Across Argentina’s Entre Rios province

Crossing the bridge from Uruguay near Fray Bentos brought us into a rather different place: things a little shabbier here (though nowhere near what I expected from hearing that Argentina has been an economic basket case since long before I was born), and there is something in the distances between things and the demeanor of the locals that told us that we had arrived in a “big country”. Continue reading Across Argentina’s Entre Rios province

A week of cycling in Uruguay

Wanting to escape the northern hemisphere winter, we decided to cycle for a few months through South America. Argentina was the biggest attraction, but flights to Uruguay’s capital Montevideo were significantly cheaper than to Buenos Aires. Thus we found ourselves spending a week in this sleepy little country, heading from Montevideo’s airport to its Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), and then cycling northwest to the border crossing with Argentina near the town of Fray Bentos.

Uruguay struck me as a country that must be nice to live in, but without much to see for tourists, at least on our route that took us away from Atlantic coast with its beaches. Still, the people were very friendly. Cycling from Montevideo’s airport to the city centre also proved memorable, as the 30-kilometer-long riverfront promenade goes along the mouth of the Río del Plato that is so wide, it feels like the real ocean. A mural in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (Old Town) celebrating the country’s seafarersThe capital’s Ciudad Vieja, however, was less a slice of picturesque history preserved for tourists and more an example of urban decay with innumerable abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Below I’ll recount some of our experiences that might guide other cyclists and shoestring travelers. Continue reading A week of cycling in Uruguay

Cycling Romania’s Transalpina road

In early August 2015 we cycled Romania’s “Transalpina” road (DN67C) over the Carpathians, going from south to north. While less well known than the Transfăgărășan road, which got asphalt first and has been raved about in international media, the Transalpina reaches a higher attitude at its peak and has much less traffic.

Elevation chart for the Transalpina cycled from Târgu Jiu to Sebeș Continue reading Cycling Romania’s Transalpina road

Pleasant cycling from Baia Mare to Cluj

The route we cycled from Baia Mare to Cluj was one of the smoothest routes in northwest Romania, away from any major highways but with paved roads for almost the entire length, no uphills that are too daunting, and some interesting scenery. The trip falls neatly into two days.

Continue reading Pleasant cycling from Baia Mare to Cluj

Helsinki’s Akateeminen Kirjakauppa: the death of a bookstore

The big disappointment of this visit to Helsinki is the state of the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookshop) located at Pohjoisesplanadi 39, Finland’s largest bookstore and a prominent feature of the city centre. The entire third floor is no longer in use, and of the considerable stock once offered there, only a small remnant has been moved to lower floors. The once vast selection of French literature on sale on the first floor is now a small amount of books unceremoniously dumped into a bin. There’s a blowout sale currently going on that bears the rather ominous Finnish name loppuale. None of the staff is willing to comment on developments.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is happening to large bookstores all over the world. My own local bookshops in Cluj seem to have decided that hipster accoutrement (ECM on vinyl, fancy Japanese-imported tea sets, organic biscuits) is a more dependable source of profit than books. With regard to Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, it must have cost a lot of money to keep such a large store running, and I’m sure many would-be customers were avoiding Finland’s very high prices for foreign books by ordering over the internet from Amazon or the like. When I was spending a significant amount of time in Helsinki in 2006–2010, I visited this shop at least three days a week, but I can count the number of books I ever bought there on one hand.

The only bright side is that after putting off buying the Finnish etymological dictionary Suomen sanojen alkuperä at the usual “Sale!” price of 120€, I managed to buy all three volumes today for just 40€ total.

A reading list on the Istanbul–Kathmandu route (the hippie trail)

One of my hobbies is learning about the overland trail between Europe and the Indian subcontinent that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s, often called the hippie trail for its identification with the counterculture. On one hand, young people in those days had an opportunity that Europeans today lack: Afghanistan subsequently erupted into a series of wars that ended the possibility of easily transiting the region; some cities in Iran were developing quickly on a Western model due to the Shah regime, an era ended by the Islamic revolution. On the other hand, the journey took up to a month of hitchhiking or sitting in a bus when we today can fly today for a meagre amount of money, and many who made the journey lost weeks battling Hepatitis A, had problems with officialdom, or got lice. The publications on the era are a window into a very different world, by turns romantic and dismal.

  • David Tomory, A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 1998) ISBN 0864426291. A collection of oral histories by a number of Western Europeans (and some Americans who started from Europe), covering many different aspects of the journey and describing various places in the Subcontinent that they settled in upon arrival. This book is the best place to get started on the era.
  • Patrick Marnham, Road to Katmandu (1st edition Macmillan, 1971, 2nd edition with new introduction by the author IB Tauris in 2005) ISBN 184511017X. A lightly fictionalized account of the author’s 1968 journey through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal.
  • Michael H.C. Baker, Journey to Kathmandu (London: David & Charles, 1974). Instead of just hippies, this account from the spring of 1967 represents what was in fact a more typical demographic among English-speaking travellers then: fairly conventional young people trying to get to and from Australia cheaply. Baker was a driver in a convoy of three covered lorries (trucks) that formerly belonged to the army. Carrying 46 passengers, they travelled for several weeks through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
  • Borna Bebek, Santhana: One Man’s Journey to the East (London: The Bodley Head, 1980) ISBN 0370302605. Right after graduating from university in his native Yugoslavia, Bebek set off on the overland trail in January 1977, though from Pakistan he sailed to Thailand and Mauritius before finally reaching India. Set against the memories of those who made the trip earlier, this book is interesting because it documents the little-discussed Yugoslav presence on the trail, and Bebek writes of how by 1977 the hippie era was already seen as ancient history. This is an English translation of the Serbo-Croatian original published as Santhana: Putopis (Zagreb: Nakladni zavod MH, 1979).

