Friday, August 22, 2014

Money Matters

Money matters is quite strange and unique in Zimbabwe. While I had heard and read about the Zimbabwe currency crisis in the past, I did not quite find out about the details until I found myself in the tourist town of Victoria Falls.

With the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, Zimbabwe has been using the US dollar since 2009. When I went to the stores, the prices were listed as such - $2.40, $1.75 etc. I made my purchase and paid with a nice $20 note. My change was a couple of filthy tattered notes and some coins. I had no problems with the dirty notes and then I noted (pun intended) the coins. They were South African Rands.

As 1 rand is almost equivalent to 10 US cents, what is happening is that the country is using US dollars for the notes and South African rand as the "change"!

Strange indeed when a country uses two other countries' currency as their legal tender, and sells their own as souvenirs!

Indeed, every visitor to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe would be accosted by locals pushing wads of billion/trillion dollar notes in your face.

"You know how much these are worth? Buy them as souvenirs!", they would all say.

Things got stranger still. Apparently, change is in short supply. This Canadian chap in the hostel related an incident at the supermarket. His receipt reflected a credit of $0.47 when the cashier ran out of rands for his change. A search online revealed that this is but one of the ways the stores handle the problem. Others offer candy/pens/merchandise as "change"! My encounter was equally bizarre. My purchase came up to $2.40. The cashier asked if I had exact change. I dug into my pocket and found 3 rand. I was about to shake my head and put my coins back when she quickly gestured for the coins and grabbed it.

"Tomorrow you bring me the 10 cents ok?", she deadpanned.

It took a whole 10seconds before I replied ok....

So now, I still owe the supermarket 1 rand :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Bicycle Diaries

I lay on the ground, legs stiffened and face contorted in an ugly grimace. I massaged my thigh vigorously and finally managed to coax the muscles to relax. It was a good 10 minutes of cramps sitting on the road beside a highway and this was my most pathetic cycling experience yet.

Not much of a cycling fan, I only had a couple of cycling excursions during my travels. A nice summer jaunt in the rolling hills of Biei and Furano in Hokkaido; A wine-on-2-wheels cycling tour in Mendoza; An exploration of the Lijiang countryside in autumn; Here in Ezulwini valley in Swaziland, I joined a fellow backpacker on a cycling day-trip because, well, it sounded interesting.

We were to visit the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and apparently, it could be visited on bike - perfect for folks without private transport. The idea of cycling through a wildlife park in Africa sounded refreshing. Of course, there is no Big 5 in this reserve, otherwise, I have doubts anyone could peddle away quickly enough with a lion hot on his back.

My years of inadequate usage of my cycling legs came quickly to bear after the 10km of tar-road, and 3km of off-road peddling to reach the park. But luckily in the park itself, the frequent stops for nature appreciation dictated a leisurely pace.

We knew we had our first encounter when we saw a group of people congregating around an area. In the middle of the river, like a personal small island, a huge crocodile lay basking in the sun. I mounted my biggest lens, and proceeded to find my angle. A jeep soon rolled by, with a family and their guide in it. The guide beckoned to me, and in a calm robotic manner, warned me off the water's edge. I did not grasp the full extent of his well-intentioned warning until he pointed to a ripple in the water. Barely 10 metres away was another crocodile lazily swimming across the water's edge!!

Huge crocodile basking in the sun
Only when I remounted my bike did I see the sign - "Do not stay too close to the water's edge"! On hindsight, that crocodile was really uncomfortably close, but well, ignorance was really bliss!

The rest of our encounters were alot less intimidating, though, no less interesting. In particular, we were chugging along when Sarka, my cycling companion, caught sight of movement in the trees just 30m from our cycling path. Almost blending behind a blind of trees trunks, grazed a couple of zebras, probably shying away from the open. We crept nearer steathily, but they moved away cautiously, easily detecting our intrusion.

I see you!
We caught sight of other wildlife - deers/antelopes of various kinds, birds of the ibis/heron variety. And then we came to the "Hippo Pond". Alas, the hippopotamus did not make their appearance. And it was one of those animals I had wanted to see in this sanctuary...!

