Day 431: Back On Track

07.02.10:

The ferry ploughed head-first into the Greek port of Igoumenitsa at around 6am (it was still 5am for me) and speedy disembarkation was encouraged… mmm… no passport controls… nice! Whilst sleepily trudging across the car park I noticed that there was a bus marked “Istanbul” waiting picking up passengers off the ship. Must be some sail & ride scheme or something. Not wanting to waste a minute, I knocked on the door and asked for a ticket. The driver’s mate asked for €80. I offered €50 and that seemed to work. Lucky it did, the bus took off before I got to my seat.

No time for love, Dr. Jones…

Igoumenitsa is not the most attractive of towns, so it wasn’t too much of a heartbreak to bypass it and head straight towards Thessaloniki through some of the most scrumptious countryside in the world. Not wanting to sound too much like somebody who skips without the rope, the wild flowers of Greece are the envy of Europe, where we’ve murdered them all with herbicidal crop-spray. The first colours of Spring were making their presence felt and I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of us are damn well missing out on something here.

The day seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was approaching planet Istanbul. I was last in Istanbul on the 3rd of February, so that’s over a month just to go to two damn countries – Libya and Algeria. I hope this isn’t an omen for what is to come over the next few months. But it probably is. Welcome to the chapter of this adventure that I’m planning to entitle MY VISA HELL.

My drivers were exceedingly keen to get us to Istanbul on time, so much so they actually swapped over whilst doing 70mph on a freeway. A little terrifying, but even so the bus still was late getting to old Constantinople. I felt a little bad turning up at my prospective CouchSurf host’s house in the middle of the night, so instead I made my way to the Oriental International Hostel in delightful doontoon Sultanahmet, the UNESCO World Heritage Area and home of the famously Blue Mosque. There I met Greg, an American guy who was doing the old travel/work type thang and helping out in the hostel in return for free board and beer. I ended up having a little to drink before crashing out in my bed at some ungodly hour of the night.

Day 432: Day of Disaster

08.03.10:

Woke up at a respectable time and headed over to the Iranian Embassy all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I jumped in a taxi only to find it would have been a five minute walk. If that.

And so mere seconds later (and €5 lighter) I waltzed into the Embassy and gave the bearded chap behind the visa window my reference number (given so I could pick my visa up ‘straight away’)… sadly I was told that my reference number wasn’t valid.

What?

I paid CHRISTKNOWSHOWMUCH for this damn number. Are you on crack?

Try again tomorrow.

Dammit.

Not to be phased by this unfortunate turn of events, I then jumped in a taxi and asked him to take me to the Azerbaijan Embassy. MORE TAXI FUN! To be fair he DID bother putting his meter on, but then he drove in circles around the one way streets of Sultanahmet in order to ask directions off his mate, and then he proceeded to take the longest possible route to our destination. By the time the meter was up to €18 I demanded to get out. I didn’t care that we were on a freeway, I wanted OUT. You have to understand, a usual cross-town taxi fare is €5. To get there on public transport would be €1.50. This guy was, like all taxi drivers, just a scumbag rip-off merchant out to smear the otherwise good name of taxi drivers.

I found out later that if he had taken the bridge nearest the hostel, it would have been no more than €5, but I digress…

So, it’s drizzling with rain and I don’t know where the hell I am, but I manage to make my way down off the overpass and onto the main street below. Having buried my menly-men-never-ask-for-help pride a long time ago, I asked a couple of lads which way to go. Being awesomely awesome, they elected to accompany me there on the Metro. About twenty minutes later I was outside the Azerbaijan embassy only to find it closed for the day.

Public holiday, see?

Great. So I hurried to Istanbul for WHAT exactly? For WHAT? The reason I went to the Azerbaijan Embassy was to extend my visa – as with my visa for Libya AND Algeria, it ran out on the 28th February. Quite why they can’t give you a visa with SLIGHTLY more leeway, I have NO FRICKIN’ CLUE, but there you go.

I thanked my co-conspirators profusely and headed over to the nearby shopping centre to unlock my Turkish SIM card (dopey over here forgot the PIN) and lo-and-behold A BRIGHT SPOT ON THE HORIZON! I found a brand new deck of Bicycle Playing Cards for sale in a bookshop. I went from sulky mook to beaming loon in less than a second. Simple minds, simple pleasures.

One annoying thing about the public transport in Istanbul is that you can’t buy a through-ticket. That means that every time you get off one bit of transportation onto another you have to pay another couple of Turkish Lira. This is, as you can imagine, quite irritating, especially when to get back to the Sultanahmet from the Azerbaijani Embassy you have to take the subway, a funicular and a tram.

