Black Sea Circumnavigation
05.05.2013 - 24.07.2013
Flypaper has been hanging around (and I've been stuck to her) for 38 years … you would think by now that she would understand that all I want is a peaceful existence pottering around the garden or attending to the list of tasks she has prepared to make her life perfect … Whoa! What’s that? There must be some ‘substances’ in the air, or perhaps it’s the Satay I’ve just eaten here on Malaysian MH004.
Following our return from the 3 Baltic States last year where we climbed their highest mountain (304 meters), doubled the flow of their highest waterfall (30.5 meters) by relieving my bladder under the viewing bridge, and offended over 4 million inhabitants, Flypaper checked her large map of the world. Just like Columbus a few years back, she discovered an area of the map that she hadn’t been to previously. This was a trio of small countries collectively known as the ‘Caucuses’. These ancient countries have been inhabited almost since Eve convinced Adam that the apples would provide delirious delights and he foolishly checked out the claim. Imagine life if Adam had been a bit wiser. (He and I have a lot in common other than poor dress sense.)
They nestle strategically on the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Africa, Europe and Asia – right on the ancient donkey trails used by most of the ambitious tyrants who cruised around that part of the world raping and pillaging and putting the heads of people with conflicting attitudes up on tall sticks to encourage their friends to get back to work providing taxes for their new boss.
Their other claim to notoriety is the fact that all of the worlds grape vines originate from this region. That wine you are using to provide courage to read these snippets of wisdom probably had its genetic geneses right in the middle of Flypapers wish list. Had Alexander the Great (who, by the way, was a cross dresser) been aware of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ he may have sorted the problems of many dependant imbibers’ out right at the birth of the viticulture industry by selectively pruning a few vintners.
Flypaper noticed that driving from London, where we keep our long suffering but trusty transport appropriately known as ‘HeeHaw’, required crossing Western then Eastern Europe, then driving through Turkey. She then decided if we turned left and cruised up through southern Russia, Ukraine and Moldova we are almost back to the UK. This includes 20 countries (a few twice - although that depends on any incidents during the first visit that may make it prudent to find an alternative route home), 2 car ferry crossings, transiting 2 current war zones and a total distance of over 12,000km in 3 months. (There’s a map associated with this blog somewhere. Sounds like a doddle. She advised her chauffeur that we would circumnavigate the Black Sea. When she mentioned Moldova I scurried off to consult all-knowing Wikipedia. I had previously thought that Moldova was a country dreamed up by the Brothers Grim where witches hang out with tall pointy hats stirring big black pots containing bats wings, frogs’ entrails and careless children. I was wrong – it’s a real country where the witches wear cloths stolen in Paris.
Well-meaning friends at our counselling sessions suggested that we may be wise to consider an alternative trip this year. They suggested Norfolk Island. They reasoned that as I grow older, my propensity to suffer those who disrupt the flow of my carefully arranged plans, becomes visibly obvious. I do agree that the military at many national boarders do annoy me when they poke their Kalashnikov up my nostrils and there are times I harbour thoughts of starting an international crisis by encouraging Flypaper to expose her prejudices. However, we overcome these incidents by employing our well tried modus operandi. We act like a couple of elderly people who became lost on the way to Bingo after collecting their pension. The armed bureaucrats usually look at their comrades, shake their heads and wave us along. If this strategy fails we declare for their inspection, Flypapers ‘SheWee’. (This is a very handy device for a middle aged woman on a winning streak at Bingo.) While not the final resort, this has never failed to hasten our border crossing experience.
Preparation for this journey started in November. It’s not possible to do too much planning as the situation in a lot of these places is ‘fluid’. Additionally, some of the countries that insist on keeping their consulate employees actually working between cocktail parties, won’t issue visas until within 3 months of ones arrival at their border. While we can do most of the prep ourselves we did enlist the help of a lovely Ukrainian Travel Agent who lives near Sydney (Google - Beyond Tours) to sort out the bureaucratic requirements of entry into Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. These countries require ‘invitations’ to visit, documents in Russian and prepaid accommodation that requires discussions with Russian speaking hostellers. I could see the wisdom in having Natalya undertake the translations as it could prove unfortunate if, in answer to the question, “Have you booked and paid for your hotels”, I was to inadvertently write, “The chamber couch you call mother cost me 1000 Roubles per night”.
