Trans Siberian

I was still feeling the effects of the dodgy belly/bowels that I had picked up at the end of my time in West Africa when I arrived back into London. I had planned to travel to Russia via Oman from Ghana but was unable to get my Russian Visa in Accra. Fate worked out well for me as I enjoyed my 9 days back in the UK and it was a good rest to get myself better again. It did take a month before I did a solid poop again and it felt amazing after so long of seeing toilets so close after eating.

It was a hectic time in London as I had set myself 10 days to plan and book my entire Trans Siberian adventure and also to obtain my Russian and Belarusian Visas. It took a lot of walking, early mornings and a little bit extra cost to get everything done so quickly but it all went to plan and on the 18th June I was sitting in Heathrow waiting for my flight to Warsaw and onto Minsk.

I had always known Belarus to be a hard place to get a visa for and also to be stuck in a Soviet Union style mentality and still very communist orientated. My visa ended up being very easy to get and once in Minsk I found the city and the people fantastic. I am not sure what I was expecting, maybe a softer style Pyongyang type of place, but it was a breath of fresh air to be there. The city looked nice, it was spread out, exceptionally clean and the people gave of such warmth about them as you passed that I was regretting all the years I had considered the people of the former USSR to be miserable gits.

There was not a lot to see in Minsk and my time was spent trying to purchase train tickets and people watching. The biggest thing I noted, which I did not expect from such a soviet themed country, was the young couples kissing very passionately in the streets. Every time I stopped at traffic lights I had to look the other way as these couples looked they were practicing for the opening scene of a soft-core film.

Unfortunately I had only 36 hours in Belarus, the most my transit visa would allow, but I have made a mental note to go back there again one day. It was cheap, safe, and friendly and I can’t wait to get out into the small villages and meet the true people of the country. It is the same in all countries, you cannot experience a place by seeing one of its big cities you have to get out into the small towns and villages to really get the heart and soul of a country.

Belarusians apparently pride themselves on being clean and tidy people so it was a pleasure to see this in effect on the overnight train I took to St Petersburg. I was concerned entering Russia as I would not get a stamp at the border due to Belarus and Russia not really acknowledging one! I hoped my Stamp for Belarus would be OK for Russia as well and made a point to register as soon as I arrived to make sure that my name was on record immediately.

St Petersburg was a great city with lots of parks and churches and museums and monuments and well, it just had everything including an insane amount of tourists. I only realised when I was booking my trip back in London that I had chosen the busiest time of the year to be heading to Russia. Busiest time of the year in Russia and hottest time of the year in the Sahara! Numpty. The whole of St Petersburg was swarming with people following the leader in front with the little flag and well basically just getting in everybody’s way. The day I bit the bullet and went to the Hermitage (one of the world’s biggest museums) was bedlam! At times you could not walk anywhere and would have to backtrack to find a section of the building not so busy. I too’d and fro’d so much that the attendants were giving me funny looks by the end, wondering why I kept passing the same way so often.

I did enjoy St Petersburg for the 4 days I was there, except for the crap hostel I got stuck in. It was apparently a bar that was not making money so they threw some bunk beds in their two back rooms and Walla, A hostel. One of the worst hostels ever but in a fantastic location for me to walk across the road to go and see Swan Lake. Felt like a bit of a Billy No Mates there on my own and certainly had no idea what was even happening for the 2.5hr show! The dancing was good and the music relaxing but how can that actually be anything resembling a story?

I also made a point to see the Zoological museum while there and it was fantastic. I lost count and was told that there are around 500,000 of the several million species they have on show. Everything from the smallest spec of an insect to Blue Whales and Mammoths, and of course the Tasmanian Tiger. In the end in got a bit boring as there was just too much to see.

Thankfully my hostel in Moscow more than made up for the one in St Petersburg, it was brand new and run by two fantastic guys who went out of their way to make you enjoy your stay. It was a great spot to spend 2 nights while I sorted myself out for the train trip to Vladivostok. I had wanted to stop half way at Lake Baikal along the way but could only get second class tickets for the second leg of the journey which cost $600 as opposed to the $250 in third class. So I booked a straight through ticket which gave me a 143.5hr non-stop journey to look forward to. I had stocked up on food back in the UK and was happy that I would not starve at all on the way across. Hot chocolate, Peanut Butter and Granola bars were my favourites.

As far as big cities go Moscow was a good one. I had heard reports of it being dangerous but besides a few drunks at the train stations it felt safer to me than a lot of cities I have seen. The Red Square and St Basils were great to see but do not live up to the hype they receive, I guess that’s why it is better to travel with no expectations and not be let down. Probably as popular as seeing Lenin’s Tomb or the Kremlin was to walk 50mtrs off the square and buy some McDonalds! Weird when you think about, the base for the soviet empire and communism for so long and now the world’s biggest symbol of Capitalism across the street.

I had no idea what to expect on my train trip and had loaded up with a few books and some podcasts to fill in the time and waited for the drunken Russians to come along and offer me some vodka, or give me some crap. Neither of these eventuated and my first 3 days were filled with reading, listening and playing cards with my bed neighbour and his wife and kid. I had to limit the length of the games we played as he seemed to think that hour by hour I was becoming more fluent in my Russian and would be more adamant that I must understand his question. He did seem a little upset when I said I didn’t like the Russian version of checkers, a famous game for them but something we stopped playing at puberty.

