To say that our hotel in Hurghada was a bit lousy would probably do insult to lousy hotels. My general dislike for large-scale tourist hotels was not helped by the unhelpful staff, the twin room we were lumbered with or the remarkably bad breakfasts they doled out, much in the manner of an African prison… and I should know! But we made the most of it, fighting our way through the throng of German and Russian holiday makers and out into the bright light of Hurghada.
I was in Hurghada about ten years ago, and I found it a dusty, unfinished mess of litter and concrete and I’m sorry to say nothing has changed. One of the first Red Sea holiday destinations, insensitive planning and an unbridled frenzy of concrete tat means that of all Egypts cities, it is possibly the most unattractive. Plus it’s got no groovy pyramids, temples, obelisks or statues to check out. If you like your Scuba diving, then it’s a haven, but otherwise it’s a great place to haul up in your hotel room, build a little fort and watch 24 on your laptop.
The reason we’re here is because that most marvellous lady, Lorna Brookes, is holidaying here a little down the coast. Aside from wishing to thank her for all her help this year (many of my shipping jaunts would have been impossible without her persistence) she also had a bunch of stuff from the UK that I would need to continue on this stupid mission – a new leather jacket (thanks Mum!) to replace the one the police stole off me in Cape Verde, a shiny new Lonely Planet for the Middle East and a brand new stock of Doxycycline pills to ward off any malarious plagues of mozzies.
So we grabbed a taxi and headed up to Lorna’s resort. Blimey – it was like Fort Knox. We were told to wait at the gate for a car to come and pick us up and once in reception they did their best to get us to leave as soon as possible. I can see why – it was an all-expenses-paid type of place with a private beach and free drinks. They wouldn’t want riff-raff like the Hughes/Newland duo turning up and cadging a bunch of whiskeys without permission. Luckily for us, Lorna was there to turn a threat into an opportunity (something she is marvellously equipped to do. She explained to the staff the nature of my quest, they had words with the manager and before long we were given free passes to indulge in a spot of lunch and enjoy a couple of drinks on the house.
Yey for Lorna!
The hotel complex was actually quite attractive – they had done their best to ape the Arabian-Nights style of architecture in a way that, while not authentic, wasn’t particularly offensive either. Lorna was staying with a mate of hers from London, Shelly, who was a hoot, and we took turns babysitting Lorna’s baby daughter Matilda, who had a habit of zooming off in any direction she was facing, much in the manner of a turbo-charged Big Trax.
We spent the afternoon chilling out on the beach and taking full advantage of the free booze. That evening Mand and I chucked some Egyptian pounds at the staff so we could stay for din-dins and after musing over just how far we have come we scuttled back to our dowdy hotel (after a few more drinks in the Peanuts Bar) and, for the first time in this whole daffy adventure, I felt as if I was on holiday.
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
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.
I was planning to be at the Jordanian Embassy first thing in the morning, but you know what I’m like by now and after going to sleep around 5am, I had no real intentions of being up with the lark. I got there about 11am-ish only to discover that you can’t get a multiple-entry visa from the embassy. Why I need a multiple-entry visa is a story for another day, but it was a bit of a blow for the smooth running of The Odyssey.
So then I headed over towards The Pyramids. I was supposed to go last week, but laziness and procrastination got the better of me. There would be tickets on sale at 1pm to go inside the Great Pyramid, something that has always been a dream of mine. Whenever I’ve been to the Pyramids in the past, the Great Pyramid has always been closed for one reason or another. Along with seeing a shuttle launch and attending a full-moon party, it has been something I wanted to not miss out on this time around.
The journey there was a bit of a nightmare. I took the glorious Metro across town to Giza station, but the taxi that I took from the station was driven by a fool. He drove me to the wrong entrance to the complex (because he wanted to drop me off at his friend’s stable and also buy a ‘ticket’ somewhere I know you can’t) and by the time we got there, it was already past 1pm. If I missed out on my one and only chance to get inside that damn pile of rocks because of a bloomin’ corrupt taxi driver, I’d be spitting blood for a week.
