Tuesday, April 28, 2009

postcard from lebanon

After being spoiled by the welcome in Syria, Lebanon is (perhaps inevitably) not so embracing.

Beirut in particular won't ever be named as one of my favourite cities. It has a very materialistic culture, and appears divided quite prominently between those that have, and those that have not. If you don't appear as though you fit into the former category, nobody takes a second glance at you.

This is most evident in the rapidly evolving central-Beirut area, where each interesting, war-ravaged building is being torn down to make way for an ever expanding, glitzy, fastidiously clean, Disney-like town center. It looks pretty and probably appeals to couples on a weekend break or something, but we feel out of place and somewhat looked down-upon as we venture through it.

As an aside, Beirut is the first time in four weeks of traveling that I spot a Starbucks outlet. It had been nice walking through cities that don't have American chain stores on every corner.

People pay expectantly scant regard when we attempt a night out in the city. I've got my heart set on sampling Beirut's most famous club: B 018. But it will - of course - be expensive, and we are determined to experience it on as tight a budget as possible. To that end we buy beer cans from a local store (extra strength 9% stuff, we soon notice) and dress to impress.

As backpackers with a minimal wardrobe, that is not easy. Lebanon's aforementioned culture means clubs have a strict dress code, and I have come traveling with no suitable footwear. I do however, remember hearing about a trick whilst backpacking around Australia in 2003, that stretching a pair of black socks on over shoes makes them resemble plush footwear, or at least to the cursory glance of the nightclub doorman.

It works a treat, but I shouldn't have gone to the trouble. After four weeks of sobriety, my hard-won alcohol tolerance has declined steeply. Despite drinking nothing extra once we left our hostel room, 20 minutes after entering B 018 I am vomiting in the toilets. We are invited to leave the club some time later, and the vomiting continues outside the club. And then back at the hostel. For two more hours. The next morning I resign myself to having visited Lebanon's most famous club - and not being able to remember a single thing about it. Apparently the moment when the roof opens is spectacular.

The driving in Lebanon deserves special mention. Across the Middle East it is already appalling, here it is a completely lawless. Traffic lights are - at best - give way signs, and don't ever expect that the car at the junction ahead won't pull out right in front of you. Lanes are ignored, and it is every man or woman for themselves. Despite this, I am four weeks into traveling, but have yet to sit in a seat - in car, coach or minibus - that has a seatbelt fitted.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, we visit the northern city of Tripoli. The atmosphere is edgier. We spend half an hour strolling to the center of a street market before we spot unwelcoming, anarchist black flags flying from the lampposts. On a (hastier) walk back, we spot two propaganda posters in support of Saddam Hussein, amidst the countless others that adorn the streets.

The next day revolves around wonderful hiking near the mountain village of Bcharre. It's the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable Lebanon trip - even the spectacular Roman ruins at Baalbeck (think Athens's Acropolis but far bigger and far better preserved) is dampened by torrential rainfall.

No matter, a day's coach hopping later and we are at a border entrance to Israel, trying to enter despite our passports bearing stamps from their Syrian arch rivals. Convincing them to allow us in will be time consuming...

Wish you were here,

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=67480&id=282401058&l=91c80395d3 (no login required)
Lebanon rating
: 3.2/10
Friendliest person met: The most anxious hotel manager in the world, in Beirut
Scariest moment: Walking around Tripoli.
Most beautiful sight: Baalbeck, despite the rain
The Soundtrack: Assorted works by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr.
Still to come: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Monday, April 20, 2009

postcard from syria

After a spate of people trying to overcharge us in Turkey, it's safe to say that we're on our guard as we enter Syria.

In both countries so far we've had a 'baptism of fire' moment where we find ourselves walking through a new city within a brand new country, with our heavy backpacks, everybody looking at us, and we have to get our bearings and find where we are going to stay that night. We very quickly find out about the national psyche of a country in that time.

