Sunday, 23 September 2007

A few days in Bedrock

We are currently spending a few days in Goreme, Central Turkey. Moving inland seemed like a good idea after lazing on the beach days in a row caused both of us to have sunburn that made it look like we were wearing red stockings. Plus, we had noticed that when people talk about Goreme, they seem to get this wistful look in their eye. So, we ventured on the long journey inland to conservative heartland Turkey where, given the looks locals gave me in my knee-length skirt and Tane in his shorts, legs are not seen in public very often, and on to Goreme.
Tane swimming at Olympos, blissfully unaware of the sunburn that is forming. Turns out the cyrillic on the sunscreen we got in Bulgaria did not mean "water resistant"

After a few days in Goreme, we can see why this is such a favourite amongst travellers. It is FANTASTIC here. So fantastic, even, only capital letters will suffice in describing it. First, the landscape is amazing. The land is covered in rocks and caves that have been lived in for centuries, nicknamed "fairy chimneys" by the locals. I am sure that given their shape the pointy formations have been given plenty of other nicknames over the centuries as well.
It feels like we have stumbled upon a movie set. Or, at the very least, Bedrock. The room we are staying in looks like Fred Flinstone should be yabber dabber do-ing from inside and that cars ought to be operated by feet. I think that Goreme could easily market itself as Bedrock with hot running water.

Tane on the roof of our room

Goreme is a lovely town, and half the magic of this part of the world is how it's managed to retain its charm while having so many tourists coming through each day. Our photos are totally inadequate to capture how cool it is here, but will give it a go anyway ..

A nunnery

Just to top off a visit in a FANTASTIC place, Goreme is also home to the first evil eye tree that we have found in Turkey. The evil eye is a blue and yellow design that the Turks have everywhere, believing that it somehow deflects the evil eye. It is in cars, on buses, on websites, and on cups and plates. We have also seen it on tablecloths, bracelets, necklaces, ornaments, carpets and magnets. Apparently I look like I need help warding off the evil eye - I have been gifted two while here, a magnet from an old man in Istanbul, and a brooch by a guy in Ephesus. As no-one has given one to Tane, he decided to suck up his deeply suppressed feelings of rejection (so deep only I know he had them) and buy a t-shirt with it on. He happened to be wearing it when we saw the evil eye tree.

To the tune of "He's got the wandering eye": He's got the evil eye .. doo doo do do do do doooo

At risk of sounding repetitive, Goreme rocks. If you go no-where else in Turkey, come here. Yay!

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

It's a hard life on the road

Warning - this entry contains a number of photos that may make you wish you were here. Lauren and Tane take no responsibility for any jealousy that may occur.

Fethiye is, frankly, fabulous. In many ways it is the Luang Prabang of Turkey. With pine-covered mountains meeting the deep blue Meditteranean, the scenery is spectacular. The atmosphere is relaxed, there are heaps of activities and sites to see nearby, and plenty of tourist infrastructure without a suffocating number of tourists. Fortunately, most of the British package tour types are in a nearby town filled with hotels with names like The Sun Trap and restaurants that quote prices in pounds.

We have spend three great days here. The first day featured a cruise around various islands and harbours. The highlights were:

Butterfly Valley. Unlike one young woman, Lauren did not attempt to clamber up the rock-filled path in heels and a bikini.

A cove with hot and cold springs feeding into the sea right next to each other. Swimming there was amazing - one moment you were chilly, the next warm.

Day two was our Birds Without Wings day. We went to the inspiration for the novel, the ghost town of Kayakoy, which was largely abandoned after the Turkish Greeks were sent away following the Greek-Turkish war in the 1920s. It was a melancholy place, though we were glad to see that some people (including a woman form Noo Yoick and some random camels) still lived there. We are big fans of the book, and it was touching to hear that one of the characters in it is based on a 112 year old woman who lives nearby. She is still keeping a box her friend Maria left her when Maria was forced to go to Cyprus. Maria has never returned, but the ancient woman has never opened the box.

From Kayakoy we gave our rather untoned legs a bit of torture by walking over some hills to the beautiful Oludinez Lagoon. The view was totally worth it.

