A Travellerspoint blog

A Spice For All Senses - Istanbul

sunny

I guess every traveller is searching for something. Inspiration, enlightenment, knowledge, self discovery, there could be any number of things. I myself don’t know exactly what I am looking for, probably a mixture of all those things, but in any case they would each come from experiences, which is what travelling is about. For me, I love the moments in life which seem to activate all the senses, the ones where the body seems to buzz in a sensory overload. It somehow makes me feel alive and connected to my surroundings. Normally, these moments are rare, fleeting events. In Istanbul, they are a way of life.

We could feel it as soon as we got off the plane. The place had an energy to it. As we sat on the coach from the airport it seemed to whisper promises of grandeur, building the excitement within. As we approached the city it became evident we were in a different place. Driving through the crazy traffic we passed on one side an eclectic mix of houses clinging precariously to the hillside, and on the other, the glistening sheet of the open sea, reflecting elegantly the reds and pinks of the dusk sky. And scattered across the water, a large number of freight boats sat idly, anchored in the current they all lay facing the one on, as though locked in spiritual prayer.

Slowly the hills opened up to reveal the city landscape. Spreading far and wide the evidence of an ever expanding populace. Both my wonder and excitement grew at seeing the signatures of the city, the towers of the mosques shooting into the heavens. And they were everywhere. In groups of four they littered the scenery, lit up brightly against the darkening night sky. To me these seemed almost magical and ancient, remains of an Empire long gone, but worshipped by a culture that is very much still in practice. And as we continued, the city immediately doubled, separated by the Bosphorous River leading out to sea, and it became clear as to why this city has played such an important role in history and why the rulers of the past identified its value. It is the place east meets west. A fortress on the sea, where Asian and Europe embrace to coexist, if not merge into something unique. This would be where Mel and I got the first real taste of the exotic, and we were hooked.

When we arrived we went to meet our CouchSurfing host at Taksim Square, which is the commercial hub of the city and also start of the main nightlife strip. His name was Okan and he was a young twenty something Uni student studying civil engineering. We headed to his flat in amongst a bustling residential area, dropped our bags off and then went immediately back into the roar of city life. Okan had invited us to his friends 21st party, so along with a few of his other buddies, who were also in town, we headed to this awesome little student bar. I've said it before, but there is no way we would've found this place without CouchSurfing. The entrance was nestled down this little alley, and looked like the front of an apartment block, in fact two floors up and I was convinced we were going to a house party. But then the whole place opened up into a loft style bar with incredible views of the city. I wish we had brought the camera, but we don’t like taking it out the first time we meet new people. Anyway, we drank and met new friends and had a great night.

We got up the next day and were ready to hit the town. One of the cooler friends we met the night before, Furkan, offered his services as a guide. We accepted, although I somehow feel we really didn’t have an option, but it worked out great anyway. He took us to breakfast, where our love affair with Turkish tea Chay, and Simit blossomed. We took a stroll through the main shopping and nightlife street which was really interesting, a little touristy but the architecture and people watching was good. The road snaked downhill until we eventually came to Galata Tower, an old cylindrical structure of large stones and a medieval presence.

Galata_Tower.jpglarge_Galata_Tower4.jpg

Unlike most old towers in Europe, this one had the convenience of a lift, which we used with the graceful agility of a senior citizen, ascending to the top. Well, breathtaking sounds like a cliché, but the view from the top was truly that. What an incredible and amazing city scape. From the 360 degree viewpoint, we marvelled at every aspect of the town, from the thousands of structures clinging on the the steep hills, the seemingly excessive number of mosques, ancient structures and new skyscapers, the islands, the golden horn, the lush blue waterways and the plethora of ships that lazed about on its surface. What really set the mood too, was blaring out of the mosques tower speakers was a native prayer, signalling the museum ritual. The city was definitely alive. Every sound, every detail, everywhere we looked we found something that just blew us away. Dumbfounded, we just kept saying wow to each other. I could’ve stayed there all day.

large_Galata_Tower2.jpgGalata_Tower6.jpglarge_Galata_Tower7.jpgGalata_Tower8.jpgGalata_Tower3.jpg

After we descended the tower we continued along south toward the water, and met another one of Furkans friends, Ayca, on the main bridge. She was very nice, and agreed to help take us to main sites, giving a local residents perspective. Our first stop was Tokapi Palace, the large residence and fortification of the old emperors and kings of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Through the museum of largely Ottoman extravagance we strolled, admiring works of art, clothing and treasures, and of course the weapons and armour which sliced their way through anyone opposing the Empires expansion. They were all very interesting and unique, again taking influences from both Europe and Asia and creating their own flare. Plus its worth mentioning that the view from several points in the palace was amazing. Its positioned in such a way that it sees anyone coming in and out of the city for miles away, both land and sea, so that's pretty spectacular.

Tokapi_Palace.jpgTokapi_Palace2.jpglarge_Tokapi_Palace3.jpgTokapi_Palace4.jpgTokapi_Palace5.jpgTokapi_Palace6.jpglarge_Tokapi_Palace7.jpgTokapi_Palace8.jpglarge_Tokapi_Palace10.jpgTokapi_Palace9.jpg

The next stop was the Cistern. This was an ancient underground reservoir for old times past, once used to house water it now houses the ooh and ahhs of bewildered tourists. If I tell its just rows of columns underground with some water in it, it doesn't sound too flash, but it did command a sort of reverence normally reserved for the more spiritual places, so it was kind of strange.

large_Cistern3.jpglarge_Cistern.jpgCistern2.jpglarge_Cistern4.jpg

Now, I don’t really know how to explain the next sight. But, if you think on the tower, when we were amazed at looking down at the beauty and wonder of the landscape and the movement of the entity that is Istanbul, well that was great, one of the best panoramas I seen, but this was somehow better. Standing in the middle of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque I was frozen in wonderment. The power of these places was all encompassing, towering high into the heavens the structures appear themselves to be god like, personifying that which its purpose is to worship. Not that they are staggering high, they are just truly beautiful works of man that are both elegant and confronting. The spikes shoot into the sky guiding the domes, the walls high and binding. There is something terrestrial about it, but the realisation that it is human makes it more astonishing, that man can spend so much time and money and passion and create something so beautiful. Putting aside my own feeling on religious beliefs, I find it hard not to admire such creations, as art is art whatever the purpose its made for, and every time I passed these two, the Blue Mosque in particular, I would inevitably have to just stop for a moment and soak it all in, feeling as moved each time as I did the first.

large_Blue_Mosque13.jpgBlue_Mosque.jpgBlue_Mosque2.jpgBlue_Mosque3.jpglarge_Blue_Mosque4.jpgBlue_Mosque5.jpgBlue_Mosque6.jpglarge_Blue_Mosque9.jpgBlue_Mosque7.jpgBlue_Mosque10.jpgBlue_Mosque11.jpg

We did end up going into the Blue Mosque. The interior was quite decadent, but then seeing the people praying and the shameless segregation of the sexes that accompanied the custom reminded me not about mans magnificence, but in fact its absolute opposite. Of course, I did so in the most respectful of ways and valued the opportunity to see such rituals, they always just seem to somehow wound me internally.

large_Blue_Mosque_Interior.jpgBlue_Mosque_Interior2.jpgBlue_Mosque_Interior3.jpgBlue_Mosque_Interior4.jpgBlue_Mosque_Interior5.jpglarge_Blue_Mosque_Interior6.jpg

If only wonder and amazement could sustain the body. Alas, we had to eat, and by that stage we had met back up with some of the boys and we all went to get a kebab and yoghurt drink, a local speciality, which was pretty delicious, after which we took a stroll towards the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar was a great experience. Yes its noisy and cramped and you get lost and the energy is buzzing and there is nice architecture and that's the cool thing about it, but really it was a bit soulless. The stuff they sold was pretty much tourist junk, and it was all lumped together, so all the carpet places were next to each other etc there wasn’t this scattered variety that I would’ve thought. I didn’t like it too much. The food and spice market down by the water was much better.

large_Grand_Bazaar.jpgGrand_Bazaar2.jpgGrand_Bazaar3.jpgGrand_Bazaar4.jpgGrand_Bazaar5.jpgGrand_Bazaar6.jpg

Okan followed up the Bazaar with a trip through the University area, which had been designed as a bit of a town within the town. It was different again and something we probably wouldn't have noticed without him.

