Monday, 19 January 2015

Istanbul Experience

I'm lucky enough to have visited Istanbul a number of times in my life. It is without question one of my favourite cities. My most recent visit was a few years back with my son. On this occasion we actually arrived by bicycle, having just cycled 2,444 miles from Dingle in the west of Ireland on our way to Japan (see the "Long Road, Hard Lessons" book link, and older blog posts about that trip on the list in the right-hand margin). We stayed there for 2 weeks while we waited for our Iran visas and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Istanbul arrived 2 months into a 10,000 mile cycle trip with my 18yr old son

During that visit we stayed centrally, at Nobel Hostel in the Blue Mosque area (Mimar Mehmet Aga Street No 32 Sultanahmet to be exact). I had got to know Istanbul well when I stayed there for a while as a backpacker aged 19-20 in 1978 and I was hoping that the hostels were still mainly in the Blue Mosque area, scattered around Sultanahmet Square. Sam and I were delighted to find that they were. 

View from Nobel Hostel's Rooftop Breakfast Cafe

Having crossed the border into Turkey from Bulgaria, we found the road into Istanbul to be a very treacherous one, with heavy trucks and no real alternative smaller route, so we decided to play it safe and take a train through the last section. Exiting from the central station and seeing tram-lines everywhere, we decided to walk our bikes up to Sultanahmet square and it was there came across Antique Hostel. This hostel had been recommended by backpackers as one of the best in Istanbul but it was fully booked when we arrived. However the helpful guy on the desk sent us to their sister hostel (Nobel Hostel) around the corner, which despite being smaller is equally friendly. If you have the chance I suggest you stay at Antique Hostel which is bigger with a beautiful lounge and superb rooftop bar etc. Nobel also has a rooftop where they serve great breakfast but it is more basic.  Both were 12 Euros (20 Turkish Lira) at that time for a Dormitory room or 40E for a double room with en-suite and air-con. Prices have risen but it is still cheap.  The staff in both hostels are helpful, friendly. There was a lovely guy we got to know at Nobel named Jimmy who was full of wicked humour. The hostels and hotels in this area mostly have roof terraces with superb views of the busy waterway where literally hundreds of large cargo ships are stacked up waiting to be allowed to load / unload onto Istanbul's many cargo docks. 

Istanbul is huge and spreads for miles, encompassing several very different areas. The official population is around 16 million but it is reputed to be nearer 20 with the tourists and travellers who are drawn to this the ancient crossroads of East and West. 

Sultanahmet is the main tourist centre on the Eminonou side and it is swamped by big tour groups in the high season (Aug - Oct). Coaches clog the roads around the square due to tourists' unwillingness to walk ten minutes to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque etc from their hotel or outer drop-off zone. They can be found smoking 'sheesha' pipes in the tourist cafes and being ripped off in the many tasteful carpet and 'antique' shops nearby. This phenomenon naturally pushes up prices in local shops and restaurants so perhaps go further afield if you are looking for a bargain. 

The old Pudding Shops (shack type street restaurants famous in the hippy era) that once lined the main street along the west side of Sultanahmet square are now proper restaurants and priced accordingly, but the food is still delicious. 

When you're ready to get away from the bustling centre, you'll find ferry boats running frequently from the waterfront, near the Galata Bridge, which is just along from the main railway station. These go to the Asian side (Uskudar) for around 1.7YTL (around a Euro) and tour boats take people on 2hr tours of the Bospherous river (probably the busiest waterway in the world - it borders on manic some days).  The Princes Islands (just 10 minutes away) have a lovely old-world charm and some good fish restaurants. The Asian side is busy but far more relaxed and decidedly cheaper. It is home to the famous Fennerbache football club. The Turks are football (soccer) crazy. Sam and I managed to see a game at a reasonable cost while we were there. 

Fennerbache Stadium

On the opposite side of the Galata bridge is Karakoy (pronounced Karakui - not to be confused with Kadakoy ferry port on the Asian side). Here there are big fish restaurants on the bridge and along the waterfront by the ferry stage. Good but a little touristy for my liking (with the many cruise line passengers who dock nearby). 

 Vintage cars and trams are common. This is in Istiklal Cadesi, Taksim.

Walk up from this side of the Galata bridge past the very noticeable Galata Tower on the steep hill. This narrow road becomes Istiklal Cadesi (Street) in the Taksim area and is one of the busiest and best shopping streets in Istanbul. You will find individual tourists wandering along this street but thankfully not tour groups. Istiklal street is wide with great bookshops, cafes, fashion shops etc. and is mostly aimed at wealthier Turks. There is a tramway up the centre (it can be dangerous) of the wide pavement with the antique trams once used throughout Istanbul. The wide shopping street begins just above the Galata tower and can be reached by a funicular railway from Karakoy (Galata Bridge). Taksim became our favourite part of Istanbul. It is quite calm, not expensive and has a huge number of cafes, bars and restaurants as well as backstreet markets and excellent music venues, bookshops etc. At the top end is where a lot of the recent political protests and blockades took place. There is a really nice hostel on this street (on the narrow steeper end of the main street to Taksim - Istiklal, near to the musical instrument shops alongside the Galata Tower). It's called World House Hostel. Dormitory beds start at only 12E including breakfast in their relaxed street level cafe. Double rooms range from 30-60 Euros. Check the prices on Personally I would prefer to stay in this part of the city away from to tour groups and gift shops. 

