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Transnistria, the ghost nation

Transnistria, the ghost nation

Some bizzarre cases of mass denial involve the status of unrecognised, self proclaimed indipendent nations. There are several territories around the globe that find themselves in this unenviable and awkward situation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and even Taiwan are all examples of countries not formally recognised by the United Nations and the international community at large.

Ghost nations like these are generally the result of unresolved frozen conflicts where no beligering power prevails over another. Transnistria, on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine has been fiercly contended between Moldavia and belligerant pro Russia sympathisers since the end of the last century. It is another frozen conflict country, an invisible nation that few people even know exists.

The Border

I got to the Moldavia-Transnistria border by motorbike feeling a little apprehensive yet eager to discover what I would find ahead. I could see the barrier to the break away country several hundred metres in front of me but was forced to pull over before reaching it by a smartly dressed uniformed official bearing European Union insignia on cap and sleeve.

“Do you know what lies beyond that barrier?” I was asked in English.

“I believe so” I replied.

“You will be entering a disputed territory”

“Yes, I am aware”

“Are you also aware that you will have no road insurance, medical cover, telephone cover, limited police assistance?”

“Ehrrr, no, wasn’t aware of that”.

“You will have to buy insurance at the border and there is more than  just a chance that you’ll be asked for a bribe. I recommend you turn back and cross the border to Ukraine further south and avoid Transnistria all together. It’s the safer option”.

I had ridden that far with the specific desire to visit the rouge nation that Transnistria is had no intention on missing out on it now.

“Thank you, but I’ll continue to the barrier ahead”, I said.

The official smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. He took my passport details, shook my hand and wished me well.

Transnistrian Monument
Transnistrian Monument

Slowly, I rolled to the roadblock ahead. Stern looking Transnistrian guards wearing Soviet era uniforms with huge pizza sized flat caps greeted me at their imaginary, yet very real border. In English they barked the entrance procedures to their fantasy country. I listened in silence. Then, I paid 15 very real Euros for what was probably worthless third party insurance and was granted a transit permit valid for just the remainder of the day through the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (Transnistria).

“Good luck” said the Transnistrian official as he handed back my passport and gestured me on my way. I was in.

Soviet era emblems
Soviet era emblems

Inside Transnistria

The road that led to Tiraspol, the so called capital of Transnistria, was smooth and maintained. As I entered the small town bright Soviet style propaganda popped up around me. There were monuments advertising Red Army grandeur and banners in remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. In a small square, a shiny armoured personnel carrier acted as a monument to military might and armoured warfare. There were red stars, hammers and sickles on billboards and slogans, uncomprehendable to me, written in Cyrillic.
Then, as I rode through the town centre, stone busts of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “ Lenin”, appeared in front of buildings that had any hint of importance. I felt uneasy with all the Cold War nostalgia that these grim icons of the past cungered up.

My foreign numberplate didn’t go unnoticed for very long. As I rode around looking for photo opportunities I was accosted by a couple of guys who introduced themselves as fellow bikers. One owned a Suzuki the other a Honda, they told me. A little banter broke the ice and suspicion soon faded. In no time I was sharing travel stories with Andrei and Ivan at a table in a local caffe. During our chat I learned about the problems the locals faced with corrupt police officials and beurocrats and the difficulties of living somewhere that nobody formally recognises. Simple things such as obtaining a passport or buying insurance could be impossible.

Lenin Bust
Lenin Bust

My impressions

During the few hours I spent in Tiraspol it was Andrei, Ivan and their acquaintances that made the difference. They were friendly and seemed to take an interest in my visit and trip. I received offers of hospitality, suggestions for where to go for a good meal and drinks and for a while my thoughts were diverted from the insistent Soviet paraphernalia around me

All in all it was an ok experience and I think I’d return to Transnistria for a little longer than just an afternoon if I were ever given the opportunity. However, there was something about the place that kept me on edge.

