Category Archives: Europe

For Europe

23Aug/16

The Dnipropetrovsk Metro Party

Written by Annie Nimity

As I type this in mid-August 2016, it’s nearly five years to the day since I attempted the Metro Party Challenge in Dnipropetrovsk in honour of my friend’s upcoming nuptials, as one does. Or at least as one does when one is in the habit of vacationing in the former Soviet Union, specifically in towns with nigh unpronounceable names and metro lines running from nowhere to nowhere. But let’s back up a bit.

dnipro1

Walking past YUZHMASH

Dnipropetrovsk (which was as of May this year was officially renamed Dnipro — annoying, as I enjoyed being one of the few non-Ukrainians who had mastered that mouthful) is the fourth largest city in Ukraine. It was once a “closed city” due to the fact that it was the production centre for the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at a factory known under its acronym YUZHMASH. It wasn’t until the waning years of the Soviet Union that the government publicly acknowledged the city’s existence and “opened” it to foreigners — although to this day few non-Ukrainians have heard of it and fewer have visited. Certainly my friends and I were the only non-Ukrainians we encountered during our brief and hazily remembered trip to the city.

At our first stop, just outside the Komunarivska Station (renamed Pokrovska in 2015)

At our first stop, just outside the Komunarivska Station (renamed Pokrovska in 2015)

My friends and I stumbled off the train from Kiev early in the morning, bleary-eyed and slightly nauseated after an evening aboard a sweltering and thoroughly unventilated platzkart wagon. (Platzkart, in case you were wondering, is the third class train car, rather akin to a rolling dormitory. Air conditioning is nonexistent, and as Ukrainians are no strangers to the Slavic fear of death-by-draft, cracking a window was simply not an option.) We were met at the train station by our friend D, whose upcoming wedding to a resident of Dnipro we had come to celebrate in what we were referring to as ‘the first stag party in Dnipropetrovsk.’ D led us to his apartment where he and is bride-to-be welcomed us with shots of samogon, or moonshine, produced by D’s soon to be father-in-law. It was not yet 8am.

I think this was outside of the Zavodska Station. Maybe.

I think this was outside of the Zavodska Station. Maybe.

Dnipropetrovsk has an interesting, if rather ineffective, public transport system. Above ground, rickety trams, trolleys, buses and minibuses trundle through the streets, much as they do in any other major city of the former Soviet Union. Below ground, however… In the early 1980s, when Dnipropetrovsk was still a closed city, the Soviet government decided that as a large city and home to the Union’s premier ICBM factory, Dnipropetrovsk needed a subway system befitting its status. Construction of the Dnipropetrovsk Metro began in 1982, although the first — and to this day, only — line didn’t open until 1995. At 7.1km in length and with only six operational stations, it is the world’s shortest subway system. One end of the line, Vokzalna, deposits passengers at the train station (vokzal meaning train station and all), located on the edge of the central region of Dnipro. The opposite end of the line is located not in the centre of the city, but 7.1km in the opposite direction — in the suburbs, yes, but not far enough into the suburbs to be all that useful. In fact, unless you happen to both live and work along the metro’s short route, it’s not going to be all that useful to you.

Our group in matching Metro Party shirts and Kyrgyz felt hats.

Our group in matching Metro Party shirts and Kyrgyz felt hats.

Why do I mention this? See, D had invited us to Dnipropetrovsk for his stag party, not only because he and his fiancée lived there, but because he wanted us to take part in what he and his friends referred to as a Metro Party. The idea of a Metro Party was to ride the metro from one end to the other, getting off at each stop and downing a beverage — either a glass of beer or a shot of vodka, depending on what was available. I’m not much of a drinker, but I didn’t think that six drinks spread out over the course of several hours would do me in. D warned me not to underestimate the Metro Party, and I should have listened. Perhaps it was the samogon we’d started the day off with, but the other lady in our group and I only made it to about three stations, and I was far worse off than she was. The guys finished the Metro Party — or at least I think they did.

Me today.

Me today.

I was cleaning out my closet the other day and stumbled upon my Metro Party shirt. (Yes, we had matching shirts; yes, we were those obnoxious arseholes.) The red part of the decal has long since come off in the wash, and, like the city itself, many of the stations now bear different names than they did back in 2011, but it still fits. And I’m still a lightweight.

05May/16

Researching places that don’t exist

Back in 2012 I was due to lead our third tour into the Islamic Republic of Iran before a month interlude between hooking up with YPT’s second annual Eurasian Adventure Tour in Kiev, and with but a mere two countries between my destinations, a pocket full of money, two trusty travel buddies, and a month to kill all roads led towards a sexy little research trip.

In the good old days of the Cold War the northern border of Iran separated the capitalist west from the Soviet Union and in particular the Azerbaijan SSR, Armenian SSR, and lastly the Georgian SSR, 3 newly independent states that I had wanted to check out both from professional and personal point of view for a long time. What the Caucuses also had was something I have a borderline sick obsession with, unrecognized countries and frozen conflict zones, in this case namely Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and the real mafia jewel in the crown South Ossetia. A plan was made, we would cross from Tehran up to the border by car before traversing over to Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia before finishing it all in Abkhazia (it was decided that that South Ossetia a bit too sketchy). What could go wrong?

On our first day in Iran my travel companion Joe had noticed that every 3rd shop in Tehran seemed to be selling extremely shiny, and dare I say borderline offensively shiny suits, it was suggested off the cuff that we should all go and buy one, I agreed expecting it was one of those throw away amusing comments that no one ever plans to do. I was wrong and on our last night in Tehran 3 of us were sitting in a tailors being made to measure for shiny silver, green and gold suites, complemented with lapels and frilly elements to our white shirts, the tailor did not speak English, but if he had I half expected him to look at my face and say “too jazzy”?.

So $100 and a mad last night out in Tehran and we were now wearing our shiny suits (now complemented by a Hannah Montana bag) and heading up north to the border with Armenia. Whilst Iran is a beautiful and interesting country to travel around their motorways (and dining choices) are not the most interesting, so we were somewhat pleased to rock up to the border suited and booted around nightfall. Armenia is now visa free, but at the time we went you were required to get an online visa on arrival, something which despite we had done for some reason was not showing up on the system, so despite having cleared through Iran we were now stuck in the the border limbo land. My Russian speaking colleague whiled the two hours away chatting with the guards, whilst I spent my time mostly standing outside smoking and watching the trucks come through. After two hours of post-Soviet bureaucracy we were finally stamped and let through, as we were just about the to leave the building the border guard shouted out to the Russian speaker “one minute man, I got one question”, “whats up”? “Man what the fucks up with those suits”?………he smiled and replied “we just went to a wedding”. The Armenian guard said “oh” and then looked even more confused than ever as we exited into Armenia.

In most of the ex-USSR taxis are less like we know in the west, and much more resemble an old man with a Lada without a meter who charges whatever he fancies charging. Yeah traveling by yourself can be fun, but at this point I was pretty damned pleased to be accompanied by a walking talking tour guide/translator and after negotiating a $4 ride to the nearest cheap as hell hotel we headed off. I’m a massive fan of border towns, because they tend to be very sleazy, and when your particular border town borders genuine Islamic Republic and is serviced by salt if the earth truckers it was unsurprising to see strip clubs and the kind of nightclubs where women outnumber men as far as the eye could see. As tragic as it sounds the three of us being early to late 30’s in age settled for a night in with beer and cheese, two other luxuries (largely) unavailable to us in Iran.

