Day 366: That Was The Decade That Was… A Bit Crap, Actually

01.01.10:

Welcome, friends, to our newest, shiniest decade in years. And, might I say, good riddance to the old one, the rotten turnip that it was.

The decade in which being clever was a bigger faux pas than turning up at a Jewish wedding decked out in full Nazi regalia. The decade in which people BRAGGED, yes, BRAGGED about how stupid they were – and, what’s even worse, made a skip load of money doing it. The decade in which it was deemed sensible to believe in anything as long as one other nutter on the internet agreed with you. At the first point in human history when all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages are available to everyone, everywhere at the touch of a button – a great leap forward in a world where knowledge is supposed to be power – we find ourselves mired in crap from the stone age about mystical vibrations, ghosts and magic. You might find this current trend towards conspiracy theories and woo! slightly incongruous, but there it is… baffling and utterly, utterly frustrating. It makes me want to puke.

Was it the worst decade ever? Nah, nowhere near as dark as the 1910s or the 1940s, but yeah it was pretty bad. It started with a damp fart as the poor old Queen lit a torch with ‘British Gas’ emblazoned all over it and it went downhill from there. From September 11th to the Boxing Day Tsunami to the Credit Crunch, the last ten years have been several shades of awful. Russell Brand, Pete Doherty, Amy Whitehouse (amongst others) did their level best to make me want to vomit up my own legs in disgust.

Big Brother proved that all you needed to do to make a fortune was to have no discernible talent and the X-Factor showed us just how little discernible talent many people have. The decade that gave us Heat magazine, ‘showbiz’ news shoehorning itself into real current affairs programming and a manic obsession with celebrity bordering on chasing them through the park wearing night-vision goggles. The decade that allowed a bumpkin like George W. Bush run the most powerful nation on Earth (and run it into the ground!). The decade that saw our human rights curtailed because of terrorists whose M.O. is… to curtail human rights. And the decade in which we lost Douglas Adams, John Peel, Tony Wilson, Richard Harris and Arthur C. Clarke. Humph.

Musically, after a slow start (Travis and Stereophonics, urgh) we had a high in the mid-noughties with the likes of Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Futureheads, Sigur Ros, Bloc Party, We Are Scientists and Guillemots rucking up and showing the kids how to have fun. Although while it’s not illegal to tout gig tickets, the chances of your average 14-year old being able to afford to see his or her favourite band is slim to none. Thanks a lot, eBay.

Cinematically, the noughties were dreadful. Apart from a few bright shiny stars (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy for one) all we had to chose from were a procession of terrible Star Wars films, painfully bad Matrix films, naff Harry Potter clones and a disgraceful number of comic-book adaptations. No Pulp Fiction, no Shawshank, no Being John Malkovich, no Fight Club… Quentin Tarantino disappointed us all with his lackluster Kill Bill movies and his utterly cack Death Proof before finishing off the decade with the meh-fest that was Inglorious Basterds. Martin Scorscese finally won an Oscar, not for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but for a mediocre adaptation of Infernal Affairs that could have been shot by Tony Scott whilst recovering from a particularly rampant hangover.

Indeed, the sheer cacophony of cack that was spewed forth by the likes of Brett ‘I’ll do it!’ Ratner, Michael ‘Boom!’ Bay and McG (his name alone makes me want to punch him) was an insult to the English-speaking world. The Coens finally fumbled the ball with Intolerable Cruelty and the desperately pointless remake of the Ladykillers (although No Country was a cracking return to form) and Harrison ‘can do no wrong’ Ford didn’t have a single quality film in ten years. And in possibly the low point in the decade, the job of adapting the first part of His Dark Materials was given to the guy who co-directed American Pie. I kid you not.

But there was a redeeming feature of the noughties (and it certainly wasn’t its moniker) – American television. Wow. Like, seriously, wow. Let me just prostrate myself on the altar of America’s golden age of the goggle box: E.R., Friends and Buffy laid the groundwork, but it was the likes of Lost, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, House, 24, Deadwood, Mad Men, Weeds, Carnivale, Heroes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Name Is Earl, Family Guy, Futurama, Prison Break and Battlestar Galactica that smacked the ball out of the stadium.

If you didn’t sob rivers in the closing scenes of Six Feet Under, scream at the telly as Tony Soprano blinked out of our lives, lose control of your lower jaw when the island disappeared in Lost or squirt beer out of your nose when Peter Griffin ended up sleeping with Bill Clinton you should go see a doctor – I think you might well be dead.

And yes, credit where credit is due – I personally have one thing to thank the noughties for: Ten years ago, I would have had difficulty entering the following countries: Colombia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Congo, DR Congo, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and East Timor. But although war is by no means over, many individual wars are. I can now travel though nearly every country on the planet in complete safety, although I have to admit Eritrea is giving me a bit of a headache.

