A Travellerspoint blog

September 2006

Nicosia

sunny

And so to the capital Nicosia. The bus from Limassol dropped me at Eleftheria (Freedom) Square, really a land bridge into the old city where the Venetian walls had been breached doubtless in modernity to provide better access. Another trail out to the youth hostel, which this time I had made sure in advance was open for business, and it was strange because I had stayed at this hostel many years before and yet struggled to recognise it. It later transpired that in fact it had moved, but only by 2 or 3 buildings along in the same street. I rang the bell and eventually was greeted by a stunning Chinese girl wearing only a wet towel and a brilliant smile. Man, that was my kind of a welcome. Mae Lee showed me to the dorm where I would share with a bunch of older Romanian guys, an immediate reality check. There was no communal room as there had been before in the old place and it was quite obvious that though bearing the official international youth hostel badge, it was more a doss house for Eastern Europeans and Indians living on peanuts whilst they waited for a visa or business deal to come through. It was a hovel.

The bathroom, a loosely applied description, was a case in point. Where the shower should have been there was merely a black hole in the ground, with no shower head, only a dangling hose and nothing to support it. The toilet sat adjacent set high on a pedestal and I contemplated which alternative was the worse. Sitting on the loo in danger of falling into the grungy hole, or trying to shower with a hose in your hand and a toilet in your face. The sink had come away from the wall and could only be half filled before the water would run over the edge and into your lap. It was good preparation for Asia I resolved and I didn't hang around.

Nicosia has always been the capital of Cyprus. It had started off as the ancient Kingdom of Ledra around 700BC and had been added to by successive conquerors, most notably by the Venetians who left a legacy in the shape of the aforementioned walls. Most recently the Brits had arrived when one Admiral Lord John Hay stepped ashore from HMS Minotaur ın 1878, entered through what became known as the Channel Squadron Gate and claimed the island for Queen Victoria.

I took a wander along the main pedestrianised street and found myself at the Lidras Street barricade, the point at which no-mans-land beyond abruptly severed what had once been the heart of the city. From a gantry where you could view the north beyond, a lone teenage sentry stood with a mean looking G3 assault rifle strapped across his chest and a pannier of 250 7.62mm rounds at the ready. It was bigger than him and if any Turk fancied his chances at further conquest this kid was goıng to put a hole in him big enough to put your fist through. From the other side a banner proclaimed "To those who are watching from the wall of spies this is the bridge of peace". Time had stood still in the buffer zone since 1974, the streets lay overgrown, the buildings in ruins. Houses sat with personal effects still left as they had been, the occupants leaving in the panic of the Turkish invasion expecting to be back within days, never to return. A car showroom still allegedly housed 1974 models in factory condition. A cat wandered across the rubble and momentarily broke the spell. Presumably it was a UN cat!

The best view however of the north was afforded by none other than Debenhams, which had christened the top floor of its tower the Ledra Observatory. Storyboards and old photos explained the history of the city, picking out notable buildings in turn and explaining their development. You could also get a great view from the restaurant and so I elected to try the Greek dish Stifado (a beef stew) for the first time whilst scowering the north. The Kyrenia mountains looked very enticing and had the Turkish and TRNC flags defiantly etched across one of the hillsides.

İ walked round to the only other breach in the city walls in the south, the Pafos Gate where unmanned UN watchtowers stood dotted around. The "Fuck the UN" graffiti said it all. At this point the buffer zone forced allcomers outwith the walls and for a short stretch the ramparts above actually became the frontier, with nosey Turks cooing from behind the fence at passers by below. I followed the walls round which led to the Ledra Palace Hotel, a very large building which had had the misfortune of landıng up in no-mans-land and now subsequently housed Argentine peacekeepers. It was all very relaxed at the border and İ ambled about unchecked, noting political slogans strategically emblazoned. Plastered on the sides of the speed barriers was an emotive picture of lost souls. "1619 Still Missing - We Demand to Know" it proclaimed. Another very large sign which appeared to have been uprooted and placed aside wasn't so prosaic. "Beyond this checkpoint is an area of Cyprus still occupied by Turkish troops since their invasion in 1974... The invaders expelled 180,000 Cypriots of Greek origin from their ancestral homes and brought over colonists from mainland Turkey to replace them. Enjoy yourself in this land of racial purity and true apartheid. Enjoy the sight of our desecrated churches. Enjoy what remains of our looted heritage, and homes. From inhabitants of those areas who are forbidden to return". I guessed that it had been removed as a concession to the border restrictions loosening up, but they had still placed it where you could read it.

