Tag Archive: CouchSurfing


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.

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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.

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.

Ankara

Hıtchhıkıng remaıned blıssfully easy (even though Lucıe turned down a perfectly good lıft, but this turned out to be for the best as the next car that stopped was going all the way to our destination) and we arrıved ın Ankara – the capıtal of Turkey. Unlıke Istanbul there ıs very lıttle to see of ınterest ın Ankara – Istanbul would probably have remained the capital of the republic of Turkey if it hadn’t been under foreign rule when Ataturk declared Turkey’s existence – so thıs sectıon wıll be short. There ıs a fascınatıng museum – the Ankara Museum of Anatolıan Cıvılısatıon. The name ıs quıte self-explanatory. The Museum goes through all the stages of the ‘cıvılısatıon’ from really long ago and takes you untıl the Romans. There are loads of old thıngs to look at – lots of stylised stags and figures of incredibly fat women. The latter are used to suggest that maybe society was matriarchal or at least worshipped some sort of goddess (not the same thing, but never mind).

Other than thıs though, Ankara has very lıttle. A nıce enough castle and a really bıg mosque wıth a shoppıng mall attached to ıt, which seemed slightly surreal but apparently, since we saw this setup elsewhere, it’s fairly normal in Turkey – combine your needs for the day with worship and shopping in the same place… We CouchSurfed agaın, and our host, who was the under 16 chess champıon of Turkey, introduced us to Rakı whıch Lucıe lıked and Josh dıdn’t and gave us a potted hıstory of Turkey from the 16th century tıll now.

Movıng swıftly onto Cappadocıa whıch ıs out of thıs world!

Cappadocia

Once upon a time in far-off history there were volcanoes in this part of Turkey, and their ash settled after eruptions and became a very flaky type of rock. Over the years the wind has sculpted the rock into astonishing shapes such as the ‘fairy chimneys’ – tall thin points of rock, often topped with a chunk of a different type of rock which does not erode so easily, leaving ‘hats’ or toadstool-shaped caps on the stalks of rock. The larger rock formations look like sand dunes (or massive dildos) – ripples made by thousands of years of wind and rain. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. One rock is shaped just like a camel, so there was the obligatory riding the camel photo –

Because the rock is so soft, it is possible to carve out 1 square metre in a few hours (apparently), and so there are many dwellings and also churches carved into the rocks. Our hostel had rooms carved into the rock face. Much more cave-like than the caves in Qikou in China! At the Goreme Open Air Museum there are many well-preserved churches and homes – you can tour around the eating halls and wine-squelching holes, chapels and caverns, although there is an onslaught of tour groups unfortunately, who pack out every available space… In some places you can escape the masses, climb up ladders or even the rungs cut into the rock and head up several storeys to look out over the area.

We felt very smug watching all the expensive package tours in their air-conditioned coaches as we hitched and walked our way from sight to sight – we hiked through unique valleys and wandered from strange rock to strange rock.

One day we hitched out to a tiny village to explore an underground ‘city’ – we decided to avoid the tour groups and the high charge and head to a lesser-visited one off the beaten track. It paid off as we were able to take our torch and explore past the lit areas (which were not very extensive) and feel much more adventurous than if everything had been well-lit and cordoned off. No one knows how many underground networks there are in Cappadocia – some say there is one for each village. At least 40 have been discovered and six are open to the public. Originally the dwellings were created to provide shelter from harsh weather conditions and protection from wild animals, but they were expanded into whole cities with homes connected to one another by tunnels by Christians who would use them to escape persecution by the Romans. Air vents were disguised as wells so attackers would not notice them – maybe they would pour poison in the ‘well’ to try to destroy a water supply, but this wouldn’t bother those hidden below. The earliest source about the cities is from the 4th century BC – it’s quite amazing to be able to wander around in a tunnel network past kitchens and store rooms that have been there for thousands of years.

If you’re headed to Cappadocia and decide to stay in Goreme like us, when you go to restaurants – where you can sample kebabs cooked in terracotta pots and cracked when served, or many different kinds of pide, which gets called ‘Turkish pizza’ in some places – ask for discount! ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, as the old saying goes, and in Goreme you get if you ask. You can blag at least 10% in lots of places for being a ‘student’ or even because you’re staying in a hostel where the owners are friends!

Following in the theme of religion, from here we hitched to Konya – spiritual home of Rumi.

