Sunday, 15 September 2013

Perth Again The Second Time

2013 has not been kind to me. In November 2012 I was diagnosed with a major ailment that changed my life. After the diagnosis my spirit and stamina took leave by going down hill that left me all but bed ridden. I thought I would never ride again. With sadness I packed my bike and stored it in the store room thinking well it had been a good cycling life and I could not be greedy by asking that the good things should last forever. The days passed very slowly and painfully. I was confined like a prisoner in a house arrest. And this explained the absence of new postings.

However starting from the Id in August things started to get better. I felt stronger and the the desire to move again slowly returned. It got so much better that I started planning for the Perth trip, perhaps not expecting to go at full speed like I had done previously.  Just going and coming back in one piece would be considered a major battle as being won.

Unlike the last trip this time around the party was big. Zahir was going for the convocation ceremony at Curtin University, Perth and his whole family including the two infants and his wife, his grand mother and my spouse and I, and that made a group of 5 adults and 2 kids. Travelling with hyper active toddlers and grandma ? Well you know the answer.

Coming back to the same place for the second time give a curious feel. I had been here before so there is no novelty anymore, yet there were tons of places I had not really been to. Short visits do not qualify you to be an expert but still the excitement of a new place is somewhat muted.

Perth this time is seen and felt with a different perspective. It is the perspective of someone not able to grasp things that somehow is now out of his reach. I could not explore like before because of my limited physical condition. Thus the smell, the feel and the air seemed to me to be very different compared to the last visit. But I am glad to make it as it is like making a statement to the world, "hey look I am still kicking and alive"

How I love to have this Volkswagen Combi and go around the continent. I used to have one before and I tell you it is a wonderful vehicle, the ride and the  handling are superior to other competitor and I cannot forget the whine and the purr of its engine. But like all old engines it eventually sputtered and belched white smoke from the exhaust. I decided to sell it when going up hill was only achieved after a laborious struggle.

Easy rider in Fremantle. Motor bikes do not filter, they follow the queue.

Rainbow seen from our apartment. An omen of good luck ? It rained continuously for 3 days at the end of our stay, with tornados accompanying, a rare event in this semi desert country. 

Sunset at 30, 000 feet over the Indian Ocean on the way back. At this height I estimated from my phone app that the sun disappeared about 20 minutes later than if observed at sea level. After 30 years of travelling economy, for this trip I splashed on the business class.  What is it like ? To me it is similar to the feeling of sitting in the reserved class in the Lido cinema in Kota Bharu after years of excitement in the 65 cent seat. The movie is the same but there is a smugness of looking down on the hoi polloi.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Metrobus From Sofia to Istanbul

This is the final stage of our overland journey from London to Istanbul. We had initially thought of taking the train but we read that the train is very slow, much slower than the bus. This part of Europe is a little bit behind in infrastructure that explains there is still a lot of catching up in land transportation especially the train. 

The bus was very modern and up to date. The interior was clean and the seats were very comfortable, a far cry from the train that we took to Sofia. We passed through the Bulgarian country side and there were farmlands and vine yards all the way. The road was still of two lane, the expressway only started after we entered Turkey. We stopped at a few towns to pick up passengers and to allow the use of rest rooms. The towns still have the look of sadness, the people are still unsure of their status, are they still communists or capitalists. There is not much big scale construction of new buildings but I would prefer this way as the charms of the old are still retained.

When we crossed to Turkey there were passport checks at a brand new control center. It was huge and inside were amenities like restaurants and banks. Turkey definitely felt different from Bulgaria. There were tolled highways for the vehicles and even the farmlands were more orderly, though I notice that the extensive vineyards of Bulgaria stopped at the border, that's a subtle sign you are coming to a Muslim country from a non Muslim as wine drinking also takes leave at the border.

With the excellent roads in no time we were in Istanbul and the bus stopped at the main terminal outside the city. To get into the city there is an efficient metro which will whisk you to your desired places in a breeze. Istanbul is very modern and has the look of a European city, at least the East European. There are many newly constructed buildings and the city is huge. All tourists go to Sultan Ahmet or the surrounding and that was where we headed to join the mass of thronging visitors who mistakenly think that this part of Istanbul is Turkey. I found out that there are places outside the tourists belt where you can experience the Turkish atmosphere without being looked at as a cash machine. This was what I found by accident at Zeitinburnu, a place where I took accommodation after being cooped in Sultan Ahmet for 3 crazy days, 5 stops away from Sirkerci. The prices and the attitude of the locals made up for the biased way we looked upon the people of Istanbul who had been on our nerves especially the hotel keeper who asked us to vacate the room because his double booking, the hustlers in the form of beggars and the mass of humanity that choked the tourist spots and hence the outrageous prices.

Well after almost three weeks on the road you have to forgive us for sounding jaded and cynical, fatigue was creeping in and what we wanted was just to go home. There was a gathering of the clan on the plane flying to Kuala Lumpur, Faris was on duty and Zahir had flown in from London for his wedding anniversary,  and that was the peak of the memorable time we had in charting our way from London to Istanbul.

Buying tickets for the journey in the bus company's office

This is the bus to Istanbul standing at Sofia bus terminal

Sofia bus terminal, beware the signs are in Cryllic.


Inside the coach

Arrival at Istanbul bus terminal, behind is the entrance to the metro which takes us to Istanbul centre.

View from our breakfast table

View of Istanbul from our boat cruise in the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace from the sea

Try the Turkish Lemacun, they are tasty, cheap and filling

Train terminal at Serkici

Gathering of the clan at the rear of the Malaysia Airline  B777

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The 23.15 Bulgarian Express From Bucharest Nord to Sofia

The tickets for the journey were bought at the counter at Bucharest Nord. Like the previous one we opted for the evening departure, so that we could arrive in the early morning in Sofia. Check out was at noon from our apartment, fortunately George was kind enough to let us leave our luggage at his office so that for the duration of the day we could roam around Bucharest without lugging the heavy bags with us.  When it got dark we were already in the waiting room at the station. It was quite cold and raining but the inside of the room was quite warm and we were bored to death waiting for the mid night departure.

The train arrived at the platform on time but we were surprised that our coach was just one addition to the main coaches of the Bulgarian Express. Apparently the Bucharest-Sofia sector was just a minor one and did not merit an exclusive train. We had to walk quite a distance to locate our coach and on trying to board there was a young fellow standing at the door who looked like trying to help to get our luggage aboard and then later showed us the seat in first class. Then he put his hands to us like asking for money. I thought it was like a tip for hauling our bags and putting us in the first class in spite of being booked for second class. I felt a wave of gratitude and gave away all our coins but the brat wanted more and I show my empty pocket, a sign of not having any more.

Later the gratitude that I felt changed to anger and embarrassment when the ticket inspector indicated I was in the wrong coach and we should move to our second class coach. I knew we had been had. This is Bucharest, I got fleeced when coming in and again when going out. I felt angry because I did not learn  the lesson of once bitten twice shy; and here I got bitten twice in the same place, once by the taxi tout coming in and twice by the pretender going out.

The ride was very uncomfortable. The seats were hard and straight back and the wheels were noisy. We met a fellow traveller, George a Romanian who with sign language and with a lot of effort tried to communicate with us. We understood little but we were touched by his eagerness to be friendly with us, offering to share with us his bread and wine which we politely declined. There was also a group of young Chinese, their girls were very talkative and keep yakking until the early hours. When we got tired we just dozed in the seat and I had a terrible time due to my back pain. 

The next morning the train passed through an outstandingly beautiful area of mountains and gorges. I was highly impressed with the sight and it took away my discomfort as I really enjoyed the scenery. It was late morning when the train pulled in the station at Sofia, a ride of almost 12 hours. We had already booked an apartment on line but on arrival we were approached by a lady offering accommodation, showing us pictures and pamphlets of her house and quoting us an attractive rental rate. She was sweet and polite, coupled with the fact we had not paid any deposit for the apartment, we took her offer. We were driven to the house in her car but before that she showed us the bus counter to book our tickets to Istanbul.

Her house was 3 km away and we stayed there for 3 nights. The floor was of ceramic tiles and at night the temperature  in the room dropped drastically.  When It got too cold I requested heating and was given a portable electric heater which she called a climate. I saw the road condition in Sofia very much similar to Bucharest, full of port holes. The public transport were however cheap and efficient, there were frequent trolley buses run by electric power and moving around Sofia was not a problem, although the city centre is quite small and  you can stroll around and cover all the attraction in one day. Food price was reasonable, we ate at Turkish restaurant and the meals were agreeable to our palates, mostly salads, grilled meat and fresh bread washed down by sweet tea. 

Train time table at Bucharest Nord

Our traveling companion who tries to cheer us up, George a Romanian. Share my wine he says.

At the station there is always a guard standing at attention, maybe controlling the passage of the train

Deep mountain gorges before we enter Sofia

An old mosque in Sofia, built by the Ottoman in the 16th. century and which is still actively used.

Buying cherries, cheap but not that of very good quality

Sofia is in the shadow of a snow capped mountain, the Vitosha

Outside Sofia bus terminal, we are not allowed photography inside, no doubt a hangover of the communist rule.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Sleeper From Keleti Budapest To Bucharest Nord

Budapest is an ancient city sited on the two banks of the mighty Danube River. It is actually two cities in one, Buda on the left bank and Pest on the right. When I first saw the Danube it reminded me of the famous musical composition, the "Blue Danube". This classical piece is familiar to almost everyone that it had been turned into commercial ditties. Like the first listeners I too could not see the blue in the Danube waters, it was just grey and brownish like other rivers but when he was asked about the inconsistency the composer retorted that after a bottle of wine the Danube can be blue or any color you want.

The Turks of the Ottoman had once ruled over the city and during their occupation one of the biggest church on the river bank had been turned into a mosque, sadly for Muslims there are no more vestiges remaining of the Islamic rule in Budapest. I cannot imagine that the Turks could reach so far from their country.

Before we left I tried a meal at one of the road side cafe, but I would not advise Hungarian food as the chicken paprika had me gagging. It was practically inedible and I left it uneaten, what a waste. To be fair its just my personal taste was not up to it and there was nothing inherently wrong with the dish, lack of spice perhaps.

The tickets for the journey was purchased at the counter at Keleti Station. Knowing buses were cheaper I had first enquired for the tickets at the terminal but I was told that there was no bus service between Budapest and Bucharest. Thats quite strange as the two countries of Hungary and Romania are neighbours, so it was back to the train station for the train tickets. We chose a sleeping car as it would allow us to arrive in Bucharest in the morning. I was all the time not very happy arriving in a strange place for the first time in darkness as I felt pressured in finding my way before the public transport closed for the night. I wanted to avoid the situation in Prague and Budapest where we arrived late at night.

Departure from Keleti was in the late afternoon. While waiting for the train I met a cyclist catching train to Belgium with his bicycles. He had just finished a tour of the bank of Danube River from Prague to Budapest and he was going home by train. It was an interesting journey, he said, camping along the bank and because he was following the course of the river all the time, the gradient was not punishing at all.

The coach we booked was a sleeper with four beds. Originally we had asked for a three bed compartment as there were three of us but unfortunately it was sold out. We waited anxiously for the appearance of the fourth passenger but fortunately she turned out to be a sweet lady who could barely speak English. The bed was very comfortable but I could never get a good sleep on a moving train. Very early the next morning the lady got down and from then on we got the cabin to ourselves.

For the first time we had passport check when crossing the border from Hungary to Romania, not only that but custom check as well and I was ordered to open my bags for inspection. That was quite strict strict and unnecessary as we were only tourists and were not carrying anything valuable. The saving grace was that the checking was done in our cabin while the train was on the move.

On arrival in Bucharest Nord the next morning we were pounced by taxi touts. I had already a clear idea of where to go but I made a mistake of asking the fare and with one foot inside I could not shut the door on the tout. Reluctantly I agreed as it was raining and the asking fare was only 10E, compared to cup of coffee in the buffet coach which was already 2E. Much later I found out metered fare was only 2 E from the station to my apartment.

From the taxi I observed the buildings in Bucharest were very shabby and the road full of port holes. Traffic lights was only for decoration as there was  no stopping for red lights. I also did not see any parking bays for cars which were parked haphazardly. Stray dogs were many and were big but they did  not bother the people. There was a notice in my room that warned us of getting into arguments with the locals as there were many who were simply looking for troubles. That was scary. But asides from that we found the people of Bucharest warm and friendly and on weekends there were live music in the park and the people who came were happy looking and and were ready to smile at us.

I meet a cyclist at the station who had cycled along the Danube from Prague to Budapest. He is on the way back to his home in Belgium by train.

We are boarding the train

The lady on the right is our traveling companion, the other two are sending her of.

The corridor along the cabin are clean and the glass windows allow the sight of  country side scenery.

This is the border town before the train enters Romania

Gypsy settlement in the Romanian country, they look very poor and disorganised

The train is now in Romania

We pass through ski resorts in the mountain

The mountain passes are steep and the train chugs slowly but steadily

Arriving in Bucharest Nord the next morning

This is the taxi drive who overcharges us, we pay five times the metered fare

Inside the metro in Bucharest, it is still new and the service is still very limited

We meet Lebanese tourists, I am dying to know why Lebanese should come to Romania, there is practically no mutual attraction at all.

Another man hole for the used metal traders in Malaysia. Do you know by now all metal man holes in our country have been stolen and fenced for cash and are replaced by man made covers?

Longing for a bicycle fix

We have our meal at an alfresco cafe

Inside a church we witness a baptism where the baby is immersed in a basin of  holy water

We paddle around the lake in the park

Our meal in Bucharest, heavily Turkish influenced.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Orangeway Bus From Prague To Budapest

If you are thinking of a cheaper option to travel in Europe, take the bus. They can take you anywhere for much less than the train, comfort may be a bit behind, but value for money this is not a bad choice. For this leg I purchased the ticket on line and had it printed from the web site. Orangeway is a small coach company running bus services from and to Hungary serving the neighboring countries. The biggest company is the Eurolines which run busses throughout all the countries in Europe. In fact you can buy a pass from them and travel to as many countries you like in a certain specific period.

We found our way to the bus terminal in Prague after a change of weather from the rainy cold to the sunny warm day. The terminal was modern but very friendly, due to its small size, was not intimidating. It was around 3 pm when we boarded the bus and were surprised to be charged extra for the luggage with us, more like checking in a budget airline, but a bus? I think it is unjustified as we are on the ground and I don't think the fuel cost would be a big difference to the operator.

On the bus we were greeted by a Hungarian attendant who when making an announcement caused me to titter in amusement. Ladies and gentleman, the toilet on this bus is only to be used for number 1, if you use it for number 2, you will be fine.... Fine, so why must it be announced ? Only much later did it catch me that 'fine' was actually a lazy pronouncement of 'fined', and only then it made sense !

The bus made its way through the Czech Republic, through Slovakia where we had a short stop at the capital Bratislava. There were no border checks when we crossed the lines of Czech and Slovakia, though passports were required before boarding the bus as it is an international journey. Architecture wise both the republic still retained the ugly box shaped flats that were built during the communist time for the city people to live in. These flats are still inhabited and the scenery would very much remind a visitor this was once a country hidden behind the iron curtain. 

We always arrive early when  preparing for long journey. This is the bus terminal at Prague waiting for the Orangeway bus to Budapest

The lady who is fine with number 2

Leaving Prague and an eye catching billboard

Inside the bus.

On the motorway after getting out of Prague
When we arrived in Budapest it was already late in the evening. While on the bus I was frantically exchanging text messages with the proprietor of the apartment we had booked pleading for the waiving of the late arrival fees which she was going to impose if we checked in after 8.00 pm. It was already 10.00 when we managed to locate her apartment and there she was waiting looking quite displeased. To make up I promised to clean the flat before we leave.

We arrive Budapest after sun set and map reading skill to locate the apartment is put to extreme test

Fooling around with WW2 gas mark in the street market

And a Jap kamikaze pilot's head gear

Inside the much hyped market, selling ordinary item in a famous building

I took the opportunity in Budapest to visit a synagogue.  I felt quite thrilled to be inside a Jewish holy house for the first time in my life especially after being brought up on a diet of constant Jew bashing, to the extreme that a good Jew is a dead Jew as the Jews are the cause of all the calamity in this world. While sitting in the pew I seek forgiveness for the hatred and venom that had been spewed unfairly on these people. No nation is superior to another and no group of people is better than another, my creed is equality amongst the humanity. Let all live in peace and harmony, love your fellow being as you would love yourself. 
My first time in a synagogue, complete with the yarmulke.

Bill boards showing summer is around

Hungarian parliament from the cruise boat.

Lady of Liberty, a statue from the communist era, ironically named.

What a prize for the man hole thief from Malaysia

A pose with a bearded lass