Tag Archive: Bonuses


Safranbolu

Havıng travelled around Indıa, any form of transport we took ın Turkey was goıng to be fast, even hıtchıng. But we weren’t expectıng ıt to be quıte so easy. Havıng taken a bus to the edge of town and walked along the road for a bıt, we jumped through a hole ın the fence and descended onto a roadsıde lorry park. No sooner had we got our bearıngs and decıded where we should stand than a drıver saıd ‘Izmıt? Yes.’ We were actually goıng further than that, but so was he, so ın mınus tıme we had bagged ourselves our fırst lıft and a free breakfast whıch was brought to us by hıs copper brother and then cooked ın the sıde of the lorry! Our next lıft seemed to be easy too – two guys headed exactly, they saıd, where we were. Unfortunately ıt turned out that they couldn’t read a map and they were goıng ın another dırectıon, but at a loss as to how to deal wıth thıs they went 50km out of theır way to drop us where they’d saıd they could! From there a petrol statıon attendant dashed out ınto the road to flag down a passıng bus and we were ın Safranbolu double tıme.

Safranbolu was even more amazıng than our hıtch was easy. The entıre town ıs a UNESCO World Herıtage sıte, and you can see why – hundreds of Ottoman houses have been lovıngly restoredö so apart from the tourıst tat whıch ınevıtably occurs ın such places, you could be ın the nıneteenth century. We vısıted a home that was restored ınsıde and out, complete wıth mannequıns actıng out people’s roles ın dıfferent rooms. The Ottomans had devısed a partıcularly ıngenıous way to keep theır women oppressed – the house was dıvıded ınto two parts so women were never seen by men who weren’t ın theır close famıly. They could make food and pass ıt through to the other sıde though (lucky them) by placıng ıt ın a revolvıng cupboard – the door closed on one sıde and the men opened the other door to retrıeve theır nosh… The second floor stuck out over the fırst ın an ıconıc sort of way.

Other than the vısually ımpressıve spectacle of the cıty, there ıs very lıttle to do. Thıs wasn’t helped by the fact that ıt raıned quıte a bıt. We managed to snatch some sunshıne ın whıch to clımb up to a vıewpoınt over the houses, and we wandered from sweet shop to sweet shop (there are a lot of them), feastıng ourselves on Turkısh Delıght (lokum). Safranbolu gets ıts name from saffron, belıeve ıt or not, and so everythıng ıs ‘saffron-flavoured/scented’, whether that be soap, perfume, tea or lokum. Lucıe ısn’t sure, from her lımıted experıence of saffron just ın these forms, that saffron really has a flavour or a smell as the perfume smelled of cologne-base and the tea tasted of hot water and honey… One of the guys who owned a shop sellıng woven thıngs and leather thıngs ıs famous ın both Chına and Japan – he showed us wıth clıppıngs from foreıgn magazınes. He’d be tıckled to thınk he’s on a blog from the UK too…

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After a week of deprivation, our next couple of weeks certainly felt like complete luxury. Having left the children’s home, we met up with Merilyn, my mum, who had come to visit us in Nepal for a couple of weeks. After meeting her at her hotel, we had a literal taste of what was to come. My mum treated us – as she would continue to do throughout her time in Nepal – to a meal at the oldest restaurant in Thamel (the tourist part of Kathmandu) KC’s. We even had beer, which generally doubles the price of a meal! Our first beer in Nepal!

Before continuing on with the luxuries we experienced, our experience of Thamel should quickly be mentioned. Back in the 1970s Thamel was home to all the drop-out hippies (of course all hippies in the correct meaning of the word are drop-outs but that’s another discussion), while today it’s home to trekkers. Every 3rd shop is a camping shop, selling a variety of different quality rip-off North Face items (and other such brands). Apart from the camping shops, its basically a cheaper Camden Town. For those of you that haven’t been to Camden Town in London, that means its a market place which sells “alternative” hippie rubbish. With that said, it has its hectic charm, but my advice would be to get in and out as fast as possible! The only real reason I can see to stay is in order to visit other towns and places around Kathmandu.