At the back of my mind I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real rule of law in this fictitious tear away country. The presence of Soviet symbols everywhere filled me with thoughts of Cold War repression, control and restraint. It was unsettling. I wondered about my chaperones Ivan and Andrei. Who were they really? Perhaps a couple of plain clothed cops sent to make sure I didn’t snoop around where I was not welcome? I made sure I took a poicure of them.

Lenin standing tall
Lenin standing tall

Some Facts

In September 1990, after the dissolution of Soviet Union, a slither of land to the East of the river Dniester unilaterally declared its independence from Moldavia and set up a utopian state modelled on Soviet Communist rule. Tensions with the  Moldavian government rapidly escalated to the point of conflict in 1992 during which the Moldavian army (backed by Romania) exchange blows with rebel militia and Russian forces.

A cease fire was agreed to by rival factions in July 1992. It has since held for over twenty five years and although some autonomy has been granted to the rebel territories along the Dniester, it remains to be seen how long the status quo will prevail.

The population of Transnistria is approximately 470,000.

The language is a local variation of Romanian.

The currency is the Transnistrian Ruble.

Visitors are welcome but just for an afternoon.

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All rights reserved.

Adventure Cam Disaster

Adventure Cam Disaster

“You need to watch your step, but everyone makes it across easily” my guide whispered to me in encouragement as I gazed a little perplexed at the hazel coloured water that stirred, foamed and crested in front of me. “Ok, it’s fine, I’ll do it”, I said.

Stripped down to my swimwear with action camera and selfie stick in hand, I felt vulnerable, exposed to the Sumatran sun and the rough forest around me. I told myself I was just getting ready for the far side of the river where there were hot spring water pools waiting to be enjoyed, the thought of which had brought me by the bank in the first place. I simply had to get across.

The sharp, angular pebbles pinched my bare feet and challenged my balance at every step as I hobbled to the water’s edge. “Everyone makes it across easily” I reminded myself as I held my breath and splashed into the fresh flow. Slowly I waded ahead into deeper, mirky cold running water and quickly I lost view of my feet. They were always in pain though,  gripping to the edge of some slimy surface with all toes. The water got deeper and crept up to my chest, the current got stronger as well. “Good thing I can sling my action camera on my shoulder with the monopole strap. Yeah, and how cool that my action camera has water proof casing” I thought.

I must have looked pathetic as I attempted to thread my arm through the selfie stick strap. I could hardly stand on my own two feet let alone juggle camera equipment as well. Then the inevitable happened, I slipped and fell face forward into the flow. Like driftwood the current swept me away and rushed me downstream in its clench. I had no choice, I had to swim and powerfully too if I wished to reach the safety of the nearest bank and avoid painful knocks with rocks and debris. A few brisk strokes from my arms and I was in shallower water once more, out of trouble but to my dumbstruck dismay my precious Sony action camera and monopole stick were gone, nowhere to be seen, lost in the silty water along with two gigabyte of unsaved videos and pictures.

Losing camera equipment is always regrettably costly, but losing hard earned pictures and video footage as well is gut wrenching to say the least.

But what to do? After all, adventure cameras are meant for use in pretty wild environments where the risk of loss is always a real issue!

Here is a list of hints that might be handy for the GoPro enthusiast. I certainly wish I had known about these before that fateful afternoon in Sumatra. Maybe they are nothing new to the avid video maker but I am sure they’re worth remembering all the same.

A) Take the time to write your contact details on a piece of paper and stick this appropriately to the camera body or at least include it in the water tight casing of your camera. ALSO save a “READ ME file” containing the same contact details on the camera’s SD memory card. This way if your device is ever lost and found by someone conscientious enough, all the information needed to get in touch is available.

B) If using your camera next to water, always use a floatation accessory. It can be self adapted piece of sponge cut out and added to your selfie stick, or a specially purchased add on. There are several products available.

C) Hugely useful, but hard to come by, are floating monopoles. Keep in mind though that a wooden stick is definitely a cheaper option and can work just as well if not better!

D) Make sure the your camera and/or stick have a robust enough tether. Reinforce the stock attachments with sturdy metal rings and good quality cord. Hold on tight!

