Friday, March 27, 2009

An unexamined blog is not worth blogging

This message is brought to you by Google Analytics.

to the person from Sydney who keeps looking for this blog on Google, it's "Phlebas Considered" not "Phelbas Considered". I'd think after 33 visits you might want to consider bookmarking this site.

On a similar note, all of you looking for help on Project Euler's Problem No 202, you won't find it here. I bitched about how insanely tough it was once.

A list of other interesting search terms that have brought people here include crazy shit in Japan, prime meridian mecca, size of a fridge, "grand romantic gestures", burqa bdsm, bunny javascript, fake kgb badges, Iranian cunt, lesbians in okinawa, self righteousness #2 killer in world, what does it mean steady progress (I think a parent may have been wondering what a monthly report meant)

Finally, since some people are apparently wondering, for my purposes, Phlebas is pronounced "flee-bas".


As I may have mentioned previously, here is a special presentation of some photos from Istanbul, with some appropriate background music.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Glorified Gallipoli and Terrific Troy

Monday was an early start to catch a bus to Gallipoli. I got there about 12:30 and the tour started at one. Our guide Hasan took us to the Gallipoli museum which had a number of artifacts found in the area, including a collection of bullets that had hit each other in mid air and letters from soldiers, to ANZAC cove, which the Turkish government has officially renamed as such, John Simpson's grave (the guy with the donkey), Aru Buran cemetery, the site of the dawn service where they were already erecting the stands for ANZAC day, Lone Pine cemetery, one of the Turkish memorials, Chanuk Bair, a big New Zealand memorial site, the site of some of the trenches and a large memorial with a quite from Ataturk regarding the soldiers buried on the peninsula:

"Those heroes that shed their
blood and lost their are now lying of the soil
of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is
no difference between the Johnies and the Mehmets to
us where they lie side by side here in this country of
ours...You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far
away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are
now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having
lost their lives on this land they have become our sons
as well."

- Kemal Ataturk

A few things really stuck home on the tour. First is that it felt like home. I'm not a sentimental type, but it did not feel like I was on foreign soil. The next was how beautiful the area is. Also present was the respect the Turks have for the ANZACs and the respect the soldiers on both sides had for each other even while killing each other. Stories of gallantry and nobility are common on both sides.

On Tuesday morning I took a tour of the ruins of Troy, the city of legend written of by Homer. Pretty interesting, but a lot of imagination is required. Pretty cool were the spots where you could see pieces from the nine different periods of Troy's history covering 3000 years. Then it was back to Istanbul and crashing in a hostel.

It was another early start today to catch the 8:30 train to Athens which will take 24 hours or so.

A few thoughts on Turkey. Russia keeps it prize for the best chess sets, but Turkey gets the prize for best chess boards, and best backgammon sets, although I'm not sure how much competition there is for that one. It was also a lot more expensive than I expected. My hostel was good, although the weekday staff were a lot friendlier than the weekend staff. Finally, Istanbul is a cat city.

Intrinsic Istanbul

Thursday was a rainy day and I visited some museums. First was the Topkapi palace, where the Sultans used to live. It was alright. There was an awesome knife in the treasure room which had a gold sheath and three huge emeralds in the hilt. There was also a collection of relics of the prophets which included Moses' rod, David's sword, arm bones in a golden arm shaped case, a bunch of Mohamed's beard (dude must have had one long beard). This collection also had someone there 24/7 reading from the Koran. An easy job if you can get it. After the palace I visited the Archeology museum and in three hours got through less than half of it.

Friday was fine weather again and I did a bus tour around town. I spent about an hour and a half walking along the remains of the city walls, which were pretty tall and would have been even taller in the day as the ground was lower then. The walls are also about 1500 years old and stood for 1000 years before being broken by the giant cannons of the Turks in 1453. I think I could have done it cheaper using public transport, but I would have missed a lot of the things along the way.

