Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Pyramids at Giza

When I first started writing this blog, I posted on here another piece about Egypt, memories from a vacation in Hurghada 7 or 8 years ago.  I tried to contrast the modern country with its (perhaps more illustrious) past, when Pharoahs not dictators ruled an empire not a country.   I called the piece Egypt: Ancient meets Modern.  Give it a read, it’s still here in the Archive.  At the time, I never expected a return to the country – though expressing a liking for the Red Sea resort – and certainly never anticipated an extended stay in Cairo.  On the vacation, we only made a day trip, a long and tedious coach journey, specifically to visit the Antiquities Museum and the Pyramids.  Despite the journey, it was a good day, though I described the Pyramids as “disappointing”, mainly due to their proximity to the city itself.  Last weekend, I paid a return visit.

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In the years since I last trudged through the sand at Giza, sweltering in 35C dry heat, Egypt has changed.  At that time, Hosni Mubarak ruled the country with a carefully concealed iron fist.  Outwardly, it seemed a prosperous and by Middle Eastern standards stable country.  The Iraq War had essentially ended, inasmuch as the Iraqi forces and government had collapsed, Saddam was on the run, the Americans and British and other coalition forces were managing the collapsed society and trying to organize the place into something resembling a democracy.  The insurgency that plagued the place for years hadn’t really been recognized: the regular bombs and killings were blamed on Saddam loyalists who refused to accept the reality of their defeat.
Across the border, Iran was Iran – ruled by the mullahs, stridently anti-west and to European eyes very strange.  Its own nuclear program was underway but undercover, not in the public eye at all.  It was still considered part of Bush’s Axis of Evil, as it is today, but apart from that the ordinary man in the street (that’s you and me, loyal reader) paid it little if any attention.

Elsewhere in the region, Gaddafi still ruled the Libyan roost, mad as ever but swimming in oil wealth whilst his country starved, still denying his involvement in the Lockerbie bombing 15 years or so before.  Syria was stable with a popular president who the West liked, complete with an English born wife.  He’s still there of course, as is the missus, but the leopard has changed its spots and he’s now systematically slaughtering citizens who disagree with him.  Israel was Israel – so no change there then.  The Gulf States were prospering as never before.

Egypt, meanwhile, went its own sweet way.  Its tourism industry was, understandably, flourishing – our visits to Cairo and Luxor were made on coaches that formed part of police escorted convoys.  It was cheap, the weather in October was great, the resort on the Red Sea brilliant, and people flowed into the place all year round.  Of course things were not all perfect, that was obvious – the police escort for the coaches was a bit of giveaway, as was the abject poverty we saw out of the coach windows wherever we went.  But still – it was stable, and people seemed happy enough.
Well, after the events of last year, in the Arab Spring, where Mubarak became the second biggest casualty (after Mad Dog himself), demonstrates that all was not as it seemed.  Everything in the garden was not rosy at all – all smoke and mirrors.  Mubarak is now on trial for various crimes against the state, and the verdict is due in the next couple of weeks.

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But back to the Pyramids.

This time I didn’t need a coach.  My hotel is a mile or so away, so I walked.  It was a hot Friday (it being the weekend here, no work for Travellin Bob that day) but there was a bit of cloud about and a breeze that made it more bearable.  I had breakfast, donned the sunscreen and the iPod, then camera in hand headed off.

                                           The flyover outside my hotel - lovely, eh?

The main road just along from my hotel leads from Cairo city centre straight to the Pyramids.  Friday, this quietest of days – the Islamic Day of Prayer – seemed to make no difference at all.  The traffic on the road was not appreciably less, nor was the driving any better.  The old man selling cloves of garlic was still at his place, sitting on the kerb in the dust.  The taxi-bus drivers were still pulling out without using mirrors, horns blaring, cutting other drivers up and coming close to mowing pedestrians down as they did so.  Under the flyover there were market stalls selling fruit and vegetables, cigarettes, and pitta breads.  Another guy was selling quite decent-looking luggage sets – a suitcase with matching laptop bag, sports bag or vanity case: the quality looked pretty good.  Right on the corner, another old man had spread out a tarpaulin and from this was selling newspapers, all neatly stacked in little piles according to title.  He was in a very precarious position, as any car or taxi or bus turning right came incredibly close to running him down or scattering his wares to the wind, but he was doing a brisk business – the preliminary results of last week’s Presidential Election first round were due to be published.  There were people everywhere, talking volubly about this no doubt, but of course it was all gibberish to me.

                                                   The neighbourhood mosque

I strolled along, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons going someway to drowning out the traffic noise, taking the odd snapshot as I went – the squalor under the flyover outside my hotel gates, an attractive mosque surrounded by crumbling apartment buildings: typical Cairo views.  Some people gave me odd looks, others smiling gestured at my head set and yelled “Good music eh?” amiably enough.  It was a pleasant walk, past the archetypal crumbling blocks, separated by little narrow alleys, across which were strung  washing lines full of clothes drying in the shade (rarely did direct sunlight fall upon these thoroughfares). In many doorways, groups of men, mostly middle aged to old, sat around smoking and talking, probably about the Elections.   Veiled women and their children passed by laden with carrier bags full of shopping.  Despite all the dirt and poverty, Cairo is a vibrant place, full of talk and noise and argument and laughter – I’ve seen very few people, even among the numerous beggars, who look sad and unhappy.

All the way, through the odd gap in the buildings, the Pyramids loomed larger until eventually I came to a crossing where a wide side road joined the main road.  Across from me was a wall, perhaps five feet high, and beyond it the plateau topped by the Great Pyramid of Cheops and its neighbours.  I crossed the side street and switched the camera on to take the first picture, and found that between the wall and the plateau was an unkempt and obviously disused pitch-and-putt course.  The fairways looked like the rough, the greens were overgrown and the bunkers full of weeds.  I would guess it has only recently been abandoned, because it still looked functional rather than a field – with some care and attention it could be up and running again very quickly I should think.  And in the shadow of the Great Pyramid a nice place to play.  I took my snapshot and walked on – and within a few yards it all started.

                                                      Home of the Egyptian Open?

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Everyone in this part of town is trying to make a quick buck.  From the hotel waiters and bell hops to the poor old sod trying to sell his garlic, everyone wants a piece of the action.  It’s the same the world over I know – why else am I working except to make money? – but here it’s taken to extremes.  For instance, the room service menu says, quite clearly, that a 22% service charge is added to the bill, which in most places (and certainly to me) means no tip is needed.  That evening, the waiter brought my food to my room, I signed the bill and gave it back to him.  He was looking at my watch on the bedside table.

 “Beautiful,” he said.  “How much did it cost?” 