So we are cynical about early offers of help. In Turkey people (commonly children) would request money after such favours. We find the time though, to speak with two liberally dressed women in their early twenties that stop us in the street. They are English teachers, and are delighted to meet us. Afer conversation they explain that they would love to invite us back to their house, but that we are men and there are Islamic customs that must be adhered to. They then detail that we will need a taxi to get to Qamishle train station, inform us not to pay more than 50 Syrian Pounds for the journey, then change our 500 pound note for us so we can offer the driver exact change.

Hailing a (tiny, clapped out) taxi, we ask to go to the train station, and explain that we will only be paying the going-rate for the journey. He is a nice man, but he shakes his head continuously each time we try to state our price. This is a situation we are already all too familiar with. Concerned, we persist for a while, before moving on to talk about other things. At the train station the driver explains fully: this journey is free, and it is an honour to have met us and had us ride in his cab. We are bowled over and feel more than a little guilty.

At the train station we discover that we have a five hour wait until our train. It's no real problem and we've been in this situation before, so we settle down to entertain ourselves as we are used to, for the duration. Not long after, and a crowd of 15 people has formed around Simon. They are fascinated by the sight of a young western man slumped in their train station, knitting a scarf. They point and discuss with each other this most curious of sights.

People occasionally talk to us, and 20 minutes later one particular young group of men strike up conversation. After a while they invite us to their house (an offer we've been told to accept should we be fortunate that it ever be made), and we walk through the mud tracks (Qamishle has no middle class to speak of, it isn't a wealthy town) for 15 minutes to their house.

At their house we chat and our entertained for four hours, and the women of the house (who are kept from our view throughout) prepare tea and a fantastic evening meal for us. We try our best to adhere to the many rules of eating we've read (e.g. never with your left hand, never double dip anything) but inevitably slip up along the way. Not that our hosts would ever mention when we did. Although they are poor they have mobile phones, satellite TV and shared internet access. They are amazed to have such company in their house, and several times apologise for the meal they have put on for us. "Had it not been dark we would have slaughtered a lamb for you" they say.

Later they put us on the night train, and we ride to Aleppo attempting to recover from such an overwhelming day. Aleppo is far more used to tourists, so the welcome is inevitably not as sweet, but it is still a strong, honest one. Whilst it is not a thrill-ride of a city, we find entertainment in the twisting Souqs (marketplaces), and beautiful ruins at Qala'at Samaan 40 minutes drive out of town. Simon also bumps into an old workmate from Winchester (!), and we spend an evening as guests in their hotel.

You know that beeping sound big vehicles make when they're reversing? In Syria that doesn't happen. Some cars, however play a tune called Lambada that I haven't heard since I was 14.

From conservative Aleppo (female dress code: a veil) we travel to liberal Lattakia (female dress code: skinny jeans), but leave the next morning as miserable weather ruins our dreams of a beach day. From there to Hana, where the 12th century castle of Crac Des Chevaliers is the highlight of Syria. It's a brilliant castle for exploring all day, as if it's come straight from dreamland.

I can't lie, part of the appeal is that if this was in the UK it would be constantly swarming with visitors (think: Stonehenge), and railings and safety warnings would be placed everywhere in a paranoid health and safety frenzy. Here it is a beautiful structure left untouched and untarnished, and there wasn't more than 100 people exploring it's huge innards at any point during the day.

Then to Damascus, which may just be my favourite city I've ever visited. Despite receiving a not-inconsiderable portion of tourism, the Syrian welcome still runs strong through the city. Getting lost in the tiny twisting alleyways that cover much of the centre would feel threatening in many lesser cities. Here it is enchanting.

Damasus combines all the fine characteristics of Islamic cities (the culture, the people, the mosques with their nightly green glow and 'call to prayer' musical harmonies that ring out across the city), with youthfulness, character, and even a christian quarter where it's possible to enjoy a night out.

