Previous travels

I'll attempt to fish out my previously emailed travel reports, edit them for human consumption and post them on here.

Lost in Cambodia
Siberian winter
Morocco and Western Sahara
Former Yugoslavia

Lost in Cambodia

First up, a tale from the depths of a Cambodian jungle in 2008.

Sitting lost in a Cambodian jungle, waiting for my guide to finish praying and find a way out of there, it struck me that Cambodians possess an endearing inability to say no. It's a land of contrasts; a place with a violent history, yet populated by a gentle and warm people. A country marked by astounding beauty but run from the large dirty capital Phnom Penh. I had escaped the city’s myriad drug dealers, prostitutes and gang-owned-child-book-sellers for the western countryside. I hadn’t known where I was headed, just that there was more to Cambodia than temples and killing fields.

Having found a bus – ‘No buses sir. All gone. You must pay special price’ – I sweated for three long hours with the man in front reclined into my gangly European legs and arrived in the unremarkable town of Kompong Chhanang. It’s worth paying a visit to the nearby TonlĂ© Sap river, dotted with houses perched on impossibly high stilts as if in an absurd competition with one another. From here it was a terrifyingly fast pickup ride along dusty, bumpy roads to the tiny village of Krakor. The only place to stay, Paris Guesthouse, would have been fine if it weren’t for a local man entering my room while I was showering and politely averting his eyes during his sales pitch for a trip to the floating village. I accepted, if only out of bemused embarrassment.

I hitchhiked away from the floating traffic jams of Kompong Luong on to Pursat. Moto taxis fought for my custom despite not knowing where I wanted to go and I found myself deposited on the back of another pickup truck, beaming locals to keep me company and bags of grain to lie on.

And so it was, after four hours of repeated breakdowns on untarmacked roads flanked by stunningly beautiful forested hills (and the occasional minefield) that I arrived in Pramaoy. A crossroads town with three directions leading to nowhere, Pramaoy is deep in the astoundingly beautiful Phnum Samkos nature reserve and a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. After their bloody rise and fall in the 70s and 80s, the party retained a small popularity in this region. I had the worrying feeling I was mingling with geriatric mass murderers.

I needn’t have been concerned. I was pointed towards Uncle Bol’s house, although uncle was nowhere to be seen. His doting family took me on as one of their own, fed me and put me up in a room worthy of a hotel. Quite what tourism they’re hoping to exploit is beyond me, but as a guest one couldn’t ask for more. Their English was as bad as my Khmer, but by way of mime I was offered a trip to the jungle to see animals: auntie Bol’s elephant impression will stay with me forever.

I was woken the next morning by a man in pyjamas and flip-flops and off we went on his entirely unsuitable motorbike. The mountains loomed, the trees drew in and the road became a narrow path, then disappeared.

We stopped. I waited. Harry pointed at the trees. I nodded. He frowned and ushered me into the forest, indicating that he would wait. Through the medium of dance I explained that I was supposed to be following him, he being my guide and all. He paused and thought for a moment, manoeuvred his bike into the undergrowth, turned and entered the trees.

We scrambled through vines, clambered up steep slopes and squeezed through narrow ravines, my guide leaving a trail by tying knots in small branches. I had the utmost faith in him despite his minimalist attire and seeming reluctance. Eventually he stopped, pointing excitedly at a definite claw mark in a tree. ‘Leopard!’ he exclaimed. Imploring me to be still, he strained through the darkness. Something flashed ahead of us and he was off, darting through the trees with me in tow, anxiously excited about what we were chasing and quite what we would do once we caught up with it.

Leopard claw marks!
But then it was gone, and there we were collapsed on the ground with exhaustion in fits of laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation. Having recovered, I asked which way was out but he just shrugged and pointed at me with a quizzical look, as if to ask whether I knew. It was no use trying to explain again what I thought was the job of a guide, nor to ask where the knotted branches were – we were clearly lost. He sat down, pulled out a joss stick, lit and began chanting a prayer.Not convinced that this would help, I racked my brains for my childhood scouting knowledge. Deciding that the following the sun would be our best bet, we swapped roles and set off with him following close behind. An hour later, to my great relief, we emerged into the sunshine and he immediately embraced me in evident delight.

Harry contemplating our way out.
We rode slowly back to Pramaoy, stopping regularly to talk to his friends in wooden houses dotted along the route. As I sat playing with a pet monkey, waiting for him to re-emerge from another house he’d disappeared into, I pondered the Cambodians’ disarming hospitality and eagerness to please, however unrealistic – leaving Pramaoy, I shared a taxi with seven other people: the driver sitting atop one man, another straddling the gear stick, a fourth in the passenger seat and four of us squeezed into the back. It’s this pragmatism and nod to fate that makes Cambodia so addictive.

Siberian winter
An account of another travelling adventure: London to Beijing by train!

We left on Friday 10th December, just before Europe came to a standstill. We had a brief stop in Paris (enough time to get horrendously overcharged for a croque monsieur) and another in Cologne (enough time to pay a very reasonable price for some Bratwurst). Then it was on to our first overnight train to Minsk, Belarus. We woke as we passed through Warsaw, and in the afternoon crossed into Belarus. Our carriage was lifted up and the bogeys changed – Russia runs on a different gauge to most of the world. We arrived into Minsk just before midnight and half-heartedly haggled with a taxi driver. It materialised he had no clue where our hotel was when he parked in front of some or other ministry and banged on a door. My fears of a dark, soviet-style country were coming true. But we got to our hotel and successfully checked in. It was huge – all hotels in Minsk are. They have no concept of hostels or guest houses and instead rely upon their massive 1950s buildings – there must have been 400 rooms but no more then five people in the place.

View from our Minsk hotel window.
Walking around Minsk one feels as if they’ve been transported back to communist Russia: wide, empty streets; large, practical buildings; cold, unemotional faces. There’s very little sign of capitalism – even on the main street the shop signs are very subtle and one has to strain through the windows to see what they’re selling. However, it’s MacDonald’s that bucks the trend with its golden arches. Did a part of the leader’s heart die when he allowed that?

We ate dinner in the restaurant of Hotel Minsk. Bizarrely, the restaurant forms part of a loud but creepily empty nightclub with just a few middle-aged ladies twirling on the dance floor to 90s pop. The menu had thousands of items on it, a sign of things to come.

