Turkey

I booked a 9-day tour for Turkey ending with a night at the ANZAC Cove for the dawn service. I’m not going to write a whole lot about Turkey as it was generally a fairly pleasant relaxing trip with not many highs or lows. Being on a tour is great. They take you everywhere, warn of the scammers, and tell you everything you need to know. My tour group consisted of 8 guys and 27 girls.

Prior to arriving in Turkey I had imagined it as a largely dysfunctional country but this belief began to fade after only being there for a handful of hours. Clearly this country was a big step up from Romania.

My well known obscure observation skills were working overtime in Turkey. As a colloquial mention – there were four sights I saw repeated over and over and over again:

  • EFES: Turkeys main beer. This stuff is for sale everywhere its logo is reproduced literally millions of times. Every bar, hotel, supermarket or anyone selling anything worth buying had this logo outside their store. Wow. You cannot drive or walk more than 100 meters without seeing an EFES logo. That’s branding success!
  • Turkish Flags: There are one hell of a lot of Turkish flags in Turkey. More than there are American flags in America. Think about that!
  • Solar water heaters: It seems that basically every home in Turkey has one of these on the roof. Good on them! This actually makes them a pretty environmentally friendly country! The more densely packed neighborhoods literally sport many thousands rooftop of solar water heaters. There were so many of these things that some of the girls on the bus were actually starting to notice them.
  • Satellite dishes: Some larger apartment blocks have hundreds of satellite dishes plastered all over their roofs! Of course we’ve all seen this kind of thing before but Turkey is extra special. Possibly first prize for largest number of satellite dishes per capita on the planet!

Anyway back to the things people actually care about. I enjoyed Istanbul, specifically the Grand Baazar markets, Ayasofya and Blue mosc were some of the most extraordinary sights I’ve seen on my travels to date.

In Turkey I had my first experience of truly ancient ruins. This consisted of visits to four ancient sights: Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Pergamon and Troy. Before visiting these sights I thought I’d be a bit bored there as the tour leader kept emphasising that there wouldn’t be much to see (I guess that’s probably they assume that the average TopDeck customer is more interested in partying than ancient ruins?!). I found it interesting, at least.

I’m not sure I’d write much more about Turkey. The trip largely went perfectly and I find it a lot harder to motivate myself to write about things that didn’t cause distress!

Bucharest

After a long, slow, grinding train ride we finally arrive in Bucharest. Immediately after leaving the train we are swamped by shady looking characters offering us taxi rides. Oh dear, Bucharest is going to be one of *these* cities. Getting to the Hostel proved to be our first major challenge as unfortunately my friend Stuart had not printed out a map to the hostel. Getting directions was hard as everyone we asked was trying to sell us either a taxi ride, or private driver. Like hell they were going to tell us how to walk. We eventually managed to get some directions from a service station which we at best, vague. After a fair bit of walking it was clear that we were lost in a very dodgy neighborhood of Bucharest. We asked several strangers for further directions but got different answers every time. Eventually I snapped, pulled out my laptop, fired up my mobile internet (paying the significant roaming data charges) and found a proper map to the hostel. Yay. Found it at last.

The next day we decided to do the tourist trail. There’s basically nothing to see in Bucharest other than the extremely extravagant, decadent every-other-adjective-to-describe-excess “Peoples Palace”. It was difficult to understand how such a structure could be built without plundering the entire countries economy for many years, oh, wait. That’s exactly what they did.

That evening we were to catch a train to Istanbul at 12:16(am? – more about that later). We arrived at the train station and noticed that there was no train to Istanbul on the information boards. After a lot of confusion and asking around we really just couldn’t figure out where or if there even was a train. The station staff spoke almost no English but did keep telling is “Tomorrow!” “Tomorrow!”. Was that “Tomorrow” as in a few hours time? Or tomorrow as in lunch time the next day? We just couldn’t really seem to establish this basic shred of information with the Language barrier presented. While we were trying to figure this out we were also surrounded by a hoard of scammers trying to take advantage of our desperation. One dodgy character was trying to pull what I think was the cruelest scam I’ve ever encountered in my life: He was trying to tell us that the train to Istanbul was leaving from a station 60 kilometers out of town, and he would drive us there for 300 LEI. Nice try. If we had have fallen for that one we’d be in the middle of nowhere and 300 LEI out of pocket. Eventually we were starting to realise that we had screwed up. The train left 11 hours ago, at 12:16pm. We confirmed this after pulling out a sheet of paper printed previously. We headed straight back to the hostel and booked last minute flights from Bucharest-OTP to Istanbul-Attaturk.