By day 4 I was ready to scream as all I had done for 3.5 days was lay or sit and walk 15mtres twice a day to the toilet and 10 metres in the other direction twice a day to get hot water for tea. My bed was also built for a little person aka Midget and my feet hung out around 10 inches from the end but I toughed it out and eventually my body conformed to its new system of lying and sleeping and my back stopped hurting and I started to think that I would like another 4 days on the train. I was showering in the toilet daily with baby wipes and felt clean and comfortable and still had plenty of food left.

So after a very boring, un-eventful and green 6 days we arrived to Vladivostok to the usual foggy as hell morning. I could not say I enjoyed the trip as there was nothing to enjoy as such but I did find it a worthwhile experience. 9300kms in 6 days across 5 time zones, in fact the time zones were the hardest thing to handle. At the half way point it seemed to automatically become day when it should be night. I never did get used to trying to sleep just as the sun was rising, my body clock was way out.

My trans-Siberian trip had come to end just as quickly as it seemed to have begun. I was glad that I hadn’t stopped in Lake Baikal as the train tracks followed the lake for about 4 hours anyway and yes, it is a massive lake, huge, not sure I needed to know anymore than that to be honest. I enjoyed my time on the train more seeing the culture of the Russian people, I had a perception of them being stone faced and cold people but that is the furthest from the truth. In business matters they maintain a very straight face yet I always managed to get a smile and a ‘you’re welcome’ when I was leaving and in friendly matters in the street they laughed and joked and smiled more than most of us. When you see them looking all serious you just want to run up and give them a hug knowing a smile will straight away follow.

See photos for Belarus and Russia:

The Road Less Travelled

It had been a long time since I had set of on my own to explore a country that I didn’t speak the language of and I was a little nervous when I had heard that not speaking French made it nearly impossible to travel northern Togo and Benin solo. I guess that could put a lot of people off but for me I like the challenge and adventure of it all, Money speaks all languages, so long as you have some you will always get to where you want to go.

The Border crossing between Aflao, Ghana and Lome, Togo was as annoying as it had been written. The touts hung around like flies trying to find ways to get you to accept a service they could offer that you didn’t need. ‘It’s ok the form is in English, you don’t need to translate it for me’ etc. To my surprise though none of the border officials asked for bribes which I had heard was common. I got my transit visa for Togo at the border and paid what I should have paid and had a good little laugh with the immigration officer while doing it.

Lome is basically on the border with Ghana so it is an easy 10-15min walk to the hotels once you have cleared customs, the taxi-moto’s don’t like this  but until you work out the best price for things it is better to pay for nothing at a border unless you have too.

I spent 2 nights in Lome so that I could get my Benin Visa before heading north, the lady at the consulate was very nice and helpful to me and I felt quite bad when I made a spelling mistake in her receipt book and had to correct it, she reacted as though I had just killed her first born. I was glad I had the passport in my hand first or she might have tried to take my visa away from me for it.

Lome was not an amazing city and the fact that I had decided that I had Malaria did not help me to enjoy it any more. I woke up with a very sore, stiff neck and read that it was a sign of malaria. This mixed with my feeling of vagueness the few days before made me head for a pharmacy to get tested. The pharmacies don’t do the test so I decided to just buy the treatment anyway as it could not do much harm if I didn’t have malaria and it only cost 4 euro. For various reasons I had decided not to take anti-malarial pills in Africa and got told off by the pharmacist for this, so I bought some one a week lariam’s that would do me for the rest of my 2 week stay.

The next day I felt no better and no worse so I got up early and headed for Kande in Northern Togo. I was a little apprehensive about the trip due to my complete lack of French and the reports of Togo and Benin’s complete lack of English. I stopped a taxi-moto and asked him to take me to the bus station, he spoke English. We arrived to the station and immediately 4-5 man came running to see where I wanted to go and to throw me inside a van, the man whose van I ended up in spoke English. I bought my ticket to go to Kande and was told that we would be there in 7 hours. So at 9am the 24 of us headed off in the 19 seater van.

The lady beside me in the van also spoke English which ended up being a good thing as when we arrived to Kara(1 hour from Kande) the van stopped and was not going any further. We explained to the driver that I had a ticket showing Kande and the price for Kande so he happily but reluctantly organised a taxi to take me there and paid my fare. This taxi was a squeeze with 7 of us inside and we all thought the driver had lost his mind when he tried to get 2 more people in, we asked where they would sit and he suggested they would lie across our laps! We had no say in the matter, his car his rules, and were happy when the couple saw the options and refused the ride.

I was beginning to realise now that these were the reasons why people say you need patience to head north and into ‘The road less travelled’ border crossing between Togo and Benin. My motto for the trip had been to say ‘you are never there until you are there’ repeatedly everytime I felt happy that I had successfully made it to my destination. The taxi stopped at the next town before Kande and said that I would have to get another taxi as he was going no further as I was the only one travelling on and it was too late for a return fare.

