the only photo I took today - my train out of Odessa
Unexpected changes are an essential, and often fun, part of travelling. I prefer my trips to have a healthy dose of unexpectedness, that is why I prefer not to plan too much ahead. True, for this trip I had had to plan part of my itinerary in great detail, due to visa regulations, but for the most part I am keeping all options open.
However, over the last few days I have started to worry a little bit about how many options I will need to keep open. A few months ago the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a negative travel advice for Iran. This was a huge bummer since Iran was supposed to be one of my main destinations on this trip. So Iran is still a very big uncertainty, as it will greatly depend on the political situation (and the perception of that situation in the Western world) whether or not I will go. I have sketched out some ideas for a possible plan B, but so far no alternatives have really seemed worthwhile.
Then a few days ago the government in Kyrgyzstan collapsed. And there is no way in the world that I will be travelling there if the current situation persists. Unlike Iran, where the issue lies mainly with the government and the rest of the world disagreeing, Kyrgyzstan is actually on the brink of civil war, and any kind of travel to the country is highly discouraged. Ironically Kyrgyzstan was actually the most accessible of the Central Asian republics, with the least stringent visa requirements.
The same day news came of new riots in Thailand, with the opposition going as far as declaring war against the ruling party.
And I know it is selfish to complain that all these things are interfering with something as trivial as my travels. I mean, there are people dying in those countries, so who am I to complain? And besides, a lot can still change between now and the time I actually arrive at those countries. I guess I will just see it when I get there.
Well, that was how I felt about my 'bad luck' yesterday, but today a whole lot of new and more pressing issues were came my way. (no, not issues, challenges! In my work we used to talk about challenges, rather than issues).
I had planned for today to be a lazy day. The ferry to Istanbul would not leave until 9 PM, and there were only a few more sights in Odessa left to explore, so I started the day with sleeping in until very late, writing in my blog for a few hours and a sumptuous breakfast at the branch of Top Sandwich next to my hotel. As the wonderful spring weather of the past days had made way to a dreary drizzle, I was in no hurry to do anything useful today.
Well, there was just this one thing I had to do. Just after midday I walked over to head office of the ferry company to pay for my reserved ticket. Inside I was greeted by Alexey, the guy I had been e-mailing with about my reservation.
â��I am sorryâ�� he said, â��the ferry to Istanbul has been cancelled - did you not get my e-mail?â��
â��Err.. wot? I did not receive any e-mails. What do you mean cancelled? When is it leaving?â��
â��There is no boat this week, the next scheduled passage is next Mondayâ��
Alexey apologised and assured me that this was the first time in the history of the company that a scheduled passage had been cancelled due to technical issues. The technical issues were caused due to problems with poor quality fuel, but he assured me it would be up and running again next week.
Bugger! Now what? I had to be in Istanbul no later than Thursday, in order to fly back to Warsaw on Friday. Erm, wait, maybe I should explain that as well... The idea of my trip is to travel all the way to Kuala Lumpur, loosely following the ancient Silk Road east, using nothing but public transportation. No flights involved. No backtracking either. Well, apart from this one thing, where I will be flying back to Poland for a weekend in order to work as tour manager for the Norwegian band Gazpacho. The band did two earlier three-day stints through Europe and I was their tour manager on those legs. Although I had initially declined this last tour, the band convinced me to tag along for the Polish leg after all. It had been a great experience working with the band the previous weekends, and the whole crew had been working together very well like a team. So I really couldn't skip this last part of the tour, now could I? And besides, I had planned four weeks for Turkey, so surely I could skip 4 days, right? So I had booked a return flight from Istanbul to Warsaw for the weekend, figuring I could interrupt my big journey just this once.
However, in order to fly to Warsaw from Istanbul, one must make it to Istanbul first. And with the ferry crossing postponed by a week, the ferry was no longer an option. So a mere week into travelling I had to give up my (noble? brave? foolish? absurd?) idea of not setting foot on a plane and bite the bullet and fly to Istanbul instead. One of Alexey's colleagues helped me obtaining some quotations for flights and came back with the happy news that I could fly to Istanbul the very same day, for a meagre $ 450 - thrice the price of the ferry (ok, a flight is 25 times faster than the boat, but if speed was the aim of this trip I might as well have flown straight to Kuala Lumpur in the first place!).