Back to our luxuries. Having decided that none of us liked Kathmandu, we decided to do some day trips. Stop one – Pashupatinath and Boudhanath. Pashupatinath is certainly a must see, and was the largest “cultural shock” I’ve experienced so far. Its main purpose is to cremate people. However, the way I conceptualise cremating (obviously according to Western practices) and the way it is carried out here are very different. Bodies are burned in the open, for everyone to see (though the bodies themselves are wrapped in a sheet), on massive stone slabs on the banks of a river. There are several different stone slabs depending on your caste and how much money you have. If you are an atheist, you get burnt on the slab for the lowest caste – what in India would be termed “the untouchables”. However, as our guide commented in a subtle jibe at the status differentiation, it doesn’t matter where you get cremated, your soul is still released from your body: some people just pay more for the service. The philosophy behind this practice is (correct me if I’m wrong!) that everyone other than babies and Holy Men and Women dies with sins and by being cremated, your sins turn into ashes and get washed away in the river, where the ashes are scooped. This is why babies and Holy Men and Women get buried instead of cremated as they have no sins to be washed away.

I also found it interesting how public the whole process was. I’ve always seen death as a private affair. But again, our guide explained how death is part of the process of life and should not be hidden away, but celebrated in the open (a similar approach is applied to sex in the tantric carvings on the buildings!). Crying at cremations is in fact highly frowned upon as death is not meant to be a sad thing. The only bad thing I can say about the place is that its smells rather iffy…

Next to the cremation area is home to the Holy men and women (the women are on one side, the men the other). They live completely separately, but are allowed to talk. By becoming holy people, they commit to not engaging in any sexual practice for their whole lives. If they do, all the work they have done up to that point becomes void.  What was also cool was that Buddhist and Hindu holy people lived literally side-by-side.

After this incredible experience, we walked through woods with monkeys playing in the trees and tiny farm villages to a Tibetan Buddhist town called Budhanath. Having come through China and Tibet, this wasn’t as special as it might have been otherwise, but if you haven’t been to China or Tibet and you go to Nepal, this is another must see place. In the centre there is a massive stupa – the largest we have have seen – and down the side streets there are several monasteries, many of which are schools for developing monks. There are also many places to buy the same things that you can pay in Kathmandu, but without the hectic chaos which is Thamel.

The next day I came down with my second batch of food poisoning – again the source unknown. Unfortunately, this meant that we didn’t go to Bakhtapur so we can’t really talk about it.

The following day we left Thamel and Kathmandu, never to return, and settled down for the night in Patan. Patan historically was one of the three city-states in Nepal (the other two being Kathmandu and Bakhtapur), however nowadays it is more often consider to be in the suburbs of Kathmandu. It is now famous for its Durbar Square. In the 17th Century one king clearly had too much money to spend, and built loads of temples all in one square. There are also some nice stories to go with the square. In the centre of the square there is a stone elephant and about 10 meters in front of the elephant there is a ancient water hole. It is said that in the darkest part of the night, when everyone has left the square the elephant leaves its stone pillar and walks down to the water hole to have a good old drink and then returns before anyone has noticed its gone.

Another story was about a king who was much loved. One day he went hunting, one of his favourite past-times, and never came back.  There was already a statue of the king in the square and so they put a stone bird on his head and opened the window to his bedroom so that the king can climb back in.  Legend has it that as long as the bird stays on the kings head, the king is alive, but if the bird flies away, the king is dead. The bird hasn’t flown anywhere yet…

The best experience of being on the square, though, was after all the tourists had gone home. The local kids come out to play football amongst the ancient temples, using the 300yr-old king’s pillar as a goal!

Other than the square there are several nice fair-trade shops where you can get some lovely presents or simply indulge yourself – something we were getting quite used to.

