A Travellerspoint blog

September 2013

Istanbul, Turkey (23rd - 30th August)

We got on the train in Sofia and found our sleeper compartment. We were with a French family who we got chatting to. We were allocated the bottom two beds but as the French family were wanting to sleep sooner than we were, we traded one bottom bunk for a middle bunk as then we could keep our beds as seats for a while longer. Unfortunately, when we did come to turn our seats into beds, we discovered that the middle bunk was broken. Jamie and I therefore got moved into a different compartment instead where we had to have the top 2 bunks. Still, at least we had beds and we could try and get some sleep. We managed a small amount but then got woken up at the Turkish border. Passport officers from Bulgaria came on the train and checked all our passports, which was fine. We then travelled on a bit further to the checkpoint on the Turkish side. At this point you have to get off the train to go through passport control, which we'd known about in advance. Also, thanks to some advice from Jamie's Dad, as well as a check on the Seat 61 website (which is very useful for train journeys in general), we knew that we needed to get a visa sticker before going through passport control. There's a visa window further down the platform and you need a £10 note (or a roughly equivalent amount in Euros or Dollars). That was quick and easy, then we joined the queue for passport control. Unfortunately this involved waiting quite a while as there weren't any border officers there. Even more unfortunately, Jamie felt ill. A border officer eventually appeared and started processing the queue, but Jamie was in a bad way. He had to temporarily leave the queue in order to go and throw up. That thankfully made him feel a bit better, plus he was back just in time for us to get our passports stamped. We then got back on the train and tried to get some more sleep. This wasn't really possible though as as soon as we left we had our passports checked again - I guess to make sure we had actually gone through passport control and hadn't just gotten back on the train. Fair enough. What did seem quite unnecessary, however, was checking our tickets again about 15 minutes later.They'd been checked earlier in the journey and our reservations had been handed in. Did they really need to be checked again? Especially in the middle of the night when we'd hardly slept? It also didn't help that one of the guys in our compartment couldn't find his for ages. He did eventually though, thankfully, then we were able to get more sleep.

I wasn't keeping much track of the time, but we must have just had about an hour and a half of sleep, if that, before it was deemed necessary to wake us up again. As there's some work going on with the Turkish train lines at the moment, the trains aren't running all the way to Istanbul, so we had to get on a bus for the last part of the journey. We were woken up about 30 minutes in advance of that. We assumed this timeframe was to allow us ample time to wake up and casually prepare ourselves for arrival. Wrong. As soon as we'd been woken up the conductor started taking our bed sheets from us. He literally pulled them out from underneath the Brazilian girl on the bottom bunk. The rest of us watched in amazement and then started gathering ours together. The conductor then started folding up any beds that people had gotten down from. He folded up the middle ones while I was still up at the top. I needed to stand on one of the middle ones in order to get down! Thankfully my compartment compatriots assisted me in my descent. I couldn't believe how rude the conductor was and how devoid of compassion he was for the fact we'd hardly slept. I mean, why did the beds even need to be folded away in advance of our arrival at the station? Ugh. Some overnight trains are pretty decent, but I'd advise against the one from Sofia to Istanbul.

On arrival at the station we made our way to the bus. Of course we couldn't all fit on it so we then had to wait for a second bus to arrive. Once we were finally on a bus we made our way to Istanbul. I think the journey was about 2 hours, though we tried to grab as much sleep as we could. Once in Istanbul we found a cash machine to take out some local currency and then took a tram to our hostel. We stayed at Stray Cat Hostel which was decent, though they only had a couple of cats, which was a shame, we were expecting more. Anyway, it was only breakfast time when we arrived, so far too early to check in. We were both really tired though and Jamie still felt ill so we spent a few hours trying to sleep on the sofa in the communal area.

When we were able to check in we were actually upgraded to a double room with a private bathroom (we'd just booked one with a shared bathroom), so that was a nice bonus. The hostel itself was decent - breakfast was fairly basic but sufficient, plus there was tea and coffee available all day. The staff were friendly and helpful and always checking if everything was ok. The wi-fi was a bit temperamental, but that's been pretty common on our travels so far. It doesn't reach up to the top floor, which we discovered later on when we were very briefly moved up there, but you can pick it up everywhere else.

