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The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Ethiopia

From Finche I wanted to travel to Kosober, 300km North. First I would have to go Debre Markos, about half way, to catch a bus from there. The problem was there were no buses from Finche, so it meant having to flag down a deluxe skybus coming from Addis. The skybus conductor tried to take my eyes out with a ridiculous price so I politely declined and kept trying, hoping a mini bus with a spare seat would stop for me. On numerous occasions I was offered a ride to Debre Markos by some private jeeps if I paid 100Birr (£3.20). This was probably a fair price considering the distance, but part of me was thinking I was being exploited, but mostly through my own stubbornness (or tightness), I refused. After an hour with no success I decided to walk a few kilometres to a petrol station. It was here where three truckers in a heavy goods vehicle stopped and let me in.

It turned out the truckers were travelling all the way to Kosober, so I spent the next 9 hours stuffed in the front cab of the vehicle eating bag after bag of Ethiopian ‘Colo’ nuts and singing Whitney Houston songs, during which time we broke down twice and were pulled over by the police for overloading the vehicle. This pretty mental day ended with us getting drunk at our destination and Ethiopian shoulder dancing in the village discotheque. The journey didn’t cost me a single penny. Some experiences you just can’t buy.

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Kosober is a friendly town that sees very few white people, so every time I step out on the hotel balcony I have a dozen or so people coming to have a look, which made me feel a bit like Michael Jackson. Nobody speaks English and all the café’s menus are in Amharic. I’ve gotten a little sick of eating ‘shiro’, an Ethiopian dish made from beans so thought I’d try to order ‘Mesr’, a lentil based dish. When I walked into a restaurant waving a piece of paper shouting the word ‘Mesr’ I got the sort of looks that said “What is this white fool doing?” Shiro it is then. I found it so amusing that I couldn’t help but sit and laugh to myself while I waited for my food. The bloke across from me draped in white robes and looking like a ninja, found it absolutely hilarious.

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Lake Zengena, is about 6km outside of Kosober town. The walk along the road and through Agaw villages gave me an insight to local life, even if it was kids just covered in snots following me along and asking for pens. Zengena crater lake is the second deepest in Ethiopia, and walking around the 3.5km trail was as tranquil as it gets.

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Vervet Monkey

I made it to Bahir Dar three days after leaving Addis. The total cost on transport – 90Birr, compared to the 350Birr for the direct sky bus. Bahir Dar is a tourist town and the first main stop over on what is known as ‘the historical circuit’. The Blackpool of Ethiopia is clean and manageable enough, although it does have the odd hustler trying to start a conversation with a hidden agenda, I normally immediately tell them that I’m SAS – a Super Army Soldier, that normally gets rid of them. The town itself holds very little points of interest, the main sight being the Lake Tana monasteries.

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Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia measuring in at 65km in diameter, and is the source of the world’s longest river. Like most big Lakes, it was formed by a volcanic explosion about 20 million years ago. The lake houses over 20 monastic churches dotted about its dozen or so islands and peninsulas, many of which were founded during the 14th century rule of Amda Tsion. With the money I’d saved on transport I decided to take a boat trip out to the monasteries, I visited 5 monasteries but only decided to go in one when I realised it was 100Birr charge for each church, which for what they are, is ridiculous.

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The churches are all made from natural materials sourced from around Lake Tana, Beta Mariam (the stick of Mary) is covered from top to bottom with nice paintings which serve as a visual encyclopaedia of Ethiopian Orthodox Church concerns, while also giving a little insight on what it would probably be like going on a wild DMT trip.

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I’m pleased I didn’t go in every church as apparently, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Visiting the monasteries was a decent enough day out but I somehow felt that the overall aura of the place has been somewhat ruined by the greed of the people there. The pushy souvenir sellers tell you looking is for free but they fail to mention that if you do show any interest whatsoever, that’s enough to warrant buying a piece of junk for 10x the local price. I must admit I did find it strangely amusing having to physically pull an old woman’s hand from my shorts as I was leaving the island at the end of this over priced boat trip. I guess some experiences you can buy…

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Only A Matter Of Time

Fourteen months or 428 days of continuous and indefinite travel, has gradually grinded to a halt. Symbolically, Sachin Tendulkar recently called time on a glittering career, which proves that most amazing journeys eventually come to an end.

Ticking away the moments
That make up a dull
day
Fritter and waste the hours
In an off-hand way


Like The Wheels was originally intended to be a tool to update friends and family on our trip, instead of messaging everybody individually. Those who cared could check whenever they liked, and those who didn’t could go about living their normal lives. As time progressed, the blog has also become a site dedicated to sharing my views and opinions of the places I’ve visited, and a small vault of helpful information for anyone doing a similar trip. I always tried to keep my posts to the point, informative and with a little dry humour, supported by all original photographs unless otherwise stated. I have read travel blogs before which follow this type of structure-

“Today we were up at 8am, had an egg sandwich which cost 60 Baht. It’s 30 degrees today so best use some of that Piz Buin Factor 15 my mam sent out. We managed to fit in the highlights of Bangkok in most of the day, and now it’s time to treat ourselves to a pizza mmmmnnnn. Today we spent $15 on accommodation, $13 on food, $6 on sundries and transport and $10 dollars on one of those wooden croaking frogs from Kao San Road which I didn’t really want, but I’m the kind of person who feels like I don’t have a choice but to say yes to anyone trying to sell me cheap tat, oh well off to Pattaya tomorrow, I’ve heard it has some beautiful sights.” Etc etc…

Ironically enough I’m starting to drone on, getting to the point, I don’t find this type of travel blog particularly interesting and consider it more of a diary. I suggest that anyone who enjoys reading this type of stuff should go out and buy a Bill Bryson book, Bryson-esque, more like Yawn-esque. Anyway each to their own.