Our overnight train to St Petersburg was fairly quick. We became rather anxious when we realised there’s no border between Belarus and Russia – it’s something we just hadn’t considered. The problem was, we’d filled in our entry cards upon entry to Belarus as if it was just for that country. It turned out that it applied to the whole Russian union. So we were now in Russia without an entry stamp on our visas and a wrongly dated entry card. We had to wait until we crossed into Mongolia to see what they’d make of that.

St Petersburg is beautiful: very Russian and very European at the same time. We wandered aimlessly around the city, admiring astonishing sites such as the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood – modelled on St Basil’s in Moscow and in my mind much better. It’s reported to have taken substantially longer to renovate after the soviet area than it did to build it. The river Neva was filled with large slabs of ice floating along it, crashing into the bridges. It was already unpleasantly cold to stand about for any period of time (about -15C, compared to -10C in Minsk) and this drop in temperature resulted in one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen: whilst walking around the Hermitage museum the next day we noticed, out the windows, that the river was moving extremely slowly and then appeared to stop. Sure enough, outside it had frozen solid. Not smoothly, but with lumps of ice jutting out over its entire width. It was astonishing.

The River Neva completely frozen over.
The Hermitage museum must receive an obligatory mention: it’s big. Very big. There are too many items to mention (literally: there’s over 2.5 million of them) but it’s a pleasure to wander its myriad corridors following Russian history.

Our hostel’s owners insisted we join them in celebrating the replacement of their showers. (It’s true, they will get the vodka out at the merest excuse!) My attempts at talking politics and philosophy were severely hindered by the quality of their alcohol, but I do remember feeling somewhat disappointed at their apathy. It’s great that the young Russian generation can just get on with things regardless of what happened not so long ago, but I feel a pang of frustration when they can’t see how the recent past has shaped the way their country works and how the world looks at them.

On to Moscow, sleeping soundly over the spot where the commuter train was derailed a month before. Moscow was colder. -20C! Walking around the city looking for somewhere to eat breakfast (everywhere seems to open at 10am) and buy tickets for the Kremlin we felt it in our bones. Red Square isn’t as big as I’d thought! It looks almost fake in the sharp light of winter, but beautiful nonetheless. We filtered past Lenin’s embalmed body and the headstones of all the other leaders behind the tomb, somewhat of an embarrassment to the Russians nowadays. I was surprised that we could enter the Kremlin – there are plenty of blacked-out Mercedes with their engines kept running, parked in the centre waiting for dignitaries to jump in and dart off. But the rest of it is well worth a visit, with stunning churches (good for getting warm), the world’s biggest cannon (never fired) and one of the biggest bells (never rung). Another must-see is the cosmonaut museum, a shrine to the not insubstantial achievements of the soviets. To be fair, there is also a section on the Americans, but the Russians got to space first, we’re constantly reminded!

St Basil's on Red Square in Moscow.
Another heavy Russian night. We were molested by a drunken Russian lady who insisted on relating her sob story about her married English boyfriend from Chelmsford. She then fell off her chair and covered herself in beer and wine before getting thrown out.

We left Moscow on our longest (time-wise) train of the trip: four nights to Irkutsk. It’s a strange feeling, waking up on a train and wondering, “What am I going to do today? I’ll probably just sit on this train. Again.” But it’s fun! We had just one room mate for the most part, Sergey. An hour in and our conversation in basic English and Russian was exhausted, so he resigned himself to playing Solitaire on his laptop. For five days, rising only to go to toilet. The clicking began to drive us insane. We were pretty much the only people to eat in the restaurant car and we did that at least twice a day. The waitresses didn’t appear to sleep and became quite amused at our regular visits. The best thing on the menu was “Hot in Russian”. It contained meat, was hot, and probably Russian. It was either that or “Pork the wood apple tree”. Getting to and from the restaurant was a long trek through carriage after carriage. The carriages themselves are well heated, but stepping between them the temperature plummets. But people still smoke in between them – you’d think it would be enough to make you quit.

A typical station in Siberia.
We passed over the Urals and into Asia during the first night. After that the landscape was mostly flat and always snowy. Small villages passed us by and I wondered how people could survive out there. The railway is their artery. Occasionally, we would risk leaving the train at stations. We were never sure how long it would stop for and on more than one occasion had to run for the train and any open door we could find. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be stranded out there!

We arrived in Irkutsk early in the morning, walking too far (we alighted from the tram far too early) to get to the bus station. We were proud of our ability to book a return bus trip to Listvyanka on Lake Baikal, but that feeling fizzled out when we realised we’d booked the return for the same day rather then in two days’ time. Changing it was ten times harder than buying it in the first place. Icy roads appear not to worry bus drivers. We sat at the back clutching our bags as he hurtled past struggling lorries. But it was worth it to see the lake glinting at us through the trees as we approached its banks. We got off just before Listvyanka in a sleepy little village called Krestovka. It overlooks Lake Baikal which, unfortunately, was not yet frozen. In terms of volume it’s the biggest lake in the world, containing a fifth of the world’s fresh water. As such it takes a long time to lose its heat and doesn’t freeze until January. Once started though, it freezes to a depth of 10 feet – enough to drive lorries across it.

Over 300 rivers empty into the lake, and all of these were already frozen. We were able to cross them on foot as we walked along the edge, admiring the scene of serene waters, distant mountains, with a beautiful sunset over snowy shores. There’s no way we could’ve walked right round though, or even driven: it’s 400 miles long and sixty miles wide. It’s also a mile deep.

Looking towards Listvyanka on the banks of Lake Baikal.
Walking into Listvyanka we found little taking place. A castle of ice was being built, and a few die-hards were selling omul (the local fish) at stalls. We bought lunch from one man barbecuing meat. We visited the Baikal museum, a disappointing mishmash of displays in an office block. There were two seals there (Baikal contains the only fresh water seals in the world) but they looked bored and unhappy. That night we were the only diners in a hotel restaurant. It amazes me that these places insist on staying open during such quiet periods and are able to cook any of the dishes on the exaggerated menu.