Our original plan was to spend 4 nights in Istanbul and then take a bus to Ankara. We were only going to spend 1 night in Ankara as just needed to be there in order to get the train to Tehran in Iran. However, as Jamie was ill for our first few days in Istanbul, we changed our plans in order to have more time in Istanbul and actually get to explore the city a bit. So instead of spending 1 day on a bus to Ankara and then 2 days on a train to Tehran, we booked an additional 3 nights in Istanbul and then caught a flight to Tehran instead. The only downside of the change was that we'd already booked a non-refundable hotel room for our 1 night in Ankara, so we lost a bit of money there, but I still think it was worth it.

So, our first few days in Istanbul were mostly spent in our hostel room. As well as getting some rest and relaxation, plus Jamie recovering from illness, we also needed to sort some bookings for our time in Iran. This took quite a long time as it's a lot less straightforward than booking things in other countries, partly due to US sanctions and partly because online bookings aren't as prevelant in Iran. The things that we needed to get booked were our hotel rooms for the 4 cities we were visiting, plus an internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz. The flight wasn't too difficult to book, we just did it through an agency (specifically Persia Travel Mart). They were fairly quick at replying to e-mails and we got it all sorted in a couple of days. We had to make payment via Western Union (and also via Thailand), but that was easy enough and we got our flight tickets via e-mail.

Sorting out hotels was a bit more difficult. We'd use reviews on tripadvisor to determine possible places to try, but some of them didn't seem to have websites or any kind of contact details. Plus we'd e-mail some and not get a response. We ended up e-mailing any that we could (and which weren't really expensive) and hoping that we'd hear back from at least one in each city. Thankfully this paid off.

After our initial 4 nights at Stray Cat, we needed to move rooms for our additional 3 nights. Initially we were put up on the top floor in a private 5 bed room, as they seemed keen to upgrade us into better rooms than we were paying for. We moved our stuff in there after breakfast. It was a nice, quirky room. It was called 'seaview' but in order to see the sea you had to stand in a particular spot (marked on the floor) and crane your head out the window to the right. The only downside was the lack of internet. This didn't end up being a problem though as we got moved again that afternoon. We could have stayed in the big room, but mightn't have been able to keep it for the whole of our remaining time there, whereas we could move into the room we were actually paying for instead and not have to worry about moving again. It was a bit of a no-brainer really. The only annoying thing was that we got charged a higher rate for our last 3 days than we did for our first 4. Apparently because their Summer promotion had come to an end. Bit of a pain but nothing we could do about it. That's definitely a benefit of booking places online in advance - you have written confirmation of the price.

Anyway, enough of the pre-amble, you're probably wondering what Istanbul was actually like. Well, it's big, that's for sure - massive infact - so we only got to see some small parts of it. Some of the bits we did see were:

- Taksim Square and the main shopping strip that comes off of it. This was near to where we were staying, though you had to walk up a steep hill to reach it. It was very busy, especially at night, but a nice area to walk around. We went to a traditional restaurant up here too, which was nice, although Jamie's aubergine kebab came with some surprise chunks of lamb in it, which wasn't so good for him, but thankfully there was enough non-meat food on his plate to still be filling.

- The area around the Blue Mosque is probably the biggest draw of the city. We went there a couple of times - once during the day and once in the evening. The mosque itself is stunning:


- We took a boat across the bosphorous, to and from the Asian part of the city (we were staying in the European part).

- Basilica Cistern. We got here not long before it was due to close, so we had to rush a little bit, but not too much - it doesn't take very long to walk around it all. It's an old underground filtration system, which doesn't sound very exciting, but it looks really atmospheric the way it's lit up:


I'm sure we only scratched the surface of Istanbul really, but still, it was now time to head to Iran. We had a fairly early flight, but we could take the tram and then the metro to the airport, which was nice and straightforward (and cheaper than a taxi). One of the hostel staff misinformed us though, he said we'd only need 1 token each and we wouldn't have to exit and re-enter barriers between the tram and metro, which we actually did have to do. But still, that aside, the journey to the airport was fine. The airport itself wasn't great though - the queue for passport contol was huge. We then had a quick breakfast, slightly rushed to make the boarding time, but we then boarded late, queued for ages to get on the plane, then left late as well (unsurprisingly). Still, we were on our way to Iran!

