A Travellerspoint blog

Week 38, 14.Nov.09 - 20.Nov.09

Selcuk, Turkey to Aleppo, Syria

View Week 38 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Selcuk, Turkey
Having my (somewhat obligatory, it feels) dinner at Mustafa's kebap place, right next door to his brother, Ali Baba's (is that really his name??) carpet shop which is right next door (conveniently) to his other brother's hostel, where I'm staying here in Selcuk. On the TV is "Turkey's got talent", or whatever their name is for the identical cheesy American TV show. This morning I took the logistically challenging route from Izmir center to the otogar (bus station), then an hour ride south here to Selcuk. Got checked in to the hostel then got a free ride from Ali Baba ("free", meaning come back later to look at my rugs) to ancient Ephesus a few kms away. Ephesus, one of the most important port cities and capital of Asia Minor in early Greek/Roman times, is an incredible site of ruins dating from the 2nd c. BC in its prime, and various reconstructions/additions over the subsequent centuries. Highlights for me were the Odeon Bouleuterion from 2nd c. BC,

sacred ramp to Town Hall (11 AD), the Great Theatre (41 AD) housing an impressive 24k spectators, and of course Celsus Library (135 AD).

Also significant was stepping inside House of Virgin Mary, place where John brought Mary shortly after Christ's crucifixion, to live out her remaining days.

From Ephesus inner gates I left walking back toward Selcuk, stopping along the way to visit the site that actually sparked my visit to Selcuk in the first place, the ruins of the Temple of Artemis (356 BC), once one of the 7 Wonders of the World - but now, you definitely need to use imagination, as only 1 1/2 pillars remain standing.

Still, to think about the history of the Temple and its sheer size - at its prime, bigger than the Parthenon - is pretty awesome to walk around the grounds (not roped off, no entrance fee!).

Bodrum, Turkey
I'm having a cay (tea) at a cafe in Bodrum, waiting for a bus ride back to Selcuk. Got up this morning at 06:30 in order to catch the 07:30 bus (which arrived at the bus station at 08:15) for the 3 hour ride south to Bodrum. Made my way directly to the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halikarnasos (353 BC), monumental tomb of Maussollus, "Satrap" of Caria, which was also once one of the Seven Wonders of the World - pretty cool to see two of them in as many days! Looking at the drawings and models of the Mausoleum (by far more information than what was available at Temple of Artemis), can definitely appreciate how awesome a sight it must have been.

Taking a look down into the crypt room where Maussollus was buried, was also pretty amazing!

The only other site in Bodrum worth a mention in my guidebook was Castle of St. Peter (1406 AD), built by the Crusaders, so I stopped by there also for a peek.

Now, heading back over to the bus station back up 3 hrs to Selcuk - I must be a history enthusiast to spend this much time on busses to see 1 site of ruins!

Pamukkale, Turkey
At the bus station waiting for my overnight from Pamukkale to Cappadocia - Turkey is definitely a huge country, so I'm thankful many of these vast distances between cities are covered by overnight service (although, my body doesn't thank me the next day!). The shorter ride - 3.5 hrs - taken this morning from Selcuk brought me here to Pamukkale. After an unexpectedly lengthy stop at their post office here, made my way to the gleaming ice & snow-looking (but in actuality, some form of calcium rock) cliffs of Pamukkale, with the warm rivers flowing into travertine pools.

Had to lose the shoes while climbing around (understandably so - super slippery in some areas, with steep drop offs in some areas would not be fun falling), and despite the picturesque setting, a lot of the pathway was downright painful with the little pebbles to walk across barefoot. And, once you wander to a pool of water that has been sitting, it is REALLY cold! A bit further up the cliff were the ruins of ancient Hieropolis with its huge theatre and fortress walls from the 3rd c. AD. Looking at a map recreating what this place looked like in its prime, would have been quite a site!

Goreme (Cappadocia), Turkey
I'm trying to get myself motivated enough to head out from my "cave" hotel room into the cold, for dinner in town.

I'm now in Goreme, center of Cappadocia, arrived here early this morning on the overnight bus from Pamukkale, had probably a couple hours sleep at best - but was wide awake when the otherworldly views surrounded the bus - fairy chimneys of rock columns, spread out over the horizon - awesome! The best resemblance I could hope to come up with is the homes of the "Sand People" from Tatoonie in Star Wars.

Got myself checked in the hostel embedded in the side of a huge rock, then wandered into Goreme "town" for breakfast. Made my way over to the open air museum of medieval frescoes inside fairy chimney churches scattered about.

Lunch back in town, then a much-needed nap this afternoon. Hopefully the heat will kick on in my room by the time I get back from dinner!

Waiting inside the super smokey ticket booth for my overnight bus to Antakya - the alternative is waiting outside in the freezing cold, so I'm more or less alternating back and forth. Had a really cool tour today through Cappadocia - we traveled to the underground city of Derinkuyu, built 2000 BC and later used by locals for hiding out from invading Byzatine armies.

There were crazy narrow passages to climb through - down 8 "floors", about 60 m underground... everything from stables to living rooms to churches were in this city. Next we bussed it to Ihlara Valley - absolutely beautiful scenery with snowcapped mountains lining the Valley dotted with the fairy chimneys and cave houses.

We hiked through a pretty easy 4 km path, had lunch then bussed back to Selime monastery, probably the most impressive of the rock-cut churches that I've seen.

Unfortunately nightfall comes quick here so we missed the sunset at Pigeon valley. Still, all-in-all great sites I've seen the past 2 days! After returning to Goreme, had a cay in the Nazar Borek tea house I have visited a couple times now, where the owner/workers strike up a live music session each night - they're not too bad!