This created a lot of chatter amongst the lady I met in the van, the taxi driver and all the taxi-motos who arrived to offer their services. They were very upset that I had been sold a ticket all the way to Kande as apparently they never go the whole way, they were also upset when I told them that the taxi driver had already been paid to take me the whole way. In a fun and light-hearted way they gave him some jip for taking the money and then changing his mind and it felt really nice that although they didn’t know me they were all looking out for me as a fellow human being who was in a situation that any of them could be in at some time. I have to say that the people of Northern Togo are perhaps the most helpful, respectful and polite people I have met.

I decided that I did not have to continue onto Kande that day for the extortionate price they wanted to charge and instead said I would stay ……… and go to Kande in the morning. I asked about a hotel in town and instead was basically abducted by the lady I had met and taken back to her housing compound, one building with 5 rooms attached for 5 families and on the other side 5 separate rooms for kitchen and washing.

I was a real novelty in her village when I arrived. One lady was breastfeeding with it all hanging out and had to quickly cover up when I was led into the courtyard to be ‘viewed’ by everyone. I was sat on a bench while everyone laughed and joked and came up to me one by one to bow and say ‘Bon Arrivee’. I felt like a real Muppet sat there as some sort of presentation piece but it was an amazing experience to see how hospitable and welcoming they were. After dinner we went for a little tour of the village where I was always sat down with the women coming up one by one to bow and welcome me.

I was starting to realise by now that not speaking French was a negative to the whole experience of West Africa, they say West Africa is all about the people, and it is absolutely true so when you don’t speak the language of the people it makes it a little boring in the end. For this reason I later changed my flight and left Africa earlier than anticipated.

After a good night’s sleep and a great thunderstorm I woke up to get my stuff and try to escape from captor. I was told I had to go out into the courtyard and greet everybody good morning and then we ate some breakfast, went to the collective crafts school for the disabled and then flagged down a taxi moto to take me the rest of the way to Kande and the border. Not before I was given another bottle of water that appeared to be from the well and probably what gave me the squirts that were soon to arrive.

I bargained a good price for the taxi moto and again thought everything was going well and that I would be at the border soon. Again I was wrong and as soon as we reached the entrance to the Unesco Tambemra Village sight there was a little office set up with the sole purpose of fleecing tourists! My taxi moto was unable to enter as he had not been approved by them, I would instead have to pay a taxi moto that was waiting there. I understood this and didn’t mind too much but when they said I had to pay $8 for guide to come with us to see one of the compounds, on top of the $3 entrance fee, I got a little agitated. I told them screw the guide and ill just pay the taxi-moto more to show me a house. Apparently this is not allowed and after much frustration with them the three of us headed off on the 125cc motorbike along the bumpy gravel road.

30mins later we arrived at a Tamberma compound and I got to witness the little circus their area has become. The Compound huts were amazing, Mud fortresses built to resist elephant attacks and raids by other villages. The huts are built far enough from each other to avoid arrow strikes, have a sleeping area on the roof with a hole for boiling water to be poured on intruders and holes in the walls to fire arrows. Unfortunately a very very small percentage of the money I paid the guide goes towards the owner of the hut basically performing tricks on demand.

‘look, the man just crawled into the sleeping area…take a photo’

The man is then slipped 50cfa(less than 10cents) for his effort. I saw where this was heading and decided to get the hell outta there as I felt bad for the locals.

‘Look the man just climbed the tree for you, take a photo’

‘It’s ok I don’t need a photo’

‘But he did it especially for you, don’t disappoint him’

Click click and then man comes down for his 50cfa reward aka doggy treat. I was told that if I paid 200cfa then we could ask the alligator man to get naked and show us the scars from his attack. It felt really wrong to be any part of this so I told the taxi moto man to take me to the border and left the guide behind.

It was a long and bumpy ride to the Togo border post, no man’s land and then on to the Benin immigration to get my passport stamped. I especially liked the street smart of my taxi moto guy which is why I paid way too much to let him drive me all the way to my destination in Benin. At the border post he saw the van that would be taking people to the town for a third of what he was charging, so he quickly veered away and bought some petrol even though we had got some not long before. When they are this nifty you don’t mind paying them a bit more.

As we left the border and zoomed quicker and quicker along the bumpy gravel road for the final 1 hour of the trip I started to realise that I was on the back of a crappy motorbike doing 70-80kmh wearing shorts and a t shirt and no helmet. If death didn’t result from a crash then drain damage or lack of skin definitely would have. But what can you do but hope for the best, so many times now I have been in similar circumstances and thought ‘this is really dangerous, this could actually be my time, this is just wrong’ but I cant change it so I just Clench J

We never did crash and mad it safely to Natitingou, a respectable 2 hours late due to the breakdown along the way ‘you are never there unless you are there’ was all I could think.

One night in Natitingou was enough for me so I headed for the hustle and bustle of Cotonou then next day. It was a comfortable and reliable bus ride down and all the transport problems of Togo seemed to be nonexistent in Benin. Benin did however have Cotonou, one of West Africa’s craziest cities and home to thousands of taxi moto drivers. It is worth going to Cotonou just to jump on the back of one and speed dangerously though the streets weaving through traffic and side swiping other vehicles, this is basically what I did as I got straight out of Cotonou and headed further down road to Porto Novo, a little more of a relaxed city.

