Tag Archives: mountains

Georgia to Kazakhstan

I write from our carriage of the number 47 train heading north east from Atyrau to Astana, Kazakhstan. It’s our forth night on the rails and I might just have enough battery in the laptop to recount the weird but wonderful experience we have encountered since leaving Tbilisi, Georgia with our Russian and Kazakh visa’s in hand.

Nina, Sam and I woke in no hurry last Thursday, grabbed the Metro to the Didube station where we picked up a minibus for the 2 hour ride to Kazbegi, home of 5047m mount Kazbek and the last town in Georgia along the military highway into Russia. We had a night there in a home-stay, attempted to climb up to the church at 2200 metres but turned back when drizzled out. Sam made it to the top in his waterproof jacket. Nina and I wished we hadn’t given away our warm clothes 5 months ago and wondered how cold it will be in Russia.

On Friday Morning we rose early, a few Georgian Lari left in hand but determined to spend it on a coffee if we could only hitch the 8km to the Russian border. We gave it 40 minutes or so in the light rain before giving up and presenting our last “pennies” to a 4×4 Lada taxi driver, conscious that if we didn’t make it to Vladikavkaz in Russia by 16:33 we would miss our onward train. We’d heard the Russian border can take a while as it’s still a delicate area, only opened to foreigners since July 2012 and brushing past sensitive regions like Chechnya and Dagestan. It was now 10:30.

Lada man took us through yet more staggering scenery lined with snow-capped mountains and dropped us right at Border Control. Excited that we were finally at the frontier with our Russian visa’s, we would hitch from the other side once we were cleared. Little did we know that there is 5km of no man’s land between the Georgian exit and Russian entry. The guard stopped us and politely told us that we were not allowed to cross by foot, we needed to be in a vehicle. He pointed to an area where we should stand to try and communicate with passing vehicles, explaining that we were forbidden to loiter in the vehicle waiting zone.

Hitching already seemed hard enough with the three of us, now we were at a border crossing and presumed any passing traffic would think we were a hassle to take – extra time to process them foreign visas. We were feeling a touch unlucky when a Ukrainian couple showed up with the same problem. Now we were five, surely nobody will stop. I hailed an Armenian truck who seemed to give us an “ok” signal. As I followed the truck down to the no-go zone the same guard stopped me and a passing car simultaneously, somehow agreeing one space with the stranger. We shouted for Sam and we agreed to split, meeting at the train station in Vladikavkaz. With no local currency left between us we gave Sam 20 dollars in case of an emergency and he disappeared into the family estate. Nina and I looked at each other worryingly, hoping he’ll be ok but knowing we had little other choice.

Next we got lucky. The Ukrainian couple stopped an old guy in a Lada. He was alone. Before Nina and I could grumble at them for stealing our ride, they signalled us over, shoved us in the back and off we went. Our driver had a military hat on and flashed an army ID card at passport control, we were safe and on our way. We bounced through no-mans land admiring more mountains, trying to take pictures from the broken Lada window, feeling like we would make our train on time. The tunes were blazing – an english 90’s CD – Gangsters Paradise, 2unlimited, Barbie Girl, Ace of Base and Short Dick Man – quality! We arrived at the Russian Border entry only to spot Sam a few vehicles ahead explaining why the biometric chip on his passport was smashed – dodgy!

Lada man number two kindly dropped us right outside the Vladikavkaz train station. It was 14:00 and we had plenty of time to grab some lunch, get the tickets and board our 16.33 train – but no sign of Sam. I used the time to explore how much a Russian Rouble was worth before extracting too many thousands from the Bankomat machine. Nina waited with the bags. By 15.30 we were getting a bit worried. At 15.45 Sam marched in with a new friend. He’d been dumped out of town with no Russian money and whilst asking for directions Dimitri offered to pay for his tram, escorted him to the station and then generously interpreted our needs to the ticket officer in the station. He managed to get hold of our 3rd class, 5 hour journey ticket to Mineralnie Wodi and our onward ticket, where we would quickly swap to the 22:00 overnighter to Volgograd, arriving at 14:53 on Saturday.

3rd class train travel in Russia is cheap, it’s comfortable and it’s interesting. A 24 hour train ride is less than 20 quid. You receive blankets and pillows for the bed and a towel for a morning scrub up. There’s a conductor in each carriage who will wake you if your stop is in the early hours. There’s electricity sockets to charge ipods or laptops (essential if you want to watch a late night movie). There’s a hot water tank for endless cups of tea or instant noodles and you are sure to meet Russians eager to share their home made vodka, wine or smoked fish. We were even handed a strangely shaped citrus fruit by Vadim to wash with – maybe a hint? The scenery was bleak to say the least. The occasional 1965 soviet style cement factory dotted the otherwise flat and desolate landscape. We’d left the Caucasus mountains behind and were heading into the plains, north of the Caspian Sea.

We arrived in Volgograd, famous for the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest and most fatal massacre site of WWII, bang on time. The Russian trains leave plenty of time for arrival and if they’re early they rest a few kilometres from the station in order to slink in on the dot. It was cold. We had five hours to fix our next nights sleeper train. Previous research pointed towards making it over the border to Makat in Kazakhstan but every ticket saleswoman screeched “Nyet” at the slightest glimpse of the word Makat. It seemed obvious after trying for a while that there were either no trains to Makat or that they were full. I’d previously found an alternative itinerary on the bahn.de website that gave a border town train change at Aksaraiskaia. We tried for a ticket by writing down the train number and were duly rewarded with three “platskartny” (3rd class) tickets. Leaving at 19.19, it gave us a few hours to explore the city, collect some rations and eat a late lunch. We boarded the train, had a beer and tucked ourselves in ready for our second night on the trains and a 4am rise at the border.

We were woken and unceremoniously hurried off the train at 04:32. It was dark. It was cold. There seemed no obvious place to collect an onward train ticket – no sign of life whatsoever. We were on the cusp of Kazakhstan but it still seemed so far away. There was one security officer and on the other side of the gates a few taxi’s waiting to take people to god knows where. One of the taxi drivers pointed us to a building, a dim light shone from the inside and there were certainly people there. We entered and a stroppy looking lady sat behind a 12 by 4 inch hatch.

“Makat?” I asked.

“Nyet” blah blah blah. “Nyet” something something.

“I don’t think we can get a ticket for Makat guys”.

“Kazakhstan?”

“Nyet” blah blah blah, something something.

We looked around to the half dozen or so Asian looking guys in the small building.

“Kazakhstan?”

One man shouted “Aytrau”. We took some paper and deciphered a map.

It soon became apparent that we could take a train to Atyrau and then change to the Almaty train, our destination in Kazakhstan. The guy came to the ticket hatch, chatted in Russian for a bit, asked for our passports, got refused something, marched us to an office, presented our passports, looked disappointed at the guard shaking his head, noticed our Kazakhstan visa’s, marched us back to the ticket office, discussed more info with the lady and then gave us the thumbs up. We were heading to Kazakhstan! By this time we had some intrigued onlookers, the same train would head on to Uzbekistan, which seemed to make up the remaining passengers.

Our fixer disappeared, the lady began typing and a few minutes later had our tickets in hand. She gestured for some money. We knew we had none. Same as at the last border. We didn’t want to leave the country with useless local currency and so were waiting to find out the cost of the tickets before extracting the exact money from the ATM. There was no ATM. It was a border train junction and nothing else. I gave her a visa card. She shook her head. I asked for money exchange. She shouted “Nyet” at me. I went in search of some kind of solution. We had dollars. I opened the door and Mr Fixer appeared. Using a pen and paper as communication, drawing numbers, crossing out things that weren’t possible to show what was, he took our dollars. We had 90, our tickets were the equivalent of 80. Another saviour, this time an Uzbek guy agreed to take our dollars in exchange for the Roubles we needed to purchase the ticket – a total relief (and now the opportunity to get some sleep). Our train would leave at 16.57. We had 9 hours to wait in the clinical ticket room. Luckily we made lots of Uzbek friends and the day flew by exchanging family photos and friendly smiles. Russian officials seemed hard but the folk friendly and we all agreed that we would like to visit Uzbekistan.

We walked to the platform an hour or so before departure. The friendly Russian Border control would release us there ready for our trip through another no-mans land and up to the Kazakhstan frontier. It was to be our third consecutive night on board the trains, this time in a Kazakh wagon. As we bumbled down the steps onto the platform the crowd immediately took to us, we chucked our bags down, sat on them to wait and Sam began to make a cigarette. The Uzbek crowd honed in on us in what Sam called the “circle of bewilderment” (see photo). I am still surprised by how many people I see smoking and for all the smokers in the circle it was clear that none of them had seen Golden Virginia being hand rolled before. Sam made a couple extra and handed them out, hesitant Uzbek’s asking “Narcotic?” We waited to be called through the passport control, plenty of new friends waved us ahead of them. The Russian guard was nice and said it was very strange to see English or Australian people on the train platform. It left exactly on time. Next stop Atyrau, Kazakhstan.

The evening was a pleasant one, more family photo sharing by Nina with her new Kazakh lady friends and a few language lessons here and there. We were stamped into Kazakhstan by an official who boarded the train with a “welcome to Kazakhstan”. We passed some desert and tucked ourselves in for the night. As morning broke we woke to desert. More desert, some flat dry grassland, a bit more desert and then Atyrau. There was no train to Almaty. Some misinformation, so we decided to head to the capital. We had heard the illusive China visa could be obtained there and another 30 hour overnight train left 2 hours later. We took the plunge, collected some Kazakh Tenge from the Bankomat and booked our onward journey.

On route to Astana, the world’s coldest capital city, only 300km from the Siberian border, we’ve passed desert, grassland, a few villages and more desert. As I write this blog we are day 5 of train transit after 4 consecutive nights on the rails and I’m beginning to feel at home in the carriages. The world feels very big today. Since our first train in Vladikavkaz we will have made 3815km when we arrive in Astana this afternoon, it will be double that distance to Yunnan in China and more than triple the whole lot to reach Australia. We will rest in China – let’s just hope we get that visa tomorrow!

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Porcini’s in Popolano

After a really wonderful day in Venice with Ma and Pa we decided that an Italian countryside chill out was needed and hopped on a train south to Popolano, a small village inside the Tuscan region.  The rain only enhanced the lush green vegetation amongst the rolling green hills.  It was my first taste of the Italian countryside, I felt it soothing my soul, just what we needed!

Hardly time to settle into our room before Giovanni our host knocked at the door with a big box of mushrooms.  His father had been out that morning and hauled in a monster catch.  We were invited to go foraging the next day if the weather was fine.  A sunny day following a week of rain is perfect for the porcini at this time of year.

The language barrier reared it’s ugly head once again and so we were not quite sure when or where we would go but at around 2pm we got a knock on the door and were ushered into a little 4×4 panda with Giovanni’s father Roberto and whisked of up into the mountains.

Roberto obviously knew what he was doing and it felt like he was also passing his knowledge on to Giovanni as he pointed to different shades of green and distinct arches in the grass.  They both had cool little rake-type-comb things.  They showed us where to look and then got busy scratching around in the field.

A very different technique than when Nina and I were wandering through the New Forest unable to miss the hundreds of mushrooms thrusting themselves towards us.  We had to hunt hard for them and to make things harder someone had already been to this patch earlier in the day.

We hunted around for a good couple of hours and found ourselves enough fungi for dinner.  We were told that in another two weeks there would be many more mushrooms and they’d be bigger too.  We were on the cusp of fungi season and so retired to our home for the evening eager to cook up our new found treats.

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Big Mountains, Small Money

It’s nearly the end of March and the last four weeks have been all about the Mountains and less about the money.  We are in Granada at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They are still covered in snow although the temperature here is averaging about 26 degrees in the height of the day.

Since leaving our village building experience in Morocco we’ve not managed to get far away from the beautiful jagged edges of the landscape. We travelled by local bus through the Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco up to Fez where we spent three memorable days exploring the winding medina streets of what is said to be the oldest surviving medieval and the largest non motorised city in the world.

Our next leg took us again by local bus up to Tangier for our ferry. We skimmed the Rif mountains of Northern Morocco of which we had visited on the way into the country 8 weeks ago. It was a whole lot warmer than when we arrived.

The ferry took us across the water into Spain with the giant rock of Gibralter to our east. Arriving in Spain only 3 hours later made Morocco feel a world away. We’d had a truly rich experience there and felt sad to leave.

Part of our journey design and the reason we are able to spend quite a bit of time in europe will be our careful use of money and here in Spain it was to begin. Areas we highlighted for scrimping were travel and accommodation mostly and so this was to be our first hitch hike of this travel adventure.

We wrote out our Malaga sign whilst on the boat and after a couple of badly chosen spots we found a good area and stuck out those thumbs! It was only 20 minutes later that we were scooped up by a local and taken 40 minutes or so towards our destination. He plonked us in a good spot to find another ride and it was only 15 minutes more waiting until a big old motor home pulled in to take us on to Malaga.

In Malaga we had arranged to couch surf with a couple who seemed to be professional couch surf hosts. Ana and Israel had hosted many other people and enjoyed the company and practicing their language skills. They were very kind and trusting and gave us a key and disappeared off to a family gathering leaving Nina and I their home.

Our next stop and another great money saving arrangement was our first Wwoof of the journey. We arrived in Orgiva by local bus but hiked the remaining 5km or so up a dry river bed to find the olive finca we were to be working on for the following week. Wwoofing is a great example of stacking functions as it has so many positives – we live for free with accommodation and food covered, the host receives two hard workers for 5.5 hours a day, we can to learn about local processes and cultures whilst exploring the area and we meet other like minded people who share the same passions about organic techniques.

Kate’s Finca was stunning, set in a valley of more snowy topped mountains with no road access. Her main output is olives but she also has tonnes of veg and other fruit trees and chickens etc. Wwwofers stay in little self contained Casitas with cooking facilities and fire places. It was a beautiful place to work for a week and we would have liked to stay longer.

My fourth Diploma project should now be in full swing but I am yet to find it and so moving on was unavoidable. We saved another bus fare by hitching and trekking to Granada to meet with our next Couch surf host. Andrea, who is studying environmental science here. We explored the city yesterday and cooked for her last night. Travelling on a budget feels very rewarding so far and it means we have a few extra euros for the all important ice cream and beer.

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Norfolk to Chefchaouen

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Tomorrow we leave Chefchaouen on route to Meknes.  Nina and I have been in Morocco two weeks now and the days have flown by since we left Norfolk.  We had the weekend in London and Brighton before catching our bus to Paris.  We picked up an overnight train to Madrid and had just enough time there to grab a churros, definitely needed to boost the sugar levels, still trying to get over the weird snotty face ache that I’d left England with.  We moved on again by train to Algeciras where we were to catch our boat to Morocco.  It was only 36 hours since leaving London and we decided to take a room for the night, hoping to catch the ferry early the next day. read more…