Thursday, 31 March 2011

Dana Nature Reserve

As with all the best laid plans, my trip to Dana ended up being a bit different to how I had imagined.  For a start I was battling a stinker of a cold and when I turned up at the bus station in Aqaba, I was led to believe that all buses headed in the Dana direction had left for the day.  It was 7.45am – I’m still not convinced…  I negotiated a pretty reasonable taxi price and Mosa and I set off.  I was happy to discover that I had met a non-smoking Jordanian man – a rarity around here.   After a petrol stop in someone’s garden, we were off.  Being in the taxi afforded me a much better view of all the countryside than I had had the previous week from the bus.  Mosa was a comedy character and whilst listening to “Feroux” music, we discussed the political situation in Jordan.  King Abdullah was mentioned regularly, always with a flourish of finger kissing – he was quite the fan.  These protesters are just troublemakers who should shut up and go home.

Dana was just as beautiful and remote as I had imagined.  However, my peaceful retreat only lasted for a couple of hours until a 30 strong party of American expat families arrived.  Any group of that size is going to dominate and as they had brought all their own gear, they took over the communal Bedouin tent.  I finally finished off The State of Africa and prepared myself for a less demanding Jodi Picoult novel which Zoe had kindly given me before the Exodus group set off back to Amman.

The best way to escape the noise of the camp was to get out hiking.  My three days were taken up with blowing my nose (a lot), eating the lovely food prepared by Khaled, chatting with the campsite staff about Dana and its challenges as well as the political situation in the region and setting off on a variety of the self guided hikes.  Every corner you turned, you were presented with completely different geological rock formations.  Dana Nature Reserve has much to offer – guided and self guided walks of varying lengths and difficulty.  I felt that I had the reserve to myself.  I didn’t spot an ibex but other people did.  On the last night, a group turned up who were starting a four day walk to Petra via Feinan Eco Lodge.  Their arrival into Petra was to be from behind the monastery and not through the main entrance – now that sounds like a good idea!

On the afternoon of the 3rd day, the families departed and the camp was back to how I had expected – plenty of space to lounge around on the mattresses in the Bedouin tent and only the noise of the birds for company.  There were 13 of us at camp that night and we had our post dinner cup of tea around a roaring fire chatting with Yamaan who was leading the hiking group to Petra.  Yamaan had previously worked with the RSCN and was a passionate advocate of bringing sustainable eco-tourism to Jordan.  It also turns out that he is an award winning guide!

Leaving Dana, I was determined to get the bus and it was necessary that I achieve this aim as a taxi to Madaba would have been completely out of budget.  The campsite manager arranged a taxi for me to the nearest town with a bus station (Tafila - about 30 mins away) and I was prepared for the bus into Amman and then out to Madaba where I was spending my last pre-Africa night.  The way that buses work here is that they leave when they are full.  Mine left about an hour after I arrived at the bus station.  Just after I boarded the bus, a young student asked if I was travelling alone and if she could come and sit with me.  It is a big deal here for a woman to have to sit next to an unrelated man so she was ensuring herself a comfortable journey.

Samah was delightful.  Studying English at Tafila University, she was keen to practise her English.  It is unusual to bump into a solo female foreigner and so this was an opportunity not to be missed.  She showed me her English text books and we talked about different areas of the UK which are interesting to visit.  It is her dream to visit England and so she hopes to marry an open-minded man who can make this happen!  She was disappointed with her university course as it is all about regurgitation and doesn’t require much thought or participation.  As I finished my novel during the journey, I presented it to her and she asked me to write a few words in the front.

When I explained where I was going, she said that there would be no need for me to go into Amman but that I would be able to get off the bus early and take a shorter route to Madaba.  She would take care of finding someone on the bus who was also going to Madaba.  During a toilet stop, she approached all the other girls but they were all going to Amman.  She bravely approached a young man and it turned out that indeed, he was headed to Madaba.  Samah could not have chosen me a better companion.