As interesting and seedy as border towns are, during the day they lack interest, so we got up early and decided to head off on the next part of our adventure onto the border town of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Goris. Goris was an extremely pleasant place to stay for a few days, lots of churches to look at, old buildings, and what we enjoyed the most an old Soviet style bar filled with communist kitsch where the governor (who does resemble Borat) made his own home made vodka. Easily the most drunk I had been in a whole week. I was also introduced to what is now one of my newfound culinary loves Chechil, which is a braided salty cheese traditionally eaten when you eat beer, or drink vodka, I added watching football as well which made it probably the best day of my life.

Goris was nice, but we had come out this way with bigger fish to fry, with that fish being the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. If you want a detailed background on the place check out Wikipedia, but for an abridged version basically NK is ethnically Armenian, but was a part of Azerbaijan, at the end of the old CCCP they declared independence and fought a war with Azerbaijan, which with Armenian and Russian help they won. The world recognizes them as part of Azerbaijan and normal level headed people with intelligence accept that not only are they not, but they don’t want to be. I’ve been to quite a few border crossings, but this one was special, army dudes and little look at our passport before we were whisked on to our imaginary country for the next few days. On arrival in Stepanakert the capital we checked into our hotel before heading to the immigration bureau for our “visa on arrival” which they stamp in your passport, or on a piece of paper if you ever want to travel to Azerbaijan, who won’t let you in if you have this visa in your passport. I made my stand that that day and decided I would rather a cool stamp than to go to a country that acted so childishly. Being in genuine capital city and it being Halloween we decided to hit the cities only nightclub. I won’t go into massive detail about the club, but weird would be somewhat the understatement. We went (obviously) in our shiny suits. The clientele ranged from unaccompanied children to oligarchs and the elderly, a total of about 25 people. The evening consisted mostly of what appeared to be strange Soviet era games before at about 11pm when there was a massive, and I mean massive food fight. Not feeling the evening was weird enough I decided to buy 8 cans of beer on the way home, drink them at the hotel and then shave my head, badly. Not your average day at the office.

Aside from frankly bizarre nightclubs Stepanakert doesn’t have all that much to offer, so we decided to head to the next part of our freak show, a place by the name of Vank. Now to give Vank a little background. An Armenian dude went to America chasing the American dream, made himself a billionaire and then decided he would reward his hometown people of Vank by building bizarre monuments such as one made from a Lada the locals gave him as a gift, a collection of number plates, and a hotel modeled on the Titanic. The big Kahuna still pops back every now and again showering the locals with money, and unsurprisingly he’s still fairly popular. Weird, but well worth a stop.

Our next port of call was a brief stop in Yerevan the capital of Armenia. As capitals go it was extremely pleasant, a real post Soviet bar scene, the cool beautiful moneyed people of Armenia, and as we read online great strip clubs……Strippers and booze aside theres also the brandy factory, and just outside the oldest church in the world (Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity), two days well spent we headed to Tblisi.

Whilst driving around in Ladas is pleasant enough you have not traveled around these parts unless you have taken at least one overnight sleeper train, so after stocking up on vodka we boarded our bed for the night. There truly is something special about rolling slowly through the Soviet Wastelands drinking vodka and kicking it back with your friends, in any journey this is a highlight.

Tbilisi the capital of Georgia is OK as cities go, and I have friends that absolutely rave about the place, but to me it was decidedly so so, perhaps because I had enjoyed Yerevan so much. The one night we did “hit the town” was fairly interesting as I arrived to meet my friend at a bar, where he was drinking Absinthe Mojitos and chatting up some rather stunning ladies. After procuring my own Absinthe Mojito, the ladies then left our table to join the huge Soviet dude who had come to meet them. He flashed us a smile, sat down and as his ass hit the chair we got a flash of the glock hanging off his hip. His point was made, we asked for the bill. FYI Absinthe Mojitos cost $25 a pop in Tbilisi. Two lessons learned.

We did a few more days touring around places near the border with Turkey, which largely consisted of the other two looking at stuff whilst I drank vodka, before we headed off for what was in my mind at least the highlight of the trip the hometown of Joseph Jughashvili, or as the cool kids know him Uncle Joe Stalin, Gori.

Now before I go into detail about our crazy few days in Gori, it is worth regaling you with some Soviet humor. Whenever we told friends from various parts of the old USSR that we were going to the Caucuses, and Georgia in particular everyone we told would joke that we should be careful because everyone in this region was gay and would try to “bum rape us”. Something we obviously laughed off as being one of those untrue stereotypes that do not exist in the real world. I’ll come back to this point later….

On arrival in Gori we decided to go full on Soviet and book into the Intourist hotel. For those not geeky enough to know what Intourist is, basically they were the Soviet government tourism monolith that controlled all elements of tourism in the Soviet Union, including which hotels they could bug and thus foreigners were allowed to stay. When YPT stay in Tiraspol we stay in the corresponding hotel there, and it is frankly just a wonderful experience, if you like cold rooms but a real Soviet experience.

Whilst Stalin is largely reviled by most of the world now, in Gori he is a big deal, with this being the only place where his statue was taken down, but actually put up again, it is also where the Stalin museum is. The Stalin museum? Well it is wonderful, very pro Big Joe, and with his old train carriage, his original family home and a massive statue of the Uncle very commie extreme.

After a day spent in museums, we decided to indulge our anthropological sides and get out down and dirty with the locals by indulging in some drinking at a wee local tavern. It was not long before a bunch of young, but big and strong Georgians decided to befriend us and pretty soon we were shooting massive shots of vodka. This is where stuff started to get interesting, Joe from our group is a big muscley American former first mate on  ship and is fairly good at arm wrestling, so everyone wanted to arm wrestle him. He kept winning. People in Stalin hometown getting beaten by the American did not go down well. We were then invited aggressively to their houses. We then decided to leave. The end of the night consisted of us running away from a chasing pack of Georgian males shouting they wanted to “fluck your blasses” or words to those effect. Who said stereotypes were always wrong?

My two companions left the next day to continue their travels with my plan to spend one more night in Gori before heading off to Abkhazia. What actually happened was I discovered a great cafe with good food, fast wifi, cheap vodka and a view of Stalin from the window. Everyday I would head off to the bus station drunk at 6pm to be told I had missed the last bus (by day 4 they thought I was mental), before spending another night in Gori.

I eventually left 5 days later for Batumi to get my flight to Kiev. Yes I had missed Abkhazia, yes I had spent almost a week in the drab old Soviet hometown of genuine great dictator, but some like beaches, good bars, great food and clubs, I had cheese, vodka, Soviet grim and a daily view of Stalin, this was my Ibiza.

I managed to visit Abkhazia later, and largely use the basis of the trip to create what is now one of our most important tours on the calendar, the unrecognized countries tour, and whilst, thankfully for most it is not exactly like my research trip, we still feel it holds some of the same spirit.

05May/16

A strange evening in the Ukraine

I have spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, had some great parties, met some pretty girls, seen some great sites, and it is true to say I genuinely love the country. I can also add one other little description about the place, it is one of the most corrupt countries I have ever been to, and one I have had lots of problems with the police in. Now whilst getting arrested is always memorable, much like sex you never forget your first time.