At Porto Novo my belly started to make sounds that it hadn’t for many a year and I was still concerned that I may have had Malaria. I was now so doped up on pills that any of the symptoms I had in the next few days could have been malaria or just a mild overdose. I was on malaria treatment tablets and I also took a triple dose of the strongest Anti malarial pills available. After 2 days on the beach at a Rasta bar/guesthouse in Grand Popo I decided to get back to Lome and change my flight to get out of Africa.

I could not eat for 2 days, my dreams were freaky as hell and on the day I crossed the border my arms were numb and tingly making filling in my immigration forms hard work J. I was back in Lome 4 hours after leaving Grand Popo and went to the Airline to change my flight and then to the clinic to get a malaria test. The clinic said I would not get results until 4pm which did not suit me as despite being so ill I still wanted to visit one more town before leaving Togo. I did not get the test, stupidly or wisely i’ll never know, and headed to Kpalime to find that it was pouring with rain and pointless being there so I returned to Lome and spent the next 36 hours tossing and turning in bed, not eating and unluckily getting the squirts about 12 hours before my flight back to London.

I was wondering if I would be able to make the flight with the way I was feeling and was very relieved when 2 hours before I left for the airport my body said it wanted water and food, I knew that the worst of it was over.

I was looking forward to getting back to the UK to sort out my Russian trip as I was over Africa by now. I was amazed by Togo and Benin and found them a real highlight of my trip. I can honestly say that you should not visit West Africa without seeing Northern Togo and its people. All along the trip I was always asked for either money or gifts by children and adults, when I got the Lome airport it was the first time in Togo I had been asked that question, it was by the security guard at the baggage x-ray machine! She held my passport and waited and unfortunately I was too ill and tired to tell her to F*”k off and refused to give her anything instead.

See photos for Benin and Togo:

 

Dodging Al Qaeda: The BusRun 2011

It was a little hard to say goodbye to Lagos, Portugal after spending a very lazy and relaxing three weeks there on the beach. The Hostel I stayed in was great along with the owners and all the other guests and Lagos was just a fantastic town, parties all night and day and secluded beaches to escape the subtle madness of the town. It reminded me a lot of Plakias, Crete but without the harder mentality of the Greek Culture.

I had to double think my decision to leave and make my journey through West Africa but weighing up the pros and cons I knew that the busrun was something I had to do. I had found the trip a few months earlier on the Thorn Tree. An English charity operating in Elmina, Ghana had bought an overland tour truck and needed it delivered to Ghana so that they could operate tours around the schools they supported in the country. We were taken on the truck as paying passengers to help cover the cost of getting the truck to Elmina.

The normal tours that run from Gibraltar to Ghana take 10 weeks and cost £2000, we were doing this 6500km trek in just 3 weeks for a cost of £500!  It was an offer to good to refuse and when we all meet up at Gibraltar airport met our trip driver I realised that we were exceptionally lucky in what we were getting. Matt had been leading these trips through Africa for 10 years and had driven 3 Trans Africa expeditions already, he also co-owned The Sleeping Camel Guesthouse in Bamako, Mali which later got us the tour we all wanted to Djenne and the Dogon country.

3 weeks was a short amount of time to reach Ghana and we all had to push ourselves to make the most of the sights we wanted to see along the way and also just to keep ourselves going the distance. Travelling from Marrakesh to Bamako took us a total of 8 days and it was hard going! Mauritania was a fantastic place and the people were amazing but unfortunately there are very severe travel warnings there due to Al Qaeda so we had to get in and basically out of the country as quick as we could. Heading east from Nouakchott we woke at sunrise and started driving, at some point later Matt would throw a big bag of bread into the side of the truck for breakfast on the go and then we would stop 30mins before sunset, cook our dinner and sleep before doing the same routine the next day.

I really liked Mauritania and think it would be a fabulous place to explore someday when the risk of kidnapping and beheading is not so high. Next time however I will plan my times and make sure I do not go there at the hottest time of the year like I did this time. My God, It was hot! Matt had told us since day one that it was going to get hot, real hot, and on the day we headed from Nouakchott to Kifa we felt what he meant. The wind was blowing like a hairdryer, the sun was belting down and we found later that it had been 46 degrees at 3pm with a real feel of 50. It was no wonder we all went through around 6 litres each of (hot) water and still didn’t need the truck to stop for a pee break. The best moment was after a few hours of suffering silence when Christina looked at us and asked if anyone else was wondering what the price of a flight from Bamako back to London might cost J It was that hot that you had to wonder if you could handle it, yet the locals kids would run around kicking their makeshift football made from plastic bags.

After taking the ferry from Spain we spent 3 days in Rabat, Morocco waiting to get our Mauritanian visas and taking day trips to Fez and Casablanca. Fez was a great place, apart from the touts in the Medina, and Casablanca is well worth a look for the huge Mosque. Our nights in Rabat were spent in the nightclub next to the campsite joining in the traditional dinner and dancing that the locals loved so much. It reminded me of the way the Cretans drink and sing and dance but the Moroccans seemed so much more relaxed and friendly than some of the Greeks can be.

