’t know he’s here or even if they do they’ve never visited. It’s also an acknowledgment that this guy gave his life at my age so I could go beyond it. Ok, that does sound weird! Anyway, the guy was James Richey Furnival (strangely Furnival being an important name in Sheffield!) 11th Battalion Australian Infantry, Died 30th April 1915. At some point I’ll do some searching into his name.

Gallipoli, Turkey

Anyway, gone on too long so won’t mention Troy really other than Murat was the guide again. God this guy knows everything. Turns out that he really doesn’t like Greeks, especially those bearing gifts, and it was actually the British in the wooden horse that jumped our killing all the women and children using a plan put together by Winston Churchill’s ancestor. It’s amazing what you learn.

 

Best thing so far in Bulgaria/Turkey:
Making it to the toilet in time!

Worst thing in Bulgaria/Turkey:
Finding out from Murat that the British were responsible for the Armenian Genocide

12. How not to get Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan Visa’s in Istanbul.......

September 3rd, 2010

Getting visa for both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was my first experience of dealing with Central Asian bureaucracy. I knew getting visa’s would be difficult but the guide books all said that these would be the easiest to get out of the seven or so I want for this part of the trip. All the guide books state that it takes three days each to get these visas so I figured that in 8 days with the weekend I should have them both.


First Wednesday.

So on my first morning in Istanbul I headed out to the Uzbekistan Consulate which is located 8 miles north of the centre in the district of Sariyer. The bus journey there is stunning as the route follows the European side of the Bosporus. You pass castles, little coves and loads of old wooden Turkish houses, a part of Istanbul I’ve never seen before and wouldn’t have had it not been for the want of a visa. I’d come here first as this place only opens on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays while the Kazakhstan Consulate opens every weekday. The first surprise here was that they would only accept on-line applications even though they weren’t actually online as all you had to do was fill in the form then print the document out. However they would not accept anything else. The place was only open for two hours and there was no why I could get to the centre of town, find an internet cafe, print the form out and get back here in time. But then I noticed that some people were heading to a local estate agents so I followed them and to my surprise a guy in perfect English said “ahhh, you want a visa”. So for 10 lira he prepared the documents for me which I handed in at the Consulate but then came my second surprise. The guy said come back in “more than a week” and handed my passport back. I hadn’t planned on a week as all the guidebooks and blogs said three days! But I figured it could be OK as I had my passport and could go to the Kazakhstan Consulate tomorrow.


First Thursday.

The next day I headed out to the Kazakhstan Consulate which is 12 miles south of the centre on a bumpy dull train ride. This time I could fill in the application with a pen but after handing the document in I was told this would also take one week and they needed to keep my passport. I also had 30 minutes to pay $30 into their bank account at a bank which was over a mile away before they could process the application, I only just made it back in time! So now it really got complicated. By good fortune I had gone to the Uzbek consulate first so had overlapped the application process, but I could not go to the Uzbek Con next Wednesday as the Kazakhs had my passport.... So it would be Kazakh Con next Thursday afternoon and Uzbek next Friday Morning.


Second Thursday.

So Next Thursday came and it was time to pick up my Kazakh visa. I arrived at 15:15 hoping that it would simply be a case of turning up and walking off with the visa but there was a massive queue. At 4pm there was still nothing happening and at 16:30 we were eventually told that the commissioner had not turned up and visa’s could only be issues if he were present...... At 6 pm (1.5 hours after closing) he eventually turned up. At 19:15 I was still there with most other people gone, at this point I was told that there was a computer error (although I figure they’d actually done nothing for a week!) and I had to come back tomorrow. Arrggg, but I had to go to the Uzbek Con in the morning with my passport to get my visa there else I would have to wait until Monday. I said that I needed my passport back to alter a flight booking so at least I could pick up that in the morning......


Friday.