â��Maybe flights are cheaper from Kyivâ��, Alexey said. Now that got me thinking. While I wasn't really interested in doing any unnecessary backtracking, I did regret earlier not having more time in Ukraine, as I quite like this country. So why not spend the two days I would have been on the ferry in Ukraine and then fly to Istanbul on Thursday? Or better still, why not skip Istanbul completely and travel back to Warsaw via a different route and only use the return flight of my ticket to get to Turkey? Suddenly all kinds of ideas started racing through my mind. I needed Internet. And a telephone. Fast!
I rushed back to the hotel to pick up my laptop. I'd seen a sheesha bar around the corner with free wi-fi access, so what better way to re-evaluate options for a trip than to do it in a relaxed atmosphere with coffee and a sheesha?
First up was Swissair. I knew I had some restrictions on my ticket, but surely there would be a way to cancel my outbound flight while keeping the return flight, right? Sadly not. As it happens, â��safetyâ�� regulations dictate that if you don't use the outbound flight, you forfeit your return flight. Really? Even if you miss your outbound flight due to a broken down ferry? Yes, even then, that is what you have travel insurance for, I was kindly reminded. Erm, yeah, I doubt my travel insurance will cover anything like this though.
The lady on the phone understood my situation and was willing to help though. For $ 50 I could change my flight.
â��yes, then you only have to pay a surcharge for the price difference between a single ticket and a returnâ��
â��$ 400 - often single tickets are more expensive than returnsâ��
Arggh! But this surcharge is more than the whole price of the ticket! Whereas it will actually be cheaper for you not having to carry me from Istanbul to Warsaw in the first place. Why don't I just cancel the ticket and buy a new RETURN ticket in the other direction?
â��That would not be possible, sir, you have a non-refundable ticket, so you will not receive any money back. A new ticket will cost you $ 600. It would have been cheaper if you had booked earlier...â��
Long time ago I learned never to argue with airline personnel, but boy was I struggling.
More bad news, or, in hindsight relief, came by e-mail. The Polish promoter wanted to cancel the Polish tour, because of a seven day national mourning period after the Polish president had died in an aeroplane accident.
So now I did not only have the issue of getting to Istanbul in a timely and affordable manner, there now was also the chance that there wouldn't be much point in flying from Istanbul to Warsaw either. After a quick e-mail conversation with the band's manager I decided to continue to look for cheaper alternatives to get to Istanbul, while he tried to get an official statement from the Polish promoter.
I have friends living in Sofia, Bulgaria, and for years have they been inviting me over to come visit them. I much like to, as I have never been to Bulgaria, but unfortunately, this wasn't much of an option either. Flying was too expensive, and it would be impossible to travel overland via Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece in time to catch my flight on Friday morning.
So back to the website for airline tickets. It is amazing how virtually any flight can be booked online these days. I found a cheaper flight from Odesa, but that would leave at 7 tomorrow morning. And now that I had set my mind on spending some more time in Ukraine I didn't see the point in flying to Istanbul tomorrow any more.
How about Kyiv then? More expensive, and strangely enough, no direct flights. I had to make a stopover at Donetsk. So what is Donetsk like then? Back to the Lonely Planet to see if it would be worth taking an overnight train to the Eastern end of Ukraine and spend a couple of days in Donetsk. Well, not quite so. While the city is lauded as being more friendly and richer than anywhere in Ukraine, there isn't all that much to see for the casual visitor.
I'd much rather go to Lviv instead. This city is supposed to be one of the highlights of a visit to Ukraine, which unfortunately I had to cut it from my itinerary when my initial train from Holland got cancelled. But, you guessed it, there are no flights from Lviv to Istanbul, so I would end up taking yet another overnight train back to either Kyiv or Odessa and fly from there. It was all hopeless.
Then came the news that the Gazpacho tour had definitely been cancelled. I briefly contemplated travelling to Istanbul by whichever means I could find, and then still fly to Warsaw to spend the weekend with Maciek, but in the end I decided just to cancel my flight altogether and divide the two days of the ferry crossing and the four days of the Poland trip equally between Ukraine and Turkey instead. Let's just stick to the spirit of this journey and continue to travel (mostly) east.
Now I still had the challenge of getting to Istanbul in an affordable manner. Encouraged by the relatively cheap flight from Donetsk I started looking at other airports in Ukraine - and then at surrounding countries. So maybe Sofia is not an option, but what about Romania? Or wait a minute, what is this here? Moldova? Reputedly the least known country in the world - to tell you the truth I didn't even know it had officially become an independent country either, even though the country gained independence well before Ukraine and Belarus did - and apparently quite an interesting place to visit. And most importantly, Turkish airlines has daily flights between its capital ChiÅ�inÄ�u and Istanbul for less than what the price of the ferry ticket would have been!