On the way we discovered that the track was only marked by irregular yellow and red stripes painted onto rocks, and that often it looked exactly the same as the rest of the stony, scrub-covered ground. Spoilt by as we Kiwis are by clear paths Department of Conservation signs listing how long it is to walk somewhere, we had to stop a few times and have a debate where to go. However, as we were descending the last hill we started following a couple in front of us - who turned out to have lost the track. So we ended up taking a bit of a short cut.

Driven by the prospect of a Diet Coke by a lagoon, Lauren wades through leg-slicing bushes and ankle-twisting rocks.

Today was the jaw-dropping Saklikent Gorge, which is a largely dry canyon that has a bottom made of smooth, milky stone. It is so narrow it feels like a marble alleyway.

Parts of it are so tight it basically becomes a cave. We walked into it for about 45 minutes, before it got blocked by boulders and it looked like we might have to do more climbing than we could be bothered with.

The Gorge is also notable for the river that tumbeles out of its entrance. You have to cross it to get further in. It was great to lounge around next to on a hot day, but wading up to our thighs became physically painful. To paraphrase Outkast, what's cooler than being cool? Saklikent Gorge's river, that's what.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The Death of Robert Jordan

Way back ın 1991, when I was even skinnier and curlier than I am now, I was browsing around the Opotiki Public Library and I came across a fat paperback book called The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. It was the best kind of fantasy novel, rich in detail and imagination, packed with action, with likeable heroes and memorable villains. The kind of book that lets you into a world you spend days in.

A while later, I discovered that there was a sequel. For more than a decade, I would eagerly await the next installment of The Wheel of Time, a series that would eventually spin out for no less than 11 books, each of which was more than 600 pages long. I remember a holiday to Rotorua when I discovered Book 3 in the public library and got a special card so that I could take it back home and read it. A year later, I was tearing open a new box of books inside the Opotiki College Library, so that I could read Book 4 as soon as possible.

As the series went on it got more bloated and sluggish, though it was still a good and occasionally gripping read. I lost my burning passion for it, the kind that drives you to read huge websites dedicated to theories about what this or that prophecy contained in the books meant, who had killed a particular character and the many other mysteries of the series. The first time I ever went on the Internet was at Aaron C's house, when I spent hours reading such a site.

Despite my flagging enthusiasm, I was hopeful that things were at last set up for the series to end, with Book 11 dealing with a bunch of plotlines and clearing the decks for what Jordan promised would be the final installment.

Today I found out that Robert Jordan has died.

Though I knew he had an incurable illness, his death came as a shock. Selfishly, my first reaction was frustration that I would never get to see the series finished as it should have been (though I am sure that last book will come out based on the notes he left) and that he had taken such a long, lucrative time getting to the end.

Then I read fantasy great George RR Martin's tribute, which put things into perspective. He turned Jordan into something more than a book writing machine, and made me realise what a sad thing it is to die with your life's great work incomplete.

Rest in peace, Robert Jordan. Thank you for giving me so many, many hours of pleasure.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Greece Greece Greece

Last week, Tane and I decided to go to Greece, a decision based on both of us having read Captain Correlli's Mandolin while in Laos. That, and the fact that the Greek Island Kos was so close to Turkey it seemed a pity not to go for a while.
Yay! Greek ruins in Greece! As well as satellite dishes used by the ancients ... Ruins seem so common we actually found these ones by accident and they were totally unmarked. Crazy.

Given that Greece is only an hour away from Turkey by ferry, I was surprised by how different than Turkey Kos was. For one, it was much more expensive. There were lots of other dıfferences - blue and white are the colours that are clearly the new black, scooters are everywhere and a highlight of the visit was seeing a little old Greek lady sitting reverently in her house under a painting of Jesus.

An orthodox church.

