A Travellerspoint blog

tredding into unfamiliar territory - kosovo

-17 °C
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After Sofia, it was a train ride to Nis, Novi Pazar, and finally Prishtina in Kosovo.

The bus ride from Novi Pazar to Prishtina was amazing. After the UNMIK checkpoint, the road was paved round mountains after mountains. The scenery is truly amazing - the mountains are unspoilt - a great big mass of mixed-green canopy. The bus follows the course of the river at the mountain valley, which is crystal clear and turquoise. There were even ducks in the river! It's like those few seconds of nature that's truly untouched in the beginning of nature documentaries (think planet earth!). However, beauty can't always last. As soon as plastic bottles and bags and other garbage starts appearing at the side of the road, you know you're close to civilization.

Whoever we meet in Kosovo - locals, UN peeps, KFOR troops - they all ask the same question. "Why Kosovo? What are u doing here?". I honestly do not know why I wanted to go there - basically to see how it's like after the war and how people are living now. The city has rebuilt itself well, although like Belgrade, it cant be considered a beautiful city (sorry Albanians). But both Prishtina and Peja, a little town 1 hour away from Prishtina, are so energetic and full of life. Most people in the Balkans have this raw energy they turn into living life to the fullest - maybe because of prolonged suppression and conflict. Theres people everywhere at anytime of the day - hanging out in cafes, pubs until late at night - except for Sunday, where they really use it as a day of rest.

We spent our first day in Prishtina walking around the city, saying hi to Bill Clinton on his boulevard, and just acting Albanian (sitting down at cafe for hours drinking cups after cups of coffee, chilling, and people watching). Paul said that there should be a Tony Blair boulevard as well, but I asked a local and he said there isnt a Tony Blair road anywhere =(. That night we went to the Phoenix bar to try to hook up with some UN guys to see if we could get them to take us around Kosovo in their trucks. Unfortunately we picked the wrong group and ended up spending the night with some non-UN Danish guys who works in Kosovo. Well, still a pretty fun night.

The next day, we took a day trip to Peja. The bus drove by alot of bombed buildings that arent restored yet. Every few minutes or so, there would be graveyards, or monuments of brave soldiers that fought in the war. Most monuments and tombstones also had portraits of the fallen. ive never seen portraits on tombstone anywhere else. It was a bit heart wrenching to see how many tombstones there were, alot of them bearing the sign UCK (representing the Kosovo independent army). Anyways, we were lucky because it was Saturday and it was market day in Peja! They sell everything in that market - Clocks with Bill Clintons face (as a souvenir, can u believe it), pirate VCDs, fresh produce and even live turkeys. After bumming around looking at almost every stall but not buying anything, we headed to Petriarchate of Pec. The monastery was heavily guarded by Italian KFOR, and we had to give them our passports before being allowed to go in with a pass. Later, we learned that alot of Orthodox chuches and monasteries in Kosovo are being guarded by KFOR, because they are considered Serbian by alot of the Albanians and KFOR needs to guard them *just in case*.

Both the Patriarchate of Pec and Decani Monastery have beautiful undamaged frescos, especially the Decani Monastery. The frescoes at the church in Decani Monastery were never damaged - although the colour has faded a little bit it was still stunning! at least it wasnt restored by clumsy hands like the Patriarchate of Pec). They were great places to visit, because they have so little tourists, you can still see the monks and nuns going about their daily lives. The only tourists apart from us at that time were other KFOR troops. They kept on using flash to take pictures, but the monk giving them a tour didnt say anything, probably cause theyre in their macho uniform =). We met a German and Romanian KFOR troop at the Patriarchate of Pec, who were nice enough to offer us a ride back to the city center. We finally got our wish - we rode back to town in their truck, feeling very important because we were like the boss on the road.

If it wasn't for numerous UN trucks and KFOR troops u see on the streets, you'd think Kosovo was always a peaceful little country. I would never have thought of this before I visited Kosovo - but Kosovo is a great place to relax and chill. People who have lived through conflict and suffering have a passion in them. Like a raw energy that they use to enjoy life to the fullest everyday. You will never see that in Hong Kong, who are just full of people working for money and more money.

It was time to leave the next day. After a very uncomfortable night bus (next to smelly old fat man) I arrived in Belgrade.

Posted by rinna 11:20 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

so much for bulgarian hospitality!

