Saturday, 14 November 2020

Andy's Epic Voyage | Ten Years On | Leaving home | Tallinn & Helsinki

"We spent a few days just wondering the town and going through any open door we could find. This also meant we walked into an open casket funeral which felt extremely wrong, especially as they were still selling postcards during the ceremony!”

Flying down the A11 towards Stansted in my mum's tiny Ford KA. I was in the driving seat, Matt with his exceptionally tall frame unnaturally squished behind me next to my mum. My brother, with his recently broken and subsequently fixed pelvis was sprawled in the passenger seat.

This was it. I was leaving. I had begun my journey to anywhere. As I write this ten years later, I can't remember the feelings that were going on in my body. I can guess it was a mixture of excitement and nervousness, but those memories have faded in the years since and left me with only practical memories of getting to that point. Perhaps the preparatory logistics of the trip had masked or numbed my emotional response to the thousands of endless miles ahead of me.

The first stop was Tallinn, Estonia with an added day trip across the Baltic Sea to Helsinki, Finland. Having Matt come along with me on the first four days of my trip was very helpful. I’m sure leaving would have been much more difficult and nerve racking without someone by my side seeing me to the edge of the European Union and the true starting point of my overland journey to the other side of the world.

Preparations had begun many months before. Whilst I'd like to hail my voyage as a moment of spontaneity, the rules of national divisions require prior planning. Beginning with many tiny stabs in the arm with vaccinations to protect me from the many variety of tropical diseases from hepatitis to Japanese encephalitis. The next step was the bureaucratic exercise of getting Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese visas. I actually remember excitedly completing my application forms in Matt's house whilst I was cat sitting when he and his sister were on holiday. I thankfully found an agency (Way to Russia) who did all of the leg work for me for a small fee. Although it's a distressing feeling sending your passport off in the past, it saved me hundreds of pounds as I would've had to make multiple trips to London to get the visas from the individual embassies myself. Anybody that has travelled and experienced frequent visa applications will know how good we've had it in Europe and being able to travel freely.

Whilst all of this is taking place, the question of what to take with me was bouncing around my head. From my original blog post:

“As soon as I stepped out of the car at Stansted Airport, I was complaining about the weight of my backpack, although I spent the previous two weeks unpacking and discarding non-essentials and repacking the bag again, it was still too heavy! Once we had checked in for the only flight I will be taking until Singapore (hopefully further, but we'll see...), we were asked to check our baggage into the outsize desk because of the straps. The official took an interest in my bag and asked me to leave all my belongings on me outside with Matt whilst I accompanied them in their office whilst they search me and my bag. Matt was watching the proceedings from outside and he had to laugh when the gentleman pulled out a tin containing an All Day Breakfast which my friend Mike Hearn gave me for my trip. Perhaps that accounted for some of the weight in my bag, also the Smarties and mint imperials…”.

I obviously took too much with me at the beginning of my trip. You need to be able to move around comfortably with your luggage, whether that be on your back or dragged behind you. It’s easier with hindsight, but before you go you’re always thinking about what to take in case of X, Y or Z. Now I realise the only things you really need are your passport, a bank card, and a backup bankcard. You can buy anything you need for X, Y or Z wherever you are in the world. Looking at the above, I obviously clinged onto some home comforts with the Smarties and mint imperials. The All Day Breakfast certainly wasn’t nice enough to carry it to Estonia! Sorry Mike!

People ask “what do you take with you when you go away for a year? I struggle on a two week holiday!”. Essentially it is not that different. You just need to wash your clothes every 2 weeks! You just don’t need an All Day Breakfast in a tin!!

I must say I cannot remember walking in on the funeral mentioned above. I remember snippets of those days in Tallinn. I recall the first snowfall as Matt and I sat in Taco Express at 1am. I think the midnight journey across the border into Russia was to overshadow many of those first memories.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Andy's Epic Voyage | 10 years on

2010 was a pivotal year in my life. A year which defined who I was to become. It had been a few years since my plan to travel the world by land and sea had begun formulating in my brain but 2010 was the year I was finally going to do it. 
There's a lot of preparation needed for long term travel. It's not just a holiday, it's a new life. The first task is to quit your job, then you're three quarters of the way to leaving. The other quarter is figuring out where you want to go and how you're going to get there. I had my vague plans of heading eastwards through Russia, down through Mongolia and China to South East Asia and towards Australia. 
I sat at lunchtimes in my car, sifting through the lonely planet guide book for Russia making detailed plans of where I was going to stay and what I was going to see but soon came to the conclusion this was not the right way to go about things. I decided I was going to book travel tickets up until Yekaterinburg, the edge of the European continent, and hostels along the way and from then on, where I was going was a mystery to me. 
As I was leaving later in the year as originally planned due to being best man at my friend's wedding in October, I decided to skip the overland from Norwich to Tallinn as the winter was rapidly approaching and I had Siberia to get through. So I booked a flight and my friend Matt was going to join me on my first few days. I could have waited for spring, but 'the time for living is now', a phrase which became my motto during my trip. Who knows what might have happened to stop me from leaving. The date was set. 14 November 2010.

The night before I left, I went for a meal with my family. It's a strange feeling saying goodbye for an undetermined length of time. Not knowing where or when you will see them again. My mum contests I strongly stipulated I'd only be gone for 1 year. But unbeknown to both of us, the next time I'd step foot on British soil would be over 2 years later.

This travel series will be a recount of Andy's Epic Voyage on the ten year anniversary of a trip which changed my life and to some extent, has still not reached its end.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Baku, Azerbaijan | May 2015

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | If you make your way eastwards from Turkey you'll arive in Azerbaijan, its Turkic brother. The countries share many cultural and linguistic characteristics and was described as ‘one country, two nations’ by former president, Heydar Aliyev. I travelled to Azerbajan way back in 2015 to teach in a school for two weeks along with three other teachers; Lewis, Ana-Maria, and John. Given the delay in writing this, memories have now began to fade or become skewed and out of order.

The day before our arrival, we all met for the first time in the departure terminal at Heathrow along with a representative from the company who had our passports holding our visas giving us access to the country. In addition to the passports, he gave us all our teaching materials and a mountain of cookies which were gifts for our Azeri hosts to collectively squeeze into our tiny cases. After some repacking and squeezing, we managed to secure everything inside and zip them closed. I can't guarantee the cookies made it in one piece! As a thank you, and perhaps because he knew what we were about to experience, our company rep gave us £20 to get some drinks in the departure lounge before we boarded.

I was excited as we boarded the aircraft. Not only because I was about to go into a new country, but we were flying on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. An aircraft I had never flown on and I was looking forward to trying out their tinting windows which black out at the press of a button. Sometimes, it's all about relishing in the small pleasures in life! Of course I didn't think about the battery fires which plagued the aircraft shortly after its launch. Another pleasant surprise was we were able to secure whole rows to ourselves as the flight incredibly light on passengers.

We arrived in Azerbaijan early on Sunday morning and were soon off the plane joining the immigratioin queue with the naturally accompanied rise in heart rate. Even though I've not done anything wrong, or intend to do something wrong, these checks always make me feel as though I'm guilty of something. Although we had visas, did we have the right visas, would we be turned away for some reason or singled out for interrogation and strip search. We got through immigration, grabbed our bags and made our way out in the arrival hall. The airport was quiet, a hundful of passengers and staff preparing for arrivals for the European Games which were taking place in just under two weeks.

Our driver met us and took us out through the crowds to his car. We squeezed ourselves and our bags into the car and we were soon on the wide smooth road leading away from the airport towards where we'd call 'home' for the next couple of weeks. My memories of that journey are of construction, large apartment blocks springing up on both sides of the wide highway and although the car we were driving in had clearly seen better days, the driver didn't fear placing his foot to the floor. At one point I seem to remember us nearly hitting a street sweeper.

The New Baku Hotel was one of those spacious places which are fully equiped to hold business conferences. Rooms were sizeable and somewhat grand in nature with a bed and bathroom you could get lost in. Staff were incredibly welcoming and friendly. We had a rest and got our things together whilst holding a brief meeting about the week ahead and orgaanised what we were going to do the following morning at school.

A benefit of this job is you get to spend some time exploring the area in which we were working. As we arrived in the morning, we had a great opportunity to head into the city and do a little bit of exploration. You have to take any opportunity you can to see and experience as much as you can, especially in places where you're unlikely to return. We got a bus into the centre of Baku and found ourselves a restaurant within the fortified walls of the old city of Baku. This is where we got our first taste of the country and the city.

Azerbaijan was founded in 1918 and was the first Muslim majority country to become a secular democratic society. Unfortunately independence didn’t last long as they soon surrendered to the Bolsheviks in 1920 and swiftly incorporated into the USSR in 1922. Since gaining its independence from the former USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan has been working hard to establish itself on the world map using its richness of natural resources found in the Caspian Sea which amounts to 80% of the country’s economy.

Sitting 28 metres below sea level, Baku is the lowest lying national capital in the world and is an example of the country’s ambition. The city sits in two vastly different eras. The UNESCO world heritage site of the old city is peaceful, with a few cafes, shops, people on the streets playing chess, and narrow alleys dominated by the 12th century Maiden Tower from which you  can get some excellent panoramic views of the old city and Baku Bay. Outside of those walls you'll find a modern city which is pushing the boundaries of architecture and the largest KFC in the world.

Similar to Dubai, the government have been building a city for the future. Although not striving for the tallest structures, the architectural marvels found within the city are inspiring. Including the iconic flame towers which jet 182 metres skywards above the city symbolising the element of fire. The three towers are fully covered in LED screens and can be seen from around the city. Examples of innovative architecture can be found all around the city including the rolled up carpet of the Carpet Museum, a mini Venice, a small version of London’s Gherkin, and the astonishingly beautiful Heydar Aliyev Center which I only managed to see as out taxi zoomed passed on the way back to the airport.

The Sunday evening began to push the sun beneath the horizon as we sat on the promenade looking out over the Caspian Sea thinking about the lands over the horizon. Along with Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia all share a coastline of this largest body of inland water in the world. The prominade is one of those peaceful places where locals wander, sit, and chat with their friends or play with their children. The Flame Towers illuminate the sky at the far end of the city almost casting its protective gaze over the city, or perhaps its there to remind the Azeris of where this country is heading.

Teaching was hot work in Azerbaijan. Our driver would collect us from the hotel each morning and drive us to the school via the maze of back alleys. I certainly wouldn't have been able to get myself back to the hotel. It was pushing above 30 degrees in the classrooms and the days were long. We had no airconditioning and the open windows barely welcomed a breeze. By the end of each day we were drained both physically and mentally. It was one of those tough contracts with endless alterations constantly being communicated from the school and our office in the UK. With changes being sent to me at 11pm at night expected for the next day. On top of that, one of my team members became ill and needed an ambulance called one night. We ended up a team member short for a few days and bigger classes as a result. Contracts like this require you to find opportunities for respite and escape, whether that be locking ourselves in our hotel rooms, or heading out to sample Azeri food. We were lucky to have had an excellent bar across the road serving refreshing beer and delicious sadj.

The first week was a six day week followed by a four day week due to the school having the Friday off due to the opening day of the inaugral 2015 European Games. Baku has progressively opened itself up to the world stage by hosting world events to boost its standing with the international community including the annual F1 Grand Prix, 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, and now the European Games. That Friday was a day I'll remember fondly. Having completed our work in the school, we were now free to explore the city before heading off to our next destinations. We found a park on the outside of the old city with a fountain and just sat in the sun. Words were not spoken. It felt as though the weight of the past couple of weeks had been burnt away leaving behind peace and satisfaction we had survived. We spent the afternoon wandering around Baku and exploring places was hadn't yet seen.

That evening was the opening ceremy of the 2015 European Games and we headed to the promenade where local crowds were gathered to collectively watch it on a big screen. The atmosphere was exciting, vibrant, full of the ambition and pride, and being interviewed by the Azeri TV was certainly a moment to cherish. It was an ideal way to finish our tour of Baku.

There were a couple of hours on our final day before we had to check out and get to the airport for our onward flights. Lewis and I were heading for a week in Istanbul. As I try to make use of all the time I have, I hoped aboard a bus and went back into the city to soak up a little bit more of the city. The streets were being closed off to welcome the cycle race. There were a lot of people standing and watching the street. It was strange because the race wasn't exactly happening at the time, but then I saw it. A flat bed truck drove past with bicycles in the back. These were not being used in the race and were piled ontop of eachother without care. Further down the road a cyclist had been stopped by some police officers, apparently they have closed the road to all traffic including bicycles. The cyclist was removed from his bike whilst one of the police officers grabbed it and through it ontop of the growing pile upon the truck. The cyclist was protesting but it didn't make a difference. It was as though he was talking to a brick wall. Some of the people around me were taking photos of what was happening which pulled the attention of a nearby police officer who marched over to us barking orders to not take photos, threatening to take cameras from people. It appears the government still have a slightly authoritarian control over its citizens. It came as a small shock to the system as our experience of the city so far had been of a relaxed liberal city with people wandering peacefully through the streets. I wouldn't say it tainted my overall opinion of Baku, but it gave me a deeper and more honest understanding of it.

Our two weeks in the country were hugely stressful workwise but the city offered us the food, the views and the magnificent people for respite and is certainly a place I would like to revisit and explore more fully.

On our last day after two weeks swealtering, the school received airconditioning units for their classrooms.... WHYYYY!!!!

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Istanbul, Turkey | 2013

LOCKDOWN TRAVELS | Home to some astonishing sights, Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents; Europe and Asia.

The Hagia Sophia is an excellent example of different cultures pushing against eachother and fusing together. It began as a Christian cathedral 537AD when it was considered to be the largest building on earth. The subsequent 900 years saw it exchange hands between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek orthodox, ending as an Ottoman Mosque in 1453. Now it's a museum welcoming people through its doors to see the architectural marvel in which you can clearly see the additions and adaptations each ruling religion.

Separated by a park and fountain, is the magnificent Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Camii which was built a millennium after its neighbour, Hagia Sophia. This inspiring 17th century mosque and its minarets soar majestically high into the sky above Istanbul. Entering the mosque is one of those peaceful and profound experiences you remember. The intricately decorated interior of the dome is etched forever in my memory.

Down the hill sits the famous Grand Bazaar which is thought to be one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Walking over the threshold you are instantly confronted with a plethora of smells, sounds and the ability of buying anything you could ever want. Lanterns hang from the ceilings, spices are neatly piled up into little pyramids and the some 4,000 shop keepers haggle with the more than 250,000 customers who walk through the bazaar each day.

Crossing over the Golden Horn into the district of Karakoy, the Galata Bridge hosts numerous restaurants specialising in fish dishes and plays host to locals who cast their fishing lines into the river going to get a good catch. Karakoy is a slightly more modern part of the city. Climbing up a narrow street lined with restaurants you reach Galata tower. A 15th century tower with sublime views of Istanbul and the mighty Bosphorus which cuts through the land mass and divides Europe with Asia and linking the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.

Istanbul can credit much of its success and power to its geographic location. Similar to Gibraltar, it sits at a highly strategic place and can control movement of ships between the greater Mediterranean region into the Black Sea, and vice versa which is seen by NATO partners as far more important as it is one of the few ways Russia gains access to the open seas. Further up the hill is a cosmopolitan area with bars, restaurants and many of the big shops. An area of the city which demonstrates the secularism and Eurasian culture of Turkey.

During my visit to the city, mass demonstrations were being held in the area around Taksim. They stemmed from the planned Urban development of nearby Gezi Park. Protesters who were against the plans undertook a peaceful sit-in until they were violently evicted by the authorities. The protests evolved into anti government demonstrations and continued for months and saw 22 people die and over 8,000 injured. Whilst visiting Istanbul, we witnessed the demonstrations first hand.

During the day, Taksim held a jubilant and determined atmosphere with people chanting, talking and shouting their demands. There was a police presence lined up to contain the protesters. As the light began to fade, the atmosphere changed. The tension built and nervousness was palpable. The police began moving and with increased pace they charged and began firing tear gas and pepper bullets into the crowd. Panic began to spread as the crowd were forced out of the square down two roads. I ended up running away down the smaller road. A stinging sensation radiated from my calf as a pepper bullet hit me and expelled it's contents into the air. People were coughing, tears were falling as the pepper reached the face. People were falling over and people were dragging them back to their feet to stop them from being trampled. I had long lost Adrian and Dean. The street began to open up and the density of people eased. We had been successfully expelled from Taksim. Not knowing where the other two were and in need to clear my eyes, I headed back to the hostel which we were staying in and were reunited largely unscathed from our experience.

I'm conflicted by this experience. Whilst we wanted to show our solidarity with the people, I'm no longer sure whether it was wise or right for us to be there.

Not all travel experiences are beautiful.

Istanbul is a wonderful city. I've had the pleasure of visiting the city twice. And Turkey three times in total. The people are warm, welcoming and friendly. I've made good friends during my time there and look forward to returning once again soon!