Posted by chantalpatton 09:32 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Sofia, Bulgaria (19th - 22nd August)

Sofia train station isn't the best introduction to the city. As well as being quite run down and low on amenities, you get people hassling you and trying to get money out of you by claiming they've helped you out. We experienced this a couple of times, though refused to part with any money. However, we heard that other people had caved and handed money over. Some of those people were only in Sofia for a few hours in order to change trains, so ended up leaving with a very negative view of the city, which is a shame. It is a city that could do with some TLC, which was evident on our walk to our hostel - the pavement's in terrible condition - but it was a good place to spend a few days.

We stayed at Hostel Mostel, which was brilliant. We had a private room, which was really cheap. The private rooms are in a separate building, a few minutes walk from the main hostel building, but you get breakfast included (which has a decent array of food), plus every evening there's a free meal of pasta and a free glass of beer! The communal area's got a nice atmosphere too, plus a free pool table (albeit in quite bad nick). The staff are really friendly and helpful as well. The only minor quibble I had was the lack of air conditioning in our room - especially as it was very noisy if leaving the window open. But still, if visiting Sofia, Hostel Mostel's the place to stay.

It was quite early when we arrived, but we could pay a bit extra and get breakfast, so that saved us having to hunt for somewhere. We still had quite a bit of time to kill before check-in though, so we then went out in search of the Iranian embassy. Not as some random strange-form-of-fun thing, though I guess it needs some further explanation...

Visiting Iran has always been part of our travel plans for this year, though I've mostly avoided telling people, particularly family, as it's portrayed so negatively in the media and I didn't want them to worry (or try and convince me not to go). I'm actually writing this from Iran, though by the time I get round to posting it I'll have long since left, so if you are inclined to worry, no need, I'm fine - Iran was great, though that's a post for another time. In terms of getting our visas, the lack of an embassy in the UK at the moment meant that we couldn't sort them during our 2 weeks there. That wasn't a problem though. The first stage of the process is getting an authorisation number, which you can do online through an agency. You then choose which city's embassy you would like to go to in order to collect the visa. As we were going to be travelling across Europe in advance of entering Iran, we chose Sofia as a convenient place to collect our visas.

This might all sound fairly straightforward, which it should be in theory, though our personal experience wasn't quite as plain-sailing as we'd hoped. We applied online for our authorisation numbers when we were back in the UK. We used the agency iranianvisa.com who were recommended by Lonely Planet and therefore seemed like a safe bet. They got back to us about transferring the payment to them (it was €35 each for the authorisation numbers), which we did, then we should have gotten the authorisation numbers through in 7-10 working days. More than 10 working days went by and we heard nothing. I e-mailed them - no reply. Both Jamie and I e-mailed them again - still no reply. We checked their website one particular day and it was down. Oh dear. We did some online research and found lots of recent posts from people with similar experiences, calling the agency a con - they'd paid their money and then not heard from them again. We felt pretty gutted. We found a different agency to apply through instead, though as we were getting tight for time, we were looking at having to pay for the express service. We exchanged a few e-mails with them, over the course of a few days, checking that they could provide the numbers quickly enough, how much it would cost and how we should transfer the money. Then, on the day we were going to transfer the money, I got a reply to one of my e-mails to iranianvisa.com. I couldn't believe it! They apologised for the delay and said it was due to Ramadan. They said we should get our numbers around the 12th August. We were still doubtful but we didn't think it would be sensible to continue with our 2nd application and pay a lot of extra money when we mightn't need to. So we left our 2nd application and pinned our hopes on the first agency coming through. We really weren't too hopeful though, after a little while we started planning out an alternative way of travelling between Turkey and Russia. I think it involved taking in an additional 5 countries. It turned out unneessary though as we got our authorisation numbers! Yes, we got an e-mail saying they'd been approved. But was the e-mail from iranianvisa? No, it was from the 2nd agency - the one we'd not paid. Weird. A couple of days after that we also got an e-mail from iranianvisa saying that our application had been approved and giving us a different authorisation number. So from thinking that we mightn't get Iranian visas at all, it now seemed like we had 2 each!

So, the next stage, now we were in Sofia, was to go to the Iranian embassy with our authorisation number (we decided to use the one we'd actually paid for) and get our actual visas. We'd looked up the address of the embassy and it was pretty central - not too long a walk from our hostel - so we headed there whilst waiting for check-in. We found the building but it seemed like it was closed. The opening hours stated it should be open, but it all looked pretty run down and deserted. Thankfully I had enough credit on my phone for us to call them. After a bit of confusion we discovered that their offices had moved. Doh. A lot of websites should really update their information - especially as we discovered they moved 4 years ago! Their new offices were less central and really required a taxi journey. As they were now nearing closing time for the day, we decided to try again in the morning. We went back and checked in to the hostel and had a nice relaxing evening.

