Saturday, August 25, 2007

The End of Another Adventure

I'm back home in England now, which means it's finally over. I made it from Scandinavia to Asia by land and sea, visiting 24 countries and nearly 60 cities, spending an unhealthy amount of time on trains and buses and sleeping in all kinds of different hostels, hotels, apartments and friends' places.

I am certainly looking forward to relaxing at home, sleeping in my own bed, not getting up at 6am every day to catch lengthy train journeys and being able to take a shower whenever I want! But first, however, I want to take a look back at my trip:

My route map (click to enlarge)

Some of my favourite moments:
  • After climbing down a mountain for two hours, and still mid-way up, sitting in a cottage with friends and eating sauerkraut whilst gazing over the Austrian Alps.
  • Holding hands and singing patriotic songs, whilst joining in the graduation party of some Estonian students.
  • Visiting an abandoned Soviet missile base in the middle of nowhere, with nobody else around except the couple of people I was with.
  • Staying in a hostel covered in bullet holes in Bosnia and having one of the best times I've ever had.
  • Visiting a Serbian monastery nestled in hills of Kosovo, one of the most serene places I have ever been.
  • Celebrating Midsummer by the sea in Lithuania, complete with bonfire and music.

Relaxing in Istanbul on the final day of my trip

And some of the most memorable moments:
  • Being on a bus full of smugglers from Ukraine and getting caught up in the ensuing madness at the border.
  • Hurtling along dusty, bumpy tracks at over 100mph, crammed into a car with five Albanians as we headed across the border to Shkodra.
  • Firing an AK-47 in a Soviet bunker, with no tuition and a Russian man shouting at me (in Russian) to hurry up and get on with it.
  • Unexpectedly bumping into a friend on a bus in Lithuania I had previously met in a remote forest in Finland a year before.
  • Visting a non-existant state (Kosovo), where everything is run by the UN and peacekeepers are needed to keep things stable.
  • Witnessing the continued ethnic strife in a village in Bosnia, where the two opposing peoples live on opposite sides of the river.

Thank you Europe!

Above all this, I met so many wonderful people on the way who I will never forget - Europe is such a fantastically diverse and interesting place, and if anything Eastern Europe is even more so. I'd like to say thank you to all the people who made my trip so memorable and, despite travelling on my own, never left me feeling lonely.

Now to start planning my next trip...

Thanks for reading!

David Allan,
August 2007

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Bonus Videos - The Best Moments

I finally got round to uploading videos of some of the most memorable moments of my trip:

Singing a national song during a graduation party in Estonia

The annual diving contest from the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia

Standing on top of a hill in Prizren, Kosovo during the call to prayer

I have also added some of my photos to a collection on Flickr, so please take a look.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Turkey - Istanbul II

With my third day in Istanbul dawning, and my final of the entire trip, I headed with Metin into the modern shopping district of Kadıköy where we met with his cousin.

On the ferry again

After coffee next door to a British pub (a strange thing to find here), I caught a shared taxi, known as a Dolmuş, down to the harbour and caught the ferry back across to the European side. There were still many things left to see in my short time left.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

First stop was the Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya), a stunning example of sixth-century Byzantine architecture. It's amazing to stand in such an enormous building, knowing it is 1500 years old. For a thousand years it was the largest cathedral in the world and was, after the fall of Constantinople, converted into a mosque on the orders of the Sultan complete with the addition of minarets.

The view from the Hagia Sophia toward the Blue Mosque

Next I headed by tram further along to the bustling Grand Bazaar. An enormous, sprawling collection of over 4,000 shops and stands and packed with crowds of people, it contains what is supposedly the world's oldest shopping mall. Just finding my way out was a challenge, but I managed to resist the draw of buying anything.

Leaving the Grand Bazaar

I went on a tour of several more historic buildings and mosques, which are great places to get away from the heat, noise and crowds of the city and simply relax. I also made sure to try a kebab and they certainly seemed a lot healthier than the ones we have here in England (which we only tend to eat after drinking) and combined with the cheap price I'm glad I'm not staying long or I'd be eating these all day.