Aleppo, Syria
9 1/2 hours. That is how long I had to sit inside the immigration office at the Syrian border-post town of Bab Al-Hawa... 9 1/2 LONG hours. Sitting inside a sterile building like that all day, you definitely have to become creative on how to occupy your time, like memorizing every single posted sign & picture of their former "president" (for 40 years), Hafez Al-Assad. You get to know every worker in that building, also. With no ATM nearby and only a few Syrian pounds I changed from my Turkish Lira before the border, so also had nothing to eat/drink all day -- partly intentional, considering it cost 25 SP to use their disgusting WC -- so I kept waiving off the coffee vendor strolling around. So I thought initially, it might be a straight-forward process - when the overnight bus from Goreme arrived in Antakya, Turkey, the obvious tourists like myself were greeted by the touts selling connecting bus tickets to Aleppo, and offering to help with visa processing at the border - for 10 TL (about 5 Euro), it was a good deal, too! Oh, but then when I asked to reconfirm that they'd definitely wait for me at the border while the visa was processed, thats when they asked the few of us our nationalities... the Japanese and French backpackers had no problem, but when I mentioned I was American, well, they said they'll take me to the border for 5 TL, but "Americans have longer process". No kidding. I couldn't help but think of the irony as I was reading (and rereading, to kill time) my guidebook, and history of Syria, how only some 70 years ago France tried to occupy Syria, but yet they have no problem issuing the Frenchies visas on the spot... Well, I guess I can thank George W. Bush's declaration of Syria a "rogue state" for my extended wait. I do know that Syria's "official" policy for issuing visas is for applications to be filled out only at the Syrian embassy of your home country, and only available at the border if Syria does not have an embassy in your home country. That said, I've met other travelers along the way who confirmed this policy is sometimes relaxed based on factors -- your itinerary, where you've been, the mood of the O.I.C., etc. But I also heard Americans have to wait... a long time. Somehow I think I ended up waiting longer than most due to unfortunate timing - arriving there at 13:00, got my application filled out by the O.I.C. (who was using a translator, but still grilling me on where I was going, for how many days, name of hotels, etc.). My understanding is they phone Immigration Office in Damascus for approval/authorization, but when I inquired on the status at 15:00, one of the officers who spoke English said that office in Damascus closed at 14:00, so they had to contact the Syrian embassy in the States. Well, 9 1/2 hours later the O.I.C. raps on the glass in his office looking out to the waiting area to wake me up and is holding some fax form in Arabic, visa is approved! So I start asking about a bus to Aleppo - no buses, only taxis - US $20. Well, I wasn't sure how far Aleppo was from the border exactly, but I was determined NOT to spend money on a taxi just because I got screwed out of the bus deal from Antakya, so I just start walking across the border East on my way to Aleppo. The border guard outside at the gate asks for my passport to see the visa, asks where I am going, and when I replied "Aleppo", I think he just saw the determination in my eye and wasn't going to talk me out of it, just nods, handed me back my passport, "Welcome. Welcome to Syria." Well, about 100 meters down the road I get to the customs check and there are a few guards there, telling me that Aleppo is 50 KMs away! Suddenly US $20 for a taxi seemed like a good idea! The taxi drops me off at a bus station in some part of Aleppo where these guys are outside baking/warming up falafel bread on the hood of a car, then putting them in fancy packaging that looks like they'll be sold then next day in the grocery store/bakeries (gross??). I ask them for landmarks around the center and quickly realize I am nowhere near, so I have to use my last Syrian pound and take another taxi to find this hotel listed in my guidebook. It is now 01:00 and I just tried to withdraw Syrian pounds from an ATM, but it didn't work - hopefully I can get that squared away tomorrow!

I'm getting ready to head out around this heavily conservative Islamic city and see what may be on tap for Friday (their holy) night - I'm expecting to wind up back in the Christian quarter for any type of activity. Earlier today, spent the better part of the morning trying to find an ATM that would take my card - I found plenty with the "Cirrus" and "Master Card" logos (of which my card has), but apparently that is just for show, b/c after trying at least 1/2 dozen of them, all failed. I finally found a Saudi-Francais bank way out near the train station, which my guidebook confirmed is the only bank in Syria accepting Master Card, and was finally able to buy food for the first time in about 36 hours! Able to pay the hotel bill, checked out of there and found the much cheaper hostel across the street, then went out to see a few sites - first was the National Museum, which had a pretty cool collection of ancient monuments/artifacts,

but as only a few items were actually labeled (in Arabic), I had to use my imagination for the information. Next wandered around the Christian quarter of Al-Speida, which is a really quaint area with long, narrow stone-flagged alleyways that was really lively with shops, cafes, and lots & lots of... Muslims!

Pretty cool to see these ancient (and still active) churches and minority Christians peacefully co-habitating the city with the majority Muslims, as they've done for centuries (Aleppo being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world -- 8,000 years and counting!). Back at the hostel, had a quick nap then back out for dinner - some kind of chicken breast wrap from a shop on the street, really tasty and only 5 SP each (about US $0.20) - hopefully there won't be any stomach problems later! Wandered into a place with "Night Club" out in front, and venturing in to see the setup inside - about a dozen tables with three women at four-person tables all looking at the Western tourist who just walked in - figured this wasn't a conventional "Night Club"! The owner greets me to offer 3 options: 1 beer for 1000 SP, or all-you-can-drink for 2000 SP - both options at my own table. If I would like to "sit with the pretty Syrian girls" and drink, well that would cost me 6500 SP! I told the owner, "Uh, thanks - I'll think about it..." and settled for 2 beers from the liquor store for 120 SP back here at the hostel!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 22:59 Comments (0)

Week 37, 7.Nov.09 - 13.Nov.09

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria to Izmir, Turkey

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Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Spent today wandering around picturesque Veliko, with the houses clinging to the sides of hills.

First stop was over to the Rila Bureau office to buy an overnight train ticket for tomorrow (Sunday), but turns out they're not open until Monday, and there's no way to buy the ticket on the train - well, looks like I'll be taking the bus! Began the sightseeing over at the 5th c. Tsarevets Fortress,

and peeking inside the main cathedral's crazy artwork and ultra-modern alter.

Leaving the Fortress, I set out to see the Aseneus monument set right in the gorge - well, took quite a while to actually find the footbridge to get me there, but eventually I made it! Cool monument paying tribute to the kings who reunified Bulgaria.

Stopped over for a peek inside the Sarafkina Kashta 19th c. home (not impressed), now getting ready to head out for some clubbing!

I'm heading over in a few minutes to the bus station for overnight ride to Istanbul. Today was entirely spent recovering (as in, sleeping on the couch) from the really rough night last night at Spider club - all was going pretty well with the beers, then Brad, guy from Florida who now lives in Veliko, goes ahead and buys Yager shots - 2 rounds. Now I remember why I quit drinking that crap in college!

Istanbul, Turkey
Getting ready to crash here in Taru Kivel's apartment in Istanbul. I'm super-tired - the bus ride last night yielded me about an hour sleep total! Arrived early this morning and wandered around a bit with the other American and British guys who were on the same bus. Stopped to take some magical-looking photos of the Blue Mosque covered in fog/mist,

then bid the guys farewell after they found a hostel and then headed up toward Taksim area and Taru's apartment, who I found through CouchSurfing. I had a general idea of the area, and instructions to take either a taxi or bus #43 from Taksim. Well, not knowing which stop to get off the bus limited that option so I found the taxi, which turned out to be 5x more expensive than what I was told it would have cost! Well, so much for saving any money by CouchSurfing here! So later was joined by an older gentleman Robert from Australia, also surfing at Taru's. We all hung out for a bit getting to know each other then joined by her friend Cathy (or Katie?) also from the States and now looking to live in Istanbul. We headed out to tour the main pedestrian strip, Istiklal Caddesi, lined with cafes and shops. Had a good dinner - Turkish meatballs - now to bed!