On Saturday I took a two hour cruise along the Bosporus (the choice was between a two hour cruise or a six hour cruise) which was good but cold. Quite a windchill factor. After the cruise I visited another mosque but didn't see much as it was undergoing restoration work, then the spice market where I got a box of Turkish delight (half rosewater and half a mix of other varieties) and a t-shirt. Finally I crossed the Golden Horn to visit the Galata tower, which has a great view of the city.

Sunday I visited the Azeri Military History Museum, which had a pretty decent collection, then I went to see Valens aqueduct, which n days long gone supplied the Basilica cistern with water.

Idiomatic Istanbul

At last I got to Istanbul and walked to my hostel which was about half an hour from the train station and just behind the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. That afternoon was spent wandering around the area past the Galata tower looking for the Australian consulate, which I was only a block or two from when I stopped looking. On the way back to the hostel I stopped by a tourist information centre who showed me where it was on my map.

Wednesday morning I took a tram and walked up the hill to the consulate where I was told I had to go to a website and request a postal vote, which would be sent to my address in Australia. Not much use to me since the election was to be on Saturday.

After that less than stellar effort I made my back to the Hagia Sophia. The third church on the site dedicated to the holy wisdom, it was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years, it was converted to a mosque by Mehmet the conqueror and then into a museum by Ataturk. An impressive building almost 1500 years old.

Across the way from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, aka the Sultanahmet mosque, which is intentionally very similar in design to the Hagia Sophia, but coloured, as the name suggests, blue instead of the Sophia's red. Its condition is a lot better than the Hagia Sophia, but it has the advantage of only being about 500 years old.

Next was the Basilica Cistern. This is a giant underground watertank built around the same time as the Hagia Sophia. It's cool and damp and the lighting is quite appropriate.

Vivacious Veliko Tarnovo and the Troublesome Train

Note: This is another big entry that covers a few places, so I'm going to split it up into several posts.

I'm now not only a few cities behind, I'm a country behind. I last wrote while on the way to Veliko Tarnovo, a small town in the centre of Bulgaria. The train ride was alright. There were some nice rock cuttings along the way my grandmother would have liked.

The main attraction of Veliko Tarnovo is an old fortress that is reasonably intact. There were also a few old churches around the place and a few monuments. On the Sunday I wandered around town taking in most of these sights. On Monday I lazed around the hostel and did a little shopping for supplies.

The guests who were there were an interesting mix. On the first night there was a pair of German cousins on a road trip, a British/Israeli woman who was buying a house in a nearby village and her sister and and an Australian and a Swede who had joined up somewhere and decided to travel together. On the second night there was a pair of Chinese people from Germany. The girl was obsessed with shoes and had bought so many pairs in Bulgaria she'd had to buy two new suitcases to take them back home (I think it was around the 40 pair mark). Her friend, who was not quite so keen on shoes, was named Shu.

The train to Istanbul got off to a rocky start. While I was waiting a guy came up to me and said he worked on a nearby archeological dig and showed me some Roman coins he offered to sell me for what was left of my Bulgarian money. It's just as well I didn't as when I got on board I got some bad news. The carriage my ticket was for had broken down and been left behind in Romania, and since the remaining sleeper car was run by the Turkish railways, the guard wouldn't just give me a berth on his carriage without paying for a reservation. This struck me as particularly rough since the carriage was reasonably empty and I ended up having the berth to myself.

Immigration was also a bit of a hassle. I had to pay for a visa and had checked before and found out that they would accept Turkish Lira, Euros and US dollars. I thought I would be fine as I had a bunch of US 100s left, but they wouldn't take it as they didn't have change. I managed to change one of the 100s into Euros at one of the duty free shops (the first I've seen since Korea) and all was well, but I was worried for a little while.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bloody Brasov and Swift Sofia

So at the moment I'm a town behind in writing down what I've done. This is mainly due to the short amount of time I spent in Sofia, about 31.5 hours. Last time I wrote I was on my way to Brasov. I was not alone on this trip. Derrick was a Canadian I met at the hostel in Bucharest and he was leaving for Brasov the same day I was so we went to Brasov together, so when I use we it's not because I've gone all hoity toity and am using the royal we.

