Thursday, 25 April 2013

Whose Country is it anyway? by Ben Crowley.

Firstly let me apologise for the lateness of this blog. After arriving home in Melbourne and being inundated with admirers and fans, I found it difficult to find the time to complete the quality product that those following our blog have become accustomed to.

                Excited by this frozen in time glimpse at the former Soviet Union, I traversed the potholed highway signposted to Tiraspol, considered just a regional outpost in Moldova, but the capital city to the 550,000 people who call Transnistria home. Flying along one of the better roads (ease of military movement assured) that Eastern Europe had to offer, I was brought to a sudden stop by a large Russian tank sitting in the middle of the road. At this point 3 or 4 soldiers came running towards the car, pointing their rifles in a rather aggressive nature towards our vehicle.

                “Otkuda vy?” yelled the light infantryman with the clearly visible Russian flag sewn to his shoulder.

                “Privet, Avstraliya,” Tom Unkles sitting in the passenger seat replied.

                “Ah Avstraliya! Sydaney! Melbon! Kangaroo!” they laughed and joked as the Russian soldier continued to interrogate. “Mashina otkuda?”

                “Avstraliya” Tom replied once again.

                “Mashina Avstraliya!” at this point they were almost on the ground with laughter, “kuda? Ukrayina?”

                “Tiraspol,” Tom told the man. “Turizm.”

                “Ah Tiraspol,” he then continued to (we assume) tell us that we certainly weren’t getting through this way and that we’d need to turn around and take our first left in order to cross at the only legal crossing, located in the town Bendery.

Transnistria, also known as Trans-Dniestr, Transdniestria or to make matters even more confusing, Pridnistrovie in Russian (literally left bank of the river Dniester), gained its quasi-pseudo-de facto independence in 1992, two years of full scale war after they declared themselves separate from Moldova. However since then, only other “non-states” such as South Ossetia (Blog Day 220 – Revolutionary Ideas), Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh (Blog Travelling to Nagorno Karabkh, by Ben Crowley) have recognised its autonomy. Even Russia, who as its protector has its 14th Army stationed there as a buffer against Moldovan aggression, has yet to recognise Transnistria’s sovereignty.

Once we got to what appeared to be the only border crossing, situated in the town of Bendery, we found ourselves faced with numerous contradictions, the sort that we had become used to in the former Soviet Union. From the onset it appeared nothing more than a shambolic police check, the usual cones, barricades, crudely written стоп (Stop) signs and some portable buildings; nothing permanent except maybe a flag pole. However, the immigration/customs process seemed very permanent and ran in a surprisingly efficient manner, still of course bearing the usual Sovietesque qualities. Unlike our previous encounters, these were Transnistria’s own forces and they appeared to take their task quite seriously.

I was originally in charge of this particular border crossing (we usually took turns), but they wanted nothing of me. The guards dealing with customs were insistent that the legal owner of the vehicle was to deal with the paperwork, something we had not particularly come across in the past. So we gave them what they wanted, what most people want, Tom Denner.

Like an Englishman defending his nation’s culinary pedigree, we struggled through the temporary import documents, all printed only in Russian and Moldovan (Romanian) and found ourselves not getting very far. We were relieved to enlist the help of a local who spoke quite proficient English but still struggled to explain the automotive jargon. Whilst having our completed paperwork examined I was lucky enough to have this man whose name is now forgotten in history explain his thoughts on the question of his nation’s sovereignty.

“Things are very difficult in Transnistria, the rest of the world doesn’t accept our wishes and it makes it very difficult. The Moldovans make it very hard, we just want to live peacefully with them,” he stated, expounding the same sort of rhetoric we had heard all over the world. I asked him why he was travelling from Moldova. “I need to work in Chisinau as there is no work in Tiraspol. I think most people will leave for Moldova or Russia.”

“Even though you fought against Moldova?” I asked.

“We were once brothers and sisters, but they went crazy when the Soviet Union fell. I don’t hate them, I just don’t understand why they won’t respect our wishes to be independent, why they discriminate against us and make things so hard.”

I asked him whether it was safe in Transnistria and what there was to see, to which he proudly told me that Tiraspol is probably safer than anywhere in Western Europe. There might be organised crime but not crime against individuals. He also noted that Tiraspol has some interesting architecture, in particular and he was quite adamant about this, from the exact years 1954 and 1976, which having spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Bloc I found hard to believe, let alone from years so specific.

Before we left there was one line that he did say quite forcefully considering how calm and well natured he was, “To Transnistrians our independence is not disputed. It is fact.” Finally the car paperwork was completed and then all we had left was the extremely simple process (please note sarcasm) of crossing the road to the passport office, completing more forms (in Russian/Moldovan), and receiving temporary (24 hour) immigration cards which we had to go into Tiraspol the next day to get a 24 hour extension for because the Registration of Foreign Aliens Department of the police force were on holidays. Finally on the third day we went to the Registration of Foreign Aliens Department to be given full registration as tourists to stay in Transnistria. During this process we only needed to visit five different offices multiple times over the three days and spend many hours of our short stay. I don’t think it’s possible to make a process much easier than that!

The first thing we noticed when driving from Bendery to Tiraspol was how dark it was. At this point night had fallen and there was a distinct lack of street lighting and light pollution from buildings. That and the Soviet era apartment blocks, trolley buses, Lada Nivas, Russian tanks and Sovietesque billboards and signs depicting enough hammer and sickles to bring any card carrying communist to their knees with ecstasy. All those things and how dark it was. We made the small drive to Tiraspol and then began our search for accommodation. 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Day 339 – Wine fizzing for beginners. (Scotland)

Leading up to the end of the trip I had been somewhat concerned about what the actual finish line would entail. We had chosen Appin as our destination because as the village where I went to primary school and consider myself to be “from”, it was a significant end point conveniently located on the other side of the world. Throughout the trip it was this far away place that we were heading ambiguously in the direction of, but as it became closer and began seeming a bit more realistic we had to stop leaving it for Future Eilidh, Ben, Tom and Tom to worry about. I had an image of us driving up to the pier or the shop, stopping the car, probably not being able to see anything through the rain, but me assuring everyone that it was very pretty, then saying “ok well, this is Appin. We made it,” and turning around and leaving. Having moved away at the age of 12 I’ve kept in contact with a couple of people, but I had no hopes or intentions of organising any sort of welcoming party. To make our arrival seem a bit more poignant I asked my grandparents if they wouldn’t mind making the two hour drive up to Appin to greet us when we arrived and I knew two of my mum’s sisters and one of my cousins were planning to come. At the last minute a Kiwi friend of Ben’s and mine who we lived with in Port Douglas three years ago and is currently living in Edinburgh decided to hitch a ride with my grandparents too, so we’d have a small welcoming party.

