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Katie and Jonny’s overland adventure

For anyone who followed our blog avidly, excited to hear about a trip overland to India and back, I thought I should draw to your attention that a few of our friends are doing a similar thing. Katie and Jonny are headed to India, diverging from the same route as ours by passing from Russia into Kazakhstan, then into China, Tibet, Nepal, India. They intend to volunteer in India at Navdanya, an organic farm and seed bank.

Their trip is centred on the theme of food:

“We are all in some way connected to food and it is this relationship that is, for most of us at least, the most direct and most common connection that we have with ‘the environment’. So it was with food that we felt that we would be able to explore not only the macro but also the micro, food as a topic will hopefully allow us to explore not only the political systems and structures that define and propergate the global status quo that is inequatable access to one of our most basic needs but also the local cultural relationships to food that are enacted on the personal, community and country level. We hope to explore how these relationships are shaping and can inform a more sane connection to not only what we eat but also to ‘the environment’ as a whole.”

Check out their blog at http://wildappleseeds.wordpress.com/

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Drawing this all to a close

Although Josh and I have now left you hanging for months, you might have realised that we have both arrived safely back in London. From Sega we journeyed to the Czech Republic, taking in much beer in Ceske Budejovice (Budweis) and chilling out in Prague, before heading to Paris to gorge ourselves on cheese, wine and art galleries.

Overall, we visited twenty-four countries, through eight different time zones, taking just under nine months, twenty-seven days of which were spent hitch-hiking. Our map, now complete, is here: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps/ms?msid=202727236072845077082.000491f79209aa4df7142&msa=0&ll=47.338823,38.671875&spn=32.8112,93.076172

Since returning, we have both plunged into anti-cuts stuff (www.ihoops.org.uk), we’ve visited the site at Dale Farm (http://dalefarm.wordpress.com/about/), Josh has found himself a football team to play with and I’ve become enraged at the political sentencing of protestors through my support work with the Green and Black Cross (http://greenandblackcross.org/). Josh has bagged himself a job working at his old secondary school, and I’m preparing to launch into a Masters in September. We’re settling down, in other words.

As well as this, we’ve been looking into getting the blog published as a ringbound book with photos. Having liaised with a friend of mine who runs a green printing press in Oxford, it seems that each copy will cost around £4.50. Please write a comment if you would like a (Limited Edition!) copy.

Welcome to Sega

So while we were at Sega I was scribbling away in my notebook making comments and illustrations, so I thought they would make a decent blog entry in themselves… In case you haven’t already realised, if you click on each image it should open in a bigger size for your pleasure. Maybe when we get home I will crop them in some cunning piece of software, but for now you’ve got the notebook, ringbinding and all.

Ljuvelj Ljubljana

My mum says that we sound grumpy and ready to come home, and while she is right about the second part, we have been having a rather lovely and relaxed time for the past two weeks. Some might even call it a holiday… I have been working on an alternative format for the blogs about our time at Sega – its a house and garden, not a game console – so as soon as we have the opportunity we will upload these.

But first, Ljubljana. Josh had been here before, and given that it rained for the entire time, he had not had such a great experience. However, our joint perspective on the place when we visited a week ago was very different. It is now one of Josh’s favourite towns from the trip. When the sun is shining, you can truly appreciate its beauty. So much of the centre is accompanied by river, so there are a lot of chilled out spaces. Quaint yet also active, there is a studenty buzz about the place.

The fort is a strange mixture, unlike any other town ’castle’ we’ve visited. While it was renovated in a kind of dodgy nineties cafe-style and so the actual fort itself is odd, it is used as a space to exhibit local artists. This means that it hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction for the sake of old forts, but a living space filled with creative opportunity. The comments book in one of the exhibits was rammed with angry statements from shocked tourists who couldn’t understand why there were quite graphic pictures – painted by two people simultaneously, dancing around one another – with skulls and innards etc, inside the Ljubljana Castle. ’It tells me nothing about the city or its history’, complained one. But that’s what makes it different, as the fort is also used as a place to demonstrate the present. And we thought the paintings were kind of cool.