I hovered around the pond area while Sarka went ahead to further explore the park. I knew my return journey back to the hostel would take twice as long, and so had decided to leave earlier. On the way out though, I again caught sight of the family of zebras (ok, it could be another set, but indulge me). This time though, they decided to come out into the open, and sauntered right pass me! THIS is what I call a zebra crossing! ;)

I finally managed to stand up, gingerly picked up my bicycle, and started pushing. Unless there was a downward gradient, I was literally walking and pushing my bicycle all the way back. It was indeed my most pathetic "cycling" trip..... but certainly one of the most interesting!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Of Trains and Border Controls

The train rumbled along uneventfully. The views were stupendous, albeit mostly glimpses where it was the most beautiful. I was on the famous Bar-Belgrade railway, and it had been rather frustrating.

You see, the railway journey between Bar Montenegro and Belgrade Serbia passes through 254 tunnels and 435 bridges. That's some insane statistics (based on Wikipedia entry) and I certainly won't be verifying that. But in reality terms, that means that there would be frequent ins-and-outs of the tunnels and very typically, distances between the tunnels were pretty short. And so it was so darn hard to get a photo of the sceneries! Coupled with the fact that many trees grow near the rail lines which blocked the views, it was particularly frustrating that you get only glimpses of some of the spectacular valleys.

Rain on the train window created nice effects

Beautiful sceneries along the rail

Mala Rijeka viaduct, the biggest of the 435 bridges along the Belgrade-Bar Railway
I would be content to just appreciate the views (which I did), except that for the 12 hours on the train, it was raining for the most part. Indeed, it was rather uneventful, though perhaps things would change as the train neared the border....

There were various accounts and information on travels to Serbia and Kosovo. As Kosovo is unrecognised by Serbia (and some countries, including Singapore), it would be prudent to gather some information before traveling through these two countries. Going Kosovo-Serbia may be problematic when you exit Serbia as you do not get a Serbian entry stamp. Going Serbia-Kosovo is probably ok if you are fine without a Serbian exit stamp (esp if you are not going back into Serbia). But if you had already visited Kosovo (complete with entry and exit stamps), there may be trouble with Serbian border controls when you try to enter the country. The accounts range from being turned back, to having their Kosovo stamps canceled/annulled, but yet allowed into the country!

I belong to the latter category. Having Kosovo stamps being canceled sounded interesting. The Kosovo border officials had been pretty enthusiastic about stamping my passport. "No problem! No problem!" they had proclaimed. And this was after some confusing border controls before this. I did not get any entry/exit stamps for Bosnia and Albania! (And I had enter/exit them multiple times!)

Not "cenceled"
Somehow, on rail borders, my passport would usually generate additional scrutiny. Even at the Montenegrin border, the officer had to refer to a folded piece of paper. And as the train stopped at the Serbian border, the junior border officer beckoned for his senior. I tensed.

The senior officer came, looked at my passport, almost nonchalantly mumbled something to the other, flipped through my passport, and then stamped my passport.

That was uneventful.

When I reached Belgrade, the rain had not relented. In fact, it seemed worse. Even in the Serbian countryside, I had seen flooding with cars/buses being stuck. The next day, I learnt that the night before, the government have declared a "state of emergency"!

Well, I'm glad my journey was uneventful!!

PS. News from Reuters on the state of emergency, apparently not only in Serbia :

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nature's Light

I enjoy landscape photography, and capturing phenomenal lighting is one of the pleasures of the craft. Rainbows, god-rays, irridescent clouds etc etc, these are not only awesome to see, but immensely satisfying to capture for me.

I was conveniently in my hotel, looking out of my balcony during the sunset hours, when something strange caught my eye. The hotel sits right at the edge of Pelister National Park in southern Macedonia, and the views of the mountains and villages were just fantastic. There were loads of clouds, and typically, with the sun behind them, occasionally you do get "god-rays". Technically known as crepuscular rays, these are rays of light radiating from some point (usually the sun). However, what I saw was something different.

The light seemed to be radiating from the fields in the valley! The patches of light on the ground are obviously lit from sunlight through breaks in the clouds. But somehow,  it seems to be radiating light!

Nature's light is just amazing!

Anyone who can explain this phenomenon please share. Thanks! :)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Strange Sightseeing

And so I was walking the streets of Pristina in Kosovo, drinking in the sights. It was a strange briefing I had with the hostel staff on the sights in Pristina. Aside from some of the usual monuments, mosques and churches etc, there were a few unusual mentions.

"Here, you can see the National Library. It was voted to be one of the top 10 (or whatever number) ugliest buildings in the world!" quipped Samantha.

Ok, I wasn't expecting that on a visit to Kosovo.

