Tag Archives: Train

Koh Phangan to Bali

When Nina and I looked up information on how to get from Thailand to Malaysia and then onto the Indonesian islands, resources were limited. The most common answer to our question was “get a cheap flight”.  So I write this blog not just about our adventures, but the logistics too, hopefully serving as a resource for others.  We found this stretch of landscape fascinating, with great places to stop along the way, so if you have time – forget the plane!

3790km and now Australia in our sight...

Koh Phangan to Bali – 3790km. Now Australia in sight…

Koh Phangan

Our budget check in Phuket revealed that if Nina and I were to stay in Thailand any longer it had to be money free. We also felt undernourished in the permaculture hands-on department. That evening we spent hours scouring the internet for potential projects to join. We also wanted to continue south, this eliminated the many opportunities in northern Thailand. After limited responses from the WWOOF or Permaculture Global networks we looked up HelpX – £18 for a two year joint membership. It opened up more options to work on the land plus other opportunities ranging from eco-tourism to home help and teaching.

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HelpX is where we found Guillaume. A young French not-quite-retired lawyer establishing an “eco-lodge” in a beautiful setting, next to the beach on the party island of Koh Phangan. We decided weeks earlier that we’d avoid this island, famous once for underground hippie trance parties, now more known for 20 thousand teens dancing to Lady GaGa with dayglow “full moon” t-shirts! However, Guillaume described his property as remote (367 stairs down from the road) with a project to establish permaculture ideas and appropriate energy technology. The other main drawcard for us was the chance to learn about and help with the efforts on biological pest management systems. 

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Collecting beetles in the field

In much of South East Asia the coconut palms are being attacked by the Brontispa beetle. They lay their larvae in the young shoots of coconut palms. Trees become weak and die very quickly. The beetle was introduced accidentally on imported ornamental palms from Indonesia where it has a natural predator. In affected areas breeding and release of the predating parasitoid seems to be working well with no adverse and actually very positive effects. We were concerned about the introduction of an alien species and suspected there might be some affect on the native flora and fauna but were assured that the results are positive and this technique means there is no use of chemical pesticides. We spent time understanding the breeding procedure, visiting another operation in a nearby village and assembling the materials needed to breed. Unfortunately due to the time taken for larvae to hatch there was no chance to complete a full cycle of the program before our 3 weeks on the island were up. We did however gain valuable experience in the procedure.

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The parasitoid breeding program

Our attention to the beetle project also took a back seat as Guillaume’s water needs understandably became as important to him as anything else. The last of the rainy season downpours finished early this year and his spring began to reflect that. We gave advice on effective techniques to hold water in the landscape – use all catchment, store water high in the property, spread it over the longest distance, affecting the most life as passively as possible. We spoke about earth moving techniques to capture and hold large bodies of water and potentially rehumidify his property. Guillaume also has large roofs with no tanks and a lot of leaky pipes.

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Guillaume explaining his water resources

Unfortunately, some peoples’ idea of eco-tourism promotes aesthetics as more important than careful design, sustainability or the order of permanence. Guillaume was not particularly open to our design ideas which represent designing for water security as top of the list. He had his own ideas, and although we can offer advice, others must walk the path for themselves before the realisation of what can be achieved using PC design. Another great lesson – I have to be the change, not preach the change. My attention turns once again to Australia. Nina and I talk more that evening about our aspirations there.

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On the road again

Whilst I understand that there are many incredible projects using real permaculture design across the globe, I am coming to realise that they are few and far between. The knowledge still has a long way to travel. I wish in the last months we had dug out more of them but our journey has become rather one directional of late, more of a mission to get home above time to explore.

I have seen many examples of projects using the word “permaculture” like we see the word “eco” banded around for credibility. “We have a permaculture garden” used in place of “we grow food” or “we grow organic veg”. I’m happy that the term is becoming heard, as it leads people to ask more questions. It’s only by asking more questions that we find more answers. It’s then that we realise that permaculture is a design system, a set of ethics and principles that integrate not just our vegetable garden but the choices we make in life too. In future I will do more research on the projects I choose to volunteer.

Aside from my disillusionment of peoples’ understanding of permaculture, we had a fantastic time with Guillaume, full of great conversation, enjoyable evening meals on the shoreside deck. Garden and Rice paddy creation. Exploration of the island’s jungle and a chance to meet other expats trying new ventures in a land far from home. Oh yes, and the little boat trip at sea!

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Out in the little boat

We spent many days deliberating in Koh Phangan about our on ward route to Australia. I wrote to at least 30 shipping companies asking for passage with them from Singapore. We contacted yachts in Malaysia through HelpX. We contacted people through Couchsurfing who work for shipping agents in Singapore. We even asked about cancellations for cruise ships (just through curiosity). We applied for positions on ships and cargo vessels, wrote to Marinas and generally exhausted all options before deciding that our best chance of reaching Australia by boat was to get to the furthest place that we can, using public transport, and try from there. Many other people’s last port of call too – Bali. From Bali there will surely be people crossing that little stretch of water to Darwin!

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Koh Phangan to Georgetown

Getting off Koh Phangan island and onto a train to Malaysia was easy and should be from anywhere in Thailand. It’s cheaper to purchase your ticket in advance at a government ticket booking office yourself. We left from Surat Thani which is a popular travel junction heading south. There is no railway booking office on Koh Phangan and so an agent was necessary, and maybe easier, as the ticket includes transport to the ferry, the ferry ticket itself, and a local bus connection to the train station, plus your train ticket. Total cost of ticket – 1450TB (£33) to Butterworth, the jumping off point to Penang’s Georgetown, in Malaysia. This is the furtherest point south that a ticket can be booked from Thailand. 

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Penang ferry

We were on the 1.26am train and bedded down upon boarding. We reached the Malaysian border control by 6am. They stamped us in with a free 3 month tourist visa and after a little delay changing the chugger, we reached Butterworth by midday. The station was a short walk to the ferry terminal that takes you on a 30 minute crossing to Penang island (about 10p). We stayed in Georgtown for a couple of nights, mostly to try it’s famous food. Indian cuisine meets Chinese in a magic blend of spiced curries, sweets, funky deserts and rotis! We explored the manageable, likeable city on foot, picking up a bargain pair of new shorts at a carboot sale, and taking a few photos around the old colonial part of town.

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Georgetown to Kuala Lumpur

Travel down to Kuala Lumpur was also super easy, taking the ferry back over the water (this time free) straight to the bus terminal. Ignore anyone who approaches you for a ticket and find the bus you need. Once you have, ask someone on the bus the cost before giving your money to a conductor onboard on the driver. This saves you paying extra for the ticket which should be 32MYR (£6.50) The buses run every 20 minutes or so and take 4 or 5 hours with wide seats and a good recline. I think both Nina and I got a bit of shut-eye.

Fat recliner!

Fat recliner!

Nina had lined us up a coachsurf in KL with a very interesting and generous family. We were welcomed with open arms by Reeza, Shukreen and Kanoa. We chatted for a while up on the 19th floor of their tower block before they whisked us out and treated us to some traditional Malay food. We truly wished we had more time in KL to spend with those guys as we shared so much in common and were so fascinated by their interests in media, conservation and faith.

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Our KL family

The next day a big day out on foot was all we needed to explore the major sites of the city. Cities seem to wear us down quite quickly at this stage on our trip, but the food was out of this world and the botanical gardens seemed a world away but only a small walk from the centre of town.

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KUala Lumpur to JAkarta

We boarded the night train from KL at 23.00 to travel to Johor Bahru, having purchased our tickets the previous day at the central station – 39MYR (£8.40). Johor is on the southern Malay peninsular and if you depart for Indo from here it saves entering Singapore. We also found out that the the ferry over to Batam island was cheapest from here.

On arriving at Johor in the morning you can take the number 123 bus from right outside. Tell the driver you need the ZON ferry terminal and jump off there. No need to buy any ferry tickets in advance for this leg of the journey as some websites suggest. Ask anyone where the ticket office is and buy your 69MYR (£15) ticket for the next departing ferry to Batam Center. Bare in mind that although this 90 minute journey seems like another island off the coast of Malaysia you are actually entering Indonesia. We did consider buying a return ferry ticket as some countries ask for proof that you are leaving before issuing you a tourist visa. In this instance we risked it to save money. Nobody cared less and as long as you have your $25 to hand they wave you in with a friendly smile and a 30 day stamp.

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Batan Center to Sekupang bus…

Now in Indonesia and presuming you’re heading straight over to Java you will need to get to the infamous Pelni ferry ticket office. Ignore the taxi drivers and walk straight out of the ferry terminal. Ask for the local bus to Sekupang, price 3,000IDR (20p). This takes you over to the other side of the island. Jump out and ask anyone where the Pelni ticket office is. It’s not at the huge metal shed from where the ship departs. Instead it’s hidden up a hill at the end of the road. We opted for the “Economik” tickets which were 269,000IDR (£18) and purchasing them was simple. No need to worry about this in advance as the ship holds 3,000 people (and probably 3million cockroaches) as there is always room for one more!

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The holding pen

We waited in the “holding pen” for a few hours as it was not clear when the ship would leave. It was clear, however, that although there are some “first class” cabins available, this was a journey for the working class of Indonesia. Mostly families, some looked like they were moving house even. When the flood gates finally opened there was a stampede towards the boat as guys ran past with 40inch TV’s stapped to their heads and Mum’s dragging kids, packed lunches tucked under their arm. We arrived on 4th deck with the other sardines and packed ourselves in for the ride. 36 hours, sleepless, dirty, alive with infestations, screaming TV’s, continual chain smoking, 24/7 fleuro lights and mostly unbearable humidity. This trip is not for the faint hearted. We made some nice friends though and enjoyed some time in the crew area sharing family photo’s. We later heard that for double the cost you can take a private cabin.

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JAKARTA to BALI

We arrived early into Tanjung Priok harbour in Jakarta, 5.00am, following the crowds, asking occasionally, the way to the bus terminal. From here buses go to either “Kota”, the central station, or “Senan”, another popular departure point. We headed for Senan on the “local bus” for 20,000IDR (£1.30). I think we paid double as our bags took up a seat! We heard that you can take most onward trains to Yogya from Senan…

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Senan station

No seats were available when we arrived at Senan station and given how wrung out we were it was probably a good thing. We sat with a very patient young fella,  with great English, to figure out our next move. Everything pointed towards a guest house for the night, a little exploration of Jakarta and a train leaving tomorrow at a reasonable time. That’s exactly what we did and booked our tickets with the helpful chap for the 13.00 to Yogyakarta the next day – 90,000IDR (£6). We’d been told “Yogya” was a great place to break the journey east with the impressive Borobudur temple complex and surrounding volcanoes.

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Volcanoes from the train window

The train ride through the Java countryside was spectacular. Rice fields tumbled down the hillsides, backdropped by Volcano peaks and jungle. I thought we would see more palm plantations as described in the shocking documentary GREEN but I was pleased to see people out on the land using no mechanised techniques.

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Hand cultivated rice fields

The onward train journey from Yogya also meandered east through mostly rural landscape, arriving late in the evening in Banyuwangi, once again booked independently at the train station – 34,000IDR (£2.50) – making a 13 hour train journey very reasonably priced. It was late when we arrived in Banyuwangi and we took a room before a simple ferry crossing the next day onto Bali island to complete the 3790km journey. Ferry ticket 6,000IDR (40p).

Cost, Time and Vehicle Summary

Koh Phangan to Butterworth – £33
Butterworth to Penang (and back) 10p
Butterwoth to Kuala Lumpur – £6.50
Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru – £8.40
Johor Bahru to Batam – £15
Batam to Jakarta (including local buses) – £18.20
Jakarta to Yogyakarta – £6
Yogyakarta to Banyuwangi – £2.50
Banyuwangi – Bali 40p

Total travel costs (not including accommodation or visas) – £90.10 (Could you fly for that?)

Our travel time (including stopovers) – 13 days

5 local ferries
1 passenger ferry
1 long distance bus
4 local buses
4 trains

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BALI

We are now in Bali making regular visits to the Marina looking for onward travel to Australia, hopefully completing the last stage of our journey without flight. It’s a long shot. So far we have had encouraging days at the Marina followed by times of dashed hopes, watching fellow Australians leave port for Darwin. Maybe someone will take us before our visa runs out on the 16th May. Hopefully our poster will work, wish us luck…

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Do you need crew to Oz?

You can read more about this stage of our trip, our time at Bali Marina and more on Nina’s great blog – http://typotraveller.wordpress.com/

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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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Heading East


I write from a shared room in Batumi, Georgia after crossing through 4 countries in 4 days with our new recruit – Sam. After veering north into Romania, a slight diversion to our projected route to Australia but well worth the detour, stacking functions with DJ sets at the festival in Bulgaria and our first permaculture teaching experience, we are back on track and more east than we have been so far.

I think we proved that travel can be cheap(ish). I’m not sure what it would have cost to fly from Romania to Georgia but we certainly managed it on a shoe string; Beclean to Bucharest on the overnight train (no bed) for £15. We killed a few hours in Bucharest then hopped on an overnight bus to Istanbul for £28.60. Not much sleep on that one and a strange sense of being persecuted for being smelly! Enough time in Istanbul to stock up on dried fruit and lukumi before departing to Ankara on a five hour bus ride – £8.50. We learnt a good lesson in Ankara and made our train by a matter of minutes. We boarded the Dogu Express for a 22 hour journey along the Euphrates river at 7pm two days ago – £16.00. Our last night in Turkey welcomed a full on slap up meal – tastey – before bus, bus, minibuses all the way to Georgia!!! £13.70.

So all in all our 4 day, 2538km journey cost a total of £71.70. Not sure if a flight would be cheaper but we have had a great time so far. Georgia has been kind on entry and the food is fantastic…

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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…