Krestovka is even quieter. We stayed above a family’s house in a wooden apartment (we were glad we hadn’t been given the dorm rooms as we didn’t fancy the walk to the outside toilets). There was a bear skin attached to the wall and a tiny hob upon which we prepared our only self-cooked meal of the trip (except noodles on the train). There was also a fridge. (Why don’t they just cut a hole in the wall? Seems silly to heat a house then stick a fridge in it.)

We headed back to Irkutsk by way of a lift from the owner’s son. At one point he stopped at a chair lift, got out, and ran off with a power drill. To this day we have no idea what he was doing. We spent the morning in Irkutsk, where I bought a proper Russian fur hat. It’s the first and only time I was able to haggle in Russia but that was down to the fact that the guy was Vietnamese. Tsar Alexander III overlooks the freezing river. It was around -27C with a painful wind and we headed to the station for out train. You would be wise to note that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time, five hours earlier than Irkutsk time. So we were around 6 hours early for our train! Better than being late I suppose. We spent it in a cafĂ©, using up the last of our roubles before catching the two-day train to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

It needn’t have taken two days. On the second day the train sits at the border town of Naushki for 3 hours while passports are collected and engines changed, then moves a few miles and waits at the Mongolian entry point for another 3 hours. Our fears over our passports and visas were misplaced: it was probably too cold for the guards to be bothered about it. They didn’t even ask for proof of where we’d been, just stamped our visas and gave them back!

At Naushki our carriage had been inundated by about eight Mongolian students. They were disarmingly friendly and wouldn’t stop talking to us. One man spoke five languages and worried us by constantly making jokes with the border officials who didn’t appear to be laughing. But as soon as our passports had been returned on the Mongolian side they all left the train. Seven hours to go just a few miles! Apparently there’s no road crossing they could use. The train then continued on to UB stopping at every local station on the way.

Mongolia is a shock to the system after Russia: the people are so different, both culturally and physically. It’s the first time I really felt I was in Asia. We arrived in UB at 6am on Christmas Day and spent a good hour trying to find our hotel. Without doubt the coldest hour of my life at below -30C. But we found it and warmed ourselves up with a long discussion with the owner on the history of Mongolia and the ills of big cities. Then we ventured out for an unforgettable Christmas – three museums and a monastery.

The Gandan monastery is the Mongolian national icon. It’s beautiful, authentic (it’s still used every day for Buddhist prayers) but has too many pigeons. No, I don’t want to buy some food for them, thank you. The Natural History museum is disappointing. Yes, the almost entirely complete dinosaur skeleton is astonishing, but I became tired of row after row of badly stuffed sparrows and moles. The National History museum, on the other hand, is fantastic. A complete tour from prehistoric times, through the empire, to the soviet satellite state and the revolution. Finally, we visited the “Intellectual” museum. It contains over 4000 puzzles, 3000 of which were made by its founder a sixtyyear old Mongolian man who started when he was just eleven. Most were wooden objects requiring us to take them apart or fit them together but even the six-piece varieties left us befuddled. Most spectacularly there was a twenty-five foot chess table with pieces made of puzzles, as well as smaller puzzles with a prize of $1000 if anyone could do it in ten minutes. We couldn’t.

That night we found a bar with some of the most incredibly beautiful people I’ve ever seen. I have to be honest and say that I’ve never thought of Mongolians as particularly attractive, but they are! They didn’t look twice at us.

On Boxing Day we went with a driver out into the Gobi desert. It’s almost as if you’re looking at an overexposed picture of a normal sandy desert, with smooth rolling white hills, cloudless skies, no trees or wildlife save for camels, and ice extending as far as one can see. We looked out over the city from a large hill on the outskirts – a huge, sprawling, ugly city. It’s a shame that so many have moved there to find their fortune. Mongolia is traditionally nomadic, but people have been drawn in by unfulfilled promises of a better way of life. The nomads left behind may be uneducated and have no money, but they’re rich because they have everything they need and aren’t worried about doing better than the people next to them.

Camels in the Gobi Desert
In the distance glints a huge metal structure. As we approach we see Genghis Khan on horse back, presiding over his country as he did a 800 years earlier. The monument is so big, a lift runs up one of the horse’s legs. It’s truly astonishing and goes some way towards making us understand just how proud the Mongolians are of him.

We drove through the desert with the promise of dog sledding; we were sorely disappointed. Mongolians, it seems, are very eager to please and find it difficult to say no, even when the chances of making work whatever they’ve agreed to are slim. We played with waiting huskies and walked around in circles to keep warm until we discovered that there was no way it was going to happen. So we went in search of lunch instead and ended up in the back room of a shop eating noodles and drinking the owner’s tea. As the sun was setting we visited a nomadic family’s yurt. They live in these tents so that they can move easily to wherever suits them best, usually determined by the availability of food for their livestock. So it strikes me as rather self-defeating to have a television and satellite dish!

The next morning we boarded our last overnight train for Beijing! Border formalities were very smooth but our attempts to leave the train and get some dinner were thwarted and we were stuck in our locked carriage for hours while the bogeys were changed back to standard gauge. On the afternoon of 28th December we arrived into Beijing station and reflected upon how far we’d come (can someone work it out for me please? I reckon about 8000 miles.) Halfway round the world in just ten nights on trains!

Beijing was nowhere near as busy as I’d expected it to be. Maybe it’s the lack of tourists at that time of year but even the main roads seemed devoid of traffic. Perhaps it’s good town planning! We wandered around Tiananmen Square and stared at Mao’s looming face. I visited his embalmed body and ticked off my third dead communist dictator. We spent an obligatory day at the Great Wall – it’s one of those things you have to do and despite having seen it in pictures all my life, it still astounded me. We made an effort to go to a less-touristy section, further from Beijing, and it was worth it. It was steep, hard work (and hot – it was only -5C) but we were rewarded with views over a ruined wall stretching and twisting hundreds of miles into the distance. To get down we were offered the choice of a cable car or a metal luge. Got to take the luge! I thought it was a child’s ride but those plastic buggies, with a lever you push on to go and pull on to stop, went very, very fast. The sides of the luge were heavily banked and we were close to going over the top. I’ll never forget the shouts from the angry guards we shot past: “Slow down! You slow down!”

Great Wall of China
The final day was somewhat marred by the execution of the British drug smuggler but we spent it wandering around the stunning Forbidden City. I imagine it’s overcrowded in the summer so I recommend braving the winter chill! The buildings are astonishingly detailed but its the history that gets me. I can’t get over the fate of the last emperor – he became a gardener after the revolution. Apparently he was happy (say the displays).