Uni.jpg

We went to another restaurant were the guys had some beans and rice and more tea and then headed to a funky joint to try some water pipe. The place was an awesome loft style space that again overlooked the sea and the port. With the excellent views we chilled out with some apple tobacco and our Nargiles and sipped tea and coffee into the night. It also started storming too, which just upped the craziness of the landscape with flashes of lightning and booms of thunder.

large_Pipe_views.jpgPipe_views2.jpgPipe_views3.jpgPipe_views4.jpgPipe_views5.jpgPipe_views6.jpgPipe_views7.jpgPipe_views8.jpgFurkan.jpg

The night ended with a scary arse taxi ride which involved 6 of us cramming into the small cab and some fear for my life driving. It wasn’t cool.

The next day we said goodbye to Okan as we booked a hostel for the next two nights and headed into the city. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. We dropped our bags off and explored the cities back streets. This is definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and we do it in every city we travel, where we have a rough idea where we want to go and just try and get lost getting there. If we see an interesting looking lane, or some pretty alleyway, we'll just go down it. Of course if its got bad juju we wont, but we really try not to think and just wander. In Istanbul, this presents so many surprises.

We stumbled upon markets, ruined buildings, local playgrounds, gatherings of old men drinking tea (although that's everywhere).

Istanbul_streets.jpgIstanbul_streets2.jpglarge_Istanbul_streets3.jpgIstanbul_streets4.jpglarge_Istanbul_streets5.jpg

We ended up up making our way to the spice markets near the water, and they were amazing. Everything you picture a crazy Turkish spice market to be, this was it. First off, the people was a crush. Hundreds of locals and visitors crawled slowly, almost as one, through narrow passageways, being yelled out and lured in by the stalls vendors touting their goods. Old women would barge past, able to slip through like children due to their shrunken size. And the product that was on display was incredible too. Every spice imaginable was heaped in barrels, their colours vibrant and their aromas powerful. Sweet stalls were plenty and plentiful, I sampled a few Turkish delights, but due to Mel's nut allergy we steered well clear of the ominous nut filled creations which were everywhere. Its a good thing too because I would've eaten everything. Continuing through the aisles we marvelled at jewellery, fabrics, carpets, glassware and all kinds of food, from fresh fish to fruits and vegetables. It really was an awesome place. I think I wore a massive smile on my face the whole time, intoxicated with the scents, sights and sounds of this exotic wonderland.

large_Spice_Market.jpglarge_Spice_Market2.jpglarge_Spice_Market3.jpgSpice_Market4.jpgSpice_Market6.jpglarge_Spice_Market5.jpgSpice_Market7.jpgSpice_Market8.jpgSpice_Market9.jpglarge_Spice_Market10.jpg

Next up we decided to take a walk back to our area, but the long way around, hoping to pass through the main residential parts. It didn’t really take to long get out of the main crush and into a more urban district. We cruised through some residential areas on the outskirts of the main tourist district. One of the highlights was passing through a local park, where all the locals gathered to enjoy the sun, play, hang out and chill. We did get a few strange looks, either thinking we were lost or just startled that we were there, but it never felt unwelcoming. In fact for the most part all the Turkish people seemed very sweet and hospitable, and it was great to see the sense of community with which they live their lives. Everyone seemed to know and support each other, which was pretty strange when you consider Istanbuls size and population.

When we arrived back around the Blue Mosque where we were staying, after pausing in divine admiration of course, we decided to head around the back of it. Enticed by a few markets stalls where we picked up some scarves and other bits and pieces, Mel giggled like a little girl and was beaming at her exquisite haggling skills, we looked at some big MC Hammer pants for us, and worked our way around the side, following the streets we felt good about. Directly behind the Mosque was a little district of Hotels, ushering bus loads of Asian tourists in and out. The few little shops scattered around reflected its clientele. Passing this area we continued to choose alleyways and lanes with interesting architecture, passing beautiful houses, a school play area, and more locals looking at us with puzzled brows. Again, our wandering paid off with various surprises popping up around each corner. The next was a little intersection with an oval garden in the middle that acted as a square, with local shops and cafes populated by the residents, passing each other and chatting and laughing, and the whole place had a really sweet vibe about it. It even housed a photography gallery that we really wanted to see but it was closed.

The_hood.jpgThe_hood2.jpglarge_The_hood3.jpgThe_hood4.jpglarge_The_hood5.jpgThe_hood6.jpgThe_hood7.jpgThe_hood8.jpg

On from there we found ourselves weaving through some pretty plain housing blocks and empty cold streets, when suddenly it opened up again into this crazy assembly of restaurants and dining options. Crammed with potential customers and the net casting ushers that tried to snare them, this area was pulsing. Well dressed tourist and Turks alike waded through the mind boggling amount of choice, as flocks of hungry seagulls imitated from above.

large_The_hood10.jpglarge_The_hood9.jpg

Getting a little lost and overwhelmed we looked for a way out, when unexpectedly we saw the ocean at the end of a street. Following the horizon we ended up along a rocky shoreline, amongst a party atmosphere of local kids and families enjoying barbecues and drinks and each others company. There were local vendors selling their wares, and weird shooting games set up on the rocks, the targets being glass bottles and balloons. By this time too the sun was setting, giving a lush red hue backdrop to the fisherman and boats that dotted the shore. Again, there was this really nice feeling about everything, relaxing yet entertaining, people laughing and chilling. It was really a fantastic change of pace from the tribal jungle of Istanbuls centre.

large_The_waterfront.jpgThe_waterfront2.jpglarge_The_waterfront3.jpgThe_waterfront4.jpg

With the light fading quickly and us not really knowing our way home, we decided to head back. Luckily the Blue Mosques pillars exploded from the skyline like a hand shooting out from under the water, and we used this as our guide. It was a particularly beautiful guide too, as at night, all the towers are illuminated, setting a powerful image against the darkness, accentuated by the hundreds of birds circling its peaks. Closer to home we stopped for a coffee just underneath it, it was pretty special.

large_Around_the_Mosque.jpgAround_the_Mosque2.jpgAround_the_Mosque3.jpgAround_the_Mosque4.jpglarge_Around_the_Mosque5.jpgAround_the_Mosque6.jpgAround_the_Mosque7.jpg

After a terrible nights sleep in a shitty hostel bed, we creaked out into the wide open world, to be woken once again by Istanbuls brilliance. The first stop today was inside Hagia Sopiha, the gorgeous old cathedral turned mosque turned museum. Fortunately the hordes of other sightseers couldn’t detract any of this ancient structures magnificence, and we roamed around inside marvelling at every column and arch and detail of its interior. The whole thing was a work of art.

large_Hagia_Sophia.jpgHagia_Sophia2.jpglarge_Hagia_Sophia3.jpgHagia_Sophia4.jpglarge_Hagia_Sophia5.jpgHagia_Sophia6.jpgHagia_Sophia7.jpgHagia_Sophia8.jpgHagia_Sophia9.jpgHagia_Sophia10.jpgHagia_Sophia11.jpgHagia_Sophia12.jpgHagia_Sophia13.jpglarge_Hagia_Sophia14.jpglarge_Hagia_Sophia15.jpgHagia_Sophia16.jpglarge_Hagia_Sophia17.jpg

Speaking of works of art, I have to admit that I do on occasion enjoy video games. Not all them, mainly one particular franchise that I think is artistically brilliant, and that's Assassins Creed. The latest game of which is set in ancient Istanbul, and its creators painstakingly recreated the city based on modern structure. What this meant was that the places we had been were instantly recognisable as I had experienced them already in the virtual reality setting. Hagia Sophia was no different, so I was swimming somewhat in nerd utopia. Now I'm a little embarrassed to admit the next part, but in the haze of excitement and disbelief, and the feeling as if I were in a dream already, I probably did the nerdiest thing I have done in my life. I threw on a hood imitating the games protagonist while Mel took pictures. I know, I'm not proud of it. But it happened.

