Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 5, Vietnam

Holy Hanoi!

It was dark, when we arrived in Hanoi by train from China, at a very unholy time, 5 AM. IMG_3661

With a few, even less holy, thoughts sent in the direction of the master mind, that planned this international train connection, we collected our bags, and found there was very little we could do, except walking out of the train station … the time being to late too sleep, and too early to go to our couchsurfing hosts, or anything else … as we walked, and the dawn approached, the city started waking up, the first signs beings small stalls opening, and we had our first taste of the staple vietnamese breakfast, a  Pho soup with fresh herbs, a delicious novelty, and a treat compared to the chinese breakfast porridge.

With some food in the stomach, daylight to heighten the mood, having located an ATM, that made us into Dong millionaires, and a SIM card, we could relax, and have a look around.

What a difference, our eyes being used to chinese paradoxes !

The traffic is like a crazy real time computer game, where you have to move the pedestrian across a multi-directional flood of bicycles. It can’t be done, but somehow it happens, you arrive on the other side of the street.  The pace is busy, but nowhere as hectic, as in the chinese mega cities. More smiles around, people squat, talk, chat, smile.

The traces of french colonization of Indochina are sweet.

Bakeries, bread, cakes. Coffee.

I tasted the vietnamese cofee, kafe nou, brewed in a little aluminium pressurerizer on top of condensed milk, and my reaction was:

– Hallelujah!

The coffee is thick, kicking strong, sweetened with condensed milk. After two months in China, the coffee less country, the pleasure of sipping a kafe nau is beyond words.

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The desserts are also divine.

Creme brulee, an assortments of jellies made of frIMG_3678uit juice, mixed with tapioca, coconut milk and ice cubes. The price tag of such a treat is 20.000 VND, or 0,5 Euro.

I found, that I longed for somebody to adopt me, so I could quit traveling, and stay in this country.

Our hosts, Travis and Zuza, opened up their home, and we found the city of Hanoi to be friendly, comfortable, full of small hidden wonders.

Is it a surprise, that we ended up staying in much longer than planned? In the end I felt that we either have to go, or rent an appartment (the downstairs one was free) and move in.

Bye bye train, hello bicycle

We have travelled from the central train station in Warszawa, to Hanoi, about 12.000 km, all the way by train. We did a high five, and then decided to change the mode of transportation, feeling that we had seen to many trains from the inside. The decision was to buy bicycles. A quick look at the map, it should be feasible to go from Vietnam to Singapore. It would make sense to sell the bicycles again in Singapore, as there are only islands between its southern tip and Australia, our ultimate destination.

We visited a few bicycle shops, and thought that second hand touring bikes might be a good value. Something proven in battle might be better than a shiny new product of unknown quality. We made acquaintance with George, a mechanical whizz at from the famous Bicycle Collective, a specialist in touring bikes. Or, so we thought, at least.

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George, our pusher from the Hanoi Bicycle Collective, equipped our new steel horses for the ride.

George, was set up with the task of equipping our new steel horses for the long ride. After we agreed on a budget, his mantra was:

– I guarantee you, this is good quality

and another favorite saying:

– This is the only place in town, where you don’t buy a chinese piece of shit!

In the beginning there was lots of love, but as we rode some kilometers, and the bikes kept breaking down, the good karma dwindled.

But, anyway, it was really time to move on, and instead of becoming Zuza and Travis’s new neighbours, we studied the map, packed and repacked to fit our backpacks on the bike racks, saddled up, and finally, after several delays, left Hanoi.

Country road

And off we went.

Biking out of Hanoi took the best part of a morning, and we decided, after getting lost around the lakes and tricky one way streets of Hanoi,  that a map, and a look at Google Maps in the morning, is not enough to navigate. A local grocery store solved the problem, and sold a phone card and a scratch code for 3G internet, for about 5 USD. The friendly lady understood enoug sign language to help set it up, and we could continue with our efforts to locate the countryside, now equipped with a GPS device.

Trip map

Click the link below, to see where we went on our 500 km bike trip in Vietnam :

It is a sweaty business to bicycle in Vietnam. After a while the ass grows numb, the dust is covering the sweat, leaving a sticky texture on the skin, it is hot, and what is supposed to be holiday fun, is in fact hard work. Our family of extreme b-type persons, late sleepers and night owls started getting up 6 AM, just to beat the heat.

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It is really hard work riding a bicycle trough vietnamese country side.

We managed to ride between 60 and 80 km a day, covering about 500 kilometers, until one of the bikes, that was having more and more serious problems, with a rattling backwheel, finally refused to move, the axis being broken.

We went to Mai Chau, and hit the Ho Chi Minh trails south from there.

Most places we stayed in “Ngha Nhi” – simple guest houses, no english spoken, no frills, sometimes clean. Once we were lucky, and found a hot spring spa resort next to the road, another time a homestay in a stilt house.

Hospitality extreme - we thought we booked a bed for the night, and were surprised by a dancing party on the thin bamboo floor.