Enjoying watching for a bit, the sun setting over the Yeni Cami mosque.

Had a really good day strolling around the sites near Sultanahmet. First stop was right here at Yeni Cami, peeked inside then wandered around a bit through the spice bazaar, loads of saffron and other spices ranging from the everyday normal (got some of the famous Turkish apricots) to the bizarre (no pun intended).

After went over to the Rustem Pasa Camil mosque for a quick look then roamed around the Grand bazaar, huge network of shops selling just about anything I could think of - only got lost once! Made my way past Cemberlitas Column from 330 AD (erected by Constantine to celebrate the capital of the Eastern Roman empire),

next down into Basilica Cistern with the eery red glow illuminating the underground reservoir and canals going all over.

After, went into the Aya Sofia and its ridiculously large interior. Converted from a cathedral (as most mosques in the Middle East seem to be) after the fall of Constantinople, still has some bearings of its Christian heydays with the Virgin & Child mosaics high up toward the dome.

Next crossed past the ancient Hippodrome to the famous Blue Mosque, now able to enter in without all my luggage!

I couldn't help but think that Islam should consider allowing people to wear shoes inside mosques, with the hundreds of bare stinking feet gets a bit overwhelming - phew! Crossed over to the Topkapi Palace, but unfortunately closed on Tuesdays (random - every other museum in Europe is closed Mondays... maybe they don't want to be European after all!). Now gonna hop on the bus back to Taru's so we can figure out plans for tonight!

Canakkale, Turkey
Spent a majority of the day today making my way from Istanbul to Canakkale, where I am now staying in a pretty decent hotel (since their hostel sister property is temporary closed, got a good deal on a "real" room!). This morning back in Istanbul, bid farewell to Taru and Robert and went out to the bus stop and waited for the 10:15 bus #26 that showed up at 11:45 (unreal). Made the ridiculously inconvenient bus-to-trolley-to-metro connections over to the main bus station. 6 1/2 hrs later on the road (and car ferry, which having turned dark outside, wasn't even aware we were on!), arrived in Canakkale. Got checked in and grabbed a quick pita pizza (love those!), now to bed so I can get some sleep before my 7am wake up call.

Eceabat, Turkey
I'm on the ferry at the Eceabat pier, heading back to Canakkale after wandering the hallowed grounds of Gallipoli.

Being an American, prior to today I was mostly unfamiliar with this historic WWI battle site that involved the British, Australian/New Zealanders and French Allied assault on the Turks to attempt and capture the coveted Dardanelles route to Russia. Earlier this morning, I took a(n expensive/overpriced) tour of a nearby place with also a smidgen of historical battle significance - Troy! About 35 km south of Canakkale, our minibus took off bright & super-early, arrived at the "gates" of ancient Troy (now only ruins), and immediately came into view of the 8-9 meter tall (presumably replicated) wooden Trojan horse!

So I learned Troy was rebuilt 8 times over the centuries, each with its own distinct ruins. Got to stroll around the artifacts and remains from each of the eras. The highlights for me were the Temple of Athena ruins from Troy VIII (1000-85BC), Odeion from Troy IX (85BC - 500AD), fortification wall ruins from Troy I (3000-2500 BC), and the ramp and fortification wall of Troy VI (1700-1250BC), where archaeologists believe the famed Trojan horse was actually wheeled up for the legendary surprise attack - pretty sweet!

Izmir, Turkey
Eating my kebap dinner here in Turkey's 3rd largest city, Izmir. Most of today was spent uneventfully on the 6.5 hr bus ride from Canakkale to Izmir's "otogar" (bus station), inconveniently about 7km Northeast of the city center. Taking a local bus from the otogar the the center, was trying to orientate myself with the pretty crappy city map I picked up while in Canakkale, but every single street seemed to be called "Sokak", only differentiated by sequential numbers preceding "Sokak", ranging from single digits to the 100's! Fortunately was able to identify the train station in city center as a reference point, got out & shopped around for a pretty cheap (and pretty dirty) hotel. Now I'm going to wander a bit to see if anything good is happening on Friday (the 13th) night!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 23:43 Comments (0)

Week 36, 31.Oct.09 - 6.Nov.09

Sighisoara, Romania to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

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Sighisoara, Romania
I'm about to head to the downstairs hostel bar for some drinks here in Sighisoara, small town in Transylvania and, oh yeah, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, AKA Count Dracula - Happy Halloween! Earlier this morning back in Brasov, I got up early to walk around the Old Town center a bit - very quaint little town with the cobbled streets and old churches and towers.

Got to the train station and took the 3rd-world style train - super dirty, people smoking, heaters below the seat cooking my bum, etc - here to Sighisoara. As I was getting checked-in the hostel and asking enthusiastically about Halloween and what was going on tonight, the receptionist said it wasn't celebrated here... well, we'll see about that! I headed out and wandered up to the Old Town up the hill, another really quaint place like Brasov.

They definitely promote the fact its the birthplace of Dracula, with the souvenir stands, restaurants, etc.

but it didn't take away from the experience - of course I had to stop off for a glass of red in the birthplace castle-turned-restaurant of Vlad.

Back here at the hostel there are other Western tourists getting dressed up in costumes to go out tonight, so I'm going to have to come up with an impromptu one myself here in a minute. Well, if Sighisoara didn't celebrate Halloween before, thats about to change!

Bucharest, Romania
Getting ready for bed here in Bucharest after spending 7 hours on the "express" train from Sighisoara - I thought it was a bit odd there weren't any buses or maxitaxis running the whole day to Bucharest, when my guidebook had mentioned one every half-hour - maybe b/c of low season? Well anyway, the first train out of Sighisoara was the "express" train that s-l-o-w-l-y rolled along Romania and arrived here 2 hours late (good thing I had a really good looking girl sitting next to me to chat with the whole time!). Last night back in Sigisoara, there were about 5 of us in the hostel that were drinking away a homemade punch in the bar downstairs when appears the 4 Spaniards (who now live in Vilnius) dressed up like ghouls, and encouraged the rest of us to get in the spirit of Halloween. No costume shops in Sighisoara, so had to improvise with what I had - decided the best option would be a thief/criminal - turned out pretty good with some eye makeup and (dirty laundry) sack for my "loot".

We all headed out into town and came upon a club where we received plenty of stares at first, but soon enough there were many others in costume as well - both tourists and locals. Halloween in Transylvania, good times!