Hi all, we’ve both been planning for The Future and spending all available internet time frantically making applications to various establishments to set ourselves up for when we return to England. They’re all sent off now, so we’re hoping to get y’all up to date on the news where we are – we’ve journeyed through Tibet to Kathmandu, spent a brief period at a children’s home, explored some beautiful places in the Kathmandu Valley, been spoiled rotten by Josh’s generous mum who came out to meet us, been amazed at Pashupatinath, nursed one another through the inevitable food poisonings (including our poor friend Sean who managed to get ill only 24 hours after arriving in the country!), trekked the Annapurna Sanctuary trail, rowed on the lake at Pokhara… There’s a lot to tell you all about. But first, the more pleasant bits of Tibet.

Fury at the oppression aside, Tibet was a fascinating place. It’s a riot of colour, as almost every available space (the Chinese area of Lhasa excepted) is filled with prayer flags. When journeying through the country, every pass would be decorated, and all doorways seem to be elaborate.

This can particularly be said of Tibetan monasteries, although I must admit that the monasteries we saw in “official” China (i.e. Amdo) were more spectacular, as have been those we have seen since entering Nepal. The buildings are every single colour imaginable on the outside, and elaborately illustrated on the inside. Many contain enormous statues, a lot of them gilded. One of my favourite characters is the protection deity which looks terrifying – it is often portrayed draped in skulls or decapitated heads,  stamping people under its feet. At first I wasn’t so fond of this, but now I understand that it’s a bit like having a seven foot tall skin head with tattoos on his eye balls for a big brother. It’s alright because he’s on your side.

A particularly memorable monastery-related experience was watching the monks debate in the Sera monastery. It was an incredibly theatrical event as debators stood clapping their hands loudly and lunging towards their opponents to emphasise their points.

Tibetan food, on the other hand, is not something I will remember fondly. Agriculture cannot thrive in the harsh climate in Tibet, so food is restricted basically to noodles, potatoes, radish, and yak. By the time we reached Nepal, we were gagging for some real (any) flavour that wasn’t yak. However, you would be amazed at the amount of uses the Tibetans have found for yak. In India, cows are sacred so they cannot be killed. In Tibet, yaks are sacred, so when they are killed, they use every single last bit of the body. Decorations, meat, milk, rope, bone broth, yoghurt, wool, dried cheese(!), leather, I could go on…The one really tasty thing we had in Tibet is sweet tea. While yak butter tea is salty and definitely an acquired taste, sweet tea is exactly what you need after a 12 hour jeep drive. Made by boiling yak milk, adding sugar and few strands of tea, it’s comfort food in drink form.

We were not hit as hard as those who had taken the nearly 48 hour train journey from Beijing to Lhasa, but the increase in altitude from Xining definitely affected us both. Although we thought we were just a bit headache-y and run down, climbing stairs in our hotel (which seem inordinately steep) was incredibly difficult. We plonked ourselves down in our hotel room wondering why we were so out of breath. Apparently, if you were to take a flight to the top of Mt.Everest, you would have a few minutes of consciousness before you passed out and died. Walking:1, Flying:0.

I think we experienced the most dramatic change in landscape so far as we journeyed on our final day towards the border with Nepal. Dropping down from stark and barren plains where dust storms bother the yaks, we were suddenly surrounded by lush greenery. The roads also changed, falling in quality and up in fear factor. Having said that, the road was only recently officially finished (bits are still under construction) – before that it was simply a dirt road which would have upped the fear factor a couple more hundred percent!

We passed some stunning pieces of natural beauty, including a turquoise lake and an enormous glacier. The latter used to be much more enormous, but it has receded from the roadside where it was in the 1990s, right up the mountain. Climate change anyone? We also had several peeks at Everest, which is called Qomolangma in Tibetan – this seems, as far as I can tell, to translate as ‘Big Momma’. Annapurna, incidentally (that’s the trek we’ve been on in Nepal), means ‘full of food’. I think the massiveness of the mountains was the main thing their namers were trying to convey…

So if you forget/ignore the overwhelming oppression and destruction in Tibet, it’s quite a pleasant place to holiday or travel through… The cost, however, is another matter, which we’ll address in another blog.

So after writing a rather negative blog, I feel I should attempt to portray the other side of Beijing (with help from Lucie). Almost all the people we have spoken to have said how much fun they had there, so clearly there is something good about it, even if I can’t see it. Although when it comes to seeing and our rather damned trip to the Great Wall, I think we were just unlucky with the weather.