There are two ways to drive from Glasgow, where we stayed for a couple of days with my grandparents, to Appin, and we chose to take the slightly longer but more spectacular route. The road wiggles around Loch Lomond and slices through Glencoe and is surely one of the most stunning drives in the world. You might think I’d be biased, and maybe I would be, but I appreciated this drive more this time than I ever had before. We had a 1pm deadline to be at the car park opposite the Church in Appin to meet a journalist and photographer from the Oban Times, so we left in plenty of time so we could enjoy the drive and stop a couple of times along the way if we felt so inclined. Unfortunately it took us a bit longer than expected to find the hidden away LPG station (LPG is available in Scotland, but not readily at most petrol stations and there very well not have been anywhere north of Glasgow that would sell it), but we still had time to pause for our last shisha overlooking the Black Mount and Loch Tulla. By the time we chatted to some other folks stopped there, finished our shisha and stopped for a couple of photos in front of the “Appin” sign we were running a little late for our 1pm date with the Oban Times, but nothing had us prepared for what was coming next.

As we drove into Appin, the sun shining on us through a perfectly blue sky as it had been the whole way up, I was busy pointing out to my companions, “there’s Lettershuna, and that’s where the Salvarlis lived. Those houses are new, and that view point thing was put up after we left. That’s Kinlochlaich where we’ll stay tonight with the Hutchisons, that’s the school and a bunch of new houses, and Shelia Lawrie’s house and the hair dresser’s. There’s Gunn’s Garage, Kirkton, and oooh what’s that fancy new car park opposite the Church? And what are all those people standing around in the car park for...?”

And then the FINISH sign strung on a ribbon across the entrance to the car park came into view and I spotted my grandparents and the others I was expecting and realised that this group were all waving at us. This group of 20 or 30 was our welcoming party!

“Is this for us? Oh wow! Oh wow!” We turned into the car park and we were caught so unawares we didn’t know what to do. “Do we just stop? Do we drive through the sign? What do we do?” We drove through the “finish” line as directed and stopped amidst our supporters. There aren’t many times I can look back on throughout my life and honestly say I was speechless, but at this point I really was, literally, speechless. Unable to wipe the grin from my face and still just staring around completely flabbergasted by the whole situation I was re-united with so many people from my childhood memories. We were introduced to Euan from the Oban Times who set us up for an arrival celebration photo shoot which went on to provide much hilarity.

He had Tom and Tom climb on top of the car, and Ben and I were to perch on the bonnet – the others were all fine with this, but climbing onto the bonnet with my long legs and natural athletic prowess (for those who don’t know me this is sarcastic, I have neither long legs nor any sort of natural athletic prowess) was not an easy feat and Ben kept having to push me up as I slid off whilst trying to rearrange myself. Eventually I got arranged and Euan handed me a bottle of bubbly and showed me how to make it fizz up. Then he decided it would be better if I was standing in front of the car with the bubbly – great, just wish he’d thought of that before the entire village had laughed at me scrambling up the front of my car! Well the hilarity was far from over. As it turns out fizzing up bottles of sparkling wine to make them spray everywhere in the celebratory fashion that we’re accustomed to isn’t all that simple. At first it just sort of dribbled out over my arms as I was shaking it up, and then when I thrust the bottle forward for the spray, nothing happened. I tried several times, and each time I was sure I was going to get it, and each time everyone held their breath as I thrust the bottle for the spray, and each time was only more ridiculous than the last. When the bottle was empty Susie Hutchison who was the brains and hands behind the “FINISH” sign and who we would stay with that night pulled another bottle from her boot and we tried again. Eventually I managed to get one half decent spray, and needless to say that’s the photo that made it to the newspaper, but not after having everyone in fits at my sub-par sparkling wine spraying skills. I don’t know how these celebrities manage to do it so easily all the time. Do they also have several takes for each wine fizzing? Or is it something one gets taught in celebrity school?

We were taken into the Church hall where a fantastic spread of sandwiches, cakes and drinks were waiting for us. Amidst interviewing with Euan we all continued to be touched and amazed by how closely all these people that I assumed would have forgotten me by now and were complete strangers to the others had followed the blog and our photos and how much they cared about us. All my concerns about the anti-climax of finishing the trip were gone, and we could not have asked for a better, more special end point. My image of driving down to the pier and looking around in the rain while I assured the others that it really was very pretty, then turning around and leaving, couldn’t have been further from the reality. Thanks Appin!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Day 335 – A long drive. (England, Scotland)

On our way from Dover to Grady’s house boat we were jammed up on London’s motorways (although the traffic situation in London is really just not as bad as everyone would like to believe and we get quite frustrated with such complaints), when we spotted a maroon Nissan Patrol in a neighbouring lane trying to get a good look at our vehicle. They were doing that dance thing where they hang back so we could catch up, then move in directly next to us and let us go ahead a little so they can see the back of the car, staring sideways at us as we pass. We know this manoeuvre as it’s been made on us many a time before, and it’s not as if we’ve never used it ourselves. In fact once we realised what they were up to we began doing the same thing to them, as there was something on the cover of their spare wheel mounted on the back door that caught our attention. The number plate was from the UK, but the wheel cover read “DUNCAN NISSAN, AUSTRALIA’S BIGGEST PATROL DEALERS, VICTORIA PARK, 9262 5111”. Was it an Australian vehicle that had been driven there and re-registered? Or shipped over? Or was the wheel itself imported for some reason and it was just a coincidence? Or maybe it was just a cover they’d acquired and we were reading too much into it. But they had been staring at us first! It seemed a bit coincidental that the one other car on the road that was particularly interested in us had the details of an Australian car dealership on their back if it wasn’t related. We wound down our window and tried to call out to each other over the noise of the traffic, but all we managed to ask was where they were from, to which they responded in a perfect London accent “Uzbekistan”. We still have no idea what their story is or why they had advertising for Duncan Nissan from Victoria Park on their spare wheel, or even what it was that they were particularly interested in about us.

When we left London we were heading straight to Glasgow, leaving early in the morning and intending on arriving that evening. Ideally we would have had at least a few days to meander through England and Wales, not to mention the chance to visit some of my family, and earlier in the trip we’d even toyed with the idea of detouring to Ireland if we had time. We’d prioritised our time elsewhere though and now unfortunately we only had seven days until Ben was flying out of Glasgow so we really didn’t have any time to spare. However we decided to make one short stop on the way up to visit the RAF Base in Benson, near Oxford. My great grandfather was a photo reconnaissance pilot in WWII and he was declared missing, assumed to have been shot down in September 1944. But it wasn’t until 1992 that remains of his spitfire were discovered near Oldenburg (Bremen) in northern Germany and my family, most notably my grandmother, his daughter, were filled in with more of the story and able to find out a lot more of what actually happened to him. In 2011 a replica of the spitfire was mounted at the entrance to the RAF Base as a memorial to my great grandfather and others in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) who were killed flying solo and unarmed in their Spitfires over enemy territory. My family were all invited as guests of honour to the opening ceremony in 2011, but living on the other side of the world doesn’t lend itself so well to attending such events so it was very special for me to be able to pay my respects. For more on this visit my grandmother's website:

The drive from London to Glasgow which is about 700km was one of the longest drives we’d tackled in one day on the whole trip. The only other places where we would have travelled further in a single day were Australia when we had to make a dash for the pushed forward shipping date (Blog Day 10 - The desert, the outback and thetropics), and China where our plans were turned topsy turvey because of the badly timed closure of Tibet, meaning we had to drive 6,715 km in two weeks instead of the 3,400 or so we were supposed to travel in three weeks (Blogs Day 87, Day 93, Day 94, Day 117 and Day 118). Although we covered a lot of distance over the whole journey, we did do it over a year for the point of not being in a rush and to be able to stop in places and not drive 1000’s of kilometres every day. For the majority of the trip we also didn’t have the opportunity to cover these sorts of distances on a daily basis, as the quality of a lot of roads we travelled on meant that even when we drove for eight or ten hours, we’d only cover a couple hundred kilometres anyway.

This was one of the few days on which we took turns driving, the only other times being when we had extra people in the car, whether wanted or unwanted, so it was less comfortable for the passengers such as when we had Lui in China (un-wanted: Blog Day 118 -The Incompetency of NAVO: Part 2 - Our sub-par tour guide), or Josje and Remco in Kazakhstan (yes, that means we had six in the car so we really needed to switch seats often, but they were definitely wanted: Blog Day 138 – How an afternoon searching forflamingos became six days in the desert with some hitch hikers). The reason we switched around on this drive was different though: it was so that we could all share in the drive that would take us to Scotland. We got off the M6 for the border so we could stop and take a photo or two, though unfortunately it was dark by the time we got there and all of our cameras were beginning to struggle under the workload they’ve been given this year, so our photos at the “SCOTLAND welcomes you” sign in Gretna Green aren’t brilliant, but we can see where we are and that’s the main thing.

Gretna Green is a village on the Scottish side of the border which was made famous when Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act was brought into play in England and Wales in 1754. Under the act it was necessary for brides and grooms to have parental permission under the age of 21, whilst in Scotland it was still permissible for boys to get married at 14 and girls at 12 without their parents’ consent. As a result there was a swell in young English and Welsh couples fleeing to Scotland to tie the knot, and as the first village accessible from England Gretna Green was a convenient place for these “runaway marriages” to take place. Since that time the laws in Scotland, England and Wales have changed many times causing rises and falls in the trends, but to this day Gretna Green is a very popular place for weddings, especially for English couples. Directly opposite the “SCOTLAND welcomes you” sign is the cottage which historically was used for these ceremonies and the facts are proudly painted on the stone walls. The side of the building facing Scotland reads “last house in Scotland marriage room” and the wall which faces England reads “first house in Scotland marriage room”. Another sign boasts that over 10,000 marriages have been performed in that marriage room.

Our next stop, and the last one before Glasgow, was for dinner in the village of Moffat. Glad to be in Scotland and desperate to experience Scottish cuisine at its finest we found a chippie (a chippie being fish and chip shop, not a carpenter as any Australian readers might think) and indulged ourselves in a haggis supper and Irn Bru each. Scotland at its finest.

Day 334 – The White Cliffs of Dover. (France, England, crossing the English Channel)

We successfully managed so many border crossings and visa applications earlier in the trip, and struggled through police checks and corruption, but now that we were casually jaunting our way through Western Europe, visiting friends and having a nice time, things were pretty simple and straight forward. The last thing that we needed to organise though was the ferry crossing from the Continental Europe to the UK. Having taken vehicles across the English Channel umpteen times before on previous trips, Ben and I knew that Dunkirk to Dover on Norfolk Lines would be the best option and we were pretty comfortable that it would be cheap and simple to book. The problem is though that we left it until only a couple of days in advance, at which point none of our credit cards worked on the website. Stupidly we procrastinated asking Josje and Remco who we were staying with in Gent to help us out, and by the time we did it was less than 24 hours before the time of departure and all the prices had gone up. As expected Norfolk Lines had been the cheapest when we were trying to book it a couple of days in advance, the price from Dunkirk to Dover being £29. Now that all the prices had shot up though, much to our disdain the cheapest option was now from Calais on Sea France and it would cost about £50. It was very frustrating, but in the scheme of things really not the end of the world. We just hoped that France wouldn’t decide to go on strike that day.

Our time in France was brief, in fact all we did was drive to Calais, spend our last Euros in Subway, and head to the ferry port. The Customs and Immigration process to leave France was simple with just a regular passport check, a few questions about the nature of our trip (the same type of questions we received when entering Poland: Blog Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU), and a form to tell them that we didn’t have any drugs or weapons on us. We were given a card to hang from our rear-view mirror that had the number 122 on it – the number of the lane we were to queue up in to board the ship from.

This was it. We were about to be in the UK, days from our destination, and this was farewell to, well, the trip really. I’ve mentioned before various points along the way that have felt a bit like end points (Blog Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU), and this was certainly a pretty major one. Arriving in Scotland would be another, getting to Glasgow, and of course making it to our destination of Appin, but crossing the Channel was big. It was all a bit surreal as we waited to board the ship, then stood on the deck looking out over France and imagining all the places that we’ve been through on our journey to get there. Watching as the White Cliffs of Dover become closer was a landmark we’d been looking forward to, but unfortunately we couldn’t have chosen a foggier day. Everywhere we looked was a sheet of white, and although we stared and squinted, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the White Cliffs until we were already docked in Dover.

Driving on the left for the first time since Thailand was peculiar, and having gotten so used to driving on the right hand side with a right-hand drive car, we now had to get re-used to having the wheel on the correct side. We stopped at a rest stop on the motorway to buy some food and use a toilet, and realised just how used to constantly working through a language barrier we have become. Instead of saying “Bankomat?” we could now just approach anyone and address them with “hi, excuse me, could you tell me if there’s an ATM nearby please?” No one looked at us strangely and even our car blended in a bit more. We had become so accustomed to communication with strangers being a task and always sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere we went, it sounds ridiculous but it took several weeks for me to stop thinking twice about how to greet people. “It’s fine, they speak the same language as you,” I had to tell myself over and over again.

The last stop on our tour of people we met when travelling was Grady, the guy who we met at the Kazakh Embassy in Urumqi, China, the person who was with us while we battled NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Overland) as they used all their force and resources to try and blackmail us (Blog Day 117 - The incompetency of NAVO Part 1 -Kazakh visa troubles and Day 118 -The incompetency of NAVO Part 2). At the time he was in the middle of hitch-hiking from Perth, Australia to London to raise money for Chi Line, and after leaving Urumqi we spent a week or so together in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Grady isn’t just a fun and interesting person, he also happens to reside in the much sought-after fashion of on a houseboat, currently moored in the centre of London. Utilising the nearby Sainsbury’s car park we had the unique pleasure of enjoying London from the riverside, an experience that most people, locals and tourists alike, will never truly have. The mooring was extremely private, with the back of the Kensal Green Cemetery (where Freddie Mercury and countless other celebrities and persons of note rest in peace) on one side, the river on the other, behind which was a small walking track and then a high wall. Our first meal in London was sausages and burgers grilled over a campfire with some fellow river dwellers, and our time in London was spent cruising the canals, and relaxing at the waterside. There are a fair few house boats on London’s canals, and screeds of people walk and cycle along the paths running alongside the water every day, yet as we navigated our way around we were continuously met with looks of amusement and curiosity. If I saw a houseboat in Melbourne I’d probably stare, take a photo and tell everyone about it, but I would have thought they’d be used to it in a city where such a thing is so prolific. Yet we were still obviously a novelty and I even managed to snap a photo of someone taking a photo of us.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Day 318 – The third wheel. (Germany)

Trevor had really done so well for so long and even after all the horrible fuel we fed him with and the constant harshness of the roads for so much of this trip we so almost made it all the way with our original set of tyres. Perhaps if we hadn’t taken so many little detours such as the 2,500 km round trip to take in Astana when we were in Kazakhstan, or the extra 2,000 km we drove to see Shiraz and Esfahan in Iran, or the huge amount of doubling back we did in Europe by making it to Germany then backtracking all the way through Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, then we could have completed the trip without needing any new tyres. But if we use that logic then we could have just flown the whole way and then we wouldn’t even have needed a car.

When we had the problems with our tyres in Romania (Blog Day 289 – Threatening to spontaneouslycombust) we took a gamble and decided just to buy two new tyres costing us 220 as opposed to four for 360, hoping that two of our remaining three would hold up for the remainder of the journey. Well they survived the many potholed and unmade roads that we traversed through Romania, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine and Poland but decided, minutes after reaching Germany and getting on the perfectly made, impeccably maintained, void of speed limits but incredibly controlled in terms of other safety precautions, autobahn, the familiar clunk and wobble resounded from Trevor’s back side. Fortunately we were on the 200 m stretch between two tunnels so we hobbled onto the emergency lane and hastily removed the shredded old tyre and replaced it with the completely bald spare tyre. Knowing that part of the beauty of the autobahn is how controlled they are, making it possible to drive at insane speeds for minimal danger, and we didn’t have any of the things that made changing a tyre on the emergency lane legal. We didn’t have that reflective hazard triangle thing, or reflective vests, or road worthy tyres, or any of the safety kit that’s compulsory for driving on German roads. All we could do was hope that the tyre change would happen before we were spotted by anyone who cared, and fortunately we displayed exceptional team work and were back on the road less than 10 minutes after the tyre blew. (Thanks Denner.)

The spare which we were now driving on was beyond un-road worthy, it was only there as an absolute emergency and there was no way we could make it to Scotland on it. We had our doubts actually that we’d make it to Berlin without it wearing away, and then we really would be stuck. So we exited the autobahn at the next opportunity in an attempt to begin the search for new tyres, but very quickly realised that it was in fact Sunday and not a single thing was open. Well we’d just have to drive very carefully for now and take care of it during our stay in Berlin.

Edgar pointed us in the direction of some mechanics and car yards so we used that as a starting point. The first shop we found was able to get us a tyre, but it would be ordered in especially for us so would take a couple of days and cost almost 200. We were glad to have an option, but desperately hoped that we would find somewhere that could beat the price and preferably give it to us straight away. There were several other places on the same block, a lot of them selling second hand tyres, but there aren’t many cars on European roads with Trevor’s specifications so the ones that were able to get it (most of them couldn’t) were all ordering it in so it was the same story with the price and the wait.

Someone gave us directions to a shop that would surely have our tyre, so filled with both hope and dread we set off to find this place. On the way we stopped in a couple more car yards and second hand tyre shops and were given more directions to this other place. We weren’t exactly sure what we were looking for, but as soon as we got there we knew that was it. We had been sent to a large complex with service centres, a car park and a sizeable shop, all of which was obviously part of a chain called Auto Teile Unger (ATV). Inside the shop there was an entire display of shiny new tyres, but despite searching through each one, we couldn’t find Trevor’s size. We were very impressed with the outstanding service we received when we asked at the counter though, and the friendly young gentleman offered to ring their other stores in Berlin and find out if anyone else had a tyre for us. While he waited on the phone we assuaged his curiosity by describing our trip to him, making him all the more determined to find us a tyre. With great excitement and much to our relief he jotted down some details and gave us the good news that another Berlin branch had two tyres that would fit Trevor’s needs. He’d asked for them both to be set aside for us, even though we only wanted one, though to be honest it did seem fairly unlikely that the one other guy in the whole of Europe that had a vehicle with this size tyre would attempt to purchase it in the next half hour or so. The shop assistant kindly printed us a map, wrote down the address, gave us verbal directions and wished us well as we went on our way.

It was about half past three by now and we had a booking to see the Reichstag Building at quarter past five, so we considered whether we had time to do this right now, but decided just to hurry up and get on with it. Denner began driving in the general direction while I looked up the address on the map of Berlin that Denner had on his phone, but I realised pretty quickly that the map the very helpful shop assistant had printed out didn’t match up with the map I was looking at. We tried looking for nearby streets and searching for landmarks, but nothing was matching up so we exited the autobahn to try and figure out what was going on. Realising that we weren’t far from Edgar’s house we decided just to go home and check the internet, at which point we discovered that whilst his intentions were pure and his effort surmount , our friend at the shop had printed us a map for a Bismarckstraß in a different city. Fortunately his verbal directions had been correct so we had been heading the right way, and with a new map in hand we found the place easily.

The tyres were sitting there waiting for us when we arrived and we waited the 20 minutes or so it took to have our ancient, mangled tyre replaced by the crisp, clean new one. 159.25 later and we still had enough time to drive into town and see the Reichstag Building at our allotted time.

For any mathematicians out there you may have realised our folly: had we just paid 360 to begin with we would have had four new, matching tyres, but by trying to save a bit of money we not only cost ourselves a lot of extra effort, but ended up spending 379.25 – an extra 19.25 – on one less tyre. Well that’s the benefit of hindsight isn’t it, and were we to do it all again we’d do it the same anyway.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Day 316-332 – Solidifying friendships. (Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium)

We didn’t realise it at the time, but our last night in Poland was also the last night we would camp on this trip. We found a good spot in a pine plantation which had become one of our favourite camping locations as they usually have all the prerequisites of a perfect spot: a good network of tracks to drive on, the ground will be relatively flat, always plenty of firewood, and other than a couple of trucks every couple of months, no traffic whatsoever. It was a bit bitter sweet crossing the border to Germany, passing the old buildings that are now empty but not so long ago would have been writhe with guards and officials, police and military. On one hand it was a relief knowing we wouldn’t have to worry about the bureaucracy involved in border crossings again, but actually we have greatly enjoyed the challenge of playing the game that these crossings are, and knowing that we had none more between us and Scotland brought home the feeling of the end of the trip.

We got straight on the autobahn heading to Berlin where we would stay with Edgar, who along with his friend Andreas, we had met many months ago now in Uzbekistan. We spent a small amount of time one evening with Edgar in Samarqand, but it was amongst a group, and it wasn’t until we stumbled across each other in Tashkent a couple of weeks later that we got to know them much better and realised that these were blokes we definitely wanted to be friends with. We hadn’t made very specific plans before arriving in Berlin, but Edgar knew we were coming and we had his phone number. Unfortunately we just didn’t have a phone to contact him on, so our first hour or possibly more after arriving in Berlin was spent trying to get in touch with him.

First of all we searched for wi-fi, hoping to get in touch with him via the internet, but after wasting a bunch of time trying to log on to various servers, and waiting whilst horribly slow connections ate into our afternoon, we decided just to bite the bullet and look for a pay phone. We were pretty cynical about the chances of just stumbling across one, but fortunately we passed a couple just after deciding to look. We rang Edgar, really unsure of whether this was going to work out, and in the two minutes of conversation before the 12 we’d scrounged together in coins had run out and we were cut off, he gave us an address, but we didn’t manage to establish anything else.  We went straight there with no idea of when he might come to meet us but hoping it would be soonish, and couldn’t believe it when he was already there. After all the hoo-ha and our concern for lack of planning it all worked out perfectly. Andreas wasn’t able to host us, but between Edgar and his friend who lived around the corner, they were able to put us up and we couldn’t have had a better time with them.

