A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: carlswall

Carpathians and Balkans


View Carpathians and Balkans on carlswall's travel map.

Hello from Kosovo!
After a couple of adventurous Summers off the beaten track in Africa, this year we decided to do something a bit easier by swapping the yellow flats of Qatar for the green forested mountains and bright blue lakes of South Eastern Europe.
We flew into Romania’s pleasant second city of Cluj-Napoca in the heart of Transylvania and was pleased to find the area really lived up to its reputation. Transylvania literally means through the forest and it was a gorgeously evocative and atmospheric landscape.
Blessed with fantastic produce and an easygoing pace of life, the country has a real bucolic charm which isn’t found frequently in Europe any more. You’d wake up every morning and without fail the landscape would be covered in a haunting fog. The Carpathians rise very steeply and almost without exception are thickly forested and home to Europe’s largest population of bears and wolves. It leaves a slightly frightening feeling as you hike around, like you could get lost or walk into something you don’t want to round the next corner. Of course Transylvania was most famously home to Vlad the Impaler and the Dracula legend based on him and all over the territory there are magnificently ruined mountaintop castles and spookily abandoned watchtowers adding to a sense of medieval mysticism as you travel through the area.
Unfortunately medieval is a word that can apply to too many aspects of life in Romania as the country has an odd feel to it, like it operates on different speeds.
Flush with EU development funds, all over the country are signs of development as you see new infrastructure projects going up and Romanian manufacturers successfully undercutting their Western European competitors. The country has managed to record impressive economic growth of upwards of 5% since it joined the EU but at the same time though, and in several different ways the country feels a long, long way behind other European countries and in some ways it’s staggering that it was accepted into the EU in the first place. For example it’s not at all uncommon for Audis and Mercedes to be stuck behind horse drawn carts carrying hay or refuse, even in the outskirts of major cities. The capital Bucharest had it’s heyday in the early 20th century and modelled on Baron Haussman’s designs got the nickname Paris of the East. Now however, the impressive buildings are simply falling apart and with the ubiquitous huge Communist era defunct factories and steelworks that dot the landscape it’s an ‘urbexor’s dream destination.
At different times, the country has been settled by Hungarians, Bulgarians and Saxons amongst others and they have all left agreeably identifiable communities dotted around. However, one group who absolutely have still not ‘settled’ in Romania (and the other countries on this trip) are the Gypsies. In London, Romanian Gypsies are known for sleeping rough by Marble Arch, fleecing tourists on the Embankment and a whole range of low level criminal activity. Seeing how they are expected to live in Eastern Europe it’s easy to understand how they’ve got to that stage. The EU made a very strong push to improve the quality of life for them throughout Europe a couple of years ago but discrimination is still rife against them as they struggle to access education, healthcare and any ability to get a job and generally ‘contribute to society’. Going through some of the Gypsy villages it was incredible to think people in the EU still live like this as everything from their ragged clothes to the poorly constructed hovels they lived in was just shockingly bad and pretty tragic to see. They hang around the edges of life e.g. at bus and train stations and everyone else is equal parts wary and contemptuous of them. It’s easy to see why they feel there’s nothing for them here.
We left Transylvania via the magnificent Transfagaran road that cuts through the Fagaras mountains. It was built at a cost of at least 40 dead soldiers over 10 years as a bizarre vanity project by Ceausescu before he was executed and was ranked by Top Gear as the best driving road in the world. Whilst there are others in Northern India and the Andes that might disagree with that, there’s no doubt that as you climb up 40 hairpin bends up to 2000m the view is pretty spectacular as the clouds clear beneath you.
Less attractive was the view entering Bucharest as endless Communist era apartment tower blocks seem to form a ring around much of the city. As with many other former Communist cities in Russia or Central Asia it did seem to fit the belief of no money or attention spent on private space e.g. homes but plenty on public spaces so at the same time there are some beautiful gardens, parks and squares in the city to enjoy.
Shortly after we left there was a major protest in one of the main squares at the government which quickly turned violent. Whilst the stats show that Romania is making excellent progress since joining the EU, critics say much of the economic growth is due to remittances from abroad and despite various EU attempts to limit corruption, it’s still a major problem in the country. At 20m Romania is a bigger country than most people realise but a full fifth of the population live abroad with this number only increasing at the perceived lack of opportunities in the country. Whilst it feels like it’s moving in the right direction it still has an undoubtedly long way to go.
After leaving the Carpathians we continued onto Bulgaria and the very different destination of Varna on the Black Sea coast. When Communism ended and the country started opening up, Bulgaria has seemingly always been tipped as the ‘next big thing’ in terms of travel destination and whilst it’s never exploded in popularity in the way that Czechia or more recently Croatia have, it’s definitely crept up in popularity and it’s very easy to see why. A fantastic variety of landscapes including mountains, forests, vineyards and coastline as well as a couple of interesting cities within a relatively small area make it a great choice for a 2 week holiday. When you throw in friendly people, an excellent climate in both Summer and Winter and wonderful value for money (a beer costs a pound!) it’s a cracking place to be.
Our first stop of Varna reminded me of Odessa further up the Black Sea coast in Ukraine where I visited a few years previously; the beachside location and huge parks gives it an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like a big city and the chic population and opera house add a surprising air of sophistication too.
Bulgaria is home to some of the ‘oldest’ history in Europe with the archaeological sites in Varna showcasing the first worked gold in the world and the remains of the 8,000 year old oldest settlement in Europe in the quirky second city of Plovdiv being particular highlights. This ancient history has helped give the country a pleasingly cosmopolitan feel. Located at the Southeastern end of the continent as well as being on the coast, it was predictably conquered by pretty much all the big Ancient empires, including Persian, Mongol, Rome and Greece. In later years it was conquered by the Ottomans and has obvious Russian influences too but there have also been periods when South Eastern Europe has been dominated by the Bulgarians too so it feels both culturally unique but also with a wide range of other influences.
We next headed into the mountains and thanks to an impressive range of cable cars and chairlifts built for the ski seasons, it’s easy to get up into the higher mountains. We joined hundreds of other Bulgarians in a rite of passage as they peaked Mt. Musala, the highest in the Balkans at 2,925m but my favourite hike was up to the magnificent Rila Lakes. After climbing up to 2,500m you reach a point where you can see 7 lakes below you in a truly beautiful sight. It was made extra special by a gathering of the local ‘White Brotherhood’ sect (a mixture between yoga and New Age beliefs) below. Dressed all in white, they formed a huge circle and sang and chanted for a few hours to give the experience an ethereal quality.
As with Bucharest, the capital Sofia wasn’t really a highlight but the country seems to be a little more settled. Whilst it has similar problems of a brain drain and depopulation in rural areas in particular, the country feels a bit more developed with a more up to date infrastructure and a population that seem to be pretty optimistic about the future.
After leaving Sofia we headed onto gorgeous Macedonia which has been in the news a lot this Summer as it may finally be changing its name to Northern Macedonia and ending the long running dispute with Greece. Since Yugoslavia broke up in 1992 Macedonia has had to go by the slightly ridiculous moniker of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because Greece won’t let them call themselves ‘Macedonia’.
The northern part of Greece has always been called Macedonia and is the homeland of Philip II and Alexander the Great. Later on, when the Ottomans conquered SE Europe, they gave the name Macedonia to a much larger area including present day Macedonia and part of Southern Bulgaria. Hence, today many people call themselves Macedonian but ownership of the term is heavily disputed.
The row had rumbled on for over 25 years and has been a real impediment to Macedonia joining the EU and NATO but earlier this Summer the two leaders agreed on a deal for the new name and hopefully the young republic can move on.
Perhaps in part due to their lack of international recognition, Macedonia definitely flies under the radar but they’ve made an interesting attempt at rebranding in the capital Skopje. With its nondescript history and ‘between places’ location, it was somewhat reminiscent of Astana or Ashgabat in that they’ve spent a lot of money giving facelifts to buildings in the city centre and most eye-catchingly have erected dozens of big statues. Aside from Skopje born Mother Theresa there are plenty of Greek heroes (done at least partially to wind Greece up) and means the city is certainly not boring to look at, although it does feel very contrived.
Outside the city though there is no need to rebrand as the countryside is blanketed with gorgeous green forests and Balkan peaks. My favourite part though was undoubtedly the beautiful blue twin lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes; they straddle the tri border area with Greece and Albania and are a marvelously relaxing area. We spent our days climbing nearby mountains, kayaking in canyons, checking out the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ in Ohrid (there are 365 churches) or just relaxing on the wonderful beaches. As with Bulgaria I couldn’t help but feel that with it’s natural charms it will grow in popularity and if it joins the EU will surely open up even further.
We were then delighted to finish our trip in the ‘disputed’ country of Kosovo which turned out to be a really pleasant surprise. Growing up in the late ‘90s in London Kosovans did not have a good reputation. Due to the fighting against Serbia, several thousand arrived in the UK and were a controversial addition to the population; heavily blamed by the tabloid press for a spike in various crimes including people trafficking and muggings, I remember being quite wary of them as a teenager.
When NATO intervened to stop the war many returned to Kosovo and if they stayed in the UK, they gradually started to assimilate into Britain and 9/11 happened and the press developed other ethnic targets.
In Serbian culture Kosovo is considered one of the founding locations of their civilization after they won a pivotal battle in the 14th century against the Ottomans there. There had always been an Albanian population but gradually their numbers increased and about 200 years ago overtook Serbs as the majority community. During the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s few Albanian Kosovans wanted to stay as part of Serbia but Serbia was not prepared to let it go under any circumstances and in 1995 the two sides started fighting. Whilst not as bloody as the earlier Bosnian war, an estimated 10,000 were killed with plenty of war crimes committed by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces. Supported by Albania and NATO, the Serbs were fought off and as they retreated, Kosovo started to stabilise and eventually and controversially in 2008 declared independence.
Heavily supported by the likes of USA, Germany and Britain it’s now recognised by 113 countries but plenty of countries including Spain, China and of course Serbia don’t recognise Kosovo as they fear for their own separatist regions doing the same. Therefore Kosovo stands as one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries in the world; recognised by some countries and organisations e.g. UEFA but not by others e.g. the UN.
Being ethnically Albanian it is a Muslim country but is probably the most relaxed Muslim country I’ve been to. Alcohol flows freely and dress codes are a world away from the Arabian peninsula, in fact aside from the occasional noise of the azan or masjid on the streets you could be in any Eastern European country.
As both the youngest country in Europe but also the youngest population (nearly half the population are under 25) it’s a surprisingly cool place to be with trendy artists, bars and cafes lining the capital Pristina. The population are extremely friendly and aiming to build up their country, seemed very proud to welcome tourists and show them their culture. That said, the situation hasn’t completely calmed down, Serbia has absolutely not given up their claim and the election of a recent right wing government that has threatened potential military action means that NATO forces will not be leaving any time soon. There are still pockets of Serbians in Kosovo and going past them on the bus is almost like entering a militarized zone as heavily armed NATO troops behind barbed wire protect them from any revenge attacks by the Kosovans. As we passed through I got talking to a Kosovan back visiting who’d lived in London since being forced to leave in ’98 and he was quite forthright on the subject. “We’re not Kosovan we’re Albanian. We called the new country Kosovo to stop the Serbs declaring war again but we’ll always be Albanians and they’ll never accept us here”.
The creation of Kosovo reminded me a bit of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucuses and the failed attempts to broker a permanent solution to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The US has recently proposed a land swap but time will tell if the plan is accepted by any party and many feel that mono-ethnic states should not be a goal in the 21st century anyway.
We finished our trip on our final day by taking a wonderful trip to a bear sanctuary, one of several that have been founded in the region in the last few years. Thanks to the perfect terrain, SE Europe still has quite a lot of bears and for centuries they’ve been captured and used as a tool to make money by people forcing them to ‘dance’ in town squares or as ‘curiosities’ to poke and tease outside of restaurants. Thanks to the EU and pioneering work by several charities these have now been completely stopped but the rescued bears need somewhere to be rehomed and so several sanctuaries have been created. Whilst some of the bears sadly show signs of mental illness, the majority seem completely recovered it was wonderful seeing them play around and going swimming. In gorgeous forest by a big lake, the happy, rejuvenated atmosphere of the bear sanctuary felt like the perfect place to finish a lovely month.
From Pristina,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 01:45 Archived in Romania Tagged bulgaria macedonia kosovo Comments (0)

