I guess now is a good time to look back over what was the year that was, the highs and lows of life on the road. If you can’t be bothered reading my blogs for the whole year (and who could blame you?) here’s 2009: An Earth Odyssey in a nutshell…
Ah, January – the whizzbangshebang through South America… for the first two weeks I was on target and on schedule. But then The Caribbean reared it’s ugly head and well and truly stuffed me up for the next couple of months.
Countries Visited: 19
Running Total: 19
February was a difficult month – just getting from St Vincent to Mexico required all my skill and dexterity, of which I have neither, which is probably why it took me a month, not the week I expected it to.
Countries Visited: 10
Running Total: 29
It’s crazy to think that I spent the first few days of March visiting every country in Central America, and then spent pretty much the rest of the month trying to get to one – Cuba.. Made a HUGE mistake in trying to get there from Key West, should have gone from Cancun in Mexico, would have saved a s— load of time.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 35
A fond month of 2009 as I wrapped up warm in Halifax, Nova Scotia before taking a phenomenally fast trip across the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with my friends and family in Liverpool. Managed to get all the way to Greece before the month was out. Nice!
Countries Visited: 28
Running Total: 63
The start of my downfall. Within just a few days I had polished off Europe and attempted to take a huge bite out of North Africa, a bite which ended up as a pathetic little nibble. The month ended in start-as-you-mean-to-go-on style with me being knocked back from Mauritania and failing to find any sensible way of getting to Cape Verde.
Countries Visited: 25
Running Total: 88
The month from hell. It kicked off with six days in a Cape Verde jail cell and went downhill from there as I found myself trapped in the worst place in the world.
Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 89
Desperate to leave the damned island of Cape Verde, I was eventually rescued by a lovely chap in a sail boat who managed to deliver me safe and sound (despite Poseidon’s protestations) to Dakar in Senegal. Before the month was out I had managed to wing it all the way to Cote D’Ivoire.
Countries Visited: 7
Running Total: 96
A good month on the road through West Africa, interrupted by a unexpected sojourn in Libreville waiting (once again) for a cargo boat that just refused to leave.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 107
I hadn’t been illegally detained for three months now, so the powers that be organised a surprise incarceration upon my arrival in the capital of Congo.. After I finally escaped I was bogged down attempting to renew my Angolan visa, but once I made it to Namibia, I was FLYING. Well, not really flying… I’m not allowed to.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 113
Possibly the most enjoyable month of travel, as I thundered pell-mell throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, fell in love with Madagascar and reached Mauritius in record-fast time.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 124
A silly and depressing month spent attempting to return to Africa from Mauritius and failing at every turn. The fact I missed out on visiting Seychelles particularly stung. Not a single new country to add my tally for the whole stinkin’ month.
Countries Visited: 0
Running Total: 124
After a slow beginning in stuck in Comoros, December leapt into action when I had just two weeks to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Cairo via Rwanda and Somalia and, against all odds, I pulled it off. I also made it to Cairo.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 133
It was the wee small hours when we pulled into Aleppo in the top left corner of Syria. Not one to stand on ceremony and after last night’s jiggery-pokery I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough and soon I was over the border and doing a little victory dance in my 140th country of this damn fool idealistic crusade. Although I hear ‘crusade’ isn’t too much of a buzz word around these parts.
So I found myself in Antakya, Turkey. In times long past, it was known as Antioch, which observant members of my congregation will remember from the 1st epistle of St. Graham (Chapman). Talking of Holy Grails, Antakya is not far from Iskenderun, which used to be known as Alexandretta. Those who have been studying the history of archaeology (well, watched the Indiana Jones movies) will know that Alexandretta is where the Valley of the Crescent Moon resides.
But my grail-hunting days are long behind me, and Antakya is a bit of a nowhere town so I found out what time the bus for the Iraqi border was leaving, put my feet up and waited as the hours ticked by. At quarter to seven, I arrived at the coach station only to discover that when the bloke wrote “1900” on my ticket, he meant I had to be there at “1700”. The bus doesn’t come into town, you have to meet it out at the main bus station on the outskirts. Now he tells me! Luckily enough though, there was just time for me to be whisked away in a taxi, get to the station and run like hell… the bus was pulling out of the station when I clambered on board.
Content with a decent day’s Odysseying, but cold as HELL (my socks were still wet from yesterday) I curled up into a ball and fell asleep.
Just before I go, is Christmas a public holiday in Turkey? It should be – after all, good St. Nick was Turkish (as was St. George and St. Paul). Maybe they should have a referendum, I can see the headlines now – “Turkey Votes For Christmas”.
It’d be worth it for that pun alone.
I blame Lonely Planet. The nearest town to the border of Iraq according to my guide book is a place called Sirnak, the real closest town is called Silopi. If I had known this in advance, I could have got off my bus in Silopi instead of foolishly staying on it until Sirnak. This meant I had to backtrack somewhat.
Yesterday when I asked for a ticket to Sirnak, a Turkish man said to me “why do you want to go there? It’s very dangerous… [gestures firing a machine gun] Best you go to Cappadocia.” Cappadocia’s fairy-chimney charms aside, this remark annoyed me more than scared me – it’s no secret that the Turks aren’t particularly enamoured with the Kurdish people that live in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Irritating buggers who have their own fancy language and customs – how dare they? Given the recent history of the Middle East, I think it’s fair to say that these guys ain’t too big on multi-culturalism. Which is a shame because if they would stop acting like brain-dead morons for just five minutes, they might discover that they have more in common with each other than they might think.
But while people are so obsessed with building up walls to keep other humans out (stuff like this always reminds me of Jonathan Swift and his big- and little-enders) we’re going to have what we call, er, a breakdown of communication, Doc. But being an outsider I’m happy to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I have to say that the Kurds did not let themselves down. Polite, courteous, helpful, generous… a friendlier bunch I couldn’t hope to meet. For instance, I get off the bus in Sirnak and I ask to go to the border with Iraq. A guy smiles and tells me in Kurdish to come with him and he gives me a lift to where the local minibuses stop. I get to the minibus stop and am invited into a nearby office to drink tea with the people there. It’s freezing cold, I’m up in the mountains and a glass of hot, hot tea with far too much sugar is exactly what I need. I offer to pay but they refuse to take a penny, instead they help me with my bags and soon I’m on a minibus heading back the way I came, it slowly dawning on me that I could have simply got off my coach two hours earlier and been in the same place.
Oh well, it only cost me a couple of quid to go back and at least I got a cup of tea into the bargain. When I finally got (back) to Silopi, I waited with a Kurdish lady who was also going to the border, before getting into a taxi and running the gauntlet.
Brace yourselves people… I was about to invade Iraq.
As things turned out, it couldn’t be easier… apart from the fact the border closed for lunch as soon as we got there. But once it was open, I didn’t have to queue – I got stamped out of Turkey in double-quick time and before I could say what-what, I was on the Iraqi side of the frontier. This was tremendously exciting. When I was planning The Odyssey, getting into Iraq was a bit of a grey science. My Middle East Lonely Planet pretty much said that all the borders were closed to tourists and under the ‘Solo Travellers’ heading it simply stated ‘You’d have to be mad’. But my LP is a little out of date now and anyway, I wasn’t going to Iraq proper – I was going to Kurdistan.
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq was a UN protectorate for years, even before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that’s not to suggest that they weren’t jumping for joy when Saddam was finally toppled. The Kurds were Saddam’s favourite whipping boys and suffered a ton of abuse at his command. Yesterday, ‘Chemical Ali’, the mastermind of the gassing of the Kurds in the town of Halabja, was hanged. To say the Kurds were quite pleased about this is an understatement – they were congratulating each other in the streets.
I don’t personally believe that people should be sentenced to death (it makes lawyers far too rich) but I could never imagine what it must be like to lose all your friends and all your family because some psychopathic nutter in power wants the world to know how much of a psychopathic nutter he really is, and gasses a entire town. I mean, how messed up do you have to be??
From the moment I crossed the border, the Kurds went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was herded to the front of the queue and invited into the office for a cup of tea with the border guards. When they asked me who I was and what I was doing, for the first time in this entire ridiculous journey, I wasn’t made to feel like I was intruding. I felt like they were actually interested – not just for their own gratification, but for my safety.
The chief explained that I was not to go to Mosul or Kirkuk, but anywhere north of there was fine. I nodded. “They will kill you, understand?” I understood. “Good. Welcome to Kurdistan!” and with that they stamped me in – NO VISA, NO FEE, NO PAYMENT, NO BACKHANDER… in I went.
If you want to butter me up (and who wouldn’t?) make sure I don’t need a visa to pop into your country for a visit, or if I do, make it free. Take a bow South Africa, Rwanda and Madagascar, you rock my world.
I had a quick mooch around the town of Z???, I could have turned around and headed back to Turkey, got my head down for the night and taken the 0800 bus towards Cyprus in the morning, but I was intrigued – here I was in the most dangerous country in the world and it was amazingly pleasant. Zarko was neat and tidy, good roads, trees, fountains, pavements… Londa, a friend of the irrepressible Kendra (Cairo), had offered me her couch to surf – but it was in Suleymania, on the other side of the region.
With no news about my visas for the continuation of The Odyssey after this, I figured what the hell. I texted Londa and said I was on my way.
There’s no public transport from Zarko to Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, so I had to share a taxi with three other people, but it only cost me $10, so I thought what the hell. On the way, we went uncomfortably close to Mosul – I could feel my buttocks clench as the milestones counted down. But then we swung a left and headed away and I breathed a sigh of relief. I doubt I would have got through the roadblocks anyway… my entry stamp is only valid for the Kurdish region.
I have to say though, there were a lot fewer roadblocks than I was expecting.. this is not West Africa by any means. Also, the roadblocks here actually made me feel safer, rather than made me feel like an escaped prisoner of war. And the guys manning the roadblocks seemed to be there for a reason… like our protection, rather than a protection racket – again, unlike West Africa. I can’t put this bluntly enough: the police in over half the states of Africa are just there to line their own pockets while stopping any intra-national or international trade going on, because the most effective way to keep a country on its knees is to keep everybody poor and everything wretched.
Although I have to say, when a guy came out of his little office sporting an AK-47 and wearing a balaclava, I did my best to stay calm… I had just heard about an attack in Afghanistan carried out by insurgents posing as soldiers, but I needn’t have worried, he looked at my passport, flashed me a smile and said “welcome”. It was bitterly cold, so the balaclava was necessary, but it still freaked me out.
When I got to Erbil, I had missed the last bus onwards, so it was another service taxi for the rest of the journey to Suleymania. I arrived at Londa’s around 11pm. She lived in a big new apartment complex, one of those where the block letter is written in neon light on the top (like the cover of The Killer’s Hot Fuss album) in a place called (somewhat bizarrely) German Village. In the distance, the snow-covered hills surrounded me like sentinels.
My word – I was in Iraq. At 11 o’clock at night, walking through a city I had never been to before that isn’t even mentioned in my Lonely Planet.
I was in IRAQ.
My name is Graham Hughes and THIS is The Odyssey.
You know what though – all these dangerous places I’ve been to, I haven’t seen one gang of horrible teenage lads hanging around on a street corner with their hoods up threatening passers-by for no better reason than they’re too stupid to think of anything else to do. (Plus nobody stops them.) When I lived in Orrell Park in Liverpool, I wouldn’t let them interfere with my wish to go to the shops at night, but even I had to admit that their presence made me much more anxious (in terms of fearing of injury or death) than my time in Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Iraq put together.
So next time somebody tells you not to go to such-and-such dangerous place, might I suggest you take them by the arm and go for a stroll to your go see your friendly neighbourhood scallies hanging around outside Blockbuster on a Friday night. Then tell them there ain’t no chavs in Sierra Leone, baby… happy days.
Today, I (reluctantly) left Sam and Jenny’s flat and plomped myself on a bus back towards Turkey. Sam reckons he’ll see me in Melbourne for Christmas, and you know what, I believe him. The bus took me as far as Erbil (or Arbil or Irbil, whatever) and as soon as I was off it, I was stuffed into a shared taxi to Zarko. The guy in the passenger seat spoke English and we discussed many things, including the fact that Tony Blair was being interviewed by the Iraq Inquiry today – it’s bizarre when your silly little life and important international events converge. What did he think of it all? He didn’t understand why there was an inquiry in the first place. I guess that says everything as far as the Kurds are concerned. I’m sure that other people in this country (and ours) have very differing options, but I’m offering this as a non-professional piece of journalistic intrigue.
Once we arrived in Zarko, it was cold. REALLY cold, and the last thing that I wanted was to be held at the border for five hours. But that’s exactly what happened. It would appear that getting into Iraq is a lot easier than getting out. I knew it was a hopeless cause once I was told that I needed the signatures of not one, not two but THREE different military-types in order to not have my camcorder tapes impounded. The whole process took over an hour, and that was just one step on our arduous journey covering the half-mile that constituted the border. It was one in the morning before long, I was in the town of Silopi on the other side.
Something I found hilarious, though – the lengths my service taxi-driver went through to hide the duty-free ciggies he and the other passengers had bought. You’ve seen that bit in The French Connection? It was a bit like that. I haven’t seen so many hidden compartments since I last played Wolfenstein. Roll with it, people… roll with it.
I just spent the last three days in Iraq… what did you do this week?
I had checked in to a local hotel in Silopi, sharing a room with a few other guys to get the price down to $10 (which was pretty extortionate if I stopped to think about it). I worried that I had mucked up the time difference between Iraq and Turkey and would find that my bus to Silifke had left half an hour ago, but that didn’t entice me to rush and I squeezed every last bit of sleep out of the situation that Chronos would allow. The bus station was just across the road.
I wanted a seat on the 8pm bus to Silifke, the town from which I could get the boat to Cyprus and therefore tick off that last remaining country on my list of European Nations. However, the bus was sold out and so I found myself hanging around for a couple of hours for the next one and what followed was a day so mired in confusion and conflicting information, I don’t know where to begin.
It was as though nobody knew how the hell I was to get to Silifke, least of all me. I therefore ended up getting off the bus no less than four times before clambering back on board the same bus again and again. It wasn’t until late afternoon when I finally got on a separate bus, assured that this was the right one. Funnily enough, when we stopped for dinner, my fellow diners were my friends that I had made on the first bus… weird.
After a minibus ride, another bus and finally another minibus, I arrived in Sillifke in the wee small hours feeling very much like a pinball with a ticket to go somewhere. I checked into the first hotel that would accept my $10 and got my head down for the night. Tomorrow: Cyprus.
It was one of those mornings upon which it’s far too cold, gravity seems to conspire against you and the snooze alarm makes it far, far too tempting… all too easy… to fall… back zzzzzzzzzzzz.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP BE BEEP!!
Okay okay! I’m getting up! After a decent shower, I headed out to get the daily fast ferry to Cyprus, Nation 142 on my list. Suddenly stuck by a crisis of confidence – the boat didn’t leave from Silifke itself, it left from the nearby town of Tasucu. How nearby? Well, I had absolutely no idea, did I? So instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the bus, I did the stupid thing and took a taxi.
In the event, it was only ten minutes down the road, but in my not-quite-wiped-the-sleep-from-my-eyes state, I forgot to remember the golden rule: all taxi drivers are swines. Having not turned on the meter, I really should have refused to pay him anything – the law would be on my side, but in the event, he managed (by following me into the ticket place and causing a scene) to wangle a tenner out of me. It wouldn’t have been that much in London. What an idiot.
Anyways, I bought my ticket and ran the daily gauntlet of passport control, customs, more passport control, more customs blah blah blah, found myself a seat near a nice Cypriot family from Britain and settled in for the journey. But, oh cruel fate, remember the big storm in Lebanon? The one that downed the aircraft? It was still raging in the Med and they didn’t want to risk it. So after an hour of sitting on the boat like a lemon, I got off the boat having gone precisely nowhere.
The good news (for me) was that the boats had not run for four days now, so my extended stay in Iraq made no difference to my country tally – I would have just been waiting in this one horse town instead not having half as good a time. The other bit of good news (kinda) was that the slow ferry to Cyprus would definitely be leaving at midnight. It looked like I had a day to waste.
I befriended a French musician from Lyon named Sylvan, who had been living in India for the past four years. I hoped he wouldn’t be one of those western nutcases who think that India is the be-all and end-all, and to my great relief, he wasn’t. He was just as cynical about that wonderful-but-utterly-bananas sub-continent as I am. We headed to the local kebab cafe, I hooked myself up to the internet and before I knew it, I was enjoying download speeds of 361kbps – that’s 361 times faster than I’ve had since I left Europe. Needless to say, I downloaded all the 24s that I still had to watch, as well as the leaked cam copy of Lost.
Hurrah for the internet! Although did you know YouTube is banned in Turkey…? But YouPorn isn’t. Go figure.
So I whiled away the day, getting a lot less done than I should have done and eating far too many kebabs (although I did have to show them how to make them – when I suggested the addition of chips, chilli peppers and mayo they thought I had dropped in from Mars). It was raining off and on all day, so my lack of umbrellage meant gallivanting was not on the agenda. Eventually, night fell and I met a bunch of Dutch students who were also making their own TV show – one in which they were trying to see how far they could get around Turkey without spending any money. It was their third day and they had been doing quite well until they reached Tasucu… which, given the state of the weather was not good news. Although, when the cute girl who was presenting explained that there were nine of them doing this thing, I wished them luck – they were going to need it.
Minibuses whizzed us around to the other side of the dock from where the slow boat departed and once again, the seemingly endless process of queuing, bag checks, stamp outs, more bag checks, more queues became a blur that didn’t snap into focus until I was on board the ship, the appropriately-named Calypso. I found a power socket, plugged in my laptop and settled in for the night.
When they say slow boat, they mean it! It was 11am before we reached port in Girne in the northern half of Cyprus. Northern half? What, like in St. Martin/Sint Maarten? Well, kind of, but in a much less hilarious fashion…
Warning – history lesson alert!!
You can skip this bit if you like…
Back in the mists of time, Cyprus was ruled by a succession of all the usual suspects in the area – Assyria, then Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and eventually the Byzantines… that was up until Richard The Lionheart turned up like a great big flowery nonce and gave the island to his ‘friend’ Guy de Lusignan. That was good for Cyprus for a while, having a ‘guy’ in charge who was good with colours helped with the aesthetics no end and before long, Cyprus was enjoying a golden age. That golden age was damaged by the meddling of the Venetians and then completely blown out of the water in 1570 by an invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a bunch of ne’er-do-wells and didn’t really care for their new possession, which languished in a state of entropy until BRR-PAP-PAAAAAH!! The British returned to the island in the late 1800s to get the place ship-shape, Bristol fashion and more than a little camp once again.
Anyway, after 300 years of not liking the Turks much, the original inhabitants now decided they were all Greek (this was news to anyone who had bothered reading a history book). This led to the concept of ‘enosis’, which is the reunification of the island with Greece. The fact that the place had only been (kinda) Greek for a few years under Alexander (who was a Macedonian) and then had been ruled from Egypt by the Ptolemaic Dynasty (the one that ended with Queen Cleopatra, pop-pickers!) didn’t seem to phase them – you know what people are like when they get a foolish idea in their heads… and something to moan about.
A victim complex is something that’s a bit alien to me, being white, British and middle-class, sorry I know that sounds terrifyingly blunt, but there you go, at least I’m honest about it. I supposed I get a bit miffed that America steals all our best ideas and makes loads of money out of them and I wish Everton would win a few more football matches, but if I started portraying myself as some sort of victim, I would (quite rightly) be shouted down by people who have far bigger grievances than I. However, it seemed to the ‘Turkish’ Cypriots that playing the victim card had done the ‘Greek’ Cypriots well and so they played it themselves. Although when the Turkey army invaded in 1974, they may have played it a bit too well.
In situations like this, I draw a cartoon in my head of women and children in trenches throwing bombs at each other, the caption being “No- WE’RE more persecuted!”
But once you start down this road, where does it end? That’s right! IN A ROADBLOCK! One slapped down in the middle of Belfast, Jerusalem or Cyprus, it doesn’t matter – in a situation in which both sides see themselves as the victims, neither will be interested in seizing the moral high-ground, nor organising a big music festival and getting stoned together.
So here we have a divided island. One half of which is an independent state and a member of the EU and the other half is controlled by Turkey, and single-handedly thwarts their own ambitions to join the EU at every turn. This is one of the last (and daftest) conflict-zones in the world and that’s possibly why Banksy Moon, the graffiti artist from Bristol who is currently Secretary General of the UN, is here at the moment attempting to thrash out a deal which will ensure sovereignty and peace for a re-unified island. It’s a nice dream – let’s call it Cynosis, the reunification of Cyprus with itself.
In the meantime, though, to cross from one side of the capital city Lefkosia (Nicosia to us Anglophones) you need to get your passport stamped. Seriously. Imagine a roadblock running the length of Hanover Street in Liverpool and you needing to bring your passport along in case you want to walk from the Cavern to the Jac. It’s that silly. But that’s exactly what I did when entering the ‘European side’ of the city with Sylvan, the French musician guy from yesterday.
Having said all that, it was nice to feel I was back in the EU, and I guess another passport stamp isn’t going to hurt. I went to a cash machine and got out some real money for a change and then blew it all on an outrageously expensive pint of beer. Wow, Cyprus is expensive. Beautiful, but expensive.
The city walls of Nicosia are amazing – a perfect circle surrounding the old town, how they pulled it off, got it so precise, blows my mind. And walking about, you really do get a sense of ancient history that is sadly missing from other capital cities. Sylvan had bigger fish to fry, so we said our farewells and I headed off to meet with Zafer, my CouchSurf contact for the evening.
He met me on the Turkish side of the ‘border’, being a Turkish citizen he’s not allowed in the south of the city. If he’s desperate to go to the Nicosia branch of Debenhams, he must first fly back to Turkey, then apply for a visa to Greece, fly to Greece, apply for a visa for Cyprus and fly back to Cyprus, you know – the country where he lives.
Madness, sheer madness.
Zafer was a really interesting guy, a Christian Turk of mixed Turk/Armenian heritage… and you thought the Armenians and Turks hated each other! There must have been some proper West Side Story going on there with his grandparents – ah, the power of love. Zafer has travelled all over the Middle East and while I envied his Turkish passport for allowing him to travel to all these places without having to wait weeks for approval, he envied my British passport more. I suggested we swap, but I doubted we could pull it off (although I have to say I’ve seen a good few ginger Turks…!)
After a traditional Turkish dinner, we headed out to Girne to see if anything was happening in town, but the answer was a resounding no. Out of season and a Monday night? Forget about it! But that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, Girne waterfront is really quite picturesque and hell with it – I couldn’t afford the beer anyway.
The best bit? Not only did I find a kebab shop called Kebabistan (love it!), I also managed to find the perfect kebab – not in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (although they were really good) Iraq or Turkey… they’re in Cyprus. Adbul would be proud.
Dragged my carcass off Zafer’s couch a few minutes after seven, said my thank yous and goodbyes and soon enough I was down at the port clambering onto the fast ferry back to Turkey. And twist my nipples and call me Frank what a fast ferry it was. While the Calypso had taken a good eleven hours to cross the sea to Cyprus, the fast ferry took under two hours to get back.
If only these hydrofoil things existed elsewhere… I could have been to Crap Verde and back within a day! The return leg from Mauritius would have taken a six days, not six weeks! The Caribbean?! Oh, if only…!
