07.07.2013 - 17.07.2013
We spent the weekend in Czech Republic feeling very superfluous. 80% of all cars had multiple mountain bikes on their roof. The owners looked at us very disdainfully as if to say, “Why are you cluttering up our road when we are on a healthy mission”. I felt like putting a big sign in our back window saying, “Our bikes are on the car in front. We’re carrying the deodorant”. There are over 38,000kms of signposted walking and biking tracks in the Czech Republic. That’s despicable. I’m sure the money could have been better spent saving staving children in Africa – or upgrading the Brno ‘Automotodrom’ Circuit to full Formula 1 standard.
After a very pleasant morning illegally parked in the heart of Brno - which may now be considered by Flypaper to be even nicer than Bratislava – we drove out to the Automotodrom which hosts MotoGP and the World Superbike Championship. There were lots of bikes whizzing around and I did think the fabulous noise some of them made was far better than nature could ever provide. Then two things happened, Flypaper complained that she couldn’t concentrate of her new book (which I tried to convince her was a good thing), then I read on a signboard that the circuit also hosted cycling and inline skating. We were gone before either of those activities had a chance of starting. The balance of the day was spent crossing the country through rural areas on ‘B’ class roads being very conscious that many of the aforementioned tracks crossed here, there and everywhere. Bikes would pop out of the undergrowth without warning and, if they were lucky, pop back into something similar on the other side of the road. We missed them all but only because Flypaper insisted we toot the horn every 30 seconds. This was probably a good thing as I am aware that the brand name BRNO is well known. This company dominates the small arms market world wide for military and police, as well as sporting and recreational rifles. It didn’t seem prudent to bump a cyclist when the next one on the scene may be carrying a few company samples, cocked and ready for such an occasion.
We spent Saturday night in Plizen. So what? Because it’s CZ’s most famous town. Plizen is the home of Pilsner – which most people wrongly think is of German origin. The first Pilsner, which is a light beer suitable for women working in the fields, was made around 990AD. What’s more, and this will stun those from the USA, Budweiser originally comes from Ceske Budejovic, a place just around the corner from Plizen. Can you see ‘Bud’ in the word Budejovic? This has resulted in the disputed statistic that Czechs are the No 1 Beer drinkers in the world. It would appear that we have been traveling from one alcohol fueled country to another during the past 3 months. It certainly seemed like it to us. That night we decided to have dinner at the brewery that first made Pils and to try their brew. This is the largest company in town and truly impressive to see. Unfortunately, either success or too much beer has addled their brains. While in a fabulous dungeon with great potential, the meal was one of the worst we’ve had since leaving home. (By that. I don’t mean that I’m served worse meals at home, although there have been some memorable ones during Flypapers ‘experimental’ phases.) The recommended main course was 4 pork cubes hiding in a goulash, surrounded by some stodgy potato dumplings. I am all in favour of traditional ethic cuisine and search for it everywhere. This poor offering couldn’t even be saved by the half litre of mediocre beer … although a second half litre may have helped. We never gave it a chance. We asked for the bill, were satisfied that it was astonishingly cheap and went home to spend the next few hours speaking badly about Plzensky Prazdroj. (Pilsner Urquell Brewery).
We discovered that the furtive people creeping around in the gloomy forests were involved in their National passion – mushroom hunting. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. This possibly remains a hangover from the communist times when a great deal of mothers day was spent standing in queues waiting for food purchasing opportunities. In an astonishingly short period, Czech Republic has progressed to being the second richest Eastern European country after Slovenia. The GDP per capita is now higher than the Greeks or Portuguese and Czechs have their sites set very high. Already Prague’s PPP is twice the national average and higher than any EU member state’s national average except Luxembourg. The country is now considered a ‘developed’ country – and it shows. However, I worry for them. They are making the same mistakes as most other developed countries. Currently the rural areas, villages and small towns are very attractive and productive. But, the young people don’t want to live in the rural communities. Large companies are all centralizing. This is resulting in pressure on the city infrastructure and the loss of the countries most valuable assets – the existing infrastructure that supports the rural powerhouse of the economy. Does this sound familiar? It happened in New Zealand. The smartest country I have been to that is among the most successful in the world, is incentivizing its industry to decentralize and makes it very difficult to make their largest cities bigger. That’s Norway. I predict the Eastern European Countries will continue to climb the economic ladder, but to a great extent, as a result of those currently higher up falling back. They will then discover that the social costs of large cities will halt their progress and create all the difficulties the west is experiencing.
A few years ago, if asked to give an example of a Czech product, you would have said … a Skoda. This company had its origins as a bicycle manufacturer way back in 1894. They made their 1st car in 1905. (3 years before Henry Ford made the Model T) Skoda made excellent cars until the factory was almost completely destroyed during WWII. They bounced back with a range of cars that spawned some of the most unkind automotive jokes ever. A guy goes into a garage and asks, “Do you have a windscreen wiper for my Skoda?” The man in the garage replies, “Sounds like a fair swap”. What do you call a Skoda at the top of a hill? A miracle.
