Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Budapest - Christmas markets, hot baths and, for some, the end of the road

Travelled out and too tried to do our own research any more, we tagged along to a free walking tour our hostel offered. The tour was packed full of interesting facts about Budapest. For example, Budapest has the largest Synagogue in Europe and fifth largest in the world. The Dohany Street Synagogue in District 7, and next to our hostel, seats over 3000 people. During the Second World War the area was known as the Budapest Ghetto where Jews were forced to live. Luckily it was only 3 months after it was set up that the Nazis surrendered Budapest to the Soviet Army and the Jews incarcerated there were released. Closer to home, several structures in Budapest have connections with the London. The Szechenyi Chain Bridge over the River Danube, connecting Buda with Pest, was constructed by William Tierney Clark and Adam Clark. William Clark designed the first ever suspension bridge to span the river Thames (Hammersmith Bridge) amongst others. The second connection with London is the a Parliament buildings. The building is remarkably similar to Westminster's Houses of Parliament (which was in part the inspiration for the design) built in Gothic Revival style and in an imposing position on the river Danube. 

Hungarian Parliament Buildings on the River Danube

For more sightseeing motivation in Budapest we also adopted stalking tact. We'd listen in on people's conversations of what they planned to do and then copied the things we thought would be interesting. We did this with Roman and Joseph, two Slovakians on a gentleman's weekend from Brataslava. They had told us about a Jazz evening and we went to investigate, enjoying a good glass of wine and some great music.

The hostel we were staying in was busy and the dorms full. Guests were there to enjoy the Budapest night life. When we came back from our night of Jazz at 1 am we were the first to return that evening. The rest of our dorm rolled between 6-7 am. The usual pre-Christmas colds were going around and disease was festering among the hostelers. The following morning James came down with something particularly nasty and could only be dragged to the nearest cafe in the morning.  It was a Sunday and there we watch a man order two vodkas and a beer for breakfast.

I left James in the hostel and headed out to investigate the baths Budapest is so famous for. I went to the beautiful Szechenyi baths in the City Park a short metro ride away. The baths comprised of two huge outdoor pools and dozens of indoor ones, all different temperatures, as well as saunas and steam rooms. It was fantastic and I must have spent 4 hours there at least.

Back at the hostel James's man flu had not improved much but the following day, not wanting to miss out, he managed to accompany to the same baths.

We had rushed to Budapest in the hope of catching up with Helen and Jamie (our travel stalkers who had travelled the same route as us from Chengdu, China) one last time. Budapest was the end of the road for them and Jamie's parents had come out to meet them. We met at the entrance to the St Istvan's Cathedral, where the steps led down to a bustling Christmas market. Warmed with mulled wine we chatted to Jamie's mum who had travelled the hippie trail from Australian to the UK through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, amongst other places, in the 70s. She talked of meeting fellow travellers along the way, one of which she still keeps in touch with today. It would be nice to think that the same would be true for us with Helen and Jamie.

With Helen and Jamie, esteemed Silk Road travellers, in a Budapest Christmas market

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Breaking up in Zagreb, Croatia

We were now ticking off the European countries as we headed west. Our plan was to try to visit as many friends as possible along the way. We were travel weary and were beyond spending hours visiting churches and museums. Instead we wanted a chat with someone familiar and a good cup of tea. Impressions of cities were made in milliseconds; tram stop right outside train station, like Zagreb, no map in train station, hate Bratislava.

Our train journey from Belgrade, through northern Croatia to the capital Zagreb was straight forward enough. A local woman, Andrea, sat in our train compartment and we chatted about life in Croatia, being a goth and a mother. In this part of the country there was fighting during the Balkans war and Andrea talked of escaping to the safety of Zagreb during these times.

Zagreb was the most European capital so far on our trip and is expected to join the EU in July 2013 and adopt the Euro - that is if still exists of course. It's clean cobbled streets lined with Christmas market stalls; the smell of gulwien wafting through the cold night air as a jazz band played in the park, greeted us off the train from Belgrade. We had come because James had a Croatian friend, Sveta, who he had met 10 years ago whilst he was a student in Moscow and she lived there as her father was a diplomat. That evening we had beers in her flat, a short tram ride away, and caught up.

