Thursday, 23 June 2016

Border Crossing Belgrade to Sofia – Overnight Train

Although I just experience the lousy overnight train in Europe recently from Krakow to Budapest I was more or less force to do it again from Belgrade to Sofia. They had only two trains running per day. One in the morning and one at night and base on the internet advice, the trains would depart on time but arrival is a question mark.

Train Station in Belgrade
Figuring I do not want to arrive in Sofia in the middle of the morning I decided to get the night train instead … this time the sleeper coach was full hence I had to just get a seat.

Overnight Train from Belgrade to Sofia

The train ride turn out to be an adventure of sorts. Arriving at the train station I found the platform easy enough but it was surprisingly only a two carriage train. One carriage for sleeper class and another for seated. Upon boarding I notice a few backpackers already arguing with the locals for the seats.
Some had seats reservation and some did not. Most of the Locals did not have any seat reservation and was abusing the kind hearted backpackers which was mostly polite and confuse at the same time. Eventually thou all gloves was off and loud argument kicks in before the conductor reluctantly budge in.

I got to my compartment easy enough and was greeted by a single elderly lady in the whole compartment standing at the door blocking passage. To everyone passing by she was saying it is full and the people who booked the seats are coming. Ironically enough she said the same thing to me as well …. Eyebrow raised I double checked my ticket and it was clear I was in that compartment.

Peng I would call her for I now, let me in once she verified I was indeed in that compartment. She and her husband Milo was from South Africa and they were on a bicycle tour from starting from Europe. Milo was up front securing the bikes and making sure no jackass ran away with it while the train was still at the platform.

For a train that was so fully packed our compartment was the only one that was vastly empty. Peng keep blocking passage and not allowing anyone into the compartment. She whispered to me that Milo and her had booked four seats in that compartment although there was only two of them successfully blocking out poor people outside from having a free seat.

This I need to explain which is a bit complicated in Europe for first timers. There is a ticket for travelling on the train and then there is a ticket for seat reservation. The first is a must for travel but does not ensure a seat or even a place on the train. First come first serve basis and people crowded the train like crazy everywhere along the corridors, toilets, any space they could find. The second ensures a place either a seat or a bunk bed and Milo Peng had found a way to cheat the system. I thought for a moment did I somehow ended up in India without knowing ??? would I see people on the roof of the train when I wake up?

Buying only two ticket for travelling for both of them and paying for 4 seat reservation they were ensuring they had two seats to sleep comfortably instead of sleeping upright. The irony of it is that the second ticket, the seat reservation ticket only cost 3 euro per seat …. Peanut to those who have money I might think when in the Balkans.

So not surprising that Peng was trying her best to prevent people without any seat reservation from taking up free seats. Inconsiderate you might call it but I guess it was fair game and I stayed away from the argument. After all I would be happy to not have any dodgy character in the compartment. Peng did however gave in to a Dutch girl backpacker and gave her one seat in our compartment … Daviela.
Then the last of the last Teodora from Bulgaria came, check the window and was about to come in before Peng on auto pilot said that the cabin was full. Poor confused Teodora continue walking and I told Milo Peng that she had a seat reservation and was obvious that she was in this compartment. Milo chased her down and she came in to our Six seat compartment and that was it. Doors was shut and Peng was determine to not give any more seats up.

Why did Peng gave away a seat to Daviela was unknown to me but I guess that is favouritism at its best.

We all had a great time chatting and telling stories to one another in that cabin. Peng a white women from South Africa and her Husband a diabetic Indian British, Daviela a backpacker trying to go land route to India though Turkestan, Teodora from Bulgaria which looks like a Model but works in China making designer Handbags. The Pot could not be more diversely mixed. We had a great time chatting of every topic one could think off. From Cycling tours and the consideration of an ebike, to hitchhiking and a guy asking to see one of Daviala boobs to being a celebrity in China.

Soon it was late and after many repeated refute and rebuke of people trying to enter the cabin we got the 6 seater cabin to 5 of us ourselves. Time to sleep as it was getting late and slowly one by one all of us doze off. I was in a state of semi sleep and semi awake all the time. For a point I did not trust the look of the guys sitting outside out cabin eyeing us with envy and spite. I was worried that if we all fall sound asleep something was bound to get missing so every time the door rattle I was awake but it was always a false alarm being one of them stretching his leg and kicking the door. Still every now and then I caught the glimpse of their eyes lurking.