One thing it is not worth visiting if you’re headed to the city is the ’Labyrinth of Art’ – ignore the enthusiastic write-ups in various guide books and the In Your Pocket, as maybe in 20 years’ time it will be worth it. Not now. The plan is to have a maze of trees, with benches throughout so that people can make their way to the centre where there is a reading space, thus celebrating nature, reading, and ’walking as art’. Perhaps such a pretentious aim as the last should have put us off, but I was curious so we ditched the stupid Ljubljana public transport system (you have to buy a 2 euro travel card to then pay for an 80 cent trip, it was rather ridiculous, why not allow people to buy a ticket on the bus?) in favour of walking there. This was a mistake. We had not realised that the trees are newly planted and therefore tiny! You can walk straight between the saplings to the centre. Not very exciting. So, not recommended. Maybe in 2030 it will be a different story.

Our CouchSurfing hosts showed us some much more interesting parts of the city and its surroundings, though. Metelkova is an old army barracks that was squatted after the war – it houses gig spots, bars and a hostel in a converted prison, so during the day it is a hangout for the ’alternative’ types of Ljubljana, and in the evening it continues in this role, gaining live music, club nights and more drinking.

One afternoon one of our CouchHosts and us bundled into the car and drove to Velika Planina, a plateau near to the city, where we walked amongst wooden huts housing cowherds and appreciated the fantastic views over Slovenia. We also sampled borovnica, a sort of Slovenian blueberry schnapps – sweet and tasty.

We were only there for three nights, so there isn’t much more to add – we will update you on our further adventures into WWOOFing in Slovenia when we next get a chance.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik! “A place that will be at the front your memory for weeks to come”. Dubrovnik! “The pearl of the Adriatic’. One of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic, one of the many astonishing places on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites… Having read so much about how its dazzling streets would remain in our memories for days to come, we had very high expectations when we eventually arrived. “Eventually” as in it turns out that outside of Turkey, the shortest hitches have become the hardest.

Dubrovnik is lovely, but we have to say, not really up to all the hype. The main problem with the town, in fact, is all the hype. Foreigners (of the moneyed type) are increasingly buying up the Old Town, and while some locals do still live there, the area is clearly tourist orientated. Rather, “tourist-oriented” is an understatement. Everything in the Old Town is focused around tourists – the sights, the restaurants, the pizza slices, everything has a tourist-oriented price tag, and there are hundreds of tourists there ready to buy. So while the place, with its marble streets and tiny back alleys certainly has a charm, you have to muster the ability to see past a lot of stuff to really appreciate it.

We only had one full day there, which is probably enough, and spent the first half on a pebble beach to avoid the height of the daily guided-tourist influx. Similarly to Montenegro, cruise liners seem to think it’s their right to take up the bay and so instead of having a view of the islands, we had a view of eurgh. When you swam, you could even hear the noise of the monstrosity. On the plus side, it was some of the clearest water that Lucie has ever swum in, and she was thrilled when the fish came to dart around in the water next to her.

Split

On the other hand Split, the second largest city in Croatia, exceeded all of our expectations. It is a very lived-in city unlike Dubrovnik which is much more of a holidayed-in city, with an almost perfect old town and vibrant marketplace. One afternoon we took a free walking tour around the Diocletian Palace. The enormous palace is the retirement pad for “one the most legendry Roman emperors” (that’s what the guide claims), Diocletian, who has a rags to riches story. Never destined for more than farming, he managed to claw his way through the ranks to General, and one day was appointed emperor. That’s the story anyway. The longer version has boars and prophecies and hand-to-hand combat, as you would expect from this sort of life story… He was also the first emperor to retire from emper-ing.

One of the answers for why a retired emperor needed such a fortified palace (the complex has a huge wall surrounding it on all sides), is that he was harbouring one of the first textile factories in Europe. As the palace was situated a little south of Salona, which was one of the Roman’s largest and most fortified cities, Split was very well protected, which is one reason why so much of it still stands. Another reason for this is that Diocletian was scared of earthquakes and so ordered that the walls be built in a way which allowed the rocks to move slightly in the case of tremors. This left the palace much better off than the Old Town in Dubrovnik, which was almost entirely wiped out by the 1667 earthquake, one of the worst to date since records began.