“It was a gift,” I said and gave him the wallet with the signed bill in it.  He looked at it and frowned.

“Do you have something for me?” he said, and held out his hand.  “To help me.”

Saucy sod.  I showed him the door.

And that is par for the course.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with tipping, but I will do it on my terms.  If the service is good, I’ll leave something, even where a service charge has already been included in the bill.  But if someone holds their hand out like that and demands it, well, they can piss off.  Not a penny.  Taxis are the same.  The journey to the office is about 7km, can take an hour or so but the fare consistently in the morning comes up on the meter as about LE12.50.  I usually give the guy LE15 – it saves me carrying shrapnel about in my pocket and it’s a reasonable tip for the driver.  Yesterday I did the same – and the guy starts yelling at me, presumably demanding more.  I left him to it and went to work.  Going home the traffic tends to be worse so the metered fare comes out around 17 – so I give 20: again, no shrapnel and everyone’s happy.  Last night, for once, the road was pretty clear and the fare only came to 12.50.  I gave the guy (who spoke a bit of English) a twenty and asked for 5 change – the going rate.  He laughed and said he had no fives.  I told him he’s better get some then, and took my 20 back.  He went into a shop and changed a ten, so we were all happy – but clearly he was looking for a little extra.  He chose the wrong tourist, sorry.

At the Pyramids, this gimme gimme gimme attitude was far far worse.  It became evident as I walked away from taking my first picture – a young guy, maybe 15 years old, was passing on a horse and cart.

“Hey, mister, pyramids,” he called.  “I take you. Twenty pounds”.

I ignored him.  In a couple of hundred yards I came to the entrance to the site, the road going uphill for perhaps another 300 yards to the ticket booth.  Within seconds, six guys of varying ages offered to drive me to the gate.  Another old guy followed offering me a ride in his horse drawn cart to the site, with a 10 km ride into the desert thrown in.  I said no thanks, but he followed me for another 50 yards or so, haranguing me about how would he feed his horse and his family (interesting order, I thought….) with no money, please help me mister…..   I hadn’t even reached the gate and I was getting fed up.

At the ticket office there was no queue, and the big car and coach park, crowded when last I came here 7 years ago, was empty – perhaps a dozen cars and not a coach in sight: so much has the tourist trade collapsed since the Arab Spring.  A ticket for the site is LE60 (that’s about EUR7-00, GBP6-50, PLN35) – this gets you onto the plateau and allows you an unlimited time to wander around quite happily taking your pictures, and also admits you to one of the smaller pyramids (there are 9 in total) and the Engineer’s Tomb.  A further LE100 gets you into the Great Pyramid of Cheops.  I took the cheaper option, and strolled into the grounds.

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Within 50 yards, I was surrounded by three hawkers and 2 camel jockeys.  The one guy snatched off my cap, quickly stuck an Arab headdress on, and stuffed another one in my bag, laughing and congratulating me on how I looked.  I gave him LE100 on the basis they will be useful for shading the kids’ heads on the beach when we go to Spain in August.   Big mistake!  It opened the floodgates.  In the space of about 10 minutes I ended up the proud owner of two sets of (admittedly nicely carved) pyramids, a pair of stone and fake gold necklaces, and half a dozen pictures taking by one of the camel jockeys, with him and his camel, all the while fending offers of postcards and other assorted tat from everyone else.  At a total cost of about another LE300.  

                                                Me and my mate Mohamed

Mohamed (the camel jockey – he was actually a nice bloke) then started giving me a guided tour, telling me how there were three different types of stone used in the site’s construction, how it had taken 10 years to quarry it all from Luxor and ship it a couple of hundred miles up-river to Cairo on papyrus rafts, then dragged overland to the site, then another 20 or 30 years to build it – he was talking about the Great Pyramid – and all this using slave labour over 5000 years ago.  It gave me pause for thought: what were we doing in Britain then?  Or Poland and the rest of Europe, for that matter.  Not a lot…..which makes the Pyramids all the more impressive.   He took me to the Engineer’s Tomb and introduced me to his mate Ahmed, who was the security bloke – he happily took me in, and pointed out which one of several statues was the Engineer, which his son, his wife, his mother and so on (they’re all buried there), showed me the beautiful carvings in hieroglyphs depicting the work going on at the site, the Engineer’s death and his funeral.   We took a bunch of pictures (there was a big sign on the door: “No Photography” – I pointed it out to him: “it’s ok, I not stop you,” he laughed) and he took me back out into the hot air, stuffing a gift of LE300 into his back pocket.  He was happy.
Mohamed met me, and led me off again, ignoring my protests (“look, I’m ok, I just want to be left alone!”) and started explaining to me who all the other Pyramids had been built for, how long it had all taken, where the stone came from…..the guy clearly knew his stuff (or was a very good story teller – I won’t call him a liar).  Eventually, after climbing to the top of a pile of rubble where he took a couple of novelty pictures (me holding a Pyramid between thumb and forefinger of one hand), I finally managed to get a word in……

                                                                   Heavy stuff....

“STOP!!!!!!”  He looked at me with a gap toothed grin. “Look, I know you’re trying to be friendly and help, but really, mate, I’ve had ENOUGH ALREADY!!!!!  LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!!”

He laughed.  “OK, ok, ok!  But was I helpful……”  holding out a grubby hand.  Bloody hell.  I peeled off another 200.

“That’s it, I said.  “No more.  Go away please.”

He was happy enough, and with a final hug and instruction that I was not to open my wallet for anyone else, he hopped on his camel and headed back to the entrance to find another punter.
I was exhausted.

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I changed my music to Fleetwood Mac and headed downslope to the Sphinx.

As usual – half a dozen hawkers charged up, hands outstretched offering me playing cards, more bloody Pyramids, more bloody postcards in tatty airmail envelopes.  I had the volume turned up and stomped past them, wallet firmly shut and zipped in my bag, and ignored them.  One or two followed me a few yards, yelling about feeding the cats or something, but quickly dropped back and left me to it.

The Sphinx was deserted too – again a shocking contrast.  On my last visit we had spent maybe 15 minutes waiting patiently in line to get to the ideal position for the obligatory novelty “Kissing the Sphinx” picture, but this time we could have gone straight to the spot.  There were no more than 20 people around the statue (and not many more than that back up by the Pyramids) – a pitiful number for a sunny weekend.  It is an extraordinary statue, but seemed if anything to be in bigger disrepair then I remembered it.  I took my pictures and headed back to the hotel.

                                             Smile?  What smile?  What FACE??