So…..sunk to the bottom of the sea, dropped from paragliding heights, knocked from racing motorbikes or cars it would be good to hear of other action camera disasters experienced first hand. I know there are many. Occasionally some lost cameras are found on hiking trails, by the side of the road and by scuba divers too. All hope need not be lost…..at least  for those who have taken some precautions?

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All rights reserved.

Stopped by the Cops

Stopped by the Cops

The rice paddies on the hills in southern Sumatra were beautiful at that time of the day. The sun, low on the horizon, cast it’s evening rays on the water brimmed terraces that reflected a yellow glow everywhere. A picture perfect moment I thought as I rode through the fields and considered a stop to make use of my Nikon camera. Just one more turn ahead on the narrow road and for sure there would be a good photo opportunity waiting for me I thought. What I found around that last bend however, was far from the perfect opportunity I envisioned. Actually, it made my heart sink straight away.

Getting pulled over by the cops is rarely a welcome event. I’ve been stopped, or signalled to do so, by law enforcement officers in almost every country I crossed on my overland trip through Asia. Rarely however, did this ever turn out to be totally negative experience although some firmness at times was required. In fact, some encounters with the law ended in laughter, hand shakes and selfies. Most of all though, there was negligible or no monetary upset whatsoever.

The Cops in Georgia
Don’t mess with the cops in Georgia. Professional but unforgiving…

Here are a few rules of thumb I  developed on my travels. They’re my very own personal approach to the issue of being flagged down by the what looks like a cop and, commendable or not, it’s what works for me.

Don’t stop!

This can sound controversial but I think it’s justifiable in scenarios in which:

A) The would be “enforcement officer” is not wearing a uniform, or a fully recognisable outfit.

Of course you should use your good judgement in instances such as this but at the same time you should not feel intimidated by appearances. Twisting the throttle and riding away is safer than dealing with time wasting scammers eager for your cash. Also worth remembering is that in some countries a flashing blue light on an unmarked vehicle is absolutely no guarantee of the presence of the law so, BEWARE!

B) No clear and safe area is available to pull over without risking an accident.

This is a very real issue in countries like Iran, Pakistan and India where traffic can be fast paced and simply insane especially after dark in urban areas. If you’re putting yourself at risk by trying to pull over for the police then don’t even think about it and ride on.

C) You are waved down simply to be looked at, just out of curiosity (it happens often).

You develop a feeling for this sort of scenario. A solo traveller on an exotic machine stands out from the crowd and attracts curiosity. It’s a welcome distraction for some officers and a break the day’s boredom. In these cases I reccomend slowing down, smiling, waving to the uniformed cop and then moving on without stopping.

Have I ever been chased for refusing to stop? No, never.

Police in Pakistan
An encounter with the law just before Islamabad.

You’ve been pulled over

It’s hard to argue any traffic violation if proof is caught on camera but there’s always space for a little negotiation. For example, I discovered that insisting on a receipt before paying any cash can work magic sometimes.

Stiff upper lipped officers occasionally change attitude when comments and banter is strung up on topics such as fishing, football, motorcycles, cars, girlfriends, wifes, family or even local food. I guess some might call this the “bro factor”. Once you connect with the person wearing the uniform things get easier and with a bit of luck will you get off the hook for minor offences. I’ve been “forgiven” for speeding, failing to produce an insurance document, riding in lanes reserved for public transport, using highways closed to motorcycle traffic. Furthermore I’ve received help from the police to find accommodation, money changers, good fishing spots, safe wild camping areas and decent eateries. Most of all the cops I encountered were genuinely generous cool guys but that’s not to say that all of them are.

Got a Go Pro?

I noticed that an action cam attached to my helmet discouraged officers from engaging with me longer than necessary. Their doubts about whether the camera was on or off had them send me on my way as soon as possible.

Using an open face helmet, sun glasses and riding a white bike confused for a bike cop myself once or twice with some funny reactions from my would be colleagues. For a few minutes I found myself flagged along as part of a motorcade in down town Jakarta.

