Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nicosia, the Last Divided Capital

I have been through some interesting border crossings, and one of the most interesting ones I had was in Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus.

Border crossing? In a capital? Well, in 1974, Turkish forces invaded the north portion of the island of Cyprus, and as a result, as much as 40% of the island came under Turkish control. A ceasefire line was then established, and this demilitarised zone became the United Nations Buffer Zone, more commonly known as the Green Line. The northern part went on to declare itself independent, and became what is known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), though it is only recognised by Turkey.

Amazingly, this Green Line cuts through the capital city, and equally amazingly, the border crossing is situated within the old walled city in its main shopping street!! Luckily, the old walled city separation was equal, and Nicosia became known as the last divided capital.

Interestingly shaped walled city, divided into two

Imagine walking along a shopping street known as Ledra street. Then the street abruptly ends at some sort of a junction (I was on the TRNC side and I remember there were some clothes on a rack on display) and right in front is the border controls. Border formality is simple enough, with a simple paper "visa" issued and stamped. Then you walk into a block of "alleyway" that is within the Green Line. When I was there, there was small a photo exhibition within it, surrounded by crumbling building facade! When you reach the other end of the border control, the shopping street then continues (but of course, in another "country")!

Border control & shopping
Within the Green Line
Photo of the historic event in the photo exhibition

Known as Lefkosia by the Greeks, the capital city itself is quite interesting, with contrasting architectures and lifestyles. The Republic of Cyprus is part of the EU and uses the euro, while TRNC uses the Turkish lira. So things are markedly cheaper on the Turkish side and I usually try to have my meals on the Turkish side :). Attractions are mainly the usual city stuff of museums, churches etc, so grab your favourite guidebook for that.

And then, there is *another* border crossing, just outside the walled city. And no less bizarre. This border crossing is actually within a hotel premises!! So for the curious, one should walk out of the walled city and do this crossing as well.

Ledra Palace Hotel crossing outside the walled city
Nationalistic border post

Getting in, there are flights to Larnaca in the south, from various European cities but they seemed quite expensive. Most would visit via ferry or cruise ships from Greece, but I flew into TRNC instead. Flights into TRNC are only available from Turkey, but I was in Turkey prior, and the flights are cheap, so it worked out well.

For those who are into quirky border crossings, you have to check out the last divided capital!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Amazon Riverboat Journey

For many travelers, the journey itself constitute as much of the trip experience as the destination. Sometimes more. Especially for long term budget backpacking trips, often than not, the time spent on the road is quite substantial. Of course, it need not be on the "road" per se. It could be on water/air etc. And arguably one of my most memorable travel experience would be the riverboat journey on the Amazon.

There are actually quite a number of options for a journey on the Amazon river. The most common ones are from Iquitos in Peru to Leticia in Colombia, Leticia to Manaus in Brazil, and even continuing within Brazil from Manaus to Belem. You have the options of slow boats and fast boats, and of course whether to go upstream or downstream. The journey from west to east is downstream, so its faster. I took the the boat from Leticia to Manaus, a 4D3N journey.

Leticia itself is quite interesting as a tri-border town. Tabatinga is the Brazilian town next to it, and is separated just by a street! Santa Rosa, a Peruvian island, is just a 5-minute boat ride away. There is a Brazilian consulate in Leticia, which processed my Brazil visa application in a day. Boat tickets are bought on the day itself, on the port in Tabatinga.

There are a very limited number of cabins on the riverboat, but the "magic" of the experience is doing it the local way. Which entails buying/getting a hammock in Leticia/Tabatinga, and getting comfortable with/in it. Yes, the 3 nights spent onboard the boat would be on your hammock, but still, that knowledge did little to prepare myself for the culture shock that follows. I guess it was the chaotic unexpected-ness of the whole situation that caught me.

Nevertheless, after things settle down, I find myself able to just relax and appreciate the journey. You need not confine yourself to your hammock, and there is a small cafeteria bar on the top deck (although also filled with hammocks). I find myself spending most of the time enjoying the views and the breeze at the two sides of the boat. After all, I was cruising down the Amazon river, and like the Trans-Siberian rail, was one of those dream journeys I had dreamed of, coming true.

For those of you who have slept in temple grounds, stayed in jungle huts, bunked in 30-bed dorms, or camped in desert dunes, try hammocking along the Amazon river! I'll bet it'll be one of your most memorable travel experience too!

Start of trip - the "less crowded" moment....

Introduction to Amazon fruits 101

Hammocks "night scene"

Enjoying the views/ride

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Svaneti, Georgia

The Caucasus mountain region of Svaneti in Georgia was raved about, both in guidebooks as well as by travelers. It is not difficult to see why. Boasting high mountain peaks, unspoilt trekking opportunities, and villages steeped in ancient traditions, it is an out-of-the-beaten-path destination that time had passed it by.

The town of Mestia is the tourism hub of Svaneti, with transport links to the rest of Georgia. But there are smaller villages in the region that could provide an even more authentic stay. I was referred to a homestay in the village of Becho, where indeed I had the experience of traditional living with a Svan family. Unfortunately, it was so "non-touristy" that no English was spoken, and I could not find out more information about their life. But I was treated to a small little "performance" by the little boy in the family, which I believe is a form of their traditional polyphonic singing in the Svaneti region - an art inscribed into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists!

Friendly villagers

Baking Khachapuri the traditional way!

However, what is famous in the Svaneti region is their architectural monuments inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site - the defensive watch towers of the Svans. The Svans, a sub-group of Georgians with their own language, are a fiercely independent people, and during the old days, warring between villages and tribes are common. Thus these towers are built and usually connected to a family's house, and integrated for their protection. Now, these towers are found scattered around Mestia, and can be easily visited.

And of course, there is the trekking. Fabulous mountain country to trek in, although in summer, the weather is surprisingly humid hot. Even if you can't do the popular 4-day trek between Mestia and Ushguli, reputed to be the prettiest village in Svaneti, simple day treks around Mestia would easily let you appreciate the natural scenery around. 

Transport in Georgia is basically run by marshrutkas or mini-vans. Direct from Tbilisi, it takes 12-13 hours (usually more) and there is only 1 per day early in the morning. What I did was to stop at Kutaisi, where the town itself has several interesting sights. There are then slightly more marshrutkas from Kutaisi to Mestia. 

Check out Svaneti when in Georgia!