30 June 2011

The Hanging Room [Estonia]

It seems fitting to leave Europe with a bit of a bang. Even though I will still be on the European Continent for the next couple of thousand kilometres, Estonia is the last European country I will be visiting for a long, long time. I am heading east to Russia this evening on an overnight bus, fingers crossed everything runs smoothly with my visa at the border (I did get the visa with fake documents!). I can't help but feel a little sad, I have spent the last two years and four months in Europe, made some incredible friends and had the time of my life. Leaving Europe kind of brings that all to a close.

Anyway, I was talking about going out with a bang; Estonia, specifically Tallinn, was just that. Although maybe not as beautiful as some of the other cities I have visited, it certainly has character. The old town is unique, as it has a very strong mid-evil theme. Almost all the restaurants are decorated, there are people standing out in the street dressed up, the buildings, roads, everything feels authentically mid-evil. And what is better - there is a hill (Toompea) right in the old town which provides beautiful views over the city.

27 June 2011

KIWI BAR! [Latvia]

Wandering through the old cobbled streets of Riga, what are the chances of coming across a place called 'Kiwi Bar', filled with awesome New Zealand memorabilia and even more awesome staff (even though they weren't kiwis)? ... slim to none? Yeah I thought so too...

OK, lets calm down and start at the beginning... I arrived in Riga around two hours late as the bus broke down just over the Latvian border. But the wait was worth it... Riga is a beautiful city. I know it seems like that is my standard line, but it really is! Filled with massive cathedrals, old winding streets, colourful buildings, and a bar dedicated to Kiwis!! How can you top that?

25 June 2011

Home Made Vodka [Lithuania]

Being back in the EU was a bit of a shock. The main station was clean and filled with nice looking, modern trains. People could speak English. The streets were clean. The public transport ran on time. Things seem to make sense... I am not sure that I liked it.

Don't get me wrong, Lithuania is a cool country. Unfortunately I could not do a lot of exploring as I was on a bit of a time restriction. My Russian Visa had actually already started... and the visa only gave me 30 days to get across the whole of Siberia! While that can be done in just under a week, I would much rather take my time. But what I did see - Vilnius (the capital) and Trakai, was definitely worth checking out.

23 June 2011

Police Patrols [Belarus]

I was watching the clock... having only 48 hours to travel through the entire length of Belarus. The Transit Visa I obtained allowed me to enter the country at 00:01 on the 16th, and required me to be out of the country by 23:59 on the 17th. With such a short window, I decided to take an overnight train, leaving Kiev at 10:00pm on the 15th. The problem was that Kiev is quite close to the border, and that the train actually crossed somewhere between 11:00 and 11:30pm, meaning I would be crossing into the country up to an hour before my visa started. Common sense would dictate that this would not be a problem, I mean, it is only an hour... But from past experience common sense is something the border guards often lack.

It turns out I was worried for no reason at all. Even though entered Belarus at around 11:30pm, we did not go through the checkpoint until somewhere around 2:30am. The journey was actually a bit of a pain in the ass - I was woken at least four times during the night to check my passport or ticket. And it seems I was a bit of a novelty, the guards often checking over my passport very closely, passing it to their friends to take a look, entering it into the computer system, asking me hundreds of questions...

21 June 2011

A Post-Apocalyptic World [Ukraine] Part II

The distances between main cities in Ukraine is not overly large, but even still the main means of transport is overnight train (they run hardly any services during the day). I was a little reluctant to take a lot of overnight trains at the beginning of this trip, as generally the facilities are not great (as in it is more comfortable to sleep on a pile of sharp rocks). Besides that, I had heard a lot about people being robbed... But after experiencing the overnight trains here in Ukraine, it seemed like the perfect option. Safe, comfortable and relatively cheap... I left L'viv at about midnight and arrived in Kiev at 9am feeling refreshed and ready to explore!

I was CouchSurfing with two awesome American girls in Kiev, Teodora and Betsy. There is actually a small American ex-pat community in Kiev, so I was basically just hanging out with Americans the whole time... in Ukraine. Kinda strange, but they were all freakin' awesome people. I was in Kiev for only a few days, but on two of those days everyone got together by a beach or lake and had a BBQ, drunk some beer and just generally relaxed outside and had a good time. One evening (at about 2am) we decided to go swimming in the river... I saw the river the next day, and there is no way I would have swam in it had I known what colour it was (poo brown). While swimming I managed to take a mouth-full of water, as well as cut my foot pretty deep. Needless to say for the next few days I was just waiting to get the shits or for my foot to fall off.

15 June 2011

Tattoos and Gunshot Wounds [Ukraine] Part I

As my loyal readers know, the Ukrainian visa was a B*TCH to get... expensive and time consuming. And even though I didn't want to, I had this 'it better be worth it' mentality. After spending a day here, the thought never again entered my mind.

So let's start at the beginning... The journey from Brasov in Romania to L'viv in Ukraine was only about 700kms in length, but it took me close to 22 hours to complete. First I took the overnight train from Brashov to Suceava, a town about 30kms shy of the Ukraine border. The distance between these two cities is only about 400kms, but somehow the trip takes 8.5 hours. I actually managed to get a decent amount of sleep; I had a cabin to myself, the guard only came to check my ticket once, and there were no border crossings (so no passport checks).

9 June 2011

Armed with Stakes and Garlic [Romania]

TRANSYLVANIA! The name generally gets the reaction 'is that place really real?' Well, my faithful readers, it is real... really real. And really freakin' beautiful! While the Dracula legend is part of this regions attraction, it is only a small part. There is much more to it...

4 June 2011

Packin' Heat [Serbia]

The overnight train from Zagreb to Belgrade was possibly one of the worst trains journeys I have ever been on. The train itself was fine, but I was woken up literally every hour by someone checking tickets or passports or people getting on and off. It was also not the height of comfort, so needless to say, I was pretty wrecked when I got into Belgrade.

My first mission was to find my host, Marco - a bit of a CouchSurfing legend - having hosted about 700 people or something crazy like that. Marco lives with his brother and their awesome dog just out of the city. After I got settled in, I got my documents together and headed to the Belarus Embassy. Everything was going well, the embassy was at the address I had found on the net, they accepted my documents and didn't request anything further... But there always has to be a hiccup. I had to go to the bank and pay €20. But this time they wouldn't actually accept Euros. So I had to go and get out some Dinar (and of course the cash machine at the bank was out of service). They couldn't process my visa for three days, but I was just glad to have submitted it.

I was also sharing Marco's place with some other Couch Surfers - two French girls (Julie and Marie) and an American guy (Ross). They were all travelling togethor - overland from Armenia to France. They were some of the most awesome people I have met on this trip, and I spent pretty much the whole time in Belgrade hanging out with them; wandering around the city, eating ridiculously sized burgers, getting drunk on cheap beer and rakija. Basically just having a kick-ass time.
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