One highlight for me was seeing the local village ladies collecting water in big 20ltr drums that they were transporting in wheelbarrows. I felt bad that these old ladies were doing this hard work while we stood watching so I headed over and offered to help. I was greeted by smiles and immense laughter and shown to a wheelbarrow and pointed in the direction I had to go. The lady I was with loved it and kept laughing, holding my arm and telling everyone we passed about what was happening. It was a long push back to her house/Hut but worth it for the look on her daughter in laws face when I barged through the front gate with by two barrels of water for her. The whole family came out to greet me and offered me food and drinks, I felt guilty taking from such poor people and instead went back to get the others to show them the village life of true Moroccans that I am not sure many tourists get to see.

 

Our visas arrived and we started the trip south with a quick stop in Marrakesh to see the famous main square. It was just like something out of an Indian Jones film and I would have loved it if t wasn’t for all the touts hassling tourists, especially the monkey men throwing their monkeys on you then trying to get you to take a photo and charge for it. I felt bad for the monkeys but you had no choice but to toss them back to the handler when they landed on you. There had been a bombing in the main square 10 days before we arrived and although the Cafe had been sealed off and flowers had been left the rest of the square was business as usual.

We bush camped two nights in the Western Sahara and on the second we stayed with a local nomad and his family who invited us to drink tea with them. It was a great experience although I think we all felt a little out of place there until the young son came along and after a quick chat procured some of our beers from me and then sat up drinking with us until 2am. He wanted me to go for a night drive in his 4wd through the sand dunes but after a few too many I thought that it was not the best idea, he wanted me to drive and it was far too tempting to be a good idea.

Western Sahara is an interesting place. It has nothing really but loads of sand and was its own country until the Spanish took over years ago, they then left abruptly and Morocco went in and took control with force and a long battle with the local tribes who wanted to gain independence started. The hatred for Moroccans was very high and we mostly spoke Spanish with the local Saharawi people as they refused to speak French and none of us spoke Arabic. Technically they are still their own country and still want independence from Morocco but to be honest I am not sure how their quality of life would be if the Moroccans left and took all their money and construction with them.

We arrived sweaty and tired to Bamako and ready to drink, we had smuggled some beer into the Islamic state of Mauritania but keeping it cold was pretty hard in the Sahara desert. The sleeping Camel solved this problem and when Matt decided to extend our trip by one day so that he could ‘get so feckin drunk that I can’t speak’ we all started and were ready for a big party.

Matt was passed out by 9.30pmJ and we all not long after followed and spent the next day rehydrating and sitting under fans ready for the 4 day trip that we had arranged into the supposed Al Qaeda danger towns of Mali. Our tour was so quick that we basically drove, slept and drove so when Matt allowed us the time to head off and explore Mali we really appreciated it.

The main highlight, after the mud mosque and town of Djenne, was the Dogon Country. The Dogon people have been living in little mud hut communities in the desert for thousands of years and seeing their traditions and cultures was a very unique experience. It was 45 degrees during the day so we would get up early and walk for a few hours between villages before sitting in shade and sweating out the heat of the day before walking a few more hours in the evening further down the 30km long cliff face that holds the many Dogon Villages.

Our last night we all bought special Dogon hats and wore them on our way back to meet the truck and head for Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso a city that had just recently lifted a 2 week curfew imposed after the army looted the streets and fired their guns in protest at not being paid on time. There seemed to be no real danger for tourists but we decided to get through the country as fast as we could anyway. In fact about 4 days after we left the army again hit the streets to riot and another curfew was imposed.

We arrived to Ouagadougou at 5pm, got our rooms in the local monastery and headed out for dinner. I was very dehydrated after the Dogon trek and should have been drinking water and not beer, hindsight is a great thing. The beer was giving me a good buzz when we hit the local bar and things went for good to better to bad when we decided that buying a litre of vodka in the bar for $90 would be best. 5 of us polished this off in about 30mins and another one was ordered. I lost all memory halfway into this bottle and am told that I fell asleep on the dance floor, got carried out by the bouncers, carried back in by the tour group and then helped out to a taxi at the end of the night.

My roommate was none too pleased when I came staggering in to our little room and took a pee in the shower as we had no toilet and then he was really mad when I woke in the middle of the night to puke but could not get out of my mosquito net and decided that it had holes so I could just puke through it. Ooops. Great night by all accounts but the next day was a long one across the border into Ghana, I slept for most of it bouncing around in the back of the truck.

Ghana was our last stop after braving the dangers of West Africa and Al Qaeda and we all expected to be greeted by a friendly and safe country on our arrival. Instead we were greeted by police who told us that we were not to bush camp or drive at night as there had been some violent armed hold ups in the last few days on the highways. Matt pushed the issue with them but they were adamant that if we did not do as they said we would get attacked. You don’t hear about this on the travel warnings! The safest country in West Africa is the one that holds the biggest threat to us so far.