The next morning, after breakfast, the hostel called a taxi for us and we travelled to the current and open Iranian embassy. Thankfully there was someone who spoke English and he pulled up our authorisation numbers and got us to fill in an additional application form, plus hand over 2 passport photos. We had read we'd need 3 photos, plus I'd read that in women's photos they should be wearing a headscarf, so I'd gotten a set of 5 photos with headscarf taken in preparation. After handing them over, however, the guy said it wasn't necessary for visitors to be wearing the hijab in their visa photo and that they had a special exemption, so I could use some regular photos instead if I liked. I didn't have any other photos on me though, plus what else would I do with photos of me in a hijab? Anyway, the last stage was to transfer the money for the visas. We'd paid the agency for the authorisation number but now needed to pay for the actual visas. As we didn't have long in Sofia, we needed them on a next-day basis, so I think we paid extra for that. It was about €170 each, so not cheap. We had to go to a nearby bank and get the money paid in to a specific account then take the receipt back to the embassy. We were then told our visas would be ready for collection at 11:30 the following day and the guy kindly called a taxi for us to take us back to the centre of town.

We carried on this practical day by booking our onwards train tickets and then going to a big shopping mall to look for a new tablet computer for me. I mentioned before that my tablet died suddenly when we were in Barcelona. Happily in Sofia we found some pretty cheap tablets, so I got one for about a quarter of the price of my old one. I'm using it now to write this. It has most of the capabilities of my old one, but I've also come to appreciate why it was so much cheaper. I've not directly compared the specs, but this tablet is a lot slower and less responsive, especially when using the internet. This makes it quite frustrating at times, but it's still an adequate stand-in for these last few months of travel (I hope). I still need to use Jamie's netbook for uploading photos though, so if I post a blog and it's lacking in photos it's just because I've not had the chance to get them uploaded yet.

For dinner we went to Wok To Walk (which we'd actually done the previous evening too), then we went and did the free walking tour. It's very popular in Sofia, there was a big group of us and there was even a TV camera there for the first part. They maybe hype it up a bit too much though. It was decent enough, but it was lacking in the personal and quirky anecdotes you get on a lot of the other walking tours - I found it quite dry. There's a lot of historical information - you can't fault it on informative content - but it needed more of a fun element too really. There were a few fun things thrown in and it's definitely worth doing, but I've far preferred some of the other ones we've done. Still, the guide was really nice and at the end of it she invited any interested people to join her for food and/or drinks. About 9 or 10 of us went with her to this tucked-away pub and had a couple of drinks. That was really nice. One of the people we spoke to quite a bit was an American guy. He was from one of the central states but he was pretty liberal - he talked about how he doesn't really fit in with most of the people there. Despite his general open-mindedness, however, he thought we were crazy for planning to go to Iran. It's been interesting telling fellow travellers about our plans to visit Iran. People from most countries think nothing of it, but Americans and the British are prone to call us mad. It's definitely been a strong indicator of how negatively the country's portrayed in the American and British media.

On our last full day in Sofia we went back to the Iranian embassy to collect our visas. That was all nice and straightforward. The guy we'd been dealing with also talked to us for a while about our travel plans and then gave us a map of Iran (albeit one from 2004) and a DVD about the country. After that we actually walked back into town, stopping off for a while to get a cold drink (it was hot in Sofia, just like most places we've been since the UK). We had a relaxed evening then, enjoying the free pasta and beer at the hostel.

On the day we checked out our train wasn't until the evening, so we spent most of the day hanging out at the hostel and getting things researched and booked for some of our future travels. Jamie also nipped out to get us some Wok To Walk as well - our 3rd in 4 days, but the last place we'll get to have it on this trip. We then made our way to the station for our overnight train to Istanbul.

Posted by chantalpatton 05:02 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (1)

Belgrade, Serbia (15th - 18th August)

Our train journey from Zagreb to Belgrade took most of the day. We had to kick some people out of our reserved seats who tried to tell us there were no reservations, even though we had ours in our hand and they were also on the back of the seats. They seemed really aggrieved by it and were grumbling about it for ages, even though they still had seats, they barely needed to move and they were still all together (2 of them were opposite us and the other was across the aisle on a single seat). Still, aside from that, the journey was fine. We were quite surprised to get stamps in our passports for entering Serbia though.