So in my first week of travelling I am unexpectedly adding an extra country to my itinerary! Hey I am always willing to add more countries to my world map, this excuse was as good as they get!
So it was back to the Ukrferry office, where Alexey helped me book a train ticket to Lviv for tonight. I booked my flight from ChiÅ�inÄ�u to Istanbul for this Saturday and that was that.
I had all but three hours left in Odessa. As it was still raining I decided to leave the sightseeing for what it was (not much use in going to see a beach in the rain) and went for a belated lunch instead.
I don't know what it was, but everything changed after that. One of the things I dislike about Ukraine is that it is so hard to meet any locals. While I found people generally more friendly than I had in Russia, many of them still portray that same fear of the unknown when you try to approach them. The lady in my hotel for example, she prefers to walk away when I ask a question, rather than try and understand what I am after (for the record, I wanted to leave my luggage for the day after checking out and no Ed, I did *not* add any hand gestures).
Well, today was different. Alexey for example, he was by far the friendliest and most helpful Ukrainian I had met on this trip so far. He didn't speak all that much English, but he tried his best to help me.
Then when I went for a sandwich a girl helped me with my order when the lady behind the counter didn't understand why I was pointing at the picture of a hot dog while waiving my wallet. We ended up chatting while I ate and had a nice conversation, even though her English too was quite limited. She cut to the chase quite quickly though: â��Where you go now? Maybe we can go together?â��
Hmm, I had been warned about Ukrainian girls. They are either stunningly gorgeous, or that they were after a Western man for marriage. If you're really lucky, they are both. This girl, frankly, wasn't either of that. She wasn't much of a looker, and I seriously doubted a long-term relationship was what she was after. Much more likely she was looking for something more profitable on the short term. But hey, even if she was probably a prostitute, I welcomed the conversation!
I spent the last hour before my train departed back at the hotel. Turned out the neighbours had kindly switched off the encryption key on their WiFi, so I was finally able to update my blog. Here, same thing happened. A Ukrainian couple (he: a chav, she: outrageously stunning) was sitting in the common area, drinking cheap whisky. As soon as they found out I didn't speak Russian (and they didn't speak English) they got another glass and poured me one. Refusal was not accepted!
Then again, later on the train, a guy from Lviv who apologised for not being able to speak any English, after which we had great fun trying to have a conversation using the phrasebook in the Lonely Planet.
The provodnitsa too, she was all smiles and helpfulness when I presented my ticket to her.
What is happening? All week I have been travelling on my own, unable to make much contact with any locals, and now all of a sudden everybody wants to be my new best friend. Well maybe, just maybe, those people didn't change, but instead I changed and started to loosen up towards them. This whole past week I had been following a pre-booked itinerary, and I realised that with this set-back all of a sudden I was much, much more in my element. I was really enjoying myself! This past week I had been on vacation, but now I was actually travelling again.
Well, it had been a day of extreme contradictions. Firstly, the two major setbacks had actually resulted in great new travel opportunities. The second contradiction was that apart from the friendly people I seemed to meet all of a sudden I also saw a dead guy. Or at least, I think he was dead. As I walked out of my hotel in search of a taxi to the train station, I saw this guy lying on the sidewalk next to the entrance of the hotel. I discarded him as just a drunk, especially since everybody in the street seemed to be ignoring him. However, as I walked past him and had a closer look at him I noticed he was lying there in an awkward position, with his eyes wide open and his face covered in blood and I realised he didn't seem to be breathing. My gawd, a dead guy in a busy street, in front of a restaurant of all places. I looked around for help, as it seemed I was the only one bothered by the sight of this person, but then I realised in fact several people were standing around, talking to their phones and not moving away. It was just that no one was looking at him, and I can't blame 'em was it wasn't a pleasant sight. The least they could have done was cover him up though.
I figured that with my three words of Russian I wouldn't be of much help, so I walked away towards the taxi stand, feeling ever so awkward.
One final note on this very strange day is related to the cost. As it turns out this has been my cheapest day on this trip so far, spending less than 30 euros in total. Not bad when you consider I was unable to stay under my budget of 100 euros a day during my stay in Kyiv.