April 07, 2005
Prague, Czech Republic
The famous Charles Bridge at 9am is almost deserted. I watch the watercolour sellers set up their stalls and see the mist on the river. Prague is peaceful.
At 11am I'm back at the bridge and it's mayhem. The tour bus groups have all woken up and are crowding every laneway from the castle to the old town square. Hawkers of every description are foisting all sorts of improbable rubbish on the crowd, who lap it up with glee. It's almost impossible to cross the bridge.
And it's only April.
This is the end of my trip. The last place that I haven't visited before. Later in the day I'm at the train station, catching an express train to Berlin, to spend a few days with an old friend. Sitting alone in my compartment as the train pulls out I know it's time to finish. Sixteen months and countless buses, trains and towns later.
But I'm already looking forward to starting again. Back to Asia. Back to the Middle East. Samarkand and Kashgar, Angkor Wat and Persepolis, Istanbul and Beijing. Crowded buses and crowded bazaars. The throng of people everywhere, the smell of cinnamon and incense. The assault on all the senses. The teeming mass. The life.
To everyone who joined me on the trip via these little notes I hope I could give you at least a small taste of what I experienced. But it's not quite all. I've got seventy rolls of film to develop and scan so hopefully there'll be one or two interesting shots there. I'll send a few around just as soon as I find a place to live.
March 23, 2005
Warsaw's baroque Royal Castle, with it's sumptious interiors and furnishings, is the equal of almost any in Europe, yet just 35 years ago it didn't exist.
The original palace, along with almost all of the old town, was reduced to rubble by the Nazis in 1944 in reprisal for the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising. The Soviet Red Army idly watched from the opposite bank of the river as the Germans systematically destroyed the city over the course of three months.
The old city and, much later, the palace have since been painstakingly rebuilt and the results are remarkable. The only hints that the palace is not original are in the ceiling frescos, not quite the quality of the 18th century masters, and the clocks, which all work.
March 20, 2005
In 1939 there were 65000 Jews living in Krakow, a quarter of the population. Only 6000 survived the war. Most of them met their fate in Auschwitz, the Nazi's largest death camp, designed with the single purpose of eliminating an entire people.
Uniquely much of this camp survived the end of the war. The size of the camp; the barracks, gas chambers, railway lines; gives a small impression of the magnitude of what occured. It's impossible to fully comprehend.
Many images remain: the piles of suitcases, the owners having written their names and addresses on the outside, packed with their most valuable possessions in the belief that they were merely being relocated; almost two tonnes of hair, some of it still braided, that was kept in storage, waiting to be sent to Germany to be turned in to suit lining; the railway tracks that run right to the edge of the gas chambers.
Seventy percent of those sent to the camp went directly to the gas chambers, including all children and pregnant women. Right to the end the deception of relocation was maintained, with false shower heads installed in the chambers.
One set of haunting photos shows new arrivals, all women and children, waiting patiently amongst the trees. They are destined for execution but the gas chambers are currently full. They will wait a few hours or a day in the cold, then take their turn, never suspected the horrific truth.
It's impossible to convey the emotion provoked by this now silent place. Walking through the barracks, seeing the photos and descriptions of what occured, many people were visibly moved, myself included.
A staggering 1.5 million people were killed at this camp. The images and feelings I will never forget.
March 16, 2005
I went to a sandwich shop at lunchtime today and was confronted by an unintelligible list of Slovakian names. I had no idea what to choose until I saw item number 6: Hemendex.
March 07, 2005
Who would have thought ballet could be funny? Certainly not me. But the guy that played the Toy Maker in Coppelia was hilarious. And I was only there because I was too cheap to take the Opera House tour.
The day started with a trip to the Széchenyí baths, the biggest of Budapest dozen or so thermal spas. Upon entering you're greeted by the unusual sight of underwater chess. Well, half underwater, as a collection of guys stand chest deep in the large warm pool and play on boards set at water level, oblivious to the occasional wave splashing over the pieces.
The choice of watery delights is abundant: three outdoor pools at different levels of warm, seeming all the warmer with piles of snow on the pavements; and indoors, a vast array of hot pools, cold pools and saunas. One pool has jets along the edge creating a giant whirlpool effect that would zoom you around. I have no idea what the point was but it was great fun.
That night I found myself at the ballet in the city's magnificent opera house. I wanted to see the interior and was about to join the tour bus crowd on the expensive afternoon tour when I noticed that I could get a ticket to a performance for half the price of the tour - interior views included for free! I didn't much care what I saw but the ballet turned out to be excellent. I surprised myself. At intermission I mingled with Budapest's finest, carefully blending in with my patched boots and faded clothes, sipping Tokaj and discussing the finer points of the ballet with a nice German lady.
