Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

The big Apple

Posted by Andy Hockley on 20 June, 2008

Or more accurately, the grandfather of the apple. That’s what Alma-ata (now mostly called Almaty) means. For a few moments after discovering this fact it had me musing on the Central Asian roots of the Magyars, since Alma is also the Hungarian word for apple, and ata is close enough to grandfather to be a feasible link. However, I suspect that the real and more prosaic reason is that it’s a Turkish connection – Kazakh is a Turkic language and Hungarian has a fair few Turkish words in it from the Ottoman empire.

So, anyway, Almaty. I didn’t get to see a huge amount of it to be honest, since we were holed up in the hotel for most of the time, working, eating and sleeping, but I did get to go to a pretty cool Mongolian-barbecue restaurant (and the sword wielding Mongolian in charge of the cooking was even happy to do a veggie run for myself and a Nepali colleague), and also to take a walk through the town to the main square in which there are some big statues and a place where you put your hand in order to make a wish. I can’t really describe it any better than that, I’m afraid. It is what it is).

Finally though on my last day there, I got to have some free time, and spent it in the company of one of the participants at one of Almaty’s most famous locations (or at least that’s where we initially headed for), which is a big ice stadium above the city called Medeo. When i say ice stadium, I don’t actually mean stadium made of ice, I mean stadium which is used in the winter for ice-related events. We actually didn’t end up there though, because we got talked into a trip further up the mountain to a ski resort called Chimbulak, which was well worth it, and pretty high up. The evidence for this was the fact that it had been bloody roasting in the town (and even at Medeo which is high above the town), but up at Chimbulak a mere 20 minutes further on, it was decidedly nippy – and then when we took the ski lift up the mountain, not only did we start to find patches of snow, but we also needed the thick coats which we were advised to rent at the bottom. (I think we got to something like 3000 metres).

Anyway, I don’t really have anything to say about Almaty (it was a bit like Bishkek, only bigger and with more expensive cars and shops – and if you want to know what I thought of Bishkek, you can just read here and here and here, which will take you back to the days when this blog was actually good. Or mediocre anyway.), so in the absence of any witty and enlightening words, here are a couple of pictures:


Almaty as viewed from Chimbulak


Medeo (Not actually taken by me)


A statue of some Kazakhs. (Also not taken by me, but by an Iranian colleague – check out the Iranian datestamp on the picture)

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Posted in travel | 2 Comments »

Reflections on Business Class

Posted by Andy Hockley on 4 June, 2008

The project I’ve been working on for the last year and a half is coming to an end, and so, I suspect, are my days of business class flying. I have three more legs to do to get back from Kathmandu to Bucharest, and that, I reckon, will be that.

So, what does business class offer that goes anyway to justifying the price? Well, the short answer to that is very little. This is what you get for your business class ticket:

  1. Access to the business class lounge in the airport(s). This is a nice perk as it tends to be much more peaceful and comfortable, you get free food and drink, and usually free internet access (except in bloody Germany). However, in most places you can usually pay to get into a business lounge even if you don’t have a business ticket. And the price is usually around €20. So, given that the markup on the ticket is way more than that, I’d say this doesn’t qualify as something really special.
  2. Hot towels. Now this is a perk. The attendants come round with a hot towel at the beginning and end of your journey, and it’s a very nice thing to have. (Note: Not applicable on Lufthansa)
  3. More seat room. Often this is a serious amount of room which is extremely good. However, when you fly within Europe, what it tends to be is that they block off the middle seat with a drinks/newspaper table. The seats that turn into full on beds though? Thumbs up.
  4. Better food. This is nice, but really, you don’t fly for the dining experience, so I’m questioning how much of a benefit it really is.
  5. Better service. You get more smiles and more use of your name. And probably there is a higher stewardess/passenger ratio. That’s about it.
  6. Flowers/perfume/toothpaste etc in the bathroom.
  7. Occasionally, you get a toiletry set. Not bad
  8. You get off first, and can get on whenever you like. A definite benefit.
  9. The check-in queue is shorter. Ditto.
  10. First choice of the magazines and newspapers.