But it was okay – although I had to trek all the way up the Giza plateau to the proper entrance in order to buy a ticket, I got one. I GOT ONE!!
Utterly made up, I made my way into the last great wonder of the world, the tallest building in the world for four thousand years, the resting place of the 4th dynasty king Cheops and the riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma that has focussed the great minds since antiquity – The Great Pyramid of Giza.
I get a lot of flack for not hanging around places long enough to experience them, but what people who don’t know me don’t get, is that I’ve already been to a ton of places and fully experienced them before The Odyssey began – from the Taj Mahal to Machu Picchu to Angkor Watt to Petra to the Parthenon, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt. Even ones that are sadly no longer with us, New York’s twin towers and the Sari Club in Bali to name but two. But if there was one place I always kinda had my eye on for hanging around, it’s Egypt. I know I’ve been here before, I know that things haven’t changed much in the last ten years, but there’s something magical about this place – a link to the distant past that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.
I always thought I would descend into Cheops’ tomb, but you actually go up to it (good pop quiz question there methinks) along a series of low ceilinged slopes. Once inside, others might begrudge the E£100 entry price (about 15 quid) because it’s just a room. But when you’re in there it’s just so much more, it is a haven of solace in which the greatest kings the world has ever seen would continue their adventures towards the afterlife.
Because of the plethora of tombs and pyramids and catacombs in Egypt, I guess it’s only natural that you might think that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. Nothing could be further from the truth – they were obsessed with life. Death scared the bejesus out of them and they went to great lengths to try and survive it. And when I say great lengths, they don’t come much greater than the Great Pyramid. Over one million massive blocks, over 100,000 labourers and over 20 years to build the damn thing… all so one guy can have a nice easy transition into the afterlife.
Once in the tomb chamber, I monkeyed about (as I have a habit of doing), getting a photo of me in the sarcophagus, jumping out and going RAH! at hapless tourists, sticking my hand into a hole in the wall and pretending it was stuck. Ahahahaha GOD I’M FUNNY.
I then thought I’d have a nice sit down and quietly drink my water. At this point, there was only one other guy in the tomb room and he sat down too. It was all nice and quiet and calm.
After a few minutes some noisy tourists rolled in. But upon seeing me and the American guy sitting quietly against the wall, they assumed that that’s what you’re supposed to do inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, so they sat down too.
This is only natural – whenever you’re put into a situation that you’ve never experienced before (like entering a the tomb chamber of the Great Pyramid), your best bet is to copy what others are doing. But then more tourists came in, looked about, and sat down too. Before too long there were over FIFTY people in the chamber, all sitting quietly – some praying, some meditating, some daydreaming – all in complete silence. I was giggling. Derren Brown would be proud.
I sat with interest to see what would happen when a bunch of rather loud Japanese tourists entered the (now full of sitting people) chamber. Lacking the social etiquette that their civilisation is usually famed for, they made a complete racket (one would be tempted to wear shoes in their home just to see how they’d like it) and my cult of quiet sitters grew annoyed. Shhhhhh! Fired a French lady sitting with her back against Cheops’ empty sarcophagus. Shhhhhh! Shot an American man by the entrance. Before long the Shhhh’s drowned out the Japanese tourists enthusiasm and they quietly (and respectfully) left the chamber. My cult of quiet sitters had successfully won it’s first tribal conflict.
I was proud of how far we had come in just half an hour of not saying anything. But it was now time for me to do what all good messiahs should do and I made a timely exit… always leave them wanting more, that’s what I say.
Crikey, could you imagine if I had resumed my earlier shenanigans and jumped into the sarcophagus again? They probably would have eaten me.
Upon exiting the Pyramid, I was seriously made up. Not only had I achieved another of my hidden goals of The Odyssey, I had also had a moment in there that I’d never forget – although by now, I’m sure my cult would have fractured into various denominations, each convinced a different seated posture is the orthodox one.
