December 15, 2008

Bring on South America...

:: Minor falls at Iguazu ::

:: Warning - the following post may disturb Vegetarian readers ::

Setting off for South America was like starting afresh again. Since setting out two years ago we can trace on a map our whole contiguous route over land from Dubrovnik all the way to Cairo. Flying to Argentina was our first deflection from this overland route - a necessary one, but a new beginning to another land journey. The first challenge was getting to grips with the language, the most worrying discovery was that the phase book didn't contain the phrase "medium, rare" an absolute must when ordering that happened daily in the weeks that followed.

There are two ways of getting from Buenos Aires airport to the city, the airport shuttle bus (1 hr) and the local 86 bus (2.5 hours). With time on our side we chose the latter and were treated to a very long ride through every two horse town on the way into the city. Choosing this route soon made us acutely aware of just how sprawling a capital Buenos Aires, is looking out the bus window we wondered would we ever get to the centre. When you do get to the centre the traffic is atrocious, the main bus station, business district and an unbelievably busy container port all lie in close proximity to each other creating a recipe for disaster. It can take an hour to move just a couple of kilometers.

:: Tango on our doorstep ::

We stayed in the San Telmo area, an artsy quarter with lots of funky cafes, restaurants and antique shops not far from the centre. Over the weekend the whole area came alive with street markets, music and tango dancing on the street. Despite very cold temperatures dancers braved the chill in their scanty little tango dresses - and yes it is true they do just dance in the streets in Buenos Aires. Another interesting area we visited was the gritty old Bocca barrio famous for it's multicoloured buildings and old town vibe.

:: Recoleta Cemetery ::

No trip to Buenos Aires is complete without visiting it's unusual cemetery. Some of it's famous inhabitants include Eva Peron (Evita) however the real draw is the cemetery itself. Most of the coffins are in full view in family crypts. The crypts themselves are in various states of repair, some brand new other is disrepair with ceilings crumbing down in on top of the coffins. It's a very weird place and even more wacky to know that you could technically reach through the bars and touch a coffin. It's definitely not the kind of place you want to be around when it gets dark.

:: Need say no more... ::

Meat, meat, meat is the mainstay of the Argentinian diet. Parilla restaurants are on every corner, usually with big windows full of different cuts of meat grilling away, street food consists of choripans (sausages) it's definitely a place where you struggle to eat anything else. Our main activity in Buenos Aires was rating steak and red wine restaurants and boy that was an enviable task. Writing this looking back makes my mouth water. We had some of our finest steaks, huge 500g cooked to perfection offerings. One restaurant boasted that it's steaks were so tender and well cooked that you could cut your steak with a spoon - incidentally that was La Brigada and it was one of the best steaks we've ever had. As to be expected red wine is also and area where Argentina excels. For a couple of dollars you can pick up a great one on a supermarket shelf. It's an affordable drink that naturally accompanies dinner rather than an extravagance.

From Buenos Aires we toyed with the idea of heading south towards Patagonia. Plummeting temperatures, insufficient winter clothes and past experience however steered our decision to go north towards the warmer regions. Our next hop was a ferry ride over to Uruguay and to Colonia, a picture perfect seaside town. Colonia looks like a movie set, old buildings housing smart restaurants, mossy cobbled streets, vintage cars abandoned here and there and a ruin or two thrown in for good measure. You can easily see it all walking around it for a couple of hours - or race around in a ridiculous buggy vehicle like many of the tourists did the day we were there.

:: Colonia streetscape ::

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay was next on the itinerary. To be honest our first impressions of the place was a bit "grey and boring". Everything seemed a bit drab, mind you the search for accommodation wasn't going too well and we'd just purchased a hotdog from a street vendor complete with hair, perhaps that had something to do with our outlook. With a bed found and the sun out, the city became all the more attractive. After a bit of wandering we found the nice buildings and beautiful old square. The real charm of Montevideo lies in the area near the port. At present it's the run down largely derelict side of town but surprisingly there are streets and streets of art deco buildings. Our bets are this area will be Montevideo prime real estate of the future.

:: mmmm... lunch ::

Lunchtime means meat time... so it was off to the Mercado, a huge factory like building with a smoking chimney containing about twenty different restaurants all serving huge hunks of meat. You walk around grill after grill taking a look at what they've got - usually every conceivable part of the animal. Then you choose an establishment, sit down at a bench and tuck in.

Cities in Argentina are connected by a well serviced network of luxury buses. There's no such thing as the cheap rickety option of getting between two points, actually there's no choice, it's luxury expensive bus or no bus. Bus costs can be frighteningly high, we looked in horror at the cost of getting a few hours up the road and had to remind ourselves that the bus would not only have a soft seat but also the decadence of windows. At the start it felt like out and out flashpacking - far too swish. All the same there are a lot of unnecessary comforts that are no doubt factored significantly into the cost like hot meals and Styrofoam cups of wine.

We bussed north through Argentina to the city of Rosario its claim to fame being the birthplace of Che Guevara. From there it was on to the sleepy town of Posadas, we arrived early on a Sunday morning to find everything closed for the day. Our hotel owner an 87 year old woman pointed us in the direction of a "Tenedor Libre" (all you can eat meat joint). After Sunday lunch we took a stroll along the river front along with the entire population of Posadas along with their mugs and flasks. This naturally brings me to Yerba Mate, the drink of Argentinians and the national pasttime. Everyone and I mean everyone walks around with their own cup made from a gourd, filled to the brim with Yerba and a metal straw to suck it through. In this part of the world it's a social activity and a way of life. To us it was a bizarre and cumbersome addiction, not only do you need to carry a mug and a straw but you need an entire flask of water to keep your cup topped up for the day.

:: The falls ::

We made a big push north to get to Puerto Iguazu in time for Marcus's birthday. We arrived off a long long bus ride to a welcome wave of tropical heat. At last a chance to retire the thermals and wooly socks! Puerto Iguazu is a big tourist hub and jumping off point to Iguazu Falls which sit on the border of Argentina and Brazil. Usually towns so close to big card draws are not worth hanging around but Puerto Iguazu was an exception. The town itself has a lot of local colour one of the highlights was a market specialising in delicacies. In the evenings local people would pull up and share a selection of olives, cheeses and salamis over a cold beer. A highly civilised afternoon activity.

:: " Don't mind if I do " ::

Of course everyone is in Iguazu for one reason and one reason only - to see the magnificent Iguazu waterfalls. They do not disappoint, they are literally jawdroppingly amazing. We visited from the Argentinean side where a park of pathways designed to have minimum impact on the environment leads you to different vistas and aspects of the wide cascade of waterfalls. Iguazu Falls is a series of different waterfalls so climbing the walkways took us over and under the falls. For the thrill seeker you can take a boat ride straight under the falls - thus simulating a torrential rain shower. We found the best view was from the island close to the falls. We left the most impressive of the falls, the Devil's Mouth as the last stop of the day. To get there you take a train and walk out along a platform over a wide river several hundred metres wide. The scary thing is that the river flows innocuously not giving you any indication of the huge violent drop off around the corner. Standing watching an awesome amount of water careering over the edge of Devil's Mouth was an spectacular sight.

Sadly my Granny passed away so we found ourselves back in Ireland for her funeral. Our return flight brought us all the way back to Buenos Aires this time we didn't hang around. We stopped long enough for a steak dinner before hopping on an afternoon-overnight bus to Salta in the North of Argentina. Salta is a beautiful city with a pretty little town square, lovely old buildings and plenty of stunning scenery. We spent a day recovering from the bus journey and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere before before departing for "wild west" Humacuaca further north towards the Bolivian border.

Humacuaca is one of the quirkiest of our stops, it's a tiny picturesque town in the middle of dusty no where. Really all it's got is an old train yard, a bus station, cute cobbled streets, a grassy town square and clock tower. Picture dust, tumbleweed and the odd cactus. The clock tower is unique; at twelve o'clock daily a life size monk emerges from a cuckoo clock, makes the sign of the cross and disappears until the following day. His daily appearance is pretty much the highlight of the town. We chanced giving it a miss in favour of catching the 8am bus to the Bolivian border a few hours north. A marching band trumpeting in the street at the crack of dawn had us up early anyhow.

:: Gratuitous Steak shot ::

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November 4, 2008

Egypt - Hot, Wet and Tasty

:: Luxor ::

And onto Egypt... bring it on! We were ready to meet the very renowned worst of the world's touts, tricksters and scams artists.

Our first stop was the backpacking diving mecca of Dahab. We intended staying a few days but that quickly stretched to over a week. It was a great opportunity to get a few dives under our belts. So for our stay in Dahab we threw ourselves into a pretty rigourous diving schedule. From a recreational diving perspective Dahab and the Red Sea have some fantastic dive sites full of tropical fish and coral ranging in difficulty. All the dives are shore dives so the full geared walk to the water can be demanding. An added bonus is the affordability of the dive packages (6 dives for 100 euros) and Dahab itself is a pretty little cheap and cheerful town full of guesthouses and restaurants that suit every budget.

Dahab is famous for it's Blue Hole a "bottomless" hole revered by technical and freestyle divers. You don't have to be around Dahab for long before you hear all the stories of bodies being recovered from the bottom of the hole after technical dives have gone badly wrong with fatal results. (youtube for more - including some beautiful freediving efforts here)

We spent the early mornings diving and afternoons hanging out in Bishi Bishi guesthouse enjoying cheap beers and great food with Dave. We had a great opportunity to take a side trip and dive the Thistlegorm wreck lying off the coast of Sharm El Shiek. As wreck sites go it was a facinating dive, the World War 2 ship went down and still lies at the bottom complete of its cargo - motorbikes, motorcars, tires, boots, cannonballs etc. As Always a picture tells a 1000 words so here is a little video of someones dive on the Thistlegorm to give you a visual of how cool it is.

You can even swim through captian's quarters. It's an interesting wreck although very challenging due to currents and groups of mixed ability divers. We got a lucky day where there wern't too many boats from Sharm El Sheik so it wasn't as busy as it could have been. We took a customary two hour recovery period in Sharm El Shiek before heading back over the mountains to Dahab. It was certainly long enough to see Sharm for the horrible touristy resort it has become and everyone was delighted to get back to little-ol Dahab. After saying goodbye to our diving buddy Dave we decided it was time to hit the road again.

:: Dave vs Hookah ::

The next stop was Suez which turned out to be a lot more hassle than it was worth. Arriving in the late afternoon we had enormously difficulty finding a bed for the night. Every single hotel was full to capacity. By the time we found the very last room in the city it was too dark to go and see the Suez canal up close - we saw the ships gliding through the desert from afar. We departed the following morning early in an attempt to get to Luxor in daylight hours. Getting from Suez to Luxor was a huge challenge, we managed to find a bus going to a place 30 km from Luxor. We arrived and found the terminus where minivans left every hour or so for Luxor. The drivers agreed to take us but only if we paid three times the fare. Their reason being that we'd (tourists) would just be hassle going through the checkpoints. The scene turned nasty and the men got openly hostile and changed their stance to point blank refusing to take us anywhere. Cue tears from me (half staged, half genuine!) followed by Marcus addressing the crowd saying "are you all happy now, you've made my wife cry?". After lots of guilty looks and shuffling around they finally agreed to take us. There was a stage pretears where we thought we'd be stuck there indefinitely. As it happens there was zero hassle at any of the checkpoints and an hour or so later we were dropped on the outskirts of Luxor.

:: Luxor Temple ::

Luxor is hassle, hassle, hassle. The taxis, the shopkeepers and the horse and cart men constantly tout their business and aggresively follow you around waiting for you to finally give in and hand your money over. We found the key to an easy life was to get on a bike, the lesson is only the walkers get solicitated. So luckily we saw the whole of Luxor unhassled, in 47 degree heat, on a couple of rickity rented bikes. On one very long hot day we set out for the Valley of the Kings, as we neared the entrance gates the security guards cheered us on. We were definitely the novelty of the day, most of the tourists were in big airconditioned coaches. We'd a great day panting around the ancient tombs. Most of the time we had the tombs to ourselves but where we didn't it was ok as we mostly overlapped with Russian tour groups, they tend to visit things at such a rate that they create a breeze that benefits everyone else.

:: Luxor ::

Our final stop was the capital, Cairo, a city not half as hectic as we expected. Taking it's chaotic traffic out of the equation, Cairo is a very civilised city with a fantastic vibe. It ticked all the boxes for us, fantastic food, interesting streets, old buildings and lots of different diverse areas. We found a great room with a balcony overlooking a quiet street right in the centre of the city and settled in very quickly. Everything was on our doorstep including the amazing Egyptian museum - well worth the visit to see the treasures of the country and of course the infamous gold mask of King Tut.

:: Muslim area in Cairo ::

Our trip to the pyramids didn't quite pan out as expected. We decided to go in the afternoon, hoping to avoid the tour groups. When we got there the place was desserted save for a handful of tourists. A further surprise was that we were only offered two camel rides and one postcard. Declination was met with respect and no further bothering - to our utter amazement/disappointment. We found ourselves asking "aren't these guys supposed to be the most hardnosed touts on the planet? Why aren't they hassling us? What's wrong with our money?". So our experience of the Pyramids was a tranquil one, no hassle, no crowds we wandered around the site, watched the sunset and practically closed to the place down. A very memorable afternoon.

:: Simply Stunning::

From there our next stop was Dublin for Katherine and Niall's wedding, another welcome break from the road to a soft bed and fridge full of unusual things such as cheddar cheese and rashers!

Our time in Ireland coincided with two sad family deaths. My Aunty Mary, herself a well travelled person and avid reader of our blog, sadly passed away after a long illness. A few short weeks later my Granny also died after reaching the remarkable age of 95 years. Losing these two people fundamental in my family's life was a reminder of how important it is to make the most of the time we've got in this world. For us, this translates into completing what we started - seeing our trip through to the end and enjoying the opportunity that we've been given.

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Jordanian um....well.. read it and see

:: Wow - Petra made it all worth it ::

::Rant Ahead - be warned::
What goes up must come down; after an amazing time in Syria we slipped over the border into Jordan and into what turned out to be our least favourite country in all our travels. I'll start by stressing that the things that irked us most were typical "independent traveller" gripes and also bad experiences that were specific to us. We were rubbed up the wrong way once too many times and our tolerance to see the country though properly, quickly waned, so we made the decision to power through the must-sees and out of Jordan as quick as possible. Admittedly this meant we did a whistlestop fly-through bouyant on negativity and didn't leave Jordan or Jordians much room for redemption. That being said we've covered a lot of ground over the past two years, always unearthing the good in places and we class ourselves as people who are easy to please. Disappointingly, this demonstates to us that our gripes weren't totally futile and unfounded.

High on the list of annoyances was the rip-off attitude towards tourists. We've experienced this in some shape or form in every place we've ever visited. When it comes to a premium Magnum icecream, teeshirt, Diet Coke, or a chilled bottle of water at the gate of the Taj Mahal, inflated prices can be tolerated, in fact they're expected. For basic items necessary to survive such as bread and water, bought far from the gates of a tourist attractions, there can be no such mandate. The difference in Jordan was that it was done in the absolute extreme. The price of a bottle of water (necessary to fend off dehydration in 40 degree plus heat) could differ by as much as two US dollars between shops for the same bottle. It was a constant battle to find water that wasn't being sold at tourist inflated extortionist prices. We went into a busy bakery one morning where locals were in buying huge bags of bread. The price for 10 rolls for them turned out to be the price quoted to us for one roll. When challenged the owner simply indicated that "You´re not Jordanian". It would have been cheaper for us to eat in a restaurant. Exasperated it was on to a small restaurant for a takeaway falafel, no prices on the menu, when we asked no one was quite sure what the price was (please note this was there core business) eventually a pathetically scanty falafel appeared. It was so ridiculous it was funny. We normally don't eat in white table cloth touristy restaurants preferring instead to eat where ever locals are. In Jordan we quickly began to realise that if you wanted to experience the real Jordan, away from the bus tours and pizza restaurants then it was an uphill battle the whole way.

Getting around Jordan proved to be just as annoying. Arriving to take a bus without a prebooked ticket from an agency or hotel was frowned upon, someone somewhere had lost out on commission. We got a bus early one morning only to be told that as we hadn't booked seats we might be thrown off. That's fair enough only the buses were far from full. Lots of locals turned up to take the same service. Getting the honest price on a bus ticket was another barrel of laughs, nobody knew the proper price of a ticket, not a local, not a hotel, not the tourist office, it was a lucky dip.

So our limited dealings with Jordians were fraught and met with out and out rudeness. Everyone was quick on the defensive, moaned about how hard life was and generally came across as a nation coping with a miserable lot. Blatent bitching and moaning about people, or things or prices of this and that, left most travellers we spent time around with a gutful of the whingers. It was at that point we decided we'd had enough. Our efforts to get along and enjoy the country were getting nowhere fast and we were only getting more and more disillusioned and annoyed.

: The Monastery ::

On a positive side we were absolutely blown away by Petra. As you walk through the long narrow canyon leading up to the Treasury builing you think you're fully prepared to see the famous sight, the first glimpse you catch however total exceeds expectations. The highlight of a long hot day at Petra was without a doubt climbing up to the monastery which magestically stands on the top of a hill.

:: The Monastery ::

Amusingly around Petra there's a collective whistling or humming of the Indiana Jones theme song. At one stage we heard the theme song being belted out enthuasistically only to round the corner to the site of a family coming the other way on mules. Thoroughly enjoying the moment was the dad leading the troupe, hat in hand, singing away.... on a small mule, his feet were inches from dragging through the sand. The mule was slowly meandering it's way along the road oblivous to his oversized riders ambitions or reinacting the final scene of the "Lost Chalice" movie.

:: First Sight ::

Our next stop was a night in the desert at Wadi rum. After picking our tent for the night we set off on a long 15km walk across the hot desert sands towards a rock that loomed on the horizon. Arriving before the midday heat struck we decided to take a nap in a shady canyon before starting the return journey. We got comfortable at the canyon and ended up staying there all day watching other tourist groups coming and going. In fact at one point I woke from a snooze to the scary sight of a couple of cameras in my face - Japanese tourists. One thing we learnt that day was how hard it is to gauge distances in the desert. You see a something in the distance and set off for it but it can take hours to actually reach it. As dusk was falling we finally made it back to our little tent. A good day out in the desert but after dragging ourselves through heavy sand all day we were glad to get back to the tarmacked road.

:: Desert Sands ::

The final port of call in Jordan was the seaside city of Aquba, arriving one day before a big holiday we found that everywhere had a room available but for one night only. Easy decision made to spend a night, take a look around and catch a morning ferry across to Egypt. Aquba turned out to be fairly unremarkable, a standard touristy town full of tacky souvenir shops and restaurants. It's beach was a little strange, the entire strip was one empty drinks restaurant after another all covered their frontage in tables and chairs, there wasn't an inch of sand to be seen. Even weirder was the awning that covered the whole beach. Whatever concept was in play just didn't work, as the tide came in tables and chairs kind of floated unattractively in murky water.

:: Sea View ? ::

The following morning we set off for the port to catch the ferry to Egypt. Generally the word on the street was to get to the ferry terminal 2 hours in advance of a departure. We arrived for our 10am departure an hour and a half in advance - no thanks to our bus overshooting the drop off point and only grinding to a halt and throwing us out on the highway after we pointed questioningly back a few large ferries we'd zoomed past. Panting up to the window Marcus asked for two tickets to Egypt, the seller reponded by wagging his finger in a schoolmaster fashion and tapping his watch three times before generally ignoring him. Marcus tapped the window and said "Can you sell me a ticket the ferry doesn't leave for one and a half hours?" the guy shrugged noncommitedly. After a lot of pointless to-ing and fro-ing the ticket man decided he'd made enough of a scene and finally backed down on the ferry company's intolerance for tardiness in the punctuality department. Ironically the boat departed two hours late. There is a point to making people turn up two hours before departure - a total chaotic system exists to check in, get stamped out of Jordan, buy a stamp for this, get a receipt for that and finally pay for everything at the other end of the building. We didn't even get to experience the full fiasco, when we got to the gate of the ferry there was a large crowd (on dry land) pushing forward to the boarding gate in a frantic queue - it was as if there was a ship sinking and there weren't enough lifeboats. An uniformed guy with a large gun spotted us looking on bewilderment at the scene and motioned us forward and through the boarding gate. During the two hour delay, five hour crossing and three hour wait for them to open the doors and release us onto dry land we had plenty of time to make friends with Dave, a fellow bewildered passenger with who we kicked on and had some great adventures the next episode.

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October 7, 2008

Syrian Hospitality

:: Hammam Rooftops let light filter in... (aka Daleks - exterminate !) ::
It´s worth mentioning that we had our very best Tavuk Doner in the Turkish border city of Antakya, it was a fortuitous find more driven by a desire to get rid of the last of our Turkish Lira than anything else. A man in a small unassuming shop was fastidiously creating what can only be described as culinary masterpieces. To confirm their greatness we had to have another one or two ... just to be sure. Filled to the brim it was on to Aleppo in Syria via an ever complicated and convoluted border process. As one of few tourists on the bus crossing the border we were afforded extra attention by the bus driver - which is just as well because if we had had to figure out all the steps we´d have been there all day. We were rounded up and brought into an office where an official told us how much our visa would be in US dollars. From there we had to produce the US dollars, go to the bank where the US dollars were exchanged into Syrian pounds. Then it was round the back to a smokey office where we handed over the Syrian pounds and were given about ten little stamps in return. On to the next desk were the gluer sat and pasted the stamp collection into our passports. Finally when the page had dried out it was back to the first desk for approval before the passports were thrown into a black hole to be stamped. The bus driver returned the passports to us and it was back on the bus for a couple of minutes before been kicked off to connect with a rickity minibus on to the city of Aleppo.

:: Market Berry Stalls ::
I´ll start by saying we had zero expectations of Syria, on the overland journey to Egypt it was one of those countries that we just had to pass through. We left there very impressed, so much so that we rank it as one of the very best countries we have ever visited. The people are exceptionally friendly and genuine. Walking down streets people actively say "Hello, welcome to Syria". Moreover everyone is happy, the whole nation walks around with a smile on their face. The food is excellent, Syria produces an abundant range of foods, markets on the streets are overflowing with top class produce. We were amazed big juicy fruits cherries, blackberries, olives, tomatoes etc. As we walked through the markets vendors called out to us giving us huge samples to taste. It actually took us a couple of days to get used to everyone being so friendly. Cost wise Syria is one of the most affordable countries we´ve travelled through. In other words you can live it up without breaking the bank. And that´s exactly what we did! When a kilo of olives are a couple of dollars and cherries, peaches and blackberries are in season it´s hard to resist. The French influence is evident in the number of bakeries scattered around the cities churning out fresh baguettes, croissants and tasty pan au chocolat. Then there are the restaurants, Allepo had streets of lovely little kebab places with huge grills in the window. If you go to Syria go with a healthy appetite. We spent a couple of days in Aleppo, primarily eating, in between meal times we explored the huge ancient souks, ventured up to the citadel and pottered around the Christian Quarter. Our guesthouse owner patiently taught us our Arabic numbers and a couple of useful phrases to help us on our way.

:: Sunlight in the Souk ::

Our next stop was the city of Hama a few hours south of Aleppo.
:: The Wheels themselves ::

Hama is famous for it´s huge groaning Noriahs - massive wooden waterwheels. After taking in a few noisy revolutions it was off to find something to eat. A long search threw up the usual very average Lonely Planet restaurant, a longer search off the main drag revealed a small felafel shop manned by a few kids. We´re pretty sure there were adults somewhere but anytime we went there over the following days (note umpteen times) it was the same kids. The kids were about ten years old and couldn´t actually see out over the high counter. Out front another kid whipped up fresh felafels at a large industrial frying vat. After a felafel order went in there was lots of laughing and free samples were thrust upon us. I´m not sure who enjoyed the whole experience more, them or us. Suffice to say the felafels were amazing and from then on a felafel without some lemon in it was a substandard take on the ubiquitous snack.

:: Crac de Chevailiers ::

On an action packed day trip we took in Crac de Chevaliers, an imposing medieval castle build during the Crusades. I say action packed because we were only as far as the bus station and patiently waiting for our minibus to fill up when a fracas broke out between locals, projectiles were thrown and people whacked over the head with sticks. Good entertainment to break the boredom when you´re waiting for more passengers. No minibus even contemplates leaving until there´s a bum on every seat. After an hours wait the bus was almost full and luckily for us the final passenger to arrive had two massive sacks of weeds that more than filled two seats. A steep uphill walk (it´s atop a 650 metre high hill) brought us to the entrance of Crac de Chevalier. The fortress itself is very well preserved so almost every inch of it can be explored. One of the highlights is walking around the ramparts - slightly scary the day we were there due to unpredictable strong gusts of wind.

:: Palmyra ::
From there it was on to dusty Palmyra an oasis in the middle of the desert. In the first century a magnificent city (Tadmore) existed here on the main caravan route linking Persia and the Mediterranean. The ruins of this city and the scale are awesome. The nearby modern city of Palmyra leaves a lot to be desired. It survives purely on tourism so a healthy "chasing the dollar" mentality exists there. In low season you can smell the desperation. After a day spent wandering around the ruins we settled for a shockingly bad take on a popular bedouin dish, dusted ourselves off and headed for the capital Damascus.

:: Palmyra ::

Damascus has it all. It´s a beautiful old city with a conveniently compact scale which makes it easy to navigate. It´s one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, when you wander down the narrow laneways and through the ancient souks you can´t help but think of all the people have lived and worked for centuries in the self same streets. The souks are packed with little shops and restaurants. Damascans are passionate about their icecream, in fact there was one outlet where the queue was out the door and a slick team of workers literally couldn´t scoop out icecream quick enough. Had to be sampled of course, the rule is if there´s a queue there´s a good reason. Our other food highlight was roast chicken. We found a little restaurant that was jammed to the rafters full of people eating a half chicken, bread, gherkins and little serve of strong mayonaise. A serious number chickens were served every day.

:: Ice Cream Anyone ?::

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August 27, 2008

Istanbul to the Coast (with plenty of Tavuk Doners in between)

:: The Magnificent Hagia Sophia ::

After being prisoner on the train for three days we welcomed two days of marching around Istanbul´s many sights. We really enjoyed our time in Istanbul - a great choice of food , beautiful buildings to visit and the European nature of the city made for a busy few days. Back to the world of fantastic vegetables, alcoholic beer and wardrobe freedom. The big ticket items such the Blue Mosque, Haga Sofia and the Grand Bazaar certainly didn´t disappoint. One thing that did irk me about the Blue Mosque was that there were signs up requesting women to kindly cover their heads whilst in the mosque. Headscarves were provided and all visitors had them going in the door but most never covered the heads, instead the scarves were draped over shoulders as if it were a fashion accessory. To my mind people blatantly disregarding a simple request to cover their head is totally disrespectful to the Muslim congregation particularly the women, that gather daily in the mosque. It certainly doesn´t cast a favourable light on tourists if we can´t alter our behaviour, respect a request that isn´t enforced, and cover up for a couple of minutes.

Our visit to Istanbul coincided with Ataturk´s (founder and first president of the Turkish Republic) birthday celebrations which included a big open air concert and the city´s museum doors being thrown open for the day. Throes of Istanbul came out on the streets to celebrate, all the little boys were dressed up in Ottoman/Sultan white outfits with a huge plum in their hats. One lasting impression we got of Istanbul was the great festive, outdoor lifestyle that revolves around food. In untouristy neighbourhoods the streets are lined with enticing restaurant tables full of the locals enjoying the evening sunshine.

:: The Blue Mosque at night ::

Moving south we caught a night bus to the southern city of Selcuk. Unfortunately we picked a night where everyone else was at bus stations all over the country. We figured that families must have been sending their sons off to the army, whatever it was, the scene at every bus station we pulled into was the same. Thousands of relatives, men, women, children emotionally cheering and crying at the same time, singing songs, shouting slogans and even giving each other the bumps. Our bus crawled through these going away celebration scenes. We reached the cute flower abundant town of Selcuk the following morning. It such a quiet place that when you use the pedestrian crossing it´s usually a couple of farmers on tractors that stop and wave to let you across.

:: Poppies at Ephesus ::

Our main reason for coming to Selcuk was to see the stunning Roman ruins of Ephesus - the well preserved ancient city nearby. Once home to 250,000 people at it´s zenith it has been restored to a degree that you can clearly picture how magnificent it was in it´s heyday. In spite of all obligatory tour buses that arrive on mass carrying lobster coloured bikini-ed tourists it´s still a hot spot that´s well worth the look. The other, more interesting tourist, that comes here are the Koreans and Japanese. You can´t help but admire how nimble they all regardless of age. They´re also up for a laugh. In Ephesus they were the one group who sat in a line on the ancient public toilets and had a good laugh about it. Later in the ampitheartre a couple of them didn´t hesitate in belting out an opera song to test out the acoustics - to the appalause of other tourists.

Over the past few months we´ve been passing through low cost countries and have been used to our money stretching a long way. Turkey is a bit of a shock after the easy ride, prices hover at Western European highs so we found ourselves having to adjust our tolerance. The first big change was having to move back into the dreaded dorm accommodation. We hadn´t stayed in a dorm in well over a year and we´d got very used to having our own personal space and in most cases en suite facilities. To go back to dorms is to go back to the life of rustling plastic bags at 6am in the morning, having to super secure everything and put up with other people´s hygiene problems.

:: View to the Library ::

The next leg of our journey threw us into the gauntlet of backpacking through package holiday territory. On our first foray we hit was the seaside town of Bodrum just a few weeks before it got completely slammed for the high season. Bodrum and nearby Gumbet have expanded so much recently that the two towns have been joined by the sprawl of resorts that have been developed. It was a total eyeopener after some of the isolated spots we've been in recently. Bodrum and Gumbet exist solely for the package tourist (we knew that so it was no surprise) but so much so that no local town exists anymore. Almost every restaurant menu has the exact same "chips and eggs" fare and all have a blackboard outside proclaiming "The BEST all day, all you can eat English breakfast (including REAL pork bangers)" obviously one can distinguish the more upmarket restaurants if the blackboard print ran on say "REAL HP sauce and Tetley's teabags" or "English Chef". Bodrum is all very well and good if you're coming on a two week holiday to watch sport, drink beer and eat homely food guaranteed not to make you ill. For us it was a nightmare, all the local touts spoke with an English accent and persistently badgered us about how our holiday was and had we gone jet skiing or taken a boat trip etc. etc. One of the things we were most looking forward to was a swim in the sea with the luxury for not offending anyone by our western "skimpy" attire. That was dashed once we saw the teeny tiny strip of stones interspersed with sand lapped by stagnant looking pond water. Even in low season there wasn't much space between all the large 60+ topless women and speedoed men barbecuing themselves on the beach - they certainly made our "skimpy" board shorts and a two part bikini seem completely overdressed.

:: Mamas stuffed peppers @ Hotel Kalendar ::

Anyhow no matter how daunting a place is we've always managed to find a path through and this was no exception. We found a little gem of a place to stay a bit outside all the touristy mayhem called Kalendar Hostel, with it's whitewashed walls, enticing pool and spectacular breakfast terrace, it was a haven away from all the hustle and bustle of the resorts. The locating of a small local tavuk doner outfit around the corner was the cherry on the cake. For the rest of our stay there we pretended that package holidays didn't exist - well of course that was until the Heineken Rugby Cup final when we made an exception and dropped into one of the many Irish bars!

The next touristy stop was the town of Feithye and from the outset things were on the up. Feithye is more a living town and caters to the upper end of the market when it comes to tourism. Restaurants here are expensive but thankfully bravely risk giving people the option to taste some real Turkish food. Along with some resorts Feithye has a healthy peppering of small family run hotels. Our accommodation search here proved very interesting. We visited a couple of almost full popular hostels and saw very average dorm beds in 8 bed dorm rooms, then on chance stuck out head into a small pension (literally a few doors up the street) to find it was cheaper to have our own room, with balcony, en suite and the best view in town than it was to stay with six other randomers in a smelly dorm room. The owner was delighted to have our business and gave us the best room in the house. Forgot to mention our place also had our own pool, which ended up being just for our use, coincidentally there was a boutique hotel/apartment next door charging top dollar for the same facilities we had. Even better to loll around and peek over the wall in true keeping up with the Jones' fashion.

:: Sunset Views ::

After walking around the town, checking out all the yachts the next almost compulsory thing to do is to venture out on a "12 island tour". Once you get to Feithye agents and touts practically herd you onto one of these trips. We found the best time to buy tickets was about five minutes before ten am when the boats are all pulling out of the dock and are desperate for another bum on a seat. The price drops dramatically. There are tens of operators all offering the same tour and comforts so it was hard to decide on which one .... that was until we came across the water slide boat. On the top of the boat there was an enclosed water slide chute that ran through the length of the boat's interior and spat sliders out into the sea port side a couple of seconds later. On sheer novelty value it won. So the rest of the day was spent pulling into little coves, the captain would announce the water slide was open and happy holiday makers would fling themselves down the scarily steep chute into pitch darkness.

The day pretty much revolved around the slide, crowds would watch someone disappear into the shoot and lean out to see them plunge out the pipe. Around late afternoon everyone was sun burnt, sick of counting islands and nursing a few bruises from unorthodox descents of the slide. Instead of heading back to base the tour squeezed in an unnecessary disastrous stop - an opportunity to visit an island with a mud pool. Our fellow passengers fell into the category of tourists who live life to the max. They didn't need to be asked twice, they were down the chute quick smart and wading out to the island to explore the mud pool. Somewhere between the chute and the shore someone erroneously dropped the word "medicinal" into a sentence with the word mud pool - probably talking about another holiday destination. Cue a crowd wallowing in 2 ft deep mud (think flowerbed variety) and lathering it all over their limbs as a cure all. The resulting spectacle was hilarious, the more enthusiastic were coated hairline to toe in the mud, after a couple of minutes out in the sun the mud dried and stiffened immobilising them completely. They staggered back to the water's edge like Zombies. Others quickly realised, as they frantically scrubbed themselves in the sea, that it was extremely difficult to get the mud off. Best efforts still left people with a white coat streaked on their skin. Numerous bikinis were ruined and the talk on the way back to shore turned to whether vanish would get it all out. Entertaining to say the least.

We attempted a day trip over to Oludeniz, it was scaled back to a two hour excursion, package holiday horrors and an overrated muddy lagoon didn't really do it for us so we escaped back to Feithye. All in all it ended up being a hard place to leave, we got used to rustling up evening picnics from Carrefour on our balcony, savouring our view and debating whether it could get any better or was this.
An unbelievably it did... we moved on to Kas, a tiny little town perched on rocks by the sea. We couldn't recommend Kas enough to anyone passing this way. Large scale tourism has not arrived here (yet) the little town has lots of small pensions and hotels, many many beautiful candlelit restaurants and smart characterful bars but it lacks the tackiness of other touristy places in Turkey. It's the kind of place where you don't mind sunbathing on stony rocks and jumping off a ladder for a swim. It's quiet, classy, romantic and truly beautiful. An added bonus for us was a terrace and bbq on the roof of our pension. Marcus, anxious not to get rusty on his barbie skills, cooked up a storm over the nights we were there. The view, the food, the atmosphere was just perfect. Put it on a to visit list for the future.

:: Just like riding a bike ... ::

Our experience of the coastline of Turkey got better with every stop along the way (so far) .For the record Kas was the pinnacle from then on it went downhill.

Olympos was our next port of call - a popular backpacker hangout - is its billing. We hear faint alarm bells when we head to these places, and this didnt really prove us wrong. From the backpacker only overpriced local bus connection, to the wooden cabin accomodation (reminicent of Thai Beach shanty towns), full board only option and beach admission charge it ticked quite a few of our "leave on the next bus" triggers. We gave it a go; sat down for our meal at the planned time and explored the ruins beachside, and then promptly ran out of things to do and left the next morning.

:: Balloons at Dawn ::

Cappadocia is a highlight of Turkey. Stepping off the bus just after dawn we were welcomed to Goreme by at least 20 hot air balloons bobbing over the incredible landscapes. Its big business here and a great place to try the fun of ballooning.
Our days were spent exploring the valleys surrounding the town. We did all of this on foot , taking our time to enjoy the peaceful surroundings, exploring fairy chimney houses and viewpoints. From Goreme we set sail for Aleppo in of our favourite countries, so stay tuned for our next installment.

:: Goreme Sunset View ::

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Our Time in Iran

:: Regretfully, for various reasons, we have been tardy with our blog posting recently. Here is the next installment and we will keep the updates flowing asap. We appreciate your patience and support. ::

:: The Colours of Iran ::

Travelling through Pakistan it was considered respectful for female tourists to dress modestly so as not to offend anyone i.e. to wear long trousers and loose clothing. Once you cross the Iranian border you are actually legally obliged to follow their rigid dress code. The letter of Islamic law says that "all females aged nine or older must wear Hijab (modest dress) in the actual or potential sight of any man who isn't a close relative. All parts of the body except hands, feet and the face above the neckline and below the hairline should be covered and the shape of the body must be disguised" In contrast to the colourful woman of Pakistan the majority of Iranian women wear black. The older women wear long chadors which are cloak like garments clutched around them. As a tourists you can skirt the law by wearing a long loose top that covers your bum and arms and basically keeping a headscarf glued to your head. As the dress code is the law you have to cover up everywhere - even in guesthouses going out to use the communal washrooms. As little as a few years ago the rules were more relaxed with women dispensing of the headscarf completely, however with the recent election of hardliners to the parliament Iran as become even more conservative. Women actually fear getting arrested and a huge police presence on the street keeps the dress code enforced. As for the men.... unsurprisingly there are zero restrictions there. All the males wear extremely snug fitting tee shirts and tight jeans with a low slung cut that sweeps below the Calvin Klein label of their boxers shorts. Dangerously pointy shoes, particularly of the brown variety are all the rage here at the moment.

:: Takyeh Amir Chakhmagh ::

After a well deserved snooze we were starting to get over the trauma of the journey across into Iran. Certainly pulling back the bedroom curtains and being rewarded with magnificent view out over the Takyeh Amir Chakhmagh helped. Yazd draws travellers with its ancient old town. built in mud with cooling towers dotting the skyline. Its history can be traced back more than 3000 years and it claims to have second oldest architecture in the World. The little covered streets wind around in a labyrinth fashion, although much of it is under repair a large portion continues to be operated by shopkeepers of the bazaar. One impressive feature of the mud walled town is their use of wind towers (badgirs) that are designed to catch the smallest breeze and circulate wind into the mud houses below providing efficient and effective ventilation.

:: Cooling Towers in Yazd ::

One of Iran's most beautiful mosques the Jameh Mosque was so worthwhile a stop that we found ourselves going back for a second and third look. What makes this building unique is it's mosaics that fill symmetrical alcoves that look like they have been "scooped" out of ceiling with a big spoon.

:: Dawn at Jameh Mosque ::

After coming from Pakistan and India, one of the first notable differences about Iran is wide tree line boulevards, the lack of motorbikes and the luxury of footpaths. Feeding time brings the next difference, finding somewhere to eat in Iran is always a challenge. There are restaurants in the tourist hotels but we normally steer clear of these looking for more authentic experiences. This leaves us with eateries selling processed burgers and hotdogs where hygiene leaves a lot to be desired (you can always tell alot when you watch a shop open in the morning -turning on the fridges, soft-serve ice cream machines etc makes you worry) . It's probably been the first place where we've been concerned about getting seriously ill from restaurant food. (Mind you we had a couple of great Camel burgers in Yazd) Every town has a couple of proper more upmarket restaurants but there is never any customers eating there so there´s almost an elevated risk of getting sick in these outlets. If you're lucky you might find a kebab restaurant that specialises in kebabs - we always kept looking until we unearthed one of these and shish kebab, tomato, onion, yogurt and bread quickly became our diet for the rest of our time in Iran. Besides a small amount of tomato and onion we didn't see any other vegetables in Iran. Like India and Pakistan people eat with their hands, although oddly enough it's not taboo to eat with your left hand. For us, after spending months negotiating a plate of food with one hand it seemed a little uncouth to dig right in with both paws.

:: Luckily we love kebabs ...! ::

Out and about the people are extremely friendly. The lift we got on arrival was nothing out of the ordinary in fact constantly people stopped us and asked could they help us and welcomed us to Iran. A new country brings new things - shops selling huge cones of sugar, little bakeries churning out thousands of lavash bread to a crush of locals acting like there's a bread shortage. All the convenience stores stock an astoundingly wide range of alcohol free beer flavoured strawberry, peach, lemon etc. imported Tuborg and even Baltica 0 from Russia. Shop upon shop selling material for women's clothing. These shops were particularly strange as they had hundreds of rolls of different patterned material but it was all in the colour black so almost impossible to discern one swatch from another. On the other end of the scale were the shops selling the "round the house" wear for women, basically a collection of the raciest most ridiculous range of see through all-in-one outfits and PVC high heeled shoes (these shops are always busy).

One of the most annoying aspects of Iran is the money, the official unit of currency is the Rial, all notes are in thousand denominations Rials but prices more often than not quoted in Toman which is 10 Rials. This leads to a price check on every purchase to figure out which is being used. Iran is out in the cold when it comes to International banking so it's a cash economy when it comes to a tourist passing through (Bring in as much as you will need). Surprisingly enough considering there is no support for international credit cards or banking it' can be difficult to find money changers.

Our next stop was the city of Shiraz, once home to the grapes that make the wine - now sadly quite the opposite. Being the only independent tourists getting off the bus, the drivers manning the taxi rank almost wet themselves with excitement then looked on in disbelief as we began walking towards the centre of town. Obviously it's not walked (1km) that often. In contrast to Yazd, Shiraz is a modern city with huge gardens, an affluent feel and relaxed atmosphere. One of its main draw cards to this area is to visit the ancient Roman city of Persepolis built in 500 BC. Much of the city has been restored so it's not hard to imagine how magnificent it once was when Darius the Great built it.

:: The Gate of All Nations - Persepolis ::

Again trying to chase down something to eat in Shiraz was an exercise. The healthiest most appetising meal we managed to find in the evenings was a rotisserie chicken. Lunch was a felafel - although you had to catch them early before their stocks were cleaned out. The locals feast on a weird frozen substance that looks like ice cream in the form of supernoodles. It´s got a very odd texture and melts in your mouth. Personally I found it a little unsettling as it was impossible to define what it actually was we were eating.

As far as transportation goes, Iran has superb roads and lots of luxury coaches running between major cities. Typically on arrival at a bus station we were accosted by touts trying to drag us to their bus company. They have you believe that company´s bus is the next one scheduled to depart however a quick check around the other companies usually proves different. Once you purchase a ticket you´re given a computer printout clearly indicating your designated seat number. From this point on one would think the process would be relatively simple but the Iranian bus attendants are experts at making it more complicated. Tickets are double and triple checked against a printed passenger manifest. You would swear they were running an airline. Invariably there always seems to be a discrepancy between the number of passengers on the bus and what the all important piece of paper says. This has to be worried out and resolved before the wheels can be set in motion.

:: Esfahan ::

Our next stop in Iran was the riverside city of Esfahan. This is a popular stop for tourists, accommodation wise it´s one of those places that has been completely Lonely Planetised. It´s almost impossible to find budget accommodation in the downtown area and rundown listed hotels are charging almost double the quoted price in guidebooks. Aside from that drawback the city is truly is the most beautiful place we visited in Iran. Multiple picturesque bridges span across a wide river, many of the bridges are home to small teahouses. The locals lounge around in the parks and in the teahouses watching water fountains and enjoying huge ice creams. One of the standout elements of Esfahan is how hip and trendy all the young inhabitants are. (Influenced by a large student population) The women dress colourfully here and wear their headscarves daringly far back on their head so that they can display a gigantic (often multicoloured) quiff. As witnessed elsewhere in Iran the women all wear white gold rings containing a serious amount of tiny diamonds. It´s not unusual to come across a group of ladies dressed from head to toe in black elbowing each other to get a look into the jewellers window.

:: Sneaky Shot ::

The architectural highlight of Esfahan and probably the whole of Iran was the Imam Shah Mosque. Its glorious mosaic tiles, superb symmetry and tranquil flow captured us for hours of peaceful wandering.

:: Imam Mosque - Esfahan ::

Our last stop was the capital Tehran. We spent two days there before catching a supposed two and a half day train to Istanbul in Turkey. Tehran is a sprawling city so it´s impossible to get a clear picture of what kind of place it is. We stayed in the tourist area which also doubled as the car upholstery area of the city. For every hotel there were twenty car accessory shops. Again we had huge problems finding interesting food. To make matters worse we were trying to piece together a picnic breakfast, dinner and lunch for two days on the train, with no supermarkets around, all the purchases had to be made from small corner shops with limited goods. Armed with flat breads, tomatoes, onion, bananas, a jar of gherkins and a squeezy container of honey we headed for the train station. It was the final stretch, one we got to Istanbul we knew we were back to a varied rich diet.

The train to Istanbul turned out to be a journey of epic proportions. The estimated 2968km long journey time of two and a half days was way off. We left Tehran an hour late and continued to fall more and more behind schedule from that point onwards. The border stops were a disaster, at the Iranian border all the passports (a couple of hundred) were collected to be stamped and then the police attempted the long process of a bulk return standing a few steps up a flight of stairs and calling out the names one by one. A totally unnecessary push and shove element was introduced into the Iranian border exit process as the crowd clamored to hear their name being announced and struggled to get to the stairs.

Once we were stamped out of Iran we started to see a very dramatic change in the women. The brave ones began slipping off the headscarf in an accidental fashion, almost as if they hadn´t realised it was gone. An Iranian woman who had lived in the US for years explained to me that most women wouldn´t dare take it off completely until we were safely inside the Turkish border for fear of arrest. She said Tehran airport is very amusing, the minute women clear immigration, and are therefore technically out of Iran, they whip of the hijab (before calling for beers once on board the flights). She was right, as we moved inside Turkish borders we didn´t recognise any of the females on the train . All the drab clothing was replaced by tight fitting tops, jeans and shovel loads of makeup. It may sound really strange but it was really weird to see women with hair and flattering hairstyles. Everyone looked about ten years younger and so much happier, you could suddenly see individuals instead of the drab sameness their previous attire precipitated.

:: Dawn over Lake Van ::

After crossing into Turkey we travelled into the night as far as the shores of Lake Van. The train tracks ran the whole way right into a waiting ferry - although only one baggage car actually goes across in the ferry. We disembarked and found comfortable seats for the two hour journey across the lake. Five hours later we were still sitting docked and when we did get going the journey time lengthened to four hours. Funnily enough nobody seemed perturbed at all the delays it was just one of those journeys where you expected to arrive a day late. The following morning we docked at the other side of Lake Van but the ferry operators wouldn´t let us off the boat so we were cooped up watching another two hours of delays unfold. When we finally stepped onto dry land, an empty train platform, we waited for another hour for our train to Istanbul to arrive.

:: Looks easy doesn't it ? ::

Hours and hours later we finally began to see the outskirts of Istanbul, by this stage we were three days and five hours travelling. The goal was to make it there for my birthday.... and we did by a very narrow margin... we made a dash from the train station and managed to be sitting on a park bench opposite Haga Sofia with a tavuk doner and a Efes beer in hand with five minutes before the clock struck midnight.

Visiting Iran provided a great insight into a country that is ( and unfortunately will increasingly under their current leader be ) a feature of our media exposure. The impression we were left with was that the population is frustrated with the regressive nature of the current regime. They have lost freedoms previously enjoyed without issue, women see the worst of it but overall the people express a view that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is leading them in the wrong direction - towards international isolation - picking fights with people he really has little reason to. One exposure we had was in the very little English news available on TV. You may remember there was a small blast at a Mosque in Shiraz recently; a local was telling us that immediately after the bombing a local terrorist group was blamed, this story then morphed into pointing the finger at some Western involvement, which then ended up in the report we saw on TV that explicitly named England, Australia and the US as being responsible for the attack. Alot of people have international cable TV (illegally) and see through this propaganda, but the fact remains that the leading story every night in the news in some way denounced the fake regime of the Zionist State; there is trouble brewing - if you are interested, check it out sooner rather than later.

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