Istanbul for the second time

Sitting on the plane to Belgrade, I catch myself looking down at my visa. Surely that’s not right. Surely…my entrance stamp says the 18th? No today is the 18th. My exit stamp says the 18th. But what…is…that…number? The 13th? No, not possible. How is it that the days just glide by like this?

Ahhh, the 16th. I entered on the 16th. How was it only the 16th?!? I feel like I’ve been here for a week.

Or perhaps it’s just the combined deja vu of this being round 2.

**

Feb. 16:

I arrive in Istanbul again after the 10-hour flight from EWR, which always seems to fly by watching back to back movies. I swear I love long flights sometimes because it’s an opportunity for the mind to go quiet. No interuptions. No phone calls. No connections. I’ll be sad the day wifi becomes commonplace and free. The airplane is my sanctuary, and one day it’ll be gone. Perhaps that’s why I’m so addicted to going anywhere, any place. I’ll do anything to force myself to disconnect.

Alongside a couple and a man who is en route to Dubai after a weekend in Istanbul, we quickly gather liras from the Citibank ATM (among many in a row at the airport) and head to the metro. I vaguely remember taking it with An-an almost precisely two years ago and knew that Sultanahmed would bring me to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and a transfer would take me across the Bosphorus by tram to Beyoglu, from the Galata Tower to Kabatas. I’ve always felt safer on metros. No traffic. No surprises.

Leaning up against the window is also deja vu, and stepping out into the street at Karakoy, the air is crisp, the sky cloudy and the traffic thick. This is how I remember the city, although staying in Sultanahmed last time really helped ramp up the beauty/exotic factor.

We take a cab from Karakoy, where I am to drop off my new friend at his hotel–the Mermera Palace. I cringe visibly. I have yet to have a positive experience with taxis, thinking back to when An-an and I took one from Kabatas to the W hotel and were taken around for 40 minutes and charged nearly $50 only to find the drive should have been about 5 minutes.

When the cab finally pulls up to the Mermera, it is 40 minutes later and we have gone  from Karakoy to Taksim three separate times. The driver apparently also pulls the 50/5 switch on my friend [when my friend gave him 50 liras for the 45 lira cab drive, the driver switched the 50 with a 5 and insisted he was not paid]. My friend ends up paying 95 liras when it’s said and done. What can he do? One word against another.

Yes, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport Has Free Wifi

Finding myself in a desperate situation of needing to hop on a conference call within 40 minutes of landing at BEG, Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, I had tried DESPERATELY for hours to google IF BEG had wifi (free or paid) available.

Googling different variations of “Belgrade, airport, wifi”; “Is there wifi available at Belgrade airport?”; “wifi, BEG” yielded no tangible results and even the likely players like www.sleepinginairports.net did not provide any of the regular useful information.

I received a good tip from a fellow Couchsurfer that left me hopeful… and now sitting with at the Dufry cafe, I can confidentlyl say that YES, THERE IS FREE WIFI AT BEG in case any one else finds themselves equally curious.

Fun facts about renting a car and driving in the Balkans

Some things I learned for driving in the Balkans:

1) You don’t need an international driver’s license to rent a car

2) Websites are terribly outdated

3) There are no consolidated online resources for people who want to rent cars and drive places

4) The Balkans are harder to navigate and research online than Guatemala

5) I really need to learn how to drive a stickshift car again…. Mom.

**

It’s 9:30 p.m. in Chicago and I find myself somewhat balking at the fact that I while I have a ticket (upgraded!) in hand, I have not a place to stay nor a better idea of what I’m going to do in the Balkans than I did two weeks ago when I decided to book the $130 R/T ticket from Istanbul to Belgrade for Monday the 18th.

Nor did I have a better idea than when I booked the original flight to Turkey back in November thinking surely, with all of Turkish Airlines’ new routes across EMEA, I could get anywhere, even South Africa or India for Istanbul if I wanted. But the prices did not agree with my mentality, and soon I was left to consider Egypt or the Balkans to jump to from Istanbul.

To be frank, although I don’t scare so easily, the security in Egypt seems fragile at best (outside of the exaggerations of western media), so the Balkans took the cake.

The reports vary, some of which dictate that the roads are dangerous due to aggressive drivers and poor conditions. Others speak of windy roads covered in snow. Then there’s the occasional story of not taking a back road because there may be a landmine…unexploded yet.

I’m torn between just renting a car now (one week, automatic transmission, about $300), or taking a chance on the buses between countries. After all, a 7-hour trip between Belgrade and Sarajevo isn’t exactly a walk through the park. It is a long drive. Even driving from Puerto Natales out to El Chalten was …. and just looked it up… 432 km, 6 hours 14 minutes, without me speeding at twice the speed limit.

I guess perhaps 7 would not be so bad. At least I’ve learned today that Serbia is  not a country where you need an IDP to drive. International Drivers Licenses seem like a AAA rip-off…

http://www.driverabroad.com/self-drive/international-driving-permit/

**
Found a great website for checking bus travel schedules

http://www.balkanviator.com/en/#

Highlights from China 2007

In August 2007, I went back to China for the first time in almost 14 years to see family and travel through the vast country. In just under three weeks, we made a circuit that took us from Beijing to my hometown of Changchun, then to Shenyang, Kunming in the west, through Yunan and back over from Tianjin. The following are highlights.