Friday, December 04, 2009

the best single and album of 2009


No. 1: Röyksopp - Happy Up Here.

So this was the only song released this year that was better than Dizzee Rascal - Bonkers? Quite a bold statement, if you think about it.

It's a simple song. In discovering the nicest four second little hook buried away at the start of a song by Pavement called Do That Stuff, you imagine they then spent a weekend building it up so it lasted three minutes, adding increasing waves of pleasure until no more can possibly be crammed in.

The result is indeed maybe the happiest song ever created. Go listen to it and try to disagree with me. Quite simply remarkable.


No. 1: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

A prog-rock opera album, anyone?

Don't all jump at once now, but after one listen you'll be converted. This is a very immediate album. The structure. The exquisite sense of escalation. The odd reprise or five. And just how damn fine these songs are. Subsequent listens and you'll notice the whole thing is one big story of forest-dweller love.

It's awe-inspiring stuff, an epic hour long journey. You couldn't possibly regret purchasing it.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

top 10 singles and albums of 2009 - part 3


No. 2: Dizzee Rascal - Bonkers.

The future casestudy for how to bring the mainstream to you, rather than pander to it. Whereas Holiday and Dance Wit Me are unquestionably pop, here the beat comes straight from the club scene.

What really carries it the song though is its sense of fun. Nobody's taking themselves too seriously here. Seeing 60,000 people bouncing to it at Glastonbury isn't a memory that will fade easily.

Hell, it might even be better than Sirens. Although that might be pushing things a little too far.

No. 3: Biffy Clyro - That Golden Rule

The perfect marriage of the usual preposterous Biffy fare, and newly found mainstream sensibilities. Moments later they go too far and dumb down for the masses (The Captain), but that's not so here.

Getting the radio-friendly formula out of the way in two minutes flat, the track then beds down into its real intention: producing the riff of the year.

No. 4: Jay-Z - Empire State of Mind (feat. Alicia Keys)

The unquestionable highlight of Blueprint III (even when you take into account the circling addictiveness of ace street track D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune).

A simple love letter to NYC, the combination of Jay-Z's tension building lyrics followed by the release of Alicia Keys' chorus made this stand out from first listen. This was the highlight of Jay's live set even as the album was just being released - it sounded absolutely massive.


No. 2: The Horrors - Primary Colours

Nobody - really nobody - expected this to be any good. An industry joke in 2007 - the very definition of style over substance - to return with such an incredible second album was one of the most remarkable moments of the year. Wall-of-Sound classics like Mirror's Image and Three Decades sound incredible after first listen, and even better after the tenth.

Also impressive was the nod to non-commercialism in releasing the eight minute Sea Within A Sea (nowhere near the best song here) as the first single. Now a superb band with style AND substance.

No. 3: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Somebody, anybody, please explain why Zero wasn't the massive hit Yeah Yeah Yeahs have deserved for so long.

It was typical of the assured sound here, whether rocking the dancefloor (Heads Will Roll) or pulling on heartstrings (Hysteric). Since Elbow went mainstream, music's most undervalued band.

No 4. The XX - The XX

Pop minimalism? Yes please.

There's certainly nothing else out there quite like like The XX. Catchy pop tracks are stripped back to their most basic instrumentation, giving them full room to breath. The result is wonderful atmospherics like those of Crystalised and Fantasy.

Next time you're faced with a long train journey or drive home in the middle of the night, you will not find a more perfect accompaniment.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

top 10 singles and albums of 2009 - part 2


No. 5: Felix Da Housecat - Elvi$.

There was only one way to start a DJ set during the summer of 2009. With brutal urgency and immediacy, this is simple stand-up-and-pay-attention club music to get everybody in the room on side. Especially reccommended for anybody that's ever thought a car alarm is knocking out a surprisingly danceable hook.

No. 6: Franz Ferdinand - Ulysses

Their most assured song to date, here was where they slowed proceedings down a bit, and in doing so made the perfect (yes really: perfect.) indie disco anthem.

Their album 'Tonight...' deserves credit too - it's also their best yet, despite sinking without a trace due to the fact that nobody listens to indie anymore.

No. 7: The Airborne Toxic Event - Sometime Around Midnight

The song that should have been as big as Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars.

Which means it had the mainstream-y big-hearted appeal to sell a LOT of copies over a very LONG period of time. Soundtracking reality TV montages, or adverts for ITV's new autumn drama season. That sort of thing.

Might still happen of course. X-factor must be crying out for new tracks to help falsify emotion by now. This epic slow-building classic is actually deserving of such a wide audience.


No. 5: Vitalic - Flashmob

Continuing to prove that electro can work in the album format (see also: Justice, Mylo), thank the lord himself for Vitalic.

Now on his second completely essential album, he doesn't stray too far from what made 2005's OK Cowboy such a success. This is refinement, polish and progression. The quality never dips, and the pacing never falters. Ace.

No. 6: The Phantom Band - Checkmate Savage

A blend of gothic folk, krautrock, doo-wop and electro (thanks, Guardian), The Phantom Band are a weird bunch.

That's not to say they don't know their way around a good melody. It's a pitch-perfect blend, intelligent, experimental, yet accessible music. You should start your journey by giving Folk Song Oblivion a listen.

No 7. Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring

For everybody who fell in love with Bon Iver in 2008, here 2009's heartbreak album of the year.

And what heartbreak it is. Charlie Fink's lyrics don't bother to hide behind analogy, instead airing themselves in plaintive literalism. There's bad days (I Have Nothing) and good (Love of An Orchestra), and he chronicles the stages of the break-up process in agonising detail (the sleepless nights, the rebound sex, the determination to move on).

Rarely does music bare all quite so honestly.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

top 10 singles and albums of 2009 - part 1


No. 8: Sub Focus - Could This Be Real

Exactly what pop music should be doing in 2009. The initial Chicago house vibes give way one of the year's best wonky basslines (and that is a strongly contested category). In a lesser song these two sections would feel disjointed, but Sub Focus has more talent than that. A lesser artist could also be accused of selling out with a track like this, but here Sub Focus can be excused on the grounds that he is making pop music as interesting and high quality as is possible.

It comes from a (self-titled) album that nearly matches 2008's Chase & Status record as an urban album that deserves to steal the mainstream limelight.

No. 9: Jamie T - Sticks 'N' Stones

Credit to Mr. T (as everybody should refer to him) for nailing the artform of comeback single. Easily at his best both lyrically and musically, anybody who wasn't sold on his music surely was by now. There's a clever narrative structure in there and everything!

Which makes it all the more of a shame that the follow up single Chaka Demus was his worst single yet. Whoever released it needs shooting.

No. 10: Arctic Monkeys - Cornerstone

The welcome relief on their otherwise overblown album, here's a terrifically confident waltz that knows it doesn't have to try too hard. Seemingly Alex Turner is missing Alexa Chung a lot, so is wondering around town kissing similar looking girls whilst asking if he can call them Alexa Chung. Bit odd, but polygamy is one of the job perks of being an international rockstar I suppose.

It's a shame it's the song picked to sell the album to christmas buyers - many will feel cheated by how out of place it sounds.


No. 8: Muse - The Resistance

If you've come here looking for Knights of Cydonia v2.0, you'll be leaving solely disappointed.

The sound of a band deciding they've conquered rock music, and climbing into their spaceship to fly off and see what other genres they can invade. There's R'n'B (Undisclosed Desires), pop (The Resistance), classical (the wonderful Exogenesis: Symphony), and rock pomp channeling Bon Jovi (Guiding Light) and Queen (United States of Eurasia). What's special about the band now is their justified musical confidence in pulling these tricks.

Continue to push creative boundaries at the same pace please, Muse.