In fact, Split remained pretty well protected throughout its earlyish history. Following the decline of the Romans, the Avars and Slavs (or “barbarians”, as our guide called them) attempted to lay claim to it having conquered Salona. However, because of the handy sea by which supplies could enter the town, the attackers were unable to starve the residents into submission as they had elsewhere. So they made Split an offer it couldn’t refuse. Officially, it would be part of their empire, but they would have autonomy. So Split was protected both by the declining Romans and by this new power, yet they had autonomy from both.

It turns out that Diocletian also had a thing against Christians, primarily as he saw himself as a god and they didn’t. He therefore murdered thousands of them – more than any other emperor. After his death, the Christians came to power in the area and got their revenge the only way they could – by turning Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. Burn. They also destroyed as many artifacts documenting his existence as they possibily could to attempt to erase him from history.

Our guide seemed more interested in the Romans than really any other period, so every other period was much briefer, and the 20th Century was basically covered in a couple of sentences – “and then Yugoslavia…”.

The rest of our time in Split was very similar to that of Kotor and Dubrovnik. Sun, sea, walking and eating great lunches sourced from the local market. We also went to Trogir where we did exactly the same…

Zagreb

Maybe it’s just the fact that we are, by now, kind of tired of sight-seeing and trying to find the interesting parts of otherwise uneventful or uninspiring places, but Zagreb is probably the most boring capital we’ve been to on this trip (other than Pristina which we are trying to forget about). It has lots of galleries, but you have to pay for all of them; plus our CouchHost’s partner was a curator and thus clued-up on this sort of thing, and she had no suggestions to make for us while we were there. Our plan to walk up the mini mountain near the city was thwarted by the weather, so we ended up going to see Pirates of the Carribean 4 in 3D(!), which was truly terrible, following this with a mediocre gypsy swing gig and drinking mediocre croatian beer. Croatia isn’t famous for its beer. Now we know why.

It’s as if, as we left Kosovo behind, we cut loose the black cloud that had been metaphorically and literally following us. So we had gone from Bosnia to Serbia to Kosovo in four days, and on the fifth we headed to Albania. Being in Albania was probably the closest thing to being back in India since we left, in terms of how we were treated as travellers there. When we stopped to ask whether the road we were on was the right one towards our destination, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire circle of curious men and boys – people were attempting to be helpful of course, but in a way where it’s really not providing much help… Hitch-hiking doesn’t seem to be understood, either, and so everyone who stopped for us would ask for some money – one man suggested 100 dollars to go about 100km. We said we would catch the bus! The roads were the next and completely contradictory bizzarerie – absolutely pristine. After the shoddy state of Kosovo’s roads, which were in desperate need of some additional tarmac, these were even more surprising. Holes have been blown in mountains and perfect asphalt has been laid, yet there are almost no cars to traverse it…

We headed to Lake Skodra, half of which belongs to Montenegro – we aren’t sure if there is a borderline down the middle…We spent some time enjoying the lack of stress while gazing out over the city and lake from one of Albania’s many famous castles.

The following morning, we headed off to Montenegro – our 5th country in 6 days. Hitching provided some of the most scenic spots we’ve held a cardboard sign at so far.

Unfortunately we lost patience with hitching after 3 lifts in lots of hours not really taking us very far at all, and we caught a bus for the final leg of the way to Kotor.

Kotor has a magnificent Old Town right next to a beautiful Bay. The crap side of this is that abominably enormous cruise liners land their humungous selves in the Bay in the mid-morning, spewing hundreds of organised tourists into Kotor’s tiny alleyways, as well as trashing the view in the Bay. If you can bring yourself to ignore the latter, you can take yourself off to a ‘concrete swimming platform’ for a few hours. This sounds grim, but is in actual fact quite pleasurable, and the only way to lie next to the bay and swim.

During the day the fortifications cost however much, but once night falls they are free to climb, so after dark we went up the 1350 stairs, shielding our eyes from the flood-lights. The view over the town and bay was worth every step.