Today Skoda is part of the giant Volkswagen Group. They are among the very best value for money cars on the market and certainly not to be joked about. This is a good example of the progress of the Czech Republic.
It was quite satisfying to be back in Western Europe – a part of the world we are very familiar with. It was much more relaxing galloping HeeHaw along the German Autobahns at 150 – 160kph rather than dodging potholes, cows, carts and slow produce vendors. Many of the people on the Autobahn were impressed with the speed of such an odd car and were giving us the ‘thumbs up’. Well – some of them were getting mixed up between their fingers and thumbs but they were probably new immigrants still learning the code.
The star of the journey has been HeeHaw. 14,000km of very demanding roads and some cruel punishment in heat and dust. He started instantly every morning, never missed a beat, didn’t suffer any mechanical malaise or, in spite of some very near misses, sustain a scratch. All this on top of 30,000km of similar treatment during the past 2 years. Flypaper is having to work very hard to keep ahead in my affection.
The other item that enabled this trip was the Sat Nav (GPS) – it couldn’t be done without,
especially in those countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet. Only the best GPS program is capable and very few can operate in the ex-Soviet countries. We used the latest Garmin, which together with their ‘World Maps’ covered every country we visited. The only weakness was Moldova (what a surprise) and here it did very well but wouldn’t show minor city roads. That only caused a minor hiccup once – which the assistance off a Taxi driver solved. I am now willing to accept that having a nagging woman in the car telling me where to go is acceptable under certain conditions. There are times however, when her tone annoyed me but the knowledge that there is a ‘shut up’ button only centimeters from my finger is enough to give me a psychological advantage.
Readers have been asking which the best country we visited was. There was no winner – they all have their own foibles and conviviality. There is a looser though – Russia. After costing us a considerable fortune to get visa’s and travel to their border; then to just shut their port without any consideration was really annoying. I wonder what our chances of a refund will be? It has certainly made me confident that Russia is not a serious threat in the world. It’s a bloody nuisance but hardly capable of being a world economic power – and nothing else counts these days. There are immediate reflections of each of the countries we visited. I will ignore Western Europe. However, this is a region that for travelers may have just about had its day. There are lots of interesting places nearby that can offer experiences at a much lesser price to those willing to accept cultures that differ from home. Let’s face it, visiting Rome or Paris is just the same as Sydney or Auckland with older rocks piled up all around. Even the language difficulties are just as challenging in Auckland these days.
Almost all of our journey highlights relate to interaction with people we met. Guides, hotel & restaurant employees and people who picked us up in the streets with a wish to convince us their country is the friendliest in the world.
Hungary – If they get rid of their silly alphabet (as Czech Republic did) they have a chance of joining the 21st century. It’s a country that should never be forgiven for letting that guy Rubik live – he’s the one that invented that cube that drives people nuts. Hungary is ‘nice’ and as a result isn’t the most memorable place. An excellent place for those wishing to explore a little further East than Paris and Munich.
Romania – The last remaining culture that really appreciates the horse – in traces or on the table. The streets are however, full of stray dogs which bite about 10,000 people each year. I’m surprised no-one has developed a recipe and bitten one back. Romania’s biggest asset is a fictitious character called Dracula. He could yet save the country which will long suffer the legacy of the megalomaniac Nicolae Ceausescu. Even his huge building legacy will not provide much future attraction for a tourist industry, because, like the rest of Bucharest, it’s falling apart.
Bulgaria – This was first country in which I became aware that a pigs life in Eastern Europe is neither long nor fun. We never did find out where they lived but we were certainly impressed with the variety of ways they were the star of the show in restaurants. I liked the Bulgarian villages. The occupants lived as if no-one else existed and often closed their street for personal convenience or built something obviously temporary that was never taken down again.
Turkey – Turkey is really two places. Istanbul and the ‘real’ Turkey further east. When young we used to fish in the river running beside our home. Our bait, until we became ‘sophisticated’ and silly, was mostly worms. Worms are probably the most attractive lure for any fish and I’m mystified why this fact has been forgotten. I dug worms from our garden and kept them in an old tobacco tin. Opening the lid exposed a writhing mass of slippery characters all battling away in different directions. This is exactly how I saw Istanbul. Chaos. The rest of Turkey is memorable for the infrastructural development. The whole country is being dug up and remade to suit the fast developing economy. Its progress at top speed … although I suspect the resulting dust haze can be seen from the moon.
Armenia – The country that touched my heart … like a child with a disability, one wants to give it an extra hug. The poorest and most oppressed place in this Black Sea region. It’s still fighting battles with bullies on 2 of its 3 boarders. One of our most memorable memories was struggling up to our room to discover there was no water and intermittent electricity – then to open the balcony door to the most stunning view of Mount Ararat on one of the few days its not covered in cloud. The musical fountain show in the main square was mesmerizing for hours one evening and our guide was the most likable of the journey.