Night activities such as exploring Damasus's winding back-alleys would be precarious, often ill-advised in other countries, but everybody seems to agree: Syria could barely be any safer to travel in. It's just one more example of the Syrian welcome, and it is truly humbling. I have thought several times about what welcome our hosts would be given should they ever visit the UK, and it's a depressing thought.

Keen to not misrepresent, we do have a few hard-fought battles over money, almost all of which are with minibus drivers. One such occasion is on our final Syrian excursion - to the desert town of Palmyra. The town is graced with a castle high on hilltop, which we undertake a treacherous speed-hike to the top of in order to catch the sunset. Palmyra also has Roman ruins, the likes of which we were getting a little bored by at this stage, but we took the time to explore them at both midnight and sunrise, with beautiful results.

The ride back from Palmyra took a curious turn. All the coach companies were charging 200 Syrian Pounds to get back to Damascus, but one older gentlemen requested just 150 to ride in his rickety old Japanese bus, a vechicle with character to spare. It was an opportunity we jumped at. We must have been offered various food and drink by everybody on board during that journey - each person wanted to meet us and make us feel at home.

All that remained after that was to get out of the country, and as the minibus is about to set off the driver asks if we would mind storing some mystery goods in our bags as we cross the border. We remember our not-getting-thrown-in-jail training and politely decline. It would be a shame to have the trip cut short at this point.

Wish you were here,

Syria rating: 8.4/10
Friendliest person met: Ahmed and his friends in Qamishli
Scariest moment: Not once were we unnerved.
Most beautiful sight: Crac Des Chevaliers
The Soundtrack: Elbow - Leaders of the Free World
Still to come: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

postcard from eastern turkey

In an otherwise unremarkable 24 hour coach hopping journey from Tbilisi in Georgia to Van in Turkey, the road leading to the Turkish city of Erzurum astounds. Suddenly we find ourselves driving through a landscape of mountains with only beautiful, untouched snow stretching out for miles in every direction. For 30 minutes all we do is continue to stare out the window as each new permutation of landscape is presented to us.

Later on we would do our research, an it becomes more clear as to how fortunate we've been. This is an area used to relative extremes of weather. A month later and most of the snow would have melted, a month earlier and we may not have taken this route due to road closures.

Lake Van provides a day's perfect camera fodder, before we head out to a popular Kurdish bar for the evening, only to discover we are there on a quiet night and - save the manager's friend - are the only people there. It's becoming an upsetting trend on this trip, despite our efforts to the contrary.

The next day Simon wanders off south of Van to attempt some mountain hiking, whilst I stay in town. My decade old walking boots have become progressively more painful, and I can't possibly face a hard day in them. Instead I spend the day shopping.

Van shopping receipt

New shirt - ₤4
Haircut (long overdue) - ₤2.40
New waling boots (from the only shop in town that sells them) - ₤32
Chicken kebab - 80p
An hour's internet access - 40p

Meanwhile south of town, Simon has successfully traversed a snowy mountain, but has attracted uniformed attention on the way down. Some police are giving him very confused looks.

The area, it seems, is one in which the PPK is active, and Simon ends up being detained for 30 minutes and questioned under suspicion of terrorism. They part on friendly terms though, and before getting a minibus back to town the whole village excitedly comes out to meet him.

On our last night in Turkey we decide we should fit in an authentic Turkish bathhouse (called 'Hamam') experience after all. Wearing just a towel we are ushered first into the sauna room. Simon is in his element in this kind of heat, but I am less comfortable. I stick out the heat as long as possible, aided by Simon's goading, but when I have to leave it becomes clear I've left it a little too late, and back in the main room I nearly faint, cannot stand up, and three Hamam staff have to prevent me crashing into various marble fixtures.

One tea-aided recovery later, and the experience continues. An attendant scrubs seemingly four layers of skin off us, douses us with a bucket of water from the cold tap, then one from the warm, then we lie on a marble slab whilst two middle aged men massage us with levels of intimacy beyond which either of us are comfortable with.

