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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