I spent an hour or so ambling around the Pyramid complex (I could never get bored of these things) and passed by ol’ Sphinxy on the way out and answered her riddle (the answer is me with a hangover). I grabbed a bite to eat in the fabled KFC and jumped a taxi back towards Heliopolis to see what Kendra had planned for the evening.
As things came to pass, Kendra had no plans so we ended up staying in and watching vids. Yes I should really leave tonight, but I can’t be bothered. I’d much rather put my feet up, upload some tapes to my laptop and watch The Wrestler. What’s one more day? I’ll leave for Jordan tomorrow.
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…
Maybe I’ll just fall asleep on this nice comfy couch instead. Mmm….
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!
Jordan was awesome. I really felt as if I had finally left Africa behind me and was back on the backpacker trail, rather than the backbreaker trial. I was in no hurry to get to Damascus, so after a fairly lazy morning, Abby and I walked to town (it was a nice day, why not?) and then we went to visit the oldest townhouse in Amman. Abby is friends with the caretaker and before I knew it we were being plied with free cups of tea, a delightful experience for a tea-loving Brit like myself and one which I hope will continue throughout the Middle-East.
Around midday, I finally prised myself free of Amman’s seductive grip and, after saying my good-bye-byes to Abby, I was in a service taxi to the border. Would I get a visa? I still didn’t know. I had had my fair share of conflicting information, but now it was do or die – I could always return to Amman if necessary.
I needn’t have worried – Brits can buy Syrian visas on the Jordanian border. As long as you have no evidence that you’ve been to Israel, you’re laughing. So I paid my $52 and soon enough I was in Damascus as in “The Road to…”
I could have pressed on to Beirut in Lebanon, it’s not very far, but the thing is that I’m waiting for these damn visas for Algeria and Central Asia and while they are no forthcoming, I have little reason to hurry. If anyone wants to repeat The Odyssey, they could probably get from Cairo to Istanbul in four days, visiting every country on the way. But I might as well take my merry time, so I checked into a backpackers and had a little mooch around the town before finding a nice little cafe with internet access to while away the evening.
I think Syria was one of the countries labelled as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ by George W Bush, which is a little unfair as Syria, while not being the most liberal state in the world, is hardly in the same league of interference in people’s personal spheres as, say North Korea or Saudi. Even though Saudi is not regarded as a member of this axis (it bought its way out of moral restraint), despite the fact that bin Laden and most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi and it has a terrible habit of burying rape victims up to their hips in sand and then allowing a team of psychotic teenage thugs throw sharpened stones at her face until her skull cracks open or she bleeds to death. Nice.
But I’ve been to Syria a couple of times now and it’s fine – I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe at any time. If it’s a police state then they keep a low profile. The only thing I don’t get about Syria is the ubiquitous pictures of el presidente which are EVERYWHERE – lamp-posts, restaurants, offices, in taxis, on buses, buildings, bill-boards, any flat surface you care to mention… The reason I don’t get it is this – iconography is forbidden by the Koran. A good Muslim is not allowed to draw a picture of another human (or even animal) lest it be regarded as an icon. That’s why Islamic calligraphy is so terrific – it’s their only outlet for fine art. They’re not really even supposed to make statues, although try telling that to Turkey – hundreds of sculptors would be out of work if there was a ban on carving Ataturks.
But then, what’s the story with President Bashar’s mug on everything (and I mean everything!) is that not iconography? If not, what the hell is it? They tell me that the pictures bring good luck – doesn’t that make it even worse? Isn’t that what an icon (if you worship it) is supposed to do?
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.
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?
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.