Mohammed took charge when we got off the bus by the side of the busy dual carriageway.  Some men approached saying “7JD to Madaba”.  I thought this sounded like a good deal but Mohammed had other ideas.  We set off to cross over various sections of dual carriageway with our bags (and swapped half way over as his bag was lighter than mine!) and were joined by a policeman.  It would be difficult to work this for yourself but we needed to go and stand at another area of the dual carriageway.  We had to let one bus go by as it was too full but when the 2nd one arrived, Mohammed loaded me and my luggage into the first row of seats.  The driver looked unimpressed that I only had a 10JD note to offer and waved me on (the fare was only ½ JD - we dealt with it later during a petrol stop).  

Shortly before arriving into Madaba, a lady got onto the bus and looked unamused by me taking up the front seats.  She sat further back but as people got off, she moved forward.  It turned out she had excellent English and had visited the UK and the US.  We talked about my trip to Jordan and before I knew it, she was asking me if I would like to marry her son… he has a Green Card!  I explained that I couldn’t possibly leave London and so she repeated for me again “but he has a Green Card!”.  She seemed to be envisaging our new life divided between Jordan, London and the US.

Fortunately we soon pulled into Madaba and Mohammed was in charge again.  He had told me earlier that I would need to take a taxi to my hotel for about 1JD (~£1).  When we got off the bus though, he seemed to be ignoring the taxis but I just decided to trust him as he had been so helpful so far.  We walked up the street and spoke to one taxi driver.  I presumed that he was negotiating the fare for me but later realised that he was getting directions.  Told to stay put on the corner, Mohammed ran over to his father (who had come to collect him) and asked if they could give me a lift!  I pulled out my very best “a’salam alaikum” for his father.  During our ride, I heard him explaining about the ludicrous amount of JD the bad men at the roadside had wanted: “7JD for Madaba”.

And so here I was, safely deposited to my hotel in Madaba thanks to the kindness of various Jordanians.  But time marches on and this morning I took my first malaria tablet.  Hopefully it won’t react badly against the Panadol cold and flu tablets.  It feels strange to be thinking about boarding an aircraft this evening.  I’ve had to re-arrange my baggage to make sure that I have nothing unsuitable in my hand luggage.

Some of presents from FactSet have really come into their own in the last few weeks: the sink plug is used almost daily and the Swiss Army Knife has opened a few bottles of wine for the "Red wine and crisps club" at Wadi Rum and in Aqaba and helped fix someone’s glasses.  I started getting used to the binoculars in Dana and am now ready for the “Big Five”!  The washing line and mosquito net are sure to get their first outings very shortly.

A few thoughts on travelling in the Middle East will follow - either from the airport tonight or from the pool in Nairobi tomorrow :-)

Adding a link to a few photos : Dana Nature Reserve

Saturday, 26 March 2011

And then there was one

Since last weekend I have been part of a lovely Exodus group in Jordan.  After this brief respite from solo travel, the time has arrived for me to strike out alone again.  I waved everyone off this morning and then moved into the cheaper hotel at the end of the road.  After fitting in most of the major Jordanian sights last week, including two fun days exploring Petra and a trip out to the desert to camp in Wadi Rum, I am heading up to Dana Nature Reserve for a few days tomorrow morning.  Staying at the Rummana Campsite, I intend to eat well, indulge in a few hikes and read.  The journey could end up involving three to five forms of transport depending on how it goes…!  It will start with a bus and end with the campsite shuttle but not quite sure how the in between bit will work out yet.  I’ve loaded up on flat breads for the journey.

After being driven from point to point in a comfortable bus for a week, I am itching to get back to public transport and get to know the less touristy angle of the country.

Favourite thing in Aqaba: watching women in the burqas in the sea!

Petra photos
Wadi Rum photos

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

When is a hotel a good hotel?

My general criteria for a good hotel mean clean cotton sheets on a comfortable bed and a decent shower.  Ideally the hotel is well placed for accessing money/water/food and maybe even the odd place of interest.  Having now tried a variety of establishments, I’m becoming more and more vocal on the subject by the day.  My first hotel in Istanbul contained simply a single bed and a great shower, and despite its position in the basement, was cheap and splendid!