No. 9: Sweet Billy Pilgram - Twice Born Men

Completely unheard of before gaining a Mercury nomination, here's an album that marries left-field experimentalism with Elbow's gift for beautiful melodic sentiment. It's a thrilling combination, packing a sentimental punch that lingers long after its final note. Q Magazine readers especially should investigate immediately.

No 10. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport

Experimental wankery from Bristol, five of the seven tracks here come in at over eight minutes, so prepare to get lost in some seriously epic soundscapes.

And get lost you inevitably will do. This is ideal walking home, headphone music. Even better, find a dark room, a fine soundsystem a bottle of red. It's an often relenting and oppressive listen, but a hugely rewarding one.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

next week: annual top 10 singles and albums countdown

All next week I'll be posting my annual countdown of the Top 10 singles and albums of 2009. It's a little tradition I've kept up since 2006, when I used to write about music far more often than once a year.

To set the mood a little, take a look back at last year's Top 10s, which featured
Chase & Status and White Lies before you had heard of them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

postcard from glastonbury festival

Arriving on the Wednesday is clearly the big thing to do at this year's Glastonbury. It's a torturous 14 hour journey from Nottingham to the festival site, arriving at midnight, then taking until 3am to cross the site, locate our friend's tent, and pitch ours in the dark.

Thursday is better, as the weekend gets off to a flying start at the BBC Introducing stage, where Zane Lowe is playing a mammoth DJ set that's going out live on his Radio 1 show. It's riotous fun, the just-elated-to-be-here crowd celebrating every well-selected track. He's still the finest party DJ out there, and appearances from Mike Skinner, Mr Hudson and Jamie T are all similarly well received. It's a shame then that 10 minutes after going off air they pull the plug on the last hour of his set - unbeknown to us there's been a thunderstorm going on outside the tent, and the show has become something of a health and safety risk. More next year please.

After doing a quick radio interview with Jo Whiley I catch the last 10 minutes of N.E.R.D's set, which is being rapturously received. Even way at the back of the field the crowd is dancing and shouting along - quite an achievement. The incendiary atmosphere goes as far as the set being cut off mid-song when it over-runs by ten minutes, the band remain on stage for another five, visibly fuming.

Out and About with Radio 1 at Glastonbury 2009

No such anarchy from Fleet Foxes, who freely admit to being terrified. It effects their performance sadly, they keep their fans content as harmonies drift over their heads, but they won't be making any new ones here. It's a case study example of how to botch a festival set.

The Horrors are the opposite - playing ferociously to a crowd that is bizarrely slow to match their enthusiasm. They sound unstoppable in the usually tranquil (and busier) Park area.

Nearby, Skream and Benga are twisting a small crowd around their little finger, in one of their less publicised performances of the weekend. The energy in the room is extraordinary. 12 months on from a pleasant, convivial 2am set in Shangra-La, they now have the tracks and the momentum to tear a room to shreds. Thrilling.

In their 2007 Pyramid Stage set Bloc Party were happy to arrogantly leave two of their most famous songs - I Still Remember and (the now appropriately titled) Two More Years - out of their set. The fiercely Reading/Leeds loyal band have since learnt to avoid such antagonism, and deliver a crowd pleasing set heavy on fan favourites from the Silent Alarm era. It's an unquestionable success, only marred by the volume not quite matching the energy level on display from the band.

15 minutes of Spinal Tap's winning set are the perfect accompaniment to a late breakfast, before heading over to see The Japanese Popstars fruitlessly try to win over their tent of 150 afternoon ravers. When a track such as Face Melter (brutal 3am club destroyer that it is) fails to get a room moving you know somethings gone wrong.

Perhaps they could take some stage craft tips from Dizzee Rascal, who is playing to a rammed Pyramid arena. It's impossible not to be charmed by how much Dizzee is clearly loving his job, and the crowd are onside from the first note, greeting harsher hits like Sirens (still his best song) with as equal glee as they do. That is of course, until the whole field goes Bonkers. Other Stage headliner next year?

The second best set all weekend, The Gaslight Anthem are on unstoppable form in the John Peel tent. Playing like they want the idle Pyramid Stage crowd to hear them from across the site, they tear through a set that leaves nobody questioning how ready they are to breakthrough. The highlight of course, is when they are joined on stage by their hometown icon Bruce Springsteen to duet on The 59 Sound. The tent erupts. An impossibly cool moment.

The Klaxons are never ones to hide their affection for Glastonbury, so fears that their semi-secret Park show will be heavy on the new songs are perhaps naive. Band and crew alike are impeccable in full fancy dress, and the new songs they do play suggest the record company might have overreacted somewhat when they rejected their second album. It's resolutely crowd-pleasing stuff.

I have fond memories from 2005 of Pendulum tearing up the dance tent in one of their first performances as a full band. It was a landmark performance, but I still haven't forgiven them for delivering a rotten second album, and instead remember that I have important plans to return to my tent and eat a Malteser.

"Tonight, Glastonbury, we need to build a house on this field", begins Bruce Spingsteen, four songs in to his headline set. "Build a house", he continues, "out of love, and happiness, and togetherness". And presumably, shite metaphors.

The theory put in place for watching Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band is that he is perfect music for getting a few friends round, plenty of beers, and finding a nice spot high up in the field to dance around a campfire to.

As theories go, it's deeply flawed. The sound is terrible up there, akin to having the radio on in the background. It's not Bruce's fault, of course, but after 30 minutes the logic is reached that it will be more entertaining to watch the show on TV once we get home, and instead we hotfoot it across the site to watch Bon Iver, passing along the way a respectably sized crowd enjoying an eager Franz Ferdinand set.

Of course, the gorgeous intimate surroundings of The Park stage are completely ideal for a Bon Iver show, and much of the (considerable) crowd remains seated, quietly and reverentially singing Justin Vernon's heartbreak ballads back at him. Only the best songs from the album are aired, alongside every track from the Blood Bank EP. File just after The Gaslight Anthem as the third best set of Glastonbury 09.

The next morning Brand New provide the soundtrack to an afternoon's read of the free Q Daily newspaper. Whilst it's important to remember that there's a recession on, the quality of journalism on the paper this year reaches a new all time low. Any real story (the madness of Wednesday's traffic, how diverse and harmonious the crowds are this year, how much every single person loves Dizzee Rascal) are ignored in favour of the blandest stories possibly imaginable. Information-free lead article about how the after hours activities in Trash City and Shangra-la are the real heart and soul of the festival, anyone? The paper seems determined to even buck the British obsession for discussing the weather. It's almost as if the paper had been written without a single journalist ever setting foot on site.

(whilst I'm ranting, the Q Glastonbury Review was also a more lightweight and badly written offering than ever before this year. Cover more stages, you tightwads. Employ journalists that actually have an opinion on performances, rather than simply an ability to describe them)

"This next song is from my new album, which you can get if you want. Or illegally download, whatever". Considering how little time they've spent together as a proper band outfit, Kissy Sell Out put on an utterly remarkable set. It's roaring fun, the three piece playing as tightly together as any band with a few years experience on the gig circuit would do. One wonders what they could achieve over a similar time frame.

With heavier rock bands finally beginning to appear across the board again at Glastonbury 09, it seems fitting to celebrate by watching Enter Shikari.

It's difficult to decide who deserves more credit, the camera crew for grin-and-bear-it determination to document the performance, or the sixth former the band got to write their anti-war lyrics for them. Finding success when they stick to p[laying outright metal, any attempts to genre-meld simply creates music that at best doesn't work in this setting. A final sucker punch? Guitar problems mean they don't even play Sorry You're Not A Winner.