From Van we set out coach hopping to the Syrian border, stopping for a couple of where the Turkish officer attempts to levy us with a fictional 'departure tax'. It's the fourth time in three days that somebody has tried to overcharge us (to varying degrees of success), and it has spoilt our otherwise very high regard for the Turkish people. Talking our way out of that, we walk forward and cross the border into Syria...

Wish you were here,

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=66273&id=282401058&l=ab25ed7210 (no login required)
Turkey rating: 7.2/10
Friendliest person met: A guy called George who helped us with the Tbilisi - Van journey a lot
Scariest moment: questioned under suspicion of terrorism
Most beautiful sight: the road to Erzurum
The Soundtrack: Royksopp - Junior
Still to come: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

postcard from turkey and georgia

When confronted by a journey of a thousand miles, it's of comfort when you have a stroke of luck in the very fırst step.

I take my seat on the 2120 traın from Nottingham to London St. Pancras. Half an hour later a guy, early twenties, gets on at Leicester and sits across from me. He then gets a guidebook to Turkey out and begins reading.

It transpires that his name is Vishnu and that yes, he is on his way to Gatwick to catch the same 8am plane to Istanbul as me. He's a medicine student, and full of advice on travel health matters. He would end up joining us for the first 24 hours of the trip.

Six sleepless hours in Gatwick airport later, Simon - my companion for the next 80 days - joins us, and we're off to Turkey.

Our first taste of Istanbul is a boat ride across the Sea of Marmara (about twice the size of Sydney Harbour) that also means we are crossing the continental border from Asia into Europe. After settling at a hostel we go off in search of a traditional Turkish bath house experience. Any such place in easy walking distance is likely to be a dumbed down, overpriced experience for the tourist market, so we instead head out after dark through the back alley labyrinth of the Bazaar district in search of an authentic one, on guidebook recommendation. 40 minutes intense map work later we find it, and it's mysteriously closed down.

We then bid farewell to Vishnu as he catches his coach to Turkey's west coast.

One typical sightseeing morning later, we head off to the Grand Bazaar, expecting just another large marketplace to wander through. Instead we are greeted by a sprawling uber-market (the world's largest, or something) full of a complex mesh of pathways to get completely lost in, and (mostly) charming stall owners eagerly touting for business. At first it's an overwhelming headache of an experience, but shortly after it becomes a place to fall in love with, especially after a lifetime being conditioned by the monotone rhino that is Asda West Bridgford.

A 10pm train out of Istanbul (we've decided to travel at night whenever we can, to save on accommodation costs) brings us to Turkey's charmless grey brute of a capital, Ankara. Luckily we only have to whip between transport hubs before getting a coach out of there.

It's on the ensuing 24 hour (!) coach journey through Turkey's arid, featureless northern countryside that the complexities of their language really become apparent. After 60 hours in the country I still had not managed to pronounce 'thank you' properly, and every time I tried would either be greeted with a part confused, part vacant look, or simply ignored altogether. Now, in my life to this stage I had drunk a total of one solitary cup of tea. Sorry England, I just never saw the point of it. But with the translation for 'thank you' being an unpronounceable jıgsaw of syllables, and the word for tea being kind enough to rhyme with tea ('che' or something), by the end of the journey I had drunk sıx cups of the stupid overrated stuff.

Late at night the coach reaches border control between Turkey and Georgia. Based on this experience, I reckon I can claim with fair confidence that I am the first Irishman to ever visit the country. The Georgian border guard spends a full five minutes reading every-single-page of my passport at least once whilst everybody else is waved through after a cursory 30 seconds. Everybody else working the border seems genuinely fascinated by it too, and I hop back on the bus with an odd feeling of mild celebrity about the whole thing.

Georgia's countryside seems more interesting. One particular mountain village we pass through bears a striking resemblance to the the one depicted in Resident Evil 4.

Arriving in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the morning of what just so happens so be my birthday, we cross the city center on foot, passing two United Nations cars (always a sign you've made idiosyncratic holiday plans) to our bed for the night at Irena's Homestay.

Tourism is such a rarity in Georgia that hostels don't exist, and the only budget options are Homestays where locals pile beds into any unused floors of their buildings, whilst the proper hotels cater almost exclusively to business customers.

Later we head out to sample Tbilisi's nightlife. As westerners, we are exiled from the main form of entertainment - late night restaurants - on the advice that attending without native companions can turn unsavory once things get going. Instead we sample three of the city's bars. The first serves beer at just 85p a pint, the second feels instantly like the ones I have drunk and worked in back in Nottingham, and the third turned out to be one where you are offered a drink, then a table, then a choice of ladies to entertain you for the remainder of the night. We drank up and bolted out the door pretty quickly from that one.

The whole of the next day is spent exploring Tbilisi, seeing beautiful churches, ramshackle neighbourhoods, and climbing a big hill, aided by the city's underground Metro system that costs 18p to travel on.

The reactions of Georgian people to us has been fascinating. Walking down the highstreet half the people would be staring (literally) at us. On three separate occasions Simon had a tiny pebble, then a light punch from a girl, then a piece of rubbish, thrown at his back. (his back isn't particularly incendiary or anything, it just seems like a desire for an anonymous, very mild form of hostility) But beyond that often lay an excited welcome. As no other country speaks their language, a joyful, surprised smile often crosses their faces when you make even the most basic attempt at speaking it. Our local convenience store was seemingly run by a rotating army of 12 women in their early twenties who would flutter with excitement every time we entered. This is certainly not a reaction I'm used to garnering in Nottingham. A tourism student called Mia, a devoted Westlife - and by association Ireland as a whole - fan stepped in to help us navigate Tbilisi's impenetrable underground system, and after I showed her my passport stayed with us for two hours helping us plan our upcoming day trips.

Then there was the minibus ('Marshutka' - the main form of public transport in Georgia) assistant who was so proud to have an Englishman and Irishman in his vehicle that he stopped five minutes into the journey to buy a round of beers for us to enjoy on the journey together. The ensuing conversation was a challenge given that we only knew two words in Georgian (thank you, hello) and he only knew one phrase in English ('okay, let's go', curiously), but through talented miming on both sides we managed to discover that his hobbies include football, women, alcohol and firing guns, and that he once got arrested by the police after taking heroin. We were pretty anxious for the rest of that journey.

Said journey, after also passing through a snow blizzard, took us to Gori, the birthplace of murderous psychopath dictator Stalin. Georgia is oddly proud of him, and we toured the museum, the train he used to travel in (you haven't lived until you've photographed a dictator's toilet, let me tell you) as well as some gorgeous dilapidated old trains in a disused area of the railway station. We also managed to lose each other for two hours, which was a challenge given that neither of us have mobiles on this trip.

By the next day we were getting the hang of Georgian as a language much better than we had Turkish, and had excitedly learned that the word for 'sorry' is 'bodishit' (literally pronounced 'body shit'), which sounds like the kind of filth Boy George, Max Moseley or Jamie Theakston might be into. I used it a lot though, enjoying getting to be polite and have my own little bit of naughty fun at the same time.

A final day trip to the manicured heritage village of Signahi later, and we left Irena's Homestay (her daughter insisted on taking photos of us before we left) and headed to the bus station where we stayed for seven hours to save a whole ₤10 each on accommodation. Come morning our Georgian trip would be spoilt somewhat by the bus companies tactics of clubbing together into an infuriating cartel that means that it's twice as expensive for Westerners to leave Georgia as it is to get there - and even locals pay about 50% more. Simon argues long and aggressively about this, and eventually gets us 30% off the price five minutes before the coach leaves, to take us to Eastern Turkey...

Wish you were here

Photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=66273&id=282401058&l=ab25ed7210 (no login required)
Georgia rating: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: Mia the Westlife devotee
Scariest moment: Heroin minibus guy
Most beautiful sight: christian church in Tbilisi.
The soundtrack: Guns 'N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction
Still to come: Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.