Excuse me, Mr Branson, once you’ve quite finished fleecing the British commuter of every penny to travel on your disgustingly over-priced train ‘services’ (you know, the ones that actively punish the spontaneous and bereaved for having the audacity of not giving two weeks notice to ride your tilting toilets) can you buy a few of these hydrofoil things and set them to good use in the Caribbean? Cheers.
Back in Turkey, I returned to my cafe with the super-fast internet connection only to discover that the floodgates had been firmly closed and the best I could hope for was a thin trickle of one and zeros out of which to curry favour with the internets gods. Naturally it didn’t happen, so I still haven’t seen the second half of the Lost Season 6 opener. Bah! But they can’t keep me in this plastic prison forever, right Professor?
As I left the cafe to catch the bus for Istanbul, my eye was caught by a camera crew outside. Do you speak English? asked the rather fetching Dutch girl who I guess was the presenter. I can do you one better… Turns out that I’m not the only idiot running about annoying people by not speaking the lingo – these guys have set themselves the task of getting around Turkey without spending any money. They’ve been here for three days and where, up to this point, doing quite well. Now, however, it was dark, wet, utterly miserable and nobody is Tacusu was up for helping them out… small wonder – there were nine of them. I would think three people on a blag was taking the mick, but NINE? Crazy Dutch.
Anyway, after a quick chat with the Dutchies, I headed back to Silifke to get the bus to Istanbul, the oh-no-it-isn’t capital of Turkey (yeah, it’s Ankara, but who’s heard of Ankara?). The bus I got on was AMAZING! The usual free cups of tea and flat-screen tellys where trumped by something I had heard of in legend, but was yet to experience – free WiFi! Honestly. What have you to say to THAT, National Express, Greyhound, Eurolines or any of the other utterly dreadful bus companies many of the people reading this have to put up with?? Your buses suck, you treat us like cattle and developing nations in Latin America dis you from a great height. YOU SUCK!
Hurrah for Turkish buses, they truly are a delight.
And so I contentedly tapped away at my laptop until the wee small hours, safe and warm from the blizzard raging outside in my little internetty world.
The bus arrived bang on time in good ol’ Istanbul – the only city in the world that straddles two continents. I wandered down to the Metro to find out what the SP was with the old trains to Belgrade. Why are you going to Belgrade, Graham? I hear you ask. Well, good question! It’s really just because the fletchlugginer boats from Greece to Italy don’t seem to be running, so I’m going to have to go the long way round back to Sicily in order to visit countries 143 and 144, or as they like to call themselves, Algeria and Libya… two of the most difficult countries to enter in the world. And I should know, I’ve already tried once. Well, in the case of Libya, twice.
That means I can either go the way I went last time, via Thessaloniki in Greece up through Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia and (a little bit of) Bosnia to Slovenia, or I could simply go through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Option 2 seems a little more straight forward, although the really straight forward way would be to get a boat from Patras in Greece, but you can’t always get what you want, can you Mick?
So I booked myself upon the 22:00 night train to the pleasantly-named Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and thought I might spend the day having a little adventure – you know, Tokapi palace, the Blue Mosque, all that kinda stuff. However the howling wind and freezing temperatures soon put those fanciful notions to sleep like Old Yella. Instead I found a lovely little sheesha cafe, sat nice and warm under the heater and enjoyed some tomato soup.
Mmm… tomato soup. I could stay here all day, I thought to myself. So I did.
The train ride was spooky as hell – it was an overnight sleeper, but I had an entire compartment to myself – 6 bunks to choose from! In fact, I had pretty much the whole carriage to myself – a proper ghost train, perfect for making up horror stories. I couldn’t understand a word the conductor said, but I figured it had something to do with him giving me €31 so I could buy him more than his allocated amount at duty free. Hell, who am I to argue and out of the deal I would get all the free tea I could drink. Sweet. Nighty night.
The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.
Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.
Here’s what really happened…
When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.
I might as well…
Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.
Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.
I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.
I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).
Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.
I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?
It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.
I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.
In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.
Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.
But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?
So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.
The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!
Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!
Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..
Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.
Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.
At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.
The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.
This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!
Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!
I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.
I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…
About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..
It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!
So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.
Well, the answer was simple – I was home.