 

Losing my Kiev Prison Vplates

My first time in the Ukraine was way back in 2011 during our first Eurasian Adventure Tour. I remember being blown away by the beauty of Kiev, both the people and the scenery as well as the somewhat flavorsome nightlife. Kiev is a party town. We did Chernobyl, the ICBM base, lots of nights out and I remember thinking as we left Odessa heading to unrecognized state of Transnistria that I would someday come back.

A year later I planned to do just that. I had just been on a research trip to Armenia, Georgia and Nagorno-Karaback and my plan was to fly into Kiev two days early party a little bit than then meet up with the Eurasian group before they arrived for the tour.

 

The following tale occurs whilst I was OFF duty

 My first night in Kiev was spent by myself, now i’m not exactly a shrinking wallflower so decided that despite being alone I still fancied a night on the naughty soup. I went out discovered a few taverns, one of which had ladies that would dance whilst I enjoyed a wee tipple of vodka. The following day I awoke with a head worse for wear to meet two of my guests who had decided to do the same as me, come a few days early for a look around a wee drinky. The first fellow was a Brit of Indian extraction (this will come into play later), the second was a very mild mannered Spanish fellow. I am not sure how to describe him except to say that when he spoke it was like the first time I heard Susan Boyle. It was one of the chaps birthday so I asked casually how we liked to spend his birthdays, he replied without skipping a beat “strippers probably” in his midlands accent. Well as coincidences would have it merely an evening before I had discovered a strip joint a stones throw away from the hotel. We duly went to said establishment, drinks were drunk, credit cards were used and dollar bills were placed in many a place before we decided as a group it was time to move the party onto its next point of call.

 

All about the money

I would like to add at this point that unusually I had a lot of money with me. I was leading a tour, much of which needed to be paid in cash and I had thousands on me.

As we were walking along the street not too drunk (really) and not too loud (honestly) a policeman came up to me grabbed me by the arm and started to pull me away. At this juncture I started to protest at which point he produced a piece of paper which had been hand written in English stating it was illegal to be drunk in Kiev. Dear readers I am not sure if you have been to Kiev, but if you have it appears that it is illegal to be sober in the place. I digress. The mild mannered Spaniard then came over and in a mild mannered way tried to defuse the situation, at which point we were both thrown into the back of a police van. Our English friend of Indian extraction was left alone, we assume because of the bad reputation police have here for racism, something we would be able to ponder from the back of the meat wagon.

So there I was sitting in the back of the police van with my Spanish friend with realization that if they found the money in my pocket I would be screwed, so I started to shove it down my sock, an act that did not go unnoticed by the cops shining a light in the back of the van, asking me what I was doing.

So we arrive at scary looking Soviet dungeon style police station and are led inside. I decide that my best chance here would be to put on a posh English accent and demand to see my embassy, to which I receive a reply of “no embassy”. It is at this point I look up and realize what a colossus of a man this mighty Slav was. I am not exactly tall, but holy crap the cop was massive, he then starts pushing me into a room, and thus away from the Spaniard, I back into the room, a kind of interview type place at which point the cop slams the door closed again looks at me menacingly and says rather loudly “you understand me no embassy”. He stops. I stand there. There is a short silence. I am not sure what went through my head at this point, but I turn around walk calmly to the wall behind me, remove my glasses as if I were about to take a nap and I do it.

 

It is a fine line between genius and insanity

My head splits immediately in impact and i’m bleeding a fair bit, I turn around clutching my head with both my hands whilst clutching my glasses and scream “you hit me, you hit me”. Said officer looks like he has seen a ghost turns opens the door storms out to his colleague who is with the Spanish guy. I follow. I then start saying “he hit me” and acting quite hysterical. The Spaniard looks mortified, he catches my eye, I slip him a sly wink, he calms down, the two cops are now screaming at each other in Russian (back then most cops were Russian), before looking at the Spaniard and bellowing “you are fine, but your friend (he points at me) is fucking crazy”, “what”? A confused Spaniard replied. “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT”. We did not need telling a a fourth time.

 

Bopping our way back to Kiev Hostel

We jogged about 3 blocks before realizing that firstly we were lost and that secondly we had got away with it. I pulled the Euro from my socks, we high fived, and went over what had just happened. It so happened that the Spaniard had a great sense of direction and we felt we it was not a place to stay in dark alleys. After 45 minutes or so there we were, on the final stretch to the hostel, the main square in Kiev, and more importantly the scene of the crime, just outside the strip club where we were arrested. I looked at the Spaniard our eyes locked in an exchange for what felt like an eternity, an exchange that can only happen to those who have been through something so momentous together, the the thousand yard stare, until I broke the silence with a sentence so profound it will live with both of us forever…”one for the road”, he nodded “ci”. And we did.

I was to run into that cop and many others over the following years in Kiev, but these are not stories for now. This is the story of me and my Spanish cellmate and the acting loco.

17Sep/15
Iceland

Cold place, warm heart. A city break in Reykjavik, Iceland

Written by Kitty Busz

What better way to escape the miserable beginnings of winter in the United Kingdom than disappearing to somewhere uhm, even colder. Although we questioned our sanity as we reflected back on the ridiculously mad middle of the night drive to Luton airport (which ISN’T in London) and emerged outside of the freezing cold tiny airport, Reykjavik is honestly one of the best city breaks I have ever done. This magical island had always attracted my wanderlusting mind, the thought of the crisp, clean air in the land of ice and fire, it’s Europe but so different. I love it.

So, the top experiences in Iceland for those headed there on a city break:

Explore the city of Reykjavik. TExplore the city of Reykjavikhis will be the base of most trips in Iceland, most of the exciting things to do are located within an hour of city making it perfectly located. Don’t be fooled by the distinct grey which dominates the drive in, the city is filled with beautiful architecture, cute cafes, lively bars and wooden houses sandwiched together. This sleepy, gingerbreadesque capital is also packed with history and culture with the most breathtaking building being the Hallgrimskirkja Church. Designed to resemble the lava flows of the landscape and at seventy three meters, it is a stunning skyline feature.

Blue LagoonBlue Lagoon. It’s the most popular thing to do in Iceland for a reason. The geothermal pool is located perfectly between Reykjavik and the airport, making it an ideal first or last stop off. Or both. This wonder is located in a lava field and is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, the water is full of goodness, being rich in minerals such as silica and sulphur. The water temperature is around forty centigrade and although it may be busy, there’s plenty of lagoon to go around. Mud deposits are dotted around and people slap it onto themselves with abandon whilst sipping on cocktails and floating around.

Geyser Geothermal AreaGeyser Geothermal Area. This place is insane on so many levels. One – it’s hilarious. You’re stood there, chatting to people and suddenly a geyser shoots water up forty meters taking everyone by surprise. Two – geographically it is so unique and stunning. The area is surrounded by other geothermal features for example mud pool and algal deposits. It’s worth visiting the area either really early morning or late evening otherwise you are likely to be joined by about a million other people in your photo of the Strokkur geyser that everybody just has to get. Also climb up the surrounding hills for the best views of the whole geothermal area.