Ezio.jpgEzio2.jpg

Back over at the Galata side, we took the opportunity to explore the districts back streets. The area is set out as a natural hill working up from the water, so we decided to cross the bridge, walk up via the main strip and check out the shops and buzz, and make our way down through the side alleys. It worked out well. The main strip was swarming with people, shopping, sightseeing and even a few student demonstrations. We noticed a bunch of locals going into this seedy looking shop so had a look and it opened up into this big warehouse of super cheap clothes. As we were coming up on two months of being stinky travellers, we purchased a few t-shirts. I know its lame, but the sensation of wearing a new shirt after wearing the same old three you have everyday for two months, is quiet refreshing.

Once we had enough of the crush we darted into one of the lane ways and headed back downhill. This was really cool, as unexpectedly this area we walked into was full of small boutique shops, with custom made jewellery, clothes, and food stores. There were vintage stores, and funky shoe shops and studio/galleries for local artists. Plus it had a great view down to the water.

Side_streets.jpgSide_streets2.jpgSide_streets3.jpgSide_streets4.jpgSide_streets5.jpgSide_streets6.jpgSide_streets8.jpg

By the time we hit the water we were pretty tired. It was a really sunny day and the heat was getting to us, and the scenery became that of a few abandoned warehouses which weren't enough to spark the excitement needed to push through it. But luckily a turn around a corner revealed the seaside once again, packed with restaurants and boats and fisherman, and something about how the water glistened was very uplifting.

large_Side_streets7.jpg

We stayed up that night trying to organise the next part of our travels, but weren't having much luck. Every route or idea we had failed and it felt like we were hitting a brick wall. The best we did was end up accepting the help, reluctantly, of the shady guy who worked at the hostel. And shady he was, as the next day he sent us to pick up some overnight bus tickets miles away, and when we got there they said they had no idea what we were talking about. Luckily no money was exchanged, but we were planning to leave that night, so a frantic scramble ensued, but in the end we managed to get at least another overnight bus. Funnily though, as we were walking back to the hostel, stressing a little about the next very destinations, we passed a travel agent across the road with a guy outside, who said he could help us with bus tickets. Well once we walked in, we met a smooth talking Turkish man who made all our worries go away. Now normally I'm not a fan of travel agents, and we don’t use them, but this guy seriously helped us work out the best way for us to travel during the next week or so and seemed pretty genuine. Having stayed up the night before exploring all the options, I had a good idea of pricing and he didn’t even try and rip us off, which was nice.

Well sadly we then had to leave Istanbul. We picked up our bags and thanked the hostel guys for being a conniving little shit, and made our way to the unpleasantness that is Turkeys overnight bus system. And it was really sad. Istanbul really is a place of wonderment. It's landscape and scenery is breathtaking, its mosques are majestic, the sounds and smells are truly intoxicating, and the way the people travel through their lives in this chaotic, crazy yet respectful way is really an experience to behold. We loved it. It's one of those cities were you don’t just pass through as if on some travelator in a museum, you dive right in. Like a pool of culture you get immersed in it, you have no choice but to. As you swim within its current it flows around you and through you. Twirling and spinning in its rapids its energy crashes and tosses you around, threatening to suffocate you at times, but if you go with it, at most it just goes up your nose. And that's when you find yourself coughing, with your eyes stinging and you muscles sore, drenched from head to toe, laughing at the beauty of it all, and wanting to do it all again.

large_Chilling.jpgChilling2.jpg

Posted by Clayton30 04:49 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey istanbul europe 2012 Comments (0)

A Piece Of Coal In The Wilderness - Moscow

semi-overcast

So, for our whole trip up until Russia, we had either planned ourselves or made up on the fly all the details ie accommodation and transport. But in Russia, that soviet power trip very much remains, and their need to know what everyone is doing at all times. This becomes especially evident when applying for a visa. After exploring the options, we decided to just book that particular leg of the trip through a travel agent, and to apply for a visa you need to show evidence of where you are staying, how you are travelling around and everything else, as well as needing a letter of invitation. So we gave a chunk of money to our travel agent and without a fuss received back plane tickets in and out or Russia, train tickets within the country, details of accommodation for each night, and of course our visas. It all seemed really simple. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

I wont go into too much detail, but basically the Russian transport department didn’t acknowledge our Australian issued tickets. The outcome of which involved fairly heated exchanges on five or so occasions spanning two days, getting into massive arguments with staff, having windows slammed in our face, things thrown at us, armed guards circling our back, and altogether being treated with the uttermost disrespect, incredible rudeness and borderline cruelty. At one point we found ourselves stranded at some backwater, run down, station in the middle of the wilderness at 3am. And when I say station, it was a concrete slab in the clearing of the trees that acted as a platform for some rusted rail lines that went through it, and housed a rusted abandoned carriage as a decoration. It was straight out of a horror film. Anyway, we only made it to Moscow after the Russian staff had extorted a large amount of money out of us, and even then it seemed begrudgingly, as if they'd rather us freeze and die. The whole experience was incredibly stressful to say the least, and the utter unwillingness to help someone in need is now disappointingly how I remember our time in Russia.

When we finally arrived in Moscow, things didn’t get much better. Although one of the train rides to there was incredible. It was from Novgorod to St Petersburg (long story) and the train itself should have been in a museum. It was old and smelly and felt like you were riding a washing machine. But, the people on it were great to watch. It was packed with working class commuters, and locals, some were drunk, some were loud, some were quiet. Several would hide whenever the ticket person came through. At every train station, and there were many, the train would stop for five minutes, as every passenger would hop off the train, smoke a cigarette on the platform, and then hop back on and we were off again. People would travel through the train with garbage bags full of chips and sodas trying to sell through the carriages, obviously poor and trying to scrape a few rubles. And the scenery was amazing. We passed steaming swamps, burnt out farms and naked forests, through communities surviving in the poorest of conditions, run down housing complexes, people huddled for warmth, groups of children running and playing along the train tracks as we passed. Packs of wild dogs littered the streets which also acted as graveyards for old industrial equipment and unfinished construction. In fact everywhere were indications of an old thriving industrial age, but now only abandoned and desecrated remnants remain. The exception was closer to the city, where humongous active chimneys bellowed startling amounts of toxic fumes into the sky, causing streaks of greens and purple through the orange dusk sky. It was really quite beautiful. It was one of those trips that I wish I could do slowly with a camera, as there were just amazing shots everywhere.

Well, when we had finally hit Moscow, after the shittest 36 hours ever, we were pretty exhausted. We hadn’t slept the past two nights, and dealing with the authorities just made me want to get out of the country. What also added to it, was that our hotel was in the outskirts of the city, and we had to pass through a series of scary housing projects to get to it, the type that its a good night if you only get shot at once. What we soon found out too, was that our exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm, and waning tolerance for people, was completely overshadowed by the dark, haunting, soulless figures that formed Moscow populace. I have never witnessed such a collection of lifeless, bitter creatures, who's insides seems to have been sucked out along with any sense of compassion, respect, kindness or even regard for their fellow human beings. These shells of bitterness hurried along the streets and subways with an eternal scowl on their face. Everyone that passed us would look us up and down and offer us expressions of vial contempt, as if they could sense the presence of a soul in their evil shadow world and the light was blinding their eyes. Everywhere there were men in dark suits sitting in shiny black cars watching everyone's moves, making the odd call on a radio device. At times I'm sure we were followed. It was truly a city of the cold and pretentious.

We did try and make the most of it though, and enjoy our own company. Luckily, the city had a few redeeming factors, none for which I would ever come back for, but they helped us have a bit of fun along the way. In no particular order,

-The Metro system. Yes, everyone says how beautiful the stations are, that they are works of arts gifted from Stalin to the city. But they are just ok. The real highlight is the people, the phenomenal amount of people that push and barge through it all day. Apparently more commuters each year than London and New York combined. Its absolute insanity. I'll never forget the destruction caused by one old lady just doing her thing to get the train, throwing elbows and shoulders and smashing anything that got in her way. She wasn’t alone either. I've been on trains in Japan in peak hour and have seen how mutual respect can make a crowded situation flow with a certain calm, but here, mutual disrespect produces this circus of hatred that is in many ways entertaining.

-I Love Cake. Yes I do, but actually this was a cafe we found in the back streets, in one of those residential artsy areas. It had phenomenal tasting cakes, a really cool interior, and were really helpful with Mel's nut allergy. They helped her decided on a gargantuan blueberry and raspberry chocolate cake, which I was certain, and somewhat looking forward to helping her finish. Lets just say I didn’t get the chance. Everything there looked amazing though, if I could I would've just spent the whole time there.

I_love_cake.jpglarge_I_love_cake2.jpgI_love_cake3.jpg

-Architecture. Ok, some of the buildings were cool. There were enough different styles to keep us amused, and a few weird ones at that.

large_Moscow_streets.jpgMoscow_streets2.jpgMoscow_streets3.jpgMoscow_streets4.jpgMoscow_streets5.jpgMoscow_streets6.jpglarge_Moscow_streets7.jpgMoscow_streets8.jpgMoscow_streets9.jpgMoscow_streets10.jpgMoscow_streets11.jpgMoscow_streets12.jpgMoscow_streets13.jpgMoscow_streets14.jpg

-Red Square. Unlike the Kremlin, which was shit, Red Square was pretty interesting. The combination of the building, monuments and collective history gave it a much better vibe than the rest of the city. But thinking about it now, maybe it was because there were more tourists than Moscow locals there.

Red_Square.jpglarge_Red_Square2.jpgRed_Square3.jpglarge_Red_Square4.jpgRed_Square5.jpgRed_Square6.jpgRed_Square7.jpgRed_Square8.jpglarge_Red_Square9.jpgRed_Square10.jpgRed_Square11.jpgRed_Square12.jpg

-Two diamonds amongst millions of lumps of coal. These were two people we met in Moscow that we actually liked. The first was Marie, who was a friend of our CouchSurfing host in Vienna, Masha. Masha had somehow foreseen our troubles in the city, and asked Marie if she could help us out or meet for a coffee or something. Well Marie contacted us and we all spent a nice night out having dinner at a sushi restaurant, seeing some awesome street performers and going for a cool walk and taking in the city by night, ending up in a nice little sculpture park.

Moscow_by_night3.jpglarge_Moscow_by_night.jpgMoscow_by_night2.jpglarge_Moscow_by_night4.jpgMoscow_by_night5.jpgMoscow_by_night6.jpglarge_Moscow_by_night7.jpgMoscow_by_night8.jpgMoscow_by_night9.jpgMoscow_by_night10.jpglarge_Moscow_by_night11.jpgMoscow_by_night12.jpg

The other one we met was Kate. Kate was a CouchSurfer as well, a Moscow local, who had earlier in the year travelled through Sydney for a month and loved it. She had seen that we were in town, and sent us an email offering to take us out for a drink. We happily accepted, and were glad we did because she was bubbly and excitable and really beamed with life, and had a great grasp on the Australian language with which she used with to our delight. We spent the night at her favourite bar, which was around the corner from her Uni, where she was actually sitting a big test for the next day, but she still made time to hang out with us.

Street_art.jpgStreet_art2.jpgStreet_art3.jpg

So a few highlights, but mostly lowlights from our time in Moscow. I admit that we only stayed three nights there, and I didn’t know the language (I did try my best), but compared to the other cities we have been along the way, you suck Moscow. I hope to never see you again.

Posted by Clayton30 13:38 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow europe russia 2012 Comments (0)

A Rose In The Wilderness - St Petersburg

semi-overcast

The Venice of the North, the European Russia, St Petersburg seems to get many labels. To us it would be our favourite place on our Russian leg of the tour, and one of the beautiful cities we have seen in Europe to date. There is something about the architecture, the history, the lifestyle that seem to give it both a comfortable familiarity and decisive uniqueness. In many ways it was a city who's charm was ingrained within the continual contradiction of which it existed in. It proudly displayed an old and full history while leading a cultural surge into the future, its streets were filthy yet housed pieces of great beauty, being both ancient and modern, its people hurried along on their way, yet would stop to offer assistance and a smile, presenting themselves immaculately while also displaying signs of economical hardships, drivers flew around the streets like children on red cordial yet somehow respected each other and made it work, and the women were absolutely stunning while the men were... not so much. These little differences all seemed to coexist and form the melting pot that is the city. From unspoken subtlety to almost comical blatancy these contradictions created the magnificence of a rose blossoming after a cold communist winter, but one which would always keep a few thorns.

In many ways this post is going to maintain a similar theme. I have already said it was one of our favourite places, yet due to time restraints, I don’t feel like I will be able to write about it at the length it deserves, or with the descriptive approach I would love to take. Instead I'm going to have to just give you a few (hopefully brief) highlights.

-Getting there. This was a highlight for a few reasons. First of all, we were scared of Russian immigration, so arrived at Polands Warsaw Airport four hours before of flight. So relieved to pass customs, we sat and had a coffee, forgetting completely about the other passport control outside our gate, which saw us sprinting through the airport and getting shuttled out to the runway in order to get on the plane after final call. Arriving miraculously then at the baron wasteland that is St Petes airport, we were then delayed by passport control who weren't convinced that I was the man holding the passport. Admittedly my photo is a good 9-10 years old, from a time where I sported gelled up hair, crazy striped facial hair, braces, and a somewhat youthful exuberance, a far cry from the age beaten, beard-faced, balding and exhausted old man they saw in front of them. But nowhere else have I had a problem, but we made it.
The shuttle from the airport into town should’ve had the MTV's Jackass logo painted on the side with Johnny Knoxville greeting us with a “Hi, I'm Johnny Knoxville, and this is Russian Death Ride”. It was a banged up little van with a door which was barely hanging on, a windshield that was so cracked and smashed you couldn’t see through it and who's driver had no regard for for the safety of any living or inanimate object on the planet. I think I died a thousand deaths on that trip, surely to the hilarity of the native passengers who sat there docile and seemingly at peace with their future introduction to the grill of the the oncoming trucks. The only consolidating factor was seeing the dilapidated cold grey housing projects we passed on the way, seeing the level of poverty and oppression that still existed just outside the cities walls, and getting numerous offers of assistance from every English speaking passenger that came on. One lady even got off at our stop, and flagged down the next bus that went to our hotel, pushing us into the crowds in the most helpful of ways.
Thankful for our lives and somehow finding our hotel in the middle of a construction site, the reception didn’t have a record of us staying there, but seeing some sort of reservation, just sent us to their flagship hotel instead, which was a much better establishment, right in the centre, and a massive upgrade at no extra cost. It all felt a bit dodgy but we didn’t care.