The National Library in Pristina
Typical flags scene in Kosovo

"You may have noticed this on your way here. At this junction, you can find the world's only statue of Bill Clinton." She continued.

I shook my head. No, I didn't notice that. I did noticed the name of the road on my bus though. It was Bill Clinton Boulevard. So naturally, the statue stood at one of the junctions of the long boulevard.

My first introduction to Kosovo was pretty Prizren. One of the first things I noticed was that for a country declaring itself independent, the number of its own flags being flown around in their cities is woefully low - as compared to the American, UN (United Nations) and Albanian flags! Yes, while more than 90% of the people in Kosovo are Albanians, I find it strange that there are as many (if not more) Albanian flags in the cities than Kosovo flags. Granted, these entities provided enormous support towards Kosovo's independence but still, I hadn't expected this scale.

And the Albanians in Kosovo were so grateful to American president Bill Clinton for his help that they erected this 10-foot statue. After some photos, I started to head back and did a double take. On the junction of the statue, the road intersecting Bill Clinton Boulevard is named George Bush road.

Still on the subject of unexpected sights, I had my final double take even as I started walking back and passed a shop. It was a strange sightseeing day...

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Accursed Mountains

The 'Accursed Mountains'.

With a name like that, how could one not be enticed?

And to reach into the heart of these mountains in northern Albania, the Lake Koman ferry would seem to be the way to go. Boasting spectacular mountain scenery enroute from Koman to the town of Fierze, it was highly rated online as well as in the guidebooks. One even ranked it on par with the fjords of Patagonia. From Fierze, it is another 2 furgons (minivans) away, via Bajram Curri, to Valbone, a village primed for wonderful hiking and trekking.

In order to catch the 9am ferry, me and 3 other travelers departed our hostel in Shkodra for Koman at 6am. We arrived in good time, just 15 minutes past 8. It was drizzling and bone-chilling cold as we waited for the ferry.

"I think you should go get a cup of coffee", suggested a young man as he approached me.

"I received news that the ferry just departed Fierze half an hour ago", our friendly and helpful local informed us.

The ride is supposed to be a 3-hour journey! It seemed we would be at least 3 hours late!! Apparently, there was an Italian film crew on board and the filming had delayed the ferry.

So we adjoined to the only cafe onsite for the long wait. Luckily we had bought some "rations" (bread, biscuits), and a couple in our group even had camping gear with them, and promptly set up their cannister stove to boil some water for tea and coffee.

The hours dragged by. It was almost 1pm when the latest update from our Albanian friend (whose name I couldn't really prounounce let alone spell) was that it would be an hour more before the ferry arrived. He was with his fiancee and visiting relatives near Fierze and he too, was waiting impatiently. It was past 2pm when a small boat chugged into view.

Most of the locals started to fill the boat. It seemed someone decided to use his boat to provide the ferry service instead. While there was overhead cover, it was exposed on the sides, and much smaller, so we were advised by our Albanian friend that it would be better to wait for the actual ferry. After all, we have already waited for 5 hours, and it was really cold.

At 4pm, the sighting of our ferry sent us scurrying to our backpacks even though there was plenty of time for us to be ready. Indeed, as we waited eagerly to get into the ferry as it docked, our sense of relief and happiness proved shortlived. There were lots of heated exchanges between our friend, the ferry driver, and a man who turned out to be the local representative for the Italian film crew. I concluded that nothing good could come out of that.

Koman ferry finally arriving
The tragic story goes like this. The ferry driver had wanted to complete the round-trip service before entertaining the filming request. However, the local film representative (who calls himself Fabio, and he's Albanian) assured that their filming "would not take any extra time". 7 hours later, Fabio now refused to let the ferry go until he complete the filming, after the crew had their meals. He assured us that the filming would end by 6.30pm......

All reasoning (and some Hokkien expletives) landed on deaf ears (Ok, it was only a mild "N**B**"). Never mind that we would reach Valbone late at night, but the sightseeing (and photography) opportunities would all be lost! Fabio even had the audacity to claim that we would have no problems reaching Valbone as he knew all the contacts in the region. What grated on my nerves was his arrogant attitude and the final straw came when filming ended.

After paying the ferry driver and the calefares (film extras), Fabio fled the scene with his bunch of Italians on a minivan. We were left fuming in the ferry as we had wanted him to bear the responsibility of transporting us to Valbone from Fierze. It was a dark and gloomy ferry ride.