There are lots of nice, or to be less bland, impressive temples. You probably don’t need to see more than 2 or 3, as unless you are a temple geek, they all look rather similar – just like churches in Europe. We went to a Buddhist and Taoist temple. While they were different in many ways, I was interested by how far they both placed gods so centrally. This is most likely my ignorance, but I always saw Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, so I was quite surprised by the amount of statues which people were leaving offerings to and praying to.

The Taoist temple was interesting for several other reasons, though. Firstly, it was one of the few places we found peace in the whole of Beijing. I’m not talking spiritual peace, but more the kind of no horns honking, no spitting peace (although there were still little kids taking pees all over the shop…). The most we heard when sat in the main square was chirrupping sparrows. Bliss.

It’s also fascinating for its idiosyncratic almost ‘bureaucracy of morality’ style of seeing the world. As you walk around, there are many different departments. Each is overseen by a massive moustachioed bloke, before whom are gathered various characters, from weeping women to headless men and grimacing demons trying to cut people’s tongues out. To give you a few tasters of department names, you could hang out with the funky dudes at the department for ‘Official Morality’ , look into ‘Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death’,  or just chill with the rain gods…

While this is meant to be a positive blog, I can’t help but criticise the Forbidden City. Don’t go there. It’s full of tourists, costs loads and is just one palace after another. Once you’ve seen one you have basically seen all of them and there are over 50 in the Forbidden City…
If you are going to the Great Wall, make sure you look around and maybe think of getting there independently. Most the tours will bump you and some sections of the wall can be reached for Y10 and on one bus. Also don’t get taken in by ‘we will take you to a secret part of the wall’. They aren’t any secret parts, that’s just a secret kept from you.
In Beijing there are lots dingy, but cheap and tasty places to eat. Just look for the places that are covered with spit and cigarette buts on the floor. We found a a place next to the hostel that did 10 dumplings for Y10. This was compared to our hostel which charged 3 times that for a “continental” breakfast. And don’t go paying 20yuan for a beer, either. Instead check out the joints which look like the equivalents of workers’ cafes – there a beer shouldn’t be more than Y4. In one of these we had some incredible hotpot which had initially worried us by the amount of tripe just floating around, but eventually uncovered some tender beef (you just can’t be vegetarian here…). We’d not opted for the lamb’s spine or sheep’s tail versions!

On the subject of food, there is street food market just off Wangfujing Street, which in itself looks like the Beijing Oxford St equivalent. A level of bravery is required to eat here though – knowing what you are putting in your mouth isn’t ever a certainty. We had deep-fried crab – which you eat shell and all. Then there is something called smelly tofu – basically what its called, but also really salty. You could also try snake, eel, or scorpion – these are still alive when they put them on the sticks and you can see them wriggling about for quite a while after being skewed.

After subsequently visiting quite a lot of over-priced and generally not that great places, I now have a much greater appreciation for the National Art Museum of China. Costing only Y20 its a bargin with 3 different floors of art, in a beautiful old building. The upper floors are less interesting, one has an exhibtion on Italian futurism and American print making, but the ground floor had some amazing Chinese art, ranging from the blurry lines just about looking like a human, to paintings which you had to study intensely to realise they weren’t photos. Some even combined the two, with the ‘traditional’-looking broad brushstrokes refined to incredibly detailed faces in the same painting.

The markets in Beijing were also great, though not if confrontation and stubborness aren’t for you (I was in my element!). We went firstly to the Pearl Market – 2 floors of absolute mayhem and then two floors of pearls, which Clinton apparently visited. The rule of thumb when haggling is ‘pay about one third of the price they start at’. No such rule here. At worst or best (depending how you look at it) we paid around a 10th of what they first asked for. Lucie bought a scarf which they claimed cost Y300 for Y30. The techniques they use to try and get you to part with your money are classic. ‘I give you friend price…’, ‘you think I crazy, no way!’, ‘don’t tell anyone but you can have it for ___’, or ‘let me go check with my “manager”‘. I think the only rule when haggling is pay what you feel its worth, taking into consideration the context of where you’re buying it and how much the seller probably originally paid for it. Our best buy though must have been two pairs or leather, fur-lined (goat not panther) gloves for Y90. Putting mine on is like a little orgasm for my hands…

I think that kind of balances out my rant – there were some great places, although the stress of simply existing in Beijing means that I probably won’t ever return. I left with a twitch, which could only be cured by the application of a beer to my lips.

