Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Little and large

February 17th, 2011

E-mail from an old family friend. He’d visited northern Queensland some years ago. Birdwatching. Sharper eye than mine. Noticing a certain statue of Captain Cook had something of a dubious salute. Had it inspired Adolf Hitler, he joked? A grain of truth? Well, the swastika is based on a Buddhist symbol.

Nazi saluting black Bavarian gnome
Cook - web

Controversial? Seems Captain Cook is a bit like the proverbial yeast extract. Loved or hated in roughly equal measure. His arrival in Australia oft described by indigenous people as invasion. And the statue in Cairns? A well-known, if unofficial, landmark or any eye-sore beside the main north-south highway? The community split.

He’s been re-sited at least once. And has had a change of clothes. Used to sport a blue jacket with yellow buttons. Advised he’s also had some repairs in the trouser department.

Captain Cook and his dubious salute
Gnome - web

Cairns isn’t alone in displaying "art" some find distasteful. Even controversial. Back along the river Danube, in the small German town of Straubing, there were Nazi saluting black Bavarian gnomes. Ironic art, I hasten to add, rather than any resurgence of Fascist ideology.

[Author’s note: With especial thanks to Mike for his sharp eye and dry wit]

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The Fallen

November 11th, 2010

I’d finally found a suitably quiet spot. Difficult in the bustling city of Xiangfan. A little before eleven in the morning. Eleventh day of November. A moment for contemplation. To reflect on the sacrifices made by others. In wars of national survival, regional conflicts. All individuals who’d lost their lives in the furtherance of a cause.

Last year it’d been the Commonwealth War Graves in Belgrade, Serbia. Joined the Ambassadors and their Diplomatic Staff. Bit inconspicuous in my bright yellow jacket, but I’d at least managed to acquire a poppy. The Consul had likened it to a blob of jam in a bowl of custard. Unfortunately, the nearest War Graves were still well over a thousand miles away in Hong Kong. Out of reach.

But what really mattered, I’d always thought, was the Act of Rememberance. Pausing, just for a few moments, to remember those who’d lost their lives in war or conflict. Not just members of the three Armed Services, but civilians, at home and abroad. Many of those laid to rest in Belgrade were nurses. The Fallen.

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Brush with the Law

December 6th, 2009

Some people. No sense of humour. He’d stepped out in front of me, holding up his Police ’STOP’ paddle. I’d complied of course, no choice really, wasn’t going anywhere quickly. Fifty kilometres of steady climbing up from Harmanli to Topolovgrad, the occasional short downhill respite, had seen to that. Was I speeding, I asked. Not even a glimmer of a smile. He wanted to know where I was going. Towards Elhovo I explained. I was free to go.

My instinct to remain unexpectedly in Harmanli overnight had been right. I’d never have made it to Topolovgrad by nightfall, never mind my eventual destination, a small village near Elhovo, up in the Bulgarian hills close to the Turkish border. I left Harmanli under the same thick blanket of fog I’d been greeted with as I’d approached the previous day. Then, suddenly, after about ten kilometres of steady climb, brilliant sunshine.

I’d been attempting to reach the small village of Cerepovo, in readiness for being interviewed live on the 10 Radio Saturday morning breakfast show. Hadn’t quite made it. Had to pull up short at the side of the road as my phone rang. Strange I thought. I’d visited the small studio back in Somerset before I left for an interview, my first experience of radio. Could picture it with great clarity, as I could Anton the presenter and Jon, my good friend and neighbour. He’d be interviewing me today. In contrast to their more compact surroundings, I was gazing out across vineyards, sat astride my bike, in the unusually warm winter sun.

The interview complete, I’d continued my push up to Topolovgrad, which my fairly useless map had suggested, quite correctly for once, might be the highest point of the day. My encounter with the Police over, it’d been a swift descent towards Elhovo. Popular with English expatriates I’d been told. But I was off to a small village nearby. Friends had a house there which, very generously, they’d offered me the use of. Chance to relax, to reflect on the journey across Europe, and prepare for entry into Asia.

I’d clear directions and a good road, reaching the village as the light began to fade. Quiet I thought. Two women wandered up, pushing prams. They offered to help. I thanked them, but explained an English lady living close by would be meeting me shortly. She arrived a little time later, Emma and I giving chase to her 4 x 4 as she led the way to the house. Last burst of energy for a while.

[You can listen live to 10 Radio via the web at 10Radio.org – look out on my website for details of the next interview]

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Food for thought

November 20th, 2009

I was glad I’d not flown into Bulgaria. I’d been given an English language guide to the country by a helpful border guard. It contained an extensive Prohibited Objects List for air travellers, and I was scoring pretty highly in every category except firearms. He’d seen from my passport that I was born in Manchester and wondered which football team I supported? Not exactly my game, but I’d realised a while back this was a good ice-breaker. So I’d adopted United. It was going well until he mentioned one of the team, Bulgaria’s star player. I had absolutely no idea, and he knew it. They’re all foreigners these days, I said weakly.