I don’t think anyone is going to look back on the opening decade of the 21st century as a glorious age, from Bush stealing the presidency in Florida to our scientifically illiterate representatives stealing our futures in Copenhagen, but that is the past. Obama is now president of the US, Gordon Brown will be out on his ear come May and Big Brother has been axed. The future’s bright my friends – welcome to 2010.

After a lazy morning and a delightful lunch I wrapped up my television contract with some hilariously terrible taglines (I had real trouble saying them with a straight face) outside Cairo coach station. Mand and I said our goodbyes to Matt the cameraman and soon we were on our way to Hurghada. In typically Egyptian fashion, they handed out food on the coach (as they do on many coaches from DR Congo to El Salvador) but unlike every other coach I have ever taken, failed to inform us that we would have to pay for the food once we arrived at our destination. Ha!

It was a bit late to visit Lorna when we got to Hurghada, so we elected to check into our hotel (urgh, I hate hotels, but they sometimes have their uses), grab a bite to eat and settle down for an early night. The weird thing was that it really didn’t feel like a year since I last saw the Mandster – it felt as if I saw her last week. Last year did not fly by for me by any means, but I guess it was such a surreal experience that my brain has decided it was all a fanciful dream and twisted my temporal perception accordingly. I don’t want to have another year of this though, I better get this nonsense finished quick smart – but first I’m going to have a week off. Odyssey Two starts Sunday January 10th 2010.

Day 381: You Can’t Be Siwa-ous

16.01.10:

This time last year, I had visited every country in South America. This year, I’ve been to one new country, Sudan. Pathetic! Well, I was soon to make amends… within a few hours, I would hopefully be hot-footing it into Libya and I’d be able to tick country number 135 off my list.

I arrived in Siwa at about 6am and headed straight over to the Yousef hostel to meet Mana, the guy that the guys in Aswan put me onto. He offered me a room so that I could get a couple of hours shut-eye, and after my less-than-marvellous night’s sleep on the coach over here, I was all too happy to say yes. It wasn’t until after I had got up and had a shower that he told me that the room was gratis. What a legend! I tried to give him ten Egyptian pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.

When people ask me what my favourite country other than my home is, some have been a bit perplexed when I’ve said Egypt. I guess those people don’t know Egypt like I know Egypt. Maybe they’ve only seen the annoying parts of Egypt – the touts, the taxi-drivers and the rip-off merchants. Maybe they’re just looking at the polluted urban sprawl of Cairo, or the dictator that has been in power since 1981. Maybe they mistake genuine hospitality for the rogues and carpet-baggers who lure you into their perfume factory under false pretences. Maybe they actually give the baksheesh (backhanders) to every Tom, Dick and Hamza that asks for it.

But if you can see beyond that at all the magical things Egypt has to offer, it truly is an awesome place. I love it.

I asked about getting a ride over the border, but from the word go, it wasn’t looking very good. Mana didn’t know anyone who would take me and suggested that I asked around the town. So I did, and the word that I received back was not good. There had been a recent clampdown by the Libyan authorities to try to stem the flow of hashish into the Colonel’s personal fiefdom, these guys had guns and, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. My trip to Siwa had been a wasted one, but it wasn’t entirely a fruitless expedition because Siwa was just wonderful. I liked it even more than chips. Relaxed, friendly, hospitable… it has all the best qualities of Egypt and none of the worst.

The only thing that was a bit weird was that you hardly see any women here – those you do see are invariably covered up. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is your usual Bedouin traditions, another is that Siwa was the last oasis in Egypt to get a paved road going to it. But the main reason is this… Siwa is the San Francisco of Egypt. Oh yes people, before they made it illegal in the 1950s (the bores!), this was where your crafty butchers, flashboys and chromatically adept types hung out. Well, they still do, they just don’t hold love parades. It would be a little risky.

Anyway, after exhausting all possibilities for a quick border-hop, I jumped on the 3pm bus back to Alex. Bah! My second attempt to crack fortress Libya had failed… but don’t forget – I’ve still got to backtrack all the way to Tunisia in order to visit Algeria, so I’ll have at least one more crack at it.

I got into Alex at around 11pm and I toyed with the idea of staying the night but instead opted to press on in a minibus to Cairo and kip at Kendra’s place. When I say she’s a nighthawk, I mean, this girl just does not sleep, so I didn’t feel to guilty about rucking up at three in the morning. She acted like it was three in the afternoon – we even ordered twenty-four hour pizza. Try doing that in Liverpool, ya loooosers!

Day 384: Am I Still Here?

19.01.10:

Dammit – I should have left Egypt on Saturday morning. Instead, here I am three days later still in Cairo. I woke up at noon and decided it was far too early and promptly went back to sleep until 3.30pm. Kendra doesn’t seem to sleep and I guess her Oirish-breeding has made her impervious to those hangover things that affect the rest of us so. I was alright until we ordered some kushari and the headache started. That was at 7pm. I REALLY ought to be going now..