Thingvellir National ParkThingvellir National Park. This National Park lies in a rift valley which marks the crest of the Mid Atlantic range, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart. When driving there you go past the largest natural lake in Iceland which adds to the whole wilderness of the area which I was fascinated with. A few hours to explore this area gives the opportunity for some beautiful walks and the chance to discover the buildings hidden away in behind the hills.

kitty5Northern Lights. This is a bit of a bittersweet one because we didn’t actually get to see them in their full glory, however it is a perfect excuse to return! The camaraderie of everybody waiting was catching, it wasn’t just all cameras on tripods, there was dancing, beer and discussions, the haziness and tiredness definitely made the disappointment more easy to handle.

15Sep/15

Naked Guy, Becoming Honorary Canadians and the Eurovision Tryouts

After a massive first day in Stockholm I wake up for the second day eating cloth and listening to drums. Only today I wake up a little later than normal, the old carcasse that I’m kicking around in, loudly protesting at the recent abuse.

I`ve got this faint recollection of a blow to the head from last night, but after a decent examination under a hot shower I can find no mark, no scar, no bruise and write it off as a dream or maybe just the remnant of something that didn’t do me any harm, but that the alcohol fairies failed to erase properly.

Today is a slow day, a metro into Gamla Stan in the afternoon is about all I can manage. It’s a beautiful part of the city and if you try and shut out the hordes of tourists and the shopfronts selling all manner of modern items, it is possible to transport yourself, the narrow streets and lanes, the coblestones and old buildings back a few centuries to when they were built. I can almost see the wife of Sven, the local butcher, leaning out her window to throw out washing water, or the horse and oxen led carts trundling noisily up the hill.

After a slow saunter drenching myself into the equivalent of a historical or fantasy novel, my energy is sapped and it’s back to the hostel for a snooze. Soon its time for dinner, and I venture on out to find the main communal area seething with humanity again. I chat to Guillame, Emily and Julie before meeting 4 Canadians, Kristen, Lauren (suffering a terrible head cold), Mike and Matt. They are intending to head into central Stockholm to check out the Absolute Vodka Ice Bar – you know the thing – a bar made of ice where they wrap you up in coats, charge you outrageous amounts to spend 45 mins sitting around in the cold, and offer one or two drinks by the sponsoring distiller in glasses made of frozen water for libation. Sydney has one, Auckland too, and I am a little surprised that Canada hasn´t got one, after all it´s not the middle of the the Saudi Desert where ice is seen as a little bit of a novelty.

The conversation inevitability turns to the events of last night when the Irish boys were a little loud and crazy. Everyone is having a laugh, when a Canadian girl at the next table tells us of her somewhat bizarre experience this morning. Apparently around 6ish she got up to go to the loo. Her room (and 2 others) open onto a small vestibule before that opens onto the main corridor. As she opened the door it hit something and looking outside she saw a naked guy just lying in the vestibule. She quickly shut the door in horror, woke her friend to help work out what to do, then after gathering enough courage to peer around the open door a few minutes later, she foundthe vestibule empty – naked man was gone. Everyone has a good old cack at the expense of the Irish who checked out this morning.

Well, everyone except one person, who is suddenly having to force a somewhat stifled laugh (just as well there are enough people around to piss themselves properly). As this chick describes her story, neurons trigger in my brain, synapses fire and I vaguely and rather hazily seem to remember waking up after a blow to the head somewhere on a floor last night, realising I wasn’t in my bed and managing to get up and struggle back to my bunk. Could I possibly have been naked guy?? When the story is retold with the added detail of the door opening straight onto naked guy’s head I get that dreaded “aw shit” sinking feeling and sheepishly try and avoid the topic as it buzzes around the room, happily to leave guilt laying at the feet of the Irish. Seriously wtf had happened? The brain connections were hazy at best, no complete knowledge came back, but there was that inate certainty that it was me. Damn. Blast. Oops. Thank Og for the Irish.

Conversations eventually turn to other topics, much to my relief, and eventually Emily, Julie and I decide to join the 4 Canadians on the trip to the ice bar. Ralphie and Headley are introduced, the girls immediately take them into their care and the 9 of us depart.

For those that don’t know the Stockholm metro, let me tell you that, like most metros, the various lines run at different depths below the ground. So far I´ve only experienced the shallow stops and lines. So when we get off at our stop and Kristen starts a sprint up the elevator to be first to the top, male pride is challenged and I take of in pursuit on the next escalator across. It’s neck and neck, step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step (fuck is this ever going to end), until Kristen, who has a slight fear of escalator starts and finishes, baulks at the tape and I make a last ditch surge to win by no more than a nose. We both spend 5 mins catching our breath, feeling the burn and looking at each other with a wtf look in our eyes, until the others arrive at the top. We’ve jsut sprinted up one of Stockholm´s longest escalators (at least 50-60 metres top to bottom at about a 50 degree angle)! If I´d known that, I would have lost my entry form to the race, I can assure you of that.

Anyway, we arrive at the Ice bar in a few minutes and wait for our turn. Not knocking the experience, but it´s a little crap. Sydney is bigger, better, you get 2 drinks not just one, and Sydney´s bar doesn’t have a 2 inch gap where the ice ceiling doesn’t meet the ice wall. Still it´s fun – we take a mass of photos as does every other tourist. At least none of us were refused service for being too pissed or wanted to get out of the bar before time was up cos we were too cold, like others I know. Feeling sufficiently shorn of our naive tourist dollars, we depart on our bar crawl home, which will be a little more intrepid as we don’t know any of them.

At the first bar (just across the road), our interest makes the staff unlock a side/back door that no-one else uses (we must look really intelligent), but once inside we think it looks massively overpriced and we exit almost immediately, only pausing to take photos of us sitting on some crazy art deco ball piece of art/modern seating arrangement.

We are supposed to meet Guillame at another bar a few metro stops away, so its back to the depths we go. Unfortunatley we don’t find the intended pub, find out by sms they want a 100Kr (15 AUD) cover charge anyway, so plans to meet are shelved and we go looking for a drink elsewhere. We stumble across this bar which seems to have some sort of live music/cabaret act going on – it’s free entry, so with everyone needing the bathroom, we are straight in.

If you have ever seen the Eurovision song contest, think of the performers at this band as tryouts! 2 blonde Swedish girls in full makeup and costume, ditto 2 Swedish guys in open necked shirts and coiffed hair, singing Europop songs with cabaret/jazz ballet/high school musical type choreography!. Not that the voices are bad, in fact they are quite good, though we suspect some lyp synching. Its more the stage show. Swagman of the 80s eat your heart out! Strolling through the patrons, cosying up to them with love songs, singing in spotlight to each other, (in fact the performance of the 2 guys in that regard make some of our girls suspect they are gay) – but the crowd are eating it up. R&H get a small spot on stage with the girls singing to them before we have had far too many laughs and it’s time to move on before we all turn 16 again. I suspect if we were allowed to we would vote for Sweden in the next Eurovisiuon simply on the strength of this performance.

A stroll back through Gamla Stan, missing the only pub I actually know (Wirstroms) before finding a little place with reasonably priced beer (9 AUD per pint/stubbie) in which we end up staying for a few as we all swap travel stories. Leaving around 1ish we pop up a high crosswalk near Slussen for a bird´s eye view before starting the 20 min stumble home (I’m not getting this last metro thing right yet!)