Remind me again why the album It's Blitz hasn't made Yeah Yeah Yeahs huge? Hit after hit gets the Other Stage crowd dancing whilst Karen O spends an hour making love to her own music. It's hard to think of a more undervalued band on the lineup. A bit like Elbow at last year's festival, really.

With no other pre-Blur entertainment looking particularly interesting, Bon Iver's Other Stage set is enjoyed, following closely after Bat For Lashes. Neither suits the setting - Bat For Lashes struggles to command attention right up until final song Daniel, whilst Bon Iver plays a near identical set to the previous night to an appreciative if not captivated crowd.

And then to Blur, who surpass every single expectation. Damon Albarn is an entirely compelling front man, their back-catalogue is wringed into a dream festival set, and an adoring crowd lap it up. Clearly cherishing each moment, setlist and performance are clearly the work of a band who genuinely want to give the performance of their lives. Objective achieved, then. Band of the festival by a country mile.

Wish you were here,

Song of Glastonbury 2009
: White Lies - Death (Chase & Status remix)
Glastonbury Festival rating: 8.5/10
Friendliest people met: The staff at the National Express festival terminal, which was better organised than ever this year. Credit deserved.
Scariest moment: Erm, nearly falling over in the mud?
Most beautiful sight: Bon Iver's Park Stage set.
Dream 2009 headliner: Muse, please.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

postcard from thailand

As I arrive in Bangkok my foot is still in agony and I am having to balance what I want to see and do with the amount of pain it will cause me.

It doesn't help matters that two days earlier in Kuala Lumpur I have a haircut, it's too short, and I now somewhat resemble a sex tourist.

Two days in Bangkok therefore fly by uneventfully, before I get another sleeper train towards the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. The 24 hour journey actually takes this structure: Walk > River Taxi > Walk > Tuk Tuk > Sleeper Train > Local Bus > Sawngthaew > Scooter > Ferry > Sawngthaew.

The most eventful section was the scooter ride. I had never been on a scooter before, but the only way to make the 6km trip from Don Sak town to Don Sak pier was to pay a guy £1:30 to take me there on the back of his. It was a surreal experience as I had my massive backpack on my back as well, but we made it to the pier safely. Nobody had ever told me, however, that when you dismount a scooter you should be very careful of that big metal tube on the side. Apparently it's an exhaust pipe and it gets very very hot.

Having staged a moderate post-Bangkok recovery then, the first two days on Ko Pha Ngan island are spent with a deep, inch wide burn on my leg, and an inability to walk more than 100 meters at a time.

I recover just in time for the Full Moon Party pre-celebrations, which are enjoyable events in their own right, if ruined somewhat by the overwhelming popularity of Drop-in Bar and it's playlist of Euro anthems (YMCA, and 'Blow Your Whistle' being two such examples).

I'm walking back to my room at 3am the night before the full moon party, only to discover commotion on the street outside. It transpires that a local Thai woman was drumming up taxi business to all who passed. Some English idiot (not exactly well built) walked past and replied to her "no thanks, but I'll have you instead".

Which is just an insanely disrespectful, naive, downright stupid thing to say. Pretty quickly the women's husband gets to hear about this, and he proceeds to start chasing the tourist with a Bamboo stick.

As I get there, they are in a stand off, separated by some stone island thing, and the terrified tourist has blood dripping all over his arm.

I try to calm the situation somewhat, but it is difficult. The language barrier means that I am in danger of appearing to be taking his side, and I don't want to look like the sort of person who would automatically side with the Westerner in this sort of situation. Nor do I want to add to any underlying ill feeling between locals and tourists.

Plus, this tourist probably deserves to be shaken up a bit after such a moronic comment.

Still, there's a very real possibility that it'll go too far. A couple of minutes later, he's being chased again. A couple more hits with the bamboo. They jostle on the ground. Me and a local are attempting to break them up. The tourist breaks free, but only makes it back to the relative safety of his stone island divider.

Another five minutes pass. Diplomacy isn't working. Another chase breaks out, other locals are either trying to calm or further aggravate the situation.

Again they jostle on the ground. I am trying to wrestle the bamboo stick from the husband's grasp. The tourist breaks free, and this time decides running down the street would be the wiser direction. As he scarpers somebody throws a bottle at his feet, which shatters everywhere. The husband gives chase not far behind, and I am left to take myself off to bed with another man's blood running down my leg. I don't know if he sustained further injury from the shattered glass, or being caught by his pursuers. I don't see any of them again, though I am tenterhooks for the rest of my stay in-case anybody spots me and reasons that I am the next best target.

The event is an unwelcome echo of life back in Nottingham, and is something I have been very happy to not experience since I started traveling. The English influence has permeated this island, and in the following 24 hours, I bizarrely bump into two different people that I know from back home in Nottingham, neither of which I had any idea were over here.

The Full Moon Party then, is the nicely timed final blowoff of the whole three month backpacking trip. It is two days before my flight home. It is an anglophile beach party of (this time) roughly 10,000 people on a beach, dotting between 12ish bars all playing very loud, generally good, club music. It's a bit like a festival - all very hedonistic.

The challenge was to stay awake until 6am and see the sunrise. We filmed it, and I recommend you watch the resulting video here.

After the full moon party, I was awoke at 10:50am by loud knocking on my door. The minibus outside was waiting to take me to the ferry, so I could then get back to Bangkok and catch my flight home. I had no memory of most of the previous night. I surveyed the room - my backpack was still unpacked. I was in trouble.

No time to waste, I set about throwing everything together and getting out the room. It takes a while, but luckily all week I have been making an effort with the wonderful bungalow owners, have been getting on well with them, and at my time of need they are on my side. The driver is persuaded to hold-on until I stumble out the room 15 minutes later, and I am whisked off to catch the connecting ferry, then sleeper train, and eventually - flight.

Wish you were here,

Photos: click here.
Thailand rating: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: The owners of Haardrin Hill Bungalows
Scariest moment: Bamboo stick fight
Most beautiful sight: Wat Pho, Buddhist temple in Bangkok
The Soundtrack: Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run (album)
Still to come: Glastonbury festival.

Monday, June 01, 2009

postcard from malaysia

Malaysia heralds the opportunity to shift down a gear. Cultural exploration is out, lazy days on beaches is in. And what of those beaches? They just happen to be perfect, white, 32°c creations. The accompanying sea is also cliqued: crystal clear, invitingly warm, and filled with psychedelic tropical fish to meet whenever one gets bored of static sunbathing.

After day one of such debauched activities, myself and Simon go our separate ways. He has traveled Malaysia and Thailand before - I haven't - so our planned itineraries differ wildly. Plus after two months on the road together, cabin fever has, somewhat inevitably, set in.

Due in part to me underestimating the size of Malaysian Borneo - and the complexities of crossing it - 24 hours after our arrival in Kota Kinnabalu I set out attempting to make the +600km journey from east to west in three days, in order to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpar, the story of which you can watch in videoblog format here.

The climate plays a major part in my traveling in Malaysia. The humidity is remarkable, the typical minimum nightly temperature is 25°c, and every few days a monsoon-esque storm arrives to batter the landscape for a couple of hours.

I've also become something of a sunset addict, they get some real classic sky-displays out here.

Kuala Lumpur then, is a curious city. Multicultural, but harmonious, it also has more crime than the middle eastern countries I visited, yet I suffer less from Walking Cash Machine syndrome (everybody wishes to make a withdrawal), and it's much less common that I suspect I am being overcharged for something.

Religion runs strong throughout the city, yet so does a remarkable consumer culture. The blasé Berjaya Times Square shopping centre in the heart of the city includes amongst it's eight floors and countless other attractions a fully blown rollercoaster. Each monorail station - and tram - is blanket sponsored by some brand or other, and this is typical of how deeply advertising has permeated the city. By-and-large, young people have gleefully bought into this culture.