The night market comprises a hundred or so stalls all selling strange edible delicacies such as water snake, bull’s penis and silkworm. The latter is actually quite tasty! Wouldn’t recommend the centipede – the legs get stuck in your teeth.

And then it was back to England – twenty days to get there and eleven hours to get back. Sure fire way to get upgraded: ‘accidentally’ break your tv after the doors have been locked. Result!

It was an absolutely amazing trip across several very different countries and cultures. There’s no better way to see the people and land change – all one has to do is look out the window!

Morocco and Western Sahara
Exploring during the heat of Ramadan 2009.

I flew to Marrakech, for economical reasons, via Pisa. Five hours was enough time for me to dump my bags at the airport and hop on a bus to see the tower. Touristy, yes, but there really isn't much else to see there! It really does lean, doesn't it? I refused the opportunity to have my picture taken of me holding up the tower and made do with taking pictures of the million tourists doing the same thing. Pizza and then back to the airport for the flight to my destination proper.

Marrakech airport was deserted: my first taste of Ramadan in an Islamic country. Yes, I have naively decided to travel during the period of Muslim insanity, where even water is forbidden during daylight hours. Seriously, this country is hot. Found a bus to the airport and arrived in the centre of the city, and seized upon by the waiting taxi drivers, tour guides and con artists. Scam radar was up and working in no time. The centre of the old town is Djeema el-Fna, a huge square populated by street theatre, food stalls and row upon row of orange juice sellers. And it was good orange juice, although finding somewhere to drink it without being seen is tricky. The city, I'm told, is very quiet at the moment due to it being Ramadan and the low season. What must it be like during high season? I found a cheap, cramped, hot room and explored the city. It's very easy and very worthwhile to get lost in the myriad souks, or markets, criss-crossing the old town, selling anything you can possibly imagine at vastly inflated prices until you can knock them down to a sixth of their original offer. The smells, colours and sounds are an assault, in a good way, on the senses. I visited the main museum and Koranic school, all the time fending off 'guides' who will kindly walk in front of you and then charge you for the pleasure. In the evening the street theatre begins. I'd love to tell you how good it is but every time I tried to watch someone would spot my tall white body and rattle a collection tin in front of me. I will, however, tell you about the food. The evening street stalls sell a vast range of Moroccan delicacies, by far the best being tajine, a dish of succulent meat and vegetable stewed for hours, marinated in an aromatic combination of spices. The snails are pretty good too.

Djeema el-Fan, the main square of Marrakech
The next day I took a bus to the town of Ourzazate, southeast of Marrakech. On the way the driver stopped at sunset for everyone to break fast, pray and chat for an hour. Annoyingly this was just 2km before our destination. Found a hotel run by a very persistent and high-pitched man. Ourzazate feels very industrial by the day but relaxed at night, with throngs of locals wandering the main square. It's very funny to watch the men sit together at cafes drinking tea while the women sit on the other side of the square. It's very rare to see both sexes mingling. Upon checking out I discovered how easily tempers are frayed when people have nothing to eat or drink. The night before, I had negotiated a price for the room. This was inexplicably increased the next morning and the strange man was nowhere to be seen. I was given a phone to speak to him, but the lack of a high-pitched voice was a giveaway. It was only after threatening to call the police that he materialised and said, 'Ok, ok, no problem.'

I went on by extremely hot and crowded local bus to Boumalne du Dades, then shared a taxi to the Gorge du Dades. I found a hotel that would let me sleep on their terrace for next to nothing, with a view worth millions. The gorge comprises smooth red rocks melting down into lush fig and peach trees. Walking amongst them, the locals helped me pick fruit and encouraged me to eat, even though they couldn't. These were the Berber people, who speak neither Arabic nor French (not that I'm particularly good at either). An old lady led me to her house, a mud-walled room up a rickety wooden ladder. She and her daughter (who also looked quite old) gave me mint tea, bread and, bizarrely, Nutella. I was so full but they insisted I finish everything.

Dades Gorge
Ah, the mint tea! The Moroccans drink it constantly, with an incredible amount of sugar. This accounts for how rife tooth decay is in this country. But it's evidently worth it.

I took the local transport – a packed minibus out of which I had to hang – to the end of the gorge. Here the sides taper in and before you know it you're squeezing through tiny gaps. It started to rain, heavily, so instead of waiting for a bus I flagged down the first car that came by: two teenagers with pumping Moroccan music. My hotel owners later told me that they were the 'bad boys' of the gorge, but they gave me a lift back so they're fine in my book! Travelling during Ramadan is an adventure: they drive very slowly, take their time, then as sunset approaches they hurtle around tight mountain bends. All radio stations stop whatever song they're playing and broadcast the call to prayer at sunset, and the drivers all stop wherever they are, pray and break fast with dates and milk.

From here I took (after much arguing and haggling with more taxis) a bus to Er Rachidia, a town with a distinctly unfriendly feeling. Another 'guide' followed me and some fellow travellers for a good couple of hours until we managed to find a cramped share taxi to the town of Rissani.

There is a common ploy amongst taxis and buses: wait until you've paid and got in, then demand 'baggage' money. This is easily avoided by refusing, getting out and asking for your money back.

Rissani is as far as you can get towards the Sahara by public transport. It's a big dusty place with the feel of a transit or border town. To get anywhere else you must give in, haggle hard and pay a local to take you to the desert. So off we went to the town of Merzouga, where the road turns into a sandy piste and the dunes pile up against the doors of the houses. It was two and a half hours by camel to an oasis, including a stop for praying and eating. The dunes are amazing: golden pink, smooth, then sharp as a knife at the tops. The guide was a Toureg, a nomad, and he explained that they have no maps as the desert changes overnight. We camped under the stars and woke up very, very cold.

