Sunday, 20 February 2011

Beyond Europe? (16/02 – 17/02)

I was right when I thought that after Vienna I was going to take an important step ahead, facts showed it to me next day.

I woke up at the hostel some minutes before my clock alarm rang due to other guests’ noises, and I had to quickly pack everything again after remaining two days at the same place, and after having breakfast I ran to the near train station of Bratislava Hlavna Stanica.

My eastbound train was departing at 9:24, I was first going to the train hub of that area, Kosice, and then taking another train to the easternmost town in Slovakia: Cierna nad Tisou.

Without surprises the train to Kosice arrived at 14:20 on time, and I went directly to the platform of the train to Cierna nad Tisou, which departed at 14:40.

The train to Kosice was a very comfy and modern one, and it was quite empty. I had a four-seats piece just for myself, including a big table in front of me, and an electrical plug for my computer.

I took my time to write some texts and even watched a movie. It was a 5 hours long delightful journey.

The train to Cierna nad Tisou had definitely a much more local flavour. Seats were old but at least cushion-like and most places were taken (it was unnumbered). Many travellers were high school students returning to their little border towns.

I arrived to my final destination few kilometers shy of the Ukrainian border at 16:40.

I had read on an internet forum that the best option was going to the border first, then crossing it to Chop and then taking a train from Chop to Lviv (sometimes spelled Lvov).

But I wasn’t lucky that day.

When I arrived to the train station of Cierna nad Tisou I found out that there was no train crossing the border till 23:00.

I did my best to pass the time in that distant, old and empty station with remnants of the Soviet era (a mural displayed the liberation of Prague), and oddly enough, two palm-trees. Some Gypsy children were running around.

I first bought a ticket to Chop, because I thought no trains were running further away, but I was obviously wrong, so when I realized it I bought a ticket from Cierna nad Tisou to Lviv. The ticket officer told me that there were no beds available on this train, but that I could buy a second class ticket. Alright.

As I had been progressively going eastwards inside Slovakia snow was more and more frequent, so this town was totally snow-covered.

After buying some snacks to trick my need for real food, I decided to have a look around. The town was kind of desolate and I couldn’t find anything interesting at look. Nondescript. One street leaded out of the station, and some others equally dull ones crossed it. No restaurants, no hotels. Just one supermarket, one bet-house, one bank and a pharmacy.

In the end time passed quite fast, and finally I got on board. 2nd class wagon, all empty and unlightened.

Seats were red and made of hard plastic.

In just 10 minutes we got to the Slovakian side of the border. A first round of two policemen checked that my wagon was empty apart from me and looked everywhere inside.

Second round of two (Slovakian) policemen asked me my passport and were surprised to learn that I was travelling by train to Russia. The looked at me suspiciously and amused at the same time when they asked me when I was returning home and I told them that in many months.

They just didn’t know what I was doing there, but as a citizen of the European Union I had the right to leave it.

And I left it, and if I succeed I won’t return to the EU till the end of this year.

My worst nightmare came alive when they kicked me out of the 2nd class wagon at the train station of Chop (Ukraine).

Apparently I was the only one who had to get out of the train and then go to the border control and custom house. But not only that, they informed me then that my 2nd class ticket to Lviv was not valid because there was no 2nd class wagon going to Lviv actually; my wagon’s trip ended in Chop.

The train’s officer wasn’t friendful and shouted me in a bad mood to get out of the train and not to come back.

Ukrainian female police officers leaded me to the passport control room of the station.Thanksfully, they spoke English.

No problems. I got my passport stamped and they just checked my instruments’s case (even made me play the alboka to prove it was a musical instrument).

Some friendly military old man tried to explain to me in broken English that I had to pay for a bed in a wagon going to Lviv.

That was when I saw my former train from Cierna nad Tisou leaving the station.

They tried to reassure me: you will have a train to Lviv in 3 hours. It was almost 2 in the morning already.

The station’s interior was in twilight and kind of cold. All ticket offices were closed.

I was alone and didn’t know what I was expected to do then.

I left my backpack on a bench and sat beside it.

I tried to sleep slouching onto my backpack, gloves, hat, scarf, coat and everything on, but it didn’t work.

After a while I saw people chatting at the information desk.

“Gavaritie pa-angliskiy? I want a ticket to Lviv.”