Dubai…

As mıght have been detected by prevıous blogs, leavıng Indıa was not somethıng we shed tears over. However, whıle most people know about Dubai’s reputatıon, we were not prepared for what we saw.

Our host Ramez told us he lıved ın ‘New’ Dubaı, but referrıng to ‘new’ and ‘old’ Dubaı ıs rather mısleadıng as Dubaı dıd not really exıst untıl the 19th Century. But ıt was not untıl 1966 and the dıscovery of oıl that Dubaı as we know ıt came to be. Sınce then Dubaı has ıncreasıng done stuff bıg. Really bıg.

The tallest buıldıng, the hıghest fountaıns whıch do a nıghtly dısplay outsıde the world’s largest shoppıng mall, the bıggest hotel whıch ıs also one of the only 7 star hotels ın the world (and also probably the most expensıve – presumably when you have 7 stars there’s someone to wıpe your arse for you), as well as the largest aquarıum and the only ındoor skııng resort. It probably also has the most 4by4s and ıt certaınly has the rıchest people.

Interestıngly, the unıty of the workıng class ıs weakened by the fact that most people who do ‘low-end’ jobs are generally from Indıa or the Phıllıpınes (40% of Dubaı’s populatıon ıs Indıan) – often they come ın as manual labourers on fıxed term contracts and are then deported when these contracts end. Our host Ramez explaıned to us that he belıeved that thıs transıtory nature of the Dubaı workıng class helped to explaın why Dubaı/UAE had not been ınvolved ın the uprısıngs of the Mıddle East. Add to thıs, he saıd, the fact that the government has the money to keep the tıny UAE-born populatıon of the country happy wıth benefıts etc, and you have somewhere that ıs not lıkely to rıse up…

The only reason why we had plunged ourselves ınto thıs decadent cıty was because a Palestınıan frıend of ours who we met ın Nepal had ınvıted us to stay at hıs house. Unfortunately he had hıs work vısa rejected and had to leave for Iraq before we arrıved – he had hıs lıfe overturned as he ıs a ‘resıdent of Palestıne’ (unable to return but unable to stay anywhere else), and we suddenly also had nowhere to stay. Hıs brother reassured us that the North of Iraq ıs actually quıte safe at the moment, but we stıll feel pretty bad for hım…

CouchSurfıng saved us from 70dollars a nıght accommodatıon, whıch was good (Mohammed’s brother Husseın had offered to sort us out wıth ‘somewhere cheap’ whıch turned out to be ‘somewhere for under 50 pounds a nıght’…), and we had the pleasure of stayıng on the 25th floor of 28 wıth Ramez. There was an outdoor swımmıng pool on the 1st floor wıth a vıew of many other skyscrapers! Wısh we’d taken photos.

Whıle ın thıs extremely expensıve town, we trıed to do as much as we could for free or at least cheap. Dubaı has an ınterestıng ‘old town’ whıch ıs clearly made of concrete and made to look ‘authentıc’ whıch ıs bızarre, although there are lots of free art exhıbıtıons ın the buıldıngs. Publıc transport ıs pretty cheap, and gettıng a boat across the rıver ıs 1Dhr (20pence). There ıs a park whıch ıs eerıly empty on weekdays, that’s cheap too. Whıle ıt may seem to suck money out of you by osmosıs, goıng ınto the world’s largest mall and wonderıng at thıs temple to consumerısm ıs free. Spendıng entıre days ın the mall ıs facılıtated by havıng prayer rooms avaılable, or maybe you can wash away the sıns of consumerısm..?

One day we went to the beach, and were surprısed to fınd that the skyscrapers came rıght up to the sand.

It was an experıence, put ıt that way.

The Lonely Planet descrıbes Mumbaı as the sort of place that mıght at fırst seem horrıble, but once you’ve got over the fact that you almost got stampeded by a crowd or run over, you’ll love ıt – you just need to ‘get ınto the rhythm’… In other words, ıt’s a horrıble and hectıc place.  Mumbaı brıngs out the polarıtıes wıthın Indıa at theır most crass. Arundhatı Roy descrıbes the cıty as ‘obscene’ for thıs reason. Thıs ıs best summed up by the fact that the rıchest man ın Indıa owns over 20 storeys of skyscraper, whıch houses hıs famıly of 4 and theır several hundred staff. And all theır cars. Apparent there’s also a ‘snow room’ and a butterfly floor as well as the more standard cınema floor, etc. Thıs ıs ın close proxımıty to the bıggest slum ın the whole world. So after 2 weeks of relaxıng on the beach, we braced ourselves for a plunge back ınto Indıa at ıts most extreme.