The road back out pointed towards a park where I finally met my mouflon, one of the few unique endemic species I could hope to see. The poor beastie was caged on its own and obviously going round the bend, shameful. It was a braw beastie though as sheep go, with long legs, a short tan coat and white underbelly. Adjacent lay what appeared to be the old redundant railway station in the hospital grounds and now serving as an innoculation centre. Why take the train when you can have a Jag, right! The city walls had become barely discernible above modern development, the stagnation of the north being palpable due to the more high rise appearance of the south.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Cyprus Comments (0)

Paphos

sunny

Bus back to Limassol and I headed back to the guest house to grab my bag, say cheerio to Serge the nice old boy on the desk and head for Paphos, Cyprus' major town in the west. It's actually split in two with an upper inland portion known as Ano Pafos, though everyone just calls it Pafo, and Kato (Lower) Pafos, the more touristy seaside resort. My first trip in a service taxi in quite some time and I saw that the ubiquitous stretched 7 seater Mercedes' had been replaced by a fleet of nice new shiny minibuses. The beauty of service taxis are that they're invariably faster and they'll pick you up and drop you right at the door. It was bad news though when the driver asked my destination. I requested the Youth Hostel, a place where I had stayed years before but "youth hostel closed" was the response. Already committed to going and rather late, I could tell it was just going to be another one of those days, or rather nights. I could make enough sense of the radio chat to understand they were asking around for another hostel to drop me at and so I was relieved when he pulled up in Ano Pafos, the inland portion up the hill and directed me down a lane to the other hostel. I didn't question the sincerity of the driver but it transpired there was no hostel to be found, instead a derelict building, a few private houses and a cliff top view of the coast uncomfortably far away. All I could do then was walk down the hill and look for a reasonably priced bed, but I already pretty much knew there were none to be had. For the 3K long slog with my bag down to the seafront I looked for guest houses and hotels without success. The town had been sewn up entirely by package tourism resort hotels and so cheap sleep and walk-in trade were unknown concepts here. Its not the first time I had been in such a situation and I wasn't going to worry about it, so after taking the risk of hiding my bag in bushes, it was dark by now after all, plan B was simply to reinvest my dig money in a pub or two and sit it out till closing time. Fortunately that wasn't until 3am, whereupon I found myself a convenient sunlounger on the beach and tried to grab a few hours kip. I was lucky in that it wasn't in the slightest bit cold, in fact the sea breeze was a blessing, but unfortunately the mosquitos were not in such an accommodating mood. I rose with the sun and as the rest of the holidayers slumbered on I searched in vain for coffee. It could have been worse. The pragmatist in me resolved that at least I would be makıng an early start, there was a lot to be done again that day and I didn't feel so tired after all.

Paphos was developed as a resort not by chance. It had prospered here since antiquity and the remnants of its original glory lay close by the harbour, adjoined by its landmark Venetian fortress. Nea Pafos was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Roman ruins over a vast expanse with the exquisitely mosaiced House of Dionysos being its star attraction. Such was the distance involved I had to later take a bus to the associated site of the Tombs of the Kings. These were in fact never intended for royalty, it was a name ascribed simply as testimony to the quality and scale of effort afforded upon them for their merchant class sponsors. There must have been a hundred or more tombs cut into solid rock, some into rock face as though like caves, others dug down then capped with roofs supported by grand Romanesque pillars. Some had chambers within chambers within chambers, they reminded you of ancient Egypt.

