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Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway
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25th September 2011
After a long trip from Mali to Burkino Faso, our intrepid traveller asks whether travelling around-the-world sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually is
I walked into the Embassy of Ghana in Bamako, early on Tuesday morning, worried about all the people there filling out visa applications ahead of me. The receptionist spotted me and waved me over. She smiled as she handed me my passport.
I flipped through the pages – I had my visa. I was going to Ghana. But first, Burkina Faso. I'd gotten that visa ages ago in New York – there are advantages to living near the United Nations. I'd gotten several visas in advance of my departure date, but it had been impossible to get them all, as some are only good for between 30 and 90 days – meaning they would have expired before my anticipated arrival.
But why had I gotten the Ghana visa so easily when everyone else was being required to get it in their home country? Bill of Sleeping Camel worked it out later.
"It's the length of your Mali visa. Your Mali visa is good for five years, and that's enough to be considered residence in the eyes of the visa officer."
I was a resident of Mali, because I'd gotten my visa in New York, where Americans were given five years validity. Who was I to argue?
I'd learned from my unimpressive stunt last week to buy my onward bus ticket early, so after picking up my passport, I got a taxi to Sogoniko, Bamako's bus gare. I ignored the touts this time, and approached the 'Bittar' office to buy my bus ticket for Burkina Faso.
I was a little puzzled, as I wanted a TCV bus ticket. TCV is a coach company out of Burkina Faso – their coaches are new, dazzling, and immaculate. But I'd heard that TCV was at the Bittar stand. Even the ticket I was handed said Bittar on it. I clarified that the ticket was for TCV, not for Bittar, and the ticket agent got a little sick of me.
"TCV, oui. OUI."
Strangely, the bus ticket had no time on it. And silly me, I hadn't notice this until the night before departure.
"I think it leaves at six," said Bill.
I thought the ticket seller had said seven, and that I should be there by 6:30am. But I honestly didn't remember.
I compromised and arrived at the Bittar station in the dark at 5:30am. to catch my 7:00am TCV bus to Burkina Faso. A dozen people slept sprawled out in front of a TV in an open-air waiting area at the Bittar gare. There was no room for me, so I perched on a box nearby and watched the bus park slowly come to life. Vendors unlocked their kiosks and passengers visited the Nescafé man.
And at around 6:30, we all gave our bags to a man who must have been very good as jigsaw puzzles as a child. He expertly filled the bus hold, and sent us around to the other side to board. Seats weren't assigned today, so the trick was to elbow your way in to get a decent seat. I managed, and was surprised to learn that the bus was indeed air-conditioned and comfortable.
Aside from that annoyingly loud video monitor. Nigerian melodramas played on 11. Note to self: Dig out your earplugs and keep them in your carry-on.
In comparison to my earlier bus journeys through Mali, the TCV ride was a cinch. We stopped right outside Bamako, as all the buses do, so everyone could load up on snacks and water – which came to us. Vendors would rush every arriving coach, waving their wares in the air to get the attention of potential customers.
The only problem on the journey to Bobo Dioulassou was boredom. Well, that and we hit a goat or a dog or a chicken at some point. There was a sudden braking of the bus, then a thump. I didn't see anything and no explanation was offered when the bus pulled over, then started again. I tried not to think about it.
The border process was slow but painless. Aside from Immigration procedures, there were tomato and onion vendors offering their home-grown wares, along with eager money changers on both sides. I even managed to find the local toilets, which meant no squiggling in discomfort for the rest of the journey. TCV bus, unlike the Mali buses, did not take prayer breaks.
I'd emailed ahead to a B&B that got decent reviews on TripAdvisor, and the French owner had sent a taxi driver to fetch me.
Unfortunately, the bus was late and while the driver was still waiting for me, there wasn't any food on the outskirts of town at the B&B. I tried the bar across the street but they'd just stopped serving. I had a raging headache from lack of caffeine and not enough water (I don't eat or drink much on long bus trips), and to make matters worse, the B&B wifi was extraordinarily slow, nearly non-existent.
"The war in Ivory Coast has caused problems with the internet," explained the lodge owner.
Maybe. There was clearly some sort of problem. I had posted a comment on my Wall on Facebook, and it got caught up in some kind of a loop, re-posting 215 times before Facebook's bots banned me from posting for bad behaviour.
Time for bed after another long travel day in a series of long travel days.
Sometimes, I mused as I fell asleep under a mosquito net in a simple lodge on the outskirts of a sweltering town in Burkina Faso, travelling around-the-world sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually is.
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