Exploring the old part of city the following day was easy to do on foot. It was neat and tidy and pretty and I wondered why it wasn't a bigger city-break destination. We stumbled across the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships off a cobbled street and went to take a look. We had the little museum to ourselves as we perused the donated artefacts of ended relationships. Each item represented a relationship and the stories which accompanied them told of funny, sad and happy times in people's lives.

Sveta and James with Sveta's dog

A night out with Sveta and some of her friends in a local bar and then we were on the (rail) road again.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Belgrade - a bit like home

Belgrade was strangely familiar. People shuffled down the pedestrianised high street on a cold grey day; drizzle gently falling. There were few shops of any interest. The Serbians were pale faced, gaunt and not particularly stylish. It could have been any northern British city.

We arrived in the morning on the train from Istanbul and 12 hours late. We had been given a tip off of a good hostel from a fellow traveller in Yerevan so, with Helen and Jamie (our backpacker stalkers since Armenia), we went to find it. After a bit of a hike we disturb two sleepy hostel staff who grudgingly got up to find us rooms. We moved into a room so tiny that only two people could use the floor space at any one time. The morning got worse when the only place which was open for breakfast at 8 am was a McDonald's - we were beyond caring.

After that things got better. We found that one thing Belgrade does well is coffee and cake. There are charming little bars selling coffee during the day and beer at night. Bakeries were on every corner selling exquisite pastries. That evening we joined Helen and Jamie for dinner and bumped into Australian Rob (we last met in Yerevan) who was on a couchsurfing date with a Serbian, Alma. At dinner James tried to impress everyone by ordering sheep's white kidneys (testicles) but unfortunately they didn't have any. After dinner we joined Rob and Alma for a beer before going to a fantastic Jazz Club, a tiny place with some old guys strumming away and a golden retriever and it's owners propping up the bar.

The following day we said goodbye to Helen and Jamie as well as to the overrated hostel. James and I walked back to the train station to a hostel Rob recommended. It was much better and we got a free beer on arrival!!

Exploring the city we noticed that Belgrade has the most obedient pedistrains in the world. No one dared cross the road unless there was a green man. In the middle of the city stand two bombed out high rise buildings. The path of the bomb through the floors can clearly be seen. The building is the Serbian Military of Defence building bombed by NATO in 1999. It has been left, quite deliberately, as a reminder to the Serbian people.

The former Ministry of Defence left in central Belgrade so no one forgets. 

Tito the communist leader of Yugoslavia rose to power after Second World War after leading the Partisans  to victor against Nazi Germany. During the ensuing Cold War Tito went on to established the Non-Alignment movement. He is also the link between Winston Churchill and Fitzroy Maclean - the inspiration for James's Winston Churchill Fellowship Research. After travelling throughout Central Asia as a diplomat, Maclean  joined David Sterling of SAS fame on daring raids in North Africa, but before long he was recalled to London by Churchill who retasked him with the job of parachuting into Yugoslavia to hunt down a man called Tito and act as liason between the Partisans and the British war effort (Maclean's incredible life is documented in the excellent Eastern Approaches).  At the time no one even knew whether Tito existed, some even thought that this personality could be a woman. Maclean found Tito and spent the rest of the war as Churchill's personal envoy between the two leaders. Needless to say Tito's mausoleum was a must see for us. Unfortunately the museum was closed but the House of Flowers, Tito's Mausoleum, was open.

James and Tito

Tito's grave

James had emailed a local Serbian, Viktor Lazic, who he had been given contact details for when in Georgia. Viktor had made international headlines in September when he had been detained in South Ossetia - for a week. We were intrigued to meet him and he enthusiasticly replied to our email, inviting us to his library(?). Meeting him and his girlfriend, Alex, that evening he showed us around a room in his house which he had converted into a travel library. His family had a long history of collecting books, including his grandmother, who despite not being able to read herself, smuggled partisan literature behind German lines in the Second World War, whilst delivering German newspapers to the occupiers. Viktor still had some of the partisan newsletters that she smuggled through. 

Viktor's story was equally incredible. An experienced overlander, he had driven around most of the former Soviet States in a Lada Niva with only a sex doll for company (he insists the sex doll is purely for security, her silhouette makes it look like there is someone else in the car). In September he was driving in Georgia and wanted to visit South Ossetia. The South Ossentians let he across the Administrative Boundary Line, and then promptly arrested him for spying. He was held in solitary confinement for two days, in horrific conditions, but then was moved to a slightly better cell for another 5 days. The guards were often drunk and high, and always unpredictable. After frantic diplomatic efforts he was released and escorted back into Georgia. Our evening with Viktor and Alex was a fascinating end to our stay in Belgrade.

Viktor, Alex, James and me in Viktor's travel library

Monday, 13 February 2012

Istanbul to Belgrade - The train west

Bulgaria was our first EU country. We had caught the Istanbul to Belgrade night train, an 20 hour journey, but had come to a shuddering halt the next morning somewhere between Plodiv and Sophia. Strikes. The train guard couldn't tell us when the train would get moving again but it sounded like it might be a while. He suggested getting the bus to Sophia. But it was Sunday and no buses were running. 

There were only a few people on the train. James and I had a six bed compartment to ourselves, next door were three Italian students and then Helen and Jamie, who we first met in Armenia and then bumped into in Istanbul, but even more incredibly had travelled the same route as us from Chengdu in China, and had also got the same train and were next door but one. Helen and Jamie decided to take a taxi to Sophia and James and I headed to check out what the town had to offer.

Our carriage awaits!

After a few enquires and an explore we discovered that the town had two coffee shops (only coffee and beer sold), a supermarket, station waiting room (no toilet) and an cash machine. On the up side the supermarket was playing Christmas songs which we found quite exciting. We went for a coffee and then bought food and beers in the supermarket. Back on the train we ate baguettes and then sat with the Italians drinking beer all day.

That evening the train shunted and groaned before getting going. Within the hour it stopped again this time in Sophia. Looking out the window we saw two familiar characters walking along the platform - Jamie and Helen. They joined us for a beer. 

Although a 12 hour delay might have irritated most people we were quite happy with the situation. The train was due to arrive in Belgrade at 8 pm but with the delay we would now be arriving at 8 am. This meant a second night on the train, a second FREE night. We had a compartment to ourselves and, with the help of another beer, slept soundly through until the morning.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Istanbul - We love you!

Istanbul, the end of the Silk Road - we'd made it. Elegant minarets pierced the frosty morning air, seagulls circled overhead, neon lights, the call to prayer, wafts of coffee mingled with shisha smoke, this is Istanbul in December. I woke up early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Bosphorus from the hostel's rooftop lounge, before the rest of the guests emerged, bleary eyed, for breakfast. Later grabbing a fish sandwich for lunch down by the Galata Bridge and a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice on the way home. Then ending the day laying in bed listening the moan of fog horns drifting through the window as ships silently slid past.

Istanbul is vast. It is the 5th largest city in the world (when defined as the population living in city boundaries), which, when you consider all the Chinese cities is pretty incredible. There is so much to see and do it is a little overwhelming. Over five days we combined seeing the classic sights (Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Grand Bazaar, boat trip up the Bosphorus and Christmas shopping in the Spice Market) with visiting art galleries. There are many small galleries (some of which are in Banks) on the main shopping drag towards Taksim as well as the Istanbul Modern which has stunning views back towards the minaret laden mskyline of the Golden Horn. One day we combined a visit to a hamam with a look around the Asian side of the city. The most noticeable difference was that the call to prayer was a lot louder. After a good scrub down we did some more Christmas shopping; Turkish Delight for my Dad. I'd told him that there wasn't any Turkish Delight in Turkey so that it might be a surprise. I also wondered if he would manage to guess the flavours, especially the carrot one.