On arrival in Belgrade, we walked to Habitat Hostel. It's a very friendly, very sociable hostel, with a fairly laid-back approach to things. As soon as we arrived they were suggesting we head out to the beer festival that was taking place. However, as it was taking place all week and we were pretty tired, we declined. We stayed in an 8-bed dorm, which was a decent size, not too cramped. There were only 2 bathrooms in the hostel though, which included both toilet and shower, so if 2 people were showering you couldn't go to the toilet. That definitely let the hostel down a bit, plus breakfast wasn't included, but overall it was still good. I'd imagine it's amazing if you're a sociable person, but as an introvert I found it a bit overwhelming at times. There's no reception desk or anything, you have to just remember / guess who's staff and track them down. It took me a while to get some laundry sorted because of that, though they did do the laundry for me and it was free due to us staying for 3 nights. On that first night though we just watched a film and then went to bed. They had a huge number of DVDs, though the owner guy suggested this random one with Goldie and David Bowie in it, which we'd never even heard of. It wasn't great, but it was entertaining enough. It could really have done with a lot more David Bowie and a lot less Goldie!

We had a busy first full day in Belgrade. There are quite a few different walking tours offered and we managed to fit in 2 of them on our first day. The morning one was the general walking tour, which was really good. The girl doing it was engaging and she'd hand out goodies as we went along, like a shot of Rakia (traditional alcohol and apparent cure for everything) and some kind of pepper chutney type thing (I've forgotten what that was called). We then went for lunch before our second tour. I can't remember the name of the cafe we went to but I had something called a 'sandwich cake' and then some tiramisu. Our second tour was the 'underground tour'. That one's not free but it's pretty cheap and gives you exclusive access to some underground areas and then also a glass of wine. It was cool getting to go into the underground bunkers and stuff, though the guide wasn't so engaging and I got a little bored after a while - it definitely dragged on too long, plus it could have done with a toilet break at some point. Anyway, we got to the wine cellar at the end of the tour and got to have our glass of wine. Naturally this was the part I'd been looking forward to most, so it was rather annoying when I started to feel unwell. I don't know what it was exactly, it could have been the changing temperatures between the heat outside and the cold underground areas, it could have been a bit of dehydration, it could have been some kind of bug I'd caught, or it might just have been that my subconscious associates that musty smell with being ill (I once fainted in Norwich Castle dungeon). Anyway, I couldn't finish my wine or stay in the cellar so we headed back to the hostel. I lay in bed for a while and also took some Ibuprofen. Staying in a dorm isn't really the best when you're not well, but everyone was really accommodating and crept around quietly in the dark, even though it wasn't that late. I started to feel better after a while, so Jamie cooked us some pasta. Everyone was heading out to the beer festival again but I didn't feel up for that. I told Jamie he could go if he liked though, so he enjoyed the beer on my behalf and I had a quiet night in. It was quite nice actually, I had the whole dorm to myself so I could catch up on a bit of internetting and reading.

We just did the one walking tour on the following day. It was one that went out to the Zemun area. It was with the same guide as the first tour we did, which was cool. I think we then had quite a chilled out afternoon. We went somewhere for food and then to another place for a drink. We got back to the hostel late enough for everyone else to have already headed to the beer festival. Jamie had filled me in on his time there and I didn't really fancy it. Being in a sociable hostel made me crave less sociability.

On the day we checked out, our train wasn't until the evening, so we still had a whole day in Belgrade. We headed to the Tesla Museum, which was really good. You get a tour thing included in the ticket price, where you watch a video about Tesla and then you get shown some of his inventions in practice. The lady doing the demonstrations was brilliant - she was like a strict school teacher and this made her unintentionally funny.

After that we checked out the Saint Sava Temple, which is a huge orthodox church that they've been working on for over 70 years and which they reckon won't be finished for at least another 20 more!

I don't remember what else we did that day - got some food and chilled out back at the hostel I think. We then went and got our overnight train to Sofia. We were in a couchette with a German couple and 2 guys from St Albans (though one of whom now lives in Austria). It was a good atmosphere, we all got on well and I think we even managed some sleep.

Posted by chantalpatton 10:48 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

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