Finally, I never handed my driving licence, vehicle registration documents, or my passport to the police. I carried high quality laminated colour copies of these  for inspection by the side of the road all of which worked just as well.

Police in Indonesia
Photos with the police in Indonesia

So, in the end that late afternoon in Indonesia I rode into a police road block, but of course things went just fine. There was a photograph opportunity after all as you can see above, it just was not the kind  I was expecting. Still, I think a hint of that yellow evening glow was caught all the same.

Travellingstranger 2018 ©️, all rights reserved.

Size matters, especially when taking pictures

Size matters, especially when taking pictures

There is an unspoken truth that most newcomers to travel photography ignore. It’s an uncomfortable secret that camera stores avoid exposing when new photo enthusiasts are set on the purchase of their first “capable machine”.

Blinded by the promise of amazing dynamic range, lengthy exposure times, high ISO settings, amazing pixel count, battery life, focussing speed and more, budding photographers often walk away from camera stores with new entry to mid range DSLRs confident that they should be considered seriously amongst their peers with a branded, enviable and wisely chosen machine dangling from neck or shoulder.

Extended travel however, has the ability of making us come to terms with a minimalist and low key existence. For example, it forces us to accept and deal with the limited space of back pack, a suitcase or a pair of motorcycle saddle bags (panniers). What space is available needs to be managed wisely with an eye on maximising convenience and comfort above all.

The learning curve here can be harsh. Throwing away grandmas hand knitted socks while on the road is no fun and neither is trashing costly “good to have” but never used camping gear. There’s no room for extras in rug sack and that includes souvenirs, books and 13” laptops.

Camera with lenses
Camera with lenses

Light, small, packable, robust, versatile are the most sought after adjectives that experienced travellers focuse on when selecting and packing travel gear. From clothes and footwear to sleeping bags and tents the mantra does not change.

It makes sense then to abide by the same rules when selecting camera equipment for adventures around the globe. Light, small, functional does the job and it’s here that the flaws of the capable but cumbersome DSLR camera become apparent.

The DSLR is cumbrous, to say the least, especially with any lens greater than 50mm. DSLRs are also fragile and loathe knocks, drops, dust, sand, water and moisture. They’re sometimes heavy, especially when extra glass (lenses) are added to the kit to carry. DSLRs are also conspicuous and perceived as expensive bits of hardware that can draw the wrong kind of attention, especially in poorer developing nations.

So, as the new enthusiast carries his new capable photo camera around the world, the untold secret from the camera store sunravels. The DSLR and its accessories are a burden. In fact, the DSLR can become such a burden that on many occasions it is wilfully left in a hotel room, or tucked away in a carrier bag or in the trunk of a car rather than carried around like a ball on a chain.

But, technology comes to the rescue. Over the last seven or eight years the photo industry has shifted in trend and delivered new sexy smaller photo cameras to the public known as CSCs (Compact System Cameras) or simply “mirrorless” cameras.

The advent of mirrorless cameras has brought a sighe of relief within the world of travel photography. With picture quality intact (CSC cameras use the same sensors as DSLRs of comparable level), many mirrorless devices offer the advantage of notable reduction in size, weight, increased portability and versatility compared to their DSLR counterparts.

Travel Cameras
Choose a good travel camera and use it.

Is it all good? No, in reality, as with all things newish, there is a certain amount of inertia to be won. Skepticism and perhaps limitations on the availability of lenses, have hindered the appeal of CSC systems at large as of 2017. As a result, many new DSLR devices are still sold to unknowing novices and will be for a while yet.

It’s not my intention to discuss the merits or demerits of brands or models. I simply want to reach out to first time buyers of a “decent” camera and encourage them to think carefully, to look beyond the advertised selling points of a any picture taking contraption. Size when traveling is parampunt and small, packable cameras trump bigger and bulky ones even at the price of slightly lower image quality. It’s a fact that the most reputable of glossy magazines such as National Geographic require pictures to be a minimum of no more than six mega pixels in size to be published, way below the standard pixel count of low level cameras on the market today.

In the end, when you’re “out there” with all things being acceptably equal, the most important feature of your camera will be whether or not you can comfortably carry it all day.

Travellingstranger 2018 ©️. All rights reserved.

How to summit Everest, for the couch potato

How to summit Everest, for the couch potato

Katmandu

Katmandu, in Nepal, has long been the starting point of many a fabled mountaneering adventure. Throughout time, brave men and brave women have challenged the limits of their resolve, stamina and equipment in a quest to conquer the highest peaks of the Himalayas. Many have succeeded in their extreme hiking goals but sadly, more than just a few have perished whilst trying.

The biggest prize for most still remains the summit of Mount Everest that at a staggering 8,848m (29,000ft) is of course the highest natural peak above sea level in the world. As of 2017, it has been summited by no fewer four thousand people which is still very much an elite club to be part of.

Considering all of the above as I transited through Nepal on my motorbike, it seemed only right that in the name of “adventure and resolve” I should also be part of a little Himalayan mountain action. I decided to make Kathmandu a major stop on my tour across Asia and gave myself some time to explore my hiking options once there.

The Guest House

The guest house I stayed at in the Thames district of the Nepalese capital had a regular procession of fit mountain enthusiasts that came in one day and left a day or two after. Casual conversation with these atheletes introduced me to names such as Annapurna, Ganesh Himal, Lang Tang, Everest Base Camp, all cool mountain hot spots rich in fine lakes, forests, crisp glaring glaciers to admire. The hikes to reach them were described like a soul elevating experience, a mix of Buddhist culture and wilderness bliss. However, scratching away at the surface and with the undeniable aid of a few beers, I also found out about weeks without a shower, altitude sickness, broken bones, lost camera equipment, poor food, lack of sleep, low temperatures and emergency helicopter evacuations. Clearly it wasn’t all good.

I made my mind up pretty quickly after some gruelling horror stories that my very own experience of the Himalayan marvels of Nepal  would have none of this later nonsense at all.

Nepalese Stuppa
Nepalese Stuppa

I woke up at four o’clock on the day I had scheduled my Mount Everest approach. I checked my gear: my warm beenie, my gloves, my jacket, my hiking shoes, thick socks, all were in place. With my Go Pro locked and loaded, spare charged battery in pocket, I was ready for my very Mount Everest experience and set off into the darkness.

Everest

The taxi was waiting for me at the guest house gate and silently drove me through the empty dusty streets of a sleepy Katmandu. The driver uttered not a word but wished me well knowingly, as he dropped me off at my destination where others had also gathered in silence.

Kathmandu international airport was just starting up for the day. Tired eyed ground staff were firing up computers and opening the check in counters for the early morning flights. Buddha Airways was also in business, and I joined the small queue for its counter.
The sun was just marketing an appearance over the horizon, I exited the bus next to the waiting ATR 72. The sky was clear, all was still, it looked like a perfect day for flying.

My chariot to the skies
My chariot to the skies
My fellow adventurers
My fellow adventurers

So, I think the images speak for themselves….

There are daily “Himalaya flights” for those who desire a more  leisurely approach to the mountain ranges of Nepal. They are pretty much a sight seeing tour  in the air that cost around $300 (US dollars) per passenger for perhaps no more than an hour’s flight time. What you get is a warm air conditioned cabin and a bird’s eye view of the marvels of the local Himalayan range in the company of like minded adventurers.

Everest view
Everest from the comfort of an airplane

From the comfort of my seat I saw glaciers, lakes, forests, peaks and ridges, just as described to me by my hiking friends at the guest house. Yes, I saw them too however, I was served warm coffee by a smiling hostess in the process and never once had to worry about t showers, twisting an ankle or being evacuated in a helicopter.

I enjoyed the flight, really i did, and would reccomend to those who have limited time or are just not into hiking at all. There’s even time to doze off for a minute or so on the return route to the airport. Everest, job done!

Travellingstranger 2018 ©️, all rights reserved