We basically spent these fews days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine which finally decided to show its face.

Lucie’s terrible idea

Having waited at the side of the Sarajevo road for 3 hours, we eventually caught a ride back to Belgrade with the people that had picked us up on our way to Sarajevo. Given our next destination was meant to be Dubrovnik, this made little sense. In fact, we had turned down a lift going almost all the way to the Croatian town. What happened?

Throughout our trip, our intention had been to go from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, perhaps via Mostar. This made sense. However, we were also keen to meet up with PEDAL, a group of people (some of whom were our friends) attempting to cycle from the UK to the West Bank promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (http://www.bdsmovement.net/) amongst various other things. Frustratingly, this idea seemed less and less likely as although we were going to be in the same places, we weren’t going to be in them at the same times. But then one of our mates in the group suggested we meet them in Prishtine, Kosovo. Lucie somehow persuaded me that this was a good idea. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them, but rather that it practically made no sense. If you look at our GoogleMap (http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=37.0625,-95.677068&spn=59.249168,135.263672&z=4) and zoom in on the Balkans you’ll almost certainly agree.

So we tried to get there. Having failed to hitch from Sarajevo to Prishtine, instead we headed back to Belgrade where we were met by the father of our CouchHost from before, who offered us home made rakia and seats in front of the tennis – a welcome break from over 12 hours of travelling (or at least trying to travel…). The following day we belatedly arrived in the Kosovan capital, where it started to rain the moment we got out of the car. No matter, we would check our email and surely there would be a message from the PEDAL crew telling us where to meet them as they hadn’t told us where they were going to be after a 2pm meeting in a place with an unfindable address. No email. Perfect. So after attempting to call, email, online text-message and a while of generally waiting around, we checked into a massively over-priced hotel. How the hotel was able to charge that much is beyond me, especially given that Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe.

Eventually we met with PEDAL and they told us all about what they were going to be doing the following day and hoped that we would get involved – we were given directions, buses to catch, and we went off to our separate sleeping places. Unfortunately, we turned up to the agreed meeting point the following day and only 2 of the 20-strong PEDAL crew were there. Turns out that the rest of them had gone to a totally different place. Or at least that’s what we assume happened, no-one’s told us, and the 2 had no idea… The meeting spot (the one we’d gone to anyway) was a community centre run by the Balkan Sunflowers (http://www.balkansunflowers.org/) where Roma children go and are helped with their homework, taught Serbian – which most of them couldn’t speak when they went to school, which is problematic as most are taught in Serbian – and generally entertained. This experience was unexpected, but nonetheless welcome. The Roma community that lives in Kosovo, as we had learned from the end of a film we managed to catch the night before called Never Back Home (http://romawood.wordpress.com/), is pretty screwed, as they are in many other countries. The village that we went to lives in the shadow of a coal-fired power station – they breathe its dust every day which has led to 90% rates of cancer in the inhabitants. Despite the fact that surely this should mean they get compensation, they don’t even get electricity 24 hours a day. Given that we were only there for a few hours, we didn’t get to learn much more, but this was certainly enough.

While we were getting really annoyed by this point, we also learnt that we could have ended up in prison in Dubai for coming in with prescription painkillers (for my knee), as one of the PEDAL crew had been… He told us how he ended up in a Dubai jail for three months for having codeine with a prescription, while others were in for anything from 30kg of heroin to poppy seeds in their chest hair. No joke. Things could always be worse I guess.

So our hopes of meeting up with PEDAL and finding out what they were doing, discussing their ideas, etc, turned into an unexpected education into the suffering of the Roma community in Kosovo, and the stupidities of Dubai border controls, but no PEDAL.

The following day we left, as no-one had been in touch with us at all. It was raining, as it had done throughout our time in Prishtine, we were trying to hitch and no-one was picking us up… This became the absolute last straw. You know you’re at breaking point when sounds come out of your mouth that you’ve never made before, when you want to rip the face off some arsehole who insists on you paying over a pound for 2 minutes of a phone call, or when Lucie almost bursts into tears when the guy on the bus we eventually decided to take offers you both a coffee. It had whipped cream in it…

And so we escaped Kosovo, and probably the worst three days of our trip due to the sheer helpless frustration of the entire experience (with the added knowledge that we could have just gone to Dubrovnik and that would have made a whole lot more sense), were over.