The thing about meeting people when travelling is that whilst you may get on like a house on fire, you might see eye to eye on every subject you can think of, you never want to stop talking to them and you consider them to be good friends, it is much different to getting to know people when they are amidst their real lives. The reason we used our short time in Europe as a chance to visit a few of the people we’d met on this trip wasn’t for free accommodation or because they were necessarily on our way, or even for the reasons that we like to use Couch Surfing. Our purpose for visiting these people several months after having met them in various “exotic” countries was to solidify the friendships and move them from the category of “some cool people we met travelling” to “really good friends”. The peculiar thing about this was that whilst they had been home and had resumed their lives several months ago, we were still a group of rogue travellers who had been on the road ever since. This was funny to think of from both our point of view and theirs. Another interesting thing is that whilst we have now witnessed their regular lives and seen how they go about their day to day business, their impression of us still doesn’t include that aspect of who we are.

After Edgar and Andreas in Berlin we headed to Nurnberg to stay with Chrissie and Daniel who we met in Cambodia (Blog Day 59 - Seven guys in a car). From there we shot through to Amsterdam, stopping in Aachen on the way to have lunch with Farnas, an Iranian girl who we met at the bazaar in Shiraz. In Amsterdam we stayed with Priscillia who oddly enough had never met Trevor before as we met her in the Philippines whilst he was being shipping to Malaysia. During our days in Amsterdam, Sven who we met in Belgrade, bumped into on the streets of Budapest and spent New Year in Prague with (Blog Day 281 – Youdon’t always get what you pay for), made the journey from his nearby hometown to spend an afternoon with us in the city. Our next stop was Gent in Belgium to visit Josje and Remco who we picked up in a remote village in Kazakhstan, travelled through the desert for a week with (Blog Day 138 – How an afternoon searching forflamingos became six days in the desert with some hitch hikers), and met up with again a couple of weeks later so we could explore Kyrgyzstan together (Blog Day 148 – Beer and shashliks on thebeach gone wrong and Day 152 - Life as a nomad).

Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU. (Border crossing Ukraine to Poland)

On crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland we would be entering the EU for the third and final time on this trip. I’ve mentioned before some of the various “end points” of this grand expedition; arriving in geographical Europe (Blog Day 246 –Breakfast in Asia, Europe for lunch, and back to Asia for dinner), entering the EU for the first time (Blog Day 251 –Bad cops turned good), making it to a country which is on the Euro (Greece), entering the EU again (Blog Day273 – From Melbourne to the EU), and many more. Entering the EU for the last time though did bring with it a certain sense of finality – after arriving in Poland we would remain in the EU all the way to the end of the trip. With less than four weeks to go, we really were on the home stretch now.

We made an informed decision about which post we would cross the border at, having been warned by several people that the main one near Lviv can involve waiting in excruciatingly long queues taking nine or ten hours in some cases. Usually we’re relatively dismissive of advice we get from locals because the situation is always so different for us anyway. We seriously considered avoiding this one though and taking a detour to the smaller border post because amongst the people that warned us was the Polish EU guard who we spoke to when entering Ukraine (Blog Day300 – Friends with the EU Babysitters).

The border post was a monstrosity of stainless steel and reinforced concrete, towering over the horizon. As we approached the entrance to the intimidating complex a blond-haired muscular Russian-looking man in army uniform waved at us to stop, at which point he asked us a series of questions all of which were answered with various types of shrugs. After peering through our windows, Muscley Blond Guard handed us a slip displaying a number and gestured for us to proceed through the gates and down the left hand lane. Several hundred metres later we found ourselves at the back of a queue of cars where we waited for a while until a portly guard worked his way back to us. We handed Portly Guard our numbered slip, at which point he turned his nose up at us, asked for our passports and car documents which we handed him and thrust a new slip of paper in the window. Turning away from us, Portly Guard waved dismissively back towards the gates we’d just gained access through. Well this was a pain. We called out as Portly Guard sauntered off and thankfully we managed to catch his attention. Our requests for some sort of explanation or more specific instructions, along with our insistence that we were in fact a car, as notated on our numbered slip and demonstrated by the hard evidence that we were, in fact, a car, therefore meaning that we were in the correct queue and shouldn’t be removed to the other one which was clearly for lorries, were ignored. Our indignation was met with passive disdain so we bit our tongues and returned to Muscley Blond Guard on the other side of the gate.

Muscly Blond Guard didn’t take much interest in us this time; I suppose his curiosity wasn’t strong enough to outweigh the amount of work that was required in looking after us. The very young looking guard standing nearby took us on though and ushered us to a booth where we were met by a very surly guard. Young Guard hung back but remained in view, watching us out the corner of his eye while Surly Guard stared at our new slip.

“Passport? Document?”

“The guy in the car queue has them. He told us to come here and go in the truck queue.”

“Passport. Document.”

“Over there. We need to go in this queue. Look at the slip.”

“Passport! Document!”

“We don’t have them! We were told to go in this queue!”

He stared at us, made a few phone calls and eventually instructed us to return to the car queue.

“We. Were. Told. To. Go. In. This. Queue.”

Some more phone calls were made and eventually we were allowed to proceed into the truck queue. Hopefully our documents would be waiting for us up ahead somewhere and we wouldn’t just be directed to yet another queue.

We waited in the car while our documents were passed around between various offices and it wasn’t too long before we were sent on towards Poland. Relieved to be through the Ukrainian part of the process we drove onwards only to be pulled over at the usual passport checkpoint before no man’s land. The jolly guard asked us for our passports and a particular document which we handed him, only to discover that it hadn’t been stamped by the correct authority in the correct place. Denner followed Jolly Guard’s directions back to one of the many offices and received the necessary stamp, and with a smile Jolly Guard allowed us to proceed.

With that part completed and now on the Polish side, we had to start from square one again, choosing a queue to join the end of. Worlds away from their post-Soviet, excessively bureaucratic and highly disorganised counterpart, Polish Customs and Immigration were highly professional and the pinnacle of efficiency. A charming female guard was making her way through the queue of cars, moving people through as quickly as possible. Friendly and approachable, Charming Lady Guard was a far cry from the burly, intimidating Ukrainian guards we’d just left and we happily answered her questions and waited patiently while she did a cursory search of the car. The questions she asked were the type of ones you get when entering Australia or Britain, where they’re subtly digging in a very friendly way, attempting to decipher whether you’re suspicious or not, and you can’t quite decide whether they really are a little bit interested in who you are and what you’re doing, or if the curiosity is entirely feigned and purely business. Either way I always end up enjoying speaking to them, and in this case I choose to believe that she really was intrigued by the concept of our trip. When Charming Lady Guard was satisfied with us and our answers she disappeared with our documents and promptly returned to give us the all clear.