A touareg in the Erg Chebbi, Sahara
But that's better than being very, very hot, which I was sitting in the middle of Rissani in 46 degrees waiting for the night bus to Fez. But a minibus turned up and offered a ride to Fez. Only 7 hours they said; but this is Africa, and time works differently here. I turned up in Fez eleven hours later at 2am, but the trip was worth it: a drive round the Middle Atlas, watching the land change from dry and dusty, to mountainous, to green and back again. The driver was incredibly friendly, buying dates, peaches and milk and sharing it all, and helping me buy dinner in a very local cafe. People outside of the cities are always like this: desperate to please and talk to you. Turning up in Fez at that time was not great: the streets are busier than ever and the faux guides not very friendly. The next day, on the other hand, was incredible.

Fez, as I hinted, was astounding. It might appear to be similar to Marrakech on the surface, but stay there a few hours and you'll realise that tourists are a sideline. The locals are going about their business as they have for centuries, and the vast array of goods on sale in the cramped souks are aimed at people living in the area. The medina is one big market but navigating it is fairly easy as it's built on a slope: just head down the hill and you'll hit the main thoroughfare. Go up, though, and you'll be rewarded with a magnificent view over the rooftops from the ramparts on a hill overlooking the city. It's hot up there, but worth it. From there, the medina seems impenetrable and it almost looks like an organism, evolving and adapting, surrounding objects that stick out of it, such as minarets.

There are many palaces and mosques to see, but for me the wonder is in just wandering about seeing what's around the next corner. And of course there are the tanneries, where for hundreds of years leather has been treated and turned into bags, shoes and coats. They consist of huge open top vats where men and boys spend all day using their feet to turn the hides over and over. Some of the vats are white where dung, mainly pigeon poo, is used to strip the hair from the skins. Then there are the coloured pots containing natural substances used to permanently dye the leather. An impressive site.

The tanneries of Fez
Fez doesn't suffer as badly from the faux guide problem as Marrakech. This is due mainly to the fact that the authorities passed a law banning any Moroccans from being seen with a foreigner in public, punishable by a two-month prison stint. This has stopped the hassle but has negative effects, witnessed when a man who worked at my hotel tried to show me back and got shouted at and grabbed by almost every local we passed.

I stayed two nights, sleeping on a roof (cheaper and cooler). Then it was on to Chefchaouen, literally meaning 'See the mountain', tucked away in the Rif mountains. The town stands out because it's blue. Not just a bit: every house and wall in the medina is painted a shade of ocean blue. It gives it a very clean, peaceful feeling. Apparently it was painted blue a long time ago by Jewish settlers, who successfully spread a rumour that it helps keep away mosquitoes. Which it doesn't. People speak Spanish too; also not very helpful for me. It was here, upon arrival, that I had my worst experience with an unwanted guide. Straight away a man came up and asked where I was going. I told him I didn't need help and had no money but he put on a very hurt look and said he was only trying to help. It gets very tiring in Morocco fending off these people, but I try very hard not to generalise and presume that everyone who peaks to me wants my money, so I tried to be polite. I explained to him I knew where I was going, but he was insistent and strode off in the direction I needed to go. I explained again that I wouldn't pay him and he assured me he didn't want anything. So I shrugged my shoulders and went after him. Arrived at the hotel, thanked him, checked in, then explained to the receptionist that I needed to get some cash. The first man pipes up at this point and says that he'll take me. I told him again that I knew where it was (I'd just passed it) but he told me how much he like tourists. "In Fez, Marrakech, they want your money," he told me, "but not here. I just like people to be happy." At the cash machine I had an unrelated run-in with a one-eyed, one-legged man who made several uncomplimentary remarks about my mother (have you been there mum?) but my new friend/guide came to my rescue. I thanked him and he said, "Ok, where do we go now?" I told him that I'd like to be alone now and he said, "Ok, give me 50 Dirham." I reminded him that he'd said that he was doing this for free and he replied, "But I took you to your hotel, and then to here!" I walked away in disgust but he followed me, grabbed me and said how rude I was being and how he deserved that money. Fortunately some local boys got out of a car and stepped in at this point and split us apart. I was seething.

Chefchaouen: very blue.
The rest of my time was less stressful, aside from that fact that I was totally and utterly incapable of finding my way around. Everything looks the same! I wasn't about to ask anyone for help though. I was supposed to be sleeping on the roof, but when I tried to go to bed a couple had moved their stuff on to where I was going to be and put my bag inside. Whilst I was wandering the hotel trying to find these people, it started to rain very, very heavily, saturating their belongings. I smiled and slept on a sofa. If that's not proof of Allah I don't know what is.

It was here I discovered the drummers/pipers who are employed to wake everyone up at about 4am to remind them to eat before dawn. For days I'd been trying to fathom just why every town seemed to have a few people with severe attention deficit disorder. Who wakes them up? is what I want to know.

On to Rabat, the capital. The clean, smart roads and buildings were quite a surprise, and the ocean front is stunning, with a kasbah in one corner. It's funny: during the day it's fairly busy, then suddenly, at around 6.30pm, it becomes eerily quiet when everyone goes in to break fast. Then, at about 8pm, all hell breaks loose and there are parties and street food everywhere! I haven't had too much of a problem travelling during Ramadan, but inevitably I've had to adjust slightly because I try not to be seen eating or drinking. And when I do have to, I always ask if the people around me mind. They never do. Only today, in a taxi did I dare not try, as the driver was playing religious chanting on the radio and the other passenger was reciting the Koran out loud.

After Rabat I took the very fast train to Casablanca, where I had five hours to kill, traipsing round with my bag getting told off for taking pictures of government buildings. I spent most of the time looking for somewhere to eat. A nice man offered to take me to a cafe but I realised he was a drug dealer. Was still quite tempted though. An American lady I met on the bus later told me that she'd gone to Rick's cafe to eat. Apparently they made a film there or something?

Took the bus to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, full of whitewashed colonial buildings. It would be a great place to relax but the tourists come in droves, especially the day trippers on their big buses, with their tour guides and bum bags. So I carried on the next day to Agadir, where a friend of mine was staying a week with his girlfriend. Unfortunately Agadir is a perfect example of over-tourism. It's a great beach but all along it are huge all-inclusive hotels where you can't hear the call to prayer and you wouldn't even know it was Ramadan. I stayed the night further into the own, away from the beach, amongst the locals, where I felt much more comfortable. Never thought I'd say that the call to prayer is comforting!