With Marija’s enthusiastic streak for hitch-hiking running through us, we decided to head from Novi Sad to Sarajevo by thumb. Five hitches in, we were only 50km away from our starting point – not good. That’s not even ‘not a good start’, that’s just not good. Luckily, as has occasionally been the case on our trip, we got lucky just when things were looking really crap. We got a lift all the way to Sarajevo, or so we thought. A few hours in, they suggested we take a ‘thirty minute detour’ to Srebrenica. Thirty minutes turned into five hours. Literally. We got so lost at one point that the driver had to genuinely ask the border guard whether we were entering Bosnia or Serbia… Nonetheless, the detour was worth arriving somewhat later than expected.

Before we arrived in Srebrenica, our knowledge about what happened there was severely limited and while that is still the case, we now know a little more. Srebrenica and the area around it is the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since WWII, and one of the UN’s notorious failures. The civilian Muslim community at Srebrenica, fearing ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs, fled their homes and sought refuge at the nearby UN base of Potočari. Having declared a “safe-area” to the besieged Potočari, for some reason still unclear to us, the UN stopped protecting these people, refusing entry to many and kicking others out of the compound. In effect, the UN had helpfully rounded up thousands of Bosnians for the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Serb forces were somehow allowed to enter the refugee camps where all of the ‘men’ (some as young as twelve) were separated from the women and children. What followed was the massacre of over 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys. They were buried in mass graves which sometimes they had to dig for themselves, and many of which are yet to be discovered. Here is a witness account of the massacre from the Guardian archives – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrested-srebrenica-massacre

The Memorial and graveyard in Potočari is a hillside covered in thin white headstones. The green markers are for more recently buried bodies. There is an ‘open-plan’ mosque at the entrance, which seems strangely modern and out of place in the countryside. Squares of white marble show thousands of names, and, separated from the rest of the stones is a cross for the only Christian buried at the site. It was quiet, peaceful, difficult to imagine thousands of people clamouring at the entrance to the compound opposite over fifteen years ago.

If you follow the industrial-looking track on the other side of the road in between old factory buildings, you find yourself in what was the UN compound. Once you have found the man with the key, he will let you into a small room to watch a video about the massacre. Some of the most awfully memorable moments are of the women weeping for joy as the UN makes its (in)famous declaration of safety, and of the general who engineered the massacre (Ratko Mladic) openly stating to a television camera that today would be the day that they would take revenge on the Muslims. One woman talks about how she goes to the various graveyards regularly in the hope of finally finding her husband’s name on a marker. A man explains that he was working in the compound and was forced to tell his own family to leave with everyone else – he hasn’t seen them since.

Afterwards you can walk around inside the empty building, past maps of mass graves, communications between Mladic and his subordinates, and personal items belonging to the victims which are accompanied by descriptions of the people – how their wife remembers them, what they were doing when they were last seen…

It wasn’t what we had been expecting from our day when we started hitching towards Bosnia.

From the harrowing experience of Srebrenica we then got lost for several hours to the point where we were no longer appreciating the ‘scenic’ness, but eventually we reached Sarajevo. Throughout our time there it was hard to forget that over 10,500 Sarajevans died and the city was besieged for months on end – a street was even nicknamed ‘Sniper Alley’ as it provided a prime opportunity for distant shooters to pick off civilians trying to cross to safety. From the fortress that gives a superb view over the whole city you can see various graveyards with the same slim white grave markers all around the town. This somehow makes the majesty of the city even grander, particularly as now the churches and mosques stand side-by-side once again. The bustly, beautiful Old Town has been very well restored, and provides the perfect place to relax in the sunshine and enjoy a ‘Bosnian’ (read: Turkish) coffee complete with Turkish delight. Away from the centre, a path stretches alongside the river where locals rollerblade and people come to lead climb the craggy rockfaces.