Georgia – The prevailing memory is a whirlwind tour with countless near death experiences … in a Toyota Corolla. If I’m going to die I fervently pray for something better than a Corolla. Even a Romanian Dacia would be more acceptable on my tombstone. Having seen what happens to a cow when it’s hit by a car, I wonder why motorcyclists bother to wear leather. It certainly didn’t help the cow. It was weird to visit the Stalin Museum which appears to hold him in high regard, then to learn from the guide that she thought he was a bastard. She was relieved he wasn’t a cobbler like his father, because the shoes he made would certainly have hurt to wear.
Azerbaijan – I remember this as Corruption Central … and as the place that lives on little more than oil exports. The millions of polluted hectares around Baku provide a sober message and almost convinced me to become a fervent ‘Greenie’. The moment passed and I again remembered what wonderful things oil products have provided for mankind. Some sort of medicines I believe - and deodorant. Some people believe that the Garden of Eden was located in the Caucuses and both Georgia and Azerbaijan have their hands up. They both have apples – and snakes … but I never saw a fig tree in either.
Ukraine – We have crossed the substantive part of Ukraine previously. This journey concentrated on the Crimean Peninsular. It’s very different to the mainland. Ukraine as a nation has enormous potential. Its huge, has lots of natural recourses, vast agricultural land and sits on the edge of Europe. It’s puzzling to me why many Ukrainians still believe Communism has a lot going for it. While officially a democratic country it suffers 3 problems. The politicians overrule the judiciary; the media fail to hold the politicians to account and the real power in the background are immensely wealthy oligarchs who in many instances gained their riches and power through suspect means. In this environment the country will never prosper. We experienced paranoia and corruption whenever we interacted with bureaucrats. Having said that, I’ve yet to find a bureaucrat that doesn’t annoy me with their god-given belief that they know what’s best for me.
I consider the Crimea to be the best part of Ukraine. It has history, well preserved places of interest, a holiday atmosphere due to its location on the Black Sea and a more pleasant climate to the mainland.
The food throughout the journey was generally delicious and there was never a shortage. I have probably eaten more pork in the last 3 months than during the rest of my life. Flypaper favoured the fish whenever it was available. “Trout’ was offered regularly, but I considered they should have been thrown back to grow into a real feed. Potatoes featured on most menus in one form or another – sometimes in many forms at the same time. Meat and 3 veg = Pork with boiled potato, potato dumpling and fried ‘country style’ potatoes. Fresh vegetables’ and fruit were certainly available everywhere although some restaurants felt they were surplus to requirements and probably something one only ate at home. Tomatoes and cucumbers were generally presented with all meals including breakfast. At least we didn’t get scurvy. Breakfast always included eggs and cheese in one form or another. By western standards the food was fairly repetitious – I call that the McDonalds formula. Everyone knows what it is. There were notable meals. In Bratislava, Budapest and a small coastal town in Turkey we ate as well as at any fine Parisian restaurant that would have been 10 times the price. Cheap and very drinkable wine accompanied virtually every meal so we never really dehydrated.
In every country we sensed the populace has a real fear of the police. Usually this was because the police were corrupt and looking to supplement their incomes from any minor discretion. Everyone we befriended for any time felt moved to tell us about the corruption and frustrations in their life. Most would like to go somewhere else but are unable to for multiple reasons. We were conscious all of the countries leaders were paranoid about public unhappiness. Surveillance is everywhere and the politicians are all on edge waiting for a popular revolution. Right now they see this happening in many other countries and are worrying. Rather than change to make their populations happy, they are strengthening their police, armed forces and control systems. This has the potential for nasty civil unrest.
Our accommodation ranged from palatial and luxurious (both very rare) down to waterless, powerless, ovens that hadn’t seen a cleaning rag since communism failed. Most bathrooms provided challenges and over 80% of the showers drained onto the floor and often into the bedroom. This fed some very interesting mould growth and, who knows, may one day provide a cure for cancer, or a painless way to remove tattoos. Some doors locked, some windows opened and some furniture didn’t fall apart. The beds were ummmm, variable. In Eastern Europe they were sometimes prewar wire-wove with lumpy mattresses’ filled with a byproduct of the horse recycling industry, to universally hard in the countries further east. After a challenging day on the move they were all welcome. When we were pleasantly surprised we were very appreciative. Just goes to show, its only a matter of degrees. I remarked to Flypaper that it would have been tougher for Maco Polo who also cruised around these parts. She responded by saying, “He didn’t have to wash his hair every second day”.
This journey isn’t for everyone. It’s not a holiday nor is it an exercise in masochism. It is often a challenge and always rewarding when looking back. The ordinary people in every country are friendly, pleased to help if they can and are delighted westerners are interested in their existence. We never experienced a sense of danger or fear or even worried about the risk of theft. However, I admit to regular frustration and may have muttered a few unkind words on occasions. We do these journeys a lot and are conscious that the world is changing. In the not too distant future everywhere will be similar to everywhere else. If you have a wish to see the world while individual cultures remain and in many instances as others have lived for hundreds of years – get going soon. The most difficult part of this and every other journey is the decision to start.