I got back to the hostel in no mood for anything but beer, and beer is what I got. My roomie, Atheer, has to be the most unique person on the planet. Not only is he a Palestinian Israeli (shurely shome mishtake?), he’s also an atheist. Which made growing up in the most religion-obsessed region of the solar-system somewhat, er, interesting and put him in the rather singular position of being able to view the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict stripped of all that divine-right mumbo-jumbo. He did get beaten up in school somewhat though, atheism presumably being the least popular option on the curriculum.

Later, Atheer, Greg and I hit the town, or more specifically Taksim on the north side of the Golden Horn (teehee), looking for trouble. We had a couple of beers but to be fair, it was Monday night and town was deader than a dodo who slept with Stalin’s wife. We got back to the hostel at eek-I’m-scared-to-look-at-my-watch o’clock.

A footnote to my philanderings: If I had not messed up with Algeria, I would have got into Istanbul late last Friday night, so it would have made 100% no difference whatsoever as the embassies are closed over the weekend. FACT!

Day 433: The Pope’s Nik-Naks

09.03.10:

Scraping my face from my pillow, I headed back to the Iranian Embassy (this time I walked) with a shiny new reference number. The embassy’s only open for two hours in the morning, so I tried to get there in good time, but after making me wait an hour they asked for a photocopy of the page in my passport that had my Turkish visa stamp in it. I hurried back to the hostel to get it copied, then headed to the bank to pay in the WHOPPING €95 visa charge (most expensive in the world so far, I reckon), but by the time I got back to the embassy, it had closed. I’d have to come back tomorrow. Damnit.

Oh well, I thought, I’ll head over to the Azerbaijan Embassy and get my other visa sorted. A long tram-funicular-metro ride later, I got to the Embassy only to be told my Azerbaijan Visa was now about as much use as the pope’s nik-naks. I had to get a whole new visa. This meant coming back the next day with a ton of paperwork and they’d see what they could do.

I was going nowhere very slowly indeed.

Again I headed back to the hostel, but I thought (in my infinite wisdom) that it would be a good idea to walk down the hill from Taksim station to the tram stop and save myself that 75cents that it would otherwise cost to use the funicular thingy. Given it was foggy, raining and I didn’t have a map, this was possibly a very silly thing to do. And it was! I walked down the wrong side of the hill, wandered about for half-an-hour before I found the water and, being unable to find the tramlines or indeed the bridge that the tram travels south to Sultanahet on I instead jumped on the first ferry that I assumed was popping over the Golden Horn (woot! snark!) for my side of the briney.

But today wasn’t my day, it really wasn’t. I ended up in frickin’ ASIA before I finally managed to get on the right blooming boat. TWO HOURS it took. It takes 30 seconds to cross the Galata bridge on the tram. I felt like a blonde in a blonde joke.

NEW RULE: Don’t go ANYWHERE without a map.

EVENTUALLY, I was back in the cosy warmth of the backpackers enjoying a beer with my new chums, which had now spread to include Iwona, a book-publisher from Poland and her fella from Tunisia who (unlucky for him!) tried to take Atheer on on the matter of godlessness. I also found out that Atheer can speak Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Bulgarian, English and French. I might just be his biggest fan. On the wrong side of the witching hour, we took over the rooftop café and drank until the wee small hours with a couple of British lasses who happened to be studying at my old university, and I found myself in the completely weird position of actually attempting to steer the conversation away religion and politics…

Day 434: My Wit’s End

10.03.10:

I dropped the passport, photos, photocopies and receipts off at the Iranian Embassy, expecting a ‘great stuff Graham, here’s your visa!’, but instead got a ‘come back tomorrow’. One more night in Istanbul, then? Humph. Sans passport, there was little I could do about getting my Azerbaijan nightmare solved today, but I went to the embassy anyway to make sure everything was in order.

I was told that the Letter of Invitation which I had paid £80 for was now invalid. Why? Because it was addressed to London, not Istanbul. So what?! I hear you cry. Man, this lot LOVE their paperwork. Just love it. Like a teenage boy likes to lock himself in his room. Maybe they kneel down with all their juiciest paperwork spread out in a horseshoe in front of them, undo their flies and… and… oh, never mind…

The short of it all was that I needed a brand new Letter of Invitation. I had spent an hour being pushed about in what was the equivalent of the front row of a Foo Fighter’s gig trying to get to the front desk (queuing (patently) is for WIMPS!) just to be told that there was no way I was going to get a new visa any time this week. I felt like screaming.