So do I, mind. Drunk on elation at being in a shopping city where prices are 25-50% cheaper than they are in the UK, I dive straight in. Soon after I am bored though, and soon after that irritated.

Still, the culture of the city is wonderfully welcoming, ambitious (one need only look to the city's unique skline for evidence of that) and it deserves it's place in the top half of my major-cities-I've visited league table. Probably nestled between Tblisi and Tel Aviv.

One particular beach island deserves special mention. The idyllic backpacker island of Pulau Perhentian Kecil combines all the aforementioned beach features (sand, sun, fish) with a laidback, young culture. It would have been the ideal place to spend a week or two if it wasn't for Malaysia's crippling problem (in the eyes of this 25 year old at least) - the price of alcohol. Compared to the general cost of living (₤2 a night accommodation? Yes please!) alcohol is taxed to the hilt by the Islamic government. Craving more of a nightlife, it is time to head north towards Thailand.

A school holidays-clogged public transport network means it isn't easy however, and I spend a day in the conservative muslim town of Alor Setar awaiting a connecting train. This is a problem, as I have long since discarded the long trousers/sleeves that are appropriate clothing in such surroundings. It's certainly impolite to visit such a town in t-shirt and kneelengths.

Also, a combination of cheap sandals and heavy walking sessions mean that my foot is now in agony, and I am using taxis to make journeys for which I would never usually consider them. For the 6am journey from Alor Setar bus station to train station, the resident foot masseuse negotiates a bizarre multibuy deal with the taxi driver so that I can get my foot massaged then a taxi ride for ₤2.

Conversation continues, and the driver is dismayed to hear that my train is not until 4pm. To that end, he instead takes me back to his home, lets me sleep for 3 hours, shower, provides a light breakfast, introduces me to the family, before then dropping me off at the train station.

Imagine that happening upon entering a taxi in Nottingham. I board the overnight train to Bangkok with 10 days of the trip remaining, and a desire to fritter them away hedonistically...

Wish you were here,

Photos: click here.
Malaysia rating: 7.6/10
Friendliest person met: Taxi driver man
Scariest moment: Wondering if Malaysian Borneo can be crossed in 72 hours
Most beautiful sight: The sunset in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo
The Soundtrack: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
Still to come: Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

postcard from japan

In Tokyo we have the advantage that we have solely missed throughout our trip so far: local knowledge. A friend of mine - Hannah - has been living in Japan for seven months now, and she has generously volunteered to ease us gently into the Tokyo experience, as well as act as our base camp for the center-piece of our Japan trip: climbing the 3770m Japanese icon: Mount Fuji.

Tokyo is certainly a headrush experience, although too expensive for us to fully enjoy - three days was too much time here. Still, there were definite highlights.

(Direct Youtube link)

One such highlight was playing with all the latest top-of-the-range gadgets at Sony's Tokyo HQ made for a fun evening, though it will come back to haunt me (and my bank account) one day as it made me fall in love with the idea of owning a digital SLR camera.
Climbing the aforementioned Fuji-san is easily the hardest physical activity I've ever undertaken. It was a heavily presumptuous - perhaps bloody foolish - plan to begin with, the whole day was totally dependant on us successfully hitchhiking up as far as the road goes (2400m) and back down again afterwards. Given that we saw roughly 15 people on the mountain all that day, we would have to be very fortunate indeed.
And it was this that summed up the Japanese personality perfectly. By nature very shy and conformist, whenever we asked for help people would go out of their way, offering more help than we had wished for. So on our way up the mountain we managed to flag down a woman driving home, who - despite not speaking any English - insisted on driving us all the way up to the 2400m starting point.
You should watch the video for a decent indication of the experience, but really, we were putting on brave faces for the camera. It was just a seemingly neverending trial of ever-increasingly steep, and unstable rocks and snow to traverse. It was seldom (though occasionally) dangerous, but it was always grindingly difficult. As we were climbing out of season, the trial was covered by snow, meaning we had to invent our own route up the mountain.
Luckily it was worth it for the view of the snowy crater at the summit, and for the slide back down afterwards. My trousers were torn to shreds, and my backside still aches a week later, but after a six hour hike to the summit, we get down - mainly sliding on the snow - in under two.
We needed to as well, as sunset was approaching and with it any chance of there being anybody left at base camp - let alone anyone willing to transport us back to the nearest town. Indeed we get back to our 2400m starting point and there are just three cars left.
We start walking the 28km down the winding Mount Fuji road. Sleep deprivation is setting in, and Simon is falling asleep whilst walking. Worst case scenario: we have to walk all night to reach the town, meanwhile Hannah is worried about where we are, and has maybe even called Mountain Rescue out for us.
Half an hour later however, and the 2nd of the three cars stops for us, and - again giving us more than we asked for - drops us right outside the train station of his town, from which it is an easy 20m ride back to Hannah's house. By combination of grit determination, energy, generosity and luck, we had tamed Mount Fuji.
In Japan, there is only one way to celebrate: Karaoke. Typically this involves hiring out private rooms for your group for an hour at a time, for about ₤7. The clincher though, is that it includes all-you-can-drink alcohol. Hannah takes us to her local establishment, and it's a great evening as social inhibitions get thrown to the wall with each successive drink and each more ambitious song choice. Gorillaz is followed by Oasis, then by an acutely optimistic rendition of Scissor Sisters - I Don't Feel Like Dancing.
The personal highlight is remarkable: Hannah had remembered from my days running a music pub quiz in Nottingham that I had a soft spot for a song by Belinda Carlisle called Runaway Horses (she had been the only person in the bar of 50 people to guess the intro correctly), and though I had no memory of this myself, when the song suddenly popped up as the next track it, and the ensuing hairbrush diva scenes that followed, were a genuine classic holiday moment . The night rounds off with a mass-singalong of Take That - Back For Good, and I personally am left feeling as though I have finally discovered entertainment utopia.

Other Japan highlights?
  • Visiting the peace museums, memorials and relics of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima
  • Wondering around Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo at 5:30am
  • Kyoto's incredible collection of beautiful Temples and shrines
  • The deservedly renowned public transport system - bullet trains and all
  • Beating Simon at a long-hyped game of air hockey
  • Spotting Geisha in Kyoto and cosplay girls in Tokyo.

So Japan? Amazing country. And it's possible to do it on an affordable budget if you're a committed shoestringer. For us though, it's another flight, this time to Malaysian Borneo, another change of scenery, and one final culture shock...

Wish you were here,

Photos: (no login required)
Japan rating
: 8.3/10
Friendliest person met: Both saintly car owners who picked up us hitchhikers
Scariest moment: The fear-wracked decent from Mt. Fuji.
Most beautiful sight: Summit of Mount Fuji.
The Soundtrack: Coldplay - Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
Still to come: Malaysia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Friday, May 22, 2009

postcard from egypt

With only four days in Egypt, and half of day one spent trapped on the world's least punctual ferry, our intentions to explore the less visited Western Egypt have been scrapped.

Finally getting out of port at 11pm, we barter a taxi driver down from ₤5 to ₤2 (we probably could have got it for ₤1.50 if we had really pushed) to take us the 6km drive to some nearby budget accommodation.

Luckily, it (New Soft Beach Camp in Tarabin, should you ever be in the area) is great. Sleeping in beach huts on a gorgeous beach, with a gorgeous spanish omelette breakfast, and only five guests staying in the whole place? Yes please. And all for about ₤4 each? Idyllic.