Beyond the border crossing, swift progress under clear blue skies towards the city of Vidin. Looked industrial. I’d go around, pressing on to the town of Lom, aiming to reach it by dusk. At first along a national route, joining Romania with the Capital. No potholes, just a steady stream of lorries. Smart petrol stations. Back in the EU. More Hungary than Serbia. Then off onto quieter roads. The residents of the small town of Arcar were getting a new one, even if there endless other better possibilities for improving their lives.

I’d begun to resign myself once more to finishing riding in the dark. But then a small hotel, isolated. I’d a phrase book of course, barely thumbed, but you’d probably guess I wasn’t the Avon lady. A room quickly sorted, breakfast included, and dinner could be provided. You never knew quite what you’d get, but judging by my evening meal, breakfast would be a generous affair.

Sufficient calories are rarely a problem, but a balanced diet is a serious challenge. Dare say if you’re staying in expensive hotels it’s a bit easier, but I’m not. Breakfast of late has typically been ham and cheese omelettes, a welcome change to cold meats and breads. Lunch is usually what you find in small village shops or cafes, healthy options a bit thin on the ground. Fruit, even fresh breads, not as widely available as you imagine, except in the bigger places.

Few establishments offer an evening meal. I was grateful that this one did. You always ask of course, just in case they’ll rustle something up. Otherwise its foraging in the local shop, which is just like lunch. Never good. Or worse, take-aways. At least Eastern European hostels usually have a self-catering kitchen, which opens up the world of fresh vegetables. But earlier staples, tins of stew or pre-cooked chicken, are something of a rarity now. Fortunately I’m just passing through.

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Serbian sunset

November 18th, 2009

If you come to Serbia then one thing’s an absolute must. An open mind. I’d come prepared for some animosity – you’ll still find plenty of references to the NATO air strikes a decade ago in newspapers and in conversation – but found only a warm, friendly people. If you took time to listen, they took time to explain. Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Milosevic, the civil war. I wouldn’t even begin to pretend I understand the Balkans, because I don’t, not in two weeks, but at least I’d been given some insight.

Perhaps what has made Serbia most fascinating is that, as part of Yugoslavia, during the Cold War it was one of the better understood Eastern Bloc countries. Westerners often came for holidays, Belgrade in summer, skiing in winter. Which probably made the turmoil that followed the end of Communism all the more disturbing. These were Europeans. They weren’t supposed to do that sort thing.

If one thing has saddened me a little, it’s the inability of people to travel abroad. I’m met quite a few of the older people who, as Yugoslavians, had travelled fairly widely. But there’s several generations of younger Serbians who’ve not been allowed the same opportunity. I’d taken my freedom to move even around Europe for granted, and innocently enough, presumed others could do the same. De facto confinement of a people strikes me as, at best, very unfair.

Much of my journey through Serbia has been across the Danube flood plain, largely dull and featureless. But then a few days east of Belgrade and dramatic changes. Steep, wooded hillsides, high pastures, Alpine in appearance. Quite beautiful. But then this has been a country of huge contrasts. Scenes of great beauty, but also of immense poverty.

But the real reason to come to Serbia, or at least the one that would bring me back, is the people. Remarkably friendly and hospitable. I’ve sought to provide a few examples, a chance meeting and dinner in the suburbs of Belgrade, Mica in Negotin. I thought life here could be very tough for the ordinary Serbian. There is, as far as I could understand, no welfare state, certainly not as we would know it. Another striking contrast to the former Yugoslavia. Many of the people I’ve met have, of necessity, more than one job, often ’on the black’ with no security of tenure. All of which makes their warmth, their kindness towards strangers, all the more impressive. Humbling. But don’t take my word for it. Come and see for yourselves

Author’s note: To get a fuller picture of Serbia today, click on Gallery.

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Into the hills

November 18th, 2009

Negotin, close to the Bulgarian border. I’d done this a few times before. Arrive in an unfamiliar town, light fading, accommodation to be found. Ordinarily I’d hunt for a street map I’d a room booked, but no idea where it was. But I’d barely dismounted in the central plaza when Mica approached and offered to help.

Directing me to the town street map would have been kind enough. But this was Serbia. Walked me to my accommodation some fifteen minutes away on the outskirts, discussing English perceptions of his country as we went. Translated for me when we got there. And then, did I want pizza? Yes, that would be good, I said. This was something new in the town and he wasn’t sure if they would deliver, but he’d investigate and let reception know. They didn’t, so he brought the pizza over himself.

I offered him one of my business cards with details of the website, and some pizza, but he politely declined. He wasn’t into the internet. So, instead, we settled on his address so I could send him a postcard or two. And then he departed, presumably to go and do whatever he was going to do almost two hours previously.

Finally, a chance to sit down and reflect on the day’s events. Between the previous night’s stop at Donji Milanovac and Negotin, the Daunbe forms a large eighty mile loop, the neck some sixty kilometres across. Increasingly constrained by the shortage of daylight, I’d decided to take the direct route across the neck, through steep, wooded hills.

Alpine look

An unrelenting climb, the well made road winding upwards through a narrow valley. Trees in their autumnal colours. Peaceful. Then, suddenly, the road levelled off. High pastures. A charcoal burner. Well kept farmsteads. Alpine perhaps. A very different Serbia certainly. The faint glow of the sun through a blanket of cloud giving the place an eerie feel. Then endless steep descents, switchbacks, and equally forbidding climbs, a few villages and the final downhill run into Negotin.

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Tunnel vision

November 17th, 2009

You’d be hard pressed to describe the banks of the Danube in western Serbia as scenic. Largely flat, open landscapes. Dull and depressing. But that was beginning to change. A few gentle hills the previous day. Then, further east beyond Golubac, the river was soon hemmed in by steep, wooded mountain slopes. South of the river lay Serbia, to the north Romania.

Working river

Remaining in Serbia – the next river border crossing was over a hundred miles downstream – I continued east towards the town of Donji Milanovac. The road had been cut into fragile cliffs. Rock falls appeared commonplace, debris frequently strewn across the road, tarmac pitted from the impacts. A few workmen were carrying out controlled releases of shattered material from the cliffs above. There was little traffic to impede their efforts.

Often the road passed through tunnels, supposedly twenty one in all. I’d planned to count them, but instead found they’d all been helpfully numbered. Some were a mere eighty or so metres long, others closer to a quarter of a kilometre. Unlit. My lights were of little use, so instead I had to rely on being able to make out the central white line in the near darkness, hoping I wouldn’t hit a pothole or encounter anything coming towards me.

Tunnel

Reaching Donji Milanovac at dusk, I ventured into the Tourist Information Centre. Yes, they said, there were rooms available in a few private houses. I’d take one. No need for directions, the owner would come and collect me. He did. A little later he didn’t so much show me where the local mini-market was as introduce me to the staff. When I returned next morning for a few provisions the faces were new but the greetings were in English.

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Dog day afternoon

November 16th, 2009

Recommendation

It was the best hotel in town. Came recommended. In 1984. The place looked tired, the decor dated. The cistern dripped slowly onto the bathroom floor, but the sheets on the bed were pristine, the towels clean and the shower hot. And there was the familiar Serbian warm welcome. Even space for Emma in a discrete corner of the foyer. It was quiet, just a few rooms let that evening.

I’d arrived in the small town of Golubac shortly before four, by now almost dark, glad to rest up for the night after an eventful day. I’d left the small town of Kovin just after nine, allowing myself four hours to cover the sixty or so kilometres to the ferry at Stara Palanka. Miss the sailing at one and the next wasn’t for three hours, too late to reach Golubac.

Still no sign – literally – for the Danube cycle way, so, just as for the previous day, I simply followed my own road map. Gently undulating now, enough to break the monotony but without unduly impeding progress. If there was a potential impediment to reaching the ferry on time, it lay not with the terrain, but dogs. They’d been a familiar sight at many of the properties I’d passed since entering Hungary, but, with the odd exception, had been contained behind tall wire fencing. A noisy distraction rather than a threat. But today was different. They roamed free across the countryside, wild, often in small packs.

The problem is simple. Rabies. A disease, I’m told, quite prevalent in Serbia. Carriers can be extremely aggressive. Saliva from an infected creature into a scratch can be sufficient to pass on the virus. I’m inoculated, but all that does is buy me time. I still need more serum. Makes you think. Which is what I did.

Stop only in villages or open countryside where I can see anything approach from a good distance, especially from downwind. I’d noticed the odd local cycling, slowly. So, in the event of a likely encounter, consider dropping speed so not to appear as prey. Flight. If that doesn’t work, stop and use the bike as a shield. Fight. We’re not talking about family pets, rather I presume they’re carrying a life-threatening disease and will act accordingly. No plans to blink. I’m told rocks are very effective.

Timetable

Stara Palanka, shortly before noon, was understandably welcome. As yet no sight of the ferry, but a small wooden sign seemed to confirm what I thought were the sailing times. There was a small cafe bar near the slipway. I ventured in. Deserted but for a man sat at an old computer playing some sort of ’shoot-them-up’ game. The owner I thought. Didn’t like to be disturbed, instead summoning his wife from the kitchen. She smiled. I ordered coffee and chips.