On the way I confess that I think I am naked guy which brings much hilarity and congratulations (!?). Having percolated at the back of my brain for a while without result I can only come up with the following:

  • I actually remember going to bed and getting into my sleeping bag liner about 4.30 am

  • Sometime later I deduce thzat I must have woken up needing to go to the toilet/thinking about having a shower

  • Leaving my dorm I must have turned right instead of left and opened the door to the vestibule, instead of to the bathrooms/showers

  • Finding myself hopelessly disorientated and with the reasoning skills of a small ant, I decide to lay down and rest

  • Why I was naked I´m not sure (cos I normally sleep in jocks when in dorms)

The story still needs verification. Upon return to the hostel, Kirsten finds that the Canadian chick with the story is still awake and goes to get more details to see if we can confirm my fears. I follow and confess that it might have been me. Canadian chick looks at me , says nooo, surely not, then asks the definitive question – what colour were your jocks ? (apparently they were lying on the floor next to me). With my answer of yellow comes immediate confirmation in a look of shock, laughter, followed by an embarrassed apology which is more than graciously accepted along with the aside that she saw nothing anyway as she was too shocked and quickly shut the door in retreat. We get more detail re where I was lying, where my head was etc, much to the amusement of everyone as news of conformation spreads.

To be honest, to this day I still don’t really know what happened, though the version above is the most likely. Why I was naked I don’t know – I did wake up with a strange towel in my bed which Canadian chick denied seeing or throwing over me, so maybe I was going to the shower?! Why I had my jocks next to me in the vestibule I´ll never know, I can see no reason for taking them off after wearing them that far but processing power was undoubtedly diminished at that stage. Still, as far as travel stories go I now have a doozy in my possession.

Oh well that´s life on the road and you have to take the good with the bad. Somehow Stockholm is turning into party central for me. And despite some of you back home shaking your heads in complete disgust, this story has bought me a few beers since. Oh, and for their part in tonight’s events the 4 Canadians kindly make R&H honorary Canadians, presenting them with little maple leaf pins that they proudly wear to this day. Just as well naked guy wasn’t inaugurated – where would the pin have gone???

More on Stockholm later…

14Sep/15

It’s a British thing…

Written by Kitty Busz

So, we’re a little bit pampered in the UK when it comes to getting what we want, when we want food wise. And we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our homes in order to get it, Ethiopian, Thai, Indian… the most strenuous activity you will have to partake in is putting your bottle of beer down and dragging yourself to the front door to grab your latest food choice and indulge yourself. But it’s not quite that simple when we’re travelling and every so often the inevitable cravings turn into a sort of group mental torture event where we fantasise over the best imaginable, unattainable food porn.

So the top ten things I miss?

  1. Roast dinner. Because nothing quite defines a lazy hungover Sunday like the smell of a cooked roast with all the trimmings wafting through the house.

  2. Indian takeout. No one quite does Indian food like the British, I’m pretty sure the curry is now one of our national dishes.

  3. Marmite. You either love it or hate it and those of us who love it deeply miss it.

  4. Crumpets. Which actually taste really good with the above on.

  5. Chocolate. Although Galaxy and Cadbury are more readily available over the world these days, often the relatively high price dictates the frequency of the binges.

  6. Real bacon. There is nothing like a bacon sandwich with proper bacon. The bacon probably isn’t even from the UK but the way we put the sandwiches together are just the best.

  7. Walkers crisps. (Not chips) Lays just don’t quite do the same job.

  8. A good sausage. Like a proper thick one from the butchers.

  9. Rekorderlig. Now I don’t even like cider and this stuff is basically glorified squash but a bottle of it with a load of ice is one of the best accompaniments for an evening.

  10. Greggs. Even if you don’t like them surely you’ll miss the sheer ubiquity of them at home.

Kitty is a 22 year old Journalism graduate whose passions are writing and travel. She loves all kinds of adventures from the 5* city breaks in Europe to the more off the wall train journeys through the Middle East.

10Sep/15

Trans-Siberian Part 1, Border Crossings, Fermented milk, Russian Ninja Military Women, and finally Irkutsk (the home of the dart)

Ever seen a good looking Russian Miltary Woman clamber unaided up the walls of a train carriage to check for secret stuff in airvents and light fixtures?

Ever had a Mongolian Border Guard tell you that Jeff (the Welsh guy on Couplings) is in fact you when he looks at your ipod, and cant be dissuaded?

Ever seen a crazy Polish guy with a red cap go bezerk and start kicking chairs at the Mongolian Border town of Erlian?

Well the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Irkutsk provided all that and more.

After a fairly dodgy wake up call at 5.45 am (it wasn’t in English, but that’s all I can tell you) allowed me to be ready for my transfer just on 6.30 am, I ventured downstairs only to find that my guide was there but the driver had unfortunately forgotten to show up. Cabs at the Hotel weren’t going to give up the long trip to the airport they were all hoping for, just to ferry me cross town to the railway station (sound familiar?), so off we chugg down the street to hail a cab on the corner. First 2 refuse before one finally relents and agrees to the trip. My guide tells me its not only the shortness of the trip but the fact that the cabs are inspected at the station for “cleanliness” – if we ran such a system back home there would barely be a cab left on the roads!

Get on the train and find that I have my 2 berth sleeper all to myself! Slump up against the window and start to watch the scenery go by. Meet a couple of young Germans Alex and Hannah just next door but otherwise its a pretty quiet trip until we get to the China – Mongolian border at Erlian. Now it may seem from the scarcity of the above that this arrives quickly – in fact, its about a 14 1/2 hour trip with only a few 10 min stops and little to do but read, check out the dining car (where we first encounter the Mad Polish Guy “MPG”), eat, watch some episodes of Couplings on the ipod and doze. I won’t bore you with descriptions of scenery – but some of it is absolutely beautiful. And some of it is just trees and grass.

So we get to our first border crossing – from China to Mongolia.

The last Chinese town is Erlian and after some brief inspections of papers we get off to wait for the 2-3 hrs that they take to change the bogies on the trains (the rail gauge in Monglia and Russia is slightly wider than that used in China!). We head off in search of a beer and after 20 or so mins discover the bar upstairs at the station – where 9 foreigners finally congregate:

  • Beth (Canada) and Gareth (UK) – both have been teaching english in southern China and speak a little Mandarin – which will prove indispensible
  • Daan and Christophe (Belgium) – returning home from holidays
  • Echo (A Mongolian Chelsea fan who speaks English, French, German, Mongolian and Chinese)
  • Houtang (UK) – another Chelsea fan who has been teaching english in South or North Korea
  • Matt (German) – retrning home after holidays
  • Alex and Hannah
  • And Me

Gareth starts to negotiate the price of a round of beers. Originally quoted 5 Yuan, once he orders 9 of them she wants to charge him 10 Yuan (the contadiction inherent in a bulk “increase” isn’t one we can clearly communicate) so he tells the bar lady to put them back. Well this reduces her motivation to be either pleasant, communicative or in anyway helpful to any of us. Finally she and Gareth negotiate and agree on 8 Yuan. (Given 2 yuan is approx 25c, 8 Yuan to the USD, this is hardly necessary but there is the principle I suppose).

Anyway we laugh, introuce ourselves and chat about where we come from, football (Chelsea v Arsenal – can you imagine) etc. Houtang tells a horror story of 2 Canadian guys he knew being sentenced to 5 years in a Sth Korean jail over1/2 pound of Marijuana. 28 other plain “users” were expelled, but the 2 Canadians and one other guy are considered “dealers’ and get jailed!!!