The next day we find ourselves in Dahab. The reworked plan for Egypt is now to unwind for a couple of days on the beach to round off the first leg of the trip. For this privilege we are paying the cheapest accommodation I have ever been granted: ₤1.80 for the night. Again, as it isn't peak season yet, there's a feeling of having the town to ourselves.

Cairo, then, has been planned so that we arrive early morning (6:30am) off an overnight coach, see the Pyramids, then fly out again the very same afternoon. Neither of us is particularly keen to see the city, it doesn't have a good reputation.

Said reputation seems fairly justified. Most upsettingly, every guy (and it is the men, the women of this comparatively liberal country are friendly and fun) who strikes up conversation with us is guaranteed to eventually try to sell us something.

Again, we've been warned not to expect too much of the Pyramids themselves. Undeniably impressive themselves, the illusion is somewhat ruined by their location not in the middle of the desert, but in a Cairo suburb, adjacent to a big coach park, and swarming with the most sophisticated touts I've yet come across.

The Touts of the Giza Pyramids methodology
"Hello Sir, would you like me to take your photo with the Pyramid?"
"No Sir don't worry, it is for free"
"Sir, the photo would look very cool if you wore this Arabian headscarf in it. Try it on please"
"No Sir, of course I do not want your money"
"Sir, you should come here and climb atop this camel, then the photo will look really good"
"No Sir, it is for free, for free"
Oh yes Sir, this is a good photo. Perhaps we go for a little walk on the camel now?"
"No no Sir, no problem. It is free, it is free."
"Sir did you enjoy that ride? That will be ₤5 please"
"Sir I can not let you down from the camel until you have paid for your camel ride"
"Sir you must pay for your camel ride"
"No Sir I cannot let you down"
"The Police, Sir? (Begrudgingly ushers camel to the ground)"

(please note that this tale comes from Simon, my zero-tolerance policy on touts remained steadfast throughout)

Still, we're glad we did see the Pyramids, and going inside one of them was the most humid, claustrophobic, sweatiest experience of my life.

And then, it is time to leave the Middle East. The second leg of our trip has undergone major restructuring: word on the road is that Vietnam has been spoilt by a massive influx of tourism recently (a predicament I'm content to blame on King Tory himself Jeremy Clarkson, and the rest of his Top Gear goons), and we have less time for our trip after Japan than we had originally planned (just over three weeks) so we've instead decided to see Malaysia and Thailand rather than the original Vietnam > Cambodia > Laos > Thailand route.

That's all in the future though, and first we've got the matter of a flight to Japan to deal with. Aboard a plane on which we are the only two white people, the (half full anyway) aircraft crew treat us first to seats with extra legroom, then to a full second meal after we had just finished our first one. To top it all off, the in-flight movie is Slumdog Millionaire, a film I've been desperate to see since it rampaged the Oscars a few months back.

(Direct Youtube link)

Top flight, Egypt Air, thanks. We arrive in Tokyo jet-lag free, refreshed, and prepared for a major cultural change of scenery.

Wish you were here,

Egypt rating: 6.5/10
Friendliest person: Enjoying a bit of a song and dance with the group of 10 girls at the Pyramids.
Scariest moment: Losing sight of Simon as he got taken off on the back of a camel, hours before our flight.
Most beautiful sight: The Pyramids - from certain angles.
The Soundtrack: Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes.
Still to come: Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

postcard from jordan

Time is in short supply now, and we are not getting to spend as much time in countries as we would like to.

Jordan, we boil down to it's two essential destinations, the first of which is Petra.

Familiar to millions as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and as the scene of a couple of chase scenes or something in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (although I'm one of those people that has never actually seen the film), Petra is a colossal playground of incredible natural colour and ancient architecture.

It's expensive (₤26!) and takes effort - on our second day we walk 20km to ensure we see the essential sights everybody sees, and do some hiking around rarer ventured sections.

Has we not, it would have been a day spent trudging round alongside the masses of tour groups, but Petra is most certainly a location where the more you put in, the more you get out. The result is the most rewarding day from the five weeks of the trip thus far.

From Petra we head to Wadi Rum where we spend 24 hours in the middle of the desert, as guests of a Bedouin family. We sleep in Bedouin tents, go jumping off sand dunes, and bomb around the desert in a 4x4 van exploring some of the more impressive desert scenery. It's all very good fun.

It's hard to tell after such a short stay, but the Jordanians are roughly as hospitable as the Syrians, who I was waxing lyrical about a couple of weeks ago. It's still a joy to be welcomed to a country like this.

The ferry to Egypt is a nightmare. Expensive as well (₤45), the boat takes three hours to leave the port, three hours to cross the sea, and four (!) hours to dock at the other side, a failure for which they bizarrely and unfathomably blame on the 'high' (yet barely existent) winds. By our rough calculations, we reckon it would have only taken slightly longer to walk the journey (were it possible).

Thank goodness then, that we are prepared for entertaining ourselves whilst in transit. I have on my ipod the full first series of 24 (neither of us have ever seen it) and on the ferry we manage to watch the five remaining episodes of the series. I dread to think how the journey would have been without them.

The boat docks at 10pm - way past schedule - and we still have to get through passport and luggage control. There is no chance we are going to be able to get to our intended bed - 70km away - tonight...

Wish you were here,

Jordan rating
: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: The guy who we asked for directions to Irbid bus station, and he walked us the 20 minute route there.
Scariest moment: none.
Most beautiful sight: Petra.
The Soundtrack: Chemical Brothers - Push The Button.
Still to come: Egypt, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

postcard from israel

We had been warned about two things before entering Israel. First, that the political situation can change very suddenly, so we should pay attention to current events as we enter and explore the country, and secondly, that crossing the border into Israel - especially for those with Syrian border stamps in their passport - can be a time consuming, and sometimes unsuccessful, ordeal.

We hear stories from fellow backpackers of people being questioned for an hour about their intentions, border guards hell-bent on picking holes in plans or making people crack and declare secret Arab loyalty.

A little of this turns out to be true. What we don't anticipate though, is that the border guards will in fact be a flotilla of 18 year old, attractive (and in Israel they are all attractive), uniformed girls. It appears as though this is Israel's national service in action: as the boys protect with guns elsewhere, the girls protect with pens here.

A 90 minute wait is followed by five minutes questioning by two such ladies, and some light critiquing of the Syrian Government later, we are through and on our way to Jerusalem.

After a month of being largely separate from any kind of backpacker scene, in Israel we are thrown right back into the center of one. The hostels are busy and vibrant, and it is good to be back in like-minded company.

Jerusalem itself is an expectantly serious affair, creaking as it is under the weight of 3000 years of religious and political history. It's a beautiful city - particularly the claustrophobic, bustling and ultra-holy old town, and I take my reverential moments with some of the very origins of today's religions by visiting various holy places of Muslim, Judaism, and in particular Christianity - by touching the stone Jesus was laid on after he died.

A day trip to Ein Gedi means traveling 410m below sea level to the lowest point on the earth's surface, the site of the Dead Sea.

Floating in the Dead Sea is perhaps how you imagine it - you're in water but it's impossible to sink, difficult to swim, and perfectly possible to just lay there, reading a newspaper. Care is required, however: a tiny drop of the ultra-salty water that enters your eyes, mouth or any open wound will be an intensely unpleasant experience.

In stark contrast to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a party town. Upon arrival we could easily be in an Australian city. The beach is long and inviting, the high-rise hotels sketch along it, and the hostels are packed with hedonistic, self-interested travelers.

It's not particularly a criticism, after five weeks of what I'll perhaps overstatingly call high-brow traveling it's welcome respite. Days therefore, are spent on the beach, and nights are spent with alcohol.