Life in Qatar

After living in Qatar for 2 years I thought it would be a good time to note some of my observations of the country and living here. I’ve somewhat lazily separated them into the Good, Bad and Ugly. In order of how much I notice them:

Good

1. Vision 2030: Growing up in Britain things didn’t really seem to change very much, or if they did it was gradual enough to barely notice. In Qatar I feel very lucky to see the country being almost literally built in front of you. In the short time I’ve been here many of the major roads have been built and the Metro system is coming online. Whole new cities are being built and the CBD skyline has been developed to be one of the most impressive in the region. Whilst much of the construction is for the 2022 World Cup, they do have the longer term plan of making the country and economy self-sufficient by 2030 as they slowly move away from being reliant on oil and natural gas. The fast pace of change gives the country an air of vibrancy and excitement which reminds me of China and means I always look around myself with interest at what’s happening.

2. Luxury Living: One of the things that attracted me to moving here was the fact that it was the richest country in the world and I basically wanted to see how the other 0.1% lived, and it hasn’t disappointed. People watching is outstanding and interacting with Qataris is fascinating as they never want for anything and can choose to do virtually anything money can buy. When you go out it’s to 5* hotels (there’s nothing else) and the quality of service and design of things are outstanding. I’ve never taken any interest in cars but car watching has become one of my favourite pastimes as from my balcony a stream of Maseratis, Bentley, Aston Martins and Ferraris stream past. In short the quality of life is amazing and it’s easy to see why many people stay around for a few years.

3. Holidays: Qatar, along with many Islamic countries is very generous with holidays. Whilst I’m paid for 12 months a year, I actually feel like I only work for 8 months of it. A long Summer break as well as Christmas and Easter holidays go down very well but Ramadan is maybe my favourite time of year. For a month, everybody is on reduced hours and not all that much work is expected of you. It costs the economy a huge amount but it’s something to really look forward to with special events on in the evenings. Afterwards the Emir will grant generous holidays during Eid, for example I’m writing this in an Eid break which was originally going to be 5 days but the Emir benevolently decided to give everyone 11 days instead. 

4. Multiculturalism: Qataris make up just 12% of the population ranking only behind UAE as having the highest proportion of immigrants. This means that there are people from almost literally all over the world contributing to the country. Whilst that does have it’s own issues (see Bad section) it means that the different languages, flavours and culture of the world meet in an Arabian setting which I really enjoy living amongst.

5. Weather: It’s never cold and a high percentage of the time it’s sunny. It really does make a difference in terms of the quality of life and how you feel on a day to day basis.

6. National pride post embargo: Whilst I’m absolutely not a fan of nationalism I have really enjoyed seeing how Qataris and other residents have rallied post embargo (see in Bad). The Saudis and friends were hoping for the Qatari state to implode and residents demand regime change but the absolute opposite has happened. Huge murals of the Emir’s face appeared on both public and private buildings everywhere and people even put up banners, posters and car stickers stating their support for the country.

The expat community has similarly got behind the Emir and supported the country through the blockade. The most memorable example of this was at the tennis tournament where the Emir (who was an excellent player in his youth) appeared on court, he then received a standing ovation from the entire stadium which was composed almost entirely of expats.