The train from Bucharest to Brasov was very good, new rolling stock that was well appointed and even had numerous power outlets throughout the carriage, although I did not make use of them on the trip. We got to the hostel with little difficulty. On arrival we were sat down with a couple who arrived at the same time and made to fill out our booking information on paper (every other hostel has done that themselves on a computer) and received the sales pitch. First the lady who ran the hostel outlined the things to see in the area, then the tours they offered to see them all. The tours sounded ok, but a little rushed and a little pricey (40-45 Lei per person, not including entrance fees). After setting into the hostel, Derrick and I strolled around town to get a feel for the lay of the land.

The next day was the first bad weather I've encountered so far. It was raining/drizzling most of the day except when it was snowing. After it eased up around 11ish we went out walking around town to see things in the light of day and to go inside things. The Black Church was interesting and had a huge pipe organ, although not as big as the UQ one. We walked around in the drizzle for a few hours before calling it quits.

the next day was a beautiful day with barely a cloud in the sky. We caught a bus from Brasov to Bran (4 Lei) and got into Bran at 10:40 only to find the castle didn't open until midday, so we walked around for a while, but the town seemed pretty much consist of the castle, souvenir stands and pensiones. The castle was alright, but didn't live up to expectations. The attached collection of peasant houses was also underwhelming. After finishing up in Bran, we caught a bus to Rasnov (3 Lei). Here we visited Rasnov fortress, which was built by and used by the peasants of the town when attacked. It was a bit of a climb above the town though. Going up we walked up the road going up behind the fortress, as this was the only marked path. It was a pleasant walk in almost forest with some great views near the top. In fact the views from the fortress were amazing, snow capped mountains, the town, the plains, all amazing. At the highest point of the fortress you get a full 360 view which is amazing. The fortress is about 500 years old, and was neglected for a lot of the 20th century, but still intact and they are working to restore it.

To descend back to town we took the stairs from the front of the fortress, which took us down to a street we'd walked down on the way up. We looked, but there was absolutely no signs suggesting the stairs existed at the entrance of the building we walked through to get to the street.

We then caught another bus back to Brasov (2.5 Lei) where we took the cable car up the mountain right next to the town and saw there was more of Brasov on the other side of the mountain. We could also see the hostel from the top as it was close by and a bright purple in colour.

On Thursday (the 12th) we parted ways, Derrick headed to Sighisora while I made my way to Sofia via Bucharest. I had about a 7 hour wait in Bucharest so I left my bags at the station and went to an English bookstore I'd seen while walking around town. I bought a Sandman book and a book about the AK-47.

The train to Sofia was an overnighter, and I arrived at about 6:00 I walked to a hostel a few people had recommended, for the first time not booking ahead. This turned out not so great as they only had a bed for one night, whereas I had been planning to stay in Sofia for three nights before going to Istanbul.

During the day I walked around Sofia and took in a lot of the sights. During m walk I decided not to try and find another hostel in Sofia, but to go to Veliko Tornovo, a place a lot of people had recommended. I'm going to stay there two nights and catch the train to Istanbul from there Monday evening.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Really, why even bother pretending?

So North Korea just had an election. Not surprisingly, Kim Jong-Il got 100% of the vote, although surprisingly he was only running for what seems to be the equivalent of an MP. But getting 100% of the vote is pretty easy when there's only one pre-approved name on the ballot in each electorate, and everyone has to bow to a giant photo of you before casting their vote. The guys with guns probably discourage independent thinking on the matter as well.

I wonder why they even bother. This is simply a more expensive way of appointing a body and doesn't fool anyone into thinking this was a real election. Either put on a better show and make it look like you're trying to be democratic, or admit you're a tyranny and use the money you spent on the election on food for your people, or more likely a tank or two.

While I'm on the topic of North Korea, I don't believe this is really a communications satellite. The only people allowed to communicate in the country are the military, and the country's small enough you don't need to send something all the way into space to build something to provide decent coverage. They're doing it to show that they can launch something big a long way.