The next and final stage of the border crossing was to have the car ripped apart at the searching station. A dainty but formidable female guard approached and we gathered that she was here to take care of us. Formidable Lady Guard completely ransacked our vehicle, taking torches and screw drivers to every nook and cranny, searching the entirety of each bag and box, the backs of the chairs, the underside of the engine, the door panels, inside the trim and linings, underneath the carpet in the boot etc. As well as unpacking every item she even tore the lining of my laptop bag just to check I wasn’t smuggling anything through in there. (I wasn’t.) There were other cars nearby that were much emptier than ours and were being scrutinised even more thoroughly, with wheels being removed and entire panels taken away. Eventually, and much to our relief, we were dismissed as non-smugglers and granted entry to Poland. We quickly threw everything back into the car, all of our belongings tossed haphazardly on top of each other, unpacked from their bags and boxes making retrieving anything later on more of a challenge than usual. On we went and we were finally in Poland, and back in the EU where we would now remain for the remainder of the trip.

It did cross our mind that although there were dogs sniffing around the general vicinity earlier on in the border crossing, they didn’t seem to be thoroughly searching and there certainly weren’t any around at this point. So although we couldn’t have hidden a toenail clipping inside the car, our luggage or the lining of my laptop bag, I could have had anything I liked in my pockets and nobody would have noticed. It is odd how the focus is entirely on the possessions in this situation and not even remotely on the person.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Day 313 – Chandeliers and Cauliflowers. (Poland)

With less than four weeks to go until we planned to reach our destination of Appin in Scotland, we were planning the rest of our route around visiting people that we had met along the previous parts of our travels. As the only people for us to visit in Poland were on a skiing holiday at the time we were there we decided just to spend a couple of days in Krakow and head straight to Germany where we would begin our tour of visitations. Having really succeeded with Couch Surfing in Ukraine (every single night we were there we Couch Surfed) we decided to stay in a hostel in Krakow. Couch Surfing is amazing because of the opportunity it gives to meet locals and glean a little bit of how people live in different places, but it is also great to meet other travellers and hostels are a fantastic way to do that. And sure enough, as soon as we arrived at the hostel we met the friends that we would spend our days in Krakow with: Laura from Australia who happened to walk up the 82 stairs to the hostel entrance at the same time as us, causing much confusion for herself and the receptionist, and Patrick from England who was fascinated by our trip and caused us much amusement over the following days.

We had heard from several people in the last few weeks that Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must see, and being only 13 km from Krakow is an easy day trip. Despite the fact that three of us had already been to Krakow on previous trips, we hadn’t visited the salt mine before so decided to prioritise that in our agenda. The tour of the salt mine began with a descent down 378 wooden stairs, dropping to 64 m below ground level. Not only were the stairs steep and deep, but there were only half a dozen steps between each landing, each of which lead to the stairs turning back 180° on themselves, so by the time we reached the bottom we all felt a bit dizzy, not only from the depth, but also from the constant spinning around. Built in the 13th Century, Wieliczka Salt Mine was still functioning until 2007, making it one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines. Although the mine reaches a depth of 327 m and spans a distance of over 287 km, the 3.5 km section tourists are taken to only descends to a depth of 135 m and much to our disappointment only covers about 3.5 of the 287 km.

We became severely disorientated as our guide, Katherine (the ticket price includes a guided tour) led the way through a maze of narrowcorridors which opened out into vast chambers and intricate chapels, past informative displays, spooky monuments and even an underground lake. Parts of the walls are reinforced with wood, but other parts are left open, displaying the stunning swirling patterns of the salt as it oozes out of the land. Some of the wood had been so saturated by the salt that it had begun to look like rock, and in some parts the salt crystals have congealed into little bunches referred to as “cauliflowers”, because of their visual resemblance to the vegetable. In some places the walls are rough, but in parts where thousands of people run their hands across it every day, the rock and the salt have become smooth and shiny, almost like marble. Some of the statues that were carved into the salt were understated and we almost didn’t notice them, but some were bold and brash. There was one scene depicting a group of miners at work, and another mining scene, this one fictional and involving gnomes, which was built to spark the interest of children. Many of the statues were constructed by miners to pass time, so there were life sized sculptures of ancient legends and fairytales. Inside the chapels there were all the usual icons and monuments, carved out of the salty rock though, and even the spectacular chandeliers were made completely of salt.

The crème de la crème of this incredible complex though is the exquisite Chapel of St. Kinga, which at 101 m below ground level is the world’s lowest church. The entrance to the magnificent hall brings you out at a mezzanine level giving a breath-taking panoramic view of the entire church. As you make your way down the sweeping staircase to the main level it is hard not to feel like royalty. An altar, pulpit and crucifix mark the front of the church, whilst unbelievable carvings surround you. Amongst others, a full-size scale version of the “Last Supper” by Da Vinci is embedded into the salt walls. In the centre another salt chandelier hangs, this one all the more monstrous in size and grandeur.

During the three hour tour we had followed Katherine from 64 m below ground level to 135 m and we wondered about how we were to get back up. Fortunately the ticket price and guided tour includes a ride back up in a lift, so after enjoying a fine cafeteria meal in the lovely underground restaurant, we became part of the large group of visitors making their way to the lift. It was quite a process, this bit of the tour, and I can’t even imagine what it might be like in peak season when the place sees around 7,000 visitors per day. Katherine handed her 6 person tour (us and our new friends from the hostel) to a stern man with long grey hair who led the now huge group through a few more corridors, another chapel, and past a reception hall to a small dingy alcove. The first 20 or so people were ushered up a small staircase where they entered the top floor of the elevator, and the next 20 or so were allowed to enter the bottom floor of the elevator. Unfortunately I had hung back to take a photo of the corridor and the others had gone on, so I made the elevator ride on the bottom, whilst the rest of my companions were on the top. 135 m is a substantial distance for a lift to travel, and this one was no state of the art piece of machinery. We had become pretty used to clunky and shaky Soviet lifts after our extensive time spent in formerly Russian occupied countries, but usually there weren’t 40 people crammed into one. As I stood in the middle of a group of Japanese tourists for the several minutes it took for the rickety, unlit elevator to reach the top, I could hear the rest of my group centimetres above me joking and laughing about the ride. Surrounded by nervous giggling from my Japanese compartment buddies, I stood quietly and listened to my comrades discussing the odds of whether the lift might collapse and the fact that this was more dangerous than any rollercoaster. But fortunately we made it to the top and have ticked yet another Soviet lift off our “done” list.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Day 311 – Cold cars and quirky cafes. (Ukraine)

As I’ve previously mentioned we were becoming pretty used to being cold by this point in the trip. Two or three pairs of socks was a general minimum, hat, scarf and gloves was a must, and huddling up inside our clothes had become second nature. Usually though we’d get in the car, run it on petrol (as we learned the hard way: Blog Day 290– When Trevor got cold) and after a bit of time we’d be able to switch the heaters on and warm up Trevor’s insides, even if only a little bit and not until several hours into the journey. The day on which we drove from Kiev to Lviv though was cold beyond any cold that we had yet experienced. As we chose a vehicle that is 20 years old and doesn’t have lots of extra electronics such as a temperature gauge we can’t be sure what the exact temperature was, but what we know is that we had experienced our fair share of -20°C, and this was well beyond that. Not only did the engine not heat up enough to unfreeze the LPG tank, the windscreen washing water, or the air blowing out of the vents (all of which were somewhat regular occurrences), but the entire inside of the car became frozen. At first we thought a layer of ice was forming on the outside of the windows and doors, then we realised that the ice was in fact condensation on the inside of the car which had frozen. And this wasn’t just a little layer of frost; this was a thick sheet of solid ice. Visibility became essentially non-existent through the solid coating that stuck to every window, and Denner who was driving on this occasion struggled to peer out of the small gap of windscreen that we managed to de-ice by blowing all the vents on it. Being surrounded by a car of ice didn’t do much for our personal body warmth either. I’ve always thought that the difference between -15°C and -30°C probably isn’t that noticeable; there’s a certain point it gets past, as with when it’s really hot on the other end of the spectrum, that the body just can’t tell the difference. But after this day in the car I can tell you that the body definitely does know the difference between these low temperatures. We have never been so relieved to reach our destination and be welcomed into the warm home of our host and her family, where we were showered with hot soup and delicious snacks.