In fact, I think I will…

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

That’s better.

You need a nice primal scream every now and then, clears the windpipes.

Then I set off in search of a travel agency who would whip me up a new letter of invitation. In short, I spent over two hours wandering the streets and came up with nothin’. Nobody could help me.

There was one thing that could help… oh yes, you lovely amber nectar, you sweet barley-hop concoction. I needed a beer and I needed one NOW. So it was back to the backpackers and drinks with Atheer and a lovely couple from Canada (who, Luke and Leia style, turned out to be brother and sister). They were from the Frenchy bit of The Cold Australia, which give me tons of ammunition to take the mick, and to Atheer’s delight, they were Jewish, so he got the big guns out on security barriers and fruit pastilles; unfortunately for the sake of comedy, they kept on agreeing with us. Where are the die-hard curly-sided settlers when you need them?!

Afterwards, Atheer and I ventured into the night for another drink or two and ended up on the maddest pub crawl I’ve undertaken in an age. There were a bunch of places that we couldn’t get into unless we had girls with us, so we had to hang about on the street hiding our cans of lager (you’re not supposed to drink on the street in Turkey) and hassling female passers by like a pair of midnight cowboys in the hope of somebody taking pity on us and getting us inside one of these places.

The night soon collapsed into a cacophony of drunken antics which somehow involved a vodka Redbull, stolen nuts and a shopping trolley. I can’t remember too much after that. Merry Christmas Everyone!

Day 435: The Getaway

11.03.10:

The fact that I got out of bed this morning just goes to show how dedicated to the cause I am. Atheer didn’t get up until well after noon. First up, I needed my passport back.

After a quick (but surprising) fingerprint-taking session, the Iranian Embassy gave me my little burgundy booklet of travel, furnished with a brand new visa. I had Iran in the bag. Now I just have to get there before World War III kicks off.

I had got in touch with Jamel, a couchsurfer in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to ask if he could write me a new letter of invitation. No probs he said, but it would take him a couple of hours to get it proofed and everything. The Azerbaijan Embassy closed at 1pm and was way way way on the other side of town. I HAD to make it. At 11am I was on the internet at the backpackers a little more than worried. By 12 noon I was beginning to panic, but at 12.15pm the letter had come through. I emailed it over to Mehmet on the front desk and he printed it out for me. I grabbed it HOT OFF THE PRESS and began to RUN!!

I headed FULL PELT to the Sultanahmet Tram station, took it all the way to the end of the line where I changed for the Taksim Funicular, arriving at 12:41. I thundered through the station and jumped on the Metro service to Levent in the very north of the city. The train pulled in at 12:55.

You should possibly understand at this point how hungover and sleep-deprived I was. Madness, utter madness.

And, even though the bloomin’ escalator was out of service, I managed to bound up the mofo all the way into the clear crisp spring day that was awaiting my return to the surface, sweating beer and chagrin. 12:57. I pegged it up the road towards the Embassy like a man possessed, arriving at 12:59.

They let me in.

Panting, exhausted and ready to faint, I got into the little portacabin office on the right of the mansion house and presented my documents – bank statements, letter of employment, letter of invitation…

This is no good.

What? Sorry, I mean WHAT?!!?!

It must come from the government.

I was told it didn’t have to, I just needed a letter. From someone in Azerbaijan. Written in Azeri. Well, here it is.

Nope. No good.

He saw that I looked like I was about to burst into tears.

Why don’t you try the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia?

Thanks for nothin’ Azerbaijan! And to think… you used to be my favourite word.

After yesterday’s gallivanting around the travel agencies of fair Istanbul, I knew that the buses for Georgia left at 6pm. There was nothing else for me here. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had been brutally murdered by Stormtroopers and they had totally trashed my T-16. How could I be expected to bullseye womp-rats now?

Atheer was up for one final crazy night out, but The Odyssey comes first. Georgia here I come.

Day 436: Rimming The Black Sea

12.03.10:

Dear old Bertie died of a heart attack in the 1920s and – according to his wishes – had been stuffed and kept in the little museum on the grounds of the fabulous manor house that Mand and I were visiting for Pimms and cucumber sandwiches. Bertie looked hilarious in his tartan and tweed and hadn’t aged a day. He was characteristically mounted standing up and holding the very glass of whiskey he was drinking when he passed away. The whiskey had evaporated over time, but one sleuthy sniff revealed to me the tell-tale smell of almonds in his drink – arsenic, old bean: dear old Bertie didn’t die of a heart attack, he was MURDERED, and what’s more… his killer was in this very room…

Before I could whip around and reveal whodunit, I woke up and found myself on a bus heading east along the banks of the Black Sea. Yesterday I had said my hearty farewells to Atheer and the good folks of the Orient International Hostel (gets a MASSIVE thumbs-up from me!) and we had travelled through the night east, east, east towards the Caucuses.