That’s really it. It’s not a huge amount really. If you’re flying a long distance and you can get a reasonable deal on one of the airlines mentioned below, then go for it. But otherwise, you’re not missing a massive amount.

Rankings:

Airlines I’ve used recently that have really good business class stuff:

  • Etihad
  • Singapore
  • Thai

Pretty good, but not in the top league:

  • Emirates
  • Astana
  • Aeroflot

Rubbish:

  • Turkish
  • Uzbek
  • Tarom

Utter rubbish

  • Lufthansa

Basically, what I’m saying is that you’re not missing much, but it is a better travelling experience. For in-Europe flights it’s a joke really. No wonder it’s called business class – it just means the only way people will pay for it is if their company does for them.

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A muddy old river or reclining Buddha

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 June, 2008

A couple of years ago, I took what I expected (nay hoped) would be the most ridiculously out of the way routing I’d ever taken – that was flying from Bucharest to Kiev via Amsterdam. I think though, I’ve just trumped that one (at least in terms of distance and time) by a huge amount.

I needed to fly from Almaty to Kathmandu, which on a map doesn’t look that difficult. Nowhere near as close as Bucharest to Kiev, obviously, but it just looks like a 3 hour-ish flight across Western China/Tibet. You cannot, however, do it directly (which I guess is not a massive surprise, since there probably isn’t a vast amount of regular traffic between the two countries). But when you look into it, you discover that it’s pretty hard to do it with even one connection. There are two routes. The best one in terms of flight times, is via Delhi. This one however is problematic because the Almaty – Delhi flight arrives in the evening and the onward flight is not until the next morning. This would not be a major hassle were it not for the fact that to leave the airport (to go to a hotel, say) I would have needed a visa. And I didn’t have that kind of time. So, instead I had to take the second option. Via Bangkok. To make matters worse, for reasons I’m not sure of, but which seemed to involve a need to circle the Himalayas and not cross the Gobi desert, the flight from Almaty to Bangkok starts off by going west and crosses Afghanistan, and Pakistan before flying east over India, Bangladesh and Burma. (Trust me this is not a terribly direct route). So it was a 7 hour flight. And, after a night in a very fancy hotel (Thailand allows me in with no visa, y’see) I am now in the airport waiting to fly on another 3.5 hours back to Kathmandu.

Still, it’s not quite as bad as the fact that two of the participants of the workshop in Almaty who were from Nepal took a flight that routed them through Delhi and Frankfurt. So, I should be thankful for small mercies. Those two, by the way, left their home in the Kingdom of Nepal last Monday and will have arrived home yesterday in the Republic of Nepal. It promises to be an interesting time to be visiting Nepal all round, in fact. I never imagined I would spend time in a country run by Maoists (albeit democractically elected ones)

So, one night in Bangkok. I lived in Bangkok nearly 20 years ago and it was a spectacularly overcrowded, cloyingly polluted, gridlocked mess. It has got a lot better. (It may be one of the few cities in the world where the traffic situation has improved in that 20 year time period – though to be honest it couldn’t have got much worse, without just becoming permanent gridlock). The airport is new, and very light and airy, a bunch of expressways have been built, meaning that the drive from the airport to the city centre took slightly less than 30 minutes – completely unimaginable when I was last here, and there is a overground railway system which has taken a lot of the pressure off the roads. I also noticed that on some downtown roads there is the big electronic board over the road which tells you which roads in the area are blocked/slow moving at that time. It’s all very impressive. Even this morning (a Monday, after all) I was picked up at 7.30 and whisked to the airport in a similar time. I’m sure that there are still horrible bottlenecks and the extremely slow moving journeys of all cities, but the change that I have just experienced is pretty dramatic. Even the pollution seems tons better – 20 years ago I used to gag walking out the door into the traffic, but now I didn’t even notice the fumes.

So, anyway, on to the world’s newest Republic. Sawatdee Krap and Namaste.