I was really unimpressed with Ghana and would even say that it is the only country I have come across that I have hated. The people were a disgrace! All through Africa people ask for money or presents from white people, it is just the way it is and although annoying you get used to it but in Ghana they were really rude and aggressive about it. Everywhere you went people would call out ‘Abruni’, which meant white person, and the ones that then wanted something from you would not ask for it, they would demand it.

I spent a week in Elmina planning my next few weeks of travel, and seeing the great work of the www.sabretrust.org which was the charity we travelled down with, and then I got the hell outta Ghana. I cannot say that everybody in Ghana was rude but it seemed to be a higher percentage. I gave the benefit of the doubt to the rude embassy staff in London and figured that maybe London had rubbed off on them, I now reconsider that and think that any rude experience I have in London is possibly Ghana rubbing off on them.

It is absolutely true that West Africa is about the people and East Africa is about the animals. From Morocco to Mali we were met everywhere with friendly locals and great encounters. I am not sure if it is a place I would want to live or even travel to again but for the 3 weeks of the trip it was an amazing time and something that we will all remember and I was glad that I had remained free from Malaria, well I thought I had anyway.

See photos for Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana

 

 

 

 

The one with the dead bodies

China to this day remains one of my favourite countries and I have thought many times about going back there and starting a hostel or teaching English or anything that allows me to explore it further. I saw most parts of China, avoiding the westernised east coast, and found that the Tibetan towns on the Chinese side of the border were some of the best.

We entered Langmusi with two things on our mind, seeing a sky burial and visiting Leisha’s cafe. Leisha’s got nothing but rave reviews from the lonely planet and was famous for its Big Mac yak attack burger, a huge meal made from the local Yaks(similar to cows). The sky burial is an ancient Tibetan tradition that had been banned for many years by the Chinese Government and was only recently allowed to take place again.

We had a walk around the town to get our bearings and to see what we could explore over the next few days and then headed for Leisha’s to get all the information we could about seeing a sky burial. Leisha was a great lady from the Xinjiang region of China and as such was a Muslim and quite different in culture to the other locals in town. She owned her cafe with her brother, who we thought was her husband, and it was the backpacker hangout in town. We asked how we could see a Sky Burial and she said that there is no set way to see one, you just have to head to the monastery at 7am and wait until you see a tractor driving up the hill with a body in the back.

A tractor with a body in the back took a little bit of the shine of the magnificent spiritual event that we were hoping to see but oh well, if that’s the way they do it that’s fine. I ordered my Big Mac yak attack and tried hard to beat the 1.5hr record set by an American guy but to no luck. By the end I wasn’t full and even considered ordering some chocolate cake, I was just sick of the taste of Yak meat and Potato.

Next morning we were up and looking for the tractor at 7am but by 9 nothing had happened so we headed to leisha’s and spent the day playing cards and drinking milkshakes. We tried again the next morning and still nothing so we explored town and the local monastery and headed into the hills for a hike, where the diarrhoea I had developed from the Yak Burger took full effect and I had to rush of for a few emergency squirts.

We decided that the third morning was the last and that if there was no burial today then we would get the 11am bus out of town. We all crossed our fingers and headed for the monastery and took vigil waiting for the little tractor to start its drive up the hill. I headed off with one of the girls to scour the monastery for information about a burial. It is very difficult and probably very funny to try to explain to a Tibetan monk in sign language that you want to go and see the birds eating the dead body. We spent 5mins explaining to him and he just kept pointing to the hill and shrugging so we gave up.

It was getting late and we had all but given up hope and headed back to see the others, on the way we heard a yell and rushed to them to find they had all gone. We looked up the hill and there it was, the little blue tractor with three bodies in sheets bouncing around in the back. Jackpot, we were off. I started running after the tractor along with the others but it was hard. We were at altitude and heading straight up into the hills, still we persevered and kept running because we just had to see these vultures eat those dead bodies.

It probably sounds really morbid and in some ways we felt a bit morbid watching it but once the ritual started to take place and we stood at a distance in silence and watched as the men sliced open the backs of the dead people and cut the tops off their heads, it felt like a very special experience.

The whole time these two men were preparing the bodies the vultures, about 2.5 feet tall, were beginning to sit in the hills around the pit waiting for their feed, some even came early and had to be chased away. It only took a few minutes preparation of the three bodies before the men walked away and the 30-40 vultures swooped down from the hills and started chowing down.

We asked the locals we were with if we could take photos and they said it would be better not to so we respected the family sitting near the bodies, burning the bones of the dead as the men bought them over, and kept our cameras out of sight. The idea of the burial is that the person’s spirit is given to the birds to move to the sky to wait for its time to be reborn, something like that anyway.

The ritual seemed very spiritual and we stood sombre until the guys moved in with their little axes and started hacking up the bodies and throwing parts all over the place for the vultures to continue eating. It was a little harsh in its own way to see a guy hack off a human leg and toss it through the air and see two birds fight over its flesh. That was the way it was for them and I could only think that it is maybe a better way to go than being buried in a box and eaten by worms.

The ritual had been going for around 25 mins and most of the vultures had left the pit and only a few remained when a Dutch tour group turned up and stormed past us straight to the pit and started taking pictures, What a bunch of knobs was all we could think from where we were. We did however wait for the last vulture to leave before heading in ourselves to take some photos.

I looked to the family and didn’t really know what to say or do, in a way we could have been disrespecting their culture but most of the time they didn’t seem too bothered by anything we did. The best I could come up with was to place my palms together under my chin and bow to them in the way you do to other Tibetans on meeting them. I don’t know if it meant anything to them but it made feel better at least showing some respect.

It was great experience and one that anyone who has the chance should go out of their way to see. The pit was a sight and a half with bones and jaws lying all over, I even saw a full spine with half a skull attached in there.

We quietly and happily walked back down to Leisha’s to give here the good news about seeing the burial and she gave us all high fives as we left to get our buses onto the next town.

See photos for China:

 

The animal class train

I spent some time before I left Guernsey thinking about the places I would be wandering and getting lonely planet guidebooks out of the library to research my trip before I decided,

‘screw it, I’m just going to see what happens long the way’

I thought that before there were guidebooks people travelled and now travelling was easier and more common so why should we need one now.

It took a few weeks to get used to this and at first arriving to a city and not knowing whether to walk left or right when leaving the train station was daunting but after a while it became exciting and fun. The true test of my theory came when I arrived early morning into Mumbai Airport, the smelliest airport I have ever had to smell. They say that to truly get to know a country you first have to smell it, I believe they had just landed to India when they first said that.

I had not had too much solo travel experience before I arrived to India but I had my common sense and understood enough about the ways people would try to rip me off and how I would have to be careful to not let it happen.

As soon as I left the arrivals area of the airport I was pounced on by people behind counters yelling at me to go and buy tickets for their shuttle buses, I held strong and declined and headed for the exit. One man demanded that I go back to see him, so I did. He asked me where I was going and I told him to Bombay and that I would get a local bus outside as it would be cheaper than his express shuttle. I guess the man took pity on me and knew that I was a naive traveller and that he would have to help me get safely to town.

He explained to me that I was about 1.5 hrs from town and there were no public buses, just taxis that would really rip me off. He said that I would be taking one of his shuttle buses and that I would have to give him 40 rupees and go sit in the corner and wait for it.  I knew he was right and that I was out of my depth and best to do as he said.

As we arrived into Bombay I could not believe what I was seeing, I had heard the reports about India before but ,my god, to see it for the first time in person is something truly shocking and scary. The street was full of people laying down, lines and lines of them for blocks and blocks, I didn’t know if they were sleeping or dead, I had never seen so many people lying like that before. We continued into the city and I got more and more nervous as to exactly what I was going to do there. I had nothing planned and was obviously way out of my inexperienced depth so I decided I would get to Delhi as I was bound to meet other backpackers there who could tell me what to do.

I told the driver to drop me at the train station and I headed for my ticket. I was told that I was at the wrong train station and would have to take another train to get to that station. As I waited for the train to arrive I had two young boys come and sit with me, one either side and both with their hands on my knees. I got a little worried that they were going to pickpocket me by getting me used to their touch and stood up and made them both sit on one side of me. It turns out they were both just friendly kids and wanted to chat, not like the lady who came next to see me on the train.

As I boarded the train immediately a very poor looking lady came up to where I was standing and held her hand out for money, using her other hand to show that she needed food. I always hate when people do this and wonder why we, as tourists, are expected to go to other countries and solve their poverty issues, let the locals of the country look after their own and I will do the same in Australia.

The lady was unhappy that I would not give her money and spent the next 30secs poking me in the ribs, when this didn’t work she grabbed a piece of my flesh and twisted it hard as she could between her fingers. At first I was shocked and could not believe what was happening, but I held strong and knew she would give up eventually if I just kept ignoring her. I didn’t know that it would take 2mins though.

She gave up and went to the next person in line, a local Indian man who lasted only 10secs into the stomach twist before he gave her some money and she continued her way down the line. I must admit that I was pretty satisfied with my effort of holding out when even the locals couldn’t.

My stop came and I walked the 10mins across the train tracks in the 35c heat to the platform on the other side. I left Guernsey with nearly everything I owned and was now realising that I was very quickly going to shed a lot of the 22 kilos I was carrying on my back, 2 weeks later I was down to 15kilo.

I saw people lined up to buy train tickets at a booth and fought my way in amongst them. It was a real fight in this group and no line existed, if you tried to do the decent thing and let someone go before you then all that happened was that another 15 people would come after that. So I elbowed my way like everyone else and at the front asked the guy for a ticket to Delhi, he asked me when for and I told him for today. Apparently this section only sold tickets in advance and I would have to go around the other side for tickets for today, that was a very uncomfortable way to waste 45mins of my life.

Once at the other side there was no line and I could not understand why people would have such a hassle to buy tickets in advance when they could just buy them on the day of travel in a leisurely manner. I very quickly understood why they did it this way when I bought my ticket, $5 for a 24 hr train trip! Bargain I thought, and the man said as I walked away that I had better line up quickly to make sure I got a seat. I thought this was a bit weird but shrugged and headed off to line up.