The cultural onslaught continued the next night as I went to see Turandot at the new opera house, a concrete structure that's not a patch on the old opera house. I thought the lead soprano was a bit of a squawker and was pleased to have a local opera fan, and member of the Wagner Society, confirm the view. "I didn't like her Brunhilda either", she confided.
On my last night in Budapest the couple I was staying with took me to the perfect antidote to all this high culture - a small cafe showing a Buster Keaton film with a live jazz accompaniment. Just the thing.
February 26, 2005
It's -4°C, snowing, and I'm swimming in an outdoor pool. I'm taking the waters at Héviz, a five hectare natural thermal pool in central Hungary.
The water temperature is supposedly 25°C today but it's the coldest 25°C I've encountered. Inside the covered pavilion it's a much more civilised 33°C.
My ticket is good for three hours but after thirty minutes I'm already getting bored with paddling around. The novelty of swimming in snow is wearing off. But most of my swimming companions, all sixty plus and here in search of medical cures, will be here all day and every day for two or three weeks. The minimum for a course of "the waters".
But I'm done. It's off to a town with a younger crowd and a bit more life. Off to Budapest!
February 17, 2005
He called himself Ionu, he said he was from Israel. He had all the classic traits of a scam artist.
1. Establish that the target is a foreigner
"Do you have the time?", said in Romanian. "Oh, you speak English", said in English with great "surprise".
2. Establish empathy
"I'm not from Bucharest either. I'm studying in Timosoara but I'm actually from Israel. I don't really like Bucharest, too many thieves and scam artists" (isn't that just brilliant? And a student too? Who would have thought)
3. Appear helpful
"Do you know it's a holiday this weekend, you might have trouble getting a train ticket at the station. But you can still get one at the office in the city."
4. But not too helpful
"The office is just across the park, near the Palace. Just ask anyone for the CFR office".
5. But then come along anyway
"I'll just show you where the park is. Well, I've got nothing else to do now, I can show you a bit further"
6. Set up the sting
"Did you know that the real exchange rate is ten times what the money exchange offices say. No? I didn't either for a couple of weeks but then discovered the special government ATM's that give the proper rate. They even take Visa! There's one near to where we are going." (That's convenient)
7. Get the target alone
"Right, now we need to take a taxi to the train office" (suddenly the story's changing), "The government taxi rank is just over there" (scammers love calling everything "government", adds to the sense of security)
At this point I called a halt to proceedings by claiming an urgent meeting with an imaginary friend. "I'll go to the office after that".
How would it have gone after that? My guess is I'd be encouraged to withdraw some money from the "special government" ATM, giving the scammer a chance to spot my pin number or at least ensure a full wallet.
Then it would have been "Let's take this car. Private taxi, cheaper than the marked ones". At that stage you'd be led in to his accomplices car, driven off to some deserted spot and stripped of everything. That's my guess at least.
By when I've got some time on my hands I don't mind stringing them along for a while. Just don't go to any dark corners or get in any cars.
February 07, 2005
It's cold outside. Really cold.
I decide to go skiing today and manage to get a lift to the ski fields with three instructors. They tell me that it's -12 deg C in the town today and -18 on the mountain. In the north of Bulgaria the mercury has dropped to -34.
Luckily I bought a pair of woollen gloves in Istanbul for 65 cents.
January 30, 2005
Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey
"I am not ordering you to attack, I am ordering you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders will arrive to take our place."
These were the words of divisional commander Mustafa Kemal to the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment as the Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the 25th of April, 1915, in an ill-fated attempt to take the Gallipoli Peninsula. The 57th Regiment was indeed wiped out, but they checked the ANZAC advance and reinforcements were able to arrive.
Over the next few months fierce trench warfare raged as the Allied troops tried to take the high ground of Chunuk Bair. The opposing trenches are still visible, often only eight or ten metres apart.
I walk from the beach where the ANZACs landed past numerous cemetaries. They have surprisingly few gravestones as most of the dead were never identified when they were recovered from the battlefield. Poignant epitaphs are inscribed: "Could I clasp your hand once more, just to say well done".
From the landing point to Chunuk Bair is no more than three or four kilometres yet the fighting raged for four months. The final battle lasting from the 6th to the 9th of August, when more than 28000 men died.
In the end the Turks held the ridge and the allies withdrew from the peninsula. Attempts to control the strategic Dardenelles were abandoned.
Following Turkey's ultimate defeat in World War I, Mustafa Kemal led the challenge to the rule of the Ottoman Sultan, culminating in the foundation of the Turkish Republic with Mustafa Kemal, now Kemal Atatürk (Father Turk) as it's President.
In 1934 Atatürk returned to Gallipoli with these words for the ANZACs:
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours...
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
January 29, 2005
I decided to get a haircut today. I figured a half-balding guy in a one horse town should be a great barber. It was only once I was trapped in the chair and he had a cut-throat razor in his hand that I realised I was right next to the battlefields of Gallipoli and maybe my grandfather killed his grandfather (except my grandfather was never in Gallipoli but he doesn't know that).