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Comfortable missionary position

Posted by Andy Hockley on 18 May, 2008

Been slacking off on the blog a bit lately, don’t really have much of an excuse, but since I’m providing a free service (albeit one of dubious value), I reckon you can cut down on the criticism a tad.

I’m writing this on a train home from Bucharest*, where I spent yesterday and this morning partly doing a workshop and then this morning getting myself a visa for Kazakhstan. This latter process had its own little set of interests, as I eventually located the embassy which is not an embassy, and is not even a consulate, but is a “diplomatic mission”, whatever that means. The bloke who works there is though officially a consul (rather than a missionary), and has what appears to be a nice cushy life. The place is only open from 9-12 and I duly showed up this morning at 9.30 to find he hadn’t actually got to work yet. The policemen outside were friendly enough and spoke English which was a bonus. [Another positive was that I went for a stroll round the block while I waited and came across the gloriously named “Kunty Automotive Service”. It’s the first time I have ever thought that having a mobile phone with a camera in it would have some value. Sadly though, I still live in the dark ages, mobilephonewise] It seems a little bit much that Romania presumably has to pay for two policemen to sit outside what amounts to a house with a flag on it, 24 hours a day, to guard a consul (who only works a couple of hours a day) and two staff (I’d called them a few times and that experience, along with basically meeting everyone this morning, means that I have pretty much worked out the staffing levels of the place. I reckon I’d make a good spy). One thing I had to do before going there this morning was to pay for my visa – you can’t just show up at the place with cash, you have to pay at a bank, and then show them the receipt. This I had to do in the Banca Transylvania (any branch), which is convenient as we live in the same building as that bank. So on Wednesday I went along to the Csikszereda Banca Transylvania and asked if I could pay for a Kazakh visa. This, as might be imagined, caused some consternation, since I suspect they don’t get many people in there asking for such a thing. There were lots of phone calls and eventually a ledger was produced in which I managed to locate the Kazakhs and demonstrate that really this was possible. Anyway, I finally got my pieces of paper in order, and when the consul showed up, waited for half an hour reading about the glorious achievements of Kazakh government, while he stuck something in my passport. Not quite sure why it took him half an hour, but there you go. He was probably tired.

I’m off to Almaty the week after next, since you asked.

(*While I did actually write this on the train on Friday, I could not post it until today, Sunday. So, no, the Kazakh consul was not working on a Sunday. Or in the afternoons. Or before about 10. Or much at all really)

Posted in bureaucracy, travel | 2 Comments »

Spelunking Today

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 May, 2008

Well, yesterday, really. We spent our May 1st holiday underground in a cave not too far from here called Sugo Barlang (where barlang means cave) or Pestera Sugau in Romanian. Romania has loads of really interesting caves, I’m told, many of which are more dramatic than the one we went to yesterday, but this one was pretty interesting all the same. Some pictures (as ever, click on them to view full size)

This effect is apparently called “Leopard Skin”:

For some unaccountable reason back in the 70s some part of the Romanian army was billeted in this cave, so many of the stalactites and stalacmites got snapped off, which is a shame, but it does mean you get to see the cystalline stuff in the middle:

More broken bits, but still pretty cool.

A bat. A cat? No, a bat.

A pair of brave cavers

Posted in transylvania, travel | 3 Comments »

Random thoughts

Posted by Andy Hockley on 14 April, 2008

I’m just back from England, where I attended the annual IATEFL conference in Exeter with Erika and something like 1600 other people. It was a good trip, though I wasn’t feeling at my best, since the cough I had a few weeks ago turns out to have been pneumonia (or at least some similar non-specific lung inflammation, of similar levels of intensity). I am waiting today to have another delightful visit to Csikszereda’s hospital so that I can work out whether or not more treatment is necessary (this possibly will involve spending a few nights in the aforementioned building while I get regular injections of antibiotics and/or monitoring of rampant blood pressure which has risen in accompaniment of the lung thing. So if I don’t post anything here for a while it is likely because I am stuck in hospital and hence offline.