I picked up the newspaper. Flicked to the television programmes. I’d been rather taken by Serbian TV. For one thing, unlike Hungary, they generally went for subtitles rather than dubbing which opened up a whole world of US dramas. And films. They had some catching up to do. Kalifornia and Point Break were billed for that evening. Early 90s I thought. But best of all is the modern day celebrity reality show Farma – set, literally, on a contrived farm. It’s the regular sing-songs they have I like best. Don’t understand a word, just annoyingly catchy.

Lunch arrived. With a few additions, a basket of bread and several slices of banana cake. Not bad for about a pound. It had taken a while to arrive, but the lady indicated there was no need to rush for the ferry. It’d just arrived and the Captain was enjoying a drink outside. After a while I decided to wander down anyway, a few photographs to be taken. I left the owner still transfixed to his computer. One o’clock, it seemed, was the time you thought about turning up, perhaps dropped off by family or friends. Sailing would be some time later. Closer to one thirty.

We crossed the Danube to the village of Ram, some fifteen minutes away. Couple of hours to make Golubac before dark. A few hills now, but still able to make good time. I was used to the not unpleasant smell of leaves being burnt in piles at the roadside, but the villages I passed through smelt far more enticing, Sunday lunch perhaps. Yet more mud on the roads, rain threatening and the inevitable loss of light shortly. But no dogs roaming. I pressed on quickly to Golubac.

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Leaving Belgrade

November 16th, 2009

The plan was simple. Pick up the Danube cycle way where I’d left it a few hundred metres from the hostel in Belgrade and follow it over the only bridge onto the north bank of the river. Diligently following what signs I could find, I eventually ended up back at the start. Almost an hour of precious daylight wasted. Decided to pick my own way through the city to the bridge, mostly the docklands. Caught between packs of dogs and endless lorries, I was glad to reach the crossing.

Unmistakably the one and only bridge from the Capital towards the town of Pancevo. But none of the familiar cycle way signs. Had to be right. Two lanes of traffic hurtling past in either direction. Only one way to cross. Quickly. Beyond the bridge some ten miles of dual carriageway, fortunately with the addition of a bus lane to ride in for much of it. The legality of using this route had crossed my mind, but I was sure this was the right way.

Pancevo couldn’t have come soon enough. Onto quieter roads, east through small villages, few of which appeared on my map. The familiar unremarkable landscape, flat and dull, but nicer village centres I thought. Progress was good, the time lost escaping Belgrade gradually being recouped.

Then a brief stop, the bike pulled up on to the overgrown verge, just as I’d done many times before. Moving off, the front of the bike felt strangely springy – a slow puncture, the first in close on five thousand kilometres. I made it to a convenient patch of tarmac, one of few at the entrance to a field, off the road and out of sight. Thirty minutes to remove all the panniers, up-end the bike, fix the puncture, refit all the kit and get back on the road. At least it was dry.

I had planned to detour south for the night to the town of Smederevo, a former Capital of Serbia. Beautiful apparently. But I’d lost time and would try my luck in Kovin, a small town on the route east. Quite unexpectedly I found a sign for ’Sobe’ – rooms – and by dusk was safely off the road for the day. Basic but clean. And cheap. Soon managed to work out how to flush the toilet. You just had to take the cover off the cistern and raise the plunger by hand. Obvious really.

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Dinner in Karaburma

November 16th, 2009

A small flat in an apartment block. Homely. I’d taken a bus from the centre of Belgrade out into the suburb of Karaburma. It’d been evening rush hour, packed. I’d reckoned on about fifteen stops but, pre-occupied with jostling for space, I soon lost count. Slowly the bus began to empty, until finally all the remaining passengers disembarked. I followed, to be greeted by my host as I stepped down onto the pavement.

Dinner was a substantial affair, chicken, pasta, potatoes and salad. Joined a little later by a journalist friend, we talked at length about what it was like to be Serbian, to live in Serbia. How it differed from Yugoslavia. Communism, it seemed, had provided more than just reassuring certainty, you had somewhere to live, a job, and the streets were clean. And a Yugoslavian passport had afforded considerable freedom to travel.

The break-up of Yugoslavia had meant de-facto confinement, for Serbians at least. Visas were difficult to come by. Evidence of employment was often required, barring what I suspected was a good number working ’on the black’. And even if you could get a visa, for many travel was unaffordable. They felt isolated. A generation with little knowledge of the world beyond their borders. Not an argument for returning to the old State. Perhaps more a desire for recognition that they had put their recent turbulent past behind them. They wished to be part of Europe once more.

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