Then travelling felt like it had started again, with a vengeance. I took four taxis and a bus to get to Legzira Plage, just north of Sidi Ifni. There are two types of taxi in Morocco: the petit taxis, which ferry people around town and are supposed to use their meters but due to some bizarre coincidence they're all broken. Then there are the grand taxis, which are beige, beaten-up old Mercedes. They connect various towns whenever they're full. And I mean full. Four in the back and three in the front.

Legzira Plage
Legzira. Stunning. It's an unspoilt stretch of sandy beach with rocky, red outcrops formed into arches. I had to hike a kilometre from the road to get to it, down a steep path, and there are just two or three building at the bottom. You only have to walk a short way to be alone on a fantastic beach with incredible views. I'm sure it won't be long before the developers move in, but for now it's perfect. I stayed two nights, listening to the roar of the ocean and watching the sun rise and fall in pristine skies, then it was another tough trip, having to hitch part way, to get to Tan Tan Plage. I had dinner with some locals but couldn't understand a word they said. They seemed to enjoy my company. Or they were just laughing at me.

Either way, people are a lot friendlier down here, as tourism is almost non-existent. Just the way I like it!

After Tan Tan (Plage, not Ville, as I was to discover to my confusion), I took a relatively comfortable bus to Laayoune in Western Sahara. This is not, as you might think, part of Morocco: it is an illegally occupied country. This is evident as soon as you cross the border: the formalities were extremely friendly (there aren’t many tourists going that far south!) but then there are UN soldiers everywhere, doing absolutely nothing. They haven't been doing anything for 10 years, since the ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco was signed. But I hadn't been in Laayoune long before a local I met made it very clear that he was not Moroccan but Saharawi. This was a recurring encounter throughout my two days there. People were extremely friendly, but very stern when it came to matters of independence. Which explains the UN presence: as long as the majority of the people want independence, the UN will attempt to mediate. There are many people who have left Western Sahara for a region in the desert protected by Algeria (who don't particularly like Morocco). These people would rather move to a harsh environment like that than live under an occupying force.

Anyway, enough of politics. Laayoune was a very nice, pleasant city to stroll about. It seems very wealthy (the Moroccan government offers tax free jobs to people who move there) and there is no hassle (due to there being no tourists!) I then got rather worried about time and decided to stop going south – I’ll have to save Mauritania for another trip – so I got a night bus to Inzegane and then another local bus to Taroudannt, just south of the High Atlas. This is known as little Marrakech but that's unfair because it has a lot going for it. There's much less hassle and the markets are probably more authentic than the imported stuff they sell in its bigger sister. It has a very intact medina wall and a huge kasbah with towers big enough for two-lane roads to pass through. The next day I attempted to tackle the notorious Tizi n'Test pass over the Atlas mountains, not as high as the Tizi n'Tichka I'd gone over to get to Ouazazate at the beginning of my trip, but much, much twistier and narrower.

Driving over the daunting passes in the High Atlas.
Unfortunately, getting to it proved rather difficult. No buses or taxis run from Taroudannt so I tried to get to a town near to the turn off in the hope I could go from there. I was scammed and ended up in a town probably just as far from the turning but on the other side of it. I then got a share taxi to the town I wanted (Oulad Berhil) where I asked if it was possible to go to Asni on the other side of the pass, where I knew there would be hotels. Eventually the taxi filled up, not long after a group of men had taken my bag out of the boot and tied it to the roof, replacing it with a live goat. The trip over the pass was everything I'd hoped for, with breathtaking views and terrifying descents. About fifty miles from Asni I was the only one left in the car, and then the driver stopped and turned off his engine. I asked him if this was Asni (knowing it wasn't) and he said this was as far as he goes. Well, despite the language barrier, I managed to express my annoyance to him in front of a crowd who'd come to see what the fuss was about. I gathered that it wasn't really the taxi driver's fault as someone I'd asked had pointed me to his taxi thinking that I'd be able to get to Asni from here. But it was now 5pm and there was no way anyone was going anywhere else.

A sheep in the boot of the taxi, naturally.
I looked around me and realised how stunning the area was, a small village nestled in the midst of the mountains with incredible scenery in every direction. This is what I was after and I didn't care I was stuck. I walked off and found a small shop. Making the international gesture for sleeping, they all nodded and one guy led me up a steep and winding path to a house, with small children following us and laughing. A lady answered the door and welcomed me in, showed me where I could sleep and asked what I wanted to eat. I could only make her understand tajine. I watched the sunset over the towering mountains and played marbles with the children (they were MUCH better than me) and then ate with her family - her three children and her husband. None of us could understand each other but the kids were brilliant, constantly talking to me and getting me to help me with their French homework, which was probably more helpful for me. We broke fast in the traditional way with soup, dates and pastries, then moved on to the couscous and finally tajine and mint tea. The father then went out (probably to stay up all night drinking tea with his mates) while the kids all cleaned up. It's a very traditional house, but they seem very happy. And again, welcoming, friendly, and tolerant.

Football in the High Atlas
The next morning I got up early and had to wake up the father to let me out, asleep, as he was, on the sofa. I found a taxi (waiting the usual wait for it to fill up) to Marrakech. While I was waiting the driver from yesterday came up to me and repeatedly apologised for what had happened. I was sorry too, but managed to explain to him how worth it it had been. Arrived in Marrakech after a cramped, rough journey.

And there I spent my last two days, mainly watching the locals and tourists from the relative protection of a cafe. The 'entertainers' who hang around on the square during the day are particularly aggressive – if you make the mistake of taking their photo you are not going to escape from them without paying. In the evening the street theatre and music begins. I've now worked out that the men who come round telling you to put money in a hat/tin for watching are LIARS. They have nothing to do with the shows. The normal etiquette is to watch a show and if you like it, pay at the end for an encore. I had a great experience on the last night, sitting down at a random food stall and being invited to break fast (for no cost!) by the owner, just because he wanted someone to eat with). Finally, I couldn't leave without trying the sheep's brain on the food stalls. It was a bit like pate. But more brain-like.

And that's it. I had an amazing time and I was astounded at how friendly, open, and trusting the Moroccans (and Saharawis!) are, and how strong their sense of community is. They’ll spend ages saying hello to someone they only vaguely know, even if they’ve only just seen them. I rarely experienced rudeness and never did anyone have a problem with my (lack of) religion. If they did, it didn't stop them talking to me, looking after me and being incredibly friendly. I'd recommend it to anyone – although maybe not during Ramadan if you can't face going a bit hungry occasionally!