Entering another mosque

I spent some time wandering around the backstreets, trying to find the 'real' Istanbul behind what the tourists see, but it is striking how clean, modern and 'first world' the city is, which really isn't how I had expected it to be. At least in the centre I didn't find any slums, although there were quite a few cluttered and disorganised scenes like the one below, which only add to the charm.

Wandering the backstreets

I took a lift to to the top of Galata Tower, a historic structure that provides an excellent 360-degree view of the city. From here it's easier to get a sense of the sheer scale of the place - this is one of the largest cities in Europe and continues to expand each year.

Some of the most impressive architecture is almost hidden away

After completing my final sightseeing of the trip, I caught a boat back across to Kadıköy and met up with Metin. Later that night we headed out to İstiklal Avenue, arguably the most famous street in the city, rammed with all kinds of shops, galleries, bars and clubs.

Heading toward the enormous suspension bridge

Here I managed to try the local ice cream which, as a big fan of the stuff, I would say is unique in the world. Chewy and stringy, the seller literally stabs the tub with a stick and pulls it out as if it were made of plasticine and then does all kinds of tricks with it, swinging it around his body. Definitely something worth seeing!

We later took a trip across the bridge by dolmuş

We caught a dolmuş across the Bosphorus Bridge, which gave a fantastic view of the city at night and headed back home. The last day of my trip is now over and tomorrow morning I must get myself to the airport, which apparently will take a bus, boat, tram and a train! While the journey won't be too enjoyable, I'm really looking forward to finally going home. Just a few more hours left!

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Turkey - Istanbul I

The train pulled into Istanbul's Sirkeci station in the early morning. The station dates from the era of the Orient Express and still retains the air of mystique it earned as the terminus of that famous journey. After saying goodbye to my cabin-mates from the train, I headed into the city to get some Turkish lira. Unfortunately, it was a public holiday and few shops were open, so I had to aimlessly wander around, tired and carrying my bags, until I eventually found an exchange office. The rates were terrible, but I needed the cash for the final part of my journey.

Made it! Istanbul! End of the line!

I boarded one of the famous ferries across the Bosphorus to my final destination - Asia! The stretch of water separates the two parts of the city, the European side to the West and the Asian side to the East. The journey took about 20 minutes to Kadikoy, at which point I could now say that I have journeyed from Scandinavia to Asia by land and sea. Quite an achievement!

The ferries are a major mode of transport in Istanbul

I was heading to my Turkish friend's place. I met Metin as a fellow student whilst on exchange in Finland and was looking forward to once again seeing a friendly face. It was also nice to have somewhere more homely to stay for the very end of the trip - no more bunk beds for me. I took a taxi from the ferry terminal quite a distance into the suburbs and was alarmed by the horrendous quality of driving I witnessed. Despite the roads and cars being all shiny and new, it seems that modern driving standards have not yet reached Turkey.

On the ferry between Europe and Asia

Despite firmly agreeing on a price before accepting the ride, the taxi driver managed to rip me off and actually snatched some money out of my hand when we arrived. I got very angry, started shouting at him and he started shouting at me, and with neither of us speaking the other's language, I realised the situation would not be resolved and walked away. The money was actually very little, and it was the end of my trip so I decided to shrug it off, but it was not a nice welcome to Turkey.

Towers and a big flag on Camlica Hill

I was warmly greeted by Metin and took a shower, much-needed after such a long journey. Later, we met with a friend of his who had a car and he drove me around and gave a tour of the Asian side of the city. After stopping for traditional Turkish food in a charming little café, we drove up to the top of Camlica Hill, one of the tallest in Istanbul and offering a fantastic view of the city. Sipping Turkish coffee at the top, surrounded by Turkish families on their holidays with not a tourist in sight and gazing across the water to Istanbul, I felt that this was definitely a wonderful place to end my journey.

I have never seen three people on a moped before...

But still, there was much left to see in the city and the next day we headed out to some of the biggest attractions. Crossing back over the Bosphorus, we headed by Istanbul's shiny new tram system to Sultanahmet, where the most famous sights are located.

The Roman Cistern

First was the fantastic Topkapi palace, the centre of the Ottoman Empire, with impressive gardens and ornate courts. Next up, the Roman Cistern beneath the city, a cavernous and rather creepy underground cavern complete with walkways and moody lighting.