The Aya Sofya was originally a cathedral before it was converted into a mosque in 1453, before it became a museum. Whilst exploring one of the mausoleums we bumped into Helen, who we had last seen in Armenia. We arranged to meet for a beer to catch up that evening. Back at the hostel the staff turned the TV up. The footage showed a gunman armed to the teeth. More pictures of Syria, I thought. Then images of the Topkapi Palace flashed up.

At 9.50 am a Libyan gunman walked past crowds of tourists to the Topkapi Palace gate, ignoring the comments tourists made, and shot two of the guards. He made no demands from the police but wouldn't lay down his arms, so they shot him; dead. We had walked that very route just 10 mins before the incident and, bizarrely, James had commented on the slack weapon handling skills of one of the guards. We had had a pleasant enough day and had been none the wiser to the shootings until our return. The following morning, when we walked past the gates, there was no evidence of the incident at all - they are quick to get the (tourist) business back to normal here in Istanbul.

Now that we were in Istanbul and on a more standard backpacker trail, James and I had been looking forward to regaling stories of daring traveller do to fresh faced gap yearers. But every time we mentioned where we had been a blank look came over their faces and the conversation dried up. I'd try to restart it by bringing up Afghanistan; they moved tables. For the first time we came across a new breed of traveller - the professional travel blogger. Before I had just thought that travel blogging was something you used to let your Mum to know where you were and what you were up to, apparently not. However, to be a professional travel blogger it seems that you have to be female, North American and a ruthless self promoter. 

Aya Sofya

What had struck me most about being in Turkey, and this was reinforced in Istanbul, is what a nice bunch the Turks were. I was expecting the hard sell everywhere and for the men to be quite sleazy. Actually the Turks were very helpful and courteous which they combined with a fantastic sense of humour. I hadn't noticed any unwanted advances until I compared the amount of invitations I had received through my couchsurfing account with that of a fellow couchsurfer, Australian Rob. I had had 11 invitations (all from men) and he had had 1, so maybe the stereotype is justified in the digital world at least.

In short, I absolutely loved Istanbul and didn't wait to leave. It might have been the end of the Silk Road but it wasn't the end of the road for us - we still had to get back to London, overland.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Cappadocia - 'When I grow up I want to be a tourist'

The coach took us overnight through eastern Turkey to Kayseri where we had to get a connection to Goreme. We arrived in the small hours of the morning and the bus station was deserted and freezing. I got into my sleeping bag and found a comfy bench to sleep on until we could catch an onward bus. Just after I dropped off I felt a tug at my feet, 'want tour?' the man said. I didn't even have to say anything to send him scurrying away, my glare was enough.

We found that Goreme was a backpackers mecca, dozens of hostels, souvenir shops and cafes were jumbled around the little streets, backing into the rock pinnacles. Not since Kathmandu had we been somewhere which catered for backpackers so well - we wouldn't have a problem find a banana pancake here. With a bewildering amount of choice we set out to find a hostel. It was bitterly cold so my only requirement was that it was cosy and warm. We found a great place, maybe not the prettiest, but with a lovely sitting room warmed by a wood burning stove in its centre. With the temperatures outside dropping to below -10°the hostel was far from full but there were enough people about for it not to feel entirely deserted.

We spent the next couple of days walking and exploring the surrounding area, as well as eating a lot. During the day the skies were crystal clear and it was warm enough in the sun to sit outside and take a break. Dwellings have been carved out of the soft rock for centuries, the remnants of which are still well preserved amongst the honey coloured spires. Away from Goreme we met few people. A dog followed us, we called him Dennis. We got quite lost at one point and, as it was late in the day, we decided to retrace our steps. Walking up to the road we hitched back to Goreme. Scrambling about the caves had been fun but the stones could be like walking on ball-bearings, so I was not surprised when Nick, a fellow backpacker staying at our hostel, said that he had fallen and hurt his elbow. I offered him Iburprofen which he appreciated.

In the morning Nick's elbow was no better. After a visit to the doctor a dislocation was diagnosed. He had a second appointment to have it put back. Beforehand he nervously waited by the wood burner. 'It'll be fine', I said, 'they'll do it very quickly'. Once he had left James said, 'it won't be fine, it'll hurt like hell.' Of course I knew that but I couldn't tell him.