Fish features strongly on Istanbul restaurant menus

There are many good places to eat but I particularly recommend the following from when I was last there: 

Sultanahmet Area: 

Doy Doy. This is a traditional Turkish restaurant with a superb roof terrace overlooking the back of the Blue Mosque (best view). It is cheap for this area and the food is good. You will hear plenty of American and English accents on the terrace since it is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Main course (e.g. Kebab with salad) around 12 YTL (6E). It is near to Hotel Sarnic. 

7 Stars Hills / Restaurant
More expensive end of the market. Well known for good food and probably the highest roof terrace in the area so superb views. 30YTL average main course or basic set menu. Next to Four Seasons Hotel. 

4 Seasons Hotel 
Beautiful Hotel with rooftop bar and courtyard restaurant. Reputedly the most expensive hotel in Istanbul. It is a fairly recently converted prison with a lovely courtyard garden restaurant and is very central but in a quiet street. Very expensive. 

Taksim / Istiklal Cadesi Area: 

A friendly and quite trendy cafe / restaurant serving mainly Italian style pasta dishes with Turkish influence. Food is excellent and service good. Prices are reasonable for quality. About 20YTL (10 E) for a main dish. It is at the junction of Istiklal Cadesi and a street that leads downhill towards Tophane (modern) tram stop which you can get to direct from Sultanahmet Square very cheaply. They have lovely old B&W photos of Istanbul from the 1940's / 50s on walls and place mats which they will give you copies of if you ask. 

Beyoglu (South Taksim) just above the Galata Tower. There are numerous street cafes between buildings in the backstreets. Refil is one of most famous as a hangout of Turkish intelectuals but there are many others to check out. Main courses around 15YTL but recommend a Mezze selection of starters which can be enough with a plate of Borec cheese and meat parcels. 

Cetin Gurme 
A chain I believe and very popular with Turks. This is one of the many traditional Turkish restaurants that display a large selection of delicious dishes in their window and cook in an open kitchen. It is cheap and but be warned that it all looks so delicious that you will find it difficult not to over order and spend more than you intended. This one has a baked potato stand in front (Kunpir) with huge potatoes and a selection of fillings which are generously heaped over the potato. It is a great way for budget travellers to fill up at 8YTL including a fizzy drink. A fairly nourishing if not exactly gourmet experience. 

Istanbul is one of the world's most vibrant busy cities, where it would be difficult to get bored. People go out a lot. This can be opportune since many overland travellers get stuck here waiting for visas to places east, such as Iran. Be warned though, I have met very presentable foreign travellers here who claim to have been robbed and in need money to get home, from where they will return your money. It is a scam. Don't be put off. You will meet great people staying at the many delightful hotels and hostels. I have made many lasting friendships here and few people leave without wanting to return. Turkish people are very helpful and often quite self-deprecating. Local traders are far less pushy about encouraging you to buy than they used to be. They are clever though and in Istanbul notoriously good at making money out of tourists, but in my opinion they do it in a nice way. The Turks are quite nationalistic. Turkish flags fly everywhere, you will notice (it is such a beautiful flag) but this is usually discouraged (apparently) by the government. Especially when they are going through a period of seeing their future in the EU (although many Turks are getting tired of waiting for acceptance). Don't worry about wandering off into backstreets or poorer districts. As in all cities it is wise to walk purposefully and not to display your wealth, but it is fundamentally as safe as most European cities and a lot more exciting.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Icelandic Encounter

I had long wanted to visit Iceland. Finally it was my wife who brought it about.

Wife: "Flights to Iceland are quite cheap after Christmas and there's an inexpensive B&B here on-line... if we were to book it quickly..."

Me: "Hmm." Continues reading the day's tweets.

Wife later: "About Iceland. I could see you weren't going to make your mind up in time, so I've booked it. I'm paying. You'd better put the dates in your diary."

I was grumpy about it at the time but as the departure day approached I felt increasingly positive. I'd taken the trouble to do some research. It sounded interesting - rather unusual even.

Landing at Keflavik airport the sun seemed to be going down already at 10am. The quality of light told me it was dusk. I knew about short days in winter but wasn't expecting this. But it didn't get dark. For another four and a half hours it stayed like dusk and then it got dark. Very dark by around 15:30. It was not only the time / daylight thing that threw me. The landscape of the place - we seemed to be on an alien planet. No trees to speak of. Very little normal grass. Moss and slime over black rubble seemed to be the main topography from the bus window. I felt excited - a little strange but certainly a positive experience and an unusual one for a man so used to world travel off the beaten track. But there was no sign of any ice, nor any snow. I had made this observation too soon, however. The weather here changes in an instant. Within twenty minutes driving snow had covered everything in a white blanket. We slithered about as we walked to our bargain B&B in outer-central Reykjavik.

Askot B&B was a private house with a modern kitchen and bathroom. All other rooms had been converted to bedrooms. Perfectly comfortable but 12+ people queueing for the bathroom next morning was no fun.

Getting up at 9am next morning it felt like the middle of the night. Looking out into the dark I saw that more now had fallen. It was to stay like this for 3 days, followed by sudden heavy rain on day 4 which washed all the snow away. On day 5 the snow had fallen again in the night and remained until the rain on the 7th day when we left. Quite a surprise. The Icelanders say, if you don't like the weather here, just wait 5 minutes and it will change.

Our days in Iceland were spent as follows:

Day 1: Walking around Reykjavik. Booked some trips at the beautiful Harpa Building (concert and conference hall / restaurants / bars etc). Relaxed at homely 'Stofan Cafe' near the centre. New Year's Eve dinner opposite the nearby harbour at top rated restaurant Forretta Barrin (excellent & reasonably priced). Drinks in a cool but friendly basement bar (Tiu Droppar), before walking up to the cathedral to watch the incredible fireworks and midnight bells chiming, along with most of Reykjavik. Everyone was so pleasant. Heavy snow was falling as we walked home. A pretty perfect day.

The Harpa Concert Hall Building

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral gathering on New Year's Eve

Day 2: Coach tour (The Golden Circle + Geothermal energy plant visit) leaving at 08:50 (very dark) from Harpa Building. Interesting to learn about geothermal energy in Iceland. This one little (clean) plant about the size of a basketball stadium produces all the hot water and electricity for Reykjavik and more. Incredible! They have become world experts on the technology which has transformed their economy. The tourism (recent) has done the rest. Life here seems affluent in a country that was once dirt-poor. The rest of the day was mind-blowing. Various stops at stunning natural locations in the white-out of snow (they filmed Game of Thrones here), then a big waterfall that the guide called a 'small waterfall'. Then an area named Geysir, with (unsurprisingly) geysers exploding left right and centre, and then... the BIG waterfall. Gullfoss is absolutely astounding. A huge quantity of water flowing into an enormous cavern. Giant icicles. A dazzling, enormous, thundering panorama that takes your breath away (and I've seen a lot of big waterfalls). This full-on day ended with a visit at dusk to the Pingvellir National Park, where the ancient parliament (the world's first) was regularly held and where the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate of the Earth's crust meet (or rather separate), regularly spewing out magma and boiling water. They are moving apart by 2cm per year. Iceland is sinking every year yet strangely each year it grows due to the magma eruptions. I willingly take back all I've said in the past about organised coach tours. The tour was run by Sterna, whose office is in the Harpa Building next to reception. 10/10.

Gullfoss Waterfall - Gigantic, raging, unbridled and a real feast for the senses

The ridge / chasm running through the island where two continental plates meet

Day 3: My wife visited museums and galleries while I preferred to wander around the docklands and absorb the culture in traditional cafes and bars. More snow was provided.

Reykjavik Harbour is picturesque in a kind of brutalist way

The Viking Sun Sculpture on Reykjavik Waterfront

Day 4: My wife's birthday. Coach trip to the Blue Lagoon, Grindavik and the Viking Ship Museum. I was sceptical about the Blue Lagoon spa experience. It is technically man made - utilising natural rock pools in the larva-fields and excess hot water from a nearby geothermal power-plant. There is a hotel, restaurant, shop etc. The kind of thing I detest. But this was different. Subtle, sustainable, low-key, chic, tranquil and not too obviously commercial. A really relaxing experience actually, especially in the snow. But be warned - it's big, but I hear it is so packed in summer they have to let people enter in shifts. I shudder to think. Dinner at Reykjavik's renowned Grillmarka Restaurant.

The tranquility that is The Blue Lagoon (in winter anyway)

Icelandic Horses - Free of all disease therefore no import of horses is allowed

Days 5 & 6: Hanging out in some of Reykjavik's many cafes, bars and a few restaurants. Wandering around the seedy dock area - great old cafes but still expensive. Try The Coocoos Nest. The only cheap place to eat we discovered in Reykjavik was (Thai) Nudluhusid at Laugavegur 59. Almost everywhere else is an arm and a leg except hot-dog stalls and the two fish & chip cafes (Reykjavik Fish at Tryggvagata 8, is good) opposite the harbour. Good local beer (stout especially good) but no atmosphere in the well stocked Micro-Bar within the City Centre Hotel, Austurst Street. Cafes like Stofan serving alcohol, tend to have a better atmosphere and happy-hours after 5pm. Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) coach trip at night was interesting but didn't see much. Under these circumstances they give you a free repeat trip or a voucher valid for 3 years, so best to do this trip first we realised. We did see the northern lights properly for free, walking back to our B&B after the New Year's Eve celebrations but light pollution in the city meant the colours were a little pale.

The chic Smurstodin Cafe within the Harpa Building

Aurora-watching. We did catch a small tantalising flash here in centre of picture.

All in all a memorable and out of the ordinary experience, and one which I highly recommend. Summer is completely different in terms of landscape, with bright green colours. The Icelanders are most hospitable and very easy going. Two interesting cultural pointers about them:

1. Their police are never armed and they post more video on instagram (of their day to day working lives) than anyone else in Iceland by far.

2. They are not immune to the modern trend of seeking celebrity-status. In their phone book (national population is only 325,000) they are allowed to give themselves a descriptive title rather like on social media, perhaps related to their job or their interests. I am told you find things like 'fisherman', 'stamp collector', or 'cake decorator', but also titles like 'inspirational speaker', 'devoted father' and 'big lover'. Our young and rather hyperactive tour guide told us she knows a guy who's entry says 'funny man', and that he is in fact anything but funny.

Prices in shops and restaurants is the only downside, therefore I'd say it favours shorter stays. Be prepared to be offered local fauna to eat (all very sustainable). Puffin, Whale and Horse are on most traditional restaurant menus along with the more familiar European meats and fish. My favourite local culinary discovery, however, was their 'Jar Cake'.

The incredible Icelandic Jar Cake (Smurstodin Cafe - Harpa Building).
Once tried, never forgotten. The special Icelandic cream is called Skyr.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 10 November 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Cristobal

Where To Look For Life
I think it was in 1982 that I met Cristobal. I was working as a night bedroom steward on a cruise ship – The magnificent QE2. One morning we docked in Quebec, not far into the mouth of the gigantic St Lawrence river in Canada. It was a sunny autumn day and the light really intensified the colours of the painted wooden buildings, the maple trees with their leaves turned gold and the verdant green pine forests stretching into the distance against an azure blue sky. Strings of logging barges were stretched out along the St Lawrance heading inland towards the great lakes and there was already snow on the caps of the distant mountains.

QE2 in Quebec Harbour

On days in port like this I tended to avoid hanging out with other crew-members. Their idea of a special day out ashore was to visit six waterfront bars rather than the customary two. In most ports we visited, I tended to head into the rougher fishermen's quarter or the poorer residential districts in order to experience a more genuine taste of local life. But Quebec seeming to lack much in the way of either. After breakfast in a small old-world cafe I decided to head on a small road out of town – up into the surrounding hills. And it was here that I met Cristobal.

Heading into the Quebec hills

Met On The Road
Leaving the city I had stopped at a small roadside shack on the outskirts to buy some bread rolls, an apple, a bag of nuts and some cheese. This was to be my lunch in case I could find nowhere to eat when the time came. As I sat down on a rock to eat that lunch later, I saw a man sitting right out on the edge of a rocky ledge that looked down over the surrounding countryside. I raised my hand in welcome and he returned the gesture but remained where he was. Hoping I wasn't disturbing a man with a desire for solitude I proceeded to eat my lunch and it was only after this that I decided to quietly wander over to the edge of the ledge close to where the man still sat, silently looking out.

"Impressionnant, no?"
"Ah oui, tres impressionnant!" I replied. "Pardon, je suis Anglais. Je n'parle pas bien Francais."
"No problem, mon amis, I speak English," he said, smiling.

Although this man had spoken in French, I felt fairly sure from his accent that he was neither French nor French Canadian. His skin was also dark and his wide high-set cheekbones suggested to me he might perhaps be of ethnic Canadian decent. A Canadian Indian. His face was creased and his dark hair was greying at the temples so I determined he was probably in his late forties or early fifties.

"My name is Mark. I'm pleased to meet you," I said. "So do you live locally or are you visiting like me?"

"Ah, I am always the visitor, mon amis. My name is Cristobal. I am originally from Columbia – Cartagena."

"Are you here on holiday?" I asked.

Cristobal laughed. "Hah, on holiday no my friend. I walk."

"You walk? So do you mean you have come here to walk?"

"No no! I walk everywhere. For many years I have been walking. I am, as you say, an addict. I cannot stop from walking."

"Oh I see. Wow, so you walked here from Columbia?"

"No. Or actually, I suppose yes. To be correct I did walk here from Columbia, but on my way here I walked through Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia... Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan... then Iran, Turkey, Europe and most of Africa. I go to North America soon I think. I am in Alaska before here. Okay, sometimes I take the bus. I mostly walk but hey, I am not crazy!"

I was dumbfounded. "How many years have you been travelling," I asked.

"Must be forty-four years this year I suppose."

"Do you mind me asking how old you are?"

"Sixty-three years on Christmas. I am born December twenty-four."

Again I was shocked. "Walking has kept you young Cristobal!"

"Yes I think so, but my feet are old!" He removed one boot and sock to reveal an extremely calloused foot with a very gnarled set of toes.

Where The Road Invites Me To Go
"Tell me Cristobal," I said, "what drives you to keep on walking? Why have you not settled anywhere?"

"I told you, I am like addict. It is the road ahead that drives me. Invites me. Enchants me even. Not all roads, only some. For example look down here. Do you see this road? It is a good road surface I think, and straight. Easy with not too much hills or trees for stop the view. This road is good for cars and trucks but not good for me. But on the other hand, look over here. Can you see this road. Small and turning about and about. Many hills. Not a good surface I think. Sometimes the road goes around the hills or sometimes over. Many trees stop the view but in the spaces the view must be special I am sure. Ah yes this is a charming road, Mark, don't you see?"
I thought about some of the lovely roads I'd seen in my life, and some that were less lovely.

Some roads are less inviting than others

But who could resist these two roads in Dingle, Ireland?

"Yes I can see what you mean," I said. "It's more interesting."

"Yes of course, interesting. Walking along a road is like passing through the life. It can be too much the same, only taking you from one place to the next place as quickly as possible, or it can be with much variety – changing all the time with surprising things and people. Life is for the experience no? Not for living your life as quickly as possible. So this is my obsession. When I turn around a corner in a town and I see an interesting road, stretching out before me, I must follow it. I cannot resist. I cannot!"

"So after North America, will you return to Columbia?" I said, pouring him a hand-full of peanuts.

"Maybe. Yes amigo, maybe. But it is not my ambition. I never am planning to walk around the whole world. I told you it is an obsession. But I am only going where the road invites me to go. The special road. In each place I look and when I see the special road, I know this is the road I must go, you see? No hesitation. I think it is like, my destiny. So yes, maybe I go to Columbia. But this time I go like a visitor. I was a boy working in a mine there you know. Work in the dark all day. Never see nothing beautiful. After one year I have two days vacation. I want to see another place from outside Cartagena so I walk into the hills. When I pass over the top of the first big hill I see a whole new world before me. And a road. A charming road. I begin walking down and along this charming road. And I am still walking on that road amigo. I am walking my special roads then, I am walking them now and I continue. Ah yes, I continue until there is no more charming roads. This is my life."

Powers Of Observation
It was lovely walking back into Quebec with Cristobal. His trained eye saw so much more than mine. Geese circling in the distance, looking for water to land on during their long migration journey, or so he said. An old man splitting cedar shingles to repair a visible hole in his cabin roof. Ruts in a field where a car had been driven at speed. Joyriding kids or a criminal being pursued by the police. A bear's footprint. A woman dowsing for a spring watched by a farmer and a group of children. Ordinary people like me would have passed along that road and seen none of them.

Enchanted Road
Waving goodbye to Cristobal was painful. Not so much because I would miss his company, but because I had learned what he meant about the invitation of especially charming roads. I left him at the other edge of the city, after he had shared a beer with me in a small tumbledown bar. As we reached a road junction we stopped and he bid me farewell, before heading across the road and into a small housing estate. Wandering back in the direction of the docks I was wondering where he might have been heading when I happened to look around over my shoulder. It had not been visible from where I left him, but now, looking up I could see the unmistakable signs of a road through the gaps in the bright green pine trees. A small cabin, then what looked like a sawmill. A rocky outcrop where I could only guess what a stunning view it would afford down over Quebec harbour. Yes this was indeed a charming road. An Enchanted road. I felt a sharp pang of regret as we sailed that chilly evening. Regret that I had not thrown caution to the wind and followed it.

The sea is a lonely road

Some Other Charming Roads Cristobal Would Love:

This inspiring road to Iran from Caldiran, Turkey, was used for the front cover 
of the book (Long Road Hard Lessons) about the 10,000mile cycle journey with my son Sam.
Views like this constantly spurred us to carry on towards our goal - Tokyo.

The tiny Slea Head Road in Dingle, Ireland where our cycle journey to Japan began.
N.B. The beach is where the movie Ryan's Daughter was filmed.

Cycling up this mountain road in Southern Turkey was hard but well worth the effort

 The Yellapatty Tea Plantations. This road through The High Ranges of Travancore 
in Kerela, India, is one of the most beautiful roads I've ever seen.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Herman

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.

During the 10,000 mile cycle ride I did with my son, one of the most spectacular places we cycled through was Laos. Heading north, away from the more civilised little capital of Vientiane, it was largely undeveloped, but for about three towns. The countryside was made up of verdant mountains with fairly good roads and almost no traffic. It is well known amongst long-distance cyclists for this reason. 

Sam takes a rest near 'The Hot Springs Place'

So little traffic, anything is a spectacle in Northern Laos

On the road Sam and I met a couple of other cyclists out in the wilds. One told us we simply must stay at a place he called 'The Hot Spring Place'. It was not marked on any map, however. Their glowing descriptions made me think it was something like 'The Hotel California' in the Eagles song, with a casino and 'pink champagne on ice'.

After hours of climbing through jungle in oppressive heat, there was no sign. No civilisation at all in fact.
"How will we know it when we see it?" asked Sam. "We don't have a name, no address – not even the name of a village."
"Oh it sounded pretty big and spectacular," I said. "Surely we couldn't miss it out here!"
Just as the sun started to sink towards the peaks we came across it. Thankfully, the Hot Springs Place was not what I had imagined. It was little more than a layby on the narrow mountain road.

The Hot Springs Place is only usually visited by intrepid cyclists

Finding the old lady who ran the place, we enquired about accommodation and were delighted to find there were two wooden huts left (out of five) with a double bed and WC/shower shoehorned into the tiny space. We parked our bikes, paid the old lady and scurried off down through the trees to the large stone-sided water tank surrounded by jungle. Here several other cyclists had just jumped in and were busy soothing away the day’s aches and pains in the steaming water.  Three or four local children, small and glistening brown, had climbed out and were sitting at the edge watching. 

The Hot Springs with roadside cafe nearby 

In this heavenly pool, we began chatting with a rather forthright German lady.  Sonja took pains to explain that the older man who had just gone back to the hut was not her husband or her boyfriend.
“I don’t have sex with him, oh mein Got, no!” she assured us, frowning. “And anyhow, it is not possible; he is having a bad back problem."
Herman was just a friend, she said, and a very annoying man to travel with indeed.  

After Sonja got out, Herman returned and seemed to us far from annoying.  As we soon discovered, he had cycled almost everywhere in Asia over many years, between his job as a landscape gardener back in Germany.  He proved to be a fascinating source of information and had a great sense of humour – especially, when pressed, about Sonja. It was obvious to us that he was completely exasperated with her and probably wished he had stuck with his usual habit of travelling alone. But although he chuckled to himself over my risque questions, he was reluctant to say anything. From the way he kept looking over at the path and into the surrounding jungle, I presumed she had a bad temper and a fearsome hold over him.

Friendly children queue up to slap your hand as you pass

After an afternoon sleep to get over our day of steep climbing, we awoke feeling hungry. It was early evening and nearby, above the general hums and screeches of jungle fauna, we could clearly discern sounds of merriment. On the opposite side of the narrow mountain road below us there lay a small cafe. Wandering over, we were surprised to find them serving pretty good food, well beyond the standard feu (Laotian thin soup), bush-meat and rice we had become used to.  Our cycling neighbours were there and after we had eaten Herman came over to share a few Beer Lao with us. Having enquired about our route, he reiterated stories we had heard from other cyclists about the terrible unsurfaced mountain roads ahead of us from northern Laos into North Vietnam.  But where we were now was certainly a great place and we were so grateful to those other cyclists for guiding us here.  

Loosened up by a few beers, Herman became great entertainment. After a few minutes I began to ask him more about his relationship with Sonja.
"Herman, as you are German and used to direct questions, I'm going to ask you – does Sonja have a mental problem?"
All of a sudden Herman doubled up on his chair, as if perhaps he had suffered a burst appendix or some such catastrophe. He looked up at us, gritting his teeth, his face purple. Clearly he was struggling valiantly to hold in his screams of agony, but eventually he could hold them no longer. In an instant the whole cafe full of people came to a grinding halt as Herman's scream rang out through the jungle. A pot crashed in the makeshift kitchen. Bottles of beer fell over and glasses dropped from the hands of drinkers. People stretched their necks and stood up to see what had occurred. But Herman was not screaming now. Herman was laughing. He was in pain because he was laughing so much.
"Herman, was machs du, dumkopf!" demanded Sonja.
"Nichts, Sonja, nichts – one of the cats surprised me or some such." 

After a minute or so Herman had calmed down. There were tears in his eyes as he sat there looking at me, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
"Are you psychiatrist?" he asked, finally able to speak again.
"No, no, a risk management specialist. I work in crisis management and disaster recovery." I tried to keep a straight face. 
Herman began to snigger again. It seemed about to grow. I looked over at Sonja who had also noticed the sniggering. Eager to prevent another outburst, I got up and placed my hand over Herman's mouth. Keeping his laughter inside was painful for him, the poor man. His body began convulsing. Sonja stood up.
"What is the problem with him?" she demanded crossly. Her concern was clearly not out of sympathy.
"A small epileptic fit," I said. "Do you have his medication?"
"Medication?" she shouted. "He is not epileptic. Not so far anyhow."
"Perhaps it's just begun on this trip?" I suggested. "The stress or something."
"Stress!" she laughed. "I am the one who suffers the stress – stress from his craziness! Got und himmel."
At this Herman's convulsions became more desperate – although this could have been because my hand was too tightly over his mouth and nose. Beads of sweat had begun running down his balding head. 
"Be calm Herman," I said gently. "Be calm. Now listen, I'm going to remove my hand but only if you're calm."
I felt Herman relax.

After a few glugs of beer and some deep breaths, Herman seemed to have returned to his normal downtrodden state. He continued looking at us, smirking now and then and shaking his head. 
"I tell you, my friends, be careful about taking passengers. I'm going to tell you how it happened, but first I need more beer." 
Herman signalled and three bottles of Beer Lao arrived promptly. Sonja looked over, worried what he might do next.
"So, this woman you see," continued Herman, more serious now. "She was visiting a house where I was working in the garden. The householder introduced us and told her I travelled very much in Asia. This woman (Herman stabbed his finger towards Sonja accusingly), she told me she always has the desire to visit Asia. She asks my number, then she calls me later to invite me for drinking. Like a foolish man I say okay. It's a common story I think. First she made me quite drunk, then captured me with nice behaviours.”  Herman fluttered his eyelids and stuck out his chest – with the addition of hand gestures, which we did not need. “This is how I am now broken down with this such difficult woman in Laos – a woman who is complaining from waking until sleeping. No – that is incorrect. I believe she is also complaining during her sleeping. Believe me my friend, many times I think death is better and wish to... to ride over the mountain ledge!”
Herman was crying again now, but these were no longer tears of laughter.
"I offer to pay her aeroplane to go home early but no! it is too easy. I carry all her luggages on my bike but she don't have fucking gratitude. Excuse me. I pity her dog, my friend, if she will ever have one. She like to give men pain, that is clear. Two husbands have suicide, she tells me so. What for hell shall I do?"

Despite Herman's tears, it was a wonderful evening. The setting as well as the company. My wife and I always tell people that the best way to know if you are truly compatible with a partner is to travel overland with them for a few months. I assume Sonja and Herman knew they were incompatible after only a few days. 
Should you be reading this Herman, please get in touch.

If you would like to read more about the cycle adventure from Ireland to Japan with my teenage son, click one of the Long Road Hard Lessons links in the right hand margin of this blog, or enter the title into your internet search box.

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc. The paperback of Long Road Hard Lessons is available from Waterstones and other Bookshops in the UK as well as on Amazon UK.
Mark Swain on
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Sunday, 5 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Tracey

Needing To Get Away
"So what made you come to Romania, Tracey?" I asked.

"Oh, well I needed to get away," she replied.

Tracey was wringing her hands as she answered. I could tell straight away that she was not comfortable with the question. I needed to change the subject.

I had met Tracey in a shop, while I was trying to get a spark plug for my motorbike. The bike was due a service and had been playing up since the south of France – coughing and spluttering. I don't think many Romanians had seen a four cylinder bike in those days. The police had stopped me when it back-fired loudly, scaring a load of old people in a marketplace. My command of Romanian was almost nil. Tracey having been there for three months was quite an accomplished speaker. She stepped in and helped, explaining my problem to the police then to a shopkeeper in a hardware shop. She hadn't made a big thing about it but she'd brought me to the workshop half a mile away, where we now sat.

"It's so nice of you to help out Tracey," I said, sticking to what seemed a safer subject. "Please don't feel you need to hang around, wasting your day. I'm sure I can manage now."

"He says they'll be here with one in an hour. I'm not fussed waiting. Best I wait any-road. Happen there could be problems if that bloke's ordered wrong bloody part or whatnot."

Tracey's Northern English accent made me feel nostalgic for home somehow. I was glad she wanted to hang around but I would have to avoid questioning her too hard, I reminded myself. Yet I felt stuck for what else was there to talk about.

"I used to live up north, you know?" I said eventually. "Birmingham."

"Birmingham?" she laughed. "Birmingham's bleeding midlands."

"Yeah you're right," I said, shrinking uncomfortably. "Sorry I suppose that's a typically daft southerner thing to say, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know," she said seriously, "I can't say as I really know any southern people."

I was really messing this up. She'd obviously got me marked out as some kind of private school educated idiot with no idea about the geography of my own country north of Cambridge.

"I'm not exactly a southerner either. I mean my parents are but I was pretty much brought-up abroad."

"Oh aye, where abouts were that?" She seemed a little less cross now.

"Singapore, Malaysia, Germany. My Dad was an avionics engineer in the Army."

"Must have been great," said Tracey. "I've always wanted to travel. That's how come I'm here really. Well, that and me uncle."

"Your uncle?" I asked.

False Uncle Syndrome
"I call him that but he's not me uncle really. A friend of me dad's just. I've been... working in his shop." Tracey was delving into her handbag. I assumed she was about to produce a photograph until she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose hard. I waited while she snuffled and put away the handkerchief again. "I had to leave," she said, "the bastard accused me of nicking stuff from the shop."

"but you hadn't?"

"Had I buggery! He made it up, the bastard."

"I see. So why did he make it up - did he want to get rid of you?"

"He wanted more of me than I was prepared to give, if you catch my drift? He seemed to think if I were working for him as he could have whatever he wanted off me. But I could deal with that. I was well used to fighting off lads at the tyre place where I used to work. What I couldn't deal with was me dad."

"What did your dad do?" I asked. I felt nervous asking but it was the obvious question.

"Fat Freddie – that's me dad's friend – told me dad that I'd been flirting with him. Giving him the come-on, you know? He told me dad he'd have had to give me the sack before his wife saw something, regardless of if me dad paid him for what he said I nicked. Bloody lying bastard!"

"And your dad believed him?"

"Told me to get out of the house. Said he'd not have a harlot in his house. Me mam cried but she never stood up for me. I stayed a few nights at me cousin's. I was upset at first, then just angry. I went round and got some stuff. I had a passport thank God, from a school trip a few years back that I never actually went on. I had three hundred quid out of me dad's drawer. I know I shouldn't have but I wanted to hurt him, and I knew how he loves his money. I didn't even know where Romania was. I thought I must be in Italy when I got here."

"Blimey!" I said. "So how did you get here?"

Escape to Romania
"Hitching," said Tracey. "Buses here and there but hitching mostly. At the beginning anyway. Hitching's good 'cos you learns the language quicker and people help you. I've been amazed how kind people have been. I'm living above a teashop where I work evenings. The woman gave me a lift and says she was looking for someone to teach her and her kids English. She wants to go to live in England, see? I told her not to bother!"

Tracey laughed for the first time since I'd met her.

"When will you go back, do you think?" I asked cautiously.

"I'm never going back, me!" said Tracey, with certainty. "No way. That's all in the past. I'm moving on now. I'm going to San Francisco."

If You're Going to San Francisco
"Wow! I said. So you know people there then?"

"Oh aye. My brother's a movie star over there. Big mates with Tom Cruise! Course I don't, soft bugger. How would someone like me know someone living in San Francisco? But I wanna see the Golden Gate Bridge. Used to have a poster on my wall as a kid. Maybe it's still there – the poster I mean. Me teashop lady says I could get a job as an English waitress. Apparently there's a call for that sort of thing in San Francisco. So I'm saving up for the airfare. Got it half-saved already. Come with me if you like."

I laughed. Then I turned. She was not smiling and I was immediately filled with embarrassed discomfort. I had offended her.

"We'd... well we'd need visas," I stammered. Tracey sat quietly. She was wringing her hands again. She sniffed. I wished I had handkerchief to offer her.

"You've got a girlfriend, haven't you?"