Heading out in a bit to grab a bite to eat then turn-in.. really good day spent wandering around here in Bucharest with the Aussie couple Dave and Tat, also staying in the same hostel. We started with a tour of the enormous Palace of Parliament, at 365,000 sq meters second biggest building in the world behind the Pentagon.

With its grandiose rooms filled with marble and chandeliers, really quite spectacular. After the one hour tour covering many, many rooms, our guide informs us we "have just seen 9%" of the whole Palace - sheesh! Next had an awesome Romanian lunch at Caru Cu Bere,

then continued wandering the city, passing the scene of dictator Ceausescu's infamous last speech in 1989, the former Central Committee of the Communist Party building which caused many deaths from protestors speaking out against the dictator.

Finished up strolling through the Cismigiu gardens - good day!

Going to try and get a few hours sleep here on an overnight train to Sofia - it may be difficult with the arrangements; sleeper car was going to be an outrageous 50 Euro, so the Aussie couple, who are also traveling to Sofia, and I are roughing it in the seating car. Spent today pretty much freezing our butts off wandering around Bucharest, along the main avenues to the outdoor (and of course, equally cold) Village Museum. Supposedly Dave and Tat saw signs for "Extra Ticket for Photo", or "No Photos" at all b/c it is a Unesco World Heritage Site - at an outdoor museum, seriously do they think people won't take pics? Ha!

After, chilled out (well, warmed up) back in the hostel for a couple hours hanging out with a couple middle-aged Scots who flew in to Romania to watch a soccer match tomorrow - hilarious guys, very fitting of a Scottish profile downing their drinks one after another! Now after losing a couple games of hearts playing cards with the Aussies (damn), we'll see if sleep will happen!

Sofia, Bulgaria
Getting ready for bed here in my hostel in Sofia - thank goodness they finally turned the heat on, I was beginning to wonder if the heater was just for decoration or what! I've been pretty much feel frozen since last night's train ride... sometime in the middle of the night woke up (I think after 1 or 2 hours sleep) absolutely freezing - no heat in the train car, and the stupid window kept sliding down, letting in more cold air - arrgh! I tried to wrap-up as best I could with my Singapore Airlines paper-thin blanket (of course in hindsight would've made sense to dig out my sleeping bag), but at around 05:30 when I glanced outside and saw the piles of snow outside with the broken window letting in the cold air, knew I wasn't getting any more sleep! As we were rolling into Sofia, Dave & Tat take a look at the next car down, since we were the only ones in our own car (but didn't start the trip from Bucharest that way) - of course, one car down has working heat and long benches you can actually lay down, where everyone else had migrated to and slept comfortably. When they came back to tell me to go take a look, I didn't have the heart! So we arrived a few minutes later in Sofia and made our way to the hostel to drop off the packs then headed out to check out some sites - more Soviet-era monuments so typical of Eastern Europe,

then over to the really impressive 19th c. gold-domed Aleksander Nevski church.

There are definitely some quirky sidewalk artworks around also, as we saw.

So Dave and I head to the bus station so he can get tickets for his & Tat's ride to Skopje tomorrow, and I can inquire about tickets to Veliko Tarnovo. Well, after the lady working at the information booth acted like I was completely inconveniencing her by asking questions (so much so that she went ahead and wrote down on a piece of paper, "Central Bus Station", then the phone number so I could call instead - bitch!!@), we headed back and met up with Tat and a German couple, had dinner at a kick-ass medieval restaurant, then went for more drinks - good times!

Today I visited Bulgaria's historical, cultural and religious centerpiece (or so the guidebook says), Rila monastery. I signed up with the hostel here for the two hour ride through some pretty spectacular countryside to Rila up in the mountains.

There is a very cool story behind this place - in the 10th c. a priest Ivan Rilsky heads up into the mountains in a cave and looks for spiritual enlightenment when the country was under Ottoman occupation, then the king pays a visit and tries to offer things like food and blankets, but the priest refuses and only wants to help the poor, and soon generates this following. Today there are still monks that live in the monastery (in rooms, not caves).

We then hiked a couple kms away up in the mountains and through a crazy narrow cave,

to see the priest's tomb, as well as some really impressive landscape views.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Hanging out on the patio BBQ'ing at the hostel I'm staying in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria's medieval capital city. Earlier today back in Sofia I was able to catch a ride with the German couple who were staying in the same hostel; they had bought a used 1970's Mercedes fire truck to drive across Europe & were also looking to visit Veliko. Their truck was pretty interesting, I must say - 4-speed engine that uses either propane or regular gas and motors along really slowly, sounding as though the engine wants to explode but hangs in there!

We take a more scenic, smaller road East from Sofia through the "Valley of Roses", exchanging travel stories along the way. Tim spots an ethnographic museum sign along the road in some small town so we pull over and grab some food from the small store for lunch, drive near the museum to eat, then end up skipping it altogether b/c we're running out of daylight too soon nowadays! We get back on the road to visit Kazanlak, where the ancient Thracian tomb dating back to the 4th c. BC stands - really interesting, colorful artwork.

After, we head up the mountains through "Shipka Pass" and the super foggy area - very cool!

Arrived in Veliko and having a bit of trouble pinpointing our location on the little map, were approached by a local bus driver who insisted on helping us find the correct street - and since the bus was parked and not leaving for a few minutes, pulls a younger passenger off the bus to walk me down the street and point out the correct direction - she didn't even mind, super nice! We head down and find the hostel (relatively easily, actually), now getting ready to head out for a cocktail or 2!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 01:08 Comments (0)

Week 35, 24.Oct.09 - 30.Oct.09

Kiev, Ukraine to Brasov, Romania

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Kiev, Ukraine
Well, Ukrainians can definitely drink, so I've learned after last night! After grabbing my pack and getting some help from a super-nice local man to find Pozniaky metro stop, met my CouchSurfing host Alex and his fiance Olga - such a nice couple, super friendly to help me feel welcome and "at home" in their nice apartment - not even a couch, but my own bed! We had some wine & snacks in their kitchen getting to know each other then headed next door to a local pub, had some food and a lot of beer then were joined by their super cool friends Anastacia and Marina. Once the live band jamming Russian songs started and we moved on to vodka, I can't remember too much after that - but Alex is retelling some of the night, I'm not sure if I believe all the stories but pretty damn funny!

Now, after having the amazing breakfast my hosts made, consisting of chicken, grain, pickled carrots, etc. (more like T'giving than breakfast!), we're about to head out to walk around for the day, and hoping the rain holds off!