After traipsıng around all day in this bent it was another long hot trail back up the hill to Ano Pafos only to find there were no buses running back to Limassol. Two major cities of the island, there was only one bus a day and none at all on Sundays, ridiculous. Fortunately a kind soul directed me to the service taxi office nearby and so I was bound back to Limassol before long. Unusually, for you normally had to wait for the transport to fill up, there was only me and an Irish girl in the van. She was the first person I'd had a decent conversation with in a week of being there and it was a pity she was actually leaving for the airport. I saw the twinkle in her eye and knew she shared the regret. You have to go via Limassol if you want to go to Nicosia the capital from Paphos, the Troodos mountains got in the way of the most direct route, and so I had decided to split the journey and leave myself just enough time to wander round the medieval fort and museum in Limassol which had eluded me before. It was an Ottoman structure, built over the remnants of a Venetian church and indeed you could still clearly see the joins where arches were abruptly swallowed up by retaining walls or whatever. It wasn't that impressive from the outside, too square and approachable to have been a serious challenge to a concerted invader, but it held a fine collection of armour and weapons which helped bring it to life. It was difficult to imagine that although now swallowed up by the city it had once been an isolated seat of power on an island out to sea.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Cyprus Comments (0)

Limassol

sunny 34 °C

I was up bright and early next morning to jump on a bus, and this one would take me to the ancient Roman site of Kourion. It is one of the best preserved and extensive ruins in Cyprus and has a dramatic setting perched high on a bluff overlooking the sea and the Akrotiri peninsular plain to the south. It's especially renowned for its mosaics and many have been left in situ, covered by shelters to ward off the elements.

..........

There was no bus back however and I had resigned myself to a long hot walk in the midday sun in order to reach Episkopi, a village a few Ks hence and a name synonymous with the British Army. Together with the Akrotiri peninsula to the south this area constituted the other Sovereign Base Area which had been retained by the UK. The village was only remarkable in as much as it housed the Kourion Museum, a display of artifacts retrieved from the ruins. It was here I learned that the island had inherited its name from the Italian Cypress tree (Cypressus Sempervirens) which had been found growing here, one might have presumed it was the other way around, the island might have named the tree. Since the advent of the bronze age the island had become famed as one of the richest sources of copper and thus gave its name in turn to the metal. Amongst the standard array of pottery and statuettes there was one poignant display above all others. Still lying in situ were the remains of a young family who had perished in the city's final demise, the great earthquake of 365AD. A young mother of around 19 years old with still perfect teeth had clutched her baby to her breast and curled up into a ball. The father aged around 25 who had been found wearing a Christian motif ring had in turn tried to shield them with his body. It was heartbreaking.

The promise of an onward bus was not forthcoming and so it was another long hot slog of 5Ks to a further spot of interest, Kolossi Castle, which turned out to be more of a tower house akin to Alloa Tower.

.......

I finally managed to stumble across a bus to take me back to Limassol.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Cyprus Comments (0)

Asia Overland 2006/7 begins

sunny 31 °C

After interminable delays, it had come to the point to finally hit the road. In the build up to my departure it seemed somewhat typical that circumstances were conspiring to detain me at all costs. In the planning some 2 years beforehand I had joked nonchalantly that it would be just my luck that the Middle East would start kicking off at the proposed time. And so it proved to be. With tensions already heightened over the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, so Hezbollah took an Israeli soldier captive and met with fierce retribution in the bombardment and partial invasion of Lebanon. Within days of each other there were bombings of tourists in Turkey by the PKK and a shooting in Jordan. It was almost laughable, there was hardly a "safe" country out there, and I joked that it would obviously be the turn of the Far East next. Incredibly there was a coup in Thailand within days. The real bugbear had always been Iran however. Already under threat of sanctions over her nuclear programme, her madcap president had vowed to remove Israel from the face of the planet and had been caught arming Hezbollah. Amongst much posturing and petty belligerence on both sides I finally secured the required permission to apply for an Iranian visa after 13 weeks of hand wringing. The number of hoops to jump through had been many, I still didn't actually have the visa and the delay had cost me my intended deadline for departure by some way. I had planned to start my journey somewhat symbollically in
Istanbul. One of the worlds great cities, it also stood at the crossroads where Europe gave way to Asia. There was also the small matter of the Turkish Grand Prix which I fancied and thought would make a fitting start to any adventure. It was not to be however, and with my Iranian permission finally coming through more than a month later I had no time to waste, the turn of the weather and Ramadan would be pressing concerns. Reasonably priced flights at short notice were thin on the ground too and so a modicum of flexibility was required. Fortunately its one thing I had plenty of, life for the next year or more lay before me like a blank canvas awaiting the first arbitrary brushstroke.

And so I ended up going to Cyprus. It had already been my intention to visit the island from Turkey, and so instead I resolved that it would actually save me the time and expense of a return trip if I simply started there and headed north to Anatolia. And therein lay part of the appeal. For the first time in over 30 years it had become possible to travel from the Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus in the south to the occupied and self declared independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. A state not recognised by any other than its Turkish conquerors, it had lain stagnant and neglected as an illegal backwater whilst the rest of the Mediterranean had got on with the business of reaping the tourist dollar and joining the E.U.

On Sunday 24th September 2006 I finally took the plunge and flew from Edinburgh to Larnaca with Eurocypria Airways, a somewhat sexy prospect to aviation anoraks, and with it the start of a new life. The rain was pouring down in Edinburgh, and Scotland finally, reluctantly gave up her grip after yet another delay of an hour or so. Unfortunately that meant that I would be scheduled to arrive in Larnaca just in time to miss the last airport bus and the last of the daylight to boot. For a moment it didn't seem to matter however, the plane appeared to be coming down into the sea. Staring back at the water's surface at no more than 20 feet, a strip of beach briefly flashed by and we landed with a bump on Cypriot soil. Just. Mercifully the taxi system at Larnaca was organised enough not to be the total shark feeding frenzy they tend to be the world over, and I drew up to the youth hostel in my big shiny black Mercedes, as you do. The flight had taken me diagonally across the entire expanse of Europe. After leaving the omnipresent black cloud over Kelty behind I soon had a fantastic view of what I took to be the Austrian Tyrol, complete with impressive glaciers, then right past Venice mirrored against a shiny Adriatic Sea and on to the wild, dark mountains of Albania. I saw Corfu on the horizon and then the familiar outline of Rhodes. As we flew over the north of Cyprus I had a panorama of the whole island and even managed to pick out the RAF radar station atop Mt. Troodos, the highest peak. I thought of the time I had climbed that mountain, and viewed images of the Middle East from those radar screens. I was 15 then and an Air Cadet on my very first venture abroad. I recalled how it had got so dark that night that in order to get back to camp we'd had to get down on our hands and knees and feel for the white lines in the middle of the road.

The hostel proved to be a beautifully preserved monastic building, all pink sandstone and arches and topped off with a dome. Unfortunately, modernity had encroached upon it from all sides and also had sadly penetrated into the interior. Suffice to say the beauty was only skin deep. The take away sandwich shop across the road was called Quick Stop Submarines. It was a dive all right and the stop wouldn't be quick enough.

It was prudent however to establish a stable base for the first few days and get used to all the new demands of the language, the money, the weather. And so over the next 3 days I rattled off a series of firsts. My first kebab, my first pint of Keo lager, my first insect bite, my first cockroach. And my first night in a strange dormitory bed kept awake by the stifling heat. I saw the forecast the next day, and it proclaimed that Cyprus and actually Larnaca specifically would be the hottest spot in the whole of the Med at 31 degrees. Except they were wrong, the next day it reached 34. Larnaca wasn't so bad though. It had managed to find a workable blend with a well maintained, palm lined promenade given over to tourism, yet latched onto a real honest working city. It had been done tastefully enough and was an easy place to relax. And on my first day thats all I managed, a beer at lunchtime on top of the heat and I finally conked out whether I liked it or not.

I made up for it the next day wıth a visit to the shared building on the seafront housing the Paeleontology Museum and Museum of Larnaca. There wasn't that much of note but I did learn that Cyprus had been inhabited until recent times by pygmy hippos and dwarf elephants, probably succumbing to extinction upon the arrival of man. The old photos of Larnaca showed how it had evolved from very meagre beginnings only since WWII.

Next day I did a day trip out east to Ayia Napa, really just a jaunt to say I had been there and seen what all the fuss was about. It was supposed to be Europe's clubbing mecca but I didn't see a single club amongst the swathe of bars, restaurants and hotels that made it just one more busy package resort. It did have a very nice if crowded beach however, and remarkably the average age was positively geriatric. It was all hype. I would have liked to have seen it at night and had originally planned to do so before learning that the youth hostel here had closed down. So no clubbing for me but I got the idea all the same. Ensconced in the middle of all the marketing mayhem sat the now very out of place Monastery of Ayia Napa, once the only building for miles around. The more interesting aspect was actually the getting there however. Signs along the way pointed towards the EAC Refugee Camp, a bit of a contrast, and there were also turn offs indicated to Pyla, the last village on the whole island where Greek and Turkish communities coexisted. Other signs promised Famagusta, but that was now in the north and had been beyond reach until recently. I wondered if the signs had been newly erected for the border opening, if they had always been there since before partition or had served just as a reminder to passers by that it was still there at all and had not been forgotten. And all of this on British territory. Ayia Napa and the eastern beach resorts were effectively cut off from the rest of the country by the Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, one of two enclaves which had been retained by Britain as a condition of independence. We passed many barrack buildings behind barbed wire and a gate sign proclaiming the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to be in residence. There was no roadblock as such but gates stood at the ready to isolate the base should the need arise. In that event the eastern resorts would be left cut off from the rest of the country, perverse.

I just had time enough to catch the Pierides Museum on my return to Larnaca, a villa which had long housed the Pierides family who had amassed a grand collection of artifacts from paleolithic times onwards. They had a particularly fine display of old maps embellished with such evocative names as Barbaria (North Africa), Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and one curiously entitled in English "Paradise, or The Garden of Eden" (the Biblical Lands). Cyprus had always been known as Cypri Insula however.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Cyprus Comments (0)

Strategy

So what to do about ıt? There were 2 possible strategies. The first was to buy (at great expense) a round the world air ticket. An RTW basically involves globehopping from one point of interest to another, using flights to miss out the boring, difficult or impossible bits. In that way you can simply make a shopping list of desired destinations and "join the dots" as it were. You could even do Open Jaws. That is for example, fly into Delhi and out of say Katmandhu, then maybe fly on to Bangkok, hoof it down the Malay peninsula to Singapore, and fly on again to say Bali. The possibilities were endless, but they all had one thing in common. They were a cop out. I didn't see the point in missing out places simply because one had the prior impression that they wouldn't be immediately stimulating or it took a bit of effort or hardship to go there. That was what tourists did, and the intention was to be much more than that, to see the world for what it was, warts and all. Those determined to travel the world in comfort whilst maintaining something close to western standards are in danger of missing the point entirely, the journey becomes meaningless to an extent, serving to isolate you from that which you should be seeking. And to the locals it was almost insulting, who was anyone to say that their way of life was not equally worthy? As a rich, educated, single man I had no excuse. I had a duty if nothing else to those less fortunate than myself to see the difference between us, and perhaps contemplate what could be done about it.

And so for the alternative. Overlanding. Just like it says, you choose a starting point and fly to it, presuming it aint Cowdenbeath, and just hit the road (or rail) to wherever your intended path of enlightenment should finish. Subject to the constraints of the map, there were only a handful of finite possibilities. Through motives of conquest, pillage or trade, men had set out to blaze trails along obvious routes for millennia, and notwithstanding quirks of fate such as the establishment and break up of the Soviet Union, these had changed little since the days of adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton, Marco Polo or Alexander the Great. Cecil Rhodes for example had torn swathes through bush country for the crown, his endeavour from Cape Town to Cairo bringing the British Empire's influence to the length of Africa. It still remains the most feasible and perhaps the only realistic route across the dark continent to this day.You could cross North America without even getting out of your car, but that was for lightweights and geriatrics. Although having it's place, not much to learn there that one couldn't guess at already. South America, or even the length of the Americas would be more of a challenge, not least because one would be presumed to be from the States, thus rich and eager to spend it. But it was the New World and thus limited to an extent due to the vagaries of its own common history, it was all Hispanic. Interesting but a tad one dimensional. And then there was Asia. The greatest contiguous expanse of land the planet had to offer, it circled half the globe like a girdle and encompassed all the diversity that that might indicate. There was certainly a natural procession. Marco Polo had shown the way and centuries later it had even become popularised, nae immortalised by the hippies during the 1970s. The 1st generation who didn't have to go to war, in liberation they sought cheap drugs and free love instead and Asia was the place to find it. A million and one scraggly haired dropouts forged the classic Hippy Trail from Istanbul to Katmandhu and had a real groovy spiritual experience man. Given that it was also the cradle of some of the worlds most revered and ancient civilisations and seat of all the worlds major religions, retaining many fascinating cultures unchanged in centuries and its incredible geographic diversity, it was simultaneously the most challenging, important and potentially rewarding prospect the world had to offer. And coincidentally, it had the added incentive of acting as a land bridge to Australasia where I had some unfinished business to attend to. So Asia it was.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Comments (0)

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