One of the things that I have complained about often in Romania is the fact that people are so incredibly nesh here. If I dare to take Paula out in 20 degree temperatures without a hat, I get older people especially looking at me like I’m inhumane and ought to be arrested. You see people wearing cotton wool in their ears just to keep the draughts out (and also sounds and other such troublesome things). But I think there has to be some kind of happy medium between the approach to temperature in Romania and the approach to temperature in England.

To set the scene we flew into Luton last Sunday in the middle of a raging blizzard. In April. In southern England. No idea what’s going on. Anyway, it only really snowed on that day, but the temperature never really got very warm – most nights there was a heavy frost, and the daytime temps never rose much above 7 degrees. But in the midst of this hardly summery weather people walked around wearing not much more than their underwear. Mostly these people were teenagers, and especially teenage girls, it is true, so one can put some of this masochistic lunacy down to the vagaries of fashion, but it is a fashion which seems remarkably long-lasting. Whenever I go back and find myself wandering round an English town of an evening I usually find myself marvelling at the lack of warm clothing on those out carousing. This year, if anything the phenomenon has either got worse, or prolonged exposure to Romania has made me more sensitive to it. Perhaps I am becoming assmiliated and before long I, too, will be tutting concernedly at parents whose children are not buried in a vast heavily-lined, multi-layered, all-over burqa; wearing large clumps of cotton wool in my ears; and furiously closing every window in the train.

Posted in romania, travel, uk, weather | 4 Comments »

New Country for Old Man

Posted by Andy Hockley on 28 March, 2008

So, I’m in Podgorica. For those who haven’t kept up with Europe’s continued breaking into smaller and smaller bits, Podgorica is the capital of Montenegro, and therefore arguably Europe’s newest capital (that honour could go to Pristina, but I’m still not sure if Kosovo is a real country or not.)

I only arrived a couple of hours ago, and I’m off to do a workshop at the coast in a few minutes, so I’ll give my potted thoughts.

1. Podgorica used to be called Titograd, which is a marvelously evocative name, redolent of tractor factories, concrete apartment buildings and smog. So while I kind of regret that it’s not still called Titograd, it doesn’t really look like a Titograd. It’s surrounded by snowcapped mountains and is a very small town (it seems), and (as communist towns go) it seems pretty attractive really.

2. It has a spanking new and modern looking new airport, all shiny buildings and cleanliness and chrome and everything. But it seems like there are no planes or passengers served by it. I arrived on one of those propeller engined little things from Vienna, which when we got there was the only plane in town. As you might imagine we didn’t really provide the airport with a vast amount of business before the staff all went back to filing their nails or whatever else they do in the hours between customers.

3. Two surprising facts (to me at least). (a) The currency is the Euro; (b) Everything seems to be written in Roman script rather than cyrillic, which I was kind of expecting.

That’s it for now. Not sure how to say good night in Montenegran (I wonder if that’s what they call it, like Serbo Croat split into three more or less the same languages (Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian) and now there’s a new one? I’ll have to ask). My guess is it will be something like Dobre Utra. So a possible Dobre Utra for now.

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Dubai

Posted by Andy Hockley on 5 March, 2008

(I tried to cram some kind of “Du as you would be done bai” pun into the title here, but just couldn’t make it work, even by the low standards I have set for myself on this blog)

It’s been a while since I got back from the place, but it is so bloody weird that it does deserve a post. I ought to begin by mentioning that I actually lived in the UAE some time ago (and by some time, I mean a lot of time – the “Gulf War” that was ongoing at that time was the one between Iran and Iraq, to give some sense of the blood that has passed under the bridge since then). I wasn’t living in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi, which at the time was kind of an equal rival to Dubai (richer as it still is, because that’s where the oil mostly is, but less thrusting internationally).