I’ve been battling with the idea of downgrading to backpacker hostels but the creature comfort Cath still leans towards the lower end of mid-range – aiming for decent bedding and towels.  I was offered a bed in a dorm room last week but just didn’t feel quite ready!  When I did check into a backpacker hotel in Amman (which was very nice), I almost saved money and took a room with a shared bathroom until I realised that hot water was only available from 7-11am in the shared bathrooms and so I splashed the extra £6 for a private bathroom! I was checking in at 4pm having travelled from Damascus in a very smoky service taxi on a hot day…

My favourite hotel so far has been in Aleppo (also my favourite place).  What made it so cool?  I turned up without a reservation, booked in for three nights but stayed for five!  When I had secured a room, I was shown into the beautiful courtyard and brought tea whilst my bags were whisked away.  If we overlook the distinct chill in my first room (which I can!) then some of the key factors were very helpful and friendly staff, the fact that it was no bother to move to a much warmer courtyard room on the 2nd day (I was sad to lose the lemon tree outside my window), the comfy bed with good sheets and a reliable, if basic, shower.  Dar Halabia lived up to its own description of a “hotel de charme”.  It wasn’t the cheapest place in Aleppo but it was wonderfully situated right in the heart of the souk and incredibly quiet.  The sunny courtyard brought the guests together and encouraged conversation and experience sharing.  And one of the young lads will even go and lean over the wall to get fresh lemon for your vodka…

I’ve also stayed in a couple of places in the last week with ideas above their station (and mainly picked by Exodus, not me). Reasons for their rubbishness: remote locations with no local amenities, not being allowed into the swimming pool in a tourist hotel because I had missed “Women’s Hour” (I’m still fuming), having to pay for WiFi and it only being available (censored) in the reception area, offering me a taxi at twice the price it should be, being stuck with only the mediocre hotel buffet when there are lovely restaurants a couple of miles down a hill but no safe way to get there.

I think I’ll be happier on the hotel front at the end of the week when I am choosing my own accommodation again.  Location is really a key factor.  I’ll be leaving my Exodus tour a day early in to order to avoid their nondescript, almost not in Amman, hotel and enjoying an extra night by the coast in Aqaba before I head up to the Dana Nature Reserve and then end my Middle East experience in the lovely Madaba.

After that I'll be camping for the best part of two months through Africa and the word "hotel" will become foreign!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Hammaming with the locals

My last train journey on this section of the trip was from Aleppo to Damascus.  The most interesting part of the journey was actually buying the ticket the day before.   Passport registered, I joined what I thought looked like a good queue.  I need to leave behind my British sense of queuing… in reality the only way for me to ever get to the front was to position myself behind a Syrian lady who then made it her business to get me to the front and my arm and passport through the ticket window.

Damascus is very different to Aleppo – the streets are wider and there is more noticeable greenery.  Life is still bustling but the streets are of a capital city and it just feels a lot bigger (ha ha, Aleppo has 4 million people!).  After orientating myself between my hotel and the Old City, it seemed like a good idea to have a post-train journey hammam.  I decided that I no longer needed the crutch of the tourist hammam and would go for the alternative in my book and go native.

Women can visit this particular hamman Mon-Wed from 10am until 5pm.  “Women” was the only sign on the door when I arrived.  The canny business women of Hammam Al Ward took care of me.  With their lack of English and my lack of Arabic (although I can now read the written numbers thanks to John), we communicated mainly through hand gestures and they took whatever money they felt necessary – 200 SYP plus whatever was needed for the accoutrements.  I was whisked away and the lady sang to me while she scrubbed and pummelled – I think that’s to help you relax and think of England.  It was made clear that a little ‘baksheesh’ would be required afterwards!  She and I disagreed on how long I should spend in the sauna (she laughed and pushed me back in) but eventually she let me escape back to the main area where I had tea and one of the other girls dried my hair (another 100 SYP!).  As I had read in my book that morning that leaving the building with wet hair is a sign of a loose woman, this seemed like a good deal.