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Big in Bucharest

En route from Bucharest to Brasov which is about a three hour trip. The views are nice, we're going up into some mountains, the Carpathians I believe. It also looks like it was a good idea not to have posted my jacket to London yet as it's snowing outside. Maybe I'll post it from Sofia.

Bucharest had two highlights although one of them had nothing to do with Romania. The Romanian highlight was the Palace of the Parliament. This is the second largest building in the world (in terms of how much land it covers. I think tall buildings are generally more impressive than broad ones). It's about 170m on each side, a giant square with towers on each corner. The rooms inside are huge. There is a gallery that goes along the front of the building that is 150m long. Most rooms are very tall, some going up to 19m tall. No one is changing a light without a ladder here. The building has 3500 tons of crystal in the chandeliers, a fortune in gold leaf, a lot of the floors and walls are marble, and all the materials and labour came from Romania. This is the kind of structure you only get when you have a megalomaniac dictator running the country.

The other highlight was going to see Watchmen, which was fantastic. It stayed true to the book, but obviously they had to cut a lot of stuff, and the cuts they made left the main point intact, although they had to change the ending a bit as without all the stuff they cut it would have been a giant deus ex machina.

Another interesting thing in Bucharest was the history museum. They had a replica of Trajan's column, which I believe commemorates the Roman's conquest of what is now Romania. As it was indoors and they couldn't fit in vertically, they put all the sections in order around the walls so you could see them up close and follow the story, which I doubt I'll be able to do when I see the original.

I feel like I'm getting a bit blase with my sightseeing. I think that it's partly that I've been on the go for over a month, and partly that the last week and a bit have been in between places, the places en route between the cities I'm really excited about. I remember how excited I was when I arrived in Moscow, a feeling I didn't have in Kiev or Bucharest.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Living Large in Lviv

It was only while looking at the stamp I got in my passport today that I realized that today is one month from when I left Korea. And I've only just made it to the third country. I've entered the EU, but not yet entered the Schengen zone or the Eurozone. That will probably occur in about two weeks when I make it to Greece.

As has often happened in my life, I don't feel like I've done enough to fill up a month. Nine days (including today) have been spent on trains. Twelve in Russian cities and seven in Ukrainian cities. That adds up to twenty-eight.

I think I've kind of stuck within my budget on average. I had a few bumps with regards to taxis on this front, but should not repeat that as I've decided to avoid taxis and make sure I stay at places that give good direction and are close to public transport. I'm using a different website to book hostels which is a lot better than the first site for giving directions. Hostel World for those who want to know. I've used my credit card a lot to get local funds as it's usually been easier than exchanging the cash I have(at least in Russia. The Ukraine and Romania have exchange booths everywhere).I'm going to cut back on that as I have only three, maybe four more countries outside the Eurozone, so I will try and use up my US dollars in those countries, and cash in my travelers cheques when I hit Greece.

I'm on another train as I write this (no surprise there. I seem to pretty much just write these on the train). I have the carriage by myself at this point. There was an Italian couple on board, but they got off around lunch time. In fact, when the train arrived in Lviv, this carriage was not yet part of the train, which initially caused me some confusion as my ticket said I was in car 16 and the train only went up to car 8.

Lviv was a nice town with lots of old buildings. The town center was quite historic looking with lots of statues and churches and other stuff around. My first day I did a walking tour from the Lonely Planet which took in a few churches, a few vacant lots that were synagogues until WWII, Castle Hill which distinctly lacks a castle but does have a good view, a few museums that were closed that day (I tried to go into one, noticed the sign saying it was closed on Wednesdays, thought nothing of it as it was surely later in the week than Wednesday, got confused at the lack of anyone trying to sell me a ticket until one of the men I passed on the way in showed me the sign again, at which point I realized it was indeed Wednesday).

On Thursday I visited Lychakivskiy Cemetery which had many cool tombstones that I was unable to photograph as the battery in my camera died. After the cemetery I went back into town to visit some of the museums and the tower of the town hall. The museum I liked the most was the Arsenal, which as its name suggests has a display of weapons from all over the world including swords, axes, maces, crossbows, pistols, rifles and cannons.