A day on a bus gives you precious little to write home about, but my fellow passengers were helpful and friendly and (I LOVE TURKEY!) the tea was, of course, free. The Black Sea to our left was, indeed a dark and forbidding slate-coloured affair but the little fishing boats did their best to brighten things up. To be honest I slept until midday. I guess getting sozzled four nights in a row had finally caught up with me. I tell you what though, I’m beginning wake up aching, which isn’t fun… and is doing much to make me believe I am now past the prime of my life.

Blurgh.

Around 4pm we made it to the border with country 145: Georgia. The only place round these parts that don’t demand a visa. However, one of our passengers took a good two hours getting through customs, and we had to wait for him. Coupled with the fact that Georgia is not one but TWO hours ahead of Turkey, it was 8pm before we hit the road again.

Mandy had hooked me up with a CouchSurf host in Tbilisi called Rati, but by now I realised it would be well past midnight before we arrived. Rati said it was okay, to ring whenever. What a dude!

It was past 3am before we got there. A heady mixture of terrible roads, fog and driving rain had hampered our efforts somewhat. I took a taxi to Rati’s neighbourhood and met him outside the Chemist’s shop. All I can say is a THANK YOU and express a massive depth of gratitude to Rati for meeting me. I put my stuff on charge and got my head down for the night.

“Graham’s World”: My Very Own TV Show Starts Tuesday!

Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America.  If you can get it, great.  If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!

The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.

EPISODES:

1. From Argentina to Guyana

2. Caribbean Castaway

3. From Cuba to Tunisia

4. Arrested In Africa

5. African Rough Road

6. Congo Chaos

7. Africa Island Hop

8. Pyramids Or Bust

Hmm... are you following me?

As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!

How To Travel The World On The Cheap!

I’ve been stuck on the border with Papua New Guinea for the last few days, so not wanting to waste my time I made this here video for ya!

It’s set up so that EVERY CLICK results in money going to the charity WaterAid: so why not set up an auto-refresh program, such as this one for Internet Explorer or this one for Firefox, leave it running overnight and give give give without spending a penny!!

Enjoy! Share! Comment!

Here’s the link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAbCgr6jJ_0

Day 1,448: Asia, One Last Time

Tue 18.12.12:

It was teeming down with rain when the ship arrived in Iskenderun. I was feeling rather intolerant of any hanging about, but that’s what we did. First of all we waited to get or passports back, then we waited to get off the ship, then we waited in the customs building for the minibus to come and pick us up. Then it took us to the wrong gate so we waited – in the rain – for the minibus to come back. Then it took us to the correct gate. Then they wanted to check our bags. Again. In the rain.

I should point out that since climbing the volcano in Réunion and consequently climbing the pyramid in Egypt that my shoes have quite literally fallen apart. The upper has come away from the soul around the front of both shoes, they both have holes where the ball of my feet go and the rubber on the left soul has completely split around the edges. I only need to walk on slightly moist pavement for my socks to become wet through.

Here I am in the port, it’s freezing cold, my feet are soaking and I just want to get on a nice warm bus to Istanbul. Can I, can I please just do that?

Eventually I escaped and jumped on a minibus which kindly drove me to the next junction and then told me the bus station was just “a kilometre away.” In the rain, with wet broken shoes and no brolly. WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF?? WHY DIDN’T I JUST FLY?! It would have worked out a LOT cheaper.

Luckily, the bus station was only 100 meters away. There was a bus leaving at 5.45pm for Istanbul, getting in at 8am the next day. This was good news. My current plan is to hit Istanbul, race over to Igoumenitsa in Greece, overnight ferry over to Bari in Italy, train to Milan, overnighter to Paris, London then Liverpool by the weekend.

Although there are a zillion options for getting across Europe, so this plan may – and probably will – change.

I clambered on the bus that would be taking me back to my jolly old sub-continent of Europe* and instantly remembered why Turkish buses are the best in the world. And I can say that because I used public transport in every country in the world. Maybe it was the free coffee, maybe it was the huge comfy reclining seats, maybe it was the TV screens provided for each and every passenger, placed aircraft-style in the back of the seat in front, maybe it was the free internet access.