Another source of information is Nico Morrison’s project The Flower Raj, which tries to document the lives of Westerners who fell in love with India from 1950 on, a poignant task considering that so many of this generation have already passed away. The project’s blog includes a number of travelogues contributed by those who made the overland journey.

Six weeks cycling South Africa

In January and February 2014, we cycled some 2000 km across South Africa from Johannesburg to Cape Town. South Africa proved a fascinating country from a number of perspectives, and I would strongly recommend it to cycle tourists. Instead of a detailed account of our trip – which would quickly bore readers with our recounting the innumerable tiny towns we passed through that all had the same shops – I shall offer here some more general impressions to guide others planning such a trip. A map showing a route cycled from Johannesburg to Cape Town Continue reading Six weeks cycling South Africa

Why flying on Air Madagascar is not advisable

On the day we were supposed to fly out of Madagascar, we said goodbye to the Academy of Free Travel house and cycled back to Antananarivo’s airport the way we came over a month ago. Piled onto the back racks of our bikes were a few giant-sized Chinese shopping bags, rolls of foam and some twine that we had bought in a Tana market. Bike boxes do not exist in Madagascar, and the ones we came with were already beaten up after the long journey from Europe, so these materials were all we could work with.

We spent a couple of hours dismantling the bikes and carefully wrapping them, then checked into our Air Madagascar flight to Johannesburg and went through security. When we got to the gate, we were surprised how few passengers there were from the Boeing 737 parked on the tarmac outside. Boarding did not proceed on time, and a few minutes later the gate agent announced that the flight had been canceled. Probably because there aren’t enough passengers to make it worthwhile, said a Russian businessman with long experience with this airline.

After initial panic among the several dozen passengers, a somewhat orderly queue formed to find out what to do. A policeman canceled the exit stamps in our passports, we were sent into the baggage claim area to retrieve the luggage we had checked (one of the “bike bags” is already torn and in need of further reinforcement), and then we visited the airport’s Air Madagascar office where we were told of the possibility, but not guaranteed, that the flight would leave the next day.

Though we rue bitterly that we were denied the departure we had been looking forward to, at least the airline sorted for us a hotel room, a shuttle to the hotel and back to the airport, and meals. We had hoped to be lodged in one of the nice 4- or 5-star hotels near the airport (which apparently do much of their business from Chinese businessmen), but instead the shuttle took us and a number of other would-be passengers some kilometres back towards Tana, then down a very dodgy side street to a 2-star establishment known as the Les Flots Bleu.

We couldn’t complain so much: the hotel had wi-fi and the restaurant served (and gratis) the best food we’ve had in our entire trip here. Plus, we were a motley crew, and it was fun to speak to a Botswana-born hotel owner from the idyllic Île Sainte-Marie (Visitor numbers are down, but you don’t live there for the money, you live there for the lifestyle.), a South African economist spending a lot of time in booming Nigeria, and a group of twenty or so Korean tourists.

The next day we had a breakfast and lunch at the hotel and then were shuttled to the airport. Check-in for the flight began late, but most people made it to the gate before the expected departure time. Again, just before boarding was due to begin, it was announced that the flight was canceled.

The Air Madagascar staff claimed that the flight was canceled for weather reasons in Johannesburg. This was immediately exposed as a lie when some South Africans among us telephoned the Johannesburg airport, who said the weather was fine. By claiming it was an unavoidable weather problem, they wanted to avoid compensating us again with hotels and meals. This time the group had to hold their ground for several hours at the airport’s Air Madagascar office, essentially preventing the employees from closing up and going up before we could get our lodging/meals/transportation vouchers. Eventually they again sent us to the same hotel, telling us that the earliest possible opportunity to get out of here would be on Tuesday, in two days.

So, we were back at Les Flots Bleu, though this time the mood was more boisterous as many wanted to drink to forget, and one Dutch girl had to celebrate her birthday under these abysmal circumstances. The next morning, I slept late, only to discover upon waking that all the South Africans had left, probably just giving up and buying a ticket on the competing South African Airlines Airlink flight Antananarivo–Johannesburg that flies daily and has actually left every day that we’ve been stranded.

We spent our Monday lazily in the hotel, but towards midnight got a taxi to the airport instead of waiting for the free shuttle at 0300, so that we could beat the large Korean tour group to the front of the check-in queue. Antananarivo’s airport is open all night long, the lights are shut off completely for a couple of hours. Cleaning staff and security made their rounds, so it never felt entirely deserted as we set up our position at the check-in desks.

The Air Madagascar flight managed to leave on Tuesday morning around 0600 as scheduled, but it was nonetheless a stressful experience. Check-in did not open until an hour and a half before the scheduled departure, and boarding was delayed long past the time printed on our boarding passes. Every time an announcement was made, we quaked in fear that the flight would again be canceled. Only once a team of stewardesses arrived and a fuel truck began to fill the plane could I start to regain my optimism.

Bottom line: if you want to fly between South Africa and Madagascar, avoid Air Madagascar at all costs and take the South African Airways Airlink flight instead.