I've boarded a train I'll take overnight from Kiev to Odessa, and after the past 72 hour marathon weekend, have a feeling for once I'll have no trouble falling asleep! Yesterday Alex, Olga and I caught the bus across the river and to the spiritual heart of the Ukrainian people, Caves Monastery. So we bypass the Kasa (ticket) booth and go directly to the entrance, start walking in but the ticket-checker babushka stops us before we enter, and her and Alex exchange words in Russian for a minute, then he says, "Ok, let's go", and we go inside. A minute later he says that he told the ticket-checker that he's going to visit his mother working in the souvenir shop inside (she doesn't) - and even though the ticket-checker questioned him about my being a foreigner (can I be spotted that easily??) - he still pulls it off for free entrance... hilarious! Roaming around the complex of cathedrals and belfrys was truly awesome - just beautiful architecture.

We're later joined by their friend Marina then head into the caves - ancient place of winding, narrow and low ceiling corridor that is illuminated only with the candle you hold. Well, if you have a claustrophobic tendency to small places this would not be recommended with the hundreds of people flowing in single file, shuffling along in one direction...

Along the way there are small rooms to the side with glass covered wooden coffins containing mummified monks, decorated with elaborate robes and veils - so cool!

Well, after we walk over to the gigantic (1,108 m) Rodina Mat, Defense of the Motherland Monument, atop of the Great Patriotic War museum.

Very similar entry to the Brest Fortress in Belarus, with the Soviet anthem proudly broadcasting on outdoor speakers.

And to really get me in the mood, Olga buys me a pin replica of the Monument statue outside - the babushka working at the souvenir shop tells me in Russian that I must say, "Sluzhu Sovietskomu Soyuzu" as I am pinned on the chest, Alex translates for me, "Serve to the Soviet Union"! - so funny! We walk around the museum which really has some cool displays and remnants of the war, they definitely put a lot of effort into the museum here.

The bonus for me was Alex able to translate a lot of the display information (all in cyrillic). We left and walked along the parks lining the hills above the Dnipro river - not a touristy location, I felt like a local for sure!

There are people walking around carrying Ukrainian flags in support of (and compensated as well, from what Alex told me) political candidates for upcoming Jan 2010 presidential election. Walked along until we reached the "rally point" where thousands were gathered in Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square.

This is also the place in 2004 where between 500k and 1mm people turned out for the "Orange Revolution", to protest the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko and subsequent, obvious fraud from that presidential election results. Alex took me to the nearby train ticket office to help me buy this train's ticket in about 30 seconds; it would have taken me at least 10 minutes to try and communicate on my own! We then met backup with Olga, Marina and were joined by Christina and Anastacia at a local restaurant for authentic Ukrainian meals - the stuffed animal trophies and weaponry donning the walls added to the atmosphere!

We all ordered our meals - mine, of course, was chicken Kiev, along with the borsch and mashed potatoes. Well, after the soup when appetizers arrived I took a big fork-full of what I thought were the mashed potatoes... hmm... didn't taste quite right? So, a bit later Alex tells me to try it spread on bread, when I asked him what it was he told me the name of it in Russian. I asked if it was the mashed potatoes, but he replied, "No, it is something like a kind of pork fat". Ugh, barf! We ordered drinks, I first try the Ukrainian staple "honey pepper vodka" - pretty good! Then Alex proceeds to order a bottle of vodka... and we're making toasts and doing shots while eating dinner. Then when we finish the bottle Alex says something to the waitress in Russian. I ask him, "You didn't order another bottle??" He replies, "No!... Well, yes". Oh no! So we finish up at the restaurant and move to O'Briens, an expat Irish pub for many more drinks and some live music.

Finish up at some local diner place for - yes, more drinking. We cab it back to their apartment at about 4 AM, I go to bed while Alex, Olga and Anastacia stay up talking - and more drinking - nuts! Well, about 7 AM I hear voices from the kitchen and see sunlight coming through the bedroom window, so I get up to get ready to leave. The crew was still awake, still drinking - damn, that's hard core! After Olga made me a sandwich (such a great host!), bidding them good morning (or good night?), I head out to the metro to make it to the Kozatskiy hotel, where I'm joining a tour group heading up to infamous Chernobyl. Did a bit of research on Friday and read it is (supposedly) safe to visit, so figured this may be one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The 2 hour ride up I sacrificed sleep as the minivan was showing on the TV a documentary of the Chernobyl disaster, so it was really informative and kept me interested enough to stay awake after only ~3 hours sleep. Stopping at the border control area to enter the "Exclusion Zone", a 30km barricaded radius from the site of the reactor, the group (about 14 of us) had to present our passports to the guard for a validation check of our pre-registration of the tour. Passing the barricade you could instantly notice the change of the road condition -- pot holes and beat up all over, a sign of lack of maintenance for 23 years. Along the side of the dilapidated road, started seeing the affects from the disaster - abandoned homes with tress and other vegetation slowly reclaiming the land over man-made structures.

Arriving into the town of Chernobyl, we were escorted up the stairs of a military-style building, where we were given a waiver form to read & sign, releasing the tour company of any liability from any liability from future health "deterioration" or damages to film/camera equipment due to radiation exposure - well OK then! Our somewhat boisterous guide began describing the agenda for the day, then started to recap the events of 26-April-1986... apparently, there was some form of test being conducted to try and manage a way to raise and lower power levels more quickly. In the process, the emergency defense mechanisms were shut off, and at some point around 1 AM when raising and lowering manually the power level, the energy began to rise and kept rising; unable to control then combusting in the process. Pretty crazy. We all had a preliminary check of our individual radiation levels, then headed out to drive toward the plant. Along the way our guide was giving us information about the area. The town of Chernobyl, several kms from the actual plant, today has a functioning post office (with radiation barometer out front), market shop where I bought a water (made sure that sucker was properly sealed!), and a couple other signs of life. Anyone who works there in town has a regimented schedule for time they must exit the Exclusion zone and spend a number of days away from the exposure. We first come to a former stadium where on the field now sits the final resting place for contaminated military vehicles. Our guide shows us first-hand the level of radiation on the tank's tracks, the reader is off the chart!

A couple stray cats were nearby, our guide gave them a check with the radiation reader - all clear!

We then drove by the abandoned shipyard at the river, with contaminated boats rusting away, then drove along the town and stopped to watch the "famous" wild boar walking down the road. This boar was found 2 days after the disaster, and other than being neutered (and thus "without direction", according to our guide), seemed pretty healthy! We next stop off at an abandoned school where everything was left untouched since the disaster. After touring the classroom, we drive off and come up to the plant. First site dominating the skyline is the traditional Simpsons/Springfield-looking cooling tower, and next to it are about 1/2 dozen construction cranes above structures adorned with scaffolding... reactors # 5 & 6 under construction back in 1986, but never finished and all abandoned.