The Blue Mosque

Next, the Sultanahmet Mosque, or the 'Blue' Mosque, is an amazing example of Islamic architecture, complete with six towering minarets. Inside is just as impressive, and as a working mosque, inside it was possible to see the locals kneeling on the ornate mats to pray.

One of Sultanahmet's minarets

Istanbul is a real clash of east and west, and with its impressive and eventful history, has been influenced by the Roman and Byzantine empires, as well as the crusades and the Ottomans. We passed what just looked like a ruined stone, but the nearby plaque informed that this was the 'milestone' of the Byzantine empire, from the days when the city was the great imperial capital of Constantinople. The milestone was the zero point from where all distances throughout the empire were measured - quite an interesting thing to almost walk past without noticing.

I guess they didn't notice the sign...

Later, we took another ferry, this time up north to the foot of the enormous Bosphorus suspension bridge, which spans both continents. There we found a somewhat off-the tourist-trail area of small shops and traditional restaurants, one of which we ate in. Both the food and the view across the water was excellent, and eating while looking at two continents at once is something I haven't done before.

Inside a mosque

Afterwards we took a boat back across to Kadikoy and sat on the harbour side watching the sun set, an excellent antidote to the day's sightseeing in the blazing heat.

Sunset on the shore of Asia

So I still have one more full day to pack in the delights of Istanbul before heading home. The last day of my trip is about to dawn...

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

20 Hours on a Romanian Train...

Now nearing the end of my journey, I investigated the best way of getting to Istanbul from Romania, and found two options. The bus would take about 10 hours, or the train up to 20. The choice seemed obvious, except for one problem...there are no buses. I couldn't find evidence of them anywhere in Bucharest and nobody knew about them, despite being features in most travel guides. There are flights costing just 40EUR and taking only an hour or so, but if I've made it through 23 countries so far without flying, I'm not giving in now!

Crossing over the Danube, from Romania back into Bulgaria

Waiting on the platform at Bucharest, I expected a standard lengthy sleeper train, and was surprised when it pulled into the station - just three carriages long. There was a mad rush to get on, and I had to evict some unfortunate person from my cabin, which was already full. No way I was going to let somebody take my bed on a 20 hour trip! I settled in for the long trip ahead, equipped with charged ipod and several books ready to pass the time.

There was a real party atmosphere on the train

In the event, I didn't need any of them. The long journey, which I had been dreading, turned out to be fantastic. Within minutes of pulling out of the station an American in my cabin cracked open a bottle of wine and we got talking, and gradually as the journey continued I met several people down the carriage, including a couple of English guys from the hostel in Bucharest and even an MIT-graduate.

Winding through Bulgaria

After passing away the hours talking, night fell and it was time for sleep. The beds weren't particularly comfortable but eventually I drifted off, only to be woken by the Turkish border guards at about 2 in the morning. Everybody was marched off the train and forced to queue up and buy a visa from the most fantastically rude lady I have ever encountered, who literally threw your passport back at you.

Sunset on the longest train journey of my life

After an overly-long and bureaucratic process, we re-boarded the train and went back to sleep, waking up to watch the sunrise as the towns and villages of European Turkey rolled past the window. Onwards to the end of my journey and one of the great cities of the world...Istanbul!

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Romania - Bucharest

I took an express train from Brasov, back down South to my penultimate destination, Romania's capital city of Bucharest. The train was a nice contrast from that which I took a couple of days ago in Transylvania, this one being the fastest and most expensive class. Strangely the design bared more than a passing resemblance to a New York subway car, complete with shiny aluminium exterior - a weird experience.

The site of the secret police's former HQ, put to innovative use

I met an Australian couple on the train and together we walked to the hostel, avoiding the unusually aggressive taxi drivers touting for business outside the station, which are apparently a notorious rip-off. Upon checking in at the hostel, the nice girl in charge became strangely excited upon noticing we shared the same birthday and insisted I come back later in the evening for a big drinking game she was organising, complete with free drinks. Needless to say I made a mental note.

The Palace of the People - one man's grotesquely egotistical creation

In the meantime I headed into the city and straight for the number one tourist attraction - the Palace of the People. It really is a spectacular and imposing sight, being the single largest building in the whole of Europe and second largest in the entire world (beaten only by the Pentagon). Unfortunately, the directions given to me at the hostel were wrong and I ended up walking around the outside of the entire building looking for the entrance, which gave an exhausting but lasting impression of its sheer size.