Anyway, I had occasion to go to Dubai a few times, and it is interesting to see the changes. To give an example, when I was there 19 years ago, Dubai airport was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by some roads and a lot of empty scrubland. Now, Dubai airport is basically in the middle of the city, surrounded by hotels and other manifestations of the rampant urban sprawl that seems to characterise the place. They’re actually building a new airport out in the desert again so they can free up the space from the one they currently use. Presumably the plan goes that in 20 years time the new one will have been swallowed up again, and they’ll have to start building a third one further out. (For anyone familiar with Dubai now, I spent a day at the “Academic City” out in the middle of nowhere – that’s what the airport used to look like).

I read somewhere that such is the scale of the construction that one quarter of all the world’s cranes are in Dubai. I find that impossible to believe frankly (isn’t the entirety of China also undergoing some kind of similar boom?), but anyway I found a link for you, so as to prove that I didn’t just make it up. Outside my hotel room (just across the street in fact) the world’s tallest building was under construction (it’s already the world’s tallest building, even though it’s not finished yet). Here’s the wikipedia page about it. I couldn’t actually see all of it from my room, obviously, I needed to stand outside on the balcony to do that, but I can assure you that it is big. The hotel, by the way, was the most ludicrously ugly one I think I have ever stayed in – it was extremely well appointed and fancy on the inside, but the architect had gone for a kind of Kubla Khan meets Disneyworld look on the outside. It looked terrible. [Photos 6 and 7 in this slideshow if you really want to see it]

You’d think in such a modern city, with all the money at the disposal of the planners and so on that some thought would have gone into its growth and expansion, but apparently none has. They’ve only just realised, for example, that some form of public transport infrastructure is desirable, and have therefore started putting a metro system in. Now obviously would have looked a bit silly building a metro from nowhere to nowhere 25 years ago, but they might have considered putting one in the city that existed at that point and then been able to extend it as the sprawl sprawled. This lack of forethought pales, however, beside a story I heard of a new residential district that was built – new homes for hundreds of people, with roads, garages, etc etc. Except that they forgot to put any sewage system in, and so all the new residents of this nice new neuighbourhood were forced to put up with a year of digging while the streets were dug up again and a sewage system was put in place, while a kind of cess-tanker sat at the end of the road into which the residents’ sewage was temporarily pumped.

I went to a shopping mall (this, judging by the literature left lying around the hotel, is the chief tourist attraction of Dubai) which contained a ski-slope. A real one, with snow and all that. Contained within some kind of glassed in winter-world, but possible to be viewed from the shopping area and traditional globally-available appalling “food court”. It was dead strange – especially the small sledging slope down the bottom in which children were obviously forced to wear helmets. It was a long way from the steep hills around here which children careen down wildly on plastic bags or toilet seats. When I got home and told people of this story, I was asked a few times if I had tried it out and gone skiing. I had to confess that given my trip was in January I didn’t feel the need to seek out a ski-slope while in Dubai, especially since I live where I do. Overall, the impression given by Dubai is of a place that’s trying really hard to be all things to all people. Maybe one day it will get there, but at the moment it all seems a bit desperate.

But is this how all cities will look in the future? Walking round the mall, for example, while not exactly my favourite leisure activity, was at the very least a full on multicultural experience. More so even than places like London and New York. That side of Dubai is pretty appealing, even though the hierarchies based on nationality within the system are obviously very present and not especially hidden. But at least in places like the food court of a shopping centre, those strata are buried in the varied hues and clashing languages of a reasonable cross section of humanity. It was (momentarily) uplifting, actually. Obviously the other side to the “mall-world-as-future” thing is that we will all be expected to spend all our free time shopping, which is a significantly less rosy view of the world-to-come to my mind, but that seems to be mostly just me.

Obviously you’ve heard about some of the other stuff (the artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a palm tree, the other artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a map of the world, the world’s only 7 star hotel – how do they know? what is a 7 star hotel? did they just define themselves as such? – and so on and so forth.), so I won’t go into it. The best bit of Dubai though, is what passes for an older area of the city (you know 30 years-ish) down by the creek (and in fact involving the chaotic and fun shuttle boats across that creek). Partly because it reminds me vaguely of what it used to look like, and partly because it seems more real and less like you’re walking through an artist’s impression.

