Thursday, December 30, 2010

Things To Do In Turkey Whilst Waiting For Your Visa

It looks like when the guy at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul told me that the visa application process would be easier if my family initiated proceedings in Tehran, he was being economical with the truth. It would be easier for him, meaning less paperwork, but far more complicated, more time-consuming, and more fraught with uncertainty for me. I learnt this from a Dutch-Iranian couple who were also waiting for a visa at the Ankara embassy, and who had already applied, and been rejected, a couple of times already, who were in pretty much the same boat as me. As I waited for the visa juggernaut to come to town, to retain my sanity, and to relieve Can from me squatting his laptop, I've taken a couple of trips from Ankara (having already seen all there is to see in the city itself).

The tomb complex of Rumi in Konya.



Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Two Sides Of Angora

Despite my best efforts I've been held up by the Evil Visa Fairy whilst here in Ankara. My biggest problem is that the application process is not at all transparent and every person seems to give you very different information and expectations. If it were just a question of filling in a form, paying a fee and waiting a set length of time I would be happy: I would know exactly what is expected, when it will be resolved and so could plan accordingly. Not so here. In Istanbul I was told that someone from my family would have to get me an invitation number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. And I had the bad luck to need this during Ashura when government offices were closed for a week. But finally, after several visits, my uncle was able to secure an invitation number for me. According to the Istanbul consulate this would be all I need to be issued my visa. So, full of hope (one would think that I'd have learnt by now not to be hopeful with visas until I get the thing physically stuck into my passport), I made my way to the embassy in Ankara (as I had moved on from Istanbul by now). The people at the consular section didn't seem to be aware of this way of applying for visas, but I'm too far gone along this path and so am waiting for them to receive some sort of acknowledgement from Tehran. Every day I wander over to the embassy to see if the situation has improved. I'm reminded of having to wait in Bamako a couple of years back for my Mauritanian visa.

Desperately looking for my visa (statue of Turkish soldier in Ankara).



Saturday, December 18, 2010

Orient Unexpress

Before I continue I would like to mention a little nugget of information that I learnt on Athos but forgot to put in my last post, and which also shows how the monasteries are no longer content with the spiritual but also stray well into the temporal realm. Among the Athonite community it is an open secret that Ratko Mladić, the Serbian general indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is spending time at the Hilandari monastery disguised as a hermit. So, if anyone from the ICC is reading this, you know where to find him...

Anyway, back to the main narrative. From Athos my plan was to head east towards Istanbul and Asia. A rather straightforward task when you look at the map, but when I got off the ferry in Ouranopolis, fresh from my monastic sortie, the only buses were going back to Thessaloniki - definitely not the way I wanted to go and in grave violation of my First Law. Instead a brief consultation of a map in a nearby souvenir shop (being careful not to arouse the suspicion of the owner) showed that the bus was heading north (in the right direction) for 40km to the town of Stagira, before taking a right turn west (the wrong direction) towards Thessaloniki. (If the locations mentioned here are not familiar to you then you can consult the following map.) My course of action was obvious: get off at Stagira and keep heading north until I hit the main highway heading east. Unfortunately the map wasnt particularly detailed and failed to show the roads very well, or, for that matter, contour lines that would have informed me that Stagira was up in the mountains rather than at sea level where I needed to be. There followed a few kilometres trudge to a junction to where I wanted to go and an hour's wait as the traffic along the mountain road was sparse to say the least. I was anticipating a night in the Greek countryside but luckily I was finally picked up by a friendly couple who took me a good dozen kilometres past where they were actually headed to get me back to the coast and the main road at the town of Olympiadas, for which I was immensely grateful. And although it was only 6pm the last bus had already left and it was dark, so my hitching efforts were more out of lack of anything better to do than expectations of catching a ride. By 8pm I decided to call it a day and went in search of a spot to sleep. Since the day had been pleasant with blue skies shelter didnt seem to be an important priority and so I plumped for a large log in some abandoned wasteland against which to set up a very crude lean-to. A rather short-sighted choice as I was awoken at 4am by the ever-increasing pitter-patter of rain which made me flee to the safety of a large culvert whilst trying to keep my stuff only partially wet. The rain, interspersed by a few snow flurries, was to last for the next 6 days.

The massive, Byzantine-era walls of Constantinople might be 1500 years old, but they have withstood the test of time remarkably well.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hermitage

East of Thessaloniki lies the peninsula of Halkidiki with its three distinctive "fingers". It is a popular spot for Thessalonians to retreat to in Summer to enjoy the many fine beaches and clear waters of the first two "fingers". The easternmost one, known as Mount Athos after the towering peak at the southernmost tip, is devoid of such heavy tourist development. It could be because the coast there is more rugged and there are fewer beaches, but is more likely because the place is owned by a score of Orthodox monasteries access to lay people is strictly controlled.

Map showing the location of Mount Athos in Greece


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ima Vreme

Bitola used to be the administrative centre of the Ottoman vilayet (region) of manastir (their name for the town) making it one of the most important towns in the Balkans, however today it is a sleepy backwater with a bustling market. The only indications of its former importance lie in the two large mosques in the centre and the fact that there are three foreign consulates in town, all sharing an uninspiring little building on the main street. The Turks cater to the small community there, the British won't leave before the French, and the French will be damned if they're going to be outlasted by the Brits.

The small building, in the sleepy backwater that is Bitola, which houses 3 consulates. A hilarious legacy of pre-WWI politics.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Low Season

Nobody would ever mistake Macedonia for a top, international, tourist destination. It's only tourist draw of any note is the town of Ohrid and its eponymous lake. The town was once the capital of the Bulgarian empire under Tsar Samuil (although, in true Balkan fashion, official Macedonian texts are highly nationalistic and make no reference to Bulgaria and call him the emperor of Macedonia) and there are many old churches dotted around, some dating back as far as the 4th or 5th centuries. Unfortunately the town, which has tons of potential, on the shores of an azure lake, with windy, cobbled streets hugging hilly contours, but the historic centre has been (perhaps irrevocably) blighted by concrete and the lack of building regulations (or at least their enforcement). Most houses in the old town have been rebuilt extensively in neo-concrete style, and the few that have the original wooden structure are on the verge of collapse with no-one seeming to care.

Winter on lake Ohrid isn't necessarily pleasant, but the moody weather has its own charm. I loved watching the waves crash onto the walkways along the shore.



Monday, November 29, 2010

A Taste Of Turkey In The Balkans

From Rila I hitched to Skopje in Macedonia*. My last ride was with a guy called Georgi. He had an interesting way of driving: whenever he reached an even imperceptible slope he would turn off his motor and coast until the car almost reached a standstill before starting up again, all the while with one hand holding a phone to his ear, unless he saw a police car in which case he would, in one lightning fast motion drop the hand with the phone and switch on the loudspeaker and simultaneously fasten his seat belt with the other (and steer with his knees). I tried explaining that it would just be easier to have the seatbelt fastened permanently, but he didn't seem to want to understand. I did, finally, reach Skopje, which was under a drizzly lid of cloud. In a strange quirk of time zones I am now found myself in the same time zone I started out in more than 8 months ago, which probably speaks volumes about my inability to travel in a straight line. It also means that it gets dark by 4:30pm, which means I don't have much time to visit places and see what they really look like.