Greece, though, surprised me as it is so much more European than Turkey. I know this is a statement that will make you roll your eyes. 'Duh, Lauren' I can hear you crying out while reaching for your rubber hand for slapping. 'The fact it is in Europe might have something to do with that'.
Turkey has a real Middle Eastern feel with the regular calls to prayer, multiple mosques, and waiters hungrily oggling our food because most Turks are currently adhering to the Islamic holy month Ramadan. I think that without realising it, I had expected some of that flavour to rub off on Kos. Afterall, Turkey is filled with reminders that Greece is so close - ruins, mosques that were converted from orthodox churches. Tomorrow we are even planning on visiting a town that has been largely abondoned since the Greeks left during a population exchange after WWI. But, in Kos there is no hint of this shared history at all - the only common denomonator between the two places seemed to be the hordes of sunburnt tourists. And the glorious sun, of course.
Swimming in the sweet sweet Greek sun
I really enjoyed my first taste of Greece and hope to see more of the Greek Islands some time in the future. At the moment, though, I am happy that we decided to spend the bulk of our time in Turkey. I think that's because I love the fact that I hear the call to prayer and have learnt a lot about Islam while being yet another sunburnt tourist. Which, incidentally, I am. My tan marks are almost obscene.
Us at the beach. Note the blue and white flag - I think the Greeks are scared we will forget their national colours.

NB: Tane didn't enjoy Greece as much as I did on account of his drinking too much Zorba beer and eating too much fine Greek food. He spent most of our time there wanting to sleep.

He wasn't grinning after drinking that beer. Lucky we didn't crack out the ouzo

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Ye Olde Ampitheatre Challenge of '07

The last week in Turkey has been so fabulous, if I described it in detail you would just want to get a giant rubber hand and slap me a few times for excessive bragging. The last week has been fılled with games of checkers by the beach, roof top meals and 1960s and 1970s themed karaoke.
The beach in Bodrum. Good times. Until I lost.

There have also been ruins galore. To some, ruins are boring. To others, they are only to be appreciated with solemn 'ooooh' and 'aaaaahs' at appropriate intervals, as well as quiet and subdued reverence for the ancients who walked around the ruins in times long passed. Tane and I, along with Stephen and Erica were in the latter category. Mostly.
Stephen at the St John Basilica in Selcuk. Apparently, the real St John wrote the book of Revelation here. I guess he left out his predictions regarding strange men in the crane stance when predicting what tragedy will befall the world.
Not to mention the strange cone man. That would certainly scare me.
The highlıght, though, has been the great Ye Olde Ampıtheatre Challenge of '07. The ampıtheatre at Ephesus seats 25,000 people and is a sight to behold. To honour the ancıent Romans, we did what they surely would have done back in the day. I mean, why would you build such a huge ampıtheatre and NOT race to the top? It would have been rude for us not to revıve the ancıent tradıtıon. So we dıd. Erica was the cheerleader, while Stephen, Tane and I raced to be the person that did not have to buy a round that evening.
Ready steady go! I had no ıdea my legs would burn so much ...
Afterward, in front of the ampıtheatre
Of course, I lost. The boys tell me that the beers - aptly named Efes Beer after a challenge taking place ın Efes - tasted good. Like victory, apparently.
The last week has been great. Ruins certainly get a big thumbs up from us. While I am getting sıck of museums, ruıns are still choıce.

Tane at Pergama

Ruining the holiday

Ruins, ruins, ruins. Sometimes travelling in Turkey feels like walking around a very old house that has had a bewildering number of tenants. Hatti, Hittites, Persians, Phygrians, Lycians, Lydians, Turks - of the Seljuk and Ottoman varieties - Romans - of the Imperial and Byzantine varieties ... everyone who was anyone back in the day has done their share of redecorating.

To get an idea of the layers of history here, check out this photo from Selçuk. The foreground has the former Wonder of the World, the Temple of Artemis, behind it is a 700 year old Turkish mosque and the 1500 year old ruins of St John's Bascilica, and in the background a restored Byzantine/Seljuk fortress.

We have had a ruin-feast in the last few days, as we have moved south from Canakkale along the Aegean coast. It's a struggle to reign in the superlatives and photos - suffıce to say, everything was cool!
First up was the mack-daddy of all abandoned cities, Troy. I have read so many versions of the Trojan War, from an illustrated children's version to the Illiad, and of course seen Brad and Eric battle it out in the movie, so I was drooling as we toured it. Our guide was excellent, full of passion despite having done the tours for as long as I have been alive, and the site (which had 11 different cities built on it) is an archaeologist's dream.