Moscow

We left our hostel in St. Petersburg with what we thought was plenty of time to spare. Upon arriving at the main train station (the very same train station we had bought our tickets to Moscow from) we discovered that we could not see our train on the departures board. Dumping our stuff, I left Lucie to look after it, and went up to some police officers to ask.

“Niet,” came the reply when I asked what platform our train went from. The man looked at his watch. “Niet,” he said again.

“Not this station?”

“Niet.”

Starting to panic, “What station? How can we get there?

“Metro, taxi.” The man looked down at his watch again, “Niet.”

Seeing the look on my face, another officer said “How many are you? One?”

“Two.”

“Follow me.”

In turned out this very kind (or maybe just very bored) policeman was about to give us a police escort to the correct station. During the journey I tried to talk to him, but after intially telling us how much he enjoyed British snooker, and that he had the autograph of Hendry, he looked at his watch, stopped talking and sped up. We arrived with at least 5 minutes to spare, thanked him profusely and ran to our train, where we encountered a very bitter, sour-faced old woman.

We staggered into Moscow at the unholy hour of 6am. It was still dark. After a long search for the equivalent of a workers’ cafe, we fell into a ridiculously upmarket “Italian” coffee shop. That was a bizarre experience, as was watching a homeless man attempt to sleep on the widow ledge outside. A make-shift security man turned up, put on some plastic gloves, walked outside, lifted the man on the window sill and unceremoniously dumped him on the floor! Having been woken, the man proceeded to make his way into the lobby, only to be removed once more.

The day only got more bizarre from here. We planned on meeting a friend of a friend, who is a teacher. She brought her 14 year old student along to translate and learn English with us. We met under the multicoloured splendour of St. Basil’s Cathedral (of which later we were given souvenir spoons by Katya) and proceeded from there to Lenin’s tomb. Lenin didn’t look too happy. Whether it was Lenin at all seemed questionable, but we were reassured later that after his death some university students learnt how the ancient Egyptians preserved their dead and applied it to Lenin. We were filed past his tomb, not being allowed to stop, only to ”pay our respects” quickly and leave. We then had to walk past all the graves of all the other “Communist” leaders. Lenin is probably not all that happy that Stalin is hanging out right next to him. But then, Lenin is probably not too happy that he has been turned into a tourist attraction either. While he was apparently always more arrogant than Trotsky, he did not consider himself something to be idolised or immortalised.

The Red Square itself was closed as there was a German delegation hanging out in the city: obviously you have to close these things when you’re Russia…

The rain was coming down quite hard by this point (what else would you expect in Moscow), so after a quick visit to an Orthodox Church to stare at all of the hundreds of icons, we were ushered underground for a commercial lunch. When Katya (our guide) found that it was still raining she suggested an alternative plan: visiting the incredible underground stations in Moscow. Many of these stations look like palaces – these were Stalin’s gifts to the people – although some are designed to look like streets complete with lamp posts which come on at night. We saw statues of young people holding books and hammers and drills (the future of communism), murals of Lenin and gold ceilings. Somewhat more interesting than the London tube.

From here, Katya invited us to her school as our young translator needed to be back in lessons. We found ourselves buffetted from lesson to lesson, introduced to group after group of students. A very surreal experience, caught between the massive generosity of these people (we were bustled out of one class room and into the cafeteria where we were presented with sweet tea and tasty biscuits) and being brought in as examples of Real Life English people.

