Another nother look at Bosnia…

Sorry. This really should’ve gone in the previous post but I didn’t wanna update it again.

The reason the above picture is in the gallery I just posted may not be abundantly obvious, as on its own it’s not particularly noteworthy. To me it is, for a couple of different reasons.

Firstly from a historical viewpoint – that tower block was one of the ones used by Serbian snipers to camp out in and shoot people while they went about their business in Mostar. That makes it damn interesting, in my book. The tower was shelled during the war and is pretty much destroyed inside and out. That’s why it stood abandoned ever since.

Which is the second reason it’s noteworthy. I, in my infinite wisdom, heard the story of this tower and was told where it was and immediately thought “I shall climb that thing.” And I did. On my own, at dusk, with about a thousand pounds of camera equipment with me, miles from the hostel, with no one knowing where I was. So that ranks pretty highly on the list of stupid stuff I’ve done so far.

As you can see, the inside of the place was literally left for dead after the war and so it’s a complete shambles. This made it a pleasure to stroll through.

It only struck me after I’d actually entered the tower that it might be a good place for local homeless people / criminals / gangs of feral youths to congregate and harass the passing public. At this point I was one or two floors up and hadn’t heard anyone, so I discarded this as a worry for a later time.

Speaking of climbing floors, the stairs were concrete, with cracks in them and no railings or walls at all. Open stairwells to both the outside of the building and the ground below. Good fun to climb. I was determined to make it to the top to check out the view though, as the owner of the hostel I was staying in told me it had wonderful views at sunset.

I did make it to the top, although at that point the wisdom in waiting around for my only source of light to fade and then having to climb back down started to dawn on me. At the top were huge walls that I couldn’t scale to get a view from the highest point anyway, so you’ll have to make do with a picture from about a third of the way up.

At one point there must have been elevators in the building – either that or they needed the huge shafts for ‘worker incentive’ or some such.

As I made my way back down from the roof one of two things happened. Either I started to go slightly mental and started hearing things, or some people entered the tower and were making some noise a few floors below me. This, on the whole, did not thrill me. I didn’t want to make my way down the main stairs that I’d climbed to get to the roof in case there were roving bands of miscreants in the building, so I started looking for alternate routes of egress.

I was in a broken down tower block with no doors, windows, and certainly no emergency exits (unless I could, you know, fly. Or bounce.)

I frantically (and it was frantically, at this point) started running around the floor I was on making as little noise as possible, looking for another way down. I eventually found a tiny little staircase at the back of the building so I started making my way down that way. It was covered in debris, so doing this while attempting to make the noise of a ninja walking on a cloud was a challenge.

Upon reaching the ground, I immediately and with most haste got my ass back out onto the street, and started to make my way back to the hostel. So, that was my tower climbing adventure. Probably ranks in the top three of damn stupid things I’ve done for a decent photograph, but in retrospect it was a lot of fun and definitely worth it.

Another look at Bosnia…

I’ve been home for a little while, and I’ve caught up with quite a few friends here and there. One thing they always invariably ask me is “where was your favourite place so far?” or variations on that theme. I usually try and get them to narrow their question down a little to at least a country, or city, since I spent three months in the US and a lot of the US is very different to a lot of the rest of it, and I spread myself around both western and eastern Europe which is equally varied.

Either way, the answer usually comes out at Bosnia and / or Sarajevo.

I still can’t really explain why. When I was planning that part of the trip I was expecting the country to be grey and desolate and still suitably war-torn, which it is in parts. But the surprising things were the other parts that were really rather beautiful. Now, lacking the suitable language to really explain why I liked the country so much, I thought I’d go with the whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” thing instead. So, here’s 18,000 words on why I liked Bosnia a lot.

Gallery over and Pictures of the Long Road to Nowhere.

P.S. Sorry for those of you who received this twice. I had a dumb.

Bosnia…

When I was talking to people about my trip and telling them where I was planning to go, everyone made this face when I told them I was going to Bosnia, and Sarajevo.

Bosnia is the most beautiful country I have ever visited, and Sarajevo itself was incredible. Keep in mind, I’ve been through the Alps, seen the Sahara, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and visited all the countries listed on the right. That’s, possibly, a little hyperbolic, but if that’s the case, only barely.

Don’t get me wrong, the country is relatively (to western Europe) basic, but it still retains an awful lot of charm for a country that’s been through so much in the last century. I will happily admit my ignorance with reference to not only the war in the early ’90s, but also pretty much all the rest of the history of Bosnia. So much stuff happened here. I’m not going to wax lyrical about that here because I’m sure the Wikipedia article is much better written, but I have now stood on the spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated which caused the start of the first world war, I have walked down a street listening to the call to prayer from a mosque as I pass and then a few steps later been in front of a cathedral, and I’ve walked through a section of tunnel that the locals dug to try and get supplies into the city while it was surrounded by Serbian forces. I’ve also spent a Saturday night out on the town at a bar called Cheers, listening to a live five-piece band play fantastic jazz.

I’ve updated the Photodump with some pictures from both Sarajevo and Mostar, the two places in the country I visited. Incidentally, those pock-marks in the walls aren’t the result of shoddy masonry, they’re bullet holes from when the city was shelled to hell by the aforementioned Serbs. Notice, won’t you, that they’re not just on the walls of big buildings that might look important, but also lining the underside of residential balconies.

Damian (remember him?) and I arranged a tour to see the tunnel that the citizens of Sarajevo dug under the airport during the siege so that they could smuggle supplies into the city. A part of this tour was taken by the mother of the guys who ran the hostel that I stayed at. She was a lovely woman in, I’d guess, her mid ’50s-’60s who was living in Sarajevo for the entirety of the war. She drove Damian and I on a private tour around a few notable landmarks of the city, including the Olympic mountain used during the winter Olympic games decades ago, as well as a huge Jewlish graveyard. At first, Damian and I were confused as to the significance of said graveyard, other than the fact that it was on one of the hills surrounding the city and so afforded us wonderful views of the whole place.

The lady, whose name I regretfully forget, regaled us with a story, which I shall now pass along, though not nearly with as much emotion as it was told. The lady used to work for the Bosnian government, and during the war of the ’90s she was working as head of diplomatic relations, or foreign relations or something like that. The city was under siege by Serbian forces on pretty much all sides, being attacked daily by rockets, shells and bullets from all of the surrounding hills. It was not safe to go outside, to go to work, to go to the shop (not that there was anything to buy because the city was cut off). Her children were having to be schooled in basements and bunkers because it was the only place safe for them.

One day while she was at work, she walked to the window of the tower block her office was located in, and gazed down on the park outside, bathed in the yellow glow of the midday sun in the middle of summer. She stood at the window for some minutes feeling incredibly sad that she could not walk outside to experience the beautiful weather and the surroundings of the park.

Then the sniper bullet missed her head by about three centimetres and blew a crater in the wall behind her between two co-workers. The Jewish graveyard was used by the Serb forces as their primary sniper spot, and they used to lie up there all day taking shots at anyone standing still for long enough. For fun. They weren’t under orders to aim at specific targets, just shoot anyone that moved, or didn’t, for long enough. She pointed to another tower block just under two kilometres away in which a friend of hers was working one day when he had three fingers taken from his hand by a sniper. So, the next time you think you’re having a bad day at work, be thankful people aren’t trying to shoot you in the face.

For the mash of three different, and fairly contrasting religions all pushed together into such a small city, Sarajevo was a lovely place, with a fantastic atmosphere and very friendly people. I never once felt remotely unsafe walking around, despite the occasional crumbling building and line of bullet holes.

Visit if you can.

Night train to Sarajevo…

That sounds quite romantic, doesn’t it? In all fairness, I think any post titled “night train to <insert somewhere suitably exotic or foreign here>” would have a certain amount of mystique and romance about it.

It actually was quite romantic, in a way. Riding parallel to the river as the sun rises over the horizon, with the mist creeping over the water, while passing through a country that was only a decade ago pretty war-torn and suffering and still showed quite visible signs of this.

But that was the high point of the journey after a night that I can only describe as “yes, this actually happened”. Every word of the following account is true, and I’d care you not to judge me for it.

First, though, let me tell you a bit about my day. I was going to do this in a separate post, but it seems unnecessary now. However, I’m meeting someone for dinner in 40 minutes so I’mma have to type quickly.

I am going to bow down to the wisdom of my elders and betters, and in this case both. A dear friend told me a week or two ago (no idea, see previous comments RE time) that the days when things go wrong or not as planned are usually the best, and it’s turning out to be true.

Yesterday I was meant to be getting the train from Zagreb to Sarajevo, and the internets told me it left at 11:03am and took roughly ten hours. Cool. I headed to the station at about ten because I’d much rather hang at a station for an hour than miss a train by a minute. When buying my ticket the guy looked at me kinda strangely and said “the train, is night train, leave at 9:20pm”. Oh. Well, damn. I had dressed that day for sitting on a train, so I was wearing clothes that otherwise probably should have been washed, and I had all my stuff packed up and on my back. Great, so now I have a day to kill with no home base, as it were.

It actually wasn’t that much of a problem. I called my hostel and changed my reservation and stored my stuff in a train station locker. I knew two friends from the hostel I’d been staying in were planning on taking a walking tour of the city that morning so I waited for them where the tour was meant to kick off.

A big group of people gathered all waiting for the tour guide who decided not to turn up. My friends and I, as well as a couple of other people who were waiting for the tour that we got chatting to decided to walk around the city for a while ourselves and make up our own history for the buildings. The big yellow one behind the statue, for instance, is the yellowest because it is also the oldest and the paint fades, apparently. We walked around for a few hours, hiked up to see a graveyard (love me some graveyards), and then the group split and parted ways. I chose to go with the guys we’d met that morning, so there was me, a boy and girlfriend couple, and another guy. We walked around some more, then that smaller group split as well and I went with the solo guy. We went to a nearby quiet little cafe that was most definitely for the locals, and wiled away a few hours playing chess. He beat me four times to none, but that’s good because you don’t get better by winning all the time. I need to play chess more often.

Then I walked back to the station via quite an extended route to meet up with another guy who we’d bumped into waiting for the tour earlier in the morning, who was also taking the night train so Sarajevo that evening. We figured it’d be a good idea to grab a cabin together and then at least you’ve got company and someone to watch over your stuff.

We got on the train, took the first cabin using the logic “people will see it with two guys in and hopefully move down the train to see if any others are free, and not come back to sit here”. This, as you are about to find out, did not go as planned. We’d been sat down for five, ten minutes, put all our baggage in the overhead racks, and were just settling down to look moody at people who walked past so that we could secure the cabin to ourselves and have some room to sleep.

Then we were joined by two Croatian girls.

They had a beer each, and I’m talking Croatian beer, so the bottles are a litre each, none of that small bottle crap, oh no. They had a carrier bag with many other bottles. Now, Damian and I (names will not be changed to protect the innocent) were pretty tired after all day walking, and when you’ve been travelling for a while you’ll come to realise that sometimes the only way to deal with things that are annoying, angering, upsetting or anything else is hysterics. Oh yes, just breaking down into fits of laughter and running with whatever-the-hell is going on.

The conversation skipped straight from pleasantries, right over innuendo and suggestiveness to straight-up talk. Damian and I were just playing along because it is the easier route when dealing with drunk locals, and it was all in good fun anyway. The girls were forward, and in no way, shape, or form shy about expressing said forwardness.

* * * *

At that point in the writing of this post I took a break to meet Damian for dinner. We talked about the train journey and I was telling him I literally cannot think of a way to explain what happened to which he concurred as he had experienced the same problem when trying to recount the evening to a friend of his. I genuinely in my head cannot work out how things went from two sets of strangers in a cabin, to… what happened. There are no words. There are, however, pictures. But they’re on someone else’s camera who I anticipate never seeing or hearing from again, so there they’ll stay. We got barely any sleep, and I have a mysterious bruise on my back. I do not have the capacity to write about the rest of the evening. You’ll have to use your imaginations. That said, and knowing my readership, I’ll reign those in a little by clarifying that neither myself, nor Damian had any kind of biblical relations with the Croatian ladies.