Day 375: Odyssey Again

10.01.10:

Here’s what you need to do to get a visa for Sudan:

  • Have two hours sleep
  • Taxi to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up at the window
  • Be told to get a letter from own embassy
  • Go to British Embassy
  • Pay $50 for a photocopy of a letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again
  • Give them letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Take application form
  • Fill out application form
  • Panic that you’ve given your Africa Lonely Planet to Mandy and consequently don’t know what to put down on the form for where you’re going to stay.
  • Queue up again
  • Be told that you have to photocopy the filled out application form
  • Go down the road and get application form photocopied
  • Queue up again
  • Be given slip to take to Window 2
  • Queue up again, this time at Window 2
  • Be told that you can’t pay in Egyptian pounds – must be in US dollars
  • Go find a bank
  • Queue up in the bank
  • Change your Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again at Window 2
  • Hand over the extortionate $105 visa fee
  • Be given receipt
  • Queue up again at Window 1
  • Hand over passport, application form, photocopy of application form, 4 photocopies of passport and 4 photographs, letter from British Embassy explaining why they will not write a letter and receipt for payment
  • Be told to come back tomorrow
  • Say you need it today
  • Hold your breath
  • Be told to come back at 3pm
  • Breathe a sigh of relief.

That was my morning, but there was still much stuff to do. You see, I needed my visa today because the only way to get into Sudan from Egypt is on the ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and the ferry only goes once a week – and it leaves on Monday, which is tomorrow. I needed to get the night-train to Aswan, so I headed over to Ramses train station and MORE BUREAUCRACY!

  • So I go to the Information Desk
  • Walk all the way to the far platform of the station
  • Queue up in the wrong queue
  • Queue up in the right queue
  • Be told that the train is fully booked
  • Asked for a ticket for the train which leaves from Giza station instead
  • Be told can only buy that ticket from Giza station
  • Head back to the information desk
  • They suggest I take the expensive sleeper train
  • I visit the sleeper train office
  • That will be $60 please
  • Attempt to pay with Egyptian pounds
  • No, you have to pay in dollars
  • Walk half an hour to the nearest bank in the blazing noontime sun
  • Queue up in bank
  • Change more Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to station
  • Be told that the sleeper train is now sold out
  • Threaten to kill everyone in the room with a staple gun
  • Be told that they have one ticket left
  • Buy ticket

The whole process took about two hours.

Then I (foolishly) took a cab back to the Sudanese Embassy (I should have taken the subway). We got caught in traffic more jammed than Bob Marley jamming in a jar of jam. I got back to the Sudanese embassy at 3.10pm, worried that I was ten minutes late. An hour and a half later, they gave me my passport back. I was glad I rushed.

So… back to the Sara Inn to pick up my bags and to eat some kushari. Said my goodbyes and headed off to the station for my train. Despite all the hoops that I had to jump through, today went rather well, I thought. The train was less hilarious than I thought it would be, there was no booze and the fresh-faced young Kontiki tour groups were happy to crash out at 11pm, what with kids these days? Bunch of wusses.

I shared a cabin with a guy from New York named John, who (let’s not beat around the bush here) was Forrest Gump – how anyone let him go to Egypt on his own is beyond me. Perhaps his mum was in the next room. I mean, he was a nice enough guy, but give an Egyptian an inch and they’ll take a mile – this time tomorrow, I’d be surprised if he had any money left. I did my best to answer his questions about whether the train conductors were nice in the UK (the answer is no), whether they had trains in Australia and why the Giza touts were so mean.

Our train conductor, Aladdin, not being one to miss a trick (yes, they did the old ‘would you like a cup of tea with your dinner?’ lark without telling you it wasn’t complimentary) offered me a different cabin for a few Egyptian pounds, but I turned the offer down – John was harmless; I got the impression they don’t quite understand mental illness in Egypt. Then again, the way people with mental illnesses are treated in the US (and the UK for that matter) is still pretty damn awful. Funny that, isn’t it? If somebody has a dodgy heart or breaks their arm, they get sympathy and all the help they need, if someone’s brain isn’t functioning at 100%, we tend to shun them lest they turn around in the night and go postal on our asses.

With nowt much else to do, I clambered up onto my bunk bed, tied my GPS logger to my leg and fell asleep.

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.

Days 451-452: Movin’ On Up

27.03.10-28.03.10:

Woke up at Baha’s flat wondering if anybody got the number of the truck that hit me before stumbling back to Fred’s. Her mate in Samakand (down south) had just split up from her better half and so Fred planned to head down there to give her some moral support. This meant that I had to find a new place to stay. Luckily, Tristan, the French guy I met last night agreed to take me under his wing. Even more luckily, he lived in the flat directly above Fred’s so it’s not like I had to walk very far.

These flats are so typically soviet it’s almost hilarious – the exact same flats that I experienced in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. To give them a veil of individuality some are covered in big blocky geometric shapes – no wonder it was a Russian who came up with Tetris. You know what, though? I’d rather live in a mud hut. That’s just me I guess, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the lift not working.

So I settled in and Tristan pretty much left me to my own devices, allowing me to write up a ton of blog and make a big dent in my increasingly hilarious backlog of videos. The only problem is that despite my Herculean efforts to get a bunch of new vids edited, the internet here is comedically slow and to upload just one of them would take longer than it took Deep Thought to discover the answer to Life, The Universe and – you know – Everything.

Maybe now is a good time to discuss why you’ve never heard of all these countries I am now trying to visit. I mean Kyrgyzstan? Turkmenistan? Tajikistan? Where the hell ARE they? And why do they exist? It would be a bloody tricky pub quiz that asked you to name the capitals of all the Stans (I don’t actually know and I’ve been here!). Well to put you out of your misery, it’s no wonder you haven’t heard of them – before 1991 they didn’t exist. There were only two Stans, Pakistan and Afghanistan and above that was the jolly old USSR. Then after the break up of the USSR, the Stalin-engineered ‘autonomous regions’ (read: puppet regimes) of Central Asia suddenly became independent states, much to the surprise of those in charge who, without the retraining influence of the Russians, all went a little mad. And they don’t come much madder than Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan. Anyone who renames the month of April after his mum and commissions a 20 foot gold statue of himself to stand on top of an arch and revolve with the sun must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

The borders of these countries were all drawn up by Stalin in one of his (many) less lucid moments and quite frankly make no sense whatsoever. A ton of ethnic Tajiks live in Uzbekistan, there are more Uzbeks in Osh than Kyrgyzs, even though Osh is in Kyrgyzstan and there are Uzbeks all over the Stan show. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Fergana valley were the borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan overlap, underlap, disintegrate, have a nervous breakdown, change their names to Dorothy, flees society, strips naked and hides in a cave.

Unfortunately for all concerned (not least me) the borders such as they were in 1991 have stuck. It’s a bit like all the counties of England becoming separate countries all needing border posts, customs and visas. No wonder nobody’s ever heard of these places – even Brits would be hard pushed to point out Northamptonshire or Worcestershire on a map of the UK.

At least Kazakhstan had Borat to put them on the map, but did you know that Tajikistan suffered a extremely violent civil war in the 90s? No? Neither did I. I guess the western press doesn’t just ignore conflicts in Africa, it ignores conflicts in any part of the world that us geographically-challenged mooks haven’t heard of.

Anyway, Tristan lives with a Uzbek family and the mum of the clan really looked after me, making sure I was well fed (with plov) and watered (with tea). Sunday passed by in pretty much the same fashion, only the latter half of the day was preoccupied with drawing up battle plans for tomorrow’s bout of The Great Visa Game.