-Crossing the street. We realised quickly that like getting into a shuttle van, to cross the road you just have to take your life in your hands, step out into the traffic and hope for the best. It was the Russian way.

-Walking around on the first day. As we normally do the first day, we took to the streets and just got a feel for the city. Every building was amazing, there was something incredible everywhere you looked, from chiselled artistry to a detailed statue to remaining bombs shell holes. It was a bit chilly, but the fact that every time we turned a corner there would be something that would rival most cities main attraction, was enough to help us soldier on.

large_Streets3.jpgStreets.jpgStreets2.jpgStreets4.jpgStreets5.jpgStreets6.jpgStreets7.jpgStreets8.jpglarge_Streets9.jpg

-Speaking of soldiers, the cities Military Presence. This was a bit of a strange one. There were military uniformed people all the time in the streets, but they weren't patrolling anything, just computing like any other pedestrian, carrying their lunch box and bag on the way to work. At one point, we were sitting having a coffee, and suddenly tanks started rolling down the street, followed by a procession of army vehicles. No one seemed to care to even acknowledge bar the tourists. It wasn’t a parade, and it was neither celebrating or intimidating, they were just cruising.

Troops.jpg

On another day, we came outside a museum to a massive demonstration of troops. They were marching in formations, but again, it didn’t seem an intimidating thing, as most the guys were joking and laughing, and even playing on their iphones, so the whole vibe was a bit weird.

Troops4.jpglarge_Troops5.jpgTroops6.jpgTroops2.jpglarge_Troops3.jpg

-Pete's Walking Tour. One day we decided to do a tour. It was supposed to be one of those group walking tours where you all meet at a point and go do the touristy stuff. We do it mainly for the info and the fact you don’t have to look at the map for a few hours. Anyway, we went to the meeting point, and it turned out that we were the only ones there. Plus, the original tour guide called in sick, so the owner, Pete, turned up. So, as it turned out, we got a personalised tour, for nearly five hours, by the first guy to start taking tours after the fall of the soviet. He took us to heaps of awesome spots and told us heaps of history. We even had talks about current art culture, music and politics, which was especially interesting given the recent elections, which as far as the people are concerned are a complete farce, and the idea of democracy is a squashed bug on the boot of the current dictatorship. Anyway, if you get a chance to book a tour with them its incredible and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

-The people. This was one of those weird ones too. As soon as we landed into the country we received numerous offers to help us out, and all apparently genuine. I can tell by now when someone is trying to scam me, which is contradictory to everything we heard of Russia. People weren't rude and pushy, with a few exceptions, and a lot of them would happily try their English if you greeted them in Russian first. I will say here though that we later found these to all be unique qualities of St Petersburg, everywhere else was the complete opposite. And what perplexed me was the appearance of people. I'm going to get a bit superficial here, but the men looked like stereotypical Russian men. They seemed harsh, and rough and serious. They didn’t wear nice clothes and I'm sorry to say, were butt ugly. I know it's bad to say, but purely based on physical appearances, they were gross. But, the women, were drop dead gorgeous. I'm taking stepping out onto the street felt like stepping into a Victoria Secret afterparty. And I can say this, because Mel commented on it quite regularly. They were absolutely stunning. I'm not saying that large block of vanity floated on anything that resembled a personality, but I never met them so I cant judge. What really tripped me out though, was that if we saw these sexy, confident women with a male companion, they were always some horrifically unattractive guy in dirty clothes, terrible haircut, and seemingly treated the girl like some sort of animal. I'd say dog, but they probably treat their dog better. Again, they may be very nice dudes who love them very much, but it was crazy to see just how much this occurred. Or maybe they all have massive packages with matching bank accounts, I don’t know. Anyway, if you're a young single guy struggling to find love/lust in my native country, I would go to St Petersburg. You couldn’t be worse than the local options the girls have.

-CouchSurfing meeting. Seeing as we couldn’t CouchSurf in Russia due to Visa restrictions, we went to a local weekly meeting, which is a common thing in most cities. Its an organised event in which local members get together to hang out, and travellers that happen to be passing by can stop in and meet some locals. Well, the St Petes one had about 50 people there, held at a funky upstairs bar just off the main street, close enough for us to walk. We ended up talking to several local Russians, a Dutch guy, a Turkish guy and an English girl, but after most left we stayed for a bit with a small group of about five of us and just chatted into the night. The local beer wasn’t bad either. We took some night shots on the way home.

Night.jpgNight2.jpgNight3.jpgNight4.jpglarge_Night5.jpgNight6.jpglarge_Night7.jpg

-The River. This was a really cool place in the city. At one point its almost laid out as a main square of the city, with two elaborate bridges, the Fortress and the Hermitage Palace forming its sides. The first day or two we were there, there were massive chunks of ice sailing down it. During winter its completely frozen over. And during white nights and the opening of the bridges, its apparently a big party spot.

large_River.jpgRiver2.jpglarge_River3.jpgRiver4.jpgRiver5.jpgRiver6.jpgRiver7.jpgRiver8.jpg

-The island in the middle of the river. At any time, this place had at least 3-5 weddings going down, and they were all hilarious. But the best part was when Mel and I walked down into the residential part of it. Walking from the built up face of a city into its seedy underbelly is always a highlight for me, as a few blocks can create such a transition in living styles. On this walk, we went from arguably the most beautiful view in the city, through some terribly run down neighbourhoods where dilapidated buildings were crumbling as they stand, to emerge in what seemed like a cool little student area, near a performing and fine arts University, split by a little bohemian street ripe with cafe culture.

-The Hermitage Museum. Yeah it was pretty cool. Not greatly laid out but it had some interesting things inside.

Hermitage.jpglarge_Hermitage2.jpgHermitage3.jpgHermitage4.jpgHermitage5.jpglarge_Hermitage6.jpgHermitage7.jpgHermitage8.jpg

-The Church of The Spilled Blood. It's gorgeous. The outside rocks, and the inside is all crazy detailed mosaics. It's quintessential Russian.

large_Church_of_..d_Blood.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood6.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood7.jpglarge_Church_of_.._Blood8.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood9.jpgChurch_of_..Blood10.jpglarge_Church_of_..Blood11.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood5.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood4.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood2.jpgChurch_of_.._Blood3.jpg

-The monuments and landmarks. Everywhere you turn in St Petersburg there is some awesome building or monument. Most are churches of course, so many you couldn’t take pics inside, but all were different in some way and thrived in the beauty of artistic detail and historical significance. And plenty of statues of Peter the Great, founder of the city, and symbol of Russian greatness.

large_St_Petersburg.jpgSt_Petersburg2.jpgSt_Petersburg3.jpglarge_St_Petersburg4.jpgSt_Petersburg5.jpgSt_Petersburg6.jpgSt_Petersburg7.jpgSt_Petersburg8.jpgSt_Petersburg9.jpgSt_Petersburg10.jpgSt_Petersburg11.jpgSt_Petersburg12.jpgSt_Petersburg13.jpgSt_Isaacs.jpgSt_Isaacs2.jpgSt_Isaacs3.jpgSt_Isaacs4.jpglarge_St_Isaacs5.jpg

And thats pretty much the highlight package of St Petersburg. We didn’t really get too much into the cuisine, or get to spend as much time with the locals as we would have liked, but it was nice to just be a visitor observing the life of the city pass by. Overall we did have a really nice time, due in part I think to the fact that we were bombarded with tales of danger and deceit about the place, however we were lucky enough not to experience it. I guess the relief of the reality let us relax and just take in the place. I would have loved to have seen it in summer though, maybe next time.