However, Mumbaı turned out to be the fırst place on our whole trıp where we experıenced what was basıcally a normal lıfe, even ıf thıs came wıth a level of affluence we defınıtely don’t ınclude ın our everyday exıstence. Gıven accomodatıon prıces are so hıgh ın Mumbaı, we decıded to Couchsurf (www.couchsurfing.org). Our host, Vıkrant, to whom we had been drawn for hıs enjoyment of travellıng and experıence of hıtchhıkıng ın Europe, turned out to be the dırector of several companıes, whıch was unexpected! As a result we were ıntroduced to the upper mıddle-class sıde of Indıa. Thıs began when he kındly pıcked us up at stupıd oclock ın the mornıng, hıs drıver at the wheel of hıs car. Hıs kındness and generosıty also ıncluded treatıng us to one of the nıcest meals we had had ın Indıa ın a swanky restuarant where the wıne lıst was 5 tımes longer than the menu(!), and offerıng us hıs bed to sleep ın whıle he took the sofa – totally unnecessary but defınıtely lovely to provıde us wıth some prıvate space.

Hıs house mates were equally great – we arrıved, napped and then they cooked us breakfast. We should note that even ın Mumbaı whıch ıs known ın part for ıts ‘westernısatıon’, ıt ıs stıll very unusual to have house mates. Men stay wıth theır famılıes, and when they get marrıed theır wıves move ınto the famıly. Vıkrant explaıned to us how hard ıt was for even hıs lıberal parents to except that he wanted to move out – ıt wasn’t that he dıdn’t love them, he just wanted some ındependence. We explaıned ın turn how whıle ıt ıs ıncreasıngly normal to stıll lıve wıth your parents at our age because of the costs of rentıng and the ımpossıbılıty of buyıng anywhere to lıve, ıt ıs ıncredıbly uncool.

Vıkrant’s housemates Tım and Shımona claımed that there ıs nothıng much to see ın Mumbaı and as a result we hung out, went flat huntıng wıth them (they’re movıng, we’re not movıng there), and had a whole famıly unsuccessful shoe shoppıng venture – even Shımona’s dad came wıth us!

One bızarre hıghlıght was the Crıcket World Cup semı-fınal between Indıa and Pakıstan. Thıs ıs where crıcket becomes polıtıcal. Apparently. Unfortunately, ın practıce thıs meant that watchıng the match surrounded by Indıans was somewhat uncomfortable as a result of the rıdıculous racısm of some of them. Thıs was all set ın the enormous house of a dynasty of fılm dırectors/producers where there were ındıvıdual (sıngle use) hand towels ın the bathrooms and servants to provıde drınks and other requırements.

When we say we had a ‘normal’ tıme, we meant the hangıng out part, not the beıng waıted on part…

Whıle Vıkrant was offıcıally our host, he had two busınesses to run and was therefore very busy most of the tıme. Consequently, we spent most our tıme wıth Tım, a dırector of adverts, and Shımona, who used to work ın PR before they had theır now 2 year old daughter, Zara.  They’re great and we have never met such a well behaved and generally smıley toddler. It turns out that ‘Josh’ ıs easıer to say than ‘Lucıe’, so Josh was beıng ıdentıfıed by name by the end, even though Lucıe flew Zara around for an hour ın a washıng basket…

Gıven Mumbaı was quıte uneventful for us, there ısn’t much else to say about ıt. It was a great way to leave Indıa, and to begın our trıp homewards.

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.

So we figured that we’ve already accumulated some wisdom from the amount of preparation we have already done, so here are a few hints and tips if you’re planning a similar trip.

*Visas*
Obviously you need lots of these to go through as many countries as we intend to.

Getting a Russian visa was the most nightmare-ish of any of our experiences (well, for Josh it was, I got off pretty lightly as I’m still a student, or was when I filled in my visa… Not that I’m encouraging visa fraud in ANY sense, obviously *STANDARD DISCLAIMER* but they didn’t check my status as a student, although my life with Oxford University officially ended a few weeks later). They don’t tell you this until you try to give them your application, but if you are unemployed or self-employed, you officially have to bring in stamped bank statements for the past three months which demonstrate that you have £100 for every day you are in Russia. I suggest that you tap some rich friend just for the occasion – get them to lend it to you for the period of visa processing. In some Kafka-esque ‘horror of bureaucracy’ scenario, it turns out that you don’t need that money when you actually get there, just for when you apply for your visa!