So back at the Uzbek Con I handed my passport over only to be told to comeback at 3 in the afternoon (after paying $80 into a local bank) to pick up the visa. But I had to be at the Kazakh Con no later than 16:30. And it was a Friday which meant that if I was late then I’d have another weekend in Istanbul! As nice as it is, I’ve been here before and am pretty bored of the place! At three on the dot I was given my Uzbek Visa.... Then the mad rush. I had to wait 20 mins for a bus to the centre which took a little under 40 minutes, then a tram across town 15 mins, then a train (which I managed to jump on as it was leaving) 40 mins. I ran to the embassy and got there just before 5pm. It had taken two hours. If I had got a taxi it would have taken just as long as it would have come through the centre but maybe if I’d got a taxi in and out of the centre with the tram across it, it may have been quicker.... But it had cost me £2 and not £60 which turned out to be worth it as not surprisingly there was still a queue! 6pm came and went, then t 6:15 a guy came out and questioned everything about my plans and the route I wanted to take to Kazakhstan. Not problem to most as they have a plan but I don’t so I had to make lots of stuff up on the spot and try to stick to it when I was questioned each time. It was quite embarrassing as he did this in front of everyone. Then at 6:30 he told me to come back tomorrow and I would have to speak to the Commissioner, even though it was a Saturday! So I had to quickly rush into town and find a hostel for the night as I had nothing booked....

 

Saturday.

I turned up at 12 as requested only to find out that he had not told security as he said and the commissioner wasn’t actually there. 1pm... nothing. At 1:30 he turned up, shook my hand. We had a chat about everything but the visa, and then I was handed my passport back so I said thank you in Kazakhstani. W-hey.... Oh no, it only said single entry, I asked for two as I’m unlikely to be given a Turkmenistan visa and would need two entries to visit Uzbekistan. When I asked him back he did not look pleased, he went to check my application and agreed I’d said two, then simply just changed the 1 to a 2 with a pen! Think he only did it because I always greeted him in Kazakh and not Russian.

Anyway, the moral of the story is.... don’t get visas for these countries in Istanbul unless you have a lot of time or at least overlap the applications. Don’t rely on details from the guide books or internet blogs. In this case they were all wrong!

Right, time to leave Turkey, well, after visiting Goreme first!


Istanbul, Turkey

13. No place like Goreme.... but I really do want to leave...

September 6th, 2010

Arriving in Goreme as the sun rises in the morning is quite spectacular. The faint orange glow of the sun reflects off that pastel coloured sandstone monoliths which litter the town making the rocks look like giant storks of wheat bursting out of the earth. Having said that, a young lady once described the place as looking like a field full of massive stone cocks, but I prefer my description! It is an amazing place and a place I would recommend anyone to visit.

Goreme, Turkey

The unique landscape I’m lead to believe was caused by a mixture of sandstone deposits and volcanic ash. In certain areas the hard volcanic ash protected the sandstone beneath while the rest was washed away and the result..... stone cocks! I much prefer what the locals tend to call them and that’s “fairy Towers”. They call them this as not only are they shaped like towers, the early Christians in the area carved out the hard sandstone inside to make houses and churches, in fact I was lucky enough to sleep in one as the temperature inside was about 20 degs while it was about 40 outside. I decided to go on an organised tour of some of the sites as they are quite spread out and difficult to get to. The tour took us to an amazing 12 level underground city carved out by the early Christians as protection against the Persians and other invaders. You get to walk up to 70m underground in a labyrinth of tunnels where once over 4000 people lived. There’s even a church and “grave yard” down there but more importantly at least 6 massive wine vats!

Goreme, Turkey

Later we saw many cave churches and cathedrals many with frescos still intact although many had been destroyed by the Turkish as being un-Islamic. The guide made a telling remark at one point when asked where the Christians had all gone. His response was basically what her would have been taught, “when the Ottomans took the country the Ottomans let Christians stay without any problems, they decided to leave”. Mmmmm, history says that these Christians were treated very badly. If I say that they were Armenian Christian I think we sort of get the picture, there were a couple of Genocides and a forced long march into a dry desert without water which may have finished them off. They do teach a different kind of history over here!