Anyone who has travelled at all will know that there are certain things you come to miss when being away from home for an extended period of time: your own bed, sitting on a couch watching tellie, time spent with family and friends, and the longing for a home cooked meal. We had some great experiences through Couch Surfing where we had the opportunity to be part of a home and participate in activities such as eating or making home cooking, but Lviv was the only place other than Canakkale, Turkey (Blog Day 246 – Breakfast in Asia, Europe for lunch,and back to Asia for dinner) where we stayed with a family. It was lovely being part of a family and being treated to things like a packed lunch, and the fact that we couldn’t communicate in Ukrainian with our host’s parents didn’t take away from how hospitably we were accepted into their family.

Our host in Lviv was fantastic, not only welcoming us into her home, but taking us on an extensive custom tour of the city, giving us a fantastic snapshot of her home town. We climbed to the top of the clock tower, a tough ascent up 305 narrow and uncomfortably worn steps (even after the 4-storey elevator ride) which gave us a spectacular 360° view of snow-covered Lviv. We stopped by the Chapel of Boims on the corner of Market Square (the central square) on which rests one of the only two statues in the world depicting Christ sitting down. Although it is a small, relatively un-impressive building, apparently the inside is decorated glamorously with murals and the dome is covered in tiny mirrors, producing a bizarre optical illusion causing the church to look much larger from the inside. We tried on several occasions to go inside the church but even at times within the prescribed opening hours, disappointingly it always seemed to be closed.

We were also taken to a shop which our host/guide assured us we would love. We were a little apprehensive about this as none of us are hugely into shopping and were quite anxious about being taken to some sort of expensive speciality store where we’d feel like uncomfortable and awkward cheapskates. But we realised just how well our host had done at assessing our likes and wants when we were shown into a small boutique store selling a range of very unusual clothes and accessories that had been designed by unknown Ukrainian designers. Not only were the clothes really different and exciting, but the girls working in the shop were so happy to have us there, treating us like guests and humouring us as we tried on various hats and coats and what not. And the great thing about the designs was that each one had its own story. One particularly splendid hat for example was based on an ancient Ukrainian military uniform.

Lviv is known for its very active range of restaurants, bars and cafes. The streets are oozing with cool places to eat and drink and meet people, regardless of what you might consider to be cool. One aspect of this that stands out though is the quirky cafe culture that has emerged and Lviv is now home to a range of uniquely themed coffee shops and cafes. We by no means visited them all, but we made an effort to check out the ones that particularly grabbed our fancy. There’s the Trabant Cafe which is tall and skinny. There are only three or four tables on each floor and each one has a different theme such as space or dinosaurs. On the roof though is the cafe’s namesake and main attraction: a genuine Trabant mounted at the side of the roof. You can sit inside the car and with nothing directly below you it appears that the vehicle is suspended in midair, offering a great view over the rooftops. Their other claim to fame is a man sitting on top of a chimney on the roof of this cafe, which is the highest statue in Lviv.

We went searching for the Mason’s Cafe, but like the club that the cafe is depicting it is difficult to find, so we gave up and ate at a bakery which specialises in strudels, both savoury and sweet. What makes this place stand out though, aside from its traditional bakery decor, is the huge pots of delicious homemade sauces which the customer is allowed to ladle onto his/her plate ad lib. The Mining Cafe was our favourite out of the ones we went to. The ground level is a lovely coffee shop and gift shop, but down in the basement it is set up to look and feel like a mine. On arrival a man will hand you a hard hat, one of which per group will have a torch attached, and then you are asked to follow the corridor as it weaves through various mining scenes. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to check out the one where you need a password to get in, the cafe that is Harry Potter themed, the Masoch Cafe, or the dozens of other unique establishments.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Day 307 – Sculptures and ski slopes. (Ukraine)

Kiev is a fascinating city and it was quite a task to narrow down the list of possible activities to squeeze into the three days that we had allocated to Kiev. One of the must-sees that we decided on though was FashionPark on Landscape Alley. Our host told us about it and showed us some photographs and the project looked fascinating. Kiev Fashion Park is the first project in a movement to install Ukrainian designed works of modern art in various locations around the city, including sculptures, benches, and play equipment. The park is located at the top of a hill but fortunately there is a funicular which we were able to catch on the way up, and the main street of souvenir shops runs down the other side of the hill. We struggled at first to find the park, but because we’d seen photos of the sculptures we knew what we were looking for. The first item that caught our attention was an amusing statue of a dozen pillows stacked precariously on top of each other; an angel blowing a trumpet perched at the top. When we spotted this we knew we were on the right track so followed the path and sure enough there were several more angels atop wobbly piles of cushions. An entire wall was covered in blue and white mosaic which at first we just thought was a nice pattern, but having walked the length of it we realised that there was a cat face at the end of it, the mouth of which was open and big enough for a person to stand inside, and it dawned on us that the whole wall was in fact a long blue cat with dozens of legs. The heads of a cat, a rabbit and an elephant of the same style were placed near this wall, each of which had an open mouth which doubled as a humorous novelty bench. We walked the length of Landscape Alley, passing a play park representing Alice in Wonderland, a bench with sculptures of a blanket and pillow sprawled on it as if it was used as a bed, a bench in the design of sunglasses and various other amusing works of art. And everything was covered in snow which not only made the whole experience more exciting visually, but added an extra dimension of fun when sliding down the Alice in Wonderland slide and posing for photos on the benches.

The great thing about staying with locals, which is why we used Couch Surfing as much as possible (we stayed with a Couch Surfer every single night in Ukraine), is that they can give you advice that you wouldn’t be able to get from a guide book or a website, and often they can show you places that wouldn’t even feature on any sort of tourist trail. Our hosts in Kiev were a perfect example of this: they took us to the Obolon brewery (Blog Day 306 – A bomb shelter and a brewery), told us about Fashion Park, helped our decision making regarding visiting Chernobyl (also Blog Day 306 – A bomb shelterand a brewery) and gave us advice on skiing options (below). In fact most of what we did in Kiev was on the back of suggestions from them, but they took us to one place that even most locals wouldn’t know about. Very close to a very beautiful section of waterfront there is a huge concrete tunnel which was built above ground during WWII and was intended to be used as storage for food, weapons and people. Unfortunately they didn’t get around to it quick enough and the project was dismissed at the end of the war, leaving this incomplete concrete eye sore in what is now quite a desirable area of the city. There is nothing set up there suggesting that it is of any significance and its current use is as a hang out spot for teenagers, junkies and the homeless who have left mounds of litter all through the interior.

Whilst staying in Kiev we went skiing at Vyshgorod which was our second and unfortunately last time on this trip. The first time was in Bosnia Herzegovina (Blog Day 268 – TheSarajevo Siege and the 1984 Winter Olympics) where we went to a particularly difficult mountain and had an exhausting day tackling the runs which held the Winter Olympics in 1984. The slopes around Kiev are very small and basic, catering solely to beginners, so our two experiences of skiing on this trip were completely opposite from each other. Whilst a challenge is good and we really enjoyed our day in Sarajevo, it was kind of nice to have a relaxing day of easy skiing where we could focus on more than just making it down the hill alive. The great thing about skiing at Vyshgorod is that it only took half an hour to drive there from our hosts’ house in Kiev so we were able to fit it into just an afternoon, which was plenty seeing there was only one slope.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Day 306 – A bomb shelter and a brewery. (Ukraine)

Leaving Cherkasy and heading towards Kiev we could feel the temperature dropping well past the -2°C or so that we’d become accustomed to in the last couple of weeks, and by the time we got to Kiev it would have been closer to -10°C. It is funny how the body becomes accustomed to its surroundings though; when it drops to 15°C in the evenings in Melbourne we put on jumpers, trousers and even – yes it sounds ridiculous, but honestly – jackets; in Scotland when spring sets in after winter and it starts reaching 12°C in the afternoon we strip off down to t-shirts; and we became accustomed in the same way to these desperately low temperatures and found ourselves considering anything higher than -5°C to be warm and it had to be well into the negative teens to be “chilly”. There had been a few days of uncharacteristic warmth (as in only a couple of degrees below 0) in Kiev just before we arrived and it hadn’t snowed for a little while, meaning everything on the ground had solidified and turned into very slippery ice, stuck to the ground in lumpy piles. This of course causes much amusement as long as you can either stay on your feet or keep your car on the road depending whether you’re walking or driving, but poses quite a hazard for those who struggle to do those things. Fortunately the drought was broken the night we arrived so everything was covered in a much more manageable layer of fresh powdery snow, but sadly that soon turned back into packed down mounds of slippery ice.

The Kiev metro is a textbook example of the Soviet style, of which we have seen so many on this trip. The stations are ornately decorated and highly policed and are typically built very low underground (especially the central ones), doubling as potential bomb shelters. In fact Arsenalna station which is one of the more centrally located ones in Kiev is 105.5m underground, claiming the title of world’s deepest train station. 100m might not seem like a lot when it’s running flat on top of the ground but catching the escalator from one of these deep train stations to the surface of Kiev demonstrates just how far it is. The escalators aren’t slow, in fact they are much faster than the ones I’m used to, and they still take several minutes to take you to the top. A few times we came across a broken escalator, but fortunately they switched them around so that you had to walk down but could still catch the escalator up.

We had planned to visit Chernobyl, about 140km from Kiev. To visit the still highly unstable exclusion zone you have to travel with a guide and tours must be organised with a minimum of 10 working days notice in order to receive all the necessary permits and paperwork. We did organise our tour in time, but unfortunately the company we had gone through pulled out with only a few days to spare and no one else would/could take us on at that short notice. We considered driving out ourselves anyway, seeing if we could see anything at all, or maybe we could try and follow on with another group once we got close. We realised that this was a pretty stupid idea though, considering just how dangerously toxic the whole area is and the fact that without a guide we would have had no idea what to look at anyway and would probably just end up driving around in circles, endangering ourselves and not even seeing anything anyway.

On the bright side, this gave us the opportunity to go on a tour of the Obolon brewery which our hosts were attending on the day on which we had planned to visit Chernobyl. Visible from our hosts’ apartment and only a five minute walk away, the Obolon brewery is Europe’s largest brewing facility, producing not only beer but also other alcoholic drinks, soft drinks and natural mineral water. We donned the fine looking disposable lab coats and hair nets that we were presented with for sanitary purposes (you know, the ones made out of the white papery/meshy material) and followed the group of 25 or so into a classroom where we were shown a very exciting and informative video about the brewery. Well it was probably informative. If you can understand Ukrainian. We signed some documents which we were assured by our host were ok to sign and followed on as we were marched through the corridors of the brewery. Our host translated some things, but regardless of the language barrier the massive scale brewing process was fascinating. The scale was just so huge and every process was completed in huge motorised production lines which snaked around the rooms on several levels. We kept getting left behind because we were so enthralled by each intricate stage in the procedure and as we couldn’t understand the words being said to us would just stand there, mesmerised, and forget to follow the group. On conclusion of the tour – which was free by the way – we were given goody bags of their produce and merchandise, including calendars, pens, posters, other various bits and pieces and even some beverages. We were disappointed though that we weren’t given any beer to try.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Day 303 – “Honey, you’re in the wrong home.” (Ukraine)

Cherkasy isn’t a location that seemed especially desirable to visit; it’s not famous for anything or particularly note worthy and there’s not much there, if anything at all, for tourists to occupy themselves with. It’s about 500km from Odessa (our previous destination) and Kiev (our next destination after Odessa) though, so we thought we’d try and make the most of our couch surfing prowess and look for a host somewhere between the two locations. We’ve found before that this is a fantastic way to plan a route as it encourages you to visit places you wouldn’t otherwise think of stopping in, and gives a unique incentive to experience towns that really are off the tourist trail. So we searched for hosts anywhere between Odessa and Kiev, and when a host accepted us in Cherkasy, a town of 250,000 residents located about 200 km South of Kiev, we jumped on the opportunity and made the arrangements.

Our hosts were laid back, very cool and impressively artistic, joining us in the evenings to have exciting conversations about all sorts of subjects, but leaving us to take care of ourselves during the day. We only stayed there two nights, so we had one full day to explore. We had noticed on our way into Cherkasy the previous evening, and we could clearly see from the grey blanket of apartment blocks surrounding the one we were staying in, that this town was a classic example of the Soviet style. As we drove from our hosts’ apartment to the centre of town we wondered how we would ever find our way back. Our directions were something like “turn right at the Soviet apartment block, then keep going past the Soviet apartment blocks until you get to a Soviet apartment block where you should take a left...” And how do people remember which building they live in? We did hear a few amusing stories during our extensive time in ex-Soviet countries about people arriving at the wrong apartment, unlocking the door with their key, entering the apartment and continuing on with things like watching television or cooking dinner, and not realising they were in the wrong apartment until someone else came home. The same jokes are made about China. It is an amusing image, but in actual fact it is such a sad reflection on the effects of communism. If we didn’t laugh about it, it would probably make us cry.

So as far as we could tell our impressions of Cherkasy were true – there really is nothing of great interest there, for an outsider anyway. During our day of exploring we saw a lot of Soviet apartment blocks and not a whole lot else. There were a handful of older, more beautiful buildings in the city centre, but other than a couple of cafes there wasn’t a whole lot to keep a tourist occupied. It is such an important part of travelling though – and one of the main reasons to do it by car – to see these places that you wouldn’t usually go to unless you had to; to witness how people live in all sorts of localities including those that aren’t picturesque, exciting, historically important or home to someone or something famous.