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something
To show you the way

In my ‘about’ section I mentioned that my reasons for travelling could not be explained at that moment. It’s taken me a long time and half the world to think of a few – I like to be able to wake up in the morning and not know what the day will bring, who you will meet, what you will see, what you will learn. I believe that every human being in this world has something to teach someone else, no matter who the person. There’s a cliché that travel broadens the mind, and it’s true, without going out and having the experiences then would I be able to read Cyrillic writing? Would I be able to SCUBA dive? Would I know the basics of divorce in Islam? Would I know how Ganesh got his head? Would I know the rules of cockfighting? Would I have learned to appreciate the things you have at home and realise what things you can live without? Would I have known how to survive on less than £3 a day living in an opium den with no electricity for an entire week? Would I have learned how to deal with loneliness? The answer, I doubt it…

Tired of lying in the sunshine
Staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today

From Sheffield to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, countless hours spent on trains, busses, boats and budget flights. I’ve been to some of the most spectacular places on earth, but yet, there is still so much more out there. Something that has made this trip so special for me, has been the people. Without the people then it really is just an, erm, lonely planet. To all our couch surfing hosts, thanks again for your amazing hospitably. To all the people who crossed my path and smiled, to all the Bangladeshis who shook my hand, asked my country and made me feel like a celebrity. Even the tribal boy in Agartla who smashed me over the head with a motorbike helmet after we thwarted his plan to scam us, and the spineless manager of a hotel in Haflong who robbed some money from our room, you all made the experience what it was, good or bad. What I learned from you people will stay with me forever, and I hope you can say the same about me. But you know what the best part of this epic odyssey was? To do it all as a team, with my best friend, the compadre.

And then the one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

Someone once asked me if I thought my friends and life at home were boring, my honest answer? No I don’t. I’ve realised the people of the northeast are the most friendly and funny people on earth, the craic is second to none and I’m proud of where I come from. But you can never see the world for how beautiful it really is without sometimes leaving behind the things you love, no matter how hard that may be and I never want to regret the things in life I didn’t do. This is not the end of Likethewheels, consider it a clock that has just ticked over midnight, entering into a brand new day. Or like the finale of your favourite programme, hanging on a cliff edge. I hope you’ve all enjoyed my take on this intriguing world so far, stay tuned for more ramblings. Like the wheels that keep travellers traveling on, like the wheels that will take me home…

Home
Home again
I like to be here
When I can
When I come home
Cold and tired
It's good to warm my bones
Beside the fire

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The People…

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Competition – from the two collages above, which photo is the odd one out? Scroll down for the answer…

















If your hawk eye picked out Syed and Christian, Eastenders’ own homosexual star-crossed lovers in the first collage, well done. Give yourself a Blue Peter badge!

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Ten Great Cities

It’s not easy doing nothing on Sugar beach. When lying in a hammock all day sometimes boredom can set in, even for the best of us. I was recently asked ‘what is your favourite city?’ after
much debate I have decided to put together a list of my top 10 great cities which I have visited. This is all personal opinion and I’m sure this list will change in due course, but here it goes. What would be in your top 10?

10. Edinburgh, Scotland

Stepping off the train at Haymarket station to the sound of bagpipes, you
defiantly know you’re North of the border. Kilts, haggis’, castles, shortbread, tartan, Robbie bloody Burns! Edinburgh reeks everything Scotland!

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9. Kandy, Sri Lanka

This holy hill station surrounded by tea plantations, has a much more laid back feel than the nation’s capital Colombo. Riddled with colonial and Buddhist history, Kandy is a great place to explore in a few days. Just watch out for the terminator rickshaw driver…

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Kandy War Cemetery

8. Casablanca, Morocco

Overlooked by travellers by the favoured Marrakech, Casablanca could easily be mistaken for a series of Parisian walkways. With a drinking strip to rival South Shields, Casablanca can defiantly be the beginning of some beautiful friendships…

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7. Vilnius, Lithuania

My favourite of the Baltic capitals, Vilnius is not yet ruined by the British stag dos, throwing up and pissing all over the streets. This city of churches serves up excellent, cheap beer and great food. What’s not to love about a city with dodgem buses?!

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6. Sydney, Australia

‘Sydney, the poofter capital of Australia!’ to quote backpacker slaughtering lunatic Mick Taylor, has the nightlife to rival anywhere in the world and beautiful beaches only a boomerang throw away. From ‘Country Bondi’ to Wollongong, Sydney has something for everyone.