I ought to be…

I ought…

Maybe I’ll just fall asleep on this nice comfy couch instead. Mmm….

NO!

Come on, Graham you useless sack of ridiculousness, you’re supposed to be racing around the world! We’re up to 134 out of 200 countries… just the Middle East and we’d be up to 150… that would be three-quarters done.

GET OFF THE DAMN COUCH!!

Okay, inner monologue, okay…

I dragged my hurty head up and off the pillow and made ready to leave. There’s a bus that night at 10:30 for Nuweiba, where the ferry leaves for Aqaba in Jordan. I said my fond farewells to Kendra (you absolute LEGEND!) and jumped into a taxi. When I got to the bus station, I found out that there was a bus going directly to Amman, which would be perfect, so I bought a ticket. Once again, I had to pay in US dollars (what’s with that?) and so had to take a quick trip in a taxi to go to the all-night money changer place. Thank heavens Cairo is such a twenty-four hour city.

I don’t know when it was that we crossed the Suez Canal, but when we did, that was it – I had LEFT AFRICA! Having arrived all fresh-faced an eager last MAY, you might comprehend how utterly frustrating the last eight months have been. I thought it would take me three. Ha!

Sadly, I may be done with Africa, but Africa is not done with me… I still have Algeria, Libya and Eritrea to get to. But overland routes there are too expensive or too impossible to consider – I’ll have to attack them from the sea and this may take some time. But first… Jordan!

Day 385: Crossing Jordan

20.01.10:

This morning we arrived in Nuweiba, the Egyptian border town from where the boat for Jordan departs. You see if you tried to go overland through Israel, which would be much quicker, it would mean you couldn’t visit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran… do I need to go on? An Israeli stamp in your passport renders it completely useless when it comes to travelling around the Middle East, so your best bet is to take the boat.

Unfortunately for me, the ferry was very late departing and it was dark before I arrived in Jordan. Ahh, Jordan… Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and – best of all – Petra. Petra is the rose-red city of legend, set amongst sandstone chasms were beautiful buildings were carved out of the solid rock. You would have seen a little bit of it at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the city’s treasury doubled as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon.

But alas, I would not be partaking in these delights – I’ve procrastinated enough! I should be in Turkey by now!! I arrived in Amman at about 2am, too late to politely meet up with my couchsurf contact Simon, and so checked into the hostel that the Lonely Planet told me to and got my head down for the night.

Day 389: A Blizzard In Beirut

24.01.10:

Before you could say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, I was on the coach heading to the Lebanese border. Again, Lebanon has a bit of a bad rap when it comes to popular opinion. I’m of the age when an untidy bedroom would be described as ‘looking like Beirut’. It’s a sad (and yet achingly familiar) tale of three peaceful religions sporadically showing the world just how peaceful they are by brutally murdering each other. Lebanon’s civil war raged for over a decade, and Israel is more than happy to test out its swanky new rockets and helicopter gunships every now and again at the first sign of trouble.

Lebanon therefore finds itself between a rock and a hard place, which makes it all the more remarkable that it still manages to be an attractive and inviting place to visit. It’s like a hardened guerilla fighter who can also dance like Fred Astaire. And what makes Lebanon such a great place for me? Not the skiing, not the swanky bars or the parade of bling that passes for downtown Beirut these days… but the FOOD. My god, the food. I’m tempted to make another League Table but just in regards to food – as Mandy keeps telling me, it’s all about the food.

Yum yum.

On the way into Lebanon, the guy sitting behind me was possibly the most annoying human being that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. As I typed up my blog, he sat with his head wedged in between my seats, inches from my ear, breathing loudly and totally invading my personal space. If that wasn’t enough to be more irritating than a shampoo made of lice, he insisted on trying to speak to me, not in a friendly let’s-discuss-the-tennis kind of way, but in a I-know-you-don’t-speak-a-word-of-Arabic-but-I’ll-continuously-ask-you-questions-in-Arabic-anyway kind of way. The kind of guy who once he had discovered an approximation of your name, would call it every five seconds, and then when you turned around, he would smile and say ‘hello’. He had the mentality of a hyperactive six-year-old but was nowhere near as entertaining. Then he took out his phone. I rolled my eyes because I knew what was coming next. Crap music, dull photos…oh god, here we go.

I’m not a photo person. I never have been, never will be. I like TV, movies, video… I like my images to mooooooooooove. Yes, I’ll politely flick through your wedding album, but don’t except me to enjoy it – I’d much rather watch the video, even if your choice of wedding song sucked more than a pinhole in a spaceship. And here was this guy tapping me on the goddamn shoulder every thirty seconds to show me another picture on his phone of his goddamn friends who I don’t know and even if I did know, I wouldn’t want to see pictures of. Then he showed me pictures of his house. HE SHOWED ME A PICTURE OF HIS TELLY. He then smiled at me for approval, like I should be excited that he owned a telly or something, I don’t know?

Assuming he had a mental health problem, which is nothing to be ashamed about but I’m not a psychologist and I can’t speak Arabic, so I could do nothing for him (if you’re physically injured, don’t expect me to sit there while you bleed all over me) so I headed to the back of the bus to chat with the gang of Poles who were also on their way to Beirut for the day. Unfortunately for them, they had a malfunctioning Syrian wally annoying the hell out of them too. I guess this kind of behaviour passes for normal around these parts.

One of the Polish girls, Anna, had the misfortune to be utterly gorgeous. While the western way to deal with someone with this problem is to get them drunk and take advantage, the middle-eastern way is to stand over them so they cower like a cat in a corner and tell them in broken English that you love them and that they should kiss you. Over and over and over again. For TWO HOURS. There was no stopping him – he was like Pepe-Le-Pew.

Even when I got his mate to explain to him that Anna was married to the guy she was sitting next to (for all he knew, she might have been), that his behaviour was completely out of order and that she wasn’t a fellow skunk, she was a cat who had accidentally had a white stripe painted down her back, he still refused to bugger off. What I found particularly infuriating was the way these Arabic men seem to think that this behaviour was somehow appropriate, whereas if I pulled 1% of this stuff on an Arabic woman, I’d be lucky to escape the situation with my head still attached.

Eventually he disappeared and since the Poles were up for a mooch around Beirut, when we got there, we decided to join forces. We were still all smarting from the border guard refusing to give us our free transit visas and charging us $15 for a month visa (of which we were all planning to use one day).

Crossing the mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria, we passed through a full-on blizzard and I found myself thanking my mum and Lorna Brookes profusely in my head for my new coat. We descended on the capital around 3pm.

After travelling on my own for so long, it was amusing for me to now be hanging around with eight people, all of whom had to be consulted if any group decision was to be made. It was raining out, so I (characteristically) suggested that we go to the pub, but they wanted to go on a walking tour of the city, so that’s what we did. In the rain.

We walked from their backpackers in the east of town, all the way over to the Ras Beirut side in the west. If you can just ignore the refugee camps on the outskirts, Beirut is just like any other European city – give or take the few buildings with big blast holes in them – it’s got a central business district with shiny new buildings, it’s got an old bit which houses the nice bars and it’s got pavements, traffic lights, underpasses, business as usual. If it had been a sunny day, it would have been a nice walk, but the fact it was raining cats and dogs put a bit of a dampener on things.

The Poles were a top bunch – Bart and Matthew kept me entertained as we wandered the city streets, running under verandas whenever the rain went from drizzle to monsoon. Eventually (after a kebab or two), we settled down in a bar for a couple of drinks. Very expensive drinks. If you want to guarantee your position in my overall League of Nations to be high, please don’t overcharge me for my alcohol. I haven’t the heart to tell Mandy that’s the real reason Australia is not in my top 5. But worse things happen at sea, and with the excellent food on offer, there is nothing stopping me coming back here, or recommending it to others (bring your own drinks, though).

My bus back to Syria was leaving at midnight, and later I returned to the backpackers with the Poles to pick up my bag. I was hoping to sit with them in reception until their friends arrived (separate taxis) but the cow at the PENSION AL-NAZIH wouldn’t let me, even though it was dark and lashing down with raining outside. Yeah, I guess I should have expected that from a place called the Nazi Hotel.

So I made my way through the storm to the bus station (eating yet another kebab on the way) and at around 2.30am, I found myself at the Syrian border. I had a day-pass slip in my passport, which I assumed meant that I didn’t have to buy a new visa. FOOL!

God I HATE border guards. So after taking out my re-entry slip (and it disappearing into the ether) the border people demanded another $52 out of me. I almost burst into tears. The swines. I argued the toss, but after half-an-hour they had completely stonewalled me – no visa, no entry. I would be leaving first thing in the morning for Turkey, but there was nothing that I could do. Syria has now dropped a LONG way in my world rankings. Don’t pull this kind of stuff on a tourist in the middle of the night, it’s just not cricket.

I paid up, getting a $2 discount by telling them I was Irish.

Drat and double drat.

I would later discover that as my bus was fighting through the torrential rain, an Ethiopian Airliner crashed into the sea just off the coast of Beirut. What a waste.

Day 390: The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

25.01.10:

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.

Day 391: The Invasion of Iraq

26.01.10:

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.

Day 394: Chav and Chav-Nots

29.01.10:

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?

Day 395: The Silopi Slope

30.01.10:

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.

Day 399: Istanbulldozin’

03.02.10:

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.