Another round of beers is required so off I go up to the bar (having Yuan left over whilst others have only USD, Mongolian Tarog, Roubles, Euros etc). Some of you will have seen this coming but the price is now back up to 10 – I cant be bothered arguing so pay the extra 18 Yuan – 2.50 USD. Back at the table I’m castigated with eeryone telling me that once I’ve been on the road that 2.50 will become important, and Gareth is about to intervene when MPG (Mad Polish Guy) erupts.

Sitting off at a table on his own, talking to himself in his ubiquitous shorts, white tank top and red cap, he jumps to his feet, starts yelling at a group of 4-5 non-chinese sitting near him and kicks a few chairs over. This goes on for a few mins before he abruptly stoms off and disappears. No military police, no intervention, everyone is just a little shocked.

We find out later that the perople on the table near him were Polish and were discussing their home politics in their native tongue. MPG overheard, and not approving of their political views decided that a small demonstration of his discontent was appropriate!!

Anyway that derailed our beer-pricing forum, so we get back to a few more ales until finally the train arrives with its widened bogies to take us into Mongolia. A sight to be seen was the Chinese station personnel in full uniform standing at the edge of the platform at full salute as we left with the National anthem playing in the background!!! Priceless.

Another stop inside the Mongolian border at Zamyn-Uud where we can’t get off the train!. Paperwork was easy – they focus more on the Chinese and Mongolians, and since its now late its off to bed.

Wake up and we’re only a few hours from Ulaan Baatar having slept 8-10 of the 13 hr journey there from the border. Mongolian townships pop up out of nowhere complete with gers and satellite dishes (they are everywhere!!!!!!) only to disappear just as quickly leaving a very isolated landscape. UB comes and go – its more sprawlier than I thought and more modern – the prominent Nissan delearship a personal fave, with only a quick stop for the required photos and purchases from stalls on the platforms.

About 3 hours later we stop in the middle of nowhere and wait – not sure why or what for (?) but during the 20 misn or so we open the windows and take a few happy snaps of a group of local Mongolians sitting out of the sun. They wave, smile,and finally trot over with a big cup of what we think was Aigar – fermented mare’s milk. We all take a taste – I wouldn’t have it as my first choice of beverage but its not anywhere near as bad as it sounds.

its back to the never ending traintrip – beers and vodka in various carriages/berths until we get within a couple of hours of Russia – at which point we decide being trashed at a Russian border crossing prob isnt a great idea and put the bottles away.

Russia approaches in darkness and the out of Mongolia section of the border crossing is straightforward – despite the Couplings/Jeff lookalike diversion.

The Russian side however….. well let me take you through the highlights:

A Russian Colonel in full miltary garb including cap, rod and briefcase arrives at your door. Crisply asks for papers and instantly is dismayed that I haven’t filled in both the LH and RH sides of the entry form – aparently both the IN and Out sections are required now! I grab my pen but he simply puts the papers and my passport in his briefcase and barks for me to get out of the carriage.

He summons his ninja – a petite, athletic (and good looking) Russian woman in her 20s in military fatigues who promply searches the cabin. And I mean searches. She climbs walls unaided like that Chinese acrobat in Ocean’s 11 and 12, unscrews light fittings, opens air vents, pushes up the ceiling panels and shines her torch around before smartly dropping down and gives the all clear to her boss.

Without mention to me he takes 4 steps to the next carriage and starts the same process leaving me in the passageway. Taking pity on me, the ninjette glances over at me and nods that I can go back in my cabin. I hear but don’t see a heated exchange in German with the two 50ish male occupants of the next carriage. My limited German gets the idea that there is soemthing wrong with dates or visas and there is some consternation. Alex and Hannah later tell me that one of the guys has 2 passports and somehow screwed up the dates on them. So when he presented his passport to the Russians he “accidentally left” some Euros in in!!!! The Colonel immediately put the money back on the table and then a stronger discussion followed which included barking of Russian and German. They did the same search before moving on – no-one was sure what the position was on the passports but the Colonel had them all in his possession.

Now 2-3 hour pass – all we see is the Russian militay periodically walking up and down our carriage on the way to search the rest of the train. They distribute Customs declaration forms for us to fill in. And here’s where I make a mistake (Sis forgive me!).

Given the atmosphere etc I decare some sleeping pills and valium that I have prescriptions for as they are in my daypack (and the form ask for any medicines being taken in!). I line them up on my table with scripts etc and wait for the customs guy. An hour later he appears and as soon as he sees the check mark against medecine promptly taps my carriage door loudly with his rod and summons another guy. He comes in looks at the pills & scripts, I haltingly explain one set are for sleeping (mime sleeping) and the other is because I”m nervous when I fly (mime plane ad nervous – the latter not the hardest thing to do at this point). He makes a joke to his comrade outside,clearly at my expense about the nervous thing (after all he is a good strong Russian soldier) before taking just the valium prescription with him and departing without a word. He leaves all the pills and the sleeping tab script behind?!

I wait nervously. One hour passes. Another. Its now somewhere around 3 in the moning, I’m stuffed but don’t really want to go to sleep in case they come back and have to wake me up to explain whatever he was checking with the Valium script. Finally Colonel #1 appears (it’s about 8 hrs into the crossing process) and simply hands back my passport and papers (now with the RHS filled out by some Russian flunky!) . The carriage attendants tell me we are now done and can go to sleep which I do – wondering where my Valium prescription went but not wanting to really ask. Wake up the next day – no prescription, I didnt get my customs declaration form back, but I’m still on the train and in Russia!!

Over brunch we all tell our tales – some declared absolutely nothing & had their declarations stamped and handed back in 2 mins, some declared nothing and didn’t get their form back, some declared stuff and had no problems – it was all completely random and arbitrary. Still I’m assured it’s not an issue – I’ll just fill out another form when I leave (this time I think I’ll not declare the Valium!)

Finally around 3 pm we arrive in the home of the dart aka Irkutsk. It’s been nearly 3 days on the train so I’m glad I’m getting off – all the others are on a direct non-stop trip to Moscow!!Goodbyes are said with lots of toasts and hugs and I leave the train to find my transfer to thehomestay. The others have another 3 1/2 days to go to get to Moscow!!!

More on the Home of the dart and Moscow tribulations later – but I’m now only about a week behind real time! Just checked ad the Cats got up by a record margin so I only need the Storm to get up tomorrow for the double! Shouldn’t be a problem beating those soft Manly silvertails!

17Aug/15

Take me Home, Country Road. Haggard Hookers on the Whores’ Highway.

Gareth Johnson set out on a road trip to discover more about one of the world’s most unlikely red light districts.

 

A few years ago, I chanced across a blog written by a dude who was cycling the backwater road from Varna to Burgas, in Bulgaria.

prostitutionOf course, he saw many interesting and unusual things along the way, but what particularly struck him were the numerous ladies who lined the quiet country roads. At first he thought they were waiting for buses or hitchhiking, but then he noticed their foxy style of dress and realised they were practising the World’s Oldest Profession.

Judging from his account, it seems obvious that Mr Cyclist didn’t stop to “chat” with any of the ladies, but his account is still one of the top google results if you Google “prostitution in Varna”.

When I first read the blog, I decided that if I ever found myself in Varna, I’d like to drive along the “Hooker Highway” to see if it was true. I was intrigued as to why these daytime ladies of the night were plying their trade alongside quiet country lanes.



This summer I found myself living in Varna (my decision to move there wasn’t related to the prostitutes). One day, my friend and I decided to set out on a road trip. In the interests of research and understanding more about the contemporary situation in Bulgaria — I suggested that we travel to Burgas along the winding rural roads. The driver agreed, and so the trip suddenly had a purpose — we would go searching for some mythical creatures.

sunny beachVarna and Burgas are Bulgaria’s major seaside tourist resorts, with Varna hosting Golden Sands and Burgas Sunny Beach — two places with a heavy party scene. Sunny Beach in particular is something of a poor man’s Ibiza and therefore highly popular with Brits aiming to get drunk. Both towns obviously cater for anything that tourists could possibly want, with cheap booze, drugs and prostitution high on the list. Having seen the trade played out quite openly in the streets of Varna, I was sceptical as to why any of the women would choose to work on country roads.

It was about noon before my designated driver and I hit the road. I felt that unless the prostitutes of Varna had union rules about going out in the midday sun, this would be a perfect time to spot the ladies. Less than 100 metres after turning onto the road the cycling blogger had described, there she was — standing in a lay-by and dressed like she was going to a party. Spotting us, she beckoned us over. With a cheerful wave in return, we declined her friendly offer, and continued along the road. In just a few minutes, we’d spotted another seven girls, and numerous cars pulled up along the roadside. (check out our YouTube link at the end).prostitutes

So now we knew, the ladies did actually exist. Now, I don’t want to be rude, but while Bulgarian woman tend to be really rather beautiful, these professional ladies were far from pretty. Haggard is perhaps the most polite description I can muster.

Their appearance and habits also raised some new questions. Where did they take their clients to make sexy time? How did they get to and from their places of work? And, of course, why did they set up shop on quiet country roads in the first place? These questions would largely be answered later.

As we continued for seven hours down the coast, we found that the first prossie pathway was far from unique. In fact, it seemed to be quite the norm, with these well-dressed ladies popping up on many other remote stretches of road.

One night we stayed in a countryside hotel, and on checking out the next morning we spotted an older gentleman with a big smile on his face checking in with a younger lady (not smiling). It seems that where there’s a will there’s a way, or rather in this instance where there’s a hooker, there’s a motel renting rooms by the hour.

As for how the lasses get to and from their places of work, I think that’s easy to surmise. Although we didn’t see any girls being dropped off or collected, it’s clear that they aren’t working freelance, and that the whole thing is organised by the sort of entrepreneurial gents more commonly known as pimps. They drop the ladies off in the morning, give them a sales target and then pick them up at night. After deducting their “reasonable expenses” my guess is that these kindly chaps sell the girls some smack to “help them sleep”. This would also explain their uniformly haggard appearance.

And so to the last question — what are they doing on remote country roads? The answer to this shines a light onto the recent history of Eastern Europe. During Soviet times, Bulgaria was poor, a corrupt but relatively benign dictatorship. It was (and is) a major route for goods flowing up from the capitalist south of Turkey and Greece to the vast Soviet empire to the north. Prostitution, as the world’s oldest profession, tends to be practised with pragmatism. It’s a way any poor girl, and usually the guy manipulating her, can earn easy money. In Bulgaria most Bulgarians didn’t have much cash, and the only foreigners coming into the country with hard currency were the truckers, who tended to favour the quiet country roads…

Like it or loathe it, you gotta love how creative capitalism can be.



26Jul/15

Living in the Last of the Soviet Union – a month in Transnistria

The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a lovely place. It really is. What? You’ve never heard of it? It’s a small strip of land between Moldova (heard of that one?) and Ukraine.transnistria

Some people call it “a cold war relic”, others describe it as “the last remnant of the Soviet Union”. There are even those who like to say it’s “the only place in Europe that didn’t get the memo about the Berlin wall coming down.”

I first visited Transnistria — as it’s most often known — in 2010, when my travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, started to expand out of North Korea into some of the lesser-visited corners of the former Soviet empire. It was just one of the stops on an epic overland journey from Beijing, China, to Tirana, Albania.

Once you’ve survived the Trans Siberian across the vast Russian expanse, there are dozens of ways to get through Eastern Europe by train. But after hearing words like “relic” and “remnant” and “memo-missing”, I knew what route I had to take.

1So that November, I brought the first ever tourist group into the country. And, by Stalin’s moustache, wasn’t it an adventure? Strange flags, statues of Lenin, vodka for a dollar, and more hammers and sickles than you could shake a stick at. And if all that wasn’t enough, a cop pulled a gun on us. (But, like they say, he was more afraid of us than we were of him… and anyhow, it’s a long story, best said another day.)

So here I am now, five years later, writing this — and my love affair with this strange little place gets stronger every day.

So what is Transnistria? If you want to know the details, get on Google — but read multiple sources, because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

But if you want my pocket-sized, abridged guide, here you go: Transnistria is a breakaway state populated mostly Russians and Ukrainians who fought a brief civil war against Moldova because they didn’t want to be part of their post-Soviet nation (Moldavians essentially are Romanians). It is a sliver of land on the far bank of the Dniester river (hence “Trans-Dniester”). The capital city is Tiraspol.

It is a largely unrecognised state. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have diplomatic missions, but these little-known places are also described as “Soviet remnants”. Apparently, they all “missed the memo”. In all these countries, there is a substantial passport-holding Russian population, and so the Kremlin tends to keep a paternal eye on their welfare.

Until 2012 Transnistria was run by President Smirnov, who despite often being accused of being a dictator, left peacefully after being democratically voted out of office. They miss him now.

So fast forward to the summer of 2015. I’m trying to chill out at my mum’s house in London, where despite the free accommodation I’m haemorrhaging money. If you like smoking, drinking and all the fine things of life, England just doesn’t work.

So, with a month until my next travel job, it dawned on me — Tiraspol in July!

There are exactly eight “expats” living in Tiraspol. Seven of them are professional footballers, who are paid ridiculous sums by the local oligarchs for their FC Sheriff Tiraspol vanity project. The eighth man is my mate, Tim.Gareth and Tim

Quite why he arrived here eight years ago to found a hostel, not even he can say. But he opened a new frontier in tourism, and it’s no surprise that he is now known as Tiraspol Tim. We became friends and business partners when I first visited, so when I called him from my mum’s house, he had all the answers. “No worries, I can sort an apartment, just $200 a month.” Perfect. He casually added that it would be typical “Soviet Style”. Sounds great, I thought.

As Transnistria doesn’t officially exist, it doesn’t have an airport. And because Moldova — the country it fought to be freed of — is the least visited country in Europe, getting here ain’t easy. I opted for Ryanair to Bucharest.

From here you can jump on the old Soviet train network to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. This train goes once daily in both directions. It takes up to 16 hours, and is usually empty enough to mean you get your own room.

There used to be a great hostel in Chisinau run by a British guy, but sadly it closed a few years ago. The ones that are left are great if you love bedbugs, and hot water.

But it ain’t a problem, Chisinau is cheap. Hostels are less than ten bucks, and a double room in a classic old Soviet-style hotel won’t set you back much. If you want to splash out, go for the Hotel Cosmos, near the train station, for 25 Euros. It’s got all the “missed-the-memo” ambience you’d hope for, along with a splendidly cheap bar crowded with unusually friendly and beautiful women. Not the best place in the world, but fine for one night….

So three days later, I got a taxi to take me to the bus station. He was a young lad who had no issue with me smoking in the car. He seemed pretty cool, so I asked what he would charge me to drive me the two hours to Tiraspol.

“Twenty-five Euro”. Ok, I said. Let’s go. It was my first time crossing the border in a car, but the border was a doddle, and before I knew it I was with Tim at Tiraspol’s iconic 7 Frydays bar.

Time rolled by, and soon it was past 10pm. No so long ago, that meant ‘no more booze’. Well, technically. What it actually meant was knocking on a certain window in a certain alleyway… Soviet Values 1, Capitalist Decadence 1.

soviet style roomMy apartment was exactly as was promised — Soviet Style. Everything, and I mean everything (apart from the wireless router) dated from before the wall came down.

For the first few days, my pocketful of change did me proud. By God, it’s cheap here. But then, as it does, my cash ran out.

In a world with Visa, MasterCard, Amex and the rest (I even have UnionPay, the Chinese version), this isn’t usually much of a problem. But in this country that doesn’t officially exist, it is. Trans-Dniester has its own currency, the Transnistrian Rouble, a currency that is pegged to the dollar at a fixed exchange rate. It’s a currency that can’t be used anywhere outside the country, and it’s the only currency any place will take within the country. You simply can’t use cards anywhere. Apparently, there are a few cashpoints that dispense Russian Roubles (that then have to be exchanged), but they’re hard to find. I called Tim to ask him what I was to do, he gave a suggestion, and I went out to give it a try.

I headed to the Sheriff supermarket (we will talk about these guys later) armed with my bank card and my passport, queued about for half an hour, handed my card and passport to a lady, who took another half an hour filling in forms and signing scraps of paper. It was a very long 30 minutes, but I eventually had a pile of local Roubles. and like magic after a mere hours of waiting had my cash.

cashFlush with cash, I decided to do a little shopping in the Sheriff Supermarket. Remember that word Sheriff? Well Sheriff is THE company in Transnistria, and they own everything, car shops, gas stations, every supermarket and much more besides. They are what in the old times would be considered the state monolith, except they are private, and owned by ex-President’s son Smirnov Jnr, who — by sheer fluke, no doubt — created his business empire at the same time his daddy was president. To give him credit though, he also created a kick-ass football team — Sheriff FC — that win the league every year and have a great stadium.

Tiraspol Tim had told me that he would be busy for a few days as he had a group of Norwegians visiting for three days, and he would be showing them around. The next day I happened to bump into them and they told me that when they entered the country, the border guards had kept them for three hours thinking they were spies.

I found out the next day that the local KGB had been to check on them again, so they had decided to leave early. I found this a shame, not just for Tim, and the Norwegians, but most importantly it was a massive kick in the balls to the local tourist industry. Tim advised me to lie low for a few days, so I complied, chilling in my house using the surprisingly fast internet and catching up on work.

Following the lying low period, I decided to venture about by myself to check out my neighbourhood. This was actually extremely pleasant. It’s often a forgotten point about Soviet places, but they always have lovely parks and open spaces to liven up the often dull architecture.

As we rolled into my second week, I was starting to fall into my little routine — working throughout the day, doing a supermarket run at night, co, and then repeating the next day.

beerOn that point I will briefly discuss cost of living. It’s insane. Food costs next to nothing. Vodka is $1 a litre, beer about $1.10 for 2 litres and cigarettes are less than 35 cents. Tim explained that wages here average around $200 dollars a month. He also said that on occasion he had arranged Russian classes for foreigners for $10 an hour, only for the teachers not to show up. This is down to the old red curse — there’s very little to buy, what there is to buy is so cheap there’s no real yearning to work or earn more money. Positive, or negative? I guess it depends on your take on things.

After my self-inflicted exile, Tim insisted that we went to ‘the beach’. There are two beaches connected to the Dniester river, both with a sludgy muddy sand littered with Soviet era fairgrounds, swimming pools and cool little food and drink kiosks. Without wanting to come across as dirty old man (I’m still only 34, after all), the women of Tiraspol and Transnistria are frankly out of this world. They dress to the nines just to go to the supermarket, so a trip to the beach tends to be quite a treat, with the latest thong fashion being a definite nod to western decadence. Sadly for the ladies, they don’t get the same visual treat, as the gent’s beachwear of choice is usually tight budgie smugglers teamed with mighty bellies.

After the beach, we went for dinner and beers. Including transport I had spent $8 all day. And that was for two people, who were often surrounded by beautiful women. Not a bad result, all considered.

hostelI won’t dwell to much on my last few weeks in the country, as they just followed my familiar little routine, enlivened by trips to bars to hang out with Tim’s tourists and chilling out at the beach.

When I eventually did leave (vodka delayed my departure) I decided to take the bus. When I last did this four years ago, I had to pay a lot in bribes to get out, but this year I did things differently. I’d registered with the police and was given a special piece of paper. What was written on it, I don’t know, but it got me though the border without a word being spoken. And that was that, I no longer lived in Trans-Dniester.

To summarise, living in Transnistria was a lot more fun than I expected. I also found that it was even more Soviet than it appears. There are a lot of positive aspects to the country, which the government of the PMR can be proud of, such as the cost of living and decent public transport. But on the other hand there are the corrupt police registering your every movement and the local KGB hounding tourists out of the country. While the country get called the “last relic of the cold war” a more apt description would be that Transnistria looks like what the USSR would have done had Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked and the Union been saved. In that respect that it reminds me a lot of China. Mao, Lenin, or any number of Communist heroes might be looking at you from everywhere, democracy might be of secondary importance, but the actual political system is Wild-West capitalism where anything goes. Just don’t slag off the president, or his son.

24Jul/15

10 Bars To Visit Before You Die

No one lives forever…

(So here are 10 places to party in the meantime)

 

Having recently read an article about the “top 25 places to party before you die”, I was disappointed to see no mention of any of the places my travel firm, Young Pioneer Tours, likes to visit. Yes, we all know that developed countries like the US, and UK have some great bars — but what if your travel tastes lead you off the beaten track? Can you drink in Islamic states? Is there a party scene in North Korea? Can you be drunk in a land that doesn’t exist? Yes, yes and yes — and here’s how:

10. The DMZ Bar, Yangshuo, People’s Republic of China.
9. The Alba Hotel, Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
8. The Armenian Club, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.
7. The Cave Bar, Trinidad, Republic of Cuba.
6. The Titanic Hotel, Vank, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
5. Ward Number 6 (Palata no 6), Kiev, Ukraine.
4. The Angeles Beach Club (ABC), Pampanga, Republic of the Philippines.
3. The Dining Car, Trans-Mongolian Railway, Russian Federation.
2. The Train Station Bar, Tiraspol, Transnistria (Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica — PMR).
1. The Diplomatic Club, Pyongyang, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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The DMZ BarOK, in the interests of full disclosure, I own this bar, so I admit I’m a tad biased. But let’s look at the facts — Yangshuo is the coolest place in China, and The DMZ Bar is the best bar in Yangshuo. It’s also the only North Korean themed bar on the planet, where you can sip ice-cold imported beer dressed in communist suits, surrounded by unique pictures of the DPRK, enjoying a great atmosphere that feels more like a local pub than anywhere else in China. It’s the place of legends, so pop in and say hello next time you’re in China.
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