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Taking part in the annual Sydney Mardi Gras

5. Beijing, China

If you can get past the thick layer of smog, Beijing’s history is unlike anywhere in the world. This thriving metropolis may have lost some of its old character as we move along with the times. But thankfully there is still plenty of it out there to concrete Beijing’s place in my top five.

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4. Hong Kong

The British Empire handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. I wish they hadn’t. There’s something around every corner in a modern day ‘melting pot’ which good is enough to rival the capital of its founding father. There’s nothing Pete Tong with Hong Kong…

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3. Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation

Charms, charms, charms… I’m all about charms. Saint Petersburg has so many charms it may as well be in Ireland. Beautiful architecture, stunning canals, lovely people…and many more. If Peter the Great was still here I’d buy him a vodka, or ten…

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2. Mumbai, India

I’l never forget the moment I arrived in Mumbai for the first time. The chaos going on around me was an unexpected culture shock at first, but from that moment I fell in love with India and travelling. There’s so many things going on in Mumbai, dozens of secret temples, Bollywood, trendy nightlife, huge cricket arenas, laughing meditation ashrams, mysterious holy men hiding in the enormous Divali slum. Mumbai is not for everyone, but if you like it, you will never get bored of going back.

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1. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.

Areet, I surpose this is a bias approach. The Toon has it all, super friendly locals, the best nightlife in England (if not Europe) apparently, a Greggs bakery around every corner, a football team that havn’t won anything for 40 + years but still has the most passionate supporters, world famous Broon Ale, Homeless Jimmy’ R.I.P, Fenwicks window, Gazza, Ant and Dec, the way the newspaper vendors shout ‘chronicurrrllleee!’, Geordie Shore, woooaaaa Shola Ameobi, stoti kyeks and of course the world’s largest half marathon the Great North Run, the annual event where you can go and laugh at your mates being overtaken by a giant banana. All these reasons and many more is why Newcastle tops my list of great world cities.

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Courtesy of Emily Corr 🙂

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Everything ….sk

Tobolsk is a town which lies slightly off the major Siberian line. The train to Tobolsk was our maddest yet, the carriage was full of workers making their way home from the Caucas, they had already been on the train for several days so a lot of them were already drunk as lords. In the few hours we had before we went to sleep, we witnessed a few arguments, one fight, and several topless Siberian men being put to bed by their compadres. They were all best mates again in the morning though.

My opinion of Russian trains seems to be changing with every leg of this journey, but what I’m certain of is that every one is different and most folk just use it as an excuse to get steaming drunk whilst making new friends. They especially like it when a foreigner such as myself ends up in their carriage.
I really wasn’t in the mood for drinking this time, but ended up having a large shot of vodka and a glass of bootlegged whisky, just to be polite….just to be polite! The smoking area on this train freaked me out a little bit, half a dozen men were simultaneously quizzing me in Russian, I felt like Nick Griffin on that episode of question time, in the sense that a room full of non British people were asking me questions that I could not answer.

The main reason for visiting Tobolsk was to see what life is like in a small Russian town. Tobolsk is famed as the site where Yermak Timofeevich and his Cossack forces defeated the Tatar army in 1582. We spent an hour walking around the handsome kremlin, perched on the top of the hill where Yermak won his battle.

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Tobolsk Kremlin

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Took a visit to a fine arts museum, but we didn’t actually go in till the next day. The woman at the desk spoke no English, but punched in a number on the telephone and handed it to me, the person on the other end simply said ‘the museum is closed’.

We walked down the wooden steps from the Kremlin to the old town. There wasn’t anything to write home about here, most of the buildings were in a run down condition, creating a sad and haunting atmosphere, had I took a wrong turn and ended up in silent hill?

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The highlight of our time in Tobolsk, was probably the moment we stooped to an all time low of communicating with non-English speakers. No Renglish, no sign language….drawing pictures. We didn’t know which bus to get back to where we were staying, nor did we know the name of the area. What we did know was that it was next to an old ferris wheel. Not knowing the Russian translation of ‘ferris’ or ‘wheel’ or anything of the sort, it was time to get the sketch pad out…..

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Another overnight train journey later, came Omsk. We weren’t originally going visit Omsk, we wanted to go to Tomsk but there were no direct trains. So we ditched the T and opted for Omsk instead.

The first day in Omsk was simply just a place for me to rest and get over ‘trans Siberian man flu’, something all travellers contract from sharing a smokey train with a load of coughing Russians.

Omsk was our first exposure to the bitter Siberian cold. At around -1C, it’s hard to believe that it’s going to get colder from here on in. There really isn’t a lot to do at all in Omsk, but it was nice to break the train journey up and I must say the place had its charms. Sometimes the thing about travelling, is not always about the sight seeing, but just BEING somewhere. So freezing the cossacks off a brass monkey, at least it felt like real Siberia. We spent the afternoon walking around the centre of town…

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Leaf Juggler

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Another Lenin monument

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WWII Memorial

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Serafimo-Aleksievskaya Chapal

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