Former Yugoslavia
Three weeks travelling around former Yugoslavia. All seven countries of it. It's a tall order and it may be a bit rushed, but we'll do our best. So in case you're at all curious, I'm hereby documenting, on a week-by-week basis, our experiences of this fascinating and little-understood corner of Europe.

We arrived in Ljubljana and stayed a couple of nights, exploring the small, pristine city. Superficially it's a beautiful place with eye-catching architecture and picture-perfect scenery. But something is lacking, there's no soul. Everywhere seems too perfect, as if someone sat down one day and said, 'This is how my city will look. Now BUILD it!' It doesn't have the signs of evolution one finds in other cities.

Flying fish in Ljubljana

On to Zagreb, an altogether more satisfying place. Around every corner is a hidden gem. The locals seem to go about their own business (as opposed to everyone being employed selling coffee to locals) and there is actually some dirt. It's not as if there is a phenomenal amount to see, just that one feels alive walking around it, part of something. And how the place comes alive at night! Suffice to say that their microbreweries do a very good job at not much of a cost to the consumer (monetarily, at least).

It was from here that we considered our travels proper to begin. We crossed the border into Bosnia & Herzegovina and stopped for the night in Banja Luka. Our hostess was a rather bitter old lady who clearly survived the war by shouting. She seemed thoroughly put out by our presence. Banja Luka doesn't have much to offer the tourist but it does give an impression of life in the Bosnian backwaters. It's in the Republic Srpska, right on the front line between Bosniaks and Serbs during the war. The lack of any buildings of significance, as well as the highly noticeable absence of the once-famous UNESCO heritage mosque, is a stark reminder of how recently the inhabitants were fighting each other.

On to Jajce, unfortunately not pronounced like my name. Jajce is the kind of town that grows on you. Looking beneath its outward appearance, beneath the self-fostered tourist hotspot, one finds real people with astonishing experiences and an even more astonishing optimism. Hidden amongst the perfect white mosques (all reconstructed after the war), carefully designed bridges and the myriad empty bars and cafes are crumbling houses destroyed by the attacking Serbs during the '92-'95 war. Many families, ripped apart by fictitious nationalist sentiment imposed along religious lines, have now returned to their former homes. One such family is that of the Kubats, Bosniaks (Muslims) whom we stayed with. Only the 14 year old son Almin can speak English, his mother having been forced to learn Russian during the Tito years and his father having learnt Swedish during his exile. Almin translated for us into their common language of Bosnian, explaining how his father Mustafa had escaped Jajce for Zenica, where he had met his mother, Fata, before escaping further to Sweden. They were reunited after the war in Jajce and have lived on the site of his former house ever since. Their home overlooks the ruins of his pre-war house, a constant reminder of the only recently healed wounds.

View over Jajce, Bosnia

They exemplify Bosnian hospitality, driving us to see the lakes, to buy food at the market, and even cook our food for us. They ply us with homemade plum jam and Rakija, a vodka that enables you to talk Bosnian, so Mustafa says. The lakes are idyllic (including the much-photographed miniature water mills, though what purpose they serve is unclear) and we had the spot to ourselves. The walk back was 90 minutes longer than Almin had promised, but it took us through tiny villages and stunning scenery. Sitting eating dinner, the eerie calls to prayer reminded us that it was Ramadan, though drinking Rakija with the family one could easily forget their nominative religion. It's another example of religious labels being used as proxies for ethnicity - they're proud of their Bosniak heritage and almost lost their lives for it, but all they really want is to live a peaceful life. 'To us, everyone is Bosnian,' says Fata. With the amount of Rakija they stow under
our beds, it seems they've discovered a way to achieve that unity.

A quick overnight stop in Travnik. Upon recommendation from Almin, we try cevapi. It's difficult to imagine a worse national dish: ten tiny greasy sausages stuffed inside an even greasier pitta. Oh, and some raw onion.

And so we arrive in Sarajevo on a bizarrely cold and wet morning, merely adding to the image of Sarajevo I have in my mind. After recreating the outbreak of WW1 by the river (we played the popular game of assassinate the duke), we climb the cemetery-covered hills for incredible views over the city. Sitting there one can imagine the Serbian snipers surrounding the city and smoke pouring out of the twin towers, with the high-rise communist era flats on the horizon. But I have to shake off this vision because wandering around the streets reveals a much calmer, happier people.

We took a trip to the 'tunnel museum', which showcases the tiny tunnel dug during the war under the airport to enable food and weapons to be smuggled in and out. It really is quite a testimony to the resilience of the residents during the siege, when Sarajevo was surrounded for almost three years by snipers and artillery. It's an incredibly difficult concept to get one's head around, being subjected to terror every second of every day. The guide was particularly angry and throughout our short time with her she grew more and more vocal about the Serbs, about the useless UN peacekeepers and about NATO. Not surprisingly: four hours of NATO bombing stopped the siege dead. One wonders why it couldn't have been done a little sooner. But as is always the case, her resentment towards the Serbs is unfair. It's a simplistic opinion we've heard everywhere we've been, and so we leave the beautiful valley for Belgrade on an overnight bus.

Not that we got any sleep, what with the locals staying up talking all night talking and the stern border guards inspecting us at length. We arrived in Belgrade in the freezing rain (is this really summer?!) and found a hostel. I sat up talking to the man running the hostel. This was to be the first and only conversation we would have with any Serbs regarding the conflicts. He was pleasingly open, honest and apologetic about the things that had happened, but also wished that people would look beyond the sensationalism and the simplistic 'Croatia/Kosovo good, Serbia bad' portrayal of his country. The fact is, Croatia was equally to blame for the original conflict insofar they ignored the wishes of their significant minorities in declaring independence. They then used propaganda to fanaticise the Croats in border regions. Milosevic then did the same with the Serbs, although he knew full well that this would lead to all-out war. And he had the firepower behind him. Things spiraled out of control and both sides were convinced of the evil of the other, doing anything they could do to exterminate them. One should also remember that there were significant opposition protests of the government in 1990, before the wars. Many people in Serbia were not at all taken in by what their government was saying and tried their hardest to stop it. Labeling Serbs as one evil group is ridiculous. One final thing on history: it is not true that these wars were the result of ancient grudges and hatreds. They lived happily alongside one another during Ottoman rule and there's nothing 'ethnically' different between them. It's purely the result of external powers forging nationalist ideas (often along religious lines, themselves forced upon them) in order to form opposition to the ruling power. Thus the idea of 'Serbia' as a nationality was created. And people end up fighting for it, as if it's something special.