We're maybe 1/2 mile from reactors 1-4, and I confirm with our guide that the big, barn-looking structure we're looking at is in fact the sarcophagus containing reactors 3&4, and it is confirmed. So I start taking some photos, thinking this will be our best view of the infamous site...

but oh, wait... we get back in the minivan and our guide tells us, "Now we will go see reactors 3&4". Uh - "now?"... and then pull up about 100 meters - max - away from the sarcophagus, right next to some memorial honoring those who worked toward the cleanup effort.

Some idiots in the group walk past the memorial and right up to the fence - our guide tells them, "Guys! Get back here, that area of grass hasn't been secured!" I'm thinking, "Great, I'll be sure to avoid stepping, touching, breathing anywhere near those fools!" Get back in the minivan then drive over the bridge to the town of Pripyat, only about 2km from the plant. We pass the abandoned train tracks that used to serve as a major gateway between Moscow and Kiev,

then pull up next to the 7 or so story hotel and get out. Other than a couple other small tour groups in the immediate area, there are no signs of life - eerily quiet, completely abandoned ghost town. We confirm this by entering into the lobby and climbing the stairs - all of which looks like a nuclear bomb did go off, with broken glass everywhere. Get to the roof and see incredible views of the abandoned city which formerly had more than 40k residents.

The guide tells us most of the "destruction" of the buildings came from people returning to loot window frames and other valuable objects (contaminated or not), and of course subsequent vandalism. In fact, when watching the documentary on the ride up in the morning, then were showing home movie video clips being shot in Pripyat the morning after the explosion, and the city was completely unaware of anything wrong (they were told the following day they had 5 hours to gather essentials because they were being evacuated). Really crazy - trees now growing through the floors, etc.

We enter into other buildings - Art Center, Theatre, Sports Complex - all the same look inside, loads of broken glass we just walk right over, and ceilings dripping water (despite my efforts to avoid, one drop splashed on my jacket sleeve... I fully expected it to start disintegrating like Homer's bowling jacket in that one Simpson's episode...). Really eery and depressing overall. We drive over to the amusement park built in early 1986 for the annual Soviet Union May 1st holiday, but of course it was never used.

Next stop was to the Olympic-size swimming pool, then another school - big one - that also had all of the desks and even lesson plans still remaining on chalkboards, all frozen from 1986.

We drove back toward Chernobyl city, and arrive at the barracks starting point for lunch. Whether the food was "safe" to eat I couldn't say for sure, but we all ate - and they served a ton of food, too. After lunch we leave Chernobyl and head back toward Kiev, but prior to exiting the "Exclusion Zone", had to get out for a full-body screening measuring radiation levels to make sure we weren't contaminated - the assistant guide told us there had been cases in the past where people had to leave behind shoes/gloves etc; surprisingly, the idiots who wandered off today didn't set off the alarm.

I slept a little of the way back, then arrived in Kiev made my way back to Alex and Olga's - they had just woken up! Olga and Anastacia made me borsch and some chicken dish for dinner, and Olga made me another sandwich for the train ride, and handed me my washed/dried laundry -- really, too much, too nice!! I bid them all a very sad farewell, but promised to come back someday soon. Really, how could I not?!?

Odessa, Ukraine
Having a late lunch/early dinner at a pizza place here in Odessa, about to go shower then meet up with the British guy Edward I met in Lviv last week. Sure enough, got some sleep on the train last night, but unfortunately they wake you 45 minutes before the scheduled stop, so in total still only had about 5 1/2 hrs sleep. Had a coffee at the station to help me wake up a bit, checked my pack then wandered around the town. No info in my guidebook on this place and no tourist info center, so didn't have too much of a plan! But, Odessa is a nice port city on the Black Sea.

Colonial-style buildings/monuments around were nice,

but being a Monday, the museums were unfortunately closed. Got online and looked up a hostel which took me quite some time to find (the neighborhood is akin to the crazy cross-directional streets of the Village in NYC!), and now that daylight savings ended as of Saturday (for all the world except USA, thanks to George W. Bush), everything is dark by 17:00, so that's about it for Odessa sites!

Chisinau, Moldova
Just about to grab a beer here in Chisinau, having run out of daylight to do any sightseeing! Back in Odessa this morning, made my way to the bus station to inquire on buses to Tiraspol. First woman at the ticket counter said, "No bus". Hmm.. since my guidebook says there are several/day, I assume it is just a language barrier issue so I ask the ticket worker next counter over, she told me "Yes, bus.. 17:45." What?! Definitely didn't want to wait that long, so asking about buses for Chisinau, found one leaving about every hour - book it! But, due to the de facto separist state of Transdniester, the bus doesn't pass through Tiraspol en route as I thought, but rather drives way out of the way to the southern tip of Moldova for the formal border crossing, then all the way back north up to Chisinau. What is only about 175km from Odessa and should take a few hours, ends up taking 5 (the horrendous road conditions in Moldova didn't exactly speed things up). So got off the bus in Chisinau not knowing what station I was at (love those smaller cities with several stations spread all over, and no easy way to get from one to another!), I wandered to a gas station and asked where the Hotel Cosmos was. A super-friendly (and not bad looking) girl who doesn't speak English but knows what I am asking and where the hotel is, leads me to the local maxitaxi (minibus) stand across the street, hails the correct maxitaxi for both of us - pays my fare, and gets off at my stop which I assume was a bit out of her way to wherever she's going as she starts backtracking. I tell her I have to at least repay her for the bus fare, but she refuses to accept - wow, so nice! So far I am giving the thumbs up for Moldovans!

Just got back to the Hotel after touring around Chisinau all day. I met up with Alison, UK girl who I had met during the Chernobyl tour on Sunday and now also traveling in Chisinau... we agreed it would be a good idea to keep in touch, to monitor eachother's "long-term" health conditions following Chernobyl! We wandered down Chisinau's main strip Stefan Cel Mare, passing by the government buildings and Holy Gates (what Moldovans call their "Arc de Triumph" - uh, maybe, if the town is inhabited by people also 1/3 the size of normal!),

then into the two diagonal parks. One of the parks was just lined with busts of famous Moldovans - not sure who any of them were, though!

Had lunch at a nearby pizza cafe then we checked out the Pushkin museum, which is a small cottage where the Russian poet Alexandr Pushkin was supposedly exiled for 3 years, and where some of his more famous works were composed.

So now I've seen Chisinau with daylight to spare - heading out for drinks next, to celebrate 8 months on the road!