Late, drizzling ferry ride

Still some last minute light for photography
Thankfully, our Albanian friend, a victim himself, managed to arrange with someone on the ferry to help us get to Bajram Curri. It was too late to attempt the mountain road to Valbone in the dark, so we stayed the night at Bajram Curri. It was amazing that he went all out to ensure we were settled in before leaving us - from finding a cheap hotel, to bringing us to a pizza joint at 10pm for our late dinner! Albanian hospitality and friendliness at its best!


The Albanian Alps, as its also known, is truly spectacular! Valbone sits in a valley surrounded by towering mountains on all four sides - truly a trekking mecca. However, perhaps there is more than the mountains that is accursed. I have lost one and a half days reaching the mountains, and my remaining one and a half days were dogged by rain. And of course, the morning that I was leaving, the sun then cast it's warm rays over the Accursed Mountains....

Guesthouse under the mountains
Hiking the Albanian Alps

Plenty of snow left
Crystal clear lake

Morning alpenglow the day I left
Panoramic views

Panoramic views

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Night view, Kotor

My left knee protested adamantly as I plodded on. It's dark and it's an upslope of rocky gravelly path, so one would need to go slow anyway.

The bored ticket collector had gone off for the day. And the light's perfect. And I really wanted to see how's the nightview like. So, really, going up again the fortress of Kotor was set. Of course, I wouldn't be so heroic to go up all the way. Just enough for a good enough view and picture.

A panoramic view of Kotor and the Bay of Kotor. I'm content. 

Click for bigger view

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Snow

The snow swirled and flurried onto my face. It was a good feeling when it was gentle and while walking in town. But now, trudging to Curovac viewpoint, it was an annoyance. It was a 9km walk to the viewpoint.

The previous day was a little better. There were dark angry clouds threatening most of the time, but it only started snowing in the evening. So I had the opportunity to hike around Black Lake, which of course, isn't black. The Black Lake is the easiest excursion in Durmitor National Park, biggest of Montenegro's national parks. Famed for its hiking opportunities, Black Lake is just a whiff of its potential. However, the season had not started yet, and well, the reasons are obvious. The weather is still very much unpredictable. It is already close to mid April, and as my host said, the heavy snow was "not normal".

Hiking around the perimeter of Black Lake

Black Lake under the Durmitor mountains

Unpreditable wintry spring scene
Well, the upside is I get to stay in a private apartment with kitchenette, ensuite toilet, Wifi etc etc for 13 euros a night. But the snow is getting worrisome. Walking in snow is fine - it's just that I wouldn't be getting a view at the viewpoint after walking 9km!! And this was for one of the the biggest attraction in Durmitor National Park - the Tara River Canyon.

I had a glimpse of the canyon, and the green Tara river, when crossing the border from Bosnia & Hercegovina into Montenegro, and I was impressed! Stuck in a bumpy mini-bus ride with curvy roads, there just wasn't any way to capture the scenes. And like I said, it was just a glimpse. It is Europe's longest and deepest gorge at 80km long and 1300m deep. And it was enough for me to do this 18km round-trip walk.

The snow had let up when I reached the trailhead to the viewpoint. Most of the 9km walk was on an asphalt cum dirt road until the trailhead. However, the trail, which was just a jumble of rocks, now covered in snow, was precariously close to the edge of the cliff. Slowly but surely (not really), I clamoured laborously forward. And there and behold! A bench! Facing a wall of swirling misty white!

The snow-covered rocky trail

Rest stop with a view
I paint a forlorn figure, shivering within a grey-white mist. It was like those depicted in the movies, where one got lost in a dream. And like a dream, the mists lifted like a curtain  revealing the stage behind. A valley of green encrouched by this whitening storm. And while the snow and mists had a field day up in the mountains, they could not penetrate into the valley below. And then I saw the sliver of green in the distant. The Tara river!

And I realised this was just a rest point.

View when the mists cleared!!

The Tara River Canyon
I looked around and realized that indeed, there was a continuing trail obscured by even more snow. I cursed the weather gods for dumping this amount of snow onto the ground. This was beyond my comfort zone as the snow literally mined the rocks on the trail, and a mis-step could easily spell disaster. In the end, I had to settle for just the views at the rest point. The 9km walk back did not brighten my mood, though back in town, I comforted myself with one of Durmitor's local specialty - jagnjetina, a lamb dish.

Smoked lamb, boiled potatoes and cabbage
The 3 days in Zabljak/Durmitor was supposed to be a spring mountain experience, but turned out to be a winter excursion. I enjoyed myself no doubt, but would have been exponentially more satisfied if I had managed to reach the proper Curavac viewpoint.

I had a late morning bus the next day. And well, you might have guess the inevitable. The morning arrived with a brilliant shining sun and a stunning blue sky. Ah, why is it always me?

Beautiful day at Zabljak & Durmitor National Park

Monday, April 7, 2014

Of Cevabdzinica and Blatina

"Menu?" I asked.

"Pepsi, Fanta, Yoghurt" the waitress quipped without missing a beat.

I got momentarily confused, and she repeated her options in an almost impatient demeanor. It was lunchtime, and the crowd becoming sizable. And she doesn't seem to speak English.

I re-looked around, and then it dawned on me.

"Fanta" I replied and sat down feeling rather foolish.

I am in Cevabdzinica Zeljo, and well, a cevabdzinica sells ... cevapi, the ubiquitous fast-food found everywhere in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH). Apparently, the "menu" options are just size options, and your choice of drink. Every plate on the tables in the eatery is almost identical - a flatbread stuffed with mini sausages and a pool of white diced raw onions. At some point in time, I noticed some others having some sort of cheese addition in their plate. Why wasn't I give that option??

Cevapi at Cevabdzinica Zeljo
My cevapi from Mostar
Anyway, this was actually only my second cevapi. My first was in Mostar of course, where I had just arrived from Dubrovnik Croatia. This one in Sarajevo was raved about, though I find them almost the same. While it's nice, there is just no vegetables in the meal to feel balanced. In Mostar, half of my meals were cooked food take-away from the supermarket, and eaten in my hostel. There are two reasons I liked this arrangement. One, there are almost non-existent non-smoking spaces in local eateries. Secondly, I get to have my meal complemented with local wine at the most affordable prices. That 250ml pepsi cost 2KM (~S$1.70) in the eatery while I got my 750ml bottle of Blatina in the supermarket for 5KM (~S$4.20).

The Herzegovina region of BiH is well known for their wines, and I get to try these grape varieties that I have never heard about. The Blatina semed only to be grown in these region and they're really good for the price. I also tried a Vranac, which I got for 4KM in a 1 litre(!) bottle, and this was my first bottle of wine that came sealed with a bottle-cap (as in those beer bottle caps)! Ah yes, I will be sipping wine all day!

Here in Sarajevo, there are definitely more dining options, although all suffers from the same smoky fate as in Mostar.

"Are there any non-smoking section?" I would asked, and they would reply, "Yes, yes, no problem", and the interior of whatever establishment would reek of concentrated cigarette smoke. Al fresco seemed a tad better, though only during non-peak hours where air current flows determine your state of enjoyment!

Oh, and then there's the other kind of fast food. You know, starts with letter 'M'?

Yup, Mak Doner! :)

Sunday, April 6, 2014


"You know, today is 6 April. Today is freedom day", my hostel host said.

He had just picked me up from the train station to his family-run hostel in Sarajevo. I had unknowingly stumbled upon another historical date in my travels (another one was in Latvia).

In my mind, this must be related to the Bosnian War. But it was more. On 6 April 1945, Sarajevo was finally liberated from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Ironically, in a twist of fate, on the same day in 1992, the Bosnian War formally started and so began the Siege of Sarajevo - a siege that lasted 1425 days. I guess when my host said it is freedom day, he was refering to the first date.

Unfortunately, I missed most of the commemorations/ceremonies which were held early morning. However, from what I'm told, it essentially involved representatives from the various governments placing flowers and wreaths on the memorials and monuments in the city. In particular, I visited the Eternal Flame and indeed, there were many flower bouquets and stalks surrounding the flame. Many placed there by relatives of the war victims no doubt.

The Eternal Flame

Further away from the centre, a memorial dedicated to the children killed during the war is no less decorated. While the Eternal Flame lies on the side of a busy road, this memorial sits on the edge of a peaceful park. A park whose grounds are carpeted with fresh spring wildflowers. Indeed, spring is the season of renewal. And Bosnia & Herzegovina is certainly on the road to recovery and renewal. Today is a day to commemorate one's freedom, and also a day to remember not to take this freedom for granted.