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Please note: Bucharest to be closed

Posted by Andy Hockley on 4 March, 2008

At the beginning of April I need to fly to the UK. In these days of cheap flights in Europe and various options, this should be no problem (well, once I’ve driven at least 3 hours to my nearest airport). However at the beginning of April Bucharest is hosting a NATO summit, and in a spectacularly over the top and disruptive move the government has decided to close both of Bucharest’s airports for the 3 days of the summit. How utterly ridiculous is that? What a complete waste of time. I’ve read that they are expecting to redirect flights to Constanta and Timisoara. Now as it goes Constanta is not that far from Bucharest in Romanian terms, but Timisoara is something like a 12 hour train journey. I’ve never heard of another country doing something so short-sighted and ludicrous as this. (Of course the airlines are not stupid and flying out of other Romanian airports at that time is correspondingly expensive).

Still, it’ll be good for the environment I suppose. Wonder when the person responsible for this will start using that as an excuse?

Posted in romania, travel | 3 Comments »

Nepal

Posted by Andy Hockley on 3 March, 2008

Over the course of the last year I’ve travelled to some fairly messed up places. From countries with murderous dictators (Uzbekistan) to countries undergoing severe political turmoil (Bangladesh, Pakistan), to places on the front line of the supposed ideological battle between “Western” values and fundamentalist Islam (Pakistan, and on some level, Dubai). I’ve also failed to travel somewhere (Afghanistan) because my hotel got bombed two weeks before I was due to be in it. All of these trips were bookended by two separate trips to Nepal. Of all of the countries mentioned above (with the possible exception of Afghanistan) none is more messed up than Nepal.


Since Nepal rarely makes the international news, the current situation there may have escaped your attention. For about ten years, the country had to deal with a fairly intense Maoist insurgency in the west of the country. A couple of years ago a deal was struck, bringing the Maoists into a national unity government. Subsequently the king was stripped of most of his powers, and the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a more figurehead based one. When I was there last year, the process for national elections had just begun, scheduled for October. A friend of mine, Paula, had just arrived to join the UN mission helping oversee and support the elections. At that time there were severe shortages of many things (including petrol and diesel) and regular 6 hour rolling blackouts (called “load shedding” in Nepali English).


A year on and things have not improved. In fact they have got significantly worse. The elections were postponed and are now due to take place in April, though few imagine that they actually will. In the meantime a new political crisis has taken hold – The south lowland part of the country, known as the Tarai, has started agitating for more autonomy and political power. Since the region forms part of the only accessible border – the one with India – factions in this autonomy movement have been able to lay virtual siege to the rest of the country, stopping the transportation of petrol, diesel, kerosene, cooking gas, etc. What seemed like pretty terrible hardship for people last year now looks miniscule in comparison. Many of the streets of Kathmandu are lined with parked vehicles – trucks, buses, taxis, cars – all queuing for petrol (though the word queueing is somewhat misleading since that implies a vaguely active process. These queues involves waiting for up to three days to buy a limited amount of petrol. There is little to no cooking fuel available – gas or kerosene. Load shedding is now an 8-hour daily event. Couple all this with the fact that Nepal is already one of the poorest countries in the world and you don’t really have a pretty picture. The city anyway looks in places like an open sewer, and the roads are a disaster. Then bear in mind that Nepal is an extremely centralised country – so if this is the situation in Kathmandu, it must be many times worse elsewhere.


It’s a very beautiful and spectacular country, with fascinating sights and wonderful and caring people. I could tell story after story about some of the people I have met there – from the teacher in Kathmandu who every summer gets donations from his colleagues, buys a bunch of dictionaries, which he packs into a rucksack and then sets off on a long trek through the mountains, donating a dictionary to every remote village that he comes to, to the participant in our workshop who apologises for not being online very often because he has to walk 24 hours to reach the road, and thus have access to an Internet cafe, and many more tales in a similar vein.


But by christ it’s a mess.

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