Goreme, Turkey

For more pictures click HERE

The next day I had hoped to see a few more sites before leaving in the evening but when I tried to buy a ticket to Trabzon on the way to Georgia I was told that there were no tickets for 4 days. They said it was because of Ramadan but I found this Bizarre. It’s a bit like not being able to get from Leeds to Manchester for 4 days on public transport during the week before Christmas. It’s ridiculous. The only thing I could think of was to get a ticket to Ankara which meant doubling back 6 hours on my journey to see if there was anything there. Basically I now had to travel from Leeds to Manchester going via Brighton! To give myself a fighting chance of getting to where I needed to be (as I had to be in Tbilisi, Georgia before Friday to get a visa) I had to leave at 8am so had to miss the other sites which is a bit annoying. But as the young lady also said once, “when you’ve see one cock you’ve seen them all!” The guy did not want to sell me the ticket as it was quite cheap so kept offering “other places I should go” which were completely in the wrong direction. Eventually he gave in and let me buy the 25 Lira ticket. I handed over a 50 but by mistake be handed me back 55 in change, I guess thinking the 50 was a 20. Just as I was about to tell him he made a mistake, he muttered quietly that I “must have been stupid to think I could get to Trabzon during Ramadan.” So I quickly slipped the money into my Wallet and walked out. Usually I’d feel guilty but not this time! Old git!

I arrived in the amazingly massive and confusing Ankara Bus station a little after 2pm and headed out to look for a ticked to Trabzon. There were well over 100 desks selling tickets representing at least 200 hundred bus companies, possibly even more.

Ankara

After walking up and down a few times I noticed a bizarre place on one notice board called Tiflis. On the map it looked like that should be Tbilisi in Georgia. I said, Tiflis Georgia, he said “evet” I said cool. I paid 75 lira (using the money the kindly old git gave me!) and at 4pm I left on a mammoth 22 hour journey. But just as we set off my food poisoning which hadn’t quite gone came back with a vengeance. I guess the rushing bout triggered it, but what makes it worse here is that Turkish Coaches don’t have toilets, just a break between 3 to 5 hours! Amazingly after 3 hours of chronic stomach pain and amazingly strong sphincter muscles I managed to keep it all in to the point my body must have said, “we’re not winning this one” and gave with the pain. Cool, I just had to go through the ordeal of Turkish squat toilets and a putrid bucket of water all for the cost of 40p bargain! Now, where’s the Imodium......


Best thing about Turkey:

Getting to Ride with a Coach Company called Kamil Koc and asking other’s if they had ridden Kamil Koc and whether they enjoyed it!

Second best thing about Turkey:

The mad parties that erupt at the end of fasting each evening. People sit around with BBQ’s waiting for the Imam to utter his final “Allah Akbar” call of the day before having their first drink for 15 hours!


Worst Thing about Turkey:
No toilets on busses! Why! No toilet paper! Why!


Second worst thing about Turkey:
Our coach side swiping a car off the road and everyone helping the Guy out but leaving the girl in! Why!

14. From a Genocidal Maniac to the Holy Spear of Christ...

September 11th, 2010

Travelling to the border of Turkey and Georgia took ages. The landscape was stunning an pretty much untouched but there was a reason for this. It soon became apparent after all of the police and military checks that we were in the Kurdish regions of turkey, the areas I planned to miss. However I was glad I happened to come this way as you could see the disparity in which the local Kurds are treated with constant military patrols with a watching eye covering their every move, it sort of makes you wonder why Britain is supporting Turkish entry to the EU.

Eventually at about midday we arrived at Posof on the border of Turkey and by this time I was the only passenger of the 50 seat coach with 2 divers and a steward! As it was only me the guys decided to take a long break for lunch which at first was a little annoying as I just wanted to get to Tbilis but while waiting other bus drivers turned up from other companies and started to join in the lunch. At this time the Turkish hospitality kicked in and I suddenly became one of the team. Invited to sit down and offered their food and drink. I couldn’t speak Turkish nor them English but we sort of managed through body language to figure out what we all meant. The I was forced into a Chilli eating competition, and here the chilli’s are quite long. I didn’t want to join in as my back stomach could potentially make it all very messy but I figured the hand actions for diarrhoea whould be quite rude. Anyway, after 4 I had to give in but I came 2nd out of 5 so I was quite happy although my mouth was really burning! It sounds weird but these moments are what backpacking is all about, you end up in bizarre situations even not being able to speak each other’s language but human nature shines through and you end up having a great time.