After a walk in a beautiful park from which you could see the whole of Moscow, we made our way to the train station. Having learnt from the day before to get there early and check we were in the right place, we discovered that, once again, we weren’t. Luckily the train station we wanted was only two minutes walk from the one we were at. Once sat under the right departures board, we suddenly enveloped by a German tour group who kept throwing us confused looks during their opening rally as we bopped away to Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip. This next phase of our adventure was just beginning.

The hitch from Wrocław to Kraków

‘I’m not sure I really like hitch-hiking,’ Josh decides. ‘I mean, I’m not sure whether I like the person who finally stops more than I focus on the ten thousand people, most of whom are by themselves with four spare seats, who drive past without even looking at you. What is it you really feel when someone picks you up anyway? Genuinely appreciating the experience of being in their car, or simply relief that someone has finally picked you up?’

Whilst sometimes I would be more inclined to agree, our ride most of the way from Wrocław to Kraków really does fit into the ‘bizarre and incredible experience’ category.

We were stood at the petrol station, sipping the coffee that the attendant had kindly handed to us on the chilly afternoon, when a car roared up. Out leapt a man – ‘Kraków? Tak! Vamos, vamos!’

He tired different languages on us, since Polish doesn’t get us very far – ‘Deutsch?’ German? Sure. I definitely speak more German than I do Polish, so let’s try that.

‘Meine Frau, she has eine Kinde, ein Son! 1 this morning!’

‘Congratulations!’ We shake his hand and he bundles us into his car.

Suddenly he has second thoughts – ‘Was Sie trinkend? Drink? What?’ We shrug our shoulders, ‘We’re fine, no worries!’

‘Vodka! Celebrate? Kein problem!’ We are bundled back out of the car, and find ourselves standing at a counter with this very excited man, wondering if we will survive the journey, as he demands of us what sort of vodka we like.

When we’re finally on the road, we are knocking back shots with orange juice chasers at 3 in the afternoon as the joyous new father beamingly demonstrates how fast his little Fiat can go, and how enormous his son was when he was born, through the sugary bouncing beat of Polish disco. He then promptly fell asleep.

Luckily, ‘Ich habe eine Driver!’ He slaps the shoulder of the stocky man at the wheel. So our mangled remains didn’t need to be extricated from the Fiat’s crumpled wreck after some brutal drink-driving accident. Which is good. The driver did seem to spend a remarkable amount of time in the middle of two lanes on the motorway, but I guess that’s just his style…

 

Hitching out of Berlin was a bit of a bitch – don’t bother with the HitchWiki suggested spot near the airport, it’s rubbish! Getting demoralised but also intent on hitching most of the way, we decided to catch a cab to the nearest service station (that took some explaining to the driver!). From there it was fine, and we encountered the incredible generosity of strangers when the German man who gave us our first lift about five hours after we first pitched up with a sign – when he dropped us off at the service station, he tucked 20 Euros into Josh’s scarf and refused to take it back!

One of my friends got very excited when I said we were headed to Wrocław (pronounced ‘vrots-wahf’ by the Polish, ‘vrat-slav’ by the Germans and ‘row-claw’ by clueless English tourists who aren’t understood by anyone). He said, ‘It’s the most beautiful city in Poland’. Whilst I have only been to two other cities in Poland, from this small experience I must agree (though it doesn’t have much competition). ‘In Bruges’ was being played at our hostel in Kraków, and something Harry says about Bruges made me think of Wrocław – ‘If it was somewhere good, rather than in Belgium, then maybe more people would come here and it would spoil it.’ The film, if you haven’t seen it, is an incredible tongue-in-cheek parody, so I will not offer the same insult to Poland as Harry does to Belgium, but there is an element I agree with: part of Wrocław’s charm is definitely that it is not filled with tourists.

Wrocław is a brilliantly incongruous mixture of Gothic churches, beautiful old buildings and brutal functional Soviet blocks. When you start to uncover the history of the city, this becomes even more interesting – most of the ‘old’ buildings are less than 100 years of age. The 82 day Siege of Breslau (the Germanised name for the city), which claimed the lives of 170,000 civilians, 6,000 German troops and 7,000 Russian, destroyed about 70% of the city. About 75% of this destruction was caused by the Nazis, who knocked down many many buildings to build barricades and reinforcements against the approaching Red Army. Just to kick it while it was down, after the war the city was not allowed to rebuild itself but instead its bricks were sent to rebuild Warsaw – 200,000 bricks a day were being sent to the capital in 1949. Even some previously undamaged buildings were demolished to provide more building materials! Despite all of this, the Old Town has been lovingly reconstructed. You can see the entire city from the top of St. Elizabeth’s Church, inside which there is a bizarre exhibition of African masks.