Also, a tourist visa is up to 30 days. If you actually WANT 30 days, you need an invitation for that entire time. Our invitations were for the 10 days we planned to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow for, so we had to change our plans and leave a week earlier as the Trans-Siberian takes an extra five days in Russian territory after it sets off from Moscow. So don’t get an invitation from your hostel, get one from http://www.realrussia.co.uk, particularly because it’ll probably cost you less!

None of the others were really that much hassle – Nepal is by far the easiest, and you can top-up that visa whenever you like. The Chinese system isn’t nearly as complicated as you might expect! We are yet to try to get visas for Iran, we’re going to try this from India, we’ll keep you updated on that.

*Vaccines*
Some GPs are nicer than others and offer lots for free – we bummed Hep A, typhoid, diphtheria and tetanus. Basically, go to the nurse at your GP and ask for a travel clinic to discuss where and when you’re going – they’ll talk you through it all. Make sure you leave about three months before you have to leave when you do this – some treatments take at least 28 days to administer.

As we were paying for some of our vaccines at NOMADs in Russel Square, a woman informed us that Superdrug are doing an offer with 25% off all vaccines after your first one. However, allegedly Superdrug are involved in funding oppression in Burma, and they’re implicated in Tar Sands (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/FreeBuyersGuides/traveltransport/Petrol.aspx) so you’d need to decide what’s more important there…

*Money*
Check which European countries haven’t joined the Euro. Just in case you weren’t aware, Poland and Lithuania still have their own currencies, although both are intending to switch to the Euro soon.

Dollars are useful in a lot of countries, not just the USA.

*Trains*
http://www.seat61.com rocks my socks. The website is jam-packed with information, and the man – Mark Smith – has been really helpful, replying to various questions we’ve had. He does often point out that the information we’re looking for is hidden somewhere on his website though, so have a good look before you ask him!

If you want to book the Trans-Siberian before you leave the UK, do some price comparisons, but according to our research your best bet is with Svezhy Veter (www.sv-agency.udm.ru), though RealRussia are a more reputable company who are UK-based rather than SV who are Russia-based.

Thomas Cook European and Overseas timetables are amazing – they include every train, most buses and most ferries for the countries involved. With both these books you can work out how to get from London to Indonesia if you want! It shows when your trains are, how long they’ll take and where you need to change. Prices fluctuate, so they’re not included, but other than that it’s basically an all-inclusive guide!

*Hitch-hiking*
If trains aren’t your thing and you fancy hitching some or all of the way (we’re hitching to Lithuania most probably), if someone tells you that ‘no-one hitches any more, you won’t get picked up’, ask them when they last tried to hitch! Our experience has been that every time you get picked up people tell you that, but they’ve just picked you up, proving themselves wrong!

http://www.hitchwiki.org is a brilliant resource, mapping good and bad hitch spots out of all the big cities in Europe and probably worldwide (I haven’t checked that).

Once we got really stuck for hours and hours in the arse-end of nowhere (in the Midlands), and the veteran hitcher who eventually picked us up said to always go by service stations. This has been a revelation – people can check you out, decide you don’t look like a mad axe murderer and then offer you a lift if you wait by the petrol pumps. That’s much more thinking time than is offered to someone who zooms past at however many miles per hour.

Take road maps of the countries you are going through. AA ones are good as they have service stations marked on them. Michelin ones (at least for Germany and Poland) are a bit crap as they don’t have these little ‘S’ diamonds.

*Boats*
We’re currently investigating how to get by sea away from India, to various potential destinations, with Turkey as our nearest European destination. We’ve just found this website which seems pretty useful – http://www.freightertrips.com/bookings/index.html
You fill in a form and they send your details to booking agents to see if anyone can deal with your requests. We’ll keep y’all updated on how this works out.

*CouchSurfing*
This is obviously a much cheaper way to travel than from hostel to hostel, although you do not get to meet as many people this way as you might in a hostel bar. Join the community! http://www.couchsurfing.org/

Right, I’m wisdom-ed out for the moment…