In many ways the embargo has been good for Qatar as it’s forced the country to become more self reliant with the farming industry in particular growing impressively quickly. The authorities invested quickly and thanks to imported cows, chickens and use of A/C and smart water use, we now get all dairy and meat locally with a decent percentage of our vegetables too.

7. Al Jazeera: I always thought it was a great broadcaster and living here has just reinforced that view. Their documentaries on how Israel is trying to capture the Labour Party in the UK and match fixing in cricket were particular highlights but it consistently tells good stories from ignored people and places.

8. Sporting events: It’s not London but I have seen Djokovic and Murray at the tennis, MSN when Barcelona played a friendly here and all the best squash players in the world. Maybe the highlight though was the World Cycling Championship finishing line being visible from my balcony.

Bad

1. Social Segregation: Whilst Qatar is very multicultural, mixing of people happens much less than it should and I’d go so far as to say that Qatar has one of the most extreme social hierarchies in the world. Different nationalities only tend to get employed (and in some cases are only allowed) to do certain jobs and this helps the authorities to manage the country but also stop potential problems like trade unions forming or unrest against the government. Therefore at ‘the bottom’, Indians/Nepalis work in construction, Ethiopians drive taxis, Kenyans are security guards and Filipinos do service sector jobs working as cleaners, maids and in shops. Much better off are Arabs from Egypt, Jordan and other countries who tend to do slightly better admin and services jobs, they might also work in the police or health services. Much better off again are European and American expats who tend to work in things like engineering and finance. At the top though are Qataris who live way up in the clouds. For a long time they didn’t tend to actually ‘work’ and would be parachuted into a ‘supervisory role’ in public ministries (where underlings would cover) or would buy businesses and count the profits as employees would do all the work. The government is trying to change this but when you grow as a multimillionaire and can do whatever you want, it’s difficult to develop a work ethic.

Therefore as an ‘expat’, I’d consider myself an isolated ‘middle class’, miles better off than the ‘workers’ but miles away from the Qataris.
You have very limited opportunities to mix with people outside of your ‘class’ beyond chatting to taxi drivers or cleaners and when you also throw in the most extreme gender split in the world (there are 5 working age men to every woman) there can’t be many less integrated societies in the world.

2. Bullshit jobs: Another thing to add about the nature of work is how much productivity varies across work sectors. Construction workers have it hard, working in the heat, they earn little money and their quality of life is low as they live in dorm accommodation maybe 6-10 guys a room and have little social freedom. They’re given limited holiday or even free time and they’re as single males are not even allowed in public areas like malls. The idea is that they earn for 7 or 10 years and can support their families and eventually start their own businesses or get married and buy a home etc. Nonetheless it’s undoubtedly a hard life.
In contrast, a lot of the service sector jobs and particularly security jobs don’t really produce anything and just seem a waste of manpower. Labour is very, very cheap so restaurants and shops will employ too many waiters or shop assistants and they end up just standing around a lot. In the ‘richer’ parts of the city there are security guards everywhere who do pretty much nothing all day apart from stand around. For example, to enter the car park in my building you need to be buzzed in by a security guard who sits in a booth all day. Quite why we can’t just let ourselves in doesn’t make sense to me but the Qatari population are used to a very high level of service and demand people to do these sorts of jobs. The sheer waste of manpower and knowledge of all the better things they can be doing with their time is very frustrating to see.

3. Embargo: Whilst I stand firmly with Qatar on the issue and they have taken steps to not let it impact the country too much, there’s no doubt it makes life a bit harder. Certain foods are more expensive/difficult to get hold of but the big thing has been travel. Etihad and Emirates stopped running flights and to get anywhere now is either very expensive as only Qatar Airways is still running or awkward and time consuming via Turkey or Kuwait. Therefore only a few destinations are still an option in the region which is a major frustration.

4. Early mornings: When I leave Qatar one thing I will be delighted to leave are the early mornings. Whilst I finish work at 2.30pm I have to get up at 5.30am and I’ve simply never got used to it. Whilst I enjoyed drinking coffee in the UK, here I simply have to have a cup to jumpstart me in the day or I simply can’t do the job. I’m not a morning person.

5. Driving: When I first arrived in Doha the roads were a real shock. As such a high percentage of the population hail from the sub-continent, they've unfortunately brought their driving habits with them. Drivers regularly text (or just surf the internet) whilst they're driving, constantly speed and take crazy risks whilst overtaking. The difference between here and India though is that most of the cars here are high powered and can go very fast. Perhaps worse still are the local drivers who don't even have to take a test and are largely immune from police action against their conduct. This all gets worse during Ramadan as no one eats all day and lose concentration easily. As new roads are being built and education programmes launched the situation is improving but the net result is a high death rate on the roads as well as the feeling that potential disaster is never too far away.

6. Nights out: Whilst you probably haven’t gone to the Middle East for nightlife, it is still nice to go out and socialise. Problem is that all bars are attached to 5*hotels and aren’t cheap (a tenner a pint is not unusual). If you go to a club, nights out can easily end up costing 3 figures and aren’t necessarily value for money. You can sort of get round it by going to the happy hours but they run at inconvenient times or be female (many places do free drinks for ladies due to the gender imbalance). Alternatively you can go to brunches which cost about 100 quid for unlimited food and drink. They are fun but you know they represent everything wrong in terms of treating your body and the world responsibly. There’s not a great range of music played in clubs either and ultimately have had only a limited number of memorable nights out.

7. Weather: Whilst it’s never cold, during the Summer it’s simply too hot to do very much and trying to play sport or even go for a walk just doesn’t work. It can get up to 50 degrees with very high humidity and a bizarre side effect is that a lot of people actually get a vitamin D deficiency. During the Winter it’s not cold but it can be overcast and just very dusty, which also isn’t fun. The best of time is Spring and Autumn where the temperature is perfect.

8. Roadworks: The flipside to seeing a country built is the delays and dust that go with it. To be fair this factor has improved dramatically in the time I’ve been here but Qatar is a long way from being ‘finished’.

9. Lack of local news: Whilst Al Jazeera does great international work, they broadcast virtually no news at all about Qatar, as in not even a weather forecast. There are a couple of local papers but they’re produced by the government and don’t really tell the ‘news’. As it’s not a democracy there’s no accountability for government decisions and ministers never talk about what they’re doing and why. There was an independent news source but they got shut down after publishing something the government didn’t like. Therefore there is a sense of unreality here as even though I live here I have got literally no idea what is happening with the embargo for example. You hear rumours about things but not actual news. This can be frustrating but people put up with it a) because the country is 88% immigrants and don’t care that much and b) the quality of life is so good so we can live in blissful ignorance.

10. Greed of expats: Finally, all immigrants in Qatar are here at least in part to make money (there’s no income tax) and improve their situation in their home country as and when they return. That’s as true for Bengali cleaners as it is for me. However, I’ve gradually noticed that a lot of expats have had the green eyed monster take over a little bit and (particularly after a few beers) smugly boast about how much money they’ve made. In a British context at least, everybody seems to want to buy up as many buy to let properties as they can and act as landlords. Many times I’ve had to sit through tedious and self-satisfied conversations about rent yields and profitability of their investments. Whilst Dubai is famous for it, lots of expats here are unattractively money oriented.

Ugly

1. Natural Landscape: Qatar would be in the running for the least interesting country to look at in the world. It’s the second flattest country in the world after the Maldives and pretty much the entire surface area is just flat yellow desert with no vegetation. There is a small area in the South near the Saudi border with some smallish sand dunes and there are some mangroves on the East coast but I’m clutching at straws to describe almost anything of note. Even the coastline is surprisingly uninteresting as the Persian gulf is very calm but is also so saline that you can’t really swim in it and there’s virtually no wildlife. Whilst you can go desert camping, there are no national parks and there are no hikes you can do or anything really different to see on a weekend.

2. Human attractions: These are better but there’s still not much to see. There is a Unesco World Heritage site called Al Zubair fort but it can be politely described as being in ‘the intake which aimed to give as many countries as possible at least one’. There’s also a couple of museums which are quite good and a ‘cultural quarter’ though not much really happens there. My favourite place is the Souq which is a traditional Arabian bazaar and is always fun to wander round. There are also lots of malls and restaurants but these got very samey pretty quickly.

Overall, I do love living here and love the quality of life but ultimately I’m not sure that’s enough to keep us here long term. There is a degree of frustration that the athletics world champs and of course World Cup are coming in a few years but I just don’t know if I want to stick around in the country that long. We will see.

From Doha,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 10:40 Archived in Qatar Comments (0)

2 conflicted spaces

This Spring I visited a couple of zones of conflict in the Mediterranean so thought I’d write an email describing them.

First up was sun kissed Cyprus/Northern Cyprus in February.
After flying into Northern Cyprus (Turkish side) our first stop was the central city Nicosia, which is unique as it’s the world’s only divided capital city.
Greeks and Turks have both lived on the island for a long time but the Greeks have always been in the majority. In the early 1970s Turks made up about 20% of the population but were quite thinly scattered across the island. In 1974, in a display of needless machismo, the junta that ruled Greece at the time decided to invade (and run the country themselves) and the Turks responded by counter invading to protect Turkish Cypriots. After a few months of mid intensity fighting, a peace treaty was signed but with the island now split into a Greek South and Turkish North (not internationally recognised).
Whilst Nicosia didn’t have too many stand out sights, by far the most interesting aspect of being there was the atmosphere of the demilitarized zone that has formed right in the city centre. Whole chunks of the city have been either abandoned or turned into military posts and quite often you’d turn into an unsuspecting looking side road only to be faced by soldiers with guns and signs warning you that trespassers will be shot in several languages. Probably not a good place to absent mindedly get hammered methinks.
We then headed to the South coast and the pretty port city of Paphos. There are some great archaeological sights and once you can get off the beaten track in the Akamas peninsula some really impressive coastal scenery.
The highlight in the South was definitely climbing the highest peak Mt. Troodhos. Whilst you can’t get to the summit itself (British military installation) in February it was a great experience as the mountain is high enough to be covered in knee deep snow. There’s an extremely popular ski resort near the top but once you get away from that into the pine forests you almost feel like you could be in Scandinavia or the Alps as the perfect blue skies meets the green and white of the snow covered trees. Absolutely wonderful and not what you’d expect to find in Cyprus.
The problem I think I had with travelling in Cyprus was that it’s just really hard getting away from tourist developments. There are billboards virtually everywhere on the highways advertising property developers in a variety of different languages and it felt like the island’s economy seems to be based on a giant ‘laundromat’ model as Russians, other Eastern Europeans and even Chinese who’ve made their money through dubious means invest in the country and in return get a shiny Cypriot (read EU) passport. On top of endless dodgy Russians there’s also a huge number of annoying, generally fat and stupid British baby boomers, who bought and sold houses at the right time to live out a very comfortable retirement in the sun. Aside from creating an eyesore landscape of endless white duplexes, sprawling out from the dull cities, dodgy Adidas clad Russians and Daily Star reading Brits drinking pints of Carlsberg do not add much to the culture and I think they have sold their soul a little bit.
The North I definitely enjoyed more as I felt it still retained an old world charm about it. That said it’s also sold it’s soul somewhat as unexpectedly Northern Cyprus revealed itself to be a bit of an adult playground. The target market seemed to be Muslims from nearby countries (Turkey, Lebanon and beyond) but also from further afield in Central Asia as several impressive casinos have been built and are even joined by strip clubs in this Muslim country. Wandering round one of the casinos on a midweek night was a bit of a surreal experience as the designer clad patrons nonchalantly tossed around $100 chips and the whole place positively reeked of illegality somewhere in the system, but in an otherwise quiet coastal area.
To get around you pretty much have to rent a car but you’re rewarded as stunning coastal and mountain scenery is joined by some lovely cities in Famagusta and Kyrenia. There are some particularly good crusader era castles to climb up to and the bizarre ‘Blue Mansion’ owned by an eccentric lawyer/arms smuggler was a particular highlight. It’s much more sparsely populated than the South and in large parts of it not much is really happening until you come across another inevitable army installation of course.
The conflict in Cyprus and indeed the division as a whole felt a bit pointless as most Cypriots on both sides would actually like to reunify. Last year was a major blow to the process however as years of negotiations ending up collapsing after Turkey interfered and refused to remove their army presence from the island. As Erdogan pushes an ever more pro-Islamist agenda many on the Turkish side feel they’re losing their own much more relaxed culture as he tightens his grip on power. Pointless, expensive and misguided machismo started the conflict and even 45 years later continues to fuel it.

Whilst I enjoyed Cyprus it also me realise that I like more of a challenge when I’m on holiday. I don’t think I’m ready for the days of renting a villa and enjoying the sun as the main focus of a holiday so, looking for something a bit more on edge, this Easter I headed to the land of Israel. Or is it Palestine? Or Canaan? Or Judea? Or ‘The Holy Land’?
I don’t really know but as the different names above suggests, it’s one of the most contested places in the world. Travelling there has been an extremely thought provoking and stimulating experience, but I also pretty shocking too.
After getting quizzed for well over an hour by 3 different security agents at Tel Aviv airport (a Qatari ID + some unusual stamps in the passport “Where is this Somaliland”? will do that) I was very relieved to get into the country and headed straight to the Holiest of Holies, Jerusalem.
I arrived just as Shabbat (Sabbath) was breaking at Easter/Passover and being in Jerusalem at this time is an eerie feeling. Virtually everything shuts down with no shops open or public transport running. Jews also aren’t allowed to drive a car and it’s a surreal feeling in the dusk as you’re in the downtown of a city of nearly a million people but with virtually no noise. With the exception of some background automated noises like pedestrian crossings or the hum of street lights, there are no signs of life beyond the occasional Orthodox Jew in their extraordinary 17th century Eastern European outfits scurrying to get to synagogue.
The whole city is built from the same material called Jerusalem stone and in the silence, as you get closer to the Holy city a unique air of expectancy grows, I could easily see why so many people get ‘Jerusalem fever’ when they visit. It’s the most important city in the world to both Christians and Jews and third to Muslims (after Mecca and Medinah) and all (very pious) communities are easily identifiable walking around the narrow streets. To allow everyone to coexist peacefully, the old town was split into 4 quarters, a Christian one, an Armenian (also Christian) one, a Muslim one and a Jewish one where each community can live how they choose. They are all fascinating in their different ways and I thought it would only be right if I saw a range of devotion in action.

When I reached the old city I went and watched the eerily quiet Good Friday evening service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus alleged tomb location) and then afterwards went to the Western Wall (alleged last remaining part of the Jews 2nd temple) to see Orthodox Jews much more active prayer rituals. The following day I got through the heavy security up to the Dome on the Rock (allegedly where Mohammed ascended to heaven from). Even though they were thronged with pilgrims, looking round them and other sites like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives had an almost transcendental quality to the experience; like you were there but due to their importance to the different faiths and to human experience, being there just didn’t feel quite ‘real’, like you couldn’t quite believe you were in the place where Jesus/Mohammed etc. had been. This feeling of unreality was a sensation I would feel later on in Israel/Palestine and underpinned much of my time there.

After leaving Jerusalem I headed North and spent a fairly hardcore 2 days hiking the Jesus trail from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. It connects up important places in the life of the big man and whilst it was tough going with all the weight on my back it was a wonderful way to connect up the landscape and gather an understanding of how Christianity started. Some places e.g. Nazareth have changed a bit since the Bible and are now fairly ugly sprawling towns but other places, notably on the Sea of Galilee still retain a degree of bucolic charm and it again felt surreal walking in the footsteps of the disciples.
Israel really is ground zero when it comes to organized religion on Earth. Aside from its importance to the Abrahamic faiths, it’s also home to a couple of secondary faiths including Druze and Bahai. The Druze are quite secretive and won’t let you in to many of their temples but in Haifa (Israel’s third city) the Bahai spent about 20 years designing and landscaping a set of quite magnificent terraced gardens. They’re set out over 19 gorgeous terraces and rise several hundred metres up Mount Carmel. They were made a Unesco World Heritage site almost immediately and dominate the landscape in a way that I can’t recall one feature dominating a city so much.
Aside from religious sights there’s a wonderful range of other cultural sights which connect up large swathes of human history. From seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum to the Crusader and Napoleonic war port of Acre and even up to the amazing Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem it’s probably the fullest trip I’ve done in terms of trying to pack activities in. I was getting up and out by no later than about 7am and averaging around 30,000 steps a day which gives an indication of how intense a trip it was. My favourite historical sight however was definitely camping out and then hiking up the infamous ‘snake path’ to the incredible Roman era mountain top fortress at Masada on the Dead Sea. Somewhat reminiscent of Caribs Leap in Grenada, trapped by Roman forces, after a desperate last stand, rather than surrender, the 1000 Jewish rebels elected to commit mass suicide and Masada has become a byword for Jewish independence and freedom. When you reach the summit and look out over the spectacular views as with so many places it’s Israel it’s an incredibly evocative place.
Unfortunately I got stuck in a couple of places as during Passover transport becomes a real headache in Israel. Whilst I got to see the amazing standstill of traffic in Tel Aviv on Holocaust memorial day, over the 2 weeks I was there on 3 days there was no transport running at all and on another 3 were running a very reduced timetable so it was quite frustrating at times.
That felt like very much a ‘First World problem’ though as I next ventured into Palestine. Many tourists only really visit the somewhat ‘neutral’ spaces of Bethlehem and Jericho but in terms of understanding the conflict I found the countryside and main city of Hebron to be far more illuminating.
One of the most noteworthy things I found about travelling in Israel is just how fertile ‘the land of milk and honey’ now is. Israel are virtually world champions of irrigation engineering as through ingenious use of drip feeds and other technologies they have successfully ‘tamed’ much of the land and are now almost self –sustainable for food. It has come at a great cost for the Palestinians though.
When you cross over into Palestine one of the first things you notice is how much lower quality the land is compared to Israel. Green fields of crops and bovine pasture get replaced by scrabbly hillsides which can support sheep/goats and little else. There are however, pockets of greener land but these are almost all behind barbed wire fences and have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) defending them nearby. Controversially, lots of hardcore Zionist Jews have moved into Palestine as they feel it’s ‘their land’ and by a variety of methods have slowly but surely taken over the best quality land.
Israel has gradually diverted water from the Jordan river (less than 5% now reaches Palestine) and other sources into Israel and what’s left for the Palestinians is almost not worth having.
Whilst the idea of a 2 state solution is very popular in the West, to some extent it ignores just how much the population has changed since it was first proposed in the 1920s. Even when Israel was created as a home land for European Jews in 1948 the population was under a million but its numbers have swollen 10 fold since then. Much of it is ‘by design’ as Orthodox Jews are encouraged to go forth and multiply and are subsidised by the government to an almost comical extent. In Jerusalem and other Orthodox communities you see couples with endless numbers of kids tagging along everywhere as they have around 7.5 children on average and the country as a whole is the most fertile in the developed world at over 3 per couple.
On top of this, immigration has continued apace and whilst some stories are almost heroic (e.g. Operation Solomon) much of the increase is due to the nearly 2 million Russians who moved in post USSR breakup. In many areas you’re more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew as anyone with Jewish heritage has a ‘right to return’ to Israel but many of the Russians were only grandchildren of Jews and were essentially economic migrants. Israel is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world and when you consider that most of the Southern half is the Negev desert it’s almost inconceivable to see how an agreed 2 states could be even remotely fairly apportioned. Israel has recently finished a huge series of desalination plants and some have optimistically reckoned that much of the Jordan river can be allowed to flow back to Palestine and allow it to become regenerated but I think population pressures dictate that a 2 state solution that both sides are happy with is now infeasible.
I found a similar story of contested space in the main city of Hebron; home to the tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) it is claimed by both Jews and Muslims and there’s a persistent air of tension in the city. To travel across different neighbourhoods you have to (very slowly) get through various IDF checkpoints as Israel has tried to clear the city centre of Palestinians and replaced them with Israeli settlers. On ‘security grounds’ the IDF have kicked Palestinians out of their homes and shut down most of the commercial centre of the city. On a visit to a refugee camp and speaking to some Palestinians they are under no illusions that the Israelis are gradually trying to suffocate life out of Hebron and Palestine generally. The current government of Netanyahu makes little secret of their desire to own all of Palestine and there are now over 3million Palestinians in Jordan alone. By slowly removing agricultural and any other economic opportunities for the Palestinians, they are hoping that the rest will simply gradually give up and leave. As one guy in the refugee camp said to me: “They were in the diaspora for 2000 years so they do not mind playing a long game but this is our home and we will never give in”.
I finished my time in Tel Aviv and once again the sense of unreality of travelling in Israel hit me. Full of artisanal coffee shops, interesting Bauhaus architecture, tech start ups and hippies smoking weed everywhere, in many ways it felt like a city the Guardian could describe as the ‘ultimate urban experience’. Everyone has dogs and are very chilled out and ‘happy’ but to me it brought up visions of the Capitol and their splendid isolation from the other zones in the Hunger Games.
In many ways Israel is an incredible achievement, from it’s legal system to it’s creation as the homeland of Jews after the Holocaust to the regeneration of Hebrew and the construction of a super strong national identity, there is a lot to admire… but it’s also one of the most unfair places on the planet where the country is basically run on an apartheid system. Most towns or cities are either Arab or Jewish but even in ‘mixed’ cities like Haifa the two communities don’t really mix; from childhood they attend different schools and are brought up to regard the creation of Israel as either the greatest event in recent human history or the ‘nakba’ (literally ‘The catastrophe’). This is then followed by national service for Jews and living in a police state for the Palestinians.

Things kicked off in Gaza when I was in the West Bank (but when has Israel/Palestine been ‘quiet’?) but entering Palestine via endless checkpoints and barbed wire fences didn’t feel dangerous, just deeply annoying. I’ve often found that the one of the things most frustrating about conflict zones is realising just how much money, time and effort is wasted on the military when it could be better spent elsewhere. Tens of millions are spent on the Palestinian side as the UN and European charities help offer limited support, but its dwarfed by the absurd extent to which Israel is ‘financially doped’. Thanks to the super powerful Israel lobby in Washington, it receives over $3bn a year in aid from the USA alone (way more than any other country) and it’s even written in American law that the contribution can only go up. This doesn’t even taken into consideration private Jewish contributors from around the world and the money is used to both metaphorically and literally build a wall blocking out the Palestinians.