Lauren takes a break from hunting for Eric Bana to check out the walls of Homer's Troy. They would have been twice as high back when Odysseus was trying to give away dodgy horses.

From there it was off to bustling Bergama, where the highlights were the panorama-laden remains of Pergamon and the Red Bascilica, a former Roman temple and church that Revelations reckons will be the Throne of the Devil when the Apocalypse rolls around. Wicked.

Breakfast overlookıng the Throne of the Devil.

Sadly, the Prince of Darkness was not in when we visited, so we had to make do with the Former Communications Advisor of Dimness.

Indeed, we have decided that ruins are a great place to be silly.

Playing statues at Pergamon.

You would not have wanted to sell hot dogs at Pergamon's amphitheatre.
Amazing as Bergama's stuff was, Ephesus takes the cake. With wide marble streets, squillions of once stately buildings, the Library of Celsus (pic below) and extraordinarily well preserved mansions, it was easy to imagine what it would have been like walking around a big (200,000) Roman city.

The best bit came towards sunset, as Stephen and I went wandering around some of the package tourist-free outskirts of the city. Talk about atmospheric.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Turkey vs Bulgaria - with pictures!

1. Turkey is filled with people who work really hard to encourage you into their shops and restaraunts. Bulgaria is filled with people who work really hard to avoid noticing you in their shops and restaraunts.
Great service, great view. Having a drink overlooking the Bosphorous

2. In Turkey, locals go out of their way to help you. In Bulgaria, we really had to go out of our way to find help.
Although, the way to McDonalds was well marked in Plovdiv ...

3. Turkey, especially Canakkale (our current location) is filled with monuments and reminders of World War One. In Bulgaria, street sellers sell genuine Nazi antiques and brooches. Including a very creepy SS knife. Shudder.

Nazi and Soviet memorabilia in a small Bulgarian village. We couldn't decide - is it OK to buy this stuff or plain dodgy? Would YOU want to own a genuine SS hip flask?

Tane and a WWI cannon in Canakkale, Turkey.

4. In Turkey, we are given cake and juice while travelling on buses. In Bulgaria, we are asked for bribes from the conductor so he can give us something that we had already paid for.
5. In Bulgaria, we were warned against the police, gypsies, getting gassed to enable theives to steal our things while on the night train, not to mention getting killed while on the night train. In Turkey, we were warned against going to Bulgaria.
Yes, Tane and I are back in Turkey and loving it. Don't get me wrong, we don't regret going to Bulgaria and had some very fun times there. However, leaving was a real drama. First, no-one wanted to tell us how to buy tickets. The woman in the train ticket office pointed us to wait at an empty desk for information while she ignored us and ate her lunch. We had been ignored earlier that morning at the info centre by two woman counting postcards. The train we eventually booked was four hours late, and while waiting we were huddled in a small space with a creepy drunk who smelt like a public toilet and a drug addict who ignored the non-smoking sign. When the train arrived, after boarding we were asked for a bribe to get a private carriage at one in the morning by a ticket conductor clearly taking advantage of weary travellers. So, Tane and I both love Turkey even more now than before. Yay!
As we are staying a tiny distance from Galipolli (which is just as important to the Turks as it is to us), Canakkale is filled with reminders of the First World War, as well as having an excellent military museum. Canakkale is also near Troy, and the makers of the 2004 movie even donated the horse they used to the town. Even without going to Bulgaria first, this place would have been neat. Now it's a real pleasure.
I would not have been reading by the horse if Eric Bana and Brad Pitt were also gifted with it

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The Good, The Bad and the Bulgarian

If you ever want proof that Communism sucked, you should come to Bulgaria. When I think of the country, I think of flowers struggling to push their way up through rubble. There are lovely people and lovely things to see, but there is also something of a sullen, grim atmosphere. We've liked being here, but it's definitely the place we've enjoyed least. Here's how I sum it up:

The Good

Old Towns: the wooden, paved hearts of Plovdiv (see the last entry) and Veliko Tarnovo are gorgeous.