We also got the most ticket checks for one measly night train. I think it was every hour that the conductor came for a check and at one point the guys outside enlisted one of the conductor for help in getting them the free seat. Peng held fast but was still bullied by the conductor and when he woke up teodora which was in a mean mood she scolded him in Bulgarian and Daviela slammed the door in the conductor face. …. Shocked the conductor just left us alone ….

Morning came and we were still in Serbia not even reaching the border of Bulgaria yet. I notice that the black lurking eyes due to lack of sleep outside was even more intense now and focus primarily at Milo which was spread out between two seat and his wife lap … 3 seats … full sleeping position. You could smell the fire just outside the door and window of our cabin.

We reached the border of Serbia finally and passport control came and took our passport for inspection. Mine was taken away as usual for further inspection as well as Pengs. It came back well and good with the Officer smiling and instead of saying my name, said Malaysia …. I was Unique and rare in a way I guess.

New passenger’s hopped on the train which as lot and a lot of old ladies for some reason. New people means a new tug of war of trying to get into our cabin for the one empty seat in the whole train carriage. I was too tired to even bother due to the lack of sleep but Teodora and Peng was quite energized from some nights sleep. Full vigor they defended the last empty seat till Teodora got into a heated argument with one of the old lady. Curse you for your lack of consideration ….

I guess it affected her in a way that when the next old lady came trying she gave up soon enough and gave her, her own seat instead deciding to stand in the corridor. Peng would not allow it and she was pull back in to seat …. So 5 of us plus an old lady.

The lady was so determine that she told Teodora when we cross the border to Bulgaria, she must be seated. It is a MUST …. That was partially why she gave up her own thinking it was only for a short while pass the border. Teodora could not resist and she asked why it was a must for her to be seated.

I’ll tell you after we cross the border the old lady said …

All this was in Bulgarian language of course and Teodora translated it for us every time ..When we finally cross the border into Bulgaria the old lady revealed that she was loaded with cigarettes and the bunch of them on the train was going to Serbia to buy cigs and transport them to Bulgaria for reselling.

Smack Forehead ……

Wat a journey this train ride was.

We reached Sofia late as expected at 11 am instead of 8 am.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Getting a Hair Cut in Belgrade

It was time …. I could take the heat no more and with the upcoming journey down towards Turkey and eventually Nepal and India during the hot Indian summers I knew it was a matter of time before I would need to part with my hard kept long hair of two years. Belgrade was where I decided to get a haircut. Why Belgrade? Well partially because I was bored but also I was curious how the haircut would turn out when I could not speak the language and give any pointers.

I actually walked all around Belgrade looking for a Barber or Hairstylist, but a few set rule was obvious … if it’s in the tourist area I would skip it. If it was expensive posh place I would skip it. If the barber / hairstylist could speak English – I would skip it.
One shop I went which was round the corner from a posh tourist street along the way to the Belgrade Castle had a quint old looking two chair barber with a single old man manning the store. He was alone with no customer … walking up the stairs he said something which I could not comprehend but I gave him the scissors sign for haircut ….  He waved his hands, a universal sign that says NO …. Oh well to the next shop.

Maybe finding a haircut on a Sunday was not such a good idea so I started walking in circles …. Small circles to larger circles slowly bringing me to the outskirts of the inner city …. And I stumble upon a very colourful shop. A lady was sitting outside smoking as I walked up to the front door.
Frizersky Salon

I sort of wonder if this was really a salon or is it one of those special shops that is a front for something else … all I know was the more the unknown the more excited I was to explore. I pointed to the door and the lady gestured me in nonchalantly. Oh it was a local Salon. Another customer was just finishing up washing and perming her hair and the Salon girl could not speak English …. Perfect.
Frizershi Salon
Scissors hand sign again and I was blasted with a fury of what I presumed was questions …. I gave my best dumbfounded look and said in English …. Haircut ?? pointed to my long hair and used the scissors sign. The Salon girl pointed to the clock and to the chair … Oh … this is so fun … I understand that gesture … wait for turn J

Five minutes later the smoking lady outside entered, she was the hairstylist apparently. This time hand signs was going off the charts. Scissors sign plus haircut was understood. My hair was dragged out and the tip was indicated …. And I grab the ponytail I had and indicated full snip. One major understanding transpired. Still the Stylist and the Salon girl had a worried look and was obviously grumbling about something.

I was left alone for a few minutes and the Stylist came back with a bunch of magazines showing hairstyles. Ah … pick one style was what I understood. I flipped a few page, pointed to a few random styles that does not complement each other on purpose and introduce a new hand sign.

Pointed to the Stylist à scissors à I dun know shoulders raise à Smile à Thumbs up à Ok no problem I said in English.
After repeating the same gestures a few time and even point to a few magazine and all gave the thumbs up, the Stylist finally knew what I mean …. All styles are fine … you have my permission to cut my hair however you want it … but make it short … coz it damn hot.

Before Haircut
With the hard part done I could not help but grin at myself and the Stylist and Saloon girl was also laughing themselves thinking how to go about cutting my hair …. Small conversation such as where I was from and how old I am was all we could manage. English was really non-existence.
Took out my phone and set it to camera mode with a big grin again on my face I pointed to the stylist to help me take a photo … a before and after shot ….

After Haircut
An hour later, I returned to my original hairstyle before I had long hair ….. hmmm … well if someone who has never seen my original hairstyle before the ponytail, could not have known what my preference were, and had a free hand to style however she like, came out with this … I guess my life choice ain’t that bad.  

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Belgrade - Serbia

I left Budapest for Serbia Belgrade. It was decided and I was determine to bulldoze my way through Serbia although the visa issue still worries me. Got there in one piece and boy was Belgrade ugly. All this was relative of course since I came down the Krakow – Budapest journey. Ugly as it is I kind of liked it. It was rich in history if not culture and the people seam friendly enough and if that’s not a clincher it was way cheaper too.
Train Station Outskirt of Belgrade - Serbia
I now learned that this part of Europe is called the Balkans countries making up of Masedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Solvenia, and Croatia and maybe a few more that had yet to register onto my mind map. Like the Baltics I guess Europe is more than just eastern and western Europe. They have subcategories of them and in a way the countries within the categories share similarities.

Typical buildings in Belgrade
In a way a touch and go in Serbia was a good thing. I got a nice early feel of the Balkan and will most probably do this section way more justice in future. In a way the first touch is to get a feel and the second one to fully experience and absorbed everything.

Other than the walking tour I did nothing much besides walking around town and of course visit a Casino. I have continuously visited casino since I departed Sweden where they had none …. And it seems that I will meet one in every city that I go to in Europe. Ah the dilemma …. Frankly if not for the big win in Tallinn I would be dangerously running through my budget right now.
The count is

Talinn Up
Riga Down
Vilnius Down
Warsaw Up
Krakow Up
Budapest Down
Belgrade Down

Wat could I say I am an addict.
Belgrade Castle
Belgrade had also a very nice castle in the middle of old town and it was filled with high class tourist attraction. Apparently although not so famous yet till Asia it was still a good tourist spot for European since it was so cheap. Party town as well as far as I could see and monumental wise they had a few building and statue to perk up the place.

Nikola Tesla was from Serbia …. I now knew …. The things we learn during travels that sears into your brain forever.
River View from top of Belgrade Castle - Running through the Balkans

Monday, 13 June 2016

Border Crossing with a Malaysian Passport – Train from Budapest to Belgrade

I was in a dilemma for a long time plotting my route through Europe especially this part of Eastern Europe. I had a plan …. Fly in to Madrid in Spain and fly out of Istanbul in Turkey. How I got there was up to me or rather base on the force of nature pushing me where I ought to go. Scandinavia once I had decided I will bite the bullet and spend the money it was a simple decision and from there on there was no way I would miss the Baltics.

The dilemma really started when I reached the end of the Baltics, coming down from Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania I would have to cross over to Poland since Russia required a Visa and Ukraine was not practically stable. The missile shooting down the Malaysian airplane MH 17 did after all came from Ukraine soil and a recent one at that. Poland was still a no brainer and of course the next logical route was Budapest.

What’s after Budapest ??? My mind ran scenario one after another but there was a few things I could not change even if I wanted to. Mental restrain for it would cost too much to force my way through things really instead of the physical cash problems. Romania or Serbia. This two countries was my biggest dilemma. I had no time to do them both for the dateline to reach Istanbul was approaching. Bulgaria would be next after any of this two before Turkey.
I even considered at one point to postpone the plane ride thinking I would pay the penalty and change the flight date. I scour the internet for the nearest office for oneworld which happens to be in Budapest, actually tried to change the flight ticket dates by calling Malaysian airlines on skype which ended up with an hour of talking, passing lines, waiting and finally a disconnection or maybe I got hung up on without even knowing the outcome. I even emailed Malaysian airline seeking help but other than a reply email that they would look into it, after 2 weeks of no reply I knew it was a lost course.

I hate traveling too fast from one city to another. It’s like you only see the cover of the book but never got to experience the soul inside. Hence I tried to even check for budget flight from Budapest to Istanbul. The idea was if I got a cheap budget flight I could spend less time hopping from one city to another and instead really delve into Poland and Hungary instead of just hopping every 3 days from Warsaw to Krakow to Budapest. I would also get to explore more non touristy parts of the country …. No such budget flights from Budapest to Istanbul ….
I had no choice …. Now its to just hop hop hop … maximum of 3 days at one place to get to Istanbul in time. I was still left with the question of the route …

The Route …
Hungary à Romania à Bulgaria à Istanbul ?
Hungary à Serbia à Bulgaria à Istanbul ?

I dread going to Romania with such a short time. I felt that Transylvania was a place you needed time to sock in Dracula and its beauty. Such unlimited adventure in Romania and I would ruin it by skip hopping though it I thought. Serbia then …. I had no idea what it was and it seem small enough that maybe just the capital Belgrade would suffice to represent the country. Some country are such …. Baltics was one of them I guess but not Romania.
Time for detailed research. ….

Republic of Serbia …. Malaysian passport holders are required to apply for Visa prior to visiting Serbia …. F*CK ….
I did not lose hope and still tried to find an embassy but other than the fact it located in Budapest I had no idea how much it would cost or how long it would take to get the Visa …. Going through the webpage I notice a sort of a disclaimer or a note to the visa requirement … general info …

For those who need visa to travel into Serbia but already have a Schengen Visa or USA visa or and a few other I could not remember …. They are not required to obtain a Serbia Visa prior to arrival.
Was this one of those countries which accepts other big nation countries Visa as well ??? It was risky … the General Info date posted was Nov 2014 not even a year …. A new change to their immigration laws … although I was happy that I could now go into Serbia, my mind still ran the paranoid worst case scenario. If the so call officer who board the train checking passport had no idea his own government new change in immigration laws then technical I will be illegal in his eyes and I could see shit happening in 100 different ways.

F*ck It … I’ll risk it … and argue my way in if need be … .
To be safe I did printed the website page onto a PDF format into my phone.

Train Ride from Budapest to Belgrade
I took the day train to Belgrade from Budapest …. 10 am departure from Budapest and we arrived 7pm in Belgrade ….
The Train ride from Budapest to Belgrade

The train ride was pleasant other than the fact the toilet near my carriage was choke with shit and urine so whenever the automated door opens a whiff of smell would sting the nose till it was close again and enough people inhale the foul gas to purify it.
Border Train stop for Passport Control
We reached the Hungarian Border about 1pm Kelebia and two officers board the train checking passports. I had no idea I was still in Hungary and thought they were Serbia officials. Thou still apart of Europe and Schengen the officer were frowning on my passport looking at it back and forth and after a long discussion within themselves they stamped and return it to me.
I thought it was done .. I was in Serbia …. Checking the stamp, it looked oddly like an EU stamp …. Oh … it was a stamp going out of EU …. Darn .

Half an hour later after every carriage was cleared by the officers the train continue on its way to the Serbian side of the border, Subotica. Two officers came in and I presented him with my passport. No question was asked at me and the officer was very professional flipping through my passport till he located the USA Visa and proceeded to give me an entry stamp. I was relived, the anxiety was over …. Then the officer said I will return this to you later and pocketed my passport and walked on to the next passengers.
What! Everyone one of the people I observed got their passport back immediately after it was stamped and mine was the only one at the back pocket of the Officer. As he proceeded down the carriage into the next carriage, I lost sight of him. I could only wait at my seat anxious again of what was going to happen.

Imagination ran wild again that 20 minutes waiting but one scenario stuck in my head …..
What if the officer forgot my passport was at his back pocket and after going down the line of carriage he waves to the train driver and the train start moving?

I would be stuck in the train onwards to Belgrade without my passport on me. At this point I could only wait, maybe pray and hope everything goes well. Every jerk of the train, as the driver makes adjustments cause me to panic thinking the train was moving off the platform and I still without my passport. Finally the officer came back, handed me my passport and as soon as he stepped off the train, we were on our way again.
Flipping my passport, I saw the beautiful new stamp of Serbia.
Sunflower Field along Train route in Serbia

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Hunt for a Bath in Budapest

I did not have much time in Budapest, somehow my plans to spend more time in eastern Europe f*ck up and I found myself rushing just so I could get to Turkey in time to catch a flight out to Nepal. Still it was a journey I had to make and if I had to pass by though land anyway why not make a stop right and enjoy the highlights and skip along the way.

Budapest was beautiful and exotic for a European country yet due to all the hype and the songs and the movies I expected it to be more magical in a sense like Dragon magical. First off the train in the blazing hot summer and I could tell it was a party town.
Money was tricky in Hungary. With all the tourism flocking into Budapest the money changer knew how to make full profit. Train station rates were exorbitant and by just walking out the station immediately a better rates appear yet still nowhere near a fair exchange. Ironically the best exchange rate I manage to change in Budapest was inside the casino in downtown. Yep I found a casino in Budapest …. It was in the tourist map so I was drawn to it eventually and enjoyed gambling with Hungarian Forint till I lost what little money I exchanged …. I still needed money for food and for fun I checked the exchange rate in the casino and viola … it was the highest best rates in the whole of Budapest …. Talk about traps …..

Walking Tour
Off the sleeper train, chuck my bags into the hostel in the early morning of 8 am and off to join the walking tour. I had no time to laze around now in Hungary and was determine to do as much as I can. It was a good tour, nearly 3 hours where the guide introduce Budapest and Hungary in a nutshell. End of the tour and somehow there was 6 of us chatting together and decided to go for lunch. Two girls from Brazil, Bonus from USA but of Nepalese decent, Jeff the Kiwi and Gus from Hong Kong.
Beautiful Budapest

The start of the Bath Hunt
Wats next after Lunch ??? The girls parted ways and the boys decided it was too hot do anything but try out the famous Budapest Baths. 4pm they said to meet in the front steps of the cathedral …. That was two hours later and we went our separate ways. I back to the hostel and also the train station to get my next day train ticket to Belgrade. I was committed now regardless of visa requirements and I was determine to make that route to Istanbul work out.

4pm and I was the first one there waiting at the steps. Soon Jeff arrive and a few minutes later so did Gus. Bonus was nowhere to be seen and he was the only one with all our contacts. We waited nearly half an hour and Bonus was still AFK and that’s when we saw the hail storm of sand coming towards us from afar. We all ran to seek shelter at Starbucks and the sandstorm hit for 10 minutes followed by the heavy downpour.
Well I think Bonus is not coming I said …. We got stood up. Nothing else to do but to drink coffee and tea at starbucks and wait out the rain/hail storm. Soon it was 5pm and it became a drizzle. …. Bath ??? lets change bath to a nearer one, one that is more traditional I said …. We agreed and walk to the nearest information centre thinking that they could help us call a cab in the rain instead.

The information centre once they realized we were heading to the bath house push and force sell us the tickets …. Only after selling us the tickets they said the taxi company are not picking up … they are quite busy. I guess we forgot when it rains, everyone takes a cab. By miracle the rain stopped at 530pm and we decided to just flag one down ourselves … running around the main streets of Pest we got none and finally decided to just take the subway instead …. Bought the tickets and the subway breaks down ….
This Bath hunt in Budapest was now no longer a thing of passing time, it had become a mission, a pilgrimage, an itch that one just had to scratch and will not be satisfied with a mere rub. A scratch till a red numbing bleeding bliss.

Someone, some local said take the tram …. And we ran to catch the tram she pointed … a flash of map and someone nodded his head and we all squeezed in crammed in the Tram like sardines.
You sure this is the right tram number?

Yep ……. Maybe …..
You sure it’s the right direction and not the other way?

Oh! …. Uh …. W
We made it to the bath house at 630 with only an hour and half to closing ….. We are going in we told the ticket counter, regardless of how little time there was left. A quick change and the first feet dip into the largest pool and whistle blew from the lifeguard …. Head caps are required …. $%^& ….. now we need to buy head caps … f*ck that and we went to the next nearest pool which was a warm pool.
Bath in Budapest

Not satisfied I suggested exploring the inner nooks and corners and we that was when we found the actual hot spring pool and even a steam room hidden deep inside the old bath house pass the changing room, pass the massage room and shower ….

Sneeky little bastards these guys were but we got out money worth ….. Soaking and just absorbing the beauty of a Hungarian Bath house …. While looking at eye candy everywhere …