Inside the palace

Eventually I found my way in and after making my way through the somewhat chaotic entrance hall, managed to join an English-language tour. Built by the command of Nicolae Ceauşescu, the communist dictator of Romania, with much of it designed by his wife, it was supposed to be a symbol of power and wealth. However, it was deeply unpopular, with a staggering one-fifth of the city being demolished to make way for it (needless to say the unfortunate residents had no say in the matter), including many historic churches.

One of 500 extravagantly ornate chandeliers

Built at fantastic cost in one of Europe's poorest countries, the building is sickeningly ornate. The sheer statistics are mind boggling - over 1000 rooms, 12 floors, 1 million cubic metres of marble and 200,000 square metres of luxury carpet. The place was so big that many of the rooms were never used. The worst part of the story is that this enormous monstrosity was never put to good use - still only nearing completion by the time of Ceauşescu's removal from power and subsequent execution, it still hasn't been finished. Upkeep alone costs a fortune and with all the lights on it would rival the entire city for power consumption.

On the palace's balcony, overlooking the impressive main avenue

The rest of Bucharest is testament to Ceauşescu's delusions of grandeur. Much of the historic and older neighbourhoods were razed, with the city rebuilt in French style, earning it the nickname "the Paris of the East". It's hard when wandering around to get a real sense of where in the world you are - there's a full-size copy of the Arc de Triomphe and an enormous main boulevard based on the Champs-Élysées cutting through the centre, sneakily built a handful of metres longer and wider on Ceauşescu's orders. It really doesn't feel like being in deepest Eastern Europe.

Parisian architecture on the streets of Romania

I took a walk around an area marked the 'old quarter', and found nothing particular old. It seems the history of the city was erased and rewritten on the whim of just one man. Having said that, despite the dark history of much of this place, and the loss of the old, it really is an impressive sight and holds its weight amongst many of the great cities of the world. It seems Ceauşescu really did achieve his dream.

Revolution Square

However, no visit to Bucharest would be complete without seeing where his dream ended. Revolution Square is the site where, in 1989, Ceauşescu delivered what would be his his final speech and had to be rescued by helicopter as an angry crowd booed and chanted slogans against him. He didn't escape for long and was eventually caught and executed, bringing Romania's difficult period of communist dictatorship to an end. It is nice to know that there's a happy ending to the story, with the country having joined the European Union at the start of this year, a fitting reward for Romania's journey to democracy.

A memorial to the Romanian Revolution of 1989

After a hard day's sightseeing I made my way back to the hostel, where once again I bumped into the Irish guys I had previously met in Macedonia and then again in Greece. How on earth can you bump into the same group of people three times in locations hundreds of miles apart?! I may have by now established that they are legendary drinkers, and altogether about twenty of us from the hostel took part in without doubt the funniest and craziest drinking game I've ever experienced. The game involved the creation of rules that everybody had to follow - my favourite being that the Irish and English had to 'swap' accents for the rest of the night...

We had so much fun a jealous neighbour kicked us out of the garden

And so with Bucharest done, my trip is nearly over. Twenty one countries down, one to go. Onwards to the end of my epic trip and a well earned rest - Turkey is awaiting!

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Romania - Brasov & Translyvania

The six hour journey to Bucharest was more fun than I imagined, as I shared a compartment with an Australian and Dutch couple and ended up chatting all the way. After arriving in the Romanian capital at 7pm, I headed toward the 7.30pm train and asked a conductor-looking person if it was the train to Brasov. He responded by grabbing my bags from my hands, running along the platform and jumping on the train. He then put the bags in a cabin, gestured for me to sit, kissed me on the cheek and stuck his hand out for money.

A church opposite my hostel in Brasov

I was utterly bewildered, having seconds earlier been standing rather tired on the platform, but it turned out this was a fitting introduction to the rather strange world of Romania. The train eventually departed, beginning a somewhat-creepy journey onward to Transylvania, with me on my own in the poorly lit cabin and the train winding its way in the darkness through the mountains. Traders regularly came to my cabin, trying to sell me everything from pens to toys, but I relented.

Brasov town centre

I arrived in Brasov, a major town in Transylvania, at about 11pm and took a taxi (with a female driver, the only one I have seen in eastern europe so far) to the hostel at the other end of town. I was greeted by a woman, who stuck her head out of the window above and yelled that I was late. What a nice welcome! Once inside, she was actually really nice and clearly just having a bad day. She even lent me money to eat and insisted I go to a local Romanian restaurant, called Casa Romanesque.

Not quite as glamorous as Hollywood, but probably nicer

I spent the rest of that evening chatting with people on the hostel's terrace, which had a great atmosphere. I talked with a funny Swede, a Mexican living in Cuba about all kinds of things, from life there to Castro, politics and communism and even spotted two Americans I had met previously in Macedonia and two Brits from London I had shared a taxi with in Bulgaria.

Walking through the backstreets

The next day I set off into town with the intention of getting to Sighisoara to see 'Dracula's castle'. The train times were inconvenient, so I waited for a minibus with another girl from the hostel for two hours, but for some reason none of the drivers seemed willing to take us there, despite it being marked on the route. I gave up and visited the Black Church and the old town, which was much more charming than I expected.

Behind the sign

I walked to the foot of the hill featuring the Brasov Hollywood-style sign and while deciding whether to walk up or take the cable car, the two Brits I had met in Bulgaria, brother and sister Em and Daniel, turned up. We decided to walk up the hill together. It was a pleasant climb as it was entirely in shade and at the top were met by a spectacular view. Just before the summit we passed a guy carrying a big jar of gherkins and a bottle of wine which seem, at least to me, strange things to have on a mountain.

Throwing a gherkin off a mountain. Somehow, strangely symbolic.

After a drink in the hilltop cafe, we descended back to the town and I headed off to the station to buy my next ticket. On the way I ran into the Dutch couple from the train the day before and was invited to dinner, so instead ended up back at Casa Romanesque where we had a great meal.

I think I'll skip on that one

Upon leaving I met with Daniel, Em and Taka, a Japanese traveller from the hostel, who it turned out had also been eating there but sitting outside. Together we went on a quest into town to use an ATM, then back to a kiosk for beer and sat on the terrace until the middle of the night.

With Em and Taka, triumphantly clutching our beer

The next day I once again set off to go to Sighisoara and waited for a bus to the station, but it took ages to come and I managed to miss the only reasonably timed train by a minute. Frustrating! After two days of trying, I gave up on going there and instead, determined to go somewhere for the day, caught a train to Sibiu, a town a couple of hours away.

Self-promotion in Sibiu

Sibiu is this year's European Capital of Culture, whatever that means, and is a nice place to spend a day. I didn't see anything specifically amazing, but it has a charming atmosphere and plenty of old buildings, with an impressively large main square.

Yet another nice old-town

Romania has five different type of trains, ranging from the fast and clean 'Express', to the cheap and agonisingly slow 'Personal'. Annoyingly, I was forced to take a 'Personal' train back to Brasov, which is something I was told to avoid. The journey took more than twice as long going back, the train was dark and full of very strange, mostly drunk people, who threw all their empty cans and bottles straight out the windows. The train stopped regularly, sometimes even in the middle of fields for a farmer to get off. Not particularly enjoyable, but it was interesting to experience things as the locals do.

Hiding off the main square

I made it back to Brasov after 11pm and spent a final night relaxing on the terrace and chatting with all kinds of travellers. There's just one final stop before the end of my trip, so tomorrow it's back to the capital Bucharest, for a penultimate bout of sightseeing.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bulgaria - Sofia, Plovdiv & Veliko Tarnovo

Having slummed it in standard class for the duration of my trip, it was almost a relief to be told that only 1st class seats were available on the Thessaloniki - Sofia train, and at just EUR16 for the 6 hour trip, it wasn't a bad deal. It made it all the more comfortable as the train sat, bewilderingly, just outside the station for 1.5 hours before finally deciding to leave.

Someone actually thought this was a good idea

Upon arrival, things started going wrong as I tried 3 ATMs and found that none worked, and with no Bulgarian money couldn't get any transport to my hostel, which I knew was a long way away. I decided to walk and the moment I stepped out of the station it started pouring with rain. Having been up since 5am, after a night of drinking, to catch the train and incredibly frustrated, I was forced to change my precious remaining euros at the rip-off exchange office in the station, something I had managed to avoid doing until now. I took an overpriced taxi and eventually made it to the hostel.

The Palace of 'Culture'

It was at this point that I realised my credit card was missing. I suppose that being so tired, annoyed and carrying lots of stuff I managed to lose track of it, especially in trying so many ATMs. While I don't think it was stolen, this did nothing to improve my mood and wasted yet more valuable time. After cancelling my card and arranging a money wire from home, I rushed out to do some sightseeing.

The cathedral, one building that is indeed beautiful.

My first stop was the incredibly hideous 1300th anniversary statue, built by the Soviets in typical social realist style. It really is amazing that they considered this to be fitting tribute to the nation and really hasn't stood the test of time. Shoddily built and with no real enthusiasm to maintain it, the monument is now fenced off as it is literally falling to pieces. Close by is the equally ugly palace of culture, which is at least still being used in multiple functions, including a cinema.

The Soviet Army memorial

I made a quick dash to a park on the edge of the centre to catch a glimpse of the Soviet Army memorial before nightfall. I was actually quite impressed by it, especially the scenes of battle depicted around the base. Bulgarians may not want it in their city due to the history it represents, but it's a fitting reminder of a bygone era and well worth seeing.

A statue of Milo, Veliko Tarnovo's nosiest resident

The next day I got a train to Plovdiv, a town not far from Sofia. It's a charming town with lots to see and as such tends to be full of tourists. After walking around the small old town, I headed down the main street, passing a statue of Milo, apparently a very nosy man who listened to other people's conversations. Somehow this endeared him to the people of Plovdiv and they chose to erect a statue in his honour. How lovely.

Roman remains

The Roman Amphitheatre was a little over hyped and I didn't pay to enter, especially as it's easily visible from the path above. On the way to a park on the outskirts of the centre, something strange happened. A building, not too far away from me, exploded. There was an enormous bang and car alarms down the entire street went off as it filled with smoke. Not something you see every day! It seems in Bulgaria health and safety laws aren't particularly respected by demolition crews.

Not something you expect to find on top of a hill

Once at the park, I climbed a hill to be greeted by a massive statue of a Soviet soldier at the top. It really is an impressive sight, overlooking the entire city. It seems those Soviets really do (did) know how to build monuments.

It really is bigger than it looks

Back at the hostel I recognised Nathan, an American I had met in Thessaloniki. Bumping into people really seems to be a very common occurance when travelling. He was also heading to my next destination, so the following day we took a bus to Veliko Tarnovo, a town in the east of the country.

Sunset in Plovdiv

Once there, we parted ways and I made it to my hostel, which was the emptiest I've been to. After walking across the entire town to buy a train ticket for the following day, I headed to the town's famous castle, dramatically located on a hill surrounded by gorges. At the centre of the complex, perched on its own small hill, was a church with one of the most interesting interiors I've seen, painted entirely in modern art.

Amazing artwork inside the church

Returning to town, I discovered the the hostel was completely empty and would remain so for the rest of the day, so it didn't look like I was going to meet anybody. Once again, however, I bumped into someone I knew. While walking along a street I heard someone call my name - it was Arnold, the father of the American family who had rescued me on the Albanian-Macedonian border over a week ago. How do these things keep happening?!

Yes, this is a real picture. Quite amazing.

We had dinner together and then headed up to the castle, to watch one of the most impressive light shows I've seen. The entire castle, and the hill, were lit up in widely ranging colours synchronised to music, along with some fantastic lasers that seemed to shine across the entire town.

Not something you see every day

After being treated to dessert (they really are a generous family), I headed back to the hostel for a good sleep. Tomorrow I'm heading to Bucharest, capital of Romania and then onwards to Transylvania.

Erm, suppose I won't go by bus then...

It's quite annoying as the drive to Bucharest only takes 2 hours and the train, for some reason, is much longer at 6 hours. Unfortunately I haven't been able to arrange a ride despite a tip-off that a local hostel provides a driving service. Looks like it's going to be another day spent on trains!

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