Like most nationalities, Israelis vary a lot, for every ultra Zionist settler you’ll get several more easy going socialists who have no desire to harm the Palestinians. However, over time the 2 state solution has been largely shelved and the country has now settled into a ‘treatment is better than cure’ mindset. By putting up with having heavily armed soldiers posted everywhere (even in places like bus stops) it’s a price they’re willing to pay and by building huge border walls around Palestinian areas they’re effectively keeping the problem out of sight and out of mind rather than attempting to solve it.
The quality of life in Israel is now one of the highest in the world in many ways but this full knowledge of but ignoration of the problem is why it felt like they were living in the Hunger Games.
Whilst life in the West Bank was overcrowded with poor quality services (the streets for example were filthy) it could be a lot worse. Gaza’s population density is over 5,000 per sq km and ringed by the border wall and the naval blockade in the Mediterranean there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the ‘biggest open air prison in the world’. I can’t really imagine just how tough life must be there and felt at least somewhat hypocritical for visiting Israel and contributing to the economy etc.
With its wonderful wide ranging landscapes, unique culture and incredible history, it’s one of the most thought provoking places I’ve ever been to but I also left with very mixed feelings. Whilst Cyprus felt like a slightly unnecessary conflict and hope that at some point in the future things could change, no one seems to have any ideas on how to move the conflict forward in Israel and the great/awful reality for the two communities looks like it will persist.
From Tel Aviv,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 09:28 Archived in Israel Tagged northern cyprus palestine Comments (0)

Indian Ocean Islands

Greetings from wonderful, beautiful Praslin in the Seychelles. Home to the world's sexiest fruit (the Coco de mer) and several potential entrants in internet lists of 'the best beaches in the world', it really is a veritable slice of paradise and a truly perfect place to end any trip. 2 months earlier we began our journey of 13 islands spread over 4 countries via 11 flights and 11 boat trips, so after such a complicated trip it felt invigorating to end the trip in such a glorious location.

After an epically bad flight (we turned up 24 hours late via Johannesburg) we finally got to start the trip in Mauritius, the world's first openly gay country. Mark Twain claimed heaven was based on Mauritius and it's not difficult to see why. Aside from the perfect white sand and turquoise waters the lush green landscape is a bit of a wonderland of volcanic fecundity with fruits and vegetables growing everywhere and the island able to support one of the highest population densities in the world.

As with the Seychelles later on, Britain and France traded the island according to whom was in the ascendancy in the Indian Ocean at the time and it's left an interesting melange of people and cultures. The French brought African slaves to the island and the British later brought Indians over as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations so it's not unusual to see churches, mosques and Hindu temples within a single village. In many ways it reminded me of Guyana or Suriname in the make up of the population but Mauritius is doing far better as a country. Due to a long running focus on education and shrewd political decisions on where to focus investment in the economy (from agriculture to clothing manufacturing to IT and finance) the country is very much a Middle Income country and consequently there are far fewer social problems like crime of racial disharmony meaning it's a very safe and easy place to live.

That's not to say it's perfect; as in many similar countries lots of the best beaches have been bought up by resort chains or property developers and public areas do feel slightly second class but overall it's undoubtedly one of the more successful ex colonies.
After 10 days of relaxing and enjoying the ease of Mauritius it felt like we needed more of a challenge in Madagascar and we certainly got that.

Madagascar is not really like what most people would expect; although for such a big country it doesn't really get a lot of press generally. Informed largely by the Dreamworks films, most people probably think that Madagascar is made up impenetrable jungle with few people and unusual animals everywhere but that's not the case at all.

After arriving and spending a couple of days in the polluted and chaotic capital city Antananarivo (or Tana for short) we were pleased to leave it behind and get out into the countryside. Our first adventure was a pirogue trip on the Manambolo river down to the West coast for 4 days. In many ways it was amazing as we saw virtually nobody but our boatmen and heard no noises except river birds and the lazy river slowly winding it's way downstream. We camped every night on river islands and whilst it was supremely relaxing the landscape was surprisingly monotonous and at times quite sad to look at.

As with so many LICs, Madagascar has undergone appalling deforestation in recent decades for hardwoods, firewood and in particular slash and burn agriculture. Whilst it's not Haiti in terms of damage done, in the dry season this has created a landscape of rolling empty yellow grass hills with few trees and surprisingly little to see in much of the country.
When we arrived at the coast we were greeted by the spectacular Tsingy national park; a stunning collection of limestone pinnacles and caves that they've created an excellent harnessed climbing route through. It took all day but was utterly exhilarating climbing through the formations and it was nice to get some physical exercise after so long on the pirogue.

After finishing in the Tsingy we then had to start travelling by road and as with so many African countries, getting around quickly proved to be a harrowing experience in Madagascar. Despite being the size of France the country only has around 2000km of paved roads and many of the national highways are little more than dirt tracks that are closed for several months a year during the rainy season. Journeys are done by taxi brousses (converted mini busses) and they really are an ordeal to get through. Your fellow passengers don't really have the same hygiene considerations as you would in a Western country and will hawk and spit on the floor or fart without a second thought. Malagasies also have a lot of kids (who go free) and on one particular journey there were 18 adults and 17 children on 18 seats. Being thrown around so much by the journey, the kids predictably started throwing up everywhere and mixed up with the phlegm of the others the bus quickly became truly disgusting to sit in. Many of the vehicles are in shocking condition and whilst extremely cheap, progress is often glacially slow and most tourists end up either renting a private vehicle with driver or simply fly between the destinations.
Obviously this jacks up the cost of travelling considerably and removes you from ordinary people and actually experiencing the country rather than just being on a guided tour. Therefore I found the balance between 'adventure' and 'comfort' was very difficult to get right and ultimately at the end of travelling through Madagascar I had the unusual feeling that the parts of the trip were 'greater than the sum'. Whilst we saw and did some amazing things, the actual practical difficulties of travelling meant the trip as a whole didn't feel that easy but that's what you get when you go to more unusual places.

The denuded landscape has left the country with 3 distinct climate zones, the East coast where there is still some rapidly shrinking rainforest, the temperate central highlands (where most of the population people live) and the desert or spiny forest in the West.
Whilst generally not the most interesting landscape, the spiny forest did have some real highlights to see with the beautiful Baobab trees springing up sporadically as well as some good national parks where we got to see some lemurs.
Madagascar is of course very famous for its wildlife as it's isolated location causes it to be something of an '8th continent' with over 11,000 species of animal and countless plants species endemic to the country. The reality is a far cry from wildlife watching in Kenya or Tanzania though as the wildlife simply isn't easy to spot as most of them are simply small (lemurs are as big as they get) shy and their habitat has often been cut down. Therefore wildlife watching is slow and you have to be patient; alternatively you can go to created lemur parks or areas where humans leave rubbish like campsites and they'll come and find you, but it's not quite the same.

After some lovely snorkelling and whale watching on the reef in the South West we headed back to the capital and it's 'view of a thousand hills' (not really). After reading about Harry Flashman's adventures with Ravalona I (the Maddest Queen of them all) a few years ago, I was expecting the country to be quite wild and colourful but the culture was less distinctive than I was expecting and certainly nowhere near as memorable as somewhere like Ethiopia in terms of food, clothing, music etc. One thing that is quite unique about the population and which struck me immediately on arrival was just how odd the people look. Madagascar does not have an indigenous population but it's 25m people have come in waves from different parts of the Indian ocean. Therefore the people can look as though they're Indonesian, Arabic, African or from the Indian subcontinent. Whilst they split into 18 major tribal areas over the last 500 years there has been enough intermixing (particularly in the capital region) that they look often look like a mixture of all those ethnic groups and so trying to describe what a Malagasy looks like is nigh on impossible.

Before visiting the North of Madagascar we took a 9 day detour to the Comoros, where the people are definitely African, definitely Muslim and definitely not gay .
A liberal Muslim island archipelago to the East of Mozambique it is a former French colony composed and would rank as one of the world's most obscure countries. It turned out to be a really nice contrast to Madagascar in that the country is covered in tropical rainforest but is relatively easy to get to and explore (and get lost in). Getting between the 2 main islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan would have to rank as one of the toughest sea crossings I've ever done. In a part of the world where safety precautions are limited to put it mildly, setting off in a Chinese built ferry quickly felt very unsafe. The Indian the ocean is meant to be calm but almost immediately after leaving port the sea was up to swells of 5-8m and it felt like riding the pirate ship at a theme park as you climbed and dropped over the wave crests. I'd estimate 60% of the passengers threw up over the 6 hour journey and I just felt so sorry for the poor crew whose job on the crossing was largely composed of going inside and carrying bags of sick out and then throwing them overboard. After our motor broke down in the middle of the ocean just as the sun was setting, I did start to worry as to how we could be rescued but thankfully after 45 stomach churning minutes the crew got it going again and we thankfully made it to Anjouan.

As often happens though the next day we immediately had another reckless adventure on the island's highest mountain, Mt Ntringui.
After climbing up to a beautiful crater lake we continued pushing on up to the 1500m summit on the thickly forested mountain. Unfortunately we then got very lost trying to find a way down to the city. After losing the path we continued getting nowhere trying to descend through forest so thick you needed a machete to clear a path. After getting far too close to a near vertical drop, despite having been hiking all day we had to take the decision to exhaustedly reascend the mountain back to where we could safely camp. We then made an heroic effort to firstly climb back up to the summit in the twilight and then getting up and descending the way we'd come at 3am the next morning to make our boat on time. Every single muscle in our bodies ached but the sense of relief in being back to safety when you have been in genuine trouble is an incredible feeling.

Much easier was the spectacular Karthala volcano which dominates the main island Grand Comore in a similar way to Etna on Sicily. A huge volcano that has erupted 3 times in the 21st century, there are lava fields all over the island and wherever you are the volcano stands imposingly and ominously above you. The relatively straightforward climb up was rewarded by views out towards the other islands and in to the spectacular 12km caldera which is so big it has several craters smoking inside it. It takes a couple of hours just to walk around it all and when the cloud clears it's an incredible vista and definite highlight of the country.
Unfortunately we finished our time in the Comoros in the capital Moroni but as with many other areas of the country it was ruined by a terrible litter problem. Across the country you see abandoned cars and disgusting beaches covered in rubbish and it creates a really negative impression of the place as it's such an easy problem to fix. On the final day in Moroni at the market I saw a huge rat run directly in front of a cat who didn't even bother to chase it and unfortunately this would be one of the defining images of our time in the Comoros. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have world famous tourist industries (and a decent standard of living) I couldn't help but think the Comoros could join them if they cleaned the country up a bit.

On returning to Madagascar we took a flight North and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of life. The French ran the country from the North the cities of Hellville and Diego Suarez were clean, orderly and had some lovely colonial architecture.
In many ways it was a nice area to finish the country in but the French owned hotels and bars was not really representative of the poverty elsewhere in the country.

Partly due to it's isolated location and lack of involvement in the global economy or geopolitics, Madagascar is almost completely ignored by rest of the world. One of the poorest countries in the world at a GDP of just $400 per person, it's the sort of place where 90%+ of the population could be described as poor (1/3 of the population still practice open defecation) but yet receives little to no aid, investment or even interest beyond its wildlife. There is a strong feeling of economic inertia here as unemployment (and underemployment) plus a high birth rate leave so many people just 'hanging around' for most of the day, most days. I do find it frustrating that a country like Madagascar which desperately needs help to develop its infrastructure and agricultural productivity but generates no problems is essentially ignored whilst basket case countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan have tens of billions of dollars wastefully pumped into them every year. It's not a fair world.

Whilst travelling through Madagascar I found it difficult to get away from the poverty and it can be a very humbling place to travel in. On our last night we took a taxi back to our hotel but the 40-50 year old Citroen we got into was way past the point of safe or reliable usage. Despite the poor driver never leaving first gear it was giving off awful fumes and broke down several times in just a few km. He'd briefly get it going again using push starts but the car had quite simply gone, however he clearly had no other asset in the world to help him earn a living and so had no choice but to persist with it. After it broke down one last time we got out and walked the last km and as we walked away I felt so, so lucky to be able to get on a flight the next day...

And so we finished our trip in the glorious, also gay Seychelles. Whilst not cheap, it is a place where you can 'live the dream' as perfect white beaches are flanked by huge granite boulders and palm trees. Half the tourists there seemed to be on honeymoon although ironically Seychelles has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world and 3/4 of the population are born out of wedlock!
As with the likes of the Maldives they have firmly put their eggs in the luxury tourism industry and it's worked as Seychelles has the highest GDP per capita in Africa and few problems of any note. In truth it doesn't really feel like an African country and in many ways is much more similar in culture and atmosphere to some of the Caribbean islands as most people work in tourism and large parts of the coastline have been parceled off into different resorts.
Getting around however is easy and after structuring the trip to be something of a sandwich i.e. easy Mauritius then more challenging Madagascar and Comoros in the middle, we were delighted to have such a relaxing end to the trip. We hiked, cycled, snorkelled, played with giant tortoises and otherwise kicked back in these paradisical islands for a week.
Logistically this wasn't the easiest trip to plan and at times it was quite difficult but I finished the trip pleased to have got through it safely but also delighted to have had the opportunity to experience this part of the world.

From Praslin,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 04:51 Archived in Mauritius Tagged madagascar mauritius seychelles comoros Comments (0)

Arabian Adventures

Dubai

Having only written blog entries when I’ve traveled for slightly longer periods of time, I thought I’d try something slightly different by combining my notes on a couple of smaller trips within the Middle East.
After moving to Qatar the first piece of travelling I did in the region was to Dubai (actually pronounced doo-bay) and having not really travelled in this part of the world at all I was really looking forward to it. I’m aware that for many people Dubai conjures up a certain type of hell associated with expats who now live there or where people in TOWIE or Sex and the City go on holiday and there is obviously some truth to that, but it is nonetheless an incredible achievement in the desert.

Like many of its neighbours, Dubai made its initial money from oil but unlike Abu Dhabi or Kuwait for example it didn’t have that much in reserve. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the far thinking owners spotted a gap in the market and rapidly developed in the city as a trading hub between Europe and the subcontinent. Later on they started successfully investing in tourism and the ‘new economy’ (IT and media firms) and now oil makes up less than 5% of the GDP.

Whilst it was famous in the 1990’s for being the ‘world’s biggest construction’ site, most of the major works are now finished and I think the city now looks fantastic. The major highways and metro are complete and all over the city are pieces of bold architecture which really add a 21st century iconic feel to the city. Whilst they don’t have a Colosseum or Trevi fountain they’ve simply built new wonders. Whether it’s the world’s highest building (Burj Khalifa), biggest mall (Mall of Dubai), world famous hotels (Burj Dubai, Atlantis) or amazing new neighbourhoods like the Marina or the Palm, you’ve got to admire the ambition they’ve shown in making the city what it is.

It is a fantastic place to spend a week or so as the above mentioned attractions as well as the beaches, restaurants, wonderful nightlife and the old town means that there’s loads to fill your time. I also found Dubai a really interesting and quite complex society to be in; around 90% of the population are immigrants making it the lowest proportion of native residents in the world. Whilst in other Middle Eastern countries, immigrants are simply there to make money and often don’t earn that much, in Dubai the immigrant communities felt both more permanent but also more ‘middle class’. In Qatar for example every business has to have Qatari 51% ownership and owning property is very difficult. By contrast in Dubai the government encourages foreign investors with Special Economic Zones and it creates a more mixed society. Restaurant owners or small traders from the subcontinent or even office workers from Europe or Asia are much more common than Qatar. They’re clearly not rich but they’re doing OK and makes Dubai feel like a more mature society.

That said, the knowledge that Dubai is both literally and metaphorically built on sand never feels far off. Since it doesn’t really produce a great deal, much of it’s economic growth has been based on real estate and using increasing land values to take out more debt and build ever more with the expectation of increasing value. This bubble mentality works fine during boom years such as the early part of this century but when recession hits it can hit Dubai very hard. In 2008 house prices lost 50% of their value in 6 months and the emirate was in danger of defaulting on their loans. They had to be bailed out by their much wealthier neighbor Abu Dhabi and bizarrely part of the deal was that the Burj Khalifa was named after Abu Dhabi’s ruler. There’s no doubt Dubai had simply overreached, thousands of luxury apartments now stand empty or half finished with the famously disastrous ‘World’ project going down as perhaps the most expensive white elephants in history. Part of the problem for Dubai is that whilst it’s still probably the best place in the Middle East to do business, lots of other places have had the same idea to attract international investors and their first move advantage is gradually being eroded away.
For the moment though, as global economic confidence has gradually returned they appear to have weathered the storm and perhaps have learned to become more sustainable into the long term. It’s definitely somewhere I found a lot of fun and would like to return to.

Oman

The following Easter we visited another country on the Arabian peninsula and probably the one I was most looking forward to visiting: Oman.
Our first stop was the capital Muscat which has an unusual feel to it. It’s perhaps better described as 3 villages that have loosely been connected by urbanization to form one ribbon shaped settlement along the coastline, penned in by sea and mountains it’s never more than a few kilometres wide. It’s got some impressive sights in the gorgeous opera house and huge mosque which boasts the world’s biggest chandelier and 2nd biggest carpet. One part of the city is set aside almost solely for the majestic palace of Sultan Qaboos and the port to his two (why two?) $300m yachts. Aside from the magisterial architecture you can explore the winding alleyways and souqs of the old town meaning the city has a nice balance of old and new Arabia.

Aside from the huge portraits of Qaboos looming down everywhere, perhaps the most memorable thing about Muscat were the roads and the difficulty of navigation. Based on a system developed in China, there are few roundabouts or traffic lights designed to keep the traffic moving and reduce road rage. That’s fine but it means there are flyovers and turn offs everywhere and if you don’t know exactly where you’re going and stay on the road too long or take a wrong turn you can get lost very easily. Without doubt one of the most frustrating cities to navigate in that I’ve been in, even with a SatNav you could find yourself getting lost for 20mins at a stretch as you struggled to get back to where you were.

When we eventually got out of the city we did the amazing drive up to the Saiq plateau South West of the capital and began some incredible trekking over the next few days. The rocky West of Oman rises some 3000m above the sea but the tourist infrastructure in Oman is superb and you can drive around much of it (with a 4x4). After leaving our stuff in Saiq village we started climbing the rocky slopes of the Hajar mountains up to an extremely enjoyable trek called Jabal Akhdar. After grinding to the top of the mountains in the sun we were then greeted by the incredible sight of looking down into a 1200m deep bowl shaped landscape with the mountains forming the rim. Our route was to get down to the beautiful green villages below and thankfully we were now in shade. The descent path looked unpassable on numerous occasions from afar but it kept going and finally we made it down to the wonderful oases below. The villages survive using the ingenious falaj system which traps and transfers water to irrigate mountainous areas and allow people to survive in the harsh climate. They’re so ingenious they’re listed as Unesco world heritage sites and they were a great spot to refill our water and marvel at the watermelons and other fruit being grown. We camped in a dry canyon bed then got up early to enjoy walking in the cool of the morning. I found the path very tricky as the harsh rocky landscape was very unforgiving on the feet but eventually we got to the last village and started the climb back up to the mountain top to complete the circuit. In the heat of the day the climb was extremely tough and you can see why the British army love using Oman as a base for desert training as the terrain is so punishing. With the mixture of challenge and incredible landscape, I’d have to rank it as one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.

Oman as a country immediately felt different to others in the Middle East and culturally offers a pleasing contrast to their neighbours. Oman has some oil but not that much and unlike other countries in the region where generous welfare states mean the locals basically don’t bother to work, in Oman everyone has to work and make their own way. In Dubai and Qatar this means locals don’t really interact with foreigners much but in Oman they’re much more likely to strike up a conversation and talk to you. They follow Ibadi Islam (small school of Islam that predates the 2 major branches) and happily step out of all the regional disputes between their neighbors meaning the country comes across as pleasingly relaxed and maybe a bit more old fashioned. Our next stop of Nizwa was a good example of this where the smells of the old souqs and gorgeous majlis add a gloriously atmospheric feel which can be lost in ultra modern Dubai or Doha.

After meeting a couple of friends we then drove up to arguably the biggest attraction in the country, the mighty Jebel Shams. Known as the Arabian Grand Canyon, it’s a 3000m deep canyon which rises magnificently out of the desert. An impressive drive took us up to the rim and after marveling at the vastness of it all we then hiked to the summit of the mountain beyond. It was a 2 day walk and again trying to do it in the piercing sun was a real challenge but seriously rewarding too. We descended somewhat exhausted and celebrated with Fanta (no alcohol here of course).

Arguably the thing I’ll remember most about Oman are the colours; as we drove across the desert the contrast between the orange desert and blue skies is stark and feels like the opposite of overcast memories of the UK. Our destination was a place called Wahiba Sands which is pretty much anyone’s desert fantasy. Singing 200m high sand dunes as far as the eye can see, kissed by golden sunrises and sunsets it’s difficult to imagine a more romantic setting. Tourist camps have been set up and as we listened to traditional Arabian music on the dunes, things felt just about perfect.

You obviously can’t spend too long in the desert during the day so we headed to the incredible Wadi Bani Khalid. Wadis are river channels in the mountains that form in the rainy season and along with sinkholes, Oman is blessed with many beautiful ones. If the desert offers beautiful yellows and oranges, the wadis offer wonderful blues and greens in marked contrast to the rocky slopes around them. Gloriously cool and refreshing, it had various caves and waterfalls and the pools keep going so you can swim explore the landscape in an unusual way. We followed this up with an amusing night out in the pretty coastal town of Sur with Omanis naughtily drinking and eager to chat to us before flying to our final destination of Salalah near the Yemeni border.

Oman has a large section of the Rub al Khali (Empty quarter) on the Arabian peninsula and there’s a stretch of about 1000km in the middle of the country where virtually no one lives. Eventually the landscape starts rising again and when you start flying over Salalah though, a verdant coastal city emerges as water flows down from the mountains above to fruit plantations and farms that skirt the city.

It’s a fascinating cultural melange of Arab, Indian and Swahili influences and was a key part of ancient trading routes. In the city itself there’s a fascinating archaeological park called Al Baleed and outside there are a few plantations which stands testament to the role the city played in the Frankincense trail. Frankincense is a resin from a tree which grows here and smells fantastic. Aside from the Biblical significance it was very valuable and led to this part of the world becoming moderately wealthy as the abundant camels would transport it via oases to Mecca, Damascus and even as far as Constantinople and beyond. Whilst the camels looked perfectly happy, in the blistering heat the guys cultivating it had one of the hardest looking jobs I’ve ever seen. Reminiscent of salt cutters in Uyuni or Danakil, the sheer lack of any shade or relief for months at a time made me very grateful to do a job which has climate control.

The heat was a problem in Salalah as the middle 6 hours of the day were simply too hot to do anything. There’s little shade anywhere and when we tried camping on the beach that didn’t work as the sand had been heating up all day. We found we were at a loss as to how to fill the time between 9-3 and you can’t really hang around towns or villages as everything shuts down and there are no people around. Once the sun started to go down though you can explore a bit more and a real highlight was the cliffs of Marneef where fascinating rock formations are joined by some pretty impressive waterspouts.
We then flew back to Muscat and had a wonderful night out before finishing our time here. In some ways it was a fairly tough 2 weeks but extremely rewarding too. I loved the landscapes which I think I was expecting but the more traditional culture was fascinating to see and adds up to a terrific holiday destination.

From Muscat,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 03:25 Archived in Oman Tagged dubai Comments (0)

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