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 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 396: The Slow Boat to Cyprus

31.01.10:

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!!

Groan.

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.

Next Month >>>

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.

Day 400: I Say Sir, Beer!

04.02.10:

I could have done without the 3am border crossing, it was unnecessarily cold outside – why couldn’t they come to us? There was only about ten people on the whole bloomin’ train. Well soon enough we were moving again and I fell fast asleep. In the morning, I had a couple of hours to kill in Sofia before getting on the next train to Belgrade so I sat down at a bakery and ate as many sausage rolls as I could stuff in my face… sausage rolls being somewhat of a rarity in Africa and the Middle East so smoke ’em, smoke ’em, smoke ’em, if you’ve got ’em.

The train to Belgrade was, again, fairly empty, and so I had no company for the day. Soon my laptop batteries were dead and I was left twiddling my thumbs, not wanting to read the only real book I’ve got – Huckleberry Finn – as it just wasn’t grabbing me. But the snow-covered scenery was beautiful to look at and sunset seemed to take an eternity, leaving the landscape frozen in the magic hour far longer than usual.

I arrived in Belgrade hoping to get the night train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but connecting train services don’t seem to be the ‘in’ thing in Europe any more (not like in Sherlock Holmes’ day) and so I found myself kicking my heels in Belgrade for the night. So I checked into the Belgrade Eye backpackers, wandered the streets aimlessly for a little while before turning in for the night.

More bad news: the Algerian embassy in London is REALLY dragging its heels over my visa request. Eddie Spinks, my reputable visa agent, was supposed to be picking up my passport yesterday, now it may be tomorrow. What’s the problem if I’m not anywhere near Sicily/Tunisia yet anyway? The problem is this: from the moment we get the passport back from the Algerians, it will take TWO WEEKS (at the very least) for my Libya visa to come through. You see, I need that passport back desperately and the Algerians seem keen to keep hold of it for as long as they can. Oh, and I STILL don’t have my Iranian visa sorted. What The Caribbean did with water, these guys are doing with visas. I’ve already told Stan there’s no way I’ll be finished in time for Glasto. Ho hum.

It looks like February may well turn out to be one of those months like June and November were I don’t end up going anywhere.

Day 431: Back On Track

07.02.10:

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

No time for love, Dr. Jones…

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

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

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

Day 432: Day of Disaster

08.03.10:

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

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

What?

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

Try again tomorrow.

Dammit.

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

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

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

Public holiday, see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 433: The Pope’s Nik-Naks

09.03.10:

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

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

I was going nowhere very slowly indeed.

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

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

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

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

Day 434: My Wit’s End

10.03.10:

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

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

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

In fact, I think I will…

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

That’s better.

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

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

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

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

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