I felt taken aback. I hadn't told her that. And she wasn't a steady girlfriend anyway – not in my mind. But I'd hesitated now, so she'd know that she was right.

"I'm looking to move on too," I said. "I'll write to her. She'll be expecting it. Probably she'll be relieved."

"Happen this'll be your spark plug arriving on this here cart. I'd better be going. Cafe's opening again in half-hour."  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

People I've Met On The Road – Julian

Travelling As A Couple
I often notice when I am travelling, how difficult many couples find travelling together. Frequently where one wants to go the other does not. What one finds interesting the other finds tedious. What one sees as a bargain the other thinks is a waste of money. It is a sure recipe for stress and arguments. Many couples dread these trips. Survival in many relationships relies upon one party being prepared to give-in to the other, or perhaps taking turns to be in charge. I don't want to gender stereotype but where holidays with children are involved, you will often find the man grumbling to himself in the background, while reluctantly going along with what the mother in the relationship has organised. I've seen a few hiking, cycling and adventure holidays where it is the reverse and the father is at the front driving a reluctant band of children followed by their unamused mother. In some extreme cases, separate holidays become the only way to survive this problem. I think this is the success of holiday companies like Club Med or Centreparks – something provided for all ages and all tastes.

I met my wife while travelling and later working in Japan (we are both English). It had been an uneventful day in downtown Tokyo. She appeared, intense green eyes peering at me suspiciously across the top of a large book in British Council Library. We had been on the same TEFL teacher training course back in Hastings, UK, but had never spoken, because she had had me down for a bad lot. Japan was a shaky start and we seemed to argue for much of the time. However when we went away for a few days camping in the mountains, I think we were both shocked by how well we got on. There was no question, we seemed to fit each other perfectly when we were travelling. This happened every time we travelled, and we travelled quite a lot – including, after a couple of years, a six-month overland trip back to the UK. In fact our first child is the result of our happiness together on that trip.

Travelling With Your Teenager
In 2008-9 I cycled with my 18 year old son from Ireland to Japan. It was a tremendously exciting experience but a hard one. Not because of the cycling, but due to the conflict we faced between us on almost a daily basis. 10 months of my son resenting me, glaring at me. Not every day but quite a lot. I remarked upon this one day during that trip to a guy named Julian. We met him in a Vietnamese hostel. Julian was a tour leader who took groups of westerners mountain-biking through the mountains of North Vietnam, China and Laos.

Cycling through North Vietnam 

Our extreme haircuts in Cambodia were a stark contrast to my no-cut beard

The book about the adventure has become an Amazon best seller - so maybe the pain of the trip was worthwhile

"Travelling with your teenage kids is the worst mate," said Julian in his laid-back Aussie drawl. "It's a dangerous game that's for sure. They have an inbuilt desire to destroy you – really! Prove you wrong about everything and show you what a crap idea it was of yours to bring them on the trip. And they know all your weaknesses mate, oh yeah! No, I've seen it too many times in this job. Bad karma."

"What about couples?" I asked. "Do you get much trouble with couples on your trips?"

"What? I'd say so mate!" Julian sat up on his bunk with a face like an electrified exclamation mark.
"Girls think bringing their guy on a trek will be a great way for them to get closer. I mean WHAT? Most guys would give anything to do a trek like that with their mates but not with their bloody girlfriend! All that time together? Injuries and breakdowns? Jeezus, they're gonna be a sure way to cause an argument! Sam with marrieds, except they probably already know it's gonna be a nightmare. They get bullied into it or they just sleepwalk into it 'cos the other one books it up. Disaster! I can spot 'em as soon as they get off the plane."

"But surely they're not all like that?" I asked. "Surely there are some success stories?"

Mr or Mrs Right
"Oh hey, yeah! There's always the odd couple now and again - hardened travellers usually - who really work well on a trip. Considerate of each other, you know? Understand each other's needs. Give each other space, that kind of thing. On the other hand you do see younger couples or couples who are newly together sometimes who travel well together. Not many but a few now and again. What's really interesting for us leaders though, is when singles come on treks and find that they work really well with another traveller. It's kind of a good omen you know? If they can get on together on a tough trek it's pretty sure that you'll make a great couple - well assuming the sex is OK, I mean that's a given eh? Yeah I can tell you, I've seen a few unlikely pairings in my time and a lot of them have stood the test of time. So it does seem to be a good litmus test. Like, take someone off travelling before you marry them 'cos it's a bloody sure way to know if it's gonna work out! Yeah you know I still get e-mails from some couples after they're all loved-up and married - kids even, you know?"

"I suppose you've been invited to a few weddings then, Julian?"

"Oh damned right! Been to a couple too. One gay couple from Paris. Another couple paid for me to fly over to The States. Put me up in a 'brill' apartment. Finance lady around forty. Nice woman, a bit, you know, straight. Hey I don't wanna say ugly, but not a looker. So yeah she hooked up with a guy who was a self-employed plumber. Mind you he was no oil painting either, but they were just, you know, great together. I think they've got like twenty vans in New York now and a kid. Yeah it's great when we see people get together. Makes it all worthwhile, you know? Yeah, my mates say I'm a bit of a romantic actually."

Unsurprisingly there are many guides on how to avoid arguments on holiday. Here is one:

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.