The Best of the Adventure Travel Film Festival 2014
Sep07

The Best of the Adventure Travel Film Festival 2014

Adventures, travel, films and festivals are four of my favourite things. Finding all four together at a camping event in Dorset seemed too good to be true. It wasn’t. Starlight Screenings When I asked festival co-founder Lois Pryce about the Starlight Screenings, she said, “They’re the real whammers. Anything that really just leaves you like, “Oh my god! I could never do that!”, or “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” At 9:45pm on Friday night, the first Starlight Screening began on a giant screen set up on the green outside Sherborne Girl’s School. The night was clear, and suitably starry. People lounged on the lawn in deck-chairs, on cushions, or wrapped in blankets, swilling wine and beer. Off the Rails is a whammer alright. Made in 2001, the film tells the story of Tim Cope and Chris Hatherly, two twenty year old guys riding recumbent bicycles right across Russia and Mongolia, to Beijing. They begin their journey by unpacking the reclining bikes, already in Russia, and realising things are not going to be at all simple. “I’d never ridden a long distance on bicycles at all, and it was the first time I’d been on such a strange bicycle,” Tim tells the camera at the start of the film. Tim and Chris proceed to ride their strange bicycles over 10,000km, 14 months and uncountable hardships, at times carrying as much as 90kg on their bikes. This film is later hailed by festival co-curator Austin Vince as being “The Target” when it comes to D.I.Y. documentary film-making. “It looks like they had a film-crew with them, but they did everything themselves.” Saturday night’s Starlight Screening was another whammer. Deep Water breaks the festival mould in a way, as it it’s a professionally made film with a budget, but it’s one the organisers say they just had to include. “Deep Water is a different kind of emotional impact,” Lois told me, “It’s almost about the failure of trying to have an adventure, and that’s a topic worth covering, because you don’t want all the big chest-beating, air-punching ‘Hey I’m tough and hard and I did this amazing adventure’ the whole time–there’s another side to it.” Daytime Film Screenings Throughout the weekend I made a concerted effort to watch as many films as possible, but despite most being shown at least twice, it just wasn’t possible to see them all. These are the ones I saw which made the biggest impression. Into the Empty Quarter chronicles the epic adventure of Leon McCarron and Alastair Humphreys, originally just friends of friends, as they trek across the biggest desert on earth, dragging a home-made metal...

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Hungarian Hospitality
Jun11

Hungarian Hospitality

We were two ginger-haired bike punks from England, cycling through Eastern Europe. We left the bohemian beauty of Budapest behind, and followed the Danube river as it meandered south towards the Serbian border. The bumpy Eurovelo 6 route skirted by under our bike wheels. We trundled past endless farmland, occasionally broken by tiny villages with dusty streets and one small shop, where we always stopped to buy bread and our favourite hazelnut-cream wafer snacks. It was early spring, and already the sun beat down relentlessly. Stalks nested on every lamp post. Small groups of people were out in the fields, working the land by hand. Sometimes they waved at us, but they rarely smiled. People never seemed to smile in Hungary. In fact, the more I smiled, the more people seemed to frown in return. Samantha, one quarter Hungarian herself, told me the smiling issue dated back to the communist years, when you were all in it together and there was nothing to smile about. Night was falling on our second evening, and our water bottles were empty. There were no towns marked on our map for miles. We squinted hopefully into the horizon. After some time, Samantha spied a couple of houses. We veered off the track and headed toward them. A clamour of barking dogs rose as we approached. A man popped out of his house, presumably to find out what the hell was causing the racket. We held up our empty bottles, grins plastered to our faces. He took them from us and lead us round the side of his house, where he began to pump water from a well by hand. He pumped for a long time before water began trickling through. He held up his hand, signalling for us to wait. It seemed he had to drain off some water first, before the clean drinking water could come through. “Kávé?” he asked, when the bottles were full. Sam and I looked at one another. We’d both given up coffee, but I liked the man and didn’t want to refuse his hospitality. We nodded happily and followed him inside. The house was humble, with a small kitchen and open-plan sitting room, where the television was left babbling to itself. Samantha and I perched ourselves at the small kitchen table while our host made coffee for me, and hot water for Sam to dunk her teabag in. The aroma of the coffee mingled with his cigarette smoke in a homely kind of way. We drew pictures to explain our journey: a wiggly line between a blob called Budapest, and another marked Belgrade; two stick-people on wheels,...

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Remembering Yerevan
Apr25

Remembering Yerevan

“You know what day it is today?” I ask. “Hm? No,” mumbles Hrach, his mind adrift in the Internet. “Yeah, you do. Come on, look at the date.” “Thursday?” volunteers our flatmate Ed. “The date! The date!” Hrach sighs and hovers his mouse over the bottom-right corner of the screen. “Yeah yeah, I know. I knew that. I knew what date it is today.” This time last year, Hrach, two other friends and I were walking to the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in a park overlooking Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. There were approximately two million other people walking with us. Many of them were crying. Almost everyone carried flowers, clutched upside-down at the stems. The sun was bright in the blue sky. Inside the memorial, a flame flickered in a concrete hole at the centre, surrounded by a gazillion flowers and twice as many cameras. It was quite a spectacle. There was a hush within the memorial space. The 24th of April marks the date when, in 1915, Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul. It was the start of a spate of mass deportations and killings by Turkish officials in the Ottoman Empire, which led to, among other things, one of the most widely spread diasporas in the world; mass graves of Armenian bones in the Syrian desert; and, I suppose, my wedding. My husband’s grandmother survived the genocide. She, like many others, ended up in Syria, where she met his grandfather and gave birth to his mother. Awareness of the genocide is inescapable in Yerevan, where every newspaper story (at least the ones in English) are related, often somewhat tenuously, to either genocide recognition or the evils of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Many Armenians are terrified of Turkish people to this day. There is a deep animosity and distrust on both sides. The Turkish state doesn’t recognise the genocide. Turkish people are brought up with, and will recite with startling regularity, the same word-for-word slogan: “There were killings on both sides. Nothing is proven.” Armenians were one of the largest minorities in Ottoman Anatolia, spread across the eastern regions called “Western Armenia”, “East Turkey”, or “Kurdistan”, depending on who you’re speaking to. Now, there are a mere 40,000 Armenians in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul. Are we to believe the killings were equal on both sides? Show me the mass grave of Turkish bones. Show me the pictures of Armenian soldiers marching Turkish women and children, starving, into the desert. Today is the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Next year will be the centenary. Surely something needs to change? This is what Hrach tells me as he pulls himself away...

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Three German Wagon Communities
Mar29

Three German Wagon Communities

There are thought to be around 100 wagenplatze, or ‘wagon places’, across Germany: intentional communities of people living autonomously in old wagons. I visited three of them during a road trip across Europe in early 2010. Barricade Göttingen We found Barricade Göttingen late in the evening after driving around the outskirts of the city, following contradictory directions. We wandered around a small scrap of wasteland with a smattering of old circus and construction wagons, peering through curtain cracks for a light or sign of life. It was a chilly winter, and Germany, like most of Europe, was slathered with ice. We spied smoke curling out of a protruding stovepipe and called hello through the window crack. Tim was in the middle of cooking, but popped out into the cold to greet us in only a thin shirt. He took us on a brief, crisp tour of the telephone wagon, communal kitchen, woodpile, and compost toilet — then invited us over to his wagon for dinner. I love it here, I whispered to Pete on the way back to our van. Pete and I had been travelling around Europe for just over two months in his tatty white Mercedes Sprinter. While staying in Copenhagen, we had refitted it ourselves, welding and angle-grinding an old fire extinguisher into a wood stove, fitting a chimney, and nailing our bed together. Then we were searching for other people living in vehicles, and heard about these wagon communities. An hour later, we headed back to Tim’s wagon, brandishing chocolate. He had two other guests and only a small wagon, so we all piled into a larger one next door. Tim fed us bowls of pasta and handed us a beer each while we chatted about the community. With the pipes in the churchyard frozen, the single public water tap the community relied upon was out of action. Many residents had gone away for the winter months, whittling the community down to the hardiest seven. The city grudgingly allowed them to live on the land for free, but it obviously wasn’t making things easy. Between mouthfuls of pasta, Tim explained how the community was quite mixed when it came to socialising. Some kept to themselves, while others sometimes gathered in the big communal kitchen wagon, which we were also welcome to use. Residents each paid €10 a month for the communal telephone, wireless internet, and wood deliveries. Pete and I spent our days in Göttingen, exploring the city on bikes. In the evenings, we cooked dinner and read by candlelight in the communal kitchen wagon. It was large but cosy, with a wood-burning stove, gas...

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Tea in Turkish Trucks: a 72-Hour Adventure
Feb16

Tea in Turkish Trucks: a 72-Hour Adventure

The first truck ground to a halt before I dropped my pack in the dusty lay-by. I noted his Turkish plates and grinned. My last lift, taking me away from a lengthy wait at the outskirts of Sofia, had promised to drop me on the Turkish truck route. “Beograd?” I asked the driver. He nodded and I climbed in. A few minutes later, I asked where he was heading with a well-learned combination of facial expressions and mime. “Belgium.” I tried to stop myself whooping. “I go to England!” I told him, wide-eyed. “Mashallah!” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Hassan didn’t speak any English, but I understood when he gestured. He would take me to Belgium, then find a colleague to take me to London. I nodded furiously. We smiled at each other and shook hands: deal. Hassan and I had plenty in common. We both liked Turkish coffee and Turkish music, especially while driving through mountains. We did not like borders or border police – especially Bulgarian ones, infamously the most corrupt in Europe. At the Serbian border, I watched Hassan shove packets of cigarettes and wads of cash under counters. A man resembling a bulldog ordered me out of the cab and snarled a series of questions. Where are you going? Where have you been? What are you doing with him? He indicated at Hassan, who smiled, oblivious. I reeled off a list of countries and told him, somewhat naively, that I was a hitchhiker. “Autostop!” I mimed with my thumb. The guard nodded. “Go!” he commanded. I climbed back into the truck and waited for the bribery to finish. Eventually, we crossed the border. Hassan stopped the truck again and told me to wait by using the palms of his hands. I peered through the drive-side mirror, watching all the Turkish drivers gather round a small table that folded out of the truck. After several minutes, Hassan returned to hand me a steaming, partially melted plastic cup of coffee, then went back to finish his. I decided it must be a man thing. Hassan and I cheered as we zoomed past the Republic of Serbia sign. The music was turned up, the windows came down, and Hassan’s demeanor softened. Something else we had in common: we both liked Serbia. Hassan asked if I was hungry, patting his stomach. He pulled into a truck-stop with a Turkish sign above the door. I knew the awkward part was coming. I flipped to the Serbian page of my Vegan Passport and handed it to the bemused waiter, whose frown deepened with every sentence. He called to the chef,...

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