Unhappy female ticket sellers told me to go to desk nº 5 in 5 minutes.

In the meanwhile I changed my mind and decided to go directly to Kiev, instead of Lviv.

Sometimes one has to take fast decisions in this kind of trip while being very tired. That was what happened. I thought that having no CS host or contact whatsoever with anyone there, and besides, having no travelling guide of Ukraine either it wasn’t worth it going to Lviv. Aaand I thought I was going to arrive there pretty early in the morning, because there were only 280 km between Chop and Lviv, and I took for granted that the train ride will only last about 3 or 4 hours, and I needed much more sleep. That’s why I decided “to the hell with Lviv, I will travel to Kiev so I will have more time to rest”.

In the end, and after getting out of the station twice looking for an ATM that provided Ukrainian currency ("grivnas"), I got my sleeping-wagon ticket to Kiev.

My first real and authentic “transsiberian”-like experience started when I got on to this new wagon. It wouldn’t depart till one hour yet, but lots of people were sleeping in the dark inside. It was the Bratislava – Moscow line.

When I got inside there was a warm smell of sleeping bodies, breathing, snoring, and some of them stinking, but I got quickly used to this.

I found my couchette inside in the darkness (nº 20), it was an open compartment wagon, with dozens of people sharing the same space.

I climbed on to my bed (it was an upper couchette) and as far as I can tell, I got asleep after a long day.

It turned out that the train was arriving to Lviv at 11:00 am, when I woke up greatly refreshed (but I didn’t know that that stop was Lviv).

The train was going to arrive to Kiev 9 hours later, after crossing most of Ukraine.

Far more rest than what I needed, so now I regret not having visited Lviv.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Slovakia and Vienna (14/02 – 16/02)

The night train to Bratislava turned out to be very nice in comparison. I was kind of sensitive about trains then because of the event in the one to Krakow.

My first compartment with couchettes, and just for myself! This was the kind of experience I was going to have during the transsiberian.

Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to sleep for the train dropped me in Bratislava at 5:30 or so, but surprisingly, the train station was not completely empty, quite lively to be so early, instead.

I followed the hostel signs at the station and I reached one at 6 in the morning, quite near.

They wouldn’t let me check in till 14h, but they let me stay in the reception room and kept my baggage.

As soon as the sun went up I went for a slow walk around the town, I had in fact 6 hours before I could get a bed.

Entering Bratislava’s Old Town by Michael’s bridge (statue of the archangel featured) I saw the Clock’s Tower and beside it the so-named “narrowest house in Central Europe” (lol).

It was freezing cold but I was getting used to this kind of weather, but anyway I got into a café for a long breakfast, tea and a piece of chocolate cake included.

After a while, it was snowing heavily for the first time in my trip, I zipped tight my coat and climbed to the castle.

All in all, Bratislava has a pretty Old Town, it reminded me a bit of a little German town.

Many Catholic churches and convents, though. In this area some churches already display domes of similar shape to the onion domes of the Eastern faith.

Bratislava also homes many strange statues in hidden corners of the town. Some examples are those faces below, the bronze statue of the sewer worker, etc.

I had lunch in an Slovak restaurant's cellar-like room, ate chicken with peaches and cheese, and strudel for dessert, delicious.

When I could finally get in the hostel I lived like some other hostel-dwellers, staying the afternoon in my room with 6 other people.

I shared the room notably with two Brazilian girls (studying and working in Central Europe, respectively) and a South African resident in England, fan of snowboarding and mountains.

I reached my westernmost point in one year when I arrived to Vienna.

That was an opportunity to meet again a dear friend.

She took me to a cemetery where we could behold the tombs of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and others, and then had lunch at a cool central Pakistani self-service all-you-can-eat restaurant, where you could pay whatever you feel like!!

In Vienna I ended one part of the trip, the inner circle, I left behind whatever I could have felt like home and prepared myself to enter the unknown territory of Ukraine next day.

Western European imperial buildings still present in Vienna.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Poland (09/02 – 14/02)

My experience in Poland has been mixed, ecclectical one can say, surely short but unequal.

This was my first time in this country and sinceresly I had never been before because there wasn’t anything in it that attracted me especially.

Anyway, I was pretty excited getting at last into a unknown country for the first time in my Asian trip (and I’m still in Europe, yes).