Posted by Clayton30 14:43 Archived in Russia Tagged petersburg europe st russia 2012 Comments (0)

From Polands Dark Past To Its Bright Future

Experiencing the warmth of the locals

rain

Ok, after a bit of a downer of a blog entry last time, now I get to chat about something fun. Through our travels, when sitting around camp fires or having a few beers, we are often ask where our favourite place has been so far, and its always a tricky question. The fact is we cant pick a favourite place. We can talk about which city was the most beautiful, for different reasons, which was the most unique, which had the best food, the friendliest people, or just where we had the most fun. Sadly, Poland was none of these. But, the time we had there was incredibly special, and every time I think about it I have a little chuckle to myself. And the strangest part, for some reason it always sounds like little 20 year old girls giggle.

In my last post I introduced Kinga, our young uni student CouchSurfing host who so generously invited us into her life, albeit for only two days. Well, she had organised for us to stay one night with her family in Oswiecim, then the next night in Krakow with her friends. Well we had stayed with her family before visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp, and were now on our way to Krakow. Well, actually, I'm going to have a little bitch first, which could possibly pass as a lesson in cultural sensitivity.

So, after Auschwitz, Kinga and her mum so wonderfully picked us up, with our bags in the boot and dropped us into the train station. The three of us would of course go in together. As it happened, we were a few minutes late for the train into Krakow, so had about an hour wait for the next one. Coincidently, another tourist was also a few minutes late. We noticed the tall, grey haired American man purely cause we had no other choice. He was talking to himself loudly about train times and tickets and god knows what other crazy old man ramblings. Truth be told, I was still in a state on introspect since the camp not half an hour before, and I had barely spoken a word since. Well, seeing three young foreigners who had no escape, he started asking questions to us. Actually, he was probably just being friendly, and seemed a bit lonely. Anyway, he soon realised Kinga was a Polish native, as the girls answered his questions in the politest of ways, Mel speaking for me and Kinga providing some local knowledge. Well, the retired Colorado man proceeded to tell us all about his life, his opinions on certain countries, and general chit chat that is the social norm. It wasn’t until his next topic of conversation that I felt the need to interject. This old man, who I would normally respect for his time on the earth, assuming he had seen some shit and acquired a knowledge with which only experience can bring, this man proceeded to tell us how disappointed he was with Auschwitz. Now I feel I must point out here, that in the past I have made complaints about the insensitivity of other travellers, and in most cases they have been American. Let me state that I have nothing against American travellers. During our time we have met some really cool ones that we got along great with, and I am sure there were plenty more that just strolled on by unnoticed. However, the ones that have really shit me, have really just flawed me, have happened to speak in the great American drawl. Ok. Well when this guy told us why he was disappointed, it was a real slap in the face. Basically, his complaint was that he had to use his imagination. To actually have to think about it. He wanted there to be wax dummies, and re-enactments, and whatever else could facilitate in entertaining him. I may be paraphrasing, but he pretty much said that he wanted Michael Bay to direct “Auschwitz” complete with explosions and fake blood, and maybe a gigantic robotic Hitler that is finally taken down by an elite team of commandos sporting matching American flag jumpsuits. The reality of the place bored him. Actually disappointed him with how boring it was. He had snuck in his bag of potato chips and big gulp cola, he wanted to sit down and be entertained for christs sake! What an absolute fuckwit. I'm sorry to say, but here he was, sitting in front of a young Polish woman, and two other strangers who had just come from there, wishing aloud that the remaining evidence of the largest attempted genocide was more thrilling. It made me pretty mad. In fact, I was more mad afterwards, after I thought about it for a bit, but at the time it was enough for me to speak up and try and talk some sense into him. Of course it was pointless. Later Kinga told me that from a Polish standpoint, there was no way he should have said that stuff in front of her. She was absolutely correct.

Moving on, we got on the train and headed to Krakow, to Kingas friends place where we would be staying. At the tiny apartment that we were to call our home for the next night, we were greeted by the massive welcoming smiles of the three young girls who were to be our hosts. Marta, Magda and Ola prepared some tea for us and we all sat around, introduced ourselves and had a awesome chat. The girls werent too confident with their English, which was actually fine, but nonetheless it seemed effortless to communicate and soon we were all laughing and getting along great.

We found out that that night we would be invited for drinks for Marta's birthdays at their favourite bar. Seeing as there was still some time till nightfall, Mel and I got a head start into town to try and get some sightseeing done and get a feel for the city. When we got in, which was a short tram ride, the grey clouds that had been threatening all day decided to let loose. Not with a real heavy rain, more like a soft drizzle, enough to be annoying, but it give the old town a really cool misty atmosphere. It actually worked out ok, cause the girls suggested going to an underground museum that was in the main square. The museum was on the site of a massive excavation of the old medieval Krakow, so we got to walk through the ancient streets and get a taste of life from the old trade capital. Too be honest, it wasn’t a particularly spectacular museum, but it was different and had some neat interactive displays which made it interesting and ended up being a good change of pace.

Great_Square4.jpgGreat_Square3.jpglarge_Great_Square.jpgGreat_Square7.jpgGreat_Square6.jpgGreat_Square5.jpg

Well, by the time we had to meet the girls, it was a little cold, we had eaten a kebab, and I was getting mighty thirsty. The place was called Indigo, and it was this funky, underground student bar hidden right on one of the main tourist streets. I would've walked past it ten times and not known it was there. When we got down, the party was in full swing.

large_Indigo.jpglarge_Indigo2.jpg

We met some more new friends and became grateful conversation partners for those wanting to practice their English. One of the strange things we noticed was that all the girls were drinking their beers with a straw. Apparently its just how the girls drink it, not the dudes, maybe it was more dignified or something. Well, choosing country pride over cultural integration, Mel put one away like the Aussies do. Man I love that woman. Maybe sensing the air of friendly patriotism that was floating around, the girls decided to bring out the Polish Vodka. It was pretty good. Apparently drunken on special occasions, of which they have many, the drinking of Vodka carried many traditions and customs, that we were filled in on on the fly, the most important of which was to have fun. And we really did. It is amazing how quickly barriers can break down between strangers and you can feel like your talking to long time friends. And what I found also amazing, was that we were at a party in a bar full of 20-22 year olds, and no one got stupid drunk. In Poland, the idea is just to have a few drinks and laugh and share good times. In Australia, parties like this end up in people passed out in their own vomit, maybe a fight, lots of loud mayhem, and waking up next to someone you shouldn't have. So it was incredible. I learnt a lot about Polish culture, both of the past and of the youthful present. I had great chats with a bunch of cool people, particularly a dude named Ruddick I think, who so please that I shouted him a beer, ended up going back and forth buying the next few, while regaling me the current state of Polish politics (cooler than it sounds), then insisted on buying me this crazy shot called “crazy bitch” if I remember correctly. I don’t know what was in it, I think maybe Tabasco and a bunch of potent spirits, but it was a yummy and a speciality of the bar, and more importantly, a gift from a friend I had just met. The whole night was just a great blast.

Vodka.jpgI_love_you_man.jpglarge_Polish_fam3.jpgPolish_fam..d_Magda.jpgPolish_fam..trouble.jpgPolish_fam..Ruddick.jpgPolish_fam_Ola.jpglarge_Vodka_full.jpglarge_Vodka_empty.jpg

The next day it was still raining. We were having trouble getting in contact with our next CouchSurfer host in Warsaw where we had planned to head that night, so we decided to take the extremely generous offer from the girls to stay an extra night. I mean seriously, we had met like 12 hours before, and sure we had talked and laughed and drank together and it felt like we had known each other for way longer, they pretty much opened up their home to strangers. People are just awesome. So Mel and I took the opportunity to explore Krakow some more. We explored the Great Square some more then headed to the Castle, which was a great big structure housing several halls and living quarters and a cool church. The most interesting part by far though was the armoury, that had a great collection of weapons and armour spanning throughout the Atrso-Hungarian, Turkish, French, Roman and Persian Empires. Oh, and exiting the Dragons Den was worth it too.

Krakow.jpglarge_Krakow2.jpgcastle.jpgcastle2.jpgcastle3.jpglarge_castle4.jpglarge_castle5.jpgcastle6.jpglarge_castle7.jpgcastle8.jpgcastle9.jpgchurch.jpglarge_church2.jpgchurch3.jpglarge_Dragons_den3.jpgDragons_den.jpgDragons_den2.jpg

After the Castle we grabbed some traditional Polish pork chop, then after walking past the main event office for it, decided to check out one of the films from the Independent Film Festival that was happening in town. Featuring works from all over the globe, we took a punt and went and saw the next one that was on. It was an American film called “Electick Children” and was quite good. It was in English with Polish subtitles, which meant that there were a few occasions where the audience would start laughing before the characters said a line, and vice versa, which was funny in itself. Oh, and despite them selling popcorn in the theatre foyer, you werent actually allowed to take it inside with you. No food at all inside in fact. Well, hypocritically ignoring my own lessons on cultural sensitivity, I violated the rules and snuck in some local handmade chocolate. I'm not proud of it, but it was delicious.

We went back and spent the night at the girls place. They hadn’t moved since we left them in the morning, still recovering from the night before. We talked for a while, had more tea I think, and another shot of this really nice Vodka. We talked local music, and I even pimped some heavy Sydney bands EP, Lomera, you should look them up. Mel then went to sleep as she was exhausted, I wrote some of this blog, and the girls all gathered around watching romantic girly clips on YouTube. This was all in the same little room I might add. Now my Polish isnt great, but I think Marta had some boy trouble the night before, so the girls were trying to get her to hold onto to the hope of love by watching clips from Scent of a Woman and other Hollywood junk. I say junk, but when they asked me if I knew any good movie dance scenes, I may have suggested the Dirty Dancing “nobody puts baby in a corner” bit. To my defence, they already watched Uma and Travolta in Jack Rabbits Slims Twist Contest, plus its Swazye, so don’t hate. Anyway, after watching it, I offered to re-enact the famous leap and catch part, but none of the girls were keen to catch me.

(Sorry girls, it had to go on)
Polish_fam.jpg

Anyway, the next day we sadly had to leave. I say sadly, because in the short time we spent together we really felt close to the girls. They all had such amazing big hearts and were all beautiful people in their own way. To invite us into their lives the way they did and show us the kindness and hospitality they showed is beyond amazing. I will never forget the way they giggled and laughed and just enjoyed being themselves. It was super cool. I really hope they come to Australia one day so we can return the favour and back up my claims that they'd have a better shot finding a nice boy in Oz. I guess I better find some first. And a super big thank you to Kinga, she is an amazing person and we feel so lucky to have met her.

large_Polish_fam2.jpg

Well our tour of Poland wasn’t yet complete. The guy who said he would host us hadn’t come through despite our attempts to contact him, so we were heading to Warsaw with nowhere to stay that night. We posted a message on CouchSurfing, as it has a group where you post emergency or last minute requests on. We wrote the message saying that our host had flaked out, hoping that by the time we hit Warsaw, a few hours by train, that maybe someone had replied. Well we arrived in Warsaw station, its was raining and shitty, went next door to an awesome shopping mall, found some Wifi, and to our delight, several people had offered us their couch with only a few hours notice. Pretty cool right, to say “help, Im stranded in a new city” and have multiple people invite you into their lives. I'm still blown away. Anyway we ended up staying the night with a nice local dude called Mario, who had a spare bed and a shot of Vodka waiting for us at the untimely hour we arrived. The next morning, we got up early, said goodbye to our saviour host, and made tracks for the Warsaw airport. Our destination would be St Petersburg Russia, a place I've always wanted to go. Full of excitement and a little bit of fear for the unknown, we were ready for Mother Russian, but we almost didn’t make it.

Posted by Clayton30 11:41 Archived in Poland Tagged poland europe krakow 2012 Comments (1)

Auschwitz.

overcast

Auschwitz.

Yep, if you're any sort of human being, this word has some pretty serious meaning. The feelings and images that just ran through your head are probably the same that runs through mine. The word alone brings images of death, suffering, cruelty, and incomparable evil. The site of mass persecution and violent hatred, this place has become a symbol for the atrocities that
occurred during WWII. In fact, atrocities is too soft a word. In the past I have studied the events and witnessed numerous films, photos and historical accounts on the infamous concentration camp, and with each time have always felt a mix of emotions. From extreme sadness through to extreme hatred, I would learn the when and hows, and always question the whys, trying to put myself in the shoes of all those who experienced it, but never under the delusion that I would ever come close to understanding it.

And this was the main reason I came to Poland. This place. To match those images that I knew to things I could touch and see for myself. I went there expecting to see this hard hitting reminder of just how cruel and evil humans can be, but it would be the acts of kindness, love and generosity that I would take away most from my time there, as well as probably the most surreal emotional experience of my life.

The journey to Poland wasn’t fun. We left Budapest catching our first train at 6:15am and would arrive at our final destination at 9:30pm. This trip involved 5 trains, each having to be on time to connect to each other, otherwise the whole thing would fall apart and we would be stranded in some random country rail station, which once you see one, isnt a promising prospect. Put it this way, there was some running, sweating, and just a little bit of stressing out. But we made it, and once again, hooray for CouchSurfing!

Our host Kinga, along her father, picked us up from Oswiecim station in pitch black darkness. I guess its easy to say now, but almost immediately we felt comfortable with her. Even late at night, with two smelly, exhausted strangers in the back of her car, she was bubbly and lively and really seemed genuinely excited to have us as her guests. Despite Dad not speaking English, he went out of his way to take the long route home, which would pass around the Auschwitz camp. The first time we saw the fence was pretty sobering. There it was, the wire electric fence that frames the terrifying portrait. And admittedly, up until that point it was a dream, something of legend, but now it became real. And in the middle of the night, it came out of nowhere, illuminated only by the moonlight.

The site was an obvious catalyst to discussion, whether intentionally or not, but I got the feeling that Kinga and her father were somewhat relieved with the realisation that their guests came to visit with the utmost respect and with open minds, which is how we try and experience every destination, but for a native Polish family that was there during the whole thing, I guess you never know what to expect from foreigners, or what kind of preconceived ideas they might bring. But, of course, we were charming as ever, and we got along great. We arrived and met the rest of Kingas family, who again, at 10pm, had prepared their home with food and drink, a beautiful room for us, and a warmth one can only get from being showered with selfless hospitality. Kinga would later downplay it as “Just Polish hospitality” but it really was extraordinary. It would be phenomenal if this was the way people always treated one another, but there is nothing normal about it sadly. Anyway, we ate dinner, wild boar which Dad had killed on one of his hunts, delicious, had some tea and some laughs, then went to bed, waking up to be spoilt again by a full breakfast. The whole thing was really sweet and we absolutely loved spending time with a real Polish family, learning their characters and their history, and experiencing those things you wont find in a hotel or guided tour. It was truly wonderful.