Unfortunately, we were only able to spend one full day there as we intended to hitch to Prishtine the following day. This turned out to be an abysmal idea, but we’ll come to that later…

Bulgaria and Serbia

Given a combination of the weather and our limited time, Bulgaria will probably not feature highly on our list of memorable places. Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria, looked like it would be a lovely place to wander around in the sunshine, and we made this observation as we peered through the driving rain. Consequently, we spent a considerable amount of time watching movies back-to-back on our host’s 44″ screen TV while he was at work… Sometimes on a 9 month long trip you have to have those days. Incidentally, Milk is a fantastic film and Sean Penn is brilliant. Our host was a strange man who seemed to live entirely off chocolate bars and who chatted almost non-stop from the time he got home to the time we escaped to bed. He did, however, introduce us to Ken Robinson who speaks about the destructive nature of the education system and the way it destroys creative and independent thought in children so that they will be willing workers in later life…

Sofia was virtually as uneventful as Plovdiv, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that we only stayed for one night. We managed to fit in a visit to the stunning Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the centre of Sofia – it is modelled on Russian churches, and made Josh re-evaluate his previous judgment that mosques are often really interesting whereas churches are generally boring. The square in the centre of town was filled with bear statues which had been decorated by artists from all the different countries which are recognised by the UN (basically everywhere) to represent ‘Unity’. There were designs which ranged from the relatively tasteful to the standardly stereotyped – a bear dressed as a leprechaun, guess which country… The night consisted of our hitting various eclectic bars, one of which featured music videos for Korn, the Bloodhound Gang and Outkast. A quality evening’s entertainment.

From Sofia we took a train which reminded us of being in India, where stray dogs can run faster than the train, to Belgrade. It was supposed to take 7 hours and arrived 3 hours late…

Belgrade is not a particularly interesting city – rather it seems that people go there for the night life which is basically what we experienced. Food and booze were the features of our stay: there is at least one place in Belgrade that can pour a Guinness properly, and blueberry beer tastes remarkably like a lager and black… Unfortunately, within two minutes of us arriving we were joined by a bunch of Israelis – this would not be a problem in itself, but the next element was certainly an issue – whom it became very clear were Zionists. The guy had the audacity to come out with comments such as, ‘Israel is too scared to retaliate to bombs from Lebanon, because they are worried about killing children and inciting the international media’! Given that we had not even had time to make a first impression on our hosts, we bit almost through our tongues as he spewed racist and often frankly stupid bullshit to his captive audience.

One day we walked along the Danube to Zemun, a town near to Belgrade. It is fairly picturesque, but the walk is what you go for. There is a humungous Orthodox Church – the biggest in the world apparently – which was under construction when we saw it. Churches that will be grand but are currently covered in scaffolding have a certain charm. Other highlights were the fortress, which offers great views over the city and the Danube, and has an enormous park around it. Lots of children chasing pigeons. We also visited Tito’s grave, which is remarkably hard to find. For a man who seems to be loved and admired by everyone you meet in former Yugoslavia, his final resting place is not well signposted..!

We caught another bus to Novi Sad (home to the Exit festival which is apparently just full of people from London…), where the weather finally relented. We met Marija and her incredibly energetic (some might call it extremely annoying, although she was quite fun) dog Bisa, who hosted us for those days. We explored the military tunnels beneath the fort, which apparently extend 16km underground and even under the river. Of course, there are rumours that they stretch even as far as to borders with other countries to allow the secret exits of generals under siege.

Marija encouraged us to hitch-hike to our next destination – Sarajevo. She shared her tips on being a single woman hitch-hiking – learn how to say things like ‘my dad is a policeman’ and ‘I’m a very religious girl…’ in the language! She also told us how she knew someone who hitched round Spain with a sign reading ‘Tokyo’. He never made it to Japan, but he did have quite a lot of success in Spain!

Efes

From the Med, we headed to another spot which should have a picturesque quality – Efes. An ancient Greek city, which later fell into the hands of the Romans, Efes now belongs to the Turks. The city dates back to 550BC, and a remarkable amount still stands. You can walk the ancient streets to libraries (the most famous site), temples and very interesting communal toilets. Unfortunately, it was raining really hard when we went there, but on the bright side (ha ha) we managed to find a “cheaper” way in. Extremely climbable fences…

On our way out, we were picked up by one of the most interesting drivers so far on this trip. Although he spoke barely any English (maybe 10 words), we managed to have conversations about religion, family and death. During one of his breaks, he introduced us to the guy who had honked his horn on the way past us earlier. Between them they quizzed us on our religious beliefs, and were astonished when we explained that we are atheists. It all became too much for them when they also found out that we aren’t married. “Ingilterre…” they said, shaking their heads at the absurdly heathen English people.

Bursa

Bursa was another uneventful city. The highlight of our stay with our CouchSurfing hosts was when we got to hang out with the Bright Young Things of Bursa. All the young people, rather than downing cheap vodka and hitting the clubs, doll themselves up for a night of tea and backgammon. The atmosphere was strange, one that we would associate with a bar – dark seating areas, slightly dodgy music etc – but with no alcohol attached. Josh managed to beat our host’s friend at backgammon 4 times in a row, even though he only just properly learnt the rules, much to her chagrin.

Istanbul for the second time

Istanbul again, and we finally left Asia for the rest of this trip – Europe here we come.

Unfortunately, Istanbul was less rewarding this time. We were there during May Day, which is properly celebrated as a workers’ holiday and therefore almost everything is closed. On the plus side, it meant we were able to drop in on the May Day demonstration. This was one of the first times that they had held it back in Taksim Square for about 40 years. The government excuse for not allowing this before was that some crazy had gone around shooting people indiscriminately in the 70s. What was most striking about the demonstration was how party-centric the whole thing was. The sectarianism was incredible. Different hats, different flags… It was so organised, but not in a good way, and of course the Communist Party had a massive presence.
The police presence was staggering. In order to enter Taksim Square you had to go past at least 1 line of police, where unless you were a tourist, you were properly searched by people in normal clothes and high-viz tabards, which suggested that they’d recruited a bunch of people especially for the occasion. There were also police tanks with water cannons, armoured riot vans and lines of riot cops just waiting to put their already overused “shields” to use again. Whether such a authoritarian manifestation would be excepted in the UK is questionable…

Edirne

Edirne was our final call in Turkey. It followed the most abysmal day of hitching we had in the country. While hitching East out of Istanbul is easy, hitching West is much more difficult, particularly when you try to do it from near the bus station. The amount of people who stopped in their cars to tell us that the bus station was right behind us was astounding (‘We KNOW!’). On top of this, so many people stopped to explain that people couldn’t stop there (!) that both of us were on the verge of punching the next person who offered such ‘helpful’ advice. In the end, we caught a lift with a guy who tried to drop us on the only real bit of motorway we travelled on in the whole of Turkey, without even a hard shoulder to stand on. Not the best place… The second guy nodded and nodded when we said we wanted to go to Edirne, so we relaxed when we went to a truck stand to get some tea (truck stops are prime hitching spots), but then AGAIN he dropped us bang on the motorway! This was the point where tethers were reaching their ends, and Lucie left both her hat and the map of Turkey in the guy’s car by accident. Luckily, at the exact point where we walked dejectedly down to the other road, a lorry was sitting that was headed all the way to Edirne. It was the first truck we’d seen which had an autopilot where the driver could sit cross-legged on his chair and make us cups of tea without really paying attention to anything…

We only really went to Edirne because we were unsure if we could make it all the way to Plovdiv in one day from Istanbul, but it turned out to be rewarding enough. Our CouchSurfing host had two budgerigars which provided the first hour’s entertainment as they flew around his sitting room, landing on our heads and making friends. We went out along the river to meet a few of his mates who spoke about their climate change-related campaigning and all the different foods we should taste while in their city. A result of this was our dining on beef liver, which was unlike anything either of us have ever tasted – certainly not like liver! Orhan explained that when you suggest to a friend in Turkish, ‘Let’s go eat’, you always say ‘Let’s go eat bread’, which certainly makes sense in the face of how many loaves you get through in a day in Turkey.