Hospitality extreme – we thought we b

We had to fight with some hard core mountain passes to get there, we should have taken the darker shade on the map as a warning. What we looked for, was simply a bed for the night, and we were surprised, as a troup of girls arrived, and started a dancing party on the thin, thin bamboo floor of the stilt house. One of the dances involved jumping over banging bamboo sticks, and we were scared whether the floor would crack open under our merry jumps, but fortunately it didn’t.

This extremely hospitable family, have set up a home stay, and wanted to attract tourists to their off the beaten track village, using the platform of airbnb. I loved this combination, a surprising fusion of old traditions, simple life in a bamboo hut, and a modern platform, that brings sustainable tourism directly to a community.

Shortcut by train

After 8 days in the saddle, hot and exhausted, and having to deal with a bicycle, where the wheel was runing more sideways than forward, we decided to take a shortcut by train, and hopefully get to a place with better mechanics, than what we could find in the country side.

After a strategical discussion, we opted for 2 days of rest at a swimming pool, and decided to take the train from Vinh to Dong Hoi – to save some steam for our up coming caving trip.

The procedure was very simple and civilized

I have drawn on a piece of paper 3 people and 3 bicycles, and showed it to the lady in the ticket booth. She gave me a nice smile, and asked, in english, laughing at my surprised face:

– So, where do you want to go?

– Dong Hoi – I replied.

– First you need to buy tickets for people, and then you can post your bicycles in the goods carriage. – she explained

The posting happens in a second office, close to the gates that lead to the tracks. You are given a receit, pay a fee of a few dollars, and all the loading and unloading is handled by railway staff, while you can enjoy your ride, and watch the hills rolling by, happy not to be pedalling there.

A few hours later, as we unload from the train, we can smell the South Chinese Sea

Epic cave adventure

Having heard, thatthe worlds largest cave has been discovered in the Phong Nha CavesIMG_9427 area of Vietnam in 2011, only a few years ago, we booked a 3 day trek of the Tu Lan system, with Oxalis, our adventure operator, and I really mean adventure.

When the jeep cam to pick us up in the morning, it has been raining continuosly for 3 days, and continued to rain, as our hopeful group of 8 went trough the security briefing. Equipped with life wests, helmets and head lamps, we thought we were ready for some fun, unaware of the epic adventure ahead.

And it was truly epic.

Nobody died. We had lots of fun. I don’t remember if I have ever been that muddy in my life. After about half an hour of walking, we had to cross a river by swimming, with all clothes and gear on, and we continued the wet journey, from jungle trail, to cave, to river. Our guide kept saying:

– Careful, it’s slippery – when we were navigating the steep, steep jungle tracks, and he was absolutely right. Sometimes, there was a change of terrain, and we could hear as we were sliding, or stumbling down:

– Careful, it’s very smooth!

We were trying to crawl out of a cave, and I gasp, when I see the first of many gigantic spiders, situated on the roof of a tiny squeeze through tunnel

Our guide reassures us:

– Don’t worry. It’s friendly, it’s vietnamese.

It was at a famous cave with three whirlpools, that the adventure got an epic twist, as half of our group was swept away by the current, towards the gaping mouth of the cave. Luckily, we had a spanish guy, Jesus, with us, and he really lived up to his name, swimming to the rescue with a lifeline.

The nights were cosy, with campfire, jokes, friendly interaction with the vietnamese staff, a shared sense of bonding, of surviving this adventure together.

We return to our hotel, the Phong Nga Farm Stay, very wet, with a stinking bag filled with our stinking, muddy belongings, and stupid smiles on our faces.

DMZ and goodbye

The Phong Nha caves are just north of the DMZ, and sensible connections to Laos are just south of DMZ. So I figured it was time for indulging some pacifist propaganda into the teenagers. We crossed the DMZ together with Tam, our guide and American War veteran. The Vinh Moc tunnels, a complex of tunnels 15-21 meter undeground, designed to hide the population of a whole, heavily bombed village, made a great impression. Their motto “to be or not to be”, shed a new light on this thin worn quote, in order to survive the heavy bombing, the local people had to dig underground, and spend months and months in the tunnels.

This was our last day of our one month stay in Vietnam, we visited only the northern part, something has to be left for the next around the world trip.

From Dong Ha, we booked a bus ticket, and were suprised with an extremely comfortable direct bus to Pakse, Laos, where we continued the family adventure.

Family Gap Year adventures – Chapter 4, China

Alien, welcome to China

The train from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Bejing is a party on wheels, as many of our fellow passangers have made an early start on celebrating the end of the transsiberian journey, and as we roll along the vast, sandy reaches of the Gobi desert, wine is poured, and the spirits are merry.IMG_9044

The vast, empty landscape is replaced by high rise housing, and chinese signs, and we stop for a change of wheels, and visa formalities at the border.  My son Pawel was 12 when his passport photo was made, and being now 19,  has matured, and we sense problems as the serious faced chinese border guard asks my son:

– Look at me

Silent scrutiny, minutes pass, support is called on, and arrives running, I try very hard not to laugh of the officers concentrated faces, as he takes on the task of recognizing a child in a young mans face.

– Follow me!

We exchange looks in the train cupe, the fellow passenger from the upper berth volunteers:

– Can I go to Tibet instead of him, I mean, if he is detained?