The plan today was simple. Well, I thought it was. First up, visit the Kyrgyzstan Embassy and hand over my passport, while that visa is processing put my application in to the Turkmenistan Embassy, then scope out the Afghan embassy (which my book tells me issues visas ‘on the spot’) and back to the Kyrgyzstan embassy get passport, rush back to the Afghan embassy, and maybe head on to Kyrgyzstan with my shiny new visa before the day is done. I plan to return here next week after visiting Tajikistan (a visa best got in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan) to pick up my you-have-to-wait-ten-days-for-it Turkmenistan visa. But ha! No.
The bus got in nice and early at 8.30am. Great. I grabbed a cab and headed into the city centre, picking a Metro station at random to be dropped off at while I texted my CouchSurf contact, Fred, to let her know I had arrived. En route, she called me back and told the taxi driver where to go – funnily enough, it was right by the metro station I has picked at random (I seem to have a sixth sense about these things). I dropped my bags and after a quick coffee, set out with Fred to do business in great waters. Of bureaucracy.
I fell at the first hurdle. The Kyrgyzstan embassy was closed for the day. Oh well, onto the Afghan embassy – only to find them closed for brunch. Rolling my eyes, we headed on to the Turkmenistan embassy, where we found out you had to arrive before 9am and put your name on a list and wait for three hours outside the gate to be even entertained with an application form (a process you had to repeat the next day to hand in).
Another thing to bear in mind is that embassies are a little like the staircases in Harry Potter – they move without rhyme nor reason. Why this is so, I have no idea, but that’s the way it is – from Liberia to Tashkent via Istanbul and Baku, not a single embassy has been where my Lonely Planet has said it was. This meant Fred and I spent most of the day in taxis trying to find the damn things.
One bit of silver lining on the horizon (loving the mixed metaphor) is that outside the Turkmenistan embassy I met with a guy called Atabeck, the most helpful guy IN THE WORLD. He was there getting visas for his family and used his turn to grab me an application form. I wouldn’t be able to hand it in until tomorrow, but it was a start. The idea that I wouldn’t get my Turkmenistan visa until April 9th at the earliest irked somewhat, but I guess it’s all part of the Great Visa Game.
Application form in hand, I headed back to the Afghan embassy. The guys there were incredibly helpful but they said I needed a letter off my embassy in order to get a visa. A letter saying I take full responsibility for my actions in visiting Afghanistan and any resultant nastiness that may transpire as a result. WAY TO FREAK ME OUT, GUYS!
I’m only planning to be in Afghanistan for a few hours, so although the $30 visa charge was fairly reasonable, the $93 my own embassy charged me was simply not. And to add insult to injury they took over an hour doing it, so that when I arrived at the bank to pay in the visa fee, it had closed three minutes before. I went back to the Afghan embassy with my puppy-dog eyes and asked if I could – you know – just pay the $30 direct to them (as I had done at the Uzbek embassy in Baku), but they couldn’t do it, and anyway I’d have to wait until tomorrow now for the visa anyway. I slunk away: a 100% unsuccessful day, I thought – but actually it wasn’t. Serendipity had come along and allowed me to make contact with Atabeck and we will learn more about his wisdom later.
In any other city, today’s vast number of taxi rides would have cost a small fortune, but this is Tashkent, and pretty much every car is a potential taxi, you just flag them down and climb inside – it’s less than a dollar to go anywhere around town. Happy days.
By 9am I was back outside the Kyrgyzstan embassy. I put my name down on the list and headed over to the DHL office to see if my replacement camcorder had arrived. It was still being held in customs. Frustratingly, this meant I would be without a decent video camera for my trip around Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Couldn’t be helped, back to the Kyrgyz embassy. I waited my turn to go inside, and when I did I all but begged to get the visa there and then. If I had to wait until the afternoon to pick it up I could scratch another day – there’s no way I could make it to the Kyrgyz border before it closed at 7pm.
To my utter disbelief, the guy in the embassy said okay and furnished me with a visa there and then. I couldn’t believe it. Still in shock, I charged back to Tristan’s flat, picked up my bags, said goodbye to Tristan’s house mum and headed off to the bus station. By noon I was on my way to the bordertown ‘Osh’ in a shared taxi. I was assured that I’d be at the border for 5pm. Well, yeah, they might well say that…
At this point I had bigger preoccupations. First up I needed to alter my registration slip that I got back in Nukus to say I had been staying at the hotel all this time. As I may have already mentioned, CouchSurfing is kinda illegal here. It was pretty straight forward to change the ‘24’ into a passable ‘28’, but with my customs declaration I had bigger issues. I had filled it out in black ink, and I had gone and lost my black biro. The only ones I had were blue, and I needed to knock off one (now missing) camcorder off my declared list of stuff. I guess you don’t need to be told that Uzbekistan is ultra strict about stuff like this, and a discrepancy like that is the kind that they would probably wet their pants over. They would think I sold the camera and pocketed the cash woohahahaha because I’m made of capitalism and evil. My mind flashed back to Africa and all the hassle I was given there even when my papers were in order.
I got the driver to stop at various shops along the way, all of which sold biros, BUT ONLY BLUE ONES. After the twenty-fifth shop I was beginning to think they didn’t actually sell black pens in Uzbekistan. I started to panic – I was stuck in a Terry Gilliam inspired nightmare in which my freedom hinged on finding the right colour pen. But by 6pm I began to think that it didn’t matter anyway – I wasn’t going to make it to the border before it shut. We were still plenty of kilometres away and it was getting dark. When at 6.30pm my driver was idly driving around the streets of Andjian (home of the infamous massacre) and I was convinced I didn’t stand a chance of getting there in time. Tristen had made it quite clear that given the Uzbeks love of paperwork and soviet-era bureaucracy it takes two hours to cross the border. He had told me in no uncertain terms that unless I left at 9am from the capital Tashkent I stood no chance of getting to Kyrgyzstan today.
Oh ye of little faith.
At 6:35pm my driver had got out and been replaced by his dad, who assured me that he’d get me to the border on time. I have to say I wasn’t convinced, but I had to at least try. As we approached the border I kept my eye on the clock as the minutes eked away… 6:56pm, 6:57pm… It was now dark and it was three minutes past seven when we got to a passport check at the side of the road. My driver convinced the guard to wave me through and then, half a kilometre further on, I was at the border.
There were a few people hanging around outside the gates, but my driver pushed me to the front and said something to the military guy on the gate about me being English. The guy thought about it for a second and then opened the gate. I couldn’t believe it. I was in.
But then on the walk to the customs post, my legs went funny. THE CUSTOMS FORM! I hadn’t doctored it. To further complicate matters I was the ONLY person there and I guessed (correctly) that they would go through my stuff with a fine-toothed comb. I went into the customs office. There were eight people there all ready to put me under the microscope.
Okay, I had two ninja moves I could pull at this point. One would be the Derren Brown, but given the language difficulties I doubted that my cunning linguistics would work. The other was the Boris Johnson. I went for the Boris. I bumbled, dropped stuff, got the giggles, opened up stuff they weren’t interested in, rushed about, zipped and unzipped my bags, pulled out the most random assortment of stuff I could think of, banged on about Liverpool (Steven Gerrard, I owe you one) and generally did my best to bamboozle and bemuse with my buffoonery. And it worked. They didn’t even ask about the missing camcorder, I think they lost track of what I did and didn’t have.
I smiled, shook everybody’s hands and departed, almost wetting myself with relief.
Now my big worry was that the Kyrgyzstan border post would be closed and I’d be stuck in No Man’s Land for the night. But again, no worries. I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only were the Kyrgyz guards incredibly friendly, they also gave me a lift into town from whence I could take an overnight shared taxi to the capital Bishkek. With a little luck I could get my application for my Tajikistan visa before the weekend and be back in Tashkent before next Monday.
But more importantly, I am now in COUNTRY NUMBER 150!!
I have now stayed with or drank with or danced with or shared tea with or struck up a conversation with somebody from over 175 countries around the world. Today Planet Earth seems a terrifically small one.