Maybe it was the fact that Turkey’s buses are the diametric opposite of the infernal Greyhound bus ‘service’ of the poor old United States of America: hands down the WORST buses in the world. And I can say that because I used public transport in every country in the world. Way to go Greyhound! Don’t think you’re going to be able to use me as a brand ambassador any time soon.

So I used my laptop until it ran out of power and then spent the evening playing electronic Sudoku on my TV screen. And the cost? About twenty quid. That’ll do nicely, Turkey, THANK YOU.

*Many people regard Europe as a continent. It’s not really though is it? It’s a peninsular of Asia.

Day 1,450: All The Old Turks

Thu 20.12.12:

So arrived at Istanbul international bus station bang on 8am and then started the usually fun (but not fun today because it was cold, damp and my feet still hadn’t dried off from the day before) process of finding me a bus goin’ en-eeee-where. Turkey has dozens of bus companies going to every corner of the country and much of Europe. Greece was quickly struck from the list as the buses only seemed to leave at night and it would take 10 hours just to get to Thessaloniki, not even half way to Igoumenitsa. The other option then was to take a bus to Germany. As I didn’t have a map with me (and there wasn’t one on the wall in the office) I figured that Düsseldorf might be a good option. The bus would take 40 hours and arrive around 7am on Friday morning. I could walk back to Liverpool by then and still make it by 2.45pm on Saturday.

I bought my ticket (an extortionate €150, but this is no time for bartering… HSBC can pay for the damn thing) and then headed over to the shopping arcade for internet and kebab. Damn Turkey does good kebabs. I sussed out by using the excellent DB Bahn website that I could easily get from Düsseldorf to Brussels and from there take the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. Sweet!!

So then, onto the bus which was for some reason populated only by the Turkish version of the elderly tearaways from Sigur Ros’s video for Hoppípola.

They played crap repetitive music (all featuring a non-stop kazooage… this is Turkey you know) via their tinny mobile speakers. They wanted to stop every five minutes to smoke cigarettes. They were incapable at conducting a conversation as any volume level that wasn’t set to ‘ear-splitting.’ AND they snored REALLY LOUDLY.

Grr…

When you start being the grumpiest old man on a bus full of grumpy old men, it’s totally time to come the hell home. It can’t come quickly enough.

We passed into Bulgaria, having to get off the bus in the night and stand in the bitter cold (it was -1°) waiting to get stamped out of Turkey, then again waiting to get stamped into Bulgaria. Only I don’t get a stamp because Bulgaria is in the EU.

For some reason (possibly forgetting the frigmarole that Stan and I had getting from Bulgaria to Romania in our little Mazda back in 2007) I assumed that the bus would be heading up into Romania and then across to Hungary and into Germany through Austria. This would mean no more freezing cold border jaunts and it would also mean that my Turkish exit stamp would be the last stamp in my passport. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.

I was wrong.

We took the more direct, but ultimately more waking-up-and-waiting-at-the-border-in-the-freezing-cold way of getting to Germany: via Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. So then out of Bulgaria (freezing), stamped into Serbia (freezing), out of Serbia (freezing), stamped into Croatia (freezing), out of Croatia (freezing) and into Slovenia (freezing).

It was a long couple of days. Every time we stopped at a service station I would charge my crap-top as the battery on this one only lasts 30 minutes before it dies a death (I miss my old HP – on a full charge it kept going for 6 hours straight, like a rather enthusiastic whore). I couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for meals so I stuck to eating extortionately priced sandwiches instead. Luckily, we hit the Alps in the daytime, so I got to enjoy some eye candy out of the window (I like mountains, okay?) before we hit Austria and then Germany, getting into Munich around 9pm and – yay! – all the oldies got off and left the entire back-end of the bus free for me to stretch my legs and enjoy the quiet.

It was then that I thought of something. Wouldn’t it be a lot more sensibler (yes that’s a word, Word) to get off in Cologne? The bus hits there before Düsseldorf and there’s a direct train from Cologne to Brussels. The word ‘Cologne’ doesn’t translate very well as in German the place is called ‘Köln’ and Christ knows how it’s pronounced. But I somehow got my point across and the conductor said he’d wake me up when we got there. I settled in for a decent night’s kip, exceptionally excited about tomorrow: I told Casey I’d see her again at The End of the World and it looks like I’m going to make good on my promise.

The End of the World in more ways than one.