Unfortunately the hell of Bucharest wasn’t quite over. The next morning we had to head straight to the airport to catch our flight which unfortunately meant a trip back to that damn train station, with all of those dodgy private drivers, and taxi drivers. By now they all know there’s a couple of desperate tourists trying to get to Istanbul so they’re all shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. By now we know all of the possible ways to get to Istanbul – We also know that none of them can offer us anything other than a scam.

The next challenge was to figure out the airport bus. This was somewhat stressful as once again we were hitting the language barrier with the station staff. We eventually got a ticket but couldn’t establish where the bus left from. We had already seen two busses pass us by while we franticly looked for the bus stop, all the while dodgy characters followed us around shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. Eventually we found the stop and boarded a bus. Big sigh of relief. Finally, we were out of this hell hole. As we sat on the bus we watched this horrible city slowly decay back into sparse grassland. After about half an hour I looked out the window to see an Airport fading into the distance. What?!?!? Have we somehow managed the mother of all screw ups and miss the airport stop?! Noooooooo!!! It as as if Bucharest was throwing one last punch. A guy on the bus confirmed that we had missed the airport. Great, We thought we were clear of this place. We stood up with our bags to try and exit the bus. The bus didn’t stop. It kept on going and going and going. At this point I’m on the brink of nervous breakdown. A couple of people at the front of the bus asked us in (would you believe it) English why we were trying to get off. “We missed the airport” We said. “Which airport” they asked. “OTP” We responded. “You stay on” the woman shouted. Whew. Apparently there are two airports in Bucharest and we hadn’t arrived at ours yet. We arrived at the airport and sat for an hour or so in an almost euphoric state. We’re finally leaving this place.

Brasov

After the long train trip from Cluj we finally arrived in Brasov. We decided to catch a taxi to the Hostel who (predictably) ripped us off, charging 4 times the going rate. By the next day we had managed to hire ourselves a private driver for the whole day. We paid an almost negligible 180 LEI (£36) for his days service. He drove us everywhere! First Peles Palace, Which by my standards wasn’t hugely interesting, it was very pretty and ornate, not to mention snow covered as it had been snowing in the mountains that morning but Gee, you know, I’ve seen so many palaces in the United Kingdom that it wasn’t anything new to me. We then went onto Bran Castle A.K.A. Dracula’s castle. We were greeted with an intricate castle perched on a sharp peak of a small mountain. We went inside and were very impressed with it. It had many small rooms and staircases throughout all of the numerous additions over the years, which made it much more interesting than the castles one would find in, say, England.

The second day in Brasov we rapidly hopped around all of the sights (Churches, towers etc) and saw the “Narrowest street in Europe” which was more like an alleyway and a little disappointing. I was hoping for some shops at least. Nope. We then caught a soviet-era cable car up to the top of the mountains overlooking Brasov, primarily to visit a large “BRASOV” sign at the top (very much like the Hollywood sign). As it had been snowing heavily it was freezing cold and subsequently, a tad depressing up there. After visiting the letters we had a beer inside a large, empty, run-down, freezing cold cafe which was a far cry from the comfortable cafes found on hilltops in New Zealand’s cities (or anywhere else I’ve been for that matter).

Food in Brasov was amazing: Everything we ate was top notch, service was excellent and all so incredibly cheap. When I say cheap I mean cheap, about a quarter or less than the prices often seen in say, London. The food was definitely my prevailing memory of Brasov. It’s amazing how much happier you feel when leaving a place feeling like you’ve had good value for money!

All and all Brasov was good. We met interesting people, saw awesome sights and ate amazing food. It’s one of the most enjoyable places I’ve visited so far. As I type this I’m sitting on another train to Bucharest: Romania’s capital city. Something tells me things aren’t going to be quite as utopian as what we’ve had so far.

Cluj

My arrival in Cluj-Napoca was very bumpy indeed. Literally. The plane bound up and down as it came to an eventual stop on the heavily pot-holed, concerningly rough runway of Cluj-Napoca airport. We were all loaded into buses and transported all of 50 meters to the airport terminal. I guess they have at least some regard for health and safety! After a bit of confusion trying to establish how exactly we were meant to get from the Airport to the Centre we eventually came across a small “Dogbox” down the road with a grumpy Romanian woman inside, whom spoke no english at all. With some pointing and hand gestures we managed to get bus tickets. The bus trip from the Airport was a real eye opener, I had not seen so many ruined buildings and shantytowns in my life. Finally, I think, I’m in eastern Europe. Proper.

Eventually we got off the bus at a run-down public square. It was quite a sight: Walls broken, cobblestones missing, weeds everywhere, rubbish on the ground. Wow. The first thing we did was made our way to the main railway station as we were due to catch a train to Brasov that evening. When we got to the station we discovered that we had just missed a train, leaving us with an hour to kill. We wandered down the road and found some slum like housing with children playing in piles of rubble. I couldn’t help but whip out my camera and snap a picture, as I had never seen anything like it before. Within seconds the kids had noticed me and were throwing stones my way in anger. Ooops! better get out of here!

We strolled down the road a bit more and found a playground with 3 kids kicking a ball around. As we approached the ball flew out over the fence and onto the road. I thought I’d be nice and kick it back in. Mistake #2 of the day: Don’t kick balls while wearing two huge packs. The ball didn’t make it back into the park, Instead it bounced off the fence, back onto the road and was immediately run over by a passing car, bursting the ball. I immediately panicked! I just destroyed their ball. I felt absolutely awful as I saw them come onto the road to collect its carcass, staring at it in disbelief and making gestures suggesting they thought there may be some way to repair it. My friend Stuart made the suggestion that I should give them some money for it. Somehow that blunderingly obvious solution to this poignant situation had not crossed my mind. I handed the kids 20 LEI (£6) for their ball and left. Whew. That was that largely solved. With the kind of prices we saw in Cluj, 20 LEI would have bought them several new balls and let them live like kings for a day so that definitely should have covered it!

Eventually we boarded the train for a 6-hour ride to Brasov. Looking out the window along the way was interesting. I saw a lot of small villages and shantytowns without a single car in sight, or even provision for cars. They had no streets, driveways or garages for cars either. There also did not appear to be any electricity or telephone lines wired to any of these places. They seemed to be surrounded by crop fields and were seen moving goods around on horse carts. I was surprised to be seeing this kind of living in an EEA member state! Amish (like) people perhaps? The entire world could go into financial meltdown and these guys would hardly even notice.

War of the green crosses

As I’ve travelled around Europe I’ve noticed something: Pharmacies. Not the fact that there are pharmacies, but the signage they use, specifically, the large bright green flashing Neon and LED signs. They’re everywhere and they’re very hard to miss. What amazes me is how much of an eyesore some of them can be. I’ve literally seen pharmacies with huge more-than metre by metre, flashing, blinking retina burning, gigantic green crosses. Often they will display crazy animated patterns or some form of semi-useful information on them i.e. time & temperature. I once saw one with a stock ticker. Apparently the pharmacy owners have a need to “one up” their competitors as the scale of these signs seems to balloon as the density of pharmacies increases in a given area. The United Kingdom is a notable exception. Pharmacies tend to have small subtle non animated Neon signs, probably due to fear of being served an Asbo. Pictured below is the grand daddy of all of the pharmacies I’ve ever seen – In Lyon, France, this guy has no fewer than 46 Neon & LED crosses on his shop. Nice. I can’t help but feel that he may be taking the mickey.

Hong Kong

I was recently in Hong Kong for a very brief period of time. This trip was a typical “Matt” deal. No planning, No research, Nothin’

After a stressful 12 hour flight next an irate seat hogger, I arrive. First task after clearing customs was to secure myself an “Octopus” card, as I would need one to travel around the Hong Kong metro without paying a fortune. I first stopped at a desk that said “Train Tickets” I asked at that desk if they sold Octopus cards. “NO”. He answered. You go over there! So I haul my bags over to another desk. At the next desk I ask the same question and am given a similar response: “Hmmmmmmmm……..  NO! Octopus card over there!”. So I head to yet another desk, once again asking the same question. He responds: “You want Octopus card!?!?” he says. “Two hundred dollar!”. I hand over my credit card… “NO!”. He points to a sign that says credit cards are accepted on all purchases except Octopus card. For crying out loud. I now drag my bags all the way back into the terminal and withdraw some cash. Queue up again and finally get the damn thing.

The next fantastic experience was my Hotel. Boy – What a fricking nightmare. It was so ridiculously westernised it drove me mad. The staff had fake American accents, the hotel had a phony western sounding name (when really it was a Chinese hotel registered under a Chinese name), all of the food was uber western, they had American style toilets (see previous post!) and this had to be the best part: Lifts that go… “Bing!” Like in the movies. Boy, those “binging” lifts had to be the pièce de résistance of the whole joint. The binging was so loud that you could clearly hear bings 3 floors above, and 3 floors below. In fact you could hear them so well that it was difficult to tell when a bing was for your floor. Multiply that by 6 lifts and you are literally standing there listening to a medley of binging, for a very long time I might add, as it took for ever for a lift to arrive. Argh!

So anyway, the rest of the visit. Well lets see… I went around on the metro stopping off at random places. Found a lot of very random stuff indeed. I really felt that I got to see the “Real”  Hong Kong. At one point I found myself in a very shabby slum like area which was very interesting indeed. After milling around for a while I was grabbed by a local and shouted at: “WHY YOU HERE? THIS AWEA NOT FOW TOUWISTS!” He dragged me over a map of the metro system and pointed at the connection between the Hong Kong metro, and the Shenzhen metro and said in a loud whisper: “CHINAaaaa….”. And I was immediately thinking: CHINA! Didn’t realise it was that easy to get to China from Hong Kong. Not that I had time. I had a flight to board in 4 hours time. Maybe next time.

Stockholm

A few months ago myself and a couple of friends picked up some dirt cheap airline tickets to Stockholm. Better still, we were flying into the flagship Arlanda Airport, not the ex-military base, poor excuse for an Airport Ryanair flights land at, requiring a further hour and a half of bus travel to get to Stockholm. Nope, we arrived in style.

Stockholm is a city that knows all about snow, unlike London which shuts down when a centimetre of snow falls. We were greeted by a fleet of 8 snow graders driving down the runway in formation quickly and efficiently clearing the enormous volumes of snow, leaving flights running smoothly.

We hopped on the Arlanda express train into the centre which was so incredibly smooth that upon departing the station I did not instantly realise that it was, in fact, us that was departing, not the station. Exactly 20 minutes and 0.00000 seconds later we arrive in Stockholm. We’re soon queueing at the central station for taxis that did not seem to be arriving. It was -11 degrees Celsius outside and this was not fun. We eventually gave up and wandered down the road a bit and found a taxi that would take us to our boat that we were to stay on.

Yep, we stayed on a boat. It sounded like a real good idea at the time of booking but actually it was pretty rubbish. I did not get any sleep the first night due to constant coming and going of other guests throughout the night. Everything was creaky and groaning making sleep for light sleepers like me more or less impossible.

The next morning we ventured out into the extreme cold to find breakfast wearing many many layers of clothing. The first day was mostly spent by wandering around in the old town which is on one of the islands in the harbour. Everyone seemed cheerful, doing their Christmas shopping with layers and layers of padding on.

On the second day we attempted to have breakfast in an area of town that we were told was good for food venues. Well that didn’t work out. We didn’t find anything that was open and finally had to settle on a less-than-satisfying breakfast at Burger King.

We then ventured over to the Vasa museum which contained a 17th centuary warship which was famous for having being built, then sinking on its maiden voyage after short 1.5KM trip. D’oh! Sadly I didn’t get many good pictures as my camera was still frozen up for most of the time I spent inside the museum.

Interesting fun fact I learned in Stockholm: When it’s darn cold i.e. -10 degrees, You can’t make Snowmen or Snowballs. The snow is so darn dry that it won’t stick to its self. Does that suck or what!

I enjoyed Stockholm but photographically speaking it was a bit of a downer for me. Throughout the whole weekend I was dogged down with tiredness and coldness making it difficult to concentrate.

Budapest

On the 12th of November I flew out to Budapest for 2 days. This was to be my first time in Eastern Europe. Except it wasn’t very eastern, rather more western actually. We found ourselves in what I did not realise was a former Soviet state, with few obvious signs of this communist past. Today they have all of the western like stuff there: Modern cars, McDonalds every few hundred meters, Tesco but no KFC (What’s that all about?)

The City is divided into two parts: Buda, and Pest. Buda on the west of the River Danube, and Pest on the East. Buda is a nice touristy area with a big palace and lots of other cool looking stuff, but me being me, I found other things more interesting:

What are these wooden troughs all over the place? Heaps of buildings have these erected at their base. Well it turns out they’re for catching bits and pieces that fall off the buildings. What an eyesore! Yes sir, I have visited my first Non-stinking-rich country (where everything in the inner city is usually perfect and immaculate).

Because we were only there 2 days we didn’t see an awful lot. On the first day we went on a “Free” Walking tour. Well if by “Free” you mean “Not free” then yes, it was free. I’m used to doing walking tours where donations are appreciated at the end but this mob practically has us in cuffs until we’d paid up. This did leave a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth if nothing else. Still, We got to see places and were told the stories, even if a little fleeced afterwards.

On the second day we visited the House of Terror which despite having a slightly misleading name (Well in my opinion it does) was a Soviet history Museum. We finished the weekend with a visit to the Turkish Baths (Left behind after that pesky Turkish occupation) which unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of as it was an absolutely spectacular place!

Luxembourg

A few friends and I recent went on a weekend trip to Luxembourg. Luxembourg is one of those countries I had to visit to be fully aware of, I mean, I knew it existed before I went but that was about it. Bordered between France and Germany it is a tiny country (Smaller than London) which is the only Grand Duchy left in the world (That means that it’s ruled by a Duke instead of a King).

Upon arrival, I felt like I was in France again. I found myself frantically looking around for something to distinguish it from France. Perhaps in the end, the only key differences I could find were that perhaps 30% of spoken language was German, and the people were less– *ahem* aloof. I’m not particularly good at spotting these things. It is a very wealthy country so naturally were unable to find ugliness *anywhere*.

On the second day we went to visit the small village of Vainden (Pictured above). The primary reason for our visit was Vainden Castle (more information here) however I personally found the village its self more interesting as I’ve seen one heck of a lot of castles and they’re starting to all blur into one.

Vainden was a staggeringly beautiful place despite the rubbish weather. It goes on my list of places “I’d like to spend a few days in, but sadly never will”.

Off to London City Airport

What? I hear you say. You’re excited about going an airport?!

In short, sort of. London has 5 airports in total: 2 premium airline airports: Heathrow, London City and 3 budget airline airports: Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. Every frequently travelling Kiwi in London has most certainly done at least 4 of those airports to death, almost always with the exception of London City. The few that have been there rave about it. Every time I book travel I just can’t ever seem to get a flight out of there, and if there is one, it’s always outrageously expensive.

The key problem is that it’s setup for bankers travelling to financial centres such as Frankfurt, Zurich etc who more-often-than-not aren’t short of the needed cash to use this very central terminal.

Damnit. Enough with this. I’m going to use that airport even if it bankrupts me in the process. Tonight I’m flying out to Luxembourg on a silly little turboprop plane with a set of tickets that were actually reasonably priced. Woohoo: All 5 airports down.