Tiraspol, Transdniester (Moldova)
On a minibus here in Tiraspol and heading back to Chisinau after touring around this bizarre city for the day. This morning in Chisinau I did a bit of research on this breakaway state of Transdniester - from the time Moldova claimed independence from Soviet Union in 1990, this eastern region fought the separation, with a civil war. Today the region has its own currency, police, army and borders, which are only recognized (and funded) by Russia. I read some travelers having issues crossing the "border", being stopped by guards demanding some sort of bribe, even though this region of Transdniester technically doesn't require any visa/fees from USA, EU or Moldovan citizens. But since there is no embassy support from any countries in the area, it is essentially lawless and you go it alone. So as a precaution, I asked the receptionist at the Hotel to write on a piece of paper in Russian, "I know I do not have to pay to enter Tiraspol!" So got in a maxitaxi in Chisinau & headed to the border. One of the passengers spoke broken English, and I could tell by the way he kept looking at his watch was in some kind of hurry, so when we arrived at the Transdniester border he asked me if I needed help when I got out for the immigration office. I replied that I didn't think so (having my note handy), but he got out and walked up with me just to be sure - I assume he knows about the bribes, and was trying to avoid delays to get home! But no issues arose, and we continued onto Tiraspol (about 15 km beyond the border). Wandering down the main street, Ulitsa 25 Oktober, I was really blown away with the total pro-Soviet billboards, buildings, monuments -

even their national flag has the hammer & sickle etched in.

This place really rivals Minsk for the closest thing to a present-day Soviet city. Also, people were doing full 180 degree head turns when the tourist with a backpack walked past... not sure when the last time they had seen a Western tourist, but I think I'll be the topic of some dinner conversations tonight! Stopped at the Tiraspol National United museum, but was turned away with my Moldovan Lei currency, so I went to exchange Lei for some Transdniester Roubles - good souvenir! Back inside the museum I was approached by some young locals, one of the guys spoke really broken English but asked if I would like a guide to explain the exhibits - it was really cool! There were 4 locals, and we'd go from one display to the next and they'd all be telling him things about the display in Russian and he would then try to translate for me while they eagerly waited for my reaction.

There is definitely an interesting story with this area, and the experience was really great to be able to interact with the younger locals. They then encouraged me to visit the Nikolai Zelinskogo museum next door, offering me free admission so they could proudly show me the displays about their favorite Soviet chemist. Thanked them all and said I needed to head back to the bus station, the one guy asked for me to wait so he could walk with me - looking to practice his English (by telling me stories of his friend Vilnius who now lives in St. Petersburg - he was definitely a little obsessed with Vilnius...) and ask me about NYC. Really nice guy, helped to flag down the correct bus heading back to Chisinau. Now, just passed across the "border" back into Moldova without incident - good day!

Brasov, Romania
I just got checked-in to my hotel in Brasov - another "3" star gem, and about to head out for a look around the nightlife. So this morning back in Chisinau, I managed to find my way to the Southwest Bus Station - no where near where I thought originally - and got on the next maxitaxi to Brasov. Prior to actually heading out of Chisinau, we pull over and wait 45 minutes for the driver's friend or boss to bring him something he forgot or extra cargo to carry - that happens way too much, for these drivers to wait for extra passengers or cargo or something - never leave on time! And entering into Brasov we're pulled over by some EU drug inspectors that comb through the vehicle for about 20 minutes - maybe the "cargo" the guy was waiting for was a stash, indeed!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 08:06 Comments (0)

Week 34, 17.Oct.09 - 23.Oct.09

Budapest, Hungary to Kiev, Ukraine

View Week 34 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Sturovo, Slovakia
Well, not exactly where I thought I'd be making my end-of-day journal entry, but here I am in small town Sturovo, southern border town in Slovakia! Started another crappy rainy and cold morning (something like 3 consecutive days?!?) back in Budapest, and I head over to the bus "station" (stand) in the north part of the city next to the 2nd to-last metro stop. After struggling to figure out where the station actually was (come to find out it is just the stand) and how to buy my ticket in the vending machine, got on the local city bus (a bit odd to travel to a different city?) which departed onto Visegrad. Arrived at the stop for the Kiralyi Palota (Royal Palace), with an impressive history spanning different periods of construction from the early 14th c. to late 15th c.

Wandering around and really enjoying the artifacts and grounds practically to myself (there are some advantages for traveling Central Europe this time of year),

then I open the door to a room filled with about 100 people donning these black robes with red crests. Candles and incense burning with some weird music playing, and they all stop talking to look at me (I guess they figured out I wasn't part of their cult since I didn't have my black robe with me??), I felt like Tom Cruise in "Eyes Wide Shut"... all that was missing were masks and the leader asking me, "What is the password?" ("Fidelio!")

After backing my way out of the room, figured I had enough surprises in the palace so went out to the road to catch the next bus continuing on to Esztergom up at the border w/ Slovakia. Well, arriving in Esztergom found no one working in their bus "station" for information on a connecting bus to Bratislava, nor was anyone around who spoke a lick of English! So I'm wandering around the town trying to find maybe the train station, and along the way see a tourist map sign on the street and see there is a bridge crossing the Danube River over to Sturovo in Slovakia, so I figured I may have better luck there, so over I hoofed it!

Well, there were no more people speaking English here either, but I made my way over to the bus "station", and am I reading this correctly... only 2 buses/day to Bratislava at 06:05 and 07:15?? Crap. So I wander around and ask in Slovak, "Vlakova stanica?", for the train station to see if there are more options, but walking along in the direction people are pointing for about 20 minutes (uh, what town is the station in??), finally said "forget it", walked back toward the bus station and found a penzion (room) for the night. Unfortunately it didn't seem there is much going on here in Sturovo for Saturday night!

Trencin, Slovakia
About to call it a night, after a long long day that started at 05:00 back in Sturovo. Got up for that 06:05 bus (not gonna be stuck in Sturovo another day!) and arrived in Bratislava around 09:00. Got online to shoot my friend Rado an email about meeting up this evening, then off to see the sites - Bratislava is definitely a compact and smallish capital city, so it didn't take all that long! Wandered around the pedestrian-friendly Old Town with their popular statues in interesting poses scattered around,

and over to St. Martin's Cathedral with its impressive looks, and even more impressive history - all 11 ruling monarchs being crowned here between the 16th and 19th centuries. Pretty cool!

Paused for views of the curious looking Novy Most, New Bridge, and understand now the appropriately nicknamed "UFO Bridge",

en route to Bratislava Castle to wander around (the parts that weren't under reconstruction, that is).

Back down along the Danube stopped off to tour the National Gallery - really nice paintings and sculptures,

then over to the National Museum. The top floors (where you always start at with European museums) were displaying Natural History, stuffed animals and fossils from all over the world, which isn't what I care to see in the Slovakian National Museum!! Finally working my way to the ground floor, the museum redeemed itself with cool interactive displays of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944.