A typical street in old Skopje (although there aren't many left as most of the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the 60's).


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thwarted

Sofia is quite a new capital and so isn't doted with many grand, historical buildings and monuments that one often expects of capital cities. Apart from a few museums and a couple of churches there isn't much to detain you in Sofia for long. The city's main sight isn't actually in the city, but towers over it. The Vitosha massif rises straight from the southern suburbs and reaches a respectable 2290m. Cable-cars get you a good chunk of the way up and the place is well-endowed with marked paths so it's highly popular with urbanites who go up en masse to escape the rat race, if at least only for a day. I did, nevertheless, stay for a while, partly due to the Monday Curse, and partly because I wanted to confront an obstacle that I have yet had to deal with whilst travelling in Europe, but which will become more common once in Asia: visas.

Even this dog didn't find much interesting about Sofia.



Saturday, November 20, 2010

Revival

When I left Buzludzha things almost went very bad for me, as it was a race against time to get to the road before darkness set in and I ended up taking a wrong turning which cost me a precious hour of daylight. In the end I had to stumble along the last 5km in the dark, but half of that was on a wide track, so it all turned out OK in the end. I hitched down to the nearest town but the last bus to Veliko Tarnavo, where I wanted to go, had already gone (in this part of the world buses rarely leave after 6pm). Instead I took one to the town of Dryavno, which was half-way, where I knew there was a monastery. Monasteries are great places. Not only are they usually aesthetically beautiful and set amidst stunning scenery, but you're almost guaranteed to be able to stay the night - and if you do have to pay anything at all, then it's usually very cheap.

Dryavno monastery in its beautiful valley setting.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Buzludzha

It was 11pm by the time Deni and Kamen dropped me off in the centre of Nessebar's new town. Perfect for me as the place was deserted and it was easy to sneak behind an empty office and hotel complex and roll out my mat and sleeping bag on their porch with a nice view of the sea. The nighttime view is better than the daytime one because you don't see the unending rows of giant concrete hotels that blight the seafront. The Black Sea coast, especially between Varna and Burgas, is an almost constant sprawl of ugly package tourism developments that cater to the majority of visitors to the country who generally stick to the coast. And despite the crisis building doesn't seem to have stopped, with housing developments sprouting up in the middle of scrubby fields, far removed from any amenities. I don't know who in their right minds would want to live there. Amongst all this concrete Nessebar is the supposed cultural jewel in the crown - formerly an ancient Greek trading colony that thrived all the way to the beginning of the last century under Byzantine and then Ottoman rule. There are plenty of old churches (though all but one of them are either in ruins or been turned into trendy art galleries) and a large number of houses typical of the National Revival style (ground floor stone, first floor wooden with an overhang). However most of the houses, upon closer inspection, were modern and concrete with only wooden cladding, and the whole atmosphere felt fake. I couldn't last long before I decided to head back inland away from the unchecked developments. So I headed down to Burgas and got on the first train to Kazanlak.

Sunrise in Nessebar. (I don't see many sunrises when I'm travelling, but seeing as I was sleeping in someone's back yard I thought it best to get up early before they showed up.)



Monday, November 15, 2010

Hitch To The Unknown

My trip planning is a rather ad-hoc affair. I have a (very) rough idea of the entire route that I bashed out in a basic spreadsheet in 20 mins one bored afternoon, which takes in countries, a couple of stops in each and an estimated length of stay. As I get closer to places the view necessarily clarifies into something more distinct and detailed, and I have a more-or-less set plan 7-10 days in advance. So there I was on Friday in the early afternoon, standing by the beginning of the highway leading south, planning to visit the historical seaside town of Nessebar, some 90km away. A pretty straightforward proposition. After an hour I was getting rather annoyed, especially as the spot I had chosed was really quite good and there was plenty of traffic. But eventually a white family car pulls up with a young couple and labrador. Deni and Kamen were heading to the Rhodope mountains in the south of the country for the weekend and their route passed close by Nessebar, which was perfect for me.

The Rhodope mountains were definitely worth the 700km detour.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ignoring Your Neighbours

You can really feel the difference when crossing from Romania to Bulgaria. Despite sharing a long border the neighbours are not particularly close. The Danube forms Bulgaria's northern frontier with Romania for over 460km and yet there is only a single, solitary bridge along this entire length, between the towns of Ruse (Bg) and Giurgiu (Ro). And a very unscientific poll I organised in Ruse showed that even at this vital communications node between north and south isn't that attractive to locals, with several saying that they had never visited the country they can see every day across the river. Instead the country seems oriented more towards its eastern neighbour Turkey (no surprise given 500 years of Ottoman rule). Yoghurt, ayran, fresh salads and kebabs are big on the menu, a few pencil-minarets can be see here and there and public water fountains are ever-present (a particular delight for me as drinking water is important for the frugal traveller). There is also a sizeable Turkish minority in certain parts of the country and so on buses you might hear the odd çok güzel, or even get picked up by a truck driver called Mustafa whilst hitching in some random rural backwater (very friendly guy even stopped to buy me tea).

Locals doing a traditional Balkan hora dance at a village fair close to Ruse.



Thursday, November 04, 2010

Flâneur

Once you cross the Carpathians the landscape changes dramatically: gone are the gentle hills, bijou villages, Teutonic neatness and general postcard vistas. Instead the Wallachian Plain stretches south like a great hazy, dusty pancake all the way to the Danube. When God was making this little corner of the world he was in a rush and didn't bother with niceties such as aesthetics and wanted to get it over and done with as quick as possible. And things don't improve much when you get to Bucharest.

Most Romanians are quite disparaging about their own capital city. Even people from Bucharest find it hard to muster up many compliments for their hometown. And its hard not to see why: the historic core has been mercilessly gouged and scarred by the senseless megalomaniac whims of Ceauşescu. In the early 80s he embarked on a grandiose project to create a unified civic centre in the city, to be crowned by the unmistakable Palace of the Parliament. Unfortunately Ceauşescu's chosen site for his grand dream was already occupied by the historic city centre. But this posed no problem to the resourceful dictator who showed great resourcefulness in razing a third of it to the ground, including countless churches, monasteries, synagogues and old houses. Many of the buildings were not completed (or even started) by the time of the revolution in 89, and so the city is left with these open wounds, reminders of a painful past, that are still festering, years later.


The ludicrously opulent Palace of the Parliament is famed for being the second largest administrative building in the world, and also the heaviest one. An obscene amount of marble, gilding, silk, crystal and other luxury items were used on this, Ceauşescu's pet project. By the time of the revolution it was about 70% complete and it would have cost more to stop than to complete, and so Romania has been burdened ever since with this oversized white elephant.


Monday, November 01, 2010

The Usefulness Of Maps

From my recent posts it looks as if my time here in Romania has been a constant search for ever more obscure minorities. It may have looked like I had gone as far as I could with the Saxons, but I managed to dig out (almost literally) one more ethnic group despite having to travel quite far (almost 2000 years) to find them.

The name Romania comes from the Romans, which seems obvious enough. It is, however, strange when you stop to think about it. The Roman legions were only in what is now Romania for a mere century and a half before getting kicked out by the Goths. They did leave their language though, which has remained to this day, making Romania an island of Latin language surrounded by Slavic and Hungarian. But the Romans didn't stroll into an empty country. The land was home to the Dacian tribes who were not, by any means, simple cave-dwellers. Though in the end they still got steamrollered by Trajan and the Roman war machine. What I find quite amusing is the pride that Romanians have for being the descendants and cultural inheritors of both the Dacians and their Roman conquerors. For example the unassuming, regional town of Deva has both a statue to the Dacian king Decebalus as well as to his nemesis Trajan, just 200m further down the road (I'm not sure what either would have made of the juxtaposition).


The evocative ruins of Sarmizegetusa.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Little Saxony

The Făgăraş Mountains, part of the Southern Carpathians, form an imposing and almost impenetrable barrier running east to west. These mountains have always been the southern border of Transylvania, the first and most important line of defence for the region. In the 12th century, to strengthen and protect the border marches the Hungarians invited Saxon (German) colonists to set up shop in the valleys on the northern foothills leading to the important mountain passes. For this the Saxons were given trading and social privileges and they soon became the urban elite, along with the Hungarians.

It wasn't all fun and games though, and after the Mongols came hordeing through in 1241 they decided to beef up their defences. Instead of building castles (which are usually for nobles anyway, of which there were not many amongst the Saxon settlers) they decided to make their churches into veritable fortresses. It seems like every town and little village between Sighișoara (Schässburg in German) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt) has its own, über-Gothic fortified church, some of them surrounded by up to three rings of defensive walls up to 12m high. Their interiors and graveyards are also almost entirely German affairs, with solid names like Wagner, Schmidt and Kohler peering back at you through the ages, a testament to what once was. It was a joy for me to potter from one village to the next, sometimes hitching a ride or otherwise taking a small path over from one valley to the next, enjoying the bucolic scenery and gorgeous woods in their golden autumn finery. It's not just the churches that indicate this western transposition mind you, the villages and houses here are also set out in a very different form from ordinary Romanian villages: the farmsteads have a central courtyard enclosed by high, contiguous walls, there are no gardens and, most strangely for Romania, there are no grannies sitting by the side of the road commenting on life as it passes by.


The fortified church at Biertan dominates the village and can be seen, looming, from miles around as you approach.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves?

It is common, no matter where you travel, for locals to ask you what you think of their country. Romania is no different, but with an added extra: people declaim that Romanians are not all gypsies and not to judge the country because of them. This is telling for several reasons. Firstly that this is the impression that many in the West have of Romania and Romanians (if they have an impression at all); secondly that ordinary Romanians are embarrassed by this preconception; and thirdly that this is a negative image. It is sad that in today's world where we have done our utmost to banish discrimination against blacks, Jews, homosexuals, the disabled and women, that prejudice against gypsies, or Roma, is not only widespread, but also accepted amongst many, otherwise liberal, sections of society. As a people they are the poorest and most disadvantaged in Europe. How did this come about? and who are the Roma anyway?

Colourful Roma clothes worn by the friendly Gabor family with whom I stayed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Hate Mondays

When I was still gainfully employed I, like many of my office-rat peers, was not generally pleased when Monday came around and woke me out of my weekend-induced torpor with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Now that I'm on the road I am no longer beholden to the Mon-Fri working week and generally lose track of which day it is. Nevertheless I still manage to find reason to hate Mondays. It's common policy in many places, especially those not on the well-trodden tourist path, to close their musea one day a week, which usually happens to be a Monday. And so it was today as I ambled around Târgu Mureş, every place I wanted to visit (admittedly not many, but still) was closed for the day. So I was limited to just wandering the streets and watching the people pass by as I sat in the main square and basked in the rare October sun. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Maramureş.

The road from Maramures to Transylvania passes some beautiful mountain passes, decked in their autumn raiment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death Valley

When planning a longer trip, such as this one, it is impossible to draw up a detailed itinerary. You roughly know where you want to go and some major points to hit along the way, but there are so many variables, unknowns and things that could happen along the way that anything more is a waste of effort. One thing, however, that is important to take into account is climate. Travelling in the cold, especially when camping or hitchhiking, is not much fun, and so it is important to oscillate north and south depending on the seasons. So I went to Scandinavia in June and now I'm heading south to the Mediterranean as Autumn has well and truly displaced Summer and is being hounded by Winter to get a move on. I may, indeed, have tarried a bit too long on the way as the past few days camping out in the Carpathian foothills in northern Romania have seen temperatures plunge to freezing. (The silver lining to this cold cloud is that I have to wear more clothes and so my rucksack is getting lighter.) Furthermore, days are getting ever shorter, which means that my time to explore is getting more limited as I need to find a place to pitch my tent and sleep before it gets too dark. But things should hopefully get better soon as I've reached a turning point in my travels and it's (more or less) south from here. So where am I?

Suceavita monastery. Not just a piritual centre, but also an important defensive bastion, guarding one of the passes to northern Moldova.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tunneling

I have been rather disparaging about Moldova's lack of touristic sights, which I plan to make for in this post. There are two things that any visitor to the country really must see: the historic complex at Orhei Vecchi and one of the giant wine cellars near the capital, Chisinau.

In the West France, Italy and Spain are seen as being archetypal wine countries, but that's only because Moldova was locked away behind the Iron Curtain. During Communist times this small triangle of land produced all the wine the USSR needed and then some. As I mentioned before, wine is a way of life here, and the biggest cultural event in the whole country is the wine festival. Unfortunately I will miss that (it's this coming weekend), but I made up for it by visiting the wine cellars at Milestii Mici. Situated on the outskirts of Chisinau among gently rolling limestone hills Milestii Mici isn't much to look at, but burrowed away in those hills are some 200km of tunnels that are home to over 2 million bottles of wine (and that doesn't count the numerous casks, barrels, cisterns and vats). Welcome to the largest wine collection in the world. (And just in case you were wondering, the second largest wine collection is 20km up the road at Cricova.) The conditions in the Milestii tunnels are said to be ideal for maturing wines and so the winery's business is not about growing grapes, but instead they buy grapes from all over the country and then mix, ferment, store and age them. Their creations are supposedly (as I'm no oenologue) among the best in the world and give any Chateauneuf du Pape or Margaux a run for their money. Unfortunately, most of it is shipped off to Japan so you'll have to scout around if you want to find any in your local Tesco, though there might be more if it around from now on as a few years back Russia, which was the biggest purchaser, in an effort to force the Transnistria issue, decided to ban the import of Moldovan wines thereby causing a crisis in the Moldovan economy (as wine is the main export). The wine tunnels are so extensive that you have to visit with your own car (with an extra seat for the guide) as you drive several kilometres into the bowels of the hillside. The tour finished with the obligatory wine-tasting and visit to the winery shop, but I didn't mind that much as it's not often I get to try 25 year-old booze (with nibbles thrown in for good measure). And to give an idea of how ridiculously cheap wine is in Moldova, a 1992 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon was a measly $3.

One of the myriad wine tunnels in Milestii Mici. Here grand crus are matured in ideal conditions so that they can then be sold on for ridiculous sums of money.


Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hello Lenin

I was talking to my father a couple of days ago on Skype (bless the internet!) and he was surprised to learn that I was still in Moldova. What could there possible be there to keep me so long? he wondered. And it is true that touristic sights are thin on the ground; but what Moldova lacks in castles and museums, it makes up for in geopolitical quirkiness. Not only is it home to Gagauzia, but it also has its own breakaway province, the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), although it's more commonly known as Trans(d)nistria.
There's not much in the way of pretty public spaces so young couples about to get married must make do with what they have for their wedding photos. A tank certainly says romance to me.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Moldova On My Mind

Moldova is not a country one hears about often. It briefly surfaced in the consciousness of the world's media last year when riots protesting the results of the elections forced them to be held again. And, just as quickly as it had appeared, Moldova sank into media oblivion once more as pictures of crowds on the streets opposing policemen dried up. And although the ruling Communist Party had finally been ousted from power, the political stalemate that followed has dragged on until now with no signs of being resolved any time soon (there is still no president 18 months on after several failed votes and referenda). The political deadlock is just one facet of Moldova's biggest problem: corruption. Stifling bureaucracy, palm-greasing and exploitation have decimated endemic industry (almost every factory I've seen either closed or boarded up). Instead everything seems to be going on in the grey or black economies. So despite its official GDP being less than that of Malawi or Benin, the country is still far more developed than almost every African country. So much that goes on here is unaccounted for and it is thought that up to 20% of the entire population (so around a third of the working population) is out of the country and working abroad and sending remittances back home. This becomes very obvious when you walk through some dusty, anonymous neighbourhood and spot an immaculately clean, recently-constructed, 2-storey house, bristling with satellite dishes; the product of a wandering son who made it in either Italy, Russia or Turkey. These remittances make up about a third of the countries GDP and, in effect, allow it to keep from drowning. The drift abroad seems to be all-pervasive with younger people, many of whom are applying for Romanian passports (or Russian ones for Transnistrians), entering the Green Card lottery, or simply making their way to neighbouring countries, where jobs exist, illegally. The only people left in Moldova are the old(er) and young who have started families. The number of teen girls pushing prams in parks, whilst their boyfriends have probably scarpered abroad, is quite overwhelming. Most Moldovans seem to be looking for any way they can out of the country.

A new addition to Moldova's freedom of speech landscape: a large, white wall opposite the parliament building. People are free to write down any comments, gripes, criticisms or suggestions aimed at the politicians across the street.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Falling Over

If Vylkove is the end of the world, then by going to Moldova you've truly fallen over the edge. The greater rurality hits you as soon as you cross the border and donkeys with their carts begin to vie with cars for road space, the number of stray dogs increases, time turns to treacle and grannies line the roads sitting on benches observing passing traffic with the studiousness of trained scholars. Moldova tapers towards its southern end until it hits a lazy, northward bend in the Danube where its measly 480m of river bank hosts the country's only "international port". This quirk of political geography must annoy Bulgarian truck drivers no end as they queue for hours at customs to get from Ukraine into Moldova, trundle along for 3km, unable even to reach any speed of note, before having to queue for hours at customs to get from Moldova into Romania. I bet being a border guard down there is one of the best-paid jobs in the country.

Traffic is not particularly heavy on Moldova's roads.



Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stepping To The Edge

The city of Odessa was founded by Catherine the Great to be a southern Saint Petersburg. I haven't been to the latter, but I certainly wasn't impressed with the former. My impression wasn't aided by arriving to grey skies and morning drizzle after six gorgeous days in Crimea. The grid of wide, tree-lined avenues seemed too impersonal, the grandeur too contrived. It may be the most cosmopolitan city in the country thanks to its port, but that just makes it a bland European city, lacking the wacky edginess of other, post-Communist Ukrainian cities. Instead it had the seediness that comes with being a port, namely in the proliferation of suspect "internet clubs" that aren't internet clubs at all but are just a front for gambling (apparently all casinos were closed down last year after the mafia behind the industry didn't pay a sufficiently large bribe to the government, and so they've migrated to the online world where the authorities are powerless). The only sight of note is the Potemkin Steps, made famous by this scene from Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, one of the most influential in cinema history. Once again reality gives it quite a beating with an ugly port at the bottom which is home to a great carbuncle of a hotel that blots any semblance of a view. Not that Eisenstein would have minded that much since the actual event never actually occurred, and at least the purveyors of Soviet memorabilia and people offering photo opportunities with large birds of prey have a place to make a living (no kidding about the last one - I saw three separate people with birds ranging from golden eagles to snowy owls loitering around the steps hawking their pets to tourists for a photo op. Very odd indeed.).
Up close and in reality the Potemkin Steps are pretty disappointing, especially as they've built a main road right at the bottom.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crimeal

God was in a hurry when he made Ukraine. He just slapped on a bunch of chernozem, rolling fields and a few forests; but at the end of the day realised that he had forgotten to put in the cliffs, karst mountains, vineyards, and Mediterranean climate and so quickly put them in a rhomboid piece of land and stuck it to the southern end of the country with a piece of plasticine and voila, Crimea was born. OK, geologists may be able to explain it better than me, but Crimea is different to Ukraine in almost every way imaginable: its vegetation is dry and scrubby, not verdant and rich; its mountains are sheer and craggy, not old and rounded; and its history is Greek and Turkic, not Slavic (although, thanks to our old friend Stalin, the entire historical Tatar population was deported following World War II to be replaced by Russians). The whole Ukrainian-Russian dynamic is most marked here as the province (actually an autonomous republic) is effectively Russian, with Russian flags and billboards proclaiming faith in the (Russian) motherland all very prominent. Ukrainian symbols are relegated to official buildings and signposts.
Before the Russians and Ukrainians started vying for Crimea it used to belong to the Crimean Tartars. This is the mosque of the Khan's Palace in Bahcisaray. Few now remain as they were all forcibly removed by Stalin and current authorities are loathe to let them back.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Divided Yet United

The popular narrative when Ukraine is being discussed in Western media is about an east/west divide between the Russophile east and the Europhile west. As generalisations go it's pretty accurate: there is indeed a split between an ethnically Russian, industrial (with the smokestacks to prove it), richer, urban east and the Ukrainian, agrarian, poorer, rural west. (Interestingly though, the west of Ukrainian is the only part that isn't undergoing a demographic meltdown as low birth rates and high death rates in the east are leading to Ukraine having a significant population decline - in the top 5 in the world according to the UN.) This was highlighted in recent years by the so-called Orange Revolution and the subsequent political crises and falling outs with Russia, followed by the return to power of the pro-Russian faction last year. Although the political factions may seem very different at first glance, all Ukrainians I have spoken to, regardless of background, are united in their mistrust and disgust for them and mainly regard them as varying shades of shit. The problem is corruption that permeates through all levels of bureaucracy, from the humblest pen-pusher right to the very top. Everybody is in it to line their own pockets irrespective of the knock-on effects. I've heard from people that in order to secure a civil service job it is not uncommon to slip a small envelope worth five times the annual salary, with the expectation to recoup the capital investment through kickbacks. The people with the power to do something about this sad state of affairs i.e. the politicians, are also the ones who profit most. One example is Yulia Tymoshenko, one-time leader of the Orange Revolution and ex-Prime Minister, who tries to portray herself as an ordinary woman of the people, living in a simple house in Dnipropetrovsk, despite, in fact, being one of the richest women in the country thanks to some dodgy energy deals in the 90s. They would rather remain big fish in a small pond, and jealously guard their interests, rather than letting the country open up and flourish. It's a crying shame as I doubt that I have yet seen a country that is so underperforming to its true potential: an abundance of natural resources and an educated and cheap workforce right next to the biggest single market in the world. The country should be raking it in.
The giant statue of Lenin in Kharkiv's central square still dominates. He is perhaps one of the figures both Ukrainians and Russians feel a similar affection towards.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Radiating

The most famous town in Ukraine isn't the capital Kiev (or Kyiv according to the Ukrainian government), nor the town of Donetsk (whose football team Shakhtar won the UEFA Cup last year), or even Yalta where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met to bash out a new world order towards the end of World War II. No, the most famous town in Ukraine has a (permanent) population of 0 and is unfortunately synonymous with the worst nuclear accident in history - namely Chernobyl. As odd tourist destinations go they surely don't get much odder than visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
So, this radiation thing, it's not dangerous, right? (Classic souvenir photo outside reactor no. 4).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tourism The Ukrainian Way

In my last post I forgot to mention one other new thing that has come with entering Ukraine: a new alphabet. Ukrainian is written in Cyrillic like Russian, and although I can read it it's slow going for me; so I am voraciously reading every sign in an effort to improve my skills. Particularly tricky are the "false friends": letters that look the same in both Latin and Cyrillic but are pronounced differently e.g. P=R and H=N (Cyrillic first, then Latin). So for example to find an internet cafe you need to look out for a sign saying IHTEPHET.

Local fast food joint: Mister Snack.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Borders And Borderlands

Apart from the crossing from Finland to Estonia border crossings have so far led to only very subtle changes. Not so coming to Ukraine. First of all there actually was a border crossing, as they have all but disappeared from within the Schengen Area. Not only is this the frontier of Schengen, but also of "Fortress Europe", and the Slovak border guards were pretty thorough, going so far as to check the level of petrol in the tank (I was given a ride by a Ukrainian anaesthesiologist who works in Slovakia - just as eastern Europeans from the EU go west in search of better-paid jobs, so too do Ukrainians, who fill the void left behind by the departed Poles, Slovaks and Czechs). The checks in the other direction, heading into Schengen, are far more stringent, and waits of several hours are the norm. (As a slight aside, I've met a few non-EU nationals on this trip and all have commented on the difficulty of getting a simple tourist visa to visit. The process can take months and may require multiple days at embassies, extensive financial statements and interviews. All this for a simple week or two's holiday in Poland or Spain. And it's not just people from poorer countries, I've also heard of Japanese travellers - who are not known for their lack of means - being refused entry because of the unbending rules.)
Crossing borders isn't always as easy as in the Biesczady mountains where the border between Ukraine and Poland is pretty porous (here my bag is in Poland whilst I'm taking the photo from Ukraine).


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hiking And Chance Meetings

The Poles, living in a land that is mostly flat (Poland, essentially, means "Land of Fields"), appreciate mountains. The highest (reaching 2500m) and most popular, are the Tatras. In the far southeast corner of the country, poking into Ukraine like a cheeky finger, lie the Bieszczady mountains which hold a special place in the affections of the Poles for being the wildest, most inaccessible part of the country, home to bears, wolves, bison, deer and lynx among others. The sparsely-populated area is now a favoured retreat of artists and artisans, but up until the end of WW II it was the home of the Boyks and Lemks, two Ukrainian-speaking minorities that were forcibly removed by the Polish authorities at the end of the war following a Ukrainian-separatist struggle in the area.
The bare ridges (poloniny) of the Bieszczady mountains.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Polish. Impressions.

From Warsaw the road takes me south and east. The eastern part of the country is quite rural and relatively devoid of tourists. The summer colours are particularly vivid: the endless blue sky; the deep green of pastures and forests, now a mix of oak, elder, rowan and beech; and the gold of the rape and wheat fields (a growing number of which are just stubble dotted with bales of hay, signalling the imminent end of summer). Rickety buses, which surely remember the deep days of the Cold War, ply the pockmarked country roads between towns and villages, keeping the communities alive; even ricketier, rusty tractors labour in the fields. Chickens scramble about in the gardens in the villages. Young storks can be seen in the mornings, circling overhead, as they get flying lessons from their parents in preparation for the long migration south. The topography is also getting more wrinkled, a prelude to the Beskids that form the border with Slovakia to the south.

Sunset in rural southeast Poland.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

City With Soul

Warsaw is not a city that would ever win any beauty contests (although when it comes to its female populace that's another matter): its unending rows of Communist apartment blocks, drab office buildings and overly-wide boulevards make it, at first, an impersonal and dreary city. The Lonely Planet guide suggests devoting only a day or two to Poland's capital, and on the surface of it this seems like a reasonable recommendation. After WW II 85% of the buildings had not just been damaged, but completely razed to the ground, as the Nazis tried to obliterate it from the face of the earth. The entire old town and most state buildings and numerous palaces were systematically blown up. A town with so little in the way of historical remains must must surely be devoid of attractions and soulless. But no, following the war the plucky Poles decided to rebuild the old town exactly as it was. So, often with only the aid of 18th century paintings of the city, they set about reconstructing the medieval centre brick by brick to create the newest old town in the world. And the result is certainly convincing. From the cobbled streets and simple, everyday houses to the Baroque palaces and even the Polish Royal Castle the historic core has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.

The main square in Warsaw's old town looks like any other medieval european centre, except that this is a faithful, 20th century reconstruction following the cataclysm of World War II.


Friday, August 13, 2010

State Of The Nation(alism)

As a student I remember arguing with my flatmate about nationalism. She was of the opinion that it's ugly and leads to divisiveness and hate, whereas I countered that although it could be, a mild patriotism is harmless and even healthy, fostering a sense of achievement, belonging and pride.. I've got to admit that I think she was right, and Poland (at least the northeastern part that I have witnessed so far) is a good example of why.

Nationalism itself is a strange thing and a relatively new phenomenon. Two hundred years ago the idea that an (each) ethnic group should have its own country, exclusive to itself, was unheard of. Back then people lived in larger (or smaller) kingdoms and empires which encompassed a multitude of nations yet had no ethnic identity of its own (though a religious one maybe). People's ethnic background was rarely an issue for determining loyalties and borders, such as they were, were very porous. People, when not bound into serfdom, moved quite freely and rulers attracted settlers from all over to populate their kingdoms. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was particularly open to foreign colonists, with significant populations of Germans, Jews, Belarusians, Russians, Tatars and Karaites (a rather obscure Jewish-Turkic group). It's no wonder then that Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was born in Białystok: born of a Russian father and a Jewish (Yiddish-speaking) mother and studied in Warsaw. Zamenhof was dismayed by the growing mistrust and hate between the different groups that nationalism brought with it and hoped a universal language would help bridge the gaps and reduce misunderstandings. He saw the rise of nationalism as fuelling the divisions and separations between the people when he said:
"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples -- as a natural self-defensive reaction -- is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other..."
Following the ravages of World War II and the population movements that followed Poland became an almost exclusively Polish country (today over 96% of the country considers itself as Polish, whereas before the war it was less than 66%), but a scratch of the surface reveals the rich demographic diversity that existed. I spent a day visiting the only two remaining Muslim Tatar villages in the country close to the Belarus border. The Muslim Tatar community is quite small and declining as assimilation reduces their number, but those that are left are very proud of their roots and distinguished role in Polish history, where they have frequently fought as an elite cavalry unit alongside their Polish neighbours. (Interesting factoid of the day: the Hollywood actor Charles Bronson was parents were Polish Tatars.) Between the two villages lies the sleepy town of Krynki, now a neglected border backwater, but at one point a major market town in the flourishing region, a past that is betrayed by its cemeteries. The town is home to 4 cemeteries: 1 Jewish, 1 Orthodox, 1 Catholic and 1 Protestant. Despite the fact that no Jews live in the town anymore and that it was greatly damaged in the war, the Jewish cemetery is still the largest. Of course we all know the result the unchecked rise of nationalism had on that community.



The relatively unassuming Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany.

Although it's not possible to turn the clocks back it would be nice to regain some of that eclectic cosmopolitanism. To reduce the demands of loyalty that nationalism imposes, based solely on a shared language or ethnicity, blithely ignoring anything else, categorising people into "us" and "them", regardless of individual merit. Categorisation which, according to Genocide Watch (a respected authority on the subject I am told), is the first step on the road to genocide (there are 8 steps, so it's not too late to turn back). All this may sound rather Utopian and idealistic, calling for some new world order. Sure, nation states are our political reality, but we can, in our own words and actions, reduce the malignant influence of nationalism around us and break down those imaginary, artificial borders that keep us apart (I suppose it's one of the reasons I'm a big fan of the idea of the EU where most internal borders have all but disappeared and people are free to move and work where they please). Of course changing entrenched dogmas is difficult, but the game is worth the candle.

Even writing this blog has been difficult due to the blurring of the meaning of the word nation in English. It used to solely mean an ethnic group, a demos, a people, but nationalism has become the political reality to such an extent that the word is now synonymous with a political state, implying that to be a member of a state one has to be a member of its dominant nation and that others are a Minority, to be tolerated, condescended, borne grudgingly. On official forms you are asked for your nationality, not your citizenship; as if citizens of the non-majority nation are not complete, proper members of the state.

Hmm, I seem to be getting rather introspective of late with my musings, so in order to lighten the mood a little I will share a little of my more mundane travelling stories. I am glad to say that hitchhiking in Poland has been easier than in any other country so far and it is possible to get pretty much anywhere hitching. A peculiarity of Polish drivers is that many of them have CB radios that they use to chat to other drivers and also to warn each other of police speed cameras, which speaks volumes about the general attitude to driving here. A couple of days ago I was heading towards Warsaw from eastern Poland after going on bison safari in the Białowieża national park. It was late afternoon and I was hoping to cover the 300km that same day. It turned out that I was too optimistic and only managed to get 80km before getting stuck in the small town of Bielsk Podlasie. It had been a gorgeous day, and so instead of bothering to enquire about accommodation options I headed for the edge of town where I found a patch of secluded wasteland with some handy high grass to hide me and just spread out my mat on the ground as I was too lazy to bother pitching my tent (my least favourite chore whilst travelling is taking down my tent and packing my rucksack in the morning) and reassured by the endless blue skies. I was awoken at 2 o'clock in the morning by the bright lights of lightning arcing between the clouds that had crept up on me overhead. There was no rain or thunder, which initially intrigued me, before the small, practical part of my brain kicked in and suggested that it would be a good idea to put up my tent. Quickly. So, scrambling in the dark, with the occasional flash to help me, I rushed to clear some ground and get my tent up. My caution proved well-founded as only 20mins later the dry lightning was followed by a less-dry downpour, which allowed me to make a rather unsettling discovery: my tent isn't fully waterproof in the face of heavy rain. I suppose I ought to get myself a better tent, but I'll just hope that I don't run into any heavy rain instead.

Monday, August 09, 2010

(Re)Viewing History

Travelling, for me, is a way to fill in the gaps of my understanding of the world we live in, each place visited adding a small piece of the infinite jigsaw that is the world. If you don't understand where people come from, - their past, their traditions, their culture - you can't understand where they are now and you will be forced to misunderstand the events of today.

My last stop in the Baltics was at Grutas Park. A local entrepreneur bought up many of the Soviet-era statues of Stalin, Lenin and various other local Communist personalities and has created a sculpture garden along with expositions of other memorabilia from the time, earning it the moniker of Stalin World. I find the name unjustified (probably some media hacks trying to stir up some controversy) as the park is very informative and balanced in its message, describing in detail the terror, suffering, hypocrisy and even idiocy of the regime. It was an apt summary for the region whose trio of small countries share a very similar history over the past 150 years or so, and it is one that has really made me stop and think.
Has anyone seen my thumb? One of the myriad Lenin statues that dot Grutas Park

Thursday, August 05, 2010

X Marks The Spot

One of the most unique and fascinating sites I have come across so far on this trip was to be found in the rather unassuming Lithuanian countryside some 10km north of the sleepy (catatonic) town of Šiauliai. Kryžių kalnas means "Hill of Crosses" (less flat countries would probably use the word mound or bump) and it is exactly that: a hill with crosses. Even in pagan times the carving and planting of a cross to commemorate or give thanks was a deeply rooted tradition which six centuries of Christianity have only served to reinforce (Lithuanians are eager to share the fact that their country was the last in Europe to accept Christianity and are proud of the many pagan names and traditions that survive to this day). Travelling through the Lithuanian countryside you will soon notice these large crosses, some standing over 3m in height, standing isolated in private gardens or in small graveyard-communities. They are always adorned with intricate patterns with many layers of meaning and symbolism. The site at Šiauliai has been special since time immemorial, but during the Soviet occupation it became the focal point for peacefully protesting against the tyrannical regime. Over time the number of crosses grew and grew and the Soviet authorities, abhorring this challenge to their hegemony, razed the site in 1961 ... 1973 ... 1974 ... 1975. Each time they would spring up again like mushrooms after rain, each time more than before. In the dying days of the USSR there was a last ditch attempt to bulldoze the site and its, by that time, 55,000 crosses, but the writing was already on the wall. Since then placing crosses has not only become less risky, but it has also become something of a phenomenon, with people making pilgrimages from far and wide to place crosses or rosaries, both large and small, as votive offerings. It is estimated that there are now some 400,000 crosses on the site today with hundreds added each week.


"I left my cross here somewhere, has anyone seen it?"


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short And Wide, Long And Narrow

From Ventspils I continued south through Courland passing the towns of Kuldiga and Liepaja on my way to Klaipeda in Lithuania. The former is a rather unremarkable, little provincial town were it not for its rumba. No, it is not the Baltic capital of raunchy Latin dancing - rumba is the Latvian word for waterfall. With a maximum height of only 2m it may not be particularly high - even for a country as topographically challenged as Latvia, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in girth, claiming the title of Europe's widest waterfall at 250m (and I have it from several reliable sources that girth, apparently, is everything). Kuldiga was also home to Jakob Kettler, duke of Courland, who in the 17th century not only managed to maintain the region's autonomy between the rival forces of Sweden, Russia and Prussia, but also got in on the colonial boom of the time, acquiring the island of Tobago in the Caribbean and and island at the mouth of the Gambia, making Courland probably the smallest colonial state ever. Liepaja, on the other hand, was strategically important for the Russians (both Tsarist and Soviet) who built a huge naval base, called Karosta, there. In Soviet times particularly the town almost doubled in size and yet, paradoxically, became a closed town, with non-residents requiring permits to visit family there. Today the naval base and its residential areas are a virtual ghost town, with half the buildings abandoned, empty, stripped, and returning slowly to the earth. To get an idea of what the world would look like after the Apocalypse Karosta does a pretty good job.

One of the many Tsarist barracks buildings left abandoned and boarded up in Karosta. Notice the trees growing through the roof.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Journeyman

Whilst travelling I usually find accommodation via Couchsurfing or through people I already know. When that doesn't work or when I am out in the countryside then I freecamp. Such as on Thursday night when I arrived at Cape Kolka, which separates the Baltic Sea from the Gulf of Riga, at 9pm. I had enough time to take some sunset pics but not enough to get any further. I didn't see this as a problem as the cape forms part of the longest stretch of beach in Europe (which is also, thankfully, supremely underdeveloped) and so I just walked along it for a few kilometres until I came to a suitably isolated spot, spread out my mat and sleeping bag, and went to sleep (the cape is part of a national park where it is forbidden to camp in a tent, but nobody said anything about just going to sleep). I have, however, come to the conclusion that sleeping on a beach is vastly overrated. Sure, the wide open beach and constant sea breeze are pleasant and keep the mozzies at bay, but I woke up playing host to a business of flies and with enough sand inhabiting my various nooks and crannies to stuff an obese gopher. The next day was spent walking among the fishing villages of the cape, which are home to the Livs, an obscure minority related to the Finns and Estonians desperately clinging onto their identity. Their language is already almost a lost cause with only a dozen or so native speakers.
A boat in a traditional Livonian boat graveyard. Livs neither burn nor break up their old boats, instead they bring them onland and leave them in the forest so that they return to where they came from.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Problems Of Becoming Solvent

Poste restante is a great idea, and, before the advent of the internet, was the only way for people to keep in contact whilst travelling around like I am now. The basic premise is that letters or packages are sent to a post office in a given location and the post office will then keep the letter or package for a given time until the addressee comes and collects it. Courier services, such as FedEx and DHL, are also very useful in that they can deliver mail to pretty much anywhere in the world in just a couple of days. Sadly, as I found out whilst in Riga, the two systems are not mutually compatible.
A sumptuous Jugendstil door in a turn of the century house that has unfortunately been neglected.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Baltic Heights

The area around Otepää in the south of Estonia is famed for being the skiing capital of the Baltics, which, quite frankly, isn't saying much as the highest "mountain" in the region is a meagre 318m - although it still dwarfs the tallest "peaks"of both Latvia and Lithuania. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place, with gently rolling hills and forests dotted with lakes both large and small, perfect for a bit of strolling and relaxing by the water (whilst swatting away the mosquitoes and horse flies) to recharge the batteries. I was lucky enough to be staying there with an inspiring couple: Sigrit and Helgur. Avid travellers and environmentally conscious, they decided to actually live their convictions and not only built their own home in the country from scratch, complete with dry toilet and recycled building materials (yet not without your essentials such as broadband wi-fi), but are also setting up a hostel in Tartu which they are furnishing entirely with second hand and recuperated fittings and furnishings. It was very encouraging to see that it is possible to follow through with your principles and properly live by them, even in the face of doubt and ridicule from others.


DIY eco-house in the forest.

The silver lining to losing my debit card is that at least I lost it in the Baltics where it is possible to pay for the majority of things by credit card and the few that require cash (my credit card does not permit me to make cash withdrawals), such as bus travel, can be circumvented, for example by hitchhiking. Unlike in Scandinavia, hitching is still relatively common here and I had no real trouble getting rides to take me all the way to Sigulda in Latvia. The two countries are very similar in appearance and, with both being part of Schengen, crossing the border is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it event, but there was one big difference I noticed almost immediately as I entered Latvia: people are far more willing and happy to speak Russian and less likely to know English, and so I had to dust off my memories of the Caucasus and start to tentatively govorit po ruski (speak Russian). There are sizeable Russian minorities in both countries, but in Estonia language is a nationalist touchstone and ethnic Estonians will often refuse to speak Russian. They have also imposed stringent language tests for citizenship, leaving many ethnic Russians who came over during Soviet times in limbo with no legal citizenship. In fact the two communities rarely seem to mix in Estonia, with Estonians (not without cause) resentful of historical injustices suffered under the hands of the Russians and the latter unwilling to learn a new, difficult language causing them to turn inwards and to the east and to congregate in monolingual towns and neighbourhoods.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The (Un)Talented Mr Jelinek

I believe I possess certain talents and character traits that help me in my travels: I am adaptable and have a pretty cheery disposition, which means that I view setbacks as just another exciting challenge to be overcome; I get on well with almost anyone; I have a reasonable ear for languages and am able to pick up a few basic words pretty quickly; and I have an affinity for maps and orientation so I generally know which way I am going. One useful skill I don't have, quite the opposite in fact, is a sharp, on-the-ball, presence of mind. And so, last week, whilst extracting funds from a cash machine in Tallinn, I just walked off leaving the card to be sucked back into the bowels of the dispenser. I, of course, was blissfully unaware until a few days later when, in a small town in the northeast of the country, I needed to replenish my funds and discovered that my card was gone. There followed 10 mins of stressing alternated with me (loudly) cursing my stupidity again. since it was a Sunday night I wasn't going to get anywhere fast and so I decided to calm myself down by going to a local bar to watch the (dismal) World Cup final instead. The next day required a radical change of plans. Initially I had wanted to go for a hike in the national park where I found myself before heading south to Estonia's second city Tartu via the town of Kunda (Czech speakers will know why). My Kunda plans, however, had to be shelved and I scurried back to Tallinn with the aim of finding the offending cash machine and retrieving my card - it was a long shot but had to be tried. Unfortunately I was out of luck and so had to phone my bank and cancel the card so that a new one can be issued. The only problem is that the card will be delivered to my home address in the UK and so I will need to co-ordinate with my mother and get it sent out to me somewhere along the road, which will give me an excuse to see whether this poste restante thing really works. At least I still have my credit card (for the time being anyway).

But back to the travelling. As well as the historico-cultural shift from neat Northern Europe to ex-Soviet Estonia (intriguingly many Estonians consider themselves as being part of Northern Europe in a bid to distance themselves from the perceived negative label of Eastern Europe) there has been an ecological change as well, as the more temperate climate has loosened the birch-conifer monopoly on forests, which are now more varied. The landscape is permanently green as the one thing that Estonia does share with its northern neighbours is a sparse population for its size. Summer is also unequivocally here as Estonia is currently experiencing a minor heatwave as every day I've been here has topped 30 degrees. Summer brings with it welcome trappings, such as swimming in one of the many lakes that dot the country and an abundance of forest fruit just begging to be picked, such as tiny, yet delicious, forest strawberries and blueberries. But along with the good comes the bad, and the hot weather heralds the sound of summer too: the slapping of exposed flesh as another mosquito or horse fly finds its mark. The latter are particularly persistent here and I've seen some that are up to 5cm long, veritable B-52s of the insect world and slightly nightmare-inducing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Estonishing

From Helsinki I hopped aboard the express ferry (which, surprisingly, was cheaper than the standard, slow ferries) to Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland. Despite zipping across the water at some 60km/h the waters of the Gulf were as still as a mill pond, giving the crossing an otherworldly feel. And although the physical Gulf is only some 80km across the difference between Finland and Estonia is far greater. As soon as I stepped off the ferry I could sense that I was in an ex-Communist country - I don't know exactly what it is, perhaps the slightly overgrowing vegetation or the liberal and unimaginative use of concrete pretty much everywhere; either way, I have seen enough of it whilst in the Czech Republic to recognise it as soon as I see it.

Ethno-linguistically the Estonians are related to their northern, Finnish neighbours, and also share some of the latter's abruptness and standoffishness: I have learnt not to ask an Estonian how they are feeling unless I am prepared to really, honestly, find out. Although never really conquered by Germany (except for a short period during WW2) there is a strong German influence in the city as it was, for most of its history, essentially a German town, having been a major depot of the Hanseatic League (honestly, I swear, they're following me around). In fact a wander round Tallinn's old town is like being transported to Central Europe, with its well preserved Gothic buildings eerily reminiscent of many a provincial Bohemian town. At the other end of the architectural spectrum are the ghastly remains of Communist power and hegemony: Stalinist grand works; swarms of sprawling tower-blocks; giant heavy-industry complexes that now lie dormant; and abandoned secret (now not so secret) military bases that are gradually being reclaimed by mother nature. Wandering amongst the ruins of the latter, in places such as Paldiski, a town that was off limits to all but the inhabitants during Soviet times, makes you realise how far we have come since those grim times.

Communism has, of course, left a deep scar on Tallinn and Estonia, and it is impossible not to notice it, be it in the large Russian minority who form a separate population within the country and who rarely mix and interact with the Estonians, or the many memorials, museums or even personal stories of the hardships and deportations brought on by the occupation. But that is also now firmly in the past and Estonians can make fun of the Soviet times and look forward with relative confidence as the country has managed its capitalist transition better than most and will be adopting the Euro from next year (although possibly not the best timing for that as far as they are concerned).

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Country Where I Quite Want To Be

I have now reached Helsinki, which marks the end of the western Europe leg of my trip and in a couple of days I will head across the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This first stage has been a relatively gentle start to get me warmed up with no major difficulties: everybody speaks good English; the culture shock is, at most, mild; and things, generally, work. The biggest challenge was keeping costs down (which is working out better than expected - so far I've spent an average of £12.50 per day, all included). That's not to say that it has been boring or mundane, but it is time to move on to pastures new and push myself a little more.

Evening on on of Finland's many lakes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Intermission

A couple of weeks after deciding to go on this new trip I received an e-mail from my best friend from school announcing that he was getting married this summer and that I was invited to the wedding, to be held in Germany. Perfect, I thought, another wedding I will miss because I'll be on the road - all my friends seem to wait until I'm travelling to get married for some reason. But since I knew I would still be in Europe I insisted to myself that I would not miss this one and figured out roughly where I would be at the appointed time and set about finding a cheap flight. Yes, that's right, I would have to have to momentarily suspend my no-flying principles in order to attend, but there was no other way around it - this trip of mine isn't supposed to be a jail sentence and so I decided to make a 5-day exemption from my self-imposed rules. Luckily Ryanair fly from Tampere in Finland to Frankfurt Hahn in northwest Germany (though not really close to Frankfurt at all, though that actually suited me to a tee). It seems strange to me, but in the UK budget airlines, and especially Ryanair, are universally despised for their poor service, added charges and flying to hard-to-reach airports. But that's what makes them so cheap in the first place - people who complain have only to take more conventional flag carriers. If you pay bargain-basement prices you would be stupid to expect five-star service. In fact my one complaint of budget airlines is that they're too cheap: flying half way across the continent now costs less than taking the train half way across the country. The price doesn't correspond to what is being offered and people take flying for granted, which leads to flights taken on a whim and elephant-sized carbon footprints. The problem, of course, is that air travel (or at least jet fuel) is not taxed and so therefore is artificially cheap compared to other forms of transport. But since I was taking advantage of this cheapness I suppose I'm not really in a position to pontificate.

From right to left: Marina (with Elouan), Yann, Bahareh, Florian, Guillaume and Me (looking surprisingly presentable - so much so that even my friends were shocked).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Uplifting

I was lucky when I finished the Karhunkierros hike that I met a father and son duo who were driving south to Helsinki via Oulu, my next destination, and so gave me a ride. It was particularly lucky because it was a Sunday and transport options are always scarcer on Sundays. when travelling for such long periods you lose track of the days of the week and are only reminded when trains and buses don't run on weekends or when a museum is closed because it's a Monday. My luck continued when my host in Oulu, Pekka, picked me up and drove me straight to his parents' house where they were celebrating his sister's birthday. His parents didn't even bat an eyelid that he had brought an extra guest around, let alone one who was not especially clean (not surprising after 3 days of solid hiking and fighting off the mozzies) and was eyeing the table laden with cakes, biscuits and other delicacies like a starving hyena. Not only were they very understanding, but they also started up their sauna so that I could get clean and have an authentic Finnish experience. Going to the sauna in Finland is as close to a religious ritual the Finns have (except for perhaps getting absolutely hammered at the pub on a Saturday night) and there are many minor points and intricacies that can trip up the inexperienced novice. My favourite part was that you whip yourself with fresh birch branches - not because of any latent masochistic sentiments, as you'll get more pain from whipping yourself with a wet hanky, but because of the intensely fresh smell of the leaves when held over the steaming coals; the only word I could think to adequately describe it is that it smelled of pure green. The warm, soothing effect of the sauna was just what I needed and it made me wonder why we don't have them back home. I couldn't think of a better way of unwinding after a hard day at work, followed by a sticky, sweaty commute home, than spending a refreshing half hour in a sauna.