I'm standing at our hostel reception one afternoon, and the receptionist is having an argument with one of the hostel's long-term residents. She's having to remind him that it is against house rules to bring your gun (in this case, a two foot long Assault Rifle) onto hostel premises.

Also in Tel Aviv we get on a couple of computers and create fake-letters from our old universities confirming that we are currently studying there. We use them as 'proof' to get student ISIC cards that will save us plenty of money throughout the rest of our travels. We also spend half an hour in the 5-star surroundings of the Sheridan Hotel stealing a towel, after I lost mine in Jerusalem.

Our main night out in Tel Aviv sees us heading to a recommended dance bar called Lima Lima, before leaving again five minutes later, put off by the Garage music playing within, and the atypical garage crowd that comes with it.

Nearby though, we hear noise coming from the roof of a nearby apartment block - there's a party going on. Drawn by the appeal of raving on the cheap, we gatecrash. At 6:30am we leave - with the music still blaring out across Tel Aviv's skyline - and go for a walk along the beach with new friends.

Our further exploration of Israel is hampered by the country's Independence Day, a two day public holiday in celebration of the country's birth that will see systems like public transport grind to a halt. We hit on an idea of hiring a car instead to explore Israel's Northern regions.

Nervous about the manic local driving style, Simon is taking every precaution possible as we set out. We have been driving for two hours though, when he takes a roundabout exit too tightly, jolts the car up the kerb, and punctures both the (puny new style aluminium, apparently) wheels.

It is five hours later when a replacement car is brought out to us and we are back on our way again, and we would waste another two hours the following morning detouring to visit the rental company to fill out mindless paperwork. Meanwhile at the time of writing we are still awaiting confirmation that the incident was covered on our insurance. The excursion had not started well.

With our newly-thinned itinerary we go hiking down though a canyon in Yahudiya Nature Reserve, the highlight of a precarious hike being a unavoidable decent down a 9 metre ladder into a deep pool, followed by a 30 metre swim to the other side.

Elsewhere, we take a quick dip in the Sea of Galilee, and go exploring the especially politically tense area along the United Nations disengagement zone between Israel and Syria. We stop off at bomb shelters, abandoned buildings, disused tanks and an observation point overlooking the 1000 soldier UN base.

At one point Simon is at the roadside photographing a snake, when the air fills with a wailing sound. We look at each other as we realise: it is an air raid siren. Rushing back to the car we take off down the road with little idea of what to do, except drive. We shortly after pass through a village, and notice that everybody appears to be going about their lives as normal.

The next morning we are driving through more populated areas, and it happens again - sirens start blaring out across the landscape. This time though as we continue, we pass cars pulled up at the side of the road. Beside them people are standing, seemingly praying. As it is the public holiday of Independence, the air-raid siren signifies two minutes silence in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Wish you were here,

Photos: (coming soon)
Israel rating
: 7.4/10
Friendliest person met: Chem the Depeche Mode fan in Tel Aviv, or Teresa and Eva, the German sisters in Jerusalem.
Scariest moment: Air-raid siren.
Most beautiful sight:The waterfall pools in Ein Gedi national park.
The Soundtrack: Bat for Lashes - Two Suns
Still to come: Jordan, Egypt, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

postcard from lebanon

After being spoiled by the welcome in Syria, Lebanon is (perhaps inevitably) not so embracing.

Beirut in particular won't ever be named as one of my favourite cities. It has a very materialistic culture, and appears divided quite prominently between those that have, and those that have not. If you don't appear as though you fit into the former category, nobody takes a second glance at you.

This is most evident in the rapidly evolving central-Beirut area, where each interesting, war-ravaged building is being torn down to make way for an ever expanding, glitzy, fastidiously clean, Disney-like town center. It looks pretty and probably appeals to couples on a weekend break or something, but we feel out of place and somewhat looked down-upon as we venture through it.

As an aside, Beirut is the first time in four weeks of traveling that I spot a Starbucks outlet. It had been nice walking through cities that don't have American chain stores on every corner.

People pay expectantly scant regard when we attempt a night out in the city. I've got my heart set on sampling Beirut's most famous club: B 018. But it will - of course - be expensive, and we are determined to experience it on as tight a budget as possible. To that end we buy beer cans from a local store (extra strength 9% stuff, we soon notice) and dress to impress.

As backpackers with a minimal wardrobe, that is not easy. Lebanon's aforementioned culture means clubs have a strict dress code, and I have come traveling with no suitable footwear. I do however, remember hearing about a trick whilst backpacking around Australia in 2003, that stretching a pair of black socks on over shoes makes them resemble plush footwear, or at least to the cursory glance of the nightclub doorman.

It works a treat, but I shouldn't have gone to the trouble. After four weeks of sobriety, my hard-won alcohol tolerance has declined steeply. Despite drinking nothing extra once we left our hostel room, 20 minutes after entering B 018 I am vomiting in the toilets. We are invited to leave the club some time later, and the vomiting continues outside the club. And then back at the hostel. For two more hours. The next morning I resign myself to having visited Lebanon's most famous club - and not being able to remember a single thing about it. Apparently the moment when the roof opens is spectacular.

The driving in Lebanon deserves special mention. Across the Middle East it is already appalling, here it is a completely lawless. Traffic lights are - at best - give way signs, and don't ever expect that the car at the junction ahead won't pull out right in front of you. Lanes are ignored, and it is every man or woman for themselves. Despite this, I am four weeks into traveling, but have yet to sit in a seat - in car, coach or minibus - that has a seatbelt fitted.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, we visit the northern city of Tripoli. The atmosphere is edgier. We spend half an hour strolling to the center of a street market before we spot unwelcoming, anarchist black flags flying from the lampposts. On a (hastier) walk back, we spot two propaganda posters in support of Saddam Hussein, amidst the countless others that adorn the streets.

The next day revolves around wonderful hiking near the mountain village of Bcharre. It's the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable Lebanon trip - even the spectacular Roman ruins at Baalbeck (think Athens's Acropolis but far bigger and far better preserved) is dampened by torrential rainfall.

No matter, a day's coach hopping later and we are at a border entrance to Israel, trying to enter despite our passports bearing stamps from their Syrian arch rivals. Convincing them to allow us in will be time consuming...

Wish you were here,

Photos: (no login required)
Lebanon rating
: 3.2/10
Friendliest person met: The most anxious hotel manager in the world, in Beirut
Scariest moment: Walking around Tripoli.
Most beautiful sight: Baalbeck, despite the rain
The Soundtrack: Assorted works by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr.
Still to come: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Monday, April 20, 2009

postcard from syria

After a spate of people trying to overcharge us in Turkey, it's safe to say that we're on our guard as we enter Syria.

In both countries so far we've had a 'baptism of fire' moment where we find ourselves walking through a new city within a brand new country, with our heavy backpacks, everybody looking at us, and we have to get our bearings and find where we are going to stay that night. We very quickly find out about the national psyche of a country in that time.

So we are cynical about early offers of help. In Turkey people (commonly children) would request money after such favours. We find the time though, to speak with two liberally dressed women in their early twenties that stop us in the street. They are English teachers, and are delighted to meet us. Afer conversation they explain that they would love to invite us back to their house, but that we are men and there are Islamic customs that must be adhered to. They then detail that we will need a taxi to get to Qamishle train station, inform us not to pay more than 50 Syrian Pounds for the journey, then change our 500 pound note for us so we can offer the driver exact change.

Hailing a (tiny, clapped out) taxi, we ask to go to the train station, and explain that we will only be paying the going-rate for the journey. He is a nice man, but he shakes his head continuously each time we try to state our price. This is a situation we are already all too familiar with. Concerned, we persist for a while, before moving on to talk about other things. At the train station the driver explains fully: this journey is free, and it is an honour to have met us and had us ride in his cab. We are bowled over and feel more than a little guilty.