Anyway, enough of all that. Belgrade is a wonderful city, full of the layers that make you want to explore it more and more. I'd love to go back there. There are the high-rise buildings, of course, but amongst them, down tiny alleys, are traditional Serbian or Turkish areas. And the people are so friendly! It totally destroys the myth that they are strange and prone to violence.

On to the tiny village of Despotovac, some 150 miles south. A rural town with not much going on, but a perfect example of how the Serbs live away from the towns: slowly, drinking lots of coffee. An old man lives on the outskirts. He runs a museum; or rather, he makes some strange wooden objects and displays them in his garden with a 'Museum' sign hanging overhead. We walk around it in confusion, as if trespassing in someone's bizarre dream, and I tread on one of his puppies. He doesn't seem to mind (it's ok anyway!) and beckons us over to show us his photo album. The photos betray his age as over 90 and I finally understand what he's trying to tell me: he's 100. We leave him to finish fashioning his latest wooden half-goat half-giraffe animal.

We pass through Nis but it's incredibly busy due to some festivals. We have time only to see the skull tower which is, predictably but rather scarily, a tower of skulls. It was built by the Turks out of the heads of their victims in order to warn potential rebels, but it now serves as an ironic symbol of Serbia's independence.

And so we come to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. Immediately the atmosphere strikes us as more laidback, more Turkish. There really isn't mush to see (even if it weren't raining so much!), the terrible flats dominating the skyline. But the Turkish area is wonderful for strolling around and much less contrived than in other cities. It's an underrated capital, great for relaxing and chatting to astoundingly friendly locals.

From Skopje we headed north across the border into Kosovo. Serbia still claims Kosovo as its own despite vast international recognition of it as an independent state, and as such the border between Serbia and Kosovo is fairly volatile. Our passports were stamped by Kosovan authorities; if we were then to attempt to enter Serbia there would be problems as Serbia would deem us to have entered Kosovo illegally. But we experienced no such troubles and arrived in Pristina after a smooth two hour bus ride. This was the only place we had to haggle for anything: taxi drivers trying to charge way over the odds for a short lift. "Bumpy roads, very bumpy roads, ten euros." But they didn't put up much of a fight, chasing after us when we walked away: there weren't any other waiting passengers. Note: a few speed bumps do not constitute a bumpy road.

Pristina, Kosovo

There's not much to see in Pristina. It comprises a pedestrianised thoroughfare (seemingly pedestrianised without giving thought to the traffic trying to navigate the city), a few mosques and a library. But what a library it is! There's no need to enter, just sit outside and wonder what kind of hallucinogenic drugs the architect was consuming. I would describe it as chained-down frogspawn. It's as if someone put up a plain old building, then decided to spruce it up by adding bulbous white skylights. And then throwing metal grills over the whole thing. The whole thing! You can't even open the windows any more. But despite Pristina's lack of tangible attractions, the gentle bustle of the centre coaxes one into relaxing in one of its many cafes, sipping coffee and watching the UN soldiers and NGO workers mingling amongst the happy crowds.

They love the UK and USA in Kosovo. Quite literally: there are pictures of Tony Blair on billboards ("A friend. A leader. A hero.") and a Bill Clinton Avenue, with a statue of him at one end. They are truly thankful for our help (but talk to the Serb minorities in the UN-protected enclaves and you'll get a different story).

A bumpy bus ride to Peja, on the west of the country just before the mountains and Montenegro on the other side. Again, there's not much to draw tourists to the third biggest city in Kosovo, but with a genuine Turkish bazaar in its centre and a backdrop of imposing mountains combined with the friendliness of the locals, one could easily spend some days here. But time was running short and we regrettably left Kosovo by way of one of the highest, most beautiful bus journeys I've ever experienced. You need to look out the windows to avoid being sick, but then are faced with sheer drops into vast, lush valleys dotted with deep blue lakes. Simply awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately we didn't have time to make the most of these incredible natural parks, heading instead for the stunning Adriatic coast and the town of Kotor. The streets and buildings of this town are so white I'd happily eat my dinner off them. There's only one thing to do in this town: get lost in its myriad tiny alleys and squares. It's possible to climb up to the old fortifications way above the town (there are two routes: normal and 'extreme'. Of course, we did the extreme, which basically means there's no path and you get lost a lot.)

Kotor, Montenegro

And then it was a bus journey to Dubrovnik in Croatia, from where I went straight on to Mostar in Bosnia. What is it with buses in these countries? The drivers are clearly all on day release from hell. If they're not blasting you with Turkish folk music they're refusing to turn on the AC in buses that don't have windows that open. And at the borders you're not allowed off so you're condemned to boil slowly (I know how lobsters feel now) until the border guards see fit to give your passports back. And then, just when you think you're almost there, they stop for a 30 minute break.

After four border crossings (from Montenegro into Croatia, into Bosnia, back into Croatia and then finally into Bosnia again - don't ask) I had my first glimpse of Mostar. It's another of those places ingrained into the mind with imagery for years, like the Great Wall or Angkor Wat, but still surprising and astonishing in reality. The most famous landmark, of course, is the Old Bridge, completely destroyed (rather callously) during the war, but now reconstructed to its former glory using the original 16th century building techniques. Wandering the streets of Mostar one finds it hard to imagine what urban warfare must have been like there, only fifteen years ago, when there are no signs of it now. But walk just a few hundred yards and the blown-out buildings, mortar damage and bullet holes remind you of how many lives were ruined in this small town. I stayed with a Bosniak, Taso, wise beyond his 23 years. He remembers having to hide during the siege, moving from house to house for years to survive.

The stunning old bridge in Mostar, Bosnia.

But he represents the new Bosnia: forgiving and optimistic. If any of this temperament can rub off on the old and new generations on all sides, Bosnia has a wonderful future ahead of it. Indeed, if it weren't for the fighting, this part of Europe would surely be the most beautiful, most friendly of all.