And so after two days in Damascus, it will be onward to Amman tomorrow, hopefully by a comfortable service taxi.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Around and about Aleppo

Friday was a quiet day in Aleppo as this is when almost everything is shut and people have their day off.  I used the time to visit the fabulous Citadel and get my bearings.  Towards the end of the afternoon, I decided to pop into the National Museum of Aleppo.  I was advised at the entrance not to pay and go in as they would be closing in 30 minutes and really I needed an hour and a half to do it justice.  However, the museum curator was present and decided that I should follow him upstairs so that he could show me a map and advise me where to travel in the local area - I had mentioned that I would have a driver the following day to visit St Simeon.

The next thing I knew, I was sitting in Mohamed Almslem's office being shown photos of him on archaeological digs and he was telling me all about the different teams of archaeologists from Oxford, Cambridge and Yale who come to Syria each year to help excavate some of the 1400 sites of interest.  To date, only 400 of them have even been touched.  Things then took a slightly surreal turn when he decided that I should return the following day at 2pm, view the museum until it closed at four and then he would take me out of Aleppo (about 10km) and we would go out for dinner.  As he understood the way these things worked, we would go "Dutch".  I left with his card and quite frankly unsure whether I would appear at 2pm the following today!

Back at the hotel, I got chatting to an Australian barrister called John.  As we had both booked drivers for the following day to do similar things, we decided to change the booking and use the same driver.  I mentioned Mohamed's recommendations: St Simeon, Ain Dara and Cyrrhus (Nebi Huri).  Cyrrhus is right up near the border with Turkey and so we needed to renegotiate the price a little when our driver appeared this morning.

We headed all the way up to Cyrrhus first and then worked our way back down.  I missed the two o'clock appointment because Mohamed's suggestions for our day out were so absolutely spot on that we didn't return to Aleppo until 5pm!  We shared Cyrrhus (city which became part of the Roman Empire following the conquest of Syria by Pompei in 64 BC) only with a French archaeologist who was taking measurements of the stones which would have formed the main amphitheatre wall.  What a luxury to be able to explore this amazing site as the only visitors.  At Ain Dara (suggested to be a temple dedicated to a semitic fertility goddess dating from the 10th century BC), again, we were practically the only people there and here shared the experience with a local family.

After a wonderful hummous / baba ganoush and salad late lunch washed down with Turkish coffee, we headed to the most famous of all the sites in this area: St Simeon.  The previous day, 1000 people had visited the site.  During our visit, there can't have been more than 20 people present and so yet again we were hugely privileged to visit in peace and solitude.  The sheer enormity of these sites and the incredible time periods in question require the visitor to be able to place themselves back in time and truly imagine how things would have been.

So we'll never know how my dinner date would have turned out.  John had predicted that I would have become Mohamed's 4th wife.  I can only thank him for taking the time to talk to me, make wonderful suggestions and as he wished (even without dinner), I have become an ambassador for Syria.

Photos from around Aleppo

Friday, 11 March 2011

A warm Syrian welcome

It's amazing what difference a few metres makes.  On crossing the border into Syria, the countryside and buildings looked instantly different - there were fields of lush grass and all the buildings are made from the same sandy coloured stone.  Our bus dropped us outside town and we were soon in a taxi into Aleppo.  I'm not sure how this happened but the taxi dropped us off outside the Germans' hotel and I had to walk to mine.  I knew more or less where it would be if only I could read the street signs!  Twice when I got my book out to check the map, a friendly Syrian came over to help me on my way.  As I as was thanking the 2nd man, I stepped out of the way to let two young ladies in full black veils come past me.  "Thank you" said the first girl, sounding pleased with herself.  The second girl nudged her and said "Thank you very much", copying what I had said to the helpful man!