I survived the razor only to be confronted by a lit cigarette lighter, which he proceeded to stick in my ears! First one then the other.
Try getting that sort of service at Toni & Guy.
January 24, 2005
It's the end of the day and I find myself in Ankara. How did that happen? I was determined not to set foot in this town again (least favourite capital cities: Ankara and Tehran. Most favourite capital cities: Beijing and Yerevan). Instead I find myself walking the dirty, depressing streets of Ulus once more. At least I'm staying in a different flea-pit this time. But back to the beginning...
Arising from Prince Charles' hotel I stroll across the snow-covered town to find the dolmuş to Boğankale. "Wait in here", says a guy working in a tea house. I'm soon hunkered down with the locals and being supplied with countless glasses of tea. An hour passes. No dolmuş. I ask the guy serving the drinks. He runs outside for a few minutes and returns with a young taxi driver. No dolmuş they say. The roads are too treacherous. The taxi will go for about the same price.
We run around the town and pick up some more people then head off for the 30kms to Boğankale. On arrival the driver assures me that he'll need to accompany me for the day as I'll never be able to walk around by myself in the treacherous ankle-deep snow. For a very reasonable price, he says. I shake him off and head up to Hattuşa. Ancient city of the Hittite civilization, dating to about the 14th century BC.
The ruins are low and sparse but the setting was magnificent. The weather was perfect, with blue skies and not a breath of wind. Several inches of fresh snow removed all traces of footprints. I was the only person in sight.
The snow squeaked beneath my boots. "Champagne powder" they call it in Utah. So light you could run your fingers through it and not feel a thing. Sunlight sparkled across the surface as if it was strewn with diamonds. The bright points of light dancing across the snow with every footstep.
I spent a couple of hours walking around. By the end the bottom of my trousers were frozen solid. I catch a lift with a grossly overloaded truck to the next site, a couple of miles away.
By the end of the day I'm heading back to Sungurlu with the same taxi driver. He tries to sell me some old postcards and wooden carvings on the way. "I carve them myself", he says, "at night". Riiigghht.
We land right in front of a bus company in Sungurlu. I go in to check out the times of buses tomorrow and before I know it I'm bundled on to an old minibus and bound for Ankara, where I can change for my real destination of Safranbolu. I'm thinking that this is the courtesy bus to take us to the real bus. No! This is the bus for the whole three hour trip. Our departure is delayed for quite some time while they heatedly debate who exactly should go from the excess of potential passengers. In the end it's solved. They all go! Jammed in to every available space.
I'm still slightly dazed by it all when we reach Ankara. It's too late now to continue. Nothing for it but to take a room for the night. Back to the wasteland of Ulus.
January 23, 2005
Central Anatolia, Turkey
It's 3pm and I'm on a three hour bus ride from Amasya to Sungurlu - a couple of small towns in Central Anatolia. I sleep for much of the first hour and wake in Merzifon to find it snowing. A lot. A couple of inches of fresh snow lie on the road to Çorum. Lots of cars are stopped. Some putting on chains, some just stopped. The bus slips a little a couple of times but generally the driver's faith in its superior weight and traction was rewarded. Until...
We went to pass another, stopped, bus. The rear wheels start to slide to the left, slowly at first then faster and faster. The driver gamely pushes on as we slip right in to the ditch on the side of the road, hitting a snowy bank with a thump. Everyone gets off the bus. They bring a tractor to pull us out. A half-inch iron bar is produced and jammed somewhere under the front of the bus then connected to a thick cable and the tractor. The tractor begins to pull. The bus makes no sign of moving. The tractor pulls harder. The iron bar comes flying out bringing half of the front of the bus with it. Undaunted they try the same technique again. I step back a few more paces. More of the bus is ripped off. The tractor gives up and goes looking for a smaller objective. They call for the big tow truck.
It's now dark and still snowing. The guy standing next to me is shivering. I give him my wooly hat. The tow truck arrives and they attach a chain to a more solid part of the bus. The truck begins to pull. The bus moves a fraction, but no more. The truck moves for a better angle and tries again. The bus is moving now. The right back wheel starts to climb the embankment. The right front wheel is shooting straight up in to the air. The whole bus is tipping dangerously over. Passengers start to call out for the truck to stop pulling as we imagine the whole thing going over but he continues. One; two more feet, and then suddenly the front wheel comes down with a thump. The back wheel is over the crest and the bus is mobile again. Minus a few bits from the front which I'm sure weren't important.
It was pretty slow-going the rest of the way. The driver seemed strangely cautious. We passed some traffic police toting AK-47's. Must be expecting some serious traffic violations.
I finally get to Sungurlu at 8pm. Only two hours late. Not too bad really. After all that I decide to treat myself and check in to the hotel that Prince Charles stayed at in 1992. Just $12 a night. Even a prince can afford that.