My last four days in the Ukraine I have had dinner at the same chain of restaurants, which is a non all you can eat buffet. The food was good and cheap. I sort of liked the borscht. The soup was good but I'd leave the cabbage behind. I wonder if it's possible to make borscht without the cabbage.

The hostel in Lviv wasn't as good as the others I've stayed at. The building was old and the stairs were not level and it was a bit dank. The theme was good (it was called Kosmonaut and had pictures of Yuri Gagarin on the wall and a vampire Lenin). While I was there I was the only guest, so I had not only a room to myself but the whole place. It was OK, but I prefer the liveliness of the place I stayed in Kiev. Another plus for the Kosmonaut is that I got a free t-shirt from them.

I arrive in Bucharest tonight and will spend a few days there. Then I'll head north a bit to Brasov and do the Transylvania thing (If I'm lucky I'll get to stake a vamp or two, though I doubt it). Then I'll move south again to Sofia in Bulgaria (via Bucharest no doubt) and then onto Istanbul, the second on my "must see" list for this trip (the list includes Moscow, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris and London). Other places are on the "what's cool around or between those places" list. It will probably be about one and a half to two weeks before I arrive in Istanbul. I have a plan for what I'm going to do with my pictures from Istanbul, so look forward to that one.

Come On Catholics

This case from Brazil seems a little bit of overkill. An archbishop has excommunicated a group of people who helped a nine year old girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather get an abortion.

I think this is the sort of case almost everyone would agree on that the girl is in no way physically, mentally or emotionally ready to be a parent, and that to continue the pregnancy would be dangerous to the girl.

Frankly, if anyone should be excommunicated here, it's the stepfather who has acted in a despicable fashion

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Killing Time in Kiev

Once more I'm on a train from somewhere to somewhere. In this case from Kiev to Lviv (or Lvov or one of the many other forms I've seen). It's a daytime train because the overnight trains get into Lviv at around 4 in the morning, so instead I'm catching a daytime train which left Kiev at 11 and will arrive in Lviv at 9pm.

Lviv represents the first departure from the general plan. The plan was that after Kiev I'd go to Crimea and catch a ferry across the Black Sea. But the ferries are too flaky this time of year, so instead I'm going to go overland to Istanbul via Romania and Bulgaria.

Kiev was a nice city, although I prefer Moscow and St Petersburg. For the first time the lingua franca in the hostel was English rather than Russian, although I was one of the few who only spoke English. Without more information my hypothesis is that the common language seems to be that of the people who run the place.

Last Wednesday I got to Moscow around 9pm, caught a taxi to Kievskii station, got a bite to eat and sat around until 11:23 when the train left. I got told off by security for taking photos of some of the decorations of the station. I went to sleep soon after the train departed and would have had a good nights sleep if it weren't for being woken up by customs at about 3 or 4 in the morning. They were a bit concerned about my visa since I've got two, one of which is canceled because the embassy made two mistakes on it. In the end though, all was well and they let me into the country.

I slept lightly for another few hours before arriving in Kiev. I walked to the hostel and although I missed the turnoff (the hotel given as a landmark did not show it's name all that well to someone coming from the direction I was) but realized my mistake a block or two further and found my way in the end.

The hostel is run by a British guy named Marcus who is a bit of a wheeler dealer in the Ukraine hostel business and extolled the opportunities out there for someone with a bit of cash to set something up. The hostel was alright, my only complaint being that the base of the bed was made up of planks that just covered the width of the bed and with a sudden movement one or two might fall off.