We decided to spend a day visiting one of the many underground cities which the region is also known for. Derinkuyu is the largest in the area and could accommodate over 35,000 people throughout it's 11 floors if needed. The steps seemed to lead down into the centre of the world as we descended over 85 m to the lowest floor - do not do this if you suffer from claustrophobia. The city's design included a ventilation system as well as a church, market and meeting hall made of caverns crudely cut out of the rock. I thought the most interesting feature was the defence system. There were huge round stones, like upended millstones, which were positioned ready to block off entrances, Indiana Jones style. The city was a refuge for the inhabitants in times of conflict.

Back at the hostel Nick had his elbow in a bandage. After the doctor had manipulated it back into position he had applied honey to the sore joint. Having it put back had hurt like hell, Nick confirmed. We chatted to the owner of the hostel, a South African with a young daughter. She told us that when her daughter is asked what she wants to be when she grows up she always replies, 'when I grow up I want to be a tourist.'

That evening we sampled the clay pot kebabs, a local dish advertised in most of the restaurants. As a meal it is similar to a casserole, but cooked in a clay pot which acts as a pressure cooker. The top of the pot is then cracked open, luckily expertly done by our waiter, and with a gush of steam the contents hiss and bubble out. It was the perfect warming meal to have on a freezing night. 

The following morning, on the second attempt, James managed to coax me out of bed. We had got up at dawn to watch the hot air balloons - a popular tourist trip here. The sky was filled with 30 colourful balloons which drifted silently across the Cappadocia skyline - well worth the early start.

Sightseeing around the Goreme cave dwellings, Cappadocia 

Morning balloon rides

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Silk Road overland East to West - Visa strategy

When travelling on the Silk Road in Central Asia is is never long before the conversation between travellers turns to visas. For a successful overland trip a visa strategy has to devised before departure. It is not a region which can be travelled through on a whim. With a little planning visas can, however, be picked up along the way. In this post I will describe how we did it, which we managed without requiring the services of a visa support agency. There are obviously thousands of permutations of how to cobble together all the visas needed for such a trip, but I thought I'd simply write about how we did it - as I think the post is long enough as it is!!

First of all here are some general tips on Central Asian visa planning and execution.

  • Plan exactly when and where you will get each visa.
    • Know how long the visa process takes and then add on more time in case of unexpected embassy closures, like those for public holidays which an embassy will take both for the country the embassy is in and those for the embassy's national holidays.
    • Have plenty of passport photos and photocopies of your passport to hand.
    • Have a good idea of the dates you will be entering and exiting the country, how long you will need a visa for and an address of where you will be staying (any address is fine).
    • Speak the language, take a person who does or, at the very least, take a phrasebook, if applying in person at an embassy.
    • Know how much it is meant to cost. Question any price rises.
  • Overlap your visas by a couple of days. This means that you are not relying on crossing a border on one particular day. Borders are sometimes closed at weekends or on public holidays.
  • Always enquire about an Express Visa Service. Sometimes this doesn't cost any extra.
  • Consider getting multiple entry visas for flexibility.
  • Use forums, such as the Lonely Planet Thorntree, for up to date info and tips, but beware of tips from people who haven't actually done it!!
  • Use Caravanistan's Central Asia visa guide, an up-to-date resource on visas as well as border crossings in the region.
  • Finally, apply flattery liberally, even when you are clearly being obstructed.

Here is a summary of how we got all the visas needed to travel overland from Kathmandu to London. We were travelling on British passports from Nepal westwards through, Tibet, China, Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea to the Southern Caucasus, before entering Turkey and the final stretch through Europe to the UK. All the visas we obtained were single entry tourist visas and obtained in person at an embassy unless otherwise stated. DISCLAIMER: This information may already be out of date!!