The thing is that I hadn’t prepared anything about Poland, as I do before every trip, and with that I mean informing myself a bit about its history, culture, society, learning the basics of the language and reading about what to see in some of its cities.

But given that Poland was going to be only a temporary destination I didn't make the effort at all.

I had my train ticket from Berlin to Warsaw before I knew that my visa to Belarus had been denied, so I had no choice but going there.

The fastest route to Moscow was clearly Paris > Berlin > Warsaw > Minsk, and that was what I was planning to do.

Incidentally I made up my mind to visit Krakow, because everyone was telling me that I couldn’t miss it if I went to Poland (most of them also told me NOT to go to Warszawa).

When I found out that Ukraine was going to be my route to Moscow then Krakow was a compulsory stop strategically located. Inmediatly afterwards I realized that Slovakia is so close that I couldn’t miss it before I quit Europe.

As I wrote on the previous post the chilly wind was one of the first highlights in Poland. Apparently, I had had pretty mild temperatures even in Berlin (where it was blissfully sunny) but I had the full winter’s blow in Warsaw. I had to quickly adjust my clothing habits to work against it.

I confessed that I wasn’t interested in Poland, but in the end I found it quite appealing.

As soon as I got on the train in Berlin I was confined to a compartment with 5 Poles, not understading a word of what they were saying.

Two of this guys had a menacing appearance, weighing many more kilos than what they ought to, skinheads, and hiddenly drinking vodka on board. One of them had a sweater that said “Zero Toleransji”.

Somehow I could tell when we crossed the border because the nature seemed a bit more lifeless (?) than what winter weather causes. These borderlands looked very unhospitable, but finally we stopped by the industrial Poznan.

Later on, Polish people told me that the Poles who live close to Germany still feel someone will come and claim these territories, for they were relocated after WWII with people from Eastern Poland.

We arrived later than expected to Warsaw and because I couldn’t see any sign showing that that was Warszawa Centralna, I had to ask to be sure I wasn’t hopping off at some distant outskirt’s station.

I found myself in the middle of an underground web of corridors, with occasional stairways to the surface. I tried one of those and the daylight blinded me and all I could see was a concrete street and lots of cars on a wide alley. It didn’t look anything like any central point of reference to me so I got downstairs again. Back there I had to go with the flow, for thousands of people seemed very aware of their destinations and walked fast in these underground corridors.

Boardsigns in Polish didn’t let me know much.

I was hungry so I ordered a kebab but when I paid with Euro they told me that not so much was necessary for prices were in zloty.

Great. I had no idea Poland still had a strange currency.

I had supposed that Poland was going to be a little more in accordance to its location in Northern Central Europe, but I had thought wrong, and despite of where it is and that Slavs elsewhere consider themselves Central Europe (in Czech Republic, Slovakia or Slovenia, for instance), Poland is an Eastern European country with social and economical problems.

Beggars asked me openly for zloty in Polish on the street, which is very unusual in my hometown, to say.

Once I got upstairs and I saw the high Stalinist skyscraper in the middle of the Warsawian Centrum and thought it was beautiful. They illuminate it with greens, purples and yellows by night.

I was taught later that locals hate it because it was built by Stalin and because it was chosen among other projects that could have benefitted more the general population.

It was freezing cold outside soI headed to a modernist shopping mall nearby, where I could wait in the warm and commercial atmosphere till I could meet my CS host in Warsaw.

My host lived in a far from the centre (20 minutes by metro) new neighbourhood, full of recently constructed residental areas surrounded by high metal fences and watched by security guards. You even had to type codes twice on a numeric keypad. I just wondered what was so scary outside to be isolated from it.

My host took me to a cool gaming bar (people were playing board and card games there) and I had the chance to try a delicious ale with chocolate and coffee syrup. Not to forget the popular beer with honey. There I met a couple of two other couchsurfers: a girl from Vienna who studied History of Art, and a French IT from the Pacific colony of New Caledonia.

I thought that I had travelled pretty fast and intensely between Bilbao, Paris and Berlin, and I needed to slow down and relax, and enjoy the experience now that I was finally in a new country. And so did I.

Next morning, I didn’t bother to wake up early to visit Warsaw, and started writing and publishing to my blogs instead.

When I got finally to the centre I walked to the rebuilt Old Town. This part of Warsaw was completely destroyed during the WWII so the Communist Regime had to reconstruct it entirely, in an appraising effort to restore the history of the capital. The whole nation contributed and in the end the outcome is impressive. They based the reconstruction on 17th and 18th centuries paintings, so it is not the exact appearance of the place before the war.

In front of the Old Town, across the Vistula river, is the quarter called Praga, the same name of the Czech capital, were the Russian troops were stationed before the liberated the city from the Nazis.

There is a statue of these soldiers in front of an Orthodox Church there. Locals call this statue the Sleeping Soldiers, because Russians first forced the Poles to rebel against the Nazis before grabbing the city themselves.

Later that night I attended a kitchen party of a couple of friends of my host, who had just come from a trip in Vietnam, so I was able to learn a bit about what they saw, and their opinion about the country, some pictures, etc.

I felt lazier next day because the day was quite gloomy and rainy, so I only had like a couple of hours of sunlight in the city, which I used to walk in the southern part of it, including the Royal Park.

The best thing of the day was the pierogi I had for dinner at a cosy and traditional place.

They had an English menu for these dumplings but they didn’t speak any English. I ate a Russian one and a sweet one made of apples.

There was a Japanese girl who was a lone traveller too and barely spoke English. I had to communicate with her using my poor Japanese. She told me that she had done the opposite trip from Vladivostok to Moscow.

Saturday morning held an unpleasant surprise for me.

Snow covered the streets early in the morning, but it was quickly melting away under the sun.

I knew that a train was departing at 10:20 to Krakow but what I hadn’t realized is that the ticket I had bought previously was unnumbered, so I could have taken any train.

The problem was that the most convenient for me was that one in the morning, and loads of people had had the same idea. So the platform was crowded and we had to fight to get into the train. Many people were heading to the Southern mountains of Poland (Zakopane), with skiing and snowboarding stuff.

I was about to be left behind at the station, but finally I pushed myself into the train.

I had to stand with my backpack by the door of the wagon for nearly 4 hours, and side by side with a multitude that filled up every possible space inside (as far as I could see, the train’s seats were occupied when it arrived to Warsaw).

Everybody was having a hard time because when it arrived finally there was a loud applause from the travellers.

It was bad, and I couldn’t avoid getting angry for a while, but I forgot about it when I got to Krakow.

For the first time since I started I got no CS host, so I stood alone in Krakow, but thanks to CS I met this girl named Asia and had some chatting over Polish beers in the Jewish quarter.

I took my time in Warsaw, but because of the lack of CS contact in Krakow I regained speed, so I just spent one day and a half there.

Mainly promenading around the beautifully preserved Old Town, all surrounded by gardens and above it the castle of Wawel and its Cathedral.

It was sunny during the day, but at night the cold was hard.

Sunday was quite a lonely day and I didn’t do anything special. It was probably the lowest day so far in the trip.

I didn’t want to stay out in the cold so as soon as it got dark I stayed indoors at a local mall near the station. My thought that afternoon was that Poland was “Western enough to be hateable but not Eastern enough to be exotic”. It was unfair but I was kind of pissed off, and in a way it was positive as I still felt like near home (thanks to things I don’t like as commercialism, catholicism, etc.).

I had my train to Bratislava late at night on Sunday, which meant that it was going to drop me at an unknown station at 5:40 in the morning.

(I doubt I will be able to write with this level of detail further on, but will keep on trying!)

Friday, 11 February 2011

First leg: Bilbao – Paris – Berlin – Warsaw (04/02 – 09/02)

Here goes the first post on the road!
This first part of the journey that will take me to the Far East started in Southwestern Europe, where Bilbao is located.

My first destination was of course Paris, where I had already been with my father when I was younger.
I had quite an intense stay in Paris, full of activities and sights, thanks to my great host Gorka, a mate from Bilbao who lives there since 4 years ago.

I survived a night train with no bed from Paris to Berlin that took around 12 hours of journey, which I did on purpose so I can start getting used to spending long times in trains.

Berlin was a much more recent visit for me, even if it was in 2009 it seemed like yesterday. I had no trouble in walking around the places I easily took as already known and familiar.

These stays in Central European cities have much in common with my previous stay in London in January: big capitals, already seen, new perspectives, reunions with friends, etc. so the London trip can be considered a prologue to the Asian trip.

Warsaw was then the first unknown place I was getting to. And I really had a strange arrival, feeling totally lost in an underground corridor with lots of people going in every direction.

I didn't even know that there was no Euro in Poland so when I first ordered some food I thought prices were in Euro! But in fact one zloty is about ¼ of Euro.

Not knowing the language is another handicap I am not used to cope with, because normally I learn at least the basics so I can ask things and say hello, thank you and so, but I didn't take the time to do it in Polish, so I feel concerned that I force people to talk to me in English.

But I felt great walking around on my own, discovering the layout of a city I had never been to.
I will talk more extensively about Poland in a different post.

Cold! A little warning for what awaits me further East.
I found it very unpleasant, despite it is only 1 or 2 minus zero. But anyway, I could walk for many hours without getting indoors at any time and I endured this coldness. In any case, I am not using everything I brought against the freezing winter.

I cannot enter Russia till the 21st, so I must make time around. I am going South, to Krakow, which everybody says it's the most beautiful place in Poland, and then, given that Slovakia is next door, I am visiting Bratislava.

Vienna will also be added to the Western capitals that I have already been to and which I will visit before I leave Europe, especially to meet friends again :)

I have been meeting awesome people and old acquaintances on the way, so I can't complain.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Foreign Passport

When last week I received my passport back, together with the Russian and Chinese visas, I realized that something was missing: There is not a single word in Basque language on it.

That wouldn’t be such a failure if it wasn’t for the more than 20 other languages in which it is written.

Including not only the “bigger” ones like English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish or Italian, but also less “important” ones like Portuguese, Danish, Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Romanian or Bulgarian, and finally “stranger” ones like Hungarian, Finnish, Greek, Latvian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, Estonian or Irish, some of them actually even less spoken than Basque.

My Spanish identity card has in fact all text translated into both Spanish and Basque, but when I get abroad with my passport I am forced to pretend that I am as Spanish as anyone. I mean, I don’t mind, not everyone has to know anything about the place you come from, and explaining takes time, but that is just plainly false, I don’t mind pretending I come from a uniformily homogeneous country, but that’s deceptive at least.

If Switzerland was in the European Union I am sure that Romansch (Swiss co-official language, with a few thousands of speaker) will be another EU official language, but hey, Spain is not Switzerland! Spain is a sort of a big Castile, Spanish monolingual state, looking from the outside, not a confederation of peoples who want to stay together (as is the case of Switzerland). In opposition to Switzerland, there is clearly one culture/language imposing itself above the others in Spain.

What could I do? I just travel with a foreign passport that doesn’t show my real nationality.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Last arrangements

I know that I haven't written a single word here for the whole month of January, but I have plenty of excuses... I was busy quitting my job, travelling to London and meeting cool people there, moving all my things out of my rented flat...

This will be my last post here before I depart on Friday (February 4th), heading to Paris.

After that I expect to post frequently about my whereabouts, since I bought a netbook to take with me, especially to be able to blog while travelling.

So be patient and keep on following new updates here.

For all of you who happen to know Basque too, I will be writing on a Basque language blog on BERRIA newspaper's website here:

Starting today I have a new haircut, a very short one for that matter, because long ago I thought it very convenient having a comfortably short hair to travel for months abroad.

Besides, I finally got today my Russian and Chinese visas, so the borders in my itinerary are open for me now, till August at least.

Talking about the itinerary, I had to change it when I was told that in order to get into Belarus I needed a real hotel reservation vouch signed and sent from Minsk, so fortunately, I am now getting from Poland to Moscow through Ukraine, that doesn't need any visa, and which I deem more interesting.

Apart from that, I have realized that I only have a two entry visa to China, each of which allows me to spend 30 days there, so I have a maximun of 60 days there, but I can only have 30 days every time I enter. This might rearrange a bit my sighting tour in China, because I will use one entry when I get from South Korea, and the second one most probably when I get back from Mongolia (after Beijing), so that won't allow me to visit Hong Kong if I don't apply for a new visa in China.

I had the last dosis of the necessary vaccines last week, and I emptied my flat (a great task), but not before I packed everything in my backpack, and I am so happy that everything I wanted to carry fitted inside!

I am going to say good-bye telling you that I already have Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and Berlin, in the first case a fellow expatriate from Bilbao and an American friend of him, and in Germany (where I will only spend one night before I take a train to Warsaw) a former host and guest.