Nataliya is to be recommended. Unfortunately I failed to follow her instructions perfectly and Flypapers initial application to enter a country that shall remain anonymous, was returned ‘declined’ 18 days before our departure from New Zealand. The reapplication was quickly made with the missing translated documentation that we had never previously required when visiting this country. When we had not received results 6 days before leaving NZ I called the visa officer at the embassy and in my best grovelling tones enquired regarding the status of our applications. He responded saying that they had not yet been considered. In a much modulated voice used to disguise my escalating annoyance and concern I pointed out that their excellent and very informative web site had suggested the issue would be completed in 3 – 10 days. We were now at day 11. He responded that it was always done on the 10th ‘working’ day and proceeded to explain our calendar. The applications and passports arrived on Friday after lunch so that day was not counted. Saturday / Sunday were obviously not counted. Monday / Tuesday were good. Wednesday was his day off. Thursday was ANZAC day holiday and the embassy had decided to take a long weekend off (including Friday). That’s 5 days not counted. Monday was good and the day of my enquiry, Tuesday, made 4 days into the schedule. Tomorrow, Wednesday, was the start of the Orthodox Church Easter 10 day holiday … so the earliest we could expect a decision was May 14th – 9 days after we planned to leave New Zealand and right in the middle of the period I was racing a car at the Nurburgring 24hr event in Germany. We have been facing these small ticklish problems long before this bureaucrat was born so I proceeded to lead him to a satisfactory solution. We finally agreed that if Flypaper scurried to the bank and obtained a certified bank cheque for a further $220 (double the standard visa fees) and sent it in a tracked courier envelope and I email my new best friend within an hour with attached scans of the bank receipt, the cheque and the courier receipt, he would dedicate 10 minutes immediately following his afternoon tea to issuing the visa’s and putting them in the courier today. We did, he did – we received our passports with visas the next morning. There are times I think gardening may be a more rewarding experience.
We had booked on Korean Airlines before Christmas to take advantage of a demon deal. A couple of weeks ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Pessimistic Advice, issued a notice saying that if we exposed ourselves to Kim Jong Un’s threatened Nuclear Bomb, they would not accept responsibility for returning our ashes to the family plot and considered that our insurers were unlikely to contribute to our estates. Having watched Kim’s growing popularity in North Korea based on a bizarre haircut and suspecting he hadn’t considered that exploding a nuclear device would only lengthen the queues at the rice soup kitchens, I considered it was a fair call. In my measured opinion Kim was quite likely to drop a bomb on Japan just to teach America a lesson. Given this, we changed our flights to Malaysian Air Services. Our reasoning was that the Malaysian hostesses are prettier (although the Koreans serve a brew that improves their girls as we fly along), their planes run on environmentally friendly mango juice, their food options did not include crunchy fried grasshopper in curdled goats wee as served on Korean Air and, if the bomb is deployed, at the new distance from ground zero, it would only add depth to our enviable Kiwi sun tans. I made a mental note not to walk behind metal bared windows while in Kuala Lumpur because should the unspeakable occur, I may end up with a striped complexion.
Although almost to the start line there remains a few issues to resolve. We require a Moldovan Visa that, following a telephone discussion with a charming but noncommittal Trade Commissioner in London, may be issued when we visit him – notwithstanding that, his website says he will only issue to British Passport holders. Perhaps at school he learned that the sun never sets on the British Empire and that both New Zealand and Australia as shown as red on the map indicating our love and affection to Her Majesty Queen Liz who will have most certainly welcomed him to the UK at a very swanky cocktail party. Another issue relates to a current ‘tiff’ between Turkey and Armenia. We understand that the Armenians became upset over something and closed their boarder. In retaliation Turkey stopped flying their aircraft into Yerevan. Should this not be resolved our fall-back plan is to leave HeeHaw with friends in Turkey and to fly into neighbouring Georgia where a local tour company will take us through the 3 countries in 2 weeks in a car with 1 guide who considers he knows where the very best wineries are to be found. We had to take a car ferry across the corner of the Black Sea anyway because the boarders between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya (Russia) are closed. The final issue is the possible addition of Poland to the route if the border between Ukraine and Moldova is closed. Currently there are some ethnic people who wish to have their own territory to govern – although some say the Ukrainian Mafia want their own country to make some interesting international currency laws. Breakaways of this nature are common everywhere and include places in the ‘Western’ World (e.g. Scotland, Tasmania and the South Island of NZ.) It can’t be bad because the world gets a net gain in politicians and bureaucrats. Yep – it must be the Satay that makes me think like this.
If you wish to suffer further you may want to read our previous travel blog ... 25,000km with a Washing Machine -http://wheelspin.travellerspoint.com/toc/ ...
( For some reason the pictures shown on this blog relate to that journey - at present. )