Ruins without hordes of tourists: Plovdiv's amphitheatre and Tarnovo's Tsavarets Fortress are awesome.

She's Queen of the Castle

Tarnovo's scenery: whoever decided to stick a town in the middle of a winding, forested canyon, appreciated a good view.

Cheap meals: $20 gets a damn good meal for two, with drinks. Yay!

Meeting great people: the nice Bulgarians are really nice, and we had one of the best dinners of the trip talking to Ryan and Helen, Americans on their own global honeymoon tour.

The Bad

Driving: Bulgarians learnt their overtaking at the Bangkok Academy of Tuktuk Driving.

"Though I drive through the mountain pass of the shadow of death ..."

Women's fashion: to paraphrase Lauren, most young women look like they're on the way to 'pimps and skanks' themed party.

Transport to Turkey: despite the main road going past it, no bus stops at Edirne, a big town on the Turkish/Bulgarian border. This means we have to take the overnight train back to Istanbul, adding on more than a few hours to our trip to Gallipoli and depriving us of the chance to see one of the best mosques in the country.

The Bulgarian

Smoking. Anywhere, anytime, every time. I was stoked to see a no-smoking section in one restaurant, but when we returned there for dinner the guy next to us lit up. Grrrr.
If only ...

Apartment blocks: calling these omnipresent decaying concrete hulks monstrously ugly is an insult to monsters.

Customer service: 'happy as a Bulgarian shop assistant' is not a phrase you'll hear anytime soon, unless it's describing the clinically depressed. With a few honourable exceptions, Bulgarian service staff appear to model themselves on Grumpy Smurf and the Snow Queen.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Behind the Iron Curtain

I have wanted to visit Eastern Europe ever since reading I am David aged about 11. There is something about the history of Eastern Europe that is so dark yet facinating - War, Cold War, Communism and Capitalism, and all in a space of 50 years. After we decided to visit Turkey, I managed to convince Tane to spend some time in Bulgaria as well. Given that beer only costs about $1, coupled with the fact that we do not know a single person that has been to Bulgaria, he was convinced.

Mmmmm. Dollar beer .... We didn't realise that beer would be the only thing on the menu that we understood. Everything in Bulgaria is written in Cyrillic (as in, looks like backward letters), and few people speak English.

We have been in the city of Plovdiv for a couple of days now, and it is facinating. This morning we found ourselves in a part of town where donkey drawn carts were overtaken by Ladas on streets bordered by housing estates probably built about the time Khrushchev was waving his shoe around at the UN. The wide roads, though, are a more sinister reminder of Plovdiv's history as they were built to allow Soviet tanks to amble around easily.
While wandering around the suburbs, Plovdiv gave the impression of being a bleak and miserable place. Tourist infrastructure is non-existent, many of the locals look like they ritually suck lemons as a hobby, and two of the nice Bulgarians we met were insistent on giving us their phone numbers in case we get in trouble with the police. Or gypsies.

Our impression of Bulgaria changed, though, as soon as we found Plovdiv's old town. It turned out that this is a lovely place after all, and that Tane and I are just two idiot tourists for spontaneously going somewhere that hasn't made it onto the beaten track yet with no map and no clue how to pronounce even the Bulgarian word for 'hello'. Apparently, it is Здравей. Maybe you will have more luck than us.

Tane in the old part of town

We also discovered the definite benefit of going somewhere that only has a handful of tourists - we got to explore some fabulous places while completely alone. Especially when we found Plovdiv's Roman ampitheatre.

Me on the stage

In the stands

Tane pretending to be an ancient Roman actor. Although neither of us could actually think of any ancient Roman plays to mock act.

So, while I would not recommend Bulgaria to someone who values being understood and who is unwilling to play a game of lucky dip when ordering meals, it is a facinating place to visit. I look forward to seeing more of Bulgaria and the rest of Eastern Europe to see how this corner of what used to be well behind the Iron Curtain compares.