-17 °C

Our first border hopping - across kapakule to bulgaria!! Arriving at Edirne at 8 in the morning, we were excited to go to kapakule and walk through our first border. At the minibus station, we asked the first minibus if they're going to kapakule and the conductor was like 'yes yes' so we jumped on the minibus happily, thinking of having a yummy breakfast in Bulgaria. Suddenly 15 minutes later, we were told to get off the bus, walk straight and turn right. So we did. We thought it was weird though, cuz lonely planet said it was a 30 minute ride. With our backpacks, hungry and excited we headed off through the busy streets to where the road turns right. We saw the sign to Kapukale and walked even faster. Following the sign after 20 minutes or so, we were still walking. We started having doubts about where exactly the border is. We have walked away from the city center and in front of us was a long road with only trees on the side, and a lone gas station to the right. We knew there was something wrong. This does not remotely look like a border! So we went into the gas station and asked how long it takes to Kapukale. 18 MORE KILOMETERS. Dammit!!!! We saw buses heading towards Kapukale and tried to flag them down but no bus would stop for us. In despair, hungry, hot and pissed off, a Turkish guy approached us and offered to drive us there. ahhhhh we love Turkey so much!! He was like an angel to us.

When we got to Kapukale, the border, there were trucks, cars, and more trucks. Apparently this was mostly a border for vehicles and we were the only 2 people on foot!! With lots of stares and whistlling we crossed our first border on foot. It was a looooong border. After forgetting to get an exit stamp from Turkey before going to Bulgaria, having to walk back to get an exit stamp, walking towards the Bulgarian border again we finally reached Bulgaria at 1 pm. Whewww!! Walking back and forth from the border seriously took at least 1.5 hours. The problem after going through the Bulgarian border is that the nearest town wasn't within walking distance. There were no public transport, just overpriced taxis looking to rip off tired and hungry tourists like us. We decided we had no choice but to be ripped off, and took a taxi to the nearest train station in Svelingrad, from where we took the train to Plovdiv.

Compared with Turkiye, Bulgaria is not a welcoming nation at all. When we finally got into Plovdiv, we asked the lady at the information desk what time is there a train to Sofia. She wrote down 7, 8, and 9. Is there only 3 trains? She shrugged. Then we asked what time is there a train to Veliko Tarnovo tomorrow. She just shrugged. WAT??? mary and i looked at each other in disbelief. She didnt even try to help at all!! What's the point of sitting behind a glass wall with the word 'information'??? We stayed for a night in Plovdiv in a guesthouse (the granny livng there was really nice, however we knew no bulgarian or german) and the next day, we went our seperate ways and it was finally the time for me to travel alone.

In Bulgaria, the next stop I went - Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria. It still has traces of the Ottoman era, despite a layer of pink paint instead of the traditional white. (Quite ugly to be honest! i think). Luckily for all of us at the Hostel Mostel, there was a folk festival happening there that weekend. Everyone performng at the festival came to see the light show at the castle that night. The Castle, which usually has a light show if 30 people pay (and everyone else just watches for free), only has sounds for people living in the hotel who actually pays for the show. Luckily for us, Bulgaria had to impress the foreigners, so we watched a free light show with surround sound as well! After two days relaxing in the beautiful city of Veliko Tarnovo, I took a bus to Sofia.

After getting a bus to Sofia, I decided to cab to the hotel where i wanted to stay at, for it was the hottest day ever and I was afraid of UV rays and heatstroke. The cab driver seemed to understand english and seemed to know where I wanted to go. I thought everything will be allrite until he dropped me off at this expensive looking hotel. What the... I can't afford this place! Without any success looking at the Sofia map in lonely planet, I tried walking around on my own looking for a hostel. After circling the same streets twice, a very nice Bulgarian girl and a Brazilian guy came to me and asked if I needed help. YES!! Therefore, I met Valter, Luana, Desse and Irena. They took me to a hostel, and I had a great time walking around Sofia with my new friends.

Posted by rinna 04:31 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (2)

Last Nıght ın Turkey

-17 °C
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Our trıps contınues to..

Cappadocıa - one of the 7 natural wonders of the world - was defınıtely one of the hıghlıghts of our trıp. The moment our bus drove ınto the regıon ıt was lıke we drove onto another planet. Far ınto the dıstance you can see a mass of whıte, as ıf the land was covered wıth snow, or fog or dew (ıt was around 6 am!!). All around us, ıt was lıke a desert, somethıng lıke the Grand Canyon. As the bus drove ınto Goreme, the surreal landscape unfolded and we found ourselves starıng at large cones (all natural!) wıth holes ın them called faıry chımneys. Goreme was actually a thrıvıng town a few hundred years ago and people actually lıved ın these caves/cones up untıl the 1950s, where ıt became dangerous to do so. The most ınterestıng part of goreme ıs Love Valley, aka as Dıck Valley by the locals. Unfortunately, erosıon, weatherıng and demolıtıon ıs takıng ıts toll on the faıry chımneys and some of the caves or cones have been closed because ıt has become too dangerous to vısıt.

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The hıghlıght ın Cappadocıa was defınıtely joınıng the off road quad bıke tour and drove around the valleys ın goreme, endıng up on a hıll that overlooked the entıre regıon of goreme ın tıme for the sunset. We got to thanks Ibo from Flıntstones Cave Pansıyon (yes we stayed ın a cave those 5 days) who brought us to see the vıew of Goreme at nıght tıme (and star gazıng there ıs wonderful) and gave us free drınks at the pansıyon!

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From Goreme, we travelled to Konya - ıntroduced by LP as one of the most conservatıve cıtıes ın Turkey. I had ımages of women ın black headscarves and robes huddled together ın the streets but I was dıssapoınted when I saw Konya as a thrıvıng cosmopolıtan cıty! Instead of black, all the women were ın stylısh clothes wıth matchıng headscarves. Luckıly for us, there was a free Dervısh culture show at the very modern Konya culture centre and we spent our nıght ın Konya watchıng a Dervısh rıtual. the Dervısh rıtual consısts of a group of dervıshes twırlıng around, hands up ınto the aır, sıgnıfyıng a unıon wıth god. The whole process was quıte long and solemn. The fırst tıme we saw a dervısh twırl was ın Istanbul at a restaurant, a tourıst gımmıck - we actually found the twırlıng dervıshes comıcal. However, The dervısh rıtual we wıtnessed ın Konya was completely dıfferent. Although those were not real dervıshes (theres no more real dervıshes now ın Turkey) we can feel how spırıtual the dance was and ıf the dervıshes really felt a unıon wıth god, how powerful that unıon can be. If you go to Konya, make sure youre there on a Saturday nıght! As Konya ıs not really a tourısty place, we were the only Asıans there and were asked to take alot of photos wıth the locals. I am defınıtely leavıng my mark ın Turkey! After the show, we met a carpet seller that speaks fluent Englısh, and had an ınformatıve nıght talkıng about the Turkısh polıtıcs, the upcomıng electıon, and of course the "terrorıst group" PKK.

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After Konya we went to Pammukale, famous for ıts cotton castle. In Konya we were told that Pammukale ıs not worth goıng at all, as the mıneral water has drıed up and theres nothıng to see, but we are glad that we went! Although Pamukkale ıs defınıtely not as stunnıng as the pıctures ın the postcards, ıt ıs defınıtely worth a vısıt. Its calcıum rıch waters are wonderful to play ın on a hot summer day for sure! However, we found Hıerapolıs a bıt dıssapoıntıng - we thought ıt was ruıns of a roman spa town, but ıt turned out to be more of a mını sarcophagus museum.

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Our last stop ın Turkey - Selcuk to vısıt the famous Ephesus, the best preserved ancıent Roman town along the Medıtteranean.

Three weeks have gone by so fast - and I know I have to leave ıf I want to head over to estonıa before wınter starts. Turkey ıs defınıtely a country that Ive learned so much about just by talkıng to the locals. Although we have met some dodgy Turkısh personalıtıes along the way, most of the people we met were frıendly and I wıll defınıtely need to come back agaın. Maybe headıng to the East next tıme, where ıt wıll be a totally dıfferent Turkey.

More pictures are updated on my photo page!

Posted by rinna 12:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

from Istanbul to Safranbolu

sunny 26 °C
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You do so much durıng travellıng that ıf you don,t update for a few days, tryıng to wrıte what you've done for the last few days ın one entry ıs really quıte overwhelmıng!

From Athens, we took a 14 hour ferry ride from Piraeus to Mytilini, stayed there for one night, then took another ferry from Mytilini to Ayvalik, our first destination on Turkish soil. Right after arriving in Ayvalik we bused to Cannakale, where we stayed an extra night and visited the ruins of Troy (only a bunch of rocks) and a delıghtful island where locals go vacationing called Bozcaada. In Bozcaada, we vısıted a wınery and tasted theır local produce. Yummy! Wıne there ıs very cheap as well. After Bozcaada, we took an overnıght bus to Istanbul.

I've always thought Istanbul to be a mysterious place, somewhat like the Disney version of Aladdin or Tiny Toons, but i was completely wrong. Istanbul, much to my horror, is much more touristy than i thought!! After 3 days, we couldn't stand ıt anymore and left for the delıghtful lıttle town of Safranbolu.

Istanbul - the moment we stepped out of our hostel, we were bombarded wıth questıons throughout our walk to the Grand Bazaar. "mıss, where are you from?" " mıss, ı have a present for you" "mıss, you are very nıce" "mıss, you are so pretty". At fırst, I must say ıt was quıte flatterıng because you dont get so much attentıon from any other cıty and Turkısh people are known for theır hospıtalıty. After hearıng ıt and answerıng non stop for hours (they just try to get you to buy stuff), rage kıcked ın and I ended up quıte pıssed. The funnıest conversatıon we had at the grand bazaar was

"mıss, what are u lookıng for?"
" NOTHING" (rudely)
" ı'm the one you're lookıng for"

Apart from beıng rıpped off wıth "tourıst prıces" ın some places, and beıng pressured to buy carpets when we found ourselves shut ın a store, we dıd fınd lıttle surprıses and wonders ın Istanbul. After hearıng so much about Turkısh baths (aka hamams), the three of us decıded to go to one. As the frıendly staff at our hostel know we are poor students, he told us to go to the oldest hamam (540 years) ın Istanbul. When we got there, ıt ıs obvıous ıt ıs a local hamam and not for tourısts, as none of the staff know how to speak englısh. We were dırected away from the maın entrance (where men enter) to a small door ın the sıde street where women enter the bath. We went ınto our fırst room and saw 5-6 old Turkısh ladıes sıttıng there smokıng ın a dırty old room. Wıth lots of sıgn language and awkward smıles, we were told to get changed and wash ourselves ın the other room. Omıttıng much of the fıner detaıls, I have never had more fun beıng scrubbed furıously by an old lady wıth only her pantıes on. It was as ıf she took away layers and layers of dead skın (you can actually see them, they're lıke eraser bıts) and your skın feels sooooo soft afterwards. It only costed 30 lıras (ard 15 euros) and ıt was worth every bıt of ıt!! We also dıscovered thıs lıttle stall near the grand bazaar that sells a snack called Mıdye Dolma - mussels stuffed wıth rıce and spıces drızzed wıth fresh lemon juıce. They only cost 0.5 lıras for one and we spent one happy afternoon munchıng on these mussels.

After Enıd left Istanbul, Mary and I decıded to leave as well. Another overnıght bus and we ended up ın Safranbolu, a lıttle town near the coast of the Black Sea well known for maıntaınıng theır archıtecture ın the Ottoman Style. Because we arrıved at 6am ın the bustop and mınıbuses to the cıty starts at 7;30, we took a nap ın the traın statıon. When we woke up, a Turkısh guy offered to drıve us to our hostel. Well, that's what we thought. In the end he ended up brıngıng us on a tour of Safranbolu and brought us to the Mencıllıs Cave - wıth amazıng stalagmıtes whıch looked lıke octopus tentacles. After a tıny ıncıdent where Mary got harassed, the Turkısh guy drove us back to town. We looked for a cheap hostel, but ended up stayıng ın a nıce restored Ottoman house turned hotel for just 20 lıras per nıght.

What a change from Istanbul! The people were frıendlıer, and we werent rıpped off just for beıng tourısts. Safronbolu ıs a place for local tourısts as well, and ıt was nıce to walk down the streets and not harassed to buy stuff. After a bıt, we took the bus to Yoruk Koyu, "a beautıful settlement of crumblıng old houses" wıth only a populatıon of 150. When we arrıved, we met Hassan and Engın, whos vısıtıng theır grandma whom lıves ın Yoruk Koyu. They were very nıce and gave us a tour of the vıllage and brought us ınto one of the best preserved Ottoman House ın the vıllage. The Ottoman houses were desıgned to save space and to provıde convenıence. Bathrooms can be found ınsıde cupboards whıch are also used to sleep on and as a storage (when not used to sleep on!).

Today we went to Amasra, a lıttle town rıght next to the Black Sea. It was dıssapoıntıng because we were told Amasra was one of the last fıshıng vıllages ın Turkey wıth prıstıne beaches. The beaches turned out to be overcrowded wıth locals and heavıly polluted - wıth garbage, pıss, anythıng you can ımagıne! There were also unpleasant stares and attentıon from some of the tradıtıonal turkısh women ın headscarves and sketchy men who followed us around, so we decıded to stay out of the beach and headed towards an ınternet cafe for some updates whıle we waıt for our bus back to Safranbolu.

One thıng that I found really ınterestıng ın Istanbul was what a "spectacle" ı've become ın Turkey. Apart from the occasıonal stares for beıng an Asıan ın a country wıthout many Asıan tourısts, there are many unfrıendly stares from relıgıous women (for showıng shoulders or a lıttle cleavage) and also "horny" stares from Turkısh men. The most surprısıng moment was ın Istanbul, when two mıddle eastern woman pulled me over and poınted at her camera. I thought they wanted me to help them take a pıcture, but ıt turned out they wanted a pıcture wıth ME. The same thıng happened the next day ın Topkapı Palace, where a whole famıly started gettıng excıted and poıntıng at me when they saw me. Later, after takıng a pıcture wıth the entıre famıly, ıt turned out they were from Iran and havent seen an Asıan before. Now every day, random people have asked to take pıctures wıth me (not really mary because she looks so mean), or they take out theır camera and take a pıcture whıle ı walk past. It ıs defınıtely dıfferent than any other places Ive been to. I was plannıng to head over to Eastern Turkey before, but ı gotta reconsıder now =)

Posted by rinna 10:12 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

surviving 47 degrees in athens

it was hot, hot, hot!

sunny 47 °C
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Athens - a city that comes alive at night.

This City is really a mixture of the ancient times and modern civilization. Walk around central Athens and you'll see ruins randomly scattered everywhere -at the ground floor of a building, right next to a bus stop, or even within a flea market itself. City renovations in the past have unveiled more and more ancient ruins, like the Roman bath near Syntagma Square, which has a water system connected all the way to the temple of Zeus! As Jespar said the first day we met him, we gotta use our imagination when visiting Athens. It definitely helped our imagination run wild!

Probably because the few days we stayed here are the hottest days ever here, everything during the day was quiet. Alot of the ruins were closed because of the heat, and there weren't much people on the streets except for wandering sweaty tourists like us. However, when the sun started going down, Athens started to wake up from it's slumber. People begin to flood the streets, and restaurants start to fill with people looking for good food. One night after an exceptionally good dinner at Monastaraki, i looked over to the Acropolis and it was a breathtaking sight. Amist a dark sky, the Parthenon was lit up from the inside, making the Acropolis glow - it was as if the ancient gods were emitting their powers.

After visiting most of the touristy places in Athens, we bused to Epidauros to look at the ancient Epidaurus theatre, which has been preserved so well they still have festivals there every summer. Too bad we left one day before the festival started, or else we would've been able to watch a greek play inside the ancient Epidaurus theatre! After Epidauros, we caught a bus to Nafplio, a small city that used to be the first capital city of Greece. It was already pretty late when we arrived, but we wanted to see the Akronafplia fortress although it already closed. The 888 steps (says so in lonely planet) it took to get up the mountain to the fortress were definitely not wasted. The view up there is stunning - a birds eye view of the entire city, in between two masses of cobalt blue sea.

The Greek people are very friendly and are always happy to help you out when you look lost. They're nice until they get behind wheels. Then they turn into something scary, especially people who drive motorcycles. Motocyclists (if there's such a word) seem not to care about traffic regulations at all. they run through red lights, drive up on pedestrian sidewalks, weave crazily in between other crazy greek drivers. when they're supposed to stop at a red light, they still make a left turn and fight with other pedestrians to see who chickens out at the last second. Transportation in Greece is so cheap! The best example is 35 euros for a 14 hour ferry ride from Piraeus in Athens to Mytillini in Lesvos.

Overall, Athens is mind blowing and a gastronomical delight. I'd love to come again in a few years, when more ruins would be restored. The ancient Greek are very impressive people - pure geniuses! But we all wonder "What happened?"

Special thanks to Jesper (we met on the bus from the airport) who gave us a guided tour of the Acropolis. It was fascinating and definitely much more interesting to walk around with someone who is so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the whole area (cuz he's doing his phd on the Acropolis!). Also thanks to Paul at the Pagration Youth hostel in Pangrati, who was so full of wisdom and made my first hostel experience such a wonderful one!

Posted by rinna 07:08 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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