Just beyond the Sphinx is an open air market, about 50 stalls selling assorted Pyramids-related souvenirs and assorted junk.  Seven years ago it was packed with coachfuls of tourists, pleasantly haggling the afternoon away.  This time it was deserted.  The lack of visitors is clearly having a devastating effect on the people who work there – my friends Mohamed and Ahmed were clearly pulling out all the stops to get as much from me as possible, on the basis that it might be a while before anyone else came along, and I don’t blame them: there seemed to be more camel jockeys and hawkers than there were punters.  Slim pickings indeed, and tough when you have families to support and camels to feed.  So although I had spent a lot more than I had expected or wanted to spend, on reflection I don’t begrudge it – these poor sods are not wealthy, they don’t have a lot and no state aid to make up their earnings in these lean and difficult times.  They face a future far more uncertain and less lucrative than I do so I hope my couple of days’ per diem helps them and their families a little.

                                             This place used to be busy....

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All in all, my opinion of the Pyramids has changed after this visit.  Seeing them close up and talking to Mohamed has really brought it home to me just want an extraordinary piece of engineering it all is, and all hand crafted and hand hauled.  No power tools or heavy lifting gear, just very clever designers (genius, probably) and thousands of naked and sweating slaves, toiling the in the baking sun for years at a time.   This, at a time when Europe was just crawling out of the Stone Ages into the Iron Age, with no civilization worthy of the name.

The location is still spoiled by its proximity to the sprawling and noisy mass of Cairo, but that unfortunately is the price paid for 5000 years of growth and progress.    The site seems to be run down and in a state of disrepair to what it was, and the lack of business is clearly adversely affecting it: no visitors so reduced income, less money to spend on upkeep.  Even the floodlights that illuminate them after dark are no longer switched on, as a means of saving money.  In fairness, after 30 years of Mubarak’s corrupt regime and the last 12 months of transition, the fledgling democracy has a lot more to worry about than looking after an ancient monument that, in better times, financed itself (and I’m sure one day will do so again).  There are more important priorities for this fragile democracy, in infrastructure and healthcare, relieving the poverty that most people live though day after day, cleaning the place up and finishing some of the stalled civil projects across the whole nation, not just around its capital. 

At some point, when progress has been made on some of these issues, when safety is not a concern, the tourists will I’m sure come back.  Right now, most of the guests in my hotel (at least those I’ve seen and heard so far – the place is far from fully booked) have been Indian families, a few Chinese, some elderly Americans and Germans, and the odd Russian.  Not the average package tourists, certainly, and those are the ones who really need to return.  The resorts at Hurghada and elsewhere on the Red Sea offer the same brilliant diving and beaches as ever, and once they start filling again the coaches will start running again for the day trips to Giza, for it is well worth the trip.

I hope it happens soon, because my mate Mohamed the camel jockey really needs to visit the dentist….


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

At last! A Cairo

My first extended trip of the year – I discount the week arguing with Latino Americans in Orlando – is to Cairo.

I’m scheduled here for just under three weeks.  This is my fourth day, and frankly I can’t wait to get home.  My project manager has been here three years – he deserves a medal for perseverance above and beyond the call of duty.  In England people have received knighthoods for less.  But then he is German and they tend to do things like that all the time.

So I’m taking a deep breath (but not out of doors: I’ll explain that in a minute) and getting on with it in true company style – you do what you have to do and get the hell out as quickly as you can.

I am counting the days…..

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Getting here was challenging. 

There are direct flights here from Warsaw but not every day.  Only LOT can explain why the days they do run bear no relationship to the Islamic working week where the weekend is Friday and Saturday and Sunday is a working day.  Faced with the choice of awkward midweek arrival and departure that would have been unacceptable to the client, I’m taking the scenic route.  Outbound, via Frankfurt with an unpleasant early morning (as in 2:30 a.m.) arrival, and home via Brussels – a daytime departure that will mean leaving the hotel at 6 a.m., and a wonderful five hour connection time in Belgium, to arrive home late in the evening.

Now, I should have expected no less – over my 12 years travelling the initial trip to a new destination is always a bit of a problem, especially when the journey takes me through Frankfurt.  Other posts on this blog have told of painful journeys to Almaty and Beirut and elsewhere through Frankfurt, and less than enjoyable first times to the Gulf through Paris and London.  This trip was, then, par for the course.

It started ok.  The usual efficient on-line check in on Friday and an equally painless bag drop at the airport 45mins before boarding Saturday evening.  I just had time for a quick coffee in the newly decorated Business Lounge and onto the plane for a simple hour and 20 minute hop to Frankfurt that lifted off bang on time.  Which is where the fun started.

We went into a holding pattern over the city – after the third circuit I, at least, noticed we were going nowhere, even if no-one else did.  After about 20 minutes of aimless meandering around the sky, the captain finally came clean and explained the situation: unexpected bad weather passing through, we’ll be doing this for another twenty minutes or so – but don’t worry about your connections, nothing is taking off either so you won’t miss it.   Now that sounds like fun….

It was.  The landing was very scary, the worst I’ve had in 12 years, like riding a rollercoaster in torrential rain, thunder and lightning.  We made it ok, the pilot thoroughly deserving the round of applause he got from the passengers (an odd Polish tradition that, for once, made sense).  We were bussed in to the terminal, and I got to my gate 10 minutes before boarding. 

We got on the plane.  They closed the doors.  We sat there 15 minutes.  The pilot came on and announced Bayern Munich were a goal up, oh and by the way we’re held here for at least another hour and a half because of the weather, sorry about that.  Five minutes later: it’s 1-1, extra time.  And no change, we still have no slot for take-off…..and still the thunder roared and the rain poured down.  

We were given water and magazines.  I listened to Jimi Hendrix and read my book.  At 11:30, we were told that there was still no take-off scheduled but it would have to be soon because the airport closes at midnight…..oh, and Chelsea won.  Clearly, he was no longer a happy man.  At a quarter to 12, the engines started, and stewardesses started running around telling everyone to sit down, switch off that laptop, do your belt up, we’re off…… and we were, in a hurry, despite the continued downpour.  Clearly someone had decided that trying a take-off was better than putting another hundred or so people in a hotel for the night…..  As it turned out, the take-off was fine, as was the flight to Cairo.  Due in at 2:20, we actually landed at 3:35……..

I got into the terminal, bought my entry visa at a branch of AlexBank, joined a short queue for passport control, and was through in 10 minutes – pretty good.  The baggage came through quite quickly too – except for my bag.  Despite there being the best part of two hours to do so, it wasn’t transferred between flights in Frankfurt – presumably someone didn’t fancy getting wet.  Brand new bag, too, never used before…..  So another hour passed while I filled out forms and got a receipt for the key (that was needed so the contents could be cleared through customs when eventually the bag arrived) and off I went.  Now then, ATM…..  No problem, got some cash, then followed by half a dozen competing cab drivers I wandered across to a limo hire desk – I had been told not to risk the locals as the cars were crap and I wouldn’t get a receipt.  The limo desk was closed – by now it was nearly 4:30……  So I had to take a local.  He demanded 250 pounds.  I offered 150.  We agreed on 200 with him giving me a receipt.  Welcome to Egypt where haggling is expected for every damned thing. 

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The cab was indeed crap, at least 15 years old and falling apart.  The driver wasn’t sure where the hotel was and had to ask directions.  It was a long drive, maybe 30km across town, on terrible roads that even at this ungodly hour were busy with trucks and mini buses, motor bikes and horse drawn carts full of vegetables – and all of them without lights.  But at least it was getting light now.
My hotel is listed on its website and elsewhere as 4 Star.  It’s within sight on the Pyramids at Giza, and offers “excellent views” of these wonderful old monuments.  It has a couple of pools and a health centre, and a range of restaurants for guests’ pleasure.

Well, yes – if your criteria for awarding stars to hotels are very generous.

For a start, right outside the front door is a huge flyover that carries traffic 24 hours a day on the city’s ring road.  At ground level, and parallel to this road, is the approach to the hotel – and a more filthy and unpleasant thoroughfare would be hard to find, even in this dirtiest of cities.   My taxi pulled up outside and I paid the guy my 200.  He gave me the receipt and told me to fill in the amounts myself as he couldn’t write – I presume he mean English.  He then demanded another 20 pounds to pay a toll (that was way back at the airport exit).  I told him to piss off, as I’d already paid over the odds and frankly, at just after 5 a.m. after a long and tiring journey I was in no mood to haggle further.  I got out and left him to it.

The place was deserted apart from the guy at Reception.  He checked me in efficiently enough and took me to my room.  The hotel is in three buildings that form three sides of a square.  I’m on the top floor of a side building, overlooking the pool area – a quiet room, as I asked for.  It’s no more than average.  The “king sized bed” is actually a standard double, but is comfortable enough.  There are only 6 hangers in the built-in double wardrobe, but at least it has adequate shelf space and the safe works.  There is a fridge I assumed to be the mini bar but it turned out to be quite empty.  The tv is a nice enough Sony flat screen, but the choice of viewing is, shall we say, limited – a selection of Arabic channels, a couple of movie channels showing English language films with sub-titles, and two news channels.  Not the usual suspects (CNN and BBC World) but NHK Hong Kong and CCTV Beijing – both English language but heavily Asian (well, actually China….) slanted so of little interest.    Then there are a couple of comfortable but shabby brown armchairs, a grubby and threadbare carpet , a small coffee table and a desk with internet connection at a cost of 50 Egyptian pounds for half an hour (that’s about EUR6.50, or nearly PLN30) – very expensive and not what you would normally expect in a 4 Star hotel.  There is a separate WiFi connection in Reception that is free however……I tried it and it’s very slow and unreliable.

Anyway, I sent a message to the PM and told him as I had no clothes I wouldn’t be in the office and settled down to a good sleep.  I woke at lunch time, and explored a bit.  My room does indeed boast a view of the Pyramids – across the flyover and between a couple of tatty looking apartment blocks.  I would guess only rooms on the top floor would have the view, and not all of them – so the claims on the website are little exaggerated.  There are a couple of ludicrously expensive shops flogging jewelry and local clothes and souvenirs and guide books.   The Thai restaurant it turns out has closed down because the tenants running it had not paid the rent (a pity – I quite like Thai food).  There is also a scruffy looking Italian restaurant that is closed during the day, a couple of pool side snack bars and room service.  The health centre turned out to be a ladies only spa and wellness centre – so no exercise bike for me.  I tried room service.  The “service” wasn’t, really – it took half an hour and four attempts before someone picked up the phone, and the food was no more than acceptable: I had a steak sandwich with fries – the steak was cold, the melted cheese hadn’t melted and there were perhaps 20 chips.  But I ate it anyway.  Monday night’s offering was not much better – chicken Gordon Blue (I think they mean cordon bleu….) with fries: a few more fries this time, but the chicken was very tough and unpleasant.  Last night the Italian place was open and finally a decent meal – minestrone soup and ground beef calzone plus a beer – Stella: the local one, not Stella Artois, Belgium’s finest.

My bag arrived from the airport about 8 on Sunday evening.  I asked at Reception for an iron and ironing board so that I could press my shirts that had been stuffed in the case for over 24 hours.  There are no irons, the guy said, you must use our laundry service.  This is off-site and of course costs money.  I told him to forget it, and I’m now wearing slightly rumpled clothes to the office.   But for a 4 Star hotel that is just unacceptable service – as I told the bloke.

So far, then. I’m not over-impressed by the place.

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And what of Cairo?

Well, safe to say it’s the dirtiest, noisiest, smelliest city I’ve ever been to.  If Beirut looks unfinished, largely due Israeli inflicted damage in various conflicts, at least the roads and pavements are (generally) swept and washed clean.   Any city in the world with a significant traffic problem – be it London, Almaty, Beirut or wherever -  has less than fresh air to breath, but they all pale when compared to Cairo.

On the way in from the airport, we followed the flyover for three or four kilometres before we reached the hotel (yes, it’s that big), and along the whole of its length below the structure are piles and piles of dirt, broken rock and concrete and assorted trash, perhaps three or four feet or more in height.  For much of the distance the road we were on was narrow and unlit, with scruffy and unfinished-looking (but nonetheless occupied – you can tell by the washing hanging over every balcony) apartment blocks.  The gutters alongside the road are clogged with dust.  I had put this down to unfinished roadworks, from the relatively new construction of the flyover, but it’s not – it’s city wide.  Abu Dhabi is a dusty city, despite the efforts of legions of migrant workers, but the dust there is mostly sand blown in from the desert or from the beach.  In Cairo, it’s fine grey concrete and gravel dust, so it looks just dirty.

The buildings, as a consequence, are also dirty, covered in a coating of the stuff.    Like buildings everywhere in the Arab world, they all have an unfinished look about them: big blocks of grey or sandy concrete with no plasterwork or paint to improve their appearance, with small balconies festooned with washing lines, and the usual proliferation of tv aerials and satellite dishes.  They make the city, any city, look slummy and uncared for.  In somewhere like Beirut or Gaza, Homms, Jerusalem and so on, it’s understandable, since they are all (or have recently been) conflict zones, but it’s difficult to find an excuse for it Cairo.  Despite the disturbances last year there wasn’t any wide-spread military activity to cause the sort of damage that characterize the other cities I listed.  It just seems to be very badly built and ill-maintained.

There is little point in cleaning your shoes because a ten yard walk along the footpaths (that are as bad as the roads) covers them equally in this crud.  Windows are grimy and dull, and to add to it all is the stinking petrol fumes from the worse traffic I have seen in my life.  I had read that Cairo traffic is bad, but I wasn’t prepared for how bad.  Beirut traffic was fun, in a way, heavy on most roads, particularly the highway from hotel to office, as I’ve written here previously, but at least there are road markings and traffic lights there (even if everyone ignores them).  Kiev was bad in places, but that’s down to the amount of development going on in the city.  London and New York and other major cities have high traffic volumes, but generally speaking it’s managed efficiently (more or less) by road markings, traffic lights and strictly enforced codes of conduct.  Plus drivers in those cities tend to know what they’re doing.

So far here I haven’t seen a single white line or traffic light.  The sheer number of vehicles on the roads, of all kinds, is horrendous.  There are huge numbers of cars – taxis and private vehicles – and the majority of them are old and poorly maintained.  There are fleets of Volkswagen, Toyota and Hyundai mini-buses that serve as a sort of bus-cum-taxi hybrid: again many of them have seen better days, and drive around with their bonnets open (these are mostly at the back of the vehicle) to keep the engines cool-ish – or at least try and prevent them overheating.  Then there are the buses themselves – old and in the usual Egyptian state of disrepair.  There are motor bikes, some converted to sort of three wheeled trucks for carrying stuff – I saw one yesterday piled ten high with plastic cages containing live chickens.   The (very) occasional bicycle wobbles along.  Carts piled high with vegetables or assorted junk, or merely empty, being hauled along by horses and donkeys, and pushed by some poor perspiring kid.  Then there are pedestrians crossing the road, weaving around traffic that is often stationary because the buses and taxis just pull up to pick up or drop off passengers wherever they are asked to do, with no attempt to pull into the side of the road, thus blocking every other vehicle.    As well as the pedestrians there are desperately poor people selling packets of tissues, matches – anything to raise a few coins to live on, or simply wandering between rows of traffic asking for donations.  Most of them are old, men and women, but there are young mothers carrying infants too.  Little kids, the age of my two (so 6 and 4) play on the concrete strip between carriageways while the parents and grandparents do this.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Everyone is trying to weave from line to line to overtake, squeezing through non-existent gaps, leaning on the horn all the time.  It is complete and utter chaos, and only seems to quieten down after midnight (and then only briefly).

All this traffic spewing out petrol fumes, added to the dust being kicked up everywhere, and the reek of horse shit (and other stuff that doesn’t bear thinking about…..) is added to by everyone smoking and adding to the fume.  It’s too hot to drive with the windows closed, so as a passenger you’re exposed to this lung-busting shite as you pick your way through the traffic, windows open in the hope of generating some air circulation to cool you down – but rarely travelling fast enough to do so.  The cars have nothing remotely like air-conditioning fitted, of course.   Then your taxi driver decides to have a quick puff and lights up some foul and cheap local cigarette, and adds the smoke from that to the general fug in the car.  It’s no good asking him to stop, because he’ll look at you as if you’re insane, shrug his shoulders and ignore your request, probably blowing smoke at you as he does so.  It’s his car and his choice to smoke, and tough luck if you don’t like – you’re only a fare paying passenger after all. 

The 7 kilometre drive from the hotel to the office or back in the evening can take well over an hour with all this – and by the time we arrive I am feeling physically sick from it all.

                                                                 *          *          *

So all in all, I’m not too happy with my lot. 

Work itself is fine, the people are friendly, both ours and the bank’s teams, and at least I have a desk and all the connectivity I need – and all set up within an hour of my arrival: a pleasant change to the usual new site experience.   The office is a dump, probably one of the more modern buildings, but still a mess and dirty everywhere. 

It could be an interesting couple of weeks, too.  Today and Thursday see the first Presidential election since the Arab Spring last year, and I had an e-mail from the Foreign Office about it yesterday, basically warning me to stay away from crowds, be vigilant and on no account go near a Polling Station.  As if I would…..  The taxi passed half a dozen Polling Stations on the way in today, and there were queues around the building at all of them – separate lines, of course, one for men and another women.   Clearly they are taking it seriously here, though, and a high turnout is expected.   Then next week the verdict in the Mubarak trial is expected.  Civil disorder (for which read violent demonstrations and cops wielding clubs and tear-gas) is expected, at least if you are to believe the Foreign Office’s prognosis (which I don’t; they have a tendency to over-exaggerate potential issues – according to them nowhere is safe to travel).  It may well be that once all the political uncertainty has been put to bed and life returned to something like normality things will improve.  But that will take years.   In the interim, Cairo will remain a dump.

I plan a stroll to the Pyramids at the weekend, to take a load of pictures and ignore the beggars that throng all the tourist spots here.   I can remember visiting them some years ago – I wrote about it here, in Egypt: Ancient meets Modern.  There were huge numbers of beggars then, and mostly kids I remember: I wonder if they’re still there?   I also plan to spend as much time as I can in the pool, or lying on a couch beside it working on the tan.  I hope to find some decent food and beer by then as well.   I have my music and a couple of books to work through.  And a magazine to finish. 
I’ll be ok.   But I’m still counting the bloody days – 15 now.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Kiev - Euro 2012

Well, football fans, you’re in for a treat next month with the Euros being held in Poland and Ukraine.   Poland I’ve written about before, since I live there – it’s a great place, and increasingly Westernized so you’ll feel right at home.  The beer is good too.  And the food.

But Ukraine?  I had no opinion as I’d never been there.   So a couple of weeks ago, as we had two public holidays here and my company owed me some time off after weekends travelling to and from Orlando over Easter, we decided to take a trip there for a week.  We had the advantage of Ania’s brothers being there, for business reasons, for some months, which meant no hotel bills and decent guides.
So off we went.

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From Warsaw, it’s a fair old trek to Kiev, over 800km.  The train does it, with a couple of changes, in about 12 hours.  Flying time is only an hour and a half but the ticket costs were ridiculously high.  So we drove.  The first couple of hundred kilometers through Poland were ok, through Lublin, past the Majdanek concentration camp (I wrote about that previously on here) and on to the border crossing at Dorohusk.  I drove that quite happily, and the road has been improved since my last visit to Lublin the best part of 10 years ago.  Between Lublin and Chelm there is an extensive stretch of road construction still going on, probably part of the program of infrastructure improvements being undertaken in preparation the Euros, and it will no doubt improve the journey still more.  Will it be ready next month?   No.  Absolutely not.

The border crossing started well enough.  On the Polish side, they took our passports, checked there was no obvious contraband in the car and waved us through.  Terrific.  We drove half a kilometre to the Ukrainian customs post.  They took our passports and checked the car, again cursorily, and we made ready to head off to Kiev.  An hour and a half later we were still waiting.  The problem was with my passport – presumably recent stamps from such outlandish places as Abu Dhabi and Orlando confused them.  In any case, they took the thing away and carried out (unspecified) additional checks that presumably meant they had to contact someone in Kiev or somewhere, check a database or two to make sure I’m not a spy, then scratch their arses a bit more before stamping it and waving us through.  It was all very frustrating – keeping two little kids occupied and amused while sitting outside a customs booth is not easy at the best of times.

Anyway, we were in, and Ania took over the wheel for the remaining 600-odd kilometres.  The road was good, motorway standard, we had a Google Map of the route, and Ania had already spoken to her brother on the Polish part of the drive and got a better route from him, so we were well set.   Ten kilometres on and enjoying the scenery, we were waved down by the local constabulary.  Every 50km or so along the roads there are little buildings, like two storey sheds of corrugated iron or clapboard.  These are manned by the boys in blue, who watch for unsuspecting motorists whose number plates are not Ukrainian and flag them down.  Our Polish plates were a dead giveaway, and sure enough P.C. Plod flagged us down.  We had been warned this might happen and told to make sure we had about 500hryvnia (the local money) just in case – problem was the ATM at the border wasn’t working so we had none.  We managed to muster EUR5 and USD5 plus about PLN100, and Ania (who speaks some Russian, in common with all Poles) went off to discuss things with the fat, smug looking officer.    It seems we were doing about 3km over the speed limit, but more to the point didn’t have an insurance Green Card.  The fact that we didn’t even know we were expected to have one was of no consequence.  There was some discussion to and fro, apparently, and he relieved Ania of our zloty, advising us that there was a place at the next garage, a couple of hundred metres up the road and on the other carriageway, where we could buy a Green Card.  So off we went, made our way back to this garage and bought to document we needed for another hundred zloty or so (fortunately they accepted Visa).  It had been an interesting introduction to Ukraine and its endemic corruption: the money went straight into P.C. Plod’s back pocket in return for his not issuing an “official” ticket that would have cost us a lot more to settle.

From there, the drive up to Kiev was ok – but long.  We stopped a couple of times on the way, once in a small village where we spotted a cash machine (I had to climb a set of very rickety home-made wooden steps to get at it but it worked ok and we got some cash) and once in a forest for a comfort break.  The road was quite empty of traffic and of a surprisingly good standard – better than Polish roads in fact – so we made good time across the huge and seemingly unending Ukrainian plain.  The place has some of the best agricultural land in the entire continent, which makes the famine and widespread poverty dating back to Stalin’s time all the more criminal.  With good management there is no need for there ever to be grain shortages there.  But of course resource management was never one of Stalin’s or Communism’s strengths, was it, despite what the propaganda would have us believe.  It’s beautiful country, wide open spaces and forest and rolling meadows, a rural paradise, but very poor still.  We saw many horse driven wagons rumbling along the roads, including bizarrely on the motorway when we rejoined it (and at one point, hacking along at 170kph were terrified when we saw ahead of us a couple of people lurching drunkenly across a pedestrian crossing pushing bikes – you would never see anything like on any motorway anywhere else in Europe, I’m sure: certainly not on the M25….).  Another time, as we came round a corner into a typically poor Ukrainian village of bungalows and bars with the ubiquitous gold domed  Orthodox church (but no obvious store, school or surgery) we had to brake hard and weave our way slowly through a herd of cows being shepherded back for milking by a couple of women on bikes. 

                                                         *          *          *

We arrived in Kiev around midnight, after nearly 12 hours travelling, and Ania’s brother met us on the outskirts of the city.  He led us another 20 or so kilometres across the river Dniepr to the far side of Kiev, where the apartment is.  Our first glimpse of the city therefore was of a brightly lit modern city not dissimilar to Warsaw or Frankfurt or even London – plenty of high-end shops and night clubs, many very good quality cars (Bentleys, BMWs, Infiniti, Jaguar, Range Rovers….) and an equal number of jalopies like Ladas and even old Russian Zil limos, plus equally scrappy trams and buses, and once we had crossed the broad expanse of the river (that here makes the Thames look like a stream; it must be over a kilometre across with islands midstream and marinas and docks along both banks) clusters of apartment blocks and huge sprawling railway yards and factories that reminded me of Almaty and Warsaw and other Eastern European cities.   The apartment, when we arrived, was in such a block and very reminiscent of one I used in Almaty a few years back, except that the block itself, while not of a particularly high standard, at least had functioning lifts that didn’t smell of stale cabbage, tobacco and piss, and had 24-hour security at the entrance and car park.   The flat was fine, very comfortable and spacious and on the 6th floor.

                                                  Furniture shopping - Kiev style
The next day, we all piled in Radek’s car for a tour.  Kiev is a big city – at least as big as London, and sprawled out on both sides of the Dniepr.  The roads, given the good quality of highway up from the border, were surprisingly poor, full of potholes and badly maintained, lacking white lines (at least clear ones) so making driving challenging at best, but with plenty of traffic lights that were often ignored.  We crossed the river by one massive bridge and at the far side hit a big maintenance operation, with rollers and tarmac spreading machines and workmen everywhere – but no effective traffic control.  There was a guy waving a small red flag that was tangled around the stick and everyone ignored it anyway, but no barriers or temporary lights as you would find anywhere else.   The traffic flow, including us, basically weaved around the various bits of machinery as they continued to work, and cut each other up as cars made for road entrances that were haphazard to say the least and lacked any intelligible signs – and those that were visible were of course in Cyrillic script and meaningless (to me at any rate).   It reminded me very much of Beirut.

But Radek happily carved his way through and we were soon at one of the main shopping areas, close to a big square and parkland.  The street was pedestrianized, and we parked in a side road (half on the footpath) and strolled along the broad avenue.  It was the day before the big May Day celebration (still big in Eastern Europe, and a public holiday) so there were plenty of entertainments along the street.  There were many people singing and playing guitars, individually and in groups, balloon and toy sellers, a guy renting those Segway two-wheeler vehicles you see at a lot airports these days, jugglers – the lot.  At the top of a flight of steps on the other side of the street were many ice-cream and burger bars and a lovely old carousel that Ally fell in love with.  It was hot and sunny – the weather was great all week, up in the high 20s Celsius – and we enjoyed the walk and the ice creams (though not as good as the ones you get at the seaside in Poland). 

                                                              With some new friends
We went to a park along the end of that street, on the side of a hill overlooking the Dniepr – the views up and down stream and across to the other bank were spectacular.   There were the usual Stalinist monuments to the Glorious Soviet Workers, straddled by a big arch that after dark was floodlit in many colours like a rainbow, several burgers stalls – and a small funfair (well, one highly dangerous looking ride – a kind of rotating pirate ship - , a kid’s trampoline, bumper cars and a guy renting out pedal cars for kids to ride in circles around the trampoline.  Our kids had a go on them and did very well, and got a good long ride for the money.  But I couldn’t help wondering how Uncle Joe would react if he were resurrected and found all this materialist entertainment at the Worker’s Monument….probably kick off another pogrom, I suppose.

                                           Monument or fair...what would Uncle Joe think?
We went back the following evening, as it was getting dark, and it was super.  There was a carnival atmosphere still, and we spent a good couple of hours wandering around eating McFlurry’s from the inevitable McDonald’s outlet, riding the carousel and enjoying the street entertainment.   At the end of the street there is a big square that will be one of the viewing areas for Euro 2012 – the big screens were being assembled and there was some kind of bar or UEFA exhibition centre under construction, designed to look like half a football.   I would guess there will be a great atmosphere there.  Then sharp at 10, alarms went off, and a couple of police cars cruised from one end of the street to other and back again – and the street was no longer pedestrianized but open to traffic.  Efficiently done.

                                                           *          *          *

Close by was another park overlooking the river.  At the top is the Museum to the Great Patriotic War (that’s World War 2 to you and me).  Surrounding the building is a good array of tanks and armoured vehicles, field guns, jeeps, helicopters and in one separate section some aircraft and Soviet era missiles.  The aircraft ranged from WW2 fighters, through Korean War MiG fighters, 1970s and 1980s Sukhoi supersonic fighters (one of them, for a fee, you could sit in) and, a bit incongruously I thought, a US manufactured Dakota freight plane.  We had a stroll around and paid the extra for Kuba to sit in a MiG 21 fighter – got some decent photos – but I have to say the exhibits were not in the best condition.  Probably standing outside in all weathers (and Ukrainian winters are vicious) doesn’t help them much.
                                                  Once they used to be scary....
The museum itself forms the plinth for a massive statue to the Mother of the Nation.  It’s a huge statue, not unlike the Statue of Liberty, but carrying a bloody great sword and shield rather than the torch of peace, and instead of white marble it’s made of stainless steel and towers 62m above the Museum roof (overall the height goes to over 100m – 330 odd feet).   It’s an impressive monument, especially when floodlit at night.  You can see it for miles. 
                                                     Statue or Museum?  You decide....
The Museum itself is circular and on three floors so you kind of spiral your way up from the lowest to highest, and of its kind is pretty good.  It’s well laid out and has some great exhibits, but at the end you’re left with the impression that the only combatants between 1939 and 1945 were the USSR and Nazi Germany – no-one else gets a look in.  Now I know there were more Russian casualties than any other nation during the war, and that their switching sides after Hitler ordered the Barbarossa attack in 1941 essentially ensured that the Nazis would lose in the end but still….it’s an incredibly inaccurate and slanted view of history that Uncle Joe would be proud of.   Whatever else it may have done, the USSR did not save the world.   I wonder if Ukrainian educationalists are doing anything to change that, and owning up to some of the more blatant untruths and inaccuracies……  Do they admit the famines that decimated the local population in the 20s and 30s were Stalin’s fault?  Do they admit that behind every patriotic regiment advancing fearlessly on the Nazi lines there marched a regiment of NKVD killers who were to shoot dead any soldier retreating?

Probably not.

                                                        *          *          *

There are still, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that precipitated the demise of Communism, many monuments to the Old Guard scattered around the city.   My favourite was one to Lenin, in typical pose, head thrust forward in mid oration, that stands perhaps twenty feet tall and is in a little park area at one end of the main shopping drag.  The thing I liked about it was not the statue itself (that is no better or worse than any other of its kind) but that on the little paved area at the foot of the plinth there is a small tent topped by the old Red Flag, and in the tent were a group of guys in military fatigues who were keeping watch on everyone who paused there for photo opportunities or whatever.  Whether they are genuinely members of the Ukrainian army or merely a bunch of unreconstructed Communist sympathizers who are enjoying playing soldier I have no idea, and the banners and placards draped over the tent, as they were of course in Russian, were meaningless to me.   They left us alone while we took our pictures, as did the police on duty (the adjoining road junction is quite busy at all times) – even when we pulled off the road and parked on the footpath next to the monument and, later, reversed back into the traffic flow.

                                           Some Russian bloke.....with a LOT to answer for!

                                                         *         *          *

Another trip into town gave us the opportunity to ride a funicular railway up the side of the hill from the main road alongside the Dniepr to the top of the hill and visit the beautiful Cathedral and Monastery of St. Michael.  The building is exquisite, painted a pastel blue with white pillars and stunning gold domed roofs.  Inside, every flat space on the walls, the floor and the ceilings is covered with beautiful frescoes.  There are a number of places to light prayer candles (that can be purchased from a small shop just inside the main door), but no seating – everyone stands.  When we visited, a monk or priest was leading a small ceremony of some kind: there was no congregation, but he was chanting his prayers in a deep and sonorous voice, with responses coming from the choir of monks in a balcony facing him.   Although I understood not a word, it was very moving somehow, and beautiful.   Like most such places, no photography is allowed inside, which was a shame – I would love to have been able to shoot off a bunch of pictures because this paragraph just doesn’t do the building justice.

                                                              St. Michael's Cathedral
Before visiting the Cathedral, we spent an hour two strolling in the Botanical Gardens in the sunshine.  They’re pleasant without being spectacular, but at the bottom of the hill there is a rather tatty looking building that is home to a collection of tropical butterflies and other exhibits likes snakes, chameleon, tortoises, lizards and parrots, all in cases and cages – except the butterflies that are restricted to a central atrium and fly to and fro above your head.   There were also several display cases with dead and pinned collections of insects and spiders that were impressive or scary depending on your point of view.  I don’t like spiders at the best of times, and some of the exhibits – in particular one bloody great hairy tarantula as big as my spread hand (that’s a good 9 or 10 inches across) - made me shudder, as did a pinned grey cockroach about 6inches long with even longer spread feelers.  Disgusting things……but the kids, predictably, loved ‘em.

                                                   *          *          *

One evening we went swimming.  There are many lakes and pools scattered throughout the city that provide popular outdoor swimming and sunbathing areas: most of them are man-made, like flooded quarries or refuse pits with a few tons of sand dumped around to make a beach.  The weather all week was hot and sunny, so we saw that a lot of people were making use of them, even in midweek and the first week of May, despite them being generally alongside busy roads to and from the city centre and surrounded by apartment blocks.  Apparently topless bathing is de rigeur in summer…..

However, we went to a pool complex.  It was an hour’s drive, into the city, then across a bridge onto one of the biggest islands in the river, and along its length through the most affluent area we saw all week.  The pool was on the top floor of a massive and modern shopping mall, and was without a doubt the best I’ve ever been to, anywhere in the world.  Once you’ve negotiated the communal changing room (all the lockers together in one big open space, with small cubicles dotted around to change in – no concept of separate Male and Female rooms here) you go through a shower area into the recreation space – and it’s huge.  There were four or five pools, including a water polo area, two kids pools that had a wide range of slides and stuff to play on (a bit like a Total Wipeout course), one that had a wave machine, and a selection of slides and flumes into their own individual splash pools.  There was also one ride where you sit in an inflated tyre and get washed around a little course under bridges and through little white-water rapids areas – great fun and very relaxing that one.  Some of the flumes are pitch black inside, so you barrel down in darkness, lit on a couple of bends with strips of multi coloured light that you pass in an instant, mildly surprised to find that your tyre is on the wall not the floor……Kuba loved that one.

Every pool is surrounded by sun loungers to relax on while you watch the kids play, and there are pool and table tennis tables, dart boards and fussball tables everywhere, plus a couple of snack bars and a real bar.  As there is no limit to admission times, once you’re in you can spend hours there trying all the stuff in your own good time.  We spent a couple of hours there, and had an absolute blast.

                                                       *          *          *

The next day we headed home. 

Once we had cleared Kiev (that took the best part of an hour, including a ten minute Drive-Through McDonalds stop) we made excellent time.  We followed the same route as before, and again the traffic, once we had cleared the fifty kilometres or so of road works just outside Kiev, was light so Ania was able to put her foot down – which she loves.  The 600-odd kilometres to the border took a little under six hours – very good, with only one comfort stop by the side of the road and one pit stop to fill up with cheap Ukrainian petrol.  We left the apartment around 1:30 and were at Dorohusk before it was fully dark.  The Ukrainian guys this time accepted my passport without question, and waved us through.

Then the fun started.  There is a significant amount of smuggling between the two countries, the vast majority of it being in a westerly direction, so the Polish border controls are much stricter than those in Ukraine.  Part of it is due to the price differentials – many Poles living close to the border happily cross into Ukraine to buy certain goods – notably cigarettes and booze – because in Ukraine it’s massively cheaper.  The temptation to exceed the legal allowance as obviously there, and many people I’m sure do just that, so the customs guys do their best to catch them.  There are also high levels of organized crime in Ukraine, so narcotics smuggling into the EU from Ukraine and beyond funnels through the Polish frontier – more reasons to be vigilant.   People smuggling is not unheard of.

The upshot of all this is that, once we had cleared Ukraine, we joined an ever-lengthening queue of vehicles filtering through the half-dozen or so open Polish customs booths.  There were cars, Transit vans, HGV trucks, coaches – you name it, all in lines with their engines switched off waiting to be called forward.  Most of them carried Ukrainian and Polish number plates, but there were German and Dutch too, and the Toyota in front of us was from Estonia (clearly taking the scenic route).   Now and again, a line would move forward a car or two’s length before stopping again, and at times tempers were a bit frayed.  Some people, exclusively Ukrainian, were desperately reversing out and trying to jump from line to line to speed up the process and get into the EU quicker – that little stunt went down like a pork chop in a synagogue with other driver patiently awaiting their turn.
If the crossing from Poland to Ukraine the previous week had been bad at an hour and half, the homeward one was tortuous.  We inched forward, and finally got to the booth – it took three hours.  The officer was apologetic when he saw two tired kids (who were wonderfully patient and well behaved throughout) sitting in the car, and told us we should have asked earlier to be expressed through, it wouldn’t have been a problem….  Great, now he tells us, I thought.  Anyway, the guys did a fairly cursory search of the car (we opened the bonnet and boot, all the doors and he shone a torch underneath) and told us to get the passports stamped.  Ania joined a small queue, and we were soon on our way again.  The total crossing time came out at just under three and a half hours.  I’m glad I fly everywhere usually….

From there, we had another couple of hundred kilometres (and one fuel stop at Lublin) to go.  Ania drove again, insisting she wasn’t tired, and we made pretty good time still.  The traffic, after clearing the roadworks at Lublin, was pretty light again and we were home indoors in Warsaw by 1:00.   Despite the interminable border crossing, we had made door to door in a little under 12 hours – over 800km that Google Maps reckoned would take around 11 ½ hours. 

My wife is brilliant.

                                                        *          *          *

So.  Final thoughts.

Apart from it being a great trip, and so good to see the brothers after many weeks, Ukraine is a country that from its sheer size offers massive potential.  We saw relatively little of it, but it’s beautiful and I’d like to see more – the coastal resorts on the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula are lovely, I’m told.   Kiev is an interesting city, huge and sprawling and diverse, with plenty to offer the tourist.  By western standards it’s cheap, but because of the country’s recent past it’s still very poor (unless of course you’re a successful businessman or, like many, merely corrupt).  The contrasts in Kiev were at times stark – on one of our trips into the city, in Radek’s Infiniti four-wheel drive (a luxury car, very popular in Kiev) driving from one of the more affluent neighbourhoods, we passed a big and sprawling rubbish tip.  Whole families were there – parents, kids, even grandparents – scavenging amongst the crap, trying to find something that could be salvaged to sell and make a few hryvnia to live on.  Street beggars were common – although to be fair you see them everywhere these days.

So for anyone heading East for the Euros next month – I’m sure you’ll have a blast.  Ukrainian beer is good, the food ok, there are plenty of restaurants and clubs to spend your evenings, at least in Kiev.   Just make sure you base yourselves in Kiev or for that matter Donetsk, the other city where England is playing – remember, that place is another 500 or so kilometers further east.  What the trains are like, or the roads, east of Kiev I have no idea – I’m told the roads are ok (and based on those between Poland and Kiev I can believe that) but the railways less so.  If anyone is thinking of basing themselves in Krakow with the England team, and travelling by road to the matches – forget it.  The roadworks in both countries will slow you down, and I dread to think what the border crossing will be like when the traffic volumes inevitably increase during the tournament.  I only hope the FA have had the common sense to charter a plane to fly from Krakow to Ukraine and back for each game – they’ll never make it by road.