My hotel was in the souk and as directed, I found the gate to take me into the labyrinth.  I knew it wasn't far but after a metres, I stepped over to the side to check my map again.  Instantly two children came over, fascinated by my book, and pointed me in the right direction.  Fortunately after all this effort, Dar Halabia did have a room for me and I was quickly installed in the courtyard of this "Hotel de Charme" with a glass of tea.

I ventured out for dinner to a place recommended in my guide.  Although it looked as though it had been spruced up since the book was written, I was warmly received.  I had to choose dinner from a menu with no prices so was pleased to see at the end that I had not racked up a huge bill but somehow only 315 Syrian pounds.  Even with a generous tip, that is less than £5!

On my walk home, I was befriended by a young man named Ahmed.  Having a local to walk back with meant that I did not have to contemplate busy street crossing alone.  I declined his offer to go for a drink but he gave me his card and hoped he would see me again (turned out that he is a tour guide).

I curled up in my (very cold) room and had a good "post-sleeper" train night's rest.  First task this morning was to change to a warmer room!  I later discovered that I wasn't the first person this week to ask to be moved out of room 16.

Istanbul to Aleppo

I left the snowy Istanbul from Haydarpasa train station on the Asian side (a quick ferry ride from Eminonu near my hotel) heading for Syria in under 36 hours!  As the Istanbul – Adana direct train did not have a sleeper carriage (shocker!) then I decided to head to Ankara (middle of Turkey) and then down to Adana from there on the sleeper service.  The times of the trains actually suited me better and did not require an overnight stay in Adana.  I clearly travelled on some of Turkey’s newest rolling stock and splendid it was too.  Haydarpassa to Eskisehir is a four hour journey but a good while of this can be spent sitting in the dining car having lunch!

As with all my Turkish trains, it ended up running late and in the end we literally jumped off this train and straight onto the train on the opposite platform which would take us to Ankara (administrative centre of Turkey).  For this 1 ½ hour Ankara service our luggage had to go through a scanner and all tickets were checked as we boarded.  It was like a posh version of Eurostar with infinitely superior toilets!  They could teach Virgin a thing of two about toilet doors opening and closing without every other person using the emergency alarm and alerting the whole carriage.  And both of the above train journeys came to 34 lira (~£13).

On arrival in the snowy winter wonderland of Ankara, I had a cunning plan.  Two and a half hours until my overnight train, I would grab a taxi to the central hamam, see a bit of Ankara during the ride, and then spend the time getting nice and clean and relaxed prior to my overnight journey.  I locked my main luggage into left luggage (so much easier here than Brussels…) and jumped into a taxi.  The taxi driver got his glasses out, worked out from my book where I wanted to go and off we set.  He dropped me off right outside the hamam but fortunately the snow made turning round slower than usual and no sooner had I got out of the taxi, I was back in as I was informed that the hamam was closed due to the snow – gutted!  He drove me back to the station but wouldn’t accept payment for the return journey!  Nice idea… and so I spent the time sitting in the station concourse as I had been hoping to avoid.

Some good people watching later, I boarded my overnight sleeper to Adana, found I had a two bunk carriage to myself (with sink and mini fridge!) and was happy to see that the dining car was again in attendance.  Chicken shish, fried aubergine, a salad and a large Efes were the order of the day.  I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the only woman drinking – four Turkish woman were sharing a bottle of wine and some nibbles.

I woke around six and popped out to use the facilities.  The train guard seemed keen to revert the bed to seats but I resisted – we weren’t due into Adana until 07h26 – so much sleeping time left.  Hilariously at 7h10, he knocked on my door and told me 8 minutes until Adana.  I got dressed and packed my bags in a hurry but it didn’t take me long to realise that he just wanted to collect the bedding and finish reverting all the beds to seats.  We arrived in Adana an hour and twenty minutes later…

Another taxi was required to get me from the train station to Adana Otogar, where I could start the journey to cross the border into Syria.  I had to remind the driver to turn on the meter (old trick!) but after that he looked after me very well and ensured that I got to the right bus counter to buy my ticket to Antakya.  Here I met two young Germans and they became my travel companions for the day.  We took the 3 ½ coach from Adana to Antakya and then despite thinking that we wanted a private taxi to Aleppo, we were convinced at Antakya Otogar that the bus would be just as quick.  For 10 lira per person (and it was raining), we decided to go with it.  Our main concern was about getting stuck for hours in the passport/customs queues at the border but in the end, we couldn’t have made it though much faster.

The Syrians carried out many different checks on the bus and its passengers, generally with a cigarette in hand.  Being a “Rooney” caused a good laugh with the Syrian passport control and in future at border controls, I shall just embrace the Wayne/Liverpool connection and invent a family story.  We were wondering how on earth the bus company could be making money taking 4 passengers from Antakya to Aleppo for 10 lira each – some plants and money changing hands at a petrol station beyond the border (with the customs officers!) might have provided a clue.

I was trying to remember when was the last time I had crossed a border by road and for most of the morning was convinced that it was as far back as lunch in La Vajol in 1995!  Not that the card playing, chain-smoking border guards seemed that interested at the time.  In reality though I think it was by Greyhound bus between Seattle and Vancouver in 2000.  The Syrians were a lot friendlier.

Cooking Alaturka!

On Monday afternoon, I had booked into a cookery class run by a Dutch chef called Eveline Zoutendijk at “Cooking Alaturka” and spent a very enjoyable four hours with a veritable mix of nationalities – Russian, Spanish, Canadian & Alaskan.  We prepared five different dishes: red lentil soup, courgette pancakes, stuffed aubergines, stuffed vine leaves and some little syrupy biscuits (I’d give you the proper names but the recipe sheets are already in the mail back to England!  Flat parsley, dill and mint were the herb mixtures du jour.  Watch out for these dishes in West London next year…).  Everyone got stuck in with the chopping and mixing and our Russian friends looked particularly happy with the very large mezzaluna knife.  At the end, we all ate the meal together with some wine and were quite amused to see that the results of our labour was the set menu for the other restaurant guests for the evening!  No wonder Eveline and very humorous Feyzi were so particular about the details and presentation.

Later that evening, the great luggage purge occurred and the following morning a 3,5kg package was wending its way to Marie-Helene by ship – it could take some time.  I found the camping shops of Istanbul in Karakoy and acquired a more modestly sized (but still warm) sleeping bag and a more suitable daypack – the same size but a lot more accessible (thanks to the man at Ellis Brigham for selling me the unsuitable, essentially snowboarding daypack).  The nice man at the Post Office “Kargo” office found a suitable box for my stuff and then wrapped it all up very expertly.  I feel lighter just thinking about it.

Snow hit Istanbul in a windy kind of way and much of the rest of my time was spent between Mosques and museums with plenty of tea / Turkish coffee stops to avoid the chill.

Stylish blog award

A slightly belated reference to International Women’s Day in response to Sab’s award.

I haven’t had much surfing time recently but here is my continued favourite blog by Gaby Hinsliff::

and a new and inspiring one I found just a few days ago by Mariella Frostrup:

A few things about me:
  •  I don’t miss TV but am still very attached to my Radio 4 podcasts - particularly Excess Baggage
  • The thing that bothers me most about the traveller lifestyle is the frequency of laundry!
  • I'm attempting to find focus by meandering
  • I'm rarely worth speaking to before 10am

Monday, 7 March 2011

Week one in statistics

8 train journeys * (2 more than expected :-)
7 countries visited - from London to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey
7 passport controls but only one stamp
3 sleeper trains (inc one Double Deluxe with shower!)
1,500 miles travelled as the crow files (2,500 km)
approx 54 hours aboard a train
100+ games of Free Cell
2 Ursus beers
1 fabulous scrub down in the Hamam

London to Brussels
Brussels to Cologne
Cologne to Frankfurt
Frankfurt to Vienna
Vienna to Budapest
Budapest to Bucharest
Bucharest to Svilengrad
Kapikule to Istanbul (Sirceki)

Saturday, 5 March 2011

It's grim out East

Hilariously, I can post to my blog in Turkey but if I click on the link to read my previous post then it tells me (approximately) that "this site has been blocked by court order"!  Sweet.

When we last left off I had just reached Bucharest in my "Double Deluxe" sleeper from Budapest.  Cold and grim is how best to describe it (sorry Michael!).  I was all ready with my map from the tourist info to walk into town when a man at the traffic lights befriended me and suggested that walking was the last thing I wanted to do due to all the bad people around.  Mainly to escape from him, I scuttled back to the train station in search of some LEU and a taxi.  It all seemed too easy then but the taxi driver had the last laugh when he took me on the "scenic" route which cost 6 times the cost of the return taxi the following morning.  As we were still only talking about a few pounds, I made a mental note about my own stupidity and wrote it off.

I did venture out again onto the streets of Bucharest but feeling fairly daunted.  There isn't much smiling going on in Bucharest, at least not at this time of year on a cold grey day with snow and ice on the ground.  A reasonable meal was consumed in a trendy little bar but the principal activity for the afternoon was to purchase my train ticket for the following lunchtime and acquire a suitable sleeper reservation (not a 6!).

I had noticed on Man in Seat 61 that a new note had appeared very recently about some engineering works on the Bucharest to Istanbul line - take the train, short bus journey, back on the train - didn't sound too bad.  The lady at the train ticket office told me that once the train stopped, it was a bus all the way to Istanbul... still I thought that this seemed like the most enjoyable overland option - best to be on a train in a comfy carriage able to move around, lie down and watch the countryside for as long as possible.  In reality though, this did seem to have put most people off the journey and there were only a few brave souls who had decided it was worth the effort :-)  I am unable to say that I took the "Bosphorus Express" as actually we were switched to the oldest possible rolling stock train to Sofia.

I had a double room to myself which bizarrely had already been made into beds at midday (I don't think that the guard liked to have much work to do). I curled up with my book and off we set.  Shortly afterwards we had a couple of visits from Romanian and Bulgarian passport control guards (so friendly these days!) and then we meandered gently through the Bulgarian countryside for the rest of the day.  I was feeling slightly aggrieved that having travelled so far, I still didn't have a stamp in passport to show for it...

My ticket suggested that we would arrive in Svilengrad at around midnight, the guard guestimated 1am and in reality it was just before 2am.  The train guard had no intention of waking me up at the right time, there were no train announcements and the station signs were not written in English script, so I was a little concerned about missing the stop and ending up in Sofia.  In the end a gruff man came and shouted "Change" a few times in an unamused fashion and I was off and onto the bus.

On this bus, the train employees only spoke Bulgarian and the passengers were mainly Turkish, me and a young Spanish couple.  Communication was not a strong point here.  The words "passport" and "visa" got us all where we needed to be.  I now had my first visa and heard the clunk of my passport being stamped for the first time (bizarrely John Motson was commentating in the background...)

I was pleased that it was quite a comfortable bus and had my eye mask and earplugs ready to go once all the border controls were out of the way.  It seemed a little cruel to me that I was having Phil Collins and Eminem blasted out at me at 2am.. but figured that this would be turned off soon enough.  The bus started to take quite a strange route out of the customs area and even the locals looked bemused... ah ha, we were being taken to a nice modern train!  It wasn't set up as a sleeper but I nabbed a whole compartment to myself (one train - 14 people!) and settled down for a few hours rest.

I woke to see the Bosphor glistening to my right.  After the grimness of the east, you could just feel the vibrancy of this remarkable city.  Istanbul here I come!

Svilengrad - a good place to use in a trivia quiz in years to come?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Birthday in Budapest

I was surprised to start the day by eating my breakfast in the basement of the hotel in a Comedy and Poker club and quite a lot of red velvet!  After re-packing my rucksack (only a few days until the great purge will occur!) I headed down to the river to plan out a cruise for the afternoon.  The architecture of Budapest is truly amazing and I would love to come back in warmer weather when the trees and flowers are in bloom.  I jumped onto the very efficient metro system to go and visit the public baths and was gutted not to have put my swimming cossie into my day bag.  What a wonderful setting – reason enough to return!

I jumped into a taxi to get to the train station and was driven there by a guy who used to work at Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street.  After arriving for the train, it started to snow – far prettier from inside a warm train than on the cold platform!  I was quite surprised to find myself in a 6 birth cabin even if there were only three of us in there.  I had had a long (admittedly broken English) conversation yesterday with the lady at the ticket booth – if there was one thing I made clear, it was that I wanted to pay more money so that I didn’t end up in a 6 birth cabin (4 is fine but she didn’t have any of those). Alas… So, when the guard came to check the tickets he mentioned that another three might join us, I decided to act.  Five minutes later I had upgraded to a double deluxe with shower – hurrah!  Definitely worth the money - I shall have to be more specific when I buy my next train ticket!  Maybe this unstylish backpacker look confused the ticket office lady and she decided that I could only afford the cheapo birth.

Dinner was an interesting and unusual affair.  I popped along to the dining car and found myself the only train passenger amongst all the beer drinking train guards who were listening to some great Romanian tunes.  Choices were limited – chicken or pork with beer, spirits or juice.  As my Forints had run out, I checked if I could pay with euros – “of course – this is an international train!”.  As birthday dinners go, this is one of the most random.  Despite the surreal ambience (and me reading “The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith thanks to a recommendation from Alex Fraser last Sat eve), the restaurant manager was most attentive and my chicken was perfectly grilled and served with potatoes and tinned veg salad, along with a side bowl of picked cabbage.  An Ursus Romanian beer completed the scene.  As I have free picture messages from O2 for a few days, quite a few of you received a picture of the meal!

I curled up back in my "Double Deluxe" and watched the snowy Bulgarian and then Romanian scenery pass by.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Searching for blue skies

I'm very confused this evening...  my blogspot account will only show me instructions in Hungarian and I can't find any option to switch back to English!  As I have been known to design the odd bit of software myself, I generally expect to be able to find such things with enough clicking but alas...

When planning this first part of my journey, I generally assumed that the sun would appear wherever I chose to go but apparently this is not the case.  Day one felt somewhat surreal.  Having planned and planned, I suddenly felt unprepared and in a daze and the rubbish weather didn't help.  Fortunately I checked in for my Eurostar to Brussels with one minute to spare and so no sooner had I bought the paper and boarded the train, we were off.  I'm sure that on a sunny day Brussels is a lovely place but yesterday it was dismal and very cold (and museums close on Mondays).  With several hours to while away, I sought out the local arty cinema and saw Shahada which, while excellent, was quite dark and at times had me feeling that I was still watching Black Swan.

The German railway system later managed to demonstrate the extremes of slowness/efficiency.  The Brussels to Koln train was diverted due to an incident on the track (it doesn't just happen in the UK after all!) and so I arrived too late for my overnight train to Vienna.  However, I was then able to wait an hour, take a fast train to Frankfurt and then wait for my original train to reach Frankfurt...  Running such an inefficient and circuitous route saved me quite a lot of bother and I was able to bed down pretty comfortably for the night and be woken just before eight by the conductor with coffee and a bread roll.

After a nice chat with a German medical research student considering a move to London, the train arrived in Vienna and as everything was still grey and drab and I determined to push on straight through to Budapest.  The Railjet trains can be highly recommended and by early afternoon I was luxuriating in a shower and there were blue skies outside - hurrah!

Budapest seems like a wonderful place with amazing architecture.  I will have more time to explore tomorrow before my overnight train to Bucharest.

Two priorities for the coming week:
1. As predicted, I am carrying far too much stuff and so will be planning to package some stuff up in Istanbul and send it back to the UK.  Maybe some could go poste restante to Amman or Nairobi..

2. I may have a colour scheme for my clothes but I have lost all sense of style..  This is probably one to solve next week.  It is snowing in Bucharest so I will be needing to wear practically all my clothes while I am there :-)