Heading towards the border we picked up 2 more passengers one was an old fella with huge bundles off goods. Leaving Turkey was ok and I was let into Georgia with almost no problem but they did question why I went to Russia, as you could understand why they don’t really like the Russians here as the war was only 2 years ago. I was waved straight through customs without even a check as they knew I was a “toooorist” but they old guy hadn’t made it into Georgia. As usual, one passenger didn’t make it again! But unfortunately his luggage had which created a huge problem as Georgian officials were not going to allow it in. This took nearly 2 hours to sort out but eventually we left without him and his luggage down a road which had very little tarmac on it and was so bumpy that we could only travel at walking pace for about 1 hour. But eventually we were in Georgia proper which is a really beautiful with tree lined gorges with churches and castles perched on picturesque little peaks.

Stalin's House, Gori, Georgia

Then stop........ a lorry in front just screeched it’s breaks and then gone, straight over the edge of a ravine! Luckily it got caught up in the trees and the shaken and blooded driver got out but all this took another 1.5 hours to clear. The just 5 miles further down our coach broke down.... but eventually we managed to get on a local bus. Not bad, the 22 hour journey only took 27 hours, I’ve had worse!

Gori

Georgia is a nice place and Tbilisi one of the most picturesque capitals I’ve been to but it hides something it used to be proud of but with time is starting to question. In the town of Gori is a museum build on the birthplace of one of the 20th century’s greatest heroes, for some, and tyrants for others. In 1878 Joseph Stalin was born here and now a shrine is built over the house he was born in and a museum of his life, minus the bad bits! Is situated behind it. It’s an interesting place to see how they interpret his “achievements” as previously Georgia and Gori were proud of their first son, but now they are more and more uncomfortable and just really choose to focus on the war victories. But how many people can say they’ve sat in Stalin’s chair or laid on his bed on the train carriage he took to Yalta. And more importantly, who would want to.

Tblisi, Georgia

This region is a series of complete contrast as a few days later I headed into Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian nation. To be fair the place is not as pretty as Georgia but it’s still quite nice if you get out of the capital Yerevan which is being slowly being rebuilt into a faceless city with modern tower blocks. From Yerevan you can clearly see Mount Ararat of Noah’s Arch fame which now lie in Turkey after they took it from the Armenians. This still hurts the Armenians today and with the Genocide the Turkish committed against the Armenians, but the Turks deny, it has created quite a sombre population. But within Armenia at Echmiadzin you can see one of the most important relics of Christianity, the Holy Lance that was used to pierce Christ’s skin to see if he had died. Although having said that, there is also a lance in Vienna but these guys say it’s defiantly theirs!

Yerevan, Armenia

But it’s time to move on as summer ends and the weather starts to change for the worse in the mountains. The next stop is Azerbaijan which is a short 15 hour overnight train journey but I am going first class so it shouldn’t be too bad. This was meant to be the third hardest Visa to get but when I arrived in Tbilisi and went to the Embassy they said they could do one in three days, but strangely if I went to a travel agency down the road they would do it in 2 hours for the same price. I couldn’t believe it. After the hassle of Istanbul, I got this visa in 2 hours, and that’s the reason I had time to go to Armenia although that could backfire as Azerbaijanis do not like Armenians due to a war in 1994 and occupation of lands ever since. My Armenian visa could be questioned.

Yerevan, Armenia

Yerevan, Armenia

Anyway, now the difficult part starts and my access to internet stops. A few of the countries do not allow skype, hotmail or yahoo so I maybe offline for a while..... but I’ll see if there’s a way around.