My first afternoon I walked past the National Theater, the Golden Gate (the rebuilt gate of the old city walls), the grounds of St Sofia cathedral (the buildings were closed Thursdays), St Micheal's Monastery, St Andrew's and then down St Andrew's descent, an old cobblestone road lined with guys selling souvenirs. The ones which really caught my eye, although not for reasons that would make me purchase somethings, were the stands selling tin soldiers. Russia had some exceptional tin soldiers with exquisite detail, but Kiev not so much. The stands in Kiev would have a few large models around 7-10cm tall, and then a lot of small ones around 28mm tall. How am I so sure of that height? Well, the first stall I looked at I started to look at some goblin like creatures on squares bases that kind of looked familiar. Next to them were some elves that looked quite Tolkeinish with a lot more detail on them. The I saw a futuristic soldier in big bulky armour carrying a massive laser gun. These were in fact Warhammer models given a quick once over with some metallic spray paint and being sold for about 100 hrivnias, or about AU$20. Last time I checked you'd have got two for about AU$18, so no the best souvenir.

So far I have bought three souvenirs. Two have been t shirts, as I figure I can wear them as I go and it's a practical investment. The other is an old badge from the KGB (probably a replica, but cool none-the-less).

For dinner on Thursday I went out with a group from the hostel to a place referred to as both the hospital and the doctor bar. It was a bar/restaurant with a medical theme. The waitresses wore nurse outfits (with varying amounts of clothing underneath), the bartenders wore scrubs, they served some drinks in test tubes, they had a padded room, etc. It was reasonably priced and the food was good.

On Friday I visited the caves monastery, an old orthodox church complex that included a set of catacombs with the preserved remains of a bunch of guys and people would go down there to pray. After the monastery I went to the WWII memorial, which features a 62m tall woman holding up a sword and shield, a collection of old tanks, jets, artillery and other military hardware, and two museums (one for WWII, the other post WWII). Reasonably interesting, but not much English.

On Saturday I took a walk along the main street downtown and then up to St Sofia again to check out the inside and the bell tower. The inside of St Sofia was very good, as they left some parts unrestored so you could see the effects of time. Overall, a nice cathedral. I also saw a poster for Watchmen, which is coming out in the Ukraine on the 5th.

On Sunday, I went to the natural history museum, which was pretty good. They had a lot of dioramas that were well produced, a hut built of mammoth tusks and jaws, a collection of live reptiles and insects, some whale skeletons and much more.

On Monday I went with a group from the hostel to the Chornobyl museum, and we were lucky enough to arrive there just as an English tour was beginning. It was actually a private tour three people had paid for, but they didn't mind people following along and joining the tour. Over the course of the tour people accumulated in the group. It was not as sad as the Hiroshima museum since it was an accident rather than a deliberate act and nowhere near as destructive, but it is still a tragedy.

After the Chornobyl museum we went to a folk village where traditional houses, windmills, churches and other structures are preserved. The wooden churches have a strong smell of timber when you're inside them (not surprising) which really gave them a very different feel to the stone cathedrals I've mostly visited.

That evening I tried to but some train tickets. I managed to get my ticket for Lviv, but my onward ticket was more frustrating. I had to go to a different ticket stand at the other end of the station, which was behind a set of doors with very little signage (after days of visiting museums and such, I know the words that go on the places that sell tickets). I found the stand and the lady couldn't read the note I'd had written in Ukranian by a local working at the hostel. The ticket lady thought I wanted a ticket from Kiev to Sofia, instead of Lviv to Sofia, and as there's no train from Kiev to Sofia, wouldn't sell me one. I double checked with information I'd gone to the right ticket stand, and went back. I got in line behind the man who was being served and a few minutes later a man got in line behind me and asked if he could go before me. As I was a bit frustrated at this point I said no and continued waiting. When the man in front of me finished the man asked again, and again I said no and tried to communicate with the ticket I wanted. At this point the man stated talking to the ticket lady in Ukranian (or Russia, I can't really say which), and when she started serving him instead of me I gave up and left. (Regarding the man's actions, I think if you're in a hurry you could ask once, but if the person says no you should leave it at that. Don't keep pestering, and don't barge in front. The ticket lady was even worse, as she should not have served him.)

It is for the best though that those two vexed me. I had gotten the order of Romania and Bulgaria mixed up, and didn't actually want a ticket to Sofia, so fate saved me a big hassle by giving me a small one.