After a longer scrutiny, by three officers staring back and forth at my son, and the picture, and in the end a decision is made

– Alien, welcome to China

They hand us an “Alien registration card”, which we dutifully fill out, and hand over. This sense of being an alien will follow us trough our whole stay in China.

An anthill called Beijing

We arrived in the anthil called Beijing by train from Mongolia, from one of our planets most sparsely populated places, in the comfort of your sleeper, in less than 24 hours.
The city is green. We are surprised. We have expected ugly, grey industry, but what we see is a green and modern city.
Broad roads, with lanes for bicycles, that whizz by soundlessly, electric.

We stay on 17th floor with our new chinese couchsurfing friends, Nic and Emily, that make the transition somewhat easy, and take on the tedious task of teaching us basic chinese. Words like tea,  茶:

– Cha – I try again.

– No, no. Cha. – Nic is patient.

I can’t hear the difference. Nic asks me to make my vovels longer.

– Chaaaaa ?

– No … Cha.

Chinese is not easy, being a tonal language, and our ears and throats not being used t. After about a week of trying, I manage to order my first cup of 茶.

The long march

We leave Beijing, and spend two weeks trekking in Tibet. On the train back from Tibet to mainland China, snowclad soaring peaks are replaced by gently rolling hills, and we arrive in Guillin,  a go-to town in the humid Guangxi province.

I am happy, because my family has a tradition of travelling together, and my mom has decided to join us for a part of our trip trough China, and we are looking forward to exploring the country side together.IMG_9255

We are met by Jun, our guide from the small agency Backroad of China, that has arranged a village to village trek for us. Jun is not happy to see our Meindl mountain boots, and suggest that we replace them by sandals or sneakers.

– But these are very good shoes. They are made for mountains! – I protest

– No, chinese mountains are different, these shoes are not good.

This will be a recurring point of discussion each night, but we manage to stand by our decision, and I am quite happy, as the chinese backroads turn out to be impossibly steep trails, made in tramped clay, smooth and slippery.  Apart from having her own opinions about mountain footwear, Jun is a fantastic guide, very caring, and has a personality that makes her the perfect companion:

– I like being chatty-chatty – she says.

– Me too – I admit.

The villagers we meet are amazing, smiling faces, hands lifted in greeting, children running out from their homes, yelling:

– Hello

We visit three different minorities during our eight days trek in the country side, and sleep in stilt houses, with local families, with varying conditions of beds and toilets, but unchanging hospitality and friendliness.

We walk among rice terraces, admiring how they are sculpted, flowing down into each vally along the geodesic curves of the surrounding hills, colored golden, ripe for harvest. Wily old men and women bent under the heavy load, happy faces carrying the rice home. The villages seem inhabited by young children and elder people, the young generation being away in metropol centers, having joined the powerful industry as migration workers.

– Your breakfast is ready.IMG_9281

The family mother has been up very early, to go to the rice field and collect fresh ingredients. The bowl is full of fried grasshoppers.

– Eat, eat.

– Drink, drink!
Dutifuly, we crunch the grass hoppers, and wash down with our oil tea, tea made from the fruit of tea trees, with salt, peanuts and popped rice.

A new day is waiting, we tie our boots, wave goodbye, and set off to the next little gem, hidden behind a pass, or in the next valley, nested among golden rice paddies.

After 10 days, we reach our final destination, and it is time for my mom to go back to Denmark.

In the car to the airport, my children admit:

– Holidays in China are like a long march, – with a reference to chairman Mao, and

– We need holidays from the holiday.

That’s right. When you travel for a year, you need holidays from the holiday.

We wave goodbye to my mom in the airport, sad that this part of the adventure is over, but excited about going to have holiday from holidays.

Yangshuo, a chinese village

No other places do the chinese seem more crazy, busing in huge crowds to experience this authentic rural village, that has become a sea full of people, fully equipped to serve as a 24/7 karaoke joint.

According to confirmed accounts, this has been a small village until a few years ago

Internal tourism brings buses, electric carts to whizz the passengers around, everyone seeking the quietness, fresh, sweet water of the country side, the meditative sight of rice pIMG_9293addies

About 5 kilometers away from the city center, the massive amount of hotels named “Village retreat”, “Quiet forest”, “Secret garden” is thinning, and we see that the country side is still beautiful, with curiously shaped carst peak, overgrown by lush vegetation, wrapped in mist.

Yangshuo is also a climbing hot spot, and the reason why we rent a room for 10 days. The teenagers can have a “holiday from the holiday” by the pool, I plan to rent climbing gear and try out this famous lime stone.

Egg, Winebottle and Swiss Cheese – this could be a foundue-recipe, but its not, these are names of crags,wonderful climbing, and somewhat random grading.

Climbers inn is the place, where people show up in the morning, nine’ish, looking for partners and sharing a ride to the crag in a mini bus. I team up with Jordi, a recently arrived spanish teacher, still somewhat shocked by China being China.

Four months on the road without climbing have set me back, and as I fight for the moves, the routes fight back.  I am having a fantastic time, meeting a wondeful mosaic of the tribe “climbing people”, and 10 days pass way to quickly.
Our last night, I buy drinks at the Rusten bolt, and feel a sense of belonging, saddened by having to leave the next day.

Panda keepers helper

We have signed up for a two week volunteer program at the Bifengxia Panda base, and expectations are pretty high as we ride the train from Guiling to Chengdu, excitement being fueled by amazing memories from the Great Baikal Lake vounteering program.

After having paid the uniform rental fee, uniform washing fee, and management fee, we are equipped with rubber gloves and jumper suits, assigned to a panda keeper and panda each, and learn from our panda keeper how to scoop up the panda poo.

The pandas are fed every day at 08300, 1100, 1330 and 1445, and besides cleaning the cages in the morning, there is really nothing meaningful for us to do in between the feedings. This gives the days a rather depressing, and boring rythm to the day, that is only brightened by the actual interaction with the pandas, that love the carrots and panda cakes. The animals love to sleep, and as we watch the lazy the day away, we do the same.

Things are not made better by our accomodation. It is a pretty run down hostel, a rather sorry place, with mold in the corners and I-couldn’t-care-less-about-you attitude among the staff, it’s only raison d’être being the steady stream of volunteers.

We try to escape this depresssing setup in our weekend, with a 3 day trip to Emei shan, and spend two days climbing a staircase of about 15.000 steps, in the steady rain, saddened by how the chinese national park has turned this magnificent mountain into a gigantic, concrete stair case. On Sunday morning, we get up early, and see that rain has been replaced by snow, and fog by busload after busload of chinese tourists, eager to visit the holy mountain by cable car, and both hikers and cable car hoards are met by the glow of the gigantic multi-dimensional statue of the future Buddha.

China weary

We have been travelling for two months in the Middle Kingdom, where the tiniest speckle on the map, turns out to be a loud, million-something size city. Most people are friendly and helpful, but others start saying “Mei you”/Don’t have, even before you have opened your mouth, seing a long-nose face. Being a partial analphabet, and fighting with the tricky tones, does not make it an easy country to travel trough. As our visa is running out, and the budgetted Yuan supply dwindles, chinese cities start to seem all alike, and our patience with loud crowds has been worn rather thin.

We are ready to move on, and I am full of excitement, and a sense of new adventure, when we board the night train to Hanoi.

Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 1, Russia

Overland from Denmark to Australia

We are a polish family, live in Denmark.

A mom and two teenage children.

We decided that its time to go on a long adventure, and after about a year of planning, saving money, working overtime, completing visa applications, we can take of on a year long gap year adventure.

I think of myself as a regular person, my friends tend to call me crazy.

The plan is to go overland to Australia.

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… instead of buying the commute pass …

So we rented our house, with our cats. And instead of buying the commute pass Odense – Copenhagen, I purchased a set of tickets for the transsiberian railway. To Moscow. And Beijing. And Lhasa.

An officer checks our passports at the Poland – Belarus border:

– Where are you going?

– To Australia

– You are in the wrong train. This train does not go to the airport.

Moscow

This is such an imperial city. I walk around, and feel to small, the houses and streets are oversize, crossing the Red Square seems a daunting task.

We are greeted warmly by our couch surfing host Dimitri, and feel quickly at home in his cosy appartment in the very center of Moscow, served with pet rats, and long intellectual discussions over tea, that drag deep into the nights.

Kosmonauts celebrated as heroes of a laboring nation

Kosmonauts celebrated as heroes of a laboring nation

The metro is a series of beautiful temples, the parks are huge, filled with life, flowers or old soviet era statues.

We ave at the uber-cool Kosmonaut memorial, full of silver foil, rocket parts, space suits, and this shiny rocket and its trajectory, catapulting into space.

We hang out with the crowds in Gorki park, and enjoy the waves of hot summer.

Wish, we could stay longer, to decipher this city.

But the train is leaving from Kazansky vokal. Time to board the transsiberian.

Siberia, Siberia

We float trough the taiga on white pillows, the train departs every single station on time, after some time it seems as if the sun was to early, as we whizz trough time zones.

Suddenly 3 days have passed, and I face the overwhelming fact, that next morning we are getting of the train.

Krasnoyarsk is pretty much in the middle of Siberia.

We paddle down the Mana and Yenisei river, and visit the Stolby national park.  

Andrej is our wonderful host, and we have a magic evening with guitar play and polish – russian – english songs, straight from the heart.

Volunteering at shores of Baikal Lake

It is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, 365 rivers flowing into it, one for each day of the year. The water is ready to drink, thanks to the purifying effect of the Epishura – a tiny shrimp that keepst he water crystal clear.

For two weeks, we are blue-capped volunteers for the Great Baikal Trail project.

We are a group of 19 people, driven by various degrees of idealism, a mix of russians and foreign volunteers, helping the national reserve to maintain trekking paths, that can tempt eco-tourists to supplement the meager budget.

We camp at the sandy shore, and every morning, when I crawl out of the tent, I am greeted by a completely new scenery, sky playing with the lake water.

And every evening, we sprawl quietly in the sand, watching the spectacle of sunset, amazed by how different it is, and how beautiful.

There is a bear in our valley, we see fresh tracks on the sand, and burn fire each night to keep it from our camp.

We cook food over open fire, cans, potatoes, and finish each meal off with tea and lots of russian candy.

The work is very hard – carrying stones, crushing rocks, digging with the “kirka” – pickaxe.

Slight to mild degrees of disorganization can lower the morale, but Kostia is my patient russian teacher, every night the evening fire sends sparks towards the infinite sky, that is full of shimmering stars, and we are a hard working family, spell-bound together by this majestic scenery.

When we return to Ulan Ude, after 2 weeks in the wilderness, I am amazed by wonders of civilization such as water in the tap, electric kitchen kettle and flush toilet.

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Europa on Rails

Back and forth with the Orient Express

I am 34 years old. I have never ever been on a real interrail trip, with sleeping bag and foam matress slowly rolling and rocking trough Europe. Each year a new summer comes, the train stations fill up with young people with big backpacks and even bigger dreams.

Each summer I was dreaming of going too. But I couldnt, cirumstances were never auspicious.  At some point the young people stopped looking at me as “young”, and together with this change in perception the dream faded slowly away.

Until this summer. 2010.

On my daily commute to work, I have been passing a poster every morning “F*ck the plane, go Interrail“.

Power of marketing?

I bought an Interrail ticket. The best kind – one month of continuous travel – total freedom, no restrictions. And one for my 15 year old son as well, whom I managed to convince to go with his old mamma on a holiday, that involves changing lots of trains.

This is how a magic adventure started, that took us from Scandinavia to the Orient, and back, filled all senses, and left an impression of Europe as a single landscape, interconnected by culture, languages, family ties, rail roads, power lines, long black stretches of asphalt and fields of corn and wheat and sunflowers.

We went as far as we could go – to Istanbul in Turkey – and then came all the way back to the North.

It was a trip of many discoveries …

In search of European Longdistance Walking Path E3

I have a special love for long roads and paths that wind, spanning its own reality, leading a wanderer trough villages and cities, trough space and trough time, in a series of arrivals and departures, on a journey that quickly becomes internal as well as external. A couple of years ago walking the Camino de Santiago left a strong imprint on my mind and my feet. Where can I have more walking magic?

The European Union has a webpage, with so called Longdistance Walking Paths. I found one called E3. I dont know why I fell in love with it.

Maybe it was the one with blank spots on the map? Maybe because it starts in Istanbul – the easternmost possible corner of Europe, and runs across culture, countries and history, all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the westernmost corner of our continent.

Maybe as a preparation to walk this fantastic route one day, I had this romantic idea of tracking down the eastern (blank, uncharted) part of E3 by train, and spending a few days here, a few days there, hiking the most scenic parts.

The E3 goes roughly like this:

  • Turkey – Bulgaria – Romania – Hungary – Slovakia – Poland – Germany – France – Spain.

Given a non-existent amount of information, like a map of Europe with a winding line, no travel accounts, blogs or description, I thought we can just go along the winding line, and try to find a path. Having choosen thecountries, I did a little bit of planning by looking for nice Couchsurfing hosts in each of these countries. And I thought that you can always buy a better map, ask people around, and hear more about the trail once in a given country.

How do you pick whom to meet of the thousands and thousands of possibilities? You dont pick, just trust that you will meet exactly whom you are supposed to meet:

David, an active himalayist from Budapest, that happened to be gone, but left os directions to his yurt.

Georgi, a construction engineer from Bulgaria, that dreams of standing on the highest point of each european country.

Kubilay, a security engineer from Turkey, that understands how to link psychology with the war on terror and information security into a bunch of cool new ideas.

Let me admit it at once. We didn’t find the E3. But we found so much else, that it didnt matter. E3 is for walking, anyway.

Hungary

I was really struck by the beauty of Budapest Keleti, the Eastern train station. Like a temple of progress, like a belief in a better future, created by steel, rail, and working hands. 9am, crawling out of a delayed sleeper train, sweaty and weary by 48 hours of travel.

The day before I was sipping a Mojito toes buried in the sand of a river-beach-bar in Eastern Berlin, close to the Gallery and whats left of the Berlin Wall.

The day before that I was sipping a capuccino at Nyhavn, a historic port  in Copenhagen, trying to get a hectic work week to disappear, and tune into the concept of holiday and adventure.

First things first. Money, bathroom, luggage store, food.

Beautifull secession architecture, the Fos, termal bath.

Stroll around, look at how Buda and Pest mirror each other.

What kind of money do we need here?

We follow the classic route of the Orient Express.

Ours is worn down and shabby, but we are rolling.

Hungary.  Serbia. Bulgaria. Turkey.

In 36 hours of travel, from leaving Budapest until arriving in Istanbul, we go in and out of the European Union. The language is changing from hungarian to serbian to bulgarian to turkish. Money is changing from Forinth to Dinars to Levi to Lira.

I have to write the exchange rates down on a piece of paper.

Istambul

East meets west over a small glass cup filled with çay.

Bosphorus is spanned by several bridges, and criss crossed by ferries, that carry people from one shore to another.

Haga Sophia and the minarets of the Blue Mosque on one shore, the Galanga tower on the other, a breath of fresh air in the dusty warm city.

We are met on the station by our Couchsurfing host, Kubilay, and he looks nice, and I dont know that he will be such a fantastic friend, such a wonderful addition to my life.

He drives us trough the city, we pass the famous bridge, and we are in Asia. I am a little disappointed, its not allowed to walk there, and stand with one foot on each continent, its a highway with dense traffic, no room for romantic pedestrians.

We are in our hosts spacious apartment, where we are met by Ozan, the house mate, and we drink a cup of çay, looking a bit surprised at each other, still strangers.

But soon we arent strangers anymore, and even trough the boys are busy with work during the day, the nights are ours and fill quickly with laughter, and joy, and sheer happiness. A few days later I discover,  that what I thought a cliche is so true, and happened to us –  we were picked up from the stations by a stranger, when we left, it hurt because we were leaving a friend.

Our hosts give us directions, and everyday we go exploring this vibrant city, with its eternal clash of culture. The turkish flag is so proud, it is waving in the wind from every imaginable importan position, the red background and the moon. The city is crowded, the traffic jams are traditional, every word and concept has a deeper meaning.

Our hosts play a traditional turkish instrument called baglama, and my son is soon hooked into learning a simple tune. We learn lots of concepts about nazar, intuition, soul – and about hospitality. The words are so complicated, almost nothing is recognizable from other languages I know, and I have a hard time sticking a few courtesities to my brain.

But we have patient teachers. We leave after having stayed longer than originally planned, and with a brand new baglama strapped to the backpack.

Definitely the most amazing thing about Turkey is its people.

Bulgaria – enchanted by the mountains

We are in Devin. Rodopi mountains are lush green, full of herbs, birds, bees, smells.

Farming is done with the power of back and hand, horse carriages move with dignity up the winding mountain roads.  We go exploring into the wild country side, discover a termal swimming pool, and get lost on a pretty easy trail. When we climb up to the top, we see the country around us, we are pretty high, its wild, isolated. Range after range of mountains spans the horizon, everthing covered by green vegetation, and far far away gray-violet shapes mark the tallest mountains in Bulgaria.

Georgi, such a beautiful human being, full of dreams and determination is here in the little town of Devin to build a dam. We laugh that its a long flashmob, a thousand men came, spent 5 years building a dam, and will soon go away.

Learning, sharing, giving. That is what Couchsurfing is about.

Istambul take two

Back to civilization after a wonderfull time spent in the mountains. We bumble with bus from Bansko to Sofia, find the Central Train Station, and have a long look at the list of train departures, in all directions, everything written in the cyrillic alphabet.

We can go there. Or there. Or there. We had plans of going to Romania, we have left Istanbul.

At least we tried to leave, because we find out that we have to go back to our new turkish friends. An invisible power is pulling us back, and soon we are in the little glass booth that sells international seat reservations. Friendship has its demands.

The woman has such an unintersted face when she tells me, that I cant go to turkey because  I am a woman, and the train has only reservations left for men.

– No problem.

No, no, you cant go.

– But I want to go to Istanbul.

Cant, cant be done. Only for men.

The feminist inside me wakes up. This is gender discrimination! We are inside the European Union, where my right to free movement is restricted because of gender. I decide to tell this unparticipating lady, that I want to report the incident to the police.

– Little english, little english.

But in the end she produces a ticket. I can go – my son is a bit worried.

– Mamma, maybe you have to wear a fake moustache? Otherwise everybody can see that you are a lady.

We roll trough Bulgaria, a full moon is accompanying us, spilling a flood of white light on the corn fields, the roads, the power lines.

Everything is so connected, we move along lines planned by others, new roads built on old ones, for thousands of years people have moved on this road, like a river.

The ceremony of getting the right stamp in the passport at the Bulgarian – Turkish border is repeating itself, just as entertaining and surreal as the previous time.

And in the morning we are back in Istanbul, the city-desert full of houses, the horizon cut into pieces with tall minarets from all directions.

Back together with our two new friends, more sightseeing, more museums.

A full moon is shining for us on our night walks.

There is more of the singing, playing, laughing, nagre, rake – turkish people know how to enjoy life.

All the way back

I am talking with one of the room mates in the sleeper, a middle aged lawyer from Argentina, and I discover that 1o minutes, talking non-fluently in spanish, you can drill down to core of thing, the essence of life, and purpose in life. We are like naked to each other, and seeing the reflection of oneself in the eyes of the other brings a new clarity to the understanding.

We are talking about love, about divorcing, about integrity.

The Argentinians leave us in Sofia, the train is running late, we cant leave it to power shop some food supplies, so we ask them to do a favor, and they come back from the food run with new supplies of chips and ice tea.

The next new friends in the sleeper room is a couple thats romantically in love, two jewish-russian-american college students reunited after a year of studying abroad and self-realization. We make lists of countries we should love and hate, its a competition, the couple with the longest hate list will loose the game.

– Germany, Russia, Gypsies, …

– Aussies, Mexicans, …

Time flows, we pass a border, stamping game, passport control, and the dicrete 3 men in suits, that slip a bunch of money into the pocket of the controller. Its the only compartment that doesnt get a thorough check.

We have left the European Union, and rolled into Serbia.

The trail is winding trough mountains, high faces rise on both sides and shadow the sun. Its grey rocks, emptiness, a hard land to live in, a hard land to fight for.

The train pulls into the station of Nis. Serbian railways havent discovered the concept of a restaurant car, but they will change the engine, and we have a little less than 10 minutes to make a food run. With a loudly beating heart and using hand gestures and a mix of polish/english we make a quick order of two gigantic hamburgers with freshly grilled meat the size of my plate at home. I forget that I am semi-vegetarian, and enjoy the sight. Breathless from running back we are at the coach just in time for departure.

We keep rolling, the sun is lower and lower, the turkish train conductor pays us a lot of small visits, he gives us tea, and fruit, we show each other family pictures and talk in a mixture of sign language, and the few turkish words, that we managed to learn.

The train creeps trough Serbia, and is unbelievably sloooow, but we learn from the turkish conductor, that this is a record trip, we are only a couple of hours late, and not the usual 18. Its dark outside when we finally pull in to the station in Belgrade.

– Train to Budapest?

– It left 3 hours ago!

– When is the next one?

– Tomorrow!

We have to admit it, we are stuck here in Belgrade.

A couple of desperate phone calls isnt enough to arrange an emergency-couch, and we decline the conductors kind offer of letting us sleep in the train. Instead,  we check in for the night in the youth hostel thats just opposite the train station. 6 Euro for a dorm bed and  hot shower after such a long train ride – thats gooood value.

Smiles come back on the tired faces, and stay there until we discover lice in our hair – the seats were suspiciously looking in the sleeper from previous night.

So we have to find a pharmacy-after-dark, and a restaurant, and try to find the main walking street, and also do some sightseeing, now that we are here.

So strange to be in a city that has been at war not so long ago, now its vibrant and modern, full og highrise building, glam shops, fashion and open air cafes.

Back in the hotel we improvize some lice-extermination attack with plastic bags and a chemical potion that has a very acid smell, and gives tears in the eyes just from bein near it. My son goes to sleep, but I cant resist the tempation of joining a happy party of people sitting on the balcony, overlooking the roofs of Belgrade, sipping wine.

They are so amazed, that I am here just by coincident, moving on the very next morning.

Warszawa Rising

After 48 hours of hardcore train travel, we arrive in Warsaw Central. We have an unmovable deadline with history, that my son doesn’t want to miss.

Its August 1.

A day full of emotions in the city of Warsaw.

The anniversary of the Warszawa Rising.

During II World War, in 1944, when the russian red army was camping on the left hand bank of the Vistuala river, a desperate military action started in Warsaw. For 63 days thousands of young boys and girls participated in a desperate effort to liberate the city, and threw out the german oppressor. Really not armed with weapons, but with songs and love for the homeland. The new untrained soldiers were beaten, shot, deported. The city was burned down to the ground, the population carried away on trains to unknown destinations. Unbelievable loss of life, of everything that was beautiful. Warszawa has been rebuilt, but the old one is gone forever.

We go together to the military cemetery, Powazki, to participate in the memorial.

Exactly at 1700 the traffic stops, and every driver in the city makes a long noise with the car horn. The infernal sounds go on and on, everyone knows, that  it was exactly at this hour 61 years ago, that the fightings started.

– We are proud that you dared.

-We remember you, that you died fighting for our freedom.

-You didn’t win – but we admire your courage.

Red-white flags, red-white flowers, red-white ribbons.

A sea of solemn faces, in deep thoughts.

North, north, north

Next day comes, and I am going further north.

From Warszawa to Berlin, we pass fields of wheat, and small villages, I pass the time practicing my few japanese words with three wonderfull ladies that were in Poland to play Chopin. Japanese love Chopin.

In Berlin i try to buy a ticket for the sleeper train to Sweden, but there are none left. I ask the train conductor, but he says there are none left. I decide to stick around the train anyway, because I have set my mind on going to Sweden. Another woman with a backpack looks like she is doing the same thing. Combined magic of two determined female travelers works, and the train masters hushes us into the train. I share the tiny cubicle with Margita, she is returning home from a circuit of Mont Blanc.

We discuss the different sizes of our backpacks, compare shoes and blisters, what a fabulous meeting on platform 26 in Berlin Hauptbahnhoff. When we wake up, we are in Sweden.

I have to switch trains in Lund, a hurried hug to Margita, and I have 1 hours to drink a cappucino, and see the famous Lund cathedral.

Cathedrals are so inspiring – this effort of thousands of uneducated people, that made them dream and transcend from stones and mortar into a world of timeless beauty.

Next train goes to Stockholm. Like the last frontier of civilization, Stockholm is the city where I always spend time between trains running around for last minute shopping – fuel for the mountain stove, new trekking socks.

The next train, from Stockholm to Kiruna is full of people dressed for the fields, backpacks, boots, light in their eyes.

I share the appartment with 3 old friends, they invite me to their meal of cheese, pears, bread and wine. We make mixed english-swedish conversation, and go north, north, north.

Sweden is full of woods, unending stretches of dark green woods.

The sky is different, higher, lighter, the air is cooler. It doesnt really get dark that night. I lay in my berth, and I think that its time to get ready for the next challenge.

A challenge of a 110 km adventure run in Lapland, a frozen country above the polar circle, the Fjellrevan Classic 2010.

The interrail ticket is due to expire. End of one adventure, a new one is beginning. But thats the next story

Indian rail travel – Worst case scenario

I am travelling around South India alone with my 2 kids. It is quite fun and intensive. I would like to tell you about my worst case scenario regarding booking tickets. From home, I tried to book rail tickets for the train from Chennai (MAS)-Mettupaliyam (MTP) on the Nilgiri Express – an overnight train, and then from Mettupaliyam (MTP) to Ooty (UAM) – which is 5 h beautifull ride up the mountains with a century old “toy train”. I attacked the reservation page several times, without great success. I gave up when I after making a credit card payment got an e-mail that “your transaction was unsuccessfull” The problem is probably due to the new verification of credit cards by my bank – but nobody wanted to aknowledge the problem. Anyway, departure date was approaching and I decided that I will book the train tickets once in India. The first hotel we stayed at was in Mamallapuram, 50 km outside Chennai. The travel desk told me, that “no problem”, they will book the ticket for me. I was happy. Next day, the told me “no problem” they will book the ticket. Next day, they told me, that there were only waiting list tickets left. I think the 3AC class had a figure saying W20/W18. I decided to purchase a waiting list ticket – the bought it in the Tatkal quota. They didnt buy the toytrain ticket to Ooty – it was not necessary they said, I could just get it in Mettupaliyam. And told me there is “no problem”, I can just change the wl ticet it into a real reservation once at the station. So far so good, we arrived at Chennai, checked the luggage into the cloak room, and started looking for where to get a real reservation. The very helpfull station master told us to go to another building. We went to the office, waited in line. Come back in 30 minutes. We went back in 30 minutes. Come back in 15 minutes. We went back in 15 minutes. Then we were told to go to another office. We went there. They told us to go back to the first office. I tried to play the helpless foreign woman with 2 kids, by invading the office of the Station Master once more. Got a lot compassion, but nothing could be done – we should wait for the Train Master to give us seatings. The train arrived on the platform one hour before departure. It was so looooong, going from one end to the other (in search of the Train Master) took about 20 minutes. No, the train master could not do anything – the train was fully booked, we were on the waiting list as #3, #4, #5 respecitevely. He said, if we want to go, we have to go in the unreserved compartment. At that point, we were VERY determined to get aboard that train! So, we went to the other end of the loooooong train where the unreserved coaches were. Tried to enter one – but people were hanging outside the door. Tried the womens compartment – full. 5 minutes to train departure we decided to just PUSH into the train, hoping to sort things out. So we mashed, and squeezed, and were inside a very crowded carriage. The seats are organized in compartments in the open carriage, with wooden seatings for 2*5 people in each compartment, and 2*1 next to the window. Above all the seats,there is a luggage shelf. Every single space was full, people sitting on the luggage rails, and about 10 on each of the 5 man seats. I was standing on one leg, the kids before me, nobody could move. The train rolled away from the station. People shuffled a bit, a man offered half a seat to my 9y old daughter. she was able to reach it, and put her pack on the knees. Somebody whistled from the next compartments, and people waved at my 12y old son to come. He climbed up the luggage shelf where they made room for him, and had a great time. I was able to put the packs on the floor, and sit on top of them. What an entertaining night! People were singning,humming, playing, talking… I had a great conversation about capitalism vs communism with a furniture fabricant. The guy next to me turned out to be working as software engineer in Chennai, going home to see his newborn daughter. Not everybody spoke english, but they sought translation of those who did. As the train stopped at different stations, people shuffled and moved, and I even made it to a wooden seat Once in MET, the same problem. No seats left for us. We turned up in the “unreserved part”, people moved and made room for us. We rode with a bag of rice and garlig, an elder tamil grandma, and a tea fabricant, and a bunch of engineering students going home for the weekend from Chennai.

The train started to move, trough the lush country side. We went up, up, up, the mountains around grew taller. We had plenty of stops on the way for chai and water for the engine. The kids thought the steam engine was so cool! Like a caleidoscope, the landscape changed with emerald green tea plantations, high banana trees, steep cliffs. Our new tamil nadu friends didnt miss a single tunnel – each was greeted with loud whistles and cries.

The boys entertained my kids the whole way. Before leaving, this following conversation occured – I have been thinking about it since: – What do you think of the Tamil people? – They are so nice and friendly! – Well, if that is the case, what do you have to offer in exchange for their warmth and friendliness? So the worst case scenario for us was: not so much sleep, but a great experience, and so many new friends! And I promised the kids, that we will opt for a berth on the next trip.

The mighty steam engineNew friends on top row