Quick Skype call with the bro and baby niece then back to the station to catch the bus up to Trencin. Very pretty views along the way with castles atop mountains dotting the landscape - awesome! Arrived in Trencin, quaint university town, and greeted at the station by Rado ("Swiss watch guy"), from the days traveling in Oslo over the summer! Really cool guy that took the train down to meet up in Trencin, and found me a penzion next to the station. We first headed out for some authentic Slovakian food - garlic soup and Slovakian dumplings with some kind of ricotta cheese, onions and bacon - perhaps not the best breath once you've eaten, but pretty damn good nonetheless! Since it was his birthday this past Friday we next headed over to "Steps" pub and put back some Slovakian beers and "Slivovica" (national distilled drink made from plums. Uh, tasted like bourbon to me!),

and reliving stories from the overpriced Norwegian days. Rado got on the train back home, and I was going to turn in but decided to head back to Steps for another beer (and the waitress with the long blonde hair had nothing to do with that decision, of course!). Ok, now that I've had plenty to drink after being up for 20 hours, will call it a night!

Kosice, Slovakia
After roaming around in the drizzle for about the past hour, finally found a relatively cheap hotel here in Kosice, Slovakia's Second City - I wasn't about to part with the 220 Euro price at the Hilton, that's for sure! Earlier today back in Trencin I had a relaxing morning roaming around and visiting the highlight of the town, Trencin Castle -

really interesting history dating from the 14th c. Hopped on the train for the 5 hr ride past the northern Tatra Mountains covered with snow (and plenty of snow on the ground below, for that matter -- eep!), and east to Kosice. The hostel listed in my guidebook doesn't exist according to the local I asked, hence the wild search for a reasonably priced hotel!

I've just boarded the overnight train to Lviv, but it has been a bit confusing so far -- I asked yesterday when I arrived here for the schedule and fare for this train, and was told 20:32 departure, cost 33.58 Euro. So arriving at the station ticket booth a bit ago, was surprised when the person told me cost 19.58 Euro (Blue Light special) - I even asked her to confirm, showing her the price I was quoted yesterday, but she said "no", so OK then! Well, when the time chart for trains arriving/departing showed the track # and I went out to the tracks, something weird was going on with the train cars getting switched or something. An older lady offered to help me by looking at my ticket, and telling me to wait for the other cars, which show up and get connected to the train (sleeper cars, as it turns out). Well, when I tried to board was denied b/c the lady sold me a damn third-class ticket, and was told to go to the car with the seats! Well, I figure I'll make the best of it and get out my beach towel for a blanket, but the ticket-checker man just came in and told me I have to change trains in 2 hours - great, not this crap again! Well, anyway - earlier today had a good time exploring Kosice - visited the fantastic gothic St. Elizabeth Cathedral & adjacent St. Michael's Chapel, both dating from the 14th c.

Passed by the city's (and Europe's) first Coat of Arms from 1369,

then past the 14th c. Urban's Tower (decided to skip the cheesy wax museum inside) to the baroque sculpture Immaculata, built as a thanksgiving for the end of the plague epidemic during 1720-1723.

Stopped by what I thought was the East Slovakian museum (which turned out to be closed for reconstruction), but wound up across the street at the incredibly lame Natural History museum. Rest of the day relaxed in a coffee shop, inside away from the constant drizzle (blah!). Well, in about 1 hour I'll hopefully be told where to transfer!

Lviv, Ukraine
About to turn-in early here in Lviv, and although I'd love to head out and see the nightlife here, I'm in need of making up some sleep. After surviving the connecting train some 4 hours waiting in the freezing cold station at the border in Ukraine, got a couple hours sleep then arrived here in Lviv. Met an English guy Edward at the train station who was visiting Lviv for the day en route to Odessa. He just so happened was on the same train as me last night (originating from Vienna) and let me know that, oh yeah, btw - the train was right there at the station the whole time for those 4 hours last night, they need to change the wheels b/c of different tracks entering Ukraine - so I could have been asleep inside the warm train. Well, that's fantastic to know. Anyway, he's studying Russian & Ukrainian languages and went along with me to help find the tourist office folks, which were really helpful with finding this hostel (giving me about 5 options to choose from, and loading me up with maps - really helpful!). Since Edward had been here to Lviv a few times before he offered to show me around a bit - first stop was to Puzata Khata, a cafeteria-style restaurant serving up some awesome borsch and chicken Kiev! Then roamed around the Old Town center - very "European" feel, not at all the Soviet-style I anticipated from Ukraine.

Stopped by the 14th c. Armenian Cathedral, then over to Lychakiv cemetary - actually really beautiful place with a mix between very elaborate to plain & simple tombstones and crypts.

Returned for dinner to Puzata Khata, bid farewell to Edward now crashing!

Got my bed made up and ready to take off on the overnight train to Kiev. It must be 90 degrees F in this cabin - but I'm not complaining (yet), b/c outside is damn cold! So I'm hoping for no dramatic train changes/connections on this ride - but we'll see. Nice day today, day #2 roaming around Lviv - really like this city! Wandered in and out of some cathedrals,

and by some impressive monuments - but I had no idea what any of them were, all the signs being in cyrillic and no info in my guidebook.

So I went back to the tourist info office and asked the girl working to look through my photos and name the sites for me - really, the most helpful tourist office I've ever visited! Had a coffee and people (women) watched at a cafe, now we're rolling out to Kiev!

Kiev, Ukraine
I'm about to head over and grab my pack left in storage back in Kiev's main train station and go meet Alex, local guy who I met through CouchSurfing website that is letting me stay in his apartment this weekend. This will be my first time CouchSurfing, I feel a little weird being invited into a stranger's home to stay for free, but think the idea overall is great (of course, whenever I settle back down with my own house/apartment, the idea is I would also allow travelers to stay at my place). So after a (pleasantly) undramatic train ride from Lviv overnight, spent some time this morning in a cafe with wifi so I could do some researching on day trips from Kiev. I then headed out to wander around - not too cold, and fortunately no rain! Went to see the Golden Gate from 1037 AD, original entrance to the Old Kiev (and actually open for tours - for once a site under reconstruction listed in my guidebook has been finished!).

Kept walking up the main avenue Vul Volodymyrska with really beautiful buildings and monuments,

then stopped to visit the impressive cathedrals along the way - St. Sophia's from 1017,

St. Michael's Monastery and the 1754 St. Andrew's Church, with its wonderful velvet, Christmas tree ornament-looking crown rooftop.

Finished up strolling down the craft/souvenir-lined winding Andriyivsky Uzviz pedestrian roadway - really cool looking city so far!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:07 Comments (0)

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