At the train station we discover that we have a five hour wait until our train. It's no real problem and we've been in this situation before, so we settle down to entertain ourselves as we are used to, for the duration. Not long after, and a crowd of 15 people has formed around Simon. They are fascinated by the sight of a young western man slumped in their train station, knitting a scarf. They point and discuss with each other this most curious of sights.

People occasionally talk to us, and 20 minutes later one particular young group of men strike up conversation. After a while they invite us to their house (an offer we've been told to accept should we be fortunate that it ever be made), and we walk through the mud tracks (Qamishle has no middle class to speak of, it isn't a wealthy town) for 15 minutes to their house.

At their house we chat and our entertained for four hours, and the women of the house (who are kept from our view throughout) prepare tea and a fantastic evening meal for us. We try our best to adhere to the many rules of eating we've read (e.g. never with your left hand, never double dip anything) but inevitably slip up along the way. Not that our hosts would ever mention when we did. Although they are poor they have mobile phones, satellite TV and shared internet access. They are amazed to have such company in their house, and several times apologise for the meal they have put on for us. "Had it not been dark we would have slaughtered a lamb for you" they say.

Later they put us on the night train, and we ride to Aleppo attempting to recover from such an overwhelming day. Aleppo is far more used to tourists, so the welcome is inevitably not as sweet, but it is still a strong, honest one. Whilst it is not a thrill-ride of a city, we find entertainment in the twisting Souqs (marketplaces), and beautiful ruins at Qala'at Samaan 40 minutes drive out of town. Simon also bumps into an old workmate from Winchester (!), and we spend an evening as guests in their hotel.

You know that beeping sound big vehicles make when they're reversing? In Syria that doesn't happen. Some cars, however play a tune called Lambada that I haven't heard since I was 14.

From conservative Aleppo (female dress code: a veil) we travel to liberal Lattakia (female dress code: skinny jeans), but leave the next morning as miserable weather ruins our dreams of a beach day. From there to Hana, where the 12th century castle of Crac Des Chevaliers is the highlight of Syria. It's a brilliant castle for exploring all day, as if it's come straight from dreamland.

I can't lie, part of the appeal is that if this was in the UK it would be constantly swarming with visitors (think: Stonehenge), and railings and safety warnings would be placed everywhere in a paranoid health and safety frenzy. Here it is a beautiful structure left untouched and untarnished, and there wasn't more than 100 people exploring it's huge innards at any point during the day.

Then to Damascus, which may just be my favourite city I've ever visited. Despite receiving a not-inconsiderable portion of tourism, the Syrian welcome still runs strong through the city. Getting lost in the tiny twisting alleyways that cover much of the centre would feel threatening in many lesser cities. Here it is enchanting.

Damasus combines all the fine characteristics of Islamic cities (the culture, the people, the mosques with their nightly green glow and 'call to prayer' musical harmonies that ring out across the city), with youthfulness, character, and even a christian quarter where it's possible to enjoy a night out.

Night activities such as exploring Damasus's winding back-alleys would be precarious, often ill-advised in other countries, but everybody seems to agree: Syria could barely be any safer to travel in. It's just one more example of the Syrian welcome, and it is truly humbling. I have thought several times about what welcome our hosts would be given should they ever visit the UK, and it's a depressing thought.

Keen to not misrepresent, we do have a few hard-fought battles over money, almost all of which are with minibus drivers. One such occasion is on our final Syrian excursion - to the desert town of Palmyra. The town is graced with a castle high on hilltop, which we undertake a treacherous speed-hike to the top of in order to catch the sunset. Palmyra also has Roman ruins, the likes of which we were getting a little bored by at this stage, but we took the time to explore them at both midnight and sunrise, with beautiful results.

The ride back from Palmyra took a curious turn. All the coach companies were charging 200 Syrian Pounds to get back to Damascus, but one older gentlemen requested just 150 to ride in his rickety old Japanese bus, a vechicle with character to spare. It was an opportunity we jumped at. We must have been offered various food and drink by everybody on board during that journey - each person wanted to meet us and make us feel at home.

All that remained after that was to get out of the country, and as the minibus is about to set off the driver asks if we would mind storing some mystery goods in our bags as we cross the border. We remember our not-getting-thrown-in-jail training and politely decline. It would be a shame to have the trip cut short at this point.

Wish you were here,

Syria rating: 8.4/10
Friendliest person met: Ahmed and his friends in Qamishli
Scariest moment: Not once were we unnerved.
Most beautiful sight: Crac Des Chevaliers
The Soundtrack: Elbow - Leaders of the Free World
Still to come: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

postcard from eastern turkey

In an otherwise unremarkable 24 hour coach hopping journey from Tbilisi in Georgia to Van in Turkey, the road leading to the Turkish city of Erzurum astounds. Suddenly we find ourselves driving through a landscape of mountains with only beautiful, untouched snow stretching out for miles in every direction. For 30 minutes all we do is continue to stare out the window as each new permutation of landscape is presented to us.

Later on we would do our research, an it becomes more clear as to how fortunate we've been. This is an area used to relative extremes of weather. A month later and most of the snow would have melted, a month earlier and we may not have taken this route due to road closures.

Lake Van provides a day's perfect camera fodder, before we head out to a popular Kurdish bar for the evening, only to discover we are there on a quiet night and - save the manager's friend - are the only people there. It's becoming an upsetting trend on this trip, despite our efforts to the contrary.

The next day Simon wanders off south of Van to attempt some mountain hiking, whilst I stay in town. My decade old walking boots have become progressively more painful, and I can't possibly face a hard day in them. Instead I spend the day shopping.

Van shopping receipt

New shirt - ₤4
Haircut (long overdue) - ₤2.40
New waling boots (from the only shop in town that sells them) - ₤32
Chicken kebab - 80p
An hour's internet access - 40p

Meanwhile south of town, Simon has successfully traversed a snowy mountain, but has attracted uniformed attention on the way down. Some police are giving him very confused looks.

The area, it seems, is one in which the PPK is active, and Simon ends up being detained for 30 minutes and questioned under suspicion of terrorism. They part on friendly terms though, and before getting a minibus back to town the whole village excitedly comes out to meet him.

On our last night in Turkey we decide we should fit in an authentic Turkish bathhouse (called 'Hamam') experience after all. Wearing just a towel we are ushered first into the sauna room. Simon is in his element in this kind of heat, but I am less comfortable. I stick out the heat as long as possible, aided by Simon's goading, but when I have to leave it becomes clear I've left it a little too late, and back in the main room I nearly faint, cannot stand up, and three Hamam staff have to prevent me crashing into various marble fixtures.

One tea-aided recovery later, and the experience continues. An attendant scrubs seemingly four layers of skin off us, douses us with a bucket of water from the cold tap, then one from the warm, then we lie on a marble slab whilst two middle aged men massage us with levels of intimacy beyond which either of us are comfortable with.

From Van we set out coach hopping to the Syrian border, stopping for a couple of where the Turkish officer attempts to levy us with a fictional 'departure tax'. It's the fourth time in three days that somebody has tried to overcharge us (to varying degrees of success), and it has spoilt our otherwise very high regard for the Turkish people. Talking our way out of that, we walk forward and cross the border into Syria...

Wish you were here,

Photos: (no login required)
Turkey rating: 7.2/10
Friendliest person met: A guy called George who helped us with the Tbilisi - Van journey a lot
Scariest moment: questioned under suspicion of terrorism
Most beautiful sight: the road to Erzurum
The Soundtrack: Royksopp - Junior
Still to come: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

postcard from turkey and georgia

When confronted by a journey of a thousand miles, it's of comfort when you have a stroke of luck in the very fırst step.