Josh and I had our first visit to a bar mleczny, or ‘milk bar’ – there are two almost next door to one another right near the university. These continue the Soviet-style canteen approach to food, and the name apparently originates in the fact that in the 80s the meals were mostly dairy-based and vegetarian. In one, you have to order your food from a board on the wall. Being totally at sea on waves of Polish words, we had to ask some Polish students to help us out. At the second (more expensive) place you simply load up your plate and pay by the 100g – a much more stupid-tourist-friendly method!

Throughout the city we found little metal gnomes – hanging out on benches, trying to push over bollards and generally being a bit naughty. Apparently they represent the Orange Alternative, a Soviet-era dissident group which made peaceful protests based on subversive absurdity. Their nonsensical activities made it more difficult for the authorities to arrest them. A quote attributed to Waldemar Fydrych: ‘Can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you the question: “Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarves?” ‘

Another idiosyncracy of Wrocław is to be found on one of the bridges. Once upon a while a couple padlocked a lock with their names on to the railings and threw the key in the river – a symbolic romantic gesture. As a result, the rails now bristle with padlocks of all shapes and sizes. Personally I find this imagery slightly more alarming than charming, I think I’d always want at least one key available to unlock myself from someone if I needed to!

All in all, definitely my favourite city in Poland.

Berlin Part 2

There are many other things to write about Berlin, so here are a couple. Lonely Planet’s ‘Europe on a Shoestring’, it seems, has little shoestring-y about it. We’ve been collecting stuff to do that’s free or really cheap that they inconveniently missed out…

While some may go to Berlin for the banging techno raves, we were already becoming exhausted and had the weight of recent history on our shoulders, so stuck to tamer activities.

The Topography of Terror (which perhaps does not have the tamest of titles), which Josh mentioned already, is an incredibly detailed examination of the growth and eventual fall of Nazi power. What is possibly most mortifying about all of the facts presented is just how many high-ranking Nazis went on to have high-ranking positions in West Germany, and how many basically got away with everything. There are reports of people getting 7 years in prison for involvement in planning the murders of tens of thousands of people. Moreover, they generally only serve a few of those years, mainly because they were brought to trial when they were about 85… It’s heavy stuff, but well worth checking out. Plus it’s free.

The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime is very near the Jewish Memorial  and has a similar aesthetic. Check it out – one concrete block just a bit further up the road, look inside!

Walking tours run from outside the Starbucks near the Brandenburg Gate every day at 11am and 1pm. They’re about 3 1/2 hours long, so be prepared for the cold if it’s September (unlike some sorry looking Brazilians, one of whome ended up buying an awful synthetic Soviet hat at Checkpoint Charlie because he was just that cold!). I’d assume they vary according to your guide, but ours was pretty damn good. I also had Josh giving me the more radical (or simply more accurate, as some may say…) interpretations of the same events (e.g. it wasn’t the Communists who burnt down the Reichstag, it was the Nazis as it gave them an excuse to seize power) as a sort of constant undercurrent! The ‘free’ tour works on tips, so it’s up to you whether you pay or how much.

Out by Warschauer Strasse station, there’s a brilliant oldschool black and white photo booth, the kind you don’t even see in colour in England any more, where you have four different photos. Not free, but not expensive, and totally excellent!

Obviously there’s always the East Side Gallery, as well.

We were staying in Kreuzberg, which is a Turkish area, so we were surrounded by loads of different pastries, kebabs, falafels, pizzas, tea…

Utrecht and Hannover

The journey started with a good dose of British racism. Security at the check-in desk at Harwich questioned 3 black passengers travelling together and asked to see in their bags. When one of the 3 asked whether they were being searched because they were black, the security responded by saying they do not profile like that and went on to make a loud point about searching the white man behind them. This effort was subsequently undermined when the 3 were stopped again at the passport check.

Now that we have got rid of the racist section lets move onto the Netherlands which has never been accused of being racist…but certainly does have a lot of water. Over half on the Netherlands is at or below sea level, a lot of this is in “polders” which have been reclaimed from the sea. Instead of hedges, they seem to have strips of water between the fields.

Utrecht

We arrived at the Hook of Holland port which, other than the windfarms, is nothing to really remember and made our way by train to Utrecht, where we were met by family friends. Utrecht is not somewhere I would go out of my way to see, but is a useful stop over point between Britain and the rest of Europe. There is about a day’s worth of stuff to do and if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to pay 25 cents for the McDonalds toilet. Surely it costs them more to employ someone to enforce than they make in revenue? You could instead use the toilet in the 5 star hotel across the canal for free.

The lonely planet Europe on a shoe string guide list 3 sights in Utrecht, all of which cost 7 euros or more. Even though we didnt look around much or go to the tourist office we managed to find quite a few free things to see, including the Cloister Gardens (next to the Cathedral). We were also told that there is a great view from the top of a department store, which unlike the Dom, does not cost 8 euros.

The canals in Utrecht are lovely and definitely worth a visit if you end up there, while the food is not as bad as expected. The same can not however be said for the service. This isnt some snobby British standards and ettiquette view point: the waiter simply tried to steal our change through the powers of awkwardness. Our meal cost 17 euros and we gave him a 20 euro note and he never returned for with our change. As Lucie was standing up to go and talk to him, he came over to us innocently asking “did my colleague never bring your change?”. Cheeky bastard!

Oh, and there are cats everywhere. It seems to be a symbol of status or something, maybe homeliness, to have cats (real ones that is and alive) sleeping in shop windows.

Hannover

Hitching to Hannover was relatively easy. For the first time ever I stood at an official hitching spot, with a big blue sign with a thumbing hand. This spot is located here –
http://maps.google.de/maps/ms?oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Utrecht,+Niederlande&gl=de&ei=tyieTPacKYeRswb0xoDnDg&ved=0CB8Q8gEwAA&hl=de&msa=0&ll=52.081906,5.144284&spn=0.006039,0.013797&z=16&msid=117990639020912851794.00049118596f93d16fc43

Another first for me was that there were other people already there trying to hitch. They complained that this must be a slow morning, something to do with the bad weather they thought, as in the 30mins they had been standing there only 3 people had stopped for them! They ended up giving up and catching the train to their destination and we caught a lift within 30mins of them leaving.

Again another rarity was that quite a few women stopped for us and the person who eventually picked us up was also a woman. We managed to convince her to give us a lift after we told her we were going overland to India and she told us that her friends from Bradford had recently done exactly this trip.

Later in the day we caught a lift with a guy who worked for a shipping company and told us that if we ever got into trouble, we should call him and he would get “his people” to help us out. He later added that if he didnt pick up it was our loss not his.

We arrived to a drizzling Hannover and made our to our Couch Surfing host. However, upon arrival at her front door it became apparent that no one was there. After failed attempts to get in contact with her, we headed off for food, leaving a note for her. We returned after dinner and still no host, so we headed off in search of an internet cafe. Along the way we asked a man in a leather waistcoat if he knew where we might find such a thing. When we explained why we needed it, he tried to call her, swore repeatedly about her and asked us if we would like to stay at his place instead.

“Im going drinking for the next few hours though.”

So we found ourselves in a smoky bar, being bought numerous drinks by a man who turned out to be from a splinter group of Hells Angels (but would have to kick us out of his house at 10am as he needed to pick up his children). Many beers and bars later we arrived back at his house which was a mix of Burgundy leather sofas and childrens football toilet seats.

In the morning he took us to the best pastry shop and when we tried to give him this blog address  he refused – his generosity was about him repaying the amazing treatment given to him when hitch hiking through France as a teenager. “Nothing personal,” he said.