I had been in line for 2 hours waiting for the train and noticed I was about a third of the way along, excellent, if all these other people can get on the train then I will get a seat for sure as I am at the front of the line. I could not have been more wrong as the train approached and people started to board. It was all very orderly and quite calm until I reached my turn to get on the train, at this point someone from behind pushed me forward and I fell into the ladder of the train and had people start pushing past and over me to get on board.

I scrambled up the ladder and there were people everywhere, there was no way I was going to get a seat, I’d be lucky to even find a place to stand it seemed. I headed for the only clear space in the carriage, beside the toilets, and took up my position and watched as hundreds of people pushed and squeezed their way around the carriage. It was insane, there were bodies everywhere and until the train started moving it was so hard in that heat to even breathe.

As the train departed I realised that I could not move, I was trapped in amongst people like sardines in a can. The young boys I was trapped against started a conversation with me and we talked about cricket for a while and then they asked me to sing for them. What the hell were they on? Sing for them, bollocks to that. But they persisted and sang me some tunes of theirs and before long had me signing Advance Australia fair to them. I felt like a right Muppet then and there!

It is hard to explain the train ride in all its awfulness, it was the worst yet best journey that I have ever had to take in my life. I was so tall that people pushed their heads against me and used me as a sleeping post. One guy would always turn to look at me before coughing his disease infested breath in my face for fun, people were always stepping on my feet and by the end all my toes were bruised and bloody as I had only been wearing sandals.

As the train moved along things got a little nicer and the carriage seemed to spread out a bit and we had room to stand a few inches apart from each other. It also gave enough room for a young boy to squeeze down between my legs and try to open my backpack and steal stuff. I saw him doing it and knew that the most he could get was a t-shirt or two and ignored him, the locals saw what he was doing and didn’t ignore it, they picked him up and started beating him hard around the face. At the same time a mobile phone fell from his pocket and they realised it was the one someone had lost earlier and they started beating him even more.

When the train would come into a station we would all link arms and hold on as tight as we could so that other people could not get on the train and we could keep whatever small amount of space we had for the next leg of the journey. This also affected they way people could get off the train, if they can’t get on then they can’t get off. One big man needed to get off so he used himself as a type of battering ram to push people out of the way, as he went backwards and forwards he built up enough force that 15 people were knocked of the train onto the platform and immediately new people rushed aboard. The big man came back onto the train looking for his mobile phone that had fallen from his pocket, no-one could find it but when they realised later it was the one the little boy I mentioned earlier had nicked they called the guy and arranged for someone to take it to him. I was very impressed by this act of generosity amongst people that were so obviously poor.

The problem that came from the big man knocking all the people off the train and new people piling on was that the people that fell off had to get back on as they had all their belongings onboard. As the train pulled away from the platform these people were hanging from the ladder of the carriage and some even from the bars on the windows, I am not sure if they all held on until the next station and to be honest I did not have the energy to care, I had just decided that I was going to be sick and had nowhere to do it but on top of the guys head who was sleeping against my chest.

It is probably the closest I have ever come to needing to puke and holding it back, I was amazed that I did and also very glad I did as I don’t know what would have happened had I puked on this guy’s head? Probably nothing, no-one seemed to care about going to the toilet and squatting for a number 2 while the toilet was full of people sitting on the floor beside you, so why would they care about a little puke.

The trip continued and people on the train occasionally ran off without even asking for money and bought me bottles of water to drink. I realised that I was now 17 hours into the journey and had been standing still in one place for the whole time. I was hungry, dehydrated, tired and extremely irritable, I started pushing and elbowing people who stood on my feet the same way that locals would to each other. Despite the comradely it was still every man for himself by this stage.

At the 17 hour mark a lot of people started leaving the train and I could actually sit down, I am not sure how I did it but I managed to sit down taking up the same space as I had while I was standing up and later on I could actually half lay down and pass out for a few minutes here and there.

We were nearly in Delhi when a hippie looking guy walked past me and immediately swung around for a second look and said

‘what the feck are you doing here’

To which I replied ‘I asked for a ticket to Delhi and this is what they gave me’

They guy proceeded to rant about how the ticket seller was obviously an asshole as they have a supply of VIP tickets available for tourists to purchase on the same day and he should have offered those to me. He did finish his rant by telling me to stay where I was when we stopped and he would take me to town and show me a good place to stay.

Twenty four and half hours after the journey began I was finally on the platform and breathing fresh air at last. I was so happy and relieved and also proud of what I had just achieved. Hippie Guy returned and we walked together into the tourist area of Delhi and he found me a nice, cheap guesthouse where I got my own room and went straight for a shower, not before the owner had told me that hippie guy was a dangerous man and I should avoid him. I wasn’t bothered and told him that he might be dangerous but so far he had done nothing but help me and at the time it felt like he was saving my life.

I undressed for the shower and saw that my feet and ankles were twice their normal size and all bruised, I had bruises a third of the way up the calf of each of my legs. I jumped in the shower and proceeded to pass out in bed for the next few hours thinking about how those 24 hours had seemed like a week’s worth of experiences in India and I was so glad that it had happened. As I say it was the best and worst travel experience of my life.

I told an older local couple of the journey a few weeks later and they were amazed, they told me that they had lived all their lives in India and they had never ever taken then general class train, I told them that maybe one day they should.

See photos for India: