Sunday, 7 October 2012

India: The Love/Hate Relationship

India: The love/hate relationship

Its impossible to write India, the variables are just too intricate to detail. I find it indescribable in every sense, but perhaps in a basic form, this blog would serve to help me make sense of it all. In Pakistan I had reached an emotional pitch that would not be reached again, and in a way I found my-self marginally deflated upon entering India. I hadn't seen Mayara during the few hardest weeks of the trip and I continued to dearly miss her. Coupled with the instability of my China tour group (to recap - my Tibet/China tour was in extreme jeopardy when the Chinese government, without warning, changed Tibet permit requirements. As a result the required tour group had cancelled our first group and were frantically trying to figure out a way around the permit issues) I found hard to get focused and decipher a clear vision beyond the immediate future.

Amritsar and the extended Jam session!

Within a few days I would meet May again and that was the extent of my thinking. So it was at this point that I embraced my greatest skill and that was the ability to improvise in a situation. In a way a level of ‘improv’ is the only way to truly immerse yourself in Indian lifestyle and culture. I always had a metaphor for this trip that like any great Jazz band, it would be extremely tight, organised and well-rehearsed but with the ability to solo and improvise.
I bowled into Amritsar (closest border town to Pakistan) with a destination in mind but absolutely no clue about how to get there. I managed to extract a general direction from a local cop and continued "to follow my bonnet" before stopping for directions at a Skoda car dealership. There was a group of Punjabi men and as I could tell, one of them was signing the paperwork for his new Skoda. I patiently waited for the men to finish their business before ineloquently blurting out in my clearest and most generic English accent "HORSE HOTEL, NEAR DELHI PUBLIC SCHOOL". I felt like the typical dumbass westerner when I received a reply in perfect English. As it turned out, one of the men named Sandhu, could decode the absolute nonsense coming out of my mouth, and ushered me outside, back to my car. Casually Sandhu and his friends all jumped in Dorothy and, along with their car, I was led to the Horse Hotel (actually this was a couch-surf that I had arranged, but the cop I first stopped and asked directions of, knew it as the Horse Hotel, so that was good enough for me).

We soon pulled off the Grand Trunk road, onto unsealed roads and through a small village. This was to be my oasis for the next week, like a hidden Shangri-la in the Punjabi desert. The property owner (and my couch-surfing host) was an older Sikh man named Mr Singh (this name is shared with just about every other Sikh I met), and he inherited his wealth from his father. Thus he felt compelled (as Sikh's often do) to share his good fortune, and therefore his hotel was open to couch-surfers, free of charge. The property consisted of many stables for all his majestic horses, swimming pool, hotel-style double rooms and a wonderful restaurant that served traditional Punjabi, Indian and Nepalese food. Every night I, along with the other restaurant guests, would be treated to an un-enthusiastic dancing performance from a male and female lead and a midget backing dancer. It was all absolutely perfect.

Still, this first night, after unloading my things I would share a drink with my new friends before bidding them farewell. However, as I would begin to learn, Indians don't tend to leave it at simple pleasantries. Their enthusiasm for interaction and story-telling is unprecedented and they take chance meetings, always to the next level of friendship. On any given day you can go from complete strangers to best friends instantly. Sandhu with his wife, family and friends had returned for dinner and invited me to join them. Indian hospitality can be second to none and this night I would be treated to a full meal and a healthy dose of whiskey. By nights end, both Sandhu and I had shared quite a lot of whiskey and he invited me back to his place, he said we would have another drink and I could spend the night there.

Sandhu is a difficult man to say no to, so I jumped in their car and was on my way to their place, and after our little night cap we were off to bed... the same bed. Sandhu's wife was to stay on the couch, while two grown men prepared themselves for bedtime in the master bedroom. The absurdity of the situation had me drunkenly giggling to myself, but by morning when we were both sitting up in bed with a slightly sore head, and I began to feel the awkwardness. I needed to generate some small talk, lift the tension if you will..... "Wow, I slept really well, it’s a really comfortable bed"..... inspired stuff Whitey! After a bit of back and forth chatter, breakfast was prepared for us by Sandhu's wife, and I attempted to make my exit. It would be like the walk of shame, hailing a tuk tuk, still in last night's clothes. Sandhu would have none of it and like a good gentleman drove me back to Mr Singh's place :)

In truth Sandhu and I would spend most days together (as this was still before May arrived). Mostly, I tagged along while he conducted business and went about his day (I wanted to wait for May to see the sights anyway). One particular day I was in his office while a group of Sikh locals and he were in a business conversation. Although the language barrier was evident for me I could still gather the basics and it wasn't a completely pleasant discussion. Sandhu stopped mid-way through the conversation and turned to me "They don't want to give me their next payment, so I am going to take their bike" (Sandhu, amongst other things, seems to be some sort of loan shark) all I could respond with was "Fair enough". After a little more negotiation, the Sikhs coughed up the dough and were on their way.... Mr Sandhu is a hard man to say no to.

Reunited... For now!

Mayara has a strange effect on me, I have always felt and considered myself an extremely independent person, and nearly always travelled alone. However there were many times during our few weeks apart, when I felt completely useless and hopelessly dependant on her. I couldn’t self-motivate and the only thing I could do was focus on meeting her in India. It was a bizarre feeling to need someone else so much, but I knew the only remedy was to be with her again, as soon as possible. So the day before her planned arrival, I was jittery with excitement, I couldn't sit still or hold a thought in my head. That was until a message came to me from her to say that she had partied too hard and would have to wait another day to catch a bus from Delhi to Amritsar. Despair!! Nevertheless the next day, I was waiting patiently at Amritsar train station for her coach to arrive. After a few minor communication delays I was reunited with her at the train station and it was straight out of Hollywood. We spotted each other on the platform and ran towards each other, after a long embrace, hand in hand we headed back to Mr Singh's farm.

Over our next few days we would finally see the sights of Amritsar together. We would wander the streets and embrace the marginal mayhem (believe me I hadn't seen ‘Mayhem’ yet) that was Punjabi life. Perhaps second only to the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Golden Temple in Amritsar is an icon for India and an absolute gem. Constructed by Sikhs, it was intended to be a place of worship for all religions and walks of life, and today it is estimated to see 200,000 worshippers per day. As is Sikh tradition food and accommodation is provided to those who seek it and this is all done free of charge. May and I joined the other worshippers and lined up for an hour to gain access to the temple itself. Once inside we spent time upstairs listening to the constant rhythmic drones inside the temple and watching the pilgrims worshipping their various Gods - it was a magical experience.

I suppose the next major extravaganza that brings people to Amritsar is the traditional Wagah border ceremony. This is the daily border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan, and what a spectacle it is. Crowds flock to cheer on their team and the genuine rivalry and bitterness towards opposing nations is truly felt. By this point we had met a Spanish couple also couch-surfing with Mr Singh and we attended the ceremony together.

Foreigners are thoroughly welcomed and are treated to VIP seating for the show. Mayara was dragged down to the festivities below by a group of enthusiastic school girls, were the mandatory Indian dancing and hysteria takes place. The ceremonial peacocking that goes on is somewhat silly but at the same time wildly entertaining. Both sides of the border have opposing MC's trying to ‘gee up’ the crowd while, one by one, Indian and Pakistani Peacocks (actually real men but this gives a better picture) march full steam ahead straight for each other before peeling off and standing guard. This is concluded when each side aggressively slams the gate shut on each other. It's an amazing spectacle and one that puts everyone in a good mood.

On one of our remaining days we were treated to a personal tour by Mr Singh. He is a softly spoken man and has an extremely kind nature. He treated us to traditional Indian lassi, and other local treats, whilst we did a quick pass by of his many properties in the city. The tour was capped off with a visit to his private home and to meet his wife. After being introduced to his wife, we were also introduced to his adopted daughter. She was a Bangladeshi girl, whom many many years earlier was saved by friends of Mr Singh from a life of prostitution (at the hands of gangs in Delhi) and sent to Amritsar for protection. After explaining the situation, Mr Singh looked at me and smiled "Here, I am the Mafia!". 

May and I had finally confirmed our leaving date after more than a week at Mr Singh's farm. We were promptly invited to a farewell dinner with Sandhu and his wife. It was a wonderful night whereby he and I drank copious amounts of whiskey, however the night was only marred by an attempted groping action of May by Mr Sandhu (May only revealed this to me the following day). The love/hate relationship personified.

The great phony hippie trail.

Perhaps my expectations were wrong for Dharamsala and Mcleod Ganj. It was the home of the Tibetan government in exile, and a place that ranked near the top of my most highly anticipated places. Perhaps it was here, that like the scarecrow, I would re-discover my brain? May and I arrived into Mcleod Ganj on a Saturday afternoon in what was one of my most challenging drives thus far in the trip. As we began winding our way up the mountain it began to dawn on me what I was getting myself into. Fucking mayhem... Dogs, Goats, Cows, Monkeys, aggressive Punjabi drivers, Tuk Tuks, Tibetan ladies selling Momo's, hippies and just about everything in between is all jockeying for right of way on this single lane road. This culminates when four roads, leading from different directions, all collide in the most ridiculous "intersection" I have ever come across.

By this point a colourful array of curse words were flying out of my mouth and I was soaked through with sweat... This wasn't the spiritual retreat that I had in mind. Slowly but surely we made our way out of the hysteria and into the marginal seclusion up the mountain above Bagsu (the other side of Mcleod Ganj). We decided we couldn't go any further with Dorothy as the roads were too thin, and with the torrential rain, made the unpaved roads unusable. We left Dorothy on the side of the mountain and were guided, in the rain, by a small boy to our guesthouse. Exhausted we regained our composure and settled into the guesthouse where we would spend just under a week.

Although the guesthouse was a mission in itself to get to, the payoff came the following morning when we awoke and were treated to a view of Mcleod Ganj and the rest of the Himalayas. Down in nearby Bagsu, the whole aura of the place was great, although not as I imagined and still being the weekend, all the Punjabis were here with their families for the weekend. Although the locals must be well used to the tourist scene in Mcleod, visiting Punjabi's are at times in awe of foreigners. More like presidential candidates than rock stars, May and I were meeting and greeting approaching families, having their kids thrust onto us for photos, and everybody generally wanting a piece of the action. Queues began to form as we posed for pictures. It was all good natured, apart from the groups of pimply faced teenagers wanting photos just with May (I wonder how many Facebook display pics changed after that, and how many photos I was cropped out of? Mmmm!).

Both Mcleod Ganj and Bagsu have a plethora of restaurants, guest houses and tourist stalls, but that doesn't diminish too much from the feel of it. Indeed, I’m sure the tourist boom has changed the scene dramatically from sleepy Tibetan village to hippie mecca, but it still remains an interesting place to wander, if not a little tiresome at times.

Now I'm not sure if I am angered or amused by the hippie scene in Mcleod, but avoiding all the phony hippies is impossible. By this I mean, the middle class American college dudes with dreadlocked hair and hemp pants, having deep philosophical conversations. The existential and spiritual themes they routinely hit are, in essence, absolute bollocks and the pretentious palaver they spin all day long, simultaneously amuses me and activates my gag reflexes. Now that’s not to say that there are not genuine exceptions in this left-of-centre counter culture. There are those who are legitimately insightful and who do generate original conversations that are food for thought, but ultimately most of them seem to be using this whole image as an excuse to get high. Getting high is fine with me, but I feel at least they should have the courage to be honest and not hide behind their phony flower-power ideals.

This was in full display when May and I sat on the floor in a cafe for dinner. Amongst the smoky haze, that shitty, acoustic, beachy music wafted through the restaurant. We ordered our lentils from the completely vegetarian menu and patiently waited. It became apparent that the waiter was too high to remember the order when she came back and asked us to repeat everything again. I must admit however that this whole hippie ambience did give me a craving to listen to 'The Grateful Dead', but I resisted in making my musical request. I began to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, after some back and forth music chit chat from the group, one of the lads was describing a DJ he liked and said "Just put these headphones in your ear, it will take you on a musical journey that defies the realms of your wildest imagination". I nearly threw up all over my lentils. (Ok diatribe over).

The next venture whilst in the hippie mecca of the world, was a day trek to a waterfall (great description ay?). This was quite an arduous task and took us over the estimated two hours that was considered the norm. On a few occasions it become a little sketchy as the usual safety precautions that we were accustomed to in the west were completely non-existent, but although it was a very pleasant and if not difficult trek, it didn't give us the final pay off we expected.

After spending nearly a week out our little guesthouse above Bagsu, we came to the conclusion that it was time to move on. Dotted along the hippie tourist trial was the holy city of Rishikesh, but in order to get there we would need to head directly south rather than cutting through the mountains easterly. 

The Cheeseburger Mirage

This meant that Mandi and Chandigarh were next on our list. We would spend only one night in each city, although we had an ulterior motive for Chandigarh. Chandigarh is considered one of the most westernised cities in India, priding itself on its well-developed road system and infrastructure, whilst also adopting many of the western cultures. This meant that all the regular fast food restaurants were on offer as well. Mayara and I were in agreement, after checking into our hotel we immediately set about hailing down a Tuk Tuk and instructing him to go directly to McDonalds (ohh how we were looking forward to succulent cheeseburgers!!). 

Like a mirage in the desert we saw it in the distance, the great golden arches - the place of my fondest childhood memories. We burst through the doors and I gazed towards the menu, and to my disgust, I only saw chicken burgers on offer. May and I were completely devastated, and like a mirage in the desert, our hopes of juicy cheeseburgers vanished. We turned, hung our heads and walked out in a feeble display of defiance.

No meat? what do you mean no meat?

Rishikesh was a place made famous to the west by The Beatles, whom become regulars here trying to seek their spiritual enlightenment (eyes rolling). I had heard horror stories of Rishikesh..... All meat products and alcohol was banned in the holy city - this was an awful notion, but one that I knew I would have to put up with. We got in late in the afternoon and briefly cruised around looking for a hotel. The surroundings were all a bit dismal. However I was really too knackered to drive any further. We stopped at an overpriced hotel (as it turned out we were still 10 minutes from the main touristic hub) for the evening and settled in, both nervous that we had made a huge mistake in coming here at all. In the morning we quickly realised we were a little out of the main tourist point, so driving a little further we found a guesthouse with a much more centralised location.

Rishikesh was my first glimpse of a truly chaotic, filthy Indian city. I mean we had seen the mass of humanity that India could potentially be, but we were not prepared for the utter filth about the place. Like most travelling experiences though, you quickly adapt, and we didn't hesitate to get stuck into exploring the city. Rishikesh, which is set upon the mighty river Ganga, is a place of pilgrimage, where Hindu's bath and even drink from their most sacred river, believing that it will free them of their sins and ultimately to achieve their goal of Nirvana. Despite the pollution, Rishikesh was an unbelievably interesting place, but not necessarily beautiful. Another evening passed before we again changed locations, checking into a local Ashram. An Ashram, could be described as a yoga retreat, where you have a daily program that includes meal times, meditation and yoga sessions. It also meant that we would be rising for 6 AM yoga every morning. As I quietly eyeballed the program, I knew it was something that Mayara really wanted to do, so I didn't mention it, and in truth I was also intrigued. On the bright side, including meals and accommodation the price was actually very cost effective, so that was a big positive.

The Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram had a good mix of travellers and we immediately set about making friends. May and I soon attached to a girl named Sally who was a solo traveller from Brisbane, and I was pleased to find that she possessed that down to earth, tongue in cheek humour, that many Australians have. Another bonus was we checked in just before lunch, which usually comprises of Dal, Chapati, Rice and another vegetable based curry, which was actually very nice. Along with the two Yoga sessions per day, there was, twice per week, a chanting based meditation known as Kiirtan. This basically involves a person leading the Kiirtan by starting the chants, and the class repeating the phrase, a kind of call and response process. I went along with an open mind, and everything seemed to be pretty straight forward (although I wasn't too focused if I am honest. Rather I was trying to figure out what each individual was hoping to get out of this process.) Without warning the routine changed and as we sat in a circle the chant was to go around the circle one by one, individually. I felt like rising a screaming "I did not sign up for this" and pulling a storm-off, but I remained silent. The first person began, "Sita Ram Jay Sita Ram", in which we all repeated. It began to move around the circle, and although the phrase, simple enough, the tension grew inside me as my turn etched closer. "Shitajay Jay Sita ram".... Ohh Fuck it! This was awful, I wished the floor would open up and swallowed me whole to save myself further embarrassment. The group somewhat stammered in their return, but the chant continued around the circle, and I knew I would have my chance at redemption. Another circulation and my turn once again, "Shitaram Shitaram"..... Would someone please get me a steak and beer!
The days rolled by and instead of achieving spiritual enlightenment, Mayara and I became lazier and lazier, and the 6:00AM yoga session fell by the wayside. In this time however, I did find my meditative path to enlightenment. There was a small gym right around the corner from the Ashram, which I began visiting most days. It felt good to get back to the gym for the first time since I left London, and although I couldn't have my usual post gym fix of steak. I managed to purchase a couple dozen eggs, which I fried off in Dorothy after every session.

May and I were somewhat hesitant to leave the Ashram each day, as it was all very easy. The extent of our responsibility was to make it on time for meals and yoga sessions, if we should so choose. In between sessions Sally, May and I would hang out, talking a lot of nonsense, generally having a good laugh. So day by day we extended our stay, however after a few extra days we were keen to move on, and next on our radar was Kausani.

Gandhi let me down!

Mahatma Gandhi was said to have used Kausani as his retreat for Yoga and writing, he found it a most inspirational place. So if was good enough for Gandhi, it was good enough for us. The road to Kausani was winding and hilly, so the relatively short distance took us the whole day and we arrived just after sundown. Tired and weary we settled in at a resort style guesthouse just on the outskirts of the village and by this time the spectacular views we were promised were not visible under the cover of darkness, we would have to wait until the morning. After a very long and pleasant breakfast we gathered the motivation to check out the village, which, to our slight disappointment, didn't resemble anything different to every other village we passed through to get here. However, not too much further along there was a town called Nainital, which promised bigger and better things, and so we opted to pursue this destination immediately.

Nainital was a fantastic recommendation made to us, and more than made up for the slight disappointment of Kausani. Situated on a man-made lake, it’s a spot used by regular backpackers and couples alike. In its centre was a huge football pitch which seemed to be constantly used by kids, and a little further on was a Tibetan market where we got served the best Momos thus far on the trip. May and I (well it was more my idea) felt that we needed to let off a little steam after Rishikesh and we decided to buy a few beers to drink in our hotel room. Like a covert operation, we cheekily smuggled a few beers into our room and tried to keep them cold in a bathtub full of water. As tends to happen, the beer soon ran out and but we managed to send a hotel staff member to buy more beer (with quite a big mark-up per bottle). Within a couple of hours Mayara was jumping up and down on the bed and I was belting out LA Woman by The Doors. It became a full blown London town party. The night ended abruptly with May throwing up in the toilet and me passed out on the bed. The following morning was one of my most wretched hangovers in recent memory, and I too found myself, head in the toilet bowl. There was no way we were leaving for Delhi that day, and all I could manage to do was stagger to reception and book in another night at the hotel.

To be continued.....

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Pakistan. This definatley aint Kansas no more!

True Grit

"Kidnapped UK aid worker Khalil Dale killed in Quetta, Pakistan" –
29 April 2012 - BBC

"Senior Pakistan policeman shot dead in Quetta" -
8 May 2012 – BBC

"Three killed and thirty five injured as car bomb hits FC convoy in Quetta" -
15 May 2012 - Pak Tribune

"16 killed in gunfight between police, squad members in Balochistan" -
June 8 2012 - Balochistan Online

"Pakistan blast: Quetta religious school toll rises to 15" -
8 June 2012 – BBC

Every which I looked at it, every conceivable option was exhausted and I couldn’t escape the inevitable. I would have to proceed through Balochistan to Quetta. Quetta, it seemed was on the verge of an all-out war, with bomb attacks and killings nearly every day, usually at the hands of the Taliban or other upstart militant groups. My research led me to believe that I should have police escorts with me at times on this route, but by no means was this a sure thing, and besides with the amount of police being murdered I was wondering whether this would make me more of a target.
There was always a quote I liked by Jeff Bridges character "Rooster" from the movie "True Grit"

"If you ride at a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him; he thinks about himself, and how he might get clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on him"

The time had come and my conclusion was that, like "Rooster", I was going to go as hard and as fast as I could for Pakistan. Perhaps if I showed "True Grit" any dangers lying ahead would be thinking about how to get "clear of that wrath that’s about to set down on them" (By the way, thanks for putting up with my creative indulgences haha )

Pakistan: This definitely aint Kansas no more!
I rose at dawn from my hotel in Zahedan, Iran. It wasn’t difficult, as I had been lying awake all night waiting for my alarm to sound, images of the news headlines dancing through my mind. The previous night the hotel reception found out my intentions and insisted that I get police escorted to the border (this was to be the first of many), so the arrangements were made for my departure. The 90km to the border would take several hours as my police escorts changed over every few kilometres. On a positive note I was making friends already, as I shared banter with some of the younger military guys. After my last border fiasco I was on high alert for potential scams, but to my advantage one of my new friends from the Iranian police force handled the whole Iranian customs and immigration process, in which I cleared without a hitch. I was handed over onto the Pakistani side and much to my surprise, it was just as easy. I changed a little money and the man who was assisting me asked if he could have a t-shirt, I was more than happy to oblige. I exited the border and was greeted by the site of Taftan (the Pakistani border town).

From Iran with love - One of my Iranian police escorts felt compelled to give me this heart felt illustration

Taftan is your typical border town… It’s a complete dump! So having said that I wasn’t into hanging around to take holiday snaps. I was introduced to my first police escort,(their force is called the Balochistan Levies) he was a small, how should I say? senior gentleman, carrying a massive AK-47. I took off through the 630km gauntlet to Quetta, my stomach full of butterfly’s, yet somewhat excited as to what was ahead. It was a surreal feeling really, I had spent countless hours reading and researching this particular leg of my journey and It was finally here, and I couldn’t believe the emptiness of it all. Either side of the little road was endless desert and sand hills, occasionally we would pass through a small village but that emptiness made me feel completely vulnerable. I would stop at police check points every 50km or so to sign into their books, and on occasions my escort would swap.
I had reached my scheduled overnight stop at Dalbandin, and was asked by my escort if I would like to stay at a hotel or the police station for the night (never been asked that before). I elected to stay in the hotel, which was surprisingly nice, and was assisted by the hotel manager. I spent the evening sitting outside the hotel with the manager and my escort smoking (I had come to the conclusion that smoking made me look tough) and chatting away. It all felt strangely normal! I could imagine doing the very same thing at my own place, and this sense of normality put me in a much better frame of mind.

It was a strange night. At about half past ten the power went out. Now this happens many times a day in Pakistan and India but at this point it was all new to me. It meant I had no ceiling fan in my room and it was scorching hot. Meanwhile I had no idea what was going on and when I heard chatter and saw flash lights dancing in the halls I thought the worst. Perhaps the terrorists had discovered my location and were conducting "Operation Whitey. My heart was racing and when there was a knock at my door you can imagine all kinds of scenarios were running through my mind. It turned out it was the hotel manager coming to enquire whether I would like to sleep on the roof as it was far cooler. I agreed and dragged myself upstairs to a small mattress inside a mosuiteo net. I actually slept very well from then and only realised in the light of the morning that there were also police sleeping on the roof that night.

Are you Muslim?
A question that I wasn’t prepared for was "Are you Muslim?". This sprang up on a number of occasions, and left me in quite a conundrum. Considering best strategy, should I completely lie and say yes I am a Muslim? Or tell the honest truth and admit that I wasn’t a religious person at all. I figured its better to believe in something than nothing, and I hoped they would at least respect that I might have some sort of religious faith. So I settled on being of catholic faith, which was usually met with indifference (which was fine with me), and I was happy to change subjects as quick as possible.
However this got me thinking as to the nature of the question and the attitude surrounding it. They could have easily been asking me what football team I support, in that it was like "my team is Muslim and we are the best", and I briefly pondered as to why human beings need others to share their same beliefs or opinions. Whether it’s as trivial as what sporting team do you support or as complex as someone’s political, religious or social views. It seems that we all must think that we are the ones whom are ultimately correct, and we have this innate desire to convert someone to your belief structure.

Flying solo by the Afghan border
The road from Taftan to Dalbandin was relatively good, but I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky on my journey into Quetta. To say the road conditions were terrible would be too polite. Some of the time I wasn’t sure if I was looking at potholes or unfinished swimming pools. Never the less I slowly pushed on (most of the time with escorts). I was stopped at a check post and judging by my calculations I would have been about 20km from the border of Afghanistan. Things were starting to get a little serious now and a police truck was getting prepared with the driver plus two machine gunners in the back. My escorts were genuinely surprised that I was a travelling solo, and they quickly gave me a nickname of "danger man "and I was simultaneously proud and petrified. Then as I was pulling away behind my escorting police truck, one officer poked his head into my window, smiled at me and simply said "Drive fast!". With the hair on my arms standing on end, I drove hard fast and didn’t look back. This section was mountainous and remote, and I spent much of that time planning exit strategies if things went wrong. Suddenly my escort who was now travelling behind me, pulled away and I would complete the next 20Km flying solo, this was thankfully incident free.
My next major hurdle was actually getting into the city of Quetta and my hotel safely. This felt like a full scale military operation. I once again waited at a check post just outside the city, before leaving with the most intense escorts so far. I would drive a few kilometres into the city before there was another escort waiting for me to go a little further. I felt like a sitting duck….. a giant, blue, van shaped duck and I was itching to get to my hotel. I finally checked into the Bloomstar hotel, and had the rules for foreigners dictated to me. I would not leave the hotel without escorts and I had a curfew of 18:00. They also informed me that I would have to stay until the following Monday to get a letter from their Home office, officially notifying police forces of Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab of my travel plans and my requirements of police escorts.
I made contact with my parents who were utterly relieved to hear that I was safe in the hotel… They informed me that hours earlier four police officers were murdered on the road into Quetta. I was catapulted back to earth and it made me realise, out here how quick the situation could change.

An average day in Quetta - My police escorts coming into the city of Quetta

Kiwis in Quetta
The timing couldn’t have been better, while I had become an expert on Pakistani politics and media; the two motor bikers from New Zealand whom I met at my hotel were nearly completely oblivious to the danger that was associated with Quetta and Pakistan as a whole. Ohh how I envied them! They had started in Malaysia and had ridden their little postie bikes around South East Asia before flying their bikes into Nepal, travelling through India and Pakistan. They admitted they only bought a map once in India, and they simply would find their way to a city, ride around for awhile until they secured lodging for the evening. While I had never prepared anything so carefully in my life, they had virtually no plan at all. They told me how they attempted to enter restricted zones in Pakistan before being sent away by police; once again they were completely oblivious to it all. As I gave them my crash course in "Surviving Balochistan", their eyes began widening, before looking at each other, shrugging and taking another swig from their beer. Ohh the envy!

R&R at the Hotel Bloomstar
I had succomned to the fact that I would be stuck in Quetta until I could receive the compulsory letter from the home department, which meant I had a little time to kill until the following monday, when offices were open. I formed a little routine and actually started to enjoy myself, as I re-discovered the art of doing.... not much at all. I would rise whenever I wanted, enjoy a full breakfast and mosey on over to the internet cafe (pending no power cuts) which was about 2 minutes walk from the hotel. I really wasn't in the mood for soaking up the sights and sounds of Quetta (whatever they may be?). I would be back at the hotel way before my curfew of 6 o'clock, to gorge on another delicious Pakistani curry with the Kiwis. I hadn't expected to find peace and calmness in Quetta but those few days at the Hotel Bloomstar were some of my most relaxing.
On the Monday, I reached the home department and received that letter which permitted me to continue my onward journeys, this came along with the mandatory preaching of the virtues of Muslim life. I was now ready to leave Quetta and continue on out of the Balochistan, through the province of Sindh to my next destination of Sukkur.

Driving... and not much else
Leaving Quetta, was a duplicate of my entry and was once again a full scale military operation, but once on the outskirts of the city, the mood relaxed and I was instructed to follow a coach carrying passengers, which contained a police officer. The hardest part was keeping up with the bus driver who was determined to break the land speed record. He would overtake everyone and if anybody dared to stay in his way he let his horn do the talking. Little old men on bicycles were beaten into submission by his overtly loud and colourful horn, which I found hysterical.

Meanwhile the scenery had livened up and I passed through varied villages and landscapes. By this time i was now under the jurisdiction of the Sindh police force. Once I ditched my bus escort I was picked up by another police truck. This soon grew tiresome though as their vehichle could only maintain a maximum speed of 25KM per hour. The lunacy was encapsulated when the truck ran out of fuel. They managed to limp to a fuel station where their was a lot of discussion and not a lot of action. I soon realised that none of the policeman had any money to fill up. I have become an expert on remaining absolutely oblivious, and I used this to perfection when I sensed they were angling for me to pay for the fuel. After a while another truck came by to take me further, amazingly a little while later the same problem. The day was getting on and I needed to reach my next destination so I offered to put in a few hundred rupees of fuel, to which they swiftly accepted.


Sindh Police, damn fine organisation!

As the sun was setting I reached Sukkur - without escorts (believe me this was a blessing) and I set about getting a hotel. I knew of the Inter Pak hotel and made my way there. The reception informed me that they were completely full, however I knew this was of course absolute bollocks. There's a degree of risk that hotels take when hosting a foreigner, and in fact when accompanied by police officer it is significantly harder to get accepted in a hotel (this is because when checked in, accompanied by a police officer, they take on a level of liability for my life). I pleaded my case that I was without escort and would be gone early the next day. They conceded that they did have room available but it was only the ludicrously expensive deluxe suite. It was obvious that I had little options elsewhere at this point, so I begrudgingly accepted the room and settled in for the night.

The following morning was a complete mess, as the only ATM in town that would accept my card was out of order. So once again I was budgeting until I could atleast get to Bahwalpur. Thankfully a kind chap from the hotel accompanied me to a money exchange outlet to change over a mere few Iranian Rials that I had left. (I felt bad that I couldn't tip him.... but not that bad) After the delayed morning I left for Bahwalpur.

On the road again, and more escorts. This time I was cruising with the Punjabi Elite and had the deputy chief riding shotgun with me. He took great pleasure in mocking his fellow police comrades of other states. He explained how the Punjabi police were highly educated people and thus the reason the reigned supreme over the Sindh and Balochi peasants. Meanwhile, I went along with him and mocked them also (I find this tactic usually helps to build immediate rapport, yes I know, a little slimey, but don't judge me!)

The Elite led me into Bahwalpur for the night, which was relatively uneventful and the following day on my way to Lahore.

Lahore! The unexpected highlight
Just outside the city of Lahore I was signalled to carry on by my guards. At last I was free of police escorts. Although I appreciated their help, the ever present police tail, grew tiresome. A couple of weeks earlier I had emailed a tour group called "Untamed borders", which specialises in conducting tours to more remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I was asking their advice regarding the situation in Balochistan and Pakistan, but they also advised me that I should stay at the Lahore Backpackers Hostel. I was now making my way to the hostel with absolutely zero expectations for Lahore. Without difficulty, I reached the hostel and was greeted by Ali, who was in charge while the owner of the hostel Sajjad was away. Soon another chap who worked at the hostel arrived and the boys quickly went about making my stay as relaxing as possible, fetching my dinner (to my amusement, the boys went about thoroughly helping themselves to my dinner) and attempting to generally lavish me with comfort.

For any Seinfeld fans, you may recall a character named "Babu" who is the owner of a Pakistani restaurant, which Jerry is desperate to help get off the ground. Their is a particularly amusing scene where Jerry is eating in a completely deserted restaurant, with Babu eagerly waiting by his side. Every time Jerry takes the smallest sip of water from his glass, Babu is there right away filling it again to the brim. Amazingly, this was exactly what was happening to me, and I was holding in the laughter for the duration of our meal.

The lads were excited about my arrival and were eager to hear about my journey, and no sooner did they get the manager of "Untamed borders" on the phone for me to chat to. A short time later, Sajjad arrived and he was also eager to hear of my journey and share stories from other overlanders who has stayed at his hostel. Sajjad was the man with connections. Andy Dufrane from the Shawshank redemption might describe him as "a man who knows how to get things"... I felt lucky to have met him and fortunate to have been given the right advice in coming here.

Lahore was baking hot and the power cuts throughout Lahore were some of the worst that I had encountered thus far. As per usual without power, my room was unbearably hot, I would therefore spend my nights sleeping on a beach sun bed on the roof. My first full day in Lahore was to be a personal tour by Sajjad on the back of his motorbike. Sajjad, (perhaps knowing it was better for me to blend in as much as possible) dressed me head to toe in a traditional Pakistani dress. Due to my full lucious beard, light skin and blue eyes he said I looked just like a Pathan (Pakistani ethnic group).Once again without any expectations we set off, firstly making our way out of the city to his local village. After some time we pulled off the highway onto a dirt track and via what seemed like acres of Maijuana crops. We stopped near a few small huts were Sajjads, Uncles and Cousins were sitting under a tree, everyone seemed to be pretty good and high by this point. We walked around and took a refreshing dip in the village well. It was a beautiful place, the type of thing you would see in a NatGeo documentary.
Pathan Pakistani with Sajjad

Our next stop was at another village and their traditional festival. I can't exactly recall what it is they were celebrating but it didn't seem to matter, everyone was having a great time. Sajjad, who once again seemed to know everyone, gave me samples of all the tradtional Pakistani fare. We came across a big crowd all dancing and chanting to the constant rythyms of a man drumming. Sajjad signalled me over and we joined in the spectacle. The man playing the drums had a very strong aura about him and immediatley left a lasting image in my mind, he was like a shaman, controlling everyone with his rythyms. Sajjad made a subtle gesture towards him and immediatley a young boy came over, wrapped his arms around the neck of the drummer. While the man continued to play, he began spinning around with the boy around his neck to perform a good ol' fashionaed helicopter. It was a spectacular performance and one that had me captivated. After the show had ended the drummer came over and was introduced to me by Sajjad. He gave me a warm embrace like we had been friends our whole lives.
Much to my delight wrestling was next on the agenda and we sat around a big dirt field with all the other spectators. The wrestling consisted of huge men, in nappies, grabbing and slapping each other until one of the men crossed an imaginary line. It was both absurd and hilarious and I joined in with all the other spectators laughing at the on field antics.

When we left it was getting towards dusk and we had to hurry a little because the tour was far from being over. Once back in Lahore, we headed for the Lahore fort and the Badshahi Mosque. As the sun had now completely dropped from the horizon, it made for a lovely yet heavy setting and after wandering a little we stopped at a restaurant for a drink. Although, as it was Sajjad's tour and he is the man with connections, it was no ordinary restaurant. I was introduced to the owner of Cuckoo’s Den and after a few pleasantries, I was free to wander the place. It had a strange but beautiful ambience and the walls were decked out in fascinating artwork focusing on the ladies of the famed red light district of Lahore (Heera Mundi). The idea and concept was formed in collaboration with artist Iqbal Hussain, whose mother and sister’s worked as prostitutes in the district. The restaurant also kept another secret, and that it has the best views of Lahore throughout the whole city. We sat on the rooftop sipping cokes and enjoying the stunning sights of Lahore. Before heading back to the hostel we made a small detour to the old town markets, which also contained the red light district. The alleyways were quite small and only big enough to fit motorbikes. Darting through the laneways of the red light district felt like a theme park ghost train and it was a great thrill.

Completely exhausted we ventured on home, and once arrived I collapsed on the roof top deck chairs, were the boys began fussing over me. It all got a little absurd when one began fanning me while the other massaged my legs. It was an extremely kind gesture and only highlighted the desire to make my stay as comfortable as possible, if not a little awkward. Another power cut and another roof top bunking, provided little sleep but never the less I bidded farewell to the wonderful team at Lahore Backpackers and set forth for the Wagah border (The land crossing between India and Pakistan). It was to be my final charge through Pakistan and as was my theme for this whole leg, I rode hard and fast to the border. The Pakistan border formalities were straight forward (although I had to wait for about 30 minutes for power to return). Just like that weeks and months spent planning this route was now over, I had conquered my fears and felt proud of what I achieved. I wondered what adventures lied along the next part of my yellow brick road but as usual the next adventure would never be to far away.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Islamic republic of censorship

It was my first major border crossing, I felt prepared that I knew what to expect and how to handle myself. I’d read detailed accounts from other fellow over landers on the ins and outs of that particular border. I cleared the Turkish side without a hitch and the Iranian formalities were going smoothly. As I had all necessary documents signed and stamped I headed towards Iran. A young chap looking somewhat official had a look at my papers and said I must go to the traffic office. I was prepared for this, here I was going to refuse the purchase of a fuel card (fuel is rationed in Iran and technically you need this, but I had read that most over landers decide against this and just show up at the pumps lost and wait for the service attendant to use their card).  When they asked about a fuel card, I explained it’s already arranged for me by a friend in Tabriz (Bollocks). A group of men, who don’t seem very official are saying I have to pay for the roads (all very vague and I was unaware and suspicious of this) I said that I didn’t think this was correct but I would enquire in Tabriz. The young man suddenly took my passport and documents and signalled for me to come with him, we went to the final office where another officer checked my documents one last time.
It was signed off and I was free to go.... Or so I thought. The young man signalled for me to hurry and get out of the border. All of a sudden he jumped in my car and said to drive past the border and let him out, after a few hundred meters he indicated for me to pull over and let him out. This is where the games started. He wanted money! However I explained to him even though I was grateful for his help, I did not request it, and I would not be giving him any money.  Suddenly, out of nowhere the same group of men as before surrounded my car, saying that I must give them 150 Euro or there would be “problems” for me. They told me they were part of customs and I need to pay (but the refused to say exactly what for) or I have to go back to Turkey. One man threatened to call police, in which I encouraged him to do as I said I too would like to clear this up with them as well. As I suspected he stopped calling. They continued, saying this man is the customs chief, but my requests to see Identification were ignored. After a back and forth conversation where the amount of money being demanded changed a number of times, the “Customs Chief” (insert sarcasm here) tried to grab the keys from the ignition. I blocked his attempt and put my foot down hard on the accelerator (they tried to hold onto the car haha… idiots), all this still with the first young man in the front passenger seat. After 500 metres or so I pulled over and demanded he get it, which thankfully he did. I drove top speed for the next few Kilometres, heart racing and shit scared that they would give chase. To my relief it was the last I saw of that border and the “Customs Chief”. This wasn’t the best way to start my Iranian leg and my levels of apprehension had risen dramatically.

The Islamic republic of censorship
Let me start by saying, Iran is a wonderful place and everything I had heard about the people and their hospitality was true. I was treated extremely well everywhere I went and never once felt unsafe (apart from the border fiasco).  However in order to protect their Islamic oasis from the west, there is a high level of censorship at play. Most western outlets of online media are blocked by the internet filters, all social networking feeds, albeit Facebook, Twitter or whatever are all blocked. To a further extreme ALL foreign credit or bank cards will not work ANYWHERE and cash is the only way a foreigner can pay for things.
Blissfully unaware to what degree this law was imposed (In honesty I knew this law was in place but I didn’t think it literally meant, impossible to use foreign cards anywhere) I checked into the Tabriz International hotel at about 11:00PM after a long and stressful day.  What proceeded was logistical operation of epic proportions

“How the idiot boyfriend was saved”
The idiot boyfriend rose early, his destination was the leading branch in Tabriz of Melli bank. (By this point he was now fully aware of the severity of this cash situation) He parked nearby and even though an illegal park, the traffic officer ensured him he wouldn’t give him a ticket, the nearby shop keep also said he would keep a watchful eye on Dorothy. In order to save face, once at the bank, the idiot boyfriend concocted a story of how he was mugged of all his euros (I felt bad about being dishonest but perhaps this white lie would garner a little sympathy and thus helping to find the solution)
With the help of an English speaking customer he delivered his tale of woe to the bank, for which a bank man lead the idiot boyfriend to three different branches in the area…. At The final branch a man commented how they only had connections in Istanbul, Moscow and Dubai. At this point the idiot boyfriend finally had an idea “My girlfriend is currently in Istanbul, she could help?”
The bank man took the idiot boyfriend by the hand and led him to a recognised money exchange outlet. Once again he delivered his Oscar winning re-enactment of how all his precious euros were stolen by miscreants. They explained they did have a contact in Istanbul and if the girlfriend could get cash to the contact all would be saved. The idiot boyfriend had no way of contacting the girlfriend without internet, so he wandered aimlessly about the plaza looking for a supposed internet café (it was closed as it was holiday in Iran) What he found was another good Samaritan at a computer store who let the idiot boyfriend use his LAN internet connection. The idiot boyfriend managed to get in contact with the girlfriend and somewhat embarrassingly informed her of the situation, and how she could help. Luckily for him, the girlfriend is a kind and generous girlfriend and she quickly sprung to action, grabbed a taxi and set forth to meet the contact.
This operation was playing out like a grand orchestra, everyone playing their instrument to perfection, all in complete unison with each other……….
The traffic officer turning a blind eye on the illegal park job. The shop-keep keenly watching over the safety of Dorothy. The English speaking customer at the bank kindly translating. The bank man leading the idiot boyfriend to the numerous branches. The Samaritan at the computer store allowing the idiot boyfriend to go back and forth using his internet. The exchange outlet facilitating the deal. The contact in Istanbul processing the transaction.  And finally the girlfriend, in the taxi, delivering the cash and completing the deal in Istanbul.
The deal was done and the operation was complete. Everyone giving a performance of a lifetime…. All to save the idiot boyfriend.

Iranian hospitality
I had heard tales of Iranian hospitality. How they seem to go far beyond the call of duty to ensure that foreigners are enjoying their stay (even to the point of awkwardness). Tehran was no different. When I asked a taxi driver for directions, instead of sodding me off he hurriedly jumped in his cab and drove, with me trialling, the 30 minutes to my hotel doorstep. For which he denied any financial reimbursement that I was offering. This encounter really did set the tone for the rest of Iran and in hindsight much of Asia so far.  Upon entering Hotel Khayem (a regular overlanders stop) I was immediately engaged in conversation by Stewart. Stewart was an American bloke travelling with his Iranian wife (probably in their 40´s). Stewart seemed to have lived and worked just about everywhere, taking him from the Middle East to Russia to his current home in the Philippians. After hearing my upcoming travel plans he essentially thought I was signing my own death sentence, concluding that he would keep an eye out for me in the news. With my conversation with Stewart echoing in my head, I had a near sleepless night. I rose early and made way for Isfahan, although unfortunately I would only be merely passing through on my way East.

Akbar English
Akbar English is actually the Akbar Tourist guest house, but when looking for directions, you simply ask for Akbar English. This is because funny enough, he is about the only guy in town to speak English… So finding Akbar in the city of Bam was extremely easy. Akbar was your typical smooth talking Iranian. Extremely personable and had a tremendous calming effect for me. By this point my levels of angst had risen dramatically as my scheduled crossing into Pakistan was just days away. It was here that his reassuring words put me at ease. (That was at least until I spoke to my parents again.)
Things haven’t been very easy for Akbar in recent memory, and his financial woes are never too far from his mind (this was particular evident by his concern when he received his water bill in front of me) He tells me of the dramatic decline in tourism since about 2008, and it was here that I could plainly see the effects the media has to everyday life in Iran. He explains that traditionally there have been many Aussies through his doors, but now they are reluctant to come, because of the many political issues between East and West. In addition a massive earthquake hit Bam in 2003 which just about flattened everything, including their UNESCO world heritage listed old town (Arg-e Bam). Despite all this Akbar was always keen to laugh and share stories from all the travellers he has met.
I had been building up to these next few days for it seemed like a year. Since I put together the idea of this adventure, Pakistan had been my major concern. Much of Pakistan has been out of government control for a long time. Some of it nearly completely lost to the Taliban and other militant groups. In fact, Quetta (where I would need to pass through) is considered somewhat of a Taliban strong hold, and every day I inched closer to the border.  It was like a 10 tonne monkey on my back..... It was crushing me and I all my instincts told me to run.

The Crossroads
In truth, I was looking for any excuse or way out of what was coming. Every day I would drive closer to the border and I would spend the rest of my evening on the net reading updates from Pakistan and then trying to figure out a reasonable way of bypassing this whole nightmare. My fears were heightened by reports that the US were conducting their drone bombing attacks on the tribal regions of Pakistan and in addition, a bus travelling in the Baluchistan region had been ambushed by militants, executing two passengers.
Had I become a victim of the scare mongering tactics of the media? Or was my fear justified? The unknown of what truly lied beyond the border was terrifying, and night after night I lied awake contemplating the same questions over and over. I had reached my crossroads in Bam. I was to either continue onto Zahedan (about 90 km from Iran/Pakistan border) and to what felt like my impending doom or head south to Bandar Abbas along the south coast and ship Dorothy to Mumbai.
Akbar had assured me that I would be fine, but to contradict, the response to my travel plans I received from the Australian embassy in Islamabad strongly advised against me coming to Pakistan at all, let alone driving through Baluchistan and Quetta (exact words were “great danger”)
After much deliberation and the conversation with my parents (who were in great favour of me shipping and bypassing Pakistan), it was my final conversation with Mayara that helped me realise that I had lost something along the way and I needed to get it back.... I needed to regain my courage! The following day, Dorothy and I nervously made the 300Km Journey to Zahedan which is where I would spend the night before crossing the following morning. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The pilgrimage

Being a backpacker again
Dorothy had given me the shits! I even smacked her around a little. It was no good, as I turned onto the road from Budapest to Romania steam poured from the engine and the temperature gauge shot up. I quickly pulled over and lifted the bonnet to see water pissing out of the radiator. I had quite a significant radiator leak that would need fixing immediately. I filled up with water again and nursed Dorothy back to the hostel which we just left.  I sprang into action and found the details of an authorised Mitsubishi mechanic In Budapest which we promptly booked in for the following day. The next day they told me they would attempt to fix the radiator, failing that they would need to get a whole new radiator which could take 10 days. In despair I tried to remain positive “Every problem is just an opportunity it disguise” I thought.  Next thing you know we had booked and an overnight sleeper, on a train to Prague. It was my second time in Prague, however Mayara had never seen the delights that Prague held, so we were keen to load up the backpacks and check into our hostel. Anyone who has been to Prague would say its reputation is justified, and I found that its slightly dark and sinister architecture makes it an intriguing city roam about in. In the meantime I had received somewhat good news that the radiator was able to be repaired and would only mean a three day delay to our itinerary. Just like that after two full days in Prague we were back on an overnight train to Budapest to continue our journey to the former Communist controlled Romania.

Dogs & Carts

It was safe to say that Romania ranked highly in my European expectations, as day dreams of ascending through the Carpathian Mountains in the Transylvania region danced in my mind we inched closer to the Romanian border.

I was prepared for the step back in time of Romania, where horse and cart was still prominent and the simple life of a Shepard tending to his flock was the norm. What I hadn’t prepared for was the amount of bloody dogs about. The streets were filled with hundreds of displaced dogs and this made for some interesting driving moments, as suicidal dogs leaped onto the road without warning.

The initial paranoia of dodging those dastardly mongrels subsided I was able to enjoy the best driving scenery thus far in the trip. The Carpathians were described to me as the Alps of Eastern Europe and in fact the Transfagarasan and Transalpina driving routes consistently rank in most top ten best driving routes in the world, and on the Journey from Sibiu to Brasov we got to experience part of the Transfagarasan route. It was too early in the year for the complete road to be open for driving (its deemed to unsafe this early in the year) However we spent a good two hours taking on the winding roads up the mountain before we reached its closure point. Once in Brasov we meandered through the pleasant medieval city and took and anticlimactic journey to Bran castle (if you know your folklore this is said to be Dracula’s castle)

After a chaotic night driving experience in Bucharest but a pleasant couch surfing experience we were headed to Bulgaria (which we would merely pass through onwards to Istanbul) Romania was over in a flash and I felt a little regretful that we couldn’t give Romania a little longer, as it only wet my appetite for more. (What’s over the rainbow: Volume two maybe??)

Gyros, Doners, Kebabs ohh my!!!

It’s like I had reached Mecca! I had made this pilgrimage from many a mile…. to reach the source. Turkey had brought with it all my expectations and more… Kebabs and Doners as far as the eye could see, and it didn’t have the four day old greasy consistency that I had become accustomed to at the kebab joint under the bridge in Balham, London.  No! This was the stuff that border lined on a religious conversion.

Istanbul (and Turkey) brought with it many expectations from both myself and May. We had become tired of the stuffy European vibe and longed for something unhindered and unkempt, our first signs of chaos before moving onto further extremes. Istanbul was where the Middle East and Asia collides with Europe. Yes of course it was still set up for the average high rolling European Tourist, but with the edge that we were after. We visited the famous ‘Blue Mosque’ which once inside was a great place to take of your shoes and relax. What I also liked about Blue Mosque (and subsequently other mosques we have visited) is that unlike Christian churches they do not charge an admission fee (which I feel is terrible. May has repeatedly had to endure my rant that if you charge an entrance fee to a religious site I should be able to crawl all over the damn thing, taking photos with the flash on, and generally treating it like amusement park. But seriously if you don’t charge an entrance fee I will be happy to oblige the rules, but you can’t have it both ways… It’s either a religious site or a tourist spot….. Sorry where was I?)

I also fell in love with scouring the various markets and bazaars, jiving with the shop owners and bartering for things that I had no intention of buying, soaking up the intoxicating aromas in the spice markets and feeling apart of the madness

Istanbul was also my first glimpse at my forthcoming destination of Iran. I had to visit the Iranian embassy in order to get my visa stamped. As I waited I was privy to the Iranian news, which I found extremely interesting.  Picture the US news (images of terrorists, Iran’s nuclear program, and suicide bombings). The Iranian news was the exact opposite, portraying the US government as the Satanists who are trying to hinder the growth of the great Islamic republic of Iran. The Americans have conducted another series of cowardly bombings through drone strikes, more gun violence in Los Angeles etc etc…. This got me thinking that who was right or wrong? Of course I, like many of us, have been biased by western media and have been a victim of the scare mongering generated towards the Middle East and in fact Islamic culture as a whole. Yet the exact same scare tactics are being used towards the west by the Iranian media. I concluded that like many things the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

“Here, sit! Let’s have some tea!”

A custom that I am particularly fond of (and I intend on replicating wherever I go), Is that all business, conversations or meetings in general are done over a steaming pot of Turkish tea. Whether I am bartering with the shop keeper to buy a new Garmin GPS (because my previous Garmin was a piece of shit), or stopping to fill up with fuel…. It’s always “Here, sit! Let’s have some tea!”. This gets to the point, where you have to start denying the kind of teas…. I mean, there’s only so much tea one man can drink.

Forward or Reverse?

I was adamant to get to a campsite my GPS had locked onto just outside the city of Bursa. It looked reasonable distance to reach. The sun was beginning to set but we had plenty of time… Many things should have clicked in my head as we turned onto a couple of unsealed roads. A few hours earlier there had been a torrential downpour, and the unsealed roads were leading us further into the mountains. I still trundled along inching closer towards what I thought would be our lovely campsite for the night. I made my way onto another mountain pass that was a single lane unsealed road and slightly muddied track, “No worries” I said to a slightly concerned girlfriend, “We’ve got a 4x4” The light mud soon turned to a thick slop and Dorothy’s big butt started to slide… Still I continued. Before I knew it, it was getting dangerous, Dorothy had slid off the road onto the mountain side ditch and we were perched at a 45° angle to the ground. We were bogged and my heart raced, as I began doing what any inexperienced off road driver will do and I revved the guts out of the engine. We were soon free but things certainly didn’t get easier, we tried to continue unsure if it was better to go forward or go back. Another added complication was weighing on our minds, the other side of the road was a good 8 meter drop, which would have spelled game over for us. After a few more hair raising slides into the mountain, we decided to go back. As my father always says “It’s better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know”.

As we were unable to turn around due to the thinness of the road, we were forced to reverse the couple of kilometres we had already come. May acted as my eyes (even though without glasses, she is nearly completely blind) and she was giving me constant directions as she sat with half her body out the car. With a few more near missus we were out and back on the paved road again. May and I both let out a huge sigh of relief and embraced each other. I then paused for a moment before driving off, grabbed the GPS and selected the function to avoid unpaved roads ….

Money, Money?

We found out that wild camping in Turkey was extremely easy. With free toilets and water everywhere, it meant it was never a problem to pull up at a truck stop for the night. Pushing on to Bergama, which is famous for the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamon, we set our GPS co-ordinates for a regular motorhome overnight stop we had been told about , just outside the city center. Here we were greeted by some young local kids who spoke little to no English, they did however have a firm grasp on the phrase “Money, Money”. Generally I don’t give money to kids like this, as it encourages them to beg, and this was no exception J I did however think it would be cool to give the kids a Polaroid photo as a souvenir. I intended to take a photo and give it to the group. Kids being Kids, if I gave a photo to one of the kids, they all wanted one. Soon they were all gleefully shaking their Polaroid pictures as we had demonstrated to them. They left with huge smiles on their faces and as I watched them leave, I too was smiling, seeing the sweet faces of laughing kids…. This was swiftly interrupted when one of the young lads ran up and booted one of the other young girls in the ass!

Japanese are sun smart

I was excited to visit the ruins of the great city of Ephesus. I even stomached the ludicrous entry fee of 25 Turkish Liras each (around 12 Euros) to gain access to hours of historical artifacts and information. (To be fair it was worth every penny, very interesting)

In addition I did get a good chuckle out of the numerous Japanese tour groups. I absolutely love Japanese tourists. I think they’ve got tourism down to an art form. Equipped with the latest Nikons and Canons, they gleefully snap all day long as their tour bus takes them from place to place. They also seem to be deathly afraid of the sun! Covered head to toe (gloves, face masks, sunglasses and umbrellas…. The whole kit and caboodle) I particularly enjoyed one lady who opted for the short sleeve spandex shirt, but with additional long sleeves worn as accessories. This wonderful outfit was topped off with cycling gloves, the mandatory visor hat and umbrella. Perhaps they were vampires and if the sun hit their skin they would implode into dust? To their credit I don’t think skin cancer is much of a problem in Japan. .

Continuing the tourist trail at Pummakale and Cappadocia

When all else fails…. Follow the Japanese tourists…

So like good little tourists we set forth for Pummakale located near the city of Denizli. Pummakale is essentially a mountain face, with a unique twist. Over millions of years salt deposits have formed an amazing white rock surface on the mountain, in which dozens of natural rock springs have been born. To look at it through photos, you would assume that it’s a snow covered mountain, but closer inspection reveals its true nature. These days thousands of tourists come from miles to bath in the (im sure urine filled) rock pools. Happily lathering themselves up with the white mud the sits at the bottom, we of course were no different. The surrounding city of course offers little else to this, so after a few hours we pushed on to province on Nevşehirwhich is the site of one of the strangest and most beautiful places I have been….. Cappadocia.

Cappadocia and the city of Goreme is like landing on the moon, volcanic rock form lunar like sculptures that we both found extremely alluring. This region was once populated by the Christians whom built their homes and churches into the rock, forming a system of fascinating underground cities. We also took advantage of Dorothy’s 4x4 capabilities and went off exploring the rocking landscape.

It was here that I had to temporarily say goodbye to May as I would venture further west towards the Iranian border and she would return to Istanbul to obtain her Indian visa. This was the first time I was to be truly tested, as May had been a huge support to me personally and was 50% of our little overland team.

The tourist trail ends!

I had been on the road for more than 14 hours, desperately trying to make up lost time. My destination was Doğubayazıt , home to the fabled resting place of Noah’s ark at the foot of Mount Ararat. For me it was the last town before the Iranian border. My day hadn’t gone so smoothly. I had a temporarily over heating Dorothy when I tried to tackle a mountain pass which would save me precious few hours (in reality I had to turn back and It cost me that much time again). It was now 10:30 and completely dark and I was still an hour from my ultimate destination…. I couldn’t go on, complete fatigue had set in, so I pulled up at a small town, that on initial analysis seemed fine. I checked into a shabby looking hotel, where the manager wanted upfront payment (this was my first warning sign). He assured me Dorothy was fine parked on the street and besides my room looked right out over her park space. I went back out to the van to grab something when I noticed a ragtag group of kids hanging around, when with a big rifle casually slung over his shoulder…. This didn’t put me at ease! I went back to my room and lay in bed and watched Dorothy for about half an hour. In this time, every passer-by took a little too much interest and finally when that same group of kids started checking the doors trying to get in, I had seen quite enough. I packed my things and was back on the road, willing myself to my ultimate destination. I checked into an overpriced hotel in Doğubayazıt at about 12:00 PM utterly exhausted.  I hurried of to bed as the next day I would need all my mental faculties, as I tackled the Iranian border.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Entering the 3rd Reich

It was perfect… I had it all set up…. We crossed the border into Germany and I hit the button to play “The Imperial March” (Darth Vader’s theme song from Star Wars). What perfect comedy! It was met with silence! I turned up the music a few notches in case Mayara had some sort of temporary hearing defect. Still nothing! I then proceeded to plead my case as to the genius of this joke, and she was not having any of it… It must be a Brazilian thing!

Our first destination was Heidelberg, which was perfectly placed on the river Neckar. One of those truly spectacular places, it had the whole medieval trip going and it was perfect to amble around in. Unfortunately we spent the first couple of hours battling to acquire a Wi-Fi connection at the local Starbucks. Being bound for Mainz with no planned spot for the night, and we were desperately scouring the “Couch Surfing” website to find candidates to help us….  

 “Jogging!  Although I think it’s pronounced “Yogging”

In the end we failed to find a couch surfing host or a free overnight stay, so we were forced to cave for the first time on the journey and pay an excessive 26 Euros for a camping ground. In the end it wasn’t too bad considering it was situated on the beautiful river Rhine (on a side note, the whole reason we ventured towards the River Rhine, is because my father would never speak to me again if I missed it). We soon learned that the city of Mainz was holding its annual Marathon, where hoards of Germans flood the city to take part in the event and as a result half the city was now blocked off. It is always fascinating to me the joy people get from running for an extended period of time, but I think the Germans have got it right. Right after the finish line the hordes of runners are shuffled into a tent, and are promptly served hot dogs and beer….. Now I think I get it.

Benji: The couch surfing enthusiast

Coming off the autobahn into Munich we went through our first police inspection. The ever efficient German police must have concluded that May and I fit the bill as international drug lords. As I detailed my intentions for Munich and our grand adventure they quickly realised we weren’t the criminal masterminds that would jeopardise the future of all Bavarians. In fact they seemed genuinely interested in our trip, in which I was happy to indulge them (I wonder if they have checked out our page after I gave them flyers?)

We soon made contact with Benjamin and his wife Ping, who kindly agreed to host both of us for the night. This was our first couch surfing experience and what a wonderful couple to introduce us to this world. They showed us their city, cooked for us and were so genuine in their love for travel and indeed hosting people through the couch surfing community.  The day of our departure from Munich, Benji drove us to the only concentration camp to remain open throughout the entire length of the war, Dachau.

A bland and depressing place, but never the less, important to visit. For anybody who has ever visited a place like this, I assume the feeling is the same and you leave emotionally drained. This was only interrupted by a truly spectacular bail by Benji. I liken it to sitting in Church as a kid, and trying desperately not to laugh, you know it’s inappropriate, but funny is funny. The problem is that it seemed to take 15 minutes for the big fella to finally hit the deck… Sorry Benji , hope the foot is ok mate. J

“This is Austria! Not some Bazaar in Morocco”

Was the response I received to our feeble attempt at negotiating the price for our campsite in Salzburg, this same sentiment was echoed in similar fashion on two other occasions. (I’ll get back to this later) Austrian driving rules state children less than 12 years of age and below the height of 1.5m are not allowed to travel in the front unless they are in a proper child restraint seat. Otherwise they must be fastened with a seat belt at the back. You must purchase a tax sticker permitting use of the motorways, you must use dipped headlights at all times, horns are not allowed anywhere, parking must all face the same way and on the right hand side of the road. Basically rules are rules and there is no room for negotiation.

I was definitely the worst dressed in Salzburg. I was looked at with disgust by of the locals (I suppose I couldn’t really blame them, then or now) Salzburg is the birth place of Mozart and it seems that the locals are constantly trying to live up to this expectation, with 17th Century classical compositions echoing through the cobbled stone streets, and everybody dressed ready to attend the opera. All in all, I found it all rather pretentious. That is, until we met Kristina!

Kristina was an Austrian arts director (seemed to be in her mid-seventies), who has lived in New York & Los Angeles, been a top class ballet dancer and rubbed shoulders with A class celebrities.  We met her as she was scarfing down two burgers at McDonalds.  “Go to the youtube!” was her enthusiastic request as we were stealing Macca’s WiFi. She directed us to a Youtube clip of her in Salzburg talking with Tom Cruise, “Press see-more button” which revealed additional information about the clip and Kristina’s credentials. As we spoke, I commented that the city itself was quite small, her retort was “Just like the brains of the people living in it” she went on how she didn’t like Salzburg very much and how she longed for the “big apple”. Kristina was a gem and was a huge breath of fresh air in a potentially stuffy atmosphere.

As I said previously the attitude of “This is Austria!” only made sense when we left Vienna for Budapest in Hungary. Austria lies in the middle of Germany, Slovenia, Slovakia & Hungary (not to mention Italy, Switzerland and the Czech Republic) and is somewhat of a Segue to Eastern Europe, where rules are not necessarily rules and a kind of anything goes attitude begins. It’s also where scams and petty crime starts becoming apparent, the Austrians definitely want to disassociate themselves with this.