How long for? Number of entries? When does the visa time start?
Obtained where?
Length of visa process
3 month
Multiple entry as standard
On arrival at Kathmandu airport
On the spot

Remember to have a passport photo hand in your hand luggage.
14 day
Kathmandu agent as part of Tibet tour
On the spot

Travelled in mainland China on Tibet Permit. See above.
1 month
(visa starts on specified entry date)
London by post
1 week

Applying for a visa through the Kyrgyz embassy in London was a very simple process. Fill out the online form here and then send your passport and relevant documents to the embassy.
Kyrgyzstan extension
1065 Som
1 month
Multiple entry
(visa starts when previous runs out)
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
1 day (submit in morning collect in afternoon of same day)

At the OVIR office we were required to copy by hand a Letter of Invitation, in Russian, which we submitted with an application form and passport photo.
Travelled on our Kyrgyz tourist visas. Note you must has a double or multiple entry Kyrgyz visa to be able to re-enter Kyrgyzstan. For more information see A couchsurfing minibreak in Almaty.
(+£50 for GBAO permit)
2 months
Double entry with GBAO permit
(visa starts on specified entry date)
London by post
1 week

We followed the instructions on the Embassy website here. Together with an application form, our passports, photocopy and photo a travel itinerary was required. We simply wrote a letter with where we planned to be when and this appeared adequate.
Tajikistan Visa registration
135 Somani
Visa registration for a double entry 2 month visa
Khorog, Tajikistan
On the spot

We read that if you have anything more than a 1 month single entry tourist visa you are required to register. We went to the OVIR office and were directed to the neighbouring bank to pay. Returning to the OVIR
1 month
(visa starts on entry which can be any time within the stated 6 month period)
London in person
5 days

The details for applying at the London embassy can be found here. Along with the usual documents the website states that utility bills are required to verify your current address in the UK. When we presented these the embassy said that they now no longer require them instead we needed a letter from our place of study or employer. After a day of frantic phones calls we got the letters and then the application went very smoothly. Hindsight I would have got a visa in Khorog, Tajikistan which takes 1 day.
1 month
(visa starts on specified entry date)
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
7 days

To get a visa you must phone (in Russian) the embassy the day beforehand and get your name put on a list. Fill out and print off an application form here. The following day take the form, a photo and a copy of your passport to the embassy at 10 am and join the queue. A week later you need to get your name put a list the day before again. Return at 10 am with your passport and the visa is put in your visa then and there. We had a slight problem in that the official wasn't keen to give us a visa more than 3 months before our entry date (it was 3 months and 6 days before our planned entry). Luckily we managed to talk him into doing it for us. Note that a tourist visa (denoted as T on the visa) only allows for the holder to stay in hotels registered to take foreigners. For each stay you are given a registration slips which needs to be retained. We only got asked to show them once, on the Tashkent metro, when we were staying with friends and didn't have any, but we managed to get around this problem, and continue staying with our friends.
5 day
(visa has specified dates and entry point)
Applied for in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Collected in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

7 days Express service

See Turkmen Visas – a riddle wrapped in an enigma for the long version of this.
(I think we might of got scammed on this)
5 day
(visa specified a months period for travel)
Dushanbe, Tajikistan
On the spot
No Visa
3 months

1 month (specified
Online application.
Pick up in Sukhumi, Abkhazia

$10 or 3000AMD
21 days
Georgia/Armenia border crossing by rail

Note that at the current exchange rates it is cheaper to pay in AMD (have the correct change if paying in $)
Nagorno Karabakh
14 days
Yerevan, Armenia
On the spot

For more information see How to obtain a Nagorno Karabakh visa. Remember to register the visa on entry and exit of Nagorno Karabakh.
90 days Multiple entry (standard visa)
Sarpi border crossing between Georgia and Turkey
On the spot

Can pay in US dollars, Euros or UK pounds but not Turkish Lira.
Total Cost

Although we didn't need to use a visa support agency this is an option to consider. If you need a visa in a hurry or are not near the required embassy a visa support agency can help. It could be cheaper to pay for some else to organise your visa, than paying for food and accommodation in a place you don't want to be whilst waiting for a visa to be processed, and it will almost certainly be less hassle. I heard excellent reports from travellers who used Stantours and did contact them myself at one point to make some enquires when I was weighing up our options. They responded to my email very quickly and seemed very knowledgeable.