Then it was time for the camp. I'm going to try and not tell you too much detail about the place itself, cause you probably know most of it or can research and look up the facts. But basically, apart from the wire fencing and a few small towers and military remnants, it could be a small modern public housing complex, which is kind of what is was prior to the extermination attempt, except the occupants were mostly prisoners of war. Many of the buildings insides have been turned into a museum of sorts, giving an onsite history lesson in the form of facts, photos and varying paraphernalia. But the rest looked pretty normal, which to me made it feel even more daunting, that the things that occurred, did so in the most normal looking of settings. I didn’t feel the same disconnect that I thought had it been some smoldering ruins, or some fire pit of hell with torture instruments hanging from the ceilings. It felt real.

We were grouped together in tours, one of many that were wondering through the site, and were taken through all the historical accounts, mainly dealing in living conditions and day to day life, through to individual accounts of torture, death and vial oppression. In fact, I think the tour was designed to progressively get more confronting, as we soon approached the solitary confinement cells, the torture rooms and then to the lab were children were experimented on for horrific things such as poison trials to injecting dye into their pupils to try and change their colour. It was then that I was feeling the height of my usual reactions, a mix of hatred, disbelieve and sadness. But then something changed. We entered a square, through a large metal gate, and I felt different. A sort of calm came over me but an uneasy one. At the end of the square was a memorial to the execution wall, where those who were chosen were lined up and shot. And I felt strange. I knew bad things had happened here. Not cause we were told, or that it was assumed, I knew. Like I could smell it in the air. Like experiencing a new sense for the first time I was drawn to parts of the square, random spots in the dirt, certain areas of the brick surrounds. Somehow I was telling myself a story of which had no detail, just feeling.

The tour continued on out of the square and around the next corner. The tour guide was silent and walked ahead. I froze. At the foot of the barbwire fence and the opening that led around the next corner, I found myself unable to take a single step. Everything around me went blurry and I realised that now I was seeing through my tears, which had, unnoticed, started delicately flowing down my face. I didn’t feel like I was crying. There was no sobs, or change in breath. Just tears. I was afraid to walk further, my legs moving only at the slowest speed. Again this new sense was in control, yet now it was a thousand times more intense. I once again knew what was around the corner. I felt a fear that was old, borrowed from another as though we were breathing the same air. Standing there, trying to move forward, there was some sort of dimensional shift that occurred around me. Those people that were in my group past me as shadows, but those who normally went unseen slowly made their presence known. My now detached body crept inch by inch forward, face drenched in the tears that had been left to run, with no attempt to wipe them away. My mind was sharp, focused almost, but it seemed a passenger, somehow being led. I remember hearing “bad things happened here” running over and over again in my head. I knew they had. I felt them. I say I felt but really it was like I empathised extreme sadness and extreme fear. Empathised because they were not for myself, I wasn’t scared, but I could feel the feeling of being scared. At this point, in a state I've never been before, I heard a young girls voice, reassuring me that it will be ok. She said that they were things I had to see, that this was something everyone had to see, to experience. Somehow she was almost begging that all people have to know what went on here.

Of course I was coming up the last surviving gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz 1. The brick building built into a grass mount was the terrible place that hundreds of thousands of people, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, brothers and sisters, drew their last agonising breath of Zyklon B gas, the poison eating away their insides in a excruciating process that would take 20-40 minutes to slowly and painfully eat the life away from its victim. It was also the place, where their naked and contorted remains were shovelled into giant ovens like coal, to be reduced to ash and dirt.

The group moved silently ahead of me, through the entrance into the chamber. Silently out of respect for the dead, but also unacknowledged by my current psyche. In this state of sub-concious being I moved into the main chamber, feeling what I can only describe as the support of a thousand faceless souls. The tears that had never stopped continued to flow, but now the emotion had intensified. I started feeling the shortness of breath, the heaving of the shoulders. My body seemed to curl into itself as I felt the scratches in the walls, the fingernail marks on the floor, and hole in the roof where the cans of evil and hate were dropped through to consume any light of hope. At this stage I had lost all control. I started to feel like a prisoner myself, being forced to feel these emotions, to see the images that were flying through my head, to feel pain and fear for loved ones that I did not know. I was then taken into the chamber with the ovens, where in front of me I could make out the rusted relics of body disposal, but in my minds eye I could see them in full use. Piles of bodies upon bodies being heaved around like rag dolls. The scrapping of shovels on cement, the roar of the fires, the slap of dead flesh against the iron, I could see it all in front of me.

Although I could feel the ones driving me, I had little idea of my surroundings. I couldn’t tell you if anyone else was in that room or even how long I spent there. It wasn’t until I was outside that I found Mel, who wrapped her arms around me as I crumbled into an emotion mess. I had regained myself, but the feelings were now my own and they weighed me down hard. Mel and I stood there for a while, not saying anything. I'd say it was after about 15 minutes or say that I stopped crying, and the feeling like I had been punched in the chest started to dissipate.

Now, some of you may think its strange, but this wasn’t my first encounter with spirits from another world, that wasn’t the weird part for me. The hard hitting thing was actually feeling their emotion. I often can sense what they are feeling (mostly confused or shocked if you're interested) , but never had I had such empathy. It really cut me to the core. And really, whatever you choose to believe from this, whether you would like to psychoanalysis it, describe as the brains way with dealing with stress, maybe high imagination, maybe I told myself I would get emotional prior and this was the outcome or you may just think its bullshit, either way you cant base this stuff on merit. The truth was I felt something, and whatever it was was a deep and personal experience, that I am now trying in some way to share with you.

Fuck me, how did that happen? I told me myself I wouldn't write that much. To me Auschwitz is a place without words, but I seem to have blurted many. If you read from the start, you may remember I mention acts of kindness, love and generosity, well they will have to wait for the next entry. So to wrap up, I still think that in no way will we ever know exactly what those people experienced. I was never under any delusion that I would. What I can take away from being there though was knowing that I got just a little bit closer, that now its not just a photo, or a nightmare set in a far off land, that I have stood there where they stood, felt the same dirt at my feet, the same air in my lungs, as they suffered in a way I wish no one to suffer.

So I guess I will leave you with a few photos. They really pale in significance to the actual experience, but hopefully it helps give you an idea. As you will see they don’t have people burning in them, and I didn’t process them in black and white to add dramatic effect. This is the place as it stands now. Dirt, brick, trees and wire. A place I went to learn more about the past, and ended up learning more about myself.

large_Auschwitz.jpgAuschwitz2.jpglarge_Auschwitz3.jpgAuschwitz4.jpgAuschwitz5.jpgAuschwitz6.jpgAuschwitz7.jpgAuschwitz8.jpgAuschwitz9.jpgAuschwitz10.jpgAuschwitz11.jpgAuschwitz12.jpglarge_Auschwitz13.jpgAuschwitz14.jpgAuschwitz15.jpgAuschwitz16.jpgAuschwitz18.jpglarge_Auschwitz29.jpgAuschwitz28.jpgAuschwitz27.jpgAuschwitz26.jpglarge_Auschwitz17.jpgAuschwitz19.jpglarge_Auschwitz20.jpglarge_Auschwitz21.jpgAuschwitz24.jpgAuschwitz23.jpglarge_Auschwitz25.jpglarge_Auschwitz22.jpg

Posted by Clayton30 13:22 Archived in Poland Tagged poland europe auschwitz 2012 Comments (1)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 28) « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 6 »