I take my seat on the 2120 traın from Nottingham to London St. Pancras. Half an hour later a guy, early twenties, gets on at Leicester and sits across from me. He then gets a guidebook to Turkey out and begins reading.

It transpires that his name is Vishnu and that yes, he is on his way to Gatwick to catch the same 8am plane to Istanbul as me. He's a medicine student, and full of advice on travel health matters. He would end up joining us for the first 24 hours of the trip.

Six sleepless hours in Gatwick airport later, Simon - my companion for the next 80 days - joins us, and we're off to Turkey.

Our first taste of Istanbul is a boat ride across the Sea of Marmara (about twice the size of Sydney Harbour) that also means we are crossing the continental border from Asia into Europe. After settling at a hostel we go off in search of a traditional Turkish bath house experience. Any such place in easy walking distance is likely to be a dumbed down, overpriced experience for the tourist market, so we instead head out after dark through the back alley labyrinth of the Bazaar district in search of an authentic one, on guidebook recommendation. 40 minutes intense map work later we find it, and it's mysteriously closed down.

We then bid farewell to Vishnu as he catches his coach to Turkey's west coast.

One typical sightseeing morning later, we head off to the Grand Bazaar, expecting just another large marketplace to wander through. Instead we are greeted by a sprawling uber-market (the world's largest, or something) full of a complex mesh of pathways to get completely lost in, and (mostly) charming stall owners eagerly touting for business. At first it's an overwhelming headache of an experience, but shortly after it becomes a place to fall in love with, especially after a lifetime being conditioned by the monotone rhino that is Asda West Bridgford.

A 10pm train out of Istanbul (we've decided to travel at night whenever we can, to save on accommodation costs) brings us to Turkey's charmless grey brute of a capital, Ankara. Luckily we only have to whip between transport hubs before getting a coach out of there.

It's on the ensuing 24 hour (!) coach journey through Turkey's arid, featureless northern countryside that the complexities of their language really become apparent. After 60 hours in the country I still had not managed to pronounce 'thank you' properly, and every time I tried would either be greeted with a part confused, part vacant look, or simply ignored altogether. Now, in my life to this stage I had drunk a total of one solitary cup of tea. Sorry England, I just never saw the point of it. But with the translation for 'thank you' being an unpronounceable jıgsaw of syllables, and the word for tea being kind enough to rhyme with tea ('che' or something), by the end of the journey I had drunk sıx cups of the stupid overrated stuff.

Late at night the coach reaches border control between Turkey and Georgia. Based on this experience, I reckon I can claim with fair confidence that I am the first Irishman to ever visit the country. The Georgian border guard spends a full five minutes reading every-single-page of my passport at least once whilst everybody else is waved through after a cursory 30 seconds. Everybody else working the border seems genuinely fascinated by it too, and I hop back on the bus with an odd feeling of mild celebrity about the whole thing.

Georgia's countryside seems more interesting. One particular mountain village we pass through bears a striking resemblance to the the one depicted in Resident Evil 4.

Arriving in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the morning of what just so happens so be my birthday, we cross the city center on foot, passing two United Nations cars (always a sign you've made idiosyncratic holiday plans) to our bed for the night at Irena's Homestay.

Tourism is such a rarity in Georgia that hostels don't exist, and the only budget options are Homestays where locals pile beds into any unused floors of their buildings, whilst the proper hotels cater almost exclusively to business customers.

Later we head out to sample Tbilisi's nightlife. As westerners, we are exiled from the main form of entertainment - late night restaurants - on the advice that attending without native companions can turn unsavory once things get going. Instead we sample three of the city's bars. The first serves beer at just 85p a pint, the second feels instantly like the ones I have drunk and worked in back in Nottingham, and the third turned out to be one where you are offered a drink, then a table, then a choice of ladies to entertain you for the remainder of the night. We drank up and bolted out the door pretty quickly from that one.

The whole of the next day is spent exploring Tbilisi, seeing beautiful churches, ramshackle neighbourhoods, and climbing a big hill, aided by the city's underground Metro system that costs 18p to travel on.

The reactions of Georgian people to us has been fascinating. Walking down the highstreet half the people would be staring (literally) at us. On three separate occasions Simon had a tiny pebble, then a light punch from a girl, then a piece of rubbish, thrown at his back. (his back isn't particularly incendiary or anything, it just seems like a desire for an anonymous, very mild form of hostility) But beyond that often lay an excited welcome. As no other country speaks their language, a joyful, surprised smile often crosses their faces when you make even the most basic attempt at speaking it. Our local convenience store was seemingly run by a rotating army of 12 women in their early twenties who would flutter with excitement every time we entered. This is certainly not a reaction I'm used to garnering in Nottingham. A tourism student called Mia, a devoted Westlife - and by association Ireland as a whole - fan stepped in to help us navigate Tbilisi's impenetrable underground system, and after I showed her my passport stayed with us for two hours helping us plan our upcoming day trips.

Then there was the minibus ('Marshutka' - the main form of public transport in Georgia) assistant who was so proud to have an Englishman and Irishman in his vehicle that he stopped five minutes into the journey to buy a round of beers for us to enjoy on the journey together. The ensuing conversation was a challenge given that we only knew two words in Georgian (thank you, hello) and he only knew one phrase in English ('okay, let's go', curiously), but through talented miming on both sides we managed to discover that his hobbies include football, women, alcohol and firing guns, and that he once got arrested by the police after taking heroin. We were pretty anxious for the rest of that journey.

Said journey, after also passing through a snow blizzard, took us to Gori, the birthplace of murderous psychopath dictator Stalin. Georgia is oddly proud of him, and we toured the museum, the train he used to travel in (you haven't lived until you've photographed a dictator's toilet, let me tell you) as well as some gorgeous dilapidated old trains in a disused area of the railway station. We also managed to lose each other for two hours, which was a challenge given that neither of us have mobiles on this trip.

By the next day we were getting the hang of Georgian as a language much better than we had Turkish, and had excitedly learned that the word for 'sorry' is 'bodishit' (literally pronounced 'body shit'), which sounds like the kind of filth Boy George, Max Moseley or Jamie Theakston might be into. I used it a lot though, enjoying getting to be polite and have my own little bit of naughty fun at the same time.

A final day trip to the manicured heritage village of Signahi later, and we left Irena's Homestay (her daughter insisted on taking photos of us before we left) and headed to the bus station where we stayed for seven hours to save a whole ₤10 each on accommodation. Come morning our Georgian trip would be spoilt somewhat by the bus companies tactics of clubbing together into an infuriating cartel that means that it's twice as expensive for Westerners to leave Georgia as it is to get there - and even locals pay about 50% more. Simon argues long and aggressively about this, and eventually gets us 30% off the price five minutes before the coach leaves, to take us to Eastern Turkey...

Wish you were here

Photos: (no login required)
Georgia rating: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: Mia the Westlife devotee
Scariest moment: Heroin minibus guy
Most beautiful sight: christian church in Tbilisi.
The soundtrack: Guns 'N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction
Still to come: Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

audio/visual update

A couple of weeks I was in London seeing a couple of friends and doing some drinking. This video of one such friend dancing to Leona Lewis's version of Snow Patrol's Run was the brilliant highlight of the night.

Around the same time I appeared on MistaJam's excellent Radio 1 show, The 1Xtra Mixtape at four in the morning. He does a feature called Mission Mixpossible, where he invites listeners to challenge him to mix any three songs in the world together. I challenged him to mix Benga + Skream - Night into The Ski Sunday theme tune, and that in turn into Justice - Phantom Part II. You can hear audio of the whole thing here: